Saturday, December 22, 2007
Blogging will resume sometime in the last days of 2007. Meanwhile, happy holidays to all of you who are celebrating anything now, recently, or soon: Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, the Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice, or Beethoven's birthday (December 16).
Thursday, December 20, 2007
[Mghzl] [sighed]. "Begin an [official investigation] into the spore release. And send an [extermination/cleanser/cover-up team]."
::We will lead you to the jungle and no further (hopefully-to-die) [treacherous non-millipede]::
This is not a new idea for either of us. Theodore Sturgeon did it in his 1955 story "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and [Boff]". I read that story (in reprint) when I was fifteen; it was among the first SF I ever read (nothing like starting at the top). When Michael and I steal this mechanism, it's an act of homage, although neither of us use it with quite the straight face that Sturgeon, in a more innocent time, did.
And Michael's story is very good. I recommend it.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
A larger-but-related question is: Why create any kind of art at all? How did art get started, and how did it get to be so widespread? Every culture, even the most primitive, has some sort of art: ornamented axe handles, beaded designs on animal fur. Biologists would say that for this human trait to be so universal, it must confer some evolutionary advantage. What is it? Recently I read two intriguing, albeit conflicting, answers.
Geoffrey Miller, in The Mating Mind, says that art began in the same vein as the peacock's tail: to attract mates. A man who could carve a great axe handle proved both that he was a good enough hunter to have extra time for carving and that he could make a nice courting present (who can resist a really nice axe handle)? So art began -- although didn't stay -- as proof of fitness to mate, which makes the Sistine Chapel one great sexual come-on.
Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, has a different explanation. She theorizes that art -- painting, dancing, music -- took up spare time that otherwise might lead early humans to over-use their habitat and thus possibly wreck it, or each other. The endless grooming of chimpanzees and the endless sex play of bonobos serve the same function: deterrent to more destructive activities.
Why am I reading (or rereading) this stuff instead of writing? Because my book is going badly. It's always easier to appreciate somebody else's art than to slog away at one's own. And it's better than hurling things around my habitat (read "study") in an excess of frustration.
Monday, December 17, 2007
The good is 1) the riveting special effects and 2) the chance to correct whatever was shaky in the original. Two examples: Robert Neville is now a genetic scientist instead of a random Joe, which makes his medical research into the cause of the plague (and in the movie, a cure) much more plausible. Also, in the movie the dog that contracts the plague and dies is not just a stray he domesticated for a few weeks but his own dog, which makes the animal's death much more affecting.
As for the bad -- Because movie makers want both those sensational special effects and a happy ending, they are willing to do intense damage to all logic. In the novel, Neville locks down his house at night and listens to the once-human-now-vampirish, infected creatures howl outside. In the movie, they don't know where he lives, and once they find out, they tear the place apart because these starving, emaciated, human bodies can scale sheer walls, exhibit superhuman strength, and other absurdities. Worse: In the movie, eventually Neville discovers a cure and dies passing it on to another survivor with natural immunity. She takes it to a secret colony of survivors in Vermont, and this gift makes Robert a "legend." What are they going to do with this cure? The survivors don't need it, and to use it on the "zombies" you have to strap them down for 24 hours and drastically lower their body temperatures, a daunting procedure. Also, there are no infected zombies in Vermont or they would have scaled the pathetic wall that encircles the colony, an idealized New England town complete with fall foliage and a white steeple, and eaten everybody. In the novel, by contrast, the zombies capture Robert and kill him, and he realizes just before he dies that, to them, he is the nightmarish killer, the outsider -- the "legend." The worldview turns inside out, like a sock. It's a satisfying and unexpected conclusion which the movie junks completely.
There have only been a handful of SF movies (as opposed to fantasy) that I like, for just these reasons. Is it so impossible to ask for both a dramatic story and some basic logic? After all, print SF does it all the time.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
I never found out, but today the New York Times Book Review reviewed a book about all things Starbuck, which perhaps might answer my question. The book, Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, by one Taylor Clark, sounds interesting. From the review alone I learned that:
-- in 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in America and now there are over 24,000
-- that 80% of Starbucks employees quit within a year
-- that Starbucks buys only "Fair Trade" coffee at fair prices, but although this benefits coffee growers, it may actually hurt the poorest, non-owning laborers in coffee countries, since even hiring day laborers on a coffee farm will disqualify it from being a Starbucks supplier.
The most interesting thing about the review, however, was that it seems to be better written than the book. The reviewer is the hilarious P.J. O'Rourke, and reading his review made me want to buy his books, not Clark's. That's not the way it's supposed to work.
But, then, I don't really like Starbucks coffee, either, unless it's tarted up with gingerbread or pumpkin or something. The coffee alone is too strong. I drink a mild instant. Don't shoot me, Seattle.
Friday, December 14, 2007
And the "nugget" is very real. When we writers eventually meet authors they've idealized for decades, we can act a bit nutty. The first time I met Ursula LeGuin, I couldn't stop babbling. On and on and ON, until I'm sure she doubted that I was really Nancy Kress, or sane. A friend of mine told me she was too awed to say anything whatsoever to Joyce Carol Oates. Another friend related that, standing in the back of a room to listen to Ray Bradbury, tears pricked his eyes.
A recent poll of teenager found that a huge majority could not name one person they considered a "hero." I don't think that we fortunate people who love books have that problem. We just need to figure out how to look "normal" in the presence of heroes.
Or maybe not. Lethem's characters end up abandoned in an EconoLodge by their idol, scorned, naked -- and happy.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Most of the time.
