Friday, August 29, 2008

Awesome Physics (CERN) Rap!

This is one of the best things I've ever seen on the 'Net. White & Geeky? Heck yeah! But I swear I understand the Large Hadron Collider better now. (It's not all in the computer/Hawking voice--don't let the beginning put you off.)

CERN Rap from Will Barras on Vimeo.

If the embed doesn't work, click here for the website.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

"The Man With Two Left Feet, and Other Stories" P. G. Wodehouse

The Man With Two Left Feet was one of P. G. Wodehouse’s first short story collections. Its claim to fame is that it contains the first appearance of a Jeeves and Wooster story, “Extricating Young Gussie.” However, don’t turn to this collection if you’re looking for Jeeves—he only has two lines and is in every way a background character. None of the other stories deal with this duo, and “Young Gussie” is not the stand-out story in this bunch. The two stories about the dog stand out the best (“The Mixer” I & II). Nonetheless, I loved this collection. The stories are light, fluffy, and enjoyable—perfect for de-stressing. They are masterful works of light comedy. Most of them are trite and forgettable—even the Jeeves and Wooster story, if you don’t know what comes after it—but Wodehouse’s style is something to behold. Reading this collection gave me a better context to appreciate some authors today. I would argue that Connie Willis is the closest thing we have to Wodehouse today, despite her fiction noticeably lacking valets.

Most of the time when people call an author “Wodehousian,” they’re talking about imitating the Jeeves/Wooster pairing. For instance, the perfectly blatant Phule series by the late Robert Asprin and the (still living) Peter Heck. In that series (six books so far) a rich toff and his improbably competent servant get involved with a military force, In Space. Only slightly less blatant is Charles Stross’ novella, included in Jonathan Strahan’s The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Two titled “Trunk and Disorderly.” In it a dissolute rich gentlemen bounces around various family and social obligations, surviving only thanks to his robot butler. It’s not a terribly successful story, but it is clearly a Wodehouse homage. Nonetheless, the writer who gets closest to Wodehouse today is Connie Willis. This has less to do with her plots (when she decided to directly reference a pre-WWI humorist she chose Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), not a Wodehouse story) and more to do with her style. Wodehouse’s key tactics involved caricature and comedic complication, things that Willis excels at.

Caricature is obvious in almost all of Wodehouse’s stories, at least in this collection. He exaggerates certain personality traits and makes them the stand-out core of the characters involved. The self-absorbed writer is 100% Self-Absorbed; Bertie Wooster’s terrifying Aunt Agatha is the personification of the Authoritarian woman making sure her family behaves Properly; the dog in the two “Mixer” stories is 100% Dog, always trying to please given his own understanding of things. Connie Willis does this wonderfully as well in her comedic stories and some of her serious ones as well. I’m particularly reminded of the Over Protective Mother, who is also Aggressively and Uselessly Helpful from Doomsday Book, the Single-Minded Historical Recreationist whose demands drive the plot of To Say Nothing of the Dog and the (equally as severe as Aunt Agatha) Aunt Who Insists on Proper Manners from Willis’ recent Hugo Award winning novella “All Seated On the Ground.” Given today’s literary expectations, these caricatures may lead some to suspect Willis of writing cardboard characters. What she, Wodehouse, and every political cartoonist in the universe knows however, is that those instantly recognizable exaggerations allow us make the character into the people in our own lives who fit the stereotype—we end up filling in the gaps with real people we know, a sort of add-your-own-realism reading experience.

The other aspect that Wodehouse and Willis share is the comedic complication. Wodehouse stories are almost impossible to summarize: you’re either going to give no explanation at all (the dog ends up saving the house from the burglar—but it’s really funny!) or you have to re-tell the entire story (so the dog’s adopted by a criminal, but he doesn’t know he’s a criminal, and the guy goes out to the country and trains the dog to ignore him but the dog just thinks he’s shy and… oh just read it, will you!). The relatively simply plots are kept entertaining by throwing more and more obstacles in the way of the happy ending, before having everything resolve in the most improbable way. Again, this characterizes a lot of Willis’ fiction. To briefly summarize “All Seated on the Ground” (a journalist and a choir director figure out how to talk to aliens) is to lose all the humor, whereas to convey the humour you end up telling the entire story (the aliens just stand there and glare until one day in a mall they sit down and the fundamentalist thinks they’re protesting the lingerie store and the biologist thinks it may be the scents from the Yankee Candle store and they lock off the mall with all the Christmas shoppers including the 7th grade choir and no one will listen to the director or the journalist and they look just like the journalist’s unpleasant aunt and… yeah just read it.) What’s particularly impressive about Willis is that she uses this technique in her dramatic books as well as her comedic ones—Doomsday Book and Passage have, if anything, more of this sort of thing than To Say Nothing of the Dog. I appreciate that, since it brings out that part of real life that tends to get left on the metaphorical cutting room floor of literature—the committee meetings, misunderstandings, and personality conflicts that arise whenever a group of people try to do anything, which consists of about 90% of everything we do outside the home. These things happen no matter how trivial or weighty the stakes, and one can either laugh at it or throw your hands up in despair. Wodehouse and Willis see how incredibly silly things can get, and yet how we always seem to muddle through anyways. They decide to laugh.

I’m afraid that I’ve said as much about Connie Willis as P. G. Wodehouse here (and not enough about Terry Pratchett, who also does this in spades but with a different spin). That’s because the style of the pieces in this collection was much more of a revelation to me than the stories themselves. The stories themselves don’t necessarily stand the test of time—the only ones that will really stick with me are the ones from the point of view of a dog, in which he captures a doggy spirit and perspective with absolutely perfect pitch. The other stories tend to concern men and women falling in love in New York: struggling playwrights, dancing instructors, former dancing instructors, vaudeville performers, athletes and bookshop owners. Boys meet girls, boys and girls find themselves flung apart for various reasons, silly things happen, and boys and girls find themselves together at last. It’s the style with which they’re executed that makes these particularly enjoyable. For one more comparison, look at Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Light, fluffy, but executed with remarkable style, especially in the caricature aspect, that makes them stand out. (Although to be fair, Pratchett has developed much more gravitas in his subject matter than Wodehouse ever did, I suspect.)

