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.

Politics of Radio Freefall

Finished the book today. Jarpe brings everything to a slam-bang conclusion, bringing his plot strands together with a beautiful bang of poetic justice for the bad guys. Better yet, he pulls it off without using any Hidden Laser Beams Up the Sleeve. HLBUS's are the surprise secret weapon that too many science fiction authors reveal at the last minute to get their protagonists out of trouble. (Even the otherwise stellar Kay Kenyon bails out the hero of Bright of the Sky by revealing at the last minute a secret extradimensional escape hatch her prot. wove back in the day.) Jarpe even manages to put an interesting twist on the one perhaps too-convenient plot-forwarder in the novel, Quin Taber's nearly omnipotent tethered AI super-genie secretary Molly.

I wanted to talk briefly about the politics of RF, because politics are a big part of the book. Of course it's imaginary politics, focusing on the struggle between the forces of the Unification (mainly WebCense and evil villain Walter Cheeseman), and the Nationalists, a disparate underground band struggling to stop the big U.

Aqualung, one of the novel's two protagonists starts out fairly indifferent to the political issues. As the novel advances, though, Aqualung is drawn slowly towards the Nationalist cause. The other protagonist, Quin, doesn't seem to care about unification but has made destroying his ex-boss Cheeseman his mission in life. So he is on the same side on the principal that The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend.

Whenever a book has a strong political focus you have to ask yourself what the connection between the politics of the book and the politics of real life are. Another recent example of a book with strong political inclinations would be China Mieville's Iron Council. Since Mieville is a hardcore Trotskyite, I think it's clear that his Iron Council, a wandering train with portable tracks bringing hopes of liberation across the continent of Bas Lag to New Crobuzon, but (spoiler alert), getting frozen in time before they arrive, represent his hopes for change in his own country. I read Iron Council not long after the frustrating 2004 US presidential election, and can remember being tempted to create stickers saying "The Iron Council is coming" to put up in NYC subway stations.

Based on the book, I suspect that Jarpe's politics likely swing a lot more in the techie/libertarian direction. But it's definitely from an anti-authoritarian viewpoint. The focus of the book is definitely about the struggle between The Kids and The Man (the Snake Vendors have a song called "Workin' for the Fat Man," and an Animal Bones song called "Let's Get Ugly" features the lyrics "You can bring in the army/you can bring in the cops/just bring in more beer/'cause we ain't gonna stop.")

Some of the politics are a lot more transparent. When Cheeseman suggests that they get the UN to approve a military takeover of the Freefall space station, a general points out he might not get the votes. Cheeseman responds, "Well that's the beautiful thing, general. If we don't have the votes, we still have the gunners." Hmmm, remind you of anyone?

In general, I think the message of the book is that trouble starts when the most powerful nations/corporations believe that they have all the answers, and decide to annihilate or devour all competition. It's a fairly non-partisan message, really, one that could apply to Google as easily as Microsoft, or to either political party. True, it's been the right lately that has pushed us into conquer-the-planet mode. But the Democrats started Vietnam, after all, so both parties are subject to imperial fantasies.

What's especially good about the politics here is that they are open-ended, and not necessarily tied down to the current moment necessarily. Jarpe said that the book was written mostly in the 90s, so the book's Real Year would probably be sometime pre-9/11/2001, though post 9/11 events have clearly shaped the narrative.

So f**k the man, free Luna forever, and buy the book.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Radio Freefall/Albuquerque Indie-rock connection hypothesis shot down

Back in the early to mid-90s, which could be thought of as the post-Nirvana era of rock-n-roll, there was an explosion of indie music and bars that played it. If you were in any medium-sized college town, and Albuquerque was no exception, you would have found yourself choosing on any given night between eight or nine kick-ass bars, and following ten to fifteen local superstar bands, any one of which seemed likely to launch your town into being the next Seattle. It didn't happen, of course, but it was fun to be dream.

In Albuquerque, you had bars like Beyond Ordinary, which tended towards hardcore and techno/industrial, you had the Golden West, which featured a lot of 'punkabilly' and post-punk, and then you had the Dingo bar, which played a lot of blues and roots rock. The El Rey, semi-attached the Golden West, featured the bigger touring shows because of its size. Of course, things weren't that simple, and everyone really played everywhere.

Without giving anything away, I can say that a lot of the plot of Matthew Jarpe's Radio Freefall refers back to a fictional bar rock scene in Albuquerque in the zeroes (ie around now), that looked to me a lot like the real rock scene in the 90s. I had gone so far as to hypothesize that the 'Rio Bar' was in fact based on the Dingo, and that the band Animal Bones was inspired by the Dingo's house blues rock band Alien Lovestock.

Unfortunately, Jarpe e-mailed me that he didn't really spend that much time on the scene and that everything is pretty much made up. Oh well. Still, he must be doing something right if he made me think of it.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

100 pages into Radio Freefall* (update)

I'm always nervous when I read a book by someone I like. What if I don't like the book? I have a tendency to be honest about it, and I can prove it because I have lost good friends when I told the truth about where their manuscript was weak.

Luckily, Radio Freefall does not present me with any problems on that front. I'm completely wrapped up in it, and I can unreservedly recommend buying the book when it comes out. (Or pre order, if you're impatient.) Of course having important parts of the book set in my home state of New Mexico probably doesn't hurt.

The major characters in the book are:

Aqualung - frontman of the rocketing-to-the-top-of-the-charts band Snake Vendor, whose live music is enhanced by computer-analyzed audience feedback. Aqualung is 53 and has a mysterious past, and an urgent desire to keep it that way. He has a nack for nabbing eyeballs through the roiling mass of infotainment on the web, and is mourning being the old man amongst his hard-partying bandmates. (And yes, he's named after the Jethro Tull song.)

Walter Cheeseman - a combination of the worst parts of Bill Gates and Dick Cheney, Cheeseman is using his bazillion-dollar multinational network corporation WebCense to work toward the goal of Unification, making all nations into one, to be ruled of course by guess who.

Quin Taber - former New Jesus of WebCense and confidante of Cheeseman, hypergeek Taber committed the one inexcusable offense, being smarter than Cheeseman. Hurled out on his tail, he achieved a soft landing by making a computer immune to the world-spanning sentient virus Digital Carnivore for the mysterious LDL corporation (Low Density Lipoprotein?). Now LDL has given him a high-paying contract for five years to not make one for anyone else. Taber's my favorite character, because he a likable socially incompetent genius; for example, he came up with a brilliant algorithm for finding the perfect girlfriend for himself, but can't quite work one out to actually relate to her. At one point, after a less-than-successful attempt at hanky-panky, he says "I wish there was a textbook. I'm good at learning things from textbooks. Or a web site."

Jarpe is doing a good job of weaving together the two main plotlines involving Aqualung and Taber. I don't want to give anything away, because I want you to buy the book. But I'll probably write at least one spoiler-free post about it.

*Whoops! In the original title of this blog I called the book Radio Feedback, which was a typo. Sorry Matthew!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Radio Freefall arrives

Very psyched today. I just got to Mom & Dad's house in beautiful Hood River Oregon, and learned that I got an advance copy of Matthew Jarpe's Radio Freefall from Matthew in the mail. Thanks Matthew!

Because I'm normally a cheapskate who waits until a book's out in paperback before buying it, I'm used to being the last person to read everything. So I am looking forward to being able to read something before everyone else does. I'm going to try to hurry up and get it read before I make my annual pilgrimage to Powell's in Portland, and spend every last penny Jen will let me spend in the speculative fiction section. This time I have planned ahead, and have a whole list of books that I couldn't afford to buy at ReaderCon, but I'm sure I'll see some stuff that I didn't think of before.

