Monthly Archives: December 2008

Question for a Saturday

I’m spending the day away from teh Intarnets, but I couldn’t leave you without anything to do, so here’s a holiday-themed question:

When you were a kid, what thing did you really want for Christmas or [insert appropriate seasonal gift giving holiday here] that you never got? And as an adult, did you get it for yourself, just because you could?

Share in the comments, folks.

Zoe’s Tale Excerpt

Hey, did you know that the entire prologue chapter to Zoe’s Tale is available for you to read over at the Tor/Forge site? I completely forgot about it, myself, because I guess I’m an idjit that way. If you haven’t picked up ZT yet — ahem, ahem – then this is a good way to make your introductions.

I’ve had folks ask me why I put in a prologue chapter for ZT, rather than starting at Chapter One, as I’ve done with other books. The answer actually had to do with the nature of the novel itself — it’s meant to be a standalone novel for folks who have not had previous contact with the universe (i.e., younger readers) and a continuation novel for those who have (i.e., the adult readers of the series). The new readers needed introductions to some of the major characters from the previous books (John, Jane, Savitri, Hickory and Dickory, etc), but I didn’t want the previous readers to get bored when these characters that they already knew came onto page.

The best way to solve both problems: A prologue, which both gets the new folks up to speed on all the major characters while at the same time serving notice to the previous readers that this story, while covering the same timeframe as The Last Colony, was still a wholly new view of events, and that the book will be focused on characters (Zoë, Gretchen, Enzo and Magdy) they hadn’t spent time with before. These are the things you think about when you’re putting together a book that’s supposed to do and be different things for different audiences.

And, of course, if I pulled it off, none of this will be obvious, since you’ll simply be enjoying reading the words and getting to know the characters, and getting sucked into the story. Except now I just told you. Well, hopefully you’ll still get caught up with the reading anyway.

Two Possible Explanations

Every picture tells a story. Here’s the story of this one:

They tell me that right up to the end, Santa couldn’t understand why the elves, whom he had always sternly but in his mind fairly treated, had turned on him so. Hadn’t the hovels of mud and seal sinew that he gave them kept them out of the snow, even if the hovels were not heated, and faced into the wind? If the gruel he fed them once daily was watery and thin, was it not still sustenance? Did he not instruct his overseers and factory goons to whip the workers only when they had fallen behind in production, or were insolent, or spoke during work hours? These were not reasons for rebellion! These were examples of his benevolent generosity.

As the elves roughly stood him up against the wall of the factory, Santa resolved that once his reindeer shock troops arrived to rescue him, the time of his generosity was over. The problem was not that he had treated the elves too harshly, it was that he had not treated them harshly enough. He had made the mistake in assuming the elves could be treated like people, instead of the small, pointy-eared beasts of labor that they were. It was not a mistake he would make again. After his reindeer henchmen arrived, he would make an example of several of the elves, starting with their spokesperson, the elf girl. Yes, yes, she would be the first to go. He smiled at the thought.

Then his smile faltered as this same elf girl stepped in front of the firing squad, accompanied by a familiar, quadruped shape.

“Rudolph!” Santa blurted out.

The reindeer smiled cruelly. “Viva la Elfvolution, Santa,” he said.

Santa stared blankly into his traitorous lieutenant’s red, glowing nose as Rudolph and the elf girl stepped back behind the line. Somewhere in the far, deep distance, he heard the sliding clicks of the firing squad readying their weapons.

Alternately, it’s a picture of my kid at her school’s Christmas choral concert, wearing a festive hat.

Either works, you know?

Come See Me and Mary Robinette Kowal in San Francisco, 1/16/09

An announcement for people living in or near the San Francisco area: On Friday, January 16, at 7pm, at Borderlands Books, 2008 Campbell Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal and I will be appearing together at for something we’re calling “John and Mary Show You Their Shorts” — Which is to say, we’ll be reading from a selection of mostly-humorous short pieces, for your delight and edification.

Mary and I have read together before, most recently at Denvention (which is where we picked up the hardware you see us with above), and we had waaaay too much fun, as did our audience, by all accounts. So we figured, heck, why not do it again? And afterwards we’ll hang about a bit to chat and autograph things you want autographed and so on and etc.

