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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Galactic Philadelphia

December 15, 2017 Leave a comment

Last Tuesday, on December 12, I attending a reading called Galactic Philadelphia and wrote some reflections on it while the reading was happening. Reading that evening were authors Tom Doyle and Fran Wilde, and I can say that they both did fantastic jobs and I recommend buying and reading their books.

Anyway, on with my reflections:

So I’m sitting here listening to Tom Doyle read from the prologue of his new book, War and Craft, the third in his trilogy. I’m in the basement of an Irish Pub on Walnut street, across from Rittenhouse Square (it’s called Irish Pub, by the way, and I love that). This is an event for Galactic Philadelphia, which is kind of like an event for writers of science fiction or fantasy to do readings of their works. It’s the first time I’ve ever done sometihng like this, and it’s interesting to meet new people who have the same passion for sci-fi that I have.

There are a lot of people here who write science fiction–some as amateurs, and some as Grand Masters, like Sam Delany, who is sitting at a table very close to me. Michael Swanwick is also here. You know, it’s funny–in Michigan we just didn’t have these kinds of things with such legendary writers from where I was from. Once I got to see John Scalzi at a reading at Schuler Books & Music in East Lansing once, but it was a one-off event.

This event is a product of living in a city like Philadelphia. And I suppose that moving here, taking a chance, was worth it just for that. I mean, it was like a twenty minute walk to get here from my house, and it’s a pretty straight short with a few 90-degree turns. I guess to some extent I’m still getting used to living in a city where this is possible. A short walk to science fiction.

And I think to a large extent this is the kind of thing I’ve always wanted from life. I don’t think that I could ever have imagined that, when I met Anastasia in the science fiction class that Eric Rabkin taught, that I would have ended up here. Maybe this is where I was meant to belong this entire time. I really like that thought, and I really like the idea of spending time with such creative, intelligent people.

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NaNoWriMo 2017: A Success

December 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Do you know what I like best about National Novel Writing Month? It really forces me to take the time to sit down and get a new idea out of my head and on paper. Well, not really paper but you get the idea. So far I’ve managed to get out four novels of at least 50,000 words. They’re not complete by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re really good starts for ideas that I’ve wanted to develop for years. Life gets in the way sometimes, you know?

I have a notebook full of ideas that I want to develop into novels or short stories, and the latest story I wrote from NaNoWriMo was taken from it. I think I’m up to 67 ideas that I’ve come up with? Either way, if I come up with an idea that I think is worth remembering and developing, and I don’t have time to work on it right then, I write it down in that notebook to get back to later. I called it “Zombie Projects,” because they’ll come back from the dead some day.

After two years of not participating in NaNoWriMo I managed to hit the 50,000 word mark on my fourth novel, and I did it in about 28 days. Technically it is actually 21 days since I didn’t write for seven of the days for various reasons. I finished the contest on November 28, with no small amount of relief. I really do love to do this, but it’s a lot of stress and pressure, and I always end up writing many more than 50,000 words because I will completely rewrite entire sections, which means that I probably came closer to writing 75,000 words in 21 days.

The story I wrote–and am currently in the process of writing, still–is called The Road That Leads Home. If you want to see the details of the novel as they exist on my NaNoWriMo profile, you can click here. There’s a brief synopsis (which needs to be updated a bit), and a rough draft excerpt of one of the important parts of the novel.

So what is it about? Well, I had this idea to write a science fiction novel about a half-human / half-alien girl who had to grow up on Earth, surrounded by people who hated her for merely being only half-human. For the longest time I had no idea how to approach it, but two things really fell into place that helped to finally launch it. The first was attending a panel at the science fiction convention Escape Velocity, in which one of the panelists asked if we could get into touch with the “other” within ourselves in way that doesn’t honor our humanity or humanism, but changes and transforms us. In other science fiction aliens embrace the human within them or human ideals to resolve conflicts of identity.

Take, for instance, Commander Spock from Star Trek. His cold, logical alien demeanor is constantly pitted against the empathetic humanism of Doctor McCoy. Conflicts between them, and those of identity that Spock experiences personally, are often resolved by Spock getting in touch with his human side, and holding as a virtue the ideals of humanism. It seems as if Spock needs to abandon his alien parts. Aliens in science fiction are meant to destabilize our own identities, to throw our own views of ourselves into question. We can use them to analyze our behavior and our philosophies, but because we think so inwardly when we think of aliens we never really imagine something truly alien.

My story was not an attempt to imagine something truly alien, but to look at the development of Spock and say, “Huh. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a character who specifically rejected humanity and humanism?” Could we maybe use that as a way to move beyond self-congratulatory–even conceited–celebrations of humanity and explore someone coming to terms with their identity by embracing the otherness within them?

