Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Space-time

When people speak of manipulating the topologies of space in speculative fiction films or books, this is the kind of thing that I see in my head.



One of my favorite books to invoke warping space into alternative shapes is Greg Bear's 1985 hard science fiction novel, Eon.



Set in an alternative early 2000s in which a declining Soviet Union clings to existence, the book details the exploration of seven-chambered asteroid that appeared from out of nowhere and inserted itself into a near earth orbit. The seventh chamber turns out to be infinite, a cylinder of warped space-time wrapped around the thread of a naked singularity and extending past what should be the end of the asteroid.

Known as the the Way, the endless seventh chamber also touches upon other continuums of space, and portals can be opened between them.

While not an award winner or widely read in literary science fiction circles, Eon is one of the most influential speculative novels of my youth for both its scope and the partially post-human society that lurks a million kilometers down the axis of the seventh corridor.

Early on in the book it's revealed that asteroid's chambers and cities were constructed by humans from a thousand years in the future--distant decedents whose ancestors survived a limited nuclear exchange between the Cold War super powers. An exchange that should have taken place around the time that the asteroid arrived in orbit. The human cities of the asteroid are empty when the first explorers arrive, but after an important mathematician is kidnapped while investigating the machinery that sustains the seventh chamber, an expedition is launched and eventually the fate of the asteroid's builders is revealed.

And that fate is one of the best realized depictions of an optimistic path of development for our species. One that I would still like to see realized in our future.

The society is a liberal democracy in which bodies and minds can all be re-shaped with technology. Many humans retain their original forms with only minor mental augmentation while others are dedicated Luddites without enhancement. Many have abandoned the human form completely and enjoy both boosted intellects and an expanded range of emotions. Additionally, the dead live on in the axis-mounted city's memory system as active software entities, while partial copies of personalities are sometimes dispatched to act as agents for VIPs.

This was my first exposure to the idea of how intimately our minds and personalities are shaped by the brains that generate them. It was also the first exploration that I had read of how we might chose to reshape ourselves if we had the power to reprogram our psyches. What would we make of ourselves, and what kind of societal tensions would exists between the various factions that came out of those choices? How would history cast its shadow over all of this.

While the mind and the brain are out of fashion at the moment in literary science fiction, we live in an age in which the functions and evolutionary context of the brain are rapidly being resolved by gestalt of scientific disciplines. It's also a time in which we are developing the machine interface and gene manipulation technologies that will let us plug into and alter the gray matter that makes us what and who we are.

Evolution has shaped us to its own purposes through the demands of individual and social survival and the contingent compromises of wetware engineering. At the same time it's also given rise to minds and cultures that looks past those demands and that have created technological societies that bear a decreased resemblance to the lives of our ancestors, for both good and bad.

These are issues that are worth investigating as we move towards a future in which we will be able to change the parameters of our nature and even where our individual personalities lie within that continuum. If you haven't read it yet and you enjoy hard, well-written science fiction, Eon is a good place to start pondering all of this.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cyber Stride

I've picked up my first professional copywriter gig (part time) with Cyber Stride, LLC, an applications and e-commerce software development company. It's been fun collaboratively developing a personable business market voice for the company blog. That and to ditch the dry academic writing style and all of the bad academic habits I acquired this past year while finishing up my degree at Portland State.

It's also sublimely nice just to be making money while writing. In a bizarre reversal, my hunt for a post-graduation day job has failed badly, but putting text on the screen is bringing in revenue. And there are more paid writing prospects in the offing. Here's hoping they go through.

Who knows. I might end up using writing to support my dream job of being a neighborhood coffee shop barista...

OK. Maybe not. There's still this whole fix-literary-science-fiction thing to take care of first.

My current articles on the Cyber Stride site are under Social Networking and Mobile Platform blogs.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Solar-Powered Marines See Big Gains In Afghanistan : All Tech Considered : NPR

Solar-Powered Marines See Big Gains In Afghanistan : All Tech Considered : NPR

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out in the long-haul, and great if it works. As mentioned earlier here the ability to generate power in place equals a lighter, more agile force that is less road-bound.

