Tuesday, December 30, 2008


This morning, before I leave tomorrow to return to Leipzig, I paid my quarterly estimated taxes to the feds and to New York State (sound of prolonged moaning goes here). But a question -- is it just me, or are taxes getting weirder?

New York State's governor has proposed an "obesity tax." This doesn't tax overweight people directly (at least not yet), but it does add a 17% tax on sugary drinks that are less than 70% fruit juice. Diet sodas are exempt. The thinking here is that such a tax will both raise money for the state (an estimated $400 million dollars a year) AND improve residents' health.

I can see a new bootlegging operation taking place: "Psst! Want some Pepsi from Pennsylvania?" New York already has tremendous problems with illegal cigarette sales from tribal lands to non-Native Americans. The last time the government tried to mess with tribal tax exemptions, Indians shut down I-90, New York's main east-west thoroughfare, which runs through tribal lands.

I'm waiting for the reaction to the obesity tax -- plus whatever comes next. Henry VIII had a tax on the number of windows in a house. I may paint mine over with Pepsi.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


Gardner Dozois has selected my story "The Erdmann Nexus" for his 2008 Best of the Year. I am, naturally, pleased about this. But, once again, it isn't the story I considered the best one I wrote last year. Which raises the question: Is an author a good judge of his or her own work?

Sinclair Lewis, one of my favorites writers but currently out of academic fashion (despite having won the Nobel) thought his best novel was Arrowsmith. In fact, in his later years he said it was the only one he could "stand to own." History, however, remembers him more for Main Street and Babbit. Graham Greene dismissed his spy novels as "light, inconsequential entertainment" -- and literary history vastly disagrees. Even in the smaller pond of SF, I have heard writers (no names) say they think their best stories are ones that most readers would not agree with. Including me.

The deeper question here, of course, is: "Best by what standards"? And so we come back obsessively to the subject of several other of my blog entries. What makes an SF story "good"? Great characters? Surprising plot? High-concept idea? Pace? Eloquent writing? Important thematic implications? Ideally, a story would have all these attributes, but while that's a great standard to aim at, an editor must choose from the inevitably flawed stories in front of him. And a writer usually ends up concentrating on two or three attributes at the expense of the rest.

I'm unwilling to say that all standards are completely subjective, because that leads to the situation in which any story is as good as any other, as long as someone somewhere says it is. But actually defining those standards is another matter.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Writer's Rust

Between teaching in Germany and then abruptly flying home for a family emergency, it has been several months since I wrote any fiction. I'm not an author prone to Writer's Block, which I define as emotional anxiety that prevents either working on a story-in-progress or beginning one despite a clear idea of the plot and characters. When I have a story in mind, I can usually work on it steadily, with frequent frustration but not keyboard-stilling anxiety. But last night I reread the opening to the YA fantasy that I stopped work on when I arrived in Germany, and discovered that I definitely have a case of Writer's Rust.

This feels approximately like the Tin Man in THE WIZARD OF OZ. I remember how forward motion felt, I want to move forward again, but as I read my paragraphs, I couldn't seem to get the writing machinery in gear. It creaked. It felt too unfamiliar. I couldn't move fluidly among my own words or concepts.

I have been through this before; it happens every time life forces me to stop writing for more than a month or two. Unfortunately, no Dorothy with an oil can is going to loosen me up. What's needed is a few weeks of daily application, of several hours a day, until the writing joints in the brain move freely again. Also unfortunately, this is not likely to happen until I return from Germany for the second time. So I put away Roger Kilbourne and his peculiar, fantastical mental problems until I am in position to attack the metaphorical ferrous oxide in my own brain.

But not without regret.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Probably a Big Mistake

One of the first things a professional writer learns is to never, never answer negative reviews. It only gets you into energy-sapping flame wars, alienates reviewers, and looks petty. Despite knowing all that for at least 25 years, I'm going to do it anyway.

Reader Steve Mollman, on his Live Journal site, reviewed FAST FORWARD 2. He didn't like my story, which is of course perfectly reasonable. A lot of people don't like a lot of my fiction, for one reason or another, and they are entitled to their opinions. But Mr. Mollman's review underlined a point I've been making in recent blog entries, and which is much on my mind. He wrote:

"The Kindness of Strangers" by Nancy Kress -- Aliens destroy most of the world's major population centers yet do their best to assist the survivors. Why could this be happening? You won't really be surprised by the answer, and neither was I. These sort of better-than-you-primitives aliens who like lording over us were sort of done to death by Star Trek in the 1960s, you know? Except here, there's no getting out of the situation with a grand, moralistic gesture, just some empty nihilism. I'm pretty sure this same story turned up at least twice in Brian W. Aldiss's Galactic Empires collections, anyway.

My problem with this is that it seems to me to miss the point of the story, which was NOT its SF idea. There are many types of "kindness" in the story, and it's necessary to consider all of them to see what I was saying about the nature of kindness and its mis-applications. Thus, the actions of Carleen and Jenny are just as important as those of the aliens, and the relationship between Jenny and Eric is a necessary comment on the aliens' violent goal. To look only at the "SF idea" is to bring a tunnel vision to my story, and thus to negate entirely the reason why I wrote it.

The larger point here is that, in my view, SF should be more than its "idea." I am not writing about a "galactic empire" or about aliens who "lord" anything over humans. It may be that my story fails on these other literary dimensions -- character, emotion, human insight, moral implication -- as well. But I would like a reviewer to at least say as much.

Mr. Mollmann?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Writing Advice

The best piece of writing advice I ever got came from Gene Wolfe, fairly early in my career. He said, "Have a short story feature two situations, and then let them solve each other." I thought of this advice while I was reading Paolo Bacigalupi's story in FAST FORWARD 2, "The Gambler."

Once I got past the image in my head of Kenny Rogers, I was really impressed with this story (which Gardner Dozois signaled out as among the best in the anthology). The story works on many levels. It also illustrates Gene's advice perfectly. Ong, the protagonist, has two "situations;" one is his concern and longing for his parents, who disappeared during the "black hole" of no information that Laos has become after a bloody revolution. Ong, now in America, is a reporter for a news conglomerate, and his second "situation" is that his ratings are low. He writes thoughtful, "depressing" articles about minor government corruption and minor environmental disturbances such as the extinction of an obscure butterfly. Almost no one reads these articles. Bacigalupi works his plot so that these situations impact upon and, ultimately, "solve" each other.

What's lovely about this story is that even though the high-tech tracking of media hits ("the malestrom") is completely believable and savagely frenetic, the characters (with one exception) are refreshingly low-key. Even the captain who arrested Ong's father in Laos is not a stock villain but a sad, believable man. Ong himself has a quiet tenacity that is the opposite of James-Bond heroism, yet he is a hero nonetheless.

Anyone wanting to write SF would do well to study this story's construction, pace, and deft characterization.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Real and the Silmulated

I am reading my way through FAST FORWARD 2, Lou Anders's anthology that is creating a lot of on-line buzz. Two of the major stories are built around the same SF concept -- and yet they could not be more different.

Both Ian McDonald's "An Eligible Boy" and Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum's "True Names" are about computer-generated sentient entities -- "sims." McDonald's Ram Tarun Das and the characters in "True Names" (Nadia, Alonzo, Paquette, et. al) know they are sims (which differentiates them from earlier stories like Walter Jon Williams's "Daddy's World"), and both sets of characters exploit their programming to try to obtain what they want. But there the similarities end.

The world of "An Eligible Boy," McDonald's future India, contains humans. The sim is, during the course of the story, directly created by humans, interacts with humans, and influences story outcomes for humans. There are actual physical locations in the story as well as simulated ones. The human characters are rich and touching and misled and, ultimately, full of genuine pathos.

