Edward Willett

Google Translate AI reminds me of GigaText, a blast from Saskatchewan’s past

This story, “Google Translate AI invents its own language to translate with” caught my eye for an odd reason.

Long-time Saskatchewan residents will recognize the word “GigaText.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, I’m working on a book about the Progressive Conservative government of Grant Devine, which held power in Saskatchewan from 1982 to 1991. One of the boondoggles that government mistakenly invested in was a company called GigaText, which claimed it could use computers to translate Saskatchewan laws into French.

The government had to comply with a ruling by the Supreme Court that Section 221 of the Northwest Territories Act contained French-language guarantees that were still valid in Saskatchewan, and thus had to be either respected or repealed. As a result, The Court stated, all of Saskatchewan’s English-only laws were invalid, and the provincial government had to either translate all laws into French within a reasonable time, or invalidate, as soon as possible, the right to French-language laws. The government chose to do both: invalidating the right to French-language laws, but voluntarily translating some key laws into French as well.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-11-56-29-pmIn all the stories I’d ever read about GigaText (and I was a newspaper editor at the the time), nobody had ever bothered to explain the technology behind it. Clearly there had to be something real there, even though the company never managed to do what it said it could (and had a principal investor, a Montreal businessman named Guy Monpetit, who it turned out was as shady as they come.)

I wanted to put something in MY book about the actual GigaText technology. A little Internet digging scared up an old paper that described the theoretical underpinning of it.

If I may quote myself from the book’s current draft, at the heart of GigaText was:

“…a computer translation system being developed in Winnipeg by Dr. Douglas A. Young, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Manitoba…In 1983 Dr. Young published a theory that he believed could be the basis for effective computerized language translation—something that did not yet exist. Having noted that much of our knowledge is acquired through our senses and actions, rather than in the form of words, he theorized that the meanings of words and sentences, no matter what language they originated in, could be represented by something he called Cognitive Modalities (CM). He and his research team developed a system to define any given word in the English language using about 10 “modal codes,” each represented by three or six characters: an English-to-CM dictionary. In principle, if you then developed similar CM dictionaries for other languages, such as French, a computer should be able to translate between any two languages simply by matching the CM codes from one language’s dictionary with the CM codes in another language’s dictionary…

“Dr. Young set up a small company to develop machine translation based on his theory, and produced a demonstrator that could translate a specific sample of legal text from English into French via the CM codes at an average speed of about one word every 15 milliseconds, with reasonable accuracy (which in practice meant “only” about half the text did not require editing). The programs were written in a language called Zeta Lisp, the preferred language of artificial intelligence researchers at the time, and ran on specialized Lambda computers, made by a company called Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI), which was formed in 1979 by Richard Greenblatt of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.”

It looks to me like Dr. Young’s GigaText technology was similar to what is described in the article above. It just came 30 years too soon.

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The magazine article version of my interview with Atom Egoyan…

…has appeared in Refined Regina. Click on the image below to get a larger look at how it appeared.

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An interview with Atom Egoyan

egoyanLast week I interviewed world-renowned film (and stage and opera) director Atom Egoyan, in connection with the first North American showing of his art installation “Steenbeckett” at Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery. The 750-word article I wrote will appear in the next issue of Refined Lifestyles Magazine, but I thought I’d take advantage of my blog to post a lightly-edited (for clarity and continuity) transcript of our entire conversation. He was a pleasure to talk to and I highly recommend taking in the installation (and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, one of Canada’s best) if you’re in Regina.

You can read much more about it on the “Egoyan at the MacKenzie” website, from which allow me to quote the information about “Steenbeckett” you probably should know to make sense of the transcript.

“Steenbeckett (2002) is the extraordinary result of an Artangel commission that saw the artist Atom Egoyan transform space in the former Museum of Mankind in London (UK). For the installation, Egoyan used excerpts of 35mm footage from his film version of the Samuel Beckett play Krapp’s Last Tape, which he had made for the project Beckett on Film (2001). In the film, a haunted sexagenarian (played by John Hurt) reviews reel-to-reel tape recordings which he made on previous birthdays that capture his self-important reflections on events of the past year. The piece immerses the viewer in Krapp’s reverie on the pain of hubris and memories of lost love through a dense aesthetic layering of technologies in space. Two thousand feet of celluloid travels around the darkened room on a system of pulley-suspended rollers, propelled through a Steenbeck editing table, whose small screen also serves as our fittingly obscure and distanced window onto Krapp and his story. With the wear and tear produced by each rotation of the celluloid through the system, the whole work edges, like Krapp himself, inexorably toward extinction.

