Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie review: District 9

I doubt that anyone does not yet know what District 9 is about, but you can't discuss a movie without even briefly outlining its premise, so here it is. After an alien ship "parks" itself in the sky over Johannesburg, humans visit the ship and find myriads of very sick aliens, who look like two-legged, upright, larger-than-human shrimp. They are transported to Earth and placed in a ghetto, called District 9, where they live in slums. It's not clear what happened to their mothership, but apparently it can't go back to its home planet. The aliens are nicknamed "prawns", and are loathed and feared by most Johannesburg residents. 20 years later, by popular demand, the government has built a camp for the aliens in a new location, where they would be out of humans' sight; the task at hand is to relocate all 1.5 million of "prawns" to the new camp. Since the government is trying to preserve an appearance of legitimacy in dealing with the aliens, it sends an official to serve eviction notices to them. The official, Vikas, goes into the field wide-eyed and enthusiastic, but soon his life takes a very disturbing turn.

Spoilers Ahead!

Perhaps unintentionally, this movie blended the tropes of two movies I saw when I was of an impressionable age -- "The Fly" and "Enemy Mine". I had not seen many American science fiction movies in my teens, since at the time and place I grew up they were rare enough. So these two movies were my first acquaintance with certain SFnal tropes -- and I won't say which ones, because that would be too much of a spoiler. Aside from transporting me back to the days of yore, "District 9" has thoughtfulness and freshness that those two movies did not have. Instead of a Hollywood-style superhero, the protagonist is a buffoonish bureaucrat. Almost to the very end, even as he engages in some heroism, he remains selfish and smallminded, and clings to a belief that life can go back to the way it was. His faults were no less a contribution to the movie's realism than the up-close shots of the slums and of aliens rummaging through filth in search of food. A more conventional narrative would have such a character die in his final act of redemption (most Hollywood villains die when (if) they finally see the light); instead, the ending here is ambiguous. He ends up in a state that could be seen as hopeful, or as a fate worse than death. It is similarly not clear what will become of the aliens trapped on Earth; have they been abandoned, or is help -- or revenge -- on the way? However, this is not the case where open-ended plot suggests the author has not thought it through. Instead it leaves you with a sense of possibility. A possibility of a sequel, perhaps? :-)

Oh, and in case I'm not being clear -- I liked it. While I don't watch many movies, District 9 is one of the best SF movies in my recent memory.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

ArmadilloCon: Orbital Mechanics pantomime

In the "Orbital Mechanics" panel, Bob Mahoney and John Gibbons acted orbital mechanics out with a globe hanging from a microphone stand, hula hoops, and styrofoam noodles. They used lots of words too, of course. :-)

Bob Mahoney demonstrates orbits with a globe and hula hoops

In this image, Bob Mahoney holds up two hula hoops to illustrate a higher orbit and a lower orbit of a hypothetical spaceship. One of the first things he demonstrated on this panel were gravity-assisted fly-bys, that are, in his words, "an almost magical way" for your spaceship to speed up, slow down, or to change direction. He invited two volunteers from the audience to act it out.

First he reminded us that a spacecraft approaches a planet on an asymptote. This gave him an opportunity to use a phrase "grab my asymptote", as he handed Patrick (one of the volunteers) a long styrofoam noodle, the kind children use in the pool. (Well, I think that's what it was, but I may have been sitting too far from the stage to see clearly.)

An unidentified guy, Bob Mahoney, and Patrick demonstrate asymptotes of a hyperbolic trajectory on which a spacecraft approaches a planet.

Left to right: an unidentified guy, Bob Mahoney, and Patrick demonstrate asymptotes of a hyperbolic trajectory on which a spacecraft approaches a planet.

Then he directed Patrick to go to the middle of the stage and walk slowly on a curve, and the shorter guy (this visualization would have been more effective if the other guy would have been a child) approach him. Then Patrick, under Bob's direction, gave a hand to the other guy, and swung him past. (I don't have a picture of that, since I didn't capture the right moment.) This is how the spacecraft gains speed when it flies past a planet. Here is a Wikipedia article on that. If the craft approaches the planet in a direction opposite to the planet's orbital motion, the spacecraft would slow down. Flying past a planet can also help it change direction. It gets all this "for free", without burning fuel. Of course, the energy boost doesn't violate any conservation laws: the momentum transferred to the ship slows the planet down by an infinitesimal amount.

