What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**


* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

Don’t Fuck With My Money; or How I Stuck it to the Man and You Can Too!

A friend wrote this story and sent it to me, which I post both as a warning and for its own sake.

rack_city_3Police officers have a long and storied history of lying during arrests, on police reports, and even perjuring themselves under oath. They’ve lied about me, in front of me. As Americans, we’re fortunate to live in a country where the burden of proof lies upon the law enforcer instead of the lawbreaker. This is why routine traffic stops should follow strict protocols. Even ruthless murderers have gone free because of technicalities. My particular story contains more of the former (protocol violation) and none of the latter (murder), but if you follow my recommendations you may find yourself where I was this morning—at the end of a gavel hearing the words, “Case dismissed.”

Throughout my life, I’ve had piss-poor luck when it comes to getting caught by authority figures. I nearly got suspended in middle school for de-pantsing a friend in biology class. Freshman year I was suspended for dicking around in English class (and inexplicably promoted to an honors class as a result). Junior year was a whirlwind of parties, subpar oral sex, and death threats from parents of said subpar fellatio perpetrators. The cherry on top of this year was a cold, rainy weekend in November where the police caught me drinking before a football game with a freshman girl. The very next night, I had the supreme idea that I should drink a beer and get behind the wheel of a drug dealer’s car. This left me with one DUI, a narrowly avoided felony possession charge, a night in jail, and $10,000 subtracted from my parents’ bank account.

In college I had a few brush-ins with the law. A couple of fake ID charges, a minor in possession conviction, and assault charges (dropped because I was defending myself, of course). My point is this: I clearly never had a future as a cat burglar, or any other kind, and learned that I have the dubious ability to get caught every time I do something bad and/or illegal.

I live in Los Angeles now, a city which not only thrives on the fumes of automobiles but willfully ignores the need for public transportation. About 45 minutes south of LA lies the idyllic, WASP-y cove of Newport Beach, made famous by moronic reality television depicting the spoiled teenagers and the neurotic housewives who produced them. One of my best friend-girls, “Anastasia”—not her real name, but it’s equally stripper-esque—was dating one of Newport’s denizens and invited me to join her on his massive yacht for Memorial Day. She promised enough silicone to keep me afloat for days should the boat sink, and unlimited expensive booze served by nubile models and tennis instructors. Needless, to say, I agreed.

I invited “Kelly,” another of my best friend-girls along for the ride. Kelly is the rarest kind of woman in LA: an attractive blonde with a brain better served for advanced biochemical formulae than destroying douchey pseudo-actors in Hollywood, but she regularly used it for both (this will be important later).

The day passed as you might expect: I hopped onto an 80-foot yacht with thirty incredibly attractive women and five men I didn’t know, and I proceeded to drink and eat my way into perpetual bliss. Just kidding—you wouldn’t expect that unless you’ve been living in Los Angeles for long enough to meet these types. I met Anastasia’s boyfriend, “Alladin”—the owner of the boat. Curious about his opulent lifestyle, I asked him what he did for a living. He mumbled something about buying and selling “web properties.” I was in a similar industry at the time, but I elected not to press for details: I’ve learned many things in LA, and one of them is that if someone can’t explain to you what he does for work, you probably don’t want to know.

Several glasses of a champagne, a few beers, a couple Grey Goose and tonics, at least five makeout sessions with some of the MILFier attendees, and one botched threesome attempt in the captain’s cabin later, we found ourselves heading back to shore. We ordered enough Chinese food to feed a clan of Hutts and watched the sun go down over Newport Harbor. Three hours later, after Kelly and I made the expert determination that I hadn’t imbibed for several hours and thus was capable of driving, we said our goodbyes.

This was my first mistake of the day, aside from failing my attempt at a threesome. Kelly and I were busy jabbering about how awesome our day was and how we couldn’t wait for our next yachting adventure. About fifteen minutes after getting on the 405 freeway (known as the “four or five hours” to LA residents), Kelly noticed a black-and-white pacing us. I remained calm—I wasn’t speeding and, to my knowledge, I was no longer drunk.

It turns out that the opposite was true in the eyes of the law.

The cop, who will henceforth be known as Officer Dipshit, turned on his flashers and directed me to get off the freeway. Before I could let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding, he’s yelling at me over his PA system. Within five minutes he’s at my window telling me he detects the odor of alcohol and administering a preliminary eye test (without my consent) known ominously as the “Nystagmus.” He’s asking me to exit the vehicle. He’s asking me to submit to voluntary tests. Remembering my first encounter with a potential DUI in Washington State, and the video “Never Talk to the Police,” I raise my hand and emphatically state, “I REFUSE.”