Today I was driving back from the post office and I was not in a very good mood. A flock of Canada geese flew overhead in their characteristic V, going south from Canada. This is a common sight where I live, although this group seemed to be getting a pretty late start. All at once the flock wheeled, turned, wheeled again -- except for one bird. He kept on the original path, oblivious, until something must have tipped off that he was no longer with the program. He shivered in the air, turned frantically, and began beating his little wings as hard as he could to catch up with the rest, a bird flapping to a different internal drummer.
I laughed until I had to pull the car over or risk hitting something. My mood stayed high for hours afterward. Okay, it's not the exalted feeling of transcendence that William Wordsworth got from nature in "Tintern Abbey" -- but it's still a gift from the natural world. You big-city dwellers just don't know what you're missing.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
"I typically have a longish list of stories I think are plenty good enough to go in the book -- the hard part is leaving some out. There might be four or five that are among my absolute favorites that I think I have to have -- but beyond that, I like all the stories similarly, so other factors really are appropriate." He goes on to name those other factors:
contractual availability -- "Each year so far there has been one story I couldn't take because of contractual restrictions."
varied representation -- "I restrict myself to one story per author."
length -- Although "it's important to have a variety of lengths," shorter stories leave more room for other good work and so may have an edge.
varied sources -- Rich tries to not "take too many stories from the same source -- Asimov's, for instance."
varying tone -- "It's nice to have at least some lighter stories in the mix" -- and varying subject matter.
There you have it, fellow SF people -- editing is a balancing act. Not unlike writing itself.
Monday, December 10, 2007
It's impossible to say, of course, except by Rich Horton, who hasn't (at least, not to me). But the bemusement started me questioning along an old mental track: What makes a story good? This led to a slightly different question: What are people looking for when they read? Different people, obviously must be looking for different things, so here's a varied list of what readers might want from their reading choices:
-- ideas new to them
-- a different way of looking at the world
-- a confirmation that the way they look at the world is indeed correct, and shared
-- to live a while in a different, more interesting world where things work out better than they often do here (I think romance readers usually want this)
-- to identify with characters stronger or more capable or more heroic than life lets us be
-- to observe -- but not necessarily identify with -- characters struggling with real human issues
-- to escape people struggling with real human issues
-- for the pleasures of language: the readable and artful prose, the unexpected word in the unexpected place, the phrase that perfectly captures a situation or sight
There can be more than one right answer. However, one story cannot hit all the answers. And editors, like everybody else, put varying emphases on different answers. You'd think this would lead writers to stop trying to second-guess why some stories are chosen for "Bests" and others are not. But, of course, it stops none of us at all.
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Although this seems tenuous to me, it's also fascinating. Research on meditating Buddhist monks has charted shifts in blood flow in their brains which may lead to some of the subjective aspects of the meditative experience. I make heavy use of this, in fact, in a story I recently sold to Jim Baen's Universe, my "China story," now called "First Rites." The connection between biology and belief systems is a fairly new field of research, and I find it endlessly interesting.
Incidentally, my other story for JBU, "Laws of Survival," is now up at JBU. No brain chemistry in this one, but lots of dogs and a few enigmatic robots.
Friday, December 7, 2007
When Sterling as "Vincent Omniveritas" was holding forth in CHEAP TRUTH and Shiner as "Sue Denim" was slicing and dicing practically everybody's stories, cyberpunk was a hot controversy. Now it's an historical era. But the principles Sterling insisted on have definitely influenced SF: that the future be global, that technology is accelerating, that the uses to which it will be put will be at least as much criminal as legitimate, that technology will result in different and "post-human" humans, and that economics on a world scale should underlie any ambitious treatment of the future.
That last very much influenced me, even though I was never even remotely a cyberpunk. In 1989 I brought a not-very-good story to Sycamore Hill, a week-long writers' workshop attended by a widely disparate group of pros. Bruce Sterling tore my story apart, and no one, nowhere, no time, can be as savage a critic as Bruce. His underlying point was that I had paid no attention to how power or money worked in my invented society, and the results were unconvincing. After I'd gone home and licked my wounds for a while, I realized that Bruce was right. Power and money don't much interest me in real life, but that's no excuse for neglecting them in a future society where they must concern most people. So I thought about those mysteries, and thought, and thought, and the next thing I wrote was "Beggars In Spain." Thank you, Bruce.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
From Clarion West: Derek Zumsteg, who sold a Clarion story to ASIMOV'S and who also has a non-fiction piece in BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2007; and David Williams, whose novel THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, a fast-paced techno-thriller set in a very dangerous future, will be out next year from Bantam.
From Writers & Books in Rochester, NY: Kim Gillett, whose story "The Bird Reader's Granddaughter," won one of the Writers of The Future quarterly contests; and Craig Delancey, who just made another sale to ANALOG with his hard-SF story "Demand Ecology."
In contrast to all this competence is my ridiculous situation with regard to L'Oreal make-up. Yesterday morning I discovered I had three small bottles of foundation, and so I decided to consolidate them. I poured the one with least foundation left into the one with second least foundation, through a teeny-weeny funnel. Afterward, it proved impossible to get the make-up off my funnel. I ran it through the dishwasher. I soaked it overnight in dish detergent. I tried to scrub it with a brush. The plastic funnel is not permanently stained because the sludge, now a high-viscosity adherent, moves around a bit. But it will not come off. I suppose the next step is paint thinner, but I have no paint thinner and anyway I sometimes use this teeny funnel for food, such as spices. So here's my question for all you chemists out there--
What the hell is in this stuff that I blithely spread on my face every morning?
