March 31, 2016

Exciting Week of Author Events

This week, two authors with exciting new releases appeared in my area, and I made the effort to break out of my usual routine (sit at desk, then sit on couch) and attend. I'm so glad I did, because both events were a ton of fun!

First, Charlie Jane Anders visited Google to talk about her wonderful ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY, which I raved about last month. She read a well-chosen excerpt that introduces readers to the characters, the San Francisco setting, and the Caddy, an artificially intelligent smartphone-like device that plays an important role in the story. Since Google is likely to develop any such technology, the audience was delighted by the appropriate and funny selection.

In the interview that followed, Anders talked about building the world of the novel, which incorporates both science fiction and fantasy. When the interviewer asked which of those she'd prefer if could only have one, Anders said she'd rather live in a world with magic, provided she could be one of the witches. They discussed the decision to set the book in San Francisco, the deleted scenes she's been posting online, literary influences, and the guest list for her ideal author dinner party (Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing, and Michael Chabon).

This event was filmed and is available online, so you can enjoy the reading and conversation as well.

The following evening, Helen Simonson appeared at Kepler's as part of her book tour for the just-released THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR. I started reading the book while waiting for the event, and I was immediately curious about the entertaining cast of characters in an English seaside town right before World War I begins.

Simonson's excellent first novel, MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND, is charming and funny, so it was no surprise to discover the same description applies to the author. She was interviewed by Tracy Guzeman, author of THE GRAVITY OF BIRDS, and the discussion was fascinating.

Simonson talked about the terror of writing a second novel after the astonishing success of her debut. She faced this terror by setting herself an even bigger challenge, working with multiple points of view, a historical setting, and the high stakes of war. The book is set in her Sussex hometown, but she's lived in the US for 30 years, which she feels gives her the necessary distance to write about the place she grew up. Her novels start with characters and no solid plot in mind, so she writes to see what story develops, always trying "to zag when expected to zig". Simonson confessed that her writing process is one of avoidance and that she often stays away from the keyboard for days, but she's realized important story work happens in her head as she procrastinates and that she's more comfortable thinking things out before committing them to the page. This "creative procrastination" seems to work just fine for her, and I'm eager to read more of the new novel.

I hope to continue getting myself to author events when the opportunity arises. I'm looking forward to a big event in a couple of months, the second Bay Area Book Festival, which will be June 4 and 5 in Berkeley. I had a great time last year and am waiting with interest to see this year's schedule of events in a few weeks. For now, there's a sneak peek available, and guests include Charlie Jane Anders, Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Lethem, and many more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Ed Tarkington describes his journey to publication in How I Gave Up On The Great American Novel And Got A Book Deal: "All the arch cleverness and literary pyrotechnics in the world are worth nothing if you aren't willing to put a little blood on the page--or a lot. For so long I’d been afraid to be vulnerable, to strip away the artifice and get down to the truth of what matters to me, to stop worrying about being cool and write from a space of deep longing, a place rooted in memory and desire and, above all, love. I'm not afraid of that any more."

March 23, 2016

Crime Doesn't Pay

In this series investigating my childhood writing, we've lingered in the eighth grade period, studying just a few of the many works to come out of that year's English class. Who could forget the mood of frustration evoked by Mental Turmoil Aboard Flight 103 and its ill-considered revision? Who is eager to forget the soul-bearing honesty of An Introduction to Me and the startling revelations about shopping?

Now it's time to examine the final composition from that class, a 1600-word story that's likely the longest and most complex piece of fiction I'd produced at that point. The last month of school was spent on the various stages and drafts of this assignment, which was introduced this way: "A professional author often uses his/her personal experiences as a source for his/her writing and asks him/herself, 'What if?' Remember one of your own experiences and ask yourself, 'What if?'"

