Winter has arrived. One can go by the calendar, using either December 1 as the start of the "winter months," or use the Winter Solstice. The latter is beloved of radio disk jockeys and talk show hosts, who love to announce on December 22 that "this is the official beginning of winter" and mock those anonymous eggheads at the Naval Observatory or wherever who didn't notice we've had snow on the ground for a couple of weeks.
I go by the weather. When it feels like winter, it is winter. That's how our preliterate ancestors figured it. In New Orleans that means winter arrives when there's a nighttime frost, typically in January. And in Massachusetts it's winter when the snow falls and doesn't melt away. Fall is the season of red and gold fading to brown, but winter is the season of white.
Winter is also the traditional time for story-telling. In spring you're out planting, or tending the newborn lambs. In summer you're weeding, gathering hay, stockpiling firewood, picking early crops, and maybe going off to raid those bastards down the river who stole some cattle last year. And in fall you have to get in the harvest. Winter is down time, and the long nights in higher latitudes encourage that.
Families would gather around the fire in wintertime, and tell stories. During the year-long winter of 1816, Mary Shelley and friends made up Frankenstein and The Vampyre, essentially creating the modern horror genre over a long weekend. Even as late as Dickensian England, there was still the custom of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. (Which survives in the form of the annual Dr. Who Christmas special on the BBC.)
Storytelling is a custom which has sadly fallen out of fashion. People read stories and watch stories and listen to stories, all created by skilled professionals. The few storytellers around nowadays are also skilled professionals. Amateurs don't tell stories much any more.
So I'm going to propose a challenge for this winter. We've had "NaNoWriMo" and "Movember" and who knows what all else. Now it's time for "Winter's Tales." The rules are simple: before the first green shoots of spring appear, everyone should tell at least one story.
You have to have an audience, obviously. It can be one person or many. Firesides are optional. The story must be told verbally, though you can write it down later if you want. The story itself can be fiction or a reminiscence or even a tall tale. I'm going to use a little executive fiat here and say that jokes don't count. A story that's funny is fine, but actual set-piece jokes aren't stories.
You get bonus points if the story is original, but that's not mandatory. A spirited retelling of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" or "The Golden Arm" is much better than a long pointless account of the time you had to spend all day in the airport because your flight was delayed.
In springtime I'll return to the topic, describe my own storytelling efforts, and let my vast readership tell about their own. Until then: it's story time.
The first reviews for A Darkling Sea are starting to trickle in, and Kirkus Reviews has a very favorable one. It's very gratifying to see that other people enjoy what I've written. I hope everyone else likes it as much.
Up to the point at which the publisher accepted my final draft, Darkling Sea was "my" book. I thought it up, I wrote it. I typed all the letters. But once they took it, it's no longer entirely mine. It belongs to the talented people at Tor, it belongs to typesetters and printers, bookstore buyers and reviewers, and ultimately it will belong to the readers.
Turns out barnstorming less than a million miles above the Sun's visible surface at more than a thousandth of the speed of light can be dangerous if you're a chunk of ice. Comet ISON disappeared behind the Sun earlier today . . . and failed to reappear on the other side.
Around Christmas time we may get a surprise meteor shower as fragments of ISON scatter across the inner Solar System, but it looks as though our chance of a big showy comet in the sky this winter have melted away.
I've had to switch over to moderated comments because of the astonishing volume of gibberish spam lately. If you post a brilliant comment or clever riposte and don't see it right away, that just means I have to approve it.
My kids have recently become enamored of the TV show Leverage, watching it via Hulu and Netflix. If you're not familiar with the series, it's basically an updated Mission: Impossible. Each episode centers on an elaborate caper performed by our slightly shady heroes, typically aimed at righting some wrong.
To make the episodes interesting, the plans always involve some disguise and misdirection, some crawling-through-the-lasers intrusion, occasionally some (nonlethal) punch-ups, and of course the now inevitable scenes of the team's ace hacker typing madly on his computer while it makes a variety of irritating electronic noises.
It struck me as I listened to an episode from the next room that the heroes of Leverage are one prosthetic hand and some mirror sunglasses away from being characters from a cyberpunk science fiction story or roleplaying game. Back in 1990 or so a group of players running a GURPS Cyberpunk or Cyberpunk 2020 game would almost certainly include a disguise/fast talk expert, a combat specialist, an agile thief, and an elite hacker. The main difference is that modern hackers use wireless networks from a nearby van instead of sneaking into the bad guy's stronghold to find a physical connection.
I've decided that the prevalence of elite hackers in modern thrillers is actually an example of wishful thinking, almost as if contemporary action stories also included flying cars and Moon bases. In the real world, security systems are not usually part of a wireless network -- precisely because their designers aren't stupid and don't want some nerd with a laptop trying to fool with them. Recent big real-world robberies like this one tend to rely on more old-school methods like sticking a gun in someone's face and running away real fast after you grab the loot.
