11 September 2015

Old white guys

I was lucky enough to be in the (standing-room only, and eventually closed-to-entry) crowd at Powell's bookstore last night, to hear Ursula K. Le Guin talk about writing. She had a lot of good things to say, and, I was surprised to find, was a lot more cheery in person than her excellent but often somber novels. She had useful comments about listening to the 'voice' of your writing - literally listening to how it sounds aurally.

What seems to have drawn the most Twitter attention, however, was a throwaway line at the very close of her talk: "Don't let the old guys scare you. They're mostly on their way out." Judging by audience reaction, I suspect most people interpreted the line differently than I did - most seemed to see it as a dismissal of old white guys (OWGs), and I think that's the wrong reaction.

Speculative fiction (and much of the world) has been dominated by OWGs, and that's obviously problematic. However, the problem is not that OWGs are involved - there's nothing wrong with OWGs (speaking as one myself) - but that too few others have been involved. That's changing. But we shouldn't be celebrating one group departing, we should be celebrating other groups arriving.

As a long-time SFF reader and occasional writer, I don't want the OWGs leaving the field. They've written great stuff and still do. I just want to be sure that we also get to see the great stuff written by women, blacks, asians, latins, Tutsis, Hmong, Gagauz, etc. - that everyone's got a fair chance to come onto the field to begin with. That means the OWGs get a smaller share, but it doesn't mean they get no share; it's the proverbial larger pie. We write fantasy - we can make the pie bigger.

14 June 2015

Sasquan 2015

I'll be there! Sasquan/WorldCon, Spokane, 19-23 August 2015.

Are you going? Let me know.

12 June 2015

Ambient fiction

I'm a fan of ambient fiction. Interesting as that might be, that doesn't refer to stories about walking around. I'm talking about fiction with ambience - ambiance if you prefer - fiction with a distinct mood, tone, or atmosphere in one guise or another. Fiction that relies more on feeling than action, more on sense than sensibility.

Patricia McKillip is the reigning queen of ambient fiction. Her stories are solid, the characters interesting, but it's the reliable atmosphere of her stories that draws me back and back again. Some stories are dark, some funny, but there's a muzzy warmth and friendliness to them that never fails to appeal. I recently read one of her stories that's entirely about a man returning an item he stole.That's pretty much all that happens, but the story works wonderfully. Why? Ambience. The story is cozy and compelling, despite its apparent lack of progress.

Ambience doesn't just mean warm and cozy, of course. Jack Vance also fits in the ambient category, and if there's one thing his stories aren't, it's warm and cozy. Vance pulls off a lot more verbal acrobatics than McKillip, and that's part of his appeal, but mood is a key ingredient as well. Almost any Vance story will create a cool, cynical mood, whether the subject is torture or love.

I've done my own share of ambient writing. As often as not, I know more about the tone of the story I intend than about the plot. I know what I want it to feel like. Sometimes that includes how I hope the reader will feel, but more often it's the atmosphere of the overall piece. Once I have that, I can set out more confidently to do the writing.

Who's your favorite ambient writer?

05 June 2015

Interview: Rebecca Bradley - Crazy chicken lady? (in Gil)

Lady in GilI loved Rebecca Bradley's Gil trilogy when I read it back in 2001. Now that I'm (at least temporarily) reunited with my physical books, I picked it up again recently to find I liked it even better the second time around. That quickly led to discovery of her latest novel, a query to Ms. Bradley, and the following interview to catch up on what she's been writing. (Hint - it includes more Gil!)

Rebecca Bradley published the very well-received Gil fantasy trilogy (Lady in GilScion's Lady and Lady Painin the late 90s . Gil was followed in the 00s by a horror novel (Temutma) with Stewart Sloan and a book of "apostate's bible stories" (The Lateral Truth). Now she's back at last with a new novel set in the Stone Age (Cadon, Hunter). She blogs at The Lateral Truth.

You've done a lot of different things, from archaeologist to writer to technical editor. How do you describe yourself now?
Crazy chicken lady.  That’s like being a crazy cat lady, only with chickens.  But also cats.
That is to say, my husband and I “retired” to a rural acreage in the Kootenays, British Columbia, theoretically to enjoy pottering in the garden while writing full-time.  In practice, the acreage-related chores take up a fair amount of each day, and have their own charm.  I am by turns a woodchopper, amateur carpenter, woodstove-cajoler, digger of ditches, chicken-poop-scooper, bear-frightener, and preserver of daunting floods of apricots, plums, and the vegetables we so intemperately plant in the garden, plus the performer of scores of other tasks I never dreamed I’d ever do.  That goes double for scooping the chickenshit, though the chooks themselves are adorable.  The acreage and I, however, have lately drifted towards a reasonable compromise, and writing has moved back towards the front burner.

