Friday, December 31, 2010

The assessment

It was a good year. Long-term goals were accomplished and a new chapter begun.



I ground through school and finished my history BA at long last. I was on the Deans List nearly every term and ended with a 3.65 GPA. That and I independently passed BYU's Foreign Language Assessment Test for Swedish to pull it off.



Oregon's climate continued to be so very good to me. I lost another fifteen pounds for a total of fifty. I'm starting to look like me in the mirror once again. Going from Mt. Rose to the City of Roses has been a healthy thing.



I went to LA. I saw my first published short story in a prestigious anthology. I attended a workshop taught by two established authors and met a dozen more, including names in the field that I've admired for over two decades. Every bit as more important, I met my peers.



Strangely, I hardly wrote anything for almost four months after coming home from Writers of the Future. Which is the first I time I've done that in fifteen years. I've been putting out genre text five or six nights a week for the better of two decades. That includes nearly eight years overseas in both the military and as a civilian. I produced words on a tower PC six miles from the DMZ in South Korea and on a laptop in Macedonia twenty miles or so south of Kosovo. Then this fall a switch flipped on some level, and aside from pushing through the revision of a short story, I was drifting.

But it was a creative drift, if that makes any sense. I read everything I could get my hands on about the state of the industry. I looked at every magazine, browsed the books stores, learned the imprints, and thought long and hard about the decline of literary science fiction.

That took me on a whole 'nother trip--looking at what sells and why so much sells well outside of original literary science fiction. It also had me reevaluating everything I've learned from professionals and fellow aspirants over the past three years. It seems that there is a huge difference between what's preached in workshops and in critique groups and what's actually on the pages of books that sell.

Then I picked up part-time work last month writing a software and technology blog for a software development company that goes live in a day or so. That's been great fun: Fun researching the state of technology and how social networking seems to have blurred all the boundaries between coding and feedback and users and programers. Fun writing in personable voice and gradually ditching many of the audience-alienating conceits that I've learned up in academic and 'literary' writing.

This last week it all came together. Over three days a picture emerged of where I want to go as a genre writer and how I want to write. And now the text is flowing once again.

It's probably not a coincidence that this happened during the last week of the year.

It maybe strange, but New Years is now more important to me than Christmas. All the rituals of cleaning the apartment, pulling down inspirational books from the shelf and looking over old text documents written to encapsulate my personal philosophy have taken on a significant emotional weight. The approach of the the holiday throws me into an introspective clarity that normally requires dedicated effort during the rest of the year.

If all of the above sounds a little narcissistic it's because it is. But like the afore-mentioned drift it's been a good kind of egoism--the culmination of a two year hermitage of introspection and reinvention. During coming year I plan on rejoining the human race and integrating myself into the community of the city.

I also intend to continue expanding my writing revenue--both technical and literary.

And no more short stories in genre writing. From here on out it's novels. My first goes out the door in January and I hope to produce at least two more during the course of the year. Perhaps I'll end up like Brandon Sanderson and have a dozen or so trunk novels before my first one sells. If so, I can happily live with that.

In the meanwhile, best wishes to you all for the coming year. May its end find you healthy and happy.

Cheers,
Alex

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Retro 70s iPad

Gresso classies up the iPad with 18k gold logo and ancient wood case -- Engadget

Nice! As an unemployed recent university graduate and part-time paid technology blogger it's been a while since I've been able to afford any kind of fun gadgets. I have, however, gotten to play around with a friend's iPad and was impressed. It's also worth noting that two other tech savvy friends (one programmer, one IT) have both picked up iPads to experiment with and like what they've seen.

The future of computing appears to be mobile. While that's hardly an original insight, it's still an emotional one. The first computer I can remember seeing in person was a closet-sized mainframe. That and for genre writing it is important to try and anticipate just how mobile, small, and integral to the human experience computing will become in the coming years.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I love this kind of stuff

Costumes: the Wearable Dialog • Indistinguishable From Magic

What kind of "stuff" exactly? The kind of articles, commentaries, and interviews where writers and illustrators and directors talk about how they tell a story.

