Monday, July 30, 2007


I've just finished reading the final Harry Potter book, which started me on a train of thought about fictional heroes and fictional heroics, and who they are and what they mean.

I don't think it's a big spoiler to note that Harry, as heroes go, really isn't that bright. He spends a good deal of The Deathly Hallows blundering into one ambush after another, when even a modest amount of planning or foresight would have allowed him to accomplish his various tasks with a good deal less peril to himself and to his friends.

On the plus side, Harry is good at sports. He acts according to his instincts, which are invariably correct. He's brave, kind, compassionate, loyal, trustworthy, morally straight, and a good deal more forgiving of his enemies that I would have been in his situation. ("Accio Armalite" is a spell I would have had handy had I been Harry, as few evil wizards seem prepared to dealed with a weapon that shoots 700 rounds per minute, each with a muzzle velocity of 945 meters/second. But I digress.)

Harry is a throwback. He's the ideal of the 19th Century hero, which of course is the sort of person that the English public school system was intended to create. Tom Brown's Schooldays was the first and most successful of a raft of fiction set in British boarding schools, and which eventually produced such unforgettable works as Dean Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little, Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series, Elsie J. Oxenham's Abbey Girls series, and many more. (Which in turn produced a reaction or deconstruction, which included benign examples like Charles Hamilton's Billy Bunter, who was the fat kid at his school, through the Molesworth books, to Harry Flashman, and then to outright demolitions like George Orwell's Such, Such Were the Joys.)

Public school heroes in fiction (and, I guess, in reality) were physically courageous, outstanding in sports, considerate to the weak or less fortunate, instinctively noble, fine Christian moralists, and (if you were an Elsie Oxenham heroine) terrific at folk dancing. If anybody possessed greater than average intelligence, they were relegated to the sidekick part, following Thomas Hughes, who assigned the brilliant but sickly George Arthur to his hero Tom Brown.

All of this became so ubiquitous that E.W. Hornung could write, with almost a straight face: "Everybody knows how largely the tone of a public school depends on that of the eleven, and on the character of the captain of cricket in particular; and I have never heard it denied that in A. J. Raffles's time our tone was good, or that such influence as he troubled to exert was on the side of the angels." (Of course Raffles inverted public school morality by becoming a thief, though in the end he redeemed himself by dying nobly in the Boer War.)

Rowling seems to have absorbed all this public school fiction, and regurgitates it with extreme competence.

(For a contrary view, see Eric Blair--- not the one who occasionally posts here, but the other one-- "The various codes which were presented to you at St Cyprian's — religious, moral, social and intellectual — contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low-church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for 'braininess,' and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty and, above all, the assumption not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible . . .

("That was the pattern of school life — a continuous triumph of the strong over the weak. Virtue consisted in winning: it consisted in being bigger, stronger, handsomer, richer, more popular, more elegant, more unscrupulous than other people — in dominating them, bullying them, making them suffer pain, making them look foolish, getting the better of them in every way. Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly.")

19th Century fiction also featured the adventures of the adolescent heroes grown up. Alleyne Edricson in The White Company, Jan Skrzetuski in With Fire and Sword, the eponymous Brigadier Gerard, Wagner's Siegfried, and Dumas' d'Artagnan were all brave, terrific warriors, highly instinctive, loyal, trustworthy, trusting, and not very bright. (It has to be admitted that d'Artagnan wasn't much of a Christian gentleman, either.) Brainy types, like Aramis or Pan Wolodjowsky, were still the sidekicks.

The 19th Century hero, trusting and brave and somewhat dim, marched off to war in August 1914 and never really came back--- following d'Artagnan, who died for a social order that viewed him as scum at worst and cannon fodder at best. Heroes are a lot smarter and cynical now. James Bond is brave as hell, but you can't picture him shouldering his Lee-Enfield and marching over the wire into the German machine guns; and if you asked him to, he'd sneer at you.

My own fictional heroes possess above-average intelligence. I write science fiction, after all, a form of literature where in order to succeed a character has to be adroit at manipulating physical laws--- being a good wide receiver just won't cut it when the universe is at stake. My characters reason and ponder and sometimes connive their way to success. It's not that they don't have ideals--- at least some of them do--- but they're suspicious of anyone who appeals to their better natures. All my characters know better than to trust Tricky Dick. None of my characters are Special by nature in the way that Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter are Special--- if they're special at all, it's because they've worked hard at what they do.

