20 August 2007

Review of Imaro 2

My new review of the recent Night Shade Book's reprinting of Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush by Charles M. Saunder is up now at Black Gate. Read, enjoy, then go buy the damn book.

10 August 2007

We Built This City on Junior High Schoolers' Embarrassment

Junior high school…perhaps the most awkward time in a young person's life. Allow me to share one of my own dreadful memories of that weird netherworld between elementary school and high school, when you wanted to act like adult, even though you weren't, and the world around you still insisted that you act like a fourth grader.

Junior high school was the last time I was forced to sing with my classmates at some type of public gathering. From kindergarten upwards, like many other schoolchildren, I was enlisted to perform songs for parents' meetings, special school assemblies, and holiday pageants. Very adorable at the younger ages, but it turned increasingly embarrassing as the years passed. When I had to not only sing, but dance, to a Tears for Fears song in front of the whole school in sixth grade, I thought "This has to stop—it has to—when I get to junior high."

I was almost right. It happened one more time, the first semester of seventh grade, and after that time, performances in front of others became a voluntary act. I would perform in some plays in school, but no one ever made me sing in front of a crowd again. (And, barring karaoke, which doesn't count in my mind, I haven't sung before people ever again. That's because I can't sing, and unlike the majority of American Idol contestants, I know that I can't and don't want to inflict it on others.) However, the school made sure that the last time I sang with the other unwilling kiddies would be an awful, scaring experience.

They made us sing (wait for it…) "We Built This City" by Starship.

Altogether now: Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhhh!"

Or, to quote the Penguin: "I believe the word you're looking for is 'Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaghhhhhhhh!' "

In 2004 Blender magazine named "We Built This City" as #1 of the 50 Worst Songs Ever. It was a huge hit in the mid-'80s when I entered junior high school, but even then I couldn't stand it, and having to practice singing it over and over again was painful. I was only twelve, but I knew enough to know that "this city" (which I took to be Los Angeles, my town, and apparently the city the songwriters intended as well) was not built on rock n' roll. It was built on West Coast Jazz, thank you very much. Or maybe 1940s jazz standards. Or, technically, it was built on the Owens Valley Water Scandal, if you want to date the city's building as before the post-WWII boom.

I can just imagine the rest of the school laughing behind their hands as they watched us, the poor scrubs, forced to gargle this piffle with our cracking voices. We must have been wretched. I wonder how our music teacher, Paul Morse (who sadly died of AIDS in the early 1990s) was able to listen to us shriek out a bad song day after day.

But after that last performance, all of us got a little bit of the freedom we hoped would finally arrive with junior high school.

Addendum: Looking over the list of the "50 Worst Songs Ever," I'm not certain I would place "We Built This City" as #1. It would get in my top ten easily, but that's mainly from personal experience. I might put "My Heart Will Go On" (unjustly put at #50) close to the top, and maybe that Toby Keith hate-speech rant at #2. (I wonder if he regrets today sounding like that much of an ignorant jerk? Probably not.) I would give "Kokomo" the top spot; I remember it caused me shivers each time it came on the radio. Sad to think it came from the Beach Boys. But Starship had once been Jefferson Airplane, one of my favorite 1960s groups of all time, so anybody can fall a long ways if they hang around the cliffs of popular music long enough. Even the Beatles got a song on Blender's list.

08 August 2007

Spell-casting 101

I would like to write a detailed post on role-playing games (RPGs; this is an acronym-happy hobby) at some point: my own history with them, current interests, comments on their development. But not right now. Instead, I want to share something I discovered on The Escapist, an RPG advocacy site. RPGs have faced attacks based on outlandish rumors and misconceptions almost from their origins. I vividly remember the "Patricia Pulling Campaign" of the 1980s, when Dungeons & Dragons came under suspicion of causing teen suicides and leading players into the clutches of…let's all say it together now…Satan! (Thank you, Church Lady.)

Of course, there was absolutely nothing to these accusations. The Escapist website explains all this at their FAQ. Novelist Michael A. Stackpole also penned "The Pulling Report," a lengthy dissection of the RPG controversy.

If some of this sounds familiar, it's because Harry Potter has received the exact same attacks in recent years: J. K. Rowling's novels of the struggles of a young boy wizard are supposedly teaching innocent children how to cast spells and summon demons!

This would be funny if it weren't that the accusers are 100% serious about this drivel. What is funny—in the "ironic" definition of funny—about this brouhaha is that the folks screeching about "demons, devils, and diabolism" actually sound like the lunatic, drooling occultist that they claim are out to convert children into the Armies of Darkness. When they launch tirades at Harry Potter/RPGs, they sound like candidates for strait-jackets.

Finally, someone at The Escapist set about to test the hypothesis, proclaimed widely as indisputable fact by anti-Potterites and foes of RPGs, that reading these books and playing these games will teach you how to cast actual, really-and-for-truly, magical spells. Here are his test results. I think you'll find them…amusing.

