Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Random Thoughts on DragonCon 2017

Another DragonCon is in the books. This was my third year going and it was, as always, a blast. An exhausting blast, but still a blast. Here are some random thoughts on the convention.
  • It strikes me that there isn't really a DragonCon so much as there are multiple DragonCons running concurrently. Total attendance at the convention is somewhere north of 80,000 people. The sheer number of folks who attend paired with the fact that it takes place in multiple hotels, plus the fact that there are multiple fandoms represented (literature, film, television, anime, gaming, comics, etc.) means that one attendee will have a very different experience than another.
  • The first year I attended, I was excited about all the craziness: the cool stuff in the vendor halls, the creative cosplay, the general madness. Three years in, that stuff has become less interesting, even annoying at times. (See: waiting half an hour plus to cram into an elevator with many smelly people.) However, what has now become the highlight is getting to hang out with old friends and new. Seeing people I don't normally get to, making connections, talking with FBI agents and NASA scientists, screenwriters and NYT best-selling authors, established pros and scrappy up-and-comers. That's what makes DragonCon badass these days.
  • As I have the last three years, I kicked off DC with a Mai Tai at Trader Vic's. Sweet nectar of the Gods!
  • Here's a fun story. A group of us were going to hang out at Baen Barfly Central. The Barfly suite is a DragonCon tradition, as well as a staple at several other cons. Essentially, some of Baen's awesome fans set up a hangout in their hotel room for Baen fans, authors, and editors to socialize. It's much more low-key and quiet than hanging out at one of the hotel bars. The room was on the sixteenth floor of one of the host hotels. We were waiting on the elevator. And waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Finally, someone (I'm pretty sure it was LJ Hachmeister) got the idea that we should just take the stairs. A handful of folks bowed out, saying they'd hang out at Barfly Central another night. Another handful of folks said they'd climb the stairs. Stupidly, I was in group two. The scene from the end of Ghostbusters is what you should be picturing. Later, when it was time to head out for the night, another person suggested we take the stairs back down. Going down is easier, but not that much easier. All this would have been fine, except when we got back to our hotel that night we were told that some jackass had pulled the fire alarm and the elevators were not working. We were staying on floor 57 and before you get excited, no, this story doesn't end with me climbing 57 flights of stairs. See, the Westin has two elevator banks: one that goes to floors 1-45 and another that goes from floors 46-70. After waiting an hour for the elevators to get reset, only the bank that went up to floor 45 was working. By this point it was almost one a.m. We had a choice: wait until the other elevators were running again or ride up to floor 45 and climb another 12 flights to our room. We chose choice B. Were my legs sore the next day? Readers, what do you think?
  • I would list all the cool folks I got to hang out with but I know that I'd accidentally leave some folks off, so I'll just say that I had a great time with you all!
  • I got to present the Year's Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers' Choice Award once again this year, at The Baen Traveling Roadshow. For this, the third year we've presented the award, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller took home the prize for their short story "Wise Child."
  • Best cosplay: Elvis/Glen Danzig mashup. A guy in a black leather Elvis jumpsuit with devil lock hair. On the back of his cape was the Elvis TCB lightning bolt in rhinestones, only instead of "TCB" it said "138." Nice touch, dude.
  • Actually, the best cosplay was Baen Factotum and soon-to-be-published-space-opera-author Christopher Ruocchio as me. (See photo.) This was rather impromptu but I think he pulled it off. His impression of me hocking Year's Best was even more impressive, right down to me forgetting which story was in which volume.
    "You like science fiction short stories? Let me show you this."--Me and/or Christopher cosplaying me
  • Sold a solid number of copies of Year's Best. When I left there were only 3 left on the shelf out of a dozen or more. (I didn't count how many there were to start with).
  • Went to The Armory for the first time. This is two rooms downstairs in the Hyatt that feature edged weapons as well as firearms that are donated (temporarily, of course) to the convention. I'm not super into swords or guns, but this was really cool. (At least for me. Michael Z. Williamson referred to it as "a good start" and looking like the closet in his spare bedroom. Ha!) Highlights included an actual Vietnam-era rocket launcher, several suits of armor, a "Brown Bess" that was longer than I am tall, and a Tommy Gun.
    Clyde Barrow-style. (Okay, technically I don't think Clyde Barrow used a Thompson. Whatever. You get the idea.)
  • Another story: We got back to our hotel rather late Thursday night. We'd eaten a late dinner, but I was pretty hungry. However, I was exhausted and already in the room, so I figured I'd just turn in. Three hours of tossing and turning later, I was starving and had a splitting low-blood-sugar-induced migraine. At this point it was 3:30 in the morning, but I had such a bad headache and was so hungry that I couldn't even feel how tired I was. There was nothing to do but throw on clothes and go in search of something to eat. The hotel bar had long since closed, as had the Starbucks in the lobby and the gift shop. The front desk was still manned and I asked the employee if there was a vending machine anywhere. I was told no, but that there was a 24-hour CVS just down the block. Now, here's the thing about DragonCon: Yes, it's in downtown Atlanta, which can be a rather dangerous place after dark. But it's usually so chockablock full of nerds walking around and Atlanta PD making sure the peace is kept that you never feel unsafe. Let me tell you: Not so much at 3:30 in the morning! The streets were more or less deserted except for a few sketchy folks, including one (presumably) homeless man yelling obscenities to no one in particular and another who got into a screaming match with a young lady he felt was dressed too scantily. (Don't worry, she gave as good as she got and then some.) Luckily, I made it back to the hotel in one piece, but yikes! Moral of the story: Always bring snacks.
  • My degree of separation from John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov is now as low as it ever will be. I met superfan Ben Yalow, who knew both gentlemen (and many, many other greats of the genre who have since passed away), and he regaled me with stories. It should be said that Mr. Yalow is a great guy in and of himself. One of the great old-school fans, from back when everyone knew everyone if not in person, than in the letters columns of the various magazines. Only Robert Silverberg has attended more WorldCons than Yalow. A very cool dude!

