Friday, October 8, 2021

NEWS! NEWS!


If I haven't told you already: My short story, Charioteer,  will be published in Analog next year - the Jan/Feb 2022 issue. You'll find it at Barnes & Noble, any good newsstand, or digitally.

Here's the link.



Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Super-Important Thoughts About Foundation So Far


This is not Isaac Asimov's Foundation

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The original trilogy is clunky. Most of it is characters plotting at one another in rooms of different sizes: Courtrooms, boardrooms, groundcars, abandoned factories, starship cockpits, hotel rooms, apartments. It's often hard to conjure up an image of what's happening, because Asimov provides so little descriptive detail. Until Foundation and Empire, its characters are mostly default white guys. Asimov's prose is workmanlike, but nothing exceptional (although he does have a gift for the occasional character detail - the "pudgy hands" of a man feigning murderous outrage, for instance).

So why is the trilogy considered a masterpiece? 

1. It starts with a grand idea, and sticks with it. For the first one and a half novels, everything is about how Seldon's Plan works out its psychohistorical necessity. In the second half, everything is about restoring the plan after it's fractured by a literally unforeseeable event.

2. It works beautifully in terms of the nuts and bolts of craft. There are no idle characters or story elements in these books: Every character has a purpose, and they work ruthlessly toward it without hesitating or whining or pondering their place in the cosmos. If you're looking for stories that drive forward like clockwork, Foundation is your SF go-to.

 3. It conveys a sense of historical time. Better, it has the audacity to try to convey a sense of historical time.  

So far, AppleTV's Foundation is none of this.

Positives: When it comes to lush physicality, Asimov was lacking, but the TV series is not. In fact, the opening episodes are the most gorgeous SF I've seen on TV in...maybe ever. The decadence of the Empire is laid out on the screen in saturated red, blue, and black with glittering gold and silver highlights. Architecture overwhelms people. Every space, every costume, is crammed with detail. It has grandeur. Also, the people of the Empire are all the colors of the rainbow, and not uniformly male.There are some interesting ideas that could have been the bases of their own series [like the "genetic dynasty" of the Cleons].

BUT...

The TV series seems to have abandoned the fundamental rules of psychohistory...and those are the core of the trilogy. Real quickly, here they are:

1. Psychohistory can predict the future, but only the futures of large groups, like nations, empires, planets, or galaxies. The larger the group, the more accurate the prediction.

2. Psychohistorical predictions don't work if those groups are aware of the laws of psychohistory or the predictions themselves.

3. As a corollary of #1, the actions of individuals almost never have much impact on major events. The best they can do is facilitate matters that are already inevitable. 

Anyone who has tried to write a story can see the trouble with these laws when it comes to narrative: If a character's actions don't matter in the grand scheme, why should a reader care? Asimov finessed the problem with stories in which the protagonists had foreground goals, while larger events took place in the background; with stories in which the characters' actions were full of derring-do but proved fruitless; with stories in which the characters take decisive action while fretting about the consequences of knowing too much about the future; with stories...well, you get the idea. He was brilliant at squaring the circle, and that's part of the fun of the trilogy.

The TV writers are less audacious, less interested in the idea, and more driven by Hollywood tropes that have been used a lot. In the TV version, psychohistory has devolved from a mathematical tool to an oracular power, a magical way of predicting the future. There is still lip service paid to the idea of math, but characters "see" the future basically by staring into a cloud of light motes which is meant to represent a mathematical display. [In the books, this "Prime Radiant" is just a convenient way of portraying complex formulae, the 20th century foreshadowing of a PowerPoint deck; on the TV show, it's portrayed as a semi-magical scrying device that can only rarely be activated except by those who are worthy.] At one point one character activates the display and asks her daughter if she can understand it. The daughter says "no," but this should never have even been a question: At least in theory, anyone with sufficient mathematical training should be able to figure it out, and no one without training should be able to. It's math, not magic; you shouldn't have to be a Chosen One to make it work...but you can see the Chosen One trope tugging at the writers' subconscious all the time.

They've also taken one of my favorite characters and changed him from a cigar-chewing pacifist politician based on Fiorello LaGuardia to a moody young "warden" with an enormous gun who knows she is "different" from the other settlers. Sure, not a Chosen One at all.

