Copernicus, Superman and the end of everything: books (#SFWApro)

A MORE PERFECT HEAVEN: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos by Dava Sobel is less interesting for recounting Copernicus’ theories (I’m reasonably familiar with how they developed and how the world reacted) than for covering the rest of his life — his role as a Catholic church administrator, having to deal with the “Lutheran” heresy and such mundane matters as setting the price of bread loaves the monasteries sold to the people. Sobel also does a good job, as usual, capturing the details of Copernicus’ quest to understand the heavens but I skipped the two chapters which were actually a play she wrote about the astronomer (her main reason for writing the book was to give the play some context)

SUPERMAN: Return to Glory: by Gene Luen Yang, Peter J. Tomasi, Howard Porter and Mikel Janin is an improvement over the previous volume Before Truth, despite the fact the concept of Superman in a metahuman fight club isn’t at all my idea of Superman. Nevertheless, Yang makes it work and I really liked that part of the book … but wouldn’t you know, then we’re in a big crossover event involving Vandal Savage, and some aspect of the Rebirth crossover. Neither of them worked as well for me — they pretty much sapped the life out of this — and it didn’t help that huge chunks of the story are taking place in other books (even though the TPB does provide a synopsis). Frustrating.

Speaking of crossover events, CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS from back in 1986 was the granddaddy of them all (Secret Wars preceded it but I don’t count it as the same sort of event). The 12-issue core story by Marv Wolfman and George Perez (cover by Perez, all rights remain with current holder) has the multiverse-watching Monitor recruit a mix of heroes and villains to stop his counterpart in the anti-matter universe, the Anti-Monitor, from devouring everything so his realm is all that remains. The battle that results is so big that the assembled supervillains trying to take over the world is just two chapters of this.

Everything we’re now used to in Big Events is there — deaths, transformations (this erased the DC multiverse for a couple of decades), changes (Wally West becomes Flash after Barry Allen dies), but it was unprecedented. Later events would throw deaths and transformations in because that’s what they were supposed to do; Crisis does it just to be awesome, and succeeds. Supergirl’s death in COIE #7 still packs a punch (there are also several deaths such as Aquagirl that are just collateral damage rather than heroic endings). That said, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone just starting in comics, as it’ll probably be an endless stream of characters you’ve never heard of. And yes, that DC eventually undid so much of this — the single Earth, the single timeline, a new continuity — drains a lot of the power. While I hated erasing the multiverse, I think I’d have preferred sticking with that to endless rebooting it with more big events and little ones too. Well after COIE had supposedly changed everything, writers would get the g0-ahead to just reboot one particular character (Hawkman, Doom Patrol) which turned the new continuity into the old continuity and made everything messy. Still, standing on its own, COIE is one heck of an achievement.

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Gladiators, Drag Queens, Mystics and Victorian Detectives: movies and TV (#SFWApro)

ARENA (1989) was a surprisingly entertaining direct-to-video film by Danny Bilson and Paul Demio that combines the elements of an old boxing film (think Body and Soul or The Set-Up) with SF: a young man with dreams of winning the interstellar boxing game becomes humanity’s first chance to take back the championship from ETs. That displeases a crooked fight promoter, who deploys everything from drugs to dirty tricks to a seductive blonde to get the hero off his game. Fun, though the humanity vs. aliens aspect does feel uncomfortably like The Great White Hope (i.e., the fantasies whites had about someone snatching the championship away from n-word heavyweight champ Jim Johnson a century ago). With Claudia Christian as the hero’s manager and Armin Shimmerman as a weaselly ET (kind of a proto-Quark). “The second round — now we humiliate him.”

I’d vaguely believed THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT (1994) was a pulp/cliffhanger parody but in reality it’s a remarkably well-done dramedy in which Aussie drag queens Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving head across the desert to perform in a show for Weaving’s ex-wife, running into baffled small-towners and bicurious mechanics along the way. Well done; the heavy use of Abba on the soundtrack makes me propose Mama Mia for a double bill. “Just what the center of Australia needs — a cock on a rock in a frock.”

For my Arthurian Screen Rant column I rewatched DOCTOR STRANGE (1978) in which compassionate psychiatrist Stephen Strange (Peter Hooten) learns he’s been chosen to replace John Mills’ “Dr. Lindmer” (so obviously Merlin, I wonder why they bothered with the extra “d”) to battle Morgan leFay (Jessica Walters) and her dark masters. Easily the best of Marvel’s 1970s TV efforts (Captain America, Captain America II, Spider-Man, etc.); while I’m disappointed they turn Stephen into a nice guy, they do a remarkable job, given the limited budget, duplicating Steve Ditko’s psychedelic visuals from Strange Tales.  “I’m several hundred years too hold to be alright.”

