Monday, April 29, 2013

A Brutal Test for Your Fiction


I went to a book sale the other day and nabbed a copy of How to Write by Stephen Leacock.  Leacock was, in the early Twentieth Century, the best-known humorist in the English language.  Which fact should give all humorists pause.

I more or less know how to write, but I'm always ready to learn something new.  So I went trawling through the book.  Mostly, it's plodding and sincere.  Out of insecurity, Leacock didn't get serious about writing until he was 40 and he regretted that.  So he's on the side of the gonnabe writer and explains things very carefully.

However, right in the middle of the book somewhere, he suggests the single most brutal test for a story or novel I've ever encountered.  Here it is, in my paraphrase:

Remove a page from the middle of your work.  Set it aside.  Then read the page before it and the page after.  Can you reconstruct what happened in that page?  Then your work is mediocre at best.   

This is not an exercise I'd recommend for not-yet-published authors.  But it sets the standard, dunnit?


Saturday, April 27, 2013

This Glitteratti Life, Part 8,732


I went to book sales on Thursday and Friday.  Thursday, I encountered Darrell Schweitzer, who expounded learnedly on which contemporary books become instantly valuable as soon as they fall out of print.  And Friday I ran across book vivant and international man of mystery Michael Dirda, who was in town for a meeting of the Sons of the Copper Beeches and taking a break from visiting the Barnes by buying an armload of books.

Michael Dirda is pictured above.


Friday, April 26, 2013

Death From Above


The weekend is almost here!  Prepare for it by considering the fact that the only thing protecting you from a planet-killer, a major extinction event, or a catastrophic disruption of civilzation is statistics. 

Which is to say that the odds of such an event happening during your lifetime are vanishingly small.  But the chance that it'll happen tomorrow are absolutely identical to that of any other day it might occur.

But this much is certain:  It'll happen again.

Here to give a more balanced look at the issue is Neil deGrasse Tyson.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Argument Worth Not Continuing


I was recently rereading Somerset Maugham's quite excellent Ashenden stories, and was struck by the argument he made in its introduction.  Here's how it begins:

Fact is a poor storyteller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion.

Followed shortly by:

There is a school of novelists that looks upon this as the proper model for fiction.  If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why, fiction should be so too; for fiction should imitate life.  


Nothing offends these people more than the punch or the unexpected twist with which some writers seek to surprise their readers and when the  circumstances they relate seem to tend towards a dramatic effect they do their best to avoid it.  They do not give you a story, they give you the material on which you can invent your own.

And so on.  We all know how this goes.

Now, Maugham is a writer whose opinions are worth hearing out and while he wrote tragically few great books, Ashenden is one of one.  Further, he makes the case for plot-driven narrative quite well.


Ashenden was first published in 1928.  Eighty-five years later, we still have the sort of fiction he was railing against.  We still have the sort of fiction he was defending.  And many of us are still fighting the same fight he was fighting.

Maybe it's time to come to grips with the fact that we're comparing apples and Volkswagens, pitchforks and noble gases.  That, at any rate, is my modest conclusion.

But if you haven't ever read Ashenden give it a try.  Some of the best spy fiction ever written, by a man who (alas) knew what he was writing about.

And over at . . .

The petition to honor Isaac Asimov with a plaque at his old Philadelphia digs at 50th and Spruce has passed 2,500 signatures!  I'd love to take some credit for that, but I can't.  Most of the credit has got to go to Cory Doctorow (author, I cannot resist pointing out, of "I, Rowboat") who plugged it on Web juggernaut Boing Boing.

Also, I've just now heard that io9 has given the cause a plug too, so kudos to them as well.

Click here if you want to add your signature.  And if you can share the petition URL on social media, that would be a virtuous thing to do too.


Monday, April 22, 2013

The Best Cheesesteak in Philadelphia!


Ever wondered where to find the best Philly Cheesesteak?   Here's a clue:  If they call it a "Philly cheesesteak," it's not worth eating.  Nobody outside of Philadelphia knows how to make a cheesesteak and inside Philadelphia it's called simply a cheesesteak.  Outside of Philadelphia you're going to get sliced beef heated in the microwave and dumped onto a roll with some cheese and maybe some chopped raw onion. 

In Philadelphia, you get perfection.

But where in Philadelphia can you get the best cheesesteak in the universe?  Not at Pat's King of Steaks, tourist attraction though it is.  Nor Gino's, though that's the other famous one.  The fact that they ask if you want it with Cheez Whiz alone would be enough to disqualify them.  But I've had their real cheeseteaks and they're simply not the best.