There are no humans in "True Names." There are no real locations, either, other than a comet, an asteroid, and the black-hole-Sagittarius-gas-cloud complex at the heart of the Milky Way galaxy. The actions and interactions of the sims are meticulously analogous to actual computer programs -- at least, I think they are, being no techie myself. But these same analogies put the action at a distance from human readers, as in this brief passage:

"Well, on that cheery note," said the sock puppet...."I for one am due for parity check and rebalancing at the bath house. What say we adjourn for now?"

The entire story is told like this, with all actions able to be read in both human terms ("bathhouse") and programming terms ("parity check and rebalancing"). And what a complex story it is! Identities nesting inside identities nesting inside identities... but although I was dazzled, I was not moved. The McDonald story moved me.

Is this difference perhaps inherent in the Doctorow/Rosenbaum story set up? Must sims be inherently less able to reach readers emotionally than can human characters? After all, both are equally imaginary. McDonald's protagonist Jasbir no more "really" exists than do Nadia or Paquette. All of fiction is imaginary. Or is it perhaps that Doctorow/Rosenbaum take such care to relate all actions to computer operations that the technical jargon dilutes the story? I don't know. I don't even know if others reacted to "True Names" as I did.

So tell me, already.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On-Line BOY

Although on-line reviews of SF are of course commonplace (along with on-line rants, blogs, predictions, fights, libel, and actual stories), yesterday I received an email that represents a new development. New to me, at least, although no one would ever cite me as Internet-forward. Rich Horton, who already edits one of the four annual Best of the Year print anthologies, is starting an annual "best of SF published on-line." He asked for my story "First Rites," which appeared on Jim Baen's Universe.

This is interesting to me because it marks yet another move toward the Internet supplementing print publishing -- and possibly replacing it, eventually, especially for short stories. The best of those stories would probably then be collected in print anthologies or collections. However, not all published stories are very good (and I definitely include some of my own in that class). Those which are not good, which previously had a prolonged existence only in yellowing magazines mouldering in basements, would attain a sort of immortality on the Internet, while the good ones would continue in both forms.

I'm not sure yet how Rich Horton's anthology is financed, bought, or expected to yield a profit, but I intend to find out. It's an interesting development for SF.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Air Travel

First, let me thank all of you for your condolences on the death of my mother.

Because I've been flying around a lot in the last few weeks (I return to Germany on December 31) and also arranging tickets for others, I've become aware of a few nasty developments in air travel that I didn't know about before. First, if you book a round-trip ticket and do not use the first half, the airline will not permit you to use the second half. Not only is this NOT posted on airline websites, it seems intrinsically unfair. If I paid for an A-to-B-to-A ticket, don't I then own it, and shouldn't I be able to use or not use any portion of it that I wish?

Second, Trip Protection Insurance does not cover what I thought was paid for. Access America trip insurance includes coverage if the people you are visiting in Europe have a death in their family and cannot receive you. I had a death in my family and could not receive a visiting friend (since I wasn't IN Europe at the time), but because the death was not at the European address I had in Germany, the insurance would not refund the price of my friend's ticket.

Third, many airlines now charge $10 or $15 for seat-preference choices, including those made on-line.

Maybe I'm merely in a cranky mood, but none of this seems right to me. I can remember when flying was a lot more fair -- and a lot more fun.

Next blog, I will return to the subject of science fiction. Although I may carp there, too.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The day before Thanksgiving, my mother died unexpectedly of complications following an operation. I have left Germany for a few weeks to be with my family. Our loss is beyond words. Blogging will resume eventually.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Yesterday I was reminded -- if I needed a reminder -- all over again about the power that stories have on the human imagination. I was reading Khaled Hosseini's novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is just as good as his international best-seller The Kite Runner. Hosseini writes about his native country, Afghanistan, with a mixture of fictional characters and real events: giving a human face to history. In one section of the book, he talks about the drought-stricken summer of 2000 in Kabul, where the Taliban has forbidden books, TV, and movies:

"That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan -- sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and wept tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it, too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.

"At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river's sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buy Titanic carpets, and Titanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burquas."

Such personal risk in order to share in a story!

And speaking of stories, my writing class has its first critique session today. We sat in a circle and I passed around cookies, making this as much like an American writers' group as possible. None of the students had participated in a critique class before, and only two had previously written any fiction whatsoever, but they did very well indeed. I look forward to seeing the rewrites of these three stories, and of the rest to come.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


In the United States, this is Thanksgiving week. If I were home, I'd be planning a big turkey dinner for twelve. As it is, I'm invited to a pot-luck Thanksgiving dinner organized by my department chair, and therein hangs a problem. I volunteered to bring that very American side-dish, cranberry sauce. However, I cannot find any cranberries.

Cranberries are native to North America and have not yet caught on in Germany. Saturday I visited three greengrocers: no cranberries. Yesterday I went to the shops in the HauptBahnhof, the central rail station, which are the only shops open on Sunday in Leipzig. No cranberries. I have one more resource to check today: a gourmet delicatessen that, I'm told, is located in the basement of the big department store in the city center. If that doesn't work -- no cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving.

Cranberries are a terrific source of vitamin C. They can help prevent bladder infections because a chemical in them coats the inner bladder wall so that bacteria has trouble adhering there. They taste wonderful when prepared with sugar and a little orange zest. And they belong with Thanksgiving dinner.

But maybe not this year.

Friday, November 21, 2008


When I was a kid, sometime back in the Triassic, I read a story about the hi-jacking of a space ship by rebel freedom fighters. I can't remember the name of the story or the author (although the names Gordon Dickson and Murray Leinster both come to mind -- which? or someone else?) What I do remember was my fifteen-year-old sense of awe: Something that really huge could just be stolen?

Now that Somalian pirates have actually stolen a huge oil tanker, holding 25 people hostage and using organized crime as the transfer point for millions of dollars in ransom, my visceral response is not "awe." Outrage, disgust, fear are closer. The Somalian pirates' motive is greed, and the SF story hi-jackers' was (I think) patriotic freedom. However, it's the lack of "awe" that interests me at the moment.

Maybe the world has gotten too grubby and jaded for "awe." Or I have. At any rate, a "sense of wonder" is no longer what I look for in fiction, including SF. I don't want to be dazzled by things I never thought of before, even though often that seems to be what SF values. I want to be emotionally moved, involved at a visceral level with the characters and the situation, not with novelty or landscapes or gadgets or derring-do. Take, for instance, Elizabeth Bear's Hugo-winning story "Tide Line." I loved this story for the portrait of the dying sentient war machine who passes on its heritage to a child. Whatever devastated the Earth and sent it back to the Stone Age is barely mentioned. I'm sure that war was awesome, but it was probably also boring -- UNTIL it's brought down to the level of personal suffering.

So -- not a sense of wonder. A sense of vulnerable humanity. Which, now that I think about it, that space-ship piracy story probably lacked -- or else I would remember something, anything, about at least one character?

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Yesterday I had coffee at the home of a faculty colleague, Dr. Anne Koenen. The delightful afternoon featured luscious homemade pastries, plus hedgehogs.

Germany loves hedgehogs. There is a powerful organization, Pro Igel, that lobbies on behalf of the cute little critters. It has forced McDonald's to change the design of the lids on its McFlurry's shakes, since with the previous design, hedgehogs were getting their heads trapped and starving to death. Pro Igel ("igel" is hedgehog in German) also has conferences, education programs, and a Hedgehog Hotline. Plus, they do igel rescue.

By now, hedgehogs should be hibernating for the winter. But in order to do that, they have to be fat enough to live off their stored calories for several months. Those little hedgehogs that are not yet fat enough are still scurrying around, desperately eating. Anne, who lives on the outskirts of Leipzig, puts out cat food for the stragglers. It's a race against the weather, because if the ground freezes, the food disappears before the hedgehogs can build a winter nest, and some don't make it. In that case, concerned citizens can call Pro Igel and they will collect the hedgehogs, bring them to a sort of artificial hibernation center, and provide each little furry creature with yet more food and then a cardboard box where it can hibernate until spring.

