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August, 2012:

Dispatch from Gormenghast-on-the-River

Worldcon, Day 2. I’ve been in this hotel before. I’ve wandered through its subterranean halls, furiously poking bits into my wetware geolocation memory register, without much useful success. I feel like a cat looking for his litterbox in Gormenghast…along with a thousand other cats. It’s the most chaotic Worldcon venue I’ve ever experienced. It’s about as orthagonal as the Intel x86 architecture. It’s as…

Ok, ok, I’ll stop bitching. Much looking at maps allowed me to get to a lot of places and get a fair bit done. 10 out of 13 students from my 2011 Taos Toolbox workshop are at the convention (as are instructors Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress) and we actually held a brief critique session at Carole Moleti’s kaffeeklatsch noonish. I sat in a couple of readings and spoke at length with a great many people I don’t see very often. Over lunch I tried to get the K9 email client for Android running on my Transformer Prime, without complete success. I would try again but I had free Wi-Fi at The Corner Bakery. Here in my room at the Sheraton, it would be another $13.95 for a day, on top of the $13.95 I’m already paying for my laptop’s connection.

The discussion topic of the house seems to be, “W(h)ither zombies?” Are they past their expiration date? Is there any more meat to be chewed on that bone? Is the corpse still twitching?

Consensus seems to be, Yes–but ya gotta have a twist. I had a moment to think about twists this afternoon, and if I wanted to do a zombie novel I think I have a good one. I won’t bore you with it right now, but I’ll offer a clue: It’s a straightforward extension of something I’ve written about before in an SF story.

David Brin asked me what time it was. I answered, “4:22.”

In loose moments I’m reading The Quantum Dot by Richard Turton. Nice item, a little dry, but the best summary I’ve seen so far.

A filk popped into my head this morning. I’ll quote the refrain. If you know music at all you’ll get the joke:

Seven ugly shelves, made out of wood;
Tall and thin they were.
Into the writer’s house they went;
His paperbacks to bear.

There’s more, but I need to work on the rhyme.

And I’m about out of time this evening. Supper looms. Not sure where it looms, but it’s making loom noises. Or maybe that’s my stomach. I’ll find out shortly.

Worn Out in the Big City

Just got downtown here in Chicago for the World Science Fiction Convention, Chicon 7. I have a nice room on an upper floor of a good hotel, and pointedly not at the Hyatt, the main convention location. That was deliberate. I like peace and quiet, especially when I try to sleep, and I’ve been to enough Worldcons to know that I’m peculiar in that regard.

Ok, sure, I’m peculiar in a lot of other regards too. But for the next couple of days, that’s the big one.

Crowds have always made me uneasy. This was true even 35-odd years ago when I worked downtown just a few blocks south of here. I was in and out of office buildings all day, fixing Xerox machines, so I was down there on the sidewalks flowing with the trudging masses more than most people do on any given day. After that there was the ride home on the El, packed like bits in a Zip file. I didn’t find it exhilarating. I found it exhausting. I never knew just how exhausting until I bought a very Cleaver-ish white house in a tidy, quiet Rochester NY picket-fence suburb. Carol and I could sit on our patio on temperate days and have supper without hearing anything but birds, lawnmowers, and the occasional truck on Monroe Avenue. Our biggest challenge was keeping Mr. Byte from raiding the strawberry patch when we weren’t looking.

As my friends know, I am not shy and retiring in the least. I’ve given many speeches and seminars to large-ish audiences, including one that must have been close to a thousand people. I even did standup comedy once, though I did have some help and a very workable crowd.

I’ve never been stepped on at a soccer riot, nor squeezed in front of a stage at a rock concert. I can only conclude that a preference for quiet living is genetic. I wonder if it’s maybe yet another survival-selected holdover from my cave-dwelling ancestors, who knew in their guts that when too many Neanderthals hung out in the same place, skulls got bashed and the hunting got thin.

So in a few minutes I’ll throw this thing in the room safe and thread my way down into the pandemonium that is a Worldcon. I have people to see that I don’t see very often, books to buy (and sign; I’ll be at the ISFiC Press table at some point) and a meeting with an editor who has expressed interest in Ten Gentle Opportunities. As always it will be a cortisol thrill-ride, and tonight I will gladly vanish back up here and leave the all-night partying to those better adapted than I.

More as it happens.

Odd Lots

Harry Harrison, Gentleman Atheist, RIP

65,000 words. This is still hard. But I am damned well going to make it work.

One reason I will make it work is a man who left this world today for other worlds, not that he was any stranger to other worlds. Harry Harrison is one of those guys who isn’t appreciated as much as he deserves, for reasons that escape me. Most people know of him for Slippery Jim Di Griz and little else. We forget that his story Make Room! Make Room! inspired Soylent Green. Almost nobody knows that he wrote the Flash Gordon newspaper comic strip in the 50s and 60s. (I didn’t know it until I read his obituary.) And I’m amazed that more people haven’t read what I consider just about his best work, The Daleth Effect. And what I do consider his best work may not be everybody’s choice, but too bad: The Technicolor Time Machine beats all.

When I was fresh out of the Clarion SF workshop in 1973, I cleaned up a Clarion story of mine and sent it to him. He bought it for $195, and when it appeared in his anthology Nova 4 the next year, I was (finally!) a published SF writer.

The story was “Our Lady of the Endless Sky,” now in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories. It’s about a slightly clueless Roman Catholic priest who manages to be sent as the Catholic chaplain to a church constructed on the Moon. When an industrial accident destroys one of the lunar base’s hydroponic gardens, a new garden is built under the transparent dome of the church. Father Bernberger is heartbroken. He’s lost his church…or has he?

