Thursday, July 31, 2008

Getting to Wyoming...

...turned out to be difficult. My first flight was cancelled due to sudden mechanical problems with the plane (better on the ground than in air). An extremely patient Delta clerk, who had an entire planeload of disgruntled people to deal with, rebooked me through National in D.C. This involved a four-hour layover, missing the first Launchpad get-acquainted dinner, and inconvenience for Scott Humphries, who picked me up at the airport. Then he, I, and Cheryl Floyd-Miller, who had come from North Carolina by bus (!), drove the two-and-a-half hours north to the University of Wyoming campus at Laramie. The scenery may have been lovely, but it was too dark to see it.

LaunchPad, which is sponsored by NASA, brings fifteen SF writers here to learn about astronomy. Our instructors are Mike Brotherton and Jerry Oltion; Mike teaches at Laramie. As I write this, Day One is about to begin. Up too early because my body is on East Coast time, I feel very shaky this morning. We're at about 6,000 feet, and I'm not used to it. Hydrate! everyone says. Hydrate! So I'm hydrating, so far to no effect. My head feels light and my legs wobble a little.

On the other hand, maybe all I need is breakfast.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Images and Preparation

You probably wonder why you're looking at a picture of this dog. Two reasons: First, I'm practicing inserting pictures into my blog, something I've never done before (this one is too big but I don't know how to alter it now that's it's here.) At the NASA workshop and Worldcon, I'd like to take pictures and put them in my posts. This is rehearsal.
Second, last week the author's copies of my bio-thriller DOGS finally reached me from Tachyon Press. I have been happily giving them away to friends and relatives. This tiny creature, Cosette, was my model for one of the book's canine protagonists, Minette. She's not on the cover, so now she's here. Looking, it seems to me, a bit bemused to find she has a web presence.
Pictures of people to follow in a few days.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Cheating, Sex, and Crafty Bacteria

I have been reading a fascinating new book, MICROCOSM, by Carl Zimmer (who also wrote the terrific PARASITE REX). MICROCOSM is everything you ever wanted to know about the bacteria E. coli, and much you never suspected. Just one example: Some E. coli cheat.

Cheating has been a big topic in evolutionary biology in the last ten years. Everybody does it: birds, mice, college students. The basic idea is this: A mechanism evolves because it confers an evolutionary advantage. Some birds, for instance, pair-bond, either for a mating season or for life. The advantage is an increased chance of getting their little birdy genes into the next generation because the offspring have a better chance of survival with two parents. Some female and male birds, however, cheat. Unknown to their partners, they sneak off and have sex outside the pair bond.

Ornithologists have had a field day (sorry) documenting which birds cheat, when, and with whom. But it turns out that E.coli cheat on the social contract, too. This concerns not sex (bacteria all have wild sex lives, swapping gene-laden plasmids like political candidates passing out lapel buttons), but rather communal feeding. When food is scarce, E. coli can shut down their protein-making machinery and go dormant. Most do. But a few delay shut-down and then eat their fellows, a sort of microscopic Donner Party right there on the lab slide.

This is not, of course, a conscious decision on the part of bacteria. It can happen because genes -- all genes -- don't operate in regular rhythm. As Zimmer puts it, E. coli "may spit out six ...enzymes in the first hour, or none at all." The bacteria with none at all don't shut down as soon, get a source of food in the form of those that do, and can go on breeding. When any other survivors revive, they find a colony dominated by the cheaters. It's exactly like a physics student who has illicitly the answers to a test beforehand; he will come out on top by not behaving according the social contract.

This book has set my mind to ruminating on several possible SF stories. E. coli as cheaters. E. coli as biofilm builders. E. coli as communicators.... E. coli as models for alien societies. I used bacteria this way once before, in the PROBABILITY series, but now I know much more detail. Stay tuned.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Next week I fly to Laramie, Wyoming for Launchpad. This is a NASA-sponsored astronomy workshop run by Mike Brotherton. Fifteen SF writers will spend six days learning about astronomy, including using the big telescope at the observatory. David Marusek will be there from Alaska, and Jay Lake, Steve Gould, Mary Robinette Kowal, others. I'm looking forward to it.