I saw one of these small, laggard hedgehogs in Anne's garden. Go, hedgehog! Eat hearty!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CNN Europe

While I've been in Leipzig, my news has come mostly from BBC and CNN Europe. On Sundays I sometimes go to the central railway station and pick up the International Herald Tribune, but it's thin compared to the New York Times, and I don't like reading on-line. So CNN Europe has been my source of information -- and of an interest that goes beyond the actual news stories. There are a lot of differences between these CNN newscasters and those back home on ABC, CBS, and NBC.

First of all, here they don't look like actors. Some of the women are heavy. Some of the men are funny-looking. Nobody's hair looks sprayed into rigidity. Their suits can seem wrinkled. And their voices are not standard-mid-Atlantic, either -- Richard Quest of CNN sounds as if he's permanently caught in mid-gargle.

Americans are supposed to be the most informal people in the world ("Hiya! How ya doing?"), but these CNN reporters give out the news far more informally than Tom Brokaw or Brian Williams ever would. One said, during a series of technical glitches while trying to broadcast from the G-20 summit: "I know it sounds as if we're trying to bring you this with two tin cans and a piece of string, but just bear with us a sec." Another said, "Well, I've rambled on about that long enough, let's move on..." Election night coverage included this: "I'd tell you what's going to happen, but how the hell would I know?" Refreshing!

Finally, there is much more coverage of Asia and Africa than in U.S. news. The commercials, however, are just as simplistic and repeat just as often. I think I have now seen 4,396 times the tourist-bait commercial for "Incredible India," in which a beautiful, red-sari-ed woman floats alone through various India attractions (the Taj Mahal, a mountain precipice, temple steps, a desert), giving the impression that all of India is inhabited only by her and a clutch of camels.

Some inanities are universal.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


When one travels, one buys things. Souvenirs, local crafts, presents for people back home. This is inevitable and, usually, I can keep it under control, choosing small and packable objects. (The same cannot, however, be said for other people I've traveled with. On one long ago trip to Europe with my mother, I admonished her to buy small gifts: gloves or lace in Italy, watches in Switzerland. She bought a chess set, a tweed jacket for my father, a cuckoo clock, and four large dolls dressed in "native costumes." Guess who got to lug all this stuff in and out of airports?) Living abroad, however, is different. I inhabit this apartment for months, and I've bought things for it, which I now am encumbered with: A warm, large striped blanket because the European duvets, with white washable covers instead of top sheets, always look to me like heavy shrouds; A throw pillow for the sofa, comfortable for watching BBC; At least ten novels; Kitchen equipment. I can now ship this stuff home, leave it here, or try to cram it into my suitcases, already full of stuff (some of which turned out to be not needed). On balance, it's a good thing I'm not here longer, or I'd end up buying furniture. The living room really does need another chair...

Gifts are another problem. One friend wants marzipan, which shouldn’t be too hard. But another wants the Black Forest – the entire thing (“I want to hike in it.”) Another wants a “furry Russian hat,” which I can’t seem to find. And a lot just say, “Bring me something German” – which is no help.

I may just bring everybody schnapps.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has declared Germany officially in recession. The German economy, the largest in Europe, has shrunk for two successive quarters. Its chief financial officer warns that this recession will be "serious." Merkel has advocated drawing up a "risk map" of institutions likely to go under so they can be helped before they bleed too much -- a sort of economic triage.

It's difficult for an outsider to know how to evaluate all this. The ubiquitous construction cranes have not stopped working in Leipzig. Buildings are going up, not into foreclosure. Watching CNN Europe and the BBC each night, I hear interviews with financial experts all across the Eurozone, who seem to say that this global recession is a result of the crisis on the American stock market. If the United States doesn't pull out of this mess, neither will Europe or Asia.

Germany does not have a large national debt. In addition, it has a positive trade balance, being a huge exporter of all kinds of goods. Perhaps that is insulating the country somewhat. But not according to TV reports. One thing, however, does seem clear to me -- here there aren't the foreclosures common in the U.S., with people evicted from their homes, or the factory closings in China, with people milling around outside the gates demanding back pay. At least, not yet.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


My SF Literature class has turned in their first papers. There are 33 of them, and I am deep into grading, which in this case is even more difficult than it usually is. Although some of the students, inevitably, are merely regurgitating what was said in class, many others have written thoughtful and interesting papers. But they are writing in a language not native to them, and sometimes there are good ideas and organization but very rough English; other times there is nearly perfect English but either poor organization or not much to organize. How much weight do I give to what?

I suspect I'm grading pretty easily, partly because I'm so impressed that they can write an academic paper in a second language at all. They have read hundreds of pages of sometimes-complex SF in English, and will read hundreds of pages more (re Red Mars, Robinson has been accused of "describing every last damn rock on Mars.") That, too, seems to me to justify comparatively easy grading.

For those interested, here are the paper questions, both based on some of the works read to date:

Choose one question:

A person may accept the ideas of the world he or she grows up in, may reject those ideas, or may strive for a combination of acceptance and rejection. Discuss how this applies to two of the following characters: Berge, Koriba, Louise Banks, Shevek, Tirin. Be as specific as you can, citing incidents from the texts.

Much of science fiction is, in one way or another, concerned with power. Describe what power means and how it operates in two of the following societies: the terraformed moon of “People Came from Earth,” the Heptapod society of “The Story of Your Life,” the orbital Kirinyaga, Annares, Urras. Be sure to give specific examples from the texts.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Alternate History

Yesterday in SF class we tackled two stories of alternate history: Robert Silverberg's "Tales from the Venia Woods" and William Sanders's "The Undiscovered." Both stories were successes with the students, although I did have the feeling that not as many as usual had done all the reading, undoubtedly because they also had to hand in their first papers that day (a phenomenon I remember clearly from my own student days).

With the Silverberg, we looked at the story's two views of empire as embodied in the Pax Romana: as an oppressive totalitarian state or as the best alternative to a war of all-against-all. I put on the board Ben Franklin's aphorism that "History is written by the winners as an excuse to hang the losers." Nobody was exactly sure who Ben Franklin was, although they did have him located in the American war for independence from England. This discussion, of the viability of a world government (or what passed for "the world" in Roman times) is, in part, preparation for reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, the next thing on the syllabus.

We then turned to "The Undiscovered," Sanders's wonderful cross-cultural story about William Shakespeare ending up in America in the late 1590's, being captured by Indians, and attempting to stage Hamlet among the Cherokees. The Indians find the play hilarious. I find the story hilarious, and so was startled when two of my students disagreed: "It's tragic. It just crushes Shakespeare that no one understood his play." Which is, of course, true in the context of the SF story. An interesting response from thoughtful readers.

Addendum added a day later: I emailed Will Sanders. He said he intended it as a sad story. Score one for the students!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Doors and Toilets

One of the pleasures of living in another country is the chance to notice all the small differences. Such, for instance, as doors. Germans love doors. In the university library, there is a large room, opening off the mezzanine at the top of a wide staircase, where all books are checked out and in. People go into and out of this room at the rate of one every 35 seconds (I timed it) and every single one opens and closes the door. In America, this door (if it existed at all) would be propped open all day. Every other room in the library also has a door which is constantly opened and closed. When my students come to see me in my office, the first thing they do is close the door. The office of the Institute secretary has a door that, when she is there, is opened two inches to indicate her availability.

Thus, I was surprised whem, at a dinner party on Saturday night at the home of a German colleague, there were no doors between the kitchen and the dining room, or the dining room and living room. I asked if doors were not usual in German homes. She said yes, they are usual, but she had them removed. She'd lived three years in Berkeley.

