Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Geek Highways: Wallops Island


Officially, it's called the Wallops Flight Facility but I've never heard anyone call it anything but Wallops Island. It's not like there's a lot of anything else there.

Wallops Island is one of five main flight facilities operated by NASA and, let's be honest, isn't a patch on Canaveral. It's responsible for twenty to thirty sounding rockets a year, only four or five of which are launched locally. The rest are launched from sites around the world as needed. The Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, which it operates, is probably best known today for the private-industry Antares rockets launched there by Orbital ATK.

Marianne and I stopped here on our way to Kitty Hawk, tracing in reverse a voyage that went from a 59-second flight to the Moon over the space of a single human lifetime. It didn't matter that Wallops Island has only two launch pads. Standing by the road, looking at the parabolic antennas aimed at the heavens, I felt like I was standing on the shores of space.

As of course I was.

As of course, so are we all.

Above: "Little Joe," used to test the Mercury capsule, its emergency escape systems in particular.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Geek Highways: Bottle Trees.


I spent the day wandering about marshlands, doing research for The Iron Dragon's Mother. Lots of nifty stuff: wild ponies seen from a distance, a gannet seen from three feet away and so on. But, necessary though all this was, none of it was geeky.

So today's blog is about a chance sighting of a cluster of bottle trees as Marianne and I passed through Stockton, Maryland yesterday.

A bottle tree is simply a dead tree whose branches have been cut short and then adorned with a glass bottle. Scholars have traced the practice back to Africa, where the practice had a religious significance. It survived American slavery and, although for a time looked to be on its way to extinction. Instead, it spread through the South to such a degree that a certain number of whites make them too.

So why do they exist today? For the same reason that Morris dancing and  Krampus exist today -- not because we necessarily agree with or even know their original purpose, but because they're fun. Because they're real. Because they satisfy something deep within the human spirit.

I look for stuff like this everywhere I go. I like to think of it as Evidence of Intelligent Life on Earth.

You can read a Smithsonian article about bottle trees here.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Geek Highways: Wallops Island


As always, I'm on the road again -- this time, making a pilgrimage to Kitty Hawk, where human heavier-than-air flight had its humble beginning.

A long drive through grey and brown countryside brought Marianne and me to Wallops Island, site of one of  NASA's five main launch facilities. It's humbling to stand here, on the shores of space at the slender instant in time during which life leaves the planet.

When I was born, most people would have told you flat-out that human beings would ever walk on the Moon. Yet it happened only sixty-six years after that first fifty-nine second flight that it happened. That's roughly one human lifespan!

Long after Apollo 11, people commonly said that a computer would never beat a human grand master at chess. Then, in 1997, Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov in a six-game match 3 1/2 to 2 1/2. So, as people will, the doubters redrew the goal lines and said that a computer would never beat a human go master.

On March 15, last year, AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol in the last game of a five-game match. Final score: AlphaGo 4, Lee Sedol 1.

Something to keep in mind next time somebody tells you we'll never have a true AI or a colony on an extrasolar planet.

Above: One of the rockets outside the Wallops Flight Facility. I probably had the plastic model back when I was a teen.


Friday, March 24, 2017

Geek Highways II


As always, I'm on the road again. Or, rather, I will be soon. Sunday, Marianne and I had out for our second Geek Highways tour, a trek from Philadelphia to Wallops Island and then Kitty Hawk, with (I hope) strange stops in between. 

I'll be blogging every day, which should make a welcome change from the neglect I've been showering on the blog of late.

(For which, again, my apologies. I've been dream-deep in The Iron Dragon's Mother and it's taken me away from many a lesser effort. Luckily, the final sections take place on the seacoast of Faerie so I need lots of material on coastlands and marshlands. Which is, to be honest, the secret motivation behind this adventure.)

So, starting rather late Sunday, expect to see more science-and-literature adventures here. It'll be fun!

Above: From the original Geek Highways, three years ago, the historic Gardner Dozois house, home of the young writer-and-editor-to-be.


Friday, March 17, 2017

"A Week Without Magic"


My contributor's ARCs (Advance Reading Copies -- early, usually less well made copies of an upcoming book, used for various promotional purposes, including sending to reviewers and placating authors) of Season One of The Witch Who Came in From the Cold have arrived.

The Cold Witch Project, as it's been informally called, is a work of serial fiction modeled after television serials.  In this case, it's a series set during the Cold War, in which all the players are not only aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union but also with two warring occult powers, one of them equivocally Evil and the other only ambiguously on the side of Good with members of the KGB and the CIA on both sides of the fight. A wilderness of mirrors, basically, and full to the brim with twisty turns of plot.

Serial Box, the publisher, makes each episode available as individual e-publications. But the idea is to subscribe to the series and receive regular fictional updates on the doings of characters you've come to know and care about.

