Saturday, December 24, 2011

Peace on Earth (and Elsewhere Too)

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People look east and sing today
Love, the Star, is on the way.

Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) "People Look East"

Thanks to NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team for showcasing this cosmic "snow angel." (Despite my Christmas sentiment, this scene is not exactly peaceful -- though the bright star does indicate a birth.)

Edit for clarity: The bright star in top center is not the new star causing all the ruckus; the youngster is shrouded in the cloud in the middle.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween

I drew this one at work for storytime. Wish I'd done better with the kid's arm, but I was in a hurry...

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Distracted Goblin

Lots of things going on, and luckily some of them are writing. I don't think I've mentioned here that F&SF recently bought my science fiction story "Grand Tour" (no date set.) I've managed to get another short story sent off and I think I'm 90% done with another one. For me this is very fast! Hope I can keep it up.

Here are some things around the net I've been interested in:

The film Miss Representation, about media imagery of women and its impact, on girls especially, has been broadcast by the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN.) My wife and I got to see a screening of the uncut version of the documentary at a school. Recommended. It covers so much ground, and offers so many perspectives, I haven't really thought through a response. But it's an excellent conversation starter, and I think it's a conversation we should be having.

Lauren Ipsum is an interesting-looking Kickstarter project -- a children's story about computer programming. The project is funded, but is still open to contributions. (Kickstarter itself is an interesting phenomenon, and really seems to be taking off.)

The film grenade is a ball that takes panoramic snapshots. Imagine adding a bunch of them to a Mars probe, or rigging them with the ability to squirt data to the Internet in case of a catastrophe. (Edit: The proper name for the item is "Throwable Panoramic Ball Camera." "Film grenade" was just the header of blogger Geoff Manaugh's post about it. Catchy, though.)

I've been enjoying Merrie Haskell's children's novel The Princess Curse, about an attempt to thwart a curse like the one in the fairy tale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." I've just been too darned distracted to finish it. It's a curse!

If you're into pen-and-paper roleplaying games, head over to Grognardia and vote in a poll as to when you began playing. Apparently most of us got in during the last century. I feel old...

Monday, October 10, 2011

More Microstories

My experiment with posting ten tiny "stories" on Twitter the 10th of each month has fizzled, but because it's 10/10, here's the set from last month. I made a few small edits.

In the firelight the shaman told of lost Atlantis: "It fell, but one day we will rise." He raised an ancient plastic toy, winged and white.

We shattered the Moon to make the LuneNet that enmeshes us, giving up tides for technology. Silver songs we sing, in our cage.

Jesus: "Love thy neighbor."
Humans: "Eh? Speak up."
Jesus: "Love thy enemies."
Humans: "Ah, our neighbors are enemies."
Jesus: [facepalm]

Ours and myriad other universes flew into existence like bubbles. The Children who made us now reach out their hyperspatial fingers...

The horde torched the civilized lands. Dying metropolises whispered, "Revenge." Now nomads' children are born with the souls of cities.

The Teddy bear AI comforted generations, wore out a thousand plush skins. It knew the family secrets, where the bodies lay. It spoke softly.

On a bet I wrote Finnegans Wake and Zombies. I had to burn the manuscript to save the world.

2011: Lost my contacts, so I can't drive. 2021: Lost my contacts, so I can't signal my car to come get me.

Under the swollen red Sun, the last descendant of trees produced the last fruit. To the alien visitors it whispered Earth's last word: Eat.

Phaeton leaned from the sun-chariot and snagged Icarus, who joined the struggle with the reins. They lived to surpass their sires.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

All Hallow's Read and the Box of Doom

Neil Gaiman is promoting All Hallow's Read, his most excellent idea of making book-gifting part of the Halloween tradition. As a tie-in, our library is planing a kids' book prize drawing. Details are still being worked out, but we have the box. It's dirt-simple to make -- GRAVE dirt simple, bwahahaha...

What you need:

A cardboard box.
Contact paper with a wood-grain appearance.
Black construction paper.
Construction paper of other colors.
Dot stickers (optional.)
Markers (optional.)
An old black sock.

Tape up the box so it's nice and solid, then cover it with the contact paper. (The contact paper I used was eager to stick to itself, so you might want to peel it slowly.)

Now create "shadowy gaps" in the wood with jagged pieces of black construction paper. You can glue or tape these on. Then you can use construction paper of other colors, or white paper and markers, to create weird glimpses of Things inside the box.

The tricky part is putting a hole in the top of the box. I decorated first and then cut a hole, which is probably not the wisest method, but it worked. Cut a hole in the top big enough to get your hand through. Take an old black sock, preferably one you don't want to wear anymore, and cut it above the bend. Now staple the cut end to the box, like so. (Be careful, I got bloodied in this step. How many more staple wounds will you inflict, accursed box, how many!?) I used a craft stick to blunt the staple ends poking through on the inside.

Now it's ready to go, and you can drop in tickets or trinkets or eyeballs or whatever. Speaking of eyeballs, here's another side of the box. These eyes are just pairs of yellow dot stickers, of the sort that proliferate in librarians' desks. A little black marker adds pupils and boo! more haunts for the box.

