Friday, October 31, 2008

Closed Really Is Closed

Today is Reformation Day in Germany, celebrating Martin Luther, and closing shops and stores. However, I assumed that cafes and places of entertainment would be open. This turned out to be only partly correct, as I discovered when I took the tram to AugustusPlatz to buy opera tickets to see Mozart's The Magic Flute. The opera is on tonight at 7:30. The box office, however, was not keeping its normal hours. It was closed.

I had checked the website on this and received the impression that the box office would be open. However, it was difficult to be sure because the website is in German, and this is a sample of what Google offered me in its "Translate This Page" function:


Please select your idea about the match from.
You can choose divisions or title into the search box to enter. Our
subscription offer varied opportunities to our ideas with up to 50% discount to use. Our seating plans show the price at the corresponding seat. Service provides information on travel, parking and opera tickets as a ticket. People with disabilities receive service information accessibility. All questions to the opera go.

I then circled the entire building, looking for an open door that might produce someone to help me. No door, but I did find a musician, splendidly dressed in black tie (why? at 10:30 in the morning?), who explained that the Opera House would open one hour before the performance and perhaps I could get a ticket then. But tonight is the premiere of The Magic Flute for this season, and I didn't want to risk getting all dressed up, going uptown, and then getting no ticket. So the opera must wait.

The fancy cafes in city center were also closed. But my old faithful cafe in BayricherPlatz was open, and I had a "Reformation brötchen." I had eaten most of this splendid confection before I realized why it looked familiar: It was a hot-cross bun, as in the old English nursery rhyme.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Yesterday I met with eight of my writing students (the rest are yet to come) about the SF stories they are writing. We discussed their basic idea, their protagonist and setting, where they thought the story might go. They have some interesting ideas. Some are set in the past, some the present, some the future. Two of the eight are fantasy, six are SF, which surprised me a little because with American students, I get a lot more fantasy than SF. But there are many more student conferences to go, so the proportion may shift.

In the lobby of the building, a bookseller had set up tables to sell used textbooks. There were also novels, including a section of tiny books in English, printed on inexpensive paper, that must have been required for some series of courses. I can't resist the miniature, not of anything (my dog is a toy poodle). I bought three, and at a cafe on my walk home, started rereading Kazuo Ishiguro's wonderful Remains of the Day. Since this little volume (it's smaller than my hand) is intended for German students, it has footnotes in German. It struck me as wonderful that here I am, reading a book about the quintessential British butler, written by a Japanese-born author, with footnotes in German, and just purchased in the American Institute of the University of Leipzig.

This is what a university should be -- a meeting place for cultures and languages. This -- and not the economic fact that my socks were made in China -- is, to me, the real globalization.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Scones and Hip-Hop

Yesterday's writing class included a discussion of plot, an examination of Neil Gaiman's "How To Talk to Girls at Parties," some in-class writing, and my announcement that their SF stories are due in three weeks. Starting tomorrow, I meet with each student individually to discuss their ideas for the stories, provide what guidance I can, and quell any unease or panic. Producing an entire SF story can -- as I well know -- cause panic. I remember.

In the afternoon, Sebastian, two other doctoral candidates, and I took the tram to a Leipzig suburb for tea at the home of my colleague, Anne Koenen. This was completely delightful. Homemade scones and jam, freshly whipped cream, and -- even better -- great conversation. Leo is doing his thesis on hip-hop culture during the GDR, the Russian occupation of East Germany. I had no idea there was any hip-hop culture here during the GDR. Marie's thesis area is African-American writers of the fantastic, and we discussed Octavia Butler. Anne is teaching a course on American consumerism; I asked to sit in on one session of this, from curiosity. Earlier in the day, while wandering around the city central, I came across a "Euro Store" -- the equivalent of American Dollar Stores. Everything cost one euro.

