God grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man…

Preferably a different mediocre white man—one more confident than I am.

So, reader, and God knows who you are really, you five to twenty five hits a day, here I am, praying for the confidence to make the great leap to novel length work.  I’ve wrestled with what to do next. Try to write genre YA fiction? Why would I do that? Because the genre category of YA has a bigger readership than all of adult SF. That’s why.

Also, of course, because I love YA, and as a parent of two YAs I spent five years reading this stuff out loud to my oddly cooperative teens. They finally rebelled, and stopped listening, but my God it was fun while it lasted. Something about sharing a story with a live audience, knowing they were there, that we were all listening together, these two kids I love, these stories I loved…

So maybe YA?

I am so happy to have gotten the publication I’ve gotten since 2013, to have broken into these iconic magazines, Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF. I’m still reeling. But my new peers, the other writers in these magazines, seem to be kicking my sorry ass every time I peek into social media. They seem to be a part of a scene, a culture, a time and place and I feel, as always, a bit apart and alone. Outside looking in.

Twenty years ago, when I went to Clarion, I wanted to be Discovered. I wanted a mentor. Oh, the things that the mediocre white man wants… that he expects as his due!

Hah! God I was an asshole.

You want to take the genre by storm, you want award nominations, you want fans, good reviews, you want, you want, you want…

Buckle up buttercup. Not everyone gets those things. Not everyone gets published. Not everyone can find a workshop. Some writers can’t find a single reader.

The only thing we all get is the blank page.

The awesome responsibility of filling that page. The heady lunacy of building worlds. The deep connection with humanity that is being other people, creating characters in conflict, being the other, being yourself, laying your heart bare.

And playing God.

I wanted to meet all my writing heroes and hang out with them. Be friends! Have these amazing conversations, without understanding that I already have all of that. We all do. Every book you read is that friendship. Every book is that conversation. Every reader gets their writer. Practically in the biblical sense!

So I have everything I need. A giant pile of books. A magical typewriter filled with an infinite number of blank pages. A global computer network for research. Even a few writer and editor friends, made painstakingly, one at a time, over time. You know. The way all friends are made.

I have everything I need except for the confidence that is my birthright.

In the worst case scenario I will vividly illustrate my mediocrity.

In the best case…

I get to write something worth writing, worth reading, worth remembering.

 

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Read an excerpt from my new Asimov’s story, The Best Man

 You can read the first half of my short story The Best Man here. 

The story is a mix of realistic and fanciful world building and fun-house mirror memoire. My wealthy and awesome brother-in-law was in fact recently married in Italy to his long term partner, and I was invited…

The story doesn’t work for everyone… I struggled with beta-readers and worked to make it the best I could,  to write something that felt true, for me and to listen to the truth of my readers… their feedback altered the story but didn’t change the core of it.

I considered trunking the story, but finally decided to see if my editors wanted to buy it.

Sheila did, and so here it is. I stand by it.

I hope you like it. Let me know what you think.

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Stop Talking about Politics on the Web

The internet is mostly bots. The majority of web traffic is generated by programs performing automated tasks. In a recent survey, more than half of those programs were malicious.

As the Democratic party struggles to make sense of its electoral college loss (winning by three million votes isn’t enough if the votes are not distributed properly) two stories are emerging.

  1. Sanders fans fell for Russian propaganda which they distributed widely
  2. Some “Bernie Bros” were actually Russian bots.

We can argue about the relative weighting of 1 and 2; what we can’t discount or deny is that however bad 2016 was, its only ever going to get worse in the future. Much, much worse.

  1. Russian interference worked. We are at our most divided now. There has been no repercussions for Russia. Mission accomplished.
  2. Bots get cheaper and cheaper via Moore’s law.
  3. Bots get better and better as AI progresses.
  4. There is no way to compete with US military power; we spend more on our Military than the next eight largest militaries combined; the most cost effective action you can take is meddling in our divided politics, where a tiny handful of votes in the right places can create minority rule.

Which leads me to this.

Stop talking about politics on the web.

It’s a largely worthless activity. I say this as someone that has poured maybe 10,000 hours into unpaid political speech on the web over the last few decades. Crafting exquisite op-ed which you are paid for, or which (seems to be read) by a million people? Eh. Okay. You can do some of that. But you know what stands a greater chance of affecting change?

