Sunday, January 31, 2010

Viva La Pantera!

All science fiction is destined to become alternate history:

This is an issue of the newspaper of the 1990 student takeover of the university of Siena. I was there studying Italian, a junior "semester abroad", as was the custom of the time.

In response to privatizing reforms announced by the national education minister, students took over universities across the country in protest, played their guitars, served spaghetti dinners, and provided their own alternative curriculum. The University of Siena is mostly housed in what was once a Franciscan monastery, and we kids from the Universitá per Stranieri would go down there and partake. (It was awfully hospitable of them to schedule something so thrilling, educational, and Italian for us while we were there). It was also as if a chain of free squatters' hotels had opened up across Italy: I remember travelling to Florence and sleeping on the floor of an occupied classroom there.

The cartoon depicts the twentieth anniversary of that revolution... which is, of course, today. (The caption says "Twentieth anniversary of the [Occupation of] '90: the usual pain-in-the ass interviews with the repentant 90ers")

So, about science fiction:

See those awesome shoulder flanges on the reporter?

That's how we dress now.

See his big-ass reel-to-reel tape recorder?

That's how we record interviews!

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shorter "Where the Wild Things Are" (the movie)

We are monstrous; we are loved.

(I liked it, if you were wondering; more than my kids did, I think, though they liked it too.

Unlike most of the movies my children and I watch together, it is a movie about being a child. Not a middle-aged superhero, a twentysomething restaurateur, or a grownup who must give up their self-imposed or chance isolation to fall in love, found a family, and take responsibility for larger projects. That's what we otherwise mostly watch, because that's what Pixar, Dreamworks, and company make: movies about early adult coming-of-age and midlife crisis, courtship and marriage -- with a lot of chase scenes, goofiness, pratfalls, snark, thrills, and hero-saves-the-day thrown in for buoyancy.

Dave Eggers and Spike Jones made a dark, slow, creepy, spare, gentle movie about being a kid, a movie which remembers that being a kid is very often a terrifying, daunting, and miserable affair. It has no pratfalls. The chase scenes, such as they are, are more Blair Witch than Tom & Jerry. It has no heroes, and the day is not saved; though of course, in the end, dinner is still hot. )

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Monday, January 25, 2010

"Irrlicht" in Pandora 4

My and David Ackert's collaborative short story "Stray", originally published in the December 2007 F&SF, has been translated into German by Annika Ochner. It appears in the current issue of Pandora, as "Irrlicht", with illustrations by Sabine Freiermuth.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bus Billboard

The ancient, hacked-by-me version of MoveableType I use for blogging is sketchy about sending me email when people comment, so I didn't see until just now that Jim Moskowitz has implemented my bus billboard for religious postmodernists!

I added the bit on the right hand side; click for detail.

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Monday, January 18, 2010

Dad's Paper

Now that my Dad is retired, he is getting back to physics. He wandered away from the subject of quantum time around the time I was born, and apparently it has been waiting for him patiently. Enjoy:

Time Eigenvalues for the One-dimensional Infinite Square Well

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On telling stories to kids

A friend wrote me a letter asking for tips on how to tell his daughter stories.

What a wonderful thing to be asked.

Here's what I said:

Wow, well, I'd say there are a few things that come to mind immediately.

One is to look for what she responds to and then milk that vein mercilessly. When Aviva was her age we also did a lot of storytelling, and she really liked slapstick (both of mine do) and was also obsessed with (and worried about) allergies and addiction (in the general sense of lack of self control, like wanting candy). So we had a long-running saga about Aviva's daughter-doll Cereina and her best friend, Elisa's daughter-doll Sophie, both of whom were black belts in karate (the kind that can fly) and Sophie was addicted to, and allergic to, Twizzlers. Thus they would fight epic, cinematic battles (diving off bridges onto zeppelins, that kind of thing), in which Cereina would try to confiscate the Twizzlers that Sophie had gotten ahold of, because they were bad for her.

That was a theme that never ran out of gas.

Second, amuse yourself too. No point telling stories dutifully. I mean, there's a balance, you don't want to be JUST amusing yourself and the kid is tolerating you. But you don't want to go totally in the other direction, or you'll quit. Tap into your inner Rocky and Bullwinkle. There can be jokes in there she'll only get in ten years (when she'll suddenly burst out laughing for no reason)

Third, don't get stressed about quality or originality. You can retell life events, movie plots, whatever, changing the details to fit the kids' preoccupations. Steal, steal, steal. Stoop to old cliches. Reprise the Hero's Journey, even if you only know it from Star Wars. Insert improbable coincidences and deus ex machina endings and bad puns (even if you have to explain them). You can have her meet fairy tale figures and travel in time to meet later and earlier versions of herself. There doesn't always need to be a narrative arc, you can just keep throwing cool crap against the wall and see what sticks. You will probably never again have such a forgiving, enthusiastic audience.

Fourth, you don't HAVE to tell stories. It's okay to say, "naw, I'm too tired now." You have to set some limits if it's going to stay fun. It will just whet her appetite for more, if you are straight and uncomplicated about it. (Though if you ALWAYS say no for a while she may get out of the habit.)

