Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jazz on the speakers, a cup of black coffee in hand, a good manuscript to critique, and a warm pair of slippers, all while sitting in a comfy chair in a sun-warmed room. This is not a bad afternoon by any means.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

I caved!

I did not cave to the extent of getting an iPhone (I still refuse to deal with AT&T) but I did get an iPod Touch. I have to say, I really like it. The thing that clinched it was the Kindle app: the text is nice and clear, and while you don't get a lot of it on the page, it's not bad for when I want something to read and a book or my Kindle is not available.

I'm still getting used to the apps, and I was a little nervous that after spending all that money it wouldn't be a major improvement over my iPod nano, but the addition of wifi really makes it worthwhile. I'm hoping also that it will reduce the amount of time I spend on the computer: one of my major time-sinks is opening up my laptop or turning on my desktop "just to check one thing"... and then I'll have been surfing the web for a half hour. So... we'll see how this works!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Public Service Announcement

*cough, cough*
[Microphone feedback]
Is this thing on?
[tap, tap, tap]
(Oh, good.  Ahem.)

Ladies and Gentlemen, can we please stop pretending that the word "data" is plural?

Thank you.  Good night everyone, drive safely.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Hatchet job

Under 20,000 words! Man, that was rough going -- but i think I like the result. I axed a minor subplot, tightened up the beginning a lot, and generally went through slimming down the text. I think that I like the result: I don't think I sacrificed anything I need, and the story is better as a result. I'll do one more run to proofread it, but I think I need to stop touching it now, lest I fall prey to the temptation to keep tinkering. The current wordcount makes it eligible for a few more markets, plus Critters.

Speaking of workshops, I've heard that S&SF, together with Gardner Dozois, are going to be doing an online workshop -- but they announced it months ago, and there hasn't been a peep out of them since. The website's not even live. It'll be a pay workshop, but I would consider it worth a good sum of money to get feedback from Mr. Dozois, who I admire greatly: I've been reading his anthologies for many years, and generally feel confident in buying anything with his name on it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

It's hard to talk or think about detective fiction without bringing up Sherlock Holmes. To be sure, there were detective stories before Conan Doyle came along: Poe, Wilkie, even Dickens came before him, many of them originally inspired by real life detective stories. But Holmes created a mold that would go pretty much unbroken until 1929 by Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest [1].

Conan Doyle pioneered a number of things. Although it would be left to folks like Knox and Van Dine to formalize the idea, the Holmes stories made a stab at the concept of fair play: these were stories based on science, where the reader could in principle solve the mysteries based on the clues therein. Indeed, Holmes was himself a published author of various criminology pamphlets, and was continually performing experiments to find ways to further the art, and was said to be based on Dr. Joseph Bell.

He also introduced the, er, Watson: realizing that a story written from the point of view of the Great Detective would be insufferable (not to mention not very suspenseful, though he pulled it off a couple times later in his career) this viewpoint character was added. One important point that's often lost is that John Watson was not dumb at all, he was a successful physician, after all. A lot of the impression of stupidity comes from the framing story, that of Watson retelling the story afterward for publication in a way intended to highlight Holmes's genius.

Lastly, although the stories drip with Holmes-worship, Conan Doyle was careful to make his detective distinctly imperfect. His personal habits include slovenliness, drug use[2], and playing the violin at all hours of night. Moreover, he suffered for his perfection, having a personal life almost devoid of anything but work. This notion of the flawed genius is repeated very often in detective fiction: Hercule Poirot's fastidiousness, Nero Wolfe's obesity and foul moods, Peter Wimsey's obnoxiousness (that one might have been unintentional, actually), and more recently Adrian Monk's crippling phobias and Gregory House's general personality.

With all that in mind, I recommend the following short movie from Hulu, The Many Faces of Sherlock Holmes, which includes old interviews with Conan Doyle himself (also features Christopher Lee, who's definitely styling):

[1] Red Harvest, by the way, would later (by way of a film adaptation) be the inspiration for Akira Kurosawa's classic samurai flick Yojimbo, which in turn inspired Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, which spawned pretty much the whole spaghetti western genre, plus Clint Eastwood's career. If you watch these two movies, you'll get a lot more of Quentin Tarantino's references. Red Harvest also happens to be a pretty good book, with the detective playing the new role, that of gritty avenger: this idea in turn gave rise to, among many others, the Batman.
[2] I am fond of repeating Holmes's saying, "The best rest is a change of work" and then noting, "But then again, Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine addict." To be fair to Mr. Holmes, cocaine was at the time considered something of a wonder drug (advocated by none other than Sigmund Freud on behalf of Merck), and he did eventually kick the habit.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Fair Play

I've spent a lot of time thinking about detective fiction lately. I'm an unabashed fan of Golden Era detective stories: you know, the ones with the brilliant detective who goes to an English country house and discovers that the doctor killed the matron of the family even though everyone says it's either the butler or some mysterious outsider. Agatha Christie is widely regarded as the queen of the format, and remains one of the best-selling English-language authors ever. If you're going to strike up a literary conversation with a stranger, you're statistically better off bringing up Hercule Poirot than Harry Potter.