These Wodehouse stories are not the sort of classics that you should read because you have to. You should read these because they’re fun. They age well, and they strike a wonderful balance. You can feel noble and productive (you’re reading classics), while still having a stress-free and laugh-filled reading experience. Try doing that with Thomas More’s Utopia! (Which I’ll be tackling sometime soon, ghods save me.)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Wiki Meme

Courtesy of Andrew Wheeler: Look up your birthday in Wikipedia. Pick 4 events, 3 births, 2 deaths, and 1 holiday.

For Sept. 21

1792 - The French National Convention votes to abolish the monarchy.
1827 - According to Joseph Smith, Jr., the angel Moroni gave him a record of gold plates, one-third of which Joseph translated into The Book of Mormon.
1937 - J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is published.
2003 - Galileo mission terminated by sending the probe into Jupiter's atmosphere, where it is crushed by the pressure at the lower altitudes.

1866 - H. G. Wells, English writer (d. 1946)
1912 - Chuck Jones, American animator (d. 2002)
1947 - Stephen King, American author

19 BC - Virgil, Roman poet (b. 70 BC)
1832 - Sir Walter Scott, Scottish writer (b. 1771)

International Day of Peace

Sorry for the brain-dead post; I'm afraid I've been cleaning house & vegging out on the Olympics this week--good R&R before going back to school. Should have a Wodehouse review/essay up tomorrow.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Before Adam by Jack London

Once upon a time, fiction writers wrote fiction, and magazines published it. The walls between "mainstream" and "genre" hadn't been built yet. Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Jack London, among many others, wrote things that today look like science fiction or fantasy. Of course speculative fiction was different back then as well. Airplanes were high tech, steam power was normal and there was nothing punk about it, and there was a lot of genuine curiosity about human evolution. We knew about Darwin, but Watson and Crick had not yet been born—we were decades away from knowing about DNA. Mendel had done his sweet pea experiments, so there was a theory of genetic inheritance, but the details were fuzzy. There was a century less worth of known fossil record than today.

It was in this context, in 1907, that Jack London wrote a short novel titled Before Adam. In it he takes Darwinian theory, imagines a time of transition between different levels of protohumans, and uses that to look at different types of violence. No over-romanticized noble savages here! As one would expect from the author of The Call of the Wild, White Fang and “To Build a Fire,” London’s prehistoric milieu is full of nature, red in tooth and claw. It’s a vision of the past that I’m pretty sure is impossible, and I’m not sure how plausible it would have been even back before WWI, but the scientific accuracy is completely secondary to the theme that London is expounding on: violence, how it may have impacted human evolution, and what that says about us.

In the novel London depicts three separate groups of protohumans. There are the Tree People, not far removed from apes. They are bigger, have trouble walking upright, and mostly live in trees. They’re somewhat nomadic and only seem to band together in family groups. The group at the center of the story is the Cave People. They are good walkers, and have found a grouping of caves that allows them to live in a larger group close to water. However, they still act in many ways like simians (they specifically put me in mind of chimpanzees at times). They have almost no grasp of tool using. They’ve just figured out that gourds can be used to carry water. The last and most advanced group is the Fire People. They may be close to what we think of as Neanderthals. They control fire, live in tribal groupings, and use bows and arrows to hunt. It’s pretty clear which group will be our ancestors.

Before discussing the central theme, I’d like to examine London’s framing device. The narrator is a man who has been dreaming the experiences of one of the Cave People his entire life. He’s dreamed the Cave Person’s entire life in disjointed fragments, and the narrative is what he’s been able to piece together over the years. As a young child this scared him half to death, as one could imagine. In his college years he learned about evolution, germ-plasm, inheritance, and racial memory, and finally decided that he is essentially a mutant (he calls himself a “freak,” using an older meaning of the word) in whom the racial memory from one particular individual is uncommonly (and improbably) strong. There are a couple interesting things about this: in later examples of Prehistoric fiction (as this sub-genre of early SF can be called) the authors generally don’t feel a need to frame the stories at all. They simply tell the tale with no particular explanation of how the information comes to the present day. This can be seen in Cleve Carmill’s story for Healy & McComas’ anthology, Adventures in Time and Space titled “The Link.” That story also deals with a time of transitions between pre-humans and homo sapiens, but without any contemporary framing device. I’ve noticed that a lot of older stories feel the need to have some sort of frame: the last letter, a found diary, a tale related on a steamer ship, the narrative of the last survivor; that sort of thing. Later stories almost never have those sorts of frames. I’m not at all sure what caused the transition; perhaps simple authorial convenience combined with obvious audience acceptance for stand-alone fantastic tales. In this context Before Adam definitely belongs to the older school of speculative fiction before it branched off from the mainstream.

The other interesting point is the “racial memory” device. London had used it before in Call of the Wild, when Buck, a domesticated dog, starts to recover his Wolf heritage. This trope is not archaic at all: Karen Traviss is currently using it to good effect in her Wess’har series (starting with City of Pearl), and for a more trivial example the show Stargate: SG1 also uses it in their bad-guy aliens, the symbiotic Goa'uld. In Stargate one supposes that this is essentially a shortcut: why are young Goa’uld a threat? Because they’ve got big strong host bodies and they already know everything an adult Goa’uld knows because they’ve got racial memory. Traviss and London use it for a different purpose: to give a human insight into truly alien experiences. Traviss’ bio-modified human gains the racial memories of an adversarial insectoid race; London’s narrator dreams about the experiences of an unimaginably distant ancestor. Seeing the trope used at such different points in the time spectrum of genre history helped me see its utility. London also gets a great side benefit from his use of racial memory: for the narrator to be dreaming the experience of this one individual, that individual needs to have successfully passed his genes on somehow. Given that things get pretty tough for the little guy, we keep asking ourselves “will he survive, how will he pass on his DNA?” and that helps keep us turning the pages.

