Sunday, December 16, 2007

Best movie yet about an Israeli clairovoyant 14-year old girl

I'm watching a movie called "Saint Clara," from Israel. It's about a Russian girl named Clara in an Israeli high school who has the ability to tell the future, as kill she uses to tell all the other kids what problems are going to be on the math tests. Needless to say, the administration gets suspicious when every student in the school gets 100% on the test. The movie begins with an interrogation designed to expose the conspiracy.

And there is a conspiracy. A bald-headed punk-rock kid named Rosy and his two friends Tikel and Libby are using Clara to spread the answers to the test, something that another student reveals right away. But of course the attempt to figure out how she stole the answers doesn't get anywhere. But it's revealed early on that when Clara falls in love she will lose her power.

But that is only the start of this insane movie, which has a lot more going on than that. The main thing about the movie is that the dialogue is brilliant. Here's a sample, a conversation between the punk-rock kids who are spying on a siesmographic station (no, I don't know why):

"Why is is called the Monroe Seismographic Station?"
"Marilyn Monroe. He was Richter's whore. The guy who invented the seismograph."
"You know the scientists love it when there is an earthquake. The machines draw Marilyn Monroe naked. They tell how big the earthquake is by the size of her tits."

It's a very culty film, and a lot of it doesn't make much sense. It's violent and Jen considers some of it misogynist. It spends as much time on Rosy, Tikel and Libby than it does on Clara.

The movie is very much about power, failed dreams, exploitation and people who will never be satisfied with what they have and who they are. The movie doesn't directly adress any of the things most Americans think about when they think about Isreal, like the idea of the the holy land, the struggle with the Arabs and Palestinians for land or dealing with terrorism. Instead it's about the same thing that a lot of American movies are about: being a horny teenager, cometing for a girl, and the need to be prove you're better than everyone else.

But the movie addresses these questions in a way that no movie I have seen addresses them. There is a sense of being on the edge, of being willing to do anything that I don't see in even the most violent, intense American movies. A scene of Rosy smashing in a neon-lit store window for nothing more than a single chocolate truffle is, to me, the epitome of the film.

Oh, okay, now i get it. The seismographic station represents scientific rationality competing with Clara's supernatural power. I also just figured out that Libby is a girl. This is the sort of thing that happens when you blog a movie while you're watching it (the better part of a big bottle of Chimay doesn't help). But I'm not going to go back and edit.

What makes the movie brilliant is the combination of completely off-the-wall concepts with the elements of a run-of-the-mill teen romance. Rationalism versus Russian mysticism is undecided, but the right girl ends up with the right guy. I'm posting this with the Hebrew credits. Don't ask me if I regret it in the morning.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

If it's Tuesday, this must be trigonometry, or why HS math sucks

I've been reading Steven Hawking's God Created the Integers lately. This is a book that is likely to end up decorating the bookshelves of a lot of people who expect it to be a popularization, like "A Brief History of Time." In fact, it's Hawking's commentary on some of the mathematicians he considers most important in history, from Euclid through Turing, with the majority of the text being simply the text of the mathematician's work.

It's slow going; I'm not even through the Euclid yet. I admit to skimming some too, especially in the part about ratios. It's really hard to slog through all the unfamiliar old Euclidean terms for things that we have better words for today, or to decipher the difficult verbal descriptions of things that can be described much simpler using algebraic notation. Which makes more sense to you, this:

If there be any number of magnitudes whatever which are, respectively, equimultiples of any magnitude equal in multitude, then whatever multiple one of the magnitudes is of one that multiple will be of all.

Or this:

ma + mb + mc... = m(a + b + c...)

Of course, as a math teacher I think it is also good for me to spend time seeing familiar concepts described in unfamiliar ways; it helps me to remember what it's like for many of my kids, for whom the algebraic description of the first theorem of ratios would be as confusing as the verbal version.

And then there are the really beautiful parts, like re-reading Euclid's proof of theorem i.47, more commonly known as the Pythagorean Theorem. I've read the Elements a few times before, including that proof. But I had forgotten the exact elements of it, just remembering that it involved congruent triangles using the Side Angle Side postulate. But I had forgotten some of the most beautiful steps in the reasoning. For example these congruent triangles are of the same measure as the triangles based on the diagonal of the rectangles composing the square of the hypotenuse, being on a parallel base. I was trying in my geeky way to explain to my wife, who is a poet and author of a this amazing book, that it was like reading a particularly sublime poem, like an Emily Dickenson.

To a lot of people, math is entirely pragmatic. Not just people at a cash register punching in sums of christmas shopping. Engineers might have to learn Differential Equations and epidemiologists might have to learn incredibly complex statistical analyses, often far above anything I can do. But there is no need for them to appreciate the beauty of these procedures in order to use them. Not to say that many of them don't, just that even at that level math is often taught for the purpose of getting some real-world result.

Let me point out now that I am not by any definition a mathematician. Some people, knowing my job, have mistakenly called me that; in response I wave my hands and say, "No, no, no! I'm a high school Algebra teacher. Believe me, there is a difference." I am a mathematician in the same way that the neighborhood softball coach who practices swinging his bat like Mark McGwire is a major leaguer, or the family piano teacher who tinkles along in the style of Glenn Gould is a concert pianist.

But I do love math, not just for its astounding practical applications (and really is there any other branch of human thinking that has produced such amazing results?), but because it is one of the great towers of human achievement. The graph of a quadratic equation, which I have always been tempted to have tattooed on my arm, is as deep a penetration into the nature of reality as a Shakespeare tragedy or a Beethoven sonata. It took millenia of proofs and deductions, from the conics of Appolonius to the Principia of Newton, to understand how that one shape explains so many changes in the world. Which of course is only a drop in the unfathomable ocean of human reasoning that math is today. Standing at the edge of it, looking out over the horizon, one can be so overwhelmed with the beauty of it that it's difficult to speak.

And the real agony is that in my teaching I do not know how to get across the slightest bit of the beauty in math to my students. Actually, that is not entirely true. I have an idea how it might be done. But given the constraints I am under, it simply seems impossible.

It is not, let me emphasize, because of the condition or weaknesses of my students. I teach in the South Bronx, and when I say that people will chuckle and ask me if I wear a bulletproof vest to school, etc, etc. In fact, my students are nearly all good kids with high moral standards who come from families that want them to succeed and do well like most families do. I teach a larger number of kids with serious problems, from foster care to poverty to homelessness to being teen parents. Drug use, contrary to what people would expect, is not a top problem. I teach a few stoners, but I taught a lot more in the upper-middle class suburbs of Albuquerque where kids could afford the drugs. The biggest problem I struggle with is a sort of learned helplessness, the tendency of a minority, but a significant minority, of my kids to give up on anything hard before they even try. "Mister, I don't get it," they'll say. "What part don't you get?" I ask. "I don't get all of it," they reply, not even having looked yet at what they are supposed to do.

If I taught in Suffolk County on Long Island, or in a Manhattan top prep school, that would not be such a problem. Many more of my kids would be able to solve the problems I gave them, and be able to pass the dreaded Math Regents that tails so many urban kids through their high-school years. More would do their homework, and less would be tempted to hurl their calculators' plastic covers across the room at each other.

But they would nevertheless see math as a means for graduating high school and getting into college. It would be an entirely practical necessity to be taken care of and gotten out of the way. Beyond a few units in Geometry, they'd never have to deal with a mathematical proof, or put more than a moment's thought about why a^2 + b^2 = c^2, or what that means.

To do that, one would have to slow down, and spend some time on a topic, dig deeply into it. Imagine a class that, in talking about the Pythag. Theorem, explored how the Greeks from day one had doubts about the parallel postulate (at least that's what Hawking thinks), but had to use it because they couldn't prove the P.T. or much of anything else without it. And how the undecidability of that theorem led eventually to non-Euclidean geometry, Reimannian geometry, which led to Einstein's Theorem of General Relativity, and less directly to the nuclear bomb. They wouldn't have to understand all of the math (lord knows I don't) to see the beauty of the fact that from early on people sensed that hidden in the struggle to settle on the provability of that postulate was, quite literally, the key to the shape of the entire universe.

But slowing down is most definitely something a high school math teacher can't do today. The New York State Math curriculum, which is based primarily on the Regents exam, is so crammed with topics that one must as quickly as reasonably possible get students to where they seem likely able to solve the kind of problems they're likely to be confronted with, then speed on. In the freshman year alone they cover algebra from linear through quadratic, including inequalities, as well as probability, statistics, a little bit of logic and basic trig.

But why do you have to make such a big deal of covering everything in the curriculum? you might ask. It's a nice thing to think that coverage isn't so important until the kids get to the regents and don't even recognize half the problems on it. But wouldn't the kids do better if they had a deep understanding? Absolutely, but deep understanding takes time and is far more unpredictable and harder to measure.

I don't ever want to say it can't be done. If Jaime Escalante was doing my job perhaps he could have them all ready for pre-calc by the end of the year and appreciating every bit of it. And if he walks in my classroom and wants to take over, I'll hand him the chalk and sit in the front row and listen.

Instead I'm just another urban teacher struggling to get my kids to where they can graduate, and I pray go on to some kind of post-secondary and succeed. I'm just someone who loves math, and loves teaching, but hates the way I have to teach math. And I know something has to change, but I just don't know how or what yet.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

PKD mundane?