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
One of the more interesting things on my computer when I returned was the latest chapter in the ongoing debate between those adhering to strict interpretation of copyright and those who argue that the times they are a-changing, and it makes sense for writers to make at least some work available for free on the Internet. This particular contretemps started with Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing, posting a witty one-paragraph "mock review" that Ursula LeGuin had written about Michael Chabon. His original view was that his posting fell under the "fair use" provision of copyright law. Her view was that since her article (which she later sold) consisted in its entirety of one paragraph, this was piracy. Eventually Cory apologized, but there are a lot of genuine issues around this, including the fact that SFWA has recently dissolved its copyright committee. You can come in on the end of this, and follow links to its beginning, at http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Note-OpenLetter.html#OpenLetterFollowup
My own thoughts on this are murky. If I had been Ursula, I probably would have let Cory's post go, but less from principle than from laziness. I know I've been pirated many times (Argentina has lifted entire novels) but I lack the taste for legal or on-line battles. Which is not to say they shouldn't be fought. I just don't know for which side.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
"Elevator," the story I wrote in a single-sitting eight-hour session that produced an endorphin high, has sold to the anthology ECLIPSE 2. It's curious that such a positive experience can result in a story with so many negative components. But, then, P.G. Wodehouse was chronically depressed, hated writing, and still managed to be upbeat and hilarious in print.
"The Product," the story I dithered about last October (blog entry "Is It Dead, Jim?") is officially dead. I gave it a two-month rest and then reread it, and I hate it. Really hate it. So it's never going anywhere but my file cabinet, which also houses the odd spider. The spider is more alive than this story.
The maybe-novel is indeed a novel. There is now 20,000 words of it and it's just getting started, so it genuinely is a novel. All 20,000 words need rewriting, since I only figured out yesterday what the thing will be about.
The tooth-critter FDA clinical trial is only using "young, healthy males." Thus I do not qualify and will have to go on subsidizing my dentist's retirement fund.
I am going to nominate my own novella for the ASIMOV'S reader poll, on the grounds that (1) I'm a reader, and (2) I like it. But I'm also going to nominate other stories I like.
I will be out of town, sans laptop, until Tuesday, when blogging will resume.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The alcohol-instead-of-acid production was brought about by replacing the acid-producing gene with one from another species of bacteria, Zymomonas mobilis, which is also used to make Mexican beer ("pulque"). However, this tiny still in your mouth will not produce enough alcohol to get anybody tipsy.
The FDA approval process took years. For a while, the entire project was classified in the same category as potential bioweapons ("Defeat the enemy! Spare them tooth decay!") And the week-long initial trial will isolate all its volunteer subjects in a biohazard ward.
There will be a lot more of this sort of thing in the future. As a proponent of the potential good genemods can do the human race, especially in parts of the world where disease and starvation are rampant, I'm all for this kind of progress. So -- would I volunteer to have experimental bacteria in my mouth?
Yes. I would. As the owner of pre-fluoride teeth that have financed college educations for the children of several dentists, I would be glad to take a chance on a better method to keep my teeth in my head. Especially if it were also a cheaper method.
Monday, November 26, 2007
On the half-assed theory that I should start near the end (looks less daunting that way), I opened the January, 2008 ASIMOV'S, which includes not only the index of all 2007 stories in that magazine but also the ballot to vote for the Twenty-Second Annual Readers' Awards. Now, I published five stories last year in ASIMOV'S, three of which I still like, two of them quite a lot. So the question that hopped into my mind: Is it ethical to vote for oneself?
Presidents do it. SFWA members do it for the Hugos and Nebulas, but for the Nebulas ten other people besides the author have already recommended the story or it wouldn't even make the preliminary ballot. The Hugo ballot, too, goes through a two-tier, general-recommendation process followed by a winnowed ballot. But this is a one-shot deal -- just send in the names of stories you liked best. What if one such story is one's own? Does honesty trump modesty or vice-versa? What if you list your story but also two others (the maximum allowed) in each category? What if you list only your story? Where does self-believe shade into self-obsession?
No answers yet. I'm still thinking.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
About half of the stories in FUTURES are by Brits (NATURE is a British magazine) and half by others. The authors span three generations, from Arthur C. Clarke to Cory Doctorow, and countless writing styles. My own story, "Product Development," was enjoyable to write. Usually I don't write short (I sprawl) but this challenge was great fun.
The book is a good holiday gift for your teenager's seven minutes of reading. And who knows -- maybe they'll go on to actually
And speaking of holidays, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone out there who's celebrating it. Blogging will resume in a few days.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
- Americans ages 15-24 spend two hours of their day watching TV and seven minutes on leisure reading.
- Reading scores for adults of all educational levels are in decline.
- American fifteen-year-olds rank fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 countries, trailing (among others) Poland and Korea.
But -- seven minutes a day spent reading. I know that, as a full-time writer, I have the luxury to indulge several hours of reading a day, every day. But even when I was working at a "real job," writing on the side, teaching a class, and raising two kids, I read. And as a kid I read everything I could find, including the backs of ketchup bottles and the confession magazines my mother hid in the linen closet. Seven minutes.
Can all you aspiring writers out there perfect the seven-minute story?
Monday, November 19, 2007
The story, tentatively called "Elevator," is in longhand and thus requires keying in. The computer is more efficient but in some ways I prefer to do a first draft in longhand, although I can't say why. But I'm not alone. Connie Willis, for example, does all her writing in longhand and has a secretary type it in. Lacking a secretary, I will do it myself -- but that's also a chance for revision.
