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Interview with Neil Gaiman

In this interview, Neil Gaiman discusses book publicity, his new book Chu's First Day of School and the American Gods television show. Enjoy!

The interview happened because the sifu at my kung fu school happens to be friends with a director of book trailers. He sent me a Twitter message that Neal Stephenson was going to be filming one at the school and if I happened to be there at the same time I might be able to meet him. I showed up, Neal Stephenson novel in hand to be signed, only to discover Sifu had gotten the writer wrong. "It'd be really funny if you got him to sign that," said the director when he saw my well-worn copy of The Diamond Age.

I've met Neil Gaiman before, briefly and even more briefly interviewed him, but he's one of my favorite writers so I rushed out to a local bookstore, picked up a copy of a book I hadn't read yet for him to sign (The Ocean at the End of the Lane) and rushed back.

Why Amazon Wins

Remember not so long ago I complained about Amazon's ebook download links disappearing? Well, they're back; I can download my Kindle books form the website again, just in time for my employer to be purchased by that etailing monolith. Soon, I will be an Amazon employee, a curious turn of events considering how we've occasionally pilloried them on this site. Granted, the most vocal pillorer (pillorizer? pilliorian?) has been Quackenbush, but I'm hardly innocent.

Here's the thing: My first ebook reader was a Palm Pilot in the late 90's, and I loved it. Later, when Palm sank, I bought a Sony Reader, the first real dedicated e-reader. When the first Kindle was released, I joined the choruses laughing at its hideous design and fearing Amazon's fomenting reach and power.

However, it wasn't long before it became clear that Sony wasn't really going to compete in hardware or software. Reluctantly, I switched to the Nook. And I was happy for a while. But now Barnes and Noble has fired its hardware engineering staff and looks to be eager to offload the whole platform as a money-loser and a failure. Meanwhile, on hardware and features, the Kindle is constantly improving, and is now better by every possible measure to any of its competitors.

Why Doctor Who is Better Than the Wire or Why Doctor Who is the Best Television Show of All Time

In honor of the just past 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and the final episode of 11th Doctor Matt Smith, I thought I'd take a moment to talk about why it's my favorite-ever television show, and specifically why I prefer to watch it than a more serious, feted drama like The Wire. (Though fundamentally, this essay could just as easily be called "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than Breaking Bad", "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than The West Wing", "Why I Like Doctor Who Better Than Game of Thrones" or pick your highly regarded dramatic television show.) In fact, I'm going to make an argument that Doctor Who is the best television show that has ever been made.

The Texas Chainsaw Legacy: An American Love Affair with "True" Crime

This article was originally published on Donner, Party of One and is reprinted with permission

In 1974, Tobe Hooper terrified audiences with an all-too-real work of fiction. Almost 30 years later, audiences still want to believe it really happened.

It is an unfortunate fact of modern movie marketing that "based on a true story" has become the brightest badge a film can wear. It is as if, in an ironic twist, Godard's rebellious dictum "cinema is truth 24 times a second" has been taken so literally by mainstream audiences that they are now desperate to believe that anything on the silver screen could represent reality. Even the success of high-octane escapism can spike dramatically if it claims to be "based on true events", regardless of whether the alleged events are known to the public in any specific terms. The history of this seduction is too vast to encapsulate here, but examples are so plentiful that one can seemingly always be found within temporal spitting distance. Bryan Bertino advertised his 2008 home invasion horror The Strangers as “inspired by true events”, but rather than referring to a specific situation it seems to simply refer to the fact that people really do invade one another's homes; 2012's The Possession, a jewish iteration of The Exorcist, claims to base it self on a true story, though it is actually based on a museum curator's account of his spooky professional experience rather than a supernatural assault on an innocent family; the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind insists on its veracity with an opening oath sworn by lead actress Milla Jovovich that the film is a mix of Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments and REAL FOOTAGE of the REAL ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Why anyone would choose to construct a movie in this way is anybody's guess, and The Fourth Kind is hardly a portrait of success, but the fact remains: filmmakers have some reason to believe that basing a film on a "true story" will put butts in seats. Why is it that we might value verite more than pure fantasy? Is it conditional? That is: not all audiences might reject an almost 100% synthetic entertainment juggernaut like AVATAR in favor of a difficult and compelling Henry Lee Lucas biopic, but that said, are there particular cinematic situations in which we prefer to believe that we are being presented with the truth? If so, why?

