I have spent two months catching up on DVD and VHS videos, because we have not yet been able to get my keyboard on the Kubuntu system. Readers have sent in suggestions, and some of these have been interesting, but when we try to apply them, the program balks. It has been frustrating as hell. Why do they have to make simple things too complicated for ordinary folk to use? When will there ever be a computer system that isn't a struggle to make work? I am fed up with having months of my time wasted and a new 64 bit system rendered unusable in such unnecessary struggles. So I watched the first season of Policewoman, which was fun but not the ultimate; she's cute and a bit naughty, but in twenty years the art had advanced. Thirteen MythBusters, where I learned some fascinating things, including that the duck's quack does too echo, but it sounds so much like the original that folk think it doesn't echo, and that myth is now widely repeated. The first season of Have Gun-Will Travel, which is okay but let's face it, TV has also progressed from 1950s black/white. The one that really reached me was the first season of Grey's Anatomy, which I never saw on regular TV; here in the backwoods we don't get all the networks, or have such poor reception that it's not worth the effort. I liked it so well I bought the second season, together with the first two seasons of House. So which do I like better? House has discrete (that is separate, self-contained) episodes, and that's fine, while Grey has more of an ongoing larger narrative, with romances forming, blooming, and foundering from episode to episode, and that's fine too. Both have intriguing medical challenges, which is what distinguishes them from the common run. I'm not sure which I prefer, though Grey is gaining, with some hilarious and some insightful aspects; I think I'd like to see Meredith Grey have to work with Dr. House and see what happens.
We had an election. THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR ran an issue before it titled "The GOP Playbook; How to Steal the Vote." Such as by passing Jim Crow laws of startling brazenness. In Ohio they quadrupled the price of recounts. In Florida they made it illegal to hand count paper ballots once they have been "counted" by machine. Elsewhere they showed "a steely willingness to thwart the voters openly, if they should dare resist the party's will," and gave an egregious example in San Diego. Sickening. I knew what was required: an election in which the will of the people was so overwhelmingly clear that it would not be possible for one party to steal a fourth consecutive election without the stench being too obvious and triggering a revolution. That was the case, and the Democrats swept into power in the House and eked into power in the senate. I suspect now we'll see two years of investigations into the rich lode of Administration misdeeds, and possibly an impeachment of the president that will have a good deal more going for it than the Republican impeachment of Clinton. Meanwhile, wouldn't you know it, the district Katherine Harris, the woman who fought to steal Florida for Bush in 2000, used to represent-has a serious vote-counting problem. The Republican man beat the Democrat woman by 369 votes, of 238,000 cast. Seem familiar? It gets more so. Sarasota County, generally Democratic, had an "undervote" of more than 18,000. That means that that many voters, who went Democratic by 53% to 47% in other local races, skipped that one race. Or, in a region where the undervote ranged from 2.5 to 5.5 percent, this was almost 15 percent. How come? There were complaints from 400 voters that they did vote in this race, then discovered too late that it hadn't been counted. Others had to make their selection two or three times before it stuck. You bet there were thousands more who didn't think to check that their choices were actually recorded; you sort of figure that when you mark it, it won't be unmarked when you turn your back. Unfortunately there is no paper trail here. Curious how this happens where it can't be verified. So there will be a court case, whose outcome may depend on the party affiliation of the judges. We'll see. The conjecture is that it was faulty machines. But there is a familiar odor, and it suggests what we might have seen nationally, had the other races been closer. At least this time the complexion of the House of Representatives does not depend on this particular race. Katherine Harris is gone, even if her ugly legacy lingers on her home turf.
Warner found a director for the movie version of a Spell for Chameleon. I learned of this when a reader sent me a link. (The author is generally the last to get the word.) Chris Palmer is a U K based commercial director. Wolfgang Petersen is producing it via his Radiant Prods. banner, along with David Benioff. The aim is to make Chameleon an adult-skewing family movie. Actually, they have two years before they have to put up or shut up by deciding whether to exercise the option and actually make the movie, but such signals are positive.
Jack Williamson died. He was 98. He was one of my leading lights in science fiction. Back near Christmas of 1947 I was thirteen, waiting for closing time in the office where my mother worked, with nothing to do. There was an old magazine lying there, so I picked it up and started to read the first story. This was "The Equalizer" by Jack Williamson. It told of a space mission returning decades later, thanks to time dilation, only to discover no activity at the home planet, and complete radio silence. They checked the moon base: it was deserted. Alarmed, they landed on Earth, which was overgrown by vegetation. What had happened? They found people there, but they had no interest in the space ship. It seemed they had reverted to a primitive level of society, deserting technology. Gradually the truth became known: a new source of free power had been discovered, that could deliver electric current with a mere twisting of a few wires. No one had to work any more, so they focused instead on the arts and a relaxed life style. A pretty young woman was happy to show the ship's captain around, until he realized the truth of it. The returning space men would just have to fit in to the new order, finding ways to make themselves useful. Then it skipped a year or so, and the captain paid a call on the young woman. He brought her a gift: a working cuckoo clock he had made with his own hands. He had learned.
