March 15, 2018


The genus of science fiction has difficulty defining its various species. Actual science fiction is the rarest of the breeds, dominated of late by space opera and unimaginative cyberpunk. Space opera is a chameleon genre, masquerading as science fiction when it contains hardly a spec of science.

Fantasy, by contrast, rarely pretends to be anything but imaginary.

Space opera wears the label of "science" the same way the female scientist in the James Bond movie wears a pair of glasses to convince us she's smart. On the other hand, maybe she really is gorgeous, brilliant, and nearsighted. Space opera, too, can be dumb about science and smart about Life, the Universe, and Everything, about how the human mind works.

My name for this particular creature is "psy-phi." The term occurred to me watching Guardians of the Galaxy II, a silly movie in which worthy explorations of psychology and philosophy can be found lurking between the gaudy comic book covers.

Star Wars stumbled into this psychodramatic niche with the first two installments. Alas, the franchise has been drained of all substance since, prompting the need to add another entry to the taxonomy: "space soap opera." Not only scientifically illiterate but equally empty-headed as well. Nothing kills "psy-phi" faster than the pretentiousness of pretend profundity.

Well, except for conflict created solely to generate drama. Any given Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon can entertain in the short term. But only the short term. No matter how much tragedy and pathos is slathered on top, it'll never add up to "drama."

The endless cycles of such melodramatic contrivances echo the traditional (gloomy) definition of samsara, a "suffering-laden cycle of life, death, and rebirth, without beginning or end." However "realistic" pessimism may be, without learning, growth, and resolution, there is no point to art.

Han Solo was a better person at the end of the first Star Wars movie than he was at the beginning. Luke Skywalker was certainly a wiser person at the end of the second Star Wars movie. But as far as I could tell, everybody still alive at the end of The Force Awakens is the same as they were going in.

Rey, Finn, and Kyo Ren start off as end products, the meaningful transformations having taken place in unseen prequels. Which may explain how forgettable the whole thing is.

So, sure. Space opera can be dumb as a rock about space. But if I can grab onto a rewarding character arc that goes somewhere with some hope of positive change, I'll keep watching.

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March 08, 2018


Peaks Island Press proudly announces the first volume of the Donna Howard Mystery Series.

It's 1995 and Donna Howard is living an ordinary life in Portland, Maine. She works as a hairdresser, has a boring boyfriend, two opinionated brothers, and two exhaustively energetic parents. As far as she's concerned, she's an ordinary person and is proud of it.

Except she can see the past. Walk down any street in the old part of the city and four centuries of its inhabitants walk right along with her. She can observe them, hear them, smell them. And she'd rather not. She'd prefer to leave the past in the past.

Until a customer "accidentally" leaves an ancient Roman coin at the hair salon. A coin worth an awful lot of money. Then the woman appraising the coin for the Portland Museum of Art "accidentally" ends up dead. And now the past won't leave her alone.

Not even the man who's visage was molded into the metal 2000 years ago, a man who wreaked mayhem then and may have witnessed murder now. Quite unwittingly, Donna uncovers family secrets, confronts historical controversies, and closes in on a very contemporary crime.

Google Play

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March 01, 2018

The life of a salesman

The most beloved stereotype of the Japanese salesman is that of a mild-mannered carnival barker as portrayed in the long-running "Tora-san" movies (Netflix has several). Persistent and endearingly ingratiating (almost to the point of being annoying). Not hard-sell.

The business of business-to-business—a popular subject of Japanese television melodramas—combines persistence and supplication in the face of rejection. The objective, it seems, is to be inoffensively irritating to the point that the other side caves to get rid of you.

Sort of like stalking. In a good way! Ganbaru—to patiently persist, endure, never give up—is intrinsic to the character of the ideal Japanese striver. A good salesman is NOT Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. That's how yakuza behave. That's why yakuza terrify the average Japanese.

In Japan, one such feared "hard sell" technique is known as "catch sales." It uses an aggressive approach (invading a person's space and getting in his face) to physically move the conversation to a "home ground" where the salesman controls every aspect of the interaction.

You know, like a church.

As I recount in Tokyo South, back during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mormon missionaries deployed catch sales techniques with enormous success. In the short term. In the long term—well, by design, Mormon missionaries aren't around for the long term.

So the whole thing fell apart in a few short years. The catch sales approach treats people as disposable. The bird in the hand is never worth as much as two in the bush, and for good reason. It's a lot easier to sell the idea of joining a community than to create one.

Or as Groucho Marx famously said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." If it's that easy to join, why join? Besides, all Japanese already belong to a club. It's the Japanese club, and being a member is a full time job.

If you can sell that, then you are sure to "always be closing."

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