Monday, January 31, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

I'm going to be trying something a little different in this post, to see how it flies. I'm not going to be writing a separate review portion. It's all about the analysis! But some review-like bits are sure to sneak in anyway. Also spoilers.

This is not a superhero novel, but it is a novel about superheroes. It's about two Jewish cousins in 1930s New York who get into the comic book business with The Escapist. It's also about Josef Kavalier, a young man trained in stage magic, escapism, and the visual arts, who flees Czechoslovakia just before the Nazis disallow visas entirely, and who desperately wants to get his younger brother out behind him. It's about getting out of the life you have, and it's about golems, those larger-than-life, immensely strong, man-made creatures that take on a life of their own.

The glory of the novel is not in the story itself, which is fantastic and includes all sorts of insights into the early days of comic books and 1930s New York and human nature and life, but in the way Chabon blends escapism and the mythology of the golem into The Escapist and its creators. Not only is superhero fiction escapist for readers, but on a level it's escapist for its creators as well. The Escapist is full of retellings and offshoots of the lives of Joe and his cousin Sam, with a fair bit of revenge fantasy thrown in for good measure. A second comic line that appears later in the story is basically a love story to a woman Joe meets, who's drawn with more ample assets than she actually has. And then there's the golem angle, which I think deserves its own paragraph.

Golems, for those of you not in the know, are creatures from Jewish mythology, who are created out of clay by rabbis who control them through directions written down and placed inside the golem's head. They're immensely strong and single-minded, and pretty much unstoppable. The Golem of Prague, which features strongly in the first section of the book, is created to project the Jewish population from genocide, and does so by killing lots and lots of gentiles. Chabon casts superheroes as a kind of golem—see my initial definition in paragraph one—and I think he's right, at least when it comes to the very first heroes. You make this being out of clay, trying to get it human-shaped and mostly succeeding, and you want it to become a force for good, but life's never really like that and once the golem/hero exists, you basically lose control of it but maybe not before its power has corrupted you a little. And still people look up to it and say, "Yeah, let's be like that."

Chabon did a lot of research into the Golden Age comic book industry, and a lot about 1930s-1950s New York, for this book. That's obvious. There's this air of realism to the novel, that this stuff actually happened and these were real people and so on. I don't know how much of that reality, and how many of the facts in Kavalier and Clay, are actually real. I suspect a lot is, but I also wouldn't be surprised if Chabon used a bit of artistic license when dealing with certain elements of the comic book industry that would go against his plan for the story. Unfortunately, I'm not an expert on the era. I don't know what these elements might be. Still, Chabon gives a fabulous behind-the-scenes look into comic production—pulling stories from life, meeting deadlines, getting a team together because you can't draw, ink, and color all on your own—and the greater repercussions of writing comics. Everything from radio dramas and high sales to lawsuits and complaints about violence and degraded morals show up at some point.

Like I said, this isn't a superhero novel. At no point does anyone display superpowers or gain superpowers or face a supervillain alone on a dark rooftop. But the themes and the topic and the narrative combine to say some very interesting, very powerful things about superheroes all the same. I highly recommend this to everyone. It's a great read.

As will be standard for the Year of the Superhero series, comments and questions are welcome. And if you like/love/hate the new format for this series, let me know!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mummies in a Guest Post

I have a guest post over at Science in My Fiction again today. As usual, this means I'm not going to write a big, involved post here as well. One's enough.

Today's post is all about the mummies that get less press than the Egyptian ones. There're a lot of them! And most of them I knew about before researching the article, too! Mummies are one of the reasons I think the librarians I grew up with thought I was a little strange. (You should thank me for not including the rather graphic images of the Franklin Expedition, or linking to the Youtube video here.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Vampires and Superheroes

Last Saturday's #UFChat was a Q&A with Dr. Rebecca Housel, writer of, among other things, True Blood and Philosophy and X-Men and Philosophy. As always in a Twitter chat, there were more questions posed that could be answered, because Twitter chats move fast. One of the questions that got more or less skipped was intriguing, but not really answerable in the 140 characters that Twitter allows. It made me sit up and go, "Hmm."

What is the relationship between vamps and superheros?

Like I said, intriguing. Also fraught and complicated. I'm not Dr. Housel, but I'm going to see if I can't unpack this a little.

First off, on the more obvious level, both vampires and superheroes have superhuman abilities. They're fast and agile, long-lived, occasionally psychic, and have strange weaknesses like glowing rocks and garlic. They also tend to be wealthy, and snappy dressers. Now, you might say that vampires actually have more in common with supervillains than they do with superheroes. I'll get to that in a sec. But there is actually a trope in urban fantasy that support the superhero comparison.

The good vamp trope features a vampire as either the protagonist, one of the protagonist's sidekicks, or the love interest. This vampire is often alienated from their fellow bloodsuckers, usually because of moral code differences (i.e., this vamp has one). Quite often these differences surface as, among other things, a refusal to drink human blood—or a refusal to kill humans, if human blood is the only option for vamps within the world. The good vamp generally works alongside humans, despite the vampire inability to play well with others, and hunts other vampires or supernatural creatures. They use their vampire powers to do this. It's pretty easy to draw parallels here with superheroes who occasionally brood about how being superhuman is a bad thing, and whose sense of ethics compels them to promote justice.