The series has not veered irreparably away from the Seldon Plan yet. But the primary indices don't look great.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Facebook Is Down

Put away the cigarette 

Breathe deep

Perhaps you do not need the nicotine

Sunday, October 3, 2021

The Wider World of Historical Fiction


What do we want when we read fantasy? For a lot of readers, it's the chance to identify with powerful characters. Wizards, warriors, angels, aristocrats, vampires, demigods, one of the most popular tropes in fantasy is the powerful figure with a deadly flaw. We love characters who may have something to fear, but who are nevertheless able to influence the world around them in ways that are often impossible for us.

For others, fantasy is comfort reading. They want the tropes they grew up with, familiar settings and characters: school stories, noble elves, adventurers in a dungeon.

But there's another, more interesting urge: The desire for a wider world, a bigger, stranger place than our familiar neighborhood. The chance to explore. Places that are weird but make sense, that have stories to tell other than the ones we've heard. You can fill that urge with good historical fiction. Sometimes, in fact, it fulfills that need better than fantasy.

Consider the opening lines of Mary Renault's novel The Last of the Wine: When I was a young boy, if I was sick or in trouble, or had been beaten at school, I used to remember that on the day I was born my father had wanted to kill me. You will say there is nothing out of the way in this. Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose...

"Yet I daresay it is less common than you might suppose." Did that grab your attention? It's not there just for shock value. It's a fair representation of an attitude common to an entire society. Renault goes on to build out that society, a genuinely civilized world with values profoundly different from our own - the world of Classical Athens, at the height of the Peloponnesian War. 

In the next chapter, the protagonist Alexias has a religious experience while standing in the temple of Athena Parthenos, the Parthenon, and looking out over his city. Renault describes in gorgeous, goose-pimple prose a moment of worship that no Christian or Muslim would ever have; an experience that is completely pagan, but no less valid for that.

Harlan Ellison once said, "Reading is about drinking strange wine" - finding the stuff that challenges you, that is alien to your experience, that opens your eyes. I write fantasy and science fiction, but I'm telling you, you don't have to read SFF to drink strange wine.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Here's a Thanksgifting. You're Welcome!

First published in 1970, The Eye of Argon may be the worst fantasy novella ever written. For decades, reading it out loud was a convention ritual across the United States - a ritual so cherished, there are even rules for it. It is what Dino de Laurentiis would have used to make barbarian movies if Conan hadn't been available.

Read, and enjoy, and never say I don't get you anything...


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Thanksgiving

I never liked the Pilgrim stuff for Thanksgiving. It puts a pretty glaze on a dark portrait: Tisquantum [Squanto] was one of the few survivors of a plague unknowingly introduced by the Spanish; the Pilgrims adhered to a brand of Protestantism that implied the wealthy and powerful were favored by God; and there was a lot of starvation going on. 

Meanwhile, 250 miles to the south, New Amsterdam was already a going concern and they could have landed there, prepared, and headed north...but nooooo, the Dutch weren't pure enough for the Pilgrims. Neither were the English. Neither was anyone, really. So half of them died in the first year, and they created a government so restrictive it forced people to pilgrimage away from that community and invent stuffies and coffee milk.

However, there's no reason in the world not to have a holiday just dedicated to being thankful and hanging out with friends and family. That's a pretty darned good holiday, in my opinion. So that's my Thanksgiving, and it can be yours, too.

Also, after you've cooked the turkey, dip a cheesecloth into the drippings and drape it over the bird while it stays warm in the oven. Keeps it moist.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Election Thoughts on Friday, November 6, 2020

I had a friend in Los Angeles. Long time friend. I was there when his mom passed away. And somewhere, somehow, he got Fox-washed and then Trumpified. Looking back, I can trace the process, but that's for another post, maybe. 

He is one of those "I will still be your friend whether you vote for Trump or Biden" people. But I haven't spoken to him since December 2015...because, well, don't do me any favors, buddy. When you say that, you imply that Biden and Trump are both just politicians. That they're equal somehow. 

But they're not. Biden is a politician. Trump is a grifter, a liar, a rapist, and a sociopath. None of that is my opinion; all of it is fact, either admitted by Trump himself, proven in a court of law, or widely diagnosed by America's medical community.

So I will not accept that "difference of opinion" trivializing okey-doke. And once more, I go to Lord of Light:

"So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?"

"You choose the wrong adjective."

"You've already used up all the others."

"It appears that our minds will never meet on this subject."

 "If someone asks you why you're oppressing a world and you reply with a lot of poetic crap, no. I guess there can't be a meeting of minds."

