Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories, by R. J. Astruc

Signs Over the Pacific and Other Stories, review copy provided by Upper Rubber Boot Books.

Some years ago I read an interview with an author–I wish I remembered who it was–wherein the interviewer asked, “What question do you get asked most about your books?”, and the answer, repeated frequently by the author’s mother, was, “Why don’t you write about nice people?” I don’t know Astruc’s mother, so I don’t know if she’s prone to asking that sort of question, but she certainly could. There are zero teddy bears having zero picnics in this book, and in fact I am now a little frightened that Astruc will see this comment and write a story about a teddy bear picnic of betrayal, greed, and casual experimentation on live subjects.

But apparently, much to everyone’s surprise, I am not greatly attached to niceness. I read every story in this collection, not skimming or skipping any of them, which is way above average for a short story collection and even farther above average for a short story collection I didn’t seek out because of great familiarity with the author’s work. What Astruc has done here is to create a future setting that feels internally coherent, and that feels like it stretches further. Each piece adds to the whole rather than clashing. Rather than an antiseptic view of freshly evolved artificial life, Astruc starts out giving us silicon red in tooth and claw–and then it becomes clear with each story (human or AI-focused) that the type of intelligence that has evolved fits perfectly with the rest of the milieu. Some of the stories were very short, hardly more than vignettes, and others took more time to explore and establish the setting and characters.

These stories won’t be to everyone’s taste; nothing is. But they’re very well-handled and doing something that will probably appeal to people who wanted to like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, whether they found that work successful or not.

Spherical cow generation ships of 7-11

One of the key skills of a physics major that applies quite usefully to writing is analogy. The other day one of my Facebook friends asked a question from her daughter: what happens to pressurized containers in hard vacuum? And one of the keys to answering this question is recognizing the breadth of what “pressurized container” means. Within the kid’s experience, it has probably been used to mean things like soda cans. But from a physics perspective, it means soda cans, it means spaceships, it means the human body, it means a highly variable set of stuff. And we’ve stuck some of that stuff in space, and so we have the ability to talk about what happened and why, and draw analogous conclusions from there.

When you’re a kid, it’s sometimes hard to see which aspects of an analogy will be important and which will not, because you don’t have as much experience–with physics or with social situations or whatever else is up for discussion. My parents are still shaking their heads over the time in my early childhood that I was pining to go into a 7-11. I’d seen them in movies (oh, the Eighties!), but I’d never been in one, and I wanted to go. As adults, my parents had the cultural background to see that a 7-11 in Sioux Falls, SD, where we were visiting my Gran at the time, would be pretty much exactly the same as any other convenience store or kwik-e-mart in Sioux Falls, SD–that any differences would likely be regional, not brand-related (and even those would be pretty minimal). But I yearned. I was filled with curiosity. So Grandma, ever indulgent, took me in and bought me a Cadbury Crème Egg and let me see that the analogies held, the things I could expect of a Casey’s General Store, I could also expect of a 7-11.

One of the ongoing physics jokes is the spherical cow of uniform density, but that’s one of the things a physics major teaches you: when it’s okay to do that and when it’s just not going to work and what you need is a point cow of neutral charge instead. Once my aunt got a nerd test to give me, and when I was laughing ruefully at the spherical cow, my cousin asked what the joke was. My aunt said, “Because they’ve been in the lab so long, they’ve forgotten what a cow looks like.” And I stared at her, and I tried to be nice about it, but no. No. There is a foible to mock here, but it’s not that one. It’s the tendency to push an analogy farther than it will go. A cow, we think, is “sort of like” a sphere. Well, okay; sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

