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Impending Con, and what she would do there

This coming weekend is 4th St. Fantasy convention–it’s not too late! you can still get at-the-door memberships!–and I cannot wait. I love 4th St. so much. It’s the people, and the passionate focus on story, and all the conversation. (I also like music parties. But music parties do tend to come with at least a little conversation too.) I’m hoping to finish the story I’m working on now so that I can have the newish novel stuff at the top of my head while thinking 4th St. thoughts.

Here’s what I’m doing formally this year:

Friday 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM: Short Fiction. Michael Merriam (Moderating), David Levine, Marissa Lingen, Michael D. Thomas. It can be challenging to bring worlds to life at novel length, much less in a handful of pages. What are the specific challenges of writing fantastic fiction at short lengths, and what are some ways in which short fiction’s effects and goals differ from those of novels? What strategies can be used to overcome these challenges, and how much grounding in genre protocols does a reader need to be able to unpack short- form fantasies?

Saturday 8:00 PM – 9:00 PM: Tell, Don’t Show. Emma Bull (Moderating), Steven Brust, David Levine, Marissa Lingen, Skyler White. Let’s talk about exposition! Authors like James Michener, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Francis Spufford have written novels that break all the “rules” about people hating exposition, and sometimes it’s better to just come out and tell readers things (c.f. Douglas Adams). What’s going on here, and what techniques and insights can we glean from it?

I am also hosting a lunch for people who are new to Fourth Street and want to meet people and hang out and like that. That’ll be Sunday. I have been trying to reach out to new people each 4th St., because it’s my con, and I want it to be friendly and welcoming, so when Cathy started arranging somewhat more formal stuff for welcoming new people this year, I figured I should sign up. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.

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Books read, early June

Daniel Abraham, The Tyrant’s Law. I am about as big a fan of the middle book as you might hope to find, and golly, this was almost too much middle even for me. It is very, very much a chunk off the next bit, and I can see that it’s going somewhere, but it was not in any great hurry to get there. Also, for the usual “too much boyfriend, not enough roller derby,” read, “too many spiders, not enough banking.” Still intend to be going on with the series, but I persist in hoping for more banking even though I know there probably won’t be that much more.

Louisa May Alcott, The Mysterious Key and What It Opened. Kindle. I had intended to read one of Alcott’s “adult” things at some point and downloaded some to my Kindle towards that end. This was a pretty cliched Gothic with a happy ending completely out of left field. If you are not an Alcott completist or happy with any Gothic no matter how badly executed, I would leave this one be.

R. J. Anderson, Quicksilver. Sequel to Ultraviolet. Even better due to not being set in a mental hospital. Seriously, very nearly everything about this book is a spoiler for the previous one, even though it stands alone pretty well. It would be trivially easy to use the first word of the first sentence you wanted to utter about this book and have it be a spoiler, and they’re not that old/widely read. So: non-dystopian YA SF, variety of interesting characters and relationships. (Including elderly Korean Presbys! Yay!) Recommended, but start with the first one if you think you might want to read the first one at all.

Carole Angier, The Double Bond: Primo Levi: A Biography. Grandpa’s. This was an incredibly hard book to read because of its subject matter (for those of you who don’t know Primo Levi’s work, he was a writer and chemist who survived Auschwitz and killed himself some years later). In some ways it was even harder but also more special because it’s the only book I have found so far in my grandpa’s collection in which he marked page numbers on the jacket flap. Having read those pages, I could only conclude that they were passages Grandpa found particularly moving. He would call me to share “interesting” or “funny” passages–I am still running into those, bit by bit, as I read–but not moving. That was not a type of communication about his inner life that my old Norsky Marine grandpa was much given to. So having that window was especially wonderful, and also very very difficult. I cried a couple of times. This is an exhaustive biography, and I think it will be mostly of interest to fans of Levi’s and people with special interest in Italian Jewry and its intersection with the Holocaust. Don’t get me wrong, it’s really quite well done. It’s just that it is a gigantic, legitimately depressing book, and people often want a reason to pick up one of those.

R. J. Astruc, Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories. Discussed elsewhere. Kindle.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Sidelines: Talks and Essays. Kindle. Interesting to see how Lois’s thoughts on her work and the world have evolved, and how some things are quite constant. Fun background stuff here. Somewhat repetitive towards the end, but she warns you early on about that, so I think it’s fair play.

Junot Diaz, Drown. Short stories in the slice of life vein, very well-written, and the life they are slicing is that of a young Dominican/Dominican-American man, so it wasn’t “ho hum, yes, how like unto everything else this is” for me, the way some kinds of slice of life can be. Also I generally could see why stories began and ended where they did, which is one of the failure modes of slice of life for me. I enjoyed Oscar Wao more (more nerds and more arc), but this was worth my time.

Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark. Biography of a woman who traveled extensively in the Middle East in the early and middle parts of the 20th century and wrote about her travels. Interesting person, interesting bio. Goes in a nice set with Gertrude Bell stuff. Was probably the worst biography I read this fortnight without being at all bad.

Merrie Haskell, Handbook for Dragon Slayers. Discussed elsewhere.

T.H. Huxley, William Harvey and the Circulation of the Blood. Kindle. I just keep nibbling at Huxley’s speeches so I can do his voice for a future project. They are generally what they say on the tin–I’m just soaking up word choice here.

Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. Very immersive style, very funny, lots of Boleyns and Seymours and Cromwells. These books are so discussed at the moment that I feel a bit superfluous, but I think she does a very good job of incluing the things that want inclued for people who don’t have a course in Tudor and Stuart England under their belts.

Val McDermid, A Darker Domain. I liked this entire book except the last half-page, and I see why she did it that way, it just…meh. But the rest of it was well worth it. This one is a mystery about the disappearance of a husband/father/union man during a miners’ strike, and like the other two McDermids I’ve enjoyed and recommended, it’s a mystery along two timelines, with very vivid setting, characterization, and eye to social detail.

Marla R. Miller, Betsy Ross and the Making of America. This book was probably the big discovery of the fortnight. I’m going around raving about it to everyone. I expected very little of it. It was one of those things that made my library list on the “huh, might as well” principle. And wow. Wow. So very many interesting things about colonial and federalist America that tie in so very well with this one historical figure. Early American Quakers and their foibles and schisms! The upholstering and furniture trade! Craftswomen of the period and their working lives! The treatment and consideration of the mentally ill in this period! So! Much! Stuff! Such cool stuff. Highly recommended for fabulists who are trying to look outside the kings-and-generals model, among other things. Okay, just a taste. Both of Betsy’s parents were living when her apprenticeship papers got signed. Guess who made the arrangements? Not her dad. Not her mom. Her grandma. I ended up just loving this book.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Man on the Balcony. Depressing Swedish crime novel, check.

Jenny Uglow, A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. I think perhaps I know too many academics. This was a quite good book on the Restoration, and I will look for more of Uglow’s work. I do recommend it to interested parties. But the central metaphor of the title…seemed tacked on at the last minute to me. It felt almost as though she wrote the book and then tried to figure out a way to make it more cohesive; or else as though she did not have the time to develop it as she had hoped. If one of my academic friends had sent me this manuscript, I would have talked to them about bringing out the central metaphor–or dropping it, because it was a fine and interesting book without it.

Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée Lebrun, Memoirs. Kindle. Several times reading this, I said, “Oh, honey,” out loud. Because the memoirist…does not seem to have gotten a great many visits from the self-awareness fairy. (It did not call upon Versailles or the tsar’s court all that often, so this is probably not surprising.) She was a painter from the mid-late 18th century well into the 19th century but never seems to have grasped what exactly the peasants were so ill-bred as to be annoyed about. Valuable perspective on several things, but valuable and wise are not at all the same thing here.

Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kindle. When you’re writing biographical material about someone who has already had a pretty definitive biography, specialization is your friend, and that’s very much the case here. Wolverton is not pretending that Bird and Sherwin didn’t write their bio, he’s building on it and elaborating on a part of Oppenheimer’s life that was fairly glossed over in their take. Nicely done. Of course, I have most of my ideas about Oppenheimer from personal conversations with one of the people Wolverton appears to have also consulted for this book, so it’s not entirely a surprise that I think so. Still, knowing who to listen to is a good trait in a biographer, or in fact in any historian. This should not be the first thing you read about J. Robert Oppenheimer, but if you have any interest in the topic it should definitely be on the list.

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Marigold dust all over my fingers

My friend Peg has a post in which she is talking about All The Things, All the Many Many Things, and she says:

I fret about how everything, but everything, expands into a million marigold petals when I touch it. I want to scrape at the scale on my bathroom faucet with a toothpick, and to paint my living room myself, and to redo every inch of my yard. I plan to find the pillow for the cover that’s been made out of my wedding dress, and the upholsterer I’d hoped to ask about recovering my dining room chairs has gone out of business. I resent work for taking time away from studying.

And yes. Oh my yes. The world–my world–is full of things that want doing. Some of them want doing now. Some of the ones that want doing now are just not going to get done. But the biggest thing here is that I’m trying to keep the opportunities and leave the fretting behind. I don’t think we want to go without seeing all the things that can be better, the awesome things that can exist but don’t, all the opportunities that this kind of reaction to the world gives us. I’m just trying to let go of the component that fusses and keep the component that sees.

