Feb. 10th, 2019 11:21 am


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A short story of mine, “Paradise Is a Walled Garden,” is coming out in an anthology of alternate histories called Making History.  Now the editor, Rick Wilber, tells me that I spelled Al-Andalus wrong all the way through.  (“Al-Andulus”)

Arrggg!  (As I wrote to Wilber.)  This is embarrassing, especially since I do proofreading as well as writing.  And didn’t anyone at Asimov’s Science Fiction, where the story first appeared, think to check it?

(And of course in the first draft of this post I spelled Wilber wrong.  I give up.)
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The first thing you notice about Fire & Blood * is that it isn’t The Winds of Winter.  Of course I agree that George R.R. Martin should be able to write whatever he wants, and if his muse leads him to a 700-page book about the history of Westeros starting with Aegon the Conqueror then by all means he should go for it.  Though I’d really like to know what happened with Jon Snow I’m still waiting, as patiently as I can, for the next volume in the Song of Ice and Fire series. **

The second thing you notice is that 700-page thing.  And not only is the book very long, it only covers the first half of a three-hundred-year history, with another book to come.  So I guess that while we’re waiting to see IF JON SNOW IS STILL EVEN ALIVE Martin will be spending some more time working on the second half of the history.

Seven hundred pages would be great if Fire & Blood reached the heights of SoIaF, or even came close, but unfortunately that isn’t the case.  The blurb makes an inadvertently apt comparison to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, apt because Decline and Fall has long patches of boring as well.  You know the kind of thing: lists of the heirs of kings or emperors, and what happened to them, and who they married, and if/how they were killed, and how many children they had … 

So at times the history seems too long, but at other times, weirdly, it seems too short.  We don’t get any of the fascinating and complicated characters we’ve come to love or hate in SoIaF, none of their telling traits and foibles.  There’s no one with anything like Tyrion’s wit, or Dolorous Edd’s over-the-top pessimism, or Jaime’s quest for redemption, or Arya’s stranger and darker journey.  Just a picture of a king or queen, whether they ruled wisely or not, who their counselors were, what battles they fought.

The lack of spark In Fire & Blood, the way it failed to keep my interest, led me to a very unsound theory, which is that Martin didn’t write most of it.  It does have a lot of Martin’s tics and tropes, phrases like “much and more” and “little and less,” and “leal” for loyal and “wroth” for angry.  (This last always reminds me of the Marx Brothers’ movie Horsefeathers.  “Professor, the Dean is waxing wroth,” someone says.  Groucho: “Well, tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.”)  But these are easy to copy, and there are some strange missteps as well.  A few times, for example, the writer uses the word “prevarication” to mean “procrastination.”  Then there’s “mayhaps,” which doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (or my spellchecker, for that matter).  The OED does have “mayhap,” which it says comes from “it may hap,” or happen — but you can’t say “it may happens.”

Okay, so maybe “mayhaps” is a Westerosi word, not one that can be analyzed by the standards of English.  That still doesn’t explain some of the other problems with the writing.  “One wit named Rhaenyra ‘King Maegor with Teats,’” the author tells us, but, well, that isn’t very funny.  Or “Jason Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, poured down out of the western hills,” which gives you a very strange picture of poor Jason.  There are cliches like “veil of tears,” which 1) seems more like an English phrase than something from Westeros, and 2) should be “vale of tears.”  Martin has always seemed too good a writer for clunkers like these — and would the creator of the Vale of Arryn get this spelling wrong?

I’m almost certainly being unfair here.  This is a history, after all, not an exciting, event-filled novel.  (Though how many histories are called something like Fire & Blood?  It sounds like another expose of the trump administration.)  People who like history, or world-building, will probably love it.  So will fans of military fantasy — there are a lot of battles — and of dragons.

And I’m almost certainly wrong about the authorship as well.  I’m sure Martin invented the history, and parts of Fire & Blood appeared earlier as stories written by him.  (But what if he only wrote some of it?  There are places that could be his, where the writing is lifted above the plodding, pedestrian style, where something interesting happens.)  And maybe I’m just hoping that this is the case, that Martin’s been busily writing The Winds of Winter this whole time.  Maybe someday I’ll even find out what happened to Jon Snow.