Having disposed of the mechanics, let’s get back to the theme. Violence. First off there are the animals. The POV character is rightfully afraid of many animals in the woods: snakes, boars and tigers amongst others. Any of the animals will kill in defence or out of hunger, as one would expect. In this way they are predictable. This could be taken as a sort of natural baseline of violence against which the protohumans are measured. Then there is an atavistic specimen of the Tree People living with the Cave People, whom the narrator names “Red Eye.” He is huge and incredibly, pointlessly brutal. He grabs whichever female takes his fancy (her previous mate can do nothing; the tribe is neither strong enough nor well-organized enough to deter Red Eye), and then kills them when he gets bored with them. Only once does he allow one of his mates to survive long enough to bear a child. This is obviously not a terribly successful strategy for winning the game of natural selection. This is senseless violence for its own sake—pure barbarity.

Next are the Cave People. They are not particularly violent at all. They deal with most threats by running away. When the saber-toothed tiger comes into their space they all retreat into their caves. Once they feel safe, they throw rocks at him and laugh at his agitation. This is great sport for them. They are easily amused and have a very low sense of humor, as one would expect for beings not far removed from chimps. Basically they can be violent but it is purposeless (which describes the POV character through most of the narrative: he wanders around quite a bit, but to no specific purpose, the only real goal he sticks to is finding his eventual mate). The narrator does not approve of this much, but one does get a sense of innocence about it: they are very much like children. They run, but they’ll be bullies if they can, and have no compunction about laughing at the misery of others. (There is no more receptive audience for slapstick humor than a three-year old.)

**SPOILERS AHEAD, that is, if you’re worried about spoilers for a book that’s 101 years old—I really think you’ve had your chance to catch up**

This de-romanticized “state of grace” is eventually toppled by the Fire People. The Fire People are so advanced as to be almost incomprehensible to the Cave People. After the POV character and his friend accidentally set fire to a Fire People camp by playing around with one of their banked campfires, the Fire People look to relocate. Specifically, they look to relocate to the Cave People’s caves. They methodically smoke them out and shoot them as they try to climb to safety. Those few that survive are hunted down in the forest. Here is where we get the most tension about whether or not the ancestor character will live or die. In the end it is clear that his is a dead-end branch of the human family tree, although his genes have mixed in to the main branch somehow. The Fire People are obviously the people from whom we are descended. They are violent, but more importantly their violence is goal-driven, purposeful. This makes them much more successful than the mere brute or the innocently bullying child. London is perhaps saying that Before Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, we fell when we started using violence to achieve our ends.

It is an unsurprisingly cynical view of humanity from an author who rarely if ever wrote about the better angels of our nature. I doubt this sort of story could work today; in fact I imagine that Prehistoric fiction (Clan of the Cave Bear excepted) would be much too weighted down with the Creationism vs. Evolution debate today to have anything to say about anything else. Before Adam is refreshing in that it accepts Darwinism as a scientific given, not something controversial, and goes back to really look at what might have made our ancestors so successful in the natural selection game. Unfortunately, it’s not altruism that put us over the top.

Is it a good story? If you enjoy London’s style you’ll certainly enjoy this. It has his hallmark excellence of description of natural settings and the denizens thereof. It doesn’t really have characters, but it has a strong narrative drive. You root for our little POV character, and hope that things work out for him even while you suspect the worst. This is a short novel and a fast read. It’s perhaps not a critical part of the history of the genre or of London’s oeuvre, but I am glad that I picked it up.

Reading Plan

So here's the recent past. I just finished Superpowers by David Schwartz and will be sending a review of that to Strange Horizons. For non-fiction I'm currently reading the rather thick Companion to Science Fiction, edited by David Seed. I'll be reviewing that for Fruitless Recursion, probably in Sept. or so. For fiction magazines I'm currently reading the July Asimov's, which has some good stuff in it that I'll be writing about here.

Now, context. My first class of the semester starts on Tuesday, Aug. 26th. Luckily all my classes will be on Tuesday & Thursday, but here is my tentative schedule:

8:30 - 10am Intro to Neuroengineering
11:30 - 1pm Digital Signal Processing
2:30 - 4pm Computer Aided Manufacturing
4 - 5:30pm Advanced Linear Optimization
7 - 8:30pm Intro to Stochastic Processes

These are all graduate classes in the Electrical & Computer Engineering and Industrial Engineering departments. The idea is that I will drop 1 or 2 classes to end up with a 3 or preferrably 4 class schedule. The only class on the list that is non-negotiable is Digital Signal Processing. All I can do is pray for a good professor. Of the others I have high hopes for Neuroengineering (thankfully taught by a different professor than my disastrous attempt at Neural Computation last semester), Linear Optimization, and Stochastic Processes. Linear Optimization is currently full, I'll have to hang around and hope to add it. Stochastic Processes I have no intention of dropping unless the professor is dreadful--I've taken a lot of extra statistics courses and this should round out my collection.

Given all this, here's the plan. I know my reading is going to slow down a lot. So the next thing I'll do is read the awesome Darryl Gregory's Pandemonium and review it for SFSignal. I hope to read it this week before the semester starts. But after that I'll keep reading non-fiction (it's unlikely that I'll be done with the Companion before the semester starts), and other than that I'll put novel reading on hold and catch up on the fiction magazines instead.

That's practical because you can see how much dead time I'll have at school: with my eBook reader I'll have plenty of time to read the magazines. I'm running way behind on those, so this is the perfect opportunity to catch up. And they're a little easier to read when stress is piling up; if you don't like a story you can just skip on to the next one without all the guilt involved with bailing out of a novel. Also, by reading Pandemonium I'll have satisfied all my immediate reviews-promised-to-other-people before the semester starts, leaving me guilt-free on my reading choices.

So expect to see fewer novel reviews here and more reviews of magazine issues, probably through September. After that I'll have a handle on how the semester is shaping up and I'll know where to go from there. This should be an interesting semester. Whew!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

20 in 20 Lists (and more lists)

Cheryl Morgan has, as promised, put up the 5 lists produced by the 5 panelists at this year's WorldCon "20 Essential Books from the Last 20 Years" panel. Niall Harrison has some good discussion (and his own list) up over at Torque Control, and before the panel had even occured SFSignal had an active comment thread over the topic.

