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Newsstand date for "Apocalypse Daily"

Friday February 18, 2011 @ 11:22 PM (UTC)

The June issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction is due on newsstands April 5, and will be out to subscribers earlier still. This one will contain my story “Apocalypse Daily”, a tantalizing snippet of which can be obtained from this earlier blog post.

As usual, I will announce its availability at the top of my blog-voice when it occurs, but if you want to set a calendar alarm too…then you’re probably related to me!

I have, it seems, a childish weakness for words that sound like what they mean. Not in the crude onomatopoetic sense (or not only in that sense) but in a rhythmically or associatively suggestive way. I think it’s the rhythm of this one that makes it fall under this category:

judder: per the OED, “To shake violently, esp. of the mechanism in cars, cameras, etc.; also of the voice in singing, to oscillate between greater and less intensity.” — I think the oscillation is there in the violent shake too, hence the association with mechanisms.

I find myself reaching for this word a lot, and I think it’s the discontinuity in the middle, the “dd” that cuts off the sound abruptly, like your teeth coming together as you are shaken rhythmically by a crude, juddering engine. I also like to use it for things which judder to a halt, in which case you can imagine the “jud” repeating and the “der” as the final sigh of repose. Judjudjudjudjudder. Phew.

Some people achieve action heroism, others have it thrust upon them unexpectedly after they finish their waitressing shift at Big Jeff’s burger joint. I’m not a good prospect for the former: although P.E. activities with a hint of adventure or violence (obstacle course! archery!) got a better performance from me than team sports, I was never a prospect for rippling athleticism. But there’s always the latter. You can’t predict being the accidental survivor of a zombiepocalypse, or indeed the fated mother of mankind’s savior. I’d rather be prepared, especially if there’s any chance of 1980’s-era Michael Biehn shirtlessness involved.

How I could be a better action heroine
Note: list draws from sources in a gender-neutral manner.

10. Learn Morse Code. I’m not sure how useful it is if no one else knows it — in the absence of Starfleet Academy, I may not put this one into effect.

9. Play flight simulators (See also #8) A little bit more theoretical knowledge of how to fly – and especially land – a plane can’t hurt, and occasionally it can really help. No reason not to do this.

8. Practice driving a stick. In theory, I’ve known how to drive a manual transmission car since I was commanded to learn for paleontological purposes. Realistically though, I haven’t driven one in over five years. The choice of cars for breakneck chases and last-minute escapes is not always wide, so it’s best to be prepared for anything. Should an opportunity present itself, I should practice.

7. Practice cheeking pills. I’m not saying I expect to have to avoid swallowing mind-numbing medicine in a mental hospital or hoard pills in order to poison my captors, but I don’t expect to be an action heroine, either. Taking my daily pile of pills just got more heroic!

6. Train up sense of direction. My sense of direction isn’t bad, precisely. It’s just limited. If I’m on foot, it works pretty damn well, and has even impressed people. If I’m in a car, not so much — this could get really awkward in case I’m ever in a car chase. But then, what do I need to know but “away”? I may forego doing this, and just hope I’m never called upon to, say, lead survivors through a maze of ventilation ducts pursued by an alien horde.

5. Get baseball bat. (Or cricket.) Good for zombie-crushing, fending off murderous failed novelists, and, given sandpaper enough and time, staking vampires. It’s actually very strange I don’t have a baseball bat, because I was raised in a house where the baseball bat was the what-was-that-noise weapon of choice. As a side note, I’ll mention I already have done one thing right: learn a sport with a swinging tool. Sure, a tennis racquet is a lousy weapon, but I bet I get a free point in shortsword for that.

4. Learn when to remove things from wounds, and when not to. I often think characters are pulling, say, shrapnel from exploded Terminators from their flesh when they should leave it in at least until there’s a tourniquet. If I learn this, I can be more helpful in an emergency and a more confident know-it-all when watching movies!