Thanks to Marlene Iwamoto and Karen Armor for ideas.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Shiver Me Bookshelves

A drawing I did for a storytime inspired by International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Monday, September 12, 2011


One thing the Internet handles less well than World 1.0 is moments of meaningful silence. On the Internet, if you're silent, you're not there. But all I had yesterday was respectful quiet, and some prayer, and there were plenty of other voices to fill that silence, so no 9/11 post for me.

For 9/12 -- well, this isn't a political blog, and there are many better thinkers on that score (I rather liked libertarian blogger Jim Henley's post here and his post pointing to other writings here) -- but it seems to me that to live well, savor Monday as much as a Monday can be savored, remember to appreciate those you love, act with honor and have a little fun, is far from the worst response you could make to the violence junkies of this world.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Scenes and Pacing

Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion." Image credit: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
I've been thinking about story pacing lately, and this led me to thinking about scenes. I'm not holding forth here, just thinking out loud. Sometimes it's daunting, how much I've got to learn. But follow along if you like.

So far I've thought of pacing as a function of sentences and paragraphs on the one hand, and overall storyline on the other. For example at the sentence level, you want active verbs. At the paragraph level, you want to drop details that drag. And out at the storyline level, you want to have a sense that everything's driving toward a big finish, and avoid the temptation to overcomplicate the plot. (A big, big temptation for me, always. Love those strange byways of plot.)

Somehow, though, I've never thought carefully about a middle layer of pacing -- what you do with scenes. I tend to handle scenes off the cuff, throwing things around until I get something that has some energy, that feels right. Nothing wrong with that, but I'm surprised to see I've never tried to get analytical with scene construction, even as an experiment.

I suspect part of that's a preference on my part for fiction that has a strong narrative voice, in which scenes rise up like jewels in the storyteller's hand, are spun in the light, and then returned to her treasure pouch until a new scene is needed. In between we have her voice and the motion of her hands to carry us along.

Or in less romanticized terms, you have narration that conveys you from one scene to the next in a seamless way, so that you may not even notice the transition between "showing" and "telling," and the "telling" part, contrary to introductory writing advice, is often the best part. Ursula K. Le Guin is one writer that comes to mind who is wonderful at this. Another I've recently discovered, thanks to the Howard A. Jones-edited edition of his "Cossack" stories, is Harold Lamb.

The other extreme is a kind of story that seems like a screenplay in prose, where everything revolves around scenes, and the narration's job is to get you from scene to scene with as little fuss as possible. I think I've unfairly overlooked this method, because of my preferences, but it does have its advantages. It forces you to think carefully about what scenes are needed, to pack those scenes with as much punch as possible, and to waste no time with what doesn't support those scenes. Some of Robert E. Howard's work seems to fit this pattern, and I've lately discovered John C. Hocking's "Archivist" stories and admired how his scenes build a fast pace.

For example the first story in the series, "A Night in the Archives,"  compresses everything into a single scene, as if it were a one-act play. The story involves political intrigue, magic, vengeance, and several twists and turns, all in the confined space of the Archives of the fantasy city of Frekore. I realized reading it that I would have told the same story with at least three scenes. They might have been good scenes, but the story would surely have been slower-paced. Hocking's later Archivist stories (the most recent in Black Gate 15) aren't quite so compressed, but they retain that lean, mean pacing. It's something to study.

Speaking of scenes, I got some good tips about them at Worldcon (where I didn't actually manage to blog the Hugos live as planned, but had a lot of fun nonetheless) when I had the great honor of talking writing with an sf legend, Joan D. Vinge. She was one of my Clarion West instructors way back when, and it's great to see her back writing after terrible difficulties -- see this article for more information. She passed along some solid advice on scenes. A good scene, she said, should tackle at least two, and preferably three of these items -- develop or show character, advance the plot, and establish background.

(Now, I think I may have hit two or three of these targets in my own scenes by accident, but that may be a case of throwing a lot of stuff at the barn wall. Maybe some actual planning is in order.)

I'm attempting to apply this advice in the science fiction story I'm working on, a sequel to my space pirate story "Sails the Morne." Meanwhile I'm trying to pull off the all-in-one-scene approach with a short fantasy story. Hopefully both exercises will teach me something.

Tweetable Tales

Snowflake via electron microscope. Source: USDA via Wikimedia Commons
Last month I fired off ten fiction snippets via Twitter. It was a fun exercise and I think I'll try it again this month. I don't think I can manage anything like a "story" at this length, but I hope these amuse. Here's the August set. The first one originally appeared at @outshine, edited by Jetse De Vries, a Twitter-zine of optimistic near-future science fiction.

The Lunarcade! For shiny full-moon quarters you remote-drive lunar rovers. Can you master 1.28 second delay? Tag lunar ore, get high score.

The ad men tested DreamTouch with the meat campaign. All NYC woke from red dreams hissing, "It's what's for dinner." And so we have zombies.

My augmented toddler grabbed my credit stick and ran into the public teleport booth. I hate hide and seek.

A lonely ghost tried to keep us inside with scary "street" noise. Didn't work. It entered our tv, inventing its own local news. That worked.

In Universe1, time travel is impossible.
possible. In Universe2, time travel is
.sdrawkcab snur emit 3esrevinU nI

But, officer, I have sentient AI installed in this car. Surely I can drive in the high-occupancy lane.

The liner returned before it left. I asked myself about the trip. "Terrible," I told me. I let myself get bumped for credit. I love FTL.