Now, vampires as supervillains … yes, this too. Vampires scheme. They have plans within plans within plans, and they also have Plan B's and C's. They live in the dark. They wear black. They consort with all kinds of evil-doers. They hold humans in thrall to do their bidding. They may come off as pillar of the community types, who exist only to serve the public good, but that's just to hide their real agenda. They're big fans of political power. They're wealthy. They're snappy dressers. They frequently have Old World accents. They have fantastic powers that let them tear someone's throat out before that someone can blink. The good guys tend to have it out for them. Sound like a supervillain to you?

Moving away from character traits and story roles, and into the realm of pop culture, how do vampires compare to superheroes? Vampires get books and TV shows and the occasional movie and comic*. Superheroes get comic books and movies and the occasional TV show and novel. They're both crowd-pleasers, to the tune of millions of dollars. Vampires draw more of the fantasy crowd, I think, while superheroes seem to attract more science fiction people. And folks like me who're into both genres have been known to go for both. Some people say vampires and superheroes are done, over, finished, but superhero movies continue to be popular and so do novels with vampires in them. Sure, fewer people seem to be rushing out to buy comics than back in the 1940s, but all in all, I'd say, in pop culture, vampires and superheroes are more or less equal.

It's when you get archetypes, metaphors, and zeitgeist that differences start popping up. Superheroes are people we look up to, people who've become more than human, protectors and enforcers and frequently fronts for social messages like Don't Steal and Terrorism Is Bad. The heyday of comics ran from the Depression through three Western wars**. The heyday of comic book movies corresponds to a Western war in the Middle East and continuing fear of terrorism.

Vampires, on the other hand, are generally anti-heroes or full-out villains. We can admire some of their qualities, but when you get down to it, they're generally violent and manipulative and ruthless. Batman's the only superhero I can think of who exhibits similar traits. Vampires have always kind of been there, but it wasn't until Interview with the Vampire back in '76 that the good vamp trope came to prominence.*** And then the '80s hit, with their truly scary vampire cinema—the '80s, of course, being the decade of expense, materialism, and really loud fashion that followed the Vietnam War. Watchmen came out, questioning and deconstructing superheroes. Pop culture got a lot sexier.*** Correlation? Likely.

Vampires are often taken to represent sex, resurrection, our darker urges, fear of the dark, etc. etc. They're a way of talking about all that stuff without actually talking about it. They're our id, our primal urges, our animalistic selves. What do superheroes stand in for? Hopes and dreams? Justice and ethics? The super-ego, which encompasses conscience and perfection, among other things? They sound pretty opposite to me, on this level.

So yes, lots of similarities, a fair number of differences, and an interesting correlation between what was happening in the world, and what was popular in the media. Of course either vampires or superheroes have ever died off completely—or even a little bit—so there will be rebuttals and you're welcome to put those in the comments. I love discussion! Are vampires today's superheroes? No, but some of them come close.  Are they our anti-heroes? Quite likely. Do I want to see a superhero-vampire face-off now? Heck yes!

* Buffy and Angel, for instance
** If you count the cold one
*** I think. Pretty sure, anyway. Correct me if I'm wrong.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Green Hornet


Michel Gondry's trying to do several things at once in Green Hornet. There's the bromance comedy aspect, with Britt and Kato becoming friends and enacting wacky, alcohol-fueled, reasonably illegal hijinks. There's the superhero aspect, with Britt and Kato going out in costumes stopping criminals and saving people. (I'll get into the superhero aspect further down the page. Some interesting things are happening with it.) There's a serious aspect too, about integrity and legacies and power. Sadly, the mashup of all these elements means there's not enough time in the film to make it solidly one or the other, and so the movie's getting panned by most reviewers.

While I can see what the reviewers are getting at about the plot and the writing, I don't think the acting's terrible and the 3D? Whoever says the 3D is terrible must have had different glasses than I did. I thought it was plenty crisp, and since it was used for depth and to highlight certain, important elements of some scenes, rather than only the odd "flying object" gag, I was pleased with it.

Back to the acting… I think Seth Rogan (playing Britt) was well cast, although Jay Chou (playing Kato) had a better sense of comic timing. Rogan's great at playing the typical bromance lead, with the drinking, and the girls, and the stupidity. Chou is all about the small movements and the beats, which lets him largely upstage his costar. The rest of the cast holds their own nicely, though I wonder what some of them were doing in the film. Surely their talents qualified them for bigger things?

The acting's the main thing that sold the story for me. If the acting had been poorer, the movie would've fallen to pieces. As it is Green Hornet is not a great movie. I can't really even call it a good one. But it's entertaining enough and I've seen way worse films, so I'll give it 3/5.

About the Superheroes

beware: spoilers below

Green Hornet is a self-aware superhero film. It's not the first that's blatantly referred to the tropes—I'd say any superhero movie made in the last ten years qualifies, at the very least—but it goes further, somehow. This is a clever directing decision on Gondry's part, and I think it stems from the premise of the story. A playboy deciding to fight crime by posing as a criminal? How do you update that for the modern age? Easy. You make the would-be hero aware of the dangers inherent in being a hero.

