Monday, July 30, 2007

Realms announced

Realms: the First Year of Clarkesworld Magazine is on presale at Wyrm Publishing here. If you pre-order it now you get it for $9.77 (instead of $13.95).

I'll be picking up a copy at World Fantasy, as I find overseas mail from the US to Europe capricious and slow (or very expensive and fast).

It's a good way to support an upcoming publisher, and at about 40 cents a story it's cheaper than Amazon shorts (and yeah, cheapskates can check them all for free at Clarkesworld Magazine. But don't go complaining if another market dies due to lack of support).

And the cover art, like those on the chapbooks, is -- as usual -- great.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Gordian Knot--

--She has been cut.

Yesterday I sent out 16 (reluctant) rejections, and have winnowed down the 500 submissions of May to 18, the first four of which will be sent to my colleagues tomorrow.

So what's in there (for those still keeping count)?

  • Two alternate histories: one in a fin de siècle US, and one in a late medieval UK. I actually like more exotic settings, but that's the way things worked out this time. However, we do have two alternate histories in inventory set in a world dominated by China and Aztecs by two different writers, who are strangely different and strangely the same. I hasten to add that they developed those completely independent from each other;
  • Four near-future SF stories: one a thought-provoking political thriller, one a haunting post-apocalyptic drama where people are trying to maintain a shred of civilisation, one that redivides a re-united Korea into a whole different group of have's and have-not's, and one high-tech, pulling-all-the-stops extravaganza that will have the mundanistas (hi, Geoff, Julian and Trent) either moaning, ecstatic, or both;
  • a science fantasy with a distinctive Vancean flavour that wears more masks than clothes;
  • Three fantasy stories: a wry, bittersweet search for treasure and origin, a journey in a surreal world full of pain and mystery, and a madcap, absurd battle for something that is evocative by definition (which might also be filed under the humourous stories);
  • Four humourous stories: one where a spectre is daunting Manhattan, one where our hero is desperately searching for his brain (no, actually he's searching for all seventeen of his brains), one where genetic engineering gets monstrously out of hand, and one that's so full of wit and (self-)references that it might well be the snake that swallows its own tail;
  • an adventurous SF tale on a swampy planet where some things go slower...
  • Two sensawunda stories: one that gradually builds up to an awe-ispiring climax, and another one that hits the ground running, sets off the fireworks, and never looks back;
  • One razor-sharp fable that some may find sick.
Later on, I hope to post which ones we finally accept, with story titles and my one sentence description, to whet your appetites for future Interzone issues.

Triangulation: End of Time on sale!

While a large part of the genre world has congegrated at the (sold out) San Diego Comic Con, or is busy getting their Hugo votes in, the anthology "Triangulation: End of Time" has been launched at Confluence in Pittsburgh. It's also available at here, both in print and electronic format.

Update: also at Amazon here.

It contains my story "Near Absolute Zero", portraying the end of the Universe in a dread, existential setting. (Programming will return to more optimistic tunes the moment Escape Pod will put "Transcendence Express" online, or when Ahmed A. Kahn releases his SF Waxes Philosophical anthology with my story "The Third Scholar".)

There are lots of other stories in there, from Asimov's writers Ian Creasy, Matthew Johnson and Tim Pratt; soon-to-be Interzone author Sue Burke, and Trent Walters -- one of the three ediots of Interzone's mundane SF issue next year -- and many others.

Check it out!

Friday, July 27, 2007

To trunk, or not to trunk?

Most short story writers have them: stories you've written that you think are quite OK (or better than that), but that still don't sell. They get rejected: with forms, or quite often encouragingly with personal notes that come down to: 'close, but no cigar'. They keep getting rejected, until the markets you thought were suitable for it have been exhausted.

Of course, in most cases this probaly is because your piece of genius isn't quite so good. And while this is a very tough call to make for a writer, sometimes your story gets bounced not because it sucked, but because the markets weren't ripe for it.

