Thursday, September 16, 2010

William Gibson, a naturalist with a science fiction toolkit

On September 15, 2010, William Gibson gave a reading from his new novel "Zero History" at Barnes & Noble bookstore in Austin. The reading was followed by Q&A and a signing. I attended a similar reading and signing when he was in Austin in 2008, promoting his earlier novel "Spook Country". This year I could clearly see what some critic meant by calling Gibson an unappreciated humorist. A big part of his speech and answers consisted of quotable one-liners. Here are some pearls of his wit.

Austin was not so much Ground Zero in cyberpunk, as it was Patient Zero in cyberpunk. The first reading from "Neuromancer" by Gibson was given here, to about 5 people, at ArmadilloCon.

In the 20th century I was a futurist, but in the 21st century I'm some kind of naturalist with a science fiction toolkit.

It doesn't surprise me that 21sth century is not what I thought it might be, because that's what happens when you get to the real future from the real past. The real future has no capital F. Europeans have been hip to this forever, and they used to laugh at us. [But now we're starting to realize it too].

William Gibson at Barnes and Noble

Somebody in the audience asked him if the similarity between the names of Case in "Neuromancer", and Cayce in "Pattern Recognition" was an accident. Gibson replied that Case in "Neuromancer" is named after Case knife company, that made a very iconic kind of knife. They were so ubiquitous that Case knife became synonymous with pocket knife. And they have a beautiful logo. When Gibson was thinking what to name the guy, he saw that logo, and the name suggested itself to him.

With Cayce Pollard from "Pattern Recognition", he doesn't know where exactly he got that first name. "So there is no symbolic meaning, but you can find one," Gibson added.

Another question from the audience was about antagonists in his books. Gibson replied:

As a grown-up, I didn't believe in villainy the same way I might have done when I was younger, and the way our pop culture encourages us to. [...] The real antagonist in all my work is the way the world is. And the way it undoes the good guys AND the bad guys.

Question: why doesn't he write more short stories?

Most very good science fiction stories have as many ideas as most good SF novels. And I'm not a guy who has a lot of ideas. If I wrote short stories now, I would use up my limited narrative ideas.

Question: is he a pessimist or an optimist?

To answer this question, Gibson reminds us that in the years of the Cold War, when he grew up, people were conditioned to think that world was going to end very soon. Thus, he says, he thought he was being optimistic to write a novel set in 2035, in which there still were people.

Here is a link to my post on William Gibson's appearance in Austin in 2008, where he talks much more extensively about cyberpunk, literature, future, and such.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: non-native English speaker, an American author

I made a good effort to read Ilona Andrews' "Magic Bites", but this kind of urban fantasy is not to my taste. Yet I was intrigued by her as a non-native English speaker who is also a published author in English. I'm trying to follow the same path, and there aren't many role models in it. Ilona Andrews (for the sake of accuracy I'll add that this name is actually a pseudonym for a writing team consisting of her and her husband, who is a native English speaker) was only the second such person I met. The first was Sara Hoyt, who I met at the World Fantasy Convention in 2007. I blogged about it here.

Her biographical details resonated with me because of certain parallels. Like me, she grew up in the socialist block and immigrated the US as an adult. She came to US on a scholarship to a private school (it wasn't clear to me whether that was college or high school); I came here to go to graduate school. She said she knew very little English at first. I found that a bit strange, because any foreigner who comes to US for schooling is required to pass TOEFL, Test of English as a Second Language, to be admitted. The first time she used an English word was in the airport when she arrived to the US. A guy was blocking the walkway with his luggage. She waited for him to move, but he didn't. So she said "excuse me", and he moved. That was a defining moment in her life -- she used a word in a foreign language, and someone understood and responded. She felt like she was accepted into this other society.

(I guess it's remarkable that it happened so soon for her. Many immigrants take much longer to get to this point. But this incident has no more than symbolic value, and for some people, symbolic value is enough.)

Anne Sowards, Ilona and Gordon Andrews

Anne Sowards, Ilona and Gordon Andrews at Ilona Andrews interview at ArmadilloCon 2010.

