When Sixes Don’t Mean Boxcars

In 2013 at the World Science Fiction Convention, I had the great fortune of meeting Arriane “Tex” Thompson.   She was and acquaintance of a friend and she joined a group of us going out to dinner.  It took about 15 minutes before she charmed the entire table.    When dinner was over, I knew she had a novel being published in 2014 and that I would be reading it.  I wasn’t sure what to expect – either I didn’t ask or I had too much to drink and the former was unlikely – but I didn’t expect a western horror fantasy novel.  Don’t take the Sci-Fi portion of the convention too literally; the fantasy genre is often lumped in with it.  No one in their right minds thinks of A Song of Ice and Fire (which you may think of as Game of Thrones) as Sci-Fi and that was why I was there.

This summer, Tex’s  One Night in Sixes was published.  Having preordered it, it came with little fanfare in a box with a smile.  I had seen the cover on line, but I had not really gauged the entire “westernness” that confronted me.  I’m not really a western kind of guy.  I can say Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour because I’m observant – I’ve never read anything of theirs.  Nor have I read King’s Gunslinger series. My father always loved westerns like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, but I always resisted the nonexistent temptation to watch with him.  I have seen “Unforgiven” so I’m not completely clueless. Just mostly.  That’s enough from the peanut gallery.

one night in sixes

Of course when I hear “Sixes” I immediately thing of one thing.  No, not people whose looks are slightly above average, but the Rolling Stones “Tumbling Dice“.

I’m all Sixes and Sevens and Nines

As a craps player, and thank you Dad for teaching me the game and reinforcing its joys, we want sixes and nines.  But usually it is sixes and eights or nines and fives or seven and elevens.  It is context sensitive (in addition to being fully math/statistics based).  I ‘m guessing Mick and Keith don’t roll the bones for money.  So while I hoped the novel had a dice based theme, I knew better.

I opened the book and started with minor trepidation.  Was she going to brand cattle? Teach us how to use a lasso?  Perhaps chuck wagon chili was on the menu.  Oh well, I was going to find out.  It didn’t matter after a few pages of establishing the western motif, I realized we weren’t in Texas anymore.   Almost immediately I was thrust into a new world, where western elements mixed with the unusual.  Was this some post-apocalyptic future?  Perhaps an alternate universe where the weather and man’s arrogance transformed this part of the world into a heap of dry clay, ready to be molded but unable to maintain any sort of structural integrity.  It didn’t matter; the landscape in my mind’s eye provided an ample canvas for the tale to unfold.

We quickly meet Appaloosa Elim and Sil Halfwick.   My next thought was this was going to be the literary equivalent of a buddy movie.  You know, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in “The Road to Someplace” or Eddy Murphy and Nick Nolte roaming San Francisco for 48 hours, twice it seems.  But again no, the two main characters are not really buddies and they don’t really travel together.  Yes, I do have an overactive imagination.

The basic premise of the books is that Elim and Sil travel to the town of Sixes and bad shit happens.  Then it gets convoluted and worse shit happens and it continues to go downhill, with unusual characters and their veiled motivations pulled into that downward spiral ever faster.  I wondered if Tex listened to too much Nine Inch Nails while writing the book.

If I was 14, this would be where I start to summarize the plot and dissect the characters’ actions and motivation.  As an adult, I believe you can do that if you choose to do so.    What I do want to focus on is the depth and density of the detailed mythology Tex showers the reader with.  There are multiple cultures, languages and motivations that reveal themselves at her pace.    There are not any “remember when…” moments.  This is a smart book for intelligent readers.  The novel rewards both the thoughtful reader and the multiple rereads you will want to do.

She also pays homage and leverages what has been done well in the past.  I’m not about to say that One Night in Sixes is a new entry into the big book of Cthulhu mythos, but I definitely saw some influence from Lovecraft.  In my world that is always worth 3 bonus points.

Subtitled “Children of the Drought Book One”, this is clearly the first of a series, as the small print proclaims.  I’m looking forward to future books, as Tex has a fantastic way with words.  Her prose is engaging, descriptive and refreshing.  Here are a few examples.

A stab of fear pierced the fog as Elim was hauled up to his feet, and he suddenly understood done. (Page 122)

The darkness opened her eyes, angry white tears tracked down her cheeks, and found him. (Page 214)

But even with his hair half out from its tie and full pockets under his eyes, he knew better than to wait for an invitation to speak.  (Page 339)

Why yes, I did take these at random.  That’s what makes this such a rewarding read.  Her unique style fills the pages, keeping the reader – ok, me – fully in her thrall until she decided she was done with me.  Now all I can do is wait for the next book.  I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but you’ll be hearing a lot from her.  My book collection is waiting for fancy limited versions that are trademark of beloved books.  I’ll make room for hers on a prominent shelf.