Toilets: On the streets are small public toilets (see below). These are useful and surprisingly clean. The same idea was nearly installed in New York, but because the tiny buildings didn't permit handicapped access, the entire project was scrapped, on the theory that if everyone can't have it, nobody can. Leipzig is very good about handicap access -- there are ramps and elevators everywhere -- but not as stringent as the States.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


For some totally unknown reason, Blogger has decided to allow me to post pictures (mysterious are the ways of technology). This is the New Town Hall in Leipzig. It's not really medieval, having been built in the late 1800's, but it's impressive nonetheless. The BurgPlatz, the square there beside it, has nice little cafes and a lovely Italian restaurant.

This is the Opera House. Built in the 1950's, it has a light, airy main theater of pale wood and simple lines. Last night I saw Swan Lake (Schwanensee) there, danced by the Leipzig Ballet. Maiko Oishi danced Odette/Odile with exquisite precision. There were a great many children and teens in the audience; in the States I've only ever seen that at performances of The Nutcracker.

This is the Mendes Fountain (turned off now for the winter) at AugustusPlatz, Leipzig's primary square. Behind it is a controversial bit of construction: a university building that will include a sort of replica of St. Paul's Church. This was blown up by the GDR in 1968. It was replaced with university buildings, which in turn are now being replaced. Construction cranes work busily everywhere in Leipzig.

This is taken facing the other way across AugustusPlatz, toward City Tower, Leipzi's tallest structure. There is a restaurant up there that I have yet to visit, but it's supposed to have a spectacular view of the entire city. If I were a better photographer, this picture would not have that temporary plastic kiosk in it.

This is the top of the Kroch-tower building, one of the few left in AugustusPlatz after WWII bombing. The figures at the top chime the bells every quarter hour. They sound a bit tinny, however. The inscription -- in case you forgot your Latin -- says "Work conquers all."

The statue of dancers at BayrischerPlatz, beside my favorite cafe. I covet this statue. I would take it home if I could. But it weighs several tons, and Customs might notice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Anarchists and Capitalists

When my SF class here in Leipzig finished reading Le Guin's The Dispossessed, I asked them a key question. We had discussed the two planets LeGuin created, Anarres and Urras, and the various issues the novel raises: competition versus cooperation, safety versus freedom, the individual good versus the social good, equality versus merit. We looked at how LeGuin does not assume all good lies on one planet or the other, and why she subtitles her novel "An Ambiguous Utopia." We discussed the physical basis of each society: the geographically rich homeworld of Urras, and the relatively poor fertility of Anarres, the moon upon which humans had not originally evolved. We looked at the political structure of each: capitalistic Urras and anarchistic, non-money, non-propertarian Anarres. After all these points had been made, I asked them (with great curiosity on my part) this question:

"If you had to live on either Urras or Anarres, which would you choose? Urras, with its luxurious rich and starving poor, or Anarres, where all is shared equally and without law or government or ownership, but there isn't much to share in the first place?"

One student asked -- sensibly -- "Do I get to be at the top or the bottom on Urras?" But I said he wouldn't know until he got there.

The vote was four for Anarres, twenty-one for Urras, a few students abstaining. I'm not sure what this says about the young in the former East Germany, but it's sure interesting.

Election Night in Germany

Last night I attended an election-night party hosted by the U.S. Consulate and held at Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk, the state-owned radio station. The building is impressive: a high rise in the south part of Leipzig, with fountains in the spacious lobby, statuary, glass-walled elevators and offices. Security was equally impressive. There were checkpoints outside, I.D. and invitation checks inside, metal detectors and purse-checkers. I was wanded before entering an elevator to the thirteenth floor. Four years ago Germany had a near-brush with terrorism on a Dortmund train, saved from tragedy only because the bomb failed to explode.

The party was held in a series of large rooms with spectacular views, decorated with bunting and American flags. There was food, wine, little tables with piles of McCain and Obama buttons, and a huge TV screen playing CNN Europe. However, it was impossible to hear Wolf Blitzer because the band kept playing American songs: "Big Bad LeRoy Brown" and, for some reason, an assortment of Bobby Darin standards. It was a very mixed crowd: diplomats in good suits and students in jeans.

I enjoyed myself.I talked for a long time to the Honorary Consul for Sweden, a retired German banker who speaks five languages. He introduced me to many people, including Leipzig's chief of police, but since many of these people did not speak English, conversations were necessarily short. With the exception of the Honorary Consul, most Europeans were solidly for Barack Obama. The piles of McCain buttons sat untouched; the Obama buttons were pinned to jackets and sweaters.

At midnight I went home, carrying my miniature American flag. There were no results yet, since it was only 6:00 p.m. in the U.S. East Coast and the polls hadn't even closed. So I went to bed without knowing who was our president-elect. This morning I woke up, listened to a BBC replay of Obama's moving speech in Grant Park, and studied the record voter-turnout figures. Child of the '60's, I could only marvel.

The times, they are a-changin'.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Essays and Cultural Differences

Recently -- like, last week -- it was explained to me that the German tradition of essay writing differs sharply from the English one. American and British students are taught to write thesis-proof papers: set forth a central idea upfront, write points and cite texts or research supporting that point, and finish with a restatement of the central idea or a discussion of its applicability (in the case of scientific articles).

German essays, on the other hand (including the ones my university students have studied throughout their long schooling), are structured differently. An argument often examines all sides of an issue. The essay may start anywhere, since the point is often not manifest until the end.

All this clarifies a question that a student asked me last Monday after class, a question I did not understand at all. She said, regarding the paper I had assigned, "So do you want us to write this in the style we were taught before?" I said, "Style won't count as much as content. I want to hear what you have to say." But now I think she meant "structure," not what I was thinking of as style (voice, eloquence). These students at the Institute for American Studies were taught, in their first year, the American style of paper writing. By failing to say that's what I want now, who knows what I will get.

I will try to clear this up in class today, but the papers are due next week and it's possible that many of them have started to write (I hope). But I will try. The difficulty with cross-cultural differences in that if you don't know the divide is there, it's hard to build a bridge across it.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Closed Really Is Closed

Today is Reformation Day in Germany, celebrating Martin Luther, and closing shops and stores. However, I assumed that cafes and places of entertainment would be open. This turned out to be only partly correct, as I discovered when I took the tram to AugustusPlatz to buy opera tickets to see Mozart's The Magic Flute. The opera is on tonight at 7:30. The box office, however, was not keeping its normal hours. It was closed.

I had checked the website on this and received the impression that the box office would be open. However, it was difficult to be sure because the website is in German, and this is a sample of what Google offered me in its "Translate This Page" function:


Please select your idea about the match from.
You can choose divisions or title into the search box to enter. Our
subscription offer varied opportunities to our ideas with up to 50% discount to use. Our seating plans show the price at the corresponding seat. Service provides information on travel, parking and opera tickets as a ticket. People with disabilities receive service information accessibility. All questions to the opera go.

I then circled the entire building, looking for an open door that might produce someone to help me. No door, but I did find a musician, splendidly dressed in black tie (why? at 10:30 in the morning?), who explained that the Opera House would open one hour before the performance and perhaps I could get a ticket then. But tonight is the premiere of The Magic Flute for this season, and I didn't want to risk getting all dressed up, going uptown, and then getting no ticket. So the opera must wait.

The fancy cafes in city center were also closed. But my old faithful cafe in BayricherPlatz was open, and I had a "Reformation brötchen." I had eaten most of this splendid confection before I realized why it looked familiar: It was a hot-cross bun, as in the old English nursery rhyme.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Yesterday I met with eight of my writing students (the rest are yet to come) about the SF stories they are writing. We discussed their basic idea, their protagonist and setting, where they thought the story might go. They have some interesting ideas. Some are set in the past, some the present, some the future. Two of the eight are fantasy, six are SF, which surprised me a little because with American students, I get a lot more fantasy than SF. But there are many more student conferences to go, so the proportion may shift.