* All the copy for this book uses that “&.”  It looks weird to me, but what do I know?
** Yes, I know Snow is alive and well in the HBO series.  But as someone who enjoys writing, I won’t believe it until Martin says so.
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This morning we had an earthquake and a thunderstorm within an hour of each other.  People used to joke that California did too have seasons: earthquake, flood, fire, and mudslides.  We never used to get them at the same time, though.

One good thing about having a dog who doesn't scare much is that neither event seemed to worry her -- she woke up briefly, looked around, then curled up and went back to sleep.
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The ebook of my novel Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon is priced at $1.99 today at Open Road Media.  I tried to think of something new to say about this book, and came up with this:

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon takes place in the Elizabethan era, and at one point my editor, David Hartwell, told me that he thought he had a famous ancestor who’d lived then, a man named Abraham Hartwell.  I had an idea I could surprise David by putting old Abraham in the book, so one day while I was a UC Berkeley library I looked him up in the Dictionary of National Biography.  (In those days I practically lived at the Berkeley libraries.)  It turned out that he had translated a book from Italian called A Report of the Kingdome of Congo, a Region of Africa And of the Countries that border rounde about the same.  Not only that, the library catalog said they had a copy of the book in their Rare Books collection, and that I could actually go look at it.

Sp I went to the Rare Books room.  I had to put everything that had a sharp edge (pens, spiral-bound notebooks) into a locker, and show them the inside of my purse, so they could check for…well, I’m not sure what they were checking for, scissors or blow torches or something.  Then they gave me several sheets of paper and a pencil, the only things I could take with me.  I felt a bit like an imposter; I wasn’t a student or professor, or really anyone who was going to do anything useful with this information.  I must not have looked suspicious, though, because they passed me through to the reading room.

A while later someone brought the book out.  It’s still the oldest book I’ve ever held, dating from the early 1600s.  It read more like a fantasy novel than a travel book, describing people who were eight feet tall, and others who had metal instead of teeth, maybe the first in a long list of misleading and exoticizing travel books in English.

The Dictionary of National Biography also said that Abraham Hartwell was an assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift.  The amazing thing was that I’d already written a character who was an assistant to Whitgift, though I hadn’t given him a name.  So instead of having to come up with a place to put Hartwell in the novel it turned out that he was already there — I just had to take out the word “assistant” and put in his name.

This book was a lot of fun to write.

I’d forgotten some of this and had to look up Abraham Hartwell on Wikipedia.  Strange to think that if Wikipedia had existed back then I never would have seen the Rare Book room, or held an ancient book about Africa.
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Thursbitch, by Alan Garner — The worst thing about this book is the title, which seems to refer to a disagreeable woman who visits every Thursday.  The only reason I picked it up was because it’s by Alan Garner, the man who wrote all those wonderful YA books like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service and Red Shift, and I’m very glad I did.  Thursbitch turns out to be a place, and Garner is matchless at conjuring up a landscape, a writer who knows every ridge and brook and stone his characters encounter.

Jack lives in 1755 and travels far from home to bring back wonders for his family: his father and mother and wife or partner Nan Sarah.  He’s also something of a shaman; he cooks up a drink out of mushrooms and serves it to the townspeople, then becomes the central figure in a ritual involving the death and rebirth of a bull.

Ian and Sal live in the present, and are connected in ways large and small to Jack and Nan Sarah.  Sal is dying of some horrible progressive disease, and she wants to see as much of the area as she can, while there’s still time.  As with Garner’s earlier Red Shift, past and present here are fluid, one flowing into the other.  Sal’s journey and Nan Sarah’s echo and re-echo, and so do Ian’s and Jack’s, and each has something to say to the other.

I spent maybe too much time wondering about Jack’s religion.  At first, because of the bull, I thought it was Mithraism, brought over by the Roman soldiers stationed in England and then changed and modified over two millennia.  There are other symbols that fit, like bees and constellations (at least according to Wikipedia), but not all of them.  Now I think it comes partly from real rites and customs and partly from Garner’s imagination.  It’s utterly believable, though — if he made up the songs and myths and rituals scattered throughout the story, and I think he did, he’s even more amazing than I thought.

Spoonbenders, by Darryl Gregory — I considered putting this on last year’s list but for some reason I didn’t.  Then I kept thinking about it.  The thing that really impressed me was the plotting, which, because of a character who can see the future, has to go off like clockwork.  The character, Buddy, works slowly and meticulously toward an end that only he knows, and Gregory manages to make every part of his intricate plan come together as perfectly as a Rube Goldberg machine.