Saint Elizabeth Street

Everyone go check out the new issue of Saint Elizabeth Street, the poetry magazine that Jennifer & I put together. Lately Jen's in charge of the editorial side, and I'm more the designer. The picture for Issue 6 was taken my my mother, Marie, who has an instinct for making a familiar place look magical and new. For people who aren't familiar with New York, it's the statue of Balzac in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art.

Oddly, when I was tagging people with the meme that Matthew Jarpe infected me with, I forgot to pass it onto Jennifer at The Saint Elizabeth Street Blog. It's something about how we enter our own universes in blogging. Jen is making her name in the poetry world, while I'm focusing on speculative fiction. If you want to see her poetry, pre-order her book Derivative of the Moving Image, coming out soon from University of New Mexico Press.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Tagged by Matthew Jarpe, who was also kind enough to send me a copy of Radio Freefall so I can tell you all about it. If you can't wait, you can read the first three chapters for free.

The embarrassing thing about the whole meme deal is that you need to have ten bloggers out there who might read your blog to pass it on to. In my defense, I've only been doing this about a month and a half. So I can come up with Heather Pagano, Penelope at I Don't Pretent to be an Ordinary Cat,, Daniel Newton at Just Another Blogger..., Denni the Liquorice Lover, Reid Kerr at the Blue Area, and Patricia Wood Aboard SV Orion. That makes six, which is only four short of the mark. Well, if memes are like chain letters, then I guess that means my house will burn down or my cat will start projectile vomiting or something. Oh well...

-Start Copy-

It's very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

Just think- if 10 people start this, the 10 people pass it onto another 10 people, you have 100 links already!

1. Look, read, and learn. *****

2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. *****

3. Don't let money change ya! ****

4. Always reply to your comments. ***

5. Link liberally -- it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. ****

6. Don't give up - persistance is fertile. ***

7. Give link credit where credit is due.**

8. What the world needs is content. Provide it. *

9. If it's past midnight, go to bed

-End Copy-

Hippie Bonobos and Redneck Chimps?

The most recent issue of the New Yorker reveals that the bonobo, otherwise known as the "pygmy chimp," has developed a bit of a cultish pop phenomenon, of the sort previously reserved for dolphins. According to pop primatology, bonobos are a matriarchal species far more inclined to non-reproductive orgiastic screwing, including oral sex and lesbian "genito-genital rubbing," and far less inclined to male-dominated harem behavior and genocidal wars than both humans and their close chimpanzee cousins. Consequently these bonobistas want humans to be more bonobo-like, and less chimp-like, in our behavior. The New Yorker gives us a helpful visual aid, a picture of two bonobos blissfully shtupping their brains out. Take that, Jane Goodall!

Not surprisingly, it turns out that this picture is oversimplified. It turns out that bonobos, which were only recognized as a seperate species in the last century, have been studied very little in the wild. That's not surprising, given that they live in the middle of the Congo, which has been roiled by brutal civil war over much of the past decade. Most of the observations that lead to the pop image of bonobos comes from the observation of a Dutch scientist Frans de Waal, which was done entirely with captive bonobos.

The article's author, Ian Parker, follows a German bonobo expert named Gottfried Hohmann on a visit to the Congo for an excursion to observe th bonobos in the wild. Hohmann, who has observed the apes for many years, dispels some of the myths. For one thing, though it is true that the girls have the upper hand in the bonobo world, they are more like Margaret Thatcher than Nancy Pelosi. They have a habit of chewing off males' fingers and toes, and occasionally gang up on a less popular fellow and kill him. Suspected infanticide has even been observed. The bonobos hunt small antelope just like the chimps do, and kill the poor critters by slowly devouring the entrails of the living animal while it twitches in misery. And in the wild, having better things to do perhaps, they don't get it on like they do in the zoo. Hohmann even argues that the girls' "g-g rubbing" may not be sexual, which seems a stretch to me. I suggest testing this by seeing how the apes react to a few episodes of The L Word.

Nevertheless, even Hohmann seems to agree that the bonobos are less violent and factional than chimpanzees. He seems to be working toward a theory that both humans and chimpanzees split off from a more bonobo-like ancestor, adopting a more male-dominated, agressive attitude as they came out of the bountiful forests to the sparer savannahs.

The socio-political implications of this are fascinating. But whatever you do, please please don't show a copy of this article to David Brooks. He's mangled child psychology badly enough already.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Cussing out clippy

Over at Language Log, we have a discussion of how to get discussion of how to get rid of Microsoft's Clippy by cussing him out. Being scientists and all, this leads them into deeper questions about whether it's possible to make a computer recognize when it's pissing the user off.

This, really, is a central feature of conscious thinking. Douglas Hofstadter addresses this extensively in Godel, Escher, Bach, an Eternal Golden Braid. When we answer a question or take an action two or three times then recognize that we're not getting a positive response, we "move up a level" in thinking and re-address what the questioner wants.

There's a downside to this. Part of what we like about computers is that we can anticipate that they will always respond the same way to the same commands, whether we like the response or not. If it starts trying to anticipate what we want, and gets it wrong, this makes it less predictable, which is not necessarily what we want from a computer.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

An open letter to the New York Times regarding kids on planes.

As for me, I just can't stand to fly with middle-aged men. For one thing, lots of them are fat, taking up too much room and crowding the rest of us. Also a lot of them are ugly and unpleasant to look at. They bitch endlessly about the menu, they have enormous carryons, they're always screaming into the cellphone, some of them stink and they constantly remind me of my mortality when I would rather pretend I'm going to be young forever. I am not talking about all the middle-aged men, of course, just the ones with irresponsible wives that can't control them. And I don't necessarily endorse keeping middle-aged men off planes. Let's just make sure that if middle-aged men fly they all stay in one section where the rest of us won't have to look at them.

I would never have dared to say such a thing before, but apparently now it's okay to be prejudiced against airline passengers because of their age. (If the link stops working because of the NYTimes' subscription wall, basically the article is full of people bitching about having to fly with kids on the plane.)

Look, if you're one of those people always talking about how you hate having kids around, or how you only like them when they act like absolute perfect angels at all times (ie, not like kids), then I'd like to remind you that at least one of the following things is true about you:

- you will have children someday
- you once had young children
- you once were a child yourself (and I'm sure you never misbehaved).

In most other countries in the world it's understood that children are a part of life. Sometimes they're wonderful, and sometimes they're utterly unbearable. But then, that's true of most people. At least kids have an excuse. So shut up, get that extra drink if that's what you need, and live in the real world. Or stay home.

PS - If you fail to see the Swiftian irony of the first paragraph, please report to the doctor and have your sense of humor examined. I picked middle-aged men, because I am at best a few years short of being one myself.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Phil Dick, formulaist?

This is a few days old, but I've been wanting to link to it. Total Dick-Head quotes PKD reciting his "formula" for a novel in a letter to a friend. This is amazing, because most people out there (myself included), would call PKD the least "formulaic" writer you could read.

I like this, though, because it showed the professional side of the author. PKD is the Samuel Coleridge of the science fiction world, his great ideas and brilliant writing overshadowed by stories of his drug abuse. But he was a pro, and like anyone who gets the job done, he had a system. He didn't just pop back a handful of reds and let otherworldly genius flow through his typewriter.

It's yet another example of how working within certain boundaries can expand rather than limit an artist's freedom.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Eternal Sunshine of Thoughtless Science

I recently saw the previews for Sunshine,, and was incredibly annoyed that what looks like such an otherwise interesting movie is based upon such stupid science. They seemed so serious about doing such a hard sci-fi flick that I had to double-check to see if there was some new discovery their thinking was based on, but it only took a few clicks find several experts have confirmed what I'm sure I first learned in 8th grade science, at latest.