I also saw another strange and charming sight. A woman was pedaling her bike along the bike path, towing a small, low structure that was enclosed in a sort of tent, with mesh sides and rain-proof top. As she passed me, I could hear a small child inside the moving tent, happily singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in German, riding along snugly in the rain.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ted Chiang and Ursula LeGuin

Class this morning focused on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" and on the first half of Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Dispossessed. What these two have in common is an alien physics that substitutes simultaneity for sequency. In other words, instead of seeing the world as a series of cause-and-effect phenomena, simultaneity sees everything that ever happened as already present, and time as a single, non-divisible entity. Both story and novel turn on this concept.

It's not, however, an easy concept to get across to a roomful of non-science majors (including the teacher), in a language not their own. We had pictures on the board. We had analogies. We had much hand-waving. The index of refraction was dragged in, as was the reversibility of Einsteinian equations. I think the students did very well, from what I could tell from their responses. One asked if Ted Chiang had borrowed these ideas about time from Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I said I had no idea. We then tackled anarchy as a social system, in the version LeGuin has invented for Anarres. It was an intense class, and I'll be interested to see how many return for next week -- when things do in fact get easier.

Next came a lunch with representatives from Holtzbrinck, which owns (among a lot of other things) Tor, my main publisher. The two women came by train from Berlin in order to arrange my public presentations, one in Leipzig and one in Berlin. Lunch was fun. Christina, one of the Holtzbrinck PR people, leaves in a few days for a vacation in California. She and a friend are driving from San Francisco to San Diego, along the Pacific coast. Travelers eastward, travelers west. But she will get the better weather.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Cost of Education

Over the last week, I've had conversations with my university colleagues about the cost of a college education. In Germany, there isn't any cost. Students must house and feed themselves (as they would have to do even if they weren't in college), but there is no tuition. Eighteen-year-olds take a state-sponsored exam, and those who score well are given a free higher education (except for a modest activity fee and the cost of texts).

The cost of tuition at a good private college in the States often exceeds $30,000; state schools are much less, but the cost is rising. Students can get grants and scholarships, but these rarely cover the whole cost. Most students go into debt to attend college, sometimes into staggering debt. I asked one colleague if my German students knew how lucky they are, compared to American students. His response was interesting: "Is it luck, or is education a civil right, as well as a country's investment in its future?"

But a different slant was provided by another colleague: "I used to think it was good that students paid no tuition. But now I think they might value their classes more if they paid some modest amount for them." Certainly I've seen that phenomenon borne out when I taught college in Rochester; my best students were usually the older adults who were plunking down their own hard-earned money, not their parents' money, for their education.

I can see both sides of this issue. I don't know the answer. But I still think these German students are fortunate.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Today I nearly got myself arrested.

I took the tram to and from the city center, to visit some Saxony fortifications, the Moritz Bastien. These, the last of the old medieval walls that once surrounded Leipzig, date from the sixteenth century. It was, however, the first thing in Leipzig that I found disappointing. Over the centuries, brick walls were built onto the small remaining portion of medieval stone. The vaults below are now a student club, to which I have no access. Above ground, the site is covered with a cafe, a now-deserted outdoors bar, and a lot of graffiti. I had a latte in a coffee bar and caught the tram for home, which is where I got in trouble.

Sebastian had explained to me how to buy tram tickets and then to have each side punched, one side per trip, by the machine aboard the tram. However, each time I've ridden the tram, I never saw anyone sticking a ticket into a machine. Okay, I thought, they punch the tickets at the end of the ride, as in D.C. But nobody seemed to punch a ticket as they got off the tram, either. Nobody punched anything. So I decided that the tram must be free at rush hour, the way buses are in D.C. on air-pollution days, or the downtown bus in Buffalo always is, and so I've just been getting on and off without punching anything.

Then yesterday a stern person came around demanding tickets. He did not speak English. I do not speak German. Frantically I produced an unpunched ticket from my purse. More exchanges unintelligible to both of us, accompanied by arm waving. Other people on the tram were interested but non-committal. Finally he took my ticket, punched it himself, and delivered what certainly sounded like a very emphatic warning, possibly with penalties attached. I smiled and tried to look even stupider than I already felt.

