MaxBarry.com
weird ideas since 1973

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Sun 30
May
2004

Max reviews the classics: Mary-Kate and Ashley #20

What Max Reckons Mary-Kate and AshleyLast night I took a break from re-reading Cryptonomicon to pick up a book roughly as long as one of its paragraphs: Sealed With a Kiss, by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. It was number 20 in a series, so at first I wasn’t sure if I would be able to follow the story-line without having read the previous 19, but luckily these fears turned out to be unfounded. It was a cracking read, full of hope and joy and heart-breaking pathos, so I’m sharing it with you.

Here’s the blurb:

Mary-Kate and Ashley can’t wait to go home for winter break. But they wind up stuck in a Harrington University dorm instead.

Things start to look up when the girls meet a new boy with a romantic holiday secret…

You see why I was intrigued. The book’s first sentence alone raised a series of perplexing questions:

“We’re going home to Chicago for only two weeks!” Mary-Kate Burke told her sister Ashley.

First, who, exactly, reads the 20th book in the Mary-Kate and Ashley series without realizing they’re sisters? I mean, setting aside the possibility that the previous 19 books have been keeping this a secret, and that the reader has thus far been unexposed to mainstream media, the book’s cover shot is of two remarkably similar-looking girls. Isn’t that a giveaway? If you’re worried about readers that stupid, you probably need to point out that they’re twins, too.

Second, I can’t help but wonder what percentage of Mary-Kate and Ashley books contain an exclamation point in the first sentence. I haven’t checked, but I get the feeling it’s a high number.

Third, and most intriguing: Mary-Kate Burke. The authors of this book—and it says so on the cover, so it must be true—are Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. I’d thought this was some kind of tell-all autobiography, but apparently not. It turns out that Mary-Kate and Ashley books feature characters called Mary-Kate and Ashley that look exactly like them but are, in fact, fictional. I hope you get that, because I had to stop and think about it for a while. Whenever I came across passages like this:

“Why can’t you just get another flight, Cheryl?” Ashley asked.

“On what—Santa’s sleigh?” Cheryl grumbled. “It’s the holidays. All the flights are already booked.”

I thought, “Well, just send your private jet, Ashley!” Then I had to remind myself that fictional Ashley doesn’t have a jet. People complain that movies and computer games blur the line between fantasy and reality; I say, start with Mary-Kate and Ashley. After reading this book, I’m no longer sure if they even exist. I mean, think about it: first there was just one of them, on that TV show Full House, then they split into twins; now, apparently, they have divided again, into the Olsens and Burkes. They’re actually spinning themselves off. Either that or they’re some kind of mutant virus, and unless we do something, there will soon be eight of them, then 16, then they’ll destroy mankind.

But back to the book. It quickly became apparent that Ashley was the more entertaining twin, getting all the good lines:

“Wait!” Ashley cried out. “I forgot to pack my bathing suit and flip-flops!”

“Bathing suit?” Mary-Kate shrieked. “But the winters in Chicago are ice-cold!”

“There are indoor pools,” Ashley said.

Snap! Good work. The book really started to move along when the twins’ Chicago holiday plans were dashed and they were forced to move into a dorm with four boys. Hoping to recover from the indoor pools comment, Mary-Kate stepped to the fore:

“I hope you like Twister,” Mary-Kate said.

“What’s that?” Derek asked.

“It’s a game!” Mary-Kate said.

“Does it run on double-A batteries?” Tyrone asked.

“How impressive is its resolution?” Derek asked.

“Does it include a thirty-two-bit RISC-CPU with embedded memory?” Garth asked.

They’re computer geeks! (And Derek’s surname is “Wang,” so extra funny.) This was a startling development. I knew that large sections of the internet were writing fantasy fiction about the Olsen twins; I didn’t know the reverse was also true. But then, with adulthood approaching, I guess they have to manage the transition of their fan base from pubescent girls to lecherous men.

