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Topic Archive: Can’t Stop Thinking
Sommer Leigh Spells Out “Retro-Futurism”

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking, Found on the Web

Rusty tries to look up the word "Punk"Sommer Leigh has written a pretty thorough description of the retro futurist genres that (mostly) end in the suffix "punk".

I’ve said before that I’m not all that crazy about labels of this kind, and it’s partly because apart from the first of these – cyberpunk – the punk suffix is completely meaningless.

In William Gibson’s Neuromancer and in at least its first descendants, "punk" really did belong in the name. The technological marvels of these futures were not there to benefit people. They were there to cement the power of large corporations and organizations. The fact that a disenfranchised few on society’s fringes were able to subvert those technologies to their own ends is what made them punks, in the punk rock sense. They were standing on its head the mechanism of power and making something personal and subversive out of it.

But then the word became popular, and shortly afterward it became meaningless, as we see in all the labels that have followed.

Leigh touches on this in her description of steampunk, which is nice to see. Heck, it’s always nice to see people thinking about the meanings of the words they use.

Apart from my own crotchety observations, then, Sommer Leigh has come up with short form descriptions of what each of these labels gets stuck on which should be useful to anybody who wants to use them. (Did I say I was done being crotchety? Oh well. And get off my lawn, there, you kids!)

Consider it a field guide to spotting these words when they’re thrown around in the wild. There are some nice examples cited except, oddly, for the one label I rather like. That’s "Raygun Gothic". Why do I forgive that particular label? First off, there’s no meaningless suffix – what a relief! But despite that, if you take a good look at it "Raygun Gothic" doesn’t seem to mean much, either. It’s just such a… pretty phrase, I guess, and sort of evocative, so I find myself smiling at it even though it, too, seems to be playing on my lawn.

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Stalking Made Me Who I Am

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

Reuben SmithSometimes, when I see the increasingly litigious ways we deal with one another, I think about the things we’ve lost. Oh, I don’t mean disputes over property lines or breach of contract or any of that. I’m thinking about the way we now use law to set our personal boundaries and criminalize bad behavior.

It’s not that I don’t despise things like sexual harassment. In fact that’s one I especially dislike. Sexual harassment is the sort of thing that makes a thinking man angry. I mean, a few overgrown infants make the rest of us look pretty bad by association, just because we share the same kind of plumbing.

But as we’ve relied more and more on labelling behavior, and on laws to regulate it once it’s labelled, and on punishments for it once it’s regulated, we’ve lost some of the skills that people need just to deal with each other in groups. Skills that we actually used to have.

A lot of bad behavior is more unfortunate than it is criminal. Once upon a time we’d have dealt with it through deflection… or by hauling the offender out behind the tobacconist’s and knocking out one of his teeth.

Case in point: stalking. Once upon a time some forms of stalking were not only permitted. They were necessary. I wouldn’t be here typing this if my grandfather hadn’t stalked my grandmother. And there wasn’t a creepy thing about it.

My grandfather – who, later in life, appeared in the terrifying photograph above – first saw my grandmother on the Vaudeville stage. She would have been about sixteen at the time, right about the time her photo below was taken.

This was the musical comedy act of Noodles and Elsie Fagan. My grandmother Blanche and her sister were each part of their parents’ act. Family legend has it that Grandmother even managed the act from the age of eleven because everyone agreed she was the most sensible one of the bunch.

So when Reuben Smith saw her on that stage she’d have been singing, lit romantically by the stage lights. And that did him in. The moment he saw her he decided that this was the girl for him.

Blanche Fagan, 1922But what to do? In that day and age you wouldn’t get anywhere by approaching a young woman and introducing yourself. You’d do more harm than good. An action that forward was an implied insult: by acting improperly, you’d be suggesting that she was improper and that, as they say, would be Game Over. Out behind the tobacconist’s for some quick dental surgery, bub.

One of the interesting things about what my grandfather did do was that it’s closely paralleled in Robert A. Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love, in an episode set at about the same time. Lazarus Long, in that story, travels back in time to meet his own family. And he does just what my grandfather decided to do on the night he saw my grandmother on Vaudeville and followed her all the way from the stage door to her front door. In the dark of night. Stealthily, I bet.