Mostly, the episodes are written by a small cadre of writers who work well together, but once per season a guest writer is invited to play in their sandbox.

Which is how I came to write Episode 6: A Week Without Magic.

It was a fun project to be involved with. I was very pleased to learn that I could work within the group's constraints and to their deadlines. And I was happy with how it all came out. Though I did have to throw a character and a subplot for which there was simply not enough room. But I did get to plant a bit of foreshadowing near the beginning of the episode and see it flower -- so to speak -- at the end. Which was immensely satisfying.

And now the first season is slated to be published by Saga Press (an imprint of Simon &Schuster) in non-ebook format. What we Old Hands persist in referring to as "real books." Which must mean that it's doing pretty well.

As well it should. The series is enormous fun. And it's still going on. You can subscribe to Season Two here.  Or you can wait for Saga Press to release the real book of Season One this June.


Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The First Step to Writing Well...


You can always tell when I'm swamped with work. Either I don't manage to post on this blog or else I offer writing advice.

For today's writing advice, I'm going to tell you the first step to writing well. And that is writing badly.  This is absolutely essential. William Gibson once observed that the first duty of a writer was to overcome a perfectly justified loathing for the sound of his or her own voice. Similarly, in order to write well, you must be willing to put down words on paper in such dreadful combinations as you would blush to let anyone see.

There are two distinct stages to this dreadful writing. The first is when you're still unpublished and unaccomplished. You must write and write and write even though almost everything that flows from your mind/pen/fingers is loathsome. This is, alas, the only way there is to learn. And, as an adjunct, you must treasure every paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that comes out well.

The second stage is when you're published and have a career going well. You must write as well as you can, of course, but that's rarely going to come flowing out of you in final form. So you have to be willing to write badly and then correct/improve/rewrite. It's possible to raise your standards for yourself so high that you never publish anything again. I've seen it happen.

But, no, I'm not going to let you see one of my first drafts. Are you mad? No.

End of sermon. Go thou and sin no more.

Above: My desk at the current moment. There are no conclusions to to be drawn from the tidiness or lack thereof of an author's desk. Everybody has their own style. Gregory Frost's office is as neat as a pin. And yet he writes beautifully. Go figure.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Susan Casper's Clowns


It's been a week since Susan Casper died but it feels like forever. She left a big gaping hole in reality when she left us.

Some time ago, over the course of a couple of years, I did a book-length interview with Gardner Dozois,  covering every story he'd written to date from the beginning of his career. The book was published by Old Earth Books as Being Gardner Dozois. Gardner had written a couple of collaborations with his wife, so when we came to those, I asked Susan to sit in on the interview.

The following excerpt from the book covers "The Clowns," written by Susan, Gardner, and Jack Dann. I decided to share it with you because it gives you some sense of Susan as a writer. But also, I have to confess because the opening exchange demonstrates something of her wit.

“The Clowns,” co-written with Susan Casper and Jack Dann, appeared in PLAYBOY in August 1985, and...

Gardner Dozois: ... and ever since Susan’s been telling people that a picture of her appeared in PLAYBOY.

Susan Casper: Yeah, I had my picture in PLAYBOY.  It’s fun to tell people that.

Gardner Dozois: They’re all very impressed.

Susan Casper: They are!

Gardner Dozois: Some young girl last night in the Internet chat said, “Wow!  You must have been pretty!”

Susan Casper: Well, I was.  I still am.

The other stories you two were doing in collaboration at the same time were humorous, and this one is anything but humorous.  How did this get started?

Susan Casper: Gardner had this idea he’d been keeping in the back of his head for a very long time.  He made the mistake of telling Jack about it...

Gardner Dozois: This was in 1983, November according to my notes.  Jack and Susan and I were all sitting around in our old apartment on Quince Street.  We were talking about weird stuff.  We were having one of those conversations where you talk about freaky, weird, possibly supernatural things that you’ve seen or heard of.

Susan Casper: And you and Gardner and Jack had been doing an awful lot of collaborations, and Jack turned around to me – I had not yet, at this point, had anything published – and told me that we really ought to do something together, because I had been writing for a while.  I said yes, that sounded like a good idea to me, and he came up with this idea that Gardner had actually mentioned a long time ago.  This was an idea for Jack and I to write, the two of us.

Gardner Dozois: No, earlier you and Jack were talking about how you ought to do a story together – then we had the conversation about weird stuff, and in the spirit of this conversation I related an anecdote that a guy had told to me in the Village.  Years ago, when I used to live in the Village, I had known this guy who was a heavy drug user.  The last time I had ever seen him, he told me about how clowns were following him around everywhere.  Nobody else could see them but him.  Part of the anecdote, which didn’t get into the story, is that he would be alone in the apartment late at night, and he would get up and go into the bathroom, and there would be a clown sitting on the toilet, grinning at him.  He would be riding on his motorcycle and he would feel cold arms close around his waist, and he would look over his shoulder and there’d be a clown riding behind him, grinning at him.

