Saturday, December 22, 2007

Nebula Matters

It appears that "Fountain of Age" has qualified for the preliminary ballot of the Nebulas, which pleases me. Less pleasing is that so few works have qualified in all categories, due to people simply not reading and recommending as much as they should. These "people" include me. I will be gone for the next week, visiting family, and will take with me all year's worth of SF magazines to read whenever I can. Recommendations to follow.

Blogging will resume sometime in the last days of 2007. Meanwhile, happy holidays to all of you who are celebrating anything now, recently, or soon: Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Kwanzaa, the Saturnalia, the Winter Solstice, or Beethoven's birthday (December 16).

Thursday, December 20, 2007


The February ASIMOV'S arrived in the mail, with my short-short "Sex and Violence." A few hours later (he's speedy), Michael Swanwick sent me an email pointing out that my story and his in the same issue, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled," both "feature aliens speaking the same language!" He's right about this. Both of us resorted to the device of using brackets or parentheses or other punctuation around terms that, hypothetically, are too alien to have equivalents in English. Thus, from my story:

[Mghzl] [sighed]. "Begin an [official investigation] into the spore release. And send an [extermination/cleanser/cover-up team]."

From Michael's:

::We will lead you to the jungle and no further (hopefully-to-die) [treacherous non-millipede]::

This is not a new idea for either of us. Theodore Sturgeon did it in his 1955 story "The [Widget], the [Wadget], and [Boff]". I read that story (in reprint) when I was fifteen; it was among the first SF I ever read (nothing like starting at the top). When Michael and I steal this mechanism, it's an act of homage, although neither of us use it with quite the straight face that Sturgeon, in a more innocent time, did.

And Michael's story is very good. I recommend it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Why Bother?

Struggling this morning with the maybe-novel, and getting nowhere, I asked myself a question familiar to most writers at one time or another: Why write? Why put oneself through this? Hemingway's answer -- "For love, glory, money, and the love of women" -- somehow doesn't seem to cover it.

A larger-but-related question is: Why create any kind of art at all? How did art get started, and how did it get to be so widespread? Every culture, even the most primitive, has some sort of art: ornamented axe handles, beaded designs on animal fur. Biologists would say that for this human trait to be so universal, it must confer some evolutionary advantage. What is it? Recently I read two intriguing, albeit conflicting, answers.

Geoffrey Miller, in The Mating Mind, says that art began in the same vein as the peacock's tail: to attract mates. A man who could carve a great axe handle proved both that he was a good enough hunter to have extra time for carving and that he could make a nice courting present (who can resist a really nice axe handle)? So art began -- although didn't stay -- as proof of fitness to mate, which makes the Sistine Chapel one great sexual come-on.

Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, has a different explanation. She theorizes that art -- painting, dancing, music -- took up spare time that otherwise might lead early humans to over-use their habitat and thus possibly wreck it, or each other. The endless grooming of chimpanzees and the endless sex play of bonobos serve the same function: deterrent to more destructive activities.

Why am I reading (or rereading) this stuff instead of writing? Because my book is going badly. It's always easier to appreciate somebody else's art than to slog away at one's own. And it's better than hurling things around my habitat (read "study") in an excess of frustration.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Cranky at the Movies

I Am Legend, the third remake of Richard Matheson's 1954 novel, is in wide release and I saw it last weekend. For me, it embodied everything that is both good and bad about SF movies. (Warning: the following discussion is a spoiler if you don't know the story and plan on reading and/or seeing it).

The good is 1) the riveting special effects and 2) the chance to correct whatever was shaky in the original. Two examples: Robert Neville is now a genetic scientist instead of a random Joe, which makes his medical research into the cause of the plague (and in the movie, a cure) much more plausible. Also, in the movie the dog that contracts the plague and dies is not just a stray he domesticated for a few weeks but his own dog, which makes the animal's death much more affecting.