Did it occur to the marketing department of Fox Searchlight that the same kind of people who would like to see a movie like this would be well acquainted with the fact that:

1) The sun has another 5 billion years of fuel,
2) When the sun does run low on fuel, it will not cool off but simultaneously get much hotter and expand its radius to near the orbit of Mars, and
3) Compared to the strength of the sun an atomic bomb, even the one "the size of Manhattan," is like a Black Cat that goes off in the radius of the Hiroshima device?

I know, I know, I'm the one that's always saying that what's important is telling an interesting story about people, not picky scientific details. And I'm really not too obsessed about scientific accuracy, especially if it's something you'd need at least a Masters in Physics to understand. But if you're going do something in a genre, you have to stick to the conventions, which in this case of science fiction means at the very least not using science that is obviously wrong even to a person who has a Discover Magazine subscription or stayed awake through Science 101 for the Humanities. This plot is like having a spaceship captain press a button and accelerate his ship to ten times light speed without even bothering to put a fake-science fig-leaf over it like "his ship turned into tachyons" or something like that.

So will I go see it? Probably. But you might not want to sit next to me, because I'll bitch the whole time.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Yet more bad news about space colonization

I saw this the first time in the Science times, but was reminded of it in a link from Lou Anders' blog.

To understand Richard Gott's Copernican principle, you basically have to assume that there was even odds that you could have been any human from the beginning of our species' history to its end, whenever that is. So what are the odds that you are going to have been one of the first humans? Very small, because there were only maybe a hundred thousand people on the world then, which is not many out of the many billions that existed. Of course you weren't, you live now. But why now?

It doesn't seem so unlikely, since there are far more people on the planet now that you "could have" been than ever before. But wait a minute. If people in the future go out and colonize other stars some day, then the number of people in the inhabited stars will likely be in the hundreds of billions or trillions, or more. So the odds you would have been born now would be very small.

In this column, he argues that if we don't colonize Mars in the next 50 years or so it will probably never happen, more or less for the same reason. That's more optimistic than the way he's put it before, which gives me hope. With his usual pinpoint precision, he estimates that there is a 95% chance that the human race will last between about 6,000 and 7 million years. That's a pretty good range, and gives us some options.

Of course, the flaw with thinking this way is that if the people who had crossed the Siberian ice bridge, or Magellan, had thought the same way, they never would have bothered. So it's probably just as well those guys didn't take statistics.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Matthew Jarpe stands up for hard sci-fi

My two favorite quotes from this post:

"Hard science fiction is science fiction played with the net up." (Jarpe says this is a quote of Gregory Benford.)

"A story is about people." (This is pretty close to my motto.)

I also can't agree more with the argument that science fiction authors are absolutely not in the future predicting business. This got started with people talking about Jules Verne predicting things like the modern submarine. Two things need to be emphasized here: submarines had already been invented when Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though they weren't big like that of course. And aside from being really big and going underwater, the Nautilus is nothing like a modern submarine. That is just not why we read that story.

This is the second round of a debate started with a previous post that Matthew perhaps over-confrontationally titled Singularity Shmingularity. But, if it got close to a score of a million on Technorati, more power to him. (Title of my next post: "Hey Urban Fantasy, Go F**k Yourselves!")

Later he pointed out he actually likes to read (and write) singularity fiction. I do to, though I'm finishing a hard scifi novel now. I don't think Jarpe ever intended for this to be an either-or thing. We've got a big tent here, and readers have much broader tastes than most of the writers do.

For all of the people running around saying that everything but singularity fiction is irrelevant now (yes, they're saying that, I read Matthew's comments), you're making a mistake of seeing the future through the rear-view mirror. I'm sure there will be a lot of other good singularity novels in the future, just as people are still writing good cyberpunk novels now. But The Singularity's big moment has either already happened or at best is happening for the next year or two. If you've got a novel coming out very soon that refers to the singularity (or acceleration, or whatever you choose to call it), you're right on the zeitgeist. If you're shopping one around to the agents right now, or still writing one, then by the time it's out (up to five years, as I understand it), the idea will be no fresher than hard scifi, or perhaps less so because hard scifi has been around for awhile, and was never so dependent upon being The Thing of the Moment. That doesn't mean people won't read it, if it's good.

So let's all go back to our corners here, and think up believeable characters and engaging challenges to overcome and write something interesting enough to read.

Rowling with the punches

Okay, so as usual, I am way behind the eight-ball here. I watched the Sopranos on DVD for the first time after the third season, my first Nirvana album was In Utero (their last), and now I have just read, and watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, just as the fifth movie and the final book are about to come out.

When J.K. Rowling's name came up at ReaderCon, you could hear the scorn in people's voices. Everyone was convinced she did not deserve what she accomplished. Other people were doing the same thing, but better, when she got so famous. Rowling just happened to be in the same place at the same time. The only question was how do we get all these Potter fans to appreciate some real fantasy?

When someone succeeds in a way you don't, you can assume they just got lucky, and bitch about it. Or you can assume that, whatever else they did wrong, they just might be doing something you're not, and try to figure out what it is.

So I'm assuming Rowling must know something that the rest of us don't. I'm also assuming I don't need to read every book of hers to know what it is, though since I have a 4-year-old son, I probably will sooner or later. But it was the first book that made Harry Potter into what he is. So what does Rowling do that works?

One of the first things I noticed is that Rowling has a sense of how to use magic to advance the plot, which is to say sparingly. Surprisingly enough for a story about wizards and witches, you could count on your fingers the number of proper spells that get cast in the novel. Of course, there are plenty of magical effects throughout Hogwarts - food appearing on tables, floating candlesticks, that sort of thing. But these are basically background effects, giving the magical school its character. Then you have the broomsticks, of course, but again this is more a feature of the world than a spell anyone exactly casts.

Of the proper spells that are cast, I count these: Hermione levitates a feather in magic class; Ron's desperately, and with a lot of guidance from Hemione, levitates the troll's club in the girl's bathroom; Quirrel casts a dark arts spell on Harry's broomstick, which they believe to be cast by Snape (I really don't have to worry about being a spoiler on a book that's like ten years old, do I?); Hermione sets Snapes robe on fire during the Quidditch match and Hermione lights a fire (or simulates the Sun in the movie) to protect them from the tentacle plant when they're heading for the Sorcerer's Stone. I'm sure there are one or two I missed but not many.

What's significant about this list? Well, to begin they are all extremely minor spells. There are no 12th-level multi-forked lightning bolts; we're talking Magic Missile-level spells. But Rowling gets a lot of bang for her speculative buck. Any wizard or witch should be able to levitate things and start little fires.

Second, they are almost all cast by Hermione, the class geek (and consequently my favorite character), and none of them were actually cast by Harry! Okay, let's count flying on a broomstick as a spell, we'll give him that, but his Quidditch skills are more a matter of athleticism than magic. That gets us to Harry's character.

We hear a lot about how Harry is a "great wizard," but he's not, really, in the way we might expect it. Harry's famous glasses are a red herring, tricking the reader/watcher into thinking he's the Peter Parker of his class. Really he's closer to being Flash, except with a good heart. The ways that Harry is great has more to do with his character, his bravery, and his determination than his magical skills.

And this keeps the plot moving forward. Because barely is he at Hogwarts before he is putting himself and his freinds being, as Hermione puts it, "Killed, or worse, expelled." In response to that statement Ron states that Hermione needs to "get her priorities straight." But that's not Harry's problem. Right from the get-go, he knows that the possibility of getting thrown out of Hogwarts is the least of his problems, what with a wizard so evil that people won't say his name out to kill Harry.

