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!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cranky at the Movies

Last night I saw JULIE & JULIA, the movie that follows the cooking careers of Julia Child and Julie Powell. Julia, played by Meryl Streep with exactly the right goofy voice and exuberant awkwardness, attends the male-dominated Cordon Bleu and then publishes her famous cookbook, all of which takes her years. Julie, played by Amy Adams, is stuck in both a cubicle job and Queens. She "saves herself" by becoming a cooking blogger, working her way through Childs's entire cookbook and blogging daily about the effort. The blog eventually gets a book deal, which becomes this movie.

This is a genuinely sweet movie. It's also witty and fun. Both Streep and Adams are terrific in their roles. In fact, I liked the whole thing so much that I immediately bought a copy of MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, determined to make Beef Bourginon, which everybody in the movie made and which looked delicious on screen. However, from the viewpoint of a writer and blogger, this movie is also interesting for what it says about getting published.

I once had an older Clarion student who announced that he was there "because writing will make a nice, easy retirement income." As far as I know, he has not published anything. This movie shows the actuality. Julia Child worked on her cookbook for years, had it rejected by various publishers until it caught one's eye, and was thrilled to receive a $1500 advance, which she split with her two co-authors. Julie Powell blogged about something, had few readers at first, slogged away for an entire year, spent a lot of money on lobsters and butter, and made nothing until a NEW YORK TIMES feature writer happened to hear about her and wrote an article that in turn caught a book editor's eye. In both cases, getting published involved work, rejection, persistence, and -- most of all -- a genuine love for what they were doing.

All that truth, and as an added bonus, when was the last time you saw a movie with two functional, happy marriages, in which the partners respected and supported each other? This is a feel-good movie without improbabilities, and with genuine human interest. So why am I "cranky at the movies"?

Because SF movies can't seem to do this, too.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Crossing the Border

Yesterday I returned from Worldcon to real life. Worldcon was more exciting.

Alysse and I drove home in about six hours. When we crossed the border from Canada to the United States, the experience was pretty much the same as crossing into Canada. Going in, we sat in Alysse's very low car. The customs/immigration official sat in a high, enclosed booth. I could not see him from the passenger seat, and he could not see me. I never spoke. We passed him both passports, which he glanced at and returned to Alysse. I suppose there might have been a surveillance camera I did not notice which looked into the car, but otherwise I could have been Osama bin Laden riding unobserved and silent in the passenger seat. Much the same thing happened coming back, although then at least the U.S. official could see me. One perfunctory question about what we were bringing back (one bottle of duty-free vanilla vodka and one literary award), and on we went.

The whole notion of passports to cross between Canada and the USA is wildly unpopular here. My congresswoman, Louise Slaughter, fought claw and incisor to derail it. For one thing, there are places in Minnesota, Montana, and Washington State where you can stroll across the border. The roads sometimes feature an unmanned kiosk where you're supposed to stop, call the nearest town, and scan in your passport -- something terrorists are probably not going to do. For another thing, the related changes in tariffs and taxes are not helping either economy. Several people told me that the reason the dealers' room in Montreal was so small was that American book sellers, jewelry artisans, etc. were required to deposit at the border the projected sales tax on all their goods before bringing them into Canada. The deposit on the unsold portion would of course be refunded, but small dealers operating on a narrow profit margin could not meet the requirement.

I grew up in Buffalo, NY. My family crossed the border constantly -- to go to Niagara Falls, to the Canadian beaches (cleaner then than ours), to go to the big amusement park called Crystal Beach, to see relatives. I can't think that the present system is better. It probably will not catch terrorists, and it's a pain in the ass.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Worldcon Day 4

Last night at Anticipation in Montreal I won a Hugo.
I have never been more surprised in my life. So convinced was I, for several good reasons, that I was going to lose, that I didn't have my shoes on when the winner for Best Novella was announced. I had just glanced at my watch to see when the ceremonies would be over. I had no speech prepared. But then presenter Elisabeth Vonarberg announced, "The winner is 'The Erdmann Nexus' by Nancy Kress."
This year's Hugos, designed by Dave Howell, are a chunk of rock representing an asteroid, with the Hugo blasting off from it. Below the rocket itself is an inset "firebase" of orange and red, in the rough shape of the Canadian maple leaf. The name of the winner is engraved on an encircling, detachable metal band that, when worn over the eyes, makes one look like a character from STAR TREK. The statue is beautiful and very, very heavy. My thanks to Jack Skillingstead and Daryl Gregory for carrying it around for me most of the night.
The other fiction winners were Ted Chiang for "Exhalation" (Best Short Story), Elizabeth Bear for "Shoggoths in Bloom" (Best Novelette), and Neil Gaiman for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK (Best Novel). Here are winners and presenters on stage at the Palais de Congres:

Before the Hugos, I had been at a dinner arranged by Robert Silverberg, an annual event. The conversation ranged from a discussion of the nominees to a brain-wracking session of trying to remember the names of all seven of Snow White's dwarfs (thank you, John Kessel). Out of focus below are George R..R. Martin, Paris, Jim Kelly, Bob Silverberg, Karen Haber, Connie Willis, Jack Skillingstead, Walter Jon Williams, and John Kessel.

Earlier, the day had included a kaffeeklatsch, yet another panel, and lunch with my Tor editor, Beth Meachem. This means that once more I have attended a Worldcon without seeing much of the city in which it was held. But it's been a lovely Worldcon anyway.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Worldcon Day 3

Worldcon is running multiple critique sessions to allow aspiring writers to work with pros, and John Pitts and I ran one such group this morning. Each of our three critquees had submitted 10,000 words of a novel, which John and I received by email last week, and each now received feedback and suggestions from us and each other. The bar for success at these things can be very low -- nobody cries, stalks out, or rages -- but in fact all three writers were open to criticism and suggestions, and it was a pleasant two hours.

Next came a panel on "What Makes a Good Story." This was packed, with attendees sitting on the floor and taking notes as Scott Edelman led us panelists through the "transition moments" that had changed our careers and "raised them to the next level." Robert Silverberg said that his transition moment occurred when Cyril Kornbluth said it helped to do a second draft before selling a story. A very young Silverberg, who was already selling everything he wrote, said, "So I did, and it worked! The story got better!"

My second panel, in mid-afternoon, was "The Asimov Story," and editor Sheila Williams explained what she wants to see in terms of story (preferably character-driven), length (easiest to sell her under 8,000 words), and emotion (yes). Four of her stable of writers commented on her presentation. I said that I thought F&SF published darker stories than ASIMOV'S, such as Paolo Bacigalupi's "Yellow Card Man." Since it turned out that ASIMOV'S had published "Yellow Card Man," this comment was not very helpful. Connie Willis said she sends all her stories to Sheila because she's afraid of her if she doesn't.

In late afternoon there was held an informal memorial for Charles N. Brown. People gave toasts to Charlie as LOCUS editor, as opera lover, as gourmand, as friend. The toasts were moving and at times emotional. The small hotel room was packed; Gardner Dozois pointed out that if a meteor struck that room, science fiction wouldn't have left very many writers over, say, 50. Buttons were passed out: "Good Grief, Charlie Brown: 1937-2009". Here is Neil Gaiman giving an eloquent toast to Charlie:

The tone changed at dinner, which Jack Skillingstead and I had with Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, Jane Jewel, and Peter Heck. The question came up of why male stars (in politics, writing, music) get more female groupies than women stars get male ones. This discussion became very raucous, helped by a lot of wine and beer. After it, Susan and I were done for the evening, but the rest of the group went to the SFWA suite, newly relocated on a party floor after being shut down in its original location. Too many of us, too loud, too long.

As always, Worldcon is a mix of SF discussion, business, and partying. I missed the masquerade, alas, but, then, for me Worldcon itself IS the masquerade.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Worldcon Day 2

This day started frustratingly. I was supposed to have breakfast with Connie Willis and Sheila Williams "and we'll meet at the main hotel registration desk." But this con has no main hotel. People are scattered across five or six hotels, and although there is a party hotel, Connie and Sheila were not there, nor at the other four hotels I tried. They were at the sixth, and we had to reschedule.

The rest of the day was an improvement. I did a reading, a signing, and a whole lot of eating. This is a small Worldcon -- someone told me there are about 3,000 attendees -- and a correspondingly small dealers' room. The room does, however, feature a great display of former masquerade-winning costumes. Here is an absolute knock-out costume for Shakespeare's Titania:

My dinner group included two people who had just learned they are on the World Fantasy Ballot, Daryl Gregory and John Picaccio, plus Elizabeth Bear, Jack Skillingstead, and the irrepressible Ellen Klages, so dinner was lively. Less successful were the post-dinner parties. The SFWA suite, in addition to the usual crowding and heat, was raided by Security for too many people and too much noise on a non-party floor of the hotel. People got thrown out. Many oozed back in later, but by the time I attempted this (after spending time at the Astronomicon party), the elevator situation was hopelessly jammed. I gave up and went to bed.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Worldcon Day 1

Alysse Kullikowski and I drove up from Rochester to Montreal without getting lost more than twice, and then only mildly. Alysse chose better than I in hotels. I had picked La Tour de Cente-Ville, under the impression that a charming French pensione would be...well, charming. Instead, it's a slightly seedy room with blindingly blue walls and a great view of the parking lot. Ah, well -- one doesn't come to Worldcon for the room.

I spent the evening in the bar of the Intercontinental Hotel with a group that included Jack Skillingstead, Daryl Gregory, Walter Jon Williams, and a lot of others. The bar offered absinthe -- the real thing, with wormwood, newly legal again in Canada. We ordered it for our table. It came with a multi-spiggoted fountain of water, a bottle of the absinthe, little strainers, and a bowl of sugar cubes. You put some of the absinthe in a glass, lay the strainer with a sugar cube on it on top, put this under a spigot, and turn on the water. The water flows through the sugar cube until it dissolves and everything ends up in the glass. The absinthe changes color. It's a lovely performance.

Then you drink it.

Absinthe, it turns out, is powerful stuff. It led to toasts ("To Hemingway!" "To Worldcon as a moveable feast!") It led to several people missing the Opening Ceremonies. It led to Jack's spending ten minutes attempting a back flip, although fortunately not in the bar.

Tomorrow people will actually pay attention to science fiction.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Worldcon Rising

Tomorrow I leave for Montreal for Anticipation, the 2009 Worldcon. I am looking forward to this. I haven't been to Montreal for thirty years, but I remember that it's a beautiful and exciting city. I hope to actually see some of it -- unlike many worldcons, which I seem to have spent entirely in the bar, at restaurants, or on panels. On the other hand, those are satisfying places to be.

I am nominated for a Hugo, which I thoroughly expect to lose (I sometimes win Nebulas, but not Hugos). The nice parts about being nominated are being invited to the Hugo reception beforehand and being assured of a good seat at the ceremony. As someone who is both near-sighted and prone to losing glasses, it's nice to be close enough to, say, distinguish Neil Gaiman from Robert Silverberg.

The trip up is by car with my friend Alysse, who is driving. She says she's pretty sure she knows where Montreal is and that we can reach it in six hours. If she's right, I'll be blogging next from there. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Eggs For Research

New York has become the only state in the union to pay women to donate eggs for stem cell research.

The extremely controversial program, which should get underway next year, will be run by the Empire State Stem Cell Board, which oversees the $600 million dollars that the state has allocated for stem-cell research over 11 years. New York universities believe in the future benefits of stem cells to combat disease. But such research requires a steady supply of female gametes.

Harvesting eggs is a long process, requiring hormone treatments and outpatient surgery. It's not dangerous, but it's not as simple as donating blood, and it's no fun for the woman. So NYS will compensate women for their egg donation, with between $5,000 and $10,000.

Opponents say this will lead to desperate women selling their eggs. They're right, it will. Poor women and/or addicted women will be among the donors. So will college girls seeking to finance education, a car, or spring break at Acapulco. Should it be forbidden because exploitation is a possibility?

I think not. If women are legally allowed to control their own bodies with regard to abortion, surely they should be legally allowed to control their own eggs. And yet horrific situations may result. I wrote a novel about this -- but apparently it wasn't horrific enough, since the book never sold.

Last week the news reported that a scientist had succeeded in coaxing a stem cell from a woman to turn into a sperm. Theoretically, this woman could now fertilize herself. It's a wild ride into reproductive technology that the twenty-first century will take us on. I just wish I could live the whole century. I want to know how the story turns out.