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the right stuff

Earlier this week I paid a visit to the Riverside County Library to pick up a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, whose books I'm in the process of reading. But I dislike making the trip for just one book, so I also requested Charles Stross's The Nightmare Stacks. I had read it once before, but I remembered enjoying it enough so that I thought it might repay a second reading.

This is volume seven of the Laundry Files, and that series has being going through a transition. It started out as spy thrillers about the intensely bureaucratic secret British government agency that keeps track of monsters, sorcerers, evil cultists, and impending apocalypses. But spies are part of the same range of government functions as armed forces: Their job is either to prevent a war, to detect one before it starts, or to help win it. In the last few novels, the series has been moving closer to being war stories, with events taking place that are harder to conceal from the public. In this one, it goes over the edge.

The war scenes make up the last third of The Nightmare Stacks, and they involve an attack from a direction no one in the Laundry was anticipating: an invasion of Leeds by the Fair Folk. Neither side in the conflict is remotely prepared to deal with the other, and the situation is a total mess—and, to my mind, a plausibly portrayed one.

But what struck me about it, on this reading, was an aspect of characterization.

One of my very favorite superhero movies in The Incredibles. But when I watch it, the single scene that grabs me hardest doesn't involve any form of superpowers. It's the one where Helen Parr is flying to the tropical island where her husband is a captive, and has found that her older children have stowed away on her plane—and as she approaches the island, two missiles are filed at her. And we see her taking evasive maneuvers, and trying to think of a way for them not to get killed—but also talking on the radio in a totally calm, level voice, explaining the situation and trying to get help. This is obvious a terrifying situation, but she panics to self-control. And that's a trope that gets me every time.

Well, okay, Stross has it in this book, multiple times, not just and not primarily with the main characters, but with supporting characters and even with walk-on characters:

* The guy in British army HQ who gets a call telling him that Plan Red Rabbit is in effect—that being a detailed plan for what to do if Britain is invaded from Middle-Earth—and just says, "let me confirm and get back to you," and after doing so calls out the armed forces
* The commander of a tank force who sees a dragon flying overhead—the mere sight of which gives him a migraine, and incapacitates much of his force, in one case fatally—but manages to give the order to shoot
* The civilian pilot whose plane is hit with a basilisk attack that explodes his co-pilot's head, but who manages an emergency landing before collapsing
* The two senior Laundry personnel who go up onto the roof of their new and inadequately warded building to hold off the elven armies, expecting to die in the process
* The Laundry technical staff member who shoots a pair of dinosaur-sized basilisks with a machine gun, and then calmly tells his driver to take over navigating, as the resulting flash has blinded him

Possibly the best summary is

Yup, he thinks we're going to die now, Pete tells himself, trying the idea on for size; it's a bad fit, but they don't have time for dramatics, so he dismisses it.

Now, you could think that this would get to be too much, but it doesn't have that effect, at least for me. This may be partly because it's inherent in the trope that it has to be understated. But I think Stross is also making the point that the ability to think like that is a resource that a military force has to have to be effective; it can't be a rare exception in a functioning army. In any case, as I say, it's a narrative effect that I find compelling; I've liked it ever since the scene in Starman Jones where Max's friend Sam sends Max and Ellie up into the starship and stays behind to hold off the attacking aliens.

I'd also note a couple of other things that worked for me:

The scenes that make the point that First of Spies and Liars, one of the elves, who as a race are characteristically murderous psychopaths, has the ability to empathize—and in her culture this is not like being homosexual in the 1950s US or Victorian England; it's like being homosexual in the Middle Ages, when it carried the death penalty, and not an easy death.

The scene at the end when the mode of action changes from war to law, with First of Spies and Liars reciting legal formulae that are at least as powerful as magic, and that dramatize the victory of law over violence.


I decided to make the new campaign a steampunk one involving travel to Mars. And this is going to be Lowellian Mars, the world that Wells, Burroughs, Lewis, Heinlein, and Zelazny all used as a setting, with Burroughs-style humanoid aliens. GURPS Mars has a chapter on "Dying Mars" that perfectly fits this, with five different races (which look curiously like elves, men, hobbits, dwarves, and orcs, but the relics are rayguns rather than magic swords).

And then I started looking closely at the map, and I realized that one of the surviving Martian civilizations was called Valles Marineris.

I'm okay with the geography of Mars being that of the actual planet, modified by having a surface pressure of 0.34 atmospheres, rather more water, and consequent erosion; Schiaparelli and Lowell's maps were based on the actual planet within the limits of their telescopic resolution. And I'm okay with using names in Earth's classical languages, rather than making up Martian names in Martian languages. But Valles Marineris was named for the interplanetary probe that discovered it; it doesn't come from a 19th-century name. So what was that region called in the 19th century?

