Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cultural Trespassing

The novella I'm writing (currently at 12,500 words) is troubling me a little. It's not the plot, which seems to be actually coming together (not a thing I can always count on). The characters seem real to me, which is a sign they have at least a chance of seeming real to readers. The genetic engineering behind the plot has been carefully researched. What's troubling me is a meta-concern.

My viewpoint character is a dwarf, an anchondroplastic, which is the most common type of dwarfism. To write him, I read two books on dwarfism, one the controversial In The Little World, by journalist John Richardson. The other was Little People: Learning to See The World Through My Daughter's Eyes, by Dan Kennedy. Kennedy is the average-sized father of a ten-year-old child with dwarfism. I also read a lot of articles on-line, trying to educate myself . This involved by-passing endless articles about dwarf stars, dwarf mistletoe, and Lord of the Rings. My goal was to try to see the world as it looks to a dwarf in twenty-first-century America. What I found, of course, is that it's just as ridiculous to speak of one point of view on dwarfism, held by dwarfs, as it is to ascribe one point of view to any other group. Which gave me a lot of latitude in creating Barry, my dwarf.

But here's my question: I still feel uneasy appropriating a culture not my own as a subject for fiction. Writers do this all the time, of course, and critics and readers then complain about it all the time. (Look up the controversy over Memoirs of a Geisha, written by a non-Asian man.) I don't want to step on anyone's sensibilities. But if I stuck to my own culture -- white, female, middle-aged and middle class -- I would have a very narrow range of stories.

Nobody objected to my Rom characters in "Fountain of Age" -- or, if they did, I didn't hear about it. I hope I get the same reaction to Barry Tenler. Even more, I hope that he emerges as a living, breathing, plausible person who has, and has been partly shaped by, his dwarfism.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hardware Woes

Both NASA and I are having mechanical problems.

NASA needs to get a new pump up to the space station, in order to fix the toilet so it will function properly. This is not a problem that affects all astronauts equally. As the Associated Press so delicately put it, the "three male residents have temporarily bypassed the problem involving urine collection." It wouldn't have been so easy for Peggy Whitsun, had she still been aboard.

Meanwhile, my Toshiba suddenly started going to sleep every ten minutes or so. I found the right settings to control this and changed them; it made no difference. Finally I did what I always do with such problems, called My Son The Computer Pro. "Turn it off and then back on," he said. This worked. I emailed him, "But why did it work?" He emailed back, "Sometimes you can just solve problems by rebooting computers. Now, if only it worked with people!"

If only. But at least I have a functional toilet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Publisher's Weekly

Writers aren't supposed to care about reviews. We're supposed to be above that, dedicating ourselves only to creating the best work possible, understanding that a reviewer's opinion represents only one person, loftily standing as the voice of truth against the clamoring voices of critics who (like the old adage about teachers) critique because they can't write...


We care. Even those who refuse to read their own reviews, care (or else they wouldn't be so affected by reviews that they refuse to read them). And the first review to appear about a book is usually the influential Publisher's Weekly. So when I got an email today from Tachyon with the subject head "PW review of DOGS," I could feel my stomach drop to approximately my ankles. But the news was good, and since my high from it has not yet worn off, I hope you'll forgive the self-indulgence of sharing the review of my upcoming thriller with all of you:

Dogs Nancy Kress. Tachyon (, $14.95 paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-892391-78-0Hugo- and Nebula-winner Kress (Beggar's Ride) offers a spine-chilling, suspense-laden story of pets turned unwitting killers. Why are previously well-behaved pet dogs in rural Tyler, Md., turning on their owners and biting them? What is it that makes the dog bites so lethal? And what about these random events makes the Feds so touchy? Former FBI agent Tessa Sanderson, a dog owner and recent widow who just moved to Tyler, wants to know, and insists on helping Jess Langstrom, a longtime resident of Tyler and its chief animal control officer, to investigate, even as the FBI begins investigating her for suspected links to terrorist organizations. Together and separately, Tessa and Jess track down the answers to Tyler's frightening human and animal crisis. Kress brings her thorough knowledge of genetics and biology to bear in this nicely creepy thriller. (July)

Thanks for indulging me!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Little Brother

A few days ago I read Cory Doctorow's best-selling YA novel, Little Brother. I've been thinking about it ever since.