People who used to read science fiction 3: Screen time

For former readers the screen provides the quickest and most popular fix for speculative-fiction cravings. Whether movie theater projections, television plasma or LEDs, or on computer displays, science fiction thrives at twenty-four to thirty frames per second.



Specialized cable channels are where ex-consumers of literary science fiction seem to log most of their television spec-fic hours. While Battlestar Galactic feels like it's drawn a mixed following divided along ideological lines, Dr. Who's British Time Lord invasion is ridiculously popular with past book buyers. To the point where I'm starting feel a vague sense of embarrassment at not having watched a single episode while at social gatherings or cons.

The durability of Stargate and its spin-offs also offer a strong refutation to the argument that science fiction has declined because of a lack of public interests. Having said that, I haven't met too many former original literary SF fans who follow that series.

Network television has been somewhat problematic for SF, with quality series suffering cancellation after cancellation while trying to break into mainstream slots. Shows such as Firefly, The Doll House, and Futurama have all folded or achieved zombie-like existences in limited runs or other media such as comic books. Still these series have achieved popularity or at least a certain cachet with former readers.



Despite its supposed decline decline as genre, science fiction also continues to sell films. While hard SF or space operas are uncommon, movies like Inception, District Nine, and the revived Star Trek continue to fill movie houses and even draw the occasional Oscar nomination or other critical accolades. Meanwhile mainstream commercial franchises featuring elements of speculative fiction like the newest Tron and Transformer films regularly hit block-buster status.

Oh yeah. There was also that whole Avatar thing too.

In cinema, former science fiction readers seem to gravitate to films with intellectual heft. In other words films about ideas. Along with the brainier of the above-mentioned movies, smaller indie films are much loved. π(Pi), Dark City, A Scanner Darkly, are all likely to come up in conversation, as well as border-line spec fic films Donnie Darko and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Films of course sell millions of tickets and copies. Sales in the millions are also common for science fiction video games. The console and the PC are where science fiction truly seems to flourish among our lost readership.



While stylized or atmospheric first-person shooters such as Borderlands and Bioshock are popular destinations, Bioware's Mass Effect really and truly has been the Star Wars of this past decade. It certainly seems to occupy the same piece of cultural terrain for Generation Y that George Lucas'trilogy did for Gen X.

On a personal note, I'll admit to liking Mass Effect not just for it's popularity with former readers or the brilliance of its writing, but also for its broad reach. People who aren't normally into science fiction love this game, and references to its characters and scenes frequently appear across the online world and in overheard conversations.

Next up: Fantasy novels, young adult, and where original literary science fiction should have gone.

Best. Clockwork. Orange. Ever

Also, totally not suitable for work. Then again, if you're familiar with either the Anthony Burgess novel or the Stanley Kubrick film version you probably knew that.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Why we love bad writing - Laura Miller

Why we love bad writing - Laura Miller - Salon.com

I'm having a good time working my way through Martin Millar's urban fantasy novel Lonely Werewolf Girl. While the writing is not bad by any means, Millar is another example of an author who violates the conventions that we learn in writing workshops and critique circles.

Namely the whole showing versus telling thing.



His novels are almost entirely telling. Sometimes it's a disembodied neutral narration of events. Often it's one character explaining what just happened off camera to another.

Even when action is actually playing out, Martin shamelessly jumps points of view between characters. Sometimes in the same paragraph.

And it works.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I'd love to see a remake of 2001.

It's got brilliant concepts and some iconic moments, but the pacing makes it inaccessible to most Non-Boomers.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Fiction must make sense on some level as it unfolds. Life, no.

John P. Wheeler III, 1944-2010 - TIME.com

Often life defies our attempts to lay down narratives on top of it even as we pass through it. However we feel that things that should work out, however we think that some should be rewarded and others cast down, life plays out as it will.



