TT: World-building Without Mammals

March 5, 2015

JANE: Alan, I was fascinated when, a couple of weeks ago, you mentioned that New Zealand has no native mammals except for one species of bat.  I even queried you off-Tangent, but didn’t want to go that far off topic.  Now, however, I’d love to circle back and take a closer look at New Zealand’s ecosystem.  It sounds like an exercise in SF/F world-building!

Kiwi (Bird?)

Kiwi (Bird?)

ALAN: I’ve done some more checking and I’ve found that we actually have three species of bat, but one of them is extinct and the other two are quite rare…

JANE: I’m guessing that the bats flew in, or, like the camels in Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent traveled in on driftwood.  Anyhow, counting an extinct creature hardly seems fair.  I’d like to look at this alien world you’re living on.

ALAN: New Zealand is certainly a very alien world. The country is geographically isolated and, if you can’t fly or swim, you don’t really have any way of getting here. Consequently, we do have populations of marine mammals (sea lions and the like), but inland all the ecological niches that mammals occupy in other places are taken up by birds and insects.

JANE: I’d love to hear about some of these.  Can we start with the kiwi bird?  When Roger and I were there, we moved out of the convention hotel (which was nice, but very generic) to an oddball place dominated by an enormous figure of a kiwi bird.  I remember it fondly.

ALAN: Everybody is fond of the kiwi.  It’s our national symbol. New Zealanders identify very closely with it and they refer to themselves as kiwis. Incidentally, it’s just “kiwi”, not “kiwi bird.”

JANE: Oh…  To Americans, a kiwi is a fruit about the size of a plum, with a fuzzy green outside and sweet/tart flavor.  What do you call those?

ALAN: We call them “kiwifruit.”

JANE: Well, that’s boring…

ALAN: Anyway, back to the kiwi. They are flightless birds which belong to the unfortunately named ratite family – emus and ostriches are also ratites. Their feathers are very fur-like and Maori used to make kiwi feather cloaks. I’ve seen some in museums and they are really very beautiful.

JANE: I bet the fur-like feathers and rounded shape led to the fruit being named for the bird. But, that’s a tangent.  For once, I will discipline myself to stay on topic.  Go on…

ALAN: The most bizarre thing about the kiwi is that it lays the largest egg in relation to its body size of any species of bird in the world! I once saw an X-ray photograph of a kiwi that was about to lay an egg. All its internal organs were squashed up into a small blob in one corner and the egg occupied all the rest of the body cavity. I have no idea how its organs continued to function while being so squashed.

To give you some idea of scale, the kiwi is about the size of a domestic chicken, but it lays an egg that is six times larger than a chicken’s egg.

JANE: Ouch!  That’s got to be painful.

ALAN: I’m sure it is!

JANE: Does the kiwi (mentally insert “bird”) fill a particular ecological niche, or is it just impossibly adorable?

ALAN: Ecologically, the kiwi is rather similar to anteaters, moles and hedgehogs. Indeed, because it has so many un-bird like characteristics, the kiwi is almost an honourary mammal in its own right! Like a badger, it digs burrows in which it lives; it has a highly developed sense of smell (most unusual in a bird), and it is the only bird to have nostrils at the end of its beak. It lives on small invertebrates, seeds, grubs, and many varieties of worms which it sniffs out and digs up with its long beak. It has very poor eyesight, but who needs to see things when you can smell them instead?

JANE: That’s cool!

The only other New Zealand critter that immediately springs to mind for me is the weta, popularized by Peter Jackson’s movie studio.  If I hadn’t done a bit of research on New Zealand when I wrote “Pakeha,” my short story set in New Zealand, I would have thought they were fictional.

ALAN: Ah, the weta – a huge insect that I always think of as being a cross between a cockroach and Tyrannosaurus rex (actually, it’s more like a very, very large grasshopper). It’s probably the largest insect in the world and it looks quite fearsome and vicious, though actually it isn’t…

JANE: “Large” is one of those vague words.  Can you be more precise?  I’ve seen some horribly large grasshoppers.

ALAN: There are several species of weta and they are all huge by insect standards. The largest is one species of Giant Weta which can reach an overall length of 20cm (8 inches for those who are metrically challenged) and which can weigh up to 70g (2.5oz). But that’s unusual – most wetas are less than half that size and weight.

JANE: Eight inches?  That’s not “large,” that’s utterly humongous!

How do these horrible bugs fit in?

ALAN: Ecologically, the weta is the insect equivalent of rats and mice. They are nocturnal and omnivorous. Their major foods are vegetation and other small invertebrates. Like mice, they are very good seed dispersers because the seeds pass through them unharmed.

JANE: Hmm…  An interesting side effect of this discussion is considering the purposes our “normal” animals serve.  I don’t think I ever considered mice as seed dispersers, just as food for just about everything larger.

I wonder if weta are also edible?

ALAN: There’s a TV presenter called Bear Grylls who is an expert on surviving in hostile environments. His programmes show him being dropped into inhospitable places and demonstrating how to survive in them. The gimmick is that in every show he eats or drinks something disgusting. So over the years he’s eaten deer droppings, rancid camel fat (the camel had been dead for at least a week), beetles, a live crab (complete with sand) and goodness knows what else. So when he came to New Zealand, he obviously had to eat a weta. He almost threw up. He claims the weta has the most disgusting taste of anything that he’s ever eaten!

JANE: Hmm…  So not edible by modern standards.  Did the Maori eat them?

ALAN: No, but the Maori did eat the grubs of the huhu beetle. Imagine a maggot the size of one of your fingers and you’ll have a pretty good picture of a huhu grub. I’m told that they taste like peanut butter…

JANE: But you haven’t tried them?  I see there’s a limit to what Alan the Omnivore will eat!

Does anyone/thing eat weta or are you guys in danger of being overrun by giant bugs?

ALAN: As far as I can tell, the only things that eat weta are introduced mammals (though I suspect the kiwi may find immature wetas palatable) and as a result of this, some weta species are hovering on the brink of extinction.