I'm sure I'm leaving out a bunch. It was a great time and I look forward to next year. If you get a chance, DragonCon is worth checking out.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Purchasing a Time Machine from Joe Lansdale

While I've always enjoyed reading, I did not become the voracious reader I am today until after high school. Up to that point, I'd read a novel or a short story here and there as something caught my attention. Now, I'm never without a book on the nightstand. Honestly, I don't remember what it was that caused the switch to flip, but once it did there was no going back.

It was during this first frenzy of reading everything I could get my hands on that I discovered so many great writers. Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, Shirley Jackson . . . and Joe Lansdale. Most I discovered browsing the shelves in the Allen Texas Public Library or at the various Half Price Books in the greater Dallas area I frequented, picking up books at random and seeing what caught my interest. But not Lansdale.

I first heard about Champion Joe, of all places, on Dallas's alternative rock station, 102.1 The Edge (R.I.P.). I was working at Guitar Center at the time and a handful of us decided to go out for a late dinner after our shift ended. We decided on the Bennigan's (R.I.P.) off Northwest Highway and the Toll Road. I'd never been and this was before everyone carried around a handy GPS system in their pocket. My buddy Nathan gave me directions and I headed out. For those of you in suspense, I made it there fine, but not before first missing my exit. Not a big deal, except this was the last exit for something ridiculous like five miles. As a result, I was in the car for something like 15-20 minutes longer than I might have been.

During that time, I had the radio on to keep me company. Normally The Edge played alt. rock--Nirvana and Green Day and Sublime and Weezer--but for some strange reason that night the D.J. was talking about this crazy new movie called Bubba Ho-Tep, which was playing at The Angelika theater. In it, Elvis Presley is alive and well and living in a rest home in east Texas. He teams up with an African-American man in a wheelchair who may or may not be John F. Kennedy to--wait for it--defeat a mummy that is sucking the souls of the occupants of the rest home.