What originally brought you to writing fiction?
Like most (or maybe all) writers, I was always a passionate reader, and spent my adolescence writing terrible poetry.  Then university took over, and I mercifully dropped the poetry, though never the reading.  Archaeology absorbed me up to the point where I was finishing my PhD thesis in Northern Ireland while also producing two entrancing babies—and somehow, perhaps because there was not already enough for me to do, I chose that moment to bow to the inevitable and start writing fiction.

You describe yourself as a 'natural born atheist'. Your Gil trilogy incorporates an actual, functional deity, but the second book (Scion's Lady) also deals with cults that spring up and vanish overnight. How have your own beliefs affected your fiction?
Fiction is fiction. I’m a hard-nosed rational materialist in life, but fully and joyously capable of suspending disbelief in the supernatural for the duration of a good story, whether I’m reading it or writing it. What I do find quite dull, however, is the phenomenon roughly described as “spirituality,” possibly because I have not a spiritual bone in my head. I do like a dash of irreverence in what I read as well as what I write, as witness my volume of stories following Biblical themes to their logical conclusions. [The Lateral Truth: An Apostate’s Bible Stories.]

While the Gil trilogy was very well received, your other fiction is limited to a few short stories (and now a new novel). Why the long silence?
Well, I never actually stopped writing.  While we were living in Hong Kong, though, from 1991 to 1996, I was able to write fiction full-time, and produced really quite a few words—including 2/3 of the trilogy and another novel: Temutma, a vampire/police procedural co-written with Stewart Sloan and published by Asia2000.  Then we moved home to Canada, and I got jerked back into involvement in archaeology, including teaching at university level.  So, I spent a lot of time writing teaching materials and some scholarly stuff, with short fiction and creative nonfiction as the filling in the sandwich.  I also wrote a number of noncredit courses on subjects that interested me, like pseudoarchaeology, the collapse of complex societies, messianic cults, Pharaonic Egypt, and (of course) creative writing.  Cadon, Hunter was started over a decade ago, but repeatedly put on hold until I ran out of excuses.

The Gil trilogy was published in the late 90s and early 2000s in hardcover and paperback. Your short stories also appeared as paperbacks. Have you thought about reissuing these as ebooks?
Absolutely.  In fact, I’m working on this now.  The trilogy is pretty straightforward, but the short stories fall naturally into several categories, so I’m repackaging them accordingly into several volumes.  Straight horror, soft sf, Hong Kong stories, and a volume of novellas and short stories set in Iklankish, a place that appears prominently in the Gil Trilogy. Some have been previously published, either in my own collections or in edited volumes like Tesseracts, but a bunch of them are new material. As for Temutma, Stewart Sloan and I are planning to put up the English-language ebook, and Jurgen Burger, who did the German translation, is shortly bringing out the German ebook under his imprint, Spray Books.

You blog regularly at The Lateral Truth, part of the Skeptic Ink Network. What issues do you deal with, and what's your objective in writing there?
Skeptic Ink is a loose confederacy of bloggers writing about all manner of things from a skeptical/agnostic/atheist perspective.  I applied to join when it started up because (a) I liked the idea of getting my work out into the world on my schedule, rather than a publisher’s, and (b) I had a lot to say about what I consider to be popular sociocultural nonsense, and a blog network is a great platform for being bossy and opinionated.  Pseudoarchaeology, critique of religion and current social issues, book and movie reviews, news and views, series on prophets and messiahs and political correctness and science and...well, all sorts of stuff.     
Just recently, in the last week of May, you published a new book, Cadon, Hunter, set in the Stone Age. What's it about? How does it draw on your background as an archaeologist? Is it a solitary, or will there be more in that environment?
Short version: Stone Age hunter-gatherer meets early civilization, and awful things happen.
Cadon, Hunter does draw extensively on my background in archaeology and anthropology, but it is heavily seasoned with the fun and freedom of fantasy.  That is, I was not trying to write a serious, scholarly reconstruction of the Mesolithic world—rather, I wanted to construct some archaeologically plausible ancient cultures, and then let them collide in an entertaining fashion, like Gomez Addams’ model trains.  It’s set at that pivot in time when late Stone-Age-style hunter-gatherer bands continued to subsist beyond the borders of early state societies.  Of course, there’s also a side-swipe at the origins of religion.  Some of the inspiration is lifted from the Epic of Gilgamesh, and yes—at least one more volume is planned, as this one really only sets up the Gilgamesh connection.

