It’s been a while …

… but I am back.

The book’s not finished yet … that’s what’s been hijacking all my blogging words for a while …but I am getting there. And it is wonderful to feel it happen, to read a rewritten chapter and to notice that it feels more like reading a real book than it used to. And to realize that this thing I’ve taken on, while challenging, is not impossible. And that the time will come that it’s finished,. And then, perhaps, another can begin.

Meet Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenHave you read Jo Walton yet? The author, poet, and blogger/reviewer who will be the Guest of Honor at Balticon over the Memorial Day weekend? I am just becoming acquainted with her, literarily speaking, and am bemoaning the past fifteen years that she’s been writing behind my back!

I am starting to make up for lost time: to date, one novel, My Real Children, and a few selections from What Makes This Book So Great, a collection of Walton’s book reviews for Tor.com. That may not sound like much, but it’s more than enough to appreciate her impressive but unstuffy breadth of knowledge and her great talent for complex ideas and depths of feeling expressed in brisk, matter-of-fact language. To say nothing of her unusual story lines, and characters so real you almost hear them breathing. I loved every bit of what I’ve read and am looking forward to more.

Early in Walton’s novel, My Real Children, an old fashioned telephone rings in a girls’ school in a remote area of World War II-era England. The young teacher who takes the call is asked a question. She hesitates, deeply divided over a choice which will determine the course of her life. But the voice demands an answer. “Yes or no,” he says. “Now or never.” She finds excuses for his unusually brusque manner, his coercion. As always, she hopes for the best. “Yes,” she says, unaware that somehow, somewhere inside her, she has also said, “No.”

So begins a divided life, lived in divergent worlds with dramatically different futures. In the telling, Ms Walton examines the extraordinary forces within everyday human reality, while painting one of the wildest theories of cosmology with the colors, textures, foibles and complexities of the human beings who endure them.

What Makes This Book So Great comprises 130 book discussions selected from posts Ms. Walton wrote for a blog by that title on Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. These aren’t new books, but her many-times re-read favorites, classics and should-be-classics and series of the genre, now visited once again with new depths of insight and appreciation. Of the few examples I have read so far — including Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Arthur Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, Samuel Delaney’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, I have begun a To-Be-Re-Read list as well as adding some titles to my Why-Haven’t-I-Read-This list. As some very nice bonuses there are also general genre discussions, such as That’s Just Scenery: What Do We Mean By Mainstream. This is a great book for book lovers, book reviewers, and writers alike. If you don’t believe me, here’s what Patrick Nielsen Hayden has to say about it:

Jo Walton With the Hugo 2012

Jo Walton With the Hugo 2012

Since 2000, Jo Walton has produced a dozen novels and three books of poetry with an impressive string of awards including, among others, the Campbell Best New Writer Award and the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, Tiptree, Prometheus, and Mythopoeic Awards. Her novel Among Others won the 2011 Nebula and the 2012 Hugo Awards for Best Novel, and is one of only seven novels to have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards.

Go read her. Now

Links for Jo Walton: Her web site, Wikipedia, and her posts on Tor.com

Ursula LeGuin at Eighty-Five

Ursula K. LeGuin Photo by K Kendall

Ursula K. LeGuin
Photo by K. Kendall

Ursula Kroeber LeGuin, the all-time Great Lady of science fiction and fantasy and winner of the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, is turning eighty-five.

There are two best ways for devoted readers of her incomparable work to celebrate the occasion, the humanity of her words, and the power of their impact on literature.

The first is to see and hear her fearless, at times searing, comments on the occasion of the award’s presentation, in which she addresses both the challenges faced by writers in the evolving world of publishing, and the greater world’s deepening need to receive their messages.

The second is to hear the interview, Ursula LeGuin at 85 on BBC Radio, as well as comments from Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell and others, a brand new drama adaptation of the first three Earthsea novels, the first ever broadcast of The Left Hand of Darkness, and much more, all available here courtesy of BBC

Thought you’d like to know.

Mysticon 2015

MystiConThis warm and friendly con began for me with a casual interview featuring Media Guest of Honor Sean Maher, “Simon Tam” in Joss Whedon’s TV and film series, Firefly/Serenity. Filmmaker Jaysen Buterin, with Mad Ones Films of Greensboro, NC, provided the kinds of questions that old friends might ask one another over a couple of beers. Maher answered with candor and humor. Very enjoyable hour.

After that interview, the weekend was a delightful round of panels. I appeared on six and attended several others, all on interesting topics. I’m describing here a selection of my personal favorites, ether for general interest or applicability to my novel in progress.