My cats have occasionally brought home and eaten a weta. They don’t seem to mind the disgusting taste. Juicy! Crunchy! Interestingly, they never eat the legs which are just solid chitin with no flesh on them at all. I think they use the legs as toothpicks…

JANE: Weta sound completely horrible.  I wonder why Peter Jackson chose to name his studio after them?

ALAN: Probably because Peter Jackson loves horrible things.  Before Lord of the Rings, his reputation was largely based on some utterly gross splatter movies which have the saving grace that they are also very, very funny. I think he’d find a weta quite appealing…

JANE: Ah, then, the choice makes sense in a twisted fashion.

I was going to suggest that you pick one of your favorite creatures, but I think that’s going to need to wait for next time.

Like a Gargoyle

March 4, 2015

This week I had a really crucial insight.  Before I tell you what that was, I need to lay a bit of a foundation.

Agnes Garbed in Snow

Agnes Garbed in Snow

A lot has been said lately – by me and by others – about how many of the jobs that used to be done by the publisher have fallen on the writer.  This is not to say that writers – especially those who write and sells what they write – have not always had business-related chores.  I’ve mentioned before that when I sold my first short story, Roger Zelazny – with whom I was then corresponding on a more or less regular basis – mailed me a tax organizer, and encouraged me to keep track of my earnings and expenses.

However, except for taxes and choosing whether or not to answer fan mail, a writer’s main job was to write.  Yes.  The writer did participate in publicity by doing book signings which might – for the lucky ones – include going on tour.  However, most of these publicity events were organized by someone else.  True, SF/F writers have always had the option of attending conventions, but the smart ones realized that, to make these conventions worthwhile, they also needed to have new material to present.

This has changed.  At the very least, writers need a website and/or a social media presence.  A good friend of mine commented recently that, since his current available material consists of one short story collection and one e-published novella, he doesn’t feel he needs a website.  However, he does have a Twitter feed and a Facebook account.  And he is fully aware that when he publishes the novel he’s finishing up – whether self or through a traditional publisher – he’s going to need to expand to a website.

I currently have a blog for which I supply substantial content three times a week, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed.  While these latter two do help “push out” the material I write for my blog, they also require a certain amount of individual attention and new material.  I have a website – the recent reformatting of which has made it a lot better, but has also taken a great deal of time.  In this case, I didn’t even do the actually formatting, just provided consultation as to design elements and the like.  Once it’s up, the maintenance will be up to me.

Lest you think I’m whining, let me tell you something you may not be aware of…  Many writers now have an assistant of some sort.  Only rarely is that assistant an unpaid family member “helping out” a little.  Nor am I talking about hiring an accountant, agent, or lawyer for specific jobs.  I’m talking about someone who maintains the writer’s website, handles their social media accounts (which is why some writers brag “it’s really me”), act as liaison with conventions and publicity people, and take care of the business paperwork.

Yes.  I’m serious. Compare this to Roger Zelazny who never had a full-time assistant.  He did have an agent and accountant, as well as a friend who he occasionally hired to retype a manuscript when a publisher required electronic as well as print manuscripts.  But otherwise he managed it all solo – as was the case for most writers I met at that time.

So that’s the foundation.  Here’s the insight.  I worked steadily all last week on various projects.  My tax paperwork is off to my accountant.  My website update is nearly done.   I answered fan mail and dealt with social media.  I’ve consulted with various professionals on future projects – none of which, by the by, had anything to do with being creative, but had to do with raising awareness of what I currently have available.  I wrote my Wednesday Wandering, expanded the Thursday Tangents, and wrote the Friday Fragment.

I should have felt good by the end of the week, right?  Why then on Friday evening did I sit down on the sofa, bury my face in my hands, and wonder why I felt so depressed?  It took me the entire weekend (during which yet another more or less administrative-editorial job cropped up unexpectedly) to realize what was wrong.

I realized that, if I don’t make time for creative work of some sort, no matter how much I accomplish during that week, I will feel completely flat and frustrated by the end.  The last original story I wrote was in December.  I did feel creative as I worked on selecting stories for my forthcoming short story collection, including writing the introduction and afterpieces, but that manuscript has been my proofreader’s hands for the last couple of weeks.  Writing the Wanderings and Tangents (especially the Tangents, because Alan seems to stimulate the oddest trains of thought for me) can be creative, but it’s not the same.

And the list of things I need to do this week stretches before me, editorial in some cases, but even that not particularly creative.

Looking out my window the other day, absently studying Agnes the Gargoyle in her new hat and cape of snow, I realized that a writer’s life is very much like a gargoyle.  Part of the appeal of gargoyles is how they combine moods.  They can be fierce looking or ridiculous or a bit of both.  One reason they are recurrently featured as monsters, animating and the pouncing on the unsuspecting, is that on some level we suspect that (unlike most statuary) they really are alive.

Once upon a time, a writer’s life was mostly writing, secondarily business.  These days the business demands are so great that they threaten to take on a life of their own and gobble up the very thing they are supposed to support.

I made a decision.  No matter how much the business piles up, I’m not going to be sitting on the sofa this Friday wondering where my creative time went.  Even if I don’t get that bit of my website fine-tuned or do a bit of checking out that person someone else told me might be an excellent contact, I’m going to know that I did something creative.

I’m going to know that, no matter how many or few see what I’m doing, I will have been a writer…

FF: Classic Mystery, Twisted History

February 27, 2015

News Flash: Here’s a chance to win a free signed and personalized copy of Wanderings on Writing, my new book on writing. This link a Rafflecopter giveaway will give you all the details.

For those of you who are new to this feature, the FF feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week. They are not meant to be a recommendation list. If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, look at my website (which is still undergoing transformation)

What Are You Reading?

What Are You Reading?

under “Neat Stuff” for a not at all inclusive list.

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

Recently Completed:

Heroes of History by Will Durant. Audiobook. I’ve listened to this one before, but the compact survey is very enjoyable. Goes from possibly mythical China through the beginnings of the Age of Reason. Although the focus is on “heroes,” the definition is very broad and includes some women. Moreover, Durant never slides into the “great man” theory of history, just uses specific people as organizational elements. An added bonus is that, at this late point in his career, Durant feels free to slip in some lovely humor.

