Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Essay: Philippine Typhoons

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Over the weekend, the Philippines was flooded as typhoon Ondoy (a.k.a. Ketsana--you can find a list of local names for typhoons here), exactly three years after typhoon Milenyo (Xangsane) ravaged Metro Manila. No one was really prepared for it and here are some of the reasons why:

The Philippines has two seasons: wet and dry. Suffice to say, we get lots of typhoons during the wet season, year after year. News that a storm is coming is about as alarming as a fire drill (and that's pretty much the reaction of the government). If immediate evacuations and emergency precautions were actually implemented, we'd be doing it a dozen times every season. And unfortunately, while there are expected casualties and damage during a typhoon, no one predicted it would be this horrible. That's also the case with Milenyo. We've had super typhoons before; we just didn't expect one to lift boulders, uproot trees, and knock down houses. And in the cases of Ondoy, it was a deceptive storm. Unlike Milenyo which caused a lot of property damage due to powerful wind speeds, the destruction wreaked by this typhoon was through the sheer amount of rainfall. No one was afraid they'll be blown away by the wind and early in the day, people shrugged as the rains fell. It was only hours after the initial downpour that it suddenly occurred to everyone: the rains weren't stopping, and the streets and villages were flooding.

The second part of the problem is city planning itself. It's not that we don't have drains, but they're often clogged up by trash (and the government alone isn't to blame; why are we citizens throwing our trash there?). A lot of our streets are made from inferior materials, so holes and depressions are common. And quite frankly, because Manila is congested, some homes and buildings are prone to flooding during a typhoon or high tide. That's also not taking into account the thousands upon thousands of squatters (another common facet of the country) living near rivers in makeshift homes.

It also couldn't have come at a worse time, when the president is being pressured by the media for misuse of emergency funds for foreign trips. Where is the budget for relief and rescue missions? And mind you, we're a third-world country, so while we have vehicles like helicopters, they're seldom used outside of commercial enterprises (let's not even get into the predicament of what would happen if we go to war...).

And the sad thing is, this will happen again. Everyone will be on high alert with the next few typhoons but after that, pffft, it's back to complacency. Our drains won't be cleaned (or rather, it will be and it'll quickly fill up), people can't afford to change addresses, city planning won't suddenly get better, and there's only so much precautions both citizens and government alike will take when it's reported that a typhoon is coming. (There's also the logging of trees, pollution, and global warming in general.)

Some people have wondered why our local meteorologists can't accurately predict the weather (we've had forecasts where classes are suspended and there's not a drop of rain to be found). I've heard various reasons, from lack of sufficient equipment, to imprecise forecasting by virtue of living in a tropical country. One must wonder though, if we could accurately predict the weather, would life in the Philippines really change? At this point, technologies like Google Spreadsheets, Twitter, and the blogging community is science fictional with their ability to rally and direct people to calamity sites (and for the record, most of us don't have/can't afford GPS so Google is the poor man's navigation system). And that's one of the more positive efforts that's cropping up after such a devastation: citizens and the blogosphere (both local and international) rallying to help support the victims.

Anyway, here's how people can help:

September 30, 2009 Links and Plugs

Hopefully Vietnam (and its neighboring countries) fares better than the Philippines when it comes to Typhoon Ketsana.

Meanwhile, for the victims in the Philippines, here's how you can donate from abroad.

Don't forget that tomorrow is Support Our 'Zines Day.

Scientists and authors collaborate (but it cheaper if you order now):

When It Changed edited by Geoff Ryman

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

September 29, 2009 Links and Plugs

My review of Adventurer's Vault 2 is up at Game Cryer.

And it's banned books week.

Here's a local book plug (here's "one" of the stories in the book):

The Lost Language: Stories by Marianne Villanueva

Interview: Kate Baker

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Kate Baker can be heard narrating for StarShipSofa, Hugo nominated Clarkesworld Magazine, and Fantasy Magazine. She has also been given the title of Production Manager for The Sofanauts, a new StarShipSofa podcast. As of early July 2009, she has turned in a narration for Escape Pod as well.

Hi Kate! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

Hi Charles. Thank you so much for having me!

I got acquainted with speculative fiction as a little girl. Some of my earliest memories consist of curling up on the couch with my hands over my eyes, half watching The Dark Crystal. As I got older, I began to read fantasy classics such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Stephen King and Dean Koontz factored into my reading, as did Anne Rice.

A good friend turned me on to science fiction later in life. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Heinlein and Hyperion by Dan Simmons are some of my recent favorites, but I’m always looking to expand my bookcases with anything that has great characters and interesting plot.

Who are some of your favorite authors or what are some of your favorite books?

I guess this is one of those questions that you precede with "If your house was on fire and all you could save were a few books..."

There are always going to be the classic writers like Heinlein, Tolkein, King and Rice on my bookcase. Some of my current favorite authors consist of John Scalzi, Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Taylor Anderson, and Jim Butcher. I am also diving into the works of Cat Valenti, Mary Robinette Kowal and Elizabeth Bear.

There are too many books to list as favorites, but a few books that I’ve read recently are wonderful: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and Crusade, the second installment in the Destroyermen series by Taylor Anderson.

Did you ever imagine yourself being active in the science fiction/fantasy industry?

Hell no. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be doing anything more than dressing up as a poor Dana Scully imitation walking around a local X-Files convention, I would have laughed. (No, I will not be releasing pictures to accompany that mental imagery, either, even if they did exist, which of course they don't.) I consider myself very lucky to have worked in this field and with some of the nicest people in the universe.

I want to talk more on your podcasting work. Did you have any formal training?

Absolutely not! The only training I had involved reading stories in my best voices for my children every night before they went to bed. As anyone can surmise, children have impeccably high standards! They also happen to be my biggest fans.

What made you decide to do audio narrations? How did you start out?

One of my dearest friends (Peter Hodges) is a talented, aspiring writer. He had written some short stories and I had an underused USB microphone. Come to think about it, I think boredom played a significant role in starting my first ever podcast!

We are both avid gamers and one day I happened to notice you could save audio conversations on the Ventrilo voice server we used to communicate while in game. I set myself up in a little room, and hit “record”.

After some excellent feedback from friends, relatives and visitors to his blog, we ended up doing weekly podcasts. I upgraded my equipment and editing software and the rest is history!

What's your routine like when doing podcasts (i.e. doing warm-ups, getting into character, etc.)?

I test microphone levels and clarity, that's it. I go in cold to every reading. No warm -ups. The few times I’ve tried to over think the characters, I feel that they’ve sounded less genuine. Generally, if a story has rich characters and is well-written, they tend to come on out on their own. Immersion only works for me if it’s effortless. I know that sounds silly, but it’s really true. I’ll go back and correct a tonal inflection on occasion, but if I’m reading quality work, the characters kind of take over on their own.

What are the challenges that you run into?

Time, or more specifically, running out of it. This is a labor of love for me right now and I am sad to say that it doesn’t pay my bills. In fact, most of the podcasters/story narrators out there right now are reading for free and for the love of the genre.

When you're doing this type of work outside of a full-time job, time management gets to be tricky. I have the added bonus of being a single mother to boot, so my recording times are cut down even further to night hours when everyone is asleep.

Is there a definite label to doing such work such as voice actress, narrator, or podcaster? What would you prefer to be called?

“Voice Actress” sounds too pretentious and “podcaster” is overused! Seriously though, I really enjoy the label of “story narrator”. It’s a title that seems to imply literary understanding with a bit of whimsy. A narrator plays all the parts, does all the acting and ultimately has to make you believe. It’s more of an all encompassing description if you ask me.

At this point in time, is it a viable career or is most of it done for love of the genre?

Definitely a love for the genre.

Although I can’t deny, it does come with perks. I am forging invaluable contacts and even friendships through this work. The most important thing to me however, is that people are out there enjoying the readings that I’ve done. I am ecstatic if my name comes up as a talented and reliable narrator.

Sure, I would love to see this as a viable career in the future, but I also recognize that to be monetarily successful in podcasting, you would have to fundamentally change the idea of what a podcast is and how they are produced. Right now, good portions of podcasts being produced are usually seen as ‘extras’ or freebies to be offered with something else (i.e. a print version of the story).

I’d argue that it’s an exception to the rule if an online magazine is making any money off their podcasts. Even editors dedicated to putting out weekly content are lucky to gain a sponsorship based on downloaded content. It does happen, but even then, the legion of volunteer narrators very rarely see any monetary compensation.

I’ve been lucky to work with some excellent people who believe in compensating any way they can, but is it viable? Not yet. To change it to where it would be undermines the podcast "scene" without adding additional value.

For you, what characterizes a good narration/podcast?

The biggest rule of thumb for anyone reading a story is to have fun with it. If you can’t seem to engage in the story yourself, that will come through in your interpretation. I’ve listened to many narrators who just deadpan it and I’ve had to turn them off. They lose my interest quickly.

It’s open to personal interpretation, but for me, a good narration has great pacing, an interesting story and believable characters.

What are the skills necessary for a narrator/podcaster to nurture?

Self confidence.

Rhythm of reading is also extremely important. Awkward pauses or choppy editing really detracts from immersion in a story. For some great advice on how to read aloud: Mary Robinette Kowal has some great posts on her website:

Also, listen to how people speak. This advice has been around for all the writers out there, but it’s extremely true for narrators as well. If you don’t sound natural while reading dialogue, it can be a huge put-off to the listener. You can hear both smiles and frowns in someone’s voice, so it’s essential that a narrator plays all the right parts.

In stories where there are multiple strings of dialogue, one of the most difficult aspects of reading is to differentiate between each character with different tone and accents. It’s definitely a skill that I’m constantly working on and trying to get comfortable doing. I think I have my British dialect and Irish lilts down as passable but I’m always trying to improve by listening to those particular dialects. Welsh and Scottish elude me for now.

Find editing software that you are comfortable with and learn it well. All the magazines /authors I’ve worked for require you to fix your own mistakes. If you know what you are using, it will make putting out a finished product easier and faster. Editing takes 75 percent of the time of creation (especially if you are a perfectionist like me.)

What is it like, collaborating with publishers/authors when doing a podcast?

Honestly, I’ve had it pretty easy all things considered. I’ve worked with some of the nicest folks in the SF community. Tony C. Smith from StarShipSofa and Neil Clarke from Clarkesworld Magazine tend to just send me a story and tell me to run with it.

Other magazines are more structured and have rules and guidelines when submitting finished projects. It’s all about knowing who you are working for and ultimately what they expect.

It can certainly be interesting especially up against a deadline if you need an answer from the author on word pronunciation. Working through a magazine, there are often times you don’t have direct access to the author of the piece your reading, so sometimes depending on time management its best to just wing it. Always best to ask first though. Usually if it’s important and the author comes back with a reread request, there are always chances to re-record or quick edit.

You've also done podcasts for various publications including StarShipSofa and Clarkesworld. How do you nurture your social network and land these duties?

It starts with being a fan of what you do. I wouldn’t have plugged in that USB microphone on my very first podcast had I not been interested in reading my best friend’s short stories.

It’s the same way for StarShipSofa. As a fan of the show, I heard Tony was looking for new narrators so I sent in a query. It’s amazing what a little email can accomplish!

I’ve also built some great friendships and relationships with people in the SF field as well, which has helped on this path. As a fan, I absolutely love going to cons, meeting new people, having conversations, visiting author blogs and becoming a part of their communities. Ultimately, being genuine in how you come across and most importantly having fun with what you do is the best way to go about anything.

You also have some music on your site. Can you tell us more about that?

Music is my first love. I think I came out of the womb, singing, or so I’ve been told. One of my earliest memories is harmonizing the theme song to the Original Star Trek series with members of my family. I know – super geek, here. I believe I was about four.

If I didn’t have to sell out everything I am to become a famous pop star, I would love to get into a recording studio and really explore that side of my creativity. But for now, I just play with Garage Band or Sony Acid. Most of the time, I’ll just throw loops against the wall until something sticks and then I’ll write the lyrics. It’s a fun distraction at the moment although, I’ve been asked multiple times when a independently released music CD will be available for sale by a few unlikely fans. That’s certainly a slice of humble pie right there.

What are the other projects you're currently working on?

I'm currently helping out Tony C. Smith with logistics and production on the new podcast called "The Sofanauts". It’s a round table discussion encompassing weekly science fiction/publishing news. We’ve had some incredible guests so far including, Jeremy Tolbert, Pablo Defendini, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Amy H. Sturgis. The list goes on and on!

As far as narrations, I’ve got a few coming up for StarShipSofa, and one for Escape Pod.

As Peter Hodges finishes up the drafts of his novel, we hope to restart weekly serials as well of both the new stuff and revisiting characters from past works as well.

I can also be heard narrating poetry for Mike Allen on as well.

In your opinion, how is the Internet and podcasting changing the speculative fiction community and the publishing industry?

I don’t think it’s necessarily changing it as opposed to enhancing it. Whether you are listening to serialization of a novel, a free short story or keeping up to speed with a round-table SF/F news discussion; podcasting has become both a tool and an art of reaching out in a convenient and portable way to an ever busy audience.

I don’t' see podcasting overtaking or overshadowing the publishing industry. Used correctly, podcasting could have the same relationship to a book or a short story that a music video does to a popular song.

Truthfully, the sky is the limit when it comes to podcasting, especially in the realms of speculative fiction. To date, I’ve seen it used as a marketing tool, entertainment, and a conduit for important news.

Any advice for aspiring narrators/podcasters?

It’s going to sound cliché, but do it only if you love it. If you have fun reading and acting out stories, this is the way to go. Yet, I must warn anyone who is interested, that with any sort of reward, comes the work.

It’s all about buying a decent microphone, learning editing software, recording and going over a story with a fine-toothed comb to make sure it’s acceptable.

A 5000 word story usually takes me anywhere from 45 minutes recording time, to 3 hours of editing and re-listening. Again, this is coming from someone who is a self proclaimed perfectionist, but if you aren’t taking the time to put out a decent podcast, people won’t take the time to listen.

Anything else you want to plug?

I have narrations this month and next at Clarkesworld. I've also got two narrations up for Escape Pod.

Monday, September 28, 2009

September 28, 2009 Links and Plugs

To those who've emailed inquiring about my status (and those who will), I'm fine. I'm one of the lucky ones. Unfortunately, the rest of the Philippines isn't faring so well, even two days after the storm, so read up on Manuel Quezon III's How to Help and here's info on how to donate from abroad (and exactly three years ago, typhoon Milenyo hit us as well).



And from Lethe Press:

Icarus Issue 2

Book/Magazine Review: The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology edited by Gordon Van Gelder

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology feels like a literature textbook in the sense that it features authors who are relevant to the genre, both old and new. From Alfred Bester to Ted Chiang, this book is comprehensive and could easily be a primer given to undergraduate students who are curious about the field. And it's a testament to Fantasy and Science Fiction's long history and quality that it has published such authors and their short stories. If there's any doubt as to the contributions of the magazine to speculative fiction, the table of contents easily assuages one's doubts, with the inclusion of classics like "Flowers for Algernon" by Daniel Keyes and "The Women Men Don't See" by James Tiptree, Jr., to modern favorites like "Creation" by Jeffrey Ford and "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang.

While this is a thick book, editor Gordon Van Gelder admits in the introduction that this anthology isn't as complete as one would expect from a publication of Fantasy & Science Fiction's longevity. There's too much ground to cover and only so much space. Still, Van Gelder does a good job of cramming as much as he can and one is treated to twenty-three stories that most would consider outstanding. As I said before, this would make a great reference material when it comes to the field of fantasy and science fiction--or at least the short story form. The roster assembled here is impressive and provides an overview of its history. While there are a lot of famous authors included in this book, what's featured isn't necessarily their best, but those that were published in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction. That's both good and bad, depending on how exposed you are to the said author's works.

Personally, the anthology felt like it could be divided into two parts. I consider myself a modern reader and the first half of the book feels dated, and rightly so considering that it covers material published as early as 1951 until 1978. For example, as respected as Shirley Jackson is (and her "Lottery" retaining its potency), her story in this book, "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts", feels too reliant on the punchline at the end. I'm sure it was a sophisticated piece of fiction back in 1955 (and probably a lot of fiction I'm currently reading owes a lot to it), but compared to what's being done today, is lackluster and feels more apt as flash fiction. The authors also have a particular writing style that makes their narratives seem old--or at least not modern--although that's doesn't necessarily detract from the story, as is the case in "Of Time and Third Avenue" by Alfred Bester or "The Electric Ant" by Philip K. Dick. Still, there were stories in that batch that doesn't fail to impress and is still, in certain ways, remains cutting edge such as "The Deathbird" by Harlan Ellison and "I See You" by Damon Knight.

If I was critical of the first half, then the second half is pure thrill and enjoyment, with no mediocre story in sight. It begins with "The Dark" by Karen Joy Fowler, originally published in 1999, and progresses until 2007 with "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang (and somewhere in between we sneak in "Buffalo" by John Kessel, published in 1991, "Solitude" by Ursula K. Le Guin, published in 1994, and "Mother Grasshopper" by Michael Swanwick, published in 1998). Here, my biases come into play and despite their length, manages to enthrall me with both their characterization and technical skill. In fact, the last ten stories alone are worth the price of admission, in my opinion, especially with "Two Hearts" by Peter S. Beagle or "Journey into the Kingdom" by M. Rickert.

With The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology, I have two perspectives on the final verdict. If it's just down to personal tastes, sure, there are some stories that aren't winners to me, but there's more than enough to satiate my cravings. Evaluating it from a more holistic perspective however, whether it's as a scholar, writer, or simply a genre fan, this is a rare treasure that compiles some of the best genre stories over the past six decades, and through it, we witness the field's history and growth.

Book/Magazine Review: Year's Best Fantasy 9 edited by David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer

Every Monday, I'll be doing bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

One of my fears is that there'll come a year when there won't be a "best of" anthology for fantasy. In the case of David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer's Year's Best Fantasy series, it successfully dodged a bullet as is publishing the book. This is a thick anthology, with 28 stories included. Whereas in Year's Best Science Fiction SF 14 they strove for "undeniably science fiction" stories, in the introduction to this book, Hartwell & Cramer claimed that their criteria for Year's Best Fantasy 9 was a broader definition of fantasy rather than an exclusive one. In a certain sense, that's true. Take Jeffrey Ford's "Daltharee" for example: it could have fallen under the science fiction label (but not the hard science fiction sub-genre) but is included here. There are also stories that experiment with form in one way or another, such as Lisa Goldstein's "Reader's Guide", Cathernne M. Valente's "A Buyer's Guide to Maps of Antarctica", and Kij Johnson's "26 Monkeys and the Abyss". However, in terms of source material, this is clearly genre's baby. A good chunk of the fiction here come from the usual publications such as F&SF and Asimov's, as well as other popular anthologies. It does feature material from non-US publications like Myth-Understandings, Tesseracts 12, and Dreaming Again, but they're the exception and is still associated with genre fiction. Suffice to say, there's little surprise here on my part, as Year's Best Fantasy 9 isn't as esoteric as I'd want it to be.

Having said that, this is a very solid collection of short stories. Compared to 2007 where we had stories like Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" or Daniel Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron", I don't think there's really a story that struck me as powerful as those two, but there's a lot of guilty pleasures and well-crafted stories (from a technical standpoint) to be found here. Naomi Novik's "Araminta, or, The Wreck of the Amphidrake" was a favorite of mine in the Fast Ships, Black Sails anthology, as was Peter S. Beagle's "The Rabbi's Hobby" in Eclipse Two. In fact, there's a lot of favorites in this book, but perhaps the one I'd like to mention would be the stories that caught me off-guard and probably wouldn't be included in other "best of" anthologies (and strangely enough, they're all for F&SF).

Al Michaud's "The Salting and Canning of Benevolence D." features a mish-mash of several laudable elements, from a faithful tone and consistent dialogue, to the inclusion of ghost story and alternate history elements. While the technique is praise-worthy, especially the combination of genres, Michaud maintains the fun factor and humor until the very last line.

Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald's "Philologos; or, A Murder in Bistrita" won't win literary awards but it's an exciting romp that subverts the reader's expectations in key beats. There's lots of familiar tropes here, from mystery to the vampire, but the tandem of Doyle and Macdonald makes them appear fresh.

James Stoddard's "The First Editions" is another fun read by the time you approach the end of the book. What seems like a simple and predictable story evolves into a complex drama with lots of metaphorical innuendo.

While the overall story selection is a bit conservative, there's no denying that a lot of the stories included are great reads. The expanded page count gives the editors a bit more leeway but I wish some of those additional slots could have been devoted to pieces that wouldn't ordinarily fall under the genre reader's radar. That doesn't make this a bad anthology, mind you, and in fact I recommend readers to get a hold of this book, but the story selection is a bit too predictable.

Friday, September 25, 2009

September 25, 2009 Links and Plugs

Guys and gals, here's one piece of advice when submitting: don't call magazines you submit to"low-level publications" after they reject your story. If that's what you honestly felt, why submit to them in the first place?



Plugged this before but it's for charity (more info here), so here's a reminder:

Last Drink Bird Head edited by Jeff & Ann VanderMeer

Top 10 Best-Sellers as of 2009/9/20

From USA Today's best-seller list (you can find out their basis here):
  1. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  2. True Compass by Edward M. Kennedy
  3. The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks
  4. New Moon by Stephenie Meyer
  5. Eclipse by Stephenie Meyer
  6. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  7. Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer
  8. The Shack by William P. Young
  9. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  10. Scarpetta by Patricia Cornwell

Thursday, September 24, 2009

September 24, 2009 Links and Plugs

My bi-weekly column at BSC Review is up: The Paradox of Book Reviewing.

If there's a must-read for the week, it's SF Signal's Mind Meld: Behind the Scenes...How the Hottest Short Fiction Anthologies Are Created (Part 1).

You also might want to check out Wheatland Press. The Polyphony series for $80.00!



From Small Beer Press (who have excellent tastes):

Hound by Vincent McCaffrey

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

September 23, 2009 Links and Plugs

I'm currently testing Blogger's new form but otherwise, everything's back to normal (i.e. busy, busy, busy; time to bring out the time machine).

For a limited time, Sarah Langan's The Keeper is available for free: Amazon, Barnes &  Noble, Sony.



Sending some Cherie Priest love:

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Essay: Support Our 'Zines Day

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

My review copy of The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology (ed. Gordon van Gelder) just arrived and it's this massive tome of both familiar and unfamiliar stories. When it comes to short fiction, in the past, I encountered them in books rather then magazines. And the reason for this is that I come from the Philippines, and most fiction magazines (be it Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Asimov's) aren't available here save for rare, used copies in secondhand bookstores. The field is currently shifting, especially with certain technologies (the audio book for example isn't really anything new--the business and self-help section of the bookstore had lots of those in the 80's and 90's--but podcasts are making them accessible and fashionable to a new audience) becoming popular and providing alternate venues for short fiction. But that doesn't change the fact that we need a ‘Support our ‘Zines Day’, be they in the form of magazines or websites.

I wasn't really a fiction reader when I was young and perhaps part of that was because I never encountered the fiction magazines. If you want to imagine a world where such publications virtually don't exist, feel free to drop by the Philippines (or other third-world countries). The only time I encountered short fiction was either in anthologies (not the most enticing package for a non-reader) or in the academe, where short stories were ideal because they were short enough to be given as assignments and cheaply photocopied (this copyright infringement dates back to an old policy by Martial Law president Ferdinand Marcos). (Ironically enough, one of my first encounters with "classic" science fiction was the short story "Flowers for Algernon" assigned to us by my English teacher during junior year high school, and is included in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology.) I can't help but wonder whether I would have gotten into speculative fiction sooner if 'zines were available during my time.

These days, 'zines come in different forms. On one hand, you have the web magazines, such as Subterranean, Clarkesworld and Fantasy Magazine. Then there are those distributed through PDFs (and print!) such as GUD and M-Brane SF. (And let's not forget the existing print 'zines, whether it's indie publications like Sybil's Garage, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Electric Velocipede, and Shimmer, to icons like Asimov's, Analog, and Weird Tales) But on the other end of the spectrum, we have unconventional fiction magazines like StarShipSofa and the "Pod" family (EscapePod, PodCastle, PseudoPod). That's not even taking into consideration the numerous blogs (this site included) which provide news and nonfiction. Speculative poetry also deserves a mention with dedicated publications like Mythic Delirium (print) and Goblin Fruit (web), or those that feature a mix of both such as Ideomancer and Strange Horizons. Then there are the magazines that also cater to what was considered a minority audience, such as Icarus and Expanded Horizons. It's not rocket science to claim that the stories included in my favorite format--anthologies and short story collections--are culled from these publications.

Unfortunately, not all of these publications are as financially successful as they ought to be and why they need our support. Let's face it, as far as mainstream publishing is concerned, novels are the cash-cows in the industry (relatively speaking). The 'zines which are potentially the gateway drugs to a new generation, and encourage writers to continue writing short stories (or simply having a cool byline).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

September 22, 2009 Links and Plugs

Thanks for the greetings! Anyway, back to work...

And recently released:

Interview: Erin Hoffman

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Erin Hoffman is a freelance writer and video game designer living the life nomadic. She is a columnist for The Escapist and a nonfiction contributor for an assortment of magazines including Strange Horizons and Gamasutra. Her poetry has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Not One of Us, Illumen, and elsewhere. Her fantasy and science fiction can be found in Deep Magic, the Enchanted Realms collections, and most recently in Clockwork Phoenix. For more details and her recent publication credits, visit

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

Thanks for thinking of me. :) Hmm. That gets into some interesting definition discussions (does Cave of the Word Wizard count, for instance? -- I was three for that one, and it probably was formative for a couple of reasons), but my first real plunge was in the summer of 4th grade, I think, when a battered copy of Piers Anthony's The Source of Magic jumped out at me from a library spinner shelf. It took me a couple of weeks to make it past the first page, but after that, I read most any fantasy I could get my hands on.

You've had a successful career in game design. What made you decide to try your hand in fiction and poetry?

The fiction and poetry actually came first, but I'd read enough wailing and gnashing of teeth from authors and poets to think it wasn't reasonable to expect a career out of them. My career path went from early web development (mid-90s) to 3D animation to video games. At one time it was equally crazy to expect video games could be one's bread and butter, but we live in interesting times.

What kind of "itch" does fiction and poetry provide for you?

I think all people are inherently creative, but for me the itch to generate participatory vision -- and both books and video games are participatory visions -- is instinctive. Fiction and poetry are my way of making sense of the world, of confirming that I'm alive, of reaching other people in a significant way. The "itch" is a deeply existential one, and a desire for human connection and the connection with meaning.

Why speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction is the only fiction there is. When we put unicorns and spaceships in it we're just expressing truth in advertising. But I have a pretty visually symbolic mind, or maybe I'm just more fixated on symbolism than most, and speculative fiction allows us to be more direct with digging down into how the human mind actually works, not limited by the physical parameters of our environment.

What are the challenges in writing and publishing fiction? How about poetry?

Oh, you used the p-word. :) But the real challenge is writing something of quality, and to do that you first have to learn to read (and recognize) something of quality. Poetry is the most difficult form there is, if it can be classified as one form. Publishing isn't that hard if what you're creating is quality, though human language is so meme-based that quality becomes clouded by trend and the communication and thought-processing elements of the utility of writing. And the human element, people being people. So on top of the plain challenges of sharpening your thinking and language, digging through the communication-oriented layers of cliche we all have stacked up in our brains, when you're talking about publishing you also have the challenge of presenting something relevant to your time and place. It's hard.

Several of your publication credits are from online sources or accepts submissions via email. In your opinion, how has the Internet changed the publishing industry? Do you think you'd have a modest career in the genre if it weren't for technology?

Email is fast and traceable. I like pulp media, in a tactile and aesthetic way, but these days I do most of my reading on a screen, as, I think, most Americans now do. The paper is a luxury. I'm not sure that the internet itself can be separated in how it's changed publishing from how our entire technological existence has changed virtually every industry in our time. I have no idea what I'd be doing without technology. For awhile I wanted to be a veterinarian, I'd probably be doing that. Machines and animals have a lot in common.

How about when it comes to game design, how does it stimulate your creative muscles?

If I were a super-wealthy heiress or something, and the world had no problems, I would probably make single-creator massively multiplayer text-based game worlds. That's a bit of having my cake and eating it too, but the thing to understand about games is that they're simultaneously unique -- like books, they reach into an area of our brains that no other medium reaches -- and have this meta-media existence. A properly made AAA video game incorporates writing, music, video, voice acting, visual art, architecture, and, through the game design itself (which is something separate from the above), virtually any human discipline you could possibly imagine. The potential is immense, and gets us closer than any other creative medium to the full-bore generation of crafted realities. Game design itself is the manipulation of rules, which can be interpreted as rules of world physics, society, culture -- you name it. Another name for 'rules' is 'math', which is a language for understanding existence, and maybe generating new existence. The video game is, so far, the ultimate in creative media. But that doesn't mean I like it better than writing, because this 'ultimate' status makes it a hell of a lot more difficult and complicated. And expensive, which brings in publishers and investors and all sorts of anti-creative nonsense. So the potential is as maddening as it is breathtaking.

For you, how different or how similar is game design compared to writing and poetry?

They're very related. Writing, poetry, game design, and most immersive creative arts are all aimed at generating simulated experiences. Every creative agent has their own guiding principle, but mine is rooted in emotion. Ursula K. LeGuin says something like this, that the perfect short story should aim to capture and evoke one single emotion, whether simple or complex. I think you can approach fiction, poetry, and games the same way, though the roads you'll take to get there are of course different. But good ones will have a unifying concept and a unifying emotion, even if that emotion is very complex and is arrived at in an emergent fashion after a progression through a series of other emotions. Understanding narrative (in a Robert McKee kind of way) is an asset in video games for how it provides insight into how we choreograph emotional progression as a species.

What are the skills that's useful in both areas?

It depends on what kind of each you want to do, but clear thinking is probably the common thread. The odd thing about that is that truly rigorous thinking is one of the most under-taught skills around, these days. But you have to be able to understand how the world operates, not in a Monday morning quarterback sort of way, but being continually inquisitive about how human beings work, how we've gotten to where we are as a species and as an individual culture. Once you understand human thinking, you can move inside it with greater artistic purpose. It's especially important for games, mostly because you can arrive on a happy result more accidentally in fiction, whereas people tend to perceive it right away if you don't know what you're doing in a video game.

Not to box you in, but do you see yourself more as a game designer, a writer, or a poet?

Oh no, a box! I'm actually not sure. I get paid more for the game design, but that isn't really a measure of identity. I think about writing all the time. "World builder", for good and ill, is probably what fits me best. It captures that common Venn diagram space between fiction and game design.

Is it easy for you switching between your game designer "hat" and your fiction "hat" (or poetry hat?)?

I kind of have all hats on at the same time, though the game design hat is possibly most distinct just because when it's really ramped up it's very mathematical in nature. (And go figure, I thought I hated math until I found game design.) But my writer brain is rarely "off". I tend to wander around with all receptors on all the time, and I collect bits and pieces -- an image, a sound, an idea. I sort them into boxes, and when I have enough that I think I know where an idea is going, I start working on it.

Is there any aspect of being a game designer that makes you a better writer/poet? How about the reverse?

I think it's too early in my careers to say definitively one way or the other. The symbolic thinking probably helps, but it's hard to know in what direction that flows. Game design is very helpful in that it encourages you to project how an audience will experience a piece of art given very sparse symbolic cues. Poetry is absolutely helpful in generating precise language and understanding how words and ideas fit together. Writing is helpful in keeping me sane.

What projects are you currently working on now, fiction/poetry-wise?

I just returned from TNEO (The Never-Ending Odyssey), a kind of one-week intensive writing refresher, so I'm wrapping up my notes and thoughts from that before heading full-bore into novel-land. Jeanne Cavelos, the founder of Odyssey (and a fabulous mentor and human being), wanted me to finish this novel when I first graduated from Odyssey, but I took some time away from it to work on short fiction and launch the poetry thing. I'm glad that I did, but I think the time is right for the novel now.

You've had a big impact in the games industry as EA Spouse. How has that part of your life affected your career?

People have a tendency to treat me like a comic book character the first time they meet me, if they know about the EA Spouse thing, and I'm continually surprised by the number of people that do. I think my friends get more benefit out of it than I do. They seem to take perverse pleasure in "outing" me to people they introduce me to. I'm sure it's had a pretty profound impact on my game dev career, at least -- I have a few interesting stories -- but it simultaneously opens and closes so many doors that the specific impact isn't really traceable. The mainstream media still finds the whole industry peculiar enough that I get called up for an interview every once in awhile, especially when it's in vogue to talk about unionizing.

If you could go back in time half a decade ago, what advice would you give yourself?

I'm pretty happy with where I am right now, and knowing my own tendency to overthink things I'd probably avoid doing anything to contaminate my 2004 self with things to overthink. But I'd say never to park on the corner of 8th and Jacob in Troy.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write early and write often. It's okay to write only for oneself, but if you do, realize that you're playing a different game than those who are compelled to write for an audience and compete in the market. Avoid self-indulgence, and adverbs. Understand why you do what you do. If you want to be published, be relentless about self-improvement; don't flinch from criticism, but seek it, and learn to understand the language of critique, professional and otherwise. Never delude yourself into thinking you're already good enough and it's the market that fails to realize your genius; you (probably) aren't. Read outside your genre. Remember that making it is about tenacity more than talent, mainly because tenacity is rarer. Find better advice than I can give. :)

Aspiring poets?

Read widely, but start at the top. Seek the critique of professional poets, and observe how they critique poetry other than yours, but don't get sucked into the professional poet community vortex unless you intend not to come out again. Realize that poetry communities of any kind are nepotistic as hell, and do not let praise lull you into a false sense of craft plateau, but neither let dismissal faze you. Understand that poetry is a pretty fundamental human drive, but that doesn't mean some aren't better at it than others.

Aspiring game designers?

Ask yourself deeply why you want to design games. If it's because you love to play games, you probably don't really want to be a game designer, but you can be a good game player, and that's just as valuable. The rules are essentially the same for game designers as for writers: you are a writer if you write; you are a game designer if you make games. You are a professional writer or a professional game designer if the public will hand over their hard-earned luxury time and money for your product, enough to sustain you. Respect their attention. You are a game designer if you can't help it: if you make, study, and test games even if you're not being paid to do so. Some of the happiest game designers I know aren't paid for their product -- but the most skilled ones are. Play widely, comprehend widely. There is gold in them thar hills, but it can eat your soul if you let it. Strive to find and identify people of genuine quality, and work hard to work with them when you can; successful games are very rarely the product of an individual's success. The industry is still small, and if you fuck people over, or if you suck, word will get around faster than you think. Think hard. Try not to suck.

Anything else you want to plug?

Of course! Those who made it this far, or those who scrolled, should check out The Homeless Moon and our second annual chapbook, "Imaginary Places": . My esteemed colleagues Scott Andrews, Michael J. DeLuca, Justin Howe, and Jason S. Ridler (and myself) put together this second chapbook using descriptions of ancient fantasy landscapes from Manguel & Guadalupi's fabulous Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

Monday, September 21, 2009

September 21, 2009 Links and Plugs

Happy birthday to Damien G Walter and George R. R. Martin (apparently, my new claim to fame is that I share the same birthday with two awesome writers...)

And for your speculative fiction Philippines, the navy spies on a national artist... and gets caught!

And Persnickety Snark interviews Filipino YA book blogger Tarie.

Now back to your scheduled programming...

How can I not plug my buddy Jeff VanderMeer (especially after the recent Mayweather-Marquez match):
Finch Limited Edition by Jeff VanderMeer


Despite it being a holiday today here in the Philippines, I have to rush to an 8 am photo shoot (it's 6:15 am right now) so unfortunately my daily links and plugs will be delayed.

Thanks for understanding.

Book/Magazine Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

What initially sounds like a pitch for a TV sitcom is actually a touching literary novel translated from Japanese. In many ways, The Housekeeper and the Professor reminds me of Aimee Bender's An Invisible Sign of My Own in the sense that numbers are a recurring theme, not in an intimidating way but injected seamlessly that it heightens the elegance of the prose. In the latter, mathematics is in the background, a detail which adds to the verisimilitude but it's clear that Bender's focus is on her characters. In that sense, Yoko Ogawa's novel is the reverse. While the story also revolves around the protagonists and their interaction with each other, the math rises to the forefront and is integral to the story. Ogawa sells us the beauty of numbers as adeptly as she enthralls us with her language: for example, we're ensnared by amicable numbers and perfect numbers so much so that this could easily have been a math propaganda book. Even the translator, Stephen Snyder, shares the limelight as I wonder what the original text was like when he translates the palindrome "I prefer Pi."

The Housekeeper and the Professor is smart in the sense that it doesn't attempt to explain everything. All the clues are laid out, the mysteries hinted at, but by the time we reach the conclusion, it's up to the reader to put the pieces together. Of course when it comes to the math--and in many ways this is superior to a science fiction novel in the sense that the reader falls in love with this science without much effort--Ogawa (and her translator Snyder) explains everything clearly to the point that extensive knowledge of the subject matter might be detrimental, in the same way that a magic trick loses its charm if the viewer is aware of the magician's sleight of hand.

But one shouldn't think this is simply a concept book, or a science fiction romance in disguise. What I've been downplaying is Ogawa's skill in characterization and this is evident as the initial paragraphs take place in medias res and revolve around what will be the central cast of the narrative. Ogawa hooks you from the start and each character is fleshed out, rising beyond their assumed roles and carrying complex burdens. There's a lot of restraint with Ogawa's writing and this novel is probably better for it.

The cultural specificity also isn't lost in the translation. The professor from the title for example points to his chest--the heart--when Westerners would have pointed to the head. This detail remained intact and will no doubt baffle some readers but it's a decision by the translator to remain faithful to the original source.

Overall, this was a compelling read and in many ways combines elements of science fiction (as opposed to being a science fiction novel in disguise) with literary fiction, and produces a piece of literature that's unique and refreshing. Ogawa adeptly avoids the common pitfalls of writers and introduces something that elevates the text.