As for the bad -- Because movie makers want both those sensational special effects and a happy ending, they are willing to do intense damage to all logic. In the novel, Neville locks down his house at night and listens to the once-human-now-vampirish, infected creatures howl outside. In the movie, they don't know where he lives, and once they find out, they tear the place apart because these starving, emaciated, human bodies can scale sheer walls, exhibit superhuman strength, and other absurdities. Worse: In the movie, eventually Neville discovers a cure and dies passing it on to another survivor with natural immunity. She takes it to a secret colony of survivors in Vermont, and this gift makes Robert a "legend." What are they going to do with this cure? The survivors don't need it, and to use it on the "zombies" you have to strap them down for 24 hours and drastically lower their body temperatures, a daunting procedure. Also, there are no infected zombies in Vermont or they would have scaled the pathetic wall that encircles the colony, an idealized New England town complete with fall foliage and a white steeple, and eaten everybody. In the novel, by contrast, the zombies capture Robert and kill him, and he realizes just before he dies that, to them, he is the nightmarish killer, the outsider -- the "legend." The worldview turns inside out, like a sock. It's a satisfying and unexpected conclusion which the movie junks completely.

There have only been a handful of SF movies (as opposed to fantasy) that I like, for just these reasons. Is it so impossible to ask for both a dramatic story and some basic logic? After all, print SF does it all the time.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Coffee and Capitalism

When I was in China this past summer, I saw in Chengdu only two American restaurants, KFC and Starbucks. No Mickey D, no Wendy's. The Starbucks was very crowded. Since coffee was offered at no Chinese restaurants that our Merry Band of Writers visited (although it was present in the breakfast room at our hotel), I was interested in this phenomenon. Why Starbucks?

I never found out, but today the New York Times Book Review reviewed a book about all things Starbuck, which perhaps might answer my question. The book, Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture, by one Taylor Clark, sounds interesting. From the review alone I learned that:

-- in 1989 there were 585 coffee houses in America and now there are over 24,000

-- that 80% of Starbucks employees quit within a year

-- that Starbucks buys only "Fair Trade" coffee at fair prices, but although this benefits coffee growers, it may actually hurt the poorest, non-owning laborers in coffee countries, since even hiring day laborers on a coffee farm will disqualify it from being a Starbucks supplier.

The most interesting thing about the review, however, was that it seems to be better written than the book. The reviewer is the hilarious P.J. O'Rourke, and reading his review made me want to buy his books, not Clark's. That's not the way it's supposed to work.

But, then, I don't really like Starbucks coffee, either, unless it's tarted up with gingerbread or pumpkin or something. The coffee alone is too strong. I drink a mild instant. Don't shoot me, Seattle.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"The King of Sentences"

Jonathan Lethem, who used to be an SF writer but now has levitated into the stratosphere of literary mainstream, has a story in the December 17 issue of The New Yorker. The story, called "The King of Sentences," is an absurdist treatment of the extreme reverence that young writers can feel for the authors they admire. The story made me laugh out loud. Like all absurdism, it starts with a nugget of truth and inflates it though concentration and exaggeration. Lethem, a wonderful writer himself, does this with such ridiculous and yet sharp details that the story is a delight.

And the "nugget" is very real. When we writers eventually meet authors they've idealized for decades, we can act a bit nutty. The first time I met Ursula LeGuin, I couldn't stop babbling. On and on and ON, until I'm sure she doubted that I was really Nancy Kress, or sane. A friend of mine told me she was too awed to say anything whatsoever to Joyce Carol Oates. Another friend related that, standing in the back of a room to listen to Ray Bradbury, tears pricked his eyes.

A recent poll of teenager found that a huge majority could not name one person they considered a "hero." I don't think that we fortunate people who love books have that problem. We just need to figure out how to look "normal" in the presence of heroes.

Or maybe not. Lethem's characters end up abandoned in an EconoLodge by their idol, scorned, naked -- and happy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Wordsworth Was Right

In Jurassic Park and a host of other SF stories, much is made of the "flocking behavior" of dinosaurs, tying them evolutionarily to birds. Many scientific disciplines -- including computer programming -- study just how that graceful simultaneous wheeling of hundreds of birds occurs. When one flyer turns, they all do.

Most of the time.

Today I was driving back from the post office and I was not in a very good mood. A flock of Canada geese flew overhead in their characteristic V, going south from Canada. This is a common sight where I live, although this group seemed to be getting a pretty late start. All at once the flock wheeled, turned, wheeled again -- except for one bird. He kept on the original path, oblivious, until something must have tipped off that he was no longer with the program. He shivered in the air, turned frantically, and began beating his little wings as hard as he could to catch up with the rest, a bird flapping to a different internal drummer.