But Harry doesn't just put his life and Hogwarts career at risk to catch the evil bad guys. He jumps on a broomstick to get Neville's memory ball back from Malfoy (right after being warned he'd be expelled for flying), jumps on a troll's back to save Hermione and carries an illegal dragon up the stairs of the Astronomy Tower for Hagrid. Aside from fulfilling the commercial novel's need to keep us on the edge of our seats, it gives us a sense of a character who is both brave and loyal to his friends.

Last of all, and I think this is really important in a commercial book, Rowling knows how to set up the plot dominoes and knock them down. This is a skill that I am still working on. What are the skills necessary to get to the Sorcerer's Stone at the end? First, Hermione's oft-mentioned study skills and magic tell them how to handle the Devil's Trap, then Harry plays Seeker and catches the keys to the door, Ron's seemingly offhandedly developed chess-playing (accompanyied by bravely sacrificing his own piece) allows Harry to advance, and finally (only in the book), Hermione uses a logical deduction to determine the correct potion to drink for Harry to advance to the final stage. And in the end, Harry is saved by a combination of his own bravery and the love of his mother, the two character traits Rowling's been developing from the start of the novel.

Among students of Real Serious Literature, a well-formed plot is as disparaged an advantage as a catchy tune is among serious musicians. In both cases, people make the mistake of thinking that this means these are easy things to do. But if it was so easy to make a catchy tune, Billy Joel wouldn't be so rich, because everyone could make songs like this. It takes a certain humility to acknowledge that writers like J.K. Rowling (who at least has passable prose skills), or worse, Dan Brown, maybe know something that we don't. It takes even more to try to figure out what it is.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Recommended Link - Carl Frederick's website

For anyone who hasn't trolled through my blogroll, I highly recommend checking out Carl Frederick's Website. It's not a blog, sadly, because I'd like to hear what the man has to say every day.

Especially recommended is his page connected to the musical fruit fly genome story. Carl is very interested in ideas connected to "first contact," and a lot of his stories are about that topic. But he always seems to do it in a way that no one else thinks of. Be sure to listen to the song.

Blogging Bright of the Sky - part 2

Imagine a thread, woven over another over another. One, perhaps, is a navy blue, the other a metallic color, gold or silver. In between, sparser, you might have a red or violet. Notice the alternation of colors isn't done strictly for aesthetic reasons. If you didn't weave the threads together, the tapestry would fall apart. Nevertheless, it's the alternation of colors that gives the fabric a richer tapestry than the sum of the parts of the colors.

I'm still reading Kay Kenyon's Bright of the Sky. What's thrilling about this book is that she knows how to put a story together, and even if you know what she's doing, you still shake your head when you see the final result.

In a section I was just reading, the protagonist, Titus Quinn, is traveling on a magical boat on the Lethe-like River Nigh to the Ascendency, the big magical city in the realm of the Entire, a parallel universe next to ours. The trip itself is what playwrights call Opening and Closing of Doors, meaning a person has to get from one place to another for the plot to advance in that other place. This is where inexperienced writers get hung up. They either do a long, slow, dull description of the transition, in which nothing advancing the plot happens, or they just say "and then he was there," without the reader actually feeling the transition. The second option is better than the first by far, and is sometimes necessary, but the writer and reader both feel hollow when it happens, like the Wizard's magic strings were momentarily revealed from behind the curtain.

So what to do? What Kenyon gives us is a mystical dream-like sequence in which Quinn encounters the seer-like Navitar who guides the boat. The Navitar says a lot of things about pulling threads, makes vague hints about the continued existence of Quinn's wife, whom he thinks is dead, and suggests that the "threads" of the universe converge through him. I don't know exactly what it means yet, but I know Kenyon is setting up something that will become important later in the book, or possibly the next.

And then, boom – there's the Ascendency. And I know I was there, because something happened on the way. But the thing that happened was the advancement of an entirely different plot thread, a gold strand weaving over the blue I'd been following before. And as soon as it happened, I realized what she had done, but was delighted nevertheless. It was like a magician who waves his hand around as a distraction while the other hand slips your card to the top of the deck. But better, because the distractor hand was simultaneously setting up an entirely different trick to surprise me down the road.

The storyteller-as-weaver trope, I admit, is a terrible cliche. But people don't talk much about why. Vaguely we all know as we write we should always be "advancing the plot," whatever that means. But the plot isn't a big chunk of granite you heave forward across the floor. With longer fiction especially, the plot is a twisting multithreaded tangle of threads that need to reinforce each other and have to all tie up neatly at the end.

Monday, July 16, 2007

My favorite (phillip k) dick-head

For anyone who is wondering what I am talking about that blogs can do that a reviewer can't, here is an example.

What David is doing here is criticism, as much as anything you'll see in the Harvard Review. He's digging deeper with PKD's work, connecting it to other literature, speculative or not. But where else but a blog would you see something like this?

He's going to blog Three Stigmata chapter by chapter until the end. Bookmark it now. I just might read the book again.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

In every day and in every way...(?)

Matthew Jarpe recounts a controversial statement he made at the near future panel at ReaderCon. He was roundly dismissed for stating that if we were to go to another planet and encounter a more primitive species we would treat them better than colonizers in the past treated primitive peoples.

This brings up an important question that every science fiction writer has to address. Are people getting more moral over time? Obviously this raises a question of whether there is a quality of "morality" that can somehow be measured. I would argue that the measure would be an inclination to consider the good of a larger group than a smaller. For example, it is more moral to think of the good of your friends and family than yourself, more moral to think of the good of your city than your friends and family, more moral to think of the good of all nations than just to think of your own.

Some people (especially radical libertarians and/or conventional economists) would be inclined to disagree, arguing that reasonable self-interest can sometimes produce better results than misguided altruism, but even they would have to agree that thinking of the larger group is at least a quality of morality.

So here's the pro: think of slavery. Don't get me wrong, it is still practiced all over the world, often brutally and involving innocent children. The difference is, that it was once recognized that the master/slave relationship was just a natural state, and people kept slaves openly even in the most advanced of nations. Now people have to do it in secret, and even nations that allow slavery in practice have to at least pretend to forbid it de jure. Progress? Not nearly as much as we need, but better than nothing.

Here's the con: in the twentieth century, people have come up with entirely new and previsously unimaginable ways to be horrible to each other. The Mongols might have raced into a city and killed all the men, raped the women and enslaved the children. But once they were done with that, they'd probably have just settled down and tried to rule the place. I don't think it would have occurred to them to set up an industrialized factory like Dachau to systematically eliminate an entire race. And even the most "civilized" nations are continuously working on new and sophisticated ways to kill people.

But as I commented on Matthew's blog, I'd far rather believe that there is at least some progress, however slow it is, and however frequently we backslide. The alternative is just too unpleasant.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Tipler's good news & bad news about interstellar travel

I've just stumbled across an old paper in The New Scientist written by a scientist named Frank Tipler in the early '80s that offers an interesting perspective on interstellar travel, and I've been thinking about how to use it in a story, because it remains fairly minimally exploited.

If you accept Tipler's view of the future, there is good news and bad news regarding outer space. The good news is that interstellar travel and colonization from Earth is not only possible, but likely, sometime in the next few centuries.

The bad news, however, is 1) it won't be people doing the colonization, and 2) we won't be meeting any aliens along the way.

Tipler starts from the assumption that fairly soon (within a few hundred years, at least), we should be able to create self-replicating, sentient "von Neumman machines" that are able to travel to other star systems (on their own time, of course, not limited by human life spans) and begin reproducing themselves there.