One of the things that is most likely to make me bounce off a book can be conceived of as a failure to draw analogies–either in the spherical cow case or in its opposite. The fiction equivalent of the spherical cow comes up when the author doesn’t know much about an area and wants to tell you that something they have come up with will work “just as well,” and you know more about it, and it won’t. The opposite–well, this came up in a discussion at one of my favorite conventions, when the panelists were talking about generation ships. Generation ships, the panel nearly unanimously agreed, would be so very unfair because what if you were born into one and couldn’t do the job you really wanted because there was not room for you in it, and you had to do a job you didn’t like as much instead? How horrible this would be! How unbearable, and how completely incapable of forming a long-term functional society! Because people would be doing hard jobs they didn’t love! And I let them talk as long as I politely could and then put my hand up and said, “You mean like now? You mean like here?” Because seriously. That is the status quo. And if you’re talking about writing dystopias, “It will be a horrible dystopia the like of which the world has not seen since Tuesday!” is somehow less compelling. If you’re going to use something we already have as the main element that makes something dystopic, for heaven’s sake do so with malice aforethought.

Sometimes it’s our job to push a metaphor too far, to see what’s interesting about the ways in which it doesn’t fit–or the ways in which it unexpectedly does. But it’s always on us to make it clear what the hell we’re talking about, to convince the reader that we have not made a spherical cow, nor have we failed to notice that some of the cows are already spheres.

Handbook for Dragon Slayers, by Merrie Haskell

Review copy provided by author. Further disclaimer: Mer and I are friends and have critiqued each other’s work in the past, although I had nothing to do with this one. (It came out really well without me!)

I’m not sure where to start on the stuff I like about this book. (I don’t think there was stuff I didn’t like about this book, so that’s easy enough.) There’s the setting: for all that “generi-Europe” is more closely Germany-France-England than anywhere else, it’s not really anywhere very well grounded, whereas Handbook is actually set on the Rhine River, with cultural and geographic specificity abounding (but not overwhelming a book of this length). There’s the main character, with her very well-conceived disability being part but not even remotely all of who she is. There’s the supporting cast, including a character who would be the main character of just about any other fantasy novel but shines in a supporting role. There’s the interweaving of folk and fairy tale influences, some just around the edges and some right up front and center.

What I’m trying to say here is this book: it is full of good stuff. And you might not learn all that much about slaying dragons from it, but there is enough other stuff with horses and inks and like that, it will balance out. (And there are dragons! But. Well. Just go find out yourself.)

Not just a test post! Now with content!

I wanted to see if my new WordPress blog on my own website would crosspost to my lj, but that’s not really a good enough reason for a post.  But now!  Now I can tell you about Tim’s War for the Oaks photo project!  Which is full of photo projecty goodness, and anybody in the Twin Cities who wants to come and read War for the Oaks in a photo on Saturday should check the details at the link.  And you should check the details at the link anyway, because there are non-Saturday opportunities and also interesting photos.

Crossposting should not be difficult, but I am not having a day of much brain, so we’ll see.

Once upon a time

Once upon a time, before the days of LiveJournal, Facebook, and Twitter, I kept a blog on my very own website.  I hand-coded the entries.  I could still do that, but…yeah, who are we kidding, there is no reason for me to do that.  I could butcher my own bison, too.  My best-aunt is supposed to bring me the heirloom butchering knife from when the ancestors lived in a logging camp and barely spoke English.  From her gestures I would guess it would be two to three feet long.

I digress.  Well.  I pretty much always digress.  Most of the people who are likely read this any time soon are used to it.

So once upon a time, I kept a blog, and then there was LJ, and gosh, that was so convenient.  So many friends there!  So much conversation!  There was an outage once for several days, and we all kind of panicked!  Whatever would we do without LJ?

I kind of think we’re finding out.  This is one of those bang vs. whimper things.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to mirror these posts to my lj.  I’m still going to read my lj.  But the conversation there has not been what it was for quite some time, and it doesn’t work to use a particular tool to “keep up with” people if you don’t actually…keep up with people with it.  So the idea is that I will aim at posting a couple of times a week and see how that goes.  Sometimes having something on a set schedule means I do it less and sometimes more, but it means that I spend less unproductive time on worrying about whether I am doing it or not.  So that’s the goal here.

Also, y’know.  A place for my blather about writing and books and cool stuff I’m enjoying and whatever else.  That can’t be bad, right?  Okay, it could be.  But it probably isn’t.