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones. Don’t let the title deceive you. Diana Wynne Jones never does anything the way you’d expect. I’d read this once years and years ago and found myself delighted all over again.

In Progress:

A Fashion for Shrouds by Margery Allingham. Audiobook. A classic mystery in her Albert Campion series.

A Holiday for Murder by Agatha Christie. I discovered this one when I was still babysitting – back more years ago than I care to admit. First time I’ve re-read it in a long time.

Also:

I’m doing a lot of scattered research reading.  Doesn’t make for an impressive list, but it does take time!

TT: Welcome, Invaders!

February 26, 2015

JANE: For the last couple of weeks, Alan and I have been talking about invasive species.  Last time, Alan, you mentioned the kunekune pig, which seems to have naturalized to New Zealand and is now a treasured breed. Are there any other introduced animals that are loved rather than loathed?

Camel at Albuquerque Zoo

Camel at Albuquerque Zoo

ALAN: Yes, indeed. Deer were introduced for sport in the nineteenth century. They do have a rather devastating effect on the forests because, as browsers, they feed on forest plants, trees, and seedlings. They are found throughout the country and, like pigs, are enthusiastically hunted. Deer cullers are employed by DOC and there’s a brilliant autobiographical novel called A Good Keen Man by the late Barry Crump which gives a very vivid picture of the life of a deer culler. In the more remote regions of the country, the deer are culled by shooting them from helicopters.

Deer are also farmed commercially and venison is a meat that can easily be found shrink-wrapped on supermarket shelves. I eat a lot of it.

JANE: I wish something like systematic culling with the end result being eaten could be designed to deal with deer in the U.S.  There are several native breeds of deer that, especially since their natural predators are gone, have become anything from a nuisance to flat out dangerous.  When a deer and an automobile meet, this is not a happy ending for either party.

However, although there are many Americans who do hunt, the majority of the population is unwilling eat venison, because it’s Bambi.  Admittedly, deer – especially because of their big eyes and ears – are adorable, but an uncontrolled population is not good for the deer.  They need predation – and if it has to happen, I’d rather have the end result be eaten.

ALAN: Me too, though sometimes it can have unfortunate consequences. Once, on the brink of an important seduction, I cooked a rabbit pie for a new girlfriend. She ate it all with every evidence of enjoyment.

“What was it?” she asked.

I made the mistake of saying, “Bunny Pie.”

Visions of cute, fluffy rabbits were obviously passing through her mind. “Urrgghh!” she said.

Needless to say, I spent the night alone. But to this day, I fail to understand why. Personally I’ll eat anything and I’m not at all put off by the cuteness (or otherwise) of the thing on my plate.

JANE: What defines my parameters as to what I will and will not eat is fairly complex.  As a favorite character in my current roleplaying game says, “Friends don’t eat friends.”

That said, except for a few favorite dishes, if I lived alone I’d probably be a vegetarian.  I even like tofu, and not even silky tofu is cute – and certainly not cuddly.

ALAN: No, it’s not. I love the way tofu absorbs the flavours of whatever it’s surrounded by and cooked with…

But, back to invasive species! Moose were introduced into New Zealand in the early twentieth century, again as an animal to be hunted for sport. They did not thrive because they were competing for food with the much more prolific red deer. The last confirmed sighting of a moose was in 1952 and it is generally assumed that the species has died out. However, rumours persist that moose continue to thrive deep in the very remote forests of the far south. In 1972, a moose antler was found, and in 2000 DNA analysis of a clump of hair definitely identified it as coming from a moose. But no other trace of living (or dead) animals has been found and the question remains open.

Being a romantic, I like to think that the mythical moose does still stalk the land. But realistically I have to admit that the odds are against it.

JANE: Moose are actually very stealthy creatures.  They often live in damp areas of the sort that humans don’t really care to frequent.  It’s possible that your mythical moose are not so mythical.  However, moose are a lot more dangerous than deer.  With rare exceptions, deer will flee a threat.  Moose will attack and, being about the size of a bus, are very hard to stop when they do.

ALAN: Ah! Animals the size of a bus. Australia has one of those. Robin and I once travelled by train across the Nullarbor desert and we saw a herd of feral camels that regarded our train with deep suspicion. Robin tells me that the camels were imported from the Middle East in the nineteenth century as pack animals (used particularly to help with building road and rail links in the arid desert regions). They were largely replaced by trucks as the internal combustion engine was developed. Many escaped and ran wild. Obviously they found the deserts congenial, and now there are vast herds of feral camels in the outback. Ironically, these days Australia exports camels to (mainly) Saudi Arabia…

JANE: Oh… That’s lovely!  A new version of coals to Newcastle…  Camels to Saudi Arabia.

Interestingly, there was an attempt to introduce camels to New Mexico in the late 1800’s.  It was not successful, which is a pity.  We have lots of thorny native plants that have proliferated due to over-grazing.  The cattle won’t eat them, but I bet camels would.

Here in New Mexico, we also have a wild population of an animal introduced for hunting – but it’s a lot more exotic than a deer.  Want to guess?

ALAN: I’ve no idea – given the huge range of fauna that we’ve covered in this Tangent, it could be absolutely anything at all. So surprise me.

JANE: (drum roll) It was – and is – the African Oryx, also known as a gemsbok or gemsbuck.  A native of the Kalahari desert, the oryx was brought here at the instigation of anthropologist Frank F. Hibbin, who was a big game hunter and was, for a time, Game Commissioner.

The original imported population could not be introduced into the wild, because of Federal regulations, so they lived out their lives in the Albuquerque Zoo.  Their offspring was let loose in the Chihuahan deserts, in the south central part of the state.  With the comparative abundance of food and lack of their natural predators, they flourished.  Annual hunts were established in 1974 to help stabilize the population.

ALAN: Goodness me! And I thought that we had a monopoly on exotic game animals. But I’ll see your gemsbok, and raise you a tahr.