Basically, Mary and I are planning to have a hell of a good time, and so hope you’ll be there to have a hell of a good time with us. Also, in my case, it’s my only currently scheduled public appearance in the San Francisco area for 2009. So if you want to see me, this is the time and place to do it. So, remember: Friday, January 16, at 7pm, at Borderlands Books, in San Francisco. Can’t wait to see you there.

The Big Idea: Nick Stone

Personally, I’m not much for fortune-telling… and yet even lil’ ol’ rational me has been known to look at the fortune inside a fortune cookie and be amazed that it contains the right words at the right time. Is it coincidence? An example of the human mind being able to read way too much into very general words? Proof that the universe speaks to us through cookies? Got me. I personally suspect one of the first two, although the third, to be quite honest, would amuse me.

Nick Stone knows whereof I speak: His latest crime thriller, The King of Swords, features tarot and tarot cards as instrumental elements of his book — and as you’ll read, his use of the cards is not accidental. My prediction (based on having read the piece, not psychic ability) is that you’ll find Stone’s Big Idea here very interesting, indeed.

NICK STONE

I suppose I was fated to this, to writing a novel about tarot cards. My novel is called King of Swords. The King of Swords is a tarot card denoting a man in authority. He can either be your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on the circumstances – and where the card appears. In my novel, it turns up in people’s stomachs.

*

I got my first tarot reading in 1985, when I was eighteen. Most people who get their fortunes read are in some kind of trouble, usually emotional – on the receiving end of bad break ups, or on the shelf with end in sight. That wasn’t me. I was simply curious about the things. Jane, a friend of mine at school, had talked to me about how she got her cards read every six months, and how accurate the readings were. I was deeply sceptical. Wouldn’t someone she saw every six months remember at least some aspects of her life, and use that casual intimacy to spin any old portentous yarn? No, she insisted, her reader was the real deal. Her reader had told her she was gong to marry “a foreigner”. At the time she was giving me weighty glances. I guess I qualified as a foreigner – part-Haitian, brown skinned. It never got beyond that between us, the suspense dots, but Jane did indeed marry a foreigner. An American she met in London.

My first reading was a non-event. It cost me £8.00 (which Jane told me was way too much – her reader charged her a fraction of that). I actually suspected the reader was a fraud, or, at best, someone who’d deluded themselves they had powers. (Those are, from experience, the two categories phoney readers fall into – the con artists who overcharge you, and the borderline mentally ill who mistake treatable schizophrenia for psychic insight – of these, more later). She was told me her name was Mary Elizabeth, but I knew it wasn’t. I’d spied an overdue phonebill on her mantelpiece which said her name was Sharon Brandt. I can’t remember the exact particulars of the reading, but two things she told me have stuck – she said I was going to travel, and that I would marry “a dark skinned beauty”.

I did travel after that. I spent eighteen months in what was then West Berlin. I did meet a “dark skinned beauty” (a Brazilian) and, for a while I seriously contemplated following her back to LA.

I didn’t have another reading for about seven years. In that time I taught myself to read the cards. It’s not that difficult. Once you learn the meanings of the things, the kind of reader you are depends, to a certain degree, on how well you can tell a story. Writers would make brilliant tarot readers.

I used to read the cards for friends. I never charged a penny. I was told that it was fundamentally wrong to charge a red cent for a reading, because – a reader told me – like water, psychic powers are a free gift from God, and meant to be used to help others. A reader is only meant to charge the bare essentials. If a reader charges you more than $10 – $20, I promise you they’re fakes.

My readings were pretty accurate. Although I knew the people I was reading for, I’d tell them things I couldn’t possibly have known. I got a lot of repeat business.

I’ve long stopped reading the cards out of respect for my wife (yes, she’s “a dark skinned beauty” – and there’s more to tell). She’s from a Jamaican Baptist family. Her grandfather was a preacher. The cards creeped her out after I gave her a reading which came true.

Am I psychic? Not that I know of. How then did I predict my friends’s fortunes with such accuracy? I haven’t got a clue. I tell myself they were lucky guesses, based on my interpretations of what I had before me. But, to paraphrase Dean Martin, how lucky can one amateur reader be?

