Daily Archives: August 3, 2010

“Hey, Wasn’t there Supposed to be a Fourth Guest Blogger?”

Greetings, fellow citizens of Scalzi Nation!

I feel like I should apologize for being so late to the guest blogger party, but since I was warned against beginning with an apology by a scene in the beautifully written, acted, directed, and generally note-perfect flick The Kids Are All Right just the other day, I’d better not, huh?

Oops.

OK, take two.  It was an honor and a privilege to be asked by Scalzi to join his handpicked group of sacrificial lambs guest bloggers, so despite the fact that I’ve never attempted a, for lack of a better phrase, “whatever-style” blog, here’s hoping that I’ll take to the form quickly … or at least, for your sake, fail in a spectacularly entertaining manner.  Scalzi hasn’t thrown a total neophyte at you though… I’m no stranger to blogging, it’s just that to date, and with just a handful of exceptions, my blogging has been limited to music (I’m a fiend for live rock ‘n’ roll; I easily see over a hundred bands a year, and blog the SXSW music festival annually for Twangville.com), comic books (back in my AOL days, when I co-created ComicsAlliance.com with my colleague and fellow lifelong comics geek Chris Dooley … man, getting paid to cover Comic-Con International a few years back?  As exhilarating as it was exhausting!  If I recall my stats correctly, they went something like: 5 nights, fewer than 20 hours of sleep, and over 50,000 words blogged … but, like Peter David, I digress), and Microsoft SharePoint (my current employer is Bamboo Solutions, a Microsoft Gold-certified partner and a leading provider of SharePoint add-ons).

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One of those three blogging topics is not like the others, huh?  Yeah, that’s the one I’m least likely to be blogging about here, especially since I haven’t had a platform to blog comics, movies, books, etc. in front of an existing and engaged audience since the AOL days, but given the size of Scalzi Nation, and my loyalty to my employer, I figured I had to get in a plug for Bamboo since I figure the odds are strong that many of you are SharePoint users and/or pros.  And for those of you reading who are SharePoint users/pros, if you have an interest in doing some guest blogging of your own for Bamboo Nation, the Bamboo community of which I am Managing Editor, by all means, please give me a shout.

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So yeah, books, music, comics, movies (and in the era of HBO/Showtime/AMC original series, even TV) … that’s the stuff.  In other words, I’m a pop culture junkie (reading is my primary drug of choice, but music comes in as a close second), so that’s the kind of stuff I’m most likely to blog here.  I look forward to reading your responses to the stuff I’ll share that’s rocking my world, and (even more so) looking forward to hearing the stuff I might be missing out on that you think should be rocking my world.

A little more about me so you know where I’m coming from … I hang my hat in the ‘burbs of Washington, D.C., along with my fabulous wife, Amanda, our dog, Kirby, and cat, Monty.  Kirby’s an English shepherd, and they’re natural herders, so, yes, he’s been known to (attempt to) herd the cat and, yes again, if I could ever manage to capture the results on video, you better believe that I’ll share them with the world through the magic of YouTube.  This six-week guest blogging stint will also find me traveling to Asbury Park, NJ (for the Gaslight Anthem show at the Stone Pony this Thursday, followed by a couple days on the beach with my wife and a group of like-minded friends), Portland, OR (and surrounding wine country and coastal areas, a.k.a. Amanda’s and my summer vacation), and Long Island, NY (for my Grandma’s 99th birthday party), so you may very well see some “locally sourced” content influenced by those travels in addition to my arts and entertainment love letters.  Oh, and if you’ve got any Portland tips, I’m all ears.  I already know to plan on spending at least a half day at Powell’s though.

And with that, I’ll sign off now with what I expect will be a regular “Now Playing” feature at the end of my posts, in the hopes that, even in non-music-centric missives, I might be able to turn some of you on to some sounds that are rocking my world, in the hopes that you’ll make with the clicky so that they might rock yours too…

Now Playing:  Real Control, the new album from Moneybrother, a fantastic blue-eyed soul / rock band out of Sweden that I saw about five or so years ago at SXSW.  Happily, they’re coming back to the U.S. for a tour this fall with Jesse Malin (who’s also a fave of mine).

