Friday, July 31, 2009

Soul Storage

Is your life weighing you down? Lighten up! If your soul is keeping you from finding the happiness you deserve, there is an easy, painless and safe solution. Remove it, store it, and walk away a happier person. The Soul Storage Company's patented De-Souling™ technique actually allows its clients to have their souls removed, whether permanently or just for a little "mental vacation." After a simple and painless outpatient procedure, you will walk out of our doors unburdened, leaving your soul behind in our secure, state-of-the-art storage facilities. Later, if you decide you're ready to get your soul back, the procedure is easily reversible… but don't be surprised if you learn to love living soul-free!

More here.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Strange States

Oxford University physicists have created a brand new form of matter.

Scientists claim to have created a form of aluminum that's nearly transparent to extreme ultraviolet radiation and which is a new state of matter.

It's an idea straight out of science fiction, featured in the movie "Star Trek IV." (Cuz there's nothing like Trek for accurate science.)

. . . To create the new, even more exotic stuff, a short pulse from a laser "knocked out" a core electron from every aluminum atom in a sample without disrupting the metal's crystalline structure, the researchers explain.

''What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before," said professor Justin Wark of Oxford University's Department of Physics.

"Transparent aluminum is just the start," Wark said. "The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of 'miniature stars' created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth."

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Revisiting the Classics: Fahrenheit 451

I recently re-read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time since I was 14. I found the book full of surprises, in part because I retained more vivid memories of the Truffaut film, which I've seen multiple times, than of the novel, which I'd read only once, and long ago.

The first thing that surprised me was the novel's tone, which is that of barely-controlled hysteria. Montag is the last person in the world you want involved in your conspiracy: he's on edge all the time, he can't blend in, he can't conceal his emotions, and he acts guilty even when he isn't. He can't stop calling attention to himself by one hysterical outburst after another. Even the machines, like the mechanical Hound, know he's up to no good. Montag is on the verge of meltdown in practically every paragraph: I'm surprised how long he survives. I can imagine Bradbury writing all this with permanently clenched teeth.

It's an angry book. It's not just about book-burning but about everything that pissed Bradbury off circa 1950: brutality, teenage thugs, wilful stupidity, the education system, the inanity of television, the doped-up bourgeoisie, the Cold War, kids in hot rods, and the iPod (the last of which, if it didn't exist in 1950, Bradbury certainly saw on the horizon).

Bradbury has stated that the book isn't about censorship, but about the deadening and stupefying effects of television. This argument is incomplete at best and disingenous at worst--- couch potatoes don't burn books, they ignore them. The real villain (and Bradbury is at his prescient best here) is political correctness--- the books are burned not because they contain wrong or unfashionable ideas, but because they upset people, minorities in particular. In a society dedicated to keeping everyone on a continual Miltown buzz, you don't want the tranquil air rent by someone upset over the depiction of Jim in Huckleberry Finn.

I was surprised by the book's short time span--- the action takes place over just a few days. I was also surprised that Montag never actually reads a book at any point in the narrative--- not beyond a line or two, anyway. His house is stuffed with books at the start of the novel, before the action even begins, but they're all unread. (Montag's tried, but his brain keeps bouncing off the page.) He doesn't know how valuable or important his books are, but he's willing to stake his life and happiness on them anyway. He's not exactly a rational man.

Bradbury's prescience fails a bit when it comes to the ladies. Childless married women in his future don't have the option of a career outside the home; devalued even by the author, they have no option but to become dope and television addicts. The society of Book People revealed at the end of the novel don't seem to have any women--- and they're all remarkably indifferent to the fact that nuclear weapons have just destroyed every American city. Literature Mastery has set them above all that, one supposes.

The hysterical quality of the narrative combines with the book's fast pace to provide an almost hallucinatory reading experience. Plot problems are not so much dealt with as blasted into nonexistence by the savage fury of the author's passage. That kind of intensity is difficult to sustain for the length of an entire novel. I'm not sure I could do it. Bradbury must have been inspired, or really angry, or maybe he's just brilliant at crafting hysteria.

It's an amazing book, but it's amazing for reasons that I hadn't remembered, and hadn't expected.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

15 Books

Ish tagged me with the 15 Books meme, in which--- quickly, and without giving it a lot of thought--- you write down the top 15 books that will always stay with you.

I'd like to start another meme, in which you actually think about this stuff before hurling a list before the public. Here's the list I actually thought about.

1. Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Poe.
2. Complete Works of Shakespeare
3. Have Space Suit, Will Travel by Heinlein
4 Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny.
5. Nova, by Samuel R Delany
6. Lord of the Rings, by Tolkien
7. Take your pick of any Jeeves novel by P.G. Wodehouse
8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
9. Ulysses by James Joyce
10. Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon
11. Lolita by Nabokov
12. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
13. Night of the Cooters, by Howard Waldrop
14. House of Niccolo by Dorothy Dunnett
15. Mistress of Mistresses by E.R. Eddison

That last one is a stretch, by the way.

An observation: all of these works influenced the way I look at the world, and the way I choose to depict it in fiction. I don't necessarily like all of them: Ulysses is a book I'll never read again, but on the other hand I strip-mined it for technique, so it may have more influence on my writing than any other item here. (Well, except for the Shakespeare.)

Another observation: except for the Dunnett and the Waldrop, these are all books that I'd read before I was, say, 22. The first few I encountered when I was in grade school. So they all hit me at a time of life when I was ready to soak up influence from the outside world, and I sponged it right up.

And you?


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Movable Memoir

Scribner is about to release a revised, bowdlerized edition of Hemingway's A Movable Feast. A Hemingway grandson has substantially revised the book, apparently to make his grandmother (aka Hemingway Wife #2) a more sympathetic character. He's dropped the last chapter, which he claims was written by Mary (Hemingway Wife #4), stuck ten other chapters in an appendix, and replaced them by writings that paint Grandma in a more favorable light.

A Movable Feast, Hemingway's memoir of life in Paris in the 1920s, is probably not the most reliable memoir of the time. When I read it, I couldn't help but notice that Hemingway was at pains to denigrate writers whose reputations threatened to eclipse his own (Fitzgerald, Stein, Ford Madox Ford, all of whom were conveniently dead), while at the same time boosting the reputations of writers he deemed harmless. I for one don't for a second believe Hemingway's story about Fitzgerald's penis. (Which, if you don't know it, will send you straight to the library for a copy of the book, I'm sure.)

However you want to quibble with what Hemingway wants us to believe as fact, A Movable Feast is a beautifully written book. It's lovely, and a lovely reading experience.

But issues of reliability, and literary beauty, are separate from the fact of authorship. According to Hemingway friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner, Hemingway had completed the manuscript and submitted it to Scribner before his death, and what was published was Hemingway's own work, with a little editing.

I'm an author. I'm sensitive to this issue. I don't want someone messing with my works after I'm dead, and I don't want other writers messed with, either. I especially don't want my work made "less offensive," especially especially if the person being offended is someone's Grandma who is dead.

We put the words in that order for a reason. Maybe it was the wrong reason, but it was our reason, and it's our names on the cover helping to sell the book.

And why the hell is Scribner a part of this?

All publishers, Scribner included, are guardians of the books that authors entrust to them. Someone who inherits an author’s copyright is not entitled to amend his work. There is always the possibility that the inheritor could write his own book offering his own corrections.

Ernest was very protective of the words he wrote, words that gave the literary world a new style of writing. Surely he has the right to have these words protected against frivolous incursion, like this reworked volume that should be called “A Moveable Book.” I hope the Authors Guild is paying attention.

I hope so, too.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Fame Advances

The Review Fairy has been good to me this week.

First, This Is Not a Game got a nice review in the Seattle Times.

Fast-paced and with an immensely satisfying resolution, "This Is Not a Game" uses the latest true-to-life phenomenon of "Alternate Reality Games" to make its gripping story's grasp tighter, more relentless, and one you'll miss when it at last lets you go.

Then, Implied Spaces got a nice mention over at the Mad Hatter.

Williams has amazing ideas about technology and what could happen to society given the chance . . . Williams somehow mashes up conspiracies, zombies, AIs, government bureaucracy, planet crushing weapons, and galactic war yet it never seems absurd.

And then Songs of the Dying Earth, and my story in particular, were praised in a very thorough review over next door in the Wertzone.

'Abrizonde' by Walter Jon Williams is a highlight, featuring the besieged castle of Abrizonde and charting the fortunes of the hapless Vespanus who is trapped within. This is a great story, tense and dramatic with an amusing finale . . . Songs of the Dying Earth (****½) is an exceptionally strong collection, a rich and sumptuous banquet of tales from the end of time. The weak links here are not enough to dilute the impact of the best stories in the collection, and the best stories are thought-provoking, memorable and sharply funny.

