Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Collision of Animal and Machine

My son and I just finished listening to the audiobook of Scott Westerfeld's re-imagining of the outbreak of World War I, Leviathan. It's an alternate history steampunk version of the events in which the Germans are Clunkers, fielding Star-Wars-esque robotic striders and walkers, and the English and their allies are Darwinists, with militarized "fabs"--genetically fabricated animals--including small living airships called Huxleys and the bigger one of the title, Leviathan. Here's the capsule plot summary from Westerfeld's comprehensive website:
Prince Aleksander, would-be heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battletorn war machine and a loyal crew of men.
Deryn Sharp is a commoner, disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She’s a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered.
With World War I brewing, Alek and Deryn’s paths cross in the most unexpected way…taking them on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure that will change both their lives forever.
I loved the intrepid Deryn, whose bravery, ingenuity, and athleticism go way, way beyond mere pluck. (I especially liked her trademark swear, "Barking spiders!") and my son and I both loved the extremely well thought-out and described world of life aloft on the Leviathan, with its flechette bats and message lizards. At times you could almost trace the DNA of Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander in the story.

One drawback of the audiobook version (besides having to hear poor Alek's Austrian accent, which I found distracting) was not being able to see the "Victorian manga" artwork by Keith Thompson. The stated aim, according to Westerfeld, was to invoke the richly illustrated books of the early twentieth century, and there is a hint of Arthur Rackham in Thompson's line. Love the "lady boffin," Dr. Barlow, with her thylacine. My son asked me wistfully if they'd "brought those back" and seemed quite disappointed that the answer was no.

What's interesting to me about Westerfeld's vision of animal-machines and machine-animals is the way that interface is actually playing out in science and engineering in our present. Engineers are looking to the plant and animal world for inspiration for all kinds of engineering dilemmas--visit the design portal to see some of the 1,400  examples, from self-air-conditioned buildings modeled on termite towers to electronic text displays based on the scales of a butterfly's wings. Robot designers are creating a stunning mechanical menagerie of animal-inspired machines, from jellyfish to penguins. It's hard to look at the footage of German firm (!) Festo's air penguins and not imagine them as commercial airships in what, 15? 20 years' time? I'll be in line for one of those tickets.

It almost makes the arrival of the Leviathan sequel, Behemoth, in October 2010, seem like a bearable wait. Almost.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Owls, Baby!

Martin Waddell's board book Owl Babies was a hit in our house, back in the day. When my son outgrew it, we moved on to Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home. Like everything Lobel wrote for young readers, it's deceptively simple, amazingly deep, and repays endless reading. We had the audiotape of Lobel reading Frog and Toad in the car for almost two solid years, and even when we finally moved on, I wasn't really tired of it, and we still quote from it. ("Hello, Lunch!")

When I was very small, I would stare and stare at the color plates of owls in my mother's vintage bird guide--I found them hypnotic, especially the image of the Barred Owl. So last year I was thrilled to actually have a saw-whet owl perch on my shoulder at a live raptor show. It was such a little personage. As William Service said of his pet owl, "size of a beer can, personality of a bank president." That just about sums it up. Owl is a great read in the "we had an exotic pet" genre of which I never tire. I am sorry to report that owls don't, like cats, smell like freshly laundered towels. Beaks must not be as good a clothes brush  as a raspy tongue. But having the owl on my shoulder was an amazing experience.

So I was delighted to be sent by a birding friend this link to a live webcam of the nest box of a mother barn owl named Mollie. At last count there were three chicks and one egg  yet unhatched. Molly (her mate is McGee) spends a lot of time preening, adjusting the chicks under her brood patch, tidying the nest box, etc. She is really cutting in to my productivity, I have to say. And as my mother said when I sent her the link, "How am I supposed to get anything done when I have to watch the owl?"

But in fact I think that watching the owl is rather good for me. Some things on the internet are time-wasters, but I don't think spending a few moments living vicariously at the pace of a brooding owl is bad for me.

Anyway, I think there are a few more days before the chicks in Molly's nest become quite as fluffy and filled out as these fine fellows on the cover of Waddell's book. If you're lucky, you might get to watch their sire, McGee, deliver a mouse to the nest box.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Website is back

I pulled off the intertubes late last year, because it seemed silly to pay even a modest amount for web hosting when I didn't have a new book out and there was always this blog, for anyone who wanted to find me.