But there are Commandments to be obeyed when writing GE-style fiction! Knox's list, as posted in Wikipedia, is pretty useful. Reasonably applicable to sci-fi mysteries, too. I'll annotate with my thoughts.
  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know. Agatha Christie famously broke this one in a book that a lot of people think was a total cheat. What Knox is getting at, I think, is that the reader shouldn't be coerced into identifying with the criminal. For a sci-fi story this has a different reading: it is traditional in these works to have a character stand in for the reader. Knox would say that this character should not be the killer.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. This holds true, of course, for science fiction, but I'd go further: any science related to the murder itself ought to be impeccable or the story will feel like a double cheat. I've never seen this broken in a way that was done well: this may very well be the one truly unbreakable rule on this list. A number of excellent stories have had the appearance of breaking this rule, right up until the last page, but these days you'll just invite unflattering comparisons to Scooby Doo.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable. My take on this is that the reader deserves to know the lay of the land as soon as possible. One twist on this, says Mr. Knox, is acceptable in the name of an interesting plot, but more than one wears thin. I'd go so far as to say that any such cartographical twist ought not be introduced after the first two-thirds of the story. As far as science fiction goes, I think this can be extended to the laws of physics and the rules of the milieu as well: all of a sudden faster-than-light travel turns out to actually be possible? OK, there's your one allowed "secret passage," good luck with it. But there's a caveat...
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. This one's a lot more important in sci-fi, I think. Part of fairness is understanding what's possible. But also, these things let the readers off the hook, lets them say, "Oh, I had a good excuse not to get that." Rubbish! This gets back to #3, in terms of knowing what's possible. One twist is fine, but it had better not be the key to the whole mystery!
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story. Like the man says, no Chinaman. Er, wait. How about, no inscrutable foreigner who the audience simply can't relate to, and automatically suspects? (Aliens might well apply, depending on milieu) Even then, this is kind of a lame rule. I'd rephrase it, "No Chi -- er, no inscrutable foreigner should be the killer" Otherwise the author is pretty much let off the hook for a believable motive, and the reader's only clue will be simple xenophobia. Then again, the presence of the Chinaman can't be an excuse not to cast doubt on some other character.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right. This one holds up pretty well, but is damned hard to pull off. This commandment is most often partly broken in the "Dimwitted assistant accidentally says something that puts the detective on the right track" trope. Watson did this, Captain Hastings did this, Magersfontein Lugg did this, countless one-appearance befuddled Scotland Yard detectives did this -- and then were obliged to feel good about having contributed! This trope can be done well, especially if it is a way of giving an extra clue to the reader, but often is not, and just seems like an unfair insult to the poor benighted Dr. Watson.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime. This is related to the first commandment, as the detective is also often a focus for audience sympathy. This is not to say, however, that the detective must not commit a crime, just not the crime being solved. Otherwise you're just toying with your readers, making them play catch-up.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover. This is an important one, and so often broken. The clues don't have to be declared in a way that highlights them ([BLINK]CLUE HERE!!![/BLINK]), but the reader should have access to all the information the detective does, at about the same time (if not more and earlier!) Context is key during an investigation: you'll read an interrogation differently if you already know that the suspect's alibi has been blown. If the detective merely suspects something, however, that information can be safely kept. As far as science fiction goes, that means that relevant science and facts about the milieu have to be trotted out as early as possible. It's not fair for a detective to sit and interrogate someone who obviously doesn't know how anti-gravity works and not clue in the reader.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader. If you're going to have such a character, he needs to be a comfort to the reader, as a companion and guide through the universe being inhabited. Any story with a Watson tends to result in a dozen put-downs: if Watson's ahead of the reader, those are going to sting. This is not to say that Watson should not have information in his own right! Just that any information he has (such as resulting from his medical training) should be provided quickly and clearly to the reader. Having a Watson who knows the milieu well can be a real benefit in a science fiction story, but I would say that there's a serious risk of being ham-handed here, overwhelming the reader with exposition. Tread lightly!
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. Ditto clones, holograms, and someone time-traveling from the future back to his own timeframe.
If you read through that list thinking, "Argh! I can think of a dozen potential stories that break this rule to result in a good mystery!" then rant about it here, then go write that story! The rules aren't hard and fast, and I believe that Agatha Christie went out of her way to break every single one. Like many rules related to writing, the key is not to avoid breaking the rules, but to only do so explicitly and with understanding of why they are there.

