Monday, March 28, 2005

don't worry, your children won't even remember it

Here's a fascinating angle for a science fiction writer to ponder: how technology affects our lives in ways we don't even realize--and in tandem, how industry influences government, which changes our lives, etc. etc.

Do you know why, she asked, we have four time zones in America? I confess I never thought much about it. If pressed, I might have said it was because of television broadcasts. But no: it's because of the railroads.

Traditionally people figured noon based on the sun, which it was direct overhead. In large towns, timekeepers would drop a "time-ball" at the top of a high tower. Everyone could see it and sychronize accordingly.

But the railroads crossed a sizeable arc of the Earth's crust, and from New York to San Fransisco there were as many as 100 different official time zones. Pretty scary when you remember there was no means of communication between trains or even between the train and the depot, except for brief whistle-codes. The only way to avoid collisions was to keep to a strict time-table during runs. An engineer running a train full of stock and immigrants had to know when to pull off to a side track, so as not to get mowed down by an express of sight-seeing first-class passengers out for a jaunt.

The railroads adopted our current four-time-zone standard in 1883. Congress made it law in 1918. People hollered and fussed and predicted doom, but these days we don't even think about it. Nobody from my generation even knows this--I asked several of my trivia-hound friends, and not one knew the answer.

Good thing Microsoft got nipped in the bud, eh?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

cold photos and hot tea

Went on a photoshoot with Amber yesterday. Took Tony with us. Amber's assignment was to shoot a narrative sequence of six shots, with a beginning, climax and conclusion. Her idea was to shoot an action sequence of me and Tony doing kung-fu.

In the end, we worked out a sort of film-noir/Quinn Taylor scenario of a Deal Gone Bad, in which we met in a disgusting alley in a questionable part of town--complete with a burnt-out, torn-down building at the end of the alley, and human feces on the loading dock.

It was awfully cold, no more than forty degrees with a vicious wind howling through the alley. I wanted my costume to be sleek and minimal, so I was without hat, gloves, or coat during takes. My hands literally turned blue, and I'm surprised I don't have an earache today (I am a little dizzy, though, so perhaps I do have some swelling in the ear canal). For each frame Amber had to bracket her shots with one aperature above and below the reading--one shot lighter and one darker, in other words--so for each pose we had to freeze, so to speak, in one position while she adjusted and hit the shutter three times. "Is that three?" became the rallying cry of the day.

But we caught some terrific action shots of me laying an elbow upside Tony's head. I got to see the first five rolls of negatives, and some of them are quite good. The double bonus of it was I got to hang out with Tony in a non-classroom situation, and he fine-tuned my technique quite a bit. I'm still having trouble coordinating my feet and hands in application. Must work on that. We did push-hands practice while Amber processed the film in the darkroom.

Then we went to lunch, and hit a couple of stores in Westport, because I had been looking for a teapot. We found several in the World Market, and Amber bought me a little glazed "Brown Betty" English-style ceramic teapot, as a birthday present. Very cute. Scott even exclaimed over it when he got home. Not to be outdone, Tony bought me a copper-bottomed tea kettle for heating water. I protested I didn't need it, but Amber got indignant. Apparently she's had to bite her tongue every time she sees me heat water in the microwave.

Well. I shall be proper about it now. Oh, and the Tea Drops shop in Westport had a to-die-for white tea with peach. Got to get me some of that.

I have such lovely friends.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

taking shelter during a vampire attack

On Sunday I went into a hobby store and started leafing through the catalogues of model train cars. A friendly shopgeek passed by and asked if I needed help. I said, "I need a picture of an 1870's cattle car because I'm going to have some people take shelter in it during a vampire attack, and I need to know where the access points are for logistical reasons."

I love geeks. He didn't even bat an eyelash. He pulled out another catalogue and helped me look, while we debated the merits of silver vs. wooden stakes and garlic. He said, "It's always nice to help somebody with an interesting project."

I refuse to say anything profound

Every once in a while I think, perhaps I should blog about deeper, more meaningful subjects: politics, religion, the human condition--those weighty subjects over which people wear themselves out and kill each other.

