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23 Jun 13:44

Ben Young @BenjaminDYoung

by BenjaminDYoung
RT @mocost: Maverick scientist thinks he has discovered magnetic sense in humans via @NewsfromScience…
22 Jun 21:04

.@Mr_M_Johnston Yes - I helped design the Space Shuttle cockpit, Soyuz procedures and Space Station components. It's a big team, together.

by Chris Hadfield (@Cmdr_Hadfield)

.@Mr_M_Johnston Yes - I helped design the Space Shuttle cockpit, Soyuz procedures and Space Station components. It's a big team, together.

19 Jun 18:41

Kyla @Kycola

by Kycola
20 Jun 00:01

Sugiyama, old merchant house in Tondabayashi Jinaimachi

by Muza-chan

Built approximately 450 years ago, during the middle of the Edo period, by one of the founders of the Jinaimachi town, the Sugiyama family residence is the oldest merchant house in the town. Its current look dates from 1747, when the second floor was added together with several more rooms.

Since it represents the typical architecture of a merchant house, it was purchased by the Tondabayashi city and it was designated an important cultural property. If you have time for a side trip from Osaka or Kyoto, the Tondabayashi Jinaimachi town is well worth a visit.

Click on photo for higher resolution:
If you want to license my photos for commercial use, please contact me

EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 24mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/160s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 250
Japanese tea room
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Japanese tea room

15 Jun 21:54

If you are looking for an action to take, about Orlando, write a letter.

by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is a small thing. You can write a letter.

It’s also a huge thing. You can write a letter.

See, our government representatives still respond more to letters than the do to emails, Facebook, or Twitter hashtags. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do those, too, but there’s this other thing you can do. You can write a letter.

Over at Month of Letters, I’ve put together a set of resources to make it easy for you to do this. There’s stationery, a template, a list of addresses… heck, I’ve even got a discount on postage for you. Just please… please write a letter.

Your thoughts and prayers aren’t enough. We have work to do. Can you write a letter?

The post If you are looking for an action to take, about Orlando, write a letter. appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

15 Jun 03:18

Things Jesus Didn't Say: "Hate Gays and Be Glad When Someone Kills Them."

Just to be perfectly clear about this, and the easiest way to check up on what I'm saying:  Read the Gospels, in a good translation (avoid the so-called "Conservative Bibles" that are not accurate to the existing oldest texts.)  King James is OK, not the best, but OK.  My desk Bble is The New English Bible, the New Testament part coming out first in 1961, benefitting from additional scholarly study and the discovery of older texts than were available to those working in the 17th century.

Jesus did not say (or, if you're not convinced the Gospels come remotely close to what the historical Jesus said, Jesus has not been claimed to say) that homosexuals were sinful and deserved death.  Jesus did not say to hate homosexuals.  Jesus did not say to attack homosexuals.  Jesus did not mention homosexuals male or female.  The only types of people whose sexual behavior Jesus commented on were 1) men who divorced their wives, and 2) men and women who committed adultery (that is, they were married and they willingly had sex with someone other than their spouse.   And that is why I think so-called Christians (individuals, church leaders, entire congregations) who say that some sexual identities (gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, whatever) are totally evil and deserve death and it's OK to rejoice at a massacre in a nightclub...are wrong, and not acting as  Christians at all.  Because the essence of Christianity is following Christ and that's not where Christ went.

So where did all the anti-gay rhetoric come from?   Not from Jesus Christ, the person on whom Christianity is founded, and the Person Christians are told to emulate....but from the Old Testament strictures on male/male sex (where female/female sex isn't mentioned) and from other people, specifically Paul in the various Letters to this and that group of Christians.  And from an attempt to separate Christians from pagans, some of whom were "openly" gay because only Jews and Christians (some Christians) cared.   Yes, there are passages in the Old Testament declaring that sexual acts between men are wrong and God will smite (them, a city, a nation) for doing it. 

There are also passages in the Old Testament that define clean and unclean foods and required rules for living a holy life than 99.999% of Christians never even think about.  Including some of the most gay-hating.  (Chicken-fried steak with cream gravy...not OK.   Hamburger and milkshake, not OK.   Baby back ribs, pork chops, pork sausage, ham:  not OK.   Crawfish  and crab boils, not OK.  And lots more.) 

In the New Testament, we mostly have Paul, formerly Saul, who converted from a self-righteous Pharisee persecuting the early Church--a well-educated, high-ranking religious lawyer, thoroughly familiar with Jewish law--a group most eager to destroy this (to them perverted and disgusting) new branch of their religion.   He had a religious experience on the road to Damascus, he changed his mind...but he carried with him all the scholarship and deeply engrained beliefs of his former occupation--rooting out heretics.  So OK, now he believed Jesus had been the Messiah, and had been raised from the dead...but he hung onto a lot of things familiar to him (not surprising) and added them in, from his own certainty (which never wavered) that Jesus would have said that if only Jesus had thought of it, or had time.  Including a lot of his own certainty that God was more concerned with sexual behavior than with all those things Jesus actually said.

So if Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality in the Gospels, what was he spending time talking about and teaching about?   The abuse of worldly power by judges, priests, tax collectors, soldiers, rich people, proud people...and the connections between worldly power and money, the way money corrupts human interactions, warping them and leads to abuses of power.  Greed, cruelty, scoffing and ridicule (verbal bullying), dishonesty and cheating (especially the poor), quarreling and fighting.   The duty of everyone to love not just friends, not just the person next door, but strangers, people outside the family, neighborhood, village, town.  That love isn't just a word, but a series of acts: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, visiting the sick and imprisoned, noticing people in need (any need) and providing it.   Not labeling people as evil (not judging) because human judgments are skewed by human faults that those who have them often don't recognize. 

Parable after parable.  Sermon after sermon.   One on one, one on a group, one to a vast audience: the same basic messages: don't be greedy, don't be cruel, don't value money, clothes, jewels over the life that comes with living in the spirit of love, don't huddle up in safety and let others suffer, don't spend all your time criticizing others when you're imperfect yourself.  Make your life of value by  investing in generosity, kindness, gentleness, love, using the talents you've been given to make things better for others as well as yourself.  Feed, clothe, house, heal, visit, encourage,  That's what love is.  And love casts out fear.

It's not easy.  He knew it wasn't easy; he flat said it wasn't easy and his followers could expect persecution because they would be going against the flow.   It's easy to be scared--it was easy then and it's easy now and it's always been easy to be scared.  And scared people curl in on themselves, huddle up, form tight little groups to keep others out, to keep the resources for themselves.   They make up reasonable sounding reasons not to share, not to help others ("It teaches them to be dependent.  It's bad for their character.  They don't deserve it.")   Fear convinces them there are more enemies, more dangers, than they can handle, so they must be hard, cruel, selfish, and show anger and hatred to anyone who's not in their group.

They "love" only their own, but their love isn't the free-flowing love Jesus was talking about.   Love cannot take away fear unless it is allowed to grow, and push fear out because there's no room for it--and to grow,  it must be acted out as Jesus said to act it out. Now some hate-preaching churches do have outreach--but it does not extend past their familiar comfort zone.  They will feed the deserving hungry.   They will house the deserving homeless.   They may at the same time be turning away those they feel aren't deserving (I've run across churches unwilling to help alcoholics or drug addicts or people not of their denomination or gays, just to start with.)

So...when a church says gays are evil and against God and deserve death....they are teaching hatred, not love, and that's not Christian.  Same if they say that about any group.  They're wrong.   And yes, that's a judgment.  And I am, God and I both know, fallible and biased.  But for those who care about Scripture, I have Scripture on my side, and a whole lot of better scholars than I am in my denomination.   I am not trying to make new doctrine: I am sticking to what Jesus taught.  "I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you."
16 Jun 20:12

Coincidentally I've been reading a bunch of stuff lately that is somehow related to the Opium Wars. I was not expecting Courtney Milan's latest series to join the collection, but I am excited by the discovery!

Taken by itself, Once Upon A Marquess is cute but not the strongest of Milan's romances. Our Heroine Judith is the daughter of a disgraced former member of the nobility who was convicted of treason in China, along with her beloved brother, and has spent the last nine years desperately trying to support her younger siblings and achieve for them the opportunities they've lost; also she makes clockwork. Our Hero Christian is her former suitor, who also happens to have been her brother's best friend, who also happens to be the person whose testimony got her father and brother convicted of treason; also he has a history of opium addiction and what seems to be some form of OCD; also he's incapable of not making jokes.

(I spent the entire book hearing the voice of Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins doing all Christian's dialog. I don't know if there's any evidence that Courtney Milan has played Dragon Age but if she does I refuse to believe there wasn't an influence.)

Christian and Judith, as mentioned above, are reasonably cute, and I tend to find romances with significant emotional backstory more plausible than lust at first sight. But honestly the weight of the book is not really on their dynamic so much as it is on Judith's relationships with her siblings (as we all know sibling stuff is my favorite stuff!) and on setting up SIGNIFICANTLY MORE ONGOING PLOT, and specifically geopolitical/worldbuilding/history plot, than I think Milan has ever really done in her romance series before.

This is probably in large part due to Amitav Ghosh, but the timing is really perfect, because right now I am SO INTO a 'let's go AU and fix the Opium Wars!' plot. YES OK LET'S. LET'S DO IT. I'M HERE FOR IT.

(I was also really into the whole 'Anthony is too moral to have betrayed his country!' 'um the thing is I think he is too moral NOT to betray his country if his country is morally ... the worst .....' thing. Bless Courtney Milan's anti-colonialist agenda.)

I am also very excited for a.) lots and lots of ongoing complex sibling stuff, MY KRYPTONITE, b.) what covers (and dropped hints) suggest will be at least one book with a Chinese protagonist, and c.) what covers suggest will be at least one book with a black protagonist. Basically I am ready to give Courtney Milan money for this series.)

Also I read Her Every Wish, the companion novella about Judith's friend Daisy, a flower-shop girl who's entered a competition for seed funds to open her own business, and Daisy's ex Crash, a mixed-race bisexual bicyclist and numbers man. I liked everything about the outlines of this plot, which is about how layers of toxic assumptions can work at cross-directions to hurt people who care about each other, and thought it needed about four times the page space to actually do the emotional arc justice -- like, there were enough real issues in Daisy and Crash's initial split that fixing all of their internalized prejudices and insecurities with one or two mildly anvilicious clue-bat conversations didn't quite feel believable or satisfying to me.

This entry is cross-posted at Livejournal from Please feel free to comment here or there! There are currently comment count unavailable comments on Dreamwidth.
03 Jun 22:15

Everything That's Wrong With Your Story -- Sight Unseen

by (Michael Swanwick)

Last weekend, at Balticon, I got into a discussion with Connie Willis about teaching new writers. She told of the time she addressed a group of such and said, "I'm going to tell you everything that's wrong with your stories."

They all eagerly began pulling out typescripts. But Connie stopped them, saying, "No, I don't need to see them. Because you all make the same mistakes." And proceeded to run down the list of Universal Newbie Mistakes.

Then Connie laughed and said, "Boy, I never did that again."

