Draws Suck

For the longest time being and American soccer fan meant, among other things, getting stick from fans of other American sports about what shit soccer is because games can end in draws. Scoreless draws, no less! Sure, the occasional NFL game winds up tied, but nobody likes it, and in every other major sport teams play until there’s a winner. They even changed the rules for college football to provide for endless overtime if needed.

My answer to this has always been about how goals are precious in soccer and, sometimes, a draw is a just result. More than that, a team that battles back to “grab a point” with a late goal is just as exciting as a team scoring a late winner. Sure, there are boring draws in soccer, but there are boring games in every sport.

What I have noticed in soccer, though, is the tendency to treat draws as better results than they are. It makes me grind my teeth every time I hear a manager or player talk about “playing for a draw,” especially in a road game. It’s one thing, for example, to look at a US World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica and say a draw as a good result all things considered; it’s completely different to start the game playing for a single point.

I’ve been thinking about draws in the wake of the final weekend of the English Premier League, which saw Manchester City defend their title over a charging Liverpool. Here’s how the final table shaped up (via the BBC):

EPL Table

I’ve included the top four there just to show how far out in front Man City and Liverpool were. For comparison’s sake, Liverpool’s 97 points would have won the title any other season this century, except for last season (Man City had 100!). It was a two horse race for many months, but Man City was always a nose ahead, for one simple reason – draws.

Much has been made of the fact that Liverpool lost only one game this season and how odd it is for them to come second to Man City, who lost four. How does something like that happen? Well, for one thing, the two teams played twice during the season, with Man City winning once and the other winding up in a draw. That certainly helped Man City’s hopes.

More than that, it’s that Liverpool drew too many games. Sure, Man City lost four, but they only drew twice, whereas Liverpool drew seven times. As a result, Man City won more games than Liverpool, which seems as good a basis as any for determining a champion.

The language of soccer is filled with talk about a team “getting a result” when they draw. And, sure, they get a point for the standings, which is better than nothing. But one point is closer to none than the three points you get for a win,* so it perhaps makes more sense for teams to privilege victories over “results.” I’m reminded of the stat-based theory that NFL teams should go for it more on fourth down. The benefits of pushing for a win (or a first down) are so much higher than what you risk in terms of losing.

Bottom line – the best way of winning a championship in just about any sport is to win as many games as you can. There can be good draws – Liverpool’s late point against Everton was better than nothing – but most of them aren’t. Draws suck. Playing for a draw is bad strategy in the long run. The sooner the soccer world realizes that the better.

oh-man-we-lost-1-0-well-atleast-its-not-a-nil-nil-draw

* Fun fact. Before the 1980s standings were based on two points for a win, one point for a draw. Even using that standard, the result is the same – Man City wins the title by a point, 68-67.

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The Plusses and Pitfalls of Non-Standard Narratives

In whichever mediums stories are told – in print, on a screen, orally – they usually have a similar narrative structure. The story is presented as it is, with perhaps some limitation on the point of view of the narrator, but without any particular artifice. Sometimes creators do something a little different and impose some kind of artifice on the narrative. That can be a thrilling creative choice, but it can also pose some potential problems. I was thinking about that over the weekend when I encountered two largely successful examples of non-standard narratives.

Evil Eye, by Madhuri Shekar, is an “Audible original,” one of those short freebies offered up to members every month.

EvilEye

Although Audible is mostly known for audiobooks, in my experience these have been closer to podcasts or radio plays, for the most part. Evil Eye is a story about an Indian-American woman struggling with her mother back in India who keeps trying to arrange a marriage for her. When she finally meets a guy without mom’s intervention what begins as a light rom-com kind of thing dives headlong into a story of revenge, reincarnation, and violence. It’s pretty damned good, even if Shekar doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Part of what made Evil Eye so compelling was that it was told entirely through phone calls and voice mail messages. It takes a little while to get a handle on, but it’s used pretty effectively. For example, there a portion of the story where one character basically disappears and another frantically tries to find them. The repeated voice mail messages to a phone nobody is answering, combined with the ratcheting up of the caller’s anxiety, is a great effect.

