Thursday, March 31, 2016

Spilling Sunflower Oil at Roscon


«Annushka has already bought the sunflower oil, and has not only bought it, but has already spilled it. So the meeting will not take place...»

Media cons are new to Russia -- the media half of Roscon is only the second such convention in that country, I was told. But the fans took to it immediately, and the costumes were as good as any I've seen anywhere.

And then there's Annushka (above), who introduced herself to me by asking if I'd read The Master and Margarita.

Have I read Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece? On my first stay in Moscow, immediately after unpacking our bags in our Garden Ring flat, the first thing Marianne and I went to see was Red Square. Then we went to Patriarch's Ponds, the city park where the novel opens. The editor Berlioz is talking with the young poet Ponyrev when the Devil walks up and deals himself into the conversation, casually mentioning that on of them will soon be decapitated.

Offended, Berlioz hurries away and, as was obliquely predicted, slips on the sunflower oil that Annushka had spilled and falls headfirst in front of an oncoming trolley.

Thus begins the wild ride that is one of the great fantasies of the Twentieth Century.

The woman who was Annushka, it turned out, belongs to a fan group dedicated to promoting the novel and its author. In addition to which, they engage in a certain amount of cosplay as its characters.

This is yet another reason why Russia is a great country.

And on the way back to our flat...

We arrived in Moscow late in the afternoon and after visiting Red Square and Patriarch's Ponds, it was time to buy some food for supper in our flat. But rather than head back directly, Marianne and I took a roundabout way, so we wouldn't be traveling on the same streets over and over. As we went, we consulted our guidebook to see what we were passing. One thing we saw was the Tunisian Embassy, which had formerly been Lavrentiy Beria's house. Beria was a very bad man. According to the book, when the yard was dug up to replace some plumbing, human bones were found. When a basement wall was knocked down to renovate the area, it was found to be filled with... more human bones.

Midway back to our flat, we passed Bulgakov's apartment. Which meant that all the time he was writing about the Devil in Moscow, he was only a short walk from where Beria lived.

This is yet another reason why the Soviet Union was a terrifying place.


Monday, March 28, 2016

My Story -- and What's Wrong With It


What do people do for fun in Russia?

How about write a story in an hour? I am not making this up. At Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention, I saw a line of serious young people tapping away at a line of laptops. They were given a list of five themes created by writer Eugeny Lukin, pulled a number out of a hat to see which one they had to write on, and set to work. There were more people involved than the photo above suggests, too. When one group finished, the next group stepped in.

I didn't exactly volunteer to take part in the competition. But somehow I found myself behind a laptop.

The theme I was given was "The End of the World 2." Which, it was explained to me, was the apocalypse that occurs after the world has already ended.

I've got to say that apocalypse fiction is no longer my cup of meat. That's a theme for young writers, I think. But I set to work. And I finished my story in the hour given me. It began:

Terraforming Mars was a snap by comparison. We’d brought in iceteroids and slammed them into the planet where we wanted oceans to be. We sailed enormous mirrors, tacking back and forth across its orbit to heat up the surface. We manufactured greenhouse gases. We seeded the soil with microbes, designer worms, and intelligently-designed ants. Start to finish, it took only five thousand years. 

By the time Mars was done, Earth was uninhabitable.

You can read the entire story in English or Russian here.

So what are the story's major deficiencies? Well...

1. The opening paragraphs. You're expecting me to say that opening with an info-dump is wrong. Not so! You need only look at Larry Niven's early short stories, which often began with a brief science lesson necessary for the reader to understand what follows, and which worked just fine. Or at the way Rod Serling opened each Twilight Zone episode with a short chat that cut out twenty minutes narrative exposition so the show could cut straight to the exciting parts. Info-dumps are a useful, if commonly maligned, tool.

