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New York, New York!

We spent the week in New York City. Imagine that.

We stayed at Jenny's Mom's house in NJ and commuted in. The drive up on Saturday was hell as my AC couldn't keep up with the heat. That was a mighty hot day.

On Sunday, we went to the East Village to visit shops, as DesignGirl had heard about boutiques but never seen any. While there, we bought her ice cream made on super-cold plates, then scraped up into spiral cylinders. I'm glad that she got to eat. We wrapped up at The Strand bookstore.

On Monday, we woke early for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Jenny was supposed to come along, as she had always missed the Statue of Liberty trips while she was growing up (native syndrome), but her mom needed some logistical help, so she worked through that. DesignGirl and I woke early to catch the first ferry over, slacked about Ellis Island, then hopped over to the Old Lady. We went up the pedestal and looked about, but didn't have tickets to the crown. Quite honestly, neither of us would have made it up those spiral stairs.

I kept missing Jenny as we went through. She would have glommed onto every story, sucking down the milk of human interest until the tits were dry.

On Tuesday, we visited the American Museum of Natural History. They had rebuilt the dinosaur section, very prettily indeed, so I took many pictures. After the dinosaurs, DesignGirl wanted to see the gems and minerals, where she had a geo-gasm looking at everything.

On Wednesday, we visited Coney Island. It felt like a normal beach town to me. We rode some rides but didn't bother with the beach part. We also bought $60 worth of candy from the candy place. Yowsa! I picked up a bag of caramel corn, butterrum Life Savers in a roll (a real roll! I haven't seen one of those in years), and a pack of candy cigarettes. (Eat corn starch ye' political correctness SJF's!)

Thursday we hit the Empire State Building, then a Stars Wars costume exhibit, followed by the Lego Store, where DesignGirl got something great. Jenny split off and went to the cloisters.

By the time that we got home on Friday, we had three cups of blueberries waiting for us. Yeesh!

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Death's Master (1979)

Death's Master (1979) by Tanith Lee (#2 in the Flate Earth series) challenged my ability to review books. How do I even summarize this work? By all rights, this book shouldn't work, but it does, which makes it absolutely fascinating to me. Thinking through everything that I've read, I can't say that I've ever read anything like this book. It's not for everyone. This work can throw you just as easily as it can capture you. It requires something of you, the reader, if only the dedication to reach the end.

This book follows a biography model, following the life of Simmu, from the inexplicably strange circumstances of his birth, through his childhood, adventurehood, his crowning successes, and through to his final fate. While following this story, we also follow the story of several other characters closely associated with Simmu, such as Zharak.

Overall, the writing proceeded thickly and formally, feeling mildly archaic even for 1979. Fortunately, Tanith knows how to work with this thickish prose, pulling it like taffy to extrude the tale. And what an improbable tale it is, full of overpowered characters who successfully prove that overpowered actions create overpowered results, generating overpowered reactions, which generate more overpowered results, and so one. When the story centers around the fundamental powers of of the universe, such as Death and the Prince of Demons, overpowered ceases to be a meaningful term.

The book is also an "adult" fantasy novel, so sexual situations about. To be clear, the book is not explicit, but it is forthright. It contains sexual situations of all sorts, some of which are gender bending, and some of which are jaw-droppingly outlandish. Lee can and does push sexuality in new and unique directions.

This was my first Tanith Lee. I liked this well enough to read more of this series, but not so much that I'll rush out and buy some right now.

Going to Mecca

So, why exactly do Worldcon panels keep being about the same sorts of things every year? The same eras? The same writers?

I have a theory about this that I call "Going to Mecca." When a muslim goes to Mecca, there's a whole series of ritualized actions that take place, where you stop or throw something or touch something. Each action has a significance. These actions are what makes a pilgrimage to Mecca. Take any out, and you didn't do it right.

You should be ahead of me at this point.

What should a panel at Worldcon be? The analogy is there. Worldcon is a Mecca. To do it right, you must touch the right things at the right time. In this case, touching things is going to the right panels. You started going to Worldcons and cons in general in the 70's, so that suite of panels looks right to you. That's what's supposed to be there. Late on, decades later, you saw other sorts of panels that you dislike about all this other stuff, but that's all new stuff. Its okay if it's there, but it's not the RIGHT stuff.