So how do I get there? The second thing that fell into place was attending a lecture by N. Katherine Hayles called “Why We Are Still Posthuman.” I had heard of posthumanism before, but never really explored it in depth apart from one aspect of it called transhumanism. This lecture really helped me to connect to dots that led me to develop the central conceit of The Road That Leads Home. Being human is contingent; it’s an historical and cultural construct. What a human is, and what it takes to be one, changes over time–it’s constantly in flux. Humanism is often constructing and bounded–in the world we live in now, one with cyborgs and Google Glass and other technological wonders, our definition of what makes a human is expanding every day and we’re not even aware of it.

So I wanted to write a story that deconstructs the boundaries in humanism, exposes its limitations and its prejudices, and tries to find something beyond it. In my novel, humans don’t really react well to that, and why should they? They’re being asked to abandon the idea that they have a special place in the universe, or that there’s something special about them in their very nature. The very existence of my protagonist is one that is a threat to them and any philosophy that puts humans front and center.

What’s funny is that this is happening today, even as you read these words. It’s unavoidable, and as we explore the impacts of technoscience on how we imagine ourselves and our place in the world. The emergence of new technologies that connect us to each other via social media changed us. The medical science that allows for organ transplantation changed us. The fact that we acknowledge the sentience and intelligence–not to mention rights–of animals besides ourselves is changing us. And this will only accelerate as time goes on. Humanism will not be able to keep up with that, which is why posthuman schools of thought (like transhumanism, for instance) are becoming more attractive to greater numbers of people.

We’re entering a brave new world. I think we should embrace it.

Before I close out this post, I want to include a small excerpt from my current rough draft of The Road That Leads Home. It’s written to be like a biography / autobiography, sourced from different types of media and put together to form a narrative of the life of my protagonist. Her name is Freya Jameson, and the excerpt is televised interview between a journalist and Freya’s fully human brother, Scott. Please keep in mind that this is a rough draft, and as yet contains rather blunt, unsubtle references and language–I’ll clear that up later. I just wanted to get the general scene written.


Charles: Welcome back to Detroit News Now. Sitting with me in the studio is the brother of Freya H’val r’ Earth’van, a member of the first generation of Human Hybrids. Scott, thank you for agreeing to speak with us today.

Scott: No problem, Charles. I’m happy to clear things about and set the record straight.

Charles: It’s good that we’re launching right into this, because I have a hard question right off the bat. What happened to Freya?

Scott: Can you clarify? Lots of things happened to Freya.

Charles: Why did she renounce her humanity and leave Earth?

Scott: Because she wasn’t human.

Charles: It’s a matter of record that she was a Human Hybrid. Her father—

Scott: Let me stop you right there, Chuck. Can I call you Chuck? You call her a Human Hybrid, not a human. Her whole life she was essentially told ‘you’re not really human.’ And people act surprised when she finally agrees with them?

Charles: Don’t you think that’s a little unfair? Not everyone feels that way about them.

Scott: No, absolutely not. You might not have directly caused her harm, but you are part of a media organization that breathlessly and repeatedly reported on the so-called ‘Hybrid Crime Wave.’ Don’t deny it, Chuck. For years you could turn the news on and the first thing you would see is one of your anchors reporting on some minor crime by one of the desperate people that were rejected out of hand by our society, next to some scary graphics, as if they were out in gangs, roaming the streets, murdering people.

Charles: The reporting on those crimes was problematic, yes, but that doesn’t—

Scott: Don’t give me that. You can lie to yourself, but we both know what it was. Tell me, Chuck, did you have to clean up your sister’s busted lip after some jerk broke it open with a rock to the mouth? Did you have to endure the scorn of other people merely for having a sister that was a little different? Did your grandparents tell you that they wish you had died in the womb? Don’t tell me this isn’t about how much we pushed her to that.

Charles: So you’re saying that she blames everyone but herself for what happened to her.

Scott: Excuse me? I’m sorry, it sounded like you were implying that Freya was responsible for what we did to her. Are you going to blame her for almost being raped next?

Charles: What I’m saying is that we know she was radicalized at some point in her early twenties. There is evidence that, for a time, she advocated for violent separation from the human race for all Hybrid Humans. Are you denying that she became a public danger?

Scott: Absolutely. See, this is so like you [censored]. She didn’t advocate for a violent separation, and that you’re still claiming that tells me you never actually cared to listen to her.