Little Brother takes place in a five-minutes-from-now future, and it opens with terrorists blowing up San Francisco's Bay Bridge. Four teenage friends, who have cut school to play an Alternate Reality Game, are in the area when the attack comes. Because it's so crowded in the underground BART stations, where people are supposed to go in case of attack, that people are getting trampled to death, the four stay above ground. They're picked up by a Department of Homeland Security van cruising the area for suspicious characters. Because the kids are all techno-geeks, they have on them cell phones, wi-fi finders, iPods -- the usual electronic equipment of the plugged-in and reasonably affluent. They are taken to a secret Gitmo-like prison and tortured for information they don't have. The novel then follows their various fates in and out of prison, and through the retaliation ("push-back") of protagonist and first-person narrator Marcus Yallow.

I couldn't put this book down. It's exciting, taut, full of plausible and interesting technology. Some reviewers have been bothered by the "info-dumps" about the tech and the algorithms that drive them, but I was not. Cory knows his stuff (he's one of the founders of the popular tech website Boing Boing) and he writes so well that his explanations are interesting. Furthermore, although his characters start out a little stereotyped, they deepen as the book progresses and end up quite moving.

Nonetheless, I'm troubled by this book. For an adventure novel -- even a techno-adventure -- you need a bad guy, and here it's the DHS. Marcus is fighting the erosion of civil rights in the United States. Just to make my position clear, let me state that I, too, think that our civil rights are being eroded. I, too, oppose the war in Iraq and the current administration, and I shouldn't have a problem with the politics of this book. But I do, because Cory takes them to extremes that, for me, undermine their plausibility.

Yes, we detain and torture suspected terrorists. But they are not seventeen-year-old, white, affluent kids who are carrying nothing more suspicious than electronic equipment to play an ARG. And if the DHS did do that and learned nothing from the kid, I can't believe they would then bug his bedroom, have him followed, etc. Nor that the American justice system, in the face of the legal aftermath of this brutal attack, would eventually charge him with the theft of a cell phone which he stole from another kid terrorist who has disappeared and is not even around to complain. Nor that the govenor of California has the power to "throw the DHS out of his state." Since when do governors have that sort of power over the federal government? And these are only a few examples.

In short, I didn't believe so much of the legal and political infrastructure of this book that it undermined the rest for me. However, when I discussed this with a friend, she said, "I believe it. You're politically naive." Perhaps I am. Certainly I believe that a president would make political capital from a terrorist attack, using it to help his re-electin efforts (ahem). But I don't believe that a president who knew -- in advance and for sure -- that such an attack was coming and would kill thousands of Americans, would do nothing to stop it because it would help his re-election efforts. For one thing, that sort of information always comes out, sooner or later. From whistle blowers, from the press, on the Internet.

This is not a politically oriented blog. But there's a question here about fiction, as well: How villainous can you paint current villains (if they are indeed that) before you erode credibility? For me, and despite this book's many virtues, Cory went too far.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Fear of Not Flying

I am finally back home in Rochester, from Seattle. This took two days. The first leg of my flight was to Atlanta, where I supposedly had a 55-minute layover. The Air Tran plane was late by half an hour. It came in at the D Concourse. The gate agent confirmed that my next flight was leaving from C2. So I ran through the D Concourse, got on the underground train, got off at C, ran some more (and I am too old to be running through airports, dragging my rolling suitcase, like some weighted-down Joe Namath in the old TV ads), and reached C2 ten minutes before take-off. The gate agent there told me there had been a gate change an hour earlier -- to a D gate.