So who is?

There are by general acclamation, two leading candidates for this august honor -- D'Alessandro's and Barry's, both in Roxborough.  So tonight, my Not At All Nepotistic Jury of Family put this weighty matter to the test.  Coordinating our movements, we simultaneously bought cheesesteaks at both of these august establishments and conducted a tasting.

And the winner was clear.  The texture and flavor of the meet was superior, the cheese tasted better, and the roll -- from Liscio's --  was chewier.  Hands down and unanimously, the NAANJoF decided for . . . Barry's!

Conveniently located within a block of my house.  But that's just my own typical good luck.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

Mysteries of Everyday Life: Teleporting Sparrows

Some while back, my friend Kyle Cassidy woke up to find a dead bird on his nightstand and no way it could have gotten there.  Mondo creepy.  But I've got him beat.
I came out of my office this afternoon and discovered a sparrow perched on the newel post at the top of the stairs.  I blinked.
Then Marianne came out of the bedroom and the sparrow fled, an almost-invisible streak, into Sean's old room.  "There's a sparrow in our house!" I said quickly, so she'd know it wasn't something worse.
Acting resolutely, Marianne stepped into the room (I could see the sparrow atop the bookcase), closed the door behind her,opened the window wide, and went about the business of shooing the bird out.
 I, meantime, went downstairs and discovered a second sparrow clinging in desperate terror to the top of the kitchen screen door.  Miss Hope was below it, tail lashing, in full murder mode.
"Marianne?" I said.  "Have you chased out the sparrow?  Good.  Then you can help me with the other one."

We opened front doors and back, and when the sparrow was (to Miss Hope's great discontent) gone, we went through the house, trying to figure out how they'd gotten in.

Not a door or window was open.  There was, I'd swear, no way the birds could have gotten in the house?

So . . . did these sparrows fall sideways in time from a parallel dimension?  Or forward in time from a half century ago?  Or did they teleport?  Or (reality being stranger than we can imagine) did some distant Power create or project them into our house?  Is it possible that we're lucky it was sparrows rather than mastodons or Vikings?

I'll never know.


Friday, April 19, 2013

The Cameraman's Revenge


For your entertainment today, one of the earliest stop-motion films made.  The Russian-born Polish filmmaker Wladislaw Starewicz used genuine insects to create something wonderfully unlike anything you've ever seen.

The movie is thirteen minutes long and once you start watching, you'll probably stay to the end.  So if you're at work, you probably should wait for break time before viewing.

Here's a link to the Vault article where I ran across this.


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Don't Write What You Know


It's the first piece of writing advice most of us hear:  Write what you know.  It's presented as gospel, usually by somebody who's never published a novel or a play or song lyrics in their life.  And it's always presented with the serial numbers filed off it -- without attribution.

As far as I've been able to determine, it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who first formulated this "rule." Here, from his Journal, dated May 1849, is the original.

Immortality. I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.
 Not quite what your high school creative writing teacher taught you, is it?

Worse, "write what you know" is bad advice in that it's actively counterproductive.  Here's what Moss Hart, a man whose opinion on the subject is worth knowing, had to say about his first wholehearted attempt to write a play:

I suspected one way I had gone wrong from the start; and forever afterward it made me more than a little leery of those golden nuggets of advice so capriciously tossed out by elder statesmen of the theatre to credulous beginners, one of which I must have stumbled across and taken to heart:  "Begin by writing of what you know best -- do not wander off in fields that are strange to you.  Take for your setting and characters only the places and people you know and stick to them."  So went this preposterous bit of dramatic wisdom, thereby discounting the vital and immeasurable quality that imagination gives to all writing, whether it be for the stage or anything else.  Since this bit of nonsense had issued from the lips of a quite famous playwright, I had slavishly followed it, writing of a place and people I knew, but completely failing to allow imagination to riffle through the pages as it might have done had I chosen a setting and characters not so highly colored by my own attitudes and prejudices.  I had simply set down what I knew best, and stuck to it.  The play had verity; what it lacked was the breath of life and imagination -- two necessary ingredients for what is usually called creative writing.

That's from Act One, Hart's memoir of his early years.  If you're about to start writing your first play, he's just saved you a ton of heartbreak.

And the next time somebody tells you to write what you know, feel free to tell them that I said:  No, use your imagination.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Just A Reminder . . .


In case you haven't already . . .

There's a petition up at asking the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Commission to erect a maker at 50th and Spruce Streets in Philadelphia honoring Isaac Asimov, who lived there during WWII and wrote some of his most important stories while in Philadelphia.