And so we get major cons where the panels don't reflect any more the diversity and interests of the membership. At one point, back in the 70's, the panels did, but a subtle traditionalism froze the into place. People confused what happens to be right now for what ought to be.

I think that's why we have such a great divide between generations, where some writers are lionized while newer writers (who aren't nearly so new any more) get passed over. The right writers are ritualistically traditional, they are right.

Cool has a generational effect as well. Everyone of a certain generation learns what's cool and what isn't so much so that cool internalizes itself. Everyone (well, "everyone") knows that Heinlein is the best, so why not have a panel? It then becomes a genuine surprise to the panel organizer that Heinlein is now considered sexist and insensitive. When did that happen? "Everyone" still agrees that Heinlein is cool, so the problem must be the agitators. Inside one generation, Heinlein is cool, but two to three SF generations later, and Heinlein is just this guy, you know?

I can get this. I began reading while the cult of Heinlein was strong. He was a giant. How could he not be a giant? But being a giant doesn't mean that you aren't a human, not does require the next generation to consider him a giant. Perhaps the reason to discuss Heinlein is because he wrote some damned interesting books. And the reason to find newer authors for panels is because they wrote some damned interesting books, too. And those new guys who aren't as good as Heinlein, maybe they never intended to do what Heinlein does, but they went off and became interesting in entirely different ways, ways just as significant as Heinlein.

Myself, I am fully comfortable with this theory as I've noted, over time, that fandom has a deep traditional streak. It is hidebound in the very way that it rejects. I've heard too many people deride the "wrong" fantasy and the "wrong" sf. I've seen too many flame wars that boil down to "yes it is" and "no it isn't."

So should we give up? No, of course not. The point of this inquiry was to learn whether they were better ways to modernizing panels.

The first thing to do is to see which panels are most popular. Those are the sorts of panels that fans want, and they vote with their presence. Do more of that! If old sexist men keep filling the room, then put on panels about old sexist men. These panels are not about you, the con runners, but about them, the fans that come. These exist for their benefit, not yours. If pink fluffy bunnies are all the rage, then by God, there will be panels on pink fluffy bunnies.

Is the con in a different country? A different city? Dedicate panels to discovery. Help fans find new authors. As the con moves about, you'll have a tradition that's always breaking new ground.

What's emerging in the field? What are the rages? There should always be panels about that. The future is exciting, isn't it? New rages are fun. What's all the fun about? Embrace the fun.

Remember that there are more categories than greatness or excellent. "Second string fantasy writers of the 1970's: good writers who deserved to sell better" sounds like great fun to me.

Creating structurally wider criteria helps everyone. Welcomes everyone. Hey, let's have a con!
Reading The Stand got me thinking about despicably, the degree to which we find the actions of others selfish and offensive, and generally make use less disposed towards them. It's a useful trick to pantsing (making up the story as you go) because it gives the writer varied elements to use later in the story.

A range of despicably isn't necessarily desirable in all stories, but in some genres, the use of this attribute proves advantageous. The more that people die, the more useful that despicability becomes.

Death in a story provides energy and emotion, and that energy is best off going somewhere, of motivating other characters, and most especially of making the reader feel some emotion.

In a horror story, especially one with multiple characters, the writer begins by killing the most despicable character, the one that you already secretly want to die. The one that you dislike the most. The one who you don't care about. As the worst character dies first, a less horrible character must die next, and so on, creating a vector, a direction, pointing a threat at the most liked character. With each death, your anxiety goes up, while the probability of your favorite character declines because the evil proves itself effective over and over again. Those who die don't find a way out. As they try different things, you slowly become convinced that your favorite character has no way out. Death becomes certain. The climax comes with the favored protagonist striving against the evil.

In a revenge story, the vector points in the opposite direction. To get the maximum satisfaction, the evil begins with the least despicable character (and usually the least competent), proving to us that the revenger has the means to act, and demonstrating that the most despicable character is now under threat. As the story progresses, the acts of revenge grow more satisfying. As the targets become more competent, each success eats away at that character's confidence, until we get the satisfaction of seeing that despicable character break, becoming a pathetic character before their death. The climax is when the most despicable is now alone, his fate certain, and his fall the furthest. In the end, he will be the most pathetic.

