Friday, June 18, 2010

The Magicians

I just finished The Magicians by Lev Grossman, the first book in some time that I've managed to finish in two days.

It's good. It's very good. I found the magic depiction fascinating and original, and certain scene setups and plot twists are extremely creative (the entrance exams, the foxes, the south pole, the beast/watcherwoman twist) It's also very flawed, and has those flaws which really stuck themselves in my face.

FYI I'm going to spoil some of the events of this book like hell from here on out, so better run if you don't like that.

In no particular order, here's the flaws (or semi-maybe-flaws?) and why they bothered me.

1) I'm not sure if this is really a flaw or a feature or both, but at times the author slips so far into the Harry Potter pastiche (first half of the book) and the Narnia pastiche (second half of the book) that he practically seems to be trying to rewrite those books but really hastily and not as well, though with some excellent ideas of his own and a shiny new adult tone. (By the way, what was up with the Gulliver's Travels bit with the centaurs near the end? Sheesh. No, I'm not talking about Lilliput, but rather the horse people.)

2) The narrator is:

a) a moron (not necessarily a bad thing)
b) really depressing to read about at times because he is CONSTANTLY depressed and only rarely happy. Some really great moments in the story are undercut by his detachment & complete lack of caring.
c) extremely distant and alienated from everything, including the frakking reader. Good luck trying to get emotionally attached to this mopey fucker.

3) The characters have depth, but not enough. They're sorta broad types; they seemed realistic enough but I only ever cared about them or their fates in brief moments.

4) This may just be me, but for a book as straightforward and explicit as this, what's up with the sex scenes? They're super overdescribed yet barely explain what's going on. This is perfectly excusable (and probably the right choice) for the first sex scene (with the foxes), but did the book really have to tiptoe around that aspect and not everything else?

5) All the characters feel disposable, but the female characters seem especially disposable. Of the major female characters (and hell, minor female characters who aren't teachers), Julia gets screwed over early in the book only to be thrown in later as a Replacement Goldfish for Our Hero's Love Interest Slot, Amanda gets eaten (first book death IIRC), Janet is treated as a 'slut' and therefore disliked, and Alice is alternately fascinating then boring when the author doesn't know what to do with her - ultimately a pretty banal and annoying he-cheats-she-cheats storyline gives the author an excuse to keep her quiet for a while until she dramatically incinerates herself (but she might be back in the next book anyway, says the author). Finally, 11th hour badass Fen is the only casualty besides Alice of the Climactic Battle (both female).

On the other hand, the guys get pretty screwed too, and while the females seem disposable... so do the males! It's still a bit disproportionate, though.

5a) Speaking of which, the stupid cheating storyline. This is at least partly a personal peeve; as a polyamorous person my immediate reaction is (oversimplified) "why can't you just all have sex and be fine with it?" And then, I'm bothered by that old trope that tells us that people lose their worth when they break relationship rules, so long as it's sex. (Breaking other relationship rules just makes you a jerk. But sexually cheat, in a story, and your worth as a human being skyrockets downwards.) But even beyond that, couldn't it have been slightly more complex and less mundane of a story choice than it was?

6) The magic. This is both a huge benefit and a flaw of the book. What we get is overall pretty fascinating. But the author seriously skims over the basic details in places while casting others. What does it feel like to cast a spell? We only rarely know. We just get a vague description of mechanics and a cool description of the effect.

7) The narrative pace. Dear God, could the author have skimmed any more? This with a character that's hard to get attached to in the first place. We get oceans of time skimmed over. Additionally, the structure jumps around like mad, and it's a bit jarring - did we really need to get "surprise, Fillory is real!" like 2/3 through the book?

8) Confusing cliffhanger endings that leave the reader confused. Yes, this happened several times. And not to nitpick, but I wish some of the dialogue tags had better clarity, at certain points I'm unsure who's talking (and they all sound the same anyway).

9) Narnia Fillory. Grossman's Hogwarts stand-in feels like it has real stakes, and the Wood (City, in this case) Between the Worlds drew my attention like a magnet. But the stakes of most things that happened in Fillory felt ... nonexistent. The best part is a conversation with a drunk bear, and that's only a side note.

...And I believe that closes out my first impressions.

All in all, a great book, if very flawed. I want to read the sequel, certainly.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Show Me This:

Here is what I would absolutely love to see or read: A fantasy (or contemporary sci-fi) television show or book series with strong, realistic character focus, creative/surprising plot and action elements, female characters as good as male characters (and not just as interesting; they should be just as badass and plot-important as any of the male characters; if one character has to be Most Important, I'd prefer a female, just because you see that less often), a cast of characters who aren't all straight and/or white, multiple actively bisexual characters, and strong polyamory, queer, and sex-positive themes.

