Saturday, June 6, 2009

Overlord and the old

Today is one of those special days that sixty years ago everyone paused to remember, thirty years ago fewer but many did, and today only the old and history buffs stop and honor. It's D-Day, of course, when with Operation Overlord the Allied forces launched the biggest one-day amphibious assault ever attempted. The attack was an amazing effort that seared itself into the minds of a generation. Many of those who survived would pay for their entire lives with the hard memories of what they endured.

A great and powerful feature and failure of the human brain is that we cannot really know, truly understand, some things without living through them. This is a good trait, because it saves most of us from the horrors some of us have endured, but it is also bad, because like so many of our cognitive limitations, it separates us one from the other. Fiction can help, as can documentaries and memoirs, but those of us who were not, for example, present in war cannot truly grasp the events that will forever mark those who were.

I don't pretend to have any real sense of it. I've never been in a war, and I hope I never will be.

Growing up in a neighborhood of almost entirely retirees, however, I did get to listen to many old men who went ashore in that massive Normandy landing. Few would talk for long about it, even to a boy who was truly interested. All would pause at times, sometimes for a minute or more, and though I could never know their thoughts it was clear that they were momentarily back in the darkness through which they had managed to live.

Which brings me to this: When the very old want to talk, we'd all do well to listen. They might not understand Twitter or FaceBook or even how to operate their DVD players, but they were there at times that matter to us and will continue to matter, and hearing what it was like on the ground is amazingly different and better than reading the overviews of history books. Their stories will vanish with them if we do not listen, and the loss will be ours.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In the event of a zombie apocalypse

are you ready? Do you have a plan?

We are, and we do--facts that surprised my interviewer during our conversation that will one day appear as a Balticon podcast.

A few folks have asked me what the plan is, so I thought I'd share the basics:

* We hear the news.

* We gather all of our extended family members who are near our house. (This includes my daughter's friend, Katharine.)

* We assume Kyle has done his part and is driving himself and his guns to meet us.

* We caravan to Dave's, which sits on about 21 acres and has clear lines of sight in all directions--as well as many guns.

* We hole up there and take turns on watch.

* If it shambles, we shoot it.
It's a sound plan, and it's ours.

If it's not obvious, and if you're trying to join us at the compound after the zombie apocalypse hits, you should make sure you yell coherent sentences and don't walk in any way that resembles shambling.

We warned you.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Feel like hearing me yak again?

If so, go to FreeTalkLive, where Ian and Mark, the FTL heads, interviewed me for a while yesterday early evening. They were gracious enough to let me pimp Overthrowing Heaven, but we also covered a variety of other topics, including the science in my future universe. They told me their listeners were quite interested in Intellectual Property issues, so we also discussed Baen's stance on Digital Rights Management (DRM--and the stance is simple: NO!) and Baen's successful eBooks program.

All in all, I had a nice time and an interesting chat. I hope you also enjoy it.

In related news, Amazon has supposedly shipped some copies of Overthrowing Heaven, with more to come as they restock. Next Tuesday, the book should appear in bookstores everywhere. Yee-haw!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Koko Taylor

She died a little while ago. I can't claim to have been a lifelong or even a particularly ardent fan, and I sure never knew her, but when I ran across the news I was sad. Here's why.

A decade or more ago, I can't recall exactly when, a group of us were working a trade show in Chicago. The work was tense and tiring, and for many reasons, both personal and professional, I was particularly stressed. I was also exhausted and frequently feeling more than a little sorry for myself.

One night after our work at the trade show was over, we went to the blues club Taylor was then running, Koko Taylor's Chicago Blue. (The club, like her, is now gone.) [CORRECTION IN PLACE: Elizabeth pointed out to me that I had misremembered and that we saw Koko at Buddy Guy's Legends Blues Club. I believe she is right, and I was wrong. Sorry.] We had the privilege of seeing her perform there, in her own place. I'd guess she was in her late sixties at the time, and a lot of her years had not been easy; she was orphaned young and grew up poor and hardworking. When she strutted up to perform, however, energy radiated from her. When she started singing, I was blown away by the power and the soul in her voice. She had it, and you knew you damn well better pay attention to her.

Her songs transported me to a better place that evening. They also reminded me that I'd seen a lot worse than being a well-paid executive at a fancy computer trade show, and that many others, including her, had seen a great deal worse than I had, so I should be grateful for what I had. For both the escape and the reminder, I was thankful, though other than by applauding I don't think I ever gave any sign of that gratitude. Still, I've always remembered her and that night and that show.

Clouds are gathering here for a storm that's been in our forecast for a while. Despite that sensible explanation, tonight when the wind blows, I'm going to pretend it's Koko Taylor's ghost singing so strongly that even the clouds can't resist her power, and I'm going to remember how very lucky I am.

Thanks, Koko Taylor.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Can commercial art really be art?