No, what's wrong is that, not having looked into terraforming for several decades, I have only the haziest sense of of how it would work. Eukaryotes are involved, I believe, but how and at what stage are beyond me. And since there was no public wi-fi at the convention hotel, I couldn't look it up online. So the first significant flaw is: insufficient research.

If I were going to try to sell the story, I'd do the research and rewrite it first. Sometimes a story will come to you so fast that there's not the time to do the research. But there's always the time to retrofit it.

2. The time-span. Originally, I had the terraforming take fifty thousand years, which I suspect is pretty fast for completely altering an entire planet. But then I realized that fifty thousand years was too long a period to have people similar to contemporary humans and one hour was too short a time to write something long enough to establish a radically different society. So I cheated and cut the time scale down by an order of magnitude.

If you've got a good enough story going, the reader will forgive this sort of thing. But, really, it's playing with the net down.

3. The immortals. To dramatize the predicament these people are caught in, I had to have one of them recently come to realize with despair that Earth could not be terraformed. But if they've been working on this for thousands of years and human lifespans are still what they are now, the characters would have been born into a hopeless situation and know it already. I made them immortals who had been caught up in the details of their work for too long. This is kind of a cheat, since it's not implicit in the original idea.

The characters are also ciphers. But that's okay for this kind of story. Not every work of fiction needs to be Remembrance of Times Past.

4. The ending. I pulled in an aliens ex machina there, simply because the clock was ticking and I could think of no other way to come up with an interesting ending. Or, rather, to do so would have required a much longer story and there simply wasn't the time.

You can get away with this sort of thing if the story is entertaining enough. Someone will buy it, readers will enjoy it well enough, and then it will be forgotten. But if you aspire to "honor, power, riches, fame, and the love of women," as Freud put it (substitute "men" for "women," if you wish), then you have to aim higher and try harder.

I came in second in the competition, by the way, which is an honorable rank. I don't think anybody -- myself included -- would have been happy if an outsider had walked away with first place.


Friday, March 25, 2016

A Woman, Weeping . . .


Long airline flights offer the opportunity to catch up on movies one really ought to have seen but couldn’t manage the enthusiasm to travel all the way to the multiplex for. Recently, I went to Russia. On the way back, I saw Saving Mr. Banks. This is my belated review.

A Woman, Weeping . . .

Saving Mr. Banks begins in Heaven – or so the sunlit clouds would suggest. The camera descends to Earth to show a happy little girl with her loving father in the middle of an impossibly idyllic childhood. Then it cuts to the profoundly unhappy woman she will become.

The hatchet job has begun.

P. L. Travers, the revered author of the Mary Poppins books, is in this accounting in desperate need of scratch. Nevertheless, she resists the largess offered by Disney Studio for the right to make a movie of her life’s work. “Don’t say money! It’s a filthy, disgusting word!” she tells her lawyer. Who, like virtually every other person in this movie, is firmly on Disney’s side.

Looming poverty, however, is in the saddle and Travers must go where it drives her. She accepts a consulting fee for the script, while withholding the right to make the movie.

When Travers arrives in Los Angeles, she thinks it ugly. She hates the chlorine smell of its swimming pools. She does not tolerate fools gladly. She doesn’t want to see Disneyland. She won’t let people call her by her first name. She crams the stuffed toys and corporate kitsch thronging her hotel room out of sight in the closet. She demands script approval. She uses big words. She has a mind and a will of her own. She is everything that can be wrong about a woman.

She is, in short, badly in need of a man who’ll tell her what to do.

Luckily, Walt is on the job. He begins the seduction by holding Travers’ hands and calling her Pamela.  There is a devilish gleam in his eyes.

Travers and the writers proceed to make each others’ lives unbearable. The Banks home as they envision it is far too palatial. She doesn’t approve of the suggestion that Bert and Mary Poppins might be romantically involved. She’s gone off the color red and won’t have it in the movie at all. She is in every instance perfectly unreasonable.