The supers defeated Lord Retcon. In a flash it was 1938. The First smiled. "One life, one chance, is all I ask." He ran to block the train.

The alien conquerers made us choose a King from Earth's history to rule over us. But we shall overcome. We picked MLK.

After centuries Cupid reemerged over Toronto. Startled, he shot wild at the biplane and hit a young woman watching the show. Fly on, Amelia.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Alphabets and Cities

If you haven't done so, I'd encourage you to read Yoon Ha Lee's new short story "A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel" at, which reads like the crystallized remnant of a near-lightspeed collision of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker.

And if you liked the style of Lee's story, do head over to Strange Horizons and check out Benjamin Rosenbaum's earlier series of fictions titled Other Cities.

Review: The Desert of Souls

This is a review that originally appeared on the gaming site RPGnet. Their review system asks you to give a star rating from one to five. All in all I'd rather not assign star ratings, but I understand that they're useful as a shorthand impression. So, if I assume The Lord of the Rings is a five, Howard Andrew Jones' The Desert of Souls gets a four. I hope that gives you the idea that I liked it. Here's the review.

Short take: The Desert of Souls is a highly entertaining fantasy set in a well-realized Arabian Nights setting. It pulls off the neat trick of evoking Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber at the same time, while remaining its own thing.

Three issues up front: 1. This is my first review for RPGnet. Feedback is welcome. 2. Full disclosure: the author is also an editor at Black Gate magazine, which published a story of mine. 3. There will be mild spoilers, mostly of the first half.

Classic Quests: Jack of Shadows

Image credit: Jerry Segraves, from Wikimedia Commons

Back when I wrote about pulp versions of Mercury, where that planet was depicted as tidally locked, with a roasting sunward side, a frozen dark side, and a narrow habitable band between, I remembered a fantasy novel that portrayed a similar situation. It seemed too much to get into there, but eventually I wanted to post something about Jack of Shadows, a novel by my favorite writer, Roger Zelazny.

(Spoilers lie beyond the shadows...)

Late Comment

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Nebula Awards

Nebula Sharpless 140. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Life's been very busy this month, and hasn't slowed down much, but I wanted to resurface to congratulate the winners of the 2010 Nebula Awards. I've put up a short post about the Nebulas at the Santa Clara County Library blog.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

J Desk: Poems from Beyond

It's been a busy week, and because I'd promised myself blogging would never come before writing, I haven't been able to check in here. But before we're too far past National Poetry Month, I wanted to mention a couple of poetry-related things.

First I did find a poem for Poem in Your Pocket Day. Actually it was given to me by a library colleague, Karen Rose. It's a neat excerpt from a rap song she wrote:

I've got poems in my pocket
And sand in my shoes
And I wanted you to know
I could rhyme if I choose.

I wrote it on a slip of note paper and slid it into my shirt pocket. The actual day was frantic (like so many of them) and I never worked the presence of the poem into a conversation. But I was prepared. Thanks, Karen!

I also wanted to mention a few books of children's verse from the library shelves that might tickle the feathers of science fiction and fantasy fans.

Imaginary Menagerie by Julie Larios is a beautiful book of short poems about fantastic creatures. Familiar entries like the centaur and dragon are here, but there's also the firebird, the naga, and the will o'the wisp. Here's a bit from the poem on hobgoblins:

They spit and they polish and putter and shine.
And while they work, you can hear them mutter --
All mine! All mine!
The vivid illustrations by Julie Paschkis are great, like an Art Deco take on medieval Celtic manuscript illuminations. This is a fairly short book but a lot of fun to flip through.

Zombies! Evacuate the School! by Sara Holbrook, colorfully illustrated by Karen Sandstrom, is both a book of poetry and a how-to book on writing, where every piece gets sidebars about what's going on in the poem and what techniques the writer is using. As an introduction to verse-writing, or any creative writing, it seems like it would work well, and be lots more fun than many other options. The only drawback this geek sees is that most of the poems actually aren't about zombies, but instead are about the ordinary ups-and-downs of being a kid. Oh, well. It's still worth a shamble down to the library or bookstore to take a look.

Jack Prelutsky is known for children's verse, and sometimes downright bizarre children's verse (witness The Wizard and Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant) and he takes his talents to the stars in The Swamps of Sleethe: Poems from Beyond the Solar System. Sort of like Clark Ashton Smith for grade schoolers, this award-winning book takes you to places where unfortunate explorers have gone before, like cold Drifig Prime where you can expect to freeze solid, or Wonthoo whose waters shrink you to into nothingness, or the world of the title with its all-devouring "mucid horrords." My inner child (a young man of occasionally morbid disposition) thrilled to visions of Lonithor with its demon birds --

They soar above their planet
On perennial patrol --
To feast on otherworlders
Is their all-consuming goal.

-- and Ogdofod with its monopods --

The monopods of Ogdofod
Will snare you in their nets,
Then process you and package you
To feed their hungry pets.

-- and Fesstor of the deadly forests --

Every bush, every bud, every blossom
Is filled with malevolent will.
The prettiest mosses may poison,
The loveliest lichens may kill.

