Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I had bad dreams last night. The one I remember most clearly is -- Patrick and I were living in a large, rundown apartment building. Our bathroom was a disaster: paint peeling, broken plumbing, water on the floor, the kind of bathroom where you expect the tub to crash through to the floor below. The apartment itself had a very fragile lock on the door. Patrick piled up pans in front of the door. If someone forced their way during the night, the falling pans would wake us.

I know where this dream came from: a YouTube report on the barracks at Fort Bragg. The report was done by the father of one of the soldiers, just returned from a tour in Afghanistan.

The building that starred in the report had been built in the 1940s. Inside stair railings were rusted. Ceiling tiles were broken or missing. Lead paint was peeling and flaking. There were large, black areas of mildew on the walls. Sewage backed up into the toilets and basins. Broken pipes leaked sewer gas. And there were fragile locks on the bedroom doors.

The soldiers had been told twice, each time they left for a tour in scenic rural Afghanistan, that they'd have new barracks when they got back.

When I read stories like these -- and many other stories about the way this country treats ordinary people -- I am left with a deep sense of vulnerability and alienation. Living in the US is like living in a big, crowded, rundown, scary apartment building with bad plumbing and insecure locks. In my dream, I was complaining to the building manager, but I did not have a sense that anything was going to change.

I'm still recovering from the nightmare. I will probably feel better about making changes -- in the real world, not in my dream -- later in the day.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Weather Report

It snowed Saturday, though nothing stayed on the ground. The grass is mostly green. The trees are budding and flowering. Bird sounds are changing, which means new birds are arriving from the south, either summer residents or birds passing through on their way to Canada. I saw the Patrick Gannaway, the little blue and white towboat that moves gravel from St. Paul to Minneapolis this morning, pushing its two full barges up the Mississippi. I haven't seen it since winter set in.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


As it turns out, it is not the water nymph who dies in Rusalka. It's the prince, killed by her kiss. She is apparently doomed to become a will o' the wisp and spend eternity luring travelers to watery deaths in marshes.

The music was lovely and the singing fine, but the plot was not great.

I am now working on a second short story titled "The Water Sprite and the Son of the Rich Industrialist." I may not finish this, because right now it is rather unpleasant, due to the male protagonist and his father. Maybe I can find a way to make the story sweeter. The water sprite runs off with the chauffeur? Or a maid?

Maybe she discovers The Communist Manifesto in the son's library and goes back to her lake to raise the consciousness of watery workers.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Prince and the Water Sprite

I'm going to see the opera Rusalka today. The opera company has described it as The Little Mermaid without the Disney happy ending. I woke this morning with my own version of the story in my mind. It is as follows:
A handsome prince stopped beside a river to admire his reflection in the water. Looking up from her home, a water sprite saw him and fell in love. She could not leave her river, and he would drown if she pulled him down, as she longed to. She begged the gods to unite them in some fashion.

Taking pity, the gods turned him into a large eel, which fell into the river with a splash.

Outraged by his transformation, the prince swam rapidly away. The water sprite pined hopelessly, until she met a handsome male water sprite, whom she married.

Back on land, the prince’s sister succeeded him as heir to the throne. In due time, she became queen. Her reign was prosperous and famous.

The eel was caught by a fisherman and became sushi.

I think I wrote this, because I would like a version of the story where the women do not do the suffering.

Friday, April 18, 2008


My friend Margaret died earlier this week at the age of 80. She had not been in good health in recent years, but her mother lived to 103; and I did not expect to lose Margaret so soon.

She was a passionate reader, and a lifelong science fiction fan. Her one published novel, The Wrong World, reminded me of the SF I read as a kid in the 50s. I enjoyed it a lot.

She was an early member of the Aardvarks, the writing group Ruth Berman and I founded back when the Twin Cities were not full of SF writing groups. I left the group for reasons I no longer clearly remember, but Margaret remained. After I left, the group created a collaborative novel, Autumn World, which was published by FTL Publications. Margaret was one of the authors. She also published three charming folk tales in The Tolkien Scrapbook.

She was a founding member of Rivendell, the local chapter of the Mythopoeic Society.

At one point, she was attending Society for Creative Anachronism meetings and won a contest for the best plague rat. Her rat was a handmade stuffed animal dotted with large stuffed buboes. Very cute in a horrible sort of way.

Margaret, Ruth and I had season tickets to the Minnesota Opera. Every performance was followed by dinner at Sakura, a local Japanese restaurant. I also saw her at local science fiction conventions, though usually in passing.