It doesn’t all work, though. The climax involves a confrontation between multiple characters that can’t really play out in a phone call. The work around is to have one character make a call, then leave the line open while the confrontation happens (in pristine audio detail). It’s clearly a cheat, but not one I hold against Evil Eye too much.

Can’t say quite the same for Searching, a movie that came out last year.

Searching

Searching is about a widower father searching for his high-school daughter who failed to come home one night. It’s fairly suspenseful and engrossing, at least until the writer/director decided it needed a happy ending, at which point the wheels really come off.

Searching’s gimmick is that it’s told entirely through computer screens – via deep dives into emails, Google searches, and Facetime calls (it’s an Apple household, naturally). For the first half of the movie or so this is really effective. The opening segment that sets up the family dynamic and the relationship (or lack thereof) between father and daughter is really excellent, reminding me in terms of storytelling efficiency of the beginning of Up.

Things start to a little sour after that, however. While the father is digging into the digital realm the gimmick works pretty well, but when he has to interact with other people it wears thin. Every conversation between the father and the cop leading the investigation into his missing daughter takes place over Facetime. Why? Because that’s how the movie is made, not because it really makes any sense. The father has a public confrontation with a possible suspect, assaulting him, but we only see it from crappy cell phone videos. Most problematic, when the father confronts his brother about potentially explosive allegations he does so only after rigging the brother’s house with surveillance equipment. Again, why? Because of the gimmick, not because it makes any kind of sense.

Indeed, sometimes you just have to be willing to drop the gimmick and get on with the story. The most famous example of non-standard narratives in literature may be Dangerous Liaisons, which is told entirely in letters between the two main characters. The fact that it’s one of the few books that’s been improved upon by putting on screen suggests that the gimmick isn’t the important part of that story.

Using gimmicks to tell a story can be fun. It can knock your reader of her narrative feet, shaking her up and forcing her to engage with the story in a different way. It can also help you get more deeply into a character than you might in a story told in a more traditional way. But gimmicks can become their own problems, boxing you in to certain narrative choices that might not work best for the story you want to tell.

Remember, kids: always keep control of your gimmicks – don’t let your gimmicks control you.

Reassessing Sportsmanship

So this is probably the weirdest goal you’ll see in (nearly) top-flight soccer this year (video* via).

You’re seeing that right – one team basically gets out of the way while the other walks the ball into the net, tying the game at 1-1. What the hell was going on? Sportsmanship, or so it’s being sold. I’m more than a bit confused.

But first some background, both personal and contextual.

You know how sometimes you see publishing or distribution deals that give the US rights to one company and another firm gets the rights for “rest of the world”? I’m kind of that way with soccer loyalties. Here in the US my team is DC United. I’ve followed them since MLS started in 1997, from early domination to later doldrums and everything in between. For the rest of the world, so to speak, my team is Leeds United.

Scarves1Crop

They’re currently toiling in the second tier in England (which is called the Championship and is right above the third-tier league called . . . League One – yes, it’s confusing). Leeds was peaking when I started following soccer closely in the 1990s and something about them attracted me. They’ve since overspent and plummeted down the ranks in England, going so far as the aforementioned League One before settling into a fairly consistent pattern of disappointment in the Championship.

Which brings us to this season. With a new manager, the enigmatic Marcelo Biesla, Leeds has been in the thick of the promotion race from the jump. The top two teams in the Championship automatically move up to the Premier League the next season, while the next four (third to sixth places) go into a playoff to determine the third promoted team. Leeds has been solidly within the six for most of the season, and had some hopes of snagging one of the top two spots, but some recent bad performances basically ruled that out.

So it was that they hosted Aston Villa on Sunday. Villa is also among the six, so the game still had some bite to it. Which is how this happened.

