Weirdness about Beards

I have a beard, as anyone who’s met me or seen my picture probably knows. I’ve had it a long, long time.

I started out with just a mustache — and when I say “started out,” I mean I have literally never shaved my upper lip (though it was once, and only once, shaved for me), so by the time I graduated from high school I had a mustache.

That was 1972.

I got kicked out of Princeton in February, 1974, and that was when I grew a beard — a Van Dyke.

Then when I dropped out in 1977, I stopped shaving entirely and grew a full beard. I eventually started shaving again when my neck got excessively fuzzy, but I still have a full beard, and except for two brief interruptions I’ve had it since 1977.

I used to have long hair. I started growing it out in 1969. It got cut back somewhat a couple of times, but basically stayed long until 1984, when I cut it for my youngest sister’s wedding, and so Kyrith, who was then a baby, would stop grabbing and pulling it.

I kept it short for a few years, and honestly, I don’t remember exactly when I grew it back out, but it was long (below my shoulders) through most of the 1990s and well into the 21st century. In 2008, though — I think it was 2008, might have been a year or two earlier — I saw a picture of the back of my head and realized I had a bald spot, and that, combined with the long hair, had me looking uncomfortably like Riff Raff from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” So that October I cut it short, and it’s been fairly short ever since.

There were other variations along the way, such as color, but we won’t go into that right now — the basics, long hair and full beard, were pretty much as described above.

And here’s the weird thing: People don’t see this.

The first time I encountered this was when I was readmitted to Princeton in the fall of 1975. People who hadn’t seen me since February of ’74 got to see me with my new beard.

Some people didn’t notice. Some saw that there was something different about me, but couldn’t place it exactly. The strangest was the girl who exclaimed, “You cut your hair!”

I pointed out that no, I hadn’t, my hair was still halfway down my back, but I’d grown a beard. She stared and said, “Didn’t you always have a beard?”

I never did convince her that I hadn’t.

Then at my sister’s wedding in 1984, nobody noticed that I had cut my hair, that it was at least eight inches shorter than before. I mean, nobody noticed. No one. When I finally mentioned it to someone, he asked, “Didn’t you cut it back in 1972?”

He’d seen me several times between 1972 and 1984. It was long every time.

I mentioned two interruptions in my beard. One of them was when I sold my beard to Gillette, for research, and there aren’t any odd stories about that, but the other one, well, one morning I just decided to experiment, and shaved half of it off, trimming it back down to the old Van Dyke.

No one noticed. It was like the wedding, except that this time even my own kids didn’t notice anything. So I grew the full beard back, because why bother maintaining the trim if nobody notices?

And I bring this all up now because at Capricon last month, someone I hadn’t seen for a few years saw me and exclaimed, “You grew a beard!”

She had never, ever seen me without a full beard. The actual difference was that I’d cut my hair since she last saw me. Well, that, and I’ve gone mostly gray.

But she saw a difference, and somehow that became I’d grown a beard.

I find this phenomenon baffling.

The Not-So-True Faith

I just read an interview with Barry Malzberg, in the October 2010 issue of Locus. My conclusion is that Malzberg desperately wanted science fiction to be prophecy, and has lived his entire adult life in a state of perpetual frustration and disappointment that it’s mere entertainment. By prophecy, I don’t mean he wanted a flying car and a jetpack and vacations on Mars, I mean he wanted people to accept science fiction as visions, as a holy guide to, I dunno, something. It’s rather as if the Apostles hadn’t been able to convince anyone else, and were taken for mere storytellers.

I found his anecdote about Owen Lock soliciting work from him, but then laughing at the idea of a short story collection, to be telling. To Lock, publishing is a business and short story collections don’t sell, so you don’t publish them, while to Malzberg short stories are a part of the sacred body of science fiction, and failing to publish them is betraying the cause.

It seems a very strange worldview to me.

It’s not unique to Malzberg, though; he’s merely the most extreme example. I remember having a couple of conversations with Damon Knight that struck me as weird, and which probably have a similar basis, except that Knight had become something of an apostate — he felt that the Revelation of Science Fiction had failed him because some of the taken-for-granted story premises turned out to be faulty. Specifically, as the example I remember most clearly, he considered himself to have been wronged by all those stories in which extraterrestrial colonies serve to relieve population pressure on Earth, because he had run the numbers and concluded it was simply not possible, even given cheap FTL, to ship people off Earth fast enough to make a difference. This bothered him.

