FF: Short List!

August 28, 2015

Remember!  Bubonicon starts this evening.  I’m seriously considering reading some of my earliest short stories as a way of celebrating the impending release of Curiosities, my forthcoming short story collection.  Getting the book ready has taken a lot of my reading time this week, but I did still manage.

Sirenity Contemplates the Blind Detective

Sirenity Contemplates the Blind Detective

For those of you new to this post…  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 few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Max Carrados mysteries by Ernest Bramah.  Max is blind, although almost supernatural in his “sightedness.”  Some of the stories are a bit contrived but I found Max an appealing character.  Don’t read unless you like “old-fashioned” mysteries where most of the action occurs off-stage.

The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger.  Tommy, a sixth grader, tries to figure out the secret of Origami Yoda.  Written journal style, which I am a sucker for when it’s done well…  I decided to try this because I may meet Mr. Angleberger next week since we’re both guests of the National Book Festival.

In Progress:

Omnitopia Dawn by Diane Duane.  Audiobook.  Having liked some of her YA/middle grade fantasies, I decided to try this.

Also:

Lots of shorter stuff and work-related stuff and, as mentioned above, going over (and over) proofs of Curiosities as we tinkering with flourishes.

TT: Modern SF — Lacking Sense of Wonder?

August 27, 2015

JANE: Last time you commented that all the works we’d been discussing were “older.”  My immediate response was that Varley wasn’t “older.”  Then I realized we were discussing books from late-1979 and the early 1980’s.  Time has slipped by…

Wonder Is Where You Find It

Wonder Is Where You Find It

I was going to mention Larry Niven, but the titles I’d mention would be from his older work…

So, we definitely DO need to look at more current SF…  You write a review column, so you probably keep more on top of new releases than I do.  What’s your reaction?

ALAN: I’ve almost given up reading SF. I find many modern writers to be mostly concerned with the surface of their story, and often there is very little depth. More time is spent on spectacle than it is on ideas, and much of it appears shallow to me.

Of course, you could say I am just jaded, a crusty old curmudgeon who claims that “They don’t write ’em like that anymore,” and probably there’s a certain amount of truth in that.

But the Panshins spend several hundred pages of their book (The World Beyond the Hill ) exploring the thesis that the best science fiction is a lot more than just spectacle and they give many so many concrete examples from the SF of the past, that I think my position is not entirely untenable.

JANE: Oh!  I agree.  I’ll also admit that I dropped out of reading much SF for quite a while.

Are there any modern authors that you think do manage to turn on your sense of wonder?

ALAN: Yes – there are some. Stephen Baxter is a very good writer indeed. Sometimes his enthusiasms run away with him and he lapses into incoherence. But when he’s firing on all cylinders there’s nobody to touch him.

I’m particularly fond of The Time Ships which is an authorised sequel to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

He’s also not afraid to paint on a large canvas. His Xeelee sequence begins in the present day and ends when the Milky Way galaxy collides with Andromeda five billion years later.  During this timeline, humanity evolves to become the second most powerful race in the universe, next to the Xeelee themselves. The stories concentrate far more on big ideas than they do on character development, so they do tend to be rather cold and distant.

But he can do people well when he wants to. The four novels that make up the Time’s Tapestry series concern themselves with interventions into our past from a (possibly) alternate-history future. As well as concerning themselves with the grand scope of the theme, the stories also pay a lot of attention to the impact of this meddling on the very real lives of some very real people. As a result, I think these novels are my favourites of his work – though I retain a soft spot for the stand alone novel Evolution which follows the evolution of humanity from the distant past to the far future. In this book Baxter does for people what James Michener did for places. It’s a clever conceit and I loved it!

JANE:  Sounds impressive – and a bit intimidating, I’ll admit!

I’ll put in a vote for Vernor Vinge, especially Fire Upon the Deep and Deepness in the Sky, although I have a fancy for the Earth-based Rainbow’s End as well.

Although Vernor (I use his first name not only because I know him, but because his ex-wife Joan also writes SF as “Vinge.”) has become something of a demi-god among the computer geek set, it wasn’t his use of the Singularity that caught me, it was his aliens.

Both the canine group-mind Tines (Fire Upon the Deep) and the “Spiders” in A Deepness in the Sky are far more than humans in costume.  They are well-realized and complex, from their biology on up.  (This is something that I feel is done too rarely with aliens.  Larry Niven did it well with the Kzinti, Trinocs, Puppeteers, and other inhabitants of “Known Space.)

Vernor’s  aliens are different on many levels (physical, social, cultural) from the humans they encounter, which leads to some very natural misunderstandings and – as in the best “sense of wonder” writing – left me “wondering” about the assumptions we tend to make about the ways intelligence will develop.

But even if it was the aliens who grabbed hold of me, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Vernor’s future humans have – for me – just the right mix of familiarity and difference to make them “futuristic” in the best sense, not twentieth (or twenty-first) century humans with cooler tech.

Your turn!

ALAN: I’m very fond of Kage Baker as well – her time travel/cyborg novels about the Company are inspired and inspirational. Tragically, she died far too young, but the novels that she left behind are wonderful.