Charles: Well, then, tell us, Scott. What did she advocate for? What did she mean by, ‘we must free ourselves of the shackles of humanism, forced on us against our will by circumstance of birth. This isn’t a struggle for human rights—a racist term—it’s a struggle for the rights of all thinking and feeling creatures in this Silver River. There will come a time when we all must ask ourselves if we prefer benevolent subjugation under the yoke of humanism or the bullet.’

Scott: Can you finish that quote, please?

Charles: Don’t you want to answer that?

Scott: If you don’t want to finish the quote, I will.

Charles: Answer my question. What did she mean by that?

Scott: I’ll finish the quote.

Charles: Answer my question.

Scott: Don’t interrupt, Chuck. That’s rude. Here we go: ‘…humanism or the bullet. If we can’t free ourselves of the chains imposed upon us by those who would call us Hybrid Humans while denying our humanity, we must cease to be that which we are now, and through the violent revolution of the self, set out on our own. Henry David Thoreau once said that ‘we need the tonic of wildness,’ and I am here to tell you my brothers and sisters of common heritage that we are athirst of home, country, and community. We need to drink of the tonic of wildness and discover our own country in the stars.’ Where do you see a call for violent separation of the human race?

Charles: She literally mentioned a bullet.

Scott: Obviously a reference to Malcolm X’s speech ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’ The second part of the quote, which you refused to read to your audience—which I find both unethical and dishonest—gave it context. She wasn’t talking about a violent overthrow of government or attacking people in the streets. She was talking about a radical reinvention of the self, embracing the otherness that had for so long been forced on her by us. She said, ‘if we’re to be dismissed as other, let us embrace the otherness. Let us show them it won’t be an albatross around our necks, but an identity. We’ll define ourselves as other than human. I’ll define myself as other than h’tro. What will you drop in order to embrace the otherness in you?’

Charles: And you don’t see how that makes her look bad? You don’t see how that might turn people against her? Doesn’t that, in actuality, confirm people’s feelings about her?

Scott: Do you know what Freya would say to that?

Charles: Please enlighten me.

Scott: She would say that what they fear the most, what they find the most repulsive, is that she turned her back on them—on humanism—and embraced something foreign and strange. It was a rejection of the very thing that they denied her, that they constantly told her she wasn’t good enough to possess. It’s not about her, Chuck. It’s about them. It’s about you and me, and your audience sitting at home. They constantly said that Freya wasn’t like them. All she did was embrace that.


Thank you for reading!

Book Review: Artemis by Andy Weir

December 4, 2017 2 comments

I have to start this book review with a confession: I almost missed a typo in the title. I wrote “Andy Weird” instead of “Andy Weir,” and it never even crossed my mind that “Weird” was wrong.

Artemis by Andy Weir had a lot of expectations to live up to. Weir’s first book, The Martian, was something of a sensation. It was so popular, in fact, that they made a movie based on the book that was actually pretty great. I was a huge fan of both the book and the movie, so I was looking forward to reading Artemis. So much so, in fact, that I took a trip with my fiancee to New York City to attend the official book launch, which you can read about here.

Like always, be prepared for spoilers in my review. If you don’t like spoilers, I don’t recommend reading any further.

The moon’s a mean old bitch.

Artemis is a book about a city on the moon, named Artemis, designed in painstaking detail by Weir to be as realistic as possible. One has to admire the world-building of this book, with details ranging from the way that they deal with the moon’s regolith to the way the economy works in the city. Any aspiring author would do well to read this book for the world building alone. Weir provides a masterclass in thinking about all of the small, day-to-day issues that most people wouldn’t imagine, and he puts them into the narrative with such breathtaking ease that you might be tempted to think that he didn’t work that hard at it at all.

The first few pages of the book have detailed maps of the lunar surface where the city exists, complete with the train lines that take people to the Apollo 11 landing site, the reactors, and the smelting plant. I’ve always appreciated these kinds of maps in science fiction stories. Typically, they’re present in epic high fantasy, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. When you’re writing a book in which the setting itself is a character in the story, maps help bring the story to life, so it’s greatly appreciated and this earns the book a bunch of points.

I think the book suffers from a plot that seems tacked-on, in some instances. The conclusion and resolution aren’t entirely believable, and I have issues with the way the economy works, or could even transition at the conclusion of the story. I suppose that this is a hazard when you design the setting and build the world, and then add a plot to it later. There’s one specific place where there is a conflict between characters that comes up at a really odd time and feels extremely forced onto the story. The book is also on the short side, coming in at only 305 pages. I don’t usually say this, but given the subject of the book, as well as the intricate detail needed to really make it believable, a hundred or so more pages could have fleshed out a lot of the plot and the characters, and improved the overall quality of the book.

