Saturday, June 30, 2007
Last week German photographer Bernd Becher passed away. With his wife Hilla, he spent fifty years documenting the hidden beauties of the dying industrial landscapes of the West in incredibly beautiful black and white photographs. What a monumental achievement he made. If you've never experienced their work, you really should check out a tome (you know your coffee table *needs* a collection of rusting cooling towers sitting on top of it).
Friday, June 29, 2007
The first three chapters are online at Pyr.
I didn't arrive until Saturday morning at the convention, and had some time to kill before my first panel. So I ended up talking with Monkeybrain mastermind Chris Roberson about setting up a Wiki to deal with worldbuilding notes and the like for various writing projects, the fact that emails weren't getting through in regards to the upcoming Armadillocon Writer's Workshop and Interzone. After running through the various panels I was scheduled for that day and having absolutely nobody show up for my reading (except for Martha Wells. Instead of reading, we just BSed through my alotted time) I made it up to the various parties going on, and ran into John Moore.
Since the evening rapidly became a blur, I won't even try to figure which party individual photos were taken at. Suffice to say, it was either at the Fencon, Space Squid/RevolutionSF or Armadillocon soirees. I chatted with editor David Hartwell and physicist John Cramer. Hartwell told fascinating stories about his experiences with Phil Dick and James Tiptree, Jr. Cramer talked about quantum entanglement and retrocausality, and my head exploded. Staggering over to the next party, I encountered Chuck Siros and Lawrence Person livin' la vida sofa.
Hartwell gets some editorial pointers from Steve Wilson of Space Squid and RevolutionSF fame. And really, what SF convention would be complete without a roving band of drunken, singing pirates?
Above we have Tim Miller of Fencon fame. Sadly, Tim was not seen wearing his Tim the Enchanter headpiece this year. Also present was Elze Hamilton, best known for her photo documentation and blogging about various Texas conventions.
Sunday I finally caught up with Kim Kofmel, one of the prime movers-and-shakers behind Apollocon and an increasingly significant presence behind the scenes at Armadillocon as well. Since she was slowly going insane from putting out fires at the con, I was able to talk a little with Kathryn Cramer. I've read her blog off and on for years--even before it was a nexus of socio-political-geo-revolutionary controversy. She confessed that she didn't know what she was going to do with the blog, since it'd taken on such a bizarre life of its own and she now figured prominently in several conspiracy theories circling the globe. So instead we switched gears to lighter fare, and traded rants about how Creation Conventions have pretty much fouled the waters for every other genre convention in the world by setting really, really bad precedents in regard to guest relations, fan relations and overall greed. On that happy note, I bade my farewells and went home, shamed by all the brilliant writers I interacted with over the weekend and vowing to be more productive myself in the weeks and months ahead (don't you just love conventions?).
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
In the context of a SFFH convention, here is a topic almost guaranteed to result in a really lame panel or one that gravitates to the gutter: "How Friendly were Frodo and Sam? Was there a homoerotic subtext to Lord of the Rings?"
I had to moderate that at ApolloCon last Saturday morning at 10 AM. Guess what: it ended up being a fascinating panel discussion, perfectly suitable for the younger ears in the audience. As throughout the convention (Programming Director Kim Kofmel does good work!) the composition of the panel was exceptionally apt. We had No Fear of the Future's own Jess Nevins, whose grasp of pulp fiction is literally encyclopedic; Selina Rosen, writer and owner of GLBT-friendly publisher Yard Dog Press; writer and graphic novelist Mel. White with her solid background in academia and anthropology; me, on the grounds that one of my stories won the 2002 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for short fiction; and Lee Martindale, writer, activist extraordinaire, and editor of Such a Pretty Face, an anthology of SFF with fat heroes and heroines.
The panel fluidly ranged from academic angles to activism. From Jess, we learned how far back into literary history goes the impulse to re-interpret or retell a story to meet the reader's emotional needs. We discussed the extensive impulses of media and book fans to write fiction pairing off their favorite characters in improbable and x-rated ways in "slash fiction." That topic segued into authors' legal and artistic rights to control how their own characters are used. Before the end, we got around to acknowledging how important it is to so very many readers - and writers - of fantasy and science fiction that an imagined universe be one where all kinds of people can exist and belong, including aliens, misfits, and flavors of humanity that no one even imagined until an author invented them!