In the lobby of the building, a bookseller had set up tables to sell used textbooks. There were also novels, including a section of tiny books in English, printed on inexpensive paper, that must have been required for some series of courses. I can't resist the miniature, not of anything (my dog is a toy poodle). I bought three, and at a cafe on my walk home, started rereading Kazuo Ishiguro's wonderful Remains of the Day. Since this little volume (it's smaller than my hand) is intended for German students, it has footnotes in German. It struck me as wonderful that here I am, reading a book about the quintessential British butler, written by a Japanese-born author, with footnotes in German, and just purchased in the American Institute of the University of Leipzig.

This is what a university should be -- a meeting place for cultures and languages. This -- and not the economic fact that my socks were made in China -- is, to me, the real globalization.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Scones and Hip-Hop

Yesterday's writing class included a discussion of plot, an examination of Neil Gaiman's "How To Talk to Girls at Parties," some in-class writing, and my announcement that their SF stories are due in three weeks. Starting tomorrow, I meet with each student individually to discuss their ideas for the stories, provide what guidance I can, and quell any unease or panic. Producing an entire SF story can -- as I well know -- cause panic. I remember.

In the afternoon, Sebastian, two other doctoral candidates, and I took the tram to a Leipzig suburb for tea at the home of my colleague, Anne Koenen. This was completely delightful. Homemade scones and jam, freshly whipped cream, and -- even better -- great conversation. Leo is doing his thesis on hip-hop culture during the GDR, the Russian occupation of East Germany. I had no idea there was any hip-hop culture here during the GDR. Marie's thesis area is African-American writers of the fantastic, and we discussed Octavia Butler. Anne is teaching a course on American consumerism; I asked to sit in on one session of this, from curiosity. Earlier in the day, while wandering around the city central, I came across a "Euro Store" -- the equivalent of American Dollar Stores. Everything cost one euro.

I also saw another strange and charming sight. A woman was pedaling her bike along the bike path, towing a small, low structure that was enclosed in a sort of tent, with mesh sides and rain-proof top. As she passed me, I could hear a small child inside the moving tent, happily singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in German, riding along snugly in the rain.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ted Chiang and Ursula LeGuin

Class this morning focused on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" and on the first half of Ursula K. LeGuin's novel The Dispossessed. What these two have in common is an alien physics that substitutes simultaneity for sequency. In other words, instead of seeing the world as a series of cause-and-effect phenomena, simultaneity sees everything that ever happened as already present, and time as a single, non-divisible entity. Both story and novel turn on this concept.

It's not, however, an easy concept to get across to a roomful of non-science majors (including the teacher), in a language not their own. We had pictures on the board. We had analogies. We had much hand-waving. The index of refraction was dragged in, as was the reversibility of Einsteinian equations. I think the students did very well, from what I could tell from their responses. One asked if Ted Chiang had borrowed these ideas about time from Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. I said I had no idea. We then tackled anarchy as a social system, in the version LeGuin has invented for Anarres. It was an intense class, and I'll be interested to see how many return for next week -- when things do in fact get easier.

Next came a lunch with representatives from Holtzbrinck, which owns (among a lot of other things) Tor, my main publisher. The two women came by train from Berlin in order to arrange my public presentations, one in Leipzig and one in Berlin. Lunch was fun. Christina, one of the Holtzbrinck PR people, leaves in a few days for a vacation in California. She and a friend are driving from San Francisco to San Diego, along the Pacific coast. Travelers eastward, travelers west. But she will get the better weather.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Cost of Education

Over the last week, I've had conversations with my university colleagues about the cost of a college education. In Germany, there isn't any cost. Students must house and feed themselves (as they would have to do even if they weren't in college), but there is no tuition. Eighteen-year-olds take a state-sponsored exam, and those who score well are given a free higher education (except for a modest activity fee and the cost of texts).

The cost of tuition at a good private college in the States often exceeds $30,000; state schools are much less, but the cost is rising. Students can get grants and scholarships, but these rarely cover the whole cost. Most students go into debt to attend college, sometimes into staggering debt. I asked one colleague if my German students knew how lucky they are, compared to American students. His response was interesting: "Is it luck, or is education a civil right, as well as a country's investment in its future?"

But a different slant was provided by another colleague: "I used to think it was good that students paid no tuition. But now I think they might value their classes more if they paid some modest amount for them." Certainly I've seen that phenomenon borne out when I taught college in Rochester; my best students were usually the older adults who were plunking down their own hard-earned money, not their parents' money, for their education.

I can see both sides of this issue. I don't know the answer. But I still think these German students are fortunate.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Today I nearly got myself arrested.

I took the tram to and from the city center, to visit some Saxony fortifications, the Moritz Bastien. These, the last of the old medieval walls that once surrounded Leipzig, date from the sixteenth century. It was, however, the first thing in Leipzig that I found disappointing. Over the centuries, brick walls were built onto the small remaining portion of medieval stone. The vaults below are now a student club, to which I have no access. Above ground, the site is covered with a cafe, a now-deserted outdoors bar, and a lot of graffiti. I had a latte in a coffee bar and caught the tram for home, which is where I got in trouble.

Sebastian had explained to me how to buy tram tickets and then to have each side punched, one side per trip, by the machine aboard the tram. However, each time I've ridden the tram, I never saw anyone sticking a ticket into a machine. Okay, I thought, they punch the tickets at the end of the ride, as in D.C. But nobody seemed to punch a ticket as they got off the tram, either. Nobody punched anything. So I decided that the tram must be free at rush hour, the way buses are in D.C. on air-pollution days, or the downtown bus in Buffalo always is, and so I've just been getting on and off without punching anything.

Then yesterday a stern person came around demanding tickets. He did not speak English. I do not speak German. Frantically I produced an unpunched ticket from my purse. More exchanges unintelligible to both of us, accompanied by arm waving. Other people on the tram were interested but non-committal. Finally he took my ticket, punched it himself, and delivered what certainly sounded like a very emphatic warning, possibly with penalties attached. I smiled and tried to look even stupider than I already felt.

When I got off, I bought a whole bunch of tram tickets. At home was an email from Sebastian: It is possible to buy a month-long pass to show ticket inspectors, which is why no one was punching. I don't want a month-long pass, having convinced myself that walking nearly everywhere is good for me. But I certainly will punch my tram tickets. Now and forever, amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


On my way to campus, I walk through BayrischerPlatz. This is not one of the glamorous city squares like AugustusPlatz, which has the Opera, the Mendes Fountain, and the gorgeous concert hall, the Gewandhaus. BayrischerPlatz is situated between the university's medical school and a working-class neighborhood of huge apartment blocks. However, the platz is not without charms.

It has a cafe that actually opens at 6:00 a.m., three hours earlier than other cafes. It has a post office, tucked away in the back of a sort of convenience store where one can buy milch and pfeffernusse. There is a branch railway station and a tram stop. It also has an open-air market, a movable and variable feast whose vendors depend on the weather. On rainy days, only the fruit and vegetable sellers are there, under their awnings. Today, which is cold but sunny, there were butcher shops dealing from trucks whose sides let down, crafts booths, many stands selling leather goods, stalls with inexpensive clothing, and booths with miscellaneous collections of objects. I bought a hand-kitted scarf, a package of Christmas cards in German, and an apfelstrudel.

The Platz has something else, too. In the midst of all the mundane commerce, transportation, and postal action, there stands a lovely, delicate, life-size statue of two ballet dancers. The man is lifting the girl, her leg raised in a graceful arabesque. The statue is of polished black material, metal or else some synthetic stone, and if I could find a small reproduction of it, I would buy it in a minute.

Another thing I can't do is upload the photo I took of the statue, or the one I took of the Platz. For some reason, Blogger won't let me, although I'm following the exact same procedure I used for previous photos. Now it tells me I'm not connected to the Internet, which I clearly am, or else that I have the photo's address wrong, which I clearly don't since I let the "Browse" function fill it in after I chose the photo. So what's the problem? Can anybody out there help me with this? Does it maybe have to do with logging on in German but then having all other directions come up in English?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Leipzig Objects

Another set of random and unscientific observations, this time about various objects in Leipzig:

HELMETS. Everybody bikes, but nobody wears bike helmets.