3. Get a shotgun. Watching shocking numbers of action movies, not to mention playing video games, has reminded me that the shotgun is your friend. It is suitable for big damn heroics, zombie slaying, and applying delaying force to nigh-unstoppable cyborgs. However, here in the real world, I’m not sure I’m ready to take this step. Even though I’d love to have a shotgun (or a replica pulse rifle, to be honest) hanging on the mantel with a brass plaque reading “Chekhov’s Gun”, it might cause an endless stream of gun-rights arguments in the unlikely event of us inviting people over. Not to mention, it’s a slippery slope from one gun on the wall to crossed guns and a mounted deadite head, and that just wouldn’t go with my aesthetic.

2. Start carrying a lighter. Due to my personal history of primness, practicality and asthma, I have never smoked. (Once I had to fend a cigarette off physically – ah, France!) However, it has not escaped my attention that the ability to summon fire is dead useful. Whether it means summoning help (also 1980’s Michael Biehn, although tragically fully clothed) via fire alarm or completing an elemental ritual in order to save the universe, the lighter pays its way. Much like a bit of rope in another context, you’ll want it if you don’t have it. I’m seriously considering this.

1. Cardio. (Run away, run away!) Already working on it.

Those of you who know me well may expect that if I acknowledge Valentine’s Day at all, I usually mark it as Oregon Statehood Day or extol its origins in the celebration of familial and platonic love before its absorption by the romance cult. So I’m going to shock you: this is an actual romance-related blog post to mark Valentine’s Day.

Good communication is key to any lasting relationship, romantic or otherwise, and there are certain important conversations that the experts suggest people have before entering upon romantic commitments. But those experts are usually not geeks, so they overlook all sorts of situations that are specific to the geek lifestyle (or to the lifestyle geeks wish they had.) So, I have taken it upon myself to lay out some discussion topics. These are not small questions like who drives the starship: they touch on religion, ethics, life, death, and all that sort of thing. It’s important to settle such points if you want to be celebrating the tenth anniversary of your victory against the forces of evil together, instead of going on adventures all by yourself and wondering where your zippy banter has got to.

What is my authority to designate discussion topics for you and your co-protagonist? My authority is that I have a blog and you are reading it.

10 Serious discussions for geek couples

10. Am I free to date if you die? It’s just good to get this out of the way: how long should you wait to make sure your old honey isn’t going to be revived, or resurrected by magic, or regrown by sinister corporations?

9. Will you kill me if I am facehugged, bitten by a zombie, et c.? If it comes to that, your partner should do you both. If you’re not willing to even get someone else to stake my vampirized corpse, cut my head off and fill my mouth with garlic, what kind of commitment can you offer me?

8. Do we convert if we witness a miracle? If the Holy Grail cures your dad’s gut wound, do you consider yourself illuminated, or just move on to the next thing?

7. Do we welcome our alien overlords? For instance, I’m pro-cephalopod overlord, but I’m not too keen on reptilians.

6. Are we going to get cyber implants? If so, how many? If flashing lights and servos are a dealbreaker for your co-protagonist, it’s best to know now.

5. Are AIs and manufactured sentients deserving of human rights? Social justice, baby.

4. Is being body-switched with your worst enemy grounds for a break-up? For the record, Callisto is very pretty. If you have to switch bodies with an evil murderer, you could do worse.

3. Does the holodeck count as cheating? However you come down on the general rule, it’s best to specify that holodeck-snogging people you actually know is creepy as hell, as well as potentially more relationship-endangering.

2. Are we raising the kids Orthodox Jedi or Reform? Oh, sure, some of us geeks are atheists and so forth, but you know if you raise Force-sensitive kids without any religious training, they’re much more susceptible to Sith interference.

1. Are we in this for loot, or XP? Sure, you think this is an abstract question, but when you’re bickering over whether your co-protagonist should take the dream job or the six figures, or whether to return the culturally significant artifact to the village or fence it, you’ll realize I was right.

So! I had some lovely news earlier this week, and a nice surprise this morning, but I never claimed to be consistently chronological: last things first.

“Conditional Love” on Escape Pod
As I announced in September, my story “Conditional Love” was accepted for publication by the one and only Escape Pod, the fabulous science fiction podcast. Its episode, #279, went live today! My story is read by Mur Lafferty, the host and editor of the podcast, and I’m pretty thrilled with it! (As you can tell by my running through today’s quota of exclamation marks in the first two paragraphs of this post. Damn, how will I finish the post now? With an illusion of decorum, I wager.)