And it's only Tuesday! The only way it could get better is for you all to go forth and buy some of my books!

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Monday, July 20, 2009

Gas Giant Smackdown!

A rogue object has collided with Jupiter!

Wasn't this how Greg Bear's Forge of God started? Should we start saying goodbye to our loved ones now?

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Northrop Builds a Horten

First built and tested in the air in March 1944, it was designed with a greater range and speed than any plane previously built and was the first aircraft to use the stealth technology now deployed by the U.S. in its B-2 bombers . . .
The most important innovation was Reimar Horten’s idea to coat it in a mix of charcoal dust and wood glue.
He thought the electromagnetic waves of radar would be absorbed, and in conjunction with the aircraft’s sculpted surfaces the craft would be rendered almost invisible to radar detectors.

This was the same method eventually used by the U.S. in its first stealth aircraft in the early 1980s, the F-117A Nighthawk.

The plane was covered in radar absorbent paint with a high graphite content, which has a similar chemical make-up to charcoal.

After the war the Americans captured the prototype Ho 2-29s along with the blueprints and used some of their technological advances to aid their own designs.

But experts always doubted claims that the Horten could actually function as a stealth aircraft.
It took them 2,500 man-hours and $250,000 to construct, and although their replica cannot fly, it was radar-tested by placing it on a 50ft articulating pole and exposing it to electromagnetic waves.

The team demonstrated that although the aircraft is not completely invisible to the type of radar used in the war, it would have been stealthy enough and fast enough to ensure that it could reach before Spitfires could be scrambled to intercept it . . .
So now anyone able to afford wood glue and graphite can make their aircraft stealthy?
My best guess is that the first to try this technology will be Mexican drug smugglers.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Philosophers Needed: Apply NASA

. . . He was an engineer who until recently had been a NASA heat-shield specialist. A baffling wave of layoffs had begun, and his job was eliminated. It was so bad he was lucky to have gotten this stand-up Spielmeister gig on a tour bus. Neil Armstrong and his two crew mates, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, were still on their triumphal world tour ... while back home, NASA’s irreplaceable team of highly motivated space scientists — irreplaceable! — there were no others! ...anywhere! ... You couldn’t just run an ad saying, “Help Wanted: Experienced heat-shield expert” ... the irreplaceable team was breaking up, scattering in nobody knows how many hopeless directions.

How could such a thing happen? In hindsight, the answer is obvious. NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers.

Tom Wolfe's eulogy for the manned space program.

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Saturday, July 18, 2009

And Speaking of Jack Vance . . . .

A new Dying Earth volume will be released any day now, a book that is not by Jack Vance but of Jack Vance.

Songs of the Dying Earth is a collection of stories written in honor of Vance, by writers like Kage Baker, Tanith Lee, Mike Resnick, Dan Simmons, Robert Silverberg, and yours truly. It's a pretty nifty anthology, if I do say so myself.
Or, as Library Journal put it in their starred review:

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance. Subterranean. Sept. 2009. c.632p. ed. by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois. illus. ISBN 978-1-59606-213-9. $40. FANTASY

Of the many novels written by sf Grandmaster Vance, his "Dying Earth" series remains the most popular and most memorable of his oeuvre. Now top sf and fantasy authors including Tanith Lee, Mike Resnick (Hazards, reviewed above), Tad Williams, and Robert Silverberg have contributed stories and reminiscences to this mammoth collection of tales set in that unforgettable universe, one in which Earth's sun is a dying red dwarf and in which irascible mages, clever scoundrels, and ordinary folk wait around for their world's inevitable demise.
VERDICT From Dan Simmons's new novella about a wild search for the Ultimate Library ("The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderoz") to Walter Jon Williams's tale of an architectural student caught up in a war between two great powers ("Abrizonde"), the 23 stories not only capture the unique feel of Vance's dying universe but stand individually as one of the strongest gatherings of writers to pay homage to one of their own. Despite the price, this is highly recommended.
The book is from Subterranean Press, and is a hardback with excellent illustrations by Tom Kidd. A limited, slipcased edition will be available later, for the collectors among you.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Corpse-Eating Robot

According to our friends at Fox News, a corpse-eating robot called EATR may roam the battlefields of the future . . .