As my story's inspiration, I drew on an event I'd recently witnessed while visiting a different school. I saw two friends pulled aside by a teacher after class and questioned about test answers that suggested there had been cheating. I never learned the truth of the situation or what happened next, so I imagined a possible chain of events for this story. The way things play out in my fictional version doesn't strike me as all that believable today, but it's also not absurdly unrealistic.

I have a similarly ambivalent reaction to everything else in the story. This is not an amazing piece of fiction. It's packed with cliches both linguistic and situational, starting with the title, which doesn't even fit. Much of the dialogue is unnecessary, causing the story to drag, and I'm not surprised to discover that every pointless exchange survived intact from the first draft to the last.

On the other hand, there's a definite, if plodding, competence to the writing. The plot escalates through a series of events across multiple scenes and then reaches a conclusion. Characters develop. The premise and execution deliver a modicum of suspense. It's really not bad for a 14-year-old, and there's little in the story for me to mock.

The lack of childish ridiculousness means this work isn't all that interesting to read, but if you'd like to observe my maturation as a writer, please enjoy.

Crime Doesn't Pay

"Whadja get?" pestered Jennifer, sitting to my right at our lab desk.

"I haven't gotten mine back yet, dummy," I teased, shoving her lightly.

"Don't call me 'dummy'," she said, practically shoving me out of my chair.

"What did you get?" I asked.

"An eighty."

"Eighty? I can call you dummy if I want to."

"Here, Allison," said Ms. Corbin, handing me my science test.

Jennifer saw my grade.

"You got an eighty, too," she shrieked. "Dummy!"

The girl in front of us turned around and gave us a cold, hard stare. Jennifer stared back at her with her eyeballs almost popping out. Then she turned back to me and moved her mouth like a fish to go with her bug eyes. I laughed.

"Allison and Jennifer, could I see you after class?" requested Ms. Corbin, as the bell rang.

March 15, 2016

FOGcon 2016 Report

I spent the weekend at another fun and exhausting round of the Friends of the Genre con. I'm proud to say I've attended every previous FOGcon (writeups from 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015), and I always enjoy getting together with fellow speculative fiction fans to discuss books and other topics of interest to the SF community.

This year's programming seemed to skew toward the other topics. I attended several panels on science, technology, and language that cited few or no fictional examples, focusing instead on what exists in the real world and what might emerge in the future. For instance, "The Developing Reality of Intelligent Machines" considered improvements in artificial intelligence and their implications for society. "From Caterpillar to Butterfly" covered unusual biological phenomena that occur in nature, with some talk of how these could inspire alien characters. All these panels were interesting, lively discussions, but I was surprised at the end of the weekend to realize I hadn't collected nearly as many book recommendations as usual.

A few panels did concentrate solidly on fiction, lengthening my to-read list. I was especially excited about "Domestic Fantasy", a discussion of works that feature families and domestic matters. Honored guest Jo Walton was one of the participants, and she and the rest of the panelists had fascinating things to say about how domesticity is handled in speculative fiction. "The Ethics of Magic" was another fun topic, examining stories that address or ignore the consequences of using magic. I was also happy to wrap up the convention with a celebration of the life and work of honored ghost Octavia Butler.

Overall, my con was less focused on the programming than usual. I wasn't signed up to participate in any panels myself, and I skipped a few sessions in favor of socializing or sleeping in. I guess I say this every year, but the best part of the weekend was hanging out with cool people. I shared food, drinks, and laughter with good friends. I started chatting with Jo Walton after a panel we'd both attended, and we wound up in an entertaining conversational group for the next hour. More people showed up for karaoke than ever before, and I sang my voice out late into the night.

FOGcon came right after a wonderful, relaxing vacation to Maui, so my life has been full of travel and excitement lately. It's time to turn my writing brain back on and see if all these adventures produced any story ideas.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Electric Literature, Kevin Pickard considers the use, or significant avoidance, of pop culture references in fiction: "But, on the other side of the debate, novels have started popping up and earning the 'timeless' or 'out of time' approbation. What is especially interesting about this is that, in at least two examples, the timelessness seems to go against the novel's ultimate project."

