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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in vernor vinge (2)


In Which We Iterate Upon Ourselves

To Think Of While Writing

Setting it down is a difficult part, but not the difficult part for the writers who speak below. There is a world that surrounds what we read, and our inquiries into is are so often completely inadequate. Not the how and why of the creative act, but what remains after the writing has been consumed and forgotten like any other artifact.

In a sense there is an existence beyond the page, but it could never really compare.

Vernor Vinge

It was 1962. I was a senior in high school, and I wanted to write about the first man to have a direct mind-to-computer link. I even thought I might be the first person ever to write of such a thing. (In that, of course, I was wrong - but the theme was rare compared to nowadays.) I worked very hard on the story, applying everything I knew about writing, I put together a social background that I thought would make things interesting where the story sagged: cheap fusion/electricity converters had been invented (that worked at room temperature!), trashing the big power utilities and causing a short term depression. And of course, there would be experiments with chimpanzees before the IQ amplifier was tried on my human hero.

Having thought things out, I described the plot to my little sister (a tenth-grader). She suffered through my endless recounting, and then remarked, "Except for the part about the chimpanzee, it sounds pretty dull." What a comedown. Still… she had a point.

Diane Williams

Very early on, I had a vision of excellence and a sense of responsibility of monstrous proportions.

It is best if no one ever sees me again. (You will thank me.)

I will not go to see someone just because he or she is inconveniently located.

And, if you do that thing again, evil people will be ruined completely. Good people will feel great. Springtime will span the year because that's my decision. Anyone who would have preferred some other season may feel a not-so-serious mistake has been made.

When the good people begin their lavish new life, they will be especially indebted to Ira, who will provide everyone with a set of easy instructions to follow so everything turns out all right for them. Oh, they will be indebted to Ira.

I used to see a lot of this one woman. Ira will take care of her, because I've had it up to here.

Now, do you understand?

Hart Crane

For some time past I have been seeking employment in New York, but without success so far. It's the usual problem of mechanical prejudices that I've already grown grey in trying to deal with. But all the more difficult now, since the only references I can give for the last two years are my own typewriter and a collection of poems.

I am, as you probably recall, at least avowedly - a perfectly good advertising writer. I am wondering if you would possibly give me some recommendations to the publicity department of The Metropolitan Opera Company, where I am certain of making myself useful. I was in New York two days last week, trying to secure emplyment as a waiter on one of the American lines. I found that I needed something like a diploma from Annapolis before hoping for an interview.

A few years ago I registered with the Munson Line with reference to my qualifications for a particular position which every ship includes - that of "ship's writer" or "deck yeoman": but I always found that such jobs were dispensed to acquaintances of the captain or to office workers, and that my references were never taken from the file. I am not particular what I do, however, so long as there is reasonable chance of my doing it well. The Aeneid was not written in two years, nor in four.

Robert Creeley

You know the way people say we all have a story within us - something specific in our lives that would, if we could only get it said, be something worth hearing. That may well be true but I don't think art is particularly involved by it. Writing, for example, is an activity dependent on words as material. It may be felt that it matters what they "say" but far more decisive is the energy gained in the field or system they are used to create. In like sense, the "Chef's Special" may sound good to you - but it may be awful to literally eat, and you won't know what it is until someone who does know tells you.

Time is either an imagination or else a phasing inherent in the system, organic or inert (including abstractions). What is your life that you're going to write it down, or make films of it, or whatever it is you had in mind. The one thing clear about your life is that you are living it. Whitman was quick about it, saying, "Who touches this book touches a man."

Mavis Gallant

I still do not know what impels anyone sound of mind to leave dry land and spend a lifetime describing people who do not exist. If it is child's play, an extension of make-believe - something one is frequently assured by persons who write about writing - how to account for the overriding wish to do just that, only that, and consider it as rational an occupation as riding a racing bike over the Alps? Perhaps the cultural attaché at a Canadian embassy who said to me "Yes, but what do you really do?" was expressing an adult opinion.

The impulse to write and the stubbornness needed to keep going are supposed to come out of some drastic shaking up, early in life. There is even a term for it: the shock of change. Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams.

The first flash of fiction arrives without words. It consists of a fixed image, like a slide or (closer still) a freeze frame, showing characters in a simple situation.

Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

Mario Vargas Llosa

If the words and the structure of a novel are efficient, and appropriate to the story that the novel intends to make persuasive, this means that its text is perfectly balanced; theme, style and points of view are so perfectly harmonized, and the reader is so hypnotized and absorbed by what is being told, that he completely forgets the way it is being told, and is under the impression that technique and form have nothing to do with it, that life itself animates the work's characters, landscapes, and events, which seem to the reader nothing less than reality incarnate, life in print. This is the great triumph of technical skill in novel writing: the achievement of invisibility, the ability to endow story with color, drama, subtlety, beauty, and suggestive power so effectively that the no reader even notices the fabrication exists; under the spell of its craftsmanship, he feels that he is not reading, but rather living a fiction that, for a while at least and ad far as he is concerned, supplants life.