An organization called Dr. Zeus operates from the 24th century, using technologies of time travel and immortality to exploit the past for commercial gain. The immortality technology works by turning young children recruited in the deep past into cyborgs who, once they reach maturity, will never die. Time travel itself is very limited. It only allows journeys into the past, and a return to the present. But the employees of Dr. Zeus, who were recruited in the past, live through the ages, travelling slowly into the future at the rate of one second per second. They are instructed, as time and opportunity present themselves to retrieve and hide valuable artefacts that have been lost to mainstream history in accidents and catastrophes, and then to “rediscover” them in the future. And so Dr. Zeus itself becomes obscenely rich and influential.

But as the series progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the Dr. Zeus story is itself a fiction and the Company’s ostensible purpose is mere window-dressing. Something much deeper, much more fundamental, is taking place. The final revelation is quite jaw dropping – and along the way we get a lot of brilliantly conceived and complex books.

JANE: I’ve been meaning to read her stuff since you first mentioned it to me some years ago.  I’m going to need to make a more serious effort.

ALAN: And Jack McDevitt’s books are always worth reading as well, of course – after all it was a discussion of his books that led us into this subject in the first place!

You are pretty good at it too. Your Artemis novels gave me an authentic spine-tingle.

JANE: Thanks!  I was hoping to achieve “wonder,” not just cool FX.  Would it be presumptuous of me to ask what made the “Artemis Awakening” books work for you on the “wonder” level?

ALAN: Actually that’s quite a large topic. Perhaps we could talk about it next time?

JANE: Okay…  But I have stage fright!

The Cost — Part One

August 26, 2015

News Flash!  Bubonicon is this coming weekend.  Theme is Women of Wonder.  Guests of Honor include Tamora Pierce, Catherynne M. Valente, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Ruth Sanderson.  I’ll be there all three days, and hope to see many of you!

One, Two, Three, More?

One, Two, Three, More?

Last week I solicited questions from Wednesday Wanderings readers.  This week, I’m going to tackle at least some of Louis’ very complex ones.  And, yes, I’m still interested in hearing from you about what you’d like me to talk about!  Either put your suggestion in the Comments or e-mail me at jane2@janelindskold.com.

For ease of reference, here’s what Louis said: “Well, my immediate reaction was to wonder how much we’d have to raise on Kickstarter to  pay you to write the 4th Breaking the Wall [hmmm… should I maybe be taking that series title literally, or at least more so than I have so far?] book. And no, you don’t need to answer that, or even think about the answer. But it did lead me to something that might be answerable: what does it cost you to produce a new book – in terms of time, of resources, of blood, sweat, toil and tears? And how do you judge that you’ve been fairly recompensed for your labour?

Probably not the same answers every time, of course.”

Let me start with Louis’ “answerable” question.  Then, I’ll see if I can touch on the rest.  Some of this will inevitably repeat what I’ve said elsewhere, but I think it has value in a new context.

Also, Louis is absolutely right that the answer isn’t the same every time, but I’ll try to make my answer broad enough to give you a sense of how different situations will change my assumed “cost.”

In the past, I have budgeted a year to write a novel from start to finish, that is, to create a manuscript ready to hand in to my editor.  Please note that last bit…  I’ll be coming back to it.  However, this “a year” is a deceptive statistic.

“Idea” is the most difficult element to which to assign an assessment of “time.”   In all cases, I don’t start a novel until I have a clear idea of what I want to write about, so in that sense, it’s a non-element.  Or is it?  In a very real sense, I may have spent years, even a lifetime, coming up with that idea.   One reason I read widely and eclectically is to “feed the Muse” for future ideas.

Even if I have a solid “idea,” still I need to lay some foundations in setting (which may include world building), character (ditto, since characters do not exist in isolation from their setting), and some of the bones of plot.

A new novel in a series presents an additional challenge – that of keeping the material consistent with what was presented in previous books.

I know several authors of highly popular, multi-volume series who actually rely on assistants (either paid or volunteer) to help keep track of the details in their increasingly complex series.  The author is focused on the newest project, not all the small elements from earlier ones.

I don’t have such an assistant, so, if I were going to write another book in an on-going series, I would need to re-read all the previous books first: not casually, as one does when revisiting an “old friend,” but with razor-sharp attention to detail.  I suspect the need to do this is a reason that, when some authors have picked up with pervious series after a long time lag, the new books take place in the next generation or at least after a suitable lapse of time so that mistakes in characterization or setting can be passed off to the passage of time.

I know that as a reader I’ve usually been disappointed by Whatever The Next Generation books…  If I’m reading in a series, I want to rejoin my fictional friends and learn how what happened in prior books might influence their lives.  Based on the questions I’ve received from readers of my various series, I suspect that’s what they would want from a new book in a series – especially if they’ve remained interested in the series over the years it has been on hiatus – so taking that time to re-read would be essential.

Therefore, even before I started writing, I would need time to re-read, take notes, and, most importantly, wrap myself in the “soul” of that place and those people.  So, tack that onto the “year” to produce a book that you could read.

Let’s pause here to address the question of length of a book.  Since Louis used a fourth “Breaking the Wall” book for his example, I’ll start with that.  Each of the “Breaking the Wall” novels ran between 650 and just under 700 pages.    I can’t give you a precise word count, because I don’t currently have complete manuscripts in electronic form, but let’s estimate 150,000 words.