Of course, that opens up a whole can of worms. If you're aware of comics and comic book films, then you're going to be aware of the cool guns and weapons and costumes and naming conventions that come with the role of superhero. If you're aware of them and have money to throw around, why not have stuff that's just as good? And that's exactly what Britt does. I get the sense that he wouldn't have the cool toys if he didn't know that heroes were expected to have them. 

Another aspect of the superhero send-up nature of this movie is that Kato is the trained fighter and the true brains behind the operation, and yet he's nominally the sidekick. There's even something that's being called "Kato vision" by reviewers that could be construed as an actual superpower. Kato shows up at the last moment to rescue Britt on several occasions, after Britt gets himself into trouble. This is something I can see Batman doing for Robin or Iron Man doing for War Machine. Kato also states outright at one point that Britt is less able to do hero stuff than Kato is. And there's a riff on sidekick names.

And now it's time to cover Chudnovsky, the villain of the piece. Chudnovsky is an egomaniac with an inferiority complex. He wants to control all crime in LA, but he constantly worries that he's past his prime, no longer threatening enough to keep his empire going. I haven't run across this motivation for a villain before. Usually they're drunk with power and craving more, or have a vendetta, or are being evil because they can, and that's as deep into their psyche as we ever get. Chudnovsky acts like he's got something to prove and as a result comes across as more realistic than most superhero movie villains I've come across. Most of them have a level of glitz, y'know? And then Chudnovsky decides to rebrand himself as Bloodnovsky and buy into a certain level of the expected glitz, and it flops because he just doesn't get it. I feel for the guy.

Like I said in the review portion, this isn't the greatest superhero film of all time. Not in the slightest. But it's certainly not the worst, either. (Hello, Electra.) It's best viewed not how it's being sold, as a bromance/action/comedy, but as a send-up of superhero flicks. The director and writers and actors are aware that they're making a slightly offbeat, cheeseball movie with superheroes in, and they're playing to that while playing it straight at the same time.

That said, you can safely wait for the DVD. Save your money for Thor or Captain America.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing Motifs

Hannah Bowman recently challenged me (sort of) to talk about motifs that crop up in my fiction. Unfortunately, I haven't written as much fiction as she has, which makes it harder for me to pinpoint what continually shows up in my stories. I can pinpoint one major motif, which isn't quite as specific as Hannah's, but I'm going to run with it.

The theme is transformation. The process of change, whether it's physical or mental or spiritual or social, fascinates me. How do we deal with change in ourselves? How do we deal with change in others? How are we spurred to change? Getting at the root of those questions drives both my reading and my writing. My plot bunnies frequently have transformation in them as well. I think I was fated to write urban fantasy as a result of this. There's so much potential in the genre to talk about change and how it affects people.

There's also the cousin theme of self-discovery. Every time we have to face change, face difference, and deal with it, we learn more about our selves. And of course, there's the age-old story of the person discovering their destiny, and the equally old story of the person have their dreams realized. I've always wanted to know what Cinderella felt like after the wedding and how she dealt with being a princess.*

The first fiction I wrote was for school. When I was seven, I wrote a story about an artificial boy who needed to get a glass ball from a lake so that he could become real. Yes, I was shamelessly plagiarizing Pinocchio, and I knew it even then. Another story I remember writing, at fifteen, was about Miranda (from The Tempest) and her experiences after leaving the island with Ferdinand. I've forgotten just about everything else I wrote, though I do remember a writing assignment from grade seven that would probably qualify. We were given a set of drawings by Chris van Allsburg and told to write stories about them.

The first stories I wrote after high school were fanfiction, and because I was pretty raw as a writer and still figuring out a lot of things, they're really kind of horrible and embarrassing. But the fandoms I wrote in all had magic, superpowers, magical superpowers, and supernatural creatures.** The stories I wrote were split between ones where someone became supernatural/magical, and ones where someone had to face a truth and grow up. Sometimes it was the same person, in one story.

Then we get to The WIP and the other ideas I've had over the last few years. The WIP is essentially a superhero origin story. There's the gnostic urban fantasy that I've got knocking around in my head, which has a lot of physical transformation in it and a whole lot of social turmoil. There's the "UFO over 1750s London" idea, the "ghost detective" idea, the "theory of relativity a century sooner" idea***, the "first contact" idea, the "quasi-Matrix" idea, the other "first contact" idea….

As for small, more specific motifs, I don't think I'll be able to pinpoint any until I've written more. Although The WIP and the gnostic UF both feature forcefields, and I suspect geeky self-awareness will be a recurring feature too.

Are there any motifs in your stories?

* I haven't watched the Disney sequels. I imagine my own ideas play out better.
** No, I'm not telling you what they are.
*** Anyone want that one? The amount of research required for it scares me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I Win (A Blog Award)

I have it made in the writing blogosphere. I've just be awarded my first blog award— the Stylish Blogger Award—by Brooke Johnson. I know this isn't really a huge deal, in the grand scheme of things, but I feel like I've passed a milestone anyway. So thank you, Brooke!