I laughed until I had to pull the car over or risk hitting something. My mood stayed high for hours afterward. Okay, it's not the exalted feeling of transcendence that William Wordsworth got from nature in "Tintern Abbey" -- but it's still a gift from the natural world. You big-city dwellers just don't know what you're missing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

An Editor Replies

Yesterday I wondered why Rich Horton chose my story "Art of War," rather than another story of mine, for his Best Of The Year. Today I know, because Rich read my blog and sent me email about it. With his permission, I'll both quote and summarize what he said:

"I typically have a longish list of stories I think are plenty good enough to go in the book -- the hard part is leaving some out. There might be four or five that are among my absolute favorites that I think I have to have -- but beyond that, I like all the stories similarly, so other factors really are appropriate." He goes on to name those other factors:

contractual availability -- "Each year so far there has been one story I couldn't take because of contractual restrictions."

varied representation -- "I restrict myself to one story per author."

length -- Although "it's important to have a variety of lengths," shorter stories leave more room for other good work and so may have an edge.

varied sources -- Rich tries to not "take too many stories from the same source -- Asimov's, for instance."

varying tone -- "It's nice to have at least some lighter stories in the mix" -- and varying subject matter.

There you have it, fellow SF people -- editing is a balancing act. Not unlike writing itself.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Best of the Year

It's that time of year again -- snow falls, Christmas decorations go up, and editors weigh in, one by one, with their "best of the year" anthology choices. Rich Horton has just picked my "Art of War," which appeared in THE NEW SPACE OPERA, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan. I am flattered -- and bemused. I like this story, but I much prefer "Fountain of Age" or "By Fools Like Me" or "Safeguard" among my own work from 2007. So why "Art of War"?

It's impossible to say, of course, except by Rich Horton, who hasn't (at least, not to me). But the bemusement started me questioning along an old mental track: What makes a story good? This led to a slightly different question: What are people looking for when they read? Different people, obviously must be looking for different things, so here's a varied list of what readers might want from their reading choices:

-- ideas new to them

-- a different way of looking at the world

-- a confirmation that the way they look at the world is indeed correct, and shared

-- to live a while in a different, more interesting world where things work out better than they often do here (I think romance readers usually want this)

-- to identify with characters stronger or more capable or more heroic than life lets us be

-- to observe -- but not necessarily identify with -- characters struggling with real human issues

-- to escape people struggling with real human issues

-- for the pleasures of language: the readable and artful prose, the unexpected word in the unexpected place, the phrase that perfectly captures a situation or sight

There can be more than one right answer. However, one story cannot hit all the answers. And editors, like everybody else, put varying emphases on different answers. You'd think this would lead writers to stop trying to second-guess why some stories are chosen for "Bests" and others are not. But, of course, it stops none of us at all.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Weirdnesses of the World

One of the stranger items to cross my desk recently -- way weirder than the article on "teeth critters" -- is a review of Frank McGillion's book BLINDED BY STARLIGHT. McGillion, a medical researcher, makes a case for an actual connection between astrology and medicine. One of his claims is that the amount of sunlight a pregnant woman receives affects fetal development through influencing her production of melatonin, vitamin D, and other bodily products. This, in turn, affects the growing fetus biologically, including brain development, which may affect personality. Since sunlight varies dramatically throughout the year in those countries in which astrology was first created, there may indeed be a factual link between birth date and personality. The original ancient-world "astrologer-physicians," McGillion says, were extremely acute observers of human nature, and the whole system of astrology thus grew from medical observations rooted in reality. "What's your sign?" is thus a meaningful biological question.

Although this seems tenuous to me, it's also fascinating. Research on meditating Buddhist monks has charted shifts in blood flow in their brains which may lead to some of the subjective aspects of the meditative experience. I make heavy use of this, in fact, in a story I recently sold to Jim Baen's Universe, my "China story," now called "First Rites." The connection between biology and belief systems is a fairly new field of research, and I find it endlessly interesting.

Incidentally, my other story for JBU, "Laws of Survival," is now up at JBU. No brain chemistry in this one, but lots of dogs and a few enigmatic robots.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Cyberpunk Redux

Recently I saw a copy of John Kessel's and James Patrick Kelly's anthology from Tachyon Press, Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology. It includes classic SF stories from the usual cyberpunk suspects -- Sterling, Cadigan, Shiner, -- as well as newer examples like Charles Stross's popular "Lobster." However, equally interesting is John Kessel's introduction, in which he intelligently (John is never otherwise) discusses the original cyberpunk movement of the '80's and its subsequent influence on the field. The introduction includes email exchanged twenty years ago between Kessel and Sterling when they were debating what SF was, should be, and could become. To read these is almost like looking into a time machine.

