Sunday, March 25, 2007

Duluth Again

What with one thing and another, Patrick and I have not taken a drive in the country for a couple of months.

Yesterday we went to Duluth. There was fog in the Cities. That lifted as we drove north. The sky was covered with high, thin clouds which turned it bluish-grey. The snow is mostly gone, so we drove past brown fields and mixed forest, dark pines and mostly bare hardwoods. The oaks are still holding their brown leaves.

Lake Superior is still partially frozen. A coast guard cutter had to cut a six-mile channel in the ice, so the first ships could leave Duluth; and we could see the channel, a white trail across the grey ice.

We hit our usual shops. Patrick bought a Filson vest on sale. Why not have the best? as the Filson company asks. As the weather changes, Filson looks better and better. The company is based in Seattle and knows how to make clothing for a climate with rain rather than snow.

I bought a print of a giant squid attacking a lake boat, while flying saucers beam the crewmen up. The letter set text says in part, "Horrifying Tales of Superior. Mighty Steamers dragged to a Watery Doom by The Great Kraken. Entire Crews Vanish with Intergalactic Visitors."

Very nice, and exactly right for me, since I love squid, science fiction and Great Lake freighters.

We listened to Tom Waits and Stan Rogers on the way up. On the way back we talked about Patrick's new job and other things.

This morning, as I woke up, I had an idea for a new story, based on an incident from the Egils saga Skallagrimssonar, which is about an ancestor of mine. I got the story roughly plotted and then realized it had no fantastic element. I couldn't sell it to my usual markets. So I am going to throw in elves.

I can't start it today. Today I am doing my taxes.

Performance Anxiety

I gave a story to my writing group just before I left for San Francisco. That trip, or the trip to ICFA, meant I missed a meeting. While I was at ICFA, I had a dream. Lyda Morehouse, who is the writing group, told me that the group discussed my story at the meeting I missed and decided the story was so rough and unfinished that they could not critique it. So they were handing it back to me to revise until it was good enough to give to the group. I was furious and threw something at Lyda. It was paper of some kind. It couldn't have hurt her. And I either quit the group or threatened to quit.

Sean Murphy, also in my group, was in Florida for a family gathering and came back on the same plane. I told him my dream in the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport.

"Ah," he said. "A little performance anxiety."

The group critiqued the story last Thursday. With mostly minor nitpicks, they liked it. However I told them about the dream first. So now I am wondering if they really liked the story or were being kind because of the dream.

I really need to do more writing, because I don't think I am taking myself seriously as a writer; and I really should. I mean, my creds are not bad. Maybe it's a loop. I don't take myself seriously as a writer because I don't write enough; and I don't write enough because I don't take myself seriously as a writer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

ICFA Con Report

A week after the trip to San Francisco, I took off for Fort Lauderdale and the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. I got a window seat this time. The Twin Cities were overcast. Once we got above the main cloud layer, the sky was blue, filmed with high, thin clouds; and there was a large, pale, crescent moon. The plane rose higher; and there was only blue sky, contrails and the moon. It is so nice that we have a companion world!

I took a shuttle to the conference hotel and stayed in the hotel for the next four days. All I saw of Fort Lauderdale was freeways and palm trees. The trees look healthier than the palms in San Francisco, which must be at the edge of their range.

The conference has a lot of graduate students, which is very pleasant – young, bright, good looking people who are interested in SF. What else could an SF writer ask for? – More people of color. More people interested in class.

I was on a panel on the works of Melissa Scott, with Melissa in the audience, and I talked about her treatment of class. This is one of the reasons (I think) her work feels so physical. She writes about people who do work that is (in one way or another) physical, though it’s often also very high tech work. She’s the only SF writer I can think of who regularly, casually talks about unions.

It’s unlikely that working people will vanish from the future, leaving only the underclass, the rich and upper middle class professionals. A lot of physical work is likely to remain – construction, plumbing, sewer maintenance, farming, as well as a lot of “unprofessional” white collar and service work; and there are likely to be workers doing it; and they are likely to be different from the rich and the upper middle classes.

Could robots do this work? Maybe, though so far we haven’t been able to produce robots who can think like humans. We have a lot of humans already, and they are comparatively cheap. Why not use them?

