Tuesday, October 31, 2006

MileHiCon was great

Carolyn and I are back safe and sound from Denver, where I was one of the Guests of Honor at the science-fiction convention MileHiCon 38. We had a truly fabulous, very pleasant, and very relaxing time.

A large part of the joy in attending this con was our fellow guests of honor. Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens are great friends, and we got to spend more time with them this past weekend than we had since they left Toronto almost two decades ago. Alan M. Clark, the artist guest of honor, who turned out to look an awful lot like me (people kept calling me Alan and him Rob all weekend long), was a wonderful guy, and we got along fabulously. And we had some great conversations with Mark Ferrari, the toastmaster.

As an added bonus, old friend John E. Stith -- the Nebula-nominated writer, whom I've known for 19 years now -- came out, as did new friend Paolo Bacigalupi, the Hugo and Nebula finalist I met at the John W. Campbell conference in Kansas this past summer.

I had a wonderful breakfast Saturday morning with Mark J. Graham, the reviewer for the Rocky Mountain News, whose statement that I'm "just about the best science fiction writer out there these days" appears on a number of my books. After that, I gave a well-attended reading from my upcoming novel Rollback, the longest reading I've done to date from the novel; it was very gratifying to see how well it was received.

Saturday lunch was with John E. Stith, and we had a fabulous time catching up. Dinner -- which lasted three hours -- was Paolo, John, the Reeves-Stevenses, Carolyn, and me.

Saturday afternoon, I attended a great seminar on breaking into Hollywood given by Melinda Snodgrass (who wrote the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man," among other things).

Sunday morning, we all gave Guest of Honor speeches. Then Carolyn and I had lunch with Mark and Alan. After that, it was a lively "Hour with Robert J. Sawyer." Dinner started out with the Reeves-Stevenses and writer Edward Bryant, and we were joined later Melinda Snodgrass and her husband Carl; another wonderful, three-hour affair.

The Denver folk put on a very good convention, and I'm looking forward to returning in two years for the World Science Fiction Convention there.

(Pictured left to right at dinner on Sunday: Robert J. Sawyer, Melinda Snodgrass, her husband Carl, Edward Bryant, Judith Reeves-Stevens, Garfield Reeves-Stevens)

The Old Pemmican Factory

I wrote this commissioned essay, entitled "The Old Pemmican Factory," exactly one year ago, sending it to Locus, the trade journal of the SF field, on November 1, 2005, for their January 2006 special report on Canadian SF.

Locus edited the piece down, to my sadness, removing all the references to H.B. Fenn and Company, the Canadian distributor of Tor and Warner books that has been so instrumental in creating the Canadian SF revolution.

Here's the full text as I originally submitted it:

Damon Knight had a great name for the American commercial SF genre: he called it the Old Baloney Factory. Well, as with so many things, we have a branch plant of the U.S. parent company here in Canada -- call it the Old Pemmican Factory.

The seminal text -- the book that spawned the Old Pemmican Factory -- was the 1994 anthology Northern Stars, edited for Tor by New York's David G. Hartwell and Montreal's Glenn Grant, in honor (and honour) of the fact that the World Science Fiction Convention was coming back to Canada for the first time in twenty-one years.

I vividly remember David Hartwell exhorting me, and everyone else in Northern Stars, to hustle copies to anyone we could during the Winnipeg Worldcon. "A book like this needs a push," Dave said.

Except, it turned out, it didn't; not in Canada. Despite a dustjacket that screamed American stereotypes of the Great White North -- with a moose on it, no less! -- Canadians snapped up the book, and not just at the con. Northern Stars sold as well in the States as any anthology in the genre (and was even picked up by the Quality Paperback Book Club). But it sold spectacularly well in Canada, reaching not just the core-SF audience but a wider mainstream audience, too (with many thanks due to H.B. Fenn and Company, then and now Tor's Canadian distributor).

