Thursday, December 31, 2009

Reality and Not

First, two unrelated holiday notes. Walter Jon Williams has asked me to remind anyone interested that applications to Taos Toolbox, which he and I are co-teaching this summer, are now open. Second, I got a Kindle for Christmas, and I love it. Thank you, Jack!

Now onto the meat of this column. Every so often I get some variation of this question from a student: "If I base a character in my story on my Aunt Millie or Tom Cruise, can I be sued?" The short answer is yes to Aunt Millie under certain circumstances, no to Tom Cruise under most circumstances (in fiction), which is not really a satisfactory answer. But if you're going to do it, you might look first at a current wildly successful novel to see if you want to.

Curtis Sittenfeld's AMERICAN WIFE is based on Laura Bush. Sittenfeld, the author of the bestseller PREP, is not out to write scandal. This is not a cheap roman a clef, but rather a serious look at the question of why people end up in the often unlikely places they do. In this case, a school librarian who is serious, reserved, devoted to books, and with mildly left political leanings, finds herself in the White House, married to an exuberant, often profane Republican president who sends troops to a war she personally opposes.

Sittenfeld -- herself only thirty-four -- is at her best writing about young people, and the earliest sections of this novel are far better than the later ones: richer, more detailed, more vivid. Like Laura Bush, Sittenfeld's Alice runs a stop light in high school, hits another car, and inadvertently kills a classmate driving that vehicle. AMERICAN WIFE then builds a complicated character around that incident, giving Alice a fledgling romance with the boy who died, graphic guilt-sex with his brother, an illegal abortion, a lesbian grandmother, and several other appurtenances that seem wholly fictional. The author builds a complex psychological case for Alice's attraction to the Charlie Blackwell character: “He was all breeziness and good cheer; when I was talking to him, the world did not seem like such a complicated place.” She marries Charlie, who comes from a political family but is drifting job-wise and drinking too much. Eventually he quits drinking, runs for governor using his father's political machine, and goes on to be elected president in a disputed election settled by the Supreme Court.

This book left me torn. On the one hand, it is undeniably good fiction. On the other, the graphic and violent fictional inventions, attached to a living person, left me queasy. On the third hand (it's that kind of book) the novel raises genuine and worthwhile questions about marriage in the public arena: How far can one go in disagreeing with a public-figure spouse on critically important questions like war or abortion or gay marriage? Where is the line between wimpy abnegation of self and publicly undermining a spouse because of personal failures?

To Sittenfeld's credit, she has no easy answers. Neither do I. But if I were Laura Bush, I would hate this book. The portrait of her is sympathetic, and no public figures can expect the privacy allowed those who do not seek national prominence. But readers -- including me -- will have trouble separating the factual (because there is so much of it) from the invented, and the invented is often really, really distasteful. Should writers do that to people, especially to people whom -- and Sittenfeld has said this in print -- they profess to admire? Where is the line between courageous fiction and crass exploitation?

Laura Bush reads a lot. Did she read this? I find myself hoping she did not. And I'm a Democrat.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Being Positive

The SF blogosphere is having a minor kerfuffle (I'm not sure it has any other kind) over the attitude of SF literature. Jetse de Vries, the editor of an upcoming anthology of "positive SF," posted a castigation of SF writers for predicting doom while failing to provide solutions. That would be environmental doom, natural-disaster doom, medical doom, economic doom, and political doom. Jason Sanford's blog, in a convoluted post, agreed with de Vries, saying that much SF lacks the attitude that "humanity is always able to find a solution to the problems we create...I would argue that this positive outlook is what is missing from SF these days, and also explains why the literary SF genre is in such trouble. SF found in video games and on the big screen generally keeps to the classic positive attitude."

This is an interesting argument. Not the first part, because if "humanity is always able to find a solution to the problems we create," obviously we wouldn't now have the problems. Fiction that always solved everything would not mirror life. But the larger issue -- that SF accentuates the negative aspects of technology and science -- is probably true. And there are at least two good reasons for this.

First, Sf writers do not have the solutions to the environment, natural disasters, medical issues, etc. If I knew how to halt global warming, cure cancer, and prevent recessions, I would publish monographs, join think tanks, and/or consult at a zillion dollars an hour. When my stories do propose "answers" to these things in the form of future tech, the tech is often the weakest part of the story because it's so vague. How do you genetically engineer people to not sleep? Damned if I know.

Second, writers use negative scenarios because it makes a better story. Jetse specifically mentions Paolo Bacigalupi as an example of an author creating brutal and negative futures. Well, he does. And he's so good at it that you read breathlessly to see how his characters will cope with the next negative thing thrown at them. That's what fiction does. And since good writers are trying to create art that comments on reality, the outcome is not always pretty. Read the newspaper lately?

The function of art is not cheer-leading, not formulating policy initiatives, not providing a moment of bland daily sunshine. The function of art is to say something about life. Something profound or amusing or interesting or insightful or cautionary. But basically something true, and truth simply is not always positive. This alone goes far to explaining why the big-screen SF that Sanford praises is so often just stupid (see many previous "Cranky at the Movies" posts.)

However, I will end on a positive note right now: Merry Christmas or Happy Hannukah or Joyous Kwanzaa to you all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where There's Smoke...

Recently I bought a fake fireplace for my apartment in Seattle. It's electric; it does not have to be vented to the outside; you simply plug it in and admire the "flames." These may not be real but they look very, very real. You have to sit and watch carefully for a few minutes before you realize that the flickering patterns repeat themselves regularly. The fireplace can be set to throw heat or not, which is an improvement over the real fireplace in my Rochester house, which regularly sends the thermostat sky-high so that heat shuts down in the rest of the house. Very cold bedsheets and icy bathroom floors.

I love the look and convenience of the artificial fireplace. Now I discover that I have a third reason to love it: health. The latest issue of THE NEW YORKER has a long article by Burkhard Bilger on fire. Actually, it's about the long search -- over thirty years now -- for the perfect stove for Third World countries. This stove would be cheap, easy to use, fuel efficient, adaptable to local cookery, durable, and clean-burning. So far no one has found it, although the article details some current candidates, one of which may be funded by the Gates Foundation.

The average Third World cooking fire produces as much carbon dioxide as a car, and also a miasma of chemicals in the smoke. The leading killer of children world-wide is pneumonia. Careful studies of a village in the remote Andes have shown a direct and startling correlation between houses supplied with stove prototypes and those cooking on traditional open hearths. The walls of these houses were equipped with sensors and the inhabitants given periodic medical exams. Children who inhaled the least smoke (in the houses with stoves) were 65% to 85% less likely to develop pneumonia. And, of course, not only children develop pneumonia. "In a country like India," the articles states, "stoves could save more than two million lives in ten years."

I have friends who disparage my fake fireplace. (Yes, they're still friends). But at least I am not inhaling creosote, benzene, styrene, formaldehyde, and dioxin -- all components of sweet-smelling wood smoke. An unvented open fire produces three hundred times the EPA's standard for clean air as defined by micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter. About half the world cooks on such fires.

The stove project is fascinating. In its engineering, its tenacity, its many requirements, its progress. And Bilger can really write. This one is well worth your consideration.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Good Stories

About a month ago Gardner Dozois posted a list of his favorite stories of 2009 from ASIMOV'S. This is not the same as his Table of Contents for the Best of the Year, which of course draws from other sources besides ASIMOV'S, and which I don't think is yet available. I have been reading through the more truncated list. This project is only partial because half my issues of the magazine are in Seattle. But of the stories I have read, two stand out.

Both are novelettes. Mary Rosenblum's "Lion Walk" takes place in a future nature preserve, located at the foot of the Rockies, which is genetically engineering vanished animals from the Pleistocene. Someone is exploiting nature's savagery by dropping in young girls to create snuff films. The story is part crime mystery, part future tech, and part comment on the high cost of loving in a brutal world. It's a moving story, and I highly recommend it.

The other story, Tom Purdom's "Controlled Experiment," is not particularly moving. This tale, also about a future crime, depends not on emotion but on inventiveness. How do mischief-hackers operate in a world where everything is on-line (even the animals) and everyone seemingly knows everything about everyone else? The story is fast-paced, wildly inventive, amusing, and dead-accurate on the psychology of bright young men with too much tech on their hands and not enough social conscience.