In addition to the opera, she also went to the annual Gilbert and Sullivan production by the Very Light Opera Company, an amateur group that does a darn fine job.

Those are the interests I knew about: science fiction, fantasy, SCA, writing, fandom, opera and Gilbert and Sullivan.

She raised two children on her own. They were grown by the time I met Margaret; and I never met them, though I heard a lot about them and her grandchildren over the years.

She worked at Dayton's, a local department store that no longer exists, and took early retirement, in part because Dayton's stopped being an enjoyable place to work and in part (I think) to care for her mother, with whom she lived.

She decided she needed a part-time job after retirement, so went to a local technical college and learned shoe repair, which I considered remarkable. I would not have thought of shoe repair -- which is skilled work with leather -- as a late in life career. She repaired a leather bag for me and did an excellent job.

As it turned out, there was not much work for cobblers, since most people throw shoes away, instead of getting them repaired. I consider this criminal. Margaret worked a while doing shoe repair, then retired completely.

Her mother had half promised the house to Margaret, but actually left it to all three of her children. As soon as the mother died, Margaret's brother and brother-in-law began work to make the house marketable; and Margaret was forced to find a new home. She ended in a senior citizen high rise in downtown Minneapolis, on many bus lines and across the street from the main branch of the Minneapolis Public Library.

The location was excellent, but the apartment was small; and Margaret had trouble finding room for all her books. I don't think this was a serious problem at first, but the building management changed; and the new management kept telling her to get rid of books; they were a safety hazard. Margaret managed to keep most. Because she lacked space, she kept many of them packed in plastic bins.

She always had health problems. For years they did not seem especially serious. As she aged, however, she had at least two strokes. These weakened one side of her body and made her prone to falling, which led to injuries. It also seemed clear to me that she suffered from depression, which is fairly common in older people with ill health. I don't know if it was caused by her health problems or by discouragement. She was getting some help for the depression, maybe not enough.

A few months ago, her son and daughter-in-law moved her an assisted living building. I don't know the full story here. The move may have been necessary, since she was falling a fair amount. However, the new building was in an isolated corner of north Minneapolis. There may have been a bus line, but not the multitude of lines she'd had available in downtown Minneapolis. She was no longer across the street from the library; and she knew no one in the new building. She was a stoic person, who did not complain; and she was close to indomitable, taking public transit to cons if she couldn't find a ride, in spite of her frailty. (As an aside, I should mention that she didn't always ask for rides, when she could have.) I think she may have reached the end of her ability to soldier on. In any case, she died.

Moving frail older people, even with the best intentions, can be dangerous.

I mention Margaret's last years, because it's important for us to remember that even remarkable and indomitable people can be beaten down by old age and poor health, especially in a society that does a bad job of caring for those who are in any way vulnerable. I've encountered rich old people from time to time. It's amazing how comfortable old age can be, if you have money.

Margaret was a department store clerk, who inherited one third of a modest house. She did not have the resources you need to make old age comfortable.

My impression is, it was the last few years of her life which were really difficult, which is something else to remember. Before that, for decades, she was engaged, interested, clearly enjoying herself and making life more enjoyable for her friends. This is a considerable acheivement.

But we should always remember that we can do better for our elders.

Diversacon is going to dedicate their group reading to Margaret; and I think I'm going to suggest memorial donations to the Minneapolis Public Library. She loved libraries and believed in them as passionately as she believed in science fiction.

Ruth described her once as a space cadet disguised as a grandmother, which is a fine description. I am in awe of someone who could sew a plague rat and learn shoe repair in her 60s, who lived for books and music, and who was really, sincerely worried that we were not going to make it into space -- deep space, the planets and the stars.

Well, yes, Margaret, of course we are going into space, if our civilization survives and if we finally get rid of greed heads who run it. After the planets come the stars.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


I was suddenly curious about Riverbend, the young Iraqi woman who described life in Iraq before and during the American invasion in her blog, Baghdad Burning. This is the most recent post I could find, from last October, after she and some of her relatives finally fled to Syria.

We live in an apartment building where two other Iraqis are renting. The people in the floor above us are a Christian family from northern Iraq who got chased out of their village by Peshmerga and the family on our floor is a Kurdish family who lost their home in Baghdad to militias and were waiting for immigration to Sweden or Switzerland or some such European refugee haven.