D.N. Drake of The Courier: The Mundane Science Fiction Ezine responded in my comments to my previous post. I was happy to get any readers at all, and he was quite polite about my unfair dismissal of his just-created journal. He did suggest that I was "confused as to what mundane SF is." He also suggested that Anthony Burgess and Phillip K. Dick were examples of two good mundane sci-fi writers ("not all of their stuff, obviously.")

My first snarky response to the suggestion that I was confused about what mundane is would be to say "and until I actually see an example of it, how couldn't I be?" But Drake's comment was very measured and civil, and I'd like to be as well.

I think that part of what Drake meant, perhaps, was that mundane sci-fi is not just "a list of negations," as I overheatedly put it. The idea behind mundane sci-fi also involves a very strong social consciousness. Mundane sci-fi should at least suggest at ways to live on our planet into the next few centuries if warp drives, nanotech and personality uploads don't bail us out. Regardless of my aesthetic judgements, I couldn't agree more that we need to start thinking about how to live responsibility with the technology we have rather than expect that some future tech will come along and save us. For example, we continue to irresponsibly blow the tops off mountains for coal and drive 17 mpg three-ton behemoths around, assuming it will be okay because nuclear fusion and fuel cell cars are just around the corner. Only problem is, those technologies have been twenty years down the road since the late '50s, and the goalposts keep retreating.

I think the social consciousness issue is why Drake suggested PKD as a possible model for mundane sci-fi. (I don't think it's fair to draft dead authors into your movement, except in the sense of "we want to write like x.") It can't have been primarily about "the rules," so to speak. Clearly Dick's deskside toolchest featured a number of mundane no-nos, including strong AI, alien intelligences, interstellar travel (FTL is never specified, but Palmer Eldritch travels to faraway places too fast for it to be any other way), and flat-out unapologetic psychic-power mumbo-jumbo. A lot of the other mundane taboos, like personality uploads or nanotech, hadn't really been thought up back then, but if they had I'm sure he'd have toyed around with them too. When he wrote a story that contained none of these, it was probably more of a coincidence than a conscious decision. Technical implausibility, a major deal-killer both for mundane sci-fi and in the sci-fi world in general today, just wasn't really that important to Dick (or a lot of other great authors in his time). He was thinking more in the classic spec-fic mode of "what would people act like if we could do x?"

But, and this is where he was different back then, PKD chose to write about the Starship Academy rejects, the losers left behind on the wreck of the planet after eveyone else had hopped off to stars unknown. And he made it very clear that by then we'd have f***d the place up but good. The world of "Androids Dream" is so radioactive people have to wear lead underwear to keep their sperm alive, while in "Three Stigmata" the world is prophetically overheating (and this as far as I know is years before anyone mentioned the greenhouse effect).

So one could argue that he had a very mundane POV even when his stories weren't technically mundane. Which is fair enough, but if you're going to do take that attitude you might have to expand what mundane sci-fi is about, and make it less a list of things you can't do and more about what you're trying to do with your story.

I agree with Julian Todd & Geoff Ryman that sci-fi today needs a kick in the ass. But they seem to feel that it's because most sci-fi authors today see a problem and wave their artifically intelligent nanotech time-travel magic wand and fix it. It's true that really bad authors do that. But any really good authors understand that new tech fixes some problems and creates others. For example, the issue of the rights of replicants in "Androids." In Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitors universe, nanotech fixes a lot of problems, but it also makes possible the horror of the Melding Plague, forcing many people to abandon it.

There's plenty of examples of that in the real world. The success of antibiotics against bacterial infections would have seemed like science fiction a century ago. But as a result of overuse we're getting antibiotic resistant bacteria. The availability of food today, at least in western nations, means that even the poorest people in countries like ours won't die because they can't get enough calories. But as a result many poor people end up being both overwieght and malnourished from bad diets, while being slender is something that wealthy aspire to. If PKD had been alive a few centuries ago, I could see him having predicted this.

So what kind of new injustices would we have if we did have interstellar travel, or personality uploads? It wouldn't be mundande sci-fi, but it could be just as socially conscious. Look at how H.G. Wells turned imperialism on its head with "War of the Worlds."

And if mundane sci-fi has a carrot as well as a stick, perhaps its proponents could shift the emphasis. Maybe more people would want to write mundane stories if there was more talk on what the stories should be about, and less about what they shouldn't. I think I would.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Interzone's upcoming mundane issue: does this movement have any clothes?

Pretty amazing how a month and a half can slip by when you're distracted by details like work and parenthood and such. I've written a lot of beautiful long posts in my head and not bothered to sit down and type them in. So here's one I'm actually writing.

I noticed that Interzone has a forthcoming issue on mundane sci-fi. Though I am not interested in being restrained by any of the mundanistas' rules, I think this is a good thing. I also think it is fair to treat this as a bit of a put-up-or-shut-up moment for the movement. Or as Uncle Walt from Minnesota once put it, "Where's the beef?"

Imagine someone who knew nothing about genre fiction were to come along to me and say "I've heard that there is this movement called Singularity in science fiction. What's that all about?" I'd say, "Oh, check out Charles Stross' Accelerando, or anything by Vernor Vinge." What about that cyberpunk thing back in the '80s and '90s? Start with Gibson's Neuromancer, then move on to Bruce Sterling and Snow Crash. What about urban fantasy? Try Neil Gaiman's Nevewhere and China Mieville's King Rat. Slipstream? Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet has a whole new anthology out. Paranormal romance? Anne Rice would be the prototype, and I suppose Laurell K. Hamilton the modern exemplar, for better or worse. By reading one or two books from any of these authors you could very quickly get an idea if a movement of fiction interested you or not.

And, my subgenre exploring fantasy friend might ask next, what is this mundane sci-fi movement about? Well, I'd respond, there's this Wikipedia entry, see? And a blog. I think you can see the problem here.

From the bottom of the wiki page I linked to a magazine titled "The Courier - A Mundane SF ezine", to find a blog with three entries and a hit count that makes mine look good by comparison (that's bad). I scrolled down the mundane blog, which is actually a very good blog, to see if goatchurch has any references to any stories I should read. The first post (and only recent one that was about a story) referred to a novel by a woman named Sarah Hall, who won a recent literary prize with a near-future "literary" novel, that fits the mundane rules no doubt by accident. But he is not actually saying this is an exemplar of mundane sci-fi, but rather a warning of what could happen if people don't start writing the way he wants us to.

This is exactly what I've warning you about, boys and girls. Mainstream literature is doing an end-run around the outside of SF to connect with the real future of life as we will come to know it.

Based on the description of Hall's novel, it would be fair to point out that it seems to occur within an already existing subgenre of literary fiction, the feminist dystopia/utopia that has been explored, among others, by Marge Piercy in Woman on the Edge of Time and of course Atwood in Handmaid's Tale. So goatchurch might be just a little alarmist about this.

But if he's not, and mundane sci-fi is the only thing that can save the whole genre, it's about time that we saw some stories to show for it. The Wiki says the movement was started in 2004, by Geoff Ryman and Julian Todd. I can't find the link for it but I understand this was the aspiration of the Clarion class from that year. That means an entire cohort of Clarion alumni has had more than three years to work on this concept by now. We should see mind-blowing mundane stories shooting up like fireworks left and right. I'm not saying they're not out there, but I haven't seen them.

Curiously enough, as it happens, I found a story that seems so far to fit all the mundane rules in one of the least predicted places, the opening of the January/February Analog. I think I got this back in October, according to their usual schedule (hey, it is a magazine about the future), but only forced myself to read it recently because I didn't have anything better to look at. In truth, Analog has a lot of stories that fill all the mundane checkboxes, which isn't surprising for a manifesto that is really just a string of negations. This story, "Marsbound" by Joe Haldeman, is about a family that is going to Mars because they won a lottery.

But I don't recommend that goatchurch run out and make the link just yet. In the first twenty pages of the three-part series, here's what happens: the narrator, a college-age daughter of the family, rides to the space elevator with her parents and brother. The kids secretly sneak some beer. The pilot of the spaceship that will be flying them there talks to the narrator, and he might be hitting on her, but probably not. She sees the earth from space. They play penny poker. A micrometeorite strike makes a small hole in the elevator ribbon, but it's okay because it gets fixed by ribbon repair robots (not nanos - check!). She starts to feel weightlessness. And lots of people have conversations about how space elevators work that are incredibly mind-numbing even for a geek like me. Let me just point out, as a person desperately trying to get the interest of a book agent, that if an unknown like myself sent an opening like this in a query it would get sent back with a form rejection so fast I wouldn't have to step away from the mailbox to pick it up, and rightfully so. Can anyone who is reading this really wonder why Analog's subscription rates are plummeting?

In the opening of Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City there is also a space elevator scene. But by the tenth page the cable gets blown up by a nuclear bomb, and the car's about to shoot off into space, leaving the hero to make a desperate escape. As believable? Hell no. More fun to read? Damn straight.

"Marsbound," of course, should not be taken as representative of mundane SF, since as far as I know Joe Haldeman has nothing to do with the movement. But until we start seeing some good stories under the movement label soon, stuff like this will be all they have. Within half a year or so, we'll see if the emperor is wearing any clothes.

Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out that the Courier only opened their doors a couple of days ago. I didn't look to see when the journal started, so that wasn't fair. My apologies.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The love lives of physicists

I'm about halfway through Richard Cox's novel The God Particle. That would be the Higgs Boson, for those that don't regularly read the New York Times's Science Times page. The Higgs is the particle that supposedly cements the Standard Model of quantum physics and possibly connects it to other parts of physics, like general relativity and string theory. "Finding Higgs," as the physicists in the book put it, would be an earth-shaking development.

For physicists, at least, and physics-loving geeks like me. Unfortunately, the actual process in the search involves combing through petabits of data coming out of an accelerator, looking for the random squiggle that might represent a "Higgs event," then refining the search by applying complex statistical models to eliminate noise and outliers. Not exactly page-turning material. Clearly this presents Cox with a challenge when he's trying to come up with interesting conflicts for the novel.

To a large degree he's chosen to overcome it by focusing the novel on his characters' sex lives, or, since they are after all physics geeks, frequently the lack of them. This allows him to have Mike McNair, the main protagonist and head of the accelerator that's searching for the Higgs, explain why the Higgs is so important in the process of hitting on Kelly, a Dallas news reporter who's his seatmate on an airplane. McNair has a problem; his boss is pushing to find the Higgs faster and is hinting that he might push Mike out and replace him with Amy, a hotshot he brought over from CERN. Then there's the problem of trying to control his old college friend and current network administrator Larry, an alcoholic stalker creep who keeps harassing the other women working at the laboratory. And somehow this story will at some point be connected with Steve, an auto parts executive who has been thrown out the window of a whorehouse in Germany, resulting in severe brain damage and hallucinations (or not?) that he can read people's minds and levitate.

Cox's characters' personalities are painted with a brush wide as a paint roller, but they are entertaining and believable enough. You really want things to work out for Mike, and for him and Kelly to get something going. Even the bad guys are all bad for self-consistent reasons, so when he tells things from their point of view you can see why they think their actions are justifiable.

For awhile, the search itself seems pretty secondary to the plot, but as it advances it becomes more and more central. Cox is trying to do something with the synthesis of science and faith, since Kelly is a sort of believer (well, a Unitarian, but it seems like you can talk them into about anything). But the conversations about this are the least interesting part of the book. Still, I'm engaged enough that I'm looking forward to finishing it.

Monday, October 8, 2007

At least I'm still reading

Haven't been writing, haven't been posting. But at least I'm still reading, thanks to the long train ride to the Bronx. So what have I been reading?

Graham Joyce - Limits of Enchantment
When I first saw this writer's books at Powell's my first thought was that with a name like that they probably don't even read your manuscript first, they just send it straight to the printer. But in this author's case, that would be the right move. This is his third book that I've read, the first two being Indigo and The Tooth Fairy. Each book deserves a complete post, but I'll focus on Limits for now.

This is the best book about witches I have ever seen. Joyce never uses the 'w' word except once in the book, and then it's used in reference to another character in its derogatory sense, as a substitute for 'bitch'. But it's clear immediately that that's what Mammy and her young apprentice Fern are. Mammy is also a midwife who gives abortions, which isn't so popular in late-60's England. The story is really about the coming-of-age, sexually and otherwise, of Fern. But it blends ancient forgotten mysticism perfectly into the description of a time when the whole country was turning upside down.

To put it simply, Joyce understands how to use magic in a story. He understands that magic isn't science by a different system, and it's not run by a set of rules you learn at Hogwarts. It's mysterious, it's unpredictable, it comes from someplace you'll never fully comprehend and it does things that you did not tell it to do. Sci-fi Diplomat has had some problems with fantasy, and I understand why. If he ever decides to re-involve himself in the commonwealth, this book might change his mind.

Ian M. Banks The Excession
This is most certainly one of the strangest and most inaccessible sci-fi books I've ever encountered. Not that the premise is all that difficult, when you get to it. Basically, a galaxy-spanning Stage Three civilization encounters a piece of extra-Universal technology (the "Excession") that makes even their kilometers-long sentient superluminal starships seem like horses and chariots by comparison, and sends a diplomat named Hofoen to find the stored personality of a starship captain who may have seen it before. Subplots include a conspiracy among sentient starships, a 40-year pregnancy, and a war with a thuglike race of sadists who may not be so bad after all. Banks brings all these together, in a box-checking kind of way, but not in the sort of mind-blowing "Oh, that's why he did that!" sort of way that you want when you've got a lot going on in a book.

Banks must have read that business-motivational book "First, Break All the Rules" before he wrote this one, but it doesn't necessarily lead to a better book. He has the worst case of POV-hopping going on in this book I've ever seen; there must be at least ten major perspectives, including sentient drones and super-sentient starships, and most of them are not really that interesting. He devotes almost no time at all to establishing the science behind his tech; he has starships hopping around at hundreds of thousands of times light speed with no more justification than hand-waving references to "hyperspace." (Take that mundanists!) He fills pages of early chapters with incomprehensible techno-babble whose meaning is only revealed chapters later.

In truth, a lot of that stuff wouldn't bother me that much, though how he got it past the editor I have no idea. What bothered me a lot more was that the central, plot-closing relationship of the book was not even established except through a dream sequence three-quarters of the way in. To be honest, if 'The Algebraist' hadn't been so brilliant, I wouldn't have forced my way through this one, so read that book if you want to start somewhere with Banks.

Steve Cash, The Meq

This book reminds me more than anything else of Interview with a Vampire, which remains a stellar novel if you can ignore the rotting horse of its premise that Anne Rice's next 87 books have flogged to death next to it. Like Interview it's about a near-immortal race, seperate from humanity yet connected to them. It stretches across many years of history, and is full of half-forgotten mysteries and discoveries.

The Meq are a magical race associated with the Basque who only grow to age 12, then stay that way. They can live for millenia, and only mature past adolescence when they meet their Ameq, or true love, at which time they can 'cross over' and age and die like normal people. Zianno, or Z as he likes to be called, is a Meq who only learns what he is when his mother and father die in a train wreck. Of course Z is not just any Meq; he is the long-awaited 'one' who can uncover the curses and mysteries of the Meq, all in the process of finding his own Ameq and defeating a perverted evil Meq assassin.

Like Rice's work, the book flirts with the conventions of romance novels. It's full of faraway ports of call, mysterious strangers hinting at forgotten knowledge, secrets from the ancient mists of time, and villains with luscious names like Corsair Bogy and Fleur-du-Mal. Cash did enough research to write a historical novel, inserting historical characters like Scott Joplin and T.S. Eliot in peripheral parts in the book.

The book has a few weaknesses. The biggest one is that it slips too easily into racial and nationalistic stereotypes for character-building. Solomon, a wise old German Jew who is Z's guide for an early part of the book, is also a money-counting merchant whose tag line is 'Zis is good business.' Later Solomon is protected by a Chinese man named Li, eternally loyal because - you guessed it - Li saved Solomon's life once and is bound by that old kung-fu movie cliche that only applies to character parts destined for early death. The Scottish guy is super-efficient and reliable, the Arabs are slavers trading in young white flesh, and so on. A more minor complaint is that the age the characters are stuck at, 12, is the beginning of sexuality for most people, but the Meq don't really seem to have any sexuality until they meet their Ameq, and even then it is sort of bolt-from-the-blue starry-eyed certainty rather than the messiness of actual early adolescence. Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be, but if it is the kids aren't really 12, they're something else.

But if you can get around that, the book is engaging and fun and never gives you a break. Like Joyce, Cash also gets that magic is inexplicable and unpredictable, and he knows how to set up the plot dominoes and knock them down, an underrated skill that keeps me turning pages. I'm not done yet, but I am looking forward to my train ride tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

KGB Bar Reading

Went down to the KGB Bar fantastic fiction reading tonight, where they were doing reading from the best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Had a nice chat with Mary Robinette Kowal, briefly shook hands with host and NY specfic Don Ellen Datlow, and met some other nice people, including a gentleman named Dustin, who works at a new bookstore on Prince Street I'll have to stop by one day.

The first part of the LCRW reading reminded me a bit too much of a college creative writing workshop. There were a few lines and ideas that made you chuckle, and allowed you to see the potential of the readers, but they just weren't there yet. They said at the start of the reading that there were supposed to be nine (seven?) readers, which made me quail, but I only counted four (six?). If you're questioning my math, since teaching that is my day job, let me explain.

Before the break, the LCRW editor Gavin Grant read a short piece from LCRW about the proper martini. If you've been around the booze block a few times it was the usual story: gin, not vodka; yes, you have to have some vermouth even if it's just on the edge of the glass; the gin doesn't have to be fancy but the vermouth should; an olive or a citrus peel is the proper garnish. Technically I should point out that the classic 'tini features only a citrus peel, and the LCRW gin:vermouth ratio of 6:1 is actually on the light side for the vermouth, the original ration being more in the 4:1 range.

Now I'm off topic. The point was that if you ordered a martini at the bar you would get a free issue of LCRW. This presented a bit of a challenge. I had just finished a Baltika #9, my usual drink at the KGB, which comes out to 1.09 ltr x 8% alcohol = .09 ltr of ethyl. You know what happens when you mix drinks, and I knew that Beefeater and Baltika were just not made to go together. The last time the Brits and the Russkies had a serious interaction was when the UK and US landed troops in northern Russia at the tail end of the Russian revolution, and look how that turned out. To make things worse they didn't have Beefeater, which didn't seem possible. Caution advised against it.