It never bothered me; I always just thought they were stories. I never particularly cared whether they connected to the real world.

My father, too, was to some extent a believer in the faith of science fiction. He wanted his fiction to have a solid grounding in science, to be possible. He didn’t care for fantasy, and he actively disliked horror. To some extent he tried to inculcate this attitude in his kids, but I don’t think it really took in any of us.

But that’s because to us, they were stories, and didn’t need to be more. Speaking only for myself, since I never really talked to my sisters about it, I liked science, and I liked science fiction, but I never thought it necessary that they be connected. I took after my mother, who did like fantasy and horror, and didn’t much care if the science in her fiction was accurate.

The two of my sisters who most took after our father didn’t become science fiction writers; they became scientists.

In fact, I think that’s probably the more common result of growing up believing in science fiction — you don’t write the stuff, you live it.

Except for some people, Barry Malzberg among them, it was the visionary aspect that mattered — he apparently wanted to be a part of an expanding cult showing humanity the possibilities of the future, not part of making those possibilities real.

I don’t get it. Me, I just want to tell stories.

Please Advise Me

I find myself in a situation regarding character names that I’m not happy with.

This is for an urban fantasy where the protagonist is named Wayne Ellsworth, for good and sufficient reasons. For equally good and sufficient reason, his girlfriend/fiancee is named Georgia Fenton. These aren’t negotiable.

However, there is a third major character — probably the title character, in fact — who I have reasons to name George, specifically that he’s named that because his original given name is completely unpronounceable, and the person re-naming him was a fan of Warner cartoons, such as the Bugs Bunny one with the Abominable Snowman who wants to make Bugs his pet bunny, “and I will hug him and squeeze him, and I will call him George,” or whatever the exact line is.

I had originally thought that Elmyra Duff, from Tiny Toon Adventures, also called her pets George, but that appears to be incorrect.

So. Is having major unrelated characters named George and Georgia going to be too confusing/distracting? If so, any suggestions on what to call him instead of George? (Georgia, as I said above, isn’t negotiable.)

The Numbered Dead

Our local weekly newspaper, the Gazette, ran a list last week that I find oddly fascinating — a list of all the homicides in Montgomery County, Maryland in 2010.

There were seventeen, which isn’t bad for a county of just under a million people — neighboring Prince George’s County had more than five times as many, and as for Washington and Baltimore, well…

Of the seventeen victims, fourteen were men, three were women, and none, thank heavens, were children. Ages ranged from 18 to 52, but the distribution wasn’t remotely even — twelve of them were under thirty.

Nine of them were shot. Four were stabbed. The other four, including two of the women, died of “bodily trauma,” apparently meaning they were beaten to death. (The third woman was stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.)

Of the seventeen, one shooting was ruled self-defense, one was deemed an accident (the killer apparently called the cops himself), and the other deaths all appear to be murder, though in some cases that’s not definite. In seven of the fifteen apparent murders, the killers are in custody; in two, the police have a suspect but have not yet put together a strong enough case for a murder charge. In one, the killer is known but at large, and that one’s a bit weird — it was one of the bodily trauma cases, and the 28-year-old suspect is described as 3’11” and 85 pounds. Gotta be a story there.

One thing I find interesting is that in the seven (or eight, if you count the midget) solved murders, at least four involved multiple killers — twelve people have been charged in those four cases.

And most of them were really stupid.

I don’t have any brilliant conclusions, I’m afraid, except to say that looking over these cases, most of them don’t look much like the murders that Hollywood depicts every week on TV. One of them, a 19-year-old girl found in a shallow grave in the woods, might fit reasonably well on “Bones,” but it’s unsolved.

Which is too bad.

A Trope

They strike without warning, without mercy, appearing out of nowhere and leaving no one alive…

For Christmas, one of my sisters gave me a DVD of the short-lived SF series “Space Rangers.” I hadn’t seen the show since its brief original run in 1993, and I didn’t remember a lot of details — mostly I remembered Marjorie Monaghan as Jo Jo and Linda Hunt as Chennault, and that the show had a pleasantly scruffy feel. The last couple of nights I’ve been watching it while I do my nightly exercises, and I was struck by one story element I had completely forgotten — the banshees. These are mysterious hostile aliens who are attacking helpless transports.

And what struck me about them was a strong feeling of deja vu. I’ve seen this scenario before. What’s more, I’ve seen it as an important story element used to add excitement and intrigue to the first few episodes of a new spacefaring SF TV series.

Twice.

