I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, January 29, 2005

Disturbing news

The most disturbing story of the week has to be the widely published report that fidgeting can help lose weight. The conclusions don't disturb me--I think it's swell that you can lose weight by wiggling your toes and scratching your nose more often. What's disturbing is that researchers measured the fidgeting of the test subjects using what has been described as sensor-laden, high-tech underwear that recorded all movements and downloaded the data into a computer each day.


It has come to this.

Thousands of years of technology has brought us underwear capable of spying on us. Orwell is spinning in his grave. At least, that's what his boxers tell us.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Lucifer takes the fall

In my last post, I talked about "ghost words," words that entered the dictionary by mistake. There is a very common ghost word that became well established in our language--a ghost name, to be more accurate.

Almost everyone has heard of Lucifer, and knows him to be one of the fallen angels, indeed, the leader of the fallen angels, as famously portrayed in Milton's "Paradise Lost."

Lately, I've been doing research into angels and fallen angels, in preparation for a new novel. The novel will be using a Biblical mythology--it's set in a universe very like our own, only it really was created in seven days about five thousand years ago. Angels and devils play major roles in the plot, as the Judgment Day draws ever nearer. One thing that confused me about the Biblical fallen angels was the identity of the devil. Was the devil Lucifer, or Satan, or were they actually the same character?

Lucifer appears only once in the Bible. His name is variously translated as Lucifer or Morningstar, and is identified with the planet Venus. The relevant passage is Isaiah 14:12. "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, that didst lay low the nations!" Yet, in context, it is plain that Lucifer isn't a name, it's a title. The author is addressing Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. It's like referring to Louis XIV as the Sun King--Isaiah is saying that Nebuchadnezzar is riding pretty high and mighty right now, the brightest star in they sky, but that being up that high is only setting him up for a bigger fall.

St. Jerome, translating Isaiah from Hebrew to Latin in the 4th century, made the choice to use the word Lucifer, meaning "Light Bringer", and not long after, Lucifer began to seep into Christian mythology as a fallen angel. By the time that Milton wrote "Paradise Lost," it was well established that Lucifer was the devil--all due to a simple misreading.

So, Lucifer as a fallen angel stands out as a "ghost word" that made it big--a mistake that caught on, eventually taking on more life than its literal meaning of Venus or metaphorical meaning of Nebuchadnezzar. The chief fallen angel of popular culture not only didn't rebel against God, he didn't even exist!

I was building up to a joke about Lucifer being the ultimate fall guy, but now it no longer strikes me as funny.

So. Never mind.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Ghost Words

I have just stumbled across the concept of "ghost words." There are two definitions I've found floating around on the internet. The first, most common definition of a ghost word is of a word that is found in a dictionary as a result of a mistake, persisting for many years and many different editions as dictionary editors copy from one another. The example I found on Snopes.com was the strange history of the word "dord." Dord appeared for a while in Websters with the definition of "density." Of course, no one has ever used to word "dord" to mean density, or to mean anything else, for that matter. The word slipped in as a mistaken reading of a note card. In scientific equations, density is sometimes represented as "d" or "D." So, the compilers had a note card that read, "D or d / density." A little sloppy handwriting, some shoddy proofreading, and poof, a new word was born, a word never spoken or written.

A second use of ghost word refers to the word roots that are common in our language, words that only exist when they are modified. For instance, we can retain, detain, attain, and contain, but tain by itself is meaningless. Some people are ruthless, some are feckless, but nobody ever possesses the presumably noble qualities of "ruth" or "feck." Since feckless means weak or ineffective, I deduce (reduce, conduce) that feck would mean strong. So, right-wingers might proudly proclaim, "Since George Bush became President, America has been fecked like it's never been fecked before." Lovely. I'm certain there's an actual dictionary term for these root words other than "ghost words," but my BA in English is twenty years old at this point, and the warranty has expired.

I find the concept of ghost words to be haunting, especially in regards to the first definition. The idea of an unwanted and unneeded word stirs something in my writer's soul. What a sad and lonely fate for a word, to sprout briefly in the forest of words, only to be plowed back under. I plan to keep my eyes wide open for them now, in hopes that I might find and nurture one into full flower.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


The current issue of the SF and Fantasy Workshop newsletter has an interview by Hildy Silverman with editor John Ordover. Ordover is currently editor-in-chief of Phobos, and was formerly executive editor of the Star Trek fiction line for Pocket Books. It's an interesting interview on a number of points, talking about common mistakes writers make that get their manuscripts rejected within the first fifty pages, or even on the first page. Buried within the article, though, is this question: "When should a writer fight for his ideas and when should he relent?" Ordover answers: "Ideas are the least important part of a novel or story - the execution is the most important thing."

