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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 4, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Thick Fantasy Novels, City of Enoch

Grades for the courses I taught this semester were due on Tuesday, May second, at five p.m. My response to the copy-edit of my novel Children of the Fleet had an ironclad deadline, though, and because my livelihood is tied to my books, that had to take precedence.

That meant that I couldn't start reading my students' final exam essays until Tuesday. That's right, just like a college student, everything was left till the last minute.

The grades for my fiction-writing and hymn-writing workshops were easy enough. I had already read everything and discussed it at some length, so it was just a matter of assigning letter grades. All done by mid-afternoon.

But for my course in the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis, I had forty-eight final exam essays to read (each student wrote three) (because I told them to), plus eight of their final papers to grade (I had graded the others during the final exam).

In case you didn't know, that's a lot of reading. Especially because this was an extraordinary class. If this were the last class I ever taught, I'd die happy.

No I wouldn't. Too many unrepented sins. But that's none of your business. Still, as a teacher, I have to say that this class exceeded my expectations.

And my expectations were high. As I told them on the first day of class, all I ask of them is rational text-based analysis and original ideas, clearly expressed. You know ... wisdom.

I know from long experience that this is a lot to ask of busy undergraduates at the end of a long semester that also included two papers and an oral presentation, along with reading Lord of the Rings, "Smith of Wootton Major," "Leaf by Niggle," The Screwtape Letters, all seven Narnia volumes (in the only sensible order -- the order in which they were written, starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and Till We Have Faces.

So imagine my surprise when paper after paper, and essay after essay, turned out to be everything I asked for. Every one of them rooted all their arguments in the text -- and not just the required texts, either. They were quoting from relevant sources all over the map.

And their ideas were often new and always well-argued. Some of them changed my mind about things I've been settled about for years. For instance, one student paper has persuaded me that, by the terms given to him, Frodo did not fail in his mission when the power of the One Ring overwhelmed him and he could not throw it into the lava in the Cracks of Doom. You'd have to read the paper. It was absolutely correct and I will teach that scene differently from now on.

You're not supposed to get student writings that change your mind about things until you're teaching graduate students!

Many of the papers and test essays used personal examples and responses that were exactly appropriate and personally moving. Even some of their writing about works that I've read at least a dozen times was so beautiful and true that I was brought to tears.

Now, weeping as you grade student essays is not uncommon, but usually a professor is shedding tears of pity. In this case, they were the tears that I shed when I encounter well-earned wisdom and deep goodness. I pictured each student as I read her or his words and thought: How did a final exam become a deep and memorable conversation?

How lucky am I as a teacher?

Add to that the fine work many -- no, most -- of my writing students did this semester, and I'm so glad that I have a chance to teach these courses of my own design, in my own way. Of course, I'm not paid, and I have to commute three hours each way to get to the only school on Earth that would turn me loose on their students, but that's a small price compared with the rewards.

Too bad I still have to do that novel-writing thing in order to make money. Yes, I still love the dialogue between me and my readers, but since I'm still being punished for offending the Inquisition, I rarely get reviewed and almost never get invited anywhere to actually meet my readers. That's just part of life here under the iron rule of the Established Church of North America.

So, being mostly cut off from my readers, I'm all the more grateful that I have a chance to spend many hours in the company of these bright, wise, hard-working college students, who give me more than I ask for.

But since this class exceeded my expectations, have I now been ruined? Will I be disappointed in any class that does not perform so extraordinarily well?

Probably. Doesn't mean I won't try.

Because I have this idea for a class in Epic Speculative Fiction. I'd have them read a few things from this list of long multivolume works:

Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy

George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire

K.J. Parker's Scavenger trilogy or Engineer trilogy

Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight novels (so far just two, but by the time I teach again, three)

Lynn Flewelling's Tamir trilogy (starting with The Bone Doll's Twin)

Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders trilogy

Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy (starting with The Crystal Cave)

T.H. White's The Once and Future King

Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles

Sherwood Smith's Inda novels

Any of Mary Renault's Greek series, including books like The Persian Boy or The King Must Die

Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller books, especially if he, like, finishes it

One of David Gemmell's epic series

Brian Aldiss's Helliconia novels

Ken Scholes's Psalms of Isaak

Mark Lawrence's brutal The Broken Empire (starting with Prince of Thorns)

OK, that was actually a pretty good fantasy reading list for people who want something massive and wonderful to read over the summer.

