Kage Baker, A Fine Writer, Gone

Following upon the previous post, Kage Baker has passed away.

A few years back she was guest of honor at ConQuest, in Kansas City.  Here in St. Louis some folks at the public library contacted me to see if I could get her to come here to do a presentation.  In my office at the time as president of the Missouri Center for the Book I made inquiries, set up a venue, and actually made arrangements.  A couple of local fans who were at the Kansas City convention volunteered to drive Kage and her sister to St. Louis.  They said they had a marvelous time with her and were pleased to take Kage around the city on tour.

I’d expected more from the library.  Of course I sent around a notice that Kage would be in town, doing a reading, but book events are notoriously hard to get people, even dedicated readers, to attend, and we ended up with a very small gathering in a hall much too large.

Kage was gracious.  We huddled around and she read a pirate story to us and we had a terrific conversation.  It was a fun evening and I came away very impressed by her wit and charm.  That’s kind of a cliched expression, but it was true.  I liked her very much.  I’d already been quite taken by her books, which are the kind of treasures you find from time to time that you come to feel a special warmth for.  Great characters, wonderful storylines, and a terrific premise.

She actually published quite a bit.  There’s plenty there to read and reread.  Nevertheless, there doubtless was much more we will never now discover.  She will be missed by some of us.  She should be remembered.

Celebrity and Unread Books

J.D. Salinger is dead.  Age 91, he died, according to reports, of natural causes, at home, away from the media.

I confess—I never read himCatcher In The Rye is one of those touchstone books everyone had read, but not I.  For whatever reason, it never crossed my path.  I remember those bright red covers in high school, sort of wondered about it, but…

We can’t read everything, and some books, if you don’t get to them at a certain period in your life, you might as well not bother.  I doubt Holden Caulfield’s adventures would mean to me now what they would have back then.  Besides, I have a lot of other stuff to read and I know I’ll never get to it all.

Not long ago, the screenwriter Josh Olson (A History Of Violence) did an essay about the problem of time and professionalism.  I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script nails on the head certain issues all professionals face, that of giving time to those seeking validation, unwarranted assistance, or just some kind of reason to feel put upon.  I’ve been guilty myself of violating some of these strictures—wholly unknowing, naively—but, once I realized the mistake, never repeated it.  Some authors get downright strident about this issue and occasionally sound like screaming paranoid misanthropes when they finally come back at someone for not getting it.  See, it’s a no-win situation.  You take the piece and read it and it’s awful, you have a choice—tell the truth or lie.  Either one will get you into trouble and you end up looking like an ass.  But what if it’s good?  You still have a problem.  There is a lot of “good” work out there that will simply never find a publisher or producer.  It ain’t fair, it just is what it is.  There’s not enough room in the world for every piece of work.  So what do you do?  Recommend this person to your agent or publisher?  And what if it continues to be unsalable for any of a hundred reasons that have little or nothing to do with the work in hand?  You don’t run the universe, but if your acquaintance still can’t sell it, you look like either a moron or obviously someone who didn’t sincerely go to bat for the work.

But in my case, this seldom comes up.  I’m one of those who doesn’t sell well most of the time.  It hurts, but there are reasons, and I’m not going to take advantage of people who have no stake in my career to either vent my frustration or climb over other people who may be just or more deserving.  (Maybe I’m a sap for doing that, but you have to live with yourself and shouldn’t do things that might make that difficult.)  But it does apply to reading in general—there just ain’t enough time for all the great books in the world.

Salinger is not likely to be on my shelf anytime before my own demise.

What I don’t get in people like Salinger is the recluse stuff.  I admit, to me it looks like a pose.  He’s never been out-of-print.  Nor has he ever had to write another novel.  I sometimes wonder if he engineered it so that he could just stop when he was on top.  Not a bad strategy, especially if you subsequently can’t finish another book.  But I admit, one of the reasons I’ve always done the work I’ve done has been a secret desire to be in the limelight.  Art of any kind has a bit of performance about it and artists who shun the stage always struck me as insincere.  I’m probably wrong about that and that’s okay.  I just don’t get it myself.