Now, if that doesn't sound like a great movie to you, then we have very different taste in cinema.

Don Coscarelli, of Phantasm fame, directed the film, and it was he who was talking to the D.J. In the process of doing so, he mentioned that Bubba Ho-Tep was based on a novella by a Texas writer named Joe R. Lansdale.

I committed the name to memory. Anyone who would come up with such a concept was someone whose work I wanted read.

Some time later (I don't remember how long, though probably not more than a few days), I ascended the stairs to the fiction section of the library, searching out Mr. Lansdale's work. (I also made it a priority to see Bubba Ho-Tep ASAP, and if you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor.) The library had a handful of Lansdale titles, mostly novels. I'm pretty sure they had The Bottoms and I'd be willing to bet there was at least one Hap and Leonard mystery in there. But what drew my eye was a short story collection called Bumper Crop.

I'll often start with a writer's short stories when picking up his or her work for the first time. For one thing, I love short stories. And for another, I figure I'll get a wider sense of his or her writing that way. If I happen to pick up a stinker of a novel, I'll have spend hours of time reading it and it may turn me off of said author for some time. But if I run across a bad short story, well, that was twenty minutes of my life I'll never get back, but I can always go on and see if the next one is more to my taste.

In the case of Lansdale, I needn't have worried. I've read dozens of novels, short stories, and essays by the guy and I've loved every one. Including all the stories in Bumper Crop. If you like short horror fiction, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Recently, I was at ArmadilloCon, in Austin. It's Lansdale's "home-base" convention. He's there, so far as I know, just about every year. Lansdale rents out space in the Dealer's Room, selling books and chatting with folks who drop by. I always make it a point to pay his booth a visit and pick up a couple autographed copies of his books. This year, I picked up High Cotton, another collection of his stories and--you guessed it--Bumper Crop. I'd seen Bumper Crop around in various used bookstores from time to time (sadly, it's out of print, though available as an ebook), but never plunked down the dollars to buy it. I figured I'd already read it and there were other Lansdale titles to spend money on. But when I saw a new-old-stock copy sitting on Lansdale's table, and with the knowledge that he's sign it to me, I went ahead and took the plunge, figuring it would be cool to have a signed copy of the first Joe R. Lansdale book I'd ever read.

I hadn't particularly been planning on re-reading Bumper Crop. Though I hadn't planned on not re-reading it. I figured it would look nice on the shelf and when I was feeling like a Lansdale short, I'd pull it down. But when I got home from the convention, I started paging through it. Soon I was reading the thing cover-to-cover. (I'm about a third of the way through as I write this.)

Let me just say that Bumper Crop is a total time machine, for me. Re-reading the stories contained therein transports me right back to that time when I was first discovering so many great stories, novels, and writers. Reading Bumper Crop is like putting in a mixed tape (or in my generation's case, a burned CD) of all your favorite songs from high school--and they all still hold up! Something I can't say for the actual songs I listen to in high school.

In the years since I first read Bumper Crop, I've read thousands of short stories, and in doing so have become, I'll admit, a little jaded. While revisiting Champion Joe's early stories, I'm the guy I was when I first heard that interview on The Edge and couldn't wait to get to the library to check this guy out.

A time machine for twenty bucks. Not a bad deal.

Monday, August 7, 2017

ArmadilloCon 39 Report

Another ArmadilloCon is in the books, and I must say, it was a good one.

Highlights included but were not limited to:

- Hanging out with great folks.

- Barconning until it was much, much too late. (Seriously, guys. I fear I'm getting old.)

- Sitting in the audience for some great panels.

- Being on some great panels.

- Closing out the convention by attending Howard Waldrop's reading for the first time.

- Listening to folks read their kickass stories.

- Doing my first reading at a convention. (Big, big thanks to everyone who was able to be there! I love you all!)

- I'm sure I'm forgetting a ton; it's quite the whirlwind.