I missed the plane. I also threw a hissy fit at the Air Tran counter, which accomplished nothing whatsoever. Air Tran would not take responsibility: "We aren't responsible for air-traffic control problems, ma'am, which was why your flight was late." No manager could be produced that late at night, it seems, and this certainly wasn't the poor customer rep's fault. Since almost nobody goes to Rochester, the next flight I could get on was seventeen hours away. I went and found a "microtel," which sounds like something out of William Gibson, to spend the night. At my own expense.

The point is that this has happened to me the last three times I made a flight from the west coast to the east. My son, with the male penchant for providing information instead of sympathy, explained to me that the phenomenon is caused by a combination of deregulation, union pension problems, rising gas prices, and a fourth factor I can't remember. What I can remember was when flying was reliable. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Genetic Engineering

A few days ago Britain confirmed the legality of creating embryos using human DNA inserted into an empty animal egg. The press is calling the result a "human-animal hybrid," and the conservatives are having a fit. But everybody needs to calm down. This is not the start of Island of Doctor Moreau-type people wandering around with donkey heads on human torsos. All the DNAin these embryos is human; the embryos are destroyed within two weeks; it is illegal to implant them into a womb. The embryos exist for research purposes.

It seems that every step along the way toward genetic engineering raises cries of "creating monsters!" and "playing God!" and "Frankenstein!" I'm old enough to remember those cries from 1978, when the first "test tube baby," Louise Brown, was born. Her mother's egg and father's sperm had been mixed in a petri dish and implanted in the mother. Screams of protest, wild-eyed editorials ("Is She Really Human?") Today there are tens of thousands of people walking around who are the result of in vitro fertilization. No one can tell who they are. You could be one of them.

Ask your mother.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Discovering Science Fiction

People come to science fiction in strange ways. I didn't discover the genre existed until I was 14, and then only by accident, on the bookshelves of a friend's house. The first SF book I ever read was Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, and immediately I was hooked.

But this is a mundane tale of SF discovery compared to the one I heard last night. I did a reading at Hugo House in Seattle. I read "The Kindness of Strangers," which will be published in Lou Anders's anthology Fast Forward 2 later this year (or maybe it's early next year). One of the attendees, a lovely young woman in her early twenties who is about to start med school, told me that when she was eleven, she and her mother were staying in a motel. It was a cheap place, and there was a stack of porn under the bed. Among the porn, was, unaccountably, a copy of Beggars In Spain. At first she didn't want to touch the book because it was actually sticky. But like most bright kids, reading was important to her, so she read my book and discovered SF.

I was very touched by this story. I also see in it a great blurb for my next novel:


Monday, May 19, 2008

Hugo House

When I teach a writing workshop I haven't taught before, I'm always slightly nervous: How will it go? Will the students feel it was worth while? The weekend workshop at Hugo House in Seattle went, I think, very well, although after six and a half hours of intense work in a heat wave, everyone looked pretty used up. Including me. Seattle is not big on air conditioning, since most of the time they don't need it. But this weekend the temperature was well above 80, and we all sweated as we composed.

Leslie Howle, director of Clarion West, gave a party Saturday night. Among the writers present were Ted Chiang, Matt Ruff, Jack Skillingstead, Blunt Jackson (blujack), John Aegar, and Cory Doctorow. Cory was in the States for a book tour connected with his new YA, Big Brother. He was also showing pictures of his adorable four-month-old daughter, whose name is (I am not making this up) "Posy Emmeline Fibonacci Nautilus Doctorow-Taylor." The "Emmeline" is for sufragette Emmeline Pankhurst, the "Fibonacci" for the number sequence, and the "Nautilus" for Twenty Thousane Leagues Under the Sea. At the party there was some discussion of writing, but it paled next to this baby's moniker. They call her "Po."

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sleepless in Seattle

I am in Seattle to teach a workshop at Hugo House (no relationship either to Gernsback or to small European cars), and am suffering from jet lag. This is not sleeplessness a la David Blaine (see previous post) or the Sleepless in Beggars In Spain, but it's difficult enough for me. And yet there's only a three-hour time difference between Seattle and New York State. Other people manage with ease. Why not me?