We didn't discuss what those mistakes were, because anybody with experience teaching already knows. But it occurred to me that it might benefit some gonnabe writers if I spelled out the mistakes you're making that are so obvious that I don't even have to look at your story to know you're making them.

1. Starting before the beginning of the story.

The first thing I do with a student story is to cross out all the scene-setting that new writers think is necessary before the story can begin. Somewhere on page 3 or page 8 or page 32, I'll finally write: BEGIN HERE.

2. Overwriting.

Even after that opening has been pruned, up to half the words in your story are unnecessary. Once you start describing something you keep on describing it and describing it and describing it until there are so many words in the way it's impossible to see.

Poul Anderson observed that three evocations of the senses are sufficient to make any scene vivid. A man walking along the beach hears the crash of waves and cries of gulls. He smells the salt air. He feels the seaweed popping underfoot. You've nailed it. No need to go on describing the beach. Move on to what's happening.

Similarly, you only need two well-chosen details to bring a locale to life. In John Cheever's notebooks, he described a Sunday morning when he was hung-over and in a friend's living room, while the friend chain-smoked and talked about his impending divorce and the attendant heartbreak. Cheever wondered how to capture the scene on paper. His glance kept going from the ashtray, overflowing with cigarette butts to the agonizingly blue sky outside the picture window. Blue sky, ashtray. Ashtray, blue sky. Nothing more is needed.

3. Not trusting the reader.

Technically, number 2 belongs under this heading, but I thought that it needed spelling out. The new writer is prone to lecturing, hectoring, underlining, repetition, condescending, and above all repetition simply because he or she does not trust the reader to "get it."

Your readers are on your side. They want your story to be good. And they're surprisingly perceptive -- chiefly because they've read a lot of fiction before yours. You can trust them.

Those rare exceptions who are complete idiots? Forget 'em. You can't win them over anyway.

4. Being afraid of emotion.

Yes, emotions -- particularly negative emotions -- can be scary. Embarrassing too. But they're a good part of the reason we read fiction. If the logic of your story insists that your protagonist would throw herself in front of a train, then it's a violence to the story not to let her do so. Tolstoy understood this. So should you.

5. Having too few characters.

Your characters live in human society. The reader cannot see that society without a representative sampling of its citizenry. And your protagonist needs to express a variety of emotions in order to feel well-rounded.

Also -- and I speak from experience here -- while it's possible to write a story with three characters, which is usually considered the minimum, or even fewer, which usually involves the environment serving as an uncredited character -- pulling it off is hard work. Not many new writers have the craft to do that.

6. Letting the ending trail off.

When the story's over, it's over. Get off the stage. You don't need to let everybody know what came next or how the characters felt about it. You don't have to end with the story's climax. But what comes after shouldn't sap away all the energy of the climax.

7. Not having a good ending.

Back when I was on the Nebula Jury, which is a long story and one I won't go into here, I read pretty close to all the genre short fiction published over several years. From this, I learned two things: First, that no story that starts out badly ever turns into a good story later. Second, that nine times out of ten, when a story that starts out well turns out badly, it happens in the final pages.

This set of failings applies to pretty much all writers, whatever they're trying to accomplish. But there's one that's specific to writers of fantasy and science friction and that's this: 8. Your ideas are too small and derivative.

But that's a big topic and one I'll tackle some other day.


And as always...

I'm on the road again. Tomorrow I'll be at the Mercer County Library in Lawrenceville, New Jersey for the very first Laffcon. This celebration of the life and work of R. A. Lafferty is a one-day free event, and will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The doors open at 9:30.

Lafferty was the single most original science fiction writer ever -- and I don't make that claim lightly. It promises to be a fun day. If you're in the area, you should consider attending.

01 Mar 18:21

Entering Politics

by skzb

mom and dad

I remember when my mother died, we read the obituaries in the local newspapers. One of these obituaries (so far, I haven’t managed to unearth it) mentioned something about her run for Congress as a member of the Workers League (precursor to the Socialist Equality Party) and in the course of it, there was this reference to my father’s run for governor, and something about how Mom had “entered politics” several years before Dad did.

I was croggled. Of course, on reflection it made perfect sense, and clearly no disrespect was intended. But . . . “entered politics.” I mean, my parents had devoted their lives to building a revolutionary party, but, to the reporter, only when they ran for office had they “entered politics.” A revolutionary socialist believes that the ruling class will never surrender power and privileges through an election, hence, the value of running for office is purely to make the party more visible and to generate discussion. It is a tactic, suitable at a certain moments, always subordinated to the understanding that only the working class can liberate itself.

That “entered politics” was, in some measure, a revelation. It felt like, “Wow, I’m seeing a message from another world.” Such a concept had so little to do with anything in my experience. It was like reading a good book about an ancient culture and, at some point, having the epiphany, “They really were different from us.”

I think of this, of my own amazement at seeing the phrase “entered politics,” every time someone says something like, “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about what the country does,” or some similar nonsense. To believe that voting or working for the election of this or that bourgeois candidate can help the oppressed—much less is the only way to help the oppressed—is to take a definite political position. It happens to be a position I disagree with.

28 Dec 16:59

The #BLM Protests: Us and Them

by skzb

Last March I did a post about why I don’t use the word “we” when discussing actions of the US government.  That “us” vs. “them” issue seems to come up a lot, often in the form of those who think it is terrible that there even is an “us” and a “them.” I’ve heard some state or imply that “polarization” comes from the heads of people who are just feeling confrontational, rather than being a reflection of actual divisions in the real world.  In a different way, that “us” vs “them” issue is at the heart of some confusion I’ve noticed recently, especially on Facebook.

Here in Minneapolis, there have been some protests against police murder and terror.  There are, of course, the inevitable justifiers–“Why aren’t you talking about what a terrible human being that guy was?” which is simply a way of saying that the police have the right to commit cold-blooded murder as long as the person they’re murdering meets their definition of a bad guy.  A more complicated question came up when the protests shut down the Mall of America and one of the airport terminals.  This generated howls of outrage about how it interfered with Daddy flying home in time for Christmas or Grandma doing the holiday shopping, and also kindly remonstrances, more in sorrow than in anger, about how those protesters are just doing it wrong.

Were those the best and most effective venues to protest? I don’t know. I know that the issues I have with Black Lives Matter have more to do with whether they are going to turn the whole thing into support for this or that Democratic candidate, and not where the protests take place. I know that when I was at the Fourth Precinct, I saw a lot of appeal to empty reformism, and simultaneously a lot of inspiring commitment and solidarity and genuine outrage at police murder. The entire Black Lives Matter movement is complex and contradictory, but the police crimes that have given it rise are ugly and atrocious and bloody well need to be fought.

But here’s the thing. When you say, “How is protesting at that particular place helping anything?” it doesn’t sound at all like you’re saying, “I am a part of this movement, and I am committed to this fight, and I am criticizing it because I want it to win.” It also doesn’t sound like you’re saying, “I agree with your principles, but your bad tactical decisions about where to protest are keeping me from joining you.” It sounds like you’re saying, “Oh, look at those people doing that thing wrong. They’ll never get anywhere that way. Not that I particularly care if they succeed, except in a sort of, gee, that would be nice sense. But it has nothing to do with me, or with the world I live in.”

Every mass movement in history has offended bourgeois public opinion, and in each one, there have been sections who sat back from the whole thing and said, “Tsk, look at those fools doing it all wrong. I’m not against them, mind you, but I sure wish they’d listen to me about how to go about it. Pass me the sports section, please.”

There was a saying in the labor movement of the 30s and 40s: An injury to one is an injury to all. When the police murder unarmed poor, working class, or minority people, do you feel you’ve been injured? Many of us do, and that is why this movement is “we” not “they.” And, until I become convinced that the Black Lives Matter movement is hopelessly dominated by identity politics, or until a movement emerges that I believe has a better chance of escaping the dead end of capitalist reformism, I will continue to say “we.” Tactics flow from principles, and principles are inseparable from commitment. If you are standing outside of the movement, pretending to give dispassionate advice from on high, do not be surprised if your advice is treated with contempt, and you are looked at with suspicion.

31 Jan 15:00

The Reaction Shot

by skzb

wheatonI have a little bit of theater in my past. From around age 14 to maybe 20, my passion for theater and for writing were about the same. One effect of having a theater background is that I’m in the habit, when watching a performance, of thinking about how it applies to writing. The one I’ve been noticing most recently is the reaction shot.


In a particularly effective scene, think about, instead of the actor who is doing the thing, the one who is reacting to it. This is always the key to fight scenes: stage combat (I love stage combat) is 90% about reacting to attacks. But it applies more broadly. For example, I’ve just re-watched Leverage, one of my favorite shows. If you watch the episodes where Wil Wheaton guest stars, watch how many scenes he sells by reacting. There is one spectacular example in “The Last Dam Job,” where we believe in the taser because of how he sells being tased. Another great example is in The Martian. One of the more delightful scenes in a movie full of delightful scenes is the one where the crew is finally in touch again with the stranded astronaut. There is some splendid and real-sounding banter between friends (“We have to take turns doing your tasks, but I mean, it’s only botany, it’s not real science.”), which is both well written and well performed between the actors; but what really makes the scene work is the way the rest of the crew, listening to the conversation, reacts to it. For a third example, I’ve been watching some old episodes of the original Mission: Impossible, and watching Martin Landau react, and noticing how much that carries a scene, is fascinating. (As a side note, Landau is one of my favorite actors; if you ever get the chance, catch his appearance on Inside the Actor’s Stuido. He talks about acting the way we process geeks talk about writing.)


Do I have to spell out how this relates to writing? No, but I will anyway, because I’m a pedantic son of a bitch. Check out how easy it is to change the emotional content of a scene just by the reaction of someone not directly involved  in the action.

“Okay,” I said, letting a dagger fall into my hand. “We can do it that way if you want.”
He kept his face expressionless. Behind him, the bodyguard folded his arms and smirked.


“Okay,” I said, letting a dagger fall into my hand.  “We can do it that way if you want.”
He kept his face expressionless. Behind him, the bodyguard leaned forward a little, hands twitching.

Or, this.

He held out his arm, and she took it. Her friend glanced at them and gritted her teeth.


He held out his arm, and she took it. Her friend glanced at them, then looked away, suppressing a smile.

Now of course, point of view is at the heart of this, as it is at the heart of everything. But paying attention to the reaction of those who are not directly involved in the action can accomplish a lot with very little effort.

24 May 00:59

Some Disjointed Thoughts About The Clinton-Sanders Acrimony

by skzb

1. That the Democratic Party is in such a crisis (not since ’68 have I seen anything like conflict so bitter) at the same time as the Republican Party is ripping itself apart, is not an accident. It is a product of wide-spread perception, and accurate perception in my opinion, that there are problems that the capitalist parties simply cannot solve.

2. There is no question that the Sanders campaign has pulled in large numbers of people who had not previously been involved in party politics. They perceive that the forces (ie, Wall Street) that have caused most of the problems in their lives are the same forces, personified by Clinton, that are preventing them from having a voice.