And not the broad kind of "I'm trying to retell Canterbury Tales in Space" type of telling, but rather the specific techniques in a scene or character design that convey unspoken information. All the un-articulated yet still important background information about persons and settings as hinted, suggested, or implied through clothing, through camera shots, or point-of-view narration in text.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On the train to Portland...

...heading through the Columbia River Gorge.




Spirited Away: The television series



Well, not really. But if you did enjoy Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece film, the anime series Kamichu covers a similar slice of Japanese culture with its depiction of young school girl who finds herself a part of Shinto world of small gods and spirits. Normally not my style, I still found myself enjoying this series after a friend recommended as part of my research into what people who used to read literary science fiction are doing for their SF/Fantasy fixes these days.

Kamichu is a gem of series if you like non-violent modern fantasy, though it is probably not for everyone. Written for children and set in small town Japan, it moves a rural pace with few major events taking place in any given episode. Rather than drama, it's a show about place, slow-paced personal development, and a sense of wonder. That and the awkwardness of first loves.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Life-and-Death Choices of a Junior Officer — A Year at War - NYTimes.com

Life-and-Death Choices of a Junior Officer — A Year at War - NYTimes.com

Apologies for the lateness...

...of the next "People Who Used to Read Science Fiction" article on science fiction and video games. Partly it's the arrival of the holiday season that's holding things up; partly it's my need to do...uh...research for the next piece.

Yeah.

Research.

That's what I'll call my time spent playing Mass Effect...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bright mountain...

...and shaded valley



The social terrain of my rooftop has interesting seasonal variations. During the warm months it's mostly hipster kids and music conversations. During the cool season its blue-collar gentlemen in their 60s and professionals in their 30s - 50s. Topics range from Korea in the 1950s; life as a sailor on Mediterranean during the 60s and 70s; to the geometry of cities and the commonalities of art and commerce.



The winter months on the roof remind of old-style barber shops: An almost exclusively male domain of banter or idea-focused discussions.



One of the aspects that I love about living here is the sociability. The sense of shared meeting spaces, of which the rooftop is one of many. My neighborhood is like something out of small town pre-automobile America. Of course there is a down side to that too. You get to hear your neighbors, and once in a while you have to listen to them have it out in the street.



Still, I'll take audio intrusions in exchange for the living, breathing sense of community.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rail gun test

Interesting footage from a recent test of an electromagnetic rail system under development for the Navy. Very science fiction.



As I've mentioned before, the deployment of a workable EM rail gun system may well usher in a new generation of active defensive systems for naval surface combatants. The extended range and flight speed have the potential to push out effective defensive envelopes far enough to counter the proliferation of cruise- and semi-ballistic missiles currently taking place in the Pacific and Middle East. Such expanded depth could prevent the obsolescence of surface warfare ships like carriers, much as how new composite armors during the 1980s kept main battle tanks as viable combat platforms on battlefields, despite the fielding of large numbers of wire-guided armor-piercing missiles during the 1970s.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Earthquake swarm in Arkansas

Earthquake 'swarm' rattles Arkansas town and its residents - CNN.com

We had a similar swarm of small quakes in Reno not long before I moved up here in 2008. It was an interesting feeling waiting to see if all of those small tremblers would come together into a disaster or play out in a gradual redistribution of tension. Especially as my life was on the cusp of a major change, as it may well be now.

I've graduated and am getting ready to send more writing projects out the door. I've also been spamming the employment-sphere with resumes and applications. Nothing has come back yet, but I'm certainly curious to see what will come of it all. Will I be able to stay here in the City of Roses, or will I need to move elsewhere to make the jump from blue to white collar work.

That transition in and of itself will be a major change. Of course in the current market employment of any kind is far from a given. I've seen some bright people who landed a job only after a year or two of being out and about and pressing the flesh and working to meet potential employers face to face.

Back in 2008 those quakes certainly felt as if they presaged major changes all around me. This time though, the swam of tremblers belong to somebody else. Which is fine with me as I am looking to improve on the life that I've began to build here in the lovely City of Roses two years ago.