A good day.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
The exhibit is controversial. Some people feel that this is not a proper use of human remains, even if "donated to science" by their owners. Others object more to the "Prenatal" portion of the exhibit, which features preserved fetuses in various states of development and which in Rochester was secluded behind curtains with a sign advising parents that some children might find this upsetting. I don't share these views. The entire exhibit seemed to me to underline the miracle that is the incredibly complex homo sapiens body. Sixty thousand miles of blood vessels in an adult! That's enough to circle the equator two-and-a-half times!
I would have no objection to my own body ending up like this.
The entire experience received a surreal gloss because the Museum was also hosting a Holiday Bazaar. To emerge from the exhibit, softly lit and with flute music playing unobtrusively in the background, into a riot of glittery bibelots for sale, was passing strange. The last thing Therese and I saw in the museum was a grandmother scolding her grandson for singing a modern Christmas song: "You think it's funny that Grandma got run over by a reindeer? How would you like it if I got run over by a reindeer?!" Therese and I couldn't help it -- we collapsed into laughter, in which there was something of uneasy bafflement.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
"O încălcare a drepturilor de autor"
is the story title, and the magazine is published in "Botoşani." It's called Sci-Fi magazin, which doesn't seem to be much help.
Can anybody tell me where this is coming from? Thank you!
Thursday, November 15, 2007
For sixteen years, I did a writing column for Writers Digest, until the editorial staff, in one of its periodic revamps of the magazine, fired all the columnists at once and went to a different format. I like writing about writing, for a couple of reasons. First, it forces me to think about why I do what I do, about what works and what doesn't, and sometimes that leads to greater clarity about whatever story I've currently got under construction. Second, I enjoy knowing I'm being useful to beginners. Being useful makes me feel like I belong someplace.
Incidentally, I only just learned about another aid for beginning writers: Virtual Clarion. This is an on-line workshop sponored by Clarion, and the fee you pay to join goes to help defray Clarion's costs. You can participate in writers' groups, or you can purchase critiques donated by instructors (including me) of your work-in-progress. The URL is http://www.theclarionfoundation.org/vc-faq.htm.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Right now it's dogs. I have a dog, but I have had a dog for four years now. All at once everywhere I go there are literary dogs. Kij Johnson wrote a wonderful story in Ellen Datlow's anthology COYOTE ROAD, all about the evolution of dogs. Ellen urges me at World Fantasy Con, in the strongest possible terms, to read this story, so I do. The galleys for my 2008 novel from Tachyon, DOGS, turn up in my mailbox. Mike Resnick informs me that my story for Jim Baen's Universe, called "Laws of Survival" but mostly about dogs, will be up on the Baen website in December. The current issue of THE NEW YORKER arrives and the fiction is a story by Roddy Doyle called "The Dog." The TIMES crossword puzzle this morning has a clue "Hollywood dog" (ASTA). I am thinking about a YA science fiction novel, and dogs keep scampering through my mind.
What message am I being sent here? And would it work if I got interested in aardvarks?
Monday, November 12, 2007
One of the latter is "Shiva In Shadow." I wrote it because Robert Silverberg asked for a story for an SFBC anthology called Between Worlds. This theme anthology was originally supposed to be called At The Galactic Core and all the stories set there, but apparently I was the only one who wanted to set a story at the core, and so the scope was broadened. Since at the time I had no idea what went on at the galactic core (a lot), I got a book and read it. But as I reread the finished product four years later, I think I got too carried away with the science. The story is jammed with facts about Sagittarius A*, IRS 16, and shocked molecular gases. Any hard-SF story is a balance between what's going in the science and what's going on inside the characters, but I was a little shocked myself at how out of balance those elements are in "Shiva in Shadow." What was I thinking?
Too much. I was thinking too much, leading with the head and not the heart. Ah, well. It's only one story in the collection.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
I have learned to go over galleys very carefully. This is due not to publishers' glitches but to me. When the galleys for an early novel of mine turned up decades ago, I had no time to go over them and they were required back, like, yesterday: rush rush rush URGENT! So I hired my teenage son to read them for me. He missed a few things, which is why the book came out with the phrase "public announcement" without the "l."
The hardcover of Oaths and Miracles, my first thriller, was worse. I read the galleys hastily. Very hastily. Somehow I didn't notice that, from all the chaotic electronic vesions on my computer, the one the publisher used (which he must have obtained from me) was missing a critical chapter. The hardcover came out without it. I restored this chapter in the paperback, but not before several friends and one reviewer delicately inquired why I'd chosen to tell my story with the climax off-stage.
So I'm going over these galleys extremely carefully. It takes a long time, but I do learn.
Friday, November 9, 2007
What I noticed about the book, quite apart from enoying it, is how much it differs from the fantasies that are read by all the 12-16-year-old I know. The Harry Potter books and their clones are all fast-paced, fantastical, full of dangerous and wild adventures. GREEN GLASS SEA is very slow-paced, quiet, focussed on things like building a crystal radio and learning to trust a friend. All the drama concening the bomb happens off-stage -- way off-stage. So as I finished the book, I had to wonder -- do kids like this book as much as I do? Maybe they do. If not, do adults then give awards to books they think kids ought to like?
I have no answers to this. But I'm going to give GREEN GLASS SEA to a 15-year-old I know and see what she thinks.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Э Н Д Ш Π И п б
Other mystifications: Whether the thing I'm writing is or is not a novel, when Kodak will pay me for the presentation I did for them in September, the meaning of life in the universe.
