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March, 2011:


Well, it’s the end of a long March, either way you want to see it, and finally we’re starting to get a little weather I’d consider springish. Old Dan Beard had this at the start of the kites chapter in his Outdoor Handy Book (1900):

Though marble time can’t always last,
Though time for spinning tops is past,
The winds of March blow kite time here,
And April Fool’s Day, too, draw near.

The winds of March were way too strong for any kite I have in the house–they were shoving my 200-pound gas grill all over the back deck and making my fireplace vent pipe sing like Lady Gaga–so here’s hoping April calms down a little and I can get something in the air again.

And on the air, too: For the first time in six or seven years I’ve been seeing daily sunspot counts (not smoothed sunspot numbers) greater than 100. Here and there midafternoon I’ve actually heard human voices on 15 and even 10 meters. Time to get the inverted vee off the shelf and set it up off the back deck again.

The long march this March was getting a new book produced in cooperation with Jim Strickland. I haven’t said much about it because I want it to be available before I start talking it up too much, but we’re finalizing the cover art and getting the ebook versions prepared, looking toward a launch on or about April 15. We read from the book (which consists of two short novels) at Anomaly Con last weekend. I hadn’t read publicly from my own fiction since the mid-80s, specifically at a 1984 SF event at SUNY Brockport where I read one of my stories (“Marlowe”) between Nancy Kress and Norman Spinrad. (No pressure!) I need to work on my presentation skills, which were honed in eighth grade, when I was chosen to be one of the readers for the daily morning masses at Immaculate Conception grade school. Carol critiqued me prior to the con, and suggested that I strive to make Drumlin Circus sound a little less like Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians.

If I didn’t intend to make all of my work available in ebook form before, I certainly did yesterday, after finally getting a little hands-on time with the Motorola Xoom at the Verizon kiosk at Chapel Hills Mall. Unlike the Galaxy Tab (which I briefly groped a few months ago) the Xoom has an ebook reader demo, and I spent a minute reading Jane Austen on its very crisp display. I would like to have loaded a technical PDF, but the Xoom’s XD card slot isn’t (yet) recognized by the OS, and that will keep me from pulling the trigger right now. My former collaborator Joli Ballew (Degunking Windows) is much of the way through a Xoom book, and she thinks that the XD slot issue (and a few other loose ends) will be corrected by summer. Let us pray.

freepistol.jpgAnd triggers, yeah. One of the most popular events at Anomaly was a do-it-yourself maker session for building steampunk ray guns. Pete Albrecht sent me a note about a whole category of real-world firearms that has a certain steampunk whiff about it: free pistols, which are highly evolved single-shot .22 caliber handguns designed and often hand-crafted to excel at target accuracy. They must be held in one hand only, and aimed using purely mechanical (i.e., metal) sights. The outlandish-looking wooden grips are designed to enclosed the entire hand for maximum stability, and are often sculpted specifically for a single competitor’s hand. The idea is to sink 60 rounds into the two-inch center of a target at fifty meters, each round loaded by hand and all within two hours. The sport is very old and was practiced in the Victorian era, so it has a steampunk pedigree, at least, even if the machinery is inescapably high-tech.

Much remains to be done here. The SF portions of my Web presence haven’t been touched since the release of The Cunning Blood in 2005, and need to be completely rewritten. The goal is to mount something useful on, a domain I’ve owned for over ten years without ever quite deciding what to do with it. I’m sure I’ll think of something.

Anomaly Con 2011 Wrapup

JimBySteamEngine.jpgI got back from Anomaly Con 2011 last night, and realized by 9 PM that it had worn me out. I used to do weekends of nonstop socializing and concept-absorbing without blinking, but those days are gone, and I just don’t have the stamina anymore. My collaborator Jim Strickland (left) did much better than I, but I’m guessing we both slept pretty well last night. I certainly did.

