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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"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
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.

Friday
Jul282017

The miracle of dentistry

I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again: vaccines and not pooping in our drinking water may account for most of the gains of modern medicine, but dentistry is an interventionist treatment that actually works, and is constantly undervalued.

Over last weekend, one of my rear molars started to hurt. By Sunday night it hurt so much I could barely sleep. Fortunately, my dentist could take me Monday morning. He examined me, found that the molar had cracked, and sent me off to an endodontist that had a slot for me in the next hour.

There the endodontist examined the tooth, determined that it was worth saving, shot lidocaine into my gums and went to work.

This was my first endodontic procedure (root canal). It's extremely anxiety provoking. You're leaned all the way back, your face is covered with the rubbery blue sheet of a dental dam, you can't talk, you can barely breathe, and you see the mist of abrading tooth enamel, as well as hearing and feeling the work of the drill.

But it didn't take long. It's now packed with a temporary filling. She will take a look Monday to determine whether, in fact, it is salveagable. I couldn't tell if she was naturally optimistic, or giving me a real read on the probabilities.

Two things about this.

One: the cost. I'm a freelancer, and don't have dental insurance. The cost was almost a week's earnings, payable in advance. I put it on my credit card. And that's not the end of the expense, because if it is indeed saved, I need to get a crown on it. I have no idea how much that's going to cost.

Bad teeth are one of the real horrors of being poor. Consider this NYT story about a three-day open-air free clinic. It starts with a man grateful to have 18 teeth pulled. He's been in pain from untreated cavities for years. I have some savings, but this one hit me pretty hard. Many people have a lot less flexibility. If I hadn't been able to afford it, would I just have gone home, suffered, had the tooth eventually crack all the way through, and then, finally, gotten it pulled?

In discussions of healthcare, dentistry is very much in the background, as if it was some kind of cosmetic thing, or a "nice to have". Because a bad tooth won't immediately kill you? Most of healthcare is not about preventing imminent death, it's about helping you live without pain, without impairment, without increasing weakness. I'm not even really sure why dental work is not regarded as "healthcare".

Second. I asked my endodontist about something I'd heard: that endodontists get specific calluses from their work. I thought it might be in along the forefinger or something, but she said they did, on the thumb and forefinger, from using their delicate instruments. Then she became very self conscious and remarked that she also overdue for a manicure. This transformation from competent but warm healthcare professional to individual with some personal vanity was quite startling, and more than a bit charming as well.

Then I had to bicycle home a fair distance in the pouring rain (the endodontist was a fair way from my dentist in a direction away from my apartment), take some pain killers, and have a nap. I've been tired all week, whether from this tooth adventure or just general malaise.

Note, apropos of the cost: I don't expend healthcare to be free, and don't think it should be, save for the poor. I went from a person in agony from a cracked tooth to someone without pain, and with the potential of a repaired tooth, in short order, after some work from a skilled professional. Sure, I feel like I spent a lot of money to just not get quite back to the state I was in previously. But guess what: that's pretty great! Pretending it shouldn't cost any money seems to be a mistake, to me.

Sunday
Jul232017

Emotionally out of step

The other night I saw the movie A Monster Calls at a friend's house. It's about a boy, maybe 12 years old, whose father has left and whose mother is seriously ill. He's bullied at school, drifts through is days in his imagination, and eventually ends up living with his emotionally distant grandmother in a house where he is not allowed to touch anything. Oh, and he's visited by a talking tree man from the nearby churchyard who says he will tell him three stories, and then wants to hear one in return.

Everyone else was deeply moved by the movie, and several people were weeping near the end. Afterward, others talked about the good the animation of the tree man was.

I felt like an inadequate human being, because I really hated this movie.

This is not me. Really.Every story the tree man tells the boy, Connor, comes complete with explanatory apparatus that makes clear what wholesome and psychologically empowering lesson the story imparts. Two are vaguely fairy-tale-like (one about a royal family with major communication problems, the second about a rationalist and therefore inevitably tragedy-bound parson, and a sullen apothecary with a failing business), the third just a nub to incent action in the story. And they aren't even stories, really. Without the excess commentary, they are just situations. And they rely a great deal on some nice watercolor illustrations--which Connor, the boy, can't actually see, because he's being told the stories, not watching them on the screen, making his experience even less adequate.

Beware of stories with explicit morals. Stories can bring us through conflict to resolution, but they allow us to do at least some of the work ourselves. At the end Connor is forced to bark out his realization of how he is coming to terms with his own frailty in the face of tragedy.

The tree man...oh, and the animation is so hyper-realistic there is nothing at all magical, ambiguous, or even disturbing about this big piece of shrubbery at all. Anyway, the tree man is voiced by Liam Neeson, who does a good job with some pretty wretched lines. I kept imagining him barking at someone who indicated some doubt about one of his stories, "I will find you, and I will explain it to you!"

 You really don't want him to do that

And he's a yew tree, which finally explains a mysterious verse from my childhood.

So long, farewell, auf weidersehen, adieu, adieu, adieu, to yew and yew and yewAs if the over-explained stories weren't enough, there comes a point where two characters who have been in conflict hug each other in the face of tragedy as "This is a big emotional moment, folks!" music rises.

Well, now I'm just being kind of mean. But this kind of thing takes all the fun out of...well, pretty much everything.

But I do have to emphasize that mine is a clearly minority opinion, among critics as among audiences. I am allergic to overt authorial manipulation, but many people welcome it. But that's an essay for another day.