The Other One

Hi, Whateverites. (Whateverians? I know a group of lions is a pride and a group of wolves is a pack. What does one call a large group of Whatever readers?) I’m the other one. Well, not necessarily The Other One, but certainly an other one. One of your other guest bloggers here for the next six weeks, my name is Mykal Burns.

Tangent alert! My mind works in a somewhat non-linear fashion, so I often drift off on tangential spurs in the middle of a conversation (or blog post.) I do always try, sometimes successfully, to bring it back around to the subject I began with. In this case, I’m thinking about science fiction character names. Do you know what I like best about John Perry and Jane Sagan from Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe? I can easily read and pronounce their names. Many science fiction authors think that because their characters come from other worlds, they need names like Zapldrk Nuumsphoqx. My problem is that every single time I read a name like that, I will try to pronounce it correctly in my mind. Every time, throughout the book. It breaks the rhythm of my reading and really slows me down. A note to sf/f authors: why you gotta make it so hard? Anyway, the point is, while my name is spelled Mykal, it is pronounced like “Michael.” Don’t let the weird spelling slow you down. Besides, many people just call me “Burns.”

Annnd…we’re back. By way of introduction, here’s a bit about me:

First, I have to tell you something that I know will cause some of you great consternation; you may be tempted to stop reading anything that I post here altogether. Fight that urge. My admission? I don’t have a cat.

Even now, I hear many of you grumbling toward your computers. Why would Scalzi choose a guest blogger without even the possibility of adorable kitteh pics? I want you to know that I understand your feelings. There are certain expectations when one comes to the Whatever, and it would seem that I’ve let you down on this one, even before I’ve begun. There is hope, though. I have friends with cats; maybe you’ll get pictures of them. I also occasionally shoot photos of other amusing subjects, so I’ll do my best to fill this gap that I have unwittingly created.

I like to follow bad news with good, so on the upside, I suspect that I am the guest blogger who has known Scalzi the longest. I saw a comment in one of the other threads asking for embarrassing secrets, and if anyone is going to have those, it’ll be me. John and I met sometime around 10 or 11 years old, so I’ve even got stories from the awkward teenage years. I try to maintain a fair level of confidentiality, but if I get stuck for material (or if I’m properly bribed) I may have to bring some of those stories to light.

In keeping with local custom, I expect to spend the next six weeks writing about Whatever strikes me as blog worthy. I’ve got fairly varied interests, so I hope there will be at least a little something for everyone. Though I usually lurk, I’ve spent a good bit of time over the years reading the comment forums here, and I’ve always been impressed by the level of discourse amongst Whatever readers. It’s a sharp bunch here, and I hope to keep you all engaged and somewhat entertained. I also look forward to an opportunity to take a more active role in the conversation.

Thanks for having me and the other guest bloggers. I am honored to be in their distinguished company, and to have a chance to hang out here with you. Now let’s have some fun.

Shadowlight Productions with some kick-ass puppetry

Yesterday I mentioned Shadowlight puppet theater out of San Fransisco.   Well, here’s one of their behind-the-scenes videos which shows just some of the amazing things that they can make happen with shadow and light

What’s particularly cool is the way they use three light sources, which allows for instant scene changes as well as some other pretty nifty tricks. The lights are super-crisp and that allows them to away from the screen. Watch how they use scale to create a sense of perspective in a medium that is inherently two dimensional.

They’ve got other videos on their YouTube channel that are well worth checking out. And if you are in the Bay area when they are mounting a show, do not hesitate. Go see it.

The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

I’m not going to pretend to be objective here – Mary Robinette Kowal is one of my favorite people, and more than that, she’s a heck of an author, as her Campbell Award and Hugo nomination strongly suggest. So it was no surprise that I greatly enjoyed her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey, which cleverly cast magic into the milieu of England’s Regency Era. Nor is it a surprise that others have enjoyed it as well (“the grace of Sense and Sensibility, a touch of classic fairy tale magic, and an action-packed ending” — Library Journal).

Part of the enjoyment of the novel comes from how Mary considered the role of magic in her novel, balancing the facts and implications of a magic-filled world with the desire to make the women of the magical England she created one that would have the cares and concerns that they would have had in the historical era from which she borrowed. Because magic is a funny thing — if you think through all that magic could do, you realize how disruptive it can actually be.

