Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Distinctly Familiar!

Didn't it used to be conventional wisdom that you don't release books in July or August, because everybody's going on vacation and not reading? Doesn't seem to be the case with indie publications, for which I am everlastingly grateful. First Pam Uphoff and now Alma Boykin have substantially improved these long hot summer afternoons with the kind of light reading I like best.
Distinctly Familiar is Boykin's sixth entry in the Familiar series - and by the way, a tip of my hat to her in the stroke of genius that has supplied her with so many excellent titles since the first in the series, Familiar Tales. She hooked me with one line in that first collection: "After the third water-shifting class got nearly eaten by Monsters from the Unseen Depths, the publisher finally issued corrections." And the winning blend of folklore, intriguing characters, and a slightly but beautifully skewed version on the modern world has continued unbroken through the present volume - at least as far as I've gotten with it! This collection starts with an eerie view of magic on the North Sea that's reminiscent of Theodor Storm, continues with a solidly built antique sewing machine (no plastic here!) that may or may not be haunted, and... well, read it for yourself. Enjoy! Meanwhile, having frivoled away the morning, I shall get back to introducing the blend of mismatched lovers and misunderstood magic in the sequel to Salt Magic. I'm saving the last "Familiar" story to read as a reward for pushing my own story another couple of thousand words down the road.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Why we can't discuss politics like sensible people

This is an excerpt from recent correspondence with a friend whom I had previously thought of as a reasonable liberal -- someone with whom I could disagree and discuss our differences reasonably. I now believe I was dead wrong about that. I'm not about to violate her privacy or bore you with the entire text of our rather lengthy email interchange, so you're free to decide that this excerpt is "deceptively edited" to make her look bad because, you know, I'm a racist just like Trump.

She: "There is plenty of evidence that Trump is a racist!"
Me: "Oh? What's the evidence?"
She: “This "prove it!" thing seems to come from a place of confrontation rather than one of trying to understand the other.”

Game, set, match. I do not enter into debate with people who hold themselves free from citing evidence they've just claimed exists, nor with people who respond to a civil question by impugning my motives. "I don't have to answer that because you're just being nasty," sounds to me like the ultimate Get out of Debate Free card. I won't play that game.

You know, I don't mind if somebody says, "The totality of Trump's actions and statements leave me with the impression that he's a racist, but I'm not going to try to make a case to prove that."

That leaves an opening for a reasonable response like, "OK, that's not the impression I have, but you're entitled to your own opinions."

This "evidence" thing goes beyond that, though. It jumps from a legitimate "this is my impression" into the territory of "This is objectively true and provable so you have to accept it!"

Isn't there a phrase for that? Something like, oh, help me out here... Jumping the shark?

Monday, July 22, 2019

Crazy lady with a cannon

Okay, enough about other people and events, it's time for me me me! Or in less egotistical words, here's another snippet from The Language of the Dragon. Do I have to remind you to get it now, while it's only 99 cents?


I dried off, slipped into a long cool nightgown of super-thin white lawn and wrapped a towel around my hair. Sat down on the bed to give some serious attention to my fingernails…
… And heard a clunking sound from the bathroom I’d just vacated.
Oh, well. It was probably Cath Palug, expressing his dissatisfaction at having been left with only Laura to take care of him for a week. He’d knock a certain number of things off flat surfaces before condescending to knead my chest and purr.
A louder clunk was followed by a string of curses.
I froze, and all the little hairs on my arms stood up. The week before leaving for the beach, I’d chased a daytime burglar out of the house. Had he come back to try his luck at night? It certainly wasn’t possible to write the voice off as the doings of a disgruntled cat-monster. Nor was it my absconding tenant come back without warning. His voice had been higher, and his English not so smooth. Whoever was cursing was clearly fluent in English. Certain kinds of English, anyway.
I reached into my bag and retrieved my cell phone, held it up in front of my face and waited for my new app to unlock the phone.
No dice. It didn’t recognize me with a towel wrapped around my wet hair. I knew I shouldn’t have let Blossom talk me into installing that oh-so-convenient facial recognition app. She’d pointed out how it would save me the trouble of typing a passcode every time I used the phone. And I’m such a sucker for saving trouble, I actually took the advice of a girl called Blossom with a twin sister named Floss.
Setting the phone down, I reached down between the mattress and the box spring where I’d just stashed my other favored accessory. The one I started keeping handy after I decided that no one was ever going to invade my space again. I tiptoed to the bathroom door, threw it open and took a two-handed shooting stance. “Hands up and behind your head!” I shouted.
A white-faced stranger straightened up from the sink, banged his head on the open door of the medicine cabinet, raised his hands and slowly backed away from me.
Well, so much for the faint hope that it had only been Craig, seriously overstepping his bounds and earning a well-deserved shock. I’d never seen this man before.
He was young, well, about my age anyway. Average height, dark hair, blue eyes, jaw nearly blue with what looked like permanent five o’clock shadow. Might have been good-looking if he hadn’t been white and shaking. Not that I minded. Terrified was, in my view, a very good look on men who sneaked into my house in the middle of the night.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” I demanded.
“Lady, I don’t know what you think you’re—”
“I’m asking the questions here!” I interrupted with a little twitch of my Smith and Wesson .38 Special to emphasize the situation.
“Look, lady, I paid for my room, and if there’s some kind of house rule about not using the bathroom that opens right out of my bedroom, somebody should have mentioned it, okay? And do you have to keep pointing that thing at my face?”
I lowered the gun until it was pointing at his legs. “You paid?”
“First and last month’s rent and deposit. And who the fuck are you, anyway, crazy lady? Does the landlady know you run around threatening the other tenants with that baby cannon?”
“You know the landlady?”
“Nice lady. Georgia Brown. She—”
I lowered the gun even more, to point at the floor. My breathing was just beginning to get back to normal. “No, she was just the rental agent. I’m your landlady – Sienna Brown, her niece. This is my house.”
“Yeah? I bet you get a rapid turnover in lodgers if you greet them all by shoving a gun in their faces. Crazy lady.”
“You startled me. I’ve been out of town. I didn’t know the room had been rented.”
“Well, I’ll be very careful not to startle you again,” he said.