The death of the least to the worst also works in heroic fantasy. Often enough, the heroes begin by besting the villain's henchmen as they work up to defeat the villain himself. At the end is always the biggest bad. If you were to turn that around, you would get heroes who defeat the big bad, then feel pettier and pettier as they kill their way down his surviving henchmen. By the time that you get to the lowest one, your heroes wouldn't seem very heroic at all.

War stories provide a third way of killing characters: randomly. The bombs don't care where they fall. Bullets don't choose. In such stories, you see characters who ought to live get shot, and those who should die get promoted. There seems to be no rhyme or reason behind this, and that is, quite frankly, disturbing to the reader. The amoralness of war is emphasized in this haphazard treatment of the living and the dead. The climax in such a story often revolves around saving somebody who is worth saving because you've seen too much randomness.

You can vary this as well. In heroic fantasy, you can kill off the best and most noble characters one by one, working your way down to the least and most conflicted hero, using that energy to slowly transform the least into the best. In this way, you can redeem a villainous character.

A side-effect of this is that a variety of despicableness de-flattens your characters. While this variety doesn't add depth per-say, the varieties of despicableness do add the illusion of depth simply be creating contrasts between characters.

Gardening

We have an increasingly edible yard, which means that the animals eat more of it every year, but we learn how to keep more every year. This year, we did well with the three sisters bed (corn, squash, beans), and we'll hopefully get some results. The tomatoes, on the other hand, got moved to outside the fence and are nibbled continuously, and on top of that, not irrigated. She also pulled out quite a few carrots that have been lingering in the bed since the autumn.

Jenny's led the charge against the weeds that have threatened the apple trees. I foolishly let them bear fruit, which you aren't supposed to do. Both trees seems to have peaked, so picked what we had and then pruned them, because having a tree bend over backwards is very bad for the tree. Normally you prune in the winter, but I didn't want the issue to linger.

To go with the weeded trees was a basement full of cardboard boxes and a driveway full of mulch. We wrapped up that project in the weekend, with Jenny putting down the cardboard and me hauling much. By GOD, I love my new five-prong pitchfork. It's made working with mulch easy-peasy. Jenny saved what wineberries she could, as the birds love to eat them, but they'll come back, along with all the ivy from the neighbor's yard, so we'll get to work at this again next year. Yay?

Meanwhile, the blueberry bed's hit round two of blueberries, and on Saturday, gave us an entire pint. Wow. Seriously. I'm used to half a cup or maybe one cup if things were rocking, but not a pint. Now we have to eat them.

The kale continues to love us, growing with great gusto. This year, Jenny's remembering to cook with the kale, so we're getting lots of good stuff. And the kale keeps growing, so yay.

Over the last few weeks, I've attacked the side of the house. It had gotten overgrown as well, threatening the AC unit. I got over the big stuff, but there's still more to do. I have roots to dig out.

The queen anne's lace continues its hostile takeover of the front yard. Does nothing stop that weed? The stuff is incredible.

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Raisin Bread

Raisin bread's been giving me challenges. When I went to making semi-whole wheat bread, I lost my rising mojo. That also killed my raisin bread mojo. I had to hit the book and the internet to figure out what went wrong. A little investigation revealed that all raisin bread recipes were egg breads. In the end, I went to egg bread, added a couple tablespoons of oil, more sugar, kneaded longer, and added sugar to the yeast while it proofed before it went into the flour. I also returned to two kneads.

This weekend's bread turned out mighty nice, without too many stretch lines along the sides, and came up with a mighty nice bounce once in the over.

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Worldcon Not Schedule

I won't be a Worldcon this year, just as I'm not at Worldcon every year. Money. Time. Ambition. Courage. These are all lacking this year just as every other year.

If I thought that it would matter, I might make the effort, but as I get lost in a sea of people, I don't see how I could make it matter.
The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Children of Methuselah" (1973)

Looking for the backup bridge, our trio breaks into an area designated "off limits." To their bad luck, it's inhabited by a group of overly serious, eternally young psychic children who are running the ship. Given the explanation that the Ark is off course, they believe that our protagonists are lying. Yet even as the boy Captain strives to deal with the intruders, the human culture that they bring with them infects the children, bringing a breakdown in order. In the end, Devon shows that the children aren't running the ship at all, they are merely in an advanced training simulator. The episode ends with the children sealing themselves back in their complex, potential helpers if the trio should ever find the backup bridge.