You've written fantasy, horror, alternative Bible stories, and now Stone Age fiction. Do you have a preferred genre?
Everything I’ve published so far can be loosely described as “speculative fiction,” or historical fiction with fantasy elements, but those genre boundaries are pretty flexible. I like that freedom to play.  On the other hand, there are certain types of writing I would neither read nor perpetrate: specifically, no navel-gazing postmodern post-narrative experimental purposely impenetrable and unreadable high lit. I am, first and foremost, a lover of good narrative.   

What do you read for fun?
Oddly enough, I don’t read much fantasy and science fiction—except recently, when I was on the panel of judges for the Sunburst Award, and had to evaluate scores and scores of spec-fic books over a period of  few months.  Free books, whee!
By preference, however, I read mysteries and classics, am a confirmed Janeite and Thackeray freak, and have a weakness for the early-to-mid 20th century—E.F. Benson, Booth Tarkington, Sinclair Lewis, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Dorothy Parker, etc.  I adore short stories of any genre.  Otherwise, it’s nonfiction for me, especially history, true crime, and anthropology.  I am a sucker for anything to do with serial killers, psychopaths, the Third Reich, disasters, cults, shipwrecks, and the history of religion.  

In the United States, atheists are among the least trusted groups. In Brazil, atheists rank with drug addicts in the public mind. In other countries, atheists face severe restrictions. There's even a term for fear of atheists - atheophobia. Why do you think so many people are troubled by atheists?
Well, there’s that strongly held religious claim to the high moral ground, on the basis that all morality must come from some god or other.  Which is bullshit to begin with, and also a confusion of morality with religious/cultural taboo.  Look at what some religions consider moral and even laudable (suicide bombing, bigotry, gay-bashing, censorship, stoning) and what some religions consider immoral (boobs, booze, art, pulled pork, music, thinking) to get some idea of how the gods can’t get their act together.  Whereas, it seems very likely to me that a core morality based on empathy and a sense of what’s fair is hardwired into the 90-95% of us with a reasonably functioning cerebral cortex.  In fact, there’s nothing like religion to override our hardwiring, and make people willing to behave monstrously.  And as religion is also a major tool for populace control, those of us who see the emperor as naked may well be perceived as a threat to the social order.  

Does the publication of Cadon, Hunter mean that you're back to writing, or should we expect another 20 year gap? What's next?
Heh.  Given my age, I don’t think I can afford another 20-year gap.  And don’t forget I’ve written the equivalent of a nonfiction book or three in the form of blog posts over the last few years.  But if the question is about a return to long-form fiction, then yes—I’m about 20,000 words into another ancient-world fantasy/horror (with a strong supernatural element), and am building up a pile of notes for the companion volume to Cadon, And I’ve recently been dusting off the first chapters and full outline for a followup to the Gil trilogy, which is set about twenty years after Lady Pain, and has coincidentally been reposing in my bottom drawer for almost twenty years.  Feels like the right time to get that puppy down on paper.

09 May 2015

Speculating beyond the patriarchy

Is it good or bad that most fantasy still takes place in patriarchal societies? Not just fantasy, actually, but a fair amount of science fiction as well. In a world where we've tried hard to grow beyond our roots in male-dominated and led societies, we still dream about worlds of oppression.

Of course, in the real world, we haven't made as much progress as one might hope. Some countries have equal protection laws in place, but many don't. Even the ones that do have difficulty in implementation, and society and culture have a long way yet to go. To the extent that our fantasies mirror reality, it's perfectly appropriate that imaginary characters face the same challenges that we do.

SFF (and to some extent all literature) plays several roles. It abstracts the essence of an issue from its messy details to provide a new way of looking at it, it poses new and interesting issues to stimulate our thinking, it offers successes we can only dream of in fact, and, of course, it provides a true escape from daily cares.

I read and write a fair amount of dark fiction, but I tend to enjoy most those stories that pose new problems or new solutions. I'm depressed by stories in which we face the same old problems as we do now. Yes, much fantasy is based on a standard medieval model. That doesn't mean we have to slavishly copy stereotyped medieval roles of strong men and delicate women. I like to think it's because I'm an optimist and idealist that I'm tired of reading these stories. Why not assume that men and women are equal? Why not make that the starting point? We can write perfectly good stories about female knights while acknowledging physiology. We can write space operas that don't assume existing stereotypes have somehow endured for another millennium.

