Ed. Note - where the HELL have I been?:
I though it had just been a YEAR since I wrote my last rant, but now I see it has been over TWO. This has been long enough for me to get a dog for my birthday and watch him grow from 10 lbs to 160+.
Anyway, I'm currently ensconsed in a secure home with a second phone line for the first time in ALMOST two years, and I am ready to devote some time to this sadly-neglected web page again. Part of this devotion will be doing at least one of these rants a month. I'm no longer going to try to say something deep and moving about Life, Harlan Ellison, and Everything, but instead will just talk about whatever bee is in my bonnet for the month.
Fair enough? If not, as always, the complaint department is located at /dev/null.
I've spoken a lot in these rants about myself and about Harlan Ellison, but I
have thus far avoided general commentary on Speculative Fiction (which some divide
into "Fantasy" and the dreaded "Sci-Fi" genres).
This is about to change. My cyber-buddy Paul Riddell recently retired from "Skiffy" commentary, so I'm going to try to take up a little of the slack. And I'm a lot less knowledgeable on the subject than he, so I'm going to talk a lot more loudly to make up for it. I should go ahead and warn you know that if you are the type that gets all jiggy in the knees when you see the dozen new "Star Trek" novels on the shelves this half-day that you should probably stop reading right now.
For the rest of you, here are the Top Ten Things What Piss Me Off Royally about speculative fiction these days (bear in mind I avoided visiting the local evil (Borders) or not-so-evil (Barnes&Noble) bookstore as that would have resulted in far more than ten items):
10. Celebrity Authors
I have to thank William Shatner and his ghostwriter on TekWar, TekLab, TekGrannies, TekEvilTedKoppelClones, TekEtcEtcAdInfinitum for inserting this lump of coal up the rectum of spec-fic marketing departments and waiting for it to turn into a diamond.
Apparently the readers of STAR TREK novels have such low standards that they would rather read something by "Scotty" than by a competent professional (okay, at least a professional) in the field because, well, hey, it's by "Scotty"! I mean, theoretically he should write a kickass book because of his years and years of experience as a Starfleet engineer, right?
Problem is, "Scotty" is an ACTOR. He's no more qualified to write a science fiction novel than your Aunt Shirley who once rode the "Mission to Mars" ride at Disneyworld. Sure he's read a lot of scripts and been involved in a lot of shows - so has your average obsessed Trekky and you see the kind of dross THEY put out. I'm sorry, but the work of both has all the flavor and character of cardboard soaked in rubbing alchohol.
Bigger problem is, "Scotty" and his fellow ACTORs usually get their books out in big old hardcovers with pretty pictures on the back and top billing in your skiffy section while the latest Tim Powers softcover is buried at crotch level between a couple of Terry Pratchett books. I don't mind these feebs getting a wild hair or two up the ass and deciding to write their very own book - what I do mind is seeing that book take contracts, advances, shelf space, and royalties away from people who are actually qualified to write.
9. Theme Collections
You know the ones. Animal themes - CatTastic, DogAcious, IquanaRiffic. Other themes - unicorns, witches, psionic boogers, whatever the grouping is, it's probably got a story collection out, RIGHT NOW.
And you've probably got one of them in your house, RIGHT NOW.
I have to be honest. As should become obvious as you progress through this rant, I buy my books based on the reputation of the line or author. I don't buy a book of stories because "It's all about DOGGIES!!!". I love dogs. I own a dog....my wife says I pay more attention to him than her, and I pay a lot of attention to my wife. That having been said, I think there are better ways to express my love of dogs than by buying some book filled with 20 dog stories, half of which I have already read and the other half which resemble that which my dog leaves daily for me to scoop off the grass each day.
I don't have a problem with nice, ORIGINAL theme books that solicit authors for ORIGINAL material. A good example is Harlan Ellison's Medea, a collection based on an original team-designed world that authors wrote stories for. The only thing original about most theme collections is the cute cover art the marketing department selected after they got the publisher to track down a few stories by well-known authors to put on the cover blurbs and filler for the rest.
But you bought it anyway, didn't you? Instead of punching a couple extra bucks to feed your brain with Gene Wolfe's Stories from the Olde Hotel you bought the "latest" collection of 10-year-old werewolf stories. Thanks a lot, pal.