(This, of course, is not a technical explanation, but this panel wasn't technical. It was a visual explanation to convey the basic concepts.)

Space like a marble game board

There are more things you get "for free" in space, and they were part of the discussion on another panel, "Back to the Moon". That discussion involved such arguments as "it's cheaper fuel-wise to go from Earth-Moon Langrange point L1 to geosycnhronous orbit and back to L1, than from a lower orbit to the geosycnhronous orbit" (a quote from Ken Murphy). I didn't make much effort to follow it, because, to be fair, I never found near-space exploration to be very exciting. It's so difficult just to get off of this rock, and any objects worth going to are so incredibly far that we have very little hope of reaching them at velocities that are currently possible in space travel. So I always found this topic a bit depressing. But then Ken Murphy, a panelist on "Back to the Moon", said something really neat. This might have segued from the discussion of Lagrange points, which, as we know, are orbital points where a small object could remain stationary with respect to two larger objects (such as Earth and Sun, or Earth and Moon). According to Ken Murphy, gravitational wells of various planets create "grooves in spacetime" such that you could sent out a probe, and it would go down those spacetime paths and come back to you -- like a marble on a board in an old marble game from the eighties. Perhaps he meant something like these kinds of boards? What a neat image.

Joe McKinney, William Ledbetter, John Gibbons and Ken Murphy on 'Back To The Moon' panel. Joe McKinney, William Ledbetter, John Gibbons and Ken Murphy on "Back To The Moon" panel.

Ken Murphy also said -- and again, I forgot the context in which he argued this -- that NASA modules should be dockable and snapable, like USB or PCMCIA cards, so that any module would be able to dock with any other module. The analogy between very different scales -- computer components versus spacecraft -- immediately brought to my mind the iconic image of a coke can-sized spaceship from Charles Stross' "Accelerando". As we might recall, it contained hardware on which uploaded personalities of space travelers ran. Indeed, one can easily visualize a USB key as a spaceship containing millions of virtual astronauts running on its hardware. But that's a different panel. Such images repeatedly come up in "Stump The Panel", and there WILL be a post on the latter, too!

Tethering objects in orbit

The second part of the "Orbital Mechanics" presentation concerned fun things you could do in space with gravity-gradient stabilization and tethering. The main idea is simple. Bob Mahoney reminds us that objects in a higher orbit are flying at lower speeds, while in a lower orbit they are flying at higher speeds. Imagine that a spaceship's long axis is aligned with the radius of the spaceship's orbit. Bob Mahoney demonstrates it in this image, holding a ruler above the globe. A you see, he is not holding it precisely aligned with the radius of the globe, but the idea is clear. Then the far end of the spaceship will be in a higher orbit than the near end. Meanwhile, the spaceship is moving at a speed at which its center of mass is moving. Thus the far end is going faster than it should for its orbit, whereas the low end is going too slow for its orbit. The outer end of the spaceship is pulling it outward, while the lower end is pulling it down so, if you line it up right, the spaceship will stay in orbit without you having to burn fuel to maintain that orbit. This is called gravity-gradient stabilization.

Bob Mahoney uses a ruler as a stand-in for a spaceship in an orbit around a planet.

If the two ends are separated, centrifugal force will propel the upper end into a higher orbit, whereas the lower end will drop into a lower orbit. This has all sorts of applications, says Mahoney. If you unroll a rope with a ball attached to each end, the upper end will try to go off outward, and the lower end will try to fall inward, so the rope will stay taut without you having to do pretty much anything. This makes it possible for objects to stay in orbit just by being tethered to one another. I think Mahoney was talking about tethered satellites. They are described in this Wikipedia article. And if you tether a conductive wire to your space station and drag it along, you'll get electric current in it. Drawing current off of it will act as a brake, and the space station will drop into a lower orbit.

In practice there are complications with this concept. Vibrations in the tether might cause it to oscillate like a violin string, and that would lead to waves developing in all three dimensions. Then you might get, quote Mahoney, "the dreaded skip-rope effect". But there are ways to counteract it.

