Friday, December 31, 2010

The assessment

It was a good year. Long-term goals were accomplished and a new chapter begun.



I ground through school and finished my history BA at long last. I was on the Deans List nearly every term and ended with a 3.65 GPA. That and I independently passed BYU's Foreign Language Assessment Test for Swedish to pull it off.



Oregon's climate continued to be so very good to me. I lost another fifteen pounds for a total of fifty. I'm starting to look like me in the mirror once again. Going from Mt. Rose to the City of Roses has been a healthy thing.



I went to LA. I saw my first published short story in a prestigious anthology. I attended a workshop taught by two established authors and met a dozen more, including names in the field that I've admired for over two decades. Every bit as more important, I met my peers.



Strangely, I hardly wrote anything for almost four months after coming home from Writers of the Future. Which is the first I time I've done that in fifteen years. I've been putting out genre text five or six nights a week for the better of two decades. That includes nearly eight years overseas in both the military and as a civilian. I produced words on a tower PC six miles from the DMZ in South Korea and on a laptop in Macedonia twenty miles or so south of Kosovo. Then this fall a switch flipped on some level, and aside from pushing through the revision of a short story, I was drifting.

But it was a creative drift, if that makes any sense. I read everything I could get my hands on about the state of the industry. I looked at every magazine, browsed the books stores, learned the imprints, and thought long and hard about the decline of literary science fiction.

That took me on a whole 'nother trip--looking at what sells and why so much sells well outside of original literary science fiction. It also had me reevaluating everything I've learned from professionals and fellow aspirants over the past three years. It seems that there is a huge difference between what's preached in workshops and in critique groups and what's actually on the pages of books that sell.

Then I picked up part-time work last month writing a software and technology blog for a software development company that goes live in a day or so. That's been great fun: Fun researching the state of technology and how social networking seems to have blurred all the boundaries between coding and feedback and users and programers. Fun writing in personable voice and gradually ditching many of the audience-alienating conceits that I've learned up in academic and 'literary' writing.

This last week it all came together. Over three days a picture emerged of where I want to go as a genre writer and how I want to write. And now the text is flowing once again.

It's probably not a coincidence that this happened during the last week of the year.

It maybe strange, but New Years is now more important to me than Christmas. All the rituals of cleaning the apartment, pulling down inspirational books from the shelf and looking over old text documents written to encapsulate my personal philosophy have taken on a significant emotional weight. The approach of the the holiday throws me into an introspective clarity that normally requires dedicated effort during the rest of the year.

If all of the above sounds a little narcissistic it's because it is. But like the afore-mentioned drift it's been a good kind of egoism--the culmination of a two year hermitage of introspection and reinvention. During coming year I plan on rejoining the human race and integrating myself into the community of the city.

I also intend to continue expanding my writing revenue--both technical and literary.

And no more short stories in genre writing. From here on out it's novels. My first goes out the door in January and I hope to produce at least two more during the course of the year. Perhaps I'll end up like Brandon Sanderson and have a dozen or so trunk novels before my first one sells. If so, I can happily live with that.

In the meanwhile, best wishes to you all for the coming year. May its end find you healthy and happy.

Cheers,
Alex

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Retro 70s iPad

Gresso classies up the iPad with 18k gold logo and ancient wood case -- Engadget

Nice! As an unemployed recent university graduate and part-time paid technology blogger it's been a while since I've been able to afford any kind of fun gadgets. I have, however, gotten to play around with a friend's iPad and was impressed. It's also worth noting that two other tech savvy friends (one programmer, one IT) have both picked up iPads to experiment with and like what they've seen.

The future of computing appears to be mobile. While that's hardly an original insight, it's still an emotional one. The first computer I can remember seeing in person was a closet-sized mainframe. That and for genre writing it is important to try and anticipate just how mobile, small, and integral to the human experience computing will become in the coming years.

Monday, December 27, 2010

I love this kind of stuff

Costumes: the Wearable Dialog • Indistinguishable From Magic

What kind of "stuff" exactly? The kind of articles, commentaries, and interviews where writers and illustrators and directors talk about how they tell a story.

And not the broad kind of "I'm trying to retell Canterbury Tales in Space" type of telling, but rather the specific techniques in a scene or character design that convey unspoken information. All the un-articulated yet still important background information about persons and settings as hinted, suggested, or implied through clothing, through camera shots, or point-of-view narration in text.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On the train to Portland...

...heading through the Columbia River Gorge.




Spirited Away: The television series



Well, not really. But if you did enjoy Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece film, the anime series Kamichu covers a similar slice of Japanese culture with its depiction of young school girl who finds herself a part of Shinto world of small gods and spirits. Normally not my style, I still found myself enjoying this series after a friend recommended as part of my research into what people who used to read literary science fiction are doing for their SF/Fantasy fixes these days.

Kamichu is a gem of series if you like non-violent modern fantasy, though it is probably not for everyone. Written for children and set in small town Japan, it moves a rural pace with few major events taking place in any given episode. Rather than drama, it's a show about place, slow-paced personal development, and a sense of wonder. That and the awkwardness of first loves.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Life-and-Death Choices of a Junior Officer — A Year at War - NYTimes.com

Life-and-Death Choices of a Junior Officer — A Year at War - NYTimes.com

Apologies for the lateness...

...of the next "People Who Used to Read Science Fiction" article on science fiction and video games. Partly it's the arrival of the holiday season that's holding things up; partly it's my need to do...uh...research for the next piece.

Yeah.

Research.

That's what I'll call my time spent playing Mass Effect...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bright mountain...

...and shaded valley



The social terrain of my rooftop has interesting seasonal variations. During the warm months it's mostly hipster kids and music conversations. During the cool season its blue-collar gentlemen in their 60s and professionals in their 30s - 50s. Topics range from Korea in the 1950s; life as a sailor on Mediterranean during the 60s and 70s; to the geometry of cities and the commonalities of art and commerce.



The winter months on the roof remind of old-style barber shops: An almost exclusively male domain of banter or idea-focused discussions.



One of the aspects that I love about living here is the sociability. The sense of shared meeting spaces, of which the rooftop is one of many. My neighborhood is like something out of small town pre-automobile America. Of course there is a down side to that too. You get to hear your neighbors, and once in a while you have to listen to them have it out in the street.