8. Interactive/Web Fiction
You know Ted Sturgeon's "Iceberg" theory that 90% of everything is crap? Well, most computer-media fiction isn't part of the 90% of the berg underwater, it's the dirty gunk at the bottom that the lichen are feeding off of.
First of all, I don't want to be told the computer game I'm looking at is an "Interactive Story" or represents "Interactive Fiction". That's like saying the little cars on rails at the local videogame/batting cage/miniature golf/go-cart place is the equivalent of getting bumped from behind by Dale Earnhardt at 180 miles per hour on a NASCAR track. It's not an interactive story, it's "Choose Your Own Adventure" book with better pictures! Even if William Gibson, Harlan Ellison, or Douglas Adams worked on it, even if they wrote the script and did all the voices...it's still a goddamn video game, you got me, Cochise?
Second, there's NO good fiction on the World Wide Web. Branching hypermedia storylines - great in concept, in reality it's either one guy covering all the bases instead of concentrating on writing an involving story or a bunch of people contributing to a work that devolves to the lowest common denominator. I don't know how to get it across to you guys, I don't want to choose my own path through your story. That's your job! You're suppose to know where the story begins and ends and take me through it in a way that entertains and enlightens me. If I want Interactive Fiction I'll visit any chat room at AOL.
Even the linear stuff presented on the Internet does nothing for me. Call me old fashioned, reading thousands of words off a CRT just plain makes my eyes tired. I prefer to have something in my HANDS that I can carry from room to room that I won't freak out at dropping on the floor. I know Bibliobytes is doing some great stuff with Adobe Acrobat, and there are some ripping good yarns floating around there - it's just too goddamn tiring to read something off even the best monitor. I guess if you had the God Emperor of laptops you could carry it from room to room and even change position - but a book offers much more portability and flexibility, and why would I want to do it any other way? Even if I DID get an electronic book you can bet the first thing I would do would be to find a way to print it out, so why not just buy a book in the first place?
7. Larry Niven
This guy gets his own freakin' listing here today. Hey Larry - do me a favor on your next offering. DON'T make it a sequel or otherwise set it in some place you've already created (excepting the whole of Known Space as a "place"). DON'T write it with anyone else, I don't care HOW much you lost to them at canasta. DON'T pull together a bunch of old stuff and add a couple new stories or commentaries to it. DON'T try to write something cutesy about fandom, satirize a genre or institution, or rewrite an older work.
Stock up on frozen dinners and lock yourself in a room with your writing and research materials and a microwave. Don't watch BAYWATCH, don't even use the phone. And don't come out until you've got something new for us and no, Dream Park XVII doesn't count.
(Ed. Note - okay, okay, DESTINY'S ROAD came out like the day I put this online or something. I wrote the fucker long before that, and I apologize to Mr. Niven, and I'll tell him so this September at DRAGONCON. But he's STILl got a lot of lost time to make up for...)
6. Megalogical Authors
I'll put this simply. If J.R.R.-freakin'-Tolkien could wrap up the first, biggest, and best epic ever in three books, no one else has ANY excuse to do otherwise. I recognize that a lot of authors have a lot of their time and energy invested in their pet worlds, and I also recognize that books about those worlds are often in demand by their fans. I recognize that as a rationalization, not an excuse.
I don't really mind if the scope of your universe is big enough to fit a non-linear and widely variant body of work. Niven's Known Space, Heinlein's Future History, Fiest's Midkemia, these are all pretty large and well-populated universes with a wide range of possibilities. They are all places I don't mind coming back to and visiting from time to time with just enough continuity and familiarity to set the mood. It's these long-running series of books that are either purely or damn-near linear and use largely the same (ever expanding) character set that set me to sneering like Elvis.
Why? You get suckered in, you buy the first couple of books and they look good and you have no idea that the author is never going to stop, never, not even if he has a major stroke and has to type out the next four 700-page installments with his tongue. Meanwhile, you're waiting 6 to 18 months for the next book depending on how big a hack you've chosen and after a while you've forgotten why you gave a shit about any of the heroes or villians. Forget term limits for politicians, what about term limits for a series?
