Fringe Fiction

I’ve only recently caught up with the science fiction television series ‘Fringe’ and have been watching (too much of) it the past week or so. I’ve had a number of thoughts about it, which I wanted to jot down, in no particular order, to think about some more. Among these are:

1. that the concept of parallel universes, like time travel, is absurd on the face of it. The fact is that we (in general) are incapable of conceiving of the enormous complexity of any discrete instant – especially since there is no such thing as any discrete instant, no more than you could have a “slice” of the ocean. We indulge in truisms about butterfly wings flapping but cannot truly comprehend what that means at scale. The universe is a vast quantity of “things” all changing always.

2. that the series sometimes approaches, but backs away from, genuine literary possibilities. There is the case of the scientist who cannot save his son’s life in THIS universe but is given the opportunity to do so in a parallel universe. That’s one thing, but the literary potential comes in when he and his wife face the decision of whether to keep the other boy or return him to his “real” parents. The guilt involved in this decision is worthy of a Dostoevsky, but they skirt around the edges. It’s an action show, not a drama. Drama is alotted a precious few moments on occasion but must not be allowed to interfere with, or slow down, the general excitement. (they come closest in season three, episode fifteen, when the boy insists they’re not his real parents and the mother’s anguish is on display)

3. that bad acting can do serious damage to a show. There are only a few good actors in this whole show. Two of the main three are pretty awful.

4. that some popular misconceptions – modern old wives’ tales – are impossible to dislodge, such as the notion that “we only use ten percent of our brains“.

5. there is no end to the variations on the theme of monsters among us, but it basically boils down to two types, which I call “innies” and “outies” (like belly-buttons, or introverts and extroverts, or freaks and straights, or us versus them). With monsters, “innies” get you from within (think ‘Alien’). “Outies” come at you from without.

6. that buried gems are easily re-buried if not quickly captured (such as the insight that “everything you touch, touches you” in season three episode ten). The show definitely has its moments.

7. i thought i had a bad memory! but some of these characters remember nothing of the most significant events of their childhoods. it’s a tad hard to believe.

A Self-Publishing Book Review Sob Story

This article in Salon.com, while mainly a whiny and self-pitying lament, does shed some light on one aspect of the recent changes in book publishing. Publishing is not what it used to be, and neither is book reviewing. It used to be that a published author stood a decent chance of getting a professional review from a newspaper or magazine book reviewer. Apparently, there ain’t no days like those anymore. The article’s writer – a previously published author with in-crowd connections who was once able to garner such blessed reviews – couldn’t even get responses to his emails once he decided to self-publish his latest awesome novel (which he only resorted to after it failed to get traditionally published). The kicker is when he moans that If this can happen to him, imagine how horrible it must be for the 99 percenters of self-published writers, those of us without his hoary ties to people-in-the-know and his track record of proven, if admittedly minor, success.

What we 99 percenters know, of course, is that when it comes to getting (legitimate) reviews of our self-published fiction, we have always relied on the kindness of strangers.  We quickly exhaust our social network supply of potential reviewers (we exhaust them in every sense) and after that it’s all “word of mouth, baby”. Recently a publicist for free-ebooks.net (one of the many ebook sites with an experimental business model, this one a subscription service) asked me if I knew how to convert downloads into reviews. The only answer I could give was “maybe give them stuff” – not money, but rewards of some kind, benefits in kind, more free books perhaps. Goodreads Giveaways are supposed to work like that. The winners are supposed to submit reviews after they receive and read your books. I have no way of knowing if they actually do that. I’ve done four giveaways so far and am beginning another one this week for “Prisoners of Perfection” but there seems to be no tracking mechanism for the reviews or ratings.

Yes, it’s difficult. For every thousand downloads-to-strangers you might get one written review. That’s just a guess, nothing scientific, but it seems to correlate with my own experience. Star ratings are somewhat easier to come by, but are not the same thing at all. People who take the time to write and post reviews of self-published books are practically mini-gods to self-published authors. We can’t thank them enough, even if they trash our work. At least somebody said something! Otherwise, how can we even know that we exist? Self-publishing used to be called vanity publishing, but all publishing involves a degree of vanity. The Salon article shines a bright light on that little secret as well.

The article’s conclusion is “I can tell you that self-publishing is not fun.” I didn’t feel too sorry for him. If what the author reallt wants is reviews, only that, his best chance is to give away his book for free and to give it away for free in as many places as he can. He probably still wouldn’t get a boatload of reviews, but then the question is, how many are enough? How many reviews would it take to make it all fun for him? How many readers would it take? How is 1000 strangers reading your book better than 999? What difference does the one thousand and first make, in your everyday life? Where do you draw the line between fun and not fun?

A friend of mine once told me her philosophy of gardening, and it’s stuck with me ever since, especially in regards to self-publishing. One tomato is great, she said. Anything more is “abundance”.

Rabble Reads

I kicked in a few bucks for this Kickstarter project – RabbleReads , a project that aims to set up a neutral, verified aggregate book review site, combining reviews from various sources such as Goodreads and Amazon and elsewhere, but only from trusted book reviewers (their slogan is ‘death to the sock puppets’), and including both traditional and self-published books. Something like this sounds good to me and hopefully will manage to avoid such ills as goodreads-troll-gangs as well as the more common fake and fake-ish reviews. A lot will depend on their curation practices. It could be a tricky thing.

I recently came across a one-star review for my Tiddlywinks kids’ book on Amazon, a one line affair that said “not worth even free. This kind of books should not be around. Waste of time downloading and space on HD”, and when I looked into the reviewer’s Amazon review history, I found that he’d posted the exact same one star review for around 15 books that very same day. I wrote to Amazon, but it was a verified “purchase” (of a free ebook!) and seemed within their guidelines, so they wouldn’t remove it. I can understand that. Curation can be complex, and I hope the Rabble Reads people come up with some good ideas.

