Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Scores of the Space Race

I work for NASA now, so my interest in this sort of book is obvious. Even before I landed this job though, I enjoyed Apollo-era tales of engineering derring-do. Both Flight: My Life in Mission Control and the better known Failure is Not an Option by Gene Kranz tell the story of the pre-Space Shuttle space program from the perspective of mission operations and system engineers. In the Apollo era, like no other, engineers were heroes right up there with the astronauts. (Chris Kraft, the author of Flight, even got his picture on the cover of Time magazine!)

So I'd always been curious about the fact that, while Failure is commonly available at NASA gift shops, Flight is nowhere to be seen. I finally used a birthday gift certificate to get it from Amazon. Now I understand its absence from NASA vendors. While the story is that of triumphs and set-backs that we're all familiar with, Kraft has no interest in keeping his opinions under wraps. He thinks that it's a travesty that we are, today, still dorking around in low earth orbit instead of doing something more ambitious. He lashes out both at NASA leadership and the American public as a whole. He opens the book describing how much he wishes he'd punched Wernher von Braun in the face. He talks about the differing mission objectives that were proposed before Kennedy gave his "We choose to go to the Moon" speech (Kraft says at the time he preferred the idea of building a space station before going to the Moon). He is unequivocal in his respect and admiration of Bob Gilruth, and is annoyed that the man hasn't gotten more credit. Gilruth was one of the higher-level administrators who made the Apollo project possible. Apparently, as well as being a top-notch engineer himself, he was one of those rare folks who could also lead/manage top-notch engineering teams. Instead of having a space center named after him, like Kennedy, Johnson, Glenn and Goddard have, he's just got a building on the JSC campus, the Gilruth Center. Basically, Kraft has no intention of holding back on NASA's account, and it shows.

Other than that it is similar to Kranz's book. It goes through all the missions, all the advances and set backs. It talks about the astronauts and how they handled different situations. As expected, Kraft is much harsher on some of them than Kranz is. The story has some biographical details in it, but it's obvious that one's personal life is completely sacrificed once one is in a position of that much authority (Flight Director) on a high-pressure project like Apollo. Kraft doesn't talk about the specific engineering as much, since he'd gotten promoted away from the day-to-day tech problems relatively early, but he's got more insight into the power struggles occurring amongst the NASA suits and the various political forces involved. I felt that he had a better handle on the aftermath of the tragic Apollo 1 fire.

Overall I'd say that Kranz's book is a bit better written, and probably better for someone who simply wants an insider perspective into the ground forces that enable astronauts to fly. Kraft's book has a little more score-settling, and in that way can be quite entertaining. It also gives a slightly different perspective on the program as a whole, as opposed to the mission-by-mission details. But it still tells the story of a time when engineers were heroes who made the whole world sit up and take notice. One can't help but look back wistfully on that decade, compare it to what we deal with today, and sigh.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nightmare & Fantasy, of the Most Mundane Sort

I read The Man Who Was Thursday right after finishing the epic slog that was The Night Land. Reading it was like going on a pleasant stroll with helium balloons tied on after finishing a grueling marathon weighed down by lead weights. Chesterton's prose is effervescent and effortless. It was a joy to read.

Based purely on plot this book might be called a spy thriller, but it's really nothing of the sort. The main character is a policeman (taking the identity 'Thursday') infiltrating a cell of international anarchists, and his key question revolves around the identities of those around him; who are friends (other police informants) and who are foes (real anarchists)? The answer will become obvious fairly early on to the attentive reader, who will then have a completely different burning question: what is the motivation of the man named Sunday? After finishing the (fairly short) novel, I felt like the answer was in there somewhere but that I had missed it somehow. The ending becomes rather surreal (I would compare it to Zoran Živković's The Bridge, which is the most recent surrealist tale I've read), and I felt (as I generally do with surrealism) that it went over my head. Still, I definitely want to read it again in a few years, to get a different perspective on it. It stands well with those novels that will reward second readings.

I had previously read a collection of Chesterton short stories, and this novel continues a pattern I'd noted in those stories: generally speaking, Chesterton doesn't write about things that are impossible or fantastic. However, the way he writes, his style, casts everything in a light of fantasy. He can describe perfectly mundane scenes in a way that makes them seem as exotic as Alice's Wonderland.
When Syme [Thursday] stepped out on to the steam-tub he had a singular sensation of stepping out into something entirely new; not merely into the landscape of a new land, but even into the landscape of a new planet. This was mainly due to the insane yet solid decision of that evening, though partly also to an entire change in the weather and the sky since he entered the little tavern some two hours before. Every trace of the passionate plumage of the cloudy sunset had been swept away, and a naked moon stood in a naked sky. The moon was so strong and full that (by a paradox often to be noticed) it seemed like a weaker sun. It gave, not the sense of bright moonshine, but rather of a dead daylight.
There is a perfect example in Thursday in the way he describes a man wearing dark glasses, and I think that this scene probably inspired Neil Gaiman's creation of the nightmare Corinthian in Sandman.
There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme's eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.
Neil Gaiman is one of the reasons I picked up Chesterton; he name-drops the man and his works often throughout Sandman, and cites him as an influence in many interviews. Again, reading Chesterton you get a glimmer of Gaiman's approach to the fantastic, and esepcially how the fantastic and the mundane co-exist, something Gaiman makes explicit in works like Neverwhere. Chesterton's works generally, and The Man Who Was Thursday specifically, hold up very well over time. Even as their immediate subject matter fades into history, the prose style and general attitude continue to enchant.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Mirror, Dark & Fantastic

2009 is finally drawing to a close, and good riddance to it! Too many very low lows, with one great big high high do not average out to a good year! If I could have one wish for 2010, it would be summed up in the word "moderate." As you can see from the state of this blog, writing was one of the first things to be sacrified to the meat grinder of full-time employment + finishing my MSEE. Since I have a month off here between semesters, I'll be posting some short reviews of books I read this fall but didn't get around to reviewing. Aside from that, I can't promise that 2010 will be much better. My New Year's Resolution will be to start saying "No!" to new and wonderful opportunities that come my way. Finishing school has to be the number one priority for my free time. Here's to getting back into the world for real and for good in 2011!

In the meantime, enjoy some short-ish reviews, starting with the latest Mieville.

China Mieville's much talked about 2009 novel, The City & The City has an unusual central conceit. Besides that, it is a straight work-through of the implications: what if two cities could co-exist in a shared space, such that people walking in their own city must "unsee" the other city that they are also walking through? Specifically, how does that shed light on how we live in our world? Mieville uses a murder mystery as the plot and noir as the style to walk us through this world.

I had little trouble accepting the dual cities--although I accepted it on fantastic terms. In other words, I don't think it could work in our world without some sort of fantastical or magical intervention, no matter how quietly it must be happening in the background (no magic was directly invoked in the text, and it was only barely implied). But with that mental reading-between-the-lines, I was able to relax and enjoy the book. I liked the world-building quite a bit, especially as it reflected on the mental filters that we all wear to get through the day. In these cities, the detective must avoid seeing the storefronts and smelling the restaurants of the other city; in modern cities people walking to white collar jobs avoid seeing the homeless huddled around subway grates. In the book Mieville brings up the comparison to more mundanely divided cities: East & West Berlin, Jersusalem, etc. and the narrator explicitly rejects that comparison. I'm still not sure that's not a red herring meant to draw attention to those divided cities; certainly the different-yet-parallel cities experienced by those of different class strata seems a more natural target for this metaphor.

However, as a story I had more reservations: I didn't enjoy the noir-styled, spare narration. It didn't flow for me. I found it grating and annoying because of its staccato nature. I much preferred the narrative voice that Mieville used in the Bas-Lag novels (which I loved, with The Scar being my favorite). I'm actually dreading starting Jeff VanderMeer's Finch because I hear it uses a similar style, no matter how much I've loved the other Ambergris novels.

The central murder mystery was tolerably engaging, but was often pushed into the background by the world-building. I was OK with that narrative choice. My biggest reservation with the book came from the ending: without giving too much away, I felt that Mieville goes back to his political touchstones for his bad guys without justifying their inclusion in the plot. The ending seemed to come from left field without being adequately set up in the rest of the narrative. On the other hand, the character and career trajectory of the narrator in his world worked out smoothly and naturally.