Grandfather started to hang out in her neighborhood. He started shopping there; he ate his meals in the neighborhood restaurants; he hung out there long enough to make some friends, and once he was a fixture in the neighborhood, someone introduced him to my grandmother. The rest, if not history, is my history. And – probably because of the way things turned out – even that bit of stalking under the streetlights doesn’t seem sinister. It seems charming.

I’m fascinated by the fact that Heinlein had his character adopt the same strategy because it suggests that my grandfather wasn’t the only one. I really wonder if someone Heinlein knew in the 1920’s hadn’t told him a family story a lot like mine.

Chances are that if my grandfather tried this clever plan today he’d end up in jail, and as a result there would be no me to tell his story.

Now one reaction you might have to this tale is that in a repressed and rigid society people are forced to deceive and scheme in order to lead a normal life. I think that’s absolutely true. But after half a century in a less repressed and rigid society I haven’t noticed that people have given up deception and scheming. So, I say, phooey.

And when I think about those stiffer, more formal days I also think that when we hand over our personal relationships – even the unpleasant ones – to the law… well, we’re formalizing those things in a different, impersonal way. Society hasn’t abandoned its rules and manners. It’s just delegated them. How weird is that?

[tags]stalking, society, mating rituals, law, robert a. heinlein, time enough for love[/tags]

The Dive of Death

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

We have to thank Mister Doortree of Golden Age Comic Book Stories for this image (thanks, Mister Doortree!), which has reminded me of something odd from the past.

Back in 1977 I moved from Southern California to a great, small beach town halfway up the coast. Wonderful place… but I’m not going to say where, exactly, for reasons that may become clear.

For the first little while that I lived there, every time someone local found out that I was new in town they would always tell me: "Don’t go to Happy Jack’s!" I’m serious. This happened every time.

The bar called Happy Jack’s, it turns out, was The Dive of Death.

The only thing that anyone ever said… specifically… about why I should not go to Happy Jack’s was, I kid you not, that they sold knives at the bar. Because people in the bar kept finding out that they really needed a knife, apparently. All of a sudden.

The fact that virtually everyone told me not to go in there was good enough for me. A few years earlier or later, and maybe I’d have made a beeline for Happy Jack’s. But just then, I decided to take their word for it.

And after awhile, well, I was a local. And without even thinking about it, when someone new showed up I’d tell them "Don’t go to Happy Jack’s". After a couple of years I started to wonder why I was telling them that. I’m not sure if it stopped me, though. This says something about the way people behave in groups. Most of the things you can say about how we behave in groups are not very good things. This could be an example.

So eventually I moved away and had adventures, and mostly I forgot all about Happy Jack’s. But years later I came back to spend the Christmas holidays in the old town. And I found myself walking down the street right past the open door of Happy Jack’s. I had never seen that door standing open in all the time I lived there.

It was quiet in there. They had a lot of Christmas decorations up. I’m pretty sure there were little Santas. And it looked like a peaceable, quiet sort of place to drop in for a drink.

It seemed to me that there’d been a change of management in the fifteen years I’d been away and I was sort of sad to see it tamed. If it had remained a little dangerous it would have been a lot more interesting. I didn’t go in.

I’m still not sure if that was a mistake. And I’m not sure that it wasn’t just force of habit, either.

But then there’s this: what if Happy Jack’s had never been a dangerous bar where they sold knives to people who suddenly needed them? What if the whole thing had been wrong… and I’d been perpetuating that when I chimed in to warn off the new folks in town?

I find that I prefer to believe that it was all true. But then, that’s what we usually prefer, isn’t it?

[tags]happy jack’s, the dive of death[/tags]

Why E-Readers (and the iPad) Are So Much Less Than They Seem

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

E-Readers (Neat!) and E-Books (Not!)

Books of the Retro FutureI love the idea of a reading slate, an e-reader, a tablet. I love books, after all, and no computer can match their portability or ease of use. And there’s that retro-futuristic quality about them – though honestly, even modern futurism likes the gadgets – that makes me feel right at home with an imaginary one in my hand.

The problem is that we should not want the ones that are here and coming to market. They’re loaded with problems for those of us who would like to use them. Their functions and their limitations are heavily skewed toward benefits to their manufacturers’ limited and incompatible retail schemes. So much so, in fact, that as sexy as you may think that iPad demo was, or as pleased as you are to see Neil Gaiman exulting over the Kindle, these gadgets are going to lead their buyers down a dark and twisty path that leads to that place where media go to die.

