Saturday, June 30, 2007

'67 Spiderman

My son has been watching a lot of old superhero animations from Netflix. First we got the "'67 Collection" of Spiderman. I highly recommend Discs 3 and 4 from that series. Disc 3 contains the "origin story," from the radioactive spider-bite to Uncle Ben's death. It has always been my favorite superhero story, because it includes not only the reason he got his powers but the reason he uses them for good. The graphics for this episode & the ones after are extremely psychedelic, with beautiful multicolored backgrounds and lots of spinning screens and shrieking violins everytime something scary happens. Disc 4 goes completely over the top with science fiction tropes like time travel, people coming out of the bottom of the earth. It's the perfect combination of over-the-top psychedelic effects, surf guitar, and cheesy animation.

Next we got the '92 Batman cable cartoon, which we'll talk about in the next post.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Winning the lit'ry people over to our side?

David Louis Edelman asks "what are some quality SF books you can hand off to literate non-SF readers as an introduction to the genre?"

It's a fantasy any specfic person has, and I've had it plenty. If you're going to try to get a literary reader, I would agree absolutely with a few of the commenters that short stories would be the place to start. My recommendations: Delaney's "Aye and Gomorrah," Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five," Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days," and China Mieville's "Reports of Certain Events in London."

But say that works, and they like one or more of the stories above. Is that going to have them poring through Zelazny's works? Probably not. I think the flaw in thinking here is the assumption that "literary" people just assume that any counterfactual effects in a story automatically make it non-literary, and if we could just get them over thinking that then they'll be showing up at ReaderCon next.

But this is obviously not the problem, or else we wouldn't see Jonathan Lethem, David Foster Wallace, J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Italo Calvino, Richard Powers etc., etc., stacked on the "Literary" shelves instead of "Science Fiction." It is entirely possible, even likely, that a literary reader would say "I accept that a work of literature can have science-fictional elements, or even be science fiction. But that isn't going to make me a science fiction reader." If a literary reader finds a scifi book that he likes, he's more likely to file that person and/or story under the exceptions to the rule column.

I can actually understand this. I like Elmore Leonard's books a lot. He's a hell of a storyteller, and I've read 4-5 of his books. But these books have increased my interest in the rest of crime fiction (or whatever his genre is) by exactly 0%. I bet there are all kinds of people who love Walter Mosely and have never touched another mystery novel in their lives.

For a person to become a science fiction reader, they are just going to have to have an interest in the kind of topics that scifi addresses. These would include directions in future technology and how it would affect humans, interstellar travel, contact with non-human sentiences and alternate social constructs under counterfactual situations. As much as I love Alastair Reynolds, and as brilliant as he is, his work just isn't going to be all that interesting (or even make much sense) unless you've thought awhile about relativity. Not that you have to be an expert; but unless you understand what relativistic velocities do there's just too much catching up there.

In truth there are already a lot of literary people who have secret genre habits, and I'd suspect the two biggest would be mystery and scifi. Winning "regular readers" over to scifi is the bigger challenge, I agree. We've got a long way to go.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

But what about editor blogs? (Evil Editor)

This one damn near made me pee my pants laughing.

Author Blogs (updated below)

Question from Neth Space: Just How Much Do You Like Author Blogs?

Answer: I like an author blog to the degree that the author is serious about blogging. Charles Stross' Blog is one of the first blogs I always check, because when Stross puts up a post, you know a lot of thought goes into it. Sadly, nothing new since the 22nd. Hopefully, that means he's writing a new book!

Neil Gaiman's Blog is, well, it's cute. But I don't think of it as an author's blog, exactly. It's more like a regular this-is-my-life blog by a person whose job happens to be writing books. Gaiman is one of the most interesting fantasy writers out there, but I'm not going to go to his blog to get brilliant ideas about writing or the nature of fantasy or anything. Maddy Gaiman, his daughter, has been running it for the past few days, at a movie shoot. She seems like a great kid, and no doubt this is great for fans, but it's not much use for a writer.

