Old New England

Trip report from my SFF Net newsgroup, dated August 15, 2006:

So I’m back from a few days in New England. Stayed with my sister in North Reading, visited Julie’s sister in North Chelmsford, played tourist on Cape Ann and in Boston, lunched with an old friend, dined with another of Julie’s sisters in Nashua NH, but the actual reason for the trip was a multi-class high school reunion that drew almost 500 people and was fascinating but much too loud.

Lui Lui’s, a pizza-and-pasta place on the Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua, just across the state line from Massachusetts, is highly recommended — we gave them a very hard time (not deliberately), and they remained helpful, cheerful, and competent throughout. And the food was very good.

The food at Captain Carlo’s, on Harbor Loop in downtown Gloucester, was even better — I’m fairly sure my haddock was still swimming in the Atlantic that morning. Best haddock I’ve ever eaten, and not expensive. Climbed on the rocks at Stage Fort Park and at Folly Cove. Alas, Hammond Castle had been rented for a private function, so we didn’t stop there.

The weather was astonishingly good, which made our stroll through the Public Garden a delight. The line for the swan boats was daunting, so we only walked. We walked up as far as Government Center, actually, and decided that City Hall is pretty decent architecture despite being weird and late-modernist. Got ice cream from a little stand in the Downtown Crossing shopping district; I still have a spot of Fenway Fudge on one shoe.

Wouldn’t have recognized most people at the reunion without name-tags; didn’t recognize lots of them even with name-tags. Was startled by how many of them knew that I was Lawrence Watt-Evans. Chatted with Bill Bryan briefly; he’s still working in Hollywood. Don’t think there was anyone else there you might have heard of, though apparently one of Julie’s classmates had a pretty impressive career in the Marines, and recently retired as a full colonel after seeing combat in three different wars.

And So It Begins

Newsgroup post, March 4, 2006:

With the kids out of the house, the place doesn’t get messed up much. This means Julie actually has these silly fantasies about someday getting everything cleaned up and sorted out.

We had to move a bunch of boxes to install the new water heater, including one that had been partially soaked by the leak that precipitated the departure of the old water heater, and then they had to stay out of the way until the WSSC inspector came to approve the installation. That meant that those boxes were sitting out in the basement den, taunting Julie.

So we’ve actually started going through some of this old stuff, reorganizing it, throwing out the obvious trash, etc.

And we’re stumbling across stuff that has us wondering, “What the heck should we do with this?”

For example, there are four manuscripts here — photocopies, not originals — of novels I was asked to blurb in the 1980s. Specifically, The Magic of Recluce, by Lee Modesitt; Alchemy Unlimited, by Douglas W. Clark; The Duchess of Kneedeep, by Atanielle Annyn Noel; and The Blind Archer, by John Betancourt.

Now, what should I do with these? eBay? Donate them to a SFWA charity auction? Trash? Donate to a museum somewhere?

April 4, 2017: I note that nobody had any useful suggestions, and I still have all these manuscripts ten years later. You people are no help.

On the Classification of Classifications

Okay, there have been signs of life among the comments, but I’m still quoting this newsgroup post from August 13, 2005. Note that I said I’d let it stew overnight before pursuing it; well, I never did pursue it. Apparently it didn’t look as interesting the next morning.

So over in “Strange Days,” we’ve been discussing the relative merits of SF and fantasy — which I don’t think is a very good idea, but thinking about genres has just triggered an insight of sorts.

Why are SF and fantasy so often grouped together? Well, partly it’s for historical reasons — fantasy hid in the SF mags for the middle decades of the 20th century, and many authors wrote and write both because of that shared history. I think that it’s partly, though, because both are genres defined by setting.

SF is set in our universe, as altered by new science or technology.

Fantasy is set in a universe other than our own. (It may look just like our own with magic added, but it isn’t, since we have no capability for magic here.)

Compare this with genres defined by plot, such as mystery or romance; you can set a mystery anywhere, but it involves someone solving a crime by evaluating the available evidence; likewise, a romance can be set anywhere, so long as it follows two people as they fall in love and overcome whatever obstacles there may be to consummating that love.

And horror is a genre defined by mood — in fact, Douglas Winter famously said that horror is a mood, not a genre at all.