A book is a simple object, which is not to say it’s a limited one. It’s portable knowledge. It – importantly – is an object that can outlive both its author and its reader. All its contents are present at once, and one can skim it or hone in on a particular page as quickly as one’s eyes and fingers can move. It can be given to a friend; it can be loaned for a short time; it can be sold or traded. It can be borrowed from a library. It can be left on a dusty shelf for a couple of decades and then picked up and read again. Someday, long after its author wrote it, it will pass into the public domain and can then be reprinted for next to nothing.

E-books, like books, are portable knowledge. But they’re very bad at everything else in that list.

Adventures in Corporate Logic: Electronic Arts, ca. 1991

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

Once upon a time in a career far, far away, my then co-conspirator Michal Todorovic and I were working in game development. Our publisher was Electronic Arts – which, even then, was an eight hundred pound gorilla in a stylish suit.

EA had started out as a company that went out of its way to honor its creators. It practically rolled in its creators. Creator photos and bios appeared inside every one of its unique, album-shaped packages. EA was near and dear to the hearts of the gaming public and of developers, to boot, who in those days were practically two sides of the same coin.

There was a time when a couple of people could walk into EA and walk out with a contract. I know. It happened to us. Of course when we got back to the hotel we realized that the contract they’d given us was a work-for-hire contract and Job One was to tear that puppy up and tell them to try again.

Because EA was changing, and in fact had changed, by the early 1990s. They were doing less and less internal development. They were doing more and more producing of titles that were developed at the little startups who still thought they might survive in what was rapidly becoming a very big business.

And as a result, the people at EA were changing. You didn’t see as many people who had actually made games. You saw more and more who had only worked in game production, which isn’t the same thing. So while we didn’t know it, this was the beginning of that trend in which game testers would by stages be promoted to game producers, ensuring that no one who oversaw game projects would have any experience in making the things. And that the people who would give you valuable feedback on a game’s design had never designed a game. But they thought they had: they were Electronic Arts, weren’t they? And they never realized that they weren’t the same Electronic Arts that had done the wonderful things they thought they’d done.

None of this was really obvious at the time. There was just this puzzling state in which it was clear that something was different.

In the course of hammering out a real contract we needed to write documentation that described what the project was and how we’d overcome its challenges. Perfectly reasonable if you wanted the company’s money, which we did. I worked on the design documents, and Mike worked on the technical documents, and everything – we thought – was going pretty smoothly.

We’d been working on our game (The Labyrinth of Time) for about a year already, so we had a pretty good idea what it was, how it worked, and what we still needed to do. I’d created a complete game design document already. That included several sections of the game that could be deleted, if necessary, and the steps we’d need to take to patch the holes those sections left.

Then the most important of the technical documents came back from its reviewer. Well, okay: what did we need to add, or do differently? He didn’t know. He hadn’t read it. His complete review was: "It feels light. There’s not enough there."

Mike wasn’t sure what to do about that – especially since what he was writing about already existed, and, well, he’d documented it. So since this was a matter of presentation, he asked for my advice.

We looked over the document. We increased the font size. We increased the spacing between the lines. We added one paragraph. We printed it out on thicker paper. The new document spanned more pages and each of those pages weighed more than the old ones had.

When the technical director got the new version, he said "Yes, this looks much more complete."

I don’t think we acted dishonestly. The document had been rejected, unread, on the grounds that it "felt light". So to fix the problem we made the document heavier. Everyone wins!

But the story didn’t end there. The document was kicked back again because of one required section in which we had to describe the problems we had not anticipated, and then explain how we would overcome those problems.

Let’s review that, shall we?

We had to describe the problems we had not anticipated. The problems that, by definition, we did not know were there. And then explain how we would solve those problems. Of which we were – again, by definition – completely ignorant.

I’m not sure how we described the things we did not know about, but our plan for overcoming those obstacles was:

We will crush our enemies, drive them before us, and hear the lamentation of their women.

Problem solved: that version of the document was accepted.

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Down in the Basement. Where it Strains Against its Chains and Turns a Gigantic Wheel of Pain, for all Eternity. Muahahahahaha.