Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Last Azaleas

My office is almost underground. Outside the window, pink azaleas have opened. They're the last ones of the season, buried here far from sunlight.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Monday, April 15, 2019

When You Said

That the story doesn't exist without the reader
That every story you wrote was for me
That because I had sought and not found, you wrote "The Map"
That because, though I am not a child, there is a child alive in me, you wrote "War Beneath the Tree"
That because I have loved and lost, you wrote "The Cabin on the Coast"

When you said you were a practicing religious man, which tells me both more and less about your writing than I think
When you told me without ever saying it that the hero of your latest novel was dead and in the afterlife although he didn't know it
When you started to write in a way that conveyed more and more with fewer and simpler words
When I understood, really understood, that you would never fully, completely explain anything that happens in your books and I would never be able to trust your narrators and I shouldn't pick up your books unless I was prepared to accept the challenge--

that's when I fell in love.

Gene Wolfe
1931 - 2019

One of the last of the true giants

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Angelo Stew

Allan Cole, who co-authored the Sten series with the late Chris Bunch, has published a cookbook. It includes all the recipes featured in the Sten books (if you read them, you may remember some of them).

My husband made Angelo stew. It really is that good.

It cures the cancer, it cures the flu
You know I’m talking ‘bout Angelo stew.

The Emperor’s clone was a copy untrue,
but could have been saved by some Angelo stew.

You had to suspect he was bad through and through
when he showed his disdain for Angelo stew.

So Sten and his friends had to whip up a brew
of rebellion hotter than Angelo stew.

“Destroy all the ships, but rescue the crew,
they’ll turn to our cause for some Angelo stew.”

Recruiting some allies is easy to do
when your secret weapon is Angelo stew.

The Empire fell, and everyone knew
it was all on account of the Angelo stew.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, January 04, 2019

Six Plots, or, Everything is Up or Down

Some ideas just don't seem to go away.

I wrote earlier about the idea that all stories seem to fall into one of a small number of basic plot types. Depending on your source, the number is anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen. The best list I could find gave seven.

Lately, some researchers have been trying to classify plots quantitatively, in fiction and in movies. The fiction project was carried out at Washington State U. and later at U. of Vermont, while the film project is out of the Turing Institute. However, they used a similar, and in my opinion similarly misleading, methodology.

The technique is called sentiment analysis. A unit of analysis is chosen: the fiction project used individual words, while the film project used sentences. Each word or sentence is scored as emotionally "positive" or "negative." An emotional score can then be calculated for each page, chapter, scene, or X-minute interval, and these can be used to generate a graph or trajectory for the whole work. The fiction article shows several example graphs based on classic novels or stories. The movie article also attempts to measure "success" of the different story types, financially (box office returns) and artistically (Oscars won).

I respect the attempt to impose some sort of quantitative rigor on this subject. I particularly liked that the movie article thought it was important to evaluate success of the different plot types-- although, in the capitalistic and cultural framework of modern movie-making, I don't find the measures they used at all convincing. (And no, I don't have a better suggestion.)

However-- Speaking as a professional quantitative scientist, this is one of the most ridiculous pieces of reductionism I have ever seen. Critique from the bottom up...

Context-free scoring. Words may be positive, negative, or neutral, in different people's opinions. I remember being dumbfounded that apparently the word "moist" is considered disgusting by a majority of English-speakers. I find it mostly neutral, and in some contexts positive: a "moist, fluffy cake" beats a "dry, crumbly cake" every time.

I have a very hard time evaluating words or phrases out of context. Consider: "The test was positive." For what? Cancer? Pregnancy? A planned pregnancy, or an unwanted one? Or were we testing for alien life on an unexplored planet?

Words aren't everything. In movies particularly, there can be a lot of emotional input that features no words at all. Jurassic Park, the first and best of the series: The male biologist almost fainting at his first glimpse of living dinosaurs. Or watch the last couple minutes of the first Hobbit movie.

It's particularly weird to apply this assumption to a play such as Romeo and Juliet (featured in the fiction article linked above). Play scripts as we know them from Shakespeare are made up almost entirely of dialogue, since his stage directions were minimal and optional. But a real stage production, or film adaptation for that matter, is much, much more than just words. Hamlet's famous monologue took on a whole different life in Branagh's film production: Hamlet knew or suspected that he was being watched, which made the whole thing a performance for the benefit of his enemies and not the piece of morbid introspection it's usually seen as.

