Archive for the ‘Random Wanderings’ Category

The Revenge of Mega Radish!

June 14, 2017

Yep.  That’s a radish.  And the thing Jim put in the photo for scale is about the size of a standard baseball – that is, about nine inches in circumference.  It doesn’t look real, does it?   We should have used a ruler.

Mega Radish!

That’s not the only radish that size we’ve gotten, although it is the most pleasingly symmetrical.  For those of you who take interest in such things, no, these weren’t seeds intended to grow giant radishes.  They were standard Easter Egg radishes.

So, what else (besides giant radishes) is going on here?

There’s the mystery of the missing cucumber and chard seedlings.  (Solution: probably snails.)

Or maybe not…   We haven’t seen any snails lately.  I wonder why?

Join me now and we shall delve more deeply into the mystery.

Darkness has fallen.  One by one, the lights in the surrounding houses go out.  In the tiny ornamental pond, toads gather among the stems of the blue pickerel weed and aquatic plantain, soaking up moisture before going on the prowl.  They are the great night hunters of this urban garden, confident in their supremacy.

But, as the toads are about to heave themselves from their refreshing bath, a peculiar vibration ripples through the sandy soil.  The toads sink below the water so only their tiny eyes protrude above the surface.  Doubtless this saves them.  For, at that moment, from the garden bed west of the pond it comes, moving with astonishing lightness on tiny rootlets, leafy greenery towering above, sensing the least motion in its surroundings: Mega-Radish has arisen…

Forth it stalks, seeking what?  The toads do not know.  They only bubble sighs of relief as the gargantuan vegetable passes by the pond, and vanishes from sight.  But the hawk moths, large as hummingbirds, deep drinkers of the nectar of the sacred datura, are awake, dreaming on the wing, believing at first that what they see is a result of imbibing too much potent pollen.

Moving on many minute rippling rootlets Mega Radish races around the shed, down the path, to a small plot where infant seedlings of Swiss Chard and Armenian cucumbers tremble, rooted in fear, unable to move as the slime trailing terrors, the horrid garden snails, emerge from their daytime sanctuary within the tangle of Virginia Creeper, prepared to engulf the tender leaves of the infant plants.

Night after night this horrid slaughter has been repeated.  Night after night the seedlings have been helpless, but tonight the cry for help has been heard.  Mega Radish, hero of the garden, has ripped itself from its vegetative torpor and come to save the day.

Red and round, it launches!  It rolls!  Beneath its incarnadined rind it smashes the snails.  They are demolished so completely that their shells become naught but flakes of calcium to feed the soil, their slimy bodies return moisture to the ground.  The seedling cucumbers and chard wave their thanks.  The arugula – too spicy for the snails, but nonetheless terrified – joins the chorus.

Mega Radish takes a bow and then, on twinkling rootlets, vanishes into the darkness…

Well, maybe not.  But it’s a fun idea.

Have a lovely day.  May Mega Radish watch over you!

Dreams, Meet Reality

March 8, 2017

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

That’s a question we ask kids pretty routinely.  As they grow up, the phrasing changes, but it’s still that same basic question.  Have you thought about where you want to go to college?  What do you want to major in?  What do you want to be?

What Do You Want To Be?

Society thinks that the first question and the last question are the same, but there’s a big difference between “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And “What do you want to be?”  In fact, only after basic education is taken care of does the question begin to seriously morph.  Only then does it become “What sort of job do you want to do?”

Even then, it gets prettied up.  One of the most popular job search guides is called What Color is Your Parachute?  Another book promises to be a “Pathfinder” guide, as if the book is Hawkeye (James Fennimore Cooper’s wilderness guide, best known from Last of the Mohicans) and the would-be-jobholder is a tenderfoot facing the wilderness.  In both of these choices of words, what’s implicit is that you will arrive at your destination safe and sound, content because you’ve found the job that lets you – to borrow an old Army recruiting slogan – “Be all that you can be.”