On “Firefly” they were called Reavers. On “Babylon 5” they were called raiders. All in all, though, they’re pretty similar in methodology — they appear out of nowhere, viciously attack lightly-armed transports, wipe out opposition with blood-curdling thoroughness, then vanish again before the more-heavily-armed good guys can get there to help.

Now I find myself wondering why these three series all used such similar devices.

I suppose it’s a cheap way to suck viewers in by showing Our Heroes fighting bloodthirsty monsters, and on “Firefly” they eventually turned out to have an important role in the series overall story arc. On “Babylon 5,” though, they were little more than a minor nuisance, contributing almost nothing to the five-year whole, and I would have thought the Narn-Centauri conflict would have been enough of a hook to draw people in without the raiders.

On “Space Rangers,” of course, the series didn’t last long enough to see how important they were. “Space Rangers” was also so clumsily written that it’s hard to be sure why anything was there. I mean, the first episode involves a whole bunch of backstory stuff (the hero’s old mentor, the alien’s mysterious culture) that viewers don’t yet know or care about — not good writing.

Anyway, I find it curious that all three series used such a similar device, and I wonder why it happened. Are space pirates that essential an element of space opera?

Paying It Forward

Warning: This will be a long post veering back and forth over multiple subjects that I see as related, but you may not.

There is a tradition among science fiction writers of “paying it forward.” The idea is that you can’t pay back the people who helped you, so you pay it forward instead, by helping others. I’ve heard it said that the phrase was popularized by Jerry Pournelle after he asked Robert Heinlein how he and Larry Niven could pay Heinlein back for the extremely helpful letter he wrote them critiquing The Mote in God’s Eye (at least, I think it was Mote). Supposedly Heinlein told him, “You can’t pay me back; pay it forward instead.”

This is trotted out, then, as why established SF/F writers should help beginners — to “”pay forward” the help they received when they were beginners. It’s supposed to be something special about the SF/fantasy field.

I have a few problems with this concept.

First off, SF fandom claiming this idea as uniquely its own is, shall we say, not firmly grounded in reality. Older writers helping younger writers along is a tradition much older than science fiction, and it crops up in every genre. It’s absolutely normal practice for writers in every field to teach writing, since actually making a living writing is rare, and it’s commonplace for those teachers to recognize and mentor the most promising students.

I talk to writers in other genres — I used to be a member of Novelists Inc., which is mostly romance writers, and I was briefly a member of Mystery Writers of America — and there’s plenty of mentoring going on in all of them. Romance Writers of America seems to exist almost entirely to mentor beginners. So this attitude that SF has something special in “paying it forward” is, to me, self-congratulatory puffery.

Another issue I have with the concept is that many beginning writers seem to feel it’s necessary, that it just isn’t possible to become a writer without mentoring. You need contacts in the industry, they say. If you don’t have writers to vouch for you, or personal contacts with editors or agents, you can’t break in. If you aren’t involved in fandom, if you don’t have editors providing detailed feedback, you’re screwed. You need to have supportive elders paying it forward. They feel that they are owed support by the established writers in the field, because after all, they were helped by the previous generation, right?

And that brings me to the long, ranting part of the post. The very short version is that I don’t feel I have anything to repay.

I sold my first novel, The Overman and the Basilisk, to Lester del Rey at Del Rey Books in May of 1979. He retitled it The Lure of the Basilisk, and retitled me Lawrence Watt-Evans. I didn’t actually meet Lester until 1982.

I didn’t meet my first self-proclaimed, non-gafiated SF fan until March, 1980, when the recently-formed Blue Grass Science Fiction Association (BGSFA, pronounced Bugs-Fah; later renamed LexFA, the
Lexington Fantasy Association) saw a “local boy makes good” piece about me in the Lexington Herald-Leader and invited me to a meeting.

The first published fiction writer I ever met was Harry Stubbs, a.k.a. Hal Clement. I think I was eight. He came to the house to talk to my father about NEACT business. NEACT was the New England Association of Chemistry Teachers; Harry and my dad were both active members.

So was Isaac Asimov, and that connection allowed my parents to contact him to talk at our church when I was a teenager. At the time I was actively avoiding all church activities — at the age of eight I had rebelled against the staggeringly boring sermons of Rev. Holmes and refused to attend any services. (I wasn’t the only one; the parish committee fired Holmes not long after, replacing him with David Weissbard.) Even Asimov wasn’t enough to lure me back to church, but I did wander over to the Common afterwards and got a look at him as he was preparing to leave. I’ll count that as the second.

