FF: Reading Is Really Important

October 2, 2015

Being home for a bit over a week hasn’t meant a lot more time to read, because catching up after travel takes a lot of time.  Even so, I made time because reading is really important to me.  Without it, I’m less of a writer.

Ogapoge Meditates on Raising Steam

Ogapoge Meditates on Raising Steam

The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett.  The formerly “medieval” into “Renaissance” Discworld enters the time of steam aka, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.

Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm.  Before she became famous as Robin Hobb, Megan Lindholm had a very solid critical reputation, much of which was based on this urban fantasy (old flavor) novel.  I’d wanted to read it forever, but never found a copy.  Jim found me one for my birthday.  I agree with the praise.

In Progress:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Interesting mixture of elements.  I don’t think this one would be for everyone, because of the heavy reliance on 1980’s pop culture elements, but it suits me just fine.

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett.  Just started.

And Also:

Continuing to read short essays about old SF movies.  I found a listing for Stalker, 1979, German, that sounds like a template for the recent award-winning Annihilation and sequels.  Inspiration or coincidence?

Companion Aliens

October 1, 2015

JANE: Last time we ended up talking about cute aliens, which – at least in my taxonomy – leads logically to companion aliens, which are often, although not always, cute.

Kel Contemplates a Companion Alien

Kel Contemplates a Companion Alien

The obvious species for me to mention are the treecats in David Weber’s “Honorverse” novels, since I have written about them in both novellas in the “Honor” timeline and in the “Stephanie Harrington” prequel novels, Fire Season and Treecat Wars.

Do you mind?

ALAN: Go for it. I actually know very little about the treecats. I’ve never read much of the “Honorverse.”

JANE: I was already friends with Weber when the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station) was published and I’ll be honest.  I really did have doubts about a starship commander and her kitty.

As I read, I liked how Weber dealt with the difficulties of taking a “pet” into space.  He doesn’t ignore realities like the risk of death from explosive decompression or severe injury in battle.  As the novels advance, it become clear that while Nimitz is a hidden asset to Honor in some situations, there are others where he is a vulnerability.

So, by the time I was invited to write the Stephanie Harrington novels, I’d moved away from the “girl and her kitty” mindset to the more compelling one of two very different minds meeting.

ALAN: Isn’t it odd how many aliens are feline? Tigerishka in Fritz Leiber’s novel The Wanderer  (which won a Hugo Award in 1965). C. J. Cheryh’s Hani in her Chanur novels. Larry Niven’s Kzinti… And Cat from Red Dwarf, of course.

JANE: Absolutely!  It’s something I’d like to discuss later, actually.

Going back to the treecats…  The thing is, despite the name and how they’re depicted in a lot of the earlier cover art, treecats are not housecats with extra legs and hands.  When Stephanie named them, she was only eleven, and following in the long human tradition of naming things not for what they are, but for what they most closely resemble at a quick glance.

She could have as easily called them “hexaweasels,” or “lemur-ferrets,” based on their build, which, in the official Honorverse material (which I have access to, tah-dah!)  is described as: “…built long and lean, on the lines of a Terran ferret or weasel crossed with a lemur monkey, and average about 60 centimeters in body length (130-135 centimeters, counting their tails).”

However, since Stephanie was from Meyerdahl, not Earth, it’s really more likely that she would have been more familiar with cats (which treecats resemble facially) than with either ferrets or weasels.

ALAN: I like hexaweasel. I don’t think much of lemur-ferret though. It’s a bit too much of a mouthful.

JANE: Treecats are also quite intelligent, are tool users (although on a very basic level), and have some very interesting biological elements that I won’t go into here.  The point is, the more you learn about treecats, the more it becomes apparent that in their associations with humans they are truly companions, not pets.  I’ll admit, these days I actually prefer writing from the treecat point of view, and have come to see the humans as the companion aliens!

Okay…  Your turn…

ALAN: I’m rather fond of Alan Dean Foster’s novels about Flinx and his minidrag Pip who is a flying empathic snake capable of spitting a corrosive, neurotoxic venom. Minidrags are non-sapient, nevertheless they will often bond strongly with sapients with whom they feel an emotional attachment and Flinx and Pip are extremely close.

JANE: You would probably be interested in knowing that Weber realized years after he’d created them, that Pip (and minidrags in general) were an influence on the treecats.  I had the pleasure of being present at a World Fantasy Convention where Weber sought out Alan Dean Foster to thank him for the inspiration.  He gives Flinx and Pip credit now, and recommends the Pip and Flinx books.

ALAN: Good for him! Can I add that I met Alan Dean Foster once when he was a guest at a New Zealand convention and he was a lovely man, very modest, very pleasant to talk with. I’m sure he was thrilled by what Weber had to say.

This kind of bonding with vaguely reptilian creatures seems to be relatively common in the genre. I’m thinking here of McCaffrey’s fire lizards and Steven Brust’s jheregs.

The fire lizards are aliens, native to the planet Pern. McCaffrey’s dragons were genetically engineered from the original Pernese fire lizards. The fire lizards themselves are about the size of a large bird, and they can have a very intense relationship with the humans to which they bond.

JANE: Good point.  It’s been years since I read Jhereg.  Can you remind me about them?

