The Long and Short of It

3 November 2001

My grandpa always says that intelligent people don't get bored. Of course, Grandpa feels perfectly free to wander away from potentially boring social situations so that he's free to think about something else. That might be why. Grandpa is pretty much the king of His Own Drummer.

Anyway, I don't feel bored. I feel boring. I'm pretty engaged with what I'm doing, but in concrete terms, what am I doing? I'm hurting, and I'm typing. Whee. The typing is mostly line edits. Whee. Isn't that fascinating? Line edits. I'm almost done tinkering with books that are basically done -- The Grey Road and Reprogramming -- for the time being. I got a few more suggestions on The Grey Road from David awhile back, and some of them are nontrivial implementations. As for Reprogramming, I keep making more notes to myself. I'm going to finish off the notes I have and then leave it alone for awhile. Really. Only new books. No more edits. Until, of course, people start telling me what they think of Reprogramming. I suppose the cycle never really does end. I guess that's a good thing.

I got an e-mail whose title was, "I love this essay." And the entire body of the e-mail was the link to my Amber article on Strange Horizons. I was amused. I asked the guy where he'd found it. The response was a URL. Chatty fellow, this.

Anyway. Last night, Mark and I rejoined the world of the the outside. We went to Papillion, since we hadn't been out on a date while I was sick (and so could splurge a bit). The food was good, but the service was slow, and they gave him a year-expired beer. Not such a happy thing, year-expired beer -- it wasn't skunky, just (evidently) not good. But I got to have pumpkin soup. Yum. The last time I remember having pumpkin soup was in Maine, with my grandparents and my godfather Joe. I was twelve, and Grandma had to poke me a little to get me to try the soup. But then I ate the whole cup. Grandma and Grandpa had decided to bring me out to visit Joe, who was living in Boston at the time, in time to see the fall leaves. My family always considered travel more educational than school, and I can't think of a single instance where they were wrong. Anyway, so we drove around New England and got Grandma's and Joe's socks wet and generally had a great time. Most of our vacations before that had been with my parents, too, but we'd just moved, so they didn't have vacation time at their new jobs. I had spent the previous year enthralled with the children's sailing books of Arthur Ransome, so when I found two of them in Mystic, I was thrilled.

It upsets me when booksellers assume I mean Arthur Rackham. Different guy completely. It's like when I look for Pete Seeger and music store clerks think I mean Bob Seger. Um, no, and a "professional" should know better. Honestly.

My mom was concerned yesterday that people should know that I wasn't angry or annoyed with my grandparents for calling. I didn't say that yesterday because it seemed obvious to me. Of course I wasn't! If Grandma wants to kvetch to me about the price of cheese at 7:00 in the morning, I will listen with a happy heart. It will surprise me, though, and I will be scared until I hear what's going on that's got her upset. But of course it won't be a bother. That's just a basic level assumption here. Grandma and Grandpa are interesting and loved, period.

One of the problems, I think, was that I used the word "bitching." Evidently, to my mother, the verb and the noun are closely tied together. This is not so for me. Myself, I bitch a lot. You're allowed to say so. You're allowed to write to me and say, "So I read the Morphism where you were bitching about Midwest misconceptions, and I was thinking...." And I will not get mad at you. Write to me and say, "So I read the Morphism where you were being a bitch about..." and you will not get an answer. Period.

This isn't the first time my mother and I have had totally different concepts of a word. She became rather upset the first time she heard me refer to one of my friends as a "chick." For her, it refers back to a time where women could be called "birds" and it was implied that they were no smarter than chickens. For me, it's short for "chica" and totally affectionate. I don't think very many of my mom's girl friends at my age would have called her "chica," but it's pretty natural for many of mine. Half the time I hear from Erica (helloooo, Erica, are you still reading?), she calls me either "chica" or "bella." So the shift is a bit hard for both of us, but we both try -- I don't use these words around my mom if I remember, and she tries to remember that the associations are different for me.

It's hard to keep an online journal under my own name, in some ways, although it wouldn't work for me to use a pseudonym. As I said in my requested meta entry, I have to assume that everyone I know can read this journal, even if I don't think they do. There's a lot of obvious stuff that doesn't get covered -- any complex relationship, for example, is pretty glossed over. But then there are things I'm wary of writing about for fear I can't get the explanation right and people will mistake me in an unpleasant way.

The biggest one lately is that I'm more than a bit sensitive about Only Child Stuff. It's right up there with the Midwesterner Stuff for rants I don't want to have to do again. But if I start to talk about what's difficult about being an only, I'm afraid people will mistake the idea of a burden and the idea of a responsibility. Even when I talk about this subject with some close friends who know me well, they tend to mistake taking care of elderly relatives for paying for their medical care. No, not the issue. So how can I expect people who casually read this, not knowing me outside the journal, and who probably won't write with the feedback of their conceptions or misconceptions of what I was trying to say, to understand? If my friends don't? And yet it's something somewhat abstract that's on my mind, it looks on the surface like a good Morphism topic. I don't know. Maybe I'll give it a go one of these days.

