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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ted Chiang on his Writing Process

Note: I have simplified and organized Chiang's responses. It may alter his intent somewhat. Feel free to consult the originals instead. 
  1. I usually think about [an idea I'm interested in] for a long time, and 
  2. write down my speculations... about how [they] could become a story. [From the McCarron interview:] I think about different possible stories set in such a world; I can usually come up with a bunch of starting points, but I don’t know where those would go.... 
  3. I don't [write] the story... until I know how the story ends.... I write... the last paragraph... or a paragraph near the end.... *
  4. The second thing I write is the opening of the story.
  5. I write the key scenes or landmark scenes. [From the McCarron interview:] I don’t have the whole story worked out in detail, but I have a general sense of what needs to happen. Sometimes I’m able to borrow elements from the other starting points that previously seemed like dead ends to me, although not always. 
  6. Then I just in backwards and forwards [in almost random order].
--Ted Chiang in The Metahack Interview (interviewed by Avi Solomon). The book is "free" through subscription to Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program.

--Ted Chiang in Electric Literature (interviewed by Meghan McCarron)

* The explanation of why Chiang writes the ending first:

"[I]f you’re writing a mystery story and you have no idea who the murderer is and are hoping to figure it out along the way, then the odds are not good that the culprit you eventually decide on will match all the clues you laid out. Not all stories are mysteries or whodunits, but I tend to approach my stories in a similar fashion. I need to know “who done it” before I can start."
--Ted Chiang in an interview with Betsy Huang of Asian American Literary Review

Friday, April 28, 2017

Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 16. "The Galileo Seven"

Enterprise hauling medical supplies to Makus III when they pass Murasaki 312 ("quasar-like formation"). Galactic High Commissioner Ferris oversees transfer of medical supplies and opposes delay. They have two extra days, and are required to investigate. Shuttlecraft Galileo available to explore. As they experience radiation, they try to stop momentum but ionic concentration interferes with communication.

Flash on Ferris who smiles.

A planet in the center of Murasaki 312, Tarus II, seems capable of sustaining human life. Enterprise to enter.

Analysis with spoilers:
For some reason, it would be like finding a needle in a haystack even though shuttlecraft could not alter its momentum. Perhaps they needed Spock, the science officer, who is on board the shuttle, to explain Newton's first law of motion.

There must have been a crash landing, but the worst damage appears to be a bump on the head and a bloody nose. Their speed was "multiplied geometrically" due to "magnetic potential of the effect," so they are lucky indeed.

The shuttle needs to lose 500 lbs., but they cannot lose equipment, so that's the weight of three men. Who is to go? Classic "Cold Equations" [Tom Godwin] scenario.

Two officers are to scout (not red shirts), and they encounter strange noises in the fog all around them that make them want to retreat. One ends up with a spear in his back. Whew! No ethics scenario to face. One down, two to go. Crew gang up on Spock's logical analysis: Men are not machines.

Columbus shuttle ordered to sweep planet in search, but they will miss areas of search.

Shuttle loses all fuel. Gaetano and Boma now become "logical" as they propose  to strike the mystery tribe first. Spock believes he has frightened tribe members without killing them. He abandons Gaetano to stand guard (of what? in one location? alone?). Surely, this is not one of Spock's more logical moments.

Scotty decides phasers are to be used as an alternate fuel. Transporters working, but where do they beam search parties?

Tribe members become poor lobbers of spears as Spock transports Gaetano's body back to shuttle.

Suddenly, we viewers are informed that the ions were part of a storm.

Boma insists on burials of dead crew.

High Commissioner insists on abandoning search, recalling all parties. Twenty-odd minutes to go before the Enterprise must leave. No sign of missing crew.

Spock ejects and ignites fuel as a flare, ending chances of safe orbit and landing. But Spock is hailed by crew as illogical and human, which seems an illogical conclusion. They get spotted and beamed aboard. Captain Kirk and crew rib Spock over his "human" decision.

Very much an attempt to raise the human flag over the logical.

  1. Scotty: "It's dangerous, but it might work."
  2. McCoy: "A little less analysis and more action."
  3. Spock: "I, for one, do not believe in angels."

    1. While not one of the highlights of the series, it does focus on Spock's "human" vs. logical nature.
    2. Expendables die even though they are not wearing red shirts.
    3. The ideas expressed here are far more interesting when contrasted with the next episode, "The Squire of Gothos".

