Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Cheese, Wine & Beer Blogging

For the few people still hanging on: apologies for the relative silence. Of late, most of my blogging energies went into the Shine anthology weblog. Expect some major announcements and fresh developments on that soon.

Also, it was very busy at the day job: I was having nothing but back-to-back training sessions from the Summer onwards, with barely a day or two to recover in between.

OK: let's start with some wine. From my employer I got two bottles of Grande Visière. I tried it last Thursday, and didn't like it. I tried it again on Friday, and it still didn't work. I tried it the last time today: I guess it's OK as table wines go, but it just doesn't have any character: a middle-of-the-road red that is just a little bit too sour and too plain unremarkable to make any kind of impression. A 3 on a scale of 10, or a 1.5/5 as Wineass has it.
Since I'm at it, a Wineass-like Twitter review: Grande Visière French table wine: sour, dull. Like transmission fluid without lubricating properties. Free, 1.5/5, use only in emergency.
I actually threw it down the drain after tasting the Lehman: with wine I just can't be bothered with second class products (nothing to do with price: some cheap wines can be very good).

Then in the local Gall & Gall liquor store (where a very good friend of mine works) I bought a Spanish wine called Celeste (a 2005 crianza from Ribera del Duero), which I haven't opened yet (so expect a report later on), and a Peter Lehman the futures shiraz from 2003, which I opened.

According to Sylvia (my good friend at the Gall & Gall store) 2003 was one of Australia's best wine years, and it shows: I think it's divine. This is shiraz as it is meant to be (at least, according to my preferences): a red so deep it's almost black, rich forest fruits and plummy overtones, heavenly herbs and superb spices, subtle, fine grained tannins and a lingering, deep & complex aftertaste, like angels bleeding on your tongue.
Twitter review: 2003 Lehman the futures shiraz: fair dinkum. Forest fruits, plums, heavenly herbs & Superb spices. Angels bleeding on your tongue: €15, 5/5.

The cheese: I did some cheese shopping at Fons van den Hout, a delicatessen shop specialised in cheese in Tilburg. It's the closest shop (it involves a 20 minute train ride) where I can get the single Dutch truffle cheese: more than worth the short trip. I bought two cheeses there, and two from my local AH (Albert Hein) supermarket.

Also, I have the habit to put those -- sometimes expensive -- cheeses on LU (this is the brand name) crackers of the 'salt & pepper' variety: I find they combine real well with certain cheeses. Obviously, YMMV.
  • A gorgonzola piccante from Ballarini (from my AH supermarket);
  • A blue stilton which is the Christmas special in Albert Hein: you're supposed to drink port with it, but I have tried port several times (I have colleagues in Portugal who bring port, and I've tried it both in Portugal and Andalucía, but it just doesn't work for me. A matter of taste);
  • A mountain cheese from the Elzas (from Fons van den Hout);
  • A Dutch truffle cheese (ditto);
The blue stilton is both extremely crumbly and very smelly, and so blue-veined that mushrooms almost start to form: it's an aggressive cheese that takes no prisoners. Still, there is a certain complexity behind the near-overwhelming fungal and almost sickeningly sour attack on your taste buds. Definitely one for advanced cheese aficionados, and not one for the faint of heart. Strangely, I find it combines surprisingly well with Leffe Brune (see below).

The Elzas mountain cheese, on the other hand, doesn't make much of an impression on a first look: a plain cheese, halfway between soft and crumbly, with no fungal veins or speckled additives. Only the brown crust marks it somewhat. I tasted a piece of it in the shop, and it didn't immediately make much of an impression: this might also be due to the fact that it was very busy in the shop (good for them: they deserve the clientele) and that I was still slightly hung over from the office party of the night before.
However, after returning home and a refreshing shower it slowly reveals its hidden subtleties: a salt'n'mustard tang that works great with the almost sandy texture, combining the suaveness of a younger cheese with the character of an older one. Definitely a keeper, and a perfect accompaniment to the Lehman futures shiraz.

The gorgonzola piccante is an old favourite: when I do a four-cheese plate, I try to make a 50/50 mix of new and known. I tried the mild gorgonzola, but found that it was a bit too cowardly for my tastes. The piccante combines a certain tang with a certain smoothness, a bit like a very charming kid doing something naughty but getting away with it.

The Dutch truffle cheese (picture above): this one is the most difficult to describe for me. It combines the taste and texture of a 'belegen' cheese (in Holland this is a classification system to determine the amount of time a cheese has ripened: 'jong' -- young -- is up to four weeks; 'jong belegen' is 8 to 10 weeks; 'belegen' is 16 to 18 weeks; 'extra belegen' is 6 to 8 months; 'oud' -- old -- is 10 to 12 months; and 'overjarig' -- overaged -- is 16 months and older) with the phenomenal taste of truffles. How does a truffle taste? Well, this is a minefield: not only are there several types of truffles (black and white, summer and winter, and many others), and I suspect that this Dutch cheese uses the black truffle (the least expensive variety). Also, truffles are very pungent, so can easily dominate the palette.
However, when used in just the right amount they give extra depth, complexity and a certain suave smoothness to a dish (this can be a meat dish, over a pasta or a salad, or indeed in specialty cheeses). Think of the king of all mushrooms with a very earthy undertone and tangy, twangy, maybe even funky overtone (OK: it is undescribable. Do try it, if you get the chance). Restraint is the true mastery in combining cheese with truffles: too much truffles and they totally dominate the palette (if you want that, you might as well eat them pure, even if that's an expensive experience), too little and their complex suavity doesn't shine through.

