Archive for May, 2011

The life of a repo man is always intense

The month of May has been busy so far and promises to get even more so, with things getting even more interesting in June.


  • There’s an interview with me in the May issue of Locus, with a full-page photo, and my picture on the cover even! (Though it’s just one of the postage-stamp-sized insets on the right-hand side.) You can read some excerpts from the interview online.
  • The Breaking Waves charity anthology is still going strong, with all proceeds going to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund of the Greater New Orleans Foundation.
  • I have my Wiscon program schedule and it is awesome:
    • Friday morning: Writers’ Workshop (closed).
    • Saturday 4:00 pm, Michelangelos: Space Fairies from Beyond. A reading by Seanan McGuire, Sarah Monette, Catherynne M. Valente, Pamela Dean, and me. Did I say awesome already?
    • Sunday 10:00 am, Assembly: About the “Writing the Other” Workshops. I’ll be moderating, with fellow panelists Ada Milenkovic Brown, Nisi Shawl, and Cynthia Ward talking about the book and workshops.
    • Sunday 1:00 pm, Room 629: World-Building as a Spectator Sport. Amy Thomson, Deirdre M. Murphy, Paul Rehac, Benjamin Rosenbaum and I improvise an alien world using suggestions from the audience. This was a real hoot last year.
    • Sunday 4:00 pm, Senate A: I’d Object, If I Weren’t Invisible. I’ll be moderating again, and discussing bisexuality with fellow participants Betsy Lundsten, Jennifer M. Nissen, Julia Rios, and Alberto Y%26aacute%3B%26ntilde%3Bez.
  • In Locus Online, Lois Tilton reviews the June Analog, including my story “Citizen-Astronaut,” and calls it “pretty good stuff.”
  • I presented a half-hour talk before Hand2Mouth Theatre’s production Uncanny Valley. I blathered for half an hour, without hesitation, deviation, or repetition, on the subject of science fiction for a fairly large and polite audience. Got a few questions, and a couple of people came up to me with compliments after the show. It was fun! The show itself was… well, not a “play,” per se, more of a performance piece with music, movement, and words on the topic of memory. But if you kind of squinted you could see that in the world of the piece there was a technology of some sort that used motion, music, and objects to evoke lost memories. I talked with the director afterwards and discovered that in earlier versions of the piece (it’s constantly under development) the science fiction aspects of the show were much more overt. But audience members got angry when they broke the rules they’d established, so rather than becoming more consistent they made it vaguer. Oh, well. Would have liked to have seen the earlier version.
  • Just for a lark, I signed up with a casting service in hopes of getting cast as an extra on Leverage. Wish me luck! I’ve already gotten one call (not for Leverage) but I was not available when they needed me.
  • I had two stories due (one final, the other a draft) on May 15. I got both of them done in time, and I’m pretty happy with the way they both came out. Now we wait.
  • I had a colonoscopy. (Happy 50th birthday.) The preparation was no fun at all, but the procedure itself was a complete non-event. By which I mean that, although I was apparently rather chatty while under sedation, I have no memory of it whatsoever. My memories go straight from the doctor starting the IV to talking with Kate (plainly in the middle of a conversation) in the recovery room, with no sense of lost time in between. Weird. They found and removed a couple of small polyps, which were non-cancerous, and I don’t have to do that again for five years.

I am now at the airport awaiting my flight to Albuquerque for the Rio Hondo writing workshop. From there I’ll proceed to Milwaukee (rendezvousing with Kate at Phoenix) where we’ll spend a few days with my dad before heading to Wiscon. Basically, I won’t be home until June.

I’ve also received a couple of very good writing opportunities in the last couple of days, which I will have to work fast, hard, and smart to properly exploit. It’s all good stuff but a lot of it requires work and a lot of it I can’t talk about yet.

Boarding soon. Whee!