“In the original presentation of Steenbeckett, as well as in subsequent presentations at the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester, UK), The Clinton Centre (Enniskillen, Ireland), and mac birmingham (Birmingham, UK), two adjacent rooms complete the commentary on temporal divides. In one room a jumbled collection of old furniture, cabinets and film equipment nostalgically evokes film’s history; the other room, clean and well-lit, looks forward to the digital age with a DVD version of Krapp’s Last Tape playing on a flat panel monitor or projected onto a screen. For the MacKenzie installation, Egoyan takes advantage of a new technology, noise cancelling headphones, to project a digitally remastered version of the film within the same space as the meandering 35mm film loop. Steenbeckett masterfully contemplates the nature of memory and its recording while foregrounding Egoyan’s fascination with new and obsolescent technologies and the analogue/digital divide.”

And now, the transcript:

What drew you to Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape?

In junior high there was a drama teacher who introduced me to it—and it just blew my mind. It blew my mind because my father kept a diary every day of his life, still does, I guess, but there was a period where he was transcribing it onto a reel-to-reel tape recorder, so suddenly I was dealing with this character who could have been a projection of who my father would become, and I was dealing with this notion of this legacy of tapes that I knew I would inherit at some point, and what does it all mean? What does it mean to have this all these recorded memories if there’s no one there to kind of bother listening to the tapes, and threading it and cataloguing it? Suddenly here was a play about a 69-year-old man who on his birthday ritualistically listens to some recording he made of his birthday some year before. This particular evening he listens to a recording of himself when he’s 39, reflecting on himself in his late 20s. This ability of this one character to move around in these three different periods of his life, in a linear form, was just so succinct and so provocative.

Sometimes a play doesn’t translate well to film because it’s so static, trapped in a single set. This sounds like something that would translate well, though.

As I’m recording the performance I’m very aware that I’m bringing in another recording element, besides the tape: my camera is a very conscious recording element. It creates a very particular alchemy. We’re also setting the play in a room that’s quite naturalistic, so I don’t think it feels theatrical at such. That being said, you’re really aware it’s all being played out in a proscenium way. You’re not seeing the whole room. There’s still a theatrical element.

How did “Steenbeckett” come about?

There’s a Steenbeck (editing machine) which powers the machine, and that’s my Steenbeck. It’s huge. It’s also powering the film around the gallery, through the room.

The piece came about because when I was editing it on this machine I was delighted by the fact that here was a film about an old man with a reel-to-reel tape recorder: we see these reels very visibly in the frame, but they somehow mirrored the reels on my editing machine. As I turned the machine backward and forward, the reels on the machine on the screen were also turning backwards and forwards, and that seemed really delightful. I felt like a child, playing with this toy.

I think we’re fascinated by this idea of movement of reels, it’s just something that connects us to the process of laying down memories and taking time. It suggests that there’s an anxiety that we’re going to run out of material to record, or that there might be something that breaks or gets scratched or is somehow compromised, and we don’t really think about that with digital, it’s quite abstract. This is a meditation on that moment when we were still dealing with a technology that mirrored aspects of our own body.

One of the interesting things is that the film is continually degrading, just like the character in the play is continually degrading. Do you use a fresh print at the start of each installation?

That’s part of the piece. There’s a new print that is presented, and then at the end of the installation that print is discarded. It’s usually in terrible shape.

How quickly does it degrade?

It depends on the conditions of the space. If the space is dusty, it will degrade much quicker, because the dust will accumulate on the print, and it will begin to create scratches. It’s probably going to last longer here.

Each time you install it, it’s different.

When you came to look at the space it was going to be in at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, how did you decide how to change it?

This is the largest space it’s been in. It was originally shown in London at the Museum of Mankind. It was shown in two adjacent abandoned cinemas—they were connected. In each place it’s shown, Birmingham and Manchester and Ireland, it’s always reacted to the space that it was presented in, and sometimes they weren’t traditional gallery spaces. This is the first time it’s actually been in a more traditional gallery, but also a really large space, and so we’ve been able to do things that have never been presented before, in particular this large-screen projection of the actual film, and also the installation of the editing bench that I brought from Toronto that the film was actually made on. So, those interact with the “Steenbeckett” machine in a unique way.