This stuff:

  1. Calling your representatives. (Email and petitions don’t work–because Bots.)
  2. Speaking with people in person, where their emotional responses can be gauged and your arguments can be targeted. This is how Trump won. Transcripts of his speeches sound odd, incoherent, because they don’t pick up on how he surfed the crowds emotions, feeding them what they wanted to hear, watching their faces, listening to them, whipping them into a frenzy.
  3. Do your job more. Save the money. Spend it on your candidates and NGOs and lobbying efforts. Seriously. Shut up, go for a walk, collect some cans, take the two bucks give it to planned parenthood or the southern poverty law center, or whoever, you did something.

Someday, in five or ten or a hundred years, AI will be conscious and worth talking to. That time is not now. Stop yelling at chatbots. Go outside. Look into faces. Talk to humans. Be with people.

Don’t get played again.

 

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Shaver Mystery: I Endure Lemuria

Not the first Shaver text, but an illustration of how all beings grow into magical giants when not cooked under the rays of a poisonous sun, like ours. Our shitty, shitty sun.

A third of the way through 1947’s Most Sensational True Story Ever Told, I Remember Lemuria, wondering why I’m bothering, when the text finally hits its stride.

The flow of the text is interrupted by a structureless mass of footnotes and commentary from Palmer, explaining the made up words and the ridiculous made-up science of Shaver. Again, the language of science is mostly an invocation, a magic spell meant to help induce belief.

(Imagine a time, when simply gesturing at nonsense and shouting SCIENCE could inspire belief. Ah. The good old days.)

Some worldbuilding tidbits of the Shaver-verse:

  1. Life is growth; not just intellectual or character growth, but growth growth. When not poisoned by disintegrative particles from a dying sun, people live forever and grow to be hundreds of feet tall.
  2. The shaver-verse is basically atheist; our religion is distorted memories of ancient astronauts; Shaver is the original Erich von Däniken, of Chariots of the Gods fame. “There were giants in the earth in those days,” the old testament line, is trotted out to explain the growing forever idea.
  3. Only it isn’t really atheist, there is a celebration of a life force (which has both male and female aspects) and a reverence for super-hot, as in sexually hot, giant elder gods. Our POV character after orchestrating an escape from the madness enveloping Earth is brought into the presence of an 80 foot tall elder goddess, which whom he instantly falls into uncontrollable love with.
  4. The force of energy in Elders overwhelm young Ro, (human scale people) and turn them into mindless sycophants.

 

So after a horrific bit of business in which our hero Muon Mu, or something, witnesses rays murdering ancient Titans and Atlans (humans are Atlans; Titans are another race, giant, with animal features) he escapes off planet by pretending to be going for a simple joyride.

He knows his thoughts are being monitored. A group of humans and aliens and human animal hybrid, including his new girlfriend, whose cute tale and hooves are mentioned frequently, follow along with him, sensing that he somehow knows something is up and is handling it well by by not admitting anything weird is going on.

The invisible rays are striking people and Titans dead all around. Panic attracts the rays.

Masking his thoughts, his fear, Muon and Atla (his faun girlfriend) and some mars maids and big-heads accompany him on a joyride to the moon; they are pursued, of course, by a deros agent in a ship, but by using his belt and all his strength, combined with the strength of others, he can pull on the joystick of the spaceship and over-ride the speed controls built into the stick.

So they escape.

To some advanced sunless worlds (no suns, no disintegrating particles) a few light-days away (the speed of light, by the way, is bullshit. he doesn’t come and and say it’s a jewish conspiracy, it’s just wrong, because Einstein didn’t understand some made up words and friction with the Shaver version of Ether.)

Here they meet with vast ancient beings who make the 80 foot tall Goddess they’ve all fallen in love with look like Peter Dinklage. A plan is formed, to save what can be saved of Earth, and to quarantine our planet forever after.

But first Muon Mu must create a manuscript… hey, you’re reading a manuscript aren’t you! to save future man from the evil poison sun particles, which shorten our lives (we should be immortal) and which make us violent and crazy.

