Friday, January 30, 2009

On the Future of Stories (Short)

There's a certain nobility in short stories. Building something up from a conceit to an idea to a full-fledged blueprint isn't the easiest thing to do, as any successful writer can attest, and condensing that blueprint into six thousand words or less is no mean feat either. Nevertheless, I can't help but be struck by the feeling that the golden age of the short story is long over.

Robert J. Sawyer reported on Tuesday (look how timely I am) that Realms of Fantasy, a fantasy genre short story magazine in operation since 1994, will be folding for good after its April issue. I've never read it myself - pure fantasy isn't precisely my bag - and neither have I ever seen a copy of it, as far as I know, but that doesn't mean that I'm not blind to the greater problem of which Realms' closing is a symptom.

Back in the day, before and during and a bit after the Second World War, short stories were the name of the game in sf. The economics of the time wouldn't have it any other way; novels were expensive to print and buy, but pulp magazines were cheap - though that same cheap construction means that those that survive from the period need to be treated almost as carefully as the Declaration of Independence if they're to last. Back in 1939, Robert A. Heinlein launched his writing career when he sold "Life-Line" to Astounding - known better today as Analog - for the princely sum of $70.

"In 1939," Heinlein wrote in his 1980 semi-memoir Expanded Universe, "one could fill three station wagons with fifty dollars worth of groceries. Today I can pick up fifty dollars in groceries unassisted - perhaps I've grown stronger." Sure, $70 is hardly chump change even today, but according to the Inflation Calculator, $70 USD in 1939 is the equivalent of $1,034.84 in 2007. I would be hard-pressed today to dash off a few thousand words and pay off one month's rent with the proceeds.

So the market has changed, and is still changing. What concerns me is the shape that it's going to take on. Two years ago, at the 2007 Word on the Street festival, I listened to Robert J. Sawyer's advice to new authors. He said that short stories were where writers made names for themselves. It's still good advice - if you have well-regarded shorts under your belt, you'll be that much better off when you try to break your teeth on something longer - but I can't help but wonder how much longer the shape of the market will make it possible for all but a few to break in that way.

F&SF is going to a bimonthly publication schedule, and Analog and Asimov's have reduced their size and depth of content to save on printing costs. With the magazines getting smaller, and some going bust, it's going to be more and more difficult for short story authors to break into them, and more and more stories that would have been printed in their pages in better days will have to be rejected now.

So what's the future? I'll admit I'm nervous about it myself. Having a story professionally published is great, but when it comes time to chisel my headstone, I don't want it to say "HE WROTE ONE THING OF CONSEQUENCE." Nor do I want good authors to have to wage battles royale for the reward of appearing in print. At this point it's safe to say the future will not belong to the magazines the way the past did, but there will be a future.

Though it's not going to be what it used to be.

First, I think anthologies may pick up some of the slack, anthologies like Return to Luna. There are eighteen short stories between its covers, and since novelettes, novellas and serials are frequently printed in magazines like Analog or Asimov's, eighteen short stories would have to be spread out over the better part of a year in either of them.

Second, Jim Baen's Universe. That is what the future would look like if I was building it. JBU was built around the opportunities afforded by INTERNET and takes full advantage of what electronic publication can offer. It's not entirely electronic, either - I'd only need to pick up one of the paperback collections to read it on the streetcar just like I do anything else.

So there is still hope for those starting out. Still-- an era is passing. That's not something to cheer.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu Low Earth Orbit wgah'nagl fhtagn

I'm a man who has an interest in the promise of the future, and as a result I'm accustomed to disappointment. The Apollo Applications Program? Historical footnote. Space Station Freedom? A grand idea, never realized. The Delta Clipper? Obscure enough that I didn't even know about it until recently, after which point the confident non-fiction articles in 1980s issues of Analog were tinged with regret and lost promises. That's the main reason why, every once in a while, I'm staggered by the thought that a space station actually does exist.

The International Space Station is an incredible technical achievement, and it's my hope that in the years and decades to come - if civilization doesn't collapse in the interim, of course - it will be to the state-of-the-art as dugout canoes are to cabin cruisers today. None of that is what I'm concerned about today, though. I was looking at the station's mission patch, and I noticed something odd. Eldritch, in fact, you might say.