When I got off, I bought a whole bunch of tram tickets. At home was an email from Sebastian: It is possible to buy a month-long pass to show ticket inspectors, which is why no one was punching. I don't want a month-long pass, having convinced myself that walking nearly everywhere is good for me. But I certainly will punch my tram tickets. Now and forever, amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


On my way to campus, I walk through BayrischerPlatz. This is not one of the glamorous city squares like AugustusPlatz, which has the Opera, the Mendes Fountain, and the gorgeous concert hall, the Gewandhaus. BayrischerPlatz is situated between the university's medical school and a working-class neighborhood of huge apartment blocks. However, the platz is not without charms.

It has a cafe that actually opens at 6:00 a.m., three hours earlier than other cafes. It has a post office, tucked away in the back of a sort of convenience store where one can buy milch and pfeffernusse. There is a branch railway station and a tram stop. It also has an open-air market, a movable and variable feast whose vendors depend on the weather. On rainy days, only the fruit and vegetable sellers are there, under their awnings. Today, which is cold but sunny, there were butcher shops dealing from trucks whose sides let down, crafts booths, many stands selling leather goods, stalls with inexpensive clothing, and booths with miscellaneous collections of objects. I bought a hand-kitted scarf, a package of Christmas cards in German, and an apfelstrudel.

The Platz has something else, too. In the midst of all the mundane commerce, transportation, and postal action, there stands a lovely, delicate, life-size statue of two ballet dancers. The man is lifting the girl, her leg raised in a graceful arabesque. The statue is of polished black material, metal or else some synthetic stone, and if I could find a small reproduction of it, I would buy it in a minute.

Another thing I can't do is upload the photo I took of the statue, or the one I took of the Platz. For some reason, Blogger won't let me, although I'm following the exact same procedure I used for previous photos. Now it tells me I'm not connected to the Internet, which I clearly am, or else that I have the photo's address wrong, which I clearly don't since I let the "Browse" function fill it in after I chose the photo. So what's the problem? Can anybody out there help me with this? Does it maybe have to do with logging on in German but then having all other directions come up in English?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Leipzig Objects

Another set of random and unscientific observations, this time about various objects in Leipzig:

HELMETS. Everybody bikes, but nobody wears bike helmets.

TV: Even in the two English channels I get, the BBC and the European version of CNN, there is a cosmopolitan slant that is missing back home. After all, when on American TV do you hear a consumer-oriented commercial start with "Thinking of banking in Africa?" Nobody I know in Rochester, NY is thinking of banking in Africa. Nobody.

SCREENS: Like bike helmets, these seem rare to non-existent. All windows open directly into the air. Since Leipzig is a sizable city, there aren't a lot of critters about to zoom inside, but I have observed a few interesting-looking flying insects in both my apartment and office. One was similar to a dragon fly, with delicate green wings.

LIGHTS: My apartment is on the third floor (no elevator). If I come home after dark, I press a light switch on each landing, which then stays lit long enough to get me to the next landing, unless I'm so tired and dragging that it doesn't, quite. I've also seen this frugal arrangement in England and France.

CHESS SETS: I went to Karstadt, a big department store in the city center, to buy a cheap chess set so I can play by email with my long-time chess partner, Marty. The cheapest set, with plastic pieces and a folding vinyl board, was 16 Euros, or (by today's Barclay conversion rate) $21.49. Consumer goods are expensive here.

CHOCOLATE: It is wonderful. Beyond wonderful. To die for.

CONSTRUCTION CRANES: There are a lot of them, and they're not stopping work in the current global financial crisis. Leipzig is building a subway. The university is expanding. Buildings are being renovated. I walk past a dozen construction sites on my way to work. Scaffolding is always going up, coming down, being moved. Parts of LiebingStrasse resemble an obstacle course.

TAP WATER: It comes out really hot, hot enough to scald lava. Care is necessary.

