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.