Still, I'll take audio intrusions in exchange for the living, breathing sense of community.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rail gun test

Interesting footage from a recent test of an electromagnetic rail system under development for the Navy. Very science fiction.



As I've mentioned before, the deployment of a workable EM rail gun system may well usher in a new generation of active defensive systems for naval surface combatants. The extended range and flight speed have the potential to push out effective defensive envelopes far enough to counter the proliferation of cruise- and semi-ballistic missiles currently taking place in the Pacific and Middle East. Such expanded depth could prevent the obsolescence of surface warfare ships like carriers, much as how new composite armors during the 1980s kept main battle tanks as viable combat platforms on battlefields, despite the fielding of large numbers of wire-guided armor-piercing missiles during the 1970s.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Earthquake swarm in Arkansas

Earthquake 'swarm' rattles Arkansas town and its residents - CNN.com

We had a similar swarm of small quakes in Reno not long before I moved up here in 2008. It was an interesting feeling waiting to see if all of those small tremblers would come together into a disaster or play out in a gradual redistribution of tension. Especially as my life was on the cusp of a major change, as it may well be now.

I've graduated and am getting ready to send more writing projects out the door. I've also been spamming the employment-sphere with resumes and applications. Nothing has come back yet, but I'm certainly curious to see what will come of it all. Will I be able to stay here in the City of Roses, or will I need to move elsewhere to make the jump from blue to white collar work.

That transition in and of itself will be a major change. Of course in the current market employment of any kind is far from a given. I've seen some bright people who landed a job only after a year or two of being out and about and pressing the flesh and working to meet potential employers face to face.

Back in 2008 those quakes certainly felt as if they presaged major changes all around me. This time though, the swam of tremblers belong to somebody else. Which is fine with me as I am looking to improve on the life that I've began to build here in the lovely City of Roses two years ago.

So we will see. I'm certainly hoping to stay here, or somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After having bounced around the planet, this town and this region suit me perfectly.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Franchise tie-ins are the new pulp!

A friend made an observation after reading the most recent People who used to read science fiction post that a return to the genre's pulp origins might be what's needed to revive science fiction. I think he's right, though in a sense that may well already be underway. Franchise tie-ins with their orientation towards action and adventure and their optimistic endings are the new pulp.

Which raises a question for those of us working to revitalize original literary science fiction: How do we break down the barrier between that solid-selling pulp and it's struggling little sister, SF lit? How do we get tie-in readers to make the jump?

Writing and selling optimistic science fiction would be a start. And there are others in the field who feel the same way. Jetse de Vries' Shine: An Anthology of Optimistic SF was put together with the same idea in mind. While I unfortunately did not feel engaged by the stories in the anthology--the book was way too ideologically polarized for me--it was reassuring to see that someone else feels strongly about the positive potential of the genre.

Others are working to create literary SF that hearkens back to the adventurous glory days of pulp, as well as its action-oriented descendants. Fellow Writers of the Future winner Jordan Lapp of Everyday Publishing recently forwarded this announcement about the relaunch of the space opera magazine Ray Gun Revival:


Ray Gun Revival (RGR) is an online magazine dedicated to fun stories, grand escapism, and good old sensawunda. RGRl provides just that, a throwback publication that revisits space opera and golden age sci-fi. Their stories focus more on character development than hard science and sail all the wide-open waters between science fantasy and harder SF. Think of the original Star Wars stories, Doc Smith's Lensman series, the Warlord of Mars tales from Edgar Rice Burroughs. Think of everything from John Carter and Gully Foyle to Kimball Kinnison and Han Solo. They are bringing out the deepest elements of what has traditionally been rather superficial fiction and updating them for a new generation of fiction enthusiasts.



Honestly, what doesn't sound kick ass about that? So if you're a genre fan in search of fun reads, check them out. They go live February 1st.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Squeeeeeeeeeee!!!

Please forgive me my internet fanboy moment :)

George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books are making the transition form ink to film, which is a jump that I'm rather excited about.



I am a little bummbed out that the Dothraki look like generic Celtic barbarians rather than the Mongols whom they are clearly based on in the books. My exposure to the Mongols in East Asian and World History courses earlier this year had me on a Mongol kick. Martin did them justice in his depiction of the fictional Dothraki, so it's a shame to see that the producers chose to ditch the Central Asian influence.

Oh well, so sad.

In the meanwhile, Sergei Bodrov's 2007 film Mongol presents a slightly romanticized but good look at the lives and cultures of these intriguing pastorialists who carved out history's largest land empire.

Friday, December 03, 2010

People who used to read science fiction part 2: Techno-thrillers and franchise tie-ins

This past decade saw the publication of a wildly successful pair of novels that dealt with artificial intelligence, a software-driven alternative social structure, augmented reality, robotic weapon systems, and the chaotic emergence of a post-industrial world. These two books sold millions of copies.

No one in the science fiction literary community seems to have heard of them.

Meanwhile, plenty of people who used to read science fiction shelled out $26 for each novel.



The first inkling that had about how far detached the lit sci-fi community has grown from its former readership was at last years Orycon, here in Portland. It was my first con and one of the first panels that I had ever attended. What hit me was one of the panelists' derision for the talking-heads scenes common in classic science fiction novels.

These expository interludes typically feature two characters talking over or debating a social concept, or technology, or the human implications of a bit of scientific knowledge. In Issac Asimov or Author C. Clark novels this often takes the form of two scientists conversing over a cup of coffee. With Robert Heinlein it might be a nude couple taking a stroll on an indoor lawn and debating cultural realities. Either way, it's not 'literary.' A good writer doesn't bore the readers with such didactic dialog. Readers supposedly find these scenes tedious and tend to skip through them. Instead any writer worthy of that title thrills the readers by showing the technology or social concept in action.

The former method of conversational presentation was common when science fiction had a thriving readership and successful novels were expected to sell more than 10,000 copies. The latter more artistic approach is typical of the present, in which books are successful if they actually sell 10,000 copies.



The second book in Daniel Suarez's runaway techno-thriller serries, Freedom™, is largely a tour of his technology-driven alternative social order and a vilification of the current one. And it features lots, and lots, and lots of talking head scenes. Did I mention that these books have sold millions of copies?

