Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Few Brief, Honest Words About Reviews and Reviewers


Every writer I know says that there's no such thing as bad publicity, so that they therefore never get upset by bad reviews.  I appear to be the only one who actively dislikes getting one.

Okay, I'm going to be honest here.  I think that my distinguished colleagues are all lying through their teeth.  I'll bet that even [insert name of your favorite living writer here] gets moody and snarls at the dog on getting a bug-crusher of a review.

This observation was occasioned by the fact that over at Best SF,  my story, "Passage of Earth," was given a quite positive review by Mark Watson.  This perked up an otherwise cold and wet April morning for me.  I know it's only words.  But then, words are my all, my raison d'etre.

And what is the proper form for thanking a reviewer for a good review?  You don't.  The review was written for readers, not writers.  To thank reviewers would be to imply that the opinion of the author was a factor in their reviews.  Which would be an insult.

Still being honest, I'll admit that, yes, reviewers are human and so they'd probably enjoy the thanks.  But it would still be an insult.  And even if they didn't take it that way, it wouldn't be good for them.  So I shall continue to respond to positive reviews (with the exception of this one; but then, I'm not really talking about the review but about the phenomenon of being reviewed) with silence.

That's the plain and simple truth, in my humble opinion.  Yours may differ, and if it does, feel free to write a fan letter to your favorite reviewer expressing your thanks for his or her body of work.

Only, please.  Not to one who's panned my work.

If you're curious, you can read the review here.  But really, so long as I'm being honest, I'd much rather you read the story itself.  It was published on Clarkesworld and you can find it here.

Above:  A cold and rainy morning in Philadelphia.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Ossa Della Terra


It must be Italy week!  In the mail today are my copies of Ossa della Terra -- in English, Bones of the Earth.

I spent roughly a year researching that novel, interviewing scientists, going to conferences, traveling to view specific fossils.  By the end of that year, I could sit on any conversation between paleontologists and understand every word they had to say.  I couldn't contribute to that conversation, mined you. But I could follow it.

More than that, whenever I finished a chapter I ran it past Bob Walters, the dinosaur reconstruction artist, and some time later he would return it to me with an insultingly thick list of corrections.  I would incorporate them into the chapter and then run it past Ralph Chapman, then at the Smithsonian.  Who would return an equally thick list of corrections to be made.

At the time of publication, Bones of the Earth was as accurate as any dinosaur novel ever written.

That happy state lasted for most of a year before subsequent discoveries began invalidating parts of the novel.

But, my God, what a lot of fun that book was to research.

And sad news . . .

I learned recently that William H. Patterson, Jr., died this April 22.  Patterson wrote the authorized biography of Robert H. Heinlein, published in two parts as Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Vol. 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve (2011), and Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, which is forthcoming.

I did not know Patterson very well -- a few pleasant conversations, and that's pretty much it.  But I did get to watch from the sidelines, a little, as his massive (and massively titled) magnum opus was created.  The fight over what was to be included and what was not was prolonged and many-sided, and I can't pretend to be well informed enough about it to give you a recap.  Suffice it to say, the biography was a lot of work.  Some of it caused by Heinlein himself, who put a great deal of effort into pruning his paper paper trail, in order to hide parts of his past which I rather suspect would only have made us like him the more.

But while he did not live to see the second volume published, Patterson did get to clutch the first and to see it nominated for a Hugo Award.  He was a great admirer of RAH, and I know it meant a lot to him to finish the project and to see it acclaimed.

You can read the Locus Online notice here.


Saturday, April 26, 2014

[Dream Diary]

April 26,  2014

Dreamed I was at a Nebula Awards banquet and (there is no explaining dreams) one of the officers.  However, there was a glut of SFWA officers present, all getting in each other's way, so I quietly slipped outside.  On a balcony off the hallway, I saw Michael Dirda looking down two great  black 19th-century steam locomotives in the rail yard below.  We were both eagerly looking forward to taking part in the train duels later that night.

"The rail guns those things carry will launch a projectile at 1,200 meters per second," Dirda said in a tone suggesting he never ceased to marvel at human folly, "yet if you walked down the aisle with an ice cream cone, they'd fine you for it."

On awakening, I checked the numbers and found the projectiles would be traveling at almost four times the speed of sound.  But I've never had any mathematical ability whatsoever when asleep.


Friday, April 25, 2014

Philadelphia Wonderland


The Day Wonderland Stood Still... from Bruce W. Berry Jr on Vimeo.

This is Philadelphia as I see it:  whales singing deep beneath the pavement, lions sheathed in ice. Some forty years ago, I came to this city, fell in love with it, and almost starved to death before I managed to find work.  It was a terrifying place, but beautiful too.

