Friday, January 30, 2009


Over the last few days I've read two widely divergent pieces that I think are interesting. The first is a story in the February ASIMOV'S: Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling's "Colliding Branes." It's a sharp, wildly funny satire on the blogosphere and the people who take it very seriously. As a blogger myself, I laughed out loud at how closely the story nails some of my self-important colleagues (who shall remain nameless).

Although I'm guessing here, I suspect that the physics of branes was, at least in part, Rudy Rucker's contribution. I have used branes myself in a story ("Mirror Image"), but not as satire. Comparing how two different stories exploit the same science, in far different ways, is instructive.

My other recommendation is also instructive. It's Mark Schultz's THE STUFF OF LIFE: A GRAPHIC GUIDE TO GENETICS AND DNA. In graphic novel form, basic knowledge about genetics is embedded in a story about an alien race with a genetic problem. The story is, granted, pretty lame, but the information is accurate, illustrated, and humorously presented. This should be used in schools; it's a big improvement over dry textbooks. And who couldn't love aliens that prefer the sea cucumber to humans on purely aesthetic grounds?

After reading this book and considering my second-to-last post, I kinda wish I could get one of my stories into graphic novel form. But I have no idea how that might be done.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Japanese Banks

No, this title does not refer to institutions struggling with global economic downturn. Instead, it refers to banks for children, said banks being manufactured by a Japanese firm with a clever idea. In order to encourage children to save money, these banks reward the deposit of a coin with a video game. In essence, they capture for the child the coin he might have spent in an arcade.

This all sounds good -- except for one thing. Of the three banks pictured and described in WIRED magazine, two feature the usual shoot-the-monsters tough-guy games. The third is pink and the game is a shopping marathon.

Now, I suppose that girls could buy any of the three banks. but, of course, children don't buy these artifacts -- adults buy them for children. And it's the same old message: boys go out and do things, girls shop. In pink.

When do these stereotypes expire? I know women who hate shopping; in fact, I'm one of them (Gene Wolfe once affectionately called me a "closet man" because of this). I know girls who want to shoot monsters. Why don't toy makers know them, too?

Friday, January 23, 2009

The New Publishing

A pair of articles has arrived simultaneously in my mailbox, from far different periodicals but on the same topic: the future of publishing. What's interesting is that both say the same thing, in different words.

TIME magazine profiles four books that started out self-published and ended up on the NY TIMES best-seller list, garnered million-dollar movie deals, or both. The article also covers all the reasons traditional publishing is antiquated (the advance system, the returns system, the distribution system). It quotes PUBLISHERS WEEKLY'S prediction that 2009 "will be the worst year for publishing in decades." But not for the oft-quoted reason that people aren't reading. In fact, a new NEA study, released January 12, finds that fiction reading by adults has actually increased 3.5% since 2002. So if traditional publishing is tanking, what are those adults reading?

Non-traditional publishing, which includes e-books (especially Amazon's Kindle), print-on-demand books, on-line fiction, manga, graphic novels. They're also listening to fiction on podcasts. In Japan, cell-phone novels -- which are first written on, broadcast by, and read on -- actual cell phones, accounted for 4 out of 5 of Japan's most-read novels. In TIME'S words, publishing is evolving into "something cheaper, wilder, trashier, and more democratic."

Meanwhile, in the SFWA BULLETIN, Barry Malzberg and Mike Resnick continue their dialogue on SF. Although in a previous dialogue both pooh-poohed self-publishing, in this installment they point out all the non-traditional readers at Comicon, a gigantic gathering of comic book fans held annually in San Diego. Malzberg and Resnick's point is that SF writers are beginning to discover they can sell regular books to non-regular readers, if they make the push to do so. But the sales of graphic novels, comics, and manga far, far outstrip books.

The essence of both these articles: The publishing times are a-changin'. Hardcover books chosen by editors and backed by corporations will always be there, but will become "only the tip of a huge pyramid" of publishing. Will this be good or bad for writers? It probably depends on the writer, and on the kind of things he or she writes. Editors' tastes do not always match readers' tastes. Lisa Genova's book STILL ALICE, which was turned down by every agent and publisher she contacted, is #5 on this coming Sunday's NY TIMES bestseller list.

I also received a third magazine in the mail: the March ASIMOV'S. It contains a story I'm proud of, "Act One." The story is about genetic engineering, the movie business, and just how much empathy the human race can stand. Despite its venue being a part of traditinal publishing, I still hope my story will be read.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Writing and Water

I have no water. A call to my town revealed that this is because of a broken water main someplace; nobody has any water. After a morning of working hard on my current novel, I drove to buy some bottled water and also to have the car washed, a necessity since I can no longer see out of the windows for the salt, mud, and dried slush and am thus a potential danger to myself and the entire town of Irondequoit. As I drove, I passed the guys working on the water main. At the car wash, I saw the teenagers who hose down the cars pre-wash and wipe them off afterward.

It is 19 degrees out today. Both groups were bundled in coats, scarves, hats, work gloves, boots. Both were wet and, I imagine, wishing they were anywhere else. And I had a sudden epiphany: I had not "worked hard" on my writing.

Writing can be frustrating, draining, obsessive, and even painful, if rejected. But hard labor, it just ain't. Those guys were working hard. I, warm at my desk with a steaming mug of coffee, have no right to say I "worked hard." And I will not say it again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mosquitoes and SF

In 1998 I published a biothriller called STINGER, which featured a genetically altered form of malaria used as a terrorist weapon. The mosquitoes that carry malaria (Anopheles quadrimaculatus, in the eastern United States) are still here, and it would not be hard to re-introduce the disease into the US. Bill Gates, however, has a reverse twist on engineering mosquitoes. In the closing months of 2008, the Gates Foundation awarded $100,000 to a researcher at Jichi Medical University in Japan to develop genetically altered mosquitoes that, when they bite people, will deliver not malaria parasites but rather vaccines against disease.

This unorthodox project is part of the Gates Foundation's "Grand Challenges Explorations" program, which gives grants to ideas that "fall outside current scientific paradigms." Nor is it the first time that the Foundation has funded genetic engineering of mosquitoes. In 2006, a grant went to North Carolina State University to work on a genemod mosquito that would be incapable of carrying malaria. The idea is that such mutants would mate with normal mosquitoes, and the genemod would eventually spread through the mosquito population (faster if the trait were dominant, the genemod insects especially sexually attractive, or both).

Even if either of these versions of the flying pest could be created, public acceptance would be a terrific barrier to allowing them to be released outside the lab. Although there has not been much protest against genetically altered foods in the United States (at least, not compared to Europe), that doesn't mean there wouldn't be hue and cry about mosquitoes. Or maybe not.

What interests me, however, is another issue. The Gates Foundation is hoping for a positive outcome from genetic modification of mosquitoes. I -- like so many other SF writers -- focused on a negative outcome. Yes, "going negative" makes a more compelling story, but at the same time, it helps shape, if only in some small way, bad publicity for genetic engineering. This troubles me, because I think biotech may be one way to keep our planet from going under. STINGER, however, hardly reflects that belief.

A small side note: in Germany, the novel was published as MOSKITO. Much more starkly descriptive. Why didn't I think of that?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Marzipan Threat

I am back in the United States, after the usual difficulty with planes. Other people tell me they have no problem flying, which has led me to conclude that I have bad plane karma. This version involves marzipan.

I bought the German candy for two friends who requested it. On the plane from Munich to Dulles, I filled out the U.S. Customs form, which asks what you are bringing into the country. I checked "yes" in the box for "Food." This tipped me into the non-straight-forward category of arrival, which in turn required a long wait in a long line for a more thorough security check. I kept saying, "But it's only marzipan!" The customs officials kept saying, "Ma'am, we don't make the rules, it's marked on the form." Neither of us was happy.

I made the flight from Dulles to Rochester with about two minutes to spare, and only after sprinting through the airport in a bad imitation of O.J. Simpson commercials. If you're too young to recall those ads -- well, I'm too old to have to be imitating them.

Marzipan is dangerous. Who knew?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


This is my last day in Leipzig; tomorrow I fly home. As I walked to campus under a glorious pink-and-gold sunrise, I thought of all the things that, within a few months, I will have forgotten: the names of consecutive stops on the Number 15 tram. The codes to get me into my university computer account. The cost of my favorite pastry at the cafe in BayrischerPlatz. The inconvenience of running up and down four stories to do laundry or take out trash. The names of anchormen on CNN Europe.

But I won't forget the important things, such as the pleasures of teaching my students here or the friendship of people I have met. And someday, maybe, I can return. After all, when I left Leipzig ten years ago, I never expected to return -- yet here I am.

You just never know, do you?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Creative Writing in Germany

Over the weekend I did an interview for the university radio station about my creative writing class. Creative writing is not, I'm told, usually a part of German education, not even at the primary or high-school level. The emphasis is, instead, on writing essays and other non-fiction, non-poetry forms. This is why only one of my students had ever written a short story before. Leipzig is one of the few universities to offer any courses in creative writing.

The student interviewer asked me if I thought the "skills" learned in my class would "be of any use to students later, since probably they will not become writers of fiction." It's an interesting question. Underlying it is the assumption that the only purpose of a university education is to acquire useful skills. I disagreed with that. Another purpose is to broaden the mind, to deepen both the range of experiences one has and the range of things one can respond to intelligently. Learning about point of view, dramatization, character development can make one a better reader. Reading and writing SF opens the door to speculation about future technology as experienced in very human terms. And creativity in the area of writing may encourage creative thinking in other areas. Even if it doesn't, it still seems to me a valuable endeavor to try at least once.

Not to mention that Sf is fun.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


In three more days I leave Germany. I have eaten and drunk a lot of interesting things during my stay here, but not beer. I don't like beer. In a way it seems ridiculous to come to Germany and not drink beer, but the Germans aren't drinking as much of it, either.

Last year beer consumption, averaged among the German adult population, was down 2.2 liters, or 2%, from the previous year, according to the Brewers' Association. Half of that decline was in the last quarter of 2008. The previous fall had been attributed to many things: an ageing population, different tastes in alcohol among the young, the ban on smoking in bars. But the abrupt decline in just the last three months is due to the world-wide economic downturn.

Consumption is expected to fall by 2% a year, causing trouble for German breweries. Now I feel guilty that I haven't been doing my part. Good thing this datum doesn't show up on my passport. I might never be allowed to return.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Reading and Menus

Last night I did a reading in Leipzig, followed by a panel discussion about science fiction with university instructor Sebastian Herrmann and graphic artist Schwarwel (he uses only one name). The event was held in the Cafe Neubau, and unlike any American reading I have ever given, included music with a DJ and a full bar at a post-reading party held right amidst the recording equipment and discarded manuscripts. The audience asked some interesting questions, but not as provocative ones as raised at the dinner I went to beforehand.

This was with some of the science fiction fans I had met on an earlier visit to Leipzig. In 1998, my late husband Charles Sheffield was Guest of Honor at Elstercon, and I accompanied him. Ten years later, people I had met then gathered for dinner at the Ratskeller, a restaurant in the glorious and ridiculous pile of quasi-medieval stone that is the New Town Hall. Discussion was wide-ranging, including SF and changes in Leipzig, but the talk kept coming back to politics. For only the second time since I have been in the former East Germany, I heard a spirited defense of the GDR, including a well-reasoned attack on the excesses of capitalism. The resulting debate was enormous fun.

And the restaurant was fun, too, with good food and, upon request, a menu for me in English. (I didn't request this, being willing to take my chances with my usual point-and-guess method of ordering, but it was asked for on my behalf by a considerate friend.) The menu featured local delicacies ("smoked cellar ham from pig"), desserts ("Sweetly and Cheesy"), and an appetizer I wish I'd had room for ("Leipzig's Wurzfleish from chicken, gratinee with cheese from mountains, thereto toast and lemon"). I settled for an excellent rack of lamb, a defense of capitalism, and pleasure in the community of SF that seems to exist the world around.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Es Ist Kalt

Europe is having a cold wave. It is really cold here -- a high today of -12.5 degrees Celsius (9 F). It is warmer than that in Moscow. Parts of Romania are down to -30 Celsius. Since classes resumed today, I had planned to treat myself to a taxi to campus, but couldn't find one. So I trudged to and from class, warming up in stores and cafes along the way. I was looking to buy a woollen hat, but couldn't find that, either. However, I did find some woolig warme winterzocken, which I bought even though I have enough already, because who can resist bright pink winterzocken?

The writing class went well, with those students still hanging on. A few have dropped out because they found themselves unable to write an entire SF story; a few were overwhelmed with work from other courses; it's possible some are frozen until spring. The rest have turned in remarkably good work. Only one had ever written an SF story before, and they are writing in a language not their own, but many of their stories are as good as those I get from some of my arts-center students in Rochester. I am impressed.

Thursday I am giving a reading in Leipzig. It may be too cold for anyone to come.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Es Schneit

It is snowing in Leipzig. Really snowing. My friend Anne says that in sixteen years of living here, she has never before seen this much snow. Today is not particularly cold, but tomorrow will be -12 Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit). Naturally, tomorrow I need to make the long walk to campus. For walking in this weather, I wear a sweater under my parka, a wool hat under my hood, tights under my jeans, and socks under my socks. I then hurry along as fast as I can. I look like a bundle of laundry trying to do a marathon.

Not having a car makes one much more conscious of the weather. However, literature can do the same thing. Recently I read Marge Piercy's novel The Longings of Women. The story, set in Boston, is told by three first-person narrators, one of whom is a homeless woman of sixty. A series of marital, work-life, and investment fiascoes brought her to this state. She works as a cleaning lady, but does not make enough to afford an apartment, and the waiting list for public housing is very long. The book does an eye-opening job of detailing how such a woman manages: spending nights at terrible shelters, at Logan Airport, in church basements, illegally in the homes of the people she cleans for when they are away traveling. Also the days when she is not cleaning, long and aimless days in malls or bus stations, anywhere out of the cold.

The sky above Leipzig is gray (or "grey" -- I see a lot of British spelling here). There is much more snow up there.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


I recently finished reading Daryl Gregory's first novel, Pandemonium (Del Rey, 2008). It's a very good book, and very hard to describe. There are these demons, see, only they're not really demons... only maybe they are...

The book takes place in contemporary America, with flashbacks to the 1970's and the 1940's, and it contains an astonishing range of pop culture entities: music, comic books, Jungian archetypes, palindromes, interior decorating, board games, schools of psychiatric thought, exorcists, Eisenhower's golf handicap. These are all juggled deftly and, amazingly, all turn out to be relevant as the complicated plot slowly unfolds. I did not see the major plot twist coming at all, but it fit perfectly, as does the bittersweet ending.

However, what mainly captivated me was the writing. Gregory has a crisp, playful, style that is not afraid to go over the top a bit. An example:

"The song ended, and in the break I yelled out, 'Hel-lo!' The next song started -- another eighties number, but U2 this time. A minute later the door opened and O'Connell leaned in. She was in rock-chic mode again: black T-shirt, black jeans....Bono was emoting through his second verse when she came back into the room carrying a vinyl-padded kitchen chair in one hand and my blue duffel bag in the other."

This breezy, highly visual prose is perfect for the first-person narrator, Del, who as a kid was obsessed with comic books. Similarly, Del's dialogue with his older brother captures well the tension, affection, and exasperation that can exist between one sibling who is a success and one who is not. In fact, Gregory is universally good at dialogue; he even writes lines for Richard Nixon that sound exactly like that paranoid president.

Only one thing in this book troubled me, and mine may be an idiosyncratic reaction. Philip K. Dick, as well as his creation VALIS, is a character. My problem with this sort of self-referential SF -- even when, as in this case, it's justified by the plot -- is that it pulls me out of the story, into Dick's stories. The references to A.E. Van Vogt, as well as the long discussion of SF versus fantasy, did the same thing. Pandemonium is not metafiction, and I objected to those elements that jarred me out of the compelling world that Gregory has created.

And it is compelling, from the first few paragraphs on. If you're looking for something different to read -- quirky, fascinating, crammed with interesting takes on the modern world --Pandemonium is it. Highly Recommended.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Educational Philosophy

I am back in Germany, after the usual airline problems. This version: weather delays in Rochester, missed connection at Dulles, and a broken printer at Dulles that resulted in my arriving in Frankfort without a boarding pass for the flight to Leipzig ("No boarding pass? How did you get past Security with no boarding pass?") You'd think United Airlines could at least keep its printers in repair. But here I am. Finally.

Classes resume Monday, and I have been entering the grades in my grade book (which stayed here) for the papers I corrected over Christmas (which did not). Doing this, I discovered that six students out of 35 in my SF Lit class had neglected to email me their papers. German university students may drop a course at any time without penalty, so they sometimes sign up for a large number of courses, choosing everything that looks interesting. Then, if the work load becomes overwhelming, they drop one or more courses. That may have happened here -- which brings me to two different philosophies of university education, both of which were being debated as long ago as when I first started teaching college thirty years ago.

One philosophy -- call it the Educational Contract -- says that student and professor enter into a contract. I will deliver this (instruction) and you will deliver this (required reading, attendance, written work, exams, whatever the contract says). We will both strive to deliver interesting and reliable products, with the end goal that learning takes place. If either of us fails to deliver, that party is penalized, whether it's the professor (poor evaluation, trouble with Department Head, denial of tenure) or the student (poor grade). This is, pretty much, how American universities work.

The other model we'll call the Hamburger Stand Philosophy. It says: The student has purchased a product (instruction), whether you define "purchased" as costing money, good grades in high school, or a grant or scholarship. Having purchased this product, he is free to do with it as he likes: use it, ignore it, drop it, use part of it and then ignore it. It's his choice, without penalty -- nobody penalizes you if you don't eat your McDonald's hamburger. It's your hamburger.

Which of these works best to foster actual learning? In my opinion, it doesn't really matter. A student who wants to learn about SF -- in or out of college -- will do so. I hope that my classes make that learning more interesting and provocative and effective (otherwise, there's little point). But those qualities are not what grades measure, anyway. So I will teach as best I can, and hope my students are learning as best they can. No more is possible for the best instructor who ever taught anything.