Monday, September 30, 2013

"A Terrible Story"


Some time back, over on Facebook, a reader expressed herself rather vehemently about what "a terrible story" my own "Radiant Doors" was.

I was not offended, because I knew what she was saying:  That it upset her to read.  That it made her unhappy.  That it told her horrific things she didn't want to know.  That was indeed the kind of story it was.  I know, I wrote it.  And I can remember what a depressing moment it was when I got the idea for "Radiant Doors" and knew I was going to have to write it.

The story's premise is that one day radiant doors open in the air in countries around the world.  Through those doors millions of refugees come pouring -- people who have been hideously and in some cases grotesquely abused.

They come from our future.

The story is seen through the eyes of a relief worker, a woman who has been driven to the edge by the horrific things she's seen and heard and the awareness that every day that future is twenty-four hours closer than it was the day before.

It is a story that goes beyond bleak.  It is a story about the human capacity for evil.

Not long after the story was published, a former Clarion West student came to my house to drop off an invitation to his wedding.  His fiance was a rabbi and at one point, she took my wife  aside, said that she'd just read it, and then asked, "How can you sleep beside him, knowing he has those things inside his head?"

Marianne, God bless her, smiled and said, "Oh, they're not in his head anymore.  They're in yours."

 I waited some time before posting this, because I didn't want it to seem that I was trying to convince the reader to like the story.  She came to it with an open mind and a writer can ask no more.

But her comment gave me the chance to answer a question that I know arises in many readers' minds:  Why would you write about such terrible things?

Because they exist.  Because the potential for them resides within all of us.  Because refusing to look at them does not make them go away.  Because periodically we must recognize all these hard truths.

I have no criticism of the reader who thought "Radiant Doors" was a terrible story.  It was only her phrasing that was a frazz imprecise, and in a social medium that is very close to casual conversation, that's very easily understood.

"Radiant Doors" is not a terrible story.  It's a very good story about terrible things.


Friday, September 27, 2013

A Hard Question for Young Writers


Monday night I had dinner with (among other good people) Robert Reed.  Unsurprisingly, we had some substantial conversation about literary matters.  At one point, I started talking about new, young writers.  Both people with only a few published books under their belt and those who aren't yet published but will be eventually, I mean.

I told Bob that I'd had many discussions with these folks about their plans to self-publish their ways to glory, about all the work they put into building a brand, creating a community of followers (or readers, for those already published), making blog tours, hiring editors and illustrators, and so on and on and on.  My point was that they were putting ferocious amounts of energy into non-writing activities without having first made up a business plan.  One that would define success and map out how many hours per week would go into each activity and how long they could expect to be holding down four jobs (writer, self-publisher, self-publicist, and whatever puts food on the table) before they could support themselves writing.

But Bob interrupted me.  "Do they ever talk about improving their craft?"

"Um . . . no."

"Then they're just wasting their time."

He was right, of course.  The single most important a writer can be doing is improving his or her writing.  Everything else is just . . . everything else.

Decades ago, when the Cyberpunk-Humanist Wars were in full swing and my generation was really tearing up the tracks, David Hartwell said to me, "You're competing with John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly and Bruce Sterling.  But if you want to get anywhere, you've got to start competing with Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. Le Guin."

It was a shocking thing to hear.  But it was something I needed to be told.

So if you're a new writer, here's the question you've got to ask yourself:  Are you working as hard as you possibly can to make yourself a better writer?

Because if you're not, you're just wasting your time.

Above:  The Saturnian ice moon Enceladus, with a major water-vapor plume, the result of as-yet undescribed cryovulcanism.  Isn't that glorious?  If you're going to be a science fiction writer, you also have to learn to do your research.  But that's another rant for another day.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This Glitterati Life


Monday night I drove into New York City for a dinner hosted by Gordon Van Gelder, owner/editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in honor of literary culture hero Robert Reed.  Bob was in the Big Apple for the first time in twenty years and was struck by how greatly the city has improved itself since then.

Bob told me of his adventures in the gaming industry -- all positive, you'll be pleased to know -- and said that he'd been so busy that he'd written hardly any short fiction at all recently.  "I've only sold six stories this year," he said.

I, in turn, very politely refrained from punching him out for that.

Above, from left to right:  Alana Teitelbaum, Dmitry Iyudin, Gordon Van Gelder, Robert Reed, and Yours Truly.

Below, from left to right: Analog editor Trevor Quachri, John Armstrong, and Alana Teitelbaum again.

Not shown but present:  Photographer to the Stars, Marianne Porter.

And on Friday . . .

Robert Reed and I talked some about new writers and he asked a question which they should find terrifying.  I'll post that here, two days from now.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Home Again, Home Again . . .