The film was always shown in a separate room, or on a smaller screen. It’s also high-def, so that gives it a sense of detail. It’s really quite remarkable to be listening to the soundtrack coming from the Steenbeck, as it’s playing this film loop, and see the image, silent. (You can hear if you put on the headphones.) There’s a disparity between the synchronization of the image and the sound you’re hearing, and I love that idea, too, because it feeds into this idea of the editing bench, between the two, because that is the space where you would synchronize sound and picture.

Both the film and the installation are things you created several years ago. As a novelist, when I go back to books I wrote several years ago, I find things I would have done differently. Some things I don’t even remember writing. Do you find that when you revisit a work like this?

The beautiful thing is you can reinterpret it. This is a major reinterpretation from other versions of it, and using my own machine, which I’ve never been able to do, gives it a more personal element, I think. It feels fresh. Watching an old film, you can’t change that, the film is fixed.

Though I had a really interesting experience this summer. I met some younger people who said, “Oh, my God, you’re the person who made…”, and usually it’s either Exotica or Sweet Hereafter, but it was Where the Truth Lies, which I don’t think of as being one of my better-known films. I went (with them) and saw an Italian-dubbed DVD. It was a completely different movie. The dubbing was done so well, it created a very different energy.

So sometimes you can see an old work and someone else has reinterpreted it. I don’t think that happens to a writer if it’s in a different font. The novelty of that probably wears off pretty quickly. But when you’re hearing a dubbed version it really does change the complexion.

Do you find something new in the film each time you look at it?

This particular piece you can’t help but find something new, because the text is just so beautiful, and the performance is so rich. I think the thing about Beckett’s writing is (and maybe it’s this particular interpretation), it’s very emotional. It’s not dry, it’s not abstract, it’s very specific and very poetic, full of so much resonance. I was just listening to it this morning, going, “Oh, my God, I’d forgotten how beautiful that is, how beautiful it is to listen to a great actor negotiate that text.”

Films are largely…well, not exactly passive, because you engage with them emotionally and intellectually, but you’re sitting in a room and you’re watching something on a screen. Something like this puts you inside a three-dimensional environment, of which the film is a part. How do you think that affects the viewer’s interaction with your film?

I think we’ll find out. I’m not sure how much people will watch the film, the high-definition version with the headphones (it’s an hour), how much people will watch that and still interact with the Steenbeckett, or what people’s experience will be. That’s always the big question, anytime you’re seeing a video in a gallery. Do people know when it begins, do they wait until the beginning time, do they actually sit down and watch the whole thing? I would think in this particular case people will make up their mind as to how intense the encounter will be, how much time they’ll spend with it.

What do you hope viewers will take away from “Steenbeckett”?

I think what you can’t help but take away from it is the idea that this piece of text has been really fetishized, that there’s something about what Beckett was trying to express that has really impressed itself on a lot of different artists, not just me. I think he’s had a huge influence on a lot of different people, but my particular obsession with this text is something that just seems to be able to renew itself.

I’ve done other Beckett projects, I did a production of his television play Eh Joe a few years ago, with Liam Neeson and Penelope Wilton at the Lincoln Centre, and it was one of the high points of my life. I just loved being in that world, and listening to that language. He is the line between James Joyce and Harold Pinter and David Mamet.

What I’ve taken the liberty of doing with some of the texts…his own direction for Krapp’s line reading is it should very fast and almost thrown away. In my two dealings with him, both Hey Joe and this one, I’ve allowed the actors to really luxuriate in the text, to find the words and to relish the poetry.

Do you distinguish between your work as a film director and your work as an artist, or is it all just one thing?

It really is all one thing. I mean, there are obviously different considerations, and I’m working for different audiences. My films have wildly different budgets, some are commercial and some are more personal, and I do opera and theatre, and each one has different expectations, and you have to be aware of that as you’re working with them.

The lovely thing about being in a gallery space is you can be quite hermetic in a way, your questions and your approach can be quite oddball, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be very eccentric—and this is a profoundly eccentric work.

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about coming back and remounting it after this period of tme, but I’m really excited about what we have in that gallery right now.

 

 

A review of Line Dance. Apparently I have a sense of humour. Who knew?

