Category: Blog (page 1 of 22)

States of Decay by Ben Mauk

While growing up in Texas meant that fanciful notions of 19th century cowboys acculturated into my head too young for me to recall any sources, I do remember my introduction to the 20th century Atomic West. It was from Tom Lehrer’s 1953 tune, “The Wild West Is Where I Want to Be,” unmistakably satirical even to a child’s ears, wherein he sings: Along the trail you’ll find me lopin’ / Where the spaces are wide open / In the land of the old A.E.C. (yee-ha!) / Where the scenery’s attractive / And the air is radioactive / Oh, the wild west is where I wanna be. I had to ask my father to explain the acronym for the Atomic Energy Commission.

From prospectors to the Manhattan Project to artifacts of Cold War industry, the American West has existed in my mind as a kind of mottled antique, retro-futuristic in those places where it isn’t simply retro. So it was with great interest that I read Ben Mauk’s new longform piece in Harper’s, “States of Decay: A Journey through America’s nuclear heartland.” Ben has visited the wellsprings of the Atomic Age, explored disused mines, talked to the people still inhabiting its ghost towns and superfund sites. It’s a fascinating read, full of resentment, nostalgia, and unhealthy doses of radiation.

Back outside, Lucas held his Geiger counter up to his face. This was apparently a favorite pastime of rad heads, but even Lucas seemed startled by the figure: around fifty times background, the result of the radon progeny that had caught on condensation in his beard. “Wow,” he mused, taking a selfie with the counter against his mouth.

“You might want to think about shaving,” Jennifer said.

“States of Decay” by Ben Mauk at Harper’s Magazine.

"Okay," said Ceasar. "I'll get along with you, Ezekial." And you could hear his gentle, generous nature in his voice. You could hear it, actually, even when he said, "Ima fuck you up!" Gentleness sometimes expresses itself with the violence of pain or fear and so looks like aggression. Sometimes cruelty has a very charming smile. –Mary Gaitskill, "Lost Cat: A Memoir"

Social Media Presence — August 2017

After flirting with the idea for a while, I’ve finally deleted the Facebook and Twitter apps from my mobile devices and logged out of the sites on my computer. I’m not deactivating my accounts or anything; I might return to them at some point. But I’d grown unhappy with how much of my time and attention social media was consuming. While I regret that I’m undoubtedly going to miss some event invitations and meaningful news from distant friends, I’m already feeling happier and more productive after just a couple of weeks. Some auto-posting systems, like blog posts getting shared to Twitter, remain in place, but the only social media service I’m still actively using is Instagram. So, for the time being, if you want to get in touch with me the best ways are by email or text. If you don’t have those and are trying to establish contact, please use the contact page on this site.

My WisCon 41 Schedule

I’ll be in Madison, Wisconsin from May 26-29th for WisCon. Here’s what I’ll be doing.

Friday, 9:00 am – 12:00 am, Caucus: Critique Session. I’m running one of the workshop sessions this year, and very excited to do so. This is one you’d’ve had to apply for in advance. If it sounds like something cool and you missed your chance, look for it next year. There are general fiction workshops every year, plus special topic sessions on things like genderqueer writing and romance in SF.

Friday, 7:30-8:30 pm, Capitol/Wisconson: Opening Ceremonies. Pat Schmatz and myself, last year’s Tiptree winners, will be there to crown this year’s winner, Anna Marie McLemore.

Saturday, 10:00-11:15 am, room 605: Judging the Tiptree. Current Tiptree jurors discuss the process of judging and selecting Tiptree award winners. Other panelists are Jeanne Gomoll, Aimee Bahng, Kazue Harada, Alexis Lothian, Roxanne Samer, and Julia Starkey.

Sunday, 10:00 am – 11:15 am, Michelangelos: Burning Up on Re-entry (reading).  I’ll be reading some of my fiction, along with Jed Hartman, Kat Tanaka Okopnik, Benjamin Rosenbaum, and David J. Schwartz. This’ll be in the back of the Michelangelos coffee shop around the corner from the con hotel, where I’ve attended many WisCon readings over the years but never before done one.

Judging the Tiptree Award

This was made public a little while ago, at the same time the new winner and honorees for work published last year were announced (congratulations to them all, especially Anna-Marie McLemore!), but I’ve been remiss in mentioning here that I’m on the panel of judges for the 2017 James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award. The panel often includes a past winner of the award, and I’m thrilled to fill that role this year. Serving with me are Cheryl Morgan, Julia Starkey, Kazue Harada, and our chair Alexis Lothian.