This should be (ironically enough) a no-brainer.  Asimov was one of the most important science fiction writers who ever lived, the city could use the reflected glory, and the Commonwealth can afford to raise a marker.

It costs nothing to sign and it's the right thing to do.  There are only a few hundred signatures so far.  There ought to be a million.

Click here to vote.


The Strange Case of the Edinburgh Fairy Coffins


There's a fantasy story to be had out of this.  And since I'm not planning to write it, one of my readers might as well:

In July, 1836, some boys were rabbiting at Arthur's Seat, the famous rock formation near Edinburgh.  Spotting a hole, they widened it and discovered a small cave containing 17 wee wooden coffins, each one between three to four inches long.  Boys being boys, they proceeded to pelt each other with the things.  The surviving coffins were subsequently acquired by an amateur archaeologist, who prised them open and found carved wooden figures within, clad in wee cloth suits.

Of their origins, much is speculated and nothing is known.  Were they deposited all at once or one at a time over the course of years?  Were they meant as a curse?  A surrogate funeral for sailors lost at sea?  A great deal of effort went into the creation and decoration of the mysterious items.  No one knows why.

You can read the Smithsonian article here. . .  And how can you not love an article which quotes "the leading expert on" three-ply thread?


Monday, April 15, 2013

Timon Of Athens!


One of my many hobbies is collecting Shakespeare's plays.  Not physical texts, mind you -- performances.   It's easy to bag a Hamlet or an Othello or a Midsummer Night's Dream.  They're put on all the time.  Titus Andronicus, now, that's rarer.  Or The Two Noble Kinsmen.  So I snatch 'em up when I get the chance.  I've even seen Troilus and Cressida, and that's a boast most theatergoers cannot make.

So the other night I hurried down to Broad Street Ministry (315 South Broad, here in Philadelphia; right across from the Kimmel Center) to see Timon of Athens.  That's a true gem of rarity.  And, luckily for me, the Philadelphia Artists' Collective made a show of it.

Plot is never Shakespeare's strong suit and this play was probably a collaboration with Middleton, who was no better, so you shouldn't be put off by this brief synopsis: 

The benevolent and fabulously wealthy Timon squanders everything he has by giving presents to his friends, all the while refusing to listen to the warnings of his steward.  Debts come due and all his friends prove selfish and false and refuse to help.  Into the wilderness he flees, driven not quite mad but so misanthropic as to amount to the same thing.  Meanwhile, the general Alcibiades (the only of Timon's friends who has not been bleeding him dry, for he values only military valor) pleads with Athens' senators for the life of a friend, guilty of manslaughter but condemned to death, and is not only turned down but banished.  So off he goes to turn the army against the city which has not, incidentally, paid them for some time.

In an ironic twist of fate (the audience laughed at its implausibility), the embittered Timon, while digging for roots, discovers an immense hoard of gold.  This he uses to taunt those who, having learned of it, come to ingratiate themselves to him again.  After various encounters, he dies and Alcibiades, having conquered Athens, reads his bitter, self-penned epitaph.

 To this rather creaky plot, PAC brings several good performances, no bad ones, and one great one.  The great performance, fortunately, is by Chris Coucill, who plays Timon.  He is excellent in the first part of the play as a genial man who wishes nothing but good for his many friends.  His transformation into a ranting misanthrope is convincing.  And his howling, vituperative near-madman is just magnificent.

Timon of Athens, apparently, was written shortly before King Lear, and it's hard not to see it as a rough sketch for that play.  I mean that as very high praise.

Having dissed the Bard of Avon for his plotting, I should mention a few things he does right in this play.  The common element in the two states of this man who experiences the best and worst of human society but nothing of its middle is weakness.  In good times, he clings to the illusion that his friends are as virtuous as he and in bad times he clings to his misanthropy even when confronted by altruism.  It's also brilliant how he sows evil when wishing will and creates virtue when wishing ill.  And of course there's nobody does emotion quite as well as our Billy.

The performances end on April 20.  So if you're in a position to buy tickets, I'd urge you to move fast.  There were only a couple of empty seats the night I attended.  There would have been none at all if more people had known about the play or suspected what a good job the company make of it.

You can find the PAC website here.



Friday, April 12, 2013

Geeking OUT in Philadelphia!


The Philadelphia weekly newspaper titled, appropriately enough, Philadelphia Weekly, has a special issue this week celebrating local geek culture.  Click here for the overview.

I mention it in part because it contains a cut-down version of my Geekadelphia interview.  Click here to see that.