3. The “liberal elite” (the upper middle class and white collar urban liberal) that has been the foundation of the Democratic Party for the last two generations, with its focus on identity politics and its open disdain for the worker, is directly clashing with the those forces that are still trapped in the idea of party politics but are angry that the Democratic Party has nothing to say to the millions of poor and working class people whose lives have been shattered by capitalism.

4. I doubt there is a single billionaire, a single Wall Street banker, a single oil executive, a single Washington power broker or politician, a single media mogule, a single Halliburtan executive, a single general, who is pleased about how furious people are at the two parties.  None of them are happy about the general hatred of both Trump and Clinton, at seeing the Democrats squabbling like unruly fourth graders while the Republicans stare at Trump like a smallpox patient looks into a mirror trying to convince himself it doesn’t look so bad after all. And if they don’t like it, and they can’t fix it, that indicates the problem is the capitalist system itself, not who happens to be running it at any given moment.

5. The mutual frustration and hostility between Clinton and Sanders supporters can be reduced to one group that wants business as usual under conditions where business as usual is a dead-end, and another group that wants to change the Democratic Party into something that it is fundamentally incapable of being.

6. Bottom line: Both political parties are in crisis because the ruling elite are in crisis about what to do about the tremendous anger and resentment directed at the out-of-control juggernaut called American capitalism.

18 Apr 06:05

A Dwarf, A Gnome, a Humod, a Thief…

by Elizabeth

and a paladin…walk into a bar.   Wait, I hear you say.   This is supposed to be an all-SF blog site.  No fluffy unicorns (I never wrote a fluffy unicorn) and no fantasy stuff.   Yeah, but, this is Universes, where different things meet that can’t usually, and tonight (it’s pouring rain and I can’t sleep, largely because of the irrational belief that just as I lie down and close my eyes, the lightning will start)–tonight I’m in the mood to see what happens.


“Just once, I’d like more than a walk-on part.”  The humod, most recently a customs inspector on Lastway’s big commercial station, sips from his frosted glass and grimaces.  “Too much ginger extract again.”

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” the dwarf says.    “She gave you humods all sorts of interesting modifications, but we’re just the standard legendary dwarf model.   Yes, she gave me some lines in the book, and a proper name, but now she can’t remember it and I’ve faded–she probably doesn’t even remember what color my beard is.”

IT’S BLACK.   They all stare at the middle of the table, carefully not looking up, except for the paladin, who grins at nothing high overhead.

“Welcome,” says the paladin.  “You can stay awhile, can’t you?”

Emptiness fills the space from which the voice spoke.   The paladin shrugs.  “Well,  she’s very busy.  Perhaps she’s–”

“Writing about somebody else,” the dwarf says.  “THOSE people.”  He looks across to a long table where the entire cast of the new book is celebrating its completion, still in their makeup and costumes.  Loud talk, loud singing, loud, loud, loud.

“Never mind,” the paladin says.  “They’ll be gone soon.”

“Thank you,” the humod says in a stifled voice.  “If that’s how you feel–”  He pushes back his chair and stands up.   Behind him now is a tall, broad man with a face full of trouble.  A large, meaty hand lands on the humod’s left shoulder.

“Sit down.”

“Who–”  the humod stops there.  Blinks.  Retracts two of his appendages.   He sits down.

The newcomer  pulls up a chair and sits beside him.  “We Siffies have to stick together, don’t we?  The name’s Gary.”

“We…uh, yes, of course.”

Gary looks across the table at the paladin, giving her a menacing stare.  She returns a sunny smile.   “Hey, sweetheart,” he says.  “I’m a dangerous man.”

Her grin widens.  “You’re really trying to frighten me?   Just because I’m wearing a fantasy costume?”

Gary blinks.   She’s hard to stare at, actually; his eyes are beginning to burn as if she were too bright.

“Don’t worry,” she says.  “I won’t hurt you unless you try to hurt us.”

“Us?” he says, looking down.   “And you couldn’t hurt me; all you have is a stupid sword.”

Her laugh turns heads at every table.  Not scornful, but full of joy.   Almost but not quite too late, Gary recognizes what she is.   That one.   The one who almost never shows up here, the one who is untouchable by anyone on this side of the Divide, but who can reach across it.  He can feel the hairs standing up on his arms, his neck.

The tip of the sword moves into his field of vision.  Flat on the table.  It looks like a sword.  Like a very sharp sword.  He cannot help looking along it, to where her hand, in a gray glove stained by sweat and wear, has hold of he hilt.

“It’s not a stupid sword,” she says.  “It’s a Model XII SmartSword that she got for me specially.  It says you’re not as bad as you try to look.”


And sure enough, thunder just rumbled.   Radar reveals the storms are propagating into a new band, and it’s time to turn off the machine and lie down and watching the lightning flash through the curtains.



15 May 16:51

The Naming of People, Places, Things

by Elizabeth

Without looking up the source (bad scholar, but it’s that kind of day)  I think it was Owen Barfield in an essay about language, corporations, and legal fictions who suggested that language itself is rooted  in the ability to abstract and name a concept, and that is itself a form of fiction (or lie, if you prefer.)   The word is a symbol for, not the reality of, the thing.  That seems obvious, but it’s the kind of obvious that’s a tangled web of fractal philosophy when you dig into it.  And naming things–especially things that are *already* fictions, not existing in the real world except the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader who interprets  what the writer wrote–is especially fraught with opportunities for unintended complications.

But also with opportunities for intentional (and mostly secret) wit.   Those of you who like both fantasy and science fiction, and also read more conventional fiction, will have noticed that the SFF type of writing involves a lot more invention of names than other genres.  Historical novels already have names of people and places (real people, real places, real weapons, real food, etc.) handed to them.   Contemporary novels usually involve familiar places on this planet and names that suggest contemporary cultures, classes, occupations.   The transportation, housing, technology are all a given.

SFF, though…we can stay within familiar bounds, but why?   Why would the name for an unidentified corpse on a distant planet a thousand years in the future be called a John or Jane Doe?   Aren’t we past naming new places for old places with “New” tacked on?  At least sometimes?  Sure, there will be some New Iberias and  New Kenyas  and New Indonesias (in whatever language is chosen then) but  why not more interesting names, names that carry a feel just by the sound?   Why not characters with all sorts of exotic names from every corner of a large metropolitan telephone directory, or from the lists of authors of scientific papers, or from the news?   Mix & match.  Turn them inside out.   (And if you’re unwise, pepper them with apostrophes, suggesting that the spelling is NOT a hint to the pronunciation…)  Name them for pets or famous racehorses or a failed invention from fifty years ago.

But one important thing:  make sure the average reader can see the word and imagine how to say it easily.   In my experience, from asking people who don’t read SFF what about it puts them off…it’s the names.  (Some of them also won’t read contemporary fiction if the names look hard to say.)   They can’t remember the characters if they can’t say the names–hear them in their heads.   Important (but less so than having pronounceable names) is not having very similar names for different characters.  If they must start with the same letter, have them different lengths, with different vowels in them.   If they must be the same for some story-reason, give one of them a nickname: Tall Bill, Red Tom, Sally and Sal, Kentucky Joe (known often as “Tucky” or “Kentuck.”)  I should’ve learned this in fourth grade, when our teacher, faced with five little girls named Susan, insisted we had to have different names in her class…but I didn’t.   Now I have.

A more subtle consideration:  every invented name in a story should help create the ambiance of that story.   A fantasy tale, where the entire fabric is made up, is particularly likely to suffer from a mismatch of name to story-verse.   (Tolkein’s choosing to name a pony “Bill” was dangerously near the edge, but redeemed by having some low-life humans with more mundane names.)   Terry Pratchett was a master at naming (and many other things, but this is about naming.)  The Discworld geography, races, tribes, cities, towns…all of it, wonderfully named to create its particular feel.

So, dragging this into the present, what kind of little secrets might lurk in the Vatta universe, with regard to the names handed out so far?   Well…I sometimes name characters for horses I’ve had (or those horses’ barn names.)  Ky, for instance, the first horse I ever owned.  Mac, for instance, a horse I own now.   Kuincey (who became Quincy, the elderly engineer in the first Vatta book.)   (Some horses’ names are unhandy for characters and are unlikely to show up, except possibly as ship names or something like that:  Illusion, Cricket, Jezz.)   Names of characters need to fit the character if not in obvious opposition, a name the character fights against) and fit not only in the expectations it raises about personality, but in culture.   In a multi-cultural story, each culture needs a grab-bag of names that will then help create that culture’s sound identity in the story.

For instance, in this story, there’s a person named Bernard Greyhaus, a military officer–not a POV character, existing mostly via the journal he kept.  That name already suggests a certain kind of military officer.  The spelling of his last name suggests a mix of linguistic input; his first name suggests another possible input, and–in an SF story set far in the future–suggests a predominantly north European Terran ancestry.   Vatta is not a north European name…Ky’s ancestry includes inputs from, predominantly, the long trade routes from Greece/Turkey to India.  Ky has a flag captain, last name Pordre, and an aide, last name Bentik, neither from Slotter Key.   Early in the book she meets the pilot and co-pilot of the shuttle she’s on:  Hansen and Sunyavarta.  Already the last names are cueing the reader that there’s a complexity to the culture.

Two people in the book are using aliases.  Why would someone pick a name like Hilarion Bancroft for an alias?   Or Edvard Simeon Teague?   Why not commoner names (whatever those might be) that wouldn’t call attention to themselves.    Well, because an unusual name doesn’t look as though you’re trying to hide from attention.   (And also because one of those is rhyming slang for a composer if you ignore the middle name, which I threw in to make it less likely.  I could not resist.)

What about land masses?    Slotter Key was settled by humans less than a thousand years ago, under a corporate license agreement: the stakeholders, all from one culture, named the larger land masses they were entitled to for some version (or shortened version) of their name, plus “land.”  Hence Arland, Forland, Voruksland, etc.  Other place names were contributed by later immigrants, and some are descriptive while others are banal at best.  Luckily, the story doesn’t drag you around too much.   Slotter Key has smallish continents and lots and lots of islands of various types.    (Oh–you’re wondering about Slotter Key’s own name?  That’s…interesting, actually.  Key because of all the reefs and islands.  Slotter’s argued about.   It might originally have been Slaughter, and that might originally have involved a massacre OR simply the last name Slaughter.  I knew people named Slaughter way back when.  Lots of names on this planet are obscure in origin unless you know someone who was there at the start.  Weslaco, Texas, for instance.  W.E. Stewart Land Company…yup, that’s where its name came from.  Sounded good, was unique, so…there it is.)

The Vatta family, as mentioned, are an amalgam of Turkish, Syrian, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian background, plus additions of others here and there.   In some centuries and places, they tried assimilating at least a little.  But their history is largely one of family closeness in trade, buying and selling, with more or less brief periods of owning land and cultivating it, often for exotic crops they can sell at a higher profit than basic foodstuffs.   E.g., the tik plantations on Corleigh, where Ky grew up.

And now it’s time to take a break and try to get the exercise requirement done before the next round of storms hits.






