Monthly Archives: July 2011

New Laptop Update

People have been asking what I think of the MacBook Air I got the other day. Well, now that I lived with it for two whole days, some thoughts:

* From an industrial design standpoint, it’s hard to find much fault with the physical build of the computer. The whole seamless aluminum unibody construction is esthetically nice and sturdy feeling, and the screen is sufficiently roomy thanks to size and resolution that I don’t feel cramped or unable to access anything on the screen. The processing guts are also chugging along fine, although I paid extra for the i7 processor and the extra large hard drive, so factor that in. As for no optical drive, well, I have an optical drive on my desktop computer and I’ve used it once in the last six months, to transfer some pictures on a CD. So it’s not something I’m missing. The only place the computer falls down a bit is in the keyboard, the response of which is not as crisp as I’d like. But on the other hand, the lighted keys? Sweet. As expected.

Oh, one other minor complaint: The “m” on the keyboard looks like the “w” was just turned upside down. Yes, I know “m”s looks like upside down “w”s anyway, but usually the typeface makes some adjustment. This one doesn’t. It really messes with my typeface feng shui.

* As noted before, I’m not having any problems adapting to OSX Lion, because I haven’t used a Mac OS for a number of years, but have been using iOS, and because the other laptops I have are sufficient old and/or have sufficiently crappy trackpads that I never regularly bothered with multitouch gestures on them. So Lion is reasonably close to my recent Apple UI experience, and I have no conflicting multi-gesture habits to mess me up. So, good for me. What I don’t know is apparently working for me. I know some Mac folks have run in horror from the “natural scrolling” regimen that Apple has imposed on them; I hope one day they will heal from the trauma.

* I’ve had some folks ask me whether getting a Mac means that I am going to finally free myself from the shackles of Microsoft Word and embrace the creamy goodness of Scrivener. The answer is: no. I did download the trial version of Scrivener yesterday to see whether it made any more sense to me on the Mac than it did on the PC, when I was trying the beta version. In short, no, it really didn’t; it still seems designed for a writing process so far removed from mine that all I can really do with it is stare at it and wonder how people use it at all. I played with Pages briefly and it is as I remembered it from a few years ago, which is, a nice little program if you’re not doing anything very serious. So I went ahead and downloaded Word for the Mac and will probably be using it as my primary word processor on this computer as well.

And that’s my two-days-in review.

A Girl and Her Horse

Athena’s time at horse camp is now ended, but before they sent her off they had all the girls at the camp put on a little show for their parents, so we could see what the girls learned in their week there. Here is Athena with her horse, named Storm, with whom she got along famously. Now Athena’s home and I suspect is sizing up Daisy to see if she can be fitted with a saddle. That might not end well for either of them.

What I Was Waiting For All Day Long

Meet my new toy, one of the new 13-inch Macbook Airs. I bought it because I needed a fully-functional laptop, and the two that I have aren’t cutting it for me anymore. The netbook, while really handy, is ultimately just too small to do anything other than answer e-mail on; the CR-48, with the Chrome OS, is underpowered (video of any sort is choppy) and doesn’t work when there’s no Internet connection. Neither had a lighted keyboard, either, which is something I’ve been kind of lusting after for a while now. The new MacAirs have been rapturously reviewed, are now powerful enough as computers not to be merely an affectation, and have brought back the lighted keyboards. Good enough for me. I now own one.

For those Macheads among you who might crow about how I’ve now joined the dark side, two things for you to consider: one, I’ve owned Macs before (the very first computer I ever owned was a Mac SE; and I bought an iMac back in ’05 and wrote The Ghost Brigades on it) and we have both iPods and iPads around the house; two, I’ll presently be putting Windows 7 on this baby in a dual boot sort of situation. I didn’t buy this because I want to wallow in the Apple ecosystem; I bought it because it gives me the hardware specs I want at a price I can live with. Call it the practical side of me.

That said, the Lion OS seems fairly decent at this point, and it’s been long enough since I’ve worked on the Mac that all the changes in Lion that might frustrate me if I was a longtime user don’t bother me in the slightest. Even the backwards scrolling doesn’t faze me because I’ve been using the iPad. I can tell I’ll have a little bit of learning curve involved with it, but, eh, there’s a learning curve every time you get something new.

