Friday, November 17, 2017

Audiobook: The Horror from the Mound

Another audiobook pulp tale from Tales of Weird, this time from Robert E. Howard:

There is a secret held inside an Indian burial mound, only a few know the secret and they have been sworn to secrecy… until someone became greedy, deciding that there must be treasure hidden in the mound…

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Discarded Image Today

One of the more novel thoughts to come out of C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image is the idea that stories teach people by example what the proper response to various events, such as love, treachery, and anger. No medieval or pre-Enlightenment audience would think that Lucifer was the hero of Paradise Lost, for instance, since a hundred other contemporary stories taught them to be able to identify and respond to heroism and treachery. Rather it is today's audience, steeped in anti-heroic realism, materialistic naturalism, and narcissistic post-modernism, who no longer grasp the traditional responses to the great betrayal of Lucifer and enshrine him as a hero. In short, story teaches social behavior, and a change in story can change a society.

This has come to mind repeatedly over the past week or so.

The first case involves a Twitter spat between conservative pundits and Superversive writers over a request to promote a Trump-focused fiction anthology. Dawn Witzke took the pundits to task:
They claim that they want the culture to change. There are a ton of nonfiction books scolding the society for the state it’s in and ranting about how it needs to change. There are commentators on the radio and television going on and on about how horrible things are today in society. Well, what do they expect?
The Right cannot ignore art and literature and then expect the culture to change. Politics alone will not do that. You can’t legislate morality. You have to change society through many different avenues, politics being only one of those. 
When you neglect society, eventually, society changed the laws. Which is exactly what has been happening over the past 50 years. We went from a society with cohesive traditional values and work ethic to a hedonistic society where “if it feels good do it” and individuals aren’t responsible for themselves. 
So why conservatives think that ignoring culture, art and literature in favor of ranting about politics is going to somehow miraculously change society? They’re daft. 
Last year, when I was at the National Diaper Bank Conference in Philadelphia, the keynote speaker talked about influencing moms in regards to caring for their children. She sited statistics that showed fictional television programs did more to change what people do than fact based PSAs. Mom’s emulated their favorite characters on the shows.
The emphasis here is mine, but it shows the power of story over culture. People do get programmed on acceptable behaviors through story.

The second case illustrates this more clearly. I was not going to touch the Hollywood scandals here, but Diversity & Comics on YouTube pointed out something strange about the Hollywood rape and assault scandals. Each man accused followed a similar script in his assault, a script that followed the tropes of seductions shown in bad 1970s movies.

Finally, and less politically charged, I have been working my way through Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer. This has been difficult, not because Sanderson is a bad writer--at one time he was enough of a favorite to commit fanfiction in his worlds, but because I've changed along the way. Between the previous Book of Endless Pages and this one, I got swept up in reading the pulps and similarly inspired stories. Now I no longer recognize the characters in Sanderson's book as properly human. They act wrong to me. The responses to treachery, violence, and even attraction in the story are off. For instance, the killing of a traitor who betrayed one's father should not be followed by an almost Steve Urkel like "Did I do that?" As such, it wouldn't surprise me if this latest Book of Endless Pages finds itself discarded.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Quoth the Razor

Razorfist returns, yet again, to The Shadow to discuss how the current reinterpretation by Dynamite Comics misses the mark. In doing so, he makes a case for a hero with black and white morality in a gray world.
The Shadow doesn’t serve the Law. He serves Justice. And on occasions when the Law has run afoul of it, he’s been unafraid to turn his twin .45s on them as well. He serves a binary morality. And while he will make an effort to redeem the legitimately reformed? (He even has an agent devoted to the reformation of former criminals) Once someone has shown themselves beyond redemption, their fate has been assured. It isn’t always destruction (in many cases, he leaves enemies to the police, or leaves them in an even more elaborate personal Hell) but it’s always just, and invariably of philosophical importance. 
More than anything else, that’s what Si Spurrier’s atrocious Shadow comic lacks. In today’s age of gray morality? All he’s done is add touches of gray to a character who, today, would be far more interesting… the LESS ambiguous he is. These flourishes of pseudo-complexity come across as stilted and forced, because that’s precisely what they are. 
Imagine the controversy, the outrage, and the SALES… if The Shadow was in a modern comic… willing to execute a corrupt or racist police officer… and… a BLM/New Black Panther activist who crosses the line to murder, as the Dallas shooter did? If he did so without personal conflict, asserting his moral prerogative, and giddily cackled of the evil in their self-righteous hearts all the while? This is a character who could have a profound relevance today, but instead, Spurrier’s dated attempt to ‘update’ the character… have left The Shadow somewhere around the year 2006. 
The Shadow gets more contemporary, the closer he is to his original incarnation.
Incidentally, the Destroyer series filled part of this role in the 1970s. And it looks to be time for another such hero to arise. Look for him in indie, though.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Third Cry of Legba

The glare and the clatter died at the same time throughout the Club Samedi. Even the buzzing crowd-noise suspended in expectation. Behind the orchestra sounded a gong. Once. Twice. Thrice...