JANE: Tahr?  You’ve got me there…

ALAN: Tahr and chamois are large goat-like animals, which come from the Himalayas. The alpine ranges in the South Island are very similar to the Himalayan mountains (Sir Edmund Hilary practised for his ascent of Mount Everest in the southern alps) and populations of tahr and chamois were released there in the early twentieth century. Not surprisingly, they have flourished. They have similar browsing habits to deer and, like deer, they are regarded as a threat to native plants. Deer cullers in the area also cull the tahr.

I’ve only once seen tahr on a menu so naturally I had to eat it. As I recall it was very yummy, rather reminiscent of venison.

JANE: Odd.  I would have thought it would be more like mutton or lamb.

What other exotic creatures have vanished down your gullet?

ALAN: In Australia, I’ve eaten emu, kangaroo and wallaby and crocodile. In China, I ate a pickled jellyfish. And at home in Yorkshire I’ve eaten tripe and pig’s trotters. I don’t like tripe and pig’s trotters…

JANE: I’ve had tripe.  Did not thrill me.  Haven’t had pig’s trotters.

ALAN: Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.

JANE: Does squid qualify as exotic?  I like squid.  A lot.  David Weber finds this very peculiar.  One time, many years ago, he took me to dinner.  Squid was on the menu and I was contemplating it, wondering if I would gross out my dinner companions if I ordered it.

Weber seemed to read my mind.  Sighing, he said, “Oh, go ahead and get it!”

ALAN: Squid is certainly not regarded as exotic here. It is very commonly found on restaurant menus as either whole baby squid or as slices of the more mature animal. Sometimes it is braised in its own ink, and sometimes it is lightly fried. Naturally, I love it.

JANE: Just about the only way squid is served here – other than in “ethnic” restaurants – is fried with enough batter that it comes to resemble rubbery onion rings.  No wonder people don’t think they like it.

We certainly haven’t exhausted this topic – for example, the American Everglades have a serious problem with gigantic snakes, because of people turning their pets loose when they get too big to keep – but I’ve no personal experience with this.  Maybe one of our readers could fill you in.

ALAN: It occurs to me that we’ve said a lot about the species that are threatening the native wild life in the places where we both live, but we’ve said little or nothing about the native wild life itself. Shall we look at that next time?

Do We Need Bookstores Anymore?

February 25, 2015

Quick Reminder: Tomorrow is the last day you can enter to win a copy of the ARC of Artemis Invaded.  Details are on the Jane Lindskold Facebook page.

Before you read any further, I’m going to provide a spoiler.  My answer is “yes.”  However, I believe that for bookstores to survive, they may need to adapt.

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the recent events surrounding Borderlands Bookstore in San Francisco, California.  If you are, skip the next paragraph – or don’t.  I’ve talked to a few people who seem to only have part of the picture.

Me At Mysterious Galaxy

Me At Mysterious Galaxy

Borderlands Bookstore specializes in SF/F.  They have a knowledgeable staff, a friendly atmosphere, and offer a much wider variety of works than you’ll find at your standard Big Box Store.  They host great author events (I know this firsthand) and even serve a fine cup of coffee.  However, they’re also located in an expensive city.  When a vote raised the local minimum wage, they realized they couldn’t keep going without lowering the quality of their service.  You can read more on their website about why they arrived at this conclusion, including details of the plan that may just enable them to pull through.

Anyhow, Borderlands’ difficulties got me thinking about what bookstores need to do to survive in an age when competition from on-line retailers makes it harder and harder for them to secure the sale – even when customers browse their shelves and get recommendations from their staff.

Oddly enough, what I think needs to be done can be done best by specialty bookstores rather than by the big boxes.

When they announced they would be closing, Borderlands found that people were willing to step up to sponsor the store through this difficult time and into the future because Borderlands offers a variety of things that on-line retailers do not, and the big chain stores rarely do.   Does the idea of sponsoring a store seem strange?  I don’t think so.  These days, people pay for memberships that offer nothing much beyond a discount on a few services.  Borderlands is offering something less tangible, but much more important.

In the over twenty years that I’ve been a professional author, I’ve done a lot of book events.  By all logic, the events held at big box stores should be the best, right?  After all, they have a larger staff, a larger customer base, and a lot more space.  In fact, the reverse is true.  The only disastrous author events I’ve participated in have been at the big box stores.

There was the one where I arrived – after having been specifically requested by the store – to find that the “events manager” had left for the day, that no one knew to expect me, and that no publicity had been done.  There have been events where I’ve been stuck in the back of the store with no signs or announcements to help people find me.  Even worse are those where I’ve been placed at a table near the front door, blocking the flow and making people who’ve come in to buy something else feel uncomfortable when they come in to carry out their business.

And every author has stories about the book event when the only time anyone stopped to speak to them was to ask directions to the restroom.

Worse, even if the staff of a big box store is talented and enthusiastic, they may be hampered by corporate policy.  I encountered this when a friend who managed a big box bookstore asked if I would like to help arrange a group event.  I was happy to pitch in, since group events often do much better than single author events.  However, despite the best attempts of the store’s staff, we kept coming up against corporate policy that crippled our attempts to put together an interesting and creative publicity campaign.  What we had in mind would have cost no more than the standard procedure but, since it didn’t fit the template, it was rejected.

By contrast, the events I’ve attended at stores such as Borderlands Bookstore and Mysterious Galaxy (a store in San Diego that specializes in mystery and SF/F) have been well-attended.   Page One Books here in Albuquerque isn’t a specialty bookstore, but those of us who do SF/F events are blessed that Craig Chrissenger (who is an officer of the local SF club and a co-chair of Bubonicon) works at Page One and does a great job managing events.

But what makes these events special goes beyond attendance.  Usually someone working for the store has read one or more of my books, and is ready to start the questions if the audience is too shy.  I often mention works by other authors I’ve enjoyed and the bookstore staff is ready to show folks where they can find them.  Then there is the intangible sense of community.  People end up chatting after, making connections, maybe even making friends.  I’ve made a few myself that way…

So, how can bookstores benefit further from these things they do so well?  I’d like to see more stores do like Borderlands offer sponsorships, then find ways to take their events even to those sponsors who can’t attend in the flesh.

