Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The most appropriate response to David Fincher's movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button may be the three-word first sentence of Keith Phipps' review at The Onion A.V. Club: "'Curious' is right." The picture starts out bizarre, then makes one strange, wrongheaded choice after another. It's always watchable, only fitfully involving, and ultimately mystifying.

On a technical level, the movie works: The makeup and digital-effects folks will have deserved their Oscar nominations. But Brad Pitt merely inhabits the makeup, adding nothing to a character that's an utterly passive cipher to begin with. Peter Sellers' Chance, in Being There, is a colorful go-getter by comparison. And figuring out what age Pitt is supposed to be from scene to scene is ultimately just annoying.

As Daisy, the love of Benjamin's life, Cate Blanchett tries harder and comes off better, but she, too, is hobbled first by the CGI equivalent of Botox (to make her look like a teenager) and later by increasing layers of latex. (That Daisy must suffer far more than Benjamin in the course of the movie is depressing but unsurprising, given that the screenplay is by Eric Roth, who also wrote the screenplay of Forrest Gump.) Blanchett's deathbed scene, to which we keep returning throughout the movie, is fully as interminable as Ralph Fiennes' in The English Patient, but saddles the star with far less expressive makeup. You'd never know, from the hospital sequences, that Blanchett is one of our most electrifying actresses; anyone could be under all that goop.

Speaking of age makeup: "Blink," a Hugo Award-winning 2007 episode of Doctor Who, requires a character named Billy Shipton to age decades from scene to scene. On the Third Series DVD set, the creative team explains the rationale for casting the veteran actor Louis Mahoney as the older Billy, rather than putting makeup on 20-year-old actor Michael Obiora, playing the younger Billy. Basically, the argument goes, age makeup -- however well-done -- is never convincing and always distracting. Such honesty in the service of storytelling is refreshing, but impossible for the makers of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Without the lure of a star turn beneath age makeup, would the picture ever have been made in the first place?

Makeup issues aside, the movie has too many other elements I just couldn't buy. I never believed that Benjamin and the black woman who adopted him (played by the talented Taraji P. Henson) had a cross-racial mother-son relationship. Queenie seemed more like Benjamin's devoted housekeeper. (Should I be ashamed that I kept thinking of Steve Martin and Mabel King in The Jerk, and thinking that their relationship was more convincing?) The movie's refusal to acknowledge the civil-rights era in any way also rings false, a big cop-out. I never believed that Daisy's daughter (a lovely but wasted Julia Ormond) would have been ignorant of Benjamin's very existence until her mother's deathbed reminiscence -- especially since we learn later that the young Caroline actually had met Benjamin, in a scene of Great Portent that any 12-year-old would have picked up on. I never believed that any of these people actually lived in New Orleans, the arbitrary setting for most of the movie. One suspects it was plunked there only so that Hurricane Katrina could come ashore at the end -- a plot element with only offscreen relevance, the ruined Ninth Ward being one of Pitt's favorite causes.

And worst of all, I never felt anything but creeped out when the outwardly elderly Benjamin and the 7-year-old Daisy (played by 10-year-old Elle Fanning) fell in love at first sight and immediately began sneaking off together for secret conversations and play dates. (Pedophiles will love those scenes.) Remember Father Guido Sarducci's old Saturday Night Live routine about the "Coming and Going Planet," where some people are getting older and others younger, and couples who meet romantically while aging in opposite directions are very soon "in big-a trouble"? I don't think the makers of Benjamin Button really believe it would be big-a trouble.

The most entertaining stuff in the movie has nothing to do with the Benjamin/Daisy plot:
  • The roaring, tattooed tugboat captain played by Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris.
  • The diplomat's wife who seduces Benjamin under the impression he's old enough to be her dad, when in fact she's his Mrs. Robinson. She's played by the reliably sensational Tilda Swinton, who makes any period costume look current.
  • The running gag about the old guy whose claim to fame is having survived seven lightning strikes, each depicted as a Keaton-style silent-movie flashback. (According to the Internet Movie Database, the actor who plays the lucky Mr. Daws, Ted Manson, died at 81 this past summer, before the movie was released.)
  • The period vignette at the beginning about the curious clock built by Monsieur Gateau (Elias Koteas), and his reasons for building it. This vignette includes a brief battlefeld shot that's the best thing in the movie.

    Cutting all these sequences would have made the movie 40 minutes shorter without affecting the Benjamin-Daisy story -- at the cost, alas, of most of the movie's entertainment value.
  • Saturday, December 27, 2008

    Doubt

    Whatever else it is, John Patrick Shanley's movie of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Doubt is an acting tour de force. On Broadway, the roles of the two nuns, the priest and the mother all earned their performers Tony Award nominations; Oscar nods should be distributed similarly.

    Much has been written about the performances of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Viola Davis, and deservedly so, but Amy Adams as the wide-eyed younger nun shouldn't be overlooked, either. She's terrific, and necessarily so, since in many ways Sister James is the pivotal character. In their high-stakes struggle against one another, Sister Aloysius and Father Brendan both work hard to sway Sister James' sympathies. Each succeeds, in part -- one more than the other -- but in the process, we get to watch Sister James, who is somewhat unformed at the outset, decide who she intends to be. The movie is dedicated to a Sister Margaret James, Shanley's kindergarten teacher, and the play -- corrosive as it is, at times -- must have been written in part as a tribute to her. Without an utterly convincing Sister James, the story wouldn't work nearly as well. Is there anyone alive who can portray innocence as believably as Amy Adams (witness Junebug and Enchanted)? She was robbed of an Oscar nomination for Enchanted; I hope she isn't robbed this time.

    A scene in the middle of the movie, in which the two nuns and the priest are having an awkward tea and an even more awkward conversation, could be shown to acting students as a master class. Watch each performer, and you see reflected not only the character's inner life, but how the character is responding, moment to moment, to the other two characters. The dialogue sometimes reflects these responses, sometimes not, but the primary communication is through line delivery and facial expressions and body language. It's like the embodiment of the character matrix I draw on the chalkboard for my fiction-writing students (having stolen it from John Kessel): What does Sister Aloysius think of Father Brendan at this moment? What does she think of Sister James? What do Brendan and James think of Aloysius? What do Brendan and James think of each other? And so forth.

    The movie is also interesting as a genre exercise. Only when it was over did I realize that among many other things, Doubt is an exceedingly well-disguised mystery play, with an artificially limited cast of characters and point of view, a set of clues to be gnawed over, a set of conflicts to erupt, a series of reversals to spring like traps on both characters and audience. It's Twelve Angry Men; it's Sleuth.

    Whenever I watch a movie full of Catholic priests and nuns, I think about how visual and cinematic Catholicism is -- which is why Catholic themes outnumber Protestant ones 10 to 1, in movies that treat organized Christianity with any seriousness at all. While watching Doubt, I also found myself realizing that it would be a very different movie if I were Catholic -- devout or casual, current or former -- and if I ever had attended a Catholic school. Sister Aloysius had no parallel in my young life, at W. Wyman King Academy or St. John's United Methodist Church.

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    The Lord's sport utility vehicles

    Here's a Reuters report on Sunday's service at the Greater Grace Temple in Detroit (site of Rosa Parks' funeral), at which the Rev. Charles Ellis prayed that Congress save the U.S. auto industry. Check out the photo slide show.

    Yes, those are three hybrid SUVs (Chevy Tahoe, Chrysler Aspen and Ford Escape) parked at the altar. Hundreds of auto workers gathered before them to be anointed with oil.

    "We have done all we can do in this union," a United Auto Workers vice president told the congregation, "so I'm going to turn it over to the Lord."

    Actually, since the oil embargo of 1973, the Lord's advice to the U.S. auto industry has been pretty consistent, and pretty consistently ignored: Build smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. What have they been waiting for, a burning bush?

    I just realized why that altar crowded with SUVs unnerves me so: It reminds me of the ICBM on the altar of the ruined St. Patrick's Cathedral in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Is Bishop Ellis confusing scourge and savior?

    (Thanks, I think, to Greg Frost, for disturbing my sleep with this.)

    Friday, December 12, 2008

    The world's first drive-in service station

    The Associated Press reminded us Monday that Dec. 1 was the anniversary of the opening of the world's first drive-in service station, in Pittsburgh. The Gulf Oil Historical Society has the admirably obsessive details here, with photos. Too bad there's nothing on the site now but a parking lot.

