There’s evil afoot

No, I’m not talking about the Virginia Tech shootings, the latest bombings in Iraq, or Governor Corzine’s decision to go speeding without a seat belt.

According to a report in today’s Seattle P-I, elements of the chocolate industry are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration to change the legal definition of chocolate so that it no longer needs to contain cocoa butter (or, in the case of milk chocolate, actual milk).

The headquarters of the Resistance is here.

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I saw Children of Men last night…

…and the best way to sum up my reaction is, it’s given me a new appreciation of Æon Flux.

The characters are uniformly flat. Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), the woman on whose miraculous pregnancy the story supposedly turns, is little more than a big-bellied MacGuffin. Julianne Moore is around just long enough to make you wonder why she bothered to do this movie. Chiwetel Ejiofor shows us what a charmless, underwritten version of Firefly‘s Operative might be like. Michael Caine, phoning in his role as an aging British hippie, repeats the phrase “Pull my finger!” until a merciful gunman puts him out of our misery. As for Clive Owen, about the best I can say is that he broods real pretty.

And then there’s the plot. Instead of exploring the potentially interesting implications of its premise—a world with near-zero human fertility rates—C.o.M. expends most of its creative energy on yet another cautionary tale about declining civil liberties in the West. Look, I’m as concerned about freedom in the post-9/11 world as anyone, but this is getting really tedious—not the theme itself, but the utterly safe and predictable way in which films like this deal with it. Couldn’t we please have a fresh angle? How about an SF movie set in Saudi Arabia, with a pregnant Shi’a human rights advocate on the run from the religious police?

I saw Children of Men last night… Read More »

Dan Simmons, madman

Today’s New York Times Book Review has a piece on Dan Simmons’ new novel, The Terror. After an unflattering acknowledgment of Simmons’ talents—he’s “managed to generate” over two dozen books “in an impressive variety of genres”—critic Terrence Rafferty dismisses this latest effort as an act of hubris. Simmons must have been crazy, he says, to think this was a good idea for a novel.

The Terror is a fictionalized account of a 19th-century British naval expedition that set out to find the Northwest Passage. The two ships involved, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, got stuck in the polar ice, and their crews died (in real life, the men starved and froze to death; in Simmons’ version, there’s also a monster). Rafferty’s objection isn’t to the subject matter, but to the way Simmons decides to tackle it: “[O]f the many possible approaches to making artistic sense of the…fiasco, just about the least promising…would be to turn it into an epic-length ripping yarn.”

Which is just what I was thinking. An adventure story about a doomed polar expedition? Dan Simmons, are you smoking CRACK?

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More Ruff and Lehenbauer family trivia

Since blogging about my cousin Ernest, I’ve been on a family history jag. I’m not sure how interesting any of this is to non-relatives, but with Bad Monkeys‘ pub. date just four months away, I’m starting to get requests from publicists for biographical tidbits to feed to reviewers and interviewers, so maybe there’s something here that’ll qualify as “local color.” And, hey, I think it’s cool.

First, a couple corrections: in my previous post, I had originally written that both the Ruffs and the Lehenbauers came from Bavaria. Actually, the Ruffs were Prussian; my great-great-grandfather Johann Frederick Ruff was born in 1830 in the village of Badeleben, near Magdeburg. I think the reason for my confusion on this point is that my German publisher is located in Munich, so I regard Bavaria as my home base when I’m over there. But if there’s a Bad Monkeys book tour, I’ll have to see if I can arrange a stop in Badeleben, and maybe at the University of Berlin to look for J.F.’s old school records.

As for Mom’s side of the family, I wrote that the Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers in the town of Oettingen “during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” Those dates come from The Family Lehenbauer, a privately published genealogy. What I’d forgotten until I started digging into my files is that I also have a set of addenda to the genealogy that pushes the timeline back even further. Turns out the Lehenbauers were in Oettingen from at least the 17th century. The ur-ancestor is a man named Johann Caspar Leonhard Lehenbauer, born in 1674.