*Ducks as an avalanche of rotten tomatoes comes in*

I know: in the utmost majority of the cases it is because the story just wasn't good enough. But there are a rare few ones where it *is*, or at least that is what you -- the tunnel-visioned writer -- can't help but believe.

So you don't totally trunk your story, but keep it on hold, and stealthily wait until the right market comes along. And as you regularly check Ralan and Duotrope and other sources, sometimes you come across one, and bingo! (Well, not quite always. But sometimes: I've had it happen to me once before).

I have four such stories: stories I can't help but keep believing in myself (and I have trunked over two dozen: most were learning experiences, and some I know are sub-par. Quite sub-par). That number has now dropped to three (and another one had a near-miss: this one has the added disadvantage of being 15K long).

Indeed, a sale!

Thing is, in this case it took some time before the coin dropped. Ahmed A. Kahn -- whose short-short "Elevator Episodes in Seven Genres" is now out in Interzone #211 -- is editing a second anthology (the first one, Fall and Rise, is out from Whortleberry Press) about SF and philosophy, tentatively called SF Waxes Philosophical.

It took me a while to realise that one of my 'on hold' stories was steeped in philosophy (and much more besides). Also, as far as I know Ahmed only mentioned this anthology on the Asimov's boards and his own journal.

Anyway, I sent the story to Ahmed this Friday, and it was accepted a few hours later.

And while payment is one copy of the anthology, it's not bad to be in the company of Mike Bishop, Steven Utley and Matt Hughes.

So that leaves three stories that I still think should be published. Here's one for writerly doggedness!

And what do I learn from this?

I mean, from reading all that slush. As a writer.

Well, mostly the do nots. Lots and lots of the *don't*s, like:

  • Read the guidelines: I know this is the most-repeated advice, and I'm afraid this will not change. Especially if I see that over a third of what I receive every time is either not an RTF file, or not single-spaced (I realise that 'standard manuscript format' is blasted into every aspiring writer's brains. Still. In the 21st Century, where *all* the typesetting is done on a computer. Old habits die hard, right?). Unfortunately, this can't be repeated enough, and I was especially amused by Doug Cohen's post about getting a submission from a fifth grader who did it all right. So an eleven-year-old can, while loads of adults can't.
  • Be patient. No: be very patient: I know -- I've learned the hard way -- how busy an editor is. I try to get things done as soon as I can, but never quite as fast as I estimated, or hoped. Something always gets in between, and as long as this gig doesn't pay the bills (and to the best of my knowledge only three people in genre magazine publishing get paid full time to do this: John Joseph Adams [F&SF], Brian Bienowski [Asimov's], and Trevor Quachri [Analog]. Feel free to correct me), it's never going to be my top priority. High, very high, but never number one. So responses might be delayed, and editors will always like patient submitters better than the ones who query too soon. I know we shouldn't, and for some it may not make a difference, but we are human, after all, with faults and all.
  • Check your market: read at least a sample issue. It saves everybody's time -- including your own -- if you target your stories right. I suspect it's one of the reasons quite a few genre publications still don't use email submissions: the temptation to submit blindly is great (and it happens in droves).
  • Conversely: don't try to write specifically for a market: write what you must write, to the best of your abilities, with passion, sweat and knowledge. Then let the evil editor work it out. Thus: write it first, and worry where to send it to later.
  • Send your best, and only your very best: I've seen the email slushpile for Interzone grow from 300 to 500, and I know that a good story just isn't good enough: it must be superb and spectacular to make the cut. This is true for every market that gets 500 or more submissions per month, such as F&SF, Asimov's, Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Baen's Universe, and others.
There are more, but these come to mind first.

But, I hear some of you say, reading those very good stories (rare as they are): doesn't that show you how to do it right?

Yeah, but it doesn't show you how to write a superb one.

Writing a story, a great one, is still, basically, more magic than technology. If writing a great story was a kind of trick, or something that could be duplicated, then not only would it lose all its lustre, but all slush readers would be doing it. As you already noted, we don't.