After two or three searches, I found a really beautiful map that seems to have only Schiaparellian features and that has classical names. Matching it up with modern maps such as the ones in GURPS Mars is a bit tricky, even though they both have lines of latitude and longitude. But it looks as if that region wasn't given a specific name; Valles Marineris, despite being incredibly huge, was too small to be seen from 90 million kilometers away. However, the names Ophir and Candor both appear on the map, and GURPS Mars uses them as names for two cities; so I may call the culture area the Ophir culture. Or it could be the Agathodemon culture, as there's a dark streak that runs parallel to Valles Marineris that has that name. . . .

two-part invention

I woke up this morning, not long ago, and realized I had been dreaming that I had discovered a nativity hymn by Arthur Rimbaud. In fact I had found both the French original and an English translation, and I was looking at the first verses and thinking about whether the translation looked accurate. I'm not sure if I dreamed actual words in French (or English) and they faded, or if my brain had just done FRENCH TEXT HERE.


One of the hard things about moving out of San Diego was leaving my established roleplaying gaming circle behind. I planned to travel down some months to run sessions for one group of players (I'm hoping to actually do it at the end of this month!), but I was hoping to find roleplayers up here. For some months, though, I wasn't getting anywhere.

Earlier this month, I heard from a GURPS player who had seen my post on a newsgroup for people looking for games or players; he had moved to Riverside and was hoping to find other GURPS players. We got together earlier this week, and he told me about a gaming site he'd discovered—an office space set up for hosting rpgs and board games, for a modest fee. I went up with him to sit in on a game. When I mentioned that I was interested in running GURPS, one of the other players expressed an interest, so I got his name and e-mail, and this morning I wrote to him about what I had in mind.

At this point it looks as if I have a set of possible times and two definitely interested players, both of whom want to try to recruit more people. I've suggested some ideas for campaigns, with the hope of settling on one and having a first session in March.

I'm going to have to adjust my GMing style a bit, I think, since my campaigns have often been high on roleplaying and low on action, and in any case I'll have to figure out what works for these players. But it looks like I might have a local gaming circle if all goes well.

Låt den rätte komma in

On Friday evening, I actually began to see the end of my current work queue. So C and I took a couple of hours for video. Last year I had acquired a copy of the Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in (I wanted to see the original; I mistrust American remakes of European films), and had been wanting to watch it ever since, so we picked that one.

The premise of the film is vampirism, and actually fairly conventional vampirism: People bitten by vampires, if they don't die, become infected and turn; vampires find sunlight painful and if exposed more than very briefly burst into flame. There's also a clever twist on another old formula: A vampire can enter a place without invitation (this apparently must be spoken invitation), but shortly afterward they begin to hemorrhage massively all over their bodies. But this vampire, Eli, is unusual in being twelve years old ("about" and "I've been twelve for a long time").

But that's not what the film is about, and that's what we both found amazing about it. What Låt den rätte komma in is about is love.

The film starts off with a socially isolated twelve-year-old boy, Oscar, who's a target for school bullies. He observes a girl his own age and an older man (apparently her father) moving into the apartment next to his. Then at night, while he's outside muttering things the bullies have said to him and stabbing a tree with a knife, clearly wishing it were one of the bullies, Eli approaches him. They're cautious with each other at first, but over the course of the film we see them coming increasingly to care for each other, even while Oscar slowly figures out Eli's true nature, and even more slowly admits it to himself. The relationship was both convincing and moving to watch.

But that's not the only portrayal of love. There's also the story of Eli's seeming father's willingness to take appalling risks for her, and to pay any price to keep her safe. And there's a subplot about two men, very close friends, one of whom encounters a desperately hungry Eli, and dies—after which the other shows prolonged grief for him.

So though this is about a classic horror motif, this isn't a horror film, or not straightforwardly so. There are things in it that are creepy and disturbing, but in watching it, I felt much less terror or horror than sympathy. Though I suppose it could be said that in persuading the viewer to be sympathetic to someone who is, ultimately, a serial killer, it's horror at a meta-level.

I was also impressed by how intelligently the plot was developed, and how many things that were planted early on came back in later scenes to be important. I found the whole film to be unusually rewarding.

work statistics

So the work is continuing to come in:

I have two nonfiction books in my work queue, one of them soon to be completed and turned into production, the other due to go to the author for review in a couple of weeks.

I'm working on the second volume of a novel, which I'd like to return in early to mid February.

I'm halfway through one journal from a university press, and I've done nearly all the articles for another journal, but there are more articles to come.