As I read through my backlog of fiction, I'm struck -- for the second year in a row -- how many stories prominently feature genetically altered animals. Both the Rosenblum and the Purdom do, as well as several others. Last year it was dogs; this year it seems to be all sorts of animals. I wonder -- in rough economic times, do writers think more about the pets that either comfort us or share our distress? Does everyone?

At any rate, read these stories.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I am not writing. I could give good reasons for this: I'm awaiting a revision letter from an editor. It's the holidays. I am spending a lot of time keeping my house hyperclean in case a prospective buyer wants to inspect it. But the truth is, these are not good reasons. Except for ill health or a death in the family, there are no good reasons for not writing. I tell my students to make time, even if it's only 20 minutes a day, even if it's only half a page a day. And I am not following my own good advice.

The longer I don't write, the harder it's going to be to get back in the rhythm. I know this, from past experience. Also, I get irritable when I'm not working. Snow (of which we have a lot) bothers me. People sneezing in the supermarket bother me. All manner of things I can ordinarily shrug off bother me. This makes me bothersome to everybody else.

So as soon as Christmas is over, I will go back to one of my stratagems for writing that has worked in the past. I will count the words I write each day and graph the results. Unless I want the graph to resemble the NASDAQ, this tends to stabilize my writing. It's not that different from the gold stars one gives kindergartners for cleaning up their rooms -- but maybe we're all just kindergartners at heart.

Or maybe just me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On-Line and Off

Yesterday a curious anthology arrived in my mailbox. It includes my story "First Rites," as well as fiction by Peter Beagle, Cory Doctorow, and eleven others. What makes this anthology curious is that it consists of stories that first appeared on the Internet and now are being re-offered in print to reach a wider audience. The anthology is UNPLUGGED: THE WEB'S BEST SCI-FI AND FANTASY 2008, and is presumably the first of a yearly series.

We are constantly being told -- and I have done some of the telling -- that the Internet may be the new venue of choice for science fiction. An anthology like this shows that we're not there yet. As editor Rich Horton points out in his introduction, "There is the weight of history. Magazines...are still the first place many readers go to find what they expect to be the best stories." And still the first place many authors send their best work, on the grounds that print still has the widest exposure for awards nominations. Would I have seen any of these stories (except my own) if they had appeared only on the Internet? Probably not. And what I consider one of the best stories I ever wrote, "Laws of Survival," appeared on Jim Baen's Universe and then sort of disappeared after that.

Horton discusses some of the reasons for this in his excellent introduction, including the fact that no one has yet figured out how to make a consistent profit from on-line fiction. No matter how good the stories.

And while I'm discussing good stories -- the December 21 issue of TIME magazine lists its picks for the best books of the year. Among the ten fiction choices is Paolo Bacigalupi's THE WINDUP GIRL. Way to go, Paolo!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Creativity and the Brain

Quick, look at the letters below and unscramble them to form a word:


Now -- how did you do it? Did you systematically try out different letter patterns, or did you have an "aha" moment when the answer suddenly became clear to you? If it was the former, you used a different part of your brain than if you grasped the word whole. Psychologists say that the second group tends to be more creative.

I have been reading about various personality types in Helen Fisher's WHY HIM? WHY HER? Among other things, the book brings together various research on thought patterns, neurotransmitters, and temperament. Creativity and the easy generation of ideas are linked to specific dopamine pathways, especially of the DRD2 gene.

Heightened creativity is also linked to mood disorders. A study of successful British painters, poets, playwrights, and sculptors found that 30% had received treatment of some sort for mood disorders, compared to 5% of the general population. Poets were the most unstable, which explains a lot about Keats, Byron, and Eliot. Most of the general population, in contrast, was not measuring its lives in coffee spoons.

This book has many more fascinating insights into personality research. It's also -- unlike many books on psychology -- highly readable. Recommended.

And, oh -- the scrambled word above, in case you never got it, is "EXAMPLE."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

KIRKUS to Fold

The industry magazine Kirkus, which has been publishing reviews of books since 1933, is folding. As part of the sale of its business-to-business publications, Nielsen Business Media announced that it is closing Kirkus as well as Editor & Publisher. Nielsen is selling other major publications, including The Hollywood Reporter and Adweek to e5 Global Media Holdings.

This may mean nothing to those of you who readers rather than writers or librarians. But for authors, a starred review in Kirkus was an important thing because it boosted library sales, which can account for a significant proportion of hardcover sales. I remember how thrilled I was the first time Kirkus gave me a starred review. The magazine's passing, of course, is part of the larger crisis currently faced by print media of all types, including newspapers.

Maybe on-line reviews will take their pace. Maybe not. One more indication of how publishing times, they are a-changin'.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Kindle Redux

I have posted about the Kindle before, but now there is new data, courtesy of the January issue of ASIMOV'S. I have not yet seen this issue since half of my mail goes to Seattle and half comes to Rochester, depending on the vagaries of the Post Office and despite whatever instructions I leave with that august institution. However, a friend sent me this information (thanks, Doug).

Currently, 10% of ASIMOV'S subscriber base is receiving the magazine through Kindle or other electronic delivery. Ten percent! The digital literary revolution is coming faster than anyone expected. Okay, not anyone -- I imagine Cory Doctorow, say, anticipated this. But it certainly surprises me. And ASIMOV'S is negotiating right now for more e- delivery distribution bandwidth with more partners.

I have been spending the last week getting rid of books. Many, many books, in many ways. As I dropped off today's load of donations to my local library, my eye was caught by the perpetual used-book sale in the library lobby. I saw a particular book. This was a book I want. It was calling my name. But I did not buy it -- not even at $1.50 -- because I simply AM NOT going to move any more books to Seattle. But if I had the Kindle...

I may have to break down and buy one. I am not an early adopter of technology. Not even a middle adopter. But then, I never had to move to Seattle before, either.

Ten percent! Already!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hilarious at the Movies

I know it has been a long time since I blogged -- mea culpa. Suffice it to say that life got hectic. I will return to regular blogging now, and hope I have a few readers left who haven't totally given up on me.

Small updates: My house is not selling. My novel is. Applications are now open for Taos Toolbox (Google it), where I will be teaching this summer with Walter Jon Williams.

Now on to the movie review. Last night I accidentally saw 2012. This came about because at the last minute my movie companion, who had had a difficult day at work, decided that she simply could not face Precious. So we bought tickets, settled ourselves in the theater... and had a wonderful time.

Not because this is a good movie. It's a terrible, awful movie, so horrendously bad that it becomes funny. As absurdity piles on absurdity, all in a solemn tone, we dissolved in giggles. Then we started counting things: How many times runways and highways crumbled just feet behind vehicles bearing our heroes (six). How many phenomena could be caused by huge solar activity (shifting earth crust, meteors, massive magnetic fluctuations that nonetheless do not affect anyone's computers). And -- my favorite -- how many other books and movies had been cribbed from. I recognized scenes from When Worlds Collide, Earthquake, The Abyss, Titanic, Childhood's End, and Genesis. It's an amazing mishmash, and as hard to look away from as a collapsing sinkhole. My friend and I left the theater cheerful and still giggling.

Don't forget the popcorn, which has more artistic merit than the movie. And less transfat.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Author Lynn Viehl has, for the second time, posted her sales and income figures for her novel TWILIGHT FALL on-line ( TWILIGHT FALL was a paperback original that spent a few weeks on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list in the paperback division. It has now gone through two royalty periods, and Viehl has posted both actual statements. She's brave to do this, since most writers do not share their numbers and would feel more comfortable discussing their sex life, drug history, or criminal records than their incomes.

Viehl is not just brave -- she's disgruntled. Her initial advance for the book was $50,000. Sales so far are about 61,000 copies, with the publisher holding back income against an estimated 7,500 more returns. She figures that after taxes, agents' fees, and "expenses," she earned about $25,000 for the year it took her to write the book.

However, even though this is an accurate depiction of why most writers have day jobs, it is not the whole story. Viehl says that she sells overseas copies through her blog, and has not yet had foreign-rights sales. For many authors (including me), the foreign-sales income eventually equals the advance for a book. It can be a very long "eventually;" I just sold Korean rights to a book published ten years ago. But if you keep on slogging, eventually you earn as much from overseas markets as from the English-speaking one.