This script actually works. The writer of this episode did a bang-up job. The script relies on the time tested structure of television drama, often called the 45-and-5. You have three acts of build up and tension raising, one act of conflict, and a final act of wrap-up. At 40 minutes in, the conflict/breakdown between the trio and the children comes to a head, and at 45 minutes, the showdown happens. The last five minutes is cleanup and consequences.

The writer makes good use of all the characters in a way that demonstrates their basic strengths and their basic approaches as a character. Devon is the communicator and the explainer, the one likely to notice the details. Garth is the hothead, the pusher, the one with mechanical sense. He's the one with insight into the strange machinery. Rachel is the human touch, the one able to bridge the human gap where force or logic won't work. She's also the smallest among them, but no less able. Each expresses their role well through the episode, so much so that you can't switch their actions around.

The director did some nice things in this episode bringing out the humanity of our lead actors and the children. Rachel is particularly important in this arena, as its their humanity that the children have lost, and their humanity that will save them. Because she's a woman, she is seen as less of a threat, but her interactions prove far more disruptive than Garth's or Devon's. The children all have numbers, not names. Its she who gives them names. The children don't play. It's she who teaches them games. It's she who subverts the social order.

Time and again, the physicality of the staging brings a depth to the episode that the lines don't necessarily dictate. There no single example that makes or breaks this, but continuous small choices that build up to a coherent whole. There's one scene where the children as still talking as the meeting comes to order, just like kids in a schoolroom. The staging feels mildly chaotic at times, adding to the atmosphere rather than taking away from the story. These kids are machines, but they are not perfect machines. Even the way that the boy Captain slouches in his chair shows this humanity coming through despite the numbers.

This episode, more than any other so far, shows what this show could have been, an echo of what was imagined for the series. This episode shows that the parts are good, the concepts sound, and its ambitions reachable.

In terms of fashion, the Boy Captain had a zipper with a ring as the pull. I remember those kinds of zippers. I had one myself. Indeed, all the hairstyles of the children are early 70's children hairstyles. Nobody got a haircut for this show. What you see is the real deal. I know. I was was there. Those were my peers.

The Stand (1978)

The Stand (1978) by Steven King is tedious. It's really, really tedious. You wouldn't believe how massively tedious it is. You might think that the Lord of the Rings is tedious, but that's nothing compared to The Stand.

The book begins as a 70's style disaster film, with multiple people going about their daily lives as a plague slowly arrives, devastating America. These characters are likable and unlikable to various degrees, and to my displeasure, most of them didn't die. They lived through the world-wide plague. After about three hundred pages of this, King got bored with the story, killed off his developing villain, created a new villain, this one using magic, and rejiggered the story into some sort road novel with pretensions of being a fantasy novel. After that, the characters all converge on Denver to build a new government, and the tedium grew even more tedious. To my own good fortune, my copy was missing pages 1015-1078, which is where the finale happens. I didn't miss anything.

I didn't care for the first hundred pages, cared less for the second hundred, and my lack of care for the remaining book would require frequent repeated profanities uttered in absolute dejection.

A competent editor could have cut the book in half and nobody would have notice. A very competent editor would have rejected the book, thereby cutting its length by 100%.

This is not an indictment against King. He shows repeatedly what a good writer he is all along the way. The problem lies entirely in the rambling story. His characters which work well in horror novels, where people die for petty reasons, and somebody's got to die first, don't work well as apocalyptic survivor characters. I don't want to see these characters survive the world. There are times when their quest for survival goes from one TV trope to another. As for the fantasy element, that feels like an iron on decal, pressed onto the top of the story because he didn't know any other way to get his characters together. The story feels like a bunch of disparate elements pressed together into a mass, pretending that to be a whole, but constantly reminding you that it isn't a whole at all.

Curious about the ending, I went and read a summary, and that summary made me very glad that I was missing that part of the book.