(Oh…  And compared to the Firekeeper novels, these were “short.”  Most of those ran at least 200,000 words.)

I’m assuming that a reader would like a new book in a series to be about the same length as the previous ones in the series, offering the same level of complexity of characters and plot.  As was shown by my experience with writing the “Artemis Awakening” novels (which the editor insisted be not much over 100,000 words), when I write a shorter novel, I can’t provide as much story.  This is because I never write “fat.”  I always try to make every word, every scene, count, often double.

Since Louis asked about “cost,” this is a good place to mention that the longer the novel, the more expensive it is to produce.  Yes.  This is true even with e-books, since the distributors charge according to the size of the file.

(And before you ask, “But do you need to bother with the distributors?” the answer seems to be “Yes.”  In all the years I have been selling e-books via my website bookstore, I have had fewer than ten direct purchase requests.  Almost all of these have been from “foreign” markets, where, for one reason or another, the reader has difficulty accessing marketplaces like Amazon.com.)

The cost element becomes an even more serious element with print-on-demand books, since the cost for these is based on size, yet book buyers (who don’t balk at buying groceries by the pound) want to pay roughly the same amount per book, no matter the size.  Major publishing houses manage to keep prices in the same general range by offsetting projects against each other, but for a one-author operation, this isn’t an option.

Surely you’ve noticed that those bright-eyed self-published authors you encounter in increasingly large numbers at conventions almost always have very slim books?  Cost is one of the reasons.  Another is the awareness that they’ll make more money from several short books than from one long complex book.  This is one of the reasons that, after nearly going extinct, serials are becoming popular once more. They’re a way to write short, sell more often, and yet tell a more complex story.

So, right off, my contemplated 150,000-word original novel is a bad idea in the self-publishing world…  But let’s say I’m going to go ahead with it, maybe because that Kickstarter campaign Louis mentioned has shown me there’s an audience.  What else goes into the project?

This seems like a good time to stop (since I need to do various things to get ready for Bubonicon this weekend and the National Book Festival the following weekend) but I’ll pick up the rest of the complexities of producing a book next time.

Meantime, remember that I welcome your questions!

FF: No Particular Theme

August 21, 2015

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.

Persephone, Before She Could Read

Persephone, Before She Could Read

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 few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling.  Audiobook.  Short stories, presented as factual reports, focusing on entanglements, romantic and otherwise in British India.  Two at least provide further details of characters who appear in Kipling’s novel, Kim.  I enjoyed.

Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy by Wendelin Van Draanen.  Do an adult’s dreams need to vanish when she has kids?  Sammy’s mom clearly doesn’t think so…  But what is the cost?

Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr.  Audiobook.  Ash sees faeries.  This is not good, but it may be her salvation.  Solidly in the growing sub-genre of “high school girl is loved by somebody supernatural.”  However, unlike many of her fictional “sisters,” Ash has some problems with this.

In Progress:

Max Carrados mysteries by Ernest Bramah.  Max is blind but almost supernatural in his “sightedness.”

Also:

500 Handmade Dolls: Modern Exploration of the Human Form edited by Valerie Van Arsdale Shrader.  Mostly pictures.  Wide variety of interpretations made fascinating, maybe even inspirational.

Still reading a lot of short non-fiction.

TT: More Wonder!

August 20, 2015

JANE: Last week, I mentioned that despite all our chatter, I keep thinking of authors who awaken “Sense of Wonder” for me.

Two words: Roger Zelazny.

Jack Williamson Diamond Anniversary Collection

Jack Williamson Diamond Anniversary Collection

A couple of titles: Lord of Light, Creatures of Light and Darkness, This Immortal, Isle of the Dead, Eye of Cat

But we spent a lot of time discussing Roger’s work a while back, so I’ll restrain myself from repeating.  People who are interested can look Here and Here and even Here.

ALAN: Roger could certainly always give me that authentic spine-tingle. But he wasn’t alone in that. Theodore Sturgeon was also a master of the sense of wonder. His fix-up novel More than Human describes the evolution of homo gestalt, a combination of minds forming, albeit briefly, someone whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It has interesting things to say about morality and ethics, particularly in the last third or so of the book, which I must admit does get a tad preachy… But never mind.

JANE: (aside) “Fix-up,” for those of our readers who discovered SF prior to the dominance of the novel, is a novel constructed from various previously written short stories.  Fix-ups can be especially good for “idea” stories, because the shorter length allows for focus on an idea, while combining them into a novel often provides more dimension to the characters.

Let’s see…  Who else gives me that “sense of wonder” feeling?

 For good old-fashioned adventure, you can’t beat Jack Williamson.  I love Darker Than You Think, and his various “Legion of Space” stories.  But he also touched a deeper cultural nerve in his tale “With Folded Hands,” (later re-done as The Humanoids), which introduces a future in which robot caregivers make everything wonderfully, absolutely, perfectly safe…

The setting and prose may be old-fashioned, but the more I look at our evolving “seat belt,” insurance-minded, sanitizer hand soap, never-take-a-risk culture, the more I think Jack was telling a parable for the ages.  Today, so many sit “With Folded Hands.”

