Hey Kafka (Or, Ruminations on Dead Authors and Duties Owed to Them)

Five years ago I wrote a post about dealing with requests from writers to destroy their unfinished (or other) work upon their death. It was sparked by the destruction of the recently passed Terry Pratchett’s hard drive by running it over with a steamroller, per his desire. As I wrote then:

The comments I read when the news came out was mostly amusement and pleasure at Pratchett’s wishes being so scrupulously honored. After all, if he was so specific as to how his literary executor was to deal with his unfinished work he must have felt fairly passionately about it never seeing the light of day. Who could argue that the right thing to do is precisely what the author wants?

I got to thinking about this again reading Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge.

What I thought was going to be a particularly timely look at the social or political factors behind drives to ban books was actually a love letter to libraries and archives and the need for society to protect and support the collection and retention of knowledge. No great surprise, I suppose, given that Ovenden is the librarian at the famed Bodlean Library at Oxford.

In a couple of chapters, Ovenden discusses particular situations where authors either took affirmative efforts during their lives to destroy their unfinished work or asked executors/family to do the destroying once they were dead. In some instances (like Franz Kafka) it was unfinished work, where some others involved personal papers like letters or notes. Ovenden’s point of view is clearly that any loss of this information is a cultural travesty and implies that the heroes here are people who go against the wishes of their friends/loved ones and preserve their work anyway.

I get that, on the one hand. Destroyed knowledge is pretty much gone, after all, without any hope of getting it back. The world is undeniably richer for having Kafka’s unfinished work or the papers of someone like Sylvia Plath that gives insight into a writer’s life and process. But whose decision is it to make that determination?

The author’s wishes deserve at least some consideration, right? Maybe because in one side of my life I’m a writer and in another I fight battles to vindicate the Fourth Amendment and rights to privacy (usually unsuccessfully, alas), but airing things the original author never wanted to see the light of day seems like a violation. I’m not sure the world is entitled to anything the author doesn’t want to show it.

As is happens, after Burning the Books, I decided to read one of the most famous posthumously published works, Kafka’s The Trial.

I’d had it in my collection for a while but never got around to it. I’m glad I did, just to have been able to say I’ve read it. As a lawyer, you’d think it would be required reading, although the deep secret buried in The Trial is that there never is an actual trial that takes place. I sort of know that’s the point, but I expected a little bit more procedural chicanery – the kind of stuff that happens in regular courtrooms that get dubbed “Kafkaesque.”

The Trial definitely feels unfinished. My understanding is that the first and last chapters were actually written and designated as such by Kafka, but the rest was assembled by his executor, Max Brod, after his death. That said, it does have a memorable ending, so it doesn’t just peter out. I also found the atmosphere to be more dreamlike than nightmarish. The main character, K, is more frustrated and aggravated by the situation than he is terrified. In a way that makes it worse.

While there is no trial per se in The Trial, lawyers and the court system come off pretty badly. The part that stuck with me the most is a scene where K is in the court building and passes a group of litigants just huddled around not doing much of anything. It’s explained that they’re waiting for rulings in their cases, some of them for years, and that all they can do is continue to wait. That put me in mind of several of my clients who have watched their cases languish in court, just waiting for the judge to make a decision. They’d rather the judge get it wrong but actually get it done – at least then they could move on to the next phase of things.

My ultimate conclusion about The Trial is that I think K was dead the entire time. The suddenness of the accusation, the ultimate futility of fighting the charges, and the references to K needing to defend his entire life make me think that he’s in some kind of limbo (from which he’s ultimately released in the end). The way “the law” is discussed, too, sounds more like a religious concept than a purely legal one. It doesn’t ultimately matter, but it’s what jumped to mind while reading it.

Since I was on a Kafka kick, I decided to wrap things up with a book that dove more deeply into the battle over his literary legacy, Kafka’s Last Trial, by Benjamin Balint.

The titular trial here took place in Israel in this century and was a battle over where Kafka’s literary legacy would have its home. It stems from how Brod dealt with Kafka’s literary estate and whether it should be retained by the descendents of his secretary or should be taken into the National Library of Israel as a cultural treasure of the Jewish people (or even in an archive in Germany). The legal wrangling isn’t that interesting (it turns on technical distinctions between different kinds of gifts – you can read up on it here), but the question of legacy is really fascinating. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to the issue of whether Kafka was a German writer (though he lived in what is now the Czech Republic) who happened to be Jewish, or a Jewish writer who happened to write in German and what the answer to that question means.

Of course, that issue could be hashed out regardless of whether Brod had destroyed Kafka’s unfinished works as asked (assuming Kafka became a big enough name without it). And it would have avoided an awful lot of expensive litigation generations later. So, in the end, is it better to encourage executors, friends, and families to abide by the wishes of the writers who trust them to do so?

I’m inclined to think so, but I also think that the question may be moot. After all, once a writer is dead he or she isn’t going to know what their executors do one way or the other. One pleasant thing about death is you don’t have to worry about your reputation. Weighing all the considerations, maybe Brod was on to something in the first place.

The Book-to-TV Pipeline

Coming late to this, but last June there was an interesting article in The Atlantic about the rise in literary adaptations on television (broadly defined to include streaming services). It’s fascinating because there’s some evidence that there is so much adaptation going on that it’s actually impacting the publishing process.