Police don’t like their authority being questioned. They especially dislike it when a citizen knows his rights and chooses to exercise them. Read these words very carefully: voluntary DUI tests are designed for you to fail. You can be Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt on a midsummer’s day in 2012, sober as a rock, and still fail the tests. DUI tests were created to stack evidence against you in order to give the officer a defensible reason for arresting you. Let me repeat: if you have had anything to drink, ANYTHING AT ALL, do not submit to these tests.

Some of you are familiar with Tucker Max’s work, but most of you haven’t read his poignant piece (written with friend and business partner Nils Parker) about the different types of people who become cops. My arresting officer was certainly a “High School Napoleon”—5’4”, 220 lbs of seething, blubbery vengeance for all the wedgies and rejections from women throughout his life. I’m not stupid enough to be disrespectful to a cop. Should you find yourself in my position, do what I did: give him short, courteous answers, do not admit any guilt, and above all do not submit to his tests, no matter how much he tries to scare you.

Upon rejecting his voluntary DUI tests, Officer Dipshit threw his pad into the air and informed me of my imminent arrest. He pushed me against the car as he slammed the cuffs on my wrist, whispering that his colleagues had “Fucked up bigger guys than me,” and tightened the steel links until my hands went numb. I knew that I was in for a joyous night. The officer then proceeded to threaten Kelly, telling her that he was going to arrest her too, asking her if she would like to spend a night in jail. The only thing I was guilty of thus far was driving a red sports car with a hot blonde in the passenger seat.

I was arrested, taken to the police station, and booked for DUI. After sixteen miserable hours, I was released to my disappointed mother. Eventually they got around to testing my blood. You must submit to this test, otherwise you’ll be automatically convicted of a DUI and your license revoked for a year, but you want to have it administered at the police station. The results wouldn’t be known for weeks, but it turns out that my Blood Alcohol Content was .09, otherwise known as the equivalent of a little more than a beer per hour. In the eyes of the law, I was intoxicated. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re drunk. It only matters what your blood says (Dexter Morgan would appreciate this sentiment).

After receiving a citation for a DUI, you have a few options. You can go to your hearing, plead guilty, go to your alcohol classes, attend the M.A.A.D. panel, install the breathalyzer in your car, and deal with a suspended license for six months. Most people choose this—especially the ones that have an egregiously high BAC. All told, your first DUI will cost around $5,000 even if you choose not to hire a lawyer. This doesn’t count the peripheral costs, like explaining to your employer why your license is suspended, telling your date why you have to blow into a tube before you can start your car, or attempting to bum rides from your friends while you’re carless.

I hired a lawyer and went to war with Officer Dipshit. The truth is that most of you won’t be able to do anything about your DUI. Your case will be open and shut, the same kind of case that passes through municipal courts hundreds of thousands of times a year in the U.S. However, there are a few things that you can exploit to your advantage:

  1. If you were smart, you didn’t take the voluntary tests. Now the officer has to prove that he had a legitimate reason to pull you over in the first place.
  2. Your lawyer should subpoena the dashboard video of your arrest. Ever gotten stoned and watched an episode of COPS? It’s hilarious, right? Not so much when you’re the perp. Luckily for you, most states require police to videotape their arrests—thanks, Rodney King!
  3. The dashboard video will sometimes allow you to systematically refute most of the cop’s police report. As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, police will almost always embellish or outright lie on the police report. In my case, the cop claimed that I was speeding, swerving, driving erratically, refused to pull over, stumbled upon getting out of the vehicle, displayed an aggressive demeanor, and generally acted like a drunk lunatic. None of this was true. Cops, incidentally, are trying to eliminate the ability of citizens to record them, because they dislike objective evidence that documents their actions.

My lawyer built a case against Officer Dipshit, culminating in this morning’s hearing. Officer Dipshit took the stand and said all the “facts” in his police report were accurate. The police report was inadmissible as evidence – the dashboard video, however, was admissible, and showed him contradicting himself. Officer Dipshit lied his way into a corner, and the prehistoric judge presiding over the hearing ruled that he was an idiotic, lying, power-tripping asshole, just as we suspected all along.

Total costs:

Lawyer fees: $5,000

Hours spent worrying: countless

The look on the cop and district attorney’s faces when they realize that their asses have been handed to them on a silver platter: priceless

Your life lesson: Don’t talk to cops, and learn how to fight the system.

Guy pounds on my door and screams that he's going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds of them, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded). He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified (as you probably would be in the circumstances). The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts (for the time being). I have a victim report number for management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

He goes down. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if she is at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

Guy pounds on my door and screams that he’s going to kill me

I wrote this on Friday morning at about 3:00 a.m.

