Otherworldly Interface at the KGB Bar With Nancy Kress and Jack Skillingstead

KGB Bar

KGB Bar

By Mark L. Blackman: On the bone-chilling evening of Wednesday, November 19 the Fantastic Fiction Readings Series hosted readings by authors Nancy Kress and Jack Skillingstead (who, despite having a similar-sounding name, is not the guy from The Nightmare Before Christmas). (For those who don’t know, in addition to sharing this reading, the two share a life; they have been married since 2011.)

The Series, co-hosted by award-winning editor Ellen Datlow and Mathew Kressel, monthly presents readings both by eminent speculative fiction writers and up-and-coming future luminaries of the field, though it has a different feel from the New York Review of Science Fiction Readings.  Its venue, the KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village, is known for its red walls and Soviet era-themed décor.  (To the New York Dept. of State it’s the Kraine Gallery Bar.) Up a steep and very narrow stairway, dark and dimly-lit, depending on one’s leanings, the bar is cramped – the room (cleverly called the Red Room) is usually SRO within minutes of opening – or cozy. But the crowd is always fascinating, drinks are reasonable, and readings are always free. (As it happened, I shared a table with Nancy’s sister Kate, and, for a brief time, at the next table was a non-sf fan/reader who had just stopped into the bar for a drink and was somewhat mystified by our gathering.)

The event opened with Datlow, taking a break from photographing the crowd, welcoming the audience and announcing upcoming readers:  On December 17, the readers will be Rajan Khanna and Steven Gould, on January 21, 2015 Gregory Frost and Andy Duncan, on February 18 Mike Allen and Ben Loory, on March 18 Caitlin Kiernan, and on April 15 James Morrow and Ken Liu. She then introduced the first reader of the evening.

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is the author of 33 books, including 26 novels (The Sleepless Trilogy among them), four collections of short stories and three books on writing, work for which she has won five Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her most recent book, Yesterday’s Kin, a standalone novel from which she read, is about genetic inheritance, a common theme in her fiction.  Genetic engineering, she observed in prefatory remarks, is the wave of the future, as well as fascinating to her personally.  (For the novel, she researched mitochondrial DNA.) In her selection, an evolutionary biologist is drafted by the FBI to join a UN team of specialists to analyze an expedition of aliens whose ship, or “Embassy,” is floating in New York Harbor. The aliens, called Denebs, even though they are not from that star (perhaps it’s analogous to Columbus dubbing the natives Indians), are reclusive, not emerging and communicating only by radio that they’ve come in peace to contact humanity. (One hopes that their mission is not to serve Man; the title might be a clue to their identity.)

Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead

After a short intermission, Kressel took the podium to introduce the second and final reader. Jack Skillingstead has published more than thirty stories (among them a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award finalist), which have appeared in various magazines, Year’s Best volumes and original anthologies, and two novels; one, Life on the Preservation, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. He read from his collection of short fiction, Are You There and Other Stories, “the best story that can be read in 20 minutes,” “Everyone Bleeds Through.” No one timed him; he held the audience rapt with the enthralling story of a driver whose hitchhiker turns out to be otherworldly, from a reality that has “bled through” to ours.

Books by both readers were for sale at the back of the room from the Word bookstore in Brooklyn. Afterward, an expedition headed out for Szechuan dinner.

Today In History 11/21

1942: “Tweety Bird” debuted.

The Friz Freleng "Tweety."

The Friz Freleng “Tweety.”

Ransacking the Wikipedia I learned that Tweety was a creation of Bob Clampett. In Tweety’s first appearance he (or she? there’s evidence both ways) was merely a baby bird in an outdoors nest, naked and featherless. (In the documentary Bugs Bunny: Superstar, animator Clampett tells the audience Tweety was based “on my own naked baby picture.”) When Friz Freleng took the character over in 1945, feathers were added to allay the censors. Freleng not only transformed Tweety’s appearance, he made changes in tone and story that turned Tweety into the character we’re familiar with today.

