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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"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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Tuesday
Dec162014

Why "The Moldau"?

I usually listen to my local classical music station, WCRB, while I work. Sometimes I listen to All Classical Portland, which I started listening to because I start writing really early in the morning, and the all-night shows tend to have less chatter on them.

Both of these stations have a number of pieces they play over and over again, and one of these is the section of Smetana's Ma Vlast called The Moldau.

I remember when I first heard that piece, as a teenager. It came on some record of classical selections, I don't remember what, and I loved it. It's a great piece of program music, traveling down a river from its springs to its greatest majesty.

I still love it--and own the complete Ma Vlast. But it seems like this piece in particular gets way too much airplay.

European concert music, Baroque to Early Modern, is my music, the music I grew up on, and the music I still return to, both for stimulation and recentering. I do worry about wearing it out. But the unification of my thoughts with the music really enables me to get my work done. At my age, that's nothing I would give up on easily.

I have recently been changing location, from my office to the living room, where I take notes and think in total silence. It's an odd feeling, like I should be able to hear the rattle of the little marble of my mind rolling around inside my skull. Sometimes old and familiar habits need to be disrupted simply because they are old and familiar, and thus rote. I'll see if I get something out of this.

I may well miss a few playings of The Moldau, which would be OK.

Update, 12/17/14, 10:43 a.m.:  I just tuned to All Classical Portland, and there it is again! Those damn peasants are dancing (one of the sections of the piece, if you are unfamiliar). Oh, well, it always sounds like fun to me.  Happy peasants. How we envy them, and their folk dances.

Saturday
Dec132014

Things I didn't know about history: rubberized canvas car tops

Technological change has been a constant since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But what was a difficult technical challenge and what wasn't is sometimes difficult to remember in retrospect.

For example, this Shorpy photograph shows a street in 1935:

 Even an airy open streetcar

The really step into the scene, go to the full size image on Shorpy.

Every car on the street, even that Packard limo in the lower right corner, has a rubberized canvas insert in the roof, pointed out by Dave, the brains behind Shorpy. It turns out that it wasn't until the 1935 model year that GM was able to design and build a giant (and expensive) stamping press that would create one-piece all-steel automobile roofs. Eventually those became standard. I had no idea.

That's why I'm so nervous about writing historical fiction. There are just so many details that are easy to get wrong--though this is a great detail to include.  But my favorite, Shorpy, remains an invaluable resource, both for the photos and the informative comments.  And the mordant Dave.

Thursday
Dec112014

How to read The Accursed

If you have an interest in reading The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, but worry about how long the damn thing is (and it is long), relax: I'm going to give you a guide on how to read it more quickly, and still get a lot out of it. Because it really is worth reading.

The book is partly a historical novel and partly a historical gothic horror. On a prose level, Oates always has it going on, and even slowly paced scenes keep you reading. No problems there. And both the historical novel part and the gothic romance part are great.

I just don't think they fit together very well, and the result is a book that is just too long. I happen to think that the gothic horror part is much more fun, consistent, and effective. If you want to read just that part, then skip most places there is a name you recognize from history.  The only possible exception to this is Woodrow Wilson, and I'll get to him in a minute.

The first thing to skip are the Upton Sinclair chapters. They are just as well-written as the others, don't get me wrong. But they have nothing to do with the actual story. They culminate in a wonderful sequence involving Sinclair's encounter with a drunken, abusive, and charismatic Jack London. It's great. It's also long. Skip it and save it for later.

Now, Woodrow Wilson. He's front and center her in this book, so you can't really skip him (though you probably could). I've discussed Wilson as a noir villain before. Here is is convincingly portrait from the inside: obsessive, paranoid, racist, unhealthy, narrow-minded, yet with a kind of saving force of personality. He harbors some of the villains of the piece, with no idea of who they are or what they represent. But, in the end, he makes a good choice, slightly redeeming himself. Wilson remains the great mystery of American history.

But when he encounters other historical characters, he goes dead too. There is an extended sequence in Bermuda, told through letters from Wilson to his wife. You can skip that whole part too. Why? Two words: Mark Twain.