Neth Space's question was inspired by Jeff Somers' supposedly compulsory blog. Based on the humor and thought that went into this piece, and the obviously tongue and cheek nature of it, (ex. "So, for the time being, I’m playing along. The fact that I was knocked unconscious and brought here is one reason. The men outside my door is another.") suggests that the blog isn't as compulsory as he claims. But if it is, this is a stupid idea. Not only does requiring an author to blog potentially lead to a lame blog (it doesn't in this case). Worse, it leads your writer to waste his time blogging instead of writing a book!

If I'd read the comments, I'd have seen that Somers stated that he had, in fact, made up the whole 'compulsory blog' premise. But the possibility that it might happen in the future shouldn't rule it out, so my opinion remains in force.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Alastair Reynolds on Human Nature

SPOILER ALERT: if you haven't read "Pushing Ice" this gives away many of the important plot points.

Reynolds is best known as a "hard science fiction" author. This is likely as much because of his real-scientist background as because of his work. He himself has been struggling against the label. "Some of the science in my book is real, and some of it is made up," he says in the acknowledgements to "Pushing Ice."

As with many of his books, the science in "Pushing Ice" starts with things that we can concieve based on the science we know now. The Rockhopper finds comets and pushes them back to earth for mining. When the comets can't be used for some reason, it blows them up so no one else can use them. As with many of the books, as time goes along, alien technologies start to arise that are barely imaginable based on the science we understand today.

This may be surprising coming from a "real scientist," but not so much given that Reynolds is an astrophysicist. Most of us in our daily lives deal with a small little domain around us that only involves things we care about, and are only vaguely aware that we are a tiny little scum of organic matter on a single planet on the end of the arm of a galaxy that is one out of a billion or so. But an astrophysicist has his nose rubbed in humanity's insignificance in the universe every day. This song is an astrophysicist's day to day experience. Consequently it's not so surprising that Reynolds would frequently have humans encountering tech that makes anything we've ever imagined look like a joke.

There are three significant alien species in "Pushing Ice." The first is the Spicans, who make the trap-like fake moon that drags the Rockhopper and its crew hundreds or thousands or millions of light-years away, as well as into the future. Ths Spicans never actually appear; only their technology does. The second is the Fountainheads. The Fountainheads are more experienced, more technologically advanced, and wiser than humans. They hold knowledge back from the humans based on the belief (probably correct) that if humans have certain kinds of knowledge or technology they will destroy themselves with it.

Then there are the Musk Dogs. The Musk Dogs are another inhabitant in the sort of "sentients' zoo" into which the humans of the Rockhopper find themselves confined by the Spicans' trap. The Fountainheads warn the humans early on about the danger of listening to the Musk Dogs. "They will offer you the world, and if you take it you will lose all," says McKinley, the human contact of the Fountainheads, who warns there is no safe level of exposure to the Musk Dogs. Needless to say, somebody takes what the Musk Dogs have to offer.

The central plot of the book is the struggle for power between the former friends, later vicious enemies Bella (the captain) and Svetlana (director of flight operations). Both characters are sympathetic, and both dominate different parts of the narrative. Each has her flaws, and each makes terrible mistakes. Bella's flaw is an excess of caution, and a reluctance to act when it's necessary. Her major mistake is not turning the ship around early on when Svetalana discovers a shortage of fuel to investigate the Spican object, formerly Saturn's moon Janus.

Svetlana's flaws are pride and rashness. Her big mistake is cooperating with the Musk Dogs, who claim they just want to tap the power sources for Janus, but really have much more evil intentions.

The Musk Dogs are beautiful inventions, but stretch the story far beyond the traditional hard-scifi boundaries. The Musk Dogs fly a ship that looks like, and in most ways is like, a gristly drumstick. Their pysical appearance is hideous.

The alien looked like two or three dogs fighting over a scrap of meat; an unruly mass of mismatched limbs, fur the color of sun-baked mud;too many tightly-packed eyes over a toothsome black muzzle. It was difficult to make out its basic body shape, for the creature kept scratching and scrabbling and pissing, arcs of streaming urine spraying from too many places...

They are completely fractuous within their ship; early on a Musk Dog tells Svetlana it will only continue to work with her if she betrays a different Musk Dog, leading to its death. They mark their possessions, (including Svetlana), by marking on them with a noxious musk-like substance.