Which returns to a point that I've harped on before here on Consilience. And that would be that ideas are one of the major value-added selling points of science fiction. Raw ideas put forth directly for the readers' consideration--often in the form of freshmen 101 philosophical conversations. Such undiluted ideas are like crack for much of our ex-readership, who continue to pickup expository idea-driven books outside the genre, even as character-drive human drama novels within the genre languish on the shelves.

Then there are the tie-in novels



Like the previously mentioned Daniel Suarez technology-thrillers, these books typically employ cardboard characters and clear-cut situations that are not typical of real-world events. The writing also frequently leaves much to be desired. Many tie-in novels also use blatant talking-head scenes to convey world history and plot points.

While they do not typically explore high concepts or potential future changes, the exotic settings and feeling of adventure common to tie-ins touch upon one of science fiction's other traditional points of value added: a sense of transport to a world that might one day exist in some form. This stands in stark contrast to the dark futures, lack of heroism, and tragic endings of current literary science fiction.

Despite the literary shortcomings, tie-ins routinely outsell works of original literary science fiction. By a lot. Tie-ins to major commercial properties often sell 100,000 thousand or more copies, while as previously mentioned, a lit-SF novel is successful if it reaches the 10,000 mark. Not surprisingly then, the percentage of bookstore shelf space devoted to tie-ins in the genre aisles has increased dramatically over the past twenty years.

The success of techno-thrillers that stray into the realm of speculative fiction and the sales figures behind tie-in novels is proof in my eyes that there is still a significant market for written stories set in the near and far future. The fact that few writers can make any kind of a living writing original literary science fiction speaks more the state of the community and its current literary pretensions than it does the disappearance of a fan base for science fiction.

Just why that fan base has supposedly vanished is a common topic in both conversations articles bemoaning the state of the art.

The public's loss of a belief in an optimistic future is one reason commonly given for lit-SF's decline. Another is that the current rate of technological development has either left us jaded with technology and its possibilities and that it's simply no longer a viable form of escapism. In other words, high tech and its implications are now such a common part of our daily lives that stories set in the future no longer provide any sense of wonder or transport out of our mundane existences.

Which, again, the success of near future techno-thrillers and science fiction franchise tie-ins argues against. This especially true when it comes to the idea that the public has lost its faith in the possibility of an optimistic future. To happily belabor a point, tie-ins and techno-thrillers showcase the kind of heroism and bright endings that have largely disappeared from literary science fiction over the past two decades. In short, optimism seems to sell rather well for something that has supposedly vanished.

Having said all of this, a few quick clarifications are in order. Most of the younger tie-in readers who are driving those impressive sales numbers have never been fans of literary science fiction. They've simply come to SF via stories told through the medium of video games, television, and films, and so far most do not seem interested in switching over to original literary science fiction. There also seems to have only been a limited to movement to reading tie-ins among people who used to read original SF. The latter is part of why I believe that ideas are more important than exotic locals and a sense of transport to revitalizing the genre.

Additionally, not all tie-ins suffer from bad writing and simplistic characters these days. Karen Traviss' Star Wars novel Hard Contact has won both fans and recognition for its sense of realism and the depth of its characters. It's also now more common and accepted for authors of original literary science fiction to write tie-ins, as is the case with Greg Bear's entry into the HALO universe with his Cryptum novel.

Which leads us to a new medium that science fiction stories have thrived in as they have helped to drive sales figures that rival the income generated by blockbuster Hollywood films: video games.

A nice juxtaposition....

...of 90s shoegazer music and vintage space exploration footage.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Riding the train on a colorless day...

...through the Columbia Gorge. Well below freezing until we got out of the mountains.







Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A chilly night here in P-Town

I swung by the university today to pick up my diploma, and then walked across town to the weekly meeting of the Fireside writing group off East Portland's Bohemian Hawthorn Street. Afterwards it was marvelously cold - a kind of breathtaking liquid air that put me in mind of seven weeks spent above the arctic circle in Norway back in '98. Forty nine days of guarding a two-star level TOC (a command post) and going through the Army's Winter Warfare School.

It was a great trip in a beautiful land. A place of mountains descending into the sea, cottage-like houses, and a night sky that burned with sheets of phosphorescent fire.

A gorgeous video of the nighttime skies illuminated by the aurora borealis and the lovely city Tromsø, where I passed some time a dozen years ago. Music by local electronica band made-good, Röyksopp.


If Norway's people could be staid, they also had the advantage of a well-set cultural identity that informs them of precisely who they. Quite the novelty for a kid from Nevada where nearly everyone is newcomer who settled there during the past twenty years.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

And the beauty of inner space…

…visualized in a way that was science-fiction fantasy thirty years back.


Where Cinema and Biology Meet | The New York Times

Each cell is its own solar system, filled not only with the planetary bodies of the organelles chained in their proximal relations to the nucleus, but with a myriad of cometary and asteroid-like proteins that are the widgets and self-driven molecular tools of life.



And maybe that is what makes life such an endemic part of the universe. The realities of physics and the varigies of chemistry have conspired to litter our realm of existence with trillions upon trillions of reactive, self-assembling tools. From the level of molecules up to the scale of cells, our environment is awash in organic devices and a myriad of self-folding, self-kinking structures just waiting for the correct catalysts. Well that and a relatively hospitable environment that will not blow apart newly assembled composite structures with thermal extremes or the sheering force of radiation.

After all, life is not just about reproducing, but maintaining the thermal and chemical equilibrium that makes copying oneself possible.

A similar dance of self-assembly happened even before the existence of life. Just as this vast array of molecular tools readily combines into far more bizarre and elaborate configurations, so did unthinkable numbers of quarks and particles of force bond to assemble the trillions of trillions of tons of atoms that make up baryonic matter in our universe. And this in turn was forged by heat and gravity in the furnace of stars into more bizarre and reactive forms like carbon.

A nifty vid focusing on the internal structure of a white blood cell as it “walks” along the lining of a blood vessel on its way to ingratiate itself into inflamed tissue and fight an infection.