On a side note, Tex has called me “the MacGyver of Gastronomy”.  Don’t you think you should buy and read her book just for that alone?

 

Today’s blog brought to you by REM.  Boxcars – a carnival of sorts, if you please.

 

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It’s Not The Heat, It’s The Pizza.

My last thoughts of Chicago were of the oppressive heat.  The sun seemed hotter and thus the shade sweeter than home; the humidity was cruel and ever-present. I loved the city, but hated the humidity.  As a coffee fiend of minor renowned, the weather disrupted my joyful drinking on the walk back from that particular den if inequity.  Instead, I needed to leave enough time in my busy schedule to take my fix onsite, cutting my expected number of trips in half.  The coffee shops (one mediocre, one fantastic), much like my hotel, understood the importance of heavy hand on the thermostat.  I often imagined the patrons lingering extra hours, without buying more dark elixir, to delay the unpleasant task of re-entering the warm sticky air just a bit longer.  There was free WiFi after all.

In packing for Chicago I thought about the weather and decided on shorts and t-shirts.  Clearly these were fine for our time at the World Science Fiction Convention, but if it was that hot and humid I would need to change my shirt often.  And who wears shorts to nice restaurants?  Surely, not I.   So, I packed lots of shorts and t-shirts.  A great deal of effort went into picking those shirts.  As I am not a wall flower, my attire is often chosen to elicit a response, generally a smile or laugh.  It’s harder to do than one thinks.  My friend Chataya says it’s all about the shoes.  Of course she’s right, but no one notices my shoes.  Everyone notices hers.  It’s the plan and, in my opinion, a very good one.  A few times my shirts got noticed, so my plan was not completely flawed.

It is so hot outside in Chicago that the hotel has decided to keep the internal temperature just slightly warmer than the North Pole in winter.  Inside I’m freezing and outside I’m dehydrating like beef jerky, just much slower because the humidity makes sure that my skin is wet and slimy like a salamander, and you know how tough it is to dry one of those.  I’m thinking it is easier to survive a Chicago winter than enjoy a Chicago summer.  I’d like to see the Wicked Witch of the West avoid melting there.

To combat the cold, Lambchop wore pants one day.  She was cozy and comfy in hotel.  When we took a walk for lunch, her comfy was roasted on a spit.  Thus ended the experiment of “pants in the daytime.”  While we often wear shorts at home, neither of us have 10 pairs and we were in the Windy City for 8 days.  I hope no one noticed me recycling my shorts.  I’m paranoid about things like that.  Look at my fun t-shirt people, not my sad, ready for the laundry basket shorts.  And yes, at least twice I wore shorts to restaurants that implored, “Please, Lee – dress a bit nicer.”

To offset the heat and humidity, there were a few cool moments.  Our friend John Picacio won the Chesley Award for Best Product Illustration (the 2012 Song of Ice and Fire Calendar) and then proceeded to call us and several of our friends out in his acceptance speech.  I’ve never been thanked like that before.  It gave me chills.  Of course karma was looking out for him and he won the Hugo for the Best Professional Artist 2 days later.  I’m thinking at this rate its time he puts the EGOT on his goal sheet.

There are a few times of when I wear my fanboy hat for a few moments before I revert back to the suave, cool dude I am.  I try to keep the fawning to a minimum, but I am a bit out of practice. If I fawned too much, I apologize in arrears.  At a party I finally got to meet Melinda Snodgrass, who is as nice as nice can be.  I also had short conversations with Ian Tregellis and Stephen Leigh, writers whose work on Wild Cards I’ve always loved.

One of my favorite moments in Chicago, was one many people missed. There was some serious bonding as  Adz, Allythia, Arantius, (what’s with all these A’s?) Fragile Bird, Lambchop, Jeebus and I had a quiet night of cocktails and pizza.  Friendships were built and I can’t wait to hang out with them again.  What is interesting is that only Lambchop and I are from the US.  Australia, Canada, Germany and Luxembourg were all represented.  Sadly, there were no hobbits, but I do think I saw some trolls across the room.

Perhaps I have the wrong attitude toward the humidity.  It doesn’t seem to bother the natives, though I saw far too many working women going back and forth from their offices in flip-flops.   Have we come so far from the tennis shoes as an accessory in the 80’s that flip-flops can survive in the office?  No, they were not Gucci, at least I don’t think so.  The trick might be to embrace the humidity and treat it like a sauna; think of it as the soothing schvitz integral to rejuvenation and part of a cleansing.  I do feel invigorated after my trip.  As my friends return to their homes, many of them falling from the high of comradely, booze and unbridled joy, I have different feelings.  I don’t have that emotional drop several of them are describing in social media.  I find myself smiling and ready to enjoy life in the best place on earth.