Here was a fun little thing at ApolloCon. There were cartoon cows everywhere. That was the volunteers' mascot and they were proud of it. Meanwhile in the dealers' room at the Instant Attitudes table, there were oodles of plush toy microbes from Giant Microbes™. You could pick up all kinds of dire diseases. Sleeping sickness, Flu, Guardia, HIV, Heartworm... and a fuzzy little cow-spotted cylinder with cutely glaring eyes: Mad Cow!
Monday, June 25, 2007
Friday, June 22, 2007
You'd think Houston - the fourth largest city in the USA, with nationally and internationally prominent universities, the home of NASA-Johnson Space Center; the first word from the Moon - would have had a first-rate annual SFFH convention ever since, oh, the late Cretaceous. Off and on over the years we've had such. Happily, we do now. It's ApolloCon, and in only its fourth year it's already shaping up as a very fine regional convention. This weekend, Jayme and I will be there. I'll post photos and/or vignettes here....
Tuesday, June 19, 2007
I. Grand Dame of the Brazos Fleet
A gust of thick, salty air lashed La Riaza. The airship, third-largest of the Brazos fleet at 537 feet bow-to-stern, groaned and strained against her moorings. Her phantom shadow lumbered up the thick, stonework mooring towers, then retreated. The fore gangplank shifted, and a pair of bare-chested airmen carrying a nested stack of turtle shells aboard stumbled, losing their sweat-slick grip on the load. The man-sized shells clattered onto wood, then down to the trampled black mud below. Their polished turquoise- and cobalt-blue surfaces glinted in the fading light.
The outer cloudbands of the approaching storm had thickened throughout the day, and now effectively ruled the sky with their gray murk. The entire city of Puerto Jabrón seemed to hold its breath against the oncoming storm.
“Madre dios!” shouted First Mate Diego Brazos, running over to the fallen shells. He knelt, running his hard, brown hands over their smooth surfaces. A nick on one. A bad scuff on another. Nothing serious. The third, however, the third had an ugly crack running from its edge halfway to the center. “You’re worse than groundlings, the both of you! It’s cracked, and won’t even bring a quarter of the others’ worth at auction. Next time, drop yourselves and break you stinking necks. It’ll save me both headache and money.”
The two airmen scrambled down the gangplank to collect the shells, not daring to look directly at Diego.
“And don’t think I’m not taking the difference out of your salaries, because I am.”
“Winds change all the time, Señor Brazos. No one can anticipate every spot of turbulence,” said a tired, dusty voice. Diego spun to find Capitan Ancira behind him. Whip-thin, bald and shrunken with age, Ancira had outlasted many younger capitans--and ships as well. “I doubt docking these crewmen’s pay will make or break the company’s profits margins. Don’t you agree, Señor Brazos?”
“Aye,” Diego answered tightly. “No need to dock anyone’s pay.”
The airmen bobbed their heads in acknowledgment of their good fortune, and--lest Capitan Ancira depart and leave them to face Diego’s wrath alone--hurried up into the ship with the recollected shells.
“Now, Señor Brazos, I believe you owe me some ballast sheets?” Capitan Ancira said, clamping his hand on Diego’s shoulder. The thin fingers were hard as steel.
“Here, Capitan. You’ll find everything in order.”
Ancira accepted the sheaf with a grunt of acknowledgment. “You’ve got La Riaza unbalanced in sections three and four of the aft hold,” he said almost immediately.
“We’re holding that space for the Baumgarten cargo. We’ve contracted for transport of four mermaids. They’ll command an outstanding price on Ansuly.”
“Baumgarten, you say?” Ancira scratched his sparse beard as he studied the ballast sheets. “Move one barrel of whale oil from section seven to three, and two from eight to four. That ought to keep us trim enough.” He thrust the ballast sheets back at Diego. “Hermann Baumgarten’s been promising live mermaids to anyone who’ll bargain going on nine years now, and I’ve only seen him deliver twice. I’ll not risk that coming storm on his account. Make ready to cast off, Señor Brazos. I want us off this Dios-forsaken ball of mud in ten minutes. And I expect those ballast sheets to be corrected.”
