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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"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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Saturday
Jan242015

Word for the day: petrichor

Most writers know way more different words than they use, though there are the occasional outliers who use way more words than they know.

That's because writers like readers, and many readers do complain when a writer uses a word they don't already know, as if any of us already knows all the words we will ever know. Has this changed with online dictionaries easily linked to the actual text being read? A Kindle lets you look up a word instantly. I would be interested to hear if anyone has done a study of whether people are now more willing to attack a "difficult" text, knowing they won't actually have to get up and go open a dictionary when they hit an unfamiliar word.

Allusion assistance can't be far behind.

This is all by way of my getting to a cool word I learned today (via a story about rain on The Dish): petrichor, the earthy smell of rain when it first falls on dry soil.  The name was made up in 1964 by two Australian researchers, and comes from the Greek words for stone (as in "you are Petrus, the rock on which I will build my church") and ichor, the word for the fluid in the circulatory systems of the Greek gods, which got used by H. P. Lovecraft and people imitating him for the circulatory fluids of aliens and other creepy creatures.

It's not a very mellifluous word for such a sensuous, specific concept. If I do use it, no doubt tying it to a specific memory a character has, I will probably define it, just because this really is one of those "there's a word for that?" words.

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.