I hardly ever go to the conventions outside the upper Midwest, and I felt off balance during this one. But it was certainly worth attending. The last day of the conference, I finally got out to the hotel pool, which is outside and surrounded by palm trees. There were lots of doves, which Katherine Cramer identified as ring-necked doves. I checked my bird book when I got home. Ring-necked turtle doves are Eurasian, but have been introduced to warm places in the US, including Florida. I also saw lots of boat-tailed grackles, which I identified on my own, without a bird book. They look like common grackles, except they are taller and rangier and have longer tails. It pays off to spend a certain amount of time leafing through one’s Audubon Guide and looking at pictures of birds that are not local to Minnesota.

On the last day of the conference I got a call from my brother. Our cousin had died -- six weeks after the first signs that something might be wrong, and three weeks after being diagnosed with stage four cancer. I'm still feeling stunned by this. Enjoy life while you can, and do the things you consider important.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Mundane Science Fiction

What follows is part of a con report on the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, from which I returned two days ago. The rest of the report is in a Word file which refuses to open. I will add it when I have dealt with Word's user unfriendliness.

There was a panel at the con on Mundane SF, a concept that came out of a Clarion writing workshop, apparently in response to SF which seemed escapist -- flying off the stars with FLT, when humanity is facing real problems here and now. Geoff Ryman listed SF tropes or gimmicks which he thought weren’t going to happen and should not be used in science fiction. FTL and nanotechnology are the ones I remember. Melissa Scott stared down the panel at him with amazement and said, “I am writing about the present. That’s what my novels are really about. Why can’t I have FTL?”

I had several responses. The two science news magazines I get talk about nanotech work that’s being done right now. It’s happening. People are creating teeny machines -- buckyballs and nanotubes that can be loaded with drugs for direct delivery to cells, atoms that spell out IBM, wee turning wheels and so on.

FTL seems impossible, but a lot is happening in cosmology and physics. Who knows what we will end with? In any case, FTL is a well established SF trope and lots of fun.

From its start, SF has used impossible science and technology. Think about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. The time machine is still impossible. The monster is becoming possible. But the point of the science was not accurate prediction, but setting up a thought experiment. What if we could make a being that other humans did not recognize as human? What if we could see evolution in action, over vast expanses of time?

Granted, the world is in trouble; and the next hundred years look hairy. I’m not sure how to get to 2100. I don’t think our current problems are technological or scientific. They are political and economic. Will we use the resources we have – extraordinary resources of wealth and knowledge – to save humanity, or will we not?

Don’t mourn, organize, Joe Hill said. Maybe I should write a novel about that.

The problem of the next 100 years should be attacked by science fiction writers, but I don’t think every writer has to limit herself to near and likely futures. I don’t want to write about the avian flu pandemic, and I don’t need to. Epidemiologists and journalists will.

I want to write morally serious SF and give people something they can use in real life. But I also want to give them a break from the pain and drabness and ugliness of much everyday life. So how can I write something serious, true, lovely, fun and morally uplifting?

I do the best I can.

Russell Letson told me he thought Ryman was objecting to sleazy, dishonest SF. Well, yes. SF comes in many varieties, including mass market crap, the opiate of the people. But a novel like Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man, which assumes FTL travel, is a very serious discussion of human sexuality and gender identity. I don’t think the FTL negates the sex/gender discussion.

Why have the FTL? Because the strange sexuality of Shadow Man is a result of a drug necessary in FTL travel. Liberation from Earth is also liberation from the female-male duality. To me, this seems like a neat conceit. You can have the traditional, rigid separation of humans into two sexes; or you can have the stars.

One could write a novel with a less fantastic conceit. The writer could say: you can have the traditional idea of men and women, or you can a solar cooking stove. I can imagine a third world novel with those alternatives. It wouldn’t even have to be science fiction.
But why not go for the big idea? And why not have many kinds of science fiction? Near future and far future, mundane and satiric and wide screen baroque?

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Travel Notes

When I left the Twin Cities six days ago the temp was around freezing, and we had two feet of snow on the ground. When I arrived in San Francisco, I discovered magnolias blooming, along with lots of other trees I did not recognize. I was riding to the hotel at twilight and suddenly realized that the white stuff of the trees wasn’t snow; it was flowers.

