Various & Sundry 1/12/10

Little bits, because I can’t seem to think at length today:

* Clearly the most important topic of the day is whether one is on Team Leno or Team Conan, and while I am personally on Team Why Would I Watch TV When There’s Left 4 Dead 2 To Play, I think it’s pretty clear that Conan O’Brien is being totally screwed here. Here’s a guy who did everything he was supposed to do, did nothing wrong, and his now being crapped on because of the incompetence of his bosses. Inasmuch as my heart can go out to any fellow who makes exponentially more than I make in any given year, my heart goes out to O’Brien. Rich or not, it sucks to be reminded that at the end of the day you can have your job yanked out from under you because someone else did something incredibly stupid.

* Another from the annals of How Disconnected Political Appearances Are From Political Reality: Obama’s Winning Streak On Hill Unprecedented. The story notes how the legislation favored by Obama passes through Congress with a higher success rate than just about any other recent president, including famed arm-twister Lyndon Johnson. The secret to Obama’s success? a) Democratic majorities in both houses, b) the man picks and chooses his battles, c) he’s willing to compromise and get something passed than dig in his heels and have it fail.

I recognize that depending on one’s own personal politics, any or all of these could be a bug rather than a feature. But I don’t know. I think capitalizing on advantages, minimizing disadvantages and a certain willingness to compromise on details to achieve a larger goal is what used to be called “doing politics.” I certainly like it better than the apparently more current definition, which appears to be “scream a lot, be inflexible and don’t actually get anything done.” Which is a funny definition of politics, if you ask me.

* I’ve been asked what opinions I have on the Proposition 8 constitutional trial going on out there in California, and I have to say that I think my answer is fairly standard, in that I worry that taking a same-sex marriage case up to Supreme Court as currently constituted will doom same-sex couples to a much longer road to equality. But at the same time I think that if Olsen and Boies can make their case legally and intellectually, then asking the plaintiffs in this case to wait for a time more convenient from a strategy point of view in order to ask for what should morally and justly be theirs is neither moral nor just.

Basically: I worry about the timing, but then I suppose there’s never a good time for people to ask for their rights from people who don’t want them to have them. I just hope Olsen and Boies know what the Hell they’re doing.

And that’s where my brain is today.

Just Arrived

Just Arrived, 1/12/10

Books that arrived at my doorstep today:

* Total Oblivion, More or Less, by Alan De Niro. Modern day Minnesota attacked by Scythians, and other strange doings. Ballentine/Spectra. Out now, and Alan will be doing a Big Idea piece on Thursday.

* Token of Darkness, by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. A deadly car accident allows a teenage football star to see ghosts; naturally this leads to complications. Delacorte Press, out 2/9.

* The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. In a mystical land, an unwitting heir to the throne is thrown into a perilous situation. Orbit Books. Out 2/25, with a Big Idea piece planned for the same day.

* The World We Live In, by Susan Beth Pfeffer. The third book in Pfeffer’s series in which a rogue meteor irrevocably changes life as we know it. Harcourt Press, April 2010.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Patrick Lee

Imagine you’re a caveman (this will be easier for some of you than others). Now, you’re handed an iPod. How do you think you would think about it? Would you even be able to think about it? Yes, I know, a deep thought for a Tuesday. But it’s actually relevant to this week’s Big Idea, from author Patrick Lee. No, his new thriller The Breach is not about cavemen with iPod, but it does think on how disruptive technology can be if you’ve never seen it before — and aren’t prepared for it. Take it away, Patrick Lee.


It was almost Clan of the Cave Bear meets The Dirty Dozen.  That was the first half of the big idea: what would happen if stone-age humans somehow came upon a stash of 20th century weapons and equipment, without meeting the people who’d designed and built it?  Imagine a hundred crates of the stuff just magically showing up in the woods outside one of their camps, twenty-five thousand years ago.  What impact would our technology, all by itself, have on their lives?

Most of it they’d never make sense of: socket wrenches, volt meters, hard drives.  Hell, a toilet plunger would leave them scratching their heads.

But I bet they’d figure out the guns.  Maybe not the first day, but in time — certainly.  Someone smart enough to shape a spear-head from stone and fix it to a shaft with vines — I don’t know how to do that, do you? — would eventually work out that the little open-topped container full of shiny blunt-ended things fits neatly into this opening down here, and then when you move this big thing on the side until all the clicks are done, set the little red/green thing to red, and put pressure against the part that’s unusually well-shaped for a fingertip… yeah, I think they’d eventually get it.  The early lessons would be costly (God help them when they got into the grenades), but they would learn them.  Given time, and a few batteries among the supplies, they might even puzzle out some of the electronics — significant, considering that a two-way radio is still among the most powerful weapons a soldier carries into battle.

These ancient people would never grasp how any of this stuff worked.  Most of us don’t know how it works.  But what little they learned to use would be enough to make life interesting.  I imagine the next few decades of interaction among their tribes and clans would be rather eventful.  And if I’d felt like studying paleoanthropology for a few years to prepare myself to write a book like that, I may well have charged ahead with it.  Actually, no, I wouldn’t have.  So here’s the second half of the big idea:

What if it happened to us?

What if we came upon a supply — in the case of The Breach, an ongoing one — of technology crafted by someone thousands or even millions of years more advanced than us?  How much of it could we make sense of?  How eventful would our next few decades be, among our tribes and clans?

From the beginning, working with this idea, my goal was to root it as realistically as possible in our present world.  I wanted it to feel as if these events could actually be happening.  I wanted the story to creep the hell out of people, the way reports about Groom Lake and Roswell used to, before they got a little too familiar — a thing can only be so scary once it’s been a successful teen drama on The WB.  Think back to the days when Peter Jennings would do an ABC special on Project Bluebook, and your uncle would take a swig of his Michelob and say, “You know, some of that shit’s probably real.”  That’s the feeling I wanted, without actually using Groom Lake or any of its contemporaries.

So that’s the approach I took: a real-as-I-could-make-it tone, and a premise that effectively makes hunter-gatherers out of the modern human race — the select few who are in on the secret — as they try to understand technological relics that are, in most cases, simply beyond them.  And as they deal with the political and global consequences.  And hope like hell they can distinguish the toilet plungers from the grenades.


The Breach: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt from The Breach. See the book trailer. Visit Patrick Lee’s blog.

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