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Here's another mind game I use: "Kress, you're sitting in that chair until you have one page. It doesn't matter if you get hungry or bladder-troubled or carried off in the Rapture -- tell God you can't go until you've done one page." This works, too, especially if one is drinking coffee.
Gene Wolfe's mind game when he's stuck: No words until he starts working again. No books, no newspapers, no radio or TV, no conversation (Gene has a very understanding wife). No words off the page until a respectable number are on the page. He says the longest he's ever gone like this is four days (FOUR DAYS??!!)
For all of these word-production techniques, blogging doesn't count. Back to work now.
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
The three stories I've read so far are definitely not SF, but they're not any recognzable (at least to me) subgenre of fantasy either. No magic (maybe). Andy Duncan's hilarious "Unique Chicken Goes In Reverse" is funny and sad with a punch at the end, but he's riffing un-magically on things far removed from spells, swords, or gritty urban wizards. This story is wonderful; I'm recommending it for a Nebula. Peter Beagle's "The Last and Only, or Mr. Muscowitz Becomes French" is as far from his last year's award winner, "Two Hearts," as it is possible to get. It's a compressed biography of a strange life written mostly in exposition (which I tell me students is a no-no!) and frustrated sadness. And Ellen Klages's "Mrs. Zeno's Paradox" uses the equipment of SF (linear accelerators, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle) to slyly turn the world of philosophical premises feminist.
I love that these stories are so genuinely weird, so completely unclassifiable. They expand my mind, which is more than nearly all space opera does -- including the space operas I've written myself.
What does that say?
Monday, November 5, 2007
I did a reading at 11:00 -- astonished that anyone was present instead of eating, checking out, or dressing for the banquet -- of a story coming out in 2008 in Lou Anders's FAST FORWARD 2, "The Kindness of Strangers."
The 2007 World Fantasy Awards and banquet were hosted by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose speech was divided into two parts: a reverent tribute to the late Robert Jordan and then a fun "fairy tale" using all the names of the nominees, which was then immediately given a funny and negative on-stage critique by Gary Wolfe. After this the room grew hushed, the envelopes were produced, a jillion cameras flashed, and the winners are:
Special Award, Non-Professional: Gary Wolfe, for reviews and criticism
Special Award, Professional: Ellen Asher, for her work at SFBC
Artist: Shaun Tan
Collection: Map of Dreams by Mary Rickert, who cried and thanked Gordon Van Gelder "for finding me in the slush pile"
Anthology: Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Short Fiction: "Journey Into the Kingdom" by Mary Rickert, who by now was having a very good afternoon
Novella: "Botch Town," by Jeffrey Ford, in The Empire of Ice Cream.
Novel: Soldier of Sidon, by Gene Wolfe, who received a much-deserved standing ovation.
The ceremony closed with speeches by the two Life Achievement Award winners. Diana Wynne Jones could not be present; her charming acceptance speech was read by Sharyn November. Betty Ballantine was present. She urged everyone to "teach a child to read, and encourage those children to teach others to read, and then writers will have readers and the country will never have another Bush in the White House." She, too, received a standing ovation.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Roamed the dealer's room (Gardner's book not available anywhere) and the art show. Later in the day I went to Ellen Klages's reading (very funny). Late afternoon drinks in the bar with Ellen, Therese Piecynski, Walter Jon Williams, and the always entertaining Jay Lake. People wandered from table to table, schmoozing. This is what I like best at cons. As a writer, I spend a lot of time alone, talking to fictional people. Corporeal ones make such a nice change.
Dinner at an Italian restaurant with Sheila Williams, Jim Kelly, John Kessel. Sheila was very enlightening on the fiscal aspects of publishing ASIMOV'S. I asked if she does, indeed, try to choose stories that will create a smorsgasbord in each issue, appealing to a broad range of tastes, rather than choosing stories simply because she likes them personally. She said yes, although she never publishes stories she dislikes. Jon said that if he were to publish JOHN KESSEL'S SF MAGAZINE, it would have a readership on one because his taste is both specific and quirky. This may or may not be true; I know from experience that John is a good writing teacher.
My 10:00 p.m. panel (and what a time to schedule a panel!) was on "When Fantasy Becomes SF or SF Becomes Fantasy." Nobody was actually sure what that meant, but the topic was attacked with gusto by George R.R. Martin, Lee Modesitt, Walter Jon Willams, Joe Haldemann, and me (moderating). George expounded his furniture theory of fiction, which is that SF and fantasy stories are the same house but merely contain different furniture. I asked if that meant he could have written GAME OF THRONES as SF with no substantial changes, just different "furniture." Astoundingly (to me) George said "Yes." Joe disagreed and we were off and running.
The Tor party, afterwards, was held in a room packed with people and at roughly the temperature of blood. Shouted to be heard for a while, then went to bed, perchance to dream of Victorian furniture on a generation-ship.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
I had dinner with a group that included Ellen Datlow, Ellen Klages, Peter Straub, Leslie Howle, Carolyn Stevermer, and the very lively Elizabeth Bear. I have never met Peter before, and in a way I still didn't, since we were seated at opposite ends of the noisy table and I never got to talk to him. Then on to the mass autographing, a chaotic event where over a hundred writers sat at tables and watched the line for George R.R. Martin. This was followed by the Clarion party, as Clarion West gets ready to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Gardner Dozois was in fine form at this. SF would not be the same without him.
I was then tired of smiling and went to bed.