I just want you to know the sacrifices I will make for genre literature. I ordered Bombay, but the bartender (a long-haired Asian man who's perpetually rushed since people can only order booze on the short breaks between readings) gave me Tanq instead, and I showed it off to get my 'zine. It was LCRW #13, and they're putting out #20 now. I have put out a literary magazine myself so I know what it means to give away year-old issues of your magazine. It's like a 60-year old woman giving you a handjob; it's nothing to her. Nevertheless I've never read this magazine before, so I'll give you a better summary when I've given a good once-over.

The reading ended with Karen Russell and Jeffrey Ford, both of whom made it worthwhile, but neither of whom, unfortunately, is in the free issue I got. Russell had a great piece about a mergirl and batgirl (get it?), while Ford's piece, which I only vaguely remember (refer back to the Baltika and martini), included an old buy-everything store dragged out of his memory that made me think of Duran's Pharmacy in Albuquerque.

I have more to write but I can't do it, because I have to start a unit on Functions tomorrow, and I haven't even written the lesson plan. More soon, I hope.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"Psychologue" and other non-verbal communication in sci-fi

Okay, I'm back. Sorry, the first two weeks of school just hit me like a Mack truck, as usual. I don't even dare look at StatCounter; I assume that I have lost all my loyal readers (sorry guys!), but I hope to win them back.

I wanted to write about different ways of describing communication between characters that does not involve actual speech. A non-exhaustive list of where this would happen would include:

- ESP/telepathy
- Minds that are part of a network or hive mind, such as Alistair Reynolds' Conjoiners
- Other computer-enhanced mind-to-mind linkage
- Regular old text messaging

I'm sure there are others I'm not thinking of. The ways I'm aware of to do this include:

- Treat it like ordinary dialogue in quotes, but mention that it's not verbal.
No one that I'm aware of does this, but you could actually make a good case for it. Take the example of a character who is speaking to another in sign language. I vaguely remember a David Eddings book in which the Thieves' Guild or some such organization had a special sign language, and he used regular quotes for that, even though it was not spoken with a "voice." I'm sure there is some book about deaf people speaking that does the same thing. So why not with telepathy? But as I said, no one that I know of does that.

- Italics
This is the old standby for telepathy, because italics already have been widely used to represent a character's thought. Alistair Reynolds uses italics to represent mental dialogue of a Conjoiner who is the "subjective" character for a particular scene (so if a scene is told subjective to Skade's POV, then her messages are italic).

- Blockquotes
This one stands out for text messaging. Obviously when you're dealing with TM you are referring back to 'epistolary' text in a book, which was often blockquoted, but sometimes just quoted. But TM is very different from a letter or even an e-mail, because it's direct and ongoing, like regular speech. I think people have yet to work TM well into fiction.

- Other font faces.
Again for TM this seems like a good possibility, but I don't know for sure if anyone's done it. I have tried to write some stories in which TM was done in a old-style computer-ish font like Lucida or something, but it's too hard to submit these to a magazine, since you'd have to have all kinds of notes to the editor which would distract them from the story. Maybe when I'm famous. :)

- Other text markup in place of quotes
In Reynolds' books, when a Conjoiner who's the "subjective POV" character gets a thought from someone else, that thought is put in brackets. Even more interesting is how Vernor Vinge does "silent messages" in Rainbows End. He uses an SGML-like markup language, that denotes who the message is from and to. So if a character named Braun is sending a SM to characters named Mitsuri and Vaz (but not anyone else in the room), it would look like:

Braun-->Mitsuri, Vaz:This is the best you could recruit, Alfred?.

Sometimes there will also be file-type attachments mentioned. Naturally this just makes all our inner geeks swoon.

One thing that all of the previous approaches have in common, though, is that it puts all such communication strictly in the form of words. It's still all just dialogue, however you mark it up. This would be necessary if you're talking about some sort of text message system.

But in the case of true telepathy, or some kind of hive-mind, I would imagine that words would begin to get in the way, to abuse another cliche. Only the surface skim of our thoughts are really represented in words. Most of our thoughts are a mix of images, smells, feelings, muscle memory, and deeper ideas than we could ever represent verbally. If we could really access each other's minds, we could transmit ideas to each other that would make any communication before seem pathetic. It would be like all of a sudden going from a telegraph to high-speed networking.

I have a writhing wreck of a book that involves undersea mutants that communicate telepathically, and in early drafts I tried to do "psychologue" using italics and other ways. But I quickly recognized that it just wasn't believable they'd use words. So instead I tried to explain the thoughts they were sending to each other. I don't know how well it worked; the book needs tons of work.

I think this is still a wide-open field in terms of fiction. It's far from unlikely that sometime in the future we will be able to communicate with each other in ways that seem science-fictional now (let's face it, we already do). As writers, we need a way to make that happen in a story that's believable and interesting.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Burned by evil new spam site

If I have ever e-mailed you before, you probably just got an e-mail in my name inviting you to be my "friend" on a site called (No, I am not linking to it.) If you did, please do not go there. These people are spammers of the most hideous kind.

I got "invited" to join by someone else, who I am too polite to name, especially since it is not that person's fault. It's enough to say that I am not close to this person but have a business connection, and thought it would be courteous to accept the invitation. Apparently, these quechup bastards got into my gmail contact list and sent an "invitation" to join to every person I have ever e-mailed. This would include my boss, people who hate me and never want to speak to me again, my parents, etc. etc.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Welcome back, Heather

Looks like while I was not paying attention, Heather Pagano got back in the blogging saddle again. If you're not familiar with Heather's original voice, I highly recommend you check it out. Looking forward to many more interesting posts.

Initiate Query, Human

Put together eleven snail-mail queries today, plus sent out three more e-mail queries, for my currently active manuscript Unscheduled Inertia. This is actually the second sci-fi novel I've written, the first of which is currently a gibbering mass of entangled plot threads that requires database experience to even follow. I've got an initial database of 30 agents to query, which means I'm about half done.

If you're in the same situation, avoid re-inventing the wheel. Kat Dancing has done a lot of the hard work for us. (thanks Kat!) It should be emphasized that Kat's list should just be the start of your research. Research each agent, by looking at the publisher's marketplace member's page, the agent's blog if they have one, and Amazon. (Put the agent's name in quotes in the search dialogue box of the books section & you'll get all the books that have them in the acknowledgements). You want to know if they actually represent books like yours, and if they do how to submit to them. I have no idea why an agent would claim that they represent sci-fi when every single client is a romance writer, but it's more common than you'd think.

The process of querying is slightly more pleasant than removing your own fingernails with pliers. It's both repetitive and precise, with just enough variation between each letter that you can't let your attention slip. You need to send a lot of query letters to have even a chance, but no two agents are the same. Some want five sample pages, some want ten, some want three chapters, some want some combination of the previous and a plot summary as well. Sometimes you know something about the agent that you can include in the letter, or you have met them at an event, in which case you want to include that.

And then there's the fact that one little slip-up can screw you completely. Mistype the agent's name, have a typo in the cover letter template that you have re-used for all 25 agents you're querying, forget a cover letter, mis-address the letter...the pitfalls are endless.

And after all this work you know that the odds are reasonable that your only reward will be steady trickle of rejection letters, with at best a few requests for sample chapters.

But I keep it up. You be the hare, I'll be the turtle, and I'll be in Scotland afore ye, or something like that. Good night.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Plan a-thread

Sorry about the delays in updating. Unfortunately, I am back to my real job now, meaning that my 1-2 posts a day is probably going to transform into 3-4 a week. However, I have every intention of not letting the quality slip.

I finished Thirteen, and learned something about the downside of having too many plot threads. The book was a real pulse-pounder up until the last fifty pages or so, of which the first thirty were infodump tying up all the plot threads that had come before. Three or four different people ended up either under the gun or dying or both, with each one delivering five or more pages of dialogue untwisting a complex conspiracy.

At the very end the book went back to an action-packed shootout, but a lot of energy had been lost. Richard Morgan is a good author, and his author bio says he's sold movie options on two of his books. If those books are anything like this one, though, they're going to have to chop the hell out of them.

Short lesson: every door you open as an author you're going to have to close. You really need to think about how you're going to do that. If you don't it may not be the difference between a bad book and a good one, but it will certainly be the difference between a good book and a great one.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Thirteen ways of looking at a superhuman mutant

Well, I'm back in NYC, and already back at school. We don't have any kids until after Labor Day, but administrators like to eat vacation time, so what can you do?

I'm reading Richard K. Morgan's Thirteen (known in Britain as Black Man, but not here for some reason). What's interesting about the book is that it has exactly the same plot as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Phillip K. Dick (that's Blade Runner to non-readers). As in DADES, an enhanced humanoid has escpaped from outer space to Earth, and a bounty hunter is hired to kill him. There's only one, rather than eight in the Dick book, but Alan Merrin, the escaped "thirteen," is meaner than Roy Baty, Max Polokov and Pris Stratton all mixed up. For example, stuck out in space without enough to eat, he wakes up the cryogenically frozen passengers, surgically removes a limb for dinner, then sticks them back in the freezer for the next meal. "Wake up, time to [wish you could] die!" There is even a Roy Isidore-like sucker, a Jesusland (i.e. Confederated red-state) illegal immigrant to Pacific Rim named Scott. Scott isn't quite a "chickenhead," but he's equally susceptible to manipulation through his devotion, to Jesus instead of Mercer.

