Friday, March 30, 2012

Why You Got Into That Car Accident

Well, okay, I don't really know why you were doing 80 in a 55 zone. But if you have or ever had had a cat, and if you changed its litter box, and if its feces infected you with toxoplasmosis (and fully 1/3 of humanity has been infected), then your brain may be altered. People carrying the Toxoplasma gondii parasite have 2 1/2 times as many auto accidents as those who don't.

I learned this from a recent article in ATLANTIC: "How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy," by Kathleen McAuliffe. Researchers in Prague, Stanford, and other places have moved from interest in how T. gondii affects rats to how it affects humans. The rat angle has been known for a while: Infection causes rats and mice to lose their fear of cats. In fact, they become attracted to the odor of cat urine. This is so they will more easily be eaten by cats, thus getting the parasite back into a cat gut, where it needs to be in order to reproduce.

Humans, who are "accidental hosts" for T. gondii, used to be thought to be unaffected by the parasite. But new research shows that T. gondii subtly changes human brains. Carriers become more willing to take risks. Dopamine production increases. In the susceptible, schizophrenia may be triggered. That parasite is trying to get back into a cat, and it doesn't know you aren't one.

There are, in fact, a great many parasites that influence the behavior of hosts in order to further the parasites' life cycles. One compels an ant to climb onto a stalk of grass and stand there, neglecting its normal ant-y life, until a sheep wanders by and consumes it.

Unwashed vegetables are also a source of T. gondii. So scrub your carrots, change cat litter carefully -- and watch your driving.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Three Books Altering Humanity

Books, books, books! They fill up living space, accumulate under the bed, and get confused in the mind (who wrote DANIEL MARTIN, again?) But they're a joy of life, and who needs room to walk around in, anyway. Here are three new ones for your attention, all propelled by the possibilities of genetic engineering.

First is an ebook by new writer Craig Delancey, a collection of three stories that originally appeared in ANALOG. The trilogy concerns the Marrion experiment, a genetic-engineering endeavor to create people who care as much about future generations as they do about themselves -- with heart-breaking developments. The stories involve science, ethics, and politics, a sophisticated and fascinating thought experiment. Available for Kindle and Nook.

Ted Kosmatka's much-awaited first novel, THE GAMES, also centers on genetic engineering. The Olympic games have been expanded to include gladiatorial combat by genemod fighters. The only rule is that no human DNA must be used. The story is fast-paced and horrifying, counterbalanced by various emotionally satisfying father-son relationships. Print and ebook.

Finally, Arc Manor has issued a reprint collection of my older stories on genetic engineering, going all the way back to my first Nebula nominee in 1985 (it lost to John Varley), "Trinity." Six stories of various lengths explore ideas of genetically engineering (among others) ballet dancers ("Dancing on Air"), revenge ("Margin of Error"), aliens ("Flowers of Aulit Prison"), and the search for God ("Trinity"). Print and ebook.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Florida -- Banquets and Alligators

On my last day at ICFA, I went to hear a reading by (readings are arranged here by threes) Rick Wilber, my roommate Ellen Klages, and Dell Young Adult Writer Contest winner Rebecca Baldridge. All were good, and Ellen's story, "Goodnight, Moons," was one I wish I'd written myself. It concerns a child born on Mars -- hence the plural "moons."

Next came a period of sloth by the pool. Sloth was shared by (left to right) Tor editor Liz Gorinsky, Mike Swirsky, Rachel Swirsky, Ellen Klages, Nalo Hopkinson, Delia Sherman. From this session I learned that "dork" actually means "whale penis." It may not have been one of the academic conference sessions, but intellectual stimulation was still available. Mike Swirsky helpfully went on-line to translate this into many languages. It sounds best in Italia

Here (not in the pool) is the resident ICFA alligator, who remained completely unperturbed as people craned and crowded and leaned over the railing to take his picture:We humans had our picture taken, as well -- 400 people jammed together poolside. I was standing on the ledge of a decorative flower bed filled with bushes and have the imprints of twigs on my backside to prove it. To ease this, and to taste authentic Florida key lime pie, I had lunch with Sheila Williams and Kathy Goonan.

Evening brought the ICFA pre-banquet reception and reception. This included several awards, among them the Crawford Award for best first fantasy novel. The young winner, Genevieve Valentine, beams happily:
There was an after-party at the pool, but it was after 11:00 p.m. and I have a 5:00 a.m. airport shuttle. So -- until next year.

Florida -- ICFA continues

The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts continues in the Orlando sunshine. I went to the editor's panel, which featured a cast of thousands: (left to right) Ann VanderMeer, Art Evans, Nalo Hopkinson, Gary Wolfe, Ellen Datlow, Brian Attebery, David Hartwell, and Gavin Grant: The panel spent a lot of time talking about balance for anthologies and magazines, in terms of gender, orientation, and race, new writers and "old war horses" (ahem). The editors all agreed that actively seeking out such participants is necessary, not just sitting back and waiting for such writers to come to you.