In addition, authorship -- and I should think most especially NEW YORK TIMES bestseller authorship -- brings offers to teach workshops, give keynote addresses at writers' conferences, and speak to a variety of groups from schoolkids to old-age homes. This, too, generates income.

Finally, writers vary tremendously in how long it takes them to write a novel. Viehl gives the impression that she writes full-time, and needs a year for a book. Many of us (including me) are a bit faster, and manage to fit in short stories and/or articles as well in the course of a year.

Writers are all over the map in their incomes. Viehl's story is honest and interesting -- but readers should not assume it's universal.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Real Estate

I am selling a house. This is a bad time of year to be selling a house, and a bad market to be selling a house, and to make it worse, three of the twelve houses on my road are for sale at the same time. This is not the result of foreclosure or a suddenly discovered toxic dump, although it does give prospective buyers the impression that people are fleeing en masse from Mallards Landing. In fact, one sale is due to a divorce, one to a newly perceived need to own a barn, and one (mine) to a cross-country move.

On the plus side of selling right now is a bill passed by Congress to not only extend the $8,000 tax credit for first-time buyers, but to add a $6,500 tax credit for not-first-time buyers who have lived five of the last eight years in their previous houses. The rules say the sales contract must be signed by April. This is supposed to stimulate the economy and, one hopes, the people interested in my house.

So far, this has not happened. But so far is less than one week.

Meanwhile, I am editing my life. Getting rid of everything I don't use, wear, or read. There is an astonishing amount of all three. How does this happen? I think stuff must be cross-breeding in closets... but Avram Davidson already wrote that story, long ago. I will say this: Editing fiction is easier than editing belongings. With fiction, you just press DELETE. It's more complicated to dispose of several thousand books, a 30-cup coffee maker, articles one planned on reading "some day," duplicate spatulas, and that lovely dress whose discarding requires facing the hard truth that one will never again be a size 6.

Stay tuned for a breathless saga of real estate in financially difficult times.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book Problem

I have a book problem, and I'm hoping someone out there has a solution. I am moving to Seattle (that's not the problem). Like most authors, when my hardcover books were remaindered by their publishers, I bought up a few hundred copies of each. New authors, especially, tend to get over-enthusiastic about this. So did my late husband, Charles Sheffield. As a result, my basement is full of literally, thousands of books that I do NOT want to ship to Seattle. I want to get them into the hands of readers. But how?

I have some donated to libraries and sold some at local used bookstores. But there are still so many books left (I think they're breeding). I don't want to sell them on-line, one by one, which involves more effort and time than I have. I can't seem to find any used bookstore that wants a huge number of the same titles. I will sell the entire lot very, very cheap. Does anyone know how I might do this? Or will I be reduced to leaving them all over town in small lots, like Johnny Appleseed sowing apples, until someone reports me for literary littering?

Desperation is starting to set in.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cranky at the Movies

A few days ago I saw the new Coen brothers' movie, A SERIOUS MAN. Its effect on me was serious: It set me thinking about expectations in fiction plus the experience of reading/viewing it.

A SERIOUS MAN is based on the Bible book of Job, sort of. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Arthur is a nebbish to an extreme degree; he is pushed around by his wife, his wife's lover, his kids, his deadbeat brother, his macho neighbor, and his students at the college where he teaches and is up for tenure. But he tries to do the right thing. A student failing his physics class (the kid can't do mathematics) tries to bribe Arthur to give him a passing grade. When Arthur refuses the bribe, the student threatens him. Then so does the student's father. Arthur does not give in, but in true Job fashion, misfortune after misfortune befalls him anyway, involving all those people and, seemingly, the universe. Arthur continues to struggle on, doing the best he can, and eventually things turn around for him. So far, so good.

But in order to get money for both his brother and his own legal debts, Arthur eventually takes the bribe from the student. This happens during the last five minutes of the movie. Immediately his son is threatened by a tornado and Arthur is diagnosed with cancer. The end.

My problem with this is its unrelenting misery: Arthur is ground down into the dirt when he does good and when he does ill. He never gets a break. This doesn't seem like life as I know it, nor does it seem like rewarding fiction. I don't ask that protagonists be sympathetic (every single person in this movie is both unlikable and unattractive), nor that endings be "happy." But I do ask that fiction illuminate reality in some way that makes sense to me, either as effective mirror of what is or as an ideal of what could be. This movie does neither.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Yesterday I attended a local con in Rochester, NY: Astronomicon. Guest of Honor was Mike Resnick, and his GOH speech was hilarious. He talked about past Worldcons, including the one where the Hugo bases had arrived in time for the ceremony but not the metal rocket ships which screw onto the bases. R.A. Lafferty won one. Later Mike and friends found him crawling under the table, very drunk, saying plaintively, "I think I might have won a Hugo, but i lost part of it!"

I did three panels, including one on "Alien Languages" and one of technology that SF promised us but which has not yet arrived ("Twitter My Jetpack.") I also attended a panel by Jill Nicholas and Alicia Henn called "Main "em Right." Jill, an ER and ICU nurse and Alicia, a microbiologist, answered questions from the audience on how to correctly injure your characters: What happens if someone is struck by lightening? Gets shot (various caliber guns)? What can pass the blood-brain barrier? What are emergency wilderness methods for dealing with a wound? The latter included peeing on it or, more appealingly, using honey. Both will help deal with infecting bacteria. You can also pack a wound with spider webs to give the blood something to clot over. First remove the spider.

Drinks in the bar with a crowd that included Rob Sawyer, who reported that he's very happy with the TV series based on his novel, Flash Forward. Indications are strong that it will be picked up for another season.

Dinner with Mike and Carol Resnick, Nick DiChario, and other friends. Mike told more stories; nobody knows more about the inner workings of the byzantine SF business community. Then, exhausted and happy, I drove home and lay awake pondering honey, spider webs, and alien languages.

Friday, November 6, 2009

What Was I Doing?

Two weeks ago Western Washington University released a study on "inattentional blindness," which means you don't see something because you're paying attention to something else. Specifically, they wanted to know how much talking on a cell phone "blinds" you to other sensory input. Test subjects were in one of four states: talking on a cell, walking in pairs, listening to music on an MP3, or just walking along without benefit of electronic or human companionship.

The cell phone users were far more "blind" than the other subjects. Three-quarters of them failed to notice a clown on a unicycle who rode past them. The cell users walked more slowly and acknowledged fewer people they passed. Essentially, like Gertrude Stein's famous comment about Oakland, there was far less "there" there.

This state applies to other electronics users as well -- such as, for instance, the two pilots who missed Milwaukee because their laptops absorbed their attention more than did landing a plane. Also less "there" are all those people on the other end of your cell who are simultaneously playing computer solitaire or checking their FaceBook pages or playing WoW (you know who you are).

What struck me about the Western Washington study, however, was how much it applies to writers I know -- including me -- even when we're NOT using electronics. If we're thinking about a story in progress, we're often not there, either. We're in the story setting, or mentally rehearsing plot twists, or carrying on a separate conversation with the protagonist. Do writers have more inattentional blindness than other people? Now that's a study I'd like to see.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Much SF is concerned with environmental issues, from dead oceans (e.g., TIMESCAPE) to calorie shortages (most of Paolo Bacigaluppi), to global warming. In the best of these books -- unlike most SF movies, which goes for simple disaster -- attention is paid to the need to balance the concerns of various forces. You can't change one part of the environmental equation without affecting other parts.

A real-life version of this is playing out right now with regard to wolves in the West. Since their reintroduction into Yellowstone Park in 1995, wolves have multiplied to about 1600 in a three-state region. That's enough to endanger too many elk herds, so wolf hunting was reintroduced in Montana and Idaho (but not yet Wyoming). There are quotas in place for each part of the state, but that has not ensured balance. For one thing, wolves don't seem to know where Idaho ends and Wyoming begins.

Conservationists argue that allowing wolves to be hunted only four months after being removed from the endangered-species list could damage the recovery. They also object because several of the wolves killed so far have been those wearing radio-tracking devices that allowed zoologists to study pack behavior. In the Cottonwood Creek pack, at least four of the pack's ten members have been shot, including all those equipped with radio trackers.