The first season of THE RIVALS OF SHERLOCK HOLMES presents various Victorian investigators and conniving criminals such as Martin Hewitt, Madame Sara, Lady Molly, Romney Pringle, Dr. Thorndyke and Dorrington. The ruthless nature of Dorrington makes his episodes the best; the others are adequate Victorian mysteries but don’t particularly stand out. “The usual story, police baffled — a sorry state of affairs I must say.”

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Inspiring news! (#SFWApro)

So Tuesday I read some of the latest draft of Southern Discomfort to the writing group (Chapter Two, which introduces Maria). The response was enthused.

The people who’d read the previous version said I’d fixed a lot of their criticisms. The people who hadn’t read it liked it. A couple of people said if I finished it and released it now, they’d buy it. That’s very cool. And gives me a big incentive to put in the hours and get this done at last.

A little intimidating too, of course. If I’ve set that high a standard for the opening, now I want to keep it up the rest of the book. And the scene with Maria is one I’ve worked on extensively, so it’s not surprising it’s in good shape. A lot of the later scenes are going to be new material, and doing that well will be difficult. Then again, everyone liked the second scene in Chapter Two with Sean and Susan (a couple of teenagers. Young, happy, in love and with everything to live for — uh-oh) and that was new. So onward!

Oh, and I’m now well up over 25,000 words, so I feel a little better about all the time I spent recently working on other gigs.

Speaking of which, I had a heavier-than-usual Screen Rant schedule this week. I’d been working on “Super Hero/Super Villain Team-Ups” which was my assigned column for this week. But then one I’d pitched — 15 WTF adaptations of King Arthur, to coincide with an upcoming movie — got bumped on the schedule. I don’t know why they wanted it so early, but I trust they know what will grab eyeballs. And in case you’re wondering here it is. Learn how Merlin became Dr. Strange’s teacher in a 1978 TV movie. The amazing link between Galahad and Superman. How Merlin had his own sitcom. The times MacGyver, the GI Joes and the Thundercats met Merlin or the Lady of the Lake. And the physically impossible sex scene in Excalibur (source of the still below — all rights to image with current holder).

I also completed the CreateSpace process for Sex for Dinner, Death for Breakfast.It is now available in hard copy via Createspace. Done!

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So I was going to write a post about all the extra time I’ve put in … (#SFWApro)

Because due to my nights of insomniac waking up at 2 am or 3 am, and all the work I’ve put on the various paying gigs the past few weeks, I’ve been consistently putting in more time than the 35 hours I shoot for. And so I’ve been wondering if I should take an extra day off, an hour here or there, or just forget about it. It’s not like claiming comp time at work, after all, seeing as I’m the boss.

But then yesterday I hardly got a lick of work done. Not that I wanted to slack off, but between the demands of the Leaf legal articles and my Screen Rant work, I wound up with an assortment of tasks I hadn’t gotten done:

•Pension paperwork from my years at the Destin Log (yes, I qualify for a pension, though with Freedom News’ bankruptcy, it’s coming from the government pension-guarantee agency).

•Some health insurance paperwork.

•Dealing with contractors for a possible refrigerator problem (fine as it turns out) and some weatherstripping issues with the front door.

•Coping with an Internet outage.

•Catching up on exercise (yes, I actually prioritize that over writing, unless there’s a deadline).

•Paperwork for our pet insurance.

•Getting a haircut, picking up some meds and depositing checks all during my morning bike ride (part of the exercise). Plus I stopped off for tea and a cookie at a coffee shop on the way (that one I can’t justify except I felt like it).


•Sorting through yet more paperwork (what can I say? Paper accumulates).

So the end result was, nothing but my next Screen Rant submission accomplished. Even so with my multiple early mornings this week, I didn’t actually have to reduce my bank of extra time? Or will the plumber coming today suck up some of that? We’ll see what time sends at me next (cover by Gil Kane, all rights reside with current holder)


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I think this advice for writers is unsound (#SFWApro)

So I recently stumbled across an article Dean Wesley Smith wrote several years ago, about killing the myths of publishing. One of the myths, Smith says, is that you must rewrite something to make it good — in his view you shouldn’t, unless an editor asks you to [edited for clarity]. It’s fine to throw away a draft, then start over fresh and improve it, but actually going back and editing your work is giving in to the critical side of your mind, which is composed of bad advice from writing classes and editors and how-to articles. Instead write it, polish it (small changes are okay) and either submit it or self-publish it. Even if it sucks, editors and readers won’t hold it against you next time. And no amount of rewriting will ever fix a bad first draft.