Because I have way too much time on my hands, I decided to do a little data mining. I wanted to see which books gathered the most acclaim. The first list here is the books ordered by how many of the panelists voted for them. I continued my cheating ways by claiming that a series was voted for if any book from it was voted for (a vote for Hyperion and one for Fall of Hyperion become two votes for Hyperion Cantos). This allowed a little more consensus to develop.

5 River of Gods
5 Hyperion Cantos
3 Diaspora
3 Nanotech cycle (Goonan)
3 Fairyland
3 Revelation Space
3 Accelerando
3 Spin & Axis
3 Mars Trilogy
3 Culture Series
2 Evolution
2 Pattern Recognition
2 Grass
2 Snow Crash
2 Fall Revolution
2 Light
2 Aleutian Trilogy (Jones)
2 Stories of Your Life
2 Cloud Atlas
2 Air
2 Arabesk Trilogy (Grimwood)
Mother of Storms
Queen of Angels
Holy Fire
Gate to Women's Country
Difference Engine
Book of the Long Sun
Parable of the Sower, Talents
Furious Gulf
Counting Heads
Child Garden
China Mountain Zhang
Beggars in Spain
Sarah Canary
Fire Upon the Deep
Bridge Trilogy
Against the Day
Capitol Science
Hard Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World
Commonwealth Duology
Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad
Magic for Beginners
Pump 6
Doomsday Book
Altered Carbon
SFWA European Hall of Fame
Diamond Age
Perdido Street Station
Holdfast Chronicles
Course of the Heart
Soldier of Arete
Waking the Moon
Rats and Gargoyles
Sandman: Dream Chronicles
Fortunate Fall

Next up is the same list, with the same methodology, with Niall Harrison's list shuffled in (For brevity I'm cutting the list at the 2+ vote line, and only adding 1 vote titles if they're new from Niall's input)

6 River of Gods
5 Hyperion Cantos
4 Fairyland
4 Accelerando
4 Mars Trilogy
4 Culture Series
3 Diaspora
3 Nanotech cycle
3 Revelation Space
3 Spin, Axis
3 Pattern Recognition
3 Snow Crash
3 Light
3 Aleutian Trilogy
3 Stories of Your Life
3 Cloud Atlas
3 Air
2 Evolution
2 Grass
2 Fall Revolution
2 Arabesk Trilogy
2 China Mt. Zhang
2 Fire Upon the Deep
2 Sparrow
Vacuum Diagrams
Best of the Best
Yiddish Policemens Union

From this list, here is a list of those that have won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus or BSFA awards in the eligible years (Thanks to John DeNardo at SFSignal!)

River of Gods
Hyperion Cantos
Mars Trilogy
Culture Series
Spin, Axis
Stories of Your Life
Fall Revolution
Arabesk Trilogy
Fire Upon the Deep
Parable of the Sower, Talents
Doomsday Book
Diamond Age
Sandmand: Dream Chronicles
Yiddish Policemens Union

For those counting, that's 19 out of a total list of 67 (28%) that won awards in their years, although I would note that many more of them were nominated for awards.

And for a twist, here's the list when the inputs from the SFSignal comment thread are shuffled in:

9 Hyperion Cantos
8 River of Gods
7 Mars Trilogy
6 Culture Series
6 Spin, Axis
5 Accelerando
5 Snow Crash
5 Light
5 Stories of Your Life
5 Fire Upon the Deep
4 Fairyland
4 Cloud Atlas
4 Air
4 Sparrow
4 Diamond Age
3 Diaspora
3 Nanotech cycle
3 Revelation Space
3 Pattern Recognition
3 Aleutian Trilogy
3 Doomsday Book
3 Altered Carbon
2 Evolution
2 Grass
2 Fall Revolution
2 Arabesk Trilogy
2 China Mt. Zhang
2 Queen of Angels
2 Holy Fire
2 Difference Engine
2 Separation
2 Counting Heads
2 Beggars in Spain
2 Sarah Canary
2 Pump 6
2 Perdido Street Station
2 Deepness in the Sky
2 Stations of the Tide
Small and Remarkable Life
From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain
American Gods
Forever Peace
Harry Potter Goblet of Fire
Terminal Experiment
City of Pearl
The Road
Iron Dragon's Daughter
Calculating God
Carpet Makers

Finally, returning to the original panelists plus Niall, here is the breakdown on the authors that everyone liked, independent of individual works:

6 Ian McDonald
6 Kim Stanley Robinson
5 William Gibson
5 Dan Simmons
5 Neal Stephenson
4 Greg Egan
4 Paul McAuley
4 Charles Stross
4 Iain M. Banks
4 M. John Harrison
4 Geoff Ryman
3 Stephen Baxter
3 Kathleen Ann Goonan
3 Bruce Sterling
3 Robert Charles Wilson
3 Gwyneth Jones
3 Ted Chiang
3 David Mitchell
3 Sherri S. Tepper
3 Alastair Reynolds
2 Gene Wolfe
2 Ken MacLeod
2 Maureen McHugh
2 Vernor Vinge
2 Mary Doria Russell
2 Elizabeth Hand
2 Mary Gentle
2 Jon Courtenay Grimwood
John Barnes
Greg Bear
Octavia Butler
Gregory Benford
Christopher Priest
David Marusek
Nancy Kress
Karen Joy Fowler
Thomas Pynchon
Haruki Murakami
Peter F. Hamitlon
Minister Faust
Kelly Link
Paolo Bacigalup
Connie Willis
James & Kathryn Morrow (as editors)
China Mieville
Suzy McKee Charnas
Pat Cadigan
Neil Gaiman
Raphael Carter
Ian McLeod
Gardner Dozois (as editor)
Michael Chabon

That makes 28 authors with more than one vote as opposed to 24 books with that sort of consensus.