Something else that’s also important, and whose time is fast approaching:

Beyond reviews, Rabble will include lists of bestselling authors, regardless of how the book was published; best and worst rated titles, author interviews; and more.

“It’s the first venue where traditionally published and self-published books will be listed side by side,” Holman Edelman says. “I just really think it’s a way to help get books an introduction.”

Review: Catskinner’s Book by Misha Burnett

Reviews say as much about the reviewer as about their subject. Reviewers bring to bear all of their previous experiences and attitudes, their perspectives depending on their personal history and current state, the tastes and preferences of their friends, their families, their generation, their social background, time and place, and so on. All of which is merely an introduction to this particular review, which is as much about my response to the book as about the book itself.

On reflection, it occurred to me that my experience of “Catskinner’s Book” by Misha Burnett, is similar to my experience of the movie “The Matrix”. The main similarities in the works themselves is that they deal with the theme of ‘aliens among us’, and there is a unique protagonist, a chosen one of sorts. The way the hero of Catskinner’s Book was “chosen” is closer to the way the infant of “Rosemary’s Baby” was “chosen”. Catskinner, like The Matrix, features a number of striking concepts such as distinctive representations of a ‘hive mind’ in humans. Catskinner also has a main female character of considerable surprises. The book is as much horror as science-fiction.

The writing in Catskinner is bold and deft and hooks you right in from the start. That was enough to carry me along for quite a while, but … and I’m sorry to include a ‘but’ at this point … like The Matrix, there was one element that drove me out of the story and left me on the sidelines, letting the rest go by. This has everything to do with me, in my current state, and the tidal wave of excessive violence that’s currently pervading our culture (and has been for some time, witness The Matrix!). I’m talking about long, extended scenes of carnage and mayhem, all of them both unlikely and ‘fantastic’ in the imaginary sense (Neo with machine guns in the marble corridor forever) (Batman and the Joker in the tunnel) (The goblin massacre in The Hobbit) (I could go on and on with such examples). I’m not sure what the attraction is, but surely there is one, and we are seeing more and more of them acted out in our theaters and schools and shopping malls – not just random killings, but sprees all dressed up in appropriate costumes and dramatically ready for the cameras. Perhaps it’s because I started to read this book shortly after the Newttown tragedies, or maybe I’ve just had enough of it for one lifetime, but it leaves me colder all the time. I can’t follow the stories anymore after encountering these prolonged bloodbaths.

All of which does not indicate that you, the reader of this review, may not be able to look past that, or may even enjoy these passages. It’s curious. I didn’t mind the main character being a paid assassin. It’s what he was created for, in a sense, and it matches the overall plot, which is a sort of gangland-rivalry-from-outer-space. It just seems to me that this kind of thing can be done, and used to be done, with a lot less shattered glass, a lot fewer explosions, and somewhat less incredible stunts and feats of physical prowess. I recently watched the old Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood classic, “For a Few Dollars More”, and there is a scene where Clint has to climb over  a wall to sneak into the bad guy’s compound. The stunt man actually climbs over the wall, slowly, with difficulty, like a human being actually would, and comes down on the other side landing hard, a bit scratched and bruised as well. Nowadays a single leap and it’s up and over and down, no worries, as if we were all composed of computer-generated graphics these days. All of which is to say that I’d like a bit more realism in my fantasy fiction! Crazy, I know.

Recommended: Two, by Carla Herrera

“Two”, by Carla Herrera, available now from Smashwords

What if there were a secret society guiding the affairs of mankind? Such a myth has long attracted the popular mind, from the Freemasons and their mysterious symbols adorning American currency, to the Rosicrucians guarding the hidden family of the cross-surviving Christ, to the Trilateral Commission, that conspiracy of businessmen and politicians who control and own the world. The notion has appealed to writers as diverse as Balzac and Lovecraft, and has wormed its way into Birthers and Truthers and Kennedy assassination theorists, and even anti-vaccination-hippie-homeschooling cults. But what if there were, and what if this hidden group had succeeded so well it had transformed the woodland barbarians of Bavaria into the high tech civilization of today? Slowly, one step at a time, through the centuries, this cabal has guided mankind to its present lofty perch.

And now what? Where do you go once you reach the top? Having succeeded, perhaps beyond its wildest dreams, is this organization now obsolete, overcome by events, with nothing left to do but oversee its own dismantlement? What kind of bureaucracy would assent to such a course? Oh no, they could never be satisfied with their achievement if it meant spelling out their own imminent doom. They would want to keep tinkering, keep toying, keep pursuing some goal, any goal, as long as it meant perpetuating their own key roles. They might well become, by virtue of their own capability, no longer the greatest benefactor of humanity, but instead its greatest threat. Who but some among their own could stand in their way?

This compelling novel weaves a story previously unimagined, as far as I know, which is the greatest compliment I know – to see possibilities around the corner that have hardly been glimpsed before. Carla Herrera has a knack for doing just that. In ‘Two’ she has crafted a new legend-in-the-making, and I suspect its readers will be expecting more to come.

Recommended: Stories for Airports

Stories for Airports, by Judy B., in available for free from Smashwords

 

Paul Samael has an interesting review on his blog

 

My own (less interesting) review:

This collection of great stories is set lovingly in my own hometown, San Francisco. It’s a book of sights and sounds, traffic and fog, populated by distinct and very real characters. The stories vary wildly in tone and topic, resulting in quite a satisfying assortment of flavors. I especially enjoyed the very funny tale of the facial rash shaped like the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the onion-layered regression of Clang Clang Clang.