Friday, July 31, 2009

Secondary blog: THE REGION BETWEEN


I have commenced a second blog over on my previously-unused Live Journal page. It's purpose, as explained there, is basically to be a catch-all for stuff that I feel like I need to talk about but which may be off-topic for this page. I am calling it "The Region Between" (after the Harlan Ellison story) because it is a space somewhere between my M-Brane world and the world that exists in my private offline journal. Oh, and my real life, too. There will probably be M-Brane-relevant stuff over on that other page from time to time, but I will link to it from here when that happens, so readers of this blog who are interested in M-Brane affairs (but maybe not my other business so much) will not need to also follow me elsewhere.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Save the Semiprozine Hugo


Since Worldcon is impending, I guess I'll throw in one last time on the fight, led largely by Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld on the Save the Semiprozine Hugo blog, to keep the category of "Best Semiprozine" in existence for future Hugo Awards. If you're not up to date on this, go to that site and get caught up. Copious info is available. The basic upshot of it is that some people in the World Science Fiction Society would rather see this category go away, viewing it as poorly defined or overlapping with other categories or simply pointless because only one particular publication usually ever wins it.

The last time I mentioned this on the blog, I drew some email from a handful of folks on both sides of the matter, none of which expressed pleasure with what I said. I think this was because I didn't think the rules governing it make a lot of sense--and said so--so everyone thought I was opposing their position no matter what it was. Let me be clear: I do, in fact, full-throatedly support the ongoing awarding of Hugos in the category Semiprozine, and categorically reject the major competing ideas (e.g. get rid of the category--dumb; lump it in with "fiction editor-short form,"--dumber; etc.). But here are the rules for the category, copied directly from Clarke's site, copied in turn from the official rules:

"The Constitution of the World Science Fiction Society defines a Semiprozine as follows:

3.3.10: Best Semiprozine. Any generally available non-professional publication devoted to science fiction or fantasy which by the close of the previous calendar year has published four (4) or more issues, at least one (1) of which appeared in the previous calendar year, and which in the previous calendar year met at least two (2) of the following criteria:

  1. had an average press run of at least one thousand (1000) copies per issue,
  2. paid its contributors and/or staff in other than copies of the publication,
  3. provided at least half the income of any one person,
  4. had at least fifteen percent (15%) of its total space occupied by advertising,
  5. announced itself to be a semiprozine.
Number 3 strikes me as silly, and number 1 is obsolete now that printed short fiction is all but dead, but since a publication need meet only two of the five, it's workable. I don't know what the answer is, but my vote would be to leave it alone if a change will cause undue havoc. It's not hurting anyone, and it serves a useful purpose as a category because it makes a proper space for these kinds of publications that are not full-blown pro mags but are also not fanzines like M-Brane. If change needs to happen, then it should be a new-century redefinition of what's what as far as zine categories, but there should still be a semipro category even under a new set of rules.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MERLIN and the strange comfort of formula


I don’t talk about TV very much on this page because I’m not usually that interested in it and I don’t have very many must-see shows nowadays. But Jeff and I have been faithfully viewing the new TV series Merlin. I think it’s one of those mid-season replacement shows, with thirteen episodes in the queue, and I haven’t heard whether or not it’s been picked up for a full season. While it’s not so good that I’d tell everyone that they need to be watching it, there are two things about it that I like and which keep me coming back.

One of those things is simply that Jeff also likes it, and it’s ended up being a TV event that we can share. There haven’t been any of those since Battlestar Galactica ended and Medium went on summer hiatus. Since so much of our time “together” in the house is spent by him relaxing with TV that I’m not interested in (mostly HGTV and DIY shows, and his recent addiction to endless block-reruns of 90210 on SoapNet) while I concentrate on the computer and its myriad wonders (which he is not interested in). So there is a homey comfort in settling down in the same room and doing the same thing, even if it’s just watching a silly TV show and dishing about it as it happens. It’s also an odd choice of show for us to both be willing to watch: neither one of us is particularly into magical fantasy and I have never mustered up much interest at all in Arthurian legend in particular (confession: I’ve never read Mists of Avalon). But I think we would both admit that part of the appeal of the show is that we think the dudes are cute, and we enjoy the silly str8-boy romance between Merlin and Arthur that seems ready to flame up into full-on gayness at any second. I haven’t checked, but I’d be shocked if there wasn’t already some Merlin slash-fic online somewhere.

The other thing I have to admit that I like about Merlin is the thing that would probably be considered its biggest weakness by someone looking at it with a critical eye: it is utterly formulaic. Each time we start a new episode, we know basically how it is going to play out from beginning to end: 1) a magical source of evil/danger appears; 2) Merlin uses his own magic (which he must keep secret) in an impulsive but good-hearted way; 3) Gaius reprimands Merlin for being careless with his magic and risking exposure of his gift; 4) the evil/danger situation escalates; 5) Someone speculates that the danger is from a magical source (Merlin already know it is); this is roundly rejected by the authorities (“Magic!? Ridiculous!”); 5) Somehow it becomes clear to Merlin, often after speaking with the dragon, that the Evil means to kill Arthur (Arthur is always under threat of death and it is Merlin’s purpose in life to save him); 6) Everything starts coming to a head and eventually even Gaius must allow that Merlin ought to use his magic (discreetly) to save the day; 7) Merlin saves Arthur’s life.