A Maryland company under contract to the Pentagon is working on a steam-powered robot that would fuel itself by gobbling up whatever organic material it can find — grass, wood, old furniture, even dead bodies.

Robotic Technology Inc.'s Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot — that's right, "EATR" — "can find, ingest, and extract energy from biomass in the environment (and other organically-based energy sources), as well as use conventional and alternative fuels (such as gasoline, heavy fuel, kerosene, diesel, propane, coal, cooking oil, and solar) when suitable," reads the company's Web site.

That "biomass" and "other organically-based energy sources" wouldn't necessarily be limited to plant material — animal and human corpses contain plenty of energy, and they'd be plentiful in a war zone . . .

The advantages to the military are that the robot would be extremely flexible in fuel sources and could roam on its own for months, even years, without having to be refueled or serviced.

Upon the EATR platform, the Pentagon could build all sorts of things — a transport, an ambulance, a communications center, even a
mobile gunship.

The first thing I checked was the date, making certain it wasn't April 1.

Please let me get this straight. We've got an armed robot wandering the battlefield, foraging off corpses and other debris, on its own for months, and presumably working out on its own exactly what it's going to shoot at.

Tell me this doesn't sound like the setup for a really bad Michael Crichton novel.

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And About Time, Too!

Me: “Why did you persist in writing hurlothrumbo romances of the footling sort favored by mooncalfs?”

Him: “The question is nuncupatory. I grow weary of your importunities. Begone.”

The New York Times Magazine honors Jack Vance.

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Queen of the Crapsellers

Flashing back now to April 12, when we came booming up from Bodrum to our base at Selcuk, on the way looking at places like Eurotas and Herakleia, then going in search of Apollo's temple at Didyma.

Signage sent us astray. It turns out that Didyma is not precisely exactly quite the same city as the modern Turkish Didim, which is an overdeveloped seaside resort community. We drove through this town several times looking for directions to the Apollonium, then went farther into the country, where we encountered tractor-loads of entire Turkish families going out into the fields for . . . whatever . . . maybe a picnic. Despite driving a piece of farm equipment, the paterfamilias was always well-dressed, complete with a jacket--- the Turkish male generally has a good sense of style, as does the female, at least if she's not adopted form-concealing Islamic clothing.

Eventually we followed signs to something called the "Apollonium," which turned out to be the prefabricated headquarters of an as-yet-unbuilt resort development. "Don't forget your cameras!" I said as we drove into the parking lot.

On our way back we had a pleasant lunch on the terrace of a local restaurant, overlooking the Aegean.

We gave up and headed north, but then found on our way to the other Didim, the town built around the old Temple, across the bay and inland from the modern ocean paradise.

The Apollo temple was the second-most-important oracle after Delphi. Priestesses fasted for three days, then drank from the sacred spring and prophecied. Unlike the custom at Delphi, the prophecies were actually written down.

The first temple was destroyed by the Persians after the Ionian revolt, and the cult statue carried off to the Persian capital. Alexander donated the money to rebuild the temple, and one of his generals returned the statue.

The temple was never actually finished, which argues that the Miletese city fathers embezzled at least some of Alexander's money. If it had been finished, it would have been the largest temple of the Greek world, with 122 Ionic columns. The temple structure never had a roof--- pilgrims hiked along the 17km Sacred Way from Miletos, then took a tunnel down through the temple foundations into an open courtyard surrounded by massive cyclopean foundations and the enormous Ionian pillars. The sanctuary of the god was at the far side--- about the size of a large U-Haul trailer--- with a statue of Apollo killing a bear. (Strange, because bears were symbols of his sister Artemis, who had her own sanctuary nearby.)

The temple is freaking enormous--- even ruined, with only 3 pillars left standing, it delivers an almost physical impact to the eyeballs. I've yet to see a photo that does it justice. Certainly mine don't.

We slogged to the temple across ground sodden by the sacred spring, which is in front of the temple and still produces water in copious amounts. (The local turtle population is much enhanced.)

The parts of the temple that are finished are highly ornamented, with pictures of gryphons, medusae, bulls, tritons and other fantastic figures, and lots of geometrical decoration including swastikas and scales. The unfinished bits are plain, though still very imposing. Scratched on the walls of the huge inner cell are the actual blueprints to the structure, which would have been polished away once the temple was completed.