Overall, I felt that The City & The City was an uneven novel, even when the reader can completely suspend disbelief in regards to the central conceit. Nonetheless, it raises a thought-provoking mirror to our world today in a way that's more immediate than the more surreal and lyrical Bas-Lag novels.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review & Opportunity

First off, I've got a new review up at SFSignal. Daryl Gregory's second novel, The Devil's Alphabet, came out a couple of weeks ago. I think there will also be an interview with him posted today. I wasn't able to cram in everything I thought about this book into this review; amongst points I left out were the David Bowie shout-outs, the rather subtle approaches to current political issues, and the admirable eschewing of clear villains. I hope you'll enjoy both the review and the book, I'm rather fond of both of them.

Second news item: I'm stepping down from slush reading at Strange Horizons as of 2010. It's not for lack of interest, it's just for lack of time. It turned out that juggling a new full-time job, finishing my MSEE and writing/reviewing/reading was simply too much. Specifically, my school work suffered, and that's not acceptable. So I'll be giving it up in 2010. I'm sad about this, because I enjoyed it quite a bit. I got to see what authors are doing in the absence of editorial filtering. I became expert in spotting specific mistakes made by short story writers. I learned a lot about story structure, characterization, prose style and plotting. I'm hoping to be able to go back to it in 2011, when I'm done with my Master's. In the meantime I'll keep on doing some behind-the-scenes editor work for them, so I'm definitely not burning any bridges.

However, all this means that they need new editorial assistants! They've posted a job listing, and I'd encourage nascent writers, editors and critics to apply. You'll learn a lot, and the creativity of submissions never fails to amaze. Please take a look, and spread the word!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Night Lands: An Inner Portrait of Evil

First off: spoilers ahead. I think 97 years is just about enough time for that statute of limitations to run out.

The plot of The Night Land (1912, William Hope Hodgson) is simple: boy meets girl, boy loses girl (in contemporary times). Boy meets girl again, loses girl again (on the Earth long after the sun has gone out). Boy goes questing for girl, with armor and a sword (sorry—”Diskos”). Boy gets girl and guides her all the way home, where after a brief panic they live happily ever after.
Sounds great, right? Very classic, and the far-far-far-future setting makes it unusual for its time . Along with H. G. Wells' Time Traveler and a previous Hodgson novel, House on the Borderland, I believe this may have been an influence on Olaf Stapledon. The first part, where the narrator explains how his world works, makes telepathic contact with his love, and sets off on the quest are all straightforward. Not necessarily well-written, mind you—roughly 90% of the paragraphs begin with “And…”—but not bad. You can tell the narrator views his own story as a knightly quest. Pretty much the only thing he’s missing is a horse.

The problem comes at the halfway point, when he finds his love, Naani. She is the sole survivor of another human outpost where the Earth-force that sustains humanity in this post-solar future has waned. They can still hear others from her settlement being chased and killed by monsters out in the darkness, but she has apparently survived for about a month without any protection. Not bad. As they move forward however, we quickly learn that the protagonist is an obsessive, controlling domestic abuser whose misogyny knows no bounds. Frankly, once he actually interacts with his true love—and their loves transcends the millenia of history!—he is revealed to be, by modern standards, evil.

The amazing thing is that he obviously does not regard his behavior as evil—in fact, he thinks their relationship suffers most when he is too lenient. Neither does the story repudiate his behavior. This is crucial—for a long time I was hoping that the guy was essentially an unreliable narrator and that the story events would prove how wrong/evil he was. Nope! He gets to live happily ever after with his love.

Let me illustrate just how messed up this relationship is. The first hint comes when he realizes that Naani is eating less than he recommends. He ‘shakes’ her for this offense, trying to put some sense into her. That seems like a bit of an overreaction; I can see why she would be trying to conserve limited resources. But to him it is ‘naughty’—his term for anything she does on her own instead of doing exactly what he tells her to.

Next, he decides that he should carry her for six out of every eighteen hours of walking. She doesn’t want to, she’d rather walk, but he forces her to be carried. After several days of this, he realizes that his armor has been bruising her as she’s carried around. His reaction to this: to smack her around some more (more ‘shaking’) for not having alerted him to this harm she’s suffering. OK, WTF? This guy’s got issues.

Next, they find a fairly safe spot and she takes a bath. She’s lingering and joking around (we assume—there’s actually no dialog in the story), and resists when he insists that they leave. So he picks her up and carries her away. After she lets him get a mile or two on, she reminds him slyly that he forgot her shoes. Again, he beats her for his own oversight, angry that she would make him make a mistake like that. After that, she starts acting in a mock-submissive way, not speaking unless spoken to, not snuggling or kissing him, acting like a servant or slave. This is when I had some hope for the story: maybe it’s showing how the abuse is ruining their relationship.

Nope! After a few days of this, he realizes that he’s been too lenient with her, and that’s the problem. He takes off his belt, takes off her shirt, and literally whips her. After that, she tearfully hugs him and their relationship appears to return to an ideal state. Immediately after that, they’re attacked by horrible monsters. He saves her, but almost dies in the process. After running from the monsters a lot (the monsters do no more harm to her than ripping off her clothes—grrrr), she rescues him and gets him to a safe island and nurses him back to health, all snuggles & kisses.

Now, here’s where I was hoping that the narrator was just delusional. I managed to continue reading by imagining that she’s just playing along with him; after all, he’s her only chance to get back to a secure human habitation (the “Last Redoubt”). I kept hoping that maybe, just maybe, they’d get back to security and she’d turn around and smack him.

Not so much.

The darkness attacks her specifically as they near home base, and the narrator carries her for several days—never sleeping, fighting off monsters one-handed as they near their goal. You can see why I was wondering if he were a reliable narrator. Eventually they get close enough that other forces from the Redoubt come out to help them. There, a doctor pronounces her dead and the narrator collapses in a dead faint.

OK, I could deal with that. Maybe he’ll be eaten up with guilt about the beatings he gave her; maybe they weakened her such that she couldn’t fight off the dark powers anymore. Maybe he’ll learn a lesson.

Not so much.

He wakes for her funeral, planning to expire after his final duty to her is done. As they place her on a rolling road at the end of the ceremony (their version of a river funeral, I guess) they see movement! At first he thinks it mere fancy, but no! She’s alive after all! She gets to live with this violent, obsessive domestic abuser for the rest of her life, woohoo! I guess it’s better than being eaten by monsters, but frankly, she’d survived the monsters without him, at least for a time. I might have taken my chances back on that safe, isolated island.

Throughout it all the narrator continually engages in infantalizing language: talking about how small she is (her two hands could fit in his one), her tiny dainty feet (I got to wondering if he had a foot fetish, actually), her childish behavior, child-like innocence, insisting on carrying her, etc. Coming from today’s sensibility, it is incredibly annoying and definitely shocking, especially the unapologetic beatings. And throughout it all he insists, for pages and pages at a time, how very much he loves her and wants only to keep her safe from any harm. He only beats her to keep her from harming herself! She makes him do it! The paradox of injuring someone to keep them from injury never occurs to this guy. It was frankly incredibly disturbing to read and I was very glad to be done with it. It is a textbook example of everything you learn about the psychology of abusers--but from the abuser's perspective. Creepy.

I had previously encountered a terribly misogynistic first-person protagonist in The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel (1908). And it was also pretty disturbing when he, the last man on Earth, started smacking around the last woman on Earth once he finds her. However, the narrative makes it clear that he is almost wholly evil: he also has committed and conspired to murder, was instrumental in (unintentionally) setting off the phenomenon that killed every other person on Earth, and spends some of his post-apocalypse free time in setting explosive charges to blow up entire cities. Even by his own accounts, he’s not right in the head. Night Land however, has no such criticism for its protagonist.

