Fascinating courtly intrigue and bloody power games set on a generation ship full of secrets―Medusa Uploaded is an imaginative, intense mystery about family dramas and ancient technologies whose influence reverberates across the stars. Disturbing, exciting, and frankly kind of mind-blowing.” ―Annalee Newitz, author of Autonomous

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ralph Vaughan Williams' 9th Symphony

This is an historic recording for those who love music: Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 9 (conducted by Sir Adrian Boult) and Malcolm Arnold Symphony No. 3 (conducted by the composer), on Everest, EVC 9001, produced by Vanguard Classics. I bought mine on amazon.com, from the "new & used" section.

I love Ralph Vaughan Williams' 9th Symphony; to me it is a mixed bag of emotion. It always sparks cinematic images in my imagination, (all of my favorite RVW music does that for me, it's easy to understand why he was invited to write film scores). Perhaps because I'm American, I hear passages in the 9th that remind me of Bernard Herrmann and Aaron Copland. I own the historic Adrian Boult recording. When I played it again, just before writing this review, I imagined a world full of grandeur, danger, mystery, ruined in some places, but full of fascinating corners. There's a theme in the second movement that makes me think of tragic love, and I am particularly fond of the quirky third movement, which reminds me of marching robots. In fact I think RVW's 9th symphony would have made a fine soundtrack for Part 3 of Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS movie trilogy. So I'm startled when I read that so many people feel its tone is bleak and ultimately hopeless.

I wonder if the answer lies in the fact that the emotions in Vaughan Williams' music are so complex. The first RVW piece I ever heard was the Thomas Tallis Fantasia, which pierced me to the core. I had never heard music that evoked the natural world so perfectly, yet was also deeply spiritual. My favorite piece is "The Lark Ascending," which always reminds me that emotions have two sides. For every moment of joy, there's the knowledge that sorrow exists too.

My favorite movement in the Pastoral Symphony is the 2nd. When I was writing my fifth novel, I listened to it over and over, trying to catch the tone. I mentioned it to my brother the other day, and once again heard the "b" word (bleak). And considering that RVW wrote this symphony when he was serving in France during World War I, this interpretation is justified. But it seems to me he must have seen some beautiful, lonely places during this time. I've lived in Arizona all my life, a state full of beautiful, lonely places that many people might consider bleak. I hear that 2nd movement, and I see beautiful-lonely. I hear RVW's 7th symphony, and I see Scott trekking into Antarctica, but I also see an expedition to Mars. When I hear the 5th symphony, I often see the Grand Canyon, though it couldn't be farther from London during WWII. I hear the 9th and wish I were a fantasy film maker, so I could use it as a score.

Okay, I'm a bit of a kook, and my other musical preferences are eclectic, everything from Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev to Respighi, Grieg, Debussy, Liadov, etc. Much as I love these other composers, no one speaks to me as clearly as Ralph Vaughan Williams. In the last movement of his 9th, I can see things clashing, falling down, coming apart, but the strings and that subtle harp at the end seem to suggest that the stars continue to shine down on us anyway, and maybe the things that fall apart are the things that should.

There's one other important fact about this historic recording: In a brief introduction, Sir Adrian Boult tells us that Ralph Vaughan Williams passed away the night before. This places the recording firmly at a momentous point in history. I suspect that's why the Arnold Symphony is also included here, since the composer is conducting his own work. This recording is a cherished one in my collection.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Weird And Wonderful Arizona

If you've never been to Arizona, you're missing one of the wonders of the world. Plenty of other places are beautiful. Plenty of other places have history, or political power, or cultural significance. But Arizona is a unique collection of oddities and wonders that you won't find anywhere else.

This isn't something you would necessarily believe if you only visited Phoenix. Not if you've never been to the
Desert Botanical Garden, or the Heard Museum – not if you feel beauty is only solid green and humid. I admit, it's easier to appreciate Arizona if you like geology, lightning, birds, and giant, columnar cacti. You may think you'll only see desert vistas here if you don't know that our highest peak is around 12,600 feet and that we have snowy, forested mountains as well as deep, dry basins.

But I admit our reputation as a desert state is well-earned. All four of the great deserts of North America dangle their toes into Arizona. To the North is the Great Basin Desert, spilling over our border from Utah and Nevada – it's a rain-shadow desert full of scrubby sage-brush. In the North-West is the Mojave, whose most famous feature is Death Valley, another Wonder of the World – its signature plant is the Joshua Tree. From the South-East, the Chihuahuan Desert spills into Texas, New Mexico, and the South-Eastern basins of Arizona – it harbors shrubs and small, tough cacti. But the biggest desert in Arizona is the Sonoran, in the South and South-West. It's the only place in the world that has two rainy seasons. And the Sonoran is the American desert with the warmest winter. That's why we're the only place in the world where the Saguaro grows.

