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Saturdays, Doctor Who, and Books - The Lyorn's Den

Sun Nov. 5th, 2006

09:37 am - Saturdays, Doctor Who, and Books

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What is it with Saturdays? I had bad (if interesting) dreams, and when my alarm rang at 10, I had no idea where I was or how I got there and which planet I was on, or how to open my eyes, so I fell back into bed and slept for another three and a half hours. Which neatly rendered impossible any plans I might have had for the day, because three-something hours of daylight is not enough to do anything interesting. And I still felt confused.

I decided to make use of the amazing restorative properties of bookshops and coffee. And it was good. It also was 5 in the evening when I walked out again, so I got a take-away pizza and headed back to the hotel. I'm not complaining, but I feel I should have more energy, see more, get around more... Oh, and get more work done. Work out more. Write a bestselling novel. Try to take over the world.

I wrote some postcards instead.

Friday I went home from work early, because I absolutely wanted to see Doctor Who. This might seem strange to you, as I've never seen the show before, not once in 28 seasons and then some. I'd come about some fanfic, some fandom debate, some references, the usual things. But my luck -- which usually lets any show I become interested in appear on German TV within a few months (though sometimes in the form of after-midnight wrong-order re-runs), or lets a bunch of DVDs tumble unto my desk -- failed me in this. So, that was the first reason. The second one is David Tennant. Those who know me know that I'm not in the habit of actor fangirling (at least not since Harrison Ford became too old to play Indiana Jones). But when in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire", Barty Crouch jr. appeared for a very short time un-polyjuiced, I was all, "Oh wow, this guy is too cute to be true!!11!eleventy-one!" I checked the IMDb, found that he was currently playing in a series I'd like to see but probably never would, sent a mental telegram to whoever is in charge of my luck to Do Something About It, and, being oh-so-old and reasonable, forgot the whole thing. Until I looked at the TV guide eight days ago and went "OMG squee!", and went home early yesterday so that I could sit in front of the TV at 7pm.

And if you expect a review of the episode, you are out of luck. I only watched one episode so far, how the heck should I review it? But I have to say, both Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, which came next, suffered badly from SciFi's commercial breaks, which came every five (or so) minutes. Life's a bitch. And I'm not enthusiastic about buying the DVDs, since I'm not convinced that DVDs will keep playable for a significant time span, and I lack the ability to make backup copies and adjust format. Sometimes life sucks. If I could assure that I could still watch my DVDs in 20 or 30 or 50 years, I'd sent a 500-Euro-order to amazon or play.com tomorrow. If a DVD box cost only 10 Euros, I'd be content with a shelf life of maybe 10 years. But they are too expensive to be disposable, and too short-lived to spend much money on them. Darned things. At least back in the Jurassic, before home video, there were no commercial breaks on TV.

None of these problems, fortunately, plague books (so far). Books (like IVAR bookshelves and tea mugs) are both cheap and durable, and require no specialized interface. What's not to like?

So: books.

Ill Wind, by Rachel Caine, 2003

First thing I thought when I saw this book (first in the "Weather Warden" series) was, Oh please, a secret society of super-powered people controlling the weather? Give me a break.

On the other hand, I had followed the career of the author through several pseudonyms and knew that I liked her style, so when I had a chance to get the book half-priced in a second-hand bookstore, I decided to give it a try. And it's actually quite good. Consider: If this were fantasy, with a bunch of elemental mages or shamans having to control storms and wildfires to keep their land inhabitable, there would be nothing absurd about it. Only when it happens in our world, where we have a reasonable good idea how weather happens, how life adapts to its environment, and that all this works quite fine without any supernatural meddling, that you hear disbelief giving in to gravity and crushing down before you even opened the book. But Rachel Caine is good in what she does, and sets out to get away with it.

The book opens with two pages from a guide to "Owning Your First Djinn". Which is so Out There that it's cool, and softens the reader up for what is to come. The heroine, we learn on the first page, is on the run. And she stays on the run for about 330 of the book's 337 pages, with the abovementioned secret society of super-shamans, a demon, and a thunderstorm hot on her heels. On the plus side, she's got a lot of power, a very fast car, a few favors owed, and one or two sympathetic Djinn. The back story appears in thin slices between her attempts to defuse the thunderstorm, escape her pursuers and get a grip on the demon, and the story never slows down, until the heroine runs quite unexpectedly into the big bad just when she discovers that she has too much scruples to make this easy. There's a slight cop-out at the end, but I forgive the author. "Ill Wind" is a fast and fun read, and the author actually makes her seemingly brain-dead premise work.

Making Book, by Teresa Nielsen Hayden, 1994

Teresa Nielsen Hayden (tnh on LiveJournal) is a long time fan writer (with five Hugo nominations for her essays and zines), consulting editor at Tor books, editor of Steven Brust's books, keeper of the blog Making Light, from where I get a lot of the links you see in my LJ, and the inventor of disemvowelling as a comment moderation technique. Her essays On the getting of agents, Namarië Sue (where she notes that "the primary characteristic of fanfic isn't that it's amateurish or derivative; it's that it's legally unpublishable."), and Slushkiller are quoted up and down the internet wherever writers and wannabes gather.

"Making Book" is a collection of some of her early essays, most written for zines. She talks about how to get excommunicated from the Mormons, why people behave stupid in Disneyland, narcolepsy, copyediting, fruitbats, and a whole lot of other things, and it's all whimsy, clever and amusing. She can make a guide to copyediting a fun read. Amazing.

1491, by Charles C. Mann, 2005

Few people have ever faulted Tolkien for insufficient worldbuilding, but those that do usually complain about the lack of "anything happening" in Middle-earth in the Second and Third Age. Sure, there were kings, and wars, and the usual stuff that is found in history books, cities have been built and destroyed, monuments have been erected and forgotten, but where are technological and social advancements? Philosophy? Science? Trade? How can anyone believe in 6500 years of Not Much Happening? People aren't like that.

Consider this for a moment. And then consider what you know about, say, North America, or the Amazon before Columbus. Stone age, nomads, hunters and gatherers. Not many people there at all. 13.000 years of Not Much Happening. Only, people aren't like that.

Charles C. Mann compiles insights ("New Revelations", as the subtitle of the books says) into Indian life and history gained in the last 50 years, mostly by archeology and the study of accounts from explorers in the 16th century, and paints a very different picture. 16th century accounts describe the Americas as "full of people", teeming with life, the landscape shaped by human habitation and work. Yet, from the 17th to the 19th century, the Americas are described as a primeval wilderness -- "empty of mankind and its works", Mann quotes, though I do not find the source at the moment -- and that's the image still common today.

The first part of the book explains how two continents where maybe one fifth or one fourth of the world population lived could become empty in a few generations, and how a bunch of adventurers could conquer mighty empires. Maybe you remember the old biological warfare story, how a Tartar khan had the bodies of plague victims thrown into a city he besieged? The Genuans, who occupied the city fled for home on their ships. Only one, the legends say, was still alive when the ships came within sight of Genua, and the black death killed enough of the European population to change the social and political structure of the continent for good. But Europeans are a genetically diverse lot. Even for the meanest microbes, no more than one of three was easy prey. The Americas, however, had been settled by a relatively small group of people, a genetic bottleneck which led to a lack of genetic diversity. Smallpox alone could kill 19 out of 20.

The books' second part deals with how and when the Americas were settled. There is a lot on feuding archeologists, but the best answer, currently, seems to be, "we don't know". He continues along the lines of archeological evidence on how the Indians lived and worked, how cultures developed, what they could do and what they couldn't, and in which way their cultures differed from what we understand as "Stone age" or "Mighty empire", or anything between that.

The final part looks at the Amazon basin and at North America, and how these places have been shaped and transformed by humans. While less dramatic than part one, this is probably the most unexpected thing in the book, especially if read with some agenda (primeval wilderness!) or the other (primitive savages!) in mind.

The author also outlines the debates about all and everything, and always notes that the brilliant picture he paints might be wrong. But the lost world he describes is so amazing and at the same time common-sensical ("of course, 13.000 years with no history, a continent with no people... it's absurd!") that one leaves the book believing it, and wanting to believe it.

Because, history aside: This is great world building material!

The book came to my attention via Making Light. The blog entry on it has some quotes, and a 200-postings discussion.


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Date:November 6th, 2006 07:43 am (UTC)

Comics (pt.1)

1491: A real eye-opener, highly recommended. If you do not have 15 USD to spare at the moment, check the library: The book is a bestseller and should have made its way into many libraries by now.

Comics in Germany:

Time plays an even more important role here than place.

A kid growing up anywhere in West Germany in the '80s (Harry Potter's age) wouldn't even have heard of Manga. He would know Disney (Micky Mouse, Donald Duck), Franco-Belgian kids' stuff (Asterix, Lucky Luke, Tim und Struppi, Gaston, Michael Valiant, Spirou und Fantasio, to name a few), some German kids' comics (e.g. Yps, Fix und Foxi), Superman, Batman, maybe Green Lantern or Legion of Superheroes (or however it was called then). For a fan of American or Japanese comic books, those were the dark ages. They would have mail ordered from importers (or had a parent or older sibling order for them if they weren't 18), read in English, and even the importers wouldn't have heard of Manga. For a native English speaker in Trier, asking some Americans to purchase comics for him would be an alternative, if he had the right connections. (I have to admit that I know nothing about mainstream English comic books in the 80s, but I believe little_details had something on it not too long ago.)