    Wednesday, April 26, 2017

    Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 15. "Shore Leave"

    Entire crew weary, needing of sleep and rest. Kirk and Spock have no plans on resting, however. McCoy and Sulu are on shore leave on an uninhabited planet in the Omicron Delta region, appreciating time off and collecting biological samples. McCoy, alone, spots the White Rabbit and Alice, not long after saying the planet was like "something out of Alice in Wonderland."

    Spock tricks Kirk into commanding himself to go on shore leave.

    Analysis with spoilers:
    Manifested hallucinations abound. Kirk claims to have been grim as a student named was Finnegan, and Finneagan appears. Yeoman Barrrows imagines she'd like to meet Don Juan although he's more than she bargained for. Kirk spots an old flame, Ruth.

    Spock reports underground industrial complex seems to be draining communications power from devices and Enterprise itself. Sulu discovers during an encounter with a samurai that even their phasers have died. Spock beams self down when he sees that all communications and transport will leave crew and captain stranded (although why he didn't beam them out before isn't explained).

    McCoy, certain this is all an illusion, stands in the path of a jousting knight... and dies. More shenanigans until a robed caretaker appears to say that it's all an amusement park. When Kirk asks for more info about the people who build it, he's told they're too much for him to understand. Spock agrees. Why? (Apart from writer not wanting to explain, that is.)

    Episode closes with Spock saying it was "Most illogical" that humans should enjoy themselves on shore leave. Illogical of him to say except if one considers everyone had phoney experiences with faux people.

    Episode interspersed with shots from perspective of antenna "watching" visitors.

    Quotes designed to foreshadow events. Episode written by Theodore Sturgeon. Interesting that Sulu's quote is challenged, even the key. We lay at the feet of humans and animals all our troubles, but troubles can still pop up.

    1. Kirk: "a planet remarkably like Earth or how we remember Earth to be: park-like..."
    2. Sulu: "Beautiful, beautiful. No animals, no people, no worries."
    3. Kirk: "The more complex the mind, the more need for play."
    4. Caretaker: "My impression is you are not ready to understand us, Captain."

      1. Apparently 433 people on Enterprise.
      2. First discussion of [Starfleet] Academy. 
      3. First episode where Kirk seems to reject female advances (Yeoman Barrow, Ruth, but maybe he rejected Barrow's advances because he knew McCoy was interested).
      4. McCoy's first flirt with a real woman (first flirt was an imaginary human). Interestingly, he throws her over a pair of phony women.
      5. McCoy's first death (not wearing red).
      6. Dead "dummy" knight wiggles nose.
      7. Good guys in the future--or at least the peaceful ones--always wear long flowing robes.
      8. Dry run for the future ST:NG holodeck.

      Free ebook by David Farland

      Barbarians by [Farland, David]Ashes and Starlight by [Farland, David]Ashes and Starlight is free. It is set "in the Runelords universe, 800 years before the original series, and sequel to" Barbarians.

      Monday, April 24, 2017

      “Vestibular Man” by Felix C. Gotschalk

      First appeared in Edward L. Ferman's F&SF. Up for Locus Award. Reprinted by Orson Scott Card.
      Derek has been conscripted for military service in 2800 AD. He tries to dominate his drill instructor but quickly learns that the DI is bionic and that it can disable him simply by grabbing Derek's elbow. Derek mostly follows orders but maintains a sharp eye out for weaknesses in the bionic DI. He eventually finds one.
      To the left you can see this was F&SF's cover story. It illustrates the final moment of the bione's collapse after its cord is cut. It leans heavily on Asimov's laws of robotics without stating them although it implies that the laws are more legal ones than imprinted on circuits.

      The tale yields a rather pyrotechnic display of words, mixing the academic or professional jargon with the vernacular in strong writing. This may make it difficult for some readers. Instead of saying "inner ear," for instance, he writes "vestibular." Makes for a cooler title and a little more pointed.

      Card makes a lengthy introduction how academics require books that require expert interpretation. He makes an interesting case. This story, however, seems somewhat to argue against this premise. It is not an easy pill to swallow. On the other hand, it may not require an academic to interpret it.

      The main challenge is whether the protagonist would actually use such jargon. Probably not. He sounds like a rube out of Old New Orleans, conscripted straight out of the future's equivalent of high school. There is little sense that the young man is particularly intelligent or precocious enough to prefer the high-falutin to the vernacular. Possibly.