For the record, what I'm working on fits this description either perfectly or partially. (Specifically, the book fits all of it; the script I'm doing a little less so, but hey, I'm co-writing it.)

This is one reason I'm looking forward to the Game of Thrones TV show (and why I love the books); the book series fits all of the above except that the poly/queer themes are only minor (and thus sadly may not make it to the show), most of the characters are at least nominally white, and there's only one major actively bisexual character. But everything else fits - and this is all in SPITE of the extremely male-dominant anti-feminist pseudo-medieval setting. I don't favor epic fantasy, but I make an exception here.

(That might be misleading. I love the idea of epic fantasy, but since I want character focus and not setting focus, I usually end up disappointed by the genre. This includes The Lord of the Rings books; in the movies, you at least had the actors to convincingly emote. You don't get that in the books - not enough, anyway.)

If you know of a book or book series that fits all these criteria, point me the fuck to it. I don't think it exists. (I *know* there's no TV series that does.)

Which is, of course, why I have to write them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Copyrighting Ideas

A note on Repo Men vs Repo! The Genetic Opera:

Dear rabid fans of Repo! who are pissed off about Repo Men Stealing Repo!'s Idea:

That "stolen" idea was not original.

(Here's a recap for those who have no idea what I'm talking about.)

One of the writers of Repo! gives us a "history lesson" on his blog, demonstrating that Repo! was kicking around in some form or another all the way back to 1999. The implication is, of course, that since the idea for Repo Men was first made public in 2001, OMG THEY STOLE OUR IDEA!

Except... just a cursory Google search turns up the 1997 award-winning play "Harvest", whose central plot bears suspicious resemblances to the idea behind Repo!. And further, while I can't quote examples offhand, this whole organ-buying idea pops up a lot in cyberpunk. 1997 is before 1999. OMG plagiarism!

(There's also the mention on that blog post that the similarities became too much for the Repo! author to "bare" reading more when he found out that in both stories, the company the repo men works for turns on them when they go rogue. The funny thing is, I've only seen parts of Repo!, and I guessed on my own that this would happen once I knew the Repo Man himself was a character. It's that bloody obvious of a plot twist. Protagonist works for evil corporation and goes rogue, then they hunt him down. Gee, I've never seen that plot before!)

This is not to knock Repo! itself; as I mentioned earlier, I've only seen parts, but I can't dislike anything that has Anthony Stewart Head singing in it. The point is, all ideas have been done before, and this could just be bad timing.

I can see where the outrage is coming from, given the concept similarity and the oddly identical marketing campaigns, but still. At least wait until the actual film comes out, why don't ya?

And a final point: Shit like this happens all the time, just not usually to cult films - because most cult films have silly central ideas. No one's going to make anything that could be accused as a rip-off of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, because you can't do much else with that idea. Repo!, though, uses a pretty iconic idea with a clear real-world metaphor. A claim of coming up with something at the same time as someone else, though, isn't necessarily bullshit. Take the word of a script reader for it:

Like one time, I swear, I covered three different screenplays -- submitted from different parts of the country -- all of which had key scenes set at a southwestern rattlesnake farm. Why, you could go years without reading a good rattlesnake farm scene, and here I had three in one week. Needless to say, after that I became more sympathetic to claims of 'parallel development.'

And it's true. That's why, if you're writing a book or a script, you can never hope to coast along with a crap story and a great original idea. After all, won't they forgive the crap story for the original idea that they can't get anywhere else. No. Because that idea? Probably not as original as you think. So you better have a great execution, because that's what will make it or break it.

What triggered this post was an article on Tor about the subject here, a well-written article that nearly had me nodding in agreement by the end:

Let this be a warning to creative people everywhere: guard your creations well, but at the same time steel yourselves for the possibility of a Repo befalling you. You can copyright your stories, you can copyright your art, but you cannot copyright the beautiful ideas that give them their uniqueness and life. It is frightening and it is upsetting, but it is inescapable.