The first evening we arrived, exhausted, dragging suitcases behind us, morale a little bit bruised, the Kurdish family sent over their representative – a 9 year old boy missing two front teeth, holding a lopsided cake, “We’re Abu Mohammed’s house- across from you- mama says if you need anything, just ask- this is our number. Abu Dalia’s family live upstairs, this is their number. We’re all Iraqi too... Welcome to the building.”

I cried that night because for the first time in a long time, so far away from home, I felt the unity that had been stolen from us in 2003.

Still more on SF vs. Fantasy

I am currently reading Jonathan Strahan's new anthology, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year # 2. It's from Night Shade Books, which is publishing some really fine science fiction and fantasy; and Strahan is definitely an editor to watch. He picks good stories.

My favorite stories thus far are "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang, "The Cabrist and Lord Iron" by Danial Abraham and "The Constable of Abal" by Kelly Link.

All are fantasy, though the Abraham story is only fantastic in its style, that of a fable or fairy tale, and because it is set in country which does not exist.

It tells you something about me that all have a format this is pretty close to fairy tales, folk tales, myths and so on.

So maybe I do like fantasy, though I have small tolerance for epic quests and epic struggles against generic evil.

In so far as evil exists, it is people, and they are evil either because they have malfuctioning brains or because they have become corrupted. Evil is not creatures with many legs that remind you of spiders, and it isn't dark lords who loom in the distance. It is the greed heads and power freaks who decided to invade Iraq and destroy a nation to meet their personal needs, whatever those may be.

If fantasy is going to help us understand the world, then it ought to come up with descriptions of evil that help us recognize evil in the real world. Tolkien does this in Saruman, Wormtongue, Boromir, Denethor, the thugs in the Shire and so on. He shows us a wide range of corruption: those who intimidated by evil, those who are tempted, those who utterly corrupted.

I guess what I am saying is, evil is not The Other. It is right here in our neighbors and allies and the leaders we trust.

Tolkien knew this. He had creatures who were evil and otherly: the Balrog and that enormous spider whose name I have misplaced. And he had Sauron, looming in the distance. But the interesting evil in his novel is the people who listen to Sauron and believe him.

I figure the epic fantasy has probably been prety well done, and you aren't likely to find a second Tolkien.

More on Fantasy and Science Fiction

I should add that I often write stories that sit the border between science fiction and fantasy. My Big Mama stories are designed to be fantastical tall tales, which draw on a fair amount of science. When I wrote the first one,I was wondering, "What would the folk tales of the future be like?"

The last story I finished -- finished today, though I need to do more work on the ending -- is about trolls and the huge hydroelectric project currently being built in eastern Iceland. The trolls are pretty much traditional folk tale trolls; and the project is quite amazing and absolutely true.

I like fantastic stories that are grounded in reality in some way, at least that's what I like to write.

The problem with much fantasy -- the stuff I call generic -- is, it has drifted too far from traditional fantasy, folk tale and myth; and it has drifted too far from reality. It feeds on itself, rather than on reality or myth or dream.

The Name of the Wind

I am starting to read The Name of the Wind, because it has blurbs from LeGuin and Jo Walton; and I am finding it a bit too generic. Maybe it gets better; LeGuin and Walton a heavy duty writers, and I respect their opinions; but I really prefer science fiction

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Troll story

Patrick and I drove to Duluth yesterday. We weren't expecting to see any ships in motion, but we were wandering around near the Fraser shipyard, trying to see if there were any ships in dock. All at once we saw the Edward L. Ryerson coming in slowly under the Blatnik Bridge, heading for the shipyard. Another couple were ahead of us on the point, middle aged with the man carrying a big camera and wife following after. Boat nerds. We realized we looked just like them.

Anyway, Patrick got some good pictures of the Ryerson.

We also saw the other ships in port: the Edgar V. Speer loading at the DM&IR taconite docks, the American Courage, in for repairs, and the Walter J. McCarthy, which sank in 20 feet of water last fall and is being repaired in place next to the Hallett # 8 dock.

I bought a raven sculpture at my favorite gallery in Duluth, and we came home.

Today I stayed home and finished my Icelandic troll story, did some housekeeping and made a curry.

At the moment I am inputting while Patrick listens to a Detroit Red Wings hockey game. The Wings are ahead 4 to nothing. The crowd in Joe Louis Arena is happy, and so is Patrick.

I'm not sure about the troll story, but I think I like it.

It's been a satisfying weekend.