Also, the very helpful lady in the shop in Tilburg gave me something extra: a dip (or sauce) to use with the cheeses: this is an orange marmalade-like concoction that I find works nice with more plain cheeses, but kills the complexity of the more advanced cheeses. So I'm only using it when in dire need (read: if I can't afford the real good stuff).

Now, I'm one of these drink multitaskers who think it's no problem to drink both a great beer *and* a fine wine during dinner. In some connoiseur circles this amounts to blasphemy, but since it's perfectly fine to have a seven (or more) course meal with a great diversity of dishes I don't see why I can't have the same diversity with drinks (and yeah, I know there are endless varieties of wine: I just like to have both beer and wine).

In summertime, I prefer wheat beers like Hoegaarden, Brugs Wit, Dentergems or a good German Heffe-Weissen. In wintertime, though, I prefer more heavy beers (apart from the Hertog Jan lager I drink year-round) like Leffe Brune and Corsendonk.

Leffe Brune
is the beer of choice tonight: a great complex darkly malted beer with caramel overtones: packs a good punch without knocking you out straightaway (in the manner a lot of triples do).

I also bought a Leffe beer glass: I think this is close to the perfect beer glass, an near-spherical bowl on a thick pedestal, think a wine glass for beer.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Police in Belgium

Don't mess with them...

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Have Been Interviewed...

...about optimistic SF and the upcoming SHINE anthology by Jay Tomio of BookSpot Central for their BookSpot Beat feature.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Diamond Ring Society

On Saturday November 15 there was another meeting of the 'Diamond Ring Society'. It's a not-so-secret cabal of Dutch solar eclipse chasers, consisting of my friends Peter v/d Linde, Bram LaPort, Ellen Dautzenberg and Freek Slangen. We met up in a bar in Amsterdam, exchanged pictures (that is: most of them gave CD-roms with pictures to me, as I'm not a photographer), and we discussed future solar eclipses.

First, finally some pictures of the August 1, 2008 total solar eclipse near Novosibirsk:

The shadow of the moon racing towards us over the lake;

The sky at the beginning of totality;

Snapshots of the total solar eclipse sequence:

First Contact until Second Contact;

Second Contact to Third Contact (totality with one protuberance and the solar wind);

Third contact to Fourth Contact;

The sky at the end of totality;

The shadow of the moon racing away from us across the lake;

(All pictures are made by Freek Slangen, a member of our not-so-secret cabal.)

The next total solar eclipse is July 22, 2009, where the moon's shadow will cross over the north of India, over the Himalaya Mountains into China, then into the Pacific via Shanghai, passing just under Japan and off way into the Pacific (path here). My friends are looking at an organised travel arrangement via the University of Utrecht: for me this might be a bit too long (a three-week trip), as I intend to do WorldCon in Montreal (August 6 to 10), as well, and also World Fantasy in San José, and I only have so much days off.

So I might fly into Shanghai for a week, and join my friends in Wuhan (which looks to be one of the best spots: it'll be a tricky one, as July is the monsoon season in India, and the rainy season in China. This is compounded with the possibility of tyfoons, which generate an enormous amounts of clouds around their central twisters). Then get back home, stay home for over a week -- instead of a day like this year when I went from Novosibirsk, one day at home, then onwards to Denver -- and go to Montreal.

In 2010, there is a total solar eclipse on July 11, which is almost fully over the Pacific Ocean, and ends in Patagonia. It crosses over Easter Island, but all accomodation and trips for that are already fully booked now. So we're looking at French Polynesia or the Cook Islands.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Relevant SF

(Cross-posted from the SHINE blog)

...or: The world is looking for solutions. Why isn't SF trying to help, or at least trying to think along?

In the past couple of weeks, I've been in airplanes quite a bit. My airplane reading is mostly newspapers and science magazines like New Scientist and Scientific American. So when I flew to Spain about a month ago I delved into the October, 11th New Scientist "A Brighter Future" special issue, and when I flew to Calgary two weeks later I bought Scientific American's "Earth 3.0" special issue. Then there's also Ode Magazine (I read the Dutch version, but there's also an English one) with a 'Generation Now' special report.

The similarities between the three: they're all worried about the (near) future. Indeed, just like SF, I hear you think. But unlike most SF today, these three magazines are not only analysing the problems, they're also actively looking for solutions. Why has most SF fixated on the former (often directly extrapolating today's problems in tomorrow's dystopias), while greatly ignoring the latter?

I strongly suspect that this is one of the main factors that keeps (written) SF from being relevant to a larger part of the population, especially young people. Not the sole one(*), mind you, but a very important one. I strongly think we need SF that starts thinking about near future solutions for our current problems.