Another small issue that I have is Weir’s use of the interrobang. I’ve talked about this before, in my review of Dan Brown’s Inferno, but I think it bears repeating here: if you use the interrobang, use it once and no more. This is a personal issue, but I think when an author overuses the interrobang (and Weir uses it three times that I can remember, twice on the same page), it feels like the author is getting lazy. I think I would put this under a “show, don’t tell” problem in the writing.

Perhaps the biggest issue was the fact that, despite the fact that it is a really good book on the whole, some of it just seems so cliche. It’s like a hard-boiled detective noir that’s drowning in hard-boiled detective noir cliches, filled with cigar smoke and long legs and dames in red dresses and whiskey. At one point the administrator of Artemis takes out a gun (which are strictly forbidden for obvious KABOOMY reasons) and gets tricked into revealing something by that main character, Jasmine Bashara. To some extent these cliches are unavoidable because the book reads very much like a Western on the Moon. Hey–that should be a genre on its own.

The Gizmos did whatever magic shit computers do to identify each other and verify.

There is a golden rule of science fiction: don’t explain. There are hard science fiction stories where the science and technology are the raison d’etre of the story, but in most cases, people don’t care about a thorough and plausible explanation of technology in the narrative. We don’t read stories for that reason, and if they wanted to know about that, they could read a technical manual or journal.

Weir, thankfully, follows this rule closely. He uses a combination of narrative exposition and character perspective to fill in the blanks about technology, culture, and science. And that’s really the only knowledge that the reader needs to get through the story. I tend to be a picky reader, but I am perfectly fine with that, and I’ll let the author get away with not knowing how everything works as long as it is internally consistent and the plot and characters are good.

Artemis strikes a good balance between the hard sciences that explain how the city functions and the people live in it and the plot. This is sort of Weir’s specialty, though, and it’s something that’s not easy to pull off. He did it with The Martian, and he does it with Artemis. Science drives the plot and sets the stage for the book, but it isn’t in the way of the story.

It’s the greatest little city in the worlds.

The book is a straightforward, linear narrative. The backstory is filled in with pen-pal letters between Jazz Bashara, the main character, and Kelvin, a boy (and later, man) on Earth in Kenya, who works for the Kenyan Space Corporation. Artemis, we learn, is owned by a company based in Kenya for reasons that Weir explains in the book (and it isn’t a stretch to accept it). This pen-pal method is a good way to fill in Jazz’s backstory, and as the narrative goes we learn more about her current predicament based on the things in the past that got her to where she is.

We learn, for instance, that in the recent past that Jazz was homeless and running from Artemis’ resident Sheriff, Rudy (who was, in the past, a Canadian Mountie). Through this we further learn that it is illegal to be homeless in Artemis, and if caught she would be deported to Saudi Arabia, a place of which she has no knowledge. Worse, by kicking her out of the only home she has ever known (a pretty bad punishment in and of itself for merely being homeless), she’d suffer crueler punishments because of the side-effects of moving from the low-gravity environment of the moon to the high-gravity environment of Earth. Her body is just not suited for life on Earth without serious medical issues. If you think that this system is crazy and unjust, believe me, you’re not alone.

The problem is that Artemis feels too much like a lawless town from the “Old West.” Partly this is by design, as Weir said that he based a lot of it on Caribbean resort towns. But I can’t help but think that there’s something extraordinarily nefarious about this whole enterprise. For instance, there are no age-of-consent laws on Artemis, and justice is usually distributed by way of angry mob. First, I have major issues with this because consent, and the ability to give it or to withhold it, is one of the foundational pillars of Western Law. I don’t know how Artemis could survive long without something as basic as age-of-consent laws–and we get a taste of the problems that can cause because of Jazz’s experience with an ex-boyfriend who turns out to be a pedophile (which Weir never explicitly says but which is made rather obvious).

Second, justice by mob is extremely primitive. For the entirety of Artemis, a city of 2,000 people, the only legitimate lawman as Rudy. It’s just not possible for him to properly police the entire city. And when he does, his version of justice tends to be delivered by the force of his knuckles. It’s obvious that one of the greatest foundational problems with Artemis is smuggling, and it turns out that Jazz has that particular market cornered. She smuggles flammable things into the city, which, quite obviously, is really dumb. But money is money for a person who was homeless once and at risk of being kicked of the damn moon.

Complicating matters is the fact that an organized crime syndicate is not only present in the city, but is involved in some of its more critical functions. Why? Money laundering. When I came to understand the full extent of the corruption required for them to be tolerated, and then later removed, the only note I took was “we’ve been spending most our lives living in a libertarian’s paradise.” The administrator is in on it, and what it comes down to is the compromises that must be made that comes back to bite you in the ass. Artemis is on the verge of bankruptcy (well, duh) and to save it they need to do some shady shit.