08 May 15:13

Culture-building: Virtues & Vices

by Elizabeth

See, there’s a bonus to the previous post–today you get two new posts.   Today’s topic is culture-building–some thoughts on creating cultures-not-like-ours-exactly (or at all) and specifically some thoughts on how cultures differentiate along the fault lines of, well, faults.  What’s right.  What’s wrong.  What the people in that culture think about the “why” behind what’s right and what’s wrong.

We can start with something obvious and simple: food.  Humans are omnivores who have no physical barrier to eating a wide variety of foods that are not directly toxic:  the range of foods eaten by all the human cultures now existing is greater than the range eaten by any one culture.   If you look back in history, where we have data, even more things were consumed in the past.  Cultures may not only exclude some foods entirely, they may limit some foods to certain groups within the culture, whether by age, gender, or social rank.

I’m in a culture that–though expanding some of its earlier limits–still considers eating insects and their larvae, and some animals (dogs, cats, horses), and some plants (algae), as well as fellow humans, to be disgusting.   On the other hand, as heir both biologically and culturally to North European diets, I’m fine with meat of most other kinds, seafood, dairy, and gluten-containing grains, as well as most (but not all) of those vegetables.   Other cultures may be disgusted by the consumption of pork, or lobsters, or all mammal-meat, or  dairy, or all animal food.

So food is one place to start when considering culture-building.   Culture A, for instance, may have an absolute prohibition against eating tree nuts.  Why?   I can think of multiple reasons (including tree worship, protection of animals that rely on tree nuts,  the periodic infestation of tree nuts with a disease that makes those who eat the nuts very sick,  the limitation of tree nut access to royalty: the king eats a sacred number of tree nuts once a year, to preserve the land, and nobody else can, the animals that eat tree nuts are considered contemptible and that makes the nuts contaminated by association, etc.)

Culture B, on the other hand, grows tree nuts to eat and to trade.  B has orchards of nut trees, and a good chunk of B’s economy comes from the tree nuts.   B families give  tree nuts (sometimes raw in the shell, sometimes toasted with honey and salt) to friends and those they want to befriend.  Tree nuts are a garnish on some dishes, and sometimes ground into a flour used in special holiday pastries.  Most members of B eat some tree nuts, in some form, most of the year.  A person who doesn’t like tree nuts is considered to have poor taste…how could anyone NOT like tree nuts?  How can you cook without tree nuts?   Tree nuts are part of the ration for soldiers and sailors; tree nuts are part of the common speech:  “Sound as a nut,”  “a liar is like a weevil in a nut, spoiling the whole,” “she’s trustworthy–every nut in the basket sound,”  “poor old X, he’s short a handful of nuts in his bowl.”

Cultures A and B, when they come into contact (perhaps in a third location) are appalled at each other’s disgusting food habits.  And on that basis alone may distrust each other.   A members are shocked at the B’s nut consumption  (“How can you trust a man–a grown man–who eats tree nuts??  Have these people no shame?  No doubt they will cheat you, try to steal your daughters, rape your wives…they’re hardly human, picking up tree nuts from the ground and…eating them.  Eeeuw!”)  And A’s women are just as appalled….”They’ll try to feed nuts to our children, contaminating them with forbidden food.   Can you imagine a mother who loves her children actually feeding her child a tree nut?  I’ll bet they grind them up and put them in all their food…it’s not safe to eat anything they offer you, because it’s probably contaminated and even addictive.  I’m not letting MY children anywhere near THEIR children!”)   B members are equally shocked and disapproving.  “There’s nothing wrong with our trees, OR our nuts!  Perfectly good food, nutritious…what kind of idiots won’t eat nuts?  Or bread because there’s some chopped nuts in the dough?  I gave that man a gift of roasted honey-nuts and he threw it on the ground!  How’s that for rudeness?”

Humans are capable of attaching meaning to any random sensory input: colors (even shade of color) acquire a meaning over than a certain wavelength of light.  Wearing a color, painting a house or a business-location a color,  all signal something in most cultures but not the same in all.  Clothes and personal grooming–down to the smallest detail–can signal political or religious adherence, or social rank, or gender identity, or moral standing, or a combination of any of these, and the same detail can mean opposite things to different people.   (Do ragged jeans mean poverty or rebellion against authority? )   Music is a common divide between cultures…instruments v. no instruments (voice alone),  which instruments alone or combined, which style of music, etc.   Tones of voice–how often women, in our culture, are censured for having voices pitched higher, or for speaking loudly (compared to how the complainer wants them to speak.)

Since groups of humans forming a culture or subculture can choose from a wide variety of sensory inputs to create cultural meanings, so the writer can invent believable cultures by using the same sorts of inputs to bring an invented culture alive.  Consider different diets,  different choices of personal grooming (long hair, short hair, facial hair as decoration, ideas about gender identity in relation to hair choices and the meaning of hair that is not a choice, such as visible/noticeable hair on other parts of the body.  Teeth “natural” or filed, or dyed, to produce a particular look.  Tattoos applied to the skin, or scarification, as markers for a given culture), different choices of material, color, style for clothing, different choices of material, color, style for both exterior and interior of buildings: hard v. soft textures, saturated v. dilute colors, etc.

Beyond that, consider the abstractions cultures use to define themselves and the Others, and how those interact with the sensory inputs to which they’ve assigned meaning.   They all consider some things intrinsically Good and others intrinsically Bad.  What are those things?   And why does that culture think they are Good or Bad?   Always?  Only in some contexts?   (In some cultures, it’s Bad to lie to a family member about the health of a cow you’re selling, but perfectly all right to lie to a stranger–in fact it’s Good, if it brings more profit to the family.   In ours it’s Bad for a citizen to lie to a police officer, but it’s legal for the police officer to lie to the citizen–in fact, it’s Good if the lie leads to information that closes a case.)    Most cultures have loopholes in at least some of their rules of Good and Bad, because humans are complicated and look for, and find, ways to make the rules work in their favor at least part of the time.   Some years back, for instance, research showed that about 30% of the women seeking an abortion were opposed to abortion (some actively compaigning against it, in fact)…except they were convinced their case was different.  The *other* women were sluts who just wanted to have sex without responsibility, but they had *legitimate* reasons for their own abortions.   The same is true of men who are all for sexual purity except that they have “needs” or “weak wills”  or “made a mistake.”

No rule survives contact with human nature in significant numbers.  The decision on which rules to enforce–and on whom–is always a source of cultural differences…and makes for good stories, too.  Cultures, like the individuals within them, have specific strengths and weaknesses–they were born out of a specific historical context, of parental cultures from which they derived ideas and beliefs and practices that in the story-present make them more or less viable in a universe filled with other cultures.   (I think both Bujold, with her Barrayar stories, and Lee & Miller with their Liaden stories, do an excellent job of showing how cultures and individuals influence each other, and cope with culture contact and culture conflict.   These authors’ ability to recognize and show the depth and complexity of cultures adds a lot to my enjoyment of their work.)

So–a few of the many approaches to creating new cultures for your fiction.  I like to start with the sensory, because it’s concrete, and work from that to the abstract, but you could do it the other way.






29 Apr 03:56

When Police Misbehave

An Austin Police Department officer, who lives in a nearby town, got into an argument with an older female neighbor--he was off duty, out of uniform, not in his jurisdiction, you will note.  He came into her yard to confront her.   She told him to get out of her yard.  He didn't.  From the images of both shown on  TV last night, he is markedly bigger than she is--heavier and taller.   She said if he didn't get out of her yard she would spray him with a garden hose.   He continued to stay in her yard and argue with her.  She sprayed him with the garden hose.  He then physically attacked her, picking her up and throwing her onto the ground (I think it was the driveway, but am not certain) causing injuries for which she needed medical treatment.

An internal investigation by the Austin PD did not find he had done anything wrong, but the chief fired him.  Now the police officers' association is mad at the chief, claiming that the officer did nothing wrong, didn't break any laws, and shouldn't have been fired.  They claim he acted "in self defense."  (Against being sprayed with a garden hose...while trespassing.  Yeah, that really calls for a physical slam-down.  NOT.)

It's bad enough that a police officer who is not in his jurisdiction, not on duty, and is not in the process of apprehending a criminal--just having an argument with a neighbor who is older, smaller, and on her own property--would trespass, refuse to get off her property, and then pick up and throw down this citizen because she got him wet.

It is worse that his fellow officers--and supposedly his entire chain of command except the police chief--see nothing wrong in what he did and accept the trespass, the refusal to leave, and the injury to the property owner as justified by "self-defense."

Because if it had been two other neighbors--big younger man, small older woman--and the man had invaded the woman's yard to yell at her more effectively, and refused to leave when asked, and she had sprayed him with a hose (getting his clothes wet, I suppose--it was a garden hose, not a fire hose)  and he'd slammed her to the ground, injuring her, and she'd called the police...I will bet you that man would have been found to have committed the criminal offense of assault and battery, as well as trespass, as well as disturbing the peace (especially if he had been black and she had been white.   She had a reasonable fear of injury when a larger man came onto her property and yelled at her.  I believe police officers would see that if the perp had not been a police officer.   I believe that the police officer in this case simply lost his temper (something police officers do, with the excuse that theirs is a hard life) and threw her down because he could and expected to get away with it, because BADGE.

Routinely, internal investigations find no fault in situations like this where the reasonable and educated citizen knows that the same act committed by anyone else is a crime.  Routinely, law enforcement "stands behind" acts that are morally wrong, legally culpable, and indefensible except by those who, in their arrogance, claim the right to do anything they want any time they want no matter what.

And thereby are losing, steadily and inexorably, the respect of the populace.  The bad apples--the ones who do these things and the ones in the force who support what they've done--destroy the reputation of the whole.  Which is sad because there are still a lot of good, honest, law officers who are not like this fellow.  Not like the man in Ohio who shot a 12 year old without giving him time to obey and then lied about what happened.  Not like their chief and commissioner who suggested that the family should spend the settlement money on a program to teach black kids about the danger of having toy guns that look too real.  Not like the Texas state troopers who performed a roadside cavity search on young girls...right out there in full view of everyone...because I guess they wanted to cop a feel.   Not like the cops in New Mexico who--when a cavity search for drugs by a doctor came up with nothing ordered the hospital to give the man enema after enema just because they could...and then tried to lie about it.   Or the ones in New Orleans and elsewhere who kept a "ham sandwich" in the car so they could plant a gun in someone's car or apartment...or the DAs who hide exculpatory evidence from the jury in order to get a conviction of an innocent citizen.

One of the reasons policing is harder now is that law enforcement has repeatedly not only done bad things, but failed to admit that they were bad.  Coverups...excuses when the coverup is penetrated...the belief that sticking together, in a gang-like attitude, is more important than the oath they swore to serve and protect the population...all that has eroded citizens' trust in law enforcement, its willingness to work with them.   Precisely because law officers are allowed more leeway when on duty than ordinary citizens--to enter property, to order people around--abuse of those powers makes things worse for them in the long run.