Partly because I get up so early anyway; 6:30 a.m. is actually 3:30 a,m, here. But partly it's genetic. I may think this because at the moment I'm reading (when awake) Matt Ridley's terific book, The Agile Gene. The book contains the usual fascinating information on gene research, wriiten in Ridley's readable style, but here he's also after a larger point. In the old controversy between nature and nurture, Ridley takes an integrative view: Genes determine a lot of temperament and predilections, but environment determines the form that behavior takes. In other words, you may be born a strongly aggressive, authority-despising person, but in some environments (South Central L.A.) that means you end up in jail or dead, whereas in other, quieter places you merely end up a misfit. To me, Ridley's most interesting point, buttressed by a lot of data, is that as we age, the effects of environment ameliorate genes less, not more. A child more-or-less conforms to the environment he finds himself in (family, peer groups, larger culture), but an adult is free to find his own niche (within practical limits). Thus, as we grow older, we become more what our genes say we are.

I like this. Certainly in my case it rings true. There are a lot of milieus I feel free to reject for myself, which once I would have felt pressure to fit into.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sleepless in Central Park

David Blaine, the endurance artist lived without any food in a clear box suspended over the Thames River for 44 days, has decided to take on sleeplessness. In September he plans on going 11.57 days without sleep, the number chosen because it's exactly one million seconds. He is hoping for permission to do this in Central Park in Manhattan. Blaine says he will not use stimulants.

I need a lot of sleep, and I resent it (I wrote Beggars in Spain, about people genetically engineered to never sleep, out of envy.) Nonetheless, there's something creepy about deliberately depriving your body of something so essential as a form of entertainment. I wouldn't have wanted to watch Blaine starve, and neither would I want to watch him go semi-psychotic, which is what happens if you go more than about three days without sleep. Reality blurs. You hallucinate. Your vision blurs and your body cannot process glucose. This is art?

Which raises my central question: When does performance art shade over into mere narcissistic attention grabbing? Nearly all artists, of every kind, want public attention (or they'd lock their work in a drawer, like Emily Dickinson, who was the exception). But doesn't "art" require more than physical peril? Shouldn't it somehow deepen our perception of the world? Even the silliest, most formulaic shoot-'em-up offers reinforcement of values we'd like to believe in: good can triumph over evil.

Or just call me a fuddy-duddy and have done with it.

This fuddy-duddy leaves tomorrow for Seattle, to teach a writing workshop at Hugo House. Blogging will resume from The Damp City.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Yesterday's 7.9 earthquake in China struck near Chengdu, where the International Science Fiction Conference was held last year and where the offices of Science Fiction World, China's premier SF magazine and book publisher, are located. The translator I was assigned at that conference, Xu Haiyan, has become a friend. She lives in Singapore, and yesterday I emailed her to see if she knew what had happened to the staff at SF World. Haiyan said she'd received a text message from a friend that everyone at the magazine was safe. No phone calls were possible, since the lines and towers are all down.

As of this morning, news media were reporting no word from the Sichuan giant-panda breeding facility, where I so happily held a panda, got lost in the rain with Neil Gaiman, and admired the gorgeous grounds. Keep your fingers crossed.

LATER UPDATE: The pandas at the Chengdu facility are safe, but still no word on those at the Wolong Nature Center.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Happiness is...

A friend recommended to me Mark Kingwell's 1998 book In Pursuit of Happiness. This isn't yet another self-help pep-talk quickie; Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and the book is a readable overview of what philosophers, thinkers, novelists, and science have had to say about happiness (the subtitle is "Better Living from Plato to Prozac"). Moreover, the man can write. He's wry, concise, and witty.

Short version: from several millennia of writings on the subject of human happiness, Kingwell distills four basic approaches:

1) Lower your expectations. This is the strategy of, for instance, the Stoics: If you don't expect anything and don't desire much outside of yourself, you probably won't be disappointed.

