Westercon 2011

Deborah and I will be at Westercon 64, with bells on. Here’s my schedule, with my own take on the subjects.

Friday @ 2:30 California room

History Is Written By The Winners. How much of what we know about bunk history may be wrong and how do we find out?

Friday @ 4:00 PM (Crystal room)

Book View Café. I think I’m on this panel even though I’m not a member because I’m co-author of one member and husband of another. Come and find out more about this fast-growing author’s cooperative that has branched out from backlist resurrection to original fiction.

Saturday @ 10:00 AM (Gold room)

Alien Language. I do not think that word means what you think it does. In fact, what you think is a word was actually my digestive system. Oh, you mean that’s how you talk?

Saturday @ 11:30 AM (Valley room)

From Hell to the Boardroom. Belial, Beelzebub, Devil & Orgy was once an Alfred Bester joke. Now it’s becoming common in horror. All about corporations as the new source of evil in horror. Less filling or more taste?

Saturday @ 4:00 PM (Imperial Ballroom Reading Area)

Science fiction readings. Mike Moscoe, Deborah J. Ross, and I read from our science fiction.

Sunday @ 2:30 PM (Regency Ballroom 2)

Fantasy and Monarchy. Why do most fantasy worlds presuppose monarchy? Can we update this tradition, or put a new spin on it?

Dirt Soufflé

One of the nicest things you can do for the vegetables in your garden is make them a dirt soufflé by double digging, as outlined in John Jeavons’ indispensable How to Grow More Vegetables and Fruits (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. Basically, you dig a trench across one end of the bed about the depth of your garden spade and remove the soil for use in building your compost pile. (At this point, since I’m not fully Biointensive yet, I sprinkle in a little Sustane organic fertilizer and some rock phosphate—yes, I know the latter is not a sustainable practice, and I hope to get to phosphate self-sufficiency someday.)

Raised garden bed created by double-digging

A Dirt Soufflé

Then you loosen the soil at the bottom of the trench to the depth of your garden fork. Now cut out another trench next to this, and move the soil into the first trench, trying to disturb the soil block as little as possible. (This will be easier if the soil was well watered the day before.) Loosen the soil thus exposed, and repeat until you reach the other end of the bed. Now rake the soil towards the last trench starting from the other end until the bed is even. Spread a two-inch layer of compost over the bed and fork it in. (I usually add some humic acid and worm castings at this point.) Water well and let rest for 24 hours before planting, using a large piece of plywood that spans the bed to kneel on to avoid compacting the soil. Never step in the bed!

Voilà: a dirt soufflé! Your vegetables will be exploding with delight, as they need spend very little energy pushing down roots into the airy depths of the bed. One of the big benefits of double-digging is that it doesn’t disrupt the mycelial networks that plants depend on for nutrient uptake as much as tilling does. Soil is a living thing, and tilling wounds it severely.

Above is a 4’ by 10’ bed I finished today: you can see that even after taking out about 4 cubic feet of soil from the first trench, the bed is still about 4 inches higher than the compacted soil around it because the soil is so fluffy. This bed took me about two hours total, but I’ll speed up as I get back into shape. Bonus: it’s great exercise that works all the major muscle groups!

Double-digging looks quite labor intensive, but because you can plant vegetables in much denser arrays, it actually consumes less time per calorie harvested. Last year we harvested somewhere between 12 and 15 dozen carrots from a 4’ by 4’ double dug bed! After the initial double-digging, you can make do with a U-bar digger for several years before double digging again.

But don’t stint on your garden spade and fork, because they’re the foundation of double-digging and you will want tough, ergonomic ones. In the photo, you can see my Fiskars Big Step Garden Spade and Garden Fork. These are longer (47”) than the standard kind, and if you’re taller than 5’6” or so, you’ll appreciate the extra length, which means you don’t have to bend so much when using them. They’re all steel with a replaceable heavy-duty plastic handle, and a nice big corrugated step where your foot goes when pushing them into the soil.

If you’ve never done it, I encourage you to give double-digging a try, even if only in one bed. I guarantee, you won’t go back to standard gardening as long as your back holds out—and the exercise will probably help make your back stronger and less likely to betray you! And your food bill will go down, that I can guarantee.