Essentially, with a Villa player down apparently injured around midfield, the Leeds players kept playing. For years the “sporting” thing to do was for one team to play the ball out so the injured player could be treated, but more recently it’s been made clear that it’s the referee’s job to stop play. As we tell kids at the lowest level of little league anything – you play to the whistle. Villa took offense and a brouhaha erupted (complete with a pretty bad dive by Leeds forward Patrick Bamford).

So, Bielsa had his team lay down so Villa could score the equalizer. What made it more farcical was that Leeds defender Pontus Jansson either didn’t get the memo or disagreed with the boss, making an attempt to tackle the ball away. The game ended 1-1, keeping Villa in position for the playoff while finally extinguishing any remote chance (it was very very remote) of scraping back into the top two and earning automatic promotion.

Bielsa’s gotten his fair share of praise for this as an example of good sportsmanship. Although Alexi Lalas lays the blame at the clumsy feet of the players:

Naturally, others suggest that there was nothing really to lose, since Leeds had no real chance of getting second place anyway, or that Bielsa is still trying to rebuild his image after a “spying” scandal earlier in the season. Regardless, the end result is the same – the team essentially forfeited a win and sacrificed two points in the standings to affirm an unwritten rule that maybe shouldn’t be honored anymore.

This all reminds me of something I wrote about earlier this year in the wake of the Rams/Saints fiasco before the Super Bowl – in 1999 Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger demanded that his team replay a FA Cup match against a lower division team after Arsenal had scored a goal in a moment of confusion following a similar incident – the other team played the ball out to allow an injured player to get treatment, then an Arsenal substitute pounced on the ensuing throw in. I’ve always viewed that as a great example of sportsmanship where Wenger really put something on the line – had Arsenal lost the replay they would have been out of the tournament.

But, truth be told, I’d don’t care about Arsenal’s success. Leeds, on the other hand, I care about, so I’m having to rethink my ideas on sportsmanship in these situations. I mean, given the point of the season where it occurred it didn’t matter a whole lot, so in such situations there good reason to be magnanimous. Plus, the laws of the game (soccer has laws, not rules, you understand) could be clearer, as it says that the ball is out of play only when it’s actually crossed a boundary or “play has been stopped by the referee.” But, obviously if a team kicks the ball out intentionally that’s still out of play, so where does that get you?

On the other hand, unspoken rules – “gentleman’s agreements” – are supremely flimsy. I’m generally of the opinion that a right without a remedy, without a means of enforcement, is no right at all and that same’s true for an unwritten rule in sports. Leeds’ players did nothing wrong by playing on when the ref didn’t stop the game. That’s his job, not theirs. It’s the same thing as a player correcting a ref’s bad call – it’s the ref’s job to get things right, not the player’s to atone for his sins. In other words, it’s above and beyond the call to play the game with complete honesty. And, honestly, does anybody believe that if the same situation happened in the playoff final, with promotion at stake, that Bielsa would have done the same thing?

I don’t think so. I hope he wouldn’t. There’s a world of difference between cheating and taking advantage of an opponent’s expectations. All may be fair in love and war, but as the old saying goes, soccer is more important than that!

* Apologies for the lack of embedded video. Couldn’t figure out how to get Deadspin’s player to work on the blog.

Another Literary Writer Discovers Speculative Fiction

To quote John Hurt at the end of Spaceballs:

oh-no-not-again

I’ve written before about “literary” writers who refuse to accept that if they write a book about genetic engineering or post-apocalyptic dystopias or clones that they’re writing science fiction. As much as that honks me off, I can sort of understand it. Artists hate to be pigeonholed (ask Robert Fripp about progressive rock!) and if they’re well known for non-genre works they want to stay in that lane. They’re still wrong, but I get it. Now I’m just trying to figure if I prefer it to sheer ignorance.

Ian McEwan is nothing if not a literary icon – author of more than a dozen novels, one of which, Amsterdam, won the Man Booker Prize while another, Atonement, became an Oscar-winning film. He is literary with a capital “L,” no doubt about it. Now he’s decided come and play in the genre sandbox. Nothing wrong with that – all are welcome! – but he’s being kind of a putz about it.

