Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Science Fiction

Literary fiction clearly bugs me. Most likely because science fiction and fantasy still don't get the respect they deserve from most of the literary community. But I don't know enough about contemporary literary fiction to criticize it.

So I will talk about what I like about SF & F.

What people think is important. But I am more interested in how people act and how societies change. Technology is important, science is important, because both change our lives and how we think. NASA's Astronomy Photo of Day opens our minds, and lets us see the extraordinary beauty of the universe. It can move us -- mentally -- hundreds of thousands of lightyears. The Internet enables us to hold conversations that go around the planet. For the first time, we can find out what's happening at the level of individual experience everywhere. The New York Times ignored Occupy Wall Street at first, and has not covered it well since it began paying attention. But we have the videos of cops pepper spraying and beating demonstrators, which were taken by cell phones and put on line. We've seen what the demonstrators look like, heard what they have to say. Their signs and stories are all over the Internet.

When I was a kid in the truly strange 1950s, science fiction was the only fiction that explained the world I lived in, which might at any moment be destroyed by nuclear war. Most adults pretended the problem did not exist. Nuclear war was no worse than any other kind of war. All you needed was a fallout shelter in the back yard or a school desk to hid under. But I remember waking up terrified when a siren went off in the night. Science fiction was real. MAD magazine was real. Comic books were real. Because all knew reality was strange and scary and uncertain.

I subscribe to New Scientist and Technology Review. Science and technology are moving too fast for me to keep up; and it isn't one kind of science or technology that is moving fast. They are all going like gang busters. I figure SF is the best way to describe this astoundingly fluid world, changing from moment to moment in a hundred plus ways.

Did you know that slime molds can run mazes? And they could be used in city planning, though no one is doing this yet? They will find the most efficient way to go from A to B; you could use them to lay out a highway system. How do I know this? Some guy ran slime molds over a map of Tokyo. They laid out a highway system as well as city planners.

What do you do with a piece of information like that? I imagine using slime molds to plan cities. Someone is likely to do it. I also think of an organism that is usually single celled, but can become multicelled -- two different kinds of multicelled, if I'm remembering correctly, one a network and one a kind of hierarchy. The guys on top of the hierarchy get to reproduce. I am trying to imagine an alien society which is usually an anarchy, but can form two kinds of social organizations when needed. In a sense, Occupy Wall Street is like this: separate individuals coming together to form a network with distributed power.

I guess I will give one more example or pair of examples: Margaret Atwood's famous novel The Handmaiden's Tale and Suzette Hayden Elgin's far less well known science fiction novel Native Tongue.

I started The Handmaid's Tale, but gave up on it. Atwood established her idea: the US has turned into a religious patriarchy that enslaves women. But as far as I got into the novel, there were no more ideas, and I couldn't see why I should read a depressing book that was going to go on and on, with nothing new happening. (Many SF fans loved Atwood's book, by the way.) Elgin began with the same idea, then added her ideas about language, which are respected among linguists. (She was a linguist, teaching at the university level.) And she added aliens. I finished Native Tongue and read the sequel.

One idea is not enough in this world, where change comes from every direction, unless you are writing a short story.

Blogging and Facebooking

I recently read a discussion on Jim Hines' livejournal about doing stuff on the Internet. I blog and am on facebook. I have mixed opinions re blogging. I have a blog so people can find me via Google. The blog has an email address attached so people are able to write me. Sometimes this is useful. Not everyone has a copy of the SFWA Directory. I keep the blog up, because it tells anyone looking for me that I'm still alive and still able to write.

But I am not a natural blogger. I find it hard to do, and it takes a lot of time. I think the effort I put in is obvious. My style is not fluid, chatty and fun. It's like chainsaw sculpture. Okay, this guy cut a bear out of a tree trunk. Well, it's not much of a bear. Looking at it, all you see is that it was hard to do.

But the blog gives me a place to put my poetry, and it gives me a place to think out loud, and people can find me. So it's worth it. I think.

I love facebook. Unlike the blog, where I mostly speak to silence, I get immediate feedback. The length constraints -- 420 characters -- mean I am forced to write short notes, mostly about the weather and what I had for breakfast and whatever I've done lately that was fun. I love how trivial all this is.