Save for the one aspect of the conflict which is never mentioned: That Mary Poppins as conceived by Travers and Mary Poppins as Disney wishes her to be are not only different people but entirely different creatures. Disney envisions a chipper magical fixer-upper of broken middle class families. Travers’ creation is something deeper, profounder, more mythic.

Meanwhile, back in the past, the father, at first as charming as only a scripted actor can be, begins to fall apart, prey to the twin scourges of alcohol and whimsy. These sections grow increasingly awful and correspondingly more painful to watch. Until finally the point has been bludgeoned home: P. L. Travers has father issues and that is why she is such a miserable old hag.

It is hard to see why anybody would want to watch such a sour, unpleasant movie, seesawing as it does between the growing misery of a child and the slow and cynical bullying of her adult self. But then comes a hint: In the back-story it is deftly shown that Travers’ greatest creation is based on her own nanny, thus implying she doesn’t much deserve credit for a character who was as good as dumped into her lap. Further, the nanny is much more like Disney’s Mary Poppins than the one in the books. P. L. Travers got the character wrong! Disney got it right!

Because there must be character growth, Travers begins to bend. She mounts a carousel horse in Disneyland. She sings and dances along with one of the songs. She allows Walt to call her Pamela and then Pam. She agrees that Los Angeles is beautiful. All this can only be the result of Disney magic. That, or Stockholm Syndrome.

At last, Travers has no choice but to flee back home or lose her soul.

Walt, who admits that he “pretty much” always gets what he wants, pursues her back to London. He invites himself into her house. He calls her a dame. He shares his past with her. He moves in close and calls her Mrs. Travers for the first time. He promises to bring her father back to life, whole, healed, and redeemed.

Sitting on a chair opposite the stuffed Mickey which she has taken into her life as her own personal savior, P. L. Travers sells Mary Poppins down the river.

And they all live happily ever after.

Only… not so much.

It’s become legend by now that when the audience left the Hollywood premiere of Mary Poppins, an event to which Travers was not invited but which she managed to get into anyway, she was left weeping in the theater, and not for joy. Walt Disney had made the movie he wanted. His studio raked in a great deal of money. And Julie Andrews, perky and simplistically moral, became Mary Poppins for all but a dedicated minority of readers. Walt’s triumph was all but absolute.

Save for that lone, victimized woman, weeping in the dark.

Saving Mr. Banks resolves that unpleasant image by turning Travers’ tears into a cathartic cleansing of her past. Walt (who has fled her presence with the unseemly haste of a man with a guilty conscience), has made something she lacked the imagination to create herself – a fantasy that reconciles her with her father.

Whatever can be the purpose of this sour and not at all entertaining movie if it is not revenge for Travers spoiling the absoluteness of Disney’s victory over her? I suppose a more generous viewer might see it not as pissing on Travers’ grave but as a corporate act of filial piety toward the studio’s founding father. Either way, it is ruthless.

Did you know that P. L. Travers was a journalist? That she was friends with William Butler Yeats? That she lived for two years on a Navajo reservation? Or that she studied with Gurdjieff? It took me three minutes on Google to discover these facts. Emma Thompson did a marvelous job of portraying the woman she was told to portray (there are no bad performances in this movie) but the woman she portrayed could have done none of these things. She was simply a problem to be solved.

And solved she was. As will be all who get between the Mouse and its appetites.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Four Days in Russia


I promised to write a little about my four days in Rublevka and Moscow, where Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention, was held, and though I'm still a little jet-lagged, I'll do my best.  It was a great experience for me. The Russian fans and pros were all warm and welcoming The parties were fun. I won an award (see yesterday's post). And they made such a big fuss over me that I'm going to have to lie down in a dark room with a damp cloth over my ego until the swelling goes down.

Roscon is divided into two separate conventions. Thursday and Friday there was a literary convention of writers, editors, and serious fans, very much focused on the written word. This half was held in a hotel in Rublevka, which is where the wealthy and powerful lived in gated communities. Saturday and Sunday there was a more populist media con held in Moscow. This is a new but very successful addition to the original conference.

