May 18, 2016
I want to talk about both because this is such an interesting example of how an adaptation can go horribly, horribly wrong.
The Big Year by Mark Obmascik is a great read, an example of what makes the general nonfiction category so interesting: he tells a story that reveals and illuminates a subculture that many people may not know about, and makes the topic and its players fascinating. This is the story of the 1998 Big Year, when three birders competed to ID the most bird species in North America in a year when El Nino and odd weather patterns brought an unusual number of odd migrants to the continent, pushing the possible number of sightings to record highs. The competition is entirely unofficial, and deeply obsessive, requiring tens of thousands of miles of travel. The three players here are interesting and quirky in their own rights, and the story is all about the intersection of their lives and shared obsession.
If you’re at all interested in birds and birding it’s a must-read. If you just like good stories about weird things that actually happened to interesting people, I recommend this one.
And then in 2011 they turned the book into a movie, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black. The movie is. . .frustrating.
The first sign we know that something has gone sideways is that even though the three characters in the movie correspond specifically to the real people from the book, the movie has changed their names and some important details about them, enough so that it’s no longer anything resembling biography.
This is because it turns out the movie is not really interested in birding at all. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have birds — it actually has a handful of sequences that illuminate exactly why birding is so cool, and how endlessly fascinating birds are. Like when they find a pair of bald eagles in the middle of their mating dance. They’ve all seen plenty of bald eagles, but they’ll watch this because it’s just cool.
But what the movie really wants to do is shoe-horn these characters and this situation into a really disgustingly bog-standard Hollywood story about “what’s really important in life.” The Wilson character’s wife is going through fertility treatments so they can have a kid but the marriage ends when he picks birding over her. Note: this isn’t in the book at all. Not even a little. The Martin character decides he’d rather spend more time with his new grandbaby than with birding. Also a plotline not in the book at all. The Black character finds romance on his Big Year and decides he likes her better than birds. ALSO NOT IN THE BOOK. Are we sensing a pattern here? The end of the movie: Wilson’s character “wins” the year, but is left feeling unfulfilled as he stares at a young family with a baby across a pond. Meanwhile, our other characters are the real “winners” because they’ve learned what’s really “important” in life. i.e. Not birding.
Basically, the message of the book is: Birding can get really obsessive but it’s also really awesome and attracts all kinds of interesting, driven people.
The message of the movie: Everything else is more important than birding.
What really frustrated me is the original story of The Big Year already has plenty of plot and obstacles that make for great drama without inventing all this “true meaning of life” bullshit. The person the Jack Black character is based on? Gets sick halfway through the year and is eventually diagnosed with cancer. (He lives. I guess Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about someone with cancer who lives.)
The movie uses birding as a crutch to tell this really boring story. But it never explains why birding in the first place. What turned these people onto birding? How did they all get started and why have they all become so passionate about it? The movie never tells us. It could just as easily have been about golf or stamp collecting or curling. But I really wanted to know why birding, because then it would mean so much more when the characters start questioning their obsessions with birding.
I wish I had liked this movie better because the actors were actually pretty good — especially Black, who gets across the drive and exhaustion of someone financially struggling to make his Year happen (that is in the book) — and I enjoyed watching them interact and play out the story. But the story was just so weak. I wish the movie had trusted its subject and source material more.
February 22, 2016
Kitty Rocks the House was the first book that I had a chance to dedicate to my niece Emmy after she was born. (Kitty Steals the Show came out the year she was born, but had gone all the way through production before Emmy actually arrived and I knew what her name was going to be.) A new family member deserves her own book.
Emmy is now four and is starting to read on her own, which is so cool. She found this copy of Rocks the House and recognized her name in there. “It’s my very own book!” she said. She also asked if she could read it. Which I’m thinking maybe she ought to hold off on, but who knows.
But for now, behold! The world has a new reader in it. Huzzah!
February 1, 2016
A couple of weeks ago I posted my award-eligible work from 2015. I like putting my annual publications in one place because it reminds me that, hey, I really have been busy and productive! Cool!
But this is the time of year I also like to think about the cool new stuff I’ve encountered.
I don’t think I’ve done enough reading — I never do enough reading. Especially short fiction. I used to try to read every anthology my work appeared in, but that got out of hand a few years ago and I’ve never been able to keep up. So, my reading is awfully scattered.
I did read some good novels, though: Uprooted by Naomi Novik is getting a lot of buzz, and rightfully so. Really excellent stand-alone traditional fantasy, in the same vein as the books I love so much by Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip, about a young heroine who discovers that she’s much stronger than she knows and sets about saving the world because someone has to do it.
Then there are some of my go-to favorites: James S.A. Corey and Paolo Bacigalupi both had new books out last year. Nemesis Games is the fifth Expanse novel and the one that left most of us fans going “Holy crap did they really just do that? OMG, they really just did that.” I cannot wait to see where they go from here.
Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife is near-future speculation about drought and water rights in the west — issues literally in my own backyard. Paolo really knows his stuff and this book combines thought-provoking SF with a cool thriller plot. Good stuff there.