    "Keep Wiseman," 1969

    I just learned that my colleague John Wiseman, emeritus professor of history at Frostburg State University, once was a cause celebre. In his latest Cumberland Times-News op-ed piece, he writes, "My teaching career began at Keene State College," but adds that his tenure there "was shortened by a protracted battle I experienced with the president of that school, one that I lost, along with my job."

    He's not kidding. This article in the summer 2008 issue of the Keene State alumni magazine, a nostalgic look back at the campus in the 1960s, includes a photo of a crowd of students who "boycotted classes on behalf of faculty member John Wiseman." Beneath the headline "Convocation on the Wiseman Case, 1969," the article elaborates:
    [President Roman "Jay"] Zorn's conflict with one faculty member, John Wiseman, began as a disagreement over salary and evolved into major student demonstrations on behalf of Wiseman, whose contract was not renewed for a third year. The Board of Trustees eventually supported the administration's decision, but a Faculty Evaluation Advisory Committee was created to advise the Dean on tenure/promotion decisions.
    I wish I had one of those "Keep Wiseman" buttons.

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008

    The undecided voter speaks

    Late in every presidential election cycle, pundits begin to fret openly about those mysterious undecided voters: Who are they, how can they possibly still be undecided, are they just lying to reporters in hopes of meeting Campbell Brown, how will they make up their minds, and when, and should we even expect them or want them to vote? Now we have some answers, courtesy of the invaluable Onion columnist Jim Anchower. When political analysts talk about "low-information voters," it's Anchower they have in mind.

    Friday, November 14, 2008

    "The Dragaman's Bride"

    I have sold my first sequel, a 12,000-word novelette titled "The Dragaman's Bride," to co-editors Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann for their original anthology The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy, to be published by Penguin Putnam in 2009 (I think).

    The protagonist and narrator is Pearleen Sunday, who also was the protagonist and narrator of "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions; or, The Devil's Ninth Question," my contribution to the Dozois-Dann anthology Wizards: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy (Berkley, 2007); that book was a World Fantasy Award finalist this year. Since The Dragon Book is something of a follow-up to Wizards, I thought checking in again with Pearl, to see how her magical education is progressing, would be a good idea.

    Set in the Virginia mountains in the 1930s, "The Dragaman's Bride" is partially inspired by the traditional Jack tales of the Appalachians, especially the one Richard Chase called "Old Fire Dragaman" in his great 1943 book The Jack Tales. Tina L. Hanlon's fine AppLit site devotes a page to the tale's variants and ancestors. Traditionalists may not like my version, which also is informed, oddly enough, by my hero Jeffrey Ford's fine novel The Girl in the Glass. My most obvious debt, as with many of my stories, is to the Appalachian stories of the late Manly Wade Wellman, especially the Silver John series.

    The rest of the anthology's contents haven't been announced, to my knowledge, but I know "The Dragaman's Bride" isn't the longest story in the book, because Jane Yolen notes in her journal that her contribution, "The Tsar's Dragons" (co-written with Adam Stemple), is nearly 15,000 words.

    I'm delighted to be included in the book, and to have gotten such a long story finished -- in mid-semester, at that!

    Wednesday, October 29, 2008

    Gov. Barkley of Alabama?

    Charles Barkley tells CNN's Campbell Brown he plans to run for governor of his home state, Alabama, something he's been talking about for 15 years, and he means it this time.
    Brown: So are you going to run for governor?

    Barkley: I plan on it in 2014.

    Brown: You are serious.

    Barkley: I am. I can't screw up Alabama.

    Brown: There is no place to go but up in your view?

    Barkley: We are number 48 in everything, and Arkansas and Mississippi aren't going anywhere.
    Two-term Gov. Bob Riley won't be running again in 2010, but Barkley has to wait until 2014 because Alabama law says he has to have lived in the state seven years to be governor, and he established his residency only in 2007.

    Opie, Andy, Richie and the Fonz support Obama

    In case you haven't seen Ron Howard's campaign video, here's the link.

    Sunday, October 26, 2008

    It warded off spirits, 300 years ago

    University of Maryland archaeologists have unearthed in Annapolis a 300-year-old sand-and-clay bundle of lead shot, pins and nails, with a stone ax on top. They think it was set in the gutter in front of a house to ward of spirits, as in Africa.

    Annie Taylor takes the plunge

    On Oct. 24, 1901, sixtysomething schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor became the first human to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live. That was 107 years ago yesterday.

    Sam Patch had done it without the barrel, way back in 1829 -- in fact, he did it twice -- but Taylor's stunt is no less remarkable for that.

    The Daredevil Museum, on the falls' New York side, has an impressive collection of photos and memorabilia of other attempts, successful and un.

    Saturday, October 25, 2008

    A Smith Miniplane on the roof

    Frostburg's Main Street Hangar, a new restaurant and bar with a military-aviation theme, has a Smith Miniplane on its roof, to the delight of fans of homemade aircraft. Here's a link to John A. Bone's photo in the Cumberland Times-News.

    The Miniplane was designed by the late Frank Smith of Fullerton, Calif., who built and flew the first one in 1956. Smith's original DSA-1 (the initials stood for Darned Small Airplane) is in the AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis., run by the Experimental Aircraft Association.

    Here's a 1970 article by Budd Davisson on Smith's achievement:
    The Smith Miniplane is right out of the back of every pilot's mind. It flies in the margins of notebooks and lands on the backs of napkins. We've all doodled something similar when our subconscious takes over and the "perfect" airplane flows out of the pencil. I'm sure, at one time or other, most of us have thought about our own personal little biplane. We've all dreamed, but somehow not many of us get past the doodling stage. Frank Smith did.

    Ringo Nelson, American

    The more I read the campaign statement of Ringo Nelson, write-in candidate for sheriff of Mineral County, W.Va., the more I admire it:
    I saved an older lady from her apartment that was in flames. I also saved a woman who was stabbed with a screwdriver by another woman. ... I got enough money to have new roads and a roof put on at Abraham Lincoln’s mother’s birthplace. ... I helped a woman find her mother after 35 years. ... I want to give $10,000 of my money to get a center built for our youth and donate to every fire company in Mineral County every year. I bet my opponents won’t do that. ... I love America.
    Unfortunately for Mr. Nelson, I vote in Allegany County, Md.

    Nelson ran for sheriff in the Democratic primary in May, finishing fourth (and last) with 381 votes. During the spring campaign, he reported the theft of 17 campaign signs.

    A corrected letter to the editor

    I wrote this letter to the editor published in the Oct. 15 Cumberland Times-News -- my first published letter in four months -- but when I saw it in print I immediately noticed a gaffe: I had written "November 1997" when I meant "November 2007." I let the paper know, and a correction followed, though the correction doesn't seem to be attached to the online version. Oh, well.

    A history professor backs Obama, Part 2

    Earlier I linked to the eloquent letter in the Oct. 12 Cumberland Times-News by my colleague John Wiseman, endorsing Barack Obama. On Oct. 15 the paper printed Wiseman's follow-up letter, or Part Two of the original letter, as the case may be. A baseball enthusiast, Wiseman compares Obama to a lifelong Republican, Jackie Robinson:
    Should he [Obama] win the Presidency, the Robinson "experiment" would become the democratic fulfillment. ... Having resolved the racial dilemma, we could then get on with the serious business of rebuilding America for everyone and reclaiming the respect of the world. Robinson would be pleased with that. And my grandchildren would grow up accepting a black president as naturally as breathing air.

    Sunday, October 12, 2008

    Area cheesemakers win in Dublin

    Goat cheeses from FireFly Farms of Bittinger, Md., won gold, silver and bronze medals Sept. 29 at the World Cheese Awards in Dublin, says the press release in today's Cumberland Times-News. Yum!

    (Bittinger is about 23 miles away, south of Grantsville.)

    A history professor backs Obama

    My colleague John Wiseman, emeritus professor of history at Frostburg State University, has a good letter to the editor in today's Cumberland Times-News, explaining why he's backing Barack Obama:
    If vast experience on Capitol Hill were the determining factor in my vote, I would surely cast my ballot for John McCain. But then what Washington record has he produced? During the Bush administration, McCain has consistently supported deregulation of both Wall Street and corporate giants and has supported huge tax cuts for those who need them least.