      He seems to like fighting, so it is slightly odd that opposes his conscription apart from what seems to be a semi-subconscious dislike of bionics, especially as they become closer and closer to machines.

      Odd, too, that he is not both commended and lectured for his destruction of government property. I kept expecting a meeting of minds to point how closely aligned they were. Instead, they part ways.

      The military during this era was often painted as the typical bad guy. If someone had a crew cut, you knew immediately whom the baddie was. This isn't surprising as the era was finally dealing with the Vietnam War after some delay. But it was still a stereotype that bled until the 90s by which time most realized it was hackneyed without nuance and retired the trope.

      "Vestibular" and "man"--the operative words--indicate a man who has his proper bearings/orientation as opposed to those machines who/which do not. The story surveys the military and pairs them with machines, which even they can be vindictive. Vestibular, however, fails to become relevant to the tale except symbolically.

      On a linguistic level, the tale is fascinating but flawed due to its character being out of sync with his language. On a story level, it works as a critique of the military but not one that stimulates much thought. Gotschalk is a fascinating writer, but his style requires the right character and tale. This is not it. I would recommend it for fans of Gotschalk or those with antipathy toward those in the military.

      For a better story, see Gotschalk's "The Examination."

      Saturday, April 22, 2017

      "The Examination" by Felix C. Gotschalk

      First appeared in Robert Silverberg's New Dimensions IV. Reprinted by Harvey A. Katz, Martin H. Greenberg & Patricia S. Warrick, and Robert Silverberg. It was one of the stories that prompted his nomination for the John W. Campbell award for New Writers.

      A psychologist interviews a seemingly slow-witted eight-year-old African American girl in order to assess her intelligence. As they progress, her command of language keeps surprising him. She not only scores well at her age range, but also higher. And higher.

      The tables get turned.
      Discussion with Spoilers:
      As she scores well even for an intelligent adult, her voice loses its homespun pronunciations. She sounds more and more like a machine until she announces she's an alien and that she is conducting an examination of his and his species' intelligence.

      He attempts to communicate with the secretary outside the office to escape, but she foils the plot. She says she is adaptable, mold-able, and impossible to destroy. She asks questions about him and these tests. When liberators arrive at the door, she warns him not to divulge her identity as she now looks like a girl to them. Nonetheless, he announces she's an alien with all the details, and police officers cart him away.

      The words they select in the examination have some parallel to his thoughts and their discussion, cleverly commenting on the surrounding text. In fact, the whole tale is pleasurable apart from the too-easy ending. It offers a critique of current intelligence assessments although it offers no alternatives.

      Thursday, April 20, 2017

      On Dreams, Song, Alice, and a Lewis Carroll Poem

      "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky" or "Of Alice in Wonderland"

      A boat beneath a sunny sky,
      Lingering onward dreamily
      In an evening of July —

      Children three that nestle near,
      Eager eye and willing ear,
      Pleased a simple tale to hear —

      Long has paled that sunny sky:
      Echoes fade and memories die:
      Autumn frosts have slain July.

      Still she haunts me, phantomwise,
      Alice moving under skies
      Never seen by waking eyes.

      Children yet, the tale to hear,
      Eager eye and willing ear,
      Lovingly shall nestle near.

      In a Wonderland they lie,
      Dreaming as the days go by,
      Dreaming as the summers die:

      Ever drifting down the stream —
      Lingering in the golden gleam —
      Life, what is it but a dream?


      This was Poetry Magazine's poem of the day last week, and the last line struck me as familiar. Ah, but of course: 

      Row, row, row your boat, 
      Gently down the stream. 
      Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, 
      Life is but a dream.

      Wikipedia lists this song's first printing as 1852 (although it was possibly in existence before that). Which came first? Was he the originator or merely referencing the song? Carroll would have been 20. Possibly the phrase predated both. Carroll references Alice in Wonderland (published 1865 although he'd written earlier versions prior it's first printing. 1862 is listed as the date he first orally told the tale, so he had to have at least written that--likely later than 1862, then. Bartleby suggests the poem's first printing was 1895 under the above alternate title.

      Carroll may have been referencing that song although it is an American song, which hampers that possibility a bit. However, if the poem was composed nearer 1895, then Carroll's likelihood of hearing the phrase from the verse seems probable.

