Mimsy: Books

Are you authorized?—A Poem—Wednesday, November 22nd, 2023

I was driving from Texas to San Diego after a blowout near Sonora when the basics of this poem began to bubble up from the tar beneath my wheels.

Are you authorized?

    • Drive not into smoke
    • Nor brave standing water in the road.
    • When lightning flashes, seek not a shading tree,
    • Nor stand amidst the wide and waving plain.
    • Hitchhikers may be dangerous
    • There is no tolerance for speed.
    • The bridge across the gaping earth
    • Ices before the road.
    • That which pursues you
    • May be closer than it appears.

As you read this I’m probably on the road again, so this is my gift to you as you also travel to family and friends this Thanksgiving holiday—or as you reminisce about Thanksgivings past.

The title comes from a story told by a police chief while I was researching The Dream of Poor Bazin. I was in a small town in Louisiana, and trying to find a nearby ghost town. It was a real ghost town, in that it had been overgrown so much it was invisible, and this was before ubiquitous GPS mapping. I did have a map, but all of the roads supposedly leading into the ghost town were labeled “unnamed road”… and unless I was in the wrong place, they were also overgrown to the point of invisibility.

So I went into the nearest non-ghost town thinking I might find a local history section in the library. The library turned out to be closed, but the library was in the same building as the post office, so I thought I’d ask whoever was working there when the library would open.

The post office, while open, was unattended. However, the town hall was also in the same building, so I walked over and asked the ladies at the front desk if they knew anything about that ghost town, or where I might find more about it.

“Oh, you need to talk to our police chief!”

And the chief of police came out from a back room—the police department was apparently also in this same very small building—heard what I was interested in, and immediately dropped everything to give a tour of the ghost town. He was a local history buff, and even loaned me a relatively rare book about the Nightriders.

My Year in Books: 2022—Wednesday, January 11th, 2023

Not including the cookbooks (I’ll have more about 2022 in Food in a later post), my year in books began with Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience, a fascinating collection of essays about the dawn of civilized war, and ended with Mack Reynolds’s Code Duello, a very strange letdown about frivolous fighting on far planets. In fact, two books I read in December were letdowns. I see Mack Reynolds all over in the old paperbacks section of used bookstores, and somehow confused him with a writer of a spy or thriller series of some kind. No idea who, now.

The other disappointing December book was a Dorothy Parker collection; I’d never read her before, and of course you keep hearing about her as a very witty writer. I found her mostly repetitive and condescending.

Tastes vary.

My penultimate book was a re-read: the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons comic book, Watchmen. I’ve been rereading a handful of Alan Moore’s best works lately. Both Promethea and V for Vendetta. They’re connected by Moore’s fascination with superhumans taking it upon themselves to save humanity from themselves, whether humanity wants it or not.

Sadly, minus the superhuman part that’s always an important topic. Which makes me glad to see that Watchmen is also the most-shelved book I read this year.

Alan Moore’s are not the only comics I chose to re-read in 2022. I also reread The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. I still remember the first time I read this book, just out of college, when one of my roommates had left it lying around. He probably regretted that, because I could not stop laughing out loud in the middle of the night, nor could I put it down. Calvin’s world is a world that doesn’t exist, and one I’ve never lived in, a suburban countryside where six-year-olds can wander downtown alone with their teddy bear (or, in this case, tiger), but it is hilarious despite my complete lack of reference points. Watterson riffs on the essential absurdity of man’s imagination, and it isn’t just Calvin’s imagination. Calvin’s father is quite the storyteller, too.

Notes on publishing ebooks, including scripts—Wednesday, November 9th, 2022
Scripts for ePubs social image: Social media image for the ePub scripts post.; publishing

Take this as analogous to the blind men describing an elephant. I’m far from a best-selling author and have used only Lulu.com, Amazon’s Kindle Direct, and Smashwords. I’m sure there are many things I didn’t run into or didn’t even think to look for. I’ll use Amazon (Kindle Direct Publishing), Lulu, and Smashwords as examples because they are the services I currently use. The field is still rapidly developing—Smashwords has just been merged into Draft2Digital—and what I chose two years ago might not be what I would choose today.

For example, while it normally irks me when a service I choose gets bought up by one I didn’t choose (AT&T, I’m looking at you), I’m not feeling too badly about the Draft2Digital purchase of Smashwords. When I started writing this post, I wrote that if I were to start again, I’d be seriously looking at Draft2Digital instead of Smashwords.

In any case, one way to find such places is to search for “Smashwords competitors”, or, now, “Draft2Digital competitors”.