On the other side of the debate are different conservationists plus some park officials, who say that the unexpectedly quick repopulation of wolves has badly damaged elk and deer herds, and that unless the wolves are hunted, the entire food chain will be upset. Joining this side are some farmers. One rancher in Dillon, Montana, found in his pasture the carcasses of 122 sheep. Wolves, unlike many predators, will kill more than they eat, killing for pleasure.

Conservationists have filed lawsuits to shut down the wolf hunt. If that succeeds, a third faction fears, ranchers and hunters will simply take matters into their own hands and shoot wolves illegally. So what's the answer? Nobody seems to know. But the entire controversy illustrates how complex controlling the environment can be. And what applies to wolves also applies to crops, atmosphere, rain forests, and oceans. None of it is as simple as the disaster movies make it sound.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


Tuesday was my last class in this particular session of teaching at Hugo House, and an interesting question came up in class. One story, extremely well written, did not seem to come together at the end as a complete story. Or maybe it did. A few students said yes, a few said no, some waited to see what I would say.

What I said was this: Different literary genres, as well as different readers, expect different degrees of pattern. All art imposes some pattern on life, or else you end up with something like Borges's story in which a man decides to make a map. He puts in so much detail that the map ends up being indistinguishable from the real thing. Real life is messy: Plot lines start and stop, peter out, become confused, are ended abruptly and without resolution by death, feature coincidences, never reach a climax, have nothing to do with each other, etc. It is the job of fiction to impose pattern on the mess that is real life.

However, impose too much pattern and your story seems mechanical, contrived, formulaic (life is not a formula). Impose too little pattern and readers say "It seems so diffuse," "There was no satisfying resolution," "What are you trying to say?" or "It just ended without going anywhere." To complicate the issue further, some genres expect a more rigid pattern (romance, mysteries) than do others (literary fiction). A good part of plotting is finding the right pattern for your story, in your genre, for your material.

None of which was much help in deciding what to do with the story we critiqued in class. The author will have to do that. I wish her luck.

Monday, October 26, 2009

MileHiCon, Day 3

The final day of MileHiCon began in the con suite, which was having a kerfuffle with the hotel over serving hot food. But there were donuts and bagels and coffee and conversation. Barbara Hambly and I caught up on who is writing what. Her new book, HOMELAND, a mainstream Civil War novel, is just out. Here is Barbara, wishing she had a copy of the book to display:

After breakfast, down to work. I did a curious program item called "An Hour With Nancy Kress." I'd been told that during this hour, previous guests of honor had sung, danced, done a magic demonstration, and generally proved entertaining. Since I can do none of these things (and nobody anywhere wants to hear me sing), I just talked. Fortunately, the audience had lots of questions about writing, publishing, working method, etc., and it was a quick and enjoyable hour, followed by the GOH speeches. These also involved presentations. John Picacio displayed paintings and discussed their evolution. Music GOH Marc Gunn sang and played the autoharp. Since I had been scheduled opposite his main concert and hadn't had a chance to hear his wondeful Celtic music, this was a treat:

When Marc was finished, it was my turn. More talking. Why can't I learn to demonstrate glass blowing or something? Ah, well. We GOHs were all given little awards, and here I am accepting mine, still blathering:
Lunch was followed by schmoozing (more talking) after which the altitude finally claimed me. Denver is 5,000 feet high, and despite drinking a lot of water ("Hydrate!" everyone constantly told us feeble low-landers), those of us unaccustomed to the altitude had been a bit draggy all weekend. I suggested to Ed Bryant, a Coloradoan, that next year MileHiCon should lower the city several thousand feet, and the Con Committee said they'd look into it.

When I left for the airport, it was snowing. Actual, stick-on-the-ground snow. But it didn't delay the flight back. Seattle looked lovely shining through the fog. I am here one more week, then home to Rochester.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

MileHiCon -- Day 2

Conventions are fun. They are also exhausting. I did three panels today, one of which was "The Nancy Kress" panel, during which I discovered how embarrassing it can be to sit there while four other people discuss your work and tell anecdotes about you. More comfortable was the "Writing as Craft" panel, when established writers gave advice to aspirants. Everybody loves to give advice.

MileHiCon has all the usual con attractions, including an art show, kaffeeklatsches, dealers' room, con suite and people wandering the halls dressed as if attending gatherings in the past, future, or other dimensions. Here are two of these, plus the dealers' room, which had some lovely jewelry:

As always, some of the best discussions occur in restaurants and bars. At a birthday dinner for Courtney Willis and Jack Skillingstead (both turning 101), Paolo Bacigaluppi and I discussed the difference to a career that can be caused by the order in which one writes books. Following a very successful book with one with far less mass appeal is a bad idea in terms of the perceptions of the writer held by marketing departments and book sellers. Naturally, this is what I did, following BEGGARS IN SPAIN with the much more gloomy and difficult MAXIMUM LIGHT -- to the detriment of future sales and reputation. What writers need is what Paolo called the "sweet project" -- the book that a writer both wants to write and has widespread appeal.
After dinner, when everyone had recovered from the off-key rendition of "Happy Birthday" in the hotel restaurant, some of us went to the masquerade. "Best in Show" was taken by a sexily dressed "Scarlett Witch," whom I unfortunately did not get a solo picture of, although she stands out redly in the photo below. The tiny charmer in the front won in the children's division as "Punk Princess Fairy."

The day finished in the bar and con suite with more discussions of SF, but by that time I was too tired to register what was actually being said except for Connie Willis's very funny riff on Sarah Palin, who is also a pretty fantastical construct.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

MileHiCon, Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of MileHiCon in Denver. After registering, I had drinks in the bar with Cynthia Felice, Jack Skillingstead, Connie and Courtney Willis. The big news here is that Connie has -- at long last -- turned in the final revisions to the WWII novel she has been working on for eight years. The book will be published in two volumes, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, the first to be released in February 2010. Here is Connie with her galleys. She looks proud and pleased, but not as pleased as husband Courtney, who says he's glad to "have the ordeal over." :)

A panel on characterization went well, as various writers contributed their ideas on what makes characters memorable and how to get that onto the page. The exertions of determining this sent everyone to recover in the bar, where the conversation turned to cover art. Artist GOH John Picacio talked about juggling input from authors, editors, marketing reps, and -- oh, yes -- the actual text. John will be doing the art for a calendar based on George R.R. Martin's popular fantasy series. Here is John:Opening ceremonies featured short remarks from all the GOH, as well as the announcement that the theme of this year's MileHiCon is "Sunnydale Reunion." Since I am the last person in America to never have seen Buffy, this was a little bewildering. What was clear was that the GOHs were given little red ribbons saying "Sunnydale Survivor" and fans can collect these by making offerings of the GOH's choice. I, of course, want chocolate.

The evening brought everyone to the bar. Here are Jack Skillingstead and Paolo Bacigaluppi, who are taking a break from serious discussion of literature. Or of something, at any rate:

I finished Day 1 in the con suite, talking to fans. And so to bed.

Thursday, October 22, 2009


This isn't really an entry, just a notice that my next blogs will come from MileHiCon in Denver. I fly there tomorrow, as Guest of Honor, and I'm greatly looking forward to it. More from there with -- unless I lose the camera again -- pictures.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Garbage Trek

Currently, SETI looks for intelligent life through radio signals. It turns out that maybe they should be looking at garbage.

An article in the October 19 issue of NEW SCIENTIST speculates that pollution may be a good way to locate advanced civilizations. Radio signals are, on Earth, increasingly being replaced by satellite transmissions and by cable, both of which don't send out the same evidence spaceward. Lighting -- as in a glowing city -- is too faint compared to the light reflected off a planet's atmosphere. But massive pollution leaves clear absorption-line evidence of CFCs, industrial solvents, cleaners, and refrigerants. An alien civilization might not use the same ones we do, or they might get smart enough to ban the really bad ones (as we have CFCs), but on the other hand, they might use something that looks suspicious in the atmospheric composition. We don't have telescopes yet that can do such fine detection work -- but we might soon.

