- It would be a little embarrassing to the US if Britain beat us to the Pan Am Clipper, but by God, I would stand with Arthur C. Clarke and the Queen and cheer if they do.
- Satire is the soul of civilization: A Colorado town wants to issue drone-hunting permits. All methods allowed…and no bag limits!
- In 1890, England had Eiffel Tower envy. So…let’s have a contest! The winner was never finished, and was dynamited and sold for scrap in 1904.
- Sorry, guys. You learn how to be a writer by…writing. And reading. And thinking critically about your own writing…along with everything else in the universe. Worked for me.
- I drank wine out of a Dixie cup once, and I didn’t explode or turn green. However, if you want to learn to be imbibably correct, here’s a good place to start.
- That said, canned wine seems to be making a comeback. One of the first wines I ever drank as a legal adult (summer 1973) was white zinfandel…out of a can. No wonder I didn’t drink wine again for another ten years.
- Speaking of wine: Wine 1.6 has been released.
- The pitch drop has fallen.
- And given that I fell in love with her a week before I met her, I have now loved Carol for 44 years.
One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.
Or is it?
Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.
Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.
In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.
It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.
To do that, you need ideas.
For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)
When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.
This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.
I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.
I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?
As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.
That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.
- The length of the Earth’s day varies more than I would guess, and the cause seems to be a certain amount of slosh in our molten core.
- PC World is shutting down its print edition. I still have early copies of both PC World and PC Magazine in boxes, including issues from those heady days when the PC universe was exploding like a supernova and the magazines could be an inch thick and heavier than some small dogs. If I could still make money in magazines I’d still be in magazines making money, but that train has left the station, the station has been razed, and the tracks sold for scrap.
- I smell careers burning.
- Which might be one reason the Chicago Tribune’s owners are doing this.
- And yet another reason (among many) for this.
- On a whim I went out and checked the Adobe CS2 download link that got so much attention this past January. Gone. I guess they calculated that anybody who was entitled to it already had it, and all the rest were pirates. I wonder if they understood that genii don’t return to their bottles once let loose.
- How about some extreme swimming pools? Damn. I’d just like to have a really boring swimming pool right now.
- Or maybe nine peculiar (old) vending machines. Read the comments, which contain more cool vending machine links. I saw beer vending machines on Japanese streets when I visited Tokyo in 1981. It shouldn’t be too long before a modern descendant of the Book-O-Matic actually prints and binds your book from scratch, while you watch. Alas, it will cost more than a quarter.
- Speaking of descendants: I knew this. Did you?
- Bill Higgins sent a link to some sort of German WWII tank training manual, written in German rhyme and illustrated in a very surreal fashion, including God carrying a tank on one shoulder and a chubby redheaded Aryan angel in leather boots, holding a cannon rammer. The Jaegermeister stag-and-cross is there too, which might explain a few things. Yet another reason I should have taken German in high school.
- Speaking of Jaegermeister: I asked my nephew Matt what it tastes like. His answer: “You don’t want to know.” When pressed, he added, “Malort.” Only a little research confirmed that, yes, I really don’t want to know.
- Choice is always good.
UPDATE: A little research on the Panther Primer shows that the figure I thought was God is St. Christopher; the angel in red braids is St. Barbara, and the guy chasing the buzzard is St. Hubert, who was a master hunter…a Jaegermeister. Siegfried is in there too, as are some Classical Greek figures. German tank crews must have been a pretty educated bunch.
For the most part, the ebook pirates have forgotten about me. Five or six years ago, I was all over the pirate sites. Now I’m not even on the Pirate Bay, and haven’t been for some time. Binsearch shows that the last time I was uploaded to Usenet was almost a year ago. It’s enough to give a guy a complex. (It’s certainly enough to make me feel like I need to write more books.)
So last week the backchannel sent me a link to an article about how several major textbook publishers have subpoenaed a couple of Usenet service providers demanding the identities of two prolific Usenet uploaders operating under the pseudonyms Rockhound57 and HockWards. Both upload technical books to a certain newsgroup devoted to technical nonfiction.
Boy, do they.
I fired up my newsreader and took a look. I’d been there before, and have gladly downloaded crufty scans of old Heathkit and classic tube gear manuals and the occasional supreme oddity, like the German-language service manual for the Nazi V-1 flying bomb. There are scans of military field manuals and much other odd junk, plus all the spam, trollery and asshattery we’ve been accustomed to seeing in newsgroups since, well, there were newsgroups. (I first got on Usenet in 1981.) Rockhound57’s posts are, for the most part, academic science books of almost vanishing narrowness. If you’re ever curious about Dipetidyl Aminopeptidases in Health and Disease, well, Rockhound57’s got it. Ditto Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings. I actually thought that “cobordism” in Algebraic Corbordism was a typo. Then I looked it up. Man, if you can make head or tail of that one, you’re a better geek than I.