But wait. Would it really be such a great idea to copyright ideas? That would eliminate entire genres; the Tolkien estate could sue almost every epic fantasy writer ever into oblivion, and that's actually one of the better scenarios, since at least we'd still have Lord of the Rings. Very often, the first work in a genre is not that great. Plus, you'd simply have powerful corporations hire writers, however crappy, to come up with as many story ideas as possible and publish them as crappy short stories, claiming copyright based on that and suing the pants off of anyone else who comes up with a similar idea independently and makes something good with that. Now that's frightening and upsetting.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Morning Pages

A few months ago, a dear friend/romantic partner of mine introduced me to the concept of "morning pages". Taken from the pages of the rather popular book The Artist's Way, the idea of morning pages is that you write three pages of whatever comes to mind, first thing in the morning, every day. You're not writing anything good, sensible, or even true; you're getting all the bits and pieces out of your head and onto paper.

When I first heard about this, I balked. Get up early? Voluntarily? Just to write? God save us all!

But then I did it. And it turned out very well. So well, in fact, that I haven't skipped a day since I started doing this months ago. I confess I've yet to read much more of The Artist's Way, but these Morning Pages have been immeasurably helpful to my writing. Many times - including the past two mornings - I've solved big problems in stories I've been working on, problems that would have ordinarily plagued me for months before resolution. So, suffice to say I'm a believer.

For the record, I write 3 pages or more, double-spaced, in a Word document. This is despite recommendations that these pages be written by hand. I have yet to find a reason why, though, besides a theory that writing the pages more slowly by hand makes you think about what you're saying more. However, for me, it's easier to take off my (powerful) internal censors when I type them out.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Rambling on Fantasy

Because I am lazy, here's a blog post I wrote a while ago - October 2007, in fact - yet never finished:


'Burying reader under a dumpload of facts' (I think I stole that quote from someone, not sure who anymore) is the bane of sf/fantasy. One of the banes, anyway. It's a bit difficult to have an outsider's perspective when you're making up the world in your own head.

Then again, that doesn't take cliche into account. The Lord of the Rings Rip-Off No. [Insert Arbitrarily Large Number Here] may well count as being written with an 'outsider's perspective'. In fact, the parts of the regurgitated fantasy world the author invented themselves stick out because those are the only parts the author bothers to explain. Unfortunately, this can be extended to plot and character motivations just as much as setting...

And there's always things like vampires, where authors sometimes even start out by explaining which cliches are true, which are untrue, and which the narrator (read: author) thinks are utterly ridiculous (read: unkewl). (Vulnerability to garlic? Not in MY vampires!)

Annoying though this is, it does speak to a central problem of sf/fantasy, which, come to think of it, is merely an exaggerated version of the Setting Problem all stories have - how do you get all this info across to your reader without annoying them? Which is bad, which is good? Purely, I suppose, good info would be info relevant to the character, and bad info would be info relevant only to the author. But what about info irrelevant to the character, but relevant to the reader?

I guess that's why the Newbie Initiate character is so popular. Too bad they're usually boring as shit.

No Sex Scenes Yet

Wait. Not NO sex scenes, just only one. Yes, I've only completely written one sex scene, so far, like, ever. And it was a horrible awkward thing - as in the sex, not the scene (I hope).

What's holding me back? Oh, heteronormative puritan sensibilities whispering in the back of my subconscious that I've struggled all my life to overcome. And sheer terror. The usual.

Ironic, then, that my blog title is currently "Fairies, Sex, and Spacemen." I'm good on the fairies and spacemen. The sex? We'll see.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Question of Content

(read: what the fuck am I supposed to talk about here)

I've spent the past few days trying to puzzle out a nagging question: I've had this blog since 2007, and in all that time I never figured out what to do with it.

My original idea was that I'd use the blog to bitch about my own writing, yet I've done that very little, possibly because bitching about one's own writing is only sometimes funny, and annoying in large doses.

The most fun I've had blogging in the past few years wasn't even done here, but rather on my mostly-otherwise-abandoned Livejournal, snarking about D&D monsters. Since these were also my most popular posts (my 'most' I mean 'only'), it follows that perhaps I would do well to snark some more.

I considered reading through - and snarking about - the Twilight book series, but Cleolinda Jones has done this already, and more hilariously than I could hope to live up to. Not only that, but since she wrote those many other people have jumped on that bandwagon. So, that's kinda "out".

Which brings me to a curious problem I have.

I haven't read enough.

In an earlier post, I typed up my creative influences; the fantasy/sci-fi works, anyway. The list is noticeably devoid of many - most - popular works in the field.