Okay, it has been almost sixty years since I read that story, and surely I have garbled details. The point is, it was my introduction to science fiction, and I was instantly addicted. I took the magazine home-no one wanted it-and read the rest. The stories were fabulous. I gave away my collection decades ago, but as I remember that March 1947 issue of ASTOUNDING SF (later ANALOG) contained several other great stories, such as "Little Lost Robot" by Isaac Asimov, wherein a robot with a dangerous modification in its three laws hides among externally identical robots, and "Child's Play" by William Tenn, where a man receives a chemistry kit from the future that can literally build a living man. Maybe some day I will assemble an anthology of my favorite genre stories, and it will contain these and other great ones, with my commentaries on what they meant to me. It was a fabulous universe, opening to me at a time in my life when I desperately needed it. A universe I never really left, as my career as a science fiction and later fantasy writer demonstrates. And it was Jack Williamson who introduced me to it.
Naturally I sought the next issue of the magazine. That turned out to be April 1948; a year had passed since that first old issue. And there was the second part of a three part serial by Jack Williamson. There had been a story "With Folded Hands" followed by a novel "...And Searching Mind," the combination later published as The Humanoids. It was about a race of machines that took over human society, to make it better, abolishing war, and so on. Naturally some free-thinking dissenters opposed that. It was a gripping adventure. There was a nine year old girl in it, so when my daughter Penny was that age we read that novel together. It really wasn't pitched at a child, so wasn't as effective for her as it was for me, and I was no longer thirteen. I believe it was fan and writer Wilson "Bob" Tucker, also recently dead, who said the golden age of science fiction is twelve; I was a year late at thirteen, but it does seem true. Still, it shows the novel's historical importance to me. I was in due course selling my own stories to ANALOG.
In 1969 I had the immense honor to have Jack Williamson visit for an evening at my house, brought by fellow Florida writer Joe Green, and I showed him the magazines and told him what his work meant to me. He was polite and modest. In 1987 when I was Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention in Nashville I had the pleasure of telling the audience the same thing, with Jack in that audience, and led the applause for him. He was a great writer and a nice man, a worthy star of the genre firmament. Now he is dead, but his works remain, and I am surely not the only one who will never forget him.
Now, as an inset, here is my Conference Report: FWA 2006:
Earlier in the year Lori Strongin of the Florida Writers Association (FWA) invited me to speak at their annual conference in Orlando. I declined, because my wife Carol faced surgery on her aortic aneurysm-this would be equivalent to heart surgery, as it is the major artery leading from the heart, and her heart would have to be stopped for the surgery--and we were scrambling to obtain IVIg treatments for her that keep her out of the wheelchair (Congress, controlled by so-called "conservatives" passed a bill to stop Medicare from covering this any more, and patients are dying as a result)-and I simply could not make any decision that far ahead. I do a good deal of the household work, whatever is necessary, and will not leave her alone in the house for any length of time. We have lasted as a married couple for 50 years, and death will us part, but not one minute sooner than I can help.
Then Marcia Rankin, their Speaker/Workshop Chairman, asked me again, about two and a half weeks before the event. In the interim the surgeon had decided to postpone the surgery a year, as the aneurysm was stable and he was uncertain her health was sufficient to be sure she would survive the operation. We had found a private source for the IVIg treatments; they cost about $3000 each, and need to be repeated every five to six weeks, but they give her back her life, no thanks to Medicare. So those concerns were abated, and she was doing okay. I wasn't eager to go, but I could hardly plead too short notice, after pleading too long a notice before. So we pondered, and this time decided to accept. There was then half a passel of forms and things to fill out, schedule to make, whatever. We would get free hotel room, meals, and admission to the conference, which is standard for this sort of thing. The regular attendees have to pay.
By sheer coincidence, at that time the conference lost its banquet speaker, Ben Bova, because of a sudden health crisis in his family. So I took over the slot, as it were. I was sorry to miss seeing Ben, who I first met in 1966 at a Milford Writer's Conference in Pennsylvania. He's of my generation, and has a longer history in the science fiction genre.
We left home at 1:30 PM Friday in the Prius, armed with maps and instructions, and in two hours reached the hotel. Disney World is huge, and Animal Kingdom is only a little corner of it, and the Coronado Springs Resort is only a nook off the side road. We couldn't even get on the access road; the map was confusing, as were direction signs, and there was only half a cloverleaf there, going the wrong way, so we had to go the wrong way, then U-turn back. I had expected Disney to be better organized. But the hotel complex, once we achieved it, was huge. It was a job just to find our building, Casitas #3; it turned out that we had to walk between Casitas #1 and Casitas #2 for the most expedient access to C#3. I wandered around for some time figuring it out: the most direct route from car to room for me, and easiest route via the elevator for my wife, as we were on the fourth floor. Our room turned out to be approximately a third of a mile from the Conference rooms. Carol can walk and get about, but that was simply too far. Fortunately Marcia found a wheelchair Disney made available, and with that I took Carol everywhere. We had not brought her own wheelchair along because we hadn't realized we'd need it. Live and learn.
But I have to say that the hotel complex, once fathomed, is beautiful. The buildings are Spanish style, girt by internal courts and walkways, and there is a lovely promenade around the edge of the lake, Lago Dorado, leading to all the parts of the hotel complex. You can walk in the sun, admiring the gardens, but if it rains there are covered walks throughout. I'm not a connoisseur of hotels, and avoid them when I can, but this one is about as nice as I can imagine.
