Monthly Archives: August 2009

Book Review: Unnatural States (Or, If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished)

We’re into pondering the future of literature around here.  Recent entries include e-book chapter mashups and twit lit and Harvard Press on Scribd.  Today’s comes from Nicola Furlong, self-identified shameless self-promoter and Canadian writer of mysteries.

Furlong has produced a multimedia novel entitled Unnatural States.  It is certainly multimedia.  Whether it is a novel is debatable.  More on that later.  Navigating the simple site, you are immediately confronted with a “Trailer / Intro”, which features an buzzcut older woman in sunglasses performing YouTube-esque antics in lieu of of a book jacket.  It had me clicking desperately for the next page.  Readers, it went downhill from there. unnatural states

Unnatural States is a linear progression of linked webpages filled with text, pictures, sound effects and more video clips.  These are all meant to serve as the stuff of this “novel,” which apparently is a mystery about some latter-day John the Apostle and a terrier-like reporter named Virginia hot on his trail.  Or something.  It was hard to tell, what with all the noise and bad sentences.

If it’s possible for a website to be claustrophobic, this one is.  When I’m reading, I like to know where I’m going.  How many pages the books has (or dots at the bottom of the screen, in the case of the Kindle), how far along I am, what chapter I’m on, and so forth.  Unnatural States gives you none of these.  You don’t how far you’ve come, or how far you’ve got to go.  There are no chapters.  No organization at all that I could detect, other than the arrows at the bottom of your screen.  If you want to understand what’s going on, you can’t skip the video clips.  You have to watch them.  It’s like taking orders from the author.  It’s annoying as hell.

I mean, I like movies and video as much as anyone.  But I watch them as video.  Clips as stand-ins for the written word are horribly inefficient.  They just take so long.  What would constitute a few paragraphs of dialogue takes three minutes of video.  It’s the same reason I prefer to get my news off the web rather than TV: in the time it takes a talking head to get to the gist, I can have read a whole page of analysis, and be on to the next thing, rather than passively waiting for the talking head to tell me what’s next.

Now, a novel just is a passive experience.  Which is why I can’t stand to read bad ones.  If I’m going to hand my conscious working mind over to a writer, he / she better do good things with it.  Inserting video clips as stand-ins for words just doesn’t cut it.  I don’t pick up a novel to be a part-time watcher.  I pick it up to be a reader.

Normally I’m all for innovation.  But this is the kind of thing that’s going to make a raging literary reactionary out of me.  There have to be some parameters.  A novel can be spoken, a novel can be filmed.  But, as yet, a novel cannot be turned into a multimedia showcase.  Not without ceasing to become a novel and becoming something else.  A dreary mess, in this case.

Take the video sequences, for instance.  Yes, they are painfully amateur productions.  But that’s not the problem.  Slick scenes directed by Quentin Tarantino would not improve the situation.  That’s because video clips are not writing; they are fundamentally something else.  This is the reason you don’t attend a movie screening of your favorite novel book in hand, nor read a book with a DVD remote, watching the scenes as you read them.  I suppose it’s possible to imagine a future when the multitasking hordes both read and watch video at the same time, but that won’t be reading (or watching, for that matter).  It will be something else.  For now the barrier between the two is impermeable.  Unnatural States is a demonstration of why.  If this is the future of the novel, the novel is finished.

Is it fair to review a “novel” that I haven’t actually finished?  Normally I’d say no.  But in this case I think it is justified.  I couldn’t possibly drudge through to end of this exercise in digital tedium.  Furlong has managed to construct a galactic failure of tinny sound effects, 80s-arcade music, painfully turgid video scenes, and woefully uninteresting writing.  An actual novel, the kind that consists of mere words, is incapable of such a massive falling down.  So I guess this makes Furlong something of an innovator, after all.

Judge for yourself here:  Unnatural States, by Nicola Furlong

UPDATE: Normally I contact the author of a book or piece I review, and invite them to comment.  But I haven’t been able to locate Furlong’s contact information.  If anybody has it, please feel free to forward it to me.

Also posted at TeleRead.

You’re sitting in a chair! In the sky!

There are things to miss about the Third World.  For instance, I just looked out the window and saw a little boy of about five wobbling down the street on a bicycle with his little brother clinging onto the back.  They almost toppled over, but they made it.  And I realized that I only noticed them because of how rarely you see such thing.  Even here in Smalltown USA in the height of summer you can go a week at a time without seeing a kid on a bicycle.  Probably it’s because they’re all inside staring at backlit screens like they one I’m looking at now.  I especially noticed how awkward the boys were, as if attempting such a feat were a rare novelty, something untried and unknown.  Well, to them I guess it probably was.