Speaking of purity monitors, for all those concerned that every File 770 post have a connection to science fiction, let the record show that Tweety appeared in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, winner of the 1989 Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo — “accidentally” causing Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) to fall from a pole by playing “This Wittwe Piddy” with Valiant’s fingers and releasing his grip. Which parallels a similar gag in the very first Tweety cartoon, A Tale of Two Kitties. Tweety also had a small role in Space Jam, which definitely wasn’t nominated for a Hugo.

The Inflatable Robotic Arms Race

What do you think inspired the appearance of Baymax in Disney’s film Big Hero 6? The Michelin Man? The Sta-Puft Marshmallow monster in Ghostbusters?

How about – an actual robot?

DARPA-funded technology developers are already actively at work on soft, air-filled robotics.

[Big Hero 6] co-director, Don Hall, has said he was inspired to cast Baymax as an air-filled, soft robot after he saw an inflatable robotic arm on a visit to Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. Carnegie Mellon’s work in soft robotics has been supported by DARPA and the National Science Foundation.

See a demo of the pneumatic arm here:

DARPA’s M3 program is also developing a robot that emulates the cheetah: moves fast, bounds over obstacles and doesn’t need a road.

[Thanks to James H. Burns for the story.]

Le Guin Presented National Book Foundation Medal

Gaiman and Le Guin at 2014 Nat Book Award

Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards.

Ursula K. Le Guin received the 2014 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the hands of Neil Gaiman at a ceremony in New York on November 19.

Reporters considered her 6-minute speech the highlight of an evening with no shortage of brilliant writers accepting awards.

According to National Public Radio:

Despite these wins, in many ways the 65th National Book Awards ceremony still belonged to beloved fantasy author Ursula K. Le Guin. LeGuin, the author of such classics as The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea novels, got a standing ovation when she came on stage to accept an award for distinguished contributions to American letters.

Once she was onstage, she pulled no punches in a fiery speech about art and commerce. “We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa,” LeGuin said. “And I see a lot of us, the producers, accepting this — letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant!”

She was referring to the recent dispute between Amazon and the publisher Hachette over e-book pricing. The power of capitalism can seem inescapable, LeGuin said, but resistance and change begin in art. And writers should demand their fair share of the proceeds from their work.

“The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.”

Huffington Post found her talk highly quotable:

“My fellow writers of the imagination … watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called realists.”
Le Guin voiced her feelings about genre — as a genre writer herself, she wishes science fiction and fantasy writers would be given due credit from critics and literary awards.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
She also chastised our tendency towards nonchalance concerning our country’s current economic state, saying that just because a social structure seems pervasive doesn’t mean it can’t be challenged.

“I think hard times are coming. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.”
Le Guin’s speculations about the future have proven to be eerily correct in some cases, such as cross-continent communication, so when she says “hard times are coming,” it might be worth heeding her words of warning.

Hamner Documentary Looks For Funding

Hamner twi scripts pmeayag9vkqyefyjrdpjThey’ve already shot the Earl Hamner Storyteller documentary but you can hardly tell his story without showing footage from the things he wrote, like The Waltons, those classic episodes of the Twilight Zone, the movie Spencer’s Mountain, and so many others. And those rights cost money. That’s why the filmmakers are on Indiegogo asking for donations.

Our film is now in the editing process. We have some wonderful content. However, to make the film complete, we need to show Earl Hamner’s body of work. This means licensing clips from many different television shows and movies, which is very expensive. We also need to cover some post-production expenses such as color correction and sound mixing. 

The movie includes tributes from Waltons cast members and dozens of others who’ve worked on Hamner-scripted projects. The centerpiece is a visit with his own Walton-esque family.

In our Storyteller documentary, Earl travels back to his childhood home in Schuyler, Virginia.  While there, he visits with his siblings Paul, Audrey, and Nancy around the kitchen table in the house where they all grew up.  They share family stories and talk a little about what it is like having The Waltons loosely based on their family and growing up with Earl – John-Boy’s alter ego.  The segment ends appropriately with the siblings saying “Goodnight” to each other, as was customary in the Hamner home so many years ago.  Earl wrote this custom into his television show when he created The Waltons and it became the iconic closing of each episode.