Diego caught two airmen in the keel catwalk and set them to reordering the oil barrels as the ship’s bells began clanging liftoff warnings. The ground crews scrambled for the mooring towers.
Clambering down the stair to the pilot house, Diego held out the revised ballast sheets. “Corrected, Capitan.”
“I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it on time. Breathing a little hard, are we?” Capitan Ancira took the offered pages. “Assume your station, and signal cast off.”
Diego took the elevator wheel, then rang out the “cast off” signal. Immediately, La Riaza drifted back with the wind. The loosed mooring lines slipped free of the towers, quickly pulled in and stowed by airmen in the bow and stern. The silver ship rose smoothly into the sky. Emerald striping ran along the lines of the ship’s ribs from the folded masts and rigging at the bow to the low-slung pilothouse and horizontal, boxy complex of rudders and elevators at the stern.
“Keep us trimmed up against this wind, Señor DeLuna,” Capitan Ancira said to the Pilot at the rudder wheel. “Señor Brazos, kindly inform Pedemaestro Cisneros we’ll be wanting full velocity from his gigapedes.”
Diego grabbed the brass whistle dangling from the speaking tube and blew a sharp shriek into it. “All ahead full!”
Four nacelles boxed the stern of La Riaza, just ahead of the rudder complex, just behind the pilothouse. The tell-tale squeal of the long drive shafts pierced the air as the gigapedes began their march in the prophouse within the bowels of the ship. The nacelles’ great props began to turn, slowly at first, then faster, pushing the airship into the oncoming storm. Below, Diego saw crews moving two smaller airships from the whaling fleet into hulking hangars to wait out the storm. A moment later, La Riaza passed above the Jabrón Cliffs, and black sea roiled beneath her.
The pilothouse lamps flickered on as the nacelle dynamos roused to life.
La Riaza shuddered as the buffeting increased. Lightning flashed in the distance.
“I’m a fool, men. An over-confident fool. I delayed our departure too long,” Capitan Ancira said gravely. “Never fly a lady into a gale, least of all a fat-bellied, fully laden one like La Riaza. Señor Brazos, increase our pitch 15 degrees. We’ve got to get above those clouds.
“Aye, Capitan,” Diego said, spinning his wheel. The deck shifted beneath him, and bits of leaf and pebble skittered down the slope. Fat raindrops splattered against the glass windscreen. Far below, Diego saw a whaler trying to outrun the oncoming wall of clouds, its lone triangular dropsail flailing wildly. The whaler was doomed.
“Closing rapidly on the ceiling, Capitan,” said DeLuna as rain pelted his forward windscreen. Far off the starboard bow, a funnel cloud dropped down, wrenching up the sea into a towering waterspout. “It’s going to be rough going for a while.”
“That it is, that it is,” said Capitan Ancira. “Señor Brazos, sound for heavy weather.”
Diego sounded the whistle signal as black cloud enveloped La Riaza. The ship shuddered and shook. Sheets of water splayed across the windscreens in a constant barrage. The wind and rain bellowed so that Diego could barely hear the worrisome groan and creak of the airship’s timbers. Barely.
“La Riaza’s an old lady, but she’s a strong one,” Capitan Ancira said, as if reading Diego’s mind. “We’ve weathered worse than this, she and I. She’ll hold together.”
Lightning flashed, throwing a blinding blaze through the pilothouse. Thunder slammed the ship, shattering Diego’s windscreen.
Diego blinked, phantom snakes of light corkscrewing across his vision. He was lying on the floor. Water sprayed in on him. Confused, he lifted his arm. Blood ran crimson from a dozen embedded shards. A strong hand grabbed his collar and hoisted him up.
“Tie it down!” Capitan Ancira shouted in his ear. “Help me tie it down, damnit! And for Dios sake, don’t fall through!”
Diego nodded, and staggered to the opening. His wheel’d been locked into place. Fighting the inrushing rain, Diego reached above the shattered glass, untying the rolled canvas. Capitan Ancira did the same on the opposite end, and the pulled it down over the windscreen, clamping it into place through brass eyelets.
Breathing heavily, Capitan Ancira leaned against the elevator wheel and began to laugh.
“What?” gasped Diego. “What’s so funny?”