This video, by Bruce W. Berry Jr., captures that beauty perfectly.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

MileHiCon and Me!


Not that anybody's ever commented on this -- you guys are amazingly polite, and I thank you for that -- but I have a tendency to begin all announcements about public appearances with the words 'This weekend, I'll be..."

But I'm trying to be better!  So this is my announcement that this October 24th, 25th & 26th, I'm going to be one of three author guests at MileHiCon 46.  MileHiCon is Colorado’s Oldest and Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention and it's in Denver, so that's two good reasons to attend.  That's not even counting my fellow author guests of honor Tony Abraham  and Ty Franck.  Or artist guests of honor Phil and Kaja Folio.  Or toastmaster Jeanne Stein.

I'm thinking this ought to be whopping big heaps of fun.  You can find the MileHiCon website here.

And speaking of today . . .

On this date, but on separate days, in 1616, both Shakespeare and Cervantes died. At the time, Spain had already adopted the Gregorian calendar while England was still stuck in the old Julian calendar.  Had his nation been a little more up-to-date, Shakespeare would have died sometime in May.

The poor bastard couldn't catch a break.

Above:  Yes, I know this is MileHiCon's 2013 logo.  They haven't had time to acquire a new one yet.  These are the risks one runs when making such announcements early.


Monday, April 21, 2014

My Italian Interview


In conjunction with Dancing With Bears being published in Italy under the name of Gli Dei di Mosca (publisher's page here), I've been interviewed on the Cronache di un sole lontano blog. Cronache di un sole lontano was nominatd for the Italia prize in 2013 as the best fan SF blog.

Those fortunate enough to be literate in Italian can read the interview here.

For those who aren't, here's a one-question excerpt from the interview by Fabio Centamore:

What differences are there between the eighties and nowadays in literary mood? Where is SF headed?

I may be the wrong person to ask, because in the eighties I was young and writing in friendship and competition with the best new writers of the decade.  Every month I’d read the magazines to see if something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Black Air” or James Patrick Kelly’s “Mr. Boy” had come out – and if it had, I was driven back to the typewriter (this was before home computers) to try to write something as good but utterly different.  We were all unknowns, or almost so, and making names for ourselves, so there was a particular excitement to the times.   And of course we all romanticize our youth.

The Canadian critic John Clute has a theory that currently science fiction and fantasy are merging into a single genre, which he calls fantastika, a term borrowed from Russia and Scandinavia.  Maybe so.  Certainly, I see a lot more emphasis on pure story and less on ideas nowadays.  (Starting out, it was a commonplace to call SF “the literature of ideas,” but I haven’t heard that term used for a long time.)  But if so it’s a tendency I’m fighting all the way.  This probably sounds strange coming from someone whose science fiction often feels like fantasy and whose fantasy often feels like science fiction.  Nevertheless, Dancing with Bears takes place in the realm of the possible and The Dragons of Babel in the realm of the impossible.  That’s an important distinction and, I feel, a productive one.

Above: The banner for Cronache di un sole lontano.  Pretty nifty, eh?


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gli Dei di Mosca


This is, I believe, the best version of Surplus to date.  Check out that expression!  His marks don't normally get to see this aspect of him.  And this is the first attempt to capture the likeness of Aubrey Darger I've ever seen.   Artist Manuel Preitano captures, I believe, the quintessential Britishness of him.

Gli Dei di Mosca (The Gods of Moscow), the Italian translation of Dancing With Bears, went on sale in e-book form today.  You can order it here or here.  And the paper version goes on sale in only a few weeks.  You can read about it at the publisher's website here.

You can argue about the physical appearances of Darger & Surplus if you wish, of course, and it would be a sign of affection if you did.  Because those fictional characters we most care about exist most convincingly inside our heads, where we do not so much see them as feel their rightness.  But is that a terrific portrayal of Anya Pepsicolova or what?  When Anya first appeared in my novel, she was a minor character, a way of getting Darger to a certain place in subterranean Moscow, and I had every intention of keeping her minor.  But Anya had other ideas and kept grabbing a bigger and bitter piece of the plot.

Writers really like characters like that.

Below is Preitano's original artwork, before it was defaced with things like the title and my name.  Just so you can admire it some more.  I like how deftly it avoids giving away too much of the plot.

This is actually Friday's blog, posted a day early.  Just to give Gli Dei di Mosca a tiny bit more exposure.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Make Your Darlings Suffer


It's too early to know exactly what influence George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire will have on the fantasy genre, though it's a safe bet that it will be significant.  But it's pretty obvious that the Red Wedding scene all by itself will have a significant impact -- and a good one, too.

