Wednesday, June 29, 2011


All this week I am teaching Clarion West in Seattle. Eighteen students are spending six weeks writing stories, critiquing, and learning from six professional writers, one per week. This year they are Paul Park, me, Margo Lanagan, Minister Faust, L. Timmel duChamp, and Charles Stross. Here we are, hard at work in our classroom, which the rest of the year is part of a sorority house: Each Clarion has its own group personality. This one is affable, well-mannered, dedicated, and determined. Most of them attended my reading last night at the University Bookstore, where I read "Eliot Wrote." The next morning, there we all were back at the big table, improving each other's fiction and producing such memorable statements as:

"But there is no blood in bread."

"I was pleasantly surprised that I understood some of what was going on in this story."

"Being British, I did understand why you just summarized the sex scene."

"I am totally Team Pillow!"

Sunday, June 26, 2011

LOCUS Awards and Hall of Fame

Yesterday were both the annual LOCUS Awards and the inductions into the SF Hall of Fame of four new honorees. The Awards, held at a Seattle hotel, were preceded by two panels: one on humor in SF (Connie Willis, Terry Bisson, Gardner Dozois, Gary Wolfe) and the other on the future of e-publishing (me, Gary Wolfe, Ellen Datlow, Mary Robinette Kowal, Paul Park), below:

The awards themselves were, as always, ably and hilariously conducted by Connie Willis, who reprimanded everyone not wearing a Hawaiian shirt. I, in my role as Official Heckler, received a grass skirt. It may be difficult to convince my Clarion class next week that I am a serious and knowledgeable instructor, since their first sight of me was performing a hula in a plastic grass skirt. Below, Connie, me, and Gardner Dozois, who is wearing a flowered, lei bra:

The Award winners for fiction were Neil Gaiman (twice, for both short story and novelette), Ted Chiang (novella), China Mieville (fantasy novel, KRAKEN), and Connie (SF novel, ALL CLEAR).

Unfortunately, my camera battery died before the Hall of Fame inductions at the SF Museum. These were far more serious, with moving speeches by honorees Gardner Dozois and Vincent di Fate. (Although the seriousness of Gardner's speech may have been slightly undercut by emcee Terry Bisson saying to him, "We inducted your butt today!" and Gardner answering from the audience, "Only my butt?") Unable to be present were honorees Jean Giraud (Mobius) and Harlan Ellison. Jim Woodring accepted for Moebius, and Neil Gaiman for Harlan. I got to introduce Neil, who made a moving speech about what Harlan's fiction had meant to him when Neil was young.

Next came a reception at the museum, after which I was tired of smiling. So Connie and Courtney Willis, Jack and I went to dinner at a Thai restaurant and snarled at each other about the movies we disagree on, which seemed to be all of them.

An enjoyable, exhausting day, steeped in the genre I love.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer Updates

A round-up of various bits and pieces:

Gordon Van Gelder is asking everyone to participate in the 100 Best SF Novels of All Time poll
at Last year thriller readers got 17,000 voters, and for the honor of science fiction and fantasy, he would like to better that. So go to the site and vote.

NOTHING HUMAN still is not available as an e-book (nor is the rest of my backlist). But it's coming! Having completely messed up the scanned document while trying, earnestly but in total ignorance, to fix it, I turned the whole mess over to ex-Taos-student Eric Kelley, whose own novel you will be hearing about here eventually.

I did make progress with another piece of technology, however: I can now Twitter from my phone.

This weekend are the LOCUS awards and the SF Hall of Fame inductions. For the latter, I am introducing Neil Gaiman, who will be accepting for inductee Harlan Ellison. Ellison is too ill to attend. After that, I begin my week teaching Clarion. Thus, the next blogs will concern these events, with pictures -- IF I can don't mess up the camera.

On the writing front, the copy-edited manuscript of "Before the Fall, After the Fall, During the Fall" arrived. This is a very long novella (39,000 words) that will be published in April, 2012 by Tachyon Press, as both a stand-alone book and an e-book. I really like this one (not true of all my own work), so proofing it will not be the chore that I often consider proofing to be.

And Seattle actually had two days in a row above 70 degrees!

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Tale of Two Movies

Recently I saw two movies, which taken together indicate a critical point about all fiction: You must deliver what you promise.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, the new Woody Allen-directed movie starring Owen Wilson, is completely charming. From the beginning it promises comedy with a bit of soul, and that's what you get. Owen Wilson, a writer uncertain of his talents and consistently undermined by his bitchy fiancee, somehow (a key that this is not a movie to be taken seriously) goes back in time to 1920's Paris. He meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, Cole Porter. Nothing makes a lot of sense, but it doesn't have to. It's great fun, and we're rooting for the protagonist, who is befuddled but enthusiastic (and nobody does enthusiastic befuddlement better than Owen Wilson). There are lots of literary jokes that apparently only the writers I was with got, judging from the silence in the rest of the theater while we were laughing our heads off: Owen Wilson tells T.S. Eliot about Hollywood: "Where I come from, we measure our lives in coke spoons."