I was considering getting the 11-inch Air rather than the 13-inch, but now that I have the thing, I’m glad I went for the extra couple of inches. One of the things I very much liked about the CR-48 was the size of the screen (12 inches), which was big enough to have a decent amount of screen space and small enough not to be heavy and unwieldily. The 13-inch Air stays in that sweet spot of size/weight, and has enough computing power under the hood for me to do what I got it for (writing, some video, causal gaming).

In all, I’m pretty happy with the purchase. And I accept that between this and the Mini, the only thing standing between me and full-blown hipster bastardhood is the lack of a man bag. I can pretty much guarantee I won’t be getting one of those.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Debtpocalypse Poll

Be prepared!

My Spot Spotify Review

I got myself an invite to Spotify via Klout a week or so ago (maybe two weeks ago, I can’t remember, it’s all a haze of drugs and sex now), and have been fiddling about with it since then and am now prepared to give you my official thoughts on it.

Briefly: It’s okay but I’m not getting rid of my Rhapsody subscription.

Less briefly: The big deal with Spotify is that it’s a legal and approved way to listen to just about anything you want online, all in one place, with all sorts of sharing options, and I think that’s all to the good, and I suspect that this is how most people will use it (it’s how most people use it Europe, where it’s been chugging along for a couple of years now), with a relatively few springing for the $5 or $10 a month options, which get you portability and better sound quality, and no ads.

I’m all for people listening to music legally — musicians should be compensated for their work — so to this respect I have nothing bad to say about the service. I also like the Spotify player, which strikes me as a less obnoxious way to organize music than iTunes, which it superficially resembles. I went ahead and sprung for a paid subscription; the music sound quality is good, at least through my underwhelming desk speakers. So all that’s good.

What I find less good:

1. Lack of an obvious radio function, in which you pick a genre or artist and an on-the-fly playlist is created;

2. Spotify’s annoying tendency to fill up your play queue with autoplaying music, even if you didn’t ask it to. But wait, John, you say. Didn’t you just say you wanted a radio function? I do, but I want it in its own place, not in a place where I want to be able to manage my own musical destiny without Spotify’s software trying to “help” me by playing music I didn’t intend to be played.

3. Spotify’s apparently arbitrary musical permissions. I pulled up Sarah Harmer’s You Were Here album on Spotify the other day and it told me the first two songs weren’t cleared for playback in the US. Well, that would be news to Rhapsody, which pulled up the entire album without any problems at all.

Towards one and two, I might be missing something that will fix those problems, but then again, they should be obvious, and they’re not; I mean, I did go looking. Toward the third, hopefully those are beta glitches which will get resolved in time.

As a paid service it’s not as full-featured as Rhapsody, which is the subscription service I’ve used for years because (excepting the standalone player with a design straight from 2003) it does everything I want it to: radio, playlist management and access to a massive library of music. Other people will make cases for Napster or Mog or Rdio or whatever, I’m sure; my point is that if you’re going to pay for your online streaming music, there are currently better options than Spotify.

But, hey, as a free service? Groovy.

The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

Here at Whatever, I’ve already gone into detail about the enthusiasm I have for Mortality Bridge, the new novel from Steven Boyett, which can be summed up thusly: Fantastic reader journey, one of the best reads of 2011, go buy now or live in regret. So it’s my pleasure to have Steve here to tell you about the book in turn, and how it represented a journey of its own for him. It a reminder that some stories you have to work for… and what work means for the writer.

STEVEN R. BOYETT:

Around 1986 I was living with a startlingly talented poet named Nancy Lambert, and she made a remark about the Greek ferryman Charon as a taxi driver in Manhattan. I thought it was just the coolest idea. A couple of years later I asked her if she was going to do anything with it and she said no and I asked if she minded if I stole it from her took a crack at it. Knock yourself out, she said.

I set out to write a pure-action novel that was all chase scene, Hell and back again. Like a lot of artists I am captivated by the myth of Orpheus, the musician who travels to Hades to reclaim his wife’s soul, and that’s where I imagined I would run with Nancy’s idea. I think every novel I’ve written has started out with me thinking I’d do a pure-adrenalin adventure.