The purpose of this panel was to present to a layperson the basics of orbital mechanics, and ideas of various neat ways we can make physical forces work for us in the orbit. There are plenty of ideas here for a writer. I, for one, had never heard about spacecraft tethering, but that's what great about SF conventions -- you accidentally stumble onto things it had never occurred to you to look for.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

ArmadilloCon: What You Should Have Read This Year

This is a traditional ArmadilloCon panel, where panelists recommend recently published science fiction and fantasy titles we might want to read. The people entrusted with this honor are usually ones whose work or hobbies cause them to read lots of recent fiction. This year, the team of "pundits" is Willie Siros (an Austin bookseller), Madeleine Dimond (an author), Eric Marin (editor of Lone Star Tales), and Thomas Martin Wagner (a SF/F reviewer). So without further ado, here are their lists of must-read fiction. (Note: some of the books in Willie's list are yet to come out later this year or early 2010; I guess Willie's opinion of them is formed from the ARC's he's read.)

Willie Siros' list



Science fiction



Nancy Kress: Steal Across The Sky

Iain Banks: Transition

Robert Sawyer: www:wake

Rudy Rucker: Hylozoic

Thomas Pynchon: Inherent Vice

Jack McDevitt: Time Travelers Never Die

China Mieville: City and the City

Paul McAuley: Gardens of the Sun

MacLeod: Restoration Game (actually, a search for author and title combination on Amazon.com did not return any matches, and a search for "Restoration Game" alone did not return any science fiction titles. I don't know if Willie was confused about the title or the author, or if he inadvertently revealed that he has a window into Ken MacLeod's mind, where a book by that title is perhaps being conceived right now. :-))

Walter Jon Williams: This Is Not A Game

Bruce Sterling: Caryatids

Collections

J. G. Ballard: Complete stories

Lewis Shiner: Collected Stories

Poe: New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Ellen Datlow

Joe R. Lansdale: Son of Retro Pulp Tales

Greg Egan: Crystal Nights and Other Stories

Theodore Sturgeon: Slow Sculpture: Volume XII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon

Fantasy

Lois Bujold: Horizon

Robin Hobb: Dragon Keeper

Ken Scholes: Lamentation

Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold

Nina Kiriki Hoffman: Fall of Light

Charles De Lint: Mystery of Grace

Steven Erikson: Dust of Dreams

Daniel Abraham: Price of Spring

Robert Holdstock: Avilion

Steph Swainston: Above the Snowline

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

John Crowley: Four Freedoms

Dan Simons: Drood

Madeleine Dimond, Willie Siros, Thomas Martin Wagner, and Eric Marin on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel

Madeleine Dimond, Willie Siros, Thomas Martin Wagner, and Eric Marin on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel.


Eric Marin's list



of Nifty Short Fiction and Poetry Appearing in 2009 and Places to Find More



A few anthologies (and a collection) he's heard good things about:
 
We Never Talk About My Brother by Peter Beagle (recent fantasy fiction and poetry reprints)
 
Songs of the Dying Earth, eds. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (a Jack Vance tribute anthology)
 
Federations, ed. John Joseph Adams (original and reprinted science fiction)
 
The New Space Opera 2, ed. Gardner Dozois (original science fiction)
 
Clockwork Phoenix 2, ed. Mike Allen (original SF/F fiction)
 
Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow (original dark fantasy/horror fiction)
 
The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, ed. Gardner Dozois (reprints of 2008 science fiction)
 
Year's Best SF 14, eds. David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (reprints of 2008 science fiction)
 
The 2009 Rhysling Anthology, ed. Drew Morse (speculative poetry published in 2008 and nominated for the 2009 Rhysling Award)
 
Some Online, Nontraditionally Published Fiction:
 
Shadow Unit, Seasons 1 and 2, various authors such as Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull (an ongoing series in a shared world):
http://www.shadowunit.org
 
Bone Shop by Tim Pratt (a Marla Mason fantasy novella posted online): http://www.marlamason.net/boneshop/
 
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (a YA fantasy novel posted online in weekly installments): http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/fairyland/
 
Some print magazines you have heard of and many you likely haven't but should have:
 
Analog (hard/traditional science fiction): http://www.analogsf.com
 
Asimov's (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry) http://www.asimovs.com
 
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (SF/F fiction): http://www.sfsite.com/fsf/
 
Realms of Fantasy (fantasy fiction): http://realmsoffantasymag.com/
 
Postscripts (SF/F fiction in a yearly anthology format) http://store.pspublishing.co.uk/acatalog/postscripts_magazine.html
 
Polyphony (SF/F fiction in a yearly anthology format—publisher on hiatus for the year, but books still available): http://www.wheatlandpress.com
 