The difference, besides the tone, is that in the Dick novel it was only hinted that Deckard might be an replicant, whereas in 13 the bounty hunter Carl Marsalis definitely is a "twist," or thirteen, the same kind of mutant as the prey. Marsalis is not a psychotic serial killer like Merrin, but he does not have the same morals or point of view as unmodified humans, and he suffers prejudice accordingly. In fact, he's one of the only thirteens legally allowed to live on Earth.

Both books explore what it means to be human. Androids explores it from the point of view of someone who (probably) is human, whereas 13 explores it from the point of view of someone who, de jure, isn't. Empathy is central to both books. Replicants, of course, can be detected by their lack of it in the Voigt-Kampf test. In the Morgan book, thirteens are a throwback to an earlier Hobbesian tough guy, untroubled by the moral restraints that keep regular humans from kicking ass and chewing bubble gum. The Dick book makes the bad guys a little more sympathetic, but they don't have a "good" replicant to earn our sympathies (unless you count Racheal Deckard). 13 also explores racial prejudice far more deeply, because as if being a feared and despised mutant isn't hard enough, Marsalis also has the skin and body type of an African-American.

Central to both books is the human need to have an "other" that it is justified to kill and destroy. In both cases, this other is, in many circumstances, truly dangerous. Then again in both books the other is our own creation. More importantly, no one is going to try to figure out if there is a safe way of cohabiting when it's just as easy to kill them.

Ronald Reagan, in one of his spacier pronouncements, said we could have world peace if we could just get attacked by aliens. He literally could not imagine people cooperating without having someone else to kill. Sadly, neither can most people. Which gives me an idea...

Get the troops out of Iraq! We need them to fight the thirteens and replicants!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Inconsistent posting over next week

I am driving down to California to see my wife's family tomorrow, and I probably won't have an Internet connection until I fly back to New York on Monday. That means at soonest my next post will probably be this coming Tuesday.

Watts: Do unto others before they do unto you?

Peter Watts argued a couple of days ago that people are, at heart, selfish bastards, who are only good when they think it will benefit them. It's an old argument, going back to Socrates' diaologues, and no doubt much further back than that.

There is no doubt that peer pressure is an important influence on our morality. But I just can't believe it's the only influence, or else the world would be even a much more horrible place than it is. Watts seems to think that outside of kin selection and immediate reciprocal altruism, there is no direct benefit for moral actions.

This is an important issue for those of us who don't think Big Daddy God is always watching over our shoulders ready to throw us into Hell for doing bad things. Why, after all, should we do good things if it doesn't directly benefit us? In spite of the fact that there's not a shred of evidence that athiests/agnostics are any less moral than believers, we are constantly accused of it because people just can't see any reason why we should be good.

I'd argue that the best evidence that there is a personal benefit for moral behavior even when we're not aware of immediate payback is the fact that we have the urge to do it at all. Imagine a time that you had the opportunity to do something that you knew was immoral, and you also were almost sure you could get away with it. Whether you did it or not, you probably still had a sense of guilt that urged you in the direction of "moral" action. This urge to be moral is undeniable. Of course it's not as strong as our urge to eat or have sex, which is why it loses out so often. But the fact that it is there at all implies there is some evolutionary benefit for it.

But, you might point out, you didn't know for sure that no one would know. If you could ever know absolutely for certain, you might feel nothing. But then, I'd point out, that can't happen. The theoretical example of the opportunity to do bad and be absolutely certain no one will ever know remains completely theoretical. You can never know for sure if down the road your immoral actions will reflect back on you negatively.

Imagine you were in a casino, playing roulette. The roulette wheel has purple and green numbers (I avoid red and black because those numbers have implicit associations with morals). If the colors are fifty fifty, you have no more reason to pick one than the other. But if there were fifty-one purple and forty-nine green, your only sensible bet would be to go purple every time, except in outstanding circumstances, like if someone will kill you if you bet purple. In fact, even if purple had only a 0.0001 percent advantage, it would be to your benefit to go purple every time.

Consequently, since it is always uncertain whether moral actions will reflect positively back on us with the rest of our species, we would have evolved an urge to act this way every time, though subject of course to stronger urges that might overrule it. In fact it seems obvious that this biological urge must have come before any religious or societal rules, or they wouldn't all be so similar.

And if people who have developed the adaption of this moral urge have survived in spite of the obvious benefits of immoral behavior, it seems clear that a moral lifestyle is statistically most likely to result in a happy life. Of course this says nothing about what a moral lifestyle actually is, but let's face it, the important stuff is pretty obvious. The "final six" commandments, the part that doesn't involve man's relationship to God, sums up most of it.

Of course this hypothesis might be difficult to state in a falsifiable way. But then I'm not sure how falsifiable Watts' "we're all selfish bastards" hypothesis is either.

Interestingly enough, though, the connection between belief and morality is quite experimentally testable. As far as I know, most religions tend to believe that there is a direct link between the belief in a (their) diety and moral behavior. In the Abrahamic religions, this would be the belief that there is a direct correlation between the "first four" and "final six" commandments, or the "man to God" ("Thou shalt have no other God before me", etc.) and "man to man" (shalt not kill, bear false witness, etc.) commandments.

Anyone who's thinking straight should be able to think of an experiment that tested this correlation. For example, controlling for race, income, etc., you could take people who are in state penetentiaries for violations of the final six (killers, thieves, perpetrators of fraud) and a control group of people with no known offenses, then have them fill out a questionnaire about what religious beliefs they were raised with. (That's better than asking them what they believe now, since lots of people get born again in prison.) If there was a correlation between the first four and final six, you should find a lot more believers among the non-offenders. Somehow I imagine this would be unlikely.

This experiment would no doubt piss a lot of people off, and be quite contentious. To really test this, you'd need to approach it a lot of different ways. But if what I suspect turned out to be correct, that nonbelievers are no more or less moral than believers, it would be quite handy to throw in the face of the next person who implicitly accused me of being inherently immoral.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What is sex, exactly? A simple answer to the promiscuity paradox

In the New York Times on Sunday, an article referred to a paradox regarding male and female promiscuity.

As everyone would expect, when asked how many sexual partners they have had, men always answer a much higher number than women. This just makes sense, right? Guys are hornier.

Problem is, mathematically this is impossible. Assuming we're talking only about heterosexuals here (and not swingers), you have a certain number of sexual couplings that have taken place in the world. Each one contained a man and a woman. Assuming you have a representative sample, you should divide by the number of people who participated and have the same number on each side.

The two explanations offered were: 1) the sampling wasn't really random, and 2) guys exaggerated and women did the opposite. The sampling error would assume these guys hooked up with a small group of extremely promiscuous women (presumably prostitutes) who were not sampled, either because they don't answer the polls or they're all in Thailand. The second is more obvious; guys like to brag about sex and girls don't, meaning one or both are lying.

I can only assume that when they asked these questions they had the sense to ask "How many members of the opposite sex have you slept with?" It's obvious that if homosexuals were simply asked their number of partners, that throws off the whole calculation. Outside of television most people would likely agree that gay men have far more partners than gay women. And that's not to mention the fact that a large percentage of straight guys have had homosexual encounters, though they probably wouldn't be bragging about them.

But let's assume that was taken into account. Another thing that may have been left vague is the question of just what one counts as sex. If guys have a more liberal definition, then it might be that no one is deliberately lying, they just have different definitions. Most people have probably had the experience of a totally hot, possibly even naked roll in the bed that just never quite went all the way for whatever reason. And then you have oral sex, hand jobs, dry humping, etc. Guys, who want to up their numbers, might call these encounters sex. Girls, and Bill Clinton, might think that doesn't really count.

But then maybe they were specific enough to say "How many members of the opposite sex have you had penile-vaginal intercourse with?" If anyone asked me that, I would lie for sure, and I hope you would too.

Jarpe on the origin of life

I'm a couple of days late linking to this, but if you haven't seen it yet Matthew Jarpe, who is a biologist (biochemist?), has a good post on the origin of life on Earth.

One of the interesting things is that Matthew is of the opinion that life is likely to show up anywhere that liquid water is around for any significant period of time. I have seen wildly diverging opinions on this, all from knowledgeable scientists. But Matthew makes a good case.

Obviously, as a scifi writer, I'm inclined to like the idea that life is common, though I don't know enough to say anything for or against us. Obviously it raises the question of the Fermi Paradox ("Where is everyone?"). But just because there's a lot of life, doesn't mean there's a lot of intelligent life. And I can't find the link now, but I have read some people recently saying that getting radio signals from aliens further than our near terrestrial neighborhood wouldn't be so likely, unless they were specifically trying to contact us.

In any case, I say the more aliens the better! Except for the kind that like to eat us.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Young again: Vinge gets rejuvination

I am about halfway through Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End. RE couldn't be more different from Scalzi's Old Man's War, but it has a common theme of an old man made young again. Like John Perry in OMW, famous poet Robert Gu is a seventy-five year old man who appears to be much younger. Twenty years ago, Gu was dying of Alzheimer's. But he hit the disease jackpot; everything that is wrong with him can be fixed by the medicine of 2025, and his body responds to "Venn-Kurosawa treatments" that make him appear to be about 17.