This has me thinking that we really ought to sort out genres into categories according to whether they’re defined by setting, plot, mood, or some other story element.

It is, however, late, and I have a busy day planned for tomorrow, so I’m going to let this stew overnight rather than pursuing it right now.

Take Cover

Newsgroup post, March 4, 2005:

So I’m messin’ around with iTunes, which I downloaded ages ago but have yet to actually buy anything from, and I start poking through the Yardbirds’ catalog, and play a sample from “Train Kept a’Rollin’.”

The Aerosmith cover is way better.

Which got me thinking about how often a cover version is better than the original. Not that often, certainly — most covers suck — but when it happens it can be pretty cool.

Aerosmith’s version of “Train Kept a’Rollin’ kicks ass, for example. Or consider Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” which is vastly superior to the original.

And then there are the covers that are so different that you can’t really compare them, like the Cardigans’ version of the Black Sabbath song “Iron Man.”

But there are borderline cases, too. Is Pat Benatar’s cover of “Wuthering Heights” as good as the Kate Bush original? What about the remixed Bush version?

This is my competition…

From February 15, 2005:

Something I stumbled across on a website where would-be screenwriters were invited to make pitches.

Oh, my God….

“Greetings. The following is a screenplay that I’m using to seek representation. The Florescent Shaded Teddy Bear Murders: An island community of Millionaire supermodels must overcome their vanity when giant, ravenous teddy bears threaten their quirky lifestyle. Sparkle Island, a place of grotesque wealth where locals use “cosmetic genetics” to eliminate every flaw in their appearance, celebrate Tickle Festivals to relish the euphoria of hysterical laughter and thrill their pets with the sport of bungee jumping. The unattractive in this world fight for the leftover crumbs of opportunity, as success is primarily given to beauty before talent. Paradise is thrown into a blender when fanged beasts of plush mysteriously arrive to chow down on the gorgeous elite, leaving the less-attractive-hell, let’s just call them ugly-labor force untouched. Police search the town in their limousines for clues, a military with questionable motive enters the fray, led by a Commander armed with lethal PEZ dispensers. But it’s the town princess and ugly accordion virtuoso who discover the bears’ origin: a paltry, balding scientist who created them as revenge for not getting a promised genetic makeover that would finally give him beauty and inclusion among the island’s royalty.”

The Old Order Passeth: Fragments

My newsgroup on SFF Net is gone. Rather than leave everything to the last minute, I asked the folks in charge there to shut it down on March 15th, which they did.

So this is my new home, I suppose. Or one of them, anyway.

I saved a bunch of messages and threads there, some recent, some not. I’m planning to copy some of them here.

For example, here’s an item from May 11, 2004 — the oldest I have saved, and the last in a thread entitled “Fragments”:

It is late spring, but still the Druvars remain camped upon m front lawn. I have spoken with their chieftain, but he will tell me nothing save that they will leave when the time has come that they must leave. My neighbors seem to be quite amused by my predicament, and I am no longer able to share in their amusement.
At first I was not particularly disturbed by this uninvited visitation, but it has been fully five months now since the first cookfire scorched the grass, and the novelty has worn off, replaced by annoyance.

See, sometimes I write down story openings that occur to me — usually openings, but once in awhile a scene from the middle of a story. Sometimes I know what the story is, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I actually write those stories; sometimes I don’t.

I collect these fragments, and look them over every so often to see if one is ready to turn into something more.

This particular fragment never went anywhere, but I still kind of like it.

Our Story So Far…

It seems as if I’m reading more books lately — more of other people’s books, that is. I was asked to blurb An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, for example, and was happy to do so because I really enjoyed it.

A couple of posts back I plugged Disreputable Persons; that was another one I liked.

Well, tonight I finished The Glittering Court, by Richelle Mead.

It’s not bad. I’m not really sure how to categorize it; it’s a romance, but it’s set in an imaginary world that very roughly parallels Europe and North America of the 17th or 18th century. It’s not a fantasy in the usual sense because there’s no magic, but other than that it feels like a fantasy romance. It’s not really my usual line of country, and I didn’t like it as much as the other two I mentioned, but I can see why Mead’s popular.

One of the interesting aspects, though, is that it’s first in a series I assume will be at least three volumes (though only two are out so far). I assume there will be three because it’s not going to be a first and then sequels, but three parallel stories. This first one follows the adventures of a young countess dodging an arranged marriage, and being a romance it ends with her and her beloved happily married and going off to start a new life together.

