Friday, September 28, 2007

My War With the Term "Fix-Up"

Let me, as Henry James used to say, be brief:

I have decided that the critical term "fix-up" needs to be obliterated. What was once a modest descriptive for a very specific type of novel has long since metastasized, swelling to many times its original meaning and in the process doing a great deal of harm to many works of fiction that did not deserve to be so mistreated.

No more.

If you're curious about my reasoning, what does and does not properly constitute a fix-up, and what conceivable harm an innocuous little compound noun can do, you can read about it in A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Welcome. To sweeten the pot, I've thrown in two brand-new and original flash fictions, both in collaboration with writers more famous than myself.

Oh, and forewarned is forearmed: The essay is nine thousand words long.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 7)

Diagram 7. I’ve finally gotten Will out of the subway system and into Babel’s aboveground society. Not very high up, mind you. He’s just another immigrant, trying to hustle his way into the Babylonian Dream. And, briefly, the writing pauses, while I try to figure out how to make it work again.

The text reads, top to bottom:



Fox Nat Esme

Political Police


Start Lowly:

The Lower East Side

Half the day was spent running a 3-card Monte scam. The other half he was let out on his own to learn the basics of the city
[and city life]

He learned in . . . etc.
He learned that without money all the city was closed to him


The fox is off to the side and circled, because she hasn't made an appearance yet (save in a story that Nat told on the train).

Note that "les poulettes" -- the Political Police -- have reappeared, and that once again I had to black out a name to preserve a secret. Also that Alcyone still doesn't have a name and is simply represented by a female sign, which is also circled and to the side, indicating that while she's doing something relevant to the plot she doesn't make an actual appearance yet.

I began Will in the Lower East Side because Babel is in some sense "really" New York City, and traditionally that's where immigrants started out from.

Down at the bottom, Will and Nat are running a three-card Monte scam. The "he learned" jotting eventually became the following paragraph:

He had learned a great deal in the past twelve months. Not just the petty scams and cons by which he and Nat scrounged a living, but the ways of the city as well. He’d learned that in Babel “What the fuck do you want?” meant “Hello,” that “I’m going to have to run you in” meant “Give me ten dollars and I’ll look the other way,” and that “I love you” meant “Take off your trousers and lie down on the bed so I can grab your wallet and run.”

Which looks simple, but until I was able to formulate it, I wasn't able to move beyond those few opening pages. Will had to learn the basics of Babel, and so did I.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled . . ."

Who can explain the transient enthusiasms that grip a working writer? I vividly remember the time several years ago when I was working on three separate stories at once and suddenly realized that all three stories featured a protagonist who was already dead by the time the story began.

That was a creepy moment. It seemed like my subconscious was trying to tell me something. But if so, I still haven't figured out what.

Similarly, but in a less threatening vein, I seem to have something happening with the Tower of Babel these days. It features prominently in The Dragons of Babel, which for those coming in late is my forthcoming novel and the reason for this blog. And the cover story in this month's Fantasy & Science Fiction (the October/November 2007 issue) is "Urdumheim," which is a creation myth for that dread Tower, such as might be told by the characters in my novel (though it doesn't appear in it). And just now I've dropped into the mail to Asimov's the corrected proofs for "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled . . ." Which has nothing to do with either of the other two works. It's a science fiction story set on the planet Gehenna, dealing with the aftermath of the destruction of a gigantic tower-city inhabited by intelligent giant millipedes.

Another telegram from the hindbrain. But the message is in a language I do not speak, coded in letters such as I've never seen before.

But take a look at the cluster of alien "speech" above. The millies have trilateral symmetry and a signed language, so that a single thought or statement transcribed into what I think of as an ergoglyph looks something like a verbal snowflake.

You have no idea how much fun that was to write.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 6)

Diagram 6. Here I’m trying to get a good idea of how the rest of the novel will go. Once again, the diagram takes the form of the Tower of Babel.

From the bottom:

W [Will]

D [Dragon]

E [Esme]

N [Nat]

Two Dragons

[Blacked-Out Name]

Nobody Dies

Nat tosses Esme Over the Edge

Nat Dies


I’ve blacked out a name here because it gives away a plot point. Sorry.