      When you hear "Life is but a dream," what does that mean? In "Row Your Boat", the use of "gently" and "stream" and the repetition of "merrily" four times (not to mention the lilt of the song itself) suggests that the song presumes "Life is unbearably wonderful." Is that wishful or hopeful thinking, or indoctrination of young minds? Who thinks of life being a dream? Beyoncé? At least she had a documentary called that. Songwriters in the fifties released sugar-coated songs with that title. It just seems odd or perhaps someone was born extraordinarily lucky and/or rich.

      Carroll's use of the phrase seems quite different. His interpretation adds a bittersweet flavor, especially if it were composed so many years later. The persona's voice sounds wistful for the time he rowed the young ladies out ("Lingering onward dreamily") as well as for the Alice of the tale ("Still she haunts me"). Throughout, he mentions the end of things: evening, frost, Autumn, not to mention "Echoes fade and memories die").

      In fact, he equates the dream with Alice herself: "Never seen by waking eyes." So a tale is a dream. When Carroll gets to his final line, he references the old song's blind devotion to believing life is unbearably wonderful, but ties to that idea that life is fleeting and story-like, perhaps due to the uncertainty of memory.

      Interestingly, the poem that references a song became another song, which seems to mirror the moods mentioned here. The song (or poem?) is apparently famous enough to get riffed here and here.

      Tuesday, April 18, 2017

      Review: Defender of the Innocent by Lawrence Block

      Martin H. Ehrengraf is an attorney who almost never sets foot in a courtroom. Instead, clients pay one dollar to retain his services. Should he win, the client pays a steep fee, and it doesn't matter how the client gets cleared: They have to pay. Or they pay in some other way. And Ehrengraf never loses a case. Because his clients are always innocent.

      Martin H. Ehrengraf is a well groomed with an eye for tasteful clothing. He has one celebratory tie he wears when certain of victory, and he comes calling for his fee. Sometimes he clients don't want to pay the full amount, which they may later regret.

      Often, clients come in knowing they committed a crime, or they had some blackout, which prevents their knowing for certain (but the evidence is certainly stacked against them as if they had done it), and sometimes Ehrengraf himself arranged the case and positioned himself when they do get in trouble--a different kind of ambulance chasing.
      Ehrengraf's methods are unorthodox, to say the least. Highly moral readers who don't read mysteries already may be horrified. Ehrengraf's ethics are all his own, and there may be few who would agree with him.

      His personality is etched more for his lack of "proper" response than the upkeep of clothes or his desk. He is sharp and unconventional only in that he is the classic detective deducing conventionally but applying this in an unconventional manner.

      That's where the series gets interesting. Ehrengraf is an interesting if not dynamic character, but it is his character that pushes up against our sense of justice. In so doing, he becomes a critique of the American criminal justice system and of reading mysteries in themselves. Anyone can be named the true criminal, whether guilty or not. The whole system of reading mysteries to see justice served is flawed in that it is a fabrication. So, by analogy, the reader is forced to question whether justice is ever served.

      Now Block shows no hint in his commentary that this may be the case. In fact, he states a few times that Ehrengraf is the only lawyer who works in this manner--evidence can be manufactured and/or stacked in different ways--but it does bring the issue to mind by his existence. This isn't to say this is necessarily my view, but that reading the book highlights the idea: What is innocence but a construct? Who is truly innocent when they exit the courtroom?

      Sunday, April 16, 2017

      Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 14. "Balance of Terror"

      Kirk officiates a wedding while Earth Outpost 4--one of several asteroid stations which monitor the neutral zone between Romulans and Federation--reports it is under attack. Enterprise goes to intercept but too late, they witness its destruction. They do pick up a visual on the culprit and who's aboard.
      Analysis with spoilers:
      Romulans! Navigator, Mr. Stiles, who has had family die at their hands, clearly hates them. He speaks of potential spies and hints that Spock, a Vulcan cousin, could interpret the signals.

      Strangely, the episode freezes on and extends certain moments as if to give them more import or suspense than they have. Such as the confirming visual of the outpost or Romulan ship.

      Convening a ship officers' meeting, they decide on attacking Romulans with Mr. Stiles confirming his reason and his hatred.

      They attack when Romulan ship heads towards comet tail where they would become visible, but Romulan captain realizes that and evades tail at the last minute. When Kirk figures out what Romulans faked them out, he fires blindly. They hit, so Romulans uncloak to fire. Enterprise enters emergency warp to escape. The Romulan fire pursues, only phasers would detonate, but they are unoperational. The fire power dissipates and hits Enterprise.