When Sterling as "Vincent Omniveritas" was holding forth in CHEAP TRUTH and Shiner as "Sue Denim" was slicing and dicing practically everybody's stories, cyberpunk was a hot controversy. Now it's an historical era. But the principles Sterling insisted on have definitely influenced SF: that the future be global, that technology is accelerating, that the uses to which it will be put will be at least as much criminal as legitimate, that technology will result in different and "post-human" humans, and that economics on a world scale should underlie any ambitious treatment of the future.

That last very much influenced me, even though I was never even remotely a cyberpunk. In 1989 I brought a not-very-good story to Sycamore Hill, a week-long writers' workshop attended by a widely disparate group of pros. Bruce Sterling tore my story apart, and no one, nowhere, no time, can be as savage a critic as Bruce. His underlying point was that I had paid no attention to how power or money worked in my invented society, and the results were unconvincing. After I'd gone home and licked my wounds for a while, I realized that Bruce was right. Power and money don't much interest me in real life, but that's no excuse for neglecting them in a future society where they must concern most people. So I thought about those mysteries, and thought, and thought, and the next thing I wrote was "Beggars In Spain." Thank you, Bruce.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Student Triumphs and Domestic Absurdity

One of the best parts of teaching is seeing one's students publish professionally. I don't believe that teachers cause this; talented writers would succeed eventually with or without tuition. But a good writing class can speed up the process because learning elements of craft in class is faster than discovering them by trial and error. Several of the students I've been privileged to teach in the last year have recently published. So kudos to:

From Clarion West: Derek Zumsteg, who sold a Clarion story to ASIMOV'S and who also has a non-fiction piece in BEST AMERICAN SPORTS WRITING 2007; and David Williams, whose novel THE MIRRORED HEAVENS, a fast-paced techno-thriller set in a very dangerous future, will be out next year from Bantam.

From Writers & Books in Rochester, NY: Kim Gillett, whose story "The Bird Reader's Granddaughter," won one of the Writers of The Future quarterly contests; and Craig Delancey, who just made another sale to ANALOG with his hard-SF story "Demand Ecology."

In contrast to all this competence is my ridiculous situation with regard to L'Oreal make-up. Yesterday morning I discovered I had three small bottles of foundation, and so I decided to consolidate them. I poured the one with least foundation left into the one with second least foundation, through a teeny-weeny funnel. Afterward, it proved impossible to get the make-up off my funnel. I ran it through the dishwasher. I soaked it overnight in dish detergent. I tried to scrub it with a brush. The plastic funnel is not permanently stained because the sludge, now a high-viscosity adherent, moves around a bit. But it will not come off. I suppose the next step is paint thinner, but I have no paint thinner and anyway I sometimes use this teeny funnel for food, such as spices. So here's my question for all you chemists out there--

What the hell is in this stuff that I blithely spread on my face every morning?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Flying and Piracy

I am finally, a day late, home from my last trip. Weather forced flight delays, flight cancellations, a night in an EconoLodge, vomiting from turbulence -- everything bad about air travel. As usual, this fills me with a desire to never go anywhere again. And, also as usual, I will.

One of the more interesting things on my computer when I returned was the latest chapter in the ongoing debate between those adhering to strict interpretation of copyright and those who argue that the times they are a-changing, and it makes sense for writers to make at least some work available for free on the Internet. This particular contretemps started with Cory Doctorow, of BoingBoing, posting a witty one-paragraph "mock review" that Ursula LeGuin had written about Michael Chabon. His original view was that his posting fell under the "fair use" provision of copyright law. Her view was that since her article (which she later sold) consisted in its entirety of one paragraph, this was piracy. Eventually Cory apologized, but there are a lot of genuine issues around this, including the fact that SFWA has recently dissolved its copyright committee. You can come in on the end of this, and follow links to its beginning, at

My own thoughts on this are murky. If I had been Ursula, I probably would have let Cory's post go, but less from principle than from laziness. I know I've been pirated many times (Argentina has lifted entire novels) but I lack the taste for legal or on-line battles. Which is not to say they shouldn't be fought. I just don't know for which side.