Note that Alcyone, who has yet to make an appearance in The Dragons of Babel, still doesn’t have a name – she’s listed simply as “Woman.” At this point I’m as much in the dark about what she’ll be like as Will is. I know that she’s going to have to be a strong character and an interesting one, if she’s going to stand out in a crowd that includes the likes of Nat and Esme. But that’s it. It was pretty much a done deal that she was going to be a redhead, though.

Oh, and that flurry of deaths and not-deaths and throwing-of-children-off-the-edge-of-Babel at the end? By the time I got there, everything was changed and the scenes I’d planned weren’t used. It’s important to note that I never intended for Esme to be hurt, going over the edge, though. I don’t kill children. Not even fictional ones.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Bill Gibson Moment

Neil Gaiman has already blogged about this, but what the hell. There were only two moments when the Western guests at the 2007 International Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference in Chengdu baffled our hosts with our inscrutable Occidental ways. One was when Neil and I were on a bus with editor Jenny Bai and our interpreters, Heather and Cecilia. There were only two seats available, and the ladies wanted Neil and myself to have them. "No, no, no," I said, "there is no way I can possibly take that seat and leave you standing. It's simply not going to happen." And Neil amplified, "It's a cultural thing. There's nothing you can do about it" So two of the women sat, although it was clear they had no idea why we insisted on it.

The other moment was when we came upon what looked to be a scavenged videophone carefully set alongside a stack of cardboard and some glass and plastic bottles by a curbside recycler. "It's a Bill Gibson moment!" Neil and I said in unison, and we began dancing about, snapping photographs.

"Why are you taking pictures of that?" somebody asked, almost forlornly. And it was hard to explain. But back in 1984, when Neuromancer came out, Bill's trademark combination of high tech and street scavenging was a vivid snapshot of the future. And now here it was, in Chengdu, an industrial city of eleven million people inside a China whose economy is booming, and suddenly it's not the future anymore.

It's just the present.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Worst Rendition of "Oh, Susanna!" in Human History

(Photo courtesy of Cecilia Qin)

Nancy Kress has just blogged about being part of what she called "the worst rendition ever of 'Oh, Susanna!'" In fact, Nancy is too kind. It was not only the worst rendition of that song in human history, but the worst rendition of that song in any imaginable universe. A group made up of William Shatner, Tiny Tim, Captain Beefheart, and Florence Foster Jenkins would have sounded dulcet by comparison.

The above photograph shows an unidentified Chinese musician who deserved better, Rob Sawyer, myself, Nancy Kress, and Rob's wife Caroline Clink, at the climax of the song. How did we get into this fix? Well . . .

In the aftermath of the 2007 International Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference in Chengdu, China, all those guests staying afterwards were invited to a Future of Chengdu Leisure forum. Which turned out to be an extraordinary variety of first-rate entertainment (musicians! dancers! snack makers!) punctuated by short extemporized speeches by everybody present. Then Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Bugrov followed up his speech by singing a romantic Russian ballad. He had a wonderful voice and knew how to use it. Suddenly, people appeared at Nancy's side suggesting she get up and sing a song. "No, no," she said, "you don't want to hear me sing."

They turned to me. "No, no," I amplified. "You really don't want to hear me sing."

But they insisted and so Nancy and I stumbled on stage, followed by Rob and Caroline. Who, in my humble opinion, deserve to split a Mensch-of-the-Year Award between them, because they really didn't have to get up on stage. They did it only so as to dilute the blame among more people.

Neil Gaiman said our singing moved him to extremes of compassion. But he also videotaped the whole thing, should he ever need to blackmail any of us.

But, hey. Give us this. If we were going to get up and stage and mangle a song in four separate keys, at least we were going to do it with gusto. I like to think that counts for something.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Chengdu (Part 2)

After the convention, all the guests, translators, and editors went out for yet another feast. Every meal in Chengdu was a feast. And since the default state for food in Sichuan Province is indescribably delicious and every meal had a seemingly infinite amount of food, it almost seemed at times as if our hosts were trying to kill us with kindness:

"And now, Mr. Bond, we shall place you in a restaurant in Chengdu and tell the waiters to keep bringing new food. You will have no choice but to eat until you die."