Ouch. The Chicago Blackhawks just scored. So Detroit will not have a shut out.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Poetry Writing Class

I am taking a poetry writing class at the moment. I have almost never taken writing classes. I think this is the third in my entire life; and I walked out of one midway through. It was a class on writing YA. The teacher used examples from her own work, and I didn't much like her work. When she gave us an example that was really bad sciecne fiction, I was gone.

I learn by reading and having friends who are good writers and critics. But at the moment, I want to get away from myself, the Eleanor Arnason who has an established writing career, and find out who else I can be. This is not something you can do with friends.

The current teacher uses a lot of examples from contemporary poetry. Most of the work seems highly skilled but not (to me) especially interesting. It seems too much about the internal lives of the poets.

I like poetry about real life, politics, science and science fiction. The emotional and intellectual problems of the educated middle class do not grip.

And I find the work brought in by the other students too confessional. Poetry is not therapy.

But I am writing, which is good, and some of what I've written is not entirely expected. I would not have written the haiku posted below, without a comment the poetry teacher made.

Housing Bust Haiku


Magnolia trees
by boarded-up houses.

Fresh, new, green grass
around abandoned play sets.

Packing what they can,
move into their cars.


Alan Greenspan calls
like a cardinal.

Slate-backed bankers
gather like sparrows
around scattered crumbs.

Like a house finch singing
on a high branch,
the president praises himself.


A country jumps into
a still pond.
The sound of petroleum!

Bringing this meditation back to the original post

Maybe we could use science fiction that is less hard and dark. Maybe the cyberpunk tradition of a frantic, cutting edge future does not have to be the only way to write SF.

I am thinking maybe I should go back to writing stories in my Lydia Duluth series, which are interplanetary adventure yarns, more fun than demanding. When my heroine runs into a really nasty situation, she is able to get out and go safely home. There are safe homes in that future.

This may well be the appeal of Jack McDevitt's novels. They are ripping yarns about a future that is not especially scary. In McDevitt's future there are rubber chicken official dinners and people who sell space age collectables. This seems oddly comforting, as life in North Dakota seems to me when I go to Fargo or Grand Forks.

Patrick goes to Fargo fairly often, because they have a homeless problem. He likes it a lot.

The social disintegration that Marx and Engles and cyberpunk describe is scary. We have too much of it already.

And what the future is like depends on which trends we extrapolate and which surprises we imagine.

More about the future and the past

I'm still trying to figure out what would be really new for someone from 1800.

A lot of theory and basic science, especially relativity and quantum mechanics, but also thermodynamics and electric and magnetic field theory. A lot of biology would be new: genetics especially.

Everyday life would be startling, but not impossible to understand: airplanes, the space station, cell phones, the Internet.
SF from the 1950s did not predict cell phones or the Internet or, for that matter, the second wave of feminism or gay liberation.

But if you go back to The Communist Manifesto, you can get a good description of social changes as a result of capitalism, many of which seem to have barely begun when Marx and Engels wrote.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his "natural superiors", and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous "cash payment". It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom -- Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers.

The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation...

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels wrote in England, the most advanced industrialized country then existing. None the less, I am always amazed at how clearly they saw the future of industrial society.

Many of the social changes they describe happened (we usually think) in the 20th century. American conservatives mourn an ideal society that existed in the early 20th century or even the 1950s, when families were intact, people in believed in God and traditional values were respected.

England was ahead of the U.S. But I also think Marx and Engels were able to extrapolate what they saw. They were not the only ones. Many people in England were horrified by the future they saw, when they looked at dark satanic mills.

I guess what I am arguing, when I think about writing stories set in the future, is the world 200 years from now might be hugely different -- if we have a nuclear war or total environmental collapse, if aliens come from the stars or an asteroid hits us, or it might be a world combining elements we recognize with elements we didn't imagine and could not have imagined. Marx and Engels could imagine a world dominated by Free Trade and the cash nexus in 1848. Who could have imagined atomic power in 1848?

What's interesting is, how much we misimagine the past. We don't remember how deeply rooted our society is in the science, technology and society of the 19th century, so that perceptive people in the 19th century could imagine many aspects of our world.

We think of the rapidly changing, multicultural, revolutionary society of early 19th century America is a white suburb circa 1955.

We underestimate how much of the present comes from the past and how much of the future will come from the present. This is an American trait, I think -- to see history as made of clean breaks, rather than of continuity; or to see history is an arrow, zipping straight from past to future, rather than a wandering, looping, incomplete process.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

200 Years in the Future, 200 Years in the Past

My assumption, thinking about Jack McDevitt's novels, is that the world is going to be a lot different 200 years in the future. But then I started thinking.