But she befriends two other young women who drop in and out of the story along the way, and whose adventures we do not learn about in detail. Obviously, they’ll be the stars of the next two volumes — and in fact, one of them is the protagonist of Midnight Jewel, the second in the series. I assume we’ll get the third girl in the third book. Funny thing, I’d guessed wrong about which girl would be #2 and which would be #3.

Anyway, one reason I find this of particular interest is that I’m currently writing Stone Unturned, a fantasy novel told from three interlocking points of view. I had seriously considered splitting it into three separate stories, divided among those three protagonists. So it’s a little surprising to see Mead doing essentially that same trick. Maybe it’s just something in the zeitgeist.

Star Trek’s 50th Anniversary

Since many people are discussing their early memories of “Star Trek” on the 50th anniversary of its premiere, here are some of mine:

I was twelve. The old saying “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve” does have some truth to it. My parents both loved SF, so we were all gathered in front of the TV to see this new show. I had loved “Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” but this was different — it wasn’t an anthology, but an ongoing series.

I remember thinking the design of the Enterprise was weird and didn’t make sense. But other than that, I loved the show. The costumes were not the usual “futuristic” stuff I’d seen elsewhere, but did look futuristic in their own way. Spock was seriously cool, even though I thought humanoid aliens were ridiculously unlikely. (His half-human parentage wasn’t mentioned in the premiere episode, so far as I remember; I would have balked even more at that.) The transporter was nifty. Phasers were beyond nifty. Kirk was charming and smart and generally a solid hero.

I knew that a lot of the science and technology was nonsense, but I didn’t care — the show’s creators had at least tried, rather than going for pure fantasy like so much alleged SF. I was old enough to understand that they were limited in what they could do. And we had heroes, and action, and monsters, and pretty women in short skirts (I had already hit puberty), and most importantly, it wasn’t condescending. It didn’t go in with the presumption that science fiction adventure was all junk aimed at kids, or that the audience didn’t know any science whatsoever.

I knew it wasn’t up to the standards of the best written SF, but it was still better than anything else I’d seen on TV or in the movies. (I hadn’t seen “Forbidden Planet” or a few other classics yet.)

I loved it. My mother did, too, and most of my siblings. Dad appreciated the effort, but thought it fell short in too many ways.

As the series continued, there were good episodes and bad — I found “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” horrendously preachy, and “The Way to Eden” patronizing and stupid, and the less said about “Spock’s Brain” the better — but watching it was still usually a highlight of my week. I was disappointed when it was cancelled; I had hoped that it might recover from the weak third season and get better. I wasn’t heartbroken, though, because the novelty had worn off and the average quality really had slumped in the third season.

The real disappointment was the long wait before we got any more SF on TV that was even remotely as good.


I feel odd right now. I’ve been very, very productive lately, more so than pretty much any time in the last twenty years.

So far in 2016 I’ve written 565 pages, on five different novels and a short story. (I may have written other short stuff as well, but I don’t have records of anything else.) That’s good for me, and happened despite a trip to China and many other distractions. The last few weeks have been particularly good — something like half that total got written in the last sixty days. And I think that’s partly because of where I am on all my most current projects.

I’ve always sped up after a certain point in whatever novel I’m working on — exactly what point, and sped up how much, will vary, but it always happens. I get to a stage where everything important is worked out in my head and it’s mostly just typing it out. I wrote the final third of Nightside City in five days, which was my previous record.

(This only refers to first drafts. Rewriting is a whole different thing.)

Sometimes there would be enough momentum in that rush to finish a novel that I would then surge rapidly through the opening chapters of a new novel.

Well, what happened this time is that after doing little writing for months because I was too damn busy with other stuff, when I got back to it I had three novels near their respective tipping points at the same time. I hit my stride on Tom Derringer in the Tunnels of Terror and rolled directly into Tom Derringer and the Steam-Powered Saurians, and when that started to slow I hit the tipping point in Stone Unturned, and I think I’m about at the tipping point for Bravo Foxtrot, as well. (Have I ever made it explicit that Bravo Foxtrot is the protagonist’s name but not necessarily the title? Because that’s the case.)