But J.D. Salinger, who published his three volumes way back when and took the accolades to the bank ever since, who eschewed publicity and thereby generated mountains of it, has died, and has done so quite publicly even though he was at home, out of the limelight, with family and friends, apparently getting what he wanted.  Famous for rejecting fame.

In the meantime, another writer, of considerable talent and certainly more productivity, is in the process of dying on the other side of the country, and except for the community of people who love her books will likely die largely ignored by the media and the public at large.  Kage Baker writes science fiction.  Her series of novels and stories of The Company are fine pieces, the first few exquisite disquisitions on history.  She writes fun yarns about characters who are both fully realized and compelling.  No, it’s doubtful any of them would ever become iconic in the way that Salinger’s relatively meager output has, but then I bet Kage’s, page for page, are a lot more fun.

I’m not suggesting that there is any cosmic unfairness going on here.  The Universe doesn’t give a damn about fair.  The very idea is absurd.  I’m just saying that the perverse manner in which our attention gets manipulated often results in overlooking wonderful things.  Such is the case with my own indifference at age 15 or 16 when I should have read Catcher In The Rye, but instead…let me see, that was 1970 or 71, so I would have been reading Heinlein and Clarke, Bradbury and Zelazny, Henderson and Asimov.  (I read both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged about that time as well, not to mention a goodly dollop of Dickens, Hugo, Twain, and Hemingway.)  I had my sites set on what I thought were loftier planes of literary territory and this one just…slipped by.

My point?  Only that it makes no sense to regret what you haven’t gotten to, especially if what you have discovered has enlivened your existence and widened your vistas.  If you haven’t read certain books because your were busy reading others, well, good for you.  The only sad thing would be is if you didn’t read certain books because you couldn’t make up your mind which and didn’t read any.  Or, worse, if you didn’t read any because you had no idea there was anything worth while inside them.

But I would urge anyone reading this to go find a Kage Baker novel right now and indulge some wonder.

New Draft and Other Stuff

This morning I completed the second draft of the new murder mystery, The Drowned Doll.  The first draft came in at about 70,000 words, this one is just shy of 93,000, which is right about where I wanted it.

I then got dressed and went to the gym.  January has been abysmally cold, so I haven’t been going.  I used to be very susceptible to colds at below 25 degrees, and although I’m not so much anymore, I still draw the line at 10 degrees and stay home.  It’s been push-ups and aerobics for the last few weeks.  This week the weather broke a bit and it’s been up in the 30s and 40s.  But I wanted to get this book done, so I haven’t gone.  Pumping iron as partial celebration.  How perverse is that!

Anyway, I kind of like the new book.  It’s got a nice shape, interesting characters (I think), and a serviceable mystery.  Tomorrow I’ll print out this new draft and let Donna tear into it, after which I’ll pick up the bleeding corpse and fix it up and it should be really good, then.  (All my books are, at some point, Frankenstein creatures, sewn together parts and repaired viscera.)

Also this morning I got an email from BenBella.  They’ve put up my essay from the Hitchhiker’s Guide anthology they did, The Anthology At The End of the Universe, and you can read it here .  It’s a strange piece, even for me, but I had a good time writing it and every time I read it I think “my, I was reasonably clever with this, wasn’t I?”  Or something like that.  I’d like to think Douglas Adams would be pleased with it.

I’m going to go upstairs now and read.  I get to rest now.  Tomorrow I can print the manuscript and start cleaning my office.

Oh goodie.


Okay, so I contributed to the James Cameron Self Love Fund and saw AVATAR. Yesterday we went to the 3-D showing (no way I would spend money on the normal view, I can wait for the DVD the way I do with 99% of the movies I see anymore).  I’ve had a day to think about it now and I’ve come to some conclusions, which are hardly profound, but I think worth saying.

Let me say up front that I wasn’t bored.  Visually, this is a stunning achievement.  But that’s what everyone is saying.  It is, in fact, the best 3-D I’ve ever seen.  Often in the past the effect is minimal and the cost in headache high.  This was neither.  And it fully supported the visuals rather than masking mundane or poor image elements.  Pandora, the planet involved, is magnificently realized.  Cool stuff.  Real gosh wow.