I don’t know about you, but what I wanted to be when I grew up, and what sort of job I wanted to do, had absolutely nothing in common with each other.  At one point, I spent a lot of daydream time in being a starship captain along the lines of classic Star Trek.  I was absolutely not interested in being an astronaut or even a pilot.  I didn’t even want the Star Trek universe.  What I wanted was strange new worlds, great challenges, new civilizations.

Even those people – like my husband, Jim – who know what they want to be when they grow up (in his case, be an archeologist) find that the reality of the job and the dreams aren’t at all the same.  Jim spends a lot more time in an office writing reports than his nine-year-old self ever would have imaged.  Mind you, this is something he’s very good at.  It’s something which he’s learned to enjoy because it enables him to share his discoveries with others, as well as add to the larger body of information about his field.  But writing reports was not what attracted his nine-year-old self to want to “be” an archeologist.

And me?  Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why I’ve always wanted to tell stories, why I wanted this so much so that I learned how to write fiction, and have spent a lot of time doing so.  Maybe it’s because it’s the closest I can get to “being” all those things I dreamed about when I was a kid.  (And, believe me, starship captain was only part of the mix!)

How about you?  Where have your dreams taken you?  Where might they still take you?  I’m a firm believer that dreams aren’t just for kids.  If we’re lucky, they continue to fuel the best parts of adult reality as well.

Unexpected Impediment

February 8, 2017

This past Thursday, I had an emergency root canal.  This pretty much undermined any plans I had for the week.

Elegant Impediment

Elegant Impediment

Well, not the root canal itself.  That was easily and efficiently handled by an endodontist and his assistant.  In fact, I left the endodontist’s office feeling better than I had since Monday, when what had been an occasional twinge turned into intermittent waves of burning pain that eventually spread from the vicinity of the tooth to flow along my left upper and lower jaw, then to below my ear and up the side of my face.

“Intermittent” is the reason I didn’t call the dentist sooner.  When the pain would quit – often without warning, certainly not in response to anything in particular – I’d think “Oh, it’s over.”

But it wasn’t.  As the week went on, and the surges became more common and the ebbs less so, I accepted that I needed help.

I learned that these waves of pain are not at all uncommon when a tooth nerve is “flaring.”  I also learned that most upper molars have three roots, but I only had two.  This caused both the endodontist and my friend Melissa (who is a dentist) a great deal of delight.  Apparently, two roots is an upper molar is rather rare.  It’s nice to make specialists happy.

What else did I learn from this experience?

Well, I learned that the actual root canal procedure is not much worse than having a difficult cavity filled.  However, I also learned that the aftermath can be – especially in the case of a situation like mine where there was a lot of pain – far worse than any cavity.

Because of the intensity of the pain I’d been in, the endodontist sent me home with prescriptions for both 800 mg of ibuprofen and a narcotic concoction.   While I was grateful to know the pain would be kept at bay, the treatment left me loopy and tired.   I ended up sleeping most of Friday afternoon.  When I was awake, I couldn’t read anything that demanded analytical thinking.  So much for the research I’d planned to immerse myself in.

Or for getting end of the year paperwork together.

Still, even as I was feeling sorry for myself, I was also incredibly grateful.  I found myself thinking how glad I was not to live in the days of yore when not only weren’t there charming dental professionals to remove the source of the pain, there weren’t x-rays to let them see the problem or carefully constructed tools to do the work.

If you were lucky, someone yanked out the tooth and you didn’t get an infection.  They didn’t send you home with the means to control the pain.  You might get a swig of something or you might be told to stop whining and get back to work.