Since our problems are complicated and interlinked, our solutions need to be multifacetted: most of today's biggest adversities do not exist in isolation, so multiple causes need to be addressed simultaneously. This requires multidisciplinary approach that is both broad and deep: one single specialist in one field (no matter how brilliant) will not do, but a group of 'intelligent optimists'. These teamworkers and teambuilders realise that there is no 'one-size-fits-all' solution, but that quintessentially different aspects require tailor-made solutions. They cherry-pick the best solutions from a great variety of sources, attack the problems from a lot of different angles, and are interdisciplinary, practical, forward-thinking go-getters.

Dog help me, I hear some of you think: this is immensely difficult. Indeed, it is. It's the point: SF can't afford to be too simple or straightforward anymore. Good near future SF not only reflects the complexity of the real world to a high degree, it also needs to see the intricate problems as tractable if we put our combined minds to it, with sharp intelligence, the will to co-operate, and hope.

So let's look at this in a broad perspective, and link the three 'special issues' I mentioned above:

  1. Our energy and water problems are interlinked: both crises must be solved together (this is the Scientific American "Earth 3.0" cover blurb almost ad verbatim). In the article, they link water usage to huge power plants such as combined gas/steam cycle, coal, oil and nuclear plants. And if alternative vehicles like hydrogen fuel-cells and plug-in electric vehicles get their charge from these huge power plants than they are water hoggers, as well:
  2. But the New Scientist "A Brighter Future" has this highly illuminating graph on pages 32 and 33 that depicts where alternative energies such as solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and tidal wave are most abundant across the world showing that the electricity potentially available from renewables (310,600 TWh) is much bigger than the total electricity being generated (19,014 TWh in 2006). Especially solar and wind energy use hardly any water: so if we power our electric or hydrogen fuel-cell or biomass hybrids with them we kill two birds with one stone: the energy and the water dependency. Only 433 TWh is generated by renewables, so the potential is enormous:
  3. Which bring us to Ode Magazine's "Generation Now": it sees higher oil prices as the trigger for decentralised generation of renewable power, both stimulated by governments (as has already happened in Germany and Spain) and by entrepreneurs, as Silicon Valley investors are now turning to investing heavily in green energy, and where people will try to make their houses self-supporting energy-wise ('energy-free living');

Again, why do I find this kind of positive, forward-thinking in non-SF magazines?

Two quick, off-the-cuff musings:

  • We need an urgent paradigmatic shift in economic thinking: the planet cannot sustain continuous economic and population growth. So combine a zero-growth (or a shrink-and-expand-to-the-same-size) economy while the population stops growing, as well (UPDATE: the 'zero-growth' economy was actually the theme of the 18th October issue of New Scientist, as Anthony G. Williams's post 'The Folly of Growth' reminded me. Thanks!). The European Union might be the forerunner in this: less economic growth over the last decade than the US or the new Asian tigers China and India, with a population that is stagnating or even shrinking while its people are growing older.
  • Suppose a platform like Liftport starts building a space elevator somewehere west of the Galapagos Islands, it could have the hydrocarbons it needs for its complex nanotube tether supplied by a company that is cleaning the Pacific from the accumulated plastic pollution. It uses solar and skysails powered vessels to get supplies to and from the space elevator's Earth base, it's presence in the tropics stimulates the nearby Latin American economies in a sustainable way, and more.

This is to get you -- and especially the SF writers among you -- thinking. Doesn't SF pride itself for it's potential for 'sense of wonder' and its ability to shift paradigms? The point is, these sensawunda-powered conceptual breakthroughs almost always happened in space, virtual realities and runaway technological singularities (and yes: I'm guilty, too). Bring the gosh-wow, preconception-shattering power of SF to address, if even partly, the current problems plaguing our planet (or help imagine new solutions, new approaches) and SF will become relevant again.

Another maxim has it that SF writers like a challenge. So what are you waiting for?

(*) = I fully agree with Paolo Bacigalupi -- see his interview in The Fix and an exchange I had with him on his blog -- and Ian McDonald that SF needs to become relevant again (we disagree, and probaly not even that much, on how to recapture that relevance: Paolo's focus is on environmental issues, while Ian has a thing with the Multiverse, while I think we should troubleshoot the lot -- the environment, the economy, the human tendency to short-term thinking, the lack of education, and the elephant in the room called overpopulation): spewing humanity all over the galaxy while we haven't decently solved our current, highly complex problems is a flight forward. We need to face our challenges now, and instead of fictionally wallowing in them, we need to start thinking our way out of them.

(NOTE: I love a good discussion, and haven't closed the comments on this post, but I would appreciate it if people would comment on the SHINE blog.)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

SHINE weblog update

A weekly (or so, I hope) update of what's going on at the SHINE anthology weblog last week:

Foreign Sale

My story "Random Acts of Cosmic Whimsy" (originally published in Flurb #6) is now slated to appear in French magazine Galaxies (which has been relaunched at the last Utopiales, if I understand their announcement correctly) for the late February/early March issue, according to a reliable source.

Actually, there is another reprint (well, republish) of "Random Acts of Cosmic Whimsy" in the pipeline, but more of that if and when it happens...

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Mosque Among the Stars slated for a November 14 release. It contains my story "Cultural Clashes in Cádiz". It's one of the stories that portrays (at least one) Islam or Muslim character(s) in a friendly light.