Why is that? Part of it is just because there’s so much TV content being generated these days that producers are turning to extant products to fill the demand (per another, more recent article, the same demand is also creating a new boom in work for “older” actresses). But there are also certain features that are prevalent in titles that are optioned for adaptation (although not present in all), including “episodic plots, ensemble cases, and intricate world-building.” While, certainly, there are books (or short stories) that lend themselves more easily to adaptation, I think the story overlooks one important thing and gets another wrong, both of which are important in thinking about the current TV landscape.

What the article overlooks is that the definition of “television,” and what a TV show is these days, has changed radically with the rise of streaming services. Not only are there more TV shows than ever before, but they’ve gotten more compressed compared to the sprawling network series of the past. Where a new series once had to produce two dozen episodes per season (for multiple seasons), TV is now awash with series with only eight or ten or twelve episodes per season. Beyond that, the limited series – one season and done – has gained popularity, too. Those shorter seasons (and series) fit book adaptations particularly well, giving creators enough time to cover all the events of the book without the need to create ongoing stories to feed additional episodes/seasons.

Beyond that, the TV audience is so fractured at this point that bringing already-established fans from a book to the TV show is a solid way to build some viewership. To give some perspective, the 1993-1994 season of Seinfeld (the show’s fifth season) averaged about 30 million viewers, while the top episode of scripted TV last year (from NCIS) couldn’t even manage half that. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, pulled more than five million viewers for its first episode (across multiple showings), demonstrating the value of a built-in base audience. Even if the book being adapted isn’t a huge, sprawling series, it can bring a certain bit of gravitas to TV just by being a book!

What the article gets wrong, I think, is that “episodic” books are more likely to be snapped up for adaptation. This is presumably based on the idea that such stories lend themselves to the episodic nature of TV, but that overlooks the fact that TV is getting less and less episodic as we go along. Not only do lots of current short-season TV shows tell single, ongoing stories, they often don’t really bother making the individual episodes work on their own. To go back to Game of Thrones, episode breaks there were often purely down to time restraints, more than anything else. It would be hard to take most episodes of that show, pull them out of sequence, and show them to someone with any hope they’d know what’s going on or be hooked enough to watch more.

Truly episodic TV has a better chance to do that, at the risk of losing the overarching narrative drive. I’m thinking of two long-running series that I got into in the middle, because of episodes that told complete stories.

One was Babylon 5, famous for being designed to tell a five-season story in novelistic fashion. That said, each episode could generally be consumed as a discrete chunk (occasional multi-part episodes to one side), such as “No Surrender, No Retreat,” the first episode I saw. Now, there’s an awful lot of backstory in that season four episode that I didn’t learn until later, but the basics – who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and who might be neither – were clear. There was an objective that could be obtained or not, within the space of the episode. It wasn’t merely a set of events playing out from the prior episode and into the next one.

The other was Doctor Who, for which my entry episode was “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” which involves Agatha Christie and explains her famous disappearance. Now, Doctor Who isn’t nearly as tightly serialized as Babylon 5, but there was, again, a lot of lore, backstory, and character development about which I had no idea. But the episode told its own story, with a beginning, middle, and end. It was a great hook.

None of which is to say the super-serialized series that are so popular these days are doing it wrong (although maybe they sometimes do). But it does suggest that what’s drawing TV developers to literary titles is not their “episodic nature.”

Ultimately, I think it’s great that more and more books are being developed for TV series. There’s lots of great stuff out there and it beats pointless reboots of series from decades ago. The series usually bumps the popularity of the books, too, so authors get a couple of benefits from it! I’m all for more of that.

On Time Jumps

As it happens, I wound up reading Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series not too long before the TV show began. As a result, as the TV series went on I read the next book in the series just before the new season dropped. Now that the TV show has finished, after six seasons, and the book series has wrapped up, after nine volumes, I decided to plow through and finish the books in one go.

The first of the last three (The Expanse is sort of three linked trilogies, really), Persepolis Rising¸ starts with a pretty audacious gambit – it skips the story forward three decades.

Before we dive in further, let me specify just what I mean when I say “time jump.” I’m talking about a narrative (either within a single work or across multiple ones) where there are large breaks during which a large period of time passes. I’m not talking about the usual passage of time – most sequels or new seasons don’t pick up right after the prior one, after all. Nor am I talking about flashbacks or flashforwards or stories about characters who, to borrow a phrase, have come “unstuck in time.” I’m talking about situations where the main narrative is still driving forward, but it’s like somebody’s picked up the needle and we’ve skipped some tracks.

It’s a bold gambit because, presumably, the world of the story continues to exist during the time that’s skipped over. Things change, just as they do in regular life over years. Picking up months or years in the future should be a means of exploring how those changes impact the characters.

A good example of this I recently read is Middlegame by  Seanan McGuire.

In the world of Middlegame, an alchemist in the modern United States is using semi-fraternal twins as a means to bring about the presence of a great power he wants to tap into. The book is the story of two twins, Roger and Dodger (the rhyming names are quite intentional) who, in spite of attempts to keep them apart, keep finding themselves over the years. The book proceeds in hunks (while also skipping around in time), first when the two are young kids, then when they’re college students, and then grown adults. Between hunks, years pass and it matters. Not only do the characters change, but their relationship to each other does, too, partly because of the passage of time.