David Hartwell and Tor publisher Tom Doherty took sharp notice of this, and suddenly Tor was aggressively acquiring authors who lived in Canada. They already had Spider Robinson, and they added Phyllis Gotlieb (at its founding, the only Canadian member of the Science Fiction Writers of America), Candas Jane Dorsey, Terence M. Green, Matthew Hughes, Donald Kingsbury, Scott Mackay, Robert J. Sawyer, Karl Schroeder, Peter Watts, and Robert Charles Wilson (the only one not edited by Hartwell -- Bob works with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden; Tor also publishes Cory Doctorow, but he emigrated from Canada in 2000, two years before they published his first novel).

Despite the Canadian fixation on the term "speculative fiction" (perhaps in hopes of fooling national and provincial arts councils into giving the odd grant to an SF writer), the preponderance of hard SF and space opera, especially by the more prolific names and among their more recent works, is hard to miss; indeed, as I write this, Analog is serializing Karl Schroeder's latest novel, Sun of Suns.

More than a decade after Northern Stars, Tor still publishes most of the Canadian SF out there, although, in the interim, two Canadians have won the Warner Aspect first-novel competition: Nalo Hopkinson and Karin Lowachee. They've both risen to prominence in and out of Canada, their home-turf success doubtless in part because H.B. Fenn is also Warner's Canadian distributor -- the expertise Fenn gained in promoting the early Tor Canadian authors benefited these more-recent arrivals.

Granted, Nalo isn't a hard-SF writer (but, then again, Warner no longer markets her as SF; she's packaged as mainstream now), but Karin writes space opera. Outside of Tor and Warner, the major Canadian SF writers are Julie E. Czerneda (DAW) and James Alan Gardner (Eos), also purveyors of quality space opera, and, of course, William Gibson, whom I classify as a hard-SF writer (but who isn't marketed as SF anymore anyway).

So, if you like hard SF and space opera, check out the products of the Old Pemmican Factory -- which, despite the occasional misleading cover, are almost totally moose-free.


Monday, October 30, 2006

Howard Miller, R.I.P.

Those who bother to read the Acknowledgements in my novels may have notice the name Howard Miller there; it's in just about every novel of mine starting with The Terminal Experiment (and will be in the Acknowledgments of my upcoming novel Rollback).

Howard read and commented on those books prior to publication, as well as End of an Era, Starplex, Frameshift, Illegal Alien, Factoring Humanity, Calculating God, Hominids, Humans, and Mindscan.

Howard passed away last week. We'd been friends for at least fourteen years, maybe longer. We'd met through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Forums on CompuServe, and kept in touch by email -- which, for Howard, was the best way to communicate, for he was both deaf and blind ... not to mention confined to a wheelchair.

Howard died from respiratory failure, after being admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. He made the decision himself to halt treatment, and, according to his grandmother and his cousin, was conscious and lucid to the end. The funeral was on Sunday; Howard was buried on Long Island, New York.

He read my novel manuscripts on an electronic Braille display -- and always managed to catch typos that every one of the sighted people who read the books in manuscript missed. Indeed, in December 1994, Howard asked me to write him a letter of reference about his skills as a proofreader, which he was hoping to develop into a business. Here's what I had to say (and I meant every word):

To whom it may concern:

I've been fortunate enough to have Howard Miller proofread diskette copies of the manuscripts of my last several novels prior to their typesetting. Even though the manuscripts had already been read innumerable times by myself, my wife, and several writing colleagues, Howard nonetheless found errors that had slipped by everyone else (not to mention having eluded my word-processing program's spelling checker).

These days, I wouldn't want my editors to see a manuscript that hadn't first been checked by Howard. He is fast, efficient, accurate, and pleasant to deal with. I wholeheartedly recommend his services.

But Howard's contributions went far beyond just catching typos. He had an extremely sharp intellect, and was always quick to debate issues and ideas. And he was constantly sending me links to interesting web pages and news stories.

Howard wrote science fiction himself. Checking my notes I see that on October 29, 1992 -- exactly 14 years before Howard's funeral -- I wrote a critique of the first 4,200 words of Howard's science-fiction novel Beneath the Martian Crust.

