Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Promoted from the comments: Two Zelazny announcements

Bumped up from the comments, both from Chris Kovacs:

An essay that I wrote about influences and allusions in the first five Amber books is now available for free on-line at The New York Review of Science Fiction, July 2012 issue. This short link will get you there:

www.Speaking-Volumes.us has been releasing Zelazny's unabridged readings of the first nine Amber books on CD and mp3. They're up to Trumps of Doom (released earlier this month) and they're supposed to have a seventh release in August. For some reason they seem to have delayed Blood of Amber to October, and are going to release Sign of Chaos in August and Knight of Shadows in September. I previously asked them what they will do about the last book, Prince of Chaos, because Zelazny never recorded it. They replied that it will be released with someone else doing the reading. No info has been posted about it yet.

But today I discovered that www.Audible.com has released all 10 books at once in new readings. The first five books are read by Alessandro Juliani ("Gaeta" from Battlestar Galactica) and the last five books are read by Will Wheaton ("Wesley Crusher" from ST:TNG).

I welcome these releases but I hope that the Audible versions don't interfere with the planned release of the remaining three books read by Zelazny. Blood of Amber and Knight of Shadows have only previously been released in an abridged version of Zelazny's reading, while the unabridged reading of Sign of Chaos was released on cassette. I'm looking forward to hearing the full versions as read by him.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Hard Questions

I'm watching a show called The Secret Life of the American Teenager on Netflix with Jen. I can't decide if I like it or not. On one hand, it's got Molly Ringwald. On the other hand, it's got all the nuance of a very special Blossom. So I don't know. It is occasionally pretty funny though. The gist of the first season is that after after this one time in Band Camp, fifteen year old Amy becomes pregnant. The rest of the series deals with the fallout. The other main character, Ben, falls head over heels in love with her.

I like Ben because he's so painfully earnest. Do you remember the first episode of How I met your Mother, when Ted tells Robin that he loves her on their first date? Ben's like that, but with fifteen years less maturity.

And I do feel a certain kinship with him because of that. I had a crush on Jen from almost the first moment I met her. She kissed me before I kissed her, but I'm the first one who said "I love you," about a week after we started dating. And she wasn't ready to say it back to me then.

But Jen's always been more mature than I am. We started dating in her final year of college, and this was before email was truly ubiquitous. So we sent a lot of letters back and forth. I remember telling her that I wanted to hold her and comfort her and protect her from the world. And Jen said that she didn't want to be protected, that she wanted to experience everything the world had to offer.

And she was right. She usually is about these things. I like to think my heart was in the right place, but she is my peer and it's not my place to protect her from anything. And this brings us to the current day. My stepmother's father passed away last night and I had to tell Lily.

We've had deaths in the family since she was born, but she was too young to understand them. We had visited my great-aunt in the hospital shortly before she died. Lily gave her a stuffed animal "So you can be happy after I leave." And Aunt Mickey died and Lily didn't ask about her again. (She didn't ask about Tigger either, which was fortunate, because it was destroyed along with the rest of Mickey's stuff.)

This ties back with what I had said earlier about wanting to protect Jen and her rejection of that. I'm not the kind of dad I thought I would be. I want to protect Lily, of course, but that's secondary to the role of teaching her to protect herself.

I always try to be honest with her. I think it's the worst betrayal you can make against your kids not to be honest with them. That's not to say that there aren't questions that I'm not ready to answer. ("I like this episode of Avatar." "Me too, Lily." "Daddy, what do you look like naked?" (Pause) "Same as I do now, just with no clothes.")

I've often compared myself to ELIZA, the proto-chatterbot therapist, and I'll not infrequently respond to her with "What do you think?" and "Why?"

So I went into her room and asked, "Do you remember Nana's dad?"

Lily: Yes. Why? Did he die?
Me: Yes, he did Lily.
Lily: (Pause) Is her mom still alive?
Me: Yes, she is.
Lily: That's good. She won't be so lonely.

