Friday, December 31, 2010

Thrilled at the Movies

A few days ago I saw the film THE KING'S SPEECH. It is wonderful: human, moving, well-paced. I mention the latter specifically because it is about a speech impediment, that belonging to King George VI, and as such must include the long, painful pauses that so distressed him as a radio speaker, but without putting the audience for the movie to sleep. How much silence and delayed speech is too much? Not enough? The movie gets it just right.

George VI ("Bertie" to his family and, reluctantly, to his speech therapist, marvelously played by Geoffrey Rush) did not want to be king. But his older brother abdicated in order to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, and so Bertie was stuck. He must lead his country into World War II, which means radio addresses, where he is competing with Hitler. "I don't know what he's saying," Bertie says as Hitler rants in a news reel, "but he's saying it rather well."

So is the screen writer, David Seidler, who himself stammered as a boy. His parents pointed to George VI as a person who overcame his stutter, "so you can too." Seidler, inspired by the king, did so. Talk about making a personal movie!

All the actors are terrific, and both Colin Firth, as the beleaguered king, and Rush are getting Oscar buzz.

An interesting sidelight: The speech therapist's son, now an elderly man, possessed all of his father's notes on treating George VI. Seidler naturally wanted access to them. The son, very old-school British, said he would give Seidler access only with the permission of the widowed Queen Elizabeth, George's wife ("the queen mum.") She said not in her lifetime, since these were "still painful memories for me." Seidel agreed to wait. Thirty years later, she died at age 101 and he began to write his movie.

There is a lesson here for all us writers: A project gets written when it can be, and not before. Someone (Mike Flynn, who was it? You know everything) said that a novelist needs patience and cunning. And so, apparently, does a screen writer.

Go see this movie. My entire extended family, a collection of as disparate individuals as you will find anywhere, all liked it. Even my nephew Danny, who usually only likes movies in which things blow up. But not this time.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Premise and Execution

First off, Happy Holidays to everyone out there celebrating anything at all.

On Sunday 25 I flew east from Seattle to Buffalo via Newark, beating the massive blizzard by about two hours. Our plane left at 9:40 and they closed the airport at midnight. As of this morning, some poor souls have been there four days and are still only on stand-by. Since I usually have very bad plane karma, I am grateful to not be stuck this time.

But none of that is the subject of this blog, which is China Mievelle's novel THE CITY AND THE CITY. The book tied with Paolo Bacigalupi's THE WIND-UP GIRL for last year's Hugo. TCATC (sounds like a nucleotide base) has terrific writing. The characters are vivid, the settings well-realized, the plot involving. However, the novel depends on readers' accepting the premise, which is this: Two cities co-exist with each other, in the same geographical space somewhere in Europe. There is no magic involved; the cities each have some buildings in the same block. The citizens of these two separate countries "unsee" the buildings, citizens, and events in the other, which means that from birth they are indoctrinated to ignore them until they are a vague blur. It is a crime punishable by death to "breach" this convention. Almost nobody does. To travel from one city to the other -- even to buildings that are topographically next door to each other -- one must go to a central area, show passport and visa, and "cross the border."

At a recent party, two people said to me that they had no trouble accepting this premise and so enjoyed the book. Another person said she could not, and so did not. I seem to be in the middle (a usual position for me). I am enjoying the novel but at the back of my mind is a persistent nagging feeling that I don't believe it. This is, incidentally, the same feeling I had about Suzanne Collins's THE HUNGER GAMES.

So a question: Of what relative importance is a shaky novelistic premise compared to superb execution of that premise?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Copy Editing

This week before Christmas, I am going over the copy edited manuscript of a piece of my fiction due to come out next year. It is filling me with rage.

Let me make one thing clear -- I have had some very good copy editors in my thirty years of publishing, sharp-eyed men and women who have saved me from small stupid errors, from ridiculous misspellings, from referring to a character's blue eyes when three chapters ago they were brown. Good copy editors do much more than bring format and punctuation in line with the publishing house's style manual. They are the extra brain you wish you had.

However, not all of them are good. A few have delusions of grandeur, promoting themselves to co-authors. This is, unfortunately, one such person. When I write, "He blurted," I don't want it changed to "He said" -- blurting and saying are two different things. When I write that a character thinks "She was a good woman," I don't want that entire sentence omitted because -- WHY? The copy editor does not think she is a good woman? He doesn't think the character should believe that? He doesn't like sentences of five words?

I need to finish this job before I leave for New York to see my family for Christmas. If I don't finish it, I will carry this anger with me, which is no way to spend the holidays. So for the next few days, this is what I will be doing: rejecting the co-author I never signed a contract with.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How Rich Is Rich?

A few days ago The Seattle Times ran an interesting article on living in New York City. It profiled a couple who make well over what the new tax bill considers "wealthy" ($250,000/year) but who are still having trouble making ends meet. In their case, "ends" includes schooling for two kids, mortgage payments on a condominium on the East Side, college funds, and expensive orthodontia. These people think of themselves as middle class, not rich.

