Sunday, 29 January 2012

For all you OMG SHIP people: some initial thoughts on tall ship training

First of all, here's the web site for the ship in question, a replica of the 17C Dutch Pinnace that settled Delaware for the Swedes.

It's a bigger boat than the Mayflower - 317 tons - with seven square sails and a lateen mizzen to serve as a wind rudder. It hails from a pre-steering wheel era and so is steered by what is, in essence, a giant lever attached to the tiller. The helmsman can't see directly ahead and so has to reply on the commands of the officer in control of the ship.

I'm 3 classes into the training. We've been working on knots, belaying, line handling and safety procedures.

Writerly thoughts:

1) Language really is important. A lot of what we're learning right now is vocabulary, because you can't obey an order to "man the halyard" without knowing what a halyard is and what "manning" means.

It's interesting to me how quickly words like "Avast" go from being colorful bits of nautical parlance to words that actually mean something specific, and that you start to respond to automatically. For example, "avast" doesn't mean "stop" -- which is what I vaguely thought it meant before doing this. It's actual meaning is "stop but maintain tension!"

As in, you're hauling up a sail and an officer spots that a passenger has stepped into a coil of rope, risking imminent death. To shout "stop" might prompt some sailors to drop the rope, leading to a sail crashing down and possibly more imminent death. So instead the officer yells "Avast!" The sailors stop hauling but do not let go of the rope. The passenger is rescued. Everyone's happy.

So the phrase "Avast there you land-lubbers!" no longer makes sense to me. What are the land-lubbers supposed to be doing, that they should halt the activity but not abandon it completely? If they were talking when you saw them, should they now just make rhubarb-rhubarb noises?

2) Safety: A tall ship is a giant working machine, and you are standing in the middle of it. That means rings, long hair, necklaces, hoodie ties etc. are dangerous, because they can lead you to be dragged along with a rope or mashed into a belaying pin. All sailors on the KN must have their hair tied back, necklaces and ties tucked away, rings removed etc. And while real 17C sailors were far less safety conscious, I'm now scratching my head over the number of nautical adventure covers that show women and men standing on top of rigging with their hair flying in the wind. Um... no.


I swear I'm still here. I really am. And I will write a long updaterish post in the near future.

Here's a short version: I'm teaching 2 classes this semester. One's a freshman SF class I've taught before; the other is a new graduate course that I've dubbed "The British Empire: ALL OF IT." My days right now are mostly taken up with trying to whittle down ALL OF ITand finishing a new book chapter.

And I've started training to crew on a 17C tall ship. It turns out there's a replica Dutch Pinnace stationed in a nearby harbour that offers classes on square-rigger sailing. As an academic, I research the history of the British navy, and as an SF writer, 17C sailing knowledge is sure to come in useful at some point. So I signed up.

I'll do a longer post once I've done some more training: we're still land-bound right now, practicing knots and using ropes to haul trucks around the parking lot. So far my observations are limited to: knots are fun and tall ships have lots of parts.

More later.

Locus podcast

A few weeks ago I had a very fun conversation with Austin Sirkin and Karen Burnham about academia, SF, ICFA, steampunk, and teenage dystopias. Locus posted a podcast of it here: Siobhan Carroll and Austin Sirkin in Conversation. For posterity, and beyond!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

In dreams, history is cooler than it was

Last night I dreamed that I was eavesdropping on Catherine the Great advising the Empress Jos├ęphine on how to depose Napoleon and take the throne herself. I was very disappointed to wake up and realize that historically, there's no way this could have happened.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Tangent Online

I just learned that Tangent Online recommended two of my 2011 stories in the 2* category this year: "The Strange Case of Madeleine H. Marsh" (from the 4/11 issue of the late great Realms of Fantasy) and "In the Gardens of the Night" (BCS, 07/11).