Obviously this book has been very influential: Greg Bear’s recent City at the End of Time (which I haven’t yet read) explicitly takes Night Land as its main influence. Wikipedia also cites Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith as lauding it. There are, I discovered, two anthologies worth of Night Land-inspired short stories out there, both edited by Andy W. Robertson. I’m tempted to pick them up and see if any of the authors engage with the horrible misogyny on display here. None of the people who mentioned the book as one I should read mentioned that feature of the narrative, which I felt dominated the entire second half. They all focused on the amazing setting instead. Likewise, the Wiki page declines to even name Naani, the motivating force/quest object/only named character in the entire book! Apparently the article editors didn’t find her worth mentioning. I’m just really shocked that this novel isn’t up there with the Gor novels as a notorious early example of incredibly f*cked up gender relations.

Full disclosure: I have previously read House on the Borderland and Ghost Pirates by William Hope Hodgson. I was impressed by some bits of Borderland, not much by Ghost Pirates. I’ll never be a fan of Hodgson’s writing style, although I’ll admit that when he wants to he can really pick up the pace. I’ll note that I was also upset by the treatment of the sole female character in Borderland (I think my comment was: “the dog has more agency”) and Ghost Pirates had no female characters at all. As for source, I picked up all of these from Project Gutenberg and read them on my eBook and my PC as circumstances warranted.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Books Received

FTC or no FTC, it's probably a good idea to post 'books received' anyway. I definitely appreciate that Andrew Wheeler and SFSignal do it, and given that I'm not writing as much as I'd like, this seems like an appropriate way to send the authors/publishers some love. So here's the list for this week:

We've got two Glen Cook books here. Curtis and I both enjoy his work quite a bit; I particularly love his Garret Files, and Curtis enjoys both those and his grittier mil-fantasy Black Company books. The Dragon Never Sleeps appears to be one of Cook's rare forays into sf, and I'm hoping to be able to read it someday. Swordbreaker looks like Cook's take on the sentient sword trope of fantasy. The last one of these kinds of stories that I really enjoyed was Lawrence Watt Evans' Misenchanted Sword. I'm definitely curious to see what Cook can make of it.

We've got Neal Asher with another Polity novel. I've read The Skinner and Cowl by Asher. They both had their definite high points, but his style never quite matched up with my tastes. I'm afraid I'll be unlikely to get to this one.

Luckily, I get this one guilt-free. I've already glowingly reviewed Egan's Incandescence for SFSignal.

I'm always looking for good sf/f/h humor novels. However, it's notoriously difficult to do well. I know just enough Cthulhu mythos to be dangerous, so I have hopes that this will be a good funny book to suit my fancy. Maybe over the winter holiday when I'm completely brain-fried but have a bit more time to read?

Last but certainly not least, Finch is likely to jump towards the top of my to-read pile. I've adored both of VanderMeer's Ambergris novels (The City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword). I've had slightly worse luck with VanderMeer outside of Ambergris; Veniss Underground didn't hook me the way I was hoping it would. But Finch is supposed to be set back in the Ambergris universe -- yay!

Meanwhile, I've been playing around with the Barnes & Nobel book reader app for the iPhone. So far, so good, although I haven't had an extended session with it yet. In order to do a full test, I *had* to buy a copy of The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison (1922) and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesteron (1908). Had to, I tell you! So I started Thursday today, and let me tell you, after months of slogging through William Hope Hodgson's Night Land, reading Chesterton is like flying.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fast Ships, Black Sails (and stuff)

It would have been great if I'd finished reading this in time for "Talk like a Pirate Day," but alas it was not to be. Since starting this work/school schedule, I've dropped from reading 4-6 books a month to only finishing 2. And I'm writing even less. It appears that for this semester at least, actual writing has been displaced by doing stuff with the fencing community. Then I'm working full-time, plus an extra 6-7 hours a week to make up for time spent in class, then 5-10 hours a week on the homework... anyway, it's a very stressful semester. Next semester should be better--the class I'll be taking will have just as much homework, but it will be offered in the evening instead of the afternoon. I'll be able to work normal instead of extended hours, and I expect life to be quite improved. And someday I'll be finished with my Masters altogether! (ETA Winter 2010) I can hardly conceive of all the free time I'll have then... but I dare to dream.

But what about the book? This anthology is a lot of fun, opening with delightful stories by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Rhys Huges, and Kage Baker. One thing I found most interesting about this compilation is how it lays out so many tropes associated with the pirate tale sub-genre. "Boojum" by Bear & Monette takes on the ship who cares for her crew (here with a literally sentient ship swimming in the vastness of space). Baker's "I Begyn As I Mean to Go On" takes on tales of hidden treasure, curses of the dead and terrifying islands and islanders. She also focuses on the historical and religious context of the pirate tale--particularly the Catholic faith of the Spanish traders, sailors and missionaries involved in the Atlantic of the time of piracy's romantic peak--themes that other authors in the collection also utilize. Howard Waldrop's "Avast, Abaft!" runs a bunch of stock tropes together in a literal mash-up involving the HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance and Dick Deadeye, amongst others. Kelly Barnhill's story involves the lure of sea, and people for whom saltwater flows in their veins--such people cannot be kept shorebound. Justin Howe's "Skillet and Saber" aims a ship's boy towards violence and cannibalism. Conrad Williams' "68 07' 15" N, 31 36' 44" W" portrays monomaniacal obsession.

In another sf take on the take, "Pirate Solutions" by Katherine Sparrow looks at piracy, either maritime or cybernetic, as freedom. Also on the sf side, David Freer and Eric Flint's "Pirates of the Suara Sea" shows us how ships that are the prey of pirates can turn the tables, even on alien seas. The final sf offering, Jayme Lynn Blaschke's "The Whale Below" shows how even the most straight-forward plunder can go horribly wrong when the deckhands take things into their own hands.

Brendan Connell's "We Sleep on a Thousand Waves Beneath the Stars" deals with colonialist relationships with non-European islanders. Offering an alternate-history twist, "A Cold Day in Hell" by Paul Batteiger gives us the cat-and-mouse game of national navy vs. pirate in a 16th century where the "little ice age" instead froze the very seas. (We'll not inquire as to how any of the surviving population found food.) Naomi Novik, counterintuitively not writing in her Master-and-Commander-with-dragons universe, takes on the kidnapped-aristocrat trope and the woman-going-to-sea-disguised-as-a-man trope all in one go in the enjoyable "Araminta, or, the Wreck of the Amphidrake." Closing the book on a strong note, Garth Nix's creations Mr. Fitz and Sir Hereward plot a course (sorry, couldn't help myself) for the (almost)-impossible-to-reach-bastion and creatures from the abyss in "Beyond the Sea Gate of the Scholar-Pirates of Sarskoe."

And for flat-out over-the-top fun, I will mention my favorite of the anthology, located right near the front: Rhys Hughes' "Castor on Troubled Waters," one of the tallest of tall tales I have ever had the pleasure to read.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention a few stories that didn't work for me. Steve Aylett's "Voyage of the Iguana" seems to be absurdist humor in the vein of W. E. Bowman's The Ascent of Rum Doodle. That would be fine--I for one love Bowman's comic novel--except that in "Iguana's" case things seems to simply drag on too long. Chalk this up to senses of humor being notoriously individual; I imagine a lot of people will find it hilarious, but I ended up skipping to the next story after a few pages. I also found "Ironface" by Michael Moorcock to be a weak offering, but that is probably because I have not yet found my way into his "Eternal Champion" universe, of which this three page vignette appears to be part. I imagine that people better versed with Moorcock will find it more enlightening.

However, as a whole I found the stories here both fun to read and thought-provoking. I had never before reflected on the richness contained within the microcosm of pirate's tales until the amazing variety of the stories here drew it to my attention. Bravo to the authors and editors!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fencing Coverage!

OK, this post is a little off-topic for this blog. However, that's going to become something of the norm around here. I've generally tried to keep Spiral Galaxy as a book reviewing blog, but right now that would mean very infrequent posting. I've got very little time to read right now (other commitments include: working, going to school, working more to make up for the time spent in school, 5-10 hours of homework a week, time spent as a fencing referee, slush reading for Strange Horizons, other management tasks for Strange Horizons, family obligations, general housework, and sleeping) so I've been giving priority to reviews written for SH and SFSignal. But I don't want poor little Spiral Galaxy to waste away entirely, so for the next year or so it will morph into something closer to Karen Burnham's personal blog, instead of being 90% books.