ALAN: The jheregs are also dragon-like creatures one of whom, called Loiosh, bonds closely with Vlad Taltos, the hero of many of Brust’s Dragaera novels. I’m never sure how to define jheregs because I’m never sure exactly what Brust’s novels are. You can argue that they are SF (in which case Loiosh is an alien companion). But it would be equally valid to consider them to be fantasy stories (in which case Loiosh is perhaps best described as a familiar).

Personally, I don’t care, because mainly they are just very good books, which is all I really care about…

JANE: The issue of what to call well-realized imaginary world fiction is perennial, isn’t it?  I think that’s why when Terri Windling was doing the “Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” anthology series, she made a point of differentiating.

So, let’s see, in addition to catlike and lizard-like alien companions, what else are there?

I asked that question aloud as I was typing, and Jim reminded me of my own “Gittchy,” who appeared first in my short story “Winner Takes Trouble” in the anthology Alien Pets in 1998.  This was the first of my Captain “Allie” Ah-Lee stories, which I collected in the e-book Star Messenger.  I don’t want to say too much about “Gittchy” because what Gittchy can do and where she came from are central to her stories.

For those who are interested, the Alien Pets collection did provide a wide variety of “takes” on the idea of alien pets.  A couple of the weaker authors did go for the quick humor element, but many took it quite seriously.

ALAN: And don’t forget Sand Shadow, the puma in your Artemis novels. You seem quite fond of the idea. Perhaps that’s because there are so many animals in your real life?

JANE: Actually, I think fiction made me want companion animals…  My parents were adverse to us having pets because they felt four children were enough chaos for any household.  They finally broke down when I was ten and let me have a guinea pig.  I have had guinea pigs pretty much ever since…  We currently have four.

See what books can be blamed for?

Anime/manga frequently features companion aliens.  One of my favorites is the recurring CLAMP character, Mokona.  Mokona’s right up there with the Fuzzies on the diabetically cute scale.  He looks like a rounded white rabbit with huge eyes and a gem in the middle of his forehead.  However, in the second part of Magic Knights Rayearth, the question of just why Mokona is involved with the protagonists and their difficulties becomes very interesting indeed.

In fact, more often than not, the companion aliens in anime/manga serve a role far beyond the obvious one of making fans say “I want one!”

To me, companion aliens who turn out to be allies in some ways, not just egoboosters or status items (as the firelizards of Pern seemed to become) for their “owners” are definitely the best.

ALAN: Yes – the stories always work best when that sense of mutual support is emphasised.

But I’ve had another thought about aliens and how we react to them. What are you doing next Thursday?

JANE: Talking to you about your thought!  I can’t wait!

Off to Arizona

September 30, 2015

This past week, Jim and I completed the last scheduled trip in this fast-moving September.  On Sunday, we drove to the Phoenix, Arizona area so that I could take part in the premier event in the SFAZ Author Reading and Signing series.  Nearly two years had passed since we had made the drive to Arizona, and we quite enjoyed the trip.  It’s a fairly long drive – nearly five hundred miles each way – but if you like stark scenery, it’s quite lovely.

Blood Moon Omens

Blood Moon Omens

Leaving west from Albuquerque, we drove along I-40 through what Jim said archeologists (and probably other people) call the Red Mesa Valley.  Words don’t quite capture the setting, because “valley” to most people implies a dip in the landscape.  The Red Mesa Valley isn’t so much a “dip” as a wide, flat area bordered on either side by huge sandstone mesas (and probably some buttes) which tower up to frame the landscape in various shades of red and orange.

The lack of vegetation any taller than piñon or juniper (and the occasional line of cottonwoods, huddling along the rare watercourse) adds to the impact of these mesas.  This is a landscape so devoid of trees that many times I saw a cow taking advantage of the small amount of shade cast by a telephone pole.

Sadly, the Red Mesa country does not stretch all the way to Phoenix, or even all the way to Flagstaff.  (More about Flagstaff in a minute.)  Eventually, the mesas vanish or are, at best, distant outlines on the distant horizon.  You’re driving through the middle of nothing.

Remember Eagles’ song with the bit about Winslow, Arizona?  I bet the reason the girl in the flatbed Ford slowed down when she saw a man standing on a corner was because she was so astonished to see anything at all.  Winslow and its neighboring (as in about forty miles away) town of Holbrook are set in some of the most hypnotically repetitious landscape I’ve had the pleasure to travel through.

You find yourself commenting on freight trains, cows, or the occasional hawk because scrubby grass and shrubs aren’t exactly notable.  Happily, near Holbrook, someone has constructed a bunch of the worst dinosaur sculptures you could ever hope to see.  But their lack of realism doesn’t matter.  They’re painted in bright colors and break up the monotony.  I love them.

Sometime after we left the Red Mesa country, Jim and I turned on a recorded book.  We’d brought along The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman.  Hillerman’s mysteries are set in the same general area through which we were driving.  His protagonists drive hundreds of miles just to question a suspect.  I first encountered these novels when I still lived in Virginia.  There – among the crowded woodland, where a field can become a forest within a couple of years (if someone doesn’t take care to grub out the saplings) – the landscape Hillerman described seemed almost alien.  Now that I live among it, it still has the power to evoke awe and wonder.