I had lunch with Karen Joy Fowler, who has just turned in a new novel (title as yet undetermined), which will come out next May. I will be first in line to buy it.

During the course of the afternoon, a random conversation with Joe Haldeman revealed that THE FOREVER WAR, which just sold to the movies, was originally turned down by publishers an astonishing nineteen times.

Dinner with a group that included John Kessel, Kij Johnson, Jim Kelly, Nick DiChario, and Rob Sawyer. This was a less-than-literary dinner, with discussion of just how it is that women know what size bra to wear. Well, okay, there was some literary discussion as well -- but not a lot. However, we all got more literary by going back to the hotel to hear Special Guest Kelly Link read. She was very good. The day finished by the pool, having drinks with Jeff Ford, Daryl Gregory, and Liza Trombi of LOCUS, who kept suddenly disappearing into the pool and just as suddenly reappearing again, like a latter-day mermaid.

Another interesting development: I have received, and accepted, an invitation to be a special guest at the Untopiales SF Festival in France, in November. Viva SF!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Florida -- Days 3 and 4

Where does the time go? The Visions of the Apocalypse conference in Tampa finished on Wednesday in Tampa, with a panel on various types of apocalypses: global warming, angelic Armageddon, epidemics, pollution, species die-offs. Cheerful it was not. But a lot of people attended, looking depressed by the time we finished with them.

On a more upbeat note, these bronze bulls are outside the USF student center (the non-bronze figures are Gay and Joe Haldeman). The USF mascot, the bulls were originally called The Golden Brahmins, until somebody discovered those are chickens.

On to Orlando and the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). This is four days of academic papers on SF; this year's theme is "The Monstrous Fantastic." GOH is China Mieville. Wednesday night was a pleasant reception, and all day Thursday was papers, readings (one of them mine), and eating. Lots of eating. Also lots of books. Here is one section of the book sale room, being perused by David Hartwell, who is in the process of opening a bookstore of his own in Westport, NY:

I had dinner last night with the winners of the Dell Fiction Contest for Young Adults, a dinner organized by Sheila Williams and Rick Wilber. These young writers, ages 18 to 22, are brilliant, sophisticated, multi-faceted. One, Lily Yu, has her contest story on this year's Nebula ballot. Chatting with them, I realized this is not only our future replacements, but our present competition for magazine slots. Ah, well. The old order always changeth, and anyway the steak was good.

The evening finished in the bar with some of SF's adult women: Nalo Hopkinson, Ellen Klages, Liza Trombi, Karen Lord. Karen can do a one-legged squat. I witnessed this and took myself off to bed, old and out of shape and nearly displaced, a literary dinosaur watching the mammals move in.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Florida-- Day 2

Tuesday at USF began with more classroom visits. As Joe Haldeman and I talked to students, I learned that (1) he sold his very first story and I didn't, and (2) he writes his fiction longhand, in a variety of coffee shops. He also writes it with a fountain pen. Lately he has begun to blend his own ink. In short, Joe is moving backward in technological time, and may soon have reverted to a quill pen.

For lunch we drove to the Cuban section of Tampa for authentic Cuban food at Havana Village Sandwich Shop. Gay, who is fluent in Spanish, ordered for us. I had, for the first time, tostones (fried plantains) and a delicious dessert made with guava, as well as a Cuban sandwich. This is Rick Wilber in front of the restaurant:

Evening brought a wine-and-cheese reception and our readings. The theme of this conference is "Visions of the Apocalypse." Joe read from his recent novel EARTHBOUND, in which much of Earth is wiped out by catastrophe. I read from my brand-new short novel (below) from Tachyon Press, BEFORE THE FALL, AFTER THE FALL, DURING THE FALL, in which much of Earth is wiped out by catastrophe. Both books have (sort of) happy endings, but since we didn't get to read all the way to the endings, the audience left suitably depressed. But they had fun! They did! We hope!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


I am in Florida for both the University of Southern Florida's Conference on the Apocalypse and then, later in the week, the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). It will be a very full week, which I kicked off by flying from Buffalo to Florida at an insanely early hour of the morning. This was not helped by an overly cheerful sign in the Buffalo Airport: "Keep your smile in the upright and locked position!" Ugh.

Tampa, however, was lovely. I had lunch with Rick Wilber, who is organizing the conference, and Joe and Gay Haldeman. Next we toured the Lettuce Lake nature preserve, in which high boardwalks hold visitors safely above swamps, keeping tourists and alligators apart. Here are Gay, Rick, and Joe at the start of the nature walk:
A lake filled with wildlife and an amazing number of birds, all of which Gay could identify. Also alligators (I saw two!), turtles, snakes, and perhaps a Swamp Monster (not seen, but a good candidate would be the Burmese python, which has lately infested Florida. It can grow to 30 feet long and has teeth):

Eventually we all had to get to work, visiting a classroom of Rick's students, followed by dinner. Tomorrow (Tuesday) are more classroom visits and readings. Wednesday comes a panel on various types of apocalypses, including fictional (Joe and me), environmental (a USF chemistry professor), and religious (a professor of religion). I'm looking forward to that. Any good apocalypse worth its name should first take out that sign in the airport.