A lot of people think fortune telling is bullshit. I don’t blame them. The industry is full of bullshitters – greedy opportunists who prey on the desperate and lonely. It’s a really easy con too. The desperate and lonely always need someone to talk to. All you need to be a good fake reader is good listening skills, an attention to detail and a passable bedside manner. You’ll make a fortune. I’ve had my fortune read by such people. Some of them don’t even know the basic meanings of the cards. I’ve always had fun turning the tables on them. They never see me coming.

One of the best fortune tellers I met was in Haiti. There, fortune telling is rife. My mother used to tell me stories of using ouija boards in the school playground, of people who could tell you your fate by simply looking into a glass of water.

The man I met in 1996 was a remarkable character. He was my late great uncle Fritz’s soothsayer. Fritz set me to see him because he insisted that I wasn’t going to stay in Haiti (as I’d planned to), but that I was going to go back to England because I had serious work to do. Books to write, he’d specified. Although, at the time, I wanted to write, I was having problems turning dream into reality. A lack of focus, a lack of environmental stability.

The man was called Ernest Dupoux. He was in his nineties, frail, stooped and rheumy eyed. He lived in a remote shack. To my surprise he smoked very heavily. Haitian cigarettes (called Comme Il Faut (As it must be)) are incredibly strong – straight from the pipe car exhaust coupled with a donkey kick in the chest strong . Ernest sat me down and without gimmickry (cards, crystals, runes, chicken entrails), lights, incense or trickery basically told me how my entire life would turn out. When he’d finished he told me I’d forget everything he said, and would only remember the details of our meeting in increments, after significant events came to pass.

I’ll spare you the details, but for this. He told me I’d meet my future wife in “May”. He also added that I’d know what she would look like, because I’d see her in a dream the day before. The day I met my wife (on May 22nd 1999), I dreamt that I was running towards a beautiful, dark haired, caramel skinned woman in a beige overcoat. That was indeed the woman I met the following day. I kid you not.

And yes, he told me I’d write.

—-

The King of Swords: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Nick Stone’s Web site here. Read an excerpt from The King of Swords here.

The Best Science Fiction Film of 2008

I tell which it is in my AMC column this week. And while the picture above probably gives it away, it doesn’t give away the films I also nominate for the most overrated SF film of the year, or the one I found the most personally satisfying, or the one I feel bad about being happy it totally flopped — all of which I also discuss over there. So check it out, and be sure to leave your thoughts for the best/most/whatever SF films of ’08 in the comments.

Last Bit of Self-Pimpery For the Season

We’re now getting to the point where if you want to take advantage of my offer to sign and personalize books for you through my local bookseller, and have them get to you near the actual Christmas holiday, you need to put those orders in, oh, now (i.e., today and tomorrow). I’ll still be signing books after that (through the rest of 2008, in fact), but I expect most people want to time their gifts to the holidays. So: Hurry, time is a-tick, tick, tickin’.

How You Know It’s Not Santa

Hey, kids! This time of year you see lots of portly men with beards and red suits claiming to be the one and only Santa Claus. But as we all know, only one of them can possibly be telling the truth. How can you tell the real one from all the fakes? The following list should help you spot the impostors. Print it out and keep it with you at all times!

You know he’s not Santa if:

• Instead of a booming “Ho Ho Ho,” his laugh is a high-pitched, asthmatic wheeze.

• When you ask him if he’s really Santa, he says “the script tells me to say ‘yes.’”

• His beard smells like your Uncle Dave’s glaucoma medicine.

• He says that the names of his reindeer are Randolph, Datsun, Ketchup, Grumpy, Sneezy and Johnnie Walker Red.

• He’s unamused when you note that usually, when an older gentleman starts putting random children on his lap, the police make him wear a tracking device.

• He explains he’s not really fat, he just has cirrhosis.

• He says that he doesn’t live at the North Pole anymore because that bitch Mrs. Claus got the house in the divorce settlement.

• He keeps tipping his cigarette ashes into the Salvation Army pot.

• His elves have prison tattoos.

• He asks if you’d like to try some of his Prancer jerky.

• His jingly red cap falls off, revealing a yarmulke.

• He asks for your address, the location of your tree, whether your dad has a gun, and then reminds you to leave a door unlocked on Christmas Eve, because he’s gotten too big to slide down chimneys.