Three novels at once hit the “hurry through” stage. That’s never happened before, and it feels strange.

Anyway, I’ve been in “finish the novel” mode for the last month and a half, but I still have around three or four hundred pages to go on two different novels, so I don’t know whether I can sustain it for the entire run.

And there’s also the “start a new project” aspect. That’s a real thing for me. Now that the part of my brain that builds the underlying story is finished with Stone Unturned and Bravo Foxtrot, it’s looking for something new to do, and it’s hopping from one idea to the next, sometimes developing unfinished old projects, sometimes coming up with new ones, and it’s distracting. Right now it really, really wants me to start work on an untitled novel about two sisters where one has a magical talent but it’s the other one who has a magical destiny, but I know if I do that I’ll lose my momentum on Stone and Bravo.

(At least I pried it off Tom Derringer and the Steam-Powered Saurians and Tom Derringer and the Electric Empire for now. Yes, I want to write those, but I want to get other stuff done first, and I know those aren’t really ready for serious focus yet. And that two-sisters story is going to be so cool when I have time to work on it. And I’ve also been involuntarily working out more of The Dragon’s Price and The Siege of Vair. I was even thinking about One Hundred Suns the other day, and that’s been largely abandoned since the 1980s.)

What I’m worried about is burning out, or getting distracted. I don’t think I can keep this up forever. There was a stretch of really high productivity in the early 1990s (half of which wasn’t obvious because it was by Nathan Archer), but it didn’t last. This one probably won’t, either.

My Son’s Five-Part Wedding: Part Five: The American Finale

Julian and Cathy got married in China in October 2015 and April 2016, but Julian wanted Cathy to have a chance to meet all her new American family and Julian’s American friends, and obviously not all of them were going to China for the ceremonies. (In the end, two of Julie’s siblings and a few of Julian’s friends made it.) Obviously, there would have to be an American reception as well as all the stuff in China.

As it happens, the McKenna side of the family holds reunions sometimes. They talk about it a lot more than they do it, but reunions do happen occasionally. Usually Julie winds up doing most of the organizing.

In 2015 there had been discussion going on in e-mail for months about when and where the next reunion would be, with various ideas tossed out, none of them generating all that much enthusiasm. Finally, when it looked as if it would drag on forever without a reunion actually happening, Julie just announced that unless someone came up with a better plan right now, she was going to charter a sailboat on Chesapeake Bay in late June, 2016. That seemed like a good time — school would be out, and there were some birthdays in the family around then, and, you know, reasons.

No one came up with a better plan.

Julian knew about this, so he suggested having the wedding dinner the night before — everyone on his mother’s side would already be gathering for the family reunion, so they wouldn’t need to make a second trip.

That sounded good, so we agreed, and planning began.

I probably should have been more involved in the planning than I was, but I mostly left it to Julie, since the reunion was her idea and her family. It didn’t occur to me immediately that we would also be inviting my family, though of course we did.

It seemed like a good idea to find a Chinese restaurant for the event, for various reasons, so we settled on New Fortune, in Gaithersburg, MD, a large restaurant that does lots of weddings and that we knew made good food.

Unfortunately, they had already booked a huge Chinese wedding in the main hall for that night, but they could fit us in their secondary hall, which seats fifty at five tables of ten. In an emergency they could squeeze in a sixth table, for a total of sixty.

That meant we needed to settle on a guest list of fifty or sixty, so we set to work on that. Julian’s sixteen aunts and uncles gave us a starting point, and there were his twelve cousins, two of whom are married…

Not all of those wanted to attend. A couple of uncles by marriage declined immediately, as did about half the cousins, leaving more room for Julian’s friends, and family friends, and a couple of Cathy’s friends who were in America.

We wound up with a list of fifty-eight names, but some people begged off, and a couple were added. One of Julie’s brothers decided to skip the whole thing rather than find someone to tend his dogs — or at least that was his excuse, which ignored the fact that his wife and daughters could look after the dogs. A couple of siblings tried unsuccessfully to talk him around.

And then there was the Chinese side of the family. We had not initially thought anyone would be coming from China except Cathy, but then we learned that her parents and at least one uncle and maybe an aunt or two were interested. In the event, they waited too long to apply for visas — there’s a backlog at the U.S. consulates. Cathy’s parents managed to jump the queue, but the other relatives were left out.