Line DanceHere’s the first review I’ve seen of Line Dance, the collection of poems that resulted from…well, I’ll let the reviewer explain, because I’m tired of typing various versions of this:

Each weekday during Poetry Month in April, Hill [Poet Laureate Gerald Hill] e-mailed SK Writers’ Guild members a pair of first lines he’d selected from SK poetry books and invited folks to respond with poems of their own. Some, like professionals Brenda Schmidt and Ed Willett, sent poems every day. In the end, almost 500 pieces were submitted, and SK writing veteran-turned publisher, Byrna Barclay, bound what editor Hill deemed the best into a handsome package, featuring Saskatchewanian David Thauberger’s art on the cover.

I have six poems in the anthology, drawn from those I also posted online (start here), ably edited for length and other improvement. I get a shoutout in the review:

Ed Willett’s penned sci-fi/fantasy poems and showcases his sense of humour (“Please don’t think we’re prejudiced/against vampires” and “my husband hasn’t held a steady job/since he became a werewolf”), as does the ever-clever and perceptive Brenda Schmidt, ie: “I’ve always known the backroad/is the road less graveled”.

There’ll be a formal launch of the anthology at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon on the evening of November 24. There’ll be brief readings and, I fear, actual line-dancing. Come out if you’re nearby and interested!

 

Singing with the Prairie Chamber Choir

This year I’ve joined the Prairie Chamber Choir, directed by Melissa Morgan. I’ve missed singing with a high-quality choir, and this one definitely is that. We’re working toward our Christmas concert on December 18, but we did have a mini-concert recently, singing three songs by Winnipeg composer Sid Robinovitch in the Classical Showcase of Break Out West 2016 (a.k.a. the Western Canadian Music Awards). And here’s a video!

The first piece is part of the set of songs for which Sid was nominated, although, alas, he didn’t win.

You’ll find me second from the left (audience left, not stage left) on the back row.

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What does writing success mean to me?

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The Flames of Nevyana blog tour has wrapped up! The final two stops of note were this long review of the book from Jorie Loves a Story (too long and detailed to easily excerpt, so read it in situ), and an interview from Melissa Yaun-Innes’s blog, of which here’s a large chunk (Just in time for Hallowe’en, it’s headlined, “Crawl into Edward Willett’s mind”)…

Q. What does writing success mean to you? Awards, money, readers, all of the above?

To me, what feels like success varies depending on the day of the week.

Well, not quite, but almost.

When I receive an award (and I’ve received a few—a Saskatchewan Book Award for my YA fantasy Spirit Singer [Tyche Books]; an Aurora Award [the top award for Canadian science fiction and fantasy] for my science fiction novel Marseguro [DAW Books]; even a City of Regina Heritage Award for Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw [Red Deer Press]), then naturally it feels for that moment that awards are what writing success is all about.

When I sign a contract that means I will soon be receiving money with which I can a) pay the water bill; b) get the car serviced; c) pay off Visa, then money certainly seems like the best measure of writing success. Since I’m a full-time writer with no other source of income, this is certainly one kind of success I’m constantly seeking.

When I find a glowing review of one of my books, particularly if it appears in a prominent publication whose reviews are influential, then the getting of good reviews seems to me the perfect measure of writing success. In the immortal words of Sally Field receiving an Academy Award, “You like me, you really like me!”

When I write a sentence or a scene or even, if I’m lucky, a whole chapter with which I am utterly and completely satisfied, then that seems like a good measure of writing success. I have pleased my most persnickety critic, myself. (To paraphrase Sally Field, “I like me, I really like me!”)

But thinking long and hard on this question over the years, particularly when doubts as to the wisdom of my chosen career arise, I’ve come to the conclusion that what meaningfully defines writing success is readers. Writing is, ultimately, a form of communication. As writers, we strive to transplant the ideas, characters, situations, and entire worlds we imagine into the imaginations of other people. It’s a monumental task. When it works, your writing is successful —it’s that simple, and that hard.

Alas, we don’t always know when we’ve succeeded. Most readers never bother to reach out an author whose work has entertained, enlightened, challenged, or changed them. If you become a bestseller you can assume you’ve reached a lot of readers, so perhaps that is a measure of success, but the truth is, every writer is successful whenever he or she manages to bridge that gap between his or her mind and the readers, to open up a new world of imagination. I like awards, I like money, I like reviews, and I’d love to be a bestseller. But ultimately, I think every book I write is a success—and therefore I am a success—so long as somewhere there is a reader who loves it.

