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Friday, July 29, 2005

Friday Challenge

Okay, folks, time for some fun. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to sketch out the opening scene of a fantasy tale. I will spot you the opening line and a half; you must pick it up and run with it from there. Ready? Here's the pitch:

    "A wizard, an elf, and a dwarf walk into a tavern. The elf says..."

Note: In place of the elf you may substitute another member of the party, the tavern-keeper, the buxom and lusty serving wench, or what the heck, any other colorful fantasy character who may happen to be in the tavern at that time.

Ready? Steady? Go!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Read & Discuss

Today's assignment is the classic short story, "Harrison Bergeron," by Kurt Vonnegut. If you do not already have this story in your collection, you can find a copy online at this link:

Questions for Discussion:

1. Is this story the whole Libertarian philosophy in a nutshell, or what?

2. Who's your pick for Handicapper General?

3. Is George's "appliance" unnecessary, now that all we have iPods?

4. Is it just ironic as all hell that this story, which is the copyrighted property of a living author, has been bootlegged and placed online by the head of the Philosophy Department at West Valley College, for the express purpose of using it as required reading in her course, Introduction to Ethics?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Why write sci-fi? (Part 2)

This must be one of those Interviewing 101 questions, because, like poorly refrigerated leftover chicken, it keeps coming back up.

   "When did you first discover that you liked science fiction?"

I'm never quite sure how to answer this one. Do I dare give an honest answer and say that it was when I was 4 years old, and Ruff and Reddy got abducted by the Munimula Men? Or maybe it was when I was 6 or 7, and got hooked on Supercar and the vastly superior Fireball XL-5? (Or perhaps these two just explain why I find Team America so gosh-darn ROTFLMAO funny.) Was it when I was 8 or 9, and discovered those dusty old hardcovers of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Swiss Family Robinson up in the attic? Or maybe it was when I was 10, and finally got my own library card, and discovered that Llewellyn Library had two whole shelves *full* of Jules Verne, Andre Norton, Madeline L'Engle, and Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov juveniles -- including the full-length versions of those Heinlein serials that Boy's Life was rerunning!

Perhaps it was when I was 11, and read War of the Worlds and The Time Machine for the first time. Or maybe it was when I was 12 or 13, and discovered Ray Bradbury. (I wrote a *lot* of Bad Imitation Bradbury when I was in junior high.) Maybe it was when I was 14, and first read The Lord of the Rings; then again maybe it was when I was 15 or 16, and discovered Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and Kurt Vonnegut.

One thing I know for certain: it was definitely not from watching Star Trek.

Maybe it happened in my later teens and early 20s, when I discovered Philip K. Dick, Tom Disch, Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, John Sladek, Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg... (Or, God forgive me, Keith Laumer and Ron Goulart.)

Or maybe we're asking the wrong question here. Maybe I never "discovered" science fiction at all. Maybe my interest is the natural result of having lived through a half-century that could only have been predicted, explained, and described by the branch of literature known as sci-fi. Maybe it's the side-effect of having watched the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs unfold as *news*, not as history, and of being more excited about Chuck Yeager and the Mercury Seven than the starting lineup of the Milwaukee Braves. (Okay, so I vaguely remember Warren Spahn, Eddie Mathews, and that new kid they signed -- Henry Aaron, I think. Very promising. Did he ever amount to anything?)

There, that's it. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. The next time someone asks me this question, I'll tell them it's all Ted Turner's fault, for moving the Braves to Atlanta.

And what's your excuse?

Friday, July 22, 2005

Why write sci-fi?

Someone who'd probably prefer not to be named asked me, "You're a pretty decent writer. Why don't you give up this sci-fi crap and try writing real literature?"

Rather than answer that question directly, I would instead prefer to respond in two parts. For the first part, I submit this quote by famous Real Literature author Sinclair Lewis:

There is no such thing as a "greatest" novelist, for how can you compare Lewis Carroll with Proust or Willa Cather with Dreiser? But it seems probable to me that just now, in 1941, there is no greater novelist living than Mr. H. G. Wells. On the mountainous slopes of Thomas Mann, there are too many fogs of magic for the bulk of him to overshine the quick, plump, gaily trotting human figure of Wells.

Of all the gallery of Wells novels, from such early fantasies as The First Men in the Moon, through that panorama of Edwardian folly and ambition, Tono-Bungay, down to the last tired reiterations that it really is just too bad that Mankind won't gather in a still and spacious library and determine to do something about it all, there is no book so deeply reaching into contemporary character, so funny and yet so moving, as The History of Mr. Polly...

And now for the second part, here's a challenge: go into your nearest bookstore or library and try to find the three Wells novels Lewis mentions.

Which one did you find first?

Thursday, July 21, 2005

A few thoughts about our old friend, Vlad

Hilary asks:
You know, it still amazes me. Everytime I think that every vampire story out there has been written, twenty new ones pop up.