The conference goody package contained schedules, maps, material on the personnel, pens, peppermints, a cute little mirror in a case saying "In Christ's love, everyone is someone," calendars, a book titled SELF-PUBLISHING SIMPLIFIED published by Outskirts Press (it is listed in my Survey of Electronic Publishers with a so-so rating), and several sample magazines: THE WRITER, TOTAL HEALTH, and MUSCLE & BODY. The relevance of the first I can see, and the second maybe, but the third? I was also given a book by Sharon Rendell-Smock www.rendell-smock.com: Hooking the Reader: Opening Lines that SELL. This is a fun book. Random examples: "Regina Dalton snapped awake the instant the coffin lid closed." "Count Dracula's on line two, and he's pissed." "She would never forgive herself for not being there when her son was born." This is a book I am likely to read, in due course, as I do like a good opening line. Consider Pet Peeve: "It all started when the stranger gave Goody Goblin the Finger." That is, a separate finger in a small box, receipt of which annoys people for some reason. But no, there are none of mine in this book; I'm a chronic nonentity. I think the best opening line I remember was in a science fantasy story in the 1940s which ran something like "The doorknob opened a blue eye and looked at him." As I recall it wasn't much of a story, but what an opening!
It did not start well for us. My wife has a disabled parking tag she uses when she needs to, but it turned up missing. Evidently it had fallen out of her purse before we left, and now was gone just when it could have helped. Once I had ferried our things from the car to the room, we discovered that a bottle of water had fallen over in our cooler and leaked, soaking some of our carefully sorted pills. At our age pills are not idle diversions; they have to be taken at set times, or the body suffers. Mine were okay, but one day's worth of hers were in trouble. She had to take them anyway, hoping they remained potent. Then in the night she got severe diarrhea, apparently from something she ate, and spent the hours from 3 to 5:30 AM in the bathroom. The following day, Saturday, she didn't dare stray far from a bathroom, as there were some aftershocks.
So I went to my functions, as I was slotted in for several events, and used my cell phone to check in with her at the hotel room. I got through once, but then kept getting an intercept. We finally figured it out: somehow the number of her cell phone had been put in wrong. Once that was fixed, we could communicate. She gradually improved, though hesitant to eat more than tokens, and by the end of the day was pretty much okay.
Saturday morning was a series of half hour one-on-one interviews with aspiring writers. I answered their questions as well as I could. Only about half of them showed up, so some I talked with for an hour. I learned later that one had discovered herself locked into two things at the same time, so hadn't been able to make it to mine. One showed me the first pages of her fantasy novel, which were aptly done, so I agreed to read the whole of it when I got home.
I wear a ponytail, now about 9 inches long, dating from when Carol could no longer cut my hair. I have become much aware of ponytails, especially on men. There were two other men there with them, one with a shorter one than mine, the other with a longer one, so I fit right in. I do not wear mine to distinguish myself, or in any social protest; it's just a matter of convenience, and I like confirmation that I am not alone.
My first workshop was Saturday afternoon, Building Worlds, with a baker's dozen attendees. I had thought at first that this was purely physical, inventing planets and such, but learned that it was more general. Worlds can be frameworks for stories, social, cultural, whatever. I have generated many literal worlds, such as the double star, double planet volcanic colored magic framework of ChroMagic, and of course many odd cultures elsewhere, and hope that my comments helped the others with theirs.
I agreed to sign books at the bookstore in the afternoon, but they had only three of my titles-the first Xanth (which I noted was up to the 55th printing), first Incarnations of Immortality (37th printing), and first GEODYSSEY (5th printing), and no one came. I think they didn't know I was there, because it was a late arrangement. So I penciled notes on my next ChroMagic novel, Key to Survival, wherein our magic heroes must take on a machine culture set on galactic conquest that is quite competent at it. There are no ghosts in these machines; they are strictly business. They know what magic is and how to thwart it. I don't like to waste time.
In the evening was the Awards Banquet. We got food at the buffet; then, too late, were told that they had made vegetarian meals for us. We wish we had known in time. After the meal I spoke, not for the ages but with humor and encouragement for a profession that has so many disappointments. Writers have dreams that too often are crushed by mercenary publishers and indifferent editors. My typed talk sat a bit too low on the lectern for me to see it clearly, but I didn't want to break off my attempted eye contact with the audience, so it was a somewhat clumsy compromise, and I did lose my place a time or two. Ever thus; things seldom are perfect. I was surprised when they gave me a standing ovation at the end, and many people came up to me afterward to say how much they had liked it. I do try to relate to my audience, and maybe I succeeded, if somewhat haphazardly. The text of that talk follows this column, so you can judge for yourself.
Carol was feeling better, and eating better, though she was disappointed that we didn't get to eat at a restaurant. That nervousness about her digestion was the culprit; you don't want to have to rush to the restroom in the middle of a nice meal. The proprietor might get the wrong idea. So often as not we simply mealed on breakfast bars and "glop"--nutritive drink, and that worked well enough. We slept well Saturday night, and even got to watch a familiar TV program or two. Having my wife along makes all the difference to me; had I been alone, I would have been the one with the knotted digestion, regardless what I ate.
Sunday morning we were up before 6 and organized for early checkout, because checkout time was 11 and we'd be still in the conference then. I wheeled Carol to the car, then she drove to the convention while I wheeled the wheelchair to the hotel check in/out area. No trouble, and we even got to keep the nice Disney door cards as souvenirs. The man took the wheelchair, and I told him how great it had been to have it; it had made all the difference for my wife. Then on to the convention to reconnect with her, and do my second workshop.