In contrast, THE TREE OF LIFE signifies from the very beginning that it is meant to be taken very seriously. Even the music, a weird mixture of opera and New Age, shouts: SIGNIFICANCE. Unfortunately, the movie is pretentious and boring. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was in this film. I am interested in, and in sympathy with, its underlying message: There is more to life and death than we know. But the film tries to convey this through endless images of clouds, the tops of trees, hands lifted skyward, and whispered voice-overs that are almost incomprehensible because they're so whispered. There is also a long stretch of images recapitulating the birth of the solar system right through all of evolution. No dialogue here but lots of portentous music. Counterpointed to all this is the ordinary life of a 1950's family in Waco, Texas, doing ordinary things. The boy portraying the young Sean Penn is a good actor, but he's not given much to do beyond glower at the world. The adult Sean Penn is given even less, and what he does do has no real context. Why does his brother's death thirty years ago make him incapable of concentrating on his (unspecified) job now?

By the time the last pretty image (sunflowers) appeared on screen, I was bored to tears -- and I LIKE slow-paced, ambiguous movies with mystical overtones. But not this one. Go see MIDNIGHT IN PARIS instead.

Friday, June 17, 2011

China Mieville

On Friday my review of China Mieville's new novel, EMBASSYTOWN, went up on the web site for the WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS. You can see the full review, titled "China Mieville and the Far Edge of Science Fiction," here: Here I will just summarize what I said.

This is a good book. It is not, however, a book for everyone. The novel asks a provocative question: What are the abilities and limits of language? It also inadvertently raises a different question: What are the abilities and limits of science fiction?

EMBASSYTOWN takes place in a far future on the planet Arieka, which we see through the eyes of narrator Avice Benner Cho. She grows up there and then later returns with her husband Scile, a linguist, during a cross-cultural crisis with the native Ariekei. The Ariekei have two “mouths” and speak through both at once. This is ironic because a key feature of Ariekei thought is that they are unable to lie. Language for them does not signify reality, it is reality, and they are literally unable to double-voice anything that is not true. Nor can they, again literally, recognize any speech that does not feature two words spoken at once by the same creature. Humans, wanting valuable trade with the Ariekei, have developed genetically-engineered “ambassadors,” clones who speak separate words in perfect synchronicity.

SF built around the potentialities is not new, but nobody I can think of has taken it as far as Mieville. This is a fully detailed world, fascinating in its strangeness. The characters are interesting. But Mieville is so close inside his narrator's head, who is of course familiar with everything, that he explains nothing. Scores of new, unexplicated terms come at the reader from page 1. The result is that a reader needs patience and persistence to unravel everything, especially since the actual conflict doesn't begin till one-third of the way through the book. For the hard core SF fan. this book is a delight. For the uninitiated, the casual SF reader, or those preferring a fast-paced plot, this one may be a difficult read.

I loved it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Clarion West

I am preparing for my teaching of Clarion West Week #2, June 27 -- July 1. "Preparing" means several things: reading the students' submission stories, thinking over the writing lectures I want to give, wondering what the unpredictable Seattle weather might be doing that particular week. It also means signing up for the Clarion Write-a-thon.

Clarion, sometimes called "boot camp for SF writers," is an intensive six-week workshop in which everyone lives together in a sorority house (minus the sorority girls) and talks, breathes, critiques, dreams, and performs the writing of science fiction and fantasy. Each instructor, all working professionals, stays one week, after which his or her drained carcass is hauled away and fresh meat is brought in. The Clarions (there are two) have produced some notable writers, including Vonda McIntyre, Bruce Sterling, James Patrick Kelly, Andy Duncan, Felicity Savage, Ted Chiang,and Cory Doctorow.

The Clarion Write-a-thon is a way to raise funds for the workshop. A number of writers (by no means all of them are instructors) have agreed to write a certain amount each week, and donors have agreed to sponsor them. The details are on the Write-a-thon web page, Basically, however, this works like sponsoring runners in a race for a good cause: sponsors pay a certain amount to Clarion for each goal met. My goal is 10,000 words each week that I am not teaching either Clarion or Taos (which leave the instructor no time for writing, although students do). I will receive a list of my sponsors (I hope) and will email them each week my word count, plus a snippet of the writing I did that week on my new novel. All this begins this week.

However, it doesn't solve the Seattle weather problem. If I could ask you to send Clarion warm temperatures instead of dollars, I would.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Reading with Ursula LeGuin

Yesterday I had the privilege of reading with Ursula LeGuin and Ted Chiang as part of the SFWA Reading Series organized by Mary Robinette Kowal and Mark Niemann-Ross. Jack and I took Amtrak to Portand, Oregon, a trip that began in the dingy King Street Station but rapidly improved to a comfortable train and some gorgeous scenery. Also a lot of backyards, which for me is one of the charms of train travel: you see behind the scenes of America. Mark met us, and we took a quick trip to Powell's, Portland's famous and enormous bookstore. I saw a minute fraction of it.