• He tells your mom that if she comes back around after the mall closes, he’ll be happy to stuff her stocking.

• Santa’s suit is made of scarlet leather, it’s missing its butt, and he’s being led around on a leash by a shirtless elf.

• He describes the Baby Jesus as “the competition.”

• He says that the reason he can visit the homes of all the good kids in the world in one night is that most kids are in fact little goddamn brats.

• Santa’s beard is fake, and so is his leg.

• You see him in the parking lot and discover his “sleigh” is really a ’93 Toyota Corolla.

• He burps in your face and calls it a “jingle belch.”

• Instead of saying “Merry Christmas” he shouts “Happy Life Day” and then screams like a Wookiee.

Stupid

Detroit newspapers no longer to have daily delivery. Because nothing makes people want to subscribe to a newspaper more than the idea that not even the people at the paper think what they’ve got to sell is worth reading on a daily basis.

At the very least, if the two newspapers in the city are going to decide not to deliver daily, couldn’t they have decided to deliver every other day, and have one paper deliver on the day the other doesn’t?

Gaaaah. So stupid. Newspapers used to be where smart people worked. I wonder what happened to that.

Yar! This Be An Open Pimp Thread, Arrrrgh

Jeff VanderMeer sends along to me a video promoting his ginchy new pirate anthology Fast Ships, Black Sails, featuring contributions by Naomi Novik, Garth Nix, Elizabeth Bear and tons of other writers you know you like even if you haven’t read them yet, and I thought, well, what better way to introduce an Open Pimp thread, for people to promote their work and the work of others, right before Christmas?

So: If ye be having a project of interest, or have the knowin’ of such a project, put it into the comment thread below, so others here can be findin’ out about it, arrrrrr. As usual (and to break from the pirate speak, arrr), feel free to put in links, but remember more than three links in a post will punt the comment into the moderation queue. Don’t panic if that happens; I’ll be going through to free comments on a regular basis.

Now, avast! Ye scurvy dogs! Be ye now promoting yersselfs and others! Yaaaaaargh!

When a Power List Isn’t

Lots of mail from people who are asking what my opinion is of the io9 “Power List” of science fiction, and my opinion is, basically, that it’s the sort of list you put out when it’s the end of the year, and you need a list to bring a lot of attention to your site, i.e., a list tuned more for an argument than for reason. And that’s fine; io9 needs to justify its existence to its bean-counting overlords on a daily basis, and this list does its function as an eyeball magnet.

But it doesn’t particularly mean the list is accurate, particularly when it comes to detailing who actually has power in science fiction, and ranking them accordingly. If that was indeed the intent, as the headline implies and the numbered list structure suggests, the word I’d use for the list is: laughable.

Here are who the most powerful people in science fiction actually are, in no particular order, and with the understanding this is an incomplete accounting: Dave Howe and Bonnie Hammer (Sci Fi Cable Network), Gabe Newell (Valve Software), Tom Doherty and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor Books), Avi Arad and Kevin Feige (Marvel Comics/Marvel Studio), George Lucas (George Lucas), and the various studio heads about and around Hollywood.

They are powerful because they have the ability to say “yes” — to spend money in their respective fields to get things done and also to exert influence on how those things get done and also to influence how others get things done in the future. Arguing which among these has more power is a chump bet, since “science fiction” is at the end of the day a diffuse field with lots of contingent dependencies. I could, for example, give you a cogent argument that Tom Doherty and George Lucas are equally powerful and influential in “science fiction,” but in the real world one of them is a billionaire who can pay for a series of movies and television episodes out of his own pocket, and the other one isn’t. Comparing power between the literary and cinematic arms of science fiction, if nothing else, reminds one of the very large money gap between the various media arms of science fiction. But that’s a topic for an entirely different article.

The problem with putting out a list of who is genuinely powerful in science fiction is that the list is boring because a) it’s static, since who has power won’t change wildly from year to year and b) by and large what these powerful people generally do isn’t interesting, because what they generally do is give people money and say “do that thing you do.” Bonnie Hammer has been at the head of Sci Fi in one way or another for nearly a decade; Gabe Newell has run Valve for longer than that; Tom Doherty founded Tor in 1980 and has been publisher since. So if we were to do this list annually, you’d see how little it changes, and why you might nod off writing this list, or reading it, every year. That’s not going to get eyeballs. To get eyeballs you want a touch of glamor — such as can be offered in the dorkoidial field of sf — and you want something argumentative.