It does, however, represent packing problems. I try to never check luggage, ever since mine got lost coming home from England and didn't show up for ten days (it was hiding behind a large post at Heathrow). But this trip segues right into Worldcon in Denver, and this means I need: (1) Denver clothes, where last week the temperature reached 100 degrees; (2) Laramie clothes, where the temperature will be in the fifties at night as we peer at stars; (3)fancy clothes -- and shoes -- for the Hugos; (4)enough clothes to be away nearly two weeks; (5) more toothpaste than the 3 0z. allowed as carry-on; (5)the laptop to do email. So I'll have to check a bag. But what if it doesn't show up when I do? Even though I expect to lose this Hugo, I'd rather not lose it in jeans and week-old underwear. Last year in China, David King's luggage showed up the day we all left Chengdu.

This is not, of course, an Earth-shaking dilemma. But it's on my mind -- now. When I reach Laramie, I expect my mind to be occupied with black holes, Cepheid variables, and SETI. Have laptop, will blog.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fashion Police

Lynwood, a suburb of Chicago, has a new municipal ordinance: You can be fined $25 if three inches or more of your underwear is showing in public. The ordinance is aimed at droopy-drawered young men in particular. The rationale is that economic development in Lynwood is adversely affected by these fashion violations because they keep shoppers and retailers away.

Predictably, this has caused a storm of protest, with various groups charging that the ordinance is (pick one):

* sexist because it's aimed at males.

* racist because it targets the fashions of young men of color (This is the ACLU position).

* impossible to enforce without wandering around with a ruler, measuring BVDs, and cops should have better things to do with their time.

* an infringement on the personal right to wear whatever one likes.

* ridiculous.

When I was teaching Odyssey last week, we did world-building. One of the things we considered was: What is a crime in your SF or fantasy society? This question is good for yielding plot developments. However, no one, including me, came up with "exposed underwear."

You just can't predict even the near future.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Point of Fiction

The story I wrote for TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, the magazine published by M.I.T. which has only recently started to run by-invitation fiction, has been tentatively accepted. The editor wanted some revisions, which I made, and I'm now waiting to hear if she likes them. Meanwhile, the revisions got me to thinking about the point of fiction, why we write it at all. Quite apart from questions of how our brains are wired (the evolutionary advantages of imagination, the storing of data in "scripts," etc.), I think the point of fiction is actually not that different from the point of either philosophy or theology. It is: to decide what matters.

Fiction explores this point through all sorts of subsidiary questions: What is worth expending effort on, struggling to obtain, sacrificing other things for, maybe even dying for? In writing classes, this question usually gets lumped under "character motivation": What does the protagonist want, and why? But the question goes deeper than characterization. It informs the story as a whole, by indicating whether the goal was worth it or not. The protagonist who dies to save his family: worth it, the story implies. The protagonist who dies trying to become a tyrant over the Empire: not worth it. In this way, stories affirm or attack human values.

Cynical stories turn the process upside down. Either the protag, a good guy, dies for his family and it's not worth it because they're a bunch of creeps, or the protag, a bad guy, doesn't die and flourishes happily, getting what he wants. In this sense, my story for TECH REVIEW is a cynical story. That apparently is no bar to the magazine; all the requested editorial changes concerned details, not values.

Certainly there is a literary place for the unhopeful view of life. I, however, usually prefer to end a story on a mixed note: some gains, some losses. Not this time. The bad guy wins. We'll see how the story is received.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wonder Boys

Since I loved Michael Chabon's Nebula-winning novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I bought and read his earlier The Wonder Boys. The writing here, too, is terrific. And the book concerns writers and their ways, opening with a workshop scene and ending with a writers-sitting-around-the-bar-talking-about-writing scene. Both familiar to me.

Another aspect of the book is not so familiar to me. Grady, the protagonist, is a wild and crazy guy. He gets into fights. He aids in fraud and theft. He drinks and dopes way too much and screws around on his wife. He is in constant trouble with everyone. Now, we all know writers like this (I name no names.) Some are talented, some not. Grady rang true to me -- except for one thing.

He is also a university professor. The English departments I'm familiar with sometimes have creative writers on staff; for writers supplementing their income, a tenured professorship can be a good way to earn a living, providing both a decent income and a flexible schedule. But the writers who are professors -- and Grady has been at his university eight or ten years -- do not behave like that. It's not the wild and crazy writers who choose that particular livelihood. So in that sense, I had a little trouble with Chabon's excellent book. It seems to perpetuate the myth that in order to be creative, you must also be a brawling, law-breaking, heavily boozing, woman-abusing son-of-a-bitch in the Hemingway tradition.