I have this to add:

If anyone, anywhere, has developed magical powers or learned arcane spells that defy the laws of known physics from reading Harry Potter novels or from using RPG supplements, please immediately contact the James Randi Educational Foundation. They have a million dollar prize awaiting you if you can successfully demonstrate these abilities. Easy money, if these folks are right about the power coiled inside these book, which any child apparently can learn to cast.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go get my lunch out the Bag of Holding I created last night using only a 3rd edition Dungeon Master's Guide, a burlap sack, and a public domain DVD of Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

03 August 2007

Toss in a rabid dog, see what happens

Let's talk about rabies.

Actually, let's not. I don't really mean to discuss the disease rabies—anyone with even slight knowledge of this brain-swelling illness knows it isn't a pleasant topic. However, rabies has caused me to think about a writing/reading theory I've developed over the years, which I call "The Invasion of the Other." It doesn't originate with me, of course, but even as a young reader and movie-watcher I had already noticed a particular kind of story device that I liked and which I enjoyed using in the short stories I scribbled down for elementary school class assignments. "The Invasion of the Other" could be defined briefly as the instrusion into an established drama of a new, bizarre element not based on precedent. Imagine an established story: setting, characters, drama are all ogranic and self-contained. A story that already works, with detailed character arcs and tension. Now, bring "The Other." The random weirdness, the injection of the odd, the arrival of the strange, the appearance of the unexpected. Some event, person, or thing that seems unconnected to the characters and their already in-progress drama. Now watch the story go completely nuts; watch how fun it can get.

I love stories that follow this idea, and I love hatching novels that use the same premise of the utter surprise that turns an already dramatic tale completely on its head. My first novel, Z-Dancer, makes use of this. In fact, the "Invasion" part is quite literal: Kristel Holly's story rockets along as she tries desperately to adapt to life in a 21st-century high school…and then…the aliens attack! As if life wasn't confusing enough already.

So why bring up rabies?

Because two of my favorite examples of "the Invasion of the Other" occur in books featuring a rabid dog as The Other. You will probably immediately think of two books with rabid dogs, Old Yeller (1956) by Fred Gipson and Cujo (1981) by Stephen King. And you would be right. (If you also thought of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, good for you! But that's not one of the books I meant.) Both books were also adapted into popular movies.

Since it is a disease, rabies makes for a perfect "Other." Natural, unfeeling, uncontrollable, it rolls into both stories and causes a horrific transformation that changes everything, calling for a solution in blood.

If you're my age, you probably encountered the movie version of Old Yeller on TV at some point, most likely on one of the Sunday night Disney anthology programs. And it probably scarred you for life—and right after you recovered from watching Bambi's mother get slaughtered. Old Walt certainly knew how disturb the young'uns, didn't he? I wouldn't inflict this "children's movie" on anyone younger than ten. The shooting down of Yeller in the throes of rabies (accompanied with realistically gruesome sound effects) by the boy who loves him is one of the most disturbing "rites of passage" ever put on screen, and the supposedly happy ending glued on before the credits can't erase this terror from my mind. It actually makes it worse than the book to see it play out on screen, but this is an ingenious—albeit non-family-friendly—example of the "Invasion of the Other" at work. Old Yeller already has a solid dramatic structure, along the pattern of a John Ford Western, when a rabies epidemic enters the story and then infects the heroic dog of the title.

As for Cujo, imagine Old Yeller if somebody forgot to tie Old Yeller up after the wolf bit him, and then the rabid dog went and slaughtered half the Coates family and trapped Arliss and Travis in a tractor for a prolonged siege. Okay, the novel has more complexity than that, but it sure is fun imaging how Old Yeller might have gone if King had a crack at adapting the novel into a screenplay. (I seem to remember once reading a magazine article that King wrote where he mentioned his dislike of the movie Old Yeller; I wish I knew where it was, I'd like to read it again.)

Although I cannot count myself as a Stephen King fan, perhaps beause the horror genre hasn't as much importance to me as science fiction and fantasy, I do admire his writing style. He has a tremendous knack for writing about everyday working-class people in a way that many bestselling authors never seem to approach. I also love his nonfiction writing: his expertise on the history of horror has steered me to more than one great book (I have to thank him for recommending Ghost Story by Peter Straub and The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons) and his highly personal account of his life as a writer I've found useful in my own work.

Cujo is one of my favorite King novesl because of the way he inserts the "monster," a two hundred-pound St. Bernard, into a dysfunctional family drama. And it's an excellent dysfunctional family drama, one that could easily sustain a mainstream literary novel (a term I can't stand, but unfortunately one ingrained in the publishing world). Infidelity, child abuse, loneliness, jobs on the rocks, alcholism…it's all there. Then along comes the rabid St. Bernard, and the previously boiling story blows the lid off of the stew pot. It's perfectly executed, and "The Other" changes into a symbol for the darkness that secretly coils inside a domestic squabble. The transformation of a symbol of comfort amidst the familial tension, the big old friendly family dog, into a throat-ripping snarling demon, makes for one of King's most unsettling scenarios.

Thinking over both these stories, especially Cujo, reminds me that even when heavily structuring a story, sometimes your best tool is the completely surprising and (seemingly) unrelated event. Toss in a rabid dog, see what happens.

Thankfully, I've never run across an actual rabid dog, or rabid anything—that I'm aware of. I have seen raccoons once or twice in my neighborhood, and they are prominent carriers. I have no plans to go near them, however.