Escape Pod is free: you can download Episode #279 or stream it from the show’s website here. It will also be available on iTunes (still free!) in the near future, and of course if you subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, the new episode will turn up in due course.

This is a big first for me. It’s an exciting, yet embarrassing gratification to hear my words read back from my laptop in Mur’s assured tones. Go, listen! Make my ears even redder!

“Conditional Love” on the 2010 Locus Recommended Reading List
Locus Magazine published their 2010 Recommended Reading List last week, and “Conditional Love” is among the recommended short stories. (Must…not…use…exclamation points.) The list is full of really splendid pieces of short fiction that I enjoyed this year (as well as novels that I intend to enjoy at some point in the future) and seeing my story in that company is dizzying.

The Locus List is, of course, also the initial ballot for the 2010 Locus Awards.

Rumors of my tossing my dinner aside in order to rip open the February 2011 issue of Locus and see this list again on paper are surely exaggerated. After all, that dinner contained fried okra. And I have decorum. I managed to delete all the extra exclamation points from this post, didn’t I? Oh, except those two. Damn.

Old Curiosities: Dimensionality and Dickens

Friday January 28, 2011 @ 03:47 PM (UTC)

I recently finished listening to an excellent audiobook version of The Old Curiosity Shop by Dahls Charles Dickens. This is my eleventh Dickens novel, so you know I’m a fan. I love the rhythmic beauty of Boz’s sentences, the far-fetched yet quintessentially human characters he invents. I know his flaws, and even love some of them. I keep coming back for more.

And I am sorry to report that I was disappointed in The Old Curiosity Shop. Despite its formidable reputation — the Americans running along the wharf, yelling to the incoming ships from Britain and asking for news of little Nell — I found it to be engaging, but not deeply affecting. Oh, it made me cry, but in an unusual turn of events, I resented my own tears. Usually I embrace Dickens’s melodrama, which is often over the top but also really earnest. Here, it rang hollow and manipulative. Why?

Old Curiosity Shop is Dickens’s fourth novel, which may explain some of its weaknesses, but it’s worth noting that while his first “novel”, Pickwick Papers, is the only Dickens I’ve ever left unfinished, I love his second and third, Oliver Twist and my dear Nicholas Nickleby. What early Dickens failing is forgivable in those and glaring in this?

Stereotypes. Dickens often relied on broad generalizations and character “types” in his work. His characters often have a theatrical quality, and sometimes are so defined by their role that their name never appears, like Curiosity Shop‘s “Single Gentleman”. This is an integral part of his style, and doubtless helped prompt the memories of readers whose experience of the novels was through the serial medium. In general, this theatricality is part of Dickens’s charm: he had a deft eye for the absurd which envisioned bizarre but vivid and palpably real characters like Wemmick and the Artful. But the same capacity for exaggeration and shorthand characterization could also harm his work.

In The Old Curiosity Shop, two of Dickens’s prejudices come to the forefront: the idea of the Villainous Cripple, and the Sacrificing Woman. The Villainous Cripple stereotype should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Bond movies (or apparently, Doctor Who.) It partakes of two main tropes: external appearance accurately expressing internal nature, something which I’m sure has a fancy name (hopefully with “fallacy” on the end); and another classic of disability (mis)representation, the Bitter Cripple. Thus, you sometimes see a villain with a disability or disfigurement that just adds to their drama, “frightfulness” or “wrongness”, and you sometimes see a villain whose disability has caused them to become “warped” and malignant.

Daniel Quilp is both. He is described factually as a dwarf, then figuratively as a monkey, an ape, and a demon. Oh, so often a demon. We even have entered Dungeons & Dragons-style demonic bestiaries with “imp”! He’s strangely agile (thus the monkey image) and uses his agility — and his capacity for disturbing facial expressions — to upset and frighten people, to project this demon-ape image. Of course the words “warped” and “twisted” are used. On the other hand, we see him occasionally justifying his evil — for this is an evil, manipulative, vitriolic character — by reminding himself of insults paid to him on the basis of his disability. Our working-class boy-hero, the euphoniously named Kit Nubbles, is reported to have called Quilp “an uglier dwarf than could be seen anywhere for a penny” after one of the central pieces of Quilp villainy is executed, and this remark is used by Quilp as justification for all his subsequent efforts against Kit.

