Questions About the Question Mark

The question mark is my favorite punctuation mark.

Days before my seventh birthday, I went to Santa Monica Hospital to have my tonsils out. Parts of the experience stand out clearly in memory. For instance, I remember being carried into the operating room by the doctor. I remember a mask being placed over my face. I remember being told to count backwards. And I remember a dream.

I’ve had general anesthetic a few times since, but don’t ever remember any dreams. This one time, though, I did.

I dreamed of question marks, dancing around me, and I dreamed of them jumping off a cliff. It wasn’t a nightmare exactly, but I found it disturbing. I have continued to find question marks menacing, somehow. What is it they want from me, exactly, and do they expect me to have answers?

Of course, I’m joking, a little bit. I experience no uneasiness at all at a question mark at the end of a sentence. Do you know where I left my keys? is not disturbing. Even Is there any meaning to life? ignites no particular emotion. It’s when the question mark stands out there all on its own that I get a bit twitchy.

There’s something about the wiggly insistence of the mark itself. It conjures uncertainty and instability. It suggests that there’s no end to possible questions, that no answer will ever be enough.

The recent flurry of Dr. Who programming reminded me of my uneasy relationship with question marks, where they appear on vests and shirt collars in the various incarnations of the Doctor. I also recall the music group from the sixties, ? and the Mysterians, how I never liked that name. I do not even like the way it alphabetizes in my iTunes library.

My research into the origins of the question mark was disappointing. I expected (hoped) I might find it had some occult origin, but in fact, its beginnings–while subject to debate–are mundane and practical. I was astonished to learn that, while used around the world in non-western languages such as Japanese and Chinese, some languages use other symbols to indicate an interrogative. Armenian uses something that looks like a backwards, flattened, cursive “a.”  Arabic uses a question mark, but it’s turned around to accommodate  right-to-left text. Three vertical dots indicate the interrogative in Ethiopic. Coptic uses a small square. None of these do it for me; they are thoroughly unsatisfying interrogatives.

The question mark looks just as questionable in right -to-left text.

The question mark looks just as questionable in right -to-left text. (Source: Wikipedia)

This “backwards” version of the question mark has another use I was previously unaware of, that of a percontation mark, for a rhetorical question, or to denote irony or sarcasm. I would have thought the sarcasm and irony uses would be recent innovations, but no, they date from the 19th century, according to my online research.

I suppose there are other symbols that spur feelings, for instance, $, or perhaps @, if you’re into Twitter or email addresses. For me, it’s the question mark, all the way. Periods put me to sleep. Semicolons make me feel smug. Exclamation marks annoy. Only question marks make me want to know what’s up.

Perhaps the scariest question marks of all.

Perhaps the scariest question marks of all.



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The Truth and The Truth



Based on a true story.

This is the most deadly phrase I can read or hear in a movie ad.

In fairness, Dallas Buyers’ Club, which I saw with my daughter, uses the words inspired by a true story in its ads and trailers. Inspired makes it sound a bit more as if it’s intended as fiction, although I suspect that distinction is lost on most moviegoers. Anyhow, this movie version of Ron Woodroof, the AIDS activist who founded the Dallas Buyers’ Club, follows him from his diagnosis, all the way to a court case against the FDA. Along the way, he battles doctors, customs agents, the FDA, and his own worsening state of health. It’s a moving story, and for someone my age, it effectively brought back memories of that time–the cluelessness of the experts, the rampant homophobia, and the ignorant, often hysterical, fear regarding the possibility of being infected. These larger points I recognized as truly depicted within the film, based on my memory of the history.

On the short drive home, my daughter and I discussed the film, and began speculating about its basis in truth. We both doubted that Dr. Eve Saks was a real person. My daughter was not a fan of the pseudo-romantic relationship between Ron and Eve, the going out to dinner and so forth. I wasn’t either. More importantly, we wondered whether or not the character of Rayon was a real person. We hoped so, but we had our doubts.

Rayon, depicted as Woodroof’s business partner, is portrayed by Jared Leto in a gut-wrenching performance that ought to win him many awards. This is one hell of a performance, and one hell of a character.

I looked it up as soon as I got home, and found these:

Alas, Rayon is not real. The Slate article states, “The real Woodroof didn’t have any particular Rayon in his life…”, and was created (quoting screenwriter Craig Borten), “…as a character to give Ron a dramatic challenge to his prejudices while facing his disease.”

In other words, she’s a standard-issue screen-written sidekick. Sorry. But I was not surprised.

Let me see if I can articulate why I am annoyed.

I remember the eighties and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, from the first news reports of an odd new cancer that seemed to strike mainly gay men. I recall an early report stating the mortality rate appeared to be about 33%. Soon, the true mortality rate emerged. No one, at first, knew what caused it, except that it was sexually transmitted. Then, the virus was found, but there was no cure.