Good police officers have got to quit protecting the bad ones.   They've got to start policing internally--seriously--telling jerks like the guy who threw an older woman down in "self-defense"  (a patently stupid claim)  that such behavior is wrong.  Trespassing on a neighbor's property is wrong, and if you're asked or told to leave--you leave.   Feeling girls up alongside the highway is wrong.   Raping girls at a traffic stop (as one county constable did here years ago) is wrong.  Planting evidence is wrong.   Hiding evidence is wrong.  Good officers need to be tough toward their own, and police chiefs are absolutely right to discipline or fire officers whose behavior brings the department into disrepute.  Departments need to be honest with each other when hiring from another department.  Police academies should flunk out, not keep in, cadets who--like the guy who shot Tamir Rice--are considered emotionally unstable and thus unsafe with firearms.

Additionally, officers need to have access to mental health care that will help them deal with the very real stresses of police work, and give them tools to manage their own problems--police officers have a higher rate of domestic violence than the average population, and often show signs of anger management  and control issues.  (A difficult shift before the current one is NOT a good reason to lose your temper, scream at a citizen, and beat on them.)   Mental health visits should be standard, required, for all personnel at regular intervals and after any incident where violence is used, be it on assignment or otherwise.
23 Apr 00:01

Charming Japanese shopping arcade

by Muza-chan

Whenever I have the chance, I select a hotel as close as possible to a shōtengai, the Japanese specific shopping arcade. Regardless the city or the prefecture, an evening stroll through such a commercial street is a pleasure by itself, even when I’m not in the mood for shopping…

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EXIF Info:

Nikon D90
Lens: VR 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6G
Focal Length: 18mm
Aperture: F/5.6
Shutter Speed: 1/40s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 400
Osaka Castle
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Osaka Castle

29 May 00:01

The white heron legend of Dogo Onsen

by Muza-chan

Legend says that more than 3000 years ago, the locals of Matsuyama noticed that a white heron with an injured leg healed by bathing daily in a hot spring. Then, they tried the hot spring for themselves, and thus was established the Dogo Onsen, the oldest hot spring in Japan.

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EXIF Info:

Nikon Df
Lens: 24-70mm F/2.8G
Focal Length: 24mm
Aperture: F/3.2
Shutter Speed: 1/60s
ISO Sensitivity: ISO 6400
Machiya townhouse design
Yesterday’s Japan Photo:

Machiya townhouse design

21 Mar 06:00

Navigating the Ocean of Story (2)

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Gunby Ursula K. Le Guin


Adina: I read your work over and over in sheer fascination at the lyricism you manage to put into everything, the descriptions, seemingly simple lines, characterizations. When I look at my own writing, no matter how hard I try, it feels flat. Simple question that feels a little silly, but how do you build that skill? I feel I don’t have enough words to manage the poetry in prose that I want to reach for. How do you suggest I build that?

UKL: The way we build up any skill is by doing something, thinking about it, doing it over, doing it, and again, singlemindedly, till it gets so deep in our whole mind and body that we can do it without rules, without recipes, without conscious thought. Playing the piano or playing soccer, dancing the tango or making soup, skill is the product of experience.

In the case of literary writing, the experience isn’t only that of writing. Reading is fully as important. Real writers read. They read a lot, and they read the best stuff they can find. You learn an art by doing it – and in the case of literature, doing it means reading it as well as writing it.

If you feel that you “don’t have enough words” to do what you want, the best way to get more words is by reading them – reading whatever you love to read – and writing them. Live with words, play with them, work with them, till they begin to do what you want them to do. You probably don’t really need any more words than you have. You just need to learn how to let them speak in your true voice.

It will take a while. And there is ALWAYS more to learn.

Nicole: I have a question about world-building in fantasy/sci-fi (that is, using cultures and worlds of your own invention):

How do you determine which aspects of a world/culture are best described overtly and which should be implied?

It seems to me, broadly speaking, that finding a good balance between those two approaches is what helps immerse readers in the world of a story, but I find I often struggle with world-building.

I have been writing seriously for about five years, and I have had about ten short stories published, mostly in nonpaying markets. I am a beginner looking for ways to improve my writing.

Bayla: I’ve been writing fantasy for a number of years, and I consistently feel that my world-building falls short. I tend to world-build in pieces — culture, money, religion, maps — and yet there always seems to be some piece that feels like it might not fit. Any tips on creating rich, believable worlds? How do you go about doing it? How much do you rely on the way cultures in our world actually work? Do you spend a lot of time building the world before trying to write the story set within it? I never seem to stop worrying that my world will feel “wrong” in some of the details, even if it’s in a wholly created universe.

UKL: I put your questions together, Nicole and Bayla, because they’re pretty similar. Unfortunately, like Adina’s question, they are very general. Generalities about writing are – generally – either platitudes or hokum.

So I’ll try to answer your questions by inventing a planet called Teg and a place in it called Horb to use as examples of world-building.

How to find the balance between how much to describe and how much to imply?

Well, consider how much you can imply in a description.

“Horb is on the coast of the southernmost of the nine continents of Teg” — This general description implies very little.

“The traders take their windships out of the ports of Horb as soon as the ice barrier melts in the austral spring, carrying voor-pelts and diamonds to Veu and other continents” — We learn, as we did from the first sentence, that Horb is on the coast of a southern continent and that there are several continents; we also learn that it’s icebound in winter, that it has a long-established trading economy, that there are creatures called voor whose pelts are valued elsewhere, that diamonds are also valued, etc…

The difference is in specificity. What’s important is to know what you want to tell about Horb, and then tell it by “embodying” it in concrete, vivid details – packing your sentences with specifics, not with generalities.

How much to rely on the way cultures in our world work?

This largely depends on whether you want your readers to be comfortable on Teg, or challenged by it.

“Vig spurred his horse through the narrow streets of Horb at a gallop, drawing rein only at the Palace gate.” – Well, here we are in Horb in the European Middle Ages, all very cozy and feudal. Nobody has to do any thinking about it at all.

“Vig argued with his reinsteed for a while at the entry-fold of Horb, but it was useless; Hul hated the city, she would wait here, and Vig would have to walk.” – This can’t be fully understood by easy reference to any Earthly society. A disagreement between a man and an animal is understandable, but an equality, perhaps an actual discussion, between them is implied that is not familiar on Earth. And what is an “entry-fold”? The reader will learn what it is, but may have to wait a while. Lazy readers find waiting uncomfortable. Fortunately, a lot of sf readers expect to be challenged, and will suspend comprehension in hopes of a good pay-off. Just be sure they get the pay-off.

Do you spend a lot of time building the world before writing the story?

Yes. I do.

If Teg or Horb differ in any important way from the world-as-we-know-it, the implications of that difference have to be thought through pretty carefully beforehand. If not, anomalies and huge inconsistencies will multiply, visible cracks will appear in your Secondary World, and your story will fall into one of them.

Reading around for pleasure in anthropology and travel books can raise your consciousness of of how vastly human societies differ (let alone alien ones), and what a vast difference just one element of a culture can make – the existence or non-existence of a technology, or an assumption, or a gender….

But, having thought out your society and technology and all, don’t worry too much. You can fake quite a lot or leave it unsaid, so long as your world looks and smells and tastes real, so long as it has complexity, emotional weight, and integrity. If it is real to you and grows more real as you write it, if you’re living there as you write — you’re well on the way to making it real to your reader.


09 Apr 17:43

The Characters Discuss Their Author

by Elizabeth

Conversations about the author–the characters being conceived almost as actors in a green room, let’s say–are not unknown in the writing world.   (A thunderstorm just popped up on top of us.   Blame all typos on my instinctive twitch when a close strike hits.)   So here’s a conversation between characters from some of my stuff…all of them already know one another, because they all live in my head, where they can move from series to series, book to book, kibitz on the writing process and then go find their favorite watering hole to dissect “What that woman is doing now!”

Since this is the Universes blog,  they’re actually on the station, and their end of the restaurant bar always has a few of them hanging out in it.  Today, it’s predominantly science fiction characters; the fantasy ones have taken an excursion trip to someplace where they feel more at home.   The Universal Eavesdropped App is working; you don’t have to crowd up close (and I wouldn’t advise it.)


“She’s always had a mean streak, you know.”  Heris Serrano leans back.  “She showed it even before I woke up as a disgraced officer in Hunting Party.  Every single book, she finds someone to pick on.   It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how ethical you are–”

“You?  You’re claiming you’re a perfect straight arrow?”  Livadhi glares at her.  “You forget, I’ve known you before she picked you–you of all people–as protagonist.   If she’d picked me–”

“You’d still have been a traitor.   She’d never have picked you.   Her protagonists are at least ethical, or on their way to being.”

“She picked that idiot Luap, in that other universe.”  Rafe Dunbarger tosses back the rest of his drink and sets the glass down hard.  “If you want to talk about character FAIL.”

“Other universe different rules.”  Everyone draws back a little from the scarred veteran of one of Author’s lesser works, Vargas.  He doesn’t come in often, but he exudes danger at a level that means he will never be anyone’s buddy.   The bouncers across the room are watching, their shoulders tight.  He’s caused trouble before.   Over by the door his former captain  shows up, a little translucent, the way the characters who die are, when they come into this place.   Everyone hopes Major Sewell won’t come before the captain talks Vargas into going somewhere else.  Vargas and Sewell in the same place mean a fight.

“Making my point,” Heris Serrano says.   “What are you here for, Vargas?”  As always, her voice is a little too clipped, a little too sure that she has a right to be in charge.

“Reminding you officer types who really does the fighting,” Vargas says.  “Reminding you that you don’t own this place or that woman’s mind, and the stuff she writes, though complete garbage, is our pay.  I lived through my story; you lived through your story; your whining makes me puke.”

“You like her?” Rafe asked.  His arm twitches; everybody there knows a blade just dropped into his hand.   Everybody knows he’s been itching to try knife-fighting with Vargas and nobody wants to be in the spatter zone.

Vargas shrugs.   “Doesn’t matter, though frankly I wouldn’t waste time with her in person.  Too old, too plain,  not my type at all.  Classical music, ye gods.  Horse riding.   Reading all those thick books about stuff that probably never happened.  Swords–well, all right, though a machete’s more practical.  But for me, a skirt that’s experienced enough but not wrinkly.  And smells good.”  He leans back, arms on the back of the settee, taking up more space on purpose.  “But as a writer, she’s OK for me.  I been in other stories, the dumb mean NCO with the criminal background, written down below the real me, and she’s given me a way to be as dark as I am and yet–I’m telling the story.  And I look way better than Sewell.    I keep hoping she’ll pick me up for another one, without him–” He stops in mid-sentence.

Carl has come to the table, bringing a chill.  “C’mon, Gunny, let’s go look for some real entertainment.”

Vargas shrinks, bringing his arms down, sitting up straighter.  “Captain.  Just having a little chat…”

“I know,  but we need to go now.”    In an instant, the completely substantial Vargas and the almost completely insubstantial captain are gone.

The others settle back into their seats.  “It’s not ever going to happen,” Rafe says.  He has put the knife away.  “She’s not going back to that setting again.”

“She should come back to ours,”  Heris Serrano says.   “There’s a lot more she could do.  Sure, the younger ones might find another series to transfer into, but what about the older ones?”

“Like you?”  Livadhi sneers.  He often sneers now, with no need to disguise his true nature.

“Like Lady Cecelia,” Heris says, not looking at him.  “She still likes horses, but she hasn’t made a place for people like Cecelia in the new series.”