Christopher Marlowe Film Fundraiser for the Shakespeare Society of America

Christopher Marlowe shirt COMPBy Francis Hamit: The producers of Christopher Marlowe, The Kit Marlowe Film Co. plc, are doing a fundraiser through Tfund, a unit of Cafepress, for the Shakespeare Society of America, Inc .

Back when it was producing plays at the Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, the Shakespeare Society of America presented the stage play that is the basis of my screenplay for this film about Marlowe’s other life as a spy.  Marlowe and Shakespeare were early contributors to our genre and the most fannish thing we could do is to put out this cross-promotional T-shirt.  Shakespeare Society of America is now a public benefit educational non-profit located in Moss Landing, California.  (I’m on the Board of Directors).

It’s only $25.00 and we hope that everyone will buy at least one (hint: the holidays are coming).  The nice thing is that you can get it in your exact size. The nicer thing is that SSA gets 100% of the profits while we have to be content with a little cheap reflected glory. Those who don’t want  t-shirt can simply make a direct donation. Those who don’t want this t-shirt can check out the Christopher Marlowe Shoppe on Cafepress.

Gone With The Sirocco

Palm RoddenberryThe Palm Restaurant has reopened at its new location in Beverly Hills but the 2,500 celebrity caricatures once on the walls at the old West Hollywood address did not make the trip. At least most of them. Gene Roddenberry and leading men of Star Trek are among those who didn’t beam over.

A private room in the back named the Regal Beagle after the pub in Three’s Company displays a few framed sections of caricatures salvaged from the old site, including Henry Winkler, Sammy Davis Jr., Natalie Wood, and Robert Wagner. But that’s about it.

Bruce Bozzi Jr., co-owner of the Beverly Hills watering hole, is the great-grandson of Pio Bozzi, who along with John Ganzi co-founded the original Palm in New York. He says of the new site, “We wanted to update the look and feel, but still stay true to our speakeasy roots in New York City.”

The Palm Restaurant opened in new York in 1926, near the headquarters of the King Features Syndicate, and the place attracted a lot of cartoonists who drew their own creations on the walls in exchange for their meals.

palm_gallery_vintage_check_room

Since then, the flagship Palm has become a living museum of cartoons and caricatures featuring such famous faces as Popeye, Batman, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, and characters from “The Family Circus.” To preserve these legendary hand-drawn sketches – many of which were drawn in charcoal and pastels – the Palm’s walls were professionally restored in 1995.

Now the Palm has many locations, and before each opened, the likenesses of 200 to 300 local notables were placed on the walls. However, the owners of the Beverly Hills site seem to be taking it slow when it comes to following that tradition.

palm_caricatures_images_0000_colorcaricatures

Today’s Birthday Girl 11/18

Born November 18, 1939: Margaret Atwood

When Atwood accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Canadian Booksellers Association a few years ago she revealed she was a pioneering self-published author:

My own bookselling activities began in 1961, when, together with a friend, I hand–set my first poetry collection and printed it on a flatbed press. It had seven poems, and we didn’t have enough a’s, so we had to disassemble each poem before we could set the next one. The cover was printed from a lino–block, and the pages were rubber–cemented in—a mistake, as the rubber cement dried out shortly thereafter and the pages fell out. We made 200 copies of this book—wish I’d kept more of them, considering the increase in value—and went around to bookstores in Toronto, which were all indies then, except for Coles, which didn’t sell many Canadian books anyway. Some of the booksellers were kind enough to let us put these little books of mine on the magazine rack, where they sold for 50¢—we wrote the price on with a pencil. So that was my first bookselling adventure

In July 2012 Atwood was one of the writers who came to Comic-Con and spoke at a memorial for Ray Bradbury. She had never met Ray and was supposed to visit him on her trip to California, but that was not to be. She talked about how she read, as a young girl, Ray’s books as they first came out. That she used some of his themes in her books. In The Handmaid’s Tale she used that women were not allowed to read because of Fahrenheit 451.