Here's the page about it on the Islam and Science Fiction website.

Here's Ahmed A. Kahn's announcement of A Mosque Among the Stars (with a ToC).

Order it at ZC Books here.

And last -- but certainly not least -- there will be a launch event on November 22 at the Chapters bookstore in London, Ontario (from 2 to 5 pm). A Mosque Among the Stars will be jointly launched with Ahmed's collection Sparks. Call me biased, since I lifted Ahmed's story "Elevator Episodes in Seven Genres" from the IZ slushpile (it was published in Interzone #211), and he published me in A Mosque Among the Stars. But do check it out.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

World Fantasy in Calgary...

...was brilliant. It was only my second World Fantasy and it has become my favourite convention.

I haven't made any pictures myself, so I will just point to the good people who have done so:

Laura Anne Gilman's pictures;

John Picacio's pictures (and blog post);

Ellen Datlow's pictures;

Lou Anders
's pictures (and blog post);

Kathryn Cramer's pictures;

John Klima
's pictures;

Marjorie Liu's pictures (and blog post);

Some of the many, many highlights included:

  • Unfortunately missed the Hades party at Wednesday evening because my flight arrived late, but the buzz in the Hyatt hotel bar was fine;
  • A relaxed lunch with David Levine & Kate Yule;
  • The Queensland Writers party;
  • The Johncon/Nightshade party in Jeremy's room, and going to a liquor store with Alan Beatts to get more booze when it ran out (and then needing to be subtly reminded by Alan that when Jeremy strips he might be indicating that the party is over, around 5.30 in the morning);
  • Doing the "Fantasy 'Zines Around the World Panel" with a monumental hangover but liking it nevertheless;
  • Great lunch with Gordon Van Gelder, Sean McMullen and Jenny Blackford afterwards the panel;
  • the Borderlands Scotch single malt tasting party (absolutely awesome! Both the whiskies and the party);
  • Having dinner with Diana Rowland on Halloween: she was dressed up as Sarah Palin and it took me a while -- we don't celebrate Halloween in Holland -- to realise just why she did that;
  • The first few days I had problems getting my bar bills paid: that is, the moment I went away for a few minutes (to go to the toilet, to talk with yet another fabulous person) and came back to get my check I found that somebody else had already closed the tab for me. I sometimes protested to be told not to worry about it. Then the last few days I made certain that I picked up a number of tabs from people -- often against their protests -- because good karma needs to go around and around;
  • Dinner with Marc Gascoigne (now Angry-Robot publisher), Sean and Catherine McMullen and Mike Gallagher: probably the best conversation I had in Calgary;
It was fantastic to meet so many people I didn't know personally (but was, in many cases, well aware of) like Shawna McCarthy, Daniel Abraham (David! Next time I'll buy Mexican lunch or dinner), Jenny Blackford, Robert Hoge, Justin Ackroyd, Shaun Tan, Nora Jemison, Steven Mills, Lawrence Connolly, Laura Anne Gilman, Jemma EveryHope, Nikki Kimberling, Rob Shearman (who might have been a wee bit shy initially, but looked like a veteran as the con progressed), Colleen Anderson, and several people whose face (and function) I remember, but whose name I forgot: I ask forgiveness.

And the many very good to good friends (and I'm not even trying to pretend this list is complete): Lou Anders, John Picacio, Paul Cornell (thanks for introducing me to Rob), Karen Newton, Bill Willingham (you should be working...;-), Chris Roberson & Allison Baker, Mary Robinette Kowal, Aliette de Bodard, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Doselle Young, Gordon Van Gelder, JJA (this anthology is METAL!), Marjorie Liu (next dessert will be on me), Jeremy Lassen (even if the 'Shade faded for a little while on Saturday evening...;-), Jim Minz & Jay Caselberg (don't mention the 'better' name tags), Ellen Datlow, Eileen Gunn, Jonathan Strahan, Garth Nix, Alan Beatts & Jude Feldman, Amelia Beamer & Liza Groen Trombi, Todd Lockwood, Kay Kenyon, Diana Rowland (creepy Halloween costume alright, and I'm glad I didn't look like her running mate...;-), Marc Gascoigne, Sean McMullen & Catherine McMullen (what not to do in Venice), David Anthony Durham, Steven Erikson, Rani Graf (I am finally remembering your name: so alcohol does not destroy braincells...;-), Christian Dunn & Mark Newton (obviously...;-), Graham Joyce, Daryl Gregory, John Klima & Mark Teppo, Adrienne Loska (good luck with the documentary!), Tony Richards, Farah Mendlesohn, Mark Rich, Leslie Howle, Walter Jon Williams, David Levine & Kate Yule, Ken Scholes & Jay Lake, Heather Lindsley (say hi to Al Golden --ehrm -- Robertson).

My profound apologies beforehand for all the great people I've met but forget to mention here, and all the great moments that I'm either skipping or temporarily (I hope) not remembering.

World Fantasy is the best!

Imaging President Barack Obama

First (and most important of all): many, many congratulations with President Barack Obama! To many of my American friends, and the many outside of it as well. Too many to mention, and you know who you are.