But leading up to this encounter, we have watched the small crew of the Rockhopper divide and squabble, kill each other, switch allegiances, lie to each other, and carry grudges like they inherited them. Introducing the Musk Dogs, the Fountainheads warn that it will be difficult to resist them, warning "they're factional animals as well."

The point is clear. We're a lot more like the Musk Dogs than the Fountainheads. In this way, Reynolds resembles Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels more than Isaac Asimov. Reynolds introduces aliens that expose us, reveal our weaknesses and strengths.

And yet he takes it a bit deeper than that. Because human squabbling, while it appears a weakness at first, slowly reveals itself to be its own kind of strength. The two greatest mistakes of the story, one by Bella and one by Svetlana, turn into greatuer successes for humanity. Bella's misguided decision to stay with Janus turns into a success when Svetlana realizes her attempts to escape it are useless, and devotes her attention to landing on it. But if it hadn't been for Svetlana's attempts to escape it they'd never have known what was going on. And Svetlana's mistaken decision to cooperate with the deceptive and cruel Musk-Dogs results in a passkey to escape their part of the sentients' zoo before the Musk Dogs blow it to smithereens.

In other words, in both cases two longs make a right. Reynolds seems to be implying that instead of overcoming our human fractuousness, we must embrace it. Our struggles between two extreme points of view will average out to a point of view better than each.

I have heard that in our own minds different ideas "compete" to see which is stornger. Does this mean our squabbling is like neurons firing, and we as a society are a brain? I doubt it. But maybe with work we will get there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

I want to know right now what aliens encoded in my DNA 4 billion years ago!

The Science Times this week had a great scifi story opening. The article, "Human DNA, the Ultimate Spot for Secret Messages (Are Some There Now?)", based on the idea of scientists encoding "E=mc^2" in the DNA of a bacterium and a year of New York Times' on the genes of a cockroach, imagined that our own DNA could contain messages implanted billions of years ago by an ancient race that seeded our own planet with life.

What would it say? Most likely, something like "Hi, we're out here," on the assumption it wouldn't be found until a race had reached a certain level of intellectual development. The obvious problem is that if you don't know what someone's encoding system is, you could probably interpret the text of Hamlet being encoded into the 750 megabytes contained in human DNA.

Another issue is the question of whether a certain level of intellectual development reflects an equal level of emotional development. This is one of the fantastic themes that I'm seeing Alistair Reynolds address in "Pushing Ice." Right now a small colony of humans, surrounded by a number of other more advanced alien races, is having knowledge held back from them because the humans are behaving like squabbling children unable to stop fighting over issues that happened years ago.

Still, I really want to do something with the DNA encoding thing. Imagine the combination of disbelief and ridicule a scientist who discovered the message would have to overcome. And imagine how it would change humanity if she finally convinced them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

People I'm insanely jealous of, Part I - Alastair Reynolds

I could just about kill this guy.

Leave aside that Pushing Ice, Reynolds' most recent novel in paperback, has taken control of 87.3% of my brain, meaning that when I should be thinking about other things, I am mentally stranded halfway to the Kuiper Belt being dragged along at 5G's acceleration behind a mysterious starship from the Alpha Virginis system, formerly known as Saturn's moon Janus.

Just consider the fact that sometime along the way to getting a PHD in astronomy and working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency, he learned to plot suspense as tight as James Patterson.

It takes another level of writing to create genuine conflict in circumstances where every character's action is justifiable from his or her own point of view. The conflict between Bella, the captain of the Rockhopper, and Svetlana, head of flight operations, about whether to turn the ship around or to follow The Object Formerly Known as Janus is completely engaging because you sympathise with both of them. It's true, Reynolds resorts to more traditional villains in the case of Craig Schrope, the company spy, and Powell Cagan, the evil CEO that decieves them. But even Schrope may or may not be genuinely bad, and Cagan is not really a character in the story, just an external force.

