Monday, October 26, 2009

Turkey City post-mortem

Well, another Turkey City writers workshop has come and gone, and near as I can figure it, there were no fatalities this time around. Indeed, it was one of the lowest-key Turkey Cities in recent memory (although by my reckoning, I've missed the last two held). In addition to myself, the other writers involved in this unique form of self-immolation included Bruce Sterling, Meghan McCarron, Elze Hamilton, Caroline Joachim, Paul O. Miles, Chris Nakashima-Brown, Lawrence Person, Jessica Reisman, Fred Stanton and Jen Waverly. Don Webb was originally supposed to attend, but injured his back and wasn't feeling up to it. All of this went down in Chris Nakashima-Brown's ultra-hip urban hi-rise apartment which more than one person had difficulty reaching because of the twin forces of a farmer's market and a cyclists against cancer rally blocking off some or all of Austin's main downtown streets.

There were more sample chapters from in-progress novels this time than any Turkey City I can recall. Interestingly, there were also no submissions that came off as ready for publication, either, which kind of bucks recent trends. Below, the Turkey Citizens hunker down for a frazzled reading session before the bloodletting starts:


Below left, Jessica Reisman, brought a rewritten opening sequence to an in-progress novel. It reminded me of Martha Wells' City of Bones in tone if not content. Below right, Elze Hamilton, a newcomer, brought perhaps the coolest SFnal concept to the party. Her story also provoked the most passionate responses from the group, so that's a score for the rookie.


Below left, Bruce Sterling applies is distinctive brand of literary criticism to a hapless story. Below right, Fred Stanton brought the opening chapter of a mythic, supernatural space opera hybrid. I got a kick out of it, but threw Nakashima-Brown for a loop when I described it as a "Post-colonial pseudo-Pakistani anal-retentive society," which was apparently too close to a Bruce-ism for him to parse coming from my mouth.


Yes, Jen Waverly and Meghan McCarron were up to no good. You can tell by the fact Waverly started hitting the sauce early. McCarron seemed taken aback by the Laissez-faire structure of the workshop, in particular the lack of a timekeeper. Everyone was pretty bleary-eyed by the time things wrapped up, so perhaps a timekeeper would be a good idea.


Traffic stops and pedestrians flee when Turkey Citizens are on the move for lunch. We ended up eating in a nifty Thai place right next to the former location of the late, lamented Adventures in Crime & Space bookstore, which is now a boutique owned by Sandra Bullock. And I also spilled a glass of water on Nakashima-Brown's iPhone, but he'd wisely installed a waterproof ap, so all was well.


Left to right, Caroline Joachim, Lawrence Person and Paul O. Miles. Joachim brought a time-travel romance, Person a R.A. Lafferty pastiche and Miles a story best described as period Texas Weird.


Chris Nakashima-Brown demonstrates exactly what he'll do to me the next time I bring a 9,000-word story to a workshop with a 5,000-word limit.


The critique session gets under way, in which egos are crushed and dreams ground underfoot. Ah, good times...


For anyone who's interest, I consider the critique my own story received during Turkey City over at my Gibberish blog.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


You’ve seen it. Everybody in the urban United States has, and I have no doubt it’s scattered across the world. It’s the blue COEXIST bumper sticker where the white letters are, respectively: the crescent and star of Islam; the Peace symbol for “o”; a male-female-equality “e”; a Star of David for the “x”; an “i” topped with a Pagan Pentacle; an “s” adapted from the Taoist Yin-Yang symbol; and a “t” that’s a Christian Cross. Though there are many variants, this is the classic. There seems to be some controversy over the copyright of the classic design. Interestingly, the artist is not the party trying to control the copyright, according to a Web site called

Recently I saw the bumper sticker on a late-model car in the parking lot of a Roman Catholic retreat center. Someone there was evidently on the Coexist wavelength.

