Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

30 April 2007

New Orleans betrayed again

I went to a play Sunday afternoon, “Rising Water” by John Biguenet. The playwright had a question-and-answer session with the audience afterwards. He told about a similar Q&A after another performance in which a older German man said that New Orleans should take heart from the example of Germany. Look where it was after World War II, he said, and where it is now. Biguenet responded, “Yes, but you had the help of the United States government.”

How ironic this morning to see a front-page headline on The Times-Picayune that read “FEMA refused overseas aid.”

New Orleans experienced the worst manmade disaster in the history of the United States.

The federal government was responsible for that disaster. The levees and flood walls failed because the Army Corps of Engineers designed them poorly and cut corners in building them. The surge rose high enough to knock down those protections because the Army Corps of Engineers’ Mississippi River policy results in wetland destruction.

Other than the Coast Guard (yea, Coast Guard!), no federal agency responded quickly, effectively, or adequately to the flood. More than a thousand people died.

Today we learn that foreign countries offered $800,000,000 in desperately needed aid—medical teams, body bags, bottled water, food, rescue dogs, ships to house people left homeless, and more—and our federal government turned almost all of those offers down.

What kind of government do we have, to allow such incompetence?

New Orleans is slowly rebuilding through the aid of church groups, college students, Habitat for Humanity, rock stars’ benefit concerts, modular home builders, ex-Presidents Bush and Clinton, and many, many, many other generous people and groups, aided by our own tough nature. We’ll recover. Those of us who survived, that is.

I’m spitting mad that our own government is working against us.

I hope you are, too.

26 April 2007

Copyediting pet peeves: dates

As a copyeditor—and as a reader—I see certain mistakes over and over again. One of my particular pet peeves is wrongly punctuated dates, perhaps because the rules are easy and vary little among style manuals.

The most common mistake in writing dates is to leave out one of the enclosing commas, usually the second one, like this:
I wrote this blog entry on April 26, 2007 in the afternoon.

Here, for easy reference, are the two most acceptable styles of writing dates in the United States. If you are including the day of the month, the date is written thus:
I wrote this blog entry on April 26, 2007, in the afternoon.

If you are not including the day of the month, the form is:
I wrote this blog entry in April 2007 in the afternoon.

I searched through the most recent editions I had of the style manuals on my bookcase. In support of these two styles were newspaper style guides, scientific and medical style guides, and general style guides:

  • The Associated Press Style Book, 39th edition

  • The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, revised and expanded edition

  • AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors, 10th edition

  • The ACS Style Guide: A Manual for Authors and Editors, 2nd edition

  • Scientific Style and Format: The CBE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, 6th edition

  • Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 4th edition

  • Words Into Type, 3rd edition

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition (However, the stylebook says that the University of Chicago Press prefers dates in the style "I wrote this blog entry on 26 April 2007 in the afternoon.")

19 April 2007

Rule-Breaking The Carpet Makers Succeeds on Several Levels

Andreas Eschbach published his science-fiction novel Die Haarteppichknupfer in Germany in 1995. It made its way to the United States in 2005 only after Orson Scott Card heard of Eschbach and commissioned a partial translation of Die Haarteppichknupfer. At Card's urging, Tor published the book in English under the title The Carpet Makers.

The book starts out deceptively simply, following the lives of people living in a small town on a planet whose sole export is carpets meant for the court of the Emperor. Each man works his whole life on one extremely detailed carpet, which he weaves to his own design from the hair of his wives and daughters. When the carpet is finished, he sells it. His son lives off the proceeds for the rest of his life while he weaves his own carpet. In this society, daughters are prized for their hair, but there is no place for extra sons, who are killed. This economic system has been in place for thousands of years.

The book defies accepted conventions for genre fiction in several ways.
•There is no protagonist. Or perhaps it would be better to say that each of the seventeen chapters has its own protagonist. No character lasts from beginning to end, which covers several generations in real time and tens of thousands of years in flashbacks.
•The location does not even remain the same. The book eventually abandons the small town for the larger canvas of a vast empire in the throes of reinventing itself after the death of its deathless Emperor.
•Many chapters stand alone as short stories. Chapter 1 was indeed written first as a short story, and I suspect many of the others were as well.
•The story builds to a climax that is not even hinted at in the first part of the book.
•The chapters have names instead of numbers—a convention that I like but that has fallen out of favor.