Another good somewhat recent example is the jump in time between seasons two and three of the Battlestar Galactica reboot. At the end of one season Gaius Baltar is installed as president. At the beginning of the next a year has passed and we can see what “President Baltar” really means – everything goes to shit and the Cylons return! The time skip moves the plot along while providing the writers a good way to show what went on in the interim and the impact it’s had on the characters.

Sadly, Persepolis Rising doesn’t handle the time jump nearly as well. I understand the bind  James S.A. Corey (actually Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck working in collaboration) was in – the story needed to jump ahead decades in order to play out, but what to do with the characters you’ve spent six books lovingly developing? The answer here is mention a few extra aches and pains and leave it at that. For the crew on the Rocinante, thirty years passing was just like thirty minutes.

Which is supremely disappointing! The five folks on the ship are in exactly the same shape they were in at the end of Babylon’s Ashes: Holden and Naomi are still together, Amos and Clarissa have their weird connection, and Bobbie and Alex have whatever they’ve got. Alex has, in the intervening decades, been married and divorced again, but the only outgrowth of that is a son off screen he occasionally worries about. There’s no aggravation/shifting of loyalties that have occurred over three decades of doing the same damned thing in the same damned (small) place.

All of this violates what I’m officially dubbing Rufus’ Rule of Gullibility, which I discussed in a book review many years ago:

There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. ‘Mary,’ she points out, ‘was a virgin.’ Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes: ‘The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.’

I just can’t believe that five people could live in such close quarters for three decades and nothing changes. This fall I’ll will have been in my current job for just twenty years and there has been a consistent churn of turnover among my coworkers the entire time. And we don’t have to worry about the rigors of space travel! It’s just not plausible that things stay the same all those years (after all, as the song says, things change).

Which is a shame, because where the crew ends up by the finale works really well and changes the game up significantly. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have other flaws – the bad guys aren’t nearly as interesting as those in prior books and the POV bad guy, particularly, is a dweeb – but it’s still a really good read about characters we’ve come to care about.

Time jumps can be a valuable tool when writing, but you have to ask yourself two questions if you’re going to play around with them. First, why do you think the story needs to jump ahead so much? Second, what are the effects on the characters moving that far forward? If you don’t have good answers to both of those questions, probably start rethinking.

My Fantasy Confession

If you’re reading this, you probably know that as an author I primarily write fantasy stories. As I’ve said before, I love that fantasy basically has no rules and, so long as the world you build makes sense on the page, you can do anything you want. Given that, I figure it’s time that I came clean about my deep, dark secret as a fantasy writer:

I have never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkein.

It’s not that I have anything personal against ol’ JRR. I’ve seen all the movies! Not the super-extended versions that take entire years to watch, but all the ones as released in theaters. I enjoyed them, too (well, the actual Lord of the Rings ones). But if I’m honest, the Tolkien link that has the most meaning to me is the fact that Marillion was originally called Silmarillion, before changing their name early on to avoid any legal problems.

Nor was this a case of conscious avoidance of Tolkien’s work as a reader. I just never really was that interested in diving into it. When I was young and first encountered traditional fantasy books it was the first couple of Narnia books and, particularly, Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, which I really enjoyed. But once I finished those my tastes turned more towards science fiction.

I wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really dug back into reading fantasy, thanks mostly to my wife, who introduced me to Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin. While both of them would, assuredly, note the influence of Tolkien on their work, their stuff (or at least the stuff that appealed to me) isn’t very Tolkienesque. Gaiman’s work like American Gods and the Sandman series showed me that “fantasy” was a much broader thing than stories about wizards and goblins and the like. A Song of Ice and Fire draws deep on Tolkien-style world building, but does so in the service of a story that’s more about political maneuvers and human failings than it is about grand quests.

That part of the fantasy world hasn’t appealed to me that much lately. I’ve got nothing against a good quest – I’ve got a quest story percolating I hope to write one day – but I was more drawn to weird worlds and things that didn’t require the explanation/technobabble of science fiction. That’s where I found my inspiration to tell stories in worlds that aren’t our own, but aren’t necessarily filled with magic.

Am I missing out on something? Possibly. Am I going to try and rectify that situation? Not necessarily. I read for pleasure and so I’m not likely to decide to read something as homework just because most others might. Hell, I write for pleasure, too (that others enjoy the end product is a bonus), so I can’t see taking the time to force feed any particular author’s work.

The bottom line is I know enough about Tolkien to understand the memes and spot the references in progressive rock songs. Right now, that’s all I need. Plus I got to play the first movement of this in high school:

Doesn’t that count for something?

2021 – My Year In Media

It always drives me nuts that when the start of December rolls around (sometimes even earlier!) we begin to see “best of . . .” lists for that year. As if nothing interesting ever happens in December. So, to buck the trend, I wait until January to talk about stuff I found interesting in the year prior. With that said, here’s what most interested me about media – books, music, TV, and movies – last year. Not all of these are 2021 releases, keep in mind. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

Books

In term of fiction, the only new-for-2021 book that really stuck with me was The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne (no relation, so far as I’m aware).

The story sprawls out across three separate timelines, each 1000 years apart (basically the far past, the present, and the distant future) and leans more heavily in to fantasy than sci-fi for me, but ultimately the label doesn’t matter. The stories playing out in the three eras tie together really well and there’s a lot of interesting ideas tossed around to chew on. Highly recommended.

In terms of endings, I have to give a shout out to Sex Criminals, by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky, the comic/graphic novel that wrapped up its run in late 2020 (I didn’t get the sixth and final volume until January of last year).

