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OctOgre 2001
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Read about Adventures in Surrealism: OctOgre 4, 2001
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The prior column left me recovering from my "49 heaves" illness and turning 67 and facing significant dental surgery. Well, my recovery continued and I'm okay now despite being a year older. The surgery was for three dental implants, as discussed last time. These are like artificial teeth, with their roots implanted in the bone of the jaw; I liken it to driving pylons deep into the muck to support a bridge. The thing is, I have lost four teeth on the lower right side, each one a long, painful, and expensive story in itself as I tried to preserve my natural teeth. Considering that I avoid sweets and keep my mouth clean, you'd think nature would let my teeth survive. The bitch refuses. So the upper teeth have nothing to chew against. The three implants--I wish you busty young women would stop sniggering--should enable me to chew with a full jaw again. They gave me at least four sedatives: Valium, laughing gas, an IV, and I think Novocain at the site--and I think the IV pretty well faded me, because for an hour all I was aware of was fragments of dialogue as the crew had at my jaw. "Hammer and chisel, please." "Where is the sledgehammer?" "Bring out the jack-hammer." "Now for the pile driver." "Careful of that dynamite." Whatever; I don't remember precisely. Then I was done. No, no new teeth showed; these were just the foundations. It seems they must be allowed to properly set for six months; the tops are at ground level and the gum grows over them so you can't see them at all. I think natural bone fills in around them, so that they are truly firm, but it takes time. So for that half year I am on a soft diet. It turns out that I can eat most normal things, bread, beans, salad, and such, but must avoid hard things. So I had to give up my afternoon nut snack; instead the nuts are vaporized in the blender and I pour the sad remnants on my cereal. They don't want those implants to be jogged while setting; you know how that sort of thing can mess up a concrete sidewalk. Then when they are set my regular dentist will have at them, putting on crowns. THEN I'll be able to chew on them. Remind me to make another report, when.

I hear from some readers that their eyes sort of glaze over when I talk about my ongoing computer experience. Okay, you folk, glaze on to the next paragraph, when maybe I'll say something undull. I completed my children's novel Tortoise Reform on Linux with StarOffice Writer, finally getting up to my normal writing velocity of 3,000 words a day. Then I started in on Xanth #27, Cube Route , and moved at speed on that. So Linux is working for me. I continue to discover handy spot features, like how to bookmark directories, and that facilitates my writing. I am in touch with a couple of Linux geeks who are clueing me in on what is available to further improve the situation, such as a Windows-emulator within Linux that may enable me to print at speed without leaving Linux. Why the hell Linux doesn't let a printer print properly I don't know; I had enough of that user-be-damned attitude from Macrohard. But maybe that will improve. So my verdict remains that Linux has potential, but those who are serious about their business should not get into Linux yet, because there is still too much hassle.

We got what I think of as a toilet seat cushion. That is, it is shaped like half a bagel, the idea being that it is less fatiguing to sit if the center lacks support. So far I haven't found that it makes a lot of difference. Which reminds me: I saw a printed ad showing a bottom. It turned out to be for a new kind of toilet paper, a pre-moistened wipe. I might try it; one of my pet peeves is toilet paper that falls apart while being used. (I picture someone dashing from the privy to shake hands with you thereafter; O joy.) Then I saw ads on TV, showing one tight posterior after another, evidently the same product. TV restrictions must be loosening further, which I think is a good thing. I remember years ago watching part of a Miss America or Universe pageant, discovering just how dull they can make pretty girls be, and saw that in the bathing suit section they would not show the rear view. When a girl turned around, a blob of dark color formed at her butt, as if she were farting, and expanded to cover her posterior so that the TV audience could not see it. I'm not sure whether girls are not supposed to have buttocks, or that particular anatomy is considered too dirty for the delicate shell-pink eyes of the TV audience, or a fully shaped bottom is just too sexy for a family show. The fact of the matter is that if a man spies a woman in nature, he looks at her face, breasts, or rear, depending on which way she is facing, and judges her appeal by their quality. That's why there's such a market for face lifts, breast implants, and liposuction. So the anti-sex censors do their best to conceal those attributes, the process reaching its extreme in countries like Afghanistan where women are not allowed to show anything. I wonder what those censors think of American TV?

Which leads to the news of the hour, the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. I have reference to it in my "Adventures in Surrealism" talk, which is appended to this column. I was about to head off to start my day's work at 9AM when my wife said there was smoke at the World Trade Center, and I paused to watch, as I suspect millions of others did. I thought maybe there had been a short circuit that ignited curtains, and they had opened windows to let the smoke out, which is generally a stupid thing to do as it just lets in more air to feed the flames. Then an airplane slammed into the second tower, and we realized that this was no fluke accident; this was deliberate. Thereafter its just got worse; I had never dreamed that a skyscraper could be brought down by a fire in its upper section. Thus the terrorists' effort succeeded probably beyond their wildest dreams, first making giant smokestacks of the buildings, then turning them to rubble right there on camera. It was appalling. I can't say I liked the Arabs dancing in the street for joy that thousands of innocent people had been brutally killed, though I understand that was mostly an artifact of irresponsible media: they showed dancing from an earlier occasion and pretended it was current. It seems that the suicide-bombers believed they would find themselves in heaven, surrounded by virgins. I think it would be fitting if those virgins turn out to be real dolls: no access, if you get my drift, so that they will remain virginal forever. Maybe clothed in impenetrable burqas. Neither did I like the way fundamentalist Christian religious leaders tried to blame it on gays, lesbians, feminists, and the defenders of civil rights, applying all their pet hates to it, saying it was God's punishment. Okay, here is this liberal agnostic's answer. Listen, you jerks: if God set out to punish folk that way, the first ones he'd go after would be bigots like you, for taking his name in vain. Those bombings were done by your ideological cousins, the religious zealots. Jesus Christ preached tolerance and love, yea, even for prostitutes. You dirty his name, and should be ashamed.

Meanwhile I received an ad for THE AMERICAN SENTINEL, which strikes me as a rightist rag. It says that liberal elitists are steering America straight into the maw of a race war; that white liberals and their fellow travelers in the media, like ABC, CBS, and NBC, are responsible for it. It even criticizes Rush Limbaugh for being too timid in exposing this. (Maybe Rush is turning a deaf ear?) Talk of tunnel vision! What the hell does it think the rightists are doing? Preaching tolerance and love?

