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.

More here

Write me at alexjablokow [at] comcast.net

I'd love to hear from you.

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"How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry", Asimov's Science Fiction July/August 2017(out now)

"The Forgotten Taste of Honey", Asimov's Science Fiction, October/November 2016

"The Return of Black Murray", Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2016

"The Instructive Tale of the Archeologist and His Wife", Asimov's Science Fiction, July 2014

"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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Reboot blog

 

Sunday
Oct292017

Workshop technique: submitting an outline for review

I've been a member of the same peer speculative fiction writing workshop for decades now. In addition to the usual stories and novels, we've commented on plays intended for the stage, plays intended for historic sites, essays, and other forms of prose.

A couple of our members like submitting outlines of something they are planning to write. These pose some specific challenges to a workshop, so I thought I'd run through some suggestions on how to get the most out of your workshop if you feel like doing something like this.

First, recognize that this does impose a lot of extra cognitive work on your workshop. We're used to reading, thinking about, and analyzing completed prose works. No matter what their failures, gaps, ambiguities, and errors, we can usually tell what you're driving at, and do our best to help you move in that direction more effectively. A completed prose work is something that has actually been written with the intent of having someone else read it.

By contrast, an outline is, by definition, not meant for anyone to read. It is a guide to yourself on how to proceed. In writing it you have not done the threatening work of daring to write something meant to entertain someone else.

So you have to turn your outline into something meant for someone else to read, which is almost as much work as writing something. I've sometimes read an outline and had absolutely no idea of whether that set of events would work on the page. That's because I sometimes don't know this about my own work, using an outline I wrote myself for myself.

So: provide capsule descriptions of the characters, their roles, their goals, and their arcs. Explain not what a setting looks like, but what it feels like, what role it plays in the story. Be explicit about what is untold and suspenseful, what is obvious about a character and situation, and what revelations will come as a surprise to the characters, or to the reader.

I do this in my work as a marketing writer. I tell my client what the goal of each part is, who I am assuming the reader is, what I am trying to get them to think, and then to do. Knowing what the piece is trying to do lets them focus on the things they know about, their business, and also distracts their attention from what they would otherwise waste their time on, monkeying with the prose (that is, invariably, making it longer and vaguer).

If you do this, you'll find that you have to do a lot of extra work before you submit the outline to your workshop. Maybe you'll decide it's not worth it, and that you should just use the outline to write the damn thing. That's usually the best idea, by the way. Or you might decide that you really can't figure out some crucial things, and would really like to talk it over with the group. Give them something they can actually talk about.

A workshop is a wonderful servant and a terrible master. It is powerful, but limited. It can get cranky if you misuse it, because everyone is busy. Our workshop has survived for decades because we recognize how much everyone puts into it, and how that benefits each of us.

So, think twice about submitting that outline, and if both thoughts really do confirm that you need to do it, make sure provide your workshop with the tools it needs to do its best work for you.

 

Thursday
Oct262017

Images of the past: The Epic of Man 2

(this is my second post on images in the LIFE book The Epic of Man. Part 1 here)

Another culture the editors of The Epic of Man covered was Shang dynasty China.  Two images from that chapter particularly stuck with me.

One shows a dinner party.

"So the termite says, 'is the bar tender here?'"Everyone is having a good time, and the tradition of laughing heartily at the lame jokes of your social or economic superior is already well established. Even in my youth, I thought the exaggerated big yuks were a bit overdone.

This image of upper class socializing is juxtaposed with this one:

 How do people come up with this stuff?

All of these people are to be beheaded and then buried along with the dead notable (perhaps the same joke teller we just met) whose tomb this is, who will presumably need their headless help in the afterlife. The man looking back up at the world he is leaving particularly struck me.  I identified with him.

The painter of both of these was Alton S. Tobey, a prolific illustrator as well as a fine artist. I wonder how much guidance he got from the writer on the approach and subject matter.

THe last one, for now, shows a private area in a palace in ancient Crete:

I have no idea why I found this one so fascinating. I've never had an interest in board games.Artists always take the Cretans as looking the way they portrayed themselves: slim, athletic, and perfect. There are a couple of older people in some of the paintings, but not many, and they look really out of place. We really have little idea of what ancient Crete was like. But the climate is nice. That always makes being civilized easier.

The artist was Rudoph F. Zallinger, who did the famous Age of Reptiles mural at the Peabody Musem at Yale. He also did the original March of Progress image of human evolution, which genuinely does deserve the much-overused term "Iconic" (which now usually means just "famous"):

"Stop crowding me!"

All of thsee cultures and periods were new to me when I first looked at this book. Now most of them are much more familiar, but I still see them, at least a bit, as looking like the paintings in this book. This type of art is long gone. Books don't really do this kind of skilled artist's rendition, which is a pity. They can really stir a child's curiosity.

Sunday
Oct222017

Images of the past: The Epic of Man 1

I became interested in history almost as I became interested in anything. It's hard to point to anything in my early childhood that led to this interest, and it is not shared by anyone else in the family. Or among most of my friends, for that matter.

One early fascination was one of those big books from Time Publishing (later Time Life): The Epic of Man. It was a compilation of articles that appeared in LIFE magazine between 1955 and 1957. Back then, big middelbrow national magazines had a strong educational element, providing households across the country with history, science, and technology articles pitched at an ambitious, striving population.  I remember LIFE having a lot of those, including a series on ancient Rome and one on Russian history. My dad would cut them out for me.

Being LIFE there was a heavy pictorial element, and the resulting book shows this strongly. Many of the illustrations from this book have stuck with me. I recently did some online searching for the various images I remembered, and didn't find that much. So I went on Alibris, found a cheap used copy, and bought it. I don't have any kind of camera or scanning setup for photographing things, so I just opened up the book and took pictures with my phone, so apologies for artifacts of the somewhat casual process.

