Sunday, December 31, 2006

Part 4: possible solutions

Approach 2: use a fantasy setting for a science fiction novel.



How does it address problem 1? Obvious. My characters can be ordinary humans, and I can bring them to life using the common tools writers use to characterize the protagonists and their surroundings: appearance, clothing, gestures, descriptions of nature, architecture, etc. A bonus: I can use fantasy cliches -- in a good way, as shorthand. (The Fantasy Cliches panel in this year's World Fantasy Convention validated my temptation to use this approach. :-))

How does it address problem 3? Well, a fantasy world can be anything I want it to be, and it does not have to correspond to any real-life setting with which my readers may be familiar, so there is no requirement of accuracy. Thus, I don't have to imitate a cowboy dialect, or street slang, or British upper class speech mannerisms, or any of those things I'm completely ignorant of.

How does it address problem 2, the problem of introducing unusual ideas and explaining them without slowing down the action? Perhaps it doesn't; it's just that at least a fantasy setting doesn't work against it, because cliches-as-shorthand can move the story along to counteract the slowdown caused by explanation. The trickiness of this appraoch is, of course, how to reconcile science-fictional ideas with a fantasy setting. Advanced scientific ideas can't spring out of nowhere in a non-technological society. Well, there is an old cop-out: the science in question was introduced by an advanced technological civilization that long ago had visited the world where the action takes place, and left its artifacts, or perhaps passed some of its knowledge to a special caste of priests or wizards. It's an old, hackneyed setup, but I'm not going to reject it just because of that. The editors on the Fantasy Cliches panel swore up and down that cliches are OK if the story is good. They also said 90% of attempts to completely avoid cliches lead to a dull story without a plot. Who am I to argue? :-)

I already have some ideas for a story or, hopefully, a series of stories, that will use Approach 2. Of course, I can't use this approach in each and every story I write (unless it's a series of connected stories), or it will get old very soon. Still, now that I've thought of two ways to navigate around my roadblocks, it gives me something to do. For the next couple of years, even. :-) If I successfully implement both, I'll be in good shape. Then I'll have to worry about what to do next, but perhaps by then I will have built stronger writerly muscles and will have acquired a bigger arsenal of tools.

Though it's not easy to feel too optimistic about it at the moment.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Part 3: possible solutions

Addressing problem 1. How to "flesh-out" protagonists that don't live in the flesh?



Approach 1. Maybe my protagonists could live in virtual reality. That is, while they are crossing the unfathomable depths of space incarnated as rays of elementary particles, they could imagine that they are something else somewhere else, floating in some kind of consensus reality, projected by the same computational devices that encode their personalities. That way they could build all kinds of imaginary worlds and imaginary bodies for themselves; without human constraints, their interactions could be even richer than they are in the human world.

Advantages of this approach



Indeed, if one lives as a ray of particles, which sounds like a rather boring life, wouldn't they want to spruce up their bland reality with a little imagination, by pretending to be, say, a giant squid or a cartoon character?

Something in me whispers, no, they wouldn't. Their reality only looks stark to us, meat-humans; the encoded personalities would probably see it as something entirely different and much richer. To paraphrase a Confucian saying, to suggest to them that they may add variety to their lives by re-enacting a fictional reality based on human imagination would be like asking a lion to become a cockroach. :-)

But this approach would solve all 3 of my problems (which I talked about in the two previous posts) pretty well. It's obvious how it would solve problem 1: in a virtual world the characters can be fleshed out in as much detail as I want. It would also go a long way toward solving problem 2. Whatever idea you come up with, it's easier to show its consequences in action in a virtual world, governed just by your imagination, than in a physical world with its "hard" constraints. And problem 3 can be avoided too, because a world governed by your imagination does not have to match the reality your readers know. So you can get away with knowing fairly little about it.

And since I write my stories for my contemporary human readers, not for the actual future humans who may encode their personalities onto rays of light, I need not try to attain a realistic portrayal of the existence of photon-encoded personalities, the way it may actually be some day. (As if I could). I only need to make the story entertaining, and the characters convincing, to my contemporary humans. And if lions have to become cockroaches in order to become accessible to us, so be it.

All in all it seems not too bad an idea, to let my "abstract" protagonists live in a virtual reality of their own creation. And they may even have a reason to want it, given that they originated as humans. Their personalities were copied from actual human personalities. So they may still have some human sensibilities (until they discover how much richer is the reality once you eliminate human constraints).

Disadvantages:



This approach is basically a one-trick pony. I can set one of my stories in virtual reality, but not all of them. I already tried this device in one of the stories I worked on this year. After spending several months on it and rewriting it in at least two different versions, I was so unsatisfied with it that I pushed it way, way to the back of the back burner. :-) Also, it ballooned way beyond a short story and into the territory of novella. In which case, I thought, hell, why not make it a full-blown novel? But it will have to wait until I have built stronger writing muscles. Because in the state it is now, I still haven't found that proverbial Archimedes lever for this story that would move its world. :-) (Even though I've mulled over the ideas suggested by my friend D, I still can't satisfactory wrap my mind around it. One of my fonder wishes for the New Year is to find the Archimedes lever for this story in time for the next year's NaNoWriMo. :-))

Regardless, there is a limited mileage I can get out of the virtual reality setting. After I used it once, I won't be able to reuse it. So I need to think of other approaches as well. More about them in the next post.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Part 2: Other problems I face when writing science fiction

Problem 2. It's hard to incorporate science-fictional ideas into a story without slowing the action down.



Introducing science-fictional ideas that are -- at least I hope -- somewhat new, is a double-edged sword. Of course, all SF writers strive for originality. (I'm trying to silence the cynic in me who says a lot of writers have no aspirations to originality and simply write what readers are known to like. "Extruded science fiction product", to paraphrase Lawrence.) New ideas help to achieve originality. New ideas also mean you can't rely on cliches, or on popular science fiction tropes. New ideas mean there is much more you have to explain to the reader before he or she can make sense of your story. This was one of the thoughts expressed in the World Fantasy Convention panel on cliches, and it's funny that it took me perhaps several weeks to realize how relevant that panel was to what was going on in my writing life.

For example, you can use tropes such as faster-than-light without explaining them to your readers, since everybody understands the concept. But if your story is based on an idea less overused than this -- for example, on quantum entanglement, which I haven't seen satisfactorily explored in most SF I've read (Greg Egan notwithstanding) -- you have to explain it. This is always hard, as such an explanation needs to be woven into the action, instead of presented as an infodump. Not only it is not easy to generate a chunk of plot that would clarify a particular concept by letting the reader see its workings, but it also makes the story longer. And (this is just my rule of thumb, though) the longer the story is, the more interesting it should be in order to keep a reader's attention.

Problem 1 and Problem 2 feed upon one another, magnifying one another. On one hand you have bare-bones characters (or should I say, bare-particles characters? :-)) without literally much meat on them :-) . They resist vivid characterization, making it harder for readers to identify with them, hence, making the story less interesting. On the other hand, complex or novel ideas, or at least their explanation, slow down the movement of the story. To recap, giving up the familiar for the sake of innovative makes the writer's job much harder.

Problem 3. To write about the familiar is hard in its own way.



The above did not imply that familiar stuff is easy to write about. Definitely not, at least not for me. Portraying the conventional reality is a tall enough order in itself, because my readers, too, are familiar with it (often better than me), and they can call me to task if I haven't portrayed it convincingly. I am always in awe of writers who can accurately convey speech patterns of various ethnic and socio-economical groups in such an evocative way that a few sentences uttered by a character vividly paints him or her as belonging to a certain group, leaving the reader's imagination to fill in the details. For me, this skill seems just as unattainable as a figure skater's triple axels. All my characters sound the same. I don't know if I'll ever make progress in this respect. So I try to find a way around it by avoiding writing about anything that has recognizable traits of our everyday reality. It's a cop-out. But at this point I feel I have to do it if I want to write at all. If I wracked my brain trying to think of a speech mannerisms and turns of phrase that would best characterize my protagonist, I would not make any progress at all. I would stare all day at the blank screen and feel incredibly demoralized.

So, writing imaginary stuff interestingly is hard, and writing familiar stuff is hard in its own way. But writing imaginary stuff is easier to me overall, so I'll stick with it. For now. I just need to think of ways to conquer problems (1) and (2).

How am I going to address these problems? How should I balance familiar against the unfamiliar? What is the perfect ratio of familiar and the unfamiliar, so that the story would feel innovative, but not so alien that the reader would lose interest? I thought of a couple of approaches, which I shall explore in the next installment.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A long essay on why writing is hard for me, part 1

I have almost finished writing another science fiction story. The third this year. Or maybe a third-and-a-half, if we count a short-short story I wrote as a semi-joke. However, this story is not completely finished. Nor is it truly unfinished. It is in a strange state where most or all of its content is written down, but paragraphs, or entire blocks of paragraphs, need to be reshuffled, so that the content could be presented more convincingly. I doubt I'll do it this year.

It needs to sit and marinate for a while, and I will have to return to it with fresh eyes.

I tried to identify to myself the difficulties I experienced with this story. I thought I'll be able to explain them in a few simple sentences. Once I started putting them on paper, the few sentences ballooned into a long essay. But the final week of the year is an appropriate time for long essays on things I've learned this year, is it not? Thus, I'll present my musings in installments over the next few days.

Problem 1. Protagonists without outward characteristics are boring.