Why would a criminal organization use Artemis to launder money? It’s because the unit of currency on the moon, commonly called the slug, isn’t very highly regulated. It’s not really a currency–it’s a prepaid unit for transferring cargo from Earth to the moon, and it’s useful for trade. KSC track the balance, and acts as a bank, and transaction occur pretty much without any serious oversight. So moving slugs around and then selling them for real money is no real problem.

So are these flaws with the story? No, I think they’re partly what make the story interesting and worth reading. I was quick to grow frustrated at the way that Artemis was created and functioned, but it wasn’t because it was badly written or poorly conceived. It was because it was just too realistic. When later we see Artemis transitioning from its current incarnation of lawless capitalism to one of taxed property, ownership, and laws it feels real, organic, and natural (even if I don’t believe it would happen without a lot of civil strife and rioting). So for someone like me, who is knowledgeable about politics, policy, and philosophy, a lot of the stuff in this book made me angry. But it made me angry because it was believable. Several aspects of Artemis were unsafe, and as you’ll learn after you read it, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. In short, it was human. And humanity often makes one frustrated and angry.

Physics dictates it tastes like shit.

One of the real strengths of the book is how it weaves exposition and detail into the story as if it were natural conversation or narration. The above quote pertains to Jasmine explaining the process of creating warm drinks, like tea or coffee, on Artemis. Through her very strong voice, she explains coffee, oxygen, pressure, boiling points, and the process of making coffee in a low pressure environment. Because the air pressure in Artemis is about 20% of Earth’s pressure, the boiling point in Artemis is 61 degrees Celsius. That’s as hot as drinks can be on Artemis, so they seem cold to most people.

This is the pattern that follows most, if not all, of the technical and scientific explanations in the book. For instance, Jasmine talks about gunk, the foodstuff most commonly consumed on the mood and made of flavored algae grown in vats in her characteristic smart ass voice. She also managed to make process of smelting to get aluminum and oxygen from the resources on the moon interesting.

Crashing your pressure vessel into things is bad. It can lead to unscheduled dying.

This book wouldn’t be what it is without the distinct voice of the main character, Jasmine Bashara, or Jazz. It’s not accurate to say that she’s merely the Arabic, female Mark Watney; she’s more than that because Watney was concerned with saving himself, whereas transitions from saving herself to saving Artemis. I think it’s also worth giving Weir credit for making Jazz Arabic, and her father Muslim. This leads to some interesting interactions between her father and herself, as well as certain explorations of the needs of her father’s religious beliefs while not on Earth. More than that, it was just nice to see an Arabic woman with a Muslim father cast as heroes in a story for once.

I do have a few criticisms of Jazz, and they’re relatively minor compared to the many great things about her character (which I hope you’ll find out for yourself when you read the book). The first is that, while I understand Jazz to be a rogue with a heart of gold, she seems to be hypersexualized. It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I feel this way, and it’s even more difficult to describe what, exactly, my problem is with this aspect of her character. However, I think that it creates some awkward moments in the book that I’m not sure add to the experience in a positive way. On the other hand, the hangup could be mine and mine alone, and I accept that. The book is very intimate because it rings so true with the voice of the main character. We get a very close and intimate view of her mind and the things that she thinks. Sex is naturally a part of that experience.

The second criticism that I have is that there are a few times where Jazz seems to be a bit of a Mary Sue. There’s a part where she learned some very advanced and complicated electronics in an evening, and I just do not find that believable. We’re to understand that she’s an exceptionally smart and talented individual, which is fine. But I think that a lot of the things that she does are things that she doesn’t seem to have any relevant experience with. There are specific places where her talent and ability make a lot of sense, such as the scenes in which she welds–there’s a history there with her father. But that electronics thing seems to come out of nowhere and, without it, some of the later events couldn’t really happen.

How dare you call me lazy? I’d come up with a scathing retort, but meh, I’m just not motivated.

In the final analysis, Artemis is a great book with some minor flaws. Those flaws do not detract from the experience of reading and enjoying the book. It is not, however, The Martian. It’s an entirely different beast, and any comparison with his former work isn’t really fair. It’s not as good as The Martian, but I think it was trying to do something different and I think it largely succeeded. The Martian will be recognized as a classic of science fiction, and rightly so. Artemis may not be, but it is a great novel, with great characters, and amazing world building. It definitely deserves a place in the modern canon of science fiction greats.

With that in mind, I rate the book 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of The Martian, fans of science fiction, and fans of caper stories. A general audience will also enjoy this book.

 

Review: “The Veldt” Radio Play at the Chemical Heritage Foundation

December 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Hello, dear readers!