But also because it contains a similarly cut-down Geek of the Week interview with my pal, Gardner Dozois.  Click here to see that.

Also, editor Stephen Segal saw something I posted on Facebook about genetic computing and asked me to expand upon it.  You can read "In a Generation the World Will Be Unrecognizable" here.

But most significantly . . .

Philadelphia Weekly, in cooperation with Geekadelphia and arch-instigator Kyle Cassidy, has launched a campaign to have a historic marker erected in front of the apartment house where Isaac Asimov lived while working at the Naval Yard during WWII.  You can read about the kick-off event here.

And you can see the first draft (though it looks pretty good to me) of a video that Brian Siano made of the event here.

And you can sign the petition here.

If you like the idea, sign and share.

Above:  Tom Purdom, Gardner Dozois, Gregory Frost, Robert Walters, Tess Kissinger . . . in fact, I know almost all of the very interesting people in the photo above.  That makes me feel so very cool.  Photo by Kyle Cassidy.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Geek of the Week!


At last!  I have finally received an honor that will impress my son. Who, let's face it, loves me but, having grown up in my presence, is not impressed.  Hugos, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, the Game of Thrones t-shirt I got George R. R. Martin to autograph with a Sharpee?  Those didn't do it.  But now . . . now. . .

Now, I am Geekadelphia's Geek of the Week

You can find the article/interview here.  At the Geekadelphia website, of course.

More on this tomorrow.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Asimov in Philadelphia


Here it is, the apartment house at 50th and Spruce where Isaac Asimov and the woman he should never have married lived during World War Two.  In part because of his marriage, in part because of Philadelphia's muggy summers, and in part because his co-worker Robert Heinlein was being an asshole, Asimov hated living in Philadelphia.

Yet afterwards, when he was the most famous science fiction writer in the universe, Asimov came back to Philadelphia every year to attend Philcon -- to be on the panels, to leer down women's blouses, and to invent limericks based on your name.  To chat with anyone who wanted to.

Asimov paid us back.  Now Philadelphia has begun to pay him back for paying us back. 

Saturday, a mob of Philadelphia geek luminaries -- science fiction writers, fans, comix people, and self-identified geeks -- got together at the park across from his former dwelling to sign a petition for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to erect an historical marker in front of it.

Will this work?  I'll keep you posted.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  So I can't promise to be on time with the next post.  But I'll give it my damnedest.  Honest.


Monday, April 8, 2013

The Shortest Pirate Story Ever Written


Today, in honor of of Fredric Brown, the master of the short-short story and the author of the shortest science fiction story ever written, I offer . . .

The Shortest Pirate Story Ever Written
Michael Swanwick

The last pirate in Neverland sat alone in a room.  There was a croc at the door.


Friday, April 5, 2013

Flash Mobbing for Isaac!


Two posts in one day!  I had just put up the nifty science video on Prince Rupert's drop when Marianne alerted me to the following I guess press release:

Here at Philadelphia Weekly, along with our friends at Geekadelphia, we’ve decided the time has come to call for an official Isaac Asimov Pennsylvania Historical Marker to be placed at the corner of 50th and Spruce, where Asimov lived while he wrote those historic stories.
So on Saturday, April 6, all Philly-area Asimov fans are invited to gather alongside as many local geek-culture luminaries as we can assemble in Barkan Park at 50th and Spruce, where noted science fiction photographer and PW contributor Kyle Cassidy will shoot a group photo as we express our support for an Asimov historical marker.
We’ll begin gathering at 4:30 pm, and mingle for a bit before shooting the group photo promptly at 5:30 pm. (We’ll also collect everyone’s name and contact info to sign the historical marker nomination form.) Afterwards, all are invited to wander down to Locust Moon Comics at 40th and Ludlow for Asimovian schmoozing and light refreshments.
 This is a worthy cause (and the neighborhood which Asimov and his wife lived in and hated while he was working at the Navy Yard during WWII would benefit from the plaque), and I urge anybody wo's close enough and can spare the time to join in the fun.

The Wonder That Is Prince Rupert's Drop


Okay, kids . . . it's Science Candy Friday!!!!

I'll confess that I had no idea how easy it was to make Prince Rupert's drop.  This is one of the reasons that God created the Interweb in the first place.



Wednesday, April 3, 2013

One Foot in the Time Machine


Pictured above is the time machine in the Kimmel Center in Center City, Philadelphia. It's not a real time machine, of course, just a prop/art installation created to serve as a focal point/brand for the second-ever biennial Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts.