It is hard (for me, anyway) to write a story with characters that don't exist in human flesh. (I'm speaking about my most recent, not-quite-finished story, but the problems I'll describe here are specific not just to this story, but also to almost all story ideas I have in mind. They preclude those ideas from turning into finished work.)

The characters of my most recent story used to be humans, but their personalities have long ago been digitized and encoded onto rays of elementary particles. They still have ties to the humanity, though -- in fact, they are working in service of humanity. They are hurtling at light speed across the universe on a mission directed by a human government. So they are not total strangers to humanity, far from it.

Regardless, the physical reality surrounding them is nothing like ours. They don't have anything like our senses, perceptions or body language. So I can't describe their interactions among themselves, and with the environment, in the usual way one would describe human interactions. For example, the whole aspect of appearance and body language is lost. I can't add depth to the characters by describing their clothes or their posture or bearing. Rays of particles don't wear clothes, they can't shrug their shoulders or smile. ;-) I can't even use expressions like "he saw" or "she heard", because their perceptions of the world -- the information they get from cosmic radiation and the like -- are nothing like hearing or seeing.

In a word, when you remove all the outer human characteristics, it's hard to keep these protagonists from coming out very one-dimensional, and their conversations rather dry and flat. This has made me doubt whether this story was viable at all. That's why I'm letting it marinate, on paper and in my head.

There is a real dilemma here. If you want your story to be set in a distant future, it would be silly if your protagonists looked and acted and had similar mannerisms as the 21st century people. It would be even sillier if we created far-future humans by taking our contemporaries and decorating them with superficial "futuristic" high-tech and body-mod bling. I've seen this done in science fiction, and those characters inevitably came out looking like a little more radical version of a 21st century pagan-bisexual-pierced-tattooed-burning-man-going urban hipster. That's not at all what I wanted for my characters. So it would seem wise to give up any pretenses at being able to extrapolate their outward appearance, and forego the appearance entirely, focusing only on their thoughts and dialog. But that leads to protagonists being rather flat and boring.

That's one aspect of the difficulty I'm having. I'll talk about another aspect in the next installment.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

For a moment I thought, maybe it was just me.

(See the header of the pre-previous post.)

I got a new laptop at work, which, to borrow a phrase from certain digerati, I'll call Teh Shiny. :-) It has both Windows and Linux on it. Our SA at work installed Debian on it. That's the only distribution he supports. For a short while I was truly impressed with how well and painlessly it worked. It only took Steve about 2 hours to get the wireless connection working, as opposed to days and days he spent on my other Linux laptops (with very little result). And the wireless connection was stable from then on, instead of flickering on and off. That was encouraging. The laptop also recognized USB devices and did not crash when a USB device was plugged in. When I plugged in my camera, it came up automatically. More than that, when I tried to play an .AVI movie file, it played! In my previous attempts to play movie files on SUSE 9.1, the player immediately crashed, or in the best case, played the sound without the video. This was a quantum leap above my previous experiences with Linux.

I was happy, except for one little detail. There was no sound. The movie was silent. The sound icon on the desktop was set to the minimum, and when I tried to push it towards the maximum, it would bounce right back. So I asked the SA at work if he could do anything about the sound. He thought it shouldn't be hard. Well, after spending a day working on my lappy, he told me that with all the customizations he made the laptop has diverged quite a bit from standard Debian, and he would like to install Ubuntu on it instead. (No word as to whether he got the sound to work, but if I had to guess, the answer is no -- otherwise why would he want to install a different operating system on it? :-))

So now I'm thinking, as an answer to the question raised in the pre-previous post, maybe it's Not Just Me. :-)

Monday, December 18, 2006

FACT group discussion of Stanislav Lem's "Cyberiad"

In May of 2006 the FACT reading group discussed "Cyberiad" by Stanislav Lem. Most of the attendees (~ 6-7 of them) liked the book. A few of them had read Lem before, mostly his novel "Solaris".


It was noted how well "Cyberiad" held up from the technological standpoint. "Cyberiad" was written 40 years ago, but its scientific / technical ideas don't appear obsolete. It is about computers and machines but doesn't have specific technology that dates it. One reader compared it to "White Light" by Rudy Rucker, saying Rudy Rucker's mathematical science fiction has some of this flavor.


I myself was also impressed by how Lem had found a way to write science fiction that is not threatened with becoming obsolete in the next decade or the next five years. That's because "Cyberiad" is already very obviously a farce, and nothing in it should be taken literally. As illustrated by the passage (page 147): "By now the stars have vanished in the general gloom, so the two proceeded gropingly, till suddenly their ship lurched, and all the furniture, pots and pans went flying". The characters of his tales, the two robots, are so smart they can construct machines that simulate entire civilizations, yet the ship they fly in is furnished with pots and pans. Not to mention that being robots, they presumably don't need to eat, much less cook. But in this farcical manner he explores very interesting questions about human nature, and the nature of the mind.


A flipside of this lack of technological explanations is that more than one person felt the stories in "Cyberiad" would be best characterized not so much as science fiction but as fairytales. Some saw it as a positive, and others as a negative.


Reader 1. "I have to be hog-tied to read fantasies and modern fairly-tales, because there so much fo its is... there's suspensions of disbelief, and then there is hanging it by its neck until its dead. Despite that, I am enjoying [the Cyberiad]. It's not dating itself because it's totally ignoring technological explanations."


Reader 2. 'I'm gonna take a somewhat different tack. I was impressed by translation, it's an easy read, but I don't see any science in it. It's a mechanistic fairy-tale. Having done some AI work, [I can say] it has nothing to do with computer science AI." He quotes the book: "'Postulate everything with letter N' -- it's not how computers work. It didn't bother me, but it early on told me that it's not science." He gives another example: "[how can you say that] one planet is behind another? "


He deemed the science in "Cyberiad" to be completely unscientific, and thought it was primarily a framework for a social commentary.


And this brings us to another of the book's characteristics, widely noticed by the readers: that its main purpose was to be a political satire. Or so the readers perceived it. Stanislav Lem wrote "Cyberiad" in the socialist Poland, where literature, art, and all public discourse were heavily controlled by the communist government, to keep out the ideas they considered threatening to the communist ideology. Several of the FACT readers pointed out various methods Lem employed in order to get his message past the censors.


Reader 3. "It's very interesting that he's using the early Greek myths as a backdrop for doing this kind of thing, making it very fun. His descriptive style is very much as an early socratic dialog. It fits very well with what he's doing. Lem employed Socratic dialogs in Cyberiad to get past censors. "


Reader 2 comments on how Lem had to shape Cyberiad to fit the mold of socialist realism, as was required of writers in a communist society. "I thought Cyberiad was a framework for a social commentary. All the strawman bad guys are monarchs, because it is acceptable to say bad things about monarchs. In a society where fantasy has a bad rap, a mechanistic fairlytale [is the best framework]." He brings up an example of the story where the soldiers' intelligence combines and everything stops fighting. "I think that combining things for a better result is a very communistic idea."


Reader 4. "Lem is Hegelian in his thesis and antithesis, which I think is one thing socialist realism liked. All of Lem had to have socialist realism, because that's what the state said was literature. He liked Strugackys and Bulgakov and others. If you set your story elsewhere, since it wasn't set in Poland, you could say something Polish readers would agree with, but censors would allow. "


Readers admired Lem's style, his language and his sense of humor. Everybody enjoyed Lem's way with dialog. A few people noticed influences of Greek philosophy on Lem.


Reader 5. 'I read it 30 years ago and I loved it. But I was an undergrad in physics. But today it seems like a different book, because of how much Greek I studied since then. You are right: these are fables. They always have a point. You are supposed to learn something from each story. Epigram is probably a Greek word I'm searching for. Every story is a parable, and it seems too Greek to me. "


Reader 6. "In a good way."


Reader 1. "I think it's got a realy incisive quality. "


She mentions the strange, nonexistent words starting with letter N, which are listed in the first story.


Reader 6. "You wonder why those words are not familiar, and then you find out there is a reason for it."


One will need to read the first story of Cyberiad to find out why they are not familiar, though.


Everybody admired how well the translator of "Cyberiad" did what must have been a tremendously difficult job. People were impressed that a lot of Lem's jokes came through in English translation, and appreciated the effort it must have taken to translate the poetry.


Reader 5. The amount of effort those 6 lines (the Samson poem) took, probably was days.


(Here is what he is talking about. Imagine having to translate this into a foreign language. Every word needs to start with letter S.


Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.)


I'm sure the famous "Love and Tensor Algebra" must have been just as difficult to translate.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Maybe it's just me, or maybe Linux is really not ready for the desktop

In preparation to moving to the new house, I decided it's time to pack. But not the physical stuff. First I was going to clean up the Augean stables of my data. In a gesture the futility (or just ill-timedness) of which is becoming more apparent day by day, I am trying to consolidate my data scattered around numerous partitions of numerous laptops. Some laptops I've used over the last, say, 4 years, had both Windows and Linux partitions. So right now I'm dealing with a total of 5 partitions. Many of them have the same identically named folders. Some files in those folders have the same names, but different sizes and dates. Other files are identical. Yet other files exist only on some laptops and not on others. All this bedlam has resulted from the fact that for many years I haven't thought of a good way to synchronize files between different computers. I still don't have a foolproof way to accomplish this, but at least I have thought of something that should work well enough. Or so I thought until yesterday.

Why it's not an easy problem for me, and how Linux makes it harder



It complicates matters that at some times in my life I've used Linux for daily computing needs, such as when I worked with Gimp for long periods of time. At those times I also stored other elements of the daily computing narrative -- mail, pictures, interesting articles saved from the net, on the Linux partition of the machine I was working on. Then, as I was getting more and more frustrated with Linux (see, for example, this entry), I would switch back to Windows, but I would not always copy the files over to the Windows partition of the machine. Or I would copy some files but not others. (And not just because I was lazy: Linux did not cooperate well on this task. Imagine this: you copy a directory from one location to another, and then find out that not all files in the directory got copied. About 1/4 of the files didn't make it over. Why? What's so special about the ones that were left behind? You pore over their names -- too long? Contain symbols that could be by some stretch of imagination interpreted as scpecial characters? No, nothing like that. Their dates, their extensions? Any pattern at all? Nope. SUSE had randomly decided to not copy some files when copying a directory. I first noticed this bug in SUSE 8.<something> , and later when I upgraded to 9.1, it still had it. This meant I could not copy all my directories from a Windows partition to a Linux partition in one operation. I had to descend down each directory tree, and select individual files and copy them that way! What tedium, what a stupid waste of time. No wonder I wasn't very diligent about maintaining my files synchronized.)

Then after a couple of years I acquired a new laptop, which again was partitioned into Windows and Linux, I copied over some files from the old laptop to the new, but not others, and the story repeated itself. Add to this a fact that I keep some of my personal data on my work laptop (yes, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, but is there anyone who doesn't do that? :-) and it's easy to see how I got myself into an unbearable mess.

Finally I decided to bite the bullet and sort out this mess once and for all. I set out to review the data scattered over several laptops, determine the "definite" version of each file that may exist across several laptops with different date-time stamps, and to put all those files on a gigantic external hard drive. I may try to sell my old and slow laptop, if I can find a buyer, or just give away, keeping only the newest laptop (not so new anymore either). The external hard drive plugs into a USB port and therefore can be easily ported from a machine to a machine, hereby relieving me of a need to keep files synchronized between machines. So the files would live in just one place (with appropriate backups to other external hard drives, perhaps).

I thought it was a good solution, until Linux threw a proverbial wrench into it.



So I held my nose and got on with the job. First, I copied the data from the old laptop's Windows partition over to its Linux partition (can't do it the other way around: Windows does not see the Linux partition, nor do I remember my Windows password I stopped using 2 years ago. :-)) I sorted out file dates, times and sizes, and was able to satisfactorily determine the "definite" version of each file that was in doubt. So far, so good. Tedious, but... not so much more than scrubbing the bathroom. Given the choice between physical cleaning and data cleaning, I'm not sure which one I would choose.

Then I plugged in the USB hard drive into my old laptop, and was elated to see that Linux (SUSE 9.1, to be exact) recognized it and was able to read the data on it! This was more than I typically expect from Linux! So I proceeded to copy the files to the hard drive. Which was a slow process, because the hard drive, having been used before with my new laptop, already contained different versions of some of the files I was copying! So I hunkered down to sort out the "definite" versions of each file in doubt. I did not spend more than 15 minutes on this before my old laptop froze. The mouse stopped moving, the keyboard stopped reacting to keystrokes. My laptop went completely catatonic, and there was nothing left for me to do than to push the power button to shut it down.

I have experienced these out-of-the-blue laptop freezes before with Linux, and I always suspected that they were somehow caused by my unstable wireless connection at home. (Which is another tale of woe unto itself, mentioned in the post I linked to above.) My wireless signal flickers in an out of existence several times an hour, sometimes several times a minute. I was wondering if perhaps SUSE gets into a bad state trying to pick up the wireless connection. But this time I did not have the wireless card plugged in. This time I was using an ethernet cable, since I've given up on having wireless access on Linux long ago. So, just in case, I unplugged the ethernet cable and rebooted. Again, the laptop froze after just some 10 minutes. It barely made it through boot up!

Then I started to wonder if it was the USB hard drive, after all, that was causing this problem. I unplugged it, rebooted the lappy, and voila -- it's been stable for days. So it must be the USB driver, or something, that causes it to freeze. Wow. For all the highly praised Linux stability, for all the talk of how it puts Windows instability to shame, I must say USB devices never caused any of my Windows boxes to crash. Of course, my version of SUSE is 2-3 years old, and there may be better USB drivers for it now; (but then, a little voice whispers to me that Windows XP is 5 years old, and I never had to download new drivers for it!) Of course, a person who truly enjoys fixing such things would probably hunt down a better USB driver for Linux, but I'm not one of those people. I don't have days and weeks to spend on this. I just want to Get Things Done.

I almost long for the days when I used to complain that Linux can't see devices I plug in. It seems that things are worse when it can actually see them! :-)

And now I have a nice stable lappy, but I can't back up my files. :-) Well, I actually have a way -- I zipped up my files and ftp'd them over to my website. From there I'll copy them onto an external hard drive. How silly.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's Not A Cliché... Yet: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Another post from World Fantasy Convention. As the name suggests, this was a panel on cliches in fantasy. It was amusing, just as one would expect from the topic. The panelists were Glen Cook, Carole Nelson Douglas, Eric Flint, Diana Gill, and L. E. Modesitt, Jr. (moderator). The full post can be found on my website. This is just a synopsis.





Carole Nelson Douglas and Glen Cook at the "It's Not A Cliché... Yet" panel.


What it was supposed to be about, according to the program book: Pirates and Arthur are fantasy clichés, as are dragons. What about Nazis, dinosaurs, ninjas, and talking gorillas? Do elements of such ideas exclude them from frequent use in fantasy, preserving them from becoming clichés? Or is it only a matter of time?


What it was really about:


The plight of famous authors, such as Shakespeare and J. R. R. Tolkien: creating imagery so powerful that it captures public imagination for centuries, inspiring thousands of imitators, has an ironic consequence. What fantasy cliche annoys writers and editors the most?


Is it always necessary to try to avoid cliches? Can they be used deliberately? When is cliche not a cliche, but a useful shorthand? As much as cliches are ridiculed, don't readers -- and by extension, editors -- secretly want them?





Eric Flint (left), L.E. Modesitt Jr. at the "It's Not A Cliché... Yet" panel.


More pictures from World Fantasy Convention 2006 can be found in my photo gallery.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Curb Your Hound of Evil: Finding the Dark Woods in an Urban World: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: David Coe, Robin Hobb, Tamara Siler Jones, Jane Lindskold (moderator), Kelly Link



Synopsis from the program book: Panelists discuss how the urban/modern world works as a backdrop to modern fantasy/dark fantasy. Where do we find "The Dark Woods" in the urban world, and what lies within? How much is left to explore in urban fantasy?



So, where do the panelists find an inspiration for urban fantasy in modern backdrops? Where does the mystery lie in the modern world? You could easily guess what source of inspiration was mentioned most often: old houses. Were these panelists refugees from the Fantasy Cliches panel? :-) (The latter, by the way, was quite funny and one of the most worthwhile panels at the WFC. I think it deserves a longer and more detailed report than my reports have been so far, and it will be forthcoming next week.)



Jane Lindskold. "I am fascinated by old spaces. For me to see the wires, the pipes, in a building, it's to see like your own hand cut open. It ties with what you (another panelist) said about "organic", only it's mechanical organic. I live in the most mundane ranch house, there are millions of them, and I can't believe how many secret compartments there are. Plus, remnants of a tear gas alarm system, and a couple of other strange things. [When we travel, we stick things we don't want other people to find, in them.]"



Other than old houses, where else?



Robin Hobb. You can take any fantasy setting and bring it into modern time. Why does once upon a time should be long, along ago? Why not yesterday? [You have to ask yourself:] who are the wizards in our cities? [and you'll get] a million ideas for stories.



David Coe. My character access to magic [in my urban fantasy] is through a hallucinogenic addictive drug that destroyed his father's mind and is now destroying his own. It's a journey to a mind of a drug addict. To me, the most fascinating dark woods are in the human mind, not in a fantasy or urban fantasy setting.



David Coe at the World Fantasy Convention 2006



David Coe. More pictures from the World Fantasy Convention 2006 can be found in my photo gallery.



Moderator Jane Lindskold asks an interesting question. I was thinking about an interesting thing you might encounter when putting a story in play in the modern setting. How do things like guns, cell phones, cameras change [how you handle the mythic material?] For example, there are security cameras in grocery stores all over the place, [which makes it impossible for the mythical creatures like elves and fairies to pass unnoticed through a modern urban setting]. Or would you ignore those issues and hope that the readers do too?



Robin Hobb. It's almost more fun when you have very modern trappings to set things off, because then what is strange and archaic becomes even more strange and archaic. When you stay in a hotel, who are you tipping, is it really the hotel maid? (Did she mean that maybe the maid's work is done by little elves, or...? -- E.) What do the wizards do day-to-day in the city? They had to adapt, just like we had to adapt, to cars and cellphones.



Jane Lindskold answers her own question with this example from her experience [?]. "One of the first short stories I sold was a fantasy, but it came from a classic SFnal what if: what if you had a dog that had a transfusion of werewolf blood? It was alled "Good boy". A friend vet said that when they had a call of a dog hit by a car, they would call the local pound and get a large dog for a blood infusion. In my story, the pound happens to have a great big dog, and then a German shepherd gets a tranfusion of werewolf blood, and turns into a little boy when the moon turns full.