And real-life cybercrime is a lot less interesting than it is in fiction: it's sending out billions of bogus Nigerian emails hoping to find half a dozen people gullible enough to reveal their bank account numbers. It's setting up porn sites to get credit card numbers. It's petty and banal and kind of dull.
But in fiction we want to see the elite hacker making fools of the bad guys. We want to believe that cleverness and technical skill are on the side of virtue. And we want to fantasize about making a Big Score armed with nothing but fast typing skills and a copy of Windows For Dummies. I suspect that was part of the fundamental appeal of cyberpunk fiction back in the 1980s: the idea that a nerd with a computer (no laptops back then) could be as dangerous and cool as any hard-muscled Mob soldier. Nerds with computers really want that to be true.
Tor Books are giving away a free review copy of my upcoming novel (gosh I love writing those words) A Darkling Sea. Go to the Tor.com Web site for details.
If you're related to me, don't sign up.
It's Halloween today, and I notice that Google has chosen to celebrate the day with a "Google Doodle" of a witch busy at her cauldron. I've written about Halloween witches elsewhere, but one of the links off the Google page (this one) reminded me of something I've come to detest in modern supernatural fiction.
In modern fantasy, the poor persecuted witch has become something of a cliché. Writers draw on the historical tragedy of innocents being accused, convicted, and sometimes executed for the crime of witchcraft, and use it to make their fantasy magic-users the victims of organized oppression so we can feel sorry for them even though they can shoot lightning from their hands.
This, to my mind, is a case of massively missing the point.
The tragedy of historical witch panics -- not to mention the ones that still go on from time to time in parts of Africa and Asia -- is not just that witches are being killed. The tragedy is that there are no such things as witches. That's why every witch trial has been a cruel miscarriage of justice and why we use the term "witch hunt" to describe relentless pursuit of an evil which doesn't actually exist.
If your fictional world has witches, with genuine supernatural power, then the witch-hunters are chasing after something that really exists, and really has the potential to do harm. This changes the whole dynamic of the story.
In real life, Matthew Hopkins, rooting out witches in order to collect his finder's fee, was at best deluded and overzealous, and at worst was knowingly torturing and murdering people for money. That's a villain. But if Matthew Hopkins was finding real witches, then he suddenly turns into a hero. Rides into town armed with nothing but faith and a flintlock to clean up the place. He's Solomon Kane.
In short: if you want villainous witch-hunters, leave the witches out of it. Write about historical people (or even moderns) dealing with witchcraft panics and cynical opportunists trying to profit from those panics.
If you want witches to be real, then it hardly seems fair to make them the heroes instead of the brave souls trying to stop them with nothing but steel and Scripture. Everone likes to root for the underdog.
Over the past few weeks we've been bombarded with all sorts of news, as we always are: political goings-on, economic crises, scandals, celebrity shenanigans, sports . . . and it all seems terribly important and everyone feels it necessary to let the world know what they think via Twitter and Facebook.
Meanwhile there's this: fusion experiments that release more energy than they consume.
Now I know this doesn't mean fusion power has finally arrived. It will doubtless take years or decades more before fusion power is practical.
But take the long view. In a hundred years, will 2013 be the date people give as the answer to trivia questions about "when was fusion power invented?" Is that the event of this year that will be remembered down the generations?
And all the stuff we're so passionate about right now, these crises and scandals and outrages, will be as obscure as the Great Bangor Fire of 1911 or the Panic of 1907.
Which raises the question: why are we so passionate? None of those things will be remembered. Do you think anyone will care about the "Government shutdown" in ten years? Hell, will anyone remember it in ten weeks?
Meanwhile some guys at Livermore with a laser may have done the most important thing this year. Why aren't you passionate about that?
I got a surprise package in the mail the other day: my contributor copy of Twenty-First Century Science Fiction, an anthology edited by David Hartwell and Patrick Nielsen Hayden. It's a collection of stories by science fiction writers whose careers have taken off since the start of the new century, and the list of authors is certainly impressive. We've got me, Jo Walton, me, Charles Stross, me, Paolo Baciagalupi, me, Cory Doctorow, me, Elizabeth Bear, me, John Scalzi, me, Vandana Singh, me, Yoon-Ha Lee, me . . .
. . . and ME!
My story in the collection is "Balancing Accounts," making this the third time that story has been collected since it first appeared in F&SF. (I'll have to write another "How I Did It" post about that story, since it's showing signs of being my best-known work.)
Since I just got my copy yesterday, I haven't had a chance to read through all the stories yet -- although I've already read some of them elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if any common themes or recognizable trends show up. Is there any characteristic of science fiction in the new century? I recently ventured to speculate about current and future trends in SF, so this will provide a chance to see if I hit the mark.