Then I read other people's blogs--and editorial columns, which are, after all, the same product in different mediums--and pretty soon my eyes glaze over and my head starts to ache and I think, Hasn't this all been said before?

My mom lent me this book to read: Rumours of Another World, by Philip Yancey. As some of you may know, my parents got born again about five years ago and they went from being calm, rational, spiritual, loving and generous people who understood the world and its limits to hyper, shrill, religious, intolerent and artificially cheerful people who are racing toward Doomsday as fast as they can and flogging the rest of us to hurry up.

Anyway. I read the first couple chapters of Rumors and there are some pretty deep quotes in there. Yancy borrows heavily from the great artists and writers of the last twenty centuries, so he's bound to have pirated some good material. But I'm reading it and going, Yeah...hasn't this all been said before? In fact, didn't I see this on somebody's blog last week?

I don't think I'm being cynical. I just think we're begging the questions. Love and death and God and Art and yadda yadda freakin' yadda. These things exist. We all know they do. (Well, some people quibble on the God point, but let's keep moving.) Why do we--you--they--spend so much time splitting hairs over definitions?

I had dinner with Crystal last night. Bright girl. Not very well-read, but always open to learning and discussion. She asked me some minor question about religion and I said I didn't like to talk about religion because everyone either wanted to prove a point or wanted me to prove something to them.

Hell, I was eighteen years old when I realized you can't change another person's mind. And all these bloggers do is surround themselves with like-minded folks who will feed into their own little illusion of reality. If that's not close-mindedness I don't know what is.

So I guess I'll just keep reflecting on my little version of reality--yummy food, sumptuous silk, stories to tell and read.

I figure love and death and God and art will come get me when they need me.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

competition

The Midwestern Chinese Martial Arts tournament was today. I went. I sat. I competeted. There was much more sitting than competing.

I did the kung fu first form and the fan form. I won two silver medals in the intermediate division. I didn't fight; I've only been doing push-hands for about four months and I'm not near ready to compete in that.

The second-place ranking in empty-hand form was probably warranted. I should have done a more difficult form. I'm pretty sure that's the only reason that kid beat me. It was pretty late in the day by that time, I was bored with the whole thing, and I didn't really watch the other forms, so I don't know if they were good or not. But I do know they were a lot more complicated than what I did, so when the scores are close the judges will go with the more difficult-looking form.

The silver in weapons, now, that's a tragic story. I did quite well at the fan form; not my best perhaps, but rather good considering I had tunnel vision through the whole thing. Stage fright, you see, only seizes me at the inopportune moment when I set foot on stage. Still, I did well. I tied scores with this kid with a broadsword. So they had us perform again. I started into the form quite confidently; I was feeling good now, looser, more settled. Unfortunately I was so loose I dropped the fan.

I have not dropped my fan in probably five years. It defies belief.

The judges' faces actually fell--I saw their expressions drop, which confirms my belief it was going well up to that point. I said, "Shall I finish?" The head judge said, "It's up to you."

So I picked it up and resumed at the point where I'd left off. Did very well. Got the silver tho; no help for it. Many strangers came up to me afterwards and complimented my form. One man asked if I would teach it to his little girls. I said I would, but I'm reconsidering; what I said I'd charge him probably isn't worth the headache.

I'm still incredulous that I dropped the fan, and I rather wonder if it was a subconscious self-sabotage. Dunno. Other than that I have no emotional reaction to any of it, except annoyance that I wasted $50 and a Saturday.

The worst part was that the hard styles and the soft styles were held in two different rooms, and Sit and Mary Ann were judging, and everybody but me was doing soft styles, so I was basically abandoned with no support or cheering section. They did their best to come out and visit between events. I did get to hang with them a bit after my events were done, and watched push-hands. Tony won silver in push-hands. Heather got a bronze in Tai Chi Ruler.

I am not going to class tomorrow. I am going to model for Amber's photography project. I consider that a more worthy exhibition of my abilities than some silly tournament.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

gender traps in fiction

Writing from a masculine viewpoint is definitely a departure for me. Trace is not difficult for me to write, as I am well in-touch with my masculine side, as well as spending much of my social time in the company of dogs--er, men. But I had some serious misgivings about writing this story, particularly given the strong possibility of it being my first published work. For a very long time, women writers couldn't get a fair shake in literature, and that trend held on longer in SF and horror than the other genres, I think. Even back in the 70's and 80's, C.J. Cherryh and Andre Norton were writing under gender-ambiguous names in order to sell to a male-dominated market. (At least, that's what I've heard. I may be forwarding a feminazi meme, here.)

Still, one of the reasons I initially refused to read the Harry Potter books were because they were about a boy. I was highly miffed--and on some level I still am--that J.K. Rowling was a woman writing about a boy hero--and doing it under another gender ambiguous nom de plume. I know getting Harry Potter published at all was an uphill climb; I wonder if it would have happened at all, or been such a success, if the protagonist had been a girl. Somehow I doubt it. I know a half-dozen examples of girls-in-witch-school books that are just as good and virtually unknown.

I suspect, with some verification, that I haven't been able to sell the Quinn Taylor stories because she is a woman assassin. Women can be fighters and killers, but only in the name of good and right, i.e. Xena and Sydney Bristow. Even "Elektra," in the movie, had a change of conscience. It's unacceptable, to about 60% of the readers I've polled, for Quinn to be mercenary about her work. My husband is part of that 60 percent, incidentally.

But aside from the external stressors related to my writing male v. female characters, there are the internal pitfalls. I got started thinking about this a few days ago when I stumbled across "Women in Refrigerators," a web page dedicated to the hazards of being a superheroine, or worse: a superhero's girlfriend.

It's a time-honored tradition in hero-stories to use a woman to bring out the hero's soft side, to humanize him, give him something to fight for. Conversely, when you want to torture your hero, what better way than to abduct, abuse, rape or murder the woman he loves?

For Trace's next adventure, I was toying with the idea of putting a missionary woman on the train, give him someone to talk to as well as a victim-of-the-week, as it were. But then I realized I was heading down the same overbeaten path: hero meets nice girl to whom he is attracted, hero begins to think perhaps the world holds love and acceptance for him after all, girl dies tragically, hero avenges her death but will flagellate himself about it forever after.

Frankly, I'm a little leery of the implication that a hero can only be roused to action by a personal loss, rather than genuine altruism--or worse, that heroism is only rewarded with pain and death. Only the good die young and so on.

Of course, I took the exact same path with Quinn Taylor. But since Quinn is a female protagonist, her partner and love interest is a man, and well, let's just say it doesn't look good for our hero.

I guess my main concern isn't gender conventions but more an interest in avoiding the clich&eacutes.

In Trace's case, I didn't want him to have a genuine love interest this early in the game, but I don't want him to be sullen and isolated from the world, either. Since faith and damnation are the subjects predominant in his mind, it makes sense he'd connect with a missionary woman, but I don't believe that's what he needs in life, and I'm sure he's not ready to settle down yet. I have a tentative sketch in my mind of a woman who's right for him, but I don't yet have a story in which she would fit.

But more to the point, if I really wanted to torture Trace I'd do something to Boz. Boz is home to Trace, and his being a black man in the 1880's is just rife with gut-twisting possibilities. They act like a married couple anyway. I'm already picturing the slash fanfic.

So much for gender conventions.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

patiently....waiting!!!!

Joy tells me the turnaround time for Writers of the Future is about four months.

I could spontaneously combust in that amount of time.

Not that I might waiting, per se, but I have this dreadful feeling I'm on the cusp of a new trend and I daren't wait. If WOTF doesn't want Sikeston then I want to send him elsewhere, as quickly as possible. Shoulda gone with F&SF first, I guess; they usually get back to me in a fortnight.

So, figuring I'll just write the next story and sent it to F&SF, I'm making tapping gestures in the direction of Trace No. 2, which involves missionaries, vampires, and a cattle-car full of Chinese railway workers. I'm thinking I'll call it "End of the Line."

All together now: "NAAAAAHHHHH."