The inclusion of geeks as love interest had me hooked, and I couldn’t wait to find out how the twins would manage to pry them away from their computers. (“Stop posting about how you’re about to kiss one of the Olsen twins, Derek, and just kiss me!”) But then a new figure entered the scene. He was Colton, and I knew he was trouble because his clothes were described (“cuffed jeans, black sweater, and grey trainers with black stripes”—which, incidentally, boldly puts an Americanism in “sweater” right next to two Briticisms in “grey trainers”). Colton looked “like those models in the Gap ads.” He skateboarded, snuck through tunnels, cooked pizza muffins, and his great-grandmother invented the pencil eraser. Or so he said. It quickly became apparent that Colton was a pathological liar. Ashley picked this up straight away, but Mary-Kate was blinded by infatuation.

Alas, if only they’d gone to the geeks, a few minutes Googling would have punched holes in Colton’s story. But no. Old fashioned Scooby-style investigation ensued, with plenty of creeping around in tunnels. At one point, the book got into a bit of trouble when the story required that the twins and two other girls return to the tunnels, but there was no motivation for them to do so. Authors hit situations like this from time to time, and I tell you, it can be a struggle. The solution to this one, though, was pure genius:

“I am not going back down to those tunnels,” Cheryl declared. “I’m tired of sneaking around.”

“Me, too,” Kirsten agreed.

“We have to go back,” Elise said in a small voice.

Everyone turned to look at Elise.

“I dropped my Peppermint Pink blusher in the tunnel,” she explained. “It must have fallen out of my sweatshirt pocket last night.”

“Why can’t you just buy another one?” Kirsten asked.

“Because,” Elise said, “Peppermint Pink was discontinued last month.”

Down in the tunnels, Ashley got off another zinger:

“Wait!” Mary-Kate said. She pointed to a narrow tunnel. “I know we never went through this one.”

“Let’s not and say we did,” Ashley blurted out.

So Mary-Kate was already steamed when they discovered Colton’s secret: he was the son of the tyrannical Headmaster! His full name was Colton Harrington III, he was stinking rich, and he’d lied non-stop to them since they met. This, you’d expect, would be when Mary-Kate slapped him, realized how she’d overlooked the gentle love of the geeks, and learnt a few life lessons about untrustworthy men who look like Gap models. But no: in the greatest love tragedy since Molly Ringwald chose Andrew McCarthy over Jon “Duckie” Cryer, she fell into Colton’s arms. There the book unexpectedly ended; I say unexpectedly because there were still dozens of pages left but they turned out to be full of advertisements for other Mary-Kate and Ashley books.

But wait! All was not completely lost for the geeks. They missed out on the twins, but in the final scene Garth scored a slow dance with one of their hangers-on, Kirsten. Alas, even this was tinged with tragedy. Kirsten quickly complained that Garth was “more into computer games than smooching,” and thus the relationship seemed doomed. Oh well, at least it was realistic.

Mon 24
May
2004

Call me Hugh

Jennifer Government If you’ve ever wanted to see me surrounded by beautiful naked women—surely I can’t be the only one—check out this interview with me about Jennifer Government at SuicideGirls.com.

Tue 18
May
2004

Hand me my Chewbacca costume

Writing In a few weeks I’m going to my first ever science-fiction convention: Continuum (Melbourne, Australia, 11-14 June). They asked me to write a piece for the program book, so here it is:

I admit it: I am a conference virgin. I’ve never done this before, just about everything I know I got from movies, and I’m hoping it’ll be fun but worried it will be painful. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do but will be desperately covering this up and pretending I’ve done it loads of times.

At first I wasn’t sure I was qualified to speak about science fiction. Only one of my novels is sci-fi, and even that masquerades as mainstream fiction. But then I thought about it:

  • I use Linux, read Slashdot, and program web games, and yes, yes, there’s no proven link between tech geekery and science-fiction, but we all know the correlation is there
  • I think Neal Stephenson is a god
  • Jennifer Government is being developed as a sci-fi movie by Steve Soderbergh and George Clooney, and I think this is the coolest thing ever
  • I once met Chris Carter and got to hang out with the X-Files people
  • My agent went to college with Joss Whedon, and this deeply impresses me
  • I believe that the Star Wars prequels are not just bad but desecrations
  • I have trouble finding purpose in a world without Buffy

So dammit, I am qualified. I also thought about some of the short stories I’ve written over the years:

  • Plucky crew dock with what appears to be a deserted spacecraft but isn’t
  • Girl’s best friend hits puberty before she does; also becomes werewolf
  • Six-year-old girl sees alien invasion as opportunity to get back at her brother
  • Teenagers hang out on the beach and tell scary stories until they all get eaten by weird bugs
  • Small group of post-Earth survivors defend their homeworld against what is ostensibly alien attack but turns out to be other human survivors
  • High school girl has sex with exchange student, goes nuts, gets hit by a train

Admittedly, most of these were written in high school, and featured my classmates as characters. The last one, for example, was called Jenny, and was very popular with everyone in my year except for Jenny. (I ended up marrying her, though, so she must have forgiven me.) Still, I’ve written my share of SF and H.