McEwan’s new book, Machines Like Me, is blurbed like this:

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control.

Machines

Sounds interesting! Alternate history, robots, and warnings about “the power to invent things beyond our control” are all interesting areas for sci-fi to explore. And the cover model looks like he came right off a Kraftwerk album! Problem is, McEwan appears to think he’s the first person to address such topics. From a lengthy (and interesting) interview recently in The Guardian:

McEwan has an abiding faith that novels are the best place to examine such ethical dilemmas, though he has little time for conventional science fiction. ‘There could be an opening of a mental space for novelists to explore this future, not in terms of travelling at 10 times the speed of light in anti-gravity boots, but in actually looking at the human dilemmas of being close up to something that you know to be artificial but which thinks like you. If a machine seems like a human or you can’t tell the difference, then you’d jolly well better start thinking about whether it has responsibilities and rights and all the rest.’

I’m with McEwan on the power of literature to examine ethical dilemmas inherent in things like artificial intelligence or robotics, but, I mean, science fiction has been dealing with that since almost the beginning. As Gautham Shenoy at Factor Daily puts it:

If nothing, this displays spectacular ignorance on the part of this Booker Prize-winning author because, as far as metaphors go, that is what the novel widely considered to be the first modern science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about. A fact that becomes all too ironical when McEwan describes Machines Like Me as an ‘anti-Frankenstein novel’. And as far as the larger themes that McEwan claims to tackle in his novel, they could well describe almost the entire body of work of Hollywood’s favourite science fiction author, Philip K. Dick, the fictionalizing philosopher. For the longest time, science fiction has always been about exploring the ‘human dilemma’ as McEwan puts it, and the question of the human-ness of androids has been explored to no end, not least in Annallee Newitz’s Autonomous, in recent times amongst many others. Not to mention that what Mr. McEwan seeks to do now is what a whole phase of science fiction did decades years ago – a movement now referred as the ‘New Wave of SF’ from the 1960/70s which saw science fiction, as a genre, move towards ‘literary merit’ and the ‘softer’ side of science was all about exploring the human condition, typified by scores of science fiction authors including Thomas M. Disch, John Brunner, Joanna Russ, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Theodore Sturgeon, Frtiz Liber, Samuel R. Delaney, Brian Aldiss, Michal Moorcock, Alfred Bester, and of course, Philip K. Dick.

McEwan may have a new perspective on the issue of humanity and the machines we create, but it’s presumptuous to think he’s the first person to grapple with those issues in fiction. Shenoy quotes the great Iain (M.) Banks as calling such drop ins by literary folks, claiming to be breaking new ground, as “comically arrogant . . . to fail to do the basic research.” That sounds about right. I mean, how do you know you have something new to say if you don’t know what those who came before you have already said?

I suppose it’s a step forward for a big literary star like McEwan to not hide the ball on playing in the sci-fi sandbox. But on the other hand, it’s at least one step back (if not two) if he thinks he’s the first one whose ever been in there.

Oh, well. At least the book looks “pretty good.”

Adaptation by Subtraction

One of the reasons novels are so hard to adapt into movies is because there’s just so much in them. Short stories are much easier to completely absorb into a two-hour film, but a book that runs several hundred pages? A real task. Often where filmmakers go wrong is in trying to cram as much of the novel onto the screen as possible, trying to please fans and make sure nothing important gets left out. In truth, that’s about the worst way to attempt an adaptation.

The best adaptations are ones where the filmmakers take the core of the novel and transport it onto the screen, maintaining the feel and ideas of the book, while jettisoning material that gets in the way. Having just read the novel on which it’s based I think the best example of that may be L.A. Confidential.

LACMovie

Directed by Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script along with Brian Helgeland, the film was critical lauded when it was released in 1997. Nominated for nine Oscars it won two, including for the screenplay (it lost best picture to Titanic – not a choice that aged well), which was adapted from the James Ellroy’s 1990 novel of the same name. It’s one of my favorite movies.