Anyway, in that spirit, let me promote something from my fencing side of life:

Fencing is often hard to find televised, but now we can get the world championships streamed live on the Internet! Woohoo! Anyway, if you've ever been curious about fencing, this might be something fun to check out.

Friday, September 11, 2009

New Ink! Now with Extra Geek

I hope that you'll all recognize those equations more-or-less instantly. If not, be educated here. As I put it to the artist last night: "These are probably the most complicated things I'll ever actually understand."

(That same artist pointed out the awesome symmetry of getting the equations that describe electromagnetism tattooed using a electromagnet, which drives the needle.)

Upon getting back to engineering and E&M specifically, I've remembered how much I loved that part of being a physicist. I'm very lucky that my engineering job also deals with those phenomena to some extent. I was reflecting the other day on how aesthetically beautiful these equations are, and a lot of E&M math tends to be that way. That's when my ideas for my next set of tattoos (which I'd been pondering for about three years) finally fell in to place.

So my plans for my upper back have finally crystalized, and I've started the process of getting my ideas for a more complete back panel into the form of actual art instead of just nebulous concepts. That part will take a little longer, but with any luck will be done by the end of the year.

BTW, in my web-surfing meanderings before getting this tattoo done, I tripped across a science tattoo emporium. Hours of entertainment, and the realization that I'm nowhere near the craziest geek out there followed. Also, relatively few people choose these equations for their tattoos. Much more popular is e^(i(pi)) + 1 = 0. Fair enough.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Core Fantasy

As per my last post, I'm starting in on data collection for my research project. It's a nice, more-or-less relaxing way to pretend I'm doing something productive over my long weekend. [1]

For my first sweep of sf/f short stories, I've been going down the award nominee lists, looking for things under 10,000 words that are available online. I've had no problem identifying lots of sf that is clearly sf: "Exhalation," "Evil Robot Monkey," "Little Lost Robot," etc. Some of these fantasy stories are a little trickier, though.

One story that I'm not sure about is James Patrick Kelley's "Don't Stop." It's a modern day ghost story, focused on character, with perhaps some horror. Does it fit my brief of "core fantasy?"

Also worrying because of how it plunges into horror is the modern day supernatural horror story, "The Button Bin" by Mike Allen. Fantasy, horror, slipstream?

And then there's "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. Nothing actually precludes an sf reading of this--the monkeys could be doing extra-dimensional travel that they simply do not deign to explain to us. It doesn't *have* to be magic.

My knee-jerk reaction to all three of these is to say that a drop of fantasy makes it fantasy, but all of them have enough ambiguity that I'm not sure they should be included in the core cluster. So far I'm leaving them out and marking them as interesting test cases for the post-training phase. Opinions?

[1] It's certainly more productive than planning my next tattoo--which I'm pretty sure will happen sooner rather than later, now that I've finalized my plan for my upper back. The final piece finally fell into place over the last week. BWAHAHAHA!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bring the Controversy OR, Research Plan Update

Remember that plan I had to use a pattern classification algorithm to distinguish different eras of SF writing? I got some very lovely expressions of interest and support, but I didn't get the one thing that I needed: someone saying, "Why yes, here are one hundred Golden Age sf stories, all scanned in, digitized and proofread." And unfortunately, what with the new job, finishing grad school, and stepping up responsibilities at Strange Horizons, I'm not going to be able to do the scutwork required for this one. So that goes on the back burner.

So I thought about other research plans for next year. This is the second project I've had to scrap for lack of time, unfortunately. I thought about doing an author-overview of Greg Egan's short fiction, but I'm afraid that will actually be too hard, given the year I'm looking at. Unfortunately, writing pattern recognition algorithms is much easier for me than thinking deeply and writing coherently about patterns and themes in an author's work. So I had to go with my fall-back plan, which I hope will be entertaining for you all:

Can I write a pattern recognition algorithm that reliably distinguishes between fantasy and science fiction?

I know I'm asking for trouble, but this is one of the easiest research projects I can do. I'll limit the input data to short fiction from the last 5 years, so that I'll be mostly comparing apples to apples (and it will be relatively easy to find 100 stories of each type already online--that's the most important part). My feature set will be related to grammatical usage, to see if there are significant style differences between sf and fantasy. The initial training and testing sets will consist of 'core' sf and fantasy: pieces where no one would reasonably dispute their categorization. If it looks like a doubtful case, I'll save it for later. I may be tapping the hive mind to confirm my suspicions on occassion, also to see if any reasonable dispute arises. 50 stories of each set will be used to do feature selection and initial training, the other 50 will be the initial testing set.

If the results look promising on the testing set, then I'll start throwing boarderline cases at the algorithm, and see how it classifies some of the trickier stories. How will it classify "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate," for instance? That should yield some interesting results.

I want to be VERY clear here: if it is in any way successful in classifying the two (and I don't necessarily think it will be, see below), I will NOT be saying that "Thus X is fantasy and Y is science fiction, absolutely and forever, so mote it be!" This will be purely descriptive, not prescriptive, and will simply be another data point to use in the decades-long categorization debate. I'll be doing it because it's fun and relatively easy.

Why do I have any hope of success? Well, one of the last algorithms I wrote was for a grad school project. I asked it to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction using grammatical frequencies as the features. I was very surprised when it was able to correctly classify the two with 92% accuracy based on only 3 features. That's pretty amazing, frankly. Among the things it mis-classified: Ted Chiang's "Exhalation" initially showed up as non-fiction (it didn't in a revised version of the algorithm), a NY Times article on flooding in North Dakota showed up as fiction, as did a Michael Moore essay, and my reviewing manifesto showed up as fiction as well. It's the cases that break the algorithm that are always the most interesting, and I'm hoping that this little science project can contribute a little to the ongoing discussion. However, I'm totally prepared for there to be no significant difference at all; I have a suspicion that adventure writing is adventure writing, whether it uses swords or blasters. But that will be an interesting result all on its own.

I'll keep you posted as I go along. I plan to present the complete results at the 31st International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in March (assuming they approve my abstract--they may laugh it out of the conference). Feel free to throw suggestions (or short stories that have been previously published) my way! I want to make sure I get as diverse a sample set as possible.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Thoughts on the Canterbury Tales

Well, it took seven months, but I got through the Canterbury Tales. I read the Norton Critical edition (not pictured here), which was marvelous. The text is in Medieval English, but with lots & lots of helpful annotations in the margins and as footnotes. At first it was like learning to read all over again: I actually had to read it out loud to myself. About halfway through I got into the pace and rhythm of it and didn't have much trouble at all.

Let me just say: I can't review Canterbury Tales. Oh Hell No. I enjoyed it, and learned quite a bit from it, and I'm jotting down some tidbits that may amuse. But to review one of the seminal works of written English that has survived over 600 years? Uh-uh.

  • I was afraid reading this would be a slog, but as with so many classics I've read recently, it's actually a lot of fun. Especially if you can just go with the comedy instead of trying to analyze it for a class.

  • Monty Python comes by it honestly (as does Benny Hill). At one point Chaucer gives himself a Tale, and goes off in high-chivalric style about a shiny knight and his shiny armor and shiny horse (all in perfect aab,ccb rhyme scheme) before the Host shuts him up and makes him tell something else--felt a bit like Holy Grail for a second there. Also, lots & lots of sex farce in here. I think Judd Aptow movies must be accepted as a distinguished part of a long-standing tradition in Western culture, honestly.

  • Some interesting translations: luxurie = lechery; whileaway = Woe is me!; lust = desire in a general way, not specifically sexual; wood = mad/crazy; nice = foolish (often). Linguistic drift is fun!

  • Relationships between the genders have been a matter of cultural negotiation probably as long as there's been culture; here we get every view of women from saints to sluts and everything in between.

  • Sometimes you'll really shock the heck out of your audience by having all the characters wrap things up by being kind & intelligent to each other instead of being idiots to the point of tragedy.

  • If you're an evil guy wandering about the countryside, and you meet a fellow evil guy, and then you find out he's the Devil, what's the first question you would ask him? Back then, apparently, it's: "Do you always look like that?" (Basically asking if he looks different when he's at home in Hell.) I can just imagine someone today asking "So who does your clothes?"

  • The one story that deals with an innocent child is horrifyingly anti-semetic and doesn't fit with any of the other tales here.

  • The conflation of Greek myths & fairy that you see in Midsummer Night's Dream also shows up here. Not sure why that is, but it's obviously well established.

  • Even back then they talked about the good old days when the people were closer to the fae, before the churchmen came and sort of crowded/shouted them out.

  • Televangelists are also part of a long, glorious tradition, represented here by a "Pardoner" who sold indulgences.

  • Predictably then, cynicism about religion & religious hucksters is also venerable.

So far one of the most important things I've derived from reading all these classics is this: people should have an opportunity to read these things on their own terms, without having them shoved down their throats at school. That way they can take more time with them, and get different things out of them than the pre-approved interpretations. I'm so glad that I didn't read this in college, and I'm equally glad that I've read it now. It's a great perspective on different traditions of story-telling, which means, as it should, that's it's fun to read.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

In Which I Blame George W. Bush for Anathem

Some sf books are novels of power, where fully realized characters move through richly painted landscapes and evoke ideas of stunning originality. I love those books! Anathem is not that book. Other sf books are intricate puzzles for the mind, inviting you to enjoy identifying and solving neat intellectual puzzles. I love those books too! Luckily, Anathem is that kind of book. And when Neal Stephenson writes a puzzle book it's a bit deeper than your typical murder mystery. It leads one to ask the question "Why the heck is he writing this puzzle book?" and then (in further intellectual exercise) you can speculate up some interesting answers.

The biggest game in Anathem is Spot the Smeerp! [1] Except here instead of alien critters we're looking for Western philosophers. Throughout the background, world-building, dialog, encyclopedia excerpts, and appendices, Stephenson recapitulates for us the whole of Western classical philosophy, at least those bits that also include the natural sciences. But instead of discussing Occam's Razor, the characters here talk about Gardan’s Steelyard--Spot the Smeerp! [2]

How can he cram all this infodumping into an sf story? It's easy when your characters are (almost) all philosophers, and your hero is a young philosopher learning his way. The basic set-up of the world is that there are many Maths and Concents (cloisters of a sort) set up around the world, each divided into four parts. The fraas and suurs (smeerp versions of friars and nuns) in the Annual section open their doors to outsiders every year. In the Decade section, they only open their doors every ten years. I'm sure you can extrapolate to the Century and Millenium sections. The system (worked out in exquisite detail) has apparently been working pretty well for almost 3000 years now. They're perfectly capable of pulling up the drawbridges at any time and riding out the political and cultural storms outside their walls. They eschew any technology that may break down during Dark Age periods, trusting mostly large machines of stone and metal. They do not meddle in the affairs of others, dedicating themselves to collecting, preserving, and discovering knowledge. Needless to say, it is perfectly natural that 90% of their conversations revolve around science and philosophy. [3]

However, most stories can't thrive inside walls opened only once every 100 years or so. We need to get our ivory tower theoreticians out into the world. Along comes a handy crisis, upon which the Fate of the World (of course) rests. For some reason the philosophers can't go about openly, so instead we follow our young hero Erasmus as he drives, walks, and sails most of the way around the world, learning as he goes. Obviously he couldn't become the Hero he needs to be if he just caught a plane to the scene of the climactic action. However, rather against my expectations, he doesn't learn about the outside world and its richness and diversity and value--instead he learns more about the importance of abstract philosophy. In fact, it is only those philosophers who can Save the World!

So we have a fun book here (and don't let me fool you -- between the Spot the Smeerp game and the Bildungsroman, [4] it really is a fun book) that leads you through certain branches of philosophy. It will probably teach many of Stephenson's readers quite a bit about the traditions of Western thought. But why bother? And why do it now?

Well, Stephenson must think this is all very important; so important that only the people who know philosophy and live (mostly) pure lives of the mind will be his Heroes. Probably, like most sf readers, he feels the internal, intellectual life is very important and rewarding. OK, so when was he writing it? It came out in 2008, so he probably turned it in sometime in 2007, and he writes all his books in long hand with fountain pens, and it's well over 900 pages in print, it had to have taken a few years... Bush! It's all Dubya's fault!

Bush ran for office, rather famously, by being a "nice" guy and a "tough" guy instead of a smart guy. In fact, he embodied that strain of American culture that finds something rather suspicious about educated people. He was in favor of jocks with guns solving the world's problems. I think we can all see how well that's worked out. There are few jocks and no guns in Anathem--the closest you get are the coolly intellectual Shaolin (smeerp = Ringing Vale) monks. Frankly, Anathem is a paen to intellectualism and elitism--and I say Hurrah! [5]

The dark ages of 2001-2009 may explain certain certain resonances between Anathem and Incandescence, Greg Egan's latest novel. [6] In that book, we play Spot the Smeerp with physics experiments. (What does Foucault's Pendulum look like when conducted with rocks floating at the center of a tumbling asteroid orbiting a black hole?) It's only through sheer brain power (and, like Anathem, without digital computing) that an alien world can be saved. Why no digital computers? Perhaps to prove to ourselves that we don't need any stinkin' shiny AI/Robot/Computer/Logic-Named-Joe to make our science fiction--we can do it with only the power of our brains. [7]

Sure, these authors seem to say--sure, jocks with guns and SFX are fun to read about in Space Operas and Mil SF, but in the long run it's the smart guys who've learned the patterns of history and the system of the world [8] that are going to save us all.

[1] "Calling a Rabbit a Smeerp" being a traditional cheat in sf world-building.

[2] And if you have to look in the glossary, that's cheating!

[3] As opposed to say, gossip about the other fraas and suurs.

[4] No smeerp here, that just means a Coming of Age Story.

[5] With the caveat that he really should have included some philosophy from outside the Western tradition; as it is the book seems unbalanced due to its single minded focus on the West.

[6] Egan is Australian, but definitely aware of the political climate. See his story “Lost Continent” in Jonathan Strahan's Starry Rift anthology, which attacks Australia's own anti-immigrant movement.

[7] And sometimes banging those rocks together. Keep it up guys!

[8] Coincidentally, System of the World is the title of the 3rd book in Stephenson's Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book Haul!

It wouldn't be a WorldCon without a haul of books! Here's what I've got:

  • 2 volumes of Clark Ashton Smith, who Ross Lockhart of Nightshade Press described as "the poet" of the Lovecraft era. Ross is a very good salesman, and also a generally awesome person. The Locus & Nightshade tables adjoined, so we got to talk a bit. Just listening to him made me homesick for California. =)
  • Also from Nightshade, The Lees of Laughter's End by Steven Erikson. This one Ross sold to Curtis.
  • Tachyon press was nice enough to carry a large selection of non-fiction titles, even those they didn't publish. From them I bought Hope-in-the-Mist by Michael Swanwick and Canary Fever by John Clute.
  • Direct from the author(s), and thus signed very nicely, I got Farah Mendlesohn's The Inter-Galactic Playground and Farah & Edward James' A Short History of Fantasy.
  • NESFA Press was at the Con, so I picked up Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin, an older book and one of the early works of 'serious' sf criticism.
That's actually it for the Con; a pretty light haul for me. Honestly I would have bought more (especially Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl--but it sold out!), but I almost never had time to really go through the tables at the dealer's room. Con-going has changed a lot for me since 2006--less free time but higher quality time overall.

But there another delight was delivered when I got home: an ARC of Daryl Gregory's second novel, The Devil's Alphabet (which I will always think of as Oh You Pretty Things--apparently his favored title). I'm definitely looking forward to diving into that one.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Non-Fiction for SF Fans

Here are some of the titles that the panel (Niall Harrison, Vince Docherty, James Cambias, Geoff Ryman, Kari Sperring) suggested as they were talking:
They did agree that for a writer reading about a place is no substitute for going there, and that reading biographies is a great way to get a sense for writing about people very different from yourself. One tossed off quote from Geoff Ryman on that panel probably deserves a blog post of its own:
If we don't write about those countries [3rd world, Asian, etc.] we can't be SF writers anymore, because the future is not in the West.