The final (or so we thought) list came out to exactly fifty people. That lasted about a day and a half; then one of Julie’s sisters who had said she would come, and who had arranged to share a hotel room, got cold feet about traveling and backed out, leaving her would-be roommate in the lurch — especially since that sister had supposedly been going to make the travel arrangements, but hadn’t, so that her roommate had to book a flight at the last minute.

Julie invited a friend from work to fill that now-empty fiftieth seat, and she agreed, but then she had to back out the day before the event, so the final total was forty-nine.

I should also mention that one of Julie’s other sisters (she has three) arranged a room block at a local hotel, which sounds simple enough, but proved to be amazingly difficult. You’d think a hotel would have this down, but one stupid little thing after another went wrong — lost paperwork, buggy website, poor communications. It did eventually happen, and I don’t think Eileen got stuck with any extra charges, but it was far more trouble than we expected.

Anyway, the arrangements were made, and people started arriving a week or so before the event and trickled in right up to the last minute. We put Julian, Cathy, and her parents, and our daughter Kiri, up at our house, while everyone else coming any distance wound up at hotels — not all at the hotel we’d booked the block at, thanks to some of those hassles I mentioned, but mostly there.

I rented a van to make it easier to haul people around, and used it to pick up Julian, Cathy, and her parents from the airport. They arrived on time on Wednesday; their luggage (with their wedding clothes in it) showed up at 3:00 a.m. Friday morning.

Some old friends came all the way from Tennessee, which surprised the heck out of us.

All four of my surviving siblings came; I think this may have been the first time this century than all five of us were together. And where the original idea had been a McKenna family reunion, only five out of the seven siblings attended.

The night before the main dinner we had a small informal buffet dinner at the house, which my siblings all attended; I think that came to about a dozen people in all, noshing on sandwiches from a supermarket deli.

And finally, the day came. Julie went up to the restaurant early to make sure everything was ready, and several carloads of us arrived at the appointed time. A couple of people made a wrong turn going into the restaurant and wound up at the other wedding briefly, but figured it out.

I am very glad we didn’t need the sixth table; the room was pretty crowded with five. Julie had arranged things intelligently; everyone who spoke Chinese, plus Julian, sat at the central table. One corner table was Evanses, one was McKennas, and two were friends, roughly sorted by who knew whom.

Once everyone was there they started serving — ten courses. Most of it was absolutely delicious. There was a chicken course I didn’t care for, but hey, tastes vary.The head table

One hitch was that it turns out two of my siblings don’t much care for seafood; if I’d ever known that I had completely forgotten, though thinking about it we never ate much seafood growing up, despite living in New England. Since this was in Maryland and the cook was from coastal China, there was a lot of seafood involved, which left their choices a bit limited. I regret that. But hey, I liked the crab soup and the crab-filled shrimp balls and the whole boiled fish, and so did most of the other guests.

Julian and Cathy circulated among the guests, a few very brief speeches and toasts were made, and in general it was a pretty typical wedding dinner.

Eventually the food stopped coming, and people stopped eating and began drifting away. We thanked everyone for coming, settled the bill, and went home.

That still left the family reunion; the following day several carloads drove out to Annapolis. Some of us toured the Naval Academy; others just poked around the shops; and in time we all wound up at the docks and boarded the Windward II for an hour-long sail on Chesapeake Bay. I think we’d booked space for twenty-four, but only twenty-two actually made it onto the boat — almost all family, but a couple of Cathy’s friends, and a couple of ours.

Various guests were invited to take the wheel for awhile. Cathy’s mother was one of them, despite not being able to understand any of the English instructions; gestures proved sufficient. Cathy told us later that that was her mother’s favorite part of the trip.Julian at the tiller

And after the sailing we headed across town to Mike’s Crab House, where we had an hour-long wait to be seated but eventually wound up fitting all of us at two adjoining tables.

And that was the end of the official event. It took a couple of days before everyone was gone; Cathy, Julian, and her parents did some touristy stuff in Washington and Harper’s Ferry before moving on to New York. (Hey, you don’t fly all the way from China and then head right back; they were in the U.S. for two weeks in all.)

At last, though, it was all over except eating the leftovers. Julian and Cathy were quite thoroughly married, and on their way back to Hangzhou.