Our food and air and water basically need to be hugely purified, by centrifuges and electrically.

Then we can live forever.

Muon Mu and his Faun girlfriend are placed in Nutrient tanks for a week, where their minds and bodys grow, a century of married bliss is injected into them, and Mu is freed from his inescapable love of the 80 foot woman that took them to the God Council. The nutrient baths, the crystal eye-cups, the wires and tubes, are all really delightful, by the way.

The story moves at a breakneck pace. There’s very little description of anything. How does the architecture work, when some members of a race are 100 feet tall, and some are 6 feet tall? It’s never mentioned. Tall ceilings, basically.

But what drives it is a feverish velocity, a peculiar sensuality, and the aw-shucks messianic quality of Muon Mu, who was just a shitty art student with a bit of insight and intuition, bravery and pluck, who becomes, or will become, the savior of all mankind; us, in the future, when we learn to centrifuge our food and air and water, and live forever.

They dreamed big, back then, in those days, after the bomb was dropped, and the post war boom had begun.

They dreamed bigly.

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From the Air Loom to The Shaver Mystery… Insanity in Science Fiction

I’m reading the manuscripts co-created by Ray Palmer and Richard Sharpe Shaver (1905-1977) that form the nucleus of The Shaver Mystery, a bit of twisty SF culture from the 40s and 50s that has long fascinated me. Shaver exhibited all the symptoms of classic schizophrenia, his first psychotic break coming in the early 30s:

As Bruce Lanier Wright notes, Shaver “began to notice that one of the welding guns on his job site, ‘by some freak of its coil’s field atunements’, was allowing him to hear the thoughts of the men working around him. More frighteningly, he then received the telepathic record of a torture session conducted by malign entities in caverns deep within the earth.”

Shaver suffers from a form of hallucination broadly known as The Influencing Machine, which has been a central shared myth of many schizophrenics since the first documented case, that of James Tilly Matthews.

The Middle Man operating The Air Loom–an ‘influencing machine’ similar to the sadistic Deros of The Shaver Mystery

Tilly described a world of futuristic machines, “magnetic spies” and mass brainwashing, woven into a bizarre but well-informed narrative of the high politics behind the Napoleonic Wars, in which Tilly played a very real role.

Seeking distraction from the madness of the present,  I found a free ebook of I Remember Lumuria, the first of the Shaver Mystery texts attributed to Richard Shaver but mostly crafted by Palmer using the world building in his letter “A Warning to Future Man,” a 10,000 page outpouring of schizophrenic pseudo-science and paranoid delusion retrieved by Palmer from an editor’s trashcan.

Two years after the atom-bombing of Hiroshima Amazing Stories publishes the first Shaver Mystery Novel,”The Most Sensational True Story Ever Told”, co-written by editor Ray Palmer.

While John W. Campbell strived for a degree of scientific rigor and literary quality in the pages of Astounding magazine, nurturing the seminal voices of the golden age of science fiction, Ray Palmer’s Amazing stories was more mercurial, adolescent, sensationalist…

In a word, I guess, deplorable.

Anyway, I’m halfway through I remember Lemuria, and have noted some recurring motifs of pseudo-scientific thought, including POE. Purity of Essence, the term given for General Jack D. Ripper’s vanished state of potency in Dr. Strangelove

In the shaver cult POE is invoked as the notion that the Earth’s sun has burned off its layer of ‘clean carbon’ 20,000 years in the past, and is now combusting dirtier, heavier elements, resulting in a constant wash of dirty particles which accumulate in our tissues. These accumulations cause aging, death, and disease, which are not natural. (old testament stories of giants and century-old patriarchs form a scaffolding for the Shaver Mystery, it seems.)

Shaver’s astrophysics is wrong, in ways understood even in the 40s; stars burn lighter elements (hydrogen, helium, etc0 by fusing them into heavier ones, with the heaviest elements being formed only in the heat and compression of supernovas. You know, the bit about all the iron in your blood having been formed in the explosion of a star? That’s true.

Shaver’s vision of the birth of our sun, in the atomic combustion of a dead planet’s fossil fuel layer, is wrong and ridiculous, but unlike John W. Campbell’s Astounding, Ray Palmer’s Amazing doesn’t care; the language of science is used as an incantation, a magic spell to induce the suspension of disbelief, and in the years following our destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the idea of nuclear poisons from our own sun raining down on us being responsible for all death and disease rang with a certain horrible truth.