This is, I think, mainly because there is something unique, something truly personal about great stories that can't be duplicated. At least not today: maybe sometime Artificial Intelligences will develop that are multitudes more intelligent than humans, and for them writing a superb story will be a piece of cake. However, if these will come into existence (not saying that they *will*: that's a completely different discussion), then I suspect they'll be as interested in writing a story for humans as we are in -- say -- developing a solution that will make bacteria feel fantastic.

So, if anything, reading slush made me realise that I must develop my unique voice as far as I can, to make me stand out from the pack. And not exactly how to do it, but more how not to do it.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Marillion & Fish & genre: personal connections

Since I've been focussing my interest mostly on fiction, I've lost touch with most modern rock music. So while I read fiction so fresh it's unpublished (although that for a few of these stories should change), I increasingly play old music.

While I'm mostly a heavy metal maniac, I also like progressive rock (although it hasn't been exactly 'progressive' for -- say -- the last twenty years), and last week I found myself digging up old Marillion CDs. The old ones, when Fish was the singer.

Those who know the old Marillion will have their own favourites:

  • Script for a Jester's Tear: the debut where I especially like "He Knows, You Know"and "Forgotten Sons";
  • Fugazi: my second favourite album with the razor-sharp "Assassing", the superbly dramatic "Incubus", and the biting and insightful title track "Fugazi";
  • Misplaced Childhood: with the breakthrough hit "Kayleigh" (and atypically one of the songs from that album I still like best), it's Marillion's most acclaimed album;
  • Clutching at Straws: Fish's swan song with Marillion. Contrary to popular opinion, this is easily my favourite Marillion album.
With me, it goes like this: I put Clutching at Straws in the CD player, and with most songs gooseflesh occurs. Almost every time.

So I put in the previous three albums (my CD can hold 7 CDs), and time and again they just don't give me the emotional and intellectual catharsis of Clutching at Straws. Fugazi comes closest: "Assassing" is always nice and sharp, "Incubus" a piece of performance art, and "Fugazi" a cutting insight in Thatcherite England. Script for a Jester's Tear is OK, but not much more than that. For some reason, Childhood's End never quite works for me: I play it, trying it once more, only to find that indeed it's missing something. So shoot me, but while I appreciate the quality of the music, I just don't connect.

For me, Clutching at Straws' got it. In spades: this is Fish at his most desperate, but also at his most poetic, at his most insightful. And here Steve Rothery plays every guitar solo as if it's his last (of course it wasn't, but it sure sounds like it): pouring emotion in every bloody note. The rest of the band is in fine form, and the production is superb.

What it comes down to for the rest of the band is to provide the basis for the two stars to shine: Steve Rothery and Fish. During the recording (and subsequent tour) of Clutching at Straws, Fish had had it: the pressure of success, instant celebrity and the unrelenting tour schedule (I suspect that was the most important part) had taken their toll, and he was all but about to call it a day.

It shines through in almost every song of the album, but most particularly on "That Time of the Night", "Going Under" and "Sugar Mice". In retrospect, it's as if the rest of the band -- and especially Rothery -- realised this would be the last album with Fish, and (subconsciously) acted on it: delivering a near flawless performance, and Steve Rothery playing like the (poetic) devil chasing him.

Fish was at the end of his rope, and while I didn't see Marillion on the Clutching at Straws tour, a good friend of me told me that live Fish was only a shadow of his former self. Quite possibly he might have peaked (is that why they call it a swan song?) during the recording of Clutching at Straws.

There are some lesser songs on the album: "Just for the Record" is a filler, and I'm not quite enthusiastic about "Going Under" and "Torch Song", either (while I do understand their necessity and inclusion, as they're both confession songs, as well. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself).

But the beginning (first three songs) and ending (last three songs) take Marillion to soaring heights. "Hotel Hobbies" sets the tone: Fish in the next indistinguishable hotel on an endless tour, deperately trying to avoid going to the bar, writing lyrics in his room. Poignant observations in poetic lyrics, signalling the confessions to come. The build-up of the song is superb, foreshadowing the shape of things to come.