The third published fiction writer I ever met was me. If you don’t want to count that, then it was Stephen Leigh, at Rivercon V, my first convention, in July 1980, five months after my first novel was published. Phyllis Ann Karr was next, then Roger Zelazny, and after that I lose track; that convention had a pretty good guest list.

So much for writers nurturing the next generation in my case.

As for help from editors, the first editor I ever met was probably Carol Amick, who worked for the town weekly, the Bedford Minuteman, and went on to become its editor. We never spoke; when I say “met,” I mean she was pointed out to me when we were in the same room.

The second was a man whose name I’ve forgotten, the editor of the Bedford Patriot, the short-lived right-wing rival to the Minuteman. When I was seventeen I decided that their writing was so bad they
might even consider hiring a high-school kid; I was right, and they bought three or four feature articles from me.

My first contact with a fiction editor was a rejection slip from Ed Ferman at F&SF in 1972. It was the standard form letter, no note. I went on to collect an assortment of rejections — seventy-one before I sold anything — from a variety of editors. All of those rejections were form letters except for a handful from Moshe Feder, who was then an editorial assistant to Ted White at Fantastic and Amazing, and a couple from Hank Davis, who was Ed Ferman’s assistant at F&SF. Those came along in 1974 and 1975; Hank was sending them because Moshe had urged him to. They were short typed notes, never more than two paragraphs, explaining why my stories were being rejected and offering encouragement to try again. In one case it was because the story was deemed too much like Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser; at that time I had never heard of Fafhrd and the Mouser, so that one turned out to be very useful, because I went out and found the relevant books and read them. I love those stories, but I don’t really see the resemblance other than it being sword & sorcery about a pair of adventurers.

I sold a short-short to The American Atheist in August, 1975. The entirety of my contact with them after submission was a note in May of 1975 telling me they were buying it, and a packet in August containing my contributor’s copy and my check.

The third editor to ever send me something other than a form rejection or a form acceptance and a check was Lester del Rey, when he bought my first novel with a three-page, single-spaced revision letter.

So much for detailed editorial feedback being necessary to a writer’s development, or editors only buying from people they know.

Another standard way to break in is supposed to be through writing workshops. I first heard of writing workshops in 1980, after my first novel was published. I signed up for one anyway, thinking it might be educational, and was severely disappointed — I had more professional publishing credentials than anyone else there, including the instructor. The only ones I’ve attended since then, it was as an instructor.

As far as other formal training goes, I have never taken any sort of course in creative writing, or fiction writing, or whatever. The only English courses I ever took were required ones.

Family support? My parents actively tried to discourage me from writing from 1962 until 1971. Late in 1971 my father seems to have decided that if I hadn’t given up yet, maybe I could pick up a little extra money writing articles; it was his idea to try the local papers. That was the full extent of his support. When The Lure of the Basilisk was published, a couple of months before he died, he read it and informed me that it wasn’t really very good. My mother liked it better.

I never heard what two of my sisters thought of it. Jody considered it too bloody, and stopped reading my work midway through my second novel, The Seven Altars of Dûsarra (originally The City of Seven Temples; Lester changed it), when my hero lopped off an enemy’s head. She never read anything else I wrote after that, up until she died in 1986.

My sister Ruth said that for the first couple of chapters she kept thinking, “I could have written this. This sounds just like any Evans.” Then somewhere around Chapter Three it took off, and since then she’s been a fan.

I don’t believe my brother’s ever read any of my work. If he has, he’s never mentioned it.

My wife Julie was supportive of my writing up to a point; she thought it was a cool thing to do, she did read and enjoy it, and she had no idea how difficult it was to succeed as a writer. However, she also made it clear that she didn’t intend to support me forever if it didn’t work out, and in fact by March of 1979 she was clearly fed up. I quit writing and started a mail-order collectibles business. When Lester bought the novel, though, I went back to writing with Julie’s blessing.

Right up until that first novel was published, my in-laws kept asking when I was going to get a real job.

So much for writing education or an enthusiastically supportive family being necessary.

Oh, yes — agents, another supposed necessity. I knew nothing about agents when I sold my first novel. When Judy-Lynn del Rey rejected The Chromosomal Code three years and four novels later, saying it was publishable but not right for Del Rey, that was the first time I gave any thought to getting an agent. I asked Lester for advice, since he was a writer himself and had dealt with scads of agents.