Which I think rather neatly sums up one of the agendas I put forth last year.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wrap up the First

Aaaaand the last few days have all gone blurry. On Friday it felt like I'd been at the Con for a week; on Sunday I couldn't believe I only had one day left. This post is going to be a bit scattershot in covering impressions of the actual Con activities. On the 6 hour drive from Montreal to Portland, Maine on Monday I had lots of lovely time to think about lots of things that I learned at the Con, and I think a number of blog posts will result. But first - the Con!

Curtis got 4 attendees for his engineering Kaffeeklatch, which was very nice. They had questions about the Space Station, and he got to tell stories (engineering campfire stories, I call them). He definitely enjoyed both that and the panels he was on. We got a very nice crowd for the fencing demonstration, despite it being at 9am on Sat. We gave all comers a chance to wail away at each other with Nerf sabres, which was received enthusiastically. More and more people trickled in as the hour went on, and we must have had more than 40 people by the end. Yay, fencing!

The Blogger Reading with Teresa Nielsen Hayden and Pablo Defendi of Tor also had a good audience, about 12. They had no idea who I was, but On Charm seemed to go over well. Teresa read Slush Killer, which I'd read before, but it was awesome to hear her doing it live. We wrapped up early (even long blog posts tend to be shorter than short stories) and had a nice conversation with the audience. At the very end we could have gotten into a great discussion in response to a question on blogging as performative writing, but then we were out of time. I'm hoping another blog post will come out of that one.

Saturday wrapped up by having dinner with some Locus folks and authors, then fireworks (gorgeous!), repaired to the bar with Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke and Abigail Nussbaum (also got to get all fangirl at Gord Sellar), then waylaid by Locus folks again before actually getting back to my room. A longer night than intended, but lovely whichever way you slice it.

On Sunday I joined the British contingent (Niall, Nic, Abigail & Paul Kincaid) tracking down the elusive "SF Theory Without Tears" panel, which had changed both room and time. I don't think it's quite what we hoped for; the moderator Ann Crimmins focused on pedagogy and using theory in the classroom instead of a discussion of theory & its uses -- a bit unfortunate since I could listen to Dr. Veronica Hollinger go on about the latter all day. Still, the panel was well attended despite the confusion, and a goodly number of folks in the crowd were teachers, so that was probably quite useful.

I ran the Q&A session with David Hartwell, and that went well. I just wish there had been more people. Still, David can be eloquent on just about any topic, as he was here. I led off with a question about his support for sf scholarship (such as IAFA), and he mentioned how much sf happens in places away from the community: stories in local newspapers in the 1830's that have steam-driven mechanical men, that sort of thing -- very interesting. Two other points he made that I'd like to highlight:
  • In response to a question about trends in sf, he thinks that sf writers who are dealing with cutting edge research on consciousness (like Peter Watts and a previous con panel) may well radically change the notion of character in literature, and that it is exciting thing to watch.
  • In response to a question on what typically goes wrong in written sf even from very good writers, he focused on setting. Too often writers get lazy on setting and end up setting stories in the generic FantasyLand (TM). He says that he often asks writers to go back and make the world come alive and make it their own. Very good advice for aspiring writers!
The rest of Sunday was spent in a haze of Hugo stuff - getting ready for the pre-Hugo reception (where everyone was too nervous or busy to make much conversation - but I got to see this year's Hugo base up close; it is really gorgeous in a way that doesn't come across fully in the pictures I've seen); attending the Hugos; being very close to passing out because I'd skipped dinner; getting dinner at the hotel; getting within ~20 yards of the Delta party hotel before once again falling into a group of Locus folks headed the other way on a mission; helping with a data recovery crisis; and then drinking & talking. Whew! That's an amazing sequence of events that led to me having my very first WorldCon where I never hit any of the parties. Still, I had my share of time talking with editors, critics, and the occasional author in the Intercontinental bar, so I don't feel deprived.

Monday was also chaotic. Niall Harrison moderated a panel on Non-fiction that might interest SF fans, which inevitably became a bit of a list-making panel, but there were some fine suggestions there (I'll post my jotted list tomorrow). I made a last trip through the dealer's room, then headed up to my last panel, where I had to moderate "Mundane SF vs Science." In the meantime, Geoff Ryman had just lived through what he described as his "worst panel ever" which involved Patrick Nielsen Hayden walking out and also people filking. So I made sure the Mundane SF panel went more smoothly. Luckily the other panelists (Mark Olson and Henry Spencer) were sympathetic to the fact that the panel title was stupid: Mundane SF is an aesthetic movement that is no more in opposition to science than Modernism was. Still, I tried to balance the time for people who wanted to talk about science and those who wanted to talk about writing; I think it went well. Of the panels I was on, it was the best attended. Afterwards I finally got to meet someone I'd been looking for the whole Con: Sissy Pantelis, an editor of the French sf magazine Galaxies and a Mind Meld participant. I'm so glad I didn't miss her altogether; it's important to get faces to go with the names, and so rare that you can meet up with people who live in Greece!

Then there was some chaos as we offered Geoff a lift to the airport; he needed to get there early as he hadn't been able to confirm his flight reservation. After a bit of logistical wrangling, we got him there in (we hope) plenty of time. Then we headed back to the states by way of Vermont, which was perfect and much needed decompression time. Got into Portland ~11:30 pm, then headed off to the airport around 5:30 the next morning, so if this post is less than totally coherent, lack of sleep is my excuse. But we're home now safe & sound - that's the important part. And while I'm processing a whole ton of things that I heard and thought throughout the Con... I'm also already starting to plan for 2010 in Melbourne. Woohoo!

PS: This is my favorite picture from the Con; I've met all the gentleman individually, but seeing them in all their 6' 5"-or-greater stature en masse was quite something. After that photo was taken, they all went zombie-walking off to the post-Hugo party.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A More Moderate Evening

My last panel got out at ten, and very few people are in the hotel bar (many more Delta parties tonight). After thorough deliberation and a glass of wine, sanity won out (given that Curtis & I have a 9am thing tomorrow--a fencing demonstration!) and we're back in our room. Our Con has been such that we haven't even been inside the Delta (party hotel) yet--we'll probably get there tomorrow.

Today was largely spent working the Locus table--awesome because of all the interesting people who come by to chat.

I hit a 3:30 panel titled "Are We Conscious and Does it Matter?" with Kathryn Cramer, Peter Watts, Daryl Gregory and James Morrow. They were surprisingly sanguine about the possibility that consciousness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of our complex brain system that doesn't really add much value; the primary identified evolutionary value seemed to be imagination and the ability to model possible futures. I'm still a bit confused: while research shows that your arm is getting nerve impulses to go for a glass of water before you're consciously aware that you're hungry, what about the fact that a lynch mob of people who have already decided to kill someone can be talked out of it? i.e. isn't consciousness more complex than that, and if we only rationalize unconsciously made decisions, why can our minds be changed by argument? However, I didn't get to ask that question, because the audience was quite keen on having its say, whether called upon or not. Kathryn really had her hands full with that crowd. And of course, most of the folks stood up to lecture or ramble on rather than ask specific questions. Times like that make me sympathetic to those who'd like to ban audience participation at panels, but I didn't feel that way by the end of the night (about which more later).

5 pm saw my first panel of the Con, and the only one I felt really qualified for: the Hugo Short fiction handicapping panel. Between Ann VanderMeer, Jonathan Strahan, Niall Harrison, and Bill Fawcett, we talked about all the Hugo short fiction nominees and some that didn't make the ballot. There was quite a bit of unanimity: Ted Chiang for short story, toss up for Novelette but we're rooting for Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Gambler," and while Novella wasn't terribly strong this year, Ian McDonald's "The Tear" is probably a leading contender. However, other factors may influence the "will win" as opposed to "should win," so we'll have to see.