Stand alone in the open desert among a group of saguaros, and you won't feel alone. They live between 100 and 200 years, and they have a presence. Think of them as the Ents of the desert. They can be a scruffy lot, and they often make faces at people. Some of them look more dead than alive. But some of them top 50 feet, and one famous guy has over 100 arms.

Arizona is Geology Heaven, a place where the rocks aren't “haired over” by vegetation. We have a long, varied volcanic history, starting about 1.7 billion years ago when our chunk of North America plowed into the ancient Canadian Shield. The
Grand Canyon is unparalleled in its ability to represent millions of years of sediment laid down by shallow seas and by lakes, rivers, and even sand dunes. But Arizona is one, giant erosion feature – we have many other canyons. Oak Creek Canyon is an enchanted place with deep red sandstone. Walnut Canyon is carved from the same cross-bedded Coconino sandstone and Kaibab limestone found at the top of the Grand Canyon.

Despite decades of plundering by fools and yahoos, the
Petrified Forest features the best examples of petrified wood in the world. You can see petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock and near one of the preserved archaeological sites in the park. But my favorite thing about Petrified Forest is its bizarre Chinle layer, which doesn't quite look like any other sedimentary group I've ever seen. It's made up of shale, silt, mudstone, a little sand, and silica from volcanic ash. It's colors range from blue to red, pink, brown, green, yellow, tan – based on whatever trace elements are present.

We have a
meteor crater. We have a volcano that last erupted about 1000 years ago. We have more bird species than any other state in the union. We have thunderstorms that sound like atomic explosions. We have snowstorms AND sandstorms. We have the best Mexican food in the southwest (stop squawking, Texas and New Mexico – you know it's true). Navajos and Hopis own most of the North-East part of our state – a place that looks a lot like Mars. The Spaniards never successfully colonized us, thanks to the Apaches and their original Homeland Security. The coldest winter temperature on record for Phoenix was 16 degrees Fahrenheit – the hottest summer temperature was 123 degrees Fahrenheit.

And we're good-looking, too. Though we can be a scruffy lot. And some of us make faces at people.

If you're thinking of visiting, try all of those places I mentioned. You'll be amazed. But you'll barely scratch the surface of what's here. I've lived here over 50 years, and I'm still exploring. Sometimes I dream of visiting other places. Sometimes I even go. But I'm like the saguaro. This is the only place I can live.

Maybe if I live another 50 years, I'll even grow some more arms . . .

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Library Of Lark

The front doors to the library were unlocked, and opened on well-oiled hinges. Inside, shadows alternated with shafts of light from windows. Hawkeye smelled dust, but only the dust she normally associated with books, not the dust that should have accumulated after so much time had passed. The Neighbors filed in behind her and closed the double doors.

Silence assailed them from all sides, so thick and expectant, Hawkeye felt compelled to stand quietly and wait for something to happen, someone to speak. But after several moments, all she heard was the sound of Wolfy sniffing and the beating of her own heart. This was what the original investigators had spoken of, the feeling that something was happening just out of sight, just out of hearing. You waited to find out what it was – but you never did.

She scanned the spacious lobby. It spiraled up to a skylight, exposing six more storeys. Offices and annexes surrounded the center like petals on a flower. To Hawkeye’s right, the checkout desks stood waiting for patrons. At the far end, she spied the New Book fixtures. They looked well-stocked, but a little untidy, probably because the librarians had disappeared before they could do section maintenance on the area.

Hawkeye was curious to see what had been new two hundred years ago, so she moved in that direction first. The Neighbors followed her. When they had all reached the front row of the display, Wolfy and Brat sniffed the books, as if suspicious they might be dangerous. This struck Hawkeye as funny, and she couldn’t stifle a giggle.

The emptiness swallowed the sound whole. Hawkeye covered her mouth, alarmed. She turned to survey the library, her heart pounding. She saw empty aisles, frozen elevators, blank reader screens, dark office windows. “Hello!” she insisted. Again, her voice fell flat, as if it had struck a solid wall.

Meow?” enquired Brat, with the same result.

Hawkeye stared at Boss. But he watched her as if he expected answers, not questions. She felt foolish for being curious about the New Books. But when she glanced at them again, they snagged her attention anyway. Apparently political diatribes, cookbooks, diet books, and biographies of famous people were every bit as popular before The Disappearance as they were after. But among the bestsellers, she found an anomaly: 1001 Nights.

The same edition she owned.

Frowning, Hawkeye picked up the book to scan the date of publication. The year stamped on the page – the clean, crisp, new-smelling page – was the year of The Disappearance. “See?” she showed it to Boss. He nodded.