The biology is problematic.  You have a wide mix of lifeforms analogous to Earth.  Some big lumbering critters like hippos or rhinoceri that also have features of a dinosaur, and some small things that are clearly wolves, and one big nasty cat-like thing that’s like a sabertooth tiger.  It’s unclear if any of these creatures are mammalian, but it doesn’t matter much.  Dinosaur analogs.  Most of them apparently four-legged.  But the “horses” the natives ride are six-legged, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ thoats.  How does that play out in evolutionary terms?  Well, maybe that’s a quibble.

How then do you evolve humanoids out of this?  Well, maybe that’s a quibble, too.  This film is not about science on any level, regardless of the few bits of dialogue suggesting there are, you know, scientists, and that there is a studyable cause to any of this.

Because the story, basically, is hackneyed, cynical, and cliched.  I have to hand it to Cameron, he rips off the best.  Strong elements of Anne McCaffery’s Pern in here, as well as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and a nod to LeGuin (The Word For World Is Forest), Poul Anderson (Call Me Joe), even Joe Haldeman (All My Sins Remembered).  If I dug through my memories I could probably come up with at least half a dozen more clear “borrowings” all mixed in.  There’s not an original idea in any two minutes.

The plotline, however, is straight out of post-colonial self-loathing and Western angst and while there is much to be mined from that pool that is legitimate for drama, its deployment here was purely sentimental button-pushing.  All the triggers were in place, with strong connections to the American Indian, Vietnam, and even a bit of Afghanistan just to bring it up to date.  And it was all thrown into the mix regardless of the logic behind it, which is profoundly flawed.  The few genuinely interesting touches are overhwelmed by the self-righteous indignation Cameron clearly wished to evoke.  We see Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves, and Custer’s Last Stand all in service to making a statement about…

The Big Bad Nasty Western Corporate Oligarchy Bent On Destroying Everything To Mine The Last Fragment Of Coal.

In this case, Unobtanium.

Which is somehow worth the cost of an expedition that would bankrupt the planet for the next century.

Which, if we buy the premise that interstellar travel is now practical, would be a pointless exercise in colonial assholery with no upside in terms of profit or prestige, because that one assumption means we’ve solved our energy and resource problems  and the scenario depicted rests upon a 19th Century mindset that would no longer be supportable—just as it pretty much isn’t now.

Which makes AVATAR a rather stupid movie.

Not that there wouldn’t be a way to actually sell this with a little extra work.  With a bit more imagination.  With less desire to beat up on a cultural motif that doesn’t actually need a half-billion dollar 3-D piece of propagandistic hyper sentimentalized derivative schlock movie to achieve.

Very simply posit that these trespassers are rogues.  It could be done in any of a number of ways and actually make a better story.  Not much better, perhaps, but it might be a little less cynical…

Why am I bothering to detail all this?  Because, beautiful as this film is—and it is beautiful—it pisses me off to see so much money dumped into a third-rate piece of hack writing when there are fine artists and projects begging for a little support, who have stories that would benefit the world much more than this dead-end preaching.

End of rant.

For The New Year

Starting off on a positive step, I’ve made a change on the site.  Not much of a one, but it could lead to something special.

The Art page has been static for some time now.  Technical issues among other things.  But I decided to move the art to a site that can give me a little better control and offer the possibility of expanding this part of my creative life.  Take the plunge, go for it, I say, put your stuff out there where people can see it.

So over the weekend, with a bit of help from my webmaster, I changed the Art link to a hosting site that offers a nicer look and some bells and whistles.  You can go to the main page and click on Art or just go here.

If I get enough visitors, comments, hits, etc that it seems worthwhile, I can upgrade this site to allow people to purchase an original Mark W. Tiedemann image.  Who knows, some of you might.  But I want to see what kind of interest can be generated first.

Meantime, I can add more images to this page much more easily than with the original and the display is better.  I’m fairly pleased with the look.

So if  you think it’s worth a look, please spread the word.  I think (he admits modestly) I’ve done some decent photography in my time and I’ve been wanting to showcase it to more advantage.  This might be the solution.

Thank you and enjoy the show.