Crime and Punishment

While doing some research this morning, I came across this fascinating story about Russian poet and Novelist, Boris Pasternak, and his best known work, Doctor Zhivago:

After his own novel was denied publication by the journal Novy Mir, Pasternak arranged for Doctor Zhivago to be smuggled abroad by Sir Isaiah Berlin. In 1957, the novel was printed by the multi-billionaire Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. To the outrage of the Politburo, the novel became an instant sensation throughout the non-Communist world. As retaliation for his role in Doctor Zhivago’s publication, Feltrinelli was expelled in disgrace from the Italian Communist Party.

[…] The first English translation of Doctor Zhivago was hastily produced by Max Hayward and Manya Harari in order to coincide with Pasternak’s Nobel victory. It was released in August 1958, and remained the only edition available for more than fifty years.

Between 1958 and 1959, the English language edition spent 26 weeks at the top of The New York Times’ bestseller list. Although none of his Soviet critics had the chance to read the proscribed novel, several officials of the Writer’s Union publicly demanded, “kick the pig out of our kitchen-garden,” i.e., expel Pasternak from the USSR. This led to a humorous Russian saying, “I did not read Pasternak, but I condemn him”.

Meanwhile, as the novel topped international bestseller lists, the British MI6 and the American CIA commenced an operation to ensure that Doctor Zhivago was correctly submitted to the Nobel Committee. This was done because it was known that a Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak would seriously harm the international credibility of the Soviet Union. As a result, British and American operatives intercepted and photographed a manuscript of the novel and secretly printed a small number of books in the Russian language. These were submitted to the Nobel Committee’s surprised judges just ahead of the deadline.

Spies waging a covert cultural war with literature, using the Nobel Committee as a proxy agent. I’m not sure what form it will take, but that is going into a future novel, somehow.

Observations from the Audience

Elvira and I saw Neal Stephenson speak at the Bagdad theater last night here in Portland. We’ve been to several author events hosted by Powell’s over the last few months and without exception they were fun and enlightening. This was the biggest event we’ve been to so far. The Bagdad, for you non-Portland residents, is a beautiful old restored theater run by McMenimen’s and they often host speakers and show second run and old movies. Besides being a lavishly restored classic theater with all the decor and atmosphere that entails, they also sell beer from local craft breweries and pizza from a local restaurant, so it’s pretty much one of the greatest places on Earth.

We’ve been to enough of these author events now to see a pattern of reoccurring motifs emerge, worth commenting on:

The Standard Questions. “Where do you get your ideas?” seems to have fallen out of fashion, thankfully. Now, it’s all about tips to young and aspiring writers. You can tell that this is a popular question because so far, every author we’ve seen speak has a tidy payload of a response ready to be deployed and done so with aplomb. It’s usually your standard writing wisdom (write 10,000 pages and throw them away, write every day, write what you want to read, etc.) wrapped up in an anecdote they or some other writer has told a hundred times. This is one of those rhetorical flourishes that, if you’re going to be a traveling writer doing signings and speaking engagements, you must be able to handle. Stephenson did a bang up job, and even handled the PoMo “How do you know what you experience is the same as what I experience?” question with grace.*

The Response to Fannish Enthusiasm. This is always the hardest to watch from the audience, because there are some fans who are so very, very enthusiastic about one particular aspect of  an author’s oeuvre that it overshadows all rational thought and colors their interactions with the author in a way that can be downright uncomfortable for a bystander to witness. Stephenson wins mucho points in this area, since the overwhelming majority of the Fannish questions he fielded were either directly or indirectly related to his book, Snow Crash.

I imagine every author is thrilled to know that they’ve written something that resonates so profoundly with their audience and part of a book tour is geared towards promoting not just the new book but your work in general. Still, having people come up to you and say, “I love what you wrote 20 years ago, when will you do more of that?” has got to get old real quick.