Jim hadn’t read any of Hillerman’s novels, so now these are among our first choices when we know we’ll be driving in through the West.  One bonus is that sometimes we pass a setting featured in the novel.  This time it was the Hopi Travel Plaza and the town of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Flagstaff, Arizona, is everything that Arizona is not supposed to be.  Set among the San Francisco Peaks, the piñon and juniper give way to towering Ponderosa pines, the area is green and lovely, if not exactly lush.  It’s cooler, too, a welcome break from the heat of the lowlands.  While I can’t quite figure out why anyone would settle in Holbrook or Winslow, I have no problem understanding why travelers heading west decided to break their journey in Flagstaff and then decided to stay.

Leaving Flagstaff, we dropped down into hot, dry reaches again.  Soon the saguaro cactus began to make their presence known, standing out even among a landscape full of weird-looking plants with twisting limbs and an ample array of not just thorns, but spikes.

Phoenix is a vast, sprawling metropolis about which, I feel, the less said the better.  Many towns, including Scottsdale, where the SFAZ book event was being held, have been swallowed up and now exist as little more than enclaves within the greater creature.  Our drive there on Tuesday was accented by a quick, violent rainstorm, which is how rain tends to fall in the desert, when it bothers to fall at all.  Jim had to pay attention to the incredibly complex traffic patterns, but I got to enjoy a magnificent double rainbow.

The SFAZ event was held at the quirky SIP Coffee and Beer House.  Victor Milan, Melinda Snodgrass, and myself were seated at a long table of highly polished dark wood set at one end of the long room.  Attendees sat at tables for two or four arrayed around the room.  It was a nice setting in many ways, evoking the classic literary coffeehouse.

However, no matter how great for mood, low light isn’t wonderful when trying to give a reading…  I mentioned this as I was struggling both to read from the opening of Artemis Invaded and keep an eye on the clock. To my surprise, one of the patrons slipped his portable reading light into my hand!  It definitely helped.

After we gave our readings, we took questions.  These were many and quite varied, which made for a fun time for the panelists.  After, we had a chance to chat in a much more relaxed fashion than is usual at a book event.  I was particularly happy to meet reader Emily Newman, a winner of this summer’s “Help Make Artemis This Summer’s Hot Destination” contest.  It was also nice to catch up with writer Mike (Michael A.) Stackpole, who I hadn’t seen forever.

Now we’re home…  An inch plus of rain fell while we were away, so much of the garden is still going strong.  The lunar eclipse was eerie and strange.  But now I’m ready for normal.  I look forward to getting back to my various projects, including an idea I have for a story…

FF: To Arizona and Back

September 25, 2015

Another busy week.  Last Sunday, Jim and drove over to the Phoenix, Arizona area so we could visit with my mom and a few other friends and family members.  Then, on Tuesday I took part in the inaugural SFAZ Premier Author Reading and Signing series along with Victor Milan and Melinda Snodgrass.

Arizona's Signature Saguaro Cactus

Arizona’s Signature Saguaro Cactus

During parts of the drive, we listened to audiobooks.  We also spent oohed and ahhed over the scenery.  This is spectacular, except between Windslow and Holbrook where – if it wasn’t for the fake dinosaurs –  it would be mind-numbing.

Even so, reading time has definitely been stretched thin.

The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Queen of Thorns by David Gross.  Sword and sorcery in the Pathfinder gaming universe.  Two highly diverse point of view characters give the story more depth than it might otherwise have.  I enjoyed.

The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman.  Audiobook.  We picked this one because we were driving through some of the areas in which the story is set.  When we drove by the Hopi Travel Plaza, I bounced up and down and pointed, because a character a chapter back had stopped there for coffee.

In Progress:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Interesting start.  However, left at home, so haven’t gotten too far in.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett.  The formerly “medieval” into “Renaissance” Discworld seems to be entering the Industrial Revolution.


Some interesting articles, toward a potential future project.

TT: Cute But Not Always Sweet

September 24, 2015

JANE: After we finished chatting last time, I realized that the film E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is, in many ways, a response to Bug-Eyed Monster stories like The Thing.  The film’s full title, since I didn’t mention it last time, is The Thing From Another World so there’s even a sort of parallel there.

Fuzzie: Proto-Ewoks?

Fuzzie: Proto-Ewoks?

In both stories, a solitary alien is stranded on Earth and, presumably, would like to improve its situation.  I say “presumably,” because we never do find out if The Thing is reacting from panic and fear (as Dr. Carrington, the chief scientist, believes) or from hostility (as the military folk believe).

E.T. has enormous eyes, which definitely qualify him as “bug-eyed” (although “doe-eyed” is equally accurate).  However, unlike most BEMs, he’s gentle, empathic, and intelligent.

ALAN: Oh! Cute aliens. I have something to say about them, but that’s far too much of a tangent at the moment. Finish off what you were saying and remind me later…

JANE: In The Thing the scientist who wants to communicate with the alien because it must have “wisdom” to share, is clearly a nutty idealist.  The Air Force personnel who want to blow The Thing up are the heroes.  (Though they lose points even in their own estimation when they destroy the flying saucer in the process of trying to free it from the ice.)