I don't buy it. And not just for female authors, either. It's a stereotype for male writers that ought to be retired -- if only because it's too easy.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

E.B. White and the Angry Librarian

The newest issue of THE NEW YORKER, the one with the controversial cover of Barak and Michelle Obama, has more than current controversy to recommend it. There's an excellent article on an older controversy, over E.B. White's 1945 children's book, STUART LITTLE. When that classic was published, Anne Carroll Moore, an enormously influential NYC librarian who essentially started the concept of allowing kids into libraries at all, hated the book. She said it would be bad for kids. It would blur the distinction for them between fantasy and reality, what with Stuart being a mouse who dressed and talked and acted like an adult man. She said STUART LITTLE must have been written by a sick mind.

Moore didn't like E.B. White's other kids' book, either, CHARLOTTE'S WEB. She said the character of Fern "was never developed." (Everybody's a critic.)

But kids loved both books, and STUART LITTLE has now sold more than 4 million copies. Kids like "sick." When my son Kevin was four, his favorite books to have read to him were those by Maurice Sendak. He liked the ferocious WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, in which a boy turns feral and threatens to eat his parents, but he preferred the even more ferocious IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, loaded with genuine weirdness. The original TALES OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM were bloody and vengeful (Cinderella's mean step-sisters are punished by being sealed into a cask with nails protruding inside and rolled down a hill.) I read these when I was a child, along with Hans Christian Anderson's mournful and terrifying stories, and somehow emerged able to tell reality from fantasy.

Although.... I am an SF writer. Maybe there were lingering effects, after all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Best of the Year

Today the mail brought Gardner Dozois's THE YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION: TWENTY-FIFTH ANNUAL COLLECTION. As always, it's massive: 32 stories, one of which is mine ("Laws of Survival," originally published on-line in JIM BAEN'S UNIVERSE.) Of equal interest is Gardner's "Summation," if only to marvel at how much sheer reading this man does every year. If you don't get a chance to see this book, or if you're not into reading summations, here are a few factoids:

-- The anthology includes eight stories by women, twenty-four by men.

-- The print magazines' circulation figures continue to drop, but the drop has slowed. And REALMS OF FANTASY has actually increased circulation.

-- There were 250 new SF novels published in 2007, 460 new fantasy novels, and 198 new horror novels.

-- Short fiction featured many stories about terrorism, many about big airships and air pirates, and, in Gardner's words: "for whatever reason (I'm not even going to venture a guess) there were a lot of stories about dogs." Since mine is one of those, I'm pleased that he noticed.

-- The launch of new anthology series is a good sign for the field. Gardner especially liked ECLIPSE I and THE SOLARIS BOOK OF NEW SCIENCE FICTION.

-- Gardner, like nearly everyone else, is not committing himself to predictions about the future of on-line SF, but is waiting, like nearly everyone else, to see if a viable way can be found to make such ventures profitable.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Mild Retroactive Rage

A few weeks ago, Cyd Charisse died, and the TCM channel put on a retrospective of her films. Since I am a fan of movie dancing, and especially of the ballet-trained Charisse, I wanted to see these, but was busy that night. So I taped them, and last night I watched "Silk Stockings."

I'm still in a state of delayed feminist outrage.

The film, made and set in the 1950's, features Charisse as a Russian "commissar" who is in Paris to retrieve a Soviet composer, who is defecting. Instead of carrying out her mission, she falls in love with Fred Astaire and, after several improbable dance numbers, also defects. All right, it's a musical comedy; it was the Cold War; nobody expects a biting political analysis of American-Soviet relations. Nobody even expects a plot that makes sense. I'm fine with all that.

What I'm not fine with is the underlying message about the female commissar. Before Astaire, she is a capable woman with a career, beliefs (however politically severe), and shoes a person can walk in. After Astaire, she sings lines like "Without a man, a woman is a zero" and "To a man, a woman is a woman/ To a woman, a man is her life." She becomes unemployed. She wears four-inch heels. She faints from stress.

Now, I know this movie is a period piece and one should not judge period pieces by contemporary standards. (I once heard a panelist at an SF con say that no one should ever read Homer "because he was a slaver." Gene Wolfe, also on the panel, turned purple.) Nonetheless, "Silk Stockings," made not in the ancient world but within my own lifetime, angered me. Nothing could have made clearer why we needed a Women's Movement.

But the dancing was terrific.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Among the weirdnesses of the world is chess-boxing, a hybrid sport I just learned about. The "athletes" alternate three minutes of boxing with four minutes of "blitz" (speed chess also known as "skittles") until someone either is knocked out or gets a checkmate. The current World Champion is a Russian math student, Nikolai Sazhin. He says that succeeding at this sport attracts girls.