Geez, 1674. I’m simultaneously awestruck and amused. I mean, the guy is my great-great-great-great-grandfather (one of them—I’ve got, what, 31 others?). At a remove of six generations, the genetic link must be getting pretty weak, and culturally we’d be aliens to each other. So to feel a special connection to him is, on one level, absurd. And yet…

Closer to home (temporally speaking), I also did some checking on my grandfather, the Lutheran missionary who went to South America. It seems he wrote a short memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the wilds of Brazil, that is listed on Amazon.com, though of course it’s long out of print. My wife Lisa is going to use her rare-book skills to try and locate a copy, but this is the sort of ephemera that is notoriously difficult to track down.

One thing I did find, though, is a street in Santa Rosa, Brazil that’s named after Grandpa—the Rua Pastor Albert Lehenbauer (Google Maps has the last name misspelled as “Lemenbawer”, but it’s definitely him). While I’m not sure how he came to rate a street sign, it’s probably got something to do with his role in Brazilian agricultural history. Grandpa was the guy who first brought soybeans into the country and convinced the local gauchos to start growing them; today, soy is Brazil’s second-biggest legal export crop.

And one more neat little discovery: if you fire up Google Earth and look at Santa Rosa from orbit, the town is disappointingly blurry. But if you track south-southwest, the satellite resolution suddenly gets a whole lot sharper (CIA must have had biz in the neighborhood), and if you look closely, about fifteen miles out you’ll find a dot marked Ipiranga next to a spot where two dirt roads meet at right angles. I believe this is Ypiranga Crossroads, where my grandfather and grandmother were married and where my mother spent her early childhood. The level of detail is high enough that I could easily pick out the house, if I knew what it looked like.

So again, a mixture of awe and amusement. Hi, Grandpa. Hi, Mom. Greetings from the future.

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In which your author finds a relative sitting in Saddam Hussein’s chair

My family doesn’t have a strong military tradition. Although a number of the men, particularly in my father’s generation, have worn uniforms, there aren’t any career soldiers, and reference to “the service” has always meant religious service.

The Ruffs are typically pastors; the Lehenbauers, my mother’s people, incline more to missionary work. If you sense a fundamental difference in temperament here, you’re right. Lehenbauers tend to have—how shall I put this?—a healthy love of debate, and they are also more prone to wanderlust. Both sides of the family immigrated from Germany to the American Midwest in the 19th century, but while the Ruffs stayed put once they got here, Grandpa Lehenbauer got restless and decided to continue on to South America—first Brazil, then Argentina. Then in the 1950s my mother backtracked to the U.S., drawn in part, one suspects, by the nomadic promise of the new Interstate Highway System.

The reason I mention all this: as I say, we’re not a military family, so until recently I assumed that none of my relatives were over in Iraq. But if you’d told me that one of my kin had been spotted across the street from Abu Ghraib prison, or goofing around in the throne room of one of Saddam’s palaces, and asked me to guess whether it was a Ruff or a Lehenbauer… well, it’s not even a question, really.

A few months ago I was doing research on the town of Oettingen, where earlier, less itinerant generations of Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers. A Google search turned up the following photo:

This was the home of my great-great-grandfather, Johann Matthias Lehenbauer (the siding is a more recent addition, and of course in the 1700s only the wealthiest Germans could afford electricity).

The photo was posted in the blog of one Ernest Lehenbauer, a civilian engineer under contract to the Department of Defense to help bolt supplemental armor onto Humvees. He’d visited Oettingen while on leave from “Camp Warrior” in Kirkuk.

“Well that’s interesting,” I thought. “I have a long-lost cousin named Ernest, whose dad was an engineer for Ford, and not only is he a Lehenbauer, he’s one of the Mormon Lehenbauers, which means he’s way crazy enough to volunteer for work in a combat zone…” Sure enough, this was indeed my cousin Ernie, whom I last saw back when we were teenagers (as I recall, we spent much of the visit trying to convince Ernie’s younger brother Eric that the house was being buzzed by UFOs).