There's a meme attached to the award. I have to thank my awarder (done), share seven facts about myself, and award fifteen bloggers in turn. Fifteen strikes me as way too many, so I'm going with a symmetrical seven.
  1. I'm not particularly stylish. If I could get away with jeans and a t-shirt (or pajamas) every day, I'd do so. There's less chance of pairing colors and cuts wrong that way.
  2. Since I moved out, I've never lived with someone who wasn't afraid of bugs. I'm always the one to capture and release insects and spiders. 
  3. I have never dyed my hair, nor do I plan on doing so.
  4. One summer I successfully taught myself basic Latin out of a textbook—and then forgot 90% of it.
  5. I also taught myself to play the French horn in a weekend. Admittedly, I'd been playing trumpet for five years so wasn't starting from scratch, but still.
  6. I'm not afraid of heights.
  7. I have a habit of talking to myself and switching language midstream.
I'm passing the Stylish Blogger on to:
  1. Hannah, who has great insights into writing and is always encouraging;
  2. Amalia, who knows a lot about Norse and Greek mythology and has no problem sharing; 
  3. Elena, who gives concise book reviews (and reads a lot); 
  4. Gypsy, who has great insights into fairy tales and finds wonderful fairy tale-related things; 
  5. Amy, who doesn't hesitate to give her opinion;
  6. Jami, who writes wonderful posts on writing and being a writer; and
  7. Lynn, whose blog is a treasure trove of information and food for thought.
And Brooke would totally get this award too, if she hadn't presented it to me. She has some awesome writing info on her blog. Check it out!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Wild Cards I

There is a secret history of the world—a history in which an alien virus struck the Earth in the aftermath of World War II, endowing a handful of survivors with extraordinary powers. Some were called Aces—those with superhuman mental and physical abilities. Others were termed Jokers—cursed with bizarre mental or physical disabilities. Some turned their talents to the service of humanity. Others used their powers for evil. Wild Cards is their story.

Originally published in 1987, Wild Cards I includes powerful tales by Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, Howard Waldrop, Lewis Shiner, and George R. R. Martin himself. And this new, expanded edition contains further original tales set at the beginning of the Wild Cards universe, by eminent new writers like Hugo–winner David Levine, noted screenwriter and novelist Michael Cassutt, and New York Times bestseller Carrie Vaughn.


I asked for this book for Christmas because in my searches for novels about superheroes, about 80% of the hits were Wild Cards books. (The series has been running for twenty-four years* and there are a lot of books by now.) I wasn't expecting much. The original cover made the book look cheesy and pulpy. The new cover led me to think the book was about the first few years after the virus. I'd gotten the impression from what I'd heard and read about the book/series that it followed a standard anthology format—everyone picks a time and place and character, and there's no interconnectedness or larger story. I thought it would be a chore to get through.

I was wrong on all counts. This is some of the best-written fiction I've read. It's exciting. It's addictive. It's beautifully paced and interwoven. It captured the feel of every era it dealt with. And yes, that means there are multiple eras here. The first piece is set in 1946. The last is set in 1986. In between are stories dealing with McCarthyism, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the Age of Aquarius (not in that order, obviously). The amount of world-building and thought that went into this book, into tweaking real history so that the repercussions of superheroes come through, good and bad alike, is phenomenal. I tend to be fairly critical of "magic power" stories***, asking about repercussions of powers and power-caused actions and how the powers fit into the greater world. Wild Cards delivers, in spades (and hearts, clubs, and diamonds). It's a very holistic, very well thought-out world.

As for the larger story … there isn't one set out clearly, like there apparently is in later books in the series. There's no real sense of an end goal. Most of the characters never meet each other. Instead, Wild Cards I tells the story of the world. It's about how the world as we know it (or knew it, given that the book first came out in '87) has changed and yet stayed the same. It's about establishing the ideas, the characters, and the issues that will fuel later books. If you want to be cynical, it's about hooking readers.

I'm hooked.

That's not to say there aren't weaker stories or elements that I didn't enjoy. There was a little too much harping on certain issues in the world, like Joker rights, for my taste. A couple of the stories seemed to have less to do with the themes and world than the rest. There was one story that made me sit back and ask, "Really? Really? You're trying to make me believe that?" Yes, the Joker rights had to be in there. We had to see the push and pull of the politics surrounding them. They're central to so much of the overall story. But I felt that some of the rights-centric stories could have been written a little differently so that the message and point of the stories took a background to the entertainment.

Overall, though, I loved the book. Everything about it is exceptionally well-done, from the world-building to the writing to the characters. Definitely a great read. I highly recommend it.

About the Superheroes

The Wild Cards superhumans get their powers and appearances from genetic mutations. There are hints that personality and mutation might be linked, although it's hard to see how that's true in some of the cases. There also seem to be instances where a sudden need or desire shapes the superpower, and there are hints that are technology-oriented heroes as well—but with a combo of mutation and tech. There's also a cure, but it only works in some cases and has to be tailored to the individual. Most people who contract the wild card virus die.

The Wild Cards 'verse breaks from real world history after the end of WWII. Superheroes had been around for seven years** by that time, meaning that the first generation of kids to be affected by the virus  already idolized superheroes. And then a few aces become famous, and comic books come out about them, and soon you've got whole generations of kids looking up to superheroes and aspiring to be them. The Wild Cards 'verse, in other words, is a deconstructive 'verse much like Watchmen, in that people choose the superhero route because it seems cool on paper (or because the government's paying them).