Look at that patch. The station itself is obvious enough, but the landforms took a little work; considering that the entertainment industry is centered in California, even views-from-space that focus on Europe can be disconcerting (in the sense of "hey, that never looked like that before"). Maps focused on Antarctica just aren't all that common, but once you see it it's fairly straightforward. There's the tip of Chile and Argentina on the lower right, and on the left there's Australia and New Zealand and then--

And then, in the middle of the South Pacific, almost squarely at Point Nemo, there's another landmass that doesn't appear on any map I own. I started wondering; what is this? The lost continent of Mu? Then I realized the truth - there's only one significant thing that ever existed in that lonely corner of the South Pacific: the nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh, where dread Cthulhu lies dreaming.

Is NASA trying to tell us something?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Widdershin Ways of a Wikipedia Wanderer

I'm currently working on "On the Waltz," a short story that I do hope to finish and not leave in the "come back to this thing later, when you can think clearly" pile, which has grown tall and tilts more perilously than Pisa as of late. In describing a character, I found myself resorting back to Wikipedia, for fact-checking--

"Best behavior now, love," said one of the guards, a trim and flaxen-haired man who fit as well into the shardist ideal as a male model would have fit the cover of Soldier of Fortune.

Really, the only fact I had to check was what the proper name of Soldier of Fortune was. But from there the wandering impulse took over, and I ended up at the article on men's adventure magazines, a pulp genre I previously was unaware of but now seems like a great and unlamented loss.

I mean, look at it. How is it even remotely conceivable that something called "Swastika Slave Girls in Argentina's No-Escape Brothel Camp" could be anything less than awesome? Oh, back in 1963 I'm sure it was shlock, one form of tripe or another dashed off a typewriter (tripewriter?) for some cents per word that had far, far more buying power back then - but now? It would be hilarious. A glossy, iron-thewed version of The Eye of Argon.

I hope I never find that story, or article, or whatever it was; I don't know what I would do if it didn't live up to these expectations I created for it right this second.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Just When I Thought I Could Stop Being Demoralized

Something like this comes to my attention. Is there something wrong with me? Am I some kind of mutant for caring about a time beyond when the current show on TV ends? Am I the only one who sees this as indicative of a vast, sprawling, mind-boggling irresponsibility among the public as a whole?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Short SF Review #1: "Roachstompers"

Nota bene: The post below first went live on a previous weblog of mine, which has since pixellated into the electronic aether, in September 2007. I republish it here with minor additions.

I've got a thing for short stories. As I would very much like to be writing them for money in the near future I'm considering putting down my used bookstore purchases as "employment research" once tax time comes around. One of the recent additions to my accumulation of shelves is Baen Books' New Destinies: Volume VIII, published in the autumn of 1989. I bought it mainly for the cover - a huge fire-breathing dragon viewed from inside a fighter jet's cockpit.

Not only do I love that sort of genre-mashing stuff, it has a fair chance of making mundane sf purists' heads disintegrate, and I love that as well.

In this review, the first of what I hope to be many, I'll be looking at one of the seven short stories in New Destinies VIII, "Roachstompers" by S.M. Stirling. I'm well aware of the maxim that the technical definition for a person who confuses the opinions of an author's fictional characters for the opinions of the author is "an idiot," but in this case, considering the greater context of reality, I think I'm justified in feeling a bit sandpaper-rubbed by it.

As far as times go, the late 80s and early 90s weren't bad ones to live through, and I mean that in terms of not just experiencing them but surviving them. That intersection of decades was, I think, the last time the world was close to going through a deliberate nuclear war, rather than one started on the say-so of bogus radar contacts and Norwegian rocket tests. Living as we do in the time of wars on terror and the steady crumbling of the last superpower standing, it's almost a different world - especially for me, considering that my tenth birthday was in 1992.

"Roachstompers" starts with the 1989 we know and runs off in a direction drastically different from the course history ultimately took. In its universe, the cold fusion process demonstrated by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann in March of that year produced actual, immediate, and reproducible results. The story is set in a darkly futuristic 1998 that bears little resemblance to the one I grew up in, where the Soviet Union still exists and the development of cold fusion has cut the knees off every petroeconomy in the world. Oil can be got at fifty cents per barrel there, but the price was a global economic meltdown that makes the Great Depression look like a warm bath by comparison.

When I first started reading the story, those limited clues I got from the first couple of pages made me think that I was dealing with some kind of alien invasion scenario. Any thoughts I had of good old-fashioned Earth justice were forced to their knees and shot in the neck when, beyond wonderfully dehumanizing terms like "illigs" or the characters' standby, "cucuroaches," it's made clear that the story revolves around a quasi-military unit that exists to keep the southern US border sealed against the armies of desperate souls trying to escape the hell Mexico has become.