In E.T. the scientists and military folks are the bad guys who nearly kill their friendly visitor…

Each movie spoke to the concerns of its time.  The Thing is an artifact of the Cold War, while E.T., which came out in 1982, reflected a hope for communication between different “peoples” – something emphasized by the almost mantra-like repeated phrase: “E.T. phone home.”

ALAN: That idea of the alien as allegory is a potent one. It’s a common literary device, used to reflect the zeitgeist. For example, Jack Finney’s pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s parasitic puppet masters who ride their human hosts to death (in his novel The Puppet Masters) are clear dramatisations of the consequences of a communist takeover that America was so concerned with in the 1950s.

Amusingly, in his novel A Plague of Pythons, the avowed left wing writer Frederik Pohl examined the same theme and came to much the same conclusion as Heinlein, who was writing from a right wing perspective. Pohl’s novel doesn’t have aliens in it (his puppet masters are human), but that only goes to show how symbolic the aliens actually are.

JANE: That’s an interesting point!  I hadn’t been aware of the unintentional agreement arrived at by two different approaches to the same theme.

However, I do think that there’s a lot more to aliens than mere allegory.  If they were only allegorical figures, I don’t think they’d have so much lasting appeal.

And speaking of lasting appeal…  You mentioned cute aliens.  Are they really as prevalent as you said?  I cudgeled my brain, but other than the Fuzzies and some aliens who fit more into the “companion animal category” (which I also think bears discussion) I couldn’t think of any right off the bat.

ALAN: Thank you for reminding me. I think that cute aliens are a staple of SF.  You mentioned Fuzzies and that’s probably the archetypal example. They appear in H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy  and its sequels (and John Scalzi has also written a Fuzzy novel).

The Fuzzies are so cute and sugary that you can almost get diabetes from reading about them! Nevertheless, they are delightful and it’s a perfectly valid way of addressing the problem of defining the alien – we’ve got a myriad of examples of that in our own animal kingdom. Nothing is cuter than a meercat, but they are fierce warriors when roused…

JANE: Indeed!  Even housecats can be fierce, as the four who share my household go out of their way to remind me daily.

I seem to recall that your Harpo has similar delusions of fierceness…

ALAN: He’s not delusional, he is fierce. When his eyes glow red, the wise know that it’s time to retreat…

However, now that I think about it, cute aliens are rather more common in movies and TV than in books.

Ewoks spring immediately to mind, as do the tribbles from Star Trek. Though having said that, the tribbles owe a lot to Robert Heinlein’s flat cats from the novel The Rolling Stones (aka Space Family Stone). There’s a rather cute baby with squid-like tentacles in the movie Men In Black, but there’s also the squidmoth in Vonda McIntyre’s Starfarers novels which somehow manages to be both cute and alien at one and the same time.

JANE: Interesting…  “Cute” is definitely easier to do in a visual medium than in print.  If you think about it, “cute aliens” are sort of the reverse of the “monster aliens.”  Ewoks turned out to be nice, tribbles dangerous.  And if one slides the scales over to pure monsters, the movie Gremlins shows both side of the question.

ALAN: We SF geeks sometimes refer to aliens as “little green men” and there are some rather cute little green men in the movie Toy Story.

JANE: Uh…  It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but do you mean the little green army men?

ALAN: No – the Little Green Men are prizes in a game of skill at Pizza Planet franchises. They are little, they are green, they have three eyes and an antenna sticking out of the top of their heads. The Little Green Men are all in telepathic communication with each other (presumably via the antenna).

JANE: I remember now!  Yes…  They were definitely cute.

ALAN: I’m also rather fond of the very funny (as well as cute and extremely annoying) little green men-Martians in Fredric Brown’s novel Martians Go Home!

JANE: Henry Kuttner had some annoying cute aliens in one of his short stories…  Darn!  I’m blanking on the title.  The story was one of the ones with his alcoholic genius character, who I didn’t care for, so I gave the book away…  Can you remember?

ALAN: Oh indeed – the story was called The World is Mine and the aliens are called Lybblas. Here’s a quote:

The ears were huge, round and furry, the eyes enormous and a pink button of a nose shivered and twitched. Again the creature cried:

“Let me in! I gotta conquer the world!”

Later the Lybblas discover a corpse, dead but still warm. Feeling chilly, they sit on it until it gets cold…

JANE: That’s them…  Cute but really weird and creepy.

I bet that the Lybblas were the inspiration for the aliens from the planet “Cuteatron” who appeared on a  “Pigs in Space” portion of one of Jim Henson’s shows.

The aliens from Cuteatron looked like long-haired, fluffy bunnies, and fired a ray that turned their opponents cuter one piece at a time.  It was a very silly sequence…

ALAN: Jim Henson’s shows were marvelously science fictional. Wonderful stuff!

But once we start looking at the cute alien theme more closely, don’t you find that it quickly segues into the “companion animal” kind of alien?

JANE: That’s a fruitful topic and one for which I can think of quite a few examples.  Let’s come back to it next time.