And thus, we have a list that features Kanye West and his science fictional affectations as the sixth most powerful person in science fiction this year. On this, I call complete and utter bullshit. I like me some Kanye West, and as it happens, 808s and Heartbreak is a fine album. But, io9 assertions notwitstanding, West isn’t using Autotune on it because he wants to make his voice “to make his vocals sound more computery and spacey,” he’s using it because he’s a rapper, not known for holding his notes. Cher used Autotune to make her vocal sound computery and spacey; West used it because dude can’t sing.

Likewise, I think making the argument Beyonce’s cyborg hand can be credited to West’s stylings is both going to get io9 on Beyonce’s jewelry designer’s hit list, and has the stench of correlation being confused with causation. The Daily Mail rather more convincingly argues that Beyonce’s cyborg hand should be credited to Kylie Minogue, but I’m not seeing Ms. Minogue on this power list, despite her history of dressing up like der Maschinen-Mensch from Metropolis (a look which Beyonce has also borrowed). Get West to persuade Beyonce to stuff herself into a Princess Leia bikini and then we’ll talk. In any event, if the dubious ability to make Beyonce get in touch with her geek side is what it takes to be “powerful” in science fiction, we need to ask ourselves whether there’s any value to being powerful in the field. For the sake of our own dignity, let’s just say that West doesn’t qualify as powerful in science fiction.

Now, don’t you worry about poor Kanye West, stripped as he is of mighty science fictional power; rumor is, he’s doing okay for himself. But let’s not confuse a listmaker’s desire to claim a multi-platinum musical artist for the field of science fiction with that artist actually being part of the field. A science fictional stage show and vintage drum machines do not an active involvement or influence in the genre make. I mean, hell. If we’re going by sheer volume of science fiction imagery shoved down the throats of music listeners as a legitimate criterion for inclusion into the genre, we have to claim ridiculous Guitar Hero cheese-rock sensations Dragonforce long before we get to claim West.

Denuded as the list now is of legitimate claims of power rankings (and of Kanye West), we see what the list for what it really is, which is io9 saying “these are people who we think are doing cool things in or with science fiction right now.” And as that, I’m down with this list just fine; I agree with some choices and not with others, but that’s a given. I’d still ditch the numbered format, but again, it’s not my list. I’d be wary of giving the list any particular authority other than being the opinion of io9 writers, but the io9 folks are true geekoids in the best sense, so the list isn’t complete nonsense. I just think the marketing of it is silly, and strikes me as misrepresenting what the list is actually about.

What the list’s about: shoutouts, end of the year eyeball-mongering and conversation starting. Keep that in mind and we’ll all be fine.

Entering Slow Time

Just a quick head’s up: The end of the year means kids out of school, holidays with family and friends, and for some of us, a deadline or two to be dealt with. So, expect things to be relatively slow here through the end of the year, by which I mean fewer and/or shorter postings daily. Since I expect most of you also have end of the year stuff to deal with, too, I don’t imagine this will be a huge issue.

This is not to say I absolutely won’t go on a tear and write up a whole bunch of 3,000-word posts, because, hey, I might. But if I do, it’ll be a bonus.

Anyway. Slow time on the Whatever begins… now.

Technology Updates

I’m still getting questions about how I’m doing with the netbook and with the Blackberry Storm, so for those of you who are interested, a quick update on my thoughts on both:

The netbook, which in my case is an Acer Apire One: I’m still continuing to use it and still like it very much, although time does reveal its limitations, most as a matter of form factor. At home, I use it primarily for browsing and e-mail and instant messaging; if I need to write anything of substance, however, I go either to my desktop or the Toshiba laptop (which has a fullsize keyboard and a 15″ screen). I do also continue to be aware that the size of the netbook makes it uncomfortable to do some things with; for example, while browsing with it while I’m lying down is easy, typing from a lying position is difficult because the keyboard naturally sits too low on my lap. This is probably not a horrible thing overall — the netbook if nothing else makes me very aware of my personal ergonomics while using the computer — but it’s still something to be aware of. It’s still aces for travel because it’s so damn light and I very rarely do heavy-duty writing when I travel anyway.