Don't know what all that adds up to, but thought people might find it interesting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

My WorldCon Reading List

I was trying to think of how to summarize my WorldCon experience, and going through my notes, when I was struck by all the titles I have written down. When you're talking to a bunch of really smart book people, one tends to come away with a massive to-read list, and this Con was no different. In the absence of any particularly brilliant wrap-up piece, I thought I'd share with you the titles that various people shared with me.

(Picture: Traci Castleberry, Oz Whiston, Amelia Beamer, Farah Mendlesohn, Gary Wolfe, Curtis & myself at P. F. Chang's)

Star Rover by Jack London. Gary Wolfe recommended that I find this one when I told him that I'd recently read Before Adam by the same author. While Adam can be considered SF, it's really part of an older sub-genre, "Prehistoric fiction." One can see examples of it in collections like Adventures in Time and Space (1946), but you don't see it terribly often. Robert J. Sawyer's Hominids series may be a modern re-invention of the sub-genre. Gary mentioned that it was quite huge in France back in the day, and that there may be a new academic study on Prehistoric fiction, The Fire in the Stone: Prehistoric Fiction From Charles Darwin to Jean M. Auel, by Nicholas Ruddick coming out next fall. Star Rover is London doing straight SF, which should make for an interesting contrast.

The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter. I was talking with Cheryl Morgan about how much I loved the Tiptree Award-winning short story "Congenital Agenesis of Gender Ideation by K. N. Sirsi and Sandra Botkin" by Raphael Carter. That story is cast in the form of a scientific paper about the neurological basis of gender classification, and was on Wendy Pearson's reading list for the SF Masterclass. It was simply amazing, probably one of the best things I read for that class. Cheryl mentioned that the same author had written a book, and a couple days later presented me with an ARC of it as a gift. Thanks Cheryl! I'm looking forward to it.

The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier's Account of the War in Iraq by John Crawford. At the "Bleeding Heart Liberals and Military SF Panel" (Elizabeth Moon moderating Joe Haldeman, John Hemry and John Scalzi), they briefly digressed into books that they use to research military history and tactics. Both Moon and Haldeman highly recommended this book, which is enough for me. They also mentioned that a commencement speech that J. K. Rowling gave this year is particularly insightful about storytelling, so that may be worth looking up as well.

"Toxic Donut" by Terry Bisson. Charles Brown did a Kaffeeklatsch this year. It’s a peculiar but very enjoyable WorldCon institution in which one expert sits down with 9 admirers for a quiet hour-plus long discussion. However this one included 6 "experts" and only 4 admirers. During the discussion, Graham Sleight mentioned this Bisson short story as packing an intense and funny examination of an idea into roughly 2000 words. I often enjoy Bisson's work, and I need to look up "Bears Discover Fire" anyway, so I'm hoping to find this one as well.

"I Hold My Father's Paws" by David D. Levine in either the 20th or 21st Dozois anthology. At dinner, speaking of LBGT themes in fiction, Farah Mendlesohn mentioned this story as a particularly good metaphorical examination of the transgender experience. In this story apparently the narrator's father happily transforms into a dog, and it examines how the man deals with that. Again, Levine is an author I enjoy, so I'll try and find it. Farah also mentioned a story called "Quantum Prophecy" by Michael Carroll, but I've completely forgotten the context—all it says in my notes is “(YA, SF).” I'll blame the good Gewurztraminer wine at P. F. Chang's.

Perfect Circle by Sean Stewart. Gary Wolfe claims that this is the best fantasy written about Houston, where I now live. I think he's on a campaign to get me to read all of Sean Stewart's work; previously he told me to read Galveston, saying that it had the best description of a hurricane in all of fantasy literature. The hurricane was pretty good, but the integration of plot with character development was even better, so I'm looking forward to reading this one.

The Real Inspector Hound, a play by Tom Stoppard. At the book reviewing panel, Graham Sleight mentioned this play that Stoppard wrote about theatre critics. It sounds hilarious (probably helped by Graham's ability to come up with short, pithy summaries of these things), and does remind one that no matter what we write as critics, the authors always get the last word.

Benchmarks by Algis Budrys. As I was running around getting critical collections by Damon Knight, James Blish/William Atheling and Paul Kincaid, Gary Wolfe reminded me to pick up this collection of Budrys' criticism. Of course, none of the dealers had it, but I've now ordered it from [link] ABEBooks, along with New Maps of Hell by Kingsley Amis, which had been on my list for a while.

At lunch, talking about something Gary Wolfe mentioned at the Masterclass, Graham Sleight recommended I read (what I remember hearing as) Aristotle's Aesthetics. Now I'm thinking that I either misheard (I didn't get a chance to write that one down), or that it's a subset of Aristotle's Metaphysics, since I can't find that title. Perhaps I have the author wrong? If Graham happens to stop by, hopefully he can correct me. (Ed: Aha! Aristotles Poetics. That makes much more sense.)

Graphs, Maps and Trees by Franco Moretti. At the "Popularity vs. Critical Acclaim" panel (about which more in another post), James Morrow Farah Mendlesohn recommended this book/story as something that literally diagrams the evolution of the mystery genre. Sounds fascinating.

And of course, at the "20 Essential SF Books of the Last 20 Years" panel, my fellow panelists came up with tons of stuff that I haven't read yet. Cheryl Morgan should be putting up the combined lists on her website soon, after which I'll be adding titles to my To Read list, and maybe doing some data mining with it.

Given that I was writing down things people were telling me, I'm sure some of the titles and authors are misspelled/incorrect. If anyone knows the corrections, please help me out in the comments. Still, this list is actually a pretty good summary of my WorldCon experience: interesting conversations with really smart people over dinner, drinks, panels, and in hallways. Considering that I went to four WorldCons without really getting to know anyone, this was my Best WorldCon EVAR—but I suspect they'll just keep getting better from here. I'm already looking forward to Montreal.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

WorldCon Day 4

Not much time to post. I need to head down to help Farah out with something, then pack, check out, swing by the dealer room (still looking for a copy of What it is We Do When We Read Science Fiction by Paul Kincaid to round out my collection), and head out. We should be back in Texas late Monday, and I'll post my wrap-up thoughts Tuesday, most likely. Had a great time last night, mostly happy with the Hugo results, great people to talk to at parties.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

WorldCon Day 3

Yesterday was my first ever panel, and it went well. It was mostly the standard reviewing panel, just like every year. Douglas Frantz brought along some survey results about reviewing ethics, which provided some interesting talking points. We all agreed that reviews-for-hire are bad (no matter how standard in the movie industry), and that one should never claim knowledge you don't have (don't imply that you finished a book if you didn't). There was a little more confusion on the subject of pseudonyms: do you "out" the author and review the book in the context of their other work? Do you treat the pseudonym as its own identity? It's a tricky question, but one I rarely have to worry about; usually I have to treat the pseudonym as an individual because I don't know any better. Perhaps someday that won't be true, but it's an easy out for now.

