Dec 29 2014

Radiation therapy and me


They told me three things, over and over:

1. You won’t feel anything at all.

2. The treatment is over very quickly — the actual radiation part just takes a few minutes.

3. The machine will never touch you.

They said that so often (the radiation oncologist, the radiation therapy nurse, the RT techs, the books and websites I consulted), that I realized that these were the three things that most people found most scary. Will it hurt? How soon can I get out of here? What is that thing, and what is it going to do to me?

Those reassurances got said a lot because they usually need to be said a lot.

To the average person off the street, radiation mostly means atomic bombs, and possibly nuclear power stations melting down and poisoning everything, and people dying in horrible, agonizing ways.

The healthcare providers had to work against those preconceptions. They explained, reassured, and tried to make everything as non-threatening as possible.

And I figured, even as geeky as I am, I probably had a lot of those same preconceptions and negative associations stuck way down deep in my psyche, absorbed from the general culture, where they might leap out at me unexpectedly — and, say, cause me to completely freak out during treatment.

Which I did not want to have happen. I’d be getting radiation therapy five days a week for eight weeks, and it would be great if my lizard-brain wasn’t trying to kick me into flee-in-terror mode every time.

Forewarned is forearmed, so I reviewed all the info I was given, read up on the events that would take place during treatment, did a little deep breathing, and reminded myself that all this was happening because things were going better than expected.

According to my original treatment plan, I was going to have two kinds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, and then some more, lighter chemo (Herceptin only) — and the timing even would even allow me to get to the World Science Fiction Convention in London in August.

But (as my regular blog readers will recall) the two rounds of heavy-duty chemo worked brilliantly.  My tumor shrank and shrank, and eventually became undetectable by x-ray and ultrasound.  In fact, a biopsy (remember that unplanned biopsy?) actually showed no sign whatsoever of any cancer remaining in the area.

So, no mastectomy after all, gladly. Just a “lumpectomy” (more accurately called a partial mastectomy). A fairly large one, but nothing like a full mastectomy.

But with a lumpectomy, you get radiation. This, to chase down any random cancer cells that might have stayed behind after the surgery, and zap them dead before they do their out-of-control reproduction trick. I knew that there would be side effects to the radiation, and the effects would accumulate (and might become pretty nasty), but the delivery of the radiation doses would not actually hurt, or even be felt at all.

So, I went through all the preliminaries: the CAT scan to identify the exact measurements of the treatment area (so they don’t irradiate more of your body than needs it); the simulation, where they test out the aiming; the tattooing of tiny dots to help with the precise aiming; getting my body position exactly right, and making the custom brace to hold me in that one right position, so that everything is the same each time, no variation — all that.

Eventually we got down to the real deal, and I found myself being led down the little corridor with the large sign saying PATIENTS ONLY IN THIS AREA; and the other sign with the light, saying RADIATION IN USE WHEN LIT; when I noticed another, little sign on the wall by the entrance, reading:


Wait, what? I said to myself as we passed it by and continued down the hall.

In the treatment room, the radiation techs ran over everything one last time, including reminding me: I wouldn’t feel a thing; the actual radiation part would be over quickly; and the machine itself would never touch me.

Them: So, that’s about it. Now, before we start, do you have any questi —

Me: Yes. Yes, I do.

Them: Oh — Okay, what’s your ques —

Me: Is this really a linear accelerator?

Them: Well… yes. Yes, it is.


Them: (pause) …what?

Me: Seriously? A linear accelerator? So, subatomic particles are going to be sped up to, like, 99 percent of the speed of light? Right here?

Them: … yes…

Me: For me?  To zap my cancer? An actual linear accelerator?

Them: Well, yes —


Them: (big pause) … really?

Me: Yes.

Them: Well… you know what else is cool? This whole thing is computer driven, with all your measurements stored, along with the treatment plan and digital control of the specific gantry movements …  and we work it from this console over here… there’s a digital 3D mockup of your treatment area, and — would you like to see?