That was Making Magic of the Ordinary, with Xanth as a prime example: I turned Florida into my fantasy land, with its markers becoming magic. Lake Ogre Chobee, the With-a-Cookee River, Lake Wails with the Wailing Monster who leaves little footprints on the water-the prints of wails-and so on. It's adaptation more than imagination, and anyone should be able to do it. I also explained how to make a dull scene of a woman cooking supper into a compelling one by adding eerie music every time she gets near a particular pot on the stove. You just know something awful will happen when she lifts that lid, and the details of her cooking become interesting as you try to figure out how they may relate. Making magic from the ordinary; it's a useful tool, with a bit of imagination.
Then the closing ceremonies, and by noon we were free to go. We made it home in two hours and started unwinding and catching up. It was a nice enough event, and I have to say that the conference was well run and we really appreciated Disney providing that wheelchair. Would we do it again? Maybe, sometime, depending on health and scheduling. I'm sorry I couldn't give a more comprehensive conference report here, but the fact is that most of the events I attended were ones I conducted; there was no time to attend the others. My wife did attend one on taxes for the writer, and found it worthwhile; you would hardly believe how complicated our taxes are. The proprietors were competent and considerate, Disney provided a great con site, and I suspect that most of the attendees found it well worthwhile. I hope I contributed to that.
We saw a movie, the remake of Casino Royale, with a new James Bond. This one is brutally violent, with extended high action sequences and, oddly, some draggy spots. It is compelling, but I suspect we'll pass up the next one of this type; we don't see movies for brutality.
We saw a local obituary for a woman we never knew, but there was something about the name that had an eerie familiarity. Edith Pierantoni. No, don't tell me; I'll surely figure it out eventually.
Michael Moore has a devastatingly pointed essay, "A Liberal's Pledge to Disheartened Conservatives," with items like "We will never, ever, call you 'unpatriotic' simply because you disagree with us," and "We will not spend your grandchildren's money on our personal whims or to enrich our friends," and "We will respect your religious beliefs, even when you don't practice those beliefs." This really skewers the hypocrites, though I suspect most Republicans will not find it very amusing. Speaking of which: I read in NEW SCIENTIST that Christian conservatives want to empty America's classrooms and have all children educated at home, where they are free to use the Bible as the ultimate science reference book. No more of this unGodly Evolution or heresy about Earth being older than 6,000 years, or nonsense about Global Warming. I hope they find personal satisfaction as they march determinedly back into the Dark Age while the rest of the world advances.
Also in NEW SCIENTIST, an article about hair. It seems that our species has been dressing our hair for at least 25,000 years (sorry, conservatives; maybe the record before the world existed has been faked). We don't have actual hair that old, but ancient statuary shows it. As a ponytail wearing man, I now have a certain interest; it seems I am not alone. Did you know that we have about five million hair follicles on our body, only around 100,000 of which reside on the head, and we lose between 50 and 100 of those a day? Ouch! It would grow to waist length in about four years. I've been at it less than two, but seem to be on schedule.
Remember fractals? The heart of the Mandelbrot set is a bug-like glob that radiates out twistingly to form endlessly more intricate patterns. Artists are building on this to make compelling representations, but the straight math generates phenomenal art on its own. I was so intrigued by it that my novel Fractal Mode is set in just such a universe. I wanted to be an artist and mathematician before I wanted to be a writer, so this really fascinates me; I can still get lost in wonder when contemplating it.
Fascinating ailment described in NEW SCIENTIST (I was catching up on my backlog of unread magazines): sexsomnia. It is vaguely akin to sleepwalking, only the person tries to have sex with someone instead. There is no memory of it in the morning. A woman had it, and her boyfriend was intrigued at first, but later was not: she was violent, scary, and persistent. One wife realized that her husband had a problem when he was snoring loudly during sex. As yet there is no cure.
Letter to my dentist, when a lower tooth shattered painlessly while I was chewing, leaving a gap, after I learned that it would cost about four thousand dollars to replace that one tooth:
With respect to your letter of 10-31-06, containing an estimate of fees for proposed work on my teeth consisting of the replacement of one crown and a crown on an implanted tooth to come: I have pondered and concluded that at my age of 72 expensive long-range restoration of my teeth no longer makes sense, as I am likely to get the benefit for significantly less time than I would have at a younger age. I dislike the associated pain, inconvenience, and loss of time, but the main problem is that I doubt that any tooth is worth thousands of dollars at this stage. So I am declining this and future restorative work of this nature, understanding that as time passes I am likely to lose some teeth. When this becomes awkward, I will see about partial dentures. In the interim I will accept stop-gap repairs such as fillings.
Therefore I am not signing your consent form. This is, as email notices like to put it, not a temporary but a permanent error.
They have discovered that tarantula spiders cans secrete silk with their feet. That helps them walk on vertical surfaces. I'll keep that in mind as I ponder Xanth #33, Jumper Cable. Jumper is a spider originally featured in Xanth #3 Castle Roogna; this would be a descendent.
Here is a poem Kristina O'Donnelly forwarded to me via email. It reminds me of a scene I had in Centaur Aisle, when Dor enlisted the help of a reluctant Spelling Bee.
"The Spell Checker"
Eye halve a spelling chequer;
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye can knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a whirred
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong or write.
It shows me strait a weigh.
