Venus on Mars

Books that Won’t Behave

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 27, 2012

Not Your Grandparents’ Library

Thinking about how to present my novel in an actual library setting, as I will be doing on Wed., Oct. 3, in the new library at SFSU. Libraries, imposing structures filled with study shelving lined with orderly books maintained by quietly efficient librarians, seem like places where one should not misbehave. But this is a new library, equipped with “100% more computers,” its web page boasts, a building where the books and the words inside them are digital as often as not. And we all know what can happen once a book finds its way into digital form, don’t we?

I think “shapeshifting” pretty much covers it. Digital material, unlike analog material, is made up of discrete pieces, and those pieces can come apart, fly away, regroup and reinvent themselves. Digital texts, unlike their printed predecessors, do not always behave the way we expect them to, as anyone who has read an ebook knows. In a digital book, the pages “stream” forward; words and the letters that compose them can assume variable shapes and sizes; there is no absolute number of pages. (“Page count” means nothing in a digital book – the 350 pages of “Venus on Mars” quickly mushrooms to 942 when viewed as an ebook on my iPhone!)

Traditional print books, on the other hand, have pages that stay put. The pages are usually numbered, and one numbered page follows another. What is put on one page remains there. Writers, for the most part, compose this way, one word after another, line by line, paragraph following paragraph, thought connected to next logical thought, until the narrative is complete. Authors expect their readers to experience the book the way it was written, page by page, start to finish (although peeking ahead or looking back is permitted).

Words Written Every Which-a-way!

That’s why I was so intrigued, when I went to Lowell Observatory to research my novel Venus on Mars, by documents in Wrexie Louise Leonard’s files in which her “normal” handwriting left to right was superimposed with another layer of handwriting top to bottom, as if the page had been turned ninety degrees mid-writing. Why, I wondered (there was no need to conserve paper – Percival Lowell endowed his Observatory with abundant resources)?

The linearity of a printed book depends so much on its layout, its binding, its assembly – physical constructs that can be undone by age, condition of book, or perhaps, I mused, by sheer deviousness. This writer was deliberately writing in a style that obscured the content, made her words less clear, less accessible, her own method of hiding secrets as she constructed her handwritten journal:

I have taken unusual care in fashioning my private thoughts, my words spread in patterns on the pages of my book like the constellations across the night sky – an archer, a queen on her throne, the fish, the water bearer, the twins, the bears big and small – celestial scenes that are clearly visible to those able to see in the arrangement of stars something more.

Wrexie (“Miss Lulu” in my book) was writing in a nonlinear manner, before nonlinear was a “thing.” Nonlinear writing imposes another level of processing on the reader, and the more intricate the construction, the more the reader must work – and think – to grasp the meaning of the patterns themselves, as well as the text within them. But some readers will be less inclined to put forth the additional effort required – all according to Miss Lulu’s plan:

But disorder, as we all know, is the absolute way of our unwieldy universe, and its irresolute state shall be my salvation: my carefully arranged words will appear to most as a mere scattering of stars.

Pages Let Loose

Even printed books can misbehave, in the hands of an imaginative writer. My Venus on Mars event, I hope, will honor the tradition of such unruly authors, but will also celebrate the future of writing and reading: books constructed with links, books displaying patterns on multiple levels, books with benefits that extend well beyond the page, fitting for a brand new library inhabited by teeming texts that show themselves on computer screens, smart phones and tablets, offering insight and understanding as prizes awaiting readers who dare to grasp at flying pages and hold onto them.

Wednesday, October 3, at 4 p.m. in the new “Events Room” (room 121) of SFSU’s Leonard Library, is a fixed time and place. But what I hope to present there is not.

Books, I am pleased to announce, no longer behave – nor should they.

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How Many Ways Can You Get To Mars?

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 21, 2012

So this blog is back!

I’ll be posting frequently – now it’s more about my book’s adventures in the world as I promote, distribute, market and occasionally perform with it.

Last week I saw that the Exploratorium (SF science museum) has a current exhibit, “Return to Mars.” I know what they’re referring to – Curiosity follows those earlier rovers with hopeful names, Spirit and Opportunity. Each is a physical presence on the red planet. Wheels on the ground. Instruments measuring everything from atmospheric content to soil acidity. Cameras capturing detailed closeups of Martian surface features.

I started thinking that there are so many other ways to visit Mars – and therefore to return to it, again and again.

Welcome to Mars – Google hopes you enjoy your visit!