She looked like she was going to cry, but didn't. She didn't know him very well, but she knows Nana and she loves her, so she was sad for her. She said that she wants to go to the cemetery and put eight flowers next to his stone. I told her that sometimes people leave pebbles on top of the stones to let other people know they've been there. She suggested maybe that we should build a crown of pebbles on top of his stone, so Nana will laugh and not feel so sad.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

"I love our happy moments!"

We had a nice day last weekend. Nothing too special. Jen and Lily and walked to Dunkin Donuts and had some munchkins and chocolate milk and iced tea. We held hands on the walk and played 20 questions and stopped to rest under a tree and at a playground on the way back. We all took pictures of each other and while we were doing that, Lily suddenly exclaimed "I love our happy moments!"

It seems like you never really recognize the moments that shape your life until they've come and gone. The past couple weeks had been really good. My contract work had been winding down and I had not yet begun my new job. Lily was done with school for the year and we spent every day together, going to the local playgrounds and playing games and watching cartoons. One day, when we were doing the last one, she said, completely unprompted, "Daddy, you're my BFF. That means best friend forever."

Lily cried when we told her that I'd be going back to full time work. I have mixed feelings about it myself. I was bitterly unhappy at the last office job I'd had before this one. The IT guy, who departed shortly after I did, called the place "A black hole of shit." And I liked the freedom that came with freelancing, and it's good work while it's there, but I knew it was limited duration from the beginning, and I don't have the network of contacts I'd need to make a go of it full time. So it's back to the office.

It's strange returning to the real world after so long out of it. I tried to keep a routine while working from home, but waking up and getting dressed to take your daughter to the bus stop is a lot different than the ritual of getting dressed for work.  I'm really enjoying the new job so far. It's a lot closer than the old job that I hated by ten miles, and since those are highway miles, the trip is a half hour shorter. It's challenging, but I'm good at it. It pays better, and the cafeteria is ridiculously good. I had a curried chicken sandwich on naan my first day and a bacon and jalapeno melt the next.

My biggest problem is that when I had my picture taken for my ID badge, I had both a pimple on my forehead and grey hair visible in my beard. That combination should not be possible. I wound up shaving it off, and Lily pretty much reacted like the girl in the second half of this comic from the Oatmeal.

Today, Lily and went out with my friend Frederick and his son and had a really good time. We hit a comic book store, a toy store, an Army/Navy store, a Five Below and a local mall. I think Lily's favorite part was the escalators. She gets really excited about the strangest things, and if someone let her spend an afternoon riding escalators up and down, she would do it. She was really impressively well-behaved. When we were at the Barnes & Noble, she reached right past the girly Spa Science kit to get the Disgusting Special Effects Make Up Kit, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit happy about that.

She wants to use the kit to make up Jen so she can star in a movie called "Zombie Mom". (The mom gets bitten by a zombie, but doesn't eat her family because she loves them so much)  She also told Frederick "If you're going to be a vampire, can you be a romantic vampire and not a scary vampire?" She's a funny kid. We were out for a good seven hours and she was good and sweet practically the whole time. I love our happy moments too.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Promoted from the Comments: Finding Zelazny

I'd been meaning to follow up on this almost since it was posted, but I didn't want to steal Zach's thunder. About a month ago, he had asked people how they had first encountered Zelazny's works.

I thought it was an interesting question and worth its own post, so here it is. I touched on my own introduction in my Roadmarks post, and I'll reproduce it here.

My father's girlfriend lived down the street from us when I was about fourteen or so. I was at her house one day in the summer, looking for something to read, and she gave me her ex-husband's shoebox full of sci-fi paperbacks. I grabbed two that looked nifty, Roadmarks (aka Last Exit to Babylon) and Creatures of Light and Darkness.

I loved those two and I was hooked from then.

Also, I don't have any contact information for you Zach, but you contribute to the site with quite a bit of Zelazny stuff, so if you want to have author privileges in order to post these things yourself rather than just putting them in the comments, just drop a line and I'll make it happen.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Wilderness

In situations where Roger Zelazny has expanded a shorter story into a longer version, I generally only review one of them, and it's usually the short one. No sense in looking at The Dream Master when I've just covered He Who Shapes, especially when I think that Shapes is the better work. Same deal with Damnation Alley, though in this case, I prefer the short version because there's less of it. (Stupid Tanner).