As you might have noticed some of the planet names are anagrams, which gives space explorers a diverting puzzle or two before they are devoured by the Bugs of Gub or dissolved into nothingness on Theentor. Jimmy Pickering's artwork has an appropriately colorful and pulpy look.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Rest Easier

Site of 2001 crash of United Flight 93, photo taken 2006
Image credit: JoeyBLS, from Wikimedia Commons

I am the grass.
Let me work.
-- Carl Sandburg

Friday, April 29, 2011

Joanna Russ, 1937-2011

I saw it reported at Locus and that Joanna Russ has died.

I was lucky enough to take a couple of classes from her when she taught creative writing at the University of Washington. She was dedicated, sharp, encouraging, kind. I feel like I saw just the tip of the iceberg (or merely felt the fringe of the bonfire) but I was grateful to have met her.

She said a lot of things -- here are a few that stuck. Unfortunately I don't remember her exact words, and using my words instead is like imitating Strauss on a kazoo...

Don't worry about getting enough life experience. Life will surely throw enough at you.

It can help to have a representation of your inner critic. (She took out a little statue of a grim and ridiculous looking bird.) This thing will always tell you you're no good. Keep him where you can keep an eye on him.

Don't make it science fiction if it doesn't need to be science fiction.

If it is science fiction, make details that hang together, not just disconnected ideas that sound neat.

Watch out for having something to prove. Watch out for Imposter Syndrome. (She didn't use that term, but I think that's the feeling she was describing.)

I also remember that she was having back trouble and needed a special chair, and that she approached this challenge without any sign of bitterness or discouragement. If she felt it, she didn't let on. That fits with the bravery that characterized her whole career.

I feel sad that I did not encounter her again after I last saw her in the early 1990s. And more so that health troubles prevented her from writing more. And glad for what we do have.

But what tools, what visions, did this old man or old woman give me? What did he give Madame Stowe and the Mesdames Bronte and Madame Austen and Madame Dickinson and Madame George Eliot and Madame Stein and Madame Woolf and Madame Cather and Madame Hurston and Madame Colette and all the others? I have told you (with some help from Madame Lowell) where we got the tools of our trade, but do you now want to find out what those tools really were?

Are you truly curious?

Then read our books!

-- Joanna Russ, "Sword Blades and Poppy Seed"

John Joseph Adams Interview

Over at the Santa Clara County Library blog, there's the text of an interview I did by email with Hugo-nominated editor John Joseph Adams. He edits the online fiction magazines Lightspeed and Fantasy, and was an assistant editor at Fantasy and Science Fiction for many years, but mainly the discussion's about his themed anthology series, beginning with Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. I hope you'll take a look.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter 2011

Image credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, WISE Team
"Love is come again like wheat arising green."

A happy day to you all, whatever your traditions.

(The "green" in this picture is a bit of a cheat -- this is a false-color image of a star-forming region called the Rho Ophiuchi Cloud. However, the birth of new stars fits well with the usual Spring imagery of Easter, I think.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Philip K. Dick Award

Last night I spotted a Tweet from James R. Knapp, author of State of Decay, graciously spreading the word that Mark Hodder had won the Philip K. Dick Award for The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. There was similar word from Science Fiction Awards Watch, though they cautioned there was no official announcement yet. They added they'd heard a special citation had gone to Harmony, a dystopian novel by the late Project Itoh.

Hodder's novel, a steampunk thriller in which Sir Richard Francis Burton and Algernon Swinburne hunt the legendary villain of the title through an alternative London under threat from werewolves (and if you're like me that description makes you wonder why you haven't read it yet) is the first of a set that continues with The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.

The Philip K. Dick award is presented annually for distinguished science fiction published in paperback form in the U.S. It is sponsored by the Philip K. Dick Trust and the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, and the ceremony is hosted by the Northwest Science Fiction Society.

The award is named for Philip K. Dick, author of such classic science fiction novels as The Man in the High Castle. If you haven't heard of Dick, you likely have heard of one of the many films adapted from his works, such as Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau.

Also nominated this year were James R. Knapp's State of Decay, Jon Armstrong's Yarn, Elizabeth Bear's Chill, Alden Bell's The Reapers Are the Angels, Sara Creasy's Song of Scarabaeus. I suspect they are all well worth tracking down.

Friday, April 22, 2011

J Desk: Four for Earth Day

Image credit: NASA

Here are some cool children's books to inspire awareness of the world we live in.

Steve Jenkins is behind many thoughtful science books for children. A good one for any age is Looking Down, a worldless plunge from space toward the earth, through the atmosphere and down to an American neighborhood, where a boy is studying a ladybug. This torn- and cut-paper collage is a fantastic zoom from the vast to the tiny, very much in the spirit of Powers of Ten -- though it stays closer to home, neither going microscopic nor galactic. It always gets attention at storytime. (Reviewers suggest a range of preschool to third grade.)

Bill Peet is a famous maker of picture books, and I still remember The Wump World from when I was a kid. An idyllic green world inhabited by peaceful animals called Wumps is invaded by polluting aliens. The colonizers aren't Earthlings, but they have an uncomfortable resemblance. Their drive and dedication in totally obliterating the natural environment in their quest to build skyscrapers, smokestacks, and superhighways is both comic and horrifying. There is a happy ending, sort of. The message is a bit heavy-handed but it's delivered with creativity and sincerity. (Reviewers suggest a range of preschool to third grade.)