Interzone (SF/F fiction): http://ttapress.com/interzone
 
Black Static (dark/strange speculative fiction): http://ttapress.com/blackstatic
 
Weird Tales (dark/strange speculative fiction): http://www.weirdtales.net/
 
Black Gate (Fantasy fiction): http://www.blackgate.com
 
Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (cross genre fiction and poetry): http://www.lcrw.net/lcrw
 
Electric Velocipede (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry): http://www.electricvelocipede.com
 
Zahir (literary SF/F fiction) http://www.zahirtales.com/currentissue.html
 
Shimmer (SF/F fiction): http://www.shimmerzine.com
 
GUD (cross genre fiction and poetry): http://www.gudmagazine.com/
 
Mythic Delirium (speculative poetry): http://www.mythicdelirium.com/
 
Dreams and Nightmares (speculative poetry): http://dreamsandnightmares.interstellardustmites.com/
 
Star*Line (speculative poetry--official magazine of the Science Fiction Poetry Association) http://www.sfpoetry.com/
 
Some online magazines you should explore, if you haven't already done so:
 
Strange Horizons (SF/F fiction, speculative poetry): http://www.strangehorizons.com
 
Tor.com (publishes new short SF/F on a regular basis) http://www.tor.com
 
ChiZine (dark fiction and poetry): http://www.chizine.com
 
Clarkesworld Magazine (SF/F fiction): http://www.clarkesworldmagazine.com
 
Fantasy Magazine (SF/F fiction): http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy
 
Subterranean Magazine (SF/F fiction): http://www.subterraneanpress.com/
 
Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show (SF/F fiction—requires subscription): http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com
 
Beneath Ceaseless Skies (secondary world fantasy fiction): http://www.beneath-ceaseless-skies.com
 
Apex Magazine (dark science fiction): http://www.apexbookcompany.com/apex-online
 
Lone Star Stories (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry -- now closed but the site will remain up) http://literary.erictmarin.com
 
Ideomancer (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry): http://www.ideomancer.com
 
Abyss & Apex (SF/F fiction and speculative poetry): http://www.abyssandapex.com
 
Goblin Fruit (fantasy poetry): http://www.goblinfruit.net

Odds And Ends, And Other Panelists' Recommendations



Madeleine Dimond recommends Naomi Novik's "Victory of the Eagles", and Small Beer Press reprints of lesser known, but very fine authors, such as Carol Emshwiller. She also mentions some non-science fiction books that may be of interest to many fans of the genre. One of them is "Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World's Greatest Scientist" by Thomas Levenson, which she heard described as science fiction that's neither science nor fiction. Another is "White Sands, Red Menace" by Ellen Klages, a sequel to "Green Glass Sea". It's historical fiction about children growin up in 1940s in Los Alamos. Because science figures prominently in this book, Madeleine recommends it to all SF fans.

Thomas Martin Wagner recommends "Ariel" by Steve Boyett, a post-apocalyptic novel about a boy and his unicorn, that's been reprinted this year. There's also a sequel coming out this fall, "Elegy Beach". Having been published 28 years after the first book, it's one of the longest-awaited sequels in history, says Martin. He also recommends China Mieville's "The City and the City" (that's two recommendations for this book, since it is also in Willie's list). According to Martin, it's shorter, more accessible, more to the point than Mieville's earlier works. He calls it "China's pulp novel".

Eric Marin recommends Haruki Murakami "Kafka on the Shore", and Jay Lake's "Green".

Willie Siros is glad some publishers are publishing standalone novellas. Some writers, he says, are excellent at novella-length works, but don't do novels well. He thinks Michael Bishop is the finest novella writer in the known universe, but after 30000 - 40000 words he loses focus. Of recently published novellas, Willie recommends "Shambling Towards Hiroshima" by James Morrow.

One of the panelists (I don't remember which one) recommends "Cardboard Universe", an exploration of life of a fictional SF novelist Phoebus K. Dank, loosely based on Philip K. Dick.

Here are lists of books recommended on other "What You Should Have Read" panels: at ArmadilloCon 2005, ArmadilloCon 2006, ArmadilloCon 2007, and ArmadilloCon 2008.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Friday, August 21, 2009

ArmadilloCon: what's more alien than aliens?