Fantasy World Building, with panelists R.S. Belcher, Michael Ventrella, Liz Long, Steven S. Long, and Gail Z. Martin Photo credit tp J Thomas Ross, with gratitude

Fantasy World Building,   Panelists: R.S. Belcher, Michael A. Ventrella, Liz Long, Steven S. Long, and Gail Z. Martin         Photo credit to Judy Ross

Fantasy World Building
Key comments:
• Don’t give too much detail, avoid huge info dumps.
• Get the cultural flavor without too much specificity.
• Decide which parts of the world you will change and which will remain “real world,” and be sure to get the real parts right..
• Determine fixed points in time (keep them the same in the fantasy world as in the real world) and change other details around them. This allows suspension of disbelief .
• Make these things believable: government, foods, dress, inside jokes, slang, geography, climate, religion, architecture, etc.
• Maps help in getting the detail right in blocking the action.
• Sources for inspiration and details: Google Earth Street Level, historical markers, museum plaques, cemeteries, etc.
• Bad guys are real people too, with real emotions and motivations. A realistic bad guy makes the conflict that much more compelling.\

Elementals and Other Things that Go Bump in the Night
Panelists: Tally Johnson (M), Jeff Santos, Leona Wisoker, and Paula S. Jordan (me!)
The discussion frequently centered around the differences between two very dissimilar classes of supernatural beings that bear the same name. The classical elementals, associated with the four basic elements of the medieval world, are: gnomes – associated with earth, undines – water, sylphs – wind, and salamanders – fire. The malevolent elementals of horror and the gothic are the primal forces, demons, certain ghosts, and others, exemplified by the loathsome elemental of Leap Castle in Ireland.

Exposition in Science Fiction and Fantasy With panelists Paula S. Jordan, Kin Headlee, Marcia Colette, and Mike Pederson   Photo credit to Judy Ross

Exposition in Science Fiction and Fantasy  Panelists: Paula S. Jordan, Kin Headlee, Marcia Colette, and Mike Pederson        Photo credit to Judy Ross

Exposition in SF and Fantasy
The panelists concluded that, though SF and Fantasy require a lot of exposition, it can and should be handled subtly, avoiding data dumps by paring down the description to the minimum necessary for full reader enjoyment. Recommended techniques included:
• Divide the necessary exposition into small bites and provide each at the moment in the story when it is needed. Or hold it till later if you want to maintain a bit of mystery,
• Put your characters to work, have them discover it or work it out for themselves.
• Make brief exposition bites part of the action in action scenes.
• Drop in a little as part of the tag in dialogue.
• Less is definitely more!

“What If” Moments in History
Panelists: Tally Johnson (M), James Beall, Jarod Kearney, and Paula S. Jordan

What might have happened if certain pivotal events in history had gone another way?

Tally Johnson considered the affects on US history if the staunch segregationist James F Byrnes had been named vice president for FDR’s third term, as he very nearly was, and had succeeded him as president instead of less-segregationist Harry S Truman.

James Beall described the Battle of Dogger Bank, a North Sea battle of WWI. It was likely the German loss to the British in that battle that led them shortly afterward to a strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic. Had the Germans won at Dogger Bank and so not been led to escalate submarine warfare, the US might never have entered WWI.

Jarod Kearney wondered how different our history might have been if George Washington had given in to some followers who urged him to a form of government more like the familiar European monarchies than the less-well-known classical republics.

I discussed how much brilliant learning by ancient scientists such as Archimedes, Euclid, and Hipparchus was lost in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, and how advanced our science might be today had we not needed to spend some 1800 years rediscovering it – if indeed we’ve gotten it all back even today.

Aliens in Science Fiction
Panelists: Tedd Roberts(m), Michael Solontoi, Pamela K. Kinney, Steven S. Long, Paula S. Jordan

What makes us think we’d recognize alien intelligence?  Is it true that science fiction about aliens can only be “literature” when its aliens are metaphors for humanity?

Moderator Tedd Roberts’ questions kept the whole panel with thinking caps firmly in place, each answering from his or her personal area of expertise. Novel approaches to identification of alien intelligence ranged from current experiments evaluating the exotic capabilities of Cephalopods to consideration of the differences in capabilities and behavior that could arise in sentient species from differing evolutionary environments and cultural histories.

As to the question of science fiction vs “literature,” the following opinion emerged: if an alien character is imagined based on solid scientific principles, from the design of its native planet to the development of a set of physical, psychological, intellectual, and behavioral characteristics that could reasonably evolve in response to the physical demands and cultural history of that planet, then that is clearly a science fictional character.  Its story may or may not achieve the status of “literature,” but it need not have anything to do with metaphor.