It's true there are a few places where I can hear Reynolds' plot wheels turning, setting up things that you know he's going to use later. Specifically a scene where the captain has an inconclusive talk with a "taphead" who can control robots with an implant in his head. Since this taphead character has no other interactions with anyone else in the book, I get a feeling that he's just there because Reynolds needs him down the road somewhere. But that's a quibble; right now, I just can't put the damn book down.

PS - as you may have noticed, this isn't a review, since I haven't even finished the thing. I am not usually going to do "reviews" in the usual sense on this page. That's because since I don't get advance copies, I am not going to be able to get them out before twenty or thirty other people do, and also because I'm more interested in addressing the themes and ideas that are being addressed in the science fiction world now.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Alternate science - a possible new direction for scifi?

A desire to really piss off the mundane sf-ists got me thinking about the possibility of scifi written under the assumption that some significant scientific fact were otherwise.

We are all familiar with "alternate-history" novels in which the South won the Civil War, the Nazis won WWII or the Bills won Superbowl XXV (okay, Scott Norwood and I are still waiting on that last one). Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, in my opinion the best alternate-history novel ever, assumes that the Black Plague, rather than killing 30% of the population of Europe killed 99%, resulting in a world dominated by Asian, Middle Eastern and Aboriginal American cultures.

But what about a novel/story in which the Michelson-Morley experiment confirmed the existence of the Luminous Aether?(Pynchon toys with this idea in Against the Day, but doesn't take it very far.) Or a story in which Goethe's well-reasoned but discredited theory on color turned out to be correct?

For this to be any good, you'd want it to be based on a theory or hypothesis that was plausible based on what experiments had suggested at the time it was made, but was then superseded by a better theory based on an important experiment or experiments. So for a scifi author to just say "lets' pretend Einstein was wrong" so that he can have his starship go 200c and get to alpha centauri in a week would represent laziness, not alternate science, unless he was basing his physics on some other well-reasoned but discredited hypothesis.

And for it really to be good, you'd have to explore the social consequences of what the confirmation of that theory would mean. Over time, understanding of a theory seeps into popular culture, and changes how people think. The aether was once jokingly called "The British Theory." How would the confirmation of it (as opposed to competing German theories) affect the coming world war/wars?

What other "alternate science histories" could be the basis of a good story?

ps. I remember vaguely that TSR created an offshoot D&D universe in which interstellar ships sailed on Aether winds, and British colonialism extended to an indigenously inhabited mars. Does anyone else remember that?

Sorry I can't make my stories mundane enough for you!

My first advice to these guys would be to come up with a better name. I know which definition of the word "mundane" they're using, but when a word has more than one definition you need to acknowledge that.

I agree with Live Granades' opinion on this.

But I would take it one step further. I think the people behind the mundane scifi movement utterly misunderstand the purpose of fiction. Jules Verne could be seen as an early model of the "mundane scifi" movement. I don't remember where I got it, but I read that Verne's major complaint about H.G. Wells was that "he just makes things up," whereas Verne tried to use real science and technology.

But far more people read Wells than Verne now, even though we have never had a time machine or alien invaders. I think that's because Wells understood something that Verne doesn't, which is also my motto as a writer: fiction is about people, not things.

Verne wanted to make accurate predictions about things: submarines, baloons, etc. Wells was exploring the depths of human nature by stretching the laws of reality. How else could a British person understand what colonialized people must feel like under their rule than by having alien invaders with posers beyond their own imagining come down? Or understand the ridiculousness of their class system without taking them far into future where the system has been stretched to its logical extreme?

That's not to say that mundane scifi doesn't have a future. If the people who are pushing the movement can start making stories that are better than what anyone else is doing (instead of, say, giving everyone else a pass-fail grade on a bar that means nothing to anyon but themselves), they just might, as they claim "Transform the way you think about scifi."

Saturday, June 23, 2007

John Jarrold interview

Okay, I'll admit it. I really wish this guy would be my agent. I don't know how the trans-Atlantic thing would interfere. The weather's not that bad in London, is it?

He also has a great blog here.

Big conflicts, little conflicts

Linnea Sinclair had a great post on conflict today at Kristen Nelson's Pub Rants blog.

