Saturday, March 7, 2020

The Wattys Longlist

As the above banner subtly conveys, I have just made the longlist for the 2018 "Wattys"--the awards given out by Wattpad to qualifying, posted content. This is specifically for my novel, Tales From the Singularity, which you can read here. (Or if you would find it convenient, on Kindle, with a copy ordered from Amazon or other outlets. A paperback edition should also be available very shortly, though it can also be found in print form in the Paris in the Twenty-First Century collection of stories set in the same universe, which you can get here.)

I am, of course, honored and grateful for the unexpected recognition--too few of us get any at all in this age in which the writer-to-reader ratio has so exploded--and hereby congratulate all of those who have made it this far.

The shortlist is due out in mid-September. In the meantime, I encourage anyone not already familiar with the site (and those who are) to go and take a look at the full list. (You can read it here.) And again, congratulations all.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Just Out . . . (Tales From the Singularity, in Paperback)

For those who prefer to do their reading on paper rather than screens, my Wattys longlisted Tales From the Singularity is now out in paperback.

It is also available in print form as part of the Paris in the Twenty-First Century collection.

And of course, you can still check it out on Wattpad.

Happy reading.

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13

Shelley, Verne and Wells--especially Wells

When we recount the history of science fiction, it is common to point to some early figure as its founder--for instance, Mary Shelley, Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

The emphasis on identifying a single, founding work by a single author strikes me as unsatisfying for numerous reasons, only one of which I want to go into here right now. That is, namely, that it makes much more sense to credit them with each defining a crucial strand of science fiction, already in place before it coalesced into a genre (in the '20s, on the watch of Hugo Gernsback).

Note that I write defining here, not founding, because it would be excessive to claim that they did something that had never been done before to any degree. Rather they did what others might have done before in a certain way, got noticed for it, and became a model for those who followed in the process.

The Gothic writer Shelley defined the science-based horror story--where the scientific endeavor goes very, very bad. Verne defined the science-based adventure--where a discovery or invention sets us up for a thrill ride to the center of the Earth or the moon or for twenty thousand leagues under the sea which might teach us something along the way, most likely in the way of scientific facts. And Wells defined the science-based story not about some hero or anti-hero, but where, to borrow Isaac Asimov's phrase, humanity as a whole is the protagonist; the story which uses science to think about society, and considers how science, by way of ideas and technology, might change it; the story about a future that is clearly not the same as today, broadly, deeply and densely imagined; the science fiction story which can criticize things as they are, and bear the hope of progress.

Of these the last perhaps accounts for a smaller part of the genre's overall output than the other, older strands. Certainly it is less present in the more popular work than the influences of Shelley or Verne. (Horror stories, adventure stories, are the easier sell.) Still, it is the Wells' strand that seems to me to not only have been far and away the most intellectually interesting, but to have given science fiction a cultural role beyond mere entertainment; to have enabled science fiction to really matter. And it seems to me that the vigor of that particular tradition is, more than any other factor, the determinant of the health of the genre as a whole.

Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13

Are Books Too Long These Days?

Are books too long these days?

I will say up front that many of the novels that have most impressed, most affected, most influenced me were thousand-pagers. Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Karamazov Brothers, for example. (I can't imagine Tales From the Singularity without that one.) Or Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. (Which is still in a lot of ways The Way We Live Now in the twenty-first century.) Or Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. (Has anything equally ambitious, sweeping, worthwhile been written about American life since?)

And reading my way through the classics, I encountered a good many that don't have a membership in that pantheon, but where I could appreciate what they were going for, and that trying to do it took half a million words (as Victor Hugo did in his national epic of France, Les Miserables, and Leo Tolstoy did in War and Peace).

Still, not every book needs to be so long as that. Not every story requires so much sheer mass. Most are better off without it. And in general I think those books that most of even that small minority that actually reads tends to actually read--the romances and thrillers and romantic thrillers--are ill-served by the demand for doorstops. What might be a brisk entertainment instead ends up bloated and slow, and often pretentious, and I find myself nostalgic for the quick and dirty writing of a half century ago, and the still older pulps. Reading Dirk Pitt at the series' best was a lot of fun, but there is a lot to be said for those who came before him, not least that other Clark-from-New-York-with-a-Fortress-of-Solitude, Doc Savage.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Second Note
9/7/18
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Note
9/7/18
The Wattys Longlist
9/2/18
The Savage Doctor: Doc Savage
8/7/18
Doc Savage and Dirk Pitt
8/7/18
About That Doc Savage Movie
8/7/18
Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace: The Short Version
9/12/14
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Telling Lies About Tolstoy's War and Peace
4/19/14
Lying About What We Read
8/18/13
Lying About What We Read
8/18/13
My Posts on the Dirk Pitt Series
12/2/12