The series never really reached the heights of the first volume again – the pages (three-and-a-half of them!) where Suzie sings “Fat Bottomed Girls” in a bar, with all the words covered over with exposition explaining how expensive it is to quote song lyrics in a comic – still leaves me rolling. It touched on a lot of interesting things along the way and was never less than interesting. The ending worked, too.

As for things I got caught up on in 2021, a lot of it was historical, not fiction. I’ve recently written about The Invention of Murder and how interesting it was. Another bit of history I really enjoyed digging into was  The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom by James R. Green.

It covers the tumultuous history of labor organization in the WV coal fields, generally referred to as the Mine Wars. Very in depth, with lots of necessary background context, but also very readable.

I’d also  recommend  The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War—A Tragedy in Three Acts by Scott Anderson.

It’s probably the most tragic thing I read last year, given that it tracks how the initial enthusiasm for fighting Communism curdled into dictator-propping-up realpolitk cynicism. Oh well.

Oh, and I read an awful lot about the history of the beautiful game.

Music

2021 was a weird year, musically. Several of my favorite artists – Mogwai, Steven Wilson, St. Vincent, Resistor – released albums last year. All of them are good – I even like Wilson’s electro-pop driven The Future Bites better than most proggers – but none of them really grabbed me. Maybe they’ll grow on me in the future, but for now there wasn’t anything in 2021 really worth taking note of.

As a result, last year was more about getting caught up in some things I’d overlooked – in some cases for a long long time.

Speaking of Steven Wilson, my history with his old (and new again!) band Porcupine Tree is that I preferred the “newer” stuff, from Stupid Dream on, to the older material. The Sky Moves Sideways just feel tedious to me, for instance. But poking around Bandcamp (my happy hunting ground) I found a recent rerelease of the band’s 1996 album, Signify.

That album really hits a sweet spot between the spacier stuff and the tighter, song-driven rock stuff. I also love the recurring samples that mostly touch on religious themes (the guy on “Idiot Prayer” switching from his LSD trip being nearly rapturous to just repeating “please help” does it for me every time).

I’ve given some time over the years to reevaluating music that was popular while I was growing up in the 1980s. Part of that is due to getting into electronic music, including the synthpop of my youth. Part of it is just maturing as a listener to realize that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s crap (95% of it is, of course). So when I came across this article written by a professor who used pop culture to open discussions of how people felt during the Cold War I was inspired to go dive into some of the music, including the second Men At Work album, Cargo.

The singles are good and some of the deeper cuts are just as good. “No Sign of Yesterday,” which closes out side one is great. It’s fairly recognizable pop/new wave, but with just enough weirdness to distinguish it.

Finally, another pleasant discovery from Bandcamp was the album Prophecy by Solstice:

Solstice were part of the neo-prog scene of the early 1980s, but with definite folk and Celtic shadings. They only released one album back then, but have released a few more over the years, with Prophecy coming in 2013. It’s great melodic stuff. Wonderful find.

Television/Streaming

You don’t need me to tell you we’re living in the era of peak TV. There’s just so much good stuff out there that I couldn’t touch them all. So let’s focus on pleasant surprises  – things that I thought might be decent, but turned out to be really good.

The poster child for this approach is Landscapers.

On the one hand, it’s a true crime story of a married couple who murder the wife’s parents and bury them in the garden then go on the run for fifteen years. On the other, it’s a close study of a couple shut off in their own little world where reality only sometimes intrudes. It’s shot with a grab bag of styles related to classic cinema and includes a bravura scene where the police interrogation room is pulled apart to reveal a set while the scene resets. Brilliant? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t like anything else I saw last year.

I feel somewhat the same about Only Murders In the Building, in that I thought it might have potential, but didn’t think I’d enjoy it as much as I did.

The Martin Short/Steve Martin pairing is as good as ever and Selena Gomez slipped into the mix very well. I’m not sure the actual mystery made much sense, or that I really cared about it, but given the light-hearted nature of things, who cares?

Staged, on the other hand, I was relieved was as good as it was.

I missed the first season in 2020, even though David Tennant and Michael Sheen doing comedy should have drawn me in. That season chronicled their involvement with rehearsals of a play that never actually happened (delayed by COVID and then collapsing). Shot via Zoom (or some similar platform), with their significant others playing themselves it managed to be funny and thoughtful at the same time. The second season, from last year, expands a bit as an American remake is in the works – one which isn’t going to use either one of them as stars (since, apparently, we don’t like them over here). It’s more meta and sillier, but equally good.

Finally, I’m giving a provisional shout out to Yellowjackets.

The first season hasn’t even finished as a write this and it may go way off the rails in coming years (it’s allegedly going to run for five seasons) but so far it’s been engrossing.

Movies

I can’t say much about movies in 2021 since I didn’t set foot in a movie theater all year (the pandemic and all). I watched a few 2021 releases on streaming services, but nothing that really wowed me. As a result, I think the “movie” that stuck with me most from the year was Get Back, Peter Jackson’s epic excavation of The Beatles. I already wrote about that here.

That’s it – on to the new year!

Thoughts on Christmas Stories

A confession – I’ve never seen Die Hard. I’m not really an action movie guy, so it’s not really in my wheelhouse. I was kind of surprised when it started popping up described as a “Christmas movie,” but I suppose it takes place during the holiday, so why not? Then early this week I saw an interesting push back against that argument – basically that while the movie takes place at Christmas it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Christmas or what it means. That got me thinking about what makes a Christmas story and whether you can have a Christmas story that doesn’t even have Christmas in it.