Another university press has just sent me my first assignment, a batch of articles for a journal, due in about a month, and I've just sent them a short list of queries about the details of journal style.

My longest established journal client (I've been with them since I first started freelancing) has some articles that are supposed to reach me for editing in the near future.

Oh, and Steve Jackson Games is interested in a couple of my proposals for short articles for their online magazine, and they have a book manuscript waiting for one of their editors to have time to review it.

All in all, this is setting out to be a busy year. I'm hoping it continues!
My work comes to me over the Internet, and often includes tens of megabytes of files. E-mail providers often block anything that large, so some of my clients use a service called WeTransfer, which will send up to two gigabytes, free.

Recently, though, I've started having a problem: I get a download from them, which is zipped; I click to unzip; I get a file in a format called ".cpgz"; I click that; I get back a new copy of the original zipped file. Apparently the process just cycles, and never yields a readable file.

I don't usually find online help archives helpful; finding exactly the entry that addresses my problem is tedious and unreliable. But I was having this problem again today, so I decided it was time for desperate measures. And there in the first entry was an explanation: Both Windows and Mac provide decompression utilities as part of their operating systems, but those can't handle the compressed files WeTransfer produces. And whenever someone wants to send two or more files, they're automatically compressed, for efficient. It's a curious notion of efficiency that involves using a format that neither of the big two operating systems can work with. . . .

WeTransfer pointed me at what seems to be an actual solution: There's a utility called The Unarchiver that can work with their zipped files. It turned out to be available from the Apple Store as a free download. It worked on the first download I tried it on.

But really, couldn't they have just come up with a compression algorithm that works with the "out of the box" OSs?

my god, how the money rolls in

In early 2016, I heard from one of my clients that the journal I had been copy editing for them for a number of years had changed its policies, and would now be copy edited in India. This particular journal had been my biggest client, so I faced a gap in my work schedule. So I started looking for potential clients, and found the American Association of University Presses Website, which had links to dozens of university presses. I composed a query letter, and started going through the list, sending it off to every press that published journals (I prefer a mix of journal and book assignments, and I wasn't short of book assignments). I didn't get a lot of responses, but two presses got back to me, and one of them sent me an assignment in November. Apparently they liked my work, because I'm now finishing up a second journal assignment, and have two more queued up.

In the meantime, my other established journal client has been sending more work than previously, as has my book client. And to add variety, a personal contact brought me a novel to edit (not the first, but my main book client publishes scholarly nonfiction).

So, right at the moment, I'm finishing up a book on political science and a classical studies journal; I have another book on political science and a novel in process; and I have journals of religious studies, geography, and chemistry in the queue. 2017 is starting out as a busy year!

Addendum: Now I've heard from the other university press that was interested, and it looks like they have an initial assignment planned for me. I don't think they'll be giving me as much work, but having more regular sources of work will lessen the fluctuations in income a little more, which is all to the good.

that was unnerving

C and I went down to San Diego over the weekend, spending Saturday at a New Year's Eve party with many of our San Diego friends, and Sunday visiting C's father, who is in his nineties. There is a fairly convenient Greyhound route, so that's how we planned to travel.

On Saturday, we arrived at the local Greyhound station, an hour before departure, planning to buy our tickets. And there on the door was a handwritten sign saying the station would be closed on December 24, 25, and 31 and January 1! There had been no announcement of this on the Web site. This was an unpleasant surprise, as we didn't have any other way to get to San Diego. I asked the driver on an earlier departing bus, and he said that we might be able to board in Riverside, travel to San Diego, and buy our tickets there, retroactively. This wasn't really convenient, as we had made arrangements to be picked up in Escondido, but after a couple of phone calls we had things lined up to get us to the party.

We also talked with another would-be passenger, who suggested that if we couldn't work things out with Greyhound, he could call Lyft, and we could pool our money for the trip; the amount we'd planned to spend on bus tickets would likely be enough, he said.

As it turned out, when the bus driver got there, she talked with those of us who didn't have tickets, called the Greyhound offices on her cell phone, took our money, and wrote down ticket numbers for us. So arrangements were in place to cover for the office being closed. But we all could have been spared a lot of anxiety if the office staff had written "Tickets can be bought from drivers" on the sign! I don't call that good customer service.

It seems to have been purely local to Riverside, by the way. We bought our tickets for the return trip online and printed them out, but the San Diego main office was open when we got there for our departure.

welcome to 2017

In the United States, the federal government proclaimed that New Year's Day would be observed January 2, presumably to give a lot of people a three-day weekend (the most important feature of holidays for a lot of people, apparently). So I guess the federal new year starts today, and yesterday was a federal leap day or something. Happy New Year!