I first realized this when reading Rick Atkinson's biographic history of West Point's class of 1966 during the early 90s. The Long Gray Line was an unusual literary excursion for me then--a strange departure from fantasy or science fiction or my early flirtation with history and East Asian philosophy.

Following a handful of cadets as they confronted the challenges of the US Military Academy and then graduated into the maelstrom of Vietnam quickly disabused me of the assumption that our lives are destined to turn out happy. The hard years that followed on the pages as the survivors and their wives struggled to recover while either working to build meaningful lives outside the Army or reform the broken institution from within gave testimony to the grim fact that not all of us will find a way to put our ideals into effective practice amidst the world's chaos.

Some do. Like a few in the book, a handful succeed either through innate personality or an odd combination of persistence and flexibility. Others fail early, whether from brutal external intrusions like combat or personal shortcomings. These individuals are either left as broken souls or quite simply dead. As with many of the men and women in Atkinson's book, most seem to find themselves at some point in their lives wondering what happened. How did they come to this place, and how did they fall so short of their dreams?

Many of these individuals eventually reconcile to this state and see it as a hard won wisdom--the pragmatic truth that life is what it is as opposed to the naivety of ones early adult years. Others break at this later point and join the shattered individuals who never left their 20s as whole beings.

Ideals it would seem lift some, illuminate others, and often crush those who hold mostly tightly to them. For better and for worse ideals seem to slip through the fingers of most people as the years go by.

Originally I had picked up the Long Gray Line because my best friend had left for West Point that summer, and I wanted to understand something of what he was about to experience. I got that and more. Atkinson's work shows of a microcosm of a society enduring a war and the turmoil of a massive cultural transition. It explains much about my father's generation of officers and the transformation of the armed forces that my early life played out on the sidelines of during the 70s and 80s. It certainly offers a unique look at the war that those of us born in the US during the 1970s grew up in the shadow of.

Ironically enough, in depicting the entropy of life The Long Gray Line helped me to make sense of it. In describing war it gave me a sense of value for how much I had, as well as a perspective of life beyond that of a child of suburban prosperity.

It's certainly not a book without flaws. Beautifully written and comprehensive in scope, it is still very much a product of the period that it was originally published in. In my opinion its conclusions about the Vietnam war are typical of that time and reflect a simplistic and narrow view of the world. On the other hand, it certainly describes the prevalent view back then

It's a book that I come back to every few years. I usually pull it off the shelf curious to compare my life with those of the men and women within it. And always I end up seeing those lives in a new light at each stage of my own.

This time it was a headline on my browser's homepage that drew me to the book: An announcement that Jack Wheeler whose roller coaster life forms one of the book's major narrative threads had been found dead at a landfill in Delaware. That was jarring a shock. One of the individuals who had successfully worked so hard for a national memorial to honor the neglected dead apparently has had his own body desecrated in turn.

At this point in life I no longer feel an immediate need to put such tragedies into perspective. That will come in time. Either the years or some new information will place the bizarre ending into a larger context. Some lives, like some deaths and some books, take decades to understand.

Monday, January 03, 2011

2010: Music

I don't listen to music while writing, but it still influences my keyboard time. Melody and beat and tone form a landscape of emotions that serves as motivation to turn characters and their lives into descriptions on ink and paper.

For me the year started out with a return to 90s sensibilities.



Which included listening to lots of Shoegazer music.



An updated form of electric blues with indie leanings rocked and rocked hard





It was also the year that I finally got Sleater-Kinney. Previously I was not a fan. Something about high-octave girly voices does not work for me. But a desire to like one of the quintessential icons of Portland music drove me to give them several tries. Finally my ears started to appreciate just how skilled these performers were with their guitars and how much they rocked in an 80s pop sense. Uninhibited and playful, but with intelligent lyrics.



Finally it was also a year of electronica and Chill. In someways electronic has become my go-to genre, the type that I'm most likely to put of after coming in the door.