Then when exploring my new neighborhood (Old Braeswood in Houston) I found a pleasant little park with a bench surfaced in hand-made tiles. One of the tiles is a bright yellow take on COEXIST. Very sweet.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Turkey City off the port bow

There's a venerable writers' workshop of ill-repute, semi-permanently situated in Austin, known as Turkey City (for the sticklers to tradition, the full and formal name is the Turkey City Writers' Workshop and Neo-Pro Rodeo). Writers of note who've braved this august meat grinder on occasion include Howard Waldrop, Steven Gould, Lisa Tuttle, George Alec Effinger, George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis, Jeff VanderMeer... well, the list is long and impressive. It's held irregularly these days, often coinciding with Bruce Sterling's whirlwind trips through town, and this coming weekend just happens to be one of those irregular days.

Historically (which is to say, by unofficial yet no less sacred tradition) Turkey City participants put off writing their sacrificial piece of fiction until the last possible moment, in some cases scribbling feverishly until the wee hours of Turkey City eve before staggering in the morning of with a crumpled sheaf of still-wet mimeographed copies, smelling strongly of carcinogenic chemicals with enough purple ink to stain your fingers for a week.

Some participants in this weekend's shindig apparently have no respect for tradition, and have used email (aka Tool of the Devil) to distribute their story early. For shame. I, for one, will and am continuing to follow precedent slavishly. In fact, with the deadline staring me down at the end of the week, I broke down Sunday and began to write. Not too terribly much, mind you, but it was fiction, and it was short (or shortish. By my standards). I even have a title: "Where the Rubber Meets the Road." This is, by my reckoning, the first writing that I've done this year that wasn't A) an interview, B) a book review, C) an installment of Memory or D) related to my Chicken Ranch non-fiction book project in some way. It's somewhat startling to realized that here it is, October, and I haven't written a single piece of short fiction for the entire year. Not that I've ever been a prolific writer by anyone's definition, but still.

Last night things started clicking a little bit, story-wise. Word production topped 1,500, which is a good number for me. Some character details surfaced that give the tale much-needed subtext. The ending, which had persisted as an undefined "something poignant happens" vagueness, has begun to coalesce into something verging on tangible. And I've even twigged on the general mood the piece needs, as opposed to the mood I thought it should have. There's still a long haul between now and Saturday, but I'm slightly more optimistic today than I was yesterday that I'll have at least a coherent first draft ready by then.

And if not? Well, I'll have to burn that bridge when I come to it.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Library Moon Rock

I've always thought libraries in general and the one in which I work in particular have so much interesting stuff - starting with but by no means limited to the books. Here is a case in point. Last Saturday, Rice University received a Moon rock in honor of John F. Kennedy. It was in the Rice University football stadium that JFK committed the USA to the Moon race in 1962. The Kennedy family received the rock from NASA in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing. The Kennedys now have donated it to Rice. Through March 2010, the rock is on exhibit in Rice University's Fondren Library.

Photo courtesy David Engle. Check out David's images of Rice and Houston on Gigapan: it's a fantastic photographic technology.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Swayze Diaries

"The against the wall. John has a long mustache."

This cryptic message to Americans in occupied territory crackles over the radio in the mountain camp led by Patrick Swayze in John Milius' Red Dawn (1984). An incitement to revolt, one that mirrors the banner seen across the music store-turned Soviet-American Friendship Center just before it blows up: "People of America, Rise and Join the Revolution!"

I recently had the fortune to see a special Swayze memorial screening of Red Dawn at Austin's Alamo Ritz. I don't think I had seen the film since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And once you stop laughing at the Brat Pack interpretations of Milius' napalm-perfumed Nietzschian dialogue, it's interesting to experience the movie at a long distance from its Cold War context. And realize that the movie is an alt-history fantasy of twentieth century American revolutionaries.