(Of course, Harry and Luke are far more popular than any characters I've ever created. Readers seem to love Specialness in their heroes, whereas it makes me annoyed and suspicious: "Skywalker gets to sword-fight in the air and brilliantly fly fighter craft that he's never even trained on; whereas I have to practice these damn side kicks over and over.")

(And it has to be admitted that Harry Potter's Specialness gives him more grief and anguish than it ever gives him happiness and triumph.)

But on the fourth (or fifth, by now) hand, none of my characters possess Harry Potter's nobility. Harry would clearly sacrifice himself for his friends, for his school, even for strangers. With the possible exception of Gabriel in Aristoi, my characters would think long and hard before sacrificing themselves for anything so abstract as the moral tone of the universe, let alone the moral tone of their private academy.

Of course, I never asked them to. My characters have more mundane worries than moral tone. Generally they're happy if they survive without serious injury or maiming; and if they get a little loving on the side, it's a bonus.

But now I'm wondering about the nobility issue. Does nobility necessarily imply the willingness to unhesitatingly march into the guns at Passchendaele? Or can you be noble without being, well, a chump?

Examples, pro and con, are solicited.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

C'est Moi

I have Simpsonized myself.

I have also Simpsonized Kathy, an act for which I may be forgiven some time in the next decade.

For anyone wishing to discover their Simpsons avatar, you don't need to register, you just click on "new character" and your cartoonization may begin.

More Pics from Taos

What these pics don't tell you is how hard everyone worked.

But maybe they'll serve as advertising for future workshops.


Two teachers, one special lecturer, seventeen participants, two weeks, one mountain lodge. Thirty-four manuscripts, eight exercises, 1,800,000 ponderosa pines, one very active family of ground squirrels, and one hot tub.
I plan to have caught up on my sleep by 2012.
Connie was wonderful to work with, a complete joy. The participants were hard-working, generous with each other, and amazingly gifted. If we don't get some great fiction out of this experience, I will be knocked flat.
Thanks to everyone who participated. You were great. Especially the ones who drank the Pepsi when I told you to.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

From Night Shade

I'm still on the mountain, but I forward this announcement in a not-quite-disinterested spirit of cooperation.

It's sale time at Night Shade Books again. We've got a few big titles coming in, and we need to clear space in a big way! So until midnight on Sunday, July 29th, we're offering 50% off all in-stock and forthcoming Night Shade books. Use the coupon code NSB0750, and there is a four book minimum order.

And just to entice you a bit more, we've just added a whole bunch of new forthcoming titles to the site, including new novels from Greg Egan and Walter Jon Williams, the new Detective Inspector Chen novel from Liz Williams, the fourth and fifth Clark Ashton Smith volumes, and a post-apocalyptic anthology called Wastelands that will include stories from Stephen King, Jonathan Lethem, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, Nancy Kress, Octavia Butler, and a whole lot more.

In addition, for those that keep asking, we're reprinting a bunch of classics. Volume one of the Clark Ashton Smith series is sold out, but will be reprinted in September. Volume one of the Hodgson series will be reprinted in January, and volume two will be reprinted in May.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Dude. Where's My Tail?

In the last month I've delivered one novel and started another. I have done what, in former times, would have constituted the entirety of my job: writing a piece of fiction and selling it to a publisher. What happened to it afterward was sort of up to them.

Without going into the sad details, let's just say that this business model no longer cuts the mustard. I've been writing professionally for twenty-odd years, and it's become clear that I can't depend on publishers to make me rich and famous. They keep dropping the football. Sometimes they can't even find the football to drop it.

Often publishers will do some very nice things for my books--- foil paper covers, etc.--- but these all go under the heading of gimmicks. They all have one thing in common: they don't cost real money.

As someone whose books used to get full-page ads in Publisher's Weekly and Locus, I can but look on these efforts with a degree of skepticism. Not that I'm not grateful for any publisher's efforts in any regard whatever; but I can pretty much demonstrate, with over twenty years' worth of data, that my books sell in direct proportion to the amount of money spent on promotion. I'm told that these data are meaningless, because they don't apply across the board to other writers; but they damned well apply to me, so it seems that people should pay attention to them. But they don't.

Writers of mid-list fiction--- which is pretty much everything but the best-sellers--- are more or less obliged in these sub-lunary times to shoulder the burdens of publicity and promotion ourselves. We are expected to have web pages, we are expected to have blogs. It's not that I don't enjoy communicating with my readers, or that I don't have fun on this blog, but I have to wonder how much profit actually accrues from this use of my time.