All this means, of course, that an alien civilization can find us through our atmospheric trash. As the Bible says --"By their fruits shall ye know them." It also suggests an interesting SF universe, in which civilizations find and rate each other by their garbage. "Look, Mycbputulr -- chlorofluorocarbons! Oooooo, honey, can we vacation there?"

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I have been reading Al Zuckerman's WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL. I am reading it not because I am attempting to write a blockbuster novel -- I don't think I have that capacity -- but because all aspects of my craft interest me. The question that Zuckerman, who for decades was the head of the literary agency Writers House, raises in his book is this: What sets a "blockbuster" apart from other novels that sell far fewer copies? In other words, what does the widest possible mass-market demographic want to read?

Without recapitulating the entire book, let me summarize. Zuckerman identifies a number of "blockbuster" characteristics, even as he duly notes that every single one has exceptions. The major characteristics are:
  • a clear protagonist, usually sympathetic, that we want to succeed
  • characters who are not Everyman, but rather are "larger than life," by which he means driving hard to get whatever it is they're striving for, whatever that takes
  • multiple point of view (despite having one main character) to "open up" the story and let the reader know more of what's going on than the protagonist does
  • a "big" setting: the Civil War, international espionage, the world of the New York Mafia, the million-dollar art world, Mars
  • very high stakes
  • personal as well as professional relationships among characters on opposite sides of the struggle
  • a lot of action, all building to a climax that changes everything for the characters
  • usually, victory for the protagonist

I must say that Zuckerman supplies convincing examples for his list: THE FIRM, THE GODFATHER, THE MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG, GONE WITH THE WIND, and various Stephen King novels. It's a 1994 book so he missed Harry Potter and Dan Brown, but they do match the pattern. In a comment to my previous post, the always insightful Mike Flynn pointed out that much popular modern fiction sacrifices depth, and Zuckerman makes clear that he's not after depth here. He's after identification of a certain kind of novel -- just as a bird watcher might want to name the identifying characteristics of a certain kind of eagle -- and in that task, he succeeds admirably. An interesting and knowledgeable book.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I am teaching again at Hugo House in Seattle. One thing I have noticed, not only about this class but about many others I have taught in the last few years, is how few aspiring writers are working on short stories. The large majority of my students in every critique class submit the opening chapters of a novel. Why is this? It was not true, say, twenty years ago. Are people less interested in writing short stories than they once were? And if so, is the motivation artistic (as in "I don't like to read them as much as I like novels") or practical ("The SF short-story market is drying up") or financial ("Stories don't sell for very much")? I don't know the answer.

In addition to teaching at Hugo House, next month I return to Rochester and will be teaching a critique class there. January and February are again the class in Seattle. In June, something different: an advanced SF and fantasy writing class in Taos, New Mexico. This, the Taos Toolbox Workshop, is run by Walter Jon Williams for students who are not beginners, but rather have completed Clarion or Odyssey or some other workshop, and are interested in moving their writing from almost-saleable to "sold." The website is (, and I am very much looking forward to it. Walter is a terrific teacher; I have never seen Taos, which is supposed to be gorgeous; and maybe someone will be writing short stories.

Before Taos come two conventions. At MileHiCon in Denver, October 23-25, I am Guest of Honor -- always fun. Two weeks later in Rochester is Astronomicon, November 6-8, with the irrepressible Mike Resnick as Guest of Honor. He has challenged me to a pool match. This is because I once beat him at pool, two decades ago. So I'm chalking up my cue...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Kindle and The New Publishing

Yesterday I had coffee with Boyd Morrison, a student of mine back in the Early Triassic and currently a Simon & Schuster author-to-be. Boyd's thriller The Ark comes out next year in hardcover in the United States, and also in twelve other countries. And his story is a fascinating peek into the way publishing is evolving.

Boyd acquired an agent for his book a few years ago, at Thrillerfest. This is an annual event in which authors and aspiring authors of thrillers get together to network, drink in the bar, and pitch books. Boyd pitched The Ark. An agent asked for sample chapters and outline, moved on to request the full ms., and liked it. She agreed to represent him. The Ark was sent to all the usual suspects and rejected, albeit with "glowing rejections."

When it seemed all possible traditional avenues had been exhausted, Boyd made The Ark available on for The Kindle. He priced it at $.99, a price calculated to remove it from the "desperate" category and yet attractive to the ever-growing number of Kindle owners who wished to fill up their new device. He hired someone to design a cover. The book went on Kindle-sale in March of this year.

What happened next is the New Publishing. On-line thriller-reader groups began to talk about the book: "This is good, get this, you'll like this, etc." Word of mouth pushed sales above 7,000. Boyd's agent also took notice, and resubmitted the book to Simon & Schuster, where editorial musical chairs had brought in someone new. She also began to send it to foreign markets. All editors, in every language, respect sales numbers. Boyd got offers, and for "very decent advances." Now the publisher is poised to push the book, and Boyd, as a hot new property. Watch for The Ark in March, 2010.

Although I have read about other authors -- not most, but a few -- who have parlayed self-publishing into a traditional book deal, Boyd is the first I've talked to in person. He's very pleased, as he should be. And the times, they are a-changin'.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I am working on Volume 2 of my YA fantasy, and am encountering the problem of all Volume 2's of anything: working in the backstory from Volume 1. How much does the reader need to know of what occurred before in order to understand what is occurring now? And, most crucially, when does he need to know it?

There are four choices here, none of them really good: (1) Put the backstory in a sort of Prologue or diary entry or some such thing, (2) Start with backstory in Chapter 1, disguised as current story through conversations, (3) Start with an exciting scene in Story Time and then put the backstory in Scene 2 as a critical flashback or, if you think you can get away with it, an eloquently written expository lump redeemed by wonderful prose, and (4) Drop in the backstory in small, easily digestible lumps and hope the reader can remember them all well enough to piece together the backstory even as story-time is progressing.

I have picked Door Number 4, but it's hard to know if it's working because, of course, I already know the backstory. After several drafts of Book 1, I know it ad nauseum. Therefore it's difficult to judge if I'm including not enough, too much, or just the right amount for a new reader to also know it. Where is Goldilocks when you need her?

The answer to this is a reader who has not read Volume 1. Eventually, I'll need to find one. But not yet. Thank heavens for that, because right now I'm too busy juggling fictional people to add a live one to the mix. This is why people hesitate to commit trilogy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Not Too Cranky at the Movies

Yesterday I saw Michael Moore's new documentary, CAPITALISM: A LOVE AFFAIR. It's a curious artifact, falling into two distinct halves.

During the first half, I found myself getting impatient for the same reasons everybody gets impatient with Moore: oversimplification of complex issues, injecting himself egotistically in the middle of his subject, going too often for the cheap and flashy effect. Two examples: First, he represents all landlords who evict non-paying tenants as evil and money-grubbing. Yes, these people have lost their jobs, but some small landlords are also in needful circumstances. I know a woman, for instance, who rents out a duplex, her only asset. One of the tenants has stopped paying rent. But my friend must still pay her mortgage and taxes and utilities on the building, and she needs that rent to buy her own groceries. Moore ignores such two-sided argument.

He also ignores facts that contradict his damning picture of modern capitalism. When he says that "Wall Street bought itself a B actor as president," he leaves out a few steps in the process, such as the fact that Ronald Reagan was governor of California. Now, I hold no brief for Reagan, and I think his deregulation of many key industries led in part to our current mess, but to give the impression that he was a man with no qualifying political experience before he ran for president is to falsify reality. In addition, Moore conveniently overlooks the fact that many of the people now in trouble elected him. Twice. There is something to the idea that people get the governments they deserve.

But when Moore gets out of the way and lets people tell their own stories, in the second half of the film, it becomes genuinely moving. The factory workers at Republic Windows and Doors who staged a successful sit-in to get the back pay and severance packages they had been promised. The Indiana sheriff who flatly refused to evict any more families, leaving children out on the street. The rural couple whose Countrywide loan (and those lenders are genuine villains) kept escalating in monthly payments -- from $1700 to $2000 to $2200 to $2400 -- until they lost the farm. And above all, footage of Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving a press conference on an "American Economic Bill of Rights," which he did not live long enough to implement.

This is an engrossing movie, despite its flaws. When Moore gets himself and his flashy antics out of the way, it's an important movie. Go see it.