Not that I didn’t learn a lot, nor enjoy it. To the contrary: It was a great time, and I suspect I made a few new friends, even if I didn’t raise my profile as a writer very much. One of the things I learned is that the steampunk phenomenon is less about books than about culture, and it’s held together much more via social networking than I would have predicted. The sessions on clothes and characters and even absinthe were SRO. The sessions focused on writing were less so, though anything involving Sarah Hoyt was reasonably well-attended.

I haven’t read her yet and intuit that her work isn’t exactly my thing, but Sarah in person is insightful, funny, and completely on top of the writing game. Furthermore, she’s willing to dump on all of the writerly rulebookisms now doing the rounds at workshops, like never use any said-bookisms, avoid adverbs, and so on. Though she didn’t say it straight out, the summary is simple and would-be writers need to drink deeply of it: You can’t write well by rules alone. Black-and-white thou-shalt-nots of this sort are particularly misleading, and are perpetuated by people who make their living trying to teach people without a good ear for the language how to write. Backwards, backwards: Get your ear first, then apply the rules when your ear detects a rough spot.

One great surprise for me was Pandora Celtica, a (mostly) a capella group of five who do Irish folk songs and their own Celtic-themed compositions in marvelous close harmony. It was accidental: I was on my way to the men’s room when I passed the group’s vendor table, just as they were striking up an impromptu number. I bought two of their CDs on the spot, and was not disappointed.

A couple of my conversations suggest that a rift is developing in the steampunk world: Those who would like to see steampunk remain true to its roots, in fiction faithful to the science, technology, and culture of its time, versus those who feel no hesitation in pulling steampunk ever more toward deep retro urban fantasy. I need to read more on both sides before I can have strong opinions here, but something of this sort was happening in the 1960s, when the New Wave was taking on traditional hard SF and enough bricks were thrown in both directions to build several thousand brick moons. The New Wave eventually drowned in its own self-indulgence, but in fairness, it freed both fantasy and hard SF to explore sexual themes in ways simply unthinkable prior to 1960. The term “steampunk” may have to be broadened to include any fantastic literature in a Victorian setting–which will clear the way for others to create “hard steampunk” as a distinct subsubgenre.

The Tivoli Building at the Auraria Campus is not brightly lit, and many convention events were held in cavernous spaces where my pocket camera couldn’t grab enough light to image well. So (having reviewed everything in the camera this morning) I don’t have much in the line of photos to show you, and nothing at all of me. Jim may have some better shots (he had his DSLR with him) and if so I’ll post what I can in coming days.

Back Off, Man. I’m a Steampunker.

MattSchapsProtonPack.jpgAt the first annual Anomaly Con in Denver, at the Tivoli Building on the Auraria Campus downtown. It’s a specialty SF convention, catering to the steampunk subgenre. I came up Friday night and met Jim Strickland Saturday morning as the con opened. Jim had set up a panel for us with the concom, and readings from the two halves of our double novel.

I freely admit I had no idea what to expect. I have never been to a comics or media con, and in fact haven’t been to a traditional SF con in four or five years. I used to go to three or four every year, back long ago when the world and I were young and I was writing a lot of SF because my life was simple and I had not yet broken into computer books.

This was, well, different. There have always been a few people at cons in hall costumes. At Anomaly Con, probably 85% of the congoers are in hall costume all the time, and some of them are doozies.

Most, as you might expect, were Victorian gentlemen and ladies, plus the occasional mad scientist. But beyond that were some western card sharps, a few outfits clearly adapted from Civil War re-enactments, a couple of pirates, at least one pith-helmeted explorer, plus a scattering of zombies and a handful of imponderables that might be from some subsubsubgenre I haven’t heard of yet.

The effort and ingenuity that went into some of these costumes was boggling, and the cleverness factor off the charts. My vote for Best of Show goes to Matt Schaps, a young man who created a steampunk Ghostbusters proton pack out of the guldurndest collection of retro junk, including a 3-gang variable capacitor, a Model T Ford ignition coil, a J-38 Morse Code key, five or six vacuum tubes, a couple of IF cans, and a biggish woofer behind a brass shell salvaged from a ceiling fan.