The master of ceremonies intoned:

'Midnight. The witching hour. And Illyria!'

The gong chimed on to twelve and stopped.

*     *     *      *      *

From his table on the floor of the Club Samedi, John Thunstone watches an authentic voodoo dance with his date, Sharon, Countess Montesco. Rowley Thorne, another occult enthusiast, introduces himself to Thunstone and Sharon. He declares himself to be patron of the voodoo dance, an invocation to the gateway god Legba. It's a polite introduction, but while Thorne dances with Sharon, Thunstone slips away to question the dancer Illyria. Her account of Thorne's patronage aroused Thunstone's suspicions. He returns the next night, and at the stroke of midnight, Illyria dances again, but she is not alone. Some thing dances with her in the shadows. After the strange ritual, Thorne lets slip that he has designs on Sharon. Furthermore, Thunstone is studied enough in the occult to recognize that Legba is never summoned alone. Strange plans are underfoot, and Thunstone must ready himself for the third cry to Legba.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Xenogenesis

Once again, fandom sinks to the familiar lows described by Harlan Ellison's "Xenogenesis".

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Thunder Jim Wade"

[Thunder Jim Wade] called himself a trouble-shooter. But he had a habit of seeking trouble, and smashing it with a cold, ruthless fury that had given him both name and reputation. His past was shrouded in mystery. Years before he had flashed on the scene like a comet—a comet whose mission was to destroy such men as Duke Solent.
Many had wondered whence Wade had come. But not even “Dirk” Marat and “Red” Argyle, Jim’s aides, knew that. Red was a burly giant with gnarled hands like knotted oak roots, and incredibly deft fingers. And Dirk was a small, innocent-looking chap with blond hair and black eyebrows, and one great passion. That was for cold steel. He could handle guns, but preferred to work with knives.
They helped Wade in his work—which was to smash crime and evil. Together they had wrecked opium rings, slave trades, pearl thievery, and a hundred other unscrupulous activities. 
Kuttner, Henry. Thunder Jim Wade: The Complete Series (pp. 11-12). Altus Press. Kindle Edition.
*     *     *      *      *
In his namesake novella, Thunder Jim Wade arrives at Singapore to discover the whereabouts of his missing agent. During his investigation, he discovers that the agent was kidnapped while snooping into the disappearance of an archaeologist. After freeing the agent, Wade learns that criminal mastermind Duke Solent had captured both men and is on his way to Africa to find a mythical city and a missing treasure. From the clues, Wade discerns that the city in question is his childhood home, the last city of Cretan civilization hidden from the world inside a lost valley. Now Wade and his friends must foil Solent’s designs before this lost city is destroyed.
The Shadow’s breakout success in the 1930s spawned a new genre, the hero pulp. Filled with incorruptible men of vengeance and adventure, these heroes quickly spread throughout the pulp magazines. Except one. When Weird Tales published the adventures of Paul Ernst’s Doctor Satan, the readership revolted, driving out any story with so much as a hint of the hero pulp to it. However, in 1941, Henry Kuttner, one of science fiction’s grandmasters, turned to the genre, penning five novellas about Thunder Jim Wade, a South Seas hero in the mold of Doc Savage, despite the cape and tights that Thrilling Adventures‘ cover artists depicted him in. Unfortunately, the audience of the time considered Thunder Jim Wade to be a cheap Doc Savage knock-off, and Kuttner’s hero never found the sales needed to justify further adventures. 
The “cheap Doc Savage knock-off” accusations are not entirely without merit. Like Doc, Thunder Jim Wade is a man of science, action, and justice. His pals Dirk and Red resemble Doc Savage’s close friends Monk, Ham, Long Tom, Johnny, and Renny, but while Doc’s team combine technical expertise with brawn, Dirk and Red are blue-collar bruisers by comparison. A Pacific island serves as Jim’s Fortress of Solitude, conveniently lifted from Doc’s inventory, alongside the treasure of a lost civilization that enables Thunder Jim Wade’s war on crime. And it is no coincidence that Thunder Jim’s first adventure, like Doc’s The Man of Bronze, sent him to a lost valley civilization.But the comparisons to Doc Savage are low hanging fruit, for Kuttner also mined The Shadow for material. Like Kent Allard, Thunder Jim spent time living among an isolated people, learning their ways and sworn to their protection from outside threats. Thunder Jim learned hypnosis and other mental arts from an exotic Asian people, employs disguises as convincing as The Shadow’s, runs an extensive network of named agents, and is as skilled an aviator as the Knight of Darkness. And Wade’s attitude towards the criminals he fights leans closer to The Shadow’s retribution than Doc’s rehabilitation.
But these strong resonances to these pulp heroes weighs lightly on Thunder Jim, little more than trappings instead of actual substance. Kuttner’s major innovation was to move his pulp hero out of New York, closer to the exotic lands of adventure of the Pacific, Asia, and Africa. In the process, Kuttner’s Singapore, likely no more real than a China Marine’s lurid sea stories, has a verisimilitude that the common underworld pulp tale–and the novella’s Cretan civilization–lacked. At the same time, Thunder Jim is diminished compared to his inspirations, merely human compared to the larger than life Doc Savage and the Shadow. Despite having a wide variety of knowledge and skills at his disposal, Thunder Jim relies instead on the direct approach and muscle-power. Among the many features emulated from Dent, Kuttner did not mimic the constant refrain of how peculiar and exemplary his hero is, and thus Thunder Jim seems to be ordinary for a pulp hero if not outright miscast, a two-fisted street detective that wandered into the wrong magazine. Also missing is the stage magic-inspired misdirection of the hero pulps; the realism and anti-Gothic tastes of Kuttner’s Campbelline circle of friends did not lend itself to the dramatic tricks that filled the hero magazines, as Babette Rosmund’s later editorial stints in charge of Doc Savage and The Shadow would prove.
But Thunder Jim Wade might not be entirely Kuttner’s creation. In 1941, he was newly wed to Catherine “C. L.” Moore, and, by merit of being the more prolific of the two writers, the breadwinner for their family. Thunder Jim Wade was not the first of his departures from science fiction to more lucrative writings, nor would it be his last, as science fiction in the 1940s was not a large enough market to support full-time writers alone. (Like many Campbelline era science fiction writers, Kuttner would turn to screenwriting, and eventually leave the genre entirely..) And entering the potentially lucrative hero pulps meant becoming a hired gun as a writer. Even Walter Gibson and Lester Dent worked with committees to develop their heroes’ adventures, and the editorial constraints of the lesser magazines could be even tighter. It is likely that the more derivative elements were editorial diktat.
Likewise, it is also probable that the contributions of his wife and frequent collaborator Catherine were minimal, too. Which is a shame. A touch of the stylings of Northwest Smith, akin to those in her story “Black Thirst”, would have livened both Thunder Jim Wade and his foster Cretan home.
Although competently written, as a hero pulp, “Thunder Jim Wade” adheres closely to the tropes and formulae of the genre but misses the spirit. As such, the novella satisfies neither fans of the genre or fans of Kuttner’s science fiction and fantasy. But it still occasionally shines with flashes of brilliance, and none more brightly than its opening setting of Singapore.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Trends: Reviews