"Warm Wet Circles" is the first masterpiece: a deceptively calm start, with a true-to-life depiction of modern life, dissecting it to the bone. This is the 'assessing/assassin' poet Fish at the top of his game, not analysing his people because he's superior to them, but beause he's one of them, because he understands them as he is like them (1). A confession, as he realises these people mirror him. As Fish's insights get closer to the heart, the music's passion increases, especially Rothery's guitar providing a perfect counterpoint for Fish's poignant vocals.

This song never fails to give me gooseflesh.

And it seemlessly blends into "That Time of the Night". This is Fish on the confession chair: it doesn't get much more honest than that: straight from the heart, although Fish does that without a single cliché (or if he does reinventing each and every one of them). Despair showing through, and with Fish acknowledging it, and letting it, together with Rothery's phenomenal chops, lead him to a climax -- pouring out his heart -- and a sort of catharsis.


"So if you ask me where do I go from here, my next destination isn't even that clear" Fish asks in "That Time of the Night", and explores that question further in "White Russian", which indeed begins (and often repeats) "Where do we go from here". Obviously, the focus has shifted from Fish personally to the world (and the UK) at large, although that distinction is not always clear. The song is both a testament to indifference and a confession that he (and we all) are guilty of it. Here's a man who knows he should stand up and fight, but has lost the balls to do it, and implies that we all have the same problem. Another masterpiece of music and lyrics.

"Incommunicado" is fun, but a bit too self-consciously self-deprecating after the brilliant "White Russian". That this one became another hit was an irony in itself.

Then (I know I ignored three songs here, but I said I thought those the weakest) we get to the finale: the threesome of "Slainthe Mhath", "Sugar Mice", and "The Last Straw".

As it is, "Slainthe Mhath" repeats and recycles both "That Time of the Night" and "White Russian", although here Fish doesn't lay the blame squarely with himself (and thus onto us), but on other, more evil people. Fish the passionate observer has become a bit cynical here, but I suspect it's something -- yes, the cynical attitude -- that he had to get out of his system, as well.

But he's back to full personal disclosure in "Sugar Mice", which in an interview he calls his favourite song on his favourite album. Here he apologises for his behaviour, on a very personal level, and takes responsibility. He comes clear.

And after he's come clear personally on "Sugar Mice", he ask the world at large to come clear on "The Last Straw", even if it's hopeless. This is Fish at his most desperate, and Rothery with his most poignant guitar solo. Awesome. Breathtaking. Cathartic.

Some of you might wonder why I like a gloomy album so much: am I not supposed to be one of the champions of the optimistic, forward-looking? Well, to me, Clutching at Straws is a catharsis: I wallow in its despair, because it's phenomenally beautiful despair. I go through it, and then come out recharged: I've vented/went through my feelings of despair, and overcame them. Learned that I should rise above them, and try to move forward. And that gets us to genre stuff: horror, fantasy, sf (and maybe even literature).

Now, if I may generalise greatly (and I do realise that there are huge amounts of exceptions to this, but bear with me as I forward my argument, c.q. feeling), one might distinguish the separate genres by sensibility. Of course, this makes the distinctions highly subjective, and quite a few of you will passionately disagree, but -- as is often the case -- this tells more about me than about the genres. So let's go out on a limb.

Horror might be viewed --as James Van Pelt muses on his blog -- as the the acknowledgement that life/existence/the Universe (fill in your own synonym) is basically hostile. Roughly speaking (and I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a horror aficionado), horror is the literature that deals with that realisation (or, at least, good horror).

Taken a step further one might even say that all literature is about death. My good friend Des Lewis (with whom I disagree a lot, making him such an interesting discussion partner) proclaims this, calling in 'the ominous imagination'.*

In that light, a huge part of both fantasy and SF might be seen as repressing that fear of death: escapism. Roughly speaking, again, one could see the majority as a denial of death: no matter how imaginative, spectacular, or dazzling the victory of life over death: it is only temporary. Delaying -- and thus denying -- the inevitable.

