Catching up: February-April, 2014

Derek Newman-Stille interviewed me for his Speculating Canada blog. Derek has published an academic paper about and presented at conferences on the Darkborn trilogy, and he asks good, probing questions.

I was one of the readers at ChiSeries Ottawa on March 18, 2014, whereupon I discovered it is indeed possible to go to Ottawa and back in an evening (It was a Tuesday, I had a Wednesday morning meeting, and the 0625 train held very little appeal). The piece I read was the follow-on to the posted section of Breakpoint:Nereis. And it's on YouTube.

I was invited to speak at the Ampersand 2014 conference (theme Science(Fiction)) here at McGill on March 22, 2014.

I went to Ad Astra 2014, April 4-6, 2014, and launched a book!

Darkborn goes academic

Derek Newman-Stille, author of the Speculating Canada blog*, who previously reviewed Darkborn, has just published an academic article on “Where Blindness is Not (?) a Disability: Alison Sinclair’s Darkborn Trilogy” in the September 2013 issue of Mosaic: a journal for the interdisciplinary study of literature. He examines the trilogy in the context of literary portrayals and conventions of disability in general and blindness in particular, and compares and contrasts those with the descriptions of blind people themselves as to how they perceive the world. He points out the parts that worked, and the parts that did not, in places because of accommodation to genre and in places because, yes, I did not think something all the way through. It’s a very enjoyable read**, accessible to the non-English academic, and my one niggling criticism is that Mosaic is not open access. But I’m sure Derek has reprints.

* Which just last weekend won the Aurora Award for Fan Publication
** Which is not just authorial ego speaking!

Where’d the web go?

I had a minor bowl-of-petunias moments a while back. I was looking at another project compiling a list of works by women in an attempt to make them visible, when a quiet voice said in the back of my mind, “Oh no, not again.”

Because the list didn’t tell me why I should care about these books. It didn’t tell me why I should read them. It didn’t tell me where to start. It didn’t capture what was in them, how they were like and unlike each other, how they spoke to each other, to their moment, to the history and conventions of genre, which were romps and which were sober, which were controversial, which broke new ground, which refreshed the old, and which did neither but were still fun to read. It didn’t contain any indicators of if-you-liked-this-then-you’ll-probably-like-that or if-you-loathe-hate-and-despise-this-then-touch-not-that-book-with-tongs (so the reader doesn’t get ticked off and fire off one of those “SF/F is all _____” denunciations) . . . for which covers are a dismal guide [1].

All of that is already out there. People — many much more incisive and more knowledgable than I — have already said a great deal about these books, spanning several decades. We have reviews, articles, commentaries, forum-posts, critiques and commentaries and defences and controversies of decades, and they might as well be invisible to such lists. There wasn’t even an indication of such discussions even having happened.

Collective forgetting is a significant problem with women’s writing. We keep having to start at the beginning again, remaking the lists, rediscovering the books, rediscovering that other people knew about the books, and we all have to do it one at a time.

Back when I first learned HTML, several epochs and browser extinction events ago (I think it was the Mosaic-Navigator boundary), I made lists, too. I’d open my editor and a page, write out “a href=”, paste in the link, remember to close the quotes. These days, I’m still doing pretty much the same thing, though I get to click a button with an icon of a link and fill in form fields, and I only have to hack HTML if something breaks.

What I’d like to be able to do is, for example, directly connect someone else’s mention of Vonda McIntyre’s (terrific) Starfarers Quartet (1989-1994) to the ebook that’s available on Bookview Café, to the article McIntyre wrote about its inception (“It started out as a hoax”), to the article on “Changing regimes: Vonda N. McIntyre’s parodic astrofuturism” that DeWitt Douglas Kilgore published in Science Fiction Studies. Directly. So that if someone finds one, it will lead them straight to the others. Without having to do what I’ve just done, which is having to create an entirely redundant new web-page and stick myself in the middle where I don’t need to be when I’ve nothing new to say. (Although yes, it would be essential to flag the source of the new connections, in the interests of transparency, disclosure, and attribution).

It’s a challenging programming problem; although I am not a librarian or an information scientist, much less a programmer [2], I know that much. Not only to do it, but to get the interface not only straightforward but appealing enough that it could be widely adopted. It might not even be possible. But I also have the feeling that we could be further along than this, and I wonder if one reason might be the influence of commercial interests shaping development of the web over the past decade.

In its beginning, Google search was a significant advance, returning results that reflected links made by humans who were informed and interested on a topic, so that the substantial material would rise to the top, and the first page of a Google search was a valuable snapshot of the good material on any subject – or book. Google became the go-to aggregator of information.

Then the web went dot-com, and Google got into the advertising business. SEO became an industry, and now what floats to the top of a Google search for a title is Amazon et al, and Goodreads, and Wikipedia if there’s an entry, but where the citation quality is extremely variable, and assorted high volume review blogs which are so spoiler-fixated that they don’t even get past the skin, never mind anywhere near the bones of the book. Meanwhile the 3000 word (“tl;dr”) thoughtful consideration published 8 years ago in plain-vanilla HTML — which once would have been at the top of the search rankings — might show up around about page 7, and the three richly detailed articles published in scholarly publications and archived in JSTOR might not show up at all and even as they did, would be inaccessible to most people [3].

