Thursday, January 28, 2010

Video Games

Recently I played a video game -- well, part of a video game -- for the first time since Ms. Pac-Man (no, don't add up the decades). This was at Ted and Christine Kosmatka's; they have just moved to Seattle so that Ted can take a job at Valve, the makers of Left for Dead. The game I tried was Left for Dead2.

The graphics were amazing, but I was a disaster. In addition to shooting my own teammates, I somehow maneuvered my character to fall out of a window. I kept blundering into walls. Zombies slipped by me like air. I don't think this is a form of recreation I will be repeating any time soon. Some of us, apparently, are better off sticking to words.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Neil Gaiman

The January 25 NEW YORKER has a long profile of Neil Gaiman. I was struck in particular by one observation by the author, Dana Goodyear, that Gaiman's children's books bring back the genuine horror that was a part of Victorian kid lit, but had largely been watered down in the decades since.

Certainly CORALINE is horrific; the alternate "parents" of the little-girl protagonist seek to gouge out her eyes and replace them with sewn-on buttons. When I saw the movie version of CORALINE, I thought, Parents will take little kids to this? It will traumatize them! I was wrong. The kids, Gaiman points out, handle CORALINE just fine; "it's the parents who are frightened."

I think he's right. Since then, at least three sets of parents have told me that their small children loved CORALINE. And when I think back to my own childhood (in the early Triassic), I remember being darkly thrilled by reading GRIMM'S FAIRY TALES. Not the sanitized version, but the original in which Cinderella's wicked stepsisters are punished in a way too gruesome to relate here. Well, too gruesome now -- I'm an adult.

I see the same thing with teens, who watch the most blood-soaked movies without flinching or, apparently, turning into sociopathic monsters. After seeing KILL WITH ME with a sixteen-year-old, I was appalled. She said gently, "Nancy, it's okay, it's just a movie."

Perhaps we get less tough as we age. Perhaps that's a good thing, since tenderness is needed to raise the next generation. Perhaps that relish for horror and blood that seems to exist in even the nicest child serves some psychological purpose. Whatever it is, Neil Gaiman knows how to tap into it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Working Poor

I have just finished reading a new non-fiction book, Lisa Dodson's THE MORAL UNDERGROUND: HOW ORDINARY AMERICANS SUBVERT AN UNFAIR ECONOMY. Dodson is a professor of sociology at Boston College. She spent several years conducting the interviews that make up this book.

Her basic premise has two parts. First, that people working minimum-wage jobs cannot, if they have kids and no partners, make enough to support their families, not even by working hard and full-time at a job (or, more usually, one full-time and another part-time). That this results in work absenteeism, frequent firings, unsupervised children, and an inability to find time to better themselves through more education. And that much of corporate and academic America, instead of doing the math of both dollars (income vs. heat, rent, food, transportation) and time (work + commute vs. kids' needs), blames these single parents for "lacking a work ethic," even as it seeks to pay them too little for decent survival. Some of the interviews with managers and CEOs with this attitude are chilling to read. However, much of this ground has been covered before, in books such as Barbara Ehrenreich's NICKLED AND DIMED.

What's new here is the second half of Dodson's research. Work, school, and health care are the places where the middle-class most often meets the working class because the former supervises or employs the latter. And a growing number of managers are breaking the rules -- and often the law -- to help the employees they see as being in deeply unfair positions. These managers are padding employees' hours, putting in regular hours as overtime, filling out the paperwork to declare families eligible for social benefits that their low-income wages miss by a few hundred dollars a year, allowing flexible work schedules so that mothers can pick up a sick child from day care, looking the other way when employees cover each other's shifts in disregard of corporate rules. "As long as the work gets done right," one supervisor said, "it's not decent to penalize people because they have kids to care for." The other side retorts, "They shouldn't have kids if they're going to work minimum wage jobs."

Dodson's "compassionate managers" know they're risking their own careers, even legal charges for fraud. "But it's that or let kids go hungry," one person says starkly. "I can't look at myself in the mirror if I do that."

How widespread is this helping the working poor by raiding the corporate coffers or bending the government rules? Dodson can't say, of course; she can only report the interviews and focus groups she conducted. But her book makes for compelling -- and disturbing -- reading. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Coming to a Cell Phone Near You

"DailyLit" is not, as it sounds, an advertisement for cigarette companies, but rather a website that supplies installments of fiction to cell phones, RSS feeds, and laptops. They are currently "compiling Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine content" to use as free downloads in this project. One story they are soliciting is my "Sex and Violence."

The authors do not get paid for their stories. Nonetheless, I am going to sign the contract (non-exclusive use for 24 months) as my first venture into Cory-Doctorow information-wants-to-be-free territory. The story is so short (700 words) that selling it to somewhere like Escape Pod would net me almost nothing, and I'm curious. Will I really pick up new readers this way? Will those who like "Sex and Violence" really then seek out more of my work? I have no way to measure that, of course, unless these hypothetical new readers also email me, which occasionally happens. Although only occasionally.

The story will also be featured in"DailyLit's Science Fiction Channel," I'm told. This is an upcoming section of the DailyLit site devoted to SF.

So I'll give it a try. Creative Commons, here I come. Gentlemen, start your cell phones.

Sunrise over Seattle

Too beautiful to not share... But do note that the burst of light on the right is not a nuclear explosion, just an inept photographer.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I expected to dislike AVATAR, which I saw last night at an IMAX theater. It is James Cameron, who made the dreadful TITANIC. It is an SF movie, which meant character would be neglected in favor of special effects that make no sense (i.e., KNOWING, 2012, etc.) It features women with the proportions of Barbie dolls and perfect make-up even when dropping through trees. And the tickets were over-priced.

All of these things turned out to be true, sort of. And yet -- I really liked this movie. The three hours went by without a moment of boredom. And although the character development is predictable, it's both heartfelt and appropriate. The plot, too, is predictable, and very old. A man from a more technologically advanced nation joins a low-tech one, falls in love, eventually stakes his future with his adopted people against "his own kind." The blue natives of Pandora could be Cheyenne, or Carthaginians conquered by Rome, or any number of other exploited peoples in Terran history. And yet, plots do not have to be new to be appealing. How much did Shakespeare crib from Hollinshed?

And the visuals of AVATAR are ravishing. I say this even though I am not a visual person, and even though I watched fully 1/4 of the movie without the 3-D glasses, which were hurting my ears. From the tech aboard the human ship to the plants in the Pandora jungle, everything is detailed and exciting. One reason the three hours went by so fast is that there is so much to see.

I did, however, walk out of the theater with some objections. The floating mountains, on a planet where everything else obeys gravity, are just ridiculous. More seriously, the two villains are complete caricatures: the corporate representative who is not only evil but stupid, and the Marine colonel mostly interested in killing everything in sight. Nor are the natives very interesting characters except for the heroine, but then, she's the only one we see much of.

And in the end, these objections didn't matter much. AVATAR gave me back my childhood sense of going to the movies: all disbelief temporarily suspended (or at least ignored) because one is caught up with what is happening on screen. Frankly, I didn't think Cameron had it in him. I'm glad he did.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Theodore Sturgeon

Saturday night I was with a bunch of SF writers, including Ted Kosmatka, Jack Skillingstead, and Patrick Swenson. The talk turned to a classic story by Theodore Sturgeon, "The Man Who Lost the Sea." Jack and Ted both said they were blown away by that story; Patrick read it on the spot and agreed. I had never read this story, so this morning I did.

It's very good (this is, of course, Sturgeon we're talking about!) What struck me were three aspects of its construction. First, the story takes place after its major events are actually over. Second, although it runs about twenty pages, the time span covered is only a few seconds. Third, the story boldly plays with point of view. There are two "characters" (sort of), but who they are and what they're really doing is only made clear in the last few paragraphs.

Each of these is a risky strategy for story-telling, hard to successfully pull off. Sturgeon did, but apparently not easily. He wrote that he worked on this story through many drafts, that some readers (including his wife) could not understand the story, and that he wasn't sure it ever did succeed. To me, this is as interesting as the story itself. Writers can be so close to their work that they are unable to evaluate it accurately. We may underestimate good work or over-inflate mediocre work.

This is one reason that a writing group or good class can be useful. I have thirteen students in my current fiction class at Richard Hugo House; together, we can provide better feedback than any of us could singly. I'm very much looking forward to seeing what this group of aspiring authors produces.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


I am back in Seattle. It took 36 hours to accomplish this. The weather on the East Coast was so bad that flights kept getting canceled, or delayed past the point of making connections. Whole airports were filled with people stuck in cities they did not want to be in. On one of the planes I was supposed to take, the gate agent announced that ice had formed not only on the wings, which was expected, but "behind the engine," which apparently was not. More de-icing machines were sent for. Mechanics were sent for. It was impossible to rebook through Chicago. The temperature outside was ten degrees Fahrenheit. Snow fell, and still continues to fall, on the just and the unjust and the merely disgruntled.

This is the weekend my real estate agent is holding an open house to market my house.

I can't imagine that anyone will show up. If they do, I can't imagine them wishing to purchase a house located in what looks like the Siberian tundra. But, on the other hand, I bought the house in January seven years ago. So keep your fingers crossed for me.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I see a lot of movies -- far more than I blog about -- and I see many of them with my friend Barbara. Barbara is a tough critic. We enjoy arguing about movies. Often her objection is, "That was too manipulative; I don't like having my emotional buttons pushed," a comment that usually leaves me frustrated. All fiction, cinematic or print, is about manipulating the viewers'/readers' reactions. You are trying to get them to laugh or cry or gasp or wonder or sympathize or shudder. Authors push emotional buttons; that's what we do. So the question becomes, When is that legitimate and when not, and if not, why not?

One of the easiest ways to get an emotional reaction from anyone short of H.L. Mencken is to put a child in fictional jeopardy. The problem is that it's also one of the easiest ways to make a reader feel overly manipulated. It can feel not legitimate just because it's too easy. And yet children are in jeopardy all the time: from illness, from war, from famine, from sociopaths, from neglectful or abusive parents, from life. Charting the line between honest exploration of a child in danger and pushing Barbara's buttons is not simple.

Jodi Picoult, popular NEW YORK TIMES bestseller, uses the kid-in-danger formula often. In her latest, HANDLE WITH CARE, I think she crossed the line. [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD] Six-year-old Willow O'Keefe was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disease of very brittle bones that break at a touch. The majority of the novel concerns a law suit brought by her parents against a doctor. That far, the novel felt legitimate to me, especially since Picoult writes from everyone's viewpoint, using multiple first person with great skill. However, in the last ten pages of the novel, the parents win their law suit -- after which Willow falls through the ice on a pond and drowns.

I felt massively manipulated.

Yes, kids drown. But this was not a book about losing a kid that way. The ending felt thrown in for shock value, and I felt bitterly disappointed. But I also asked myself: Have I ever killed off a character just for shock value?

Yes. But not once past my first few "beginner" novels. And not through an accident unrelated to the plot.

Last week I found out that Gardner Dozois is taking my novella "Act One" for his Best of the Year. I am very pleased about this. The novella also concerns people born with disabilities -- dwarfism and a genetic change I invented -- but none of them fall through the ice in the last few pages. If Barbara read SF (which she does not) that is at least one charge I could escape. Did I manipulate too much in other ways? Well -- that's for my readers to decide. If any of you read the novella, please do let me know.