ALAN: Jack Williamson never really did much for me – I found his prose a bit clunky.

JANE: (Waving hand in the air in the best annoying student fashion.)  Ooh!! Can I interrupt…  Please?

ALAN: Are you asking for permission to take a toilet break? You aren’t? OK – what point do you want to make?

JANE: I’m not arguing that Jack’s prose could be less than artistic – but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a great contributor not only to SF’s ideas (something Arthur C. Clarke himself gave Jack credit for), but to its language.

Jack originated two terms that remain in current use and have, in fact, graduated from the realm of science fiction to general use.

“Terraforming” first appeared in his story “Collision Orbit,” published in Astounding Science Fiction.

“Genetic engineering” first was used in his 1952 novel, Dragon Island.  It’s interesting to note that Williamson coined the term before the role of DNA in heredity was confirmed.

Jack didn’t coin the term “android,” but his use of it in “The Cometeers” in 1936 is credited with bringing it to a wider audience.

So, “clunky” or not, Jack Williamson contributed more to modern language than many of those self-consciously stylish prose writers.

ALAN: And in two fix-up novels, Seetee Shock and Seetee Ship, he coined the neologism “Seetee” which is a pronunciation of the initialism CT which itself stands for “contra-terrene” matter. These days we’d call it anti-matter (a concept first described by the physicist Paul Dirac in 1930). Williamson’s term never really caught on, but it should have. In my opinion, anti-matter is a rather ugly term. Seetee is much nicer.

So, yes, I cannot deny his importance in the field.

But equally, I cannot deny the importance of Henry James in the mainstream literary world. Nevertheless I cannot read anything by Henry James without immediately falling fast asleep.

JANE: Wow!  Another place where our tastes cross!  I am amazed.

ALAN: However, despite my feelings about Williamson, I did admire his collaborations with Frederik Pohl.  But Pohl was, in my opinion, a genius. His Gateway stories have a sense of wonder in spades, particularly the first two novels which take place before the alien Heechee actually appear on stage, though evidence of them is everywhere around.

Does any of that help to pin down what I mean by sense of wonder?

JANE: It does.  What did you think of John Varley’s three-part Titan, Wizard, Demon?

ALAN: I really enjoyed them, though I gather that a lot of people don’t think much of them. The alien Titanides are brought brilliantly to life and as the series progresses it gets more and more surreal. (I’ve always loved surrealism). The image of a fifty-foot tall Marilyn Monroe has stayed with me for many years…

JANE: I’m with you on enjoying them.   (And a lot of people must have agreed with us, since Titan was on every major award ballot when it came out, then won the Locus Award in the novel category.  The sequels also hit the award lists.)

The first novel Titan focuses on the initial exploration by the crew of the Ringmaster of a planet-sized intelligence dubbed Gaea.  Gaea (who isn’t round like a planet, but is shaped like a Stanford torus) has been deeply influenced by exposure to television and movies that reached her via television signals. Various strange things happen to the crew before they meet Gaea herself.

Wizard is set several years later.   The ship’s captain, Cirocco Jones, has become a full-time resident of the Gaea – her ambassador or resident “Wizard” and a raging alcoholic.  Her friend, Gaby, another survivor of the Ringmaster’s crew, handles much of the day-to-day work, including interfacing with “pilgrims” who come to Gaea hoping to win miracle cures.

In Demon, Cirocco rebels against her state and sets out to wrestle control from Gaea, no easy task, given that she’s living on the surface of the entity she hopes to rebel against.

I love the big concept and how the crazy details (including the fifty-foot tall Marilyn Monroe) actually make sense in this context.

ALAN: Almost all the writers we’ve discussed so far are from an earlier generation. What about the people who are writing SF today? Do any of them have that authentic sense of wonder feeling about them?

JANE: For me, sure, some do, but it’s a harder find, I’ll admit.  Let’s talk about that next time.

Your Call, Folks

August 19, 2015

This coming week or so is pretty much the last relatively quiet stretch of time I have until the end of September.  The last weekend in August starts a really busy time for me.

Persephone Solicits Questions

Persephone Solicits Questions

First comes Bubonicon, (August 28-30).  Then, on September 4th, I leave for DC where I’m a guest at the National Book Festival (August 5).  I’m staying in the area a few days to catch up with family and friends.

Then back to New Mexico where, on September 12th, I’m doing a book signing with Vic Milan and Melinda Snodgrass at the Barnes and Noble on the campus of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Then back home to Albuquerque, but off to Arizona to do a signing on September 22nd, again with Vic and Melinda.

If you’d like more details about any of these events, check Appearances on my website, www.janelindskold.com.

Somewhere in there, Jim and I hope to squeeze in at least one visit to the New Mexico State Fair.  And, just because there’s a lot of travel, this doesn’t mean the routine stuff goes away.

 As any of you who travel a lot know, the general rule of thumb is that more things will crop up while you’re gone than would have if you’d just quietly stayed at home.  In fact, “crop up” will literally be a part of the picture, since my tomato plants are now bearing like crazy and will demand attention whenever I’m actually in the same space as they are.