I am completely bemused by this. For one thing: which girls? In my admittedly long-ago college days (Nikolai is 19), the girls who were attracted by chess players were not the same girls attracted by violent sports. For another bemusement, how could this phenomenon even come about? Who would think of putting together boxing and chess? At the Rochester Chess Center, where I intermittently play, chess is mostly the passion of skinny eleven-year-old boys, teenage nerds with very high IQs, and elderly Russian emigres. None of them would look great in boxing trunks, although some wield a mean Queen's Gambit Declined.

I can, however, see a lot of other, possibly SF-nal competitive pairings. Ski-Cooking. Volleyball-Scrabble. Polo-Gardening. In the latter, the horses could aid plant fertilization. Let the New Weird stories roll!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Odyssey -- Last Day

Today I leave New Hampshire and fly back to Rochester, a project that will take all day because with air travel and Rochester you can never just go from here to there. Last night there was a barbeque, at which the students gave me presents and we all vowed to stay in touch. This may or may not happen.

Teaching for a week like this is odd. It's very intense, and you bond. Each time, I feel reluctant to turn the students over to the next instructor in line, who in this case are Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. No, you can't have them, they're mine! And yet I know from experience that in a few days this ridiculous proprietorship will wear off. In a year, with my poor memory for faces, I may not recognize all of them at cons. The current emotion is genuine, but transitory, like a mother cat whose kittens are taken from her.

Still, I'm very glad to have worked with all of them, however briefly, and will follow their eventual careers with interest.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Odyssey -- Day 4

The writing workshop continues its inexorable tide. It's going well, I think, and there are odd moments when I remember what it's like to be a student on a college campus. Last evening, crossing a stretch of lawn on my way back from the dining hall, the bell carillon chimed the hour. The shadows were long on the freshly mowed grass, and if I closed my eyes, I could put myself back forty years to my own college campus, re-creating almost exactly, for one brief moment, that younger and lost self .

In one respect, however, this campus is different from my summer experiences at college. The place is almost deserted. The only people on campus are we SF writers, a huge gaggle of teenage girls here for hockey camp, and a monastery full of Benedictine monks. As you might imagine, the three groups have nothing to do with each other.

Although it might be interesting if we did.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Odyssey -- Day 3

The schedule at the Odyssey workshop is strenuous, especially for someone used to the indulgences of being a full-time writer. The class, sixteen students plus Jeanne Cavalos and me, meets for four hours each morning. The first hour and a half I lecture on some writing-themed topic (so far: Monday, writing in scenes; Tuesday, plotting; Wednesday, world-building). This includes discussion and writing assignments. After a brief break, we critique two or three stories, with each student commenting for two or three minutes and then Jeanne and I holding forth at much more length. Lunch in the cafeteria at 1:00. In the afternoon I meet with individual students for conferences, three or four per day. Evenings I read the stories and write the next day's critiques.

Socializing mostly happens at meals, although last night ten of us piled into cars and went to Dairy Queen for ice cream. The students have kept up this schedule for nearly five weeks now, PLUS they are writing a story per week. They are tired. They are hot (94 degrees yesterday). And they are determined and eager to learn.

Are they learning? I haven't seen their previous work, but Jeanne has, and she says they are. The students say they are. All are enthusiastic about the workshop. And what I have seen are some very promising stories. Even if the sweat is dripping off me onto the page as I read them.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Tom Disch

I only learned early this morning that Tom Disch had killed himself July 4 in his New York City apartment. Even as I was teaching and conferencing and critiquing at Odyssey today, Tom was on my mind.

I didn't know him well, but I had spent a few evenings with him in Leipzig a half dozen years ago. Charles Sheffield and I were there to attend an SF con, at which Charles was GOH. The two men went on a sight-seeing tour (I had a panel). We all had dinner. Tom was charming and funny. We talked about the con, about the unacknowledged work he had done for Disney on THE LION KING, about his long-time companion, Charles Naylor. I told him how much I admired his complex, bleak, brilliant novels.

Suicide is always, I think, something of a mystery. Even when someone is in poor health, in bereavement, feeling isolated, we still say Why? How could he end his life, be so sure that nothing would improve? Things always change over time. Tom was only 68.

I don't know the answers to those questions for Tom Disch. I only know that the SF field has lost a major talent, one of our own.

