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Friday, January 29, 2010

Charles Coleman Finlay: The Crucible

Charles Coleman Finlay grew up in Marysville Ohio, and has lived in central Ohio for most of his life. His first published story was "Footnotes" in F&SF in 2001.

Finlay's fascination with history informs much of his writing. Novella "The Political Officer" (2002) was a finalist for the Nebula and Hugo awards, as was follow-up "The Political Prisoner" (2008), which was also a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Some of his short fiction was collected in Wild Things (2005).

Finlay's first novel The Prodigal Troll (2005) was both a thought-provoking fantasy and an homage to classic adventure fiction, set in the world of his stories "A Democracy of Trolls" (2002), "Love and the Wayward Troll" (2005), "The Nursemaid's Suitor" (2005), and "Abandon the Ruins" (2006). His Traitor to the Crown trilogy, a secret history of the Revolutionary War with magic, appeared under the byline C.C. Finlay: The Patriot Witch (2009), A Spell for the Revolution (2009), and The Demon Redcoat (2009). In 2003, Finlay was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Finlay is active as a teacher and mentor in the field, serving as administrator of the Online Writing Workshop from 2000-2007, and teaching at Clarion and the Clarion Young Authors Workshop, the Alpha Writers Workshop, and numerous convention workshops. He also founded the Blue Heaven professional novel writing workshop and served on the juries for the Philip K. Dick Award and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Excerpts from the interview:

“If there's one thing you need to know about me, it's my background. I'm trailer trash. I grew up in a trailer park next to the city dump and the sewage treatment plant. No man in my family had ever gone higher in school than the eighth grade, and no one had ever gone to college. But there were readers in my family. My mom had been a reader, although when I was young she was working two jobs most of the time. That's because my father was an abusive alcoholic, so she packed up me and my sister and moved from New York back to Ohio to start over again. The trailers we lived in always had stacks of books and she always made sure that I had things to read. Reading was my escape -- from the trailer park, from all the fights I had with other kids, from the smell of trash and sewage.

“But more than that, the characters in books became my role models. So there I was, stuck in this trailer in Ohio reading Tarzan -- that's not like being in the arms of a gorilla in Africa, I'm not saying that. But it put things in perspective. That was my attraction to the literature of the fantastic from a very early age, the scale and scope of it. I'd think, if Frodo can carry the Ring to Mount Doom, then I can get through my problems. In fantasy and science fiction, I saw characters who were faced with horrible, unfair situations and somehow they always managed to rise above them. That was very appealing to me.”


“I got lucky. Gordon Van Gelder at F&SF bought seven stories from me in about a year. They were all over the place -- something experimental, comic science fiction, space opera, Leiberesque sword-and-sorcery, high fantasy, alternate history. As I wanted to develop my career and move into novels, that posed challenges because I didn't have an identity as a writer. When Bill Schafer at Subterranean came to me with the idea of collecting all my sword and sorcery stories, I didn't have enough of them and I wasn't in a space where I could write 60,000 words more, so I said, 'Can we do a collection of all my different stories instead?'

“That's how Wild Things came about. That was a collection that had something for everyone to hate. I got a lot of reader reviews from people who were looking for just one kind of kick -- fantasy, hard SF, horror -- so they would love one story and then hate all the others. If I ever have another chance to do a collection, it will just be sword and sorcery, just science fiction, just horror. I won't jump all over the place, because that didn't work.”

“These days, I think the impulse toward short stories, and the short story market in speculative fiction, is profoundly anticommercial. It's reaching for an audience that's interested in other things. So that transition between what makes for a satisfying short story and what makes for a commercial novel is a hard one to bridge. There are writers who are doing it -- people like Tim and Tobias, Jay Lake, Elizabeth Bear -- but it's hard.