Although I’ll certainly report about these various trips, I’m actively soliciting questions or topics you’d enjoy having me wander on about…

Let me answer the most commonly asked one right now: “Are you going to write any more Firekeeper books?” (or “Breaking the Wall” or a sequel to fill in the title…)

The answer is: I’d actually enjoy doing so.  I’ve been away from Firekeeper long enough that I have some interesting thoughts.  I always wanted to do a fourth “Breaking the Wall” book.  However, unless I see publisher support, this isn’t likely to happen in the near future.

And publishers don’t buy books unless they think there is reader support…  So basically, the questions of sequels is out of my hands but, oddly, very much in yours!

Oh…  And a related question I’m frequently asked is why don’t I have audiobooks or movies done of my work?  I addressed this question in the WW 6-29-11, and the situation hasn’t substantially changed.

Okay…  So questions?  You can put them in the Comments here or, if you’re shy, feel free to e-mail me at jane2@janelindskold.com.

It’s always more fun for me to write about a topic when I know at least one person really wants to hear the answer.

FF: More Short Than Long

August 14, 2015

The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles. But this week I have because so much of what I’ve been reading is shorter works!

Short Stuff

Short Stuff

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 few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  Prequel to “Miles” stories, how his parents met told from Cordelia’s POV.  Can someone who is more familiar with the series than I am fill me in on why, after the story is clearly done, the long “body collecting” bit is tacked on the end.  Is this Fan Service of some sort?

The Sword Woman by Robert E. Howard.  Wanted to read some early takes on “strong female characters” after writing my two WW on the subject.  Also read (from a different volume) “Shadow of the Vulture,” which was Howard’s one “Red Sonya” story.  Both Dark Agnes and Red Sonya are presented as “historical” not “fantasy” characters.  Both are basically men in drag.  Dark Agnes’ mantra is that she wants to be viewed as a man, not a woman.  ‘Nuff said.

Sammy Keyes and the Hollywood Mummy by Wendelin Van Draanen.  Do an adult’s dreams need to vanish when she has kids?  Sammy’s mom doesn’t think so.  And the mummy isn’t who you think it is!

In Progress:

Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling.  Audiobook.  Short stories, presented as factual reports, focusing on entanglements, romantic and otherwise in British India.  Two at least provide further details of characters who appear in Kipling’s novel, Kim.

The Sky Chariots Saga, “Blessing Sky” (installment two of a serial).  I really don’t like reading on a Kindle, I find.

Also:

Non-fiction short articles.  Lots.  Quite interesting.

TT: Wondering About Interpersonal Space

August 13, 2015

News Flash!  “Liz H” is the final winner in the “Help Make Artemis This Summer’s Hot Destination” contest.  Many thanks to all of you who participated.  Special thanks again to Tori Hansen for the picture of Sand Shadow at the beach!

JANE: A couple of weeks ago, when we were chatting about some of the works of Arthur C. Clarke, you mentioned that he didn’t restrict himself to science and spaceships, he explored questions of human sexuality as well.

Explorations of Self and Sexuality

Explorations of Self and Sexuality

ALAN: Yes – his own favourite of his novels was The Songs of Distant Earth which was published in 1986 but which still reads very well today. Among the many themes that it explores is the idea of homosexual attraction as a character motivator – there’s nothing gratuitous about it, it is an integral part of the story and Clarke handles the theme tastefully and passionately. Actually, it’s really rather moving.

JANE: Yes.  And SF is good for that sort of exploration because it’s happening somewhere and somewhen else, not here and now – and potentially threatening.

Although these days, when I hear Heinlein mentioned, it seems to be mostly in the context of military SF and his “juvie” novels, he certainly did a lot of exploration into human sexualities in his novels.  These were no less “SF” for all that.

His novel I Will Fear No Evil blew me away when I first read it.  In it, his main character – an elderly man in very bad health, arranges to have his brain transplanted into the first available donor.  He forgets to specify gender and the first donor just happens to be his young, beautiful, sexy secretary.

So now the old man is a hot young woman.  But Eunice may be dead, but apparently she isn’t gone.  She continues on as his spirit guide…

I Will Fear No Evil certainly wasn’t Heinlein’s best novel, but it was very different from anything else I’d ever read.  For that reason, I’ll always remember it fondly.

ALAN: The ideas in I Will Fear No Evil were fascinating, but the writing left much to be desired. I’m much more fond of Stranger in a Strange Land which explores a lot of different sexualities, some of which are rather odd even by today’s standards! It’s one of my favourite books, and I’ve read it many times.

JANE: Oh, yes…  Stranger in a Strange Land was given to me when I was fifteen.  Talk about eye opening!  Again, the SF element allowed Heinlein to explore these oddities in a non-threatening context because Valentine Michael Smith, while human in form, is alien in sensibility.  He can’t be expected to know what is “normal” and what is not.

ALAN: Can I go off on a brief tangent, please?

JANE: Absolutely!

ALAN: Stranger in a Strange Land is available in two editions. There’s the novel as originally published in 1961, and there’s Heinlein’s original, uncut manuscript which was published about thirty years later. Heinlein cut the novel for publication by going through the manuscript and tightening almost every sentence by removing extraneous words and rearranging the phrasing. No scenes were cut, no ideas were omitted, he just worked on the words, and he cut out about 60,000 of them!