Odyssey -- Day 1

Yesterday I arrived at Manchester, New Hampshire, to teach Odyssey as a guest lecturer for a week. The flights were uneventful, which is what one hopes. I was met at the airport by Jeanne Cavalos's administrative assistant, Susan Sielinski, who took me to the campus of St. Anselm's College, where the workshop is being held. This is return to student days: I have a dorm suite, complete with bunk bed, hard wooden desk chair that appears to date from the Punic Wars, and whirring fans to offset the lack of AC. It's the sort of room that really needs a pyramid of Budweiser cans on the windowsill to complete the decor.

After dinner with Jeanne and Susan, I met with the Odyssey students for informal talk and a Q&A about the short story of mine they had been assigned, 'By Fools Like Me." Afterwards, I hung around with some of them in the dorm, drinking beer and chatting. The sixteen writers have been here for four weeks already, writing approximately a story a week, critiquing every morning and writing every afternoon and evening, reading each other's work, conferencing with Jeanne (and now me). It's a full schedule. They're a lively and dedicated group.

Tomorrow I start critiquing with them in class. I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Summer Silly Season

Factoids keep bemusing me right and left:

** Researchers in Texas have found that for men, watermelon can have some of the same side effects as the main effect of Viagra. The citrulline in watermelon reacts with bodily enzymes to produce arginine, which caused blood vessels to relax and hence engorge. However, adds the chief scientist on this project, a man would have to eat about six cups of watermelon to get the Viagra-like effect, after which he'd be in the bathroom because watermelon is also a diuretic. Not very romantic!

** The producers of the movie HANCOCK are touting its originality on a crucial point: the superhero Hancock flouts tradition by wearing his underwear on the inside, not the outside.

** A friend in Ohio called me today to tell me about a criminal in Dayton who got involved in a high-speed chase with cops, crashed his pickup, but nonetheless got away. A week later he called the police to report the same pickup, which the cops had caught on tape, as stolen. They apprehended him immediately.

On the non-ridiculous side of life's ledger, tomorrow I leave for New Hampshire to teach Odyssey for a week. Odyssey is a six-week SF-writing program run by Jeanne Cavelos. I have been reading student mss. for the last few days, and will be blogging next week from NH. That is, of course, if the always suspenseful adventure of modern air travel actually gets me there on time, intact, and with all the mss.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The thing about doing a spate of interviews in a row, as I have for DOGS, is that the same questions turn up so often. This presents a problem. One doesn't want to sound too "canned," and yet there really is only one truthful answer to some questions ("When and why did you start writing?") So I vary the presentation a little, search my memory for new details, try not to be too boring.

John Scalzi's website, however, avoids all these problems by having a sort of interview theme. Called "The Big Idea," he asks authors with books coming out, or recently out, to say whatever they like about the ideas behind those books. He has Cory Doctorow, Lewis Shiner, and a host of others. My idea-behind-the-book is currently up for DOGS, at It's especially interesting that, as with this blog, people can leave comments.

And while I'm talking about my own interviews (WARNING: Shameless self-promotion ahead), the new SFWA Nebula Awards site has one at

On a less self-involved topic: I'd like to recommend the new book THE INTROVERT ADVANTAGE, by Marti Olsen Laney. Despite an overly chirpy style (the curse of pop psych books), it has interesting information on how the brain scans and neurotransmitter use of introverted people differ from those of extroverts. Good stuff.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Not Cranky at the Movies

Recently I saw Mongol, the Genghis Khan bio-pic from Sergei Bodrov. The movie won Best Foreign Language film at Cannes. I was absorbed throughout. The film manages both to give an epic sense of uniting Mongol tribes into a mighty, feared empire and to focus on two personal stories: Khan's love affair with his wife and his rivalry with his blood-brother. Also, the sound track features genuinely weird (to Western ears) music that adds to the sense of the exotic. The combination of alien place and era with timeless personal stories (I was reminded of Ben Hur and his blood-brother rival Masala) is very effective.

After I got home, I looked up Genghis Khan to find out how much of the movie's story was historic, and was surprised to find out that most of it was. Temudgen's father was poisoned by a rival clan at an on-the-road meal, leaving the young future Genghis Khan and his family impoverished and unprotected. Temudgen did rescue his kidnapped wife Borte; she was indeed pregnant by an enemy by the time he got her back and he did raise the child as his; there was a deadly battle between him and his former blood-brother. Other bits of the film are obviously fanciful and a bit mystical, but also effective.

I recommend this one.