A couple of days later, I literally bumped into Austin-based conspiracy theorist Alex "Infowars" Jones coming out of an elevator in an underground parking garage (very Deep Throat). I had heard about the latest story Alex was following, regarding the apparent takeover of the town of Hardin, Montana (including the town's abandoned prison) by a private military contractor operating under the name American Police Force.

The story, initially picked up in regional media, was perfect material for Alex's master narrative of the imminent imposition of martial law by the incipient world government, complete with FEMA-style permanent "emergencies" and prison camps for those with the will to resist:

- In a remote part of the country, a previously-unheard of private company called "American Police Force" arrives to take over the local prison, which has been abandoned for two years. News searches reveal a CNN report from April that Hardin and the local "Two Rivers Authority" is proposing to establish a Gitmo-style detention camp for enemy combatants: "Guantanamo Bay West."

- In the town, black Mercedes SUVs appear with "City of Hardin Police Department" logos.

- The logos feature a coat of arms of a very Old Europe-looking double eagle. Upon investigation, it turns out the logo is an exact copy of the Serbian coat of arms!

- A similar logo is found on the website of American Police Force, which reads like material created as backstory for the new season of 24 (except for the very odd touch of a continuous loop of Ravel's Bolero on the home page), full of pictures of European-looking soldiers in action poses and lots of riot control gear.

- Reports indicate APF is somehow affiliated with Blackwater/Xe.

- The chief executive of American Police Force turns out to be a mysterious Montenegran, Michael Hilton, also known as Miodrag Mic Djokic.

- A sign posted on the inside of the detention center reads "NO HOSTAGES WILL BE ALLOWED THROUGH THESE DOORS."

As the story develops, it becomes apparent that "Michael Hilton" has an extensive criminal history as a fraudster, suggesting that the conspiracy is an elaborate con of a a bunch of rube local pols. Hardin as Poisonville?

Which makes me imagine what should have been the last Patrick Swayze movie, one that would have married his talents for action and song and dance: a 21st century post 9/11 remix of The Music Man. Harold Hill=Michael Hilton, selling the folks of Two Rivers City on the idea of paying his imaginary Blackwater affiliate to turn the town jail into a lucrative government detention camp for terrorists and traitors. Envision a massive Bollywood techno mix of "Seventy-Six Trombones," with the marching band replaced by mercenary riot police, a whirling dervish mob of Central Asian terrorists, and chorus of fat and happy Montanan townspeople.

And then I read that somebody is already filming a remake of Red Dawn. Currently in production in Michigan, Red Dawn 2010 involves a Chinese invasion of suburbia, with Chris Hemsworth (Capt. Kirk in the Star Trek reboot, and the upcoming live action Thor) in the Swayze role and Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian) in the Powers Boothe jet pilot role. Suburban 21st century analogs to drinking the blood of a fresh-killed deer TBD.

Red Chinese invasion? I suppose 20th century thinking is to be expected from a remake of a movie whose plotline was rendered obsolete in 1989, but this is even worse, Yellow Peril stuff worthy of some vintage pulp like The Spider.

A more attuned remake for the post-9/11 world would retain Alex Jones as a consultant, and feature an occupation of America by our own government in league with multinational forces and the gnomic cabal of the Bilderberg Group — perhaps tapping that scary thread of The Turner Diaries running through a lot of the Tea Party rhetoric. Imagine our high school jocks going underground in the abandoned Circuit City, becoming guerillas fighting the invasion of their town by FEMA, the National Guard, and Belgian Blue Helmets. Imagine a Hollywood movie that takes on as its plot an actual near-future American revolution.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Great Neighborhood

To the astonishment of many, the American Planning Association's 2009 list of Great Neighborhoods in America includes Montrose in Houston. The surprise comes when "Houston" and "planning" occur in the same sentence. Houston is a sprawling unzoned bricolage of people, places, industry, commerce, arts, and academia. Planned it is not. It may not even be a city, if you define city as an urban entity where there is sensible zoning and mass transit such that you don't absolutely have to own a car.