This is on my mind because I have -- finally! -- sold my house in Rochester, NY. Well, maybe I've sold it. It's a contingency sale and my buyer must find a buyer for her house or the whole thing could collapse. Prices in Rochester, even without a recession, are much lower than in NYC or Seattle, which underlines the fact that money is a relative, not an absolute. Sociologists say that people tend to think they're well-off or not well-off NOT because of their actual salaries or bank accounts, but because of comparisons with other people they know. Change your social circle and you change your view of your financial state.

But there are some actual facts about money, and here they are:

The average American income, based on the calculations of the US census bureau in 2005 (the most recent numbers available), is $43,362 for people above 25.

The median American income is $32,140. Half of working individuals make more, half less.

2.5% of Americans earn more than $250,000/year.

AND: Every study done about happiness comes up with the same relationship of happiness to money: Above a certain modest level (enough to pay basic bills), they do not correlate significantly. The rich are neither happier (one American myth) than the rest of us, nor more miserable (a different American myth).

I did not get as much money as I wanted for my house, not even as much as I paid for it eight years ago. But I got enough to do what I want, which is live in Seattle. It IS all relative.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Confused at the Movies

Recently Brenda Cooper and I saw the movie THE BLACK SWAN, which has just received a Golden Globe nomination. Since I never know why anything is nominated for anything (and I include science fiction awards), I can't comment on the Golden Globe nod. But I can comment on the movie: It's a gorgeous mess.

I was never bored. But I was bewildered because the director can't seem to make up his mind what sort of film he's making. Part horror movie, part dance movie, part psychological portrait, the elements do not cohere very well. Taken separately:

As a dance movie, THE BLACK SWAN doesn't include enough dancing. On the other hand, the rehearsal scenes capture the hard work that goes into ballet, the stress on dancers' bodies is well portrayed, and there is one wonderful scene on stage that symbolically captures the internal feel of artistic triumph. It's Natalie Portman dancing Odile, and it's terrific. Apparently Portman did some of her own dancing, although I doubt she could have done all those jetes and arabesques, and this doubt is reinforced by the camera occasionally pulling back to a distance and going soft-focus. But she is convincing as a dancer.

As a psychological portrait of a woman descending into madness, the movie is at its best, mostly because of Portman. She gives a wonderful performance.

As a story, however, even a horror story, the movie fails. It's cluttered with subplots that go nowhere, with extra characters (like the older dancer played by Winona Ryder), and with characters whose actions are too inconsistent for the audience to get a sense of who they are (especially Lily). Also, the ending makes no sense whatsoever. [SPOILER ALERT] It's been revealed that all the murders and blood didn't actually take place; it was all in Natalie Portman's head. At the very end, however, her stabbing is real -- every one rushes around sending for ambulances, etc. Yet she has just danced the entire, demanding ballet SWAN LAKE with, supposedly, a fatal stomach wound. Real or not? By this time, no one can tell, and the movie ends on a weak, silly note that undercuts what has gone before.

I'm neither recommending nor not recommending the film. It all depends on what you want from movies.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Tribute Story

I am currently writing a "tribute story" for an anthology Gardner Dozois is putting together. The tribute is to Poul Anderson, and each of the stories is to be set in one of Anderson's universes.

I first read Anderson when I was fifteen. My mother had given me for Christmas the two-volume TREASURY OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Anthony Boucher, which I still have (it's a bit battered from umpty-umpty moves). The volume included Anderson's "Brain Wave," in which the Earth in its movement through space moves out of an "inhibitor field" that has been affecting electromagnetic activity in the human brain for millions of years. All at once everyone is much, much more intelligent. So are the animals. This story knocked me out with its inventiveness and scope. So I reread it while looking for a universe to borrow, and it still knocks me out.

However, I chose instead "The Queen of Air and Darkness," the 1972 Hugo winner. This also is concerned with the human brain. It's a gorgeous story but, unlike "Brain Wave," it does not carry its characters' fates to their logical conclusion. Or maybe I just have a different take on the basic subject matter, which is reality vs. illusion. At any rate, I'm writing now about the planet Roland and its peculiar natives.

Gardner Dozois is a experienced at this. This story is not due until June. But he knows writers, and so every month he sends out a reminder: "Only nine more months until your story is due! Eight more months! Six more months and, oh, incidentally, Harry Turtledove and Stephen Baxter have already turned theirs in! They get a gold star!"

Earth may or may not be in an inhibitor field, but Dozois is one smart editor.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Future of Publishing

I am the last person to know what the future of publishing is going to be. I say this in my interview in the current issue of LOCUS (this has been a promotional plug). So I'm always eager to listen to other people tell me what future publishing holds. A few days ago I got to do this at Leslie Howle's house, where she held a "networking event."