Yeah…  Pain control – especially in historical or fantasy fiction – is something that is given far too little attention.  Characters get wounded, wipe off the blood, then hurry back to the adventure at hand.   There are numerous justifications for this, including “who wants to read about someone actually dealing with pain and suffering,” but still…

Another thing this little diversion got me thinking about was how many writers I know who don’t plan for impediments in their schedule.  They say to themselves: “I can write a book in six months.  I’ll add on two weeks to read through and edit, then move on.”  Then, they get sick – or their kid, spouse, or pet has an emergency or something breaks – and they find themselves running behind.  This, in turn, leads to the stress of having missed a deadline, which can further slow a writer up and…

So here’s a bit of advice.  When setting up a schedule for yourself, factor in a week or two for things to go wrong.  The date you give to your editor or whoever you’re turning the project in to includes this extra time.  Don’t let having allowed for extra time make you lazy.  Work as if you didn’t factor it in.  At the very worst, you’ll finish early.  But, at the best, you have breathing room for those times when a little twinge turns into a big deal.

You’ll thank yourself and so will the people you work with.  Trust me on that!

Now, off to catch up on all the things I didn’t get done.  One of these will be reviewing the short story I’m reading Friday night at the meeting of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society.  Details are available on my website.

Seventh Anniversary!

January 11, 2017

I had to count on my fingers – twice – and then ask Jim to confirm before I could believe that the Wednesday Wanderings are approaching their seventh anniversary.

My first post, on January 13, 2010, was very short and intended more as a placeholder than actual  post.  Nonetheless, it received several Comments, showing me that there were interested readers “out there.”  It read as follows:

Fortuitous Offspring

Fortuitous Offspring

Starting on January 20th, I’ll be making weekly posts to this site.

They’ll be about whatever has caught my fancy, especially the odd stuff I see as I go about my day.

Maybe they’ll provide some insight into how one writer thinks.  Hopefully, they’ll be amusing.

Join me on January 20, 2010, and we’ll all find out.

Seven years later, I haven’t missed a single week.  Moreover, I’ve added the Thursday Tangents with Alan Robson, as well as the Friday Fragments.  Lately, I realized that the Wednesday Wanderings has become more ambitious than I initially intended.  The Wanderings have generated enough essays on writing to spawn a book – Wanderings on Writing.  They’ve hosted interviews with writers as varied as Darynda Jones and Jack McDevitt.  And – honestly – they take a lot of my time and attention.

There’s a lot I want to accomplish in 2017.  I plan to make an additional two or more of my Avon backlist titles available as e-books.  I’d like to write more short stories.  Over the holidays, I had an idea for a novel that I’m considering writing, then releasing as a serial.  I’ve learned that if I don’t read or make time for art/crafts, my writing suffers, so it will be out with the beads, clay, and maybe a try at decoupage…

Therefore, 2017 will see a change to the Wednesday Wanderings.  I’ll still check in each Wednesday.  Sometimes there will be longer pieces or interviews.  (I’m already in contact with Walter Jon Williams about doing one on his two new series.)  However, other times, I may just say “hi” and offer a short snippet about what I’ve done the past week.

Pictures may also drop off or at least reduce in quality.  Jim has been my faithful photographer since we started including pictures, but right now he’s directing a field project in Santa Fe.  While he still comes home at night, we’re more pressed for time.  Although you may not believe it, getting those three  original photos takes time and imagination.

For the foreseeable future, Alan and I will continue to write the Thursday Tangents, because we keep finding things we want to talk about both with each other and with you folks.  And the Friday Fragments  will also continue, because I hope to be reading more, not less.

I welcome – even encourage – questions or suggestions of subject matter that you’d like to hear me natter on about.  In seven years, I’ve covered most of the general topics readers ask writers about and I could use tinder for my fire.   I can’t promise to answer all questions, because I don’t always have answers, but I always write better when I know that at least one person would like to hear what I have to say.

Here’s hoping you’ll continue to join me on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  Here’s where there will be the first announcement of any public appearances.  (I’m reading at ASFS again in February, and I’m Guest of Honor at MiHiCon in October.)  Here’s where you’re most likely to hear about new releases, forthcoming works, and the like.

Now, I’m off to write an afterword for the forthcoming e-book release of Smoke and Mirrors.  Composing that has really had me reflecting on all that’s changed in the past 20-some years…  But for now, to write!