September 23, 2015

Back in August, knowing that my life was going to be getting incredibly busy, I solicited questions from the readers of these Wednesday Wanderings.  For several weeks, Louis Robinson’s question gave me plenty to talk about.  (See “The Cost” part One, Two, and Finale.)  However, that doesn’t mean I forgot that “heteromeles” had tossed a few thoughts my way.

Where Might the Stories Go?

Where Might the Stories Go?

Here’s what he said:

“As for what I’d want to see? Well, I always wondered how that incipient conflict between the humans and the wise animals in Firekeeper was going to play out (and what role the Dragon of Despair might play in it), and I was disappointed that the series veered away from that.

It might even be fun to revisit the Changer, hear his views on social media and climate change. He’s been through the latter, after all.”

I’m not completely certain heteromeles understood that I was asking for Wanderings topics, not what he’d have liked to see in one of my books, but his comments have stayed with me, especially his use of the word “incipient” in regard to some of the action in the Firekeeper books.

Let’s start with the dictionary definition of “incipient.”  My Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “incipient” as “Begin to be or become apparent.”

“Incipient” is commonly used in reference to things that are showing but not quite realized, like a pregnant woman’s barely visible “baby bump” or a bud that is unfurling into a blossom.  However, it is certainly appropriate to use the word “incipient” in the context of the plot of a book or other form of story.

Certainly, military fiction is full of “incipient” action, because most stories are framed around the developing of a conflict, then the actual conflict unfolding, followed by (in some cases) the aftermath thereof.

Where I feel that the use of “incipient” is incorrect is when readers feel that their expectations or anticipations regarding the developing plot are in fact predictions – and that the author must do what was expected or risk disappointing the readership.

As a reader, those books where I can anticipate every turn of the plot are frankly boring.  That’s one reason I’ve never been a reader of romance novels.  The tropes are so set that even a relatively casual reader can usually tell what’s going to happen.

I understand that this element of predictability is part of the appeal of such works.  I’m not immune to the charm of knowing that no matter how twisted the case, Miss Marple will make sure the right person is brought to justice.  However, one reason I delight in Agatha Christie’s stories is that how this is done usually contains some element of surprise.

As a writer, I do not feel that it is my responsibility to do what my readers expect or anticipate.

I don’t go out of my way to avoid fulfilling expectations, if that’s where the story seems to want to go.  However, I do not, will not, provide “fan service.”  I think this is important for me to state because of how frequently I receive requests either to continue a series or to write a sequel to a “stand alone” novel.  Anyone who asks this must accept that the novel they’re asking for and the novel that I will write might not be the same.

Regarding the Firekeeper novels, the conflict heteromeles felt was “incipient” was, in fact, never part of any vision I had for the series.  I’ve never wanted to write a war novel, not even a guerilla war novel.

Certainly, “conflict” can take other forms.  If the human population decides to press over the Iron Mountains into territory currently resided in by the Wise Beasts, there would be some adjustments to human expectations.  Basically, they’d learn that the “empty” lands already have residents.

However, note that Prince Barden not only moved into that territory, but also set up a fortification – and all of this without conflict with the Wise Beasts.  In fact, given that the child who would become Firekeeper was raised by the Wise Wolves, there is ample evidence in the existing text that “conflict” was not an element of the situation at all.  Yes.  Later we meet some wolves who resent Firekeeper and all they feel she represents, but they are hardly “community leaders.”

Authors often face how readers impose their own views of a situation or characters on a story.  In his talk at the National Book Festival, David Weber said: “No one has ever read a single novel I’ve written.”  Then he went on to talk about how each reader brings his or her own biases, preconceptions, and the like to a book, so that each novel as read is really a collaboration between the author and the reader.

However, the novel as written and the process of deciding what will be in that novel belongs solely to the author.

I like collaborative storytelling or I wouldn’t be a gamer – and I certainly wouldn’t be a gamemaster, since the best games involve flexible responses on all sides.  However, when I’m writing, the story is mine and mine alone…  That’s one reason I don’t workshop and why even Jim doesn’t see a story until it is complete.

As for the Changer and his views on social media and climate change…  I find myself giggling as I envision how that laconic Ancient would take to being cross-examined by some well-meaning, honest soul.  Like as not, he’d shift shape into a bird or butterfly, then take wing…  And that would be an answer.

So, any more questions?  By the time you read this, I’ll be done with the final event in my busy travel schedule and heading home from Arizona.  However, that doesn’t mean I’d not welcome the opportunity to chat with you about topics related to my works or to writing in general that interest you.

Let me know!

FF: Fair Season Reading

September 18, 2015

It’s been a busy week.  Last Saturday, Jim and drove down to Las Cruces for a book signing (also featuring Victor Milan and Melinda Snodgrass).  We did the round trip in one day, listening to Agatha Christie short stories for part of it.  Then Sunday we went to the State Fair…

A Heap of Bunnies

A Heap of Bunnies

In between, I’ve been catching up from the last trip…  Reading time has definitely been stretched thin.

The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani.  Audiobook.

To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix.  Short story collection, stories grouped by theme, which is sort of odd and had a potential for spoilers.  Still, I enjoyed a great deal.

In Progress:

Queen of Thorns by David Gross.  Sword and sorcery in the Pathfinder gaming universe.  Two highly diverse point of view characters give the story more depth than it might otherwise have.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Just barely started.