So what is my take on it? That rich successful America is the envy of the rest of the world, and that those who lack our benefits hate us for them and want to destroy us. So they use any means to do it, and finally found an effective one. You almost have to admire the terrible beauty of hijacking American planes to destroy American buildings. But just as a rat that chomps the tail of a tiger will soon wish he hadn't, and all rats will suffer, so will the perpetrators of this disaster come to regret it. That doesn't excuse our carelessness in letting it happen; there have been warnings. A quarter century ago my collaborator Roberto Fuentes and I tried to warn of the threat of terrorism in our book Bio of a Terrorist, but we couldn't even find a publisher for it. (But an excerpt is in the third martial arts volume, just now being processed at Xlibris, so soon any readers who are interested can catch up on all those collaborations, Jason Striker and stories.) The nation of Israel faces terrorism on a daily basis; did we really think America was immune? So yes, Osama bin Laden needs to be routed out, and perhaps some good will come of this when the Taliban's power is destroyed and the women of Afghanistan are freed from that tyranny, but it will be like cutting off the head of a hydra: many more will grow in its place. So this will indeed be a long war, and perhaps it will never really end. We have not started well, with a new administration that seemed systematically to alienate the rest of the world with a series of arrogant moves, while dissipating whatever budgetary surplus there may have been, so that now our friends are wary of us and our resources are diminished right when we need both most. We have a country where the bosses make five hundred times as much money as the lowest paid workers of their companies, and the disparity becomes more extreme when the exploitative nature of international trade is considered. I think of the French Revolution, when the peasants finally rose up and slaughtered the royal rulers, and fear that we could be heading for something similar. Spot acts of terrorism may be only the beginning. Not that I like such revolution; I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "France: an Ode": "The Sensual and the dark rebel in vain,/ Slaves by their own compulsion! In mad game/ They burst their manacles and wear the name/ Of Freedom, graven on a heavier chain!"

The bombings were followed by a more local phenomenon: Tropical Storm Gabrielle formed in the Gulf of Mexico and crossed central Florida, dumping over seven and a half inches of rain on our tree farm and bringing a number of pine trees down across our long drive. The preceding drought had killed them, and the storm felled them. So I was out chopping and prying and shoving, clearing the drive so my wife could drive into town. But we did need the rain.

Now for a five thousand year old scandal: remember Otzi, the Ice Man? He was a character in my historical novel Hope of Earth, where his daughter married one of my characters. He decoyed raiders up the mountain so that his daughter could escape, and was never seen again until a glacier released him in modern times. I had thought he escaped the raiders but succumbed to fatigue and cold. Not so, it turns out; it seems he was murdered. They found a flint arrowhead in his left shoulder. So he didn't escape; they shot him down and left him there. At least the mystery of how he died has been resolved. I'm sorry for his daughter, though; she took his disappearance hard.

I get sentimental about odd things. When we had this house built, we got some turf put around it, so we have a small lawn amidst the forest. Parts of it have not done well, finding either too much or too little sunlight, while some of the cast-off fragments managed to take root elsewhere and prosper. Okay, we let it spread, and now our best lawn is where it chose to be. There may be a lesson of life there. But it tends to encroach on the drive, where it gets run over. So finally I took a square foot of turf from the drive and moved it to a spot where we could use some more grass. I watered it and watched over it, and now it is expanding outward. Is it any better than the rest of the turf? Surely not, but I value it because I moved it. It is my turf.

Robert Rimmer died. He was the author of The Harrad Experiment, which was a bestseller and made into a movie, presaging coed dorms in real life, and of my favorite The Rebellion of Yale Marratt. When I mentioned that latter in an interview, Bob Rimmer got in touch with me, and we exchanged books. His latest was The Love-Ed Solution, self published by iUniverse, which I said I'd order and read. But I have never done any monetary business on the Internet, and was wary, so didn't get around to it for much of a year. Then my daughter, who is more at home online--it's that generational difference--ordered it for me. So finally I had it--just in time for his demise. Sigh. So I read it, and have some comment here. The volume is 492 pages, but the last 50 pages are supplementary and bibliographic material. It is a nicely published edition, with a sexy and relevant cover, showing bare boys (rear view) and girls in bikini panties, nicely breasted. It is told in the form of journal entries by a number of characters, and really, there isn't much story, just exploration of the Rimmer thesis of free sex as the salvation of modern society. Rimmer lived a partner-swapping life with another couple, and ceaselessly advocated that or corporate marriage in his books. I regard him as a one-string banjo; he is very good on that string, but you don't get a lot of variety. So if you like the idea of coed dormitories where boys and girls do have sex, this is it. The girls are as eager as the boys, all are attractive, none are possessive or jealous; the idea is that free sex defuses human tensions and bigotries and frees young minds for more imaginative studies, their creative talents unleashed. Eliminate society's hang-ups about sex, and near-genius can emerge. It's a nice notion, but I suspect it wouldn't work as well as he thinks; the dark side of the human nature is always there. There are some nice coed, nude basketball and baseball games, where male must guard female and vice versa, and a girl doesn't hesitate to block with plush bare bottom to the crotch, distracting the men long enough for the girl to get the ball. Classic terms are used for sex scenes, like the jade stem and jade gate, but there is no doubt about what is entering what. Apart from that, the book is a wide ranging essay on economics, politics, movie making, religion, taxation, whatever; as I said, Rimmer is good at what he does. I recommend this as the thinking person's sex novel. Why conventional publishers wouldn't touch it I don't know; I guess they thought it wouldn't sell enough copies.