Mark Twain is mandatory for any novel, whether alternate history or historical, set in the decades around 1900. After all he is a charismatic figure, and he really did seem to have known and befriended every significant figure of that era. But he almost always kills stories stone dead. Because he is impossible to imitate without being Mark Twain, and was, by this point in his career, playing Mark Twain as a role anyway. And he encourages writers to coast by stealing quotes and turning them into faux dialogue. He is a character in those Bermuda letters, which are pretty much as interesting as you would imagine letters from Woodrow Wilson to be.

You can read about Grover and Frances Cleveland. They are just local color, really.

There. I've saved you a couple of hundred pages out of a 700 page book.

The book is told as the historical researches of one M.W. van Dyck, a scion of a local family. He collects documents and personal testimony, which he edits and even destroys, as needed to maintain propriety. We all love our obsessive annotators and collators, and van Dyck is a worthy member of the tribe.

There is one charming chapter where he details the various sources he has used: The Turquoise-Marbled Book, The Beige Morocco Book, the Crimson Calfskin Book, the Black-Dappled Book, the Sandalwood Box, and so on, giving a physical manifestation to the various characters we have been following.

There are murders, vampires, grotesque deaths, mysterious magic kingdoms, a boy turned to stone, an abduction of a bride in full view of the congregation, and a manifestation of Sherlock Holmes that tells us that certainty does not necessarily mean truth.

So, I recommend it. Whether you skip the sections I suggest is purely between you and your readerly conscience.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday
Nov282014

RIP P. D. James

The mystery writer P. D. James died on what was Thanksgiving, here in the U. S.

She was one of my favorite writers, and I was impressed (and heartened) as she continued to produce high-quality works well into her 90s, decades after most writers have to give it up, or are reduced to producing parodies of their older work.

James was a genre writer.  She wrote mysteries (and one SF book), but wrote novels that were mysteries, rather than just mystery novels. I write "just", conscious that that somewhat insults all of us genre writers, for our toy-like limited worlds that delight because of their very limitations and simplifications. Still, it's important to realize that you can focus on the things that make a genre pleasurable, and get a fair measure of novelistic breadth as well, as James did.

The first novel of hers I read was Death of an Expert Witness, which I pulled off my parent's bookshelf as a teenager.  Both my parents were big mystery readers. The most recent I read was just a month or so ago, a fairly early one, Death of a Nightingale, because somehow I had missed that one.

James had a fairly standard setup for these things:  a specific community of people, usually professionals in some business (forensics, nursing, running a nuclear power station, publishing, politics) in a specific venue, often a large Victorian structure, but also more modern buildings as well, with growing tensions that finally manifest themselves in murder. The murder does not remove the tensions, but makes them worse, bringing out the specifics of each character's personality and situation.

Then Dalgliesh shows up. If you want the antithesis to the jazz-listening alcoholic can't-get-along-with-superiors loner cop preferred by Americans, he is it. He is grave, private, and remorseless. Don't look for quirks. And P. D. James knew exactly who he was. The New York Times obit (linked above) quotes James critiquing the performance of the actor playing Dalgliesh in the BBC series: "[Dalgliesh] wouldn’t wear his signet ring on the wrong finger." Details matter, and Dalgliesh, also a poet, is all about the details.

James also wrote two novels about a young female detective, Cordelia Gray, and the first of these, Unsuitable Job for a Woman, is one of my favorites. She never wrote any more, which is a pity. I think about Cordelia sometimes, and what might have happened to her in later life. I think her outsider status, an appeal to some of us, was not entirely sympathetic to James, the consummate insider, and runner of systems. In addition to her writing, she was a successful and respected administrator, governor of the BBC, and later member of the House of Lords.

My move has left all of my James paperbacks inaccessible, so I will have to pick one of her novels up (maybe even her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, though I have a low tolerance for Austen pastiches, which seem mostly aimed at people who don't normally read Jane Austen--maybe James will be different) at the library. I'll let you know.

Thursday
Nov272014

An Interstellar encounter

Note:  there area  couple of minor spoilers in here, for those who have not seen the movie. There is a bit of unexpected casting, not listed in the publicity materials, that is a genuine surprise. I'm actually not sure what the point of that surprise is, really, but it is there, so think about it before reading.

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 its 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 nor its appearance.

Later, of course, we find an entire concealed space program, paid for by some secret appropriation, and 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 they 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.