(I returned from World Fantasy on November 4, and was so jetlagged I couldn't sleep. Which was good, as I had planned to follow the US elections live anyway, but now I had no problems staying awake [I had those today]. At 05.30 am or so Dutch time McCain gave his concession speech. I feel so happy I nearly cried, and so many in the US must have felt -- probably still feel -- much, much happier than I do.)

Back in May 2005 I received a story from Ed Morris in the IZ slushpile called "Imagine" (Paul Di Filippo had urged him to try Interzone with it, and too good effect, and my belated thanks here). I forwarded the story to my (then) Interzone colleagues and Andy Cox published it in Interzone #200, on September 2005.

The last paragraph of the story is as follows:

"Well, we would have been denied our President Barack Obama, who just allowed me back into the States a week ago Tuesday. About him, at least, I have no room to bitch."

My question to the blogging masses is: does anybody know of fiction (not non-fiction) that imagined a President Barack Obama that was published before September 2005?

As a second query: what might be the first story (or novel) that imagined a black President of the USA?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

SHINE Anthology


Here's the Solaris Books Press Release:





Solaris is delighted to announce a major new anthology from ex-Interzone co-editor Jetse De Vries.

Shine is a collection of near-future, optimistic SF stories where some of the genres brightest stars and some of its most exciting new talents portray the possible roads to a better tomorrow. Definitely not a plethora of Pollyannas (but neither a barrage of dystopias), Shine will show that positive change is far from being a foregone conclusion, but needs to be hardfought, innovative, robust and imaginative. Most importantly, it aims to demonstrate that while times are tough and outcomes are uncertain, we can still bend the future in benevolent ways if we embrace change and steer its momentum in the right direction.

Christian Dunn said of the deal: “Jetse has been quite vocal in his opinions about moving SF in a more positive direction, and it’s a journey Solaris are delighted to be accompanying him on.”

Jetse de Vries was co-editor of Interzone for four-and-a-half years, and his non-fiction has appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, the BSFA´s Focus and others. His fiction has appeared in a few dozen publications on both sides of the Atlantic, most recently in Postscripts, Clarkesworld Magazine, Hub, Escape Pod, and Flurb. Shine is his first post-Interzone project. Jetse lives in the city of Hieronymus Bosch, has a blog at and can be contacted at

About Solaris

BL Publishing, a division of Games Workshop Group PLC has been publishing SF and Fantasy under its Black Library imprint for over ten years. Solaris was founded in February 2007 with the aim of publishing original genre fiction for the US and UK mass markets. In its first year Solaris gained praise from many critics, especially for its back to basics approach. Solaris continues to attract high profile authors to its stable. For more information visit

For more information please contact Mark Newton on or on ++44 (0)115 - 916 8384


I've made a SHINE anthology website, doubling up as an open platform for optimistic SF here: Shine Anthology Blog.

Guidelines here (will be slightly updated after I return from World Fantasy on November 4).

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Little Exposition...

...In the Bateria Candelaria (an old fortress, now an art centre) in Cádiz.

I ran into it on my way to Parque Genoves, on my way for my daily piece of writing in the park. I quite liked it: it seemed to be themed around shoes or footwear. Does the name of the Spanish prime minister (Zapatero 0 shoemaker) have anything to do with it?

Anyway, a few pictures:

Flying shoes.

Shoes hanging down on loooooooong stockings.

A painting I really liked.

Walking on clouds.

A Few Thoughts

Openness to change --> change to openness

Food for thought --> thoughts for food

Suspension of disbelief --> disbelief your suspenders

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Do´s and Don´t´s in Cádiz

I´m itching to post a few pictures of this beautiful town (actually I´m itching to post something else as well, but it´ll come), but can´t as my company laptop´s internet access is too slow, and my USB stick is rejected by the PCs in the internet cafés.

  • Do take a laptop with wireless access next time;
  • Do learn better Spanish;

As it was, way back when I was attending college, there was a (free) Spanish course. I missed more than half of it becuase I´d rather go to the beach (it was during summer). I greatly regret that now, as Spanish is one of the world languages. And while I get along fine in Cádiz, speaking better Spanish would have made things even better.



  • Eat local food in cafetarias, tapas bars and other eateries. Unlike most restaurants, these are open before 21.00 hrs, and provide great value for money;
  • Do order separate salads with your meal (this might be usual in the US, it isn´t in Europe), as the vegetables you get with the main course quite often are not fresh, but pickled;


  • Eat Mexican food: I did it a few nights ago, and it was bad. Then I remembered from previous visits (to other places in Spain) that the Spanish version of Mexican food (keep in mind that restaurants with non-native food have mostly adapted that non-native food to the taste of the natives -- a survival tactic -- and that they´re only rarely ´original cuisine´) is just not to my taste. Just not enough fresh
  • Eat Italian food: ditto. Way too greasy, and not enough attention to making each individual ingredient top notch (like the Italians do);
  • Go to Spain as a vegetarian: I remember reading that Spain was the most carnivorous country in Europe, well above Germany and Austria;

Make no mistake, the Spanish food is fine (if you´re not a vegetarian, obviously).