Full-time advertising professionals assure us that an advertising campaign along the lines of, "This is a new Walter Jon Williams work, wholly original and unlike any previous Walter Jon Williams work" is doomed to failure. According to these highly-qualified professionals, people only respond to things that look like other things that they already like. That's why, whenever I write a book like Days of Atonement, which was the world's first (and, so far as I know, only) Gothic Western science fiction police procedural, a book which I fondly assumed might appeal to readers outside the normal SF audience, the publisher made sure to put Death Rays on the cover, to assure genre readers that this was a thing that looked like other things that they already liked, and to make sure that all potential new readers were discouraged from so much as glancing at the book.

It is a truism of advertising that you keep the consumers you've got--- even if they're getting older and reading less and, you know, dying--- rather than take the risk of alienating them in pursuit of new consumers.

So the rule would seem to be: whatever's actually in there, it's gotta look like the other stuff. But I don't get to pick cover art and design anyway--- at best I get to veto it when I don't like it--- so any further thoughts in that direction are fruitless.

Nevertheless the next book, Implied Spaces, is appearing from Night Shade, which is a small(ish) if very successful press, and which despite its success presumably can't afford to spend five or ten times the advance to make a brilliant success in the market. Which means we've got to sneak the success and glory in on a low budget.

And it has to be something I can do from New Mexico, which is the most isolated place in the U.S.

I have observed with interest the development of Long Tail theory, in which it is demonstrates that the development of electronic distribution networks can theoretically provide very large audience for hitherto obscure books. I'm not sure that this would work for me: I suspect that my books already sell more copies than just about all of those Long Tail books.

Still, growing a Long Tail certainly wouldn't hurt sales. But how is that to be done?

What I clearly need is a huge online audience, like those of Neil Gaiman and Cory Doctorow. The problem is that Neil was beloved by a vast audience well before he ever had a blog, and Cory had a huge online audience before he ever wrote an SF novel.

So it seems to me that I've got to get famous first.

What has to happen, it seems to me, is that I need a certifiably famous person to say that I should be more famous and popular than I am. Elmore Leonard was a fairly obscure writer until George Will wrote an entire column about how good Elmore Leonard was. Then Leonard became famous, and book and movie deals descended like unto manna from heaven. And to mix fairy tales if not metaphors, Oprah regularly turns ugly ducklings into gold-laying geese. Does anyone have her phone number?

Does anybody out there know a truly famous person who could be persuaded to tell everyone that I should be famous, too?

And if not, does anyone have any useful ideas?

I'm going up the mountain in a couple days for Taos Toolbox. I'll be gone for two weeks, and during that time I'll have only intermittent access to the internet, assuming I have any access at all.

So feel free to discuss the issue of my worldwide fame and success, and why it's important. I won't interrupt.

Thank you.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Fred Saberhagen

Fred Saberhagen passed away this past weekend, after a long battle with cancer.

He was a fine human being, and a far better author than most people gave him credit for. He created two undying archetypes for science fiction: the first being the Berserkers, robotic combat machines whose destructiveness outlived the war for which they were created. So powerful was this archetype that it was ripped off repeatedly, sometimes by people who had no idea with whom the concept originated.

The other archetype was that of the modern, rational vampire who tells his own story. The Dracula Tape, in which Dracula was given his own sardonic voice, was the first example of what turned out to be a hugely successful genre. Anne Rice and many others owe him a huge (and so far as I know unacknowledged) debt.

Fred's non-series work show a highly individual imagination at work: Octagon, Century of Progress, and Love Conquers All are not only very different works from the Berserker books, but are each so distinct that it's hard to believe they were all works from the same hand. And The Veils of Azlaroc is so freaking strange that it's clearly a candidate for the Weirdest SF Novel of All Time.

In person, Fred was soft-spoken and reticent, but had a sly, understated sense of humor that I wish was more apparent in his fiction. During one of our first meetings, at a Halloween party, I found myself staring at his teeth with great unease. (He had commissioned a dentist to make him a set of highly realistic vampire vangs.) When he encountered a young, enthusiastic Dracula fan who said that meeting him made this was the most important day of her life, Fred replied, "Fortunately you are young, and have many days ahead of you."

During his final illness, Fred woke one morning after having dreamed of chorizo eggs from a local restaurant. His family got him the eggs, which he enjoyed. The next morning, when asked what he'd like to eat, he replied, "I have had no prophetic dreams about breakfast this morning."