Hawkeye put the book back on the rack. She scanned the other titles, but nothing else jumped out at her. Finally she turned and looked across the lobby, wondering where they should go next. It might take hours to search the entire library. In fact, it might take days, if they searched thoroughly. Hawkeye didn’t want to stay here for days, the silence and the emptiness were beginning to depress her. And she couldn’t help feeling that something was about to happen, something really bad.

She heard a funny sound, and barely had time to realize that Wolfy had barked before he sped across the lobby, toward one of the offices.

Wait!” called Hawkeye, hobbling after him as fast as she could. “Stop!”

Wolfy dashed right through an open door. Had it been open a moment before? Hawkeye was pretty sure it hadn’t. Suddenly she felt positive she would never see him again.

But in another moment, he stuck his head out the door and barked at her. He sounded as if he were a mile away.

Ebony crossed the lobby in a flash and knelt beside Wolfy. Wolfy looked startled for half a second, then wagged his tail and licked Ebony’s face. Ebony stood and looked in through the open door, then waved and motioned them over.

Boss offered his arm to Hawkeye. “Don’t go faster than you should.”

I’m all right,” she said, anxious to get to Wolfy before he could disappear again.

Please let me help,” he said, his tone kind, but not patronizing.

She accepted his support and tried to go at a reasonable pace. Brat paced carefully beside her, resisting Wolfy’s incitement to come and see. When they finally reached the door, Wolfy couldn’t wait. He trotted into the room again. The Neighbors parted so she could see what was inside.

The office had been turned upside down. The contents littered the floor: books, office equipment, papers, potted plants, anything one could imagine in an office. But the desk in the middle of the room was bare, save for one item: a book. Wolfy picked his way through the debris and stood with his front paws on the desk, as if to say, Here is the thing, don’t look any further.

Boss helped Hawkeye through the mess. When she got closer to the desk, she recognized the book. “The Lost Cities!”

It lay open, revealing a familiar picture. Evernight, the shot of the lone, lighted door on the seventh level.

Hawkeye leaned over the desk and closed the book, then opened it again. A book plate decorated the inside of the front cover. It said, From the Library of Amber Rodriguez.

How did my book get here?” she demanded.

Boss flipped back to the page with the picture of Evernight. He gazed at it for a long time.

Who put this here?” asked Hawkeye. “Is this some kind of joke?”

Boss glared at her. “No more questions, Hawkeye. Give us answers.”

I want answers too! I have shared what I know with you!”

Have you?”

His tone made her wonder. She remembered a piece of advice from John Davies, who wrote Neighbors And Their Spirits Of Glory:

If you want to learn everything you can from Neighbors, don’t ask them any questions – none at all! Regardless of your curiosity. You must learn to observe, to listen. Answer any questions they ask you, truthfully, even though it doesn’t seem fair that you must answer without ever asking.

It absolutely did not seem fair. But perhaps she was assuming too much if she believed they knew why her book had suddenly shown up in Lark.

I think this may be what we’re supposed to find here,” she offered. “Just who wanted us to find it, I can’t say. A ghost used to throw it at me. He showed me this picture more often than any of the others.” She looked at the picture for a long moment. “It has always frightened me,” she concluded.

Boss stared at her with a small frown. Then he closed the book and tucked it under his arm.

Time to go,” he said.

from Spirits Of Glory by Emily Devenport

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Goof-Off Central

I've done some writing about a certain Big Box Bookstore, and the big mistakes the company has made in the eleven years I've worked for them. And I can't say that this article is going to diverge that much from my previous themes. But there's something about working for a Big Box Bookstore that rarely gets mentioned in blogs about What Went Wrong. It's something that is still, mostly, the fault of the Big Box Company, since it's an HR issue – a matter of how you supervise personnel and divide labor. It is simply the fact that when I began working for this Big Box Bookstore eleven years ago, it was Goof-Off Central.

By the way, I signed an agreement promising not to talk about the company (by name) while I'm working for them. Technically, I'm probably pushing it by writing these blogs, but I'm not just kvetching. I'm trying to cast some light on how/why this particular sort of business tends to fail.

So – back to Goof-Off Central. I'm not exaggerating when calling them this. When I started working for the company, it was actually possible for an employee to spend an entire day pretending to work. Here are some examples.

I worked in the music department. When I started, this department had a full-time supervisor, an assistant supervisor, a lead clerk, and four full-time employees. (By the time I left, there was just me.) We had enough people to scan in, unpack, sort, keeper, and shelve all the product that came in (three shipments a week). We could easily have had perfectly alphabetized shelves, properly stocked displays, well-stocked listening stations, properly stickered product (sale stickers), etc. Instead, the section was utter chaos. Stock backed up for weeks, the sections were poorly organized and lacked any alphabetical order, CDs often had two different sale stickers on them, and many listening stations stood empty.