I also encountered The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith, a rather strange and wonderful YA novel about some difficult subjects, but still with some funny bits and a weird Philip K. Dick worthy subplot holding it all together. The main character is a teen refugee from an unnamed war-torn country, who is sent to summer camp with his new foster brother. So, it’s like terrible refugee stuff combined with teen-boy summer camp comedy. And it kind of actually works. I don’t think this book is for everyone, but it’s one of the things I read last year that stood out for me.
The dramatic categories for the Hugo are going to be super-interesting this year. These short-run TV shows with only 8-10 episodes are almost mini-series covering one storyline — so do we nominate them as short-form by episode or long form for the whole thing? No idea. But some TV episodes that caught my attention are the season finale of The Flash, and Ep. 8 of Daredevil — the Fisk backstory. Agent Carter also gets my attention.
Long form — this is going to be an immensely interesting year, because we have an embarrassment of riches. Marvel movies, Hunger Games, Star Wars — but I have to say, I’d rather avoid the long-running franchise in favor of nominating Fury Road and The Martian — both really solid stand-alone stories that showcase what SF storytelling is capable of. (Marvel and Star Wars in particular have gone past basic storytelling and have become something else — communities, wherein the movies are rituals of celebration. I have an essay about that brewing.)
And now I have really got to catch up on some short fiction before I fill out my ballots…
October 26, 2015
I’m still going through the big batch of books from my teenage years that my parents dropped off. Check this one out:
Just look at that cover! Can you not tell that my GI Joe-loving teenage self thought this was Pure! Unbridled! Awesome!?!? The premise: a special forces team made up of teenagers (WTF?) goes out and saves the world! Because reasons!
The author on this is Zachary Blue. But given what I’ve learned about some others of these teen adventure series, I suspected that maybe wasn’t a real author name. So I checked the copyright page:
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!! R.L. Stine! OMG that’s so great!
October 19, 2015
I’ve given myself some homework — something you need to know if you want to be a pro writer is that there is always homework. I’m analyzing LeGuin’s The Dispossessed for structure. This story follows one person through much of his life, alternating between current pivotal events and flashbacks telling the story of his life. It’s a good structure, I think, that packs in a huge amount of information about the main character, his world, and his place in it. I’m contemplating a similar structure so I really want to get a handle on what the book does well.
It also turns out this is a book that reads differently at different points in one’s life. The last time I read it (and first time, I think) was for grad school 15 years ago. I was 27. I turned down a lot of pages to note things on those pages (without actually marking passages, alas), and this read through I can’t think of what I wanted to note back then, because of bunch of entirely different parts of the book are jumping out at me this time. Some of them are things I need to hear at this point in my life, oddly enough, so I’m enjoying this read through. And making notes.
TV: I seem to have stopped watching Castle. This used to be the center of my Monday night dinner parties, but we have so many other shows we’re trying to watch (Flash! Arrow!), that we can’t be bothered. The end of last season was such a perfect series finale, and the one episode I’ve managed to catch from this season doubled down so egregiously on the stupid conspiracy thriller plot that the show does so badly, that I just stopped watching and barely noticed.
I’m finally watching The Bletchley Circle, and I started liking it after I decided to stop being so furious at how condescending Susan’s husband is toward her. It’s such a contrast to the couple of times she speaks with men who have an inkling of what she did during the war.
And…I hear there’s some Star Wars buzz around today? Up late last night, someone posted a 15 second clip from the new trailer. 15 seconds. But it had X-wings and pilots and something big happening and dammit but I started crying.
I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to with all this new Star Wars stuff: meeting some new people. Following some new characters and new stories. My favorite Expanded Universe stories were always the ones dealing with new characters: Rogue Squadron, Tales of the Jedi, etc. This is a huge, rich, amazing universe — that’s why we keep coming back to it. But I want to meet some new people in it, please.
September 18, 2015
This is turning into a month of unexpected chaos. Most of it the good kind. But I’ve got nuthin’ much to post today, so I will leave you with this:
Are you overwhelmed by the sheer amount of short SF&F available right now? I definitely am. I have great intentions to keep up with it all. . .and then I just don’t because of all the other reading I need to do. But a group of editors who do “Years Best” anthologies have started a Twitter feed to tell us all what they’re liking in short fiction. It makes for a helluva reading list. It’s at least a place to start, you know?
September 4, 2015
If all is going as planned, right this minute I am at DragonCon running around like a mad thing being on panels and doing early holiday shopping and gawking at costumes and so on and so forth. I am very likely having a good time!
In the meantime, I think I’ve mentioned I’m re-watching Babylon 5 and enjoying it immensely. On the book side, I’ve just read Naomi Novik’s Unprooted, and it may be the best thing I’ve read all year. It reminded me very much of Robin McKinley’s and Patricia McKillip’s writing, and that’s very high praise indeed coming from me. Very recommended. I’ve also just read (late, I know!) Tamora Pierce’s Beka Cooper series, and I can’t wait until my niece is old enough to start handing her books by ALL these authors. Actually, I’d recommend the Beka Cooper books to just about anyone as well. Good adventure stuff right there.
Next up, as soon as I get back from the convention: Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife.