Friday, March 26, 2010

Dialgue with a Pirate

A few days ago Gordon Van Gelder alerted me that an on-line pirate was giving away works of mine (and of William Gibson, Ursula LeGuin, Joe Haldemann, and more) at Gordon sent an email address for this guy, so I sent him an email telling him he was violating copyright and to cease and desist. The following exchange is offered here without comment, if nothing else as an illustration of the vastly different ways that human beings can think about the same topic:

NANCY: You are offering my books in electronic version free on your website. This is in violation of copyright laws. Please remove my works immediately, and send me an email to state that you have done so. Nancy Kress

PIRATE: I shall certainly consider it. And of course should start by sending me some documentary (scanned) proof that you are who you claim to be.-- The Burgomeister

NANCY: I don't know what "scanned proof" you require to stop breaking the law. meanwhile, I will turn this whole mess over to my agent.

PIRATE: That was the wrong move. I make a point never to negotiate with agents, publishers, or attorneys, all loosely grouped under the term "bottom-feeder". They cannot touch me or my library, since this is a question above all of jurisdiction.I am certainly not 'breaking the law', at least not where I live, and I resent the implication.I think you may have just blown it.

NANCY: It was not a "move" because this not a game. You do understand, don't you, that I make my living as a writer? That my stories are the product of my effort and creativity and passion? Taking them to give away is no different than taking anything from a store without permission or payment. I don't know what you do for a living but I imagine you don't do it for free.

PIRATE: The word 'move' does not necessarily imply a game: in common parlance, it also denotes an action of a general nature.But permit me to point out a fundamental error in your thinking:A text is not a physical object, so it cannot be stolen. Ownership of such an agglomeration of symbols (since 'unity' here is inapplicable) is an impossibility. The best you can do is _claim_ ownership - but anyone else can do that too. There is no legislation that can successfully govern the ether, thank heavens.I make my living, partly, as a librarian, but I don't claim ownership of my catalogue. It is there - it exists, but it is not my property. If anything, it is everyone's property - as are your texts.If you turn this over to the bottom-feeders, you will not hear from me again on this subject. I repeat, I do not do business with intermediaries and flunkies, and I resent their interference. But they are a minor irritant, nothing more - so go ahead if you must.

NANCY: Your thinking is flawed. Things which are not tangible can nonetheless belong to me. My identity is mine, for instance. And so are my stories, the result of my efforts and creativity, not yours.
And do you really imagine it would distress me to not hear from you again?

PIRATE: No, not at all. That is not what I meant and you know it. The intent behind my statement was that if you wanted your files removed you would negotiate directly with me and not attempt it through intermediaries (because that would have got you nowhere).As to our identities - these are fleeting, transient, insubstantial shadows, and our hold on them (if it can even be stated in such terms) is tenuous at best. I set no store whatsoever by mine, for example; in fact, I have a number of them to suit the circumstances at hand, changeable at will...I wouldn't dream of ever denying you the right to be named as 'author' of the texts cited; I acknowledge that they are indeed the fruits of your creativity. But that's as far as *your* hold on them goes; now they are 'out there', they belong to everyone and no-one. As a writer, surely you must be prepared for this? You're not a cabinet-maker: once those thoughts and ideas leave your head, they merge with the universal energy (or whatever you prefer to call Everything). Anyway, what I want to tell you is that the works of 'Nancy Kress' are no longer downloadable from my library. Listed, yes; downloadable, no.

NANCY: Thank you. But you are wrong about identities. Transient, yes -- everything in the universe is transient. But for now, this moment, I am me.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cranky at the Movies

I like Tim Burton. His CORPSE BRIDE was funny and inventive. But perhaps that was because he was working with original material, because his adaptation of existing material with ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a disaster. [WARNING: Spoilers Ahead]

The book ALICE IN WONDERLAND is dream material, both when she plops down that hole and when she melts through the looking glass. As such, it is delicate, fanciful, episodic, connected by the logic of the unconscious rather than of the mundane world. Burton has ignored all this to shove the story into the tired Procrustean bed of a quest: Alice must find the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky. As if that weren't enough borrowing from other material, at the end the movie morphs into THE WIZARD OF OZ. Alice gets sent back home by the White Queen, dressed in a Glinda the Good Witch outfit, after saying a tearful good-bye to her allies the Scarecrow -- oops, I mean the Mad Hatter -- a large dog, and others. I half expected someone to say, "Just click the ruby slippers together three times..."

This mess is getting decent reviews in many places. I can't see why (maybe it's me). Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen) are both very good. But the movie lacks all of Lewis Carroll's charm. Visually it's garish, in bright primary colors, with nothing of the dream-world delicacy.

In short, I hated it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I tell my writing students that they should not wait for "inspiration" to write -- after all, if you wanted to be a professional pianist, you wouldn't practice only when inspired, would you? You'd have your butt on that piano bench every single day. Writing is similar.

Nonetheless, I've noticed that there are moods in which I get more done than in other states of mind. The primary factor determining daily word count is how the work is going, but moods contribute, too. Specifically, I get the most done -- and this applies to other kinds of tasks as well as writing -- in one of three moods.

The first is a high-energy, but not truly jubilant, mood that I attain all too rarely, being naturally a low-energy person. In this state everything seems easy. This happens maybe once a month.

