the thing I learned this week

November 21, 2018

I’m neck deep in researching 19th century ornithologists. Long story.

So lots of bird species are named after people. Wilson’s warbler. Swainson’s Hawk. That kind of thing. Wilson in particular — he’s got a lot of birds named after him. Like, a lot. I flip through field guides and it’s like, geez, who the heck is this Wilson guy and why does he have, like, all the birds named after him? I thought it was kind of cheeky because I assumed he was naming them after himself.

It turns out, the convention is that if you’re the first scientist to discover/describe a new species, you get to name it, but not after yourself. Because, as I mentioned, that’s considered kind of gauche. Scientists tend to name newly-discovered species after people they admire. It’s why cartoonist Gary Larson has a species of louse named after him, and various authors and public figures and so forth have species named after them.

Lots of naturalists in the 19th century really admired Alexander Wilson, and that’s why he has a ton of bird species named for him.  He was a contemporary of Audubon. In fact, he probably gave Audubon the idea of going around and painting all the American bird species — because he did it first.  Spencer Fullerton Baird, first curator of the Smithsonian, also has a bunch of birds (Baird’s sparrow, Baird’s sandpiper, etc.) named after him and was also massively respected by his contemporaries.

The book I just finished, Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding by Scott Weidensaul, has lots of info on a bunch of these guys that birds are named after. It’s making me really happy to finally have stories behind those bird names.

 

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Mechanical Animals – event!

November 16, 2018

My next short story release is in the anthology Mechanical Animals from Hex Publishing. At MileHi Con I talked a little about how I don’t write horse stories very often, and I’m not quite sure why, given how important horses are to me. But “Closer to the Sky” is a horse story, and not just a horse story, but A Girl and Her Horse story, which I think is a very special genre. I hope people like it. Here’s the Kirkus Review. It says my story is the “most accessible,” and I think that’s because even if people don’t want to admit it, A Girl and Her Horse stories really are the best stories.

We’re having a release party at the Tattered Cover on December 5. Maybe I’ll see you there!

 

TV catchup

November 14, 2018

Been awhile since I’ve done one of these.  Mostly because I’ve been compulsively binging Midsomer Murders, much to my anguish.  Like, there’s a level at which this is not a particularly good show. But that’s part of the appeal. I know exactly what I’m getting with it, and my headspace hasn’t really wanted to engage with anything more. On the other hand,  after ten seasons of this, The Prisoner weirdly makes a lot more sense.

That said, I think the episode when Cully gets married is completely brilliant in how it handles expectation and tension. It’s a running gag through the whole show that Barnaby misses important events, dinners, he’s always dashing out because he’s just figured out the murder, so on and so forth. And I swear I spent the second half of that episode thinking, “Wait, he won’t miss his own daughter’s wedding, will he? No. They wouldn’t do that. Except maybe they would? OMG.” I really didn’t know what was going to happen there. The show effectively manipulated my expectations. Well done, show.

I finally caught up on last season of The Flash. Still need to catch up on Supergirl, and I haven’t watched any of this season, alas.  See what I mean about not being engaged?  I liked how The Flash finished up, though it took its sweet time getting there. I think I’m being trained to the short-season model of Netflix and British TV to the point where 22 episodes in a season just feels horrendously long. The Flash is still goofy as all get-out and often contrived and stilted, but I think some of the acting is just great — Tom Cavanagh as Harrison Wells is clearly having the time of his life. I want to keep watching to see what else they throw against the wall.

I got a few episodes each into the second season of Luke Cage and third season of Daredevil and haven’t gone further. Long, meandering, self-indulgent, contrived angst. Exhausting.

BUT….

Many of you will be happy to know I finally started The Good Place, which is indeed probably the best-written show on television right now.  I don’t know why it took me so long. Just…Everyone raved about it and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I didn’t want to get emotional about it. Turns out, it’s not super emotional. It’s actually really kind, and really funny — actually funny, not infantile one-liner funny. So yes, I should have watched this a long time ago. On the other hand, I get to binge like 10 episodes at a time this way, because it really is one long story and not very episodic at all.  Much like Legion, I cannot guess where this is going and I love that.

I’m only halfway through season 2 so no spoilers. I will say — that twist at the end of the first season? That was amazing. AMAZING. And totally, totally earned. Not out of left field. Carefully, sneakily built in with a fantastic payoff that blew the story wide open in a way I could not have predicted. It’s great.

Weirdly, I’m also sort-of rewatching Babylon 5 right now because it’s airing in order on Comet TV. (It’s so weird. I have access to this show, commercial free, but for some reason it comes on TV and I just have to watch.) I saw the episode where Talia Winters is revealed to be a sleeper agent right around the time I watched the big twist on The Good Place.  The Talia Winters revelation was also a totally earned twist.  Built up, makes sense, shocking, has consequences.  (In season 3, when each of the crew confesses a secret to Delenn and hands over their Earth Force uniforms, and Ivanova’s confession is that she loved Talia — it’s a gut punch every time.)

So of course now I’m thinking of what makes a good twist, and what makes a bad one.