So -- in a magical metaphysical melancholic moment mixing metaphors with an alliterative élan -- let's call horror the acknowledging genre , let's call fantasy the emotive genre, and SF the intellectual genre (yeah, huge generalisations. Allow me to get to the point).

Back to rock'n'roll, there's this guy called Henry Rollins (ex-Black Flag, now Rollins Band) who has experienced intense depression just like Derek William Dick (Fish). But, as he says in one of his songs: "Suicide? I'm not the type." Neither am I. Neither is, I propose, Fish.

In the Clutching at Straws album Fish dredges the depths of his soul, desperately looks for some smidgen of meaning, and mostly comes up empty.

And still he decides to live on.

Yes, after the tour he quit the band: he'd had enough. But after recovering he comes back solo (and so do Marillion after Fish). Arguably, neither of them quite reach the heights separately that they did together, both artistically and commercially. But Fish did move on.

And that's how I experience Clutching at Straws: a journey into darkness, a trek through despair. I've had such moments of despair, but, like Henry Rollins, I'm just not the suicidal type. So I move on.

Let's put my cards on the table: I know I'm going to die (even though I surreptitiously hope that Ray Kurzweil is right and we'll all be uploaded in the upcoming singularity, I'm not exactly betting on it). I'm an atheist, so I believe that death is really the end. And I don't see any meaning to live (not even '42'...;-), apart from the meaning you yourself put into it.

And that, my friends, is where I put science fiction. Horror (and possibly most of literary fiction) might be saying: life is shit, pointless, and will never get any better. Fantasy might be sticking its fingers in its ears, saying: "na-na-naah: I can't hear you!" while it immerses itself in the next escapist fantasy: elaborate, intricate, startingly beautiful and dazzling, but basically being in denial (true for a lot of SF as well, I know). Then there's the rational science fiction, acknowledging that the Universe might be devoid of meaning, and that life is a freak occurance in a near-infinite ocean of emptiness. However, after acknowledging that, it also acknowledges the beauty of existence (Blindsight author Peter Watts might say that this esthetic interpretation/appreciation is an effect of another freak occurrance called consciousness), and tries to look for the cause of that beauty. SF explores, and, as its understanding of the working of the cosmos increases, it experiences a deeper sense of wonder.

Not the sense of wonder from a spiritual or religion transcendental experience: that is basically getting something for nothing, getting the answers without understanding them, and akin to a high from drugs: intense, mind-blowing, but empty and addictive. Every time you need more to experience the same high, until its effectiveness goes down the drain, and you're a wreck.

But the sense of wonder of -- as Richard Feynman called it -- finding things out. Something that sharpens your intellect, not weakens it. Something that expands the mind, not blows it. Something that might be just as addictive, but develops your brain, not deteriorates it. Something that makes you chase new horizons, not wallow in limitations. Something that turns you into an eternal learner, makes you see both the strangest and simplest things in a new light, and might even give meaning to your life: you can explore.

Explore this Universe: it can be cold and mostly empty, but also strange and beautiful. You will -- most probably -- die, but before you do you can add to the understanding of life, the Universe, and everything. You can temporarily transcend death, but unlike a fiery mayfly, now you can pass the torch of knowledge to the next generation, to humanity, to sentient life at large.

And maybe life cannot escape death, entropy, and the heat death/the big crunch/the big rip (take your pick) in the end. But we're not going down without a fight, and have great fun in the process.

And that's what SF is to me: defiance in the face of doom, with a smile on my face, and my mind alight with sense of wonder.


* = I don't fully agree. With the same impunity I could say that all literature is about jealousy, and interpret anything anybody has written in that light, no matter how inapproriate. Or instead of 'death', or 'jealousy', use 'love', 'hate', 'fear' or some other broad emotion.