Two things I liked were the distinction between "complication" (something difficult/bad happens) and "conflict" (something bad happens that is personal to the character and won't go away until he does something about it). This is a common mistake that inexperienced fiction writers make. They know something bad is supposed to happen & then things get better. But they miss the personal angle.

The other part I like is the quote:

Well-written conflict is an undeniable I MUST slammed flat up against an equally formidable YOU CAN’T.


The other thing that needs to be pointed out to inexperienced fiction writers is the fact that your conflict (or conflicts) need to be woven into literally every single event, piece of dialogue and bit of exposition in your writing. I don't think that's an exaggeration. To put a finer grain on it, a story's main conflict/conflicts are broken up into a number of smaller conflicts that consistently advance the plot and develop the character. As Sinclair said, all these things are connected.

Sinclair said that this is primarily true of commercial/genre fiction. But I'm not entirely sure it is. The main distinction of literary fiction is that the conflict is usually more focused on the internal than it is in commercial fiction. Rather than "Who murdered Mrs. Garston," or "Can Mike Savage land his spaceship on the asteroid before his fuel runs out," you get "Why won't Lily speak to her father" or "Can Antoine become close to his wife again before he dies of cancer?" But the conflict still needs to be advanced all the time. There are people who would dispute this (early Joan Didion comes to mind), but not that many I suspect.

Library of America* acknowledges Phillip K. Dick existed!

This morning Jen said, "Hey, they have a science fiction book in the New York Times Book Review today!"

I said, "Oh, I bet it's either Ian McDonald's Brasyl or Charles Stross' Glasshouse. Those are the two big scifi releases everyone's talking about."

Nope. It was a review of the Library of America* anthology of PKD stories from the '60s. It was a good review, I'm not complaining about that. And PKD is one of my favorite authors of all time, scifi or not.

But first of all, when they review a scifi writer it would have to be somebody who's safely dead & buried. Yes, they review contemporary scifi, but rarely.

Worse, three of the stories that are in the LOA* anthology ("The Four Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch," "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and "Ubik") were already in print in an anthology. I know, because I have it. (Actually, it's not mine. Sorry Royal!). The other, "The Man in the High Castle," is also in print.

What the NYTBR is acknowledging is that the LOA* opened the pearly gates to literary recognition for the speed-addled old ghost of Phil. "He's ours now! You genre punks get your hands off."

Notice Jonathan Lethem compiled it**. I am about to read an early Lethem book I bought at our favorite GP bookstore, Word, the other day. But from what I've seen, Lethem is a scifi writer the way that Basquiat was a graffiti artist. He toyed with the style until he was able to get into the Real Artists' Club, and we won't even get a postcard from now on.

At least Lethem got it while he's still alive. PKD never saw the outside of a pulp cover before he died (let alone the bazillions of dollars brought in by all the movies loosely derived from his work).

* Correction: Originally, I wrote Modern Library. Corrected by Anonymous.
** Correction: Originally, I said he wrote the introduction, but Andrew Wheeler pointed out the LOA works don't have intros. Thanks Andrew!

Friday, June 22, 2007

It figures.

I finally start a blog and right away Bruce Sterling announces that's so 2005.

Apparently the next thing is Jaiku, Twitter, Facebook, Kyte and Plaxo. (No, I'm not going to link to them. Type them in your stupid address bar!) These apparently allow people to constantly text-message to their friends little 40-word messages, like "I'm going to bed," "I'm going shopping," "I'm reading the back of a cereal box" or "I'm taking a dump."

And they do this

Christ I'm old.

Jet trains and robots - thanks Charlie!

Stross must have been watching the The Jetsons!

I am not God's megaphone

Richard Steinberg at Storytellers Unlimited has post on what it takes to be an artist that is either incredibly poetic or ridiculously self-indulgent, depending on how you tilt your head.

The part I like is this:

Don’t try to be the next John Grisham or Judy Blume; Audrey Schulman or Caleb Carr. Don’t. When you sit down to work decide what it is you want to write about. Not the genre, not the setting, not the style or length. Certainly not what you think people want to read. Because if you’re anything like me, every time you figure out where it’s at, it’s usually someplace else.