“The Traitor to the Crown trilogy -- The Patriot Witch, A Spell for the Revolution, and The Demon Redcoat -- is a secret history of the American Revolution in which witches and magic play the central role. The Revolutionary era is a great period of history, one where there are so many larger-than-life figures to work with and really interesting things happening. The belief in the supernatural is already present, and some people -- like the Count and Countess Cagliostro -- were actually trying to influence events through the use of the supernatural. And there are so many events that are unexplained that it's the perfect setting to explore in fiction.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

LiveJournal:: the prodigal blog

Read the complete interview, and biographical profile, in the January 2010 issue of Locus Magazine.

january cover

Cover Design: Arnie Fenner

US/Canada readers may purchase this issue for $6.95 + $3 shipping -- click the PayPal button to order.

Overseas readers -- please query, or phone at (510) 339-9198, to send a check or place a credit card order for this issue. (Or, Subscribe.)


Thursday, January 28, 2010

John Crowley: End of An Age

John Crowley was born in Presque Isle, Maine, where his father, a doctor and captain in the Army Air Corps, was stationed. The family settled in Indiana and Crowley attended Indiana University, earning a degree in English.

Crowley writes SF, fantasy, and mainstream literary work, often blurring genre distinctions. His first three novels were (mostly) SF: The Deep (1975), Beasts (1976), and Engine Summer (1979). He turned to literary fantasy with Little, Big (1981), winner of a World Fantasy Award and perhaps his best known work, called "a neglected masterpiece" by critic Harold Bloom.

He embarked on his hugely ambitious Ægypt series with Ægypt (1987), followed by Love & Sleep (1994), Daemonomania (2000), and Endless Things (2007).

Other novels include mainstream work The Translator (2002) and ambitious historical Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005), which includes a fictional novel by the poet. His latest novel, Four Freedoms (2008), is also historical, set in an American aircraft factory during World War II.

Crowley's short fiction is also celebrated, including "Novelty" (1983), "Snow" (1985), World Fantasy Award winner "Great Work of Time" (1989), and Locus Award winner "Gone" (1996). His short work has been collected in the World Fantasy Award-winner Novelty (1989), plus Antiquities (1993) and Novelties & Souvenirs (2004). Some of his non-fiction was gathered as In Other Words (2007). His work was the subject of critical study Snake's-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley, edited by Alice K. Turner & Michael Andre-Driussi (2003).

He also writes scripts for educational films and documentaries, and co-founded Straight Ahead Pictures with his wife in 1989 to produce film, video, radio, and online media.

Crowley's numerous awards include an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Literature (1992) and a World Fantasy Life Achievement Award (2006).

Excerpts from the interview:

“It's very hard living at the end of the Age of Print. It poses problems for all of us. It gets more and more discouraging, in some ways. Are we going to be saved by the ten thousand people all over the world who want and need our particular kind of book? Or do we have to forget about all that, write it on stones, and leave it lying around on the beach? Try to sell a book: it's not easy today. It seems like the cost of printing books has gone down, so this should be a golden age of storytelling and a golden age of book production, yet I feel like I'm not going to be able to make a living doing this.

“As one gets older, fewer things change for us -- or things change more slowly, if we're lucky. When we last talked in 2001 I had finished the fourth volume of the Ægypt books (though it took a long time to get to press). I thought that was the last, but now I hope some foundation or somebody will help me to write the fifth volume, which will consist of a learned commentary on the entire four-volume series. I want to do it myself, because no fan, no critic is going to get it right. Though it's sort of like explaining a joke, I would like to explain all the cool little things that are hard for readers to get or notice.

“I've never really had an editor. I've never had somebody say, 'John, you've just gone too far. This is stupid! Take this part out, write another page explaining this, and that will allow you to cut the next 30 pages.' Nobody has ever done that with any of my books. I wish they would. Very few editors do that anymore. In my experience, editors acquire books but they don't actually alter them. Though in the case of Lord Byron's Novel, I did use suggestions from both my editor Jennifer Brehl and my agent Ralph Vicinanza, for ways of giving background on Byron and having Ada find the manuscript -- neither of those are my original conception, and I was very happy with those. So I guess that counts as an editorial contribution. I'm always open to suggestions. I'm not like Nabokov, where every editorial suggestion would be marked by an angry 'STET!' in the margin.”