The Summer 2018 Box Office: Solo and The Meg

I haven't done an overview of the summer box office in quite a while, in part because it has become so damned repetitive, in its commercial successes--and perhaps even more consistently, its artistic failures. Every year Hollywood laments its earnings, every year the more critical critics decry the shallowness and sameness and staleness of it all, every year we hear promises that Hollywood will change, and every year, it demonstrates that not only has it not done so, but that its lack of memory is utter and total, the promise unremembered.

So I'll restrict my comments on the whole tedious thing to the two films I felt I actually had somethijng to say about: Solo and Meg.

After over three months of release in which it has had long play in every major market (even Japan got it before the end of June), Solo remains short of the $400 million global mark, like I guessed it would be after what, only in the context of the money poured into it, was regarded as a dismal weekend. What it will mean for the franchise remains very much a matter of rumor and speculation. But the shock seems undeniable.

By contrast Meg proved that rarity, a movie that performs above expectations rather than below them, and that still greater rarity, the seemingly written-off dump month release that proves a blockbuster. (The predictions were $10-20 million in its opening weekend in North America, but it actually pulled in more than twice the high end of the range, $45 million.) A somewhat more modest production with much more modest expectations, The Meg has already outgrossed Solo globally (the China market has helped a lot), and if the figures discussed earlier are to be believed (a $400 million break-even point, due to the advantages it enjoys as a Chinese coproduction in that makret), already well into the black, and still raking it in (in its fourth weekend of U.S. release, still at #2).

A follow-up is not a sure thing (given the nine figure budgets and equally hefty promotional bills, the hefty competition and the terms of Meg's success as a bit of goofy fun, the margins are not exactly vast), but it still looks quite likely. We might even see other Steve Alten works finding their way to the big screen as a result, in what looks like at least partial redemption of the dashed hopes held for it all way back when we first heard of the hopes for the project.

From the standpoint of the business Meg's success falls far short of balancing out Solo's underperformance, and all it represents (the ultimate in the Hollywood franchise mentality, by way of the franchise that did more than any other to establish the blockbuster as we know it). Still, looking at the two trajectories together, I suppose there's a certain symmetry in them.

My Posts on Solo: A Star Wars Story
7/19/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Movies: Seasons and Years in Review
9/16/13
My Posts on Star Wars
12/16/12

Friday, September 7, 2018

Ian Watt, Irony and Criticism in Our Own Time

For me one of the most memorable aspects of Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (reviewed here) is his discussion of the proneness of critics to read irony where there is often actually none--which specifically cited Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Virginia Woolf's readings of Daniel Defoe.

Defoe, in Watts' view, had no such attitude to the apparent contradictions in his characters' behavior--their combination of relentless money-grubbing and relentless, verbose declarations of their piety, for example. This was not only because such things did not look as ridiculously hypocritical to them as they do to people of our own time, but because a display of such irony required a level of technical mastery in this kind of "realist" writing that eighteenth century novelists had yet to achieve. Indeed, Defoe's sloppiness as a writer is something Watt discusses quite some length, replying to Woolf's declaration that Defoe subdued "every element to his design" with the opinion that there is no
design whatsoever in the usual sense of the term . . . such an interpretation really a kind of indirect critical repayment for the feeling of superiority which Defoe enables us to derive from his humble and unconsidered prose, a feeling of superiority which enables us to convert the extreme cases of his narrative gaucherie into irony . . .
There is far, far too much such "conversion of narrative gaucherie into irony" today--more than in his, more perhaps than in any other time in history--with at least some of it coming from people who ought to know better. (I hesitate to name names, but one recent critic whom I hold in a good deal of regard reviewed Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games in exactly this way, and then admitted that it was his way of spicing up the boring task of reviewing a book with such artless world-building--essentially, an admission that he wasn't doing his job of reviewing the book at all.) After all, in our postmodern day, the most inane subjective reaction can be held up as profound insight, and "irony for irony's sake" might be the critical slogan--irony for irony's sake because they cannot resist that "worst form of snobbery," because there is no better barrier to really thinking about anything than blowing it off in this pseudo-literate person's equivalent of the eternal "Whatever!"