TV: Even in the two English channels I get, the BBC and the European version of CNN, there is a cosmopolitan slant that is missing back home. After all, when on American TV do you hear a consumer-oriented commercial start with "Thinking of banking in Africa?" Nobody I know in Rochester, NY is thinking of banking in Africa. Nobody.

SCREENS: Like bike helmets, these seem rare to non-existent. All windows open directly into the air. Since Leipzig is a sizable city, there aren't a lot of critters about to zoom inside, but I have observed a few interesting-looking flying insects in both my apartment and office. One was similar to a dragon fly, with delicate green wings.

LIGHTS: My apartment is on the third floor (no elevator). If I come home after dark, I press a light switch on each landing, which then stays lit long enough to get me to the next landing, unless I'm so tired and dragging that it doesn't, quite. I've also seen this frugal arrangement in England and France.

CHESS SETS: I went to Karstadt, a big department store in the city center, to buy a cheap chess set so I can play by email with my long-time chess partner, Marty. The cheapest set, with plastic pieces and a folding vinyl board, was 16 Euros, or (by today's Barclay conversion rate) $21.49. Consumer goods are expensive here.

CHOCOLATE: It is wonderful. Beyond wonderful. To die for.

CONSTRUCTION CRANES: There are a lot of them, and they're not stopping work in the current global financial crisis. Leipzig is building a subway. The university is expanding. Buildings are being renovated. I walk past a dozen construction sites on my way to work. Scaffolding is always going up, coming down, being moved. Parts of LiebingStrasse resemble an obstacle course.

TAP WATER: It comes out really hot, hot enough to scald lava. Care is necessary.

The writing SF class met this morning, and we discussed, read, and wrote descriptions, focusing on specific and on point of view. Next week the students turn in to me their first written work, and I'm very interested in seeing how they do. I now have three students auditing the class "for fun," which is always good.

Monday, October 20, 2008

SF Class in Leipzig

Today was the second of my classes in SF: Constructing Alternate Societies. The students had read four stories for today: Mike Resnick's "Kirinyaga" and "For I Have Touched the Sky," Stephen Baxter's "People Came From Earth," and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life." We discussed the Resnick stories first. The students liked them and seemed to have no trouble following either story. We talked first about what an orbital is, and here some students had more knowledge than others of such SF tropes as rotating an orbital to create artificial gravity; this is also true of all the American students I've taught. With one or two exceptions, my Leipzig class are not hard-core SF fans. We then moved on to the philosophy behind the construction of the Kirinyaga society, and whether it's viable or not, and I was satisfied with their responses.

The Baxter story was more problematic. Some of them had more trouble following this: why people were doing what they were doing, what the background was, how the phytomining worked. Once we got it all straight, one girl said of the story, "It's very depressing." Which, of course, it is. But terraforming will be important in both The Dispossessed and Red Mars, and we touched on what some of the issues are in that complex process.

We didn't get to the Chiang story at all. This was my fault, since I'd misinterpreted how long the class was supposed to be, and I let everyone go too early. However, not one student pointed this out until way afterwards, when it was too late to get everyone back. Sigh. Next week I'll know better. Next week, too, we'll have to fit in the Chiang, as well as discussing the first half of LeGuin's The Dispossessed.

I also assigned the first of the three papers required for the class, which led to questions I couldn't answer about who was supposed to write the papers, since there are apparently two different ways one can get credit for the course, or possibly two different kinds of credit. I need to ask Sebastian Herrmann about this. The university is in the process of switching from one grading-and-accrediting system to another, both are currently in operation simultaneously, and mass confusion reigns.

On the way home, I stopped at a grocery store and discovered an utterly delicious little cookie, Schoko-Pfeffer-Nüsse. I have been losing weight due to all this walking, but these cookies could easily reverse the process if I don't watch out. They're really good.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Trams and Cupids

I have mastered half the Leipzig tram system -- that is, I can get uptown to city center, but I haven't yet figured out how to get home. Today, however, I was on foot, since the weather has improved considerably over yeaterday. I walked to ThomasKirche, the church where Bach was cantor for 27 years, to hear the world-famous Boys' Choir.

Unfortunately, the Boys' Choir was not singing today. But the Gewandhaus Choir was. These are adults, and they sing like angels. Sometimes a capella and sometimes accompanied by the organ, they offered a lovely program. The church was nearly full; these Saturday afternoon "Motettes" are popular.

What most caught my attention, however, was a tiny incident outside the church. There is a monument there, not to Bach but to Mendelssohn, who also lived and worked in Leipzig. The monument is a large column with a statue of Mendelsohn on top and, seated at the base, a muse (presumably Euterpe) with a bunch of cupids. People had left bouquets of flowers on the base. There was even a sealed letter, addressed to someone not Mendelssohn. The offerings reminded me a little of those left daily at the foot of the Vietnam Memorial in D.C.

As I watched, an elderly woman approached the monument. She had no flower. But she picked up a colorful autumn leaf and slowly, very carefully, inserted it between the toes of one of the cupids. And then I saw that there were other leaves between other cupids' toes. Leaves, rose petals, and a single daisy.

Friday, October 17, 2008


Today I bought laundry detergent.

This would hardly be worthy of a blog entry except that it led to an insight of sorts. As I stood in the German supermarket in front of a row of cleaning products, I thought: This is what it feels like to not be able to read. None of the product names conveyed any information to me whatsoever. Which was for cleaning clothes, which for cleaning toilets, which for cleaning windows, which for cleaning me? The only way I could tell was by pictures, which were in short supply on the containers. Finally I found a tiny logo of what I hope is a washing machine and not a dishwasher (or possibly a xerox copier) and I bought it. I hope it doesn't do awful things to my tee shirts and jeans.

This was a profoundly unsettling experience. I can't remember a time when I couldn't read, a time when I didn't read voraciously. Last night, when it was windy and raining and I stayed happily in, I was reading an SF novel, Hunter's Run by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, and Daniel Abraham. The book was absorbing and satisfying. It's difficult for me to imagine a life where that experience doesn't happen nearly daily. And yet for millions of people, presumably it doesn't. Half of India, to take just one example, is illiterate.

My purchase is called "Perwoll." I hope it's intended for laundry.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Lingua Franca

Last night there was a party in the international guest house where I am staying. It was a potluck, with everyone bringing a dish to sample, plus a great deal of wine. My new neighbors are a fascinating set. There is a doctor here for two months from Vietnam, to "learn new techniques" at a German hospital. A Spanish businessman who lives in France but spends three months of every year in Germany for his company. A young Russian doctoral candidate in physics who is spending a term at the Liebnitz Institute. An Israeli who teaches Jewish culture and history. A visiting Italian physicist at the Max Planck Institute. And, most startling of all, a Japanese linguist who is a world-class expert on a minor native Alaskan language.

I talked to all of these people, and more. The reason I could do this is that the entire party was conducted in English -- even though I was the only native English speaker present. Before this, I hadn't realized the extent to which English is now the accepted international language. The Vietnamese doctor, for instance, has no German and his colleagues no Vietnamese, but they managed with, he said, gestures and rudimentary English.

It was a fascinating party. And the food, from Italian zuppe through Vietnamese spring rolls to stewed cherries, was great -- and a welcome contrast to the simple meals I've been preparing for myself until I can convert my American recipes to European measurements.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Random Observations

After six days in Germany, I have some random and totally unscientific observations about Leipzig:

Germans are helpful. I get lost regularly, at which point I grab the closest person and say "Vo ist der--" whatever. They always reply, sometimes in English, sometimes in German. In the latter case I go for a few blocks in whichever direction was pointed, and then grab someone else. Everyone tries to aid me.