The Bitter part of this stereotype is as close as it ever comes to real characterization: are we to believe Quilp is evil because people mocked him for his disability? But then, why are other Dickensians stalwart and pure in the face of their afflictions and the world’s cruelty? (Is this a literary Puritanism, with an Elect and a Damned?) In the absence of any really understandable motivation for Quilp’s Herculean efforts in the service of villainy, he isn’t a character, just a malign force moving through the book and serving the plot. Greed may explain this action, revenge that, but fundamentally he hates all the good characters for no better reason than that they are the good characters. He hates, explicitly, their virtue. Unlike the general run of Dickens’s shadowy villains, nursing their monomanias and dreams of avarice, Quilp feels unfocused and emotionally diffuse. This is not a character with human motivations. This is a plot device with a face.

The other character to whom I object is — don’t hurt me — Little Nell. I have long said, “I love Dickens, but he doesn’t love me back.” Dickens doesn’t write a lot of relatable women. At least, you can relate to some of his major characters, but I really don’t recommend doing it. The classic Dickens heroines — the Good Girls — are endless flowing fonts of generosity. They are virtuous, compassionate, and honest. All good things, but in the Dickensian heroine they are taken to excess. If you ever find yourself considering what Agnes Wickfield would do as a guide to your everyday behavior, I suggest you preemptively check yourself in for therapy. Giving as much and as thoroughly as these women do is not healthy. Their entire personalities are defined by their nurturing. In Agnes, we forgive it, because she’s a secondary character. In Little Nell, the nominal protagonist, it’s poison.

Characters need, to state the obvious, flaws. Even in the starkly drawn world of Dickens’s imagination, heroes have them: Nicholas Nickleby’s temper (however much I find it refreshing) is a flaw. Pip, Boz help him, is a mass of flaws. The characters need something in themselves to strive against, not just in the world. Even Kit Nubbles, the bonus protagonist of this volume, introduced as Nell’s comic relief and only marginally older than she, has flaws and struggles, small though they be. He struggles to “stay cheerful” and govern his temper for the sake of his mother. He can be oblivious to others’ feelings. He can, albeit less spectacularly than Nickleby, snap.

Nell, on the other hand, is imperturbably perfect. She’s less naive than that other pure little waif, Oliver Twist, so she’s able to get herself and her beloved Grandfather (the recipient of her Eternal Spring of Giving) out of scrapes, and out of clutches. She’s sweet, kind, soft-spoken, moral, uncomplaining (to the point of collapse from hunger) and true. She likes to ease others’ suffering. She wants simplicity and quiet. Oh, and of course, she is gorgeously beautiful, and small for her age, allowing her to inhabit a nebulous zone between the pitiful child and the vulnerable woman for maximum victimhood.

We have Mary Sue and Marty Stu — can there be a Martyr Sue, too? A character with no flaws is just frustrating, not engaging. I’m willing to wait for her flaws to emerge, but at some point — and I remember the point vividly, when Grandfather was whinging at her for uprooting them which she did to rescue them from his folly and she answered mildly — you lose all suspension of disbelief. No one that sweet can exist, should exist. Anything you do to her to make me cry is cheap. Anything she says is cloying. She has too few dimensions to exist on a flat page.

This is what we’re talking about when we say that writing in stereotypes is bad writing. For all the cleverness and fun moments in Old Curiosity Shop (and it did definitely have them), it’s strung around empty spots instead of believable person-facsimiles.

Dickens learned by doing, as we all must. Besides the convincingly flawed Bad Girls like Nancy and Louisa Gradgrind (and less convincingly drawn Estella), he eventually produced women who were allowed to be much less than perfect and still good, like Bella Wilfer. Some of his later characters seem almost like apologias for those that came before — Jenny Wren for Tiny Tim, Riah for Fagin. I don’t resent Little Nell or condemn her as a sexist depiction. I just see her as a missed opportunity, like many before and since. Art needs justice every bit as much as justice, to get a hold on people, needs art.