This is a pretty provocative statement. Ordover then goes on to give the example of Moby Dick, where he describes the driving idea as a "sea captain who is pissed off because a whale ate his foot." "Idea" is, I admit, a fuzzy word. If a layman asks an author, "Where do you get your ideas?" they typically mean, "How did you think up the premise of the story?" It's possible that Ordover is answering on the assumption that "idea" means "premise." But I'm not sure why an author would fight for a premise--it seems more like the sort of thing that is either accepted or rejected. Usually, if you change the premise, you change the entire story. The ideas of the story that an author would fight for seem to me to be the themes and opinions they've woven into the story. They are the big questions about life the author is hoping to answer, or at least ask artfully, through the work.

First, let me concede that, from a publisher and editors standpoint, when it comes to "big question" ideas, Ordover's probably right. A publishing house can take an existing property like Star Trek and crank out a dozen books a year by different authors and the ideas within the books don't influence sales. You very rarely run into people who say, "I read the latest Star Trek novel and it changed the way I look at the world. Ever since reading it, I've really been thinking about the way I live my own life." The selling points to these books are the formulas--settings people already love, featuring characters they already know, following plotlines that always return the major characters and settings back to the status quo. Perhaps some major character will change in some small way--Spock or Data may understand just a tiny bit more what it means to be human. Of course, come the next story, they've forgotten the lesson, but that's beside the point. From a pure money making point of view, ideas aren't terribly important. They are, at best, just another commodity that helps promote a book, and, at worst, annoying distractions that turn authors into pain-in-the-ass prima donas.

So, ideas aren't really important from the business side of publishing. Are they important to writers? Again, from a business perspective, probably not. There are very few authors who build careers around idea-driven books. Most rely on craftsmanship and formula to create satisfying reads. You don't read Stephen King looking for ideas or opinions that will expand your world-view. You read him because he's an expert craftsman with a proven track record of building stories with engaging characters, settings, and plots. This isn't a slam against King, or against the authors who write Star Trek novels, or against Ordover. After all, I'm a comic book junkie. Comic books are some of the most formulaic literature on the planet. I don't read them looking for ideas that are going to change my world view. I read them for entertainment, and feel I get my money's worth. Learning to write within formulas that sell is actually a remarkable artistic achievement. When I think about comic book authors, I'm astonished that anyone can write a story that always fits perfectly into the allotted 22 pages, month after month on an unforgiving deadline. To me, it demonstrates a mastery of an artistic form, the way a poet might master the form of a sonnet. The same can be said of TV sitcoms, or mystery novels, or romance novels, or any of a thousand other popular forms of writing that are looked down upon by literary snobs.

Still, there is something ironic about the Ordover's choice of Moby Dick as an example of why ideas aren't important. I would argue that Moby Dick is a perfect example of a story that endures because of the ideas within its pages, rather than simply because of its execution. We read the story 150 years after Melville penned it because of what the novel tells us about life's struggles, about doomed causes, about nature. Despite Moby Dick's skin color, this isn't a novel with set in a simple black and white world. Ahab is driven by such dark forces that he surrenders his soul, baptizing a harpoon in blood and devoting it to the devil. He pursues the whale with blind obsession and doesn't care who dies in his quest. Yet when the boy Pippin falls from a boat and loses his mind while drifting for hours in the vast, infinite ocean, Ahab shows great compassion and personally cares for the boy. Ahab is in pursuit of something greater than himself, and in the pursuit he becomes a greater force than those who surround him. The novel does have a virtuous character--Ahab's first mate, Starbucks. Starbucks is a devout Christian who provides the only voice of opposition to Ahab--yet, in the end, Starbucks, too vanishes into the sea. Virtuous or vile, pure or corrupt, no man is great enough to survive the inevitable collision with Moby Dick.

Perhaps I have a soft spot for doomed men who will sacrifice everything in blind pursuit of the unobtainable. I'm chasing after a career in writing fiction--a difficult goal that has led many men to a bad end on the rocks of financial disaster. But, deeper down, beyond chasing the career, I'm chasing something more. I'm chasing my own Moby Dick. I'm chasing after a book that will endure for centuries, a book that can change the world, or at least help explain the world. I want my ideas to still be debated long after I'm gone. This is the dream that keeps me coming back to the keyboard, time and time again. The pursuit not of immediate success, but of lasting greatness.

One final note. While writing this blog entry, I pulled up an internet article on Moby Dick to refresh my memory on character names. I didn't trust my memory that the boy who fell into the sea was named Pippin. I was paranoid that my pop-culture saturated brain was sneaking in the British kid from South Park. While looking through the list of characters in Moby Dick, I note that the description of the first mate Starbuck contains these observations: "Starbuck is alone among the crew in objecting to Ahab's quest, declaring it madness to want revenge on an animal that lacks the capacity to understand such human concepts. Starbuck's Coffee is named after him."

Perhaps this is the way of all things. A great novel is written, and its eventual lasting legacy is a kudzu-like chain of coffee-shops. There's probably an idea for a novel there somewhere....

Monday, January 10, 2005


I acknowledge that a ten day gap in my blog postings isn't the best way to build readership. What can I say? The new year started with an unexpected plot twist--warm weather for the first week of January. Temperatures topped out around 75 on my days off last week, after highs in the 30s and 40s a week before. So, part of the reason I didn't blog is that I was outside enjoying the weather.

Excuse number two: The tsumani. I'm someone who likes debating contentious issues in the news, but the tsunami pretty much swallowed all other news stories for the last two weeks. There's been some political sniping as a result of this, like people saying Bush was too stingy or too slow. I've found a few left-wing conspiracies that the US caused the tragedy via our underwater test of sonar or something equally nonsensical. A few right wing sites tried to show how the tsunami fits in with Biblical prophecy. I view all of this with a certain weariness. Tragedies happen. People die for absolutely no good reason at all. There is no larger meaning or purpose behind the deaths of these people. It's difficult for some people to accept this, but not accepting it doesn't change things.

Excuse number three: I've been reading a lot. One of my New Year's resolutions was to start reading books again. It used to be a rare week in my life when I didn't spend a few hours in a library and exit with a tall stack of books. During most of the 90's, I didn't own a television, and I was reading several books a week on a wide variety of subjects. Then, several things happened that cut back my reading rate from several books a week to maybe one or two a month. First, a few years back I moved to the sticks, a small town called Stokesdale that didn't have a library. There was a county library, but it was small and anemic and had crappy weekend hours. Second, I got a television, intending mainly to watch movies, although slowly TV began to once more eat up more and more of my time. Third, the internet finally got good. For the first 35 years of my life, if I wanted to find out more about a historical figure, or some scientific theory, or whatever, I went to a library. Now, if I want to know something, I google. Instant satisfaction to my knowledge cravings. I don't think I read less than I used to, on the whole. It's just that what I read isn't printed on paper. But, at least for this year, I'm going to consciously fight this trend. Books are my friends. I'm sorry I've neglected them.

Excuse number 4: I'm obsessed with matters too trivial to discuss. For instance: Lightbulbs. A month or so ago, I found some lightbulbs in a local store and I couldn't believe the price on them--a four pack was only $1. This is half the price of what I normally pay, so of course, I snatched them up. They were Poloroid light bulbs--a familiar brand name I don't normally associate with light bulbs, but I know the company has hit hard times with its camera business, and light bulbs seem like a fairly easy spin off business to move into. They must have either been manufacturing flash bulbs, or dealing with supliers who did. The low price didn't surprise me--light bulbs are century old at this point. Their manufacturing process must be as simple and straightforward as any electronic component can possibly be. The cost of materials can't be much either--a few pennies worth of sand, a little tin, a little copper. There's probably plenty of profit margin even selling these things at a quarter each. And, really, how bad can a light bulb be? PRETTY DAMN BAD, it turns out. Seriously, I threw my money away on these things. They burn out in a week or two, tops. I've had them burn out instantly when I first screw them in and turn on the power. I bought three boxes, 12 bulbs, and I've now run through the lot of them, and will never be tempted to buy Poloroid light bulbs again. I've been obsessed with this for several weeks. It almost seems like Polaroid must have somehow tinkered with the manufacturing process to purposefully make light bulbs that sucked this much. They figured a higher burnout rate would increase profits by increasing consumption, maybe. I really was tempted to write a letter demanding my $3 back, but it just seems too petty and trivial. It's certainly a topic too petty and trivial to devote a longish paragraph in a blog too, isn't it? I'm not going to waste anyone's time writing a rant about crappy light bulbs.

But, seriously, don't buy them.