Author Amy Ehrlich and illustrator Wendell Minor give us an imaginative look at Rachel Carson's life. I say "imaginative" because like historical fiction Rachel: The Story of Rachel Carson tries to go beyond the record and get inside the subject's mind, attempting to show the world as she experienced it. I don't know Carson well enough to know how accurate the book is, but I know it's evocative. And it's important for a couple of reasons -- first, because the author of Silent Spring was a pioneer of environmental awareness, and second, because, in Ehrlich's words "Many girls are still turned away from science and math -- and here was a woman who was a scientist -- and a great one." (Reviewers suggest a range of grades 2-5.)

Another author-illustrator team, David J. Smith and Shelagh Armstrong created If the World Were a Village, a book that explores a single idea -- what if you visualized all humanity as a community of one hundred people? Looking over this "global village"gives you some interesting perspectives. Here are a few of them. Of the 100 people, 22 speak a dialect of Chinese, while 9 speak English. The 100 people (using the same compression) keep 189 chickens. 75 of them have secure water supplies, while 25 must struggle every day to get safe water. 39 of the 100 are below age twenty. The illustrations do a lot to dramatize this information, especially in the "Electricity" picture, in which one quarter of the nighttime village is in darkness. (Reviewers suggest grades 3-7.) There is a companion volume, If America Were a Village.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

J Desk: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

Image credit: Chris Van Allsburg

One of the more complicated feelings I get working at the J Desk is encountering a new or new-to-me children's book that doesn't just earn a reaction of "I like this," or "I want to promote this," but "I wish I'd run into this when I was a kid."

The funny thing about The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, though, is that this book appeared when I was still in high school, so I could have run into it. Maybe I even did, and avoided it as a little odd.

You see, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, despite being from Chris Van Allsburg, the great storyteller behind such picture books as Jumanji, Zathura, and The Polar Express, is not really a story. It's instead fourteen titles of stories that don't exist, with fourteen illustrations and the captions to go with them.

For example the name of the absent story for the picture above is "Another Place, Another Time," and the caption is "If there was an answer, he'd find it there."

In another picture, for "The Third-Floor Bedroom," we see an empty room with a wallpaper bird peeling itself off the wall and stretching a wing: "It all began when someone left the window open."

In the picture for "The Seven Chairs," we see a nun levitating on a chair in the mist of a cathedral. The caption reads, "The fifth one ended up in France."

In the introduction to the book, Van Allsburg spins the tale of a mysterious Harris Burdick, a vanished storyteller who left behind only these materials, and whose full tales disappeared with him. Van Allsburg invites the reader to imagine what those stories might have been. These fourteen pieces then are fourteen invitations, to get past the fear of the blank page and get started creating.

It's no surprise that The Mysteries of Harris Burdick has been used as a creative writing prompt in schools. You can see a teacher's guide at the publisher's web site, and an example of what some students did with the book here. On Van Allsburg's own site you can find lots of resources about the book.

I love the way this book spurs creativity, and for that reason I was a little nervous to discover there will soon be an official short story collection based on it. The talent assembled is top-notch, and I'm sure the stories will be great, but will they discourage, however slightly, kids from inventing their own?

In an interview on To the Best of Our Knowledge, author Michael Chabon once talked about how liberating to his young imagination were incomplete or contradictory stories, because the blank spaces and questions were invitations to make up his own extensions to a tale. His examples were the works of Sherlock Holmes, which have their inconsistencies, and the short-lived Planet of the Apes television series, which was canceled before it could complete its storyline. Chabon said the show wasn't great -- and in fact might have been awful -- but it got his young mind making up stories in the way a perfect jewel of a tale would not have.

I can see a connection there to the phenomenon of fanfiction, particularly where it tries to make up for the loss of canceled tv series or book series, or frustrating directions those series take. I wonder also if this invitation to add to an imaginative space is why artists and architecture students keep returning to Italo Calvino's evocative, but brief, descriptions of Invisible Cities.

So in that spirit, just for fun, here's an entry in the style of Harris Burdick.

"Egad!" said the professor. "It's a dracocumulus."

Monday, April 18, 2011

From a Work in Progress

Image credit: Jahn Henne, from Wikimedia Commons

(I finished a novel draft last week, so I'm working on a short story. This one is not part of my "Gaunt and Bone" series but belongs to the same world. Here's the opening.)

Shadowdrop wasn't afraid of the hellsnout that chased her down Statuary Avenue past the hundred marble emperors glaring beneath pigeons' feet. She didn't trouble about its spittle-flecked fangs chomping the air behind her leaping legs as she cleared the iron fence of the Western Gravegarden. Nor was she overly concerned about its frantic howling as it summoned a half dozen four-legged friends for a chase up the Stairway of Time, up the stone stretch, the bronze stretch, the iron and orichalkum stretches shining near the hilltop.

No, what the black cat feared as she raced toward the Tower of the Infraseers was that she'd shed her natural bad luck upon all the innocents in the forum. Again.

The Tower pretended to lack a first story, with only scaffolding, pipes, and gutters connecting it to the ground. The Infraseers were proud of their bond with the guts of the city. It wasn't until she'd clawed her way up the the second story and its gargoyle-covered facade that Shadowdrop turned and saw her fears were justified.

As she gasped between the stone monstrosities, the mutated hounds baying beneath her, she looked down the hill, past the gardens, and along the avenue. The street was now a trail of misfortune.