I couldn't have said that better. You should only write what you have to write. Just yesterday Jennifer was pointing at an ad for an idiotic chick-lit title ("The Manny"), and saying "I could just write one of those stupid books and sell it and we'd never have to work again." But of course she really couldn't. That's because, as John Gardner said "To write trash, you have to have a trashy mind," and Jen just doesn't. You can't fake it.

The post goes downhill when Steinberg descends into Harlan Ellison-ish hyperbole, such as "I am God's Megaphone." I might call myself God's megaphone in my private fantasies, but I wouldn't have the chutzpah to say it in public.

Aside from the self-indulgence, the problem with the "God's megaphone" business is that it leaves the professionalism out of writing. I don't think that's what Steinberg meant, but people will misinterpret what he's saying to mean that if a person is "real artist" beauty just pours out of them automatically like sweat.

But even for a genius, I believe it's 99% perspiration like everything else. Whatever other kind of crap James Joyce, Charlie Parker, Jackson Pollock and other tortured geniuses were going through, they were absolute professionals when it came to their craft. When it was time to focus on that, they got their business done.

Or as Tom Waits put it:

You got to get behind the mule
Every morning and plow
You got to get behind the mule, boy
Every morning and plow.

Don't waste your time peering into your soul, or asking God for inspiration. Get behind the mule. Be consistent. When God is convinced you're serious, he'll get back to you.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Outline & Undermind, getting along

At Storytellers Unplugged Justine Musk has an interesting post about outlining.

She sets up an interesting continuum between the Outline and what she calls the Undermind, the instinct a storyteller has that tells him or her where a story is supposed to go. Needless to say, the two don't always agree. Because of that, people disagree about the value of an outline. Justine herself is trying to do a novel "without the net" for the first time.

As you can see from my bio, I'm a math teacher. One thing you are taught early on as a teacher (or else learn the hard way) is that you're asking for disaster going into class without a lesson plan. That's not to say it never works out- occasionally you pull something out of your ass and everything goes great. But in general, you always have a plan.

But expecting the class to go exactly as you planned it can get you in as much trouble as not having a plan. Maybe the students will get what you were trying to teach them right away, and you need to come up with something else. More often, the example that you thought would be completely obvious to them leaves them looking at you like you're speaking Chinese, and you have to come at it a different way.

That is my approach to outlining now. I have an outline when I go in. But I'm not surprised when I have to diverge from it, and come up with something new. Also, the outline just marks "milestones" in the book. I still need the Undermind to tell me how to get from milestone to milestone.

Scifi writers' tools - part 2

Say your hero is decelerating from relativistic velocities, easing into the Gliese 229 system, and he slows down by slingshotting around one the largest gas giant in the system, named, uh...oh, crap, I need to come up with the name for that gas giant!

Ancient gods' names are good. But the Greeks are all used up, of course, and the Norse gods seem to obvious. And you loaned your copy of Deities & Demigods to your friend and never got it back. (and it was a first printing, before the Lovecraft estate made TSR yank the Cthulu stuff!) You are going to mention this planet, like, twice in your novel, so you don't want to be up all night coming up with a name for it.

Thank Ra for Godchecker! You could call your gas giant Bishamon (Japanese god of good fortune & war), Ukko (Finnish sky god), or Wandjina (Aborigine creation god). There's enough choices from enough cultures in there that all the science fiction writers in the world won't run out of names.

Another problem solved.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

September Analog - part 1

Rather disappointing issue, overall.

Best story was the first one, "Some Distant Shore." Mike Christopher (couldn't people in the 27th century have _slightly_ more interesting names?) is part of a human delegation joining with the hive-mind Drodurasel, the symbiontic Cetronen, and the green-skinned, vaguely Klingonish Sobrenians watching a rogue solar system crashing into another one. Each species has mysterious reasons for being there, as is revealed in the story.

Also there is his girlfriend Linna. They're having problems because she is an empath who's getting input overload, and can't stand to be around him or any other sentient being. Plot-wise, this is by far the most interesting part of the story. Who hasn't had a seemingly perfect relationship ripped apart by emotional issues neither of you can overcome? The story makes it clear the girl is doomed from word 1, but the way it plays out is gripping anyway.