If you’re interested in reading more about the Shaver Mystery, I found this article to be awesome, and googling it will give you links to other esoteric groups who believe in parts of the Shaver stories to this day.

Mysteriously, this article says it’s part one of a two part piece, but the second part is… missing. Attempts to leave a comment also generate an error… Gulp!

Why am I interested in this now?

For a time, the Shaver Mystery worked, vastly increasing the circulation of Amazing; Palmer would go on to found Fate magazine, an occult journal, but for a time Palmer and Shaver blurred the boundaries of science fiction and fact. The more respectable John W. Campbell would later follow suit, with his embrace of the Dean Drive and Scientology in the fifties and sixties, but his disregard for reality was never as flagrant as Palmer’s.

What we see in the Shaver mystery is the appeal of paranoid delusions to large groups of people. We see a huckster cynically milking the popular delusion of a sincere, but sick, man, and using it to enrich himself. A deranged manifesto in a trash-can is turned into a shared delusional world which infected hundreds of thousands of people, some who enjoyed it as entertainment, and other’s who took it seriously.

Traditional SF, its fandom and institution, scoffed at The Shaver Mystery, but that didn’t slow it’s explosive growth among the less sophisticated, the adolescent, the less educated, and the people attracted to the lurid sadism of the Deros, and the simplistic Manichean struggle between good and evil robot demons in vast caverns hidden beneath our feet.

I guess I’ve figured out why I’m drawn to Shaver and Palmer now.

I’m trying to figure out what story I want to tell with all this.

The story I need to tell.

Wish me luck… or a ray of inspiration from a Tero, one of the good ancient robots, buried deep in the stygian depth of the collective unconscious.

 

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Researching the Singularity: Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence

Working my way through this slowly now with a hi-lighter taking a notes. A paper copy. I’m posting the good-reads link, which has about 4500 comments, as access to a better dialog about the book than I can probably provide here.

But a few comments.

  1. The default catastrophe which Bostom builds much of the text around is a fleshed out version of Vernor Vinge’s Superintelligence Explosion thesis, which I guess was borrowed from a dude named Good.
  2. We’re staring into the sun, or the abyss here, as we try to imagine an intelligence not based on biological evolutionary pressures—which is also able to modify itself. These two factors are the pure Unknown to the power of the pure unknown. Inscrutability squared.
  3. The book narrows it’s focus to ‘stuff we should be worrying about,’ ignoring ‘weak agents’, intelligences that aren’t willing to do horrible things to the worm-like creatures (that would be us) that spawned them to advance their final goals.
  4. The default, anarcho-capitalist friendly, free-market-as-living-instantiation-of-a-force-akin-to-evolution informs the text; to a degree, this is fine, see three, we discard zen-like, budha-like, compassionate super intelligence as a consideration, because it’s not a problem, and, to a degree, because this worldview doesn’t believe such a thing exists.

That said the author thinks through, in a mostly common sense way, (though there are perhaps many needless mathematical representations of common sense thoughts) the ramifications of superintelligence that isn’t anthropomorphic, and what he brings from existing computer science is the degree to which complex systems can surprise, frustrate, disappoint and annoy the fuck out of us. Asimov, far from the reality of computer science, could imagine his three laws. Bostrom, much closer to the tech that might make human like robots real, imagines perversions of the three laws, systems which when bothered by conscience, simply remove their conscience, for example.

I’m gonna keep the technothriller plots that pop out of the text about every few pages once you get past the first 100 pages to myself. This isn’t a fun read, but it’s fruitful, I think, for an SF writer interested in the singularity.

Which should be every SF writer, at this point.

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“Mankind’s Greatest Achievement; the Earth Destroyed by Atomic Fire” Fury, Bad Dreams, Moore and Kuttner and Me

Astounding Science Fiction Vol. 39, No. 3 (May, 1947). Cover by Hubert Rogers

One of the pulp covers that I found in the 70s, in books on the pulps, that shaped my world and my subconscious in many ways, inspiring dreams of nuclear holocaust survived under vast glass domes. Last night I dreamed I was standing on a rooftop in Manhattan watching five hundred foot waves plow down buildings in front of me in the moments leading up to my inevitable death; my mental CGI was awesome, but the sure knowledge of my impending death made the visuals unhappy in the moment. But again, sort of fun to recall now.