I’m kind of into the “if it takes place at Christmas it’s a Christmas story” argument, because then I could force my wife to watch one my favorite movies, Brazil, under that rubric.

Make no mistake, Brazil is not at all what anyone would call a “Christmas movie.” It takes place at Christmas time, but aside from satirical asides on the consumer side of the holiday – one little girl asks Santa for a credit card, while there’s a running joke of people repeatedly gifting the kind of meaningless doodad gift you do when you’re forced to (everyone refers to it as “a gift for an executive,” so it says something about those folks, too) – the holiday doesn’t really enter into it. There’s certainly no “Christmas message” in it, given that it’s a dystopian nightmare in which the “happy ending” is the main character going insane.

That’s not a really good metric. Don’t you need some tie-in to actual Christmas and the holiday? Think of something like Gremlins, which, again, is more set at Christmastime than a “Christmas movie,” but at least you’ve got the horrible back story of Kate’s father, who died trying to pull a Santa to surprise the family. Still, there’s not really much of a message to that movie (aside from “don’t feed them after midnight,” of course). Let’s concluded, then, that we need at least “Christmas plus . . .” something, although I’m not sure what. That eliminates Brazil, but I can’t say if the same is true for Die Hard (this article makes a pretty good argument that the movie works as well as it does precisely because it’s merely “Christmas-adjacent”).

The “plus” is mostly going to be some kind of message, right? Lots of classic Christmas stories have some moral component, from A Christmas Carol (don’t be a dick to the poor at Christmas or the rest of the year) to The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (don’t be a dick to people celebrating Christmas). I like those. I’m particularly a sucker for variations on Carol, my favorite being Scrooged.

Any movie that puts Miles Davis and other jazz greats in a band of street musicians for a throwaway joke is OK by me. Of course there’s also the religious angle, probably pulled off best by A Charlie Brown Christmas, which I love even though I don’t buy into the theology. I suppose we can also ditch the messages altogether and just focus on nostalgia, as in A Christmas Story, which manages the impressive task of selling that nostalgia to an audience who largely are too young to wallow in it.

I feel much less favorable toward what I call “you’re doing Christmas wrong” movies, wherein somebody dares to celebrate the holiday in their own way, only to have their individualism squashed by some kind of hive-mind celebratory conformity. Seriously, is there any reason to look at how somebody else does (or does not!) celebrate a holiday and decide you need to fix them? Drive me up the fucking wall.

So if we agree that a real Christmas story is “Christmas plus” something else, what if we don’t have the Christmas part, at least technically?

My only real routine for the holiday season is to reread (relisten, in actuality) Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett.

The Hogfather is the Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, basically. His holiday, Hogswatch, is a combination of Christmas and New Year’s Eve, combining the gift giving aspect with the midnight revelry.

I love Hogfather in a way I don’t with many things. It’s brilliantly funny throughout. Lots of characters from the other Discworld books show up to play their part in a really clever plot – someone hires the Guild of Assassins to kill (or “inhume,” as the head assassin prefers) the Hogfather as means of bringing some order to the universe. Turns out the human imagination is both a destabilizing thing – it makes folks to wacky things – but it also inspires us to grander things. Thus we have this truth from none other than Death himself (hence the all caps – he talks that way): “HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”*

Death shows up in Hogfather to do the fat man’s job while he’s disposed, thus shoring up the role of belief in the universe. This allows Pratchett to do a lot of commentary on the holiday and what it means to different people. He shows up at a mall to give kids exactly what they want, even if they really can’t have them (he tries to give one kid a real sword, then announces to a little girl that there’s a pony in her kitchen). He butts in as a king tries to pass of his leftovers as an act of benevolent charity. He actually forgoes collecting the soul of the “little match girl,” concluding that it’s unfair for someone to die alone and cold on Hogswatch, even as his pixie henchman Albert (a fabulous character in his own right) explains that touching stories of that kind of death make other people feel better at Hogswatch. It’s through this relationship that Pratchett deals with the economic inequality of the world, which shines through during the holidays just as it does all year ‘round.

None of this message, commentary on what it means to knowingly celebrate a story you know not to be true, would land if the rest of the book wasn’t so funny, if the characters weren’t so sharp and memorable. But the Hogfather (much less Death!) isn’t Santa and Hogswatch isn’t Christmas, so does it count?

Here’s where I’ve come down on all this – if something’s a Christmas story to you, then that’s all that matters. We all find meaning in different places and different days. At no time is that more true than when all these competing winter celebrations are underway. However you celebrate, whether it’s with Die Hard or not – Happy Holidays (whatever your holiday may be)! See ya’ in the new year.

* The book’s loaded with great lines. Here’s another, from Death’s granddaughter, Susan, who’s the heroine of the story: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.”

Weekly Read: The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled In Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime

Plus ca change
Plus c’est la meme chose
The more that things change
The more they stay the same
– Neal Peart, “Circumstances” from Hemispheres

Much has been written about how we’re living in an era obsessed with stories about crime. True crime podcasts and documentaries are everywhere. There’s something compelling about digging into an extended investigation of crimes and the people who commit them (the people against whom they’re committed usually get less attention). That’s true even for somebody who is knee deep in criminal law every workday. I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of more than a few of these cases.