So I told this story, and as was his wont, Jack said, “Wow!  What a great idea for a story!  Susan, that can be the story that you and I write together!”  You started talking about this story, and the next thing I knew, Jack had rushed over to the typewriter, and you were writing this story about invisible clowns.

Susan Casper: We’d gotten all of about four sentences.

Gardner Dozois: I was kind of sulky about this, because I had been carrying around this story idea for years, and now you were writing this story, and you weren’t even consulting me or cutting me in on it!  You talked about this story for the rest of the evening.  The next day you were still working on the story, and I finally got pissed and said, “Well, if you’re going to write my story, then I have to be cut in on it!” 

So I insisted on dealing myself into the collaboration.

Susan Casper: It was an interesting thing, though, at this point to be collaborating with the two of them because, as I said, I hadn’t actually had anything published.  Jack would send me manuscript – not much, a couple of lines – and an outline of where I should take it.  I was sitting there going, this doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t sound right, and this dialog doesn’t work right.  But at the same time, being the unpublished member of the group, I felt kind of funny overwriting Jack, and saying, “No, it should go this way, and, no, the dialogue should sound like this, and, no, this is what they should say.”  But finally they convinced me that the only way it was going to work was if I just did it, the way I felt I ought to do it, and so that’s what I eventually did.

I did a lot of the original writing on that story, and then I’d send it to Jack and he’d do a little bit, and then he’d send it back to me and I’d do more.  Now what happened was while I did a lot of the original writing on the story, they both came along and overwrote what I wrote.  So I don’t feel like I did most of the story.  But I certainly did most of the first draft.

Gardner Dozois: You had a good feel for the dialogue of the kid and his family.  Your kid-and-family dialogue was actually more authentic-sounding than Jack’s was.  So you overwrote most of that, as I recall.

You made some basic changes in the original vision.  The clowns are dressed in black and white, which was a sinister touch, and they’re going around actively killing people, shoving them in front of cars and whatnot.

Susan Casper: It’s funny, within a year it became a major motion picture.  For which we never saw a dime, I might add.

Gardner Dozois: What was it called – “Clowns from Outer Space”?

Susan Casper: Something like that.  “Killer Clowns from Outer Space,” I forget.

That would have been a coincidence, right?  Rather than somebody actually stealing the idea?

Gardner Dozois: Who knows?  It did appear in PLAYBOY.

Susan Casper: It certainly was in a source where people could have seen it.

Gardner Dozois: We didn’t think it was actionable enough to try to sue anybody over.

Susan Casper: Actually, we didn’t find out about it until it was too late.

Gardner Dozois: Of course, there are precedents for this.  One horror writer, I forget who it was, it might have been Robert Bloch, was talking about what horror was.  Horror was...

Susan Casper: You go to the circus, and you have fun, and you buy a balloon, and you watch the clowns, and you laugh at the clowns, and you have a wonderful time.  And then you come home from the circus, and you go into your apartment, and there’s the clown.

Gardner Dozois: A lot of the stuff from the original anecdote that the guy told me did not make it into the story.  Because we made it a child protagonist, he’s not riding the motorcycle and feeling the clown putting its arms around him.  The going into the bathroom and finding the clown there scene didn’t make it in either.

Susan Casper: We came up with the swimming pool sequence instead.  Which actually works better, with the two children.

Gardner Dozois: Susan wrote perhaps the bulk of the story.  What my contribution mostly was was working on the pacing.  I tried to give it more of a suspense movie kind of pacing.  I remember reworking several of these scenes to stretch them out in a way that would heighten tension. 

Susan Casper: He also, as he always did with collaborations, went over and smoothed things out, because my prose and Jack’s are nothing alike at all.  You could see real obvious welts where the story had gone back and forth between the two of us, and where it left huge chunks of what Jack did, and pieces I’d rewritten, and stuff.  He smoothed that out.  I certainly was not capable of that at that point.  I don’t know if I’d be capable of that now.

You never do provide a rationale for who these clowns are, or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

Susan Casper: That’s the point.

Gardner Dozois: There’s a rationale, of course.  As in most of my stories, you could read it that none of these events are really happening, and the kid is just insane.  Or has gone insane.

Susan Casper: There’s a rational explanation for everything that happens in the story.  You can look at it as the kid just seeing these clowns, and the boy really does just drown.  But at the end, when he goes into the bedroom and sees the clowns there, who is he killing?  Of course, it is his parents’ bed.  If you look at it that way, the true horror is that he sees these clowns, but he’s actually killing his parents.