Ran out for Greek food, and made it back in time for a panel on Post-Modernism and Post-Humanism with Geoff Ryman, Daryl Gregory, Nancy Kress and Geza Reilly. The panel was a little fuzzy on post-modernism, but could hold forth on post-humanism--which was fine because that's what the (packed) audience really wanted to hear about.

Then I had to run for my last (9 pm!) panel of the night: Mainstreaming the Geek Dream. It focused on how the Internet has changed things since it became really popularly useful in ~1995. There was a healthy age range on the panel (Duncan McGregor, older comp sci guy; Sandra Manning, older physics/math teacher; myself; and straight from the Chesley awards, Neil Clarke, middle-age online person). However, we weren't exactly sure where to take the panel after some general comments on how we use the Net and how things have changed (and some of the dangers associated with putting yourself out on the Net), but the audience, sparse though it was, led us on a discussion of many and varied topics: the generational divide, search engine algorithms and search engine optimization, the Pirate Parties in Europe and some associated copyright issues, the arms race between students and school admins, mobile phone technology, etc. It turned into a fun discussion, for which I give all credit to an enthusiastic crowd, and made me feel good about audience participation again.

Off to bed now! Tomorrow is my really busy day, so probably not much blogging for me. And I haven't been having much luck with Twitter (I live tweeted the entire Stross/Krugman panel on Thursday night, but even though I used the #worldcon09 hash-tag, I don't think it showed up anywhere), so I may be dark until Sunday.

OMG, is it Only Friday?

The great part? There's 3 1/2 more days of solid Con to go! The bad part? My brain and stomach are already partly fried! I always forget how overwhelming WorldCon can be, and I also forget that travel + odd food + odd eating hours + liquor = stomach troubles. I shall endeavour to moderation, but no guarantees.

It's already been a great Con. Dinner with Niall, Nic and Abigail on Wed. was wonderful, and we started but didn't finish a very interesting conversation on voice and style in reviewing. Soundbite from Gary Wolfe: "Voice is attitude and style is the presentation of that attitude." I'm still meditating on that one. Farah Mendlesohn also suggested some good books, including (I think I heard this right) Reading like a Writer. Is stayed up rather too late and drank rather too much, but all my favorite people were right there in one bar room! Such are the trials and tribulations of WorldCon.

Needless to say it was not an early morning on Thursday, but that's OK because the con didn't really start until the early afternoon. I (and most other critics in attendance) went to a panel on "One Genre or Many" featuring Farah, Gary, Ellen Klages, Patrick Rothfuss and Michael Swanwick. It was a very entertaining panel, although it didn't come close to answering the prompt. Highlights:
  • There's a spectrum of classification, from calling every aisle in the grocery store "Food" to getting in to sub-sub-sub-sub genres -- probably neither extreme is very useful.
  • Michael Swanwick mentioned that he views genre as reading strategies.
  • Farah likes thinking of theoretical approaches as filters one lays over a book, some of which may be more or less appropriate to the book at hand.
  • Also from Farah, the fact that sf lacks a consistent (?) critical language in which to have these discussions. I thought this was the most interesting point, but it didn't get a lot of follow-up at the time. More things to think about.
I missed the first bit of the panel as I went to track down someone to fix a microphone problem. The ConOps folks were extremely helpful and got the tech guy over immediately. It took him awhile to track down the issue, but by the end of the panel all the mics were working. He left before we had a chance to thank him, but I want to give a shout-out to the great folks who make conventions run and fix problems when they arise!

After that I headed to the dealer room, which is a bit small. However, it's harder for me to actually get through a dealer room now: instead of making a simple sweep through, I keep running in to people I know and stopping to talk. Takes much longer that way!

I caught part of the "Putting the World in WorldCon" panel, ably (although a bit tyrannically) managed by Jetse de Vries--I appreciated it though, because he kept a laser focus on how the lit of the panel's members differed from US/UK sf/f. The panelists were Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Spain), Tore A. Hoie (Germany and Norway) and Kyoko Ogushi (Japan).

I'm in the dealer room at the Locus table now, and running out of charge on my netbook. More to come later. One last note, though: Anticipation is running Kaffeeklatches for scientists as well as authors. So Curtis will be doing a Kaffeeklatch tomorrow morning at 11 in his role as a Systems Engineer for Boeing and NASA -- spread the word, or come on down yourself! It's experimental, but I think it's an excellent idea.

More to come when I get back online. That's the problem with WorldCon -- so much stuff & so little time!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

WorldCon Day -1

Got in to Montreal last night, and we're already having a lovely time. Over the course of the con I'll be twittering more than blogging (I'm Spiralgalaxy on twitter, see link on sidebar), but I figured I'd get a blog post out before things got crazy.

The drive from Maine to Montreal was absolutely gorgeous: straight through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and lovely farmland in Canada. No wait at the border, and the agent there even smiled when we said we worked for NASA. The drive (about 5 1/2 hours) was also a nice transition time between the family-oriented vacation time and the sf-oriented vacation period.

Checked into the hotel with no problems, and we really like our room at the Intercontinental. And the convention center is just across the street. Went down to the bar and met up with editor-folks and Locus folks. Also ran into Farah Mendlesohn, Edward James, and was introduced to Kari Spelling. Thus did WorldCon officially begin as far as I was concerned.

Today we slept in, then followed Farah's directions to a bank to hit an ATM for Canadian dollars. Then an easy walk to a lovely place called Muffins Plus for lunch/brunch. Very nice food and perfect portions--I finished my entire chicken cesar salad wrap, a rarity for me!

We went in and registered for the convention. Good side: great badge holders & no snags at registration. Down side: no programming grid or pocket program. With any luck something of the sort will show up later? Will do my program participant sign in tomorrow.

The afternoon was taken up walking around the city, especially down by the river, where we saw lovely things like the Chapelle-Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours pictured above. The walk down by the river has gardens & museums and is just lovely (although Curtis managed to turn his ankle on the path there early on--but he bravely soldiered on to see more!). We went back via a pedestrian boulevard named Place Jacques-Cartier with tons of cafes, restaurants, street vendors, mimes, etc. Found a good liqour store for some wine and brandy and made our way home for Curtis to put his foot up before heading out for dinner--should be meeting up with Niall Harrison and Abigail Nussbaum soon here.

Programming looks good, as always. Too many good panels; I've already identified at least three time slots with two panels each that I'd like to catch. C'est la vie. And it doesn't look like there will be any drastic changes to the schedule I posted last week.

Off to dinner! Looking forward to seeing many of you soon.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It's That Time Again!

Hard to believe that WorldCon is getting so close... only 2 weeks now! And my first vacation-from-work is even closer! Next Thursday I'll be flying to Maine to visit family before driving to Montreal. We'll be in Montreal from the Tuesday night before WorldCon to the Monday afternoon. Here's what my official schedule looks like so far:

When: Fri 17:00
Location: P-516AB
Title: Handicapping the Hugos II: The Short Fiction
Session ID: 590
Description: Our panellists survey the Hugo-nominated short stories,
novelettes, and novellas: they tell us what they want to win, what
will win, and why.

When: Fri 21:00
Location: P-518BC
Title: Mainstreaming the Geek Dream
Session ID: 37
Description: How did the internet change as it became mainstream? And
what is ahead now that we have increasing pressure on P2P networks,
national filtering and other restrictions?

When: Sat 9:00
Location: P-517D
Title: Fencing Demonstration
Session ID: 49
Description: A demonstration of the noble arts of modern and
Renaissance fencing. Try some moves for yourself. En garde!

When: Sat 14:00
Location: P-512AE
Title: Author Reading: The Bloggers
Session ID: 246

When: Sat 15:30
Location: P-518A
Title: A Fine Line
Session ID: 621
Description: "Publishers have got to live, like anyone else, and you
cannot blame them for advertising their wares, but the truly shameful
feature of literary life before the war was the blurring of the
distinction between advertising and criticism. [Reviewers] churned
forth their praise: 'masterpiece', 'brilliant', 'unforgettable' and so
forth - like so many mechanical pianos." (George Orwell) Is this still
true (if it ever was)?

