Thursday, May 31, 2012

Still a native of science fiction

From: Anonymous

I'm delighted to hear [that I will be co-Guest of Honour at Westercon 66], it would be interesting. But I'm puzzled. You haven't written sci fi in years, and in your writings you have mentioned not reading sci fi since your mid 30's. So I'm wondering why you would be interested in this at this point in your career?
I no longer subscribe to genre magazines, it's true. I no longer troll the sf section at University Bookstore. But I do still read the occasional short sf online, and when a friend writes a novel, I read that. Also, I get sent a lot of books--anthologies, collections, novellas and novels--to read for blurbs. So, yeah, I still read science fiction and fantasy.

I still write it, too. My most recent short fiction, published a couple of years ago, was a Hugo and Locus Award nominee, and was reprinted in several Year's Best anthologies.

I also write about it quite a lot. See "Taking the Russ Pledge". See my 3-part interview with Brit Mandelo. See my contribution to Science Fiction Studies' symposium on sexuality in science fiction.

So although my most recent work isn't sf, I am, to paraphrase William Gibson, still a native of science fiction, and though I'm not longer a resident, I do go back to the Auld Country from time to time.

A few years ago I wrote an essay that sums up how I feel about the genre:

Identity and SF: Story as Science and Fiction

Scientific theory and fiction are both narrative, stories we tell to make sense of the world. Whether we're talking equation or plot, the story is orderly and elegant and leads to a definite conclusion. Both can be terribly exciting. Both can change our lives.

I was nine was I realised I wanted to be a white-coated scientist who saved the world. I was nine when I read my first science fiction novel. I don't think this is a coincidence, though it took me a long time to understand that.

For one thing, I had no idea that the book I'd just read, The Colors of Space, an American paperback, was science fiction. I had no idea that people divided books into something called genres. In my world, there were two kinds of books: ones I could reach on the library shelves, and ones I couldn't. My reading was utterly indiscriminate. For example, another book I read at nine was Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, dragged home volume by volume. But my hands-down favourite at that time wasn't a library book, it was an encyclopaedia sampler.

When my parents were first married, my father, to make ends meet (they had five children in rapid succession), sold encyclopaediae door-to-door at the weekends. Long after he'd stopped having to do that, he kept the sampler. I loved that book. Bound in black leather, it had gold-edged pages and the most fabulous articles and illustrations--artists' impressions of the moon or Mars or a black hole. It was state-of-the-art 1950s, samples of articles on everything from pastry to particle physics. I would read that book on Saturday mornings, lying on my stomach on my bedroom carpet. Those pages were my Aladdin's Cave. I read entirely at random. Looking back, probably the thing that hooked me irrevocably was that almost every article was incomplete: they finished mid-paragraph, often mid-sentence. I knew, reading that black sampler, that there was more, that the story always continued, out there somewhere, in the big wide world.

One Saturday morning when I was nine, I read the most gobsmacking thing of my life: everything in the world was built of something called atoms. They were tiny and invisible and made mainly of nothing. If you could crush all the nothing out of the Empire State Building, it would be the size of a cherry pit but weigh...well, whatever the empire state building weighs. I clapped the book shut, astonished, leapt to my feet and thundered downstairs. In the kitchen, where my mother was cooking a big fried breakfast for seven, I announced my incredible discovery. She said, "How interesting. Pass the eggs." I blinked. "But Mum! Atoms! The Empire State Building! A cherry pit!" And she said, again (probably with a bit of an edge), "Yes. Very interesting. Pass the eggs." So I passed the eggs, and wondered briefly if my mother might be an alien. (Unlike many of my other friends it never occurred to me to wonder if I might be adopted: too many sisters with features just like mine. Understanding of some of the laws of genetics was inescapable.)

I spent the rest of that weekend in a daze, resting my hand on the yellow formica of the kitchen table while everyone ate their bacon and eggs, wondering why my hand didn't melt into the table. They were both mainly nothing, after all. What else in the world wasn't what it seemed? What other wonders were waiting for me to stumble over them?

About a month later, I was helping my mother clean the local church hall where she ran a nursery school during the week, and under a bench I found a book with a lurid red and yellow cover: The Colors of Space. (Until two weeks ago, I didn't know the author was Marion Zimmer Bradley. I could easily have found out anytime in the last few years, but I didn't. Not checking on memory is one of my superstitious behaviours. I also don't take photos of special occasions or keep a journal. I don't like freezing things in place. I prefer fluidity, possibility. However, before I sat down to write this essay, I went to, looked up the book, and ordered it. When it arrived, I was delighted by the lurid red and yellow cover, then amused when I realised it explained something that puzzled my friends a dozen years ago. My first novel,Ammonite, was published in 1993. The first edition had a truly cheesy red and yellow cover with a spaceship front and centre. No one could understand why I wasn't upset but, clearly, I was drawing fond associations with my nine year-old self, remembering another ugly paperback. When I've finished writing this, I'll re-read it...)

I don't remember a thing about the story or the characters, only that it was about aliens (aha, I thought, imagining my mum) and the discovery of a new colour. That night, lying in bed, I nearly burst my brain trying to imagine a new colour, just as in my teens I would drive myself to the brink of insanity (not so hard, really, when a teenager) trying to imagine infinity.

