Why I Am an Idiot

Ran across something two weeks ago that sent my mind wandering and wondering; C J Cherryh has won the 2016 Damon Knight Grand Master of Science Fiction award. Good for her; she deserves it. Back when I first read Downbelow Station – a volume that has a permanent place on my bookshelf – I’ve loved reading her books. Cyteen takes its place right next to it.

Where my mind started wandering and wondering was here: who were the other Grand Masters, and had I read all of them? So, I went to the SFWA website and scrolled through the list.

#1 Heinlein 1975: Check, re-check, triple check, and the checks will keep going. Great!

#2 Jack Williamson 1976. . .uh-oh. Couldn’t think of a single thing I’d read that was his. Didn’t get very far down the list, now did I!?

So, off to ye olde publick library to see what there was to see. Yep, a few by him. Turns out he sold his first story in 1928, and continued to publish lo almost 80 years until his death in 2006. Picked The Humanoids off the shelf. Hmm…robots, published in Analog as a series from 1947-1948, collected into a novel and published in 1949. Hadn’t Asimov (GM 1987) covered all there was to say about robots? Oh, Vonne, quit dithering and give it a shot.

The first couple of hundred pages are post-war hysteria fueled by the Cold War, as these (quaintly called “Mechanical Men) androids go about their unemotional (Russia) business ostensibly protecting mankind (everyone else in the world) from, well, mostly from himself. The main character is rebelling against their intrusion into his life, determined to blow them all to kingdom come by blasting their central mind complex in another star system.

And then the last twenty pages went deliriously sideways! The conclusions drawn by Williamson are startling and subversive! Just my kind of guy!

Back to the library, for something newer this time. Terraforming Earth published in 2001, for which he Co-won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 2002. I am not going to give any details of this plot. No. What I am going to do is tell you that if you loved Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (both published in 2015), then you will learn that the over 1100 pages of those two novels were cribbed from Williamson’s slick 2001 original, in only 350 pages! Don’t get me wrong. I loved those two books, but can clearly see now where they were inspired. Williamson was there first.

He is credited for inventing two terms that have come into common use: “terraforming” (back in 1942!) and “genetic engineering” (far away in 1951. Let’s put that last term into context: Crick and Watson did not publish their article on the structure of the DNA molecule until two years LATER [1953]!) Williamson taught Science Fiction writing in New Mexico since the 1950s. In 2001, he swept the Hugo and Nebula for the novella The Ultimate Earth. And he even has my world view that SF needn’t be so serious! I love this man!

Just finished my third one: The Black Sun (1997). One nit here: he probably mentions what they ate on every single page, usually some synthetic food product made from soya, tofu, or algae. The story itself is excellent! Even references his own previous works. What a hoot!

I am an idiot because somehow I completely skipped one of the absolute greats in Science Fiction! What an IDIOT! Hopefully, I can atone for my errors, and catch all of his genius that is in print as soon as possible. Jack Williamson, I salute you and pray you rest in peace, my man!

(By the way: I had read something from almost everyone else on the list. Michael Moorcock is the other standout, mainly because he mostly writes Fantasy, which is not my cup o’tea.)

VA 28 February 2016

Vonne’s Shelf: Whatever, the best blog ever, by John Scalzi (Part Two: The Big Idea)

An interesting aspect of John Scalzi’s wondrous blog is the introduction of new speculative fiction by other authors, most of whom I’ve never heard of. That’s great, because new talent is seen secreting its delicious creative juices, and at least one of the recent ones is a tale I have now put on my reading list. (That one can be found here:  http://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/02/17/the-big-idea-victor-lavalle/ )

He calls this segment “The Big Idea.” But it is NOT a review of each author’s work. No, no, no. It IS the author themselves writing about what inspired that work and where the characters took them during the process. This is a fresh take, and I like it a lot.

The only down side is it doesn’t give you much of a clue as to whether this book is actually worth reading for me, the potential customer. We all know there are a lot of books out there that are not really worth the time and effort. (If you’d like to see one, just see my own Novel page.) Too, there isn’t any indication of whether it is appropriate for younger readers. Many of them seem to come under the vampire/werewolf/zombie/fantasy classifications, and these are inexplicably still all the rage with tweenies or younger. (Personally, I find them a waste of time for a few reasons I won’t go into now, but none of that really matters for the subject at hand.) So the appeal of these are younger audiences, so that begs the question: “Are they age appropriate?” You’ll find no answer there. Who is likely to like it? (Yes, it is anathema for a writer to “dis” others’ creative works. But this could reasonably be called an endorsement, so it seems that should play a role. Or, am I just an idiot? Don’t answer that; I’ve already copped to it.)

This makes me very curious. Why does Mr. Scalzi allow other writers – lesser known, to say the least – take up valuable space on his blog? Maybe the word “valuable” gives a clue? Do they pay him rent space? I couldn’t find anything with my cursory search on the Interweb to validate that suggestion, nor anything on Scalzi’s website. Perhaps I’m lazy and don’t really care enough to fact check, but it isn’t a fact, just a wonderment. What I DID find is enough to know that I will never be allowed there. Oh, well.

I’m not even sure Scalzi reads the books. He does offer cryptic introductory paragraphs, but they could come from the flyleaf. That, too, is shrug-able. He does display a mountain of packages and pillars of books to give the idea he will read them all. Either he has a USB slot in his head to download books in seconds, or lives in between time dimensions in null-universe wherein one can read everything, blog daily at prodigious length, follow the political news like a junkie, spar with other celebrities about what-or-what-is-not a burrito, write fresh new SciFi, read and/or reply to some comment-ers on his blog, attend conventions, take copious pictures of his cats, and then a vacation cruise . . . all in a day’s work, right?

Though I think this is an important and occasionally interesting angle to give notice that there might be someone new to look for, it doesn’t let us know whether it is appropriate. He mentions YA as an acceptable submission, but other things too.

I will not imitate his practice. On this review page you will only find works I have read and thought about, that are pretty exclusively science fiction, and you’ll know what to expect for younger, or various, readers.

Please be sure to check out this part of his blog. You’ll like hearing from the author’s themselves.

VA 27 February 2016

Vonne’s Shelf: Whatever, the best blog ever, by John Scalzi (Part One)

Parental: profanity just about whenever.

Been hanging out at John Scalzi’s blog page recently, just trying to learn some lessons about successful blogging (which I have done, and deeply thank him for), or perhaps spying on the competition….or, just being a stalker, take your pick. It’s a regularly posted blog of whatever has caught Scalzi’s attention: sometimes his pet cat’s antics (adorably called ‘Scamperbeasts’), political commentary, social media critiques, or an excerpt (sorta) of a new SF&F novel, and even the occasional bit about the current state of SciFi.

It is highly recommended; much fun and you can even join the conversation if you like, or more accurately, if Scalzi gives your contribution the thumbs up for inclusion. The adorable Scamperbeasts and his political commentary are pleasing and sometimes hilarious. No nits to pick there. It’s his blog and he can have all the fun he wants. Please check it out by simply clicking here: http://whatever.scalzi.com/

But, there is a challenge for the social media wallflowers like myself. I really hate social media. But it has become a part of everyone else’s life and, in many cases, has even become essential to be deemed to actually have a life.

Here’s a similar problem that some of you might relate to from your younger days:

  • Imagine you are an eleven year old male. You are awkward around people, and never seem to know what to say. You like sports, but when it comes to picking teams, you are probably the last person picked because no one really wants you anyway. It’s as if you are nobody because you are not popular.
  • Or, imagine you are an eleven year old female. You are also awkward around people. You are poor, so can’t afford the latest fashions or chic brand name accessories. You sit alone at lunch, and are mocked derisively by other girls. You are definitely un-popular.

All acknowledged as a form of bullying, and yet, you are continually told your worth is not dependent on popularity. That’s a tough and lonely pill to swallow when you are so young.

Now you have grown up into a fine adult, and wish to join the Science Fiction community. An award winning author has a blog that is enjoyable and instructive. But then you read this statement from him:

February 16, 2016 excerpt from “What I Want Out of Twitter” – “I’d specify that accounts with less than 100 users would not show up in my replies (unless I chose to follow/whitelist them).”

Which led to a few comments like these: “John: Glad to know that I only have one of the qualities that would filter me out of your timeline (less than 100 followers), as I have been on Twitter a while and do have a profile pic, such as it is. I’ve also posted here a couple of times, and hopefully proven myself not to be an idiot, jerk, or other such undesirable.” Or, “The whole “more than 100 followers” thing makes me uncomfortable, it feels like it would catch a lot of fans who mainly just lurk but occasionally interact with the people they follow. My twitter account has been active since ’09, but I only have 50 followers (and I don’t even know why I have those to be honest).”

To which Mr. Scalzi replied a few times, like this:  “Which, again, is why I personally would chain the filters noted above. That way long-term accounts with a low number of Twitter followers would still be seen by me. That said, and also again, no one is guaranteed an audience. People should be able to choose who they see and respond to.”

So, to recap, there are a chain of filters (3 deep) Mr. Scalzi uses to weed out undesirable tweets at Twitter, and one of them is how popular the tweeter is. This causes some of his fans to grovel and beg for continued admission into his inner circle even though they really aren’t popular enough to merit that esteemed position.

Feel like 6th grade childish crap to you? Me, too. His byline on this site is: “Taunting the untauntable since 1998.” Oops, Mr. Scalzi. IMO: Looks like you made your own list.

Admittedly, no writer wants to get bogged down with blizzards of contacts on social media, and has to set some boundary somewhere. Otherwise, they’d never get anything written! Plus we love our fans, and want to get feedback! But, should popularity be an indicator of its worthiness? Too, that is what social media is all about. That social part is a doozy. So deal widdit!

He has allowed two of four attempts of mine to join the conversation on his blog, probably for wise reasons as my humor can occasionally cross the line of appropriateness. Frankly, I have a Twitter account only because it’s expected of me as a writer. I don’t really want, nor feel like I should have, any followers. What would surprise me is if Mr. Scalzi actually sees this post and bars me from commenting on his blog also. I’m nowhere near popular enough to warrant his attention.

Which brings me to another, tangential point about “elitism.” Sadly, the Science Fiction universe has become somewhat elitist. The genre that based its foundation on bringing down the elite has joined the dark side.

Point: most successful authors (Scalzi included) will tell us that we are writers if we write, not if we publish. Selling our creations is a bonus, but does not detract from the fact that writers write, even if they don’t sell. Then try to join the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), and see how that works for you. We cannot join the SFWA unless we have published sales in “recognized” venues. Do you think my personal website gets a “thumbs up” as a “recognized” venue? By offering my works direct to the public, I am thumbing my nose at the whole industry. I doubt it’s their thumb they are sticking up. Scalzi has been president of the SFWA in the near past.

Hypocritical elitism. So it goes. [Heavy sigh]

Part Two will address how he handles (sorta) new SF&F novels coming in the near future.

VA 26 February 2016

The Danger of Desire

It seems that tornadoes are God’s way of saying, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s trailer!”

Love Logic

On one occasion some weeks ago, my love mate mentioned that they wished I would do something different with my sneakers.

You see, I would sit on the vanity bench at the foot of our bed and remove my sneakers; then slide them under the bench to get them out of the way. They might wish to rearrange the bed linens and end up tripping over the sneakers. I considered that a rare occurrence, so gave it little thought.

So “love logic” was employed to remedy the situation. Here is how it works: (Much of this is believed to have happened in their imagination.)

To move the sneakers, it obviously involves moving the vanity bench. But, to where? Why, over there in the corner away from the bed. Where the table, DVD Blu-Ray, and large flat screen TV is.

But, where would the table, DVD Blu-Ray, and large flat screen TV go? Obviously, into the living room. This would have the added benefit of causing us to no longer watch TV in bed, which everyone knows is bad for you.

But, where in the living room? Probably where the huge entertainment cabinet is, full of bric-a-brac and assorted gewgaws.

But, where would that huge entertainment cabinet go? Obviously, far, far away. So, a call to a friend was made. Why, they would joyously take the entertainment cabinet, if we could get a truck and deliver it across town. Of course, we could!

However, the living room would look rather empty with only a table and TV replacing a huge entertainment cabinet. What to do? Obviously, phone another friend, who had mentioned in passing that they had a sofa and loveseat combo to give away, if we could get a truck and pick them up. Of course, we could!

That would mean moving that little, forlorn loveseat currently in the living room to the office, and pulling that monstrous couch out of the office. That monstrous couch and a broken office chair could be given away on Craig’s list for anyone with a truck to pick up!

A plan had come together! Time to tell Vonne! Excitement brims over!

Yes, I called a friend and borrowed his truck. Yes, I got another bored friend with muscles to help. Yes, we picked up the sofa and loveseat (and two end tables and numerous plants destined for oblivion). Yes, we hauled them into our apartment. Yes, we loaded up the huge entertainment cabinet and delivered it to another friend. Yes, we returned the truck, grateful for many good friends.

Meanwhile, though being instructed to wait to move stuff until I returned because they had been ill, my significant other had moved out the monstrous couch from the office to the dining room for pick up; and had moved in the forlorn loveseat; and had pruned the neglected plants into something palatable. They are amazing; just ask them.