Words can conflict. Let's say we (characters in a novel or film) did just discover alien, sentient life for the first time ever. One of us is delighted: I get to use my hitherto completely theoretical xenolinguistic skills! Another is horrified: My humano-centric universe view is shattered! Another responds with a calm assessment of possible threat.

Any way you look at it, this discovery represents a major turning point in the story, one that creates excitement and anticipation in the reader. But as the different characters each use words or sentences reflecting their own response, the overall score may end up being emotionally close to neutral. In fact, much of the interest for the reader/viewer may be in the conflict or contrast among the characters as much as the excitement of the discovery itself. Back to Jurassic Park: Jeff Goldblum's character was using a lot of downer words about the whole idea, yet the two biologists were ecstatic. Wonder how those scenes would score?

Emotions don't just go up or down. What if we applied this kind of analysis to more than one dimension? For example, if the graph for Shelley's Frankenstein had a second emotional axis representing Frankenstein's scientific curiosity-- which intensifies and diminishes throughout the novel, but not necessarily in step with his fears and griefs around his relationship with the Creature. Wouldn't that create a much more complex and interesting view of the story?

Emotion is an emergent property. A story or scene induces an emotional response in the reader or viewer. (Or not. But let's assume there's some effect, otherwise the whole exercise becomes pretty pointless.) This response may or may not be the same as the emotion or emotions portrayed in the scene, or experienced by the characters in the scene. For example, the Jewish characters in Schindler's List express hope and confidence at points that can only strike a viewer as horrifying: as they're being shipped off to the camp, one woman remarks happily "The war is over for us, we are workers now!"

Plot is more than just emotional movement. Referring to the seven-plot list from Wikipedia: at least four out of the seven fall into the sentiment-analysis category of "rags to riches," i.e. generally an upward movement. Yet, "Overcoming the Monster" stories feel definitely different to us than "Quest" stories. The Monster and the Journey are culturally important symbols, or symbol-packages, that influence how we perceive and respond to a story, beyond the emotional rise and fall.

Certainly the emotional arc of a story or movie is an important part of the plot. But there's so much more to a plot: The sequence of events, character interaction and the development of relationships, settings and scenery, moral or philosophical themes: that's just off the top of my head. Make your own list: what do you think is important in a story?

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, December 28, 2018

Happy Birthday, Stan

“A… definition of a hero is someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being, and will go out of his or her way to help them—even if there is no chance of a reward. That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.”

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Devil as Imagined by Poul Anderson and Peter Jackson

"I was under the regard of the Solipsist...that egotism so ultimate that it would yield no room even to hope." --Operation Chaos, Poul Anderson

They say the Devil is a Solipsist.
A self-regard intense and absolute
enough to claim that no-one else exists
how many evils show this at the root.
What need for empathy, for common care
for conscience or responsibility
to people who aren’t really, really, there?
Thou shalt have no existence before Me.

An image seen on-screen: a Lidless Eye,
a flaming man-shape calling itself “I,”
the Eye, the “I”, the endless nested layers
of infinite denial, the barren stare
of Solipsism from an empty well
receding into flaming fractal hell.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, December 21, 2018

Daffodils, Too Early

On solstice, I weed the flowerbeds
and see the daffodils are up.

Deep in December and fifty-eight degrees:
we’ve had no winter, barely even fall.

If there’s a hard freeze, in January, say,
it might kill the shoots, abort

the unformed flowers, cripple new growth.
Even so, the bulbs will survive.

After the shootings, the fires, and the floods last year
young men and women criss-crossed the nation

in buses, signing up voters. They swore
to vote out those who would not protect them.

They’ll save themselves. They’ll be
the grownups we failed to be.

Daffodils forced into early maturity
into a blighted spring—

but grown from strong roots.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Thursday, December 20, 2018

KBOO: Wider Window Poetry

I'm excited to announce that I'll be hosting a poetry show on our community radio station, KBOO!

The program will be called Wider Window Poetry, airing first Monday of every month from 10 PM - 11 PM. First episode to air Jan. 7th.

Episodes will be posted to the program page as well.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Saturday, December 08, 2018

I Look Up From My Book of Poetry

and we’re on the Tillikum bridge
train rocking slow and stately under us
and downtown spread out blazing
against a dry December night

lights doubled on the dark water below.
I’m on the wrong side now,
the west side. To get home, I’ll have to cross
the river again toward the Rose Quarter,

the sports arena whose lighted dome
I can see in the distance. By then
I’ll be on a bus, looking back toward
the glowing towers of the Tillikum

reflected in the same river.
It seems like a long way home in the dark.
But what a privilege, what a gift
to cross and recross, on this dark night.

this river of light.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Unobtainium: Who should have it?