Mr. Jordan, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your series is getting so damn long it's approaching the level of a racial memory. The last couple were a few hundred pages of people walking from place to place looking confused sandwiched in between two fifty page chunks of stuff actually HAPPENING. It's like watching four sloths trying to complete the Eco Challenge. You've got more major characters than most of the remaining readers have brain cells, there's so much plot and character mixing that people are writing books just to keep up with it and folks are arguing on Usenet about just who is who instead of talking about the plot. Can you please, please, wrap things up a bit before the Wheel of Time rolls over whatever patience I have left?
Mssrs. Anthony and DeChancie, the first few books were very cute and we're oh-so grateful. Really, we are. However, you've been hitting that same note so often that the lobe of your brain that is generating it must look like Dizzy Gillespie's cheeks by now. I know you've tried other things, but you keep going back to that one cash cow like Steve Cone going back into rehab. No one's paying any attention any more, they're just buying the books out of habit and the words are going through them like a mexican omelette.
Ms. Lackey, there's so many sequels and prequels out there that I can't even keep track of who's gay anymore. Mr. Perry - we get the idea, they're all fucking badasses, can we move on now? Mr. Pratchett, you just keep on going - I'd love to chide you but you're so goddamn entertaining I can't help myself. Mr. Foster, you are to be applauded for realizing you are NOT Mr. Pratchett and never will be and lending your talents to a greater diversity of projects.
The rest of you, you know who you are. Publish and be damned.
I'm going to be brief on this one. I don't WANT to see a bunch of goddamn elves running around driving hot rods and hacking computers and casting spells at discos. I can barely stomach the little fucks in the forest where they BELONG. It's all very clever how they don't make their cars out of iron and how they use their glamour to look like rock stars and confound monitoring equipment and just be oh so sexy. All that got used up in the first three chapters of the first book, though. Ever since then it's been like watching David Lee Roth try to act hip.
Also, I'm aware it would be really cool if King Arthur came back or a bunch of Orc mercenaries invaded New Jersey or if some k-rad mages could teach you levitation spells to loft your car over congested on-ramps. But you're crowding the grownups off the shelves. Would it be too much to ask that you go back to rolling dice in your daddy's basement and leave the rest of of out of it?
4. All This Vampire Shit
I know there are like a jillion fans out there that all dress like The Cure and buy anything even remotely associated with the Undead like it was the only known copy of Trent Reznor's baby pictures. It was already so bad at DragonCon a couple years back that I couldn't spit without hitting some albino bulemic who thought he was the Vampire Lestat and threatened to jump 50 feet up the escalator and rip out my spine with his black-nailed pinkie. Do we have to continue to ENCOURAGE these people?
Good fantastic literature of any kind is always welcome. In this case, however, there is rarely, if ever, anything new under the lack of sun. Anne Rice finally gave up and started dressing like her fans while churning out a long line of serious yawners. White Wolf came out with some damn good stuff, unfortunately it got buried beneath a lot of game-related (that's item #3 coming up) material and a bunch more undead-related books and stories that pretty much choked the pipelines. And now everyone is figuring hey, if I've got a story to tell, why not tell it about a vampire or werewolf or zombie instead of about a space alien or just some ordinary schmoe?
Well, I've read all I care to about vampires and werewolves and ghosts and zombies. You're going to have to pull a pretty funky rabbit our of your hat at this point to impress me or show me something I haven't already seen, and not many of you can even find the hat. This goes back to my complaint about the Magerpunk stuff - it was cute for the first 50 pages, from that point on it was dinner at Morrison's cafeteria.
Next time you see an elf or a vampire, give them an iron-filling-and-holy-water enema and tell them Mr. Wyatt would appreciate their calling it a day.
3. Computer Game/RPG Novels
Okay, who the bloody hell told someone this was okay? I want names and numbers!
I enjoyed the hell out of blowing guys to chunks in DOOM for a couple of weeks. That doesn't mean I want to read a DOOM novel. Likewise for Wing Commander (which dropped Mercedes Lackey about 57 notches in my book), Myst, and King's Quest. What's next - Space Invader: The Untold Story of That Last Little Guy Who Crawls Across the Screen At Mach 20 Like Urkel Having an Epileptic Fit, Crapping Lightning Bolts? Even if I were in the least bit interested, I'd want to read a good novel about a computer game - and finding one of those is like looking for an intact hymen amongst the Spice Girls.