JANE: 60,000 words is about the length of a slim paperback.  That’s a lot of cutting.

ALAN: When you compare the two, the edited version from 1961 is by far the stronger book. The uncut manuscript is flabby and discursive whereas the cut version is very tightly focused. If Heinlein had done the same cutting exercise on I Will Fear No Evil, I suspect he might very well have had another classic on his hands. Sadly he never did that and the book remains almost too flabby to read. What a wasted opportunity.

JANE: I read that Heinlein was very ill when I Will Fear No Evil was due to be published.  He probably didn’t have the energy to do that level of editing and, since at that time he was one of the pre-eminent writers of SF, I doubt his editors wanted to put pressure on him.

As I said when we started this discussion, one of the elements of SF that definitely contributed to the Sense of Wonder element was the exploration into what you might call “inner space.”  Often this included psionic (mental or psychic) powers.  Even John W. Campbell who was considered the bastion of “hard” SF considered psionics valid.

The psionic ability that certainly received the most attention was telepathy – or mind reading – along with empathy, which is the ability to read emotions.  You can’t explore how possessing these abilities would shape a culture without speculating on how being able to read minds would impact on sexual relationships.

ALAN: This is a minor theme in Robert Silverberg’s stunningly brilliant novel Dying Inside. And I vaguely recall that James Tiptree Jr. used it in some of her stories as well.

JANE: Another author who did a lot with telepathy was Marion Zimmer Bradley, who built her entire Darkover culture around a ruling class that was a ruling class precisely because it possessed psionic abilities.  These, by the by, were acquired in a very skiffy fashion – crossbreeding with the aliens who were the original inhabitants of the planet but who, by the time humans arrived, had nearly died out.

Sexual relations – and the restriction of the same – played a greater and greater part in her novels.

I discovered her works when I was in college and they certainly gave me a lot to think about.  I was particularly taken with a sub-section of novels having to do with how the psionics of Darkover came to realize that their attitudes toward sexual relations between members of the “circles” and “towers” that dominated the use of such powers had created wide-reaching problems.

ALAN: I think you are quite right about the Darkover books. The later novels in the series portray this brilliantly. I’m particularly fond of The Heritage of Hastur (1975) which explores a lot of sexual themes. Rather like the Clarke novel we mentioned before, it also takes the view that homosexuality is a normal variant of human sexuality.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was a writer with great potential but she lost me with The Mists of Avalon. It is her most famous and popular book, but I’m afraid I bounced right off it and I never returned to her after that.

JANE: She started losing me with the books about the “Free Amazons,” I fear.  The Mists of Avalon didn’t work for me either…  It seemed excruciatingly dry.

ALAN: SF used to be a very chaste literature. Someone (I’m not sure who) once remarked that SF authors were very immature and they didn’t write sex scenes in their books because they never really got over being scared that their mother might read them…

JANE: Oh!  I like that.  My first published short story (which will be included in the collection I’m just about ready to release) had a sexual element…  I didn’t worry about that when I was writing it, because I don’t think I believed it would actually get published.  It did.  My mom still talks to me.

What do you think led to the change?

ALAN: I think it was a product of the times. The liberal ideas that were part of the culture of the 1960s and 1970s freed up the field and the new dimension that this added to all literature (not just science fiction) gave us a lot of interesting speculations. Philip Jose Farmer was particularly notorious for this, and his books ran the gamut from sheer unadulterated pornography, clearly designed to be read with only one hand, through to some much more thoughtful works.

For example, A Feast Unknown is a pastiche of pulp fiction, erotica, and horror fiction which was published in 1969 and which still makes for uncomfortable reading today as it cleverly explores the complex relationship between sex and violence.

The short story collection Strange Relations (1960) uses sexual encounters between humans and other alien creatures to explore problems of personal development. Farmer insists that human integrity requires that people must develop a respectful flexibility to strange situations (and believe me, some of the situations he describes in these stories are very strange). Applying intelligence is a pre-requisite for all reasonable responses – without it, everything falls apart. And of course, prejudice is simply not possible in these circumstances. Invariably, argues Farmer, prejudice derives from lack of thought. It’s instinctive as opposed to rational. He makes a convincing case.

JANE: “Notorious” is a good word for Farmer and sex.  I liked some of his books very much, but I wish I could vacuum Lord Tyger from my memory.

ALAN: Oh I don’t know – I thought Lord Tyger portrayed a rather more realistic picture of a boy growing up alone in the jungle than Burroughs managed to paint with Tarzan. But I agree that it did have more than its fair share of grotesqueries.

However, we musn’t get so serious that we can’t have a laugh. John Sladek wrote a very funny short story called Machine Screw in which a fifteen foot tall sex-crazed robot runs amok and starts raping automobiles. There’s also the very entertaining Great Balls of Fire! A History of Sex in Science Fiction (1977) by Harry Harrison

JANE: Is the Harrison fiction or non-fiction?

ALAN: It’s non-fiction. It concentrates mostly on science fiction illustrations, but it does have a fair amount to say about the stories as well.

JANE: I’ll keep an eye out for it.  The way artistic depictions shape interpretation of text is of perennial interest to me.