Snippets here and there from 101 Sci-Fi Movies, edited by Steven Jay Schineider.  I’ve never been much of a movie goer, so this is proving fun window into a part of the field of which I am more ignorant than many.

TT: BEM’s and Other Extraterrestrials

September 17, 2015

JANE: Last week we discussed aliens who are not really “aliens,” because they are actually native to Earth and are, in fact, often created by human agency. But this week I want to talk about extraterrestrial aliens.

Shambleau and Friends

Shambleau and Friends

ALAN: It’s an obvious SF topic, and they’ve been there in the stories right from the beginning. But they have often been quite crudely depicted. Generally they were just bug-eyed monsters which were little more than plot devices to allow the hero be heroic by fighting and destroying them.

JANE: This doesn’t mean the stories are bad.  Sometimes they can be amazingly creepy.  I’m very fond of the 1951 movie The Thing, which is based on the short story “Who Goes There?” written by John W. Campbell Jr. under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart.

Basically, a UFO is found in the Arctic ice.  A military/ scientific team is sent out of study it.  Something starts hunting them…  I know it’s old-fashioned and has been repeatedly imitated, but I don’t care.  I really enjoy it!

ALAN: Me too! I’m a sucker for stories like that. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fond of the writer A. E. Van Vogt. He is my very favourite writer of terribly trashy SF. I truly cannot recommend his stories – they have not aged well and are probably best read with your eyes closed so that the words never manage to reach your brain. Nevertheless, I love him dearly. In one of the novellas that comprise the fix-up novel The Voyage of the Space Beagle, we meet an alien who is obsessed with reproducing his race. To that end, he rampages through the space ship, kidnapping crew members and implanting parasitic eggs in their stomachs.

The plot is so close to that of the movie Alien that Van Vogt actually sued the makers of the film for plagiarism. The case was settled out of court.

JANE: I didn’t know that.  I’m not really familiar with the story either…  So, do all aliens as creepy monster stories belong to the benighted past?  I mean, we’re both talking about stories from the 1930’s.

ALAN: No, they certainly don’t. David Gerrold’s enormously popular “Chtorr” novels detail a struggle against non-sapient alien plants and animals that are taking over Earth’s ecology. It is not clear if the alien beings have been “seeded” by a more sophisticated intelligence or if the invasion is just an interstellar accident. But the aliens we directly encounter in the stories are just ravening, mindless monsters and the battles are thrilling…

JANE:  Good to know…  I haven’t read these but it sounds as if they would do very well with the new interest in “cli-fi” (or SF dealing with climate change and related issues).

I think before we move on to the more sophisticated aliens, we should acknowledge that movies and the need for simple, cheap costumes popularized the BEM element in SF as much or more than print.

“Monster” movies are perennially – and cross-culturally – popular.  What’s funny is that every wave of advance in special effects (and one could consider film itself a special effect, since drama has a very old heritage) seem to breed a new wave of such movies.

ALAN: Perhaps it is time to film Gerrold’s Chtorr novels. They certainly prove that there can still be a place for ravening bug-eyed monsters in modern SF. But once you’ve had a fight, what else is left? Well, quite a lot actually…

Probably the earliest example of an alien that had more sophistication to it was in Stanley G. Weinbaum’s short story “A Martian Odyssey,” which was published in 1934. It completely changed the way writers (and readers) thought about aliens. The Martian creature Tweel that Jarvis and the other explorers from Earth meet in the story is so alien that they really have little insight into his/her/its motives. For example, Tweel travels in huge leaps and bounds that end with his beak buried in the ground. Why does he do that? We never find out.

Tweel does learn to walk like the Earth people so that he can travel with Jarvis at his pace as Jarvis explores. Tweel even learns some words of English, but the Earth people learn nothing at all of Tweel’s language. From beginning to end, Tweel’s actions remain largely incomprehensible, dare I say, “alien”?

JANE: Hmm…  I’ve got to admit.  I’m not familiar with “A Martian Odyssey,” and since your comment pretty much contradicts what I was going to say, I’d better…  Let’s see if I have a copy.  Ah, yes.  It’s the first volume in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg in 1971.

Can you go walk Jake or something while I read it?

ALAN: No problem. He’s sitting here watching me type and he thinks I’m being very boring…

JANE: Okay… I’m back.  Thanks for mentioning the story.  I really liked it – although I suspect the style would be impenetrable to many of our younger readers.  I don’t think you did it justice!  Compared to some of the creatures Jarvis encounters during his hike with Tweel, Tweel is practically comprehensible.  After all, it seems to have a concept of friendship and a desire to bridge a HUGE culture gap.

But the critters with the pushcarts…  And I loved the walking blades of grass.  Perfect for a desert!

ALAN: Oh indeed – and I really like the silicon-based life form that (quite literally) shits bricks…

JANE: However, I think you are wrong about never understanding why Tweel travels so oddly. I thought the story made it very clear why it travels like it does; Jarvis even comments that it’s a very efficient way of using low grav.

ALAN: Perhaps I need to re-read the story. It must be at least forty years since I read it. But I think the fact that much of it has stuck indelibly in my mind for so long proves just how powerful a story it really is.