And I post links to articles and images I like, rather than writing about them. Here, this is the NASA photo of the day. Here, this is an article in The Guardian about Occupy Everywhere.

It can eat time, but I don't feel the effort I feel when I blog.

I don't think any of this is especially useful to my writing career. Yes, it has helped John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, but they are exceptional. I figure, do what you want, so long as you still have time to do your real writing. It makes you more visible on the Internet, and a little visibility is not going to hurt.

Monday, October 24, 2011

This is Amazing

What created the Waterfall Nebula? No one knows. The structure seen in the region of NGC 1999 in the Great Orion Molecular Cloud complex is one of the more mysterious structures yet found on the sky. Designated HH-222, the elongated gaseous stream stretches about ten light years and emits an unusual array of colors. One hypothesis is that the gas filament results from the wind from a young star impacting a nearby molecular cloud. That would not explain, however, why the Waterfall and fainter streams all appear to converge on a bright but unusual non thermal radio source located toward the upper left of the curving structure. Another hypothesis is that the unusual radio source originates from a binary system containing a hot white dwarf, neutron star, or black hole, and that the Waterfall is just a jet from this energetic system. Such systems, though, are typically strong X-rays emitters, and no X-rays have been detected. For now, this case remains unsolved. Perhaps well-chosen future observations and clever deductive reasoning will unlock the true origin of this enigmatic wisp in the future.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More About Literary Fiction

I found this in my Internet wandering today, referenced in a comment in The Guardian. It's A Reader's Manifesto published in The Atlantic, an all-out attack on literary fiction. I enjoyed it, because it confirmed my prejudices. I should ask my friend Ruth about current literary fiction. She reads more widely than I do.

The author does not believe the point of change was the McCarthy Era. He likes a number of authors who were writing through the 1950s. Well, there was terrific art in the '50s, much of it done by the Abstract Expressionists. They had all been through the Great Depression, and many had been in the WPA. I got the impression many had leftwing politics, though they mostly talked about art. Mark Rothko told my mother he still carried his IWW card.

Things began to change in the 1960s. I remember my father saying, after we moved to New York, "I know there is interesting art out there, but I can't find it."

Maybe the 60s were when the commodification of culture and hostility to politics took hold. I know that's when serious money came into the contemporary art market, and the avant garde, so to speak, began creating art for the rich. Did something comparable happen in fiction? The market there is the educated middle class. I would have to do more research than I want to do to find out.

The essay does a trip on Don DeLillo, who is writing -- apparently -- about how sterile and empty consumer society it. Contempt of supermarkets comes in. I will agree that a farmer's market or small specialty stores are probably more fun. But I like food and try to like cooking, and I enjoy going to Byerly's. The description of DeLillo made me want to write about the pleasures of shopping. A science fictional shopping story?

Patrick noted that the movie Logan's Run did a terrific job of taking down the shopping culture. It's the future as people surviving inside a mall and thinking that the world outside is uninhabitable.

Anyway, cheap cynicism about grocery shopping doesn't sound very attractive. If you don't like it, then you don't like it. There isn't much more to say. Go to a farmer's market.

The essayist says modern literary prose is unreadable: clogged, repetitive, bland and imprecise. The examples he gave -- from DeLillo, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy -- seem to prove his point.

An interesting take.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Literary Fiction

I read a New York Times interview with the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. His work sounded interesting. The interviewer describes it as falling "into an oddly fascinating hole between genres (sci-fi, fantasy, realist, hard-boiled) and cultures (Japan, America), a hole that no writer has ever explored before."

I'd say the anime director Miyazaki has explored much of the same territory: realism in Whisper of the Heart, SF and fantasy in many other movies, western culture and Japan throughout. Castle in the Sky begins in a mining town based on towns in Wales. Kiki is set in a city based on a city in Sweden. Spirited Away seems very Japanese to me. Howl's Moving Castle is European.

In any case, Murakami sounds worth checking out, nothing like my idea of "literary" fiction.

Maybe I am wrong, and there is a lot more good lit in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books than I realize.

Fred Ho

I love this photo of Fred Ho.

Fred Ho

The wonderful saxophonist and composer Fred Ho is ill with cancer. He's 54, too young to be so ill. I wrote a poem:
Cancer shouldn’t take down
like guy like you,
six foot plus
and wide through the shoulders,
with a baritone sax like a machine gun --
like Monkey willing to shake up heaven
and travel ten thousand miles
to bring truth to the people.

You should outlast illness
like a Taoist sage,
kick ass
like a Shaolin master,
blow that sax
like it’s the International
sung by all the planet’s people together.

The dragon king
of the Eastern Ocean
should bow his crowned head
and carry you
beyond mortality.

The poem is flamboyant. So is Fred Ho. I am really hoping he beats this. He is someone we need. If I had a way to reach Monkey or the dragon king, I'd be asking for their help. Where are all the Taoist sages when you need them?

From Facebook

I commented on facebook that "literature is not what it used to be."

One of my friends asked, "When was the golden age of literature?"

I answered:
I had to go away and think about your question. I would pick the 19th century as the golden age of the literary novel. However, as far as I know, the category of literary novel did not exist then. People like Dickens and Twain have been made ancestors of the literary novel, though they more properly belong in the history of popular fiction. I suspect that the true literary novel came into being circa 1900 with the James-Wells divide and then High Modernism. So maybe the golden age is Proust. I suspect the literary novel as we know it today came into existence after WWII, possibly in the post-war red-baiting era. (I'm talking about the US here.) Fear of the witch hunters made people careful about that wrote or painted. It was safest to do work that was inward or abstract or concerned with formal problems. Or you could turn to art for kids, trashy art, stuff no one took seriously: SF, comic books and Mad Magazine. Just an idea...

By "literature" I mean the writing that the commanding heights of culture -- the New York Times and the New York Review of Books -- take seriously.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Guardian

The Guardian has an interesting article on science fiction and literary awards. I found the comments mostly interesting and added my own:
Interesting discussion. I have read almost no "literary" fiction written in recent decades. Not sure why. It seems uninteresting to me. Maybe it's the recognition that Mieville is talking about. If I want to find out about the real world, I can read the news or nonfiction or talk to people or simply go outside.

Is science fiction formally conservative? Often, yes. Delany talks about this. When reality is uncertain, as it is in science fiction and fantasy, then an experimental style can make the narrative too confusing and unclear. Experimental sf can be done, as was demonstrated in the 1960s and 70s, but it's not easy. I once had to write a description of someone who was trapped in a half-hour-long time loop. Since she was inside it, she didn't realize what was happening. Every turn round the loop was new to her. And the novel was written from her perspective. So how did she figure out what was happening, and how did she get out? I nearly went crazy writing that section, and I have never been happy with the result. That's as much of a formal problem as I want.

I try to write good, clean language, drawing on the Icelandic family sagas as examples, and keep most of the weirdness to the ideas. I tend to think of science fiction as a fiction that takes place inside metaphors. The craziness, the disjunction, the surprises happen in the narrative line, rather than in the language.

A lot of science fiction and fantasy is not good, which has to do with commodification and the needs of people trapped in a not very pleasant society. You dream of escape, and the market gives you false and unobtainable and badly written dreams.

But from the beginning, whether you start with Mary Shelley or H.G. Wells, there has been sf which challenges the status quo intellectually and morally. The best is well written. Speaking of awards, I direct you to the Tiptree, science fiction's gender bending fiction award. Its winners and short list members are often interesting.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Writing Today

I met Lyda and Naomi for writing at the coffee shop. I started with a headache, then added too much coffee and too much conversation, so I didn't get much writing done. I hope next week is quieter, and I am wise enough to lay off the coffee. Still, the conversations were interesting.

I have almost finished the current story, after many tiny revisions. It will go to the Wyrdsmiths this week.

Then I have nothing in the works except revising the novel. When I became unemployed, I had a huge stack of unfinished work. I have slowly reduced the stack.

Boy, it has been a long process.

Another Poem

I'm writing poems at the moment. Here is one:
October Signs

On a day like this --
the low sky spitting cold rain,
November in October --
the demonstrators outside
the City-County building look miserable,
as does the guy
standing at the freeway exit ramp,
his sign asking for money,
theirs for justice.