Quiet Hiatus

December 28, 2016

Since I was a kid, the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day has been one of my favorites.  I’m following the tradition of quiet this week.

Kel's Christmas Greeting

Kel’s Christmas Greeting

Feels great…

Talk to you again in 2017!

TT: What to Do With Immortality

December 8, 2016

JANE: So, this time we’re going to discuss the third and final of your sub-categories of “immortals among us” stories, those in which the immortals use the experience garnered through their longer lives to deal with the challenges that come up in the course of the novel.

I’d love to pick the first example.

ALAN: Be my guest!

Immortal Tales

Immortal Tales

JANE: My choice is This Immortal by Roger Zelazny.  In it we meet Conrad, who, when he realized he was living a lot longer than he should without apparently aging beyond his thirties, decided to continually reinvent himself.  However, he’s far from a passive observer.  He’s been a revolutionary, and explorer, and many other things.

In addition to writing a compelling narrative focused on Conrad’s current problem (having to guide a problematic alien visitor to Earth), Zelazny also deals with the question of why an immortal would choose to hide his immortality, even if there is no overt fear of or prejudice against immortals.

ALAN: Yes, that’s always an issue. And of course it gets harder and harder to hide as our bureaucracies get more efficient and technology becomes more intrusive.

JANE: Hiding immortals is what natural disasters are for or wars…  Ooh, that would make for a dark, dark story.  Let’s get back to Conrad, before I think too much about that.

Although Conrad has tried to maintain relationships, in most cases friendship mutates into envy and fear as his friends age and he does not.  A good example of the reactions Conrad’s immortality triggers occurs early in the novel.  Conrad slips when idly chatting talking with his wife, Cassandra, mentioning things he couldn’t have known or done unless he is much older than he appears.  Cassandra is startled, then shocked, and, although they don’t have a fight over his hiding his age, they do become estranged.

This Immortal provides an excellent exploration of how, although a long life may give the immortal more experience and skills, these are gained at a very stiff price.

ALAN: This reminds me of a series of novels and short stories by Gene Doucette. The stories are published under the generic title Immortal. Not surprisingly, the books tell of the adventures of an immortal man.

The stories are set firmly in the twenty-first century. The immortal narrator is involved in a fairly routine bit of melodramatic blood and thunder over which, of course, he eventually triumphs. However because he’s been alive for such a long time, he can’t help but draw parallels between what he’s going through now and things that have happened to him in the past. This not only fills in his backstory to a certain extent, it also adds a degree of verisimilitude and a touch of humour that makes the stories quite appealing.

JANE: This does sound interesting.  Tell me more!

ALAN: So, for example, we learn that the first-person narrator was born some time during the early stone age when people were barely human and language consisted mostly of grunts. He thinks his name might have been Urrr, but he doesn’t really remember. For reasons that remain mysterious to him, he stopped growing older when he reached maturity and he has drifted through the ages ever since…

Urrr, who has recently taken to calling himself Adam because the joke appeals to him, is a complex character who reminds me a little bit of Conrad – he is cynical and witty, a keen observer of society as it changes around him, and he’s probably an alcoholic as well. He has spent most of the last umpty-ump thousand years drunk. This gives him an interesting perspective on life and the living of it.

JANE: We could go on listing titles and authors, but a few weeks ago, I mentioned a novel that effectively uses all three of the immortality tropes.  This is Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light (published in 1967).  In Lord of Light, immortality has been achieved for a select few by the use of a technology that permits the essential “soul” of a person to be moved to a new body.  This, in combination with the ability to create custom bodies, has created an elite caste who have assumed the identities of various deities of the Hindu pantheon.

Not everyone in the immortal community is happy with how the technology is being used.  Among the most active of these rebels is Sam.  Sam keeps rebelling and keeps losing.  The novel is designed around a series of flashbacks as he meditates on his past attempts and what he learned from them.

By designing the novel this way, Roger provided a tremendously detailed look at his fictional planet’s history without forcing the reader to plod through it.  He also avoids one of the major problems I have with this sort of novel.