Ernie’s trip to Oettingen took place in 2005, and by the time I stumbled across his blog, his tour in Iraq was already over—he’d finished up his contract and headed home in March of 2006. His final blog entry was entitled “Moving on, I guess,” which I understood to be Lehenbauer code for “I’ll stay Stateside just long enough for my mother’s blood pressure to return to normal, then see if anyone in Afghanistan needs a mechanic.”

Big surprise, a couple days ago I discovered a new Ernest Lehenbauer blog called “Back to Iraq.” Seems that he reupped to help out with the surge, and now they’ve got him unclogging the Internet tubes at one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. (Though it’s been many years since our UFO-spotting days, looks like Ernie and I still have the same sense of humor. I would totally do the “Saddam’s throne photo op with bad pun” thing, if you could get me within a thousand miles of the place. But I’m only half Lehenbauer, and somebody needs to stay here on the West Coast and watch for North Korean submarines.)

I’ve added Ernie’s blog to my journal links so I can keep track of his doings, and because, in case it’s not obvious, I’m proud of him. I’m worried for him, too, but another factoid about Lehenbauers is that they’re historically quite difficult to kill. Grandma Helena, for example—the original Mormon Lehenbauer—was hit by a truck at age 77 and survived to argue theology for another nine years. I’m optimistic that the same mojo will work against exploding trucks… and hopeful that this theory will not be put to the test.

In which your author finds a relative sitting in Saddam Hussein’s chair Read More »

Meet the War Nerd

Via extempore I have discovered The War Nerd, a column published in the Moscow-based alternative newspaper The Exile. The War Nerd is written by Gary Brecher, a self-described fat white misanthrope from Fresno, CA, whose sole passion is armed conflict.

There’s lots of stuff about Iraq, of course (like this July 2002 column in which Brecher gives a depressingly accurate prediction of Gulf War II’s outcome), but also plenty of coverage of all the other fighting going on the world, much of which goes unmentioned in the Western media because (a) it’s even more depressing than Iraq, and (b) nobody really cares about the people involved.

Depending on your sensibilities, Brecher’s writing style is either horribly offensive or hopelessly addictive (you can probably guess which camp I fall into). For example, here he is giving historical context on the recent civil wars in Liberia:

Liberian history is supposedly “tragic,” which is newspaper code for “funny as Hell.” I can’t help it, it is. It’s not like I don’t sympathize. I do. I mean, which slum did your grandparents come from? Probably some starved village where the coal mine’s been closed since it ate a whole shift of locals. How’d you like it if everybody in your neighborhood took up a collection to send you back there, even if you didn’t speak a word of the language? “We feel you don’t fit in in Santa Barbara and you’ll never be truly happy until you’re back in Lower Slobovia:”

That’s how Liberia started. It was white people’s idea from the start. They were worried about free blacks, who made up about a tenth of the 2 million black people in the US. The two extremes of the slavery issue, abolitionists and crazy slaveowners, agreed something had to be done about all those free blacks.

The abolitionists loved black people so much they wanted them to go far, far away. So did the slaveowners, who announced with no evidence at all that free blacks were “promoters of mischief.” (I don’t know what “mischief” means—maybe they TP’d those Gone With the Wind plantation houses.)

A group of rich white do-gooders including Francis Scott Key, who wrote “the Star Spangled Banner,” got together to raise the money to send free blacks back to Africa. For them Key had a special version of the anthem: “Oh say can you see/the home of the brave? If so, you’re standing too close/Go about 4000 miles southeast, to West Africaaaa.”

Congress came through with a big grant and in 1819, a ship with 88 freed blacks and three white chaperons landed in that other success-story for re-planting blacks, Sierra Leone. After gassing up at Freetown, they headed down the coast to the promised land, Liberia.