      The Enterprise pursues again. The Romulans note. Romulans attempt to hide and eject debris as if their ship were destroyed, but there's not enough debris. Both ships go silent (cloaking affects both parties). Spock fixes equipment but accidentally tips the Enterprise's location but sending out signal. Spock has been doing things accidentally that may seem to confirm his possibility as a double agent.

      Kirk uses this to wait for Romulans and fires. Romulans eject debris again but this time with a nuclear bomb. The bomb rocks Enterprise but not permanently, yet Kirk wants them to look like a sitting duck. The Romulan Captain's underling sees weakness and wants to attack. They are safely in the neutral zone. Their captain wants to go home but yields to underling's decision.

      Meanwhile, the Enterprise is down to forward lasers, which Stiles takes over and rejects Spock's offer of "help." However, the phaser coolant leaks and knocks out the operators just as they are needed. Spock rushes back and fires the phasers in the nick of time, saving the day, the life of enemy and his reputation.

      When Yeoman Rand reports that Kirk's superiors would support whatever decision he has to make, they are too late to have affected the outcome, positively or negatively. Kirk smiles ironically.

      Marriage cannot continue as the bride lost her groom in the skirmish.

      This could be commentary on the WWII practice of assuming all Asian-Americans were Japanese spies (internment camps) [Spock and Stiles] as well as the fear that the cold war could become a hot one as seemed perilously close to occurring with the Bay of Pigs.

      1. Kirk: "Why me? I look around that bridge and see the men waiting for me to make the next move, and Bones, what if I'm wrong?"
      2. Romulan Captain: "You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you 'friend.' 
      3. Romulan Captain: "We are creatures of duty. I have lived my life by it. Just one more duty to perform."

        1. Equipment seems to fail right when it's needed.
        2. First encounter with Romulans.

        Friday, April 14, 2017

        Star Trek: Season 1, Episode 13. "The Conscience of the King"

        Prior  to episode beginning Governor Kodos of Tarsus IV or Kodos the executioner instituted martial after a drastic drop in food and killed fifty percent of the population. Kodos is presumed burn beyond all recognition.

        The episode begins with Tom Leighton, a witness and victim of Kodos, watching the play MacBeth. He suspects actor Karidian as being Kodos. He arranges a meeting with the actors. He winds up dead, leaving just Kirk and Lt. Riley the only living witnesses who have seen Kodos.

        Captain Kirk interrogates the daughter, Lenore, with pleasure. He arranges for transport of the actors aboard the Enterprise. Spock

        Analysis with spoilers:
        Lt. Riley listens to Uhura from Engineering room and happens to communicate his poisoning.

        Kirk confronts (see quotes), tests Karidian's voice. Close but perfect.

        Daughter admits to killing witnesses for father. Father appalled. She threatens Kirk. Kodos stands to protect Kirk from being blasted. They erase daughter's memory, even to the point that she believes father still alive. If that's a mercy. Strangely, her murders make less sense (at least, based on the information we're given) yet Captain Kirk is willing to spare her life, not Kodos's.

        Interesting dilemma--if food resources are limited, what do you do?--dramatically dynamic. But it does flatten the tricky dilemma, taking an easier resolution. Part of the problem is that rescue comes early. One would think that Karidian would have known how far away help was and calculated how far resources might extend. Better to have made the problem trickier.

        This somewhat parallels the Nazis, but there was no crisis of resources. At least the viewer can understand why Kodos chose what he chose (although how does one decide who are important in a society?). This is a classic problem in ethics: If you could divert a train to kill fewer people than it would if you let it go straight, what would you do?

        Mostly, this parallels the pursuit of war criminals, decades afterward when the criminals take on a normal life, seemingly repentent, as happened recently in Minnesota when residents and family did not want him extradited and out on trial and placed in prison. If people change and repent, are they forever criminals or are they normal? The daughter's own murders make the solution easy, yet more dramatic.