But something always happens to that outlook as I go. In this case it was thinking deeply about the romance and talent and hubris of Orpheus himself. The arrogance and daring of defying divine decree and even mortality itself. And in the telling I began to understand the commonalities of harrowings (stories of descents into Hell) and deal-with-the-devil stories. And in my mind these archetypes began to fuse. And I had a kind of mashup of Faust and Orpheus and the Inferno and the Crossroads legend of bluesman Robert Johnson.

I started thinking about the ways these stories have replayed themselves in cultures throughout history. And because one of my own tropes is to literalize metaphors, I thought, What if those stories have played out repeatedly. The same soul undergoing the same tragic beautiful adventure time after time. A man bound to the wheel of myth by who he is. The admirable courage of going ahead anyhow once he understands this and thinks perhaps his victory might be to simply break the cycle.

Now we’re talking.

Because I have a sort of science fictional approach to fantasy, I thought a lot about Hell itself. Its purpose, its geography (hadeography, really), its design, its traffic flow. Hell, I realized, is a combination of Disneyland and Dachau. Hell is an abusement park. And they’ve got you forever, so they can afford to punish you across geologic time. To pulp you under granite until it weathers away. Bodies of the damned regenerate in my Hell, so whatever they do to you injures and hurts you but can’t kill you. And because it’s their job to punish you forever, demons are bored out of their minds and starving for ways to keep their work interesting. And as I had mashed up the common archetypes of harrowings and harrowers, so I blended common elements from Greek, Roman, Medieval, Dantean, and Miltonian hadeography.

Mortality Bridge became a dark obsession. I worked on the first draft for about six years, and it simply owned me all that time. I worked harder on it than anything I have ever written. It’s disturbingly violent and very funny and the oddest combination of beautiful words about terrible things. And when it was done I knew that I had never written anything like it or read anything like it, and that it was the book I had been born to write.

I also knew that something about it wasn’t right.

==<>==

I wonder if Rodin ever looked at a block of marble and saw a figure buried there and realized that he didn’t yet have what it took to bring that shape to light. I wonder if he tried anyhow. I wonder if he went through many blocks of marble trying to attain that shape he knew was there but also knew he wasn’t ready to unearth. And I wonder if he understood that the broken attempts helped carve the way to the successful one.

When I began Mortality Bridge sometime around 1987, I was talented enough to see the figure in the stone, and young and arrogant enough not to realize that I did not yet have the chops to do that figure justice. To make it what it deserved to be. I was in fact my own musician hero Niko from the book itself — taking on something that is just too big for him, driving forward anyhow, needing to realize fundamental things about himself if he’s to have any hope of succeeding in his oddly personal yet epic Grail quest.

I remain startled by how a novel can know things about its writer that the writer hasn’t figured out.

Intermittently throughout the next fifteen years I returned to Mortality Bridge to revise it. Every time I finished, I emerged exhausted and proud — and understanding that I had just made another trial run through another block of marble. It wasn’t the story. It wasn’t the style or the prose. That’s all technique. I had more technique than I knew what to do with, literally.

What was missing, plain and simple, was something without which technique doesn’t mean a damned thing: Wisdom. Not experience but what you learn from experience. The years and struggles and victories and compromises and understandings that give you entree into these odd ghosts who haunt a page, that lend substance to their being and their circumstance.

Soon after Elegy Beach, my first novel to be published in nearly seventeen years, appeared in 2009, something in me said, It’s time. And I went back to Mortality Bridge once more. And this time I sent it off to my agent, Richard Curtis. Richard was more enthused and effusive than I have ever heard him, and that felt great. But he felt the book needed to be restructured. Through all those drafts — thirty, at a guess — the back story had been revealed in pieces as the action progressed. The novel was still colored by my original view of it as an adrenalin-fueled action-adventure. Richard suggested simply rearranging the novel chronologically. I’d considered that notion years before but rejected it — too much work, too commercial an approach, this is exactly the book I meant to write, blah blah blah. (Hubris, party of one? Hubris?) And when Richard made his suggestion I realized that not only was he dead-on right, but that I had earlier resisted the notion out of fear. Fear that I wasn’t ready to write the connective tissue and character-solidifying detail that such reorganization would entail. And now I was. That simple: I was ready. It was time.