That sequence plays out more or less like that in every installment. So it seems like it would be tediously predictable, right? For some reason, however, I find this strangely comforting. It’s a comfort very similar to the comfort found in simply viewing it with Jeff. It’s counter-intuitive, because the fun of it for me is not in being surprised by anything that happens (like it often was with Galactica) but in knowing how it will all work out, and that it will work out just fine by the end of the hour. In this way, it’s a lot like Medium, another show we watch together, in which you can count on essentially the same plot progression happening in every episode—though they switched that up a bit last season by modifying the titular character’s abilities and having more two-part cliffhanger episodes.

So, for as long as it lasts, I expect that we will have a TV night in the schedule.

[The image is of actor Bradley James, Arthur in Merlin].


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

M-BRANE #7 released


The new issue is available now. Single-issue PDFs and the print version can be ordered on "Page 2" as well as the year-long PDF subscription. As of the moment I post this, the e-book versions at Amazon and MobiPocket are not quite live, but should be shortly.


Monday, July 27, 2009

GUEST POST by Carolyn Crow: "EVERGREEN is Golden Science Fiction"


[Carolyn Crow lets us know about author Bruce Golden and his novel Evergreen. Visit Zumaya Publications, also, for another novel by Golden, Better Than Chocolate.--CF]

In light of today’s headlines about global warming, environmental consciousness, and “going green,” Bruce Golden’s newest science fiction novel, Evergreen, couldn’t be more relevant. Fresh from the rousing success of his sci-fi novel, Better Than Chocolate, he’s done it again. Evergreen is a vivid, action-packed, entertaining experience based on mankind encroaching on an alien environment.

After deciding at age 18 that he wanted to be a writer, Golden has been writing all of his adult life, working in magazines, radio, and television. His real love has always been speculative fiction. When asked who, or what, influenced his choice to specialize in that particular genre, he responds that first and foremost, he has always loved reading science fiction. “It’s always seemed like a good way to look at the foibles and follies of humankind. You can examine humans through the eyes of an alien or an android, or you can create an entirely new society of civilization, a different future, and see how humans react within it.”

Golden learned to love science fiction and fantasy as a teenager, reading any book he could get his hands on by Robert Heinlein or Robert Howard. He was also strongly influenced as a youngster by Edgar Allan Poe, Rod Serling, and Mark Twain. When asked to classify his style of science fiction, Golden explains he tends to write what is known as “sociological sci-fi,” which places more emphasis on characters and the societies in which they live than on the scientific details concentrated on in “hard sci-fi.”

However, he still has to do quite a bit of scientific research. For his new book, Evergreen, he spent hours in the library and online, studying the timber industry, the history of Lake Tahoe, and the culture of the Washoe, a Native American tribe in the region. He also ran parts of the book by experts ranging from physicists and biologists to archaeologists and geologists.

Evergreen is replete with human drama and conflict: obsession, guilt, revenge, redemption, and decisions of life and death. An expedition, formed by a heretic priest has boarded a ship to the distant planet Evergreen. That priest is convinced an ancient artifact discovered on the planet can prove his theory about the existence of an extraterrestrial City of God. The expedition includes a renowned archaeology professor, his wife, and her ex-lover, the professor’s son. Also on the ship is a young man wracked by the need for vengeance. He believes that the man responsible for his mother’s death can be found on Evergreen, which is heavily populated by debtors and convicts. Already on Evergreen is an exobiologist studying what may be the first intelligent species discovered outside of Earth.

The novel’s complexly drawn characters not only experience conflict with each other, but with the environment of Evergreen, where a “vegetal consciousness” rules. This collective consciousness, alien to man’s way of thinking, is an intelligence that observes the infestation of humans and contemplates what to do about the incursion. The expedition makes a foreshadowing discovery in a primitive cave painting. Tens of thousands of years old, the painting inexplicably depicts a battle between an ancient primate-like species and the forest itself.

I asked Golden where his inspiration comes from. How does he come up with his ideas, and how do these ideas progress into a book such as Evergreen?

“You can get an idea for a short story and write up a first draft in a day or a week. But books are an accumulation of ideas gathered over months or years. Often they’re put together from unrelated scraps of paper put into my idea files.” He says he likes to think his books are very detailed, whether he’s having fun with some underlying satire as in Better Than Chocolate, or being much more dramatic as in Evergreen.

The idea for Evergreen first began to germinate when he stayed with some friends who live in Lake Tahoe. They told him about some of the area’s history, and that inspired him to do more research. “That led to reading theoretical papers on the possibility of intelligent plant life and the physics of creating my own planet, which I’d never done before.” He even incorporated bits related to a group he was part of in the Army. He said that writing a book is the art of putting together a lot of different pieces. For him, the hard part is organizing all those pieces and knowing where he’s going with them.

Golden has a talent for writing extremely realistic and natural-sounding dialogue. I asked him where he learned to write dialogue and how he perfected his skills.

“Though it may be heresy to say so, I think my skill for dialogue comes from being a film fan and growing up with television. Of course, all the books I’ve read play into it too, but movies and TV are dialogue-based, and I tend to think in terms of cinematic scenes when I write. When I create a character, I just seem to have an ear for how he or she should speak. To me, dialogue is all about ebb and flow. Like music, there’s a rhythm to it. The trick is to impart the information readers need to further plot and characterization, while making it all sound like natural conversation.”