March 4, 2016

February Reading Recap

I spent more of February reading than I really intended, because there was too much good stuff to read! I enthusiastically recommend all of these, which include two of the books I've been anticipating and two by authors who will be honored at FOGcon, coming up March 11-13.

→ Ted Chiang has famously published just 15 stories during his 25-year career, but his work has earned about the same number of major speculative fiction awards. STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS collects his first eight stories, and they're all incredible. Each has a fascinating, unexpected premise unlike anything else in the collection, and that premise develops through fascinating, unexpected plot turns and careful prose. The varied subjects imagined by Chiang include the Tower of Babel, superhuman intelligence, golems, mathematical abstractions, and beauty.

One concept he returns to several times -- and it's a great one -- is the idea of taking some historical scientific or religious theory and constructing a logical world in which it's true. (I'm linking to online versions of the stories, but all have wonky formatting, so you should really get the collection.) In "Tower of Babylon", the tower to the vault of heaven is a reality, and after generations of construction, that barrier in the sky has been reached. The story details all the nearly plausible logistics of building a tower with technology available in ancient times, and every development in the story is a delightful surprise. "Seventy-Two Letters" establishes a version of Victorian England in which two beliefs from the past are scientific realities. These intriguing pieces of worldbuilding seem initially unconnected, but by the end of the story, they combine into a brilliant conclusion.

A couple of other standouts from the collection involve relationships affected by shocking discoveries. In "Division by Zero", a marriage falls apart after a mathematical breakthrough. "Story of Your Life" is a heartbreaking family drama revolving around alien linguistics and another concept I can't reveal that makes it even more relevant to my reading interests. This last story is currently being made into a movie. To echo Chiang himself, I hope it's good!

Ted Chiang will be an honored guest at FOGcon, and I can't wait to hear him discuss his stories and ideas.

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY by Matt Ruff: Atticus is an avid science fiction reader who's recently back from serving in Korea. After several unpleasant months working in the Jim Crow South, he's eager to return home to Chicago, where his beloved uncle, a fellow genre reader, runs an agency for black travelers and publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Atticus has a more strained relationship with his father, but when his dad mysteriously vanishes, Atticus sets out to find him. Accompanied by his uncle and a childhood friend with a lot more survival skills than the men expect of her, Atticus journeys to an isolated Massachusetts town in a dangerous sundown county. There they discover a shady group of white men, practitioners of an ancient form of magic, who aim to enlist Atticus for nefarious purposes.

The book is structured as a series of thrilling tales, with a perfect pulp cover to match. Each section focuses on a different member of the story's two central families as they grapple with an obstacle, like the new homeowner fighting off attacks from both white neighbors and a poltergeist. At first the connections between the problems are unclear, but the threads cleverly come together to reveal the vast conspiracy threatening Atticus. I enjoyed how this structure provided a chance to spend time with each character as they followed their passions and wrestled personal demons, and I loved seeing how each new piece of the puzzle fell into place.

This novel is full of horrors. Some take a supernatural form, running the gamut from possessed doll to tentacled monster. Others manifest as segregation, discriminatory laws, and other forms of racism. Ruff deftly combines the two types in a way that never seems clunky or preachy, with each abomination an essential part of the plot. Detailed research into the 1950s and earlier eras enriches the story, as do a delightful cast, imaginative plot developments, and characteristic Ruffian wit. LOVECRAFT COUNTRY delivered everything I was hoping for from one of my favorite authors!

THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by Alexander Chee: Lilliet Berne, a celebrated soprano in 1882 Paris, is approached by a writer who hopes she'll originate a role in his new opera. The offer is thrilling, yet bewildering, because the story he's written is based upon details of Lilliet's own life, long-kept secrets that only a few people know. As she sets out to uncover the mystery of who betrayed her, the reader learns of her remarkable past and the many times she remade herself.