A narration of the same video



Videos like these are fantastic tools for explaining complex systems that are difficult for much of the population to visualize. Properly narrated, these will go a long way in making the microscopic world accessible to the average Joe on the street as well as his kids in school. This will be increasingly important as our economy is becomes more-and-more driven by the manipulation of organic and inorganic matter on the scale of molecules.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Too cute for words :)

Nineteen high-resolution images from my former employers of the snow monkeys receiving their annual pumpkins. Not only do the kids love the the meat of the squash, but they are fiends for the seeds inside.

Index of Pumpkin-Feast

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Space, it's a beautiful place...

...here in the future.

All photos courtesy of NASA, public domain



Night views from the station's new window module







Appropriate music to match

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Still more interesting cyber warfare stuff

Who Can Protect Us From Major Cyber Attacks? | Defense Tech

If it seems like I'm fixated on network attacks and infrastructure, it's because I am. A devastating online assault against one or more of the world's major economies with a decade of economic fallout is a much more probable scenario than a rogue nuke or any other weapons-of-mass destruction terrorist scenario.

Incidences like the recent stuxnet attack against Iran's nuclear infrastructure and China's apparent rerouting of a significant portion of the world's internet traffic really should be a wakeup call.

15 Percent of All Internet Traffic Secretly Rerouted Through China | Defense Tech

Related to that, the most probable global natural disaster that worries me is a repeat of the 1859 solar flare that literally burned out telegraph networks. A similar event today could take decades to recover from, and chances are we would have little warning. The time to harden our life-sustaining electronic and digital infrastructure is right now.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Appearances this week

For those of you genre fans here in the Pacific Northwest, I'll be at Orycon this weekend along with fellow Writers of the Future 26 winners KC Ball and Lael Salaets.

Friday evening at 8pm we'll be reading excerpts from our winning stories in the Lincoln Room as well as taking questions and signing books. Saturday from noon to 1pm we'll be sitting on a panel discussing the contest and workshop along with past winners and current authors Ken Scholes (The Psalms of Isaak) and Aimee C. Amodio (Warrior Wisewoman).

Stop by, say hi, have a book signed, and ask as many questions as you'd like. We're friendly, don't bite, and more than happy to chat!

Cheers,
Alex

People who used to read science fiction part 1: Anime

Time of Eve (イヴの時間 Ivu no Jikan)



As I've mentioned in earlier posts, original literary science fiction has largely imploded, and only a handful of long-time authors can afford to support themselves writing in the genre. For writers under fifty-five, even having multiple books published is no longer a guarantee of being able to keep a roof overhead. For most successful genre authors, writing is now an after-hour activity crammed in between work, kids, and a general lack of a social or outdoor life. Those who do have a life outside the home all seem to have chosen to forgo reproducing.

Obviously I'd like to change this. I've got several pretentious notions about how I'm going to singlehandedly revitalize original literary science fiction and make a good living off it. But so I don't make a complete ass out of myself, I've been doing research on the things that have replaced literary science fiction for its former readers.

So, how do they get their science fiction fix?

•movies and television

•Anime

•Video games

•Fantasy novels

•Commercial tie-in novels to role-playing and war game franchises, as well as movie and TV series

•Techno Thrillers

As part of figuring out how to lure former readers back, I've been immersing myself in the popular works of some of these media. I'm curious about what pushes the fun buttons of our ex-readers. What still makes their hearts melt or ignites the sense of wonder for those who like their entertainment either set in the future or at least to involve elements of tomorrows technology and social issues?

Getting back into watching anime as a part of this endeavor has been great fun. Sure there is a fair amount of junk out there, as in any medium, but it has also expanded beyond the giant robot and military science fiction series that I watched as a kid.

Not that the descendants of giant mecha and anime mil-sf are doing all that bad. The Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex anime and movies serve up shadowy covert-operations drama and explores questions of identity in an era of brain augmentation and machine intelligences.

Even more popular internationally, however, are relationship-based dramas with science fiction elements such as Tenchi Muyo! (天地無用!) or modern fantasy, like the stylish and brilliantly bizarre Baccano! (バッカーノ).



By way of warning, while Baccano! is great fun, it's also got some gratutious violence and is not for family viewing.

The Time of Eve, at the top of this post has been one of my favorites. While it's a bit of a cult hit, it has gorgeous animation and taps into issues of identity and artificial intelligence in the context of social issues and interpersonal relationships.

My absolute favorite for sheer intellectual hitting power and dramatic emotion has been Ergo Proxy.



This series also tackles philosophical identity issues, though its artificial intelligences are gene-engineered constructs, and its setting is post-apocalyptic with environmental themes and a Goth aesthetic. For me, it hits the nail on the head as far as identity being a dynamic tension between innate characteristics and external influences. While Ergo Proxy is popular, it's not for everyone as the series writers expect their viewers to actively work to figure out what is happening, and it takes a second viewing of the series to fully understand it.

Finally, the stylized spaceborne bounty hunter drama Cowboy Bebop can't be beat for raw fun and staying power in its popularity.



Next up: Techno thrillers

Monday, November 08, 2010

Evolving autumn

Somehow simultaneously grayer, brighter, and cloudier, and more colorful, November sets in




A very Scandinavian bit of storytelling I came across while hunting for music. Ten minutes long, but worth it if you're in the mood for a light-hearted but introspective piece on the coincidences that bind us together. And yes, I did use the terms "light-hearted" and Scandinavian in the same sentence. It's not all doom and gloom up there. Even Bergman had his romantically comedic Wild Strawberries along with The Seventh Seal.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Phones go to war

Real Men Use Android: Special Forces Favor Google Phone | Danger Room | Wired.com

One issue I grappled with in my novel Phase Line Escher was the future of portable computing--both in daily life and in combat. In the book's time frame it's entirely possible that an individual's personal data processing needs could be met by microscopic processors, so my primary consideration was display size and convenience of transport.

Essentially something with a large enough screen and useful graphic interface.

My choices for the civilian environment were tablets and pads as well as slates for people who favored larger displays. For the military, net phones to suggest the primary function of a communications device for text, voice, and graphics.

Looks like that was a good choice.

Grab bag of musical genre goodness

A gorgeous and dream-like video for Kwoon's "I Lived on th Moon."