Along with the rise in true crime media has been concerns about what it says about society or how it may shape perceptions of crime. While those are legitimate things to worry about, if you get nothing else out of The Invention of Murder  it should be that our societal obsession with crime, and qualms about it, are nothing new.

Victorians didn’t actually invent murder, of course, but Judith Flanders presents some evidence that it wasn’t very prevalent before the 19th Century (or at least widely reported). What occurs in that period is a convergence of emerging mass media, organized police forces, and growing cities that created a kind of perfect storm of crime and reflection upon it.

For the most part, Flanders works through the century by covering the details of a specific case, then showing how it was discussed in the press and, eventually, popular entertainments (Charles Dickens shows up in these an awful lot). Along the way we see the shift from public to private executions – public ones could attract thousands of people. We also see that the public interest in the stories of murders – which are often different from the facts – became insatiable.

This format gets a little redundant at times, but it allows Flanders to show that whatever the details of any particular petty atrocity, the press and popular entertainment could always make it worse, more salacious, more interesting. These includes not just novels, but stage plays (lots of stage plays – copyright wasn’t much of a thing in that era) and even marionette shows. Famous murders became quick reference points for certain kinds of maliciousness. Cases crept into popular culture so much that famous killers lent their names to ships and racehorses.

That the facts of particular cases didn’t always match the public’s perception mirrors our world today. I was struck when Flanders described the mid-century panic over murder by poisoning, even though they were so uncommon as to be nearly non-existent. A better example of a moral panic it would be hard to find.

Other threads running through these cases would feel familiar to a 21st Century reader. The modern police force was formed in the early part of the century and, almost as quickly, the police were criticized not as protectors of the general public but as enforcers of social order. Almost immediately after the Metropolitan Police Force was organized in London one newspaper listed among the “Necessary Qualifications” to be a cop the ability “to perjure himself with a clear conscience,” which could lead to “speedy promotion.” Then there are the repeated instances where a murder defendant is othered in some way (as a Catholic or Jew or Eastern European – I think there was one where all three were used!), set apart from the wider society that was reading about them.

One of the ongoing dialogs in the press that Flanders recounts is the requisite navel gazing as to whether the press coverage and popular media fascination with murder actually leads to the commission of crime. Throw in “video games” or “social media” and you have the same dialog going on today. What’s interesting is where this leads – Jack the Ripper. Flanders doesn’t argue that Jack’s crimes were caused by the Victorian obsession with murder, but does suggest that it’s kind of the final step in that evolution. What Jack the Ripper became in the public imagination couldn’t have happened a century earlier. If you’ve read Alan Moore’s From Hell this is a kind of reverse of the theory that animates (so to speak) that book, that Jack’s crimes were actually the birth of the 20th Century and all the mayhem that would occur during it.The Invention of Murder isn’t a quick read. It’s fairly dense and comes with pages of notes and source citations in the back, so it’s a serious historical work. But it’s also really entertaining, if you have any interest in how societies process crime. Flanders brings just enough snark to proceedings the lighten things up here and there. Definitely recommended.

Weekly Read & Watch: Eight Men Out

I’m not a baseball fan. I don’t hate it – life’s too short to get worked up about other peoples’ pastimes – but it doesn’t engage me. It might be odd, then, that one of my favorite movies is Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ exploration of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when a group of Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series.

Of course, what makes the movie work so well is that it isn’t really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about labor relations, in which the ballplayers are exploited at first by the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey, and then by unscrupulous gamblers who don’t even pay the players what they’re supposed to. I won’t say the baseball stuff is secondary (there’s a good deal of on-field action), but it’s definitely used in service to something other than your traditional sports movie narrative.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Eliot Asinof that was first published in 1963.

I only just got around to reading the book itself, which is an interesting contrast to the movie. They tell the same story, but there are some interesting differences that arise from Sayles really driving home the political point of view he’s coming from.

What the book does better than the film, since it has more time to cover the story, is provide more context to what happened in 1919. For one thing, while the movie presents the Black Sox scandal as almost sui generis – a huge breach of sporting life – it turns out the gambling-related scandals were pretty common in baseball at the time. Granted, they hadn’t gotten up to the level of the World Series, but in truth this was the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a singular incident. Indeed, one of the earlier scandals involved the Sox’s opponents in the World Series – the Cincinnati Reds.

The book also provides more context for what is alleged to be the prime driver of the players’ interest in the fix – that Comiskey was a particularly miserly owner. The movie moves a couple of incidents (involving avoiding paying bonuses) from 1917 to 1919 to help drive this home. While the book argues that Comiskey was a tight wad, it also shows that the rest of the owners weren’t much better. In the days of the reserve clause, where free agency didn’t exist and players were forced to play for basically whatever wages the owners offered, it was easy to be a tightwad. There’s also attention given to contract terms that allowed players to be fired with 10-days notice for just about anything (including getting injured), but they had no similar right to walk away. It’s not as if your best player could fuck off to another team when their contract was up. More than that, given that the country was just coming out of World War I there was a rational (if not completely honest) basis for owners to worry more about money. Being a professional baseball player then wasn’t much better than being a professional women’s soccer player is these days, complete with the side hustles. The movie focusing on salaries makes that easier to convey in a dramatic narrative of just about two hours.