The book and movie both follow a trio of cops in 1950s Los Angeles as they try to unravel a conspiracy of corruption among the police, politicians, and wealthy businessmen. The events take place in the wake of “Bloody Christmas,” an actual LAPD prisoner abuse scandal, and are catalyzed by a (fictional, so far as I know) shotgun massacre of six people at a diner called the Nite Owl. Everything comes to a very bloody end.

LACBook

The film tells a tight story, hewing close to the Nite Owl killing as the driving force and covering only a few days. The cops – Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), Wendell “Bud” White (Russell Crowe), and Jack Vincennes (he who shall not be named) – each take their own paths to the truth, which is far from convenient for any of them. They boil down into fictional cop archetypes – the by-the-book choir boy who has to get his hands dirty (Exley), the thug who wants to be more cerebral (Bud), and the glib hustler enamored with Hollywood glitz and scandal (Jack). As someone else wrote a long time ago, Exley and Bud make one good cop between them.

The book, by contrast, spreads out over several years (with huge time jumps pretty clumsily handled) and adds to the Nite Owl a huge, sprawling murder case that involves torture porn and not one but two serial killers! I’m probably biased from having come to the film first, but this part of the book didn’t work that well for me, as it was so over the top it sacrificed some verisimilitude for spectacle. It is also dark as fuck, full of language that wouldn’t pass any modern PC filter.

What’s amazing is that for leaving out all that stuff the movie still basically ends in the same place in terms of theme. Exley learns that sometimes rules have to be bent to deal with real evil (the lesson of every good fictional cop and, sadly, way too many real life ones), while Bud does his best to rise above his brutality, but winds up reverting to type in the end. Jack winds up dead in both tellings, although for very different reasons.

What the book does that no movie can touch is get us much deeper into the heads of the three cops around whom the story revolves. Bud in the book is basically Bud from the movie, but the other two get backstories that really sharpen their characters. As in the movie, Exley is a war hero, but in the book we learn he’s also a fraud – he framed the aftermath of an act of cowardice to look like bravery. The relationship with his father – an ex-cop turned real estate developer – also gets a lot of development and helps explain why Exley is who he is. The Jack of the book gets a lot more development, including a tragic fuck up in his past and a love interest that gives him more of a potential redemption arc.

Which is to say some things are lost in the adaptation, but not much. For the most part, Hanson and Helgeland got it right on what to cut and what to emphasize. But don’t take my word for it:

Ellroy approved: ‘They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes. The script is very much about the [characters’] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I’ve long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.’

That puts Ellroy in a pretty limited company of authors who are fans of the movies based on their works. Like I said – sometimes it’s not about what’s left in, but what’s left out that makes an adaptation successful.

Whither West Virginia?

Writing alternate history is a tricky business. There’s a long way between weed-fueled gab sessions about what would have happened if the American Revolution failed or whatever and writing a story in a believable world that’s diverged from our own in a particular way. Who can really tell what that one change will make?

The conceit of Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines is pretty intriguing: Abraham Lincoln is assassinated just prior to his first inauguration, rather than at the end of the Civil War. That leads to the “Crittenden Compromise,” a group of amendments to the Constitution that permanently protects slavery. Over the years several states emancipate, so that by the time the book takes place in the “modern” era slavery still exists in the “hard four” – Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas (united for reasons never explained).

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The story itself involves Victor, a runaway slave who becomes an undercover bounty hunter for the US Marshals tracking down other runaways. That means infiltrating the modern equivalent of the Underground Railroad, which is still trying to shuttle escaped slaves to Canada. It’s told entirely from his point of view, which gets deep down into his head as he deals with issues of guilt, anger, cynicism and a bunch else. It’s a pretty good character study that loses its feet a little bit when the narrative heads south (literally) and concludes with some of those twists you don’t see coming that characterize detective stories.