So they brought me over to the console and showed me the mockup of my treatment area: an exact and precise little bit o’ me, color-coded, rotatable in three dimensions on the screen, and it was also so extremely cool.

Me: This is one slick machine.

Them: It’s amazing.

And it was.

sleek & sexy public face

sleek & sexy public face


Come on — what sci-fi nerd wouldn’t love this? With all the calibration circles, and the sleek cowling, and the way the gantry completely rotates all around the patient, so once you’re in place you don’t have to reposition at all.  Minimal fuss.  It’s not just pretty — it’s such a smart design.

Possibly sometime before this point, it had been mentioned to me that a linear accelerator was used, and I just missed it.  But, I don’t think so.

I had been told what to do during treatment, and the fact that a machine would be used to deliver the radiation.  But somehow I got the idea that they had some, I don’t know, radioactive substance in a container, and they’d point it at me and open a little window of some sort, allowing the radiation to escape and wash across my cells.

But no, nothing of the sort.  The linear accelerator uses radio waves to speed up a stream of electrons to close to the speed of light; and magnets control the stream and focus it; and the beam hits a tungsten plate, and the plate spits out x-rays.  On demand.  A beam of x-rays, which then gets focused and further refined and shaped before reaching the patient.

There’s only radiation when the machine is actually being used. And only the exact amount that you need.  And carefully focused, and precisely aimed — it’s a thing of beauty.

classic lines. Plus: cool calibration indicators

Classic lines. Bonus cool calibration indicators.

Plus: linear particle accelerator?  That’s the same thing that feeds the initial particle stream into the Large Hadron Collider.

Okay, they’re using protons and we’re using electrons… but hey, same damn concept, right? How is this not cool?

I let the techs know that I was a science fiction writer, which helped explain to them my deep delight in this wonderful machine.  They loved it too!  They were proud of their machine, and proud of how it helped people — and they were resigned to the fact that most people were going to be afraid of it.  And they did their best to calm the fears, and reassure their patients.  But these ladies (and they were ladies — all the radiation techs were women), they knew what a fine technological accomplishment this machine was, and they were glad to be the ones using it to help save their patients lives.

And I was (and they told me this) the only patient to ever actually like the Elekta Infinity Linear Accelerator as much as they did.

Them:  Do you want to see behind the scenes?

Me:  Do I? YES.

Behind that wall.

All the heavy lifting is done here.


Me: Well. Now it looks like a particle accelerator.

Them: (giving me the side-eye) And how many particle accelerators have you seen?

Me: Um. I took the tour of Fermilab, back when the Tevatron was operating. And of course I’ve seen any number of photographs of the Large Hadron Collider…

Them: (amused) Okay…

Yeah, it doesn’t look exactly like either one of those… but I feel I detect a sort of family resemblance.


Elekta's big brother

Elekta’s big brother


So, what’s the point?

Cool trumps scary.

Eight weeks, five days a week, I’d sit in the waiting room with all the other patients scheduled before and after me.  And when my name was called, I’d stroll on into the treatment room, cracking jokes with the techs, slide into position, let the techs micro-slide me into a more precise position; and the lights would dim, and the women would speak quietly to each other for a while, chanting numbers; and the laser aiming light would locate my position even more precisely… And the techs would step out of the room.  And the gantry would hum and move about. And pause, and click a bit, and pause; doing its job, accelerating electrons up toward the speed of light…

I didn’t feel a thing.

It was over very quickly.

The machine never touched me.

But I had to resist the impulse to give it a little friendly pat on my way out…

Extra coolness because: lasers.

Extra coolness because: lasers.


(Here’s a video by the company that makes the Elekta LINAC, that explains it all.)


(Added later: I’ve collected  most of the posts about my cancer experience in one list here, if you’re interested and don’t feel like searching through the archives.)