At some point we moved to a new house--we were always moving--and the black leather encyclopaedia sampler disappeared. By this time I had discovered Asimov and Frank Herbert and a collection of '50s SF anthologies with introductions that banged on the SF drum and introduced me to the notion of genre. I was hooked. Through these stories, far more than through any school lessons, science came alive for me: surface tension (Blish's "Surface Tension"), ecology (Herbert's Dune), multi-dimensions (Heinlein's "And He Built a Crooked House"), politics (just about anything by Asimov). Science became my religion. I stopped day-dreaming about taking gold in the Olympics and started thinking about changing the world. I didn't fret over minor details such as which discipline to choose--who cared whether it was physics or chemistry or maths or biology that ended up saving humanity?

That was the beauty of being twelve, and then thirteen. I didn't have to deal with reality. I didn't have to ignore with scorn the messy inexactness of zoology in order to devote myself to the purity of maths or to the measurability of chemistry. Watching a bird, considering Newton's laws, learning about the tides of history seemed equally important. I wanted it all. The world sparkled. Einstein's photoelectric effect, a spoof proving one equals two, Popper's swans and Pavlov's dogs: I fell in love with each in turn, depending on what class I was in. (Funnily enough, I never much liked any of my science teachers; they never liked me, either.) I tried on future identities: discovering an anti-grav drive; feeding all those starving children in fly-buzzed parts of the world; finally pinpointing the location of Atlantis.

At the same time, I was busy being a teenager. I tried on here-and-now identities: short hair or long? Hippie or punk? Beat poet in black or sweet-faced thing in pastels? Judas Priest or David Bowie? Monty Python or Star Trek?

An American SF editor, David Hartwell, has said that the golden age of SF is twelve. He has a point. The essence of being twelve, and of science fiction, is potential. They are both all about hopes and dreams and possibilities, intense curiosity aroused by the knowledge that there's so much out there yet to be known. As we get older and do fewer things and fewer things for the first time, that sense of potential diminishes. The open door starts to close--just like the anterior fontanelle of an infant's skull.

Reading good fiction, particularly good SF, keeps the adolescent sense of possibility jacked wide open. A sense of possibility maintains plasticity, it keeps us able to see what's out there. Without this sense of possibility, we see only what we expect.

Someone who runs on the same beach at dawn every day for two years gets used to certain things: being alone, the hiss and suck of the waves, the boulder that juts from the rock pool at the point where she leaps the rill, the cry of the gulls, the smell of seaweed, all in tones of grey and blue. So there you are one morning, running along, cruising on autopilot, using the non-slippery part of the boulder to give you a boost as you jump over the rill, listening unconsciously to the gulls squabbling over something at the water line. You're thinking about breakfast, or the sex you had last night; you're humming that music everyone's been listening to the last week; you're wrestling with some knotty problem for which you have the glimmerings of a solution. There's a dead body on the beach. You run right past it: you literally don't see it.

It's counterintuitive, but it happens all the time: the white-faced driver staring at the tricycle crushed under his front wheel, "I just didn't see him, officer." The microbiologist who skips past the Petri dish in a batch of sixty cultures with that curiously empty ring, that lack of growth, in the centre. The homeowner who returns to his condo and doesn't see the broken window, the muddy footprints leading to the closet and the suitcase full of valuables lying open on the bed. Every day, during our various routines, the movie of what we expect plays on the back of our eyelids while our brain goes on holiday. How many times do we got out of the car at the office and realise we don't remember a thing about the journey?

Reading SF, the over-riding value of which is the new, keeps our reticular activating systems primed: we expect everything and anything. And if we expect, we can see. If we see, we try find an explanation. We form a hypothesis. We test it. We learn. We tell a story.

A science fiction story not only excites us about the world, it excites us about ourselves, how we fit within the systems that govern our universe, and excites us, paradoxically, about our potential to change the world. The best SF is, in a sense, about love: loving the world and our place within it so much that we make the effort to make a difference. But science fiction changes more than the world, more than our place in the world, it changes us. Science fiction has changed the discourse on what it means to be human. It introduced us to the notion that the nature of body and mind are mutable through tall tales of human cloning, prosthetics, genetic engineering. What would people look like today without prosthetics (contact lenses, artificial hips and knees, pacemakers and stents, dentures), cosmetic surgery, gene therapy? The more we change our story of ourselves, the more we change.

Which brings me full circle to the idea of fixing memory. I don't like taking photographs or keeping a journal because, on some level, it stops me learning about myself. If I freeze an image permanently, I can't revisit it and recast it, I can't retell the story. I believe in story. Without it we don't learn, we don't grow, we don't re-examine what is known to be known. I believe in science fiction stories, I believe in scientific theories. I read a novel about the fragility of the Y chromosome, or a text on the myth and mystery of the constant, phi, and both make me stop and think: Oh. My. God. Each blows me away. Puts a shimmer around my day. Lightens my step. Urges me to turn an eager face to the possibilities of tomorrow.

Originally published in SciFi in the Mind's Eye: Reading Science Through Science Fiction, ed. Margret Grebowicz (Open Court, 2007).
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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

In which I wear yellow pants

I just got these old, old photos (I was twenty-one) by email this morning from a Facebook friend (thanks, Margot). I don't know where we were playing, but I think possibly upstairs at the Wellington, aka The Welly (@giveitsomewelly). But if anyone recognises it, please let me know.