As soon as a mist ache is maid,
It nose bee fore two long;
An dye can put the era rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it.
I'm sheer your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh;
My chequer tolled me sew.
Last time I ran a note about the IQs of recent presidents. One reader advised me that other indications suggest that G W Bush actually has an IQ of 125, not 91. Another sent links that expose this as an Internet myth, such as www.csbsju.edu/uspp/Bush/Bush-IQ-Myth.html. Actually IQ is a dubious measure of true intelligence; it's mainly the ability to take IQ tests, which is another matter. Article in NEW SCIENTIST says that talent or genius arises not from innate gifts but from an interplay of natural ability, quality instruction, and a lot of work. They considered Mozart, Newton, Einstein, Stravinsky and others and found hard work. "Geniuses are made, not born." That's comforting to know; maybe there's hope for me yet. Meanwhile in LIBERAL OPINION WEEK I read columns that tell how former president Clinton was ambushed by Fox News, and turned the tables on them. Why didn't he do more to take out bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business? He reminded them that he had tried-and the rightists accused him of a Wag the Dog syndrome. That was the movie that had a president stirring up foreign trouble to distract the nation from problems at home. I remember commentator Paul Harvey repeating gleefully "Wag the Dog! Wag the Dog!" While Clinton was trying to take out bin Laden, they impeached him for a pecadillo. Now they pretend he didn't do enough? Truly, those folk have no shame.
For those who persist in thinking that Florida is not the center of the universe, here's another rebuttal: there is evidence that the thought-to-be-extinct Ivory-Billed Woodpecker exists in the Florida panhandle. They report 14 sightings, and recorded sounds of double knocks and calls that match descriptions of the Ivory Bill. We'll see. Certainly the almost as large Piliated Woodpecker lives in Florida; we have them on our tree farm, along with other rare birds like the Sand Hill Crane, whose call as it flies sounds like winding an old grandfather clock. I would hardly know one by sight, but the call is unmistakable. Anyway, the prospect of surviving Ivory Bills may stop a big airport from being built there. Good for the birds.
More on men vs. women: I learn from a review of a book by Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain, that during puberty a girl's entire biological reason for existence is to become sexually desirable, and she is almost exclusively interested in her appearance. Well, that dovetails with the teen boy's motivation, which is entirely to get into her pants. But it seems that this author can't document sources for her provocative statements, so it may be that there are after all a few other things on the minds of teens. I can't think what. Another book, Size Matters, by Stephen S. Hall, suggests that boys who grow up significantly taller or shorter than their peers can be scarred for life because of social hierarchies based on size. I think this is true. I speak as one who was short in childhood; in 9th grade at just under five feet I was the shortest in my class, male or female. Then I grew almost another foot in the next five years, to 5' 10½" in bare feet, but I remember. I tease my wife, who was 5'9", that I had to grow to be taller than she was, and I always encouraged her to wear sensible shoes: no high heels. I have understood all along that if men judge women by the size of their bosoms, women judge men by their height. So basketball players marry beauty queens, and the rest of us struggle along as leftovers.
Three mysteries fascinate me: existence, life, and consciousness. The nuances of each have sponsored much consideration across the ages, without firm answers. My theory is that there must be a paradox in the concept of nothing, so that there is a wrinkle in the otherwise perfect fabric of nonexistence, and that wrinkle is what we take for the universe. That the elements of life formed chemically, probably near volcanic vents, until some random combination of proteins became self sustaining, and we take that for life. And that consciousness is a feedback circuit, and if we just could fathom and duplicate it, we could make conscious machines: self willed robots. US NEWS & WORLD REPORT for October 23, 2006 had a special report: "Is there Room for the Soul?" It says that consciousness is the defining feature of the human species. I would extend it well beyond that; if you have a pet dog, cat, parakeet, lizard, frog or whatever you know they are all conscious. I think consciousness turned out to be a survival advantage, so it became established. So what about the soul? "There is, indeed, something troubling, if not downright offensive, about the effort to reduce human consciousness to the operations of a 3-pound chunk of wrinkled brain tissue." Oh? It doesn't trouble me. To me the soul is a fantasy, and I use it freely in my fantasy. But if it is defined as consciousness, that's another matter. The article refers to The Astonishing Hypothesis: the Scientific Search for the Soul, by Francis Crick. "The Astonishing Hypothesis is that 'you' your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules." Exactly, only I don't find it astonishing. This is an article dense with considerations that doesn't come up with an answer, but it does mention that in Buddhism the self is understood not as an entity, but as a dynamic process, a shifting web of relations among perceptions, ideas, and desires. That works for me.
News flash: a recent survey shows that only 49.7 percent of the nation's households are made of married couples. This doesn't mean that marriage is dead, just that it is fading. In 1930 the figure was 84%. Love isn't dead; couples are still cohabiting, just not in marriage.
Fun message shirts: 17 year old girl's tight T-shirt said "No Money, No Car, No Chance." Another said "STOP STARING-they don't talk." "I may not be perfect, but parts of me are pretty awesome." "Don't assume I'm not into cheap mindless fun." "My Eyes Are Up Here" with an arrow. I remember one some time back saying "Objects under this T-shirt are Larger than they Appear." The fact is, women's breasts are made to be appreciated; it's why our species, alone in the animal kingdom, maintains them permanently, instead of letting them disappear when there are no babies to be nursed. Women who complain about getting looked at should perhaps dress more modestly.