But I wanted to leave that open to public questionability.  I didn’t want to tie it down.

Gardner Dozois: The question is, has he gone insane and just thinks he’s seeing clowns, or is he really seeing clowns?  And of course, as with the thing in “The Gods of Mars,” it depends which way you collapse the wave-function.  One possibility is that he’s actually seeing these supernatural beings that are going around pushing people in front of buses, and then they come after him.  The other way to look at it is, he’s had a psychotic breakdown and is just making up all of these clowns as persecuting figures.

Susan Casper: I haven’t looked at this story for a long time, but I seem to recall that I was very, very careful to make sure there was nothing tangible that the clowns did or left behind.  That it was all the way possible from beginning to end that it was all in his head.

Gardner Dozois: Now, one potential weakness for this story is, we don’t give a reason why he starts seeing clowns, in a supernatural sense.  He doesn’t blunder into an old Indian graveyard or something.  He just suddenly starts seeing clowns.  To my mind that makes it a little more likely that it’s the psychotic breakdown explanation that’s the valid one.  There’s no real reason that these clowns start haunting him, or that he starts to see them.  You would think there would have to be a supernatural rationale for why he suddenly started seeing the clowns, and there really isn’t one given.

Susan Casper: There was at that particular time period a great debate going on in the horror field between what had previously been foremost in horror, psychological horror, and what was coming to the front in the horror field, which was very tangible, very gory, very realistic, striking-with-the-knife kind of horror, dismembering people kind of horror.  I had kind of wanted, within the boundaries of the story, to make a statement for the former.  Because that’s what I think is really scary.  Scary is in the head.  It’s not in the blood, it’s not in the guts, it’s not in seeing actual pieces of people lying on the ground.  Horror is, as Bloch said in that story I mentioned about the clown, the out-of-place in the commonplace.

Gardner Dozois: We set up the possibility of it all being a psychotic break on the kid’s part by mentioning that he had had psychological difficulties before.  In fact, his parents are very embarrassed about him because he was a nut, basically, or had had psychological treatment of some sort, which in those days was a big stigmata.  So that’s all set up there, so you can if you wish interpret the story in that light.

At one point Susan and Jack and I actually sat down over dinner and were discussing doing a novel-length version of this story.  But it didn’t come to anything.  Although I think it would have been possible.

Susan Casper: It would been, but I’m not sure anybody would have bought it.

Gardner Dozois: Well, that’s another story.  At the time, I think somebody might have.  The big horror boom was underway then.  Now, it’s probably problematical.

I think what kept us from having any real enthusiasm for it was that you would have had to just plug more incidents into the same structure, rather than adding anything new in kind.  You would have just had to plug in more incidents of him being chased around by clowns into the same basic structure.

Susan Casper: My basic objection to turning it into a novel is that I don’t think we could have done it without putting out a real answer there.  Yeah, the kid was crazy, or, yeah, there actually were clowns, and this is why they were following him around.  I didn’t particularly want to do either with it.

Gardner Dozois: Of course you could come up with a metaphysical structure where the clowns are always there, and every time somebody falls in front of a bus or falls down the stairs, it’s because there was a clown there pushing them.

Susan Casper: The clown as death. 

Gardner Dozois: Basically.  Or the clown as malefic spirit, at any rate.

Susan Casper: The grim reaper in orange wig and funny nose.

Gardner Dozois: That’s what the kid believes, at any rate.

Susan Casper: Anyway, I didn’t want to tie it down.  I didn’t want to make it specific.  I liked the story exactly the way it was.  I like the fact that people were unsure whether or not it was actually happening or all in the kid’s head.  In fact, that’s the main thing I get asked by people who’ve read the story: Was it real, or was it all in the kid’s head?  And, of course, the only thing you can say to that is, “Well, what do you think?”

Gardner Dozois: Actually, the bulk of the things that I’ve written, it’s probably possible to ask the question, is it real or is it all inside the guy’s head.

And as long as we're on the subject... 

Old Earth Books publisher Michael Walsh paid me an advance that covered the entire run of Being Gardner Dozois, which means I won't get any additional money from future sales of it. So I feel morally justified here in plugging a book I'm proud of.

Being Gardner Dozois is currently available from Old Earth Books. You can find the page with ordering information here.  Or you can just go the main page and wander around. They've got some very nifty books, available at quite reasonable prices.

Or you can write the Dragonstairs Press, which is Marianne Porter's "nanopress," and which still has a few copies of the book, which are both new and autographed by both Gardner and myself.It's not listed on the webpage. But it is available for sale. Terms upon request.

Above: Photo of  Susan Casper by Ellen Datlow, whose photographic record of the science fiction world over the past few decades is a treasures. Thanks for giving me permission, Ellen.