“You can hear me, and I can hear you,” Capitan Ancira said, grinning.
“Look outside, Diego,” DeLuna said from his station.
White cloud billowed past.
“Ironic, no?” said Capitan Ancira. “We catch the worst of it right at the end.”
Interzone is now available in the U.S. at Hastings, Barnes & Noble and Borders locations. Or, you can head over to the Interzone website and take out a subscription. Either way, you win.
Friday, June 15, 2007
1. Mark Dery's Shovelware. America's greatest living culture critic is the model for the blog post-as-essay approach to weblogging that some of us here aspire to emulate. Every post a densely packed treatise of connections between disparate threads no one but Mark could interweave, consistently lighting up one's brain while making one squirm at the white slippery things this cultural spelunker spots with his headlamp in the dark subterrain of American consciousness. If you want the full treatment, Mark's The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is mandatory reading for understanding the current Zeitgeist.
2. The Bad Plus' Do the Math. When not exploding your head with cascading cool improvisational jazz renditions of such jazz standards as Rush's Tom Sawyer, Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, Vangelis' Theme from Chariots of Fire, and their own superior compositions, Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and Dave King of The Bad Plus (mostly Ethan) maintain a consistently outstanding blog annotating and reinventing the history of contemporary jazz (and its interrelation with other popular music) as well as riffing on their own pop and pulp cultural interests.
3. Simon Sellars' Ballardian. The persistent Mr. Sellars has taken the idea of a site devoted to the works of an author and transformed it into something far more powerful -- a blog that documents the world's increasing memetic resonance with the peculiar "Earth is the alien planet" worldview of the author. Welcome to life in the Ballardosphere.
4. Geoff Manaugh's BLDG BLOG. "Architectural conjecture, urban speculation, landscape futures." Blog as documentary futurism of our three-dimensional space and its reflections on the back of our foreheads. Beautiful, crisp, and deep, realizing the Ballardian notion that the application of a science fictional sensibility to the present is the only true way to understand it.
5. The Chronicle of Higher Education's Arts & Letters. An old school compilation of links with thumbnail blurbs in the manner of Robot Wisdom, Arts & Letters scours the Internet mediascape for the day's freshest nuggets of intellectual interest for a primarily academic audience -- philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, and ivory tower gossip. Mandatory daily stop-off point.
It's a very good feeling when a reviewer seems to have read the same book that the writer intended to write. There are a lot of reasons why it doesn't always pan out that way - but how wonderful when it does.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Ain't no flies on me, boy.
The rest of the world sneers at the South, and at Texas, and especially at rural Texas. I know--I've done a lot of the sneering. (I'm a Yankee, I'm practically required to).
But when the world ends, I know where I want to be: behind thick walls, in the company of a bunch of wild-eyed rednecks who have more guns than teeth, who've been using those guns since before they could walk, and whose willingness to squeeze a trigger isn't diminished or affected by the amount of alcohol they've consumed or by the sight of a human (or what looks like one) appearing in their sites.
I saw what was happening fairly quickly. I'm online all day, every day, and when the blog posts started popping up on my Bloglines roll, I knew what was going on. (Trust me: when you live on Texas scrub land, the way I do, 25 miles from s.f.a. in three directions, and you walk your dog late at night, and actually listen to the night sounds...well, you're not surprised when people start saying that the dead are rising).
Home wasn't an option. I've buried too many pets in the acre out back for the trailer to be safe place to go to. (One zombie rat might not pose a problem. But I've put at least twenty of them in the ground over the years we've been here. And that's not even counting the zombie wasps we've killed).
But, honestly, I wasn't interested in that. We've got a prison here in town. Big prison. Large, thick walls. High security prison, too--it's where Texas executes its prisoners--so the guards are well-armed, and practiced with the guns. They've got enough food inside to last a couple of months, at least.
So I pulled aside a few friends at work, grabbed a few goodies, and drove right to the prison. The guards, well, they weren't necessarily happy about opening the gates, but a few more fingers on triggers are always welcome.
And now I'm inside, typing up a blog entry (probably my last). I'm sharing a cell (only bunks available here are in the cells) with my friends and the few other townies and folks from the library who made it here. We'll take our shift on the walls tonight, but before then...we're gonna have some fun. My coworkers knew some kids on campus with good weed, so we brought that. I put a keg in the back of the S.U.V. before we came. So we'll have a nice party tonight.