Lowlights were:

- The tasteless and yet somehow still gross-tasting Subway sandwich I scarfed down between panels on Sunday.

- That's it! So overall, I'd say it was a big win.

Looking forward to next year!



Friday, August 4, 2017

ArmadilloCon 2017

My ArmadilloCon schedule is below, in case you want to come stalk me this weekend--which is totally fine by me!

**You should especially come to my reading on Saturday at 9 p.m. in the Conference Center. THERE WILL BE FABULOUS PRIZES!**

Full schedule:

Sa1100BD Short Fiction, Magazines vs. Online
Sat 11:00 AM-Noon Ballroom D

Sa2100CC Reading (WITH FABULOUS PRIZES)
Sat 9:00 PM-9:30 PM Conference Center

Su1100DR Signing
Sun 11:00 AM-Noon Dealers' Room

Su1200BD Clarke Centenial: 2001 Space Oddysey
Sun Noon-1:00 PM Ballroom D

Su1400BF What Shorter SF&F works should you have read this year?
Sun 2:00 PM-3:00 PM Ballroom F

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Review: Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli



I don't really read science fiction novels much these days. With as many science fiction short stories as I read in order to assemble The Year's Best Military and Adventure SF series, when it comes time to wind down with a book, I find myself reaching for different genres. When I do read a science fiction novel, I tend to gravitate toward older works that I've meant to read but haven't gotten around to. All this to say, if a science fiction novel came out in the last three or four years, there's a stunningly good chance I haven't cracked its spine.

But I made an exception for Lou Antonelli's Another Girl, Another Planet. The premise was just too interesting. I couldn't resist.

With Another Girl, Another Planet, Lou Antonelli gives us the 20th Century we deserved rather then the 20th Century we got. It's an alternate history story in which Admiral Robert A. Heinlein (yes, that Robert A. Heinlein) convinces the United States and the U.S.S.R. to work together on a joint space program, rather than against one another in an escalating arms race. As a result, by 1985 (when our story is set) there is a thriving colony on the Moon and the frontier has moved to Mars.

The hero of the story is Dave Shuster, a low-level bureaucrat who is sent to the Mars colony to take over a vacant administration position. Once there, however, he discovers that the Martian governor has died while he was en route. Shuster is now interim leader of the colony.

The engine for Antonelli's plot is an Asmovian mystery involving a mysterious robot and android factory on Mars and a missing girl (an old flame of Shuster's) back in New York City. The mystery is well-done and kept me turning pages, and Shuster, who narrates the novel, is a likable protagonist with a great voice.

But the real joy of the novel is the world that Antonelli has created. For one thing, it's incredibly well thought out. More than that, it's just downright fun. In Another Girl, Another Planet, familiar faces from our timeline turn up in different settings throughout. Familiar technology such as fax machines exist alongside Moon-to-Mars rocketships. To say too much would be to ruin the fun of the novel, so I'll just mention two things that typify what I'm talking about. The first is when Dave Shuster finds a cassette of Buddy Holly's early material, from 1957 - 1961, before he and The Beatles became engaged in the U.S. vs. Britain Music Wars. Another is that we find out what happened to famed skyjacker D.B. Cooper in this timeline.

If I have a criticism to level against the novel it's that, from time to time, the forward movement of the plot is sidelined so that some aspect of the alternate timeline and/or retro-futuristic technology can be explained. But these diversions are so entertaining that it's hard to say that they should have been cut. I certainly would have missed them. Readers not as enamored with 20th Century history and pop culture might find themselves a little lost in all of the references, but I suspect that, for the most part, they will just sail on by, not causing a distraction.

Published by Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's Wordfire Press, Another Girl, Another Planet is available now. Here's a link to it on Amazon. Or, if you prefer, you can buy a DRM-free version from Baen.com.