So we will see. I'm certainly hoping to stay here, or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After having bounced around the planet, this town and this region suit me perfectly.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Franchise tie-ins are the new pulp!

A friend made an observation after reading the most recent People who used to read science fiction post that a return to the genre's pulp origins might be what's needed to revive science fiction. I think he's right, though in a sense that may well already be underway. Franchise tie-ins with their orientation towards action and adventure and their optimistic endings are the new pulp.

Which raises a question for those of us working to revitalize original literary science fiction: How do we break down the barrier between that solid-selling pulp and it's struggling little sister, SF lit? How do we get tie-in readers to make the jump?

Writing and selling optimistic science fiction would be a start. And there are others in the field who feel the same way. Jetse de Vries' Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF was put together with the same idea in mind. While I unfortunately did not feel engaged by the stories in the anthology--the book was way too ideologically polarized for me--it was reassuring to see that someone else feels strongly about the positive potential of the genre.

Others are working to create literary SF that hearkens back to the adventurous glory days of pulp, as well as its action-oriented descendants. Fellow Writers of the Future winner Jordan Lapp of Everyday Publishing recently forwarded this announcement about the relaunch of the space opera magazine Ray Gun Revival:


Ray Gun Revival (RGR) is an online magazine dedicated to fun stories, grand escapism, and good old sensawunda. RGRl provides just that, a throwback publication that revisits space opera and golden age sci-fi. Their stories focus more on character development than hard science and sail all the wide-open waters between science fantasy and harder SF. Think of the original Star Wars stories, Doc Smith's Lensman series, the Warlord of Mars tales from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Think of everything from John Carter and Gully Foyle to Kimball Kinnison and Han Solo. They are bringing out the deepest elements of what has traditionally been rather superficial fiction and updating them for a new generation of fiction enthusiasts.



Honestly, what doesn't sound kick ass about that? So if you're a genre fan in search of fun reads, check them out. They go live February 1st.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Squeeeeeeeeeee!!!

Please forgive me my internet fanboy moment :)

George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books are making the transition form ink to film, which is a jump that I'm rather excited about.



I am a little bummbed out that the Dothraki look like generic Celtic barbarians rather than the Mongols whom they are clearly based on in the books. My exposure to the Mongols in East Asian and World History courses earlier this year had me on a Mongol kick. Martin did them justice in his depiction of the fictional Dothraki, so it's a shame to see that the producers chose to ditch the Central Asian influence.

Oh well, so sad.

In the meanwhile, Sergei Bodrov's 2007 film Mongol presents a slightly romanticized but good look at the lives and cultures of these intriguing pastorialists who carved out history's largest land empire.

Friday, December 03, 2010

People who used to read science fiction part 2: Techno-thrillers and franchise tie-ins

This past decade saw the publication of a wildly successful pair of novels that dealt with artificial intelligence, a software-driven alternative social structure, augmented reality, robotic weapon systems, and the chaotic emergence of a post-industrial world. These two books sold millions of copies.

No one in the science fiction literary community seems to have heard of them.

Meanwhile, plenty of people who used to read science fiction shelled out $26 for each novel.



The first inkling that had about how far detached the lit sci-fi community has grown from its former readership was at last years Orycon, here in Portland. It was my first con and one of the first panels that I had ever attended. What hit me was one of the panelists' derision for the talking-heads scenes common in classic science fiction novels.

These expository interludes typically feature two characters talking over or debating a social concept, or technology, or the human implications of a bit of scientific knowledge. In Issac Asimov or Author C. Clark novels this often takes the form of two scientists conversing over a cup of coffee. With Robert Heinlein it might be a nude couple taking a stroll on an indoor lawn and debating cultural realities. Either way, it's not 'literary.' A good writer doesn't bore the readers with such didactic dialog. Readers supposedly find these scenes tedious and tend to skip through them. Instead any writer worthy of that title thrills the readers by showing the technology or social concept in action.