A lot has been made of the real-life inspiration for Tobe Hooper's trailblazing 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. To be totally fair, several powerful movies claim as their muse the murderous rural grave robber Ed Gein's untoppably outrageous ten year crime spree in the perfectly-named small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Though he committed his last murder in 1957, Gein's fabulously perverse criminal career continued to seduce cinematic luminaries from the debut of Psycho to the release of Silence of the Lambs (to say nothing of the endless catalog of great and terrible exploitative biopics and Nth generation ripoffs thereof). The effete momma-worshipping bumpkin was himself an artist, creating furniture and corpse couture from the fruits of his boneyard harvests and his plus-sized female murder victims, selected for Gein's most famous project: a skin suit resembling his late mother. Ed Gein's body count did not rise above three, but the depravity of his crimes remains unequaled by more prolific serial murderers, and moreover, the almost fantastical nature of his activities remains irresistible to filmmakers of all stripes. Witness in particular: the seven movies (so far) that make up the undying franchise of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Django Unchained and the Importance of Irreverence

Tarantino's latest film Django Unchained has proven controversial though, not I think for the reasons people are citing. Yes, there's copious use of the 'n-word'. Yes, there's lots of graphic violence. But a serious film can get away with both of these things without anyone batting an eye. Consider the n-word in The Color Purple or the violence of the Normandy Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, Spielburg can even get away with gratuitous nudity as long as its done in a serious, non-sexual way, as in Schindler's List or Amistad, and no one raises a fuss.

No, what really bothers people about Django is that it deals with these things in a film that isn't reverent in its treatment of them, a film that is, in short, fun. It's an extreme form of my father's objection to the (much more reverent) film Life is Beautiful— "I just don't want to see a comedy about the Holocost."

However, I think it's precisely Django's irreverence that makes it so important. Because the audience that goes to see Lincoln or The Color Purple or Beloved or Amistad or pick-your-"serious"-film-about-blacks-in-American-history, is often quite different from the one that goes to see a Tarantino splatter-fest. Indeed, it's easy to argue that people who go see these sorts of films are those most already aware of the injustices being depicted (with, perhaps, the exception of people forced to watch them in school). People who don't like to think about the horrors of slavery, who don't want to think about it, don't go by a ticket to see that kind of movie.

ReaderCon Wold Newton Reading Video

At ReaderCon one weekend ago, I hosted my second Wold Newton ReaderCon special, with readings by a number of fine writers, namely:
Jeff VanderMeer
Veronica Schanoes
Jaym Gates
Daniel Jose Older
Jo Walton
and
Matt Kressel

Music was provided by Brian Francis Slattery and his amazing band!

Unfortunately, I forgot to turn on the camera until the first reading had begun so you miss the first little bit of Jeff VanderMeer explaining what he's reading, and my ridiculous silliness while dressed up as the Doctor. But here's the rest of the video of the whole event:

Interview: Richard M. Stallman, Inventer of Open Source, Free Software Crusader

"Did you see the crazy person handing out anti-ebook flyers?" someone said to me while I was at ReaderCon. Indeed, the man with the giant hair and beard handing out flyers looked a bit like a vagrant. I went up to see what it was about, saw his face and did a double take. I checked his name-badge just to be sure.

"You're Richard Stallman," I said in disbelief.

"Yes," he said, and handed me a flyer. "If you care about books you should read this."

A copy of the anti-ebook flyer can be found here.

For those of you who don't know, Richard M. Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in 1984 with the mission of creating software that could be freely distributed and wasn't tied down by nasty licensing restrictions (software that had been 'freed'). Eventually, this transformed into the "Open Source" movement, that term popularized by Eric S. Raymond as way to ease corporate adoption of free software. Stallman also wrote key components of what would become the Linux operating system (or "GNU/Linux" as he refers to it, a reference to his own GNU operating system project which Linux draws from), as well as the Emacs text editor which I use in my programming job every day, the Gcc C compiler which is now a cornerstone of Unix-based software development, and many other important applications.

So what was one of the greatest software engineers of our time, a recipient of the MacArthur "genius" grant, doing handing out flyers at a science fiction convention? I asked him.

Stallman insisted, however, that I not put the video of our interview on YouTube, because you have to use non-free software in order to view it. So, I uploaded the interview in the free Ogg Theora format. Does this make things less convenient for everyone? Yes. But Stallman is more concerned with freedom than convenience, as he makes clear in the interview. For him the use of free over non-free software is a moral proposition.

