Sunday, August 27, 2017

If You're Looking to Help-

- the Hurricane Harvey relief effort, Vox has a helpful article.
ETA: Sorry, the original link was subject to link rot. Problem has been addressed.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

This Is Science Fiction

I often say that science fiction isn't about the new - it's about how we respond to the new. Whether that new thing is a technology, a scientific discovery, an alien race, or something, what is most important is how we respond to it. How we make use of it, run from it, exploit it, adapt to it. Some of the stories that I like best are extrapolative - they take the new thing and explore all the possible ways we might react.

Thirty years ago, this article from Salon.com would have been brilliant science fiction.  In it, an editor named Andrew Kahn goes after Michiko Kakutani, the Great White Whale of New York literary criticism. But instead of doing it with mere assertion and snark - the traditional weapons of belletristic warfare - he used digital humanities. He used software to analyze Kakutani's prose style and her choice of reviewed books. Instead of just saying Kakutani had a limited prose style and a decided preference for some types of books over others, he tried to prove it statistically.

He didn't use enormous processing power to find new elementary particles (after all, there are already people doing that); he used it to argue. A brilliant, science-fictional approach to the new. I wish I had thought of it.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The First Draft of "Conjure Man" Is Done. Now Come All the Others...

One hundred thousand words, yikes and yowzah.
When you're in the middle of the thing, all you want to do is drag yourself, bleeding and limping, across the finish line.
Then you do. And you blog about it. (Briefly, I promise.) And then you realize...The first draft isn't the end. It's the beginning. That's why it's first. And you take a pill to keep yourself from putting a steak knife through your ear.

But one thing I am learning (slowly) is that you have to accept mistakes. You can't be afraid to make them. Perfectionism isn't a desire to do things well; it's a fear of doing things badly. That's why perfectionism is the enemy of creativity, because creativity rarely comes from a place of fear.

So if you can't make a shit ton of mistakes in your first draft, when can you?
It's amazing how hard that lesson is to learn, and how you have to keep learning it, over and over.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

One Caveat About Plumbers and Leaders

In my last post, I asked folks to think of presidents as not as leaders, but as plumbers.

My point was that we don't owe automatic deference to either presidents or plumbers - that both are just jobs. The presidency is a harder, more dangerous job, with more disastrous consequences, but a president isn't above other citizens or the law. So treat him like a plumber: Expect honesty, expect competence, and toss him if he doesn't display those two qualities.

After the events in Charlottesville, I feel I have to add something:
Your plumber should be honest.
Your plumber should be competent.
And your plumber should not be a fucking Nazi.

I thought that went without saying in the United States of America. I can see that I was wrong.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Your President, the Plumber

Don't think of your president as your leader.
Think of him as your plumber.
You have do what your leader tells you.
Your plumber has to do what you tell him.
A "leader" has to be extraordinary - wise, brave, just, merciful, heroic.
A plumber only has to be honest and know his job.
It's damned near impossible to find a leader outside of a TV drama...or an historical documentary on dictators who claimed to be leaders and weren't.
But you can find a good plumber on Yelp.
And most important:
Your leader can jail you, kill you, confiscate your home. He can order you to die in a war that you despise.
But you can fire your plumber.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Kaleidocast Is Kicking

Kidlings and podlings, just a reminder:
The Kaleidocast Kickstarter is now live, and they are already 35% there.
ICYMI, Kaleidocast is a podcast produced by the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers, featuring audio versions of short stories by luminaries like Jonathan Lethem, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, and - yes! - yours truly.
Their Kickstarter is meant to turn the project into a full-fledged, no-holds-barred SFWA paying market on a par with Analog, Asimov's, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
They have great, great, GREAT prizes (from  signed books to tuckerization to custom-written stories) and, well - if you like where SFF is going, this is how to hop on the train and take the ride.
Go, my pretties!
Support Kaleidocast!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Do You Like Weird Sci-Fi Art? Of Course You Do

Let's deconstruct:
It's a space rabbit.
It's pink.
It's eating a planet...
But none of that is enough. It also has to be shooting laser beams from its nose.