Of course, the guards have an even better idea. Turns out zombies are vicious (like the movies always said) but they're slow (Romero 1, Danny Boyle 0) and easy to catch. They threw a net over one, some scumbag the state shot up only a few years ago--he hasn't decomposed much--and tossed him in a cell. At the party, we'll start shoving people in there with him and see how long they last. I'm guessing it'll be more fun to watch than dogfighting. The guards and prisoners are using this to settle some scores. Me too. Me and a few of the professors brought a couple of Deans with us. They'll go in with the zombie, too.
And after that? Well, some of the guards grabbed a female zombie and have her in restraints down in the medical wing. I'm thinking we might have a little party with her later.
End of the world, my ass. This is the beginning of the best party ever.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
I found this old fellow tucked away in an old burger drive-in turned used car lot. It obviously scores points for being the spiritual inspiration for the current crop of PT Cruisers and HHRs traversing our nation's roads. I've had some trouble figuring out exactly what it is, though. As near as I can tell, it's either 1955 or '56 Chevy Suburban in the First Series, although it shares design elements with the GMC trucks of the era. The asking price on it was $1,200, which wouldn't be that bad except there is no engine, the insides are stripped bare and the root is utterly rusted through. It might be of use to someone already restoring one of these and needing body parts, but not at so steep a price.
This is--or at least was at one time--a 1955 Buick Riviera two door with a 127-inch wheel base. This one was found outside of San Marcos at a salvage yard, and had originated in Lockhart, right outside of Austin. The poor thing had been mangled in a wreck years before, and the owners eventually gave up on repairing it and sold it for scrap. This remains a stylish car, and I really dig those nifty ports on the sides of the front fender. For $600 or so, it's not a terrible deal, although it'd take lots of effort to restore it. The damage was very extensive. Alas, this one appeared destined for the great furnace in the sky.
Parked right beside the Riviera was this 1950 DeSoto Deluxe two-door. I'd never actually seen a DeSoto in person before--how often are you going to find an auto named after a conquistador in this day and age? I mean, just look at that hood ornament! Is that not style? Oh, the wonders wrought in chrome back in the day--but that's a whole other topic entirely. Turns out that this vehicle was the apex of the DeSoto legacy--never again would DeSoto produce a car to equal the Deluxe's popularity, starting the marque on a steady decline which finally ended with Chrysler pulling the plug in 1961. This particular car had a life that outlasted its parent company by almost two decades--on the back window, peeling and yellowed with age, was a Texas A&M faculty parking permit from 1979. Structurally, the car was in good shape as well, with only slight surface rust and all glass intact. Alas, the inside was not so well-preserved. All the plastics had melted and distorted over the years, the end result being something that looked like it'd come from the queen's hive in the Aliens movies. Someone had actually put a down payment on this one, with the express intent of turning it into a rat rod. Except that three months had passed and they hadn't paid the balance or picked up the vehicle. This one, too, looked destined for the furnace (although I was sorely tempted to make an offer for that hood ornament).
In the middle of New Braunfels I spotted this 1939 Cadillac Series 60 Special parked under a shed off one of the main thoroughfares. No engine, no headlights, the interior stripped bare and much of the glass missing, but still... there is a definite elegance about this car, even in a marginal state such as this. Although it's sitting untouched, it's not rotting, and a few phone calls revealed that it's a future restoration project for a local securities broker. I've never been that big of a Cadillac fan, but I can't fault him for his taste in cars. Of all the ones I'd found in my casual search, this was the first that really worked for me. There's something about those detached headlights that harken back to a time of roadsters and the joy of driving--when driving was a luxury few could afford.
So, 1939. Now I had an endpoint to my search, as 1939 was the last year--give or take--that most cars were produced with detached headlights. I'm not a big fan of the "rolling carriage" look from the 1920s and early '30s, nor do wooden spoke wheels get my heart pumping. So I'd narrowed my search to roughly the years of 1935-39. Maybe a Google search would turn up something where my legwork had failed. And wouldn't you know it, within minutes I'd found my dream car:
Pictured above is Jerry Daniels' restored 1937 Studebaker Dictator. I've never met Jerry, but exchanged emails with him to gush over the wonderful job he'd done in restoring that beautiful car. Need more convincing? He's got a fantastic gallery online documenting his step-by-step process.
