Sunday, October 30, 2011

Everything Old Is New Again

Does any of this sound familiar?

"Many, envious of the rich and noble, said among themselves that the country was badly governed, and that the nobility had seized all the gold and silver. [They] therefore began to assemble in parties, and to show signs of rebellion; they also invited all those who held like opinions in the adjoining counties to come to London, telling them that they would find the town open to them and the commonality of the same way of thinking as themselves, and that they would so press the King.... When these people first began their disturbances, all London, with the exception of those who favored them, was much alarmed. Mayor and rich citizens assembled in council and debated whether they should shut the gate and refuse to admit them; however, upon mature reflection they determined not to do so... The rebels fixed their quarters in a square, called St. Catherine's, before the Tower, declaring they would not depart until they had obtained from the King everything they wanted -- until the Chancellor of England had accounted to them, and shown how the great sums which were raised had been expended."

That was written in 1381, by sir John Froissart, about the Peasant's Revolt in response to the Statute of Labourers (1351), which fixed maximum wages during the labor shortage following the Black death. The peasants could not earn enough to live decently, while the rich flourished.

The 1381 revolt, which had 60,000 people doing Occupy London, ended in looting, rioting, heads on pikes, the slaying of stray Flemings -- and some reforms that helped the poor. Let's hope that this time we can do it with less violence.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy At The Movies

MARGIN CALL, the new Wall Street movie, indirectly indicts Wall Street for our current economic mess, but that's not why I liked it. Starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto, MARGIN CALL is in many ways similar to CONTAGION, which I also liked, and for the same reasons. Both films take on their subjects with quiet but deadly seriousness, avoiding swashbuckling and scenery-chewing. Both show professionals believably at work, although in CONTAGION these end up being (flawed) heroes, and in MARGIN CALL they end up losing what souls they possessed to start out with.

A margin call is a lender's demand on an investor who is using margin to deposit additional money or securities, because the broker is worried about the loan he made you to buy those securities in the first place. Margin calls are made when the lender thinks those securities you bought with borrowed money have decreased too much in value. Then you must either deposit more money in the account or to sell off some of your assets. If you can't do either very well, you are in deep shit.

The only weak point of this film is that unless you go into it knowing all that, you are likely to be lost for the entire first half. In a way, this is sort of admirable: the scriptwriters avoid artificial "As-you-know-Bob dialogue," in which characters tell each other things they already know. These characters do not. They look at graphs (which we cannot see) worked out by two junior members of the firm, and they get scared. We see the fear, but not the reason for it, unless you can relate the situation to the film's title.

What IS clear is the tension level of everybody involved throughout one long night while managers, CEO, and a few brokers decide what should be done. [SPOILER ALERT] The choices are bad: let the firm go under, or sell all the securities early the next day for whatever they can get, before word of the situation gets around, and knowing full well that they are unloading worthless assets onto unsuspecting customers. Guess which they choose?

All the actors are terrific, and Manhattan at night is visually arresting in an eerie and vaguely menacing way. See this movie. For anyone interested in character development, in finance, OR in ethics, it's a must.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Margaret Atwood

This is my review of Margaret Atwood's new collection of essays about science fiction. The essays appeared earlier this month; the review appeared in the WASHINGTON INDEPENDENT REVIEW OF BOOKS, reprinted here is case you somehow missed it :)

Margaret Atwood’s new book of essays, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, is not very new. Most of it consists of previously published essays, book reviews, excerpts from Atwood’s own fiction and writing based on the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, which Atwood delivered at Emory University in 2010. There is nothing wrong with this, of course; scholars and fans alike will find it convenient to have the short pieces collected in one place.

However, the material is less than new in three other ways. First, some of the pieces have already been collected in Atwood’s previous volume, Writing With Intent, making these reprints of reprints.

Second, and more disturbing, I found little here that I haven’t seen in previous books about science fiction. The history of fantastical literature beginning with the ancient world, the ways that SF uses and changes elements of myth, the endless quibbling about terms — what should be called “science fiction” versus “speculative fiction,” what determines a “novel” as distinct from a “romance” or a “fable” — these are issues that have preoccupied SF scholars, writers and fans for at least two generations. So have the relationships among myth, SF and their more simplistic cousins, comic book heroes. Atwood recapitulates many salient points, but doesn’t add much that is original.

Third, this book is not new because it seems stuck in a time warp. The most recent SF novel discussed, or even mentioned, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, published in 2005. That would be fine if the second-most-recent novel weren’t William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Much of Atwood’s book is given to considerations of already-much-considered novels such as Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Huxley’s Brave New WorldShe (1886). Surely a book devoted to “SF and the Human Imagination” should consider that the human imagination has continued to produce science fiction in the last several decades? (1932) and Rider Haggard’s

Which raises a genuine question: For whom is this book intended? If it is for fans and scholars of SF, it may well seem both redundant and dated. If it is for people uninterested in science fiction, it’s difficult to imagine why they would read it in the first place — unless they are interested in Margaret Atwood.