So God bless the '70s Sci-Fi Art Page.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Kaleidocast Kickstarter

For two seasons now, my speculative-fiction friends in Brooklyn have been doing a super-sweet podcast called the Kaleidocast. Its first season features readings of short stories by (among others) Jonathan Lethem, Richard Bowes, and yours truly; the second season will feature Nnedi Okorafor, Shan Chakraborty, Carlos Hernandez, N.K. Jemisin, Phenderson Djèlí Clark, and...yours truly!

To top it all off, they're doing a Kickstarter. Go to it here.
Sign up! Get stuff! Pledge enough and I will sign a book for you! Pledge even more, and it might be one of mine!
What more do you want?

Monday, July 3, 2017

Just Like in L.A.

Yesterday I hiked Inwood Hill Park.
It was just like hiking Fryman Canyon in Los Angeles.
Except for the humidity.
And the trees.
And the mighty river below it, instead of the wee drainage ditch.
And the wet, vivid green of the leaves, instead of dusty beige.
And there were no body-righteous types in Day-Glo exersuits.
And the Spanish I heard had a Dominican accent.
Okay. You know what was the same?
The slope. It was steep as hell.
And I sweated a lot.
That was the same.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Armor Is Not That Heavy!

So, mea culpa. In The Wrong Sword, I made some (frankly almost inevitable) jokes about the weight of medieval armor. This is something of a grand tradition in medieval stories, starting at least as early as Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where cranes were imagined to hoist knights onto their horses.

Now, I never went that far, but I did describe things like the armor stopping just a moment after the wearer does, and our stalwart (but underweight and undertall) protagonist toppling under the weight of full jousting armor.

Seems I was overstating things a wee bit. Not to say that armor is light as a feather, but this great post on the Medievalist blog shows us what an athletic wearer can do in Late Medieval plate armor. Enjoy!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Before Hogwarts, There Was Greyfriars

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Potterverse. Twenty years. Wow. Cheers!

I was too old to be swept up by Pottermania when it conquered the world, but if I had read the books when I was younger, I can easily believe they would have colonized my mind, laying eggs in my imagination like some conceptual xenomorph. So brava, Rowling! Brava!

And from a fellow writer's perspective, I've always been impressed by Rowling's skills. It's fashionable among uber-nerds to get all critical-theory and talk about cliches and overused tropes and blah-blah-blah. But a trope gets used because it works, and cliches don't start off that way. Katherine Trendacosta over at i09.com has written a handy article that makes those points and a few others.

But most bloggers usually overlook the real wellspring of Hogwarts: the school story. The school story isn't just a story set in a school. Clueless isn't a school story; neither is The Perks of Being a Wallflower nor The Betsy-Tacy High School Stories nor anything by Judy Blume. In fact, the school story as a genre had been dead for thirty years when, in 1997, JK Rowling brought it back to life...with magic.

To really understand the school story, you need to read some Orwell (sorry) - an essay called Boys' Weeklies. (And you could also read the book that started it all, Tom Brown's School Days, or the one that kind of stood it on its head, Stalky & Co.Basically, school stories are set at British boarding schools in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They're told from the point of view of the students; there are student intrigues, student types, sports madness, hallowed halls, prefects and houses, nasty teachers, sympathetic headmasters, and a variety of other tropes that get heavy use...any of this ringing a bell?
Stalky & Co

The school story was ultimately brought low by changes in British society - especially the collapse of the elite class assumptions that made the school story so appealing to so many readers who would never meet a baronet, let alone study at Eton. But for almost a century the genre was popular enough to support more than a dozen weekly magazines, not to mention novel series and movie and radio adaptations. In fact, Greyfriars, the setting of the school stories available in The Magnet, (which ran weekly from 1908 to 1940) had the same allure to readers that Hogwarts has today. There were maps of the school, detailed bios of the characters, notes on school history, a veritable Potterverse of subsidiary information.