The second is the adrenaline rush of a sudden deadline. I don't like to leave things till the last minute, but if a deadline comes from nowhere ("Can you get these galleys back to us by Thursday?" and I'm attending an out-of-town wedding, taking my dog to the vet, and teaching), it galvanizes me.

The third productive state, however, is unexpected. It's when I'm expecting a bad-but-not-disastrous day. My expectations are low: of pleasure, of accomplishment. I just want to get through everything. Surprisingly often, this ends up resulting in a lot getting done, and done well.

What does not get things done is the most pleasant of personal moods: laid-back enjoyment, at-ease well being. Then I tend to dawdle and postpone ("Let's have another cup of coffee and talk some more.") Somehow, the best life has to offer is not the most productive state for me. Seems unfair! But so it is.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Oddities and Reminiscences

Even though no one is buying my house, I am in the process of packing up a lot of things to ship to Seattle. This has involved going through a great many boxes, which in turn has resulted in finding stuff I forgot I owned. Among the recent discoveries:
  • A pair of Gardner Dozois's boxer shorts. These were won at a SFWA charity auction decades ago. Should I keep them? Send them back to Gardner? What?
  • My sixth-grade diary. Since I was not one of those kids who know they're planning on being a writer, this is not a strained attempt at being literary. Rather, it is an embarrassing compendium of crushes on boys, competition for grades with my best friend, and arguments with my long-suffering mother. Keep it? I can't bear not to, but am mostly embarrassed by the content.
  • My earliest stories. These are unremittingly bad. Really, really bad. How come I didn't realize that both a point of view and a plot are good things to have in fiction?
  • A piece of driftwood with a little piece of paper attached that says, "I will never forget this day." What day? When? I've forgotten.
What does one DO with this stuff? Move it to Seattle? Throw it out? I really don't know.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Yesterday I was reading a 1940's detective novel and I was struck by how usefully -- as well as how often -- the writer used cigarettes to convey emotion. Characters light cigarettes, put out cigarettes, share cigarettes, search for cigarettes, and a dozen other gestures, all of which can be made to convey emotion. It was a handy device that is no longer useful since (1) it's become a cliche and (2) far fewer people smoke, and thus so do far fewer characters.

More inventive gestures, however, are still a good way to convey emotion -- provided that the writer has established a context for them. Does that character's slow blink indicate nervousness, flirtation, thoughtful pondering, or lying? A slow blink can signal any of these. Which do you intend? Do the other characters correctly interpret the gesture? What is their context? All of this, done correctly, can create much texture in fiction.

Context, of course, is always cultural. My family is Italian; they gesture constantly and largely. A sweep of the arm can punctuate nothing more dramatic than "I slept really late today." For another family, a large sweep of the arm would be reserved for "Get out of my sight forever!" Still others would utter that sentence with a totally still body and cold eyes.

All of this was on my mind because in the book I'm writing, I wanted to have my character make an obscene gesture. But I can't -- I don't know what, in this fantasy world, the obscene gestures are. Back to the world-building stage. I only know they won't involve cigarettes.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Publishing is changing fast, as we all know, and last week I encountered yet another example. This time it's not the electronic press but the print small press. As with the little English ships that took on the Spanish armada, a small press, when it chooses, can mobilize with far greater speed than corporate giants.

Shahid Mahmud, owner of Phoenix Pick, contacted me February 25 about doing a small trade paper of my Nebula-nominated novella "Act One." We maneuvered about a contract, agreed, and four days later the book was available for sale, complete with cover art, a Forward, the next chapter of Joan Slonciewski's new novel as a "tickler," and a very attractive price ($5.99 including shipping). Four days!

This is astonishing to me. Granted, it's a reprint rather than a new work, but still.... Print-on-demand, a determined editor, a cooperative author, and a website can move amazingly fast. Shahid, who reports that his wife says he's "having way too much fun at work," plans on doing more works. Fast.

The Web site, with the book's lovely cover art, is

Monday, March 1, 2010


The most interesting development at the moment in genetic research is epigenetics. This is the study of those proteins that determine which genes get switched on, when, under what circumstances, and how often. After all, your house may contain elaborate lighting, but if nobody ever flips the wall switch, it doesn't affect you. Neither does all that hard wiring for the electric chair you're sitting in.

Epigenetics explains why two identical twins, with the exact same genome, can have different finger prints, personalities, and even allergies. Somewhere in the fetal development, or even later, different genes were activated or silenced. Scientists are hot in pursuit of how this happens.

From a philosophical point of view, epigenetics is huge. It loosens the stranglehold thinking of some biologists, that your genome is your inevitable fate. It also has tremendous fictional possibilities. Unlike your genome, which is fixed at the moment sperm penetrates egg, the expression of your genes remains fluid throughout your life. Drugs are currently being developed to try to silence those genes that contribute to the growth of tumors. If that effort succeeds, then theoretically any genes you possess could be either silenced or activated.

When I'm finished with my current project, I plan to explore this idea through science fiction. It's almost the antithesis of Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD. You are not locked in by your societally engineered genome -- there is a back door, an escape hatch. You can be more than the you which exists right now -- without abandoning that particular you. What could be more exciting? And unlike the actual scientists, I don't have to figure out how to do it: I merely have to state that the brilliant scientists have done so.

God, I love my job.