I never thought I'd fall in love with a Studebaker, but what's not to love about the 1937 Dictator, or it's upscale sibling, the President? The studied coolness of the winged victory grill grabbed me right away, but the flow of the fenders, the lines of the passenger cabin, running boards and the suicide doors (suicide doors!) sweetened the deal considerably. That, my friends, is a mighty pretty automobile. Imagine my delight when Jerry informed me that the famed industrial artist Helen Dryden actually designed the vehicle. That may well make the last of the Dictators (the line name was changed to Commander in '38 because of the rise of fascism) the first auto designed by a woman:
For both the 1937 President and Dictator Studebakers, the company contracted with Helen Dryden, a well-known Art Deco artist and industrial designer, to fashion the front grill, called the "Winged Victory" grill, and the interior. Dryden lowered the body frame 3 inches, relocated the stick shift from the column to the floor, raised the seats to living room furniture height, placed the radio speaker in the roof above the rear view mirror, and designed an understated, sleek dash board.
Lowering the car made it more accessible to women drivers. By 1937, women were a serious part of the work force in America. With well-engineered, easy-to-open doors and trunk and a comfortable interior, the Dictator line offered both families and women consumers an affordable, useful, stylish and comfortable automobile.
It's a rolling work of art, literally. The interior is cush. Everything about the car screams comfort and style, and the President echoes that call, only moreso. What's more, the demand for '37 Studebakers isn't as high as one might assume. A near-mint car will ask a price in the mid-20s--according to price guides I've consulted--whereas unrestored drivers command prices south of $10,000. A rolling chassis, sans interior or working engine lists for less than $1,000. I'd need one with the optional overdrive transmission offered back in the day if I have any hope to drive it at highway speeds, but the in-line six engine turned in amazing fuel economy for the day, a jaw-dropping 24 mpg. Considering the size of the vehicle, the cheap gas of the time and the fact that my modern PT Cruiser gets in the neighborhood of 26 mpg, that's an astonishing number. I'm sold.
So, now I have a plan: Find a decent, but not pristine '37 Dictator or President for less than $10,000. Work with my brother to restore it and upgrade safety features (vintage car purists may hate me for this, but seat belts are a necessity. Sorry guys). Fine-tune the engine (if original) to maximize the fuel economy, or replace with modern engine if the original is lost or beyond repair. Fuel economy is important, you know, with gasoline prices hovering around $3 a gallon with prices only expected to increase over the next decade. The more I think of it, the more that 24 mpg looks good for 1937, but pales in comparison to the 50 mpg turned in by the hybrid Prius and the like. The Prius design leaves me cold (when, oh when will the Japanese develop some flair?) but I like those fuel numbers. If only there were something I could do to upgrade my future Studebaker...
Friday, June 8, 2007
Any writer who makes a memorable myth has accomplished something. I mean the kind of myth that, because you've read a book, comes to mind when you see something wonderful or awesome in the world.
A week ago, I was leaving
Kudos to Durbin. For a myth to wing its way out of a story and into a reader's real world, a lot has to be right about the story. It has to be entertaining, it has to keep disbelief suspended, and the mythology has to seamlessly suit the tale itself - then resonate with reality as the reader knows it. Peter Beagle is terrifically good at this sort of thing. From the supple skein of invented myths in Last Unicorn, to the titular plot device in his recent story "Salt Wine," he's always conjured mythic imagery that feels true.
It isn't just a function of fantasy. Early science fiction writers described planetary exploration in a mythopoeic way that seized the imagination of young scientists and engineers, who then spent real-world careers making the myths come true. Then Apollo catapulted the myth of exploring other planets into the realm of moon-dust-gritty reality. The romance of landing on the moon may have been lost on the public in the decades since; but the iconic "Earthrise" photo by William Anders galvanized the public imagination and the environmental movement with lasting results.