Note the cigarettes. And the yellow trousers. If you'd asked me yesterday if I'd ever, in my life, possessed a pair of yellow pants I would have denied it. Wow, who knew...

But obviously I was into bright colours. See, for example, YouTube video here and here of me in pink trousers. (Though if you're interested in the music, I recommend just listening--the sound is much, much better.)

Pink and yellow. I'm not sure my self-image will survive this...
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Monday, May 28, 2012

MS drugs and reality

This question came in a comment to a recent post. My answer is long enough to need a post of its own.

From: Saving Sylvia Plath

I am curious - do you ever think that your MS might not have progressed to SPMS had you taken a DMD? I recognize that many folks fail on some of the drugs, the interferon drugs are notoriously brutal. Why not Copaxone? Why not LDN? Anyway - I do like your blog and think you've got a fantastic writing voice - just wondering if those little doubts about not taking the drugs ever creep in
I assume that by DMD you mean disease-modifying drug, not a term that's used much here in the US. Here, injectables such as Betaseron and Tysabri are usually referred to as immuno-modulatory drugs.

I've tried most of them--Betaseron, Copaxone, Rebif--plus one immuno-suppressive, Novantrone.

All of them except Copaxone made me unwell--the Novantrone very much so, with the bonus of extreme weight loss, total crash of blood counts (with attendant rescue shots which made my marrow swell: pain you wouldn't believe), and loss of taste for over a year. Copaxone didn't make me ill, but it gave me unpleasant injection-site reactions. Even twelve years later there are chunks missing from my belly, arms, thighs, etc. where the adipose tissue is ruined. More to the point, Copaxone didn't stop me progressing from relapsing-remitting MS (RMS) to secondary-progressive MS (SPMS).

I'm now on LDN and have been for four years. (I've talked about this here here.)

Now I'm paying attention to my diet. I keep promising to talk about it, and I will, but to reduce the last few years' thinking to a single blog post is daunting; I keep putting it off.

For now, in sum: no, I don't believe DMD would have changed anything for me, because they're interrupting the wrong part of the MS cycle. I've fixed my diet, and now I want something--a perfectly tailored statin or fibrate or something yet-to-be-discovered--that will correct my lipid metabolism. Meanwhile I'm doing my best to keep in balance what I can while I wait for science to catch up to what is now known to be known about MS.

I watch so many people get diagnosed with MS, get prescribed these vile drugs and go through the agonies of the damned. And for most people, most of the time, they don't work. For example, here's the conclusion of the Cochrane study on Copaxone: "The data showed no beneficial effects on disease progression in both MS forms, a slight beneficial effect in the reduction of risk of relapses in RRMS patients and no benefits in PMS patients." For many of us, the drugs are actively harmful. And they cost a fortune. We take them, we keep trying to take them, despite the pain, unpleasantness, uselessness, and expense because we are pressured into them by our medical advisors, who tell us if we don't we'll end up crippled and it'll be all our fault. By our family and friends, who say, Yes, I know it hurts, but What If... And by the endless advertising in MS publications.

I don't take DMDs because, in my experience, I think they suck. Instead, I've modified my diet and I take an inexpensive (less than $40 a month), off-label oral medication that has improved my quality of life beyond measure. Do I still have MS? Oh, yes. There's no magic cure--though now, I believe, for those in the very early stages there is prevention.
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Sunday, May 27, 2012

What do forensic anthropologists do?

This nifty video will tell you. Yes, it's in French. Don't worry about it. Just go along for the ride and it'll show you everything you need to know. (Thanks, Angélique.)

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Saturday, May 26, 2012


My friend, Anne Balsamo, is coordinating an important project that needs your help:

From the Kickstarter info:
The AIDS Memorial Quilt is an unique work of international ARTS ACTIVISM that reflects the worldwide scope and personal impact of the AIDS pandemic. Comprised of more than 48,000 individual PANELS that commemorate more than 91,000 names, the size of the physical QUILT measures more than 1.3 million square feet.  It is the largest LIVING MEMORIAL of its kind in the world. 
The year 2012 marks the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Quilt. In June 2012, the Quilt will be featured at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC.  In July 2012, Quilt will be laid out—in its entirety--on the Mall of Washington for the first time since 1996. It will take four days (July 21-25) to display all 48,000 panels.  These events are part of the Quilt 2012 program sponsored by the NAMES Project Foundation—the non-profit organization that maintains and displays the Quilt.
We know that not everyone who has an interest in the AIDS Memorial QUILT can make the trip to Washington, DC this summer.  Moreover, the entire QUILT has grown so large that all the panels cannot physically be shown at once.  If the entire quilt was laid out, it would cover more the 29 acres of land; it would take a visitor more than 33 days to view every panel—spending only 1 minute at each panel.   
We have designed a mobile web app called AIDS QUILT TOUCH that enables people to SEARCH for a specific NAME on a panel and to CONTRIBUTE comments to a Digital Guest Book. For visitors in Washington DC this summer, this application will ALSO enable them to LOCATE the display of a specific panel when it is laid out on the National Mall.
Please consider contributing to the Kickstarter project.
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Friday, May 25, 2012

GoH GoH GoH!

I'm delighted to announce that Kelley and I have agreed to be next year's joint Author Guests of Honor at the West Coast's most venerable f/sf convention, Westercon 66, Sacramento, July 4-7.