    His major presidential financial sponsors have been the ones he faithfully protected. When his presidential campaign nearly collapsed a year ago, he wooed the culturally conservative base of his party to revive it. Now he is resurrecting himself as the maverick he was before his long quest for the presidency compromised his earlier principles.
    Paraphrasing I.F. Stone, Wiseman calls the Bush-McCain approach "socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the rest of us."

    Had I known John had written this letter, when I saw him at our party last night, I'd have commended him.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008

    Charles Fort and I are in the Appalachian Independent

    The Knight Foundation has provided startup funding for the Appalachian Independent, a fledgling online newspaper with the ambition of covering Allegany and Garrett counties in western Maryland via a network of "citizen journalists."

    The hurdles are many and obvious, but the thing will never get off the ground if lots of folks don't submit work to it, so I took the plunge and contributed an article about a recent Cumberland get-together of the International Fortean Association, which the Independent has published here.

    One of the links within the article doesn't seem to work, but I copied that URL into a new browser window, and it worked just fine, so go figure. I'm not involved in the HTML coding; I just hope to submit stuff occasionally. If you know anyone in the vicinity who might be interested in doing the same, please spread the word.

    Saturday, September 13, 2008

    Quote this, G-men

    I admire without reservation this ad for the MAFIA, a.k.a. the Mollie A. Fearing Insurance Agency in Manteo, N.C., which we saw in Real Estate Outer Banks magazine during our May vacation. Fearing must have seen Big Bad Mama at a formative stage, but that's true of many of us.

    I wonder who the cartoonist is.

    Fearing's online presence, alas, is considerably more demure.

    A cameo by the 15th Street Diner

    You can't tell from the crop in this online version of the article, but I was pleased to recognize immediately, in the May Southern Living profile of Rick Bragg, where Mary Margaret Chambless snapped the photo. "Hey!" I said aloud. "That's the 15th Street Diner."

    Many a meal I've eaten at that Tuscaloosa, Ala., establishment, often in the very booth where Bragg is sitting. In this scanned and cropped image from the print magazine, you can read part of the logo, backward, on the window behind the headline:Such is the profusion of good Southern cooking around Tuscaloosa County that the 15th Street would not even make my Top 10 list of favorite local eateries -- a list headed by the incomparable Brown Bag in Northport -- but if I had even the 15th Street here in Allegany County, Md., I'd be grateful.

    Crunch!

    I share this ad for Claussen's pickles in case you missed it in the Sunday newspapers a few weeks ago. Once you're done wincing, squirming in discomfort, etc., note the photo in the corner, and how the angle emphasizes the jar's steadfast erectness.

    Side note: Isn't it annoying when you go looking for an official Claussen's pickle site and can find nothing closer than the portal site of the behemoth parent company, Kraft?

    Baseball, hot dogs and lethal injection

    I support Maryland Citizens Against State Executions (MD CASE), which opposes the death penalty, but I nevertheless was startled to receive this postcard in July.

    None of the images exactly shout "death penalty" -- but what image does, these days? One of the many reasons states opted for lethal injection over the electric chair in the first place was the chair had become too loaded an image, like the noose, the guillotine, the stake and the cross; it was no longer the property of the executioners alone. Now there is no loaded image for execution in the United States -- a syringe, after all, could represent so many things, good and bad -- which helps keep execution out of people's minds, which helps the status quo, and so the executions continue.

    Not so many in Maryland, though. According to the invaluable Death Penalty Information Center, Maryland has executed five people since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and the first one wasn't until 1994. Six prisoners currently are on Maryland's death row, all men. (What's their racial and socioeconomic breakdown, I wonder?)

    I wrote my story "The Executioners' Guild" (I thought) in a hot haze of righteous anti-capital-punishment anger. After it was published, dozens of people came up to me and said: "I loved the story. By the way, what do you think about the death penalty?"

    Does revulsion sell?

    I once thought that Ollie's Bargain Outlet had the most moth-eaten mascot ever seen in retail, but that was before Elmer's House of Bargains & Good News Outlet opened in Cumberland, Md. Yikes!

    Friday, September 12, 2008

    Bless you for asking

    I recently was mailed an offer to subscribe to The Christian Century at the "professional clergy discount" of $39 for the year. "I am confident that you will find the magazine an invaluable partner in your ministry," says the insert.

    From what alternate timeline was this mailed?

    The Living Dead

    From my Aug. 26 "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" calendar:
    Henri Christophe (1767-1820) of northern Haiti ordered his guards to prove their loyalty to him by marching over a 200-ft. cliff. Those who obeyed plunged to their deaths and those who refused were tortured and executed!
    Mad Henri figures briefly in my Nebula- and Stoker-nominated story "Zora and the Zombie," which just has been reprinted in John Joseph Adams' new anthology The Living Dead, published by Night Shade Books.

    Boom! That was the sound of my Robert E. Lee cuckoo clock

    Speaking of the Civil War: If you're wondering what to get the secessionists on your Christmas list, consider this item from The Bradford Exchange.
    In the South's hour of need, a gallant soldier named Robert E. Lee won timeless glory for himself and the fighting men of Dixie. Now, you can be reminded of the enduring pride of the South with a timeless Civil War cuckoo clock ... At the start of every hour, miniature doors decorated with the Confederate flag swing open and a handcrafted cannon announces the hour with the sound of cannon fire.
    My first thought was, aren't the only truly "timeless" clocks the broken ones?

    My second thought was, are the boys in gray picketing the Yankee headquarters of The Bradford Exchange (Niles, Ill., home state of Lincoln and Obama) for likening Robert E. Lee to a cuckoo?

    My third thought was, there's no limit to the Civil War kitsch that people will buy -- if it's pro-Confederate kitsch, anyway.

    Heck, I'd buy one of these myself, if Marse Robert himself popped out of the doors every hour to say, "Ah surrenduh!"

    Civil War News trading cards

    During my recent visit, one of the display cases in the Stockyards Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, included several examples of the gory Civil War News trading cards published by Topps in 1962, featuring the artwork of the great Norman Saunders, whose immediate follow-up for Topps was Mars Attacks. Apparently no one's parents got bent out of shape by the Civil War News cards, since they were "educational"; Mars Attacks, of course, was a different story.

    The museum exhibit, presumably put together by a Confederate sympathizer, refers to them as "War Between the States" cards. The museum's offerings are "Death Barges In," "Dynamite Victims," "Painful Death," "Rebel Power," "Massacre," "No Escape," "Savages Attack," "Victim of the War" and "Deadly Defense."

    Here's Bob Heffner's fine site full of information about the Civil War News series, though the artwork itself is seen to better advantage at the Norman Saunders website, or here.

    The Palace light bulb and the Stockyards Museum

    On my August business trip to Texas, I found myself in a town I never had visited before, Fort Worth. At first opportunity, of course, I went to the Stockyards Museum to see the 1908 Palace Theater light bulb, the second oldest still-working bulb in the world. (The oldest is in Fire Station 6 in Livermore, Calif.) I feel a kinship with the Palace bulb in its centennial year, as we share a birthday; come Sept. 21, it will be exactly 56 years older than me.

    The bulb was all I had hoped for, but I was delighted to discover the museum's many other attractions, which included: a display of dozens of different patented barbed-wire designs, with annotations; a vintage "bad luck wedding dress" that seems to have inspired at least one novel (by Geralyn Dawson); copies of the meatpackers' newspaper The Armour Oval, featuring "News and Views of Armour Crews"; a years-old cast model of a proposed Fort Worth monument to the great black cowboy and rodeo star Bill Pickett, a monument that unfortunately seems never to have been erected; a giant framed movie poster for Pickett's 1921 "all-colored" Western The Crimson Skull, co-starring Anita Bush, Lawrence Chenault and Steve Reynolds, "the One-Legged Marvel"; a 19th-century washtub with a sign offering "First Water" for 15 cents, then cheaper rates for bathwater that already had been used once, twice, etc.; and a circa 1915 Meilicke Payroll Calculator, essentially a tabulated card catalog as long as my forearm. (The instructions note, for example, that "42¾ hours at 34c per hour is found on card tabbed 34, intersection of 40 and 2¾ -- $14.54.") All this is interspersed with signs that say things such as "Please don't lean on this creaky ol' case." In short, the Stockyards Museum is well worth your time.