A recent article in the Washington Post throws light on Harvest Moon, salt wine, "Earthrise" and everything else of the sort. Daniel Levitin, a former record producer and now professor of psychology and music, writes about the reaction of the brain to Beatles tunes: "Great songs seem as though they've always existed, that they weren't written by anyone. Figuring out why some songs and not others stick in our heads, and why we can enjoy certain songs across a lifetime, is the work not just of composers but also of psychologists and neuroscientists.... In my laboratory, we've found that listening to a familiar song that you like activates the same parts of the brain as eating chocolate, having sex or taking opiates. There really is a sex, drugs and rock-and-roll part of the brain: a network of neural structures including the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala. But no one song does this for everyone, and musical taste is both variable and subjective."
Myth too, I think. If your tastes are wired for it, perceiving a fantastic fictional trope in the real world lights up some neural circuitry. There's nothing quite like it – except chocolate, sex, drugs and songs like "A Hard Day's Night."
Thursday, June 7, 2007
Iraq Militants' Skillful Video Colors Perception Of the Enemy
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007; Page C01
If it's been a while since you checked in with the videos emerging from insurgent groups in Iraq, the advance of professionalism continues, now to the level of tone, drama and pacing. When a new video showing what appears to be the planning and execution of an attack on American forces surfaced yesterday, most news accounts focused on the final moments, in which the personal effects of two soldiers are shown. Given the video's claims that the two men have been killed, the footage was combed for any evidence about their fate.
But this latest bit of Internet propaganda has disturbing power beyond the immediate concern over the soldiers' well-being. It is a compelling visual document, with an argument to make, and it sets up a stark series of oppositions that transcend linguistic and national barriers: occupation vs. resistance, outsiders vs. locals, dilapidated cities vs. green leafy bowers.
The video, released by the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella organization for militant groups, saves for last the details on which the American media focused. In the final 40 seconds, there are grainy, dark images of a credit card, a stack of U.S. currency, a white cross that seems to glow in the dark, and then two military identification cards, showing the faces of Army Pvt. Byron W. Fouty and Spec. Alex R. Jimenez, both missing since an attack on American forces May 12. A U.S. military official said the documents and the video seemed to be authentic.
Like another video that is circulating (showing a series of brash attacks on American vehicles by men throwing devastating grenades), the new piece focuses on what might be called fighters in repose. Recurring throughout both videos are scenes of insurgent forces underneath a canopy of trees. In the newest, there is a man standing over a handful of fighters crouched beneath a tree. With the antenna of his satellite phone or walkie-talkie, he points to a detailed map that seems to be hanging in the branches that surround him.
The scene throws into confusion the deeply ingrained, unconscious sense that terrorism is an urban phenomenon. By moving some of the most lengthy passages of the video into the outdoors -- a particularly inviting, peaceful place -- the video attempts to undermine the notion that what is happening is a terrorist attack. These fighters look more like what we would call partisans, part of a long tradition of men who have taken to the hills, or the forests, or the jungles, to fight an alien enemy.
The most recent video emphasizes images of U.S. forces on patrol in urban environments, Americans with guns and helicopters overhead. Unlike the insurgents quietly planning their attack in a bucolic place, the Americans are bristling with tension. There is a nervous, wary energy to their movements.
And then a stunning bit of montage: President Bush is seen directing an orchestra, waving his arms a bit awkwardly, more like a drum major than a conductor (images taken from a presidential visit to Jamestown last month). The intercutting is a devastating bit of message tailoring: Bush, whose conducting is set against a roiling screen of red flames, is presented as remote from the action, not quite real -- dangerous and ridiculous at the same time.
Never mind what it says about the attention with which insurgents and their propagandists are following American media and gathering imagery to use in their own cause. The more discomfiting lesson is the pitch-perfect sense of humor, drama and pacing that these images demonstrate.
The final images, the ones that will haunt Americans because they show two young men who are at best in grave peril, and quite possibly dead, play more than a forensic or trophy function in the context of the whole video. American soldiers are identified by money, credit cards and a cross. The bar codes -- so objectifying and so industrial -- on their military identification cards stand in stark contrast to the masked fighters seen earlier. This is the final iteration of the attacker as corrupt (materialist, living on credit) or alien (Christian).
Click through for a link to an excerpt; free prize to anyone who can produce a link to this thing in its entirety.