The writing SF class met this morning, and we discussed, read, and wrote descriptions, focusing on specific and on point of view. Next week the students turn in to me their first written work, and I'm very interested in seeing how they do. I now have three students auditing the class "for fun," which is always good.

Monday, October 20, 2008

SF Class in Leipzig

Today was the second of my classes in SF: Constructing Alternate Societies. The students had read four stories for today: Mike Resnick's "Kirinyaga" and "For I Have Touched the Sky," Stephen Baxter's "People Came From Earth," and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life." We discussed the Resnick stories first. The students liked them and seemed to have no trouble following either story. We talked first about what an orbital is, and here some students had more knowledge than others of such SF tropes as rotating an orbital to create artificial gravity; this is also true of all the American students I've taught. With one or two exceptions, my Leipzig class are not hard-core SF fans. We then moved on to the philosophy behind the construction of the Kirinyaga society, and whether it's viable or not, and I was satisfied with their responses.

The Baxter story was more problematic. Some of them had more trouble following this: why people were doing what they were doing, what the background was, how the phytomining worked. Once we got it all straight, one girl said of the story, "It's very depressing." Which, of course, it is. But terraforming will be important in both The Dispossessed and Red Mars, and we touched on what some of the issues are in that complex process.

We didn't get to the Chiang story at all. This was my fault, since I'd misinterpreted how long the class was supposed to be, and I let everyone go too early. However, not one student pointed this out until way afterwards, when it was too late to get everyone back. Sigh. Next week I'll know better. Next week, too, we'll have to fit in the Chiang, as well as discussing the first half of LeGuin's The Dispossessed.

I also assigned the first of the three papers required for the class, which led to questions I couldn't answer about who was supposed to write the papers, since there are apparently two different ways one can get credit for the course, or possibly two different kinds of credit. I need to ask Sebastian Herrmann about this. The university is in the process of switching from one grading-and-accrediting system to another, both are currently in operation simultaneously, and mass confusion reigns.

On the way home, I stopped at a grocery store and discovered an utterly delicious little cookie, Schoko-Pfeffer-Nüsse. I have been losing weight due to all this walking, but these cookies could easily reverse the process if I don't watch out. They're really good.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Trams and Cupids

I have mastered half the Leipzig tram system -- that is, I can get uptown to city center, but I haven't yet figured out how to get home. Today, however, I was on foot, since the weather has improved considerably over yeaterday. I walked to ThomasKirche, the church where Bach was cantor for 27 years, to hear the world-famous Boys' Choir.

Unfortunately, the Boys' Choir was not singing today. But the Gewandhaus Choir was. These are adults, and they sing like angels. Sometimes a capella and sometimes accompanied by the organ, they offered a lovely program. The church was nearly full; these Saturday afternoon "Motettes" are popular.

What most caught my attention, however, was a tiny incident outside the church. There is a monument there, not to Bach but to Mendelssohn, who also lived and worked in Leipzig. The monument is a large column with a statue of Mendelsohn on top and, seated at the base, a muse (presumably Euterpe) with a bunch of cupids. People had left bouquets of flowers on the base. There was even a sealed letter, addressed to someone not Mendelssohn. The offerings reminded me a little of those left daily at the foot of the Vietnam Memorial in D.C.

As I watched, an elderly woman approached the monument. She had no flower. But she picked up a colorful autumn leaf and slowly, very carefully, inserted it between the toes of one of the cupids. And then I saw that there were other leaves between other cupids' toes. Leaves, rose petals, and a single daisy.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Today I bought laundry detergent.

This would hardly be worthy of a blog entry except that it led to an insight of sorts. As I stood in the German supermarket in front of a row of cleaning products, I thought: This is what it feels like to not be able to read. None of the product names conveyed any information to me whatsoever. Which was for cleaning clothes, which for cleaning toilets, which for cleaning windows, which for cleaning me? The only way I could tell was by pictures, which were in short supply on the containers. Finally I found a tiny logo of what I hope is a washing machine and not a dishwasher (or possibly a xerox copier) and I bought it. I hope it doesn't do awful things to my tee shirts and jeans.

