Saturday, January 22, 2005

Ranting in Others' Blogs

My friend Madeleine Robins posted a comment in her blog about how an international language code system used by librarians now includes a coding number for Klingon. (See "The Library of Congress" at Mad presents this as kind of neat, or at least a bit cute, and I made a long curmudgeonly post that probably seems a bit ungracious. Imagine someone being asked in a friend's living room what he thinks of some gewgaw his host has, and appalling her by launching into an extended screed about how collecting those gewgaws
damages the ecosystem or encourages the further exploitation of a subjugated culture? You know: the guy may be right, but it wasn't exactly the place.

So let me move my post here, where people can comment at will. A critique of the political and moral implications of Star Trek may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, but I am convinced that treating this stuff as silly but innocuous simply gives it a free ride.

Here is the post:

The fact that this or that activity has now been done in Klingon is the cute furry creature of contemporary culture -- whenever you are told of it, you are expected to smile and say, "Aww." Hamlet has been translated into Klingon? Aww. There is now a Klingon Language Institute? Aww.

Since one of the most ethically offensive things about Star Trek was its assumption that everything can be judged by our culture's values, a supposedly alien language that in its structure and syntax resembles modern European languages more closely than most non-European languages do is a pretty clear sign that its creators don't wish to conceive of anything in their fictive universe that our cultural mindset doesn't allow us to readily comprehend.

To shift franchises, do you remember the Ewok song that is played over the credits at the end of The Return of the Jedi? It's just a dumb little song, but despite the nonsense lyrics (its syllables comprising western European phonemes and intonation), the song sounds a lot less alien than, say, a Balinese one. This may sound priggish, but I find this refusal to dramatize anything as truly strange (even if something is supposed to be unfathomable and scary, it is presented in familiar terms) a piece of moral and ethical complacency, to put it nicely. (Less nicely, its racist ethnocentrism, used to justify imperialism.)

The original Star Trek was all about how funny foreigners (aliens) are, how silly their inability to run their own societies, which the Federation (essentially all white male humans) must step in and fix for them. Star Trek: The Next Generation was a bit less overtly imperialist: in perfect Eighties manner, it was all about validating one's feelings. The inferior societal values of the aliens (Klingons especially) were to be treated with compassion, rather than a punch in the face from James T. Kirk. That really doesn't make it much better.

So, yes: Klingons? Aww. But I can't join in the general fuzzies.

Monday, January 17, 2005

"A Poem is Never Finished, Only Abandoned"

The proofs of Arabian Wine sat on my desk for a week before I began to look at them, which was a mistake. Proofread closely, they disclosed dozens -- eventually a couple hundred -- of needed fixes, from a (very) few errors introduced by converting files into page proofs to grammatical and other errors that nobody caught and stylistic revisions that, seen in the proofs' attractive design, seemed quite urgent. When I consider the many drafts and dozens of careful readings, it is disconcerting how many obvious glitches would suddenly leap out at me, as though they had been clever enough to hide all this time.

I asked to see the final pdfs -- those with the last stage of corrections incorporated -- and in addition to finding a few slips in the corrections process, I was eliminating anachronisms and infelicities right at the very end.

Today the book is out of my hands, and I will return to the novel in progress tonight. (Too many kids underfoot on this holiday to get work done before then.) I hope I don't see more errors in the finished book.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Jacket Copy

I received the proposed jacket copy for Arabian Wine. It seemed a bit flat, so I rewrote it, producing this:

It is 1609, and the great Republic of Venice is showing unmistakable signs of decline. Matteo Benveneto, younger son of a once-powerful merchant family, plans to restore his city to glory by cornering the market in caofa, the hot beverage enjoyed everywhere in the Muslim world but still known in Europe only as “Arabian wine.” While his business associate seeks to develop a steam-powered engine before the Turks and the Dutch makes increasing inroads on Venetian trade, Matteo unleashes the wonders of coffee on the citizens, cultural arbiters, secret police, and foreign visitors of Venice, where everything goes except when it doesn’t, and negotiating the line between triumphant innovation and social disruption is fraught with unusual peril.

An exhilarating novel of caffeine appreciation, scientific upheaval, domestic surveillance, and the shock of the new, Arabian Wine offers a lush and sensuous portrayal of a world in transition -- a witty, high-spirited and ultimately moving tale of brave resolve and entrenched resistance in a world where East meets West and the future of civilization seems, as always, up for grabs.

My publisher, however, says "Nice try."

Bound for Glory

I have been correcting page proofs of Arabian Wine, an interesting process. Long ago -- though within memory of this middle-aged writer -- proofs (I can even remember galleys, but never mind that) were full of misprints because they had been set in type (or, later, keyboarded in) by someone working from one's copyedited manuscript. Now they are always taken directly from one's computer files. You may find conversion errors -- em-dashes seem especially prone to transferring wrongly -- but no printer's errors.