Margaret Atwood in 2006.

Margaret Atwood in 2006.

MUTTS To Play the Kennedy Center!

MUTTS 052101_tribBy James H. Burns: For years now, MUTTS has been my all time fave comic strip.

Greeting the morning with a reading of that day’s Patrick McDonnell strip is a grand way to start the day.

The epoch follows Mooch the cat, Earl the dog, their humans, some birds, some squirrels… (Actually, the environs seem a lot like what my life used to be!)

McDonnell is something of a glorious genius, someone whose compassion seems as strong as his talent and imagination.

…And some years back, he wrote this wonderful small book, The Gift of Nothing, petite in only its length; certainly not its grace, or warmth.

And now my pals Mooch and Earl will be dancing across a stage, and I’m certain into quite a few more hearts.

(Through the years, MUTTS has also presented some lovely surrealistic sequences, as well as a delightfully depicted series of tributes to and evocations of the history of super heroes, and other comic art!)

The show runs November 22 to December 28 at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. Ticket info here.

Costume designs for "A Gift of Nothing."

Costume designs for “A Gift of Nothing.”

Frankfurt Book Fair Disappoints

Perry Rhodan booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo by Francis Hamit.

Perry Rhodan booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo by Francis Hamit.

By Francis Hamit (Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved.) The Frankfurt International Book Fair (aka Buchmesse) was the first trade show I covered as a journalist. That was in 1969 when I was living in Frankfurt and stationed at Headquarters, US Army Security Agency, Europe. I was working on the unit newspaper and we had business cards that served as press credentials. I also covered the show in 1970, as well as some rock concerts, theatrical productions, horse and Formula One car races. It was a job that was lifedefining.  I’ve covered hundreds of similar events since – but not lately. This was probably my last.

The Book Fair was an enormous event then, and is gigantic now. The Messehalle (convention center) has been expanded several times over the last 40 years. The Book Fair is mostly about selling translation rights to publishers in other languages. My books are normally represented by Loris Essary, of International Titles in Austin, Texas. Loris was there again this year but gravely ill, and had to leave early.

I was there because Leigh Strother-Vien, my long-time roommate, editor, and business partner, and I decided to add ten days in Germany to our very long business trip to the United Kingdom. She had also served there in the US Army at a later time. We offered to cover science fiction books on offer at this year’s show for File 770. Mike Glyer e-mailed for press credentials for us both. I got an-mail back that mine would be waiting and Leigh was refused.

Why? They said she lacked credentials. I suppose, being German, they simply looked up my name in their records and saw that I had been there before. She had not. That’s as good an excuse as any. Leigh was having mobility problems and feeling a bit ill, but came along on the first day. She’s the former Librarian of the LASFS and a topic expert.

The desk where the press credentials were handed out was staffed by some rather robotic females who could not fix the problem. That could only be done in the Press Room, which was in Hall Eight. We were in Hall One. Leigh could buy a day pass for 57 Euros to get that far or forget it. I told her to take a cab back to the hotel while I pressed on.

I noticed that there were several local journalists, all with the look of show veterans, who were also being denied press passes. All were older, which got no consideration from the robots, who coldly informed them that they needed to have registered for those passes online, and could still do so with their smart phones.

“I don’t have a smart phone,” one elderly reporter tearfully confessed; “I’ve never used one.” He had been covering the show for years as a freelancer and probably didn’t make enough to afford new technology. The day pass was also obviously beyond his means, and, even so, paying to work is a violation of journalistic ethics. It makes one a participant, rather than an objective observer. The other journalists, realizing they, too, were being stiffed by the show management with a scheme to make them pay or go home, talked angrily among themselves. I assume they all left. Working on speculation is hard enough when you have a real press room and show management wants you there. It is physically and mentally demanding, almost like being in combat.

Loris Essary of International Titles in Austin, Texas. Photo by Francis Hamit.

Loris Essary of International Titles in Austin, Texas. Photo by Francis Hamit.

For those reasons I gave up covering trade shows more than a decade ago. The concrete floors don’t get any kinder as you get older, and I’m 70 now, with various structural problems that quickly put me in severe pain. Hall Eight turned out to be a couple of kilometers away. There were some moving sidewalks along the way, but I was sweating profusely by the time I got there. I had a slight detour to meet Loris, who’d I never seen in person before, and his wife. We talked briefly. He said the show was changing and not in a good way. Later he e-mailed me a long commentary, part of which I’ll put here.

“The Frankfurt Fair is finished as any sort of significant book event. Did you notice in walking around how many stands had nothing to do with any aspect of the book industry?

“The German publishers certainly did and filed an official protest with the fair director over the inclusion of so many grocers, vintners, travel agencies, and marketing reps for travel destinations.

“While we’ve seen a steady decline in meeting opportunities and aisle traffic for the past few years, those came down on the Germans this year like a pallet of cinder blocks.

“Some of the Germany publishers reported as much as a 90% decline over 2013 in their professional contacts and even a 50% reduction in sales to the public on the weekend because even the German public stayed away in significant numbers.

“When the Germans raised these concerns with the fair director in a private meeting at the end of the fair, they were told that the fair had excelled this year at creating opportunities, that the publishers themselves had poorly organized to take advantage of those opportunities, and that the fair organizers were disappointed in the German publishers for harming the image of the fair due to their half-hearted attempts to conduct business.

“At that point, the Germans stood up, tossed their renewal contracts for next year back to the director and walked out. They won’t be back next year for what’s really their own national fair. With the Germans giving up their stands in addition to everyone around the world dropping out, the fair’s dead.

“European publishers have begun to move away from business models involving the purchase and sale of translation rights. I don’t know if you saw the many incredible statements in the show newspapers about this.

“What they’re doing apparently comes from beginning to model themselves on Random House. Random House is not only the largest English language publisher in the world. Random is now also the largest Spanish language publisher in the world. What they’ve done and are continuing to do is to set up and run their own imprints in languages other than English into which they translate their own English language titles.

“Many European publishers have begun to do the same, including setting up their own English language imprints. In summary of these changes, more than one CEO of European houses said that Europe currently is no longer involved in the buying and selling of rights.

“By comparison, they agreed that Asia is still working on the old models and that’s about the only place rights can be sold for the foreseeable future.

“There’s another factor that touches on both the decline of the fair and the change in rights models: a significant number of German publishers filed for bankruptcy since the 2013 Fair. As a whole, the German book industry is very weak at the moment.”

After 26 years, Loris, who only sell translation rights to English language titles, is giving up on Frankfurt. He said that there will not even be an English language pavilion next year. That does not bode well for authors. It strengthens the bargaining position of traditional publishers who now gain greater control over ancillary markets. They can not only just reserve an author’s work for their foreign affiliates, but refuse to entertain competing bids. They can also decide NOT to publish an author in those markets.

This happened with my book on Virtual Reality in 1993. VR was the year’s hot topic and mine was a best-seller wih great reviews. The VR field was moving so fast that it was also a “flash in the pan”, declared “out-of-print” after 13 months, which killed all of the foreign language editions except the one in Brazil. Those rights went to a publisher who was not owned by the parent company. The check for my half of those rights never arrived, but the amount was so small my Chicago lawyer said it wasn’t worth suing over. This is why I hired Loris to represent me in Frankfurt and London. Loris normally has 300 books on offer from many different American publishers. It makes the $9,000 for a ten by ten foot booth affordable. But if foreign publishers are all owned by mammoth international corporations who only publish a select few authors, then little publishers and their authors are squeezed out of the foreign rights market.