Friday, November 2, 2007
But, hey -- it's only Day #1.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
However, all this lurking has given me a new appreciation for Sheila Williams's job. As editor, she is trying to do more than merely choose stories she likes personally -- she's trying to create a balance among various kinds of stories in every issue. That way, nobody leaves the restaurant hungry. At least, I think that's what she's trying to do. I'm having dinner with her at World Fantasy Con this weekend, and I'll ask her and post the response. The Saratoga Hotel, I've just learned, has wireless, so the laptop goes with me.
Not an easy job. Therefore -- a rose for Sheila.
Monday, October 29, 2007
There are as many answers to that, of course, as there are readers. But I'm after something here that increasingly strikes me as true of hardcore SF fans: It doesn't seem to be the quality of the story in literary terms (complex characters complexly drawn, sparkling prose, dead-on observations of human nature, going psychologically or atmospherically where no man has gone before, etc.) Nor does it even seem to be the gee-whiz technology and scientific and political speculation that SF is often known for. Instead, much successful SF seems to simply take as its subject matter things that SF fans are interested in -- space exploration, robots, warriors of all ilk, AI -- and whether it handles the subject well or badly hardly seems to matter.
Note: I am NOT saying that "Recovering Apollo 8" is badly handled. But neither does it have the polish and pace and insight of some of Kris's other work. However, it deals with an alternate reality that appeals to SF. Apollo 8, instead of being the first successful lunar orbital flight, ended in disaster. A hundred years later, the bodies of the three astronauts, Lovell and Borman and Anders, have all been recovered from deep space. This keeps the main character, who has spent a lifetime in this pursuit, from committing a suicide we never saw him contemplate.
Does subject alone guarantee a story's success? If not guarantee it, then help it along? How important to us is the "nifty idea" vs. the exexcution? Is this science fiction or science fiction?
And how many of you out there are going to hate me for even questioning it?
Sunday, October 28, 2007
The novel follows three characters; one is the young Judy Garland before and as she films THE WIZARD OF OZ. This thread is a sort of dramatized biography, using real facts. The second character is a fictional actor dying of AIDS in 1989; here, too, there is fiction but nothing SF or fantastical (although the character is given to hallucinations and delusions). The third thread is an alternate (and much grimmer) life of Dorothy Gale, a different version of the life of somebody else's fictional character, presented as an actual little girl in 1875 Kansas with no fantasy elements in her heart-breaking life at all. Yet the novel was published by Fantasy Masterworks of Great Britain. So my question: Does something have to be different in some way from real life -- contain some element of magic -- for a work to be "fantasy"? Or is it enough to merely present the alternate reality of a fictional icon, stripped of all the original fantastical elements?
I ponder this as I prepare to attend World Fantasy Con in Saratoga, NY later this week. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
I have begun a new...something. There's already 4,500 words of it, so it's not a short story. Is it a novella or even a novel? I have a main character but she's only becoming known to me as I write. The setting is still sketchy, the plot barely begun, the ending unknown. The piece is currently in first person, but it occurred to me this morning that I might want a second POV character, which means either switching Carla to third person or braving the perils of multiple first. I don't know yet how it will go.
All this is exciting. Also unsettling. But I haven't worked on a novel for six months; all that time I've been doing short stories. Maybe this is a novel. Maybe this is serious. In fact, [cue music from OKLAHOMA], "It's al-most like faaalllling in love...."
Monday, October 22, 2007
Austen and LeGuin are two of my very favorite authors. Their pairing at first seems odd: What could Jane's world have in common with the hermaphroditic, dour society of LeGuin's planet Winter? But I think for me the attraction lies in the fact that both writers are realists, not romantics. Austen knows that her heroines face limited options, that a happy life requires at least a minimal income, and that you can't always get what you want (Marianne Dashwood doesn't get Willoughby; Edmond Bertram doesn't get Mary; Catherine Moreland is disappointed in Isabella's friendship). LeGuin knows that, too. Genly Ai pays a price for his year on Winter (alienation from his own kind, nearly freezing, the death of Estraven) and at the end there's no guarantee that Winter will join the Ekumen or that things will improve for the oppressed citizens of Orgoreyn. Austen is clearly more light-hearted than LeGuin (it's hard to be light-hearted about freezing to death), but Austen, too is a realist. They both deal in emotion as strong as any of the Romantic writers, but emotion doesn't conquer all; conscious choices do, backed by effort.
Also, they both write like angels. And the movie's good, too.
Saturday, October 20, 2007
And speaking of speed, Lou Anders has already sent me the contract AND the check for "The Kindness of Strangers," making him the fastest editor I've ever worked with, hands down. I only sent him the story last Monday!
Thursday, October 18, 2007
I've never found any of these things to be true for me. Last night my SF class met for the fifth of our eight sessions this term. Even though I was having a reaction to a flu shot (headache, muscle soreness, slight fever), I still enjoyed the class. It includes people who have just finished their first story ever (hi, Pat) and those who have published in ANALOG and ASIMOV'S. I learn something from all of them. The beginners force me to think about the basic components of a story, and the pros force me to think about that all-important, and often elusive, dividing line between a story that's almost salable and one that an editor actually buys. All this thinking eventually helps me with my own rewrites, since I'm one of those writers whose first drafts are mad, unplanned plunges into the unknown, necessitating much rewrite. We use a Clarion-style critique circle, and both the students and I learn from each others' reactions to a given story, too. And since usual about half of each class are returnees, there's a comfortable number of critiquers who know what they're doing.