This is harder than it looks.

It’s not easy–but it’s easier–when I’m comparing things I have a choice about. “Work on story” vs. “have tea with friend”: I will choose some of each, and which one will depend on the day, the story, the friend, and a dozen other things. But the last few weeks there’s been a lot of “what gets removed from the list because ‘feel ill’ has replaced it?”, and that…I am even less good at that. Whenever I have a bad time with the vertigo, or a cold or what-have-you, I want to catch! up! I want to make up for the time “wasted.” And over and over again I’m being reminded that not running myself into the ground is not actually a waste.

This week Tim suggested that we should get a three-d ice printer*, and I discovered that my head is full of abstract ice sculptures. I didn’t know that about myself until he postulated this gadget, and then there they all were, cold curves that live in my brain without me even knowing it. And…I am so glad that it does that sometimes, this brain I got. Even with the fretting. So very glad.

*No, we know of no such thing being manufactured. We were talking about my need for baking (tangible, ephemeral) as a counterbalance for writing (intangible, lasting), and Timprov thought that ice sculptures might also serve the same need, and it is unwise for people of my balance abilities to use chainsaws very much. So: three-d ice printer. But really, shouldn’t there be one? Isn’t it an awesome idea?

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Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories, by R. J. Astruc

Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories, review copy provided by Upper Rubber Boot Books.

Some years ago I read an interview with an author–I wish I remembered who it was–wherein the interviewer asked, “What question do you get asked most about your books?”, and the answer, repeated frequently by the author’s mother, was, “Why don’t you write about nice people?” I don’t know Astruc’s mother, so I don’t know if she’s prone to asking that sort of question, but she certainly could. There are zero teddy bears having zero picnics in this book, and in fact I am now a little frightened that Astruc will see this comment and write a story about a teddy bear picnic of betrayal, greed, and casual experimentation on live subjects.

But apparently, much to everyone’s surprise, I am not greatly attached to niceness. I read every story in this collection, not skimming or skipping any of them, which is way above average for a short story collection and even farther above average for a short story collection I didn’t seek out because of great familiarity with the author’s work. What Astruc has done here is to create a future setting that feels internally coherent, and that feels like it stretches further. Each piece adds to the whole rather than clashing. Rather than an antiseptic view of freshly evolved artificial life, Astruc starts out giving us silicon red in tooth and claw–and then it becomes clear with each story (human or AI-focused) that the type of intelligence that has evolved fits perfectly with the rest of the milieu. Some of the stories were very short, hardly more than vignettes, and others took more time to explore and establish the setting and characters.

These stories won’t be to everyone’s taste; nothing is. But they’re very well-handled and doing something that will probably appeal to people who wanted to like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, whether they found that work successful or not.

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Spherical cow generation ships of 7-11

One of the key skills of a physics major that applies quite usefully to writing is analogy. The other day one of my Facebook friends asked a question from her daughter: what happens to pressurized containers in hard vacuum? And one of the keys to answering this question is recognizing the breadth of what “pressurized container” means. Within the kid’s experience, it has probably been used to mean things like soda cans. But from a physics perspective, it means soda cans, it means spaceships, it means the human body, it means a highly variable set of stuff. And we’ve stuck some of that stuff in space, and so we have the ability to talk about what happened and why, and draw analogous conclusions from there.

When you’re a kid, it’s sometimes hard to see which aspects of an analogy will be important and which will not, because you don’t have as much experience–with physics or with social situations or whatever else is up for discussion. My parents are still shaking their heads over the time in my early childhood that I was pining to go into a 7-11. I’d seen them in movies (oh, the Eighties!), but I’d never been in one, and I wanted to go. As adults, my parents had the cultural background to see that a 7-11 in Sioux Falls, SD, where we were visiting my Gran at the time, would be pretty much exactly the same as any other convenience store or kwik-e-mart in Sioux Falls, SD–that any differences would likely be regional, not brand-related (and even those would be pretty minimal). But I yearned. I was filled with curiosity. So Grandma, ever indulgent, took me in and bought me a Cadbury Crème Egg and let me see that the analogies held, the things I could expect of a Casey’s General Store, I could also expect of a 7-11.