My Posts on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
My Posts on Postmodernism
11/21/13
My Posts on H.G. Wells
6/29/13

Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel

As it turns out my review of Ian Watt's masterly study of the English novel's eighteenth century origins, The Rise of the Novel, has spawned a couple of smaller posts, with more soon to come. I list all my posts regarding that work here.

Ian Watt, Irony and Criticism in Our Own Time
9/7/18
Ian Watt and Shakespeare
9/7/18
Of Character and the Larger Scene: A Note on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Review: The Rise of the Novel, by Ian Watt
7/9/18

Ian Watt and Shakespeare

Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel was, as discussed here, a study of eighteenth century literature. Still, that outstanding piece of literary analysis, history and sociology was comprehensive enough to have much to say about other subjects--not least, the works of William Shakespeare.

His remarks about the Bard were, of course, offhand. Still, in noting that Shakespeare, as very much a Medieval rather than a modern, and noting that such writers dealt in universal types rather than specific individuals; that they had their eye on abstractions rather than concrete facts; that they were prone to be loose in handling the flow of time or cause and effect relationships; and that in describing it all they were inclined to prettily decorate rather than rigorously denote and describe; he strikes me as having sum up a very large part of the challenge that reading Shakespeare presents a twenty-first century reader, a challenge they tend to fail.

Thus we read Julius Ceaser and find instead of a historical drama about ancient Rome as we would understand the term--just the dilemma of Brutus. Thus we read Hamlet--and feel that he's endlessly dithering, which becomes ammunition for pompous lectures on the character's lack of decisiveness. Or we don't find those things, because we don't really have enough of a handle on what's going on to have those reactions. We just read them because we're supposed to, without worrying about whether we "get it" or not, and then, if the statistics are accurate, after completing the obligatory school requirement (under the eye of a teacher who might not get all this themselves; they're probably taking all this on authority just as much the student), most of us probably don't read much of anything ever again.

Is there anyone else who thinks this isn't how it's supposed to go?

My Posts on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Reading Literary Classics
12/1/12
What is Literature?
11/30/12

Of Character and the Larger Scene: A Note on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel

Recently reading Ian Watt's classic of literary criticism, The Rise of the Novel, one of the book's more compelling aspects seemed to me his attentiveness to the differing emphases novels can have--what I tend to think of as the Henry James-like emphasis on character and the "play of individualities" as the cornerstone of good writing, and an H.G. Wells-like stress on the larger social scene. Where the "highbrows" are concerned, James carried the day.

As Watt makes clear, however, both approaches were strongly represented among those foundational writers of the eighteenth century English novel. Watt identified Samuel Richardson with the stress on character (and the domestic themes to which such writing inclines), Henry Fielding with society. Consequently, while they share comparable status as founders of the English novel (indeed, in that long-ago eighteenth century lit course I had, we read both Richardson's Pamela and Fielding's Tom Jones), it would seem to be that James' victory over Wells' was also Richardson's over Fielding's.

My Posts on Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel
9/7/18
Reading H.G. Wells' Tono-Bungay
7/14/15
H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"
7/13/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Reading Literary Classics
12/1/12
What is Literature?
11/30/12

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Second Note

As Anthony Trollope's great satire of late Victorian society opens, we are looking at Lady Carbury, who is in the midst of preparing for a release of her book Criminal Queens, soliciting what she hopes will be favorable reviews from the major London newspapers.

A writer anxiously soliciting reviews in the hope that they will make her book a success!

Alas, all the advances in technology since that time when railroads were the stuff of tech bubbles has not spared writers the burdens and annoyances and headaches and embarrassments and nerves of publicity-seeking, as every self-published author knows only too well.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: A Note

Anthony Trollope's classic The Way We Live Now is his classic satire of late Victorian society, which bears more resemblance to our own than most of us can appreciate. It is something of a truism that railroads were the dot-coms of Trollope's time, but reading that novel, centered on a massive financial scandal centered on such a steampunk dot-com, shows in dramatic fashion just how much this was so. ("The object of Fisker, Montague, and Montague was not to make a railway to Vera Cruz, but to float a company.")