Based on the assumption that any intelligent species would be able to do the same if they got to the same point in the development of consciousness, he points out that if there were a significant number of other consciousnesses in the galaxy, we'd have already seen their VN machines tearing the place apart by now. Therefore there must not be any.

He has a second reason for doubting that there are any other sentiences out there; he points out that the famous Drake formula that assumes other sentiences are common (# of intelligent species = number of stars that form * percent that have habitable planets * percent of habitable planets that evolve life * percent of planets with life that develop to sentience) may be making a big leap when it assumes that the likelihood that sentience will be the natural result of any evolutionary process. He argues that in fact the likelihood for the evolution of sentience is in fact infinitesimal.

I'd say that his assumption of the likelihood of "von Neumann" colonizers is his big potential weakness. It does seem likely based on the way that info- and nano-technology appear to be evolving. But until we're actually sending von Neumann colonies to Jupiter, it's far from a slam dunk.

But for now, let's pretend he's right. The idea that the colonizers of outer space will be machine intelligences rather than people is not so discomforting to me as it is to other people. After all, I'm quite certain that neither myself, my son, or his grandchild(ren) if he has any will actually be traveling to Alpha Centauri and beyond. So what do I care if it's my great-great-great-granddaughter or a machine she makes that colonizes the distant stars? (I know, I know, what do I care if anyone does or not? But I do, okay, so shut up.) The idea that there wouldn't be any other intelligences out there seems a bit lonely, but once your von Neumann machines started evolving, competing, spreading and, speciating the galaxy would likely get to be a pretty lively place after a few million years or so, and by then perhaps no one would even know where it all started.

But of course I'm looking at this from the point of view of a scifi writer. There's one major challenge here, which is that, as I said before, fiction tends to be about people. I have yet to be aware of a major work of science fiction that has no characters at all that are either human, or at least very human-like. That's not surprising given my assumption that science fiction is about people. When you're describing a sentience different enough from us, readers will just no longer be able to identify. But it is almost certainly true that Our New van Neummanist Overlords will be almost nothing like humans, sentient though they might be. It is exactly their non-human qualities that will allow them to go to outer space. And I'm not just talking about the physical part, but psychological differences, for example the immunity to boredom that would be necessary to travel for what might be millenia or more.

Of course, there is the possiblity that interstellar colonization will occur in two stages, with the machines going first, then setting things up for the humans much later. After all, interstellar travel is far more compelling if we know there is someplace to go. But then, if the machines are smart enough to colonize outer space, it's open to question exactly what they'll need us for. By the time any humans got to interstellar habitations that von Nuemann machines set up for us, we'd likely find that at best we'd be thought of as adorable housepets. At worst we'd be a nuisance to exterminate. (Yes, the dear, late Saberhagen addressed this in the Beserker series.)

So how do we tell the story of a future in which humanity was just an imperfect step way back down the complexity ladder? I don't know yet, but the possiblitities are too tempting to ignore. When sentiences are able to live hundreds of thousands or millions of years, and can be confined to centimeter-long vacuum-and cosmic ray-proof packages, then many of the limitations that make the stars so distant become trivial matters.

Just as a suggestion, what about a "starship" the size of a chiclet composed of hundreds or thousands of sentient intelligences within its own memory guiding its travel at, say, a few psol or so. A bizarre paper by a man named Jim Walker suggests that for an artificial intelligence time could be slowed down by 'ceasing to exist' for centuries or more at a time. Imagine, for example, experiencing only one second or so out of every few hundred years. If an intelligence was experiening that, it could travel at what appeared to be many times light speed.

It would be a bit of a stretch, but imaginable that the future von Nuemann consciousnesses could compose themselves out of a large number of very human-like intelligences, that would experience an artificial reality within their virtual environment, potentially even fighting, eating, drinking, screwing and reproducing within their environment. Really, if you think about it, not that much crazier than some of the stuff that Charles Stross comes up with. And I haven't thought about it long, other possibilities must occur.

Slipped through my fingers

I had a whole post to write about Paul de Filippo's Slipstream Canon, first presented at the ReaderCon panel that I witnessed. But Paul Kincaid already wrote it for me.

Shorter Paul Kincaid: The definition of slipstream is apparently anything kind of wierd that we like. As Kincaid said, everything on this list (at least everything I've read) is an excellent work of fiction and highly worth reading. Fillippo and his fellow panelists have excellent taste in literature.

But in terms of coming up with a definition of a genre, they've just painted the target around wherever the arrows hit. At the panel Graham Sleight went out of his way to say that slipstream fiction is not the same as postmodern fiction (or interstitial, or etc., etc.) But postmodern fiction's glory days were a decade ago, and during that time 90% of this list was claimed by them.

What is the point, really, of coming up with a term for this? Bertrand Russell went out of his way to create a theory of sets that didn't allow for the paradox of "The set of all sets that don't include themselves." (Yes, his theory was later detonated by Godel's incompleteness postulate, but that's a different story). What's the point of coming up with a genre that defines all books that don't fit in a genre?

A genre, let's face it, is a marketing tool. I'm not even talking about the narrow definition of genre (scifi, fantasy, western, mystery, etc.). This is equally true about the broader definition of genre (poetry, fiction, drama, etc.). And having these categories are useful things, up to a point. But when an idea encounters an area where it's no longer useful, well, then...don't use it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The future of business

Something I really want to do in my stories, but am not sure I'm qualified to do, is to address the way that business will change in the future.

I am not talking about what kinds of businesses there will be, like places that sell cold fusion drives or stardrive manufacturers. I am talking about changes in the way that trade, investment and risk will be handled a century or three from now.

Just as an example, my father is a (now semi-retired) commodities broker. The core of his business as a broker is/was helping grain elevators arrange grain futures options to hedge against a drop in prices that will destroy the value of their grain. Essentially the way this works is they buy an option that gives them the right to sell the grain at some future time at some predetermined price, meaning they can only lose so much if the price collapses.

But for this to be possible, there has to be an enormous market out there of people buying and selling grain futures, and options on futures, strictly on speculation of making a profit. Because options are so useful to businesses, now you can get futures and options on just about everything, from coffee to the Japanese Yen to bonds to electricity to the S&P average. Enormous markets exist, and fortunes are made and lost in these markets.

The business world today is full of incredibly complex financial instruments like futures options that did not exist a century ago that allow businesses to manage their risks and investment. What complex devices might become necessary if you're dealing with issues like delays that occur because of transferring money across light years, or the possibility that your factory might be devoured by nanomachines? (grey goo insurance?)

It seems like it would be difficult to deal with, because these devices are complicated and difficult to work into the plot without a lot of boring exposition. But it would be interesting if anyone is addressing the issue. Does anyone know about a writer that is doing this?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Blogging Bright of the Sky

Strictly from a plot point of view, Kay Kenyon's new book resembles some of the old classic pulps, in which a science-fictional devices hurl a hero into a fantastic, semi-primitive environment. I'm thinking specifically of something like John Carter of Mars, except in this case instead of another planet it's another dimension that allows a person to walk to other stars and galaxies. I wasn't really familiar with the term "interstitial" before Alyssa explained it to me, (essentially a combination of more than one genre) but BOTS is a good example of it, because even though this book's plot has an SF "wrapper," once Titus Quinn is thrown into the realm of the Entire, the rules of fantasy dominate.

I should add that the quality of Kenyon's prose is far above pulp writing, as is her character development. At the core of this story is a father whose somewhat irresponsible actions lead to the loss of his family and separation from his child. Though there is a lot of action in the plot, underneath it all is Titus' quest for reconciliation with and forgiveness by his estranged daughter Sydney. Ignoring the part about Sydney being blinded by superpowered demon-gods and enslaved by a sentient horned horse-like species in another dimension, it's a story that is played out every day all over America, and the world.