The story itself pulls no punches, and is greatly informed by the biases of the protagonist, Captain Laura Hunter, who struck me as familiar when I first read it through. In retrospect Hunter feels like a prototype of Marian Alston, an equally hard-ass, tough-as-nails female military protagonist character that Stirling would introduce nine years later in Island in the Sea of Time.

Still, even though I can accept that the narrator is perched on Hunter's shoulder and giving us a digest of the world as she sees it, I can't help but think that the story is a bit casual in its slaughter of starving Mexican refugees, and in fact it seems a lot like a post-industrial Edisonade. It relies for its conflict upon the same sort of "surrounded by barbarians" mentality that was used with far greater justification in the ISOT series.

Granted, the end of the story wasn't what I was expecting at all, and I like the way Stirling pulls the rug out from under my feet, and "Roachstompers" was a well-written piece of work. If it had ended there, I would have just moved on - but it doesn't end there. The context of reality intrudes. I can't help but be skeeved out every time I think of it - mostly because of an opinion Stirling expressed on the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if, and later ended up defending in a boondoggle of a thread on, with regard to how he might achieve peace in the Middle East.

Date: Fri Jan 22, 1999 5:08pm
Subject: Re: Agree to Disagree

In a message dated 1/22/99 2:41:00 PM Mountain Standard Time,

mralls@w... writes:

Let's say you have a magic button in front of you. If you push it, it will kill every Islamic person (using your definition of Islamic vs post-Islamic) on the planet. Do you push it?

-- we're talking adults here? Hmmm. Well, if it's _male_ adults, like a shot.

The thread in question is available here. Personally, I feel that Randy McDonald's response says all that needs to be said.

I don't think there's much more that can be said - aside from the fact that I don't care what the introduction to Conquistador said - except that I think "Roachstompers" skeeves me out with good reason.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Perils and Prides of Public Domain Photography

I've already mentioned that I like taking photographs. Once conditions get warmer, days get longer, and the environment becomes altogether more amenable for photo-taking, you're probably going to be reminded of that a lot more. You might have seen some of mine already if you read Wikipedia, where I release them under the name GTD Aquitaine. Not that I'm the only GTD Aquitaine on INTERNET; I'm not the only one who fell in love with FreeSpace 2 back in the day.

I release all but a fraction of my photos to the public domain (and those that I don't, I send out under Creative Commons licenses), mainly because I believe that a vital public domain is necessary in the modern age and that it is our responsibility to contribute to it, not gather things up and lock them away. Anyone who comes across a public domain photo of mine can use it for whatever they'd like, and often do.

Recently I came across an article in World News, apparently drawn originally from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, accompanied by one of my photos. Seeing it credited to GTD Aquitaine was rewarding; previously, when I've seen one of my photos used, the user has just cited Wikipedia. Which isn't a problem, but--

The story refers to the closure of Highway 401. The photograph accompanying the release is, however, of Highway 427.

Public domain can make photographs free; the facts will usually cost you extra.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Mighty Atom, King Coal, and the Future of Australia

As far as I'm concerned, the single most pressing problem facing the future is environmental degradation. With the incoming Obama administration in the States looking to take a far more forceful tack on climate issues than did the Bush White House, I'm not quite as pessimistic about the future as I was during the night shift, when the combination of long stretches of time without seeing the sun and a great deal of opportunity to trawl through the Science/Environment sections of the New York Times and BBC News, among others, pushed me into "oncoming envirocalypse" territory.

Not that that's the realm of fantasy; I still have my concerns about the Arctic methane upwellings. Nevertheless, nevertheless--

One of the most significant contributors to climate change is the burning of coal to generate electrical power, and the fact that it is still so widely used indicates the vast degree to which modern civilization remains mired in nineteenth century modes of thought and action. Coal may be cheap, yes, but that's only because its dollar, or euro, or renminbi cost only includes what's needed to take it from a hole in the ground to a roaring furnace. Once it's in the atmosphere, it's someone else's problem.

We've had a solution to this for nigh-on sixty years now, and it's a testament to the short-sighted foolishness of humanity that it has not been implemented on a greater scale. Nuclear power, which according to Wikipedia produced 14% of global electricity in 2007, has always been the red-headed stepchild of the electricity industry. Now that there's an environmental consciousness growing in the West, new desires to Do Something are running up against that incessant buzzing whisper in so many peoples' ears that Atoms Are Evil.

Recently I came across an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, "Clearing the air" by Clancy Yeates, about the problems and possibilities Australia will face as its "addiction to cheap coal" faces the threat of climate change and the opportunities of new sources of power. The article's focus was primarily on renewable energy, solar and wind and the like, and how bringing such installations online in the near future could seriously decrease Australia's dependence on coal and, thus, its environmental footprint. But what I'm more focused on is its omissions.

