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.