Here, off the top of my head are a few of the highlights:

Shish-kabobs on Thursday evening. This event was held in an open-air pavilion surrounded by birch trees and snow. The meat was grilled to perfection and there were drinks on hand. Boy, were there drinks on hand. Whiskey appears to be almost as popular as vodka and there was, of course, kvass. Like any science fiction event anywhere, the focus was on conversation. Imagine a torrent, a tumult, a babel of voices. Then add alcohol. Quite enjoyable.

The Friday night whiskey tasting. Actually, it wasn't just a tasting but a lecture as well. Andrei Sinitsyn explained the qualities and merits of each bottle before samples were poured. This has become a tradition at Roscon in recent years. In addition to the single-malts that are the backbone of the series, they one Irish whiskey, Writers' Tears, and a bottle of Rittenhouse Rye. Which I don't have to tell you is made in Philadelphia.

Interviewing Sergei Lukyanenko. Sergei is best known in America for his six Night Watch books, but he's written a great deal more as well. Also, he's one hell of a likable guy. Alas, our schedules were so crowded that the only chance I had to interview him was in a very noisy room. I'm hoping I'll be able to transcribe the results without too much difficulty. "How long did it take you to get published from when you started writing?" I asked him.

"Six months," he replied.

Meeting Annushka, who spilled the sunflower oil. The media-focused part of the con had, of course, many young people in really good costumes. I was wandering among them when a young woman carrying a pitcher and several packets of sunflower seeds asked if I was familiar with Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita. Then she explained that she was Annushka, the woman who spills the sunflower oil upon which the editor Berlioz slips, sending him under the wheels of an oncoming trolley. Just minutes after the devil predicted his imminent decapitation, at the beginning of the novel.

It turns out that there is a Moscow group of M&M fans and cosplayers dedicated to that great work of literature and they had a display set up at the con. As if I needed another reason to love Russians!

A panel with Sally Green and Nick Perumov.  Ms Green is the author of the very popular Half Bad YA series and Nick's books have sold millions of copies worldwide, though only one title has been published in English. It was held in English and about half of the audience knew the language well enough that they didn't need wait for the translator to have a full understanding of what we all said. Nick, oddly enough, was made the moderator/interviewer, but he managed to slip in some of his own ideas via the questions.

The room was pretty much full -- and this during the media half of the con. The Russians remain ahead of us on the reading front. Our government should probably fund a massive program for us to catch up.

Fiction Writing Contests. There were several. I was volunteered to enter the Write a Story in an Hour contest, and I managed to do so -- just barely. When the story is posted online, I'll blog about it in more detail.

Hanging With the Esli Editorial Staff.  I've had a number of stories published in Esli (the name means "If") over the years, and it's always been a pleasure. The magazine closed in 2012, due to distribution problems, but re-opened last year and looks to be going strong. This is a good thing. Every time I receive a contributor's copy of the magazine, I look over the stories I cannot read and sigh with longing.

The Sunday night banquet. It was zakuski, basically. Lots and lots of little plates of favorite foods, the sort of things that Russians eat at home. Accompanied, of course, with conversation. Among the many people I met there was a professional sports-fisherman -- the best in the world, his friend said proudly. I, being quite possibly the worst fisherman in the world, experienced a moment of fear when we shook hands, that physical contact would cause us both to cancel each other out.

And there was much, much more. I'll most likely write more here soon. Right now I have to see if I can do something about this jet lag. A nap may well be involved.

Above: GUM Department Store as seen from Red Square. I was fortunate enough to walk through the Resurrection Gates at the exact moment when the light was perfect. The airship is by the quite wonderful Tom Kidd. It was photoshopped in by Sarah Smith. The image is posted here with their permission. my own, of course.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Grand Roscon Award


Strange but happy news. I'm just returned from Moscow, where I attended Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention. One thing they do at national science fiction conventions is to give out awards. In Russia, it's the Roscon Award... for Best Novel, Best Short Story, and so on. I'll be sharing those results as soon as a friend forwards them to me.