The time tunnel itself is pretty nifty, actually.  There are pleasantly low-key ambient sounds and projections that can be created/altered by tapping on a transparent touchscreen (for the sounds) or grabbing two copper grips (for the images).  But PIFA?

Well, I'm still hopeful but . . .

First, I have to explain that the original PIFA was the result of a ten million dollar gift by philanthropist Leonore Annenberg, who specified that the money had to be spent on a single event. In the hope that it would spark something great, you see. So there was a month of citywide dancetheatermusicart, capped by a street festival on Broad Street which, because it occurred on a suddenly perfect spring day exceeded all expectations.

It was a triumph.

This year faces the volume-two-of-a-trilogy problem.  It can't possibly live up to the first year (for one thing, it doesn't have the funding and for another, nobody's talking about closing down the center of town for its climax).  So a lot of potential sponsors are holding back, waiting to see if this PIFA has the chops to keep the the momentum rolling.  If it succeeds, they'll pile on for the third one and Philadelphia will have one heck of an arts festival.  So there's every reason to be rooting for its success.

The problem is that so far as I've been able to determine -- and I went through the Kimmel Center looking at all the freebie literature -- there's no schedule for PIFA.  Oh, there's an elaborate thing at the home site where you can search by day or by category.  Five clicks will take you to an individual event and another one will take you back to the beginning of your search.  If you're patient enough, you can get a sense of everything you might want to see tomorrow.  But if you want to know if there's anything worth seeing in the coming week . . .  well, you'll probably rely on the reviews in the newspaper.

A great deal is made about the difference between a book and an e-book.  I think the real chasm is between a schedule and an e-schedule.  

But maybe that's just me being old and resistant to electronica.  If you're curious, you can check the schedule here


Monday, April 1, 2013

Judith Moffett on The Left Hand of Darkness


Last week I had a blog post with the admittedly provocative title Is The Left Hand of Darkness Sexist?  My answer was No.  But in the comments, various people raised issues from the decades that ensued of examination of, argumentation over, and engagement with the novel.  For my money, that's an indication that the book was a success.  

The longest response, almost an essay in its own right, came from Judith Moffett, who unintentionally triggered the post, long ago when she let Gregory Frost and me teach her class in her absence.  It was so thoughtful (and, I must confess, so in line with my own thoughts on the book) that I'm reposting it here so everybody can see it.

You can read the original post here.

And you can read the comments here.

And what Judith Moffett had to say was . . .

Hmm. I may have worshiped at UKLG's altar so ardently that those students may have felt they wouldn't get a fair hearing if they brought their issue up in class. That's too bad. But I didn't only teach content. When I first read the novel, in 1973, I was utterly blown away by the androgyny trope, it's true, but also by the beautiful prose and a taboo-busting love story that moved me personally more than I can say. I hadn't been reading sf for a dozen years or so, but while I wasn't looking the genre had grown up. I taught the book all of a piece: form, theme, style, structure, like you would teach any mature and serious work of fiction.

I was not disposed to quibble over pronouns while reeling from my initial encounter with Le Guin's Gethenians. But later, when I read "Is Gender Necessary?", the essay Mary Anne Mohanraj mentions, included in The Language of the Night (1976 version) and then in Dancing at the Edge of the World (1987 version), I agreed absolutely with what Le Guin says in the second revision. Later still Virginia Kidd let me read in ms. a screenplay treatment Le Guin had written, in which she attempts to rectify her mistake by inventing and applying the neuter pronoun English lacks and needs. The pronoun is "un" in nominative and accusative cases (Un invited un to the dance), and "uns" as a possessive (Un did uns homework and went out to play). Not such an easy problem to fix gracefully, alas.

I don't think it makes sense to label the book "sexist" or "homophobic." It may look those things from a contemporary perspective, and my students may have called it sexist for reasons that made sense to them in the 80s, but in 1969, its year of publication, Left Hand made a groundbreaking assault on traditional gender attitudes and entrenched homophobia. Change has to begin somewhere. Fair enough to see and say that the novel is grounded in the moment of its appearance; not fair to dismiss the many more ways it burst through that moment to carry feminist consciousness forward, to the point where people can look back and mainly see, not the revolutionary message, but the flaws!

Judy is best-known in science fiction for such highly-regarded novels as Penterra and her Hefn on Earth trilogy -- she should be forgiven the punning ubertitle -- but she's also the author of  the suburban homesteading nonfiction classic Homestead Year, and various critical works and translations of poetry.  I'm a particular fan of her second (I think) collection of poetry, Whinny Moor Crossing.