Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In So Many Words

Science fiction … means what we point to when we say it.”
            —Damon Knight, In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (1956)

“Many years ago, the science-fiction critic Damon Knight, asked for a definition of SF, responded (I paraphrase): ‘You know what it is when you see it.’ This may be the best definition of film noir, too: You know what it is when you see it.”
            —John Grant, A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir: The Essential Reference (2013)

“In his famous soliloquy, Hamlet ponders the existential question (I paraphrase): ‘So should I kill myself, or what?’ That, indeed, is the question.”
            —L.M. Parsifal, Hold the Line: Memoirs of a Suicide Hotline Volunteer (2001)

“The cornerstone of the vast edifice of imagination which constitutes Tolkien’s signal achievement is but a single simple sentence, the unassuming declaration upon which all the rest  is founded (I paraphrase): ‘Hobbits live in holes underground.’”
            —Bardine Skop, ed. Readings in Bucolic Fantasy (2012)

“Dickens famously described the atmosphere of the 1780s in A Tale of Two Cities (I paraphrase): ‘It was a time of contradictions.’ Not unlike the Clinton years, in fact: A time of contradictions.”
            —Gregory Fiddlewood, What the Meaning of ‘Is’ Is: Semantics in an Age of Irony (2005)

“Novelist Thomas Pynchon evoked the terrors of the Blitz in the famous opening line of his modernist classic Gravity’s Rainbow (I paraphrase): ‘Ugh, the sound of rockets is just the WORST.’”
            W. Owens-Jingo, World War II in Literature: An Overview (1997)

“George Orwell’s iconic opening to Nineteen Eighty Four sets the action on (I paraphrase) ‘a cold April day, at 1:00 PM sharp.’ A day and a time not unlike the day in 1953 when CIA director Allen Dulles signed the order authorizing the MKUltra program.”
            —Ben Sharples, American Svengali: A History of Government Mind Control (2001)

“Amidst the tide of cynicism that followed the Kennedy assassination, Star Trek retained the idealism of the decade’s first half, as summed up in in the promise of its opening narration (I paraphrase): ‘We will travel to places otherwise never visited, with no fear.’”
            —Abby Grieves, ed. After the Fall of Camelot: Studies in Popular Culture, 1964-1972 (1993)

“Every sport entails its own traditions, deeply ingrained in our cultural character. A trip to the ballyard, for instance, carries with it all the sights, sounds and smells of our national pastime; the ritual count of balls and strikes, the aroma of grilled hot dogs, and the rising of the assembly for the seventh-inning stretch, accompanied by the famous melodic exhortation (I paraphrase): ‘Are you ready for some baseball?!?’ Much the same could be said for football.”
            —Headley Leathers, Pigskin Nation (2011)

“The Borscht Belt comedian Henny Youngman was noted for his one-liners, such as (I paraphrase): ‘Let me make an example of my wife, if you know what I mean.’ Let me plead of the reader the same indulgence.”
            —Richard Tarbuckle, Mrs. Richard Tarbuckle: A Life (2005)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Face Made for Radio

I rashly decided on this cockamamie Bradbury Project a couple of months ago, and regretted it almost immediately as freelance deadlines planted their boots on my neck. That might have been the end of it, had I not been so foolish as to mention it in public — not just here on this blog, where it might have gone unnoticed, but in the comments on the website for the public radio arts program Studio 360.

Studio 360 (which I listen to in podcast form, these days) does an annual series wherein they track the creative New Year's resolutions of four individuals, providing updates throughout the year. I figured I'd add my name and my ambition to the hundreds on their site, and have pangs of fellow-feeling every time I heard an update from one of the chosen four.

Today I got an e-mail:
Hi Jack,
I’m writing you from Studio 360 because we saw your comment on the website and thought your resolution sounded interesting! Would you have time to chat about your idea on the phone tomorrow (Thursday) morning? Let me know if there’s a time that works for you, and a good number to reach you.
Looking forward to hearing from you,
Khrista Rypl 
Web Producer

So that is a thing that is definitely maybe happening and there may soon be thousands of public radio fans on my ass, keeping me accountable to do this unbelievably stupid thing I promised to do, and basically I want to set myself on fire right now.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Bradbury Project, Week 1: What Water Wants