The Rapture is an Alien Plot

Photo by Marc Nozell used under a Creative Commons license.Have you ever noticed that belief in The Rapture seems to correlate pretty strongly with an unhealthy interest in the way other people behave, not to mention a certain obliviousness to one’s own behavior?

Fred Clark touches on this from time to time both in his brilliant chapter-by-chapter dissection of the Left Behind novels and in more general posts in his Slacktivist blog, which I highly recommend.

But for now I just want to riff off of that perception, based on fond memories of  two old-favorite science fiction novels as the jumping-off point: Wolfbane by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, and Lords of the Psychon by Daniel F. Galouye. (They’re both long out of print, but you can find copies of both at AbeBooks.com.)

If that correlation is true, the Rapture meme would be a pretty good way for aliens  to identify brains that enjoy enforcing rules. And then harvest them.

Which means that on May 22, Rapture believers could find themselves installed in a traffic light on Mars.

Daniel F. Galouye

Rossini Listened Here

Yesterday I got the chance to play a clarinet that is almost 200 years old!

Colmer Montpelier C Clarinet (ca. 1820)

I was up in the Richmond visiting Daniel Deitch for some tweaks on my Buffet R-13 soprano Bb clarinet and repairs to a friend’s oboe, and spotted this clarinet in his workshop. It’s a “simple system” boxwood C clarinet made sometime in the 1820s or  30s. As Daniel commented with a grin, “Rossini might have heard this clarinet.”

Daniel had fashioned a barrel for it that allowed me to use my standard soprano mouthpiece. It fingers more like a recorder than a modern Boehm system clarinet, so I couldn’t do much more than pick out a scale (sort of), but it had a fairly nice tone. Felt oddly light, though.

I also took the opportunity to try out a couple of Fobes mouthpieces, and really liked the San Francisco/Zinner with the CF+ facing. Much freer blowing than what I have now, better control in the altissimo, and it almost entirely eliminated the timbral deficiencies of the chalumeau C# and D on my R-13 (possibly the result of a bore scratch from a stuck swab). In a few months I’m going to take a serious look at upgrading my mouthpiece, and this will be one on the short list.


Doc Smith, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and The Three Stooges

Those are three names you don’t see linked very often: a man whose name is synonymous with Golden Age space opera, the author of Les Liaisons dangereuses, and the masters of extreme slapstick. In fact, I’m happy to report that this blog post will be the first occasion of such a link anywhere on the Intertubes!  But they are three of the major influences on Exordium, the five-book space opera that Sherwood Smith and I started work on in 1977, which was first published by Tor Books in the 90s. We’re releasing an (extensively) revised ebook edition through Book View Café, starting today with the first book, The Phoenix in Flight.

So if you yearn for “coruscating, ravening beams of unstoppable force” (in every color but  purple), devious aristocratic intrigue and sexual tension, and high-velocity custard flingers, all combined into a multi-layered universe, check out The Phoenix in Flight. There’s an excerpt up at Book View Café that will give you a taste of what’s coming as we release the other four books over the next few months.

And then it’s on to new stories in the Worlds of Exordium!

BTW, my co-writer Sherwood Smith has a nice chewy post on the origins of Exordium up on LiveJournal.

Les Liaisons dangereusesLes Liaisons dangereuses

Space Opera and the Siege of Vienna: the Archetypal Perspective

In their 2003 article How Shit Became Shinola: Definition and Redefinition of Space Opera, David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer defined modern space opera as “colorful, dramatic, large scale science fiction adventure, competently and sometimes beautifully written, usually focused on a sympathetic, heroic central character, and plot action … and usually set in the relatively distant future and in space or on other worlds, characteristically optimistic in tone.”

It would be hard to improve on that definition using words (although I could write an  entire blog post concerning the exceptions that prove the rule—and maybe I will one of these days), but I can show you what I go to space opera for with a single image.

The Battle of Alexander at Issus

That’s the Alexanderschlacht (The Battle of Alexander at Issus) by Albrecht Altdorfer, which was commissioned in 1528 by William IV, Duke of Bavaria. Altdorfer’s conception of the painting was almost certainly heavily influenced by the defeat of the Suleiman the Magnificent at the Seige of Vienna the next year, and his execution of the commission epitomizes what I look for in space opera, and what Sherwood Smith and I tried to do in our space opera Exordium, which is being reissued in a revised edition by Book View Café on May 17.