Wild Cards is also deconstructive in the sense that it's not all sunshine and roses for the superhuman mutants. There's a lot of fear of the Other in the book, a lot of class problems, a lot of political maneuvering, a lot of things going wrong. The jokers are by and large described as the sorts of people who would, in a more black and white, pulpy sort of text, become henchmen, minions, and supervillains. In Wild Cards, they're portrayed as people. Neither good nor bad, just people trying to make ends meet and stay out of trouble as much as they can while doing that. The aces are often portrayed the same way (and the ones that aren't, we don't get the POV of).

I like this take on superpowers and superhumans. It's layered, realistic, and compelling. I especially like that you don't just get attractive, perfect superheroes in Wild Cards. You also get twisted, mutated people with superpowers who do heroic things, and you get attractive, perfect superhumans who really aren't all that heroic (or villainous). I think that's what's hooked me most on the series—the shades of grey.

* assuming my math is correct
** assuming my math is correct and Superman was the first superhero, which I think he was
*** don't tell me superpowers aren't magic on some level

Friday, January 14, 2011

Year of the Superhero: Introduction

I have two confessions. Okay, three, but the third barely counts because it's never been as much of a guilty secret.

1. I don't read comic books.

2. I love superheroes anyway.

3. I'm writing a superhero novel.

The lack of experience with comics is, potentially, a major failing for a geek. It seems like most women in the geek community online are familiar with the ins and outs of Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Marvel, DC, so on, so forth, etc. Or perhaps I just have the bad luck to follow women who are into comics? Still, this is something I eventually want to remedy, especially because of Confession #3. I tell you this so you know I'm not an expert by any means. Moving on…

I think I've always been fascinated with superheroes, on some level. Even though I only know of them from pop culture references, movies, and (more recently) the occasional prose work, I'm pretty hooked. There are the themes of transformation and identity. There are the powers and the potential for greatness. There's the camp, the quips, the bright colors, the casual disregard for the laws of physics. There's the fact that there really is only one story—average Joe gets powers/technology/a cause and reinvents himself as a fighter of crime and champion of justice—but incredible variation within that story. We haven't run out of variations yet, actually. Every time I run into superheroes, I end up grinning like an idiot.*

You know that WIP I've been railing about off and on since … forever? It's about a guy who becomes a superhero, in a world much like ours where superheroes like these guys and these guys already exist and everyone's grown up watching the same superhero films and reading the same comic books as we have. So it gets a little meta in places, but not overmuch because, as noted above, I haven't read comics. But you can see why it would be important for me to be familiar with as many heroes and as many works of superhero fiction as possible. I've already made my way through a lot, in the name of research.

Sometimes this job is awesome.

I've got a lot more research to do, though, and since this is the year I hope to complete the novel once and for all, I'm going to try to cover as many heroes as possible. I'm going to meet the Green Hornet, the Green Lantern, Thor, and Captain America this year. I've got two unread superhero novels on my TBR shelf, and three or four more on my TBR list. There are superhero TV shows I haven't seen but want to. With any luck, I'll even find a not-too-scary way to break into this whole comic book thing.

Basically, I'm proclaiming this year the Year of the Superhero. I'll be blogging about my experiences with these as the year progresses—my impressions, my thoughts on how they relate to each other, the way they play with what I understand to be the tropes. And I'll be blogging periodically about the superhero shows, films, and prose works I've already been through in the name of research or otherwise. I hope you'll stick around.

To further my quest to familiarize myself with superhero works, I'm looking for recommendations. Books, movies, and TV shows are all welcome, but what I'd really, really like are comic book recs. For someone like me, who's just starting out with comic book heroes and is a fan of good plots, action, and camp, what are the good trade anthologies? The seminal ones? The good intro ones? I've read Watchmen, I've got Sandman marked as TBR, but otherwise… anyone?

* Okay, not every time. I've seen some episodes of Smallville that don't elicit this reaction.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Great Reads and God Books

Following up on Monday's post about God Authors, today I'm going to talk about my God Books, and what constitutes a great read for me. Before I launch into that, though, I want to make it really, really super clear that I have read a lot of fantastic books in my lifetime. I have favourites, and comfort reads, and books I've read repeatedly, and series that I absolutely need to have in their entirety. This post is not intended to discredit any of them, and in fact all my faves include at least some of my "great read" criteria.