This is a sub variety of “I love how you do X, you should do Y”. You could tell Neal Stephenson has been getting this one a lot this book tour. His new book, Reamde is a thriller, ostensibly concerning the developer of a popular MMO. Now, it’s obvious that Mr. Stephenson is not nearly as big of a geek as his fans wish he were. While he may be fascinated by emerging technology and hackers and the Internet and MMOs, he clearly does not spend his free time playing World of Warcraft. And yet a significant portion of the Snow Crash fans implored him to write an MMO, either based on Snow Crash or just in general. Keep in mind, this is a guy who writes long, complex, thoughtful digressive and expansive 1000 page novels for a living. And he just finished telling the person who asked the question before you that the promise of the free and open Internet never came to fruition and it’s now mostly full of lies and bullshit. The closest he got to openly mocking someone was when they asked if he was ever going to use his twitter account (apparently someone is on twitter as Neal Stephenson but it ain’t him).

This is part of a larger cultural trend I’ve noticed, concerning the undervalued status of novels as merely rough drafts for movies or some other multimedia franchise (like MMOs) but that’s a rant for another time. Suffice it to say, Neal Stephenson enjoys writing big honking novels, and makes a decent living at it. Why would he want to get into that feverish snake pit that is the gaming industry when he can hang out in Seattle, writing  novels on his laptop?

The Soapbox Questions. These are tricky. Some authors avoid answering them, because they’re invitations to rant and they obviously don’t want to offend the portion of their audience who may not agree with their peculiar stance on a given issue. But at the same time, authors end up with a shortlist of topics near and dear to their heart, mostly because they tend to feature repeatedly in their work, so obviously you want to listen rapturously as your favorite author extemporizes on the latest development in said area of interest. Stephenson managed to address the Libertarian question without it derailing the discussion into a political shooting match, which really takes some skill.

(The short version of what he said: he sympathizes with some of the hacker/libertarian ideals but recognizes that in modern American politics, Libertarianism that has been coopted by people whose goal is decidedly not making more people free.)

All in all it was a fun evening (though note to the Bagdad theater lighting crew: there’s an author on stage who is going to read and talk for the better part of 2 hours and all you can think to light him with are red and blue spotlights? really?) If you get a chance to see Neal Stephenson on this or any other tour, I highly recommend it.

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*On a somewhat related note, because it did come up as a topic last night, “Write what you know” is the single worst piece of writing advice to ever get such universal dispersal. Every writer I’ve seen speak has had to deal with someone in the crowd presenting this moldy chestnut in one way or another. The problem is, it’s not a piece of advice, so much as a pithy aphorism that sounds like advice. Taken literally, it unleashes a plague of autobiographical fiction on the land, leading to meandering, navel gazing prose that replaces any sort of real internal examination with a string of pointless sentences beginning with “I”. A less aphoristic but more accurate bit of advice would be, “let your life experiences and personal skill set inform your writing.” Borrow details from your life but don’t drop people and experiences from the real world into your book with just a name change and wink.

Silencio

Um, wow, 2 weeks of silence. That makes me a bad host, like inviting you to a party at my place and then ignoring you. For 2 weeks.

Nothing terribly exciting to report as an excuse, I’m afraid. I’ve just been writing. And unlike Warren Ellis, I don’t have a fancy deathbar to keep track of my novel’s word count visually so you’ll just have to imagine what 47K out of 100K words written looks like. If my math is correct (cary the 2…) that puts me at 47% of the way there. I should hit the midpoint some time this week (ideally, by Wednesday but you know what happens with ideals: the real world crushes them in front of your face and laughs). Then the fun begins: trying to make all the crazy shit I’ve written thus far make sense.

So, yeah working on my novel has absorbed my time and left little room for ranting on the blog about politics and what not. Also, I’m kind of tired of that. What more is there to say? Abject stupidity rules our country and nothing is going to fix that. We’ll all die, probably broke and in a gutter from a preventable disease but at least our lordly wealthy betters will be able to say they turned a profit before the toxic sea rises to swallow civilization whole. That’s if the apes don’t get us first.

So there’s that to look forward to as well.

Architecture of the Mind

Over at BLDBLOG, Geoff Manaugh interviews China Mieville about the role of architecture and urban space in science fiction and fantasy. I’d quote a bit but there’s so many great ideas being discussed, I’d end up pasting in the whole thing.