This was a profoundly unsettling experience. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, a time when I didn't read voraciously. Last night, when it was windy and raining and I stayed happily in, I was reading an SF novel, Hunter's Run by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham. The book was absorbing and satisfying. It's difficult for me to imagine a life where that experience doesn't happen nearly daily. And yet for millions of people, presumably it doesn't. Half of India, to take just one example, is illiterate.

My purchase is called "Perwoll." I hope it's intended for laundry.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lingua Franca

Last night there was a party in the international guest house where I am staying. It was a potluck, with everyone bringing a dish to sample, plus a great deal of wine. My new neighbors are a fascinating set. There is a doctor here for two months from Vietnam, to "learn new techniques" at a German hospital. A Spanish businessman who lives in France but spends three months of every year in Germany for his company. A young Russian doctoral candidate in physics who is spending a term at the Liebnitz Institute. An Israeli who teaches Jewish culture and history. A visiting Italian physicist at the Max Planck Institute. And, most startling of all, a Japanese linguist who is a world-class expert on a minor native Alaskan language.

I talked to all of these people, and more. The reason I could do this is that the entire party was conducted in English -- even though I was the only native English speaker present. Before this, I hadn't realized the extent to which English is now the accepted international language. The Vietnamese doctor, for instance, has no German and his colleagues no Vietnamese, but they managed with, he said, gestures and rudimentary English.

It was a fascinating party. And the food, from Italian zuppe through Vietnamese spring rolls to stewed cherries, was great -- and a welcome contrast to the simple meals I've been preparing for myself until I can convert my American recipes to European measurements.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Random Observations

After six days in Germany, I have some random and totally unscientific observations about Leipzig:

Germans are helpful. I get lost regularly, at which point I grab the closest person and say "Vo ist der--" whatever. They always reply, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. In the latter case I go for a few blocks in whichever direction was pointed, and then grab someone else. Everyone tries to aid me.

Germans are cold-blooded. Even when the temperature was above 70 degrees Fahrenheit for several days running, most people went around in heavy jackets, often zipped to the chin, as if expecting a snowstorm any minute. In over-heated classrooms the jackets stay on. I even saw kids playing soccer in heavy coats.

Everyone walks or bikes. There are bicycle paths beside most streets, and they are heavily used. Even at rush hour the car traffic is light.

Recycling is taken seriously. Plastic bags are not free at the supermarket; they cost money, and so people save and reuse them. The six trash containers behind my building are labeled -- in several languages -- CLEAR GLASS, GREEN GLASS, BROWN GLASS, ALUMINUM AND PLASTIC, PAPER, and OTHER. There is almost no litter on the streets, even near the university or near a middle-school which I pass daily.

Jeans are for the young. The students, like students everywhere, wear jeans, but if a person middle-aged or older is wearing them, that person is American or Canadian. Female students, unlike in the States, do not wear midriff-baring tee-shirts.

Germans are not litigous. The trams careen on their tracks down the centers of streets. Windows on the fifth floor open wide enough to easily admit someone's falling out. In the States these would both be lawsuits waiting to happen, but here the onus is on the individual to not be run over or defenestrated.

Germans make a terrific apfelstrudel.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Another Class in Leipzig

Today I walked to the university, thereby avoiding the whole Tram Question, and met for the first time with my class in Writing SF and Fantasy. This is a smaller, more informal class, and most of the students are a bit older. We started by looking at various elements of any story (character, conflict, etc.) and then focused on dialogue. A student, Raik, and I read aloud the two parts of Terry Bisson's popular, all-dialogue story "They're Made Out Of Meat." We talked about what makes dialogue effective, and I assigned them to write one-or-two pages in dialogue -- and only in dialogue -- that characterizes two speakers, due next week. Since we'd also discussed the differences between the traditional plotted story and the contemporary literary story, I assigned them an example of each to read before the next class: Robert Sheckley's "Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay" and Lewis Shiner's "The War At Home." I'll be really interested to hear their reactions to both.