We only met in person once, and that was at ConAdian, the 1994 World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg (which he'd learned about from me). I was privileged that Howard considered me one of his favorite authors (he sometimes ordered autographed copies of my books from me to be sent to his family members); another of his favorites was Anne McCaffrey, and I had the honor of introducing Howard to Anne in the flesh at that same Winnipeg con.

As some of you know, my current writing project, the novel Wake, features a deafblind character. Although in my book the character is a young woman, there's no doubt that she is in large part inspired by Howard, and I was so very much looking forward to having his feedback on the manuscript. He was my dear friend, and I shall miss him.


Friday, October 27, 2006

Gar and Judy

Today, MileHiCon 38 begins in Denver, Colorado. The author guests of honor are yours truly, plus my great friends Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens. I wrote this tribute to Gar and Judy for the convention program book:

Garfield and Judith Reeves-Stevens

If you call their house -- which used to belong to Liam Neeson -- you get Gar and Judy's answering machine. And it says, "You've reached the Reeves-Stevens." Not, mind you, the "Reeves-Stevenses." Granted, lopping off the last two letters saves a little time in their joint byline (I vividly recall one book on which their names were accidentally truncated on the spine), but there's more to this shortening than that. Over on the Star Trek lot, Gar and Judy were nicknamed the Binars, after the paired aliens from Next Generation who finished each other's sentences. It's no surprise to old friends of theirs like me; we always call them "Garandjudy" as if it were a single word.

For the record, back before they became their own two-person Borg collective, he was Francis Garfield Stevens and she was Judith Evelyn Reeves, both living in Toronto. When I first met them, back in the 1980s, they were already married, and it was amazing to see, even then, how close to telepathic their relationship was.

Gar and Judy met when they were both working on educational publishing in Canada. Judy edited a series called "Energy Literacy" for use in schools, and Gar had already written a few horror novels, starting with Bloodshift in 1981. Their first collaboration was a Star Trek novel called Memory Prime, which they began while living in Toronto. But by the time they'd finished it, they'd moved to Los Angeles, just a short distance from the Paramount lot. That led to them being invited to write The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and other Trek-related books, including Star Trek Phase II, probably the only "Making of" book ever for a television series that never aired.

Their involvement with Star Trek books led to them being asked to take a meeting with fellow Canadian William Shatner, to see if they might be the right people to collaborate with him on novels about Captain Kirk. They hit it off at once, and the trio have now produced nine Kirk novels.

The Shatner connection also led to Gar and Judy becoming involved with Star Trek: Enterprise, as story editors in the final (and best) season. Talks were underway to bring Shatner on for a guest-starring role, and he made clear that no writers understood Kirk better that the Reeves-Stevenses. By this time, they'd racked up impressive TV credentials of their own, including Batman: The Animated Series and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (they'd spent a year in Australia as supervising producers on the latter), and so were readily hired on as Enterprise staffers (and they appear on-screen in the final episode).

Besides being superb storytellers, Gar and Judy love working out details, and treating inconsistencies as challenges (who knew that the Borg homeworld was also V'Ger's "planet of living machines"? Gar and Judy, that's who ...). They thrive on being painted into a corner, and then finding an inventive and surprising way out.

In fact, early in my own career, I'd painted myself into a corner with my first trilogy, The Quintaglio Ascension (the trilogy title, incidentally, was Gar's coinage). In the first book, Far-Seer, I'd established that there was only one continent on my whole alien world, and yet in the second book, Fossil Hunter, I needed to send a Darwin-like character on a sea voyage of discovery so he could uncover the principle of natural selection. After struggling for weeks over this, I happened to mention the problem to Gar and Judy. Gar saved my bacon, and my series, by saying three words: "Polar ice caps."