“Thank all the gods,” Rafe says.  “I rode a horse at summer camp once.   They smell, they can hurt you badly, and they’re ecologically unsound.”

“I don’t know,” Ky says, settling into the chair beside him.   “I had fun on horses.  I tried to talk her into including horses in this new book, but she’s really stubborn.   Does not listen to characters.”  Around the tables, nodding heads.    Mutters of “Right” and “That’s the truth!”

“Is it finally done, Ky?”  Heris asks.

Ky shakes her head.  “Not quite.  Editor hasn’t approved it.  Got my fingers crossed one particular scene won’t be edited out.  Vargas would like it; she has that mean streak and I got to make use of it this time.”

“You did last time, when you killed Osman.”

“Yeah, but this time she had a different twist to it.  You’ll see.  I hope.”

“Have you ever wanted to do something she wouldn’t let you do?  Or is it more she pushes you into doing what you don’t want to do?”   The man they know as “the Professor” is now at one end of the table with a tankard of beer.  He looks like he should be with the fantasy characters, but he’s firmly in the SF group and hasn’t been cast in the others.

The answers come thick and fast, tumbling over each other and it boils down to “Both” but more “pushing” than “stopping.”

“She threatened me with losing the lead,” Ky says.  It’s the first time she’s admitted this; until she was cast again in the new book, she wasn’t about to admit that blot (even if only potential) so early in her career.   “Said I wasn’t putting all of myself into it, and she had to know my worst secret.”

“She does that,” Heris said.  “And she won’t let you off the hook.”  More nods around the table and then everyone is looking at Ky expectantly.

“What?  You think I’ll tell you ghouls?  So you can ruin my next contract?  Forget it.”  She turns to Rafe.   “I think I hear her calling us.”

“Chicken!” the others chorus as Ky and Rafe vanish.





09 Apr 00:25


by Elizabeth

Well, probably. Sortakinda done. At 1:30 this afternoon, I made my final staggering plunge through the muck and mire to the finish line, having untangled various tangles and discovered yet more typos. I’d been up until 2:30 am Friday morning (NOT, mutter mutter, going out to photograph peak bluebonnets and plains nipple cactus, mutter mutter) and was back up before 8, unwillingly settling in to work again. Yesterday was gorgeous, clear and just cool enough. Today was mostly cloudy, so less temptation to go out, but a lot of stiffness and temptation to go back to bed. Which I did after coming to the end for the umpteenth time.

For those who think they’d really like to see all the drafts, especially the stuff thrown out…no, you really wouldn’t. OK, some of you, the kind who would be glad to be handed the kitchen waste cans after dinner so you could decide if the chef cut off a millimeter too much or too little of the fat on the rack of lamb, and whether the nubs of the carrots looked fresh…you might enjoy it. But most of us are far better off not knowing, so the story itself can come onstage, twirl about, do some high kicks and leaps, and disappear again without being encumbered by the “mistakes and accidents of surgery” (book type, at least.) (And yes, I have a real book titled Mistakes and Accidents of Surgery, written by a surgeon for the education of medical students, so they can avoid being in the next edition.)

I’ve had a nap. I’m going to eat supper–leisurely. I am not staying up late to work on the book, which is what I’ve been doing night after night until after midnight. Tomorrow, if it’s not pouring rain, I’ll be out in the field with binoculars and camera. If it’s pouring rain, I’ll be knitting and cooking. And another nap will be taken.

So now, what bits of science-y stuff can I add to your end-of-week reading? Well, there’s the report in this week’s NATURE that Daylight Savings Time isn’t good for most people, that we are neurologically wired to _not_ adjust to the twice-yearly demands to change our circadian rhythms. I’ve been saying that for years. It gets harder every year to recover from the process. Someday when I’m old and crankier, I’m going to quit paying attention to it at all. (Who cares when an 80 year old gets up, eats breakfast, etc? As long as you stay out of a medical facility, which I have every intention of doing.

There’s a fairly stupid (my term) gleeful commentary by one Adam Briggs, who not only favors the “sugar tax” now being imposed in some countries, but thinks the next target should be red meat, because red meat has a big carbon footprint. As a grassland ecology citizen scientist doing prairie restoration, this is taking an H-bomb to a mosquito. There are people who tout a vegetarian, if not vegan, diet for all as being the solution to feeding a global population. Those people are not ecologists. In terms of red meat, those people are not grassland ecologists.   (As it turns out the “cut” function doesn’t work as well in this theme as it did in my earlier themes, you’re stuck with the rest of the rant…but I will put in a visual barrier, though it’s not an actual cut: TO AVOID THE REST OF THE LONG BUT INFORMATIVE RANT, STOP READING HERE. )

Grassland is a valuable biome for many, many reasons: it’s sustainable with minimal fossil fuel use in management, it is excellent at erosion prevention and control, it transports rainwater into groundwater better than other soils, providing well-filtered springwater and thus cleaner streams, and it sustains its herbivores at levels that provide quality protein for human use. Converting natural grassland to cropping risks increasing soil erosion, nutrient dumping into water courses, removal of groundwater for irrigation, and desertification with encroachment of shrub species as a transition before full desertification. This happened in the United States, leading to the Dust Bowl. This has happened in Africa and Asia; the disappearance of the valuable mid-continental surface waters in Asia (Caspian and Aral seas) is due to the conversion of native grassland to agriculture using irrigation. Converting natural grassland to heavily populated cities, suburbs, industrial parks, etc. destroys all the ecosystem benefits that the natural grassland provides (lawn grass requires supplemental water and does not move rainwater into the groundwater.)

Natural grasslands–especially mid and short-grass–should be maintained for their many region-wide ecological services, and to do that…you need grazers. Grazers fertilize the grassland at a healthy level (low intensity, infrequent in a well-managed grassland.) Grassland needs to be grazed at a sustainable level to keep it grass land. You can attempt to mimic the effect with mowing, but mowing requires the use of fossil fuels, which contributes to global warming, and leaves more plant debris on the ground, rather than converted into fertilizer. Grazers need their population managed to prevent overgrazing (which is injurious)…which means either a size range of predators (some for the mice, some for the large herbivores) or human intervention. Hence: grass-fed grazers, which provide quality protein for humans as well as wolves, foxes, various wild cats. Whether wild or domestic, these animals can be managed for the health of the grassland ecosystem and their innate reproductive rate means that harvesting meat is both necessary and sustainable.

Taxing red meat to drive up the price will make it harder for low-income people to get the good complete protein they and their children need, while putting more pressure on owners of existing permanent pasture to convert them to cropland or sell to developers.

Yes, there’s a lot wrong with how meat is produced: cutting down rainforest is a bad idea. Feeding cattle corn and soybeans instead of grass is a bad idea, both ecologically and for the animals and those who eat them. Soybeans and corn both use more water than native grass (as well as needing the use of fossil fuels during their cultivation for livestock feed.) And eating grain and beans instead of grass and forbs mixed produces meat with a different protein/fat composition, as well as non-natural gut flora that is more dangerous to humans. Cheap mass-produced meat from cattle fed unnatural feeds and crowded so they require antibiotics and hormones…a bad idea. But damning red meat because of how it’s currently produced is stupid, and risks losing more of the planet’s important grassland biome.

Instead, sustainable production on natural, existing grasslands should be promoted, from farmers in Cumbria and Wales in the UK feeding out lambs to ranchers in the US West selling beef direct off the prairie.   Production close to consumption is a better goal–and will lessen the carbon footprint more– than eliminating an entire category of food (and its supporting ecosystem.)   Two principles top the list: water resource management as the foundation of maintaining a health grassland ecosystem, and ensuring adequate food for the lowest income citizens first.


03 Feb 11:16

Submitting Like a Man

by Steven Harper Piziks

Steven Harper PiziksI found this blog extremely interesting.

The short version is, an editor realized that when she rejected a manuscript but said she liked the author’s work and wanted to see more of it, male writers were more likely to send something else right away, while female authors often waited months to submit something–or never submitted anything at all.  Men, the editor muses, seem to be more focused on getting their work in front of an editor, while women read too much into the editor’s letter: “Is it rude to send something else right away? Will I seem desperate?  Maybe I should wait a while so I don’t seem pushy.”  And then they don’t submit, or they wait so long to submit, the editor forgets who they are.

Let me chime in to say: DON’T WAIT.  If an editor rejects you with a letter that basically says, “This isn’t what we’re looking for, but I like your work and would like to see more,” the unwritten addition is, “and do it now, before I forget who the heck you are.”

Editors (and agents) are sumptuously busy.  They receive hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts every month.  If one pauses to say she likes your writing, YOU HAVE HER EAR!  But it won’t last long.  All that busy-ness will overwhelm her shortly, and she’ll completely forget that delightful little piece you wrote about your grandmother’s hilarious hoarding habit.

“But,” you ask, “if my writing was so delightful and she liked it so much, why did she reject THIS piece?”

Who knows?  Maybe it was too long or too short for her current inventory.  Maybe your protagonist was a were-kitten, and she already has a whole bunch of were-kitten stories and can’t use another one for a couple years.  Maybe you sent an historical fantasy piece, and they don’t publish historical fantasy.  Maybe the writing was almost there, and the editor thinks your next piece might make it.  Ultimately, WHY DO YOU CARE?  Send the next freakin’ piece, and send it NOW!

Look, a manuscript is your job interview with an editor (or agent).  Based on your work, the editor will decide whether or not to hire you.  If you had applied at a traditional job and at the conclusion the interviewer said, “You’re not quite what we need for this position, but I like your qualifications, and we have another job coming up that might fit.  You should apply for it,” what would you do?  A) Wonder if it’s too pushy to apply for the job right away and decide to wait a few months instead; or B) Rush down to Human Resources to make sure your application lands on the interviewer’s desk within the hour?


Send something else, and send it NOW.

–Steven Harper Piziks

DANNY on sale now at Book View Cafe.

Danny Large


20 Feb 01:17

Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

I will never get over the time he managed to open a book with an untranslated, unglossed wall of text in Hebrew, for an English-language novel, and the book became a famous international bestseller.

He visited my college, way back when, and read from Baudolino, which was his work in progress at the time. He read the chapter first in Italian, which I do not really speak and faked less well then, and after the standing ovation had died down he read the chapter again in English, which was entirely unnecessary, because everyone there had understood every word he said. It was a bit in which there is a rockslide, and you could hear all of it in the language: the initial dropping boulders as the protagonists' feet set them off, the pauses as they tried to slow down and tiptoe and move through the area more carefully, the ominous crackings underneath the pack animals, the sliding overwhelming crashes and the overall roar as the land fell down into the valley and they all went with it... I mean here that if you played this chapter to somebody who didn't know it was speech, they would register the noises, the way the syllables work together, as being an onomatopoeic depiction of a rockslide, regardless of the actual semantics. It wasn't as good in English-- I don't think Eco translated it himself, because he wasn't really English-fluent-- though the translator had clearly known what was supposed to be happening and made a valiant attempt. In Italian it was one of the two or three best readings I have ever heard a person give, revelatory, the kind of thing that expands the possibilities of language itself.