How did Mary manage the balance between magic and reality? Let her weave the story for you.

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:

At some point, I was was reading Persuasion, by Jane Austen, and wondering where the small scale stories were in fantasy literature.  I started racking my brain, trying to think of stories in which the fate of the world or someone’s life didn’t hang in the balance.  There aren’t many of them.  The thing is that there are so many ways a person’s life can go wrong without needing to have Certain! Death! driving the plot.

This led me to wondering what sort of novel Jane Austen would have written if she’d lived in a world where magic worked.  It would be an intimate story and tightly focused on one family.  In the Regency and for much of western European history, a woman’s main goal was to make a desirable match because the wrong marriage, or spinsterhood could doom the woman.  I don’t think that magic would change this.

Or rather, it depends on the kind of magic.  Once I started imaging this world I had to start by designing a magic system that wouldn’t distort history too far from the historic Regency England.  The magic in my world is called “glamour” and its practitioners are glamourists.  It’s a largely illusionary form of magic and considered one of womanly arts like painting, music, or needlepoint.  Like these other womanly arts, everyone has the potential to do it but practicing them takes training, energy, and time to which restricts these arts to the leisure class.  A farmer’s wife might do folk glamour in the same way someone would beautify their home with folk art but in general wouldn’t have the energy to do much with it.

And glamour does take energy, the same way running up a hill takes energy. If one does too much glamour, or are wearing a corset, one might faint.  Yes, there is swooning in my novel. It is modeled on Jane Austen, after all, just with magic.

Because glamour is considered a woman’s art, I used language related to textiles for how glamourists describe what they are doing. They’ll talk about folds of glamour, or weaves or stitching, all of which are metaphors for the way that they manipulate the magic.  Here’s a paragraph in which Jane Ellsworth, my main character, adds some glamour to their drawing room when the family is expecting company.

The drawing room already had a simple theme of palm trees and egrets designed to complement its Egyptian revival furniture. For the better part of an hour, Jane and Melody twisted and pulled folds of glamour out of the ether. Some of the older threads of glamour in the palm trees had become frayed, making the images lose their resolution. In other places, Jane added more depth to the illusion by creating a breeze to ruffle the fronds of the glamour. Though her breath came quickly and she felt light-headed with the effort of placing so many folds, the effect was well worth such a trifling strain.

Finding a balance between magic that was worth doing and would have an impact on the story but not reshape history was a complicated process. For instance, at one point I was describing someone weaving a fold to create a beam of sunlight on the wall and I stopped cold.  Had I created a world in which candles wouldn’t have been invented?

I mean, think about it. Why would someone invent artificial light if you could create it with glamour?  This led to me restricting what glamour could do even more.  Like a trompe-l’œi  painting, a glamourist can make it look like sun is streaming into a room, but if you stick a book into the light, it isn’t actually brighter.  Basically, the question I kept coming back to when designing the glamour was, “can this be used in war?”  Because if there were a military application then the art of glamour wouldn’t be left to women during this time period.

There was a constant back and forth as I was developing the system, tightening the rules about  what it could and could not do throughout the book.  If I had a magic system that was too powerful then I’d wind up with a story that wasn’t something Jane Austen would have written.

Constraining the glamour to match her stories,  led to some interesting restrictions which I think made this a stronger story.  In general, I find that the more restricted the magic is the more inventive you have to get about how  your characters work around those rules.

Those restrictions, for me, mirror the restrictions that women had in the Regency.  Often considered decorative objects without a use beyond beauty and childbirth, women had to become very inventive in finding ways to work within their societal restrictions.  That’s one reason that it was important to me for glamour to be a womanly art.  It’s not just because I didn’t want the world to shift too much from ours — I could have dealt with that by making it a secondary fantasy world –  but because I wanted my main character to be a glamourist.  I was curious about how  skill with glamour would affect a young lady of quality in a Jane Austen world.

And that’s really what the big idea of this novel is all about.  What would Jane Austen write if she lived in a world where magic worked? I hope that it would be something like Shades of Milk and Honey.

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Shades of Milk and Honey: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Mary Robinette Kowal’s journal. Follow her on Twitter.