Although we've been friends for two decades now, most of it has been after Gar and Judy moved to Los Angeles, and I regret that; I wish I'd gotten to know them earlier. But, as I once quipped -- and, Gar and Judy, with their perfect memories, recently quoted back to me -- there's a Pauli Exclusion Principle as applied to science-fiction writers: only a limited number are allowed in any area. I moved into Thornhill, a northern suburb of Toronto, just after they moved out. I wish it were possible for us to spend more time together in the same place, but as Scotty might say, "I canna change the laws of physics!"

And so I've got to be content just to rendezvous with them fleetingly when the conditions are exactly right for spatial interphase -- which they happen to be (so long as no Tholians intrude to throw off my calculations) right here in Denver this very weekend. Lucky me -- and lucky you, too! Enjoy meeting the Binars ...


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Doctor Who made me cry

Yesterday's Doctor Who episode (as shown here in Canada on the CBC) actually made me cry at the end, it was so moving. The episode was "School Reunion," and featured the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K-9.

Sarah Jane had been the final companion for the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and the first companion for the fourth (Tom Baker); K-9 was the robot dog. And Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) guest starred.

Now, I've often said that the job of good science fiction is to combine the intimately human and the grandly cosmic. Honestly, on the grandly cosmic part, this episode didn't work for me; the plot about bat aliens who had arrived on UFOs and taken over a school to harvest the children's minds and souls was over-the-top to the point of silliness (and structurally too much resembled "Father's Day," a Doctor Who episode from last season -- people trapped in a place normally thought of as safe, while flying monsters swoop around, and important figures from one of the stars' pasts are found and lost again).

But the intimately human part, which explored deftly both the Doctor's psychology in having an endless string of companions that he ends up abandoning, and the companions' psychology in following him on his adventures was brilliant and heart-breaking. I sobbed when Sarah Jane talked about missing out on having a family of her own, and sobbed again when she forced the Doctor to actually say goodbye this time.

Kudos, by the way, to Elisabeth Sladen, who was excellent. She was called upon to do subtle, sophisticated, emotionally true acting -- something never demanded of her when she'd been on Doctor Who back in the 1970s -- and she rose beautifully to the challenge; it's a terrific performance. The new Doctor Who is almost as much of a re-imagining of its precursor as is the new Battlestar Galactica, but I can't imagine Dirk Benedict from the old Battlestar fitting in on the new one, but Sladen is magnificent.

(On the other hand, Anthony Stewart Head is wasted in a rather silly part; he gives it his all, shrieking like a bat as required, but he's capable of so much more when given a decent part to play.)

By the way, for those interested in more of my thoughts about Doctor Who, I am featured heavily in the six-part web documentary series produced by the CBC called The Planet of the Doctor.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Regina, Montreal, and Surrey were great

I had great times in Regina, Montreal, and Surrey. In Regina, I gave a keynote at a conference on the future of nursing sponsored by the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association

I read at three libraries in Montreal in a very well organized mini-tour sponsored by the Canada Council for the Arts, and spent this past weekend at the Surrey International Writers Conference, which was absolutely terrific.

One of the nice things about this life is that no matter where I go, it seems I have friends there. DAW author Edward Willett kindly picked me up at the Regina airport; Julia Taminiau and Debi Ancel, who are fans of my work, drove me around in Montreal; and my student and friend Bonnie Jean Mah picked me up at the Vancouver airport. Thanks, guys!

I'm home in Toronto until Friday, when Carolyn and I head off to Denver, where I'm Guest of Honor at MileHiCon, then, miraculously, I've got three whole months in which I don't have to fly anywhere. Finally some time to relax by the fireplace -- and write!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Italian "Identity Theft"

The wonderful Italian publisher Delosbooks has just released my novella "Identity Theft," which was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and Aurora Awards and won Spain's 6,000-euro Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción, in a translated edition, with this beautiful cover.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Sci Phi Show podcasts Rob

A new audio interview with me is available online over at The Sci Phi Show podcast from Australia; Sci Phi celebrates both science fiction and philosophy. You can access the interview directly as an MP3 file right here.

The interviewer is Jason Rennie.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Evergreen Award voting

For those in Ontario, Canada, this is the week to cast your vote for the Evergreen Award, for library patrons' favourite book -- and my Hominids is one of the nominees this year. Details on the program are here. Please visit your local library branch, and cast a ballot.