Dec 26 2014

Coming soon: one-year wrap-up


As it’s been just over a year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought I’d do a year-later wrap-up  — but then I realized that I hadn’t written my post about my experience with radiation therapy.  And I really wanted to get that down on record, so to speak.  So,  I’ll do that first (probably by the end of Saturday), and do the year-later post shortly thereafter.

Of course, you know the short version: I am alive.  And so are you.

That’s a happy holiday in my book.

Dec 22 2014

Strange and beautiful: Catherynne M. Valente



valente fairyland


I first encountered Catherynne Valente at a Readercon, when we sat side-by-side at the autographing table one afternoon. I had never read anything by her, and during a lull I took a look the books she had with her for sale. I picked out Palimpsest more or less at random.

It was absolutely unlike anything I ever read before. Valente’s prose is wildly poetic, her imagery weird and lush, and heated.

Also: plenty of sex in Palimpsest. In the tale, persons who discover fragmentary maps appearing as tattoos on their body gain admission to a fantastical city — but only after intercourse with someone else with a map-tattoo. (Want to see more city? Have more sex. ) But within that city, four people discover that they share a deep connection, and they move heaven and earth to find each other in the real world.

Well, that was my intro to her work.  I sought out her blog (which is rather quiet lately), which I loved, and through that I learned of her other works.  I went looking for the rest of it — and it was all so wide and wild, a full of delicious language.

You might recall the discussion that I held here on my blog of Habitation of the Blessed: Dirge for Prester John. Another book of monstrous beauty. (You can reread what we had  to say, which was a lot.)

But what I’d like to suggest this time: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Yes, this is a fairy tale, and can be read to young children, read by older children, and read by you for yourself. Valente has created a wonderful, original world, rich enough for all ages.

I first read it as one of the freebies on her website, and there was a tip jar. I plunked down a bunch of bucks, I loved it so much. Then it came out on Kindle, and I bought it; and then the hardcover, with the quirky illustrations by Ana Juan — and I had to have that. So, that’s three times I paid for the same book, and it was worth every shiny penny.

Catherynne M. Valente’s books on Amazon

Catherynne M. Valente’s website and blog, which is worth reading for its own sake.

Dec 21 2014

YA not just for YA’s: Scott Westerfeld




Scott Westerfeld writes YA — that is, books for “young adults” as the term is used in publishing today. That officially means ages 12 through 18; but in fact it means anyone smart enough to read it, however young. Or, for that matter, however old.

You know perfectly well that lots of adults read YA.   If it’s a good book, it’s a good book.

Westerfeld writes the YA that I wish existed back when I was in middle school. So, I’m reading them now, to make up for the previous lack.

I’m especially fond of the Leviathan trilogy (Leviathan, Goliath, Behemoth), a steampunk/bio-hacking-punk alternate universe series with the coolest tech and really engaging characters. I listened to it in the audiobook versions during workouts at the gym, which I highly recommend as inspiration for sticking to your exercise plan: get a great audiobook that you only allow yourself to listen to at the gym. More than once I kept pushing on, just to reach the end of the chapter. (I did the same with Ellen & Delia’s The Fall of the Kings, actually.) Of course, the audiobook versions didn’t have the excellent illustrations by Keith Thompson in the printed books.

In fact, there’s a boxed set that would be perfect for the young reader on your list.

And you know that cliche about how boys don’t read? Well, we know different, of course — but if you happen to have reluctant young male readers on your list, Leviathan might be just the thing to lead them into the wider reading world. Another good one for that: Westerfeld’s Peeps. And yet another good one for that, but with less of an SF/F slant: So Yesterday.

I haven’t read his latest yet (Afterworlds), but it sounds perfect for that voracious reader who also wants to be a writer. And don’t miss Westerfeld’s blog, which is full of writing advice.


Scott Westerfeld’s website and blog

Scott Westerfeld’s books on Amazon

Writing advice from Scott Westerfeld


Dec 20 2014

Next: you knew I was going to mention Ellen Kushner, right?