2) Take the long-view. Whatever you're going through now may feel awful, but in the long run it (pick one or more) a) will teach you valuable life lessons, b) will not seem so cataclysmic in the overall arc of your entire life, c) won't matter after you're dead, d) will all be accounted for in the next life. This is the "This, too, shall pass" crowd, plus many religions, plus deep-dyed cynics (a set of uneasy bedfellows, one would think).

3) Look at the half-full glass. Count your blessings, accentuate the positive, you are what you think, reality is malleable according to how you view it. This covers everybody from Dr. Phil to the Eastern mystics.

4) Redefine happiness. This is the deepest choice, advising concentration not on feelings but on rational satisfaction with the course of a life lived within a larger context of ethics, community, and personal responsibility, however constrained by circumstance. One must be able to say, I choose this and I accept that I have chosen it. Aristotle and a bunch of followers.

I'm being a little flippant here -- but so is Kingwell in his book. At any rate, it's a thought-provoking, accessible book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in such matters.

Also connected with books: Webperson extraordinaire, Sharon Keir, has updated my website and put up the first two chapters of my July biothriller from Tachyon Press, Dogs, should anybody care to read them.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

New Book

Today the mail brought me a box full of my new book, Nano Comes To Clifford Falls and Other Stories. As always, Golden Gryphon Press has done a wonderful job, with acid-free paper, appealing lay-out, and an enigmatic cover that does not scream PULP!! I like it, even the overly effusive Introduction by the irrepressible Mike Resnick (who better not "pinch me in any elevators.")

Holding a book you wrote is a strange experience, although it grows less strange with each volume. Like anything else, writing has a Law of Diminishing Returns. Or, to switch from economics to drugs, the first book published produces an amazing high, and after that you need more and more stimulant to get the same effect.

The very talented Jack Skillingstead just sold his collection of short stories to Golden Gryphon. When it appears in 2009, he will undoubtedly be levitating -- as he should be. Don't get me wrong; I'm very pleased to have this book, and I hope fervently that a lot of people read it. But another fact enters into this: I wrote the most recent of these stories three years ago, the oldest nine years ago. My attention is currently absorbed by what I'm writing now. Also, the hydrangea in the yard needs cutting back, I've got cookies in the oven, and I have to wrap my gift for my mother for Mother's Day, which is tomorrow. Somehow those rank almost as high as Nano.

Almost. But not quite.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Playing With Words

The late John Gardner said in his book on writing, Becoming a Novelist, that one characteristic of future writers is that they like to play with words. His example was a young writer who was fascinated by the word "discover" -- undoing ("dis") the "cover" on something. The Washington Post takes Gardner's observation much farther, annually running a contest in playing with words. The object is to take an English word, change or delete or add one letter, and define the result. Here are this year's winners. My favorite is number 8. LOL

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.
2. Ignoranus : A person who's both stupid and an asshole.
3. Intaxication : Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.
4. Reintarnation : Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
5. Bozone ( n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.
6. Foreploy : Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.
7. Giraffiti : Vandalism spray-painted very, very high
8. Sarchasm : The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the Person who doesn't get it.
9. Inoculatte : To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
10. Osteopornosis : A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)
11. Karmageddon : It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.
12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
13. Glibido : All talk and no action.
14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wit's End

I just finished reading Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, Wit's End, which I enjoyed very much. Karen's voice is the best thing about the book: sly, witty, capable of combining flippancy with below-the-surface emotion, and full of sharp observations about the absurdity of human behavior.

The reviews of the novel, however, have been mixed, and not in the way of an individual reviewer pointing out what he liked in the book and what he didn't. Rather, these have been all-or-nothing reviews, in which the reviewer either loved the book or hated it. Thinking about why this is so, I came to a definite conclusion about readers.

Wit's End is at the far end of a certain literary spectrum: call it "story." The novel barely has one, and such story as exists tends to disappear for long spells, reappear in the background, disappear again, and resurface with any definiteness only in the last forty pages or so. Meanwhile, Karen Fowler is devoting her considerable talent to her quirky characters (including two Dachshunds), tangential digressions on everything from tea to Trivial Pursuit, and her love affair with the English language. Karen can make the Virginia Woolf of Mrs. Dalloway look positively plot-driven. Readers either like this kind of writing or they don't (I do).