Overturned fruit carts spilled pink wondermelons and purple squirtbursts onto the stone emperors' feet... A carriage sprawled within the Fountain of Empress Zayne, and silken-clad nobles fled the spray spurting from every gilded window... A throng emerging from the Zodiac Arena was spattered by the water and like angry bees it convulsed in battle between the partisans of Glorg Headsmasher and Snarl Biteblood.

"It is all my fault," Shadowdrop moaned. For she had crossed their path.

Friday, April 15, 2011

On the Road to Karthagar

Image credit: Jim and Ruth Keegan

Black Gate 15 is set to appear in the near future, stuffed full of fantasy adventure, and I wanted to share the amazing illustration created by Jim and Ruth Keegan for my story "The Lions of Karthagar." (See more of their great artwork at their site.) The gentleman on the left is known as a parchman, just one of the dangers the guy on the right will encounter on his journey to the mysterious desert city of Karthagar.

Black Gate is a fiction magazine focusing on fantasy, and with special attention to action and adventure. Check out their website for more information, as well as a lively blog covering books, movies, writing, comics, games, and more.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Life's Reach

It's weird when a day, or a pair of days, comes with a theme. That normally only happens in books.

Yesterday started with important news from the Midwest, and it was at the back of our minds as we took the kids to the California Academy of Sciences. I hadn't been there in maybe sixteen years, and I was impressed. There was an enclosed rainforest exhibit that walks you from forest floor to canopy. There was an aquarium filled with strange creatures of the coral reef, with a layout fit for a James Bond villain. There was a planetarium giving a show about life's origins and the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I sat with our six-year-old and felt like I was shrinking to explore the DNA of a leaf, or zooming back in time to see a younger Milky Way and the origins of the solar system. Later I took our one-year-old outside to look at grass and sky and trees.

Sixteen years ago my wife and I visited Golden Gate Park, on the trip where we got engaged. Now we're showing our kids the world. I felt happily disoriented by it all, the scale of life from DNA to Milky Way, from the Big Bang to the prebiotic Earth all the way to Golden Gate Park and my kid's fingers exploring a tree.

I also remembered how last week I had another disorientation, a kind of Copernican moment, reading an article by Scott D. Sampson, author of Dinosaur Odyssey, stating that about nine-tenths of the cells in our bodies are actually nonhuman bacterial cells, doing various tasks for their hosts -- "In other words, at any given moment, your body is about 90% nonhuman, home to many more life forms than the number of people presently living on Earth; more even than the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy!"

I call it a Copernican moment, a feeling of being displaced from some comfortable assumptions, but really it didn't bother me much, instead giving rise to a kind of pleasant estrangement. It reminded me of the metaphor of how our bodies are a kind of space suit for once-aquatic life forms. So what if in some sense I'm a gigantic mecha battlesuit for bacteria? That's actually kind of cool.

Given all that, when Yuri Gagarin went into space fifty years ago, he brought along with him a host of other species. He really was an ambassador for Earth. Life, small and large, reaching into the wider universe.

After we got home from the Cal Academy we got an update from the Midwest. We heard how my wife's younger sister, who'd been in labor most of the day, brought a baby girl into the world.

Life, reaching into the wider universe.

So, a day with a theme. Disorienting. Weird. Wonderful.

Welcome to the world, kid. Let's make it a good one.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

National Volunteer Week

National Volunteer Week starts today. (If you live in Santa Clara County, you might consider the volunteer possibilities listed now on the Santa Clara County Library website, including an adult literacy program.)

I've volunteered at various times at libraries, our daughter's schools, our church, and a homeowners association. The experiences have been pretty positive, all in all. I think volunteerism is some of the grease for society's wheels; without it, things might grind noisily to a halt.

I should also add, though, that you are the best judge of what you can give. Volunteering may not be for you, at least at this time. Knowing when to say "No" can be as important as knowing when to say "Yes." Be good to yourselves -- even as you take a moment to say thanks to a volunteer.

Saturday, April 9, 2011


Image: Claude Monet, "Train in the Snow"

Our youngest just learned to say the word "Go."

It's what he says when he pushes a walker back and forth through the living room. "Go!!!" Every so often he hits something, stops, explores for a while, says "Go," and gets moving again.

Go. Such a lovely word.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Crashing Through the Wall of Text

  I think there are two basic solutions for exposition, and fortunately they're not mutually exclusive.
  The first is to minimize and streamline it, by choosing your background info carefully and then distributing that information alongside other interesting things, like say the billboards your character zips past during a hovercar chase scene. It's a method that's usually credited to Robert A. Heinlein, and which Jo Walton gives the neat term "incluing."
  The second is the old-fashioned method -- make the pure exposition itself as interesting as possible. Learn the rhetorical tricks of good nonfiction writers and lecturers, and make your infodumps fun.
  I think Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is worth studying for great examples of both techniques. Snow Crash has both a dizzying opening that sets the stage for the whole future milieu, and a long section deeper in explaining the major science fictional idea of the story.
  Many people say they hated the long explanation, but personally I enjoyed it at least as much as the opening. Then again, I'm a weirdo who sometimes skips ahead to the next infodump. But I figure there must be at least a few other readers like me.
  Another trick you can pull with the long lecture-y explanation is to add stress around the edges -- the guy lecturing your hero is doing so while waving a weapon, the lowdown on the conspiracy is delivered under a dark bridge or a spooky underground parking lot, or there are ominous bumps and scratches outside as the lecturer speaks about zombies... A great example of a long infodump with tension is "The Shadow of the Past," Chapter 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring. Check out Kate Nepveu's commentary here, and consider what a great history professor Gandalf would have made.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Idea Box: The Green Room

At a backstage tour at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, my wife and I once got to see an interesting green room that served two different theaters at the site. We heard how that week you might find actors costumed for Titus Andronicus hanging out between scenes with actors ready for Saturday, Sunday, Monday, a play set in modern Italy.