Google Earth can take you there – here’s a video preview of what you’ll see upon arrival.

A few years back Wired ran this article about five ways to get there. For the record, they are chemical propulsion, antimatter propulsion, nuclear thermal propulsion, ion propulsion, and the one that sounds most pleasant (and least explosive), solar sail.

But now that we’re landing rovers on the red planet, a few Earthlings have found another way to visit the red planet. They’re the elite corps of rover drivers, fixated on the rover controls and charting the miniscule progress made each time they take the wheel. They are the first Earthlings, according to sci-fi writer William Gibson (in his essay Googling the Cyborg), to experience “Martian jet lag.” Moreover, he believes, they are as heroic as astronauts and should be feted as such:

That’s what you get when you operate one of those little Radio Shack wagon/probes from a comfortable seat back at an airbase in California. Literally. Those operators were the first humans to experience Martian jet lag.  In my sense of things, we should know their names: first humans on the Red Planet. Robbed of recognition by that same old school of human literalism. 

Because humans have achieved some degree “augmented reality,” reasons Gibson, if Mars happens to some sensory extension of yourself, Mars is happening to you. Monte Morin, writing in The LA Times, agrees:

Short of becoming an astronaut, it [driving a planetary rover] is the ultimate form of space exploration.

Mars rover driver Ashley Stroupe suits up for journey

So if  a dedicated crew of rover drivers are currently joy-riding around on Mars without getting out of their chairs,  perhaps there are other ways to get to the red planet that we have yet to envision.

In my book, Miss Lulu writes about her first look at Mars:

I put one eye to the eyepiece and see hovering right in front of me an enormous red disk, its polar caps splendidly trimmed in ermine. I’d anticipated seeing our planetary neighbor as if it were visiting our own neighborhood, but instead I have the distinct impression that I am the one who’s travelled – in a mere instant – part way across our Solar System. With one brief look, I’ve become a Martian, a quietly spectacular event.

I had this same feeling the first time I looked through a large telescope – an immediate feeling of proximity, as if I’d been propelled through the telescope and zapped clear across space.  It’s a visual shock, but a pleasantly thrilling one.  Armchair astronomy, unlike rocket propulsion, is safe, inexpensive, and immediately gratifying.

I think the ultimate way for us to become Martians, Saturnians, Neptunians, is just to see ourselves that way. We’re made out of the same celestial stuff, just packaged differently.

Writers, artists, visionaries have never had a problem traveling from this world to another.

We’re on Mars now, we’ve always been there and we always will be.

And once we’ve been there, our “return to Mars” – or to any other place in the universe – can come at any time.

What a Difference a Hat Makes

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on August 20, 2012

Just days before my book launch at Lowell Observatory, I learned that a certain higher-up there feared my book may be too controversial for the blessed Lowell family (who still haunts the place). I was devastated and nearly cancelled my trip, then had a second thought. I could put on a fancy hat and everything would be fine.

Miss Lulu’s hat resting on her beloved Percy’s grave.

Not only did a wear the hat, not only was everything hunky-dorey (way better than fine) – I also discovered I could channel my character Lulu.

Miss Lulu suffered huge setbacks in her life, but her wardrobe never suffered and her outer demeanor remained upbeat. “I am going away now to clear my head,” she wrote after the love of her life, Percival Lowell, unexpectedly married another woman. She had a fancy hat on when she wrote this, of course.

I think a fashionable hat must help keep the head clear. With such finery securely perched on top, there’s no way for troubling thoughts to enter one’s head.  A stylish hat can be the guardian for the soul, the first line of defense against negative vibes.

When I wore the hat I felt strong, resourceful. I could speak my mind without fear of repercussions.  I could see what I saw through the telescope, not what someone else wanted me to see.  I could chat up the very person who tried to nix my visit and feel superior, even when he suggested Miss Lulu (me!) had a weight problem.

“Not when she wore her corset,” I defended my character, myself.

“Well, all that fat had to go somewhere,” he persisted.

The boobs, that’s where it went – I gestured to my upper chest.  Small waist, big breasts. Win, win.

See what I mean? Invincible.

I stayed in character for most of my time at Lowell Observatory, inhabiting my character easily, comfortably. It probably helped that long ago I  (Jan, not Lulu) fell in love with an actual Lowell (who looked a lot like Percy), and he broke my heart.

Now my fancy hat fetish has spawned another benefit. My publicist wants me to develop a one-woman performance piece based on Miss Lulu. I can do this!

Details to come…