As a consequence, I won’t be tracking my fiction reading online at all this year, since it will mostly be for award consideration. Also, if you follow me on social media, you will see me posting about the award with some regularity. That’s because the judges need people’s help making sure we see all the excellent work that gets published this year. The Tiptree Award has an open recommendations system, so any new (i.e. published in 2017) science fiction or fantasy that you think explores or expands notions of gender is eligible, and can be nominated just by typing the details into a simple web form. You submit it, we’ll see it.

Nominate works for the 2017 Tiptree Award here.

2016 Tiptree Symposium celebrating Ursula K. Le Guin

In December I traveled to Eugene, Oregon to attend the 2016 Tiptree Symposium, a two-day academic conference on the work of Ursula K. Le Guin. I got to see some old friends, made some new ones, briefly met Le Guin herself, and heard many thoughtful panels and lectures. If that sounds like something you’re sad to have missed, you’re in luck: the University of Oregon has put videos of the presentations online.

I’m planning to rewatch several of these, starting with the incredible panel Alexis Lothian put together on “Speculative Gender and The Left Hand of Darkness,” featuring Aren Aizura, micha cárdenas, and Tuesday Smillie presenting three trans perspectives on the novel. I took five pages of notes on this panel alone, and came away feeling I hadn’t been able to jot down everything I wanted to think more about.

Since the video index page I linked above truncates the titles, here’s a full listing of the videos:

December 1, Sally Miller Gearhart Lesbian Lecture, Dr. Alexis Lothian, “Queer Longings in Straight Futures: Notes Toward a Prehistory for Lesbian Speculation

December 2, Welcome and Panel 1: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Field of Feminist Science Fiction

December 2, Panel 2: UO Prof. Edmond Chang’s Feminist SF students on The Word for World is Forest

December 2, Keynote and Q & A: Karen Joy Fowler, “Ursula Le Guin and the Larger Reality”

December 3, Panel 3: “Speculative Gender and The Left Hand of Darkness”

December 3, Panel 4: “Le Guin’s Fiction as Inspiration for Activism”

December 3, Panel 5: Kelly Sue DeConnick and Ben Saunders: “New Directions in Feminist Science Fiction: A Conversation with Kelly Sue DeConnick”

December 3, Keynote: Brian Attebery, “The James Tiptree Jr. Book Club: A Mitochondrial Theory of Literature” (The text of this one was also published on Tor.com)

Reading 2016: Catching Up

I did very little reading this past summer, my attention instead consumed by other responsibilities. These are the only books I managed the last few months.

  1. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton – A book I’d saved for a time when I wanted to read something I was absolutely sure I would enjoy. It’s impossible to overstate how delightful and sly this is. I’ll be, I’m certain, revisiting this novel as comfort reading in the future.
  2. Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz – I’ve been reading Wertz’s comics online off and on for years, and it was nice to revisit these earlier strips.
  3. Astro Boy vol. 10 by Osamu Tezuka – Borrowed from Ada Palmer’s library, this volume collects the story arc in which Astro Boy must fight the robot Pluto. I read this so that I can at some point return to Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto with greater appreciation.
  4. Domu: A Child’s Dream by Katsuhiro Otomo – Another book borrowed from Ada Palmer, this is one I’d been wanting to read for a long time, I think since it was reviewed on Artbomb in the early 2000s. I love Otomo’s Akira, and this book in many ways feels like an earlier experiment in creating that world. It also reminded me that there has still never been another mangaka who draws action quite like Otomo does. I’m going to be buying a copy of this for my own collection.
  5. Engine Summer by John Crowley – Crowley’s prose is pristine, and much as in The Deep, here he employs a shadowy frame narrative that maintains an undercurrent of curiosity even as a hundred pages go by without the story glancing that way. This book is lyrical and contained, pleasant but not major. Still trying to work myself up to giving Little, Big another shot.
  6. Blindsight by Peter Watts –I think I fundamentally disagree with the philosophy of mind at the core of this novel, but very much enjoyed it nonetheless. I stayed up all night reading it in one go. Watts writes excellent, cutting sentences to hold some big science fiction ideas. I have many nitpicks, but Blindsight is a novel of real ambition and menace. I admire that.

WisCon 40 GoH Speeches

For its fortieth anniversary WisCon invited three Guests of Honor, Justine Larabalestier, Sofia Samatar, and returning GoH Nalo Hopkinson. Today, which happens to be James Tiptree, Jr.’s birthday, all three have published their Guest of Honor speeches online.