Below are a few of the illustrations that had a particularly strong effect on my childhood mind.

Sumer, and onagers

A military chariot approaches a Sumerian cityThis was, I think, my first introduction to Sumer as a separate concept. Also, the caption in the book contains the sentence "The yoked animals are onagers, a kind of Asiatic wild ass". The word "onager" thereafter had a kind of magical feel to me. When, years later, I came across a Roman catapult called an onager (supposedly because of the way that animal kicked), I felt like I was encountering an old friend. I still count onagers as among my favorite equids, even though I don't really know much more about them than I did when I read this book around age eight.

The artist was Federico Castellon, a Spanish-born artist and illustrator.

Fishing, and butts

There's a kind of covert butt in the Sumerian illustration, but elsewhere in the book, human buttocks become a prominent design element. That interested me too.

 Mesolithic Danes harvesting fish

I think you get what I mean. There are other illustrations of hot Danes of both sexes as well. I liked the idea of the fish traps across the stream, too. Seemed like an efficient way of getting your fishing done. I don't know if they managed non-agricultural sedentism, like the roughly contemporary Natufians of the Middle East (they founded Jericho) who hunted gazelles and harvested wild grains. It's easy to forget that some areas were so well-supplied with wild protein that a population could settle down and just harvest it.

I really wasn't thinking about this at the time, however. Nor did I actually read this part of the book, maybe because I was already a Fertile Crescent urbanist, something I've outgrown.

The artist was Simon Greco, an Italian-born illustrator who did a variety of LIFE magazine projects.

That's enough for today, though. More later.

Saturday
Sep162017

Trying to take advantage of insomnia

For many people, insomnia involves not being able to get to sleep. Mine, when it manifests is in the form of early morning awakening. Its incidence comes in waves. Sometimes I have no problem for weeks at a time. Then there will be a period when I do wake up at 3 am or so, but fall back asleep almost immediately. Then comes a period, such as the one I'm going through now, when I wake up at 4 or 4:30 am or so. My usual wake time is 5:30.

So, this week, I've been hitting the writing chair way early. That can be great--I can get my fiction stint in, then turn to client work, and not have a time crunch later in the day when exercise bumps up against other required tasks.

But sometimes it also gives me an excuse not to work. "I have an extra couple of hours!" I, for some reason, say. "That means I deserve to goof off." It doesn't help that self-control is lessened when I haven't had enough sleep--and willpower is not something I have an oversupply of to begin with.

I do have a project I want to get done before I go on vacation (a revision of a novel about my detective, Sere Glagolit), so today, Saturday, I've been working since about 5. And I'm ready to take a break!

So, using the time makes it valuable, giving in to temptation and goofing off makes it a curse. You might think that decision would be easy.... But if you are realistic, you know how hard it is.

Wednesday
Aug302017

Death threats from vegans

Being a jerk seems to be some kind of survival mechanism--and everyone seems to be struggling for survival. I'm confused as to why.

A few weeks ago, the guys on one of my favorite podcasts, Slate Money made some kind of mild joke about vegans. The result was rage, denunciation, and resolutions to stop listening to the podcast. Jordan Weissman had to take some time in the podcast a bit later make a point of apologizing for angering everyone.

Then I read an article on Clean Eating.

Before we go any further, some calibration: I find almost all dietary schemes weird and annoying. I have good friends who are paleo, or vegetarian, or what have you. They are invariably really careful not to impose their notions on others, to work with the food available, and to be good friends and colleagues rather than whiny pains in the butt. I recognize that food has implications far beyond nutrition, and speaks to our social selves, our bodies, and our relations to the living world. I do get that. But like everything else in modern society, it seems to have been weaponized.

Anyway, now that you know not to listen to me, that clean eating article had some delightfully typical interactions in it.

The article, Why we fell for clean eating, provides a nice summary of the issues, so read it. Clean eating, like many self-improvement-through-activities-that-don't-actually-demand-you-improve-yourself schemes, is promulgated by clean-scrubbed beautiful young women.

One such woman, Jordan Younger, found herself having health problems on a pure vegan diet, so backed off of it a bit by eating fish. She came, um, clean about that choice. A subset of her Instagram followers (many people seem to have a lot of time to scroll through pictures of other people's food) became enraged.

She lost followers “by the thousands” and received a daily raft of angry messages, including death threats. Some responded to her confession that she was suffering from an eating disorder by accusing her of being a “fat piece of lard” who didn’t have the discipline to be truly “clean”.

Bee Wilson, the article's author, had a debate with a clean eating author at a literary festival, enraging the audience, who had come for spiritual succor and got a discussion about how nutrition actually works, something they in no way wanted.

On Twitter that night, some Shaw fans made derogatory comments about how McGregor and I looked, under the hashtag #youarewhatyoueat. The implication was that, if we were less photogenic than Shaw, we clearly had nothing of any value to say about food (never mind the fact that McGregor has degrees in biochemistry and nutrition).

It's startling how pretty much everyone who wants to disagree with a woman has to find a way to insult her personal appearance. This is as true on the left as the right, and as true among women as among men. Orthorexics are the worst in this regard, because they feel that in some way the right food consumed in the right way enables them to transcend the body altogether.

Anyway, as I said, this has not hit me in my personal life. Despite what you might here, pretty much everyone around here (Cambridge, Mass) enjoys food, but does not obsess about it, and those who have specific dietary requirements do their best not to make it seem that their strength is your weakness. So I go online to get outraged by things. And to come up with clickbait headlines.