ALAN: What problem is that?

JANE: Well, at the risk of being extraordinarily catty, my problem with many of the books I’ve read in which immortals are characters is that there is no real sense of how they experience time.

Would being immortal make a person feel differently about day to day events?  Certainly that’s the mindset that underlies those books in which the immortals are plagued with ennui and become increasingly decadent.  Sometimes the decadence takes the form of mind-numbing drugs.  Sometimes the decadence takes the form of more and more extreme experiences – especially those involving sex and intimate violence.

However, I’ve never really believed that’s how immortals would experience life.

ALAN: Michael Moorcock seems to be thinking along those lines in the novels that make up the Dancers at the End of Time sequence. Certainly, his immortals exhibit all these traits.

JANE: I think what the “decadent bored immortal” interpretation misses is that – unless they are hugely different than humans in some way (a category into which I’m going to toss both vampires and elves), they would still experience life day by day.

Neil Gaiman captures this very well in the section of Sandman where Dream confronts the man who has held him captive for many years.

When Dream’s captor tries to excuse his action by pointing out that Dream is immortal, and so it wasn’t as if he actually robbed him of anything significant, Dream retorts that immortal or not, he still had to live through each day.  It’s a very powerful scene.

ALAN: The more I hear about Sandman, the more I wish I could read it as a prose narrative…

JANE: It is a prose narrative, just that the prose is enhanced with pictures.  You watch television and movies, don’t you?  But going back to our topic…

One of the elements in my novel Changer is the Lustrum Review.  For those of you who don’t want to go look up the word, a lustrum is five years.  One of the book’s editors questioned whether immortals would hold a convention every five years, wasn’t that too often?

I held to my position, pointing out that the Lustrum Review is as much a social occasion as a business event, and I felt that every five years was hardly often enough to have a chance to meet up with like-minded friends or to keep up with what one’s community was doing.

I suspect that in the past, before travel was both easy and affordable, the athanor might have had more regional meetings, but…  Ah, but I get off track.  My point is, I think immortals – and especially immortals who must live among a larger, shorter-lived community – would be very aware of the passage of time, and very eager to make the most of what they have.

ALAN: I suspect you may well be right. Clearly, therefore, if we want to learn the secret of immortality, all we need to do is identify and attend meetings of like-minded people that are held at regular intervals at various places. World Science Fiction Conventions, for example…

I’m sure that both of us could keep listing titles of books in which an immortal has the edge because of experience gained in a longer than human lifespan.  But I wonder what our readers might suggest.  I’m sure that there must be some that we have missed out on.

TT: Technological Immortality

December 1, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, last time you pointed out that one of the difficulties with the SF variant of the Gilgamesh Gambit is that in many cases the science is so futuristic that it might as well be magic.

I agree.  A good example of that is the evolution toward a bodiless state that humans apparently achieve in Clifford Simak’s City.  If I recall correctly, Simak never explains exactly how this happens.  He’s more interested in exploring what would happen on Earth after most of the humans have left.

Reviewing Options for Immortality

Reviewing Options for Immortality

ALAN: I’d never thought of that as an aspect of immortality, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I think you are quite right.

JANE: Although the technology isn’t always spelled out, I think Larry Niven did an excellent job in exploring some of the consequences of technologically extended longevity in his “Known Space” stories.  The stories collected in  The Long ARM of Gil Hamilton, for example, look at what might happen if organ transplant technology permitted people to live as long as there was a supply of new parts.

Lucas Garner, who provides a touchstone in several of Niven’s “Known Space” stories, is so old that – despite various technological advances that keep him alive, he needs a “float chair” to get around because he’s reached a point where the cells in his spinal cord can’t regenerate anymore.  Yet Garner remains full of curiosity – far from the dulled ennui that is so often the default position of technological immortals.