(1) Such lyrics make me cry out, simultaneoulsy, in despair, envy and awe: despair because I can't be so good, envy because somebody else is so good, and finally awe because it is so awfully good. The second emotion is fleeting, and evaporates quickly. The third one stays, and the first one makes me try harder in the increasingly rare times that I write myself.

(2) What is it with Scots and writing? While most Scottish people I know are fine, especially once you get to know them, the majority isn't more gifted than other people. But once in a while a Scot crops up and totally blows me away: Fish aka Derek William Dick, Marion Arnott, and Hal Duncan. So I've decided to drink more scottish single malts.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Recurring themes and tropes in the May slushpile

As I'm almost* done with responding to all May stories, a bit of musing about the kind of stories that I see that don't quite (or very rarely) work.

(* = when I was sending out my replies to the last couple of stories, I found out I had forgotten to read two, which I will do tonight. Oh well.)

BTW: I'm thinking out loud here, so expect a few edits to this posts as more things strike me.
  • The US becomes a de facto right wing Christian dictatorship. This one was the most predominant in the May slushpile. I do understand that the current political situation in the US triggers this. However, none of these told me anythign new;
  • Darwin -- or his trip with the Beagle -- redone to refute 'intelligent design'. Again, I realise this has everything to do with the current state of things in the US.
  • Pirate stories. Arrr, Matey: fallout from the Black Sails, Fast Ships anthology and the Shimmer special pirate issue (all, of course, having nothing whatsoever to do with the popularity of the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies). I sympathise, as I had a pirate story bounced for one of these three markets, as well, and know it'll a be a bitch to sell elsewhere. Still, unfortuantely, none really caught my fancy;
  • Unicorn stories. Maybe because Peter S. Beagle is showing up all over the place has something to do with that? While I'm not allergic to the mythic beasts, a story about them will have to be really exceptional to make me stand up and take notice. Not in the least that the unicorns of the *actual* legend -- as my IZ colleague Liz Williams likes to point out -- are not the lovely, cuddly things they seem to be, but rather quite the contrary;
  • A genius, dead or dying, finds the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything, but nobody really understands it. How unfortunate (while it conveniently relieves the author from having to have a go at it): the answer to it all, but always just out of reach. Allow me to be blunt: if you use this trope, and the answer can't top "42", then fuggedaboutit;
  • The assumption that 'the human condition' is so tremendously unique. Read Diaspora (Greg Egan), Accelerando (Charles Stross), or Blindsight (Peter Watts) first, and then try again. Warning: these novels might cure you of your inbred homo sapiens superiority complex (although it's an *enormously* ingrained viewpoint);
  • No Arthurian stories. There were none in this slushpile, which surprised me, as there are usually at least five. Aren't they fashionable, or will they make a comeback with a vengenace?
  • Shakespeare stories. With Shakespeare plots or with the bard as a character. There were only two or three this time around, which is well below par. But I have no doubt that old Will will rise again;
  • (More?)

So, in order to see what *did* work (for me, at last), a short summation of the type of stories that I've held over (and will whittle down over the weekend):