If we went back to 1800, to the early U.S., how hard would it be to understand people and their lives? And if we brought a bright American here from 1800, how hard would it be for him or her to understand us?

There's a lot more machinery now, but there were steam engines in 1800, and natural philosophers were studying electricity. The programming of textile looms, the first step in the long journey that led to modern computers, was an 18th century invention, if I am remembering correctly. We kept using cards like the cards that programmed Jacquard looms until the 1960s or 70s. When did IBM cards vanish?

People like Ben Franklin would have known about Jacquard looms.

Biotechnology is new, but people in the past knew about animal breeding; and paleontology -- which would lead to evolutionary science -- was coming into existence. Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to look for mammoths and mastodons on their western journey.

Worldwide environmental collapse is new, but environmental damage is not. It's been with humanity as long as we have been fully human. Where are the mammoths and mastodons?

I can imagine Ben Franklin or Thomas Jefferson being fascinated by our science and technology. Abigail Adams would understand feminism; and moral people were already deeply troubled by slavery, so civil rights might make sense. I'm not sure about gay rights.

As far as multiculturalism goes, I just did some checking. There were 5,300,000 people in the U.S. per the 1800 census, and one million (19%) of them were black. The Native American population of North American had been 8 to 19 million before contact. After contact, disease had brought it down to around a million in 1800. (These are estimates. No one was counting the Indian nations in 1800.) Still, white Americans would have been acutely aware of their non-white neighbors, especially if they lived in the south or traveled west.

California and the Southwest were Spanish; the center of the continent was claimed by France. America had already signed a treaty with a North African nation; and American ships were traveling the world. Moby Dick, set somewhat later, reminds us that not everyone on those American ships was a white American.

The current culture wars remind us that many of the Founding Fathers were Deist; and the New World had been a refuge of religious sects not welcome in Europe, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland, all kinds of nonconformists in New England.

The Native Americans and the African slaves had their own religions.

So, the country two hundred years ago was multicultural, with a mixture of opinions about religion. There were people interested in education, science and technology; and there were people who dealt commercially and scientifically with the rest of the world.

There were also self-righteous bigots and people utterly beaten down by poverty and ignorance.

When I write a story set 200 years in the future, how different does that future have to be? And in what ways?

Minicon and Jack McDevitt

Minicon was two weeks ago. There was a panel on why fantasy sells better than science fiction, and Shawna McCarthy was on it. She edits Realms of Fantasy. At one point, she asked her readers why they read fantasy rather than science fiction. This is the reply she got:

1) Science fiction was too hard.
2) Science fiction was too dark.
3) science fiction was too much like present-day reality.

I'm not sure these replies are flattering to fantasy.

But the answers may explain the appeal of Jack McDevitt, a contemporary hard sf writer.

I like MeDevitt's novels and read them all, grabbing them up the moment I see them. Their appeal is largeness of vision -- his characters race around the galaxy in ships with amazing FTL drives and find alien artifacts a billion plus years old -- and a fundamental decency and sanity. His characters are bright, kind and likable; and his future is humane.

But there are problems (for me) with his novels. Almost all the characters have English first and last names; and their lives are strangely like life in the 1950s or in the more traditional parts of the US today. McDevitt used to live in North Dakota and now lives in Georgia.

It occurs to me that his future, which is socially more conservative than our present, is comforting for many of us. We get wide-screen adventure without a rapidly changing, uncertain everyday life. In McDevitt's future, financial markets are not melting down; North America is not turning from white to brown; and the great problems of our era -- violence, prejudice, class warfare and environmental coll ape -- have been solved.

His science fiction is not hard the way cyberpunk or Charles Stross can be; and it's not dark; and it is blessedly distant from our current reality.

I am not sure this is a criticism. I wish his novels were more multi-cultural. There are more different kinds of people in North Dakota than in his future: Kurds, Somalians, Native Americans, African Americans, all kinds of European Americans.

But I am not sure he is wrong to have a future where the great question is -- shall we go to the stars, rather than -- can we survive ourselves?

April 2

It snowed here March 31 -- a wet, heavy snow that stuck to the trees, in some cases encrusting entire trees. Other trees had barely any snow, and sometimes the snow stopped halfway up the tree. It must have had something to do with how the wind was blowing. Anyway, April 1 was lovely, all that snow under a cloudless, pale blue sky. By evening the trees were bare again. Today the roads and sidewalks are clear, and only patches of snow remain on lawns and the sides of the freeways. It was pretty while it lasted.