If there were more books like Lou Antonelli's Another Girl, Another Planet, I'd read a whole lot more modern science fiction novels. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Anatomy of a Paragraph: When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block

Anyone who has talked to me about books and/or writing for more than ten minutes has probably heard me fawn over the crime writer Lawrence Block. I've read more books by Block than any other author. (It helps that his published novels run into three digits.) Though he's been named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and won multiple awards in the field, I still think he's criminally (pun!) underrated. His sales, so far as I know, are quite good, but it's a crying shame that he doesn't regularly top the bestseller lists.

One of the things I like so much about Block's work is how deceptively simple it is. He is by no means a flashy writer. You don't pause in reading his work to marvel over his sentences. You don't set the book down to appreciate his intricate plots. As a writer, when you read his work, you think, "That doesn't look so hard; I could do that."

And then you try to and you realize just how difficult writing as "simply" as Lawrence Block really is.

Block reminds me of Count Basie's longtime guitar player Freddie Green. Green spent his entire career playing one-, two-, and three-note chords, in a swing quarter-note rhythm. Easy, right? Well, many is the jazz guitarist who has spent a lifetime trying to ape Green's style, only to fall short.

Or think of Sinatra. The dude makes singing those classic songs from the Great American Songbook look effortless. Yeah, well you just try sing that well and make it look so effortless.

That's what Lawrence Block's writing is like. He makes what is actually very hard look incredibly easy.

I was reminded of this fact when reading the sixth Matthew Scudder novel, When the Sacred Ginmill Closes. In the second chapter of the book, Scudder is taking the reader on a tour of the summer of 1975, when the novel is set, as well as through the New York neighborhood in which he lives. Scudder tells of the bars that he frequents, and then he narrates the following paragraph, which is what I wanted to talk about, to illustrate Block's deceptively simple style:

On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other. One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty. I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar. The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Nothing special right? Dude is just talking about a couple restaurants. Who cares? Why is this even in the book? Shouldn't a good editor have told Block to cut this so that we could get on with the story?

Let's take a closer look, sentence by sentence. Because I think this paragraph is secretly brilliant. It gives us so much information in such an economic way.

Sentence one: On the same block there were two French restaurants, one next to the other.

First the obvious. Block (through Scudder) is telling us that this particular block in NYC features two French restaurants. Okay, got it. But notice how he places them "one next to the other." This tips us off to the fact that we are going to be comparing these two establishments side-by-side. They're positioned so that we can't help but think of one except in terms of the other. Maybe not the most revealing sentence of all time, but it's laying the groundwork for what is to come.

Sentence two: One of them, Mont-St.-Michel, was always three-quarters empty.

Now we're getting to the good stuff. We get the name of one restaurant, but not the other. Mont-St.-Michel is important in a way that Other-French-Restaurant isn't. It's in the second clause that we learn how. It is always three-quarters empty. Not a quarter empty. Not half empty. And certainly not a quarter full. The line is "always three-quarters empty." So Mont-St. Michel is a perpetual loser. They don't attract a crowd. They're a little rundown in the heels. It's not the sort of place you would take a date to impress her. Only . . .

Sentence three: I took women there for dinner a few times over the years, and stopped in alone once in a while for a drink at the bar.

. . . Matt Scudder does. In this sentence we tip to what Block is doing. He's using Mont-St.-Michel as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Notice Scudder doesn't take "dates" there. He doesn't take "girlfriends" or "partners" there. He takes "women" there. This is the most casual term Block could have used, the most distant way of describing these relationships. Because Matt Scudder (at this point in his life) isn't the sort of man who has romantic relationships. It also tells us what kinds of evenings out these were: he took the women to a nearly empty French restaurant. Now, perhaps Mont-St.-Michel is one of NYC's "best kept secrets." Only we know damn well it's not. Block doesn't mention the food. He doesn't mention the decor. He doesn't mention the atmosphere except to say that it's "three-quarters empty." Scudder may like the women he's taking out to dinner, but he's not out to impress them.