I have a somewhat special treat today, and I’m excited to talk about it. Last night, Anastasia and I went to the Chemical Heritage Foundation to see a performance of an old-timey radio production of “The Veldt,” a famous short story by Ray Bradbury. The production was staged by the Hear Again Radio Project and The Mechanical Theater.

I feel it’s helpful to have an example of how the X-1 radio play sounds to get a feel for the performance.

This is the first time I’ve ever watched a performance like this. I’ve listened to radio plays on YouTube before, like the one I’ve linked above, but there’s something special about going to a spectacle made of one. These kinds of radio plays exist on YouTube, and in the form of podcasts to be downloaded in the privacy of your own home, but how many of us actually own radios in our homes anymore? To be completely honest, the only reason I have a radio is because I found a stereo for free on a random sidewalk in Philadelphia. It was broken, but popping off the metal casing and a quick examination allowed me to bring it back to perfect working order. I don’t even use it for the radio, I use it for the CD player and tape deck.

By the way, in terms of modern radio plays on podcasts, I recommend the relatively new “Mission to Zyxx,” which is an improvised science fiction comedy.

To get back to The Veldt radio play, what I liked most about it was that it was designed from the down up to mimic an old-time radio production. They started with a promise to transport us back to the 1950s, and they delivered. They had old microphones like you might see in old radio stations. The performance started with one of the performers shouting that the production was about to start, and another counting down the seconds until they went live. A host started to introduce the program, even adding a jingle and commercial for a toothpaste.

There was piano accompaniment, and a person that was responsible for the sound effects. They had metal cups to alter voices, shoes to mimic steps, a plate and cutlery for eating. A wooden box to simulate doors and banging. It was a pretty well-staged production, and it’s very true to the its roots as a radio production.

The actors had great comedic timing, which was necessary because the play deals with deep, somewhat disturbing content and themes. The acting was actually pretty fantastic, and it made me really believe that, if I was listening to this over a radio, it would be authentic. The timing was right for the sound effects, and the actors played their parts seriously.

What I really want to focus on is the effect of making what is naturally a performance meant to be delivered in an aural media in the privacy of your home into a communal event on a stage. Partly I think watching the performance on a stage detracts from the way the play was meant to be experienced, because the visual stimuli overtakes your ability to imagine the events as they’re happening. You’re focused, for instance, on the man making the sound effects (so you know they’re just sound effects), or the people on the stage reading their lines from a script. I do not think, however, that this makes the experience poorer, it just makes it different.

What it adds is the experience of listening and watching the play with an audience who may react differently than you. You also get a view of how a radio production like this may have been made (though, of course, only small facets of that). The spectacle itself can be said to be a commentary on our modern society, and on the way that new forms of media have done away with old forms like this. There’s a certain kind of creative necessity on the part of the listener when you’re listening to the radio that’s not present when you’re watching movies or television.

In some ways, our society is oversaturated with both medium and message. Our brains engage in different ways over times as media delivers more sensory experience. I don’t think this is necessarily to our detriment, but losing these old forms does come with a price. These radio shows are an interesting part of our history, and I do think that it’s worthwhile to explore them every once in a while.

Just think: some day people may go to “Television Parlors” to partake in a rare opportunity to watch a “television program” on “old lightboxes with speakers.” Imagine how they’ll marvel at how primitive it was. 4K with surround sound? How primitive.

PhilCon

November 18, 2017 1 comment

Hello, dear readers!

This will be a quick post covering the single day of PhilCon I managed to attend. Unfortunately, my fiancee Anastasia became ill and I didn’t really want to go to the rest of the convention without her. There’s not really that much to talk about, so this will be a rather brief post.

The day we attended was the first day, Friday the 10th, and we made it to three panels. The first one was called “Writing for Aliens: Anatomy and Biology,” and was presented by people who had expertise in biology. The topic of discussion was alien anatomy, evolution, and physiology in science fiction. It provided fascinating insights into how xenobiology might work in the real world, and how it could work (but doesn’t necessarily have to) in science fiction. I was able to comment, at one point, that I would be willing to sacrifice absolute verisimilitude in favor of an interesting story, or the exploration of a theme within the story. That is to say, I would be willing to accept something that’s not scientific about alien life–say that they are able to reproduce with other aliens or that they may be a lot like us–if it makes for an interesting story or explores an interesting idea.

For example, I love Star Trek Discovery. I plan on writing some thoughts about it later, but I think it really takes the Star Trek franchise in a really good direction. But the entire conceit with the spore drive and the quantum mycelium and all that jazz is just nonsense. When I first heard the in-universe explanation for it I winced and dismissed it as the worst kind of Star Trek technobabble. But the spore drive, as a focus for the way that the story unfolds, is a fascinating idea and it serves a greater function than a mere Macguffin.