The idea of these two very different sets of Italians mingling in the same green room seemed like a wonderful setting for a story or play. Or, pick a different pair of productions to play off of. It's a kind of game -- take a Shakespeare title and match it with a play that makes a contrast, and mix the actors together with behind-the-scenes issues, something like Noises Off. Hamlet meets Endgame, King Lear meets Death of a Salesman, Henry V meets Pygmalion. And of course someone should get so worked up they stomp out onto the wrong stage.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bookwalks: The Sherlock Solution

Image credit: Alterego, on Wikimedia Commons

I'm very much enjoying Howard Andrew Jones' Arabian Nights-esque fantasy novel The Desert of Souls, which has so far featured a colorful look at the Bagdhad of Haroun al-Rashid, court intrigue, questions of fate and free will, a desperate fight in an alley, a battle with magically-animated dead monkeys, and an enjoyable cast. It's part of his series of tales about the scholar Dabir and his friend and chronicler, the swordsman Asim. (Full disclosure -- Jones is an editor at Black Gate magazine, which has a story of mine in their inventory.) On their first novel-length adventure Dabir and Asim find themselves in possession of a pair of exotic door-pulls that may just originate in the legendary lost city of Ubar. A trip to that cursed metropolis, for all that Asim declares it impossible, is surely in the offing.

Part of the enjoyment here is Asim's narrative voice, and how in a sense he's acting as Watson to Dabir's Sherlock Holmes. Asim comes across as no fool, but he is no scholar either, and the byplay between the two characters is entertaining. There's also nice irony in that Asim is chronicling the adventure long after the fact, and it never occurs to the Asim of the "now" that he might be the author of anything except the deaths of villains.

Dabir and Asim illustrate how useful it can be to have a pair of main characters -- or at least a hero and a sidekick -- who can add dialogue to a scene, and whose different perspectives bring depth to a situation. It's not that a story about a solitary hero (say Solomon Kane or John Thunstone) can't be exciting, but unless the protagonist goes all Hamlet on us, there's going to be less dialog, and either a more introspective mood or a more headlong one, as the writer gets into the character's head or throws him or her directly into the action.

Dabir and Asim also demonstrate a solution to the problem of when one of your heroes boasts a brilliant mind. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, he had the insight that Holmes himself would make an insufferable narrator, and thus we have the bright but not extraordinary Doctor Watson telling the tale of Holmes' exploits. This method has many things going for it. It preserves some suspense, as the detective (or scholar) can keep his insights private until a properly dramatic moment. It sidesteps the problem of presenting a brilliant intellect from the inside (because face it, we're not all Ted Chiang.) It gives a good excuse for exposition, as our genius has to pause to get his comrade up to speed. And it's often cause for humor, as the wise man and the chronicler can poke fun at each other's blind spots. It's a handy conceit that other writers have used to good effect.

For example Umberto Eco transplanted Holmes and Watson to medieval Italy in The Name of the Rose, transforming them into friar William of Baskerville (!) and novice Adso. They struggle to understand a series of murders at a monastery hosting a theological disputation. Like Holmes, the friar uses deduction to solve the crimes, and rejects the easy conclusion, in this case demonic possession, and as with Holmes we experience the story through a friend's eyes, as Adso tries to make sense of the conflicting ideas of his elders. (I'm relying here on having only seen the movie, though my wife has read the book and talked about some of the details.) 

And there's Barry Hughart's amazing Bridge of Birds, in which Number Ten Ox, a young villager in "an ancient China that never was" seeks aid from a sage named Li Kao, a brilliant mind, but with "a slight flaw in his character." Master Li would in fact be a master criminal were it not for his basic good-heartedness and loyalty to China. In a way he'd rather be a Moriarty than a Holmes, which may account for his sour moods. However, give him a suitable villain for a target, and Master Li's full gleeful cunning is unleashed. Bridge of Birds features many villains to thwart as Master Li and Number Ten Ox cross China to find the Great Root of Power, a magical ginseng root that can cure stricken children in Ox's village. Hughart balances humor and adventure in a winning way, and builds to a conclusion that's epic and moving. (I didn't find the sequels, The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen, to be quite up to this level, but then Bridge of Birds is a tough act to beat, one of the best fantasies I've ever read.)

Commentators have noted that Patrick O'Brian's famous Aubrey-Maturin series has some of the Holmes-Watson flavor as well. I've only read the first book, Master and Commander, but I can see Aubrey taking the role of straightforward man of action and Maturin, who turns out to be a secret agent, playing the part of brilliant schemer. (The relationship is complicated however by Aubrey's outranking Maturin, and Maturin's initial unfamiliarity with the sea. We also see Maturin's own point of view as he learns the ropes... er, lines... of life aboard ship.)