Friday, July 19, 2019

That small step... half a century later

It happened in July.
I didn't see it at the time; I was living in Mombasa. We did not get American television. (Yes, Virginia, there was life before Youtube.)
But eventually the video made its way to a Mombasa movie theatre, and I grabbed one of my Swahili friends and headed to the theatre to watch what would prove to be the greatest show of my life. I don't remember, half a century on, whether we got to see a full-length video or (what was more likely) selected clips crammed into a newsreel-length feature. I just remember two moments clearly: the thrill of seeing a man step onto the surface of the moon... and my friend's reaction.
She was snoring gently.
For Amina, real people on the moon were no match for her preferred fare of Bollywood actors cavorting against a painted backdrop of Alpine scenery. And why should they be? She didn't believe the moon landing was any more real than Shashi Kapoor almost kissing his latest costar, and it wasn't anywhere near as colorful.
And even for me, it's receding into the past. There are now very few people I know who for whom that day is anything more than a childhood memory, if even that.
Sometimes the future seems like a very lonely country.

Tales from the Multiverse!

It's always a good morning when I wake to the knowledge of having downloaded a new book I want to read. Well, new-ish. I'm not sure how I missed the March release of Pam Uphoff's Tales from the Multiverse, but I'll catch up today. It's billed as a collection of short stories, and I'm not normally a fan of short stories, but I'll make an exception for a Wine of the Gods collection... especially as I've already peeked. Can't resist a setup that has Xen Wolfson under cover as an aging wino!

Cover artist Cedar Sanderson and I are still doing the Elephant Waltz with KDP over the paperback edition of The Language of the Dragon, and I'll be back with a snippet or two later. But for today, I have something new to read!

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Language of the Dragon - introductory offer

Can a book be on sale if this is the first publication, so that there's no previous price for comparison? Semantics! I'm releasing The Language of the Dragon today and it's going to be 99 cents for a while -- at least until the second Dragon Speech book is available - after which I'll bump it back up to my usual price for light fantasy novels. I'm calling that a sale.
(At the same time I've raised the price of A Pocketful of Stars back to $3.99. I'll put it on sale again for brief periods connected with promotions. The main reason I'm raising the price is that it's not eligible for a lot of promotions unless I temporarily drop the price again.)
Marketing makes my head hurt.
Writing is much more fun, and the prospect of people reading what I've written is even better. (And do NOT point out that there's a connection between marketing and readers. Anyway, the inept way I do it, I'm not sure there is any connection.)
I'm excited about releasing this book, the first of the Dragon Speech series, in which I hope to do to linguistics what I did to pure mathematics in the Applied Topology books. Hmm. I shall probably never dare step on a university campus again... Anyway, here's an excerpt from Language of the Dragon:

At night, after the communal meal, Teller would sit at his flimsy desk and replay his day’s collection of language notes, scribbling as he did so in the narrow ledger with the stained green cover. Koshan contrived to get a glimpse of the writing but was left no wiser than before: it was some kind of spiky script that he couldn’t begin to read.
A spiky script for a stony language?
One day a villager interrupted their preparation of dinner to say that the professor wanted an interpreter. Koshan followed the man and found Teller pestering Rukshana. That was odd; Rukshana was one of the few people in the village who’d been sent to Tireza every summer to attend the seasonal school there. The school didn’t teach German, but if anybody knew enough English to communicate with Professor Teller, she should.
He had the feeling she didn’t want to communicate with Teller. He told Koshan that he needed to know exactly what she had said just before something or other had happened.
“Nothing happened! The wool is clean now, that is all,” she snapped. She put aside the sieve on which she’d rested a bundle of wool while tweaking the horsehair string tied across the sieve to beat dust out of the bundle.
“But she barely touched it,” Teller complained.
Koshan took a pinch of the wool between finger and thumb, raised it and blew on the fibers. “If you can get all the dust and dirt out so quickly, Rukshana, you should clean the wool for the whole village!”
“The old man is mistaken,” she told him, flushing. “I had to work a long time to clean this much!”
“Nein! She did not,” said Teller.
“And now,” Rukshana said, “I must begin cleaning another batch.” She put the clean wool in a large bowl, pulled dirty wool out of the sack beside her and arranged it on the sieve, under the taut horsehair string.
“And then she said, ‘Djnd vlaad dzlaamk!’” It was Teller who voiced the grating words.
Dust and loose dirt cascaded from the sieve, and Rukhshana’s fingers were only just raised to pluck the string. White-faced, she turned to the professor, and then to Koshan. “I did not say it,” she cried out. “I never said it, I do not know where he learned it! I never used it to clean the wool – well, only a little, little bit, and my fingers are so sore!” Tearful, she exhibited pink fingertips to Koshan. “Please do not tell anyone!”
“Do not tell them what?”
“That I used the language of the dragon to clean my wool.”

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Across the rooftops of Blois

Back in the ancient times when recorded books were a novelty and a luxury, I used to be a volunteer reader for Recordings for the Blind. They had planned to use me on math textbooks but when they discovered that I could actually pronounce French and German titles in footnotes and bibliographies, and could even sound confident about it, I got pulled around all over the office to pinch-hit for the monolingual readers who had been suffering and spelling out all those funny foreign words in the fine print. They actually gave me way too much credit. I could make a stab at Italian or Dutch names, but when someone shoved a reference to a Polish book at me, I balked. "I don't have the faintest idea how to read Polish. You'll just have to spell it."
"We will," the reader said, "but please... if you could just say it too... You sound so nice and confident when you speak foreign languages!"
Ah, yes. Nothing like a smattering of half a dozen languages and an apprenticeship at my grandfather's poker games to develop that bluffing ability.
It was with echoes of those days of linguistic scrambling that I put aside Dr. Thorne and turned to the second of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series, Queens' Play, wondering with some sympathy how the reader was going to deal with the plethora of French names and phrases in that book. (Yes, I'm still feeling sufficiently under the weather to spend a lot of time lying down and listening to audiobooks. And from motives of economy, I'm drawn to books that are either free or very long.)
Now, partway through -- I just finished the chase across the rooftops of Blois last night -- I'm wondering more about some surprising pronunciations. About, oh, eighty percent of the French sounds just fine to me, but the other twenty percent grates on my ear and interferes with the project of listening until I fall asleep.
It could be that English conventions for pronouncing sixteenth-century French names are different from American ones (I've certainly been tempted to accuse the reader of speaking the French of Stratford atte Bowe), or it could be that everybody knows these names were pronounced differently in the sixteenth century and the reader is just being nit-pickingly precise. But I doubt both these explanations.
The spelling of Aubigny and Enghien support a palatalized pronunciation that must surely have occurred earlier rather than only coming into use later -- I mean, one could argue that in modern French one says AU-BI-NEE and that the pronunciation AU-BI-NYEE is old-fashioned. But I just checked online pronunciation guides for these names and the palatalization is clearly still there.
As for the French version of hide-and-seek, I utterly abominate and repudiate the suggestion that cache-cache should be pronounced CASH-AY CASH-AY.
My best guess is that there are simply too damned many French names and phrases in the book, that whatever the reader was paid wasn't enough to make it worth while looking up every single one, that he counted on a general understanding of French pronunciation and it occasionally failed him. Heaven knows, after the way I blithely sailed through Russian and Swedish footnotes back in the day, I don't have much room to be critical. I do wonder, though. Is the occasional stumble par for the course with audiobooks? Or is it just that this particular book is so demanding of the reader?
And if the same guy records the subsequent books in the Lymond series, how is he going to manage when our hero goes to Malta? Istanbul? Moscow?

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Happy Saba Saba Day!

Two years living in Mombasa. Kenya's Independence Day is December 12, Tanzania's is December 9, and both those anniversaries have faded from my memory. But the day I always remember is this one -- July 7 -- 7/7 -- or Saba/Saba in Swahili. When I looked it up just now, all it really commemorates is the founding of the country's main political party, TANU. Strange -- in my cynical old age, I don't think of the founding of political parties as anything to celebrate! But I still remember Saba Saba Day celebrations in both Kenya and Tanzania. Did they make more a fuss about 7/7 than about 12/9 or 12/12? Or... is it simply the euphonious date I recall?