Naturally, most of the world we see is through Victor’s eyes and there are some interesting nuggets about what a 21st-century United States with slavery looks like (spoiler – it’s not a non-racist utopia in the rest of the country), but for the most part it looks like history mostly marched on as we know it. There were, apparently, two world wars, for example (FDR used arms manufacturing contracts as a carrot to get a couple of states to abolish slavery), which doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s not necessarily wrong either.

On the other hand, there are some things that maybe don’t quite make sense in a world where the United States never abolished slavery and avoided the Civil War. Would a nation isolated by the rest of the world played any role, much less the same one, in the world wars? Winters gives us a Vietnam analog with a failed attempt by Texas to secede in the 1960s, presumably in recognition of the fact that the Cold War probably doesn’t happen. In her review of the book at Tor, Alex Brown writes:

]The details are extraordinary, although some of the larger questions are left untouched. The biggest omission for me was the lack of world building in the West. Outside a couple of references to Texas, the entire western half of the US is never even mentioned, yet in the real world slavery had a huge impact on the West (says the woman who wrote her MA US History thesis on Black life in the West). Southerners traveling overland often sold some of their slaves to finance their journey. Those left behind were devastated by broken homes, and after the Civil War thousands of freed slaves took out ads looking for their families; most were never reunited. Countless slaves worked in the gold mines, cattle ranches, and citrus orchards in California in the 1840s and 1850s, while even more were cowboys on the plains. Dozens of Black-founded towns are scattered across the West, and, of course, one of the worst race riots in American history took place in Tulsa in 1921. Alt-history or no, you don’t get the modern United States—including its scientific advancements and racism—without the development of the West, and you don’t get the West without Black people.

Which is what makes me wonder about West Virginia in the world Winters created. Here’s a map (helpfully available online and in the front of the ebook preview for those of us who absorbed the audiobook) of the United States of Underground Airlines:

UndergroundMap

As you can see, West Virginia is there, just like it is in the real world. The problem is that West Virginia was literally born in the Civil War. Given the timeline for the book Lincoln was killed before  Virginia voted to secede, which prompted the crisis that eventually spawned West Virginia. Without that, there’d be no West Virginia. That’s not to say there weren’t divides between the folks living west of the mountains and the Tidewater plantation owners that dominated antebellum Virginia politics – there was a pretty good reason to spin the western part of the state off on its own. But given how difficult it is to carve a new state from an existing one, it’s unlikely it ever would have happened but for the breach that was the Civil War.

None of that has anything to do with the story Underground Airlines is telling, of course, but it is an example of how alternate history worlds sometimes raise questions in the peripheral vision that will catch the attention of a few readers, but blow by most. I’m not sure what that means in the long run, but this West Virginian is ready to “repeat to yourself that it’s just a [book], you should really just relax” and just enjoy.

Weekly Read – The Great War

Ever just fall down a rabbit hole and disappear into a topic for a while? For the past couple of months I’ve been reading nothing but books on the First World War. I hadn’t been driven to do so during the 100th anniversary observances over the past few years, so what dragged me in? Would you believe me if I said it was an interest in genre fiction?

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of how men (mostly) who fought in World War I impacted the development of horror, particularly in the nascent motion picture industry.

Wasteland

Many of the early classic horror films – from Nosferatu through Bride of Frankenstein – have connections that date back to the carnage of World War I. Wasteland does a good job of surveying the various developments in the arts as people began to process the industrial scale of death that the war brought, different in orders of magnitude from anything before. Plus, I had no idea Salvador Dali was such an asshole!

Reading Wasteland made me realize that, aside from some broad brush strokes I picked up in school, I really didn’t know much about World War I, so I decided to dive into some of the history of it. Where better to start than the beginning, right?

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist name Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife), heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Most people know that as the “start” of the war, but the truth is much more complex (and interesting). In fact it was a month before hostilities broke out, a month during which diplomatic wheels were constantly in motion. That month, the “July Crisis,” is the focus of July 1914: Countdown to War, which exhaustively covers the debates, maneuverings, and petty squabbles of parties all over Europe as the continent slouched towards war.