The Bay Area is amazing, possibly the loveliest urban area I have been in, at least in the States. There are palm trees and cypresses – the narrow, pointed kind that belong in Italian gardens and van Gogh paintings of southern France. And there are hills and the bay. You can hardly beat the combination of blue sky, blue water and rising land.

I was five days in the East Bay, most of the time spent in a hospital. I saw the Golden Gate Bridge from a waiting room next to an intensive care unit. My relative is not doing well. The husband of one of my cousins grew up in Toronto. He said he is always surprised that illness and death can happen in this summery climate. His memory of childhood is that people died in cold, gray weather.

My brother and I stayed in a hotel in downtown Oakland -- an old “rooms for men” place that has been renovated. It had the spare, utilitarian look of the worker's hotel in Patrick’s dream. There was an old-fashioned pedestal wash basin in my room. The tub and the toilet were in a separate bathroom. My windows looked out on a street with street signs in English and Chinese. My brother said it reminded him of a European hotel.

I liked downtown Oakland. It looked like a city that is turning around, but isn’t glitzy yet. A working town. The Oakland harbor is full of cranes -- enormous objects like machines out of Star Wars. I assume they unload containers from Asia.

I also like Berkeley, though my pleasure is more guilty. It is something like the ultimate university town, full of interesting shops and restaurants and bungalows with wonderful yards. You climb out of a car, and mint or rosemary is flowering in front of you in March. The cabdriver who took me to SFO said houses in Berkeley cost a million dollars these days. He was a guy from India (I think) who had been an airline mechanic for Eastern till he got laid off. He could have gotten a job in Seattle, but his family was in the Bay Area, so he drove a cab.

I don’t fly much these days, so it seems like an exotic, futuristic experience -- the airport security checkpoints and moving walkways, everyone on computers or cell phones. The TVs that used to drive me crazy have vanished or been turned down. The sound must have interfered with cell phone conversations. And it seems quite amazing to be in California after four hours. A four hours drive would not take Patrick and me out of Minnesota, unless we drove east to Wisconsin. Every once in a while, I think, “I am in the future. This is the future SF writers imagined when I was a kid -- though it didn’t turn out quite as imagined.”

Two Poems Written on Flight 369 to San Francisco


The man across the aisle asks for a pen,
and the woman next to me searches.
I remain silent, though I have
five pens in my briefcase.

Which should I lend?
The big, orange Conklin?
The amber Waterman Carene?
The blue-marbled Parker Sonnet?
Or one of the Waterfords,
One faceted silver,
The other deep, transparent, royal blue?

I am a woman rich in pens,
and I do not share.


The man in back of me says:
“Taiwan, with all its mountains
and its… typography, is beautiful.”

In my mind’s eye, I see
rugged fonts like mountain ranges;
thin, graceful fonts like bamboo forests;
square fonts like cities;
curving fonts like brush strokes or rivers;
fonts shaped like villages, paddies,
factories, schools, prisons;
fonts as round as faces or moons.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


I did a panel at MarsCon on inspiration? Where do I get my ideas? What drives me to write?

Since I haven't been writing much in the past few years, it's a good question to think about. Maybe if I can track down the sources of my urge to write, I will begin to write more.

Thinking about it, I realized that my ideas come from the fiction and nonfiction I read, sometimes from music and sometimes from the visual arts. I've written poems after seeing operas -- pretty good poems, taken all and all, and one story which is a description of an imaginary 19th century Italian opera about the invention of double-entry bookkeeping. The opera is set in 14th century Florence and is about a young man who has inherited the family business. The records are such a mess that he doesn't know if he is rich or poor, and therefore he cannot marry his love. Fortunately, a corrupt monk who understands the Venetian Method (double-entry bookkeeping) arrives on the scene; and before he repents and dies, he tells the young man how to straighten out the family books.

I took the monk's aria straight out of Fra Luca Pacioli's 14th century book on arithmatic, geometry and proportion, which contains the first description of double-entry bookkeeping. (Check Fra Luca's entry in Wikipedia, if you want to know more. And no, I did not read Fra Luca's book. I read a description of it, when I was doing research on the history of accounting.)

Anyway, it is a story that combines my love of opera with my love of accounting.

I've also written stories about actors and theater and stories about poets. The fiction that isn't about the arts is often written in response to other fiction. In many ways, I write meta-science fiction. I think that's the right word. My art is about art, especially about science fiction.