A Q&A at Chapter by Chapter

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Yesterday’s stop in the Flames of Nevyana blog tour was at the host site, Chapter by Chapter, and featured a Q&A (plus an excerpt and link to the giveaway!) 

Describe your book in 140 characters or less (like a Tweet)

Three teenagers must overcome their mutual mistrust to save their land when the sacred secrets of Blue Fire are stolen and turned to evil.

What was your inspiration for writing this book?  Was it in a dream? A thought while taking a walk?

I was driving from my home town of Regina, Saskatchewan, to Meadow Lake, about 500 kilometres further north, to do a reading at the library. Whenever I’m on my own in the car on a long trip I do a lot of thinking about writing, and on this occasion I deliberately set myself the task of coming up with a new idea for a YA fantasy novel. I got to thinking about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that led me to think that our mastery of electricity would certainly seem like magic to someone from the Middle Ages. From there it was a short leap to the idea of a magic system based on electricity. In my book, Blue Fire is still magic, and is controlled through magical means, but it’s clearly electricity, too. With that idea in mind, I began my usual process of asking myself questions about the world: how would Blue Fire be used? How did the people learn to harness it? Who might be harmed or benefit from it? By the time I got to Meadow Lake, I had the broad outlines of the story sketched out in my head. I think I even talked about it in my presentation that night.

Tell us about the main character(s).

There are three viewpoint characters in flames of Nevyana, each a member of one of the three very different cultures within the Kingdom of Nevyana. They’re all of an age: about sixteen. Petra is a Priest-Apprentice of Vekrin, God of the Earth, one of the three surviving Gods of Nevyana. He’s also the son of the First Keeper of the Temple of Primaxis—the top priest in the Kingdom. Amlinn is the granddaughter of the leader of Clan Therra of the Freefolk, nomadic people who travel the wilderness from City to City, and a devout follower of Arrica, Goddess of the Sun. The people of Vekrin and the people of Arrica mistrust each other, the former seeing the latter as nothing more than lazy, shiftless vagabonds, the latter seeing the former as dull and conceited. And then there’s Jin. Jin is a Nightdweller. They follow Ell, Goddess of the Moon, and long ago she changed them into furred, almost feline, nocturnal dwellers who cannot bear the light of day—and who for centuries have hunted and killed any of the followers of Vekrin or Arrica they find in their forests at night. Because of the threat of the Nightdwellers, Petra and the other followers of Vekrin lock themselves behind city walls at night. Only the followers of Arrica, Amlinn’s people, dare to stay in the forest at night, and only because they have the magic of the Fence, a barrier of Blue Fire that Nightdwellers cannot pass. It is not infallible, however, and when she was little, Nightdwellers killed Amlinn’s parents. Petra, Arrica, and Jin are the most unlikely of allies…and yet allies they become.

Do you have a favorite quote or specific part in the book that you really love?

I like this quote, which is central to the book: “The fact the Gods have not been heard from for five hundred years does not prove they will not return tomorrow. But it seems a thin thread on which to hang the living of your life, and little reason to accept death, suffering, and the slow decline of our civilization.”

Was there a specific part in the book that you had an especially difficult time writing?  If so, why?

Each of the characters suffers, at one time or another, what might be called a crisis of faith, as they question the will, and even the existence, of the Gods each of them has sworn to follow. Since I’m the son of a preacher and the finest people I know are people of faith, I found writing scenes in which characters renounce their faith a little uncomfortable. However, I hasten to add that the Gods of Nevyana have no counterparts in the real world and the characters’ renouncing of their faith in them is totally the right thing to do, and no reflection on anyone’s faith in the real world.

What sort of projects do you have going on right now.  Any new books coming out?

I’m currently working on two non-fiction projects—a book about Saskatchewan politics in the 1980s and a history of a local engineering firm. On the fiction side, I’m about to plunge into revisions for my next science fiction novel, The Cityborn, which will be coming out from DAW Books in July 2017. After that, I’ll be writing the first two books in a new fantasy series I’ve sold to DAW, tentatively titled Worldshapers. I’m also working toward bringing out an illustrated collection of science fiction/fantasy/horror poetry I wrote earlier this year. I have a middle-grade fantasy/horror proposal with my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, and feelers out for some other novels. Never a dull moment!