I keep hoping this country’s heart
would be open and generous
like a golden autumn day,
not hunched down, closed in, cold.

I wrote it yesterday, riding the bus home from an appointment in Minneapolis. The day was, in fact, cold and gray, more like a November day than an October day.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cosi fan Tutte

I went to the opera last Sunday. It was Cosi fan Tutte, a Mozart opera about how women are all unfaithful. The two young heroes decide to test the loyalty of their girl friends by pretending to go away, then courting the girls disguised as Albanian soldiers. Of course the girls fall in love with the Albanians, and then the ruse is revealed. The master mind of all this, the cynic Don Alfonso, then says, "Cosi fan Tutte, thus do all woman," and suggests everyone get happily married. A noxious plot. So I wrote this poem:
The two girls married their soldiers
and settled down to be happy,
though their eyes still roved a little.

The baker’s boy had handsome shoulders.
That noble sat on his horse like a centaur.
Every dance was like a banquet table
spread with delicious dishes --
flourishing mustaches, lusterous hair,
bodies like Adonis, angel faces.

Only Don Alfonso seemed ugly.
Cynical and malicious, he was not invited
to either of their houses.


In spite of everything, they remained faithful,
asking only this of their husbands:
to come each night to the marriage bed
in costume:
Albanian soldiers. Turkish merchants,
Russians in furs, Indian sachems,
almost naked with feather crowns.

It cost a fortune.
How Don Alfonso would have laughed,
if he had known.
But the soldiers had learned their lesson
and kept quiet.

Every evening, as the girls dressed for bed
they wondered, who would visit?
A Chinese mandarin?
A prince from Africa?
And English lord, full of ice and manners?

“Cosi fan tutte,” they told their husbands.
“This is the way it is.”

Weather Report

A lovely day, grey-white clouds and a bright blue sky. The current temp is 47.

The Denver police and Colorado state troopers broke up the Occupy camp in Denver.

I had a busy day yesterday, running errands in downtown Minneapolis, then attending a meeting of the Wyrdsmiths, my writing group. As always happens when the Wyrdsmiths meet, I drink coffee in the evening and can't get to sleep. Though one other member says she can't get to sleep, either, and it isn't caffeine, it's the buzz that happens when you have a good time with other people.

In any case, I woke up this morning tired and disinclined to do anything. Maybe a run to the grocery store. Maybe some work on writing.

I think, when I had a job, I paced myself; and I have to do the same now. I'm not one of those vibrate, active senior citizens, able to keep going all day. I need time to read and think and maybe nap.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Minnesota

I had to be in Minneapolis today, so stopped by Occupy Minnesota. It's a small group right now, spread across the plaza, and they look as if they have settled in for a long stay. There's a food station, a first aid station, a media station and a sign-in table, also heaps of picket signs and bright blue tarps.

They said they needed coffee, so I went to a nearby Caribou Coffee and bought two cardboard containers of coffee and took them over to the food station. They thanked me and offered me food. I took a piece of a bagel. Next time I come, I will being bagels as well as coffee.

A woman handing out "Stop War" stickers told me there will be rally Friday at 3 pm.

Cops arrested 300 people at the Boston occupation, and New York is telling the demonstrators they have to move out of the Liberty Part while it is cleaned. After, they can come back, but cannot have tents or sleeping bags and cannot lie down on the ground or benches.

This is about what I figured would happen. If the demonstrations didn't simply wind down, the cities would close them down.

If the occupations can't be maintained, then I think there will have to be daily demonstrations and other actions.I'm trying to remember how this was done in the 1960s and what I've read about the 1930s.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Results of a poll in Pennsylvania, via the blogger Atrios:
The poll found that one in four Pennsylvania residents has had someone living in his or her household lose a job or be laid off in the last 12 months - and two out of three had close friends or family members who were put out of work in that time.

More than three out of every four Pennsylvanians said they knew individuals or families who struggle every month to afford basic needs such as rent, utilities, health care, clothes, or food.

"The poverty question was startling," said Joseph Morris, a professor and director of the college's Center for Applied Politics, which conducted the poll, "as was the fact that a strong majority of Pennsylvanians have had to make lifestyle changes because of the economy."

