Author Archive

My OryCon schedule, also Powell’s Sci-Fi AuthorFest

My goodness, OryCon begins tomorrow! Here’s my programming schedule:


3:00PM, Hamilton: Workshop: Story Outline in an hour. Bring something to write on and write with. You’ll have an outline (or a good start) to a story by the end of this panel. Bonus–this would be a great head start to that creative writing class homework you’re ignoring over the weekend. David D. Levine [M], Mary Robinette Kowal


12:00PM, Mult/Holl: Ask Dr. Genius: Ad-Lib Answers to Audience Questions. No, really, they’re real scientists, honest. Bring your science questions, and if they don’t have an answer they’ll make something up, and it might even be sort of right. Louise Owen [M], David D. Levine, Andrew S. Fuller, Daniel H. Wilson

3:00PM, Idaho: Mission to Mars: Is a 6 month journey really too long? Artificial gravity to prevent blood clots. Living on 3 gallons of water a day. We’re making advances, but can we realistically put men on Mars? What are the issues, and how close are we to solving them? David D. Levine [M], Dan Dubrick, G. David Nordley

4:30PM, Grant: David Levine Reading. David reads from his own work.

8:00PM, Hawthorne: Lionel Fanthorpe Presentation. OryCon Public Broadcasting’s homage to the legendary Lionel Fanthorpe. Debbie Cross [M], David D. Levine, Paul Wrigley, Brian Hunt

10:00PM, Jefferson/Adams: Whose Line Is It Anyway? Ya want funny? Louise Owen, Mary Robinette Kowal, David D. Levine, M.K. Hobson, Cindy Fangour


12:00PM, Hawthorne: Spaceships, Colonists, and Castaways. How Small Communities Function in isolated conditions with minimal resources. David D. Levine [M], Camille Alexa, G. David Nordley, Krista Wohlfeil

Also on Sunday (4:30-6:00PM) will be the Sci-Fi AuthorFest at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing. Two dozen authors, including Vonda McIntyre and Ursula K. Le Guin, will be there for you to meet and get autographs. Free and open to the public.

World Fantasy Convention

We’re winging off to San Diego this afternoon for the World Fantasy Convention. Hope to see some of you there! I’ll be hanging out in the bar, trying to remember to chat up agents and editors, helping out Tina Connolly with a dramatic reading on Thursday night, and appearing on one panel:

Friday 4:00 PM, Pacific 2/3: A Sea of Stars

Is the sea to fantasy what space is to science fiction? Are they both the uncharted territory that leads somewhere unexpected? Are they the habitat for unfamiliar aliens? Stories like Jeremiah Tolbert’s “The Godfall’s Chemsong” and Helen Keeble’s “A Journal of Certain Events…” seem parallel in many ways, even though the former is science fiction and the latter is fantasy. Why use one over the other — can your settings be interchangeable if the plot is good?

David Brin, Michael Cassutt, David Levine(M), Courtney Schafer, Rachel Swirsky

Yes, I am moderating David Brin. Hah! He don’t scare me.

I wonder if there will be a group viewing of the Grimm premiere at 9:00 Friday night? I have seen the pilot episode and it is good.

Grimm Portland premiere

Just saw the pilot of Grimm, at the Portland Art Museum with a rowdy crowd and the producers and cast in attendance. Awesome! I think this show is going to be dynamite. Silas Weir Mitchell as Eddie Monroe — the “Spike” character — will be everyone’s favorite.

Grimm premieres Friday, October 28, but you can watch a 20-minute preview clip now.

Margin Call

I can’t say that Margin Call is exactly an enjoyable film, but it’s absolutely frickin’ brilliant.

This is a film where everything happens in the spaces between words, between lines, between scenes. It’s a… what’s holier than a Swiss cheese? A ciabatta of a film, but tasty nonetheless.