[To me one of great joys in urban fantasy is to think, what if all that stuff was real and crossed over to the modern world?]"



One of the more interesting moments came when a guy in the audience asked a question: "Why in the urban fantasy when you meet fairies, they are still in the middle ages? Why have they not evolved into modernity along with the humans?" The panelists are apparently well-versed in fairy'ology, because they are having a completely straight-faced discussion that goes like this:



Kelly Link. "One, fairies are allergic to iron, which makes building things complicated. Another reason is, that while it's not a parasitical relationship, but those people who live adjacent to us are not fond of our technology. Traditional fairies don't make things. They steal things from people."



Kelly Link at the World Fantasy Convention 2006



Kelly Link. More pictures from the World Fantasy Convention 2006 can be found in my photo gallery.



Jane Lindskold. "Time flows differently in the fairlyand. So it would take them a very long time to catch up with our world."



A guy from the audience. And their magic may eliminate a need for technology.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Fantasy is Fundamental: Young Adult Fantasy in the 21st Century: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: Holly Black, Charles de Lint, Lisa Freitag (moderator), Barry Goldblatt, Mark London Williams



Synopsis from the program book: Fantasy is a core component of Young Adult literature. Like all literature, YA fantasy develops in the context of its time. Our panelists discuss how the social, cultural, and political context of the new century is shaping, and will continue to shape, YA fantasy literature.



Harry Potter is credited with inspiring children to read. But has it, really? One of the panelists (it may have been Barry Goldblatt) says kids did not suddenly start loving reading. It wasn't that they wanted to read more of all sorts of literature. They just wanted to read more of Harry Potter, or something very much like it.



Barry Goldblatt. "Kids eat Harry Potter and all the knockoffs. Kids are voracious readers, and they also very quickly make up their mind about what they like and what they don't like. It's is actually very easy to get kids to try new things. What is hard is to get them to like new things. They become set in their ways very quickly.



The trick is to give kids something like Harry Potter so they recognize all the touchstones, but is also perhaps different enough so that they could stretch a little bit. Librarians and educators are struggling to do this, because it's very hard. "



YA becoming more mature and risque



One of the major themes of this discussion was an increased specialization of YA fiction. These days you have young-young adult (12-14 years) and old-young adult (14 years and up). All the panelists remember the time (such as in their adolescent years) when not only these subcategories did not exist, the very category of Young Adult fiction barely existed. Teens who had outgrown children's books had to quickly start reading grown-up books since there wasn't much else.



This is a part of a larger cultural debate, says Mark London Williams, on is what is a teenager. "It is a category that did not always exist. Similarly, there were times when there was [no literature] for teenagers. I went from Lord Of The Rings to Manchurian Candidate. When I wanted to read books about politics, I took them from my parents' shelves."



On the other hand, a lot of books written for grown-ups are nowadays being repackaged as Young Adult, such as books by Andre Norton, or Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.



Holly Black. "Teenagers were reading Charles De Lint books for many years. His stories that were originally adult stories were republished for kids. I'm looking for a word: spongeability... fungeability..."



A voice from the audience: permeability?



Holly Black: "Yes, that's what it is." (Erasing boudaries between adult and young adult fiction.)



Barry Goldblatt. "A lot of books were published as adult books that now make up the YA cannon. Like "To Kill A Mockingbird". If you published something like "To Kill A Mockingbird" today, it would immediately be recognized as as YA book. "



He says back then children's fantasy books were supposed to be sweetness and light. Controversial topics were off limits. In contrast, these days Young Adult literature does not shy away from mature topics. This was a big point of the discussion.



Holly Black. "[It's been said that] there are two things you can't do in YA: boring and bestiality. And [whenever I quote it], the entire room immediately starts coming up with titles of books that have bestiality in them. Everything else you can think of has been tried in the YA books. [...] One of the reasons why YA is now allowed to publish a lot of controversial material, is because teenagers are spending their own money for it. A little younger kids, for which their parents buy books, you can't do it. "



Charles De Lint. "[YA books with adult themes] were around always, like Holly said, but they were not in the foreground. But these days kids are exposed to a lot more. [And they want to recognize themselves in the characters of the books they read.] So these days if you have two 14-year-olds in a story [who are hot for each other, and all they do is hold hands, kids are not going to read that book, because that's not realistic.]"



So it would seem that the Young Adult category is essentially a marketing invention, created in an ongoing attempt of publishers to make teenagers part with their money. Holly Black says, though, that there is an upside to YA marketing. "What I love about YA marketing, is [that in the YA section of a bookstore] you see genre books next to literary books, fantasy books next to mystery books, etc. So kids [don't get boxed in by the genre]."



A much debated question: do boys read? If not, why not?



A woman from the audience says: "I used to work as a bookseller. In the middle grade boys used to read like crazy, but in the upper teenage years, boys drop out. In the old YA category all the books I sold were almost exclusively to females. I wonder if anything it's done to address them."



Barry Goldblatt. "We always look for great books for boys. But it's like leading the horse to water: you can't make them drink. We haven't found a magic bullet to get the boys to read. Boys are taught that everything is more important than reading: sports, dating. Boys who read are considered geeks.



There's still an understanding from parents that reading is supposed to be educational, not fun. And we work really hard in our educational system to make reading not fun. That's why a lot of girls still hang on to reading, whereas boys just drop out. Don't make them write book reports about it. Don't make them take tests on the books they've read."



Holly Black. "In defense of boys; when I've gotten into classics for teenagers, there are often guy writers in the programs. When I ask them what they are reading, they often say adult. I get an impression that a lot of guys are reading, they are just not reading teen books."



A woman in the audience would like the panelists to address the question of the gender of protagonist. It seems the girls would read the books with a boy protagonist, but boys won't read books with a girl protagonist.



Charles De Lint says that even though a lot of fans who contact him are girls, there is a significant percentage of boys, even though his protagonists are girls.



Barry Goldblatt says Scott Westerfeld's books are eaten up by many girls, but there are also a lot of boys who read it because there's all those cool gadgets in it. His books, while they have female protagonists on the covers, are very boy-accessible.



(A guy in the audience next to me wonders out loud at the term "boy-accessible".)



Barry Goldblatt thinks it's more about what the protagonist does, rather than what gender he or she is. If a girl is obsessing about dating, the boys probably won't read them. But if she is like Jennifer Garner in Alias, they might read them despite the fact that she's female.



Lisa Freitag. "The more irreverent the tone of the book is, the better things seem to go [i.e. the more boys are likely to read it]."



Finally, here are some good new YA novel recommendations from the panelists.



Mark London Williams recommends "Boy Proof" by Cecil Castellucci. "It's a book about a teenage girl growing up as a genre geek-fan, who is a kind of person who goes to World Fantasy Convention."



Charles De Lint. Ellen Klages "The Green Glass Sea" is a book about what it means to be a 12 year old. She captured it wonderfully.



Barry Goldblatt "Life As We Knew It" by Susan Beth Pfeffer is one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books of all time. At the beginning the girl protagonist is only concerned about going to the prom, and the news about a meteorit that's about to hit the moon doesn't really impact her. I've never seen a picture of what it's like wen the world is destroyed, from a point of view of a small town girl, who's not at the epicenter, but it builds up over time. It's a wonderful book.



Holly Black. Delia Sherman's Changeling came out recently, it's hard to describe, it's wonderful in many ways.





Barry Goldblatt and Holly Black

. More pictures from this and others World Fantasy Convention 2006 panels can be found in my photo gallery.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fantasy, Social Networking, and the Blogosphere: a World Fantasy Convention 2006 panel

Panelists: Elizabeth Bear, Matt Cardin, Lynn Flewelling (moderator), David Levine, Andrew Wheeler



What it was supposed to be about? Here's a preview of the panel as published in the program book. What are the benefits and drawbacks of community development and audience interaction in the new online environments? Does the ease and speed of feedback change the nature of the fantasy writer's process and work?



If there was one panel at the World Fantasy Convention that was a waste of time, this was it. A decade after the internet became mainstream, some of the panelists sounded as if they still lived in the mid-nineties era of wide-eyed wonder: OMG, there are people inside my computer!. To be fair, this tone was set by one particular panelist, who was 10-15 years older than everyone else on that panel, and a self-proclaimed Luddite. This person's comments were peppered by such exclamations as "On the other side of that wall, the screen of the computer, are total strangers, who are reading about my personal thoughts! People who read my blog now know where I live and what I do in the morning!" Hence, this person concludes: "I don't post anything that I wouldn't say out loud. And I don't mention the names of my children." Earth-shattering revelations, no less. :-)



Most other panelists seemed to have a much more comfortable relationship with technology. Unfortunately, the panel did not go beyond rehashing some old cliches about the internet. Is a persona one presents to the internet as real as the actual person? Are online activities more like acting, where you create the kind of persona you like? Etc. Is there anything left to say on this topic that hasn't been said since the 1990s? Judging from the panelists' comments, no.

To be fair, one panelist countered the usual perception that people's online faces are all fake. His online personality feels to him more authentic than his real-life personality, because his blog is the only place where he can fully express himself, where he can talk about things that truly interest him.