JANE: There’s a story that predates “A Martian Odyssey” by one year that some say beats it in presenting an alien who is truly alien.  Can you guess which one?

ALAN: No, sorry.  I can’t.

JANE: The story I have in mind is “Shambleau” by C.L. Moore.

ALAN: Ah! I’ve not read that one. Tell me more.

JANE: In his introduction to The Best of C.L. Moore, Lester del Rey says the following: “Here for the first time in the field, we find mood, feeling, and color.  Here is an alien who is truly alien – far different from the crude monsters and slightly-altered humans found in other stories.”

However, having just re-read both stories in close proximity to each other, I’d agree with you that Tweel in “A Martian Odyssey” is more alien.  Shambleau is creepy because she begins as more or less human (which is why Northwest Smith steps in to protect her from an angry mob) but, by the end of the story, she is seen as a truly alien creature.  Still, I think Shambleau belongs on the side of horror, while Tweel is firmly within the SF camp.

Part of the reason I’d say this is that, while at the end of their respective stories both remain mysterious and incomprehensible, Jarvis asserts that he believes the gap between humans and Tweel can be bridged – the scientific explanation.  However, Shambleau is a mystery thousands of years old and we are given to believe, will remain so.  So, Tweel is an alien, while Shambleau is a figure of myth.

ALAN: And being mythic, Shambleau therefore remains outside of the “rational” universe that SF writers were starting to examine, largely under the direction of John W. Campbell, the hugely influential editor of Astounding magazine, (later Analog).

Campbell famously challenged the writers who submitted stories to his magazine to: “Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” But Campbell did not take over the editorship of Astounding until 1937 and it was several years before he really hit his stride. So Weinbaum’s story clearly pre-dates the Cambell era. Indeed, it may well have been the story that inspired Campbell’s challenge in the first place. But after Weinbaum’s story, there was really no excuse anymore for the cliched BEM.

JANE: Or perhaps rather than saying, “no excuse” since there’s always room for a good monster story, we should say that there was now room for more elaborately constructed aliens.

Maybe next time we can take a look at some of these!

Casual and Intimate: LOC National Book Festival

September 16, 2015

Over Labor Day weekend, I was a guest of the National Book Festival, hosted by the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.  Here’s a window into what that was like.

National Book Festival Stuff

National Book Festival Stuff

Since we were flying East, Jim and I had to get up at 3:45 to make our 6:23 a.m. flight.  Even for people who routinely get up at 5:30, this was a bit much.  We arrived at the airport to find it much busier than we had thought it would be – probably because of Labor Day weekend. We then flew to Dallas, got a sandwich to eat later on the plane, and flew from there to D.C.  Our flight was fifteen minutes late landing because of turbulence, but otherwise things went well.

We took a cab to our hotel near the D.C. convention center.  When we checked in, we were informed that David and Sharon Weber were already there and were on the same floor.  Once we got into our room, we called them and arranged to take a cab over together to the Gala that was the opening event of the Festival.

The Gala was in the main hall of the Library of Congress.  I’d forgotten just how elaborate that place is: the painted dome, the gilding, the statues.  Add in about four hundred people in various degrees of dress-up clothing, waiters circulating with trays of weird little canapes, and you have the scene.  The four of us happily oohed and aahed, then managed to find a little table and visit before we were all herded into a theater for the formal presentation.

This formal presentation featured video remarks from Laura Bush (who had help found the Festival), and remarks from four authors.  Jim and my personal favorite was poet Kwame Alexander, who managed to be both thoughtful and funny.  David McCullough (noted historian) gave special remarks on the founding of the Festival fifteen years before and on the Librarian of Congress who is apparently retiring after 28 years.

The organizers had allotted an hour for this segment, which was pure lunacy, since it was evident that each speaker had been told to speak for ten to fifteen minutes.  Add in the opening statements, closing statements, McCullough’s talk, and the awarding of a special poster to the Librarian of Congress and they were doomed to go over.  This sort of weirdness characterized the event in general – lots of planning but a problem with the reality interface.

Eventually, closer to 8:30 than the scheduled 8:00 pm, we were sent out to a buffet dinner.  The food was excellent and varied, with selections of beef, chicken, and fish, vegetables, salads, and either an{ a } nice macaroni and cheese or rolls (or all of the above, if you wished).  Dessert featured lots of chocolate, which made me happy.

Additionally, “real” silverware and plates had been provided.  Jim and Weber – who had both had to take off their belts because of the buckles when we went through the metal detector at the entrance – had some choice comments on the logic of this.  However, although at least 400 people were attending, only a very limited amount of seating had been provided.  Most of that was reserved for sponsors and their guests.    Eventually, I scoped out a wide marble bannister, and we used that as a picnic spot.  Weber even found that a high newel post made a good table for him at his great height!

Once fed, we did some touring to see more of the beautiful building and ogle some rare books (like a Guttenberg Bible).  We then chose to depart (by now Jim and I were getting very ragged).  Here we discovered another logistical glitch…  No arrangements had been made for taxis for departing guests.  Traffic at that end of Capitol Hill at that hour on a Friday was minimal.  Happily, a very nice member of the LOC staff flagged one down for us.