At our panel, Jim and I discussed the necessary conditions for the evolution of a Victorian-style industrial age, and whether it was a fluke or an inevitable stop along the path from mud huts to interstellar empire. We used my Drumlins universe as an example, and explained how factors like freedom of thought, economic freedom, relatively benign religion lacking monasticism (and the nasty dualism that monasticism inevitably carries with it) and cheap energy would almost invariably create something like the England and the US of the 1890s. The panel was well-received, and afterwards we spent a lot of time at the tables in the hall tossing ideas around with interested attendees.

I’m about to head over there again, and will post additional photos this evening or tomorrow. My own hall costume is limited to a western-style vest and the ill-fitting top hat I bought for the Coriolis Millennium Christmas Party in late 1999, but it will do for now. Next time I might well lean a little western, since the Drumlins stories I’ve done so far tend toward space westerns more than steampunk. (Drumlin Circus incorporates some of both.) It’s been a lot of fun so far, and the setting is perfect: In the room where we held our panel, a huge two-cylinder stationary steam engine with a 10-foot flywheel lay in state, with small boys dressed like Oliver Twist scrambling all over it and spinning the handwheels. Crazy world, yes, but a good one.

Odd Lots

  • Printed book sales fall, and ebook sales rise by 115%. Something’s Going On Here.
  • I bought an iPod Touch from Jim Strickland and am currently figgering it out. Although I was surprised that it won’t display .mov videos, this article makes much clear about Apple’s video formats.
  • Michael Covington’s 2008 tutorial on reading email headers to spot phish and phakes is worth reading again.
  • Richard McConachy sent me a link to The Great Wetherell Refractor, a hand-made 200mm F9 with some of the guldurndest metalwork in it.
  • There was a horned gopher during the Pleistocene. Really. It is the only horned rodent known, and the smallest horned mammal.
  • From Henry Law comes a reminder of an xkcd item from a while back. For heavenly performance, ground your receiver in a jar of holy water!
  • And that led to this one, which (Ben Franklin groupie that I am) has always been one of my favorites.
  • I haven’t had a monster zin in some time, but last night I opened the bottle of Klinker Brick 2007 Old Vine Zinfandel that’s been sitting on the rack for almost two years. About $18 if I recall. At 15.8% alcohol, it’s among the strongest reds you’re likely to find that aren’t port. Dry but not bitter, with strong spice and enough fruit to balance the buzz. I had about 100ml. Puh-lenty!
  • A cool hack and great visual humor. I have a couple of these little KingMax USB sticks (courtesy Eric Bowersox) and although it would be a bad use of my time, I’m sorely tempted.
  • Accidental visual feast: Search for “steampunk jewelry” on Google Images. My favorite would be this one, which I would title “Time Flies.”
  • In addition to bathroom heaters like the one I bought the other day, the Fitzgerald Manufacturing Company was well-known for making vibrators, (PDF) albeit not the kind that generated plate voltage for car radios! (Could this have been the original killer app for mains electricity?) Thanks to Jim Strickland for the link.

The Star-Rite Type C Heater

StarRightTypeCHeater.jpgI happened by a consignment antiques shop yesterday while shoe-shopping. My first thought on seeing this item in the window was Captain Nemo has hocked his labs! So I bought it. It’s a Star-Rite Type C heater, made circa 1925 by Fitzgerald Manufacturing Company of Torrington, Connecticut. 630W at 110V, and it even works, not that I left it plugged in for very long. It’s seen some hard use but the paint appears to be original, and only the clips holding the wire cage to the dish are missing. (The cage stays in by spring pressure, and not much of that.)

The parabola seems reasonably accurate, and when I took it out on the deck and pointed it at the Sun it smoked a piece of an advertising flyer in a second or two. It needs a little cleanup, but nothing heroic. Anybody care to guess what I’m going to do with it?