The second panel was one which Anastasia moderated, and it was called “Fandom and Identification.” This one delved into topics that would be considered political, but that’s really hard to avoid when you’re talking about how people are portrayed in the media. Make no mistake: this is a very important conversation to have and this panel delved deeply into some of the panelists’ personal experience. In all honesty, it was an absolutely fantastic discussion, and it produced some interesting perspectives on the visibility of minorities and women in the media.

The final discussion was a late one, beginning and eleven and going until midnight. The topic was ostensibly about writing crisis scenes, and the panel was called “How to Write a Crisis for a 21st Century Audience.” The conversation veered off topic for a fair portion of the panel, but the parts of the discussion that did relate to the topic were interesting. For instance, we explored the idea of what really makes a crisis–does it involve physical damage, immediate threat, or something else?

My two favorite parts of the evening was meeting Tom Doyle, author of the American Craftsmen series of books, and meeting David Walton, author of books like The Genius Plague (which I’ve reviewed here). I first met both Tom and David at the Escape Velocity convention in Washington, D.C., and I feel like our conversations are always fascinating and insightful. Tom even participated in a panel that I had suggested called “The Role of Antiquity and Myth in Science Fiction.” I regret not being able to attend that panel because I was really looking forward to a thorough exploration of that idea.

As a final note, on the table of freebies given out of a first come, first serve basis was a book by Kerry Nietz called Amish Vampires in Space. Apparently Jimmy Fallon did a short riff on it a while ago on his show.

This was the first time I had ever heard of it. I flipped through it and…well, I’m not entirely sure how to respond to it. It has 96 reviews on Amazon.com, with a 4.2 out of 5 rating, so someone thinks it’s worth reading. I might put it on my very lengthy “to-read” list, but with everything that I have going on I’m not sure I’ll have enough time to get to it. Kerry Nietz, if you’re out there, this has to be one of the craziest ideas I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Well, this is a thing that exists.

Andy Weir and the Artemis Book Launch at the USS Intrepid

November 16, 2017 1 comment

Greetings, readers!

I have a very exciting update. This past Tuesday, my fiancee Anastasia and I took a trip to New York City. We had two main goals: belatedly celebrate our one year engagement anniversary and to meet Andy Weir, author of The Martian, at the launch event of his new book Artemis. I am happy to say that we accomplished both!

The first thing we did upon our arrival in New York was to grab a taxi and get to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. This was where I had proposed to Anastasia last October. We wanted to visit the museum again because, let’s face it, being on an aircraft carrier is freakin’ awesome and the Space Shuttle Enterprise is always worth a visit when you’re in New York.

The special exhibit for the museum was about Drones, and I really recommend it if you find yourself in New York and have an interest in the history and possible future of drone technology. It’s not a large exhibit, but as part of the whole museum it’s a great add-on.

Here we are, looking at Drones, with Ana taking a bunch of selfies. Look at that huge white hair in my beard, just taunting me.

They had some really impressive displays in the exhibit, including the Navy’s Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH).

My hopes that with would be an awesome exhibit were not DASH-ed. *Crickets* I’m here all week.

After touring the exhibit on drones, we made our way into the Intrepid to get up to the flight deck, because why take an elevator when you can get lost in a massive ship with winding hallways and narrow stairs? The way up to the flight deck through the ship takes you past some really cool pieces, such as old gun placements.

On the flight deck. The weather was much the same as it was the day I proposed–rainy and cold. The good thing is that this time Ana remembered to bring her own jacket.

Of course, you also have to spend time appreciating the planes that the museum has on the flight deck. In the picture above you can see the A-12–the black plane–behind an F-16 Fighting Falcon. I especially like the A-12, a spy plane which is the forerunner to the SR-71 Blackbird.

I don’t like what they were designed for, but I do like the engineering and science behind them.

I think what I really like about the museum is that it just sits on the pier in the Hudson River, giving you a great view of Manhattan. To be honest, every time I go to New York my jaw still drops at just how huge the city is, so I’m pretty much amazed at any view of the city. I’m a country bumpkin.

Seriously, how can you not love this?

There’s also a storage company across the street from the pier, and it has some really clever advertisements. A lot of the attraction of the museum is the space component, which you can find in the space shuttle pavilion where they store the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

That’s some really clever marketing.

After we spent some time in the space shuttle pavilion, marveling at the Enterprise (and after Ana purchased a glow-in-the-dark “Caturn” t-shirt), we hopped in a cab and set out to visit the main branch of the New York Public Library. I had wanted to visit for some time, and we had some time to do it before the Andy Weir book launch. It’s a really special place, and if I were ever in New York City for some time I would definitely find myself in one of the reading rooms.