What is his advice for aspiring writers?

“Don’t do it. It’ll break your heart and your bank account. Stay away. Be a doctor or lawyer or plumber. No, seriously, you have to love to write—you have to be somewhat of a natural storyteller. Then you have to write, write, and write some more. I’ve been working at being a writer for almost 40 years and I’m still learning.”

Golden has had great success with his novels Mortals All and Better Than Chocolate, so I asked what kinds of reactions he’s received from readers. Golden says 99 percent of the feedback he’s gotten on his books has been positive. He’s received several requests from readers to write a sequel to Better Than Chocolate using his character Noah Dane, but he doesn’t have any immediate plans for that. When asked how Evergreen compares to his previous novels, Golden says, “Well, there are no andrones or celebudroids, and there’s very little sex. I would describe Evergreen as a character-based sci-fi adventure. The only negative feedback I got on my first book, Mortals All, was that I used some very familiar sci-fi themes—that I didn’t break any new ground. With Evergreen, I believe I’ve done a few things rarely, if ever, touched on in the genre. I’m hoping readers will find it as unique as it is entertaining.”

I couldn’t resist asking him what’s on the agenda for any novels he has in the works.

“I have two books in-progress. In one, an advanced alien intelligence culls two different societies from Earth and transplants them on another world. A thousand years-plus later, we find out how the Viking and Native American cultures have progressed. The other book is an apocalyptic tale I’ve been wanting to write for more than 30 years.”

Evergreen, published by Zumaya Publications, is available from Amazon and elsewhere.


Sunday, July 26, 2009

News and notes from M-BRANE 7


[The following is the complete text of my news/notes column from the upcoming M-Brane #7--the article by Carolyn Crow mentioned in the first item is NOT up yet on the blog, but will be within a day or two. I'll hyperlink some stuff in this blog post for convenience--I can't do that on paper, obviously, and it works so poorly in the PDF version of the zine that I have quit bothering to try. So this is meant to be a sort of online companion to this column in the regular versions of the zine.]

Some news and info:

Read Carolyn Crow’s article about Bruce Golden’s recent novel Evergreen. It’s on page 79, and is based on an interview that she did with Golden. I am also publishing it as a guest post on the M-Brane blog.

My ally in fighting the good fight for the future of short fiction magazines, Jason Sizemore of Apex Book Company (see the ad for some of their titles on page 5), has relaunched the excellent Apex magazine after a short hiatus. I am so happy that he is trying a pay-to-play concept for this new iteration. The Apex website now presents teaser portions of the fiction items which lead to prompts to purchase the issue in PDF form or in the new print version, via MagCloud’s print-on-demand service. To read my recent comments on the matter of monetizing short fiction, along with some reader comments on it, see the blog entry for July 24 [immediately below this one].

Open for submissions this month is the 8 Minutes contest, operated by D.D. Tannenbaum of the newly reconfigured Infinite Windows Press. You can find information via infinitewindowspress.com or 8minutes.info. I hope this contest is successful because it will result in a really cool anthology. Yours truly has made himself available as one of the early-round judges, and final judging will be done by the great Mike Resnick. In addition to cash prizes for the top stories, the twenty-five best entries will appear in the book. I know a lot of writers hate when they see a fee for a contest entry, but if you have a good story that fits the theme and can spring for the fee, please do so because all that money is going directly into paying out the prizes and defraying the publishing costs of the book.

Speaking of contests, our good friends at Brain Harvest are conducting their 2009 Mega Challenge contest (yeah, there’s a fee for this one, too, but also for a good and worthy purpose—like paying writers pro rates). They are challenging writers to use tired tropes and clich├ęs from a list compiled by Strange Horizons and to make them work, to “untrope the tropes.” Winners will be chosen by celebrity guest judge Jeff Vandermeer (whom you can see in a photo on the Brain Harvest site wearing one of their hand-knitted mustaches).

As of this writing, I am all but done with story selections for the queer anthology. I am not ready to announce the full table of contents yet, but you can expect to see it soon on the blog. I’ll mention now that you can look forward to new stories by a few M-Brane alumni such as Abby Rustad, Brandon Bell and Derek J. Goodman [links to all their personal sites are in the M-Brane Writers Links list on the right hand side of this page]. I’ve also scored a couple of excellent reprints, stories first seen in some rather prestigious places. The cover art, which I have not seen yet, but am eagerly awaiting, is being created as I write this by Mari Kurisato whose portraits have become well-known among the genre-oriented Twitterati, so many of whom have enlisted her to create their avatars. If you’re on Twitter, you may have noticed that writers Jay Lake and Shannon Page have fine new public images, both created by Mari. As for the publication date on the antho, that remains to be seen. Selecting the content is the first major step, but there are a lot of other things to tend to before announcing the date. The goal, however, is to have it out not later than sometime in October, because I want to be able to plug it as a finished thing at Gaylacticon 2009 in Minneapolis, which happens in October. I won’t be at the con myself, but I’ve found a couple of nice volunteers to do some promo for me.

The reading period for M-Brane #12, guest-edited by Rick Novy, remains open until August 31. While I don’t doubt that we’ll end up with a great issue, I am a little dismayed at how slow the rate of new story submissions has been. Somehow it has fallen from an almost unmanageable volume in June (prompting me to go to form rejections) to a trickle in July. It is true that June followed a reading hiatus in May, and for #12 we are setting a specific reading period for that particular issue, which may mean that some writers are newly writing and revising stuff specifically for it and will be sending it along closer to the end of the reading window. Maybe summer is a slow time anyway—I don’t know, this being the first summer of M-Brane.