In this five-page article, in its two thousand, six hundred and ninety-two words, the word "nuclear" did not appear once. Not even in the context of "nuclear power is, of course, no solution for Australia's environmental problems." Frankly I would have preferred that. Kneejerk anti-nuclear sentiment is something I've become used to. Not even mentioning it in an article meant to examine methods of weaning a country off of coal dependency strikes me as a serious oversight.

One of the reasons I enjoy living in Toronto is precisely because it is conveniently located to not one but two nuclear power plants, at Pickering and Darlington. Together with Ontario Hydro's early focus on exploiting the hydroelectric potential of Niagara Falls and, eventually, every single river in the province that could economically be dammed, I can feel confident that any given electrical device I turn on is not powered by coal. I can live with nuclear, because it lets me live with the concept of a future.

No matter what happens, it's unrealistic to think that coal burning won't play a major role in electrical generation for the near future. Nevertheless, it's irresponsible to continue in a state of affairs that sets up the choice between coal and renewables as the only option. Nuclear fission deserves a place at that table.

Urgent Notice to Washington, Moscow, et al.

You can launch the nukes now; civilization has reached its apex. Don't believe me? Check out this demonstration of how "Yakety Sax" and 2x speed makes anything and everything funny.

Video created by, hosted by YouTube, and improved immesurably by the Benny Hillifier.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Creative Chunks: To the Gallows

When you try to establish yourself as a writer, you're going to leave a lot of half-finished fragments behind you as a matter of course, like a trail of footprints wandering from one point to the next in search of a strong tree that could make plenty of firewood or writing paper. This story-fragment, To the Gallows, is one of those. I was originally thinking of it as being part of a larger project, but the research that would have been required daunted me; I may be a history major, but this isn't precisely my area of expertise. I may still yet come back to it, though.

The most important thing, in the end, for any piece of writing is for it to be read. If it's appreciated as well, so much the better.


"To the Gallows"
Andrew Barton

Montreal, Quebec
June 24, 1968

"Vive le Quebec libre!"

Luc Deschains shouted the slogan like a magician's curse at the traitor on the stage. The bastard had some nerve, standing like that in front of the flag like a defender and not a destroyer, hiding behind that smile that made loose girls melt from sea to sea. Quebec wasn't some muddy whore reduced to working on the corner, no matter how much the Anglos drooled at the prospect of bending la belle over the table. The crowd burned with the fury of free men.

A phalanx of policemen stood between Luc and his brothers and sisters in the park and the liars, the cheats, the conquerors on the platform. Their eyes betrayed their loyalty, no matter the uniforms they wore. There was no place in a free Quebec for dogs that would defend its enemies from the people. Behind their nightsticks, the black-suited jackals must have believed themselves invincible.

"Quebec pour les Quebecois!" There was no one slogan to unify the crowd, though some were shouted louder than most. Luc had drifted into a knot of men and girls, one wearing nothing but a painted fleur-de-lys on her pleasant chest, the rest of them hoisting flags and shouting those four words that had ended a long nightmare. "Vive le Quebec libre!"

He had been there when they rose, when the great Charles de Gaulle lifted the Quebecois from slumber. Only the moans of his girlfriend in bed sounded sweeter than the roar of that crowd had, a taste seasoned when that bumbling fool Pearson practically tripped over his bowtie to cast the President out, as if his blessing could be boxed and buried. All Quebec needed was one of his kind, a man unafraid to fight.

Hours slipped by in the heady, sweating fog, so many hours that Luc could not believe the sun hadn't yet risen. He saw rows upon rows of vultures' beady eyes on the stage now, already flush with the prospect of getting fat on the province's bloated corpse. Once they maneuvered the traitor into power, once Ottawa set to work convincing the world that Quebec was a simple accident of history, they would feed.

"To the gallows! To the gallows!"

The crowd knew the price of silence, of quiet obedience. They threw rocks and bottles and flaming Molotov cocktails into the ragged ranks of the police and over their heads to the puppetmasters on the stand, a reckoned vengeance for Agincourt and Crecy. The police fought - they were not all empty suits of armor, at least - and the politicians ran and held their heads beneath their arms, as if trying to suck their own cocks.

All except him. He sat on his chair as solid as a statue, with not as much as a flicker of fear for the television cameras to send flying. There was Quebec's general, there was her President to equal de Gaulle. What a shame it was that he hoisted the flag of the oppressor.