One of the signature weaknesses of a new writer is a tendency to be too nice to one's characters.  Some weaknesses, such as a propensity to spend five to ten pages of a story "setting the scene" before finally getting around to  the plot, can be cured simply by clearly explaining why they're a bad idea and how they can be circumvented.  But when all of one's upbringing is devoted into turning one into a decent person, it can be hard to undo.  "Look, I'll say to my students, on those occasions when I teach.  "It would be a heinous act to throw a woman into the path of an oncoming train.  But we celebrate Tolstoy for doing so in Anna Karenina.  These are not real people we're dealing with here.  They're only words on paper.  Make those bastards suffer!"

They hear but, half in love with their own creations, they do not easily believe.

There's a lot to admire about the Red Wedding, including the fact that it took the readers and later viewers by surprise.  I'm sure there are many new writers out there at this very moment feverishly plotting out their own massacres in imitation.  And that's good, because while most of those bloodlettings are destined for the drawer, they're a positive step toward publication.  Many more writers are taking to heart George's exemplary willingness to kill off characters who've won the readers' affections.  That's also good.  But the chief lesson to be learned hers is to let your darlings suffer.

Why is this desirable?  Because there are things we must learn in life which can only be learned through suffering.  If that suffering is experienced only in our imaginations, so much the better.

Also, it can be wonderfully entertaining.

The opening of the Honest Trailers spoof of Game of Thrones begins "From fiction's most notorious serial killer..."  But let's be honest here.  It should be "From fiction's most beloved serial killer..."  I trust that any new writers reading this are taking the implicit moral to heart.


Monday, April 14, 2014

Radiant Doors . . . the Series?


It's too early to break out the champagne yet, but the cable network WGN America has given what's called "a script order against a series commitment" to a television series based on my story "Radiant Doors."

What this means is that if the network likes the script (now being written by Jeremy Doner), the series will be made.  Justin Lin, the director of Fast and Furious 6, will be the director and executive producer if and when Radiant Doors is made.

"Radiant Doors" is the single darkest story I've ever written -- and that's saying something.  The premise is that one day radiant doors open in the air everywhere in the world and through them pour millions of refugees.  They've all been terribly abused.  And they're from our future.

I don't know anything about Justin Lin's vision for the series, and that's probably just as well.  Neither he nor Doner needs me peering over their shoulders, second-guessing them.  But in addition to the obvious benefits to me if the series is ever made, I'd love to see just what they do with the premise.

You can read all about it here.

Above:  Justin Lin


Friday, April 11, 2014

Soundworms of the Galaxy


I'm in pod-print again!  "Passage of Earth," which very recently appeared in Clarkesworld, is now available free for the listening as a podcast.

This story was the first I ever sold to Clarkesworld, and what struck me about the process was how fast it all was.  From submission to acceptance was less than a week which, okay, is not entirely uncommon for me.  But from Acceptance to epublication was a matter of weeks.  And then, less than a week later (I would have blogged about this Wednesday, but felt obligated to do my small part toward notifying people about Heartbleed), the postcast is up as well.

Part of this, I'm sure, is that the electronic media are intrinsically faster than print media.  But most of the credit has to go to publisher/editor Neil Clarke.

You can listen to the podcast here.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lock Up the Chickens! Change the Passwords!


I'm taking a break from my regular topics for the following public service announcement:

Change all your on-line passwords.  Do it now.  Then do the whole thing again a week from now, just to be safe.

I'm not kidding.  A few weeks ago, a major security flaw -- dubbed Heartbleed -- was discovered which puts passwords, credit card numbers, pretty much any information stored on the Web at risk.  This was kept a secret while the major players were given the opportunity to apply patches.  A few hours ago, it went public.  Which means that every cheap gunsel and two-bit grifter on the Web will be trolling for data.

Here's the problem in CNN's words:

Heartbleed is a flaw in OpenSSL, an open-source encryption technology that is used by an estimated two-thirds of Web servers. It is behind many HTTPS sites that collect personal or financial information. These sites are typically indicated by a lock icon in the browser to let site visitors know the information they're sending online is hidden from prying eyes.

The rest of the article can be found here.

For the xkcd cartoon explaining what's going on in a more lucid manner than most news reports, click here.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Tonight: A Few Laughs With Robert Sheckley


I'm Irish-American and my people believe that wakes should be fun.  Hell, we believe that all memorials to the dead should be fun.  In which spirit you are invited to the New York Review of Science Fiction's Tribute to Robert Sheckley tonight at 7:00.