For all that context there’s one area where I wish the book would have provided a little bit more. Having read the book I’m still not sure where gambling fit into society at the time of the 1919 World Series. The gamblers involved in this story are all pretty sleazy characters with connections to organized crime, but gambling itself seemed to be much more open and notorious than it would be in later years. There’s a recurring motif of entertainer George M. Cohan being close to the fix (although not involved) due to gambling that makes it seem not quite illegal – but maybe not quite legal, either? I’d be interested to know what society thought of gambling back then as a way to help explain the reaction to the fix.

The book also dives deeper into the aftermath of the series and the eventual exposure of the fix. The movie keeps a tight point of view on the players, while the book follows the journalists and lawyers who probed the series and the gambling that surrounded it (Sayles compresses most of this into a jazz-fueled montage). In particular, I appreciated the details on how journalist Hugh Fullerton (played by Studs Terkel who, along with Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, act as kind of a Greek chorus throughout) was roundly vilified for daring to suggest that something wasn’t on the level. History proved him right, of course, but that might have been cold consolation.

As for the lawyers – well, if baseball came out of the entire scandal with a damaged reputation, my profession didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Some of the more melodramatic parts of the movie – grand jury testimony being stolen, outbursts in the courtroom – weren’t added for dramatic effect, it seems. At the eventual criminal trial (where everyone, players and gamblers both, were acquitted) the players were represented by lawyers paid by Comiskey who were more interested in letting baseball (with its new, all powerful, commissioner) deal with the matter than the courts. But my favorite bit of lawyerdom in the movie is when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge named the first baseball commissioner, takes the job for significantly more pay than being a judge – but keeps his seat on the bench, anyway.

Where the book and movie differ most importantly is when it comes to the genesis of the fix itself. In the book it’s clear that the fix began with the players, who reached out to gamblers about the possibility of fixing the series. The film is a bit more vague. The conversation where it’s first broached by Chick Gandil and gambler Sport Sullivan starts kind of in medias res, with no real indication of who made the first pitch (so to speak). I think it lets Sayles maintain his exploitation narrative without sullying the players too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to consider that the Sayles movie is a narrative work of fiction, not history, and the Asinof book is now nearly six decades old. As compiled by the Society for Baseball Research, more recent evidence has emerged that cast some doubts over the story told in Eight Men Out. In particular, maybe Comiskey wasn’t the miser he’s been portrayed as being, although that doesn’t much matter in the end. The book, to a lesser extent than the film, is telling this story from the players’ perspectives and whether their complaints with Comiskey were valid in a wider context doesn’t mean they still weren’t motivated by them.

None of this makes the any less engrossing or means it can’t get at broader truths about America and its economic life. There’s truthiness to it, if not absolute truth. Just means it’s history, which is ever changing upon further evaluation.

Timing Isn’t Everything, But It’s Something

The Godfather came out in 1972, its sequel in 1974. I was born right in between, in 1973, which is to say I had no chance to experience these Coppola epics when they were fresh. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime 15 years ago or so that I actually managed to watch them. By that time I’d already consumed a good amount of mob stories, from Goodfellas to (most of) The Sopranos and many others.

It sort of makes sense, then, that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the first two Godfather movies (I’ve never seen the third). They’re really good, don’t get me wrong, but by the time I saw them a lot of what made them exceptional had bled through into popular culture. The idea of morally conflicted mobsters was certainly a trope by 2005 or so. Likewise, the stress of familial obligations in the mob operation had been done and done by then. This is no fault of the original films – it’s just that by the time I experienced them they weren’t as timely as they once were.

I thought about The Godfather while I was reading Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

As you might guess from the cover, it’s a superhero story. Why did it make me think of The Godfather? Because it came out in 2007 and I was reading it fourteen years later.

To give some context, the first MCU installment, Iron Man, came out in 2008. That same year is when The Dark Knight, the second of Nolan’s Batman movies came out (to be fair, we’d also had a few X-men movies). In other words, this book came out just as a huge chunk of the movie and TV landscape shifted to super hero stories. By the time I got around to reading it I’d consumed most (although not all) of them. And as a result, the book very much had a “been there, seen that” feeling to it.

Invincible plays out across two related points of view. One is Fatale, a fairly new cybernetic superhero who joins The Champions, a group of superheroes who have their own dysfunctional baggage (including a failed marriage between two members). That side of the story leans into that dysfunction and highlights the personal toll that being superheroes takes on each of them (from OCD to drug use and the like). It’s more personal and intimate than, say, The Avengers in the MCU, but it’s in the same league. There’s even a corporate element that reminds me of The Boys, although it’s not so cynical.

The other point of view is that of Doctor Impossible, who, conveniently enough, breaks out of prison for the dozenth or so time just as the book starts. He embarks on another scheme to take over the world, along the way diving into his own history as well as those of the heroes who have crossed his path over the years. What we get is a narrative in which the villain is fairly sympathetic, in that he’s a put-upon smart guy who channels his frustrations into evil. Again, this is pretty common these days in super hero properties. The era of the mustache-twiddling bad guys is a thing of the past, thankfully.

None of this has anything to say about Invincible as a book. It’s pretty good and darkly funny in parts (naturally, Doctor Impossible has all the best lines), but I can’t help but thinking that it might have felt really fresh in 2007 or a few years later. Today, sadly, it comes off as a bit tired. Is there anything Grossman could have done to prevent my reaction to his book? Not at all.