You didn’t know that fall in the bay area is the best weather in the calendar year or that the crush has started in Napa?  Add in Football and the smile that waits for me at home and life is pretty good.   Suddenly, oppression is the last thing on my mind.

Far From a Level Playing Field

The two towers rose above the river to the north.  Slowly, the pilgrims came from the other corners of the world.  There were Hobbits, Wizards, Klingons, dragons, artists, authors, actors and other disparate species .  They all came to call the corner of E. Wacker and Stetson in Chicago home.  The towers did not guard the entrance to Mordor, instead they welcomed everyone to the 70th World Science Fiction Convention.  Over the course of several hours, these two towers were quickly transformed from a large hotel to a village.

A convention really is its own self-contained microcosm.  The hotel provides beds, which in many cases are rarely used.  The hotel also provides convention facilities encompassing 3 levels below the hotel and a big bar (which was indeed its name) above.  If an immigrant to this village so chose, they would not ever need to leave the hotel complex, with the towers connected with an enclosed skyway and an underground tunnel.  The con provided food for snacks and lunches; the hotel provided the alcohol and shelter from the heat and humidity.

Including the bar, the con took place on 4 different levels of the hotel.  In investigating our surrounding, I realized that like the convention, Chicago was a town of many levels.  There were two levels of underground roads surrounding the hotel.  The river was yet another level down.  Looking westward, one could not miss Donald Trump’s latest ego driven construct, the Trump Tower; built in 3 distinct shining glass levels, each level proclaiming the increasing socio-economic status of its residents.  Rumor has it that the penthouse, with its modest $32 million price tag, is still available.

Up the street from Trump’s monolith and down in a hole,  sits the Billy Goat Tavern.  Famous for both the curse that keeps the Cubs from winning baseball’s World Series and John Belushi’s “Cheezborger! Cheezborger!” skits on SNL.  The shining and new tower with its 3 progressive levels is juxtaposed with a grimy (through clearly charming) old tavern.  The upper crust top level looks down upon the lowest level, a simile made concrete.  Or, in this case, glass.

Within the convention itself, there are levels.  One can tell what the organizers think of certain topics and speakers based on time slots, room sizes and conflicts. They probably don’t see it that way, but from my perspective it was hard to see it otherwise.  Jim C. Hines, in accepting his Hugo, talked about how he found Science Fiction Fandom and remarked that he “found his people.”  It was touching and rang true.  I’ve always known this was one of my tribes, as we all belong in more than one tribe.  Often it is difficult your place outside your immediate family.

The convention is not at all what one might think.  It skews much older.  The amount of “longtime fans” is quite large. I would guess more than a third of the attendees are over 50; a ver significant amount over 60.  And I’m probably guessing low. This in and of itself creates the stratas and layers within the convention.  Like the rest of society, there is also resistance to change.  It is not always obvious, but it can be seen if you look closely.  With such a long history, one must wonder why ComicCon and DragonCon are huge compared to the humble village that is WorldCon.  I’m guessing it’s a resistance to change.

Unlike the Con, Chicago shows its changes.  You can see them on its sleeve. On its lowest level, you can tour the city via the river look up at the buildings.  Some are big blocks, others sweeping curves and still others are stacked in layers.  But you can see the changes from the down below.  You can see when it was in vogue for architects to “turn their back on the river,”  leaving little to no view of the water from the building.  Art Deco, Modernism and other forms of architecture cohabitate along the shores of the Chicago River, showing how change has imbued the city with a spectacular skyline, a modern forest and a past that welcomes the future.

We are not so different from the modern jungle. We may choose to ignore it, but we each have many levels and layers.  Generally, we only show a few to the people around us.  Those closest to us see a bit more.  The trick is knowing what should and shouldn’t be shared; when to embrace change and when to hold fast to what was previously a change.  As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not the long-haired teenager wishing I had been 18 in 1967.  That will always be one of my levels.  But there are several more.  I know I never expected me to  have a blog.  Did you?

Chicago in 3 dots (or Barfleet, Coffee and Furries Oh My!)

Chicago, the windy city, home to the Billy Goat Tavern and Wrigley Field.  Two disparate locations – one well-lit, the other down in a hole –  linked by a single curse.  Lambchop and I were in town for the World Science Fiction Convention.    At least 3 of you are now smirking derisively, but that’s ok.  We had a wonderful time.  Everyone knows about Chicago Style Pizza, christened pretender pie at the con, but perhaps I might add some new insights after my time there…

Lambchop met her twin in a hobbit from down under. Actually they met as the hobbits journeyed from the Shire to Chitown, stopping in San Francisco.  I fear the havoc the two of them will cause in the coming years, especially if they realize what that ring can do.  Could be I’ll be voted off the island…  I never expected the replacement for the Mudshark in my lexicon to be Trebla, but seeing the girls now swoon for him, I must admit its inner truth.

