Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Three Stories For Clarion, Revised

Moctezuma meets Fernan Cortez in Tecnochitlan

To those of you on my email list who gave your votes for what Clarion wants, my thanks. I'm glad I put it up for a vote, because it's hard to objectively judge the appeal of your own work. No one liked the Pristine Dome, the thriller/alternate history piece set in a divided Cold War era Japan. Lots of people liked The Nightmare Collector. Here's my updated list of what I'm submitting, and my public commitment of when I'm finishing them. Feel free to harass me in public - that's the point of posting this here!

Story #1 - completed on 15 Dec - The Nightmare Collector - a technology is developed to develop PTSD, to record nightmare images from traumatized people, in an attempt to treat the disorder. A community of fetishists arises that collects women's nightmares. One man has to confront the morality and hypocrisy of what he's doing and the nature of his flawed character when his own wife, an Iraq war vet, has her own nightmare recordings stolen. (Note: in a creepy twist, I'm the nightmare collector; every nightmare in this story is a real recurring nightmare I took from a woman I knew.) I'm getting this one out of the way first because it's the one I've least developed so far.

Story #2 - 31 Dec - The Tuesday Fire at the American Place - a shy and awkward thirteen year-old boy growing up in an American refugee village in Eastern Siberia tries to impress the daughter of one of the village's Russian commanding officers, by reading chapters to her from the diary of his grandfather, an officer in the old U.S. Marine Corps during the December War against China. In the process he finds things out about his own family, as well as the Russian officer's. (One of my original picks.)

Story #3 - 15 Jan - Cherax Destructor - an American drug runner and a giant, bioengineered, multilingual crawfish share stories and cigarettes on an island off the coast of Honduras. They seem to have a good relationship - the man helps feed the crawfish, the crawfish kills law enforcement and rival drug runners - but the man isn't just there with the crawfish as an innocent drug runner, and the crawfish begins to figure this out.

There was a tie for third place and I picked Cherax Destructor instead of one of my own original picks, The End of Everything, because people seemed more enthusiastic about it and End of Everything is a moody and not very uplifting meditation on the possibility of meaning. In addition to not wanting to be depressed, I'm betting that Clarion wants people to demonstrate an ability for pacing and action and dialogue before they get all Camus. Plus, giant chain-smoking crawfish that speak Mayan are funny.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mieville's Embassytown good. Read it. Spoiler alert.
(Not everyone loved it; for a comical review by someone who didn't get it and probably also reviews Chinese restaurants in terms of how Mexican they are, go here.)

Mieville likes designing monsters and also frequently defends science fiction as a literature of ideas. Both are on display here. Early on, before any real action, to keep things interesting, he inserts a monster that stowed away on a transport in hyperspace, something that must adapt to our universe and assemble itself out of matter and actions and relationships in this dimension. That was very cool. (I also think his cactus-men and especially mosquito women demi-humans in The Scar were pretty awesome too; not everyone gets as big a kick out of them as I do.) He also reimagines hyperspace as something called "the Immer", short for immersion; sort of the highest permanent reality, with ours only a pale reflection (characters mention our universe is the third one). One thing different about this take is that the Immer is really the basic, permanent universe and we're a temporary reflection built on top of it (usually hyperspace is conceived of as being "between" or "beyond" the real world).
It's hard not to think of Plato's world of forms - another connection to a Stephenson work, Anathem, where the world of forms is explcitly discussed as a literal real place - but I don't think that's what he was implying. He even solves the Fermi paradox by noting that the first human probes into the Immer picked up lots of communication and beacons: it's just that no one uses normal space. The most disappointing aspect of his flavor of hyperspace was that people get nauseous in the Immer. This is a heavily used convention in science fiction, but here I think Mieville falls for something that he avoids elsewhere: the idea that human (or any) biology would have a reaction and compensation for something it never encountered. For example, ionizing radiation is scary precisely becaues it doesn't hurt, or smell bad, or even irritate you, while it's killing you. No organism ever needed an alarm, because there wasn't any in our environment. Similarly no Earth organism has ever been in hyperspace/the Immer/whatever you want to call it, and a more interesting treatment might have been to have it damage us in odd ways that we aren't aware of until it's too late. Overall I'm pleased that he took an old convention and made it much more interesting; he seems to realize that you might as well because ultimately, whatever you call "hyperspace", it boils down to being a heaven or underworld that is described with sciencey-sounding language and that lets you get where you want to go in a reasonable amount of time.

I read this book mainly for the linguistic thought experiments, which were interesting, and reminiscent of Snowcrash and even moreso of Julian Jaynes's Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a version of which the humans in the story directly induce. He's clearly thought through his ideas. I like it when an author explains a weak point that I hadn't identified; it shows s/he's doing his/her job. The explanations weren't always convincing but then again, it's fiction, not a linguistics textbook.

He also does a good job straddling the boundary of keeping the aliens alien, but allowing an interaction with humans that makes for good plot. I like how his here-and-there descriptive hints of the Hosts sort of gives you a picture, but not really: once he describes them as bird-insect-horse-coral creatures. He definitely does his best to avoid the intelligent gerbil effect. And he drops hints if you're paying attention that show there's a lot more to know about this universe's history: without saying so explicitly, several times we hear people mention Earth not as a myth, but as a place you can't get to anymore.

For my money right now Mieville's prose is the best in speculative fiction. My only complaint about him on this front was the over-dramatic single-line paragraphs in his Bas-Lag series, but those are gone. I hate having to still say this about science fiction, but his tone is very adult and nearly lit-fic. I wish everyone in the genre took their prose this seriously.

