Observations from the Audience

Elvira and I saw Neal Stephenson speak at the Bagdad theater last night here in Portland. We’ve been to several author events hosted by Powell’s over the last few months and without exception they were fun and enlightening. This was the biggest event we’ve been to so far. The Bagdad, for you non-Portland residents, is a beautiful old restored theater run by McMenimen’s and they often host speakers and show second run and old movies. Besides being a lavishly restored classic theater with all the decor and atmosphere that entails, they also sell beer from local craft breweries and pizza from a local restaurant, so it’s pretty much one of the greatest places on Earth.

We’ve been to enough of these author events now to see a pattern of reoccurring motifs emerge, worth commenting on:

The Standard Questions. “Where do you get your ideas?” seems to have fallen out of fashion, thankfully. Now, it’s all about tips to young and aspiring writers. You can tell that this is a popular question because so far, every author we’ve seen speak has a tidy payload of a response ready to be deployed and done so with aplomb. It’s usually your standard writing wisdom (write 10,000 pages and throw them away, write every day, write what you want to read, etc.) wrapped up in an anecdote they or some other writer has told a hundred times. This is one of those rhetorical flourishes that, if you’re going to be a traveling writer doing signings and speaking engagements, you must be able to handle. Stephenson did a bang up job, and even handled the PoMo “How do you know what you experience is the same as what I experience?” question with grace.*

The Response to Fannish Enthusiasm. This is always the hardest to watch from the audience, because there are some fans who are so very, very enthusiastic about one particular aspect of  an author’s oeuvre that it overshadows all rational thought and colors their interactions with the author in a way that can be downright uncomfortable for a bystander to witness. Stephenson wins mucho points in this area, since the overwhelming majority of the Fannish questions he fielded were either directly or indirectly related to his book, Snow Crash.

I imagine every author is thrilled to know that they’ve written something that resonates so profoundly with their audience and part of a book tour is geared towards promoting not just the new book but your work in general. Still, having people come up to you and say, “I love what you wrote 20 years ago, when will you do more of that?” has got to get old real quick.

This is a sub variety of “I love how you do X, you should do Y”. You could tell Neal Stephenson has been getting this one a lot this book tour. His new book, Reamde is a thriller, ostensibly concerning the developer of a popular MMO. Now, it’s obvious that Mr. Stephenson is not nearly as big of a geek as his fans wish he were. While he may be fascinated by emerging technology and hackers and the Internet and MMOs, he clearly does not spend his free time playing World of Warcraft. And yet a significant portion of the Snow Crash fans implored him to write an MMO, either based on Snow Crash or just in general. Keep in mind, this is a guy who writes long, complex, thoughtful digressive and expansive 1000 page novels for a living. And he just finished telling the person who asked the question before you that the promise of the free and open Internet never came to fruition and it’s now mostly full of lies and bullshit. The closest he got to openly mocking someone was when they asked if he was ever going to use his twitter account (apparently someone is on twitter as Neal Stephenson but it ain’t him).

This is part of a larger cultural trend I’ve noticed, concerning the undervalued status of novels as merely rough drafts for movies or some other multimedia franchise (like MMOs) but that’s a rant for another time. Suffice it to say, Neal Stephenson enjoys writing big honking novels, and makes a decent living at it. Why would he want to get into that feverish snake pit that is the gaming industry when he can hang out in Seattle, writing  novels on his laptop?

The Soapbox Questions. These are tricky. Some authors avoid answering them, because they’re invitations to rant and they obviously don’t want to offend the portion of their audience who may not agree with their peculiar stance on a given issue. But at the same time, authors end up with a shortlist of topics near and dear to their heart, mostly because they tend to feature repeatedly in their work, so obviously you want to listen rapturously as your favorite author extemporizes on the latest development in said area of interest. Stephenson managed to address the Libertarian question without it derailing the discussion into a political shooting match, which really takes some skill.

(The short version of what he said: he sympathizes with some of the hacker/libertarian ideals but recognizes that in modern American politics, Libertarianism that has been coopted by people whose goal is decidedly not making more people free.)