So I rewrote Mortality Bridge one last time, and knew that it was the last time. I knew this because as I worked on it I realized that this time out I saw the figure in the stone and at last knew how to bring it out.

It’s supposed to be bad PR to play favorites with your books. I say hell with that. This is the best thing I have ever done. It’s Terry Gilliam directing Orpheus with an unlimited budget, special effects by Digital Domain, creature effects by The Jim Henson Company, a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a soundtrack by Eric Clapton, and starring Bruce Willis as Faust. I feel gratified by some of the reactions the novel has gotten, and more redeemed than anyone (including me) could possibly have known. Now when someone asks how I can justify the oxygen I’ve used up on the planet, I can point to Mortality Bridge. If it’s the last thing I ever write, I can live with that without a moment of regret. Because it’s finished. Because I became someone who could rightly bring that figure from the stone. And because at last it’s out there in the world.

Rodin himself plays a small role in Mortality Bridge. I think he was trying to tell me something.

—-

Mortality Bridge: Amazon | Subterranean Press

Read sample chapters. Listen to audio sample chapters. Visit the book site. Read Boyett’s blog.

Dear People Who Bought a Worldcon Membership

A poll especially for you!

Remember, you can vote until 11:59pm (Pacific Time) this Sunday, July 31. And you can do it online, even! SO GO DO IT. Now. Don’t make me come over there.

Done Deal

“Bush, Obama pollsters see ‘dramatic’ shift toward same-sex marriage”:

In a new polling memo intended to shape politicians’ decisions on the question of same-sex marriage, the top pollsters for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama jointly argue that support for same-sex marriage is increasingly safe political ground and will in future years begin to “dominate” the political landscape.

The pollsters, Republican Jan van Lohuizen and Democrat Joel Benenson, argue in their memo (pdf link) that support for same-sex marriage is increasing at an accelerating rate and that the shift is driven by a politically crucial group, independents…

The new memo, based on public polling, makes the case that support for same-sex marriage has “accelerated dramatically in the last 2 years” and that the future almost surely belongs to supporters of same-sex marriage.

Well, yes. Because the support for same-sex marriage is the broadest with younger people, whereas it’s the older folks who are opposed to it, so time is not on the side of the opposition. Also, because we’ve had same sex marriage in the US for seven years now, starting in 2004, and the country has not devolved into a cesspool of iniquity, no matter what you might think if you read Gawker or supermarket tabloids with any regularity. And also, because who doesn’t love Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris? No one, that’s who. No. One.

Again, this is not to suggest that same-sex marriage is coming to every state in the US anytime soon — the forces of gay panic spent a lot of money and effort sticking amendments into state constitutions to assure Adam and Steve couldn’t get hitched, so it will take an equal effort to destick them — but the trend line noted above suggests it’s a “when not if” sort of thing. I’m particularly looking forward to Ohio unsticking it. That will make me feel better about my adopted state.

Panels: They Are Not About You

Author and all-around decent person Michelle Sagara has a long post about how not to be a jerk on a science fiction convention panel (particularly if one is a new and/or self-published author), which I suggest you read if you a) ever desire to be on a science fiction convention panel and b) not be an ass when you are. As a bit of disclosure, Michelle uses me as an example of someone who gives pretty good panel, which is flattering; I do try.

If you can’t be bothered to click through and read what Michelle has to say, here’s the takeaway thing to remember:

The panel isn’t about you. Every attempt to make it about you exposes you as a bit of a desperate ass.

This is often a hard thing for new and/or self-published authors to internalize. But they should make the effort. Fact is, the audience for a panel is going to be more interested in you and your work if you say interesting things on the panel topic, are engaged with the audience and gracious with your fellow panelists, than if you build a table fort of your books and view your fellow panelists as blank ciphers wonk-wonking in Peanuts adult voices keeping you from talking about what’s really important, i.e., you and your book. I know, hard to believe, right? Yet, oddly, true.

That said, do read what Michelle has to say.

Update, 5:51pm: Can’t get the LiveJournal link above to work for you? Here’s an alternate version of the same post. Whoops, seems to be down, too. Stupid Internets!