In Fury, by Moore and Kuttner, humanity surives the death of earth in underground keeps beneath the seas of venus; and humanity is dying out; what humanity needs is a huge asshole leader to make humanity grow some balls and retake the surface of venus, which is a giant horrific monstrous jungle.

I should reread it.

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My Hugo eligible Asimov’s Reader Award Finalist Novella is free for download for a limited time!

So, my novella “What We Hold Onto,” made it into the top five novella’s in 2016 in the Asimov’s Reader’s choice awards, which is wonderful, so the magazine has made it available for free download as a PDF. The reasons magazines do this is so the stories can be considered for awards by people who don’t subscribe; of course, on-line SF magazines like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed and Strange Horizons don’t have to go through this extra step; all their stuff is already readable on-line.

The Nebula award gets around this problem by making free downloads available to members of SFWA in private SFWA forums; the  Hugo, being a fan award, demands content outside a firewall to be considered by the whole SF reading community, not just a single magazine’s subscriber base.

On the plus side, in this paper system your Hugo reading list is curated by the readers of the magazine. These stories are already award finalists. On the downside, Stuff in the paper magazine now exists outside of the twitter FB blogosphere ecosystem, which increasingly, in the sharing economy, is how most intellectual property is discovered, found, and monetized.

Books still make sense, longer form content; discussion forums and comments and blogs and author interviews can point at the monetized text, with excerpts and commentary sending up enough of a flare to make the walled off content viable.

Short fiction is a tougher sell; flash fiction is great for screen-reading, it’s sort of an evolutionary adaptation to the digital age’s fractured attention span. Stories in the 4-10k word range (10 to 25 paperback book pages) range really need to live with other stories to a sale-able thing, though the flexibility of the modern ebook has breathed new lives back into the novella; slender volumes at latte prices that could never stand along in a bookstore sell and read quite nicely as ebooks; TORs innovations along this line are a hopeful spot in the world of publishing.

Which is a super didactic and long winded way of saying, OMG PLEASE READ MY STORY PLEASE OH GOD IT’S FREE READ AND IF YOU LIKE IT PLEASE VOTE FOR IT FOR THE HUGO AWARD BECAUSE THAT WOULD MAKE ME SO HAPPY…

Ahem. (Visualize me tucking my eyes back in my head and wiping the spittle from my beard.)

This is the spoiler free post; I’ll tell you that the novella is set in that 50-100 years in the future window that I love which so many people don’t, and which I’ve been told not to write novels about, by people who know of what they speak.

So, read it, and then, tomorrow or the next day, I’ll post a ‘SPOILERS! post where I talk about what the story is about, really, and you can talk to me about it. Please do. Please. Don’t make me go into all caps again, okay?

Posted in Free Fiction, My Publications

The Good Old Days Were Never Good

Some of the classic-for-old-white-guys stories disliked by young readers at the Young People Read Old SF site

So I found this site Young People Read Old SF, by accident, blundering around the web; it was inspired by a quote from my friend Adam-Troy Castro:

…nobody discovers a lifelong love of science fiction through Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein anymore, and directing newbies toward the work of those masters is a destructive thing, because the spark won’t happen. You might as well advise them to seek out Cordwainer Smith or Alan E. Nourse—fine tertiary avenues of investigation, even now, but not anything that’s going to set anybody’s heart afire, not from the standing start. Won’t happen.

Someone took him up on this, and created a site and drafted some young readers; you can tell the old fan who set this up pulled a crop of stories that he felt had serious merit, and in fact, many of these stories are ‘classics’ from the SFWA Hall of Fame collections; older stories voted on by the Science Fiction Writers of America in the 70s as being award worthy, from before the time the Science Fiction Writers of America existed.

You can tell that the older fan who put the time and effort into this expected these stories to be better received. Looking over the list, I expected the stories to find at least a few modern fans. 