There’s more to the novel than just that, of course.  Almost everyone in the Telemachus family has some psychic ability, so you’d expect them to be famous or at least rich from investing in the stock market.  It doesn’t work that way, though — poor Buddy, for example, can barely figure out what time he’s in.  Another character, his sister Irene, can tell when someone’s lying, but this proves less helpful than you would think, especially when she’s on a date.  It’s an unusual take on psychic powers.

All of the characters are interesting and believable and true to life, if life included people with psychic powers.  And the book’s very funny in places.  I especially liked the scene where Irene applies for a job and realizes her prospective employer is lying to her.  It’s truly satisfying, and highly recommended for people who hate job interviews.

A Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge — Makepeace has a terrifying talent: she can feel the souls of the dead reaching out to her, trying to take her over.  Her family might be able to help, but her mother refuses to talk about them, hinting only that they’re dangerous.  Then her mother dies, and Makepeace goes looking for her father.

Her mother was right, of course.  Makepeace finds the family home, which has the wonderful name of Grizehayes, and the first thing they do is lock her in a tower.  And there’s something wrong with them, at least the older ones: “It feels…when I look into his eyes…it’s like when the dead things in my nightmares…” Makepeace says to her half-brother, the only person there who treats her kindly.  She knows she has to escape, but how?

The action moves swiftly, as Makepeace escapes from one danger only to find another one waiting.  She’s a terrific character, stubborn, resourceful, doing the best she can with what little information she has.  And she has one other thing going for her — early in her journey she attracted the soul of a dying bear, and now it lives within her.  I loved this part — there are any number of times in life where a fierce and powerful bear can be a great help.

Jackalope Wives and Other Stories, by Ursula Vernon — Some of these stories subvert a fairy tale or a folksong, or, in the case of “Godmother,” all the fairy tales at once.  Some sound like folktales passed down from one generation to the next.  Some cross the line between animal and human so effortlessly that you barely notice it when an animal starts to talk.  Sometimes the prose turns into poetry.  All the characters are worth knowing, even the witch who finds the company of bug-eating plants “congenial.”  All of these are tales from a true story-teller, beautifully told. (More here

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead — The Intuitionist is a less ambitious and weighty book than Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, but I liked its strange charm.  It conjures up a world where, as I wrote, “elevators have all the allure and excitement of the automobile industry.”  Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman hired by the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and when an elevator she inspected crashes she decides to investigate.  “Along the way she discovers other groups and other conspiracies, friends and foes and spies, and an astonishing truth about the founding of elevator science.”  It’s a lot of fun, but it can be serious too, and like The Underground Railroad it has things to say about race and racism. (More here.) 
I don’t know why I only found five books to recommend this year — and one of them, as I said, I read the year before.  There were other books I liked, perfectly good books, but none of them gave me that feeling of reading a really great book, as if you’re watching someone balance across a gossamer tightrope, your mouth open in amazement at every step.

Dec. 10th, 2018 10:34 am


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I haven’t been posting much because I’ve gotten editorial comments on my novel, and I’m busy doing rewrites.  Much to my surprise, a lot of those comments are about the fact that this book is too long.  Surprise, because when I started writing pretty much the major complaint I got was that my novels were too short.  One person said, memorably, that when the curtain came down he still had some popcorn left.

These comments were so unexpected, in fact, that at first I didn’t want to believe them.  I even felt a sort of satisfaction — hey, I can too write long books!  It was only when I read specific notes that I realized that, yes, there were several places where I was in danger of boring the readers, or maybe putting them in a coma.  Characters repeated things that had happened earlier, though the readers, of course, had already seen these events and didn’t need to be told about them twice.  Characters got out of a car, walked up to a house, took their keys out, opened the door, and then stepped inside, none of which needed to be described.  Characters did things and talked about things that had nothing to do with the plot (though some of these, I still think, were character-defining moments and should stay).  Older strata of the novel thrust themselves into the final draft, to the point where characters ended up contradicting something they’d said earlier.

It’s enough to make me wonder why authors who get older, or people who get older, maunder on about irrelevant stuff.  You can see this in writers who are too famous to be edited — Heinlein, Stephen King,  Anne Rice — it seems to be their later books that take detours that end up as far from the original plot as, say, Pluto.  Of course maybe it’s only that they weren’t superstars when they published their earlier books, and they were forced to endure the indignities of editing.