(quickly chaning planes en route to Montreal)

Friday, October 13, 2006


I'm in Calgary, Alberta, for a couple of days, for the Fall 2006 Write-Off retreat organized by Imaginative Fiction Writers Association. It goes through Sunday evening, but I have to leave Sunday morning, 'cause I'm off to Regina, Saskatchewan, where I'm giving a keynote at a conference on nursing in 2020, sponsored by the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses Association.

Then Monday morning, I spend the whole damn day flying to get to Montreal -- I'd have thought there'd be direct flights between Regina and Montreal, but there aren't. Monday and Tuesday, I'm doing free public readings at libraries in Montreal; details are here.

Here in Calgary, I've seen the December Asimov's on sale, which has another poem, "Copyright Notice," by my brother-in-law David Livingstone Clink (look for it on page 5 -- it's easy to miss, 'cause it looks like a real copyright notice). And I'm tickled pink that Susan Forest, my friend and one of my writing students, has her first Asimov's story in this issue as well (page 50).

Also now on sale is the December 2006 Analog, with the third of four parts of the serialization of my next novel, Rollback.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

VCon a success

VCon in Vancouver was lots of fun. Not a particularly large convention, but very well run with lots of really first-rate programming. It was a joy to see FRIENDS AND colleagues including Bonnie Jean Mah, Walter from White Dwarf Books, Alma Alexander and Deck Deckert, Ed Willett (launching his first novel from DAW), Rhea Rose (whom I published in Tesseracts 6), Matt Hughes (whose novel The Commons I will publish next year), artist Jim Beveridge, Diane Walton and Danica LeBlanc from On Spec, the gang from Neo-Opsis, Shoshana Glick, Brian and Anita Hades from Edge, and more.

Next year's VCon -- number 32 -- promises to be extra-special. For one thing, it'll be the Canvention -- the Canadian national SF convention, where the Auroras will be presented. For another, programming will be run by the wonderful Rowan Sawyer, who would be terrific even if we didn't share a last name. :)

After VCon, it was a 13-hour overnight car drive with Fan GoH Randy McCharles to Calgary -- exhausting, but actually rather pleasant. And now I am in Calgary, gearing up for the Write-Off writing retreat being held by the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association (IFWA) starting on Friday. As always, busy times ...

Friday, October 6, 2006

Randy McCharles: Fan GoH

In Vancouver today, the science-fiction convention VCon 31 begins. Fan Guest of Honour is my great friend Randy McCharles. I wrote the tribute to him for the convention's program book (and will also be conducting the Guest of Honour interview with him on Saturday afternoon). Here's the tribute:


These days, the only ethnic jokes that can be made with impunity are those about one's own group. Randy McCharles likes to portray himself as being thrifty, and often underscores this by saying, "I'm Scottish," as if a certain parsimony was bred in his bones.

It's true that Randy likes to get value for his money: he loves salt-and-pepper chicken wings, and can tell you which Calgary pubs have them cheap on which nights of the week. (Still, he expects quality; I was with him recently when he lamented, "These aren't really fifteen-cent wings; they're more like nine-cent wings.") But all of his apparent cheapness hides an incredible generosity of spirit. I have never seen Randy fail to provide a lift to someone, no matter how far out of his way it took him, and he's always there to help a friend. When my travels have brought me to Calgary, Randy has often put me up at his immaculate townhouse; at times, it's been quite the hotel for writers, with three or four of us crashing simultaneously at Chez McCharles.

Randy likes to talk about his investments. Income trusts were recently quite good to him, and I heard him saying, while eating the aforementioned nine-cent-quality wings, that his portfolio had gone up 28% in the last year. But it's all to a noble purpose. Randy is a committed and very talented fantasy writer, but he has the good sense to know that for all but a lucky few, writing doesn't pay well. He's looking forward to retiring in his fifties -- not that far off now -- with enough money to support himself for decades to come once he switches to full-time writing, working on the novels and linked short stories that he's been tinkering with for years.