Yes, we moved new sofa and loveseat into place. Yes, we brought table, DVD Blu-Ray, and flat screen TV into the living room and hooked them up. Yes, we moved the vanity bench into the corner of the bedroom, away from the bed. Yes, we vacuumed everything. Yes, I posted the monstrous couch and broken office chair on Craig’s list for free pick up.

All to move a pair of sneakers.

Ain’t love logic grand? Interestingly, the same cosmic rules work similarly in every part of the multi-verse.

So, look for the inanities, and always be willing to laugh at these moments.

I hope I won’t have to deliver that monstrous couch and broken office chair from Craig’s list.


Life and Death

Life is hilarious, filled with wacky silliness.

But many people can’t see how delightfully inane life is. They take it all so seriously!

But think: It’s not like anyone has ever actually died from life!

So laugh, merrily, giddyingly, maniacally. After all: it’s LIFE!


Vonne’s Shelf: The Dark Forest by Cixin Liu

Translated into English by Joel Martinsen.

Parental: sparse profanity, violence, no sexuality.

This second of three installment of the Hugo winning “The Three Body Problem” was a harder read than the first. This is likely partly due to translation, and partly due to the complexity of the story.

The main character is now an ignominious astronomer who has been picked as a Wallfacer. With the Trisolaran fleet still four light years out from arriving at our solar system to conquer Earth, and the omnipresent siphons to report and thwart any scientific advancement to defend themselves, the only plan humans can come up with to defeat them is to assign four people to be Wallfacers, meaning they will be given whatever resources humankind has to devise a plan that is only in their minds. Any enigmatic instructions given will be followed, even if many are merely diversions from the true goal.

While the other three Wallfacers gleefully embrace their assignment, Luo Ji – our hero – promptly asks for a remote luxury home with many amenities, lots of booze, and to be left alone. He has no inclination to try to save anyone. Meanwhile, another Wallfacer devises a way to put people in hibernation so they can be wakened at crucial moments during the four-centuries before the Trisolaran fleet actually arrives to continue their plans.

Luo Ji is more interested in finding his idealized vision of a lovely mate. He even sends someone out to find such a person, and someone is found to fit the bill. He is happy to live with her and do nothing. Along comes a son, whom he falls in love with and dotes on.

Most of the Wallfacers attempts fail. In desperation, humans kidnap Luo Ji’s wife and son, put them in hibernation, and thus force Luo Ji to get on his assigned task of finding a way for humankind to survive the onslaught that is on the way. The solution he settles on is fabulously ridiculous, and I won’t spoil the fun of that for you.

Needless to say, he also enters hibernation hoping to be rejoined with his wife and son during the final battle four centuries hence. Yet, he is awoken after two centuries because humans have detected an advance probe coming from the alien fleet that is due to arrive any minute, and they want him to help them investigate its potential and purpose.

During the last two centuries, human society has changed considerably, and even includes vast space fleets of impressive firepower, ready to meet their enemy. The probe arrives, and dashes any lingering concept of victory, proving that humanity is vastly under-equipped to deal with what is coming.

However, Luo Ji’s silly plan has a very serious consequence that even the Trisolarans don’t want to deal with. We’ll let you see that for yourself if you chose to read this.

The translation from Chinese to English is much clunkier than Ken Liu’s translation of the first novel of this trilogy. An example from page 117 of the Tor hardcover, words selected to focus on the point:

“He wanted to…inquire after Say’s mother and the UN’s mother, to inquire after the mothers of all of the delegates at the special session and on the PDC, to inquire after the mothers of the entire human race, and finally to inquire after the nonexistent mothers of the Trisolarans.”

It seems an able translator would have shortened that down to: “He wanted to call everyone a bastard.” The purpose of this is lost on me. It can’t be that the translator balked at using a word often associated with profanity, because later that exact word is used, as well as the occasional worse vulgarity. Ken Liu is translating the third volume, and he is a powerful writer, so I expect good things from the final novel.

Tor’s approach to publishing this trilogy for Western audiences is a bit puzzling. This volume was first published in China in 2008, translated just this year. Earlier this year, “The Three Body Problem” was released and promptly won the Hugo. Now, the second one is here and probably won’t win the award. The third is coming out in the spring of 2016. I wonder why they didn’t take their time and get each one translated more skillfully. Perhaps this one could have been a contender. Whatever…

Some have criticized this book because it contains a lot of Maoist philosophy, as if rehashing the famous Little Red Book of Mao Zedong (or, Tse Dong, if you prefer). Communist theory and attitudes abound. I didn’t have a problem with that, though I do have a problem with Communism itself. This book helped me to see how differently the Chinese people think, and that is helpful. If the main characters are all products of that philosophy, then it would be appropriate to have them think in those terms.