Of course you knew.

kushner thomas


Back in September I posted about the Audible audiobook The Swords of Riverside, which combined Ellen’s Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword with The Fall of the Kings (written in collaboration with Delia Sherman). I’m reminding you of it again, because besides each of these books being excellent in its own right, the combination is a particularly great deal, very frugal for gift-giving.  ( Over 45 hours immersed in the city of Riverside!)

But I also want to remind you of Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer, and that’s my official recommendation today.  I feel that the Swordspoint books get all the attention — but Thomas the Rhymer  won both the World Fantasy Award, and the Mythopoeic Award, and should not be overlooked.  It’s a lovely book, transforming the famous ballad into an absorbing  tale.   Magic, music, great prose, great characters, romance — what’s not to love?

You’ve heard me enthuse about Ellen Kushner before (lots), and Thomas the Rhymer is a good place to start reading her; it’s where I started, having read it well before I read Swordspoint.  And it’s currently out in mass-market paperback.  Perfect size for a stocking-stuffer.

(Oh, and did you know about Sound and Spirit, the radio show Ellen wrote and hosted on public radio?  It’s over now, but thanks to our pal the Internet, there are lots of episodes available to  hear for free.  At this very moment, I’m revisiting the episode on bells. I thought it might feel Christmassy, and I was right.)

Ellen Kushner’s books on Amazon

Ellen’s own website

And here’s an episode of the Diana Rehm Show, where Ellen, Maria Tatar and Marina Warner discuss the history and modern relevance of fairy tales.

The Sound and Spirit archive


Dec 19 2014

There’s still time to spend your holiday shopping bucks on books by: Jo Walton



Back in 2002, Jo Walton won the Campbell Award for best new writer, and it’s as if she hit the ground running. There seems to be no stopping her — not that we’d want to. Since then she’s added the Mythopoeic Award (for Lifelode, a favorite of mine); the World Fantasy Award (for Tooth and Claw — another favorite); and both the Hugo and the Nebula (for Among Others, another fav — okay, this is getting silly).

I suppose that it’s for Among Others that she is best known. It’s a book about what happens after the villian is defeated and life goes on — and also a book about loving books. If she had never written anything but that, I’d still love her forever for just that book…

But (like Daryl Gregory) one of the remarkable things about her is her range. She seems able to do it all. And put her own twist on it, too.

She’s written a novel of manners; but her novel of manners is a novel of manners in a society of dragons (Tooth and Claw). It sounds like it should be a joke –but damn if she doesn’t make it work, and work well.

And the Small Change series (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown), either puts a spin on the traditional “cozy” murder mystery by making it happen in an alternate universe, or puts a spin on the alternate universe story by making it a murder mystery.

Her latest is My Real Children, which is as close as she’s gotten to mainstream fiction — and you know what? If you have someone on your holiday list who only reads mainstream, but who you want to seduce toward the SF/F side, My Real Children might be a nicely subversive move on your part. You should think about it.

She’s got something perfect for every other person on your list too, actually. For the voracious readers, it’s Among Others; for those who like time-twisty tales, it’s Lifelode (alas, not available as an ebook, so order fast!); if they love Jane Austen, it’s Tooth and Claw; and for the lovers of epic fantasy, there’s the Sulien series (The King’s Peace, The King’s Name, and The Prize in the Game).

But for my personal recommendation this time around, I’m going into left field a bit and suggest What Makes this Book So Great.

It’s a collection of short book reviews, and reading it is like having a fascinating conversation with a really intelligent person who knows a whole lot about the kind of books you love. She’ll give you some great insights on books that you’ve already read, while directing you toward lots of books that you might have missed when they first came out. She’s mostly talking about books she likes — so reading it is actually a very glad sort of experience. Enthusiasm and intelligence — all you need is a fireplace and a glass of wine, and it’s the perfect evening’s diversion.

(Please note:  there’s another writer named Jo Walton out there — namely, Jo L. Walton,  aka Jo Lindsay Walton.  Although I wish him well, this is not about him.)

Our Jo Walton’s website

Jo Walton’s books on Amazon


Dec 19 2014

Time is running out!