I'm going to miss him a lot.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Legends of the Waiter, Part III

Continued from the posts "Me O My O" and "Chef Francoise, Part II"
Baron le Vison had been a legendary character long before I met him. I kept hearing stories about him, some from the Baron himself, some from others. Consider these to be Unconfirmed Rumors.
He is, according to one account, a genuine French baron, albeit one from Mississippi. He told me that he was expelled from Notre Dame for heresy, and finished his college education at a Jesuit school in the South. ("They didn't care what I believed.") When he ran for class president, he bombed the school with leaflets from his airplane, and won. He later became the first class president to be impeached.
Because the Courtyard Kitchen was near Kirtland AFB and Sandia Labs, a lot of military and scientist types became regulars. (Gulf War I, which produced increased security at the base and prevented people from leaving for lunch, killed the Cajun restaurant that occupied the Kitchen's former building.) Some of the scientists were involved in the Tethered Satellite project (TSS). So impressed were they by the cooking that they named the TSS "Francoise," and presented to the restaurant an artist's rendering of the satellite with Francoise's name written on the exterior. I don't know if TSS-1 actually bore Francoise's name when it was eventually deployed from Atlantis a couple years after the restaurant closed, but I hope so.
The restaurant featured art by the Cajun artist George Rodrigue. This was during his "black oak period," when he painted portraits and group portraits of people standing before a massive Louisiana oak, and before he got into his kitschier (and incredibly successful) "blue dog period," creating hundreds of paintings and silkscreens featuring a rather anxious-looking spaniel. Eventually Rodrigue painted Francoise, standing in her chef's uniform before the black oak, and carrying a saute pan. There was a huge dinner party to unveil the portrait, and of course I went. I met Rodrigue, but he did not offer to paint my portrait. Rodrigue told the Baron, "You weren't a success until you decided to become a Cajun."
At one point the Waiter decided that all his customers should contribute a piece of literature to a collection that he would put together and print. Mine was an incredibly sophisticated re-rendering of Marcel Proust, with black roux gumbo substituting for the madeleine. The Waiter threw all that away and put on a play instead, a sort of melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation. Local actor and playwright Jeff Hudson adopted an authentic Cajun accent he'd learned from watching Justin Wilson on PBS. It was amusing, but it wasn't Proust.
Every so often, when I came in for lunch, the Baron would pull a bottle of fine champagne from the fridge and drop it on my table. I don't drink at midday, usually, since it affects my work, but I felt I ought, since--- you know--- there it was. Drinking a bottle of champagne by oneself turns out to be a lot of work. Eventually I got used to leaving the restaurant carrying a chilled, unopened bottle of champagne, which I'd open and drink later, after I'd finished work for the day.
The Waiter and the Chef ended up in Albuquerque by accident. They'd closed their restaurant in Washington,D.C., and were on a motor trip through the southwest. They saw a restaurant for rent and investigated. A few weeks later the Courtyard Kitchen opened.
The restaurant closed, with great ceremony, in September of 1990. Francoise had burned herself out by holding herself to her own exacting standards. If she'd been able to bring herself to deal with sous-chefs the place might still be open. The last dinners were sellouts. Free videos and cookbooks and prints of the Rodrigue portrait were handed out. Beth Meacham got her picture taken with Francoise. We all kissed and said our last "Ooh la las." The Waiter handed me a bottle of champagne, which I carried home.
Somebody named Marcello from New Orleans kept calling and demanding a table for himself and his associates, and the Waiter kept telling him that the place was full. "Wow," I thought, "the Waiter's taking on the guy who killed Kennedy!"
Francoise retired. The Baron started a business as a restaurant consultant, and ran for the head of the restaurant association. (He lost.) Every so often I'd run into him at another Creole restaurant, Arthur's and the Dot, but the restaurant got closed when the city tore up the street in front and left it that way for nine months.
Some time later I did a web search for "Baron le Vison" and discovered that he and Francoise were running a motel called Uncle Bill's Place, on the Street of the Little Motels in Page, AZ. ("Street of the Little Motels" has that unmistakable le Vison mixture of fantasy and practicality.) We stayed there in summer of 2003, where I took the pictures that accompany this memoir. The Baron had started a newspaper called PAGE USA in which he regularly blasted the city administration and the Park Service. In the last actual communication I've received from the Baron, he sent me a package of underwear I'd left in a drawer.
A check on the Uncle Bill web site reveals that Baron and Francoise have now retired from the motel business. Maybe it's time I got in touch.
Further adventures surely await.