One of them I know already, however. It's the Grand Roscon Award for achievement in science fiction. Which this year went to... me.

You have no idea how humbling it is to receive such a thing in a country that is home to Isaac Babel, Victor Pelevin, Anna Akhmatova, and the Strugatsky Brothers.

And now back to battling jet-lag. I'll have more to say about Roscon in the coming week.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016



As always, I'm on the road again. This time, I'm off to Moscow, for Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention. I'll be blogging if I can, but if circumstances don't permit... Well, then I won't. We'll see.

This will be an adventure for me. Wish me luck. And check this blog periodically, to see how things are going.


Monday, March 14, 2016

One Last Plug and I'm off to Russia!


There's a certain irony to packing for Russia so soon after my episode for The Witch Who Came In From the Cold was published. All I can say in my behalf is that Tanya, the Russian magic-wielder and KGB agent who is indisputably the hero of this series (sorry, Gabe!), is also the closest thing there is to a Good Guy in this battle of ideologies-and-sorcery. So at least I'll arrive in Moscow with clean hands.

Over at the Serial Box blog, Ian Tregillis has some kind things to say about me. Apparently he was worried about what I might do in my episode. And I understand that perfectly. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to bring in something unexpected, something disruptive, something that would be a real pain in the butt for him to deal with... But that's not the way this sort of game is played. Each episode builds on the previous ones and builds toward the next.

Anyway, the other writers are all likable guys. I got a kick out of working with them. So, no, I played nice.

More importantly, as Ian says in his post, episode 6 was basically the last of the set-up episodes. By the end of it, you know who everybody is, what kind of people they are, what powers are in play, and what's at stake. So now the game begins for real. As Ian wrote:

At this point we're transitioning into the second half of the season: we've almost pushed the boulder all the way to the top of the mountain. A few more nudges, and that sucker will be unstoppable. So my job in "Radio Free Trismegistus" was to clear the path for the avalanche by kicking a few pebbles down the hill.

This is a crucial moment in a plot-driven story. It's the still moment of  equipoise when the reader has put together what's going on and can anticipate how things are going to fall together -- or, as may very well be the case, apart.

From this point on, the series depends on how well the writers can satisfy the readers' expectations while simultaneously confounding them with surprising developments.

Can the Cold Witch gang do it? My money says yes.

And speaking of Russia . . .

On Wednesday I fly to Moscow for Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention. I speak no Russian, alas, but I'll have a friend with me who can translate.ds

So if you're going to be there, be sure to say hello. I'd be delighted to meet you.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Most Boring and Glamorous Job in the World


I'm probably exaggerating here -- there must be something simultaneously more boring and more glamorous than autographing signature sheets to be tipped into limited-edition books. But I honestly can't think of what that might be. And I've certainly never done it, whatever it is.

Years back, I had an Easton Press limited edition book and the way it worked then was that you got paid a dollar per signature page. It wasn't a challenging job. I had to stay alert so my autograph didn't devolve into a scrawl (I take that sort of thing seriously) but at the same time, it was undemanding enough that I could do it while watching television.

Sign name. Flip paper. Sign name. Flip paper. Over and over and over. At some point I realized that I was earning hundreds of dollars an hour doing a job that made working as a short-order cook at McDonald's seem like a hoot by comparison.

I thought about this yesterday as I was autographing sheets for the Fall of the Towers trilogy, three of Samuel R. Delany's earliest novels. I wrote an introduction for the Centipede Press edition and, believe me, I felt honored to do so. Chip's books were very important to me when I was learning how to write and my admiration for him remains undiminished. In his influence on science fiction, he is second only to Robert A. Heinlein. So, quite seriously, my writing the intro was a bigger honor for me than it was for him. And autographing the sheets was a small price to pay for it.
early work by

But, my goodness, it's a boring job.