We'll probably be there a day early and leave a day late--because we're maximum extraction people: we intend to squeeze every drop of delight from the experience.

We'll do readings, hold forth in the bar, be on panels, relax in the bar, do interviews, go back to the bar, do all kind of other stuff TBD (run a workshop? talk about social media? teach arm wrestling? go dancing?), as well as--you guessed it--ending up in the bar. And the con suite. And Opening Ceremonies. And, y'know, everywhere it's possible for us to be.

It will be a blast. Kelley and I both love to talk about writing: the joy, the business, the pitfalls, and so on. So mark your calendars. Join us and the other fantastic guests next summer in Sacramento, at Westercon, the 66th of its name.
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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Angels of light dance on my thumb

This is how I see the world after more wine than is strictly necessary. Or perhaps it's only after truly luscious wine (Barolo and a white Burgundy). Or it could have been the Moscow Mules that preceded the wine. Or the heady conversation. Or the treetop-and-lake view. But an angel of light did dance on my thumb, just for a little while.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Writing is not a race

I've been thinking about time and writing (so have a lot of other people: see last Friday's Sterling Editing blog post). Specifically, I've been pondering the fact that (in my experience) novels aren't like news pieces; they are not to be hurried.

My books take a long time in some ways, and not very long in others. As an example, let's look at my first published novel, Ammonite. I wouldn't be lying if I said that book took me ten months to write, start to finish, with no rewrites. But that's not the whole story. The book I wrote before Ammonite (with a fountain pen, on lined paper; the book only three people have ever read; the book that will stay in a drawer forever) was set on Jeep, the world of Ammonite. It wasn't called Jeep then because that terminology is specific to the milieu I created for Ammonite. But it was Jeep: Moanwood wreathed Ollfoss in splendid isolation, the Echraidhe roamed Tehuantepec, and a fisherwoman called Vine sailed Silverfish Deep. The character of Marghe already existed, too: I'd written a very early (unpublished) story about an archaeological dig on a world called Beaver (or BV 4)--the tale of Marghe's first run-in with the security people of the local mining corporation. They weren't Mirrors, in that story, because at that time I didn't know Mirrors existed. Mirrors sprang, fulled formed and armoured, from the forehead of "Mirrors and Burnstone," my first published short story (Interzone, 1988). Which is where we first meet Hannah Danner.

So by the time I sat down to write Ammonite I had two of the main characters, the bones of the world, and some of its history. The whole thing fell into place and I pulled it together as neatly as a zipper. Zzzsst! and it was done.

I could tell similar stories about Slow River, and all the Aud books. But let's skip ahead to today, to my latest novel.

Hild took me 3 years to write--or 10, or 25, or my whole life, depending on how you define 'writing'.

I was born in a place Hild probably knew, and in my childhood roamed the sites she very probably visited.

In my early twenties I fell in love with Whitby Abbey, which Hild founded in the seventh century.

On my birthday four years ago I sat down and wrote the first paragraph of the draft that became Hild. And now that I have a whole novel, I find myself not moving on but falling deeper into the seventh century.

When I first crossed the threshold of Whitby Abbey I couldn't have dreamt that one day I'd try wrap my head around an entire century of British peoples and languages, flora and fauna, politics, religion, history, war, and art. If I'd been in a hurry when the notion of Hild first occurred to me, I would have ended up with an alternate history novel, one in which the Synod of Whitby decided for Ionan Christianity, not Roman. I'm sure I would have had fun with it, but it wouldn't have been Hild.

I just found this description of three books I was toying with in the mid-nineties*, right after outlining The Blue Place:

Historical: Set in the eighth or ninth century England, the main character is an abbess.  Abbesses of that time were incredibly powerful figures; absolute rulers of vast tracts of land and resources.  I want to write about an abbess of Whitby Abbey, Hilda--the one whose famous Synod of Whitby changed the whole course of western christianity (not for the better, in my opinion).
This book may or may not have fantasy elements in it, but given the religious fervour of the times, fantasy will certainly play a part in the lives of the major characters.
I want the world of these people--the sights and smells and mind-think--to be utterly real to a modern reader.  I want to take him or her into the heart and soul of the ninth century, the way Mary Renault or Henry Treece can take me back to ancient Greece, or pre-Celtic times in the British Isles.
This would require enormous effort research-wise.
Would require enormous effort research-wise. Ha! I didn't even know the Synod was in the seventh century...  But I digress (that how writing works: a series of digressions until I find the true current and then ride it, bellowing and wild, til it reaches the sea).

Hild the novel that is, Hild the character who is still taking shape, could only exist through the luxury of time.

But calling time a luxury is, of course, misleading. Time isn't something that's given to a writer on a silver platter. (Unless you have a trust fund. I don't.) Time to write is something we defend from incursion. Time to write is something we choose; something we make a priority, something we actively plan for and decide in favour of. It doesn't just happen. To make time to write you have to give up time spent on other things.

Sometimes that thing is sleep. Sometimes it's peace of mind created by having health insurance provided by a day job. Sometimes it's time with friends. Sometimes it's a day in the park chasing rainbows.

But sometimes, part of writing is sleeping, talking to friends, working at something else, and chasing rainbows. That's the thing. Sometimes writing is everything we do. How do we know? We just have to figure it out and trust ourselves. And choose.

As writers we are the sum of our choices. And one thing I know about making decisions: sometimes, if you  just set them aside for a while, the choice becomes clear.