On my way to the Press Room, I saw an American in a booth who had several selfpublished books. He was tearfully cheerful about his prospects. Putting on a good front, but already getting lonely, since no one was stopping to examine his wares, much less talk a deal. There were more than 4,000 exhibitors and they were all selling rather than buying. Added to that is the unhappy fact that there is a growing anti-American bias and a prejudice against “American stories” at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I felt really sorry for this guy and hoped he had not done it all on credit. A pariah has more friends than he did at that show.

Books 1-DSC_0096-001 COMPThe Press Room, accessible only to those who had procured a press badge in Hall One, was a revelation, but not in a good way. There were long tables with connections for laptops and no paper press kits except for the one for the show itself . Everything was online. Use your smartphone. Which I didn’t have. And would not have used. You don’t get much information off a four-inch screen. This requirement was not just Germanic techno-fascism, but a way to control information. On screen you can only read one page at a time normally. You can’t lay pages side by side for comparison. Old-school reporters like myself like to do this because it leads, sometimes, to really good stories. Inconsistencies pop out at you and thereby hangs a tale. You then do what reporters are supposed to do and ask annoying questions.

Not that I was intent on such an adventure. I simply understood why the older reporters who’d covered the Frankfurt Buchmesse for years were being kept out. They would have noticed how many publishers from Germany and elsewhere were not there and asked why. They might not have smartphones, but all have Rolodexes.

Since I was there to cover science fiction and fantasy, and I was already tired, I decided to simply ask which publishers from the genre were at the show. The answer was “none”.

None?

I had been in a few bookstores in Frankfurt and found few, and mostly in English, but none! That seemed incredible to me. But the young lady insisted it was so. Fine, I said, let me have an exhibitor catalog and I will find them myself.

That will be 25 Euros she said.

This kind of catalog is routinely given to press. Not this year. “We had them last year and nobody wanted one,” she explained. “So now we have to recover the cost.”

But they were being given to all of the exhibitors. Anyone who knows anything about book printing knows that there is always an overrun of about ten percent. So plenty were available. The show management had just decided to squeeze a few Euros from people who were ethically prohibited from paying to do their work. Their cheese-paring did not stop there. They also had set up a concession stand and were charging for the coffee and other refreshments which, at almost every other show I’ve ever been to, are free. A really poor show on its last legs might not have refreshments in the Press Room, but none ever set up a concession stand and demanded money. Some shows provide so much food that you can live off them for the days you are there. Well-fed reporters are happy reporters. Happy reporters write positive copy.

I wandered on, found an exhibitor who was willing to consult his catalog for me and identified two firms who listed science fiction and fantasy. One was Heyne, which is owned by Random House, and the other was Perry Rhodan . So the young lady in the Press Room was right. Based on fair attendance, the Germans were not much into our genre these days.

Given what Loris Essary said later, maybe the fair was not the place to look. None of the firms who had been so aggressively present in the Dealer’s Room at the WorldCon in London two months before were there. That included all the big American houses such as Tor. The booths in question were in Halls Three and Four, another long walk.

On the way I encountered one German publisher who was very pro-American and expected to do well with the German edition of their new acquisition, “The Feminist Porn Book.” It’s a feminist niche title in the USA but anyone who knows post-war Germany and its culture will understand why they think it will be a best-seller in German – and why they didn’t bother to translate the title. This was close to fantasy as anything else on offer.

Feminist 1-DSC_0090-001 COMP

Heyne is a very large operation, There was one table with about two dozen books in their science fiction section. Perry Rhodan had a big booth, but the lonely show model in attendance didn’t have any information about future plans for that very German franchise.

I do not think that Germans have abandoned science fiction and fantasy. I think my friend Loris is right. The show has grown so big that no one can do business there anymore, and that rights sales in the future will happen mostly online. The costs associated with the Frankfurt Buchmesse and its greed-driven managers are killing the show. I’ve seen this happen before in other industries, where the dominant trade show inflates like big balloon and then pops, leaving nothing behind.

It’s a disappointment and was a long walk for nothing.