27 November, 2007

More Cherryh

Despite getting my wife's cold over the holiday, I actually spent the time entirely unproductive. I could have read, hacked, or written. Instead, I opted for none of the above. I spent time perusing 4chan on my blackberry (!), and watching canned TV (Dexter on DVD – based on a book; do I get credit for that?). One might call making various desserts for thanksgiving productive, except for the fact the cream came out of suspension and I was greeted with butter all over the bottom of the oven. The latter literally caused billowing smoke to issue from our patio door. I'm sure we were very popular on Thursday.

At any rate, I suppose the reason I failed to actually read anything was the material I was reading: John Horgan's Rational Mysticism. It's an interesting concept, and Horgan is even a moderately interesting dude. But it's kind of a slog through the muck of half-baked religious zealots, rather than, you know, anything "Rational." Or am I misunderstanding the word? Is an objective narrative, explaining various religious (Horgan uses the term "mysticism", and I think that gives short shrift to folks like McKenna) ideologies "rational"? To me, rational implies thought, which demands criticism – or at least comparison – when addressing multiple, opposed, points of view.

And so, much as I hate to read more than one book at a time (one of which always suffers), I put aside Horgan and picked up something I'd been mostly considering as intellectual cotton candy: CJ Cherryh's latter two Chanur books, bound in a single edition (called Chanur's Endgame, after the final book).

A brief digression: It's kind of funny to see anthropomorphic cats with guns on the cover, and to read the various descriptions and blurbs. It's kind of hard to tell you're not reading a fantasy book until you actually get into the first book. Sandy was quick to point this out, and I can hardly disagree. However, having read Cherryh's fantasy books (well, a few of them), I don't see the parallel in her work, particularly regarding critters like the tc'a or knnn, or the Caliban/Weirds in 40,000 in Gehenna.

At any rate, as I got only a few pages into it, I was reminded, yet again, how hard she actually works on these books. I think I'm probably down to the last few science fiction books of hers I haven't read (although, eep, she's supposed to be working on a sequel to Cyteen), and I guess I read them far enough apart that I forget the level of detail she goes into. Not the mind-numbing, triumph-of-the-nerds world building that I've bitched about before, but it's almost like the world is the story, and the characters are simply bouncing around in it (hm, but not in a bad way, as that would seem to imply). At any rate, I quickly lost interest in the Horgan book, and I'll probably finish this one before picking Horgan up again (and of course, there's at least one Stross book asking to be read from my to-read pile).

It's worth noting that the reason I don't read more of the Cherryh books more quickly is the experience I encountered while reading Cyteen. I was taking the Metro to and from work, and so had a good hour or so per day to myself. The story was very engrossing, and I'd often just wait in the station if it was too crowded to read on the train, instead reading on one of the benches. However, as I got towards the end of the book, and the unread pages kept getting thinner and thinner, I was incredibly pained: if I finished the book, the story would be over, and I wouldn't have more to read. So I'd read a couple pages, smile, put it down, and look patiently at the tunnel for a train to arrive before wincing and going back to the book. I knew what was going to happen; the ending was clever if not exactly surprising. But, as I said, when it was over, it was over. I have a hard time rereading books, as I've got sort of an eidetic memory when it comes to that. I can forget the book in the intervening period, but if I get five pages in, I get all of it back pretty much instantly. This more or less means that when I'm finished with a book, it's over, and I am left without the characters I got to know in the book, frequently to my chagrin.

I guess if one were to pick literary heroes, it would be hard to go wrong with Ms. Cherryh. As such, I don't feel especially bad about reading borderline-furry, space-faring fantasy fiction. It's kind of daunting to see that her "other books by ..." page is actually, you know, a page (and that's just the SF stuff!), that she's still writing, and her work is just... well, it's splendid, really.