So that's what I do with most things in life: I take my time.

Of course, sometimes you have to just go for it, right away: take life on the volley. That's a subject for another blog post. For now, here's the advice I would offer any writer, new or deeply experienced: writing isn't a race, impatience is not your friend. Find the still, quiet place inside and dwell there for a time. Go deep.

* I found it four days ago, written in WordPerfect. I might post another idea from it later this week or early next.
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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Waterstones showrooming for Amazon

A few months ago I talked about the notion of showrooming, in which customers walk into a bricks-and-mortar retailer establishment, play with/read the merchandise, and walk out without spending any money. They don't need to. They're using the store as a showroom, a place to familiarise themselves with what's available; they then buy what they like at a discount from an online retailer.

At the time, I suggested that booksellers leverage their expertise and retail space, cooperate with other entities (either said online retailers or author collectives or publishers), and embrace the paradigm.

Waterstones, a UK book chain, has just done that:

Waterstones has announced a surprise tie-up with Amazon that will enable shoppers to pluck ebooks as well as physical books from its shelves.
The companies did not reveal the terms of the deal, but Waterstones said it was planning a digital revolution in its stores, with Kindle e-readers on sale for the first time and free Wi-Fi, so customers can choose between buying a physical book or downloading it there and then. It is also opening instore cafes as part of an upgrade of the 30-year old chain.
I can only surmise that they were offered a hell of a financial incentive for this. I can't begin to guess how much would make the hastening of their business model death worth it.

There again, they might have some kind of secret master plan I can't fathom right now. I hope so. I'd like to see them survive.

Meanwhile, I'm still waiting to see if the rumours of an Amazon-only showroom is true.
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Monday, May 21, 2012

Marriage equality in Washington, update

Last time I posted about marriage equality here in Washington, it was Valentine's Day: Gov. Gregoire had just signed same-sex marriage into law.

The law will not go into effect until June 6th. This gives those unhappy with the law (the organisation Preserve Marriage and its supporters) time to collect signatures on a referendum petition. If they get 120,577 signatures or more, the law that allows me to marry a woman will be put to a vote in November. If the petition for a referendum fails to get the required number of signatures, same-sex couples will be able to marry in June.

I was dreading a rancorous hullabaloo in the press and airwaves, the usual nonsense about same-sex marriage being no different from having sex with animals or children. Thankfully it hasn't happened--at least I haven't noticed it. Admittedly I rarely follow local news, so, just to be sure, I did some searching this weekend.

The news is pleasantly surprising.

First of all, the wording for the referendum, Referendum 74, has been agreed. According to The Olympian:

The legislature passed Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6239 concerning marriage for same-sex couples, modified domestic-partnership law, and religious freedom, and voters have filed a sufficient referendum petition on this bill.
The concise description:
This bill would allow same-sex couples to marry, preserve domestic partnerships only for seniors, and preserve the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform, recognize, or accommodate any marriage ceremony.
The ballot-measure summary:
This bill allows same-sex couples to marry, applies marriage laws without regard to gender, and specifies that laws using gender-specific terms like husband and wife include same-sex spouses. After 2014, existing domestic partnership are converted to marriages, except for seniors. It preserves the right of clergy or religious organizations to refuse to perform or recognize any marriage or accommodate wedding ceremonies. The bill does not affect licensing of religious organizations providing adoption, foster-care, or child-placement.
This is a victory, of sorts, for those in favour of marriage equality. The Attorney General asked for R-74 to use the words 'redefine marriage'--the kind of phrase that frightens people and provokes backlash against same-sex marriage. The final wording is much more neutral, much more likely to lead to voters having a clear idea what they're really voting for in November.

Interestingly, Preserve Marriage Washington doesn't have nearly the number of signatures they'd hoped for at this stage. Again, according to The Olympian, they only have about half the signatures they need. No one is naive enough to think they won't make their total--they haven't yet started to pay for signature-gathering, for example--but it's an indicator of the sluggish response from Washington's citizenry.

This is not because Preserve Marriage and its supporters aren't trying. The Archbishop of Seattle asked priests to circulate R-74 petitions in church. Many of his priests have revolted:
The congregation at Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church gave the Rev. Tim Clark a standing ovation Sunday when he announced that the parish would not gather signatures for a referendum to repeal same-sex marriage.
The parish became the sixth in Seattle to opt out of the petition drive for Referendum 74 that has been endorsed and foisted on parishes by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.
Do you recognise that name? Sartain is the priest appointed by the Vatican to head the reform of the American nuns' Leadership Conference of Women Religious--affectionately known, in our house, as Nun-Crusher.

The Seattle Times has more on how local Catholics are responding. The Most Reverend Sartain has misread the sentiments of his congregation.

So far, it's all rather encouraging. I don't doubt that R-74 will end up on the ballot, but I'm hopeful it will be defeated. Sadly I'm less hopeful that this current civility will continue until November. Various national organisations will be pouring money into the campaign and I think it's very likely things will get unpleasant. To confuse matters, something called Initiative 1192 is also circulating (they need more signatures than a referendum--twice as many--but they have a month longer). If the initiative and referendum make it to the ballot, voters who support same-sex marriage will be horribly confused: because the first will require a 'No' and the second an 'Accept'.

So if you live in Washington state, please Decline to Sign either. And please pass that message along to friends and family.