And also upfront: this is about the technical end of getting things online. It’s not about how to sell or how to design. You wouldn’t want to listen to me about those topics anyway. I could just as well have posted this under hacks instead of under books. This is a lot about the command-line workflows I use to get a book from Nisus (or any word processor) to ePub. There is math involved, or at least programming. I’ll also provide some of the scripts I use, but you’ll need to be comfortable with modifying them, or have friends who are comfortable modifying them, for your own special circumstances. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Smashwords, it is that every book is different in its own annoying way.

Currently, I use Lulu or Amazon for print-only books—mainly, books that I’m releasing free as ebooks, such as my fantasy roleplaying game or my computer manuals. I’ll use my web site to host the ebooks and make print copies available through Lulu or Amazon. Amazon, of course, is the default place to go for buying novels, but Lulu.com is extremely useful for niche products where the community buying those products is familiar with Lulu.com. That’s why my game books are there.

For the most part, when my plan is to sell a print book mainly online, Amazon is the place to go. If my plan were to sell a print book everywhere, I’d probably want to find somewhere else rather than use Amazon as the bottleneck. But I would not pay for the service. Payment would be for the books themselves, as needed.

Science fiction’s anti-socialist socialists—Wednesday, November 2nd, 2022

From The Time Machine to 1984 and Animal Farm to Harrison Bergeron, why are socialist societies written by actual socialists so dystopian? Why are leftist writers’ greatest successes seemingly so conservative?

In Animal Farm Orwell clearly saw that the transition from socialism to violent dictatorship was a natural one. The animals put up with tyranny until it was too late because of the socialist promises of the pigs. In 1984 Big Brother could only rewrite history because the state controlled all industry, including media. Orwell recognized the socialist state’s requirement that people believe the state’s lies, embodied best in C.S. Lewis’s suggestion in God in the Dock that tyrannies that must justify themselves are worse than tyrannies that don’t care.

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. — C. S. Lewis (The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment)

A mere tyrant wouldn’t care what Winston believed. Only a socialist tyrant requires not just that people be stomped on, but that they agree with the stomping. That was a fundamental part of 1984.

Temple Public Library Book Sale—Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022
Temple Library Sale September 2021: My book haul from the Friends of the Temple Public Library book sale for September 2021.; libraries; Temple, TX; Temple; book sales

My latest haul is also relatively small; it’s quality, not quantity, alright, man?

Today is the first day of the Temple Public Library Book Sale in Temple, Texas. As I write this, however, I have just returned from their September 1, 2021, sale. It’s held twice a year, and it’s a very nice drive from Round Rock to Temple, perhaps stopping off at Country Donuts on the way up and Johnny’s Steaks and BBQ on the way down1 or one of the many nice restaurants in Temple.

On my first visit, I picked up several books I already owned, or used to. I read Tarzan long ago, and have several of the sequels in my to-read shelf. But I’ve somehow managed to lose my copy the first book. I’m pretty sure I didn’t just throw it out, as I distinctly remember reading it several times. Now I get to read it yet again. I also bought replacement copies of three cookbooks I already owned: hardcover editions of the amazingly eccentric Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes, Beatrice Trum Hunter’s wonderful Whole Grain Baking Sampler, and a boxed set of the Middle Eastern Cooking volume of Time-Life’s Foods of the World series. I don’t use Bull Cook very often, but I thoroughly enjoy browsing through it. Herter’s eccentric rants prove more true, sadly, as the future unfolds.

My Year in Books: 2021—Wednesday, January 12th, 2022

Man looks for patterns in everything, but I don’t think I could have chosen a better opening quote for the first review of the year:

…man is born to trouble, and it is best to meet it when it comes and not lose sleep until it does. — Louis L’Amour (The Daybreakers)

But then, Louis L’Amour is a great author to start any year with. I followed The Daybreakers up with Shalako and Conagher with a little detour through The Iron Marshall. I ended the year with Radigan.

L’Amour continually surprises me by coming up with very different takes on the Western hero. His heroes in each of those stories are very different. They run the gamut from wild men coming in from the desert, to big city gangsters on the run, to (almost) backwoods lawyers defending their ranch.

And then, in June in Nashville, I discovered his autobiographical Education of a Wandering Man. He lived a fascinating life, and it’s not hard to see where he got his ideas for such varied characters when you see what a varied life he’s led!

I also finally read Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I’d read the first book long ago, but never the series. I picked up a boxed set of the trilogy at a yard sale back in 2017, but it looked like a dense read and it took a while to commit to reading all three.