With so little originality in the sub genre, why does it perpetuate? [...] dang it, this sub-genre retreads the same themes over and over.

I've often wondered this, as my wife has one entire bookcase devoted to vampire novels, all of which seem (to me) to be utterly interchangable. But then, why do people like series television? Why do people like Noh plays? Why do people like seemingly endless fantasy tales? (An elf, a wizard, and a dwarf walk into a bar. The elf says...)

Vampire stories work on so many levels that it's hard to keep track of them all. As a trope with a rigid and time-honored structure, it's right up there with the Medieval morality play for sheer durability. As a horror story, it gets you right where you live, as there is nothing more horrid than a human who becomes a monster, especially if "monster-ness" is a transmissable disease.

[Digression. Most fictional monsters, however they're packaged, are either bears, lions, wolves, or snakes. It may have six arms, come from Mars, and have acid for blood, but if it's silent, strikes without warning, and causes a lingering and painful death, it's a snake; if it hunts humans by surprise in the dark and tears them to pieces, it's a lion; if it's an unstoppable behemoth, it's a bear; and if it stalks humans openly and inexorably, it's a wolf.]

Vampires are different. Vampires were human. They remember being human. They have human emotions and motivations, however twisted. When you're dealing with a "beast" monster, your choices are simple: escape from it, kill it, or be killed by it. But when you're dealing with the formerly human, the emotional load is a lot more complicated: it's possible to empathize with the monster, to feel pity for it, and to regret having destroyed it, after you've won.

Then again, on another level, Stoker's Dracula works wonderfully as an allegory for the destruction of European royalty. Here you've got this decadent old nobleman, who hides behind a corrupt religion and can stay alive only by feeding parasitically on the proletariat, locked in battle with a group of vigorous young Modern Men, who are aided by Science! And what are they all fighting over? The hot Young Women!

Which segues into today's thesis: that vampire stories are actually romance novels with teeth. For as any poor sod who's been on the dating scene will tell you, the really hot girls always seem to fall for the decadent, creepy, abusive "bad boys," and who could possibly be more "bad" than an undead neck-biter?

At least, that's my current theory. What's yours?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Stalking the Undead with Gun and Camera

Phil Jennings asks:
I am reading "The Historian" and wondering as to the ease of finding silver bullets. (Efficacious for all normal uses and also against vampires.) Our fictional ensemble simply toss off the remark that they're not hard to find. Maybe not, in Istanbul.

Actually, it so happens that *I* have a silver bullet. No particular reason...

If you have the technology to cast lead bullets, you've got the technology to cast silver. The melting point of silver is a bit higher than that of the lead alloys commonly used for bullets, but if you pre-heat the bullet mould and lubricate it properly, everything works just fine.

This does beg some follow-up questions, though. Must it be pure silver, or will sterling or plate do? And if it need not be pure, will a silver-jacketed or silver-tipped bullet be sufficient? (Winchester "Silvertip" bullets actually have aluminum tips.) One serious problem with using silver for bullets is that it's quite a bit lighter than lead, so a pure silver bullet would lose kinetic energy rapidly as it traveled downrange, be very susceptible to crosswinds and deflections, and have very poor penetration characteristics. A pure silver bullet would not be a good proposition for either long-range accuracy or, say, stopping a charging 300-pound werebeast.

Personally, if I were having a problem with the poorly behaved undead, I would forget the silver bullet thing entirely and start loading 12-gauge shotgun shells with silver crucifixes, earrings, garlic cloves, and the like. It would be strictly a short-range solution, but breaking up the family silverware and stuffing it into shotshells would be a whole lot easier than mucking about with casting, sizing, lubing, loading, and sighting-in actual silver bullet loads.

Then again, I think we're laboring under a fundamental misunderstanding here. As I recall, it's silver bullets for werecritters, and *wood* for vampires. This suggests that stuffing a shotshell with round toothpicks -- or better yet, those big cocktail toothpicks with the fluffy plastic bits on one end -- would achieve a sort of flechette effect that might be well worth exploring.

(See? This is why I've never been able to work the vampire trope successfully. After four pages in my heroes invariably start thinking, "Wooden stakes? Screw that! Why not use bows and wooden-shafted arrows? Problem solved!")

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A casual observation

Browsing about the Strange Horizons site, I found two very interesting pages in their Writer's Guidelines: Stories We See Too Often and Horror Stories We See Too Often. Sad to see that some of these tired out old war-horse ideas are still being rewritten and resubmitted, but I guess it's the nature of the trade. "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts."

Of more immediate interest to me personally was learning that Strange Horizons pays 5-cents per word, and thus meets the SFWA definition of being a professional market. A nickel a word is what Asimov's was paying 25 years ago. Aside from say, Apprentice Harpsichord Maker, is there any other profession that still pays what it paid 25 years ago?