But for now, let's see if we can keep the discourse civil. And let's be especially kind to one another. Play nicely.
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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Infinity Box Theatre Project and Kate Wilhelm

Kate Wilhelm was one of my teachers at Clarion in 1988. I'm not familiar with her story, "Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Your Crisis!" but I know her work opened up science fiction characters to the psychology of real human beings. It was Kate who taught me to really go there in fiction. So if we're not in the UK at the end of June, Kelley and I will most certainly be at the Ethnic Cultural Center in Wallingford for the opening night.

We would be at the fundraiser, too, if not for a previous engagement.

But you should go along: just $20 (or, y'know, more if you're feeling flush) will get you an hour of mingling with the glitterati (the geek literati) followed by Greg Bear's performance and discussion of Kate's story.

Here's all the info:

Infinity Box Theatre Project invites you to join us at a fundraiser for our production of the world premier adaptation of Kate Wilhelm’s short story, Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis!

The highlight of the evening will be a reading of the original story by Nebula and Hugo award winning science fiction writer, Greg Bear.  As always with Infinity Box, the reading will be followed by a lively conversation, including a brief video of Kate Wilhelm explaining what prompted her to write the story. Wednesday, May 23rd  at M'Illumino, 6921 Roosevelt Way NE, Seattle

Reception from 7:00 to 8:00 pm;  Reading begins at 8:00.

Suggested donation: $20
Seating is limited; reservations strongly suggested at

Ladies and Gentlemen, This Is Your Crisis! will open Friday, June 29th, at the Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3940 Brooklyn Ave. NE, Seattle.
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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Meatloaf and bashed neeps

I like to eat. I like to eat a lot. Last night I indulged myself. On the menu:

  • meatloaf (about one pound of ground beef, one pound of ground pork, onions and mushrooms sauteed in olive oil then finished with wine, a sprinkle of home-grown herbs, mush together, roast in the oven for about 45 minutes on 350)
  • brussel sprouts and carrots (tossed in olive oil, then roasted with the meatloaf--though they were a teeny bit overdone, so next time I'll put them in ten minutes after the meatloaf
  • bashed neeps (i.e. rutabaga: just cut it up, boil for 15 minutes or so, then rough mash)
Imagine very large serving size. Followed by a mound of fresh pineapple and a pile of blueberries. Followed by beatific smile. And tea.
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Friday, May 18, 2012

Going long...

Hmmn. Started writing a post (about marriage equality in Washington) that started to go long. I set it aside for tomorrow. I started another (about why good books take time). It, too, is going long. So for today I recommend you go read our blog post/links roundup at Sterling Editing and see what triggered my determination to take my time.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012


The perbs have been basking in the sun and getting above themselves: gathering their resources to burst into flower. So today I'm going to be out there taming them: they're there for my great glory, not their own.

Or maybe I'll just nap. Yeah, that's sounds more my kind of thing today.

I hope the weather is beautiful where you are.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hild swag

I stumbled across this fantastic promo-tchotchke/geegaw/bauble/dingus site, Coins for Anything (via Wired's ...Swag That Doesn't Suck).

So now I'm happily pondering a set of 100 special one-time-only coins to go with Hild--little presents for people who have helped me along the way. In some dull, heavy metal that looks like bronze. But what should I put on them? I could do an ammonite. A profile of Hild. A butcher bird (you'll understand if you read the book). A cross. A seax. All kinds of nifty things.

Meanwhile, here's a British coin I like:

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

About twenty years ago

Kelley's mum gave us this picture on Sunday. It's one of a series taken by our friend, Mark Tiedemann, in 1992. You've probably seen one of the others. But I sort of forgot we have others. I've put it up on my website...

...and now I'm reminded of my website. So I'll be posting the occasional link to essay and whatnot over the next couple of weeks.
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Monday, May 14, 2012

Hild publishing deal!

I'm delighted to announce that Hild will be published in 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It will be a big fat fall read, a perfect match for applewood fires and a snifter of Armagnac...

FSG is one of the last old school literary publishers in the US. Their list positively bulges with Nobel, Pulitzer, and National Book Award winners. I'm absolutely thrilled that Hild will be in their company. Thanks to my fabulous new agent, Stephanie Cabot of the Gernert Company, my editor there will be Sean McDonald. Sean edited Stay and Always, so I know the book will be in the best shape possible before it's released into the wild.

You can read the announcement in Publishers Weekly ("...steeped in the beauty and bruality of a different age...")

It's difficult to encapsulate a 200,000-word novel in a single paragraph, but here's my first stab at it:

Seventh century Britain is in transition. Small kingdoms are dissolving and merging. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, and belief. Into this world of war and wyrd is born Hild, king's niece: a child with a glittering mind, powerful curiosity, and will of adamant. Edwin is cunning and ruthless, but Hild is matchless. She carves herself a place as his advisor, a young woman at the heart of the violence, subtlety, and mysticism of the early medieval age. But kings don't trust anyone, even nieces. And at this level, the stakes are life and death.
I think it describes one layer of the book reasonably well, it's just that there are just so many others...

