Sunday, July 25, 2010

Salander. Sula.

We went to the movies this afternoon, and the theater was packed. But as I looked around I realized that no one in the theater seemed to be under fifty.

Okay, so the cheap Sunday matinees are attractive to people living on a pension. But why this movie, rather than the others in the multiplex? What was bringing a whole crowd of middle-aged to elderly people out to the cinema?

The answer? A tattooed, pierced, violent, half-crazy bisexual Swedish dwarf!

Lisbeth Salander. The disturbed, disturbing heroine of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy. That's who the old folks are into!

These books are popular. A friend was on a commuter train from D.C. to New York and noted that everyone else in the car was reading a Stieg Larsson book. Larsson's the new John Grisham. Except that he's dead.

When I read the first of the books, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I recognized Salander's special vibe right away--- in fact I checked the copyright, because Salander so reminded me of Sula in my own Praxis books. But no, it's unlikely that Larsson was able to read a first edition of The Praxis in 2003 in order to postumously publish his book, in Swedish, in 2004.

And it's not like the characters are identical. They're both self-exiled characters with abusive backgrounds, unusual math skills, and a willingness to exploit violence as a means of solving personal problems. Both end up unexpectedly rich. But Salander is a crusader: she uses violence only against evil people, most of whom have attacked her first. Sula is of a more pragmatic character: she'll kill people who get in her way, if she thinks she can get away with it.

And here's the secret to keeping a character like this fascinating: their superpowers don't help. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Salander is shown to have a whole host of abilities--- she's a math genius, she's a brilliant hacker, she has a photographic memory--- but these abilities don't solve her problems or make her happy. The opposite, if anything. She's still alienated, she's still an exile, she's still alone.

Likewise Sula, for all her hypercompetence, never finds a place or time where she can be happy. ("Drive on," she said.)

In the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Stieg Larsson made a big mistake. He fell in love with his character.

Now I think it's great when readers fall in love with fictional characters. I pat myself on the back for the number of readers who have fallen for Sula. But the problem with writers falling for their own character is that they start giving them too many expensive presents.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is no longer the bundle of fascinating contraditions we found in Dragon Tattoo. Instead, she's an omnicompetent superheroine. She not only rescues a woman from her murderous husband in the teeth of a raging hurricane, she also rescues her boyfriend from a collapsing building at more or less the same time. She beats up a couple of Hell's Angels and steals one of their motorbikes. (She's 4"8", by the way.) She's an expert at breaking into buildings and at spycraft. She takes a bullet to the brain and still manages to dig herself out of a shallow grave and then go after the bad guy with an axe.

She's no longer miserably unhappy, but instead reasonably content. While hardly a paragon of socialization, she does fairly well with people, having sex with the ones she likes, and avoiding those she doesn't (except when she goes for them with an axe).

She even solves Fermat's Last Theorem!

I wanted to give Stieg Larsson the benefit of the doubt, folks, but I really couldn't.

The third book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, is about a governmental coverup of the events of the second book. In this one, Larsson made the mistake of telling the story in part from the point of view of the bad guys. This means (1) there's no mystery to ensnare the reader, and (2) once you encounter the senile, doddering, delusion villains, there's no suspense, because you know that Salander is going to make short work of them, at least once she recovers from being shot in the head.

That's the problem with giving your protagonist too many presents, you end up making them so mighty that the story no longer matters. Then it's just wish-fulfillment for the author and the audience both, with villains popping up only for the pleasure of watching the hero knock them down.

Still, if you're longing for Sula, you could do worse than to pick up The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. And if you're one of the tens of millions who, even though the author is dead, remain desperate for another Salander book, you might just want to pick up a copy of The Praxis.

Just a suggestion, mind.

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My God--- It's Full of Planets!

I certainly picked an interesting time to take an intensive astronomy course.

Via David Brin, I hear that we've now found that our new space telescope Kepler has found 140 Earth-sized exoplanets. Kepler finds planets by detecting almost imperceptible 'winks' - the tiny amount of dimming that occurs each time a planet moves across the face of a star . . . 'Transits', as they are known, by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star's brightness of about 100 parts per million, lasting for 2 to 16 hours. Information such as a planet's size and the extent of its orbit can be calculated from the amount of dimming, the length of time between 'winks' and the star's mass . . .

Sasselov said: ‘There is a lot more work we need to do with this but the statistical result is loud and clear and it is that planets like our own Earth are out there.

‘Our own Milky Way galaxy is rich in these kinds of planets.’

For the next stage of the mission the team will study all of the candidate planets and try and discern which of them have the right conditions for life.

Zero to 140 overnight! And, because of the method used, the only planets they could find were those that passed between their sun and us--- planets in other orbits would be invisible using this type of technology. So multiply that 1490 by, well, lots.

