Wednesday, September 19, 2007

KGB Bar Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Burned by evil new spam site

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

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