After that was a long lunch with Graham Sleight, Farah Mendlesohn and Jo Walton at a lovely vietnamese fast food place, the Lemongrass Grill. Thier Pho with tofu was just what I needed. We spent some time talking about the BSFA awards and the possibility of re-instituting the non-fiction award. I need to pay attention to that now, since I'm a member now. We also spent some time talking about programming options for the 2009 WorldCon in Montreal, where Farah is head of Programming. It looks like they're thinking of doing some out-of-the-box thinking (pardon the buzzword) and moving away from a pure reliance on 3-5 person panel discussions. Thinking back to one of the most interesting programming items I ever saw, which was Gary Wolfe and John Clute in conversation at Glasgow 2005, I think that's an excellent idea.

After that I wandered around the dealer's room some more. Curtis went to the Trailer Park presentation but didn't see anything that blew him away. We went down and bought our memberships for Anticipation and Curtis voted in the Melbourne site selection. We hung out with the Locus folks for a bit, then had an early dinner.

Sorry for the lack of Twittering last night, but I spent the evening watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which was awesome, as always. Although a thunderstorm interrupted the satellite feed for an annoyingly long time. I've been an Olympics fan for a long time, and I have to admit that I really enjoy the opening ceremony theatrics. I even enjoy the Parade of Athletes. It was a good night, and my experiment with drinking mead, which I'd never tried before, was a success.

There's other great non-WorldCon news: the first day of the Olympics featured Women's Sabre fencing, and the USA women swept the medals! Gold, Silver and Bronze. We've come a long way! Of course, does NBC have any recordings of this historic event up on the website? No. A Czech woman winning 10m Air Rifle? Of course! Historic American domination of a sport we failed to medal in for more than a century? Nah. No love for the fencers!

Today I'm on two panels in the afternoon, then it's the Hugo ceremonies, which I'll try to twitter. Then it will be parties! (If we can ever get to the party floor; the stack at the elevators after the Masquerade was so bad that Curtis just came back to our room for mead & Olympics).

Friday, August 8, 2008

WorldCon, Day 2

Hey, I sat through an entire panel yesterday! It was a good one, too. Military SF & Bleeding Heart Liberals. Elizabeth Moon did an excellent job moderating John Scalzi, Joe Haldeman and John Hemry. I twittered about it, and don't have too much to add. I also attended Charles Brown's kaffeeklatch, which probably didn't address the questions of the folks who were there. One gentleman was an aspiring author, another an aspiring editor, but with folks like Charles, Gary Wolfe and Graham Sleight around, we always ended up tallking about books and reviewing. Unsurprisingly Charles has a *very* low opinion of those of us who review online, but that's to be expected.

Other than that I spent time wandering around the dealer's room and art show. The art show has some very good pieces, and more high-quality space-related art than I remember from previous shows. Of course, all the really good stuff is well out of our price range, but we can dream. I managed to stay fairly good on my book-buying: Illyria by Liz Hand, Survival by Julie Czerneda, and The Dragon's Nine Sons by Chris Roberson. By lucky happenstance, I then ran into Chris Roberson at the Locus table, and got him to sign his book for me.

Dinner was wonderful. The group: Curtis, Traci Castleberry, Oz Whiston, Amelia Beamer, Farah Mendlesohn and Gary Wolfe (if I got anyone's name wrong, please let me know!) We went to P. F. Changs and it was Delicious - I'm glad I took Gary & Amelia's suggestion on the Northern short ribs. They even had a gluten-free menu for Farah. The conversation was excellent, and some plots were hatched about possible program items at Anticipation next year in Montreal. It looks like writing workshops, for both fiction and non-fiction writers, will be a real possibility; also that Curtis might get involved with some of the science track programming. Walking back to the party hotel I had a lovely conversation with Farah about writing style, which gives me hope that I'm on the correct path to improve mine.

We headed up to the SFWA suite, which was full of authors. I talked with Stephen Barnes, who is hoping to start a sequeal to his Lion's Blood/Zulu Heart sequence this year. It would essentially cover the civil war, end slavery and bring Aidan and Ky's relationship to a resolution. I can't wait to read it.

As I twittered, David Marusek is investigating how to make his writing more commercial. One can't blame him: he's living purely off writing income now, and would like to move out of Fairbanks, Alaska. He's been reading some of the trashy best-sellers for tips on things like pacing. Well, whatever works. I wish him all success. I was embarrassed that I hadn't read Counting Heads yet, but at least I could tell him how much I admire his short fiction.

It was getting quite hot in the suite, and Curtis and I were beginning to flag, so once again we went to bed at a reasonable hour and woke up at a reasonable hour (midnight and 7 am). This is very un-WorldCon of us, but I think it's working well so far.

I'll be off soon to be on my first panel ever, "Book Reviewing: The Missing Link in the Publishing Industry." Graham Sleight and Jonathan Strahan will be there, so worst comes to worst I'll simply sit back and let them do the intelligent talking. "Better to keep silent and let others think you a fool, than open your mouth and remove all doubt." Wish me luck!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

WorldCon, Day 1

Although Wednesday started inauspiciously, what with being attacked by a bottle of soda and nearly mauled by some other out-of-state drivers, once we actually got to the con things got much more enjoyable. As we were regsitering Aaron Buchanan, Kirsten Gong-Wong and their daughter Teddy came up to say hi. After registering we headed up to the dealer room to say hi to Amelia Beamer at the Locus table and Howard & Sandra Tayler at the Schlock Mercenary table.