Meanwhile, on the freaker side of astronomy, the Hubble has spotted a blue "hypervelocity star" that has been flung out of the center of our galaxy by the supermassive black hole that lurks there, and is now zooming out of the galaxy at 1.6 million mpg.

Bye. See you next turn of the Wheel.

And in other news, astronomers have now found some super super super massive stars, 300 times the mass of our sun. Stars that big won't last long, but with the discovery of stars weighing between 150 and 300 solar masses, the study's findings raise the prospect of the existence of exceptionally bright, "pair instability supernovae" that blow themselves apart. These exploding stars fail to leave any remnants, and disperse up to ten solar masses of iron into their surroundings. A few candidates for such explosions have been proposed in recent years.

Time to stake your claim on the flying iron shrapnel! You've only got a few million years to do it.

I predict a really good season for space opera. Bunches of Earthlike planets, plus bizarro astronomical events to add the spice of cosmic weirdness. Let the scribbling begin!

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Signing in Albuquerque

I'll be signing in Albuquerque this weekend, on Saturday the 24th, from 3-4:30pm.
The signing will be at Page One, Albuquerque's biggest independent bookstore.
I will be signing The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories, along with whatever else they have in the store (which should be everything in print, and some other stuff besides.) I'll be alongside Bob Vardeman, and we'll read, chat, and otherwise put on a show.
So come on over, if the mood strikes.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

1979: The Writer's Life

We've been reorganizing the garage, and I've been going through a lot of old paperwork to see what can be tossed away. Among other things, I found boxes upon boxes of old tax forms and documentation stretching back to 1979, my first year as a full-time professional writer.

I've tossed away pounds and pounds of old bills and canceled checks, but I've hung onto the actual tax forms and my expense sheets, which provide a picture of how I survived in those days.

On New Year's Day, 1979, I found out that I'd sold three historical novels to Dell, my first sale after some years of struggle in the business of selling fiction. I was 25 years old.

(The sale had actually been on December 31, but various New Year celebrations both in New York and New Mexico distracted everyone concerned and kept me from being informed until the New Year.) What this means is that I was a full-time writer for the whole year, and the figures I've dug up should apply for the whole period.

I sold the novels for $10,000 apiece. I got half on signing, and another five grand on completion of the first book--- and apparently I earned nothing else, since my total income for the year seems to have been $20,000, plus $180 in interest. This is odd, because I seem to remember that I was clerking in a game store when I made my first sale, another in series of part-time jobs that I'd been scuffling through since being kicked out of grad school. Possibly I was being paid under the table, and the income never got reported. Or maybe my memory is faulty.

I spent $170 each month on rent for my 900-square-foot two-bedroom apartment, locatedly in a downwardly-mobile working-class neighborhood. (It's nearly gentrified now.) I spent $155.26 on office supplies, mainly paper and typewriter ribbon. The utilities that weren't part of my rent came to $168.02. Postage was $28.20. The agent took a commission of $2000. (Ah, the days when they only took ten percent!) Auto expenses came to $1250. "Printing" was $325--- could that have been Xeroxing? "Telephone and telegraph" came to $129.07. Medical expenses came to $84.60, which is an indication of how well I was taking care of myself--- which is to say, not at all.

My biggest, grandest expense was $514.80 for a reconditioned IBM Model D office typewriter.

As far as the actual tax forms go, Schedule G was used for income averaging, a wise move since my previous two years' income had been crap. (The IRS has since closed this loophole for the self-employed.)

I took $350 depreciation on my 1972 Chevy Van 10, a wretched, rusty piece of Detroit ghastliness that I had bought thirdhand for $2000 some years earlier. It continually threatened to shake itself to pieces, the tires kept deflating for no understandable reason, and the person who sold it to me was later busted for running a chop shop. (I kinda wondered why the serial numbers on the car and engine didn't match.)

With all the deductions and income averaging and such, my adjusted gross income was $11,150.06.

My Social Security self-employment tax came to $950.87. As I seem to have paid $2138 in estimated taxes--- I suspect this figure is actually derived from the income-averaging on Schedule G, but I can't figure out how--- I ended the year with a refund of $1187.12, which must have come as a welcome surprise.

But wait! I have here a letter from the IRS, which states that I miscalculated Schedule G, and that I am due a further refund of $636.95. The IRS is honest, God bless 'em!

What's remarkable are the deductions that I didn't take. No business travel, no business meals. Apparently I just stayed home for the whole year and worked. I never actually met my first editor, one Andrea Cirillo, who some time in 1979 left Dell to edit a line of romances, and who was eventually replaced by someone else who I never met, either. (Those first three books had five editors in total, which should give you a clue about why they failed in the marketplace.)