Oh, and the image up above . . . ?

That's a bit of promotion that the folks over at Serial Box did for "A Week Without Magic," the episode I guest-wrote for The Witch Who Came in from the Cold.  Pretty nifty, huh? Though I doubt very much that Tanya would wear such a dress. She's a career KGB agent, a witch caught up in a covert magicians' war, and deadly serious. (One of my favorite moments in my episode is when an acquaintance yanks her chain by asking "Has the KGB finally issued you a sense of fun?") Anyone who imagines Tanya dressed like that has obviously seen way too many Bond movies.

Which, not coincidentally, is a part of the plot.

But if you want to know how, you're going to have to go to Serial Box and either buy the episode or subscribe to the series. I recommend subscribing. It really is a lot of fun.

You can read an essay I wrote for the blog about writing the episode here.

And you can buy or subscribe here.


Monday, March 7, 2016

"Not So Much," Said the Cat


Publishing is a funny business. Not long ago, I announced that my latest short fiction collection, The Dala Horse, would be published this summer by Tachyon Publications. And that statement is, with one small exception, still true.

Now the collection will be called "Not So Much," Said the Cat. Same table of contents, same publisher, same author. So why the change?

Funny story. The Dala Horse, the collection, was named after "The Dala Horse," the story, which is contained therein. The story was published on, which routinely offers stories from its site in e-format at 99 cents a pop. So when The Dala Horse, the collection, was put up for pre-order on Amazon, their systems connected the two separate items and made the obvious conclusion that they were different versions of the same thing. So the link to buy the story went below the link to buy the print book.

Looking exactly as if you could buy the entire collection for 99 cents.

There are few things that annoy a reader more than buying what he/she thinks will be a collection and winding up with a single story. Similarly, there are few things that annoy a publisher as much as being put in a situation where they look like they're trying to pull a fast one on the reader.

Amazon is notoriously resistant to making changes in situations like this. They simply will not separate the two titles.

So it turned out that the easiest way to solve this problem was to change the name of the book.

On the bright side, I know have a new brilliant cover for my collection. That's it up above. By the aptly-named Elizabeth Story. I think it looks terrific.

Above: The cat is, of course, Beelzebub -- but "Not," as he says, "the famous one, obviously" -- who plays a major role in "Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown." Also, of course, in the collection.

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Week Without Magic


The writers working on The Witch Who Came In From the Cold meet on Skype to hash out the plot and make sure all their episodes support each other and lead naturally into one another -- did you know that? I was a part of one of these meetings but because electronica do not like me, while I was able to see and hear what everybody had to say, I could not make my microphone work and so my contributions were limited to text messages: HA HA THAT'S GOOD and I CAN CHANGE THAT, NO SWEAT.

Which was a pity because it was a very warm and supportive group. Lots of laughter. Lots of good ideas. If meetings had been like that when I held down an office job...

Anyway, this week, my episode, "A Week Without Magic" goes live. You can buy (and previous episodes) here.

You can read a quick interview with me, and discover my favorite quotation, here.

And as part of the project, there's a thing called From the Writers' Room, where each of the writers reflects on her or his episode. I believe mine will be posted later today. You can read it (and the others) here.

And the big news is...

Simultaneous with all this comes the news that Serial Box is "parnering" (as they say) with SAaga Prss at Simon & Schuster to release the print version of the first season of TWWCIFTC in print format. The book containing Season One will hit the stores in the summer of 2017, shortly after the second season wraps up.

This is also good news for fans of two other Serial Box projects: Bookburners (about the Vatican's black-ops anti-magic squad) and Tremontaine. The latter is a prequel to Ellen Kushner's fantasy classic Swordspoint and the last time I saw Ellen, she was almost giddy with how much fun she and her team were having with it.