I first met Randell McCharles in 1996. Back then, and until quite recently, he was vice-president of Calgary's Imaginative Fiction Writers' Association (IFWA), a spirited writers' group. That organization decided they wanted to bring a pro in to facilitate an intensive two-day session for them, and they picked me for what became the first of an annual series of workshops. Randy was one of the participants, and I quickly noted his self-deprecating humour, incisive mind, and easygoing nature. Others note different things about him: over the years, I've seen many a woman in his writers' group swoon over his craggy good looks, his leonine mane -- now, 'tis true, touched with silver -- and his spiffy, brightly coloured shirts.

It's hard to overstate how big a part of Randy's life IFWA is -- and not just because he met his lovely girlfriend Val (who also participated in that 1996 workshop) there. Last Christmas, Val gave Randy a unique and wonderful gift: a one-of-a-kind "Women of IFWA" calendar she'd made, with the heads of female IFWits (for so they are known) Photoshopped onto the hot bods of women painted by Boris Vallejo.

Randy loves science fiction and fantasy television, and is constantly taping episodes, which he eventually gets around to watching -- but, maddeningly, he never labels the tapes. I wanted to see the first episode of the new version of The Night Stalker, which Randy had recorded -- but the only way to find it would have been to look at each cassette in turn.

Still, during my visits, I've watched far more than my share of really bad SF films on Randy's 52-inch widescreen TV (he was an early adopter -- the first person I knew to actually own such a thing).

His desire to get value for money continues here: even if a movie or TV show was shot in the traditional 4:3 aspect ratio, Randy insists that we endure it in 16:9 widescreen format, giving everyone elongated heads, and making the Death Star look rather like a watermelon. Anything else, he says, would be wasting resources -- unused screen real estate is unacceptable to him. (Some of this odd approach to displays may come from Randy's day job: he is an inventor and designer for SMART Technologies, a manufacturer of innovative electronic white boards, another medium that values making full use of flat surfaces.)

Of course, Randy's thrift is part of what makes him such a good convention organizer. He watches every penny, and can stretch a dollar as easily as he stretches an onscreen head. In fact, the only sign of disarray in his home is in the dining room, where a huge collection of convention art boards is stacked against one wall, a $20 bargain at a con auction he couldn't pass up, stored now in his home for future use.

Science-fiction fandom is notoriously political, but Randy manages to stay above such things, focusing on nothing but the job at hand. He's the very embodiment of the term SMOF -- Secret Master of Fandom; few of those around him know just how far-ranging his influence is. He brought Westercon to Calgary in 2005, and will be chairing the World Fantasy Convention in that city in 2008. On top of his duties for many years with IFWA, he's also often been involved in helping to run Con-Version, Calgary's annual convention. And so it's fully appropriate that V-Con honour this man -- one of Canada's most giving and hardest-working fans -- as its 2006 Fan Guest of Honour.

I myself have been a past V-Con Guest of Honour, so I know that the usual perk is to be flown from one's home city (indeed, I shared the same flight with Lloyd and Yvonne Penney who were the Fan GoHs the year I was Writer GoH). But our Mr. McCharles likes saving money for other people, as well as himself, and he volunteered to do the fifteen-hour drive from Calgary to Vancouver instead. If he looks a little sleep-deprived just now, that's why.

If you're looking for Randy during the con, try the con suite -- where the munchies are free. If he does venture out of the hotel for a meal, it'll be to somewhere inexpensive, ideally serving cheap wings. "I'm Scottish," he'll say again, with his disarming grin.

Maybe. But I think the more appropriate adjective is "fannish." Randy McCharles is one of us, and I'm proud to call him one of my very best friends.


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Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Watch the skies

Wednesday was another day of dealing with the aftermath of the accident. I had a long-standing commitment to speak to the Toronto Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada -- and I had absolutely zero chance to prepare my talk in advance. So I just got up and winged it -- an hour and a half talk, plus 30 minutes of Q&A. Fortunately, the audience was very supportive and kind, and they really seemed to enjoy my talk.

