Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The State of Star Trek Literature

It was announced today that Star Trek books editor Margaret Clark was laid off in another round of cutbacks from Simon & Schuster. Though I have been highly critical of her work, I have mixed feelings about the move. But while fanboys on the interwebs are justifying the move as being solely based on overall market conditions and not on her performance or the sales of her books, something that has been bothering me for a while about the Star Trek line has crystallized.

In 2001, Pocket released Avatar, a two-book story set after the events of Deep Space Nine that continues the story of those left on the station. Well planned and
written, it became a favorite and a bestseller, leading to likely the most acclaimed run of books in the history of Star Trek literature. Tight, cohesive, and innovative storytelling made the series a success, at least for the first ten or so books.

Of course, other such series have been planned and executed to varying levels of success. After Nemesis, a new series following Captain Riker on Titan has been pretty good, as has the TOS-era Vanguard, which takes place on a space station near Tholian space. But there have been misfires as well. The follow-up to Enterprise has been mixed, and the first four books following Voyager were abysmal. However, they sold well, or at least well enough to continue, and as the overall universe became more and more complex, the references between various novels began to increase as well.

But as can quickly happen, these references at times became cumbersome, especially for those uninitiated to the larger mythos. This leads me to my point, which unfortunately I can’t back up with sales numbers as they aren’t available: the audience for Star Trek books isn’t growing. Rather than making the novels accessible to a wider audience, the stories got tighter and more interrelated. This is great an appreciated if you are like me, a person who reads nearly everything, but for a casual reader this can be infuriating. Riker and Troi have a kid now? Tucker is alive and a Romulan spy? Didn’t he die in the show? The same paradox happens all the time in the comic industry; reward the dedicated readers even though doing so is alienating the casual and/or potential fans.

Then there comes the recent Star Trek movie, which has currently grossed over $256 million
domestically. Other than the novelization, the first book to exploit such a hot property won’t be released until next June, a full year after the movie debuted. By then the film will be out of the public’s mind, whereas a book released in the next couple of months could really capitalize on its popularity. Such decisions by the editorial staff aren’t helping bring new readers into the fold, and IDW has proven that tying into the film makes a lot of economic sense.

Editorial decisions like this make me wonder if Clark really had a long future as an editor on the line. She didn’t seem to work well with some of the better authors, and her books couldn’t stay consistent with each other. Not situating her company to take advantage of the wild success of the film in a timely manner is yet another strike.

I’m not saying Clark should have lost her job, but even though I don’t have a business degree I understand that companies are out to make money. Structuring a line so that is hard for new readers to gain access doesn’t help sales increase; in fact, it insures sales will decrease because you are going to lose some people to attrition anyway. So while I am not happy Clark is gone because I now must worry about the future of the stories with which I have become engaged, to some extent at least, I’m not sure that this wasn’t something that any of us could have seen coming eventually.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell

What promises to be a memoir of a father, his son, and the legacy of the Vietnam War falls short on all counts in Tom Bissell’s The Father of All Things. Bissell’s father was a Marine officer in Vietnam and together the two travel back to the country where they travel the countryside, talk to other veterans, and relive the war. Yet the book failed to resonate in an emotional way, something surprising since Bissell did such a good job making his travels in Uzbekistan meaningful in Chasing the Sea.

The first section of the book intersperses a second-person narrative of what Bissell’s father was going through around the time of the fall of Saigon in 1974 along with a blow-by-blow account of the evacuation of the embassy. The pacing of the mass exodus from Vietnam is rendered in a way to make a real impact; such a complex and detailed historical narrative seems a bit out of place within a so-called memoir about the effects of Vietnam on a father and son. The imbalance is likely what makes this so hard to reconcile: the evacuation of the embassy outweighs the narrative on Bissell’s father by a factor of at least three to one.

The second and most substantial portion of Bissell’s book takes a broader view of history, though it too is interspersed with the travels of the author and his father in the country. The historical accounts are done within the context of the travel narrative, for example the section dealing with My Lai is placed as the father and son visit the area, yet again the history seems to overshadow the relationship between the two travelers. Bissell seems to be more interested in providing history than in actually describing the effects of the journey on his father or demonstrating how his father’s experiences in Vietnam affected the way he was raised. It’s not that these issues aren’t addressed, just that they aren’t given enough depth to prove truly interesting or make one feel as though he/she is not just reading an actual history book.