The “All Along the Watchtower” bullshit in Battlestar Galactica? The revelation of the last models of Cylons that made no bloody sense at all? Not an earned twist. Not planned, not built up, requiring retconning and hand-waving, with totally unsatisfying consequences.

“It was all a dream” is rarely, rarely an earned twist.

Must ponder further.

 

Well, gosh I wanted to like this one, being such a fan of the Nutcracker ballet as I am. But the word I keep coming up with to describe it is “facile.” There just isn’t a whole lot there past the spectacle.

I did like the spectacle. This is a beautiful movie. I really liked the idea of steampunk engineer Clara.

But I kept feeling like this really wasn’t about steampunk engineer Clara, she was mostly a cog inserted into this machine of tropes (sorry for the strained metaphor there). The idea of portal fantasy is built into the Nutcracker ballet, so it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea. But did it have to look so much like Narnia, and Alice in Wonderland? A ticky-box story dutifully going through the motions.  Also, something based on the Nutcracker — the ballet, not any of the previous versions of the story — needed to have a lot more of Tchaikovsky’s music and a lot more dancing. This had one small ballet interlude with Misty Copeland which was really lovely but was clearly shoehorned in.

Why was this called the Nutcracker, even? The first character Clara meets in the Four Realms is a soldier on guard duty. She immediately calls him a nutcracker for no apparent reason — why is he a nutcracker and not just another toy soldier? Don’t know. He becomes her sidekick and does sidekick things through the whole movie. So…. why is this called the Nutcracker? I guess because we use some of the music?  All the previous versions center on the nutcracker doll who comes to life, who needs to be saved, who is actually a prince, etc. etc.  None of that is here. Which makes is all just weird, you know?  The big-name actors are all marvelous, but this is all mostly pantomime.  Less a story than an undisguised attempt to cash in on a holiday tradition.

Oh, and Clara’s mother is dead, because Disney still has trouble telling stories that don’t have dead mothers in them.

 

more reading

November 9, 2018

I’m on a manic research jag. I have eight library books on my front table. I’m reading three of them concurrently. Current topic:  the history of ornithology. Long story.

One of these is a biography of this 17th century British guy who did what a lot of rich British guys at the dawn of the Enlightenment did which was attempt to catalog, like everything, and describe and dissect and make his own miniature museum and basically invent modern science from the ground up. Francis Willughby sounds interesting and I’m happy reading about him. But the author of this particular biography is driving me up the wall by basically constantly inserting himself into the narrative.  One section, paraphrased:  “And here they were, in this very room, dissecting a bittern according to the journal, and I thought to myself, how wonderful, I would very much also like to dissect a bittern so I can get closer to Willughby and imagine how he felt and what he was thinking, but alas bitterns are endangered. So I called around to wildlife refuges asking if anyone happened to have a dead bittern that I could dissect — ”

AT WHICH POINT I REACH THROUGH THE BOOK AND THROTTLE THE AUTHOR.

A-hem.

 

BookBar this Saturday

November 8, 2018

Reminder:  this Saturday, 1 pm, I’ll be at the BookBar in Denver with Betsy Dornbusch, reading stuff and celebrating SF&F.

Colorado has a pretty dodgy record in regards to LGBTQ rights. That infamous cake baker is here, and 25 years ago there was Amendment 2, which tried to ban laws protecting the rights of LGBTQ people — it was overturned in court as unconstitutional, and rightly so.

Well, this week Colorado elected an openly gay governor, Jared Polis. We’ve come a long way, and it feels pretty damn good.  Polis served several terms in the House of Representatives, and I used to live in his district but moved out a few years ago. I was happy being able to vote for him again as governor this time.

 

Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot. I’m still on my quest to read a bunch of romance so I can figure out what makes the genre tick, and I keep stumbling on this trope that I’m coming to really hate.

The first quarter of this book I read last week, I absolutely loved it. The characters were great, I really liked them, the situation was intriguing. And then they did That Thing.

Every romance has an obstacle. The couple discovers each other, falls in love, then something keeps them apart for a big chunk of the book and we keep reading to see how they get back together.

In too many cases, the obstacle is the characters being stubborn and obtuse.

After a steamy fling, each character decides that the other character doesn’t really love them after all. They harden themselves in response. Thereby further convincing the other that they don’t really love them after all.  This is a natural mistake, a thing that happens. But then every single bit of dialog between them following this is constructed to ensure that neither of them gives any indication that they actually really do love each other. It becomes contrived, repetitive, and torturous.  Like, if they would just actually talk to each other like normal people and have an adult conversation they could figure it out. But they never do. At least, until they do for the purpose of the plot.

In this case, this contrived, repetitive situation between unpleasantly stubborn characters went on for 100 pages. What had started delightful became excruciating. I almost didn’t finish.

When I get around to writing my romance, the obstacle will be external. Something will land in their lives that makes it difficult for them to stay together. Travel, duty, other obligations, other conflicts. Something. I don’t know. I just can’t imagine writing a hundred of pages of dialog where two characters withhold information for no other reason than that the plot demands it.