Stentz awoke suddenly in the small hours with a foul taste in his mouth and a piss-boner of prodigious urgency. He was busting. He rolled from his bed, kicking aside the clothes he’d left beside it, and shuffled rapidly into the bathroom, clenching hard inside to hold back the flow. Even so, a few drops spilled onto his hand and down his leg before he’d fully fished his dick out of his boxers. “Ah, shit,” he muttered, without thinking; but of course, no, that would have been infinitely worse. He planted his feet—the seat was up, the seat was always up, because, really, what would be the point?—and released the stream, hot and fat and acrid. He shuddered with relief that was almost pleasure.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Bradbury Project: An Introduction

So this was going around the Web a couple of weeks ago: Ray Bradbury Gives 12 Pieces of Advice to Young Writers. Now, I long ago aged out of the “young writer” demographic — though I still feel that I’m a beginner, and if God is good to me I suppose I always shall — but there’s a lot of good stuff here for anyone, at any stage of their career.

I’ve been on a bit of a Bradbury kick since late last year anyway. My annual Halloween reread of Something Wicked This Way Comes (inspiration for this mixtape from the Popdose Conceptual Theater of the Airwaves) was a forcible reminder of his considerable strengths and equally considerable weaknesses. His long slide into right-wing crankdom was sad, but hardly unprecedented; even leaving aside the long screed of Fahrenheit 451, you can discern traces of bitter judgmentalism in those early shockers, where he was apt to insinuate that it was perfectly okay to murder someone if they didn’t love the same books that you loved. The fact remains that as an imaginist, Bradbury is nearly unparalleled; as a stylist, though, he’s a distinctly mixed bag. At its best, his prose has a kind of lucent poetry to it — but when he stumbles, boy howdy! Vague and prolix.

The failings in others that bother us most are the ones that we fear we might share, and the remedy they find (if any) might be the one that we seek. Bradbury is at his best — the power of his ideas is best matched with, but not overwhelmed by, the vividness of his prose — in his short stories. So this piece of advice at the top of the list really jumped out at me:

Begin your writing life ... by cranking out “a hell of a lot of short stories,” as many as one per week. Take a year to do it; [Bradbury] claims that it simply isn’t possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row. 
narrows eyes
hitches up belt

Mister, I’ll take that challenge.

Look. The Honeythief is out in the world now, a feral thing learning to tolerate the company of human beings before I bring it out to society in the months to come; I’m pondering my next long fiction project while keeping busy with contract work and freelance proofreading, and nursing a general unhappiness with the slack tone of my fiction muscle. It’s grown accustomed to the slow lope of a novel; I want to tighten it for the sprint.

So here’s the idea for the exercise: One new short story per week — most likely very short — in this space, for one year or as long as I can manage it. (I’m painfully aware that I barely made it to 100 days on a long-ago attempt at 40x365.) Stakes so low as to be non-existent. I’m not going to write anything that’s purposely terrible, but I’m not gonna lose any sleep sweating the content, either. The important thing is just to do it. It’s about the process, not the product. And if nothing else comes from it, I will have written a bunch of short stories.

I don’t know that Uncle Ray was entirely right. I have a suspicion that it is all too possible to write 52 shitty stories, one after another; but I do believe that you can’t write 52 stories in a row, however awful, without learning a thing or two.

And learning — that’s what being a beginner is all about.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Stop, Hey! What's That Sound?

Last year, as you may recall, I participated in writing jam facilitated by my esteemed Internet chum Andrew Weiss. And reader, I had a blast. Not only was it the sort of writing prompt or challenge that stimulates my brain (like the Bradbury Project, which is now... well, it’s complicated), it was a chance to work with the elder child. It was all of my favorite things in one: writing, games, the company of friends and family. The fact that the end result provided the seed for a future project — that was just gravy.

After a lengthy hiatus, the Ultimate Powers Jam recently returned, and of course I wanted in once more — only this time, I provided the art myself, in a crude combination of technical pen, colored pencil, crayon, a Photoshop tweaking. I stayed far more in the Marvel superhero tradition for the writing of this — it’s basically me doing a riff on 1970s Steve Englehart — and if the end result isn’t a classic for the ages, I reckon it’s still a fun little one-off.
Every vibration awakens all other vibrations of its particular frequency. And all frequencies are harmonics of a single tone — an eternal drone underpinning and sustaining all creation. Before all things were, it was. The ground note in the endless song of the Universe. It is the source, the sound, the secret of existence. It is the Om.