Though there hasn’t been a lot of fresh content added to it during the last couple of weeks, we are still percolating the “Shared World,” a new collaboratively created alternate-historical milieu which will be the setting for a future M-Brane project, possibly issue #13 or possibly a stand-alone special publication. Writers who wish to throw in on the creation stage of the world may join anytime on the blog. Just call up any post with “shared world” in its title from the archive and use the shared world label at the end of the post to pull together all the relevant info. We’re pretty well set on the general alternate history premise, but a lot more needs to be figured out yet before it’s ready for use as a fictional world.


Friday, July 24, 2009

POD and future of print fiction


Take a look at Jason Sizemore's post at Tor.com. He discusses his relaunch of Apex in print using MagCloud's POD service. I attempted to leave a comment there, but I think it may have been lost in the ether, since I don't see it there now. Anyway, I wanted to add to the discussion my view that these print-on-demand versions of zines like M-Brane and the reborn Apex are probably going to remain products for a tiny slice of readers who are passionate enough about print to pay the high price for it that this method necessitates, unless production cost somehow comes down a lot. The real future of there even continuing to be a small press for short fiction is going to depend more upon finding a business model that monetizes its electronic forms somehow than what we do with the print versions. The prevailing online free-for-all that nearly all zines are participating in (save for a few things like Baen's Universe, GUD, my zine and few others) is eventually going to finish off genre short fiction publication as a thing that anyone wants to try to be involved in at a pro or semi-pro level either as a publisher or a writer because it will simply be impossible for anyone to make any money off of it absent a new business model. (Also, the few that still do print-only with no e-options are whistling past the graveyard. Those days are over and have been already for a couple years.) I've been wracking my brain since I started M-Brane trying to think of what would work best (other than just having deep pockets, which I don't and probably never will). One idea that I am considering is creating some sort of partnership or content alliance with other publications where we can aggregate under one payment system some kind of not-free but still very economical way to get short fiction, with the goal in mind to attract a LOT more readers than a single zine can by itself. Then we could get into an economy of scale thing where sheer volume of paid readership would enable good content. But I haven't formulated this well enough yet to propose it formally to anyone. I think economy of scale might be key to it, however. If, say, 30,000 people paid me a dollar right now, I could go full-on pro with M-Brane right away, because that would be enough start-up money to stack a few issues with top-flight writers, and that would in turn get more dollars rolling in from various sources, such as repeat dollar donations and advertising. But that's not going to happen in the real world, so I am stuck in this uncomfortable zone of having to charge enough to have any money at all to pay writers...but not enough people regard it as worth it at that price, so I never accumulate the additional funding needed to go to the next level. A new model is needed. Not just for my zine, but for the whole business, or we're going to find ourselves in a couple of years with no good print zines and no good online zines. I'll continue wracking my brain. ::rubs temples::


My MINDING TOMORROW podcast included in SFBRP feed


Though I think my podcast review of Luke Burrage's novel Minding Tomorrow is quite nearly unlistenable, I was delighted the other day to learn that Luke included it in its entirety in a special episode of his Science Fiction Book Review Podcast. From what Luke told me about his download statistics, I suspect it was heard by many more people by way of Luke's site than mine. He also made sure to point out the existence of this blog and the M-Brane zine, which I appreciate of course.

I've found that a lot of the fun and gratification that comes from doing M-Brane comes from things like this where I get to collaborate with someone else in a way that results in some more audience members for everyone. In this case, Luke does a podcast that I knew about because he was a guest on the SFF Audio Podcast; then I learned from his podcast that he had written this novel; so I read it and reviewed it in audio form; and then he re-packaged that in his own podcast; and now I am directing people over to that. So, in the end, we all had some fun with it and more of my audience now knows about Luke, and more of his audience now knows about what we're doing over here, and it's a really nice thing.


Monday, July 20, 2009

The Moon



It's the 40th anniversary of the first landing by humans upon the Moon. If this is not the single greatest technical achievement of the human race, it is certainly among the top five (I'd place the Voyager probes and the Mars rovers near the top as well). It's not a thing that I really think about a lot having lived my whole life after the event and taking it rather for granted as a fact of history. But during the last few days, seeing the images again and hearing the audio again, I have been reminded of what a staggering achievement it was and how it still, decades later, towers over most other human accomplishments.

It seems like people often forget about the other Moon missions that followed the first. Apollo 11 happened a couple of years before I was born, and I remember my grandmother, with whom I spent a great deal of time as a child, relating to me her memories of it. I realized much later, however, that she was blurring together memories of several missions. She was never that interested in it in the first place (thought space was a waste of time and money), but she remembered there being a rover that the astronauts drove around in and seemed to remember that as being an element of the first (and, in her memory, only) moon landing. They didn't have a rover for Apollo 11, but they did for Apollo 15, which happened a few weeks before I was born. I found this cool clip from the Apollo 15 expedition, with video and audio. You'll hear a member of the mission quote the poet Rhysling from Robert Heinlein's "The Green Hills of Earth."

