Listing to Starboard

Too many books, too little time. Today I’m thinking of focusing on fantasy (rather than science fiction). For one thing, it’s a healthier market. If I’m going to start writing books again, a healthy market would be a nice thing to know about. For another, I seem to be a fantasy writer by personal preference.

But before nailing down a book outline, I need to know more about what’s going on in the field in the 21st century. I need to do some serious reading.

I jaunted over to the World Fantasy Awards website and made a list of the finalists in recent years. Started going through recent back issues of Fantasy & Science Fiction and culling the book reviews.

Suddenly I have a list of about 50 novels. If I read two a week, I’ll need six months to plow through the stack — and that’s if I don’t add to the list in the meantime.

One way to make the mountain more manageable is to request books from the local library. Save a lot of money that way. But the library may not have the books I’m most curious about.

Unlike a fan, I don’t just want to read more books by authors I already like (Tim Powers, Charles de Lint, Terry Pratchett). I want to discover new authors.

Picture Sisyphus shooting craps.

The Future

As I grumble my way through a stack of recent science-fiction novels, I take heart from an essay written by Gary Westfahl that’s up on the Locus website. He analyzes with considerable clarity why the predictions made about the future by so many SF writers are so wildly wrong.

He lists seven fallacies that writers trip over — the fallacy of universal wealth, the fallacy of extrapolation, the fallacy of analogy, and so on. If you’re interested in writing SF, this essay is well worth reading. If, on the other hand, you’re a fan, and want to enjoy SF without letting your pesky old intellect get in the way, I’d suggest you avoid it.

Reading: Cauldron

The galaxy is huge, ancient, and only sparsely inhabited, and most of what we’ll encounter when we get out there is weirdly mysterious. That’s the premise of Jack McDevitt’s novel Cauldron, a finalist for this year’s Nebula award.

McDevitt writes in a mainstream tradition that owes a lot to early Heinlein. His characters are all upper middle-class white people, and they never have any emotions that are not G-rated. He takes brief detours to sketch the life histories of the main characters, but the details are interchangeable. None of the characters’ personalities has the slightest impact on the plot — unlike the situation in, for instance, Nancy Kress’s An Alien Light (1988), which I read last week. In that story, the characters’ inner struggles have everything to do with how the encounter with enigmatic aliens unfolds.

The theme of Cauldron might be summed up as, “Only misguided cowards oppose space exploration. Civilizations that fail to leave their home planet become stagnant and die.” You could make a case for this thesis, but turning it into a gripping drama may be tricky.

Niven and Pournelle cranked up some drama in The Mote in God’s Eye, which had exactly this theme, but Cauldron isn’t Mote. The entire first half of Cauldron is devoted entirely to the main characters’ efforts to get Read more

Reading: The Face

Science fiction didn’t start with Star Trek! As part of my ongoing research into the genre, I’ve been reading a few SF novels that date back to the early part of the 20th century. Today it’s time for a peek into The Face in the Abyss, by A. Merritt. Published in 1930, it’s a rousing adventure tale in which an American adventurer stumbles upon a lost civilization deep in the Andes.

By today’s standards, it’s strictly fantasy. The place is ruled, more or less, by the Serpent Mother, who has the lower body of a snake and the upper body of a small, childlike woman. Everybody in the place (other than the Native American servants) is immortal. Invisible beings fly through the air. Yet Merritt went to some pains to present the book as science fiction. In three separate passages, the Serpent Mother explains to the American adventurer that all of the seeming miracles he’s witnessing are simply advanced science, not magic.

The problem Merritt wrestled with was that neither the technology of the day nor his own imagination was up to the task of creating the advanced science of a civilization that’s millions of years old. There are lots of light shows — dazzling optical displays, some of which appear in the beautiful color illustrations in the new hardcover edition I purchased. In today’s terms, the lost race has used genetic engineering (Merritt refers to it as controlling evolution) to produce lizard-men and spider-men. But there are no hovercars, for instance: The immortals are carried around in litters. Their servants are armed with javelins.

Maybe it’s not surprising that the lost race hasn’t used their technology for much. They haven’t done much of anything except live in this lush valley for a million years. Progress and ambition seem to be entirely foreign to them.

It’s a good story, and Merritt was a capable writer. But right now I’m thirsting for something more modern and relevant.

