Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bison in Spring Mating Plumage Crossing Road

This photo comes from Patrick.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cold Spell

It's five degrees below zero at the moment. Patrick and I went mall walking this morning, then ran errands. Patrick picked up a new pair of glasses he just got made. I got some books at Dreamhaven, one of the two local SF bookstores.

While I was there, I found out Terry Pratchett has an unusual form of early onset Alzheimer's, which is terrible news. He is younger than I am and a wonderful writer. I had been looking forward to one novel by him a year for the rest of my life.

Patrick's comment was, the only possible response to news this bad is to treasure every day, even a day when it's five below.

I finished two stories last week. One is about the Republican National Convention, due to happen in the Twin Cities this fall. I expect it will be a lot of hassle and not worth the money the Cities expect to make.

Anyway, I like the story I wrote, which involves a drunk Republican in Mickey's Diner in downtown St. Paul. My Mickey's is not quite the real diner, which actually is in downtown St. Paul, since mine has aliens, and I don't mean Hispanics.

The other story is one of my Big Mama stories. I started it a fair long time ago, but never could finish it, because I kept trying to figure out a plausible explanation for time travel. I finally decided I couldn't come up with one and skipped lightly over the theoretical physics. The story is a tall tale. It doesn't need good physics.

I also wrote the first few pages of a YA fantasy. I'm not sure about it, but I will keep going for a while and see if I begin to like it better.

This is a lot of writing for me in one week. Last year I finished one story. That's all, though it's a good story.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Ten Things that are Characteristic of a Story by Eleanor Arnason

Another post from the Wyrdsmiths blog. This is a game which Lyda Morehouse found. Can you list ten things which are characteristic of your writing? My reply was:

I'm not sure how far I can go with this, since I am ambivalent about looking closely at my writing...

Ten things that tell me I (and not someone else) wrote a story:

1) It's science fiction or fantasy. Everything I write is science fiction or fantasy, even if it doesn't entirely seem to be.

2) It will be funny. As far as I am concerned, everything I write is funny.

3) There may well be people covered with fur, though I also like feathers and scales.

4) I was writing about medieval fantasy perils in my previous post and came up with dragons and aardvarks. The aardvarks came out of nowhere as I wrote. But they sound funny and not perilous, unless you are an ant. (If you look for the aardvarks now, they are gone. I edited them out.) There must be a technical word for this, created by experts in rhetoric or English Lit: lists which include something that obviously does not fit in and makes the rest of the list look a bit silly. It's a kind of a pratfall, a way of pulling the rug out from my story. I do this a lot, though never completely. A story should be serious as well as funny.

5) There will food and drink.

6) There will be bathrooms.

7) There will lots of words that describe light: gleam, glitter, shine, flash, shimmer, glow...

8) The characters will not fit into their society. Especially, they will not be comfortable with established roles for men and women or ordinary, decent sexual behavior. They will be gay in a straight society or straight in a gay society.

9) The main characters are usually more good than bad, though now and then I try to write a jerk. But mostly I write about people I would enjoy spending time with: smart, verbal, thoughtful, mostly honorable and kind.

10) The protagonist will be alive at the end and able to keep moving on. I don't write sad endings. There is too much sadness in real life.

11) A bonus characteristic. This one really comes from my subconscious. I noticed it years ago and decided, what the heck. The characters I indentify with will have names that begin with E, A, L or N. The reason for E and A is obvious. Why L or N? Sound out Eleanor.

Writers and Angst

This is a post from the Wyrdsmiths blog, where we have been discussing whether writers need to suffer for their art:

I'm different from Kelly and Lyda. For me writing is slow and difficult, and I have a lot of self-doubt. Why am I doing this? is a question I ask a lot.

I started telling stories -- serial adventures -- before I could write. My poor kid brother had to listen to them; and we played an elaborate game with small plastic animals about a society on Mars where there were no humans, only animals. This was a story too. I think it was one I mostly told.

I know I was writing poetry in grade school and probably fiction, though I don't remember doing this. I was certainly writing both in high school. I have kept on writing both my entire life, though with breaks, often long, because I don't find writing easy and am often frustrated with my work.

I guess at this point in my life I would call myself a writer. I wasn't able to do this for many, many years.

I sometimes wonder if I was influenced by the idea of the artist as a person who suffers for his or her art. My father was an art historian, and my mother loved books. I grew up knowing about the avant garde artists and writers of the 19th and early 20th century. These were people who struggled to create a new kind of art, with little support from society at large. The most famous example is probably van Gogh, who suffered hugely and sold only one painting during his life.