When: Sun 15:30
Location: P-514AB
Title: Question Time with David Hartwell
Session ID: 154
All Participants: David Hartwell, Karen Burnham
Description: You are invited to submit questions beforehand to the
box held at the Kaffeeklatsch sign up table.

When: Mon 14:00
Location: P-522B
Title: Mundane SF vs Science
Session ID: 102
Description: Mundane SF aims to extrapolate from the science of
today. But science doesn’t work like that. What’s happened to the
paradigm shift?

A reading for bloggers? Any suggestions of anything I've written here that you'd be thrilled to hear read aloud...? Yeah, didn't think so. Still, it could be fun for my fellow readers and the three confused people in the audience.

Anyway, if you don't see me elsewhere, I'll be spending lots of time behind the Locus table, freeing up some of the staff members to go out and do interviews and journalism... more important than ever this year. So drop by and visit! And if you see me walking around the con, feel free to say hi! I should be relatively easily recognizable by the magical skin markings:

Monday, July 13, 2009

In Memoriam

I hadn't thought that I'd be writing something like this for a friend, not so soon. Certainly not for Charles Brown (1937-2009). While I knew his health wasn't great, it seemed like it had been doing better this year than last, and I was looking forward to seeing him at WorldCon in Montreal. Certainly WorldCon won't feel the same without him.

All I can add to the lovely testimonials by critics such as Cheryl Morgan and Graham Sleight is my own specific Tale of Charles.

I'd been reading Locus since 2001, when I went to my first WorldCon in San Jose. After reading it for awhile, I knew that I really, really wanted to do that. After a few disastrous attempts at reviewing in 2004, I spent the early months of 2006 really working on it (and starting Spiral Galaxy's first incarnation). I finally got up the courage to introduce myself to Charles and Gary K. Wolfe at the WorldCon in Los Angeles, 2006. At first I stalked them at panels, then I signed up for their joint Kaffeklatch. (I hovered around and made sure I was the first name on the list!) At the end of the Kaffeeklatsch I said "are you guys doing anything now, or could we [meaning any klatsch-mates who wanted to join in] buy you a drink?" This was an early lesson to me in how free booze can win an editor's heart. [The story of how those drinks actually got paid for is a longer story for another day.]

But here's the important bit; the really Charles bit. After WorldCon was over, he got in touch with me, a few weeks later. He was in LA to see the opera and could use a ride back to the airport Sunday morning. Would I join him for brunch, then give him a lift to LAX? I thought it over for perhaps an entire picosecond before accepting.

So I went to brunch then, and also the next month. After that he never really felt well enough to jaunt down to LA for the opera anymore. However, just the fact that he went out of his way to show some interest in me was all the encouragment I needed. If he hadn't contacted me, I sure never would have contacted him--I'd have hated to pester someone who didn't have time. He gave me lots of advice, and really seemed to enjoy telling stories to someone young enough not to have heard them already. I got to have some meals with him; I got the house tour, and a whisky tasting (during which I could finally at least begin to appreciate the stuff). He introduced me to lots of people who have been instrumental in getting me into this crazy situation I'm in today: part reviewer, critic, scholar, editor, and who knows what else?

We didn't talk as much once I moved to Houston, and I didn't get to talk to him much at ICFA this year (by then knew enough people on my own, so I was able to move around without constantly clinging to the Locus folks). I'm sorry about that--you always think you'll have another chance. Still, there's a very real way in which I wouldn't be here, part of the great conversation that we all love, if it weren't for Charles Brown. It's a small legacy compared to what he's left us with Locus, but I for one appreciate it.

All my best thoughts are with the Locus folks tonight: I hope that Amelia, Liza, Kirsten, Teddy, Tim and Francesca all make it through this--not unscarred, but at least OK.

On Charm

It took a short story collection from 1908 to finally crystalize an aesthetic principle that had been sloshing about in my brain. Reading The Sword of Welleran and Others by Lord Dunsany (the incomparably named Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) was a revelation. In reading it I was transported in a way that is much too rare. In approaching this review then, I had to try to elaborate what exactly about it I loved so much. The too-obvious answer was that it reminded me very much of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories (unsurprisingly, as Gaiman will sing Dunsany’s praises every time he’s asked about influences). Digging deeper, I had to ask: What is it I love so much about Gaiman? That required meditation.

During that time of reflection, duty called and I continued reading slush pile stories for Strange Horizons. Here’s what they don’t tell you about the slush pile before you start: it’s really not that bad. Very few of the stories are submitted by illiterate mouth-breathers. Most of them are at the very least competent. The vast majority (unsurprisingly) fall into the RUMIR category. Yet we still reject at least 98% of them (see Jed Hartman for exact statistics). A number of the stories cover subject matter very similar to Gaiman and Dunsany: the gothic, the epic, the mythical. Yet so few of them achieve the heights that those two authors reach reliably. What’s the difference? For the most part, the slush story lacks a certain spark. It’s probably indefinable, but my meditations have finally yielded a name for this mysterious quality: I’ll call it charm.

The charm of Gaiman and Dunsany stories (and others spring to mind, not just in fantasy: I believe Connie Willis’ charm has propelled her to her vast number of Hugo statuettes) comes from their ability to hold the big and the small in mind all at once. While the stories are often epic, mythic, and touching, they are also aware that things don’t always go smoothly. Not in a “The Dark Lord is thwarting me” way or even an “All my choices have come to ill” way, but in more of a “herding cats” sort of way. These stories have the confidence to be playful. The dream-speaker runs afoul of the overly literal mind; the heavenly song is interrupted by the soulless being who talks during the theatre (see Rev. Book’s ‘special hell’); “The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth” is laid low—who knew?—by none other than Sacnoth; Lines such as: “And the long ride was a hard and weary one for Soorenard and Akanax, for they both had mortal wounds; but the long ride was easy for Rollary, for he was dead.”

What makes for a charming story? At the very least, it can’t take itself 100% seriously. There must be some perspective, some awareness that humor is what keeps our worlds from crashing in on us even when they are literally crashing in on us. The stories should have at least some people that act like people: not everyone is a hero or a villain; most of them just try to get by on their own ground (see the Discworld novels and the “pile of money the size of St. Paul’s” it has charmed out of its legions of readers). It helps when the prose sings on the sentence level as well. I hasten to add that this is not because of any Hemingway/Asimovian journalistic “transparency,” but because the words are a joy and you want to keep going from one to the next. Dunsany’s is an odd brand of poetry; you’d think too many of his sentences begin with “And…” for it to work (“And Iraine was the last of the captains, and rode away alone”), but from those humble, biblical roots he spins unforgettable imagery. And while this doesn’t directly relate to Dunsany so much, I’d also like to make a pitch for that brand of charming dialog that manages to sound natural while being funnier, more rhythmic, and more charming than any of us can ever manage in real time (see Mssrs Shakespeare, Whedon, and Scalzi for various examples of that craft).

So many of the very deep, very serious gothic investigations of grief, philosophical deconstruction of fae, and musings upon the fates of gods that come through the slush pile could use a dash of charm: an awareness that gods come and go but that someone out there will always be trying to herd cats with only the most marginal success. Does every story need to be charming? Not at all, it would be antithetical to the purpose of certain kinds of fantasy and science fiction—the kinds that focus on the grand ideas of things, and less on the human scale. I can’t see what this sort of aesthetic would really add to Greg Egan’s work, and he’s one of my all-time favorites. But even some of those grand and serious works could do with a little more confidence—the confidence to bring up the silly to further enhance the sublime (see also Neal Stephenson, he manages it even in Anathem).

So what of The Sword of Welleran and Others? I’ll leave you with this: GO READ IT. Not every story in it is a flat-out winner, but the first three entries count amongst the finest fantasy I have ever read. If that wasn’t clear enough: EVERY PERSON WHO ENJOYS THE WORK OF NEIL GAIMAN MUST GO READ DUNSANY. Go forth, all the legions! (And as it’s available on Project Gutenberg, there is no excuse for avoiding it.)