With my income of $20,000 I wasn't living like a prince, but I was living considerably better than I'd lived before. Up till 1979 I was a wretched failure at everything I'd attempted, engaged in a futile tilt at the windmills of publishing: afterwards, I was an author. Not always a successful author, but one with a track record of accomplishment. Even the IRS sent me money!

The line between failure and success isn't narrow, but very wide. 1979 was the year I crossed from one to the other.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ten Atmospheres

When I was learning scuba, I was being forever warned about the kind of stuff that many atmospheres of water pressure could do to you.

Mythbusters had an episode that illustrated this very nicely, and Carrie kindly pointed out the relevant video on YouTube.

They stuffed a dead pig in a hardhat diving suit, dropped it to 100 meters depth, then drained the air pressure from the suit, subjecting Mr. Porker to 10 whole atmospheres of pressure.

The entire pig was shoved up into the diving helmet, and then the helmet caved in. Much blood ensued.

I should issue a gore warning here. Otherwise, enjoy!

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Amazon Sez . . .

Amazon has announced that it's now selling more Kindle e-books than hardbacks, and that this is a huge milestone in the history of publishing.

Several grains of salt need to be taken with this message. No raw numbers are provided, only a percentage (143 Kindle sales for every 100 hardback sales). It's not clear how many of the Kindle sales replace hardback sales, and how many replace paperback sales. A great many Kindle books are out-of-copyright classics on sale for 99 cents or for free. (I just downloaded the six-volume Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for my Kindle, and it cost me less than buck.)

And of course, Amazon's figures have always been notoriously slippery, as any author who has tried to track his own Amazon sales will tell you.

So the barricades have not yet been stormed, and the revolution, whatever it is, has not triumphed.

Still, this probably means something or other. Your guess is as good as mine as to what.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

A False-Color Image of Your Very Own

Behold a false-color image of Messier Object 27, better known as the Dumbbell Nebula.
False-color images of astronomical objects are not unusual, of course, but what's unique about this one is that I created it my ownself, while noodling around on software the final day of LaunchPad.
And the absolutely cool thing is that you can do this too, because the software is free for download, and is available for most operating systems.
Version 2.0 of this software was called Next Generation, so of course the current 3.0 version is called DS9. Geeks call the shots on these things!
What you do, see, is get the raw Hubble or Chandra data from NASA--- which is available here and here--- and then you load it into DS9, and you start making cool astronomical gorgeousness.
I'm thinking of producing a calendar, myself.

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Trapped With Astronomers in a Hot, Airless Room!

So I am back from Laramie, where I spent a week at LaunchPad, the workshop designed to cram as much astronomical knowledge into your skull as can possibly be accomplished without the use of a mallet.
I filled an entire legal pad with notes. I wonder if, a year from now, any of it will be decipherable.
I would have typed the notes into my laptop, except that my word processor doesn't do equations, and is very clumsy with scientific notation.
Most of the workshop took place in a small, windowless, hot, airless classroom. It had to be windowless, because we screened videos and slides, but I wonder if it had to be without ventilation. As the day wore on, and the heat and CO2 increased, it became harder and harder to stay awake. We clearly needed time scheduled for siestas. Or fresh air. Or both.
But we also got to three observatories, and to view the stars from Mike Brotherton's driveway (the seeing was surprisingly good), and otherwise hang out for a number of festive meals in local eateries. And it has to be said that this was a smart, cool bunch of people, including Mark J. Williams, Cecilia Tan, Carrie Vaughn, Bud Sparhawk, Ian Randal Strock, Rachel Swirsky, and a bunch more.
Plus, I learned a lot--- which is not surprising, considering that my last college astronomy class was in 1972, and the whole field has changed a zillion times since then. And if I ever start writing space opera again, it's going to be jam-packed with a lot of high-concept, intriguing celestial madness.
If, of course, the Big Rip doesn't get us first.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stellar Types

So I've been living and breathing astronomy for four whole days now, and it's producing conversations like this:

ME: I've been observing the Wal-Mart parking lot, and I've noted twelve Class O supergiant vehicles, fifteen Class B giant vehicles, eight Class G vehicles, and nine Class M dwarf vehicles.

CARRIE: What conclusion do you derive from your observations?

ME: Big pickup trucks and Wal-Mart have a powerful mutual attraction.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In Wyoming

I am in Laramie, Wyoming, attending Launch Pad, which is an astronomy workshop for SF writers and other creative people, intended to give us sufficient astronomical knowledge so that our fiction won't embarrass the professionals.

Hosting is writer/astronomer Mike Brotherton, ably assisted by astronomers Jim Verley and Kevin R. Grazier, who is the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica and Eureka.

I am living in a dorm, eating in a cafeteria, and attending classes from morn till night. Since this is totally unlike my own college experience, I am clearly living out someone else's nostalgic fantasy. All I can think about is that if I were ever forced to share a space this small with another human being, either he or I would very shortly have gone out the window.