When she first went to a bookstore in the US, she was stunned at the colorful book covers. In the USSR there was not only no western science fiction books sold (because they didn't pass censorship), but whatever books were sold, had dark, gloomy covers.

Oh, and in her high school days, she was required to do agricultural manual work. I had to do that myself back in the day. In the countries of the socialist block, all high school and college students had to spend 1-2 months of summer doing agricultural labor, such as harvesting the crops or weeding the fields. The only way to get out of it was to get a doctor to certify that a medical condition made you unsuitable for such labor. We were paid very little for it. 2 months of work in the late 80s was barely enough to buy me a few cups of coffee (since coffee prices went up astronomically). It's strange that decades later in the US I ran into someone who went through the same experience!

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: Time travel meanders

Some discussion panels go disappointingly off-topic, turning into a free-form chat between the panelists that has nothing to do with the stated purpose of the discussion. Such was the "What do you bring on your time travel" panel. Based on the title, I was hoping for some fun brainstorming on what necessities you should bring with you to increase the odds of your survival in the past or the future. But it was nothing like that. Instead the panelists spend a good chunk of time debating whether they would want to know the date of their death. Then some of them turned it into "how things were better in their youth" gripe session. One panelist, who I already knew was conservative, criticized women's liberation for enabling girls to be as foul-mouthed and crude as boys. According to him, it's not progress if it makes it acceptable for women to engage in the worst behaviors of men. Gotta love the ole' double standard! Boys will be boys, but women are supposed to uphold civilized behavior. Blech.

To be fair, he also told entertaining stories about his Italian childhood, to illustrate how some of a modern person's basic cultural assumptions wouldn't hold up even as little as half a century back. In his mother's day in Italy, you were not supposed to chat with store clerks. If a clerk behind the counter tried to make small talk with his (the panelist's) mother (even here in the US?), the mother would grab her purse and hold it tight, because she assumed the only reason the clerk would do that would be to distract her and pick her pocket. This was a typical example of the attitude of the middle class towards the working class in Europe, he said. "People like my mother and her class is what makes lower classes want to be communists."

(As the reader may notice, I'm not naming any names. While I know that some people I'm referring to will find this blog post anyway, I still don't want search engines to link certain names with the critical stuff I'm saying here.)

At some point a guy from the audience tried to bring the panelists back on topic. He said that even if you brought all the right clothes and money, you wouldn't last an hour before people figured out you were alien. Well then, I guess, case closed? There is nothing, really, you can bring on your time travel to make it go smoother? I guess the obvious things, like antibiotics (if you are traveling to the past), or a wilderness survival kit if you happen to drop into the paleo era, were too trivial to talk about.

This illustrates why there is a disadvantage of having the same panelists at every convention -- many of them don't seem to think they should prepare for discussions, or stick to a discussion plan (and how would they if the moderator doesn't bother to create one?). Some of those "veterans" act like they think the audience has come just to hear them shoot the breeze. New people would be more likely to prepare to speak on the topic.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Friday, September 10, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: religion in worldbuilding

Official synopsis: "Religion plays a part in worldbuilding, but if you just lift aspects of current religions, they may not fit well into the world you are creating. How can religion be added without making it a caricature?"

I thought this synopsis contained a nugget of unintended irony. Why would it be difficult to include it in your SF or fantasy world without making it a caricature? Could it have to do with absurdity of most religious beliefs? Unless your religion is so vague that it limits itself to a largely indifferent, hands-off Creator, it can be characterized by Heinlein's famous quote: "one man's theology is another man's belly laugh". Ironically, your readers might think that a supernatural being you created is ridiculous, but the one they believe in is not, though they differ only in details.

Mikal Trimm, Matt Cardin, and Matthew Bey

Mikal Trimm, Matt Cardin, and Matthew Bey on Religion in Worldbuilding panel.

Somebody in the audience held Frank Herbert's "Dune" as an example of a SF novel in which religion is done very well. Fair enough -- I don't remember it being ridiculous. Somebody else mentioned an Arthur C. Clarke's story that incorporates religion very well. In that story, missionaries go to a distant corner of the galaxy to preach their religion, and reach a star system where all life went extinct thousands of years ago when the star went supernova. Turns out, that was the Star of Bethlehem. I think the story makes a good point, but it avoids making a religion look like a caricature at the cost of making it look ironic, arbitrary and cruel -- just like in real life. So that was probably not the point the panelists were trying to make.