But there are some things that even post-singularity medicine can't fix. Inside, Gu is still an old man, and still a royal asshole. It was an act of some courage for Vinge to make his protagonist someone who is really a mean, vicious person. He's not just a cranky old fart, though he is that. Nor is his personal unpleasantness just a hard shell under which lurks a soft, kind center. He is, at least in the beginning of the novel, selfish, arrogant, manipulative and emotionally abusive to nearly everyone around him. When his 13-year old granddaughter Miri tries to help him adapt to the mystifying technology of the new age, he responds by telling her:

"You've spent your whole life playing video games, convincing yourself and your friends that you're worth something, that you're some kind of beautiful thing. I'll bet your parents are even foolish enough to tell you how clever you are. But it's not a pretty thing to be bossy when you're a fat, brainless brat."

Note that this is not just some crusty thing he says before he's eventually nice to her. Rather, he's spent some time getting to know her so he'd know exactly what to say that would hurt. He does the same thing with several other characters. Not surprisingly, he begins to change over the course of the book, otherwise it would just be too unpleasant to read. But he is a sympathetic character in spite of the fact that he's a jerk. More importantly, with every reaction he makes, and with every interaction he has with people, you can feel the history of his 75 years getting in the way.

Vinge has an advantage here, in that Gu is surrounded by people he has interacted with his whole life, while Scalzi has shot Perry off into far space, literally dead to the world he knew. But even separated from everything he'd ever known, Perry should have had a history. Once he mentioned his former job, but I don't even remember what it was. It certainly played no part at all in the story, which seems a waste of narrative energy. The point was supposed to be that anything a person could have experienced on Earth would be no preparation at all for what one experienced fighting aliens for the CDF, but even the simplest life is full of meaning that shapes your view of the world.

Gu's history is not just background color; it's a trap he's trying to escape. Through some kind of side effect of his treatment, he was restored to full mental health without the one talent that made him famous, the ability to make words sing in poetry. In exchange, he has gained talents he never had before, especially a sudden ability to work with and create technology, a skill that is far more beneficial to him in the modern world. But it's not easy for him to start over, to become another person. He still wants to be the great artist he was, meaning he may be willing to risk selling his soul to various online devils in order to get his old talent back.

In other words, he is that strange mix of cynical and naive that old people can become. I don't know what would become of him if he were sent off to fight aliens with the CDF. But I suspect he would have higher priorities that kicking ass and getting laid. He might get killed faster than a 75-year old who acted 22. But he would certainly be more interesting to read until the aliens sucked his brains out.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

What kind of alien are you?

I have been working on a new novel idea that include a number of different alien species, and I got to thinking about the roles that alien species tend to play in scifi. As I got to thinking about it, I realized that the same rules apply in fantasy to "races," such as orcs, elves, and so on. So really the examples that I'm talking about apply to any nonuman sentient species in fiction. But I'll stick with the word "alien" to keep it simple.

So here are the types I have thought of so far. Obviously, any alien/NS species can play more than one role in different circumstances. I'd be curious if anyone can think of others:

The Enemy Alien. These ones are simple. They want to kill you, eat you, lay their eggs in you, blow up your spaceship and steal your women. The only proper way to deal with them is to kill them first. This would include the original Klingons in the old Star Trek, the aliens in Alien and the bug things in Starship Troopers. In fantasy this would include orcs, trolls, demons and so on.

The Highly Advanced Alien. These aliens have achieved a level of technology that is as far beyond us as we are beyond guys hunting mammoths out of caves. Or sometimes as far beyond us as we are beyond ameobas. They can do things we can only dream of, of course, but when it's convenient to the plot they either share their technology/knowledge with us or we stumble across it by accident. A subset of this group would be the extinct Ancients, whose ruins contain mysteries untold. Extremely useful for authors who want to give their characters advanced tech without bothering to explain how it works. Examples of this would include the builders of the black monolith in 2001, or the Nasqueron Dwellers in Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist. In fantasy, the High Elves of Lord of the Rings might fall under this category, or the Eldren in Lies of Locke Lamora.

The Wise Alien. Often but not always highly advanced as well, these aliens are far more emotionally sophisticated than humans, and help us to develop past our character weaknesses and become better people. ET and Yoda both fall in this category. I can't think of an example in fantasy, but I'm sure I could if I put some time into it.

The "Character" Alien. These aliens exhibit a single characteristic of humans taken to an extreme. They are frequently amusing, and occasionally borderline racist. Like character actors, they tend not to be main characters in a story, but rather are aids or obstacles to the protagonist, adding "local color" to the story. An obvious example would be the greedy merchant Feringi in STNG, whose resemblance to stereotypes of Jewish people I can't believe no one has pointed out before. Ultra-logical Vulcans would be another example. In fantasy, you have the industrious but grumpy dwarves, the homely hobbits (though of course in LOTR they do become the protagonists), and the wild, horny centaurs.

The Just Like Us Alien. These aliens may have a different color skin, more or less limbs, and the ability to speak telepathically, but deep down inside they are just like us. Occasionally this is not obvious at first; they may appear to be Enemy Aliens until we get to understand them. Aside from a quirk or two, there is nothing in the way these aliens' character develops and advances that's any different from how a human's would, which is convenient for an author who doesn't want to figure out how a sentient mind could be different from ours. Most of the aliens on the Enterprise in Star Trek are like this. Enemy Mine is an example of an alien who is revealed to be Just Like Us. In fantasy any non-human sentient that's "part of the party" is usually like this, too.

The Incomprehensible Alien. These far-too-rarely used aliens are the complete opposite of the Just Like Us Alien. They are so unlike us we may at first have a difficult time recognizing they are intelligent, or even that they are forms of life. Though they are sentient, we can communicate with them about as easily as we can converse with an oak tree. They may be more or less advanced than us, but any "technology" that would be useful to them would be meaningless to us, and vice versa. It is my opinion that if we ever encounter alien life, it will be like this. The gods in Ken McLeod's Engines of Light trilogy are an excellent example of Incomprehensible Aliens. Though not completely incomprehensible, the bug aliens in Card's Enders' Game and the pig people in Xenocide are incomprehensible in a more minor sense. I can't think of an example of this in fantasy, but I'm sure it's been done.

As I said, I'm sure there are more kinds of aliens that I can't think of. Let me know in the comments if you think of any other examples.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Tilton: There Ain't No Such Thing as a Future Libertarian?

Matthew Jarpe gives a link to a post by Lois Tilton on Deep Genre about Libertarian sci-fi. Tilton points out that space is perhaps not the best place in the world for a do-your-own-thing kind of enironment.

Matthew, who previously confirmed my opinion that he leans in the "governs best that governs least" direction, nevertheless points out that the list of Prometheus winners contains some egregious starry-eyed libertarian offenders.

Of the Prometheus winners listed, I have only read Stephenson and McLeod (I just started Rainbow's End by Vinge, but I'm not far enough in yet). McLeod's odd, because he can't decide if he's a Trotskyite or a libertarian, but Stephenson is definitely a both-feet-in libertarian. In Snow Crash, the Federal government has become so irrelevant that at a meeting of important characters, one of them self-importantly announces his name, and when people look at him puzzled he has to explain that he's the President of the US. But Stephenson hasn't written anything in space, so I'm not sure that Tilton is directly addressing him.

Jarpe offers the Heinlein story "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," in which people enforce the rules of right and wrong together without needing rules. "That guy just raped a girl. Call a cop? Build a jail? Why bother? We know what he did. Just throw him out the fricking airlock and have done with it." This might work great as long as the population was under 150 or so. Then things would get complicated because all of a sudden people really wouldn't know who to throw out the airlock. But how to figure it out? Hmmm, maybe if we got twelve ordinary guys, told them all the facts, then they could...oh, wait.

And then again, it might not even work in a small setting. In a lot of small Southern towns, the guy that ended up getting hung for a rape or a suspected rape generally turned out to be a guy who happened to have a perfect tan and naturally curly hair. I'm not even suggesting that there is any correlation between libertarianism and racism, as I suspect that r is near 0.0 in that case. I'm just pointing out what has tended to happen in the past when the enforcement of society's rules have depended on mob rule.

In general, though, I think that what you'll find is that most small like-minded groups are able to get by fine without a lot of rules, because everyone knows everyone. I also think that most people who want to limit government, all the way back to Rousseau, tend to aspire to a small society of like-minded individuals, which is great when you can get it.

Unfortunately, a lot of us happen to live in places that are not so small and certainly not like-minded. In circumstances like that, there is a lot of disagreement about who to throw out the airlock, if anyone.

Many libertarians seem to assume that people go running around and making all these rules just because they're mean and petty and want to restrict a red-blooded man's natural way of living. And in fact, this does happen. I would go so far as to say that "regulitis" could account for up to ten or fifteen percent of the rules in society, and these rules could be safely shaved off if you could actually tell what they were, which isn't so easy.

But most of the cloying, restricting, restraining, PC, money-costing, business-clogging rules out there were formed as a necessary response to genuine problems. True, it may not have been the best response. And in some cases, the law passed is worse than doing nothing. But I find it incredibly naive to pretend that the environment, labor conditions, or food and drug safety, to name a few examples, would be as good as they are now if we just hadn't passed any laws about them. This, by the way, is totally different from saying we could have better laws, which is a progressive rather than libertarian argument.