Odd Lots

  • A 20-year study does suggest that personality affects longevity, though interpreting the results sounds tricky. The question arises whether personality can be changed, and if not, well, longevity is (as I’ve long suspected) almost entirely in the genes. (Thanks to Frank Glover for the link.)
  • I had never heard of Kindle novelist Amanda Hocking until a week or two ago, but she’s obviously doing something right. What I think she may be doing right is accruing fans, as Kevin Kelly suggested back in 2008. Get to 1000 fans, and you can make a living. (She clearly has more than 1000 fans.)
  • A Wi-Fi only Xoom will go on sale at the end of March at a $599 price point. I’m still waiting for them to make the SD card slot work, but it’s nice to see some flexibility in other areas.
  • A 128GB SDXC card was inevitable (and still expensive–though check back in an hour or so) but I wonder what devices can actually use it. Most of the “barrier” issues are with Windows; Linux does not differentiate between SDHC and SDXC cards as long as they have compatible filesystems.
  • It’s not blogs that have debased American politics. It’s email–email sent to you by your aunt, who tells you to forward it to everyone in your address book. We laugh, but new research suggests that the strategy works.
  • Digging around in the shop the other night I found an envelope of crystal pairs for my old Standard 2M HT, which I bought in 1976. That was a great radio, built like a brick, and I’m looking to get another one. I’m watching eBay, but if you have one in the pile somewhere you might part with, I’m interested.
  • OMG! There are still potato chips fried in lard! Glorioski!
  • We’re finally starting to admit it: Fruit will make you fat. I ration fruit to three or four servings a week. Fruit is candy and almost entirely sugar, much of it fructose, which basically goes straight to your gut.
  • And while we’re talking food, consider: If a dozen eggs cost about $2 where you live (as they do here, sometimes cheaper) that means that two eggs plus a little butter to fry them in will set you back about 35 cents. That’s cheap calories, and good ones.
  • While listening to the 1968 Association song “Six Man Band” the other day, a line in the lyrics caught my attention: “We’ve got the seventeen jewels that dictate the rules…” How many people under the age of 25 or so have any idea what this refers to?

Space Westerns vs. SF Westerns vs. Weird Westerns

Back in 2002, when “Drumlin Boiler” appeared in IASFM, somebody in the comments on the IASFM Web site grumbled that the story was “a glorified western.” I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but even though I’m sure the comment was intended to be dismissive, it was true: “Drumlin Boiler” was a story set on the frontier in a society roughly equivalent to 1870s America. The frontier was on another planet, and there were all these alien gadgets lying around causing trouble, but people were riding horses and packing six-guns.

Ever since then, I’ve used the term “space western” to describe the genre of the first several Drumlins stories. (Drumlin Circus is different for a number of reasons, but I’ll get to that in future entries.) The term was floating around in obscurity for years in the SF culture, but then Firefly happened, and abruptly what my Clarion ’73 compatriots once razzed as “cowboys on Mars” became legitimate and even hit the bigtime.

I learned not long ago that there’s a mirror image of the space western: the science fiction western. I hadn’t known that the literary classification knives were cutting that fine, but they are. Space westerns transplant themes and cultural elements of the American west onto other planets. Science fiction westerns transplant SF themes into the actual American West of an earlier time. Think of the difference as “cowboys on Mars” vs. “Martians in Texas.” (For a great example of the latter, see Howard Waldrop’s wry “Night of the Cooters.” I’m guessing, not having seen it nor read the graphic novel, that Cowboys and Aliens is much the same.)

And as if that weren’t enough, there are also weird westerns: supernatural themes transplanted onto the American West. This surprises some but doesn’t surprise me. The era of the American West was also the apex of Spiritualism, which originated near Rochester, New York in 1848 but by 1880 was everywhere in the country, including the western territories. The weird western subgenre goes way back: The mere handful of classic horror comics that I read in my cousin Ron’s basement in the late 1950s always had a few cowboy settings. These days, you can find things like Six-Guns Straight From Hell, which appears to include such genre cross-products as werewolf sheriffs, vampire bank-robbers, and “new-fangled electric zombies.” Many of the stories were first published in Science Fiction Trails, an annual anthology edited by David B. Riley. SFT goes broader and covers all three categories, sometimes with a steampunk flavor, as in Jim Strickland’s story “Brass and Steel” in the recent #6. “Brass and Steel” might well be said to include “new-fangled electric zombies,” a concept Jim pursues with a lot more rigor than the author of your average sparkly vampire yarn, ten-gallon hats or no.