As with any Analog story, the atrophysics are tight as a guitar string. Analog is proud of having sci-fi hard enough that you can bounce a quarter off it (except for the "light" scifi; does anyone read that stuff?). But what I'm learning is that to sell a story to Analog you have to know where to be hard and where it doesn't matter so much. How is Linna empathic? Who knows? We're not just talking about sensing your emotions from your face, voice, smells, whatever. She gets it through walls–has to go to a shuttle off the ship to protect herself.

In my experience, this is true of most 'hard' sci-fi. They will practically give you diagrams about how the stardrive works based on the latest discoveries at CERN-then pull something utterly out of their ass, like a character with psychic powers or a computer that becomes sentient 'by accident' and bails everyone out of a situation. If you read my inaugural post you know I'm the last one to complain about plausibility, I just want a good story. But I don't like the attitude that one person's fiction is more 'hard' than everyone else's when it really isn't.

Whoops, off on a tangent. Back to the story, not the most original aliens, but they serve their purpose. Each reveals deep attachments to the solar system being destroyed, attachments they'd even risk their lives for. How likely is it that most other species would breathe the same air as us? Probably not very, but it's useful for plot purposes. Dialog doesn't carry well through breathing portals. I'll probably do the same when I work up to putting aliens in my story.

What else?

Interesting article about RFID's. A slightly funny piece about a 'travel delays' to Pluto due to its reclassification, and another about the ultimate spam-blocker accidentally destroying the universe. You had to be there for that one.

The biggest annoyance by far is "Ginger Ears and Elephant Hair" by Uncle River. (Is his first name Uncle, or is this a gimmick?) This is basically a backstory study for a forthcoming novel called 'Ever Broten.' It all takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, remembering back to the Late Abysmal, i.e. now. It's what Gardner would call an essayist narrator, trying to piece together a pre-'change' catastrophe. Apparently there was a mystical place called the University of The Arkansas that decided to make 'hairy elephants' like the ones that used to exist even before, and so they used 'ginger ears' (gene...what? carriers?) and then...there were lots of hairy elephants everywhere. That's it, that's the whole plot. The rest is just lots of lines like this:

"Well now, we must remember, it was a different world. Were Abysmal ways always madness?"
"Crazy, by the end, and perhaps from the outset, it seems to us."
"Was the Late Abysmal's organization of everything big, and money to organize it by, crazy from the outset?"
"So was the Abysmal world crazy from the outset, or did it become crazy in the face of doom?"

Stop! I get it! Our way of life is insane. I'm the last to argue. But you need to do more than say it a hundred times to make a story. I don't hold it against Uncle River writing this at all. This is how you build your world. I hold it against Analog for publishing it. This story belonged in his notebooks, and maybe, _maybe_ as a prologue or something in his book.

Then there's another "light" piece I didn't read about the invasion of the alien Doublemint Twins on exponential overload or something, and a Black Hole Project story. I have more to say about BHP, but I'm not done reading this installment. I'll get back to it soon.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Scifi writers' tools - part 1

How far away is Barnard's star? What's a blue giant in Earth's near vicinity? How about a star that might have planets? Or a rotating map that allows me to plot my heroine's round-trip relativistic starship journey?

Ask no further - go to I think these guys are space-exploration activists. I say go to it. Until we get an antimatter drive working, they will be saints to us sci-fi authors.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Stars my Destination

First post.

Don't want to waste a lot of time with a lot of "here I am, this is why I write my blog" stuff. As with any fiction writer, I hope that will be reavealed as the plot develops.

I want to start with a response to this Charles Stross post about interstellar explanation.

I haven't read any of Stross' work yet, and I'm really looking forward to it. He seems to be somewhere between Ken McLeod and Alistair Reynolds, which if it's true would put him right in my neighborhood.

The Stross post I'm responding to is in the well-traveled genre of raining on would-be interstellar travelers' parade. If you're familiar with this type of article, you probably know the steps. First, you point out just how astronomically far away the nearest star is–and that's the _nearest_ star, not necessarily one that has a planet that anyone could live on. Go over the outrageous amount of energy necessary to send even the tiniest capsule that distance, let alone slow it down at the other end, and don't forget the weight of the fuel, and that's assuming we convert 100% of mass to energy, which we're not even close to now! Oh, yeah, don't forget osteoporosis from low-gravity, cancer from the cosmic rays, and mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids, in fact it's cold as hell...