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Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar: Minimal Invasive Retcon (beware spoilers; also Matrix spoilers)

Okay, so perhaps someone has named this idea already, but if not, I would like to propose the following meme: the Minimal Invasive Retcon.

The MIR is what you do when you see a movie partially of great merit (amazing CGI, the occasional decent performance, many scenes with refreshingly correct physics) but also deep and unforgivable flaws (moral idiocy, plot illogic, absurd lapses of characterization, taste, etc.), and, wanting to enjoy the experience, you ask yourself "what is the minimum amount of stuff we would have to add offscreen to make this make sense"?

A classic example is Keith Martin's "A New Sith", which makes the Star Wars hexology make a great deal more sense (and improves it otherwise) by positing R2D2 and Chewbacca as secret leaders of the rebellion.

Here's another, for The Matrix (just the first movie, not the latter two, which are unredeemable):

The first Matrix movie is not bad, right? It almost makes sense. The only thing that doesn't make sense to anyone with the remotest grasp of physics or biology is the assertion that malevolent AIs who destroyed the ecosphere keep humans alive (in, by their own account, the nicest environment that the humans' brains will tolerate) as batteries. Like the little Duracell battery that Morpheus holds up. WTF? Also, Morpheus' apparent lack of a plan (and apparent total unconcern) for what will happen when they kill of the robots and "free" all of the humans to roam the bleak, lifeless, sunless, destroyed earth.

The MIR is hanging like a ripe fruit waiting to be plucked: obviously, Morpheus is a terrorist zealot, the AIs are the good guys, and Neo is a dupe. The AIs tried to make peace with the xenophobic humans, the humans freaked out and nuked the world, and now the AIs are devoting an enormous amount of resources to keep their progenitor species alive and as happy as they'll allow themselves to be, and Morpheus is a kamikaze purist all about live free or die, in which both options involve most people dying. Much better, yes?

MIR for Avatar coming up after the cut.

Click here to continue reading "Avatar: Minimal Invasive Retcon (beware spoilers; also Matrix spoilers)"
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Shorter Avatar (aka "Pocahontas Reloaded")

Apparently, we get FTL before decent wheelchairs.

And also much Fail.

Minimal invasive retconning post coming soon.

Edited to add: Credit for the quip "Pocahontas Reloaded" goes to my friend Mike Dillier, by the way.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Decade; frog; not Twitter; "cool with"

First, happy new year everyone. How was your decade? Oh good, or I'm sorry to hear that, depending.

I had an excellent decade, thank you for asking. Actually my life at the start 2010 is largely like my life at the close of 1999 in a lot of respects, except for two things. The big one: kids! Yay! I love having kids. And the smaller one: I published a bunch of fiction. Also cool.

Speaking of which, I have a story coming out -- "The Frog Comrade", in the Mar/April 2010 issue of F&SF. The Internet (in the person of Dan Percival) tells me that I read a version of it at Wiscon 2006, so apparently I was fiddling around with it for a long time. It's nice to have something coming out.

Lately signs have been mounting that I am entering the curmudgeonly, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn stage of life. I relish this. Like, for instance: Twitter. No.

It kind of amuses me to observe that, in 1999, "online journals" were an eccentric thing done by a few particularly loquacious , literarily inclined, chatty people like myself, mostly either aspirant writers, compulsive diarists, or folks with journalistic inclinations. They weren't "blogs" yet.

Then they became blogs, and it seemed like everybody and his dog had a blog. Ordinary people, the kind who would otherwise interest themselves for petunias and sports, were instead writing online about petunias and sports. The blogosphere was, briefly, a major way that ordinary people connected to one another, a way that post-industrial white-collar workers dealt with being stuck in front of monitors all day.

Obviously blogs grew to take on other roles -- like taking on a big chunk of the world's investigative journalism as newspapers fell apart economically as the Internet debundled information content. But for a while there they were also a way ordinary people talked to the internet.

Then ordinary people discovered that they actually only needed 120 characters to talk to the internet. That was the end of blogs as social networking.

I fully realized this only the last time I posted here, actually, when two people responded to my "I'm going to Readercon" note here, compared to... some larger number of responses to a similar note on Facebook (and I avoid Facebook). I want to say 12, or 20? But I don't know, because I have no idea how to find old posts on Facebook. They don't make it easy: Facebook is a river you cannot step in twice.

So the blogosphere now feels like an East Coast beach town in November. The tourists are gone. There are of course very big-deal bloggers making a zillion dollars a day, like big casinos down on the shoreline staying open all winter, and then there are little townies like me in cottages on little roads some distance from the dunes.

I kind of like that. It's cozy.

One other bit of curmudgeonliness: does it seem normal to the rest of you for USA Today to use the verb "to be cool with" non-ironically, in straight, non-editorial political reporting, as in the sentence "White House.... officials made it clear they're cool with fast-tracking the final phase of legislation..."?

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