Kevin has blogged about the workshop, including a photo in which I am clearly doing a Jack Nicholson impersonation. Cecilia Tan is posting over on Jeff Vandemeer's blog, as is Rachel Swirsky, who is liveblogging the event. This leaves me with very little actual reporting to do here.

But y'know what? I was totally wrong about why slingshot maneuver work. Fortunately I just put them in my books, I didn't explain them. Now I can do both.


Friday, July 09, 2010

Pawns of the Plutocrats

The Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA) has been sponsoring lectures for 250 years. But only recently have they been producing a series of brilliant animations of the lectures themselves, including this one illustrating a talk on the financial crisis by controversial anthropologist and geographer David Harvey.

The analysis is frankly Marxist. I'm inclined to think he's right, though I don't know how much of a Marxist you have to be to think, "Some people have far too much money and are doing insane shit with it."

I couldn't help but notice, though, that Harvey is a little short on solutions. "We've all got to think and talk about this" is a little lame as a finale, though I guess "We should all have a big world revolution" is unlikely to fly with much of his audience.

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Shades of Porn

So I've watched a few episodes of Season Two of True Blood, and I'm beginning to sort out the whole idea of porn for girls and how it works.

Porn for boys, for instance, works as follows:

1. Pizza deliveryman rings doorbell.
2. Beautiful woman in negligee answers.
3. They have hot sex.

Whereas porn for girls runs like this:

1. Vampire rings doorbell.
2. Beautiful woman in Daisy Dukes answers and invites him in.
3. They have a long, complex discussion about their feelings, followed by,
4. Hot sex, fangs optional.

Have I pretty much summed it up, or am I missing something?

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The Clarion Workshop is holding this year's Write-a-Thon even as I'm typing this. Writers will be beavering away for the next month, trying to write enough copy to trigger donations from their sponsors.

You could be that sponsor! Support the Writers of the . . . well, I can't say Future, can I? That's another outfit.

Support the Writers of Tomorrow! Pledge today!


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Alien Cool

I think it was Joe Haldeman who said about creating aliens for science fiction: "If they're not at least as weird as the Japanese, the author has failed."

Well, the Japanese have got even weirder. demonstrated this with a list of 6 Japanese Subcultures That are Insane (Even for Japan).

Check out the Mountain Hags, the Male Host gigolos, the Yankiis, and the Visual Kei. Plus the truckers who customize their rigs with radical light racks and cool tubes, or whatever those objects are called.

Can I just state for the record that we could really use some of these subcultures over here?

Though we see all kinds of cosplay going on at, say, Dragoncon, we don't see nearly enough of this stuff on subways, in churches, and in supermarkets (or on semitrucks). Our subcultures are showing their age. Goth is old hat, steampunk is looking a little creaky, and punk is something your grandfather did. We need something that truckers can do besides sexual harassment and having inane conversations on CB radio (assuming they do that anymore.) We need people dressed as anime characters playing frisbee in our parks, or hanging out in Irish pubs.

Some of these styles are more than a decade old in Japan, which means they're about ripe for export.

The Mountain Hags can stay over there, as far as I'm concerned.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Hurrah for the Ground Observer Corps!

We had a pleasing holiday weekend, including a small gathering on the Fourth of July for a few friends. We served only patriotic American foods: hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob, potato chips, macaroni salad . . . though it has to be admitted that we did have fruit salad in case anybody brought a Communist who couldn't eat red meat.
Our friend Pat Rogers brought a completely evil version of macaroni salad . . . with bacon! It was all I could do to restrain myself from secreting myself in a corner and gobbling it all down myself.
I was pleased to be able to reward Pat, not for the macaroni salad--- for which we will all be rewarded with heart attacks--- but for the fact that (under her nom de internet qtera) she solved one of my Mystery Plane quizzes by recognizing the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa ("Peregrine").
Her reward, as the photograph shows, was a deck of Second World War airplane recognition cards, as approved by the Ground Observer Corps. So now she can tell a Macchi C205 from a Kawasaki Ki-61, assuming that she can't already.
The cards are also fully functional and can also be used to play good American games, like poker.
A fine, patriotic time was had by all, until it was time for all the heart attack victims to stagger back to their vehicles and their homes, secure in the knowledge that if the Axis try to bomb us, we'll be ready for them.

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Friday, July 02, 2010

A Bare Bodkin

I had a recent email from the Romanian translators of The Praxis. It seems that "Sula" is a very rude word in Romanian--- the literal meaning is "bodkin," but the slang meaning is something else again. So my heroine's Romanian name is now Caroline Sylla.

This is fine with me. When I offend foreigners, I want to do it deliberately, not by accident.

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