I'm about halfway through the book, and I'll comment further as developments come along.

Note: the following statement not approved by a third party!

One other point that Jennifer made, and one that I think deserved its own post, was that if someone is writing a review for someone's magazine or professional website, that person's writing has been approved by a third party (with the writer and the reader being the first two), and that separates it from a person who just goes to blogger or livejournal and throws their own work up.

Obviously the issue of third-party approval has always been huge in the writing world, and it still is. If it wasn't, I wouldn't be pounding the metaphorical pavement trying to get some major publishing house to look at my novel manuscripts; I would just go to xlibris or some other pod publisher, and sell my books online. But readers, myself included, are more likely to be interested in something when someone has essentially said "I'm willing to invest in the cost of ink and binding on this, and ship it to Barnes & Nobles all over the country." Even with a professional website, if someone is getting advertising dollars, they are using space on something that they could be using for something else, and paying for the downloads, and that is its own kind of investment, though nothing like printing it.

It's true that the barrier to third-party approval isn't nearly as high as it used to be. Printing costs are far cheaper than they were in the pre-digital age, and the costs of putting up a website are so low nearly anyone can do it. Now it's more about distribution and the cost of eyeballs, but many of the same principles are still there.

I would argue in the case of blogs, however, the difference is that when you are reading blogs, you are your own acquisitions editor. In other words, there is no qualified person out there figuring out for you what's worth reading. You have to figure it out for yourself. That doesn't mean that the good stuff isn't out there, you just have to figure out what it is. That's probably why reading blogs takes so much time. So maybe Sturgeon's law has to be modified a bit regarding blogs, and more like 99.95% of everything in the blogosphere is crap as opposed to the usual 95%, meaning you have to work a little harder.

But, as the song goes, Whadya want for nuthin'?

Followup to "Keeping down the filthy bloggers"

My post yesterday regarding "real reviews" versus "blog reviews" led to an argument with my wife Jennifer, who has done some real reviewing. She pointed out that I didn't have facts to back up my numbers, for example the $100 payment, and that it seemed like I was saying that "real reviews" were all rushed and lazy.

As for the price, I picked that because it seemed like a maximum for what people are getting for commercial reviews, discounting incredibly big-name things like the New York Times Book Review. Consequently, if other people are payingn less, it seems to me that supports my argument even more, which is essentially that the lack of incentive to get things right is as bad for paid reviewers as it is for bloggers.

More importantly, I think that anyone who reads to the end of the post should see that my main point is that a good blogger is more worth reading than a mediocre pro or semi-pro reviewer. I certainly didn't mean that all print reviews are rushed and lazy. Obviously there are a lot of good ones, and I read print reviews of scifi, movies, music and other things all the time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Keeping down the filthy bloggers

Neth Space mentions what I consider to have been one of the least interesting panels of ReaderCon: "Reviewing in the Blogosphere." Ken wasn't actually there, but I was. I was incredibly frustrated that when they did an introduction of the panelists, only one of them, Kathryn Kramer, actually had a weblog, and that weblog was not devoted to science fiction or reviewing. (There is a first-hand summary of this panel at Fantasy Book Spot.)

I wouldn't expect every panelist on reviewing in the blogosphere to be a blogger. There certainly should be an old pro print reviewer like John Clute defending tradition against the rabble like ourselves. But the split should be at least 50/50. As it was, it was like doing a panel called "What do you think of Brooklyn" which contained nothing but Manhattanites.

Of course, the limitations of blogosphere reviews were discussed at length. Blog reviews are "plot summaries" with a few author opinions thrown in, bloggers write too fast and too sloppy and don't think enough about what they say. And to some degree they have a point. I am not going to spend three or four hours coming up with a blog post.

But then I have already stated that I'm not going to do reviews as such. What I don't think was discussed extensively enough is the limitation of "reviews as such" in the print or the online market.

Reviews, by their very nature, tend to be about whatever came out in the last five minutes. Most reviews out there do not address the larger trends happening within the market of a genre, or compare works that might have come out last year, or ten years ago. Reviews are expected to primarily address the basic question "Should I read this or not?" Not many professional reviews out there really place a work in the larger critical framework. With a blog you can address whatever you want whenever you want, because no one's writing the checks.

And lets face it, a lot of reviews are just as rushed as a blog post can be. Someone gets a review copy of the new, say, Tad Williams doorstop and is expected to read the whole book and write a thoughtful review for, say, one hundred dollars, which is probably a lot in the current market. And they need to do it fast, before it's on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. So assume they are speed readers and can get through the book in ten hours or so, and then spend five hours or so coming up with a good review. That's, what, six dollars an hour? I think McDonalds pays better in most places right now. So can we really expect the person to write like the next TS Eliot?

One of the topics of the debate was whether you got to write more or less words in an online column. John Clute said that he likes the freedom to write as many words as he wanted. Other panelists pointed out that maybe he could only get away with that because he was John Clute, and who was going to tell him he had to keep it under 500 words? The most interesting statement was when another panelist (Gordon van Gelder, I believe), suggested to Clute that in fact everything he does is a blog, because people are going to his columns not to find out "Is the next Charlie Stross any good?" but to find out what Clute's view of the world and scifi market is.

In other words, it might be that what John Clute does, and thinks that other reviewers are all doing, is more like what a good blogger does than what a mediocre reviewer does.

Or to re-apply Sturgeon's law:
Q: Isn't ninety percent of the blogosphere crap?
A: Ninety percent of everything is crap.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What's your RealYear(tm)?

Thursday night at ReaderCon was an open night, open to anyone who might have wandered in who might be interested. As it happened, it looked like it was mostly old-timers, people who had been coming since the first conference. They had a panel that night about something called the "real year" of a science fiction story. This idea was originated by John Clute back in 1991, or, according to his claim at the panel, 1977.

The idea of a "real year" of a science fiction story is the year in modern times that the story most clearly references back to. So the real year of any "Doc" Smith story would be 1927, the real year of most Heinlein stories would be 1957, and the real year of Neuromancer would be 1982. Depending on the writer, the real year was either the year they wrote the story, the year they first stumbled on a copy of Amazing! or the year they first got laid.

But what I couldn't get out of my head is the ad you keep seeing everywhere in the Net nowadays that asks "What's your RealAge?" It always says something like "Susan: chronological age 57, RealAge 42." Apparently, everyone they've looked at has a RealAge that is a lot younger than their real age. I keep wanting to see an ad that says "Charlie Parker: chronological age 35, RealAge 67 and dead." But I guess that wouldn't sell many cosmetics or whatever they're trying to push.

It's not surprising that Clute came up with the real year concept as part of a push to topple some of the old scifi behemoths that ruled the roost back then. Clearly the implication of the real year is that you'd like it as close to right now as possible. After all, who's going to be interested in something where the real year is already 20 years out of date? If Clute did first come up with the idea in the late '70s then he'd be looking at the real years of people like Harlan Ellison. But then Ellison hates TV, and anyone who's read "Jeffty is Five" knows his real year was the year before the glass tit was invented.

But science fiction writers, like everyone else, get old. My RealYear (sadly) is not when I first got laid, but when I formed my first complete hypothesis about what it means to be human, at about age 14. That old idea is buried now under decades of deepening understanding, but the foundation's still down there somewhere. It is informed by quarter arcade games, Van Halen I, twenty-sided dice, twenty-nine cent hamburgers and the bright green Lucida type on an Apple II+ CRT. But to Gen-Yers that time is as archaic now as the hippie '60s was to me in high school.