If the author agrees, could a reading and Q&A be filmed and posted to a sponsors-only section of the store’s website?  I’m about as camera shy as you can find, but I’d agree, especially if I knew that someone at the store was ready to ask a couple of questions so the Q&A wouldn’t be flat.

What’s in it for the store?  One, a growing awareness that such events happen.   After a short while, sponsors would start looking at the calendar to see what’s coming up.  If they’re in the area, they’d know to plan to be there.  If not, they’d know they would still have access to something special.

Another benefit would be encouraging people outside of the store’s immediate area to buy signed and personalized books.  Already some bookstores will take advance orders for books, including arranging for personalization.  As more areas lack any bookstores at all, and publishers are less and less willing to send authors on tour, those stores that do host events should make as much of them as possible.

So what about extending this service to those who buy a store sponsorship?  Handled correctly, everyone would win.  The bookstore would expand the area from which they could draw customers.  People in areas off the publicity tour route could get signed and personalized books.

Would this undercut other bookstores?  Not really.  Customers who already have a relationship with a bookstore that hosts author events would continue to come to them.  After all, some of the fun is talking with the author.  However, having seen the glow in Jim’s eyes when he came up to me with a signed Robert Parker novel during one of our visits to Mysterious Galaxy (Parker had been in a few weeks before), there’s an excitement to acquiring a signed book even if you can’t do it in person.

Sponsors might get access to restricted areas of the store’s newsletter, perhaps with author interviews.  Or a chance to submit questions for Q&A’s.  Or to attend a small reception or workshop.   Or receive sponsor-only items…

Seems to me that bookstores are in the position of being the goose that lays the golden egg.  In the fairytale, the goose faithfully lays a golden egg each day until the greedy farmer kills it, assuming it’s full of gold.  Of course, he discovers that it is not and now there will never again be golden eggs.

So it is with bookstores…  Readers rely on them to host events, inform them about new and exciting reads, and provide a comfortable place to go where they can meet people who share their interests.  However, when they use the facility without supporting it – whether through purchases or sponsorships – they’re like that farmer.  One day they’ll wake up and discover there isn’t any more gold.

FF: Histories — Fictional and Non

February 20, 2015

For those of you who are new to this feature, the FF feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  They are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website.  It’s currently under reconstruction, but look for “Neat Stuff.”

Sirenity Reads

Sirenity Reads

As I say every week, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  I really liked this. The addition of another fully-realized point-of-view character was a good choice for expanding the complexities of the tale.

Unexpected Magic: Collected Stories by Diana Wynne Jones.  I loved this book.  It makes me want to go on a Diana Wynne Jones jag.  I think I will…

Escape from Botany Bay: The True Story of Mary Bryant by Gerald and Loretta Hausman.  I’d read about the conditions under which Australia was settled, but knowing in advance didn’t make this first person account of the horrors that drove Mary Bryant, her husband, and a small group of allies to seek escape any easier.  The authors’ choice of a distant narrative voice puzzled me at first, since this is story that would seem to invite intimacy.  After a while, I realized how well that slight distance worked very well to convey the sense of someone who can hardly bear to talk about what she’s gone through.

In Progress:

Heroes of History by Will Durant.  Audiobook.  I’ve listened to this one before, but the compact survey is very enjoyable.  We started in possibly mythical China, moved through Egypt and the Middle East, and are now up to Leonardo DaVinci.

Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones.  Just started.  Don’t let the title deceive you.  Diana Wynne Jones never does anything the way you’d expect.

Also:

Sea of Dreams by Dennis Nolan.   No words, but the beautiful pictures tell a far more thought provoking story than you’d imagine.  Jim read it and said he thought the seagull was crucial.  I agree, but I also draw note to the young castle-maker’s swimsuit.

This one was a gift from Steve (S.M.) and Jan Stirling.  They have very good taste!

So, what are you reading?

TT: Invasion of the Habitat Snatchers!

February 19, 2015

JANE:  Happy Chinese New Year!  Welcome to the Year of the Sheep.  This seems rather appropriate, given our current topic and my recollection of just how many sheep I saw when I was in New Zealand.

Last week we were talking about invasive species.  Here’s a question for you…  Do you know what iconic plant of the Old West (American version) is actually an invasive species – one introduced so late that it would not have been present in most of those Westerns films that popularized the image?

Photo by Tori Hansen

Australian Possum in Australia

ALAN: No – I have no idea.

JANE: The tumbleweed.  That’s the huge ball of greyish-brown matter that blows along the streets of the town, usually just before the Big Showdown.

(Aside for the plant geeks among us.  Yes, I am aware that there are many plants that use this method of distributing seeds and so are often called “tumbleweeds.”  However, for purposes of this, the tumbling weed in question is the one seen frequently on film.)

Also called the Russian thistle, the plant wasn’t even introduced into the West until the 1870’s – some sources say in shipments of flax seed.  So, a late Western, in an appropriate setting, might justify the tumbleweed’s appearance but, most of the time, it’s an anachronism.

ALAN: So much for one of my favourite movie genres! Incidentally, we sometimes refer to Westerns as “Cowies”…

JANE: Seriously?  I’ve heard them called “horse operas,” but never “cowies.”

ALAN: Yes, seriously. A university friend of mine, who was addicted to the genre, refused to admit that there was any such thing as a bad western movie. When pressed to justify his claim, he would mutter “Cowies is good!” and change the subject.

JANE: I know someone he must meet if he ever comes to the U.S.

When I moved to Albuquerque, I felt like an extra in a cowie, since tumbleweeds are really common where I live.  This is a pity, since I am ferociously allergic to them.

Especially in the spring, when we have high winds, the tumbleweeds go barreling across roads, through parking lots, and get hung up on fences, creating prickly masses yards deep.  I’ve even seen them thirty or more feet up in the sky, swirling around in the arms of dust devils.  As my sneezing can demonstrate, they spread their pollen very efficiently.

Is New Zealand preyed upon by any other invasive plants?