Thursday, March 10, 2005

obsession

I am so hung up on this cowboy thing, so immersed in the 1880's mindset, that I find myself thinking of cattle roundups when I go to the freezer and take out a package of hamburger: dust and bawling and pounding hooves, the smells of hot iron and manure. Lye soap.

I've had the most appalling urges to listen to bluegrass and [gasp] country music lately. This morning I was brutally reminded of why I don't listen to country music: "If heaven was a pie, it'd be cherry/cool and sweet and heavy on the tongue/Just one bite would satisfy your hunger/and there'd always be enough for everyone."

Ahem.

I find myself saying "ain't" in casual conversation. Acquaintances look at me like I'm speaking in tongues. Close friends just smirk.

Yesterday as I was driving home I saw a young black man waiting at the crosswalk and my mind immediately thought "Negro," with the other N-word close behind it. I am terribly afraid I'll slip and say "colored" in conversation.

I think I'm going to host a Victorian tea/ladies salon for my birthday. And of course I must have a new polonaise gown for it. Every morning I have a bizarre and impractical urge to wear my corset to work under my jeans. Fortunately I am not yet that far gone, but when I get my new underbust corset made my better judgment may yet fail.

I am contemplating the logistical access points of both passenger and cattle-carrier train cars, and debating the characteristics of animalistic hive-mentality vampires versus the Bram Stoker/Anne Rice variety of vampires, including methods of killing them.

I love my work.


P.S. I'm sending out "Sikeston" to Writers of the Future today.

Monday, March 07, 2005

reviews: the Village, and Deadwood

The Village lived up to all of its lukewarm press. The dialogue was awkward (it's really not that hard to write archaic dialogue and still let it sound natural, Night), the story was thin, and the twists predictable. The actors, particularly Bryce Dallas Howard, were quite good, and the story was logical and poignant, but unlike with Night's other films, I was never completely absorbed. I never lost the awareness of watching a story on a screen.

Most disappointing to me was the thinness of the world in which the characters lived. I never felt the characters fully inhabited it; of particular note to me was the lack of religious structure. We got only glimpses of work--and anybody with half a brain should know that an agriculture-based society is nothing but work, from sunup to sundown. If I were so inclined, I could build a case that the shallow treatment of the setting--and the awkwardness of the village elders with their dialogue--was deliberate: Night's attempt to underscore how the Elders were only playing a game, that the whole Village was nothing but a voluntary illusion.

Still, there were some beautiful moments--when Lucius finds Ivy's hand in a crowd, her trembling voice when she finds him dying and says she can't see his color any more, her anguished attack on Noah. I actually got tears in my eyes when William Hurt makes his speech about how "the world stands in awe of love." It was hokey and naive, but hell, sometimes you need that. It made me think perhaps the Elders' sacrifice was worth it, that maybe they had gained something from their little experiment.

I tried very hard not to learn any spoilers connected to this movie. I am not the kind of person who sits in a movie trying to figure out the twists and thereby prove I'm smarter than the filmmakers; I prefer to become absorbed in the story and let the writer and director lead me where I need to go. Unfortunately I had already been told or deduced all the twists and turns before I saw it; even more unfortunate, I think I would have caught onto these plot twists before they were revealed, even had I not known. It just wasn't that surprising.

Still, I was glad to see Night cover all the predictable questions, such as why the place hadn't been spotted from the air, and I think in any case this movie was more about the whys than the whats. Several critics have suggested it's a meditation on the illusion of safety in a post-911 world. I would see it in more general terms, and as a rather pragmatic critique of folks who claim the good old days were carefree and innocent, but I think it would have worked better as an hour-long Twilight Zone episode, rather than a two-hour feature film.

====

If I thought anyone really believed the good old days were safe and innocent, I'd make them sit down and watch a few hours of "Deadwood."

There was/is a real-life town named Deadwood in South Dakota. It sprang up in mid-1876, just as Custer was getting handed his ass by the Sioux at Little Bighorn.