The brief third section provides an account of over a dozen grown children whose fathers were in the war, fighting for the NLA (North), AVRN (South) or the US. In these twenty or so pages, more emotion is rendered than in the previous 350. Though not quite long enough to provide true richness, these snapshots of the children’s views of their fathers was stirring, perhaps more so to me for my father also served in Vietnam.

I suppose that the true problem with this book is that it reads like a bloated magazine piece, which is what it started out to be. I am a big fan of Bissell’s work, but what seemed an ideal read for someone in my position (roughly the same age as Bissell with a veteran father), ultimately was disappointing and failed to provide any illumination on what effect Vietnam had on not just the relationship between the author and his father, but between a larger population of veteran fathers and their sons.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cooperstown Confidential by Zev Chafets

Zev Chafets thankfully spends little time describing the physical Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, focusing his book Cooperstown Confidential instead on the intangibles that make up the glorified institution: the collection of mortals who make up the rules, the writers who vote on the players, and those in charge who make and remake the rules every couple of years

Of course statistics count more than anything in baseball, yet a lot more goes into getting into the Hall that that: cronyism, prejudice, and financial self-interest play a large part as well. Chafets addresses a variety of factors that have influenced those who make the rules (a committee of f
ormer baseball executives and other such types) and those who vote on the players (the Baseball Writers Association of America, for which one must regularly write about baseball for a major newspaper to be a part). The current big issue surrounds players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who have been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, which theoretically has given them an advantage over the competition.

Rule 5 of the Hall of Fame’s Rules for Election states that a player will be voted on based upon their ‘record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.’ Baseball writers have been keeping Mark McGwire out of the Hall by using such a clause and many are on record as saying they shall do the same for Bonds and Clemens. Yet Chafets duly notes that the Hall presently contains cheaters (spitballer Gaylord Perry), members of the Ku Klux Klan (Rogers Hornsby, Cap Anson), severe alcoholics (Three Finger Brown), and all around sociopaths (Ty Cobb, who legendarily beat up a man with no arms for heckling him). Why are these guys in and people like Bonds and McGwire likely to never make it?

In one of the best chapters in his book, Chafets uses Bonds to launch into a chapter detailing racism in the game and the evolution of blacks in the sport. There are now far fewer blacks playing in the majors than there were as recently as a decade ago while the proportion of Latinos has risen dramatically. Gary Sheffield made headlines a few years ago by claiming that baseball teams preferred signing Latino players over blacks because Latinos were less outspoken. Sheffield's controversial comments reverberated throughout the game, though his opinion has been seconded by Latino players like Neifi Perez. Then Chafets further delves into prejudice in the game going back to the Negro Leagues and the age of Jackie Robinson. Robinson lobbied for black managers in his lifetime but did not live to see his dream come to fruition.

But the piece of this book that makes it worth reading is the chapter on the Mitchell Report, the study of steroids in baseball compiled by former US Senator George Mitchell that named Clemens as a steroid user, among many others. Chafets argues convincingly for something I personally have felt all along: greatness can only be judged by evaluating one against their peers in the same time period, and as the estimates of players using PEDs often being as high as 50-75%, one can’t separate known users from unknown ones and vote accordingly. That steroids might make a great player slightly better, but definitely won't make an average player into a Hal of Famer is also emphasized.

Baseball players are just like the rest of the population, full of faults, some being worse than others. But getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame should have less to do with how nice you are or how many charities you were involved with than with what happened on the field. Chafets even goes so far as to argue that steroids could be legalized and prescribed by doctors to be taken appropriately. Seemingly, this full disclosure would remove a lot of the integrity issues that PEDs have caused. This makes a bit of sense logically, yet I doubt that this idea has any practical application.

While not the best book on the Hall of Fame, which would be Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, Cooperstown Confidential is engaging and addresses important and diverse issues. While the depth isn’t always what a reader might hope, one still feels a greater sense of understanding about the politics behind the institution.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reading List: July 2009

I've spent this month doing only two things: worrying about finances and hating myself for being so unproductive. In this time of economic strife at home and abroad, the former seems justified, yet since I can do little to change my situation at the moment, I should probably just let it go. Yet the latter is so awful, so eroding of the edifice of my soul, that I have no (good) excuse for not making a major change.

Despite the fact that another month has passed, I still have accomplished very little on my thesis. Now I have a delineated outline and a scope of what exactly I am hoping to accomplish, most of that was done over three weeks ago with the help of my adviser. Words are on the page, but I cant seem to get any real work done in one session, and my sessions tend to occur a week or so apart. This month necessitates a reversal, so I am going to try and hit 1000 words five times a week. This seems reasonable.