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16 November, 2007

Effort approaches infinity

I'm not sure why I feel the need to take small, taut pieces of stories and staple them together. It's almost like I'm walking backwards to where I was when I finished Limits. It was a sprawling book, lingering on details to prove a point or cast a harsher light on irony. But it was mostly interesting to me. I don't think, in the end, it was poorly written. However, I had a lot more freedom, and kind of abused it. Writing short stories has been a lot harder, in that I have to behave and focus on the elements of the story. But the same mood has permeated all of them. While the characters and setting may be different, the scowl on the author's face is the same in each. The same sentence structure and range of metaphor (a sallow shadow cast over something versus a tarnished citrus sheen). So while they are different stories, they feel the same. While some are fit for e.g., my grandparents to read, others are not. However, the voice is overwhelmingly mine (more than a couple of the galley readers have said they couldn't shake my voice reading it aloud to them while they went over the stories), and I think the same sort of morbid, sardonic, and deeply critical mood permeates everything.

And, all told, it's close enough to novel size to merit being treated as such. I just can't put the idea out of my head, so maybe I need to try and fail (or even try and succeed) to stitch it together. It's probably a wash, either way. The amount of gymnastics I need to do to actually stitch together 300 years of time elapsed across a novel would more than likely merit being squished into its own piece without them. If it's successful, I'll be pretty happy with the product. But, it seems, even if I'm not, what I get is a) more time writing and b) more material to work with.

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14 November, 2007


Sometimes it seems like events are just being thrown in front of me to see if I can dodge them, rather than because of some cosmic order of things. Almost like juking the car only to cut under it with hard opposite-lock steering and throttle. The question isn't whether car will wind up where you expect it; the question is simply, will it respond appropriately (a spin), or will it understeer and defy both steering and throttle inputs?

The harder the feint, the greater the speed, the more likely it is the car will simply be unable to comply.

It's easy to see the parallel here – the more ordered you think things are (when you increase the speed of a vehicle you are essentially making a bet that track conditions will not exceed the ability of the car to avoid harm), the more significant the event (driving over a flattened possum being able to counter than a horse in the road on an uphill 90° right-hander), the more likely it is that you won't be able to respond effectively.

It's easy to hope the road is going to be more or less clear of obstacles, or that you won't be dodging something in the midst of dodging something else [, while in the midst of dodging ...].

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09 November, 2007

Who rejected the good SF?

I've been reading a lot, and I'm pretty disappointed with what I've seen people call good fiction. One such piece is Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson. This book won a Hugo. It's an aggressive concept, and one that's pretty hard to defend in writing over 500 pages. And so, seemingly unavoidably, it falls over about 200 pages in. The problem is that what makes the book interesting simply becomes motivation for characters who themselves are supposed to become interesting by acting in concert with the original hook that got you into the book. Let me give you an example.

Arnold Schwarzenegger shows up naked outside a bar, beats the living shit out of people, and we learn about Skynet and the fact that just up the road a bit is a software-driven (or hardware-driven if you prefer, but you'd be wrong) apocalypse where tanks run about crushing giant mounds of human skulls.

Okay, you got me. I'm interested.

What happens, though? We have Linda Hamilton running for her life in various scenes that themselves are supposed to be dramatic and interesting. I'm not a sociopath when I say, holy shit, why don't you tell me how Skynet works and what happens and fuck this Hamilton chick, I wanna know what happens after the whole revelations-and-doom part.

Now, granted, the Hamilton-Schwarzenegger-Patrick conflict of Terminator 2 was interesting, it was interesting in that the whole plot started becoming apparent. Because, in case you missed the first bit, the plot is set actually ten years (or twenty, or whatever) ahead of what we're actually watching for seventy minutes. Lots and lots more of that juicy hook streamed in through the giant holes in the rest of the movie that are wooden character development and silly mugging for the camera.

Back to Spin. So, I'm not giving away anything that the back of the book doesn't (or the wikipedia article) when I say the major idea of the book is, zap! The Earth gets enveloped in this field that allows it to remain mostly static while the universe ages at an incredibly rapid pace.