“Unobtainium” is an SF/fantasy in-joke. It means any substance that is desirable and hard to get, enough so to become a plot point. In James Cameron’s CGI tour de force Avatar, the mineral being exploited from the planet of the Navi is called unobtainium, his nod to the fan community.

When works of SF feature an unobtainium as a McGuffin, it sometimes turns out to also be a metaphor for power, and who should have it. Here are some examples. Spoiler alert!

Anti-Ice: No-one should have it

Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter is often thought of as a steampunk novel. The time period is right, and there is a Jules Verne-esque esthetic, especially to the spacecraft. But the sensibility is much more H. G. Wells.

Anti-ice is a meta-stable compound of antimatter and water ice. Detonation of miniscule quantities can fuel steam engines; detonation of merely small quantities can destroy entire cities The novel begins with the complete annihilation of Sebastopol at the end of the Crimean War, by an anti-ice bomb designed and deployed by a British scientist.

Britain, it develops, is in control of the only known terrestrial deposit of anti-ice, in Antarctica. A few years on from the end of the war, Britain is experiencing a period of progress and prosperity fueled by anti-ice, an accelerated Industrial Revolution with all the attendant woes and disruption.

What very few people know is that the Antarctic deposits are nearing exhaustion. The scientist whose bomb destroyed Sebastopol, and whose anti-ice-consuming inventions have filled the years since, reveals to the narrator that this is his intention. There is no human country or society that can be trusted with the destructive power of anti-ice. The only solution is to use it all up. In the aftermath, Britain may fall, but humanity will survive.

The Stars My Destination: Everyone should have it

The Stars My Destination (alternate and equally splendid title Tyger, Tyger) features a McGuffin called PyrE. PyrE, like anti-ice, is capable of releasing vast energy. It is psychically active: it can be detonated with a thought.

Earth is at war with the rest of the solar system, and is ruled by enormous corporations, to whom PyrE is a closely guarded military and economic secret. In the climactic scene, the protagonist Gully Foyle seizes a box of PyrE and teleports randomly around the world, hurling handfuls of PyrE into crowds of corporate serfs and bellowing instructions for how to use it. Earlier, he says to the assembled authorities:

“Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world? Let the world make its own decisions. Who are we to keep secrets from the world? Let the world know and decide for itself.”

The Stars My Destination holds out the clear possibility that humanity may not survive. After his recapture, Foyle says “There’s enough left for a war. Plenty left for destruction… annihilation… if you dare.”

Black Panther: Only good people should have it, but they should use it to help other people

A moment of silence, please. Stan Lee was a genuine cultural hero, and we need his kind.

If you saw Black Panther, you’ll have recognized by now that vibranium is a form of unobtainium. It’s described as “the hardest material in the world” (harder than Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton? Don’t ask), but as Andy Serkis says to Martin Freeman “It’s so much more.” (“It’s my preeecioussss!” Oops.) Not only does it seem to be an energy source—a much safer one than anti-ice or PyrE—it has effects on the plants and people of Wakanda that can only be described as magical.

Wakanda has kept vibranium strictly to itself, thereby ensuring its survival in a world dominated by European powers. The moral question at the heart of the movie is whether it’s right for Wakanda to continue to do so—or whether the possibilities of vibranium should be used to help less fortunate Africans and African-diasporans.

I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with this answer on principle. Especially (and I say this as a member of the African diaspora) with an answer structured along tribal lines, no matter how inclusive the tribe.

Besides—if you read both of the books I mention above, you know that my description of the ending isn’t complete. There’s a joker in each pack. There may be one in the deck of Wakanda as well, but Marvel’s creators have not yet revealed it.

Sten: The benevolent philosopher-king should have it. Oops. That didn't work out too well.

The Sten series, eight books all told, is by Allan Cole and the late Chris Bunch. Bunch wrote several other books on his own, which we quite enjoyed.

In these books, unobtainium is referred to as anti-matter 2, or AM2. The entire galactic economy, including interstellar travel, runs on AM2, and the only being who knows where to get it is a functionally immortal human called the Eternal Emperor. He is not an emperor in name only; he's the absolute ruler of most of human space, and most of the alien species in the galaxy are subject-allies.