Not that you’d know, though, because none of these has ever been published. It is, I’ve discovered, very tough to sell fiction in Australia. The only way I managed it was to get an American publisher, which was not only easier than landing a local one, but made me abruptly more attractive to Aussie publishers. There is something bizarre about having to go to America to impress an Australian publisher, but the fact is new writers require heroic measures to get noticed. I have some experience with this, which I’ll be sharing in my Shameless Self-Promotion panel on Monday.

So if you’re interested, come along. Just remember, it’s my first time. Be gentle.

Fri 14
May
2004

Retrospective #1

Max Now we return to some stories we were following earlier. In response to My life as a sex god, several people wrote in to inform me that I am not attractive. Jennifer, for example, wondered if she’d missed something:

How can these fans tell youre pretty? It CERTAINLY isnt from the pics you post on your site.. have you actually looked at those?

While Jonnie was more emphatic:

I really don’t think that you’re that good looking. Maybe no one has told you this, but your HEAD is WAY TOO BIG for your body!

What!? I thought everybody had to deal with their head sinking down and mashing the keyboard from time to time. Now I find out I have to hang out next to James Van Der Beek just to look normal? It’s… oh. Wait, I see what’s happened here. Jonnie mistook that stick figure with my head on it for a full-length photo.

After I expressed a wish for a Rent-A-Friend in Throwaway dialogue as art form, just like in Newlyweds, Steve was quick to put his hand up:

I just wanted to officially state that I will be your “RENT-A-FRIEND” in Portland, OR. You call and I am there. I will cackle with joy at every phrase.

I tell you what, if this works out, I’m putting Steve on permanent retainer.

Several Canadians wrote to tell me they planned to take immediate action following my Snubbed by Canada post, in which I lamented the fact that my last royalty statement for Syrup showed a paltry six sales there. I am now looking forward to a big turnaround. Based on these letters alone, sales are set to almost double!

Finally, part of the Mysterious Packages puzzle has been solved, with Sharon confessing she sent me the Office Space DVD to repay me for posting her a book. I’m pretty sure Sharon already paid me plenty for postage, so I’m grateful for her generosity, or early-onset senility. The other part of the mystery, though—that strange “Jennifer Government #75” card—remains unsolved. Spooky.

Mon 10
May
2004

Jen cheapened in Australia

Jennifer Government The Jennifer Government B Format hits shelves across Australia today—B Format being a smaller, cheaper paperback edition. The theory behind releasing multiple editions of the same book is that it’s already sold as many copies to actual interested readers as it’s going to, so the only way to generate new sales is to make it price-competitive with bird cage liner. Although the first edition of Jennifer Government in Australia was thirty bucks, so this time around it’s really just price-competitive with other books.

Available now in all good bookstores and most of the crap ones, here are also some places to buy online: Angus & Robertson, Collins Booksellers, Dymocks and Booktopia.

Fri 07
May
2004

My life as a sex god

Max I’m becoming more attractive. At first I merely suspected this, but now I’m sure of it: I am heaps better looking than I used to be. I must be, because more and more I get e-mails telling me that I’m pretty, and previously I never got any. I think you’ll agree there’s only one logical conclusion: my looks are increasing in a linear relationship with my age. By the time I reach 80 I will be an irresistible sex symbol and have to fight off young women with my walking frame.

Just today, for example, I received an e-mail from Toni who says:

Oh………. and you are absolutely the hottest thing since bluetooth

Whoa! For a web geek like me, that’s so hot I have to adjust my USB cable. Earlier this year on my American book tour, a girl asked me to sign her bra. Admittedly, she wasn’t wearing it at the time, which makes the incident less sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll than please-label-your-clothing-before-laundering, but still: that never happened before. It used to be that girls were very determined to keep me away from their bras.