Afterward we all stood in a line for autographs, and I attempted to express something of how impressed I was by that reading, mostly I think by waving my arms a lot, and then something happened which was even more memorable, and which I am probably not going to manage to express in a way that makes it make sense.

None of the words I can use to flatly describe this situation have any of the right connotations. None of them. Even when I just limit myself to physical descriptions of actions taken, you're not going to get it, because they sound completely wrong. But I am going to have to start there.

Umberto Eco grinned at my hand-waving enthusiasm and attempts to say something about Greek and Latin poetic meters (both of which he had used in the passage in question), shook my hand, kissed my hand, signed my book, looked intently and delightedly down the front of my shirt (I have a chest tattoo; my default shirts have a lot of cleavage) for at least thirty seconds, and moved on to the next person in line.

You now have the wrong impression.

Here is an attempt to unpack the situation:

Me: *is enthusiastic and delighted in a language Eco does not speak, using vocabulary which is international, because the names of Greek and Latin poetic meters are basically recognizable no matter which modern language you are speaking*

Eco: *understands that I am being enthusiastic and delighted in a language he does not speak, and recognizes the vocabulary which means that I have understood and am happy about a specific, honestly rather esoteric aspect of the complicated thing he is trying to do*

Eco: *shakes my hand, making eye contact, firmly, in a manner which emphasizes that he is pleased to meet me and happy to hear what I have to say, but which also indicates his inability to continue the conversation in the manner which he would like and which would be the logical followup*

Me: *realizes oh of course he doesn't speak enough English for this what was I thinking gah* *starts to feel and look slightly embarrassed*

Eco: *kisses my hand, maintaining eye contact, indicating firmly that no! no! you should absolutely have said that! I am so glad that somebody understood and took the time to comment on that aspect of my work, and I am genuinely grateful that we are interacting in this way! I respect you very much for bringing it up!*

Eco: *signs book* *hands book to me with air of 'now that required bit is over with'* *manages to communicate to me, as far as I can tell psychically, 'I do not want to stop interacting with you, but there are all these other people, and we have this language barrier! What can I do that will register as a continuation of genuine human contact, be fast, and indicate admiration for you and this situation? I know!'*

Eco: *looks down my shirt for at least thirty seconds*

Line: *moves on*

Me, internally: oh my lord he actually managed to do that in a way that indicated that he was genuinely doing it as a stand-in because he respected my intellect. I... I believe him. That was... that was actually what he meant. I have never been leered at so politely in all my life. How did he do that. How was that not creepy. That was... that was not creepy in any way (and this was back when my PTSD and general skittishness were way the hell worse, especially in public and when I didn't know people). How.

A friend, right afterwards: So how was meeting Eco?

Me: He looked down my shirt! It was--

Friend: HE WHAT.

Me: No! It wasn't like that, it-- I am never going to be able to adequately explain this to anybody, am I. *sighs*

And from that day to this, no one has ever leered at me in such a non-creepy, intensely affirming, intellectually welcoming, genuinely supportive and delightful manner. I wouldn't believe it myself if he hadn't done the thing with the Italian reading immediately previously. But anyone who can do that is some kind of ludicrous language wizard; I think he could have done that reading literally anywhere on the planet and they would have understood it. So him doing the wildly impossible again right afterwards somehow seemed, well, a bit more likely.

I have spent the rest of my life proud and delighted that I was once ogled by Umberto Eco. Truly, the world has lost something in this man.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comment count unavailable comments over there.
11 Mar 06:44

Five for Friday: Five Bits of My Art

I could use some happymaking things right now, and I have been looking back through my art for pieces to make into/make back into fridge magnets, so here's a tiny survey.

The Old King's Crown

I always wanted a version like this, that looked ancient with the rainbow the only spot of color. It took three programs but I did it.

My favorite of Wolf's songs is The Old King's Crown, and over the years I've drawn a bunch of versions of this sequel/illustration image. This is one of the earliest, edited years later to redo the rainbow crown. I like the combination of subtly shaded hand drawing and vibrant supernatural rainbow.

Metropolitan Girls

Metropolitan Girls, 2000 BCE (2004)

I sat down one day with, of all things, a piece of cardboard out of a pantyhose package, and made this, still one of my favorite drawings. I wanted to convey the intricate cultural and ethnic diversity of the Mediterranean Bronze Age, and I tend to draw women by default. SO I drew a bunch of pretty maidens in pretty clothes, because. :)

Minoan Youth


I included this as an example of my sketches meant never to be colored in. It's just a sketch of a vivacious boy bouncing along. (Also, note his body proportions, which are rather more feminine than they should be, strictly speaking. His waist is high, his arms are long, his jaw is narrow, etc. I just like drawing women.)

Iris upon the Rainbow


When I got back into drawing in 2012, after some years of drawing only infrequently, I downloaded a wonderful program called Paintbrush, basically MS Paint for Apple computers. I made this in that program. I mean, the basic shape of her was drawn by hand and scanned -- I can't draw such shapes with a mouse and I don't feel like I should buy a tablet. (Maybe when E gets a little older I'll get her a tablet...) If you look closely at the stripes on her dress you can see that they are 'spraypainted', dark colors speckling a ehite background. It took something like a month to draw all that. It's so worth it.

New Minoan Recursion Picture

destined to become a recursive artwork

As if I needed any more projects, but... the other day I was thinking about two of my obsessions, the Minoans and recusrive images. I really love the pictures of people holding pictures of themselves, ad infinitum, so I managed to draw this girl and, once I've cleaned up the image and added her jewelry, etc, I'm going to put a little version of her on her hand... then shrink the whole thing and put it onto her hand, twice over, for at least three if not four layers of recursion. (If I can I'll do more.) Maybe I'll make both a color and a B&W version of this.

(in my copious free time.)
17 Feb 20:24

"As a child of immigrants my cultural capital isn’t viewed as important, just exotic."

“As a child of immigrants my cultural capital isn’t viewed as important, just exotic.”

- Accidentally laid out what everything I write about is actually about in a short piece from ages ago. (via jasondike)
25 Feb 06:40

Concise History

by wjw

Hey, it’s Bill Wurtz’s History of Japan!  Which is concise and funny and, so far as I know, accurate.


16 Feb 04:05

Astronaut graffiti found in Apollo 11 command module

by livius drusus

Smithsonian staff have discovered graffiti written on the inside walls of the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia. The command module, the only part of the Apollo 11 spacecraft to return to Earth after Neil Armstrong took that giant step for mankind on July 20th, 1969, was transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1970. It is on display in the Milestones of Flight Hall but visitors and scholars can only see the outside of it. To allow people to explore the inside of the historic vessel, experts with the Smithsonian’s 3D Digitization Program have been 3D scanning the command module. It was during the scanning process that the notes left by Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins during the first manned lunar landing voyage were seen for the first time in 50 years.

The writings include numerical calculations, a calendar, labels and notes. One panel to left of the sextant and telescope has figures and other notes copied from Houston mission control audio transmissions. Researchers will compare the notes to recordings and transcripts of the voice transmissions to determine who took the notes, when and what the figures mean. Initial comparisons have already found that the notes on the right side of the lower panel are coordinates sent from mission control that were estimates (inaccurate ones, as it happens) of the Lunar Module’s location on the Moon. The main control panel is also peppered with notes, mainly numbers, which will also be compared to mission control records in order to figure out their meaning and author.

Some of the notes show how the astronauts had to think on their feet and improvise a little once they were in space. NASA had detailed lists of where everything was to be stored and there are stowage maps on the walls of the command module. The astronauts took liberties with the plans, however, and wrote their own labels on several of the lockers. One of the stowage lockers, for example, was meant to store equipment related to the waste management system, but the astronauts repurposed it to hold filled urine bags from launch day before the waste disposal system was operational. They wisely labeled the locker with its contents so there would be no nasty surprises.

The calendar is my favorite because it captures the very human excitement of the moment. It’s a small rectangle with two rows of seven boxes. Nine of the boxes have dates in them, the dates of the mission, July 16th through 24th. All of the dates are crossed out except for the last one. Splashdown day never did get crossed off.

“As curator of what is arguably one of the most iconic artifacts in the entire Smithsonian collection, it’s thrilling to know that we can still learn new things about Columbia,” said Allan Needell, curator of space history at the museum. “This isn’t just a piece of machinery, it’s a living artifact.”

Laser scanning the interior and exterior of this living artifact has not been an easy task. Made primarily of aluminum alloy, stainless steel and titanium, the Apollo 11 command module is one big reflective surface which the scanners have difficulty reading. Add to that the complexity of the dashboards with their multiple small, delicate switches and indicators and buttons and the standard 3D capture tools weren’t going to cut it.

Because of the complicated nature of this scan, the Smithsonian 3D team brought in its technology partner, Autodesk Inc. Autodesk, a leader in cloud-based design and engineering software, deployed specially designed equipment to scan the artifact, and its advanced Memento software was able to process complex data from multiple 3-D capture devices to create one highly detailed and accurate model.

The model is a work in progress at the moment. It’s scheduled to be completed in June when it will be uploaded to the Smithsonian’s excellent site. That same month a major renovation of the Milestones of Flight Hall will be finished and the Apollo 11 Command Module will be temporarily taken off view. It will go back on display in 2020 in the museum’s new, state-of-the-art Destination Moon exhibition. The 3D model will be used to create an interactive display for the new exhibition.

Here is an early preview of the 3D model still in progress.


17 Feb 04:19

Lost cantata by Mozart and Salieri found in Prague

by livius drusus

A long-lost composition co-written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri has been rediscovered in the Czech National Museum in Prague. German musicologist and composer Timo Jouko Herrmann found the piece last month while doing research on Antonio Salieri in the collection of the Czech Museum of Music. It’s a libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian priest and poet who wrote the librettos for three of Mozarts most beloved operas — Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan tutte — and published by printer to the Imperial court in Vienna Joseph von Kurzböck. Very unusually for a libretto, this one includes the sheet music in a simple piano arrangement. Mozart and Salieri’s names do not appear anywhere in the pamphlet, only their initials in the musical notation identifying which measures were written by which composer. There is also a third composer credited, one Cornetti, who is unknown under that name.

The piece is entitled Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) and was written in 1785. The Ophelia in question was Nancy Storace, an English coloratura soprano who was friends with and muse to both Mozart and Salieri. The daughter of Stefano Storace, an Italian double bass player and composer who would become the musical director of Vauxhall Gardens in London, and Elizabeth Trusler, daughter of the owner of the concert venue Marylebone Gardens, Nancy was a musical prodigy from a very young age. She gave her first public performance when she was eight years old and debuted at London’s Haymarket Theatre the next year. Her older brother Stephen was also a child prodigy, taught by his father to play violin so expertly that by the age of 10 he was performing the most complex, difficult pieces of the time.

Stefano sent Stephen to Naples to study composition and in 1778 Nancy and her parents joined him there. Nancy traveled to Venice to take voice lessons from composer Antonio Sacchini and began getting professional gigs, rapidly rising from minor parts to leads and becoming something of a sensation. While still a teenager in 1782 she performed the role of Dorina in the Milan premiere of Giuseppe Sarti’s opera Fra I Due Litiganti Il Terzo Gode, a part that Sarti wrote specifically for her, to great acclaim.