The only thing more frequently dissapointing than playing a computer game designed around the work of a decent author is reading the work of a decent author designed around a computer game. I'm sorry, but I've given them all the old college try and they are invariably trash - only the Myst books qualified as barely readable, and that's with giving them credit for what they were - product tie-ins.
Dungeons and Dragons or Cyberpunk or whatever White Wolf Undead Game-of-the-Month you happen to be playing this week. A therapy session transcript with mages is still a therapy session transcript. Again as with the Computer Game books, this would not be #3 on my list if it weren't for my considered opinion that most of the works I've checked out are so bad that the recycled paper from them would continue to stink up whatever book was printed on them next.
If you are fool enough to buy either one of these types of books, the cashier should be legally required to stamp "DORK" on your forehead and flag your account "DO NOT ALLOW THIS CUSTOMER TO MAKE HIS OWN BUYING DECISIONS".
It's a simple rule, really: if you can't write your own big old book by your own big old self, I don't have time for you. Why? Because I've been burnt too many times.
Maybe, maybe if I've heard of both of you and like you both an awful lot I'll take a chance that one of you didn't fuck the other one's work up too badly. But that's it. Most of the time I'm looking at [BIG NAME AUTHOR] and [HACK YOU NEVER HEARD OF] present [WORK MOSTLY WRITTEN BY HACK YOU NEVER HEARD OF WHO GAVE IT TO BIG NAME AUTHOR TO WRITE THE INTRO AND PUNCH UP A FEW PARAGRAPHS]. Eventually the hack makes it big off the big name author's coattails and you have [BIG NAME HACK WHO BIG NAME AUTHOR TRICKED YOU INTO BUYING] and [EVEN LESSER HACK] presents [AN EVEN WORSE COLLABORATION FOR THOSE WHO WERE NOT SCARRED ENOUGH BY THE FIRST ONE].
I understand that some authors who have made it want to give a leg up to a promising young star and this is one way to do it. Just be honest, about it okay? Just put your name in big letters on the cover and then in little letters under it say "wants you to know that so-and-so is a really promising author and you should give this book a try". Because regardless of whether the promising author turns out on their own, at least this camper will never never ever never ever buy such a collaboration again.
If you really really have to collaborate, at least limit it to a short story. Those usually turn out okay. But go the novels solo.
1. "In the World of" Books
No, #1 on the piss-me-off hit parade is not sequels an author writes two decades after the original, or people who insist on embedding poems and songs in their novels, or even the pathetical shilling recommendation-of-the-month from your local bookstore or online shop that made you take a chance and buy some dreck like The Fugitive Stars.
Nope. It's those fucking miserable "In the World of" Books.
These suckers edged out the Collaborations by dint of the fact that they aren't even written with the assistance or under the geas of the original author - they're just written in the WORLD that author wrote some books under! This makes them a combination of the WORST qualities of items #3 and #2 combined, and garners from me an ire usually reserved for that nimrod who manages to wait right in front of you in the toll road line for ten minutes before going into the "50 CENTS ONLY" booth with a nickel and a Blockbuster card.
No, no, Mr. Skiffy Author Sir! Don't bother coming up with your own world or your own rules and history or even your own characters (unless you feel like it, that part is optional!). We'll take your novel and put the name "Isaac Asimov" or "Arthur C. Clarke" or someone else who or whose estate) should have known better in big bright letters on the cover and you just sit back and wait for the royalty checks to come in! Sure, it's going to read like a goddamn Mad Lib and you're massacring a classic and you're basically going to the same room in Hell with the guys who digitized a dirt devil into Fred Astaire's hands, but who cares?
I cannot, CANNOT say enough bad things about this practice. It's one of those things that is so vile it's really hard to explain to someone else just how vile it is. In fact, I'm willing to entertain comments and discussion about the rest of the little items on this list, but as far as this one goes if you don't get it them please don't let me know about it and please accept a kindly "fuck off" in advance as you aren't worth the time.
Well, that's all I got for this month, chums. Now that I've got that off my chest maybe I'll be all warm and fuzzy for the next rant.
But don't bet your lunch money on it.
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