Afterward, we stopped at the gift shop to marvel at some of the trinkets, including these Einstein statues with little moving hands.

He knows something, doesn’t he?

Of course, we both started to get hungry. Ana was set on getting tea, so we walked a few blocks to Maison Kayser, a french Boulangerie. The food was delicious, the staff was friendly and efficient, and the setting was intimate. We hunkered down there and ate at a leisure pace.

Mmm…A french version of a club sandwich. Includes everything an American club sandwich has, plus an egg.

We arrived back at the Intrepid museum complex just as they were opening the doors to get in. Since we already had our tickets we were able to get in fairly quickly. We were ushered into an elevator to get to the flight deck strait away as the event was being held in the space shuttle pavilion. As we reached the top, and the elevator doors opened, a prerecorded voice said, “going down,” of course just an automated message played when the elevator moves. One of the people in the elevator with us said, “that’s not something you want to hear on an aircraft carrier.” Laughs were had by all.

We picked our seats by the stage where Andy would be interviewed, and Ana got a free beer from 212 Brewing Company. It was a pale ale, both hoppy and delicious. It wasn’t long before Andy arrived in the pavilion, and he was generous with his time in interacting with his fans. Ana asked him a question about The Martian, and he provided an answer that was thoughtful and not rushed. She also mentioned it was our anniversary (though he called us liars–jokingly, of course!–because it wasn’t really our anniversary).

The Belarussian, the Martian, and the Author.

After he met with the fans, he conducted a short interview for a podcast (I’m not sure which one).

I didn’t hear the interview, but I expect it was sufficiently nerdy.

I really liked the entire scene. Ana and I sat under the left wing of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, on the deck of the USS Intrepid, to listen to Andy Weir talk about his writing process, Artemis, and a host of other interesting details relating to being a writer, getting published, and the science behind the books. Two things which I really appreciated: 1) his remarks about world-building in his stories, and how it’s vital to them. In fact, he explained that Artemis started as him building the world in the novel, and then writing the story around that. 2) The fact that he described the perspective of his books as being “first-person smartass.” A man after my own heart, but also very practical; people are much more tolerant of exposition when it comes from a voice that they like. Andy has a talent for that, as he very easily slides science into the narrative without you really knowing that you’re being SCIENCED!

The shuttle itself is actually much bigger than the picture would suggest. (I tried to rewrite this statement several times and failed to make it not suggestive.)

Finally, after the talk was over, we got in line to get our books autographed.

According to Ana, I’m a pushover.

Andy, as always, we friendly and gracious. He even remembered us from earlier, and wished us a happy anniversary. Ana showed him her beat-up copy of The Martian, which, as she readily explains, she took to the top of a volcano in Hawaii to read. Apparently it provided a really neat setting for the book and provided a certain level of immersion in it. Andy, of course, said he loved books that were “well-loved,” while pretending to crack the spine of my book which was in pristine shape (I am…obsessive about keeping my books in good condition). I jokingly said, “that’s a good way to get the table flipped over,” which he laughed at, providing me no small relief because it could have been received wrong.

It was a very great anniversary, and I can’t imagine that I would ever do something as nerdy and fantastic as this with anyone other than Ana. I look forward to the many more geeky adventures with her, the woman I first met in a science fiction literature class.

Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

October 6, 2017 1 comment

Greetings, readers!

As promised, this is going to be my longer review of David Walton‘s new book The Genius Plague, just released on October 3rd. My previous review was a short advance preview of the book that covered the basics and recommend it to readers of science fiction and general audiences, with 4 out of 5 stars. I had the privilege to meet Walton at the science fiction conference in Washington, D.C., Escape Velocity, in August. He’s a kind, interesting person with a deep well of knowledge, and he’s very generous with his time. I look forward to seeing him at the upcoming PhilCon conference this weekend.

As you’ll see in this review, I have since decided to upgrade the book to 5 out of 5 stars, based on a more thorough examination of my notes, as well as thinking more on what the book actually does.

A note on the text before I get into the review: I read from an Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy, so I likely do not have the final version of the novel. It is expected that there will be certain kinds of errors in the manuscript, and that’s okay. This review will take that into account and focus on the content of the story, the writing style, and other technical aspects that wouldn’t really be effected by the particular edition of the book I read.

This is a long review because I think there’s a lot to unpack in this novel. I’ve left a lot of stuff out for the sake of actually getting a finished review out in time for PhilCon, and I may write more about my thoughts later.

As always, there will be spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned! If you’d still like to read on, click “Read More” right below.

Read more…