Monday, September 28, 2009


On Saturday I attended Foolscap, a small con held in Redmond, Washington. It's a strange sort of con: some panels are held in easy chairs in the corridor, there is much emphasis on wearing and making hats of all types, and mostly the bar was empty. A "relaxacon," in part, and yet the panels I was either on or attending were interesting.

Among these was a panel on YA fantasy and SF. The panelists were two very knowledgeable YA librarians and two actual Young Readers. Since I am writing a YA novel, I was very interested in what all these people had to say. Some of it was surprising.

Among the most popular of YA novelists is James Patterson. Yes, THAT James Patterson, the guy who wrote ALONG CAME A SPIDER and who appears to produce a novel every 15 minutes. His YA novel MAX was on a list of ten novels voted most popular by a wide survey of teens. Number one was GRACELING, by Kristin Cashore. Other things I either didn't know or else did know but were emphasized by the librarians:

Fantasy is far, far more popular with young people than is SF. Among less skilled readers, the choice is graphic novels.

The cover is extremely important. Both librarians said that over and over again they had "sold" a kid on a book until he or she saw the cover, at which point they said, "No, thanks."

Boys still don't want to read novels with girl protagonists. (Still!)

Sharyn November at Viking has been republishing classic fantasy, which has earned her the sobriquet of "goddess" among librarians.

The most important literary quality valued by teens -- more than character, setting, or style -- is a story that "goes somewhere" and does so at a reasonably fast pace.

Sites such as help track what girls like to read.

In all, a panel far more useful than many con panels tend to be!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Exclamation Points

I am teaching again, this time in Seattle at Hugo House. It's a critique class, and several of my students are (unlike my Rochester students) new to critiquing. This can be a traumatic situation. Today I start reading the first batch of three manuscripts. At the first class session we had no critiquing, since as yet we had read no stories, so I talked about the basics: plot, characterization, structure, etc. I did not talk about punctuation.

And yet punctuation is important. It's also misunderstood. For instance, everyone knows -- or should know -- that the exclamation point usually does more harm than good. Ed Truitt, a science writer at the Weizmann Institute of Science, has a lovely little ditty about this:

"The exclamation point is greatly overused!
One could even say it is frequently abused!
In advertising copy, it repeatedly resounds!
And in breathless prose, it literally abounds!
The poorer the writer, the more frequently the case!
The exclamation point, they readily embrace!
To give a little emphasis! To make a little point!
This punctuation mark they will appoint!
But, to make emphasis perfectly clear,
Good writers generally appear
to make little use of exclamations
and other such typographic affectations."

And yet the exclamation point has its uses. Unless you write for COSMOPOLITAN, these are mostly in dialogue. The copy editor on my novel BEGGARS IN SPAIN did not understand this. She removed all exclamation points everywhere, undoubtedly having been told the "rule" in college. The result was that a six-year-old watching her parents have a vicious fight says, "Mommy. Daddy. Stop it." -- thereby sounding more like a detached cop than a frightened child.

Everything has its legitimate place!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Stuff

Dell Magazines, which includes ASIMOV'S and ANALOG, is currently accepting submissions for its more-or-less annual undergraduate SF writing contest. The contest is open to any full-time college undergraduate, carries a prize of $500 (more than ASIMOV'S pays me for a short story!) and instantly brings to the attention of SF editors the young aspiring writer who wins. So if you know of any such, direct them to the contest's website at

Diabolical Plots, a website devoted to SF, currently has up an interview with me. For the interested: I especially like the question mark in the URL -- "Is this thing really here?" :)

Jonathan Strahan took the much-labored-over Mars story. There are three kinds of stories: gift stories, that come easily to the writer from who-knows-where; composed stories, written with no more than the usual effort and revision; and the inelegantly-but-accurately-titled "shitting rocks stories," which require enormous effort to get out. This one was the latter. The odd thing is that, in my experience, quality seems unrelated to category.

Clarion East (although now that it's in San Diego, I suppose we'll have to call it something else) has come up with one of the coolest fund-raising ideas ever. They are soliciting old keyboards from writers who composed something memorable on them. Then one key from each keyboard will be extracted and rebuilt by Datamancer, who does this for a living (Google him; his products are amazing). The result will be auctioned off, with a booklet saying what famous SF works were written with which key, to benefit Clarion. I am in Seattle right now, but I think I have in my basement in New York the keyboard with which I wrote "Beggars in Spain." If so, I will certainly contribute it. Great idea, isn't it?

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Plotted Life

E.M. Forster famously said about plot: "'The king died, then the queen died' is not a plot, but 'The king died, then the queen died of grief' is." This is because plot requires causality. It's not just one damn thing after another, it's one damn thing causing another.

Real life isn't always like that, but sometimes it does conform to the conventions of narrative. Yesterday I burned my finger on the stove, bad enough to cause severe blistering. Because of that, I immersed my finger in ice water for two hours. Because of that, I was bored not touching anything, so I attempted to play on-line chess with my chess partner, Marty. This caused water to drip from my finger, which I took out of the ice water to make each move, onto my computer mouse, which caused the mouse to short out. Before the mouse died completely, it was difficult to control, which caused me to inadvertently send the wrong version of my Mars story to Jonathan Strahan in Australia -- a version that lacked not only a title but an ending. Then the queen died of grief.

All this has been straightened out this morning (except my finger). That, too, is a plot requirement. Or, as my grandmother used to say: Finish what you started.

The two guidelines for plot: causality and resolution. Why does it sound so much simpler than actually doing it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Feminine Fish

Yesterday's newspaper contained yet another article about the feminization of fish. This makes three articles I've spotted in the last month. Nearly 6% of American male fish show signs of feminization, with some species, such as black bass, going as high as 20%. The male black bass have egg cells growing in their sexual organs.

Why does this happen? The most immediate culprit is all the birth-control pills and hormone- treatment medication that seep into rivers, spreading around estrogen. The culprit behind that is the huge number of compounds, many used in making plastic, that act as estrogen mimickers in living tissues. Such estrogen mimickers have been found in the fat of polar bears hundreds of miles from wide-scale plastic use; the compounds are carried on the wind.

What does this mean for humans? No one knows. The scientific reaction ranges from mild concern that feminized fish don't reproduce as well, to major alarm sounders who say that estrogen mimickers also have neurological effects in humans, especially fetuses, and may well be the cause of increased ADD, learning difficulties, and other neurological issues in children.

In 1998 I wrote a book about this, Maximum Light. It did not do well -- who knows why? Maybe it was badly written. Maybe it was too depressing (it is). But I thought -- and still think -- the issue is important.

Monday, September 14, 2009


My Mars story is done, and now I have the usual difficulty in deciding what to call it. I am not good at titles. My best titles (with one exception) have all been suggested by other people. When I wander through bookstores I see wonderful titles -- intriguing or funny or pithy -- but I lack this talent, which seems to me closer to writing poetry or songs than writing fiction.

So years ago I came up with a system for creating titles. I can't say that it always works, but it's better (marginally) than nothing. It goes like this: Write down all the key words for the story, including terms from setting, theme, SF element, etc. For verbs, write down various forms ("transport," "transported," "transporting," etc.) Add all the characters' names. Make the list as long as you can. Then start shoving them against each other in various combinations until something works.

If that's not successful, start looking up each key term in Bartlett's Quotations until you find a line of poetry you can use as a title.

Once, long ago, when Ellen Datlow hated each of SIX titles I came up with for a story she'd bought for Omni, Bruce McAllister said he would give me a title that could fit any story ever written. I said I doubted that. He said, "'In a World Like This.'" He was right. I gave the title to Ellen, and she used it for my story.

Which means I can't use it again now. Although titles can't be copyrighted, it's a bit much to steal one from yourself. So I guess I need to start shoving.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Difficulties on Mars

I am writing a story promised to a theme anthology: teens on Mars. The restrictions are few, just that the story be SF, not fantasy, and that Earth has already established colonies on Mars. The time is from 100 to 1000 years from now. And I'm having difficulties.