    Tonight's gallery visit

    Tonight en route to a milkshake at the Frostburg Freeze, Sydney and I dropped by campus for the opening reception of the latest Roper Gallery exhibition, this one dedicated to works by the art faculty at Salisbury University on the Eastern Shore. Our favorites were Sally Molenda's color photos of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and two science-fiction-flavored bronzes by Jim Hill, "CrabKing's Palace" and "Skygate," the second of which you can see here and here. You can't tell from those photos, but "Skygate" is taller than 6 feet. We also liked Hill's bust of himself, which I think was titled "Creativity."

    I'm on Facebook, too

    After years of urging from Sydney, I finally created a Facebook page, during a spare hour in a hotel room during our July driving tour of the Hudson Valley and New England. So if y'all are on Facebook, Friend me now!

    On the tenure track

    Life has been a whirlwind since my last blog posting, in July. Shortly after Sydney and I got home from Readercon, I was offered a tenure-track teaching job in the English department at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., teaching professional writing -- including business writing, technical writing, journalism and editing & production. Yes, that's the same department where my wife, Sydney, teaches. I accepted, gave my notice at Overdrive magazine, "The Voice of the American Trucker," and then spent a hectic August trying to wind down one job (which involved a business trip to Texas for the Great American Trucking Show, among other things) and crank up the next one. I had exactly one week between my last day at Overdrive and the first day of fall classes, Tuesday, Sept. 2. This is the first night I've felt able to draw breath in weeks! But I'm delighted, of course, by how everything has worked out.

    Here's my faculty Web page, what Wikipedia would call a "stub."

    And how are y'all doing?

    Sunday, July 06, 2008

    The summit of Sharp Top

    Sydney and I have been visiting her parents in Roanoke, Va., this weekend, and today we took a Sunday-morning excursion to the summit of Sharp Top at the Peaks of Otter, on the Blue Ridge Parkway north of town.

    We briefly considered the 90-minute one-way hike to the summit from the parking lot:But cooler heads opted to take the bus instead:The bus takes you up a one-lane switchback road to a turnaround 1,500 feet short of the summit -- still a good half-hour's walk.I became "Big Chief Bring-'Em-Up-Rear," as my father-in-law called me, and from time to time took a photo of the path behind:This stone overlook was welcome, as it made a good resting place, but that was its only use this morning because the clouds surrounding the mountain hadn't lifted:My father-in-law reminisced as we climbed about the weeks he spent in 1948 dismantling old barns on this mountain as a National Park Service summer employee.The mist got thicker as we ascended:This was a welcome sight:We think the stone house at the summit was built in the 1930s by the same New Deal-era work crews that built the switchback road and most of the Blue Ridge Parkway:The summit is all rock, so the stone house built upon it is downright biblical in its solidity. I wouldn't want to spend a winter in there, though:My mother-in-law, age 83, was determined to make it all the way to the topmost point of the path, and did, but the gnats, wasps and other flying critters that beset her just after I snapped this photo made her reluctant to linger for a portrait at the summit:We retraced our steps downward, back into the mist:When we reached the stone overlook on the downward trip, we found that the folks ahead of us had been arrested by a deer grazing contentedly only a few feet away:The deer kindly posed for some photographs. The deer in congested Eastern parklands have grown too tame for their own good, alas, as they've lost their necessary skittishness around highway traffic, and the "people food" they mooch hurts their digestion:Another welcome sight, a few hundred feet downhill, was our bus driver, Mr. Ronnie Mitchen:Mr. Mitchen enjoys his captive audience, stopping the bus a couple of times on the way down the mountain to tell stories:He said his grandfather, who died this past Easter at age 98, helped build the switchback road we were traveling on. This was good for years of family comedy, as Ronnie would ask, "Granddad, how come you made that road so narrow?" and his grandfather would reply, "If we had known you'd be driving on it, we'd have made it as wide as U.S. 460."On the way down, though I wasn't fast enough to get photos of them, we saw more deer, a group of wild turkeys (two adult females and a number of youngsters), and a male black bear that scrambled out of the road just ahead of us. Mr. Mitchen said he wasn't surprised by the bear, as he had seen a hawk that morning -- and on days when he sees a hawk, he always eventually sees a bear, too.

    Back at the Peaks of Otter Lodge on the parkway for lunch, I took this photo of the mountaintop we just visited. Sharp Top isn't the tallest of the Peaks of Otter, but the starkly beautiful crag at the top has been a tourist draw since the 19th century:This excursion was my idea, and I told Sydney later these photos are proof that I'll climb a mountain to get out of going to church.

    Friday, July 04, 2008

    The end of Justice Talking

    I'm sorry to hear that the excellent National Public Radio show Justice Talking is no more, its nine-year Annenberg grant having run out.

    To paraphrase the old Women's International League for Peace and Freedom poster: It will be a great day when National Public Radio shows get all the money they need and Rob Schneider has to apply for an Annenberg grant to make a movie.

    The Fly on the opera-house wall

    "I actually might get you to this opera," Sydney says, and she's right. It's an opera of The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg, music by Howard Shore, libretto by David Henry Hwang, conducted by Placido Domingo.

    While set in the 1950s, the opera apparently closely tracks Cronenberg's 1986 movie, rather than the 1958 Kurt Neumann movie (starring David Hedison and Vincent Price) and the 1957 George Langelaan story in Playboy that launched the franchise.

    Actually, Sydney got me to one opera already in this lifetime: Jerry Springer: The Opera in London, starring David Soul. It was a stitch, and I even bought the T-shirt.

    Metropolis found

    The discovery of the only known copy of the complete three-and-a-half-hour cut of Fritz Lang's Metropolis is big news for movie buffs -- and science-fiction movie buffs in particular.

    Thanks to Lokke Heiss for alerting me, via the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts listserv.

    Jack Speer and "The Atheism Issue"

    I was sorry to hear of the death of science-fiction fan Jack Speer. I commend to everyone his pioneering history of fandom, Up To Now, written for distribution at the first World Science Fiction Convention in July 1939, when the historian himself was all of 18. (That Worldcon concluded 69 years ago today, in fact.) Up To Now is a 35-page PDF at the invaluable eFanzines.com. Speer's chapter headings include:

  • The First Staple War.
  • The Decline and Fall of the Era.
  • The Nature of Wollheim’s Dictatorship.
  • The Crucial Period.
  • The Undertow.
  • The Situation in the West.
  • The Order Begins to Crumble.
  • The Decline and Fall of Wollheim.

    Some indication of the pacing can be gleaned from the fact that "The First Months of 1938" is only the 17th of 28 chapters listed in the table of contents.

    Today I'm most interested in the chapter titled "The Atheism Issue," which I briefly excerpt here:
    When the November, 1937, Cosmic Tales carried, as what was to be the last of [Donald J.] Wollheim’s Phantaflexion columns, an article later reprinted in the first Science Fiction Advance as “Science Fiction and Religion,” it seemed that another bombshell had been dropped into fandom from the hand of the genial W. Some months later appeared “Anent Atheism and Stf” in Imagination!, which debated the possibly question-begging proposition that scientifictionists were scientifictionists because they were atheists, rather than atheists because they were scientifictionists,as Wollheim argued. ... It became customary for new correspondents to inquire each others’ religious stands, or to state them without inquiry, as a natural part of getting acquainted. ...

    Curiously, it never became a red-hot issue. ... the general sentiment seemed to be to avoid religious controversies before fandom as a whole, as being unpleasant and getting nowhere ...

    But perhaps the most important reason for the flat-falling of the atheism issue was lack of interest—lack of opposition! ... The only prominent fans known to acknowledge church beliefs were Catholic Baltadonis and Episcopalian McPhail, tho doubtless there were others. When the IPO got around to putting the question, agnosticism and kindred showed a definite, tho not overwhelming majority, with many
    of those on the other side of the line doubtful, tongue-in-cheek, or indifferent.

    In defense of religion little showed up. ...

    There wasn’t enough opposition to give any thrill from attacking the churchmen. So atheism was taken pretty much for granted, and fandom rocketed merrily on its way. But there is no guarantee that the controversy may not blaze forth again.
    No, indeed -- though, in my experience, atheism is still taken pretty much for granted, in science-fiction circles. When I recently told a group of sf cronies, for example, about a Potlatch panel titled "Coming Out as Atheist," I got in return a half-dozen confused expressions. Many atheists in the field can't imagine the need to "come out" as atheist, since that's the default expectation -- and certainly can't imagine the need to defend the position, or risk suffering hardship for publicly taking it.