Alexanderschlacht portrays the victory of Alexander over Darius III in a battle that was the beginning of the end for the Persian Empire, which fell in 330 BCE with the death of Darius and Alexander’s assumption of his title as king, assuring the Hellenization of the Near East.  The work’s composition is thought to echo the four-kingdom eschatology of the Book of Daniel—Babylon (note the distant Tower of Babylon at the left side of the painting, under the crescent moon), Persia, Greece, and Rome), with Alexander’s victory representing the triumph of Greece over Persia, and echoing the hope that the relief of Vienna represented the triumph of Christendom (i.e., Rome) over Islam.

The description of the painting in Wikipedia starts by noting the “impossible viewpoint” of the painting, but that’s precisely what the Alexanderschlacht shares with space opera, and why it can serve as the picture-worth-a-thousand-words definition of the genre. Rather than “impossible viewpoint,” I’d call it the “archetypal perspective:” a close-up and even intimate view of heroic characters against a highly-detailed yet sweeping background meant to illustrate the fundamental struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. That’s what I go to space opera for.

Look at how Altdorfer laid out the action: the incredibly-detailed foreground that highlights the two antagonists: Alexander sweeping in from the West (out of the Sun) at the head of his Companions, pursuing his defeated enemy Darius on his chariot fleeing to the East (towards the Moon), all surrounded by a swirl of cavalry and foot soldiers. All this is portrayed in a physically impossible perspective that rises up past the chaos of battle to portray the Mediterranean Sea, Cyprus, the Nile, the Red Sea, and eventually encompasses three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) and reveals the curvature of the earth at the horizon, with an apocalyptic sky dominating the whole. (And if you tilted the suspended description panel at the top of the painting back away from the viewer…Star Wars, anyone?)

The painting is dense with symbolism and detail, ranging from unrealistic ones like ladies in court dress at the edge of the battle, to highly-archetypal ones like the Sun and crescent Moon. It’s a visual feast that invites zooming in and out,  one that you can return to again and again, gaining something new each time, just like re-reading a big, chewy space opera (or epic fantasy, for that matter: check out my co-writer Sherwood Smith’s blog post on that subject). And really, one need only change a few details in the painting, add some spaceships, substitute blasters for lances, pull back a little farther so the Earth is just one planet in an even bigger panorama, and, voila: space opera.

Basically, I think space opera, like epic fantasy, is simply the way most people see the world on any scale, from the personal to the grand sweep of history: as a story with a goal, a story where every pattern, every detail, points to deeper meaning. The dark side of this perspective is conspiracy theory; the light side, great art.

What do you think?


I’m working on a very interesting project: creating an operations manual for a small private water treatment and distribution system up here in the Santa Cruz mountains. We’re going to be using Adobe Acrobat X to enable multiple stakeholders to comment on the document as it evolves and the finished PDF will, we hope, incorporate live video feeds from surveillance cameras monitoring various locations, tanks, and gauges.

Perhaps I’ll also be able to get an article out of this for a magazine. Even if that doesn’t work out, the project will make a great blog post.

This project actually started back in 2008, but was delayed for various reasons until just recently. At that time I started thinking about building a practice around creating such manuals. Very few small systems have good documentation, and although state regulations on this seem to be laxly enforced right now, that could change. As a first step, in 2009 I got a California Water Treatment Operator’s License (T1), and have been thinking about eventually going for a T2, and maybe adding a distribution license at some point. I also assist the water system operator at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond.

However, if the re-launch of Exordium goes well and we start writing more novels in that world, I probably won’t have time for water system manuals. So I’m not rushing into the T2, which would require a good bit of studying.



The publication date for  Ruler of Naught, the second volume of our Exordium space opera, just got moved to July 19th. That gives us two more weeks to stuff even more skiffy into it.


With malice towards all

Yesterday I lost half my workday to the Win 7 Total Security virus—the first time I’ve ever gotten a computer virus. I still don’t know where I picked it up (I’m not going to go looking for the site!), but it went right through my McAfee protection suite and shut down all my Internet access via browser; except, of course, the “Activate Now” link that would have really screwed me over. Continue reading