The show Deadwood is probably about as accurate in spirit as you can get. The men are dirty and uncouth, the whores are dirty and abused, everybody walks around muddy or dusty, unshaven and unbathed; half the town is strung out on booze or opiates, there's a slur for every ethnicity, and the big man in town is an early precursor of Al Capone, without the refinement.

Deadwood is one of those shows you don't watch to enjoy; it's a drug in itself. You have to have it. When you're not watching it you're craving a hit, even though you flinch while viewing it. It's like driving past an accident--you have to look, even though you know you'll see something unpleasant.

So far the villians are more thoroughly developed than the good guys. Seth, Saul, the doctor, Jane and Wild Bill and Charlie are all just kind of drifting along trying to get by; it's Al's machinations that make things interesting, and the viewer is forced into complicity with them. But haven't I said a hundred times, that the good guys can't act, they can only react to the bad guy?

If I'd had any remaining illusions about wanting to living in the old West, this show would have cured them. It would be slightly different if I were a man, of course. Scott was particularly intrigued by the scene where Alma comes down for breakfast in the hotel, and all the men stand and take off their hats. He said you don't see that anymore, but then neither do you see civilians openly wearing guns on the street. Another strike against the tranquility of the good old days.

I know there are small issues they've gotten wrong. The most noticeable thing to my eye is the womens' clothing; they seem to be arbitrarily borrowing from several years on either side of 1876--and I swear one of Trixie's corsets looked like a Regency number--but oh well. Fashion is never as cut and dried as costumers would like to believe.

More distracting to my disbelief filters is the excessive use of the F word. I know "fuck" is a very, very old word, but it's traditionally been a verb or a noun, not an adverb, adjective and article as it now is. I'm fairly sure the phrase "what the fuck" is a pretty recent development. But more than that, they're just overusing it, in places were it doesn't sound natural, even for modern times. Cowboy terminology was tremendously colorful and creative, and I think they're limiting the possibilities by overreliance on the only Bad Word we have left in the 21st century. They ought to watch more Tarantino--now there's a guy who knows how to curse creatively.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

advance reviews are in

"Sikeston" has been spectacularly well-received. I was tearing my guts out after the first few reviews, because they were all from careless critters who wanted only to read something fast and get their MPC's in. They weren't negative crits, but they weren't helpful, either, and a lot of them confessed they didn't get it. Based on what's come since, I have to conclude they just weren't reading carefully.

I've had about fourteen Critters crits as of today, as well as five or six from civillians, and they all say the same thing: This rocks.

It's an important distinction from the last three Quinn stories. People said those were fine, very professional, but I didn't hear the same excitement and begging for more. Yes, begging! And a big part of it is the novelty of the genre juxtaposition. No one's ever seen that before.

Peter, one of my Critters friends, wins hands-down for the best crit. I wish I had a computer program that could do what he does. Forget the grammar and spelling: Pete checks internal logic, cultural relevance, triteness, obscure metaphors. He's like a copyeditor in a can. Plus, he just really seems to get it. Listen to this:

The mix of horror archetypes [. . .] and Western archetypes [...] came together in a way that really worked for me. It was nice to see you take some of the familiar elements and put your own spin on them, such as making the "whore with a heart of gold" deranged, periodically childlike (literally) and--well--dead.

I found Trace to be a very likeable, down-to-earth protagonist, in the vein of the "tortured hero" in one sense, but with so many more layers than that. Defrocked priest, traumatised war veteran _and_ he sees dead people? ... he tries so hard to represent himself as just a simple trailhand (even to himself) when there's so much more bubbling away beneath the surface. It gave me a real sense of how desparately Trace _wants_ to be an ordinary guy (even though, deep down, he knows he _isn't_ and never will be).


How can you not be grateful?

I am almost terrified to touch the prose, because everyone agrees it needs very little, but on the other hand one can always clarify and tighten. I have pledged to let Sikeston sit until this weekend, at least, and then do a once-over and send it out. I want to send it to Writers of the Future, first; they have the greatest potential for publicity and payment. After them, I'll try SciFiction.com, and F&SF.

Oh, and I finally sucked it up and registered for the kung-fu tournament. That should give me something else to worry about.