“La libertad” quote in this website’s banner

Cervantes quote LibertadYou’ll notice this website’s banner displays some words painted in red on a stone wall. The quote comes from the novel Don Quixote. I took the photo during a visit to Salamanca, Spain, in 2008. (I used to live in Spain.)

It says:

[“Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that the heavens give to men. It cannot be equaled by the treasures buried in the earth nor covered by the sea.” Don Quixote de la Mancha, Part II, Ch. 58]

Don Quixote utters those words soon after he and his squire, Sancho, manage to politely flee the castle of a duke and duchess who had welcomed them as guests and then amused themselves by playing cruel tricks on them.

Salamanca has been a university town since the 1200s, and since the 1300s, students who receive a doctorate degree paint a symbol called a Victor on a wall of one of the buildings to celebrate. The paint is bull-blood red because Spain has a thing about bulls. Inscriptions in the style of the Victor symbol are also sometimes put up by the city for commemorations.

The full text of this commemoration reads:

[Their Royal Majesties, accompanied by Iberomerican heads of state and government, revealed this plaque on the occasion of the 15th Iberoamerican Summit.
400th anniversary of the publication of “Don Quixote”
The municipal government of the city. October 14, 2005]

That is, the King and Queen of Spain were part of a ceremony to inaugurate the wall-quote as a festive moment during a big international meeting. The city government created the plaque.

Cervantes may have studied at Salamanca University and lived in the city, and he located a number of his works there. While serving in the Spanish military, he was captured in battle by Ottoman corsairs in 1575 and held as a prisoner for almost five years, so he personally knew the value of the precious gift of freedom.

My votes for the 2019 Hugo Best Novelette Award

Hugo_Logo_1_200pxHugo Award winners will be announced on Saturday at CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, being held virtually from New Zealand. The ceremony will begin at 11 a.m. NZST, 6 p.m. CDT Friday Chicago time, so I’ll be able to watch live. George R.R. Martin will be toastmaster, along with some special guests.

I’ve read all novelettes, which are stories between 7,500 and 17,500 words, and here are my votes. (My votes for the short stories are here.) Overall, the stories cover a fair spectrum of current science fiction and fantasy, and if you never read in the genre, this is as good an introduction as any. You may find some of the stories move you in a different way than they moved me. (SFF Book Reviews offers some divergent opinions.)

6. “The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine, July-August 2019)
A mystery writer finds a man dead, apparently in an accident, and eventually learns the truth. While the story is complex and creepy, it never develops much tension, and, for my tastes, it’s resolved too easily.

5. “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, 10 July 2019)
A cat battles Satan for the soul of a poet. Light and stylish, this is perfect for cat lovers and preserves the place for humor in the genre, which is hard to do and, in my opinion, never done often enough.

4. “Away With the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny Magazine: Disabled People Destroy Fantasy Special Issue, September/October 2019)
Can a werewolf story be sweet and gentle? Yes. And in my opinion, there’s always a need for sweet and gentle stories in the genre.

3. “The Archronology of Love”, by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed, April 2019)
Everyone in a colony on a distant planet died while investigating strange alien technology, and researchers have come to find out why. Some of the dead were loved ones. In a way, the story is one long, slow goodbye — or rather, the search for a way to say goodbye.

2. Emergency Skin, by N.K. Jemisin (Forward Collection, Amazon)
Bitter anger propels this story as the protagonist discovers a lack of beauty and truth, and the means to recover it. Wonderfully told, but for my tastes, didactic — still, the underlying premise rings true.

1. “Omphalos”, by Ted Chiang (Exhalation, Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf; Picador)
What if Creationism were true? That is, what if God created the universe 8912 years ago? We could still learn a lot from archeology and other scientific studies. But what if we learned something we didn’t want to believe? The story carefully questions that premise, but I’m a little disappointed by the ending, a conclusion that many people in our own universe have already reached.

My votes in the Hugo Award Best Short Story category

CoNZealandI’ll be attending CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, which will be held virtually for the first time — because 2020 is an unprecedented year. The convention will run from July 29 to August 2, and the Hugo Awards will be presented on August 1.

As a member of CoNZealand, I get to vote on the awards. I’ve read all the short stories, and here are my votes. (The Hugos uses ranked voting.) They’re all good stories, well worth reading, and my ranking is a bit arbitrary because I had to choose, and my opinions are a bit harsh because I needed to be judgmental to choose. Your opinions may vary from mine and still be correct.

6. “As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang (Tor.com, 23 October 2019)
An emotionally riven tale about a war-winning weapon that can only be used at a great price. It almost feels like a vivid fable rather than a remotely probable story, although it leaves the reader with a lot of questions and doubt — and doubt is the point of the price of the weapon.

5. “And Now His Lordship Is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, 9 September 2019)
This classic-style horror story involves a dollmaker in India during British occupation — so classic that the ending can be guessed less than halfway through. Righteous anger undergirds the narration, but the conventional plot weakens it.