        Why she is named Lenore, presumably an allusion to Edgar Allan Poe's poem, is unclear. For Kodos, she is his life. For Kirk, she remains alive. Maybe she is dead inside (before and after the memory erasure but in different ways).
        1. Kirk: Are you Kodos? I asked you a question.
          Karidian : Do you believe that I am?
          Kirk: I do.
          Karidian: Then I am... if it pleases you to believe I am Kodos. I'm an actor. I play many parts.
          Kirk: You're an actor now. What were you twenty years ago?
          Karidian: Younger, Captain, much younger.
          Kirk: So was I. But I remember.
        2. Karidian: Here you stand, a perfect symbol of our society, mechanized, electronicized, and not very human.
        3. Karidian: Some had to die so that some might live.
        4. Karidian: Why not kill me now? Let bloody vengeance take its final course and see what difference universe of yours.
          Kirk: Beautiful words, well acted, change nothing.
          Karidian: No, I suppose not. They are merely tools.
        5. Karidian: Blood thins, body fails, and one is finally grateful for a failing memory. I no longer treasure life, not even my own. I am tired! The past is a blank.
        6. Lenore: You talked of using tools. I was a tool, wasn't I? a tool you used against my father.
        7. Lenore: You are like your ship: powerful and not human. There is not mercy in you.
          Kirk: If he is Kodos, then I've shown him more mercy than he deserves.
        8. Kirk: The play is over. It's been over twenty years.
        1. Kirk has another liaison. Hard to tell if it's business or pleasure. Maybe both, considering his final decision.

        Wednesday, April 12, 2017

        “Weyr Search” by Anne McCaffrey

        First printed in Analog, it won a Hugo and was nominated for a Nebula award. Reprinted in several major anthologies by editors Roger Zelazny, John W. Campbell, Jr., Charles G. Waugh, Martin Harry Greenberg, Isaac Asimov, Stanley Schmidt, Margaret Weis, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Jonathan Strahan, and John Joseph Adams.  Along with “Dragonrider”, “Weyr Search” makes up part of Dragonflight, a novel that has twice placed high in the Locus Awards’ All-Time Best Fantasy Novel.

        Lessa wants to wrest back control of the Ruath Hold from Fax, Lord of the High Reaches. The Hold has fallen into disrepair, and Lessa works to make it worse for when the Weyr riders come. She hopes the rider will challenge and give her back the Hold.

        What she doesn't know is that that is not what she wants.

        F'lar, meanwhile, comes to the Hold on a Weyr search. He expects Fax to be greedy, maybe even indifferent to F'lar's mission since Fax doubted the thread, but F'lar didn't expect insult.
        The hold is in disarray, thanks to Lessa. F'lar is offended that Fax cannot feed and let F'lar stay the night somewhere warm. F'lar challenges. Fax loses. Lessa gains although F'lar takes her on as Weyr woman, sensing her talent with dragons.

        Taken to the hatching of dragon eggs, she watches members get mauled by dragons, others get selected. The gold dragon selects her so that she is queen.

        This has the stuff of legendary SF wonder. One of the classics. If there's a flaw in the plot, this feels less like a novella than an episode in a novel yet one that, nonetheless, feels paradoxically complete. Likely, it was designed as a novel from the beginning, and the novella was carved out.

        Monday, April 10, 2017

        "The Ship Who Sang" by Anne McCaffrey

        First appeared in F&SF. Reprinted in major retrospectives by Judith Merril, Dick Allen, Lori Allen, Pamela Sargent, Frederik Pohl, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, Charles G. Waugh, Josh Pachter, David Drake, Sandra Miesel, Edel Brosnan, A. Susan Williams, Richard Glyn Jones, David G. Hartwell, Milton T. Wolf, Applewhite Minyard, and Gardner Dozois.

        Helva would be born with genetics deformities. Her parents had the choice to terminate or place her in a ship. They opt for the ship. Her builders apparently hide her past from her, even curiosity about her personal past.

        Meanwhile, Helva adapts quickly to this new life, teaching herself to sing and paint microscopically. She needs to be paired with a partner, a Scout Service pilot, but she isn't assigned one, so she despairs until a prospect stumbles on her. He tells her to host her own party. She does, and suitors comes calling. She selects Jennan almost subconsciously to the chagrin yet acquiescence of the others.

        They engage in various picaresque adventures until they reach a feminist colony that initially refuses to evacuate their doomed colony due to an expanding sun.

        Discussion with Spoilers:
        The colonists belated realize Helva and Jennan are correct and rush to overload her ship. Helva is most concerned about losing her partner. They are packed, and the acceleration crushes some, including her love.

        She has to get a new partner. There is some initial concern she might go rogue, but she does not. She mourns.