To sum up this problem:

  • I'm working on a contemporary/urban fantasy novel, yet in that genre the majority I've read was by Neil Gaiman. No Laurell K. Hamilton. No Jim Butcher.
  • I'm working on an epic fantasy novel, yet the majority I've read was by George R. R. Martin. No Robert Jordan. No Terry Brooks.
  • I'm working on the script for a science fiction television show pilot (in spaaaaaaaaace), yet I've mostly just seen Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars (not even a TV series). No Babylon 5. No Farscape.
Why have I not read these books (or watched these shows)? Oh, various reasons. Maybe I always planned to but never followed through. Or maybe I just didn't get around to them. Some of them I've been actively discouraged from reading - they may be popular, I'm told, but they're crap. (Like Twilight, or so I'm told.)

Yet, if I'm going to be a respectable aspiring speculative fiction writer, aren't I kind of obligated to read these? Eh? A bitter pill, perhaps...

But on the other hand, if I can read them and tear them apart (or praise them) on this blog, then maaaaaayyyyybe Robert Jordan's twenty-billion-word super-mega-opus starts to look a little better. And after all, I did promise "snark" in my new blog subtitle. (And then my snarky D&D posts may look a little less out of place, and I can bring them over here, in from the cold of LiveJournal. Or I can leave them there forever, like a gleefully bad parent. Either way.)

So, first on my list: Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time."

On the New Blog Title (For Now)

"Fairies, Sex, and Spacemen."

Third blog title I've used so far. The first was the evocative "Goldfish and Needles" - I liked that one, but neither goldfish nor needles have appeared on this blog, nor are likely to appear in the future. The second was the humdrum but utilitarian "Jake Jesson's Blog".

I think I like this one.

I almost titled it "The Mystical Vagina of Time" after the title of a (sadly, fictional) book series referred to in this post by Jay Lake on the larval stages of the common American speculative fiction writer:
After re-reading volumes I through XVII of A Game of Throne-Captains of the Mystical Vagina of Time, the writer will exclaim, “I could do better than this! A monkey could do better than this!” Many amazing careers have been launched from this moment. It should be honored, much like any moment of conception, possibly by bunking out for a wet wipe and a smoke afterward.
As I am one of these aforementioned larval American speculative fiction writers, it seemed somehow appropriate - if a little obscure.

Then a friend suggested "Fairies and Spacemen", in reference to my current works-in-progress and my plans for this blog, in reference to the poem / song Daisies, Cats, and Spacemen. I wanted a third word; I put "Sex" in there as a joke, and thought "Hang on - that could work."

Possible downside: I may now be contractually obliged to mention "sex" in every post. Hm...

Speaking of which, next post: Blog content!

Friday, January 29, 2010


As an Aspiring Writer, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to list as many influences as I could, and how exactly the works listed influenced me. And I was right! So here it is.