Also (added after this happening a second time):


  • Have a beer (or a coffee) at an almost deserted Spanish café at 18.00 hrs. I did it last a few days ago on the Plaza Fragela (the one around the Gran Teatro Falla) and today in a bar at the Via de la Palma: in both cases it seemed I was the only (or one of a two) customers around that time. That suited me fine: it was still warm and sunny, both places are picturesque, and in all--relative--quietness I could start up my laptop and work on my fiction. In both cases, though, it becoame quite crowded in about half an hour: at the grand theatre plaza I suspect it was a theatre group (all of a sudden, the owner was setting up *all* his terrace tables, food was being served in large quantities, so I suppose this was reserved in advance), at the street of palms it just became busy with, I suspect, the usual customers. Either that, or I am a crowd magnet...,-)
Quite enjoying myself.

Anyway, back home next week, with one day to post pictures before heading of to Calgary (World Fantasy). From sunny Spain to wintry Canada...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

In Cádiz

I've arrived in Cádiz last Monday evening. I took some nice pictures but no internet café here (I've tried three, so far) wants to recognise my memory stick. Which is a nuisance.

Trying to enjoy myself here, while also trying to get several things done. So as soon as I find a decent PC, there will be pictures. Or they will be inserted when I get back to Holland (whichever comes first).Now the first objects iI photographed were not historical buildings (of which there is an abundance here, Cádiz being one of Europe´s oldest cities), but trees. And a lot of déjà vu moments.

Here's an impressive tree near the Punta Candelaria (which is an old fortification).

Here's a nice one in a playground between Parque Genoves and Hotel Atlantico (I stayed in that hotel some ten years ago when servicing the controls of the propulsion equipment of two ferries that sail between Cádiz and the Canary Islands).

And another tree -- a double one, actually -- before the entry of one of the University of Cádiz many facilities.

And several moments of recognition: the port and the ferries are still very much the same. The Irish pub at Plaza San Francisco where i drank too much whisky (it was dirt cheap) is still there, although prices have gone up. Some restaurants and tapas places have closed down, but many new ones have opened up. Right now there is the festival IberoAmericano in Cádiz, meaning a lot of theatre shows and performances throughout town. And I promised my sister -- who has worked on a project about it, and I´ll add a link as soon as I find out which it was -- to visit a Flamenco club.

I´m working on several things here, and my company´s laptop refuses to let me access the internet (it´s firewalled to the brim), so I can only get online in internet cafés. Therefore, updates may be patchy as the beautiful weather and cold beer are big distractions.

So little time, and so much to see and do.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Batch of Near-Future Stories

In a previous post I declared this October to be the month of hope. Typically, I've seen a batch of near-future stories on the internet this early in October that made some interesting points:

A few general remarks first: while it is increasingly difficult to write about the near future (as both Charlie Stross and I agree), the point is that when you do it, your predictions and extrapolations should err on the audacious side rather than being too cautious. Things move faster than you think and being wildly wrong -- while telling a good story -- mostly works better than a compelling narrative that was close but didn't quite go far enough. Simply because the former is often more thought-provoking than the latter.

All three of the above-mentioned stories are a case in point: Rakunas mixes (America's) obsession with sex with slacker culture and high school politics to both humourous and mind-bending effect; Klosterman fires off futuristic nuggets that vary from old hat (old entertainers/artists/trends making a comeback, well-worn conspiracy theories) to irrelevant (hole in the ozone layer) to interesting (first AI used for virtual sex), witty (near-death experiences inciting more instances of the actual event) and imaginative (expectation entertainment and news blows); and Stoddard boldly predicts a phase-change in politics, where all the internet tools already available now (and expanding fast) are used as not only as the lure, the promise of a hyper-direct democracy (albeit for those online mostly), but are implenented as the ultimate election campaign: find out what each and every voter truly wants, and then promise it to them (or promise something that is very close to that). Change can be both exhilirating and scary.

("1337 in 2012" easily has the boldest prediction of the three: it not only follows current trends -- an important part of Obama's lead so far is his use of the internet: not only for funding, but in organising communities, advertising, and much more -- but tries to extrapolate them to their extreme endpoint. While this has the risk of taking things too far, it does make for a highly thought-provoking story, and this is one of the things SF should be very good at. Thinking about it before I fell asleep last night I wondered if it might not even have gone far enough: in the end it teases with the possibility that future elections might be won by the best hacker, but I am even thinking that it might even evolve not only in a tight competition between hackers and internet entrepreneurs/savants, but also in a competition between *systems*, where the 6 kazillion dollar question is whether the system that is best for *winning the election* comes out on top, or the sytem that is best for *running the country*. Gut feeling might say the former, but I'm not so sure.)

An interesting parallel between the Klosterman and the Stoddard story is that both have an internet 2.0 (or 3.0, or higher up) entrepreneur winning the US election at some point. Make no mistake that while Klosterman's piece appeared in the most prestigious market, Stoddard's made the bolder prediction: it takes until 2020 in "A Brief History of the 21st Century" before 'blogucrat' Digger True wins the election (participating in two previous ones), while Susan Acker in "1337 in 2012" already 'steals' the election in 2012.