    Speaking of the first Worldcon, check out the contemporary coverage in Time magazine, which notes that the sf magazines of 1939 average 150,000 readers apiece and pay 1 cent to 4 cents a word.

    Also, Speer's other major fannish writing project, the 1944 Fancyclopedia slang dictionary, is online here.
  • Is this StoryCorps account a bust?

    In a StoryCorps conversation with her niece, recorded in Cincinnati and subsequently aired on National Public Radio, a 94-year-old woman recalls her inflatable brassiere exploding during an airline flight in the Andes -- which apparently happened at least 70 years ago.

    At his urban-legends blog, David Emery wonders whether Betty Jenkins' experience was the inspiration for a half century's worth of unverifiable tall tales about exploding bras on airplanes, or whether it was merely one of the incidents that inspired those stories ("It may be that some urban legends grow from the seeds of the truth," says the NPR producer), or whether -- gasp! -- it maybe didn't actually happen to Ms. Jenkins at all. After all, when I'm 94, I'll probably have utterly persuasive memories of personally rescuing Princess Leia from the Death Star.

    Sunday, June 08, 2008

    In praise of Doctor Zhivago

    On NPR, Ursula K. Le Guin recommends Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I second that, as if she (or, for that matter, the Nobel committee) needed a second.

    I know that Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are responsible for a number of recent acclaimed English translations of classic Russian novels, but have there been more recent English translations of Zhivago than the 1958 edition that so many millions of us are familiar with?

    And yes, I'm fond of the David Lean movie, too. As a friend pointed out when we saw it on the big screen in Chapel Hill, N.C. (during the 25th anniversary re-release in 1990): If you must look at 40-foot-high close-ups of an actor and actress, you could do a lot worse than Omar Sharif and Julie Christie circa 1965.

    Questions? Talk to the monkey

    The fine fiction writer Michael Martone, who did a stint as chair of creative writing while I was a graduate student at the University of Alabama, once explained to me that administration, especially higher-ed administration, is all about the distribution of monkeys.

    "You sit at your desk," Michael said, "and someone walks in the door with a monkey. That person's goal is to hand you her monkey. Your goal is to make sure that she not only leaves with that same monkey, but takes one of your monkeys with her when she goes. You want to go home at the end of the day with no net gain of monkeys."

    I thought of this when I read that the new chairman of a business school in Uttar Pradesh is Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god:
    "When we were looking for a chairman for our institution, we scanned many big names in the field of technology and management. Ultimately, we settled for Lord Hanuman, as none was bigger than him."

    Alabama news from Alabama

    According to the AP, the other members of the country group Alabama (a.k.a. "Group Alabama Inc.") have filed suit against their fourth member, drummer Mark Herndon, charging he was overpaid.

    In high school, when Barry Johnson, Scott Frye and I considered Alabama to be the McDonald's of country music, we thought all the members were overpaid. But I'm more kindly disposed toward them these days, considering the state of country radio in the 21st century.

    I'd like to see the new Alabama statues in Fort Payne, too.

    Tuesday, May 13, 2008

    Magic for Beginners: 21st-Century Fantasy, Spring 2008


    Here I am with the students in my spring 2008 seminar in the University of Alabama's Honors College. Left to right: Erica Mihelin, Casey Sloan, Crystal Ellis, Susan De Leon (in cap), me, Renee Rivas (in Beijing Lantern Festival T-shirt), Courtney Watts, Jessica Trevino (in orange), Kalen Berry (in back), Amy Jensen, Janessa Hogans (in back), Laura Bass (in front, with hands on knees), Ellie Killian, Laurie Skelton and Jessie Foster.

    "Romantic Moment" by Tony Hoagland

    Carol Pinchefsky alerts us to this fine 2004 poem from Speakeasy, reprinted in the Utne Reader.

    Better luck next year, kids

    Buddy Moore points out this recent events calendar in coastal North Carolina. Scroll down to the May 1-2 event at Roanoke Bible College:
    Spring Musical -- "There is a Hope"
    (The theme this year is not appropriate for children.)

    "The Waveries"

    I'm always delighted when science fiction crops up in conversation with non-sf folks. Sometimes someone other than me even brings it up!

    Case in point: At last week's book-group meeting, Bob Doyle (our astronomer) argued that many of the social changes advocated by Michael Lerner in his best seller The Left Hand of God: Healing America's Political and Spiritual Crisis will be imposed not by individual moral choices but of necessity by the disappearance of cheap petroleum. That prompted Keith Schlegel (one of our several English-department folks) to recall a classic Fredric Brown story, "The Waveries" -- the one about energy-eating aliens whose grazing habits have Luddite effects on human civilization.

    That's the second "Waveries" reference I've heard in as many months. Joe Haldeman invoked it in his introduction of Vernor Vinge at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in March. Joe said talk of the looming Singularity sometimes makes him long for the slowed-down society depicted in Brown's story.

    Originally published in the January 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, "The Waveries" is included in the excellent collection From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown, published in 2000 by the invaluable NESFA Press.

    Isaac Asimov included it years ago in his anthology Isaac Asimov
    Presents The Great SF Stories 7
    (DAW, 1982), but advised skepticism in his introduction:
    I want to dissent on the thesis because I'm a technophile (that is, I love advancing technology) and don't think that walking backward is the route to a Golden Age.

    I just want to refer to one small passage in the story where Pete Mulvaney says that the air in New York City is "better than Atlantic City, without gasoline fumes" because the automobiles are gone. The next question from George Bailey is, "Enough horses to go around yet?" and the answer is "Almost."

    Well, I've passed the horses at Central Park that pull the buggies, two or three of them, and I have to hold my breath every time. They stink of sweat and manure. That's two or three. Fill the city enough to take care of even the "last million people" the story speaks of and everyone will long for gas fumes again. Particularly in the summer when there will be no air conditioning (something Fred, writing in 1945, says nothing about).

    Enjoy the story, but keep your perspective, that's all.
    Yes, one of the story's main characters is named George Bailey, also the name of James Stewart's character in Frank Capra's movie It's a Wonderful Life, released nearly two years after Brown's story was published. Coincidence?

    Michael T. Walker

    For years Sydney and I had season tickets to the productions of the University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance, and one of the actors we most admired was the perennial scene-stealer Michael T. Walker, a comic dynamo who sometimes suggested a cross between Nathan Lane and Ricky Gervais. Sydney just found Walker's website, and I'm pleased to see he's doing well, most recently as Edna in the national tour of Hairspray. If you get the chance to see Michael T. Walker perform, go. He's value.

    My favorite headline in years

    Other news organs worldwide reported on a bit of climate-change research in Oxfordshire, but only the BBC rose to the headline-writing occasion.

    Thanks to John Latta for passing this along.

    "You're thinking of Aldo Kelrast, aren't you?"

    While I'm on the topic of unintentionally funny comics, Jack Roberts passes along this handy list of "The 5 Most Unintentionally Hilarious Comic Strips." Seeing "Dick Tracy" on the list is more sad than funny.

    "So! They laugh at my boner, will they?!"

    Tony Brock has introduced me to the Superdickery website, which started out compiling instances of Superman acting like a jerk, but has blossomed into compiling all sorts of problematic and/or unintentionally funny comics covers and pages, mostly from DC. A few of my favorites:

    "So! They laugh at my boner, will they?!"

    "It's important that I live the next 24 hours as a black woman!"

    "Without my power ring I'm super-powerless -- except from the waist down!"

    "I couldn't sit down all night, after what that robot did to me!"

    I must confess, however, that I was a regular reader of Giant-Size Man-Thing without once realizing the implications of the title.

    Wednesday, May 07, 2008

    The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy

    I was pleased to receive in Tuesday's mail my contributor copies of The Mammoth Book of Extreme Fantasy, edited by Mike Ashley, a trade paperback published in the U.S. by Running Press and in the U.K. by Robinson. The first story in the book is my 2001 Starlight 3 story "Senator Bilbo."

    In his introduction, Ashley defines "extreme fantasy" as "those stories that took a basic idea, whether simple or complicated, and developed it to some extreme, beyond what the reader might normally expect. ... In all of the stories, the authors have taken a fantastic idea -- and I mean fantastic in both its senses -- and then seen how far they can push it."

    Ashley also writes in the introduction, "I have presented the stories in sequence from the least to the most extreme, so your imagination can expand as you work through the book." And the first words of his headnotes to my story are: "We begin our journey in what ought to be the relative safety of the Shire."

