Review: Why can’t climate change be funny and romantic, too?

Love in the Time of Climate Change cover

Love in the Time of Climate Change

One of my pet peeves about environmental activists and climate change activists in particular is their shriveled sense of humor. Not all, mind you, but most beat a constant drum of doom and gloom that makes me want to jump off a cliff. Way to crucify my Jesus, people! That’s why it’s refreshing to read a story that takes a lighter view of a serious subject. Love in the Time of Climate Change, the first novel by Brian Adams, also makes the case that even the end of the world can spark a romance.

Casey is a 32-year-old community college professor who suffers from OCD, obsessive climate disorder. Rising sea and CO2 levels, evil oil companies, the stupidity of deniers, and other bugbears of climate doomsayers are never far from his mind, until the arrival of Samantha, a 29-year-old middle school teacher who needs some professional development credits. Over the course of the novel, Samantha’s hotness competes with Casey’s fears of global warming, until their interest in climate science and each other culminates in an meeting of minds and bodies. Continue reading

What Ebenezer Scrooge teaches America about atonement for the CIA’s sins.

Ebenezer Scrooge film still

Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol. Does he realize his need to atone?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite stories, is playing on every TV channel and in every community theatre across the country. This week, the country learned about terrible sins committed in the name of national security. In my own twisted way, I noticed a connection between the fiction and the reality. Ebenezer Scrooge experienced a transformative moment derived from his accumulated sins. Is our country going through a similar moment, and like Scrooge, will it atone for its behavior?

Although CIA Director John Brennan has offered a litany of excuses out of loyalty to his agency, no one has denied that the CIA applied “enhanced interrogation techniques” to terrorism suspects (though former Vice President Dick Cheney says it wasn’t torture). It’s as close to an admission of torturing people as you’ll hear from an American intelligence agency. Even if you believe the CIA had to go to extremes to defend the United States, the agency still broke national and international law and acted contrary to civilized values. Another value, atonement, comes into play.

Cue Ebenezer Scrooge. Continue reading

Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech was misguided and wrong.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin was given a lifetime achievement award, and she said some naive things.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s November 19 speech at the National Book Awards in New York struck a nerve. My nerve. In six minutes, after accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the grande dame of American science fiction and fantasy lambasted her own publishers who charge libraries “six or seven times the price for books they charge their customers,” “profiteers” (read: Amazon) who tried to punish a publisher (read: Hachette) for “disobedience,” and fellow writers whom she says have buckled under the imperative for profit. “We need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of an art,” she said.

Bravo.

Le Guin spoke many truths, but her speech left me cold. Was it envy? I wondered how one as intelligent and honest could so easily scold an industry which has brought her fame and riches. I find it hard to accept that a publisher took risks on her early work purely because it wanted to support art and not as an interesting, if head-scratching addition to its catalog that might earn a few dollars over the long term. It is genre fiction, after all.

Perhaps I was skeptical of her rant because it resembles so many other laments for a tight-knit, rapidly disappearing world, that of a select group of “serious” publishers and “serious” editors who work with “serious” writers. These tastemakers have had a stranglehold on literature for three hundred years. Having seen first-hand the disruptive power of digital technology while I was at RealNetworks in the 1990s, I understand how frightening and painful transformation can be. I wonder if the ancient Greek poets of the oral tradition castigated merchants in the agora for selling those awful printed versions of epic poems. People just aren’t hiring singers of oral art anymore! It’s those damned scribblers disrupting the market!

Below Le Guin’s analysis lies a hidden assumption: If a book is published by a major house, it must be good. A cursory examination of recent bestsellers shows this to be false. Critics and discerning readers found Fifty Shades of Grey to be laughably bad. My daughters warned me that the sequels to Twilight and Hunger Games were sub-par. The fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, A Dance With Dragons, was a sorry mess. The tastemakers aren’t always on target. In fact, they publish crap when they know it’s crap. Why? Pandering earns revenue that subsidizes the few brilliant writers, including Le Guin. Gotta love capitalism.

Le Guin calls herself a friend to self-published authors, even as she decries Amazon. This is naive at least, because if it weren’t for Amazon’s scale, which reduces the cost of production and provides access to a large market, self-publishing would’ve remained the realm of rich dilettantes. Let’s be honest: Amazon behaved like a bully in its recent dealings with Hachette. Despite its business practices (or because of them), the company, along with competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, is enabling a renaissance of written expression. It’s most recent project, Kindle Scout, is pushing aside the tastemakers by crowdsourcing publishing decisions, democratizing the filter process by offering readers a chance to weigh in on what is worthy of publication. Devolving decision-making to the masses always frightens the entrenched powers.