German translations of Disney comics and high-profile superhero comics, could be bought at kiosks, in supermarkets and train stations, but until the mid-90s, the translations were often abysmal, and the lettering was a mess. (The exception was Micky Mouse/Donald Duck, which had a brilliant translator.)

Ten years later the American late-80's/early-90s boom in comics had reached Germany. It started with some high-profile graphic novels ("Watchmen", "V for Vendetta", "The Dark Knight Returns", "Ronin", "Mouse", "Akira"), with OK translations but often a different format, which tended to spoil page composition. In the early 90s you get a lot more comic book stores (though not in Trier, unless there was a short-lived one I never heard of), mid-90s you get the first Manga translated to German, and a quantum leap in translation, lettering quality and printing quality.
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[User Picture]
Date:November 6th, 2006 07:44 am (UTC)

Comics (pt.2)

Today (twenty years later), tranlated Japanese, Franco-Belgian and American comics are all popular in German. If your area lacks a comic book store, you'd buy them in a normal bookstore (In Trier, that would probably be Interbook). Those are more likely to have Manga than Superhero comics. Comparing bookstores, I feel that Manga are roughly equally popular in Germany and the US. The status of Japanese and American comics (with critics, parents, teachers and everyone wringing their hands about "kids these days") is below that of Franco-Belgian ones.

It is common that Manga translated into German keep the original reading direction, i.e. back-to-front, right-to-left. Another effect (probably not commonly noticed, but as I'm reading "Blade of the Immortal", I noticed) is that all swastikas get censored, i.e. changed in the drawings to something unoffensive. Censoring has a long and unholy tradition, in some early action comics (50s and 60s) every weapon was whitened out before printing. Thanks a lot, Frederik Wertham!) A large mainstream publisher could barely get away with "Maus" (there's a "funny" anecdote on that), but no mere comic book publisher wants the trouble.

Important publishers are Carlsen (esp. Franco-Belgian, they also published the translations of "Watchmen", "V for Vendetta", and the Batman graphic novels, as well as "Akira" [and made an almighty mess of the latter]. They got in early on the Manga boom [and are the German Harry Potter publishers]), Ehapa/Feest (Disney, also Manga [esp. Appleseed, Sailor Moon], early Gaiman translations), Dino (until 2003, they started in '94 with "The Simpsons", got into superheroes and set [dearly needed] new standards for translation quality). These days, eidalon does a lot of Manga, but they didn't exist in the '90s.

There are a bunch of smaller publishers, often highly specialized, sometimes around a single artist or cartoonist, and some mainstream publishers who occasionally do graphic novels or cartoons. The true independents are the ones who have most trouble with censorship, because they go for controversial material.

You see why I would notice comic book stores or the lack thereof? ;-)
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Date:November 13th, 2006 06:48 am (UTC)

Re: Comics (pt.2)

You're welcome :-)

BTW, my money is on Lovecraft making the Necronomicon up.
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Date:November 14th, 2006 06:50 am (UTC)


AFAIK, Lovecraft himself said that he had made it up, and no occultist, mystic or witchhunter before Lovecraft has ever mentioned it in my admittedly limited knowledge. (I'm more Scully than Mulder -- I have no intention to believe unless it's lying in front of me in a brightly lit room and it's dead ;-).

The two or three books I read that claimed to be contain parts of the Necronomicon were cheaply produced by small presses preying on wannabe Goths, small-time Satanists, D&D geeks and people looking for something to mock. I checked them out when preparing to GM a Call of Cthuhlu game and found that they put me in a mood not entirely suitable for a horror game. I also didn't notice any of my sanity slipping. (Nor did anyone else, which is the more reliable indicator -- "as crazy as ever", my roommates said.)

Of course, it can be impossible to prove that a certain thing doesn't exist.
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Date:November 14th, 2006 06:47 am (UTC)

Re: Comics (pt.2)

Some notes about manga in Germany: Eidolon doesn't do more then 4 to 5 releases a year. Two publishers are missing: Panini, who bought Dino in 2003, and TokyoPop, who started a German branch two years ago and managed to gain a good foodhold by buying out some of Carlsen's best employees. The "big four" today are: Carlsen Planet Manga (Panini's Manga branch) ToyoPop EMA (Ehapa's Manga branch) cu Gernot
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