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.