Here is how I see it, and it would be great if someone out there can tell me where I'm going wrong: There are two alternatives. Either the story is basically character relationships, in which case it could probably just as well happen on a future Earth society. Or it concerns some specific aspect of the Martian environment, in which case I can't see how teenagers who grew up there are going to find it unusual or even interact with it significantly. Terraforming such as Kim Stanley Robinson did so magnificently in his Mars trilogy seems to me to take more space than I have in a short story. Teenagers do not make significant scientific discoveries, policy decisions, or explorations -- at least not in realistic stories. The adults in charge are not going to let sixteen-year-olds wander freely in such a hostile-to-humans environment.

I have finally come up with an idea for this story, but I'm uncertain about it. Earth is easier for me. Even space is easier. The Red Planet is hard.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Valhallacon is in full swing in Bellingham, Washington. This is a small, friendly con in a small, friendly hotel. Yesterday I did five hours of programming, ending up hoarse as well as jet-lagged, but enjoying myself greatly. Two panels, a GOH interview, a reading, and a kaffeeklatsch. A highlight was a sort-of-panel with science guest Peter Ward.

Ward, who is a regular on NPR's Science Friday, is a world-class expert on paleontology and mass extinctions. He is Principal Investigator at the University of Washington part of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, and the author of twelve books on science, including RARE EARTH: WHY COMPLEX LIFE IS UNCOMMON IN THE UNIVERSE. That one, which explains why we probably aren't going to find any other intelligent aliens Out There, apparently caused an epic run-in with Gregory Benford and David Brin, who think otherwise. I wish I had witnessed that.

This panel was supposed to feature SF writers generating story ideas about the material Ward presented, but we writers didn't do too much of that because we were too stunned. Ward, a personable and engaging speaker, cheerfully presented one disaster scenario after another, most of them "unstoppable." Seas rising from global warming, endangering three-quarters of the world's population. Dead oceans. In 100 years, way too much carbon dioxide in the air. In half a billion years, way too little carbon dioxide in the air, due to plants' fixing it, unless we heat up massive amounts of limestone to counteract. In five billion years, the end of the sun. By the end of the panel, the audience wanted to slit its collective wrists.

I raised this question: It's one thing to care what happens to humans 100 years from now but why should I, Nancy Kress, care if humanity no longer exists a half billion years in the future? Species come, species go. This question didn't seem to compute for many people, but it seems valid to me, and I got no real answer from anyone. I also pointed out that, in terms of writing ideas (the ostensible reason for the panel), a disaster did not have to be either forestalled or "solved" in the story. There is also a wealth of potential stories in "letting" the disaster happen and then imagining the world that might ensue afterward.

This is why I go to SF cons: for the mental stimulation. Well, that and the company in the bar.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Breaking the Rules

Although I am in Bellingham, WA for Valhallacon, the con doesn't start until tonight. The drive up here from Seattle was gorgeous; we Flatlanders don't get to see such mountains at home. Then a pleasant dinner with the convention committee at a local restaurant. Tonight I have opening ceremonies at 6:00 and a bookstore signing across town at 7:00, which everybody admits is sort of a problem, what with that pesky law of physics that prohibits being in two places at once. But nobody seems worried about this, so I won't worry either. Instead, I'll blog about Jennifer Egan's novel THE KEEP, which I read on the plane.

This is a fantasy-murder mystery-mainstream hybrid which debuted in 2006. Egan has been a National Book Award finalist, and THE KEEP comes with enough accolades to earn sainthood, so I was expecting something unusual. I was rewarded, but not before I was totally mystified and saying to myself "What the %@*&%?"

Her prose is lovely from the first paragraph, and so is the depth of her insight. Here is Danny, compulsive about email and Face Book and blogs, finding himself in a place unexpectedly out of touch with the Internet even though he has brought with him a satellite dish for just this eventuality:

"Danny needed [access]. His brain refused to stay locked up inside the echo chamber of his head -- it spilled out and poured across the world until it was touching a thousand people who had nothing to do with him. If his brain wasn't allowed to do this, if Danny kept it locked up inside his skull, a pressure began to build."

I think: Just so. I know people like Danny (and so do you). But by the bottom of this same page (page 12) the narrative switches briefly from third-person with Danny to first-person with someone else I have not met, and I stop dead. I think: Egan is too good a writer to make this kind of mistake, so it's not a mistake. What is she doing?

It takes me the entire first half of the book to find out. By the time I do, she's broken every single rule about point of view. She mixes third and first person, throws in three separate first-person POVs without warning, switches sometimes in the middle of a paragraph for an unpredictable length of time, does not tell you who they are or what their relationship is to each other until you figure it out for yourself very near the end. And it all works.

Why? Partly because she is so good, partly because it's not a parlor trick nor a gratuitous display of authorial skill. These POV pyrotechnics are intimately related to what she has to say about identity, responsibility, and the worst kinds of mistakes people can make with their lives. If the plot occasionally gets too conveniently weird for my tastes -- and it does -- the overall narrative design is so good, and her characters so compelling, that I was completely absorbed. You have to be a virtuoso to pull off this sort of thing, and she is.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Modern Communication

I have succumbed to the pressure to join Face Book. I even comment on it. However, so many people are detailing their every move ("Gone to the hardware store." "Back from the hardware store.") that it takes a lot of time to separate the wheat from the chaff. I may just forget the whole thing. Or do I lack patience?

Another form of modern communication: my story "The Flowers of Aulit Prison" is now being podcast, free, at This story won both a Nebula and a Sturgeon, so if you're interested, there it is.

An older form of communication: the SF con. Tomorrow I fly to Bellingham, Washington, to be Guest of Honor at Valhallacon. This used to be Viking Con, but that version of the gathering died and where do good Vikings go when they die? The con looks like fun. I have five hours of programming on Saturday, however, and so expect to end up exhausted, hoarse, and happy. Next blogs will come from Hall of Heroes.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Cranky at the Movies

Last night I saw TAKING WOODSTOCK, about the machinations behind putting on the famous 1968 music festival. I'd been looking forward to this because the trailer looked like such fun, because I was not at Woodstock, and because despite that oversight I so vividly remember my '60's youth. However, I was disappointed. (BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD)

It's not a terrible movie. I wasn't bored, but I left feeling unsettled because the movie never decides what its attitude is toward its subject matter. Two examples: First, the main plot features the struggle of Elliot, adult offspring of the immigrant owners of a seedy motel located down the road from the Yasgur farm and threatened with foreclosure, to be a good son. He works in NYC and gives the majority of his earnings to his parents. He spends his vacations keeping the motel in some semblance of repair. He hides the fact that he's gay. Woodstock supposedly frees him from these stifling restrictions, and he pays off the mortgage on the motel. THEN he discovers that his mother has hoarded cash all these years and has $94,000 in her closet. All his self-sacrifices were unnecessary. He confronts his parents with this. His mother, a grasping and unpleasant character, just says, "It's mine!" His father just says, "I love her." After that's that. The family resumes on the same sentimental basis as before, and the moment of searing familial truth reverts to funny fluff.

Second: At the end of the movie, the organizer Michael Lang exults to Elliot that Woodstock has been "three days of peace and music," and goes on exulting about the next festival he's already organizing: the Stones at Altamont. Michael and Elliot don't know what will happen at that festival, but we do. Are we supposed to think that this final comment of the screenplay (a power position in any work of fiction) shows that "peace and music" are not the good things Michael has just stated they are? Or what? The ending doesn't fit with the fluff that went before, and it jars.

Other things jarred, too. This would be a better movie if director Ang Lee -- usually sure-footed -- had decided what kind of comment he wanted to make about Woodstock, or freedom, or money. Instead he settled for a lot of nostalgic visuals of tie-dye and acid trips. Too bad.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Behavior of Humans

Recently I reread Jane Austen's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, a thing I do rather often. This time through, I got to pondering why this period behavior still rings true when so much of other books does not. And I think I found an answer.

In P&P, the characters do not react to events as twenty-first-century readers would do. When, for example, Lydia runs off with George Wickham, the entire Bennet family feels disgraced, and if Lydia does not marry Wickham, they will cast her off. Her virginity, that all-important asset, would be irreparably damaged. That was the belief of Jane Austen's time, and of the author herself as implied in the novel's authorial stance, and everybody in the book conforms to that. We readers accept it as belonging to the novel's period. Except in the case of a few social fanatics, nobody rejects Jane Austen because she was not a free-thinker about sex and marriage. We don;t expect that of her.