Images of the empyrean set to Boards of Canada's "Seeya Later." Ethereal



A lighthearted Free the Robots jazz piece. This is from a little-known musical sub-genre that features bebop-era jazz remixed to modern beats. If I ever wanted a soundtrack for a speculative fiction film set in the future that required a suave or retro sensibility, this is the kind of music I'd be looking to use.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Literary swag

My author's copies of Writers of the Future Volume 26, along with the trophy and copy of Tyler's illustration for "Lisa with Child" arrived this Saturday.

Many thanks to everyone at Author Services, which administers the contest and orchestrated a wonderful week in Los Angeles. The time spent there with my peers, the contest judges, and the instructors was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Hanging up the artwork on the wall and putting the trophy on the desk was certainly something of an emotional moment. I've always avoided calling myself a writer, because it sounded rather pretentious without having a published novel on the shelves of bookstores. However, having tangible signs my first publishing success is making me a whole lot more comfortable with the idea of being a writer and not just a hobbyist. That and the fact that friends have started referring to me as a science fiction writers helps.





Of course now I need to figure out a away to make this sustainable. The literary science fiction market is imploding, and if the trends of the past few decades continue to hold true, only a handful of individuals will be able to make a living writing original science fiction. It has already largely transitioned from a profession to a cottage industry, in which even published novelists write in their spare time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Fall in PDX









The writing view

Friday, October 22, 2010

In case the internet hasn't given you...

...enough ways to waste your days in front of a computer, I'd like to recommend Warren Ellis's ongoing online comic about telepaths in post-apocalyptic London, Freak Angels.



Normally I'm not much of an Ellis fan for the same reason that most of literary science fiction no longer interests me--because it's like being beaten over the head with an ideology. If I had my way, fiction would be as hostile to ideology as science. Ideologies carry too high of an epistemological cost in that they compel their believers to shut out whole aspects of the world and disregard empirical observation.

Not that completely ideology-free fiction will ever come about. Even the beliefs of positivists give shade and color to their writing. That said, a middle ground of moderation is possible. So far, Ellis seems to have hit that with Freak Angels. I'm about a quarter of the way through the extant work, and the post-apocalyptic setting has made for a story in which science fiction concepts and the stories of the characters come first.

Making it a fun read thus far.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Cool robotics...

...but definitely the most bizarre and threatening floral delivery system I've ever seen.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The city planet

"But the history book of recent Homo sapiens...should begin and end with one narrative line: We became city dwellers."

~Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map

Sometime around 2008 we quietly tripped over a major transition line. For the first time in human existence more of us lived within urban areas rather than the countryside.

Welcome to our city-planet: a world of urban hives, sprawling edge cities, wired hinterlands, and shrinking wildernesses.

This transition has had me thinking about other major tipping points and under-appreciated shifts in human development. The story of our species looks quite different when focusing in on geographic regions, or long-duration trade networks, or biological and information exchanges as topics of historical inquiry rather than the traditional study of nation-states. Entirely new patterns of interactions and casual dynamics appear when examining these systems.

Some of the major transitions and events might be:

•The emergence of symbolic thought as indicated by art, grave goods, and burial of the dead. This may have marked the emergence of animistic religious worldviews.

•The adoption of syntactical language and its organizing effects on the brain, which may be a key component of advanced abstract reasoning.

•The first successful emigration out of Africa

•The extinction of the Neanderthals, the last of our fellow homini species. Or possibly the extinction of Homo floresiensis, the Indonesian “hobbits,” who may have existed up until 12,000-years ago.

•The settlement of the Americas, making Homo sapiens a global-spanning species.

•The start of the Holocene and the retreat of glaciers in the northern hemisphere.

•The transition from family bands to multi-family tribes in regions with highly productive ecologies.

•The neolithic revolution. The adoption of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and subsequently in other locations. This marks the beginning of the displacement of hunter-gathers by agricultural societies.

•The emergence of multi-generational family households, with several generations of extended family under one roof. This often included hired help or slaves.

•The domestication of livestock and emergence of pastoralists

•The domestication of transport animals in Eurasia

•The emergence of chieftainship societies with specialized labor and economic social classes, distinct from the hierarchically flat generalist hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. Chieftainships also created organized warfare as well as corvée and slave labor that enabled the building of public works to increase agriculture and trade productivity.

•The first cities in Mesopotamia, the Indus River Valley, and in what is now Northern China and Mesoamerica.

•The emergence of mythology-based anthropomorphic deities and belief systems.  This change replaced earlier animal totems and spirits of nature with entities who often embodied the abstract dynamics of the human world.

•The adoption of written language, which enabled a leap in the organizational complexity of large undertakings as well as the durability and clarity of information stored in external memory systems.

•The emergence of currencies, which allowed for new forms of large-scale market-driven economic organization without the necessity of having a chieftain. Political power then became more diffuse in city-states

•The emergence of continent-spanning trade networks such as the Silk Roads of Eurasia, the Gold Roads of Africa, and the Turquoise Road that linked portions of North and Central America.

•The emergence of early nations in the form of empires. By the year 0 BCE multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empires in Rome, Persia, India, and China nearly spanned the entire length of Eurasia from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

•The suppression of polygamy in empires and city states to maintain social stability. Prior to this, polygamy had been a common practice in tribal and chiefdom societies, but served as a frequent motivator for destabilizing violence among low-status males who were unable to find female partners or wives within their own society.

•The emergence of early humanism in India, China, and Classical Greece. While not widely held at the time, these human-centered worldviews were built around concepts that would later give rise to secular paradigms. Of particular note in Greece were the ideas of empirical observation and discourse on its discoveries, leading to truths that clashed with cultural descriptions of reality.

•The emergence of monotheism and religious paradigms based universal truths

•The adoption of wind and water wheels across Eurasia, which greatly increased the amount energy available for manufacturing goods such as textiles as well as processing foodstuffs in mills.

•The Vikings’ contact with native North Americas. For the first time humanity completely encircled the Earth.

•The Columbian biological exchange of foodstuffs, fauna, and pathogens between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

•The colonization of the Americas

•The gradual emergence of a modern Humanist worldview in which the lives of humans are the primary and the divine is secondary.