More than any other writer that comes to mind, Mieville makes his fantastical urban settings feel like real spaces, not just the cardboard set decorations you find in a lot of urban fantasy and sci-fi.Just from the descriptions in Perdido Street Station, New Crobuzon feels like a real place, even though it’s filled with cactus people and beetle-headed women and flesh robots and dream eating moths. And that’s just one book. His magical London in Krakan makes Harry Potter’s London look like the aforementioned cardboard set decoration. It has alleys and puddles and shadows and light and grime and life, not just a facsimile of doors and windows and bricks given funny names.

Reading Mieville’s work has really opened my eyes to the potential for architecture to play as big a role as any character in a story. Definitely osmethign worth thinking more about.

The Word That Shall Not Be Named

when it comes to the matter of censoring the word “nigger” form Huck Finn, I’m with the Rude Pundit:

You can’t take the word “nigger”? Then, sorry, you don’t get to enjoy the rest of Twain’s satire of human degradation and idiocy (and you should probably avoid Pudd’nhead Wilson, too). You don’t get to watch Pulp Fiction. You don’t get to watch unedited episodes of The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son. You don’t get to hear Archie Bunker explain about how he got his ass kicked when he was a kid by a black boy because he used the word: “That’s what all them people was called in them days. I mean everybody we knew called them people ‘niggers.’ That’s all my old man ever called them, there.” No, we’re just not that mature anymore. (Yeah, yeah, you can say we’ve gotten more “sensitive” or some such shit. All that’s happened is that we’ve made the word more powerful by its false invisibility.)

You’re not protecting your children from bad ideas by refusing to say the word. Your kids know this, because they learned it form Harry Potter. In the HP books, the wizards all refused to say Voldemort’s name, because names have power. But by treating the name like it didn’t exist, they created negative space in which it’s power to corrupt grew. Being sensative to racial matters by refusing to talk about racism doesn’t make it go away. That is the genius of Mark Twain’s fiction. He forces the reader to confront the prejudices of themselves and their families and friends. Huck Finn makes us confront the fact that our grandfathers and great grandfathers were nice people and racist as hell. Because they were people, flawed and blinded by the circumstances of the society they grew up in, and they had to learn the hard way how to change. Censoring all the “niggers” in Huck Finn robs young readers of the power iof that story. It becomes another exercise in rote memorization and avoidance rather than confronting the themes that are right there below the surface.

Upping the Resolution

It’s a brand new year and so time to make resolutions! But let’s be honest, most resolutions frankly suck. They’re something vague about loosing weight or being a better person or goodwill towards humanity.  You can easily ignore these resolutions when they fail because they were not attainable to begin with, or pretend that they were achieved just resolving to be generically better.

The key to a good resolution is to make it specific, tangible and realistic. Like mine.

In 2011, I resolve to finish a novel and have it on the desk of an agent. This is a 2 parter, and as such has 2 deadlines. The first, to finish a novel, is very tangible and attainable. If I write a certain number of words a day, I can have a novel length manuscript done in 6 months. This is not as arbitrary a deadline as it may at first seem.[1] The second deadline, getting the finished, polished manuscript on the desk of an agent is a bit more subjective, as it’s reliant on the first being completed in a timely manner. I’m confident though that I can make this deadline, but to get there, I’m going to need help. That’s where you come in.

Yes, you, the person at the other end of this computer screen, whose eyes are reading these words right now.

I’m going to need guinea pigs beta readers to help me stay on target and reach my goal. A beta reader is someone who likes to read, (science fiction, specifically) who wants to be a part of the creative process (because it’s fun)  and above all, a beta reader is someone who has a well-manicured pedantic streak. If you have an eye peeled for typos, like to quibble about grammar and come out of a movie plotting all the ways the writers could have told the story better, than you are who I’m taking about. Dear pedants: your finely tuned eye and perspicacity is not a curse, but a virtue, one I wish to exploit for the mutual gain of the world! Or at least me.

So, how this works: I send you, dear beta readers, part of the manuscript every 2-3 weeks.[2] your job will be to do your thing and read the story, looking for grammatical and continuity errors, writing notes asking questions and generally acting as a spare set of eyeballs and remote brains, using your finely honed instinct as habitual editors and creative types to make this the best novel it can be. Finally you get to look over an author’s shoulder and tell them what they’re doing wrong! You’ve wanted to do this your whole life and now I’m offering you the chance. Let’s fulfill our dreams together!