Flames of Nevyana “an awesome and fun book”

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The Flames of Nevyana book tour continues with this review from Lori’s Little House of Reviews:
“I have to say I really loved this book a whole lot, I feel in love with all three of these individuals…I really loved all three of their relationships. I loved that they were suppose to be enemies but became such friends. 
“I really loved the ending…I loved that all three of them stood up for what they believed in…Even the bad guy of the story you could understand why he did what he did, even though he went about it the wrong way. It was such an awesome and fun book to read.”
“Awesome and fun.” I’ll take that. :)

A long interview with me from Books Chatter

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The Flames of Nevyana blog tour continued today with this long interview at Books Chatter. I had fun answering these questions.

A very warm welcome to Edward Willett (a.k.a. E.C. Blake); thank you for joining us on BooksChatter! What was the inspiration for Flames of Nevyana?

“I was driving from my home town of Regina, Saskatchewan, to Meadow Lake, about 500 kilometres further north, to do a reading at the library. Whenever I’m on my own in the car on a long trip I do a lot of thinking about writing, and on this occasion I deliberately set myself the task of coming up with a new idea for a YA fantasy novel.

I got to thinking about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that led me to think that our mastery of electricity would certainly seem like magic to someone from the Middle Ages. From there it was a short leap to the idea of a magic system based on electricity. In my book, Blue Fire is still magic, and is controlled through magical means, but it’s clearly electricity, too.

With that idea in mind, I began my usual process of asking myself questions about the world: how would Blue Fire be used? How did the people learn to harness it? Who might be harmed or benefit from it? By the time I got to Meadow Lake, I had the broad outlines of the story sketched out in my head. I think I even talked about it in my presentation that night.”

How much of yourself is reflected in this book, and how?

“I figure I’m reflected in all my books. I can’t help but be. The only person I really know is myself, and so all my characters are, in some way, a piece of myself. Even the ones who appear to have nothing in common with me at all (and one of the characters in Flames of Nevyana is a bipedal feline) are still constructed using my own sense of how human beings think.”

A bipedal feline… uhm… that sounds like a dangerous thing… I hope he doesn’t also have opposable thumbs! ;-)

The first thing that draws me to a book is its cover. Can you tell us about your cover for Flames of Nevyana – why you chose that concept and who the artist is.

“I love the cover, but I didn’t have anything to do with it. My publisher, Rebelight, chose the artist and presumably suggested what the cover should look like.

That said, I like the intricate suggestion of gears within gears, the kind of fractal nature of the image, that sense that tiny changes can have major implications. That ties in well with the plot. The somewhat mechanical nature of the image also ties in with the magic system. Blue Fire, the central magic of the story, is essentially electricity, even if its produced and controlled through magical means, and I think the cover captures that.”

Why should we read Flames of Nevyana and what sets it apart from the rest? What makes your book unique?

“Rebelight is calling this a “voltpunk” novel, because the magic is based on electricity. That makes it unique, because as far as I know, that term hasn’t been used before.

As for why you should read this book? Because it’s a great story, full of adventure and magic and even romance. Because it has three unique young people who are each complex and quirky and must learn how to work together despite all the aspects of their society that are trying to drive them apart. Because the world and the magic system are both unique. And because you’ll have a wonderful time reading it.”

Can you tell us something quirky about Flames of Nevyana, its story and characters?

“The main reason that the Nightdwellers are bipedal felines is that I love cats. My science fiction novel Terra Insegura (DAW Books) has a race of genetically modified humans, the Kimonomimi, who are also essentially bipedal cats. One of the first short stories I ever wrote had an alien in it who is feline in nature. I’m always happy when I can work anything cat-related into a story. I wish reincarnation were real so I could come back as a cat.

As I write this, my cat (Shadowpaw, a black Siberian) is stretched out on a chair in the living room looking adorable. I think I’d better go rub his tummy.”

shadowpawsAwww! Yes, you better! (we kind of are rather partial to cats as well… we currently have seven little monsters…)

Hello Shadowpaw! Lots of head scratches from us as well :-D

Who would you recommend Flames of Nevyana to and what should readers be aware of (any warnings or disclaimers)?