A doctor friend says this kind of wandering is the result of “pre-frontal lobe disinhibition.”  That is, the pre-frontal lobe keeps us from saying and doing inappropriate things, and when we get older this function gets weaker.  I’ve started to use this to explain all kinds of things — all the way from dad jokes to strangers who tell you deeply inappropriate stories at parties to long weird-ass stream-of consciousness novels.  In one sense, and I really mean this, I’m glad I’m not famous enough to have my books go out unedited.
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Yesterday Doug and I went to a demonstration I’d signed up for earlier, one that would be called when trump crossed a line -- and he sure did that.  It was smaller than I’d hoped -- a lot of the crazy feisty Berkeley and Oakland protesters seemed to have moved out of the area.  And it was weirdly middle-of-the-road, with very little there you couldn’t have heard at a constitutional seminar, people talking about due process and the rule of law.  One man said, “I can’t believe we’re protesting the firing of Jeff. F**king. Sessions."
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1. It could be the last election you’ll be able to vote in.
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2. We need to keep the Affordable Care Act, and make it better.  We need to do something about climate change, or the world we know will be gone in two short decades.  We need to reunite kidnapped children with their parents, and make sure children are never put in cages again.  We need to stop letting corporations grow like tumors.  We need to stop corporate executives from getting obscene salaries and bonuses while their employees struggle, and start working for those employees instead.  We need to make sure the United States is fair to everyone, including minorities and women.
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3. More from Obviousland: We need to somehow stop the tribalism that’s tearing the country apart.  We need a president with dignity, someone who can bring people together and who listens to everyone, not just rich white men.  We need a president who doesn’t gleefully encourage hate crimes, like a kid playing with lit matches.  And since we can’t get that in this election, we need a Congress that can impress upon the president we do have that his behavior is unacceptable.
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4. It’ll be great seeing the look on Trump’s face if everyone votes against him.
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5. The obvious: We need a check on Trump.  We need to know what he owes to Russia, why he kowtows to Saudi Arabia, how much his business interests intersect with his political decisions, whether he’s mentally alert and stable enough to be a president at all.
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7. Alternately, if your candidate wins by millions of votes, everyone will see how powerful his or her ideas are.  And it’ll be one election they can’t steal.
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8. Your vote might be the one that puts your candidate over the top.
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9. To counteract the vote of your deplorable uncle or cousin or sister-in-law.
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1. I’m in another book bundle, this one of horror books from Tachyon.  The novel they’re offering of mine, The Uncertain Places, isn’t as horrific as some of the other books on their list, but you might like it anyway — it won the Mythopoeic Award and got a lot of good reviews.  Only $1 (or more, if you want) for six scary books -- and you'll be helping the Arthritis Foundation.

Then tomorrow, Open Road Media is offering Summer King, Winter Fool as one of their Early Bird Books, which means the e-book will be $1.99.

2. I’m writing letters to registered voters across the United States through Vote Forward, reminding them that the election is coming up on November 6.  This is something I can do instead of phone banking or knocking on doors, both of which are far too nerve-racking for an introvert.  I did phone banking once, and every time I the phone rang I was hoping they wouldn't answer so I could just leave a message.  And these were mostly pre-screened people, most of whom were very polite.

3. Went to the Magritte show at the San Francisco MOMA.  There’s an exhibit where you can see yourself lost in a Magrittean wood, and though the picture we took isn’t that great (you can see Doug’s hand with the camera, in another part of the wood) I still like it.

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1. I was talking to some people about the latest trends in publishing, and how you could maybe write a bestseller by combining them.  Someone mentioned dystopias, and someone else brought up small animals, and Doug said, immediately, “Furry Road.”

2. Quote of the month: ”What would be the point of a new world, a fresh start, if we didn’t have dogs with us?” John Varley, Irontown Blues

3. You know you have to vote on November 6, right?  The only way we’re going to get out of this nightmare is if we vote in enough Senators and Representatives to stop that petulant child in the White House.  (I don’t know what happened to the Republicans of my childhood, who may have been wrong-headed but at least weren’t deranged.  Even Nixon knew enough to resign.)

This message will be repeated several times in the run-up to the election.  And if I find out you didn’t vote, I will come and find you.  (Non-US citizens excepted.)


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February 2019



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