ALAN: According to DOC, we have something on the order of 120 invasive plant species. And invasions are still happening today. In 2004 Didymosphenia geminata, a type of algae, was discovered in a river in the South Island. Nobody is quite sure how it got there since it had never been seen in the southern hemisphere before.

Didymosphenia geminata is a slimy, grey growth known colloquially as “didymo” or “rock snot” which can form massive blooms. Despite attempts to limit the spread of it, it has now managed to establish itself across many major rivers and lakes throughout the country, much to DOC’s chagrin.

A lot of insects that under normal circumstances would be eaten by fish get trapped in the slime so didymo can have a serious effect on fish populations. It is also indescribably ugly and yucky and slippery, which tends to discourage all recreational use of the waterways it infests. You really, really don’t want to fall in…

JANE: That does sound awful.  New Zealand is so beautiful.  It would be a shame if it came to be associated with “rock snot,” the way the West is with tumbleweed.

Speaking of invasive plants that become icons of their invaded home, another one is kudzu, which has become an icon of the American South.

Kudzu was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1870’s, promoted as a means of stopping soil erosion.  Farmers were actually paid to put it in.  Today, huge sums are being spent to rip it out.  If kudzu didn’t grow so rapidly, covering everything around it, it would be considered attractive.  It has pretty flowers and very lush leaves.  Unfortunately, as temperatures rise, kudzu is crawling further and further north, swallowing everything it can climb over, until some fear it will be prevalent all across the Eastern Seaboard.

ALAN: It sounds like kudzu is your version of our gorse!

I don’t know about your part of the world, but we have lots of invasive animals as well as invasive plants. I’ve already mentioned domestic cats and wild populations of rabbits, weasels, stoats, and ferrets. However, they are by no means the only ones we have problems with.

One of the most interesting of the invasive animals is the possum. It was introduced from Australia in the 1850s as a source of food and fur, and the population just exploded.  It seems that possums much prefer living in New Zealand to living in Australia.

JANE: I guess they’re following your and Robin’s example.

ALAN: As do all the best creatures. I wonder if perhaps I’m half possum…

By the 1980s, DOC estimated that there were something on the order of 70 million possums in New Zealand. These days that has probably dropped to about 30 million, but the population is still far too large. Possums feast on and destroy native vegetation.  They also carry tuberculosis which can infect cattle. Every year helicopters and planes saturate our forests with millions of tons of 1080 (a biodegradable chemical called sodium fluoroacetate) whose sole purpose is to kill possums. It does have some effect, but nevertheless the possum population keeps rebounding.

Power poles throughout the country all have possum collars about half way up. A possum collar is an aluminum plate wrapped around the pole to deny the possum traction as it tries to climb up and electrocute itself. An electrocuted possum is a scenario much to be desired, but the repairs to the power lines afterwards are expensive, and best avoided…

Ironically, in Australia the possum is a protected species which is much loved. Here it is anything but protected and it is greatly hated. This usually takes visiting Australian by surprise.

JANE: My friend Tori Hansen, who took the photo that illustrates today’s Tangent, studied in Australia, so our picture is not of an invader possum, but one where it belongs.

We have an animal here that is commonly called a “possum.”  However, it is actually an opossum.  According to my friend Tori Hansen who – in addition to being a talented artist (she did the cover for Wanderings on Writing) – is working on a PhD in immunology.  As a result of her work, Tori knows quite a bit about both versions.  She told me that the Australian animal was named by someone who saw that the creature was a marsupial and assumed it was the same as the American animal.  He named it “possum” and the name stuck, even though the two aren’t much alike.

Want to guess who?  I’ll give you a hint.  You know him very well in a fictional context.

ALAN: Hmmm… I think that the opossum/possum confusion was originally perpetrated by Captain Cook’s naturalist, Joseph Banks. Not very observant of him really because the Australian possum is not related at all to the American opossum. Perhaps if he’d travelled further north in Australia he’d have called the crocodiles alligators…

But I’m bewildered about the fictional context in your hint.

JANE: Joseph Banks has two roles in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin novels.  He has cameos as himself and he is the inspiration for Stephen’s good friend, the naturalist and spymaster, Joseph Blaine.

ALAN: Oh, of course. Silly me…

JANE: Tori sent me a picture she took of an Australian possum.  They’re really much, much cuter than the American version.

ALAN: Yes, they are very cute which is why Australians get so upset when they find that we go out of our way to kill them off.

JANE: I’ve got to admit.  I find American possums creepy, especially the way they hiss.

However, I think I would find spraying with 1080 even creepier.  When I was as kid, the “mosquito man” regularly came around our area of Southern Maryland, spraying something to kill mosquitos.  We kids were warned to get indoors if we heard the truck coming or, if that was impossible, to lie face down so our faces were covered, and breathe as shallowly as possible.

I’m not sure what the poison was by the time I was a kid but, I believe, originally, it was DDT, a poison that – once it got into the larger ecosystem – had horrible effects, including weakening the eggshells of birds.  Once DDT was banned, the ecosystem made something of a recovery, but it took a long time.

I wonder what side effects 1080 has on your woodlands.  Certainly, it must kill more than possums.

ALAN: This is a very controversial subject, and there have been arguments about it ever since 1080 was first introduced in the 1950s. The chemical occurs naturally in some plants (none of them native to New Zealand) so to that extent it can be regarded as a “natural” substance, although the commercial poison is synthesised rather than extracted from plant material. It is highly toxic to all mammals – dogs, cats and pigs are particularly susceptible. So 1080 has little or no effect on native species (New Zealand has only one native mammal, a very rare bat) but it does have the potential to poison a lot of introduced species, including any domestic ones that may go foraging. Farmers don’t like it.

There is also some concern that 1080 could enter the domestic water supply via contaminated natural aquifers. And that might end up poisoning an invasive and very destructive species known as human beings.

JANE: Ooh…  Now that’s a thought.

I’ve been trying to think what other invasive species of animals we have here…  One that springs to mind is the feral pig.  I’ve only read about the problem but, apparently, these descendants of domestic pigs rapidly revert to something a lot closer to their wild ancestors.  Huge, tusked, omnivorous, cunning, and adaptable, they are becoming a real problem in areas where relatively mild winters and ample vegetation provide both cover and forage.