You've built your world (see previous post), and someone needs to inhabit it. It may as well be aliens. So there was a panel on creating believable aliens. This topic, like others, gets recycled every few years. There was a better panel on this topic in ArmadilloCon 2003, or maybe it only seemed better because I had not yet heard the usual advice on creation of believable aliens. The "usual" advice is discussed in detail in this article on my web site.

"Believable aliens" means they should not talk and act like Midwestern 20th century Americans, yet they shouldn't be too alien, because the reader won't understand them at all. It's better if their societal model is based on some human cultural situation, or animal behavior -- and Taylor Anderson, who has a Master's degree in history says that pretty much any societal model you can dream up, such as a matriarchal cannibalist society, has a precedent in human history. Extremely alien aliens might work in a very short story, since the reader may be able to read it without getting too confused or losing interest. "The Dance of the Changer And The Three" by Terry Karr was given as an example of such a story.

Speaking of human models for alien societies, Chris Roberson suggests we look no further than the Japanese society. He thinks there are more differences between Japanese culture and ours, than there are between any science-fictional aliens and us. To interact with Japanese, he had to be taught how to do do smallest things in certain ways, so as not to offend them inadvertently. For example, there is a right way and a wrong way to accept a business card from someone. It is mandatory that you pause and read the person's name in the card. To tuck it away without reading it would be rude. Japanese is endlessly fascinating, he says. It's like watching alternate history. Even though they've experienced the same recent major events as the Western society, such as World War II, they've spun it into something completely different.

Joan Vinge thinks that may have been the case in the past, but in the era of globalization Japanese aren't as opaque to us as they used to be. Still she thinks James Clavell "Shogun", a novel of 16th century Europeans' exploration of Japan, is an excellent first contact story.

Taylor Anderson, Ann Aguirre, Joan Vinge, and Chris Roberson in the Aliens panel

Taylor Anderson, Ann Aguirre, Joan Vinge, and Chris Roberson in the Aliens panel.

An aside. Not long ago, as I wrote about Lithuanian science fiction fandom, I mentioned being mildly annoyed that every cultural discussion was accompanied by a refrain "Orientals are soooo different from us! Don't try to understand them, lest you go crazy!" Yet I didn't find myself rolling my eyes at this discussion, probably because it approached those differences -- which are real, no doubt -- without employing that vague catch-all notion of spirituality. Once you start down the "orientals are sooo spiritual, and their spirituality is sooo different" track, that's when my eyes glaze over. Otherwise, yes, I agree, there are many cultural differences, and in some ways they are opaque to us.

Back to the panel. So, human societies and animal behavior as models for your aliens? Ann Aguirre chose the latter. She based her aliens on praying mantis. This has an advantage that when she gets fan mail asking how do her aliens have sex -- and she gets those letters at least once a week! -- she can tell them to Google it. Hint: sexual cannibalism. :-)

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ArmadilloCon: why a fantasy writer should develop an interest in solid waste management

What would a city built by pirates look like? The decorations would be haphazard, because it's all from loot. Your loot might not have enough angels' statues to decorate the entire building, so you'll have angels next to gargoyles. That's the opinion of Rob Rogers, who explored the concept of a pirate town in his novel "Devil's Cape". Stuff like that is discussed on perennial panels on world building -- a crucial part of every science fiction or fantasy novelist's job. Maybe because it wouldn't be right to just reuse panel titles from last year, this year's panel was focused on City Building ("Creating a city that both works for your story, and makes sense for the world it is in.") There was the usual advice on the importance of consistency in city building, like in all world building if you want to have 10000 monkeys in the story, start with that city that could support 10000 monkeys. Don't just put it in as an afterthought in the middle of an agrarian country, or you may discover that it will support at most 8000 monkeys! (Scott Lynch).

Scott Lynch, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rob Rogers, and Vincent Docherty in the City Building panel

Scott Lynch, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Rob Rogers, and Vincent Docherty in the City Building panel.

Scott Lynch also suggests that if you want to get a handle on realistic city-building, try to develop an interest in solid waste management. Combing through other people's waste used to be a major part of people's pastime in medieval and even early industrial times. Masses of poor people would wade in the sewers, capturing lumps of waste, and picking out anything that was remotely valuable, discarded by upper classes. In Victorian England cities, that had long outgrown their medieval infrastructure, there were thousands of people involved in the business of transporting other people's "nightsoil". All this was a subject of Steven Johnson's book "The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World", that Scott Lynch got his wife for Christmas. That's the kind of guy he is! :-) (In his defense, he said his wife is a biology major, and fascinated by pathogens.) Even if you are not into pathogens, stuff like this surely helps a fantasy writer to create a realistic medieval world.