•The decision of Song China to adopt silver as its national currency during the early 1400s. The subsequent exploitation of extensive silver deposits in the Americas by Europeans gave the Spanish and Portuguese greatly expanded access to East Asian markets. This lead to the creation of the first globe-circling trade networks and the finial eclipse of the Silk Roads by maritime shipping. It also served to drive much of the Western European powers’ imperial expansion.

•The creation of the formalized scientific method

•The Industrial Revolution and the switch from wind- and water-based power for industry and transportation to hydrocarbon power.

•The beginning of the decline in the use of animal power for manufacture and transportation

•The emergence of Rationalist paradigms

•The creation of the first atheist state in revolutionary France. All previous human societies had incorporated religions as central cultural institutions.

•The emergence of Romantic paradigms as a backlash against Rationalism.

•European colonialism in East Asia and Africa

•The emergence of centralized, bureaucratic nation-states


•The rise of national identities, which subsume the regional, local, and kin-based group identities that had been humanity's primary group identifiers.


•The decline of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual empires when faced with rising nationalism in subject states and peoples.

•The use of petroleum product to created easily transportable energy sources of unprecedented power and reliability. This also allowed for the creation of nitrogen-based fertilizers which greatly reduced human dependence of solar power in agriculture, which in turn freed much of humankind from famine or food scarcity as a repeated lifetime experiences.

•Urbanization. Large scale migrations into cities accelerates dramatically. This places urban dwellers in the historically unusual position of dealing with dozens of strangers each day.

•The emergence of nuclear families as with parents and their children living in households separate  from grandparents and other extended kin.

•As the industrial revolution proceeds, many urban dwellers shift to consumer- rather than producer-based individual identities.

•The theory of Natural Selection and the Big Bang theory provided secular frameworks for explanations of the origin of the universe and the origin of biological life.

•The mapping of the world and the end of the age of exploration bring an end to the worldview of Earth as a place of mysteries. At the same time the discovery of a universe outside the Milky Way galaxy during the early 20th century shifts the realm of the unknown to the newly expanded heavens.

•The emergence of religious fundamentalist worldviews as a reaction to modernity

•The emergence of secular totalitarian ideologies as reactions or adaptations to modernity. In less than one century these systems kill more people than religion in all of previous human history.

•Using industrial hydrocarbon power, Homo sapiens become the largest transporter of earth, moving more tons of it than any geological process aside from the continental drift.

•The devolution of power. Political power continues an uneven trend of diffusing from elites to the public within democratic nation-states.  An advance that is generally associated with the rise of innovative industrial economies.

•The acceleration of global trade and communications

•The acceleration of scientific and engineering knowledge as well as technological breakthroughs.

•Technology continues to place ever-greater physical power into the hands of individuals.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A sobering FP article...

...on the economic consequences of a graying world and aging populations. Which is interesting from a genre perspective as much of the science fiction I read as a kid was concerned with overpopulation and Malthusian doomsday scenarios.

Think Again: Global Aging - By Phillip Longman | Foreign Policy

Maybe this means rather than trying to predict a most likely future we should be consciously writing stories within an array of possible outcomes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Altering the components of self

So, as previously discussed, we've learned much about the brain and the mind that it generates from the study of our genes as well as observations of living brains in action over the past two decades. Additionally, fields such as neuroanthropology, molecular anthropology, and biological anthropology have enjoyed a number of successes in tracing out humankind's intertwined physical and behavioral development. Meanwhile research in development psychology has done much to demarcate the bounds of innate knowledge and inborn predispositions.

As we discover more about about the biological roots of personality and society, we learn more about the feedback cycle between these components--of how while the brain has inbuilt primate properties, our organ of thought is also built to be modified to a degree by external influences such as language and culture. Finally, even as we continue to discover the biological building blocks of the self and its relationship to society, we are developing technologies to alter these roots of the mind.

All of which opens up numerous storytelling possibilities.

Our brains contain three different memory systems that can be modified. The most interesting--for me--is the two-part declarative memory. The older part of this system is the episodic, which handles the recall of situations that an individual has experienced. The more recent is the semantic memory, which holds information is independent of the context that it was learned in. The semantic half of the declarative memory allows us to create abstract meanings, as it gives us the ability us to remember the commonalities of multiple situations and thus to discover underlying factors and casual relationships.

Of more relevance to individual personalities is emotive mechanism whereby the brain encodes long-term episodic memories. The stronger the emotion, the more likely the hippocampus is to write short-term situational awareness into long-term recall. Modification of this process would change the nature of memory and a persons remembrance of their life, changing their outlook on the world. What if we could make memory much more selective? What if nature has already made memory self-serving to a large degree, and we could modify it to be more emotionally objective or empirical?

We appear to have an emotional network shaped by the short-term priorities of a world in which food was scarce, and the next season could bring feast or famine. The majority of our species finds survival, athletic, and social skill sets and activities far more interesting that abstract reasoning skills such as mathematics, accounting, and the scientific process. We have such terrible long-term discipline that cultures around the world must seek to chide and chivvy us to place our long-range priorities before our much more appealing prospects for short-term gratification.

What if we could make math as innately appealing as sports, adventure, or combat. What if we could make long-term gratification as emotionally attractive as instant satisfaction?

Sexual orientation appears to be heavily influenced by exposure to androgen hormones while in the womb. Imagine if we could make similar changes later in life. What if individuals could reassign their orientation? What if others could force them to change their orientation?

What if we could make everyone a synesthete, linking sense such as sight and hearing to produce a rich cross-sensory experiences that have so far been the privilege of a tiny few?

And then there are the savant talents: Can we extend eidetic memory, super-human math calculation, and innate artistic talents to all of humanity via magnetic stimulation of the brain or gene engineering. What are the ethics of eliminating the the varieties of mental retardation common in males and associated with having only a single active copy of the x-chromosome. What would be the morality of eliminating Downs Syndrome.

The list goes on and on of all that we might alter about ourselves. Oddly enough, science fiction writers seem to have been reluctant discussing changing human nature in the context of human evolution. Or for that matter, the existence of a human nature rooted in genes, innate nuerobiological structures, and primate brains of the past.

Next up: The biological paradigm of the mind in science fiction (yes, this time for real!)

