Blog Entries by Month

Getting the Gang Back Together

When I was a kid, I was a model maker, and was absolutely obsessed with Star Wars. Of course those two paths crossed (to someone’s great profit, I’m sure). I started buying modeller magazines to see how to make them look more realistic (I gave up on those magazines quickly because they all seemed too focused on diaramas instead of minute detailing of the vehicles) Along the way, I did learn how to weather and score models.

Yeah, then 1977 happened - that little film called Star Wars - and my focus changed... Read More

Are Stormtroopers Really Bad Shots?

Poor stormtroopers, forced to wear limiting armour (you try shooting when your eye slot is so small), relentlessly teased for the inability to shot straight.

What do people know about them? They were the successors to the clone army that defeated the Jedi, supposedly inheriting a peaceful situation. Their activities tended more towards policing than large scale military action. They can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

We know that Lucas modelled much of the Star Wars military universe after World War II films. Maybe the weaponry inaccuracy was also a reflection of that source. It’s not just the stormtroopers who are bad shots. So are the heroes (although the heroes are all Hollywood Grade A good shots when the plot needs). READ MORE

How a Scene Evolves from First Draft to Last

Rewriting a scene is where the magic happens. First drafts are usually crap (although sometimes they have nuggets of brilliance). Many writing teachers will tell you this, but it’s something that every writer needs to learn for themselves.

I want to compare a scene I wrote three years ago as a first draft with the second draft of the scene, which I wrote last week. 

The text still isn’t perfect. I even did two edits to it as I was re-reading it for this blog entry. Is this important? Individually, the small things like which version of the sentence is better aren’t important, but in the big picture of building a well-crafted story, yes, these little decisions add up - to either a good or bad reader experience. READ ON

Emperor of the Eight Islands, a review

Lian Hern writes a good tale here, but not a great one. She sets it in a fictional medieval Japan, sort of. We’ll come back to that. In spite of the long names, and similarities among the names, the characters are distinct and sometimes compelling. But everything I’m saying has qualifiers on it, because something was just not … right, and I’m not sure what. READ MORE

Thoughts on Passengers and Arrival

Passengers’ release here in Malaysia bumped Arrival to a later date, which bothered me immensely, as I was anticipating Arrival much more. I assume that the Malaysian film industry buyers saw Chris Pratt, Jennifer Lawrence and thought ‘gold’. But Passengers disappeared quickly, and Arrival, once it arrived, gain screens (more so after it started be nominated for awards).

But it’s not fair to force these two films to compete against each other, even though they are in the same genre, Science Fiction, and were released close together. Read More

Book reviews

Writers read, it's a given. Other writers influence how we approach ideas, what we can discover from successful books, abd what we don't like. While I read a lot, i don't review a lot. Below are the book that I have decided, arbitrarily, to review.
 

Review: Arrival (Minor Spoilers)

We saw Arrival (no “the” in the title) this past week, and while I loved it, there was a point that stuck with me - and it probably wasn’t the point that you’d think.

Things that I loved - that it was a slow film, that it gave you time to think about what you were seeing and experiencing. I loved that you don’t always get answers.

But… but… but… there was this nagging thing in the back of my mind. READ MORE (includes minor spoilers)

Rogue One - The Ending That Wasn’t Meant To Be

SPOILER & SPECULATION Heavy - Read at your own risk.

As most people know by now, the third act of Rogue One was extensively reshot. The earliest trailers for the film have loads of shots that not only aren’t in the final version, but contradict what we all saw on the big screen.

Putting together what could have been, and may once have been is purely to speculate with very few clues. And that’s what the rest of this article is going to do, without attribution.

Sorry.

Accept it or stop reading. SCREW IT, READ MORE

The Evolution of Christmas Songs

The passing this week of Greg Lake, singer and songwriter of one of my favourite Christmas songs, made me realize that there are still a lot of new Christmas songs being written, ones with staying power.

For most of us, the Christmas songs that we hear year in and year out, even those done by modern artists, are songs from the 1950s and 60s. Whether it’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, White Christmas, It’s beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas or Santa Baby and Christmas, Baby Please Come Home, a lot of what gets radio airplay is old.