The day the deal was done, I emailed half a dozen friends to say, Drop everything and come to the pub! Jennifer Durham took these pictures:
I start sensibly enough
But happiness is thirsty work...
And by the end, I am wild with joy
There's a lot to do. But it will be exciting work, in the service of a project I've been labouring over, on some level, for over ten years. It's the best thing I've ever written. I can't wait to put it in your hands.
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Sunday, May 13, 2012

A good weekend gets better

Good morning. This was my view first thing. (Well, okay, not very first thing.) It's going to be a hot one. I'll be spending a good chunk of it on the deck with Kelley and her mum, drinking wine. Happy Mother's day to everyone.

Tomorrow I'll be making an announcement about Hild. Meanwhile, I'm currently in expansive mode, so if you have anything you'd like me to talk about today and/or next week, just let me know and I'll start thinking about it...

And here's how the garden looked last night immediately after dinner.

It's been a good weekend so far.
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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Join Clarion West's 'shadow workshop' without leaving home

Every summer since 2004 famous and emerging writers of f/sf have taken part in a 'shadow' Clarion West writing workshop--without leaving home.

It's called the Clarion West Write-a-thon.

Kelley took part in it last year. Not only did she raise a huge amount of money for Clarion West (more than $2,500--thanks to your generosity) but absolutely soared above what she thought she could do in terms of raw will and talent. It was amazing: 41 pieces in 41 days. Many of them weren't just good but brilliant. (Go read them on her website. Go read her editorial comments on each piece at Sterling Editing.)

This kind of experience is why eighteen lucky students risk everything every summer--put their lives on hold for a six-week, utterly immersive, life-changing workshop. But now any writer--if s/he's brave and committed--has access to that crucible and the community that grows around that shared work. As it says on CW's website:

Pick a writing goal: something that’s a little stretch; something that motivates you. Shadow the workshop from June 17 through July 27 and write, write, write! Write 15 minutes or 4 hours a day, 250 words a day, or maybe 8,000 words a week (we call that a “Swanwick”); revise a story or a chapter of your novel every week; complete a story, novella, or trilogy; submit three short stories to professional markets; or do something else completely different.
Here's the whole press release:
The ninth annual Clarion West Write-a-thon is open for participant sign-up now through June 16. Every summer since 2004, famous authors and emerging ones have announced their six-week writing goals on individual web pages hosted by Clarion West. Clarion West gets donations from their supporters when those goals are met. Michael Swanwick and several others have offered Tuckerized story appearanced to their supporting donors.

Award-winners Vonda N. McIntyre, Rachel Swirsky, and Nisi Shawl are already signed up. The goal is to have at least 200 participating writers by June 16; four supporters have offered to give Clarion West $2000 if that happens.

Also known as “the shadow workshop,” the Clarion West Write-a-thon runs in conjunction with our six-week summer workshop. More details on how the Write-a-thon works and how you can take part are available at

Clarion West is a 501 c 3 nonprofit organization which presents writing workshops for those preparing for careers as professional writers in the fantastic genres.
Be one of the chosen. Be one of the 200. I can't tell you how much I recommend this. If Kelley's experience is anything to go by, it will rock your world. And the money you raise will make an enormous difference to the bank balance of an organisation that's been helping writers for nearly thirty years. Everybody wins: the participating writers, future students of Clarion West, and--most of all--readers. Go sign up.
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Friday, May 11, 2012

RRMS, SPMS and the lipid hypothesis of multiple sclerosis

From: Blake
I stumbled across your blog while searching for information on Dr. Corthals' hypothesis, and thought you might be a good person to ask this question: to your knowledge, what, if anything, has the lipid theory suggested about the differing courses of MS? I know some in the medical community have doubted whether relapsing and progressive forms of MS are even the same disease, so I'm very interested in how the paradigm shift affects that dynamic.
Any information would be much appreciated!
Before I begin, please remember I'm a novelist, not a physician. For answers you can rely on, talk to your healthcare professional.

Here's a quote from Dr Corthals in the excellent piece about her article:
Eventually, the toxic macrophages are cleared, leading to the emission part of the RRMS (relapsing-remitting MS) cycle. But this detente holds only until the next trigger comes along. Dysfunction of the PPAR is further implicated in MS because it slows the repair mechanism of the central nervous system to a crawl, preventing the efficient renewal and synthesis of myelin.
Secondary progressive (SPMS) is just what happens next. Toxic macrophages don't clear sufficiently and/or for long enough, and myelin renewal ceases due to long-term damage/axonal death. This happens at a greater/faster scale/rate than with RRMS. The increase in both processes also increase the lack of integrity of the blood brain barrier (BBB).

I was initially diagnosed with RRMS and now have SPMS; I feel qualified to at least have an opinion on how they relate to the lipid hypothesis of MS. However, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know enough about the pathophysiology of other forms of MS (primary progressive and progressive relapsing) to feel comfortable even guessing where/how they fit into the hypothesis. If anyone out there does, I'd love to hear from you.
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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

POTUS evolves on same-sex marriage

The money quote is at the end: "I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."

We can speculate about why President Obama has decided to make this statement now:

  • the sheer awfulness of over 60% of North Carolina voters amending their state constitution, most of them not understanding that now children of same-sex couples can't get health insurance; same-sex couples can't bury each other; same-sex couples in North Carolina just aren't couples anymore, legally
  • the rising anger of his base, particularly the young, over his pragmatical fence-sitting
  • the fact that Romney and an increasingly right-wing Republican Party have staked out their territory on the issue
  • the rumour that more than one seven-figure donation to Obama's campaign has been withheld until he 'evolved'

But to me the dint in Obama's arse doesn't matter much. What matters is the fact that this campaign cycle has begun, and same-sex marriage will be an issue. I expect discourse to devolve rapidly from polite to virulent.