I returned home late last night from a week in a cottage in an obscure corner of Maine.  There, above, is where I spent much of my time, out by the water under a tree inhabited by two ravens.  Occasionally, a lobsterman would come by, empty his traps, and putter up the coast.

And what did I do?  Pretty much nothing.  I cleansed myself of electronica.  When I was in the car, I left the radio off.  I didn't even read newspapers.

I got a lot of reading done.  And I only wrote one short essay in all the time I was there.

Mostly, when we travel, Marianne and I travel full-tilt boogie hard and fast:  Up the mountains, into the caves, and a hundred miles down the road by noon.  But every year I like to take a week off and bring myself to a full stop.  On the first day, I'm so wired from a year of literary activity that I'm almost quivering.  Slowly, I recover myself.  And by the final day I no longer want to write.

That's when I know I can come home.

Today, I've done nothing at all, other than typing out and reworking the essay.  In an hour, I leave for a literary dinner party in New York City.  And tomorrow, rested and recharged, I'll resume my usual work schedule.

So I am content and so too, I hope, are you.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

And As Always . . .


My reading in NYC last night was very satisfying, very encouraging.  I read the first chapter of my days-old novel Chasing the Phoenix, and it got laughter and applause.  Which is all one can hope for.

Tomorrow, however, I hit the road again.  This time I'm taking a vacation far from the Innertubes and Outerwebs.  So it'll most likely be a week and a half before you hear from me again.  I apologize for that.  But I've been working extremely hard for the past several months and it's time at last for me to simply . . . not.

So enjoy September!  I'll be back before it ends.


Monday, September 9, 2013

Chasing the Phoenix in New York CIty


Tomorrow I'm doing a New York Review of Science Fiction reading at the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.  Also reading will be the extraordinarily fine writer Richard Bowes.  So this will be a great evening and everybody within striking distance of SoHo is urged to attend. 

The basics are:

Tuesday, Sept 10th -- doors open 6:30  PM
$7 suggested donation
The SoHo Gallery for Digital Art
138 Sullivan Street  (between Houston & Prince St.)

Because I finished my new novel Chasing the Phoenix yesterday, I'll be breaking with my usual practice and reading the first chapter instead of a story.  But don't panic!  The chapter takes the form of a stand-alone story with a beginning, middle, and an end.  So you're not going to be left hanging.

Chasing the Phoenix is a Darger & Surplus book which takes sometime after the events in Dancing with Bears but is absolutely and without quibble a stand-alone novel.  Between books, the two rogues passed through Siberia into Mongolia and down into China, which has broken down into many warring states.  This voyage has changed one of them  profoundly . . . but you'll have to show up at the reading to find out how.

There's a map, if you need one here.  See you tomorrow!


Friday, September 6, 2013

Disturbing Music Video Friday


I'm working hard.  So hard, I almost didn't have time to post anything today.  But I made the extra effort and here is . . . is . . .

The most disturbing music video I've seen in a long time.  A tip of the Hatlo hat to Gregory Frost, fantasist extraordinaire, for pointing me toward it.

A word of warning, though.  You don't want to watch this while eating spaghetti.  It'll make you snort noodles out your nostrils.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

My Worldcon Diary


I'm back from the road.  And I've got to admit that I had a pretty nice time at the Worldcon.

Highlights included:

Meeting  Vivian and Yang Feng, (left and right above) from Science Fiction World, the Chinese magazine and publishing house in Chengdu, China.  They were both the kind of people you take an instant liking to, and reminded me how much I like China, Chengdu, Science Fiction World, and all the folks I met on my visit there.  I value my association with SFW and hope it can be extended into the future.

Hanging out with Pat Cadigan, one of the two greatest science fiction writers ever born in Schenectady, New York.  She won a Hugo, by the way.  That was typical of her.

Having a ray gun shootout with George R. R. Martin.  I won.  Though I suspect he'd disagree.

Drinking and arguing and talking trash and literature with Eileen Gunn and Gary K. Wolfe. Every convention, there's someone you keep running into and into and into, without intending to.  This con, it was Eileen and Gary.  Though my very good friends Ellen Datlow and James Patrick Kelly came close.

Short encounters with Howard Waldrop and Kim Stanley Robinson. 

The How to Write Short Fiction panel with James Patrick Kelly, Cat Rambo , and Vylar Kaftan.  This one worked brilliantly for two reasons: 1) It was a straight-up question-and-answer session.  Nothing but what the audience wanted to hear.  2)  Nobody showboated.  There was some polite disagreement, but we all simply did our best to give the best and most useful advice possible.  There is a consensus wisdom on how to write that comes from the collective experience of hundreds of writers and we simply passed along those parts of it which in our experience work.  For the rest of the convention, I had people coming up and telling me it was a great panel.