ALAN: Sometimes when the technology is spelled out in detail it can have quite a feeling of plausibility. James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels (1956 – 1962) have protagonists who are essentially immortal. The cities that they live in travel around the universe looking for work. Vast expanses of time are consumed in doing this. But because all the viewpoint characters are immortal, the continuity of the narrative is preserved (along with their lives, of course!) Blish lays the groundwork for this very convincingly.

JANE: You recommended these books a while back and I read them and found them surprisingly fresh.  For those of our readers who haven’t had the pleasure, can you explain more?

ALAN: Certainly. The background to the story arc is described in the first novel in the series (They Shall Have Stars) which is made up of two separately published novellas together with some linking material. The original novellas were “Bridge” and “At Death’s End”.

“Bridge” tells of the building of a bridge made of Ice IV on the surface of Jupiter. The measurements taken by the project lead to a mechanism that can manipulate gravity (nicknamed the “spindizzy”), which is eventually used to power the flying cities. “At Death’s End” concerns some pharmaceutical research which culminates in the discovery of “anti-agathic” drugs that prevent aging. The novel goes into great detail about both projects – I seem to recall that the narrative even includes some mathematical equations!

JANE: Another neat thing about these books is that by combining the concepts of spindizzy technology and anti-agathic drugs, Blish was able to write some first class sense of wonder SF, rather than becoming bogged down with problems like overpopulation, unemployment, lack of resources, and all the rest that can really cripple stories where the community, rather than a few individuals, are effectively immortal.

ALAN: Modern scientific opinion suggests that structures in the cells known as telomeres might be involved in the aging process. Perhaps drugs that modify the telomere structure could greatly extend a person’s lifespan? Charles Sheffield used this idea in two novels: Aftermath (1998) and Starfire (1999).

On the surface, the novels are actually disaster stories – Alpha Centauri has exploded in a nova, and the resulting electromagnetic pulse destroys all advanced electronics on Earth. The books tell of the efforts involved in recovering from that crisis. However a major plot thread involves several protagonists who have been undergoing advanced medical treatment for cancer. The treatment requires varying doses of special drugs based on careful monitoring of their telomeres. Not only are their cancers now in remission, their bodies also seem to be rejuvenating themselves as well! Maybe immortality is just around the corner.

When the disaster strikes, the equipment they have been using for monitoring their telomeres stops working. They urgently need to find an alternative…

JANE: What I find interesting about this is the double whammy.  These people don’t only get a remission from cancer, they get immortality.  Is this an immortality they plan to share or are they only in it for themselves?

ALAN: The treatment is so new and experimental that the question hasn’t been examined yet. Selfishly, though perfectly understandably, the few people who have received the treatment are more concerned with their own survival than they are with anything else.

JANE: Hmm…  I prefer my SF with more focus on implications.

Another form of technological immortality is immortality by cyborg.  Interestingly, the two examples that spring to mind for me combined this with putting the human/computer hybrid into a spaceship.  Clifford Simak did this in Shakespeare’s Planet where the ship is handled by not one but three human brains.

Anne McCaffery built a series around the concept with her The Ship Who Sang. The sequels, co-written with a variety of collaborators, expanded the concept beyond spaceships.

ALAN: She considered this to be her best work, the book she was most proud of. I heard her read from it on a couple of occasions. She always chose to read the scene set at the funeral service for the ship’s mortal, human companion. She read it beautifully, though invariably it moved her to tears. And I must confess that I had a little lump in my throat as well as I listened to her. The story packs a very emotional punch.

Closely related to the idea of a cyborg, is the concept of “immortality by upload.”  I first came across it in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1956 novel The City and the Stars where the minds of the inhabitants of the far future city of Diaspar are stored as patterns of information in the city’s Central Computer from where they can be transferred into cloned bodies.

JANE: And it’s been done repeatedly since.  I’m sure our readers could supply more current titles.

Whether the immortality is achieved by brain transplant, partial body replacement, or upload the question arises as to how much of the physical body can be removed while still leaving the subject human.  In this way, SF adds to the age-old debate as to whether the mind, the “spirit,” or the body is at the core of what makes us what we are.