  • Two Alternate Histories: both about a very significant change. One rife with passion, the other full of erudition;
  • Four adventurous fantasy stories: two with a strong mother/daughter theme, and two with a revenge theme. One of the latter two also with a highly imaginative setting;
  • Two humourous fantasy stories: one contemporary and naughty, the other with very surreal overtones;
  • One more fantasy story which I would call contemplative;
  • One hard-to-pigeonhole story (call it cross-genre, slipstream or interstitial: I don't care much for the term) where reality slowly shines through in a fantastical place, or vice-versa, all depending on your viewpoint;
  • Four humourous SF stories: one that goes to absurdist lengths in a very short space, one that's like a comedy of manners in a future rife with aliens, one that is (self-) satirising, and one that I would call sick, but in a good way;
  • Two stories that I would call contemporary (possibly literary) with a single SF element;
  • Two adventurous SF stories on alien worlds with imaginative settings;
  • One SF exploration story set in the solar system;
  • Three near-future SF stories (well, I guess you could call them mundane SF): one with a cyberpunk sensibility, the other about memory targetting drugs, and one where big politics are played on a very personal level leading to a thought-provoking ethical dilemma (OK, I quite like this one);
  • Two more near-future SF stories (call them mundane SF, as well, if you like), albeit that these two play with (the idea of) identity;
  • Two SF stories from the POV of an exotic culture (with exotic I mean one that actually exists -- or has existed -- on Earth. (One could be called mundane SF, the other not as it uses a kind of instant transportation portals. Now I'm not trying to steal Geoff Ryman's -- and Trent Walters's and Julian Todd's -- thunder, I'm just cherry-picking what I like.)
  • One philosophical SF story, and an intricate mind-bender at that;
  • One post-apocalyptic SF story where people try to uphold certain civilised values against all odds: poignant, heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting (can you guess I really like this one?)
  • One science fantasy story in an almost Jack Vancean vein: on the surface it looks like fantasy, until the SF trappings slowly filter through;
  • One SF story from an alien viewpoint (actually there's one more that's mostly written from a non-human POV, but I'm including it below);
  • Three SF stories filled with sensawunda: one where the alien is approached gradually and where, in the end, the choice must be made (jump in the unknown, or stay in the known); one that starts out almost normally, and where the strangeness slowly pervades until it almost literally breaks through; and one that starts slam bang right in the middle of the alienness and sweeps the reader along whether she/he likes it or not, and keeps the fireworks going until the reader understands how things have changed (possibly after a reread, or two). It already pains me that I will most probably will have to drop one of these three for variety's sake.

The second list doesn't tell you that much, right? Well, roughly speaking, for Interzone I am looking mostly for SF (say 60%), fantasy (say 30%), and the hard-to-define rest (say 10%).

Also, my tastes and preferences run to stories with:

--ambition (I'd rather see one reach too high and fail spectacularly than aim low and succeed);

--originality (if not a new idea or concept, then at least a new insight or angle on an old one);


--a willingness to explore;

--a strange setting (either existing exotic cultures on Earth or fully imagined aliens);

--a contemporary setting that's intricate, plausible, thought-provoking and in some way estranging;

--humour (although that's highly subjective, of course);


--high concepts;

--a sharp style, a certain flourish;

--a unique voice;

Where some of these points can be mutually exclusive, and some can go together. And some are definitely more difficult to achieve than others.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Test Your Bias

Reading a (Dutch) magazine on the toilet I chanced upon a column about discrimination and people applying for a job. The columnist (it's Ben Tiggelaar on the July 6, 2007 edition of Intermediair) wonders if discrimination is mostly a conscious or subconscious process.

(SF aficionados: cut to Peter Watts's Blindsight.)

So he recommends to do a test. His suggestion: Harvard's Implicit Association Test. I did. Well, that is: I did the first one, the skin tone IAT (they have a total of fourteen demo tests).

Tiggelaar says the following (translation mine):

Everyone who takes the test, is shocked by his/herself. The most people I know, reject discrimination in all its incarnations, but – in this Implicit Association Test – end up in the ‘Wilders’ category.
(Geert Wilders is the leader of the PVV, a Dutch political party at the far right of the political spectrum.)

My result:
I must say that I was relieved: somehow I suspected worse. Of course, there are thirteen more tests to take (which I will do after I finish the May slush).

Now the reason for Tiggelaar's column was that our Home Secretary (our minister in charge of the Home Office, whose title in Holland is Minister, and whose assistant is called Secretary. Confused already? Then go to Brussels...;-) Ter Horst is proposing to use anonymous job applications for government jobs. Which is throwing up a storm of protest and opinions: some think discrimination on the job market should be fought through education and agreements with the employers; others believe there is no discrimination; and some think all Turks should return to Marocco.