My father liked artists and was the chair of a combined art history and studio art department at the University of Minnesota. So I knew artists, both local people and members of the New York school of Abstract Expressionists, who came through town from time to time.

My sense was these were people who worked hard to say something individual and new, and their struggle was not an entirely pleasant process.

So, is my sense that writing is difficult learned? Do I think artists and writers ought to suffer and question, that this is part of the process of making art?

I try not to write the same story twice, and when I master a skill and find that telling a certain kind of story is becoming comfortable, I want to push on and try something new.

I want every story to say something important, that matters to me, and say it in a new way. I never want to write simply for the sake of writing.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Simon Conway Morris

I finished the Simon Conway Morris book. I had wondered all along if he had a hidden religious agenda. He is so insistent that there is not likely to be any life on other planets; and he is so insistent that evolution is not accidental, but rather leads in a certain direction -- toward us. This is the point, it seems to me, to all his arguments about converging evolution. He is arguing that life on Earth is highly constrained. It can only go in certain direction and only produce certain results, and one of these results -- apparently inevitable -- is intelligent life.

In the last chapter, he began to talk about the importance of religion as a basis for morality and how bleak the lives of people like Darwin and Thomas Huxley were, after they realized the full implications of evolution as they saw it, a random process.

I find the bleakness of a universe with no life except life on Earth truly terrifying, but I suspect Conway Morris likes to feel special. He wants evolution to be rare and to have a purpose: him.

Why would a God capable of creating life (and guiding it through a highly constrained evolutionary process) want one miserable planet full of life? Why all those extra stars and galaxies, if the purpose of the universe is us?

And why should morality depend on religion? There are obvious social benefits to people acting morally. Isn't something like altruism or morality likely to appear in a social species? Elephants seem to behave decently to one another. Wolves cooperate. Vampire bats take care of orphans and feed unrelated adults.

Anyway, an unsatisfying book. I don't think he proves his point, and I don't like hidden agendas. He should have said in the first chapter: this is my defense of religion via evolutionary theory.

So, Dawkins does not do a good job of defending atheism, and Conway Morris does not do a good job of defending religion.

Maybe scientists should leave religion to the theologians and philosophers and historians of religion.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Frida Kahlo

There is a show of paintings by Frida Kahlo at the Walker Art Center right now. My brother and I went to it, when he was in town. Going to a museum with my brother is a bonding experience, since we grew up in art museums. In fact, we grew up in the old Walker.

After we saw the show, which was full of people, including people who did not look like the usual Walker audience, we sat down and talked about Kahlo.

My brother felt her work was too didactic: the pierced bodies and the floating uteruses.

I said, what kind of criticism is that? Look at Western art. Most of it is didactic. Look at all the crucifixions. Some of them work as art. Others don't. I reminded him of the Roger van der Weyden crucifixion in the Philadelphia Art Institute, a favorite work for both of us.

We talked a while about why some works of art are so powerful and others aren't, then got back to Kahlo.

I think what my brother meant was, to him her work seemed too obvious and maybe manipulative. He was bothered by the lack of facial expression in her self portraits, which display so many emblems of suffering -- thorns, arrows, her body split open, her organs floating outside her.

Why the lack of expression?

I thought it was because the suffering was physical and chronic. People who are constantly in pain can't cry or complain all the time.

What bothered me about the show is that the labels told us almost nothing about the political and artistic context. Kahlo was more than a suffering woman. She was a fine artist, in the middle of an important artistic movement, and the wife of one of the founders of the Mexican Communist Party, who was also an ally and friend of Leon Trotsky. Did she have no opinions about art or politics?

She was in physical pain. She couldn't have the children she wanted. Her husband was apparently a jerk. Was that the sum total of her life?

If so, why did she get a show at the Walker? Lots of women suffer. The art is what makes her important; and her art comes out of Mexican art at the time, which was inextricably intertwined with politics.

I guess the question I'm asking is, if the show seemed manipulative to my brother, who was doing the manipulating? Kahlo or the show's curator?

There is a big retrospective of her husband Diego Rivera's work opening in Mexico City right now. I'd like to go see it. I will certainly buy the catalog. Patrick and I both fell in love with Rivera frescoes in the Detroit Art Institute. If you put the frescoes together with Kahlo's painting of her miscarriage at Henry Ford Hospital, her bed on a wide flat plain with the industrial skyline of Detroit in the distance, you have an interesting double statement.

What does it mean? The triumph of industry and very personal human pain and loss.

Revera's art is far more heroic than Kahlo's, full of powerful figures, workers working, who act rather than simply endure; but he certainly knew that there was plenty of pain and loss in human history.

I wonder how much you can pull their work apart. He was certainly present in the Walker show, a huge part of her life; and she appears in his art.