Jawali Ramavishnu is a cultural anthropologist conducting post-doctoral research among the Tibetan diaspora on the Indian frontier. Oppression, assimilation, and mortality conspire to erase the strange, rich folkways of these once-isolated people. Indigenous Tibetan culture is an endangered species; within two or three generations, it may cease to exist as a unique entity. Jawali Ramavishnu is racing against time to preserve what he can.

Jawali’s area of specialization is folk religion, and he works among the monks and lamas living in exile, trying to document the esoteric practices of shamanic Tibetan Buddhism. Many of these rites have been shrouded in secrecy over the centuries; but these holy men, fearing that their culture might otherwise disappear forever, have taken the Indian scientist into their confidence. For his part, Jawali — although agnostic by temperament — finds himself strangely drawn to the ancient rituals, and to the wise, kindly old men who have become his teachers. In particular, he is much taken with one elderly lama, named Kelsang, who tells him tales of a fantastical place called the Singing Cliffs.

Traditional Tibetan devotions, the old monk explains, have a curious mechanistic aspect. The mere repetition through chanting of a holy word is enough to birth holiness into the physical world. Even inanimate objects can be vehicles for propagating the dharma. Prayer flags inscribed with mantras of compassion spread beneficence into all pervading space with every flutter of the breeze; a clockwork striker taps a tiny bronze gong etched with the character for wisdom, and wisdom is thereby propagated. In ages past, Kelsang says, exalted sages — part mystic, part tinkerer — devised great engines of salvation, massive automated installations that would bring consciousness to the whole world.

The Singing Cliffs — a project, Kelsang says, that was begun in the 15th Century but never completed — was to have been the mightiest of these; a labyrinth carved into the living rock of a hillside, redirecting the flow of a mountain stream into a mazelike aqueduct where its current would turn a full ten thousand prayer wheels of ever-increasing size, flooding the mountains with the energy of the mantras within even as the rotations of the wheels themselves would set up vibrations evoking the base note of the eternal Om and its overtones, a fully-automatic prayer mill that would sound forth the universal drone in all its harmonic complexity. But there were those who feared the unleashing of such power, Kelsang says, and construction was abandoned. Now, he says, even the location of the Singing Cliffs is lost to memory.

Jawali is intrigued by these stories. They are the stuff of fairy tales, of course — parables, perhaps, with the Singing Cliffs as a Babel-like metaphor of human folly. Or so he believes. Until the day that old Kelsang dies, and Jawali discovers, folded in among his meager possessions, ancient scraps of silk that bear hand-painted diagrams — the very blueprints of the Singing Cliffs, and a map showing its location.

And deep within Jawali Ramavishnu, a vibration is awakened.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Glutton For Punishment

Back for the New Year, it's PopSmarts all over again, this time taking a look at the history of gimmickry in film — and the underlying idea of cinema as an incomplete artform. Featuring William Castle, Professor Layton, Madeleine Kahn, and Smell-O-Vision!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Every Yuletide Carol Needs a Troll

Dropping a turd in your holiday punchbowl, PopSmarts is back to kick it old-school — 1834-style in fact, as we take a look at the historical legislation that prompted the writing of A Christmas Carol, and how the assumptions behind those laws are still relevant in our own more-enlightened time.
It's a long read, but if you retain only a single line of it, let it be this one:
The stone truth is that people on government assistance earn every goddam penny.
Come for the history lesson; stay for the outrage!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wake the Snake

The new Popdose Conceptual Theater of the Airwaves has gone live — an eighty-minute-plus seamless MP3 mix curated by yours truly, free for download, featuring an imaginary soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. With PJ Harvey, the Smiths, Imogen Heap, Judas Priest, and the Kronos Quartet, plus rare (-ish) tracks from Daniel Johnston, Alan Moore, Television Personalities, and the colloquial many more. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Beaver Has Landed


My comp copies of Weird Canada have arrived! The book itself is a monster — almost 400 pages of strange and unlikely facts and trivia about America’s Hat — and it’s the perfect present for the expatriate or Canuckophile on your Christmas list.

The books arrived less than 24 hours ago and, as predicted, I cannot pry the Boy’s copy from his hands.