Justine Larabalestier gave a speech about prejudice against YA fiction as a symptom of societal prejudice against teens themselves.

Turns out it wasn’t just the SFF crowd who aren’t fans of YA. (Though I suspect that SFF folk have particularly painful memories of being a teen and being oppressed by other teens.) I heard the following a lot: “Teens are awful. Being a teen was awful. Why on Earth would you write about them?” Often accompanied by visible shuddering.

It was starting to dawn on me that the horrified reaction to my writing Young Adult had little to do with the books and a whole lot to do with lack of interest in, as well as fear and hatred of, teenagers. Much as dislike of Romance is often more about misogyny than the books themselves.

It’s a mystery to me how I failed to notice that many adults hate teens. I’d certainly been aware of it when I was a teen. But somehow I forgot.

I also realised that adults hating teen wasn’t just a personal thing it was also a societal thing. There are, in fact, laws against teenagers in many jurisdictions. There are stores and even whole malls that won’t let teens in unsupervised by adults.

Why? I wondered. Why do we hate teens so much. I mean sure some of them are arseholes but so are some adults. What’s going on?

She followed with a fascinating discussion of just how new an idea it is–less than a century old–to consider “teenagers” as their own category, and how important it is to take them seriously.

Sofia Samatar’s speech was a gorgeous, soaring defense of diverse style and voice within genre, opening by quoting a critic’s line, “Genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon,” and flying on from there.

In fantasy and science fiction we might ask—why does our longing so often look like Isaac Asimov’s longing? This is the genre of possibility! After all, many people are drawn to the worlds of fantasy and science fiction because they feel like outsiders, they feel like they don’t belong in this world. The tropes of fantasy and science fiction can be powerful vehicles for expressing the sense of dislocation experienced by those who are physically and psychologically on the outside. I myself am drawn to these genres partly due to the experience of growing up between cultures that everything around me insisted could not exist together: half of my family are Somali and Muslim and the other half are Swiss-German Mennonites from North Dakota. What does that make me? It might mean I’m from the future, it might mean I’m a citizen of an alternate universe, but either way it complicates my relationship to this world. It makes me long for ways of being I don’t see in the world around me, and that’s not John Updike’s longing, it’s not Isaac Asimov’s longing, it’s particular and I believe worthy of expression.

Nalo’s speech was structured around lines curated from her own exercise music playlist, and focused on the rhetorics of the genre fiction community. She looked at the reasons people are angry, and how they act in their anger, and the predictable responses that her analysis would cause.

Listen: If I’ve learned anything in this past little while, it’s that there are people who will warp one’s message, in violation of one’s principles. I know that soon after this speech goes public, there will be those who will either mock it, or appropriate its language for their own ends. They’re going to say that I’m modelling the very things against which I’m advocating. That kind of flipping the script has become a popular tactic. I’ve begun to take it as a measure of success, in part because said appropriation is reactionary, not originary. They envy a particular sound bite or concept, so they try to make it their own, or, failing that, to make fun of it.

I don’t know what to do about that, but I do know that snark is easy, maybe too easy. It’s easy to ridicule others, for good or for ill. It’s easy to encourage others to join your dogpile, to create an atmosphere of fear, anguish and self-doubt in your preferred victims. Yet it’s not a bad thing to urge people to question their own beliefs and behaviours. Anger and conflict have their uses. But what are we doing on the other side of the ledger? I’m hearing from far too many people who would love to be part of science fiction, but who are terrified of the bullying. So what are we doing to foster joy and welcome to this community? What are we doing to cultivate its health and vibrancy? What are we doing to create an environment in which imperfect people (as all people are) who are trying to be good people can feel encouraged and supported to take the risk of a misstep, perhaps learn from it, and come back refocussed and re-energized, eager to try again?

Following up that thought, Nalo proposed doing a specific thing: the creation of an award for kindness, given to people determined to have made positive change within science fiction communities. She calls it the Lemonade Award, and even discovered an SFnal object to inspire the trophy. I think incentivizing prosocial behavior in our field is an excellent and timely idea, and hope that her award takes off as well as the Tiptree Award–also proposed in a WisCon GoH speech–did.