He didn’t offer any advice; instead I got a letter from a guy named Russell Galen who told me that he was Lester’s agent, Lester had suggested he contact me, and that he’d like to see a sample of my work because he might be interested in representing me.

He was interested, and sold The Chromosomal Code to Avon.

Russ has been my agent ever since, pretty much. (There was a brief interruption when he left Scott Meredith and I didn’t immediately follow.)

This is why I don’t have much useful advice for people looking for agents; my experience really doesn’t serve as a model for anyone else.

To sum up: My experience doesn’t fit any of the standard advice. I had no contacts, no training, no support; I just wrote, and sent what I wrote to editors. That worked well enough to sell my first articles when I was seventeen, my first story when I was twenty-one, and my first novel when I was twenty-four.

I didn’t talk about writing. I didn’t read about writing. I didn’t workshop my writing. I didn’t know any writers, editors, or agents.

I just wrote.

That worked for me.

And I didn’t receive any help that I felt I should repay.

If I sometimes seem impatient with needy beginners, well, that’s why.

On the other hand, I do try to help out promising beginners. I have advice pages on the web; I’ve read stories for friends (and if you have to ask, you aren’t a good enough friend); I’ve taught workshops without pay. (I’ve also taught and critiqued for money, though that’s not relevant here.)

But I’m not paying anything forward. And you don’t need help.

Goodbye to the Gallery

When I sold my first novel back in 1979, I didn’t know much of anything about how publishing worked. I’d never met another published writer, unless you count being introduced to Isaac Asimov and Hal Clement as a kid, when they were talking with my father about teaching chemistry. I’d never heard of cover proofs. When I got a cover proof for The Lure of the Basilisk in the mail it was a complete surprise. I didn’t know what to make of it. It was a vaguely surreal experience, seeing my name on something resembling a book cover, and a representation of my character — neat, very neat, but very strange. That silly armor Darrell Sweet had given him didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t decide whether I liked the cover or not.

I studied that cover proof intently, and showed it to everyone I could, and then wondered, "Now what am I supposed to do with it?"

I didn’t know any other writers to ask. I didn’t have an agent. I suppose I could have asked my editor, Lester del Rey, but he was Lester del Rey, not a mere mortal I could pester with trivia.

So I did what seemed to me the obvious and logical thing to do — I framed it and hung it in my office. (Or maybe back then I called it my study; I don’t remember.)

To this day, that still seems like the obvious and logical thing to do, but I have never yet seen another writer’s home where cover proofs were framed and hung on the wall.

In September of 1980 the house was struck by lightning and my study was burned out, destroying that cover proof, but in November I got a cover proof for The Seven Altars of Dûsarra and framed that and hung it on the office wall. The cover proof for The Cyborg and the Sorcerers followed suit, and then The Sword of Bheleu, and so on.

We moved to Gaithersburg in 1986, and the cover gallery went with us and was hung on the wall of my new office. It got moved around a couple of times as I rearranged furniture, added new bookcases, and added more cover proofs, so that it didn’t fit where I’d had it before. Eventually I gave up on keeping it in my office, and moved it to the basement den, where the proofs were hung along the top of the walls — they started above the row of IKEA bookcases along the south wall, then turned a corner onto the soffit covering the main air conditioning duct, and ran the length of that. As I kept publishing, they rounded the corner onto the north wall, above the antique secretary and across the top of the door to the storeroom where I kept my comic books. They reached the corner and continued onto the east wall in the late 1990s — by this time it had become something of a ritual, framing each proof in an identical cheap metal frame (black with gold trim), backed with black construction paper. They ran over the top of the window, and were approaching the sliding door to the patio, where there wasn’t room for them to continue — I estimated there was room for one more, two if I squeezed a bit. I’d taken to buying the matching frames in bulk, and had half a dozen left, but I didn’t know where I’d be putting them.

This was just mass-market paperbacks; when I started I didn’t think I’d ever be published in any other format, and when hardcovers and trade paperback editions did come along I didn’t include those proofs in the gallery. Some dustjacket proofs did get framed and hung in the stairwell, some other proofs got hung behind the big TV, but the main gallery was just the mass-market editions.

For one thing, I didn’t always get proofs of other editions. Small presses like Wildside and FoxAcre didn’t always produce proofs, let alone send any of them to me. Even Tor didn’t always send proofs, at least not without nudging. Proofs had always been primarily a marketing tool, and by the 21st century more and more of that was being done electronically, with JPEGs, rather than actual paper or cardstock proofs.