Dinner and the reading were at McMennamin's, once the Kennedy Elementary School but now a multi-purpose building. The hallways gave me the odd sense of having been sentenced back to the third grade, but not so the restaurant, bar, and auditorium. At dinner, counter-clockwise from lower right: the back of my head, Ursula LeGuin, Charles LeGuin, Mary Kowal, Mark Niemann-Ross, Ted Chiang. Jack Skillingstead took the picture. The second picture shows we three readers, lined up to perform.

Ted read a complete story, about an "automatic nanny," with some interesting things to say about the nature of children, machines, and human adaptability. I read part of "Eliot Wrote." Ursula read an essay on the current state of books and publishing, plus a poem about Las Vegas, both bleak. This led to the Q&A being mostly centered on e-publishing and very little on the art of writing, a phenomenon I have noted a lot in the last year whenever an audience asks questions. When I teach Clarion in a few weeks, I intend to reverse the emphasis.

For me, introducing and reading with Ursula was the culmination of a life-long love affair with her work. It was too difficult to resist gushing, so I didn't try to resist. I think I embarrassed her. But reading THE DISPOSSESSED when it came out was a seminal experience in my becoming a writer. Here were characters I could relate to, who did more than speed around the galaxy in space ships or solve scientific puzzles. They loved, suffered, had babies, screwed up friendships -- AND solved scientific puzzles. I have felt the same way about much of her other work, especially THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and FOUR WAYS INTO FORGIVENESS
An evening I will never forget.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Keeping Up

Forget the Joneses. Keeping up with oneself is now the stressful point of modern life.

Do you know your credit score? Are you doing anything to improve it? Do you floss every day? If so, why aren't you flossing twice a day? You need thirty minutes of exercise every day. You need to get a bone density scan to monitor your bones, and you should also be monitoring your blood pressure, the oil changes in your car, and the mulching schedule for the azaleas. The new mulching schedules are out. Have you recently checked your home for radon and carbon monoxide? When was the last time you checked the batteries in your smoke alarm?

Update your wardrobe; that top is so last-year. Keep your roots dyed and your hair trimmed and your skin moisturized. And for God's sake, watch your diet! Make sure your vegetables are organic and your meat free-range and you really need more antioxidants in your diet. Also more L-carnatine, omega-three, and calcium. Do you know how much fat is in your diet? It shouldn't be more than 20% -- monitor that. You are what you eat!

You need to save for retirement. You need to call your Aunt Grace, what's wrong with you she was so good to you when you were a child. Remember all your friends' birthdays -- what, you didn't put them on a calendar? If you shop smart and monitor sales, you can get them nice gifts for much less than the regular price. Check the sales on-line.

Check Group-On specials on-line. Check the news, check Facebook, read the blogs important in your field, how come you never know what's happening? Are you keeping up with your tweets? You'll lose audience if you don't.

Write every day. Write more every day. Read a lot -- all good writers read a lot. Why haven't you read the Hugo nominees yet? This is important to an SF writer! Get that backlist up for the Kindle and the Nook. Monitor all your sales on both so you can jump in and drop or raise the price for the best revenue stream. Come on, this is your livelihood! Keep up!

You didn't exercise today. You didn't book that flight for next month. You didn't make an appointment for your physical. An annual physical is important -- catch problems early! Balance your checkbook, check on your investments to optimize performance, perform one act of kindness every day.

And what the hell IS your credit score? You're supposed to know! Come on, keep up!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Publication Progress

For anyone interested, progress has been made on several of my publishing projects:

Small Beer Press will publish a collection of my short stories next year. The collection includes a few award-winning stories: "The Erdmann Nexus" (Hugo) and "Fountain of Age" (Nebula), plus other stories written in the last few years. Editor Gavin Grant asked for my input on a title; naturally I don't have one, titles being hard for me (my last collection was NANO COMES TO CLIFFORD FALLS AND OTHER STORIES, always the easy way out.) Since the two stories I just mentioned plus "Fools Like Me" all feature elderly first-person narrators, I could call it "GERIATRICS!" but this does not seem a felicitous choice. Also, there are some younger protagonists, who might feel slighted.

Lightspeed has had my story "Eliot Wrote" up for the entire month of May. I know May is over, but maybe it's archived if you missed it. I missed it. I must screen my emails better.

The scanning project for NOTHING HUMAN goes forward. The entire book has been scanned, and Jack is wrestling with Omnipage to turn it into a good Word document. Omnipage is supposed to be very good at this, and I'm sure that eventually it will cooperate with us. Maybe this weekend. Or soon. Very soon.

ASIMOV'S has bought "A Hundred Hundred Daisies" and it will appear some time or other.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday I go down to Portland to host a SFWA reading featuring two fine writers, Ursula LeGuin and Ted Chiang. I don't know what either of them is reading, but I know it's bound to be good. The reading is part of SFWA's new reading series organized by Mary Robinette Kowal. It takes place at a restaurant, McMinaman's, which may or may not be spelled that way. I'm looking forward to it.