Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Earth

Yesterday two scientists announced the discovery of the first Earth-like planet lying in the habitable zone of its star. Co-discoverers, who will publish in the Astrophysical Journal, are R. Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institute and Steven Vogt of UC Santa Cruz.

It's not exactly Earth -- more like a swollen Mercury, in that the planet is three times the mass of Earth, only 14 million miles away from its star, and does not rotate. The star, Gliese 581, is a dwarf, so even at such close distance any potential water will not have been boiled off the surface. The planet, which goes by the unromantic name of Gliese 581g, orbits the dwarf star every 37 days.

And it's only 20 light years away! That is, as Vogt pointed out in a video, close enough to send a probe with today's technology, even though we might not get any information back for a few hundred years.

The star system appears, from Earth, to be in the constellation Libra. I wish the weather were clear here in Seattle (it's not) -- tonight I'd like to be able to go up to the roof, gaze at Libra, and wonder: Who's there?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ralph Vicinanza

Agent Ralph Vicinanza died over the weekend of an undiagnosed aneurysm. It was, according to his business partner Chris Schelling, an easy death, in his sleep. But no death is easy for those left behind.

Ralph was my agent for nearly two decades. He was superb at all aspects of what he did. Several of my books are better for his input. He cared about science fiction, fantasy, and writing in general.

He was also a wonderful person: kind, patient, fun to be with. I am still stunned by the news of his death. Sixty is too young for anyone to die -- but why is it the good ones who so often go before their time? Ralph's passing feels like a piece of my own life gone. I know, because I've spoken with some of them, that his other clients feel the same. There are no words to describe our loss.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Coffee Competition

Seattle loves its coffee. During the week my son and daughter-in-law have been visiting here, Jamie has conducted an informal competition. She loves pumpkin spice lattes. So she has had one at each of five nearby coffee shops: Cafe Appassionata, Starbucks, Cafe Ladro, Tully's, and El Diablo Coffee Shop. The winner: Tully's.

We didn't get to try Seattle's Best, alas. Still, it was a tight and exciting race. And this is what writers think about when they're neither writing nor reading much.

Must get back to work!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Underground Seattle

Seattle was originally built on tide flats. As the city grew, this caused enormous problems with sewage. Thomas Crapper's marvelous invention, the flush toilet, only made things worse, because if you sat on your toilet at high tide, there was a large chance that sewage might suddenly come geysering out of it, forced back up by incoming water in inadequate pipes. Newspapers took to printing tide schedules. Eventually, as the city grew, the decision was made to raise it. The entire city. This was done in stages, which involved filling in the areas between streets with mud and building new streets on top of the old ones -- which made the old ones a series of underground tunnels used to access what had been the first floor of shops and residences. This all occurred in the late 1800's, as I learned yesterday on the enormously entertaining tour of Underground Seattle.

For a while this worked fine. Then, in 1907, Seattle was hit with bubonic plague. The tunnels were full of rats and so the city leaders closed them. Everyone went above ground (including the rats), and first floors became cellars. The tunnels remained closed for nearly 60 years, until 1965, when they were opened for historic tours. Here is what once was a thriving underground shopping street:
Since Seattle was a starting city for gold prospectors heading to the Klondike, the tunnels operated banks 24/7. A sign still remains from that period:
I can't recommend this tour highly enough. It's full of stories and wit. At one point in the gold-rush days Seattle had a population of 25,000 -- ten percent of which were unmarried women living in a three-block area, every one of which listed her occupation during a city census as "seamstress." An enterprising madam organized these "seamstresses" for everyone's safety and convenience and told the city fathers, "Don't harass them. Tax them!" They did. It was a great boost to municipal economy, and Madame Lou Graham is now an historical hero, of sorts.

If you go to Seattle, take the underground tour!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Touring Seattle, Still

Northwest Trek is a safari-type wildlife preserve of animals native to the Pacific Northwest. Yesterday, in a steady cold rain, my intrepid fellow travelers and I rode a tram through the preserve and then walked the dripping trails. Herbivores roam free in the largest part of the park; carnivores are fenced in smaller but still spacious habitats. In 1999, however, a cougar escaped. It ate ten animals before it could be trapped and removed. This wolf would probably like to do something similar:Many of the animals, or reasons best known to themselves (although I suspect "disdain") consistently had their backs to the tram. Here is the backside of a bull elk:

These are the backsides of mooses. A bull moose eats 27,000 calories per day. This sounded great to all of us, hungry from tromping soddenly through the rain.
The American bison, which smells terrible:
Ten minutes after we left the park, it stopped raining. Skies turned blue. Ah, well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Touring Seattle -- Day 2

More pretending to be a tourist in a city I actually live in. Sunday we took our visitors on another exhausting round of sight-seeing. By the end of the day, my legs hurt from walking. First, the aquarium. It has no dolphins or whales, but there are elaborate environments for fish, crustaceans, marine plants, seals, sea and river otters. Here is tide pool that is part of the Petting Zoo -- pet an anemone! (They feel rubbery.)This is the fish dome, an amazing structure filled with all sorts of fish around and above the viewer:This is an extremely depressed fish: down-turned mouth, motionless as I watched it, floating in existential despair. This fish needs Prozac:
This gorgeous fountain is in Seattle Center, the site of the 1963 World's Fair and now a pleasure park filled with theaters, museums, shops and restaurants. Seattle Center also includes the Space Needle. A view of Seattle from the top: Tomorrow: Northwest Trek, weather permitting. Also everyone's stamina.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Touring Seattle

No writing this week; my son and daughter-in-law are visiting Seattle. As with most residents, Seattleites mostly see the city's attractions when there are tourists to show them to. Yesterday was the zoo, a very nice environment-based zoo in which animals are not in cages but rather in enclosed areas simulating "savannas," etc. The giraffes and zebras mingle, along with wildebeest (although not with the lions, for obvious reasons).

We also visited the Fremont Troll. This art installation sits under a bridge. Made of concrete, it holds an actual, concrete-covered VW under one paw. Its one glittering eye is a hubcap. Here is Jack "caught" by the troll:

The troll has also been used in a number of urban fantasies set in Seattle. Seattle seems a popular setting for fantasy, including this year's Locus Award winner, Cherie Priest's BONESHAKER. Certain cities are good for fiction. Very few novels are, for instance, set in East Lansing, Michigan.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Every writer works differently. I, who do not belong to the Electronics Generation, work on paper. Not completely -- first drafts are done on the computer. But I can't edit on screen, I just can't. So I print the novel and edit long-hand, making dozens of changes on nearly every page. Some are small (add a comma, change a word), some are revisions of a sentence, some are extensive revisions involving major shuffling of story elements or the writing of new scenes. The shuffling takes place with scissors and tape, the new scenes are written on yellow lined paper, frequently both are employed. This all occurs on the sofa, with a clipboard on my knees.

Then comes the part I am at now, which is the part I dislike: typing in all those changes. I feel like Winston in Orwell's 1984, whose job was to amend official publications one laborious word at a time. (Orwell didn't foresee computers as word processors -- who did in 1948?) The typing-in process is slow, finicky (add a comma, remove a comma), but no one but me could possibly read my scribbled-up sheets. Day after day of being Winston.

I don't recommend this method of writing a novel. But it's the one I evolved over 30 years, it works, and anyway a story is not real to me until it's on paper. So: Type TYPE TYPE!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Over the weekend I saw Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, BREAKING THE CODE, at the Erickson Theatre in Seattle. It was a terrific production and Bradford Farwell, as Turing, was amazing. Not every actor can make ten minutes' of uninterrupted exposition about mathematics dramatically riveting. Turing came across as naive, enthusiastic, reckless, focused -- what the Middle Ages called "a holy innocent."

As everyone knows, Turing was not treated well by the British and American governments. His contribution to breaking the German "enigma code" was incalculably important to winning World War II, and his work led directly to the computer upon which I am typing this blog. But after the war he was hounded as a "security risk" because of his homosexuality, imprisoned, and marginalized. Finally he killed himself.

This all reminded me of another scientist ridiculed and driven to a nervous breakdown for an important discovery: Ignaz Semmelweiss. He was a physician who discovered that a major cause of puerperal fever after childbirth was doctors. They were going directly from handling cadavers to delivering babies and attending new mothers. Semmelweiss found that in his hospital, simple hand-washing cut the incidence of puerperal fever to 1%. For this he was scorned and rejected by the medical community, in part for the assertion that doctors, gentlemen all, could possibly be doing something wrong.

What this brings to mind is a large question: What discovery (in any field) are we, right now, rejecting and scorning because it doesn't fit with what we think we know? And at what cost?