On another note, when I was picking a stock Moon-related pic to post with this entry, I simply googled for Moon landing images, and I was dismayed to find that nearly every single item that came up in the first couple pages of hits was "Moon hoax" related nonsense. I have never been able to comprehend what grim motivation or level of terminal brain damage drives those conspiracy nuts, nor how their imaginations can be so shrunken that they just can't wrap around the idea of a Moon landing. I certainly don't want to engage in a non-debate with crazy people over something so patently absurd, but I will say to any remaining living hoax proponents: you're nuts!


Sunday, July 19, 2009

M-BRANE #7 contents announced


The seventh issue is due soon, moving M-Brane SF officially into the second half of Year One. I am considering doing another podcast coinciding with the new issue, possibly focused on the subject of producing the zine. If I conclude that this topic would be altogether too dull for public consumption, I will show (uncharacteristic) restraint and spare everyone the podcast.

Here's what's in M-Brane #7, due out by or before August 1:

GERRI LEEN: The More Things Change
MICHAEL P. MURPHY: Voyage of the Mule
REGINA GLEI: Red Building
THOMAS J. KELLER: Our Way
DAVID SIEGEL BERNSTEIN: Chronology
FRANK ROGER: Instant Delivery
DON NORUM: There is a Time
CHRIS WARD: The Guardian
LARRY STRATTNER: Hands Free
SEAN ROGERS: The Plagiarist
JOHN ERIC ELLISON: Excellence of Oysters
DEREK MUK: Croatoan
JOHN and LAWRENCE BUENTELLO: Xenophobia

I'm not sure if an unintended theme emerged with this issue. There is a palpable unease that pervades most if not all of the issue, but the topics and themes of the individual stories vary widely, and I hope that there will be something entertaining for everyone in it. All of these writers, save for Frank Roger, are making their first appearance in M-Brane SF (Frank also appeared in M-Brane #1 with "Career Move"). Most of the others have been rather widely published in the small press in recent years, though this is the first paid gig for Sean Rogers, and we congratulate him for that (click the link for him in the M-Brane writers links list down there on the right--he has a cool Spider-Man comic-reading project going on). Regina Glei and Chris Ward are both writing from Japan and have both come up with bizarre stories. Gerri Leen appeared in the Return to Luna antho last year with Brandon Bell (#1 and #5) and Gustavo Bondoni, who will appear in M-Brane #8 with his story "Interplanetary Bicycles and the One Back Home."

One oddity with this issue is that I seem to have no Twitterati among its writers. So, if you are one of these writers and are on Twitter, then say hi to me (@mbranesf on Twitter) so I know about you and can do some Twit promotion in advance of the release.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Brief updates: Shared World and queer antho


I am heading into a deadly eight-day stretch of long days at the evil day job. I will, however, be making time during the evenings for M-Brane projects, such as getting issue #7 put together, considering the contents of the queer anthology and probably doing some brainstorming on the Shared World project.

Regarding the queer anthology: As I suspected, some writers have been working right up to the deadline. I received a bunch of new submissions just today. The deadline is tomorrow, July 15...but I will probably consider anything that has arrived by the time I check mail after work on the 16th to have been submitted on time. I'm ahead of my own schedule on reading for this, and have already selected for certain five stories (and even notified two of their authors already), and based on these selections alone, this book is going to be very, very good. We may end up with perhaps fifteen to eighteen stories in the final table of contents, depending somewhat on length. I have two or three long novelette/almost-novella length pieces that I think are probably going to make the cut (which together will amount to a lot of pages), but I also have in hand some pretty great items at much shorter lengths. I think it's going to be a very fine anthology, and also very diverse in its content. I was concerned when I first planned this project that I'd end up with too many male-oriented stories, but that worry has proven unfounded since I have been receiving quite a high percentage of female-oriented stories and also stories of various types by female writers.

My blog posts may be infrequent for a few days, but feel free to continue adding thoughts on the Shared World Project in the comments, and I will add to it as I can. I think an important thing to think about some more is the alien involvement and the nature of the alien beings. I think we settled on the idea that the aliens aren't necessarily in the forefront of affairs, but that their influence lingers, and we need to know something about them anyway. So any weird, wild ideas in that realm would be a welcome addition. (If you're a new reader of this blog, you can find out more about the shared world by clicking the Shared World label at the end of this post).


Monday, July 13, 2009

Is McCarthy's THE ROAD as great as everyone says?


The other day, at a flea market, I picked up a copy of Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel The Road, which has been feted by critics and honored with a Pultizer Prize. I vaguely knew of it as one of those novels that relies on an sfnal trope--in this case, the post-apocalyptic setting--but which is absolutely not, no way, not at all, science fiction or any other kind of tawdry "genre" story. No, this one is Great Literature...I guess because Cormac McCarthy wrote it and illustrious critics (even Oprah!) liked it. So I bought it for a buck, and even did an informal poll of the Twitterati about it yesterday, getting responses that split about evenly between "love it," and "it's not that great."

I read the book in a few hours today--it's a quick read. It's not-quite-300 pages are rather spare of words. This surprised me after its somewhat ponderous opening lines: 

"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world." (page 3)

It's lovely writing, of course, but I feared that I was going to have to concentrate extra-hard on a whole novel of nearly punctuation-free prose striving toward poetry.  But as it turns out, most of the text is more like this:

"We have to stop, he said
It's really cold.
I know.
Where are we?
Where are we?
Yes.
I don't know.
If we were going to die you would tell me?
I don't know. We're not going to die." (page 94)

And so on. Much of it consists of this kind of dialogue-only interaction between the two main characters, known only as "the man" and "the boy" as they make their slow and dangerous way on foot down the titular road, trying to get to the coast and to get further south ahead of the onset of winter. The Man and the Boy are evidently survivors of an unnamed End-of-the-World event some years earlier which seems to have killed most people and destroyed the planet's climate. They struggle to keep each other alive and moving on a path that is fraught with misfortune and horror.