From an advertising circular: Dr. Linus Pauling, who won the Nobel prize twice, was fascinated by the healing powers of Vitamin C. When he suggested that it could relieve common colds, drug companies got worried. No wonder; it does work. I use it to stop colds, and have not had a cold in the past decade or so. Then Pauling released his cancer research, and they went into a panic. "What followed was the most vicious smear campaign in the history of medicine..." and his breakthrough was blacklisted, and millions who might have been saved died. Okay, I have no experience with Vitamin C and cancer, but I should think a charge like this should be verified, and if it proves to be true, heads should roll. Don't you?
I read two books by Kristina O'Donnelly, www.kristinaodonnelly.com, portions of her Lands of the Morning series. One was Andromakhe, about the wife of Hector of Troy, who turns out to have had quite a history on her own. I don't know how much was historical and how much was conjecture, but if we take this at face value, she was captured during the fall of Troy and made the mistress of the son of Achilles, bearing him several sons. When he died she was able to return to Analolia (modern Turkey) and begin restoring the remnants of the Trojan culture. It's a grim, hard-hitting story showing the subjugation of women that was and still is standard practice in much of the world. Then Trojan enchantment, actually an earlier volume in the series, about Olivia Hayden, a contemporary American librarian, who visits Turkey and is romanced by a handsome Turkish professor of archaeology Dr. Somer Berk. So this is essentially a Romance, but clothed with impressive detail relating to the descendants of survivors of Troy, admixed with some intrigue as she is suspected of possessing a valuable smuggled artifact. So I would call it Romance Plus.
I also read Blame it on the Rain by Laura Lee, an interesting but I think superficial book about the ways in which weather has affected history. One sour note: on the cover it says "Would JFK have been elected president if it had been sunny on election day in 1959?" That question is not addressed in the book, but regardless, that election was in 1960. I remember, because it was my first after I was naturalized American. Still, it was a worthwhile read.
And I read Guairu ae Chatri, (King of Magic) by D M Rosner, whom I met at the Florida Writer's association Conference described above. It is a fantasy, the story of a new king who must undertake a perilous quest if he is not to be killed by the specter that pursues his family. I read it for a critique, and made a suggestion that I hope will improve it. Regardless, it's a good adventure with some original twists. One example: a talking creature whose sole purpose is to prevent the king from passing. So the king means to kill it. Rather than that, the creature backs constantly away, actually leading the king where he wants to go: that way he does not pass, and does not kill. Win-win, by the creature's logic, and not your usual monster.
I am a naturalized American citizen, born in England, and I really value the country I chose, with its fine Constitution and Bill of Rights. It bugs me to see these flouted. Yet it's not just the current administration that shits on the fundamental values. Article in THE HUMANIST by Beth K Lamont tells of a World War 1 incident, 1918. A man stood on a Bronx street corner and read aloud from the Declaration of Independence. When he came to the part that said "Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the people to alter or abolish it" he was arrested. When he protested that these were the words of Thomas Jefferson, the policeman said "Where's that guy? We'll get him too!" Had I been in charge of things then, I'd have taken that policeman and sent him to a class on America and the Constitution. If our law enforcement personnel don't know the American Way from a hole in the ground, where are we headed?
A fan reports seeing me at this year's Philcon, in Philadelphia. Sorry, I wasn't there; I haven't been out of Florida since my father died in 2002. So if you see me anywhere else, chances are it's a fake. Anywhere I do go, I report in this column, and I don't go often or far.
Florida Writers Association Banquet talk:
Of course you want to write a great story or novel, get nicely published, sell many copies, get great reviews, get famous, and get rich. You're crazy! Welcome to the club. I've been there, done that, except for the reviews. Generally you have to choose between good reviews and good success. I chose success. 99% of my readers love my books; the other 1% review them. It's likely to be the same for you. That's just one of the facts of life, in writing.
So what does it take, to make it big? Luck. I'm not joking. You need a series of significant breaks, or you won't get anywhere, they won't necessarily be of your own making. My own career is an example. Sure I can write, and write well. Ask anyone except a reviewer. That's not enough. You can write well too, but without good luck you won't get far. I wrote and published good novels for a decade before I got my big break. That was with DEL REY Books.
Let me tell you about Judy-Lynne del Rey. She was a dwarf. She stood about three and a half feet tall, but I call her a giant for what she accomplished. I first encountered her as Judy-Lynne Benjamin, an assistant editor at GALAXY and IF magazines before she married Lester del Rey. Then she got hired by BALLANTINE BOOKS as their chief editor, and she put her husband Lester in as fantasy editor, and talked the publisher into naming the fantasy line after him: DEL REY BOOKS. He had edited my favorite science fiction magazine in the 1950s, SPACE SF, and I always wanted to work with him. So I wrote a fantasy novel, and he accepted it, and Judy-Lynne published and promoted it. The rest is history.
Here's where the luck comes in. Fantasy was about to take off for the stratosphere. None of us knew it; it had been a drug on the market. I just wanted to work with that editor. That's why I wrote A Spell for Chameleon, the first Xanth novel. I found I couldn't take fantasy seriously, so it became a humorous novel, with puns and things. Then fantasy caught on, thanks to the efforts of Judy-Lynne, and I rode that escalator right up to the New York Times national bestseller list. Suddenly I was famous, and rich, doing much the same thing I'd been doing for a decade. I just happened to catch the right editor and the right publisher at the right time. Otherwise I wouldn't have made it, and would not be here talking to you now. Certainly I have done serious writing, including some more ambitious than what I have seen any other writer do; I'm speaking of my GEODYSSEY historical fiction series, that covers several million years of global human development. But as I said, good writing doesn't necessarily do it. GEODYSSEY lost its market. Xanth was what put me on the map.