There is a lesson there somewhere:

  1. Esquire running an SF story is not only another indication that SF is part of the mainstream, but also that there is a huge potential audience for it out there;
  2. Mainstream writers (or artists/directors/bloggopundits or whatever) turning their hands on SF is a good thing, even if they don't get it (completely) right;
  3. Because both competition from outside the ghetto, and exposure of the SF meme to an audience as wide as possible is not only beneficial, but essential for the genre's long-time health;
  4. This should force SF writers to be both more relevant and more daring in their (fictional) ventures.

Does this mean that the more escapist-oriented parts of SF should go? No, of course not, as there is room for almost everything under the SF umbrella. However, in order to be more interesting to a younger and more varied audience I think SF needs more fiction that is urgent, near-future, and relevant, and needs to rely less on its old tropes and its well-worn bag of tricks.

Would more optimism help? I think it will, but it's not the be-all and end-all. Again, SF encompasses a broad palette of expressions, and it is my opinion that the red paint of pessimism has been overused in respect to the blue paint of positive progress (a double entendre and a mixed metaphor for the price of one...;-).

There are several problems with writing urgent, relevant near-future SF: by making bold predictions one can be easily proved wrong (for example, Klosterman predicts that McCain wins the US election by a very slim margin. Either way you predict the current election, you have a 50/50 chance of being wrong. However, I suspect both Klosterman and most Esquire readers aren't really worried about the piece's futuristic accuracy, but read it more for entertainment, even if it's idea-rich entertainment. A new type of infotainment: futuristic infotainment?), and by writing very close to tomorrow one can become obsolete very fast (hence Jason's decision to publish his story now, while it's very actual, rather than wait for the next election, and be dead wrong).

As with almost all risky, but forward-looking businesses: it's immensely difficult, the potential for failure is huge, but so are the potential rewards.

Anybody into boldly going...?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Life on Mars Preview

For those few SF aficionados not in the know, a primer:

For the fans, a preview:

The difference between the primer and the preview? Minimal, I'd say.

More emotionally effective is the "Sent to the 70s" preview, I think:

Will it be as good as the original, English version? io9 is cautiously optimistic.

Anyway, don't both the original and the ABC version own a lot to The Singing Detective?

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Optimistic SF Debate Goes On...

...through Damien Walter's Guardian blog post, with Kathryn Cramer (comment 74) reacting on the Tor beta website.

If I understand Kathryn's argument correctly, her central argument is:
I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them.
I have heared this argument before, and I think it's a bailout. It's the old chestnut that dystopias show us what's wrong with the world today, and what will happen if this goes on, so that we will not do it. That's one-sided: we tell people what they should not do, but not what they should do. Like saying what is bad without even trying to give a good alternative. While SF can't be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world's problems, it should at least try to look in the right direction. And pointing the other way saying that *that* is the wrong direction is not the way forward.

Now, I fully agree with Kathryn's impression -- namely that the majority of the stories she (and her husband David Hartwell) read for their Year's Best SF anthologies (and for their YBSF 13 particularly) are, indeed, very much 'reflect reality', and are thus downbeat.
While conventional wisdom dictates that readers tend to prefer more up-beat SF and that the Eeyores of the SF field just don’t sell, what I find as an anthologist picking stories during wartime and in the midst of the unfolding of various other dystopian scenarios is that a lot of the best SF and fantasy lately is really dark.
No argument there.

My problem is: must SF *only* reflect the current world? Or might it look beyond our current problems? Kathryn doesn't seem to think so:
I also don’t think that providing rays of sunshine through the storm clouds is really the solution particularly, nor necessarily the most workable aesthetic choice, unless you are in Hollywood.
Here is where I disagree with her. She even ends her post with:

So, to answer his question, Does SF have to be so gloomy? I guess my answer is that for now it does because it is in touch with the world we inhabit right now.

Make no mistake: I regard Kathryn, as an editor, very highly. I greatly disagree with her on this point: what happened to the SF that dared to make audacious predictions? The SF that, for better or worse, dared to go into the great unknown? That dared to lead, and make mistakes?

If I understand her post correctly, 'cultural forces much larger than the SF field' will more or less define SF's agenda. Say again? Since when did that stop Olaf Stapledon? Arthur C. Clarke? Ursula LeGuin? John Brunner? Greg Bear? Bruce Sterling? Greg Egan? Ian McDonald? And more writers I can remember right now who tried to transcend the zeitgeist (cue to Bruce Sterling's eponymous novel, OK, but contrast it with Islands in the Net, Holy Fire and Distraction) and write about what will change?

I disagree with the cliché that SF is the literature of ideas (they help, but they're not the core): to me, SF is the literature of change.

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of change: things change for the worse, or things change for the better (I realise life is much more complex than that: some things improve, other things worsen, and some things don't change very much. I'm looking, admittedly roughly, at the net result here). In SF -- as both Kathryn Cramer and Damien Walter seem to agree, even if not for the rationale, or the necessity behind it -- the utmost majority of stories depict the change for the worse.

My opinion (especially at this point in time, but also in general) is that SF stories where something changes for the better -- and I'm not talking mindless Polyannas here, but stories where progress, even a small amount of it, is achieved against the odds, is hardfought -- are not only in the minority, but in the minority both because convincingly optimistic stories are much more difficult to write (people tend to believe a story where everything goes down the drain much easier than one where things change for the better), and because the majority of the SF community (writers, readers, and editors) seem to be too mired in the current downbeat zeitgeist to rise above it.

