Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Best Job in the World

The best job in the world, hands down, has to be whatever it is you'd call those Jamie and Adam guys on The Discovery Channel's Mythbusters show. If you haven't seen it, these guys take three or four myths or legends per show, then set up scale test and scenarios to either prove or disprove the proposed result.

I've learned that you can't blow up a gas tank by shooting at it. And that you can't blow up a shark by shooting a tank of compressed air lodged in its mouth. That shooting a hole in a pressurized airplane won't cause "explosive decompression." Too late for Goldfinger...

Cell phones will not cause gas pumps to explode. If you swim a mere three feet down in a body of water bullets from guns aren't gonna hurt you. Lighting a match won't diminish the aroma of unpleasant bodily functions. And lots of other stuff I can use in my daily life.

They use their engineering experience and aptitude to destroy cars, trucks, airplanes, elevators
and they do it to just the right degree. In other words, once they disprove a myth that says you can destroy a toilet by dropping a lighted cigarette in the bowl, they add things to the commode until it does blow up. They go the extra mile, and it makes them really happy to do it.

What makes it all the more interesting is that this isn't an MTV Jackass approach to wild and crazy stunts. Everything they do, from making working hovercars from those plans we used to buy from ads in the backs of comic books to seeing if it is really possible to glide from the top of a building construction site by holding a sheet of plywood over your head, is done with a measured, scientific approach. Their human-like test dummy has sensors to detect which of his many and various impacts would be fatal to a human, the things they blow up take place in polycarbonate booths overseen by the local fire department.

And boy do they have fun. Makes me want to be an engineer for the entertainment value as opposed to how watching Dean Kamen wants me to be one for the advancement of humanity value. So whether you develop a small, self contained system to purify utterly polluted water that can help end the misery of millions of people in third world countries or determine that you can blow a safe by burning a hole in the top, filling it with water, then detonating an explosive inside. Of course, it trashes everything inside but if it weren't for these two guys and their show, how would we ever know?

They just need to come out with a book that shows all of their experiments and their results. I'm dumber with every episode I miss and that can't be good.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

I Can't Let Go

Clearly something's wrong with me. This really should be the last post regarding Dan Simmons' The Terror. Even though this is likely not interesting to anyone, I'm just so damned disappointed.

The Captain of one of the stranded ships is walking across the ice with four of his crewmen. Since there are only 55 members of the crew and they've been stuck together for years, you damned well know the Captain knows their names. As evidenced by various passages in the book, he evidently knows their backgrounds and the contents of whatever papers they filled out prior to the expedition. One of his companions has a bad leg and he asks him if he wants to slow the pace. "That's alright, Captain," says the crewmen. "I can keep up. And if I can't, my mates here -- William Thomas, Jonathan Smith, and Geoffrey Peabody -- can see that I make it safely." (I've paraphrased the sentence here, I really don't want to pick the book up again.)

As if the captain would be unfamiliar with the people he's walking with. Who are on his crew. That he had a hand in selecting. Who he's been marooned with on their tiny ship for three years. AND, what's arguably worse, is the writing "style" that inserts dashes into the sentence and then lists the full names of the men. These names are NOT important to the plot, story, or book. They are merely manifestations of the author busily inserting real life artifacts in his novel. He, too, has read the crew manifest. Good research, I guess, poor storytelling.

He does this same thing over and over, and not just with names. The last surviving doctor is relating something that his deceased colleagues believed -- and of course his sentence is dashed and the full names of the three men appear -- before the sentence is completed.

One of the doctor's journal entries says the Captain read Psalm 90 at a funeral service. And then he includes a FULL page of the text of the Psalm. Wouldn't happen. Doesn't move the story along, either. At the end of another entry he says he pulls his mahogany writing desk into his lap. We don't care what it's made of, and it's not part of the story, but since a portable mahogany writing desk was found years later the author apparently believes he's adding realism by throwing in these narrative speed bumps and name drops.

Really, though, I'm not obsessing. At least I don't think I am. I meant it, though, when I said that bad writing offends me, and bad writing by people whom I think would otherwise be good writers is the worst thing of all. Maybe I should spend more time watching CNN and get my perspective rearranged.

Aim higher, damn it. Seriously. Maybe people will start to read again.

Monday, March 26, 2007

I Can Too Do A Short Blog Entry

Although my posts tend to be long, I hope that they're easy to read so that they don't take a commensurate effort to read. Anyway, as a postscript to the previous entry about Dan Simmons' The Terror, which I now think of as The Horror, I wanted to add that while in a Borders yesterday, they had the novel, which is a current hardcover, available on their Buy 2, Get 3 table. Given that the book jumped out onto the New York Times bestseller list, I can't help but wonder if this is the literary equivalent of a movie that opens big and drops off drastically in the following weeks. In other words, word of mouth buzz catches up with the marketing hype and fan anticipation.