And those were my initial thoughts regarding Wilderness when I had already covered The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass. What was I going to say? "The Long Crawl, now with 60% more crawling!"

And while I think that Zelazny is one of the great genre novelists, I think his short stories are even better than his longer works.

But both of the Chrises who comment here seemed to prefer Wilderness over Crawl and they do know their Zelazny, so I thought I'd give it another shot. I'm glad I did.

The differences between Wilderness and The Long Crawl of Hugh Glass

The big difference is that Wilderness is a full length novel, and it tells not only the story of Hugh Glass, but of John Colter, scout for Lewis and Clark, one of the first mountain men, and probably the first white man to set foot in Yellowstone.

And according to Amazon, it looks like Wilderness is back in print, in both hard copy and Amazon kindle edition, and it looks like Speaking volumes has released it on CD.

The Colter stories are the only fiction I've read by Hausman. I think they mesh extremely Zelazny's chapters about Glass. I guess it's a little like putting together a mix tape. You want theme similar enough that they don't clash, but not so similar that they blur together. Not being familiar with Hausman's other work, I couldn't say to what extent he changed his usual style in order to achieve this, but it works. The first chapter is a Colter one and I thought, "Hey, this reads like a Zelazny story!" and then I got to the second chapter, which was a Hugh Glass chapter by Zelazny, and I realized that Hausman's voice was distinctly his own.

(I reread the book over the course of this past weekend and I would stick a bookmark between the pages whenever I needed to do something else, and when I picked it back up again, I found that each author's voice was distinctive enough that I had no trouble figuring out which mountain man I was reading about before I got to a section where he's mentioned by name.)

I enjoyed Glass's story more than Colter's. That's not a huge surprise, given the purpose of the blog, and it's certainly not to say that I didn't like the Colter bits. I just liked Glass more.

(However, in doing a little bit of research on Hausman, whom I had only known in the context of his collaboration with Roger Zelazny, I learned that he's an enormously nice guy who teaches about nature and folklore. Anyone with a testimonial from MISTER ROGERS is okay with me. Hausman actually reminds me more than a bit of Tom Chapin.)

Also, he has a blog. People with blogs are awesome.

Oh, I see he posted about Wilderness too!

Anyway, before I completely forget what this post is about, I enjoyed the Colter sections. It's a fictionalization of the account of John Colter's flight from a large number of Blackfoot braves, after he was captured and stripped of everything but a loincloth. It's a Man vs Nature story with some elements of Man vs Man in the form of the relentless Flint In The Face.

I think that's why I preferred Hugh Glass a little more, but again that's not to knock Hausman. I had read Hugh Glass first, and Zelazny's take on it was my standard for this kind of story, and any deviation from that format was a net negative, but I do like the Colter chapters. Their biggest failing, if you can even call it that, is that they're not written by Roger Zelazny.

They are, however, written by Gerald Hausman, and he's pretty great, with passages like:

From a Mandan runner he once learned the trick of fixing the eye on a distant ridge, keeping it there until all else shrank from view. The fusion of leafy gold, the great cottonwoods by the river juncture, now became Colter's leafy compass. On these huge overarching trees, he merged his mind, and the fire of the October leaves became the sole content of his brain...

On now on to the Glass parts. I have have to agree with DeVito and Kovacs. Having read the novel, I think I'll always prefer it to the short story. It's still a very good story, but it's got great big chunks out of it, including most of the fabled crawl and the ending. It gets in Hugh's head a little more, too, showing how his thirst for revenge twists his soul even as his body heals. Ah, and the ending. The ending is so wonderful. Fitting. I can see why it was not included in the short story, because it would have made for a very lopsided story, but now, having read it, I can't imagine Hugh's journey ending any other way.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

St. Claremont's Secure Center for Incurably Incompetent Superheroes

I'm a bad tabletop GM.

Or at least, I'm not a good one.

I'm certainly not as good as Eric.

Now, keep in mind that this isn't any kind of false modesty. I'm not fishing for compliments by saying, "I kind of suck," expecting people who know me to say, "Oh, no, you're great." I ran a Play By Post game for more than a decade, which was a format that really played to my strengths. I'm often deliberate and I like to plan things well out in advance. In fact, I often enjoy the planning so much more than the playing that the actual execution is a bit of a letdown.