This is something I've been saying all along. If you have 10% unemployment -- or almost 20%, if you use the U6 figures -- then almost everyone knows someone who isn't working or isn't working enough. The exception is the upper middle class, who have an unemployment rate of 3%. But the vast majority of Americans have family members, neighbors, friends unemployed or underemployed. Of course, we care. We worry for the people we love. And our own lives are changed. We have a son living in the basement. a buddy who can't go out for beer, a neighbor who's being foreclosed. Because most ordinary people are generous, we help if we can, and we worry, and we get angry.

Happy news from the government does not make this situation better.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Stars Abide (Courtesy NASA)

Thirteen years ago results were first presented indicating that most of the energy in our universe is not in stars or galaxies but is tied to space itself. In the language of cosmologists, a large cosmological constant is directly implied by new distant supernova observations. Suggestions of a cosmological constant (lambda) were not new -- they have existed since the advent of modern relativistic cosmology. Such claims were not usually popular with astronomers, though, because lambda is so unlike known universe components, because lambda's value appeared limited by other observations, and because less-strange cosmologies without lambda had previously done well in explaining the data. What is noteworthy here is the seemingly direct and reliable method of the observations and the good reputations of the scientists conducting the investigations. Over the past thirteen years, independent teams of astronomers have continued to accumulate data that appears to confirm the existence of dark energy and the unsettling result of a presently accelerating universe. This year, the team leaders were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. The above picture of a supernova that occurred in 1994 on the outskirts of a spiral galaxy was taken by one of these collaborations.

OWS # 2 - Facebook Notes

I went to the Occupy Minnesota demonstration Friday morning. When I was there, it was several hundred nice Minnesota people drinking coffee and chatting. Later on, apparently the group decided to march from the City-County Building to the Federal Bank Building and back. One guy told me he was planning to spend the night.

(Per Firedoglake, demonstrators are planning to stay at the Hennepin County Building plaza least three months, into the Minnesota winter. The key is good insulated sleeping bags.)

One of my facebook friends asked, "Is this finally it? Is this the socialist revolution?" I don't know what it is yet. But in the last half year we've had revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, ongoing demonstrations in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, strikes and demonstrations throughout Europe, the Madison mobilization and now demonstrations throughout the US. If nothing else, this is a lot of activity. It reminds me of 1968, but that was the end of something, and this feels more like the beginning.

I have been talking to old friends. We can remember when white working people were not supportive, when union members came after peace demonstrators with baseball bats. There were a lot of Americans in the 1960s who were not in favor of peace and civil rights.This looks much broader... And with better communication. I just found Occupy France. It is both an attempt to organize in France and to cover the US occupations for Francophones who don't know English.

One thing that heartened me Friday was a big tractor-trailer driving along one side of the plaza in Minneapolis, blowing its horn for the whole length of the block. A couple of minutes later, it showed up going the opposite direction, down the other side of the plaza and blowing its horn. Of course we all yelled and waved and raised our fists. I remember when truck drivers didn't much like young people with signs.

Massive student demonstrations in Chile, which I knew nothing about till ten minutes ago, when Patrick handed me a flash drive with two stories...

(The Chile protests have nothing to do with OWS, but they are part of many, many demonstrations worldwide.)

Bridge occupation in London today, protesting cuts to health care.They are using the "we are the 99%" slogan in solidarity with OWS.


Friday, when Lyda and I went to the Occupy Minnesota demonstration in Minneapolis, was cephalopod awareness day.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Flyer for St. Paul Art Crawl This Weekend

If you are wondering what the flyers are about, I signed up for a table at the St. Paul Art Crawl happening this weekend. It looks as if I will end up caring for the table on my own, since the other Wyrdsmiths can't make the event. The image is pulled off the website that Bill Henry designed for the Wyrdsmith Writing Group. As you can probably figure out, it's many of our book covers, attractively arranged. There's a little text, which didn't come through when I loaded the image. Anyway, it represents the rest of the group in absentia; and I will represent myself.

Flyer for St. Paul Art Crawl This Weekend

I'm not crazy about the look of this, but the teeny print tells people they can find my work on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle and Nook. Important information.