“I attempted to give Four Freedoms a documentary feel, but a lot of it's made up -- more than it might seem. All historical novels insert a guy who's made up into interaction with people who really did exist. The real Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering, flew kites, and designed a patented propeller, all that’s true -- but he didn't sell his patent to my entrepreneur character Henry Van Damme, because my character’s made up! (But the many suicides in the early history of flight recounted in the book are true.)

“All that stuff about early flight doesn't have to be in the book, but I just loved it. I had decided that the airplane pioneers in my book would be brothers, and then I discovered how many real pairs of brothers were involved in the early history of flight: the Wright Brothers, the Montgolfier Brothers, all these pairs of brothers! What is that about? What it seems to be is one brother has an idea and the courage to actually fly these crazy, suicidal machines, and you need the other one to do the calculations and the math and say, 'No, no, no, not yet!'

“At the end, a way of understanding the novel is presented to the smart reader, the careful reader, that I hope will resonate back through the whole book and cause it to be seen as a real American fantasy. The only places in my America that are named are Ponca City, Oklahoma, and San Francisco. You may have felt Chicago, or San Diego, but Chicago and San Diego aren't named. And yes, I did that on purpose. I guess I was trying to make it all-American, without being tied down to any single part of America.”

“To actually articulate a way of being in a literary world without boundaries between reality and fantasy – it can’t just be a bunch of craziness and surreal carrying on, like some writers in the '70s were doing. What is done in the writing has to be understood by the standard structures of what counts as a moving and live piece of fiction. It has to do the work of fiction no matter what may be going on, and not, 'Well, we're going to throw away the rules.' Every 25 or 30 years, people attempt to do that, throw away the rules, and it keeps on not working. Gertrude Stein did it, Finnegans Wake does it, and they keep on having no progeny. Fantasy fiction at bottom, or at its best, is about making true fictions by the rules, in worlds you make up out of whole cloth, or out of your heart.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

LiveJournal:: John Crowley Little and Big

Read the complete interview, and biographical profile, in the January 2010 issue of Locus Magazine.

january cover

Cover Design: Arnie Fenner

US/Canada readers may purchase this issue for $6.95 + $3 shipping -- click the PayPal button to order.

Overseas readers -- please query, or phone at (510) 339-9198, to send a check or place a credit card order for this issue. (Or, Subscribe.)


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cory Doctorow: Close Enough for Rock 'n' Roll

I once gave a (now-notorious) talk at Microsoft Research about Digital Rights Management ( where I said, in part, "New media don't succeed because they're like the old media, only better: they succeed because they're worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at."

I'd like to take that subject up with you today. Specifically, I'd like to examine it in light of the ancient principle of "Close enough for rock 'n' roll," and all that that entails.

What, exactly, does "close enough for rock 'n' roll" mean? Does it mean that rock 'n' roll isn't very good, so it doesn't matter if the details are a little fuzzy? I say no. I say that "close enough for rock 'n' roll" means: "Rock 'n' roll's virtue is in its exuberance and its accessibility to would-be performers. If you want to play rock 'n' roll, you don't need to gather up a full orchestra and teach them all to read sheet music, drill them with a conductor and set them loose in a vaulted hall. Instead, you can gather two or three friends, teach them to play a I-IV-V progression in 4/4 time, and make some fantastic noise."

Rock 'n' roll has two important virtues relative to orchestral music:

1. It costs a lot less to make, and so it costs less to make experimental mistakes

2. More people can participate in it, and can bring more experimental ideas to the field (see 1)

On the other hand, it lacks a lot of the important virtues of orchestral music: the sheer majesty of all that tightly coordinated virtuosity, the subtleties and possibilities opened up by having so many instruments in one place and available to be combined in so many ways.

In other words, rock 'n' roll is cheap, experimental and fluid, and devotes most of its energy into the production of music. Orchestral music is expensive, formal and majestic, but tithes a large portion of its effort to coordination and overheads and maintenance.

If the Internet has a motif, it is rock 'n' roll's Protestant Reformation thrashing against the orchestral One Church. Rock 'n' roll gets lots of wee kirks built in every hill and dale in which parishioners can find religion in their own ways; choral music erects majestic cathedrals that humble and amaze, but take three generations of laborers to build.