I went a little cold on SF for quite awhile (I’m guessing almost 15 years) because it began to take itself a little too seriously and thereby ceased to be fun. Fun is what we do this for, after all, and sending things a little bit over-the-top is the very best way to puncture the stuffies and get the fun back front-and-center. The first three Drumlins stories were space westerns. Drumlin Circus is a steampunk western, with just a hint of weird, if a postulated sensitivity of quantum computers to human mental states counts as weird. (I stop well short of vampires.) Hell, I can wear lots of hats; hats are among the things I do best. Ask Carol. Or just look in my closet.

Odd Lots

  • Finally, the epic review of the Motorola Xoom that we assumed we’d eventually see from Ars Technica. My only gripe is that somebody over there needs to learn how to take sharp, close-in photos of hardware.
  • While we’re talking Xoom, I learned that my Degunking collaborator Joli Ballew is doing a Xoom book for Wiley. According to Amazon, it will be out on June 7.
  • Ibuprofen (Advil etc.) may provide some protection against Parkinson’s. It may also tear up your stomach lining, as happened to me in 1999. Be careful.
  • And damn, I shoulda gone to Polish school when I was four, like my mom wanted. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Here’s a list of the ten most powerful earthquakes since 1900. (They have not yet included the Japanese quake, which has recently been promoted from 8.9 to 9.0.) I remember the stories in the papers about the 1964 Alaska quake. Man, that was ugly. Let’s be glad it wasn’t in the Cascades.
  • My assembly language book is now for sale on both the Kindle and the Nook stores. Kindle: $36.86. Nook: $52.00. Print: $65.00. (But nobody pays cover anymore.)
  • I’ve been called a crank for my position on this, but I don’t care: Sleep is more important than food. (If you won’t listen to me, maybe you’ll listen to Harvard.)
  • Here’s a nice page on magic eye tubes, which are remarkably little-known (especially among the young) given their off-the-charts coolness factor. And another photo page. Some of the miniature types were used well into the 1960s. We had a Grundig tape recorder from 1961 or so, and it incorporated a DM70, which I still have in a box somewhere, along with a 6AL7 and a couple of 6U5’s.
  • From the Ideas You Can Have For Free And Are Worth Every Nickel Department: Somebody should start a Wikipedia extension wiki that automatically grabs and posts anything deleted from Big Wiki for that peculiarly intense Wikipedia fetish, non-notability. In this era of pervasive broadband and $50 terabytes, why shouldn’t the 6U5 get its own page? It’s certainly notable to me.
  • From the Law of Unintended Consequences Department: Scrupulously green San Francisco is turning brown because government-mandated low-flow toilets aren’t moving solid waste through the system quickly enough to forestall clogging. Be glad you live in New Yawk, Ed. (Thanks again to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Although I’ve always known what hops are used for (beer, basically) I realized this morning that I had no idea what a hop looked like. Now I know.
  • has evidently been bought out by a nostalgia site called Memory Lane. I haven’t gotten any email pitches from them lately, so I’m quietly hoping that either Memory Lane has reformed their fraud-laced marketing practices (telling me of girls who supposedly attended my all-male high school back when I did) or that the whole mess will soon sink into bankruptcy and vanish.

Taking a Breath

This has been a helluva month. To finish Drumlin Circus I wrote 26,000 words in two weeks, and then by six days later had polished it, laid it out, proofed it, and combined it with a second short novel (by the formidable Jim Strickland) to make something book-sized, with a twist. (More on the twist in a later entry.) We’re now waiting for the cover art, and so for a day or two I’ve had a chance to pick up my office, read a little, run the dogs around, and ruminate on what I’d learned.

coincellgrab.jpgOh, and I bought a TV for downstairs. A TV. 55″ wide and 1.37″ thick (!!) by my digital calipers. Sure, I’d like a flying car. But this again reminds me that we really do live in the future.