The dissolution of the British Empire seemed to be the death blow to school stories. But then, when it looked like the genre was condemned to a ghostly afterlife attended only by literary scholars, Rowling substituted magic for the British class system, and brought it back to life. One genre writer to another, she is my hero.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Rockets and Space Suits and Blasters, Oh My!

Guess what the Internet Archive has?
Pdfs of great F/SF magazines of yesteryear. Dick, Knight, Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Matheson, Bradbury, Clarke, Bester...
Check it, droogs!

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Dead Speak From the Mists of History - Primary Sources!

A self-trimming lamp!
I'm getting tucked into Hero's Army, the sequel to The Wrong Sword. Among other things, HA deals with the Third Crusade. Here are some of the things I've researched:
  • The Banu Masu brothers and their Book of Tricks (a.k.a. Kitab al-Hiyal, a.k.a. The Book of Ingenious Devices)
  • The Greek mathematician, engineer, and polymath Heron of Alexandria
  • Komnenid Byzantium
  • Conrad of Montferrat, a.k.a. Conrad of Tyre, a.k.a. Conrad, King of Jerusalem
  • The Hashashin sect of the Nizari Ismaili Shi'i
  • Mamluks
  • The khanjar blade vs. the sica
  • Richard I of England, a.k.a. Richard the Lionhearted, a.k.a. Prince Yes or No
  • An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, a.k.a. Saladin
  • The Ayyubid purge of the Fatimid book collections of Al-Azhar
  • Moshe ben-Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides

That's a sica

That's a khanjar

I will probably do none of them justice, because you know...I'm a sloppy wiseass. That being said, I did uncover some interesting primary sources. What is a "primary source," you ask, as opposed to say, a secondary or even tertiary source?

A primary source is a document (or other informational artifact) from the time period you're studying - like, for instance, a letter from Queen Eleanor of England to Pope Alexander III. A secondary source is an analysis or distillation or retelling of primary sources, like a history textbook. As an author, I love primary sources. You are guaranteed to pick up details about how people thought, lived, and spoke that most historians neglect. Weird turns of phrase, odd biases, the tiny details that convey, if not fact, then verisimilitude.

A page of the Domesday Book: Hic Annotantur Tenentes Terras in Devenescire...
Turns out there are some neat primary sources on the Interwebz. Here are some of my current faves:
  1. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project: Letters and documents from dozens of different places and time periods. Translated, but otherwise unfiltered. My personal favorite? Liutprand of Cremona's Report of His Mission to Constantinople
  2. The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela
  3. The Book of Games of Alphonso X: Exactly what it sounds like. Descriptions of games they played in Alphonso's time
  4. Le Viandier by Taillevent: A cookbook from 15th Century France.
  5. What Befell Sultan Yûsuf  by Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad: A chronicle of Saladin written by one of his close companions, and based on personal experience
  6. Maimonides' Letter to Yemen
  7. The Domesday Book - If for nothing else, a terrific source of Anglo-Saxon names. Guthwalda, anyone?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

James Comey Actually Made a Plantagenet/Becket Reference!


Becket gets a message from Henry
"Will nobody rid me of this troublesome priest!?" screamed Henry II of England within earshot of four of his most eager minions - and that was all she wrote for Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry's hench-knights rode to Canterbury Cathedral and gave the soon-to-be-saint a case of terminal steel poisoning.
And now James Comey brings it up to describe 45's Mafia-style weasel wording.
Color me impressed!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Dog of Woo-Hoo!

I just sold my story, A Dog of Wu, to Fantasy & Science Fiction, the top speculative fiction magazine in the US. Let's all do our happy dance!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Aside from roads, bridges, and navies  (and health care - wouldn't health care be nice?) you get stuff like this.
Enjoy!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Heinlein on Guns

A lot of folks know Robert Heinlein as one of the Big Names of the Golden Age of Science Fiction - from the 1930s to the 1950s. Some folks know his later, creepier stuff. And every Randian Objectivist nerd knows him as the guy who articulated their anarcho-libertarian power fantasies better than they ever could, from TANSTAAFL ("there ain't no such thing as a free lunch") to his famous dictum on guns: An armed society is a polite society. 