And now there’s social networking, and everything’s still lists, and everything’s still linear, and moreover, links vanish into the silos of Facebook or Google or Delicious or Goodreads, although with RSS (however long that lasts) or IFTTT, at information can be propagated across silos.

With the result that we’re still making new lists, we still struggle to be aware of previous work, and we still have the perpetual first steps phenomenon.

… Wanders off grumbling to brood on this more.

—-

[1] Something I remember realizing when picked up early Joanna Trollope on the basis of the very similar cover design to Mary Wesley‘s novels. Trollope is a fine writer, but (at least in her early novels) was the antithesis of the very thing I most liked in Mary Wesley – Trollope’s characters who defied convention were always punished.

[2] I have been known to describe myself as a geriatric script-kiddie, although such facetiousness is begging to be misunderstood. I am law abiding (except when cycling the streets of Montréal, which is an exercise in getting in touch with one’s inner anarchist) and I can usually figure out what’s going on in several programming languages.

[3] And as someone who has been an supporter of open access academic publishing since the days of the first Harold Varmus proposal in 1999, all I can say is have we lived and fought in vain.

When Words Collide 2013: A convention report

Summary

  • Skipped doing panels (not organized enough to propose ones or get onto the ones I would have been able to contribute to; resolve henceforth to do better)
  • Friday: Flew Montreal to Calgary in the morning, arriving just before noon, made it to the hotel (via public transit from the airport, glad I packed light – Eagle Creek small holdall), checked in, waited for the elevator (10-floor hotel, one working elevator, locked stairs), mastered the key elevator card (went up and down a few extra times in the process), picked up registration package, talked to people, wandered around spacey with sleep deprivation for what remained of the afternoon, and headed out to see a friend for supper and the evening. Thereby missing all of Friday’s programming. After I got back to the hotel, I went back to my quiet room, and slept for about 10 hours. Thereby missing all of Friday’s parties.
  • Saturday: Surfaced just in time for the 9 am communal breakfast on the 10th floor, a excellent innovation from SF Canada for larks and easterners, attended panels (see below), had fascinating conversations, worked two stints on the Bundoran table in the dealer’s room, and had an extremely sociable, very tasty, but desperately slow supper at a adjacent Indian restaurant that could not possibly have anticipated an invasion by hungry con-goers. Thereby missing all Saturday evening programming, including the Bundoran launch. Next year, we have collectively resolved to warn them.
  • Sunday: Breakfast in the hotel restaurant (pancakes), panels, conversations, a swim in the hotel’s enticing outdoor pool, crystal blue water, excellent temperature, decorative sprays. Second elevator still down, but stairwell was now open and getting much use, particularly between the first and second floors. Checked out, adding my orange holdall to a substantial hoard behind the main desk, snatched lunch at Starbucks, attended panels (see below), hit the dealer’s room one more time, and, failing to find anyone else heading to the airport for a late afternoon flight, availed myself of the hotel’s offer of a subsidized taxi ride out to Calgary airport … wishing I’d stayed until Monday.

Books bought

(It was a little holdall.)

  • Right to Know (Ed Willett), Bundoran Press’ latest, a generation ship story.
  • Shanghai Steam (edited by Ace Jordan, Calvin D Jim, and Reneé Bennett), an anthology of steampunk wuxia stories
  • Healer’s Sword (Lynda Williams), seventh in the Okal Rel series

Later in my trip I added

  • Beyond the Blue Horizon (Brian Fagan), a fascinating book about very early seafaring and exploration, which has just come out in trade paperback, and which I have already paid library fines on
  • A Distant Soil: The Gathering (Colleen Doran) The remastered, definitive version of Doran’s long-running epic space opera (which I started reading when I was doing my PhD thesis), now finally on the home stretch.

The Alien (reconstructed human) as metaphor

Nina Munteanu, Peter Halasz, Lynda Williams, Candas Jane Dorsey

  • Lynda mentioned the risks to understanding others, the fascination and danger. I identified one source of danger as the risk of being estranged from one’s culture of origin without necessarily being accepted in the adopted culture. The loss of family and community. The writer can wave his/her narrative magic wand and make up those losses, but the real-life experience of exiles, dissidents, and even migrants who have simply sought better opportunities elsewhere, shows it isn’t necessarily that easy … By the third book of CJ Cherryh’s foreigner, series, Cherryh has brought Bren Cameron to that position of estrangement without acceptance; acceptance comes later, by several books.
  • My other thought was that the interest in aliens was rooted in the childhood experience of trying to learn social rules, which were frequently bewildering and apparently arbitrary.
  • A lot of writers wanted to address the problem of humanity in a way that does not raise hackles (by invoking current concerns).