I guess I found it to be bleak and rather heartbreaking and quite vivid, and certainly a decent addition to the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction...but is it really the big deal that the critics say it is?  The reviews are positively over-the-top. Enthuses Alan Cheuse of the Chicago TribuneThe Road is a postatomic apocalypse novel as we’ve never seen one before, a black book of wondrous paragraphs that reads as though Samuel Beckett had dared himself to outdo Harlan Ellison."  Or how about this from the Village Voice: "Sci-fi divination is new for him, though, and the freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning: It may be the saddest, most haunting book he's ever written, or that you'll ever read." [italics mine] And on and on like that go the reviews. While it's certainly a decent book, these reviews make me wonder if the reviewers have ever read anything else from the genre. A mash-up of Ellison and Beckett? Are you kidding? The most haunting book that you will ever read? Ever? Post-apocalyptic survival stories are hardly anything new to readers of sf, even if they are novelties to the "mainstream" set. Also, even lit snobs and English profs know about novels like Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon and Nevil Shute's On the Beach, which I think some readers would find to have a similar emotional power to The Road. How about Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz or Ellison's A Boy and His Dog? I believe Stephen King, too, may have ventured into this territory with a rather (literally) weighty tome. Granted, these are all very different takes on the post-apocalypse--all very different from each other and different, too, from McCarthy's story. But it's not anywhere near a new theme, and McCarthy's book does not, in my lowly opinion, somehow "transcend" the genre by allegedly being the best of the lot. It's a decent addition to the genre, but I have to say that I am not anywhere near as blown away as the lit crit crowd was, and I really never am any time I hear about how a Serious Author has transcended a genre. Serious Literature is every bit as much a genre with its own conventions and expectations as sf, fantasy or mystery or anything else.

I'm curious if any readers of this blog have any opinions on this transcending-the-genre business, or perhaps a favorite post-apocalyptic story that they'd like to recommend.  My personal fave in this sub-genre may be Delany's Dhalgren. That might not quite count because the apocalypse in that story is localized to a single city and it seems that normal life continues elsewhere in the world, but the strangeness and mystery and eeriness of the unnamed Something That Happened Here is much richer and more compelling in that book than it was in The Road, and it's a book that I think I will always be able to revisit and discover something else, and I doubt that will be the case with Cormac McCarthy's story. [citations are from the Vintage Edition, 2006]


Novy MIRror #5 live; Novy to guest edit M-BRANE #12


A reminder to writers who may be interested in submitting stories to M-Brane: issue #12 will be guest-edited by Rick Novy, and all submissions received between July 15 and August 31 will be forwarded to him for consideration. See the original post about this for more info.

Also, the fifth installment of Rick's video podcast Novy MIRror, is live and accessible at his website. This one features a good interview with Analog editor Dr. Stanley Schmidt. 


New crit group


I have really fallen behind on almost every project in the last few days. I don't really understand why since I have had plenty of time. I keep starting something, setting it down, then starting something else, and so on. Anyway, over today and tomorrow, I will probably make some little posts here to try to get some M-BRANE-related business and other news and notes out in into the world.

Right now, I want to mention a new critique message board for writers that D.D. Tannenbaum has started. It's literally brand new, just set up yesterday, and I don't think it yet has many registered users, so maybe some more people will read this and join up. I have not myself participated in at all yet beyond registering, but evidently one can post stories on the message board and then other users can read them and offer critique. It should be fun and useful.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Podcast review of Burrage novel live


I have, just for fun, recorded a review of Luke Burrage's novel Minding Tomorrow, borrowing his own podcast book review concept.




Science Friday: Dinosaurs, Moon footage


I basically stopped doing the Science Friday series of blog posts some time ago, but I feel like picking it up again today in light of my two favorite science items of the week.  First, go read this BBC Earth News story about the the discovery of an incredibly old dinosaur burrow which adds some evidence to speculation as to what some kinds of dinosaurs did to survive harsh weather conditions, particularly nearer to the poles. 

The second item is this lovely imagery from lunar reconnaissance orbiter currently flying over the moon. Eventually it will photograph the Apollo landing sites.



Monday, July 6, 2009

Shared World: some cultural considerations


I am considering compiling in one place a timeline of real-world events from the ancient histories of our shared world's major civilizations (to build on what Brandon suggested in an earlier post) and invite the group to brainstorm about some of the points of historical divergence in each one, so we can start getting our timeline together.

I found one possible glitch with our plan of including a Mesoamerican civilization in the mix: if it's to be one that exists roughly concurrent with Ancient Egypt, then we may need to abandon the Aztecs and go all the way back to the Olmecs. This should be fine, since what little is known about the Olmecs seems to indicate that a lot of their culture was carried forward into the culture of later groups like the Aztecs. I'll read up on it some more later.

