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.)

Sunday, July 12, 2009


A few folks have actually picked up and used my RUMIR abbreviation, which I first mentioned in my review of Joanna Russ' The Country You Have Never Seen. I thought I would give folks an easier definition to link back to, instead of wading through short story reviews to find it.

RUMIR: Routine, Unoriginal, Mildly Interesting, and Readable.

Excellent short hand for so many stories out there. Derived from a Joanna Russ review:
Harry Harrison’s One Step From Earth is a collection of nine stories bound together loosely (and not altogether truthfully) by the idea of matter transmission. There is another hypertrophied introduction, hypertrophied in this case because it has nothing to do with the stories; in fact the matter transmitter described in the introduction is of the kind used in only one of the nine. Two of the tales don’t really need matter transmission at all. The stories are routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Progress Report

Progress is being made on collecting a solid data set for the story-classification project. The recent switch from SciFi.com to SyFy.com has completely hosed the amazing archives that had been living there, but Google cache links came to the rescue. Here's what I've got in the main three categories so far: all of these stories are available online. I'm also willing to consider new categories or different splits, but with the provision that I have to be able to collect ~100 story data sets for each category that I examine--even with a movement as widespread as New Weird (which I wouldn't be able to use anyway, since I'm limiting the categories to stuff that's clearly science fiction) I'm not sure there are 100 short stories fitting the bill out there online. Still, thanks for all the suggestions and links! Keep them coming and I'll keep you posted!

The stories below have not been thoroughly vetted yet: some may be too long, or not properly sf. Let me know if I've made any gross mis-inclusions. Also, if you trip across *any* short stories online that fit these categories, (core sf, correct time period, under 10,000 words) please shoot me a link. With so few Golden Age & New Wave stories out there, it looks like I may be suffering through a lot of OCR for science.

Golden Age (1934-1955)
(17 stories)
Anderson, 1953, Security
Bester, 1953, Star Light, Star Bright
Boucher, 1943, They Bite
Brackett, 1940, Martian Quest
Brackett, 1941, Interplantary Reporter
Clarke, 1946, Rescue party
Heinlein, 1939, Life Line
Leinster, 1946, A Logic Named Joe
Matheson, 1954, Dance of the Dead
Miller, 1955, The Hoofer,
Padgett (Kuttner/Moore), 1945, Line to Tomorrow
Simak, 1955, Project Mastodon
Van Vogt, 1946, Child of the Gods
Smith, 1952, Scanners Live in Vain
Tenn, 1954, Party of the Two Parts
Weinbaum, 1934, Martian Odyssey
Wellman, 1941, Devil's Asteroid

New Wave (1964-1980)
(19 stories)
Aldiss, 1969, Supertoys Last All Summer Long
Blish, 1966, How Beautiful With Banners
Delany, 1967, Aye and Gmorrah
Disch, 1964, Minnesota Gothic
Disch, 1964, Descending
Effinger, 1973, New New York New Orleans
Effinger, 1976, Contentment Satistication, Cheer...
Harrison, 1970, By the Falls
Lafferty, 1965, Slow Tuesday Night
Malzberg, 1969, The Market in Aliens
Pohl, 1967, The Day the Martians Came
Russ, 1972, When it Changed
Saberhagen, 1967, Mr. Jester
Smith, 1967, Under Old Earth
Spinrad, 1967, Carcinoma Angels
Tiptree, 1973, The Women Men Don't See
Tiptree, 1969, Beam Us Home
Wilhelm, 1967, Baby You Were Great
Zebrowski, 1970, The Water Sculptor
Zelazny, 1967, Auto-da-Fe

Post-Cyberpunk (1990-Present)
(34 stories)
Asher, 2003, Watchcrab
Bacigalupi, 2005, People of Sand and Slag
Baxter, 2000, The Gravity Mine
Baxter, 2008, Last Contact
Bear, 2007, Tideline
Brin, 2000, Reality Check
Brotherton, 2009, The Point
Burstein, 2003, Paying it Forward
Chiang, 2008, Exhalation
Daniel, 1995, Life on the Moon
Doctorow, 2007, Printcrime
Egan, 2000, Only Connect
Gaiman, 2007, How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Goonan, 1995, The String
Gregory, 2005, Second Person Present Tense
Jones, 2007, The Tomb Wife
Kowal, 2008, Evil Robot Monkey
Kress, 2005, My Mother, Dancing
Landis, 1991, Walk on the Sun
Levine, 2005, Tk'Tk'Tk
Levine, 2007, Titanium Mike Saves the Day
McLeod, 2007, Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?
McDevitt, 2005, Henry James, This One's For You
Reed. 2007. The Hoplite
Resnick, 2000, Elephants on Neptune
Resnick, 2003, Robots Don't Cry
Resnick, 2008, Article of Faith
Reynolds, 1997, Spy in Europa
Rucker, 2006, The Third Bomb
Sawyer, 1998, The Hand You're Dealt
Scalzi, 2008, After the Coup
Swanwick, 2001, The Dog Said Bow-Wow
Swanwick, 2008, From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled
Utley, 1996, A Silurian Tale

Friday, July 3, 2009

Help Needed!

Hi Everyone! I'm calling on the hive mind of awesomeness out there to help me with my next ICFA paper. I've got an idea for a combination of two of my favorite things: science fiction and pattern recognition algorithms.

Here's the idea: I feed a whole bunch of science fiction short stories into a pattern recognition algorithm and then see if it can correctly identify the era of origin for a bunch of other short stories. The three eras I have in mind are the "Golden Age" (1934-1955), the "New Wave" (1964-1980) and "Post-Cyberpunk" (1990-present). The question is, after I train the algorithm on a whole bunch of core sf texts from each of these identifiable eras, would it then be able to correctly place, say, "All You Zombies" as being Golden Age? I've had good luck using this technique to distinguish non-fiction articles from short stories (92% accuracy), and I'd like to expand the approach.

So here's what I need help with: first off, please attack my premises! How legitimate are these categories? How reasonable are the cut-off dates? Do you think that this sort of classification will be too hard or too easy for a poor little computer program? Are there more interesting questions I could be asking using this sort of technique? Contrariwise, is this approach too reductive?

Next up, I need help tracking down about 100 short stories for each time period. Ideally the stories would be purely sf, no slipstream or other fuzzy genre stories (trying to eliminate variables for the poor little algorithm). They would also be less than 10,000 words long and available in full text online (for ease of data collection).

I've already got some initial ideas of course:

Golden Age
  • Asimov Robot stories
  • Heinlein's Future History stories
  • Bradbury's Martian Chronicles
  • Stanley Weinbaum's "Martian Odyssey"
  • Stories like those found in "Adventures in Time and Space"
  • "Cold Equations"
New Wave
  • Philip K. Dick
  • James Tiptree Jr.
  • Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions
  • Barrington J. Bayley
  • Philip Jose Farmer
Post-Cyberpunk (probably will need another name for this era)
  • Cory Doctorow
  • Charles Stross
  • Ted Chiang
  • Stephen Baxter
Hopefully that gives you a flavor of what I'm looking for? There's no guarantee that this will work, or even that it will produce an interesting ICFA paper (I'm also kicking around an idea for an XKCD-based paper, for instance). It's early days. But I'd like to give it a try, especially now that my super-sekrit intensive-data-collection reader response theory project is on hold.

Thanks in advance for all comments and suggestions!