In the 1950's, virginity was again (or still) a much-prized social asset. Take one popular novel of the period: Herman Wouk's YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE. This whole book takes a conservative stance toward sex and marriage. There is a scene in which the hero, Hawke, and his friend Jeanne are having dinner in a Greenwich Village restaurant. The author -- not a character, but the author in descriptive narration --says "the other diners were mostly morose young couples who had the look of living together out of wedlock and growing tired of it." Hawke says, "Look about you, Jeanie, and see how stupid sin can get to be."

This is ridiculous. Not Hawke's belief, or even Wouk's, that "living in sin" is wrong and debilitating. That's a belief of the time, and beliefs of the time inevitably turn up in fiction. But nobody can tell by looking at diners in a restaurant if they are shacking up, married, brother and sister, or just friends. That "morose" look might be due to a bad day at work, a head cold, a depleted bank account, or a quarrel over appetizers about President Eisenhower's foreign policy. The difference between Austen and Wouk is that Austen has her characters react to a violation of their belief in the way that such people would react, whereas Wouk misuses his authorial power to falsify human reactions in the service of his story. That is one difference between good and bad fiction.

Much of science fiction is set in the future. Some of it shows humans with beliefs much like those of today, some with a different credo. The point here is that whatever the characters' beliefs, an author does well to know just where they dovetail with his or her own. The danger is not where they don't match, but where they do. This must be portrayed without violating basic, universal human truths, one of which is that characters in a restaurant cannot accurately read the minds of the other diners.

Unless, of course, your book is about telepaths. But that is, literally, a different story.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Speed of Dark

I never post two blogs in a row praising books. This is partly because I seldom read two books in a row that I want to praise, and I don't mention the others (which are, alas, many). However, the last few days I read Elizabeth Moon's 2004 Nebula winner, The Speed of Dark. I can't stop thinking about it.

The Speed of Dark is (mostly) first-person narration by a high-functioning autistic man. Lou, along with several of his fellow autists, is offered the chance for an experimental brain operation that may cure his autism. This sounds reminiscent of "Flowers For Algernon," and it is, but author Moon develops her own characters, plot, and outcome. Most of all, she develops Lou's voice: precise, confused by colloquialisms and social interactions, earnestly memorizing endless rules for what is "appropriate," fascinated by patterns of all types, decent and fundamentally innocent. Elizabeth Moon is the mother of an autist, and although she takes pains to explain that Lou is not her son, obviously she drew on her considerable first-hand experience in creating the voice. When I finished the book, I found myself seeing the world around me in new ways.

It's not a perfect book. Moon mixes first- and third-person narration, which I found jarring. And the ending feels both abrupt and out of sync with the rest. But it's a powerful and affecting story, and since it's near-future, I don't know why it didn't find a widespread mainsteam audience. It seems like the sort of book that should have done so. This is one that should have transcended our little SF ghetto.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi's debut novel, The Windup Girl, is almost unbearably brutal. It is also extremely good.

Set in a future Thailand, the book follows a half-dozen characters as they struggle for power in a bleak future devastated by bio-plagues, famine, and global warming. Thailand has kept itself a functioning country through its Ministry of the Environment, which destroys all imports that might be carrying any genetically engineered or mutated pathogens. However, destroying imports tends to inhibit trade, and so there is a natural, ongoing, and fierce struggle between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Trade. Bacigalupi draws most of his characters from these two organizations, then throws in an American "calorie man," who is a representative of one of the giant agribusinesses that control food world-wide, plus the "windup girl," a Japanese-made android programmed to do things not even she suspects at first.

The political maneuvering is constant, intricate, and all too believable. So is the inevitable violence. However, more interesting than either are the choices -- moral, practical, philosophical, emotional -- that the characters are driven to make. These are not admirable people, but they spring plausibly and solidly from an unadmirable world. I believed every word of this book, including its brutality. Paolo Bacigalupi is prodigiously talented, and I will recommend this book for the Nebula it deserves.

It's interesting, however, to note that in person, Paolo is a cheerful, engaging fellow. Nobody knows what goes on in the hidden minds of writers -- at least not until it emerges onto the page. Our public personae are not us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Miscellaneous Stuff

This is a round-up of various miscellany:

1) Four separate people have now emailed me articles about the new gene discovered by researchers in San Francisco. This gene, which is relatively rare, is a mutation that has enabled a woman, 69, and her daughter, 44, to get along on about four hours' sleep per night, year after year, with no ill side-effects at all. If I do only four hours sleep for even one night, I am grouchy and non-productive the next day. This is still a long way from engineering the Sleepless of my novel BEGGARS IN SPAIN, but it's a start. An interesting question: Since this gene would seem to confer a distinct evolutionary advantage, why isn't it more widespread? One possible answer: It may be a recent mutation. In that case, since it appears to be dominant, natural selection may do its work and propagate it in centuries to come.

2) Heathrow now has a writer in residence. Airports do not usually sponsor this. But according to the NEW YORK TIMES (thank you, Kate), "Travelers at London's Heathrow Airport this week will encounter the writer Alain de Botton seated at a desk, tapping away at his laptop computer. His typing appears in real time on a screen behind him, and a placard explains that Mr. de Botton is serving a one-week appointment as Heathrow's 'writer in residence.'" Now -- how do I get this job?

3) Mary Robinette Kowal has a terrific article on the SFWA site about how authors should conduct their public readings (thank you, Jack). If you contemplate doing such a thing, check it out:

4) I recently read of a wonderful anecdote concerning Bernard Baruch. He was asked, "To what do you attribute your success?" He replied, "To making the correct decisions." "How do you know what the correct decisions are?" "From experience." "How do you get the experience?" "By making the wrong decisions." This seems to me to apply completely to learning to write. Even if you can't do it at Heathrow.

5) Blogging may, or may not, have a hiatus of ten days or so. I am going away for a family reunion, to my brother's summer place on the Atlantic coast. This tends to involve a lot of boats and I get sea-sick easily, which is why I may not last the full ten days. I emailed my brother to ask if the beach house has Internet Access. He, even more technologically impaired than I, said he didn't know. So there may be blogging from there or there may not. Either way, have a good rest of the summer, everybody.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Semi-Cranky at the Movies

All right, not all SF movies are all bad.

Yesterday I saw DISTRICT 9, the new alien-invasion movie. This invasion, however, is not by conquerors but by malnourished refugees whose ship has broken down over Johannesburg, South Africa. [WARNING: SPOILERS COMING UP!] Humans ferry the weak survivors, who are insect-like ugly, to a compound on Earth. Later the compound is in the way of urban development, so the aliens are resettled in District 9. This doesn't work, either, and there is a lot of rioting and problems between humans and aliens, so as the movie opens the aliens are all about to be evicted and resettled yet again, in "District 10." The movie's protagonist is a mid-level bureaucrat who is supposed to get alien signatures on eviction notices so the whole thing will look quasi-legal.

The plot is modeled on the resettling of Blacks in Cape Town under apartheid. It is thus a parable. The problem, of course, is that in forcing alien-human relations into the Procrustean bed of human race relations, some parts must be implausibly lopped off. In the movie, no nation but South Africa shows any interest in alien visitation. Where is (for one) the United States? Why isn't District 9 swarming with journalists, biologists, journalists, physicists (there are odd alien weapons in which no one seems interested except Nigerian black-marketeers), and more journalists? The South African/alien relationship happens in an international and journalistic void. And although one sentence evokes the human-rights organizations, there is no evidence that Amnesty International or any of the other groups that protested even during apartheid do anything during the brutality inflicted on the aliens.

One thing that struck me about this movie is how completely it upends the Campbellian idea of SF. John W. Campbell famously did not like stories in which aliens triumphed over humans. Humans had to be both the winners and the good guys. In DISTRICT 9, in contrast, there is not one human being with a decent impulse, until the protagonist grows into that role. It's a lopsided view of humanity that seriously undermines the story.

On the other hand, I was absorbed by the movie. The slums of District 9 look really slum-like. The aliens' desperate acts are poignant. Even during the silly, action-oriented last third, my attention did not lag, and I was even moved by the ending. It's just that...

It would have taken so little to make it a much better movie!