And this is where In Other Worlds does have something to offer. Atwood’s sections on her personal involvement with the genre are witty and charming. She begins with her childhood and the fantastic stories she and her brother used to tell themselves about super-hero flying rabbits. Her earliest creations were White Bunny and Blue Bunny, modeled on actual stuffed rabbits, and they could fly (“propelled by an age-old technology called ‘throwing’ ”). Later versions, Steel Bunny and Dotty Bunny, dwelt in Mischiefland, wore capes, kept pet cats (little Margaret wanted a kitten but was not allowed to have one) and ate nothing but ice cream cones.

Atwood is also engaging when she describes researching her university work on speculative fiction, and later writing her SF novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. She talks frankly about the reactions to her books within the “skin-tight clothing and other-planetary communities,” meaning SF fans and writers. In 2009 the queen of literary SF, Ursula Le Guin, took Atwood to task for “not wanting any of her books to be called science fiction.” Atwood defends her position — not convincingly, I thought, but with self-deprecating charm, and with all the respect that Le Guin merits.

Another plus: The prose in these essays is of a very high quality, as one would expect from the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is true in even the most incidental material, such as the witty “An Open Letter From Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District,” which begins: “First, I would like to thank those who have dedicated themselves so energetically to the banning of my novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s encouraging to know that the written word is still taken so seriously.”

However, the “science” part of “science fiction” does not interest Atwood much. She considers science the “myth” of our time — “a story central to our self-understanding: nothing about truth or falsehood implied” — and the Big Bang theory “a new creation myth.” Nowhere does she consider that science might be more than that. Her arguments against biotechnology are very one-sided, all cons and no pros. Nor does she consider any of the excellent SF in which extrapolation from cutting-edge known science leads to plausible futures.

It all adds up to a rather lopsided view of science fiction. However, if even the basic theories about the genre and its history are unknown to you, or if your primary interest is Atwood herself, you might enjoy this collection.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Doubtful at the Movies

Last night I saw IDES OF MARCH, the new movie of political machinations during a primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. George Clooney is the candidate, Philip Seymour Hoffman his campaign manager, and Ryan Gosling is Hoffman's gifted subordinate. Gosling begins as an idealist and -- because that's the way these films go -- loses his idealism by the end. Nobody else had any to begin with.

And therein lies the problem. IDES OF MARCH is absorbing throughout; the actors are all very good; there are some arresting visuals. However, everybody here is willing to sell out everybody else, friend or foe, not merely for the good of the campaign but to improve their own position in the campaign hierarchy. No trick is too dirty, no betrayal too profound, no friend more important than one's own importance. It gets to be Too Much.

Yes, I believe that politics can be a nasty business. The good-hearted crew on TV show WEST WING, which I adored, is probably too good to be true. But a film can also be too nasty to be true, in that it presents a lop-sided picture of reality. I enjoyed IDES OF MARCH (gazing at George Clooney's eyelashes alone is worth the ticket price), but I ended up not believing it. See it and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Quick -- which of these car names sounds "faster" -- Tarin or Parin? Which sounds more luxurious?

If you're like mist people, you think "Tarin" sounds faster and "Parin" sounds more luxurious. Those were the findings of researchers at Lexicon, a firm profiled in the October 3 issue of the NEW YORKER. Lexicon helps companies find brand names for products. They've made a science of studying how people react to individual letters, to phonemes, and to words. Surveying 500 subjects in Europe, Asia, and the United States, they discovered, for instance, that "c" and "v" and "p" all convey "vigor, liveliness, and well-being."

In the new scientific approach to naming things, you can't call a spade a spade -- or a mop a mop. That word has an image of dirt, limpness, drudgery. When asked in the mid-1990's to name Procter & Gamble's new mop, Lexicon generated thousands of possibilities. They finally chose "Swiffer," because (1) it sounds like "swift," implying that mopping that floor won't take too long, (2) it ends in "er," the suffix of agency (teacher, driver), implying that the mop is the agent doing the work, not you, and (3) "f" is a friendly consonant. Lexicon also named Pentium, Dasani, and Wisp, a portable mini-toothbrush.

I own a Swiffer. Did I buy it in part because I was suckered by a good brand name? Maybe. I'm not immune. George Orwell would have understood -- if not necessarily approved.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


Some writers do it standing up. Others do it lying down. Most, however, write while sitting, and where they do it is interesting.

Connie Willis works at Starbucks, in long hand.

Ellen Klages, when on a tight deadline, retires to a rustic lodge several states away.

A military-SF writer I know works on the back porch, in all weathers. He wears fingerless gloves when it's cold.

Terry Bisson works on a no-frills bench in his garage.