The late, great science fiction writer, humorist, and satirist died a little over five years ago in bitterest midwinter.  Tonight, his former wife Ziva Kwitney, his daughter (a noted author in her own right), Alisa Kwitney, legendary bookman Henry Wessells, and famed editor (who worked with Sheckley during the years when he was editor of Omni) Ellen Datlow gather to do the man honor.  I'll be there too, and in such company I will most likely be uncharacteristically subdued.

If you're in Manhattan, why not drop in?  The suggested donation is only seven dollars and if your finances are so tight you can't afford that much nobody's going to say peep.

Here's the info again:

New York Review of Science Fiction Readings:
A  tribute to Robert Sheckley
*  Ellen Datlow
*  Alisa Kwitney (Sheckley)
*  Ziva Kwitney
*  Michael Swanwick
*  Henry Wessells

Monday, April 7th
Doors open 6:30 PM

HOW (much):
Free; $7 donation suggested
There will be cider, crackers & cheese.

Soho Gallery for Digital Art / Soho Arthouse
138 Sullivan Street

Above:  Robert Sheckley's grave lies somewhere under the snow, in the Artists' Cemetery in Woodstock.  I took that picture not  long ago on my Geek Highways trek.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Life Under Ice


The recent declaration that Enceladus has a small ocean under its icy shell immediately put a relatively obscure moon of Saturn on the forefront of the search for  extraterrestrial life.  Simply because it's easy to imagine sending a probe to collect fresh water-ice from the surface and examining the sample for microscopic life or traces of it.  Less easy is imagining a robot that could swim down one of the water volcanoes, wander the Enceladan Ocean making recordings and then swim back to the surface with its findings.  It couldn't be built today.  Twenty years down the line, maybe.  There are certainly people alive today who will see such a device in operation someday.

This has set me to thinking about the possibility of extraterrestrial and extrasolar life in the universe.  The search so far has been dominated by one honking big restriction:  All we know about life is derived from a closely-related clutch of organisms existing on one lone planet.

So when we're looking for life, the first thing we do is look for water in liquid form.  Because the kind of life we know requires it.  Which is why all the emphasis has been on finding Earthlike planets in the "Goldilocks zone," where liquid water can exist on the surface.

But if life exists in Enceladus...  or in Europa, which we're pretty sure also has an ocean tucked between its ice surface and rocky core...  or in the ice satellites Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, Rhea, Titania, Oberon, Triton, Pluto, Eris, Sedna, or Orcus, all of which are speculated to have such oceans... then the possibility of life beyond the Solar System has just gone up tremendously.  

And if life is found to exist in just one other planet in the Sun's entourage and if it can be demonstrated to have arisen independently, then we can confidently stare out into the night sky and see it everywhere. 

Intelligent life, now, is a different matter.  There's only the one intelligent species on our planet, and some of us have our doubts about that.

As for Enceladus, you can read the Guardian account here.  Or the Wired article here


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Passage of Earth


I'm in e-print again!  But before I say anything about that, I should apologize for not posting yesterday.  Technically, I only ever explicitly promised to post on Fridays and Mondays, but I've been so consistent with Wednesdays that it's become a implicit promise.  So I apologize.

So why did I miss yesterday?  I was doing my taxes.

"Oh, you poor man," I hear you say.  "Don't tell us about it."


Anyway, my newest story, "Passage of Earth" is up at Clarkesworld.  And I find myself at a loss as to how to describe it.  If I tell you that a great deal of it is a detailed description of the autopsy of an alien worm, that might make the reading experience sound a bit more off-putting than I honestly believe it is.  And if I tell you that a section of it reads very much like a horror story, that would be misleading as well.  And if I try to tell you what classic story it most resembles ("like The Dunwich Horror, only with bunny rabbits," or "imagine Bears Discover Fire set on Mars and ending with the destruction of the universe"), I come up with nothing.

While I was writing "Passage of Earth" I thought it would end up in Analog.  But then I came to the ending, and there were two obvious ways to conclude the story, neither of which I could bring myself to write.  So I put it aside for a year or three, returning to it regularly to see what I could come up with.  And finally, recently, the current ending came to me.  It was one I didn't think I could sell to Trevor Quachri, but it pleased me enormously.  So I sent it to Neil Clarke, he bought it, and now you can read the story online.

The story is free for the reading, and if you do, I hope you like it.

You can find the story here.  Or you can just go to the magazine itself here and start poking around. 

Above:  Sunrise from Mars orbit, an image as beautiful as one of Chesley Bonestell's paintings.  But it's a photograph!  This is an era of greatness.