“I’d recommend Flames of Nevyana to anyone who loves action-and-magic-filled young adult fantasy: readers, say, 12 and above. Adults will enjoy it, too.”

If you could / wished to turn Flames of Nevyana into a movie, who would be your dream team?

“I’d give it to the Duffer Brothers, who created Stranger Things, and Millie Bobby Brown, who played Eleven in that series, could play Amlinn (in a year or two).

It should be filmed in a valley in the Canadian Rockies.

Music by John Williams. Petra could be played by Asa Butterfield. Jin would probably be computer-generated.”

What do you like to write and read about? Do you stick to a particular genre or do you like to explore different ones?

“I’m the award-winning author of more than 50 books of fantasy, science fiction, and non-fiction for all readers, so I write a lot of different stuff.

I’ve also written plays, short stories, a weekly newspaper column, local history books, and more. But there’s no question my main love is science fiction and fantasy.

My first short story, written when I was 11, was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” I wrote two fantasy novels and one adventure novel in high school. My first published novel (Soulworm) was modern-day fantasy, while my second (The Dark Unicorn) was a more traditional medieval-world fantasy.

But then I turned to science fiction with Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star. Then it was back to fantasy (Spirit Singer), followed by three science fiction novels for my New York publisher, DAW Books (Lost in Translation, Marseguro—which won the 2009 Aurora Award for best Canadian science fiction novel in English—and Terra Insegura, short-listed for the same award the following year).

I switched to fantasy for DAW with Magebane (written as Lee Arthur Chane), and then my just-completed trilogy The Masks of Aygrima, Masks, Shadows, and Faces (written as E.C. Blake).

My other big project recently has been a just-completed five-book young adult fantasy series called The Shards of Excalibur (Song of the Sword, Twist of the Blade, Lake in the Clouds, Cave Beneath the Sea, Door into Faerie), about a modern-day teenage girl, Ariane, who discovers she’s heir to the power of the Lady of the Lake, and must find the scattered pieces of Arthur’s legendary sword (with the help of her friend, Wally), before Merlin can—Merlin is disguised in our modern age as a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates-style computer magnate. That series was published by the respected Canadian literary publisher Coteau Books.

So I guess you could say my first choice of genres is always either science fiction or fantasy, but I go back and forth between the two with regularity. And, yep, that’s what I love to read, too. I don’t think you CAN write science fiction and fantasy without reading them voraciously.”

What is your writing process?

“I get the idea, craft a fairly detailed synopsis, and then tend to leave that behind pretty quickly once I’m actually writing, as one paragraph flows into the next and characters begin asserting themselves. I often find myself having to completely replot halfway through the book since the original synopsis no longer works.

I write fast, when things are going well. I wrote Door Into Faerie, the fifth book in The Shards of Excalibur series, in 2 ½ weeks—it’s 60,000 words. I wrote Shadows, Book 2 in The Masks of Aygrima trilogy, in a month—that’s 105,000 words. Of course, there’s a lot of revision after that, first my own polishing, and then the revisions suggested/required by my editor. But first drafts pop out pretty fast.

I tend to write out of my home office, in a coffee shop or (ahem) bar. Sometimes the background noise can be too distracting and I have to put on headphones to block it out, but a general hubbub of voices doesn’t bother me, and I find there are fewer distractions when I’m out of my office than when I’m in it.”

What is in store next?

“My next non-fiction book to appear will be Government House, Regina, Saskatchewan: An Illustrated History, which is just what it sounds like.

My next novel will be The Cityborn, my eighth for DAW Books in New York. It’s a science fiction novel set in a strange, hierarchical city that straddles a canyon choked with the garbage dumped from the city over centuries. A girl from the very top of city finds herself thrown into the underworld of the garbage heap, and with a young man who has grown up there must uncover the strange, terrifying secrets that connect and threaten them.

After that, I’ll be writing the first book in the Worldshapers fantasy series, an open-ended series for DAW. They’ve bought the first two books but I hope there’ll be many more. I also hope to have an illustrated poetry book out in the not-too distant future, and there are a few things I’m looking at self-publishing. Never a dull moment!

Right now, there are no plans to write a sequel to Flames of Nevyana, which is pretty self-contained…but you never know.”

And as a final quirky thing, to get to know you a little bit better… do you have a pet or something that is special to you that you could share with us?

alice-and-ed-in-addams-family“Something special to me? That would definitely be my daughter, Alice.