    I'm delighted to be in the book, which includes some of my favorite stories -- Ted Chiang's "Tower of Babylon," Jeffrey Ford's "Boatman's Holiday," Michael Swanwick's "Radio Waves" -- as well as a number I look forward to reading. Authors include Orson Scott Card, R.A. Lafferty, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Moorcock, Howard Waldrop, Liz Williams, etc. ... and William Hope Hodgson, with a story written 96 years ago.

    Monday, May 05, 2008

    The Shirley Jackson Awards

    I'm surprised but delighted that my Eclipse One story "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" is one of the inaugural nominees for the Shirley Jackson Awards.

    Also on the ballot, I'm pleased to see, is the Jack Dann-Gardner Dozois anthology Wizards, which includes my story "A Diorama of the Infernal Regions; or, The Devil's Ninth Question."

    Congratulations to all the nominees.

    When my in-laws win the lottery ...

    ... which I'm sure they'll do any week now, and when they split the proceeds with Sydney and me, as they long have promised, I'll immediately order a Tesla Roadster.

    The battery weighs a thousand pounds, more than a third of the total weight of the car.

    Wednesday, April 30, 2008

    Saving humanity through science and sanity

    National Defense magazine reports on the advice that science fiction writers, notably Larry Niven, are offering the Department of Homeland Security these days.
    Niven said a good way to help hospitals stem financial losses is to spread rumors in Spanish within the Latino community that emergency rooms are killing patients in order to harvest their organs for transplants.

    “The problem [of hospitals going broke] is hugely exaggerated by illegal aliens who aren’t going to pay for anything anyway,” Niven said.

    “Do you know how politically incorrect you are?” [Jerry] Pournelle asked.

    “I know it may not be possible to use this solution, but it does work,” Niven replied.
    Apparently the Homeland Security establishment at this conference soon got a taste of what it's like to attend a panel at a science-fiction convention.
    The 45-minute panel discussion quickly deteriorated as federal, local and state homeland security officials, and at least one congressional aid, attempted to ask questions, which were largely ignored.

    Instead the writers used their time to pontificate on a variety of tangentially related topics, including their past roles advising the government, predictions in their stories that have come to pass, the demise of the paperback book market, and low-cost launch into space.

    David Brin, keeping on the topic of empowering citizens with mobile phone technology, delivered a self-described “rant” on the lack of funds being spent to support citizen reservists to back up the military, homeland security officials and first responders in times of crisis.

    “It is impossible for you to succeed without us!” he shouted at the assembled officials, while banging his fist on the table and at one point jumping off his chair to wave a mobile phone in their faces.
    My people, my people.

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    The Living Dead

    My 2004 story "Zora and the Zombie," which is about Zombies pre-George Romero (and with a capital Z), will be reprinted later this year in The Living Dead, edited by John Joseph Adams for Night Shade Books. The table of contents includes Kelly Link's "Some Zombie Contingency Plans," Dale Bailey's "Death and Suffrage" (which inspired the Masters of Horror episode Homecoming), Joe Hill's "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" (about a romance that blossoms in Pittsburgh during the filming of Dawn of the Dead) and Scott Edelman's recent Stoker Award nominee "Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man," plus stories by Sherman Alexie, Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Brite, Harlan Ellison, Jeffrey Ford, Neil Gaiman, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Dan Simmons, Michael Swanwick, etc. I'm honored.

    Hard to beat this lineup

    "Chronicling Mars" is the theme of this year's Eaton Science Fiction Conference, May 16-18 at the University of California, Riverside. A partial list of speakers includes Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Ray Bradbury, David Brin, David G. Hartwell, Larry Niven, Frederik Pohl and Kim Stanley Robinson.

    "Why Superman Will Always Suck"

    Anthony Burch marshals the arguments at the Bam!Kapow! website.

    Mark Hughes Cobb begs to differ: "Supes' vulnerability is in his LEARNED humanity. He could have stayed the cold, aloof Kryptonian, but he chose to make himself a target by caring for humanity."

    Thanks to David Lowe for passing this along.

    Saturday, April 12, 2008

    A truthful typo

    I was pleased that many versions of the AP's first-day story on Olympic-torch protests in San Francisco said the "parade rout" had been changed. It's in the second sentence.

    The In Vitro Meat Consortium

    David Lowe passed along this fine blog entry, by New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin, on the scientific, economic and ethical issues of laboratory-grown meat.

    Whereupon Andy Rindsberg, bless him, pointed out that the ambitions of the In Vitro Meat Consortium are to create Chicken Little, as depicted in Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (1952):
    Scum-skimming wasn't hard to learn. You got up at dawn. You gulped a breakfast sliced not long ago from Chicken Little and washed it down with Coffiest. You put on your coveralls and took the cargo net up to your tier. In blazing noon from sunrise to sunset you walked your acres of shallow tanks crusted with algae. If you walked slowly, every thirty seconds or so you spotted a patch at maturity, bursting with yummy carbohydrates. You skimmed the patch with your skimmer and slung it down the well, where it would be baled, or processed into glucose to feed Chicken Little, who would be sliced and packed to feed people from Baffinland to Little America. Every hour you could drink from your canteen and take a salt tablet. Every two hours you could take five minutes. At sunset you turned in your coveralls and went to dinner -- more slices from Chicken Little -- and then you were on your own.
    In that seventh sentence, note the alarming pronoun "who" -- a pronoun the In Vitro Meat Consortium presumably tries to avoid.

    In support of our silent Prius

    While I am no Libertarian with a capital L, I often share with students the perennial contention that the best argument for libertarianism is our nation's ridiculous mishmash of alcohol laws -- none of which, arguably, accomplishes anything but fund-raising for various governments. Students who are not yet 21, or barely past it, always nod enthusiastically.

    Now I have another example: The National Federation of the Blind's campaign to mandate louder hybrid cars.

    I suspect that most jurisdictions already have laws on the books designed to prevent the negligent running over of blind people -- or, for that matter, sighted people. If laws were enough to prevent such incidents, presumably such incidents already would have been eliminated from the American scene. And if those laws didn't do the job, what good will further laws do?

    We bought our Prius in late July 2007, and it took us only about a week to realize that at the slowest speeds -- in parking lots and on our residential street, for example -- pedestrians just couldn't hear the thing, so we had to watch out for them. But we always watch out for pedestrians anyway, even when we're driving the (comparatively) noisy Subaru. Aren't all Prius drivers doing this, and if not, aren't there ways to penalize the careless drivers, rather than the vehicle owners as a class? Don't we need to do everything we can to encourage hybrid cars and trucks, rather than discourage them?

    On a recent round-trip drive to New York City in my Prius, I averaged better than 50 miles per gallon. If every four-door automobile in the United States got that mileage, wouldn't we be a lot better off -- even if every one were silent, not on the highway but at golf-cart speeds? Isn't the need to use less and less petroleum, rather than more and more, a larger concern that the fear of a fleet of silent Priuses re-enacting Death Race 2000?

    Finally, given the constant noise pollution that blights the life of every urban American, blind or sighted, shouldn't we welcome silent cars?

    Right the first time

    On April 6, during a speech in San Francisco, Barack Obama said:
    You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And it's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
    After the predictable criticisms from his opponents, Obama now says, according to the BBC, that he "didn't say it as well as I should have," that he meant to say "when you're bitter you turn to what you can count on":
    So people -- they vote about guns, or they take comfort from their faith and their family and their community. ... The truth is that these traditions that are passed on from generation to generation, those are important. That's what sustains us.
    In fact, this is less a paraphrase than an about-face. What he's saying now is true. But what he said April 6 is true, too. Many of the traditions that sustain us in times of trouble, alas, are anti-trade, anti-immigant, anti-outsider, anti-any-religion-but-mine -- indeed, well-nigh anti-everything. They are the traditions of North Korean dictators and Saudi monarchs, of Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh. They are traditions to be overcome, not embraced, and our leaders should be honest in telling us so.

    Sunday, April 06, 2008

    Local artist Mark Stutzman

    The Young Frankenstein billboards I saw all over the New York City area on my recent visit, like the website of the Broadway show, displayed the work of an artist from western Maryland: Mark Stutzman of Oakland. He's also the cover artist for Stephen King's Duma Key and Everything's Eventual, among many other commissions. Here's the website of Stutzman, his wife and daughter, artists all; click "Gallery Mark Stutzman" and then the links below to see many examples of his fine work. My favorite may be the haunting Everything's Eventual cover, which illustrates King's ferocious story "Lunch at the Gotham Cafe."