In developing the course, the real problem is deciding which books to require all the students to read, while letting them choose one or two additional works to read and report on to the class.

I think Sanderson, Parker, and Asimov have to be on that required list. With Martin, they'll just watch the HBO series Game of Thrones and you know what? That's OK. They'd at least be able to discuss the stories. Scholes? Flewelling? Lawrence? Hobb? Sherwood Smith? Rothfuss? They'd all make for great class discussions.

So maybe I can't teach the course because epic speculative fiction can be so massive.

Not your problem. The real problem is, when they realize how much they'll have to read, how many of the people who signed up for the class will still be registered for it three weeks into the semester?

Teaching is the best job -- when you're covering a subject that the students love, and they're smart and highly motivated, and you don't have a bureaucracy breathing down your neck, and you aren't depending on it for your income.

*

While I was reading my students' final exam essays, I was working on the kitchen table, because somebody has covered every flat surface in my office with stuff that I mean to review Real Soon Now. So, being in the kitchen, where other people have both a right and a need to come in and out, I had to surround myself with a bubble of music.

The music I chose was Sweet Redeemer, a Christian pop album released only a couple of weeks ago, by a group called City of Enoch. The trio consists of Brianna Curran, Jeremy Christensen, and Kyle Wesley.

Their sound is better than merely pleasing, and their music is interesting (i.e., not just three chords and a key change). What makes them stand out is their excellent songwriting. Most of the lyrics are far above the emotional gush that often dominates Christian music albums.

My favorite song so far is "One Prayer Away." With a country feel, the chorus clinches with:

If the world

Tears me down

I know you can be found

'Cause you stay

One prayer away.

You can sample the songs at https://www.cityofenochmusic.com/ (just keep scrolling down), and you can order the cd from Amazon. If you want to download it, iTunes has the digital album but Amazon does not.

My real frustration is that while their album packet is covered with pictures of the trio, they never tag which of the two guys goes with each of the two guy names.

I mean, Peter, Paul, and Mary had no trouble with people not being able to guess which one was Mary Travers, but they worked pretty hard to let us know which balding folksinger was Peter Yarrow and which was Paul Stookey. (Since Mary Travers died of complications from chemotherapy in 2009, the guys now tour as a duet, though Paul is now billing himself as Noel Paul Stookey.)

So City of Enoch, give us a hand here and tell us who is who.

*

I reviewed Popcorners snacks a couple of weeks ago. Since then I've learned that you almost have to order them online, because nobody within fifty miles of Greensboro carries them. Or at least that's what the Popcorners website location finder told me.

As long as you're looking them up, they just introduced Protein Crisps (basically rice crackers) and Bean Crisps (basically bean crackers). They look good so I've ordered a ridiculously large box because they don't sell you a single 95-cent bag by mail order. For practical reasons. But it's hard to call it a sample when you have to buy forty of the one-ounce bags at a time.

What I don't understand is how I ever tried them, because I know I bought them off the shelf somewhere in Greensboro.

Maybe I did it in a dream, but when I woke up, the bag was real.

Or maybe it was one of the miraculous point-of-sale displays at Fresh Market and the experiment is now over.

*

OK, so here's the real find of the week -- and since I bought them in Fresh Market, maybe you don't have to buy forty bags to find out if you like them.

I don't know about you, but it's hard for me to get enthusiastic about snack foods that tell you how "cheesy" they are (when I was a kid, "cheesy" would have been a bad thing). That's because they're so anxious to make sure you are knocked unconscious by the brutal dose of "cheese" they provide that the "real cheese" is thickly dusted onto the surface of the snacks.

When you eat them, your fingers turn orange. So does everything you touch, including your clothing and your face. And if you eat them while driving, the steering wheel, the door handle, the rear-view mirror.

Then I bought a package of Milton's Cheddar Cheese Baked Crackers. I bought it because the picture on the cover showed crackers that were not covered with cheesish dust.

Instead, the cheese is baked into the crackers. No mess. And exactly the right amount of cheese taste. It's not designed to make your eyes bug out with the intensity of the flavor. It's just food, not a drug, and it's delicious.

There's only one problem. The largest words on the package are "Gluten Free."

That's a message that most of us take to mean,"This will taste vile, so if you aren't actually allergic to gluten and desperate for a snack, don't touch this." (MC Hammer reference deliberate but meaningless.)