All in all it was a fun evening (though note to the Bagdad theater lighting crew: there’s an author on stage who is going to read and talk for the better part of 2 hours and all you can think to light him with are red and blue spotlights? really?) If you get a chance to see Neal Stephenson on this or any other tour, I highly recommend it.

*On a somewhat related note, because it did come up as a topic last night, “Write what you know” is the single worst piece of writing advice to ever get such universal dispersal. Every writer I’ve seen speak has had to deal with someone in the crowd presenting this moldy chestnut in one way or another. The problem is, it’s not a piece of advice, so much as a pithy aphorism that sounds like advice. Taken literally, it unleashes a plague of autobiographical fiction on the land, leading to meandering, navel gazing prose that replaces any sort of real internal examination with a string of pointless sentences beginning with “I”. A less aphoristic but more accurate bit of advice would be, “let your life experiences and personal skill set inform your writing.” Borrow details from your life but don’t drop people and experiences from the real world into your book with just a name change and wink.

The Wars That Never Was

In honor of George Lucus picking your pocket again releasing the Star Wars films on Blue Ray, I thought I’d reprint this old essay, where I took the liberty of re-plotting the Star Wars prequels so they didn’t suck. I wrote this originally back in 2003. It’s geeky as hell and still pretty much holds up, eight years later (keep this in mind when you get to my summary of Episode III, because Revenge of the Sith hadn’t even begun shooting yet).


As someone who grew up watching the Original Star Wars Trilogy (I triple underline the word Original, lest you think I’m referring to that lifeless mess Lucas passes off these days, the Special Edition [edit 2011: Let’s go ahead and add a few more underscores there for the newly revised, super extra special Blue Ray editions. Crap, this guy just wont quit.]) I can’t help but feel a little let down by the prequels. While I realize this is a waste of time, here’s how I would have plotted the story, fixing all the holes and characterization. These are merely suggestions of course. I don’t expect anyone to agree with all my changes or any of them. I fully realize that to some I’m tampering with scripture. So put a fatwa on my head and call me Salmon. I simply offer these ideas as an alternative text, maybe one that a filmmaker, fifty years from now will consider when remaking the Star Wars films (hopefully taking a cue from Peter Jackson). Continue reading “The Wars That Never Was”

Obama’s Got the “Oh Shit!” Vote All Locked Up

I just received a fund raising email form the Obama campaign with the subject line: Can we meet for dinner? My first thought was, “no, because all you serve are shit sandwiches.”

My second thought was, fund raising from the unemployed is not the smartest move. And yes, it’s not like whichever lackey is sending out these emails knows that I’ve been out of a job for 2 months. (If only there were some federal or state agency that knows I’m unemployed, possibly because they’ve been sending me checks, that they could have checked their list of names against?)

I voted for Obama in ’08, happily. Hope! Change! Yeah! Little did I know the GOP had his balls in a little jar on the Speaker of the House’s desk. And yeah, I will vote for Obama again in ’12, but this time I’ll do so drunk and holding my nose, motivated by an overwhelming fear of living in a country run by one of these crazy people who believe Adam and Eve rode dinosaurs like horses and a good alternative health care reform plan involves leaches and bleeding.

So if anyone from the Obama campaign ever reads this, you can tell your boss his vote is safe here in the Kisser household, but make sure to let him know it’s out of desperation, not inspiration. For that, Obama would need to grow a pair and do something more worthwhile than just give a stirring speech. Like make me a job.

The Murakami Fanclub United

How Cool is this?

It is a launch more reminiscent of a Harry Potter book than a lengthy, difficult novel by a Japanese author, but bookshops in the US are planning to stay open until midnight to cope with the demand for the translation of Haruki Murakami’s 1,000-page trilogy, 1Q84.

There is a video trailer on YouTube and Spotify song lists of music associated with the jazz-loving author. Others have put up their own sections of translation on the internet for fans unwilling to wait the two years it has taken since the book was first published in Japan, selling an extraordinary 1m copies in two months.

Literary blogs have pored over revelations about plot and character and themes that Murakami has visited before – from love to messianic cults to cats and music, to his use of surreal devices. Murakami’s English-language publishers, Knopf in the US and Harvill Secker in the UK, are anticipating an equally extraordinary level of interest when 1Q84 is published next month. The story follows the characters of Aomame, a hired killer, and Tengo, a novelist, whose lives increasingly overlap in a world that seems ever more unreal.