I was disappointed how one or two people in the audience perpetuated the myth that the "New Atheists" are just as fundamentalist as religious fundamentalists. But it wasn't the right place to get into that debate. However, I had a chance to pitch my Science and Religion in Fiction book club to the audience (well, it's not mine, it's part of Center For Inquiry, but I'm the organizer), and I got a few people interested. Whether any of them will ever make an appearance at our meetings, is anybody's guess. (Mine is "no". :-))

More on the similar topic: my blog post on Creating a Believable Religious Society: an ArmadilloCon 2004 panel .

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

ArmadilloCon 2010: What You Should Have Read This Year

In this traditional ArmadilloCon session, panelists recommend recently published science fiction and fantasy titles to the audience. The people entrusted with this honor are usually ones whose work or hobbies cause them to read lots of new genre fiction. This year, the team of "pundits" is Anne Sowards (ArmadilloCon 32 editor guest), Lawrence Person (a once-and-future editor of fanzine "Nova Express"), Willie Siros (an Austin bookseller), and Thomas Martin Wagner (a SF/F reviewer).

Anne Sowards describes herself as an editor who, in her own words, only edits "fun books", such as Jim Butcher and Ilona Andrews. She doesn't do award-winning books, and she likes it that way. Here is what she recommends:

Patricia Briggs "Wolfsbane", a sequel to "Masques";

Jim Butcher "Changes";

Caitlin Kiernan "Red Tree", a very dark fantasy nominated for World Fantasy award this year;

K. A. Stewart "The Devil Is In The Details", a Jim Butcher-like urban fantasy.

Martin Wagner's recommendations

Kay Kenyon "The Entire and the Rose", a 4-volume series about a pocket universe that uses our own universe for fuel. Martin says Kenyon writes humanist science fiction.

Kit Reed "Enclave", a book about a bunch of spoiled rich kids, whose parents were hoodwinked into sending kids to a school on a remote island. It's a "Lord of the Flies" type of situation, says Martin. He adds that Kit Reed is a New Wave author that has been off of everyone's radar until now.

Willie Siros recommendations Novels

Kage Baker, The Bird of the River (Tor)

Iain M. Banks, Surface Detail (Orbit US)

Greg Bear, Hull Zero Three (Orbit US)

Steven Brust, Iorich (Tor)

Lois McMaster Bujold, Cryoburn (Baen)

C. J. Cherryh, Deceiver (DAW)

Suzanne Colins, Mockingjay (Scolastic Press)

Greg Egan, Zendegi (Gollanz; Night Shade Books)

Jasper Fforde, Shades of Gray (Hodder & Stoughton; Viking)

Michael Flynn, Up Jim River (Tor)

William Gibson, Zero History (Putnam)

Joe Haldeman, Starbound (Ace)

Peter F. Hamilton, The Evolutionary Void (Ballantine Del Rey)

Joe Hill, Horns (Gollancz; Morrow)

Robin Hobb, Dragon Haven (HarperVoyager)

Robin Hobb, Dragon Keeper (Eos)

Alexander Jablokov, Brain Thief (Tor)

N. K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms (Orbit US)

Diana Wynne Jones, Enchanted Glass (HarperCollins UK, HarperCollins / Greenwillow)

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven (Penguin Canada; Roc)

Ken MacLeod, The Restoration Game (Orbit)

Jack McDevitt, Echo (Ace)

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (Pyr)

Robin McKinley, Pegasus (Putnam)

China Mieville, Kraken (Macmillan UK)

Elizabeth Moon, Oath of Fealty (Orbit; Ballantine Del Rey)

Christopher Moore, Bite Me (Morrow)

Nnedi Okorafor, Who Fears Death (DAW)

Daniel Pinkwater, Adventuers of a Cat-Whiskered Girl (Houghton Mifflin)

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight (Doubleday UK; HarperCollins US)

Cherie Priest, Dreadnought (Tor)

Alastair Reynolds, Terminal World (Gollancz)