4. “A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2019)
As storms become sentient, a small town’s children fight back. The writing evokes a timeless dreamlike quality and creates sharp characters: pathos abounds. The point of view character is a child, however, which traps us in a limited horizon that is both claustrophobic and kind of a cheat, since the larger picture can go unexplained.

3. “Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, January 2019)
A husband must send her wife off to war one more time, and she just can’t bear to do it again. This is another story that questions war, and it also questions and subverts gender roles, and it rent my heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins the Hugo.

2. “Blood Is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, 24 July 2019)
The enslaved people in this story want freedom more than they want revenge, but even magic can’t fulfill every wish. A haunting story that could also deservedly win the Hugo.

1. “Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine, May 2019)
This was my choice for the Nebula Award (it didn’t win), and I’m still wowed by the story. In 1891, something tragic happened, and we’re still living with the consequences. This very short story, told in an unconventional style, smacks the reader upside the head with nuance, ambiguity, and pitiless social criticism. Its densely packed details make it hard to read and irresistible to re-read: very much a story of our moment, and I mean that as high praise.


My Goodreads review of “Rosewater”

Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy, #1)Rosewater by Tade Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I shouldn’t have enjoyed this novel, considering what a horrible person the narrator is. Kaaro steals, cheats, and lies. He’s angry, impatient, insolent, violent, and lazy. He disobeys superiors and abuses people when he thinks they deserve it or when he just doesn’t care. But he’s also honest with the reader, observant, and often a victim of people worse than himself who exploit him, so his anger is righteous. So is his fear. And his love.

Kaaro finds himself in the middle of a ghastly situation. Aliens have come to Earth, but little is known about them. As a result of their presence and the changes they’ve made to the planet, Kaaro is a “sensitive”: he has certain psychic powers. These powers get him in and out of all kinds of trouble. Slowly, episodically, he learns more about the aliens and his abilities, and none of what he learns is good.

The author, Tade Thompson, displays his skill, moving through Kaaro’s past and present to weave a coherent, expanding, multi-faceted disaster. He makes Kaaro, with all his faults, the perfect person to tell a spellbinding story. This is the first of a trilogy, and the series is nominated for a 2020 Hugo Award. On the basis of the first novel, it’s a strong contender.

View all my reviews

The thoughts that gave us skyscrapers


Skyscrapers were invented in Chicago. Historians argue that their development had at least two causes: the economic need for intense urban land use, and technological improvements such as iron-framed structures and elevators, which made their construction possible. I believe, more romantically, that Chicago gave birth to skyscrapers also because the land is flat flat flat, and people longed for the emotional exhilaration of vertical elements in landscapes. As soon as Chicagoans could, they started building habitable mountains.

To support my thesis that the skyline is architectural melodrama, I offer quotes from two men who played key roles in the development of the city’s skyscrapers.

Daniel Burnham was a founding partner of the architectural firm Burnham and Root, which in 1881 was commissioned to create the Montauk Building, the tallest structure in Chicago at the time. Because of its soaring height, the word “skyscraper” was coined to described it: an astonishing 10 stories tall.

Burnham, an ambitious man, also played key roles in the design of the 1893 World’s Fair: the Columbian Exposition and in the creation of the Plan of Chicago, which gave the city, among other gems, its lakefront parks. In 1910, in a speech at the Town Planning Conference in London,he said:

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistancy. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.”

Louis Sullivan, another notable Chicago architect and a man of deep philosophical beliefs, did not have a favorable opinion of Burnham, calling him “a colossal merchandiser” obsessed with size and cost. He also thought the pseudo-classical style of the 1893 World’s Fair had set back modern American architecture by forty years.

Sullivan’s aesthetics inspired Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School of architecture. His skyscraper designs incorporated girders and led to taller, slender buildings, which he often adorned with cast-iron or terra cotta motifs. In the March 1896 issue of Lippincott’s Magazine, he wrote of an architect’s emotion in the article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”:

“…what is the chief characteristic of the tall office building? And at once we answer, it is lofty. This loftiness is to the artist-nature its thrilling aspect. It is the very open organ-tone of its appeal. It must be in turn the dominant chord in his expression of it, the true exitant of his imagination. It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line — that it is the new, the unexpected, the eloquent peroration of the most bald, most sinister, most forbidding conditions.

“The man who designs in this spirit and with the sense of responsibility to the generation he lives in must be no coward, no denier, no bookworm, no dilettante. He must live of his life and for his life in the fullest, most consummate sense. He must realize at once and with the grasp of inspiration that the problem of the tall office building is one of the most stupendous, one of the most magnificent opportunities that the Lord of Nature in His beneficence has ever offered to the proud spirit of man.”

The words of these two men aspire to lofty, staggering, magical exultation, and to mountain-making melodrama. They gave us the skyline that remains the boast and thrill of Chicago, a triumph of height over length and breadth. Can we equal that forward-looking ambition in our own time? What can we do that would remake lives a century from now? What spirit stirs us today?