A sure sign that I really like an author is when I find myself making guesses about the person while I'm reading their fiction, or looking for little clues. For example, I know Mieville is a socialist so I can't help but look for allegorical clues or little lessons in his work, but I don't find any. He does have a few interesting comments about colonialism and racism in general, including one observation about the function of stories about natives going berserk and killing people when some minor social norm is violated (are those stories really about our insensitivity, or about natives being oversensitive and superstitious and stupid?) Not that his putting his political ideas in stories would be bad, even if you don't share them; I would mainly be wanting to see them done well, like Vinge does in Deepness in the Sky. What you do see in his work, quite clearly, are the messy unprincipled realities of politics. Normally I can't stand to waste my time reading about the politics of people and places that don't exist - I can barely stand to read about politics in the real world - but somehow Mieville pulls it off. I tried to figure out what he does differently and so far I haven't been able to.

Another pattern: in both The Scar and Embassytown, we see a female protagonist romantically involved with a morally very imperfect male who is maybe a little bit too sure of his own abilities and vision and value. This doesn't stick out quite as much as Paul Auster's odd insistence on killing his protagonists' families, but an odd amount of space is given to explicating the protagonists' lover's personality. Is this Mieville examining parts of himself he doesn't care for? A clever marketing trick to appeal to female readers? Pure speculation and maybe even coincidence, although again, Mieville does this well.

Probably my biggest disappointment with Embassytown was in the portions where the humans leave the city and go out into the Ariekene fields. We get some interesting ideas about Ariekene ecology and the mismatches that arise when alien evolutions collide (good) but very little of the sense experience of being out in alien fields. What color are things? What does it smell like? What does the land look like, and the soil and the rocks and the hills? (It's a good sign though that I care enough to be disappointed we don't get more of this.) I suspect the reason for his disinterest is that Mieville seems to be very much a metro guy, very much in love with London and the complexities of cities in general (that's quite clear in The Scar) and while he renders human landscapes expertly, he neglects natural ones. You see similar blind-spots in many American writers from New York, and (more often and more oddly) Los Angeles.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

My Three Stories for Clarion

Cortez burning his ships at Veracruz.

Given the contents of this blog, it may be no surprise that I occasionally write science fiction. I would like this to count for something. But writing is hard and keeping up with writing goals very hard. So I'm making a public writing commitment.

I will submit to the Clarion workshop this year. This requires three stories. Here are the story titles, descriptions, and dates on which on I will complete them.

Story #1 - completed on 15 Dec - The Pristine Dome - an alternate history where the U.S. never used atomic weapons against Japan. The action is a cut-throat espionage story in a divided early 60s Japan, with a Japanese-American jazz columnist-turned-spy uncovering a possibly world-ending plot by short-sighted cynics on both sides.

Story #2 - 31 Dec - The End of Everything - in flagrant contradiction of our understanding of physics, the sun collapses into a black hole. The survivors on Earth face certain near-term extinction. Wondering why they continue persisting in the dark deepening freeze and waiting for the Earth to be fried and pulled apart, they beam records of the existence of Earth into space and search for brittly-frozen food in the pitch darkness of braille-labeled streets and empty stores, knowing that the very information of their existence will disappear.

Story #3 - 15 Jan - The Tuesday Fire at the American Place - a shy and awkward thirteen year-old boy growing up in an American refugee village in Eastern Siberia tries to impress the daughter of one of the village's Russian commanding officers, by reading chapters to her from the diary of his grandfather, an officer in the old U.S. Marine Corps during the December War against China. In the process he finds things out about his own family, as well as the Russian officer's.

These are my calls, but I have a number of incomplete stories to pick from, and a few trusted advisors who will tell me if I'd be much better off going with those others. So in a future post the stories might change, but the dates won't.

Heifetz - Mendelssohn Violin Concerto E Minor (Op. 64) - Part 2

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Russian Spacecraft to Land on Phobos, Return Samples

[Added later: unfortunately Phobos-Grunt ain't landing nowhere. To say the least, a real disappointment.]

Phobos-Grunt will touch down on Phobos and return samples to Earth. If we expect the surface of low gravity bodies with organic materials (like asteroids and comets) is where we'll find evidence of von Neumann probes if they exist, then this is an exciting mission. "Low gravity" really means "low escape velocity", so life materials can spread more easily, and with an escape velocity of 40 kph, Phobos falls into that category.

Why Do We Ignore Economics When We Think About Movies?

Charlie Jane Anders reports on a studio executive's public admission that the big studios make bad movies. This is no big surprise, but what's most interesting is the reasons he gives: he says, paraphrased by an audience member, "almost nobody can afford to do what James Cameron did with Avatar, and he's proud of A Beautiful Mind — but he wouldn't do it again because he'd rather make money than make critically acclaimed award bait." Bingo! (Original article here.) Interesting because it exactly reproduces the same argument made here about business interests superceding artistic goals as media become more complex and more expensive.

New Sith Lords: Samuel Jackson and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman

Below: even better. Caveat watchor, since the light saber duel starting after 6 minutes very nearly killed me.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mock Mars Mission Ends

They claim they were trying to simulate the conditions of a Mars mission, although it seems they came closer to simulating medical school: "Psychologists said long confinement without daylight and fresh air put the team members under stress as they grow increasingly tired of each other's company." ZING! Article here.