Teaching has another personal advantage, as well. I'm a full-time writer. That means I spend much of the day in a small study, communing with people who don't exist. Actual live people who like SF make a welcome change. Even with a flu-shot reaction.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
The logical answer would be to write a different story with the same idea, but I don't want to do that, either. What I really want is to not have written the story in the first place so that I don't have to think about it now, but that's not possible, either. So it hangs around me, a decaying albatross, with no Coleridge redemption in sight.
On the other hand, today I sold another story, one that I do like, to Lou Anders of Pyr for the anthology FAST FORWARD 2. The story is called "The Kindness of Strangers," and while it does not have Blanche DuBois, it does have beautiful, megaterrorist aliens. They're not nice peole, either, but I like them. Go figure.
Monday, October 15, 2007
This very loaded question occurred to me this morning because over the weekend Mike Resnick bought my 'China story," now titled "First Rites" (thank you, Jack ) for his on-line magazine, JIM BAEN'S UNIVERSE. I had hesitated to send it there, even though Mike bought another story from me, "Laws of Survival," which will appear in the December issue. The reason I hesitated is that "First Rites" is a far different story from "Laws of Survival." The latter is very much mainline SF; the former has a strong streak of mysticism. So I sit at my desk with my finished story, thinking, "Does Mike do mysticism? Does it matter if Mike does mysticism? Will he judge the story on its literary merits instead of its content? What are its literary merits?"...the kind of pondering every writer does when it comes to marketing, except that I've known Mike for decades and know his own work as well, and this naturally influences my assessment of the story's chances at JBU.
I've never been able to predict any editor's tastes. All of them, both in magazines and books, have rejected work of mine that I've liked and accepted with enthusiasm work of mine about which I had doubts. The editor I can come closest to predicting is Gardner Dozois, whose taste seems closest to my own. Does that mean that it is taste and not literary merit that matters, after all? What is the literary merit of this story...
And so it goes, around and around. But I guess Mike does do mysticism, for which I'm now grateful.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
What do I think about this? I think Geoff Ryman has a point, but I also think that it needs looking at more closely. A book like, to take one example, Ursula LeGuin's masterpiece THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS uses many of those "tired SF tropes:" FTL, aliens, a galactic federation. But they are not what the story is about. What it is about is the difficulty of seeing past our differences to connect with each other, and the costs that such connection exacts. It seems to me that "realistic" SF depends less on accurate depiction of the future than on accurate depction of human beings.
On the other hand, I like and have written near-future, Earth-based, alien-less stories, quite a lot of them. The category seems less important to me than the specific story.
Monday, October 8, 2007
Thursday, October 4, 2007
I will be away this long weekend, visiting a friend at the New Jersey shore. Walking on the beach, eating crab, and drinking white wine will not, I know from experience, keep my fictional characters (Jenny, Eric, Carleen) from clamoring at my mind. And the friends I'm visiting do not play chess. Them's the breaks.
Monday, October 1, 2007
It's an unfortunate truth that sympathetic characters make for more popular fiction. Many -- maybe even most -- readers wish to be able to identify with a story's protagonist. I say "unfortunate" because it seems to me that some of the most interesting fiction features characters that are complex but not necessarily likable. I wouldn't want to be best friends with Raskolnikov, Scarlett O'Hara, Genly Ai, or Severus Snape. But I'm
Some of these thoughts were prompted by today's arrival in the mail of the December ASIMOV'S, which includes my story "The Rules." Neither Arthur Carmody nor Glenn Tartell are likable. Ah, well.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
In September, 2006, salmonella went up on the shuttle. When it came back down again, 167 of its genes had mutated, presumably due to cosmic radiation. Then the salmonella was put in mouse food and fed to mice at Arizona State University's Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccinology. Mice fed the space-strengthened salmonella died at three times the rate of mice given normal salmonella, and it took less of the microorganism to do it.
This is fascinating to me. I don't yet see how to use it in a story, but the news article grabbed hold of my imagination, hollowed out a little studio apartment for itself, and has taken up abode. There is, or will be eventually, something breeding there.
I just hope nobody sends Ebola upstairs.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
The copyedited ms. of my thriller due out from Tachton next year, Dogs, just arrived from UPS. Because publishers always need copyedited mss. back like, yesterday, I will have to stop work on the China story and attend to the novel. There's two problems with this. One is that it will break my momentum on the China story, since they have entirely different tones and pacing. The other is that I don't yet know, having not yet opened the package, if this will be one of the welcome copyeditors, finding my lapses in continuity and regularizing my usage, or one of the ones that wants to be a co-author and changes my wording. Once I even had one who provided incorrect data ("You need to change 'Congo' to 'Zaire' -- they had a revolution, you know." Yes, and then they had another one and changed the name back.) This ms. will probably be fine, because I've worked with Tachyon before and I trust them. Just the same, I'm putting off opening the package until tomorrow. That way, I get a few more precious hours with Hao Haihong and Ben Molloy.
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
So why are Chinese youth more interested in SF than American youth? Even the young people I know personally, when they read in the field at all, vastly prefer fantasy to SF. Why?