My guardian angel, Sebastian Herrmann, took me to the university library to get a library card. However, the proper bureaucratic forms were not yet signed and delivered, so this project has to wait until tomorrow. The library's books in English, Sebastian told me, were donated by American colleges after the GDR was ousted from the former East Germany and the Berlin Wall came down. It looks like a good collection.

Although today (unlike yesterday) I had worn sensible shoes, my feet hurt by the time I walked home. I'm simply not used to walking four or five miles every day. I tell myself this is very good for me. Toughen those soles!

Monday, October 13, 2008

First Day of Classes

Today I taught the first session of my SF-as-literature course at the University of Leipzig. Difficulties presented themselves immediately: I was confused about the tram system and waited too long for a tram that wasn't supposed to arrive at that stop anyway. It was then too late to walk (a distance of just over two miles). So I took a taxi. The university is expanding, building, remodeling, and as a result has rented space all over the city as an interim measure. I am teaching in a bank.

Class itself went fine. I did an introduction to the class (syllabus, paper requirements, etc.) and then a history of SF, from Mary Shelley to Charles Stross. The students looked interested but didn't say much. Sebastian, who ably guided me through the bureaucratic requirements, said that not all of them would stay with the course. There is no penalty for dropping a course at any time, so students often sign up for everything that looks interesting, go to it all the first week, and then choose which ones to continue. He said that maybe half or less would stay with my course, especially since the reading list is pretty challenging. These are mostly second and third year students. At the end of the class they startled me very much by all knocking loudly on their desks -- a traditional gesture of class-ending applause.

Another glitch: The texts have not yet arrived in the book store, despite having been ordered months ago. This means that for the students to read the four short stories for next week (class is held once a week), elaborate photocopying will have to go on in the Institute offices. Sebastian, bless him, took charge of arranging this.

One thing surprised me about the class. When I teach SF in the United States, I usually get more male than female students, or perhaps a 50-50 ratio. But this class is overwhelmingly female. The Institute for American Studies is made up of 75% women, 25% men. Ditto for the Institute of British Studies.

Tomorrow: the writing-SF class. Also, I hope, a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the tram system.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Yesterday I set out to explore Leipzig on foot. These particular feet aren't used to all that much walking, and after 3 1/2 hours of it throughout the day, they ached. I tell myself it's good for me. The reality of being without a car for four months is just now sinking in. But the weather was gorgeous, the sun shone, and Leipzig is interesting, once I got past the closed office buildings lining PragerStrasse (IBM, Kia, T-Mobile) and reached the city center.

There was a graduation ceremony for some trade school going on in the Gewandhaus, the beautiful concert hall built by the GDR. Outside, graduates were gathering in little groups under signs that even I could translate: ELECTRICIANS. COOKS. MECHANICS. The cooks wore long white aprons over their suits, the electricians had tool aprons over theirs, etc. The group in top hats and tails had no sign -- were they magicians? The whole thing looked magical, beside a huge fountain amid a riot of flowerbeds under a blue sky. Naturally, I forgot my camera.

Leipzig is under heavy construction. I saw almost as many cranes as I had in China last year. Between the building sites in the city center were streets closed to cars and crammed with cafes, shops, bookstores. I bought a guide book in English, to identify what I was looking at. The English is a bit off, in a charming way. A legend about the Mendes Fountain says: "The benefactress Marianne Pauline Mende should have held a shady establishment and wanted to atone her sins by donating this well. This was written by Ergon Erwin Kisch once. That the reporter was taken in by a mistake can not be facilitated."

On the way home, I got lost. Later, going to the supermarket I had been taken to only the day before, I cut through a pretty little park and got lost again. I was atoning my sin of forgetting not only the camera but the map, a mistake all too easily facilitated.