After that we headed back to our hotel to actually claim our room (no early check-in for us!). After settling in for a bit (a much-needed breather for myself), we hit the "Year in SF: 2008" panel. I missed most of it, but they were very enthusiastic about the original anthologies this year. Afterwards I said hi to folks, and walked with Charles Brown back to the dealer room. I mentioned some books I was looking for, and he wheeled me straight over to the NESFA press table. I got The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz (early fan history), More Issues At Hand by Atheling/Blish, In Search of Wonder by Damon Knight, and then Charles threw on The Tale That Wags the God, also a James Blish essay collection. If I do no other shopping at this WorldCon, my most essential goals have already been met.

Curtis also went to the "Real Spaceships" program item, which sounded interesting. I hung out at the Locus table, talking with Teddy and Amelia and watching the flow of people go by. People gathered there around 6pm for dinner at a fondue place a few blocks away. It was confusing, but everyone got fed and the company was excellent.

After dinner folks wandered back to the Grand Hyatt, where we're staying, for drinks and then a (relatively) early night. I was back in my room around 11:30.

One thing that I'll need to write more about when I have more time is Gary talking about an aesthetics of SF and what that might involve. Interesting stuff that needs more thought.

That's it for now: today I need to juggle meeting Curtis' awesome niece & introducing her to her first con, lunch with a friend, kaffeklatch with Charles, and dinner with another friend. It will all work out somehow.

Curtis has posted first day pictures on Facebook. I'm going to choose some to put up on Flickr, but not until we're home on Tuesday. Curtis is hoping to have them up closer to real-time.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Flood, by Stephen Baxter

I have occasionally heard it said of some science fiction books that “this is not a novel.” I vaguely understood what was meant by that comment, but Flood by Stephen Baxter is a striking illustration of the principle. This is a book that is centered on a single idea: what if the entire Earth flooded? (Or, to put it irreverently, what was it like during the transition between our time and Waterworld, the movie?) Flood takes us all the way from “occasional minor flooding in England” to “the tip of Mt. Everest succumbing to the waves” in only 36 years, 2016-2052. Theoretically, this story is told through the eyes of people who experience the turmoil and upheaval. However, it’s really told through a series of vignettes that happen to paper dolls who have names and share a rough background. Don’t get too attached to any of the characters: first off, it’s a pretty lethal time when the world floods. Secondly, they’ll act in completely random ways in order to get a scientific/plot point across. Even if you’re interested in the emotional consequences of their actions, you’ll never find out what those might be. In this book Baxter is forced to use human viewpoints to show what is happening to the Earth, but he doesn’t seem to care about the characters’ whose eyes he is using.

Our core cast of characters is drawn from a group of hostages. They’re American and British citizens who have been held hostage by various extremist groups in Southern Europe for years when they’re finally rescued. They swear to keep in touch and to try to help each other out in the coming years. One of them, Helen, had a baby in captivity, the product of rape. Her baby, Grace, was the focus of her life as a hostage, but in the chaos surrounding their rescue, the baby is taken away and becomes a political pawn. The rescue comes from AxysCorp, a megacompany owned by Nathan Lammockson. His philosophy includes “doing well by doing good,” and “looking out for number one.” Now you know about most of the “motivations” for the “characters.”

Right after their rescue, the flooding starts. Baxter starts to explain how the Earth could flood, and why, and how the characters are going to react to it. Each of them has a role to play. Gary is a climate scientist with NASA. He’s going to be a survivor, doing what he has to in order to keep going. He will explain to the rest of the cast what is going on, and will introduce them to Thandie Jones, another climate scientist who will roam the world recording the data of the inundation, and likewise explaining to people what’s going on. Helen’s only role is to impart to other people the goal of retrieving and protecting her baby. Gary will be a critical link in that chain. Lily is an ex-USAF pilot. She is the default viewpoint character. Her role is to stay as close to Nathan Lammackson as possible, so that we can see how a powerful, visionary, asshole industrialist will deal with the catastrophe. Lily’s other goal is to keep her family, which consists of her sister Amanda and Amanda’s two children, Kristie and Benj, alive. This doesn’t work so well, because Lily also sticks close to Piers, another hostage. His role is to stick close to Nathan, keep Lily close as well, and be wrong about lots of things. He is unaccountably attracted to Kristie, for no other purpose than to drive a wedge between Kristie and the rest of her family, so that we can get an outsider’s viewpoint on what Nathan is doing.

Gary will eventually find Grace. (With the help of a completely throw-away character named Michael, who for some reason abandons normal civil service to help Helen with her crusade, and is so attached to the quest that, once Grace is found, co-parents her with Gary for almost 10 years before dying in such a way as to illustrate the harshness of survival in post-flooding America. We never get any explanation for his motivations at all.) Anyway, Gary will spend 10 years parenting Grace, in fact walking with her (and many others) from Nebraska to the Andes Mountains, to get her to safety. After he hands Grace off, against her will and without discussing it with her, to Lily, he disappears for most of the rest of the book and never mentions Grace ever again. Ouch.

It becomes clear that the author’s purpose in making the characters hostages is two-fold: at the beginning of the book, people can explain how the world has changed to them, since they’ve been out of circulation for five years. That helps bring the audience up-to-date from our time to theirs. Then the hostages, having group loyalty to each other, have a built-in motivation to keep seeking one another out, relaying information to each other, and staying near the center of the action. However, none of the psychological consequences of prolonged captivity are dealt with in any coherent way, so it ends up seeming like a cheap trick to help the author when he needs to explain stuff to the readers.

I think the reason this bothered me so much was that these were characters that I really liked, and whom I wanted to know better. When Gary tossed Grace to Lily, hoping that somehow Lily would find a way to help Grace survive the turmoil, I really wanted to know how he felt about that. When Lily maneuvers Grace into a situation where she is treated (almost) worse than her mother was in captivity, all so that Grace can survive, I really wanted to know if Lily was aware of what she was doing, or if her blinders were that opaque. It’s an interesting question: how much suffering should you put someone through, against their will, if it’s “for their own good?” It’s not a question Baxter is terribly interested in.