Coutdown

What was most amazing to me (aside from the fact that in a large number of states a hereditary autocrat was actually in charge – 100 year ago!) is how little emotional investment the various players had in Ferdinand’s death. Certain his own father didn’t seem all the broken up, as did most of the power brokers in Austria-Hungary, who saw him as a potential reformer and were happy to be rid of him. Only German Kaiser Wilhelm really seemed broken up about it. So what Ferdinand’s death just a cynical crisis used to give everybody an excuse to go to war? No, the roots of the war date back into the 19th century (who knew the integrity of an independent Belgium was so important?), but what is clear is that everybody involved had a plan if war was coming and once they committed to them, the die was pretty much cast.

Moving on from the start of the war, my next read was A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

WorldUndone

Rather than getting bogged down in the details of a particular battle of campaign, the book provides a swift (if lengthy) overview of the war on all fronts. Sometimes it’s a little too much overview. For example, the chapter on Gallipoli mentions how a British force could have taken advantage of something had it moved quickly, but it took four weeks – we never learn why. Unfortunately for me, it spends the first section (of six) on the July Crisis, so it was a little redundant for me. More disappointing, it didn’t deal in similar detail with what happened after the war and during the various peace talks. In between, though, it’s a depressingly fascinating catalog of the various failures of the parties to figure out something to do other than grind millions of people through useless battle after useless battle. You’d think, for example, that generals and politicians could put aside petty personal differences in the face of existential threats to their country (one of the interesting recurring themes is how the propaganda of the war made pursuing peace settlements hard – who wants to make peace with the devil?), but, alas, people are people, even in the middle of the Great War.

Since A World Undone didn’t touch much on what happened after the war I decided that I needed one more book to finish things up. Rather than dive into a book about the peace conferences and treaties (of which the Treaty of Versailles was just one) I went with The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Provocative title, no?

Vanquished

The point of The Vanquished is that the war destabilized Europe and the Middle East to such an extent that the “peace” actually constituted a lot of revolutionary violence and civil wars. Most of it was in Eastern Europe (don’t forget that Russia got out of the war once the czar was deposed) and the places that had been carved out of the late Ottoman Empire like new-fangled countries Iraq and Jordan. Of course, Germany didn’t escape unscathed by all this, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. Even countries on the winning side, like Italy, fell to popular revolution.

On the one hand he First World War wrought huge changes in the world. It swept away the last vestiges of most European monarchies, at least as the people who actually ran their countries. It launched the United States into place as a major international player. And, technologically, it introduced a host or horrible things to modern warfare. But, in a lot of ways, it didn’t change much. Or, more accurately, it left so much unresolved that the Second World War was almost inevitable.

I’ve got a better handle on that now, thanks to all this reading. I can’t say it restored any of my faith in humanity, though. I recommend all these books – but maybe not to read all in one go.

Writers Can Do Research, You Know

You may remember last year when I finally got around to seeing Whiplash, the highly praised 2014 film about a young drummer and his abusive mentor, and that I didn’t much care for it. Based on that, when I saw a headline over at the AV Club about a “jazz musician who is not a fan of Whiplash” I smirked and decided to check it out. It actually led to a misconceptions about the nature of writing fiction that I wanted to highlight.

The review itself, which you can watch here, really isn’t as negative as the headline. In fact, the jazzer in question, Adam Neely, winds up by calling Whiplash “great,” so he doesn’t exactly take a dump on it. What he does is point out some things about modern jazz education that the movie gets wrong and laments that because Whiplash is about the only pop culture portrayal of that setting it’s likely to be what people think of it. I get it – I can similarly pick nits from just about any lawyer movie.

But before getting to that, Neely goes through a lot of stuff the movie gets right, highlighting a lot of inside details that ring true. He credits this to writer/director Damian Chazelle’s having been in a similar jazz ensemble in high school and goes so far as to say “these sorts of things could only come from playing in a jazz band.”