Kim Stanley Robinson, Gallileo's Dream (Ballantine Spectra)

Michael Shea, The Extra (Tor)

Lucius Shepard, The Taborin Scale (Subterranean Press)

Sharon Shinn, Troubled Waters (Ace)

Dan Simmons, Black Hills (Little Brown / Reagan Arthur Books)

Peter Straub, A Dark Matter (Doubleday)

Charles Stross, The Fuller Memorandum (Ace)

Charles Stross, The Trade Of Queens (Tor)

Scott Westerfeld, Behemoth (Simon Pulse)

Connie Willis, Blackout (Ballantine Spectra)

Connie Willis, All Clear (Ballantine Spectra)

David Wingrove, Son of Heaven (Atlantic Books UK / Corvus)

Gene Wolfe, The Sorcerer's House (Tor)

Jane Yolen & Midori Snyder, Except the Queen (Roc)

Collections and Anthologies

Poul Anderson, Young Flandry (Baen, collection)

Poul Anderson, Captain Flandry: Defender of the Terran Empire (Baen, collection)

Poul Anderson, Sir Dominic Flandry: The Last Knight of Terra (Baen, collection)

Peter S. Beagle, Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter Beagle (Subterranean Press, collection)

Kevin Brockmeier, ed., Real Unreal: Best American Fantasy, Vol 3 (Underland Press, anthology)

Terry Dowling, Amberjack: Tales of Fear and Wonder (Subterranean Press, collection)

Karen Joy Fowler, What I Didn't See And Other Stories (Small Beer Press, collection)

Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio, eds., Stories (Headline Review; William Morrow, anthology)

Nick Gevers, ed., The Book of Dreams (Subterranean Press, anthology)

Joe R. Lansdale, Flaming Zeppelins: The Adventures of Ned the Seal (Tachyon Publications, collection)

Fritz Leiber, Selected Stories (Night Shade Books, collection)

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds., Songs of Love and death (Simon & Shuster / Gallery, anthology)

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Best Of Kim Stanley Robinson (Night Shade Books, collection)

Theodore Sturgeon, Case and the Dreamer: The Complete Sturgeon: V XIII (North Atlantic, collection)

Ann Vandermeer & Jeff Vandermeer, eds., Steampunk Reloaded (Tachyon Publications, anthology)

Walter John Williams, The Green Leopard Plague and Other Stories (Night Shade Books, collection)

Thomas Martin Wagner, Willie Siros, Lawrence Person, and Anne Sowards on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel

Thomas Martin Wagner, Willie Siros, Lawrence Person, and Anne Sowards on the What You Should Have Read This Year panel.

Books recommended by more than one person

China Mieville "Kraken". Recommended by Martin Wagner and Willie Siros. Martin says it's the most accessible of China Mieville's books, pure pop-corn entertainment. The end of the world takes place in London, and there are squid worshippers. Mieville's earlier books, like "City in the City" (that was on last year's recommended list) is a literary novel, but "Kraken" has explosions. Willie Siros adds that "Kraken" is not as angry as Mieville's first novels. In this book he has settled down and matured.

Guy Gavriel Kay "Under Heaven". Recommended by Martin Wagner and Willie Siros.

Connie Willis "Blackout" and its sequel "All Clear" -- a time-travel story set during the blitz in London. Historicians travel to London during World War II to see how London coped with bombings, but then they get stuck in there, and also worry if they changed direction of history. Recommended by Martin Wagner and Willie Siros.

Gene Wolfe "The sorcerer's house" -- a Gene Wolfe Cthulhu mythos book. Recommended by Lawrence Person and Willie Siros.

Several panelists also discussed "Ariel" by Steve Boyett, a postapocalyptic fantasy, in which magic happens. Electricity stops working, and a dragon rises into the sky. "There is a unicorn in it, but it's gritty and edgy. It won't emasculate you if you read it," promised Lawrence. Last year, two decades since "Ariel", its sequel came out, titled "Elegy Beach". In it a boy uses magic in a programmatic way. "Also has totally bad-ass swordplay," Lawrence added.

Pictures from Armadillocon 2010 are in my photo gallery.