This rule is usually a good one to follow. But Milton's Cheddar Cheese Baked Crackers are an exception. They're delicious. Compulsively edible. They don't turn anything orange. The flavors are balanced. And the package is too small.

*

So a headline in my regular email from ZDnet, the online presence of the tech publisher Ziff Davis (PC Magazine, PC/Computing, Computer Shopper, Popular Electronics, and more) said, "The Death of the smartphone is closer than you think. Here's what comes next."

Now, it's hard to imagine that with our nearly complete dependence on having a phone with us all the time -- not to mention a computer, an email server, a photo gallery, a gps, a camera, a book reader, a music player, and a newsmagazine -- it's hard to believe that it could just disappear.

Until you think about VCRs, payphones, cds, record stores, floppy disks, Gary Hart, and The O'Reilly Report. Anything can vanish, no matter how ubiquitous or firmly entrenched they seem to be. And anything can come out of nowhere and become huge, without any warning. I said huge.

So I had to see what they thought would replace the smartphone.

In the article by Steve Ranger (April 23, 2017), the answer was simple. VR.

That's not VCR with the Cassette left out. VR stands for Virtual Reality.

You know, those screens you wear on your face to show you real-looking images, to replace the completely real-looking images you see when you aren't wearing that clunky VR equipment.

I tried out some of the early VR equipment and instantly got a deep migraine that persisted for hours. Worse than the 3D glasses you wear to watch movies where things on the screen look completely unrealistic as they jump out at you.

Since then, I've never seen anything or read about anything to make VR either useful or interesting. People keep trying to make something of it, just as they've been desperately trying to make 3D movies look half as realistic as flat-screen movies and MSNBC look and sound like news.

Some things just can't be done.

All that VR seems to do, as far as I can tell, is make information retrieval take longer and entertainment entertain less. Recently they pretended that VR could consist of putting a HUD (heads-up display) on our glasses as we walk down the street -- "Look! A commercial that gets shown to me because I happened to walk right here, and now I'm getting hit by a bus because I was distrac--"

Here's a link to Ranger's article.

Or you can Google "Death of the smartphone." You get Ranger's article, but you also get one from Business Insider by Matt Weinberger, in which the Next Big Thing will be, like, images beamed directly into your eyes (can't wait), and then computers that are wired directly into our brains.

The problem is that it's quite possible that the smartphone model has already become the maximally convenient communication/recording/photographing/info-providing system. Anything that comes out now will be more of the same.

I mean, the landline telephone had a really good run, didn't it? The innovations were lowering costs, having extension phones in your house, cheap long distance, better sound quality over the years -- but right up until the cellphone became portable enough to mount in cars, nothing was going to challenge the landline, right?

For a hundred years, right?

So what's to say smartphones aren't going to have the same longevity? Sure, 45 rpm records looked like they were going to stick around long enough for us to buy special record players with the large-diameter spindle they required, and then ... they were gone, killed to death by LP records long before the CD put the final nail in their coffin. Some things that seem like forever end up being ephemeral. (I'm still ticked off about my now-defunct laserdisc collection.)

Here's why I think these prognosticators are wrong wrong wrong. First, we're getting more dependent on smartphones, not less, because as they get more processing power, more memory, and better connectivity through wi-fi and bluetooth, we need that computer with us even more.

People now monitor their babycams through their smartphone. When I'm away from home, I can sign on and look through our security cameras to see what's going on in our yard (the two evil feral cats that murder our birds, squirrels, and chipmunks regularly trip the cameras).

I've been enjoying my TrapTap (traptap.com), a device that sits on my dashboard and warns me about speedtraps, red light cameras, and school zones, as well as flashing when I exceed the speed limit by more than five miles an hour.

It's not a radar detector, it's a co-op. The app on my smartphone is doing the real work of monitoring my location through the built-in gps, and then warning me of permanent hazards (speed limits, red-light cameras, school zones) and the floating ones -- temporary speed traps.

How can it monitor speed traps?

Simple. If I see one, then I give my TrapTap a single tap. That tap is sent by bluetooth to my smartphone, and then by my phone connection to the TrapTap database. It's instantly shared with everybody else in the area who has a TrapTap.

If I come to a place that flashes blue to warn me about a speedtrap somebody else tapped in, only there is no speed trap there now, I tap twice to give the all-clear.