I limited things to sci-fi and fantasy for convenience's sake. I'm sure I've missed a few, but c'est la vie.
  • Narnia - The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe and the Magician's Nephew - the first fantasy books I ever read. TLTW&TW haunted my dreams - literally - after I read it and it mysteriously vanished (I think my dad threw it out).
  • The television show "Gargoyles" - a huge influence; to the point where I try to include gargoyles in stuff I write in the same way fans of Tolkien include elves. Shit happened in Gargoyles; characters changed and evolved, and there were consequences to actions that didn't go away by the end of the episode.
  • The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind & Oblivion, expansive video game worlds which I spent hours and hours in. A great deal of what I write was dreamt up by running around in these worlds. Since I played them before seeing LotR, they created my taste in fantasy settings: Weird (especially Morrowind) and deep and convoluted, and damned contradictory. (In so few fantasy worlds do I see historians contradicting each other as much as they do in the real world.)
  • Lord of the Rings - but the movies, not the books; it was the acting not the writing that convinced me the characters were real, and the imagery that sucked me in. I read the books after I'd seen the last movie. I thought they were well done (no shit) but they didn't have any of the impact on my psyche that the movies did.
  • The Star Wars universe - even more so than the actual movies, since I bought the visual dictionaries before I'd ever seen one of the movies. Oh and I saw The Phantom Menace before the original trilogy. Oops?
  • Neil Gaiman's work - American Gods, Stardust, Sandman, Neverwhere - Gaiman is probably still my favorite author. He writes people that I believe are real, and thus I believe his stories are real.
  • Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett's Good Omens & Adam's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy convinced me of how important humor is.
  • The Animorphs series - introduced me, along with Gargoyles, to the idea that even in a bizarre world, horrible things can and should happen to your characters. Is also the reason I go in for psychological realism so much. Animorphs was about the costs and morality of war - not bad for a young adult series about shape-shifting kids fighting alien mind-controlling slugs.
  • George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire - what singlehandedly convinced me to write epic fantasy myself. Amazingly written characters and plot. Also reinforced my conviction that consequences matter - in other words, yes, you should let your characters die.
  • Certain Choose Your Own Adventure books (an alien world in the center of the Earth, searching for Nessie, memorable deaths on the third planet from Altair)
  • Various Mythology works - Perseus slaying the Gorgon, the Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts...
  • The 1982 movie The Flight of Dragons - I think I only saw a couple scenes from this movie, and all I remember thinking was that the animation was lame, and how cool it was that the writers came up with 'scientific' explanations for the way the dragons worked.
  • Octavia Butler's work - Wild Seed, Xenogenesis (aka Lilith's Brood nowadays), Kindred - Wild Seed in particular struck me very hard and is one reason (besides Animorphs) that I love shapeshifters. And why great writing quality is important to me.
  • Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game - this book had a dramatic effect on me as a kid, and reading Card's how-to-write-sci-fi-and-fantasy book is part of the reason I wanted to write sf/f.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion - yup, an anime. Sci-fi. Weird shit and the best sixty seconds of a single frame with no dialogue I've ever seen.
  • Dragon Ball Z. There, I said it. One of the influences I'm a little less proud of, thanks to the crap writing. But great fight scenes. Though I never knew that sometimes thirty minutes could last literally several hours.
  • Various 90's superhero cartoon series (Batman, Superman, X-Men, Spiderman) and books about superheroes - not the comics; I almost never read actual comics as a kid.
  • Harry Potter - for all the reasons everyone else loved Harry Potter.
  • Larry Niven's Ringworld - I'd never before read 'adult' sci-fi in which I was SO engaged by the characters.
  • Jules Verne - ironically only a biography of Verne, since I couldn't get ahold of his actual books as a kid. But the ideas were very inspiring!
  • The Matrix - for the sheer joy of the visuals. I want to evoke that kind of imagery in what I write. I also liked the apparent plot depth of the first one. (I said "apparent".)
  • Battlestar Galactica - last on the list only because it's the only recent thing I 'consumed' that I've felt seriously influenced by. I loved the darkness, the complex characters, the gritty realism.
You'll notice the absence of all but two famous epic fantasy series (three if you count Narnia - plus of course the Odyssey), and not that many Great Works. Some would call this list of influences remarkably paltry - I mean, there's children's television shows and a young adult book series high up on there, not to mention video games! - but more on that in a future post.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

On A Personal Note

I just spent upwards of two hours manually deleting a whole ton of spam comments that built up mysteriously while I was off the Internet for the better part of last year.

Granted, I was also doing some other (more useful, less onerous) things at the time as well, but still. By the end I was doing it by rote and was astonished to discover that there was nothing left to delete. I thought something had gone wrong.

Oddly, the spam was mostly concentrated on certain posts. Posting On Sleep Deprivation had a little under a hundred comments sporting porn, herbal remedies, and mysterious messages in Russian. Meanwhile, my brief and inane post on Twitter generated nearly that amount in Japanese-language spam.

Why? Only the Blogger deities know. Though maybe if I spoke Russian or Japanese, I'd be closer to an answer.

Friday, January 22, 2010

On Blogging

(Stream of consciousness warning.)

You'd think I'd be a good blog person. I love the Internet, and I love babbling to complete strangers in written form. Yet, every time I get really into continuously updating some form of blog or online journal, life explodes on me. Or even if it doesn't explode, something happens wherein I lose regular internet access, and I just let the blog slide.

That happened over much of this year, actually. Part of being a homeless couch surfer (that's me!): whoever you're "surfing couches" with had better have internet. My college has internet, but I'm usually there for, yanno, school. My schedule is crazy otherwise, between the two jobs that barely fund the gas it takes to drive all over creation to get there. (Okay, only one of the jobs literally barely covers the gas required to get there. The other is very part-time too, though.)

It got bad enough that I had to go on hiatus for the script reading internship I had, because it paid nothing and wasn't likely to go anywhere until I'd kept at it for years, yet consumed lots of time (to do it right, anyway). And I loved that internship, even with the overall awful scripts I read and critiqued with more thoroughness and love than the authors seemed to put into a single scene. It was fun. My bosses liked me and my coverage. And I hope to go back. Shame.

Well, I'm temporarily living with a close friend who just got Internet. Will these mean I try keeping my blog up again? We'll see.