The only real complaint I have about it is that its wifi performance is substantially better when it’s plugged in than when it’s not; I suspect the power cord acts as an antenna. But this is a relative small complaint in the larger context of things. Overall it does well for the things I want it for, i.e., a light and small computer for travel and net access. I don’t think a netbook is a replacement for a more capable computer, unless you have tiny hands and only browse the Internet and answer e-mail. But for something to use in a hotel room or an airport, it’s gold.

The Blackberry Storm: I’m also still liking this fine, although I do have specific complaints. First, as I think I’ve noted before, I paradoxically find the “SureType” keyboard on the Storm (which puts two letters on each key and has the Storm figure out what you’re typing) much easier to use than the QWERTY layout keyboard: The qwerty board’s buttons are just too damn small and you can’t see the button when your finger’s on it, which means that you (or I, anyway) end up making far more errors and have to type more slowly. I think there’s something generally weird when the less precise keyboard ends up being the most useful. Second, the while the Storm takes reasonably good pictures (see above, of the front room Christmas tree), the camera software well and truly sucks, starting with the fact that it takes about five seconds from when you press a button to snap a picture, to when the Storm actually decides to get around to taking the picture. Really, that’s just ridiculous.

Aside from these, it’s a good phone/internet appliance, and it does what I want it to do, and I think at least some of the backlash against the Storm is probably unwarranted, and since the latest software upgrade, fixed in any event. I’ve found it particularly useful for keeping track of e-mail, which I suppose makes sense coming from Blackberry. I know some people are annoyed with it for not being an iPhone, but you know, I’m not one of them, and in any event since Apple decided that only AT&T gets to have the iPhone and I’m on Verizon (along with everyone else in my family calling plan), even if I were lusting for an iPhone, this is what I would have ended up getting anyway. I want them to fix the qwerty keyboard and the camera software; aside from that, I’m happy.

Four Links

I’m taking the day off because I have stuff to do. Also things. But mostly stuff. But to keep you occupied, four links:

First, check out Subterranean Online, if you’ve not already done so, because among other things it’s got some rockin’ new work by Cherie Priest, and audio treat by way of Alastair Reynolds, and interview with Campbell Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal, and tons of other stuff that will help you wile away your weekend.

Second, Hugo-nominated screenwriter Paul Cornell (he of Dr. Who fame) asked a bunch of his fellow sf writers, including yours truly, what their favorite Chrismas films were. The answers are here. Just in case you wanted a movie suggestion this evening.

Third, I give my shortest interview ever for Thaumatrope, a magazine for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror fiction under 140 characters, available via Twitter.

Finally, I linked to a file on Cover Freak yesterday without giving due credit, because, see, that would have ruined the surprise. But since I have no surprise to ruin here, so: Cover Freak is your one stop-shop for really interesting cover versions, arranged weekly by theme. Go visit today.

There you go. Have fun, see you all later.

Quick Reminder re: Signed, Personalized Books

I’ll be dropping into Jay & Mary’s  Book Center this weekend to do another round of signing, so remember: If you’re thinking of getting books of mine for people you like/love/are in some way obliged to give a gift to, you can get those books signed and personalized by me just by following the steps detailed here. You’ll get service with a smile, since I know Jay & Mary are happy to take your orders, and I’m happy to sign your books. Really, the book buying experience doesn’t get much better than this.

Quick Music Review: The Killers, Day and Age

The Quick Review: It’s okay. But if Brandon Flowers were any more precious, he’d have to have a tea party with stuffed animals. Also, crafting a whole song out of the question “are we human, or are we dancer?” is the sort of  pretentious nonsensery that even Seven and the Ragged Tiger-era Duran Duran would have paused at. When you’re lyrically out-opaquing Simon LeBon, it’s time to re-evaluate.

Big Shiny Moon

Last night’s full moon was bigger and brighter than most because the moon was actually closer to the Earth than it usually is, thanks to that wacky elliptical orbit it travels in. Last night it was socked in by clouds, but this morning it popped out long enough for me to grab a photo. And then it went behind the clouds again. And then it slid under the curve of the Earth. And now I’m alone. So very alone. But it was pretty while it lasted.