After feasting our eyes, and feasting our cameras with interesting bits of detail, we slogged back across the wet ground to the street, where we checked out one of the local souvenir shops. Every monument or public square or place of interest in Turkey features people who want to sell you guidebooks, plates, scarves of "genuine pashmina," postcards, evil eye pendants, and other junk. At Herakleia we had been chased down by platoons of little old ladies in headscarves and baggy pantaloons (not a flattering fashion choice, by the way). We had taken to calling these people "crapsellers," because most of them were offloading stuff that no one would actually want. (A crapseller is distinct from a merchant selling something you might actually care to buy.)

Little did we know that in Didyma we would encounter the Queen of the Crapsellers. Her store was loaded not only with useless junk from all over Turkey, but from all over the world! There were cheap ceramic pyramids from Egypt, statuettes of jazz musicians from New Orleans, miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building, ceramics of Chinese sages, hand-painted toy Roman legionaries--- tons of stuff that no one in their right mind would come to Turkey to buy! We were particularly struck by an evil eye pendant featuring Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, which Melinda really wanted. Ataturk's aspect was really eerie, with his light blue eyes staring out at the world, but Melinda couldn't talk the Queen into dropping her price to something like the object's real value (which, to be honest, would have been zero).

I decided that the supernatural had not yet forsaken Didyma, that the shop of the Queen of the Crapsellers was some kind of unnatural cthonian apparition sprung from the sacred soil. Perhaps we should have asked the Queen our questions, and written down the answers. But what would she have asked in return? Would she demand that we buy her junk?

Perhaps the price would have been too high to pay.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Okay, cool new DARPA thing . . .

The military and spy world no doubt would love tiny, live camera-wielding versions of Predator drones that could fly undetected into places where no human could ever go to snoop on the enemy. Developing such robots has proven a challenge so far, with one major hurdle being inventing an energy source for the droids that is both low weight and high power. Still, evidence that such machines are possible is ample in nature in the form of insects, which convert biological energy into flight . . .

Instead of attempting to create sophisticated robots that imitate the complexity in the insect form that required millions of years of evolution to achieve, scientists now essentially want to hijack bugs for use as robots.

Originally researchers sought to control insects by gluing machinery onto their backs, but such links were not always reliable. To overcome this hurdle, the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program is sponsoring research into surgically implanting microchips straight into insects as they grow, intertwining their nerves and muscles with circuitry that can then steer the critters. As expensive as these devices might be to manufacture and embed in the bugs, they could still prove cheaper than building miniature robots from scratch.

Next time you slap a mosquito, you could be smashing thousands of taxpayer dollars!

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From Junkfood Science

I suppose we all remember the big story about how rhesus monkeys kept on a highly-restrictive diet lived longer than those who were allowed to nosh at will. Turns out that this is only true if you, well, ignore the monkeys that died.

The lower mortality claimed among the monkeys on the calorie restricted diet were achieved only after eliminating 37% of the monkey deaths. They defined mortality as “age-associated deaths” and eliminated any cause of death they didn’t believe was associated with aging. As the supplemental data explains, 16 deaths from “non-age-associated causes were censored and their age of death used as the time variable in the regression.”

. . . The non-aging-related causes of death included monkeys who died while taking blood samples under anesthesia, from injuries or from infections, such as gastritis and endometriosis. These causes may not be aging-related as defined by the researchers, but they could realistically be adverse effects of prolonged calorie restrictions on the animals’ health, their immune system, ability to handle stress, physical agility, cognition or behavior.

As we know, the most important endpoint in medical interventions is all-cause mortality. Selectively looking at only one cause of death, while ignoring that more patients died from something else, is not evidence to support the efficacy of a treatment. “The treatment worked, but the patient died” is not good medicine that considers the whole patient."

More over on the Junkfood Science blog.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Mr. Brown

Charles N Brown of Locus died today.

Charles was one of those science fiction people who will be very difficult to explain to future generations, a combination of gruff titan and mischievous elf. He began Locus as a one-page mimeographed newszine to support a worldcon bid, and then built it over the years into the premiere--- possibly only surviving--- print news magazine of the science fiction field, all run from his spacious home in Oakland. Locus won 29 Hugo awards, and Charles complained to whoever would listen about the few that he'd lost.

I first met Charles at the beginning of my career, I don't actually recall when. When he first interviewed me for Locus, he made certain to publish the interview with a photo that made me look like a stumbling drunk. (I wasn't, at least for that interview.) This was the first of my many embarrassing photographs in Locus.