This is a film about the Wall Street collapse of 2008 that barely attempts to explain the insanely complex financial shenanigans that caused the crisis. It feels as though the filmmakers decided that the audience is never going to understand it anyway, so let’s go ahead without explaining it at all. Though there is some explanation late in the film, and as one critic said they play the “explain this to me in words of one syllable” card a bit too often, the key here is that you don’t need to understand the finances. All you need to understand is how important they are to the characters, and the top-notch cast makes that abundantly clear through a variety of understated techniques.

Another way in which this film takes place in the gaps between lines is that it depends a whole heck of a lot on the audience’s understanding of the characters’ world. If this film somehow fell through a time warp to the year 2000, no one would understand it. You need to have at least some understanding of the 2008 financial crisis to understand the plot. You need to know that when one character flips another character a small black object (which barely even appears on screen), and later that second character pulls the top off of something that looks like a lipstick, that it is a USB thumb drive… and what a thumb drive is, and how it is used, and what it can contain. When two characters are sitting at a bar, and you hear a buzz, and one of them glances down at his lap, and they both leave the bar without a word, you have to know what text messages look and sound like and what they can mean.

When I was in high school I took an acting class in which we memorized a very simple, meaningless dialogue1 and then had to present a brief scene using that simple script to express a relationship between two characters (first date, estranged lovers, father and son who’s going off to college, etc.) — it’s all in the intonation, the body language, the pauses, the subtext. Practically this entire movie is like that. Much of the dialogue is banal, and the action restrained, yet the actors manage to convey the emotion and importance of the situation.

And the situation is important, dramatically important. There’s a lot of tension in this movie, even though we know how the 2008 financial crisis ended up.

I commented to Kate on the way home that “this is a science fiction movie, and the science is economics.” But, as she pointed out, that isn’t really true; it’s not SF because there’s nothing in it that didn’t actually happen. This is, nonetheless, a fabulous example of how you can take a plot that is made up of technobabble and mathematics and turn it into a story about people and emotions. I’d love to do something like this in SF, but as I mentioned above it depends so much on the audience’s understanding of the history and technology that you would have a real tough time writing an SF or fantasy story that still worked if you left out as much as Margin Call leaves out.

So, in summary: not a fun movie, but one that’s worth studying.


1 I still remember every word: “Hi.” “Hello.” “It’s been a long time.” “Yes it has.” “How’ve you been?” “Do you have to ask?” “No, I suppose not.” “Did you walk?” “No, I got a ride.” “Oh.”

Thinking way too hard about Mr. Potato Head

I’ve been thinking about the consciousness of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.

His limbs are capable of independent action when detached, and Mrs. Potato Head can see through a detached eye. One can imagine that if Mr. Potato Head were dropped and every single piece fell off except for one arm, he would reassemble himself. What if all the pieces fell out? I believe that his detached lips would call for help. This gedankenexperiment implies that Mr. Potato Head’s consciousness is housed in his plastic body but somehow extends to his pieces wherever they may be.

Yet he can replace one set of eyes with another (e.g. “angry eyes”), and the new eyes can be seen through once plugged in. How does this work? Is it the plugging in that activates the new eyes and deactivates the old, and they remain active (even if detached) until a new set of eyes is plugged in? Or does he continue to see through all his eyes whether attached or detached (as a potato, he should be comfortable with any number of eyes)? If so, what defines which eyes are “his”? Could he see through one of Mrs. Potato Head’s eyes if plugged into his head?

And then there’s the scene in which he replaces his body with a tortilla. So somehow his consciousness can inhabit other, non-Mr.-Potato-Head objects if his pieces are plugged into it. What happens to his plastic potato body while the tortilla with his eyes, arms, and legs is walking around? If the plastic potato were smashed, would Mr. Tortilla Head die? What would happen if you put one eye, one ear, one arm, and one leg into, say, a zucchini? Would both Mr. Potato Head and Mr. Zucchini Head be capable of (limited) perception and action? Would they share a consciousness, or would they become two separate beings?

If any random object can become Mr. Potato Head’s body, what about his other pieces? Could he see through a plain wooden peg if it were plugged into his eye hole? If so… we’ve seen that he can still use his pieces properly if they are plugged into the wrong holes. Could he still see through a wooden peg if it were plugged into his arm hole? What, then, makes it an “eye”? Consider an ambiguous peg with a vaguely ear-like shape and an eye spot. Could he see through it? Hear with it? Would it depend on where it was plugged in? What if it were plugged into an arm hole? Does its shape matter? For that matter, could he see through one of his own feet if it were plugged into an eye hole? Or any hole? Does the effect depend on the intent of the child who plugged it in, if any? (No, let’s not go there. The epistemological relationship between toys and humans in the Toy Story universe is a whole separate essay. Or book.)

If Mr. Potato Head can see through his eyes wherever they are, and if any random object can become part of Mr. Potato Head, that implies that Mr. Potato Head’s consciousness could theoretically extend to any object.

What would happen if you plugged an eye, or a shoe, into the Earth? What are the odds that this has already happened?

Is Mr. Potato Head God?

What I learned about writing from being an extra

I spent the day yesterday working as an extra on the new NBC series Grimm, a supernatural cop show which is being filmed in (and, unlike Leverage, is set in) Portland. The show premieres on October 21 and, with luck, you’ll see me in the seventh episode, as a reporter holding a microphone in the police chief’s face and also possibly as an out-of-focus figure in the background of some other shot. Will the show be any good? Heck if I know. But I had fun working on it.

Extra work is, as I’ve said before, very much like jury service. The pay’s a pittance, the hours long, and there’s lots of waiting, but you get to play a small but vital part in a large, complex, and societally significant enterprise. Also you get to spend time with interesting random strangers and see tantalizing bits of a larger story whose beginning and end you may never know.

Being as how I was sitting around the set for a long time with not much to do but watch and think, and being as how I am a writer, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few writing lessons.

The first one came from the fact that, once we extras were all costumed up, you could tell at a glance exactly what kind of character we were supposed to be. This one was obviously a perp, that one a tough cop, that one a no-nonsense detective, that other one a caring social worker. This is no accident — the casting directors look over photographs of the available talent, choose people to represent the desired type of background character based on their appearance, then select appropriate costumes and props to thoroughly reinforce that first impression.

The writing lesson here is that not all characters need to be fully rounded. The purpose of extras is to make the scene look realistic (it would be pretty odd if our heroes were all alone in the police station all the time), but apart from that they should not be allowed to take any attention away from the main characters. Making them obvious types means that the viewer can see them, understand who they are, and not spend any additional brain power on them. By contrast, I’ve seen some beginning writers apply everything they’ve read about developing believable characters to every character, even the spear carriers. This is distracting and counterproductive. You don’t want to be too stereotypical — not every cop is a beefy Irishman, not every nurse an attractive white woman — but there’s no need to build up a life story and background for every person who appears in every scene.

The second writing lesson is that props are a great way to quickly communicate character. I myself had been a police detective in a previous casting call, but this time — wearing the same suit and standing on the same set, but with a microphone instead of a gun and badge — I was a reporter. If you have a character enter the scene wearing a stethoscope or carrying a wrench, you’ve prepared them for action and communicated their role to the reader in just a few words. This technique can be used with major characters as well, to create an initial impression or communicate their current intent.

The third writing lesson is that nothing is deeper than it has to be. When you see a scene with many people bustling about in the background, what you don’t see is that every one of them was carefully positioned and began moving just moments before the beginning of the shot. Often there’s a line of extras waiting just out of sight, each one with instructions to step out at a certain interval after the previous one. And the wall they’re waiting behind? On the side that isn’t facing the camera, it’s unpainted plywood. In writing, you don’t necessarily need to know everything about your characters and your world — you just need to know a little more than you’re showing, enough to create a believable illusion for your readers. (Of course, as you go on writing about the same characters or world you may find that some of your early handwaves need to be fleshed out. This is one of the things that revision is good for, and one of the reasons later books in a series can be much harder to write.)

None of these writing lessons was new to me, and every one of them can be overdone or used inappropriately, but they’re all useful techniques and it’s good to be reminded of them every once in a while.


So now I can finally talk about the big project that has kept me virtually silent on all social media for the last month or so.

It started… oh, a couple of years ago, when I realized that the year 2011 would mark both my 50th birthday and Kate’s, and also our 20th wedding anniversary. This confluence of major milestones seemed to call for a big celebration, and after some cogitation I decided I wanted to hold “BentoCon: A Science Fiction Convention and Square Dance.” The name BentoCon commemorates the fanzine Bento that Kate and I have been producing on an approximately annual basis since 1989, and the combination of science fiction and square dancing commemorates the two hobbies (or is that ways of life) that have occupied so much of our time together.

The idea of a birthday convention is not our invention. The first one I’m aware of (though we did not attend it) was Elise Matthesen’s EliseCon, which begat Jane Hawkins’s JaneCon (which we sort of crashed), which was followed by Donya Hazard White, Deb Notkin, and Jeanne Gomoll’s CroneCon and Ellen Klages’s month in France. But BentoCon was going to be the first with a square dance.

After kicking around ideas in a desultory fashion for a year or more, at the end of 2010 we decided to get serious about the project, and signed a hotel contract in January of 2011. Over the next few months we sent out invitations (although we would have loved to invite everyone we know, the space was limited and so, unfortunately, some lovely people had to be left out), arranged for a celebratory cake, booked a square dance caller (our good friend the talented Bill Eyler, and asked some of our friends to help us run it (notably Karen Schaffer, who headed up the hospitality suite, and Mary Kay Kare, who ran the at-con registration desk). Kate and I ran the program, publications, hotel, audio-video, and displays as well as being the chairs and guests of honor. I joked that we really could have used a couple of GoH liaisions.

The last few weeks, especially since the Worldcon, were incredibly hectic; we were both working on BentoCon essentially every waking hour and neither of us got a whole lot of sleep. But when people began to show up, and we saw the square dancers and the science fiction fans chatting happily together in our incredibly convivial hospitality suite, we knew it had all been worth it.

We had a fabulous hotel, which in a previous life as the Hotel Multnomah had been the site of the 1950 Worldcon. The main program space included a fireplace, which (thanks to a last-minute inspiration of Kate’s) we decorated with cardboard stand-up photographs of the various awards on our mantel at home. The large and comfy hospitality suite was mere steps away from the program room, and included distinct areas for food, games, conversation, jigsaw puzzles, and badge decoration (thanks to a fantastic collection of stickers sent by Geri Sullivan who, alas, could not attend in person). On Saturday night we had a second function room, just across the hall, for the square dance, to which we’d also invited any local dancers who cared to attend. And the mezzanine area between them all was the site of the registration and info tables, plus two additional tables for a book swap and craft swap. The latter two provided a useful public service of redistribution of quality books and craft items to people who could better appreciate them, as well as draining away any impulse our guests might have had to bring presents.

The hotel’s location in downtown Portland was superb, within walking distance of Powell’s Books and tons of excellent restaurants, not to mention a couple of “pods” of food carts, a half-dozen chocolate shops, and Portland’s only glow-in-the-dark pirate-themed indoor mini-golf. The hotel staff were also fabulously helpful and efficient.

We recognized from the beginning that this event might run afoul of the Geek Social Fallacies, especially #4 (Friendship is Transitive, which we risked violating by inviting people from different social groups), but we needn’t have worried. We opened the convention (after softening everyone up with the singing of rounds and a pair of fabulous cakes from the Bakery Bar) with a pair of panels on “introduction to science fiction fandom for non-fans” and “introduction to gay square dance culture for non-dancers” that got everyone on the same page and gave people things to talk about. Everywhere I looked for the whole rest of the convention I saw dancers, fans, and relatives talking together, going out to dinner together, and singing songs together.

The singing of songs was a surprisingly important part of the event. We opened with the Apple Maggot Quarantine Song from Bento #1 and “To Stop the Train” from Bento #4, complete with gestures. On Saturday we had a group singalong, with projected videos and lyrics, of our favorite songs from Tom Lehrer, Jonathan Coulton, Queen, the Arrogant Worms, Savage Garden, and They Might Be Giants. And my old college roommate Kurt Gollhardt brought out his guitar on Saturday night; a mixed bunch of fans and dancers sang Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and show tunes until the wee small hours.

The relatives were also well received. I’ll note that Camille Alexa claimed to have a “rockstar crush” on my dad, which he asked me to explain. I’m not sure I can. (Sorry Camille, he’s already got a girlfriend back home.)

We had a single track of programming, including readings by the authors present, a discussion of great female SF writers, the “embarrass David and Kate hour” of baby pictures and anecdotes by the relatives, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and “On the Road with Kate and David” with slides, videos, anecdotes, and an explanation by Kate of how she finds fabulous restaurants wherever she goes.

The square dance on Saturday night was a hit; the dancers had a blast and the fans participated enthusiastically. With the addition of some dancers from the Portland square dance community, we had about forty people doing simple square dances, country dances, a line dance, and the Time Warp, plus a couple of full-level demo tips. I’ve been to a lot of introductory square dances and this was one of the most fun I’ve ever attended.

We also had a group Greek lunch on Friday, a catered Japanese dinner in the hospitality suite on Sunday night for those who remained (a much better way to close out the con than the usual spluttering away), and on Friday afternoon a choice of walking tours (Kate led the “Keep Portland Weird” tour to such sites as the 24-Hour Coin-Operated Church of Elvis, while I led a chocolate tour to some of those nearby chocolate shops). Any remaining unprogrammed spots in the schedule were filled in with “nanoprogramming” by the participants.

All in all, it went fabulously well. The worst problem we had wasn’t even at the convention, it was when Janna Silverstein got rear-ended on the way home, damaging herself and her car.

We spent Monday packing up and moving everything out of the hotel. After that Kate and I both came down with sore throats, aches, and general overall exhaustion that has kept us near-comatose since then. But it’s a good kind of comatose.

That was a lot of fun. I think we might do it again… in another fifty years.

Fragments of Worldcon

I spent the last week in Reno at the annual World Science Fiction Convention. I think.

Usually I take notes at these things, but this time I didn’t. I also can’t look back at my Twitter or email or blog to see what I said I was doing, because I barely even read any social media, never mind writing it. So I must have been busy doing something.

I didn’t make it to the art show at all. I visited the dealers’ room and the SFWA suite only briefly and just as they were closing. I only hit about three parties, and saw just a few panels that I wasn’t on. And there was not the usual endless hanging around with cool people in The Bar, because this convention didn’t have a The Bar. Between the convention center and the two hotels there were dozens of bars, but the ones that were open were noisy and smoky and the one that was comfortable, quiet, and smoke-free closed at 10pm. Despite any other snark in this post, the lack of a The Bar was the only major problem I had with the convention.

The one thing I am certain of is that I appeared on programming. A lot. I can tell this from the “program items you are on” sticker on the back of my badge, which is crammed with tiny type. I spent a lot of time looking at the back of my badge to figure out where I was going next. I did this while I was walking to the next program item.

I did a lot of walking. That part I remember. The convention center, which measured 2.68 x 10^5 Standlees from end to end, was connected to my hotel by a skybridge that was long enough to show the curvature of the Earth. But my hotel was closer than the other hotel, which was approximately ten parsecs away and was the site of the Masquerade, Hugos, writers’ workshops, and a few other important program items. We had rented a car for pre-convention travel, with the intent of returning it at the beginning of the con, but once we understood the layout of the con we called Hertz and extended the rental for the rest of our stay. Made a huge difference.