Okay, so that's it, you got me with that, too. I haven't read anything like that elsewhere in Science Fiction. But as we progress, we learn more about the "Spin," the thingie that encircles the Earth. Just a little further, and the novel devolves into this silly love story that has no bearing on anything whatsoever (except where it is painfully stitched into other pieces of the plot), and lots of other things happen without a whole lot of attention being paid to, you know, the Spin. Again, I don't think I'm being a sociopath when I say, fuck these characters, please tell me more about what the damn book is about. I don't read science fiction to read about sibling rivalry, generational rivalry, and unrequited love. I can read Vogue or People for that.

So there's somebody out there, maybe three or four of them, at places like Tor and Gollancz, who are rejecting fiction that's interesting. Gollancz let Reynolds "commit" trilogy, and he pretty close to pulled it off without making it about the characters, but rather about the entire problem of the series: some big ugly thing is out there lurking and intends to kill off all of humanity. So, really, do I care so much about Skade and oh, I can't even remember the rest of their names. Really, Skade was kind of interesting up front, but by the end of the story – and by story, I mean the third goddamn book – I want to know what's happening to humanity, not about her super powers, and not who is having sex with who, or even, for the most part, who dies and how. The series was written about the species die-off, and it stuck to that point for the entirety of the first two books, and about half of the third book.

It's rare that I find a book that's just gripping from end to end anymore. I have no idea why so much current science fiction is crap, but I do know it's why everyone I know (except a couple people here and there) think that all of science fiction is crap.

I recently handed Sandy Altered Carbon, and she read it and liked it. She thought it was overly gory, and she's probably right, but then Morgan was really setting the pace for the second two books. I think it may have helped her, knowing that the second two were stronger than the first, but Carbon was an early book of his (Market Forces is a lot rougher), and I can mostly respect that.

She also read Accelerando, and was actually quite moved by it. Both of us kind of had a hard time keeping up with the absolutely frantic pace of the last 60 or so pages. But when she put it down, she said, wow, you know, science fiction doesn't suck as much as I thought it did.

I recently gave another copy of Accelerando to my father, who doesn't read SF at all, and he said the same thing. He just wasn't aware there was SF out there that wasn't crap.

So where is it all? Where's all the fiction that's getting rejected that's actually worth reading? Because people must be writing something worth reading, if only because there are six and a half billion monkeys on an equal number of typewriters.

I don't even need to ask why it's being rejected. Agents and editors gleefully claim to have thousands of manuscripts waiting for them that they equally gleefully reject because they are 1.5 spaced instead of double-spaced. Because they're in Times New Roman instead of Courier. Because they'll reject manuscripts for anything, including fun.

It's kinda too bad we don't have a napster of publishing. Something that kicks publishing in its collective nuts overnight and give cause to ambitious, productive, and talented authors like Stross, Banks, Morgan, and even Reynolds, to publish in some new format that bypasses the asshats who are glee-rejecting.

The obligatory Cherryh quote is,

In those days you had sf, sword and sorcery, sword and planet, and it was all under one roof, written by the same people, as the mood took them, and published by the same houses. I myself cross those lines myself, and don't like this specialization in which one side sniffs at the other as if they were some other species. No, no, no. We started out one creature. I don't care if 'they' have spots. We're still the same breed of cat: see my notes on conventions.

So your stupid SF novel that has dashing FTL Super-Imperial-Star-Destroyers is stupid because it is so pedestrian, so genre. Have them eaten by cosmic snot. Throw in some bunnies. Everyone likes bunnies. Come up with a reason for the work, and stick to it. If you write in a character, why is that character there? Are you trying to say something with a character that takes a few thousand words of the novel? Maybe instead of having to write in a character, you should drop a brick on someone's head. The point will get across (killing bunnies is a good way to make a point, for what that's worth). You don't have to write science fiction with Monty Python, although it wouldn't hurt (and has been done). If you're going to take up six hours or six weeks of my time with your book (and you're going to spend three to twenty-four months writing it), do both of us the decency of making it about something really interesting. And don't yammer on about things that have nothing to do with the book. Believe me, you're confused. You're staring at the word count, thinking, where's that next 20,000 coming from? Or you're staring at some scene in a plot and you really want a lightsaber slicing through a giant marshmallow oompa-loompa. Have you considered maybe just feeding radioactive marshmallow peeps to somebody might get the point across?