Smith acknowledges that every writer is different, not every writer does things the same way, but I think that’s just boilerplate — the whole point of the article is that you should do it this way. That if you’re doing it the other way, with rewrites and self-editing (aside from edits requested by an actual editor who can buy it), you’re doing it wrong. And obviously this method works for him, as he’s published a lot of stuff. And for several others, whom he mentions in his article. But as a fundamental rule, it’s a pile of bollocks. Smith isn’t myth-busting, he’s myth-propagating. I’ve been reading variations of “don’t rewrite” and paeans to the first draft being pure unfettered creativity and the logical editorial side of you can only strangle your pure creative spirit as long as I’ve been reading about writing (which at this point is a while).

No question some writers can write awesome first drafts. I will agree with Smith that not every writer has to rewrite (although I suspect no-rewrite writers are rarer than he thinks). But “famous writer does X” isn’t always proof that’s how it can, or should be done. Stanley Weinbaum sold the first short story he wrote, A Martian Odyssey, and it remains a classic. That doesn’t mean most of us can write and sell a classic story first time out, not even if we tried (as Lewis Carroll put it) with both hands.

Besides I know for a fact that bad first drafts can be rewritten into something good. I’ve done it often enough and the results have sold.  Smith’s argument I should just have published the originals or submitted them … that I find dubious. It’s possible, as he says, that editors may not remember them or hold them against me (I’ve not been an editor so I can’t say) though if I’d done that with, say, Wodehouse Murder Case. I rewrote it a lot before I started sending it out. And I improved it. If I’d sent in the first draft to Azure Valley and they’d rejected it, I couldn’t have resubmitted the revised version that sold.

Readers? Smith argues that as readers are free to sample your indie stuff, they simply won’t buy the book if it sucks — no hard feeling. But what if the book opens well, then bogs down mid story? Or simply ends without wrapping everything up? Sampling may not reveal that. And if I someone puts my stuff down after sampling because it sucked, are they likely to sample my next book? Some people will give authors multiple chances, I almost never do. Case in point, I won’t make any effort to read more how-to’s from Smith.

For a better discussion of revision (and the Heinlein quote Smith uses to buttress his case), visit io9.


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Doc Savage, Pat Savage and overseas travel: The Awful Dynasty and The Men Vanished (#SFWApro)

Bobb Cotter’s Doc Savage reference book points out, accurately, that between the start of WW II and Pearl Harbor Doc stayed almost entirely on the home front. As we wrap up 1940, though, we get two books that are an exception. THE AWFUL DYNASTY goes from England (as in The Flying Goblin, no war is noticeable) to New York to Egypt (which would be occupied by Italy shortly afterwards); THE MEN VANISHED is a trek up the Amazon.

The Awful Dynasty opens with a mysterious Egyptian cylinder being shipped across the Atlantic. Johnny, the archeologist, takes an interest and gets taken out. Several other people drop dead with what appears to be an Egyptian scarab sitting on them. Is it a King Tut-style curse?

Once again, we have two crooks with opposing agenda. The evil albino John Black (in thrillers, albinism always equals evil) believes the Egyptian scroll inside the cylinder is worthless, but plans to con a group of millionaires into financing an expedition, money he’ll then rip off (a la The Pirate’s Ghost). Though midway through he suddenly converts into a serious treasure hunter without explanation. The other villain, a crooked Egyptologist, knows the scroll is legit, and intends to get the treasure at the end.

It’s an adequate plot, but the execution is uninspired. It’s also one of those stories in which Pat Savage is there but doesn’t get to do much. And the ending, while I’ve seen it in other fiction from that era, doesn’t age well: the beautiful Egyptian princess filling the guest-star role in the story falls for Monk, so the guys “save” him from marrying her by convincing her he’s already married with children. It wasn’t funny when I first read it, or now.

A minor point: this is one of several stories which establish Doc has a vetting committee (Monk and Ham in this case) to decide if people asking for his help really need it. Dent was never consistent about this, as witness the following book shows people going straight up to Doc to ask for help. Possibly Doc wavered back and forth on the merits.

The Men Vanished is a much better book, with a larger and livelier role for Pat. The backstory of the plot is that explorer Daniel Stage has vanished in the Amazon. So have the men who went to rescue him. Finding vanished explorers is meat and drink for Doc, but in this case it’s a scam: Stage lures various adventurers to find him, then captures them and forces them to transfer their wealth to him, gradually enough nobody catches on. And while he’s living in a lost civilization descended from the Incas it’s perfectly unremarkable — no more amazing than any tribe that’s been isolated from Western civilization.