I'm a bit too tired to go into Van Dine's 20 commandments in this much detail, not least because there's so much overlap. A few do stick out, though:
  • There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much bother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. This one makes me laugh, and yet it does give me pause. Grand larceny plots (jewels, natch) are a favored exception to this rule, and yet it's hard to imagine this translating well in a future society. The scarcity and value of physical belongings may seem odd, even tawdry, in many possible settings. If the victim's response to the loss of a diamond the size of a bowling ball ought to be, "Damn, I'll have to grow another one. At least my poor aching back will get a week's rest." then grand larceny may not work. Grand larceny has to be really ludicrously grand for this to work in many milieus. And of course, "Recover the secret files!" plots (except maybe blackmail) are in many ways already outdated: cats leap out of their bags and simultaneously pop out a million kittens these days. Also: be careful in choosing your metaphors. Moving on.
  • A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion. No robot killers, unless you're Asimov. And, as I recall, not even then.
  • Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds. Agatha Christie famously broke this one in The Big Four, and it was pretty much her worst book ever, by an enormous margin. This notion that the murderer ought to be individually culpable can be broadened in a science-fiction to include, for example, the Borg. The military and government tend to be far more sinister in the sci-fi tradition than in Golden Era detective fiction, or Van Dine would probably have included them as well.
  • A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude. This one is a challenge to the science fiction author, who must carefully weigh the needs of the milieu. If the setting is so cliched that the reader won't need much introduction, then you may lose that reader for whom the science is first and the mystery second. On the other hand, if the setting is so outlandish that explaining it takes forever, your story might only progress at a snail's pace.
Of course, in all of these rules, there is one unspoken: The story must make sense. The murder method may need to be novel and clever indeed to fool the forensics tools available to a 2Nth-Century detective! John W. Campbell thought it impossible, only to be proved wrong by Isaac Asimov. But that's another post.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Hard Part, V - Hack 'n' Slash

I've managed to shave about a thousand words off the current draft, down to 21k. Man, that is hard work: I spent an hour reworking and refactoring one section, only to save ten words when all was said and done. I think I've identified a subplot that can be dropped, though: my protagonist sets a trap for his quarry through the use of a light sensor, but in retrospect all that does is further highlight a red herring. In a novel, that would be good. In a short work, I don't need it. Maybe I'll be able to reuse that one later.

Still, that won't save me a thousand words. Something must be done. I could potentially get rid of the entire subplot of the flask, but that makes me uneasy -- I'll produce a draft without it, maybe, and see how it reads. (Besides, this lets me try out some of the more unusual features of Scrivener, which has so far proved to be an excellent tool.)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ridiculous Gadget Lust

Someone give me an excuse to buy one of these mini-monitors, please? They would be pretty awesome for gameplaying, or watching a show on Hulu or Netflix while I'm doing work on the main monitor...

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Google Scholar

... is an absolute goldmine for anyone interested in writing science fiction. The story I'm working on takes place on a tidally-locked planet: that is, where the planet's rotation has slowed/advanced due to gravitation so that one side of the planet always faces its sun. (Like the moon with respect to Earth, except that the planet's "dark side" really is dark)

A quick Google Scholar search turns up a ton of information; I need to look up this fellow Manoj Joshi and see if I can pick his brain. In one of his papers there's an interesting discussion of likely weather patterns. Giant permanent hurricane on the sunward side? Awesome. And convenient.

EDIT: I notice that this entry gets a lot of hits courtesy of -- Welcome to my friends in Korea! I'm curious what it is that you're looking for that brings you here, and whether I can help out somehow. (Or does Google simply place this post on the first page of results when you're looking for information on Google Scholar?)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Real Robot Facts (also fun)

Something like 50% of the people who come to this blog are searching for "robot facts" and getting a joke post from earlier. That's... kind of embarrassing, actually. Here's some more useful stuff if you want to learn about the state of robotics:

Fact #1: Japan has the coolest robots in the world. Dr. Hirose is the guy to look at, his lab produces robot snakes that are just awesome. I first came upon his work at a symposium for search and rescue robotics at NIST, where his students had a 3m-long remote-controlled robot snake for use in searching deep rubble piles. You could spend all day looking at the videos on his page and still not see it all -- if your time is a little more limited, at least watch the swimming snake bot video.