Dedicated readers will have noticed that I only posted three times of any consequence in the past month, the l
owest total since I started to actually maintain a blog last winter. Again, I hope to change this, but I must say that finishing my degree (for which I have spent enough to buy a decent luxury sedan) must take precedence over a format in which I have yet to earn a dime.

Rather than just making a list this month, I am going to return to an old tradition that I stole from Steve Mollmann. In the month of July, I read 18 books and/or graphic novels:

1. Ultimate Spiderman: Hollywood
by Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley
: The webslinger gets all meta when Sam Raimi begins to film a movie based on news reports of Spiderman's exploits. Sort of fun, but without anything really meaningful to say.

2. Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander: The title made me pick up this book. That said, this memoir is about so much more than growing up in a dysfunctional Jewish Orthodox family; the idea that God is all knowing and all powerful, if used to scare children, can ravage their lives as adults. For example, saying that if you masturbate you will forever burn in hell, submerged in a vat of all the semen you ever ejaculated manually. So it's funny, but there is something not at all humorous about the way such teachings, which one believes as gospel when there is no other influence, can cause so much angst and literal trauma. I really wish I would have written more extensively about this book.

3. Ultimate X-Men: The Most Dangerous Game by Brian K. Vaughan & Stuart Immomen: Mutants accused of capital crimes are sent to an island where they are hunted as a form of execution. But the twist? It's all filmed for the worst reality television ever. Craptacular.

4. Ultimate X-Men: Hard Lessons by Vaughan, et al.: All over the place and not too interesting to boot, this collection suffers from being comprised of storylines that have virtually nothing to do with one another. Also, they kill Gambit and give his powers to Rogue, who now can touch people. She's the most interesting one solely b/c she can never touch anyone! Yawn.

5. Ultimate X-Men: Magnetic North by Vaghan & Immomen: Better, but only relatively. Lorna Dane accidentally commits a terrible crime and the mutants under Emma Frost team up with the X-Men in order to protect her from being sent to superhero-Guantanamo.

6. Losing the Peace by William Leisner: Overall, a book I thought was okay. Read my thoughts here.

7. Ultimate X-Men: Phoenix? by Robert Kirkman, et al.: To be honest, I don't remember much from this, aside from a 'date night gone awry' story.

8. Better by Atul Gawande: Read about my thoughts on this collection of essays by the New Yorker writer here.

9. 52, Volume 2
10. 52, Volume 3

11. 52, Volume 4 by Geoff Johns, et al.
: Probably better as a
n exercise than it was w/r/t story points, I still enjoyed this collection. However, it reminded me how far out of the loop I am in the DC Universe (Barry Allen is alive?!?!?), so I may have to pick up a bunch of collections in the near future.

12. Ultimate Spiderman: Carnage by Bendis & Bagley: One of the most iconic deaths in comics h
istory is interpreted here as a random killing by a bad guy. Bendis should be fucking ashamed of himself. Maybe I'll write more about this, but it's probably already been done.

13. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers: One of the best books I have read this year. I wanted to write about it, but I just couldn't find the words to do it justice. I'm looking forward to making it through the rest of Powers's work in the coming year.

14. Treason by Peter David: Why did I read this book? For what one should expect from a recent New Frontier book, this is as good as any. But it just didn't work for me.

15. Beware of God by Auslander: This collection of short stories is thematically quite similar to the memoir (written afterwards). While the stories were pretty good, I felt I had already read the 'real' account and t
heir effect was subdued.

16. Ultimate Spiderman: Superstars by Bendis & Bagley: Wolverine and Spiderman switch bodies i
n one of the stupidest stories ever told.

17. IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman: Entertaining collection of Klosterman's journalism over the past decade. He's funny and occasionally says something insightful. I wish I could write like this.

18. Full Circle by Kirsten Beyer: For what this set out to do, tie up Christie Golden's story threads and get Voyager back to the Delta Quadrant, it did well enough I suppose, though the prose is uninspired. And I'm not sure where Chakotay was in this book. Sure, there was a guy named Chakotay, but he was a whiny douchebag who isn't even presented consistently. From now on, Brendan Moody will be responsible for keeping me up to date with Beyer's work so I don't have to read it; he likely will be unable to resist her next novel this fall.

That's it. Perhaps all the time I spend reading might be better served writing. Actually, I'm pretty sure that 'perhaps' should read 'certainly.' Questions, comments, et cetera, ad nauseum.