The interesting bit isn't what it costs to replicate some big, pre-Internet business or project.

The interesting bit is what it costs to do something half as well as some big, pre-Internet business or project.

Take Newsweek. If you wanted to launch Newsweek today, you'd probably have to spend as much as Newsweek did. Maybe more, since you'd not only have to do what Newsweek does, you'd have to somehow outspend or outmaneuver Newsweek to get there.

But what does it cost to publish something half as good as Newsweek, say, the Huffington Post? Sure, HuffPo has brought in about $20MM in venture capital, but ignore that sum — that's how much they can sweet talk out of the world of finance. I'm talking about how much capital it cost to build and operate HuffPo. A tiny, unmeasurable fraction of what it cost to build and run Newsweek.

But HuffPo is at least half as good as Newsweek — in audience reach, in influence, in news quality, in return-on-investment (though not in absolute profitability — that is, a dollar put into HuffPo will generate more income than a dollar put into Newsweek, but HuffPo uses a lot fewer dollars than Newsweek does, and returns fewer dollars in total than Newsweek, too).

What's more, as time goes by, we can expect it to get cheaper to get more Newsweek-like. Cheaper and better ad-sales markets. Larger pools of interested people with the time and skill and tools to follow breaking news. Even cheaper printing and logistics, should HuffPo go hardcover, thanks to the spread of cheap printer-binders around the world.

This is the pattern: doing something x percent as well with less-than-x percent of the resources. A blog may be 10 percent as good at covering the local news as the old, local paper was, but it costs less than 1 percent of what that old local paper cost to put out. A home recording studio and self-promotion may get your album into 30 percent as many hands, but it does so at five percent of what it costs a record label to put out the same recording.

What does this mean? Cheaper experimentation, cheaper failure, broader participation. Which means more diversity, more discovery, more good stuff that could never surface when the startup costs were so high that no one wanted to take any risks.

What's driving this cost-reduction? Part of it is the free ride on general technological development. Everyone — even the big, lumbering, expensive companies — needs cheaper hard drives, cheaper networks, cheaper computers. Every society is trying to increase the general technical literacy of its population, because every employer benefits from technical literacy in its workforce.

Partly, it's a free ride on overinvestment bubbles. When the dotcoms came along, they were — canonically — founded by two hackers in a garage working on doors balanced on sawhorses. They were so humble in origin that it was easy to believe that they'd grow to three or four hundred times their present size. Even three or four thousand times their present size. So they attracted capital — who doesn't like a crack at a 4,000X payout? More capital than they could absorb — because buying more sawhorses and doors and garages and commodity servers just doesn't cost that much. With all that money came a burden to spend, to try to grow a business large enough to pay off all that investment, which meant luring great numbers of bright people into the startup world, training them as you went on technical matters, turning them into Internet people.

When the overinvestment bubbles (dotcom, finance) crashed, you were left with a lot of skilled smart people, a lot of equipment that had gotten cheap fast thanks to enormous consumption by overfinanced companies. This, too, made it cheaper to start something new.

But even without overinvestment, the gap between rock 'n' roll and the orchestra is narrowing. Technology is giving us the organizational equivalent of a really kick-ass synthesizer, one that can allow a one-man band to sound like a whole firm. It may be that we'll never get to a point where you could build Disneyland today for one tenth of what Disney has spent since 1955. But I'm pretty sure that in my lifetime, you'll be able to build an 80 percent Disneyland (you could call it "Disneyla") for maybe 30 percent of the capital sunk into the Magic Kingdom.

This is one of the great conundra of our era: the spectre that haunts every executive, every government, every powerful person who owes her stature to her command of an empire that enjoys its pride of place thanks to the prohibitive cost of replicating it.

But lurking in those 80 percent replacements are an infinitude of ideas too weird and too funky and implausible to try at full price. Lurking there are ideas as weird and dumb as a company called (I kid you not) Google, an encyclopedia that everyone can write, a wireless network standard based on open spectrum that anyone is allowed to use, without central planning.

It's rock 'n' roll, and if it's too loud, you're too old.

From the January 2010 issue of Locus Magazine


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