But back in our Thai village, you saw kids whizzing around on bikes fifty times a day.  Five kids on a bike: that’s a feat.  Two is just transportation.  Carried out with the effortless grace that, I guess, kids over here conquer Nintendo-summoned dragonbeasts with.  The main difference is that Thai kids are skinny and endlessly smiling.  I don’t know if they’re any happier; likely they just have much lower entertainment thresholds.  And not that kids here in America seem miserable.  But the older ones that I observe in Wal-Mart and swimming pools and suchlike places seem jerky, overstimulated, always on the prowl.  Inquisitive and acquisitive, as befitting the nature of American life, as Thai kids are largely diffident and submissive, as befits their as-yet largely feudalistic society.

Now, in general I think the advance of technology is a good thing.  (It makes this blog possible, for one.)  Hell, you could argue, and I would agree, that we’ve been utilizing technology since the first caveman picked up the first stick to bash his cavemate across the head with it.  Still.  I do wonder how much the difference between Thai and American kids stems from how many more electronic gizmos American kids have.  Quite a lot, probably.

Technology boomerangs on its users, as any iPhone user will tell you.  It’s not clear who controls whom.  And, no matter how amazing all this networked wizardry is, it’s certainly not clear it’s improving the quality of life.  Take the iPhone.  I saw an ad for one the other day.  This most amazingly networked mobile device in the history of mankind, containing in its white frame as much computing power as existed on the whole globe in 1950, has the ability to … tell you what time the movie starts.  Really?  That’s it?  It’s 2009, man.  Shouldn’t we be flying around in jetpacks, scooting around in moonbuggies, teleporting ourselves to Jupiter?  And would it matter, if we could?

Probably not.  Because even without jetpacks things are amazing, and nobody is happy.  To wit:

(Note: this clip really is worth watching to end.  Highlight: “You’re sitting in a chair!  In the sky!”)

Clip via Kevin Kelly.


You're sitting in a chair! In the sky!

There are things to miss about the Third World.  For instance, I just looked out the window and saw a little boy of about five wobbling down the street on a bicycle with his little brother clinging onto the back.  They almost toppled over, but they made it.  And I realized that I only noticed them because of how rarely you see such thing.  Even here in Smalltown USA in the height of summer you can go a week at a time without seeing a kid on a bicycle.  Probably it’s because they’re all inside staring at backlit screens like they one I’m looking at now.  I especially noticed how awkward the boys were, as if attempting such a feat were a rare novelty, something untried and unknown.  Well, to them I guess it probably was.

But back in our Thai village, you saw kids whizzing around on bikes fifty times a day.  Five kids on a bike: that’s a feat.  Two is just transportation.  Carried out with the effortless grace that, I guess, kids over here conquer Nintendo-summoned dragonbeasts with.  The main difference is that Thai kids are skinny and endlessly smiling.  I don’t know if they’re any happier; likely they just have much lower entertainment thresholds.  And not that kids here in America seem miserable.  But the older ones that I observe in Wal-Mart and swimming pools and suchlike places seem jerky, overstimulated, always on the prowl.  Inquisitive and acquisitive, as befitting the nature of American life, as Thai kids are largely diffident and submissive, as befits their as-yet largely feudalistic society.

Now, in general I think the advance of technology is a good thing.  (It makes this blog possible, for one.)  Hell, you could argue, and I would agree, that we’ve been utilizing technology since the first caveman picked up the first stick to bash his cavemate across the head with it.  Still.  I do wonder how much the difference between Thai and American kids stems from how many more electronic gizmos American kids have.  Quite a lot, probably.

Technology boomerangs on its users, as any iPhone user will tell you.  It’s not clear who controls whom.  And, no matter how amazing all this networked wizardry is, it’s certainly not clear it’s improving the quality of life.  Take the iPhone.  I saw an ad for one the other day.  This most amazingly networked mobile device in the history of mankind, containing in its white frame as much computing power as existed on the whole globe in 1950, has the ability to … tell you what time the movie starts.  Really?  That’s it?  It’s 2009, man.  Shouldn’t we be flying around in jetpacks, scooting around in moonbuggies, teleporting ourselves to Jupiter?  And would it matter, if we could?

Probably not.  Because even without jetpacks things are amazing, and nobody is happy.  To wit:

(Note: this clip really is worth watching to end.  Highlight: “You’re sitting in a chair!  In the sky!”)