Save for the photographs, which he published to keep me humble, Charles was always kind. He bought me the occasional meal and offered career advice and amused me with gossip from the field. (Where will I get my gossip now? I wonder) He was always in New Mexico for the Jack Williamson Lectures, and sometimes we and Connie Willis would drive down together. Connie and Charles had a well-honed routine (Charles provoking, Connie being outraged) that made the drive to Portales seem much shorter than it was.

My contribution to Charles' life, such as it is, was to inadvertently awaken an enthusiasm for modern art. When we were attending the 1992 Worldcon at the Hague, he accompanied me on a trip to a local museum, and for the first time saw the works of artists like Klimt, Cezanne, Mondrian, Picasso . . . Charles had an encyclopedic knowledge of science fiction and fantasy art, and his home was decorated with many originals, but this was new to him. After that, if we were in the same city, we'd sometimes take in a gallery or museum.

Once, when Charles was visiting Albuquerque, Suzy McKee Charnas and I took him to Pueblo Pottery, a gallery in Old Town specializing not just in pots, but in all sorts of Indian art. Charles couldn't make up his mind whether or not to buy a particular pot, and Suzy and I got bored. I noticed that there was a large drum in the corner, and I began drumming and singing the following chant:

Buy the pot
Charlie Brown
Buy the pot
Charlie Brown
Lovely pot
Charlie Brown
Lovely pot
Charlie Brown

Suzy joined in. The saleswoman came up to us and said, "If this works, you can come here any time you like." I believe Charles eventually bought the pot.

My understanding is that Charles came from a family in which heart disease was common, and in which people typically died in their fifties and sixties. Charles outlived the other members of his family, and died at 72.

He had been ill for some time, and carefully organized a Locus Foundation to keep Locus going after his death.

He died on the plane flying home from Readercon. Apparently he went down for a nap and never woke up.

I imagine he would have enjoyed going this way, and being the center of attention one last time.


Thursday, July 09, 2009

Meet Mr Fusion

DARPA's attempt to produce a microchip-sized fusion reactor has dropped out of the budget.

Chip-scale integration offers precise, micro actuators and high electric field generation at modest power levels that will enable several order of magnitude decreases in the volume needed to accelerate the ions. Furthermore, thermal isolation techniques will enable high efficiency beam to power converters, perhaps making chipscale self-sustained fusion possible.

Or so the project was described in 2009's budget. So why was the project dropped? Guesses as follows:

(1) The project failed. (DARPA hasn't actually said this, however.)
(2) The project was a success, and now it's gone commercial.
(3) The project was a success, and now it's classified.

Personally I'm looking forward to my fusion-powered laptop and my fusion-powered phone, which can be turned into nuclear grenades in the event of a terrorist attack.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Gaston's Phantom

I've seen most film adaptations of Phantom of the Opera, including the one in Chinese where the singer was a guy (The Phantom Lover, 1995), and I've seen no less than two musical theater adaptations, both of which sucked. So when I saw the original 1911 book by Gaston Leroux at the library, I picked it up out of curiosity. And d'you know what?

All the adaptations are better than the original. All of them.

This is kind of interesting. Cinema is known for destroying its original literary material, not improving it. And for a story that's been filmed so often to be improved even by the crudest adaptations is probably something like unique.

The reasons why the adaptations are better is actually kind of instructive. So allow me to instruct.

Most of the novel's problems have to do with plot. And Gaston shouldn't be blamed for all of them--- he was writing for serialization, which meant he was churning out the pages as quickly as possible, hurling ideas at the page, and because his pages were being serialized in a magazine, he couldn't go back and fix the story's problems, he had to fix them, as it were, on the fly.

There are other problems having to do with pacing. The progatonist doesn't protag. Even the substitute protagonist doesn't protag.

Let's start with the Phantom's name. It's Erik. Now Erik may be a fine name, but it's not a suitable name for a mysterious, murderous masked figure hanging out in the cellars of the Paris Opera. For that you want something more evocative, like Abelard or Alonzo or Geraldo or something with more sweep and dash.

And then there's Erik's job. He's a contractor. He builds stuff. He was one of the contractors on the Opera, and so he built his hidden passages and his secret mansion on the far side of the lake. That's pretty mundane.

There's also Erik's disfigurement. He was just born with it, and rejected by humanity, and became a bitter recluse. Beginning with the 1943 film, the disfigurement became something that was done to him, became a part of the action, and that made the disfigurement seem more like a part of the story.