Germans are cold-blooded. Even when the temperature was above 70 degrees Fahrenheit for several days running, most people went around in heavy jackets, often zipped to the chin, as if expecting a snowstorm any minute. In over-heated classrooms the jackets stay on. I even saw kids playing soccer in heavy coats.

Everyone walks or bikes. There are bicycle paths beside most streets, and they are heavily used. Even at rush hour the car traffic is light.

Recycling is taken seriously. Plastic bags are not free at the supermarket; they cost money, and so people save and reuse them. The six trash containers behind my building are labeled -- in several languages -- CLEAR GLASS, GREEN GLASS, BROWN GLASS, ALUMINUM AND PLASTIC, PAPER, and OTHER. There is almost no litter on the streets, even near the university or near a middle-school which I pass daily.

Jeans are for the young. The students, like students everywhere, wear jeans, but if a person middle-aged or older is wearing them, that person is American or Canadian. Female students, unlike in the States, do not wear midriff-baring tee-shirts.

Germans are not litigous. The trams careen on their tracks down the centers of streets. Windows on the fifth floor open wide enough to easily admit someone's falling out. In the States these would both be lawsuits waiting to happen, but here the onus is on the individual to not be run over or defenestrated.

Germans make a terrific apfelstrudel.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Another Class in Leipzig

Today I walked to the university, thereby avoiding the whole Tram Question, and met for the first time with my class in Writing SF and Fantasy. This is a smaller, more informal class, and most of the students are a bit older. We started by looking at various elements of any story (character, conflict, etc.) and then focused on dialogue. A student, Raik, and I read aloud the two parts of Terry Bisson's popular, all-dialogue story "They're Made Out Of Meat." We talked about what makes dialogue effective, and I assigned them to write one-or-two pages in dialogue -- and only in dialogue -- that characterizes two speakers, due next week. Since we'd also discussed the differences between the traditional plotted story and the contemporary literary story, I assigned them an example of each to read before the next class: Robert Sheckley's "Street of Dreams, Feet of Clay" and Lewis Shiner's "The War At Home." I'll be really interested to hear their reactions to both.

My guardian angel, Sebastian Herrmann, took me to the university library to get a library card. However, the proper bureaucratic forms were not yet signed and delivered, so this project has to wait until tomorrow. The library's books in English, Sebastian told me, were donated by American colleges after the GDR was ousted from the former East Germany and the Berlin Wall came down. It looks like a good collection.

Although today (unlike yesterday) I had worn sensible shoes, my feet hurt by the time I walked home. I'm simply not used to walking four or five miles every day. I tell myself this is very good for me. Toughen those soles!

Monday, October 13, 2008

First Day of Classes

Today I taught the first session of my SF-as-literature course at the University of Leipzig. Difficulties presented themselves immediately: I was confused about the tram system and waited too long for a tram that wasn't supposed to arrive at that stop anyway. It was then too late to walk (a distance of just over two miles). So I took a taxi. The university is expanding, building, remodeling, and as a result has rented space all over the city as an interim measure. I am teaching in a bank.

Class itself went fine. I did an introduction to the class (syllabus, paper requirements, etc.) and then a history of SF, from Mary Shelley to Charles Stross. The students looked interested but didn't say much. Sebastian, who ably guided me through the bureaucratic requirements, said that not all of them would stay with the course. There is no penalty for dropping a course at any time, so students often sign up for everything that looks interesting, go to it all the first week, and then choose which ones to continue. He said that maybe half or less would stay with my course, especially since the reading list is pretty challenging. These are mostly second and third year students. At the end of the class they startled me very much by all knocking loudly on their desks -- a traditional gesture of class-ending applause.

Another glitch: The texts have not yet arrived in the book store, despite having been ordered months ago. This means that for the students to read the four short stories for next week (class is held once a week), elaborate photocopying will have to go on in the Institute offices. Sebastian, bless him, took charge of arranging this.

One thing surprised me about the class. When I teach SF in the United States, I usually get more male than female students, or perhaps a 50-50 ratio. But this class is overwhelmingly female. The Institute for American Studies is made up of 75% women, 25% men. Ditto for the Institute of British Studies.

Tomorrow: the writing-SF class. Also, I hope, a deeper understanding of the mysteries of the tram system.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Yesterday I set out to explore Leipzig on foot. These particular feet aren't used to all that much walking, and after 3 1/2 hours of it throughout the day, they ached. I tell myself it's good for me. The reality of being without a car for four months is just now sinking in. But the weather was gorgeous, the sun shone, and Leipzig is interesting, once I got past the closed office buildings lining PragerStrasse (IBM, Kia, T-Mobile) and reached the city center.

There was a graduation ceremony for some trade school going on in the Gewandhaus, the beautiful concert hall built by the GDR. Outside, graduates were gathering in little groups under signs that even I could translate: ELECTRICIANS. COOKS. MECHANICS. The cooks wore long white aprons over their suits, the electricians had tool aprons over theirs, etc. The group in top hats and tails had no sign -- were they magicians? The whole thing looked magical, beside a huge fountain amid a riot of flowerbeds under a blue sky. Naturally, I forgot my camera.

Leipzig is under heavy construction. I saw almost as many cranes as I had in China last year. Between the building sites in the city center were streets closed to cars and crammed with cafes, shops, bookstores. I bought a guide book in English, to identify what I was looking at. The English is a bit off, in a charming way. A legend about the Mendes Fountain says: "The benefactress Marianne Pauline Mende should have held a shady establishment and wanted to atone her sins by donating this well. This was written by Ergon Erwin Kisch once. That the reporter was taken in by a mistake can not be facilitated."

On the way home, I got lost. Later, going to the supermarket I had been taken to only the day before, I cut through a pretty little park and got lost again. I was atoning my sin of forgetting not only the camera but the map, a mistake all too easily facilitated.

Tomorrow classes begin. I need to go over my introductory notes, get up earlier than I have been, and not get lost on the way to campus.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Arrival in Germany

At the airport in Frankfurt, awaiting my flight to Leipzig, I tried out my German by ordering a latte at a coffee bar. "Milchtkaffee, bitte," I said. The woman behind the counter replied in German-accented British, "Would you like a bun with that?" Apparently I cannot pass for German.

Leipzig looked lovely in its fall foliage. I was here ten years ago, when the Russians had only been out for a scant decade, and then the city was very run down. Not so now: There is construction everywhere, and the place lools prosperous and inviting. My small apartment, in a new building, is cheerful and sunny, with bright yellow curtains and tablecloth. As I unpacked, I made a list of things I need to buy, and at the top is a decent-sized coffee mug. There are tiny little cups here in which the Germans serve their high-test coffee, but for someone used to a mug that can hold a pint of java, these are inadequate.

Sebastian Hermann, the very efficient doctoral candidate who is my liaison here, told me that the Germans are very interested in the American presidential election. (As always, the rest of the world knows far more about us than we do about them.) The TV in my apartment gets both CNN and BBC, so I, too, can keep up with American political news.

I got only two hours' sleep on the trip over. Sebastian took me grocery shopping. I unpacked. Then I slept for ten hours.

An interesting note: When I log onto Blogger, the headings (SIGN IN, etc.) now appear in German. And the English spellcheck no longer works.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Tomorrow morning I leave for Germany, to teach the fall semester at the University of Leipzig. My next posts will be from there.

The last few days have thus been a whirlwind of preparation and questions. Do I really have the assigned readings in the right order? Will Red Mars be too difficult for students who have English as a second language? Do German professors call students by their first names, like Americans, or their last, like Brits, or with "Fraulein" and "Herr"? Is there a German equivalent of "Ms."? Do German teachers dress up to conduct class? Should I bring a scissors? What should go in my carry-on, in case all my checked luggage mysteriously disappears? What if no one meets me at the airport? What will my apartment be like? Can I get the BBC or CNN on the TV that I've been told is in the apartment, so I can follow the election news and the daily financial crises? What else is or isn't in the apartment besides a TV? Is there wireless?