At the other end of the spectrum are writers who harness their prose firmly to the story, put in only those characters and concerns that advance the story, and concentrate on building tension. Examples are Jack McDevitt, John Grisham, Bruce Sterling (all of whom I also like). Most books fall between these dichotomies, but most also tend to one end or the other.

So what does all this add up to? The absurdity of what every writer wants to do: please everybody. Can't be done. If I needed any more proof, the universe underscored these musings on Wit's End by offering up last night's meeting of the Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans. We all discussed the nominated short fiction, and everybody was astonished at everybody else's likes and dislikes. No one story pleased everyone.

So why do we writers keep trying? And why are we so hard on ourselves when we fail?

Monday, May 5, 2008

Various Updates

For those interested in the ups and downs of a writing career, here are various updates:

The YA editor turned down my proposal-plus-sample-chapters. This worked out that in one week, I got both a rejection and a Nebula. That's publishing.

The "dog story" -- the latest in a series of dog stories -- about which I was dithering, was bought by ASIMOV'S. I couldn't find a good way to change the skirting-with-cliche abused wife and controlling husband, so the story stayed with those characters.

Beggars In Spain will be the lead book for a new Romanian SF line, edited by British critic extraordinaire John Clute, if he and I can untangle various questions regarding the book's Romanian rights. This is proving very complicated -- as so much in that part of the world usually is.

The galleys have arrived from ASIMOV'S for "The Erdmann Nexus," which I regard as the best story I've written in a long time. This does not, of course, mean that anyone will agree with me. Since the story weighs in at a 28,000 words, proofing the galleys will occupy the next few days.

I turned in my last writing column for the Chinese magazine SCIENCE FICTION WORLD. They have six of them, which editor Xaio Bai says is "just enough." Since this gracious wording was in response to my offer to do more, it's open to interpretation.

I am still lacking a novel idea that I feel excited enough about to actually write. I know writers who say they have dozens of ideas they like, but I'm not one of them. This will need to change soon, since (among other things) today brought $600 worth of car repairs. Full-time writers are driven to novels by economic necessity, no matter what their preferences. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act

Yesterday the House voted 414-1 to approve the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, which says that employers and insurance companies can't discriminate on the basis of a gene scan. That means (after Senate ratification and presidential signing, of course) that you can't be denied employment or coverage for diseases you don't have yet, but are at genetic risk to acquire in the future. I'm very interested in this. My interest comes not from my personal genescan (I've never had one) but because I wrote about this as long as fifteen years ago, in "Mountain to Mohammed." In that story, society is divided into the insurables and the non-insurables, and you pretty much can't get health care at all if you're in the latter category.

It's always good to realize that one's more dystopic visions can get counteracted by the future. Which is not to say that we don't have huge numbers of uninsured people (45 million, including some people I love). Financial issues can exclude just as effectively as genetic ones. However, I'm pleased by this act of Congress not only on practical, but also on literary grounds.

Because SF is made up of stories, and stories need conflict, we writers tend to come down heavy on the negative side of not only political but also scientific developments. That attitude short-changes scientific progress. I think that gene scans will, in the long run do far more good than harm -- even if my story said otherwise.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Raisins and Memes

I'm back from visiting my elderly mother, who is afflicted with severe arthritis. She is on several medications for this, including Tylenol and a low dose of steroids, but they only help so much. Now she's discovered a new "cure:" every day you eat nine golden raisins soaked in gin.

Why golden? Why nine? Why gin? Mama has no answers for these things, but she says, "I heard about this from three separate people and two said it helped."

At least twenty years ago Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of "memes," idea-fragments that, like genes, propogate by spreading from person to person, which is their sole reason for existence. Some thrive, some die out, some mutate. The golden-raisins-with-gin is a meme, whose spreading has nothing to do with science, truth, or results. I can't, of course, convince my mother of this (or of anything else, ever). But, on the other hand, she enjoys the gin.