Being Boehner

Pretty much every day is a day I wake up glad not to be John Boehner, but today is one of those days I am especially so. The man has to attempt to reason with the ignorant nihilists that comprise his Tea Party wing, go up against the President of the United States in terms of selling his vision of the debt crisis, and has to deal with the fact that his plan to solve said crisis a) has to be retooled because the Congressional Budget Office pooped all over it, b) probably won’t pass within his own party anyway, because of the aforementioned ignorant nihilists. Man, it really does suck to be John Boehner today, and I’m glad he has to do it, while I get to sit here, writing blog posts and playing video games. Hey, he wanted the job, both the one where he’s Speaker of the House, and the larger existential condition of Being Boehner. This is the gig. Have fun, John.

That’s pretty much all I have for you re: That Debt Thing today.

Update, 3:11pm: Hey, it looks like Boehner’s day might be picking up! Until the bill gets to the Senate, anyway.

Update, 5:46pm: D’oh! Maybe not. Poor Boehner.

Comic Con Thoughts

For this week’s FilmCritic.com, I look at some of the movies that were touted at this year’s San Diego Comic Con and let you know whether I felt they were awesome or… well, not awesome. How awesome is that? Pretty damn awesome. And now I’ve used my quota of the word “awesome” for the day. Awesome! Don’t forget to leave some totally awesome comments over at the FilmCritic site. Because that would be… rad.

What It’s Like to Have Me For a Dad

My daughter is at ranch camp this week — which is not a camp where everything has been covered in delicious ranch dressing but rather a camp where the campers take care of their own horse for a week — and while the camp does not allow the campers to bring electronic equipment with them, it does allow parents to send e-mails, which they will then print out and deliver to the campers. Here is the e-mail I just sent my child.

Hello, sweetheart! I thought I would drop you a note to let you know we love you and are thinking about you and hope you are having fun out there with your horses and new friends and everything.

Also, we don’t want you to worry if you hear news about super intelligent zombie badgers attacking Western Ohio. It’s totally not true. Yes, there are super-intelligent badgers. Yes, they are attacking, with their evil badger guns that shoot mini-badgers that have even smaller guns that shoot even smaller badgers. BUT THEY ARE NOT ZOMBIES, and that’s really the most important thing.

We are fine, since we (as you know) have been prepared for a super-intelligent badger attack for years. Some of your friends may have been eaten, however. Well, most of them have. In fact, all of them have and the school year has been cancelled and you will instead be tutored by a robot. It will teach you calculus and in return you will teach it how to love, and also to shoot super-intelligent badgers. That’s the deal, and I think it’s a fair one.

Oh, and when you come home, don’t tell your mother I told you about the badger thing. She doesn’t want to speak of it EVER AGAIN. It makes her a little crazy, actually; she runs around the house bellowing “DIE MUSTELID DIE!” until I give her chocolate. So don’t mention badgers, unless you have chocolate. But not dark chocolate. You know she doesn’t like that.

Anyway, to recap: Hope you’re having fun, horses, super-intelligent badgers, robots learning how to love, bellowing mom, chocolate (not dark). I think that covers it.

Oh, except: I love you and miss you, and also I love you.

Dad

And that’s what it’s like to have me as a dad. In case you were wondering.

Announcing Books Sent to Scalzi/NewBookIn Twitter Feed

So, as I have traveled and had deadlines recently, I am behind in noting which new books have arrived at my house — and with the volume of the books that are sent to me and the amount I travel, it seems unlikely that how I have been noting new book arrivals is going to allow me to catch up. The thing is, I like sharing what arrives with you folks, because it helps make you aware of books you might not otherwise know about, and I think that’s a good thing. So, that’s a conundrum.

My solution: I’m inaugurating a new Twitter feed to note the new books that come to my door, called “@NewBookIn.” It’s available both as its own Twitter feed (follow that previous link), and as a feature in the Whatever sidebar, under “Today’s Books Sent to Scalzi.” If you’re on the full version of the site, just look to the right and you’ll see it.

This works for me because it gives me a simple and quick way to log new books as they arrive and share those books with you. It works for you because a) it gives you a quick summation of what the book’s about plus a link to a bookseller to find out more, b) you can follow it either here, or on its own feed, meaning that it’s portable, which is good. Basically, whatever your busy, hectic lifestyle, I’m totally there for you, and your book-learnin’ jones.