I got a tip-off, though, that perhaps there was more to this than simply my being a chiseled example of desirable manhood when one e-mail said:

you’re relatively handsome for a writer

Ah, yes. Of course. I had forgotten: my competition is Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey. Everything is relative.

Wed 05
May
2004

Snapped

Max I was interviewed for Melbourne’s MX Magazine this afternoon (article to run on Monday), and they wanted to take some photos.

I said, “Smiling, looking serious, funny expressions, what?”

“Funny expressions,” said Nic, the photographer. “We like funny expressions.”

So, ignoring the fact that I was standing in a very public and busy part of Melbourne and passing businessmen were doing things I couldn’t see but were sure were inappropriate behind my back, I did what I could.

Nic sniggered. “What was that, your Magnum look?”

“Hey,” I said. “I thought you photographers were meant to build up my confidence. Lower my inhibitions. Develop a bond of trust between photographer and subject.”

“You don’t have a confidence problem,” she said.

Tue 04
May
2004

Lost in the Amazon

Writing The average rating of any book on Amazon.com is four stars. No matter how brilliant or terrible: four stars. The only exceptions are:

  • If the book is brand new, its rating is five stars because the only reviews have been secretly written by the author.
  • If the book is widely unknown, it has four and a half stars because the only people who have bothered to post reviews are devoted fans.
  • If the book gets lots of publicity and everyone says it’s great, it gets three and a half stars because people complain it’s overhyped.

Before the UK launch of Jennifer Government, I had a chat over lunch with my British editor about the despicable things publishers do. It was a long and wide-ranging discussion, as you can imagine. But the part that’s relevant here is that he said, “It seems that if you post a truly awful review on Amazon, a completely over-the-top bashing, it’ll generate four or five very positive reviews in response.” Then he added, “Not that we would do that,” which was just as well, because I was getting nervous about their marketing plan. But he’s right: Amazon is not so much a collection of reader reviews as a forum for people to argue about books.

I find it tough to read Amazon’s user reviews of my own novels, partly because they can be incredibly scathing and partly because many are written by obvious lunatics and their fevered scratchings bear little resemblance to English. Bada-boom! Oh yeah, that felt good. Anyway, bad user reviews range from the vicious (“Much better than William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition! But that’s not saying much”) to the really vicious (“If you must read this book, do some good and support your local library. Sales will only encourage mediocrity”). It’s difficult to restrain the urge to track these people down, follow them to their work, and stand behind them all day yelling, “Hey, everyone! Carl’s doing a crappy job! His work is lazy and uninspired, and if you ask me, he should be unemployed! Frankly, even I could flip burgers better!” But that would be churlish.

Even the good user reviews can be a little frustrating. Take this review of Jennifer Government from hutsutraw in New Jersey:

This book has a lot of characters, blazing story - you really have to focus on what is going on where and with who. It is a fast paced, entertaining story. The only fault I have with this book is the lack of character description. Other than that, it’s definatly worth reading.

Great! Me, I dislike physical description (but that’s a subject for another blog), but I understand that not everybody feels that way. Thanks, hutsutraw. Only… wait a minute… what’s the rating? Three frickin’ stars! Three! Because I didn’t tell you what color shirt everyone was wearing? I get three out of five for writing a novel that is allegedly flawless in every way except that!?

I tell you, it’s not good for the blood pressure. I’m not one of those writers who refuses to read reviews of his stuff, but I can definitely see where they’re coming from. Matthew Reilly, an Aussie author, once told me, “If you believe good reviews, you have to believe bad ones, too.” My view is a little different. It seems to me that people who write good reviews about my books are intelligent, discerning, witty, and extremely good-looking. Bad reviews, on the other hand, are written by escaped asylum patients. I know, what are the odds? But experience really does seem to bear this out.

P.S. Humble apologies to everyone on the mailing list who got two copies of my latest few posts. I think the problem has been fixed now.

Sun 02
May
2004

A Chat with Max

Max I’ve never really gotten into instant messaging or IRC, mainly because I already have enough trouble keeping up with my e-mail. I don’t really need any new avenues of communication that I don’t have time to respond to. But I’ve just had my second ever IRC interview with NationStates players, and it was good fun. If you’re interested in what I had to say about beers, bookstores, and programming, there’s a transcript available.

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