It's occurred to me that this whole universe is going to be, almost by definition, full of non-white people, which I think is great. One thing we might consider when handling Egypt is that something of a controversy exists regarding the race of the ancient Egyptians. The prevailing scholarly consensus seems to be that its anachronistic to talk about race in the black versus white terms we have now when discussing the Egyptians, as they were probably neither. Many people adhere, however, to an Afrocentric approach to the topic and insist that the Egyptians were black people in the same way that most sub-Saharan Africans are now. This point of view is understandable as a reaction to old-style racist European treatments of history which tended to assume that any people who had an impressive civilization must have been more or less white and the result of Indo-European immigration. The historical evidence seems to support neither extreme but offers a lot of indication that there were both black and olive-complected people in ancient Egypt. Just something to consider when we get to the point of imagining ancient Egyptian characters.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

Status updates: various projects


Shortly after Rick Novy and I came up with the plan for him to guest edit M-Brane #12, I realized a couple of fortuitous things about the timing of it: the submission period coincides with the weeks that I will have the most work to do on the GLBT anthology; and I'm sure I can find a few extra minutes here and there to keep compiling and coordinating information on the Shared World project as that accumulates.

Those of you interested in the Shared World may have already looked over the summary document that I posted on Box a few days ago. If not, you can grab it from the previous shared world post. We've gotten a lot happening with it already, so I think it might be reasonable for us to strive toward having the universe in fairly "ready to use" in a few weeks, and then by perhaps the end of August be ready to start to thinking about some actual fiction for it.  Though a couple other topics are covered in this post, I will label it as a Shared World post so that its recallable with the rest of them, and if you want to make Shared World comments here, that's fine (or they can still go on the previous one, too--I'll re-summarize as needed). 

Some time remains before 7/15, so any writers who still wish to submit to the queer antho have a few days to get their stories in. Once the deadline passes, I expect to fairly quickly finish selecting the stories and then get to work on the editing and production of the book. I'm considering trying to hit up a "celeb" of some sort to contribute an introduction or essay, but haven't decided on that yet.

As to my personal writing projects, not a lot has changed since my last post on that topic, but I have polished a bit on the all the short fiction items, and they are looking a little shinier. I also started a new short story, but I have no idea what it's about yet: a beginning basically wrote itself using my fingers to operate the keyboard, but I have no idea where it's going yet. I have done a lot more staring at Shame (my novel) but no appreciable new writing on it yet. I spend a lot of time daydreaming about it while I am at the day job and thinking up all kinds of good solutions to the many missing scenes and good revisions of existing ones, but once I get home and actually face the page, I slow to a crawl. I think I will use the 8/31 end of the #12 submission period as an arbitrary deadline on myself to have the first draft completed. It would only amount to maybe 3 or 4K new words a week which should be easily doable. So I say now.  I also have another idea cooking that I think calls for novel-length treatment, but I may defer any work on that one for a few months. I am considering doing National Novel Writing Month in November (which confirms that I am crazy), and maybe it will be the project for that.


Friday, July 3, 2009

Independence Day thoughts



I’ve been at work on Independence Day every year of my working life, and will be again tomorrow, so I don’t give much thought to the traditional recreational activities associated with it, and generally take the grouchy view that the holiday is little more than a flimsy excuse for non-service sector people to get an extra day off from work (even when it’s on a Saturday). I do, however, like to affirm my patriotism which expresses itself in two major forms: 1) my appreciation for and willingness to fight for our country’s remarkable and resilient Constitution, and 2) my concern and compassion for our military personnel abroad who are in increasing danger as both of the wars enter new phases. Things I don’t do: festoon the house in flags and placard my car with “support the troops” stickers. The first is a phony me-too gesture and the second is useless.

A(nother) moronic political event has happened in my temporary home state that seems well-timed for this holiday. It’s often said that the people get the leaders they deserve. If that is true, then the people of Oklahoma must be some real scumbags. Or at least two thirds of them, the percentage of the electorate that tends to vote for the likes of Jim Inhofe and Sally Kern. Let me tell you about Sally Kern, because you will not have heard of this slavering beast since you do not live here. She’s an OKC-area state legislator who made some news last year with her insistence that homosexuality is a worse threat to America than terrorism. Yesterday she conducted a press conference unveiling her Oklahoma Citizens Morality Proclamation. If you can stand to read this prose-form turd (it’s torture), and if you can get past the first paragraph with all the lurid religious boilerplate, complete with eighteenth-century-style capitalized nouns as if it’s the Declaration of Independence, you will notice two things:

1) It is laced with both direct and indirect references to homosexuality. This is my favorite passage: “WHEREAS, deeply disturbed that the Office of the president of these United States disregards the biblical admonitions to live clean and pure lives by proclaiming an entire month to an immoral behavior.” Aside from the gibbering dumbassity of that statement’s apparent meaning, please note also its clunky syntax, its amateurish style, its near incomprehensibility. The whole document is like that.

2) It is one of those typical, ever-more-common attempts to make a raving nutcase Christian fundie statement sound like it would be endorsed by the Founders by means of cherry-picking quotations or creating dishonest paraphrases of things that people like Thomas Jefferson said. It has become a standard line from the fundies that America is a “Christian nation” founded by “Christians” (and so should always be a country only for Christians, by which they means racists and homophobes—make no mistake: this is a publicly acceptable cloak for white supremism and neo-fascism with all their attendant prejudices such as anti-Semitism, gay-bashing and Muslim-baiting).