It was a decent story for something written by a 21-year-old kid who was “young for his age.” But far more remarkable than that was the fact that Harry Harrison bought it at all. You see, Harry was an atheist, and said so as often as it took for people to get the message. So why would he buy a story about religion?

The one time I met him, at the SFWA reception at one of the late 70s Worldcons, I thanked him for buying the story, and asked him exactly that. (All the SMOFs had told me about him being hostile to religion.) He laughed and said, “It wasn’t about religion. It was about a man who had faith.”

He told me to keep writing. I did.

Now, I’ve taken a lot of kidding and scolding and eye-rolling down the years for being such a naif as to go to church every Sunday and even (egad) pray. I’ve seen a lot of desperately mean-spirited condemnation not only of religious nutters (as though there have never been atheist nutters) but also of the quietly religious people who tend the sick and feed the poor without making any attempt to convert them, nor saying anything more about it.

None of that from Harry Harrison, at least not that I’ve ever seen. He was a gentleman atheist who gave me a push by publishing my story about a church and a priest, even though it went against the grain of his personal philosophy. He shook my hand and told me to keep going. He wrote good, engaging yarns that made me gasp and made me laugh, yarns that I freely admit to imitating. He is one reason (though not the sole reason) that I will not condemn atheism as my species of Catholicism is sometimes condemned.

Godspeed, good friend, however you may understand the wish.

Odd Lots

Humor Is Hard

Humor is hard. Way hard. Especially when you attempt to write 25,000 words of it at a rate of 1,000 words a day. As I mentioned recently, I have a significant press interested in my novel-in-progress, Ten Gentle Opportunities. I’m trying to have all 80,000 words of it not only written but polished by September 15th. As of this afternoon, I’m at 57,100. I’m on track. (Barely.)

But man, this is hard.

Now, I have a knack for humor. I was famous for opening with a humorous anecdote while doing the “Structured Programming” column in DDJ back in the ’90s. (I learned that from Isaac Asimov, glory unmeasurable be upon him.) Does anybody remember the Pizza Pride Girl? I got more fan mail on that one column than on some of my books, and for a couple of months afterward I’d get regular emails asking what the Pizza Pride Girl was wearing that day. I did standup for most of an hour at my 40th grade school reunion in 2006, to the extent that some of the girls who had ignored me in 1966 came up to me and said things like, “Jeff, I didn’t know you were funny.” (One added, “I don’t mean funny-looking. Not that you were ever funny-looking. Really, you weren’t.” Sorry. I was.)

I’ve written a number of well-regarded humorous SF shorts, including “Stormy Versus the Tornadoes” and “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs.” (Both are in my collection, Souls in Silicon .) In 1978 I wrote a (still unpublished) lighthearted 27,000-word action/adventure hard SF novella in the style of Keith Laumer’s Retief stories, which took me close to a year; in fact, by the time I submitted it to Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine, the magazine had folded. Most of my longer SF items (including Drumlin Circus and The Cunning Blood ) contain a certain amount of comic relief. But never in my entire writing life have I tried to be funny for 80,000 words in a row.

The editor who wants to see the novel suggested at a recent writers’ conference that humorous SF is uncommon because Douglas Adams set the bar so high. If true, that’s unfortunate. I’m not trying to be Douglas Adams, just as I wasn’t trying to be Isaac Asimov at DDJ. I’m not going for some kind of world record. Genius does not invalidate competence. I just want to tell a good story that makes people laugh.

The problem lies in sustaining the mood. The premise is already loopy, in the way that the Harold Shea stories were loopy. Going in I had a lot of ideas that ran from whimsical to downright silly. One of my AIs discovers that she has an FPS-style Core Wars video game built into her kernel (complete with a cannon that shoots machine instructions) and uses it to fight back when she’s attacked by malware, right down to a Lara Croft-style skin. On another of my AIs’ bookshelves is a book called Sixty-Four Shades of Gray. Then, of course, are my already-famous dancing zombies. I’m attempting every type of humor I’ve ever heard of, with the single exception of puns. Will it work? I don’t know yet. Sooner or later (by this fall, with any luck) I will.

In the meantime, a sample from today’s output:

…If the gomog failed to return, he would not be leaving this universe soon, or perhaps ever. What Stypek thought about that changed from hour to hour. He had spent some wistful moments on the edge of sleep remembering the pleasures of Ttrynngbrokklynnygyggug: finding castoff spells in garbage heaps, eating stewed squykk, sleeping in drain pipes, studying ancient books until his eyes burned, dodging zombies, running away from angry magicians…

Yes, he supposed that there could be worse fates than being stranded in a universe like this. Here he had been given fine clothes and the best food he had ever eaten. Carolyn’s meals were sublime, especially those containing meat from an animal called a spam, which his own world was not fortunate enough to offer. She had gifted him with sacks of delicacies that any nobleman in Ttrynngbrokklynnygyggug would kill for: Doritos, Cheetos, Pringles, Ruffles, and sweets baked by elves.

Even the protective charms were delicious. Carolyn had offered him a sack of edible talismans called gummies that would ward off bears. They did seem effective; after three days he had yet to see a bear. A small jar of similar talismans were either made from flint stones or deflected them away. (He would learn when he finally worked out the secret of opening the jar.) No matter. With the protective spells he had carried with him mapped to inexplicable or useless things, Stypek would gladly arm himself against local hazards however he could.

Odd Lots