Life in the Eternal Empire is mostly pretty good. There are exceptions, of course. It's pretty lousy for a debt-serf on a corporate planet, which is how our hero, Sten, starts out. Also... it turns out the Emperor is not exactly immortal. He can be killed, but within a few years after his death, a copy appears. The new Emperor has all of the old Emperor;s memories and abilities, and his first act is to restore whatever's gone awry in the Empire during the interregnum.

Except the copy isn't always perfect.

The series ends with the final destruction of the Emperor and the instruments of his regeneration-- as well as the new that someone has managed to figure out how to synthesize AM2. The Empire is over. The future's uncertain...and full of possibilities.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Friday, November 16, 2018

Daphne in Paradise

I prayed as I fled the god’s burning embrace
save me, change me, whatever it takes.
The soles of my blistered feet went hard
and shiny, left cloven tracks in the falling ash.

New strength in my slender legs    I bounded
faster and farther through the smoke    to the river
to safety    my ears cupped forward ignoring
behind me the screams and the roar of fire

the god passed
and I walk in his traces
staring at strangeness

Nothing recognizable but the streets
still gridding the ashen landscape
cozy cul-de-sacs flanked by concrete pads
some squatted by burned-out hulks of cars.

all form is destroyed

Nothing left that looks like a house
since the fire came over the hilltop
taller than power lines, loud as a freight train,
tornado-force, throwing pickup trucks like toys.

memory fades

Nothing could stop it. Superheated air exploded.
Families fled on gridlocked streets
or got out of their cars and ran for the river.
Smoke filled the valleys for hundreds of miles.

somewhere here was a home
never again to be mine

Image credit: Noah Berger, AP

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Writing Over the Map

The Magicians
The Magician King
The Magician's Land

Lev Grossman

The Magicians was published in 2009, and starts with the main character being admitted to magic school. Inevitably, it was gushed over as "the next Harry Potter." This comparison was even more than usually unhelpful: these books are not YA, in as much as Quentin Coldwater is roughly the same age at the start of his story as Harry and friends at the end of theirs. Brakebills is college, not high school, and Quentin graduates about halfway through the first book.

In any case, Grossman reveals the true literary antecedent of this series on page 6 of the first book:

"Christopher Plover's Fillory and Further is a series of five novels published in England in the 1930s. They describe the adventures of the five Chatwin children in a magical land that they discover while on holiday in the countryside with their eccentric aunt and uncle."

It's no great spoiler to say that, although Quentin at this point thinks Fillory is fiction, it turns out to be a real place. Fillory is actually one of a great (perhaps infinite) number of worlds accessible via an enormous (perhaps infinite) cityscape dotted with fountains, cognate to the "Wood Between the Worlds," described in the sixth book of the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis (The Magician's Nephew, itself perhaps the departure point for Grossman's titles). Fillory itself has a number of Narnia-like features, such as a resident deity (actually two) in animal form, a need for human monarchs (set of four, to be exact), an eastern ocean dotted with fabulous islands, et cetera.

But Fillory is far more than warmed-over Narnia pastiche, or even an updated, adult-aged version. It's a brilliantly realized imaginary realm in its own right. In fact...

Like a lot of people my age-- and, I suspect, like Grossman himself-- I read the Narnia books uncritically as a child, and loved the stories. As an adult, I find them not only morally objectionable, but nearly unreadable: I blogged about it in some detail here, and won't belabor the point now. Nevertheless, like Lord of the Rings and A Wrinkle in Time, they had become an indelible part of my psychic landscape. It was a difficult area, one I didn't like to visit but couldn't simply write off the map.

It turns out the map could be written over. By Lev Grossman.

In reading the "Magician" books for the first time, I could feel the map of Fillory fitting itself to my mental map of Narnia and obscuring, if not obliterating, it. Fillory's mountains are higher, its oceans deeper, its magic more dazzling and terrible. More importantly, Fillory is alive with the kind of emotional truth that Lewis only occasionally managed to touch. Fillory is, now and forever, more real to me than Narnia.

The "Magicians" books are not just Lewis deconstruction: there's a lot to them besides Fillory (as if that weren't enough). The story of Quentin and his friends and the land of Fillory ends up being embedded in a much larger story, of which we get only glimpses. Grossman delves into the nature and purpose of magic and the structure of the universe, which many writers simply take for granted or use as window dressing. This is thoughtful fantasy, in amongst the wonders and the terrors and the occasional downright horror.

Read these books at your peril.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Reading at Free Range Poetry

Free Range Poetry
October 1st, 6:00 - 7:30 PM
Multnomah County Library, NW Branch
2300 NW Thurman
Portland, OR

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside