Alexander Jablokov

 

I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction, with a new novel, Brain Thief.

The name is pronounced Yablokov, and the legal name is Jablokow.  My best friends can't spell or pronounce it, so you shouldn't worry about it either.

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Write me at alexjablokow [at] comcast.net

I'd love to hear from you.

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Appearances

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"The Instructive Tale of the Archeologist and His Wife", Asimov's Science Fiction, out now

"Bad Day on Boscobel", The Other Half of the Sky.

"Feral Moon", novella, Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2013

"Since You Seem to Need a Certain Amount of Guidance", Daily Science Fiction, November 6, 2012

"The Comfort of Strangers", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2012

"Blind Cat Dance" reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Best Science Fiction of the Year 28

"The Day the Wires Came Down", novelette, Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2011

"Plinth Without Figure", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010

"Warning Label", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine August 2010

"Blind Cat Dance", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine March 2010

Brain Thief, a novel, Tor Books, January 2010

 

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Thursday
Nov272014

An Interstellar encounter

Science fiction movies come in two main categories, both large: the loud, weaponized alien invasion type, with stuff blowing up and carefully placed taglines, and the spiritually transcendent Big Idea kind with soaring music and people staring off at things. Chistopher Nolan's recent Interstellar is definitely that second kind.

It was OK, actually. It had some good science fiction stuff in it, though its best parts seemed to crib a bit too much from the 2013 Cuaron film Gravity (a vastly superior work, I think, largely because it was on a human scale, involving the survival of a single person in space, not entire races, civilizations, etc.).

I could go on about a lot of stuff I didn't like in it (the stunt-cast Matt Damon plays a smarmy douchebag so well it is startling than anyone would ever believe a thing he has to say, for example), but I want to focus on just a couple of things:  the film's portrayal of poverty, and of dishonesty.

The world we step into in the beginning of the movie is explicitly impoverished. Crops are failing, civlization has largely collapsed. And it's intellectual horizons are likewise impoverished, as is shown at a parent/teacher conference where a former astronaut is cautioned to not have his daughter tell her classmates the Moon landings ever really happened--those dreams will impede recovery, it is implied.

But the main character, Cooper, lives with his family in a classic Midwestern farmhouse. He drives a pickup truck, goes to baseball games. It is dusty. OK. But otherwise, it does not look like any real compromises need to be made. Even the corn we see is high and vigorous (though weirdly flammable, as is shown in a late scene that makes little sense).

The whole thing is symbolized when the pickup has a flat. Cooper says to get the spare, his son says "that is the spare". Then a drone flies past and Cooper takes off in pursuit of it. Despite the fact that his rear tire is flat, he drives up and down hills, and through cornfields that, presumably, are the only food they have. The terrain is hillier than good corn country generally is, but I can deal with that.  What I can't deal with is that the flat tire vanishes as an issue.

Having a flat you can't easily fix is a great referent for poverty. Nolan likes the idea of poverty, but neither its reality or its appearance.

Later, of course, we find an entire concealed space program, paid for by some secret appropriation, adn one that is much more effective than our own open space program.

This is all a lie--appropriate, becaue, aside from poverty, the movie is about lies and promises not kept (except by deus ex machina miracle). The government lies to people to keep them from dreaming too high, Cooper gives his daughter an assurance he can't keep, Damon's Dr. Mann lies about his planet, Anne Hathaway's Brand (did she really not get a first name?) lies about how neutral she is about picking the planet that holds her lover (in a self-justifying speech so lame I can't imagine the crew doing multiple takes of it without cracking up), Michael Caine's Dr. Brand lies about pretty much everything.

Some of these lies aren't just self-justifying fibs, they threaten the very survival of the human race.  This is a society in crisis, falling apart and losing everything that once held it together. How does an honorable person of good will deal with this situation?  That's an interesting movie, and one, I think that the Nolans had in mind before the succumbed, as they usually do, the the lure of their favorite fabrics, fustian and bombast.

And can we give "clever" robots a rest for a while?

I did like a couple of moments:

Cooper and Brand return from serious time dilation on their first planet and the man they left in orbit stares at them, quaking, because for him it has been over twenty years.

Dr. Mann starts on a standard self-justifying villain speech but doesn't get more than three words into it before the consequences of his bad decisions wipe him out.

Sunday
Sep142014

Starting with Scrivener

Someone always has a piece of software that will make your life better in some way. And you know the kind of person too: bright-eyed, evangelistic, full of tips and tricks, obscure menu items, time-saving keystroke combinations...

And sometimes, they are right. They just need to overcome my suspicion first.

All writers, at least in my field, at some point talk about Scrivener, the program from Literature and Latte. It's a program that gives you a variety of ways to outline and plot, as well as write, compile, and submit manuscripts.

For a long time I had it, and didn't do anything with it except contemplate how much of a pain it was going to be to learn to use it. How much more productive would I need to become to make up for the time spent learning it? A got a couple of books, because that is how I prefer to learn, and then didn't read them.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I set aside a day to dig into a vast mass of notes and discarded drafts of a book I once worked on, set on the partly terraformed Venus of my novel Deepdrive.

First off, it was a dismaying experience. There were a lot of notes, on various sizes and colors of paper, in various notebooks, and even included a file I generated by Dragon Naturally Speaking after I had had my eye surgery and could not use my eyes to read or write. It was a bit like something you would have expected to find stuffed into a drawer in the Unabomber's cabin.

There was a lot of good stuff there, but it had no organization, and there were several sticking points that kept not getting resolved, the reason I had never managed to move things forward.

I decided to see if Scrivener could help me with this. Scrivener has a feature called the Corkboard, which is an image of notecards on a corkboard. Each notecard can actually be the top card of a stack of cards, if they all relate to the same thing.  And you can move them around and reorganize them. These cards are just a way of looking things, and this information can be viewed in other ways in the program.

So I spent one long day taking my notes and pouring them onto notecards. It was actually a transformative experience.  I created Plot cards, each of which was a scene, with groups gathered into sections, Character cards, one for each, cards for locations, organizations, and other important facts that needed to be decided.

When I was done, where I needed to work and make decisions became much clearer. And it wasn't actually that hard at all to do. I'm sure there is a lot of functionality that I haven't yet managed to get access to, but the liberation of being able to move cards at will, and scan over the plot at a high level, has already showed the program's value.

I have one set of cards called Open Questions. These are issues I have not yet resolved. How does someone escape from the situation they are in? How did this character learn this particular essential fact? Which of several possible characters does something important to the plot?

Having each question on a single card means I can sit down and focus on one clearly defined problem at a time.

Now, to solve each Open Question, I still write on my pads. It's the way I think, and I don't think that will ever change. Scrivener has let me clearly define the problem, though, and then I can focus my mind on it. When I think I have solved it, I write an underlined Good under the solution, and then delete the Open Question card, and put the solution in its proper place in the plot cards (what happens) and character cards (who does it, how this relates to their personality and goals).

Now, I can't say yet that I have solved the problem of the book, but Scrivener has allowed me to make way more progress on it than I have in years. So, score one for the clever software that helps me do my work.

 

 

Saturday
Sep132014

The "crazy uncle" instructs

A few weeks ago I wrote about my role as the crazy uncle of writing workshops.

Now you can confirm or deny this clame for yourself.  Jeanne Cavelos just sent me a link to two segments of my clueless rant about perceptive analysis of plot. Now you can check out what my students are exposed to.

I am podcast #76 here. If you get a chance, let me know what you think.

Thursday
Sep042014

Can a "mad annotator" be female?

I'm fiddling with a story that has an annotator. You know,one of those secondary unreliable narrators who add notes to what purports to be the main narrative, arguing with it, subverting it, sometimes amplifying it. Just to make it more complicated, the main story is itself a lexicon, a collection of entries on an alien culture.

In my original thoughts, both the lexicographer and the annotator were male, two standard types of literary academics, one more flamboyant and fraudulent, one more nervous and obsessive. But I always like to try out different alternatives, and one would be to change the sex of one or both of these characters.

But, somehow, the obsessive annotator seems to naturally come down as male. At the moment, I can't figure out if that is just literary convention, or actually says something about the male neurophysiology. I'm inclining to the "it's just convention" position, since there are certainly many autism-spectrum women, obsessively detail-oriented women, narcissistic "this is about me, isn't it" women, etc. But, in my experience, while they certainly act as unreliable narrators, they more rarely appear as annotators. Maybe Amy Dunne, the wife in Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, can count as an annotator, though not in a strict technical sense.

Could Kinbote be female? This is the kind of thing I think about when I can't sleep, which was certainly true last night.

Monday
Sep012014

The nebulous "Midwest"

I grew in in Illinois, in suburban Chicago. I have relatives in Minnesota, Ohio, and Michigan. I am a Midwesterner, and will never be anything else. Acute ears here in Boston can instantly peg me to, not only the greater Midwest, but the Great Lakes area.

So I am surprised that there is debate about which states are actually in the Midwest. In this survey from 538, only 80% of respondents thought Illinois was in the Midwest. Who are these people, and why do they bother having opinions about anything?

To me, the Midwestern states are (West to East): Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, MIchigan, and Ohio.  No Southern states, please. No Missouri, no Kentucky (!),  One historical characteristic of Midwest states: they were settled from New England, and they were not slave states. In a sense, you could say that southern Illinois and Indiana are not in the Midwest, by this criterion, being more Southern inflected. It's basically the old Northwest Territory, plus Iowa ("around here, dear, we pronounce that Ohio").

The Old Northwest Territory

So they have townships, deep glacial soil and a lot of other glacial geography, nice folks who like casseroles (or "hot dishes"), and a scattering of French place names, which they grotesquely mispronounce.

Quick rule: if you could imagine anyone in town volunteering to serve in the Confederate Army, it is not the Midwest.  It is somewhere much meaner and more ornery. Maybe more fun, I won't argue about that. But not the Midwest.

And no Great Plains states. Great states, all, but completely different. Less water: not a lot of canoeing.  I'd say Midwest is corn and hogs instead of wheat and cattle, but Minnesota and Wisconsin wouldn't fit then. People from Minnesota are incredibly nice, so they want their friends in North and South Dakota to be in the Midwest. I've lived in Massachusetts long enough to say: screw that. Get your own region.

And, seriously, Wyoming, or Pennsylvania? Once words can mean anything, how do you communicate?

Perhaps with a gesture, I guess, which is not visible in this post.