It's always lovely to discover that people have read and enjoyed your stories. I have to say, too, that I really enjoy Tangent's reviews. They've directed me to a lot of fabulous work over the years. I'm going to try and hunt down as many of their 2011 recommendations as I can, and I'll try to write up a list of my own 2011 favourites later this week.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

State of the Reading Union: 2011, part 3

Best Short Story Collections (Since August)
Clockwork Phoenix 3: New Tales of Beauty and Strangeness, Volume 3‎ by Mike Allen

This lovingly-crafted anthology provides a nice cross-section of the SF field. Steampunk (Nicole Kornher-Stace's "To Seek Her Fortune") rubs shoulders with pseudo-academic history (Tori Truslow's "Tomorrow Is Saint Valentine's Day") which passes the baton onto literary SF (Gregory Frost’s “Lucyna’s Gaze”). Allen has a knack for digging out treasures from the slush pile, and he manages to not only showcase some strong stories from authors I already knew (Tanith Lee's "Fold"), but also creepy gems like Georgina Bruce’s "Crow Voodoo." I have to 'fess up, though, and admit that two of my favourite stories were by authors I know personally: Frost's wonderfully-crafted tragedy, “Lucyna’s Gaze," and Marie Brennan's brilliant lost history, "The Gospel of Nachash,” which I found both compelling and also dangerously persuasive. I can't now look at certain supernatural creatures without thinking of Brennan's apocrypha. It's very cleverly done.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Yes, I know. Everyone who likes SF has read this but me. Still, I really enjoyed reading modern classics like "Stories of Your Life" for the first time, as well as encountering personal favourites like "Seventy-Two Letters" again. I'm always impressed by the diversity of Chiang's stories and the strength of his ideas, and both virtues are on display in this collection.

State of the Reading Union: 2011, part 2

Back in August I discussed the best non-fiction books and best fiction books I’d read so far in 2011. In total, I ended up reading about 87 books in 2011. Here's my reading summary for the second half of the year.

Best Fiction (since August)
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

What a charming book! It's hard to believe that Simonson's tribute to love, politeness, and the importance of a nice cup of tea is a debut novel (and knowing the publishing world, it might not be). But Simonson's gently-humorous account of the forbidden love between a retired English major and an English-Pakistani shopkeeper is a winner. The story stumbles in the final two chapters (perhaps this was a debut novel after all), but for the most part, this is a lovely, well-written comedy with heart. Think "Bend it like Beckham" with books instead of football.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This is one of my "I really should have read this, shouldn't I" reads. And yes, I should have. Russell's tale of a Jesuit missionary expedition to an alien planet is gripping and poignant. I found the first half more compelling than the second, and was left a bit cold by the ending, but there's no doubting Russell's talent.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers‎ by Paolo Giordano

A gorgeously-written character study of two misfits who find each other, but who struggle to act on their feelings. There's a lot of soulless "literary" writing out there, where well-crafted sentences substitute for originality and a strong narrative. Giaordano's novel is the real deal. His imagery surprises, but his observations also strike home. I can't say I *liked* these characters, or what happens to them, but I believed in them and found their journey a poignant one.

State of the Reading Union: 2011, part 1

Back in August I discussed the best non-fiction books and best fiction books I’d read so far in 2011. In total, I ended up reading about 87 books in 2011. Here's my reading summary for the second half of the year.

Best Non-fiction (since August)

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman‎ by Robert K. Massie

I read a lot of "powerful women in history" bios this year, and Massie's portrait of Catherine is probably the best of them. It's an engaging, highly personal look at the life of a fascinating woman. Massie has the advantage, of course, of having Catherine's own memoirs to draw on -- if only Cleopatra had left an account of her first sexual experiences! -- but he uses them adeptly, and comes across as a wry, astute and sympathetic biographer.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit by Mark Seal

If you like reading true crime and/or abnormal psychology cases, make sure to pick up this page-turner. Seal's account of a con artist's progress across the U.S.A. is gripping, chilling, and thought-provoking.

Game Change by John Heilemann, Mark Halperin

An entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the 2008 presidential election. How this book will measure up in 40 years time, I don't know, but if you spent any part of 2008 wondering what the hell John McCain was thinking, this book will tell you.