The APA designating Montrose a great neighborhood was reported in the Houston Chronicle this week. "One of Houston's original streetcar suburbs..." says the APA. "Eclectic and urbane, the neighborhood is a fusion of architectural styles, land uses, and people."

Enormous credit goes to the gay community, which has made Montrose its Houston heartland since the 1970's. Countless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and groups poured their creativity, labor and money into these city blocks over the years, because they felt they had a right to live in a classy and congenial area. Along the way, a number of remarkable institutions decided they could coexist with the GLBT community and practiced vital commitment to the neighborhood too. These were museums, schools, businesses, and churches (one of which I belong to - St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.) All of these stakeholders together proved capable of planful urban vision in the absence of same at the city level. The APA designation bestowed on Montrose should not be seen as sanction for Houston's general planlessness, which much of the time has dreadful results. No, it's a salute to Montrose!

For more details on the 2009 Great Neighborhoods visit the APA Website.



Flavius cautiously backed away. The black pupil, taller than Flavius by half, narrowed, straining to focus on his too-close form. The lid slid down smoothly, shifting spheres out of the way as it moved, closing with all the gentleness of a steel door.

Flavius sat in the dark, barely breathing, praying the Ketza'qua would go back to sleep... or whatever the gigantic serpent did.

The eye snapped back open, the strange, emerald glow spilling over Flavius. A subsonic rumble rose up from deep inside the Ketza'qua. Its massive scales clattered against themselves like a cavalry charge across a field of cobblestones. The buoyancy spheres shifted again, and Flavius hastily considered the inherent instability of his footing. All around, the protesting groans and whines of cables and scaffolding reverberated through the spheres.

The Ketza’qua sensed opportunity amid the chaos. The opportunity for freedom.

Flavius clambered between the translucent spheres, away from the Ketza’qua. The glow from the beast’s eye cast an odd illumination, reflected and diffracted in unnatural ways by the spheres. The beasts rumbled again, and the spheres resettled, threatening to alternately crush Flavius between them or pitch him away entirely.

His boots struggled for traction on the hard shells. The spheres weren’t slick, but they were smooth, offering little upon which to grip. He wriggled and heaved himself up through the ever-shifting gaps, smaller spheres slipping between the house-sized ones, obstructing his way and forcing him to retreat to find a different route. Steadily, he put as much distance between himself and the Ketza’qua as possible. Every so often, he heard Acaona call out for him. He shouted in reply, but amid the incessant chiming of the spheres, clattering of the Ketza’qua scales and distant explosions and alarms, he had no hint that she’d heard him.

He reached up and sought a hand-hold against one sphere, a smaller one that spanned maybe twice the width of his outstretched arms, and froze. It hadn’t chimed when his palm struck it as the others had. He rapped it with his knuckles and got a dull, hollow echo in reply. Quickly he ran his fingers across the surface in the weak light. Were those cracks he felt? Flavius peered through the surface, but could see nothing. He looked over the top of the sphere. Nothing. He slithered down onto his belly--grunting in the tight confines, and craned his neck to see the underside. There, at the very edge of his line of sight, he could just make out a sword pommel adorned with the whortleberries.

“So there’s where ya got yerself.” Flavius tried to squeeze through the gap, but his shoulders wedged hard against the abutting spheres and blocked any further progress. He pulled back and reached for it, straining with one arm, but Memory remained a good arm-length away from his grasp.

“Come on, come on, ya bugger,” he muttered, climbing atop the sphere. A larger one blocked his way directly across the top, but he worked his way around the side enough to peer down through a narrow gap. He had a clear view of Memory now, just a couple of feet away. The sword had buried itself up to the hilt in the sphere, and a spider web of cracks radiated out from it.

A deep-throated growl burst from the Ketza’qua just then, and a violent shudder jolted Flavius as the creature strained against its bonds. The spheres shifted, and he barely avoided having a leg pinned as one large sphere shifted enough to allow a smaller one slide closer to Flavius’ perch.