Some parts of Texas have a real problem with them, and there is concern that the problem may spread over the border into southern New Mexico.

ALAN: Ah, pigs! When Captain Cook bumped into New Zealand in 1769, he released some pigs which these days are known as Captain Cookers. They are the most prolific feral pigs in the country and are hunted with great enthusiasm because they are big, black, and very fierce. Wild Boar is a dish that is often found on the menus of expensive restaurants…

But there’s another breed of pig in New Zealand. It’s called the kunekune and nobody has any idea where it came from. In Maori, kune means “fat and round.” Kunekune pigs have short legs, a blunt, turned-up snout and two tassels that dangle from the lower jaw. The only other pigs with tassels come from Poland, of all strange places. No kunekune remains from before the late 1700s have ever been found, so the pigs must have been introduced by Europeans, but nobody knows how. These days the kunekune is regarded as a breed in its own right and it is found only in New Zealand.

Kunekune pigs are very cute and friendly.

JANE: They sound like it!  I have some more thoughts on this topic, but I can’t let tangenting continue to invade my time.  Let’s continue next week.

Little Bits of Eclectic Knowledge

February 18, 2015

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of talking for an hour with Joe Barrett, who will be reading the audiobook version of Artemis Invaded.  Joe also read Artemis Awakening, so I was familiar with both his enthusiasm for his work and his attention to detail.

Persephone Purruses Eclectic Knowledge

Persephone Purruses Eclectic Elements

Some of his questions were about typos, since he was working from an uncorrected proof.  Some were about pronunciation.  However, he was also interested in details about the characters and setting, so he’d be certain how to present them.

Occasionally, I feared that I was giving Joe more than he either wanted or needed, but I felt reassured when – after one micro-lecture on the relationship between Greek and Latin variations of the same name – he laughed and said, “I really love your little bits of eclectic knowledge.”  Then he paused, obviously afraid he’d insulted me by assuming I wasn’t an authority on all these topics.

I was quick to reassure him that, like most writers I know, I’m a magpie, collecting weird details and cool bits of information into a shiny treasure hoard that then finds its way into whatever I’m writing.

This treasure heap doesn’t accumulate by accident.  One thing my Friday Fragments does not include is the extensive reading I do in shorter formats – especially magazine articles.  We take several general interest magazines, a couple on archeology, one of photography, and, just to keep my mind fresh, I occasionally raid the periodicals section of the library for magazines I’m either thinking about subscribing to or that I’d never subscribe to, but that are interesting in small doses.

How often some randomly acquired bit of information comes in useful hit me this past weekend, when Jan and Steve (S.M.) Stirling came over for dinner.  Over the years, Jim and I have often had the pleasure of hearing Steve talk about a project when he’s in the process of evolving it, so after dinner – swearing ourselves to deepest, blackest secrecy – we asked Steve if he had anything new in mind.

Steve nodded and began telling us about a project he’s still evolving.  Eventually, I commented, “Did you know that…”  Steve didn’t, and I’ve promised that we’ll copy the article and send it along to him.  It was a really minor point, but just the sort of thing that adds an extra bit of shading to a tale.

Unlike some writers, who write their SF/F in a setting clearly recognizable as belonging to Earth’s own history, unless I’m writing something actually set here, I enjoy evolving my own variants.  That’s when the hoard of interesting information comes in particularly handy.

This shouldn’t be taken as a deliberate mixing of elements, like spices in a recipe.  There’s no “Take one teaspoon Mayan extract, blend into a flour ground from Germany pre-Bismark, shake over a fillet cut from Meiji era Japan, and sauté in last summer’s windstorm.”  Instead, for me, the pleasure is when some little bit of something sparks a revelation as to how my characters might deal with a problem or how particular governmental system might evolve in a certain situation or why they’d wear a certain sort of clothing or armor.

As I’ve been reviewing the over sixty short stories I’ve had published to this point (two more later this year will make a round seventy), I’ve had a vivid illustration as to how often a story owed its genesis or some key element to a small detail picked out of my glittering hoard.  For the reader’s amusement, I’ve include many of these in the short after=pieces that I’ve written to go with each story.

Now duty calls…  I’m about to go cut apart a truly gigantic pumpkin that looks as if it cross-hybridized with some other squash.  I wonder if the differences will be more than skin deep?  What color will the flesh be?  Seed shape?  Flavor?

Wait!  Pumpkins originated in North America.  When did Cinderella’s carriage become a pumpkin?  The French word comes from a Greek word that was usually applied to melons…

Hmm…  I wonder how different Cinderella’s journey might have been if her carriage had been made from a watermelon?

FF: Inverted Formats

February 13, 2015

Stories with pictures (graphic novels) and stories without print (audiobooks).   I watch T.V. and read print, because I prefer my anime subtitled.  I’ve definitely juggled the formats in which I get my story fix.

Persephone Purruses

Persephone Purruses

For those of you who are new to this feature, the FF feature lists of what I’ve read over the past week.  They are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive list, you can look on my website.

Really, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.  Graphic novel.  Volumes 1-4.  Excellent pairing of art and text.  The story is gripping.  Sex is a big component, but so is parenthood.  Some of the character designs must be taken as metaphor…  But that works.

In Progress:

Komarr by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  Didn’t have as much time to listen this week, but am enjoying so far.

Unexpected Magic: Collected Stories by Diana Wynne Jones.  I happened across this volume before the holidays, then set it by for the right time.  Just starting on “The Girl Jones.”

Also:

I’ve finished assembling the short stories, I think.  I’ve chosen nineteen from my nearly seventy published.  I’m trying to decide whether to go for a round twenty or stay with nineteen.  I like odd numbers, especially prime numbers…  Hmm…

Cats and Triffids

February 12, 2015

Interested in winning an Advanced Review Copy of this June’s release Artemis Invaded?  Head over to the Jane Lindskold Facebook page for details on the contest that starts today!