Bullet Journaling with GoodNotes 4

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This past year I’ve finally gotten busy enough to need a more robust system for keeping track of my tasks than my previous mess of memory, post-its, and smudged words on the back of my hand. I tried a bunch of phone apps with very little success, and eventually stumbled on Bullet Journaling. I’m not evangelical about it, but it’s worked very well for me. Physically writing out my tasks, moving them around, Xing them out; it’s kept me focused and given me a visual record of my productivity that’s unmatched by any of the software tools. Trouble is, it’s also meant carrying around a red Moleskine that I look at multiple times a day. Everything else I do lives on my devices now, constantly backed up and accessible everywhere. Being beholden to a stack of paper has been a source of constant, low-level anxiety. One moment of clumsiness with a beverage or forgetfulness on a bus and my life could become a desperate scramble.

Fortunately, that’s all over now. I’ve recently switched to an iPad Pro 9.7 for my mobile computing (about which a longer post soon), and with it begun using a phenomenal app called GoodNotes 4 that solves every problem with my old journal and then some. Paired with the Apple Pencil, using it feels just like writing on paper, and lets me quickly jot down anything I need to remember. It looks like this:

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If you’ve done any Bullet Journaling though, you know it’s not just about the lists. The primary selling point of the system is its organization, with an index for all the different sections. GoodNotes 4 takes care of that with its bookmark system. Just drop a bookmark at each new section, the bookmarks tab becomes an index:

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So that’s all the organizational features of my paper version covered. And GoodNotes 4 also syncs with iCloud, allowing me to access it from my phone if necessary and eliminating my last significant risk of data loss. On top of that, digital features like copy/paste, erase, and undo are all available, not to mention dozens of options for color and drawing style, plus the ability to add new blank pages (in any of multiple paper types) inside the journal.

All of that would have been enough to make the switch worthwhile, but it has another feature that’s incredible, and would be completely impossible with pen and ink. All of that handwriting in the images above? It’s fully searchable.

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This app lets me do text search of handwritten notes, and it works almost perfectly. It’s so good I’ve found myself fantasizing about how convenient it would’ve been to have this technology when I was an undergrad, carrying around a different composition notebook for every course. Had I to do it over again, my entire physics degree would live in GoodNotes 4. As it is, I’m happy enough just saying goodbye to the last paper journal in my life.

 

 

Austin Bat Cave’s Science Fiction Writing Camp

 

imageAustin Bat Cave is a nonprofit organization that creates free writing programs for Austin-area kids. During the academic year they work inside schools, and put on a series of writing camps during the summer. A few months ago the program director, Ali Haider, approached me about the latter. He wanted to do a summer camp for 9- to 11-year-olds on writing science fiction, and wanted me to design and teach it. The curriculum development seemed like a fun challenge, and I thought I might enjoy the novelty of teaching a much younger age group than when I was at Iowa (fun largely because I didn’t have to do it alone; three volunteers were signed up to help run the class.) So I said yes, and this summer spent a week with twelve mostly eager young writers.

It was a Monday through Friday camp in the conference room of a branch library, three hours a session, with a public reading of student work at the end. The goal of the camp was for students to produce, workshop, and revise a complete science fiction short story of ~1000 words. Day 1 was all about getting the kids used to the camp and each other, discussing what a science fiction story is, and having them choose the settings they’d be working with the rest of the week. We talked about all the different kinds of places science fiction stories could take place, watched Powers of Ten, and read Ken Liu’s “Celestial Bodies.”

Day 2 was about character and characterization, with a guest speaker from a local tech design firm to talk to the kids about the interface between life and technology. We read “Project Daffodil” by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley and discussed unreliable narrators, then developed characters as a class and discussed how their natures and histories suggested possible plots.

Day 3 was full of exercises on plot and detail language. We discussed the chains of causality that link one event in a story to another, and read Beth Cato’s “Post-Apocalyptic Conversations with a Sidewalk.” Then we did an exercise recommended by Kendra Fortmeyer, in which the class collaboratively wrote a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story in Twine, splitting as the branches diverged, until every student wrote their own ending.

Days 4 and 5 were all about finishing and revising the stories the students were writing, doing peer workshops in pairs one day and then rewriting on the basis of that feedback the next. They also read “Misprint” by Vonda McIntyre and had another guest speaker, Martina Belozerco, who discussed medicine and its role in people’s lives. Thursday evening was a reading for parents and guest, some of the students’ first time reciting their own work into a microphone. And of course, when everything was finished, we had a party. The kids seemed to enjoy themselves, the parents were pleased, and I got to scratch the teaching itch that’d been growing since I moved to Texas. So thanks to Austin Bat Cave for the opportunity. If you live here and have school-aged children, you should look into their programs.

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