    An unfortunate transition

    I can't find it online, but the Cumberland Times-News ran a feature March 28 on the chaplains at Frostburg State University, including my friends Ed Hendricks (Catholic) and Larry Neumark (Methodist). (Larry's retiring in May after 29 years.) The article's by Mike Sawyers, the paper's best writer, but his editors did him no service with this transition, in which Ron Yost, the Baptist chaplain, is talking about the growing need for his ministry.
    Yost said that attendance at the weekly Wednesday 7:30 p.m. meeting for students grew rapidly from two to 24.

    "There is promiscuity available. There are alcohol parties and binge drinking. We offer them an anchor, a safe place."
    Oh, I get it now; the Baptist student union is offering alternatives to promiscuity, binge drinking, etc., not the things themselves. So that's all right, then.

    Bird lovers are restive

    Like many residents of the western Maryland mountains, we have occasional black bears in our neighborhood. One night this past fall, a bear got into our backyard by prying up the bottom of our chain-link fence and shinnying beneath. It helped itself to all the birdseed it could find before moving on -- fortunately, well before we woke up and let out the dogs. We stopped putting out birdseed for a couple of weeks after that.

    Now, according to The Associated Press, the state Department of Natural Resources proposes to fine folks $250 for leaving out birdseed, garbage, or any other potential bear snacks once the state has warned them not to.

    I suspect the DNR's intention is not actually to limit bear-human conflicts, but simply to raise money to supplement its dwindling revenue from hunting licenses. In any case, if it expects to eliminate the backyard feeder from western Maryland, it'll have a fight on its hands from the likes of Sydney and me. We love bears, but we love birds, too.

    Obama and Faulkner

    In his March 18 speech in Philadelphia, Barack Obama said:
    As William Faulkner once wrote, "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past."
    Everyone quotes this, though almost everyone, including Obama, quotes it wrong. As John B. Padgett points out on his William Faulkner on the Web site, it's from Act I, Scene III of Requiem for a Nun:
    The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
    Still a fine speech, though.

    Wednesday, March 19, 2008

    The story behind "Unique Chicken"

    John Joseph Adams of Night Shade Books interviewed me via e-mail about my Nebula-nominated story "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse," originally published in Jonathan Strahan's Night Shade anthology Eclipse One, and the result is here on the publisher's website. Thanks, John. The story's online, in various formats, at the same site.

    Thursday, March 06, 2008

    The Bottom Line on our Iraq readings

    The editor of The Bottom Line, the Frostburg State University student newspaper, here editorializes about the weekly campus reading of the names of the Iraq war dead, a project I've been helping with occasionally.

    "Unique Chicken" is online

    For the duration of awards season, my Nebula-nominated story "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse," from Jonathan Strahan's Eclipse One anthology, is available as a free download at the website of the book's publisher, Night Shade Books.

    Whatever happens at the Nebulas -- and no, I don't expect to win -- I'm honored by all the nice things folks have said about the story.

  • Michael Swanwick: “Wonderfully demented … The highlight of the book … It’s good enough to make principled men go against their conscience and vote to give a genre award to a mainstream story. Honest.”
  • Nancy Kress: “Hilarious … funny and sad with a punch at the end … This story is wonderful. … Like all Duncan stories, it’s difficult to say briefly what it’s ‘about.’ Maybe it’s about what miracles mean, what grace means, and why extremes are needed to bring about both. Or not.”
  • Gardner Dozois: “What it is is an Andy Duncan story, who’s a genre to himself.”
  • Jeffrey Ford: “The story is great. ... Definitely read it.”
  • Ed Park: “Odd, mesmerizing … Duncan’s brisk little fiction develops into a sly variant of [Flannery] O’Connor’s intense modern morality tales.”
  • Mark Bartlett: “Probably the best Duncan story I've read.”
  • Kathryn Cramer: “A really cool story.”

    "Unique Chicken" also is on the Locus 2007 Recommended Reading List and has been named one of the top stories of the year by SFRevu.com.

    My mother-in-law likes it, too.

    My thanks to all. I'm surprised and gratified.
  • Was Helen Duncan "rightly banged up"?

    Andy McSmith in The Independent doesn't think much of the movement to pardon the late Scottish medium Helen Duncan, convicted in 1944 of violating the centuries-old Witchcraft Act. He describes her as most likely "a fraud who was rightly banged up for making money from the grief and gullibility of the bereaved."

    Tuesday, February 26, 2008

    Reading Feb. 28 in Pennsylvania

    I'm doing a reading at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 28, in the second-floor coffeehouse in the student center at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Y'all come. Here's the announcement.

    Saturday, February 23, 2008

    Faerie folk

    At Greg Frost's Feb. 21 reading at Main Street Books, we were pleased to meet Mount Savage, Md., artists Leah and Shane Odom of Miscellaneous Oddments. Check out their masks. They brought along copies of Faerie Magazine, edited in the Baltimore suburb of Gwynn Oak; the Odoms contribute to Faerie and its sister publication, Pirates Magazine. Maryland holds many surprises.

    Friday, February 22, 2008

    "Unique Chicken" is a Nebula nominee

    My story "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse," from Jonathan Strahan's anthology Eclipse One, is a Nebula Award nominee. Here's the complete ballot at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site. (Thanks to my fellow nominee Judith Berman for providing the link.)

    I am tickled and humbled, and I congratulate all my fellow nominees, in all the categories. I'm honored to share a ballot -- indeed, a field -- with each of you.

    Saturday, February 09, 2008

    Anchower and I

    On the subject of my Jim Anchower stocking cap, Oz Drummond writes:
    Posting this comment without the comparative photos is simply not cricket.
    It's a fair cop. Anchower's cap can be seen at The Onion website, and mine can be seen here.

    Friday, February 08, 2008

    I shot an arrow into the air

    The controversial practice of "active SETI" was news to Lex Alexander, as it was to me before I read the Seed article about Alexander Zaitsev. Lex writes:
    We've been sending radio signals into space for more than a century now. God alone knows what any intelligent life that receives them might make of them.

    Also, I thought SETI was primarily about LISTENING for radio signals. I didn't know we were broadcasting intentionally. What would we send? "24" reruns? Pi?
    An "Interstellar Rosetta Stone," for one; here's an annotated excerpt.

    Diffuse transmissions and targeted ones are two different things, as the excellent article in Seed points out:
    Even if something menacing and terrible lurks out there among the stars, Zaitsev and others argue that regulating our transmissions could be pointless because, technically, we've already blown our cover. A sphere of omnidirectional broadband signals has been spreading out from Earth at the speed of light since the advent of radio over a century ago. So isn't it too late? That depends on the sensitivity of alien radio detectors, if they exist at all. Our television signals are diffuse and not targeted at any star system. It would take a truly huge antenna—larger than anything we've built or plan to build--to notice them.

    Alien telescopes could perhaps detect Earth's strange oxygen atmosphere, created by life, and a rising CO2 level, suggesting a young industrial civilization. But what would draw their attention to our solar system among the multitudes? Deliberate blasts of narrow-band radiation aimed at nearby stars would -- for a certain kind of watcher -- cause our planet to suddenly light up, creating an obvious beacon announcing for better or worse, "Here we are!"
    Lex also asks whether I've seen the Jodie Foster movie Contact. I sure have, and loved it. I also enjoyed the Carl Sagan novel that inspired it, but nothing in the novel thrilled me like the sequence in the movie in which the lonely techs first receive the alien transmission.

    My former student Sarah Ong writes, meanwhile:
    Ah yes...diplomacy...from a government that doesn't officially believe in aliens :)
    Since there's little, if any, evidence for them -- beyond the theoretical -- disbelief seems a reasonable response to me. But active SETI is controversial in part because it's beyond any government's ability to stop. For now, scientific and other non-governmental organizations conceivably could stop or discourage such efforts -- but one day, Seed speculates, this sort of targeted transmission will be possible from any backyard, and there'll be no stopping it then.

    The march of science

    Of John Kanzius' discovery that radio waves kill cancers, Oz Drummond writes:
    Unfortunately, the medical community will probably pooh-pooh this research, much as they did the man who proved that ulcers are caused by bacteria.
    Point taken, but skepticism in the absence of evidence that can be duplicated in the lab is not a bad thing. Once that evidence is duplicated, the paradigm (to use Thomas Kuhn's term) tends to shift quickly. In the case of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, a mere 23 years from discovery of the ulcer-bacteria link to the Nobel Prize in medicine ain't bad. (Granted, H. pylori had been discovered in 1899, then forgotten for generations, partially because its discoverer wrote it up in Polish.)