Of course Stage isn’t dumb enough to try and trick Doc, so when he fears Doc might get involved, he sends men to NYC to take Savage out. Trying to figure out what’s going on takes up much of the book. Embroiled in the action is Phil O’Reilly, a good-looking adventurer wannabe and (by the description) metrosexual who worries he’s not really manly enough. While he’s wealthy rather than one of Dent’s penniless drifter characters, he seems cut from the same mold.

The book has several good set pieces such as Doc dying early on and a climactic fight against an enraged jaguar. On the downside, we have a Native American millionaire, which is different from the usual stereotypes, but they still creep in (Dent compares his skill at flying a plane to a crazed Native horseman circling a wagon train). There’s also Stage’s odd decision to disguise himself with a Two Face-style mask, half normal, half looking like a grotesque native. Dent never explains what the advantage of drawing attention to himself is.

Both covers by Emery Clark, all rights remain with current holder.

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Imaginary Worlds: a secondary-world history (#SFWApro)

IMAGINARY WORLDS: The Art of Fantasy by Lin Carter (wonderful cover by Gervasio Gallardo, all rights remain with current holder), a history of secondary world fantasy for the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, didn’t blow me away as much as when I read it as a teen. But I expected that.

Back then, the literary world Carter mapped was terra incognita to me. All these amazing authors — James Branch Cabell, Clark Ashton Smith, A. Merritt, E. R. Eddison — that I’d read maybe one or two books by, and now I saw how much more stuff was out there. Ohhhh, I wanted it. I wanted it all. Now, of course, I’ve read most of them, liked many of them (as I’ve mentioned before, Eddison’s Worm Ouroboros is much overrated). The thrill of seeing what lay ahead is gone.

That aside, this is a decent but flawed history of the topic. Carter argues that secondary-world fantasy (Middle Earth, Narnia, Hyborian Age) is the core of fantasy fiction so it deserves a spotlight. While dubiously asserting that pretty much any ancient book with magic in it should count as fantasy (if people believed in them, they ain’t fantasy; I’m quite sure Milton thought Paradise Lost was dramatizing real events), he does a good job following the idea of “create your own world and make it magical” concept from William Morris through George McDonald, Dunsany, Merritt, Cabell and then into the pulps and after. And he lists the different ways of creating a separate world: another planet, another dimension, ancient history, distant future or just say “here it is” without explanation.

And I find a lot of his analysis — why it’s okay sword-and-sorcery has a limited range of styles and where Tolkien went wrong — pretty persuasive. However I could do without the endless carping about how fantasy is really, really cool even though people laugh at it, though that was pretty common in writing about the genre at the time (back in the pre-Game of Thrones, pre-LOTR films, we fans could get a little defensive). And some of Carter’s analysis is daft, such as describing Raymond Chandler as a guy with no prose style (it makes me suspect Carter has never read Chandler).

Curiously Carter doesn’t seem to believe fantasy set in what appears to be the real world is even remotely possible, which given the breadth of his own reading surprises me. True, he was writing well before the birth of urban fantasy, but by 1973 when he wrote this there’d certainly been fantasies that qualified (T.H. White, whom Carter greatly admires, did at least two, most notably the charming Mistress Masham’s Repose).  For that matter, A. Merritt’s fantasies are all contemporary, set in some isolated land tucked away from the rest of the world (he was writing early enough in the century that unknown lands were still a possibility).

The two big flaws are that Carter forgets his own ground rules, and that he talks too much about himself. Given his ground rules about what counts as a secondary world, he shouldn’t be including Islandia which is contemporary and has no magic. As he rules out fantasies set in other people’s worlds, Evangeline Walton’s books in the world of Celtic myth shouldn’t be there either.

The second flaw is much more frustrating. As with his Year’s Best Fantasy series, Carter has no compunction about turning the spotlight on himself. Which is fair enough at times — I’m not a fan of his Thongor books, but at the time it was one of the more successful Conan knockoffs — but I think readers would be better served by more detail on, say, Andre Norton’s Witch World series than discussing the Carter/DeCamp continuation of Howard’s Conan books.

Overall, I think reading the introduction to the various books in the Adult Fantasy series would be more productive than reading Imaginary Worlds. But I do think Carter’s thoughts about writing fantasy are worth discussing in a later post. So I will.

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