If you want o be one of my dear beta readers and new best friends, send me a message via email, Twitter or Facebook.

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1. I loose my job in six months and I’m tired of doing other things, badly, and writing as a hobby. Hence, the six month deadline. My true, not-so-secret resolution is to become a professional writer this year. That’s the new job I plan to start July 1st. This means finances will be…creative this year. But so be it. I wanted to loose weight anyway, and starving is a kind of diet. So see, it’s a traditional resolution after all!

2. I’m planning on using Google Docs to track comments and changes, though I can arrange to deliver hard copies to those of you who live in the Portland metro area.

Dickens in a Dirigible

A few weeks back, Charlie Stross opened a can of virtual worms in this post about the weekpoints of Steampunk as a genre. I observed the hubub from a safe distance (those zeppelin jockies have explosives, man, even if they are just dynamite dressed up with gears)  but since then have been thinking about something he wrote,* roling it aournd, looking at it from different angles:

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

This is, in a way, what I’ve been groping towards with a novel-in-progress that was stalled out on the side of the imagination highway, waiting for a kind stranger to slide out of the fast lane and offer it a ride to the nearest gas station.  And along comes Mr. Stross in his zombie-built airship and gives us a fucking lift.

Of course, what wa smissing all along was the Dickens angle. The eye for social justice.

And since I live in a country that despertaely seems to want to go back to the Gilded Age (but with ray guns and atomic bombs, robot hunter-killer drones and feckless Coroprate Barons) There’s aneed and i’d wager an audience for such a piece of work.

Now all I have to do is find the time to write it.

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* I’ve been thining a lot about a lot things, few of them fit for public consumption. These are stange times and relaly, what can I say about wikileaks, GOp crazies and our President’s spectacular lack of a spine that others haven’t said better? Anyway, more thoughtful posts on writing and comics and fun stuff like that will be coming soon.

The New Cacophony is Old Again

Dumping this here for later reference.Because I seem to have wandered into that haunted house and want to think more about why the mirror turn the way they do, what flavor of smoke is being used.

(Link via Bruce Sterling) trend spotting in sci-fi:

in this same anthology (Jonathan Strahan’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy) was a story by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick called “Zeppelin City,” which at first looks like a simple exercise in steampunk, featuring characters with names like Radio Jones and Amelia Spindizzy, but is also a classic screwball comedy and includes mad disembodied brains, Heinleinian moving sidewalks, and a complete alternate-world Marx Brothers version of Chaplin’s Modern Times.

The chaos and cacophony of a Marx Brothers movie seemed like a good signature for this new trend in gonzo fiction which seems not to fit neatly into any particular subgenre, but to simply borrow anything it damn well pleases from anywhere-near-future SF, alternate history, steampunk, space opera, pulp adventure, hard SF, film, mainstream fiction, surrealism, fantasy, horror, etc. Paul di Filippo’s “Yes, We Have No Bananas” from last year’s Eclipse Three is another example that came to mind, but there are many more.

At the end of that review of “Zeppelin City” I wrote that Swanwick has “always been one of the ringmasters of the new cacophony,” so the New Cacophony is the name I’m choosing for my movement-not fiction in the interstices, not slipstreamy cross-pollinations with the mainstream, not reinventions of old subgenres, but all of the above and more. If I wanted to come up with a more academic sounding name, it might be something like genre dissonance, but New Cacophony is more fun. It’s using any toy in the sandbox, plus any more you want to bring up from the basement. The only rule is that they have to somehow work together in the story.

There are ancestors of this movement going back decades-Philip José Farmer is among the most notable. But the reason I chose Swanwick as an example can be found in The Iron Dragon’s Daughter and especially The Dragons of Babel, in which nearly every marker that seems to give you genre bearings is undercut by another that seems wildly out of place-not just those famous afterburner-assisted mechanical dragons, but a Babylon with Frank Lloyd Wright lounges in which palace courtiers check their Blackberries, saloons decorated with pictures of Muhammad Ali, Kawasaki motorcycles and Mercedes and BMW cars, Pepsis, subways, Grand Central Station, McDonalds, Marlboros, Zippos, Duke Ellington songs, brownstones, Hermes bags (for carrying runes), Hard Rock Café t-shirts, Givenchy gowns, living stone lions who read Faulkner and wise women who quote Mary McCarthy.