It was in the 1970s that new Christmas songs started to appear, songs that weren’t written for kids or as disposable ditties. READ MORE

A Review of The Wind-up Girl

Science Fiction set in non-Western cultures can be very interesting, and lately I’ve been lucky to find two that are very immersive, The Wind-Up Girl and Three Body problem. This review will focus on the former.

The Wind-Up Girl (by Paolo Bacigalupi) take place in post-apocalyptic Bangkok. The story is about cultural and character clashes, even among those work towards the same goals. Ths story has been called eco-punk, as it looks at (among other things) the effects of genetically hacked plants, animals and people.

The story involves a power struggle between the Thai government and foreign interests as well as within the government as two ministries vie for power and influence. However, none of the point of view characters are powerful figures in the Thai government, giving that internal struggle less prominence until much later in the story.  READ MORE

The Hubris of the Echo Chamber

Like many, I was not only surprised, but shocked by the recent US elections. Michael Moore warned us back in July, but he was ignored. Nate Silver told us, and was ridiculed for that.

Many academicians have been warning people that more and more we live in echo chambers, self-reinforcing patterns and opinions, because we aren’t made aware of the alternatives. Google will show you different results than it will your co-worker, in each case trying to appease whatever expectations Google assumes you each have. Likewise, Facebook learns what you want to hear and who you want to hear it from, and dutifully refuses to challenge your preconceptions. This reinforces the idea that you are well grounded in reality.

Tuesday’s election should be a wake up call against the echo chamber effect. Read on

Crossing Porous Borders

I grew up in Canada with the firm belief that borders were sacrosanct. You couldn’t treat them lightly. Then I moved to Africa… Namibia, specifically. My teaching post was about 10 kilometres south of the Angolan border.

The first friday that I was there, I got taken out drinking by my co-workers. We went to a shebeen (bar) in the middle of a forest, about halfway between our school and the Angolan border. There we met up with a larger group, including one very friendly giant of a man (I’ve lost his name now, sorry). On his arm was a scar from a recent cut of some kind, a very long and thin cut, as if from a knife.

He offered to smuggle me into Angola to see where his friend had been killed by Angolan police -- right then. The border between Angola and Namibia isn't open at night, and even if it was, my passport was safely locked away somewhere else.

He wasn't going to listen to my objections, telling me not to worry. READ ON

How One Death Can Change History

Given the topic of how a singular death can change history, people usually jump to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, which precipitated what eventually became known as World War I. But any historian I’ve spoken to has said that the war was inevitable and that Ferdinand’s death merely escalated the timeline by a few months.

Let’s look at a much more modern situation, one that could have consequences in our lifetimes. Joe Biden’s son’s death may be seen in hindsight as one that changed the course of history. UPDATED

Writers I’ve Known and Their Books

William Kamkwamba is probably the best selling author I’ve known. He was a student at African Leadership Academy back when I was the Communications Manager. He made my live very interesting. His memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind became a big hit in 2009, leading him to make appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Good Morning America, appearances with Mitch Albom and Tavis Smiley, and many other news programs. Since he was a student at our school, I managed his time vis-a-vis his publicity and his school work, acting as the gatekeeper, often having to refuse requests (sorry, Sky News. One day you’ll forgive me like CNN did.). I don’t know that I learned a lot about the publishing industry from this experience, but I certainly saw the hustle that an author goes through to promote a book, especially a bestseller.

TBR - To Be Read

To Be ReadThis my “TBR” pile - my books waiting To Be Read, although after I took the photo, I found two more. Every writer has one. Writing is also about reading, about continually both being engaged creatively and seeing how others’ writing styles might influence yours.

Beyond the obvious science fiction, my current list includes fantasy (Sailing to Sarantium), magical realism (All the Birds in the Sky, and possibly Cloud Atlas? That one’s hard to characterize), historical revisionism (1434, the sequel to 1421) and a Malcolm Gladwell screed. Like most writers, I read outside of my genre, even more so than this pile would suggest.

Out with the Old, In with the New

You might have noticed a slight(!) change to this site. Just to refresh - here’s the before and after pictures.

I built this site myself, using Drupal, and I’ve enjoyed and hope to continue enjoying playing around with this CMS - adding features (GoodReads lists, MailChimp sign-ups), removing features (polls, forums).

Mostly this is a site refresh.