What makes a good sequel

Saturday January 08, 2011 @ 10:07 PM (UTC)

In the movie-watching spree that constitutes the Ryan & Felicity holiday tradition, I have recently watched partial or complete arcs of the following movie franchises: Back to the Future, Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator. (Small spoilers only — and if you’re not spoiled on this stuff, welcome to my blog!)

Early on in this decadent parade of wonders, Ryan remarked to me that Empire Strikes Back is one of the best movie sequels ever. We talked about that and what it does so well. Then, just now, after rewatching the somewhat lackluster Terminator 3, we watched Terminator Salvation. We had been told it was bad. We decided to try it anyway, out of an unusual completionist urge. (I haven’t watched Alien 3 and don’t plan to, okay?)

Terminator Salvation was great. Surprisingly tightly plotted. New Skynet tech and types were logical, part of a burgeoning machine ecosystem. It was well acted, full of ties to the original movie and winks at the entire Cameron oeuvre.

This has cemented my desire to think (and therefore ramble) about what makes a good sequel (and in part, what does NOT.)

1. A good sequel expands the universe of the original. This should be true of a straight sequel, not just the second act of three. Yes, the viewer loved the first one, but if you rehash the same material, some part of them will wonder why they didn’t just watch it again. Empire Strikes Back took us to new worlds, showed us a hint of the Emperor we’d only heard of, brought us inside the Imperial Fleet.

2. It stays true to the original. This is tricky, but to my English-major self that means it develops at least some of the most important themes of the original. Aliens is a different genre from Alien, and some might argue not a true sequel, but it’s still about the same things: conflict between corporate and human interests, the relationship between human and artificial intelligence, social class, et c. It also means you don’t add a bunch of extraneous new characters that detract from the ones we know and care about.

3. It deepens the characters. The feelings between Han and Leia, the risk-taking prompted by Marty’s insecurity, Ripley’s motherhood…these are things that didn’t exist in the first story, but don’t contradict it. They breathe new meaning retroactively into the first story while using the increased space granted by success (a necessary condition for sequels) to increase the emotional attachment of the audience.

4. It follows through. If we were promised post-apocalyptic guerilla warfare, give it to us. If you hung a craft full of alien eggs on the wall like Chekhov’s gun, take that sucker down and start firing facehuggers. Don’t promise “I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see….A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries.” and then ignore those people to have boring fisticuffs with infinite agents instead.

5. It rewards the audience’s fidelity. This is perhaps the riskiest part. See number 1 — don’t rehash. The peril of the sequel, especially in action movies, is doing the same thing over, but bigger and fancier. Catch phrases become atrophied, meaningless, a string of checkboxes or gotcha moments. Chases become an obligation, not a thrill. The script serves the formula rather than the story. We didn’t need to see the T-101 shoot up a bunch of cop cars and smugly calculate 0 human casualties in T3. It was something we’d already seen, but shorn of the context that made it relevant in T2. A good reference is something that makes sense in the new context to someone who hasn’t seen the referent. If we haven’t seen Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, we don’t scratch our heads in Last Crusade when Indy says “Fly? Yes. Land? No!” Obviously it matters whether he can fly a plane, and his incomplete knowledge creates tension and humor. T4 was full of shots, sets and moments that made devoted fans point and grin, but those things served this movie. Rhyme, don’t repeat.

6. It surprises us. Keeping your promises doesn’t mean being predictable. We have expectations now, and you can play with them. Having the T-101 be the good guy in T2 reversed our expectations. (In T3 it was just a bit tired.) It surprised us. It surprised John Connor. It surprised Sarah Connor into an iconic image of surprise (I know I mentally fall down and backpedal against a waxed floor from time to time.) Set up a love triangle, then knock it down with a relative revelation. Make us expect the repeat, then play against it: a formidable swordsman menaces Indy, he reaches for his gun — but it isn’t there.

Really, what this all boils down to is respecting the original but showing us something new. The Star Wars prequels contradict the originals and depart from their spirit. Star Trek V, among its other sins, takes us past a Galactic Barrier we crossed in the series and acts like that’s where no man has gone before. This is simple stuff, really, but I imagine that deep in Hollywood, making something complicated and expensive with hundreds of other people, it’s easy to forget what you’re really doing. You’re gathering the children by the fire to tell them a story. They say, “Tell us another!” They say, “What happens next?”