That's a quote from one of Heinlein's pulpier works, Beyond This Horizon, in 1942. It's gained enormous currency among gun enthusiasts since then, because it brilliantly encapsulates what might seem to be an obvious train of thought: People won't gratuitously insult, assault, or cheat someone who can kill them.

And that's too bad, for a couple of reasons.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

For International Women's Day: The First Alchemist

For my readers who are aficionados of the history of myth and magic:

Mary the Jewess, aka Mary the Prophetess, is considered the first true alchemist of the Western World. None of her writings survive, but her works, sayings, and inventions have been preserved in works by alchemists from al-Nadim to Zosimos.

Mary - probably Miriam, originally - lived sometime during the First to Third Centuries of the Common Era. Zosimos of Panopolis, a Fourth Century Gnostic Christian, is the first writer to mention her that we know of. 

She was said to be able to make caput mortuum (a purple dye that was a big deal among alchemists) and to have invented several pieces of alchemical equipment, some of which are still in use today - the bain-marie double-boiler, for instance. 

She also left us the following cryptic comments (everything the alchemists said was cryptic - go with it):

Join the male with the female, and you will find what is sought; and
One becomes Two, Two becomes Three, and out of the Third comes the One as the Fourth.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Sic Transit Shepard Mundi

Dave Shephard, one of my instructors at USC, passed away recently. One of the good things about USC's film program was the instructors who were not only professionals, but enthusiasts: Tom Holman, who invented the THX sound system and genuinely loved everything audio. Bruce Block, who broke down visual composition in a way that actually made sense to non-graphics laymen. And Dave Shephard, THE film historian.

To my knowledge, David had no advanced degrees, but he was responsible for saving a significant percentage of all the movies that had ever been shot on nitrate stock, transferring them to safety stock and then to video. I remember delivering a paper to him at his lab and getting a brief tour of the facility, from the safety locker to the liquid gate printer to a Steenbeck that had been used by Fellini. "Enthusiast" is the best word for him - a man who truly loved his work. He will be greatly missed.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Friday, January 6, 2017

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Best Writing Software Ever!

I've been asked a lot...a LOT...which writing software to use. Final Draft? Scrivener? Dramatica?
Obviously, a lot depends on what you're looking for. If you're a screenwriter, film or television, Final Draft is the industry standard. That's mostly because of its automatic formatting and the ease of file sharing: screenplay format is an epic pain in the ass, and it's hard to make it look professional unless you've been doing it for a while...or (of course) you have Final Draft.

Then there's Scrivener, which lets you write your manuscript but

Monday, January 2, 2017

It's Medieval Recipe Day - A Winter Stew

As per usual, we're taking a recipe from that 15th Century cookbook, Le Viandier (the James Prescott translation). It's winter, so let's try a meat pottage.

Meat Rosy (Pottage)

Crush unpeeled almonds and steep them in beef broth, wine, and verjuice (a sour grape vinegar).
Strain it through a cheesecloth.
Cook breasts of veal and chicken together with some good piece of beef and brown it in lard. 
Add fine cinnamon (not a lot), white Mecca ginger, and "Small Spices" like grains of paradise, cloves, and long pepper. 
For color, use turnsole or alkanets. 
Soak in warm water for three or four hours. 
Afterwards put it in your pot, and stir vigorously after the pottage has boiled until it's rose-colored.

Glossary:
Turnsole = a dye from the plant chrozophora tinctoria.
Alkanets = a red dye plant
Long pepper = a pepper that's similar to, but hotter than, our standard black pepper
Verjuice = the juice of unripe grapes or other sour fruit, used as we would use some flavored vinegars today

Since this was a pottage - a thick soup or stew - we can assume the meat was prepared with grains and vegetables.

And as always, if you try this...let me know how it turns out!