The former method of conversational presentation was common when science fiction had a thriving readership and successful novels were expected to sell more than 10,000 copies. The latter more artistic approach is typical of the present, in which books are successful if they actually sell 10,000 copies.



The second book in Daniel Suarez's runaway techno-thriller serries, Freedom™, is largely a tour of his technology-driven alternative social order and a vilification of the current one. And it features lots, and lots, and lots of talking head scenes. Did I mention that these books have sold millions of copies?

Which returns to a point that I've harped on before here on Consilience. And that would be that ideas are one of the major value-added selling points of science fiction. Raw ideas put forth directly for the readers' consideration--often in the form of freshmen 101 philosophical conversations. Such undiluted ideas are like crack for much of our ex-readership, who continue to pickup expository idea-driven books outside the genre, even as character-drive human drama novels within the genre languish on the shelves.

Then there are the tie-in novels



Like the previously mentioned Daniel Suarez technology-thrillers, these books typically employ cardboard characters and clear-cut situations that are not typical of real-world events. The writing also frequently leaves much to be desired. Many tie-in novels also use blatant talking-head scenes to convey world history and plot points.

While they do not typically explore high concepts or potential future changes, the exotic settings and feeling of adventure common to tie-ins touch upon one of science fiction's other traditional points of value added: a sense of transport to a world that might one day exist in some form. This stands in stark contrast to the dark futures, lack of heroism, and tragic endings of current literary science fiction.

Despite the literary shortcomings, tie-ins routinely outsell works of original literary science fiction. By a lot. Tie-ins to major commercial properties often sell 100,000 thousand or more copies, while as previously mentioned, a lit-SF novel is successful if it reaches the 10,000 mark. Not surprisingly then, the percentage of bookstore shelf space devoted to tie-ins in the genre aisles has increased dramatically over the past twenty years.

The success of techno-thrillers that stray into the realm of speculative fiction and the sales figures behind tie-in novels is proof in my eyes that there is still a significant market for written stories set in the near and far future. The fact that few writers can make any kind of a living writing original literary science fiction speaks more the state of the community and its current literary pretensions than it does the disappearance of a fan base for science fiction.

Just why that fan base has supposedly vanished is a common topic in both conversations articles bemoaning the state of the art.

The public's loss of a belief in an optimistic future is one reason commonly given for lit-SF's decline. Another is that the current rate of technological development has either left us jaded with technology and its possibilities and that it's simply no longer a viable form of escapism. In other words, high tech and its implications are now such a common part of our daily lives that stories set in the future no longer provide any sense of wonder or transport out of our mundane existences.

Which, again, the success of near future techno-thrillers and science fiction franchise tie-ins argues against. This especially true when it comes to the idea that the public has lost its faith in the possibility of an optimistic future. To happily belabor a point, tie-ins and techno-thrillers showcase the kind of heroism and bright endings that have largely disappeared from literary science fiction over the past two decades. In short, optimism seems to sell rather well for something that has supposedly vanished.

Having said all of this, a few quick clarifications are in order. Most of the younger tie-in readers who are driving those impressive sales numbers have never been fans of literary science fiction. They've simply come to SF via stories told through the medium of video games, television, and films, and so far most do not seem interested in switching over to original literary science fiction. There also seems to have only been a limited to movement to reading tie-ins among people who used to read original SF. The latter is part of why I believe that ideas are more important than exotic locals and a sense of transport to revitalizing the genre.

Additionally, not all tie-ins suffer from bad writing and simplistic characters these days. Karen Traviss' Star Wars novel Hard Contact has won both fans and recognition for its sense of realism and the depth of its characters. It's also now more common and accepted for authors of original literary science fiction to write tie-ins, as is the case with Greg Bear's entry into the HALO universe with his Cryptum novel.

Which leads us to a new medium that science fiction stories have thrived in as they have helped to drive sales figures that rival the income generated by blockbuster Hollywood films: video games.

A nice juxtaposition....

...of 90s shoegazer music and vintage space exploration footage.