If you think about what those books (and they are indeed books, and not articles) have in common, you may understand some panic on the part of the big presses: Those books have very, very small audiences and very, very high cover prices. Algebraic Cobordism has a cover price of $99. Small potatoes. Hold on to your manifolds: Automorphisms and Derivations of Associative Rings will cost you $269. I’m not exaggerating when I suggest that there are maybe 500 people on Earth who might conceivably buy such books, most of them starving graduate students. (I suspect that the publishers make what money they make selling to university libraries.) Having perfect PDFs flitting around on Usenet is an academic publisher’s worst nightmare.
But that leads us to a very important and completely unanswered question: Where did all those perfect PDFs come from? Not a single one of the titles I spot-checked is available as an ebook on Amazon. These copies are not slap-it-on-the-glass pirate scans. They are as perfect as the print images we used to generate for our books at Coriolis and Paraglyph. If they’re not being sold, how did the pirates get them to begin with?
I can think of a couple of possibilities:
- They’re DRM-stripped versions of e-texts that aren’t sold on Amazon but rather through heavily protected textbook sales channels like Adobe’s.
- They’re the print book equivalent of “screeners,” sent out for review, proofing, indexing, etc.
- They’re downsampled print images lifted somewhere along the pipe leading from the publisher to the printing presses.
My gut is going with #2, though #3 is certainly possible. Publishing services have been thoroughly commoditized. Most publishers use freelancers for proofing and editing, and many outsource layout itself. Any time a print image goes outside a publisher’s doors, there’s the chance it will “get legs.”
That said, I boggle at how many perfect PDFs were uploaded by those two chaps. We’re talking literally tens of thousands. Are there that many leaks at the major presses? Or is something else going on here? I still can’t quite figure it. I do know that a number of backchannel sources have told me that ever more file sharing is being done locally and off-Net, often by passing around now-cheap 1TB SATA hard drives. There’s no stopping that. Publishers need to start taking a very close look at their own internal processes. Pulling production back in-house might help, but it wouldn’t be a total solution, at least as long as desktops have USB ports. Problems don’t always have solutions, and piracy is probably one of those increasingly common nuisances.
There were times when I miss being in publishing. Alas, there are other times when I’m glad I’m not.
- Ars has the best article I’ve yet seen on the recent ruling in the Apple ebook price fixing trial. Insight: Publishers get less under agency than they do under wholesale, but they’re willing to accept it to keep control of pricing. Book publishing is a freaky business. This may not work out as planned for the publishers.
- Also from Ars: Weird search terms that brought readers to the Ars site. I used to publish these too, but I don’t get as many as I once did. Web search has always been a freaky business. I guess the freakiness just wanders around.
- The sunspot cycle still struggles. Cycle 24 will be freaky, and weak–even with our modern tendency to count spots that could not be detected a hundred years ago.
- Not news, but still freaky if you think about it: The Air Force tried building a flying saucer in 1956. The aliens are still laughing at us.
- Actually, the best flying saucers are all triangles. In the greater UFO freakshow, these are by far my favorites.
- There’s a quirk in the insurance industry that will allow young people to opt out of the ACA and still get health insurance–while paying much less they would buying traditional health policies under ACA. Life insurance policies often allow for accelerated payouts of benefits while the insured is still alive. My insight: Such a policy would be a way to finesse limited enrollment windows by paying for catastrophic care until enrollment opens again. (Which would be no more than ten months max.) And you thought publishing was a freaky business.
- We thought we knew how muscles work. We were wrong. Human biology is always freakier than we thought.
- As is washing your hair–in space.
- Streaming is the ultimate end of the DRM debate. Music, movies, sure. Could one stream an ebook? Of course. Would people accept such a system, or would they freak out? Well, we thought DRM for serial content was dead, too. (Book publishers have become much more aggressive against piracy lately. More tomorrow.)
- And finally, if you want freaky, consider the humble cicada killer, which vomits on its own head to keep from frying in the summer. We had them living under our driveway in Baltimore. I didn’t know what they were and they scared us a little until I called the county ag agent, who said, “They’re cicada killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.” I immediately called Carol at work to give her the good news. The receptionist at the clinic wrote down: “Jeff called. The things living under your driveway are psychotic killers, but don’t worry. They’re harmless.”