Music as a weapon - too silly an idea?

I’m at a bit of a crossroads with the novel I’m writing (hereafter referred to as WiP - short for ‘Work in Progress”). I had an idea for an alien race that I thought would be different. I built a plot point around that difference. Then I saw something similar in a movie … and I thought it was stupid.

What to do? What to do? Do I re-write the WiP to eliminate that plot point? Do I remove it entirely? Or is it OK?

Anyone who knows a writer knows that we’re very insecure about our writing, fragile, even. So what do we do when a plot point appears ridiculous? Panic. Stop writing. Have long breaks while we try to understand how we got into this terrible dilemma.

Or maybe we ask for help. Read on

Novels versus Novellas (What’s in a word count anyway?)

I once asked a literary agent why some books have “A Novel” after their title. The fact that it was a novel seemed self-evident. You find it in the fiction section. You’re holding it in your hand, it’s a novel. She replied “I don’t know”. That’s sat with me for a while now. Read More

Livestreaming the world's wind

I am absolutely addicted to this site, Windyty.com. It shows you wind patterns live (maybe a 30 minute delay) for anywhere in the world. Above is peninsular Malaysia, where I live. Also, when you go to the site, note the controls on the lower right side - try clicking a few, like "Waves, Sea", and see how the map changes. I'm totally hooked on this. READ MORE to see another cool live map.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse - Malaysian Real Estate Style

When I first arrived in Kuala Lumpur, my employer gave me a list of real estate rental agents to contact - these are people used to helping foreigners, and who apparently "know what we want.” I thought that was odd at the time, but just dismissed it as expat hubris. Three years later, I completely understand those remarks. READ MORE

Transformative cover songs

One thing that my partner and I disagree on is cover songs. As often as not, her first exposure to an old song I love is through a cover version made popular much later. Again, as often as not, I find the cover version to be lacking any transformative soul. Often I find them to be desecrating a great old song.

I don’t know how many times we’ve started listening to a song, and she’s said, “I know this song. Sarah Brightman sings it!”

To which my invariable response has been, “Maybe she does, but she didn’t sing it first, and she certainly didn’t write it. How about we enjoy the original singer-songwriter?” READ MORE

What Can Scalzi’s First Novel Teach New Authors?

Whether you love him or hate him, John Scalzi is incredibly influential and is probably the highest-paid science fiction writer today. in 2015, Scalzi signed a ten-year, 13 book, $3.4 million deal with Tor publishing.  Part of my learning process is to deconstruct successful novels to see what I can learn from them. It makes sense to look at John Scalzi’s first book, Old Man’s War. READ MORE

The year in writing (so far)

Recently published stories:

  • My First Cosplay  (published July 17, 2016)- How would aliens handle the ‘dressing up’ part of Hallowe’en?
  • Forget Me Nots (published July 25, 2016) A countdown to the end

I’ve noticed that some writers like to keep tabs on how their year as a writer is going. I’ve never done that before, but the ones I see doing it are ones that seem more committed to writing, so I figured that was good company to keep. Here we go!

Short stories I’ve written so far in 2016 (1,500 - 4,500 words each):

  • Death vs Taxes - why does the IRS want to meet the Grim Reaper?
  • The Curator - a diligent zookeeper is trying to save a nearly extinct species, but both of his last two humans are male
  • The Wind Wasn’t Right - Deep space accident investigation leads to a fry cook in Hong Kong
  • Sylvester Down - A luxury yacht travelling out past the moon is attacked.
  • Graceful Degradation - everything fades: songs, books, photos, memories…
  • Zeus Beheld - So the Greek Gods went on a five year voyage around the galaxy, but didn’t understand time dilation, and return 3,400 years later.
  • Dee for the Win - A young man tries too hard to be the best racer in his village.
  • Plus I have opening lines or scenarios for 15 more.

New short stories on this site (100-word 'drabbles')

Continue reading...

Does automation liberate or enslave society?

A few things in the news lately have got me thinking about the first books I read by Isaac Asimov - Caves of Steel, and its sequel, The Naked Sun.