Gothic steampunk...

...from Denmark's The Raveonettes.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Europe's super volcano and the Neanderthal extinction

Last year I wrote a redemptive short story set in the Western United States after an eruption of the Yellowstone volcano--an event modeled on Yellowstone's most recent "mega-colossal" eruption of six-hundred-forty-thousand-years ago. In this story, the Central United States has been smothered under a meter of abrasive volcanic ash, and the world is struggling through the third year of an unbroken volcanic winter. Human civilization continues to limp along only because of the widespread use of space program technology originally developed for permanent settlements on the Moon and Mars.

I read dozens of papers on "super volcanoes" while researching for this story. Of particular interest were articles on the eighteen-or-so super events that have taken place during the past two million years. Of these, one of the most fascinating but frustrating to research was the eruption of Italy's Campi Flegrei.

Most people are aware that the city of Naples is imperiled by its close proximity to Mt. Vesuvius, which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79. Not so commonly known is that the city is also located adjacent to Europe's only active super volcano. Around thirty-nine to thirty-five-thousand-years ago, the Campi Flegrei erupted over five hundred cubic kilometers of rhyolitic ash in a caldera-forming event that must have devastated downwind regions in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, and lead to a dramatic climatic shift.

This was also the period during which anatomically and behaviorally modern Homo sapiens first entered Europe. At the time the continent was already inhabited by the Neanderthals.

How Europe came to be settled exclusively by modern humans has been a subject of much debate. It's still not known if Homo sapiens out competed, out bred, or directly killed off Homo neanderthalensis, or if they absorbed some of them through interbreeding. So it was frustrating to read about the eruption of Campi Flegrei during this time and to find out there was almost no information about the volcano's impact on the region's hominid populations.

Now, however, there is new evidence in the form of ash layers and tool deposits in Russian caves. These findings suggest that Flegrei's Campanian Ignimbrite super-eruption played an important role in depopulating portions of Europe and clearing the way for the first influx of modern humans.

If true, this would help to make sense of how Homo sapiens were finally able to displace the Neanderthals, as an earlier Neanderthal presence in the Middle East appears to have kept our ancestors bottled up in Africa for tens of thousands of years. When we finally undertook our first successful migration out of our home-continent, it was south along the coastline of the Arabian Peninsula, skirting the areas inhabited by Homo neanderthalensis at the time.

Campi Flegrei is not the first super volcano to have shaped our species. The earlier and far more devastating eruption of Indonesia's Lake Toba around seventy-five-thousand-years ago appears to have nearly exterminated the human race, and may have left survivors in scattered pockets that were isolated for thousands of years. Depending on if and how far humankind had migrated out of Africa at the time, these groups of separated survivors may have been the ancestors of the first distinct racial groups.

In other words, prior to the Toba event it's likely that all humans possessed a single skin color.

Regardless if our species had left Africa or not, the signs of a population bottleneck from this period are written within our genome. When Toba erupted and triggered a years-long volcanic winter, our numbers and those of other mammals such as elephants and lions plummeted. This left the tell-tale genetic signs of gene selections from large populations suddenly suddenly sectioned into small survivor groups.

As an aside, I don't lose sleep fretting over Yellowstone. No one knows if the volcano is currently cooling off or heating up, just as no one knows what the exact saturation states of the magma in the chambers immediately below the park are.

Super volcanoes depend on intrusions of gas-poor basalt lava from below, which then melts the continental crust and forms caches of gas-rich explosive rhyolitic magma--explosive in the frothy sense that a shaken up can of soda has the potential to jet out it's contents if opened. As the Yellowstone hotspot has already generated three caldera forming eruptions at its current location, it is entirely possible that it has exhausted the ability of the bedrock there to produce more gas-saturated rhyolitic magma. In the six hundred thousand years since the last super volcano scale eruption, it has only erupted large quantities of basalt and some gas-poor rhyolitic lava.

Or it may be saturated enough at this very moment for one final colossal event. Even if there is enough saturated and cystalized rhyolitic magma present, we do not understand the mechanism that causes it to shift from a stable state into volatile chain reaction.

The potential super volcano that I am most curious about at present is the steadily swelling Iwo-Jima caldera several hundred of miles off the southern coast of Japan. Within this volcano, the island of Iwo-Jima has been uplifted over one hundred twenty meters (approximately three hundred sixty feet) during the past four hundred years. The location where the US Marines first landed during the famous and bloody assault on the island of Iwo-Jima is now twenty meters (sixty feet) above sea level.




Further reading for those who are interested:

Campi Flegrei

* Volcanism and the Mantle, Campi Flegrei. This research paper contains maps and photos of the half-submerged Italian caldera's geology and placement.

The present-day Campi Flegrei is of particular interest not only because it is inhabited, but also due to its restlessness. During the 1970s portions of the caldera floor rose by two meters (six feet), and another 1.8 meters of uplift during the early 80s resulted in the temporary evacuation of twenty-thousand townspeople. Europe's youngest mountain also stands at the center of the caldera, erected there during an eruptive period in the 1500s.

Yellowstone

* Monitoring super-volcanoes: geophysical and geochemical signals at Yellowstone and other large caldera systems. A previously cited, easy-to-read and very informative Royal Society paper on Yellowstone and the difficulties in monitoring known super voclanoes to determine if a large-scale eruption is imminent. Also includes is a clear history and good maps of past activity.

* Radiating Volcanic Migrations: An example from the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A.. A research paper detailing how the emergence of the Yellowstone hotpot on the Nevada-Oregon border accompanied a transformation that radically altered the shape of much of Western North America. Good maps of major associated volcanic activity and the volcano's migration on page three, four, and five.

The video below shows the stretching and thinning of the Western United States' continental crust driven by its collision with the northward moving Pacific plate. This collision and stretching first began shortly--in a geologic sense--before the Yellowstone hot spot first emerged. Interestingly, both the Yellowstone and Newberry volcanic hotspots as well as the chain of rifts that buried much of the Pacific Northwest under layers of basalt lava all appeared at the center point of this stretch over a two million year period.