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Election Thoughts on Wednesday, November 3, 2020

Whenever an important outcome is unclear, I'm reminded of Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. On a theocratic colony world, a revolutionary named Sam has taken on the identity of the Buddha Siddhartha to oppose the rulers who have styled themselves on the Hindu pantheon. At one point there is a battle that seems to be a climactic defeat...but it ends with this passage:

"The Buddha has gone to nirvana," said Brahma. "Preach it in the Temples! Sing it in the streets! Glorious was his passing! He has reformed the old religion, and we are now better than ever before! Let all who think otherwise remember Keenset!"

This thing was done also.

But they never found Lord Kubera.

The demons were free.

Nirriti was strong.

And elsewhere in the world there were those who remembered bifocal glassees and toilets that flushed, petroleum chemistry and internal combustion engines, and the day the sun had hidden its face from the justice of Heaven.

Vishnu was heard to say that the wilderness had come into the City at last.
 
As Berra, the great yogi, once said - "It ain't over till it's over."

Friday, September 11, 2020

September 11 [CW: Language, imagery]

I will not show the Towers today. Here's a pic from the city Trumpo says is "in flames"
A lot of people want to commemorate 9/11 today. I won't deny them that. I won't downplay it. But - as a New York City native - I wanted to give you a little perspective.

For most people 9/11 is a disaster.  But for some people, it's porn. I don't mean they're fapping to falling bodies. I mean it's an opportunity for them to get weepy or to get angry without any personal loss. It's as real to them as John Wick's dog or Inigo Montoya's father - no more, no less. And politicians use it for their personal gain.

I remember when the 9/11 anti-terror funding bill was pushed through to give the states money to protect themselves against terrorism...BECAUSE EVERY STATE GOT AN EQUAL SHARE. Wyoming, population 492,976, got the same amount of money as New York - the center of the tragedy, with a population of 19 million and more high-profile terrorist targets than any other state in the union.

I remember the same politicians, who wept crocodile tears about the tragedy of 9/11 at every hoedown and country fair, fighting tooth and nail, year after year, against the reauthorizations of the Zadroga Bill - which mandates lifesaving money for the healthcare of the 9/11 responders who suffered permanent, chronic damage from smoke inhalation, injury, and exposure to toxic chemicals in the poisonous smoke of the towers.  [In case you're curious, here are three of them: Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz.]

And I remember those politicians using it as an excuse to invade two countries that had nothing to do with 9/11. [George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Ari Fleischer, David Frum, Karl Rove.]

 Now I'm watching the GOP mouth platitudes about 9/11 again, and I have to ask - which of them will actually do something about what's happening right now - something that has already killed sixty times as many Americans as al-Qaeda? Because they have done nothing...

...except try to distract us.

 


Monday, September 7, 2020

Research for "Hero's Army," the Sequel to "The Wrong Sword"


Right now, I'm at a scene in which my protagonist, Henry the Rat, is about to enter the city that everyone covets but him - Jerusalem. 

This is Jerusalem at a very specific time in history. It's 1191, the tail end of the Third Crusade, in which Saladin, sultan of Syria and Egypt, faced against Richard I, King of England. Saladin had wrested Jerusalem from Crusader control four years before and captured, exiled, or ransomed the entire Latin-speaking Christian population [as opposed to Greek Christians - Byzantines and others - who were allowed to remain]. It should be noted that when he allowed the Crusaders/Franks/Latins to surrender, Saladin was being considerably more merciful than the Crusaders had been 88 years before, when they had massacred Moslems and Jews until the "streets were knee-high in blood."

The big problem for a writer is that the histories of the time - at least, those available in English - are good when it comes to politics, armies, and trade, but less so when it comes to descriptions of daily life. You want to be able to describe the sights, the smells, the sounds. What people are wearing, how they're talking, what they're eating. How the streets are built, how the houses are constructed and why.

Basic histories tell you none of this. So you go looking for telling details - bits you can use to suggest a bigger picture - in primary sources: documents and artifacts created at the time.

Which is to say I found two tonight. YAY!

1. The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela - tbh, I already knew about this, but I'd forgotten it. Benjamin was an Andalusian Jew who kept a journal of his travels across the Mediterranean and in the Levant. Full of little tidbits, like the story of two workmen who accidentally uncover the tomb of King David, which reads like the Tale of Aladdin.


2. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition "Jerusalem 1000 to 1400: Every People Under Heaven." Because, you know, ARTIFACTS.