I remember the homophobia, and the pronouncements from certain religious quarters that AIDS was a judgment from God against gays (while leaving lesbians, inexplicably, especially favored by heaven) and drug addicts. Then we were horrified to realize that blood transfusions were a common vector. This situation lasted throughout the eighties, until effective drug cocktails were developed, approved, and prescribed. But between the original diagnoses and the onset of effective treatments, was a decade of denial, bigotry, and fear. And yes, governmental and drug company intransigence both exacerbated that denial, bigotry, and fear, and was exacerbated by those attitudes.

Many people suffered and died, and many, like Ron Woodroof, did what they could outside the establishment–sometimes, outside the law–to buy themselves and their co-sufferers a bit more time, a bit more wellness. I’ve no objection to someone writing about a straight white guy caught up in the epidemic; his story is as valid and moving as anyone’s. But is an invented transexual addict with a heart of gold necessary here? Rayon is portrayed as pivotal, Ron’s supposed business partner. And she’s not real. She is, in the end, a redshirt, a casualty deemed necessary to the script. She is an invention used to show fictional evolution in Ron Woodroof’s purported character issues. What so-called truth am I supposed to glean from this?

Jared Leto’s performance makes all this even more of a problem for me, simply because he is so astonishing as Rayon. A beautiful performance that comes close to stealing the movie. And it is a beautifully acted, well-written movie. The problem for me is that those very screenwriting skills are what muddle the truth. In a article, the movie is referred to as “…the real life story of…”, “…a true story, a triumph…”, when in fact, key points are completely made up. In addition, the characters of Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks are treated, in the article, as absolutely real. Check it out:

And this is why I have become a biopic cynic, fed up by all this inspired-bybased-on, bullshit. I love fiction, because fiction is true. It is true, precisely because I know it is made-up. With non-fiction, I can never be sure, but at least, I’d like you to try to tell the truth…

The Virus

The Virus

Photo: CDC

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Not Scared to be SF

Speculative Fiction: some people don’t like the term. Don’t be chicken, they say. Call it science fiction, not speculative fiction, or worse, spec fic.

I’m not much for spec fix as a term; I believe we should pronounce entire words most of the time, rather than automatically shortening them. I do enjoy speculative fiction, both the term and the stuff itself, however. I’m not afraid to say I read science fiction, because I do. I also read fantasy, selected horror, mystery, and mainstream. I even read that stuff they call literature once in a while.

I divide my reading roughly between fiction its authors consider to be “real,” and fiction from authors who consciously depart from the real–in other words, speculative fiction. Speculative fiction includes science fiction, which in turn encompasses hard science fiction, anthropological, political and other fiction of the soft sciences, cyberpunk, steampunk, space opera, alternate history, new weird, utopian, dystopian, and time travel. Speculative fiction also includes fantasy, itself a term which takes in high fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, horror, and fairy tales. Then you have the stuff that’s not quite real but not quite not: magical realism, slipstream, and whatever it is that Murakami does. (I like the term “not normal.”) I read all this stuff, and I have need of a term that includes all of them, that differentiates them from that other stuff.

The other stuff also has genres. Examples: literary, historical, mystery, police procedural, political thriller, war novel, spy novel, and romance. The other stuff might go by the umbrella term of realistic, or mimetic, fiction. If I throw the term speculative fiction into the wastebasket, what is my umbrella term for all the types of fantastic fiction I enjoy? Non-mimetic fiction? I don’t like it. Non-realistic fiction? I don’t like that either, for the obvious reason that no matter how far-out my science fictional or fantasy premise is, the human element needs to be dead-on realistic.

The only purpose even to discuss genre, to categorize literature, is so that you and I can have a discussion about the stuff we read. For that discussion to be sensible, we need some agreement between us of the meaning of the terms we are using. Here we run into some trouble. I have no confusion about how I choose to sort books out, but because everyone reads a book differently, different people categorize differently. For instance, people were all over the place with China Mieville’s The City and the City. It is categorized as crime fiction, weird fiction, police procedural, and it won fantasy awards, as well as the Hugo. I call it science fiction for reasons given in a previous post:…any-other-name/ ‎

But does it matter if we don’t always know what genre to put a work in? Isn’t part of the problem–if you want to call categorizing fiction a problem–that authors are becoming ever more inventive and interesting in the combinations of genres they choose to include in a single work, thereby making the assignment of genre that much more difficult?

Endless Possibilities

Endless Possibilities


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It’s No Mystery

My Latest Page-turner.

My Latest Page-turner

Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.

Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.

One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.

Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.

I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?

China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?

The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?

So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?

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What Not To Write

That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.

I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.

And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.

That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.

I would prefer you don’t:

1) Overuse italics.

Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.

2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.

All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.

3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:

Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.

4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:

I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.

5) Let your isms show:

Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.

Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.

The foregoing is  not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?

So not east to read....

So not easy to read….