I’ve probably just had the most immediately frightening experience of my life: a little before 2:00 a.m., I’m mostly asleep when I hear someone running up the stairs to my apartment. This is doubly curious because my neighbor, Josh, moved out a few days ago. Some guy starts pounding on my door, demanding that I open up. This scares me, I shout at him that I’m calling 911 (which I do), and tell the dispatcher where I am. The guy is yelling stuff like “open up.”

I grab the couch and push it in the front of the door and grab the chair and push it in front of the couch.

In the meantime, the pounding is sometimes louder, sometimes not, and the guy is shouting things like, “open up,” “I’ll kick your ass,” “open the door and I won’t kill you,” and “if you don’t open the door, I’m going to fucking kill you.”

I pile books on the couch. Hundreds, probably. Heavy library ones, hardcovers, paperbacks, whatever I can grab off the shelves.

Does this guy have some kind of mental illness?

Most of the time I’m not piling books, because there are only so many I can pile before they slide off the couch. Instead I’m hovering at the border between my bedroom (where there’s a window) and the common room (where I can dash for the door). I have a chef’s knife but this is Tucson, where everyone is armed. You know how they say don’t bring a knife to a gunfight? I like it better as a metaphor.

If he breaks down the door and comes in, I’ll flee out my window. If he breaks the window, I’ll try for the door, which I’ve barricaded, which means I’m probably done.

The Tucson PD shows up about 14 minutes (thanks iPhone! And 14 minutes? WTF?) after my initial call to 911. I hear a cop shout for the guy to come down. I am never happier to hear or learn about a cop in my life. I thank the dispatcher profusely. She kept saying things like, “I can’t hear the guy shouting” and variations thereof while we were waiting. In other words, she thought I might be crazy. But a cop did get here.

Eventually Officer Miller knocks on the door, and I open my window (since the door is barricaded) to talk to him. He says the guy is drunk off his ass and thought my apartment was his buddy’s apartment. Next time I worry about the caliber of my friends, I’ll think of this guy. Meanwhile, I’m still fucking terrified, as you probably would be in the circumstances. The adrenaline still hasn’t worn off as I write this. I’m writing in lieu of sleeping because sleep isn’t an option right now.

The guy did some damage to my door, which still shuts, sort of, for the time being. I have a victim report number for the apartment management. When Miller said that he was just some drunk fool, I was relieved. Miller’s observation: if this had been his house, the guy would’ve been staring down the barrel of a gun. My observation: I start to see the appeal of gun ownership.

Miller goes down to his car to do whatever cops do. There’s also a cute blond cop; she comes up to ask a few questions, leaves. She’s not much older than me, if at all, and reminds me a bit of my students, except she’s strapped. Too bad I’m seeing someone. I start cleaning up all those books.

Nothing like a stranger threatening to kill you to make your night more interesting.

And now my library is totally out of order.

May 2010 links: soap operas, Kindles, systems and stories, and more

* People’s lives are more like soap operas that most of us realize.

* I admire Jeffrey Lewis’ website.

* Peak everything? Not really.

* Academia isn’t broken. We are.

* The most popular passages highlighted in Kindle books. This is a fascinating yet creepy reminder of how much Amazon knows about you.

It also demonstrates the lousy taste most people have in books, with Dan Brown and someone named William P. Young at the top of the list. Young’s book, The Shack, is described as “a one of a kind invitation to journey to the very heart of God.” I’ll pass, thanks. The first book I see on the list that isn’t shlocky is Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, which you can (and should) also watch on YouTube.

* Comcast awarded the “Golden Poo” award as the worst company in America. This is doubly funny to me because my internet access comes through Comcast (because I have no other effective choice thanks to Qwest in Tucson offering anemic DSL speeds). A few weeks ago, a market research firm conducting a survey for Comcast called to ask what I thought of the company on a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (best), and I kept saying “1… 1… 1…” over and over again. But I’m stuck with Comcast and its high prices because they have no real competitors.

* United States sovereign debt is the number one thing to fear right now. But almost no politicians are dealing with it in any way, let alone a realistic way.

* Systems and stories.

* Why don’t men read books? Or, as an alternate question, “It’s worth asking, then, why there are so few men in publishing. Could it be the low pay, low status and ridiculous hours?” (This is all in response to Jason Pinter’s essay).

* The Second Pass’s review of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow. I’m probably going to pass—”Even in his best fiction—Money, London Fields—he has relied on narrative gimmicks and trickery to support creaky storylines, and The Pregnant Widow is no exception”—perhaps in favor of rereading Money.

Davidson also says that “Amis is famously fond of playful character names (which can be a weakness), and this novel is full of them: Pansy, Probert, Amen, Dilshak.” This probably isn’t a major problem for me, as I just finished Henry James’ The Golden Bowl for a grad seminar, and in that novel a character is named “Fanny Assingham,” with many plays on what said name could mean.

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