So what in the news brought this all to mind (books written in the 1950s, read in the 1970s)? There have been a few news stories recently that point towards the obsolescence of humans: McDonalds and Wendy’s are planning robotic stores; Amazon has discovered that replacing warehouse workers with robots saves time, space and money; an AI wrote a movie script; Truckers are worried what autonomous trucks will do to their livelihood, and the insurance industry can’t figure out how self-driving cars will impact your insurance premium. Continue reading...

Speculating on the Game of Thrones End Game

Like everyone, I watch Game of Thrones and wonder how it will end. I know according to Cersei, it never ends, but that’s beside the point. The TV series will end, and it will look for some closure somehow.

Lately I wonder if enough of the pieces are in motion that we can see how it works out. from here on it’s pure speculation written after seeing Season 6, episode 6. if you’re reading this later, events may have precluded some of my ideas. Read on...

Songs as Sources of Inspiration

I guess every point of refuge has its price
- The Eagles, Lyin’ Eyes.

Song lyrics - go figure.

Like many new writers, I first started my chapters with song lyrics - the embodiment of the idea I wanted to express. Like most writers, I got over it, but still, for longer works, I do usually have a playlist that represents moods or concepts, if not ideas, that I want to express. These aren’t necessarily favourite songs by any means. They just capture, or evoke in me, an aspect of a story that I want to share.

I Want to Believe

Star Trek Beyond has been on my mind a lot lately. Paramount’s treatment of Star Trek, and specifically the JJ Abrams reboot of the concept in 2009, has been irritating me more and more. I know I’m not alone. You see it on Reddit, you see it in film sites. Old-school fans aren’t happy with how the franchise has been treated in the JJ Trek universe and much of that unhappiness came into focus with the first trailer for Star Trek Beyond.

But a few things have happened recently that offer optimism.

Star Trek at 50 - Beyond the fanbase


It’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and the fans had been hoping for a grand celebration. With no new Star Trek on TV this year, and with much of the original core fanbase not happy with JJ Abram’s 2009 rebooting of the franchise, this might be the most depressing birthday party you ever attend (or more likely, don’t even hear about).

Keir Dullea's (Star)lost Opportunity

For a short time there, Keir Dullea was going to be the face of science fiction in the 1970s. After starring in 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Dullea went on to front an ambitious Canadian TV production, The Starlost - this was going to be the new Star Trek, the next big thing (four years before Star Wars), syndicated world-wide.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was the Star Wars Episode I We Never Got


Many people argue that Galaxy Quest is one of the best Star Trek movies. If you know the movie, you know it isn’t a Star Trek movie at all, but it has the heart, soul and humour of a great Star Trek movie.

I’d argue that we had a great Star Wars Episode 1, but it was released a year later than the Phantom Menace. It was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The devolution of C-3P0

Star Wars (1977) introduced us to many interesting characters, among them a perhaps under-appreciated C-3P0. In the original trilogy, Threepio had agency. He had purpose, and he played a key role in bringing down the empire. Threepio doesn’t always make wise decisions, but he does keep the action moving forward (or at least keep up with it). He’s intelligent, articulate, the intellectual partner of R2-D2. He tells R2 what to do, gives directions (“Come on, R2, we’re going”) and takes initiative - talking his way past the guards in the security room of the Death Star.

So what went wrong?

The long, painful journey from long fiction to short

A year ago I would have told you that I can’t write short fiction, that I need to write stories in the 100,000 word range (about a 350 page novel).

That was then, this is now.

A year ago, I was in a bad place, psychologically. I’d torn a tendon in my shoulder. I could barely type. I had a novel sitting at 123,000 words, feeling so close to done, and yet so far. I didn’t type anything for two months. By the time I could type again the universe of that long story had slipped a bit from my grasp, and trying to write inside it felt awkward and embarrassing, like I was intruding. I’m still struggling to get back into that universe.

Could Biggs Darklighter Be in Rogue One?

NOTE: This is speculation, some might say wishful thinking. I’m not siting sources, just offering an opinion.

Star Wars movies have shrouds of secrecy around them, it’s a given. It isn’t just JJ Abrams who keeps things close to his chest. One of the few tidbits that has leaked about the next Star Wars movie, Rogue One, is that there will be a few appearances by characters that we are familiar with. So far (March 14, 2016), the cast is named, but the characters aren’t.

Names like Darth Vader and Boba Fett have been tossed around. Vader makes sense, Fett less so. Wouldn’t a more logical character to include be Biggs Darklighter?