One of the ongoing physics jokes is the spherical cow of uniform density, but that’s one of the things a physics major teaches you: when it’s okay to do that and when it’s just not going to work and what you need is a point cow of neutral charge instead. Once my aunt got a nerd test to give me, and when I was laughing ruefully at the spherical cow, my cousin asked what the joke was. My aunt said, “Because they’ve been in the lab so long, they’ve forgotten what a cow looks like.” And I stared at her, and I tried to be nice about it, but no. No. There is a foible to mock here, but it’s not that one. It’s the tendency to push an analogy farther than it will go. A cow, we think, is “sort of like” a sphere. Well, okay; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

One of the things that is most likely to make me bounce off a book can be conceived of as a failure to draw analogies–either in the spherical cow case or in its opposite. The fiction equivalent of the spherical cow comes up when the author doesn’t know much about an area and wants to tell you that something they have come up with will work “just as well,” and you know more about it, and it won’t. The opposite–well, this came up in a discussion at one of my favorite conventions, when the panelists were talking about generation ships. Generation ships, the panel nearly unanimously agreed, would be so very unfair because what if you were born into one and couldn’t do the job you really wanted because there was not room for you in it, and you had to do a job you didn’t like as much instead? How horrible this would be! How unbearable, and how completely incapable of forming a long-term functional society! Because people would be doing hard jobs they didn’t love! And I let them talk as long as I politely could and then put my hand up and said, “You mean like now? You mean like here?” Because seriously. That is the status quo. And if you’re talking about writing dystopias, “It will be a horrible dystopia the like of which the world has not seen since Tuesday!” is somehow less compelling. If you’re going to use something we already have as the main element that makes something dystopic, for heaven’s sake do so with malice aforethought.

Sometimes it’s our job to push a metaphor too far, to see what’s interesting about the ways in which it doesn’t fit–or the ways in which it unexpectedly does. But it’s always on us to make it clear what the hell we’re talking about, to convince the reader that we have not made a spherical cow, nor have we failed to notice that some of the cows are already spheres.

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Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell

Review copy provided by author. Further disclaimer: Mer and I are friends and have critiqued each other’s work in the past, although I had nothing to do with this one. (It came out really well without me!)

I’m not sure where to start on the stuff I like about this book. (I don’t think there was stuff I didn’t like about this book, so that’s easy enough.) There’s the setting: for all that “generi-Europe” is more closely Germany-France-England than anywhere else, it’s not really anywhere very well grounded, whereas Handbook is actually set on the Rhine River, with cultural and geographic specificity abounding (but not overwhelming a book of this length). There’s the main character, with her very well-conceived disability being part but not even remotely all of who she is. There’s the supporting cast, including a character who would be the main character of just about any other fantasy novel but shines in a supporting role. There’s the interweaving of folk and fairy tale influences, some just around the edges and some right up front and center.

What I’m trying to say here is this book: it is full of good stuff. And you might not learn all that much about slaying dragons from it, but there is enough other stuff with horses and inks and like that, it will balance out. (And there are dragons! But. Well. Just go find out yourself.)

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Not just a test post! Now with content!

I wanted to see if my new WordPress blog on my own website would crosspost to my lj, but that’s not really a good enough reason for a post.  But now!  Now I can tell you about Tim’s War for the Oaks photo project!  Which is full of photo projecty goodness, and anybody in the Twin Cities who wants to come and read War for the Oaks in a photo on Saturday should check the details at the link.  And you should check the details at the link anyway, because there are non-Saturday opportunities and also interesting photos.

Crossposting should not be difficult, but I am not having a day of much brain, so we’ll see.

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Once upon a time

Once upon a time, before the days of LiveJournal, Facebook, and Twitter, I kept a blog on my very own website.  I hand-coded the entries.  I could still do that, but…yeah, who are we kidding, there is no reason for me to do that.  I could butcher my own bison, too.  My best-aunt is supposed to bring me the heirloom butchering knife from when the ancestors lived in a logging camp and barely spoke English.  From her gestures I would guess it would be two to three feet long.

I digress.  Well.  I pretty much always digress.  Most of the people who are likely read this any time soon are used to it.

So once upon a time, I kept a blog, and then there was LJ, and gosh, that was so convenient.  So many friends there!  So much conversation!  There was an outage once for several days, and we all kind of panicked!  Whatever would we do without LJ?

I kind of think we’re finding out.  This is one of those bang vs. whimper things.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to mirror these posts to my lj.  I’m still going to read my lj.  But the conversation there has not been what it was for quite some time, and it doesn’t work to use a particular tool to “keep up with” people if you don’t actually…keep up with people with it.  So the idea is that I will aim at posting a couple of times a week and see how that goes.  Sometimes having something on a set schedule means I do it less and sometimes more, but it means that I spend less unproductive time on worrying about whether I am doing it or not.  So that’s the goal here.

Also, y’know.  A place for my blather about writing and books and cool stuff I’m enjoying and whatever else.  That can’t be bad, right?  Okay, it could be.  But it probably isn’t.