So can you do something similar? Let's face it, big writing success is like winning the lottery. It's great when it happens, but hardly one person in a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand will win. Judy-Lynn is dead, and DEL REY BOOKS is not what it was; that avenue is closed. I just had the luck to be there at the right time. Maybe one of you will get a similar lucky break somewhere else; I hope so.
Given that actual writing ability is secondary, in this arena, you still do need it. I don't know whether I can help you there, but I'll throw out some incidental notions. One thing is to be able to orient effectively on your market, whatever it may be. Mine turned out to be humorous fantasy, but of course there are other types of fantasy, and other types of humor. I remember examples I saw long ago on TV.
There was a contest-type program decades ago where the object was not to laugh. They would put contestants in a chair, and three comedians would have at them for something like two minutes each, and if the contestant succeeded in not laughing, he won the prize. One was a young Army man in uniform, and he had an absolute deadpan face. Nothing was going to make him laugh. The first comedian got nowhere. Then the second approached. "You're in the Army? You know, I was in the army. Yeah. I killed 300 men. Yeah. I was the cook." That wiped out the soldier. He had to laugh. I spent two years in the Army, and back in those days all soldiers hated the food. That comedian had zeroed in on the man's weakness, and scored. You need to do the same thing with your target readership.
Another show was a Latino comedian, a small dapper man with a musical instrument, I think a guitar, who told this tough audience how he had dealt with a tough audience before. There are those who don't like Latinos, and they especially don't like uppity Hispanic immigrants like this one. One table was making unkind remarks and messing up the comedian's act. So he approached that table and told those big tough laborers off. "You are interfering with my act, and I'll thank you to keep silent while I am performing," he said firmly to that past audience. Then he paused, returning to the present, and concluded: "It took a team of expert surgeons three weeks working around the clock to get the guitar-out." That scored on the tough audience, especially those who didn't like Latino comedians. The man knew his audience.
Then there's one of my favorite cartoons. You know how we all have to make difficult choices? It's easy to choose between right and wrong, or between good and better. But what about choosing between bad and worse, the lesser of evils? That's never fun. This cartoon showed two demons, devils with horns and spiked tails. The smaller one was saying "I'm tired of being the lesser of two evils." What a way to find humor in an ugly situation! If you can do that as a writer, you have promise.
There can be halfway amusing side paths to writing. I had a letter from a man who said his uncle told him that my book Split Infinity was the finest novel ever written. Then he committed suicide. Another reader told me he had ruined his copy of one of my books by vomiting on it. I told him that normally only critics did that. He explained: he had deliberately overdosed on pills, to commit suicide, then sat down to read my novel while he waited to die. Instead his stomach regurgitated the drug, and he survived, but with a sadly spoiled book. He said he really liked the novel, and wanted to replace it. So I sent him a replacement copy. I take my fans where I can find them.
But back to luck. Sometimes you can steer it a little. You can't win the lottery without buying a ticket. I don't gamble that way, so I'll never win a real lottery. But I did in effect buy a ticket gambling on renewed bestselling success as a writer. I realized early-on that traditional publishers were not going to do it for me. They operate by weird rules. For example, they have this notion that the readers will buy only one novel by a given author in a year. So if he publishes two novels in a year, each will sell only half as many copies. If he publishers three, then each sells only a third, and so on. Yes, it's ludicrous; we all know that. But it seems to be in their big book of rules. That's why some writers use multiple pseudonyms, so the publishers won't know. I didn't do that, and have paid a certain price.
So how does a publisher's delusion affect the author who tries to resist it? Many ways. They cut the print orders and the promotion to fit their rule. A publisher can't make a bestseller out of nothing, but it can make nothing out of a bestseller. I'm in a position to know, unfortunately, having had three fantasy series taken off the bestseller lists that way. So they took me off and perhaps figured I'd fade quietly into oblivion. A writer who gets screwed by the idiot publisher is supposed to say "Thank you Massa," and disappear.
Let me tell you this about success: getting there is a challenge. Staying there is another challenge. I resolved at the outset that I would manage my career so as not to allow it to fade out the way I had seen happen to other writers. But I found that the publishers were really determined to follow their rules, and they broke promises and lied to me to accomplish it. They don't even consider it lying when they fake figures to the author; it's just their idea of good management. One publisher even shredded signed contracts. They'll do the same to you, if the occasion warrants it in their eyes.
There's an analogy I like. It's a kind of game: take a ten dollar bill, and offer it to someone on condition that he share it with another person. That's all; it's easy money for them both. Five dollars apiece. But after a while he'll realize that the ratio isn't specified. He can offer the other person less, like maybe three dollars, and keep seven himself. If the other person balks, okay, no deal, and he gets nothing while the one with the bill goes elsewhere. He'll find someone who will make the three dollar deal. In fact, what about two dollars? Would you take two, if you knew the alternative was nothing? How about one? Or fifty cents? The man with the money makes the rules.
