Tuesday, September 15, 2009

In spittle news

As everybody who watches American cable news knows, the way to discuss politics and society in America is to park your face four inches from your opponent's, scream utter nonsense at the top of your lungs, and the way you know you've won is when the other person flinches and wipes the spittle off their face. No wonder so many Americans don't watch the news and can't name a single Supreme Court justice.

Here in Taiwan, the English-language Taipei Times publishes a Quote of the Day on page 2, and yesterday it was taken from coverage of anti-Obama rallies in Washington DC:

"[US President Barack Obama] is a traitor. He's either a Marxist or a Communist ... I think Saudi Arabia is behind him."

And the Maryland resident who said that got rewarded for their stream of words by getting their name printed in a newspaper in Taipei. Oh good lord. I'm all in favor of letting people speak their mind no matter what weird stuff their mind contains, but maybe the media shouldn't be rewarding nonsense at the expense of actual discussion. I read the actual article on page 7, and the only anti-Obama people who got quoted were the nonsense-spouters. Were there really no anti-Obama protestors at that rally with constructive things to say?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Think of the Non-Gender Children

A highly intriguing photo from FailBlog:

Now, I'm sure there's a reasonable and boring explanation for whatever the heck that sign's supposed to mean.

But I'm more interested in the possibilities of what it could mean. If I were the editor of a fiction magazine, I would put up that photo and invite contributors to send in their tales of the society that produced it.

Why are non-gender children numerous enough to make the sign necessary? Why aren't there three sorts of public restrooms: Men, Women, and Null? Probably because the introduction of non-gender children in large numbers is a relatively new development. How will society adapt as the non-gender children grow and mature? In twenty years, will non-gender adults be common enough that every building will require a non-gender public restroom?


We divide fiction into genres. Usually you can tell from a glance at the cover whether it's General Fiction or Crime or Science Fiction or Fantasy or Romance or whatnot. And we all discriminate.

The Science Fiction Ghetto is well-known enough that it's got its own page at TV Tropes. Some well-known authors, fearful of being shunted from Serious Literature to Science Fiction, will deny writing SF even while quite blatantly doing so. (Margaret Atwood's probably the most infamous example of this). But Iain Banks quite cheerfully and profitably writes both SF and mainstream fiction, so it's obviously possible for an author to live a cross-genre existence without compromise.

And we all discriminate. I discriminate. I never pick up novels specifically marketed as Romance or Erotica, even though I have no aversion to romance or sex in my reading. I'm not greatly interested in the genres of Military Fiction, Mystery or Crime, although I'll make exceptions for certain authors (like Carl Hiaasen) and for books I've heard are good. And I have a complex algorithm for determining what science fiction I'll sample. I don't like media tie-ins, I don't like overly long series, and I'm not terribly fond of "space opera"-type SF, although any and all of this can be disregarded if I hear a book seriously, totally kicks ass.

And then there's Young Adult. I pay so little attention to YA that I don't even have an opinion on it. It's just a big blind spot.

Maybe that needs to change.

I'm midway through Markus Zusak's The Book Thief. I picked it up in a used bookstore (to be more honest, my fiance did) and brought it home. I'd never heard of the author or the title, even though the cover proclaims it "The Extraordinary New York Times #1 Bestseller" and is covered with praise from critics and various accolades the book has received. Why hadn't I heard of it? Well, it's YA, and YA goes under my radar. Or over it. Or something.

It's set in Nazi Germany. It's the story of a young girl who lives with foster parents in Bavaria, who finds herself sheltering a Jewish man in her basement. The novel is narrated in the first person by Death Personified.

Unless the quality of the writing somehow catastrophically plummets in the book's second half, The Book Thief is as good as any book for adults I've read in the past year.

Why is The Book Thief considered YA, instead of general fiction for adults? Because it's somehow juvenile?

Ha. Anyone who thinks YA = juvenile needs to read The Book Thief and then write "I will not call YA novels juvenile" on a blackboard one hundred times.

Because it's written in a style that often gets playful, with the narrator addressing the readers directly, which some might feel is reminiscent of children's books?

But there have been plenty of accoladed novels in the past decade that do that; Yann Martel's Life of Pi and Zadie Smith's White Teeth are two well-known examples I've read.

Because the protagonist is a teenage girl? But plenty of general-fiction novels have young protagonists.