A Message From Our Sponsor

Over at Locus, Cory  Doctorow has a column in which he praises the expertise of the professional sales force:

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from someone who’s ready to reinvent publishing using the Internet, and the ideas are often good ones, but they lack a key element: a sales force. That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs. When I worked in bookstores, we had exceptional local reps, like Eric, the Bantam guy who knew that I was exactly the right clerk to give an advance copy of Snow Crash to if he wanted to ensure a big order and lots of hand-selling when the book came in (He also made sure that I got ARCs of every Kathe Koja and Ian McDonald novel — Eric, if you’re reading this, thanks!).

This matters. This is the kind of longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise that gets books onto shelves, into the minds of the clerks, onto the recommended tables at the front of the store. It’s labor-intensive and highly specialized, and without it, your book’s sales only come from people who’ve already heard of it (through word of mouth, advertising, a review, etc.) and who are either motivated enough to order it direct, or lucky enough to chance on a copy on a shelf at a store that ordered it based on reputation or sales literature alone, without any hand-holding or cajoling.

[…] This vision has captured the imagination of many of my fellow techno-utopians: a stake through the heart of the Big, Lumbering Entertainment Dinosaurs Who Put Short-Sighted Profits Ahead of Art. And there’s plenty of short-term thinking in the recent history of publishing and the rise of the mega-publishers. There are plenty of “little” publishers out there, dotted around the country, figuring out how to fill in the gaps that the big guys won’t stoop to conquer: short story collections, quirky titles, books of essays, art books, experimental titles, and anthologies. These are often fabulous books with somewhat respectable numbers, but they lag the majors in one key area: physical distribution.

[…] Here, then, is the major challenge and opportunity of networked, author-driven, revolutionary publishing for this century: how do you turn the Internet into a machine for introducing books to physical, real-world stores? How do you use the Internet to introduce books to online stores that don’t specialize in books, like ThinkGeek?

This is the big hurdle. I self published my first book and everything was done on the computer, from editing to layout to designing the cover. POD handled the manufacturing and distribution. I sold about 2 dozen copies just through word of mouth.But you see the hole in that pipe?

How do I sell more copies of my book? Conventions are great and all, but I can’t afford to fly my ass all over the country. Living on the West Coat, I can go to 3, maybe 4 of the regional cons a year but even that’s pushing it (I’d like to keep my day job since it’s the one paying the bills). I suppose I could hang out at Pioneer Square, handing out teaser chapters and selling copies form the trunk of my car. Sounds like a fun way to kill a weekend. There’s also sending out unsolicited advanced reader copies to websites and journals that may or may not review it. There’s still a lingering bias against self-publishing and POD and some of the bigger fish won’t bother looking at a book that doesn’t have some corporate logo on the spine.

What we self-publishers need is an Internet based method of duplicating what Eric the Bantam Guy used to do. Unfortunately, on the Internet, that’s called Spamming.

So, I encourage everyone to buy my book! It will make your penis bigger!

Author’s Guild vs. The Kindle 2 in a Race to See Who is Least Relavant

So, the Author’s Guild* has decided that the new Kindle’s text-to-speech thingy is a threat to author’s rights, audio book sales and maybe even the book industry’s very existence. Where they were when Paris Hilton’s biography came out, I don’t know.

Roy Blount Jr., the Guild’s President, slobbered all over the New York Times about this and why he thinks the Kindle’s speech doohicky is so horrible, no good, very bad. Roy thinks this because he’s a fucking idiot. If you can’t tell the difference between speech software for the vision impaired and an actual audio book read by a real live human and not HAL, then you don’t deserve to be Guild Leader and should have your tabbord stripped and your magic ring confiscated.

It’s stupid shit like this that makes me glad I’m an independent author and reminds me why I have no desire to join any of these misbegotten fraternities. Their reindeer games suck.

There’s plenty of reasons not to like the Kindle (the DRM, proprietary formatting, the fact that it costs $350.00, it’s a beige POS, etc.**) but to get all hopped up on self righteousness over the speech thingy? Really? This, Roy, is why you’re a third rate writier, a shitty musician and nobody loves you.