I can see the ad: "Jim Stewart: Novel finished: 2007. Set in: 6000 AD. RealYear: 1983."

So where do I sign up to get a new RealYear(tm)? I don't know how old Charlie Stross is, but I'll take his. I just read Glass House, and no one is going to look at that and say the guy is stuck in the '80s.

But then maybe that's been done. Maybe enough people have written a novel set five minutes in the future. Can I set my RealYear back to when Ray Bradbury wrote "R is for Rocket," which contained this, upon the launching of the first rocket to the moon (which hadn't happened yet when he wrote the story):

Tonight, he thought, even if we fail with this first, we'll send a second and a third ship and move on out to all the planets and later, all the stars. We'll just keep going until the big words like immortal and forever take on meaning. Big words, yes, that's what we want. Continuity. Since our tongues first moved inour mouhts we've asked, What does it all mean? ...Man will go on, as space goes on, forever. Individuals will die as always, but our history will reach as far as we'll ever need to see into the future, and with the knowledge of our survival for all time to come, we'll know security and thus the answer we've always searched for. Giveted with life, the least we can do is preserved and pass on the gift to infinity. That's a goal worth shooting for.

Looking in the acknowledgements, that would be 1953. Maybe he's a cranky old wingnut now, but the story belongs to all of us (and Orson Scott Card can't have the meaning of "Ender's Game" back either). I'll take it.

"Ray Bradbury, story finished: 1953, RealYear: infinity."

Monday, July 9, 2007

Actually, yes they do put it on their credit card...

Charlie Stross clarifies for us why the idea of science fiction writers actually predicting and portraying the future is absurd.

Now imagine you'd tried to run it by these guys.

Back from ReaderCon

Hopefully my small readership has not drifted away. My head is still bubbling with all of the cool stuff I saw at ReaderCon, and I will be writing lots more about it over the next few days. I've never been to a con before, but I already get a sense that this one is rare.

The cool thing was meeting some really interesting people. I am planning to order David Louis Edelman's book Infoquake, and I am going to get Matthew Jarpe's book Radio Freefall as soon as it comes out. It was also cool to meet Alyssa, and listen to a mind-blowing physics lecture by Carl Frederick. And I heard some amazing writing advice from Kay Kenyon, whose new scifi/interstitial novel Bright of the Sky is currently blowing my mind.

Have to go now; I'll fill in more details later.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Oh beautiful for rainy skies

Had a good Fourth. It started raining about 8:30, which kept the crowds down by the water. But right before the Macy's show started at 9:20, the rain stopped so all the people in front of us closed their big honking umbrellas. I think it's one of the best views I've had from the ground; I could even see one of the boats.

The buzz for this one was about the 'floaters,' fireworks that somehow float in the air and stayed lit. But they were a bit of a letdown; I only saw two or three of them. If they had twenty or thirty up at a time, that would have been cool.

The only thing about the Macy's show is it's really a bit too long. They definitely heard the old saying about 'leave them wanting more.' Here's the usual traing of thought while watching the Macy's fireworks.

Wow, I hope I can see the fireworks...hey, there it goes...WOW! HOLY COW! THAT ONE'S HUGE! AWESOME! Wow! Umm, nice. That one's cool. Is that those little floaty things? Is that all they do? It sure gets pretty smoky. There's the smiley face again. Oh, it's a cube. Look, it's the big green spheres. Again. And the ones like planets. Again. I wonder when the grand finale is. I'm hungry. Now would be a great time to break into my house. Please let this be the grand finale. If I hold my son up for five more minutes my arms are going to fall off. Please don't let anyone break into my house. Please let this be the grand finale. Christ I'm tired. PLEASE LET THIS BE OVER. This has got to be the grand finale. Thank God. How long is this going to go on...

And yet when it's finally over, I'm always glad I stayed.

Now, for the rest of the night we're going to have all the smartasses out there with their Black Cats and bottlerockets they bought over in Jersey and Pennsylvania. I mean, I set off my own fireworks too when I was a kid. But one, I was, like, ten, and two, we would go out on the mesa or something away from people's houses. And we didn't have a big show off of boats on the Rio Grande.

And I need to get a good night's rest, since I'm going to Massachusetts tomorrow. I guess tonight is a good night for a Brooklyn Lager and a poor man's ambien. Put those two together and we could be under a mortar attack and I wouldn't know the difference.

Off to ReaderCon

So tomorrow I'm going to get on a 10am Chinatown bus to go to ReaderCon. Thanks to Peter for giving me a place to sleep!

I admit I don't know that much about the authors. I kind of feel like Jackie Harvey's Outside Scoop when I look at the readers. I have never heard of Lucius Shepard, but he has some wicked-ass cover art. I've actually heard of Karen Joy Fowler, but I didn't know that she was a speculative fiction author. Yeah, I know, that's lame.

Anyway, I don't know what the connectivity issues are going to be. I'm going to take my laptop, and hope that they have wi-fi there. If not, maybe I'll try to find a Starbucks. But if I don't post again until Sunday night, that's why.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

'ly' words

My name is Jim and I have a problem.

Hello, Jim.

My problem is...is...I'm sorry, it's just hard for me to say this the first time.

My problem is abuse of adverbs that end in 'ly'. Heather told me I have this problem before. Obviously I didn't listen.

Just this morning I was getting out of bed and going for my cup of coffee when suddenly I realized I forgot to start the pot the night before! Angrily, I poured the water in the pot, and...

Damn it! I keep doing it! Practically every time I start a...damn it!

Almost every time I start a sentence I have to use an 'ly' adverb, apparently to provide the reader with the sense of a change in action. Now I'm essentially going to crap....

I'm going to have to go back and chop nearly every 'ly' adverb out of my novel, meaning its word count will be chopped by about 5,000 words.

More on batman, as promised

I promised day before yesterday to talk about Jeff's Batman comic he's been watching. This one is from what looks like right after the '89 Batman movie with Micheal Keaton...

[begin flashback]

Wow, I'm just thinking back to how I reacted to the idea of casting Mr. Mom as Batman all those many years ago. I just had a moment exactly like that. I was walking down Bedford & saw an ad on a bus station for Hairspray starring...Christopher Walken! I was trying to think of an example of casting against type that matched Christopher Walken starring in Hairspray. I was thinking, maybe, having Sandra Bullock play a serial killer but actually I could see them doing that.

Now I have it. Putting Chris Walken in Hairspray is like having Micheal Keaton play Bruce Wayne!

[end flashback]

Anyway, I highly recommend this. It has some obvious anime influence, and also is trying really hard to have a social conscience. Of the four episodes, only one has an actual "supervillain," in the form of the joker. The rest are more like Batman dealing with social injustice.

In the first episode "The Underdwellers,", Batman catches a bad guy who makes little homeless children steal for him. In the second, "POV," three different cops try to remember how Batman broke up a group of bad guys. But all the cops are in a hearing where they're accused of being on the take. And in the third episode, Bruce Wayne, undercover as a homeless guy, gets kidnapped into a chain gang where they force other homeless guys to dig for gold for a sleazy fat slave driver.

Still, Jeff liked it. There's lots of bank crash pow fight scenes, and the animation is tight as all get out. Highly recommended.

Haunted by the martini I didn't finish

Went to Black Betty, one of the yummiest & cheapest middle eastern places in Williamsburg. If you live in NY & are under 30, you probably think of it as a bar. Try the felafel plate; you've never eaten so much for 9 bucks.