Still, I’d maintained a complete (except for that destroyed first one) set of framed mass-market proofs in that basement gallery.

Then we moved to Takoma Park.

Here my office is in the basement — the study on the first floor is Julie’s, as it’s too small for my purposes. I have lots of room, and have been gradually getting it arranged to my liking. I put in seventeen IKEA bookcases and a big new desk, a map cabinet, and so on. Much of the stuff from the old den is also here in the basement — the elliptical trainer, the projection TV, etc.

Obviously, this is where the cover gallery would go. The idea of putting it on the soffits around the ductwork, like the west side of the old gallery, also seemed pretty obvious, as there are many such surfaces to work with here — the basement ceiling is divided into five separate sections by these things. There must be at least a hundred feet of soffit.

Julie thought it might look a little tacky, though I’m not sure why she thought so or why that would be a real concern, but she declared it to be my business, not hers — the basement, and the gallery, were both mine to do with as I pleased.

So a couple of weeks back, when I’d gotten more urgent stuff (like getting books sorted and onto shelves) done, I decided it was time to put the cover proofs up. I picked up the first one on the stack, which happened to be the Avon edition of Denner’s Wreck, and held it up to the soffit above the elliptical to see how it would look there.

It didn’t fit.

That possibility had never occurred to me, but sure enough, all these soffits are 7.5" high, and the frames are 8".

So that wasn’t going to work. I’d need to find somewhere else.

Well, most of the walls here are covered with bookcases, and there wasn’t enough space above them for the proofs. I didn’t have a lot of options, not with forty or more of these things to fit. Really, the only place that made sense was the wall right at the foot of the stairs, where I hadn’t put any bookcases because it would have been too crowded.

That wall had gotten a bit scuffed up, what with movers and workmen and so forth going through there to get up or down the stairs, or in or out of the utility room, so I didn’t tackle hanging the cover gallery immediately; I wanted to clean the wall, first.

Then we got snowbound for several days, and Julie got bored and cleaned the wall — not at my suggestion, but just because she was tired of seeing the smudges whenever she came down the stairs.

So yesterday I got out the framed proofs, and a tape measure and spirit level and hammer and picture-hook nails. I figured out how they’d be arranged, what the spacing would need to be — I could fit fifty-six, and I don’t have that many yet. I used a pencil to mark where two of them, the two at the top corners, would go. Then I stepped back, and imagined what the finished gallery would look like.

I didn’t like it.

In fact, I realized that no matter where I put it, it wouldn’t look good. There are simply too many of the damned things, and they’re too varied, to look good in a collection like that. The last time they’d been on a single wall, rather than a long line on several walls, there were only maybe a dozen and they’d mostly been Darrell Sweet covers from Del Rey; now they’re everything from Spider-Man fighting the Green Goblin to the pseudo-Celtic Ethshar reprints Wildside did. They’d just look like clutter.

Fewer and fewer publishers bother to send out cover proofs now, anyway.

So I decided that it’s time to say goodbye to the cover gallery. I won’t be putting them back up, on that wall or anywhere else. Instead I’m taking them out of their frames, and filing them away — I may put together an album, rather than hanging them in a gallery.

And Kiri wants the frames for her drawings, which means they may well be turning up at SF convention art shows. That’s probably a better use for them than hanging them here in the basement.

But there’s a certain wistfulness at the end of a thirty-year tradition.

Skating Away

Last night Julie and I had one of our rarer-than-I’d-like nights out, and went to dinner and a show.

Due to time constraints dinner was just burgers at Fuddruckers — we’d planned to do something classier, but things at the Bureau ran late and the show started at 7:00, so we made do.

The show was at the Verizon Center, and was “Kaleidoscope: Skating, Song, and Survivorship,” a cancer benefit put together by Scott Hamilton and friends. At least in theory it’s going to be a TV event, shown on Fox on Thanksgiving Day after the football game, though I didn’t see it on the schedule here. The main sponsor was Sanofi-Aventis, and there were ten cancer support organizations involved, but we mostly went because hey, it was a good show.

Our seats were nine rows back, near the stage end of the ice. Very good view.

They featured three famous cancer survivors: Hamilton, Dorothy Hamill, and Olivia Newton-John. This was Hamilton’s first skating performance in six years, but he was still good, and still did his trademark flips.

Really, everyone was good.

Newton-John only sang one song, and that was backed up with a children’s chorus (flown in from Santa Barbara), but it was nice. The other two singers on the program were Katherine McPhee and David Archuleta, who both have new albums coming out that they want to publicize, but Archuleta’s is a Christmas album, so his three songs were all traditional stuff, not his own compositions.