Thursday, Carolyn and I get a little respite from all the stress of the past week: we've got tickets to see comedian Dennis Miller live. I'm very much looking forward to that.

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Jagster to the rescue!

James Alan Gardner is a great science-fiction writer, and one of my best friends. And tonight, he was there for me when I needed him.

The repercussions of the car accident involving one of my family members that I mentioned yesterday are continuing, and I spent most of today back at the hospital. In total, I got maybe three hours' sleep between yesterday and today.

But tonight was my long-scheduled first public seminar at the Kitchener Public Library as the Tenth Annual Edna Staebler Writer in Residence there. It was a two-hour event on the basics of getting published -- Heinlein's rules, finding a market, manuscript format, agents, copyright, etc. Normally, I could do that easily, but I was just so shagged today that during the hour-long drive to Kitchener, I called Jim Gardner and asked him to come along and co-present the material with me.

It came off brilliantly. I told the audience why I was off my peak, and they were very supportive. And Jim and I played off each other very well. It turned out to be a very pleasant evening, with lots of wonderful audience participation. Many thanks, Jim!

Exhausted now. Bed.

Monday, October 2, 2006

Creepy AdSense

So, a member of my family was in a car accident today -- no one was hurt, but the car is a right-off. And Google -- through Gmail -- thoughtfully provided all these ads along side an email I just received from someone I told about the accident:

temporary car insurance
Quotes, Rates & Coverage Online! Compare temporary car insurance

Ontario's Top Car Report
Buy Your Car With Peace of Mind! Data from ON, Canada, US for $29.95

Bus Accident Attorneys
Helping Bus Accident Victims Free Lawsuit Case Consultation

RBC Car Insurance
Get a free online quote & see how you can save! Several discounts.

envisionCAM Video System
Record Video of Aggressive Driving and Accidents in Automobiles

Claims Adjusters
Listings of claims adjusters. Find out how an adjuster can help you.

Fatal Car Accident
Find An Old Fatal Car Accident In Millions Of Old Newspaper Pages

I shudder to think what helpful things would have popped up if I'd mentioned, in private email, that someone had died ...


If you've got a Palm OS device with a WiFi Internet connection, you might like Quickipedia; I just registered it -- a US$14.95 client for reading Wikipedia articles on your handheld. Cool!

Photos in Locus

This may be a record for photos of my in Locus, the SF trade journal -- six in one issue! I'm clearly visible in the front row of the audience for the Hugo Awards in Los Angeles in August on page 7, there's a nice photo of me (in a tux, no less!) on page 10, I'm in the Odyssey group photo on page 11, I'm in the Writers of the Future group photo on page 12, and there are two pictures of me at the Worldcon on page 41.

And Fitzhenry and Whiteside's marketing department has been hard at work: there's a terrific ad for Robert J. Sawyer Books on page 51, featuring our two latest trade paperbacks (following their successful hardcover runs), Karl Schroeder's THE ENGINE OF RECALL and Danita Maslan's ROGUE HARVEST.

Actually, I must say, looking at the ad makes me quite proud. Besides Karl and Danita, seeing the other great names that have helped out: Stephen Baxter (who did the introduction to Karl's book), L.E. Modesitt (who did a wonderful blurb for Danita's), Cory Doctorow (who we quote on the cover of Karl's). It's grown to be a very nice little line of books, and I'm pleased. :)

More on ebooks

I'm actually a very big fan of ebooks. I love having lots of stuff to read with me when I travel; I love being able to read in the dark; I love being able to make the text large enough to read without my glasses; I love having a couple of big dictionaries available as I read.

But the lack of commercial by authors who have reasonable followings but aren't New York Times bestsellers is a problem -- Tor didn't bother to do MINDSCAN as an ebook (or this year's Hugo winner, SPIN, for that matter).

And I acknowledge that reading outdoors is a problem, too.