Now, let's go a little deeper. My pal, John Picacio, wrote a blog entry yesterday that discussed this question from the perspective of commercial illustration vs. fine art. He covered that area beautifully, so I won't repeat any of his comments here; just go read them. What I want to discuss is how this question applies to fiction.

Through the years of my on-again, off-again writing, I attended a lot of writing workshops, as well as a great many late-night, often drunken SF convention discussions about fiction. In both of those contexts, I've heard such bold declarations as the following:

Series can't really be art.

Military SF can't really be art.

TV shows can't really be art.

Fantasy with elves can't really be art.

SF adventure can't really be art.
And on and on.

No one person made all of these assertions, of course, and I believe that if anyone had challenged all but the most drunken issuers of these statements, the speaker would have admitted there were exceptions. The underlying sentiment, however, was clearly real and strongly held--often even if the speaker had not read any of the books in question or had not read any in a very long time.

Actually, one exception was always present, and it always took this form:
[type of fiction I dislike] can't really be art unless someone I respect is doing it, in which case it's a clever/post-modern/new/[your favorite critical adjective of the moment] re-examination of/dialog with this form, in which case of course it can be art
In case the real meaning here isn't clear, let me restate this sentiment in a more concise manner:
[type of fiction I dislike] can't really be art unless someone I respect is doing it
This attitude just pisses me off, as the illustration equivalent clearly did John. (You did read his post, right? If not, do it now; I'll wait.)

I am not trying to say all art is equal; it sure as hell is not. I'm also not trying to claim I have no prejudices or opinions (I do), or that I am appointing myself the keeper of the essence of art (I'm not).

What I am saying is that for every one of these blanket statements, one can point to counter-examples that many intelligent, well-educated readers consider art, and that consequently we would all do well to limit our sweeping declarations and allow each piece of fiction we choose to read to earn or fail to earn its status with us as art.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Up delivers

This past weekend, we went to a (non-3D) show of Pixar's latest film, Up. The movie, which I believe is by far Pixar's best, deserves the accolades and the number one box-office ranking it earned. You should not miss this one.

Tech did not make this movie a joy, though of course the images were gorgeous. After early films in which the Pixar tech team seemed to be trying to come ever closer to realistically creating human images, this one instead employs a very stylized visual palette. You never forget you're watching animation, but that also never matters; Up sweeps you into its embrace early and keeps you there until the end.

The opening bits, which compress into a few minutes a beautiful, lifelong relationship, are absolutely wonderful and also essential to the story that follows. The rest of the tale follows a predictable formula, but again, that doesn't matter; the details of the ride are so interesting and heartfelt that you enjoy all of it.

Story and heart have always been greater strengths of Pixar than the company's much-lauded technical prowess, and they carry the day here as well. I'd happily write for them.

This one really is for kids and grown-ups alike. Check it out.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Post-con let-down

A lot of people experience a let-down that approaches--and sometimes becomes--depression after conventions. They spend a weekend in the fantasy world that is an SF con--no real responsibilities, lots of time with people like them, and so on--and then have to return to the real world. I normally get depressed not after but rather at the end of cons, because of how little I feel I've accomplished relative to the other writers present, but changing life contexts usually doesn't bother me.

Today, though, I was struck a bit by the realization that a week ago I'd been doing my comedy act on a stage in front of over a hundred and fifty laughing--and later loudly applauding--men and women. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed performing.

Henry Rollins often comments that he doesn't feel alive except when he's on the road, and I've always felt a bit bad for him. I now respect the feeling more, though I still don't share it. I had put out of my head the rush that comes from being on stage in front of a large live audience. I expect I'll continue to miss it for a while, and I'll probably put in a little time working to get other chances to do the show.

Montreal WorldCon folks, are you listening?

Graduation day

Sarah graduated from high school today. I was and am, as you might expect, incredibly proud of her, though far more because she's a great person than because she graduated. Scott played in the orchestra at various points during the event, a thankless job, and I was and am very proud of him, too.

The most touching part of the ceremony was when each senior took a yellow rose and presented it to her or his mother. Even though I obviously didn't get a rose (I did get a hug), I found the sight of all these young people hugging and thanking their mothers to be quite moving.

This was Sarah's day, so for me to write more about it seems inappropriate.

Except for this: I did get something unexpected from it. I've been exhausted of late, very stressed, and more than a little bit down. I'm also quite overweight, which is both a product of and a cause of those other issues, a bad feedback loop if ever I've had one. As I listened to the speakers today, students and adults alike, I realized yet again, as I apparently must do from time to time, that for all of us, not just those young women and men, every day is a graduation from what has come before into the opportunities and challenges ahead, from who we are right now into the people we want to be. It doesn't matter how old we are; we all have the chance to launch ourselves into new things each and every day. I think it's time for me to get busy doing so.


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