Great Read Criteria
books must do at least one of the following to qualify

  • Create a world in my head. This goes beyond standard world building, which elicits "Oh, this is cool, this makes sense, I can see this happening, I like what they've done with this idea". A great read's world will come to life in my mind. I'll see it, feel it, smell it. The scenes will be acted out on my mental stage. I'll get these whizzing sparks of "How would they deal with [problem not mentioned in book]? Oh, well, obviously like this." And I'll continue to experience the world after I've put the book down.
  • Consume my life. This kind of follows from the above. I will not want to put the book down. When I do, the characters and story will replay themselves for me. If I've stopped on a tension point, which is likely because most books are a series of large and small tension points, then I'll be itching to find out what happens, and I'll be buzzing with possible outcomes. For most books I read, I do still want to know what happens next, but there's no buzz and I'm able to walk away from the book, work for eight hours, and come back none the worse for wear.
  • Make me pick sides. A great read is going to have characterization and story that has me gunning for (usually the) protagonists within about 20 pages, if not less. A lot of books, I read them and feel, "Yeah, Mary's got problems, I feel for her, and I want to know how she deals with what's coming down the pipe, but really, I'm not upset enough to get into battle mode with her." With a great read, the feeling's more like, "Mary, c'mon, c'mon, you can do it, everyone's out to get you, but you're so awesome you can beat them, and you'd better beat them because I want to see you come out of this all right, and maybe with some medals too."
  • Make me hate the antagonist(s). This is a fantastic way to get me to choose sides. When I want to see an antagonist die, not lose but actually die, I'm going to root for the protagonist in the hopes that they'll do the killing for me. Notable antagonists that have elicited this reaction? Becky Sharp, Dolores Umbridge, the man with the thistledown hair, Iago, Goneril. Yes, it can be argued that Becky Sharp is actually the protagonist, but since I was rooting for Amelia the whole time and Becky was the cause of most of Amelia's problems….
  • Thrill me. You know that "sense of wonder" all science fiction (and fantasy) is supposed to have? I don't feel it very often. Yes, the worlds and concepts and gadgets and magic system are cool. Yes, playing with the above in my head is fun and often enlightening. But it takes a really, really good book to give me a sense of "whee!" or "wow!". (This ties into the "create a world" criterium, because usually those exclamations come from seeing something in my head.)
  • Have an abrupt ending. Not a "ended before it should have" ending, but a "what, I'm at the end already?!" ending. I both love and hate those, because I could've stayed in the world forever and usually means I've lost track of time.
  • Teach me. When I put the book down a better person, or more aware, or more knowledgeable, then it's a great read. This is more a non-fiction criterium than a fiction one, but I've met 'educational' fiction too. When I put a book down and say, "That was a really important book. Everyone interested in [topic] needs to read that book. That book taught me so much.", then it's a great read.
  • Make me remember it years later. It's been nearly seven years since I read Vanity Fair. About ten since my last read-through of The Hobbit. Just over a year since Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I can tell you the plots of those books in detail. Can I tell you everything that happened in some of the books I read last year? Nope, and I've got a good memory for plots as a general rule.
  • Make me gush about it to others. I don't recommend good reads to people unless I'm absolutely certain they'll be interested (or I'm working). When I do recommend them, I use phrases like "You might like this" and "This sounds like it could be up your alley." Hesitant, hedging kind of words. For a great read, I'll push it on as many people as I can, and I'll use phrases like "you have to read this" or "what do you mean, you haven't read this?" I get genuinely excited talking about great reads.

For me, a God Book, like a God Author or God Composer, is a perfect whole. It does everything I've just listed. There's magic in the reading of it. It changes me. I probably have more God Books than what I'm about to list, but I'm too lazy to wrack my memory and have-read lists to find them all. So today, you're just getting these.

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The Regency world! The altered history on account of the magic! The magic itself! The fairies! The quests to use magic to change the world! The way everything, even the magical and surreal bits, is absolutely, entirely real the whole time!
  • Vanity Fair. The Regency world! The history! The grit of daily life! The tenacity of the characters! The twists of the knife! The satire! 
  • King Lear. The madness and storm! The tragedy! The heath! The castles! Goneril and Regan! The dukes! The politics! The pathos! The way Lear's life becomes a train wreck you can't stop watching!

What are your criteria for great reads? And what are your God Books?

Monday, January 10, 2011

God Authors, and Why I Don't Have One

I went to the symphony yesterday, because I figured I wouldn't get many chances to hear Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 performed live and it is, after all, one of the greatest works of classical music ever. Not only was it well worth the money I paid, but it also got me thinking about degrees of inspiration. I've touched on my love of music before, as well as my writing influences, but I promise this post'll be different.

You see, I had moment after moment after moment in the concert hall where I was awed by the intricacies of the music and blown away that one man could have written what I was hearing and could've held it all in his head at one time. That's something I could never do, because I don't have nearly as much musical talent as Beethoven did. There's such a sense of life in his music—love and rage and joy and fear and grief and playfulness, all painted so well by sound that listeners feel it, get swept away by it, lifted up and out of themselves for however long the music lasts. Dang, but I want to write music that well. Beethoven is a god.

After one of those awed moments—I think it was during Symphony No. 9, Mvmt. 1—I realized that I can't think of any writers who inspire the same feeling, the same passion. I have favourite authors. There are writers who have a particular strength that I would love to share, who write at a level I'd like to reach someday. But there are no writers whose entire canon I love unconditionally, the way I love Beethoven's. Bujold, who is incredible at plots and characterization and dialogue, has written stories that didn't grab me. Gaiman, who's got a fantastic handle of creepiness and modernizes fairy tales like nobody's business, has written stories that, and I hope I don't lose readers for saying this, wouldn't have been published if his name wasn't on them. Both these authors are people whose books I'm collecting. I love them, but I don't love them.

To me, reading Bujold and Gaiman (and the other people I admire and read voraciously) is the same as listening to Vivaldi or Handel or Mozart. There are works that shine, that sparkle, that I can experience over and over and get the same passion out of each time. There are works that fizzle for me, though they're still well-crafted. They lack that je ne sais quoi.

I don't know what it says about me that I have a God Composer but I don't have a God Author. Am I more critical of writers, because I'm more in tune with what makes for good writing? Am I trying to humanize these giants, so that the level of their pedestals becomes attainable? Am I more prepared to be rational and weigh pros and cons when discussing literature because I want the same rational approach directed towards my work once I'm published? I'd also propose the theory that I'm emotionally dead inside when it comes to creative works, but that would be fallacious because I've read books and heard music that has moved me greatly.

I gather that it's different for other people. I've read writing advice and listened to people talking about how to deal with wanting to write at the level of Author X right now, and how inspirational reading a great author can be. I know of people, friends even, who will not hear a single negative word spoken against their favourite author without rising up in defense. This makes me think that somewhere out there, there is a God Author for me, and if I read enough books, someday I'll find them. But I want so much to weigh things, to point out the bad along with the good, to be critical in an English class kind of way, that I suspect that author doesn't exist. How am I going to improve my writing if I don't keep the habit of identifying when writing doesn't sparkle for me?

Or maybe it's a different outlook on the world? I've definitely hit the stage in my life where I know I can't be exactly like someone else, that I can be just as good as them without being them. I've also learned that quality takes time and effort, and that perfection is an illusion. I can thank the School of Hard Knocks for that, as well as the School of Soul-Searching Introversion. So I can want traits of Author X (and Y and Z and…) without wanting to be them in their entirety, and I can let myself get carried away by their books and then step back later and say, "Great story, but Chapter 16 wasn't so hot and there was a weird bit of dialogue on page 47. I think the beats were off." But I will never have the desire to have written that book instead of them, and I will never have the desire to make their voice my own. And I'm completely okay with this because I'm as secure in my sense of self as I think any writer can be.

I'd love to hear stories from the other side of the fence, though. Folks with God Authors, care to weigh in? How do you feel when you read them? Is it possible to have a God Author while still being critical of their work? How did you discover they were a God Author? Or is the God Author thing not exactly right, and it's really God Books? Because God Books I do have. Definitely. (A post for another day, I think.)

Friday, January 7, 2011

How to Shelve Urban Fantasy

I went in Chapters last week, which is something I do infrequently. I get my books from other sources as much as possible, thank you. But I also tend to avoid Chapters because their shelving system in Science Fiction and Fantasy makes absolutely no sense. There's one author who has fantasy novels under Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror. Yes, horror. On account of there being werewolves and ghosts and vampires in the novels. Those urban fantasies weren't alone in the Horror section either. Not by a long shot.

I've seen this in other bookstores too, that people don't really know where to put the urban fantasy. I mean, it's got fantasy built into the name of the genre! But UF contains vampires, werewolves, demons, witches, ghosts, and zombies, and people who don't know better assume that means the novels are scary. And sure, they are in places, like the fight scenes and climax, the places where the protagonist's life is at stake. I wouldn't put any of the UF I've read on the same level as Stephen King, though. At least not for the fear factor.

As for how UF can end up in science fiction? A lot of it's set in alternate realities and near futures, and if your concept of fantasy is Tolkien, Martin, Jordan, and the like, then UF doesn't really fit in Fantasy. Also, I'd imagine that, at least in the big chain stores, that many of the employees either aren't big readers or aren't expected to be familiar with the contents of all the sections. It's different with indies, I've noticed.

I'm also sure the tried and true Confused Bookseller Shelving Method comes into play. If you don't know where to put the book automatically (based on the front cover, the author, the buzz, the demographic who's buying it), read the blurb on the back. Key words will jump out at you, like murder, death, detective, blood, crime, which usually means Mystery, or twenty-something, boyfriend, big city, identity, which often means chick lit, or, in the case of urban fantasy, paranormal, detective, magic, vampire, werewolf, demon, witch, race against time, over her head. If the blurb still confuses you, take a wild guess and it's probably literary fiction anyway.* I'm extrapolating for this next statement, but I'd guess that the action/mystery blurbs of UF novels sound closer to the action/mystery blurbs of sci-fi than they do to the drawn out quests and elves and lyrical fantasy worlds of the rest of the fantasy section.

If I had total control over the shelving of urban fantasy, I'd let my anal retentiveness reign free.** I'd create a whole new section of the bookstore (Urban Fantasy) because there are certainly enough UF novels out right now to fill a bookcase or two. I'd put the other fantasy subgenres under Fantasy, and I'd browbeat every employee until they knew what was UF and what wasn't.

I take my UF seriously, okay?

Then again, there are problems with that system. Where do you put Charles de Lint and Emma Bull and Neil Gaiman, who write fantasy novels set in modern cities, but without the action/mystery storylines? You're going to get UF readers who want Hamilton, Harrison, and Gaiman, and you're going to get non-UF fantasy readers who want Gaiman as well. Do you cop out and shelve Gaiman (etc) in both sections? Or do you draw the line and tell customers to stuff it, this is your store and you'll do what you like? And then you get into the thorny issue of the urban fantasy/paranormal romance divide…

Urban fantasy in 2011 is a teenager, and nobody quite knows how to deal with it. Writers are pushing limits, doing things differently, and readers are expecting different things than they were 10 years ago, when the current UF model came into prominence. It takes on so many masks (epic fantasy, comedy, noir, sci-fi, murder mystery, romance) and it sometimes layers those masks so you get two or three or even four in the same book, and how is anyone supposed to come up with a definition for a genre that changes on a daily basis like that? Really? But like any teenager, UF will eventually come into its full identity and … maybe we'll know where to shelve it then?