I'm assuming that they have safeguards to avoid abuse, and maybe people whose three-year-old goes crazy tapping warnings will get banned from giving warnings for a while. (And what's a three-year-old doing in the front seat of a moving car anyway?)

So here's my question. Linking a bunch of devices to my smartphone is working really well.

But linking those devices to something I wear on my head all the time? Or have surgery so they can implant the device inside my head and connect it to my brain?

Nuh-uh. Not happening.

Some people will think it's just fine.

But most people won't. They'll keep their smartphones.

As for switching to voice input on everything: I'm not interested in speaking out loud to my computer or smartphone as my primary means of data entry. That's even more annoying than putting a touchscreen on a desktop computer.

Sure, the auto-correct feature on your smartphone's virtual keyboard can frustrate you. In an email my wife recently sent from her smartphone, our granddaughter Phoebe's name was "corrected" to say "Phone."

That's right, our son and daughter-in-law named their second child "Phone Card." The grandchild in question might have a bit of startlement when she sees the email and discovers that Grandma isn't aware that she wasn't named for an appliance.

But if you think ridiculous errors from Auto-correct are annoying, wait till you see the real howlers you'll get from voice recognition software. For instance, you should see how names get rendered by the software that turns voicemail into text on my smartphone. Including my name. And plenty of other words are mangled, too.

"Voice recognition is getting better, though!" Sure, yeah. So are self-driving cars. But I bet you that self-driving cars will become reliable and trustworthy thirty years before we get voice recognition you can rely on to accurately take down your words, correctly spelled, or recognize your voice commands reliably.

In the meantime, are we all going to stand around shouting into our phones?

It'll make us yearn for the peace-and-quiet of texting and Googling on smartphones.

That's right. Shut up, Siri. Not OK, Google. Sometimes those features are fun -- like when you're finding out a piece of information that the whole group is interested in. Most of the time, though, if you have to talk to your smartphone to ever get information, privacy is gone.

Some things become all the rage. Like the full-size iPad. I knew several people who had to get them as soon as they came out. I watched them. All that tap-tap-stroke-swipe.

I could do everything they could do on my laptop in about a tenth of the time -- plus a lot of things they couldn't do at all. Like write something at touch-typist speed.

And that iPad was huge. I never bought one because I never wanted one. Why would I? If I traveled with it, I'd also have to take the power cord to charge it. Huge, heavy, and useless.

So the iPad was a big deal, it dominated everything, it ...

Recently collapsed in the marketplace because nobody can use it to get anything real done.

The product-placement people keep paying movie companies to show people using the iPad or the tablet function on the Surface Pro but you know what? Every time I see either one being used in a movie, I think, "Wow, they could do so much more, and do it faster, too, if they had a keyboard and a mouse."

The iPad in its original form factor is clearly going the way of the 45 rpm record.

But the smartphone is going to be more like the automobile. It'll evolve, improve, add more and more functions ("Don't you love the way my new Galaxy 94S creates a zone of warm air all around me in this snowstorm?" "Oh, but my iPhone can air condition me and whoever is with me on the hottest summer day on a Florida beach." "Yeah, but that's only if you carry a twenty-pound battery pack around with you." "iPhone." "Android.")

Here's what we know from history. Some technologies spread everywhere and then disappear just as suddenly. Like a locust invasion that eats itself to death. Other technologies implant themselves into our lives and change everything -- and they stay and stay and stay.

Smartphones have driven all kinds of older technologies out of our lives. We now count on always having our smartphone tools, and we're infuriated (or terrified) when we try to use our phones and discover we have no reception.

That's a horror movie concept if there ever was one: "No Reception. Starring Nicolas Cage as the Cell Tower Man. For adults only. Some teenagers and children who watched this film were treated for PTSD or sudden-onset bedwetting (SOBW) or both."

We're not going to give up on the smartphone any more easily than we gave up on cars just because somebody invented the skateboard. ("It's so small and portable; instead of finding a parking place you just carry it with you; it's easy to get up hills by grabbing onto the bumpers of passing cars and trucks.")

Here's a nightmare scenario. They put me in an old folks' home but instead of having televisions in the rooms, they strap a VR apparatus on our heads and then force us to watch the whole Twilight series until we come to believe that Bella is our granddaughter and she's in danger and in love. Because it looks so real. But why do I have this grinding headache?


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