Fact #2: One of the smallest robots in the world was built by a classmate of mine at Dartmouth. They rely on having a specially-designed platform that delivers voltage levels that not only power but steer them using alternating strips of conductive material. By raising and lowering the relative voltages they can not only power one tiny little robot, they can cause its arm to stick to the surface, making it pivot (A high voltage causes it to snap downward, making use of physical forces normally too small to notice, then another reversed voltage snaps the arm back so that the robot can continue on)

Fact #3: People have more senses than they think. Proprioception in particular is interesting: it is basically the sense of where your body is with respect to yourself, and lets you do things like touch your nose with your eyes closed. Like your other senses, it can be dulled by alcohol, hence that legendary road-size sobriety test. This can be devilishly difficult for a robot -- the more limbs, the harder. Trying to calculate where the head of that snake robot is from the tail would be a formidable task if you're relying on its internal sensors alone! Sensors, like human senses, have errors that accumulate.
Related to that is the concept of dead reckoning. Try this experiment: stand with your toes to a wall, and shut your eyes. Take two steps backward, then two steps forward. You can probably manage to hot give yourself a bloody nose with two steps. Now try it with five steps (you might want a pillow in front of your face or a friend you can trust) This is a good example of the accumulation of error, and is why your Roomba vacuum cleaner can't just retrace its steps to get back to its base.

Fact #4: Because robots are being proposed for wide use in search & rescue, extraplanetary exploration, and simple patrols, there's a great deal of interest in a subject called SLAM: Simultaneous Localization and Mapping. Basically, this is the art of turning a robot into a cartographer. SLAM requires using all of a robot's sensors to figure out its pose as precisely as possible, "pose" meaning the location, orientation, and position of every part of a robot with respect to itself, to its surroundings, and (in a very interesting case) other robots on its "team". Sebastian Thrun wrote a lengthy survey paper on the subject that I still refer to from time to time.

I'd be happy to expand on these if there's interest.
(Edit: A recent post on the development of deceit in swarm robotics might be of interest.)

The Hard Part IV - Strike One

Well, F&SF doesn't want it. Fast turnaround, I'll give them that.

I'm not sure where to go from here. I've shown it to about a dozen or so of my friends so far, of whom two have read it, and the only editor to touch it rejected it without useful comment. This is not exactly a stellar record for something that I'm hoping that thousands of people will read and enjoy. All the advice at this stage is to put it back in an envelope and send it on to the next market, but that's under the assumption that there are plenty of markets for the work, and there aren't.

I think the plan will be to do another round of revisions, and maybe look into an online workshop like Critters. I think that it needs to be shorter before I attempt to send it to Analog, which I think is the next stop for this beast.

Edit: One point that needs clarification: First, I am NOT, NOT, NOT unhappy with any of the people who got copies and didn't read it or didn't comment: the whole point of the exercise was to see whether people would pick it up, read it, and like it. 2/10 is a datapoint, not a disappointment. (Well, it's a disappointment, but in the story, not in the readers)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Columbo meets The Prisoner?

I'm a big fan of the show Columbo -- Peter Falk was just brilliant in that show. I just watched an extraordinary episode, though, Last Salute to the Commodore, directed by Patrick McGoohan, a repeat guest star on that show. This was a distinctly bizarre episode in a lot of ways, a lot of odd motifs going on, particularly related to volume: a great scene with Columbo shouting over machinery, and a lot of singing/whistling, over-loud laughter. Columbo also had great fun invading personal space: particularly in the scenes with the over-stuffed car and the telephone call. On top of all that, he had not one but two sidekicks! (There's another, more significant, unorthodoxy about the episode, but it comes later on and I'd hate to spoil it) Other than the departures from the usual formula, though, it was a decent Columbo mystery: he pulled a lot of the same tricks, including experiments to figure out how things were done, trying to get the murderer to explain at length how it "must have been done", etc. It's just... I had the distinct impression that the cast was somewhat tipsy through the whole thing, which is what prompted me to look up who the director was, at which point it all become clear.

If the name McGoohan rings a bell, by the way, then you've probably seen his short series The Prisoner, with which this episode has a lot in common. The Columbo episode wasn't quite as surreal as The Prisoner, but a lot of the same elements were there, especially the laughter motif. If you haven't seen The Prisoner, I'm not sure I can recommend it without reservations, not least because I just can't recommend watching the last episode, which I think was horribly botched. But it might be worth seeing before the miniseries remake that's slated to come out this November.

And if you do watch The Prisoner, go back and watch Columbo Season 5.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Props where they are due

By the way, as several who know me also know Shweta Narayan, you should also know that she's a very good writer, and has had the good taste to submit to Strange Horizons. Last week they published her story Charms, and earlier this year Nira and I. Both are fantastic pieces and should be read.