Tomorrow classes begin. I need to go over my introductory notes, get up earlier than I have been, and not get lost on the way to campus.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Arrival in Germany

At the airport in Frankfurt, awaiting my flight to Leipzig, I tried out my German by ordering a latte at a coffee bar. "Milchtkaffee, bitte," I said. The woman behind the counter replied in German-accented British, "Would you like a bun with that?" Apparently I cannot pass for German.

Leipzig looked lovely in its fall foliage. I was here ten years ago, when the Russians had only been out for a scant decade, and then the city was very run down. Not so now: There is construction everywhere, and the place lools prosperous and inviting. My small apartment, in a new building, is cheerful and sunny, with bright yellow curtains and tablecloth. As I unpacked, I made a list of things I need to buy, and at the top is a decent-sized coffee mug. There are tiny little cups here in which the Germans serve their high-test coffee, but for someone used to a mug that can hold a pint of java, these are inadequate.

Sebastian Hermann, the very efficient doctoral candidate who is my liaison here, told me that the Germans are very interested in the American presidential election. (As always, the rest of the world knows far more about us than we do about them.) The TV in my apartment gets both CNN and BBC, so I, too, can keep up with American political news.

I got only two hours' sleep on the trip over. Sebastian took me grocery shopping. I unpacked. Then I slept for ten hours.

An interesting note: When I log onto Blogger, the headings (SIGN IN, etc.) now appear in German. And the English spellcheck no longer works.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Tomorrow morning I leave for Germany, to teach the fall semester at the University of Leipzig. My next posts will be from there.

The last few days have thus been a whirlwind of preparation and questions. Do I really have the assigned readings in the right order? Will Red Mars be too difficult for students who have English as a second language? Do German professors call students by their first names, like Americans, or their last, like Brits, or with "Fraulein" and "Herr"? Is there a German equivalent of "Ms."? Do German teachers dress up to conduct class? Should I bring a scissors? What should go in my carry-on, in case all my checked luggage mysteriously disappears? What if no one meets me at the airport? What will my apartment be like? Can I get the BBC or CNN on the TV that I've been told is in the apartment, so I can follow the election news and the daily financial crises? What else is or isn't in the apartment besides a TV? Is there wireless?

The last time I lived abroad for a period of many months, I was 21. It was different then. Throw a suitcase worth of jeans and sweatshirts into the handiest suitcase, and you're off. Not so now. Undoubtedly all these questions will be answered, and undoubtedly I can live with whatever the answers are. After all, I can now say, "The check, please" in four languages. What else could I need?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Passion Redux

Because a lot of people left interesting comments on my last post, I want to write about this subject again. I'm not sure I made myself clear. Yes, I believe you must feel a genuine desire to write whatever story is on your keyboard for its own sake, and not just because you think it's "marketable." But there are, in my opinion, also some other considerations:

Passion is, in mathematical terms, "necessary but not sufficient." You also need to know how to construct a good story. You may have a genuine and deep passion for the history of table cloths, but unless you can create interesting characters and a compelling plot line, you're better off writing non-fiction about your table cloths.

Characters, too, need passion. Samuel Beckett came up in some posts. I hated Waiting for Godot. I wanted to yell at the characters, "Hey! You up there on the stage! Don't just wait -- play chess! Knit an afghan! Write a sonnet! Start a soccer league! Use your time here with some passion!" However, not everyone feels this way about Godot. I will say this, however, from 30 years of writing: It's much easier to write a good story when your characters desperately want something and act to get it.

Having "passion" for a story doesn't mean that every time you sit down at the keyboard, you're bursting with creativity (what Bruce Sterling calls "holy fire.") Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. A useful analogy is a good marriage. Many days you actively feel love for your wife, but some days you quarrel, and some days you just wish she'd leave you alone so you can watch football in peace. Overall, however, there is genuine commitment between you two. So it is with a story for which you feel passion.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Writing For The Hell Of It

The new issue of Wired magazine includes a nice article on Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and the just-published Anathem. The article talks about Stephenson's love of gadgets, about the millennium clock that the Long Now Foundation is planning (it's supposed to last 10,000 years), and about Stephenson's books. One paragraph in particular caught my attention.