Trollope's take on it all has real bite, one reason why critics in his day were unappreciative of that book, and why they might be similarly unappreciative in ours (as a cursory look at a number of lists of nineteenth century classics has suggested to me), but it seems to have enjoyed a bit of an upsurge in popularity in recent years, because of its relevance--and I suppose, also by more recent writers' failings. Among their many disservices Modernism, postmodernism and the rest have rendered today's "serious" literature too toothless to properly write such an epic in our own time, and so for satire we can hardly do better than look to a tale of comparable doings in a time long past.

Friday, August 31, 2018

On Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard

I have just put up three posts regarding Craig Thomas' nearly forgotten early techno-thriller Sea Leopard. The first is a review of the novel; the second a consideration of it in light of the country's naval drawdown (it's British focus is a rarity, Harriers and Nimrods instead of F-14s and P-3s saving the day); and the third comments on its handling of that ever-problematic issue, the treatment of science and scientists in fiction.

Again, even where it didn't quite work for me, it has an interest as a time capsule.

Considering Britain's Military Drawdown After 1945
7/19/18
"Geography, Technology and the Flux of Opportunity"
7/19/18
Empire, Spies and the Twentieth Century
7/16/18
Writing on the Post-1945 History of the Royal Navy: A Few Thoughts
7/15/18
Review: Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War II, by Eric J. Grove
3/8/16
Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz
2/7/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Win, Lose or Die and the British Techno-Thriller
10/18/15
John Gardner's James Bond Novels
10/10/15
"Review: Win, Lose or Die, by John Gardner."
10/11/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard and British Naval Power

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

I have remarked previously that by the '80s techno-thrillers centered on Britain had become a rarity. Still, there were some, like John Gardner's Bond novel Win, Lose or Die (clearly written to capitalize on the height of the genre's boom, and the success of Top Gun), and Craig Thomas' Sea Leopard, which centers on the intrigue surrounding a British submarine equipped with a revolutionary stealth technology. Of course, in imagining British industry achieving such a technical triumph the book may appear to be a bit of pious hope or wish fulfillment that Britain could, at the least, still "punch above its weight class in the military-industrial realm," enough so as to be a major actor in world affairs, thanks to the prowess of its boffins (on which such hopes had so often been based). The same might also go for Britain's saving its own bacon in this rare, Britain-centric techno-thriller, where there is an American intelligence officer on standby, but when it comes time to save the day we see a plenitude of heavy metal British gear go into action. (It is a British Harrier that has to sneak him into the country, while a British Nimrod controls the operation.)

Still, any such feeling is mixed with an acute consciousness of Britain's decline as a major power since 1945, and especially as a naval power. One sees it in the fact, that just as in Firefox, a British spymaster ends up relying on an American agent to pull off the mission he dreamed up, but it is given explicit treatment when Commander Richard Lloyd, the captain of the sub at the story's center, after his vessel is captured and brought to the Soviet harbor of Pechenga. He sees
[t]wo "Kara"-class cruisers at anchor . . . Three or four destroyers . . . Frigates, a big helicopter cruiser, two intelligence ships festooned with electronic detection and surveillance equipment. A submarine support ship, minesweepers, ocean tugs, tankers. The sight, the numbers, overawed him, ridiculing Portsmouth, Plymouth, Faslane, every naval port and dockyard in the UK. It was like going back into the past, except for the threatening, evident modernity of these vessels, to some great review of the fleet at Spithead between the world wars, or before the Great War.
That Pechenga is a mere "satellite port" of Murmansk, that the Soviet coast is dotted with dozens of facilities equally or more impressive, makes it all the more daunting.

Considering Britain's Military Drawdown After 1945
7/19/18
"Geography, Technology and the Flux of Opportunity"
7/19/18
Empire, Spies and the Twentieth Century
7/16/18
Writing on the Post-1945 History of the Royal Navy: A Few Thoughts
7/15/18
Review: The Power House , by William Haggard
5/15/17
Review: Village of Stars, by Paul Stanton
5/12/17
Remember Paul Stanton?
5/12/17
Slow Burner and '50s Britain
12/21/16
An Un-Bond: William Haggard's Colonel Charles Russell
12/20/16
Review: Slow Burner, by William Haggard
12/18/16
Review: Vanguard to Trident: British Naval Policy Since World War II, by Eric J. Grove
3/8/16
Review: Trigger Mortis, by Anthony Horowitz
2/7/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Win, Lose or Die and the British Techno-Thriller
10/18/15
John Gardner's James Bond Novels
10/10/15
"Review: Win, Lose or Die, by John Gardner."
10/11/15 Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15