Which brings us to the unmasking scene. Film versions sensibly save this for the end, to build maximum suspense, but the novel has it happen in the middle of the story and more or less throws it away.

The heroine is a problem. Christine Daae--- who is Swedish, by the way--- is beautiful and sings very well when her heart is in it, but let's face it, she's dumb as a stump. She thinks the Phantom is an angel sent by her dead father to teach her to sing. She knows that the Phantom exists, but doesn't connect her Angel with the Phantom. D'oh!

By the way, Christine keeps getting kidnaped by the Phantom. At least three times. And she begs and begs, and eventually he lets her go.

Which brings us to Raoul, the hero, who is totally inadequate to the job. He is described in the novel as small, effeminate, pampered, and very young. He's brave, and devoted to Christine, but he's also hopelessly stupid. He's so ridiculously unfit for the job of protagonist that, in one of those halfway-through-the-novel fixes demanded by the serialization schedule, Leroux provides a secondary hero known only as the Persian. The Persian is an old friend of Erik's, and knows a lot of his tricks, and thus gets Raoul close enough to the Phantom to fall into a whole series of Fiendish Death Traps with which the Phantom has surrounded himself.

In the end, both Raoul and the Persian are hopeless enough to be caught in one of the traps, and they are both captured by the Phantom. But Christine begs and begs, and eventually our heroes are set free. But Christine isn't done begging--- eventually the Phantom relents and lets her go, too, after which he dies of a broken heart alone in his stronghold.

The Phantom is a softy that way, at least when the plot calls for it, but also a diabolical murderer (when the plot calls for it). There's not a lot of consistency in any of the characters.

There's a lot of good material here, and some very interesting characters I haven't bothered to describe (like the Rat-Catcher), but it's all pretty formless, and it needed the cinema to beat it into shape. The masked figure of the Phantom, disfigured, embittered, and so in love with Christine that he kills anyone close to her, is just wonderful, and Gaston deserves four stars for him, along with his moody descriptions of the Opera and its workings, the terrific scene on the roof, the unmasking scene, and the idea of great evocative fortress of solitude on the far side of the opera's lake filled with fussy beaux-arts furnishings and a grand pipe organ . . . that's all pretty great stuff, and the film versions have made a point of keeping all that.

Cinema can't mess around. There's no time for the story to wander. And cinema also demands a climax--- you can't have as magnificent an antagonist as the Phantom facing a little wimp like Raoul, you've got to have a protagonist that's more capable, and that's what all the movie versions provide.

Gaston Leroux almost certainly wrote many better books--- his detective stories made him the Conan Doyle of France--- but I'm not sure he ever had a better idea. It's an idea that the movie's haven't forgotten.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Now At Popular Prices!

Implied Spaces is now available in mass-market paperback!

Y'all probably knew this already, but I didn't. I'm just the author.

And, because I haven't nagged you for a while, I'll mention that you can pick up a copy of This Is Not a Game at the same time.


Kicking George

This weekend features the anniversary of the day we officially decided to kick King George out of town. In a decision largely unrelated to King George, Kathy and I are going to secluded mountaintop retreat for three nights.

There may be internet. There may not be. There may be internet but I may not decide to make use of it.

Which is by way of saying, I'll probably check you all next week.


A giant ant colony has taken over the world!

The colony may be the largest of its type ever known for any insect species, and could rival humans in the scale of its world domination.

What's more, people are unwittingly helping the mega-colony stick together.
Argentine ants (Linepithema humile) were once native to South America. But people have unintentionally introduced the ants to all continents except Antarctica.

These introduced Argentine ants are renowned for forming large colonies, and for becoming a significant pest, attacking native animals and crops.

In Europe, one vast colony of Argentine ants is thought to stretch for 6,000km (3,700 miles) along the Mediterranean coast, while another in the US, known as the 'Californian large', extends over 900km (560 miles) along the coast of California. A third huge colony exists on the west coast of Japan.

Yikes! Time to stock up on flamethrowers!

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Unique Opportunity

The writer Ian McDowell needs y'all's help. His father, who has just lost a leg, needs to move out of his apartment, where the manager refuses to install modifications to aid the handicapped. (This is legal, apparently.)

Ian is raising money by offering a unique item for sale on eBay, a one-of-a-kind hand-written collection featuring original, never-published stories by Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Poppy Z. Brite, and others.

All details here.