By the time you're finished reading a piece of writing like this, it's hard to blame an aspiring scifi writer for wanting to switch to fantasy. Sure, you could do cyberpunk, or a post-apocalyptic dystopia. But for many of us, without the stars, the gleam just kind of goes off sci-fi.

So do we give up on space opera? I say no, and here's why. I'm not debating any of Stross' science. It seems completely solid.
What I would point out instead is that a similarly convincing piece of writing could have been done in, say, 1700, about the plausibility of an intercontinental jetliner– let alone landing on the moon. For that matter, imagine how easily one could dismiss the likelihood of the internet as it is today knowing what they knew in 1950. Stross' point is that we are not going to colonize the stars without what he calls "a magic wand."

But what Stross calls magic wands are really only what the rest of us would call technological advances. Let's narrow this down. The problem here is entirely an energy problem. If we have enough energy, we can reach relativistic velocities that will allow space travelers to get to other stars in their lifetimes. Lack of gravity will not be a problem- if anything, the problem will be in the other direction; the effective gravity a person can live under puts an upper limit on the possible acceleration of a ship. Cosmic rays can be shielded using a magnetic field, just as they are on Earth, again if you have enough energy.

By narrowing the problem I am not minimizing it. Our energy production will have to expand exponentially before interstellar travel becomes plausible. But then our energy production has expanded exponentially before. It's true, it's more or less leveled off over the last few decades. The point is that it's _plausible_ that we could discover some new source of energy in the next, let's say, few centuries.

But what is that source of energy? Don't I have to know for sure before I start talking about a colony on Tau Ceti? The answer is no. To think otherwise is to be confused about what the job of a science fiction writer is. There is entirely too much concern about plausibility in the science fiction community recently, which is probably why so few people read it. It's true, a science fiction author has to devote some energy to scientific plausibility in order not to stretch the disbelief suspension muscles of the geeks who read it too far.

But, I propose, it is not primarily the job of a science fiction author to figure out how we will make interstellar starships. That's NASA's job. It's the job of a science fiction author to figure out how interstellar starships will affect humanity, if that's what they choose to write about. It's the job a science fiction author to figure out how people would react to any technological advance, whether it happens or not. That's because, regardless of the genre or style or anything else, fiction is about people.

A commenter on Stross' column wrote "Ah, for the days of Niven's World of the Ptavvs, when fusion-powered torchships accelerating to Neptune at one G seemed plausible..." But in truth much of the problems with interstellar travel we know about now they knew about in Niven's days too. It's just that Niven wrote _on the assumption that those problems would be overcome_. He didn't have to know how to overcome each one. John Gardner, in discussion the idea of a fable, explains that the role of the author is to say "If x were true [a man turns into a cockroach, a scientist creates a human out of spare parts of corpses, etc.], then what would happen?" The Alfred Bester novel after which this blog is named (originally "Tiger, Tiger") has as its basis the idea of "jaunting", or teleportation. Apparently, a scientist, under a circumstance of danger, accidentally discovers humans have the ability to reappear elsewhere. And why has this ability not happened over the last hundred millenia of human's existence, during which plenty of people have been in danger before? As Scotty might say, "Keptin, the suspension o' disbelief ken't take anymerr." But who cares why? Instead of wasting his time justifying it, Bester does a brilliant job of imagining what the world would be like _on the assumption_ that teleportation is possible. That's why the novel is repeatedly cited as a seminal work of the genre by science fiction author after science fiction author.

I am not by any means saying that it's certain that we will travel to other stars. In fact, I would say it's far more likely that we won't than that we will. We're going to have to keep the basket our eggs are in now tidy long before we're going to have any other baskets to move them to. There are plenty of great scifi books to write if you want to assume we will never achieve that kind of energy.

But the fun of scifi is imagining what _could_ happen, not predicting what will. Or as Bester wrote,

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destionation.