Review: Sea Leopard, by Craig Thomas

WARNING: MILD SPOILERS

A nuclear submarine equipped with a revolutionary stealth technology becomes the prize in a contest between the Soviet and Western navies in the cold waters of the North Atlantic. At the center of the resulting international crisis we have not a sea captain or professional field agent, but an intelligence service desk man who has to figure out the intentions of the other actors, and come up with the right course of action, which soon enough sends him flying to the scene of the action, with the ultimate outcome hinging on the ability of an American to (with help from his British friends) get aboard a submarine in Soviet hands, make contact with the captain, and then fight for his life against a Soviet officer fighting him in a rear-guard action against the plan . . .

It sounds an awful lot like Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October, but it is actually a description of Craig Thomas' earlier submarine-themed techno-thriller, Sea Leopard, to which it is at least a precedent and perhaps even an inspiration. (I know Clancy was an admirer of that crucial proto-techno-thriller writer Frederick Forsyth, a fact which shows from Red October on, and which led to a full-blown homage in Red Rabbit, but I recall nothing regarding comparable interest by Clancy in Thomas.*)

Thomas is, of course, better known for another, earlier book than Sea Leopard, Firefox, and this book resembles that one too, sufficiently so that it can seem like an underwater version of his earlier hit. Again, the balance of power depends on a technological breakthrough contained in a stealthy military vehicle that a set of Cold Warriors tries to steal; and again a principal character of that novel (actually Thomas' principal series' protagonist), British spy chief Kenneth Aubrey, is the man with the plan, which ultimately hinges on his infiltrating a borrowed American military officer into the Soviet Union to see that the good guys commandeer said vehicle and get it to the West. (It even seems worth remarking that a submarine operating in the far northern waters off the Kola peninsula did play a crucial role in Firefox, refueling and rearming the stolen plane as Mitchell Gant flew it out of the country. We even get flying scenes over some of the same territory as in Firefox and Firefox Down, both books having their characters note Finland's Lake Inari from the windows of their military aircraft while flying on a secret mission.)

Still, if Thomas clearly reused much here, there is also much that he is doing differently, not least the manner in which he distributes his attention. While his earlier plane-stealing story was attentive to the bigger picture (more so than Martin Caidin's Cyborg, one reason why Firefox seems to me to have the stronger claim to being a founding techno-thriller), it had a clearer center on Mitchell Gant's performance of his mission. In the style Forsyth had already helped pioneer, and of which he and Clancy were to make careers, this time around his attention is more widely diffused about the broad situation as it fills in "the big picture."

Alas, the results are not all that might be hoped for, this larger-scale narrative seeming to me to contain a good deal that was unnecessary--in, for example, Soviet attempts to board the British submarine they were trying to capture, complete with lengthy description of the hazards of trying to getthe team into place. (As the ostensible villains of the piece--as one might expect of Thomas, this is very much an orthodox Cold War thrillers in its politics--how did their suffering setbacks contribute to the suspense?) In particular the thoroughly fleshed out subplot about Secret Intelligence Service agent Patrick Hyde's hunt for a scientist who has gone AWOL at a crucial moment could easily have been excised from the narrative (while remaining in it its main effect seemed to be to fatten and slow down a story I would have preferred to see lean and mean). This went even more for the events involving Hyde in its aftermath. Other, more essential scenes went on longer than they should have, not least the sneaking around in the climactic operation. All of this made the story fatter and slower where it ought to have been lean and mean, while the bits involving the scientist dragged in a few cliches that really rankled (and which actually get their own piece, here).

I might add that despite the breadth of the narrative, and its flights from reality, Sea Leopard's high-tech military action also offers nothing so visceral as the flying scenes from Firefox at their best (though this may also be because of the familiar problem of the slow pace of underwater action in large and lumbering subs compared with high-speed aerial combat); or in its cast of characters, anything to compare with the tensions inhering in Firefox's strung-out super-pilot Mitchell Gant. Still, the thriller mechanics are competent throughout, enough so that it never bores, while the book now has a fair measure of novelty--as a pre-boom techno-thriller, and as an example of that rarity by the '80s, a British-centered techno-thriller.

* It is interesting, too, that the last name of the American officer who must pull of the book's central covert action is Clark--just like the ex-Navy man Clark who was Jack Ryan's field counterpart in the Ryanverse novels.

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