But I'm on a fiction panel at Smith next week, and handing out my calling card, so it seemed best to put it up--woefully out of date as it is.

Hope to be able to refresh it soon with news of current projects.

Monday, March 15, 2010

All About Alice

I went to see the Tim Burton "Alice" in Underland with my 10-year-old this weekend and found it a pleasant surprise. After the reviews, I had been prepared for disappointment. Indeed, I did take the reviewers' points that it seemed visually a little derivative for the usually highly original Burton--when Alice dons armor to ride the Bandersnatch, there is an echo of the recent Narnia films, and the White Queen's palace seems bought when the bank foreclosed on Elrond. But I came away from it with the sense of having watched some studio players in a really great B movie made on some leftover sets on a backlot. Everyone seems to be having a great time, and no one more so than Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. She gets all the great lines and the scene of her dressing down the frog footmen is worth the price of admission.

A lot of Alice in the air because of this movie. A nice roundup by columnist Neal Wyatt over at Library Journal, highlighting a shelf-full of takes on Wonderland, including the anthology, Alice Redux, from Paycock Press, in which I have my own story, "Bread and Butterflies," about a grown Alice Liddell in India. The ones I most want to read for myself are Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot and Automated Alice by Jeff Noon. When my son is done with his current book I might interest him in the Looking Glass Wars series by Frank Beddor, but not before we read the original, possibly the Annotated Alice or the one illustrated by Barry Moser from Pennyroyal Press. Lewis Carroll is the right white rabbit to lead you into Wonderland, whichever mirror-shard vesion of it you choose to explore.

My own encounter with Alice, in the Manila of my childhood (its own wonderland), was a Disney LP played on a record player--fairly faithful to the Lewis Carrol text, as I recall, but set to the Nutcracker Suite, so that I can never hear that music without thinking of Alice down the rabbit hole. I've come back to Alice over and over since then--during a summer in Oxford, and an internship at Barry Moser's letterpress in college.

The good folks at Much Ado Books in the UK sent me an email about this marvelous limited edition Alice with illustrations by John Vernon Lord, whose work first came to my attention in the classic picture book, The Giant Jam Sandwich. Lord brings to Lewis Carroll's universe his own loopy brand of technicolor dementia--Monty Python by way of Tom Phillips--with just enough of an edge to it to be a little unsettling.

I have never seen Lord's other illustration work (including, intriguingly, the Icelandic sagas), but the glimpse of his Alice illustrations online is making me wish I had the equivalent of £ 260.00 to spend on a copy. I am curious to know whether JVL tackled the famous "Wasp in a Wig" chapter that John Tenniel insisted be cut from the book's first edition, on the grounds that it was impossible to illustrate. Given his experience with wasps in The Giant Jam Sandwich, I am sure Lord would be more than up to the task.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Abraham Lincoln, The Original Steampunk

This snowy holiday Monday in Boston finds me wishing I'd known about SnowCon, the gaming convention being held this weekend in Orono, Maine. With a 10-year-old deeply into scifi, robots, and Munchkin Cthulhu, I think we would have enjoyed the make-and-take game workshop, and I would have liked the steampunk soiree. We'd also have had a chance to hear Somerville author Ethan Gilsdorf read from his book, Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

Instead, we are home, procrastinating about the snow-shoveling and waiting for the Mythbusters marathon to start at 9:00 a.m. EST. This got me thinking of a book I saw this past Saturday at the ALA Midwinter Meeting: Mr. Lincoln's High-Tech War: How the North Used the Telegraph, Railroads, Surveillance Balloons, Ironclads, High-Powered Weapons and More to Win the Civil War, by Thomas B. Allen and Roger MacBride Allen. It came out from National Geographic Books in 2009, but somehow escaped my attention.

I suspect we are the Allens' target demographic. We watched with rapt attention the Mythbusters episode in which the team reconstructs a Confederate rocket. And we recently ventured to our local Home Depot to get all the PVC pipe and pressure gauges and whatnots necessary to build a spud cannon according to the directions in our copy of William Gurstelle's Backyard Ballistics. Something tells me we would enjoy this immersion in the story of Abe Lincoln, Steampunk. He was certainly an Extraordinary Gentleman.