I have a Barenaked Ladies song in my head (thankfully replacing Lisa Simpson's power plant song), but I have it in there wrong. The actual line is, "Someone somewhere has unglued our epoxy." But in my head, it's always been, "Someone somewhere has a lunar epoxy." And there's something in my brain that's saying, Psssst, self, go do a freewrite on the lunar epoxy song, there's a story in there. Which sounds a little crazy to me, because what's the market for epoxy stories? Rather small, I'd imagine. (Write to me if you think I'm wrong and you'd love to read a lunar epoxy story of mine. Seriously.) But this part of my brain often comes up with cool things on the periphery of what it thinks it's doing, so I should probably let it.

One of the other parts of my brain is busy giving toasts to random ones of my friends at awards banquets forty years from now. Do not ask me why it's doing this. It's not constant. It'll just pop up with a sentence or two along those lines, and then subside. I should probably write the stuff down, so that I don't have to think of it twice. It'd probably be harder the second time around. But I'm more inclined to do the epoxy freewrite, frankly.

Another pitiful thing my brain is doing is being jealous of people with cats. I want a dog so much that I'm now also jealous of people with cats. I don't want to say that I don't like cats. I do like cats, within the limits of my allergies. But being jealous someone who has cats when you want a dog is like being jealous of someone who has carrots when you want a potato. They're both roots, after all....

Ah well. I was reading journals, in an attempt to find more journals that I like to read, because many of the people I currently like to read aren't updating very much. And there's a kind of discussion going on among some of these people about why fantasy tends towards monstrously long volumes while SF does not. And I'm a bit baffled, because some of the arguments are pretty good for why fantasy is monstrously long, but don't at all touch why SF is not.

Jenn, for example (someone I already read), thinks that fantasy is long because it's escapism, because when you want to escape, you want to escape thoroughly. Great. But SF isn't escapism? I don't think I buy that, not as long as we're using escapism with decently positive connotations. (Michelle can send me her paper on the subject, and I can see if I like her definition, and then use it forevermore. Or have a lovely disagreement. Either way, really.)

Vera thinks that it has to do with how SF and fantasy deal with time: that SF glosses over millenia much more easily. She says, "Even with seemingly immortal fantasy characters such as Merlin, we only see a human cross-section of a lifespan. We don't see Merlin outlast a sun's evolution from orange to a red dwarf, know what I mean?" I do know what she means, but it makes me wonder what SF she's been reading. We haven't seen a lot of that in SF, either, not since Olaf Stapledon died. And the few works that feature it The Boat of a Million Years, for example, tend to be pudgier than SF that deals with more manageable time frames.

John Savage has three theories. One of them is that fantasy people are being influenced by James Joyce. Even if this didn't sound like literary posturing to me, I'd question why SF people aren't also being influenced by Joyce. And, in fact, the only really Joycean speculative series I can think of is Illuminatus, which is hard to categorize but mostly SFish, sort of. He also claims that fantasy folks are influenced by lack of visual imagination due to media saturation, so they have to use longer descriptive passages -- but again, SF people would also be influenced by media stuff, living in the same culture and all. And then he claims that SF deals with the immediate universe and takes it for granted, whereas fantasy has to build a new one. Someone I believe is called SLF agreed with him on the last.

Again, I have to wonder what SF and what fantasy they're reading. Foundation, to take a really old example, did not assume continuity with the immediate universe at all. Short book. Or in fantasy, Steve Brust's Jhereg is in a totally different universe, and it's very short. Tim Powers' Declare starts with the world as we know it in the mid-twentieth century. Huge book. On the SF side, Michael Flynn's Firestar started essentially two years ago -- "now," when he was writing it. Large book. I could go on and on, on this one. Point is, that dichotomy just doesn't wash in speculative fiction. Fantasy doesn't have to go tra-la-lally in a "vastly different" world, and SF doesn't have to start where we are just now -- and if they do, they still don't have to follow the length thing.

So. Let's look at two SF authors who are obviously comfortable writing big ol' monster books. C. J. Cherryh ended up making a trilogy out of her original Chanur concept, because it was deemed Too Long for one book. Cyteen was also packaged in three volumes rather than the one monstrosity that sits on my shelf, because it was Too Long. I don't think that would be the case now that she's proven herself. And Neal Stephenson's Zodiac and The Big U were significantly shorter than Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, which in turn were shorter than the new and fascinating bludgeoning weapon that is Cryptonomicon. Once he had proven he could sell books, they let him write them longer.

Why is there this marketing constraint? My guess is that Tolkien Got Away With It. Because longer SF novels have been selling more and more now. It just took the publishers awhile to realize that it worked that way in SF, that people were allowed to tell big stories with very many words. I would bet that the dichotomy would be somewhat smaller in another ten years, and again in twenty. There's a certain upper bound to how large a paperback can be, so I don't think the longest fantasy can continue to increase at its current rates. But I think SF can. It'll catch up.

My other theory is that the dominant idea in fantasy is that you have to present a world-shaking experience and show the entire world being shook, whereas in SF you're "supposed" to look at the effects of change on a handful of people. I'm not sure how much this will affect the length of books, though, since you can tell a long story about one person or a short one about a world. We'll have to see.

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