Maybe I'm reading this wrong but I can't help but think that a first edition hardcover in the bargain bin is one step away from the remainder table.

Hands of Pork, or Death of a Fan

'Tis a sad day. Another one bites the dust. He'd been hanging on for a while through much patience and benefit of the doubt, but today I buried Dan Simmons. In my mind only, of course, and not quite completely, but as sadly and regretfully as anyone whose fallen before him.

I just finished his new book, The Terror, a novelization of the doomed Sir John Franklin expedition to find and traverse the Northwest Passage. I've written about the Franklin expedition here before, I have read many books on the subject, and once even thought of writing a novel conjecturing what may have happened to the lost men. But then I heard that Simmons was going to do one, and harrumphed.

My first Simmons book was Phases of Gravity which I thought was excellent. Then I read his award winning Song of Kali but I just didn't get it, which was weird. I thought it lost its way in the middle somewhere and left me unsure of what I read. Later I read Summer of Night. Then I re-read it. And did it again. It's a straight horror book with a pretty clunky Evil behind the evil doings around a small Illinois town, and despite some clunky writing, there are scenes in that book that are downright memorable. The recurring rendering truck, the WWI soldier walking down a country lane, and the priestly face pressed against the window were original horrors that still make me shiver. Simmons even threw in a thing under the bed and giant worm-like things burrowing underground, less original than the others, but well worked in here.

Its sequel, A Winter Haunting, I thought was brilliant but very different. It's a psychological piece dealing with Summer's aftermath that left me questioning exactly what happened in both books but in a very good, correct way. Wonderful stuff.

I read another award winner, Hyperion, but I had similar issues to what I had with Kali. Strangely extrapolated from the work of John Keats, it lost me and couldn't hold my fascination or much interest. But, I thought, maybe I didn't get it. Sometimes a book is like listening to a record for the first time: it doesn't strike you as very good but listen again and it's a different, sometimes very different, experience. Maybe I was in a strange mood when I read it. Still, I read the first sequel, I no longer remember it, and didn't bother with the next two in the series.

I read most of his other books and thought they were okay but with a bit too much ABC Movie of the Week feel to them. I didn't bother with the disaster novel about the erupting volcano because it actually seemed like an ABC Movie of the Week (they may not even make these anymore; they were big when I was growing up).

Simmons wrote three hardboiled novels about a P.I. named Joe Kurtz. I read all of those, was disappointed, but read them anyway, mostly because I liked the first paragraph of the first one. I thought they would get better even though I could never really accept a homeless bum with a laptop and modern expertise with technology. The last one was a bit better but it seemed to be less well reviewed.

His The Crook Factory, about the WWII exploits of Ernest Hemingway was somewhat interesting but difficult for me because of the way Hemingway came across to me. There is always a danger about writing about real people or even writing about other people's characters: they never seem the same people/characters and therefore set up a discordant vibe. In this case he made Hemingway a buffoon.

Ilium and Olympos were on my radar screen, even though they are based on other works of literature, something of a recurring theme for Simmons, but The Terror has taken them off. I still read the sporadic messages he posts on his website and I'm a huge fan of what he has to say in his "Writing Well" segments.

Why, then, oh why, does he write like he did in The Terror? Clearly I have a lot of experience reading Dan Simmons (over a dozen of his novels); I have always felt that while he usually produces at a certain level of quality, his actual writing, his choice of words on the paper, is often unexpectedly clunky, at best. But in Terror he violates several glaring "rules" over and over and over and it left me completely cold.

"Rules" in writing aren't really rules. Many of them are merely illustrations of common pitfalls that are so well recognized that avoiding them should be just about mandatory. I say just about because a skilled writer can violate any of them so long as they create and write well. But if they don't, if their efforts remain pedestrian, they're just shouting out something like, "I'm an established author and I don't have to care so much anymore. Ha ha."

In The Terror, Simmons' writing style harkens back to bad 1930's pulp stories. One of the rules he violates often is the use of adverbs. Rather than set up and illustrate a situation, hundreds of paragraphs start out like, "Suddenly, impossibly, incredibly, such and such appeared." Do it once and I'll hiccup and keep reading but it's the whole book. There's a paragraph on page 418 that starts out, "Amazingly,..." and then eight paragraphs later there's another that starts out, "Amazingly,...". Never do I have the feeling that things are so sudden, incredible, impossible, amazing, unbelievable, astounding, etc. etc. because he doesn't bother painting the pictures. He merely tacks an "ly" to the end of an adjective and expects to take my breath away.

He also is overly fond of embedding phrases, usually the thoughts of the characters, in the middle of sentences already begun. He stops them with a dash, throws in the thought or statement, closes it with another dash, then continues. Where's the skill? Where's the wordplay? Where's the use of language we have a right to expect when we invest in a nearly 800 page book?