"I make my money by being a high school teacher. I deal with sophomores and juniors that tell me I use too many big words. My wife has no much use for books, reading, anything like that. She is very creative in a whole lots of ways, but we can't talk on this level. So these things I can't say in the social context, in the family context. So in my blog I say a lot of things that I can't say anywhere else, but they are authentic to me. "



This isn't unheard of; it was the "My wife has no much use for books, reading, anything like that" part, coming from a writer, that gave me a pause. :-)



Three or so writers in this group have blogs on LiveJournal: among them, Elizabeth Bear (LJ username "matociquala" and "elizabethbear", and David Levine (LJ username "davidlevine"). Some others had blogs on Blogger. They compared notes on different types of blogs. It was agreed that, to quote Andrew Wheeler, "LiveJournal is more community driven, it gets more comments, more comments on comments. The software it runs it is very friendly in that way. It's good for threading comments. Blogger is more linear. So you get fewer comments."



Elizabeth Bear. In LiveJournal, threading is very helpful to posing a quick question and getting answers, or making a 1-line comment on a movie you've just seen.



Elizabeth Bear further says: I'm on LiveJournal. I liked the way its communities work. You wind up in a comunity, there's a network. I use my LiveJournal as a resource, when I need an answer. I ask the most amazing questions. Like about penis tattoing. I got really good answers from professionals, who have done that kind of work. I'm, wow, this is a tool! So to speak. (Audience laughs.)



That's a undoubtedly correct observation, but what's the use of discussing it in a World Fantasy Convention, when there are much better forums out there for discussing online communications? I don't see much writerly insight in that.



While others were comparing different kinds of blogging software, the self-proclaimed Luddite went into a detailed comparison between blogs (and LiveJournal in particular) and newsgroups. This person thought of blogs as being a special kind of newsgroups.



"A difference between a newsgroup and LiveJournal is that in LiveJournal you are the host of the party. But a newsgroup is much more egalitarian: everybody speaks. I prefer the newsgroup: it's less work, and the onus is not on you to be interesting several times a week. I feel a lot more exposed in LiveJournal. LiveJournal is about advertising: you make yourself more available."



Hmm. To me, newsgroups and blogs are two very different animals, and I never thought of one in terms of the other. Perhaps this would be natural if my first familiarity with the internet was through newsgroups, and this form of participatory activity imprinted itself so firmly in my mind that I would see any kind of internet community as a kind-of-a newsgroup. But there are fundamental distinctions between the two, such as the one pointed out later by one of the panelists: "On Usenet SF groups you would not post a message "I had a bad day" but on LiveJournal you would. LJ is much more personal." Also, as Elizabeth Bear noted, "on Usenet, everytime you post something, somebody would jump on your throat and correct your punctuation. It's just not worth it." I very much agree. Somehow the comments on LJ rarely get as vicious as flame wars in newsgroups. It could be that people are much more polite when they comment on someone's post than they would be in newsgroups, because they are on the other person's "turf". To berate someone in their blog post comments would be similar to coming to their house and slugging them in the face. :-) In the newsgroups, though, we are all on equal turf.



Such distinctions may be of interest to sociologists, but again, I don't see how this topic is relevant to the World Fantasy Convention. Are these insights specific to fantasy or science fiction writers? Hardly. Well, it's just that, perhaps, you know the panelists are writers when they employ metaphors such as these:



Andrew Wheeler: In Blogger you feel like you are holding forth from a podium.



David Levine. LiveJournal is more like, everyone has a little table in their corner of the room, and we are passing notes...



Lynn Flewelling. Or throwing paper airplanes at each other.



By the way, the questions posed in the panel synopsis in the program book could have been answered in two sentences:



Does the ease and speed of feedback change the nature of the fantasy writer's process and work?



All the panelists gave an unequivocal "no". Or rather: the reader community influences what they write about in their blogs, but not their fiction writing.



Matt Cardin. I have a small dedicated audience who read my stuff. [...] When I started to blog this past summer, it picked up a lot of steam, there's a lot of comments flying back and forth. So the blog posts I'm writing to somebody. But my fiction [is something I'm writing for myself]. Blogging hasn't affected the way I write.



Andrew Wheeler. Sometimes you feel you do blogging for comments, or for links. You want to throw stuff out there and you want to see what people think about it. So you say things in a bigger, stronger way than you would otherwise.



None of the panelists think it's a good idea to tailor your fiction to what you perceive your blog readers want. Matt Cardin tells a story about Orson Scott Card started to respond to his readers' feedback in the newsgroups on the first two books in some of his series (not Ender), and quality of his next books plummeted.



Andrew Wheeler. One thing to remember is that the people who talk back are not usually representative of the larger readership. Knowing what the readers who are NOT talking to you actually want is fairly difficult.



Elizabeth Bear. If you start doing what everybody wants, you'll achieve mediocrity. There isn't a good book that hasn't bounced off at least one wall. If you are perfectly nice in your writing, you'll produce pabulum.



The writers seem to agree that while blogs don't actually help to sell books (Elizabeth Bear says she has sold no more than a couple of books through her blog), they are still a useful marketing tool.



David Levine. Having a blog is a lot like being at a convention. Having a face. I use my own name on my blog, and my own picture as my LiveJournal user icon...



(Elizabeth Bear. That's not Will Shakespeare?



David Levine. That's older, Jewish Shakespeare.)



David Levine. ... so that the editors would recognize my name and face from my blog. Just like at conventions, editors may think, he seems like a nice guy, he seems like he won't embarrass me if I send him on a book tour.





Elizabeth Bear and David Levine. More pictures from this and other World Fantasy Convention discussion panels can be found in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

World Fantasy Convention: The Lone Star State of Fantasy

The only discussion panel I made it to on Thursday night was "The Lone Star State of Fantasy". The panelists were Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rick Klaw, Caroline Spector and Eric Marin.



I found it disappointing. The whole panel was devoted to the discussion of what makes Texas fantasy weird. Some of the obvious reasons were ponted out, such as that Texas is so damn big. In between all these open spaces there are many isolated towns where anything can happen.



A guy in the audience. In Texas you can find little towns that would scare the crap out of you. Where people drag people behind cars.



Jayme Lynn Blaschke. A farmer in San Antonio shot this dog-thing that was almost blue. It was almost necrotic. It was kind of cool, so I put it up on my blog. Then I got an email from East Texas: hey, I shot one of these things too! I started getting all these emails of people who thought they shot a chupacabra.



Another factor is that that the Texas state itself is playing up the mythology. Everything is bigger in Texas, as they say.



Jayme Lynn Blaschke. At A&M they have a hornets' nest that's 14 feet across. It's the 3rd largest in Texas. It's about 2.5 million wasps. If you are going to write it in a story, everyone is gonna say, oh, get out of here!



Yet another reason why Texas inspires weird fiction is that Texas still has a frontier mentality; it is perceived by writers as a state where unknown lurks and anything can be expected. This said, the panelists magnanimously acknowledged that Australians has a lot of affinity with Texans because of the frontier mentality; hence, weird fiction set in Australia would also have a true ring.



Other parts of the world, it was implied, can hardly live up to the task of serving as a setting for weird fiction. The only panelist who wasn't from Texas -- he was from Maine -- conceded that weird fiction would be less believeable if it was set in Maine, as opposed to Texas. He didn't explain why. But isn't a lot of Stephen King's fiction set in New England, in its quaint, little, time-forgotten towns? Isn't the supernatural element quite believable in King's stories? I wondered.



I am hardly a judge of this subject, since I'm not being very familiar with Texas fantasy, and I don't know what's weird about it. But it all sounded a bit parochial to me.





Left to right: Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rick Klaw, Caroline Spector



More picture from the panel can be found in my photo gallery

Monday, November 06, 2006

World Fantasy Convention: Day 1: Thursday

Thursday was day 1 of the World Fantasy Convention. This year it's in Austin, so I am attending it even though I'm not a big fan of fantasy. Who knows, maybe I could be convinced otherwise. I've heard ome intimidating things about WFC, such as that it's a professional convention, whose goal is to bring writers, agents and editors together to make book deals, and they don't want lowly fans to be cluttering the halls. But they do take the fans' money and sell them memberships, so I guess we are welcome at least in that way.

Thursday night there was only one discussion panel I wanted to go to, so I mostly hung out at the bar and in the ConSuite. This wasn't any different than it is at a usual, "fan-friendly" convention. The pros drink as heartily as us fans. At the ConSuite I ran into a family of very friendly writers -- a woman, her husband, and their 15-year-old son (the latter too had sold SF stories professionally!) -- and had an interesting chat with them. The woman was born and grew up in Portugal (but has lived more than 20 years in the US) is a SF/F writer. She writes in English. She has published a few books. So, it was very encouraging to know that it's not unheard of for a non-native English speaker to successfully write in English. Nabokov wasn't the only one, apparently. The woman said she knew several more SF/F authors in that category.

Authors Leah Bobet, Elizabeth Bear, and Amanda Downum at the World Fantasy Convention. More pictures from WFC can be found in my photo gallery

On the other hand, being a non-native speaker sometimes actually helps to undestand the language, as is evident from a funny fact the guy mentioned. Whenever he calls customer service or some such thing where he's supposed to give his name over the phone, the customer service reps often misinterpret his last name. Especially if the rep sounds like he/she may be a Southerner. His last name is Hoyt, and people (especially Southerners) universally hear it as White. He always has to spell it out very carefully, and even then they are sometimes not convinced it's not White.

As a non-native English speaker, I suspect that spelling versus pronunciation are mapped out differently in my brain than in the brain of a native English speaker. For me there is very little overlap between Hoyt and White, so I would never confuse the two.