Which is a long way around to agreeing with Tilton that I think that life in space would in fact have to be quite strictly regulated, more so than Earth in fact. Libertarianism is one of those ideologies like communism that has the advantage that it is both instinctively appealing and simple enough that you could explain it to someone from Alpha Centauri in a single sentence. And who doesn't dream of a world where the solution to all of our problems could be so obvious?

Come to think of it, maybe speculative fiction is the perfect place for the libertarians after all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Where have all the old men gone? Long time passing...

I love being on vacation, because I can approach Andrew Wheeler's reading pace. I read Scalzi's Old Man's War today, and was thoroughly entertained, though it will be a while before I get around to the sequels. I should throw in a semi-spoiler alert here, since though I don't reveal the end of the book I give away some stuff that Scalzi doesn't reveal until the third or fourth chapter. But then, the book is a few years old already.

I have always struggled with openings, and you can't beat Scalzi's first paragraph:

I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife's grave. Then I joined the army.

There's nothing subtle about the title. The army of the Colonial Defense Forces is composed of old men and women recruited from Earth before they kick the bucket. Needless to say, they don't fight in old men's bodies, rather their minds are uploaded and transferred into green-skinned killing machines that vaguely resemble the original host at 25, but (much) buffer and better looking. It's a fantasy that appeals to anyone past thirty, and for the first week after the CDF soldiers' new bodies are assigned they get a short leave that allows them to enjoy the bodies any way they want, which mostly means screwing each other's cybernetically enhanced brains out.

This was one of my issues with the book. I really wanted Scalzi to explore more deeply what it meant for an old person to be given a young person's body, and I'm not convinced he did. In general I don't see the old soldiers acting with the restraint and wisdom you'd expect 75 years to give them. Sure, maybe some would go crazy with their new package, but others, such as the narrator John Perry, might be restrained by what they'd lost in the past. And I'm not sure they'd so quickly allow themselves to be assimilated into a bunch of obedient little privates.

In any case, once the fun's over, they quickly become alien cannon fodder, with three quarters of them getting killed in their two to ten year enlistment. Publisher's Weekly in their review compares Scalzi's work to that of Robert Heinlein, and they are not talking about Job: A Comedy of Justice. Once the fighting starts this book is hard-core milSF, which I admit is just not my cup of tea. Cory Doctorow narrows it down and calls the book Starship Troopers without the lectures, but OMW makes the point nevertheless, which is that life without mass organized cooperative killing is just a pale shadow of itself.

MilSF has its own tropes, and this book covers them. One of the tropes of MilSF in specific and military fiction in general is that anyone who advocates for peace, especially someone who hasn't earned their stars in battle first, is a self-important idiot who will be humiliatingly massacred, proving the point that the stupid naive civs just don't get that The Bad Guys Are Out To Kill Us. Sometimes this is really true, and after all in this case we're talking about imaginary alien civilizations, just as in ST. But often in real life this attitude, often adopted by people who themselves have no particular military experience, can lead to stupid military overzealousness, to which I won't even bother to link. It's the chickenhawk argument bizarrely turned on its head: you aren't entitled to make peace unless you've already made war, meaning any long-lasting peace is by definition impossible. Scalzi might argue he intended to make no such point, but the author's intentions become irrelevant once the 101st Fighting Keyboarders get their hands on his words and start using them for their own purposes.

Another significant MilSF trope is that an important turning point in the plot always comes down to some one-on-one duel of honor between a human and an alien or bad guy (or five-on-five, in this case). This is usually because of some eccentric cultural custom of the alien bad guys, by which in spite of their overwhelming military superiority and unimaginable ferocity, they're suddenly willing to cede huge advantages because one human kicks one alien's ass. I have never been in the military, and never will be unless the CDF starts recruiting around 2045, but I know enough to know that war just does not work this way anymore, if it ever did (which I doubt). Don't get me wrong, I understand why this is necessary plot-wise, because actual mass technological combat is just far too messy and imprecise to be described with enough narrative precision to be the climax of a book. But this just happens to be a bridge too far of suspension of disbelief for me personally, maybe because of my wimpy naive civilian pacifistic tendencies, which would incline me to get devoured bloodily by the first genuinely ferocious alien that stumbled across me.

Don't get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed the book. The action was fast-paced and engaging, the main character likeable, and there were some interesting meditations on what it means to lose a person and our need to replace them. And I'd add that the book is far deeper than most MilSF I have seen out there. It's just that now that I know what Scalzi's fiction is about, there are a lot of other authors that are higher on my priority list before I'm ready for another dose. Anyways, there's always his ever-popular blog, which I'll continue to read daily.

Ken McLeod nears shark, doesn't quite jump

Cory Doctorow, in a blurb for Ken McLeod's The Execution Channel, calls it a "blogothriller," which is appropriate in too many ways. Like a blog the book is all over the place, full of unnecessary information and in-jokes, and hard to follow. It really started to come together toward the end, but the ending was a bit of a stretch for me, in spite of his attempts to set it up.

If TEC has any predecessor in fiction, I would suggest it is Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus! Trilogy. Like RAW, McLeod races through a whole menagerie of conspriracy theories, both "real" and made-up. Like Wilson, he only spends long enough on each to show that he is smart enough to know that each is balony, but that the truth is some deeper conspiracy that you've never heard of.

Part of the problem is that he's just trying to do too many things. For example, it's annoying to be 100 pages into a book and discover that it's an alternate-history novel. Sort of. We're well into the plot when the blogger Mark Dark explains what went wrong in the 2000 elections, or as he calls it the "November Coup". (McLeod cleverly underlines places where you know exactly where a link would go.) What happened was that the Workers World Party was not allowed to run, and...

If the WWP had run in Florida they'd have pulled hundreds of votes from Gore, just enough to swing it for Bush

This, by the way, is after people have talked about their experiences in the Iraq war, 9/11, and so on. Dark goes on to explain that if Bush had been elected, he'd read the Presidents' Daily Briefing "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside US," have used his spook and oil contacts to nab Bin Laden before AQ pulled off 9/11 (which in the book knocked down different skyscrapers in NY and Feneuil Hall in Boston), and never would have invaded Iraq. Later, we see an anti-war book by Bush on the bookstore shelves.

This is funny, of course. It's hard to explain now why so many Nader supporters like myself thought back in 2000 that Bush and Gore would be interchangeable. History has not been kind to this view. It takes real balls for McLeod to come forward and say the same thing after the last 5 years. Nevertheless, it's out of place in the book, especially since the alternate-history plays no future role in the book.

The best part of the book are the details of the day-to-day lives of the protagonists, James Travis and his daughter Roisin (pronounced Rosheen). As they travel the world trying to uncover a huge international conspiracy and escape various spies trying to capture and kill them, they are grounded by emotional vulnerability and the painful nuisances of daily life at airports, on buses and everywhere else. More spy novels should be like this.

The other main character, Libertarian-Conservative blogger Mark Dark, is equally believeable, holed up in his mother's house writing long posts that are underlined in just the right places to show that McLeod knows the blogosphere well.

Unfortunately, the actions of the characters never quite come together to resolve the time we spent with them. The conclusion, when it comes, feels like a bit of a deus ex machina, even though McLeod went out of his way to set it up. (Maybe he just wanted to avoid accidentally writing mundane science fiction, which the ending certainly excludes him from.) A lot of the the other threads of the plot are so vague that it's hard to know what really happened. As a result, he has to add in a final chapter in which he details what happened to each character later, like the ending of Fast Times at Ridgemont High or every other Hollywood movie in the early '80s.

It's a bit of a disappointment, of course, especially because I love his earlier work. But even though I don't recommend his blogothriller, I highly recommend his blog. And if you don't know his work, I recommend starting where I did, with Cosmonaut Keep.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Amazing used bookstore in Maui

Well, I won the argument about the computer. I'm blogging from the huge condo we rented for only $100 a night. It has 2 bathrooms!

Today I went to Old Lahaina Lahaina, a mostly cheesy tourist-trap sort of place on West Maui. There were two interesting things there.

One was an art gallery called Celebrites (accent on the final e), a gallery of art by and of rock stars. They had this german guy, Sebastian Kruger, who had these bizarre pictures of the Rolling Stones. Keith Richards' face was cracked like the surface of the Bisti Badlands in New Mexico. But the best one was this tripped out portrait of Robert Johnson. Apparently the whiskey glass by Johnson represents the way he died (at 27, of course), which is drinking a bottle of whiskey poisoned by a bartender whose wife he was banging.

Then I went to the Old Lahaina Book Emporium, and bought $40 worth of books. It's amazing that some of the best bookstores in the country can be found in some of the least likely places. Someday I want to do a book about all the unknown great used bookstores in the country, like COAS in Las Cruces, New Mexico, or Birdsong in Albuquerque, if it's still there.

And what did I buy, you ask?

The Meq, Steve Cash. I've passed on this one two or three times, but the premise is just too interesting not to give it a chance.

The God Particle, Richard Cox. Same as above.

LoveDeath, Dan Simmons. This is a collection of short stories. Simmons blew my mind with Hyperion years ago, but recently when I tried to read Olympus he lost me by spending too much time giving me unnecessary scientific details about his various gadgets. I'm thinking in short stories I don't need to worry about that.

Cowl, Neal Asher. I know I have heard his name more than a few times; I think I heard some people talk about him at ReaderCon.