The book is also full of what to me are internal inconsistencies. You have a fourteen foot tall monster with claws that open up ten feet of Arctic ice or the solid oak hull of a ship who uses them to effectively separate heads and limbs from the unfortunate sailors. His head is so big that he bites and chews off some of his victims heads, audibly crunching their skulls. So how can something this big open up the torso of a small man, devour just his insides, then scatter his bones in the ice after breaking them and sucking out their marrow? Um, wouldn't he have to have another really small mouth and a couple of sets of really tiny little hands tucked away somewhere to be able to do that? This would be like a much smaller polar bear trying to dial my cell phone.

Or when a man can barely squeeze through a hole in the side of the ship yet his wife can make it while carrying two children, both of whom manage to stay asleep the whole time? And can literally starving men really fill up bucket after bucket with their vomit? And on and on.

Typically it's much easier for me to overlook the internal inconsistencies than it is to get past the horrid, dreadful writing style. Where's his editor? Where's his agent? I refuse to believe they can read this thing without being bothered by the same things as I. Not if they're honest.

Anyway, I run on. But this is bad writing, and it offends me. It's as ham fisted and inelegant as anything I've read in a long time, certainly anything I've finished. His next book is about somebody I have quite good opinions of, even though they're all second hand. He wasn't perfect but I've read many of his works and letters, two major biographies, and first hand accounts by those who knew the man: Charles Dickens. After reading the excerpt posted by Simmons on his website, I will now and forever blot out all knowledge of the forthcoming book.

But I will read both Summer of Night and A Winter Haunting again, probably several times. And I will miss Dan Simmons while once again wondering just why it is that good writers go bad.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

One of the Few

Today words were spoken, a pencil was brought out... Before it could be stopped, Sabrina had a hole in her palm and Ricky had nothing to write with. Melissa came home but neither one of us were allowed to address the wound. That was left to the doctor who ascertained that the puncture, while a bit deep, didn't contain the graphite point. So where was it? Did Ricky get there first, covering up a vital clue at the very heart of the scene of the crime? We may never know, but in the meantime Brie should heal up fine.

Most of us say that what we see on TV sucks, and it does. Sadly that doesn't keep most of us from watching it, at least more than we should given that it can't be justified by the quality of the programming. But every now and then...

I don't like the CSI or Law and Order shows. I so don't like them I haven't ever seen complete episodes (which I don't believe invalidates my opinion). I don't like American Idol except for the first few episodes of each season where they show the tryouts. The karaoke performances the rest of the time I can get downtown.

I liked The X-Files for a good while, but they never seemed to answer their own questions and after watching it for years I didn't feel all that much closer to knowing what was going on. I was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer until this teen oriented show started with blatantly sexual situations which were startlingly inappropriate. And just plain bad.

I don't love Raymond, in fact I don't even like him. I liked Friends until they changed the characters and made Joey dumb instead of naive and Ross childish and Joey-stupid instead of just not hip. Monk reminds me of the kind of (dare I say) "quality" show from the 70's/80's like The Rockford Files or Columbo. Unfortunately I think I'm so far gone I haven't been able to stick through all the commercials to finish many episodes.

When I was bedridden for months after a lousy doctor did a number on my spine, some of the side effects were weak vision that prevented me from reading, and insomnia. This was a version of hell. Flat on my back for eight months, unable to read, stuck with nothing but a television set to occupy my mind. Somewhere after midnight I discovered re-runs of Farscape which I absolutely love and have since purchased the DVD sets of its four seasons. I had to; I had no real idea of what was going on in the fourth season without seeing the earlier ones.

Lately I've made a new discovery and it is so unique and well done, I think, that it's no wonder it was canceled after two seasons. Not, apparently, due to poor ratings.

Dead Like Me was originally a Showtime series (which other than Stargate SG-1 never produced anything I cared to see) that has recently been showing on the SciFi channel. I'd watch parts of it, surfing away at the commercials naturally, and not quite appreciating the show. But something in it hooked me, enough to pick up the DVD set. And now I can see what it was...

Most TV shows have limited character growth, and that's on purpose. If the character changes the way most of us change over the years, pretty soon we'd have a different character and that might not appeal to the same demographic. Perhaps more importantly, it would make it harder for the shows to be re-run in syndication in a random order.

But Dead Like Me is different. The characters actually grow as people (living and dead) from episode to episode. Not just the main ones, either. The world keeps turning for the supporting characters as well and the effect is stunning in its realism and appeal. And oddly enough, you can still watch episodes out of order and enjoy them as they are.

I'm not telling you about what happens on the show and that's on purpose. You can write about anything bad and make it sound good, or the other way around. The point isn't so much what it's about (which is fine if not completely original) but how the writing and conception allows the actors to show their characters grow and change. Just like real people, only better because I can watch them for an hour and then turn them off. Only now, when the screen goes black, I can lean back and say, "Wow." I wish I could do that more often.