We also learn that he stops in from time to time to have a drink at the bar, alone. Now, if you've read the first chapter and a half that leads up to this paragraph (to say nothing of the five books in the series that come before), you'll know that Scudder is an alcoholic. But even separated out from context, we get a hint of that. Who but someone with a drinking problem is going to stop in at a deserted French restaurant to drink at the bar by himself?

Sentence four: The establishment next door had a good reputation and did a better business, but I don't think I ever set foot inside it.

Block could have stopped at sentence three and this would still be a paragraph worth talking about. But he doesn't, and it's this fourth sentence that elevates this passage from good to great. Scudder starts the paragraph setting up two French restaurants. He then gives us information on one but not other. He uses this first restaurant as a way to reveal Scudder's character. Now, in the fourth and final sentence, he addresses the second. And it is in this fourth sentence that our impression of Matt Scudder is cemented. He never gives a name to the second restaurant. It is "the establishment next door." He tells us that it "had a good reputation," implying that the first establishment does not, and that it "did a better business," implying that the food is better, the atmosphere is more lively, the service more genteel. And yet . . . he never "set foot inside it." Notice the total disdain in his tone. He doesn't just not eat there. Not "setting a foot inside" an establishment strongly implies a code of conduct on the part of the person whose foot isn't being set inside. Scudder won't go there, won't take dates there, purposely. It's not that Mont-St.-Michel is more conveniently located or that he likes it better. Scudder frequents it not in spite of but because it's rundown. He's attracted to the gutter. He refuses to go to the nicer restaurant that is right next door, because that is not who he is.

All of this from what seems like a throwaway paragraph about a couple of restaurants. One paragraph, four sentences, not even ostensibly about the protagonist of the book and yet the reader comes away from it knowing who Matt Scudder is down to the core.

Block's work is full of stuff like this. Simple, straight-forward prose that doesn't draw attention to itself but that conveys an incredible amount of information and emotion.

Block makes it look easy, but writing that simply takes a lot of hard work.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

"The Dead Thing" in Disturbed Digest





My short story "The Dead Thing" appears in the June 2017 issue of Disturbed Digest. You can pick yourself up a copy here.

"The Dead Thing" was originally written for the Hank Davis-edited anthology Things from Outer Space. It started the way perhaps half of my short stories start: with a title. Shortly after coming up with the title, the first few words popped into my head. They are: "We found the dead thing . . ." From there, I just kept writing (with one major interruption, more on that in a second) until the story ended, not really knowing what was going to happen or how things were going to turn out. That's not particularly common for me. Usually, I have an idea of how a story is going to end, and I often outline the whole thing. But not always, and not this time.

The danger of flying by the seat of your pants that way is that too often you get lost or paint yourself into a corner and the story never gets finished. For a while, I thought that would be the case with "The Dead Thing." I hit a roadblock about halfway through and put it aside, hoping that I might find my way to the ending, but assuming that I wouldn't, that the story would remain incomplete.

Then, I sat down one day, opened up "The Dead Thing" file on the trusty ol' laptop and . . . kept writing. It took a few days, but I made it to the end of the story, and was really quite pleased with how it turned out. I sent it off to Hank, hopeful that he'd accept it.

However, Hank wasn't able to use the story. It was a good story, he assured me, and he'd like to put it in the anthology, but the ending was too similar to that of another story that he'd already purchased for the book. The two stories were really quite different, and the endings weren't identical, but they were close enough that they would feel odd sitting next to each other in a table of contents. Such are the breaks!

But I really liked "The Dead Thing" and didn't want to relegate it to the trunk. I'm glad to see that it found a home in Disturbed Digest's Fifth Anniversary Double Issue.

Incidentally, when Hank said he wasn't able to use "The Dead Thing" for Things from Outer Space, I assumed I'd missed my chance to be included in the anthology. The deadline was looming and I didn't have anything appropriate to send in and no ideas for a new story.  Then my story "As It Lays" popped into my head, fully formed, one morning. I sent it off to Hank and he said he'd be glad to use it in Things from Outer Space.

[Paul Harvey voice]: And now you know . . . the rest of the story!