The next morning, Jim and I slept in.  We opted to skip breakfast so I could review my thoughts for my talk, which was for shortly before noon.  We then went over to the Convention Center to discover another logistical glitch.  Although we had been told there was an Author’s Pavilion (the terminology was a hold-over from when the event was held outdoors on the Mall), almost no one knew where it was!   We learned that this was because they were protecting the authors’ privacy…  but it seemed extreme to protect us from ourselves.

Eventually, following hints and rumors, rather like Hansel and Gretel following a trail of bread crumbs, we found the pavilion, only to meet up with more security.  However, about this time my assigned escort, a very nice woman named Agata (Polish form of Agatha; she was born in Poland) found us and helped defuse confusion.  We made it into the Green Room just in time to snag a bagel and something to drink before they cleared what was left away.  (Weber and Sharon, who arrived a bit later, found nothing and lunch still being set up.)

Agata informed me that I had several interviews to do – something no one had mentioned to me! I did one with a nice young man who blogs for the LOC.  However, the people who were supposed to be set up in the Media Room weren’t ready and I dodged that one.  Agata had carefully scouted out the terrain in advance and got us down to the room where I was to give my talk with ample time

Now, I’d been told that the tone for the Book Festival was casual and friendly.  I had been told not to read a talk and that, if I was going to read from my book, to keep it brief.  Imagine my astonishment on arriving in the room to not find the “informal” setting I expected but a MASSIVE hall with a stage at one end with two podiums and ENORMOUS video screens on either side, projecting the speaker so that anyone at the back could see all details.

When I got up to talk, I discovered that very bright lights shone on the stage, making it impossible to see the right (my right) side of the hall at all.  NOT at all casual or informal or…

Yeah.  However, I decided that I could still try, so I got up there, bobbled my water bottle (they hadn’t provided anywhere for water to be put down, never mind that we were scheduled to talk for 45 minutes!), and set everyone at ease…  The nice young fellow from the Washington Post who introduced me had been on crutches, so we were in good company.

I talked for about thirty minutes, focusing on my growing up shy in D.C., loving books etc.  Having been turned off by writers who seemed to think it was their job to impress everyone with how young and brilliant they had been, and how they had always been perfect, I focused on overcoming disappointment and failure.  Lots of people told me it was an excellent talk, but I never can tell.

I left fifteen minutes for questions and, happily, there were a lot.  Two microphones had been set up, press conference style, on either side.  I could barely see the people using the one on the right but enough to know if someone was there.   After questions, we had a moment to chat with people before Agata spirited us away to get lunch in the Author’s Pavilion.  There, we were informed (contrary to information given earlier) that ONLY authors and their LOC escorts could have lunch, companions (like Jim) could not.  Sheesh.

I shared my sandwich with Jim, then we went down to the signing area.  I had a nice long line of people wanting books signed.  I was particularly touched by the people who brought their tattered copies of various novels.  Nice to know that my works are among someone’s treasures.

After that, I was off-duty.  Jim and I wandered around a bit, looking for Tom Angleberger whose “Origami Yoda” books I had been reading shortly before.  However, he had a very long line and we didn’t want to get in the way of the kids.  We found Weber down in the signing area finishing off his stint.  We then accompanied him (and Sharon) to his talk.  He did a very nice job, including playing off of comments I’d made, which worked well since we had overlap in our audiences.  Then (since he’d been scheduled to sign before his talk) we were all free.  Sharon coveted an event tee-shirt, but they were out by the time we got there.  (Again, you’d think they could have supplied one to speakers or at least given us a chance to purchase one.)  However, Weber got her a bag, and he and Jim got caps.

Eventually, we went back to our hotel and had dinner, then talked until Sharon needed to go lie down.  We escorted her to their room, then went back to our room with Weber where we sat visiting until 11:30 p.m.  It was really nice…   The next morning, we packed, then met Weber and Sharon for breakfast, before they went to pack and we went to meet my mom so we could visit with family out on the Chesapeake Bay…

FF: Reading in Transit

September 11, 2015

Last Friday I went to D.C. for the National Book Festival.  I did get to read quite a bit, although not as much as I thought I might.  Blame David Weber, with whom Jim and I sat up one night until quite late catching up.  So nice to see an old friend.  Also saw family, which was delightful.

Reading Room

Reading Room

In case you’re new to the FF…  The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of descriptions or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Books of Great Alta by Jane Yolen (aka a compilation volume of her novels Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna.  Very interesting stylistically.  Legend of the rise of a warrior queen, complete with commentary and music.  If the characters hadn’t been interesting this would have been a disaster!  But they were so it wasn’t.

The Finisher by David Baldacci.  Dystopian YA with a female protag…  Except, honestly, she could as easily have been a “he,” so much so I found myself wondering if the change in gender had come later.  Various plot elements raised a lot of questions for me.  I don’t think I was the intended audience.

In Progress:

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani.  Audiobook.  Had to leave this one at home, so I’m just getting back to it.

To Hold the Bridge by Garth Nix.  Short story collection, stories grouped by theme, which is sort of odd.  I’m enjoying.


Read a variety of articles in randomly selected periodicals.  Sometimes I’m amazed at the things people find important.


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