This next trend was inevitable in hindsight. Since most of the major review sites tend to neglect indie books, the Editorial Reviews section can be a little sparse for most authors. The solution many authors use is to pull quotes from their Amazon reviews into the Editorial Reviews section. For an example, look at the page for Dark Space Universe, by Jasper T. Scott:

I've provided an image capture, as science fiction indies experiment a lot with presentation. This will likely have changed in a month or two.

Now, this particular layout is common to the Sci-Fi Bridge authors, combining a long list of reader reviews with bold text that shows off the choicest phrases of the review. And, as long as this one is, with 12 reviews, I have seen even longer sections that easily double this.

Now, as I said, I think using customer reviews to advertise books was inevitable. Not only because of the blind spot that major review sites have towards indie and self-publishing but because Amazon has changed the game to where customer reviews matter more than critics to the buying reader. I think this trend is clever, but it is running to excess.

As mentioned, there is a tendency to squeeze as many reviews into the Editorial Reviews section as possible. This has three drawbacks tied to length.

First, the sheer can length can (and does) provide an annoyance to customers trying to scroll past the wall of text to get to the actual reviews.

Second, as, mentioned, the wall of text makes it easier for that outright clutch pull quote to get lost in the shuffle. The Sci-Fi Bridge approach attempts to mitigate this by bolding text to draw your eye, but if the bolded part of the review is the important part, perhaps the unbolded phrases could be cut. Also, readers tend to really only register the first and last sentences of a paragraph, especially when speed reading, so perhaps it might be best to lead and close with the most memorable quotes.

Finally, to achieve length and give the impression that many people are talking about their books, some writers are less picky about the quotes used than they should be. I've seen multiple quotes fill this section while saying the same idea in slightly different words and none in a particularly memorable way. This is length without meaning and promotes skimming. And try not to repeat quotes as well. Not only does this provide length without new meaning, it reflects poorly on an author's proofreading and professionalism.

I expect to see more experimentation in this section of the Amazon page as the more marketing savvy writers figure out how to create the most impact from reviews. While I think it will boil down to using the six most memorable and punchiest quotes an author can find, we'll soon see how this trend shall develop.