Good theater is supposed to raise such questions. BREAKING THE CODE does.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Phones, Planck Measurements, and Light Years

There is a cool website that compares measurements of everything, from quantum foam to the universe: Until I accessed this site, I had never even heard of a "yoctometer." The site is interactive, so you can marvel at your own pace.

It didn't, however, help me with another size issue I am having: phones. When my Blackberry needed technical assistance, I called the tech center. The young man asked me for the model of my Blackberry. I told him and he burst out laughing: "God, that's old!"

The thing is four years old.

Anyway. I am contemplating a new one. To this end, I just spent a half hour noodling around on the Internet, inspecting pictures of phones. Now I'm more confused than ever. The jargon is overwhelming, the sizes are often not stated, and I don't really know what I want the phone to do, except be comprehensible. I'd also like it to not call random people, which mine currently does when it rides in my purse. I need email. I don't like virtual keyboards. I type and text with one finger (no thumbs). I don't need streaming video, but solitaire would be nice. I don't need aps that (1) make sexual moaning, (2) measure if your table is level, or (3) locate restaurants in New York City (I found all of these mentioned). And as for size: small-ish. But not diminutive.

Try measuring THAT in yoctometers.

Any suggestions for a phone?

Sunday, September 5, 2010


This morning -- which is this evening at Aussiecon in Australia -- I lost another Hugo. "Act One" lost not to Kage Baker, to whom I lost the Nebula and Locus Award, but rather to Charles Stross's "Palimpsest." Here are the other fiction winners:

NOVEL: A rare tie, between THE WIND-UP GIRL (Paolo Bacigalupi) and THE CITY AND THE CITY (China Mieville)

NOVELETTE: "The Island" (Peter Watts)

SHORT STORY: "Bridesicle" (Will McIntosh)

What disturbs me a bit about this list is that there are no women on it. Female writers consistently win fewer Hugos than our representation in SFWA (which is roughly 40% -- a few years ago I counted). But we win more than 40% of Nebulas, looked at over forty years. I don't know why this is, but it's a long-standing pattern.

I wish I had been at Aussiecon. Win or lose, Worldcon is always fun. Next year -- Reno.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


Reprint money for short stories is gravy. The writer does no additional work, but someone gives you money anyway. The question is: How much money? What is the second (or third or eighth) printing of a story worth? Especially since the story can often be found on-line in a pirated edition for free? (I have been having more trouble with pirates.)

I have no consistent policy. For very small foreign magazines requesting the rights to translate and print my story for free (i.e. Latvia), I usually say yes on the grounds that (1) I will pick up new readers in Latvia, (2) the magazine is making no money or next to no money anyway, (3) the market is very small, and (4) I think it will be cool to be in Latvian.

Other foreign markets offer small but consistent reprint fees (i.e. ESLI, in Russian), and those, too, do not trouble me. American anthologies usually pay an amount consistent with what the original publisher offers of they decide to put together a bunch of stories from its various issues. The sticky question for me is textbooks.

I recently (yesterday) signed a contract for a very, very low payment to reprint "My Mother, Dancing" in a textbook aimed at college-level English and science courses. I won't say how low because it's embarrassing. But this editor, a professor at a prestigious college, spent eight years convincing a textbook publisher to take on this project, which will be a massive collection. She wrote me, "In order to keep the textbook from costing $120, which students can't afford, I need to do it this way!" I believe her.

Especially since, more and more, I receive university requests to reprint stories for free in "packets" designed for a specific course and usually limited to a run of twenty or so. I say yes, because how much money could be made from twenty copies, and anyway I like the idea of my work being taught in college classrooms.

Does this all make economic sense, in that students will then be moved to buy my novels, according to the Cory Doctorow Doctrine? Or is it just one more way of eroding a writer's always shaky income? I have no idea.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Cautionary Tale

Two good things to do NOW:

Get a tetanus shot.

Train your dog not to bite under any circumstances whatsoever.

My friend Leslie, who sweetly offered to watch my toy poodle while I was at Armadillocon, was bitten by the Little Darling while moving Cosette's food bowl. The finger became infected, and Les ended up in the hospital overnight on an antibiotic drip. As soon as my plane landed from Austin, I went to the hospital. Les was cheerful and bright-sidey ("It's been an interesting experience") but I felt -- still feel -- terrible. She is home now, recovered. I am looking into behavioral therapy for Cosette. This, it turns out, is very expensive.

A dog's mouth is a messy place. Well, just consider what they do with it! A tetanus shot is cheap. A hospital stay is costly. A friend willing to take canine combat wounds for you -- priceless.