Archuleta has an absolutely beautiful voice; I hadn’t realized, watching him on TV, just how beautiful, as our TV’s speakers aren’t good enough to do it justice. He also looked genuinely happy to be there, and connected with the crowd more than McPhee or Newton-John; he’s very endearing in person.

As for the skating, Hamill doesn’t do a lot of jumping or other really difficult stuff these days, since she hasn’t competed in years, but she’s still performing, and still very good at it. She looked like she was having fun.

Nancy Kerrigan did a couple of performances, and while she hasn’t competed in years either, she did include difficult jumps — one of which she missed, but after the show they did a re-take for TV, so you won’t get to see her fall; the audience was invited to hang around to provide background, which we did.

Ashley Wagner and Rachael Flatt represented the younger generation of skaters, and gave splendid performances.

Ice dancers Charlie White and Meryl Davis were beautiful. Davis is a tiny little thing, and beautiful quite aside from her skating, but on the ice they’re stunning.

Johnny Weir was supposed to skate, but cancelled at the last minute, we don’t know why, and was replaced by Viktor Petrenko, who did two numbers, both of which were very slick and lots of fun — a cowboy number and a mambo. The guy’s a great showman.

I’m probably forgetting someone; it was quite a show.

Oh, David Foster (fifteen-time Grammy winner — as a producer, if you’re wondering why you don’t know the name) was the host, and played piano for a couple of the songs.

Because it was being done as a TV show there were several delays while technical stuff got squared away, and some of the introductions got repeated — in one case a skater was introduced, did her stuff, and then got announced again when they realized the first take wasn’t good. She did not skate again, though. The audience was also asked for random applause every so often, to be plugged in after pre-recorded stuff we didn’t see, and we obliged — the crowd was very enthusiastic. Not as big as we expected, actually, but loud.

All in all, we were there from 7:00 until 10:30 for a show that I believe will be ninety minutes on TV. (I don’t think the actual skating began until 8:00, but stuff was going on before that.)

It was fun.

Twenty Years After

I recently completed the first draft of Realms of Light, a sequel to Nightside City, which was originally published by Del Rey Books in 1989.

I’d started Realms of Light shortly after Nightside City was accepted; I was very enthusiastic about Nightside City, which I thought was the best thing I’d written up to that time. Unfortunately, the market was significantly less enthusiastic. I was already typecast as a fantasy author at that point, and my science fiction novels had not sold well. Del Rey was not at all interested in a sequel to a novel that hadn’t done all that well, so I shelved Realms of Light.

Except I kept pulling it back out every couple of years and looking it over and adding a paragraph here, a few pages there. And finally, in 2008, having established that it was possible to make a modest amount of money by serializing novels on the web, I decided to go ahead and write it as a serial, to be published by a small press, FoxAcre Press, which had picked up the reprint rights to Nightside City a few years back. And now it’s complete, though it still needs to be revised and edited.

So it took me twenty years to write it.

Twenty. Years.

A lot of things changed in those twenty years. Jumping back into a setting I’d created in 1986 and hadn’t seriously worked in since 1989 was a challenge.

It was not, though, that I didn’t remember it; I did. It’s that the real world had changed in ways that make some of my 24th-century setting look curiously dated.

That paragraph suggests two separate topics – did I really remember it as well as I thought? And how was it outdated?

How well I remembered it – well, let me put it this way: I didn’t bother to actually re-read Nightside City, nor the notes I used when I wrote the first novel. I remembered Epimetheus about as well as I remember, say, Boston. I did check a few details here and there, such as making sure I had the full name of the New York right, but mostly I worked from memory. Did I get it all right? I don’t really know; that’s one of the things I’ll be looking at when I write the second draft. I thought I remembered it all. I know the floor plan of Carlisle Hsing’s old office on Juarez Street, I know what the Trap looks like, I know the geophysical structure of Epimetheus.

I did catch a couple of errors when I checked myself against the original novel; I’d misremembered part of the Nakada family tree, for example. Mostly, though, it was still in my head. After all, I’d lived on Epimetheus, in Nightside City, for a few months back in 1987. (I finished writing Nightside City in November, 1987.) It was as familiar to me as other places I’d lived in, such as Pittsburgh.