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Missing in Action (from e-Readers)

As I finished up my most recent post, I knew a reader or two was likely to tell me of restaurants in SF that I had not known about. Sure enough, a friend suggested The Vlad Taltos series from Steven Brust. Naturally, I wanted to check it out. My normal modus operandi these days in such a situation is to download it immediately. Unfortunately, I found the first novel in the series, Jhereg, was not available in digital form, although later novels in the series are.

I punched buy with one-click! on Amazon to obtain Jhereg in pb, and then wondered, what else isn’t available digitally? My first thought was to  look for great, but obscure works, items that survive on my shelf through years of culling. I was a little surprised by what was there, and what was not.

The most glaring omission were the novels of Patricia Anthony. The only novels of hers available in electronic format were Brother Termite, and Flanders. Missing was my absolute fab fave, God’s Fires, as well as everything else. (If you think you might like a novel about the Inquisition with a science-fictional twist, this one should appeal to you.)

We lost Patricia Anthony a couple months ago, and as it happens, every one of her eight books was published in the nineties. Eating Memories, and Flanders, her last books, both came out in 1998. It pains me to think that because her body of work is “old,” having missed the ebook revolution, and because she is now gone, all her fine work could be forgotten. I consider Patricia Anthony to be a significant SF and mainstream author, and I urge anyone who missed her in the 90’s to look her up. Start with the ebook if you like, then, if necessary, go for the real books.

A book I did not expect to find, and yet was disappointed not to find, was Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax. I have heard that novel was a disaster commercially, and had a negative impact on his career.

I was sorry to hear that. I loved it. Give me a thoughtful, out-there, possibly controversial version of a religion or a religious figure, and I am really, really happy. What others consider blasphemous, I consider speculative and thought-provoking. I have never believed the The Great Spirit is particularly annoyed or injured by any sincere inquiry. The Gospel of Corax is one of my favorites of these, and I also enjoyed The Three Marys, by the same author.

Beyond those two examples, I’m sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books missing from digital stores. Many will become available, in good time, but some may not. I suppose the same goes for music, film, and TV. This distresses me. I’m not usually the quickest to adapt to new technology, but digital culture and entertainment are different. I have become entirely accustomed to having everything that has ever been played, written, or filmed available instantly. I am willing to pay for it; I don’t expect it to be free, but I want it RIGHT NOW.

And, although Jhereg wasn’t available RIGHT NOW, it arrived within forty-eight hours.

Unknown-1 Unknown

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I Know A Place…

I don’t remember the name of every dearly departed restaurant my husband and I used to love going to, but I remember the food, the ambience, and the basic serenity that descends upon one while being waited on and nourished with excellent food. Here is a short list of the departed:


Gustaf Anders

Bangkok 4 and 3

That French restaurant in Tustin

The Iron Squirrel


The Four Seas

It hurts when a favorite restaurant closes.

I have vivid memories of restaurants visited away from home, in Albuquerque, San Francisco, Brighton, Calais, Paris, St. John Cap-Ferrat, Venice, and Rome.

If restaurants are so important, why don’t we see more of them in fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy? When I Googled “Restaurants in Science Fiction,” the results were mostly for Disney, plus an ad for Ruth Chris’ Steak House. I had the same result when I searched for fantasy. Why?

One reason may be related to plot. Restaurants are places to pause, to relax, to have a nice meal…to restore oneself. SF tends to be literature involving action, often in places too remote in time or space to have such amenities. Even is they were available, our characters don’t have time to sit around and restore themselves. And if they do go to a restaurant, someone recognizes Lady Catelyn, and a huge fight breaks out. We never get to see the dessert tray!

Another reason restaurants are thin on the ground, especially in science fiction, is that they may not exist, in the same form, in the future. They might all be automated, with no human wait staff. The food may, indeed, all be printed from machines, sort of like the pellet diet I feed our cockatiels. Or we may end up in the world of The Windup Girl, where Monsanto has taken over the food supply.

An unappetizing thought. And no, I don’t really think it’s going to be that way.

And the more I think about it, the more I can come up with memories of restaurants in SF:

1) A teahouse figures prominently in The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald.

2) They stop at inns for nice meals in The Hobbit quite a lot.

3) Poppy Z. Brite has a delightful mainstream series–Prime, Liquors, and Soul Kitchen, which are entirely about two chefs and their restaurant, but it is entirely non-SF.

4) And what about The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams?

I guess maybe what I’m looking for here is something a bit different than the above, like a picky eater with a craving she can’t quite define.

Okay, I can define it: It’s the individually owned, sit-down venue with excellent food at slightly expensive but-not-ridiculous prices. The bistro. And it is this exact sort of place I think is in dinosaur mode. It’s much easier not to have wait staff or a lot of square footage devoted to seating. Much better to have most of your sales be take-out. This appears to be a trend. As for food quality, it depends on what is available, affordable, and demanded in various areas of the world. The number of hopeful chefs on TV competitions leads me to believe no one is going to give up cooking any time soon.


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