Now shoot me, but I like to think SF that's really audacious, gutsy and forward-looking dares to make predictions against the flavour of the month. Dares to make totally unexpected predictions, and -- in the process -- dares to be wrong: but nevertheless inspires others to carry the torch of progress.

Depicting a world like today that's going down the drain is easy: people love to complain, and blame the world's problems on someone else. Depicting -- convincingly -- a world that changes -- even if marginally -- for the better, is much more difficult, for an SF writer.

One cliché has it that writers (and specifically SF writers) like a challenge. I'm not so sure: I think most SF writers like a small challenge, like trying to write an elf story for an editor who doesn't like elves. As readers of this blog know (all five of you...;-), I'm looking for SF writers that like the big challenge: write something that rises above the current problems.

Because if everybody -- like Kathryn Cramer says, remains in touch with the world we inhabit right now -- is gloomy, then *nobody* will invent higher efficiency solar cells, better alternative energy solutions, improved agricultural practices, innovative sustainable living methods, and so on.

Indeed: while we expect companies, inventors and innovators in real life to come up with solutions to the problems we are facing today, why should SF bail out of that discussion? Because it's not popular?

The most popular thing I ever did was post pictures of fake Yu Gi Oh! cards from my son’s collection. Despite being a novelist and all that, the most popular thing John Scalzi ever put out there in the world was a picture of his cat with bacon taped to it.

Please correct me, but I understand that in his time, Galileo's worldview was far from popular (it nearly got him hanged). But it didn't mean he was wrong. OK: this might be overstating the case, but I do remain that most innovators have had to overcome a lot of resistance of their contemporaries, because these contemporaries refused to believe that these unpopular visions could be correct (a boat made of steel could not float; a vessel made of metal could not fly, and there are multitudes of similar examples).

Now I do understand that Kathryn Cramer works for Tor, and that Tor needs to sell books, and presumably books that concur with the currently held consensus sell better than those that go against it. So the Year's Best SF follows the zeitgeist and is filled with downbeat stories (also because daringly upbeat stories are thin on the ground).

Now you can shoot this naive idealist, who prefers to invest his surplus income in sustainable banking, and believes in innovation and progress: but if there are so many -- yes, there have been lots of failures, as well: that hasn't stopped others from trying -- innovators succeeding (for example, on the day job there was a shipping company that were to first to try the sky sail: these people were willing to try this innovation, but were mildly skeptical at the result. What happened: the system performed above expectations) in real life, why is SF lagging behind?

Yes, I will admit to being ashamed: I love SF, and like to think it's forward-looking. But if the things I see at my day job are quite often more innovative, forward-thinking and imaginative than SF, then I feel really, really ashamed. I train young people, from all over the world, at my day job, and let me tell you that they are, almost without exception, upcoming young professionals that believe that they can change their future for the better. They're (mostly) not interested in contemporary SF, because it doesn't speak to them.

I am extremely tired of SF that shows how the world goes to hell: it's the most defining characteristic of modern SF. The real world is developing more initiative than the literature of the future, the literature of change, and this is one of the main reasons why SF is becoming so irrelevant.

SF is reactive, not proactive. SF is following where it should lead. SF is empasizing the gutter, not looking at the stars. No wonder it's becoming obsolete.

Written SF is losing its contact with the (potential) young readers (or whatever was left of that, the cynical part of me adds). While publishers are finally changing the medium (from paper to electronic) in order to reach new audiences, I strongly believe that even with a new medium nobody will be interested if the message doesn't hit home.

So do we win a new, young audience by telling them -- however eloquently -- that their world will go to hell, or by telling them that they can at least change some things for the better? It's even worse: most of the young people -- the professionals of the very near future -- I see aren't waiting for SF: they're already doing it themselves.

In my day job (where I work for a propulsion company), I train both our own technicians and customers to work with our installations. In my experience, most of these people (yes, both our own technicians and customers) are not only focused on troubleshooting -- which is very important -- but also try to find ways to prevent problems. Sharp people that often ask me difficult questions, some of which I can't immediately answer (I need to get more info from engineering). Quite often, these people not only learn things from me, but I learn a lot from them, as well. And always -- without exception -- when we acknowledge a problem, we are then fully focused on a solution.

We may not get that solution, but it's certainly not for lack of trying. Therefore, while SF indeed can't be held responsible for finding the solution to all the world's problems, that doesn't mean it should not try to attack at least a few of them.

Pointing to the problems is not enough (no matter how eloquently done): thinking about the solution is required. If -- at the day job -- I would only point to the problem, and do nothing else, I would get fired. I'm supposed to think about a solution, be helpful towards that.

Therefore, if SF isn't, at least, trying to pave the way towards solutions (and not be afraid to be wrong), then it will become...




(if it isn't already)

Realistically optimistic SF is not a luxury, nor an impossibility. It is essential if SF wants to be relevant. Otherwise SF will become/remain(*) a nostalgic enterprise for baby boomers.

(*) delete as appropriate.