I probably got some stuff wrong, but then, I’d probably make a few wrong turns trying to get around Pittsburgh after all this time. And some stuff may not be so much wrong as just different; anything that wasn’t in the first novel I was free to change, so if the version I remember isn’t exactly what I’d thought up back in the ‘80s, who cares? Who’ll ever know? I mean, a lot of it was never written down in the first place.

But then we get to the outdated stuff.

Nightside City was inspired by the cyberpunk movement. The actual style owes more to Ross Macdonald, but there are a lot of cyberpunk elements, and cyberpunk reflected the 1980s.

It’s set in a society dominated by Asians – or rather, people descended from Asians. The wealthiest families all have Japanese names, while the managerial class is a mix of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian; the white people in the novel are generally working class or worse. The cyberpunks often extrapolated a Japanese-dominated future, because in the 1980s that looked plausible – we didn’t know the economic bubble was going to burst. If I were writing it now the future would probably still be dominated by Asians, but the Japanese would be much less prominent, and I might mix in some other ethnicities. I couldn’t really change that for the sequel, though; the Nakada clan is central to the story.

Some of the computer stuff hasn’t aged all that well. In 1987 the invention of the World Wide Web was still a few years in the future, and my guesses about the future shape of the networked world – well, I did better than some authors, but some of it looks slightly quaint now. All that jacking in, and using hardwired connections rather than wireless, feels a bit off, too.

I did correctly anticipate a few things, though, even if I got the names wrong. The word “malware” didn’t exist in 1987, so far as I know, but I could see that there was going to be a need for a word like that, and coined “gritware.”

Mostly, I think it still works. I’ve had to abandon stories because the real world made them obsolete, and I never considered abandoning Realms of Light; the flaws were pretty minor, and could be explained away as the result of stuff happening in the next three centuries that we don’t expect now.

And picking it up again after twenty years should have been hard, but it wasn’t. This story’s been in my head all along. It’s changed over time – the present version is not what I’d have written in 1989 if Del Rey had asked for a sequel – but most of the changes are plot-related; it’s basically the same setting, basically the same characters.

But you know one thing I did forget? If you’re a donor and got to read the first draft, you may have noticed the dedication to Ed Bryant, who I credit with giving me the clue I needed to make the plot work.

He did. I remember that. But I don’t remember what it was. I remember him talking about a movie I haven’t seen, and that up until then I hadn’t had a viable plot for a sequel, and after listening to him it fell into place and I had a set-up and an ending. (The middle came later.)

But I don’t remember what it was he said that made it all work.

Sometimes writing fiction is a very weird business.

Moving Experiences 3

We’ve been in our new house just over a month now, and it feels like home, but there’s still a lot to do.

We reached a major milestone today, one that feels very satisfying and accomplished, even though it doesn’t make a real obvious difference in our situation — all our stuff is in the house.

Y’see, back when we were just getting started on this whole moving thing, we knew we had to reduce the clutter in our old house by a lot if we ever wanted to sell it. After twenty-two years there, we had a huge amount of stuff — kids’ old toys, extra copies of my books, odd bits of furniture, unused wedding gifts, thousands of comic books, etc. So we started sorting and stashing and tossing. We threw out or donated or sold several carloads of stuff, I sorted and filed my comic books for the first time in fifteen years, and we rented a 10’x10’x10′ storage unit at Public Storage where we started stashing stuff away.

We rented it January 6. It was completely full by the time we put the house on the market, the last week of February — oh, not every single cubic inch, but full enough that when you opened the door you were faced with a solid wall of boxes and furniture extending well above my head.

We moved into the new house on May 21. I took the rear seats out of the mini-van shortly thereafter, and on May 27 I filled the van with the first load of stuff from the storage unit and drove it down here.

Yesterday, June 25, I cleared the last boxes out of storage, took the lock, and informed Public Storage that we were out and wouldn’t be back.

Today I finished unloading the mini-van and put the seats back in for the first time since May. All our stuff is in one place again, here in this house.

That’s amazingly satisfying.

Mind you, there’s still lots to be done — there are stacks of boxes all over the place, we’re eating our meals off a folding card table, our bedroom fan is in a box on my mother’s hope chest rather than mounted on the ceiling, and so on — but everything’s here, it’s not scattered across multiple ZIP codes.

Well, “everything” meaning “everything we have,” not “everything we need” or “everything we want.”

Also, Kiri’s going to be visiting this weekend — for the first time someone besides Julie and myself will sleep here. Another milestone. And she can maybe unpack and sort through some of her stuff.

Speaking of which, I should unpack some of these boxes…