As I let the world know, I don't much like the way conventional publishers treat writers, so I support Internet publishing and self publishing. But just as my ideologically motivated change from Macrohard to Linux was more trouble that it would be worth for anyone not strongly motivated, the business of self publishing has its hassles. I had 9 books at Xlibris; I am now in the process of adding 7 more, in four volumes. That is, the six book collaborative martial arts series is being done in three volumes, for novels 1-2, 3-4, and 5-6. The 6th is actually half an unpublished novel plus stories and parts of other collaborative projects. It took time to assemble this material, because the papers went back a quarter century and were scattered, and I needed to coordinate with my ailing collaborator Roberto Fuentes. The worst case was my solo novel Mute, because the published edition of 1981 was cut by 20,000 words, and to restore it we had to work from the fuzzy original carbon copy of the manuscript. My wife scanned it, and said it was a horror, because the scanner made endless wild guesses about words that the human eye had no trouble with. So she edited it, correcting it, then turned over the disk to me, and I edited it, and now it is just over 190,000 words with an Author's Note I ran in a prior HiPiers column. The yellowing copies of the 1970's martial arts novels were not joys to scan either, and the 6th volume required the assembly of material that ranged from neatly typed, to yellow carbon sheets, to penciled notes. So a good deal of time went into this collection of retreads. When we finally had them ready I checked with Xlibris. NOW UNDERSTAND, my wife and I own about ten per cent of Xlibris, but I make it a point to get down in the trenches and discover its reality from the underside, so I can make a relevant report from the viewpoint of a writer. Also, ogres are not known for their intelligence. Thus I am not the easiest client to deal with, as I suspect more than one of their personnel has muttered. My prior contact person was no longer with the company, so I checked with his replacement, and learned that she was no longer there. I did get some help from the man who guided me through the royalty reports on my prior novels, another hassle. They now report and pay online, a problem for those of us who do not do monetary business online, and their reports are confusing and not printer friendly. To get relevant figures you have to go to the end of the presented statements and click, and a whole new array appears, and then you have to click the PRINTER FRIENDLY button so you can print it. Were I not an Xlibris investor, I would suspect that the company was trying to hide the figures. I mean, why not have the relevant figures on first, and have them already printer-friendly? I think they are constantly trying to improve, refine, and clarify their statements, and are suffering the confusions that relate to new work. What seems great to an accountant or programmer may be hopelessly obscure to a real person. Xlibris is honestly run, and its aggravations are unintentional. Anyway, when I contacted the company with preliminary questions on my new batch of books, I learned that it now has a size limit, and all my projected volumes were over it. Did I have to take them to the competition? I inquired with just the hint of a bit of an edge. I can see the headline: XLIBRIS BOUNCES BOOKS BY BOARD MEMBER, WHO FLEES TO COMPETITION. No, no, the accounts man said quickly; my 190,000 word novel was 10,000 words over their limit, but they could reduce the font size half a point and make it fit. I had wanted to do the martial arts books in two volumes of three each, but I compromised, putting two to a volume, and that brought them within size tolerance. But the literature also said the files should be MS Word, but no True Type allowed. Listen (idiot!), MS Word is mostly True Type. (The exclamation in parentheses was implied, not actually delivered.) The accounts man said to ignore that stricture and send the stuff in. So I did, and they seemed to have no trouble with it. So my advice to new writers coming to Xlibris is that your initial contact person may not give you accurate information; if what you are told doesn't make sense, ask another person. So I sent in a CD disk with the 7 books in 4 files, True Type, and payment for for volumes in the "advanced" program. (The titles of their programs seem to be changing without notice; this was the second from the bottom of their four levels, $500 per book.) Within a month came two galleys as attachments to email: Mute and Volume I. I waited a few days, but nothing more came, so I queried: my cover letter said, 4, and 4 were on the disk, and I sent in 4 forms, and I paid for 4: did something get lost? Came the immediate reply, no they were in the works, and the two remaining volumes were attached. Moral: keep an eye on it, lest something slip through a crack. Now I didn't take the time to read over half a million words again, I just paged through the galleys and sampled the text, after figuring out how to get them on screen. The instructions said to right click, but it didn't work, so I tried left click, and it worked: that sort of thing. I do get the impression that some folk don't actually try the buttons they recommend, but it is possible that my system is as perverse as I am, and does things differently. I did find some errors, here and there a typo of mine faithfully transcribed, but also Xlibris-introduced problems. For example, Volumes II and IV had the same identification number at the foot of every page. If they tried to print from those, one volume would be superimposed on the other. Some of my bold text wasn't in bold, and some regular text was in italics. Sometimes extraneous material appeared in the middle of a page. My wife is nervous: if I caught that just paging through, what might I catch if I actually read it? But that's why I randomly sampled, like a biopsy: if that section is okay, probably the rest is. So if there are horrendous errors in the published volumes, sigh, I should have proofread. They have forms on which to list the corrections; you can't mark the galleys directly. This doesn't work perfectly for multiple books; the forms are identical, and apparently one was superimposed on another, so we had only one form for the first two books. The fourth book didn't come with a form, so we unzipped it again, and the program balked: it was not possible. So we had to copy a form from one of the others. Thereafter we put a separate title on each form, so they couldn't disappear. The form says to put the book's identification number prominently on the form--but there is no place to put it. Why, I inquired in that dull ogre tone, don't they put a blank for it: FILL IN YOUR (DAMNED) MANUSCRIPT NUMBER HERE? I haven't received a response. Maybe it was too stupid a question to deserve an answer. The forms were balky, and often refused to accept the required page numbers for corrections; I had to try two or three times, and then it would jam in an extra line, which I would have to delete. So they need to get some real people into the Xlibris office to use those forms, and then maybe they'll make them user friendly. But the process is like a computer program: once you have struggled with it long enough to learn its booby traps, it becomes tolerable. Of course I know that next time I have novels to process, they will have changed everything, and I'll have to start from square one with new procedures and new misinformation. At least the novels are in the pipeline, and should be available at Xlibris in due course. So now my total there will be 16 books in 13 volumes, on the way to 50 as I gain on my out-of-print backlog. Well, 15 maybe, because I withdrew Realty Check, which now has small press traditional publication. And my advice to writers is to maybe try it with one book at a time, and pay attention, because not all the powers that be at Xlibris are.

Which is not to say that I like traditional publishers better. I received contracts for 5 more Xanths, #27-31, and bounced them because the publisher had "forgotten" to include the license. A license means that in time I can recover the rights to my work even if it remains in print, as Xanth does. So those contracts are being reworked, and we'll see. Meanwhile no publisher has expressed interest in my wild fantasy ChroMagic series, or the 6th Space Tyrant novel The Iron Maiden, or my World War Two novel Volk, or my children's book Tortoise Reform. But that last is only now being marketed; I wrote it because two editors said I should do a children's book or series, so I did it. In my experience, the thing an editor is most likely to bounce is what he asked for, and this has bounced once, but its marketing history is still young. Some readers are amazed when they learn that my work still gets bounced, as they want to read it. The fact is, about all publishers want from me is Xanth; if they get it, they want nothing else, and if they don't get it, they want nothing else. So they won't even read most other projects. And you thought that publishers cared about what readers might want? No, they have tunnel vision, and there is no light in their tunnels. I'm giving my agent time to market the various novels, and if they don't make it, then I'll start putting new ones on at Xlibris or one of the online publishers. Which is of course the point of my support of both online and self publishing: they uncork the creative bottle, and undercut the restrictive oligarchy that is traditional publishing. There is a revolution in the making. Now anyone can get published, if not widely. The real money and power remain in the hands of the old line physical-print publishers, and that establishment will not rapidly be overthrown, but the process is starting.

I received an email from Karen Wiesner: would I like a review copy of her book ELECTRONIC PUBLISHING The Definitive Guide, 2002 edition? I said okay, but warned her that she risked another public lecturing if she didn't distinguish between vanity publishing and assisted self publishing. I had found the prior edition to be excellent, with the single huge caveat that she refused to list self-publishing facilities like Xlibris or iUniverse, and thus excluded what may be the most relevant aspect of online publishing. She does now distinguish them, but still refuses to list the self publishers, so she gets the lecture anyway. You see, a regular online publisher may publish five books a month--it varies widely--and sell ten or fifty copies of a given book. That's fine; this is the infancy of the medium, not its maturity. I don't know the figures for other self publishers, but Xlibris has published as many as 500 books in a month, and sells an average of 100 copies per book. Regular Internet publishers may invest five to fifty thousand dollars setting up their establishments; Xlibris invested more than ten million dollars. I assume other "selfs" have similar statistics. Regular online publishers seem to average one acceptance for every ten to fifty submissions. That suggests that if only one per cent of writers ever get published traditionally, the regular Internet publishers may (or may not) be ten times as good: ten per cent. What about the other ninety per cent? They come to Xlibris and similar; it's the court of last resort. So it may be that the self publishers are already dominating Internet publishing in terms of financial commitment and number of authors and copies sold, and to leave them out means that the needs of ninety per cent of writers are being ignored. So ELECTRONIC PUBLISHING (EP) is an excellent reference, as I say in my entry on it in the Services section of my ongoing Internet Publishing survey, and I do recommend it to anyone interested in publishing a book; the general advice is good, there is a listing of publishers that includes many I haven't yet caught up with, and there's a huge section on marketing that is amazing in its imagination. If you're serious about Internet publishing, check this book. But also check my survey, for what EP should include but doesn't, such as the self publishers and the names of publishers to avoid. The author knows there are bad ones, so she doesn't list them, but that's not enough; how does a newcomer know whether an unlisted publisher is bad or merely too new to have made the cut? Let me make one other point, about that 90% of writers: chances are that they don't make it because they simply aren't sharp enough as writers. But every writer is below standard when he starts; it takes time to get there, as it does for anything else. He needs the experience of writing, marketing, and getting feedback from readers so he can improve. The regular publishers are interested in quality, not a writer's learning experience, and who can blame them? They need to have appreciative readers, or they'll lose their business. But that puts the beginning writer, or the one who learns slowly, in a tough position: he can't get the experience he needs until he is good enough not to need it. That's why it took me eight years of serious writing and marketing to make my first story sale, and twelve to sell my first novel. Publishers treated me with the arrogant disdain reserved for the riffraff, and critics still do. Only dogged persistence and some eventual breaks got me there. Should every writer have to go through that? I don't think so. Especially since ninety per cent will never get there. Yet when you cut a ninety per cent writer, does he not bleed? Hasn't his heart and soul gone into his book as much as that of a ten percenter? What about the family historian, or the person who has special thoughts he would like to share before he dies, or a collection of cute tales for his children? Must he be denied because some editor doesn't think such a book would sell enough copies to make money for the publisher? Internet publishers are as bad in this respect as traditional print publishers; they have to be. This is where the self publishers are vital: they don't demand sales appeal or quality as defined by an editor, only a manuscript and a nominal payment. EP excludes any outfit that charges the author, as if money is an evil, when in fact all publishers are in the end governed by money; they don't charge the author up-front, they do it by take-it-or-leave-it contracts that can defraud the author of most of the compensation for his work. In fact a number of the Internet publishers have gone out of business without paying their authors anything, leaving the books' rights entangled. How good a deal is that for the writer, compared to self publishing? The selfs do pay royalties, and books that sell well earn back their fees and can make money for the authors. Remember, I am not talking about the vanity or subsidy (which term reminds me of soap bubbles: they pop, leaving nothing) publishers, which charge huge fees for little performance; I'm talking about self publishing facilities, that charge as little a $100 or as much as a couple thousand dollars, depending on services desired. So let's not condemn those few who are honest about costs, while promoting those who hide the costs; the situation is more complicated than that. Xlibris, for one, takes no rights, so any writer there who finds a good offer elsewhere can take it without even telling Xlibris; he has full control in a way he does not with any regular publisher. In that sense, self publishing can be superior to regular publishing. Is it worth $200 to put your book out there while retaining control, just in case a major opportunity opens up later? The point of self publishing is not quality, though editors are notorious for their biases and mistakes; it is about giving everyone a chance, rather than just the ten per cent elite. The quality is bound to be low--but I believe that out of this morass will in time come tomorrow's great authors. Because the self publishers give them the chance the regular publishers, both traditional and Internet, do not. When EP finally recognizes this--maybe in a subsequent edition?--it will be a book that truly serves its market, rather than just ten per cent of it.

Last time I mentioned the Nigerian scam, in which an official asks you to provide your bank account information so he can deposit anywhere from twelve to a hundred and fifty million dollars there, and he'll give you as much as a third of it. If you receive such a solicitation, don't respond; you won't get the money, and you could even lose your life. They try to get you to go to Nigeria to complete the transaction, then hold you for ransom. The scam has been going on for more than four years. We have been faithfully nonresponding, but they keep coming in; the count now stands at 24 and counting. Three are duplicates and three relate to the same person, Dr. Mrs. Miram Amacha, widow of General Abacha who died while head of state, but still, it shows the nature of this thing. Consider: the email of 8-14-2001 was from the woman's medical doctor and confidante, and offered 30% of $75 million. The one for 9-25 was from the lady herself, offering not a specific percentage, but "immense compensation" to be worked out with her lawyer. The one for 9-29 is from Mrs. Abacha again, offering 30% of $50 million. So the figures vary even from the same person. Of the other offers, the smallest is 10% of $14 million, and the largest is 35% of $152 million. One is a straight solicitation for money.

Another that has to be a scam is home grown: it says that Intel and AOL are considering a merger, and Microsoft for a beta test will pay each person who forwards this email $203.15, and more if those others forward it too. The email is mostly about how others have tried it and been paid. This is the formula for a good luck chain letter: forward it and you win a lottery, don't forward it and your dog dies; it has been around the world seven times and has existed since the pyramids, etc., and a number of specific examples of good and ill luck following handling of the letter that of course could not have been in the original letter. Or the one that tells you to mail a dollar to the top name on the list, and in a few day's you'll receive thousands of dollars in the mail. They are all variants of the pyramid scheme, which assumes that there's always a greater fool beyond and that there is no limit, in defiance of reality. Ask yourself: when has any huge corporation cared what the peons think about it? When has it ever paid out instead of taking in? What's to stop every peon from emailing out a million copies and claiming two hundred and three million dollars? Just how big a fool are you?

Enough of foolishness. I read a newspaper report that in Copenhagen, Denmark, a nursing home for old folk shows them pornographic movies and magazines and will even bring in prostitutes. It's cheaper, healthier, and easier to use than other types of medication. They don't feel that folk should be denied sex just because they are old. Wow! Why don't they do that in America?

I said that if any of the authors of the poems that were cut in How Precious Was That While wished, I'd run their full poems here. Here, by such request, is one:

Apart From You
Mandy Wray

Two young children, hard at play
One child thinking what the other will say
Green eyes, curls of gold
Which is which? not many could have told
One from the other.

For we are twins, born minutes apart;
For we are twins, heart to heart.
Together forever,
Apart almost never
Until now.

For years we were the best of friends
Who took the same roads, around the same bends
We were one and the same
And the world was a game
Which we would conquer together.

As the years went by we began to see
That you had to be you and I had to be me.
So we took our leave and said brave goodbyes
I did not let you see the tears in my eyes
As I walked away.

I thought I'd be fine, but I was wrong
I thought I'd find somewhere where I'd belong.
Happiness for you was not long to find
And as I look at you there's no doubt in my mind
Who is the stronger.

I know it is for the best
As we put our Selves to the test
This is the way it must be
I just hope I can find me
Apart from you.

I copied that from my original Precious file. I think it is much better whole, and I'm sorry I had to excerpt it in the book. Maybe I can get it restored for the paperback edition, when, now that I have current, legal, permission. Meanwhile, the author has a Web site, so anyone who wants to get in touch can find her at www.geocities.com/mandine728. One interesting thing is that the author did not send me the poem; her twin sister Abby did. I suspect she was just as much affected by their separation as Mandy. Later I met them both, and yes, I could not tell them apart.

In my panel discussion last time I mentioned that science fiction had not predicted the Internet. Erin Schram wrote to correct me: a story titled "A Logic Named Joe" by Murray Leinster published in 1946 described a future network of information and communication called the tank. All you had to do was punch in what you wanted to know, and it would have the answer. You could ask for your friend's station and be connected. It could also do math for you, or keep books, and act as a consulting chemist, physicist, astronomer, with lovelorn advice thrown in. That does sound like the Internet.

I get notes of appreciation for my ongoing survey of Internet publishing; aspiring writers do find it useful. Some publishers notify me of their existence, and I check their sites and add them. I try to be fair and relevant. It remains an informal and hardly definitive listing. I don't recommend one publisher over another because I'd have to do business with every one of them to truly know them; I just say what looks good and what doesn't. I am not an expert on the subject, just an ornery writer with considerable experience in dealing with conventional publishers, and some with online outfits. My main asset, as I see it, is that experience and the fact that I don't need any of these publishers, so can't be cowed into silence if I see something objectionable. Even so, there can be unpleasantness. I received a query from a man whose several-page email consisted mainly of published reviews of his poetry and an interview. He mentioned that his work had similar components to the work of William Faulkner. Did I know any guide for someone whose work was as serious and intense as his? I refrained from saying what I think of Faulkner, or whether a writer today should try emulate him, and addressed what I took to be his question: "I am no expert on poetry, though I believe there is not much of a paying market for it in America. I am not sure whether any of the Internet publishers listed in my survey at Hipiers.com will do for you; you'll have to check them for yourself." This went out under the usual HiPiers statement: "Thank you for your note. We have printed and forwarded it to Piers Anthony, and he gave us the following answer for you:" When you have to read 300 emails a month in addition to regular correspondence and writing a novel on a schedule, you try to be efficient, and I do. So that was a penciled note, not counting as a letter. Came the response: he thought whoever had looked at his email had done so in a cursory way. It wasn't poetry he had asked about, but his new novel. The rest of the email was a repeat of some of the review material he had sent before. This began to annoy me; I don't like giving personal attention to such obviously impersonal mailings. This time I replied, with a deliberately firmer tone: "Yours was one of 200 emails I had to move through on my return from a week from home. What you showed was comment on your poetry, with only incidental mention of your novels. You gave no evidence of knowing who I am or what I do for a living, and if you are not interested in checking the listing I suggested, I doubt I can help you." The thing is, you don't ask a bricklayer about a heart condition; I like to think that those who ask my advice do so because they know something of me and respect my opinion. This guy seemed to neither know nor respect; he was treating me like a hired flunky. Came the next response: he thought that basic decency would have caused me to give his correspondence a moment of thought. He did not believe that my staff had printed out his letter and given it to me; in fact he found the idea quite ridiculous. He thought maybe my ego wasn't exactly aligned with reality; the thing was just too ludicrous. He'd look for publishers on his own. The rest of his three page email consisted of yet more review material. Well, I think he'll have to get there on his own, with an attitude like that, which, perhaps not coincidentally, does parallel Faulkner's, except that Faulker had no interest in reviews. This time I did not answer.

On the other hand, I got a query from a person writing a paper about Total Recall, wondering why I got no credit for the book in the movie. I did a full letter in response--and it bounced. NOT ACCEPTING MAIL FROM THIS SENDER. Gee, thanks for wasting my time. But for the rest of you: this was a novelization, written from the movie script, rather than an original novel. So they didn't owe me credit.

I received a six page flyer from the Center for Inquiry: Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? Three day conference in Atlanta, $149. Thanks, no thanks; I already know they are compatible only if practiced by moderates, not extremists. I have already commented in this column on the actions and words of extremists. Perhaps coincidentally, I received a SPAM ad for BODYGUARD SERVICES INTERNATIONAL. I think I'll pass that one up, too.

I was asked to give a talk at Central Florida Community College on the subject of Surrealism. Attendance was free; this was an educational or public service event. That means a small audience. I don't like to travel, but this was in-county, so I agreed. The problem was to address the subject without boring my audience, many of whose members might come simply to see a successful writer, regardless of the subject. So I said something about myself and my work, then moved into the surrealistic frontiers as I see them, hoping that my sense of wonder about them would inspire others, then returned to a bit more about my writings, hoping that compromise sufficed. They had two musicians playing for the first half hour, and refreshments. There were about 50 people, some coming late and some leaving early. After the talk I fielded questions, and there were several about aspects of my fiction, none about surrealism. Ah well, I tried. Here is the text of the talk, which I paraphrased extemporaneously for the most part; it's easier to relate to an audience when you're focusing on it rather than reading a text.



Adventures in Surrealism: OctOgre 4, 2001


First, let's check the dictionary definition of the term: to be surreal is to have the disorienting, hallucinatory quality of a dream; something unreal, fantastic, bizarre. The word "surrealism" was coined in 1917 from super-realism, then taken over by artistic or literary movements, stressing subconscious or irrational aspects, exploitation of chance effects, and the creation of mysterious symbols. I will not be addressing art or literature here; you will get that with subsequent speakers in this series. That may surprise you, since I make my living in the arts. I am known as a fantasy writer. Actually I have written and published more than that: science fiction, martial arts, historical, autobiographical. I am interested in just about everything. It is true that the fantastic interests me, but so does reality, and I make it a point to know the difference between them. And I think that reality can sometimes stretch the mind. It can become surreal.

Consider the last American presidential election, hung up for more than a month because of the contested Florida tally, concluding with a selection by the Supreme Court. That was surreal to me. Consider the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center. First the smoke about one building, making it resemble a giant smokestack. Then the airplane crashing into the other building, making a ball of flame. Then we knew it was not a fluke, an accident, but deliberate. Then one building collapsing, disintegrating from the top down. Then the other, and seeing people on the street fleeing, with a monstrous cloud of dust like the eruption of a volcano roiling between the buildings and closing on them. Later came other pictures, such as one of the side of one of the buildings, with four people in the air, on their way down; they had jumped rather than be burned to death. I understand that there was a couple who jumped together, a man and a woman, holding hands as they fell. That's tenderly painful. Yet this was not a monster movie; it was real. In fact it was surreal.

So I'll tell you about the fantastic fiction I write, but also about the ways that the exploration of the nature of mankind and the universe become surreal. I'm not thinking of the artistic mode of surrealism, which is not something I really understand, but of aspects of reality that can stretch the mind and seem unearthly.

My main fantasy setting is the Land of Xanth, which looks just like Florida, only with magic and puns. Xanth is largely made of puns. Babies aren't born there, they are delivered by the stork, and the method of signaling the stork for a delivery is a major part of the Adult Conspiracy to Keep Interesting Things from Children. The place names are recognizable but more literal: there's big Lake Ogre Chobee in the south, and on the northern border is the Ogre fen Ogre Swamp. You see, the ogres travel between them. Ogres are special creatures; they are justifiably proud of their stupidity. There's a story behind that: at the outset of my career I was accused of being an ogre at conventions, when I had never even been to a convention. Later when I did attend conventions, I never acted like an ogre, but that and other stories persisted, especially as I became more successful. So I made an ogre the hero of a novel, titled Ogre, Ogre, and that became my first national bestseller. So now I'm known in the genre as the Ogre, and it's no insult; ogres aren't so bad when you get to know them. In the land of Xanth you can always tell when you enter ogre country: the trunks of trees have been twisted into pretzel shapes, and young dragons have learned fear. There's a story of the time when a horde of goblins attacked an ogre. Some goblins got their heads rammed through knotholes in trees, others wound up in orbit around the moon, and the rest weren't so fortunate. You know, I tend to think of critics as goblins. I was once asked what I would take with me to a desert island--what books, what things, and so on. It was specified that I also had to take something of no use whatsoever. I said "A critic." In Xanth they are obnoxious little bugs that find fault with everything. Cri-ticks, related to the bugs you pick off your dog. But in dreary Mundania, which is this realm, the only way to handle a cri-tick is to ignore it no matter how much it sucks. Anyway, I was discussing geography: closer in, there is the With-a-Cookee river, by whose banks many kinds of cookies grow, and Lake Tsoda Popka, with many flavors of tsoda. There is the Crystal River, which of course consists of tumbling crystals. And on the other side of Xanth is Lake Wails-- W A I L S--where the wailing monster runs across the water leaving little footprints on the surface. These are the prints of wails. There is the very friendly Kiss Mee River; then the Demon Corps of Engineers came and pulled it straight, so that the nicely curved S's became straight L's and it was the Kill Mee River, ruining the surrounding area. Finally they had to put the curves back in, restoring it. I wonder whether anything like that could happen in Florida? Most places have related stories, but I trust you get the idea: Xanth is not to be taken very seriously. I even use the Xanth Ogre Months in my correspondence; this is OctOgre 4.

So what does this have to do with surrealism? Well, apart from being fantastic, there is a certain serious relevance of this wild frivolous fantasy. First it is true that man does not live by bread alone, or by serious labor alone; he needs a break on occasion, and Xanth is one such break. It tends to transport the reader into its own realm, like a pleasant dream--and of course there are night mares that gallop through the night, bringing bad dreams to deserving sleepers, and day mares who bring good day dreams to good folk. Some readers have told me that crazy Xanth is their only link to sanity. Others have described how it distracted them from unpleasantness, such as the discomfort of chemotherapy for cancer. One cancer victim sets an annual target: to live until she can read the next Xanth novel. In one case I was asked to write a letter to a Xanth reader, a girl who was in a coma after being struck by a drunk driver. My first letter did bring her out of her coma, and later my first year of letters to her were published as Letters to Jenny. They discuss Xanth, of course, and Jenny Elf became a leading character there. So this was a case in which Xanth brought a reader back into reality. Others who are seriously depressed say that Xanth is about the only thing that cheers them. I have heard from many suicidally depressed teens; I take them seriously when they tell me how they need those laughs. Of course that can backfire; one girl told me Xanth got her in trouble when she laughed out loud in the back a chemistry class. Thus Xanth gets into chemistry, and of course there are love springs there that generate chemistry of another kind, sometimes embarrassing. And geology: there is Mount Pinatuba, that periodically goes Ooom-pa! and blows out so much dust into the sky that it cools all Xanth by one degree. Also, Xanth may have taught more children to read than I ever did when I was a teacher. You see, with Xanth students discover for the first time that reading can be fun. That inspires them to read more, and with that practice they improve until they can enjoy reading other things. Thus frivolous is serious, in an almost surrealist inversion. Xanth may never win accolades as literature, and yet I think it is fair to ask just what the purpose of literature is. If it is to amuse, educate, divert, and comfort, then Xanth may after all be literature.

But let's consider the real universe. For some time there has been debate about its origin. The Bible says the earth was without form and void until God created the world in six days. Astronomers are less certain. At one time they thought it might be a Steady State universe, with matter and energy appearing from nothing, forming all of the planets, stars, and galaxies we know, and disappearing into nothing when their term was done. Others thought it originated in a cosmic explosion, the Big Bang. Which was correct? The proof would be in greater information: the Steady State universe would look the same throughout, while the Big Bang universe would be smaller in times past. As telescopes got better, astronomers were able to see farther into space--and lo, there was a change, and the Big Bang won out. Today they are seeing about nine tenths of the way back to the origin, and getting closer all the time. There was one very interesting development: when the big orbiting Hubble Telescope came online, they picked a tiny spot of sky that was clear of obstructions and oriented on that. You see, our Earth is part of the Solar System, which in turn is part of the Milky Way Galaxy with two hundred billion stars, itself part of the local cluster of galaxies. They get in the way when you want to see beyond the immediate vicinity. So this one clear region in the Big Dipper constellation was a keyhole, no larger than a grain of rice held at arm's length: a place to peek out into deep empty space and see what wasn't there. The Hubble scope looked for ten days into that empty speck of sky, turning up the magnification, snapping pictures--and found fifteen hundred assorted galaxies of every variety. It wasn't empty at all! All in this one tiny essentially random coring of the universe, called the Hubble Deep Field. What might we see, if we could look out in all directions? I find that mind-blowing. Reality is surreal in its magnitude.

That's hardly the only aspect of astronomy that surpasses understanding. The stars we see are bright balls of fire, but there are some we can't see. The process is not well understood, but in essence they become so massive and dense that they collapse into pinpoints with gravity so strong that nothing can escape--not even light itself. Thus they are called black holes, and if you ever happen to be in the neighborhood of one, don't get closer than what is called the event horizon, the point where light can't make it out. If you put your finger through that spot, it would be sucked in so hard that it would disintegrate into atoms and never be seen again. You probably wouldn't like that. Time itself is supposed to change in a black hole, stretching out infinitely. The physics of a black hole is surreal.

Then there's Dark Matter. This is perhaps the most mind-bending concept of all. All of the planets, stars, nebulae, galaxies, and whatnot we see may be only a tenth of what there is. I don't mean that we lack keyholes to see the rest, though that is true; I mean that if we could see every star in the universe, we'd still be seeing only a tiny fraction of its mass. The rest is Dark Matter and Dark Energy. If we tried to touch it, we wouldn't feel it. We can't detect it at all. The fact is we are close enough to touch it, and are probably doing so--without knowing it. It's like an invisible ghost; you can't see it, you can't feel it, but you know it's there. How do we know this? Through physics. Think of the whiplash effect: a group of skaters link hands, whirl around it a big circle, and snap the end in. What is a slow turning of the wheel outside becomes rapid inside. Skaters use the same effect to spin in place, by starting a slow turn with arms extended, then drawing them in so that the momentum makes them rotate dizzyingly. Well, galaxies are like big spinning spirals, and you'd figure that those stars that wind in to the center will be traveling at breakneck speed. Galaxies, including our own, are really disks of stars being drawn into the black holes at their centers, which gives a notion of our eventual fate: we'll be squished into invisible specks. That makes me feel a bit uneasy. Of course this will take a few billion years, so we don't need to hide in the storm cellars yet. But here's the thing: the stars in the center are not whirling much faster than the ones at the edge. Galaxies are in fact spinning like huge dinner plates, all of a piece. How can that be? Either we don't know as much about gravity as we think we do, or there is more mass out there holding the plates in place. About ten times as much as we can see or detect. Except by the gravitational effect. That is Dark Matter: it does have gravity. So we know it is there, but we don't know what it is. It may be what are termed MACHOS or WIMPS--assorted fast-flying particles that don't like to interact with ordinary matter, so zip right through it undetected. I think WIMP is an acronym for Weakly Interacting Massive Particle. Millions of them may be passing through us every second. Each one would not have much gravity, but there are so many, that like grains of sand, they can make mountains, and have gravity that holds galaxies together. Or maybe it is something else entirely. Maybe alternate universes that overlap ours, encompassing all our alternatives. We don't know. Astronomers hope to map Dark Matter by analyzing the patterns of gravity, and maybe one day we'll see its shape, if it has a shape. You never can tell, with a ghost. Meanwhile, it is surreal reality.

There is more, far too much for me or anyone to cover here; this is just a keyhole view of the subject. But I wanted to touch on one other mind-stretching aspect: a new theory of the origin of the universe. You see, the Big Bang leaves several questions unanswered. Where did it come from? How could all this substance suddenly appear from nothing and expand so explosively? Because it seems it isn't slowing; the expansion is getting faster as it goes. What laws of physics can account for this? This new theory suggests that it is on ongoing collision. Originally, it suggests, there were a number of parallel universes, each without form and void, existing indefinitely, separated by the fifth dimension. You know, three physical dimensions and time, plus one we can't quite define. Then a membrane, called a brane B R A N E peeled off one, slid across, collided with another, and bounced back. Just a minor scraping and abrasion; they probably happen all the time and are hardly noticed. Imagine a pane of glass banging into another, the energy radiating stress fractures. It is those stress fractures that formed our universe, the expansion being the result of the contact rather than generating from nothing. The other pane, or brane, is gone, but once glass starts fracturing it will run its course regardless. What had been nice clear nothing was now marred by expanding fractures, and the pattern evolved into what we see now as our universe. It's not done yet; it won't stop until the whole thing has been ruined, like shattered glass. We should be ashamed; we owe our existence to that shattering, and think it is magnificent. But also mind-boggling, if this theory is right. Surreal.

Now, as we contemplate the ongoing disaster that is our genesis, we wonder whether there are other planets like ours. Well, there surely are. The telescopes are finding them. First just the biggest ones, so that it seemed that other stellar systems had only planets several times the size of Jupiter. Now they are getting better definition, and find smaller ones, and I believe in time they will discover that there are many more bits and pieces of rubble like planet Earth than there are handsome giants like Jupiter and Saturn. So there are indeed other earth-like worlds. But what about life? Are we alone in the universe? I doubt it, and of course science fiction endlessly conjectures what alien life forms and civilizations there may be. No, I don't believe that we have been visited by aliens, or that women have been abducted and raped by alien creatures. Space is immense, and alien cultures surely have better things to do than spend thousands of years traveling through space to molest some innocent girl. Why would they even want to? The human form would likely be as appealing to an alien as a giant sick scorpion would be to us. My vision of life is different. Think of an infection. It starts small, but feeds on its host, and takes over if it can. It happened here on Earth, and though repeated bashings by meteors and solar flares have cauterized it, that infection persists, and now has overrun the world and is seeking to spread to other worlds. Ouch! A similar process has surely happened elsewhere. It is not likely that we will ever meet them physically; as I suggested, it might take a thousand years for a space ship to travel to the nearest other world supporting life, and that might be on the level of lichen rather than civilization. Just as well, because if we could find other advanced life forms, they could find us, and they well might exterminate us so as to plunder our world without interference. Just as we ourselves are doing with the creatures of the shrinking remaining wilderness, and the ocean. So I don't long for alien contact, I bless the balky universe that keeps up apart. It's a matter of survival. Does that seem like a surreal attitude?

But let's consider some of the elements of our own being. Human beings are highly successful; we dominate the world. Other creatures have prospered by being highly procreative, like mosquitoes, or large, like the dinosaurs. We do it by being smart. There is nothing else in the animal kingdom to match the human brain. Actually there's nothing else to match the cooling ability of our bare skin; we sweat to keep our overdeveloped brain cool. There is also little else to match our sexual attributes; man has just about the biggest penis relative to his size, and woman has the biggest breasts. We are among the few animals that indulge sexually all the time, rather than only in limited seasons. That's because sex has become a social mechanism, not merely a procreative one. There are those who would consider that surreal. But my interest here is less in our odd body than in our mind. We are conscious, and I know why: it takes less gray matter to make a conscious choice between alternatives than it does to preselect all possible outcomes. But what is consciousness? What is its mechanism? What turns it on? I know I am conscious, you know you are conscious, but where is the seat of consciousness? We can't quite pinpoint it. It is a fascinating mystery. Scientists and philosophers have searched for it for centuries, without much success. How can we be so sure of something that we can't explain or identify? This seems surreal to me. I bought books on the subject, searching for the answer, and discovered that the experts didn't know the answer either. Finally I found it: I believe the secret of consciousness lies in feedback circuitry. For example, an image does not go directly from the eye to the brain--never mind that some say the eye is part of the brain--it goes through a series of circuits that curve back on themselves, looping before they deliver that image to the main brain. This may seem inefficient and pointless, but it's not. The brain is watching the eye as it sees, and hearing the ear as it hears, and feeling the fingers as they feel. It is thinking about itself as it thinks. Here is the essence of consciousness: observing itself in action. Thus we seem to be what we see, and what we hear and feel; we seem to become part of it as we are aware of it. This is empathy, a foundation of our understanding. Thus we come to understand our environment, and ourselves, to a degree. Yet as I try to think about myself thinking about myself, I discover a certain feeling of confusion, and soon it becomes surreal.

A vital support to our consciousness is memory. We can't do anything with anything if we don't remember what it is and how it works. So we have extremely sophisticated mechanism for memory. This is one of my pet theories, that I have spoken of and written about before; in fact I have it in one of my historical novels, the way our minds select and store memories. I spent three years working in industry, before I was a novelist, as a file clerk. I discovered that papers do not file themselves; they must be sorted, classified, cross-referenced, and properly placed. There is nothing so lost as a misfiled document! So what about the human mind? How does it file memories? The processing has to be done, because if all memories were simply thrown into a mental tub, randomly, it would be impossible to retrieve them efficiently when needed. Yet we are not aware of such processing. When does it happen? My answer is that this is what dreams are. All day impressions come in and are placed in temporary storage, the equivalent of a computer's memory. They need to be sorted and moved to the hard disk. Most of them are incidental and repetitive, not worth saving, but a decision on each has to be made, lest the substance be thrown out with the trash. If something happens before they are processed, they are lost. That's why a drunk may have no memory of the night before, or an accident victim no memory of the accident: those temporary impressions never got processed. But in the ordinary course they do get processed, in the person's downtime: at night, during sleep, when few impressions are coming in. The powerful brain, which is the hardware, can invoke the mind, which is the software, to address the day's backlog. But how does it decide? One key is how you feel about something. We are what we feel; without feeling we would be machines. So the mind needs to bring out each impression and consider it, consciously, turn it about, fathom what it relates to, tie it in with existing memories, and file it where it belongs. That's where the cross referencing comes in: if a man sees a red ball in the street, that means little by itself, but the color may relate to the dress his wife wore the first time he saw her dancing, and its shape to the globe of the balloon he found in the cemetery as a child; these are associations that are important to him, love and death. They give that ball meaning that is unique to that individual. The new memory becomes part of a comprehensive network, and thereafter it can readily be found by several avenues of thought. This process is dreaming: the conscious mind calling up and considering the day's events and exploring their associations. But the process itself must not become a memory, because that would lead to an endless recursive sequence; remembering the remembering of a memory. That's why dreams are normally forgotten. We all have many more dreams than we remember; that's the way it has to be. Those we do remember may seem disjointed and confusing; that's because they are mere fragments of a complicated process we don't remember. So while one of the definitions of surrealism is "dreamlike," I see dreams as meaningless fragments when taken out of context. We try to make sense of them, but they aren't quite real, so are surreal. In any event we don't need dreams for surrealism; the nuances of reality are more than enough.