That pre-convention travel, by the way, included a visit to Virginia City with Janna Silverstein and Madeleine Robins — we had tons of fun touring an old print shop, school, and silver mine — and a trip to a famous Basque restaurant in Gardnerville, 50 miles away, with Glenn Glazer and his sweetie, where we found ourselves driving directly toward a 300-acre wildfire (which, fortunately, did not engulf the restaurant while we were there). The meal wasn’t quite worth the drive, but it was very good and we had a lovely evening of scenery and conversation.

The program items I was on were all well-attended and fun. I had a great spectrum of programming from serious panel discussions (The Necessity of Reviewers, Fans Turned Pro, Wild Cards) to solo presentations (a reading, my Mars talk, and a kaffeeklatsch) to wacky entertainments (Ask Doctor Genius, Liar’s Panel, Whose Line is it Anyway?). I also co-led a writers’ workshop section with Walter Jon Williams, which went pretty well.

I had about twenty people for my reading, where I read the first bit of my “Ned Kelly in power armor” story. I was a little nervous doing an Australian accent in front of Liz Argall but she said that, although it wandered a bit, it was quite good. There were about a hundred people at my Mars talk, which was well received as usual, though it’s been a while since I last gave it and I ran out of time before I ran out of slides. Still, I covered the most important bits.

The Liar’s Panel was probably my favorite single program item, with Jay Lake, James Patrick Kelly, Connie Willis, and me answering questions from a large, packed hall. Best moment: to a question about bad reviews, Connie replied “What’s that?” (big laugh). I said “Here’s an example: ‘You call this a book? It’s only half a book!'” (bigger laugh). Connie actually shook my hand on that one. Thanks so much to Jay for inviting me onto the panel when another panelist had to drop out.

Whose Line also rocked, where I joined Ellen Klages, Madeleine Robins, Dave Howell, and (fresh from her triumph at Just a Minute) Seanan McGuire for two hours of improv hilarity. I was afraid that no one would attend an 11pm-1am panel following the Masquerade, but more and more people filtered in as time went on and we ended with a fairly full house. My favorite bit was when I played a dragon, suffering from an inflamed flame gland, visiting Doctor Seanan. Who, by the way, was wearing candy corn underwear. Don’t ask me how I know that.

And then there was the Hugo Awards ceremony, where I was thrilled to present the Best Short Story Hugo to Mary Robinette Kowal. You can watch a video of that presentation. I got a lot of compliments afterwards on my speech and on how snazzy I looked in tails. Hugo night also included a pre-Hugo reception (with a giant ice Hugo) and a “Hugo Losers’ Party” (actually open to all nominees and guests, though the winners had to make an announcement about how they were actually losers in some way) where I got to mingle with the movers and shakers and explain the complicated Hugo vote-counting process to Phil and Kaja Foglio. (If you’re confused yourself, take a look at this great explanation of the voting system, using the Muppets.)

So that was the Worldcon. I had a great time.

I think.

The things we do to annoy our antagonists

After seeing Les Miserables last week, I keep thinking about the song “The Confrontation” in which Valjean and Javert sing hard at each other for ten minutes about how wrong the other guy is.

Javert, the police inspector who has been pursuing Valjean for years already and will keep doing so for years more before the show is over, sings to Valjean “Men like you will never change.” But of course it’s Javert who never changes, and when in the end he does change he kills himself immediately because he can’t cope with it. (Oops, spoiler, sorry.)

Valjean, on the other hand, sings to Javert “I’m a stronger man by far,” yet Javert in his dogged pursuit displays undeniable strength and determination; he is, in his way, even more indefatigable than Valjean, the hero of the story. Javert does, in fact, catch Valjean in the end, and it’s only Javert’s change of heart that lets Valjean escape. It’s Javert who is the stronger man, and after running from him for so long Valjean can’t help but know this.

You know how the things we don’t like about ourselves are also the things that drive us completely bats when we see them in other people? This is, I think, a technique that we writers can use to tie our protagonist and antagonist together. If each one sees in the other his own flaws magnified and despises him for that, that deepens and strengthens their relationship and makes the climactic confrontation more inevitable and powerful.