* Mantel Plumes.org. A site with articles written by geologists debating the existence of mantel plumes. Some scientists believe that Yellowstone and other volcanoes that have persisted for millions of years are the products of heat plumes rising from deep within the Earth's mantel. Others believe that these are localized hot spots formed by interactions between the upper lithospheric layer and the mantel beneath it.

* The fate of the Juan de Fuca plate: Implications for a
Yellowstone plume head
. The Pacific Northwest region of United States and Southern Canada is currently overriding an oceanic plate that is subducting beneath the North American continent. In this journal article, two geologist argue that they have empirical evidence that suggests that the subducted oceanic plate beneath Eastern Oregon was destroyed by the arrival of the Yellowstone plume, seventeen million years ago.

* Upper-mantle origin of the Yellowstone hotspot. A research a paper written by two USGS scientists and a University of Durham professor arguing that there is no empirical data for a mantel plume beneath Yellowstone.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The military, sustainable energy,...

...and economies of scale

A hopeful Slate article on how the military's drive to adopt alternative energy sources could provide the necessary economies of scale to make such technologies widely affordable on the civilian market--as was the case with microprocessors and data processing computers this last century.

The military has looked at alternatives to fossil fuels before, but both cost and the fragility of the devices precluded adopting any of these technologies. However, the decreased price as well as increased reliability and efficiency of devices such as solar recharges in recent years has made the wide-spread deployment of alternative power sources a very real possibility.

And a much desired one.

The petroleum needed to power vehicles and combat platforms of all stripes has an enormous dollar cost. The above article cites the current money price of moving gasoline to the remote areas of Afghanistan at $400 per gallon (roughly $1600 per liter). Then there is the enormous logistical footprint of tanker ships and trucks required to move fuel. Any technology that can generate power on site has the potential to shrink the logistics network, and having fewer transport vehicles is a key component of making units agiler and easy to maneuver, both on land and at sea.

So here's hoping that these technologies work in the field as well as help to speed the widespread adoption of alternative power at home.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

It's very cool...

...how the discovery of a semi Earth-like planet has grabbed people's imaginations

Future explorers could reach the Earthlike planet Zarmina in just 6.1 years

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

High-end cyber weapon

So someone has written and deployed a very complex, mutating malware weapon designed to damage or destroy specific infrastructure equipment.

Stuxnet

There are a number things about the escalating level of cybenetic attacks taking place that worry me.

1) It's a form of combat taking place in civilian environs around the world. It's playing out in banks, power grids, as well as in several nations' national industrial infrastructure.

2) Insanely enough, major infrastructure devices here in the US are accessible via the internet. Power plants, dams, oil derricks, ATM networks, emergency service systems, have all been infiltrated, in a few instances attacked. A coordinated attack several regional power networks or dams could result in physical damage and major economic losses that would take months if not years to recover from. Amazingly, the private sector continues to drag its feet and resist taking steps to protect critical systems.

3) It's difficult to distinguish criminal activity from espionage or military attacks

3) It's extremely easy for events to escalate. An incident between two nation-states can quickly result in attacks by nationalist civilian hackers on each side.

4) Once malware is out on the internet it can spread quickly to non-targeted systems

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Literary science fiction and big ideas

So why bother writing science fiction that incorporates big ideas from philosophy or science? After all, this is a genre that's become much more character driven over the past twenty years. And why take a chance on bogging down the narrative by salting in the necessary explanations to communicate those concepts? Then there is the extra effort required while world building to ensure that the important ideas not only reflect in the shape of the protagonist's life, but in the immediate choices that he or she faces.

After all, book sales continue to decline along with the advances that authors depend upon. So it's almost madness to undertake anything that runs the risk of distracting readers from a tight-paced narrative or that might give an editor pause.

Well, one reason to take a chance on big ideas is that there is an audience for them. One that you can make good money from, if you use your important concepts well.

For example, research that you've been doing on cutting-edge DNA reclamation techniques could end up becoming a novel inspired by the idea of "what if we could us these technologies to harvest the preserved DNA of dinosaurs and bring them back to life...in a nature park!"

A crazy notion to be sure, but sometimes best seller material in practice.

Having said that, it's not easy to sell concept- or technology-driven novels to editors. Even a brief look at the some of the best selling, ground-breaking idea-based novels revels that it's sometimes necessary for pioneering authors to make an end run around the gate keepers.

* Dune. Frank Herbert ended up going to an automotive manual publisher to get his novel of ecology, social engineering, and messianic religion into print.

* Tom Clancy. Both Clancy and Larry Bond, the founders of the techno-thriller had to go through the Naval Institute Press in order to get the first novels in that genre published.

* Daemon and Freedom™. Daniel Suarez could not get his near future novels about programing, robotics, and artificial intelligence picked up by traditional publishing houses at first. With some savvy PR work and self-publishing his story went on to become a recent multi-million best seller that was eventually picked up by Penguin.

Personally, I'm hoping not to have to go that route with my first novel. Having won a major industry writing contest and with several short stories going out the door this month, I'm plan on having my foot as firmly as possible in the door when I start shopping out my first novel later this year. But as with all things, we will see. I believe that I've got a good book-length story to sell, but it does approach human augmentation, biotechnology war, and the social responses to changing technology from within the larger perspective of humanity's biological and cultural evolution.

I think that people will be interested in these ideas. In recent years we've learned a lot about who we are as a species from our genes and the observed functionality of our brains, even as we continue to develop technologies to alter these building blocks of the self. And of course the pitfalls and opportunities made possible by such changes will give rise to a matrix of individual and social tensions.

Which is another reason to write science fiction that incorporates big ideas. To take part as an author in the Great Dialog between science, philosophy, and society. After all, fiction writers are a part of the chain of dissemination that moves ideas from laboratories, engineering test facilities, and the halls of academia into the into spheres of culture and public perception. Whether it's encapsulating the concepts of ecology in a dramatic narrative set on a desert planet, explaining how DNA might be reconstituted from unusual sources, or showcasing the synergy of technology and people in a military environment, we are often the transmitters of new ideas. Our playground in doing so is the intersection point of dilemmas within individuals where the changing worlds of the natural sciences, technology, speculative ideas, and culture meet.

Next up. The biological paradigm in science fiction: distortions, misconceptions, and the New Humanism

Monday, September 27, 2010