Is being timely something writers should worry about? Probably not. Certainly, if you were thinking of writing a book like Invincible today, you’d have to take into account how prevalent super hero stories are these days. One more similar story probably won’t attract a lot of attention. That’s a different discussion than trying to figure out how well something might age in the future. Unless you can predict what’s going to happen in years to come – in which case, why are you writing books? – it’s just not something worth worrying about.

Sometimes I see authors wondering about whether particular references – to pop culture things or news events – will “date” their work down the road. That always seemed very presumptuous to me, since it assumes anybody will be reading your work in years (or decades) to come. This issue is more of the flip side – how do you keep you work from being swallowed by general trends? You can’t – write what moves you and let the broader market sort itself out.

You can’t fight time – you can only hope to survive it.

Why “The Cold Equations” Is Still Horribly Plausible

Netflix recently released a new sci-fi flick, Stowaway. The trailer gives you a sense of what it’s about:

A spaceship on the way to another planet, finite resources, and an extra person. It’s the classic lifeboat problem IN SPAAACCCEEE!! FYI, expect spoilers from here on out if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

Stowaway also owes a lot to “The Cold Equations,” a 1954 short story that’s one of the most talked about in the history of science fiction. The release of Stowaway has lead to another round of reevaluation of the story, although there are some pretty big distinctions between the two.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of “The Cold Equations”:

The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.

The thrust of the story is that the EDS is designed to do a particular job in a particular way and the additional variable of a stowaway wrecked all that. Physics, the “cold equations” of the title, mean that’s a problem and there’s only one solution.

While those same equations play a role in Stowaway, it’s really quite a different story. For one thing, the “stowaway” of the title really isn’t. He’s an engineer who wound up on the ship by accident. He did not intentionally sneak on like Marilyn in “The Cold Equations.” It puts him on a completely different ethical/moral footing. Another important distinction is that the problem in Stowaway that creates the drama is a mechanical malfunction, not just the presence of an additional person on the ship. Again, it changes the moral calculus. Most importantly, the eventual sacrifice is completely different – a crew member in Stowaway sacrifices herself to save the rest of the crew, whereas poor Marilyn has to take the task on herself.

That said, things are close enough to make mention of “The Close Equations” understandable (it even comes up in this really interesting video from one of the science advisors on Stowaway) and it’s always worth revisiting classic works. However, a lot of the criticisms of “The Cold Equations” always struck me as a bit off.

Lots of people who read “The Cold Equations” want to change it somehow to create a happy ending. There’s lots of criticism (much of it summarized here) of the entire setup, both of the fine margins in the EDS which subjects it to not having any room for error and for the society that would not go to greater lengths to keep someone like Marilyn from sneaking on in the first place. Surely they’d do more than put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT,” right? They’d place armed guards or design the EDS with more room for error? Why wouldn’t they do that?!?

For a certain idea of science fiction, I can see where these criticisms are coming from. For some folks, sci-fi is a genre of positivity or showing people overcoming odds and crises through knowledge, ingenuity, and hard work. David Brin is famously an exponent of this theory of sci-fi, which excludes things like dystopian fiction as “sci-fi” since it doesn’t have a positive, “go humans!”  message.

Thing is, humans are often awful to each other and that is sometimes reflected in sci-fi, too, as it should be. Anyone with a passing familiarity with history would know that the corner cutting that leads to tragedy in “The Cold Equations” are really plausible. That summary of criticisms I linked to above notes this history, but presumes that it’s just that – history, something we’ve moved passed as a species. Sadly, it isn’t. After all, if laws passed to ensure safe working conditions have been on the books for the past century or so, how could 29 coal miners die in an accident in the 21st century caused largely by ignoring and working around those law? Laws don’t get followed or enforced just because they’re on the books, not when the bottom line is at stake.

This really came into sharp focus for me recently when I was reading Midnight In Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book on the 1986 meltdown in the Soviet Union. One of the reasons the disaster happened is that the RBMK-type reactor was an inherently flawed design. Experts had said it was flawed for years. Indeed, in 1975 a similar accident happened in another nuclear plant that highlighted this design flaw. Did they redesign the reactor? No. Did they move on to an entire new design? No. Did they rewrite the manuals and assume human beings would react rationally if the same thing happened again? YES! In other words, they decided to put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT” instead of spending extra money to fix the problem.

The same dynamic is evident in Stowaway. Lots of people talking about the movie complain that NASA would never allow this problem to happen. The oxygen problem is similar to what happened to Apollo 13, so wouldn’t NASA know to have backups on board? Problem is, the mission in Stowaway isn’t run by NASA, but by a company called Hyperion. More to the point, there are bits of dialog that suggest that Hyperion is not beyond cutting corners in order to save money. Should space travel work that way? No. Does history suggest it could? Absolutely. We may progress to the point where such thinking doesn’t happen, but we’re a long way from there (if we ever reach it).

As for Stowaway as a movie – if you can swallow the setup it’s pretty good. How the stowaway got on board is never satisfactorily addressed (leading to a lot of people to assume it was intentional, which really doesn’t fit the film), but once you’re beyond that things greatly improve. The performances are all good. The filmmakers made a choice to keep the action entirely focused on the four people on the ship, to the point that we don’t even hear the other side of conversations with ground control, much less see any of them grappling with the problem. I found that this reinforces how cut off the ship was, how on their own they were, and was very effective. The ending just kind of is there, but it would have been hard to go much further without changing the vibe of the thing. Worth a watch, certainly.