Academic Papers I-II

  • Jessica Bay, on “Kisses and categories: blurring genre definitions through relationships”, talking about two series, one of which I had not read, the Kate Daniels series, by Ilona Andrews, and the other the Mercedes Thompson series, by the con guest Patricia Briggs, talking about the crossing over between a romance and quest plot.
  • Paula Johansen presented on “Looking for Ghosts in The Curve of Time.” The Curve of Time is a memoir by M. Wylie Blanchet, who spent multiple summers travelling the BC coast with her children in the ’30s. Paula traces the movement from invitation to a haunting in an abandoned house (which the narrator flees), through her encounters with deserted first nations longhouses and arboreal burials, to her awareness of the eerie movements of the wind and the trees – a reversal of the usual progression of a ghost story from suggestive and non-specific spookiness to the climactic encounter.
  • Aida Patient talked about “The Centennial Reader: Online publication and reading practices”.

“Pantser, plotter, or quilter”

Amanda Sun, Jodi McIsaac, Susan Calder, Patrick Swenson

As a member of the Ancient and Proud Order of Literary Pantsers[1][2], I had to go to “Pantser, plotter, or quilter” where Amanda Sun, Jodi McIsaac, Susan Calder, Patrick Swenson compared the merits and demerits of the various modes[1] of getting from idea to finished story. Having written technical documents according to guidelines and templates, I know how pleasant it is to have a sense of the shape from the very beginning, and how peculiarly relaxing it is to know exactly where you stand in relation to the end, even if the relaxation is one of limp hysteria at the disproportion between what remains to be done versus what time remains to do it in (no, never happens, never) …

Unfortunately, I snuck in late, missed the introductions, and was too far away from the speakers to read their nametags, so I cannot properly attribute the following pearls

  • “How many characters actually listen to their author??”
  • “Plotting removes the organic energy of the story”
  • “One of the best pieces of advice I received was that, while it was impossible to think of 20 good ideas, it is also impossible to think of 20 bad ideas.”

[1] Pantser[2] = flies by the seat of their pants, outlines retrospectively and/or only when compelled to do so. Plotter = prepares a prospective outline, usually in (obsessive, from the pantser perspective) detail. Quilter = writes out of sequence, as pieces come to them. Probably could be a special case of either of the previous categories.
[2] Battle cry: “Outlines? We don’t need no stinkin’ outlines!” Mayday: “Help! I’m stuck in the middle!”

Patterns of recognition in humans and what it means to writers

Patricia Briggs and Lynda Williams.

  • The human brain is a pattern recognition machine. One of the cardinal problems of artificial intelligence is that computers have difficulty recognizing patterns
  • The writer can make use of this pattern recognition: one does not have to work so hard to join up the dots
  • Characters contribute a huge pattern to the story. When they enter, they are neutral, and then they gradually define themselves. Tropes can be very valuable (Lynda), but with main characters, the readers should not be able to recognize the tropes (Patricia); tropes are, however, useful for secondary characters.
  • One strong pattern is that of cause and effect; readers expect that cause and effect will match
  • The writer needs to be careful as to what patterns are invoked. If a pattern is invoked, and then contradicted, the reader may get confused, or see it as a betrayal. Eg, in Mooncalled, Patricia killed off a character early in the novel, “and got crap for it”. [He was one for whom the pattern demanded better treatment (he was young, innocent, a victim, and seemed to have found rescue).]
  • How well subverting expectations works depends the skill of execution, the reader’s expectations, and the character. You can break the pattern for some characters, but not others.

Examples mentioned:

  • Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman, which begins conversation between a man and his mistress in which the time and place are never specified but is somehow is still utterly clear
  • Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series, where the central character is an archaeologist who regards herself as a proper Victorian lady, but by the reaction of the other characters is clearly a holy terror.
  • As an example of breaking of a pattern, Patricia cited the death of Colonel Blake in MASH, a random and capricious accident of war overtaking an everyman character whose role in the series was principally as a foil to the others
  • Patricia also cited the death of Bothari in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Warrior’s Apprentice, both because it is unexpected (a retribution from a generation before) and because it is unexpectedly tragic. Readers do not expect to mourn monsters. (Bujold does this all the time, subverts patterns.)

My wandering starship finds a small press home

Old news, now, in this social networked age, but two of the three novels I wrote between Cavalcade and Darkborn have found a home with Bundoran Press, a Canadian small press. Their (current) titles are Breakpoint: Nereis, which is due out in April 2014 (in time for LonCon3, hurray!), and Contagion: Eyre, currently scheduled for April 2015.

When asked what they are about, I have described them somewhat cheekily as “Star Trek meets medicine.” They concern the voyages of the 50-person starship Waiora (one of nine) on a mixed humanitarian and diplomatic mission to re-contact human colonies in the aftermath of a plague that collapsed an interplanetary human civilization. Their purpose is twofold, to try and ensure the immediate survival of the colonies they contact, and investigate the source and nature of the plague.

Sounds straightforward, right?

But the people on the surviving colonies have their own ideas about what they want, and they’re not shy about asserting them. Aeron Ivesen wants her lands back and its invaders defeated. Creon McIntyre will do anything to ensure his people’s freedom and survival. The history of colonization has left its own legacy of bitterness and distrust, and the sponsoring colonies of the mission are anything but united. And two of the crew of Waiora have a separate agenda that could threaten the whole mission.