The tip of Luc's boot found something hard on the ground. A Coca-Cola bottle, hard glass with artistic sweeps and curves, maybe left by thirsty lovers in a more peaceful city. It was heavy in his hand, and he took no more time than necessary to find his aim. It sailed through the air in a beautiful arc, as if all along it had been meant to fly.

Luc Deschains did not think of the police, did not think of the consequences, did not think of any anger other than his own. His only thoughts were of fame, of the respect he would earn among the free men of free Quebec and the dividends it would pay between the sheets, and the perfect trajectory of the empty bottle.

The slim, slick neck left a thick red welt the size of a quarter. It was more than enough to ensure that Pierre Trudeau fell.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Waltzing Matilda...

...may well be one of the most beautiful songs in the English language. It also makes a worthwhile framework for creative workers to repurpose and expand upon!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Return to Luna Reviewed at POD People

Huzzah - my constant Google-trawling has paid off, and I have at last found a review by Chris Gerrib at the POD People weblog of Return to Luna, in which my story "The Platinum Desolation" appears. Give it a look!

Monday, January 12, 2009

What Will Save the Suburbs? Nothing, I Hope

Today's New York Times has a piece by Allison Arieff about the incipient erosion of suburbia - set off by a combination of the economic recession, last summer's high gas prices, and a growing green consciousness - and how to deal with it. At least, I hope that last one is part of that; I really don't want this point in history to be characterized by the same wasted opportunities as the early 1990s.

When it comes to the issue of suburbs, I'm hardly the least-biased person in the world. Growing up in the cul-de-sac wilderlands north of Toronto gave me a perspective on them which, now that I have the luxury of looking back from an urban apartment, I wish I didn't have. Again and again I hear the old canard that the suburbs grew and endure because parents want to provide a safe environment for their children to grow up, and again and again my response is that the suburbs do no favors to anyone.

Suburbs, in my mind, combine all the disadvantages of urban and rural lifestyles with none of the advantages. They splay out like childrens' doodles over the landscape, heedless of where they're going or what they're replacing, utterly disconnected from their surroundings and the world at large. Back in October, one of my photographic expeditions led me to Old Finch Avenue in extreme northeastern Scarborough, and while I didn't find the Old Finch Avenue Bailey Bridge I did find a suburban landscape that could just as easily have been in Scottsdale. Standing there, among the cookie-cutter houses built to the same half-dozen plans, only the intrusion of a 131 Nugget contradicted the concept that I might walk down one of those winding roads and stumble onto my old home, a hundred kilometers away.

The future has a place for people who want to live at a remove from the hustle and bustle of urban life - that is without question. A small community built around a commuter rail station could provide all the benefits of countryside living with all the advantages of proximity to a major city. The suburban designers' infatuation with rambling sprawl is fundamentally isolating and contributes to the development of an ethos that stresses expansion and consumption in a world where real limits are starting to loom just over the horizon.

If the twenty-first century as a whole has a bright place for suburbs, it can only come after a fundamental reorganization of suburban design principles as they're currently practiced. Otherwise, those endless thousands of clapboard mansions may yet turn out to be built on the head of a pin.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Guelph Sunset

This picture was taken looking southwest from Woolwich Street in Guelph, Ontario on the afternoon of December 25, 2008. I like the way it turned out, and in that spirit, I hereby release it into the public domain, with worldwide application.

So if you live in Guelph and are fascinated by sunsets behind water towers, then... good for you, I suppose.

Perhaps the Introductions Are In Order

I really wanted to be able to skip this.

If you're really lucky, you'll be reading this weblog at some point in the future, when you're already aware of the information I'm about to lay out. Right now, though, I can't take that chance. Look, I know you probably hate infodumps - most people do, including me - so I'll keep it brief. Then I can move on with the meat of it.

My name is Andrew Barton, and after eleven-or-so years of fancying myself a science fiction writer, I became one. My first published story, "The Platinum Desolation," is included in the anthology Return to Luna, published by Hadley Rille Books in December 2008. I'm not stopping there, either. I have very little doubt that this weblog will soon resemble the old Tacoma Narrows Bridge under the weight of the rejections I'll surely pile up for my other stories.

I also practice photography, though Canadian winter has put a real damper on that as of late. Each of the photographs which I take and post here will be released either to the public domain or via a Creative Commons license, as those things are pretty neat. You'll also be able to find ruminations, reviews, and other clips of commentary which warrant the effort of being distilled to their basics and typed up.

I think that's enough for today. I hate being didactic.