Harry Mathews

Unless I am hopelessly mistaken, it seems to me perfectly possible to write well in French simply by writing correctly - by writing well I obviously do not necessarily mean elegantly or brilliantly; I mean only that there exists a normative written language available to anyone who takes the trouble to learn it that will enable its user to write prose than can be universally read without objections. Such a "correct" language does not exist in America (or in England for that matter). Left to itself, merely correct American English tends to go flat. American writing of any kind has a kind of ad hoc quality about it, a quality of having been improvised for the occasion; and good writing invariably involves the admixture of a particular individual manner.

Gene Wolfe

At this point it is traditional to state dogmatically that every short story must show a beginning, a middle, and an ending - the lash employed by editors and other critics to flog writers. And it is true enough that every story should, although it is not of much use to know it. Authors (and they are very rare) who commit stories lacking one of the three necessities always believe the missing element present; and the truth is that a good story must have much more than that.

You are both a woman, amused by men, and a man, enthralled by women. You realize that is is only in our own time that life has become easy enough to permit a handful of us to abrogate our ancient alliance. Your lively imagination is governed by reason; you find it difficult to make friends, though you are a good friend to those you have made. At certain times you feel you are insane, at others than you are the only sane person in the world. You are patient, and yet eager.

How and Why To Write

You can find the first five parts of this series here:

Part One (Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Levine, Thomas Pynchon, Gertrude Stein, Eudora Welty, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Mavis Gallant, Stanley Elkin)

Part Two (James Baldwin, Henry Miller, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Margaret Atwood, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov)

Part Three (W. Somerset Maugham, Langston Hughes, Marguerite Duras, George Orwell, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Robert Creeley, John Steinbeck)

Part Four (Flannery O'Connor, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, William Butler Yeats, Lyn Hejinian, Jean Cocteau, Francine du Plessix Gray, Roberto Bolano)

Part Five (Rosmarie Waldrop, Joyce Cary, Fernando Pessoa, Martin Amis, Lewis Carroll, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Leguin)


In Which We Stoke The Fire Upon The Deep

Singular World


A Fire Upon the Deep
by Vernor Vinge
391 pp.

The Children of the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
448 pp.

In 2007, Vernor Vinge won another Hugo award. This is nothing in itself. The one-time computer scientist has been winning science fiction's greatest prizes since 1981, when his widely influential novella True Names changed the genre forever. But the fact that he won it for his worst book was something of a surprise. Rainbow's End certainly had its moments, but at times its plot was so jumbled it was difficult to follow from scene to scene. The novel was most compelling in its predictions about where contemporary technology was headed. (The intelligent contact lens could be the most enticing.) But much of Rainbow's End came across as sloppily done, so much so that it was easy to fear Vinge was on the verge of a George R.R. Martin-esque situation where he become so obsessed with what fans of his work expected that he could not focus properly on writing well.

Despite being twice the novel A Game of Thrones ever was, Vinge's 1993 novel A Fire Upon the Deep never had a gaudy Hollywood adaptation, and its cult of admirers remains small in comparison. Naturally, it did win the Hugo that year, although it had to share it with Connie Willis' endless Doomsday Book. In fact, A Fire Upon the Deep could never be adapted into pablum for the masses, for several reasons.

First and foremost is that A Fire Upon the Deep is an extremely complex novel. Not so much in its prose, which was in line with Vinge's usual straightforward style. No, it was the author's conception of the universe that made A Fire Upon the Deep so rewarding and also so difficult. The book contains action sequences that take place over light years and fully grasping the consequences of events takes hundreds of pages, not seconds. Some editions of Vinge's books even came with an accompanying CD.

The opening of A Fire Upon the Deep represented a tour-de-force. As a technology writer who foretold the creation of the internet, Vinge's central theory has always been that the creation of a superhuman intelligence is inevitable. In A Fire Upon the Deep, a group of well-intentioned scientists and researchers at the High Lab accidentally create such an entity, known as The Blight.

With the help of his now-ex wife Joan D. Vinge, Vernor created the idea of Zones of Thought, a sensible take on the universe in which cross-sections play by different quantum rules. Fleeing the entity they created, the High Lab spaceship lands in the pre-technological zone, on a world occupied by aliens called Tines. Since the cliche of a crash on an alien planet is as old as science fiction itself, Vinge's unique alien creations are all the more remarkable.

Essentially, Tines are dogs, but each individual is composed of one dog pack. A Tine consists of 4 to 8 dogs who, through an organ extruding from their brain, create an individual identity through nonverbal communication. (Less than four dogs struggle to have enough brain power to speak and act, more than 8 dogs usually results in a split into two individuals.) Because of their resemblance to man's best friend, and because the idea not only made logical sense but created a million different literary possibilities, the parts of A Fire Upon the Deep that take place on the Tines World were not only the most fascinating part of the novel, but immediately constituted a sensation in themselves.