"You fiend!!"

The above photograph is of Chengdu's famous hot pot. The pot at the center of the table contains stock kept at a rolling boil. Various foods are dipped into the pot and cooked on the spot. You'll notice that there are two parts of the pot. The outer part is filled with hot peppers. Alas, while Sichuan is famous for the spiciness of its foods, this hot pot was seasoned relatively lightly, apparently in deference to Western preferences. So it was merely very, very hot. At one point, however, I did carelessly touch the skin just below my nose with a finger that apparently had a minuscule drop of hot oil on it. Two minutes later, I had to hurry to the men's room to wash my face -- it was afire!

Neil Gaiman started to sit down at our table and then, as he later put it, "suddenly realized that it was like being on a cruise ship -- I'd been eating with the same people every evening." So he switched places with one of the translators and sat down at an all-Chinese table. No, no, they tried to warn him, this table has non-Western food. But Neil was game, and so he spent the evening trying out duck intestines and other delicacies.

I think I have a new role model.

Afterwards, Neil and Rob Sawyer and I (Nancy Kress, unhappily, was so exhausted she had to go back to the hotel halfway through dinner) went to a tea house, where we and several Chinese writers met in a private room.

Here's a picture of science writer Wang Yan (wearing a baseball cap), Neil Gaiman, and Haihong Zhao, Galaxy Award-winning sf writer. Neil and Haihong were the ringleaders of a wide-ranging conversation, but all the rest of us -- Rob and myself most definitely included -- were intensely involved as well.

Mostly what we talked about was the state of science fiction in China. In English-American terms, Chinese science fiction is still what might be called Golden Age sf: Straightforward, mostly adventure fiction, and heavily reliant on scientific fact. If Science Fiction World publishes a story that's light on science, they receive letters of complaint from their readers.

[Right: Haihong Zhao and Yu Lei, who publishes under the pen name Ling Chen,which means "the dawn"]

This is a situation that a lot of American readers wish held true in the States. But there are two problems with it. One is that it excludes a lot of different types of science fiction that Rob and Neil and I happen to love. The other is that Science Fiction World's readership peaks in high school and dwindles through University, falling to almost nothing among graduates.

So of course we discussed directions in which Chinese sf might be expanded, in hopes to retaining its readers in perpetuity. In retrospect, I'm not sure if any of this was helpful or not. But writers thrive on ideas and on the company of other writers. So it can have done no harm.

[Right: Liu Cixin. Earlier in the day, at the Galaxy Awards ceremony, a special sf award went to his "Three-Body"]

The conversation went on late into the night and both Neil and I agreed that it was the high point of our visit -- even better than when we had real, live pandas plonked onto our laps. I didn't ask Rob, so it's possible that for him winning the Galaxy Award for Most Popular Foreign SF Writer was the high point. But I suspect not. You don't become a science fiction writer unless you think writing science fiction is the most important thing you can possibly do and that science fiction writers are the coolest people you can possibly hang out with.

So spending an evening with some of the best science fiction writers in all of China? It was fabulous.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Digramming Babel (Part 5)

Diagram 5. Here, I’m trying to work out the plot lines within Oberon Displaced Persons Camp. Anybody who’s ever attended a Clarion workshop where I’ve taught will tell you that I’ve got a thing for triangles. Here’s my theory:

John Kessel once observed that it took three people to make a plot. With two, you’ve only got a tug-of-war. But with three, the protagonist can be pulled in two directions and the story’s outcome will be a synthesis of these forces. That’s an oversimplification of his thoughts on the subject, of course, and to almost any rule there will be exceptions, but it is, as we say, good enough for government work. So whenever I have trouble with plot, I map out the characters’ relationships with each other. Three in a firm triangle is good. Three where the interactions between two of the characters are weak is less good. Characters stuck out on the side, interacting with only one other character are weak, but they might well be simply incidental. A lot of characters relating only to the protagonist and not to each other is a fatal flaw. And so on.

The thing is that character triangles are analytical rather than prescriptive tools. They can’t tell you what to do. They can only tell you what’s going on. But if you want to get a look at a story or a novel fragment as a whole, they’re a great way to sum up a lot of information. Which, sometimes, can tell you what to do. Or at least tell you where it should be done.

Here, the novel’s going well. There are three strong triangles: Will-Esme-Mother Griet, Will-the Lamius-Mother Griet, and the Lamius-Nat-Mother Griet. Note that Nat doesn’t have an explicit relationship with Will. Since Will is the viewpoint character, this means that Nat’s relationship with the Lamius and Mother Griet is entirely implicit in later actions.

Underneath the character diagram, are the words “Garbage duty/[something indecipherable]/Nat,” which map out the plot yet to come. Yet again, I have to apologize for my handwriting. And yet again, I’m trying to force Nat to come out in the open while he, wiser than I, reminds behind the scenes, waiting for the right moment to make his entrance.

Note also the notation “26,802 words,” and the date, “1/30/04.” I’m almost a quarter of the way through the novel and just shy of four years from its pub date. As I said, things were going well.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The 2007 International Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference in Chengdu (Part 1)

What, you may well ask me, was it like being a American writer at a Chinese science fiction conference? It was like being a rock star for a weekend. Above is a picture of the fans waiting for us at the opening ceremony. They were young, they were enthusiastic, and every single one of them wanted their books and often enough their t-shirts autographed by each of the guests and, as long as they were there, a photograph of themselves with the writers as well.

There were five Anglophone writers in attendance (myself, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Neil Gaiman, and David Hill, who may not be very well known in the U.S. but is big as big in China), and of us all only Neil was accustomed to receiving this sort of adulation. But I’m here to tell you that it’s very easy to get used to. As Neil said, “Signing autographs is fun for the first two and a half hours.” Because we had a busy schedule and the conference organizers were careful to keep us moving between events, we were able to sign hundreds of autographs without ever feeling overworked.

At the opening ceremonies, Neil Gaiman was greeted with enthusiastic applause. But when Rob Sawyer was introduced, the audience roared. Rob is immensely popular in China, as later events were to prove. After the obligatory welcoming speeches, twin cannons shot glitter into the air and we were ushered inside the Sichuan Science and Technology Museum.

The conference itself passed by in a pleasant blur. We each gave a talk and attended talks by others. We explored the science exhibits. We took part in the largest and longest convention panel I have ever been on. (It was held in a conference room longer than a football field and was scheduled to last two hours. After two and a half hours – by which time, Rob Sawyer, David Hill, and I were making whispered jokes about the death of Tycho Brahe – the moderator opened the panel to questions from the audience.) We had official signings and casual signings and on-the-run signings. We posed for photographs with fans. We took photographs of each other. We were taken out on Saturday night and given an elaborate banquet of astonishingly good food. We hung out with Chinese writers and Japanese writers and noted academic Elizabeth Hull and American fan Trina King and Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Yevgrafovich Bugrov and my friend from Moscow, Larisa Mikhailova, editor-in-chief of Supernova magazine.

Left: Neil Gaiman, during the panel, showing Nancy Kress a truly awful photograph of Yours Truly. You can find it on his blog (scroll down to August 29), where he did his own report on our experiences in Chengdu.

The conference ended with the Galaxy Awards ceremony, where Robert Sawyer received the “Most Popular Foreign Author of the Year” award. By this time, a visitor would have to be not only deaf and blind but pretty darned dim to be at all surprised. Chinese readers really, really, really love Rob’s work.

At one point, I slipped away from the conference and across the street to Tuan Fu Square. Which is big and glitzy and wonderful in an overdesigned Postmodern kind of way. Every day at dusk and noon there’s an elaborate water show, synchronized to music, and I had the good fortunate to be there for the noon show.