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Monday, August 17, 2009

ArmadilloCon: first draft in Icelandic, and other advice for writers

All the advice that could be given to beginning authors has already been mentioned in my posts from writing workshops of the past: here and here. Overall, I'm afraid all that could be said about speculative fiction has already been said in my earlier posts from ArmadilloCon and other conventions. There's no point in repeating it, so what's left? Jokes. Thankfully, jokes at ArmadilloCon are fresh every year, which is amazing, because the people are the same.

The writers who taught the ArmadilloCon writing workshop were trying to one-up one another on how badly they sucked when they were just starting out. Sharon Shinn: I'm a poster child for perseverance. I wrote 10 books before I sold one. Chris Roberson: I wrote 11 books before one sold. Sharon: But I wrote three or four after I sold the first one, that never sold. Scott Lynch, this year's Guest of Honor, can top that: he wrote 12 unpublished novels, many of them in high school. He never finished any of them before he wrote a novel that actually sold (I assume he's talking about "The Lies of Locke Lamora"). Thus, the skeletons in his closet are malformed embryo skeletons.

On revising your work: Most pros recommend completing the first draft of the book before revising, rewriting, or editing it. The alternative -- revising after you finish each chapter or page -- is not so good. Jim Frenkel, a Tor editor, says George R. R. Martin is an exception in that respect, and the worst role model to a beginner writer. "He doesn't go to on to write an new page until the previous page is perfect. And you wonder why his next book is taking so long?"

Sharon Shinn recalls what Daniel Silva has said on this topic in the book "How to Write a Lot". "Revising while you write is like drinking decaf coffee in the morning. Great idea, wrong time. Your first draft should read like it was hastily translated from Icelandic by a non-native speaker."

Ah, so I must be doing something right!

In other encouraging news (see, I said it was going to be all jokes, but there is some useful advice in there): yes, you can find time for writing. Julie Kenner wrote her first 15 books while working full-time as a lawyer, and the last seven of those with babies and small children (she has two). Martha Wells wrote some of her first books while being constantly distracted. At that time she worked in tech support, where she wrote programs in KOBOL. She worked on her novels while the programs compiled and ran. Her desk was in a very small space, surrounded by mainframe computers whose hard drives constantly made clicking noises. And since she was in tech support, people would drop in and ask questions all the time. So now she needs distractions in order to write, such as a television in the background.

I wonder which of my bad habits will one day turn out to be an unexpected blessing. :-)

Pictures from ArmadilloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery. There are only a few of them there, but I'm adding new pictures every day.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

When science fiction fans are interviewed for a lifestyle magazine


I don't talk about it here often, but I've been a co-editor of a science fiction fanzine for 15 years. It's called Dorado Raganos, which means Witches of Dorado in Lithuanian. Dorado is the name of a science fiction club in Vilnius, Lithuania, that has been the home base of our fanzine in its early days. And we'll get to the "witch" part in a moment. :-)

I've been co-editing this fanzine with two of my friends -- we'll call them AVS and DL -- since 1994. Since then, both of my friends and I became expats, scattered thousands of miles apart across two contintents. Yet we keep it going, even though there were some years when the fanzine didn't come out.

This was the first time in 15 years when all three of us were able to meet in the same physical place. Funny, we didn't even plan it: it just happened that we were all visiting Lithuania at the same time. Our stay in Lithuania overlapped for exactly one day, July 13th. So of course we had to meet. We went to a restaurant and spent 5 hours catching up. Other three members of our team who have contributed greatly to the fanzine over the years also came to the meeting. One of them told about us to her friend, a journalist, who then decided to write an article about us. So she came to our meeting and interviewed us.

I was surprised that the journalist thought our little fanzine was of interest to anyone except those 50-70 people who read it. As much as our fanzine has a dubious honor of being the only speculative fiction magazine being published in Lithuania for the last decade (sad but true), it's not the kind of thing general public is interested in.