Breathing heavily, he turned back to Memory. “Bastard,” he muttered through clenched teeth. The sphere had rotated, carrying the sword just out of reach. “Why is it that these things can never, ever work out easily? That’s what’d I’d like to ken.”

He tried a different angle, then looked for a different vantage with no luck. Memory was well out of his reach, and unless the spheres shifted again, it would remain so.

Of course, another shift could just as easily crush him into pudding.

Somewhere above, Acaona was calling his name. For a moment, he marveled at the fact she hadn’t been devoured by the moironteau yet, and then a rage at the injustice of his situation welled up so that he felt he’d burst. For lack of ability to do anything else, Flavius kicked, bringing his boot down onto the sphere. A dull snap answered, and he heard a new fissure snake across the surface.

That gave him pause. He pursed his lips in thought, then checked Memory again, shifting so that he wasn’t directly over where he judged the blade to be. Then he kicked again. And again.

Suddenly, with a crisp report, the sphere shattered. Flavius dropped with the shards as the spheres rushed to fill the void. He grasped wildly for Memory, his left hand closing over the end of the blade. Flavius cried out as the edge bit into his palm, but he refused to loosen his grip, even as spheres battered him from below.

He lay gasping, finally, wedged between two spheres, blood from nicks and scratches streaking his forearms and face. Ever so carefully, wincing from the pain, he reached over and grabbed the flat of the blade with his free hand.

"Ya damn near got away from me that time, dinnae ya? Donnae try that again," Flavius said, lifting Memory over himself and wedging it securely beside him. He then tore several strips from his tattered sleeves and tied a makeshift bandage over his wounded hand.

The Ketza'qua rumbled. Flavius could no longer see the creature, or its eye, but the menacing green glow cast a faint sheen over everything.

"Right. Time to find our way out," he said. "I cannae be far enough away when that beastie breaks--"

The Ketza'qua snarled, thrashing against its bonds more violently than before. The spheres lurched and shuddered. They shifted and rotated, two coming together to press Flavius between them like a vice. He struggled to squirm away, but their grip was too tight. He gasped for breath, but could not overcome the constriction on his lungs. Desperate, he tried to shatter either sphere with Memory, but could manage barely a tap. His vision began to swim.

From above came a string of high-pitched twangs in rapid succession. Then music.

Soft at first, only a few ethereal notes cut through the cacophony of the Ketza'qua's struggles, moironteau roars and the moaning of abused palace foundations. The music grew, more and more pure notes joining together in a disordered, elegant chaos.

Flavius gulped in air as the crushing sphere lifted from him. He gazed wonderingly as it soared above, joining a cloud of hundreds. Spheres rose all around him, suddenly loose as those holding them down from above soared to freedom.

His sphere hummed softly as it rose up, muted by Flavius perched atop it and weighed down by his bulk. Other spheres bumped them from below. Flavius wobbled, crouching to maintain the best balance possible, and rode the sphere up into the swirl of music.

The restraining netting had completely torn away. The buoyancy spheres were free.


Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hurricane Hole

I suppose I'm not the only one who’s had inhibitions about making nail holes in the walls of a place I own. In previous apartments, I felt rather free to hang pictures and other décor on the walls, but now that I own a condo, it took me fully ten weeks to work up the will to puncture the paint. And then I re-used six nail holes from the previous owner!

This time last year I didn't even imagine owning a place of my own. I was happily ensconced in a two-bedroom apartment in a singularly well-located, congenial and affordable complex only three miles from the library where I work. Unfortunately, late last year the residents got word that developers wanted to buy the complex. In Houston that is a death knell for any extant building. As it happened, the development deal fell apart when the economy did, but the handwriting was on the wall and it was quite legible.