Clip via Kevin Kelly.


A warranty, of sorts

Did you know that the probability of your dying within the year doubles every eight years?  I’m 33, which means I have a 1 in 1500 chance of dying within the next year.  When I’m 42, it will be 1 in 750.  When I’m 50 (if I make it that long), 1 in 375.  Etc.  If I somehow limp along to 100, my chance of living to be 101 will be 1 in 2.  A warranty, of sorts.

A British fellow named Benjamin Gompertz discovered this fact.  No one understands why it is true but it has been proven so regularly it is now called the Gompertz Law of Human Mortality.  It holds across countries, time periods, even species.  Or, as illustrated in this data from the US Census Bureau:

No one makes it out of here alive.

No one makes it out of here alive.

Right in line with Average Life Expectancy, which I wrote about back in January (including the cure of the ancients, if thinking about this sort of thing bothers you).  If you’d like to know what your odds of making it through the next year, here’s a Death Probability Calculator.  If you’d like some mathematical proof, here it is:

gompertz formula

If you want someone to explain this to you, since I can’t, better go ask this guy, who caught my attention by pointing out that our bodies weren’t built to last.

It caught my attention because I do my best to remain mindful of the void that awaits.  We appear from this void, blink a few times, then return to it.  What are you going to do with your blinks, is what I ask myself daily.  To that end I have a memento mori.  More on that later.

Birdfeeders and other things you can’t make out of e-books

book birdfeeder“Look at those beautiful examples of what can be done from a paper book. It’s just amazing… but on the other hand it’s good, that e-books are intangible. You can’t do things like that to them. As a writer I would love my book to be part of a heritage, not a birdhouse.” – Piotr Kowalczyk, author of Password Incorrect.

I’d not thought of e-books this way, but the man is right on.

Birdfeeders and other things you can't make out of e-books

book birdfeeder“Look at those beautiful examples of what can be done from a paper book. It’s just amazing… but on the other hand it’s good, that e-books are intangible. You can’t do things like that to them. As a writer I would love my book to be part of a heritage, not a birdhouse.” – Piotr Kowalczyk, author of Password Incorrect.

I’d not thought of e-books this way, but the man is right on.

The kids are alright

People worry a lot about how kids today are _(insert worrying term here)___.  I don’t.  They’ll muddle their way through, just like we’re doing, most of them getting in line like everyone else, some being more interesting.   Most will quietly embrace the pieties they were raised on; some will rebel for a while before doing so; a few will chart whole new ways of doing things.  Just like in every other generation before or since.   And so the world will spin on.  Hell, don’t worry about the kids.  They’re alright.

Sidenote: I’ll never understand how this could be the same group that produced that war crime against vinyl “Behind Blue Eyes.”  Classic schlock rock at its very worst, to which I was subjected to endless hours of while working various summers with oldheads about the same age then as I am now … guess these kids didn’t quite turn out alright.

There goes that theory.

Words I have learned

Whole new vocabularies have sprung up while I was gone.  Such as “hoochie momma”.  That one I figured out by context.  But how about “snap?”  I kept hearing / reading that one, yet it remained a total mystery to me.  Fortunately, someone I know had a handy-dandy graphic:

snap

Thanks, Meg.

The other day one of the immigrant students I teach part-time (sometimes I feel like they should be teaching me how to cope with America, but I digress) came in with a word he had seen that day and written down: “staycation.”  I was sure this was a mistake.  Did he mean “satisfaction?”  Citation?  Way station?  But he insisted this was the word.  Finally I consulted dictionary.com and learned that staycation is, in fact, a word.  Coined in 2003, which happens to be the last year I spend any significant time in the US until this year, it means a vacation spent at home.  Who knew?

Then there is “owned”, and “pawn’d.”  I think I’m starting to grasp these, but I’m not quite sure.  Anyone who’d like to fill me in, feel free to do so in the comments.

But I did hear one tonight that makes perfect sense.  On sports talk radio, of all things, which I’ve spent about 11 minutes listening to in my life, most of that coming in the time it took to switch the dial.  But tonight whoever it was was holding forth about Henry Aaron.  He called him the “Natural Home Run King.”

All natural.

All natural.

Has this become common parlance since the villain Barry Bonds trashed all that was still good and true in America’s besmirched former national pastime?  I don’t know.  But it was perfect, just perfect.  So perfect that I’m going to type it again.  The Natural Home Run King.  That felt good.