Women in Space   Panelists: Michael Solontoi, Paula S. Jordan, and Kim Headlee        Photo credit to Judy Ross

Women in Space    Panelists: Michael Solontoi, Paula S. Jordan, and Kim Headlee                         Photo credit to Judy Ross

Women in Space

This 9:00 AM Sunday panel drew two audience members initially, a situation which we three panelists addressed by circling the chairs and calling it discussion, with no moderator required. Three or four more arrived, yawning, in the course of the hour, and all joined in the conversation as they saw fit.

The kickoff topic was the one advertised, NASA’s female astronaut program, which we all interpreted to mean the first, little known one, The Mercury 13.  In 1960 and 61, Dr. W. Randolph Lovelace II, who had conducted health and fitness testing of the (male) Mercury 7 astronauts, initiated an identical but secret, privately funded testing program for woman. Of the unknown number of women who applied, thirteen passed the complete physical testing program with flying colors, equaling the men’s scores in all the health and fitness requirements and exceeding them in several.  So why have you never heard of them?  Because they were never allowed to fly. The reason?  NASA had set a reasonable regulation that all astronauts should have experience as test pilots. What was unreasonable – or would be to us today, in the age of highly trained and experienced female test and military pilots – was that at that time women were not allowed to be test pilots.

After this discussion, the conversation moved on to the excellent women astronauts that you have heard of.

Readings:

In additional to panels, I attended readings by Gail Z. Martin, Jeanine Spendlove, and Leona Wisoker, and a reading and singing by Gray Rinehart. I thoroughly enjoyed them all and look forward to getting my hands on the books.

Do You Collect Libraries?

I do. From the single small room where I saw my first book with a rocket ship on the cover, to the beautiful, impressively stocked study at the Biltmore House, to the splendid structures and collections of the British Library and the Library of Congress. They’re all right here in my head, ready to browse whenever I’m stuck in traffic or a check-out line and longing for the sight and scent of high-rising shelves of books.

And my collection is growing! Thanks to Darcy McClelland on Facebook, I’ve been introduced to an on-line collection of The Most Majestic Libraries In The World .

Consider this Shanghai-La of books for the literary adventurer.

Trinity College Library, Dublin
Trinity College Library, Dublin

Couldn’t you just move into this place and stay for a while?  Become the “Bartleby the Scrivener” of Dublin?  I sure could.

But if this doesn’t suit your fancy, there are 149 more in this collection to choose from. And more are being added regularly.

So, what libraries would you like to add to the list?

World Fantasy Con 2014

Art by Centennial artist Virgil Finlay

A great con, as the 40th World Fantasy Convention (held the 6th through 9th of last November in Washington DC ) certainly was, should be recognized here however belatedly.

Themed in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, the convention also paid tribute to the births in that same year of two notable talents in the field of fantasy: writer/filmmaker Robert Aickman and acclaimed artist Virgil Finlay.

Several convention offerings spoke directly to the centennial theme.

Michael Dirda, scholar and Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic for the Washington Post, presented a spritely discussion entitled Fantasy and the Great Age of Storytelling: mid-1800’s to World War I. His delighted audience scribbled down pages of new titles for their to-be-read lists,

In addition to examinations of the works of Messrs Aickman and Finlay, panel discussions on the period included Historical influences in Fantasy, Women’s Roles in Fantasy Fiction Changed by World War I, and Myths and Legends of World War I..

World Fantasy Award Nominees

World Fantasy Award Nominees

The primary business of the annual convention, the presentation of the 2014 World Fantasy Awards, got underway at the opening ceremonies as nominees in the various categories were welcomed and given their nominee pins. Life Achievement Honorees Ellen Datlow and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro were also introduced, as were the convention guests of honor author Guy Gavriel Kay, artist Les Edwards, author and creator/editor of Whispers Magazine, Stuart David Schiff, very special guest Lail Finlay, daughter of Virgil Finlay, and Toastmaster author Mary Robinette Kowal. A nicely staged remembrance of World War I was presented during the ceremonies.

Other highlights of the con included An interview with Life Achievement Honoree Chelsea Quinn Yarbro [author of an astonishing 91 novels – horror (28 Saint-Germains), mystery, science Image3fiction, western and YA – plus 7 nonfiction books and 78 short stories, under 5 pseudonyms] … A lively discussion of R.A. Lafferty as an American Fantasist … A panel on Young, Middle-aged, and older writers – How Does Age Affect Writing … Comments from Julie Czerneda on the Ecology in World Building panel … The Cicerones, a film by Robert Aickman … and readings by Patricia  McKillip, Andy Duncan. and Carol Berg.

Sadly, I was unable to stay for the Sunday afternoon World Fantasy Awards Banquet. The winners, in case you haven’t seen them yet, can be found here.

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro photo credit: Facebook