Dickens on post-holiday blues

Friday January 07, 2011 @ 05:41 PM (UTC)
Oh these holidays! why will they leave us some regret? why cannot we push them back, only a week or two in our memories, so as to put them at once at that convenient distance whence they may be regarded either with a calm indifference or a pleasant effort of recollection! why will they hang about us, like the flavour of yesterday’s wine, suggestive of headaches and lassitude, and those good intentions for the future, which, under the earth, form the everlasting pavement of a large estate, and, upon it, usually endure until dinner-time or thereabouts!

Who will wonder that Barbara had a headache, or that Barbara’s mother was disposed to be cross, or that she slightly underrated Astley’s, and thought the clown was older than they had taken him to be last night? Kit was not surprised to hear her say so—not he. He had already had a misgiving that the inconstant actors in that dazzling vision had been doing the same thing the night before last, and would do it again that night, and the next, and for weeks and months to come, though he would not be there. Such is the difference between yesterday and today. We are all going to the play, or coming home from it.
-The Old Curiosity Shop

I myself have been happily free from post-holiday blues this year. Perhaps such equanimity is the curse of growing maturity, for as Dickens’s closing figure suggests, the descent into melancholy is the obverse of a glorious ascent into joy. I am sure I do not enjoy Christmas nearly so much now as I did when I was a child, for all I do not grieve its going so bitterly.

Oddly, in spite of the Christian (culturally so, for I see that it’s imputed to a medieval abbot, not to Jesus) image of the road to hell’s paving stones, this passage reminds me of the Buddhist idea of samsara, as I learned it in high school. This churning rise and fall of desire and disappointment, aspiration and disgust, does seem to be cyclical, a bit sad, and oh so human.

Classics January

Friday December 31, 2010 @ 05:14 PM (UTC)

So, I’m thinking of starting a new tradition. As some of you may know, if I froze my to-read list tomorrow and didn’t deviate from it until I was done, it would probably still take me 5 years to finish. This means that any individual book’s claims tend to get short shrift, and there’s a sort of triage at play: oh, I need to read that as research for a project; oh, I need to read that so I can return it to its rightful owner; oh, I need to read that because I know the author. This means that if I have a whole lifetime to read a book and no greater prompting than my own curiosity or its own merits, a book may keep sliding down the list indefinitely, especially if it’s long.

Well, I want to arrest the slide somewhat. I’ve been meaning to read War and Peace forever, and I have a perfectly lovely copy of it to read, and by jiminy, I’m starting it tomorrow. Do I promise to finish it by the end of January? No. I am not insane. But I think starting off the new year with an old classic will be a good experience, and hopefully, one worth repeating next January.

Who’s with me? Have you been meaning to dive into Moby-Dick? Our Mutual Friend? Persuasion? I, Robot? (I didn’t say whose definition of classic you had to use!)

The Antilles Theorem

Sunday December 26, 2010 @ 09:23 PM (UTC)

In the course of acquainting myself with Ryan‘s childhood favorites, the Star Wars: X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole, I have come up with yet another of my kooky and largely impractical theories. I call it The Antilles Theorem. It is a litmus test for (old school) Star Wars fandom. Because, let’s face it, they’re lovable movies. Many people like them but are not fans. Fans watch and rewatch and quote; some know the Expanded Universe or play the roleplaying game. Before you jump to conclusions and start talking about mouse droids and assuming your interlocutors are aware that Han shot first, I suggest applying this.

The Antilles Theorem: Any real fan of the original Star Wars series knows who Wedge Antilles is.

So you just say, “One of my favorite characters in Star Wars is Wedge Antilles,” and if the respondent says “Get clear, Wedge, you can’t do any more good back there!” or starts babbling about Rogue Squadron tie-in novels, you are gold. (Likewise if they say, “Did you know that the captain of the blockade-runner in the first scene of New Hope was going to be named Antilles too?”) If they stare blankly at you, unable to recall this crucial and beloved but secondary character, I recommend smiling kindly and keeping the conversation general.

Many Bothans died to bring you this post. You’re welcome.

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