The do-it list was getting long. I’ve needed to replace a couple of coin cells in the Dell USFFs we have here and at church for some time. In most PCs this isn’t difficult, but Dell put the coin cell holder in a bad spot, especially in the SX270. Pulling out the old cell, no sweat–that’s what God made needle-nose pliers for. Reinserting a new cell would be easier too, except that the pliers would short out the cell. So I put a short length of shrink tubing over one of the two jaws and held it over a match for a bit. Shazam! The cells survived the operation, and I broke no fingernails trying to coerce them in either direction. It’s a trick worth remembering if you can’t use your fingers to get coin cells into place behind that plumber’s nightmare of a heat sink you’ve got.

One of the things I had to do to write Drumlin Circus was adopt an older style for the first-person narrator, who is an educated city guy in an 1890s sort of culture, albeit one not on Earth. This isn’t normal diction for me and I had to train myself to do it, first by reading largish chunks of The Time Machine and Food of the Gods, and then by going back to Gene Wolfe’s boggling 5-volume New Sun saga, which I hadn’t been through in ten or fifteen years. Again, the complexity of the tale boggled me a little (as did more than a few of the words he repurposes but never invents) but this time I was ready: I had ordered Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus and kept it at my elbow. It’s a 420-page index of terms, concepts, and proper names from the series, with not only their meanings in the story but also their derivation from myth, religion, and other languages. If you intend to read the Urth cycle closely, you’re gonna need this. Highly recommended.

Over the next few days here I’ll try to cover a few more noteworthy things associated with Drumlin Circus. Mostly I want to reassure you all that I’m back and looking forward to writing here a little more regularly than I’ve been.

The Long, Long Circus

Whew. Drumlin Circus is done. Or at least complete and intact, if not finished. (Stories are a little like software to me: They’re never finished, not in a truly final sense of the word.) I had dared myself to get it all down by last night, and come four PM I found myself staring at the screen, thinking that I needed a short “resonance” scene to wrap it all up but couldn’t figure out what it might be. (Such scenes are not part of the outline.)

So I sat down this morning and started reading the whole thing through from the beginning. By the time I got through it about 11:00, I knew what I wanted, and fifteen minutes later the words were on the page.

The story came out a lot longer than I planned. 33% longer, in fact: I planned for 35,000 words and my subconscious handed me 53,000. The same thing happened to me in 1998 and 1999: I had intended The Cunning Blood to come in at 90,000 words, and by publication in 2005 was 145,000 words long. Several people have told me that that was a major reason none of the big houses would publish it.

Getting the flu in January slowed me down radically. To make our deadline of introducing it at AnomalyCon at the end of March, I set the completion deadline for March 2. That was a tough one, and in fact, I wrote 25,000 words in the last fourteen days alone. I don’t think I’ve ever written that much fiction in that little time, at least since I was in high school and did little else.

How did it turn out? Reasonably well. It was an experiment on a number of fronts. I’ve never written anything in that length class before. I have a completed but unpublished novella that came in at 27,000 words, and nothing else much past 12,000. It was also a conscious effort to bend the work in a steampunk direction. How that worked I’m not sure yet, though sooner or later people will probably tell me. I wedged in almost every steampunk trope there is, even if briefly: airships, goggles, steam locomotives, strong women dressed provocatively, long-barrelled pistols, and as much brass as I could mention on a planet more or less flooded with intelligent nanocolonies of alien metal. I even tipped the hat to zombies, if only in a metaphor. (Calm down. There are no actual zombies in the story. None.)

I read some Verne and Wells before getting down to business, so that my first-person viewpoint character would sound like an educated city man from 1890, and not like the cowboys and farmers who have dominated the drumlins canon so far. Again, I’m not sure yet how well that worked out. We’ll see.

The story needs some cleaning up, some continuity checking, and as much peer review as I can gather in the next couple of days. Cover art is in progress, and if all the streams collide into the same river, we’ll see Drumlin Circus in book form on or before March 27.