Meeting Mary Mohanraj, I think for the first time.  If I'm wrong about that, I plead convention amnesia.

Spending lots and lots of time with Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper.  I could've done that here in Philadelphia, but it just wouldn't have been the same.

Chatting with Arlan Andrews, founder of SIGMA, about his entrepreneurial experiences and his adventures in Saudi Arabia.

Learning from Billee Stallings that she's published several of her father's western novels as e-books.  Billee's father was Will Jenkins, who published SF under the name of Murray Leinster.  An extremely important science fiction writer and prolific over many, many genres. 

Skipping the Hugo Awards ceremony because, as Howard Waldrop put it, "I don't have a dog in that fight," and discovering that the hotel elevators were empty.  No lines!  I went to the SFWA Suite, where Gardner and Gordon Van Gelder were following the awards by virtual means and telling stories about the old days.  I joined them and discovered that I had become one of the Old Guys whom everyone listens to because we know the dirt and the lore and can pass it down.  I also discovered that I had somewhere along the line acquired the discretion to pass along only the non-scandalous stories.  Did I ever find myself saying, "So there he was, drunk, naked, and pushing a bed down the corridor when...?"  No, I did not.

Seeing friends, some all too briefly, I met in science fiction events in other countries.  Petra, I hope you enjoyed the George and Howard Panel I steered you toward.

And . . . well, heck.  I could go on like this forever.  I think back to my first few conventions, where I haunted the panels hoping against hope that somebody would slip and let fall the secret of how to actually be a writer, and how lonely they were because I didn't know anybody, and I have to admit that things have gotten a lot better.

So I was happy to have gone and now I'm happy to be home.  May all your travels be as happy.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Kind Man Departs


By now you've heard that Frederik Pohl is dead.  I believe he's the last great writer of his generation to go, and I cannot help remembering the eulogy that the minister gave my father-in-law when he died, comparing him to one of the Cedars of Lebanon and saying, "Now he's fallen, and how different the horizon looks!"

Fred was a man of many substantive achievements -- as writer, as editor, and in many other roles as well.  But I won't talk about any of them here.  Instead, I think back to 1990 or 1991, when I won my first major award, the Theodore Sturgeon. 

It was a strange and alienating experience for me.  I flew from Philadelphia to Kansas City.  Pat Cadigan picked me up at the airport and drove me to whatever university the award symposium was held at.  It was tornado weather and I remember her saying, "If the sky turns green, I'll slam the car to the side and you jump in a ditch and pray!"  I was given a room in an empty dorm, where I was the only inhabitant that night.  The next day I found myself participating in several symposiums for which I was completely unprepared. 

At one point, I found myself alone with Fred.  "You look a little tense," he commented and I admitted that I was.  Then he said I forget what.  Nothing profound, I suspect.  Just a few kind words.  But they came at the right moment.  He put me at ease, and the rest of the weekend was a lot more pleasant for me.

The thing is that that was typical.  Whenever I spent any time with Fred, I noticed he was doing things for others . . . Trying to find a position for a stranded foreign academic. Giving a short impromptu speech in Roanoke, where he said the kind of upbeat nonsense that the mayor and the press were hoping for.  Giving advice to unpublished writers.  Dealing politely but firmly with recalcitrant publishers for SFWA.  Quietly making things better for others in ways that brought him nothing.

The last time I saw him was last year when I was in Chicago for Gene Wolfe's induction into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.  David Hartwell called me up to ask if I wanted to help them go through a few thousand of J. K. Klein's old photographs, looking for pictures he could use in a reissue or else update, I forget which, of his memoir, The Way the Future Was.

So I spent a few hours with David and Fred, sitting around the kitchen table, talking and sorting.  Fred was a lot weaker than he had been a couple of decades earlier, but his mind was as sharp as ever and his sense of humor was unchanged.  So I was happy.  And, I might add, the envy of all my friends afterward.

That's the last I saw of Fred and how I'll remember him:  Always doing, doing, doing, and oftentimes for the benefit of others, rather than himself.  He was a fine writer and his books are an important part of our history.  He was brilliant and he was hard-working.  But he was also very kind. 

Kindness may be the most important virtue.  Sometimes I think it's the rarest.  But Frederik Pohl had it in spades.

Goodbye, Fred.  Thanks for everything. 

You can read the Locus Online obituary here.

My apologies for not getting a blog post out yesterday.  I spent the day traveling and by the time I got home I was so exhausted I collapsed.  I'll do my bet not to let it happen again.