Amazon is in business to make a profit. Who knew? That’s been the case among booksellers since Gutenberg. If the German printer hadn’t made a profit with his bibles, he would’ve tossed his press onto the dung heap. Singling out Amazon (though I always agree that the powerful be held to account), strikes me as paranoiac. Amazon isn’t a demon; it’s showing signs of creaking under its own weight. In reality, the book universe is moving toward a new mix of traditionally published and independently published content distributed on a variety of platforms. The resurgence of the independent bookstore, once thought dead, is the best proof of this trend.

The printed book still sells strong as a teaching tool, keepsake, gift, or status symbol. The ebook is valued for its convenience and low price. Smart indie writers employ free-lance editors and cover designers. Readers ask for a voice in the publishing process, while trusting that some tastemakers have it right. Le Guin ought to revel in this emerging creative anarchy, instead of wishing all the people who don’t fit her worldview would go away.

Disclosure: My books have been published traditionally, on Amazon KDP, on Smashwords, and by CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary.

Has Game of Thrones reached its sell-by date?

George RR Martin meme

George RR Martin finishes the Game of Thrones series. Yeah, in your wildest fantasy.

Ok, so I’m late to the party, but I just spent the last six or eight weeks (I’ve lost count) reading the 1,123-page paperback edition of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, book five of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, mostly because my obsessive-compulsive tendencies prevented me from abandoning the door-stopper. I wasted about half that time.

You know there’s a problem when the author has to explain himself on the first page of the book. After the dedication, itself a tome (31 names!), in what he titles a “cavil,” an obscure word meaning “trivial objection,” he nearly apologizes for what he’s about to do: give you virtual whiplash by taking you backward then forward in time and into parallel universes. Off you go, don’t get lost! Continue reading

Hachette may have won the battle, but Amazon will win the war

Medieval joust

Hachette may have unhorsed Amazon, but the game is far from done.

Amazon and Hachette kissed, made up, and walked into the sunset hand-in-hand after their ten-month dispute over ebook pricing. That’s what the spin doctors want you to think when you read the statements issued by each company yesterday and the followup press reports, but it’s impossible to believe that the fires of resentment and future conflict aren’t seething in the c-suites of both companies. Hachette may have won the engagement, but the war is far from over.

Here’s the issue: Amazon wanted to set ebook prices on its website; Hachette wanted to set them itself. In a version of single combat worthy of Game of Thrones, Amazon landed the first blows when it pulled features such as overnight delivery of Hachette books. Not for the first time, Amazon used its market power to pressure a supplier to sell on best terms. Hachette took the rare step of publicly crying foul, and pursued a boxing-like jab-jab-jab strategy to wear down its opponent. Meanwhile, it egged on a loud chorus of ringside authors in an attempt to shame the champion into lowering its guard, leaving it open to a knock-him-on-his-arse blow. Continue reading

Review: How “Interstellar” resembles “How the West Was Won”

Interstellar movie poster

Interstellar owes a lot to the epic western genre.

Interstellar is a glorious tangle, an ambitious film that accomplishes much, but fails to grab the audience by the throat. Director Christopher Nolan delivers a sci-fi epic true to the Hollywood form, spanning galaxies and taking the viewer to places impossible to visit in real life. It expands on a classic American (indeed, human) theme–striking out for new lands–but falters when Nolan can’t escape the black hole of Hollywood cliches.

As father of two daughters, I’m a sucker for the film’s central relationship, that of test-pilot-turned-farmer Cooper, played by mumble-mouthed Matthew McConaughey, with his genius daughter Murphy, played by three different actors of various ages, most effectively by young McKenzie Foy. They live on a flat, dry, blight-ravaged landscape where ecological disaster has overtaken humanity’s ability to adapt. Climate change is the unspoken villain, though the emergency is scientifically non-sensical (“Earth is running out of oxygen!”). The most alarming aspect of this world is hopelessness, a sense that the land is finally wreaking its revenge on its human exploiters and there’s not a damn thing they can do about it. Continue reading

Is fiction about climate change for real?

Still from Interstellar

Climate change is a driving force in Interstellar’s plot. Still courtesy Warner Bros.

The movie Interstellar opens on November 7 and climate change drives the story. Stills and leaked reports about its plot point to an agriculture irreparably damaged by global warming, forcing the protagonist to leave Earth in search of greener pastures. Commentators are lumping Interstellar into the current crop of post-apocalyptic thrillers, which include Hunger Games and Divergent. A few writers and activists are pegging it as “climate fiction,” though others say such genre thinking trivializes a disaster unfolding in real time.

Hollywood embraced global warming as a theme only recently. Young Ones, released on October 9, posits a future with little fresh water, and Into the Storm, which opened August 8, shows a small town devastated by a series of climate-driven super-tornadoes. Science fiction writers, however, have imagined a climate-ravaged world since the early 1960s. One of the most prescient early books is George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, published in 1987. His vision of an Australia flooded by rising seas is echoed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s Bangkok in his 2010 novel The Windup Girl. The Thai capital is kept alive by dikes and gates reminiscent of the Thames Barrier in London. Continue reading