In addition to writing, I also perform—I’m an actor and singer, sometimes just for fun, sometimes professionally. Last spring Alice and I had the chance to be in a show together: Regina Lyric Musical Theatre’s production of The Addams Family Musical. I played Lurch and she played one of the Addams ancestors. Which explains the photo! :-)”

The Space-Time Continuum: Frankenstein, the first science fiction novel

This is my Space-Time Continuum column for the latest issue of Freelance, the magazine of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild. It’s a modified version of a column I wrote ages ago as one of my newspaper science columns. It seemed appropriate to bring that old column back to life…bwah-ha-ha!

freelance-oct-nov-2016-for-web-1As I write this, it’s about three weeks until Hallowe’en, a time when people’s thoughts turn to monsters. While in this modern age there are a great many more monsters to choose from than there used to be, there’s no doubt that one of the most popular (which is an odd thing for a monster to be, perhaps, but still) is the one created by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, assembled from pieces harvested from multiple corpses and reanimated through the miracle of electricity.

It’s probably a safe bet that those who choose to dress themselves as Frankenstein’s monster on Hallowe’en don’t do so to honour the birth of science fiction—and a new way of looking at the world—but the novel that gave us the monster, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, marked both.

At first glance, Frankenstein seems like just another Gothic novel, full of dank castles, wandering spirits, mysterious, brooding characters, barren moors, and strange doings by midnight.

But Gothic novels relied on superstition and magic, and Mary Shelley, a bright, thoroughly modern 18-year-old, had no time for such things. She saw vast changes being wrought in society through the revolutionary idea that the world could be understood as the product of natural forces, not supernatural ones, and that those forces could be harnessed and used. Mary became the first writer to use science as the springboard to a tale of imagination, and in so doing, not only launched science fiction, but also ignited a debate on science’s role in society that continues to this day.

Mary Shelley was born in England in 1797, the daughter of philosopher William Godwin and author and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She met the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1814, and two months later, left England with him. They were married in 1816, after the death of his first wife. Before they were married, she had a son by him, who died in infancy.

The year they married, Mary, Percy and another writer spent a rainy summer at Lord Byron’s house on Lake Geneva. They passed the time by reading ghost stories; Lord Byron suggested they each attempt to write one. At first, Mary couldn’t come up with an idea; but then, one night, the conversation turned to the nature of life, and whether it might someday be possible to return life to dead creatures, possibly using electricity, which had been shown to make an amputated frog’s leg twitch.

That night, Mary dreamed: “I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion…”

The next day she began writing Frankenstein. Published anonymously on March 11, 1818, it became a huge success, and hasn’t been out of the public consciousness since.

The story, in brief: a Captain Walton writes to his sister from his ship, on an expedition to the Arctic. The crew saw a monstrous creature driving a sledge across the ice; the next day they rescued a man, Victor Frankenstein, who told Walton a terrible tale of his successful quest to create life, and the horror he felt when he succeeded.

Within Victor’s narrative are several chapters from the viewpoint of the creature itself, describing how he was driven out and betrayed by his creator. Victor tells Walton he promised to create a bride for the monster, but couldn’t bring himself to fulfill his promise. In revenge, the creature killed several people dear to Victor, who has been pursuing the creature ever since.

Victor dies; the creature appears on the ice-bound ship and, torn by grief, remorse and self-loathing, swears he will kill himself. He disappears into the cold and darkness.

At the time Mary wrote, chemistry, physics and physiology were advancing rapidly; railroads were being built, gaslights illuminated factories and would soon light cities, a steamship would soon cross the Atlantic. In the dawn of the scientific age, anything seemed possible: as the chemistry professor Waldman says in Frankenstein, modern researchers “ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air that we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its shadows.” By contrast, the magicians and alchemists of the past “promised impossibilities, and achieved nothing.”

But in Frankenstein, the promise of scientific advancement was balanced against its cost. Today, we do bring people back from the dead, shocking their fibrillating hearts with electricity. We alter life through genetic engineering. But in the era of nuclear weapons and global environmental devastation, we also know that scientific advancement is a two-edged sword. Our creations can turn on us…just as Victor Frankenstein’s did.

Forget Boris Karloff with bolts attached to his neck, and read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the world’s first science fiction novel. As is usally the case, the book is better.