Jimi Henton, the local breeder from whom we got Aero, Jack, and Dash, brought me her dog grooming dryer some time back to see if I could figure out what was wrong with it. Carol has the exact same dryer, a Chris Christensen Kool Dry. It’s basically an SCR-controlled variable-speed fan in a box, putting out 114 CFM through a hose.
Jimi said it wasn’t blowing as much air as it used to, even after she cleaned the filter and made sure nothing else was gummed up with dog hair. It still blew, and the pot still varied the fan speed, but it wasn’t as loud and clearly didn’t have its out-of-the-box oomph. Worse, she’d had a new motor installed last year. The first one had gone for eleven years before dying; this seemed kind of premature.
I wanted to compare the two dryers to get a sense for how much air was being lost in Jimi’s. I have no way to measure airflow here, but sitting on the laundry room floor I noticed Jack’s little soccer ball, much reduced from its original size, but still round enough for my purposes. With only a little skill I managed to get the ball levitating over the nozzle, as any kid who’s bright enough to put a vacuum cleaner in reverse has done. On Carol’s dryer, the ball wobbled between 18″ and 24″ above the nozzle. On Jimi’s, it was maybe 4″.
So there was work to do, somewhere. Upon opening the dryer up, at least one problem was obvious: The 1,025 watt AC motor was wired to the speed control with #24 telephone wire, and too much of it. (You know, the stuff with the two-color, bands-on-solid insulation.) Close inspection showed two cold solder joints, coincidentally (heh) where the #24 wire hit the speed control pot. The plastic insulation on the phone wire was blackened with heat. The dryer slowly was cooking itself from the resistance of all that skinny wire. No need for a fork; it was done.
Jimi had ordered the motor from the manufacturer and then had somebody local put it into the dryer. She called him an amateur. No. I’m an amateur, with a callsign to prove it. I do electronics because I love it. Whoever installed this motor was…an idiot.
All fixed now, using some #14 stranded wire and soldering skills I learned when I was eleven. Both dryers now loft the soccer ball two feet hgh. Ohm’s Law is a bitch, dude. Please go back to sharpening scissors.
Yes, I’ve been gone for awhile, and for any number of reasons found it inconvenient to put anything together until this evening. I’ve been having some trouble with that old book-hauling injury in my left arm, spent ten days in Chicago, fixed some stuff (including an interesting repair on a dog grooming hair dryer) and learned some new things that I didn’t expect to learn, including a few that I probably didn’t need to learn.
In short, I’ve had nothing much to report, and in the summer heat just felt better reading books and taking it easy in the cause of getting my whiny supinator to shut the hell up. The gruel here is on the thin side, but that’s summer.
My younger niancee, Justine, made me aware of something called Prancercise by demonstrating it in front of the whole family. Damn. I thought she was kidding. Then I watched the video. Wow. It has nothing on the Invisible Horse Dance, but it could be the next craze at weddings. Or maybe not.
Weddings. We did attend a terrific wedding, of the daughter of my oldest friend Art. At her reception I saw something called the Casper Slide–not to be confused with the skateboarding stunt of the same name. And if you are confused, you’re not alone. I think this is why the real name of the dance is the Cha-Cha Slide, developed by a Chicago DJ named Casper. I watched the dance, and apart from some stomping, it looked a lot like the Electric Slide. But hey, what do I know about cultural tropes?
Another bit of knowledge that was true but unwelcome is that Barnes & Noble comtinues to come apart at the seams. Their CEO quit the other day over the failure of the Nook tablets to capture any significant part of the tablet market. The Nook division is for sale, and Microsoft is making slobbering noises. The Nook guys have been on my you-know-what list for some time, for pushing down updates that freeze in mid-install and can’t be removed. (I don’t use AMV, but I wonder if it works at all after the installer gets stuck.) Leonard Riggio wants to take back the retail division. A lot of stores are closing, and half the remaining stores have leases that expire in 2016. And everybody’s wondering what happens after all this happens. Especially publishers.
I learned that the Chicago Tribune has a page dedicated to documenting every single homicide that happens in Chicago. That this would be a big, frequently updated page is bad enough. That is exists at all is worse. I guess Chicago is a terrific place to be from.
There’s a video on domesticated fox, pointed out to me by Pete Albrecht. I mentioned the Russian research on Siberian fox years ago, but this is the first time I’ve seen videos of the animals themselves. It’s sad in a way; the poor things are stuck somewhere between fox and dogs, and are at best unreliably tame. It’s pretty clear to me, however, that this was the same process our ancestors used to turn wolves into dogs. And it didn’t take thousands of years.
I learned that the backlight behind the controls of my new car stereo changes color continuously.
Ok, ok, I can see eyes glazing over. That’s it for tonight. I hope to get back on my usual schedule shortly.