So here is the video, embedded using HTML5. Enjoy.

I apologize for the background noise. I made the mistake of conducting the video in a hallway, which seemed like a good idea at the time. I'll try to noise reduce the video later and see if I can improve it.

A Taxonomy of Recently Published Speculative Fiction Short Stories

Reading through some online short fiction, I found myself naturally placing the stories in certain categories, regardless of genre. When I was done I came up with 7 different story types that pretty much all the stories I read could fit into. I present them here, not as a perfect an inarguable ordering, but as an observation open to discussion.

Most of these stories are from the latest or next to latest edition of these periodicals, with a couple recent Hugo nominees thrown in to get a hint of what the field thinks is the best. I tried to get a good selection of different sources whose stories are available free on the Internet for anyone to read.

There were a number of stories I read that I didn't like, though they fit into these types. I'm not going to talk about those stories. All the fiction presented below I recommend reading.

Something else to consider: change "novum" to any disruption in a person's life, and change "fight the monster" to "fight the villain", and this taxonomy could, I think, work for pretty much any short story. Novels, on the other hand, are more likely to mix the types together since they have the room to do it, thus the monster is also the disruption that brings about character growth, or a modern fable might have elements of monster fighting, character growth, socio-political lens, etc. Indeed, in many ways these types could be seen as patterns that can be mixed and matched.

Reading Popular Literature Interlude 1: The Romance Problem

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

While I've made an effort to be inclusive about the genres I read in this series, you may notice one obvious omission: Romance novels. So why would I exclude a whole genre? You'd think any attempt to cover the history of popular fiction would have to include one of the most popular categories of books of them all.

I guess I just never got past the stereotype of the romance genre as porn for middle aged suburban house wives (as opposed to erotica, porn for the more adventurous, urban woman). When a pre-teen, before the Internet exploded, I used to sneak into the romance section of the library and page through the books looking for the sex scenes, simultaneously getting horny and giggling at the language ("his turgid manhood thrust into the triangle of my femininity" etc.).

And yet, it's not as if I don't like romantic story lines; I actually like them quite a lot. And I certainly don't have anything against a good sex scene. I've also read people talking about romance as a real genre, one every bit as respectable as mystery or science fiction. But I don't know where to start. Barbara Cortland and Danielle Steel, who are both on the best-selling all-time writer list, seem kind of execrable.

So I turn the matter over to you, my readers. If you've been reading my essays so far, you know something about my taste. Recommend me something in the romance category. Fantasy or paranormal romance are perfectly acceptable, as are more realist fare. Just as long as there are characters with more than one dimension, a premise and plot that aren't insulting to my intelligence, and a style that doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Prove to me, if you can, that my long held prejudices are wrong.

Any suggestions?

Reading Popular Literature part 4: The Pulp Era (1920-1941)

Edit: Corrected some embarrassing factual and spelling mistakes

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

Advances in publishing technology in the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to huge numbers of cheaply produced magazines written to appeal to the widest possible audience. By the 20s and 30s, before television and with radio still new, these magazines were a primary form of home entertainment and sold in the millions of copies. They typically cost 10 cents and were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, and thus called "pulps" to differentiate them from the more expensive, glossy-paper "slick" magazines.

The argument could be made that much of what we think of as popular fiction today was codified in the 1920s and 1930s during the boom period of the pulps. Hard boiled crime fiction, romantic stories both sentimental and lurid, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and horror all become recognizable in the pages of various pulp magazines. Indeed, before the pulp era, "genre" was a word commonly used to differentiate forms like poetry from prose. It was magazines like Astounding Stories (for science fiction) and Weird Tales (for horror and fantasy) that created the notion of categories of fiction separate from one another, with sets of common tropes and history. In the letter pages of these magazines and in the burgeoning hobby of ham radio, the first genre fandoms begin to arise, as people with common interests begin to find each other and communicate and eventually form the first "fan clubs."

The pulp era ended more-or-less in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America's subsequent entry into the Second World War. Paper shortages caused by the war made pulp paper much more expensive, causing many of them to shut down or change format and pricing. (The war had similar impacts on the production and distribution of popular entertainment in other parts of the world as well.) Soon enough comic books, television and the paperback revolution rose up to take pulp's place as providers of cheap entertainment for the masses.