It was a dense read; there is a lot of weird retro psychology going on. It’s fascinating both as a well-written story and as a glimpse into the mindset of one class of science fiction author in the golden age. Asimov took what most authors, and most people, would regard as a nightmare: a benevolent dictatorship rewriting history down to the contents of your brain, manipulating people into false insights, conspiracy, and even a deadly galactic war, all for their view about how the tide of history should flow.

Optimistic pessimism, or utopian dystopias—Wednesday, January 5th, 2022
Meet George Jetson: The exact date was lost in the County Courthouse Punch Card Disaster of ’29, but during 2022 in Orbit City, George Jetson will be born. We are far closer to when The Jetsons takes place than to when it first aired.; science fiction; cartoons; The Jetsons

It’s not surprising that a show like The Jetsons would have been overly-optimistic. It was meant to be.

Happy New Year! As we head into a new year, we are always inundated with predictions for the future. Among the most fascinating topics for me, however, is predictions for the future, from the past. And as we head further and further from both the books of my youth, each year brings a new milestone in either science fiction or science fact.

One of the most influential science fiction shows of my youth wasn’t Star Wars or reruns of Star Trek. It was reruns of The Jetsons on Saturday mornings,

The Jetsons debuted in 1962, a cartoon situation comedy meant to mirror the very successful Flintstones. The Jetsons was set in 2062. The main character, George Jetson, was 40 years old. In the fictional world of the futuristic Jetsons, George Jetson will be born this year.1

The Jetsons featured flying cars, cities in the sky, and domestic robots. It also featured home computers, video conferencing, and a vast interconnected knowledge store that could be queried at leisure. Not too bad for a cartoon that was based on a stone age family that itself was based on a fifties show about a Brooklyn bus driver and sewer worker and their families.

And who knows? They may still be right about the cars, cities, and robots. While we are, today, far closer to the year the Jetsons is set than we are to the year it debuted, we still have forty years to catch up to their technology.

That The Jetsons would be overly-optimistic about the world of the future isn’t surprising. While it wasn’t utopian, it was an optimistic show. What’s more amazing is how many pessimistic science fiction stories remain exceedingly optimistic about the rate of technological progress in the future.

Technology futurists such as Alvin Toffler were very pessimistic about their optimism. They recognized that technology would advance quickly and complained that all these newfangled ways of doing things would destroy us. Toffler even recommended government bureaucracies tasked with forbidding the advancement of technology unless a panel of experts approved it.

Satire in the vineyard: The parable of Lolita and the sheep—Wednesday, December 29th, 2021
Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s The Wolf and the Lamb: The Wolf and the Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Oudry; fable 10, in which a lamb wins the argument but loses the case. “Might is right… the verdict goes to the strong.”; animals; reason; art; justice; fables

This encounter does not end well for the lamb.

The morning gospel, as I write this, was the parable of the good landlord—the vineyard keeper who hired men in the morning, and then again in the afternoon, and again in the evening, and paid everyone a full day’s wages. This got me thinking about the New Testament’s “opposite parables” where Jesus tells stories that were obviously wrong to the people of the time in order to make a point about how different the kingdom of God is.

At the risk of calling ever more literary types satirical, Jesus uses a technique very similar to satire: taking an absurd situation and using it to tell a story about truth. The lessons of Jesus’s parables are a lot like the lessons of good satire: they progressed slowly into greater and greater absurdity to make a point about a truth that transcends the superficial story told.

On the surface, the parable of the workers is not clearly an opposite parable. Superficially there might be reasons why it was important to get the harvest in before nightfall. Maybe there was a storm coming, for example, and what didn’t get harvested tonight would be destroyed. But that doesn’t really make sense. Even with a storm coming, the harvest that a worker can bring in with one hour’s work needs to be worth far more than a full day’s wages for the parable to make sense in the real world that Jesus’s listeners inhabited. If it is, then the landlord is vastly underpaying his workers, and the next day they’re going to work for a different landlord who pays them up to twelve times as much.

But the most obvious way in which this is an opposite parable is that the landlord isn’t going to get any full-day workers next time. Who is going to work a full day when they can wait until evening, work one hour, and get paid the same amount? The people listening to the parable knew this. They knew how unappealing it was to do hard outdoor work throughout the day in the area around Israel. Which means that Jesus had something to say about the workers and/or the harvest that went opposite to the way the real world works. The harvest is worth more than money, or the workers are bringing in more than grapes. Or there is no day after.

Which is almost certainly the point of the parable. The harvest of Heaven is a vineyard that does not operate by the rules of this world. Not by any earthly wealth can the redemption of souls be measured, nor is the work of a single day comparable to the work of a lifetime.

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