If The Book Thief were published as general fiction, no one would ever think of saying "But this is clearly YA! It's a kid's book!"

The Book Thief is YA because it was published as YA. No other reason. Oh, I'm sure Markus Zusak wrote it with the YA market in mind, so the book probably reflects that. But I only get to see the finished product, not the writing process that produced it, and I say this is a book that could have easily been published as general fiction without raising any eyebrows.

So am I saying that the book was somehow done a disservice by being marketed as YA? No. No no no. Then I'd be no better than people who say "Book X isn't science fiction because science fiction is CRAP but Book X is GOOD!"

The Book Thief is totally suitable for readers in the 12-15 age range. Yes, it's dark and disturbing. So's the world.

It's also suitable for ages 16 and up. I'm 29, and I think I can handle it.

Tor.com's got a smart post up about YA by author Mary Pearson. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Delicious Awkwardness

The Lyttle Lytton Contest is a variant of the better-known Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. The aim of the Lyttle Lytton is to create snippets of deliberately awkward or stilted prose. My favorite of the 2009 winners is this, from Adam Box:
I have the ability to go through time, he suddenly remembered while at a bus stop near a tree.
That sentence is only nineteen words long, and yet there's so much delicious awkwardness there. The human brain can't take it in as a unit, because it doesn't form a cohesive whole. Instead, you focus on one part of the sentence, smile, then focus on another part of the sentence, and you start giggling at how it doesn't quite go together. Then you look at yet another part of this nineteen-word sentence, and you giggle still more, but now the first part of the sentence has been pushed out of your mind, and you have the pleasure of re-discovering it.

The whole sentence is a thing of beauty. I also like Deborah's walking adventures and Peter's lack of passion for surfing, but they can't beat suddenly remembering you have the ability to go through time. While at a bus stop. Near a tree.

For visual representations of the sort of awkwardness the Lyttle Lytton is all about, I recommend Awkward Family Photos. But while the Lyttle Lytton is all about intentional awkwardness as comedy, Awkward Family Photos is full of (presumably) unintentional comedy.

That's a startling picture. Like a Lyttle Lytton sentence, there really isn't all that much to it. But the human brain simply can't take it all in as a cohesive whole. You can only focus on one aspect of it at a time, while ignoring everything else.

Imagine you had to describe that picture in words. Where would you begin?

I'd probably describe the woman and the baby and the bright pink rifle and the "peace" symbol on the pants and how the baby's hand is on the trigger. And then I would describe the woman and the baby and the rifle in ever-increasing detail, much as some mentally disturbed patients draw intricately detailed mandala designs because they crave a feeling of order and centeredness in a universe that's fundamentally chaotic and alien. Everything else would get pushed to the side. Forgotten about. My mind can't integrate all that.

There's a weird, sublime beauty here.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A moment of clarity

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, David P. Barash says We Are All Madoffs:
Make no mistake: Our current relationship to the world ecosystem is nothing less than a pyramid scheme, of a magnitude that dwarfs anything ever contemplated by Charles Ponzi, who, before Madoff, was the best-known practitioner of that dark art. Modern civilization's exploitation of the natural environment is not unlike the way Madoff exploited his investors, predicated on the illusion that it will always be possible to make future payments owing to yet more exploitation down the road: more suckers, more growth, more GNP, based—as all Ponzi schemes are—on the fraud of "more and more," with no foreseeable reckoning, and thus, the promise of no comeuppance, neither legal nor economic nor ecologic. At least in the short run.

Read the whole article. If you think he's wrong, try to be able to explain why you think he's wrong. I think the only flaw is that he's long on criticism, short on solutions; he offers no pointers on how we can escape eventual collapse.

And it struck me, in a moment of clarity, that if there's one idea that needs to be the basis of all my political views, it's this: I don't want the world's economy or the Earth's ecosystem to collapse in my lifetime. I don't want it to collapse, ever. I don't want the human race to be thrown back to pre-industrial conditions. I don't want the people of the 22nd century to be screwed over by decisions made in the 20th century.

I want civilizational collapse to be put off indefinitely. Maybe we can do it by achieving truly sustainable industrial practices, or maybe we'll only be able to do it through some currently-undreamed-of technological singularity. And in the process of getting there, I want to see as little human misery as possible.

That's what I want to see. That's my mental long-term goal for the future of this planet. Everything else is details. Wish I had some clue as to what the details should look like.