One of the things that’s interesting about stories that feature immortal characters is that ones like those in the  “Cities in Flight” sequence that tackle the idea of entire communities of immortals are comparatively rare.  More common are those wherein there is a smaller community of immortals living  side-by-side with those who age more “normally.”  Often the immortals choose to keep their long lives a secret.

ALAN: Quite right.  And these kinds of stories define my third category: those stories in which the immortals use the experience garnered through their longer lives to deal with the challenges that come up in the course of the novel.

JANE: Let’s extend the lifespan of this topic and deal with this point next time!

TT: Special Edition!

November 14, 2016

Hi Folks,

I’ve had e-mail asking me if Alan is okay after the earthquake that hit the South Island in New Zealand.

Yesterday, Alan e-mailed me to let me know that although the South Island was hit by a 7.5 earthquake, he, his wife, their dog, and two cats are fine.

Jake Reads Phillip Mann

Jake Robson, Not an Earthquake Detectorre fine.

Obviously, there could be further problems from aftershocks, tsunami, and the like but, as of my latest report, Alan and family are well.

With typical Alan sense of importance, he noted that — contrary to folklore — none of their animals reacted to the quake.

Let’s all keep a good thought as the world does Shake, Rattle, and Roll…


FF: What Could Be

October 28, 2016

A little more time to read this past week, although still not quite enough!  But then, is there ever?

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kwahe'e Contemplates the Wild Man Motif

Kwahe’e Contemplates the Wild Man Motif

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Welcome to Golden by Rory McClannahan.  I sat next to Rory at the Albuquerque Museum Author Festival and heard him talk about this book.  Virtual reality meets retirement community meets murder mystery.  Good story marred by a need for editing, especially for tenses.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.  Audiobook.  Held up very well to a second reading.  Very much enjoyed.

In Progress:

The Long Earth by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett.  Audiobook.  Definitely more idea-driven than character-driven, but the ideas are interesting, especially the underplayed element of how life on Earth might have evolved without humans as a modifying factor.

Parsifal’s Page by Gerald Morris.  Continuation of his “Squire’s Tale” sequence, interesting in that for the first time the younger character has a great deal to learn, especially about the difference between image and reality.


Dipping into further issues of The Wicked and the Divine graphic novel.

TT: Alan Thinks About Themes

October 20, 2016

ALAN: I’ve been thinking…

JANE:  Uh, oh!

ALAN: There’s an apocryphal story that after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, a reporter interviewed some SF authors and asked: What are you going to write about now that reality has caught up with you?

Exploration and Adventure!

Exploration and Adventure!

JANE: Ah, the great fallacy rears its head once again.  I wonder when folks will stop thinking that SF is about predicting the future?

ALAN: Or the fallacy that SF is all about exploring the moon, and other planets. There is no doubt that the idea has always had a large role to play in the genre, but it’s by no means the only thing that SF concerns itself with. I think there are several fundamental themes that SF returns to time and time again, themes that define the framework that we hang our genre stories on. I think it might be useful if we tried to pin them down. Are you game to give it a go?

JANE: This sounds like fun.  It will be interesting to see which still seem vital and which (if any) have run their course.

ALAN: OK – let’s begin with the question raised by that apocryphal reporter. Stories that tell of a trip to another world and what we find there have been a staple of science fiction since long before there was any such thing as science fiction.  H.G. Wells wrote the story in 1901 (The First Men In The Moon) and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote it again in 1912 (A Princess of Mars).

JANE: Let’s not forget Jules Verne!  His novel From the Earth to the Moon was first published in 1865.  The second part of the story Circling the Moon was first published in 1869.  These make Wells and Burroughs absolute latecomers to the theme.

However, according to my research, there’s a story that has them beat.

ALAN: Really? Tell me more.

JANE: Apparently, Lucian of Samosata’s True History written in 1827 includes a voyage to the Moon.  He was apparently writing in response to Antonius Diogenes’ (second century CE) The Wonders Beyond Thule, which features a report of a visit to the Moon.