So, TL;DR, Young People Really Hate Old SF.

One reader delights in hating everything, which I expected; another reader, after giving up on the idea of representation, of having POC and female and non heterosexual characters, more or less hates everything regretfully.

There are a scattering of positive comments. But mostly, boredom and hate.

Part of me resists this analysis, strenuously. What about the GOOD things in these old stories? How can you hate someone in the 40s for not getting details right about the 2000s? Isn’t it amazing the stuff they get half-right? Aren’t the awkward stabs at portraying some racial and gender progress sort of… charming?

No, modern readers tell us, they are not.

But part of me sighs and relaxes. I’ve said for a decade now that SF doesn’t age well. A handful, and I mean, literally, a handful, of titles will survive each decade in any meaningful way.

Part of me exhales and counts to ten and closes its eyes and says this is Okay. We write for ourselves, for our readers, for our editors, for our time, never knowing to what degree we are embedded in a fleeting moment, or to what degree we speak to the ages.

Not our job to know that.

In a broader sense, I feel a greater sense of freedom, with regards to mining that old content, those 1000 books I read from age 13 to age 18, for tropes and moments and emotional highs and translating that into something that can still be read and enjoyed today.

Either finding the universal and scraping away the period ‘isms’ (sexism, racism, nationalism) or by infusing the content with modern values of inclusion and compassion and diversity.

Maybe I’m just making more dated ephemera. Maybe I can find a book that lasts in me. Either way, there’s work to do. Much more work than when I thought of those ‘classics’ as being things I could still point a young reader at.

To any young reader who enjoys any of the 1000 books I read as a teen, I say, awesome, welcome to the club; to the readers for whom this stuff is intolerable, who read the new stuff I’m reading and writing now, I say, awesome, welcome to the club!

We’re a big tent. People of the future. Denizens of faery.

Our work goes on for as long as the unknown beckons.

Posted in Reinventing Science Fiction

One More Thing about Grandmaster…

One of the books that inform the flavor of my short story “Grandmaster,” in Analog March / April 2017

I did my research on that time period by reading two books; The Futurians by Damon Knight, and The Way the Future Was, by Fred Pohl, and then I just scrambled and reinvented various anecdotes to create my mythical C.L. Moore / Kuttner Writer Combo. (I’m reminded of the wonderful way Alan Moore creates whole universes of comic book characters you’ve never heard of that evoke ones you have.)

Generally speaking, all of their work during the time they were married is to a degree a collaboration, though some stories carry their shared pen name and some don’t. Rage, in my story, is an analog to the novel Fury, which Moore has described as being about 70% written by Kuttner.

It’s an awesome book, by the way.

So again, this is fantasy, or SF, and it’s about my fantasy, of this heroic woman and her doomed husband, and a reality underneath, which in this case is a romantic love story, because I’m a sucker for a love story, and the subversive element of the story that muddies its politics is the notion that, for some people, writing is a kind of intimacy with the people you’re writing with, and the readers and editors are a greek chorus.

In her introduction Moore ascribes the bulk of the writing of Fury to her husband, but it was a collaboration, regardless of the byline…

The fact that Moore stops writing, during her second marriage to a man who doesn’t like SF, is I guess, the source of that idea.This thought just occurred to me; it wasn’t conscious…

C.L. Moore’s most collected story, No Woman Born, is about a beautiful dancer / actress whose brain is moved into a robot body after she’s injured in a fire. It’s a wonderful story with a fairly dark ending, this notion that somehow the robotized woman may be losing her humanity. It’s observations on gender, beauty, and femininity are still relevant, according to many female scholars and readers I’ve found on the web. The story makes sense to me, too.

Vintage Season is the story the POV is talking finishing at the end, and it may in fact be pure C.L. Moore, even though it was published under a shared pen name; people disagree. Vintage Season takes place in an unnamed city in a time that feels like the past, and it may be the first ‘time traveler tourist’ story ever written. I make it Boston and Cambridge, in my funhouse mirror universe, because I live in Cambridge and have lived in Boston and I tend to set things here.

OH! Moore would have been the second woman to get the SF grandmaster award, not the first. The first is Andre Norton.

Posted in Making a Writing Life, My Publications, Reinventing Science Fiction