I'm also intrigued by and trying to find a copy of the Zelig-like graphic novel Boilerplate, by graphic novel geniuses Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, who happen to be married to each other. Boilerplate is a robot who pops up in places like the Klondike gold rush, wrestling a bear, or among the Zapatistas.

The Boilerplate website is extensive, but there is also a good article about the authors and their project over on Watch this space for more about Boilerplate as well as video, once our spud cannon is working.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Taking Wing

I'm looking forward to seeing Hilary Swank as our favorite Aviatrix in the new Mira Nair fim, Amelia. I'm not much of a Richard Gere fan, actually, but I think this one is worth seeing in the theater on the big screen.

The release of Amelia reminds me of friend Jeannine Atkins's wonderful book on women and flight, Wings and Rockets: The Story of Women in Air and Space. On her website, Jeannine tells a great where-I-get-my-ideas story about how the book was inspired by a trip with her husband and daughter to a roadside military museum where she saw a WASP uniform on a manequin:
 One summer day we were driving down a back road in New Hampshire when my husband spotted an army tank that looked like it had crashed through a brick wall. He had to pull over. Small military museums are not exactly my thing, but I love my husband .. and he promised the next stop would be a lake (bathing suits were packed).
I took my daughter’s hand as we wound our way around exhibits, then I yanked her to a stop in front of a manequin dressed in the uniform worn by women pilots during World War II. I’m always intrigued by women I never read about in history books while growing up. I bought a few books and soon was captivated by the daring WASPs who ferried and tested airplanes during the war ... then were sent home with a rather swift farewell.

I've been priveleged to work in a very small way with Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer and marine biologist known as a passionate and tireless advocate for the world's oceans. While she's not an aviator, Earle participated in the late 1960s in Project Tektite, a NASA experiment in underwater living meant to approximate the physical and psychological rigors of life in space. You can read an interview with Earle about life in the "Tektite Hilton" at

You might also want to check out this nice site for the American Experience film, "The Fly Girls" to see these aviation pioneers in action.

[Illustration: Amelia and Hilary from]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ghosts, Graveyards, and the Luxury of Time

A few days ago Budza and I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It’s the riff on Kipling’s classic set in a graveyard, with the Mowgli role given to one Nobody Owens, and various ghosts and hellhounds (and one very classy vampire) standing in for Bagheera, Kaa, Baloo, and the rest. It won the Newbery Award this past January and, in August, the Hugo. It’s hands down, the best story I have read aloud to Budza since we moved from picture books to chapter books and on to true novels--and he and I have read a lot of splendid books. But none this fully realized and compelling, ambitious and just plain good. The suspense was skillful, the plot crisis toward the end terrifying, the denouement satisfying, and the ending perfect and moving. I’ll say nothing more. Go read it.

I wonder how much of the book’s fineness comes from the fact Gaiman had the luxury and leisure to work on the story off and on for 22 years. It was in the mid 1980s when he spied a toddler riding a tricycle in a graveyard, and only years later that the story of Bod Owens was completed. That doesn’t happen much in children’s book publishing any more. Of course, Gaiman had what every writer would like to have--income from a lot of other finished projects and a plenty of other irons in the fire--but the fact remains that publishing is increasingly dependent upon series, and one book a season, please, and one just like the last one, thank you very much. And if you die in harness churning them out, we’ll hire someone else to keep it going.

The idea that a writer could take his time and allow the book to take root and grow is really an exception, if not an anathema. Would Tolkien be given the leisure to write his four books about Middle Earth in this day and age? He began The Hobbit in 1925 and finished the last chapter of Return of the King in 1950.

Everything is shorter, now, and faster. We are getting our stories every few seconds, 147 characters at a time. The days when editors and publishers could afford to wait for a book to be ready in the fullness of time are gone forever. But I can’t help thinking what if. What if writers had the leisure to take as long as the story needed rather than rush to deliver them, so they could be hurried past the copyeditor with a wink and whisked into stores? What if we all had the luxury of time?

Those are books I’d like to read.

[illustration of Mowgli by John Lockwood Kipling from The Second Jungle Book, 1895. Doesn't it look like a headstone?]