The point of his column -- and I must agree -- is that *if* discrimination is mainly a subconscious process, then an anonymous job application procedure, in which the first selection should be done while the name, sex, age, religion, and ethnic background of the applicant are withheld, is needed. Like Ter Horst wants.

Then -- Tiggelaar says -- the final selection committee should be a mirror image of our society (we're talking Holland here): 50% male, 50% female, 20% foreign, and graying hair at the temples.

Food for thought: while I still need to take the other thirteen tests (and don't know if these test actually do show subconscious bias), I do agree that the way we judge total strangers is most probably subconscious, for the most part.

Because I distinctly remember a course about dealing with customers I did some years ago, and the way first impressions work.

Question: At first impression, how fast do we -- on average -- make a judgment about a total stranger solely based on appearance?

Answer: in less than 10 seconds.

Question: How much of this first impression do we keep over time?

Answer: about 90%.

This baffled me at first, but I've come to believe that it's true. I find myself doing it: assessing strangers purely on appearance, without having talked to them. Then, if I find out I'm doing it, I have to make a mental effort to suppress this 'first impression judgment'.

I have to consciously force myself to withhold judgment until I know this person better.

Cutting back to Blindsight (and its theme that most of our actions are subconscious), I theorise that this might be a survival mechanism from the savannah: distinguish friend or foe very quickly. A mechanism that is not appropriate in modern society, but didn't have the time to evolve away (or, to play Devil's advocate, is waiting until this folly of a conscious culture has run its time).

Anyway, it makes me wonder: am I, deep inside, a sexist racist supremist alpha male whose conscious brain needs to supress these tendencies all the time (and probably unsuccesfully), or is my subconscious smarter than that, and is my conscious mind responsible, making quick calculations because it's taking up too much computing power as it is?

I don't know. But sometimes I feel like this:

behind the finer feelings--
this civilized veneer--
the heart of a lonely hunter
guards a dangerous frontier

As Rush drummer Neal Peart worded it on "Under Lock and Key" (from the Hold Your Fire album).

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Another May Email Reading Period Update

First off: I'm tired. Dead dog tired.

Not to put a too fine point to it: I'm not getting paid for this co-editing gig at Interzone. It's a purely for the love thing.

Now don't get me wrong: I absolutely *love* doing it, more than the day job, actually. But it does mean that I'm reading all these submissions in my spare time.

A typical weekday: get up at 7, bike to the day job (on a push-bike: I don't have a car, by choice, as I do have a driver's license) at 7.30, work from about 8.30 to 17.00 (or from 09.00 to 17.30: I'm *not* a morning type of person), get home at about 18.00, quick meal preparation and eating from about 18.00 -- 19.00, then one to one-and-half-hours of sending out replies, then some three to four hours of reading, go to bed around midnight or later, exhausted, and repeat until Friday night.

With the obvious intrusions when the real world really cannot wait (bills, social commitments, Interzone non-slush-reading stuff, and more).

I realise that some will see this as the 'I-suffer-for-my-art' rant. Maybe it is, but I'm also saying it because quite a few of you think I'm doing this as my day job. Well, I'm not: I very strongly suspect that no magazine -- whatever its circulation -- would be willing to pay me what I now make in my day job as a technical specialist.

So if some submitters wonder why I don't respond as fast as -- say -- John Joseph Adams (who is doing a phenomenal job, BTW, no disrespect intended: rather the contrary), then you now know why: it's not my top priority (even if it's a thing I love to do).

So bear with me as I struggle onwards.

As to the actual update: I have caught up with all submissions until May 24 (with three exceptions, and I'm thinking really hard on those).

I still have about 75 stories still to read, and about 110 still to respond to (these include the ones I still need to read).

The plan is to finish it all over the coming weekend, but with a huge party on Saturday July 7, this is unrealistic. So sometime next week.

From July 21 onwards I have a two week holiday. The plan is to do something I haven't done for over half a year: write. One short story. Two if I'm lucky.

Or I might just visit family and friends to show them I'm still alive. It'll probably be a combination of the two.