The last time I lived abroad for a period of many months, I was 21. It was different then. Throw a suitcase worth of jeans and sweatshirts into the handiest suitcase, and you're off. Not so now. Undoubtedly all these questions will be answered, and undoubtedly I can live with whatever the answers are. After all, I can now say, "The check, please" in four languages. What else could I need?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Passion Redux

Because a lot of people left interesting comments on my last post, I want to write about this subject again. I'm not sure I made myself clear. Yes, I believe you must feel a genuine desire to write whatever story is on your keyboard for its own sake, and not just because you think it's "marketable." But there are, in my opinion, also some other considerations:

Passion is, in mathematical terms, "necessary but not sufficient." You also need to know how to construct a good story. You may have a genuine and deep passion for the history of table cloths, but unless you can create interesting characters and a compelling plot line, you're better off writing non-fiction about your table cloths.

Characters, too, need passion. Samuel Beckett came up in some posts. I hated Waiting for Godot. I wanted to yell at the characters, "Hey! You up there on the stage! Don't just wait -- play chess! Knit an afghan! Write a sonnet! Start a soccer league! Use your time here with some passion!" However, not everyone feels this way about Godot. I will say this, however, from 30 years of writing: It's much easier to write a good story when your characters desperately want something and act to get it.

Having "passion" for a story doesn't mean that every time you sit down at the keyboard, you're bursting with creativity (what Bruce Sterling calls "holy fire.") Sometimes you do, sometimes you don't. A useful analogy is a good marriage. Many days you actively feel love for your wife, but some days you quarrel, and some days you just wish she'd leave you alone so you can watch football in peace. Overall, however, there is genuine commitment between you two. So it is with a story for which you feel passion.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Writing For The Hell Of It

The new issue of Wired magazine includes a nice article on Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and the just-published Anathem. The article talks about Stephenson's love of gadgets, about the millennium clock that the Long Now Foundation is planning (it's supposed to last 10,000 years), and about Stephenson's books. One paragraph in particular caught my attention.

Stephenson told the interviewer (Steven Levy) that his first two books were positively received but didn't sell particularly well. He then set out to collaborate with an uncle on a few political potboilers in a deliberate attempt to emulate Tom Clancy's success. This did not work. In 1991, Stephenson is quoted as saying, his career "was moving along at low rpms." So he decided to forget aiming at a large audience and "just go for broke, write something really weird, and not be so worried about whether it was a good career move or not." The result was Snow Crash, the book that catapulted him to SF fame.

The reason I was so interested in this account was not because it was new to me, but because it is so familiar. I've heard from so many writers that only began to sell when they abandoned attempts to please "the market" and wrote stories they genuinely connected with, cared about, were interested in, and were written it in their own unique voices. In my own case, I have two unpublished novels and a few stray stories that were dead sets at what I thought of as a "bigger and better audience." All now are merely dead.

I tell my students this all the time. However, not all of them listen. They should listen -- if not to me, then to Neal Stephenson. Career moves may work in, say, corporate finance, but in fiction, passion works best.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Dogs, Again

The latest issue of The New Yorker contains an article on Trouble. No, not the kind of trouble that's here with the current financial crisis, the election, or the environment. This Trouble is a dog, a small Maltese owned by Leona Helmsley until Helmsley died a little over a year ago. She left Trouble twelve million dollars.

Pet trusts are a difficult thing. The first one was established for Washoe, a chimp that had been taught sign language. The trust was established to save him from being sent off for medical experimentation, but to do so, New York State had to appoint a guardian for Washoe to administer the trust, and to accept him as "a person with a disability." The New York court did so, and the decision was accepted in Washington State, where Washoe lived.

Trouble thus had precedence for inheriting. But the two guardians named in Helmsley's will, her brother and grandson, didn't want him. And two grandchildren who had been disinherited threw the whole will into question. Eventually, one of Helmsley's hotel managers took the dog into his home, and the court reduced Trouble's bequest to a "more reasonable" two million dollars. This includes annual security costs of a hundred thousand dollars. Since she inherited, Trouble receives a lot of death threats.

To me, this all falls somewhere between ludicrous and important. The important part is that animal rights are a genuine issue -- but how far should they go? Is Trouble a "person"? Was Washoe? If my dog Cosette is a "person" (with or without a disability -- and is being a dog a disability?) and I am her "legal guardian," then how can I have bought her, or how could I sell her? (Not that I want to.) Buying and selling persons is illegal.

Bruce Sterling's SF often features "post-dog canines," genetically enhanced dogs who are the equivalent, legally and morally, of Sterling's "post-humans." His fiction assumes this state, but doesn't detail how we got to that point. I wish he would. Bruce, you listening?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


The current issue of Writer's Digest has a series of articles on the future of books. The most interesting piece of this is the statistics on e-books, and specifically on Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle. This nifty little device, which I would love to own, is a big improvement over previous e-readers: It's not back-lit, uses cell-phone technology for direct purchases and downloads of material, has access to most current best-sellers, and can receive periodicals like The New York Times automatically every morning. Since it launched in late 2007, books for the Kindle have mounted to where they constitute more than 6% of Amazon's sales.

Overall, according to the Association of American Publishers, e-books have shown a 56% growth rate since 2002. In 2007, they netted $67.2 million.

Nobody thinks books will become obsolete (well, almost nobody). But Amazon and the Kindle are there first, and most. Paul Aiken, executive director of the Author's Guild, points out that "such dominant systems can be hard to dislodge" (just look at MicroSoft). There are over 180,000 titles available for the Kindle. Fourteen of them are mine, including thirteen stories and one book, the Nebula anthology which I edited (which is also short stories). Why none of my novels? I don't know, but today I'm going to ask my agent.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Playing God

As I prepare to pack for Germany, I'm going through the hand-outs I use when teaching writing. One of these is a nifty monograph by Poul Anderson and Stephen L. Gillett called "How To Build a Planet." It starts with the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of stars, with instructions on choosing one likely to have viable planets, and then goes through how to figure out such planetary factors as gravity, axial tilt, energy received per square foot, etc. These, of course, translate into seasons, weather, plausible biomass, and everything else that makes a believable world on which to set an SF story.

Poul Anderson published the first version of this article long ago in the SFWA Bulletin. Many authors wrote the Bulletin to express gratitude for the article. One person, however, sent the following letter, which was included in the next issue:

Dear Mr. Anderson,
That is not the way I do it.
Yours truly,

Well, maybe not. But since God's methods seem unavailable to most writers, we do it any way we can. The updated Anderson/Gillett article is a great help; I recommend it. And it doesn't even take seven days and seven nights.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Writer's Elbow

Writing as a career includes many hazards: fluctuating markets, incomprehensible royalty statements, paying the full shot on FICA. There are also a few physical hazards: carpal tunnel, strained eyesight, being trampled from standing between Neil Gaiman and his fans. I half expected those hazards. What I did not expect was Writer's Elbow.

I type with one finger. (Yes, one.) This finger is on my right hand. My left arm rests on the arm of my chair, so that the left hand can be used to hit the SHIFT key (okay, one-and-a-tenth fingers, assuming that I need a capital letter every tenth character.) Lately, I have been averaging between 2,000 and 3,000 words a day on the YA fantasy I'm writing, which means I've been sitting at the computer for several hours per day. My left elbow rests or rubs all that time on the arm of the chair. This arm is padded, but nonetheless I have a painful rubbing away of skin, which breaks open, bleeds, scabs over, and then breaks open again.

Now, in the annals of work-related physical injuries, this is not exactly a biggie. OSHA does not need to be notified. What the situation is, is embarrassing. Writer's Elbow? Am I the only writer out there so afflicted?

If so, then I'm really embarrassed.