Within three weeks of arriving at their new home, all three whites and 22 blacks died of fever. That’s barely time to start naming things “free-” this and “free-that.

Instead they named the place “Perseverance.” A little truth in advertising. The rich whites sitting home safe in the US were determined to persevere in Liberia, even if it meant shipping every black they could catch straight into the most disease-ridden, lethal climate in the world…

And here’s part of his reaction to the London bus bombings:

So let’s talk urban-war hardware for a second. That ought to thrill you metalheads. Only in this case we’re talking plastic, as in plastic explosives. The London bombs were made with military plastic explosive. My guess is that it’ll turn out to be Czech-made Semtex.

Ah, Semtex, a bus-bomber’s best friend. The Czechs made thousands of tons of it back in the day. They were mighty proud, too — the name “Semtex” comes from a suburb of Prague. It was like their beer: they wanted you to think of them when you, er, consumed it.

“This death has been brought to you by the Czech People’s Republic!” The Czechs are still proud: there’s actually an “energy drink” called Semtex. A big seller in Prague, I hear. I really want to know what their advertising slogan is: “For a BURST of flavor!” It puts a new meaning on the Red Bull slogan: “Semtex Gives You Wings.” Yeah, and 72 virgins, if you’re lucky.

There’s lots more in this vein. Be aware that Brecher’s fact-checking, like his use of punctuation, is a bit slapdash—e.g., Semtex is actually named after a suburb of Pardubice, not Prague (but the energy drink is real)—so you may want to do some additional research before sharing his anecdotes around the water cooler.

Meet the War Nerd Read More »

“Why do you keep asking me a question that I’m giving you an answer to?”

Via Andrew Sullivan, a transcript of an interview between radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt and retired U.S. Army General William Eldridge Odom. Odom thinks the U.S. should pull out of Iraq as soon as possible, and his arguments make interesting reading—this is not your typical lefty anti-war rhetoric—but what really struck me about the conversation was the overall tone. On the one hand, you’ve got a conservative pundit who clearly doesn’t like what he’s hearing but respects the person he’s hearing it from too much to just blow him off, and on the other, you’ve got a no-nonsense career officer who seems baffled and more than a little annoyed by the notion that it matters whether you like your options.

As an aside, Odom’s comments on the difference between liberal and illiberal democracies reminded me again just how lucky I am to have been born in America—and no, I’m not being sarcastic.

“Why do you keep asking me a question that I’m giving you an answer to?” Read More »

Sewer, Gas & Cyrillic

A little over a year ago, a Moscow publishing house named Eksmo bought the Russian translation rights to Sewer, Gas & Electric. Now, thanks to LJer rasteehead, here’s a look at the cover:

Obviously the art’s been repurposed from elsewhere, but I think they did a nice job of matching the mood of the story, and even the details aren’t as off as might first appear. You could definitely find buildings like that in lower Manhattan (complete with flames), and while there’s no specific mention of graffitied monorails in Sewer, the concept of monorails fits the general Retro Future aesthetic of the novel.

Also, there’s just something very cool about seeing my name in Cyrillic.

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And now we wait…

I spent the weekend going over the second-pass Bad Monkeys galleys, making sure all my corrections to the first pass made it in. I also did some touch-ups to the dust-jacket copy. And that’s pretty much it for me until the finished books come back from the printers later this year.

I have gotten a look at a bound galley, and they’re neat. At first I wasn’t sure about all that yellow on the cover, but it stands out nicely on a display table. Also, as you can kind of see from this scan, they’ve gone with an unusually narrow page size—the bound galleys measure 9″ x 5″, where a more typical hardcover would be 9″ x 6″. It’s different, in a way that makes you want to pick it up and take a closer look at it.

So, just six more months, and we’ll see how it plays in the bookstores…

And now we wait… Read More »