Here’s something that Thomas Jefferson—the Founder of Founders, non-Christian deist and the author of the document that Kern’s proclamation parodies—said about it: “Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law.” Here’s something else: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” And he said many, many other things about the topic, not one of which ever endorsed a position the likes of which Kern and her baboons in human guise proclaim. In fact, he was so doubtful about the usefulness and veracity of the Bible, he famously created his own version of it by excerpting the passages that he liked and discarding the rest. Jefferson was no fundamentalist and neither were his contemporaries. Yet this myth persists and is propagated once again by Kern’s stupid proclamation. No real American historian (and by “real” I mean a PhD-holding published professor at an accredited non-sectarian college or university who has studied history from primary sources) advocates or would even be bothered to consider this fundie revision of American history. Let me say that again in a slightly different way, just to make sure that my meaning is clear: the exact number of real scholars who believe in the Kern concept of American history is as follows: zero. It’s one of these made up, phony-baloney debates that the extreme right makes their whole domain of discourse. They make up a debate topic and then blab about it on the 700 Club and their silly grunting radio shows until the general public starts thinking that it’s a real debate. Another example: Creationism. No debate exists about this among scientists—none at all—and hasn’t for a century, yet the fundies have created one and have convinced the majority of Americans (who don’t study it and don’t really know much about it) that there is some kind of epic debate in the realm of science that will be settled in their favor any day now. Another example: Torture. No debate exists about this among people who have studied it, yet the majority of people have been persuaded that torture is a valid debate topic and that on Independence Day, our great nation can somehow remain great if we engage in such behavior.

On Independence Day this year, I am making my own proclamation, or maybe it could be called a secular prayer: “WHEREAS Stupidity has beset and overwhelmed the Nation and the People and eaten out our Sanity, we strive for the Restoration of Reason to the Land.”

[The images are of Marines in Helmand Province (Afghanistan) and Sally Kern in OKC (Dumbfuckistan) asserting her Constitutional rights...that those troops are defending. Hardly seems fair.]


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rick Novy to GUEST EDIT M-Brane #12


I'm excited to announce that writer Rick Novy will be the guest editor of M-Brane #12. Regular readers of the zine will remember him from his short stories "Road Rage" (#1), "Plan R" (#4), and the just-published "The Trouble With Truffles" (#6). Aside from his frequent appearances in M-Brane, he has to his credit approximately thirty other published short stories and has lately been producing the entertaining and informative Novy MIRror video podcast. For more information on Rick, go to his website and also check out this interview with him that we just published in M-Brane #6.

Yeah, it seems like issue #12 is pretty far away since #6 was just released a couple days ago, but there is a logic to it: by the time Rick and I decided on this plan, I had already started booking stories as far out as #10, and it seemed a good idea to allow a bit more time for this special issue anyway. Also, time flies. When I published issue #1, issue #6 seemed impossibly distant, yet now it's slightly in the past already.

Submission details: This involves a slight modification to normal routine with reading and replying to submissions. I will continue to be open for submissions as normal but all stories received between July 15 and August 31 will be automatically forwarded to Rick for consideration specifically for M-Brane #12. (I'll update the guidelines on Page 2 accordingly). Which means that I, myself, will not be reading for other issues during that time frame save for any stories that Rick may choose to decline for his issue but thinks that I may want to consider for a different issue. Final decisions on stories for the issue will be made by Rick shortly after the end of the submissions window. Overall, this will slow somewhat the formerly rapid clip at which I was responding to submissions (which has, admittedly, been slowing anyway. Ahem.). So writers should expect somewhat slower response times for a while. This isn't a bad thing, though (at least for me), because I am still booked out a bit farther than I'd like even with that submissions hiatus that we had in May. So some catch-up time is good. Also, the reading period for M-Brane #12 happens to start on the deadline for the queer anthology, so this will free some more time for me to concentrate on making the selections for that without having to process general M-Brane slush at the same time.

I had mentioned possibly dedicating #12 to the Shared World Project...but now I think that will either be pushed back to #13 or quite possibly be produced as a separate special issue. Details on that will follow once we are further along on the world-development for that project and when we have a better sense of when any stories can start getting written for it. That thing needs to be top-notch anyway, so some extra time there won't hurt anything.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

SHARED WORLD: Summary document online


We are still making great progress on developing the shared world. Anyone new to this topic who would like the details, please call up all the related posts using the "Shared World" label at the bottom of this post. They each have extensive, interesting comments on them as well.

In an effort to get our main ideas so far about the Shared World project into a single place, I have made what I think is a reasonably easy document to look at. I'm not sure how useful it will really be, and there may be some stuff missing from it, but it seems like backtracking through all of our comments on the posts is getting rather cumbersome. Everyone involved in the shared world already, or anyone else who like to get in on it, is welcome to download this document from Box and look it over. (The document is a two-page PDF, with four columns that each run from one page to the next. That's not a great design, since I could have just made it one giant page, but it occurred to me that if someone wanted to print it, then it would work better split onto normal size pages.)

Then let's continue the discussion in comments with attention to some of the areas that need it most, like, perhaps, aliens.

Then, as we make more decisions and refine some of the details, I will do additional updates to the main document and eventually use that as the basis for "official" writers guidelines for this universe. We've done so much so quickly that I suspect within a few weeks we will have a very well-imagined background and people can start thinking about what sort of stories they may want to tell.


 

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