    My friend and onetime colleague Lex Alexander, who covers medicine for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., notes that similar work is being done, quite successfully, by Dr. Ronald Zagoria in Winston-Salem. I'm delighted to know this -- but I'm still slightly more impressed by Kanzius. You're more likely to expect such things from Zagoria since he is, after all, a doctor.

    Honest fakes

    On the question of whether Stephen Colbert can fairly be described as a "fake TV pundit," Richard Parks writes:
    I look at it similar to the The Daily Show and Fox News dichotomy. The Daily Show is an unashamedly phoney news show. Fox News CLAIMS to be a real one. Yet studies have shown that the average The Daily Show viewer is much better and more accurately informed than the average viewer of Fox News.
    Something similar must have happened in Britain in the early 1960s with That Was the Week That Was. Quoth Wikipedia:
    After two successful seasons in 1962 and 1963, the programme did not return in 1964, as this was a General Election year and the BBC decided it would be unduly influential.
    On a more personal note, I knew quite a lot about the "adult" movies of the early 1970s, and had a precocious appreciation for them, even though I was allowed to see none of them -- because I religiously read and studied the parodies of them in Mad magazine. And in adulthood, whenever I'm in England and want to know what's really going on, I read Private Eye.

    Payseur & Schmidt & Effinger

    Having seen the proposed table of contents of Payseur & Schmidt's volume of Flannery O'Connor tribute fictions, my hero Ted Chiang asks:
    What about "Put Your Hands Together," the O'Connor pastiche written by George Alec Effinger under the pseudonym "O. Niemand"?
    I knew people immediately would suggest other stories for the book, and I'm honored that you're the first, Ted. I haven't read the Effinger story (first published in Asimov's in 1988), but I see it's in Golden Gryphon's 2005 Effinger collection Live! From Planet Earth.

    I'll pass along any suggestions, but my understanding is that Payseur & Schmidt is interested not in a comprehensive reprint anthology of O'Connor pastiches -- like Golden Gryphon's 1998 Eternal Lovecraft, for example -- but in a volume of a few thematically linked stories that then can be lovingly illustrated, packaged and supplemented.

    Still, I'd be happy to compile here a list of stories and novels, of whatever genre, that pastiche or otherwise pay overt homage to O'Connor and her work -- as opposed to the much longer list of fictions that simply share some of her preoccupations and techniques (Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Joe Lansdale, Elizabeth Massie, etc.).

    Tuesday, February 05, 2008

    Gregory Frost is coming to town

    Gregory Frost will read from and sign copies of his new fantasy novel, Shadowbridge, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, at Main Street Books in downtown Frostburg. We're always pleased when friends come to visit, and we'd be tickled if our local independent bookstore became a regular stop for touring science fiction/fantasy authors. Publicists, take note!

    The Orphanage

    The invaluable Palace Theatre in downtown Frostburg is showing Juan Antonio Bayona's ghost story The Orphanage (a.k.a. El Orfanato) Feb. 15-16, and Sydney and I are sponsoring it. This is our second such fit of artistic patronage; we previously co-sponsored Pan's Labyrinth at the Palace in 2007. Y'all come.

    Payseur & Schmidt & O'Connor

    My hero Brett Cox reports that Payseur & Schmidt, publisher of fine, beautifully designed books such as John Clute's The Darkening Garden and Nicola Griffith's And Now We Are Going To Have a Party, has accepted his proposal for a reprint collection of four stories inspired by the life and work of Flannery O'Connor:

  • "The Road Leads Back" by Michael Bishop, first published in After O'Connor: Stories from Contemporary Georgia (University of Georgia Press, 2003).
  • "Every Angel Is Terrifying" by John Kessel, first published in Fantasy & Science Fiction (October/November 1998).
  • "Flannery on Stage" by F. Brett Cox, first published in Indigenous Fiction (June 2001).
  • "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse" by Andy Duncan, first published in Eclipse One (Night Shade Books, 2007).

    Publication date, details of the book package, etc., are TBA.
  • Last night I dreamed ...

    ... that I lived in a crumbling but still glamorous brownstone high-rise in the city. The name of the building, spelled out in stained glass over the front door, was The Oasis. My large, high-ceilinged apartment, like all the other apartments, was thronged with people, with refugees. Each room was a jumble of mismatched beds and furniture and stacks of suitcases, trunks and boxes bound with twine. All the beds were occupied by people sleeping, eating, playing cards, visiting with one another, dressed and undressed. Very narrow crooked aisles separated the beds, so that in trying to walk across the room, I kept stumbling into people and apologizing. Everyone was a stranger to me except Ted Chiang, whose bed was several beds over from mine. I couldn't find the exit, but I did find my way to the kitchen, which was as crowded as the other rooms with beds and junk. I marveled: "I didn't know we had a kitchen!" Then I was on the street outside, looking up at the building, waiting in line to board the airplane that would take me back to my apartment. It was a 1930s prop plane, like the one in Lost Horizon. I strapped myself in, and the plane took off nearly vertically, pressing me back into the seat and cutting off my breath. Then I woke up.

    Saturday, January 19, 2008

    Define "fake"

    I am as amused as anyone by Stephen Colbert's latest stunt -- talking the National Portrait Gallery into temporarily hanging his portrait, over the water fountain between the bathrooms -- but after reading the lead of this Associated Press article, I wonder: In what sense is Colbert a "fake TV pundit"? Put another way: Are any TV pundits less fake than Colbert? Or are the others more fake, because they expect to be taken seriously, even if their shtick is as fact-free as Colbert's?

    Saturday, January 12, 2008

    Submitted for your Nobel consideration

    Pennsylvania cancer patient John Kanzius, whose field is not medicine but electronics, wondered whether radio waves might kill cancer cells. The answer, says the journal Cancer, is: Yes, they do. John Kanzius may have tinkered his way into a cure for cancer.

    It came out of the sky

    What was the 16-inch piece of burning-hot metal that fell from the sky and through the roof of Susan Wilson's SUV outside Happy Harry's drugstore in Stanton, Del.? The Federal Aviation Administration says that whatever it is, it didn't come from a plane.

    We just don't know

    We just don't know why 5-year-old Chucky Beutel of Sellersburg, Ind., spontaneously combusted in the bathroom.

    "The knickers saved the day"

    A kitchen fire in Hartlepool was put out by a pair of extra-large knickers. For further local color, note that the fire broke out while the two blokes were frying bread. There'll always be an England.

    Possibly the ultimate church-and-state news story

    Whereas an Italian court apparently summoned Tweety Bird, Mickey Mouse and Donald and Daisy Duck to appear as witnesses in a counterfeiting trial through a clerical error, an Indian judge intentionally summoned the Hindu gods Ram and Hanuman to appear as witnesses in a property dispute. Suppose they showed up? I'd like to see the courtroom climax of Oh, God! remade as a Bollywood musical.

    Suppose they answer?

    "Who Speaks for Earth?" is a fascinating Seed magazine article that asks whether "active SETI" -- broadcasting our existence to the theoretical extraterrestrial intelligences that theoretically could be listening -- is a good idea.

    Serious scientists are beginning to sound like the narrators of Lovecraft stories, speaking openly about "the potential for alerting dangerous or malevolent entities to our presence."

    My favorite quote, from a former U.S. State Department officer: "Active SETI is not science; it's diplomacy."

    Hola, amigos

    Sydney says my stocking cap looks like Jim Anchower's. This stops short of saying that in my stocking cap I look like Jim Anchower, but it's mighty close.

    How innocent was Dr. Crippen?

    The Guardian reports that the dismembered body found in Dr. Hawley Crippen's coal cellar in 1910 was not that of his wife, Cora; so saith the DNA evidence. Here's the BBC account.

    Was Crippen hanged, then, for murdering someone who wasn't even dead? Whose body was it? Who dismembered it and buried it in Crippen's cellar? What prompted Crippen and his mistress to flee England in disguise? And will the next edition of Erik Larson's fascinating best seller Thunderstruck, about Crippen and Marconi, include a new epilogue addressing the DNA claim?

    One theory: Crippen was an abortionist, and the body was a customer whose procedure had gone horribly wrong.