Jumping the Shark is almost always okay if you can prove that the shark should have been there. Otherwise, you're just doing what every other hack out there is doing. Step away from the keyboard.

Worth noting: I am not complaining because my novel or manuscript or screenplay or anything has been rejected. Nothing has been. I'm complaining because everything seems to be turning to shit, or perhaps living up to its reputation instead of stridently knocking down these stupid genre borders.

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Apple has done something right.

I bought one of their bluetooth keyboards because I couldn't be troubled to find a USB type 5 Sun keyboard, and I really didn't want to use the PC keyboards (HP, Dell, even a Gateway or two) that were kicking around the office. I had one of their previous bluetooth keyboards and thought it was mostly okay except for its really ugly, squishy feel. I also bitched more than a couple times about how much I dislike my Macbook's keyboard (although this hasn't really stopped me from using it, I guess).

So I got one of the thin metal ones, even though it had what looks like my macbook's keys on it, simply because I wanted it on the iCurve (the lucite one they don't make anymore?!), and that was what you got when you wanted a new wireless keyboard that day. I've come to rather like it. Its mechanism could be much improved (I really liked the keyboard on my Titanium Powerbook and on the Pismos before that; this one is kinda icky). But one of its useful features is just how tiny it is. It's about the size of your average legal notepad. Between that and this stupid mighty mouse (if you're going to have four buttons, put four buttons on the goddamn mouse, don't imply that they're there and expect me to find them by clicking at random), I'm actually quite comfortable with my Macbook at the moment. At work I also have one of these 22" Samsung LCD displays. Mighty nice. Turned it 90° and I've got like umpteen zillion lines of terminal or one giant screen/vim split into eight different windows (er, in the shell, inside Terminal.app).

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06 November, 2007

So grateful

I just want to say how very, very grateful for the people who have read my stories – sometimes multiple times. I've gone through this process of writing a concept, or a really rough draft (a thousand words maybe), an outline, or some character sketches. From there I usually get to something that's more or less complete (say, 2,500 words). I usually let it stew at this point, and come back to it in a week or two. I then realize what I left out, or what was unclear, and start my own editing and copyediting.

But then I've grown attached to the characters, and I know what they're thinking. I know what the non-character actors (weather, planets, etc) are intending to do. This makes me the absolute worst person to be editing. I can write things at this point that I understand, but there's no way that somebody who isn't in the head of the character can understand why they say something unless it's explicit in dialogue or implicit in action (or even explicit in action).

This step is called a galley proof. Mind you, I've sort of adopted the term here. When we publish a novel, the galley is what initially comes back from the publisher/editor. So my referring to these "final draft, please proof read" as galleys is a little bit of a misnomer.

But for the short story, it applies.

I can't believe how many people have agreed to do it, the positive things they've had to say, the things they've caught that I'd never have caught, and even comments on the very way I write. It's been such a helpful process. I've learned more about my own writing. I've grown as a writer.

And I can't not mention that I got to talk to all these cool people that I don't get to spend so much time with, usually.

Wow. Thank you so much, everybody.

The catch is, there's more:

We've just gone through Arizona. I think Near-Earth Orbit is next on the list, although I'm working on Jupiter and Colorado. The other piece of trivia here is that all of these have common threads, but are strong enough that they stand on their own (so that I can sell them as short stories). I'll be adding a few more (I need one for the Mars Perimeter, for example, and maybe the Kuiper belt), but at the end of it all, I think we're going to see something approaching novel-sized length.

I'm not sure what that means yet.

But, again, thank you. All of you. Jonathan is the guy that got me to actually publish, instead of just writing. Thank you, JM.

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