Switching between a dramatic, skin-of-your-teeth space opera and a fantasy-inflected world where dogs ruled resulted in a breakneck narrative that unfurled at the speed of light. Between these two simultaneously unfolding stories, Vinge inserted his satire of Usenet postings, foretelling how internet communication could be interpreted and ultimately misinterpreted by different groups. It was this analysis that lifted A Fire Upon the Deep from being the most readable and entertaining novel of its type to also being both incredibly amusing and prescient.

The Children of the Sky, released in October from Tor (undoubtedly the most exciting publisher in the genre), follows up on the promise of A Fire Upon the Deep and then some. A direct sequel to his classic space opera, The Children of the Sky narrows the focus of the story. Now settled on Tines World, Ravna Bergsdot is the sole individual on the planet with a working knowledge of what the outside universe looks like — the rest of the shipwrecked humans were children at the High Lab, and have all been roused from coldsleep. Positioned as something like a matriarch, she has to navigate her command of the young people along with difficult diplomacy required to deal with the kingdom's co-queen, a six-dog pack known as Woodcarver.

Vinge has become a markedly better writer over the years. One of the most difficult things for him (or any fiction writer) to get down was the concept of character. We're so used to archetypes from movies and television that it's easy to forget that real human beings tend to have a variety of flaws and vices. In contrast with the immaculate technology of her no-longer flight capable but still powerful spaceship Oobii, Ravna Bergsdot has so many blind spots it's amazing she is able to wake up in the morning, and yet at base we're dealing with an incredibly intelligent and resourceful librarian.

Unlike its predecessor, The Children of the Sky features nothing in the way of space exploration or high theory. It is concerned with how a suddenly industrial civilization establishes a technological base to change how its inhabitants live their day-to-day lives. (Sound familiar?) There's also a lot of political intrigue in The Children of the Sky, a new subject for Vinge. His basic point is that individuals who use religion or feigned political necessity in order to gain power are still at the mercy of programmers and scientists who hold the real control through innovation. Politics is simple, stupid and deadly in contrast.

Ravna Bergsdot knows that an invading force is coming to destroy Tines World as a result of the actions of scientists who created advances beyond their ken. She has raised the coldsleep children to believe that they must focus all their resources on improving technology instead of biomedical research. Her foes are blind to this prioritization; they see a woman who does not age the way they do because of treatments she received offworld that are no longer available to them, and who necessarily cannot share their priorities.

Ultimately, Vinge is on Ravna's side of the argument. He believes that the endgame of biomedical research is to extend human life at the cost of civilization itself, and so preserving people indefinitely is useless vanity. Instead, he is arguing, it is technological innovation which should occupy the majority of our resources.

The dog packs that make up each individual Tine are more akin to us, at our stage of technological development, than we are to the humans of The Children of the Sky. The literally-named Tycoon and Woodcarver may be laying the message on a bit thick, but Vinge turns the hokey names into complex, transformative figures capable of change. This is not simply because the dog characters are at least as real to us as the human ones; it is also because Tines actually alter their personalities as they incorporate new puppies and old members die.

In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge also created another memorable alien, the skroderiders who accompany Ravna Bergsdot and her lover Pham Nuwen as they enter what Vinge calls the Slow Zone, where the internet cannot viably reach planetary civilizations. These leafy tree-beings, immobile and mute without manufactured transport appendages and voders, make their return in The Children of the Sky, thematically proving that Vinge is as insightful about how the boundaries of living organisms evolve as he is about tech.

To write so well about the hard sci-fi elements of technology while fashioning a compelling plot and characters is the most difficult feat in literature, for it requires an expertise beyond the capacity of most. That A Fire Upon the Deep and The Children of the Sky are not so easily translatable into films or television is one of their cardinal virtues. There is nothing wrong with such a transposition, but both of these novels contain a complexity of emotion within their characters that is not so easily represented by a staid image or reproduced dialogue. These novels contain an experience than could never be replicated in another art form.

The Children of the Sky is above all a thrill ride. Whatever Vinge has been reading lately, it most likely featured steampunk, because The Children of the Sky takes advantage of every wonder a newly-industrial civilization has to offer. At times Vinge's new work, the second in what one presumes will be a trilogy, approaches the astonishing emotional ups and downs of its predecessor, a heady compliment considering A Fire Upon Deep leaves most thinking people in tears. Hot air balloons, plasma weapons, guns that dogs as well as people can hold comfortably, interspecies love and coordination, Jacobean betrayal: it's all there waiting in the Slow Zone.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He last wrote in these pages about Alexander Payne's The Descendants. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

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