I'm actually one of those guys who never even creases the spine of his paperbacks, so being careful with my ebook reader isn't a big deal for me (and it's not THAT fragile anyway).

I think the marketing of ebooks has missed the boat: reading in bed when your spouse is sleeping is something middle-aged and older people do mostly; getting big text is something middle-aged and older people want. And expensive gadgets are something middle-aged and older people can often afford.

But the marketing departments have said that that demographic is a lost cause, because its members are perceived as technophobic (although how people with artificial hips, pacemakers, and so on can be seen that way is beyond me), and so they try to sell these to the young, who (a) are the least likely to read books, and (b) would rather have an MP3 player than a reading device.

Now, yes, my trusty Sony Clie TH55 (a Palm OS 5 handheld, and often cited as the best Palm OS device ever made) requires a bunch of third-party software to make it do what I wanted it to do as an ereader. Ergonomically, I had to reprogram the hardware buttons in ways that the built-in software doesn't allow; I use a utility that lets me take the screen brightness down well below what the built-in brightness adjustment normally allows; I use another utility to give me landscape mode in addition to portrait; and besides eReader software from (eReader.com, my favorite ebook-reading software), I bought two large dictionaries (for about US$50 total) to go with it.

Still, in my humble opinion, Sony was thisclose to having a perfect ebook platform with the Clie line (needing only to solve the bright-sunlight problem), and instead they chucked that altogether and started over from scratch, throwing out (1) color, (2) reading in the dark, (3) the ability to read ebooks in various established formats, and even (4) pocket portability in the process.

Ebook readers should have big dictionaries built in (just as TVs now have TV listings built in); the dictionary companies would make more money licensing their big books at small costs for all readers, instead of selling just a few copies to those who buy them as add-ons. The ridiculous starter dictionaries that come with most ereaders are useless for native English speakers. I already know that a "fox" is a small carnivorous dog-like creature -- but I might not know that "vulpine" means fox-like.

Somebody, someday, is going to get this right. And then everything in the publishing game will change. And I actually very much look forward to that day. :)

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Monday Spotlight: Rob's Fictionwise page

In honor of the discussion below, of ebook-reading devices, this week's Monday Spotlight is actually a page linked off my site: the Robert J. Sawyer page at Fictionwise.com, the leading ebook vendor. It lists 28 of my short stories, two of my novels, and one audio book available in a variety of formats. Enjoy!

Why the Sony Reader is doomed

One of the great joys of reading ebooks -- which I do all the time -- is reading in the dark, when your partner is sleeping. But the much-touted e-ink in the Sony ebook is passively illuminated: it depends on ambient light falling on it to be visible. It's great if you're reading outdoors, less so if reading in dim light, and unusable if you're in the dark ...

... unless you CLIP ON AN EXTERNAL FLASHLIGHT, just like those geeky little book-lights they sell at the check-out at bookstores.

To make the experience LIKE A BOOK doesn't mean duplicating the drawbacks books have. What's next? An ereader with a curved screen?

Star Trek remastered

Well, I got to see one of the sexed-up Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, with new CGI effects. It was "The Naked Time," certainly one of the best episodes. There were a number of nice touches -- Scotty's phaser cutting through the engineering bulkhead now has a visible beam; the PSI 2000 research station is now visible in the establishing shot of the snow-clad surface of the planet, the chronometer running backward on the bridge is now a nifty digital display instead of mechanical spinning numbers.

But I'm not sure what I thought of the CGI spaceship shots. They actually looked like CGI to me (as opposed to the CGI shots added to the Director's Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which still looked like filmed miniatures); there was something flat, and too vivid, about the look (at least on my 50-inch monitor).

Overall, though, I'm certainly intrigued enough to want to watch another one of the updated episodes.

One depressing thing was the advertisements that ran with this episode of STAR TREK, on WNLO in Buffalo, New York: bogus herbal supplements for penile enhancement and weight loss, dubious debt-consolidation services, and so on; it looks like advertisers think the demographic for the enhanced ST:TOS consists of suckers ...