A memory: Writing about videodiscs

Signature snippetI just discovered that I’ve been writing about new tech for longer than I thought.

My mother and I have been slowly going through boxes of papers, photos and memorabilia that were saved from the house when we moved. One of the things we found last time was a pile of magazines and clippings that had my byline on them — most from the 1980s.

Among them, to my surprise, was a clipping from my very first job at Signature magazine, where I worked from 1976 to 1977 as an editorial assistant. Signature was a travel and dining publication that was sent out to people who had the Diner’s Club credit card, which was mainly used by folks on an expense account. Besides doing simple editing, I was assigned short pieces to write — for example, descriptions of restaurants that had recently agreed to take the Diner’s Club card.

But this article, which appeared in the December 1976 issue, wasn’t about food or travel — it was about an exciting new entertainment technology called a videodisc that would let you actually watch a movie on your TV set whenever you wanted to. The article also described  another technology called Betamax, which could record TV programs directly off the set for later playback, but which was too expensive to be practical. (It retailed for $2,295 — about $9,800 in 2017 dollars.)

Besides reminding me how much things have changed, I now have evidence that I was — at least, occasionally — a tech writer straight out of college. Who knew?

 

A memory: Meeting Alfred Birdsey

Art by Alfred BirdseyBack in the early 1990s, it was the habit of most of the Ziff-Davis publications to take their staffs on “retreats” to interesting places. The idea was to get everyone together alone for several days to discuss strategy and bond — but it was also a great excuse for an all-expenses paid vacation. Which is how I ended up spending several days in Bermuda.

I don’t remember that much about it, weirdly enough. Other retreats, such as those to Key West and to London (the last we took) are vivid in my memory, but of the Bermuda retreat I remember very little — except for the few minutes I met the artist Alfred Birdsey.

We had the afternoon to ourselves, and whatever it was that other staffers were doing didn’t appeal to me, so I rented a bicycle and decided just to explore a little. As I was pedaling along, I spotted a sign for the Alfred Birdsey Gallery. I had enjoyed visiting crafts and art galleries on my vacations to Cape Code and other places, so I thought I’d see what it was about.

I found it to be an open shack and yard crowded with water colors, sketches and other artworks. I walked over, not sure whether it was open or not, when a thin, older man with a highly irritable expression came over and asked what I wanted.

I told him that I was interested in looking at the artwork. He shrugged dismissively, and told me to go ahead — obviously, as yet another obnoxious tourist, he didn’t think much of me.

Looking around, I thought most of it was interesting, but not much more than that. The colors were bright, and they were nice representations of various places on the islands. I wanted to buy myself a remembrance, and a gift for my parents, and this would be the perfect place — but I didn’t see anything I really liked. Until I saw two paintings, not as “photographic” as the others, one mostly in blues and the other in greens and yellows.

I asked him if I could find out the price of two of the paintings. He sighed, and asked which ones I wanted. I pointed.

He looked at me again. “Why do you want those?” he asked. It was a surprising question, and I don’t remember what I answered — I probably stuttered something inane about the colors and the mood. I knew next to nothing about the language of art and artists.

He told me that he was happy I chose those, that he was tired of people who just wanted paintings that were “no better than photographs” and he’d be happy to sell them to me. I don’t remember the price; it was probably less than they were worth. And just before I left, he grabbed another painting and insisted I take it with me.

When I got home, I immediately got the two paintings I had chosen framed. One is hanging in my living room; the other is with my mother. The reason that I am writing this is that I just found the third — which I had forgotten completely about — in a roll of posters that had been saved from our basement flood.

That’s all. There isn’t really anything else to say. Apparently, Birdsey had lived in Bermuda most of his life and was known for his impressionistic pictures; he died a few years after I met him.  I will have the third painting framed — I need it done carefully; it’s been rolled up for over 20 years now and I want it preserved. And I want to remember the irritable artist who made me feel special for a little while because I appreciated his style.

Some of the Political SF discussed at Readercon

I was privileged to moderate an excellent panel during this year’s Readercon that dealt with the life cycle of speculative fiction. Several books were mentioned, both in the description and during the panel, and I thought I might list them here, beginning with books by the folks on the panel. (If you were there and I’ve left any out, please let me know and I’ll add them.)

Panelists

Dennis Danvers
Author of The Watch, which Publisher’s Weekly described as “A philosophical inquiry with a basic moral point.”

Alexander Jablokow
Author of Brain Thief, which Publisher’s Weekly described as “a celebration of Americana diner schtick.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias
Author of Ink, of which Latinidad wrote, “If Margaret Atwood were Latina, this eerily believable depiction of where U.S. immigration policy is heading is the novel she would have written instead of The Handmaid’s Tale.”

T.X. Watson
Story “The Boston Hearth Project” will be in the upcoming Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation.