This means that you largely use the opportunity to catch your own infelicities or make tiny revisions. It is probably good that you can do this, because books set up directly from the author's files tend increasingly not to have been adequately copyedited, often (especially with small presses) not at all. My text has been read carefully and repeatedly by a dedicated publisher who loves the book, but he isn't a trained copyeditor -- neither am I! -- and I found tiny slips and inconsistencies (such as a pronoun mixup in a scene of coffee preparation regarding which servant was grinding the beans and which was setting out the cups) in scenes I had drafted and read carefully dozens of times.

Mostly, though, one makes tiny revisions -- what used to be called AAs, author's alterations, and frowned on by managing editors, who wished the author only to fix misprints on the galleys. Too many AAs and you would be charged for them; old book contracts specified this. I have been making lots of small improvements, essentially (I know) because it is no longer in my power to make large ones. Each pass through the book takes longer, because I am trying to fix things too subtle or difficult to manage the previous time.

In the middle of this last night I got a call from Henry Wessells, the book's publisher, who came home to find a box of bound galleys on his porch. Hey nonny! My corrections won't get into the version that will go out to writers being approached for blurbs (book production rarely allows that), but the idea of bound galleys -- they are actually bound proofs; there are no true galleys any more -- with the handsome cover gave me a small lift in those low-blood-sugar evening hours.

Finished book in March.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Liberals Aren't the Victims

A link took me to the Tarantula Brothers Emporium (, where left-wing bumper stickers and T-shirts can be bought.

I perused BUSH LIED, SOLDIERS DIED and HELP! I'M TRAPPED IN A RED STATE! and WAKE UP AND SMELL THE COFFINS (with an image of an American-flag-draped coffin) and I HAVE NO PRESIDENT, but felt finally unhappy with all of them, and wondered why.

Eventually it occurred to me: even the angriest of these messages are emphasizing American losses in Iraq, as though the measure of the calamity is number of dead U.S. soldiers. Even I HAVE NO PRESIDENT, which I like, speaks to American progressives's sense that they have been wronged.

The real victims of the Bush presidency's imperial ventures are not U.S. soldiers or domestic liberals. The real victims are Afghani and Iraqi civilians, dead by the hundreds of thousands.
If I designed a bumper sticker, it would say AMERICANS TORTURE PRISONERS or AMERICA HAS DEVASTATED IRAQ. The needless deaths of a thousand American soldiers -- and the maiming of many thousands more -- pale beside this greater enormity.

I feel very strongly about this.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Great Hamlet Dream

I had a dream last night -- it may have been a half-dream, as it was actually morning and I was nearly awake -- in which Hamlet had a twin sister, and they were shipwrecked. Weird bits of Twelfth Night conflated with Hamlet, Illyria superimposed upon Denmark, and some entanglement of Feste and the Grave-digger -- not Feste tossing up the skulls, which would be easy enough to envision, but something more elusive (or perhaps just forgotten).

I don't know whether this is a million-dollar idea sent down as a gift from the Great Unconscious, or a bit of codswallop washed up by the oil slicks of sleep. I think I have actually had this dream or half-dream before, and I remembered or recreated it. Obviously it resonates with something in my head, but not necessarily anyone else's.

Return of The Silver Metal Lover

I do not believe I have ever read anything by Tanith Lee. A friend of mine lent me her first novel, The Birthgrave, not long after it was published, and I thought its opening chapter so inept that I set it aside. She went on in the late seventies to become a prolific DAW author, whose books (in the late seventies you could still pick up and look at almost every SF title to appear on the newsstand) seemed to be aimed at a different readership than me. Probably I have read a short story or two, since they have been widely anthologized, but I don't remember any.

I know that her early novel The Silver Metal Lover found a large audience, and inferred that it was an SF novel (most of her fiction seems to be fantasy, perhaps sometimes with SF rationales) that also worked as a romance novel. Friends (all women) have told me that they had read it in high school or college, or that it was a guilty pleasure for them: a novel that got past their literary sophistication. I believe that Maureen McHugh has said that her Nekropolis was informed by the effect The Silver Metal Lover had on her.

Well, a few weeks ago Bantam sent me the galley of Metallic Love, a sequel to The Silver Metal Lover. (Forthcoming, it says, in March.) Evidently the original book, despite its popularity, eventually went out of print with DAW, and Bantam reissued it. I'm not going to read the new novel unless I read its predecessor (which I have no plans to do), but the galley is interesting. The back pages include an excerpt from The Silver Metal Lover, and the book's sell line is: Here is Jane's Story -- the Story that changed Loren's life. Now, let it change yours. It seems safe to say that such a line could only have been crafted with female readers in mind.

Here are the opening two sentences of Metallic Love, each its own paragraph:

"You're not going to like me.

"I apologize for that."

This seems to signal very strongly that the novel is aimed straight at an almost exclusively female readership, one whom it promises intimacy of a familiar kind, nothing surprising or disrupting. (The rest of the brief opening section, all told in quite short paragraphs, reinforces this.) Genre writing, in other words. A genre book that, in the manner of genre, is aimed at existing receptors, not at offering something new. And these receptors -- though I am very familiar with genre SF -- are all angled in a way that they just miss me.