However, as True History was satire, there is active debate as to whether it should be classified as SF or not.  Diogenes’ piece seems to have been rooted more in Pythagorean mysticism than in any sort of science, so I only include it out of a desire to be complete.

ALAN: Goodness me – the theme has more of a history than I realised. I’m sure that must be because the idea of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no man has gone before is a story that appeals to absolutely everybody on a really visceral level. After all, the original series of Star Trek told the story in almost every episode and, probably as a direct result, Star Trek was hugely popular!

JANE:  Whoosh!  (Sorry, finishing the quote from the opening of Star Trek.  My brain always adds the sound effect when the Enterprise goes by.  I don’t care that spaceships don’t make a sound in the void.  It’s cool.)

But, momentarily being more serious…  Original Star Trek worked for me in large part because it told stories of frontiers and exploration.  Frontiers remain an integral element of the American mythos, long after the conclusion of the days of physical exploration.

(I’m speaking of the U.S. variant of “American.”  Maybe our Canadians can answer if the idea of the frontier has a pull for them as well.  I don’t know if we have any South or Central Americans reading this who can answer for the other Americas.)

I’m curious if that element works for you as an Old World transplant as well.

ALAN: I’m old and my palate is jaded but nevertheless the story of travelling to a new world and exploring it still gives me a tingle in my sense of wonder. I’m sure I’m not alone in that – it may be a very old story, but it is still being told today – Andy Weir’s excellent novel The Martian was recently made into an award-winning movie, and that’s by no means the only example of it in modern day SF.

JANE: Indeed not.  I’m currently reading a proof of a near future novel – I will tell you what it is when it’s released – that deals with an attempt to establish an in-system colony.  Part of what makes it such a good read is that it’s so firmly rooted in recognizable limitations, both scientific and social.

Two of my favorites in this theme are both by Heinlein: The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950) and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).  The first envisions lunar exploration as it might have been if driven by private ambition and dreams, rather than as government-backed ventures.  The second focuses on what would happen after a colony was established and had a chance to build its own identity.

Do you have any favorite tales of space exploration?  Don’t feel you need to stay in our solar system!

ALAN: Despite its scientific inaccuracy, I absolutely love Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sands of Mars. It was first published in 1951 and it has long been overtaken by events. We know a lot more about conditions on Mars today than we did back then. The story is a thrilling tale of colonising the red planet. Mars has been surveyed from orbit, but not yet fully explored on the ground… Among other ideas, the novel speculates about techniques for terraforming the planet – a surprisingly sophisticated idea for 1951!

I’m also very fond of Brian W. Aldiss’ Helliconia trilogy. The novels chronicle the rise and fall of civilisation on an Earth-like planet over more than a thousand years. A space station orbiting Helliconia transmits details of the drama back to Earth.

JANE: Shamefacedly, I will admit I haven’t read either of these.  However, I think I may need to do so!

There’s no way we can list every good book about space exploration without inviting the dreaded TL/DR monster into our Tangent.  Perhaps some of our readers will help fill in the gaps by commenting on their personal “don’t miss” titles of planetary exploration.

Even without listing more titles, I think it’s obvious that neither of us think that SF built around planetary exploration and colonization is in the least played out.  However, it might be worth mentioning what is needed to make a new venture in that territory fresh and of good quality.

You first!

ALAN: Don’t pad the story with unnecessary events like meteorite collisions and avoid technical infodumps about spacecraft propulsion systems. I just read a trilogy which would have been amazingly good if the padding had been removed, and as a bonus it would only have been a single novel! In other words, stick to the straight storyline of planetary exploration.

JANE: I’ll add that attention needs to be paid to characterizations.  The days when characters can be “the pilot,” “the captain,” “the astronomer,” etcetera are gone.  Readers want to believe that real, three-dimensional humans with families, friends, even phobias, can achieve these goals.

Space travel is only one element among perennial SF themes.  Would you like to suggest another?

ALAN: I know! Let’s talk about time travel last week.