So far the World Fantasy Convention seems like any other convention, only more humane. There are no more than 2 discussion panels going on at the same time, and there are breaks for lunch and dinner! This makes convention experience less taxing. Also, people here are a little better looking. :-) (Maybe it's an infusion of literary agents from glamorous places like New York that's raising the looks quotient of the convention. :-)) The difference is rather subtle, though. The people are a little more dressed up than in a typical convention. Instead of Fannish Drab, the color scale runs towards Gothy Black.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A click of recognition comes from an unexpected place

I saw this message a few days back on one of email lists I am on. A guy asked how to do a certain thing in Linux. His question wasn't all that interesting: it's the P.S. that attracted my attention:


If you want to know *why* I want to do this, google "my life bits
gorden bell" or just go strait to...


http://research.microsoft.com/barc/MediaPresence/MyLifeBits.aspx.


MyLifeBits is a project to capture, digitize and organize all the information a person comes across or generates in his/her lifetime. Ambitious, to say the least. And I find this idea very tempting. Many times I have wished that every piece of information that ever crossed my horizon, every thought that ever popped up in my mind, was searchable and accessible. I feel this most acutely while writing. I know I forgot too many metaphors and dialog bits by not writing them down on time. It would help to have a digital map of brain. A brain equivalent, if you will. A brain dual. The latter word came to my mind when I read somebody's response to the above-quoted email:


This reminds me of the story "Learning To Be Me" in Greg Egan's collection Axiomatic: "I was six years old when my parents told me that there was a small, dark jewel inside my skull, learning to be me." An interesting story if not about Linux.


In this story, the term "jewel" is a bastardization of "dual". The jewel/dual is a little device that carries an exact copy of its owner's personality. It creates that copy over a period of time, by recording its owner's every thought, emotion, memory, or sensation. It takes decades, but it winds up containing a mind that's indistinguishable from the one contained in a brain in which the jewel lives.



Then, when copy is considered to be complete, the owner undergoes surgery to remove his or her brain and to enable the jewel to take over all the functions of the brain. The owner doesn't notice the difference, because the copy contained by the jewel is identical to his/her brain down to the tiniest detail. Nobody else notices a difference either. The owner still looks the same from the outside -- no one can tell that his/her brain has been scooped out and replaced with plastic filling. Most importantly, he/she still acts like the same person. There's no way to tell a person with a jewel from a person with a biological brain.



These "jewels" are enormously durable and indestructible; for all practical purposes they exist forever. Hence, the human lifespan has been extended into centuries and millenia. (I don't remember, though, if other parts of the biological body are similarly replaced by indestructible equivalents, or if not, what is done to prolong their lifespan. But that's not very important. If the humankind has figured out how to extend the longevity of the brain, one can assume they would have solved the problem of longevity of other body parts.)



Replacement of brains with jewels has been deemed safe; pretty much everyone on Earth has undergone this operation, and no one has complained. But... a lot of things have unintended consequences, and potential problems with brain replacement can lead to some of the most chilling consequences one can ever imagine. While this story probably does not belong to the genre of horror, it is one of the most viscerally scary stories I've ever read. The horror lies not just in the circumstances experienced by the protagonist -- although the situation he ends up is definitely very disturbing -- but also in the fact that his situation follows logically from the setup, yet is nearly impossible to predict or prevent.



Consequences that are logical, yet hard to predict, are to me the Holy Grail that any SF story should pursue. It's very hard to achieve. But "Learning To Be Me" achieves it brilliantly, and in the process disturbs you so profoundly that for a while you just want to push it to the back of your mind and not think about it. (Or maybe I'm just being hypersensitive. :-)) All this makes "Learning To Be Me" one of the best SF stories I've ever read.



How interesting, then, it was to hear about it from a stranger in an unexpected context. And how interesting that some stranger on the mailing list tied this story to something that has been one of my innocuous pet fantasies -- digitizing the contents of my brain. Not that I ever dreamed about having it replaced with a "jewel". :-) MyLifeBits is a far cry from what Greg Egan's "jewel" was supposed to accomplish, but my pet fantasy has suddenly revealed a much darker facet. :-)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick: FACT group discussion and my own opinion

On October 3, 2006 the FACT reading group discussed "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick. Of 6 people who attended the discussion, only 2 people finished reading, or rather re-reading it. Some others had read it long ago when it first came out. One reader commented that he enjoyed "A Scanner Darkly" back then, but it didn't seem as good the second time around. This change in perspective was attributed to the reader's head being in a different place than it was a couple of decades ago. :-)



Two readers said they liked this book because they like books about paranoia. One reader could really relate to the paranoia, experienced by the protagonist; in her view, paranoia was inseparable from the 1965-75 drug era that she thought Philip Dick portrayed so well. (Actually, "A Scanner Darkly" is set in 1994, but I guess its "real age" is the 1960s, in the same way that the real era in which Ray Bradbury's novels are set is the 1930s, regardless of what time period the author claims they are set in.) Paranoia pervaded her childhood in the 50s (House Un-American Activities Committee); she was also forced to go to a very strict fundamentalist church and could not speak to anyone forthrightly about her concerns. Every idea in her head had to be kept hidden from adults. So she said she could relate quite well to the paranoia the protagonist is experiencing.



One thing she found missing in the book's portrayal of the drug subculture of the 60s was the musical motif. This time period was intensely focused on music, but there's no mention of music in the book. However, Philip K. Dick captured a lot of the realities of the drug era really well. As an example, she said, "there were people who were a little on the speed-freaky edge, who would really start motormouthing, and you have big chunky paragraphs full of blathering on and on, which was really typical of some people."



Another member of the group disliked this book for pretty much the same reasons that caused the previously mentioned reader to relate well to it. He said, "I found this book difficult to read. It was dealing with a culture that's completely not optimistic, and so nothing good was going to happen in the book. It was very depressing. The book has occasional humor in it, for example, the story about the older brother who was a bug. Philip Dick does a good job of getting into people's heads, but I did not want to get into these people's heads. I could not sympathize with them. I didn't want to think like them. " That's despite the fact that he liked some of Philip K. Dick's earlier books like "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" As far as portrayal of a split personality, there have been better books on that, too, in his opinion.



The group universally agreed that "A Scanner Darkly" is not a science fiction book, and that it was chosen for reading only because it was written by an author who is known for writing science fiction. :-)



My opinion of the book can be found in this post in my "official" science fiction blog, but beware -- it's laden with spoilers.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

My battle with comment spam

Crap. Spammers have discovered my SFragments site and flooded it with disgusting spammy comments. I had previously made it so that only registered users would be able to comment, but that didn't help. Spammers have been registering with impunity. And why shouldn't they, if Geeklog, the CMS my site runs on, does not even present them with captchas? At least that was the case two years ago, when I installed Geeklog. For all I know, Geeklog may have captchas now, but I wouldn't know, because I have not upgraded it since then. So in a way I do deserve what I get. :-) It's just that back then, caught up in the enthusiasm of creating my very own site, I did not figure in the time it will take to maintain the software that runs the site. Such as to execute periodic upgrades and deal with breakages that typically follow the upgrades. :-) And captchas are not a panacea against spammers. I've heard spammers have tools for solving captchas.

The reason I chose Geeklog in the first place was because a certain technically-oriented group of very 1337 people had chosen it to run their website. So I concluded it must be a Good Thing. Since then, the webmasters of that organization found out there were security holes in Geeklog, and migrated their website to a different CMS. I've been thinking of doing that too for more than a year, but have been paralyzed by the mind-boggling multitude of CMS'es that exist out there. I did not even know how to begin to evaluate them.

Now that I got a taste of dealing with spammers, I have formulated at least some of my requirements.

1. It should allow the administrator to either disable creation of new users, or set it to where the administrator must approve all new users before they can do anything. (Geeklog claims to have this feature, but it doesn't really work.)

2. It should allow one-click batch-editing of comments. By editing I mean mostly "deletion", because I don't expect any comments other than spam.

3. It should allow the administrator to "close" a particular story for comments, so that neither registered nor unregistered users would be able to post new comments.

4. It should allow one-click batch-editing of users. An admin should be able to "select all" newly registered users and delete them. Because I don't really expect any other users than spammers to register on my site.

5. It should allow the administrator to batch-delete the submitted articles with one click. Because I don't really expect any non-spammy articles to be submitted to my site (except by me, of course).

Geeklog does not seem to live in this century, because it does not have any such functionality. Comment spam was well known even back in 2004 when I first installed Geeklog, so I don't see why this hasn't occurred to its developers (or they didn't think it was a priority). It adds insult to injury to have to delete every spam-user or every spammy comment by hand. After discovering there is no such batch-delete functionality, I had to login directly into the database my Geeklog installation uses and whack all the comment rows, and set certain fields to disable comments. It's a shame you have to go directly into the database for that, instead of doing it from Geeklog administrator's user interface. Fortunately, Geeklog design seems robust enough so that whacking those rows did not create constraint violation elsewhere in the database. As far as creation of new users, I decided to "cripple" my site by commenting out the new user creation function, so that anyone who tries that would get a PHP runtime error. Radical, and ugly measures, but, gee... I really hope spammers won't find a way around THAT! :-)

And now, to shake off the analysis paralysis, and go find CMS that meeets my requirements.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Chinese and their dead

Chinese customs regarding the dead are a treasure trove of ideas for science-fictional world building, I tell you.