The conference ended with everybody going out for yet another banquet – this time featuring Chengdu’s famous “hot pot,” of which more in the next entry. But the conference itself was only a small part of our adventures. Stay tuned for Part 2. Soon.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Useful Advice

This is a sign I saw on a lobby wall in Chengdu. I have no idea what it's supposed to mean -- it wasn't near a door or an intersection of anything like that. But what useful advice that would be if only we could all live up to it! Think of all the bad relationships, dull conversations, and toxic marriages that could have been prevented.

Food for thought.

Friday, September 7, 2007

The Inimitable Jason Van Hollander

If, as I presume you do, you value knowing interesting and talented people, then surely you must envy me for knowing the inimitable Jason Van Hollander. He has a compulsively self-deprecating demeanor and an extremely wry wit. I visited him at work once, and he introduced me as "the editor of Casket and Sunnyside Magazine." We went to a grocery store together and he told the man handing out samples of chips-and-salsa that I was "a connoisseur of salts." He's a highly respected book designer and as an artist has received two World Fantasy Awards.

And, because he doesn't travel, you've almost certainly never met the man.

Fortunately for me, I live within a reasonable drive of his house, so every now and then I get to drop in on him. Here's what he made for me after one such visit:

Pretty cool, huh?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Reading at Big Blue Marble

Okay, as it turns out, three days a week is, incredibly enough, too little time to post all the things I've got going on. At the rate I've been going, I'll never get around to my noble crusade to eradicate a literary term. So from now on, I'm going to post a minimum of three days a week. And the very first thing I'm going to use this added freedom to mention is . . .

A Reading at Big Blue Marble Bookstore on Thursday, September 27, 7:00pm. Big Blue Marble is really a delight, a throwback to those pre-megabookstore days when each bookstore had its own individual and quirky personality. It's the kind of place where you find yourself spending rather too much money on books that, let's face it, you don't really need. But you want them, don't you? You know you do.

This reading is to promote my brand-new short fiction collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, which John Clute recently gave a rather good review, over at Sci Fi Weekly. If you're local and you've got the time, I'd really appreciate it if you'd show up. You have no idea how embarrassing one of these events is when nobody does.

Big Blue Marble Bookstore is located at
551 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19119, right next door to the locally-legendary Weavers Way Co-op. Close by the intersection with Greene Street. Right in the heart of Mt. Airy.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 4)

Diagram 4. I’m baffled. The line straight down is Will, obviously. C may possibly refer to the Commandant, also known as the Lamius,“El Lizardo,” and “the Legless One.” But I have no idea who KM is. None whatsoever. By now, the plot would have reached Camp Oberon Displaced Persons Camp, so Nat’s little arrow, connected in no way to Will, is there to remind me that Nat is in the camp, and busily active. It will take a long time for Will to learn this fact, though. The little box alongside Nat’s name reads “Cameo?” But I decided against it.

The rather cryptic “2 radio waves” – or possibly “2 hundred wines” – and “8 (mai 2000)” probably have nothing to do with the novel. I’ll jot down notes to myself in whatever happens to come to hand. They could have something to do with a telephone call. I might have been working on a puzzle of some kind. It’s too far in the past to remember. I’ll never know.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Bull Goose Loser

Here's a useful term, and like so many other coinages in our field, it was invented by Gardner Dozois: Bull Goose Loser.

Have you heard it before? Trust me, everybody who's been nominated for and lost more than five or six Hugos or Nebulas has. The bull goose loser (derived from Ken Kesey's "bull goose looney" in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is the guy or gal who's been nominated for more major awards without winning any than anybody else. The list of people who've held this strangely prestigious title include such folk as George R. R. Martin, Gardner himself, Jack Dann, and I forget who else. I myself was a front-runner for the title when "The Edge of the World" copped a Sturgeon and disqualified me. I came close, though. Almost, almost, almost . . .

I mention this not because I just lost another Hugo for "Lord Weary's Empire" in the novella category, but because the fella who did win, Robert Reed (for "A Billion Eves"), was himself a contender for bull goose loser status. A lot of us felt he was long overdue.

So, congratulations, Robert! And my commiserations as well. I know how it feels. Ecstatic, with just a twinge of melancholy.