Having said this, it's perfectly possible he was a jerk.

And it's possible she was rather too focused on her own suffering. But chronic pain is hard to ignore. I found much of her art moving and beautiful.

The God Delusion

Another book I bought for myself and read is Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, his argument against religion, especially the Abrahamic religions. He doesn't spend any time on Native American or African religions, Hinduism, Shintoism and so on. This make sense. He is talking about the religions he knows.

I was not impressed by the book. He lost me early on when he talked about the Arian heresy, which was a major intellectual conflict within the early Christian church. Dawkins mentions the terms 'substance' and 'essence,' and then dismisses them as if they have no meaning and are just some kind of religious babble.

These are terms which are basic to western philosophy. They come from Plato and Aristotle. 'Substance' is the physical stuff that things are made of, the substratum of existance, and 'essence' or 'form' is what gives a thing an individual shape and character. The substance of a dog is its physicality; the essence of a dog is its dogginess.

(Substance and essence are actually more complex than I make them. Check Wikipedia if you want more detail. You can also find out about Arianism there.)

Now, you may believe that Plato and Aristotle and everyone influenced by them is full of it; but these terms still have meaning, and there is a lot about Western and Middle Eastern thought between 500 B.C. and modern times you will not understand, if you don't understand them.

I don't have much respect for a guy who dismisses ideas without understanding them, especially ideas that came from Plato and Aristotle. Plato was a fine thinker and a great, great writer. Aristotle was a giant in many fields. According to Ernst Mayr, no one surpassed Aristotle as a student of embryology until the 19th century.

Western culture was soaked through by Platonism until recently, and I am not sure it's gone.

I suspect that Platonic idea of form or essence underlies our modern ideas about DNA, which sounds very much like a Platonic form, as many people describe it, including (I think) Dawkins.

Our drive (in physics, for example) to discover the 'true' nature of reality which underlies the reality we experience, sounds Platonic to me.

Plato did not understand change or maybe I should say, he didn't think it was important. Aristotle did, maybe because he studied embryology; and his distinction between in esse and in posse is still useful, at least to me. In esse is what is thing is. In posse is what it has the potential to become. A fertilized human egg is human in posse, but not in esse. This is a very useful difference. If Christianity had retained Aristotelian metaphysics, the pro-life movement would have no intellectual basis.

On the other hand, I think Dawkins raises two interesting questions in his book.

Why do we accord religion a respect we do not accord other ideas? Why can't religious ideas be analyzed and discussed and even dismissed the way other ideas are?

And why do we allow religious ideas a leeway that no other ideas are allowed? Especially, Dawkins asks, who do we allow parents to do things to their kids for religious reasons that might otherwise be considered neglect or abuse?

Why is it okay for the Amish to end education for their kids at 14, when state law says kids must stay in school till 16? (There is an answer to this question, since there was a court case.) Why is it okay to teach kids weird, unscientific ideas, which may limit their ability to survive and advance in modern society?

Doesn't the rest of society have an interest in making sure that kids are well educated?

I guess the final question which Dawkins raises (and does not answer well) is, what is the function of religion? And how does it fit into modern societies?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

January 6

I had relatives in town right after Christmas and am still recovering from eating out a lot and eating too much. 2008 is the year, I swear, when I am going to get regular exercise, eat more wisely, floss my teeth and write. There is a final resolution which is eluding me. Maybe I will think of it.

I got -- and gave -- books for Christmas and bought myself some more books after the holiday. I am trying to be more prudent in how I spend money, maybe that is the final resolution, but I intend to keep buying books and subscribing to magazines. Having reading matter come in the mail is wonderful. Going home with fresh new books is also wonderful.

One of the books I gave Patrick is about the virtual game (or world) Second Life. I read it before he did.

I suspect Second Life is important, and many of us are going to be spending a lot of time in virtual communities in the future. At the moment, I don't know enough to have an opinion and have reached an age when I want to spend as much time as possible in there here and now. This world, the one I am in, seems increasingly precious. I want to savor it. If I need time off, I will read books or go to an occasional movie or art museum.

I am now working my way through a book by the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris. Morris begins his book by suggesting that planets with life are extremely rare, which may be, though I don't think we have enough data yet; and I am going to continue to hope. Morris has moved on to convergent evolution, which I am in favor of, since it allows me to have humanoid aliens.

The guy really does know an amazing amount about biology. Though I prefer a vision -- version -- of the universe that is full of many different kinds of wild and crazy life.

Of course, it's my job as a science fiction writer to create a wild and crazy universe. Conway Morris's job as scientist is to describe reality as he sees it, after study and thought.