It was an evening both enlightening and bewildering. Greg Bear discussed his and Neal Stephenson's Mongoliad project ( This is a "collaborative book" with serial chapters by Bear and Stephenson, which will take into consideration comments and feedback from readers. There is also artwork, maps, and some gorgeous period sets. A reader can subscribe for six months or a year. The story is an epic fantasy that will change and grow with feedback.

Bob Krueger discussed his website, At the moment Electric Story is a subscription site offering reprint and new fiction, but Bob has in beta testing a more ambitious idea. One problem with reader reviews on a site like is that one disgruntled reader can write, say, ten bad reviews under different screen names and bring a book's ratings way down -- or way up. (There are rumors that some authors and/or publishers do just this). Bob's system would assign "weights" to different people's reviews of self-published stories posted on the site. A review by Gardner Dozois might, for example, be worth ten points. If a story gets enough favorable reaction, Bob will offer a contract to the author for publication on the main Electric Story site. Again, this is in testing.

Several game-company people discussed what they are doing now, and in their comments I heard even more blurring of the line between traditional fiction and other media forms.

Especially revealing was Leslie's question as to how many people present own an e-reading device -- Kindle, i-Pad, other. Every single household had one. Granted, we are hardly a representative group of Americans. Still...

After listening to everyone, I still don't know what the future of publishing is -- are these just interesting experiments that will stay on the fringe, or are they harbingers of genuine change? I'm waiting to find out.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Easily Satisfied At the Movies

There is a whole category of narratives -- movies, books, TV shows, calendar designs -- that one knows are not very good. They are derivative or implausible or melodramatic or manipulative, and yet -- this is the YET -- one enjoys them anyway. Guilty artistic pleasures, the equivalent of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup instead of organic, fair-trade, dark chocolate with an 85% coca content.

Recently I saw two such movies. One is UNSTOPPABLE, about a runaway train. The film is based on a real incident, and the heroic measure that finally stopped the train did, at its most basic, actually happen. But the "basic" has been tricked out with lots of heroic flourishes, ridiculous near-misses, and general derring-do by cardboard characters who have been severely injured but don't seem to notice. So why did I like the movie? Because it is exciting, and because there is something mesmerizing about several tons of out-of-control metal hurtling through countryside and city, set in motion by human carelessness and stopped by human effort. I am not, mind you, actually recommending this movie to anybody. But -- a personal guilty pleasure.

It's also a guilty pleasure to watch Cher in BURLESQUE. I grew up watching Cher, all the way back to her and Sonny Bono standing side by side on TV singing "I Got You, Babe," she all the while trying to keep that long floaty black hair from drifting over her face in invisible, TV-mysterious breeze. In BURLESQUE she has two musical numbers. I am no judge of music, but I liked seeing her sing again. She also has top billing over Christina Aguilera, who can sing, can dance, and is actually the star. Cher has had so much plastic surgery that her face doesn't move any more, which is a little eerie, but she puts a lot of vocal expression into her part, a club owner who cannot meet the mortgage payments. The plot was a cliche in the 1950's, and some of the songs date from then, too ("Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend"). But the dancing is fun (Fosse-style choreography) and I had a great time watching the film. Guilty pleasure.

This indulgence also extends to some books that I like but know are bad. However, I am not saying which ones, for fear of losing all credibility with whoever out there reads this blog.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Brave New World in Seattle

For the last few weeks, Seattle has been debating Aldous Huxley's novel BRAVE NEW WORLD. The book was assigned in a high school English class, and a Native American student and her mother objected strongly to its "racist" depiction of Native Americans, including over 30 references to "savage natives" on reservations as being dirty and decrepit, living apart from the modern world of Huxley's future. The book was -- depending on whom you listen to -- either banned or "suspended" from the curriculum. The suspension is allegedly until teachers can be taught to "present the material sensitively."

Apart from the slur on teachers' ability to already deal with their own curriculum, this issue is more complicated than it looks at first. I am categorically against any form of censorship of adult reading material. But kids present a different situation. I think we can all agree that, for instance, nobody wants TROPIC OF CANCER in the third-grade library. So the question becomes: Where does the line exist between children who should be protected against things they are not yet mature enough to handle, and teenagers who are presumably able to discuss literature that presents disturbing views of the future?

For those of you who haven't read BRAVE NEW WORLD (and I don't know why that would be), it's worth pointing out that the novel regards protagonist John, raised on the "savage" reservation, as the moral center of the novel, and the future "civilized" world -- with its deliberately created genetic slaves, orgies, and easy drugs -- as undesirable. In the same way, the slave Jim is the moral center of HUCKLEBERRY FINN, another novel often challenged for its racism. These books actually condemn the mores of "normal" society and so are genuinely subversive -- a point which any good teacher would make in class.

I think high school students can handle this distinction, and the book. It should not be banned, suspended, nor hidden away in the interests of students or parents who wish to read only what is comfortable. LITTLE WOMEN and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, in their own way, fine books -- but they're hardly the whole of literature. Or of education.