John Picacio finally won a well deserved Hugo in addition to his Chesley award.  I am pretty sure he’s going to need a bigger trophy case soon.  It will be interesting to see how he fares on his home turf in San Antonio next year…I found the art show terribly disappointing, but I found a gem in an older Don Maitz painted sketch, which hangs proudly in the entry to my office…. now if I only liked The Book of the New Sun.  Perhaps I’ll reread them with older, wiser eyes…

It seems that Chicago is a Pepsi town.  By my count it was 3:1, Pepsi over Coke.  One of the few things the town got wrong… On the other hand Arlington Bill provided more beer than any one man had a right to have in his hotel room…There are signs everywhere declaring it illegal to put ketchup on a  hot dog in Chicago. I don’t know, I might have put more effort in to helping the sad panhandlers shaking their cups of coins.

We were stalked, or so it seemed, through out Chicago by Ron Donachie, aka Ser Rodrik Cassel in HBO’s Game of Thrones.  He and his wife are two wonderfully nice folks, going so far as to walk over and say hello in restaurant after he’d met several of us at a party…those of you that don’t get Star Trek, would surely have missed Barfleet and that would have been a shame.  They won the award for most creative use of  a Kiss song,  “Detroit Rock City,” but I seemed to be the only one to notice. But we did miss the Klingons shouting, “Revenge is a dish.. BEST SERVED COLD!!” … Cam was giving out schmoozing lessons nightly.  I should have paid more attention.

If you are reading this you probably already know Peadar Ó Guilín.  If you don’t, I would suggest you look for him and read his book, The Inferior.  Of course he’s a friend, but I really like what I’ve heard him read.  Needless to say his two books are near the top of my reading stack and I am eagerly awaiting The Shatter…I will be hiring X-Ray (the Enforcer)  and Mr. X to run my next party.  They run a tight ship and really went above and beyond this year…

The programming at the con  was a bit disappointing.  Last year there were so many panels, talks and readings that I couldn’t attend then all.  This year there were few that called to me and inevitably they conflicted…Clearly the organizers did a very good job overall, but how could they not give George R.R. Martin their largest room for his reading and interview?  Those chosen were too small… And Patrick Rothfuss was scheduled to read in a room with 20 chairs?  Even I know he’s a huge draw….but the food in the con suite was great and the midnight pizza after the Hugos, sheer genius.

I never realized how close John Belushi’s “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Chip! Chip!  No Coke, Pepsi” was to reality at the Billy Goat Tavern.  Great atmosphere, well priced and solid, if unremarkable, grub. Its one of those things everyone should do at least once… Remarkable might be an understatement for Intelligensia coffee.  I am now a huge fan, but please reconsider your baristas.  Those cute boys in skinny jeans and skinny ties pushed the cool environment towards hipster doofusville.  It just seemed wrong…There are not enough superlatives to shower on Frontera Grill.  Rick Bayless is a genius…And Trebla is sex symbol.  What next, dogs and cats living together?

One panel was called “The Secret History of Science Fiction” where George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick, Joe Haldeman and Gardner Dozois, who arrived 30 minutes late,  told stories of cons past.  The room was overflowing with bodies and laughter.  Entering the room as the panel started, I was relegated to stand in the back.  500+ seats were not enough. While I enjoyed this to no end, laughing for the better part of that  hour, I still don’t understand why the guy behind me was wearing stilts…The gumbo at Heaven on 7 was really special, in a foodgasm sort of way.

I don’t really have a bucket list, but one day I need to help Chataya organize a real Furry hunt… Not only was there a complete absence of alcohol at the Hogwarts party, those bathhouse pin-ups of Malfoy combined with the Harry/Snape cuddle pictures crossed the creepy line.  Had Lambchop not been bonding with the Kiwi who did the elf ears in LOTR, we would have left much sooner.

Leigh Bardugo can write — that’s not news.  What is news is that with charm, wit and humor she single-handedly took over a panel that could have flopped, offsetting a few others who were didn’t realize they were sinking.  One day, she’ll be on Kimmel or Leno and she’ll blow up.  Huge.   In the meantime, read Shadow and Bone.  You’ll feel better…I don’t understand the position of the con having a few Young Adult (YA) panels, but refusing the consider the category for a Hugo.  Based on the stories I heard, the passion level on the “no way” side seems over the top for my sensibilities.

And yes, a few too many con-goers did look like they escaped from their mother’s basement.  Other than the 3 or 4 that interrupted panels or were simply clueless in regards to social cues, who cares?  It was a 5 day celebration of shared joy and fandom — much love and thanks to everyone I drank, laughed, talked and debated with… Next year in San Antonio can’t come soon enough.