With no main character to identify with and no real plot, The Carpet Makers still succeeds as a satisfying work of science fiction.
•Over the course of the book, the seemingly unrelated chapters gradually weave together into a unified whole. In one sense, the book is a giant joke—a book about carpet makers is constructed like a carpet. This structure is probably the most important reason the book can please readers despite lacking a protagonist or plot. The whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
•Within each chapter, the focus is on characters—who they are, what they do, and why they do it. The reader can easily identify with them despite their puzzling circumstances. Eschbach skillfully draws a rich, full picture of the town's culture and later the empire's culture and history through these character sketches.
•The concept is poignant, with the pathetic carpetweavers and their descendents condemned to repeat the same sad life over and over with no chance of redemption. The events are sometimes so strange that the book has the mystical feel of a fantasy. The Carpet Makers is truly a book that carries you away to a different time and place.
•The book leaves the reader with questions about ethics and the winners and losers of culture change. (I am purposely vague to avoid spoiling the book for you, while letting you know you'll be thinking about this book long after you've finished it.)
•Eventually, one discovers that the book is a mystery of sorts—why are all these people weaving carpets, and what really happens to the carpets?—and the resolution is satisfying and terrifying.

Little science fiction from continental Europe makes it to the American reader. The Carpet Makers suggests that we may be missing out on some great books.

Meanwhile, we are lucky enough to have this one in translation. If you're interested in science fiction that stretches the boundaries, try The Carpet Makers.

12 April 2007

The value of a reading list

“I never have time for pleasure reading!” Do you ever say that? I used to—a lot. It seemed that there were always so many tasks and errands to do (particularly after Katrina) that I was lucky to find an hour or two a week free to read.

Then last December, someone on one of the email lists I belong to mentioned that she keeps a reading list for the year. It sounded like a fun idea, so I started in January.

I was surprised to discover that I was reading much more than I thought. Those dribbles and drabs of time I eked out of my schedule added up to a decent number of books—ten in January (keeping a list prompted me to finish several books that I was partway through), seven in February, seven in March, and two in April (with two others underway).

Here are my favorites from my 2007 list so far.

Rogue’s Salute by Jennifer Blake (about a swordsman in New Orleans in the early 1800s)
Deliver Me by Farrah Rochon (takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans)
Crusader’s Lady by Lynna Banning (takes place in the Holy Lands during the Middle Ages)

Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney (an excellent, free-flowing translation)
The Knight by Gene Wolfe (as per his usual, complex and sometimes confusing, but hard to put down)

Science fiction
Eifelheim by Michael Flynn (a Medieval village copes with the aliens whose spaceship crashes among them)
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler (a vampire genetically engineered to withstand sunlight tries to find out who killed her family)

Owen and Mzee: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Isabella Hatkoff, Craig Hatkoff, and Paul Kahumbu (a fascinating children’s book about a baby hippo and a giant tortoise that become best friends; it made me rethink my opinion of reptile brain plasticity)
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry (dense but well written; strongly recommended for every American to read, particularly those who live in the states drained by the Mississippi)

Now that I keep a list, I feel far less frustrated about my reading time.

But I still wish I had more!

11 April 2007

another short story published

My novelette "The Hunt" is in the current issue of Continuum Science Fiction magazine. The issue is available for purchase at

"The Hunt" takes place at a spaceport called Rimifar Station and intertwines the stories of an assassin hunting for a bag of stolen pearls and two spoiled teenagers taking part in a scavenger hunt while their mothers' spaceship is in port.

The most exciting (and somewhat embarrassing) part of having "The Hunt" published was seeing my name on the cover above that of Greg Benford. I guess the names were listed in the order the stories appeared in the magazine. But still—my name was above Greg Benford's!