Books cited (links are to Wikipedia):

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Female Man by Joanna Russ
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My Readercon schedule

Readercon is nearly here! This very literate SF con, which I haven’t missed in many years, is running from Thursday, July 13th, through the following Sunday, July 16. I’m very much looking forward to seeing a lot of new and old friends there. Here’s my schedule:

Friday
6 pm
Higher, Higher, Flight in Fiction
BH
Susan Bigelow, Lorrie Kim, Barbara Krasnoff (moderator), Nnedi Okorafor, Ann Tonsor Zeddies
From Greek myths to superheroes, humans have been captivated by the dream of flight. What about the concept is so appealing? Why has it appeared time and time again in science fiction and fantasy genres? Panelists will discuss how recent fiction has revisited the human obsession with flight, and where it might go next.

Saturday
11 am
Tabula Rasa Group Reading
Room A
Barbara Krasnoff, Randee Dawn, Sally Wiener Grotta, Terence Taylor, Scott Lee Williams, Justin Keyes
A very quick taste of the folks who are part of Tabula Rasa, a NYC-based writers group. We’re a very varied collection of writers, so come and enjoy!

2 pm
The Life Cycle of Political SF

Room 5
Dennis Danvers, Alex Jablokow, Barbara Krasnoff (moderator), Sabrina Vourvoulias, T. X. Watson
SF writers have often written deeply political books and stories; some stand the test of time, while others become dated very quickly. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The New Atlantis,” to name just a few, directly addressed major issues of their day and are still relevant now—but differently. What affects how political SF ages and is read decades after its publication? What are today’s explicitly political books, and how do we expect them to resonate decades in the future?

Trying a novel: If at first I don’t succeed…

Anna_Brassey_438-victorian-woman-writing-jornalA couple of years ago, I made an attempt at starting a novel. Not the first I’d started, but this time I was determined that I would keep on and actually finish a completed manuscript. I was resolute. I was ready.

It never happened.

So after several months of complete writer’s block, during which time I’ve started and abandoned several short stories, I’ve decided to give it another try. I’ve got part of a novel that I workshopped a couple of years ago, and which I think I can finished. Maybe. Perhaps.

The first thing that I realized was that I had a dozen or more versions of the beginning, and several stray bit and pieces from later in the story. Before I could write, I needed to at least isolate which segments I wanted to use. I needed also to track the characters and the culture. And I finally realized why some people used writing software such as Scrivener.

So I’ve spent the last two days going through the Scrivener tutorial, finding the versions of the first chapters that I want to keep, and entering all my characters into a list. What I hope is that I’m not doing all this as busywork to justify the fact that I’m not actually, you know, writing. Or to justify the fact that I’m not querying for more freelance work, or getting several phone calls a day from publications eager to hire me as an editor. That I’m really doing this as a preparation to finish at least one goddamn novel.

We’ll see.

Now online: “The Ladder-Back Chair”

Mythic_Delirium_3_4_cove_webMy short story, “The Ladder-Back Chair,” which was published in the April-June print edition of Mythic Delirium, is now available online.

I’m especially pleased because it is appearing alongside a wonderful poem called “Grave Robber” by Jane Yolen. I had the honor of sitting next to her during the author autographing session at last month’s Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh, where she was Grand Master; she’s not only a great writer, but a lovely person.

The June online edition also features a poem “bn ʾdnbʿl bn ʾdrbʿl”by the talented writer Sonya Taafle.

So I hope you enjoy these, and the other now-online stories and poems in the issue.

 

Of bookcases and editing

bookcases in basementThere is something very satisfactory about building, say, a bookcase. On Monday, my cousin, his daughter, and his future son-in-law came over to help Jim and me assemble some bookcases that had been delivered from Home Depot (to replace some of those that had been ruined in the basement flood). We got four done; I started work on the fifth this morning, and Jim and I will probably finish that one soon.

The satisfaction is that, when you’re done putting in the dowels, and assembling the pieces, and turning the screws, you’ve got a bookcase. Sometimes you may not turn a screw correctly, or there may be a ding on the edge of one of the shelves from where you accidentally dropped it, or the quality may not be quite as high as you’d like. But you’ve got something to store your books in, and you put it together and it works.

I feel the same way about editing. Once I’m settled into a job, I know exactly what I need to do: Decide what stories are needed, assign them, get them back, edit them until they read well and are as factually and grammatically correct as possible, and then use online tools to build them and make them live. Hopefully, the result will be an article that, will enlighten or inform or amuse (or all three). Sometimes the article will need more work than I expected, or there will be glitches in the online tools used to put it online. But in the end, it will work.

Now I’m about to jump off the cliff into something new. There’s something exciting but a little frightening about that, especially after nearly a decade of employment in the same company. I’m hoping to land somewhere in the same continent I’ve been exploring for most of my career: That of the latest technologies — consumer or business — and the intersection of tech and human interaction. This has been what has fascinated me for years, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to earn my living reviewing and/or reporting on its various permutations. I’m hoping that will continue and that I’ll be able to build more interesting and up-to-date bookcases (as it were).

Meanwhile, I also write speculative fiction. But that’s grist for a somewhat different mill.