And yet, here I am game-mastering a tabletop game. Our GM was feeling a little burned out, and I probably have the best grasp of the rules in our little group, and I really enjoy playing Mutants & Masterminds. I didn't think we'd be able to weather another hiatus and I happened to have a third edition min-campaign, so I volunteered to run it so we could keep our momentum.

The idea is that the characters are students at the Claremont Academy, which is the M&M version of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. (Though in this version, Xavier's exists and is our arch-rival)

Dramatis Personae

Eric: Gideon, a modern day paladin modeled (how closely, I don't know) after Michael from the the Dresden Files books. He's got some great fighting skills, a magical-ish sword and a healing factor.

Casey: Casey played Sparkles. She's the group's heavy hitter, an Irish lass who transforms into a kind of living sapphire form, kind of Emma Frost-ish.

Karen: Karen was C.W. Karen's new to the system and didn't really know how to play, so I just made up her character. She has the power to torment her opponents. So does her character. Since we finalized her shortly before the game, she hadn't been fleshed out to any great degree and she'll probably develop through play should the campaign continue for a while. Apparently she's some kind of goth who likes banjos.

And cats
Frederick was our forth player, but he had to cancel at the last minute to attend an event that was itself canceled at the last minute, and he'll be here for future sessions and probably a makeup game.

Karen and Eric got there early and made up their characters, as soon as we had all finished watching an episode of My Little Pony.

The characters are all superheroes in their late teens, at the Claremont Academy, a school for super heroes. They were called in to the the principal's office and told they would be leaving immediately for Emerald City, in order to represent Claremont at a school fair. He further told them that precognitives associated with the school had determined that they needed to be there, but they didn't know why, only that they needed to be there. C.W, agreed, but only if there would be purple balloons. Summers promised that there would be.

Claremont's headmaster is Duncan Summers, an expy of Batman, who received disabling injuries during his last adventures and retired to teach the next generation. When describing him, Casey called him "a lame Batman" and I'm inclined to agree, though I think Batman is often pretty lame all on his own.

They were to be met by professor Moore, their faculty advisor, when they landed in Emerald City. I flashed a picture of this guy.

My daughter walked past and I told her that Alan Moore raised squirrels in his beard and that he was Squirrel Girl's dad.

I'd say the game went off the rails pretty quickly, but I'm not sure it was ever really on them to begin with.

The kids landed safely and C.W. used her mind control powers to make people ignore Gideon's sword. They went to a mall and then to an Applebees and when they returned, they found out that Professor Moore had been detained at the airport. So Sparkles and C.W. went to a country music bar and Gideon returned to the hotel to "meditate".

My daughter showed up and declared she was playing Raven from the TV version of the Teen Titans. She teleported to the bar, and then teleported the annoying frat boys that were hitting on C.W. to a dimension where they couldn't speak, which struck me as out of proportion to the offense. Then they stopped for nachos on the way back.

If I had to do it over again, I think I'd dial this back a bit. This kind of role-playing where nothing much happens except for in-character interaction is what I enjoy most about gaming, but I think there were some differing expectations regarding what the game would be about and though everyone was too kind to say anything, I don't think I'd be surprised if the other people at the table were wondering, "Okay, when is he actually going to start the game?"

The PCs went to bed and in the morning, they went down to the convention area to hand out brochures and keep their eyes open. Gideon was over Xavier's table, because he saw that they had stolen our supply of purple balloons. He was about to say something when the group heard the explosion in the lobby.

This was the big fight of the session. A big cloud of white mist was swirling in the lobby and it had transformed the people touched by it. They were a couple PLs below our team, so the heroes made short work of them, despite the fact that that badguys rolled outrageously well for the damage saves.

And that's where it ended. I think my pacing was very bad and I wasn't giving the players a clear idea of what to do, though I think each of these will be less severe with the next session as there are now things the players can investigate.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Brave, the Postal Service and the Pareto Principle

I saw Brave on Saturday and I liked it, but not as much as I thought I would.