The Art Business

Many artists are adept at self-mystification. We like to feel that our best works come from some mysterious well (call it the unconscious or God, your choice). We hope to visit that unconscious well often, and we fear that if we pay too much attention to the mechanics, to the nuts and bolts of art, the path to the well will be blocked.

I’ve been practicing self-mystification with great success (though with a slightly different motive) for years. It has gotten me precisely nowhere. Out-of-print novels, a few mp3s that are free downloads from my website, and I make most of my art bucks teaching cello to kids.

I love teaching, don’t get me wrong — but helping little fingers learn to negotiate the tricky bits in the Gossec “Gavotte” for the tenth or twelfth time is not high on my list of the creative satisfactions to be found in life.

As I burrow through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I find myself intrigued by the notion of a vision quest. If I were to envision a creative life for myself, what would it consist of?

Though it may strike self-mystifying artists as alienating or crude, I’ve started analyzing my alleged art career in exactly the same terms Read more

Write a Book? Why Bother?

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by one of my colleagues in the music technology publishing world. It seems an editor at Hal Leonard had contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in writing a book on one of the hot music software products. During their conversation, the HL guy had referred to one of my books, Power Tools for Synthesizer Programming, as the type of thing they were looking for.

I was flattered, of course. But you can’t take flattery to the bank. And flattery is just about all Hal Leonard is good for, in my experience. Given the utterly abysmal sales figures they report to me on that book, I can interpret their interest in adding another book like it to their catalog in one of two ways: Either they’re a bunch of clueless bunglers who have no idea how to make a profit on books, or the sales figures they report to me are bullshit.

I suppose you could make a case for a third interpretation, which is that they’re looking for a book that is as technically authoritative as mine, but they expect Read more


Prowling around Netflix, I stumbled on a blurb for Mirrormask. Written by Neil Gaiman, so I knew I had to see it.

Wow! Jaw-droppingly good. So good I watched it Friday night, and then again Saturday night. Visually stunning, conceptually stunning, and a solid story to boot. Also fine acting and superior music.

If you like modern fantasy, this movie will blow your socks off and curl your toes.

Reading III: Year’s Best

Wandered into the library and grabbed the 2003/4 edition of The Year’s Best Science Fiction. The first story, William Barton’s “Off on a Starship,” is challenging me. It’s clever, and a fitting opener for an anthology, but after finishing it I feel dissatisfied. The more I think about it, the less satisfied I become.

The setup is, it’s 1966, and a fifteen-year-old boy (who happens to be an ardent fan of science fiction) hops onto a robot-operated flying saucer and has an intergalactic adventure. The story is well marbled with overt references to Asimov, Burroughs, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Andre Norton, Gilligan’s Island, The Honeymooners … you get the idea. Great fun for nostalgia buffs, but I found myself wondering, is science fiction in the 21st century Read more

Collision Course

I’m continuing to work through The Artist’s Way with a group — one chapter per week. I’m finding the exercises in Chapter 5 very helpful, but I sense I’m on a collision course with Chapter 6.

In Chapter 6, “Recovering a Sense of Abundance,” Julia Cameron tiptoes ever so gracefully into the thorny subject of money. It quickly becomes clear that she has no practical suggestions on how to make money from art. Her observations and anecdotes about abundance are seriously at odds with reality.

Rather than dissect the whole chapter line by line, let’s zero in on the story of Alan (pp. 110-111). Alan loves music, but he’s blocked Read more

Reading II: Thorns

Just finished Robert Silverberg’s Thorns. Thematically, it’s about two people whose lives have been changed in fundamental ways by technology. They aren’t happy about it, but at the end they learn to embrace both their new selves and their suffering.

Thorns was written in 1967. It’s instructive to realize that as much time has passed since 1967 as had passed between the first issue of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (1926) and the writing of Thorns. If Thorns seems still fairly modern and relevant, perhaps that’s a tribute to Silverberg’s talent, or perhaps it reflects an ebbing of a cultural naivete that had been more prevalent in the ’20s.

Like Simak’s All Flesh Is Grass, which dates from the same period and which I re-read last week, Thorns is essentially optimistic. The world in which it’s set is pretty much a utopia, and the future of the main characters seems bright with promise.

I wish I were that optimistic.