Why? Because employees spent their time goofing off. And management didn't seem to know how to motivate them. I could have played along with this attitude and goofed off too, I would never have been criticized. Not as long as I showed up for work every day.

Employees ignored ringing phones. They ignored back-up calls to the register. They avoided customers on the floor, when they could. They shelved books wherever they would fit, rather than where they really belonged. They spent hours in the back room sorting books into bins and gossiping with each other. Those books never made it to the floor, and eventually got returned.

I decided early on to take some initiative. It wasn't that I expected to be rewarded – I was simply bored. So I started at one end of the music section and alphabetized the whole thing. It took about a month. No one realized I was doing it until I was halfway through. Once I had it well organized, I could shelve quickly and accurately. I was given responsibility for merchandising after that; then for setting up monthly listening-station programs. My GM appreciated my work, and I got regular raises and high marks on year-end performance evaluations. They didn't ignore my good work. But most of the time, the supervisors seemed to be focused on other stuff. In fact, I always got the feeling that the day-to-day operations of the store were a huge bother to them, almost beside the point.

I remember one incident when my husband and I arrived for work to find one employee at the register. She had a long line and was desperately calling for back-up. We hurried to the office, assuming no one was available to help her, so we'd better clock in fast and get up to the register. We entered the office and found eight supervisors sitting at their desks, laughing and gossiping with each other – and ignoring the back-up calls. They felt it wasn't their job to do the actual sales-clerk work in the store.

Eight supervisors. I'm amazed when I think there were that many of them in the store at one time. On some days, they outnumbered the sales clerks. I hated their attitude concerning grunt work, but in retrospect I realize it was right in line with upper management. We had a big conference room in our store where regular company meetings were held, and I briefly interacted with several executives over the years. I say briefly interacted because these people barely seemed to realize I existed. Their sole job in the company seemed to be to have lunch and attend meetings. They spent their days generating catch-phrases and spouting business philosophy at each other.

How could they get away with it? Because – for many years this Big Box Bookstore could sell just about anything. People were eager to go there, drink coffee, meet people, buy books and CDs. This was 1999, 2000, the first half of 2001. Back in the 90s, during the heyday of this particular chain, the money flowed like the Mississippi. It didn't start to tank until the 9/11 tragedy.

But it wasn't just 9/11 that did them in. It was a long list of bad business decisions and technology shifts, many of which are being discussed in online articles at PW and various other websites. But what is never discussed is the idea that big companies are inherently wasteful. They seem to be havens for friends, family, and cronies – people who get their jobs partly because of nepotism and partly because of the mistaken belief that executives are necessary to run a company.

They're not necessary. They are an artifact of the upper class. Executive-level jobs are a way for them to draw huge salaries and exercise power. They don't do this maliciously; they really believe they know better and do better than line employees. They can come up with numbers to prove it. Those numbers seem valid until the whole mess comes crashing down.

I'm not suggesting that we adopt communist values and build guillotines to rid ourselves of executives. I'm suggesting that we begin to exercise some common sense and stop creating situations were executives (and other employees) can work at Goof-Off Central. There wasn't one employee at Big Box Bookstore above the GM level who was necessary to run that particular company. Everything those overpaid executives did could have been done at the store level (except for Accounting, which could have been contracted out).

Line employees could have been paid better, with more merit raises for people who actually worked harder. Stores could have established closer relationships with vendors AND customers, ordering things that their local clientele actually wanted. Signs could have been printed by local printers, GMs could have had regular conference calls with each other to share winning strategies.

Yes, we all would have worked harder. But maybe we would have realized early on that we needed to develop a good website. For years, we line employees who actually gave a damn tried to tell our company what we thought needed to be done, based on our day-to-day experiences with customers. They blew us off, because we were line employees. If we had any smarts, we'd be executives, right?

So maybe we line employees would have failed too. After all, Amazon came along, and e-readers, and a crappy economy. Music, movie, and book vendors never realized their prices were too high – they never took steps to cut their own unnecessary costs.

But at least we wouldn't have been Goof-Off Central. In my opinion, that would have been a worthy accomplishment.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Publishing Singularity

Here's a link to Ernie's new blog posting about his experiences with the new, self-driven universe of publishing. This singularity is sucking people in from all over the globe (and beyond? ; ). Yesterday I was standing and talking with my mentor at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix (I'm in the docent program). She asked me what else I do besides school/day job/docenting), and I told her about my publishing history. When I mentioned online publishing with Smashwords, she said her husband wants to publish with them too, and that he had taken writer seminars with Mike Stackpole.

Small world! So here's what Ernie has to say about it . . .