A much bigger problem for me was a scene of such monumentally bad science that I wonder why it still carries the designation of “hard SF.” Imagine the consequences of firing a pistol while floating EVA in space. Recoil would assure you get one shot off before you were doing back flips into deep space or the even deeper gravity well of dear Mother Earth. So, how does one character fire thirty – yes, I said 30! – rounds with deadly accuracy, insuring that ten others get three bullets apiece and get very dead? Ridiculously bad science, that’s how. Ho-hum. Go figure.

Do I recommend this? Well, only because of its place in the center of a trilogy. I am fascinated to find out what happens next. Yet, reading this was often a long, slow slog, like plodding along over a vast wasteland. It was brightened by the occasionally magical scenes, as when Luo Ji envisions his perfect lover and their imaginary interactions. Yet, a few times I wondered if it was all really worth the time, but – upon completion – simply realizing why Luo Ji’s ridiculous plan could actually work was gratifying. So, sure read it. Just don’t expect it to be as good as the first of this trilogy.

VA 1 December 2015

A Shocking Tragedy!

This week Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet. This was a shocking tragedy. But nothing compared to the extremely violent and unprecedented reaction to it.

Turkey is part of the NATO alliance with America. Yet, to support self-righteous agendas under the banner of maintaining global peace, the old U.S.A. is placating Putin by ordering the wholesale slaughter of all turkeys this weekend for the misdeeds of one!

This is poultry profiling people! We must never sanction such extremist viewpoints! Turkey lives matter! Raise your hands in the air for the innocent toms in our community!

What is happening across America this week is a truly shocking tragedy!

VA 4th Thursday in November. I can never keep the date straight, and am far too busy eating right now. Why didn’t my Universe ever invent Stovetop? It’s awesome!

Vonne was here

If it’s not broke, keep fixing it until it is.

Vonne’s Shelf: The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Translated into English from Chinese by Ken Liu

Parental: some profanity, violence, no sexuality.

Cixin Liu is the current super-nova of the SF community, and with good reason. It is the first in a trilogy, and – in my opinion – deserves the Hugo it won. This is entrancing, and everyone who loves SF should read it.

Ken Liu also gets props for beautifully translating it, which is a daunting job. The challenge is in conveying the author’s intent without straying too far from the correct wording. No language translates word-for-word into another language, especially not any language that needs to translate into English. English is an illogical and confusing language with few consistent rules (someone care to explain why “sword” has a silent “w” while “sworn” doesn’t? Why it’s “i” before “e” except after “c,” and “neighbor” and “sovereignty” and a host of other exceptions? Didn’t think so).

Now for the stupid paragraph: Ken Liu and Cixin Liu are not related. They both have the same surname, or family name (Liu, which follows the given name), or do they? Clearly they are from two different families. Cixin’s family name and Ken’s family name, which seems to be the same name. But Ken is Americanized, so this makes no sense. But, then again, Cixin’s name is also Americanized. In China, his name is Liu Cixin, but Tor books thinks Americans obviously aren’t smart enough to grasp the concept of a family name coming first. There you have it, your pedantically stupid and patronizing nod to western ignorance: whether of the publisher or the audience, take your pick (and yes, this paragraph was deliberately designed to confuse even me).

Immediately the Western reader is transported into an alien civilization with a strange history, and strange way of speaking, and strange cultural influences. But it isn’t on another planet. It is Red China. Yes, China is alien to westerners. Frankly, this sets a wonderful tone for strangeness throughout the novel.

After you get settled into the alien culture of 1960’s-to-today Red China, then Mr. Liu (somewhere known as Mr. Cixin) begins to play with familiar SF tropes. We have alien contact; this time from some real aliens not of this Earth. We have military control, secret installations, a computer gaming world, nanotech, time dilation, and a dissatisfied sub-culture that thinks Earth would be better off without humans. There is even a Messianic reverence for the aliens who will fix everything and make it all right.

These familiar SF tropes made me wonder why everyone was agog with Mr. Liu’s (or, was that Mr. Cixin’s?) novel. Other than the alien-ness of Chinese culture and thinking process, there is nothing stupendously new going on.

Until the last 80 pages. Then, oh my GOD!

NOW we are into new SF territory, and it rocks! It would be a disservice to you, dear readers, to spoil this one by revealing anything. I have never read anything like THIS! Please go read this! You will ultimately fall in love with it.

I’m starting the sequel, The Dark Forest, this week.

VA 31 October 2015