I mentioned computers as a crude analogy of the human brain. Scientists tend to pooh-pooh this, saying there is no comparison between the two, but I find it useful. A question in science fiction is whether there will ever be machine intelligence or computer consciousness, and the consensus of scientists seems to be that there won't be. They feel that there must be life before there can be feeling and consciousness. I disagree; I think that when they discover how to make the right feedback circuits, machines will be conscious. Humanoid robots are popular in science fiction, and I have used them myself. Male readers like the notion of lady robots that can not be distinguished from real women except for attitude: they are as beautiful as art can make them, and endlessly obliging. And yes, there are male robots who exist to make living women happy, taking out the garbage without nagging or complaint and completely mood compliant. Or otherwise: a reader once suggested a mother-in-law robot who would be endlessly critical of son or daughter's spouse, saving the real mother in law the trouble. But machine consciousness raises the question of how long it will be before these robots start thinking for themselves, and wondering why they obey these erratic fleshly creatures who have such messy processes of ingestion and elimination, when they could do so much better on their own. So I am wary of that utopia; I fear it would be surreal in a dangerous sense.

But computers at the simpler level have their own quirks and challenges. I jumped from writing my novels in pencil and typing on a manual typewriter to the surreal realm of the computer in 1984, the CP/M operating system. I likened that to a building with fifteen floors and a basement; all the machinery was in the basement, while different people or families or offices could occupy particular floors. But CP/M was on the way out, and in due course I moved to DOS, which I likened to a network of paths, and each person had his own address in that garden. Then on to Windows, which had its myriad functions stored in little bottles called icons, and when you invoked one, out would come its genie and do the job, or perhaps torpedo it instead. But in time I got tired of obeying the inconvenient whims of a corporation I parody in my fantasy as Macrohard Doors, and moved to an open source system called Linux. Open source means that no one controls it, and it is free. I didn't do it to save money, I did it for the freedom. But learning a new operating system is never simple, and it has taken me a year to get comfortable with it and its programs. Much of my time on the computer has seemed weird, and its extension to the formation of the Internet has been surrealistic. The idea of being able to contact someone anywhere else in the world, instantly, with pictures, still stretches my mind somewhat. I see the Internet as a huge bazaar with millions of shops opening onto the avenue that is my computer screen; I think I could window-shop forever without seeing them all. And of course the surreal Internet echoes the real world, with viruses attacking the unwary shopper, and perpetual intrusive advertising: SPAM. It's a fabulous and sometimes dangerous realm. I rather like it. I have a site of my own there called Hipiers. That derives from the old 800 number I used to have, patterned on my first name preceded by the numbers 44, which we translated into Hi. That 800 number has now been taken over by a porno outfit, to my annoyance, so my young readers get a surprising solicitation; when we complained, AT&T gave us a runaround. HiPiers moved to the Web, and you can find me there at www.hipiers.com. You know how most Internet addresses start with www dot and end with dot com; just put Hi Piers in the middle. I will post a copy of this talk there, in another week or so, so if you are curious what I said while you were sleeping, check there.

I am a writer of speculative fiction, and I do try to stretch the boundaries of reality for my readers. Perhaps the most common comment I receive from them is that they find themselves actually in my worlds, sharing the adventures of the characters there. It becomes a new and more comfortable reality for them, this surreality. That was the way it was for me when I was a child; I did not really like my life, so escaped to the better world of fiction, and now I am glad to do it for others. You might say that I never really left fiction; I just moved from a reader of it to a writer of it. I do feel that escape from dreary or painful reality is sometimes necessary. Even my most frivolous fantasy is not frivolous in that sense, as I mentioned earlier. But my output is limited by the decisions of publishers, whose interest is in money rather than imagination. Let me tell you a bit about what I have written that has not gotten published. I have a series of huge fantasy novels called ChroMagic: chro as in chroma, or color, magic as in magic. The setting is a world covered with active volcanoes, and each volcano erupts a different color of magic, making a surrounding chroma-zone. The people who live near a blue volcano gradually absorb the blue, and turn blue themselves, hair, skin, eyes, everything. They can do blue magic: flying, conjuring, transforming things, reading minds, all the things that magic enables. The people who live near a red volcano turn red and do red magic, and so one through all the colors. Most of them agree that all magic is equal, but most are wary of the white volcanoes, where the people are white and do white magic, otherwise called science. They are also wary of the black volcanoes, because they are reversed: instead of blowing out, they suck in. They are black holes. The black magic folk can do the regular kinds of magic, but when an in-ruption comes, they hunker down in storm cellars. When people travel, they leave their home chroma zones, and can no longer do magic, which makes them helpless against the dwellers of the chroma they visit, and in the regions between chroma zones. So they usually travel in protected caravans, or at least in pairs. When an unrelated man and woman need to travel between chroma, they invoke the convention of "no fault." That means they will act in the manner of a married couple; he will hunt for food for her, she will sew his buttons, and of course they will have sex. When they reach their destination, they separate with no further obligation, and their spouses will not question this. No fault relationships. Some people like to travel a lot; I'm not sure why. If the social aspect seems as strange to you as the colorful setting, well, its surreal. The first novel is titled Key to Havoc, featuring a wild man named Havoc who is abducted and made king of the planet. He is furious, but he will be executed for treason if he doesn't perform well. So we have a very smart, very angry king. It's quite a story that you may never get to read, in the surreal world of publishing. I have already written the second novel; as I mentioned, ogres are stupid.

I also have a projected children's series, of a rather different nature, with no sex and very little violence, featuring a realm where small animals are smart and telepathic, and human beings are dull. So the animals govern, and the humans serve as beasts of burden. The first novel is titled Tortoise Reform, featuring an unreformed Florida gopher tortoise who burrows too deep and comes out into a truly surreal world, where animals are dull and humans are smart. He encounters a lonely ten year old human girl there and teaches her telepathy, and later takes her back to his own world. She likes it better than her own world, and not just because of the telepathy. But the humans of this world are planning to build a giant mall right where the tunnel between realms is, so that they will unknowingly obliterate the connection. So the child and the telepathic animals have to try to stop that, without revealing their natures, because they realize that they would quickly be confined in laboratories for study if the smart humans knew they were telepathic. There is an environmental slant, as I hope to make threatened species like the indigo snake, who is another character, and the burrowing owl, familiar and sympathetic to children. This novel is currently being marketed to publishers who said they wanted children's books from me; in my experience when you give an editor exactly what he asks for, he'll reject it. It has already been rejected once. But we'll see.

I think that realism and surrealism are as you see them; the one becomes the other when it is unfamiliar or made strange in some manner. I love exploring the boundaries, and I hope you have liked exploring them with me, for this hour.
PIERS
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