So, what is Baxter interested in? He postulates one big change, the continual and accelerating flooding, and then extrapolates everything from there. Flooding coastlines, urban evacuations, disintegrating governments, rich folks trying to buy security, economies collapsing, raft cities, nomadic tribes, piracy, technological outposts, strong-man governments, indigenous unrest, high-tech solutions, low-tech solutions, cannibalism—you name it, he’s thought of it. In his future, the flooding is not caused by global warming (although it will exaggerate the climate change effects as well). It is caused by water trapped deep within the Earth being released—and as the weight of water on top of the crust increases, it forces even more water up, hence the acceleration. (This is ever so slightly plausible, based on current science.) He’s not content with just the rising water level, however. As the weight distribution over the crust changes, there will be earthquakes in places that never had them before (e.g. Ireland), causing devastating tsunamis. Some low-lying places will be protected for a time by mountain ranges, but when the water overtops them the flooding will reach there as well. All of this is absolutely fascinating, and I can see why he jerks the characters around like puppets so that he can show us all the dramatic things that would happen. It’s just not fair to the characters.

There’s a moral repercussion for changing the cause of the flooding. If the cause is global warming/climate change, then humanity is responsible for its own demise, and that carries with it its own sense of tragedy. However, Baxter never makes a link between anthropogenic climate change and the release of water from within the Earth. That implies that what’s happening isn’t our fault, it’s simply bad luck that may cause the human race to go extinct. I’m a bit worried in that it seems that Baxter is unaware of the changing moral implication. I’m sure that he avoided using global warming as the cause of the flood because current science says that no matter how bad global warming gets, there simply isn’t enough water on the surface to cover the planet completely. However, some of the characters towards the end of the book continue to imply that humans brought this upon themselves, even though it seems like the cause is something completely independent of human activity. It seems like Baxter is trying to have his cake and eat it too. I’m being harsh to a book that I really did enjoy, but this is the first hard sf book of its kind that I’ve read since the SF Masterclass, and I’m afraid it’s getting the full broadside.

Gary K. Wolfe, writing for Locus, has described Flood as “entry-level sf,” and I’m afraid he’s right. This is a very accessible and readable book. The concept is completely straight-forward: the world is flooding and there’s nothing we can do about it. What would happen? It’s easy to understand, easy to visualize, and easy to understand the consequences. There’s no high-level technobabble needed here. For people who have loved, or will love, the mainstream of science fiction literature, this is a great book and a great place to start. To some people, however, “entry level sf” may imply something to give your friend who always says, “I don’t like science fiction.” This is not the book to give to that friend. They probably want to read novels, with real characters, and this book would simply reinforce their stereotypes about sf. There are books and stories out there for that person—but Flood is not one of them. I think we need two categories of “entry level.” Perhaps we could call one the “Ender’s Entry Level”—books for people who should be sf fans, and just need a good place to get started. The other we could perhaps designate “Butler’s Entry Level” (please help me come up with a better name!)—the stuff, like Octavia Butler or Ursula Le Guin, to hand to your “I just don’t like sf” friend who enjoys reading novels. Genre literature is a big tent, and it has a place for all kinds. Flood is an excellent “Ender’s Entry Level” book—give it to your precocious 10-14 year old acquaintance and see how they like it. But it’s certainly not going to convince anyone who thinks that Middlemarch is the only true novel, that sf is worth reading.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Fort Collins, Colorado

Things have been quite lovely up here. We've been catching up with family (and "friending" all of Curtis' family on facebook). Curtis is now on facebook, if anyone wants to send him a friend request.

Yesterday was mostly spent hanging out, with a great dinner outside in the perfect weather (although the bees were out enjoying themselves as well). Today we're planning on heading up to Rocky Mountain National Park for some sight-seeing.

This will also give Curtis a chance to try out his new camera. He was out shopping with his brother yesterday, and couldn't resist the temptation. (To be fair, he called me to give me a chance to talk him out of it, and I really couldn't. I was feeling a bit sad about not taking pictures at WorldCon too.)

The only slightly worrying thing is Tropical Storm Edouard, currently bearing down on our house back in Houston. It's not currently projected to become a hurricane, so the house itself should be fine, but we're a bit worried about the dogs in their boarding kennel. I'm sure they'll be fine, but they've never been away from us in these kinds of conditions, and I'm just like a parent, worrying.

There's one other funny bit in this: the week before we left we pushed to get plywood cut for all the windows, so that when a hurricane hits we'll have everything ready. We finished the boards for all but three windows, which cleared up the garage enough that we could get the car back into it. However, now all the lovely storm-worthy plywood is sitting safely in the garage, with no one to put it up now that a storm really is heading for us. C'est la vie.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Witchita Falls, TX

Writing from a La Quinta in Witchita Falls. Free wi-fi, which is great. I was able to check my gmail & google reader from my iPod touch while Curtis was on his laptop. Multi-tasking means getting to sleep earlier.

The Armadillo Grill in Bowie was really pretty good - I had a club sandwich and Curtis had the chili cheeseburger, and it definitely hit the spot. Very nice waitresses, too. If you're heading North on 287, it's off the 4th (last) exit for Bowie. At first it looks like you'll be out of luck and there will be no food for you, but keep up your hope and you will be rewarded.

BTW: Twittering can be addictive when you're in a car with little else to do, a working cell phone, and for those stretches when you're not the one driving.

Last random note for the evening: on the road between Bowie & Witchita Falls, in the middle of nowhere, with NO other buildings around, is an Adult Video store, all lit up with Neon (and with cars out front). That's random enough. But just north of this store is a two-sided billboard. If you are headed towards the Porn store (heading south) it is an advertisment for the Porn store. Logical enough. However, if you are leaving the Porn store, it displays a Christian-sponsored anti-pornography statement. Methinks this is probably a local point of some contention.

Random thoughts from the South-western edge of the Bible Belt. Good night!