And, I learned yesterday, Greg Bear and Neal Stephenson and Mark Teppo work on the on-line experimental fiction project THE MONGOLIAD in a building that also houses a circus school. I hadn't known that Seattle even has a circus school. Mark gave Leslie Howle, of Clarion West, and me a tour. "It has interesting things to watch when you're on break," Mark said. Here, for instance, are trapeze artists warming up:

In contrast, my own working quarters seem prosaic: I work on a desk in the living room. I share these quarters with Jane Austen, here shown with the new desk I just bought her. If Jane were selling more copies, perhaps she could not only buy her own desk, but also pony up more of the rent.

Where do YOU write?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Adventures in E-Pubbing

My novel DARK MIST RISING is now available on the Nook and the Kindle, attractively priced (I hope) at $3.99. But why, you ask, if this is my latest novel, does the cover say "Anna Kendall"? Therein lies a publishing tale.

Over the past three years I wrote a YA fantasy trilogy, not because I made any planned decision to switch from SF to fantasy (my career never seems to involve planned decisions) but because this scruffy kid kept tugging at my mental elbow going "Write me! Write me!" So I did, beginning with CROSSING OVER, continuing through DARK MIST RISING, and ending with A BRIGHT AND TERRIBLE SWORD. CROSSING OVER came out in the United States and England, and will be published this summer in Germany, France, and the Netherlands. The four European countries bought the entire trilogy; Viking bought only CROSSING OVER, which was also slightly rewritten for the American market (the original was deemed too dark). Now DARK MIST RISING is available in England, and I am creating it here as an original e-pub. Will anybody buy it, or even find it? I don't know, but I like this book and wanted to at least offer it somehow.

The set-up is this: Roger Kilbourne can cross over into the Country of the Dead. He isn't thrilled about being able to do this, and with good reason: Everybody and his brother attempts to exploit his gift. Not only that, the poor guy gets caught in the cross-fire of a war that has been going on for quite a while, between forces battling for control of both the Country of the Dead and the more prosaic land of the living. Roger has an unrequited passion for a girl far above his rank, the devoted love of a girl he doesn't value enough, mentors he doesn't want, and a savage chieftain (living variety) with good reason to want his blood.

I think the second book of this trilogy is better than the first. This is a problem I have with my trilogies; it sometimes takes me a while to get my bearings firmly in a new locale. (I also think PROBABILITY SUN is better than PROBABILITY MOON, and it was the third book, PROBABILITY SPACE, that won the Campbell.) Of course, I'm only the author. My hope is that you will read DARK MIST RISING and decide for yourself.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Terrified at the Movies

For someone recovering from pneumonia (and thank you all for your good wishes), the film CONTAGION probably wouldn't be everyone's choice for a first up-from-the-sickbed outing. But I'm glad I went. After a summer of silly movies with over-the-top special-effects heroes and villains, CONTAGION is a genuinely human, genuinely terrifying movie.

An American woman attends a business conference in Hong Kong. [NOTE: SPOILER ALERT] She visits a casino there, flies home, has sex with an old boyfriend during a lay-over in Chicago, then goes on to her family in Minneapolis. Unknowingly she infects everyone along the way. Some of those people fly to other cities. Soon there is a worldwide outbreak of a new disease.

The movie follows several characters' stories, including a French doctor with WHO, researchers with the CDC, Chinese and Americans whose families are affected. The cast includes Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jennifer Ehle, Elliott Gould, Jude Law. With so many diverse stories playing out, some critics have said that the film is too diffuse; we don't get enough screen time with anyone to deeply invest in them. I think those critics have missed the point. The real star here is the contagion itself, and fighting it is the work not of a superhero but of a world-wide team. There are individual heroics, but the focus stays on the disease.

It's a bad plague, but not as bad as it could be. The kill rate is about 30%: much greater than the flu epidemic of 1918, but much less than, say, Ebola or Marburg. The contagion kills quickly, within a few days. WHO, the CDC, FEMA, the National Guards all fight it with containment, quarantine, and frantic races to understand the virus's nature, to find a cure, to develop a vaccine. Meanwhile, some people panic and some riot and some try to profit financially and some risk their lives to help others. A teenage girl focuses on seeing her boyfriend despite the quarantine. The president is moved underground. Congress tries to carry on work via the Internet. It all feels very real.

That is why I was so riveted by the movie: It seems real. This is the way it could happen. I believed pretty much everything. It's been a long time since I believed pretty much everything that happens in a film.

It's also been a long time since the heroes of a movie are mostly scientists who work for big government agencies. The government is not evil, the corporations are not evil, the plague is not caused by evil terrorists (at the very end we find out how it was caused). Government employees -- flawed human beings but dedicated scientists -- work together to find answers and implement them. When was the last time you saw THAT on screen?

Not an uplifting film, but a very good one. Let's just hope it's not prescient.