Well, this is the game the traditional print publishers play. They take the author's book and offer him about fifty cents. That is, five percent royalties for mass-market paperback books, give or take a couple. Ten to fifteen percent for hardcover. Any who balk get nothing. If they cheat a bit on payments, and the author makes a fuss, he's out. I know; I was blacklisted for six years when I protested. The average author is not in a position to enforce honesty by the publisher. The publishers make the rules. This does not mean that all publishers cheat, or even that most do; most are straight. But some do, and only the insiders know which ones. Apart from the bitter authors relegated to oblivion, and who believes them? Short of an audit of the publisher's accounts, which is like sticking your finger into a hornet's nest. Regardless, traditional publishers tend to be arrogant, and the author is just about the least important element in their business. They'll promise him anything, but once they don't need him, promises are just words.
So what's it like, sliding down the other side of the mountain after savoring the heights? It's not fun. Last month my Xanth novel Stork Naked was published in hardcover, and Pet Peeve in paperback. I went to the most local Waldenbooks, a store where in the past I have autographed, to see them on sale. Several months before I had checked that store, and the only book of mine there was Faith of Tarot, which is one third of a reverted novel I wrote almost thirty years ago. This time-it was the same story. Only that one book there. So we inquired: why didn't they carry Piers Anthony? Oh, he's out of print, the clerk replied. Well, now. I introduced myself and named the novels; they could hardly be out of print in their month of publication. So she looked them up on the computer, and found them listed, but they had never been sent to the store and apparently the store had not known they existed. "You can order them," she suggested helpfully. Guess how many copies will be ordered at a store that doesn't stock them and says they are out of print. If that's the way the local store is, how will it be elsewhere? In fact, I haven't seen these titles on sale anywhere. And that's what it's like on the other side of the mountain. Just like the near side many of you are facing.
Are these bad novels, and that's why the stores don't stock them? I don't think so. I have had a few fan letters from readers who did somehow manage to find them on sale, and they like them. Pet Peeve is about a talking little bird that insults everyone in sight, using its companion's voice. The peeve even spent some time in Hell, and wore out its welcome there; it's pretty obnoxious. Poor little Goody Goblin, the politest and least aggressive of goblins, is assigned the chore of finding a good home for the irascible creature. If he can survive the experience, as the peeve frames him for insulting dragons, ogres, women, and other fearsome creatures. In Stork Naked, grown and married Surprise Golem is expecting, and the stork brings her baby-then refuses to give it to her because of a confusion in the record about her age, thinking she's only 13. So she has to chase after it, trying to recover her baby, and that takes her on a horrendous excursion through alternate realities. As it happens, the peeve is along, helping in its fashion; at one point it gets into the realm of bad dreams and poops on the heads of the walking skeletons. That annoys them, for some reason. Are these dull notions? I really don't think so. If my talent as a writer declines, I want to be the first, not the last, to know it, and I don't think it has declined yet. But as I have indicated, writing it is only part of the equation; you need to get it published, promoted, and distributed. I suspect I'll be changing publishers. So life is not necessarily fun on the twilight side of the mountain.
I saw this coming long ago. I gambled on the movies. I took my Hollywood agent as my primary agent and focused on getting the attention of the movie industry. It took about 15 years, but now I have serious movie options on three of my fantasy series, including, perhaps appropriately, On a Pale Horse with Disney. Now an option isn't much unless it is exercised, but the indications are that they will be exercised and they will make the movies, and they will not be minor ones. It is largely conjectural at this stage, but if it works out, I'll be back at the top, through no particular merit of my own other than ambition and luck. I simply gambled on a rather special lottery. Give it a couple more years, and we'll see.
But what of you? Unless you have rather special connections, a movie is not in your near future. But you can still do the best you can with what you have. You have worked to write your book, to get it published, and maybe with luck you'll pick up an award here tonight. That's a step. I wish you that luck. But you know, awards are nice, but what you should be trying for is to get no awards. No awards. Because out in the real world, they don't give awards to bestsellers.
Now perhaps you understand why I so ardently support small press and electronic publishers. They are far more open to new writers, and usually less arrogant, though there are some bad ones. I have invested solidly in small press and in self publishing, because the one offers writers of merit a far better chance, and the other is completely open regardless of merit. Merit is not the point in self publishing; merit is judged by others, some of whom have hostile agendas. The point is at least to be in the game, to have your dream made available for others to share if they want to. To publish your book for the appreciation of friends and family members and anyone else who is curious, or to make special information available that doesn't happen to be commercial. I hate having the arts-and creative writing is an art-governed solely by commercial considerations. Would the great art of any type in the world ever have been accomplished if it had to pay its way in six months in gold?
So I'm a commercial writer who is into alternate publishing for reasons other than money. I own about ten percent of Xlibris, a legitimate self publisher, and it is my loan currently financing Mundania Press. I may or may not some day get that money back. I also maintain an ongoing survey of electronic publishers at my web-dot HiPiers site. I know how slight your chances are with traditional publishers, and I know the frustration of writing stories and novels that no one will read, because they aren't published, so I do support alternatives with my money and my mouth. No, you won't get rich with these, as a general rule, but at least you'll be in the game, as I said, and anyone can play. And some few do go from there to the big time. Maybe you'll be among them. It's a worthwhile hope. More power to you. But meanwhile I hope you're in it for the sheer need and love of writing, as I am. There's a lot to love.