I have several other authors, I’ve thought of as holding “Sense of Wonder” for me, shall we move toward a grand finale next time?

Rolling Along at Breakneck Speed

August 12, 2015

News Flash!: Artemis Invaded was featured on Locus magazines’ “New and Notable” list in the August issue.  I am VERY happy.

And now, on to our regularly scheduled Wander.  Warning: This one is a bit odd(er than usual).

Scribbles and Story Cubes

Scribbles and Story Cubes

On Sunday, we usually game.  However, most of our gang has abandoned us for Scotland.  We three orphans (me, Jim, and Rowan Derrick) decided we’d get together anyhow.

I suggested to Rowan, “Maybe we can do something fast and creative, like write a story.”  Rowan immediately nodded, “Like the 48 Hour Film project.  Cool!  Let’s do it.”

Now, I’d seen something called “Rory’s Story Cubes,” in a local toy store.  I thought they’d be just what we needed to keep us from spending too much time trying to come up with an idea.  We’d roll the cubes and see where inspiration took us.

After dinner, fortified with coffee and some lovely trifle, we rolled the nine cubes.  The first set of images (which included a sheep, a magnifying glass, and an abacus) reminded me and Jim so much of Ngaio Marsh’s novel Died in the Wool that we knew we couldn’t get any further.

The second set, Jim managed to string into a more or less comprehensible sentence, which was a marvel in and of itself, but it didn’t take us anywhere.

The third set included the following: masks of comedy and tragedy; an “alien” face; a pyramid; a sheep, a house; a tepee; an apartment building; a magnifying glass; and a bridge with water running under it.

We grinned at each other.  I grabbed pen and paper.  Here (only slightly revised, mostly where I couldn’t read my handwriting) is the story we came up with, augmented along the way with further rolls of the dice when details were needed.  Without further ado, here’s:

Dirk Lancer: Paranormal Detective

Five years ago, Dirk Lancer had been the hottest star in film.  Then there had been the unfortunate incident of the drunken, nude bathing in a fountain in Rome.  The problem hadn’t been the drunken, nude bathing, but that the photos had shown all too clearly that – far from the six-pack abs for which he was famous – Dirk had developed a rather decided paunch.

Now Dirk would take any job he could get, including a role in a paranormal mystery investigator reality show.  The pilot episode was being shot in Egypt, on unlocking the secrets of the pyramids.

“Hasn’t this been done before?” Dirk asked.

“Of course, Dirk, but we’ve got a special twist.”  The producer winked.

“What is it?”

“If we told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”

“Hey!  I’m an actor.  I can act surprised.”

The producer shook his head.  “This has got to be for real, Dirk.  That’s why it’s called ‘reality T.V.’”

So that’s why when Dirk – after crawling on hands and knees down a tight passage – came face to face with a green-faced alien, he did his best to seem very surprised.

Dirk pushed himself to his knees and held up a magnifying glass in his best paranormal investigator style.  “Oh, my gosh!  This is amazing!  Can you see what I’m seeing?  A real alien!  I’m going to try to communicate with it.”

Although the “alien” was blocking him, Dirk’s knees were hurting, so he pushed to where he could stand more or less upright, wondering as he did so why the set had been so badly designed.

Speaking clearly and distinctly, Dirk said, “Do You Under-Stand Me?”

The alien replied, “Who do you think taught you monkeys how to talk?”

“So you speak English?” Dirk said, making his eyes really wide and his expression astonished.

“And French, Swahili, San, Mandarin, and Icelandic.”

Dirk paused, waiting for someone to yell “Cut!” since he had no idea what he was supposed to do next.  Then did he realize that he and the alien were alone, with not a camera or production person in sight.  Not only that, they were standing under a tree in a flower-filled meadow in which three very different houses stood: a Cape Cod, a plains teepee, and a modern high-rise.

“So, Dirk!” said the alien, his expression alive with the manic enthusiasm only seen on game show hosts.  “You have five minutes to choose which house you are going to set on fire.  Yes!  You are a contestant on ‘Burn, Baby, Burn!’ the hottest game show in seven solar systems.”

Dirk looked around desperately, but his producer was nowhere to be seen.  In fact, the only other living thing present – other than himself and his green companion – was a singularly stupid-looking sheep grazing by a bridge under a picturesque brook.

Him and his f-king ‘surprise, Dirk thought, editing his language for television.  Fine!  I can cope!

He turned to Green Boy, as he had mentally dubbed the alien.  “I’ll take House Number One, the Cape Cod.”

“An excellent choice!” Green Boy replied.  “Here’s your kit, including this week’s Mystery Ingredient: a genuine, fully-functional Tesla Coil!”

The sheep baaed appreciatively.

Dirk had no idea what a Tesla coil was, but he tried to look smarter than he felt.

Green Boy smiled and said to Dirk, “You have thirty-five time units to set your house on fire or else you Burn, Baby, Burn!”

Green Boy vanished, as did the teepee and the high-rise, leaving Dirk to examine his supplies.  Most prominent was a bulky box with a sort of pillar coming out of the center.  At the top of the pillar was a halo-like thing.  The whole thing hummed gently.  Dirk guessed this must be the Tesla coil.