I was right: the interview wasn't primarily about the fanzine. The journalist was mostly curious about how we met our husbands. :-) That, and in our lives as expats. Of course, given that the publication she writes for is a lifestyle magazine for women, the focus of the interview wasn't too surprising. After all, we know from stereotypes that women don't care about "geeky stuff" like science fiction. ;-) So the journalist emphasized the "human interest" angle, such as the fact that two women in our trio met her husbands through science fiction. There were some soundbite-worthy details in their courtship stories. After meeting at a convention, AVS and her future husband, a Swede, communicated without a common language for a while (until she learned Swedish). At one point I translated his letters to her from English to Lithuanian, and helped her write a letter to him in English. DL and her husband met when he wrote her a letter praising her fantasy story, which he read... guess where? That's right -- in our fanzine! So, these heartwarming details made up the bulk of the interview. I guess journalists use stuff like that to show that geeks are human too, and even have something resembling love lives. :-) So it wasn't a waste, even if the science fiction aspect of the interview was rather thin.

So why "witches"? Over the years I came to regret the "witch" part in the "Witches of Dorado". I had to explain multiple times that really, our fanzine has nothing to do with witchcraft, paganism, or paranormal, and it's not even biased towards fantasy. It's just a magazine for all kinds of speculative fiction. "Witches" made it into the name almost accidentally. It was a word AVS uttered in response to someone's teasing -- kind of "you better beware of witches like us!" And so the name stuck.

So of course, during the interview the reporter asked us with a completely straight face, if we practiced witchcraft. The question made my hair stand on end, as I was afraid that no matter how much we downplay the witchcraft angle, she'll find a way to put it in the story, and I'll go on record as a woo-woo loony. :-) After all, New Age'y stories are extremely popular in lifestyle magazines in Lithuania (if the sample I've browsed is any indication). It didn't help that AVS, the chief editor, wanted to play it up a little bit. Instead of firmly stating we don't subscribe to mystical nonsense, she said, with her trademark mysterious semi-smile, that every woman has a bit of a sorceress in her. I, on the other hand, assured the reporter that the only thing we've done that could be remotely attributed to witchcraft, is the ability to keep the fanzine going across 15 years and two continents. Fortunately, my remark made it into the interview.

But maybe I'm taking this thing entirely too seriously. ;-)



Pictures from our meeting can be found in my photo gallery.

* To my Lithuanian friends who might want to know, it's a Sunday addition "Brigita" of a daily newspaper "Respublika". It came out 2 weeks ago.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A neo-pagan site

Did all the Lithuanian science fiction fandom camp events I wrote about sounded like so much woo-woo? Here are a couple more odds and ends to reinforce that impression. :-) In addition to the Flying Saucer-shaped museum, we also visited a pagan, or rather, neopagan temple. Definitely "neo" -- the temple wasn't there until a few years ago, and I don't think there's any indication that there used to be an ancient pagan worship site at that location. All attempts to restore old pagan faiths in Lithuania ride on lots of imagination and a few mentions of ancient deities in folk songs. There are very few written sources verifying the authenticity of those deities. But the imagination of neo-pagan worshippers more than makes up for that. :-) Anyway, it's a separate topic, and I won't go into it now.

Well, there wasn't an actual a building at the temple site, only an open space at the top of the hill, surrounded by a low, irregular hedge of loosely piled rocks. Some rocks have pseudo-pagan symbols painted on them. I was told it's a Baltic equivalent of Zodiac. As with most things neopagan, I seriously doubt whether it's grounded in any authentic Baltic astronomical system, if there was any. But the symbols are pretty in a kind of a runic, ancient, primitive way. Here are 4 of them.

There is a mound of rocks in the middle with firewood on it. I was told it is a reconstruction-interpretation of what an ancient observatory could have looked like. Other wooden and stone idols represent ancient pagan Baltic gods, such as this statue of the sky and thunder god Perkūnas. The statue grows taller every year as people bring in rocks for it each spring at Jorė festival.

Then there is a statue of a Žemyna, goddess of the Earth. This goddess is probably held responsible for fertility or love -- it is undoubtedly a goddess for women. Well, "women" may be an overstatement, as the offerings piled around the statue made me think an average pilgrim is about 13 years old. :-) Hair scrunchies, plastic bracelets, stuffed animals -- if I were a goddess, I might be a little offended that the supplicants assume I have such a cheesy taste.

All my pictures of the temple can be found here. Thanks to Barbora for supplying the facts about the temple that I managed to miss during my visit (to be fair, I didn't look very hard for signs, plaques or explanations).

On that note: coming up -- a post about witches. :-)