Friday, July 5, 2019

Ten Science Fiction Stories

I know, I know. The listicle format requires something more dramatic, like “Ten Science Fiction Stories Everybody Should Read.” Well, I do think anybody who’s interested in science fiction should be familiar with these ten stories, but this is hardly an exhaustive list. A more accurate title might be, “Ten Science Fiction Stories that Made an Indelible Impression on Me When I Discovered the Genre.” Because when I sorted these stories by publication date, I discovered that they’re all old. Really, really old.

Like me.

You’ve probably heard that the golden age of science fiction is thirteen. Some truth in that, certainly for me.
In 1959, when I was eleven, we moved to Georgia and spent some time living with colleagues of my father’s until my parents could rent a house of their own. These sweet people had a summerhouse in the back yard which their son had filled with pulp science fiction magazines before he left home; I discovered that hoard, spent most of our visit to the Huffs trying to read my way through the entire collection, and continued for a number of years doing my best to read all the science fiction and fantasy that was published each year – not an insanely impossible project at that time, but subject to some natural limitations based on my allowance and the public library’s very small budget for weird stuff.
This isn’t an exhaustive list even of the stories I remember even from that period of my life, not to speak of all the excellent work that was yet to come; something at the back of my head is grumbling, “You left out Shambleau! And you didn’t include even one of Bob Shaw’s ‘Slow Glass’ stories! And what about Connie Willis, and ‘James Tiptree,’ and Ursula LeGuin, and…”
Yeah, yeah. Given another month of browsing my memories, and this would probably be a list of a hundred science fiction stories. Aren’t you glad I decided to quit before then? So here’s a list of ten stories I think of as saying something intrinsic to the field, and in most cases, saying it so well that it’s hardly possible to improve upon them.
One good thing about these old and much-anthologized stories; I was able to find all of them online. So if any of these are unfamiliar to you, and you find them a little bit interesting, you can read them with one click!

Who Goes There? John W. Campbell, 1938. (Written under the pseudonym Don Stuart.) I’m not sure about this one; I did read it during that golden summer, but the 1982 movie made more of an impression on me than the actual story. But I’m including it because I don’t think the dilemma of identifying a shape-shifting alien has ever been better dramatized.­ It's got to imitate us - it's got to be one of us - that's the only way it can fly an airplane - fly a plane for two hours, and rule ­- be ­ - all Earth's inhabitants. A world for the taking - if it imitates us.

The Green Hills of Earth Robert A. Heinlein, 1947. You could probably stage a marathon food fight among Heinlein fans arguing about which was his best short story. This is my favorite, possibly for Rhys' songs rather than for the plot. We pray for one last landing/On the globe that gave us birth./Let us rest our eyes on the fleecy skies/And the cool, green hills of Earth.

To Serve Man Damon Knight, 1950. Like a number of stories in my list, it was the basis for a Twilight Zone episode. It’s a cookbook!

The Nine Billion Names of God Arthur C. Clarke, 1953. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

It's a Good Life Jerome Bixby, 1953. Probably better known from the Twilight Zone episode. Cornfields will never look the same to you again. Everything had to be good. Had to be fine just as it was, even if it wasn't. Always. Because any changes might be worse. So terribly much worse.

The Cold EquationsTom Godwin, 1954. Sometimes criticized because “it’s lousy engineering” to build systems with so little margin for error that the tragic ending is necessary. I've even read that the editor kept sending the story back as the author kept finding ways to save the girl, because the tragedy was what made the story. But since 1954 we've seen a lot of disasters and near-disasters in our actual space program, from Apollo 13 to Challenger. And so I find the story even more credible now than when I first read it. You know you have a limited supply of fuel; you also know the law as well as I do.

All Summer in a Day Ray Bradbury, 1954. Picking just one gem from Bradbury’s oeuvre is all but impossible. But this story is the one that’s engraved on my heart. Margot stood apart from them, from these children who could never remember a time when there wasn't rain and rain and rain.

Or All the Seas with Oysters Avram Davidson, 1958. Why are there never any safety pins? Or, the life cycle of the coat hanger.

Harrison Bergeron Kurt Vonnegut, 1961. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren't really very good-no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. The quest for equality leads to the bed of Procrustes.

The Ballad of Lost C'Mell Cordwainer Smith (aka Paul Linebarger), 1962. There’s no way I’m going to do a “Best 10” collection without one of Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality stories. I was torn between this one and “When the People Fell.”
She got the which of the what-she-did,
Hid the bell with a blot, she did,
But she fell in love with a hominid.
Where is the which of the what-she-did?

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