First, there was an article a while ago on msnbc.com about strippers performing at Chinese funerals. The kin of a deceased person would invite strippers in order to attract more people to the funeral, because one of the key measures of a person's status in the Chinese society is how many people came to his or her funeral.



Many science fiction conventions have discussion panels on building alien cultures. For a SF or fantasy novelist it is important to describe an alien culture that would be different from us in interesting ways and challenge our assumptions about how things should be. It's difficult to create an alien society that's both sufficiently alien and yet understandable to us. I've heard it said that a science fiction writer can find inspiration for creating alien civilizations simply by observing other human cultures. I thought an article about strippers at funerals provided some interesting society-building material.



And now, by way of New York Times, more inspirational weirdness from the Chinese.



Dead Bachelors in Remote China Still Find Wives



For many Chinese, an ancestor is someone to honor, but also someone whose needs must be maintained. Families burn offerings of fake money or paper models of luxury cars in case an ancestor might need pocket change or a stylish ride in the netherworld.



But here in the parched canyons along the Yellow River known as the Loess Plateau, some parents with dead bachelor sons will go a step further. To ensure a son's contentment in the afterlife, some grieving parents will search for a dead woman to be his bride and, once a corpse is obtained, bury the pair together as a married couple.



This custom isn't mind-blowingly weird, but it is... promising. It has the potential. And like any fantasy novel worth its salt, the article duly explores this potential. Only, of course, it's not fantasy. It's real life. But let's look at it from a perspective of building an alien culture for our novel. This article hits all the right world-building points. It's clear that our imaginary novelist has thought through the implications of the customs and beliefs he has introduced into the culture he's creating.



For example. Where there's a demand, there will be a commercial opportunity.



People say parents of a dead son depend on an informal network of friends or family, or even a well-connected fixer, to locate a family that has recently lost a single daughter. Selling or buying corpses for commercial purposes is illegal in China, but these individual transactions, usually for cash, seem to fall into a fuzzier category and are quietly arranged between families.



And when the demand is hard to meet (as it must be in a society with the gender ratio skewed in favor of men), some traders may put aside their scruples. For some people, the end justifies the means.



"There are girls who have drowned in the river down there," [said a farmer in a remote Chinese village]. "When their bodies have washed up, their families could get a couple of thousand yuan for them."



[...]



The existence of such a market for brides has led to scattered reports of grave robbing. This year, a man in Shaanxi Province captured two men trying to dig up the body of his wife, according to a local news account. In February, a woman from Yangquan tried to buy the remains of a dead 15-year-old girl, abandoned at a hospital in another city, to satisfy her unmarried deceased brother.



Now let's add a sympathetic touch to the alien culture we're building. Let's say the parents of dead single daughters have more than commercial considerations for selling their daughters' corpses. Doing that satisfies their cherished beliefs:



[...] parents with dead daughters, like those with dead sons, were also carrying out an obligation to their child. They will sell their bodies as a way of finding them a place in a Chinese society where tradition dictates that a daughter has no place on her father's family tree.



"China is a paternal clan culture," said Professor Guo, who did postdoctoral work in anthropology at Harvard. "A woman does not belong to her parents. She must marry and have children of her own before she has a place among her husband's lineage. A woman who dies unmarried has no place in this world."



So in a strange way, the girls benefit from having corpses traded away after death. Perhaps they die in the comfort of belief that they won't end up forever as outcasts, having no place in anyone's family and therefore in the world. Perhaps they trust that their parents will find them a match after death. That's a nice concept that underscores the alienness of this alien culture we are building, but in a way that makes sense to a Western reader. On one hand, we may not identify deeply with this desire to belong to someone's family tree after our death, hence we get a feeling that these epeople think differently from us. On the other hand, such a wish is understandable even to us, so we, the reader, may start to see this culture in a more sympathetic light.



Still, if the heroine of my story belonged to this culture, would I make her desire to find a place after death a motivating factor for her actions? Would I let it dictate her critical choices? Probably not, since I don't think a Western reader would find this motivation sufficiently convincing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Larval Mode: Linucon 2004

I have this sisyphean hobby where I write articles based on discussion panels I attended at various SF conventions. I post those articles on my website. Writing an article often requires listening to a tape recording of a panel and transcribing large portions of it. Why would I do something so pointless? More about it next time. For now, here is a synopsis of an article I wrote on the "Larval Mode" panel from Linucon 2005. (Linucon was a joint science fiction and Linux convention.) The links point to the various parts in the article where the highlighted topics were discussed.

I think the name Larval Mode comes from the Hacker's Dictionary where it means the state of being a novice programmer or techie. An open source ideological leader Eric Raymond and "one of the unsung heroes of the internet" John Quarterman were the panelists. They did specifically for a group of high school students who travelled to Linucon.

Here are some key points they talked about. The old semantic rift between hackers and crackers. What are crackers up to these days? How are they different from the old time crackers?

The conversation veers from computer criminals to terrorists, and from there to open source warfare.

Why is open source software so poorly documented? What's lacking in the open source software documentation: it's not details, it's motivation. Better than a well-documented program: a self-configuring program. How Eric Raymond wrote such a program. During a lull in conversation John Quarterman talks about risk management.

How did the two famous panelists got where they are today? What are the two paths to fame and ability to influence people? Eric Raymond claims he found the easy path.

What happens when government mandates new technologies? Knowing Eric Raymond's views, one can easily guess the answer: nothing good.

Economics of system administrators, and other bundled goods, or why the total cost of ownership of Linux systems is lower than that of Windows systems.

Disruptive technologies, from transistor radios to internet. Disruptive technologies usually lead to a better product, but not always. For example, blogs are taking away the power from the conventional media sources, but John Quarterman can't help but see the downside of that.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross: FACT reading group discussion and my personal opinion

On August 15, 2006 the FACT reading group discussed The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, which consists of novels The Atrocity Archive and The Concrete Jungle. Everybody but one person in the group finished the book, and the one person who had not was planning to finish it. Everybody has read Charles Stross before. Most people in the group loved The Atrocity Archives. Like "Family Trade", and unlike some of Charles Stross' Singularity-themed science fiction, this book is a crowd pleaser. People described it as clever, loads of fun, and (to borrow a word occasionally used to characterize good space opera), rollicking. (The Atrocity Archives is not space opera, but it's rollicking nonetheless.)

Somebody took an informal survey on which genre did people think this book belong to: satire? comedy? horror? spy novel? Most people thought this book belonged to one of those genres first, and science fiction second or third.

Many in the group had fun with the computer / mathematical jargon and geek jokes. (Person 1: "I kept waiting to see whether the middle initial of the main character's name (Bob Howard) is E." Person 2: "No, his middle initials are OF.") Even those who didn't have the background to understand the jokes, appreciated the writing style. One reader said she liked the texture of the writing, "the way it was densely filled with all the science and pseudoscience vocabulary, thrown in with bits of Lovecraftian and magical vocabulary. I couldn't tell whether the way he was throwing things around was right or not scientifically, but I didn't care. I loved that texture to the writing."

Half of the group got a good chuckle out of the "pi = 4" moment. One reader spent some time pondering a universe where pi is equal to 4, and how bizarrely stretched the space must be in that universe. Another reader argued it's not possible mathematicaly, because a lot of mathematical results depend on the value of pi being what it is. Many series converge to pi, or to some number divided by pi. If its value changed, not only geometry would be different, but most of the mathematics, e.g. calculus or number theory, wouldn't work at all. Still, the first reader really enjoyed an opportunity to think about it. He said Charles Stross probably didn't even realize how fun it was for a reader to ponder this problem. Stross most likely put it in as a throwaway remark.

Other readers gave Stross credit for a convincing description of how to defuse a hydrogen bomb so that it would not explode, or rather, explode in a "benign", not-too-destructive fashion. In this he demonstrates knowledge of bombs beyond a typical Hollywood movie.

Everybody appreciated the irony of the fact that a certain technology the government uses (quite pointlessly) in the "war on terror", turns against it in a very bad way. (This was in The Concrete Jungle.) Somebody jokes that it was like making every land mine remote-controlled by WiFi from a computer running a Windows operating system. (To say more would be a major spoiler.)

Overall, to quote one reader, Charles Stross "is a skillful writer and he gets a lot of details of computer technology and theroetical computer science right. This combination of a strong writer who knows technology, only Neal Stephenson comes close. Rudy Rucker knows what he's talking about, but can't write, and William Gibson, the other way around." Nonetheless, it was agreed that science in this book was used mostly as a joke, and maybe that's the reason why most readers would not classify this book primarily as science fiction. Stross uses a lot of SF tropes in what is essentially a modern fantasy horror story. While you can't not like a book that starts with a mention of Turing-Lovecraft equations, Stross kind of "fluffs over" that stuff, to quote another reader.

While enjoying the irreverent tone of the book, most readers were moved by the chapter that was entitled, as the novel itself, The Atrocity Archive. A reader said: "It was chilling and very good. At the end it made as much sense as any other explanation of the Nazi Germany I've ever heard."

One reader thought the exposition lasted too long. On one hand, sending your character to a training course that covers the material he already knows is a clever way to introduce that material to the reader; on the other hand, there were too many training courses. A character in an espionage novel should not spend half the book in a classroom. Some writers, for example, Roger Zelazny, are better at mixing action with exposition. At the time Stross was writing this book, he hadn't quite mastered it.