Stephenson told the interviewer (Steven Levy) that his first two books were positively received but didn't sell particularly well. He then set out to collaborate with an uncle on a few political potboilers in a deliberate attempt to emulate Tom Clancy's success. This did not work. In 1991, Stephenson is quoted as saying, his career "was moving along at low rpms." So he decided to forget aiming at a large audience and "just go for broke, write something really weird, and not be so worried about whether it was a good career move or not." The result was Snow Crash, the book that catapulted him to SF fame.

The reason I was so interested in this account was not because it was new to me, but because it is so familiar. I've heard from so many writers that only began to sell when they abandoned attempts to please "the market" and wrote stories they genuinely connected with, cared about, were interested in, and were written it in their own unique voices. In my own case, I have two unpublished novels and a few stray stories that were dead sets at what I thought of as a "bigger and better audience." All now are merely dead.

I tell my students this all the time. However, not all of them listen. They should listen -- if not to me, then to Neal Stephenson. Career moves may work in, say, corporate finance, but in fiction, passion works best.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dogs, Again

The latest issue of The New Yorker contains an article on Trouble. No, not the kind of trouble that's here with the current financial crisis, the election, or the environment. This Trouble is a dog, a small Maltese owned by Leona Helmsley until Helmsley died a little over a year ago. She left Trouble twelve million dollars.

Pet trusts are a difficult thing. The first one was established for Washoe, a chimp that had been taught sign language. The trust was established to save him from being sent off for medical experimentation, but to do so, New York State had to appoint a guardian for Washoe to administer the trust, and to accept him as "a person with a disability." The New York court did so, and the decision was accepted in Washington State, where Washoe lived.

Trouble thus had precedence for inheriting. But the two guardians named in Helmsley's will, her brother and grandson, didn't want him. And two grandchildren who had been disinherited threw the whole will into question. Eventually, one of Helmsley's hotel managers took the dog into his home, and the court reduced Trouble's bequest to a "more reasonable" two million dollars. This includes annual security costs of a hundred thousand dollars. Since she inherited, Trouble receives a lot of death threats.

To me, this all falls somewhere between ludicrous and important. The important part is that animal rights are a genuine issue -- but how far should they go? Is Trouble a "person"? Was Washoe? If my dog Cosette is a "person" (with or without a disability -- and is being a dog a disability?) and I am her "legal guardian," then how can I have bought her, or how could I sell her? (Not that I want to.) Buying and selling persons is illegal.

Bruce Sterling's SF often features "post-dog canines," genetically enhanced dogs who are the equivalent, legally and morally, of Sterling's "post-humans." His fiction assumes this state, but doesn't detail how we got to that point. I wish he would. Bruce, you listening?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The current issue of Writer's Digest has a series of articles on the future of books. The most interesting piece of this is the statistics on e-books, and specifically on Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle. This nifty little device, which I would love to own, is a big improvement over previous e-readers: It's not back-lit, uses cell-phone technology for direct purchases and downloads of material, has access to most current best-sellers, and can receive periodicals like The New York Times automatically every morning. Since it launched in late 2007, books for the Kindle have mounted to where they constitute more than 6% of Amazon's sales.

Overall, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-books have shown a 56% growth rate since 2002. In 2007, they netted $67.2 million.

Nobody thinks books will become obsolete (well, almost nobody). But Amazon and the Kindle are there first, and most. Paul Aiken, executive director of the Author's Guild, points out that "such dominant systems can be hard to dislodge" (just look at MicroSoft). There are over 180,000 titles available for the Kindle. Fourteen of them are mine, including thirteen stories and one book, the Nebula anthology which I edited (which is also short stories). Why none of my novels? I don't know, but today I'm going to ask my agent.