When in 1783 Austrian Emperor Joseph II decided to put together a company dedicated to performances of Italian opera buffa (comic opera), he snapped up the 18-year-old Nancy Storace for his prima donna. Her brother Stephen came on as a composer. The inaugural production of the emperor’s new Italian Opera company was La Scuola de’ Gelosi by Antonio Salieri. Nancy played the lead role of the Countess. She enchanted audiences and composers alike with her talent and beauty.

Stefano Storace had died in 1780 or 1781, so Nancy’s mother Elizabeth went with her children to Vienna in 1783. Elizabeth arranged for her daughter to marry composer John Abraham Fisher who was 22 years her senior, more than double her age. It was an unmitigated disaster. Within months after their wedding on March 24th, 1784, rumors were flying around Vienna that Fisher was physically abusing Nancy. Emperor Joseph banished Fisher from the city and that was the end of the marriage, but the consequences of this ill-fated match far outlasted it.

In June of 1785, Stephen Storace’s first opera, Gli Sposi Malcontenti premiered with Nancy in the lead. Suddenly, in the middle of an aria, Nancy lost her voice. The performance had to be cut short. A few weeks later she gave birth to a daughter, Josepha Fisher. Elizabeth Storace wanted nothing to do with the child. She left her with a foundling hospital and reportedly announced that neither she nor Nancy cared if Josepha lived or died. The baby girl only lived a month.

It took Nancy five months for her voice to recover enough for her to be able to perform again. On October 12th, 1785, she returned to the stage singing the part of Ofelia in Salieri’s opera La Grotta di Trofonio. To celebrate her return, Mozart, Salieri and the mysterious Cornetti (possibly Nancy’s brother Stephen) composed Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia. Unfortunately Nancy’s health was not fully recovered. It’s a testament to how beloved she was that Mozart and Salieri both tweaked their operas to accommodate her new vocal limitations. Mozart worked with her on the music for The Marriage of Figaro which debuted on May 1st, 1786, with Nancy as Susanna. He had to lower the pitch of certain parts to ensure Nancy’s voice would hold up.

Less than a year later, Nancy left Vienna to return to London. Mozart wrote the aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? (“You ask that I forget you?”) for her farewell concert in Vienna on February 23rd, 1787. Nancy Storace went on to have a very successful career in London, but her voice never was the same.

We know from period newspaper ads that copies of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia were printed and distributed in Vienna by music publishers Artaria & Co., but none were known to survive. Not even the text of Da Ponte’s libretto, a 30 stanza pastoral poem, could be found. The rediscovery of Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia underscores that Mozart and Salieri were on good terms in 1785, even though a few years earlier Mozart had written in letters to his father of his frustration with the Italian cabal at the Viennese court. He thought Salieri, Da Ponte and other Italians who had the ear of the Emperor were blocking his ascent, but by 1785 Mozart was well-established and was working closely with said Italians. Salieri would go out of his way to express approval of Mozart’s work, even directing performances of several of his compositions.

Nonetheless, decades after Mozart’s premature death rumors were rife that Salieri had poisoned his rival. The rumor was immortalized in art when, six years after Salieri’s 1825 death, revered Russian poet Alexander Pushkin wrote a verse drama Mozart and Salieri that posited Salieri as the bitterly jealous poisoner of the greater man. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov set the play to music in the opera Mozart and Salieri, and playwright Peter Shaffer based his 1979 play Amadeus on Pushkin’s drama. That in turn was adapted for film in the Oscar-winning movie of the same name directed by Miloš Forman. So now when people think of Mozart and Salieri they think of a rivalry unto the death, when in fact the two men were on quite good terms. When it came to Nancy Storace, they were even collaborators.

And now, possibly for the first time and certainly for the first time in centuries, here is Per la Ricuperata Salute di Ofelia by Wolfgang Mozart and Antonio Salieri, played on the harpsichord by Lukas Vendl.

I can’t speak Czech and there are no functioning English subtitles, so I have no idea what this Czech National Museum curator is saying, but she flips through the pages of the rediscovered work very slowly and the quality of the film is good enough that you can get an excellent look at the libretto and the fold-out music.


19 Jan 17:20

Why aren’t there more women in the SFF section?

by Mary Robinette Kowal

During my travels, I started to notice that SFF sections in airport bookstores had disturbingly few women. So at a certain point, I started taking photos and counting. In this informal survey, only 18% of the books on sale were by women.* I should note that gender is not the only disparity in bookstores, it was just the one that I could count while waiting for an airplane.

This is what the airport SFF sections in bookstores look like.Survey of gender in SFF bookstores

It’s easy to chalk this up to something like, “Well, women don’t write as much SFF.” The problem is that I know that the gender breakdown for published SFF in the US doesn’t support that.  According to Strange Horizons, in 2014, 53.9% were by men and 42% were by women and non-binary authors.

So why, then, were the numbers so disparate?

Fortunately, after one of my tweets, Christine Thompson, the buyer at Barbara’s Bookstore reached out. This is the only bookstore that got in touch with me. (And please note, the improvement in their numbers after I brought the matter to her attention.) She agreed to sit down with me and talk about the problem.

As we talked, it became clear that the fault doesn’t rest with a single source. It’s the result of a ton of decisions, each of which is probably fueled by unconscious bias and then reinforced by a feedback loop.

For instance… When airport booksellers are stocking books, they look at multiple factors, one of which is the print run numbers. Higher print runs mean that the publishers have more faith in that book, ergo, it will probably sell well.

When publishers have an investment in a book, they are more likely to invest co-op dollars in it. Which essentially means that they pay for endcaps and placement of certain authors. Those books sell better, because they are out in front of readers.

SFF has a long history of bestsellers written by men. So men often have higher print runs, which means… You see the cycle?

And while one can say that it’s all economics, and it’s about what people want to buy, it’s much harder to buy a book that’s not in front of you. And certainly, not all men get huge print runs. Being a guy doesn’t guarantee a stellar publishing career, but… it does stack the deck 82% in their favor.

One of the questions that came up was: “Is it the big houses?” They are the ones with the co-op dollars. I have no idea what the gender breakdown of SFF is by publishing house, but Christine thought that might account for some of the disparity. The big houses are the ones with the most money in the way of co-op dollars and print run sizes. Smaller houses might create the parity in terms of publishing numbers, but with smaller printruns might have a harder time getting representation into stores.

It happens again when you look at which books get reviews. Again, this is a major source for discovering new authors.

But the final thing that came up in our conversation was that, even if a bookseller wants to improve the representation in their store, it’s difficult to do so because catalogs aren’t sorted by gender.  This… this is something we can fix though.

We can crowd-source a list.

That’s right. You can help crowd-source a list of women and non-binary authors in SFF in order to help book buyers create a more balanced list for their stores. Because this disparity is reinforced by reviews, which focus on authors who are publicly identified as male, it is difficult for booksellers to discover authors who are not male identified.

(tl;dr: There are a lot of guys in the bookstores. Please don’t use this list to tell us about guys, even if they’re LGBTQ.)

So, you can add books written by women and non-binary authors through this form. (Don’t worry about duplicates, I’ll clean up the list periodically, since it’s sortable.)

You can also use the list as a discovery guide.

If you had asked me, before I started this informal survey, if a young woman should choose a male pseudonym, I would have said “Absolutely not.” I am less certain now.

*Methodology: I counted the total number of authors. Then I counted the women. If I couldn’t tell and/or didn’t know, because the author used initials or a gender neutral name, I counted them as male. The reason I did this, instead of leaving them out, is because I was looking at the perception of gender rather than actual gender. If a woman is making choices to obscure her gender, that says loads about the current environment.

Edited to add: Ro Smith, in comments, has made an excellent point about how my methodology contributes to the erasure of non-binary, agender, and genderfluid authors. When I am counting this year, I’ll be counting the three categories Ro suggested: Stereotypically male names, Stereotypically female names, and gender-non-specific names.  I encourage anyone who is also counting to do the same.

The post Why aren’t there more women in the SFF section? appeared first on Mary Robinette Kowal.

23 Dec 12:55

John Cleese’s Advice to Young Artists: “Steal Anything You Think Is Really Good”

by Josh Jones

So you want to be a rock and roll star? Or a writer, or a filmmaker, or a comedian, or what-have-you…. And yet, you don’t know where to start. You’ve heard you need to find your own voice, but it’s difficult to know what that is when you’re just beginning. You have too little experience to know what works for you and what doesn’t. So? “Steal,” as the great John Cleese advises above, “or borrow or, as the artists would say, ‘be influenced by’ anything that you think is really good and really funny and appeals to you. If you study that and try to reproduce it in some way, then it’ll have your own stamp on it. But you have a chance of getting off the ground with something like that.”

Cleese goes on to sensibly explain why it’s nearly impossible to start with something completely new and original; it’s like “trying to fly a plane without any lessons.” We all learn the rudiments of everything we know by imitating others at first, so this advice to the budding writer and artist shouldn’t sound too radical. But if you need more validation for it, consider William Faulkner’s exhortation to take whatever you need from other writers. The beginning writer, Faulkner told a class at the University of Virginia, “takes whatever he needs, wherever he needs, and he does that openly and honestly.” There’s no shame in it, unless you fail to ever make it your own. Or, says Faulkner, to make something so good that others will steal from you.

One theory of how this works in literature comes from critic Harold Bloom, who argued in The Anxiety of Influence that every major poet more or less stole from previous major poets; yet they so misread or misinterpreted their influences that they couldn’t help but produce original work. T.S. Eliot advanced a more conservative version of the claim in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” We have a “tendency to insist,” wrote Eliot, on “those aspects or parts of [a poet’s] work in which he least resembles anyone else.” (Both Eliot and Faulkner used the masculine as a universal pronoun; whatever their biases, no gender exclusion is implied here.) On the contrary, “if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

It may have been a requirement for Eliot that his literary predecessors be long deceased, but John Cleese suggests no such thing. In fact, he worked closely with many of his favorite comedy writers. The point he makes is that one should “copy someone who’s really good” in order to “get off the ground.” In time—whether through becoming better than your influences, or misreading them, or combining their parts into a new whole—you will, Cleese and many other wise writers suggest, develop your own style.

Cleese has liberally discussed his influences, in his recent autobiography and elsewhere, and one can clearly see in his work the impression comedic forbears like Laurel and Hardy and the writer/actors of The Goon Show had on him. But whatever he stole or borrowed from those comedians he also made entirely his own through practice and perseverance. Just above, see a television special on Cleese’s comedy heroes, with interviews from Cleese, legends who followed him, like Rik Mayall and Steve Martin, and those who worked side-by-side with him on Monty Python and other classic shows.

Related Content:

John Cleese Explores the Health Benefits of Laughter

John Cleese’s Eulogy for Graham Chapman: ‘Good Riddance, the Free-Loading Bastard, I Hope He Fries’

John Cleese’s Philosophy of Creativity: Creating Oases for Childlike Play

John Cleese, Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers Trash Priceless Art (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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