However, no one else in the reading group seemed to think the exposition slowed down the action. And another reader, who, according to herself, has recently rejoined the ranks of bureaucracy, appreciated the fact that the protagonist is forced to waste time in a training class while there are monsters to be fought. That's very typical for a bureaucratic organization.

This prompts a discussion, is the portrayal of bureaucratic absurdities in the Laundry an exaggeration, or are there really organizations like that? The part of the group that hasn't worked for the government thought it was obviously an exaggeration, but others who have worked for the government swore it was all true. There really are managers who say "You should have called in this morning to tell me you'll be sleeping late this morning". In the middle of sharing stories about real-life pointy-haired bosses, somebody asked the group, are there any actual managers in our midst? In the past, lambasting middle managers has caused bad feelings among some members of the group who happened to be middle managers themselves. So this time the person who asked the question wanted to make sure nobody was getting offended.

And of course, no discussion of a Charles Stross book could be complete without chuckling over memorable quotes. Such as "Fred's dead, so he works the night shift", or my favorite "[the hard drive array] scratches its read/write heads", or "The London Underground is famous for apparently believing that human beings go about this world owning neither a kidney nor colon." Or the line from a top secret report, where you have this long, dragged-on paragraph of bureaucratese ending with "when the Great Old Ones return from beyond the stars to eat our brains".

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Readercon 2006: kaffeeklatsch with Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden

In between all that deconstructionist talk (see my previous post) I attended a very refreshing, and much more interesting event, a kaffeeklatsch with editors Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden. They gave interesting insights in what makes a SF/F novel or story good, at least if we define good as interesting or readable. (Kaffeeklatsches were small gatherings, where a pro (a writer or an editor) met with fans (up to 10 people) around a round table, to chat and answer whatever questions fans wanted to ask them. Coffee and tea were served, hence the name.)

Just-in-time exposition



The conversation veered towards JK Rowling and the secrets of her success among mainstream readership (outside of science fiction fandom). Somebody (perhaps one of the Haydens) had this theory. In many SF/F books the reader needs to notice details whose significance he or she can't understand immediately, and store them for later use, to be remembered and interpreted later in the reading process as more information reveals itself. But Rowling does not make the reader do it. At any point in the book she reveals only as much information as is needed to understand what goes immediately after. One guy in the audience aptly called it Just-In-Time exposition.

I wonder if anyone else in the room noticed that all this talk about JK Rowling seemed to have conjured Harry Potter himself. He was in the audience! :-)

Another editor said her many years of work as an editor affected the ways she looks at real life. She can't help but look for a hidden plot in any real life story, for example, news stories. Let's say she saw a news story about a terrorist plot to flood Manhattan. But Manhattan is above the sea level, so it doesn't seem feasible for her. So she wonders "what's really going on", the same way she looks for hidden subplots in the books she's reading.

How fast is your train moving?



And here's a snappy piece of advice given by Theresa Nielsen Hayden: if the passengers are critiquing the scenery, the train isn't going fast enough. Writers often think they have to give more exposition to the readers, whereas in fact they need to give less. If the plot moves fast enough, readers are less likely to notice inconsistencies or incompleteness or logical gaps in the exposition.



Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden at a kaffeeklatsch at Readercon. More pictures from Readercon can be found in my photo gallery.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Readercon 2006: fantasy writers -- unwitting agents of capitalism?

I got an overall impression that Readercon is a more highbrow convention than ArmadilloCon. Or maybe it's just that I didn't go to those kind of panels at the ArmadilloCon. Or it could be that China Mieville's presence makes everything highbrow. :-) I mean, suddenly the panelists, instead of just chatting about cool things in science fiction and fantasy, are "deconstructing" books and talking about "alternate readings of texts". Probably because socialist politics and literary theory go hand in hand. :-) Not only you start hearing how most of the "traditional" fantasy (as opposed to "new weird" fantasy Mieville writes) upholds conservative beliefs and reinforces the status quo of class disparity (e.g. by promoting such archetypes as The Good King). No: in addition to that, you hear about how the very notion of a novel having a protagonist is somewhat bourgeois and reactionary. I don't know about you, Dear Reader, but my first thought was "Whaaaat?" Well, yes: the presence of a protagonist implies that one person, a hero, can single-handedly change the world (as they often do in SF and fantasy), and therefore reinforces the notion that our happiness or unhappiness is solely the consequence of our own actions, and never of the society, hereby removing a need for social change.

In SF and fantasy, therefore, a cigar is never just a cigar. Willingly or unwillingly, the genre has become an agent in the class struggle.

I'm semi-joking, of course. While I indeed heard China Mieville say things I recounted above, I also heard him say the opposite: namely, that he does NOT like reading SF and fantasy as an alegory, and that in order to get the most out of the genre, you must read it as if it was literal truth. (Suspension of disbelief and all that, I guess.)

I may have to think how to reconcile those views. Or, most likely I'll just forget it as the demands of daily life take over. :-)

Friday, March 03, 2006

Where I'm going to hide from Google

I finally gave in to temptation to give my life over to this newly sinister entity that may one day succeed Microsoft on the throne of evil. Like Aragorn, if he hadn't been wise enough to turn down The Ring, it may give in to the corruptive seduction of power. I'm talking, of course, about Google. I signed over the contents of my hard drive, and by extension, my soul, to Google, when I installed Google Desktop on my computer.

I was inspired to do that by this article in Washington Post:

Google's Latest Bundle of Goodies Is Worth Opening.

"Last month, it introduced a free bundle of Windows XP software called Google Pack. [...] The Pack ( http://pack.google.com/ ) consists of five Google programs (Google Earth, Google Desktop, the Picasa photo organizer, the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer and the new Google Pack Screensaver)," [and some other software I am not interested in].

I had almost forgotten about the once-viewed-as-controversial Google Desktop. The program that applies Google search algorithms to the files on your desktop, allowing you to search them as easily as the web. It was controversial when it was first announced, because there was some concern that Google may get hold of the contents of your desktop.

It so happens that lately I've been in need for a program that would let me search inside the PHP files on my machine. I was looking into modifying some of the Joomla source code to customize the Joomla installation on my web site. Joomla is an open source content management system. It's written in PHP. I have Joomla source code on my machine, and I want to be able to search it.

Normally I would use Windows built-in search mechanism for that. It does a pretty good job at letting you search files -- or so I thought until I tried searching within Joomla source code. Windows can't find files that are right under its nose! Or, rather, it can't find text strings in those files. I don't understand why that is. My only guess is because those files have a .php extension. Maybe Windows views them as different from text files, even though they really aren't. The text in them is "different" in that it's written in a programming language, but it does not contain any special characters. It's no different from documents written in English! Why should it be hard to search inside it?

Yes, Windows. I'm running Windows. For those who say I should use Linux, the answer is in this digression below.

<digression>

I do have Linux on my laptop. It usually refuses to work with the wireless connection at home (RoadRunner), although it sometimes works with wireless in public places, such as coffeeshops. With RoadRunner, most often it is unable to obtain an IP address. Occassionally, though, it does obtain an IP address, even though I am not doing anything different. A lot of times even when it obtains an IP address, it can't see anything on the internet. And, in the rarest of cases, it gets an IP address and sees the internet. It happens so rarely that I can practically count on not having an internet connection when booted into Linux. (My laptop is dual boot Windows XP and Linux.)

Because of that, it seldom makes sense for me to boot into Linux, because there's little I can accomplish without Internet access. For example, if I want to experiment with changes to my Joomla website, I need to be able to login into my hosting service to make those changes.

But, yes, Linux has the incredibly handly find command, which I so sorely miss on Windows.

My lappy is weird. Other Linux computers at our home don't have a wireless connection problem. RoadRunner or not, they work just fine. My lappy, though, experiences wireless glitches in Windows, too. It sometimes loses the wireledss connection for no reason at all, even though all the other machines at home are not experiencing any interruptions. Usually, after losing it, it regains it automatically in a few minutes. Other times it doesn't.

Steve thinks it's the Centrino chip in the laptop that's causing the weirdness. Maybe. Whatever it is, I know I'm not likely to figure out on my own how to get it to work with Linux. Not without getting a degree in Electrical Engineering, or something. There are machines out there that play with wireless better, but I like this lappy and won't give it up. It is very small, lightweight and neat. An ultimate portable machine. It fits my needs better than any other computer I've had.

</digression>

So I thought, well, it's some Microsoft idiocy. Surely Google Desktop will not suffer from the same. Surely I can use it to search inside the PHP files.

So I downloaded the Google Desktop as part of the Google Pack. (Other components of the Pack, such as a photo application Picasa, and a photo screensaver, looked appealing, too.) I let it run overnight indexing my files. Next day I let it loose to hunt in my PHP files.

And... nothing. After some playing around I determined that Google Desktop does not index the PHP files. As far as it's concerned, they don't exist.

How stupid. Of course, I am in the minority with my need for this. But still... why would it exclude perfectly good, perfectly searchable source code files?

After some looking, I found links to Google Desktop plug-ins written by third-party developers; some plug-ins let you index certain source code files. For example, Java. So apparently some people had the same problem as me, if they wrote their own software to index "special" types of files. (That are not really special at all.) There are no plug-ins to index PHP files, though.

Grumble. Grumble grumble grumble. How useless.

But, come the day when Google takes over the world, I will know where to hide my seditious thoughts. I'll just put them in .php files. :-)