Which books will I be noting? Basically, whatever books get sent to me that day, up to ten books a day (I don’t want to spam people’s Twitter feeds; any books left over may get bumped to the next day).  Here’s the information on how to send me books. Please note that I will as a rule prioritize books published by presses over self-published work, and that (as noted at the publicity guidelines) sending me a book is not a guarantee I will write about it.

I’ve already filled in today’s books, so check out the new Twitter feed, and feel free to follow it if you like. I guarantee you that you’ll learn about a whole bunch of books that you might not have otherwise heard of. And that’s always a good thing, for you and for authors.

The Big Idea: Chesya Burke

Titles: They can be simple. They can be difficult. They can be complex. They can be direct or mysterious. Sometimes they can be the hardest thing in an entire book to get right. But the right title can make a difference in how people see the book. When Chesya Burke decided on a title for her new collection of short fiction, she wanted one that would do some very particular things. Here she is to explain how the title Let’s Play White works for her, and for her work.

CHESYA BURKE:

Let’s Play White.

The three words don’t exactly seem to inspire cozy, warm feelings of opened discussion.  As Richard Wright knew when he wrote them in his 1940 novel, Native Son, the words “let’s play white” imply there is an expected conformity within society, a sort of acting on the part of many people—a role that some simply cannot fit into.  ‘Let’s play white’ is itself is a play on words meant to taunt the reader, make them think.

With his novel, Richard Wright implied that being white is simply a game to be manipulated, and that perhaps people of color (and even many whites) do it on a constant basis (the idea wasn’t exactly embraced sixty years ago when it was published). If this is in fact true, however, and “playing white” is the idea that people of color in general sometimes feel they must change essential parts of themselves to conform to a society that doesn’t value their differences, what would that mean to fictional characters that live in a world not created for them? What would it mean for African American characters that play white in a world that doesn’t accept their blackness—in other words, what would this real life scenario mean for fictional characters in a speculative world.

As you can imagine, the stories in Let’s Play White aren’t about one theme, or one issue or topic. It isn’t even about racism specifically.  Instead, like people themselves, Let’s Play White, is an eclectic array of stories about diverse people and topics and lives.  It is a collection of short stories with characters who, much like real people, are affected by the society around them.

So when I decided to use this as the title of my collection, I wanted, as the originator before me, to open dialogue and create discussion.   What happens when a well-known historical character in 1920s Harlem forces a nine year old girl into her deadly gang of forty thieves and then must choose between the child and her own survival?  How does a mother sooth one child when another is dead?  Everyone knows that the rats in housing projects can be vicious, tormenting the residents, but what happens when the rats are the only thing to offer relief from the pain?

Although each of the stories explores these questions and more, in many cases the answers themselves are left up to the reader to decide.  Could you ever be complicit in murdering a potentially deadly child? What should two sisters do when the third’s addiction is threatening their lives?

With these questions, I want to entertain people, of course.  But I also hope that these characters will stick with the reader long after they’ve put the book down.  While I love reading for fun, I also love to read powerful, thought-provoking stories.

I grew up reading authors such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler.  Both of these writers managed to entertain readers while touching on social issues and forcing a young girl like me to understand just a bit more about the world that I didn’t understand before.

I don’t imply that my stories will do this for every reader, but I do hope that just one of the stories relates to each of the readers.  I hope that people are willing to slip into the skins of my characters, and come and play white with me.

Mostly, I hope that the title inspires discussion instead of fear as it did over sixty years ago.

—-

Let’s Play White: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

SFBC Video Interview of Yours Truly

Done while I was at BEA. I talk about Fuzzy Nation and upcoming projects, including the OMW movie. You know you want to watch.

Also, before anyone gives me crap about it, that Pepsi One can was there because apparently the Javits Center outlawed Coca Cola products. I had to make do.

The Science Fiction Book Club’s YouTube Channel has other interviews too, including ones with Charlaine Harris and Scott Westerfeld. In case you feel like burning some more time watching authors talk. And I don’t know why you wouldn’t.

This is Supposed to be a HAPPY Occasion

Yes, I could rant at you today about the debt mess or the Norway bombings or Amy Winehouse not going to rehab, but you know what? Today I feel like not talking about any of that. So here, have some pictures of people getting married in New York yesterday. It makes me feel better about the world today, in any event.