All writers unintentionally incorporate biases invisible to them. There's a reason that stories perfectly suited to the 1930s seem dated now; people don't act and react the same way anymore. But for every story written from a current viewpoint, there seem to be just as many that simply ape the style and context of those dated works.

I'm sure there's an audience out there that thoroughly approves of 'man defends woman' stories - perhaps the same group that denies evolution and global warming. And there's a good argument for representative fiction - stories that reflect readers' everyday troubles, and give them hope for change. But it seems to me that SFF by nature includes a fair amount of aspirational fiction - here's what we could achieve if we put our minds to it - and that models the society we want to be.

Not everything has to be flowers and butterflies, of course. SFF has plenty of room for work that  challenges our preconceptions - The Gate to Women's Country, for example, long ago surprised and intrigued me by making me realize that there are people who genuinely think men and women should live apart. Sheri Tepper has written many excellent books exploring views of gender relations, and pointing out that we have a lot of room to grow.

Not all books, though, need to make the same tired assumptions. Why not have steampunk in which women are equal? Why not lay out societies with better norms, that, instead of dwelling on flaws, encourage us to look at our own world in a different way, to see a female CEO and think "well, of course" instead of "wow, that's great"?

Again, I'm not suggesting that our speculative fiction ignore problems we really have, and have yet to resolve. But where our stories are not about those problems, their effects, their solutions, let's dream better, shall we?

02 May 2015

Sale! Sale! Sale! - on e-book pricing

Back before e-books, I bought paper books when I had the money to do it. Books were books, and paperbacks didn't go on sale. You paid the price on the back of the book, and that was it. Airports charged outrageous prices (except in Portland), and you could pick up very lightly used copies cheap at Powell's, but basically, the price was the price.

Then came Amazon, where I could often get books below cover price, even figuring in shipping. When shipping became largely free, that was even better, but still, I pretty much bought at whatever price Amazon offered.

Then came e-books. E-book prices, unlike paper, seem to be extraordinarily volatile. Or maybe it's just that now I have better tools to track with. E-book prices are also extraordinarily high. Maybe that's because I used to buy paperbacks. I'm not demanding a return to the $1.75 of my youth, but I do think that current prices are unreasonably high. What's stranger is that publishers tend to stick to flat pricing, so that vast George Martin tomes cost roughly the same as thinner Jasper Fforde books.

The effect of these high prices is that I've become a more price conscious consumer. That's made easier by the availability of price alert tools. I use eReaderIQ and Luzme, and I'm opportunistic. When a book I want drops below $3, I snap it up. But that also means that when it's not on sale, I likely won't buy it. Instead, I'll wait until it the price drops. At the very least, until it has been stable for some time. When I buy an e-book these days, I check to make sure I'm getting the best historical price. 

I don't need to have the latest and greatest. Even for books I really want, I can wait. Instead of splurging on the latest Robin Hobb, I can go back and read some H.G. Wells instead.

So far, this strategy is working well for me. I got most of Hobb's last Elderling series for about the price of one paperback, and was thrilled. If all e-books were priced that way, I'd be even more flooded with things to read. Conversely, when I do buy a book at full price, I'm pretty irritated to find it on sale later on (this happened recently with a Dave Duncan book).

In retail supermarket sales, manufacturer margins are tiny. Sales can be a good way to entice new customers to try your brand, but they're not a good way to keep them around. People start to expect sales, just as I now do for e-books, and that means lower profit for the manufacturer. 

On the whole, I don't think the sale concept is such a good one for e-books. I'd much rather have 'everyday low prices' than keep my eye open for sales - even with automated tools to help me do it.

What do you think? Are sales useful? Is current e-book pricing a successful model?

26 April 2015

The Dirt from George R. R. Martin [clickbait]

The real George R. R. Martin
The other day, the author of Game of Thrones delivered three yards of compost to my house. The man is a genius at providing a dark, rich, and complex substrate to fertilize the imagination.

It wasn't really George R. R. Martin, of course. But it was a man who could win an impersonation contest hands down. Black cap, glasses, long white beard, generous physique - it looked just like him. I even asked him how many times a day people commented on the resemblance. This being a rural, coastal area, the poor guy had no idea what I was talking about, who George Martin was, or what Game of Thrones was.

It's too bad; I had some questions about Laren Dorr.