That’s where the writer in me started shaking his head.

It’s indisputable that Chazelle drew on his own experiences when writing Whiplash – he’s said so in interviews. However, the idea that only someone who had been through those experiences could write such a story fundamentally misunderstands what writers do. It’s a common mistake and one I blame on the one piece of advice about writing that just about everybody has heard – “write what you know.”

It’s not the worst advice, particularly for new writers. Learning the actual craft of writing fiction is easier when the story you’re telling is one you’re familiar with and takes place in the world you know. Having said that, it’s not an iron-clad piece of advice. After all, if all writers stuck to writing what they knew we’d have a lot fewer books and the genre of speculative fiction would shrink to near meaninglessness.

So writers spend a lot of time writing about what they don’t know. How? Research!

Research

In much the same way that an actor who’s going to play a police officer, say, will learn about what police officers do and how they do it, a writer who wanted to write about cops could do the same thing. There’s an entire section of one of the writer forums I hang out on dedicated to research and people looking for answers to questions from people who have actual expertise in that area.

That’s even true when you’re writing fantasy. As I’ve said before, one of the great things about fantasy is that you can make up anything you want, but it’s still important to have some realism about the world you’re creating. In The Water Road I had a character take an arrow to the leg. Since it wasn’t meant to be a fatal wound, I needed to know how to get it out. I did some research, found out that it’s more complicated than I thought and that the kind of arrow used could say something about the character that loosed it in the first place. Reality informed my fantasy.

So kudos to Chazelle for getting those details right, but he’s not the only one who could have done so. Any good writer would have done their research before writing a story set in a particular world. It’s part of what we do.

Research2

I do have to say one thing about Neely’s overall impression of Whiplash. It’s interesting that he points out one of the flaws in the film I did – that nobody seems to really enjoy the music they’re abusing themselves to make – but that for him, the musician, it didn’t harm the movie. For me it did, which just goes to show that even when two people agree on what’s wrong with a movie (or book or song or . . .), it means different things to them. Such is art.

Why We’ll Never Win the War

Unless you’ve been living under a rock recently – or perhaps on jury duty – you’re no doubt aware that infamous drug lord Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo) was convicted of charges in a New York federal court that will likely leave him in prison for the rest of his life. The US Attorney had a big press conference afterward in which he hinted that maybe this time, they’ll finally make some headway in the War on (Other People’s) Drugs.

That is, of course, horseshit. I’ve long said that the War is really a war on the human desire to escape our shitty world and no amount of law enforcement is really going to change that. Writing at The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe sums this up more succinctly than I’ve ever seen before:

But there is a deeper sense in which the rhetoric we use when we talk about the border and the war on drugs is misguided and always has been. The real engine for the cross-border trade in marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl is not the clever salesmanship of Mexican crooks—it’s the rampant demand of American addicts and recreational users. This is a point that seldom impinges on our national dialogue about the border with Mexico: the drug trade is dynamic. What makes it unstoppable is not weak border protections or wily Mexicans but the insatiable American appetite for drugs. Where there is money and demand, trade will flourish, borders be damned. Years ago, I interviewed a former D.E.A. official who told me about a high-tech fence that was put up along the border in Arizona. ‘They erect this fence,’ he said, ‘only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult, and they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side.’

Under, over, through: as long as there is an American demand for drugs, drugs will find their way into America.

I’m in the middle of a book about another long, pointless, costly war – World War I. One recurring theme of A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 is that once the Western Front settled down into a stalemate, generals kept throwing offensives at the other side in spite of all the evidence that the only result was to get lots of men killed. It’s as if no one was capable of backing away and saying, “this isn’t working, we need to try something different.” The War on (Other People’s) Drugs is the same. It’s failed and it’s been failing for decades. When are we going to realize that one more offensive, one more big prosecution, isn’t going to change anything.

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