Friday, March 16, 2012

New Words

All writers love words. Here are a batch of new ones, the winners in the WASHINGTON POST'S annual MENSA INVITATIONAL contest. The goal is to make a new word from one or more old ones. I actually like #14 the best!

1. Cashtration (n.): The act of buying a house, which renders the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period of time.

2. Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and an asshole.

3. Intaxicaton: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.

4. Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.

5. Bozone ( n.): The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating. The bozone layer, unfortunately, shows little sign of breaking down in the near future.

6. Foreploy: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid.

7. Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high

8. Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.

9. Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.

10. Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease. (This one got extra credit.)

11. Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.

12. Decafalon (n.): The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.

13. Glibido: All talk and no action.

14. Dopeler Effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.

15. Arachnoleptic Fit (n..): The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

16. Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

17. Caterpallor ( n.): The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Jane Austen and Gregor Mendel

Jane Austen obviously did not know about the work of monk-geneticist Gregor Mendel -- for one thing, she died a few year before he was born, and decades before he began quietly drawing charts of pea cross-breeding in the monastery garden. Nor do Jane's books show much interest in the scientific advancements of her day. Nonetheless, her characters, which (for the purpose of this post) conveniently come with siblings and parents, show a quite credible adherence to Mendellian gene patterns.Consider: in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Mrs. Bennet is silly and dumb, Mr. Bennet intelligent and sarcastic. Of the five daughters, two are silly and dumb (Lydia and Kitty), one silly and intelligent (Mary), one intelligent and sarcastic (Elizabeth), and one intelligent and calm (Jane), much like her mother's brother. If silliness is thus dominant and Mrs. Bennet is carrying an Ss combination (that brother got two ss from their parents), then this is a plausible genetic distribution among their overspring. The same for intelligence, with calmness and sarcasm recessive.

You can do the same with the three daughters in PERSUASION. And MANSFIELD PARK, with its four siblings, is a perfect Mendellian inheritance pattern for sensitivity as a recessive gene (only Edmond, 25% of the offspring, has it).

Of course, personality traits are not that easy accounted for by single genes. But that's not my point. It is, rather, this: Good novelists intuitively understand the composition of real families. And real characters -- rounded, believable, interesting -- do not exist in a vacuum. They have, or at least had, families, which they were partially shaped by.

Often, SF does not do this very well. Too many protagonists exist in a familial and genetic vacuum. True, if your hero is off exploring a new planet, he probably does not have the entire family along so we can observe them. But she does have memory (good or bad), and using it to create a wider past can help characters seem more believable. Better yet, root the character in a family -- there is no better way to evoke more aspects of your fictional society. When I first read Ursula LeGuin's THE DISPOSSESSED, it was a revelation to me how much she solidified her society by including families in it. As does China Mieville in the more recent EMBASSYLAND.

At some level, Jane Austen knew what she was doing. But, then, she always did.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Writers and Books

Journalist Malcom Gladwell's latest book is a collection of essays, WHAT THE DOG SAW. The title refers to an essay on the "Dog Whisperer," Cesar Millan, but of more interest to writers may be the article "Late Bloomers: Why Do We Equate Genius With Precocity?" Gladwell argues, to put it succinctly, that we shouldn't, because there are actually two types of gifted people and their brains are wired differently.

The early bloomers do their best work... well, early. A painting done by Picasso in his twenties is now valued, on average, at four times as much as a painting done in his sixties. Orson Wells made his most valued film (CITIZEN KANE) at age twenty-five. Wordsworth famously wrote wonderful poetry when young, not-so-wonderful (all right, a lot of it is terrible, as I well remember from my days as a graduate student) when older.

In the other camp are the late bloomers, who struggle for years to attain mastery of their art. They seem to need to experiment, sometimes for decades, before they figure out what they want to express and how best to express it. Late bloomers include Cezanne, writer Ben Fountain (winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN award for BRIEF ENCOUNTERS WITH CHE GUEVARA), and Alfred Hitchcock, who made most of his most notable movies between ages fifty-four and sixty-two.

This should be very encouraging to those writers who stat late and struggle long. It doesn't mean you are not talented. It just means your talent needs a lot of time to mature -- an oak tree rather than a fast-growing poplar. If, of course, you don't give up.

On a more personal note, 2012 promises to be a good year for me. I have five books coming out! Three got backed up in the publishing pipeline -- more on these as they appear -- and two are reprint collections. The first, pictured below, is from the growing small press Arc Manor and is not quite a full-length book, not quite a chapbook. It includes six of my older stories on genetic engineering, the first one a winner of both a Nebula and a Sturgeon:
"The Flowers of Aulit Prison"
"First Rites"
"Margin of Error"
"Dancing on Air"
"And No Such Things Grow Here"
Available in both print and ebook.