This is something I've known for years, but it's interesting to think about it. If art is so important to me -- so key to how I experience my life -- then maybe my art is worth doing. Maybe I can contribute to this huge, millenias-old, human discussion.

Right after 9/11 Candas Dorsay, the wonderful Canadian SF writer, wrote an essay asking, what is the importance of art in this world where terrible things happen? I guess I am still thinking about her question. 9/11 did not shock me the way it shocked many Americans. I never thought we were safe from the violence that consumes to much of the planet. But I am deeply disturbed by the destruction of Iraq and the further destruction of Afghanistan, a country that has suffered way too much, and the potential destruction of Iran. I have never gone to Iraq, though I was grew up knowing about -- and seeing -- the ancient art found there. I have been to Afghanistan and Iran. What I remember about Iran is the blue mosques in Isfahan. I have a fragment of a tile, picked up from a rubbish heap in an area where one of the mosques was being repaired. I remember the Buddhas of Bamian in Afghanistan, carved into a cliff wall in the 4th century and destroyed by the Taliban. I remember the museum in Kabul, wrecked and looted by the Taliban. Afghanistan is on the cross-roads of Eurasia, where caravan routes coming up from India joined the Great Silk Road; and the museum was full of Buddhist art, Greco-Roman art, art from India.

How can humans destroy these ancient places full of human history and art? I guess I should ask how humans can destroy other humans, though that seems a logical continuation of neglecting and ignoring other humans. Maybe art will never be safe until people are safe; and people will never be safe until we all care for one another.

Waiting for the Plane

Actually, I am waiting for Patrick to pick me up and take me to the airport. My brother is flying out from the east coast, and we are going to meet in San Francisco. He just called me from Kennedy. He's in his plane sitting on the runway, since it's snowing in New York. It's bright and clear here, a lovely late winter day.

I mentioned the music at MarsCon. I went to the Dementia Radio website yesterday, but it had a warning that it was adult only. I decided I needed to think about how adult I am before going any farther. What exactly is Dr. Demento playing? When I knew Dr. Demento, his name was Barry and he had the best record collection in high school. I have kind of lost track since then.

Some of the young women at my job have convinced the artistic director to let them put together a poster show. (I work for an arts organization, in case I haven't mentioned that before.) They were picking posters yesterday, and I got to sit in. Most of the posters are for musicians, mostly rock bands; and they were pretty darn good. I was trying to figure out the influences -- Russian poster art from the revolutionary period, some work that reminded me of the German expressionists and the late drawings of Philip Guston, and work that used references to 40s, 50s and 60s advertising and poster art. But I'm guessing. It's too new to me, and I haven't been paying attention to contemporary art. In any case, it was exciting to see. New Art! New Music!

Sartre said the only hope lies in action, but there is also hope in art and music.

Another Storm

We had another storm this past weekend -- well, actually, this past Wednesday and Thursday --which dropped another foot or so of snow. The storm a week ago was respectable, but nothing special, except that every kind of winter weather has become special in the past few years. The storm Wednesday and Thursday was the real McCoy with impressive winds and driving, drifting snow. You could look down a city street and realize the buildings two blocks away were no longer visible. I-90 to South Dakota was closed, as was I-35 to Iowa. The police warned people not to travel anywhere in southern and western Minnesota, since there was no way of knowing if emergency vehicles could reach them, if anything happened. Up in Duluth, they had wind off Lake Superior and fifteen foot drifts. Schools closed. Government offices closed. The University of Minnesota main campus closed, which rarely happens.

It was mostly over by last Friday, when I went to the MarsCon, a local science fiction convention. I was there as the writer guest of honor. The con has a respectable literary track, but the real center of the convention – its heart – is media fandom and costuming and gaming and quite amazing music. I had not realized that Dr. Demento’s radio show had produced a whole school of music. The con had a track of weird, funny musicians performing weird, funny songs.

I enjoyed myself – especially discovering the weird music, but I was tired the whole weekend. I’m not sure why, though I have a cousin with health problems on the west coast, and I’m flying out to see her. Maybe the prospect of the trip was tiring.

I’m going out for a long weekend. The following week I fly to Fort Lauderdale for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I plan to spend all my time relaxing by the pool