Tuesday, June 5, 2007
- Sharyn November, Editor Guest of Honor
- Louise Marley, Author Guest of Honor
- Julie Kenner, author of the wildly popular "demon hunter soccer mom series" and The Good Ghoul’s Guide to Getting Even
- K.D. Wentworth, author of Black on Black and The Course of Empire, also Writers of the Future coordinating judge
- Wendy Wheeler, Austin author and screenwriter
- Steven Wilson, co-editor of RevolutionSF and Space Squid
- Matthew Bey, co-editor of RevolutionSF and Space Squid
- Patrice Sarath, Austin author
- Jayme Lynn Blaschke, No Fear of the Future contributor
There are several other pending instructors as well, including the singular Chris Nakashima-Brown and Jessica Reisman. The ArmadilloCon Writers' Workshop has become a major event for aspiring SF/F writers. On the Friday of the convention, participants will have the opportunity to have their work critiqued by major pro editors and writers. Breakout sessions will cover craft, markets, the dos and don’ts of preparing your work for professional publication, and more. Discussions range from the basics of grammar and style to plot, theme, character, and setting.
Participants will get an in-depth critique of your work from the teacher or teachers in their group as well as from their peers. This roundtable style critique session is invaluable for learning what works, what doesn’t and how to edit.
Again, that deadline is June 30. More information can be found at Armadillocon 29 Writers Workshop.
Monday, June 4, 2007
This award/meme even has rules. How swanky is that?
- If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
- Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
- Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote.
So here's my list (by way of not actually doing any actual blogging that makes me, you know, think). If I read the rules right, my co-conspirators each need to come up with their own unique lists as well. Which means I get to snag the low-hanging fruit:
- Bad Astronomy: I've been a huge fan of Phil's for years, even before I knew he had a blog. Watching him rail against ignorance is always a joy, especially in his uniquely entertaining and lucid manner.
- Nalo Hopkinson: I'm a big fan on Nalo's writings--both fiction and bloggish. She brings a unique and confident viewpoint to the often insular world of speculative fiction. She needs to write faster.
- Roberson's Interminable Ramble: It's not enough that Chris co-owns a fine publishing house and churns out a new novel every 3.21 days. No, he's also got to be everywhere on the internet at all times, ferreting out all the cool stuff I wish I'd found first.
- Pharyngula: I disagree with P.Z. Myers' antagonism towards all things religious, but I do strongly agree that the Bible is not a science textbook, and that superstition must not trump observed fact. He's a champion of the rational over the irrational, and that makes him a must-read.
- CarrollBlog: Jonathan Carroll can make something as gross and mundane as picking chewing gum off the sole of his shoe a poignant, spiritual experience. I remain to this day in awe of his blogging powers (Jess Nevins notwithstanding).
Saturday, June 2, 2007
One of the highlights of last weekend's Wiscon for me was an opportunity to hang out, however briefly, with Brooklyn-based writer James Trimarco, a generous bundle of energy worth your attention. Recommended:
"David Icke, the Reptilian Infiltration, and the Limits of Science Fiction" from the April 2 edition of Strange Horizons, a brilliant exploration of the sub-Ballardian, post-L. Ron world of people who believe we are secretly governed by a malevolent alien reptilian conspiracy (fear and loathing).
"The King's White Beard" from Vanity Fair, a beautiful little essay exploring the manner in which our cultural idealism misdirects our attention away from the pragmatically urgent.
"Shoot for the backbrain" from RevolutionSF, an amusing bit of adbusting SF from an insider's POV.
Check it out.
Friday, June 1, 2007
The winner of the 2006 "Isidora Sekulic" Award is Zoran Zivkovic's novel THE BRIDGE. The award will be presented at a ceremony in the Belgrade City Hall on June the 12th.
The award, named after one of the greatest Serbian female writers and essayists of the 20th century, is a major mainstream literary prize that also includes 2,500 euros (US$3,300).
THE BRIDGE was previously short-listed for the NIN Award - Serbia's major literary award.
The UK limited edition of THE BRIDGE will be published before the end of the year by PS Publishing.
Congratulations to Zoran! Didya know he's also sold film rights to several of his stories in recent months? No? Well, he has. Verily, an in-demand writer if ever there was one.