J.R.R. Tolkien may not have had Holmes and Watson on his mind when first writing of Gandalf and Bilbo, but there's an echo of that partnership in The Hobbit, and later in The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf is advising Bilbo's nephew Frodo. We never see the wizard's thoughts from the inside, which preserves a great deal of mystery as to his plans and his talents. (It also gave Tolkien some room to refine his concept of wizards in Middle Earth as he continued writing.) However, some of the familiarity here may simply be a result of a longstanding mythic pattern, of the novice hero getting the help of a wise counselor, and indeed Tolkien snatches Gandalf away from the hobbits in both cases, so that ultimately they must rely on their own wits.

Of course using Holmes himself has been irresistible to many writers, and there is a long list of pastiches. But two I'd like to mention are ones in which Arthur Conan Doyle is himself a character. In Mark Frost's The List of Seven, Doyle is drawn into a supernatural adventure beside a brilliant and eccentric Crown agent, thus "explaining" both Doyle's interest in spiritualism and the origins of the character Sherlock Holmes. 180 degrees from this is Vonda N. McIntyre's story "The Adventure of the Field Theorems" in which Sherlock Holmes takes Doyle as a client, and in which Holmes' rationality is pitted against Doyle's belief in the supernatural. Yes McIntyre has the audacity to have Doyle's own creation critique Doyle's beliefs! It's a very enjoyable story, one that has appeared in two anthologies of speculative fiction Holmes pastiches -- Sherlock Holmes in Orbit (edited by Mike Resnick and Martin Harry Greenberg) and the more recent The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (edited by John Joseph Adams.)

Speaking of speculative, here's an extreme stretch. You could argue that in Isaac Asimov's Foundation, the whole civilization of the Foundation is in a sense playing "Watson" to the "Sherlock" of its founder, Hari Seldon, who manifests in a holographic tank now and then to reveal his brilliant predictions for how his spiritual descendants are faring down the centuries. This makes the catastrophe in the followup book all the more shocking, when Seldon's "ghost" turns out to be completely wrong about something. And there's Iain M. Banks' Culture series, filled with organic characters playing catchup with the brilliant, and generally patient, artificial intelligences of the setting.

Interestingly, in the BBC's recent "reimagined" Sherlock Holmes series (titled simply Sherlock) the modern-day Watson's experience as a combat veteran is emphasized, and he's shown acting as a bodyguard, much as Asim does for Dabir in Desert of Souls. The new series also emphasizes the quirks of Holmes' thought in interesting ways, putting me in mind of the whole question of what is neurotypical, and in what ways an unusual brain can be both burden and gift.

The Desert of Souls is on sale now. Doyle, Eco, Hughart, O'Brian, Tolkien, Frost, McIntyre -- and Asimov, Banks, and the BBC -- are most likely available at your friendly neighborhood bookstore, or online vendor -- or at your library.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Speaking of Libraries

Image credit: Lin Kristensen, New Jersey, USA

A while back, C.C. Finlay, author of the Traitor the the Crown series, "The Political Officer" and "The Political Prisoner," and much other good stuff) put up an amazing blog post on his connection to his home town library. 

I can't add anything to the post, except gratitude he shared it. But I do want to follow up on something he added in the Comments:

"Every generation needs new books. They're like a life preserver tossed out into the dark sea -- you don't know who will need a particular book but you can be sure that someone will."

One of the important concepts that a recently retired colleague (see this post) taught me is that we keep some books, not because they are popular, but because they are game changers for certain people. Circulation statistics can't tell you which books they are, unfortunately. Identifying them is an art, one that I don't think I've learned. Finlay's essay is, among many other things, a reminder to never let it all be about the numbers.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

J Desk: Beyond the Deepwoods

Image ©2005 Walter Siegmund

"J Desk" is short for Children's Reference Desk, and I'll use that category for thoughts on children's books.

I originally posted this short review to Goodreads:

"Like a fantasy-horror cartoon as envisioned by Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss, Beyond the Deepwoods is an entertaining coming-of-age adventure story. Twig, a boy raised among trolls in a forest at the edge of the world, finds himself lost from his adoptive people within the monster-haunted Deepwoods, and a quest for survival becomes in time a search for his origins. It's an episodic book that sometimes drags a little, and which occasionally veers awkwardly between humor and horror, but the sheer inventiveness of Paul Stewart's ideas, enhanced by the bizarre and clever drawings of Chris Riddell, keep the story engaging. I hope to read the sequels."

I can add now that I've read one of the sequels, Stormchaser, and enjoyed it. The storytelling seems to settle into a good grove in that one. I expect to continue with the Edge Chronicles, in between other things. More on Stormchaser will have to wait for another post, though.

Check out the Edge Chronicles site for more info, and to see Chris Riddell's art for the series.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month. You can find a nice rundown on the Santa Clara County Library web site, with links to resources. An especially nice idea is Poem In Your Pocket Day -- keep a poem in your pocket to share with others on April 14th. It's bound to be more fun than taxes, anyway.

"Kubla Khan" is my favorite poem, but it's kind of long for these purposes, so I don't know what I'll pick. If you want to keep it short and sweet (or sour) I'll refer you to William Carlos Williams and Ogden Nash. More on this story as it develops.