I thought I’d get lots more recommendations up –  but man, that day-job puts a crimp in all my plans.

We’re running out of Christmas shopping days, aren’t we?

More later….

Dec 17 2014

Next up: Daryl Gregory




I first encountered Daryl Gregory’s work when I served as one of the judges for the Philip K Dick Awards. His book Pandemonium was one of the many that were dumped on me. (Many. Many, so many. Of, shall we say, varying levels of skill.)

But unlike most of the others offered for consideration, this book grabbed me from the start, and immediately proved itself “unputdownable” as we say nowadays. It certainly had my vote for the PKD award — but alas, it ended up being disqualified as being fantasy and not SF.   (An argument could be made for it being SF, and I did make that argument. My fellow judges were not convinced – even though that argument was actually present in the book itself, and uttered by Philip K Dick.)

Regardless — on the basis of Pandemonium I started seeking out everything I could find by Daryl Gregory, and I was not disappointed.

He’s not just good — he’s good enough that I will now read anything by him, even things I wouldn’t normally read, because I know he’ll deliver.

Horror novel? I generally dislike horror, but when I went to a live reading of his at Readercon last year, he read from We Are All Completely Fine, and I instantly pre-ordered it.

Zombies? I hate zombies. Raising Stony Mayhall? Snatched it up.

There’s something especially engaging about Gregory’s characters. I think that (like Robert Charles Wilson, another favorite of mine), he’s particularly good at giving the reader a strong sense of how remarkable and shattering events effect the real people stuck in the middle of it all, the ground-level experience.   And he’s able to make me love his characters — possibly in part because he so clearly loves them himself.

His most recent is Afterparty (in which there is a drug that makes you think you see God), but I think that if you’re new to his work, Pandemonium is a good place to start. It’s charming, and eerie, unpredictable and heartbreaking. And I do so love the two brothers, Del and Lew, who seem so perfectly real to me, with such true-to-life adult sibling interaction, the kind that has a wealth of history behind it.

Another good place to start is with his short story collection, Unpossible. You’ll get a real sense of his range from that.

(Okay, I admit that I have not looked at his series of graphic novels for the Planet of the Apes.   A guy’s gotta make a living, I suppose.  But maybe I should check them out… since he can make enjoy a book about zombies, maybe he can sell me on tie-ins, too? Hm.)

Daryl Gregory’s books on Amazon

Daryl Gregory’s website


Dec 15 2014

True Fact


If you put the word “gift” or “shopping” in the title of your blog post…


… you will get SO MANY spam comments.  So, so many.


Dec 12 2014

Next Suggestion: Young Woman in a Garden, by Delia Sherman


ywiag delia


You know what they say about writers: Once you turn pro, it really cuts into your reading time.  Nowadays I’m not always free to settle down and give my full attention to the entire sweep of a novel.

So, I like it that Young Woman in a Garden   is a collection of short stories.  They are bite-sized, manageable in a sitting, and a wonderful way to leave the mundane world behind in favor of a world less mundane, but — admit it — no less true.

Some of these stories are familiar to me — I read them in various iterations when I was part of Delia’s writer’s group.   Others, I’ve heard in part during readings she’s done at conventions.

But others are completely new to me, and those are the ones about which I’m rubbing my hands together in greedy anticipation.

Make no mistake about it, Delia is a true adept, a genuine master of the form.  She writes with grace, and depth, with nimbleness and charm (when called for).   She has a sure hand with style and language, and the breadth of her cultural and historical knowledge allows her to pull in exactly the right details to add richness and realism to her fantastic tales.

If you don’t want this book for yourself, you know someone else who would love it.  Yes you do; you know it.

Perfect gift for that person.

Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman on Amazon

Young Woman in a Garden from the publisher, Small Beer Press

You can read a story from the collection , “Miss Carstairs and the Merman,” for free online.

Or another, “Walpurgis Afternoon,” also free online

And here’s Delia Sherman’s website and blog