Local Sci-Fi Author to Speak

I have been asked to present an informal “pop talk” half an hour before the May 14 performance of Hand2Mouth Theatre‘s Uncanny Valley, described as a “sci-fi adventure into psychic space.” I haven’t seen the show yet myself, but here’s a little bit of information about it:

We have used a number of SF inspirations and sources throughout the 1.5 year creation process (books, stories, films, etc.) We have been particularly interested in the “what if” suppositions in SF as well as perspectives on the “other”, “doubling”, and the “uncanny”. One of the underlying questions of the show is “What if the theatre were a literal memory machine that allowed actual past events to be re-experienced, experienced by others, possibly even manipulated and altered?” In earlier phases of the show, SF was a strong stylistic force (space suits, mind reading machines, alien doubles, time travel, etc.). In this final phase of the show, these elements are de-emphasized and treated more subtly. What remains is a thrilling and uncanny meditation on the nature of memory, consciousness, reality, and time. In the course of the show, by seeing skewed unfamiliar alternate versions of ourselves through the looking glass of the memory machine, we can somehow view our past and present with greater clarity (much in the same way that SF can reveal hidden truths about the real by exploring the unreal).

You can watch the intriguing video trailer for the play, and read more on the company’s blog.

My talk will be informal, conversational, and interactive. I’m planning to mention Philip K. Dick, of course. Are there any other SF themes, authors, or notable works I should be sure to bring up?

If you’re in the Portland area this Saturday, I hope you’ll come to the show!

A lovely day to go out to sea and get shot at

The Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain are a pair of replica 18th-century merchant sailing vessels. The Lady Washington portrayed the HMS Interceptor in the film Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and also appeared in Star Trek Generations. Their home port is in Aberdeen, Washington, but this weekend they were visiting Rainier, Oregon. As it happens, I’m considering setting my next novel aboard an 18th-century sailing vessel, so for research purposes Kate and I drove up to Rainier to experience one of their “Battle Sails,” in which the two ships shoot at each other with real black powder. It was a great day for a sea battle, with temperatures in the fifties, lightly overcast, and just enough wind for sailing.

There were about 40 of us passengers all told, about 10 of them small children who had come to sail on the “pirate ship.” As it happens, the Chieftain was unable to carry passengers at this time due to generator issues (though she was still able to sail and fight) so we all piled onto the Lady Washington. It was a little crowded but not unreasonably so.

The crew numbered 11: the captain decided where the ship should go, manned the tiller, and gave high-level instructions to the first mate; the first mate turned those instructions into detailed commands for the hands who actually set the sails; the engineer was in charge of the diesel engine (which we used only when docking; in the 18th century a ship like this would almost always have anchored offshore) and when under sail was the most experienced hand; the steward was in charge of herding the passengers and also acted as gunner; and seven hands clambered about and hauled on ropes as directed. This complement is fairly similar to the size of crew the ship would have had when hauling cargo in the 18th century.

I noted that there were neither NO STEP signs nor friction strips anywhere on the vessel; any approximately horizontal surface was fair game for being clambered upon.

All of the crew were dressed in a rough approximation of period costume, accessorized with safety harnesses and other modern practicalities. Several of the hands wore Vibram shoes with individual toes, which seemed a reasonable accomodation to soft modern feet. The captain and engineer were in their thirties, I’d say; all of the rest were college-age and I believe all of the hands were volunteers who were paying for the privilege of working and learning aboard. The youngest and least experienced hand had been on board for three days. Three of the hands were women, as was the first mate (who was addressed by the captain as “madam mate”) and short Mohawks were popular with both sexes.

The ship herself was also a compromise, being equipped with a diesel engine, radar, life jackets, and other modern features, as well as bunks with a lot more than eighteen inches per crew member. I’m glad we were on the Lady Washington rather than the Hawaiian Chieftain, as the latter vessel is both based on a more recent original and is less authentic in many of her appointments.

The captain, a skinny somber fellow who advised a small child to get away from the tiller because “there’s two hundred tons of ship pushing that rudder around, and I’ve seen men’s femurs get snapped right in half” and remarked “madam mate, see to it that doesn’t happen again,” was an interesting contrast to the first mate, all grin and aviator sunglasses, who said things like “awesome!” and “set the jib, question mark?”