Finding a new place to live was a convoluted process. I looked at comparable rental properties. All of them were either more expensive or less well located or both. Then I entertained the possibility of buying a house. I would have loved a cute little house – but there were none of those to be had close in without paying bucks deluxe or committing to a fixer-upper in a shaky part of town. Townhomes? Either pricey or in questionable condition. Houston saw a boom of quick, inexpensive townhome construction in the boom days of the 1970's. Now a lot of those places – cheaply built to start with, and not carefully maintained over the years either – are NOT what smart money buys. As my buyer's home inspector said, "They have a half-life and it shows."

That left condos. My Realtors showed me a slew of condos and I started warming up to the idea, but with reservations. All along I wanted a place near work, but out in the country. Also, near an airport, or near the water (lake, bayou, or sea), but did I mention, near work? Oh, and I wanted a roomy kind of castle, and I wanted a place low-maintenance enough to let me travel freely and affordable enough that my life wouldn't be wrapped around stretching to make the mortgage payment every month. (2009 would have been a singularly bad year to commit the kind of errors in judgment that led to the mortgage-default fiasco in the first place!) I wanted a light, airy place with a lot of windows. I wanted a place well sheltered in the event of another hurricane: Ike in 2008 sent Houston reeling, and Ike wasn't even the baddest of the hurricane breed.

So I wanted this and that and the other, and about half of the list cancelled the other half out.

Finally I had an Aha! moment and settled on a pleasant condo in the Rice-University/Medical Center area. It's a one-bedroom place, but the bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom are generously sized, and I've commandeered the entire living room for my study. In the future I may look into having another housing option in addition to this, not instead of it. There's always travel. A well-managed condominium community makes it easy to turn the key in the lock and leave without a care. Perhaps I'll someday buy a bit of property way out in the country or contrive a crash pad near an airport. Or even own a shack near the sea. Writers do love to relocate for a season (or just a weekend) and it's even better if the getaway is far away from the usual distractions of city life.

If I ever have a shack by the sea, I'll furnish it with secondhand stuff, and the next time a hurricane coils in from the Gulf of Mexico, I'll wish the place luck and run for the safety of my in-town place. The condo is my hurricane hole.

Friends from Miami introduced me to the idea of a hurricane hole: a sheltered place to tuck your boat, airplane or other property in a hurricane. That works for me. Not just in the event of literal hurricanes, either. Here on the trailing edge of 2009, it's not obvious that we're out of the financial hurricane. I can well imagine economic woe, energy crisis, pandemic, and such yet to come. Calamities can be personal, like a downturn in health, a marriage or partnership that falters, and so on. I finally decided that owning a secure, affordable, centrally located, one-bedroom condo will make sense (and maybe even appreciate in dollar value) for decades. Now that I'm living here, my stress level has dropped and the amount of good sleep I get at night has gone up. For that, I credit moving into a hurricane hole.

It's an exceptionally nice hurricane hole, too. As of yesterday, it's got décor on the walls. Not long ago I saw a newspaper article about research showing that people felt more at home after a move when their paintings were hung on the walls. I didn't quite believe it, except maybe when people move into a new place without many belongings. Then of course paintings gracing the walls would help a lot. When somebody like me moves lock, stock, and barrel, with plenty of furniture and hundreds of books, you wouldn't think wall décor would make much difference. But, magically, it did.

A couple of hours of pondering and tapping tentative nails and hangers, and my place is appreciably more congenial even though my most prized paintings (the original art for two stories published in Analog magazine) are still stowed away in a box. What I put on the walls was just pretty stuff of sentimental value, as were the suncatchers hung up in a window and dangling from two hall light sconces. Very ordinary yet comforting. Need is a funny thing. Do I need a cute garden cottage or an airy palace in which to live? Evidently not. A hurricane hole, complete with items of décor that are my familiar friends – yes: that’s just what I need. Especially right now, in the fall of 2009. Our recently calmer, clearer economy may be the trailing edge of the hurricane . . . but for all we know it's just the eye of the economic storm.