Sunday, September 23, 2007
"Fools" takes place in what is becoming a standard apocalyptic setting: the world post-global-warming, in which some parts of the Earth are flooded and others have undergone desertification. The story focuses on a very few characters cut off from the rest of the planet, on a very small and personal scale. Does that aid a story, in that there is more room to develop character, or hurt it, in that it becomes "less SF-nal"? I don't know. I do know, however, that among my own 2007 works, I preferred "Fountain of Age." Jonathan Strahan obviously didn't. Who knows why? Best-of-the-year editors don't have to justify their decisions. Nor do they ask the authors, which would easily lead to an apocalypse all by itself.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
After doing this for a great many years, and reading the SF magazines for even longer. I've noticed something curious. Some of the stories I see in class seem to me better than some of the ones I see in the magazines. Now, this could be just bias on my part, since some of these students are also my friends. But I don't think so. I think something else happens in publishing, which is that you have to be better at the beginning of your career than you do later on. At the beginning, when your ms. turns up in a slush pile, it does not get the benefit of many doubts. The editor or first reader, having read some truly dreadful stuff in the slush pile, doesn't allow a beginner the same automatic, if partial, suspension of immediate judgement that he will allow to a pro, who he knows can tell a story. I think a lot of pretty good work thus gets dismissed too early. Also, a beginner's name on the cover of a magazine does not sell copies. Robert Silverberg's, or Charles Stross's, or Connie Willis's, does.
Finally, editors, being human, sometimes just flat out make mistakes. My most famous story is the novella version of 'Beggars In Spain," which won a Nebula and my only Hugo. It was rejected by the first editor who read it.
If you're a beginner, that rejected story of yours may be better than you think. Hang in there.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
So I tried to put her in my China story, but she won't fit. For the female character, I need a bossy pragmatist, and Kate is a sweet-natured (usually) romantic. But if I had put her in, and it was an unflattering treatment, what then? J.P. Donleavy said that if you publish your first novel and nobody sues you, you haven't been honest enough. Might be a bit of an exaggeration.
Anyway, Kate wouldn't sue me. I know too much about her (and vice-versa). Between sisters, these things are handled more discreetly. By blackmail.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The "China story," most of which takes place in San Diego, is a mess. It's a physical mess because some of it is in longhand, some typed, and some in cryptic notations like "Renata and two-slit experiments," which are supposed to remind me of whole scenes as yet unwritten. The story will apparently be quite long. Also, I realized just two days ago that there is a need to work in solar flares, currently not present in any scene. I will need them later. And I'm still not sure of the ending. None of this is good. I know writers -- Connie Willis is one -- who work from detailed outlines, but I have never been able to do this. I write like a man dashing past a graveyard at night: Go as fast as you can and don't look back.
And speaking of China -- I finally finished the course of malaria prophylactic pills I was told by Passport Health Clinic to take before I left the US. It turns out there was no malaria in Chengdu, but if it shows up in upstate New York, I'm covered.
Monday, September 17, 2007
I was thinking about this when I finished watching Jodie Foster's performance in THE BRAVE ONE. I didn't think about it while I was watching because Foster was too riveting. She plays a woman whose lover is brutally and randomly murdered in Central Park. When most people lose a loved one, they grieve, become depressed, struggle to readjust. Foster does those things, but she also turns urban vigilante. What made the movie, despite a flawed ending, so mesmerizing is the complexity Foster puts into this woman. She's terrified of her own violence, yet goes on causing it. She's morally conflicted, gleeful, scared, furious, wily, and begging to be caught, all at once.
Shakespeare wrote that sort of character. Literary theorists refer to the ability of the author to subtract himself from his story, to create such a diverse range of characters that it's hard to glimpse the author's personality through his fiction, negative capability. Old Will had it in spades, which is one reason we can draw so few conclusions about him as a person. I think Jodie Foster has it, too.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Meanwhile, a few of you have commented on my writing a story set in China after six days there, and two more people felt moved enough to send me email (one for, one against). I'm persisting with the story, possibly unwisely, but I'm also taking this opportunity to recommend a booklet on this thorny issue. It's called WRITING THE OTHER, by Cindy Ward and Nisi Shawl, and it deals with if, when, and how to write POV characters that differ from the author in race, culture, gender, and/or sexual orientation. Cindy and Nisi do a lovely job in discussing this in ways that are actually usable to writers.
I recently saw STARDUST, the movie based on Neil Gaiman's novel. Now, I am not a huge fan of fantasy, especially fantasy with princesses and witches and the whole Celtic-lore background, because it's been done so much. But STARDUST is utterly charming: inventive and entertaining. Rober DeNiro's performance alone is worth the price of admission. Recommended.
Friday, September 14, 2007
We did sing, resulting in the worst rendition ever of "Oh, Susanna!" This is not false modesty. We were truly terrible. Neil Gaiman, refraining from joining in on the grounds that he's a Brit, said, "Couldn't you guys at least choose one key?" Apparently not.
And now, because nothing on the Internet ever dies, there are photos. There may be a video. So, to forestall the gunshot wound by firing first, here are Carolyn Clink, Rob Sawyer, Michael Swanwick, me, and David Hill murdering poor Susanna, while Neil winces in pain.
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Two weeks ago I was in China with Michael Swanwick, Neil Gaiman, and David Brin -- today I'm in a skirt-and-jacket passing for corporate. Variety and spice and all that.
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Writers have strange ways of warming up for writing. Agathie Christie washed dishes; she said having her arms immersed in warm water helped the flow of ideas. Truman Capote went one better, immersing his whole body and writing in the bathtub. Faulkner drank. So this story (to decend from the exalted to the ridiculous) wants to be written sitting up in bed, longhand, on a clipboard so old the corners are soft and frayed like a blanket.
Monday, September 10, 2007
So I'll start with a writing question: How much does one have to know about a setting and culture to use it in a story? I ask this because I'm currently working on a story set in China, a country in which I have spent all of six days (see report and pictures under NEWS). This feels a bit hubristic. On the other hand, I've never been to Mars, either, or to a space station, or to the future, yet I've set stories in all those places.