I wish we’d been given a little more information than the basic safety drill (how to put on the life jackets and when to put your fingers in your ears). I did pick up a few words of sailor-ese, but I never got a very good understanding of how the mate’s shouted commands translated into the motions of the sails, never mind how those motions translated to the ship’s heading and velocity. The crew climbed up into the rigging to unfurl and furl the sails at the beginning and end of the voyage; the rest of the time, all but one of them spent their time running back and forth between four stations on the deck, hauling on ropes to turn the sails around the axes of the two masts. The one remaining hand was entirely responsible for all of the sails at the front of the ship, which kept her very busy; apparently this was a rite of passage. Those motions of the sails, plus the tiller, were sufficient to direct the ship into a favorable position to fire on the other ship while avoiding being fired upon. Even though the wind was quite light, only about 8 MPH, when the sails were turned to catch it, the ship gave a very perceptible lean and surge — a thrilling moment.

Combat for this type of small merchant ship does not resemble the massed broadsides you’ve seen in the movies. She was equipped with two deck guns, each about two and a half feet long and firing a three-pound ball, plus two small swivel guns at the back. Our single gunner, carrying a satchel of black power and a slow match, ran to whichever gun was closest to the enemy, loaded it, and fired at the captain’s command (which was generally “as they bear”). These little three-pounder guns (by comparison, the guns in Master and Commander were eighteen-pounders) were enough to make a noise and do a little damage — hopefully enough to scare off any seagoing predators. Our main battle tactic was to try to get directly ahead of the other ship, where she had no guns, while attempting to get into a position where we could fire a “raking” shot down the length of the other ship. It was also useful to get upwind of the other ship, stealing the wind she needed to maneuver. Between the maneuvering and the time for the gunner to prepare the guns, each ship got off a shot every five to fifteen minutes; it was a duel, not a slugfest.

The two ships were firing blanks — just black powder, no cannonballs — at each other. We were instructed to plug our ears for the shot (and it was damn loud; I can’t imagine the noise of a broadside of eighteen-pounders) and then listen for the echo. A quick echo back from the other ship was counted as a hit; a delayed echo from the far shore was a miss. There was definitely a difference in the sound between the two. When the other ship shot at us, meanwhile, we could tell when the shot was about to come because we could see and hear them preparing it. Apart from all the yelling and gunfire, sailing ships are quite quiet.

The 18th-century sailing vessel was the most complicated machine of its day. There were hundreds of different ropes, every one of them had a specific purpose, and the crew had to know the vocabulary, leap into action, and execute the commands with precision and alacrity, or else lines would foul, sails would collide, and the ship would lose way — a sitation difficult to recover from. In other words, it was a lot like square dancing.

Unlike square dancing, however, the crew was expected to repeat back every command even as they began to execute it, and also to announce changes in status such as opening hatches and returning to deck after going aloft (e.g. “back on deck, three in the fore” meaning that there were three hands still aloft on the foremast). These formalities were strictly observed even though it didn’t seem that anyone was listening. At one point, when a hand landed on the deck, he looked up and announced “back on deck… can’t tell.” I don’t think anyone other than Kate and I laughed.

Lady Washington was handicapped with several inexperienced hands, in addition to the passengers getting in the way, and when we returned to port the captain announced that “if we all had fun, then everybody won” — in other words, we lost the battle badly, and if this had been an actual emergency we would have been disabled, boarded, and taken prisoner. (The goal was never to sink the enemy ship — whether pirate or navy, there was always more money to be made by capturing it in usable condition.)

Now I have a real understanding of why the officers always stand on the elevated quarterdeck at the back of the ship. Because of its position and elevation, it has the best view of what’s going on both onboard and out on the sea. From there you can see if lines or sails are fouled, if hands are in the wrong place, and where the other ship is. The crew, on the other hand, doesn’t need this information and in fact may be better off without it. At one point, during a brief lull in the action, the engineer paused in coiling ropes and idly wondered aloud where the other ship was. I said to him “you don’t really have to know, do you?” He grinned and said “Naw, all I have to do is pull on whatever rope the guy in the funny hat tells me to.”

This little trip was nothing more than a taste of an approximation of an 18th-century sea battle, but we had fun and I got some sensory details that I can probably use in my writing. If nothing else, it provides a solid real-world structure on which we can hang the imagery when we read the Aubrey/Maturin novels.