Feeling desperate, he looked at the other items in his kit.  There was a key; a chess piece (Dirk thought it was a castle, but maybe it was a rook); an incandescent light bulb; several napkins with floral embroidery; and an electric blue plastic lightning bolt about a foot long.

With a rising sense of panic, Dirk picked up the lightning bolt.  To his shock, it crackled in his hand and a white-hot spark fried a nearby flower.  For the first time since he had crept into the pyramid, Dirk felt hope.

At this point, the sheep looked up and baaed, “One time unit elapsed,” then returned to grazing.

With vague memories of Ben Franklin from grammar school history, Dirk picked up the key and turned it over in his hand, putting his best “thoughtful” expression on his ruggedly handsome features.

“Two time units spent,” intoned the counting sheep.

“Hey!” Dirk protested.  “That can’t be right!”

“Three time units spent,” said the sheep with an ovine chuckle.

“That’s it!” Dirk said, remembering the pyramid.  Uncasing the magnifying glass from his paranormal investigator’s utility belt, he raced toward the house.

When he’d been a rather naughty boy, he’d delighted in using a magnifying glass not unlike this one to set on fire the hair of the little girl who sat in front of him.  She’d had very dry hair and it had more smoked than burnt, but the principle should work.

He’d need to get inside and find something flammable – or inflammable.  English really was weird.

The door was locked!  But, with a flash of brilliance, Dirk remembered the key.  He ran back to get it.

“Five time units elapsed,” baaed the counting sheep.

“What happened to four!” Dirk protested.

“Ten time units elapsed,” the sheep said around a mouthful of dandelions.

“Mint jelly!” Dirk cursed softly, as he grabbed the kit and ran back to the house.

He fumbled for the key, shoved it in the lock, and the door swung open to reveal a completely empty house without as much as a pillow to burn.

In the distance, Dirk could have sworn he heard Green Boy announcing a commercial break.

Fishing for ideas, Dirk saw the light bulb.  The fixtures were empty.  Could he create an electrical fire?  He had no idea, and he still didn’t have anything to burn, even if he did start a fire.  Wait, he did!  He stripped off his shirt and trousers, revealing his newly sculpted body, clad only in camouflage print bikini briefs.

Next, Dirk ran to retrieve the Tesla coil for, with sudden insight, he realized that he had to include the Tesla coil or lose valuable points.  Whatever else he was, Dirk Lancer was not a loser.

Using the magnifying glass would take too long and he had no idea how to start an electrical fire but – good old Ben Franklin – Dirk remembered that electricity and lightning were the same thing!  He figured he’d just toss that useless Tesla coil on the fire, too.  As he was packing his clothes around the base, he saw an on-off switch.

“What the f—,” he said, forgetting this was T.V., and flipped the switch to “on.”

The halo at the top of the pillar erupted with bright streams of purplish-blue electricity.  The electric stream ran up his arm, chased over his sculpted biceps, and was channeled by the plastic lightning bolt he held in his left hand.

With terrific force, a bolt of pure energy shot forth and ignited his pants leg.  The rest of his clothes quickly burst into flame.  The flames spread with frightening rapidity to the cheap fabricated walls of the Cape Cod, now revealed as little more than a shoddy set.

Dirk realized that he’d better get out of there and flew out the door, the muscles of his thighs pumping.

“Twenty-four time units elapsed,” the counting sheep baaed.

As Dirk collapsed under the tree, the alien reappeared.  “We have one time unit left!  Will Dirk succeed?  Or will he burn?”

Dirk stared anxiously at the house.  Would his clothes provide enough tinder?  What if the Tesla coil…

… EXPLODED!

Green Boy all but danced in place.  “Congratulations!  Your success in this challenge will give you a great advantage in the next contest.  Join us next week for “We Taught Monkeys to Talk, But Can They Learn?”

“Thirty-five time unites elapsed,” counted the sheep.

THE END

Hey…  What do you want for about two hours?  Hope you enjoyed!

FF: Women in POV

August 7, 2015

Except for Falling Free, which is mostly told from two male points of view, although there are at least two female POV characters, everything I read this past week had female POV.  Purest accident.

The Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include either short fiction or magazine articles.

Kwahe'e Snags Karen

Kwahe’e Snags Karen Memory

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 few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Sammy Keyes and the Curse of Mustache Mary by Wendelin Van Draanen.  Missing treasure and family feuds provide the backdrop for more serious questions of friendship and peer pressure.  More mature concerns like boys and substance abuse enter for the first time in the series.  A very large pig provides humor.

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  Focuses on the genetically engineered “quaddies.”  (I’m guessing at the spelling since this is an audiobook!  More emphasis on “event” than on character, which was a slight disappointment, but still fun.

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear.  More substance than much steampunk, with interesting, complex characters.  I had trouble envisioning some of the “steampunk” devices, which didn’t matter until a sewing machine became key to the plot.

In Progress:

Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold.  Audiobook.  Prequel to “Miles” stories, how his parents met told, to this point at least, from Cordelia’s POV.

The Sword Woman by Robet E. Howard.  Wanted to read some early takes on “strong female characters” after writing my two WW on the subject.

Also:

Finished proofing Curiosities!  (That’s my forthcoming short story collection…)


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