        The idea both of incorporating humans into machines and of the need for including the disadvantaged seems fresh, ahead of its time. At one point, McCaffrey turns the most common scenario for the handicapped on its head:
        "I am currently reproducing the 'Last Supper' on the head of a screw.... Of course, some of my color values do not match the Old Master's and the perspective is faulty, but I believe it to be a fair copy."
        [One of her female visitors]' eyes, unmagnified, bugged out.
        "Oh, I forget," and Helga's voice was really contrite. If she could have blushed, she would have. "You people don't have adjustable vision."  
        There's a hurried compression of time and events that makes one wonder what the story might have been had it been written just seven years later during her award-winning period. She might not have had the clout to write and publish a novella this early in her career. In fact, had the cards been played right--developing each phase as a search for different kinds of love and what this singing resolves--this could have easily been a lovely novel. But it is what it is, and it helped establish her career, so she could eventually publish her award-winning novellas.

        She did revise this slightly, mostly to change whether Helva and her ilk could live indefinitely, which was probably to match it with later developments in this series.

        Saturday, April 8, 2017

        "That Only a Mother" by Judith Merril

        First appeared in John W. Campbell's Astounding. Reprinted in major retrospectives by Fletcher Pratt, William Tenn, Robert Silverberg, Thomas E. Sanders, Daniel Roselle, Harvey A. Katz, Patricia S. Warrick, Pamela Sargent, Frederik Pohl, James E. Gunn, Damon Knight, Martin H. Greenberg, Joseph D. Olander, Isaac Asimov, H. Bruce Franklin, Jenny-Lynn Waugh, Applewhite Minyard, Garyn G. Roberts, Rob Latham, Veronica Hollinger, Joan Gordon, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Arthur B. Evans, and Carol McGuirk.

        Margaret writes her husband, Hank, (who may have been exposed to radiation) about their child. At first she worries about mutations. Later, she is pleased since infant can almost immediately speak. Her husband will learn something else, though, is (or, put another away, is not) afoot.
        When Hank comes home, Margaret is beside herself to impress Hank about their child. The child is put on her stomach to show Daddy how well she can crawl:

        "The way you wriggle," he addressed his child sternly, as his hand touched a moving knob of flesh at the shoulder, "anyone might think you are a worm..."

        When Hank unwraps, he learns she has no arms or legs. Margaret appears not to notice. He concludes, "Oh God, she didn't know."

        This isn't exactly true. The title refers to the famous cliche: "[A face, etc.] that only a mother could love" usually referring to an ugly child. Does the mother know? Yes, but she's choosing to ignore defects and admire her child's more impressive attributes:

        • "[S]he can evendo nice normal things other babies do.... Watch her crawl!"
        • Margaret would not notice the tension.
        • Margaret tried to get there first [to undo the child's clothes, presumably to prevent her husband from noticing].
        • [After her husband gets glimmer something is wrong] Margaret stood and watched, smiling, "Wait till you hear her sing, darling--"
        Margaret presents Hank with their daughter's positives first. She is ignoring the defects. Clearly, she has changed the diaper herself. When he starts to notice the physical abnormalities, she calls his attention to her other benefits. His horror and misunderstanding points to a second probable reading of the title: Only a mother could notice their child's other benefits. Not his use of the term "worm."

        The story, printed three years after the bombing of Hiroshima, is preoccupied about the effects of all the potential mutants due to the dropping of nuclear bombs and other harmful effects of nuclear radiation.

        As an author, Merril's reputation largely rests on this story. She is also known as an editor and champion of New Wave SF.

        Thursday, April 6, 2017

        Ranier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet: Letter 1

        Note: This quotes translations from Soren Filipski.

        Rilke has a few interesting comments here. 

        1. After he thanks the poet for the trust placed in Rilke for reading these poems, he...
        "cannot comment on the style of your verses: far be it from me to make any critical comment! Nothing can touch a work less than critical words."
        True? Poets are constantly discoursing on their own and other poets' verses. One suspects these three possible thorny issues:
        1. He must tread carefully around the poet's beginnings since few begin writing fully formed,
        2. Maybe he means that criticism can be abstracted too far and stray from the poetry itself, and
        3. Maybe he means what he says. Criticism is anathema to poetry. 
        The problem with the last interpretation is that he goes on to say "Having said that," which is his way of negating what he'd just said in regards to discussing criticism.