* This, friends, is the real reason covers and blurbs are so important. It helps booksellers put the books where you want them to. ;-)
** Like I do at home, where my CDs are arranged in chronological order by era. Renaissance before Baroque before Classical before Romantics before Dixieland before Swing.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

An Example of Tropes Done Well

Last night I finished Mike Carey's The Devil You Know.* It's the first in a series about a London exorcist who's a bit of a bastard and a bit of a slacker and a bit hard done by. The world's our world, except that about ten years ago, ghosts and zombies and werecreatures and demons began appearing for no apparent reason, which has made it possible for Felix Castor to make a living getting rid of them.

Except that he doesn't make a living at it, really. Like all good urban fantasy MCs (and don't listen to the folks who tell you this is horror because there are ghosts in), Castor is broke. UF protagonists are perpetually short of funds, often because the rent is high or they can't charge what they'd like or their weapons don't come cheap. Quite often when I run across one of those excuses, I twitch. It's been done. It's cliché. The writer isn't trying to be creative about it. But it was different with Castor because his reasons for being broke feel more valid.

  1. A year and a bit ago, he did a job that turned out not to be what he thought, and it's shaken his confidence and made him scared to take more clients. Therefore, he has no money because he has no income.
  2. His landlady, who's also a good friend, is constantly coming up with get rich quick schemes, which need startup fees that Castor helps her out with, because he's that kind of guy. And that's more or less on top of his rent money to her. 
So basically, Castor has negative income not because Carey's playing to the trope as much as because it's part of his characterization and motivations. He only takes the job that's the central plot of the novel because his landlady needs money now and he doesn't have anything to give her. I'm much more willing to forgive this than I am to forgive the protagonist who, say, needs the downtown condo because it's so close to her favourite restaurant. 

And there's another trope that features in Devil You Know that I only really noticed because I've seen enough blog posts to know it's a trope. How do you string out a plot when a key piece of information is a phone call away? You make it hard or impossible for your protagonist to use their phone. I've read a lot of urban fantasy in which phones get lost or smashed or dropped in water, repeatedly. I've read some, I believe, in which phones get covered in the bodily fluids of monsters. Castor's phone, on the other hand? Is faulty and he can't afford to get it replaced because … he's broke. So sometimes the phone works just well enough for a scratchy connection, and sometimes the phone will show "no signal" while he's standing under a tower. Much more plausible, in my books. It's obvious Carey put some thought into this story—which is to be expected, since he's won multiple awards for his comics.

There are other tropes in the book as well: people trying to kill Castor, people having sex with Castor, Castor getting up and continuing the case after nearly dying, Castor being chided for being thick-headed. If you read urban fantasy, you've seen these before. If done poorly, these tropes are enough to make me want to hit the MC or writer over the head with the book they're in. If done well … well, I'm not rushing out to get the second book in the series, because I don't like reading two books by the same author back to back, but Carey's books are definitely going down as "good reads", "well-written", and "TBR list". I can't wait for him to impress me again.

*If you read my summary of my 2010 reads last week, it was one of two books I started last year but hadn't finished by the end of it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Fun with Keywords

Today I'll be addressing some of the keyword searches that helped people find my blog. I got this idea from, of all places, Got Medieval, who calls it "Google Penance". I'm going to call it "Fun With Keywords" and not necessarily respond to the odd searches, 'cause that's more my style. You see, my blog, just like Got Medieval, can be accessed by typing keywords into Google's search engine, which will spit out a list of sites and pages of sites that contain the relevant words. You probably have to get slightly creative with the keywords — "pickle family tortoise" won't get you here, though now that I've posted it, the odds have changed considerably.

The top keyword is "manipulating gravity", especially if you include all the variations like "how to manipulate gravity" and "is there a machine that can manipulate gravity". I always feel bad for the people who find me through those keywords, because they're getting this post, which is more a list of things we can do once we have the technology, rather than a post about having that technology already. However, I'm kind of proud of getting so many hits off this, because it means that more people than just me want this technology to exist.

I've gotten less hits than I'd like off "Specnology", but I suppose I'm new enough to the blogosphere and not famous enough yet that people will want to find me by my blog's name. There's still time, and when I get that much fame … mwahahahaha.

People have found my blog from "armor piezoelectrics" and "bones 3d hologram real" and several searches of a Lois McMaster Bujold variety. I like this, and I can understand where the terms are coming from and how they found me. However, there are also terms that flummox me ("december means winter in the northern hemisphere") and terms that, like with the gravity searches, I feel bad about. People looking for instructional info on classical music, for instance, won't find it on my site, for instance.

To the person who found my blog with "nathan fillion": Who are you? You're awesome.

To the person who wrote "nerd giveaway": Did I deliver even though I'm not giving away nerds? (Does anyone know someone who is?)

To the people who wrote "urban + fantasy + for + men" and "why do women love urban fantasy fiction so much?": Thanks! You're telling me I've done something right with my blog. Obviously I need to post more on these topics.

Most of the keywords I've gotten since April, which is when I started tracking them, have been scientific or geeky in nature. This is good. I don't have to do much SEO than I already have (which is not really), because the people I want to find my blog already seem to be doing so. Very positive start to my year, I'd say.

Did any of you find me through Google? You don't need to tell me what your search was.

Has anyone gotten a random keyword search they'd like to share?

Is there anything you'd like to see me post about in the upcoming year?