JANE: So, Alan, you were telling me about how cat-friendly New Zealand is, and how

Kel in Her Natural Habitat

Kel in Her Natural Habitat

your cats wander freely around outside.

ALAN:  Yes, they go wherever they wish to go. The only fly in the ointment is that they might kill native birds and reptiles which (since New Zealand has no native predators) are quite easy prey. However, my cats mostly bring home rats, mice, and sparrows, along with the occasional blackbird. They’ve almost never brought home anything native.

JANE: That’s interesting – and good.  I was avoiding bringing up the fact that domestic cats are – in most parts of the world – an invasive species, because lots of people don’t want to face the fact that beloved Tabby is not a natural part of the wilds.  I’d heard that the kiwi bird was being endangered because it was being hunted by domestic cats.  Is there any truth to this?

ALAN: Indeed there is. And it isn’t just kiwis – we have many unique species, some of which do indeed hover on the brink of extinction as a result of predation.

JANE: Is there anything that can be done?

ALAN: There is a movement in New Zealand to make it illegal for cats to wander unaccompanied. An eccentric millionaire called Gareth Morgan is particularly vocal about this and has put a lot of money into the campaign, so far to no avail.

JANE: Interesting.  I could see why it would be hard to enforce, although if animals are “chipped” there, the way it’s becoming common here (it’s required in Albuquerque, even for indoor-only cats), it would be possible to trace the owners of unsupervised animals and fine them.

If you could catch the cat, of course, and hold it long enough to read the chip.

ALAN: Chipping is a legal requirement for dogs, though not (yet) for cats. However, while cats are certainly responsible for killing some native wild life, cats are actually far outnumbered by rats, weasels, stoats and ferrets – introduced predators that live freely in the wild and which are much more destructive of the native wild life than are well-fed domestic moggies.

JANE:  I’m guessing that rats came via ship, uninvited, but do you know how the weasels, ferrets and stoats got there?  What were they introduced to predate upon?

ALAN: That’s a bit complicated. In the mid-nineteenth century rabbits were brought to New Zealand for both food and sport. Being rabbits, they immediately had a huge population explosion and got out of control, to the despair of the farmers whose crops they were eating. So in the 1880s, stoats, weasels and ferrets were deliberately introduced in a vain attempt to try and curb the rabbit population. Unfortunately, the stoats, weasels and ferrets seemed to prefer dining on native New Zealand animals rather than on rabbits, and so the rabbits remain a problem to this day!

JANE: Australia had a problem with rabbits, too.  I recall a truly horrible description of hordes of rabbits dying in the summer drought that was the centerpiece of one of Arthur Upfield’s novels.

How does New Zealand cope with these feral predators?

ALAN: We have a government department (the Department of Conservation, known as DOC) whose brief is to look after the native wild life. To that end, they have put a lot of effort into making many offshore islands predator free, and these are kept as sanctuaries for the wildlife. There are also several areas on the mainland that are enclosed by predator-proof fences which are maintained as sanctuaries.

JANE: Does this technique work well?

ALAN: Yes it does. Their greatest success has been with the black robin. By 1980 there were only 5 black robins left alive, and there was only one breeding pair. The female was called Old Blue. To try and reverse the decline of the robin, DOC implemented an ingenious conservation effort. Every time Old Blue laid a clutch of eggs, they were removed from her nest and given to a tomtit to foster. Then Old Blue, having lost her eggs, would lay another clutch…

JANE: That’s really neat – although the tomtits must have been confused.  How did this work out?

ALAN: Today, there are more than 200 black robins – all descended from Old Blue and all living safely on a predator-free island. Old Blue herself lived to be 14 years old, a true matriarch.

JANE: Mother of her race, indeed.  Of course, without much genetic diversity, they’re still a very fragile population – rather like cheetahs.  Still, given the option, it’s a good effort.

Although I applaud the program to save the black robin, it isn’t really dealing with the invasive species – instead, it’s imprisoning the victims.  I don’t know if any similar efforts have been made in the U.S.  (although some of our readers might).

Here in the Southwest, where I live, the issue of invasive species of plants is a serious one – especially given the scarcity of water. A good example is the tamarisk, also called the salt cedar.  It was brought to the U.S. in the early 19th century, valued both for its appearance and for its ability to thrive in salty soils.

However, tamarisk is a heavy water user that propagates more easily than many native plants in the bosque  (that’s what we call the forested areas along the rivers here in New Mexico).  As a result, there are entire areas that are nothing but tangles of tamarisk.

Currently, there is an effort being made to eradicate tamarisk and replace it with native plants, but it’s not easy.  Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of your iconic (in that it’s the source of your nickname) SF novel: Day of the Triffids, because, like the creatures in Wyndam’s novel, tamarisk was introduced for many good reasons and proved to be a plague.

Does New Zealand have its own triffids?

ALAN: Indeed it does – gorse has been here since the early nineteenth century. Charles Darwin recorded seeing it in 1835 and it was very well established then. It was originally introduced to be used for hedging on farms, but it quickly got out of control. It loves the conditions here and it spreads like wildfire. In summer, the hills are covered with yellow blooms as far as the eye can see, and so are the farmers’ fields. Everyone hates it and millions of dollars are spent trying to control or eradicate it, with little success.

There used to be a wonderful advert on TV for a spray that could be used to control gorse outbreaks. An angry farmer is shown flying his helicopter over his fields and spraying the gorse, swearing and cursing at the terrible weed. But the spray takes a long time to work, of course, and the farmer simply can’t contain his impatience and his anger. So, in a fit of fury, he turns his helicopter upside down and uses the rotor blades to trim the gorse right back to the ground. Then he flies home, satisfied with a job well done. The name of the spray is superimposed on the picture and a voice-over suggests that it might be better to use the spray instead of trying to turn your helicopter into a massive weed-eater…

I haven’t seen the advert for several years now which is a pity. I always enjoyed it!

JANE: Definitely creative and amusing…

There’s a lot more to be said about the subject of invasive species, both in your country and mine.  Shall we continue next week?

ALAN: Yes, let’s.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 252 other followers