But not here. There will be no virulence on this blog, from either side. I will moderate ruthlessly. Commenters will be kind, humane, and alert to our inherent differences. We are all human. We all have feelings. Let's treat each other that way.

Number one rule: do as you would be done by. Stay open. Stay patient. Stay polite. Not just here, but Out There. And keep your fingers crossed that others on both sides will, too. To create change we have to understand. We have to really listen--especially when we think we already do understand. Play nicely.

Start now.
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Lightspeed Author Spotlight: an interview

My story, "Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese" is featured in this month's Lightspeed magazine. There's an Author Spotlight (a short interview, 850 words) to go with it:
Can you tell us about how your story, “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese,” came about for you?
In spring 1989, in England, after a bout of flu, I didn’t recover my strength. I went from being the kind of person who goes running in the morning, teaches self-defense in the afternoon, and studies karate at night to a wraith who had lost twenty pounds, didn’t have the strength to sit up straight, and couldn’t walk half a block. [cont'd]
I also talk a bit about what a rush it was to write Hild.

Until the end of the week you can read for free both story and interview--along with great short fiction by Catherine Valente, Linda Nagata, and Dale Bailey. Or you can buy the ebook, which also includes pieces by Vernor Vinge, Michael Chabon, Paolo Bacigalupi, Kage Baker, and many others. Enjoy.
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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What sunshine does to me

I've been wrestling with timelines for more Hild. I'm surrounded by drifts of paper covered in indecipherable scribbles, a bewildering scatter of screengrabs, and cryptically-named desktop folders of photos that, once, I'm sure, had Deep Meaning.

I really need to start using Evernote, but keep forgetting.

Why do I keep forgetting? Well, that's what happens when I start thinking about Hild. It's also what happens when I sit out in the sun; I get mazed and muddled. I also get the urge to eat everything in the fridge followed by everything in the fruit basket followed by everything in the cupboard. Also a mildly sunburnt left knee. Why just one? It's a mystery. Also a mystery: why Goodreads won't accept my birthdate but keeps insisting on September 27. And what date was the Battle of Hatfield Chase really? And are all these things spookily, mysteriously connected?

But, y'know, working it all out is too much bother. So today, eh, I got nothing. Have some tulips.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

York in Hild's time, part 2

Over at Gemæcca, my research blog about Hild, I have a longish post about York, and how it became a carefully planned trading settlement in the early seventh century. Complete with nifty maps and schematics. Enjoy...

...and stay tuned for an announcement here this time next week.

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reading day

Today I'll be alternately sitting in the sun reading this and working on some Hild research. Also, y'know, indulging in high-stress activities like eating lunch, talking to family on the phone, and pondering where to put the flower planters.

But mainly just lounging about away from the keyboard. I hope you get to do the same.
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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Slowly, and with no sudden moves

Red Jacket Mine, Musicquarium
I'm a little blurred and slow-moving today. Last night we attended a private non-profit event (for 826 Seattle--they do terrific work), with good food and Champagne provided by Wild Ginger--free food, free wine. I probably drank more than was strictly necessary. Then we made the fatal mistake of dropping by the bar (the "Musicquarium") on the way out. We stayed, drinking beer, listening to the band, and talking to a friend, until the wee small hours.

So, yeah, not the most alert I've ever been. If you want to get my attention, please talk slowly and without too many sudden movements or loud noises.
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Friday, May 4, 2012

Now on Goodreads

I now have an actual author page at Goodreads. The UI is a bit, hmmn, interesting in places, so be warned you might stumble over some weirdnesses created while I was bumbling about yesterday.

But ignore all the hapless mistakes and come say hello. It would be lovely to have some friends.

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Portable Legal Consent

While I wait for a couple of publishing-related things to happen, I've been catching up on my reading.

This week's Economist has an article, Consent 2.0, on Sage Bionetworks' Portable Legal Consent, which aims to make genomic data available to researchers in massive "de-indentified" chunks.

IN AN age where people promiscuously post personal data on the web and regularly click “I agree” to reams of legalese they have never read, news of yet another electronic consent form might seem like a big yawn. But for the future of genomics-related research the Portable Legal Consent, to be announced shortly by Sage Bionetworks, a non-profit research organisation based in Seattle, is anything but mundane. Indeed, by reversing the normal way consent to use personal data is acquired from patients in clinical trials, it could spell a new relationship between scientists and the human subjects of their research, with potential benefits that extend well beyond genomics.
This is the first step in an open-data movement. In terms of genomics research, it could be compared to software's open-source movement. It will increase the long-term value of the data--making it useful in ways perhaps the original investigators hadn't imagined. Absolutely a Good Thing. I hope Sage Networks can figure out a way to extend this idea outside the US. Big data is useful data.

I'll look forward to seeing how this goes.
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Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Sure, it looks nice. The smell doesn't suck, either. But tree pollen is eeevil. That's all.
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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ukulele acquisition syndrome

Via a friend (thanks, Karina) this video of how to make one tiny ukulele sound like an entire studio-of-musicians playing "Billie Jean." At least if you're James Hill.

I'm beginning to see the attraction of ukuleles.

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