And now, I'm going to talk about the Post Office and the 80/20 rule. (Don't worry, it ties back to Brave!)

One of the weirdest things about living in 2012 is how much vitriol aspects of our society that were well-respected in my childhood now draw from certain aspects of Conservative culture.

A big one is the Postal Service. It's almost axiomatic among some folks that the USPS is bad, bloated and inefficient. The critics of the postal service point to UPS and Fedex to show how private industry can make a buck and do a better job providing a necessary service. (And those of us who don't mind the Postal Service point out that the troubles facing the USPS are artificial, as the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 (PAEA),  obligated the USPS to fund 75-years worth of future health care benefit payments to retirees within a ten-year time span – a requirement to which no other government organization is subject.)

Then one of both or us changes the subject because nobody is going to back down and no one wants to ruin a friendship over the Postal Service*. And now I'm going to engage in even more digression in the service of my original point. My old boss was huge into the the Pareto principle, a guideline that says, in many things and across many fields, 80% of results come from only 20% of the causes.

As the USPS is mandated to accept and deliver any package or letter that meets their guidelines, private carriers often exploit this, as part of the Post Office's Last Mile service, where they ship a package to a local post office and the local post office does the nitty gritty hard work of making sure it gets to the recipient.

So what does this have to do with Brave? FedEx and UPS are only profitable because they exist in a world with the USPS. The Postal Service is obligated to do the hard work and the private carriers are free to focus on the 20% that provides 80% of the profit.

And we're almost to the actual movie review.

Lily usually gets along with me better than she does with Jen. I don't think that I'm giving away any secrets by saying that. There are a couple of reasons for that. I tend to avoid confrontation in personal issues, so Jen more often plays the role of the disciplinarian, and when I do have to step in, I tend to be more circumspect, because if there's anything I hate more than someone yelling at me, it's me having to yell at someone.

To put it another way, I give her what she wants, and Jen gives her what she needs. And I don't want to imply that I'll let her get away with anything. Jen and I have similar values, but Jen's threshold is lower down on the continuum than mine, so if we're both present when Lily is being naughty, Jen will reach the point where she'll intervene before I will almost every time.

And I realize that like the relationship between FedEx and the Postal Service, the relationship I have with Lily is only possible because of the relationship Jen has with her. It only exists in the shadow of that relationship. And I do a great many worthwhile things with Lily. We read and we learn and we go for walks. But I understand that Jen is the better parent, and she does the hard work and I try to stress this to Lily. And maybe someday she'll come back to this post and she'll understand it in a way that she can't now.

So, why do I bring this up? Because there is a similar dynamic at work in Brave. Merrida is the hero of the piece.

Or the protagonist, at least.

Her dad is king Fergus and he loves her and indulges her in everything, including activities not traditionally suited for a princess of her station.

Her mom is Queen Elinor, who does the hard work of running the kingdom and raising their daughter.

It's the second part that's the hard one. A big part of adulthood is accepting that you're going to spend a lot of time doing things you don't want to do. And no one wants to tell their kid that the world will disappoint them and that they need to compromise, and teaching that lesson may be even harder than learning it.

There was a scene in the beginning of the movie, when the royal family was out having a picnic and the demon bear Mor'du attacked. And Fergus got right between the bear and his family, and even though his weapons shattered against it, he was going to fight this bear empty-handed if that's what it took to protect them.

Fergus was ready to die to protect Merrida, but Elinor has the harder job, because she's willing to weather the scorn and anger of the person she loves most in the world in order to prepare her to face the world.

And I do like the movie. It's a Pixar movie, after all, and except for movies about cars, they have yet to make a bad movie. Part of my disappointment is that Merrida is so bratty!  The mannerisms were top notch. I recognized every eye roll and every sigh from my own occasionally bratty kid.

I liked the conflict between Elinor and Merrida, because they both have a reasonable point of view and they both love each other. It seemed real and compelling, but it was subsumed by events of the second act, and the second act went on entirely too long. However, the climax was so good that I'm willing to forgive it.

*Unless we're talking about the band of the same name, because they're awesome and I don't care what Tim says.