        2. His criticism is multi-pronged. First, the work has "no distinguishing style," which we might call voice today. 

        3. Next, he talks about the poet's problematic approach of not being "personal": "very hidden and concealed." 

        4. This point flows from the last although it leads to quite a different tack. Rilke discourages the young poet's search for affirmation and guidance from magazines and other poets. One wonders what Rilke would have made of the current MFA system. He writes:
        "No one can advise and assist you.... Go into yourself [to examine the depths from which your life springs]. Seek out the reason that commands you to write; discover if it has stretched out its roots into the deepest part of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would have to die if it were forbidden you to write.... [I]f this should be so..., then build your life around this necessity... down to its most indifferent, most trivial hour."
        Coincidentally, here is a Guardian article where the novelist hung up her quill. Another seemingly successful (at least highly praised) writer--also frustrated with the system yet still committed--linked to it to discuss the novelist's decision but ultimately deleted it. It is a sign of weakness and shame for writers to discuss the difficulty of publishing. It is grueling the amount of rejection a writer must endure. A few are successful out of the gate, or after they gather momentum. But momentum can falter. For every J. K. Rowling, there are a hundred, a thousand committed writers doing the same thing yet don't succeed. They might have had better skills even. But she made it. Writing is not just commitment and hard work, but also a little luck in finding the vein that happens to be the current or soon-to-be zeitgeist.

        It makes sense, then, that poets might not measure their worth against magazines. Think of Kay Ryan and her not gaining momentum until later in her career, which makes one wonder, why? Imagine how poorer the poetry world would be without her vision had she given in to discouragement. It is hard not to. Maybe writers should be more forthcoming about this, instead of stowing it in a broom closet.

        5. Rilke also lists what should be written about (not love, he says, perhaps forgetting Shakespeare, or rather, that one needs more skill in writing about love). I'm not sure how useful this prescription is, except it might keep a poet from growing maudlin or overly sentimental. The items he lists as good poetry topics go back to the personal discussed in 3.: sorrows, desires, thoughts, faith in beauty, dream images, objects from memory, childhood. Those, however, might bare similar traps to the unwary.

        Tuesday, April 4, 2017

        Ted Chiang on Character and Process

        "I've tried writing a story when I didn't know where it was going, and it never went anywhere. I'm not one of those writers whose characters take control of the storyline; if a character isn't the sort of person who'd behave in the manner I need, I revise the character's personality to fit."
        --Ted Chiang interviewed by Gavin J. Grant for Indiebound
        "I'm most interested in writing about characters experiencing a moment of comprehension. Sometimes it's a conceptual breakthrough, sometimes it's just a flash of recognition."
        --Ted Chiang interviewed by Jeremy Smith for Interzone 

        Sunday, April 2, 2017

        Reduced ebook lunches (expanded)

        Map: Collected and Last Poems by [Szymborska, Wislawa]For whomever likes poetry and reading on Kindles, Wislawa Szymborska is on sale for $3.49.

        Time to read her work again.


        Song of Kali 
        by Dan Simmons 


        Beyond the Farthest Suns: The Complete Short Fiction v.3 
        Greg Bear 


        Jack of Shadows (Rediscovered Classics) 
        by Roger Zelazny


        Henry and June: From "A Journal of Love" -The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin (1931-1932)
        by Anaïs Nin 
        $ 1 99


        Alien Morning  
        by Rick Wilber 


        The Essential Rumi 
        by Jalal al-Din Rumi


        Ham On Rye: A Novel 
        by Charles Bukowski 


        Post Office: A Novel 
        by Charles Bukowski


        This Boy's Life: A Memoir 
        by Tobias Wolff


        On the Road: The Original Scroll
        by Jack Kerouac 


        The Sheltering Sky 
        by Paul Bowles


        I Sing the Body Electric: And Other Stories 
        by Ray Bradbury


        White Noise 
        by Don DeLillo


        The Fireman
        by Joe Hill


        by William Gibson


        Rendezvous with Rama 
        by Arthur C. Clarke


        Lilith's Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago
        by Octavia E. Butler


        The Lacuna 
        by Barbara Kingsolver


        The Collected Novels: Lie Down in Darkness, Set This House on Fire, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Sophie's Choice 
        by William Clark Styron


        by David Mitchell


        Anansi Boys 
        by Neil Gaiman


        by Neal Stephenson


        by Neal Stephenson


        A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent 
        by Marie Brennan


        by Pat Cadigan