Anyway, I had a martini (Beefeater, of course; please don't call it a martini if it's made with vodka), & the waitress took a million years to bring it. Then she didn't get my order for the felafel plate, and that took forever too. She kept coming by and apologizing; I was expecting it to end up like the Monty Python restaurant sketch, where the owner of the restaurant commits suicide.

So she was so sorry she spotted me the meal and the first martini, so I thought, why not get a second one? I was already pretty buzzed after the first one, but I hadn't paid for it, so I couldn't resist.

But by the time I got the second one, everyone was already talking about leaving. I was about halfway through the second martini when people started getting up. I knew if I slammed the rest of that martini I'd be sorry as hell; knocked out tonight and hurting like hell tomorrow.

So I left half a martini on the table. It was totally the right decision. But I can't get that jigger and a half of Beefeater out of my head.

Never mind that if I hadn't gotten the first martini free, I wouldn't have even thought to get the second one. Never mind that I got every bit as buzzed as I had expected and more. All I can think about is how much I wish I could take that last gulp of gin.

So I can't decide. Am I doing pretty good, because I passed on the second 'tini? Or do I have a problem, because I can't get over it?

Monday, July 2, 2007

Problems I'd like to have

I read a lot of agent blogs, because as an aspiring writer I follow their careers like normal people obsess over baseball players. I have seen a few different agents refer to a particularly brutal turn in the Simon & Schuster boilerplate contract where they apparently get to keep the writer's testicles in a jar (ovaries for a female author, of course) for the author's natural lifetime. The Rejecter gets Simon & Schuster's take, which is apparently that first of all the testicles are very well preserved, and second of all any serious writer is going to be far too busy to make any use of them.

And, being in the place that I am in my life, the only thing I can think about is how much I wish I was in a position where I had to decide whether to sign a contract like that. I can pretty much visualize the conversation:

SLEAZY PUBLISHING LAWYER: I think you'll find it's all a pretty standard industry contract. Just sign on that line.

Smoke drifts from behind the lawyer and his devil tail is briefly visible

MY AGENT (Preferably played by Ethan Ellenberg or Caitlin Blasdell): Wait a minute! It says in clause 437.16.32q that if you don't make back your advance they get to sacrifice you to Yog Sothoth by pounding a nail through your head at midnight on a full moon.

Author holds pen over contract uncertainly.

AUTHOR: Oh, um, yeah, I see that. So what kind of nail is it exactly?

Obviously it's for people like me that agents were invented.

RIP Fred Saberhagen

Just got this off SF Signal. Sadly, Fred Saberhagen just passed away.

I wasn't as familiar with Saberhagen's work as I am with some others. I liked A Century of Progress and the Lost Swords books always really fired up my imagination.

He was quite famous for the "Beserker" series, as well. I think I read one or two of these; Brother Assasin sticks in my mind for some reason, and Beserker Wars. But I really should give them another look. Saberhagen's Beserkers seem like a possible inspiration for Alastair Reynolds' Inhibitors, among other ideas.

In any case, my sympathies to his friends and family. As always when an important writer passes away, I wished I could have met him.

Update: reading the Wiki on the Beserker series, I saw the term "goodlife," the name for humans who cooperate with Beserkers to stay alive for awhile. That really rung a bell; it must have been Brother Assassin.

The big printout

Back in the old days, when people used to write novels on typewriters, they were constantly aware of exactly what they had created, in the form of a large stack of paper, presumably with red-pencil marks all over it.

For most of us nowadays (except a few luddites and old-timers), a manuscript spends most of its time as a bunch of bytes on a hard drive, and hopefully a regular CD or jump drive backup if the writer is smart. (If Ralph Ellison was a 21st century writer, he'd say he lost the sequel to Invisible Man to a hard drive crash instead of a burning house). Given that, it's easy to forget just how many pages you have.

Sure, your word processor tells you. Down at the bottom of the page you have your word count and page count, so you can see how much you're getting done. But a little number '500' at the bottom of your screen is quite different from 500 pages.

Kat Dancing has a great article about this in her incredibly useful on writing page. As she points out, "Revising from the computer screen is a mistake; I skim, and you do too whether you realize it or not. Clench your teeth and sacrifice a tree on the altar of art." The think is, when she says a tree, she's not being hyperbolic.

I have two manuscripts under my belt right now. The first (working title And What Rough Beast) is a big, baggy ugly monster of 165,000 words that I need to go after with a chainsaw. There is a good story in there, but a lot of unnecessary crap. When I printed it out, I did it double-spaced 12pt courier, just like I would send it to an agent or publisher. It was 800 pages. That's a lot. It's about two reams, but paper is thicker after you print it, so think about twice the thickness of the reams when you buy them in the store.

There is absolutely no way to keep 800 pages of something together. Jen started reading it, so the last 700 or so are still sitting there, and I haven't had the guts to approach them yet.

My second manuscript (working title Unscheduled Inertia, whadya think?) is a relatively trim little 95k, and I think it's due more the scalpel than the chainsaw treatment. But 95,000 words is still close to 500 pages double-spaced. So I did something that I think is smarter. I shrunk the text to 10pt, single-spaced it, and printed it double-sided.

How do you print double-sided in Word? Glad you asked. This is best done about 30 pages at a time. Print the first thirty pages, odd numbers only (look under "paper handling" in the print dialog box). Then fluff them out & let them cool, and put them in upside down. You might want to play with it to see what direction and side your printer prints on before you do this. Then print the same pages, but the even numbers, and reverse order. You'll waste some pages before you get this right, but you'll save more down the road.

So this brought it down to 160 pages, or 80 sheets, double-sided. I know, people say your text should be double-spaced so you have "space to work." But most of that space gets wasted, and this way it all fits in a single three-ring binder I can carry around with me, so I actually can work on it wherever I am. I put in some extra paper in clase I need to add something else.

I think it's working. The first few pages have red all over them. As Kat suggested, I'm not looking at the computer file until I get through the printout. Hopefully, finishing off this one will give me the courage to go after the 165k monster behind it.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Superhero Saturday

I had said I was going to talk about Batman next, but first I should mention that I saw Fantastic Four today. It was okay, in spite of some stupid dialogue. Sample quote from Richard Reed:

It's our wedding, Sue, and I'm not going to let anything interfere with that. Not even widespread disruption of matter at the quantum level.

The quote above might not be word for word accurate, but it's close enough to what he actually said.

The best part was the way that the movie plays with the idea of the vapidity of celebrity culture obsession. One of the things that makes F4 unique is that they don't have secret identities. So when the entire world is in danger of being devoured by Galactus, the only thing anyone cares about is what Reed & Sue's china pattern is.

The main reason I wanted to see this is that the Silver Surfer is in this one. In the movie the Surfer is being blackmailed to work for Galactus, going to planets and surfing holes through them for a few days before the big G comes and chows down. Upon learning that Earth has developed sufficient CGI technology to portray him, he puts us next on the list.

Faced with the mystery of Surfer-boy causing disruption throughout the planet, the Four are strongarmed into working with Victor Von Doom, upon which they come up with a "tachyon pulse" which separates the SS from his board, upon which he turns into a dude in silver body paint.

Luckily for us the Surfer decides he cannot participate in the destruction of a planet that contains a rack like Jessica Alba's, so all that's left to do is get the board back from Dr. Doom, who of course stole it, so the Surfer can get on it and go blow up Galactus.

Two insanely obvious questions: first of all, as a massive blob of cosmic energy that devours planets, what exactly did Galactus need Silver Surfer for? Second is Silver Surfer could blow up Galactus, why was he ever working for him?

But ignoring that, the plot flows pretty smoothly. Better, it doesn't have anything that Jeff (4-year old son) can't see. So that's a good summer afternoon turn-out.