Hopefully, our local, totally awesome indy bookstore, Powells will be getting in on the fun.

Somewhere there is an alternate universe where book launch parties are like movie premiers. In that world, Murakami is the literary Christopher Nolan and 1q84 is his Inception. I would like to live there, someday.

Living to Work

Douglass Rushkoff is making some noise again:

I understand we all want paychecks — or at least money. We want food, shelter, clothing, and all the things that money buys us. But do we all really want jobs?

We’re living in an economy where productivity is no longer the goal, employment is. That’s because, on a very fundamental level, we have pretty much everything we need. America is productive enough that it could probably shelter, feed, educate, and even provide health care for its entire population with just a fraction of us actually working.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, there is enough food produced to provide everyone in the world with 2,720 kilocalories per person per day. And that’s even after America disposes of thousands of tons of crop and dairy just to keep market prices high. Meanwhile, American banks overloaded with foreclosed properties are demolishing vacant dwellings Video to get the empty houses off their books.

Our problem is not that we don’t have enough stuff — it’s that we don’t have enough ways for people to work and prove that they deserve this stuff.


But there might still be another possibility — something we couldn’t really imagine for ourselves until the digital era. As a pioneer of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier, recently pointed out, we no longer need to make stuff in order to make money. We can instead exchange information-based products.

We start by accepting that food and shelter are basic human rights. The work we do — the value we create — is for the rest of what we want: the stuff that makes life fun, meaningful, and purposeful.

People like to work on their own projects, not just work for the sake of work. We have the ability to provide all the basic necessities for every citizen, thus enabling them to choose personally meaningful work without having to worry about whether it pays the bills. There are thousands of great musicians, novelists, makers, hackers, builders, painters, sculptors, innovators and doers out there who have to put their passions aside and do some menial job, just to buy the necessities that are their right. Sure, a lot of people aren’t any of these things and they would just sit around watching TV and masturbating to internet porn. But so what? Eventually,they’d get bored and find something meaningful to do with their time. Maybe it would just be building birdhouses but it could also be volunteering at their local library or soup kitchen.

Of course it will never happen so long as we let the rich lead us into Economic Calvinism and demand that the poor and working class live in abject poverty and depredation.  It will require rewiring society as it is currently built but that wiring is old and in need of replacing anyway.

You Can’t UnExplode The Death Star

In a galaxy not nearly as far enough away or as long ago as we’d like, there comes another round of edits to the Star Wars films.

The only thing worse than the fact that George Lucus has, once again decided to fuck with the movies that made him famous, is that once again, a million nerds are going to drop a ton of cash buying these shitty re-re-re-re edits for the umpteenth time. I will not be one of them.

And really, George, changing it so that the ewoks blink? Or that Vader now gives another Big No, thus duplicating one fo the more tired cliche’s in movie history? That’s the best you can come up with?

Part of this outrage is academic. We, the former fans, have to concede that legally, yes the Star Wars films are his movies and he can do with them as he sees fit. But they aren’t entirely his movies any more.

Once a work of fiction enters the public sphere it becomes a shared property, a conversation between the creative team who produced it and the community of enthusiasts who make it live with their devotion (be it criticism, critique or appreciation). Lucus has repeatedly broken this implicit contract with his own fans by altering the text in mid conversation. This makes having a meaningful conversation about the topic all the more difficult, since it factionalizes the participants needlessly into subgroups. We can no longer discuss the text without preface to which edition we refer to, and for the older fans out there, our preferred text is slowly disappearing under subsequent layers of changes made, not out of creative desire but out of an obsessive’s compulsion to control the conversation about his work.

I’m one of the increasingly large number of now former fans who has grown tired of Star Wars. Perhaps I’ve finally grown up and seen the films for what they really are: not very good attempts to ape an outmoded form of story telling that is, ultimately best left forgotten. Whatever entertainment value they ever had has long since been wrung from them . Now they are just the remnants of an aging film maker’s attempt at justifying a childish fantasy that has become one of the more embarrassing examples of public intellectual masturbation.

He can demand that we watch but we don’t have to comply. The Force isn’t strong with this one. Not any longer.