The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman. The His Dark Materials trilogy is supposed to be the thinking person's Harry Potter. We'll see.

The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester. To see why I bought this, see the title of my blog.

Probability Moon, Nancy Kress. Kress was recommended by Heather, who really hasn't fallen off the face of the earth, she's just too busy moving into her apartment to blog I think. That, or writing.

John Brunner, Children of Thunder. I've heard Brunner mentioned positively both at ReaderCon and more recently by Matthew Jarpe, whose book, by the way, is now available on Amazon. Go buy it now. I'll wait.

Omega, Jack McDeavitt. I don't know why, but his name always pops up in my mind, but I don't know where from. I bought Chindi at Powell's, and now this one.

Don't expect me to read all these any time soon. I bought $150 worth of books at Powell's just a few weeks before. I wouldn't be surprised if my summer buying spree lasts me well into next February, or longer.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Story in next issue of Apex

So I just got my contract from Apex Digest for my first pro publication, "I Can't Look at the City." The editor, Jason Sizemore, has been fantastic to work with, always accessible by e-mail and keeping me up to date on when my story's coming out.

So it will be in issue 11, the issue after this one. The nice thing about Apex is it's well distributed, so it's available in pretty much every Barnes & Noble. So please check it out. I will post when Issue 11 hits the shelves.

Possible 5-day interruption in posts

I may not post for the next five days. Jen & I are going to Maui for a week without Jeffrey, and she doesn't really want me to bring the computer, because I'm on it all the time. I have pointed out that I will need something to do while she sleeps, but I'm not sure if I'll win this one. Just in case, I'm bringing Ken McLeod's The Execution Channel, John Scalzi's Old Man's War, and Vernor Vinge's Rainbow's End. I might bring Alastair Reynolds' Galactic North as well.

If I don't have the computer, I might use the time to make a plot map of my next novel, and start writing it. I also have a short story I need to finish up. I have already done all the written corrections of my most recent novel, so bringing that manuscript won't do me any good.

Anyways, if you don't hear from me for a few days, check back on the 11th or 12th at latest. After having read all those books I should have something interesting to write about.

Fun with nature

Sorry I didn't post yesterday. As it happened, while I was completely sunk into the adventures of Locke Lamora, Real Life decided to get a lot more interesting.

My parents, whom I'm visiting, live in Hood River, Oregon. They have a house on a suburban street, but it is very close to the Oregon wilderness. I was sitting out on their back porch, enjoying the view of Mount Adams across the Columbia River, when my dad said "look at that smoke."

I looked and saw a huge billowing cloud of smoke coming from the west. At the time I couldn't tell if it was a house or the woods that were burning. What was disturbing was that the smoke was blowing directly toward us.

I went outside and a block down to where the forest started. I could see that flames were coming from the trees, and already frighteningly close to houses only a couple of blocks down from us.

The enemy here was the same thing that had brought my father here in the first place: the wind, which rushes up Columbia Gorge and makes this area the top sailboarding location in the continental United States (Maui is number one).

Things got bad enough that we actually had to evacuate the house. Jeffrey was freaking out, afraid that the house was going to burn down. Since there was nothing we could do about it, we went to Elliot Glacier Brew Pub, which was having their tenth anniversary, and has a huge backyard for kids to run around in.

The house was fine; it was never in any serious danger. But it was scary there for a moment. Also, Locke came out fine, but then you'd expect that because how could Lynch do another Gentleman Bastards book?

Friday, August 3, 2007

A few otherworldly links

Not doing a long post tonight, but I wanted to throw up a few interesting links regarding interstellar travel. Of coure, Charlie Stross has already proved beyond a reasonable doubt that colonization of other worlds will never happen. But if I wanted to live in the real world, I'd be writing instruction manuals for toasters.

So if you're looking for a few blogs based on credible research that consider how space colonization might happen, try the following:

Acccording to the description of Centauri Dreams, "Paul Gilster looks at peer-reviewed research on deep space exploration, with an eye toward interstellar possibilities." Lots of good stuff about recently discovered exoplanets here, with discussion about whether the planets might be in the "habitable zone" of their star.

Colony Worlds focuses on technology that might be used for interstellar habitation. Again, the science seems to be based on peer-reviewed papers.

Accelerating Future is not specifically about interstellar travel, but is good for all you singularity nuts out there. There are several blogs here that talk about developments that might lead to "transuman intelligence," including stuff like suspended animation, nanotech, uploading consciousness, strong AI and so on.

Advanced Nanotechnology, which again is not about interstellar colonization, is really a mixed bag. But I have read columns in there that practically are begging to have a story written about them. Worth scrolling through once every couple of weeks.

A Babe in the Universe has a lot of character, and also a lot of good stuff about what space probes and so on are discovering. Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Conjugation of the Shwazzy, or Locke Lamora's biggest heist

I've been reading Scott Lynch's Lies of Lock Lamora, a story about a crook so outrageously larcenous that at the age of seven or so the master of the local thieves' guild kicks him out (and nearly kills him) for stealing too much. Lynch must know something about that, because it appears he snuck into China Mieville's house, and stole his world-building and plot-building skills.

I may be exaggerating a bit. I am simultaneously reading Un Lun Dun to my four-year old (yeah, the vocabulary is a little heavy, but this is not your average kid). To be fair, Mieville has built a pretty interesting world with UnLondon (get it?), a place where all of the trash from London drifts to be attached into house walls or crawl along like pets. (A similarly composed No York is briefly mentioned in the book, but I can tell you from personal experience that our crap doesn't drift into other dimensions nearly fast enough.) UnLondon is fun, but it's not another Bas Lag.

What's worse about Un Lun Dun is that the protagonists, so far, haven't really done anything. I mean, they have been on a grand adventure, but Zanna the "Shwazzy" (or choisi, French for "chosen") hasn't really done anything to advance the plot herself, except for turning a boiler wheel that popped her into the world of UnLondon. And she didn't even do that by choice, she was more just kind of possessed. When the origin of the term Shwazzy was revealed in the book, the conjugation was interesting. The teacher explained the conjugation in the form "choisi - you have chosen." This would be the infinitive, if I understand it right. But so far, Zanna hasn't chosen anything. As far as what's happened to her so far, it makes more sense to say Zanna was chosen by someone else.

Locke Lamora is another matter. He's not a cutpurse or a cat burglar. He is an insanely ambitious con artist, a Frank Abagnale for the D20 set. Purchased from slavery as a child by the Thiefmaker, the owner of a gang of thieving children, Locke is sold to the high priest of a church for thieves after he scams his own master. This leads to the formation of the Gentlemen Bastards, a sophisticated con operation, which as I am reading is in the middle of performing a sophisticated pigeon drop on a naive but greedy member of the nobility.

Camorr, Locke's hometown, is clearly inspired by Venice, and is a lusciously byzantine place where everyone is constantly stealing from everyone else, where the less-successful thieves hang in nooses from the bridges while the nobles drift around on expensive pleasure boats burning their throats on hot ginger cocktails. Jonathan McCalmont has problems with the novel's over-labrynthine and slow-revealing plot structure, and I might change my mind. But right now, I can't wait to get back to the book.

I'm still really hoping Mieville's book picks up, or that I find out he's bounced back with a scary-violent grown-up book in keeping with what I've come to expect from him. China, the world of high fantasy needs you!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

My least favorite acronym...

Todd Wheeler talks about hunting the fabled International Reply Coupon, one of those mythical beasts like the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot that people pretend exists but really doesnt.

I have had similar nightmares with IRCs. I was trying to send a query to a British agent that I really admire. The people at the post office near my house insisted that IRCs no longer existed, until I finally showed them a printout of the Post Office web page. Then they tried to claim they actually just said they were out of them.

Worse, if your manuscript/query has any heft, there's no real way to know how many IRCs you need. And then the fact that an IRC isn't like a SASE that you can just drop back in the mail. They have to go down to the post office and cash them in.

I think the solution is to mail a disposable manuscript with your e-mail for their response. Anyone who doesn't see that it's far more convenient to just e-mail your rejection (or, God help me, acceptance!) than to go down to the PO to redeem an IRC is so insane you don't want them looking at your story.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A simple conditional

Though it has taken me nearly 37 years to realize it, I am beginning to realize that life might very nearly be this simple:

if (hours_slept >= 7.5) {


} else {



So, that means I will _always_ get enough sleep from now on, right? Well, um.... It's not so simple.

I'm not an insomniac. Occasionally I have trouble drifting off, but if I do it's usually ironically because I'm stressed out from previous sleep deprivation (too tired to go to sleep). More often, there is just too much to do. Now that I am a Real Grownup with a job and a family, my only time to do my own work (blogging, writing) is when everyone else is asleep. This usually starts between 8:30 and 9:30. Jeff wakes up around 7:00, and during school time (September-June) I have to get up between 5:30 and 6:30. I also have lesson planning, grading, etc. to do then.

Nevertheless, the conditional above is too important to ignore. Now I'm trying to bargain with the Universe. What about 3 nights out of 4? What about seven hours, or six and three quarters?

I noticed there's another movie in the time-stop genre. I notice that in these movies and novels it's always guys and they always use the power to go into dressing rooms and look at naked chicks. I fantasize about this power all the time, but I would use it to add two or three hours to my working time every night. Not as interesting, though, I admit.