The Schrodinger Moments in Your Life

My brother-in-law is what you’d call “salt of the Earth.” He grew up on a farm. He tinkered with engines as a kid. Naturally, he became an automotive mechanic, then an industrial mechanic (he’s even repaired ship’s engines). Eventually he and my sister bought their own land in the country and he became a mechanic/driver for a rural construction company.

On Saturday his pick-up truck was hit by a drunk driver…

…and we get to our Schrödinger moment…

Self-publishing vs Traditional Publishing: A Career Decision

The hardest part of being a writer is finding the time to do a good job of it. Writing is much more than putting words down. It’s editing, it’s revising, it’s adding the details that make a story vivid, it’s removing the details that clutter a story. And it's thinking.

Every storyteller wants to be a full-time storyteller, whether they’re in it for the love of stories or for the money. Those of us who are in it for the love of storytelling face the reality that if money doesn’t flow from it, writing will never get to be more than a hobby. For most of us, writing is our second, part-time job. What we want to do is reverse that so that it’s our full-time job and the other job becomes our second, part-time job, at least as an intermediate step toward becoming self-sustaining writers.

Creepy stalkerish "love songs"

Why do some creepy songs fail to get a reputation for being creepy? Whenever you mention the topic of creepy love songs, everyone brings up “Every Breath You Take” by the Police. But there are worse, and you probably know some of them. in fact, you probably like some of them. Let’s look at three of them: Cherish by the Association; Take a Letter, Maria by R.B. Greaves and To Be With You by Mr. Big.

New Fiction Posted: The Wind Wasn't Right

A little explanation before the story
I read a lot of blogs by writers and agents. Some of these blogs host fiction contests. Janet Reid's Blog is a good one for that (as well as being an incredible source of knowledge on all things publishing). Fiction University is another good one. This past week, Fiction University posted a writing prompt - make a story about anything, of any length, that starts with the words "The wind wasn't right." I wrote a mildly cyberpunk police procedural at just under 400 words. You can READ IT HERE.

Evolution of a story, part 2: How “Honey Bees & Blackholes” became “Long-Term Storage”

Long-Term Storage was the third of my four drabbles published on the site SpeckLit in 2015. It’s only 100 words long (that’s what ‘drabble’ means, apparently). The story is about how a group of humans flee extinction by flying into a blackhole. Please read it before continuing (contractually, I can’t post it here yet).

 

How on Earth does one come up with a story idea like that?

Here’s how…

Two Science Fiction TV shows that deserve reboots

It seems like every old science fiction show is getting a reboot, except perhaps one or two that would actually be good. There have been a few shows that were either ahead of their time or whose premises were so good, that they've already been rebooted - The Prisoner comes to mind. And there have been TV shows that have been rebooted despite their reputations - Lost in Space anyone?

But there are a couple of shows that deserve to have reboots - because they had strong story ideas and were just a little ahead of the technology needed to present them well. Let's look at those...

Reflecting on The Force Awakens

I, as much as any fan, bought into the hype and excitement around Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I wrote a number of blog posts about it - more than any other movie, certainly. And generally, on reflection, I'm happy with what we got, mostly...

Now I’d like to revisit The Force Awakens from a different perspective: How to improve the version that we’ve all seen. I know, as soon as we talk about “improving” Star Wars, we get “Special Edition” fright. But the Phantom Edit and other unofficial works have shown that improvement isn't necessarily bad. Besides, there are only two places that I would prefer to have seen changes, so bear with my hypothetical "improvements."

Astronomers Find An Interesting Mystery (probably not aliens)

Interesting astronomy news breaking today (October 14, 2015):

A star 1,451 light years away from us, catalogued as KIC 8462852, is showing an odd behaviour. Up to 80% of its light disappears for between 5 and 80 days at a time, suggesting that something big is orbiting it.

We're not talking planet-sized big, we're talking big-big. For example, Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system, could have that same effect on an observer if the observer was standing on one of our outer planets, like Pluto. Pluto is about 5.5 light *hours* away from our sun. This star is 1,451 light *years* away.

Originally posted October 14, 2015 • LATEST UPDATE: January 19, 2016

TV’s Influence on Science Fiction Novels

This is the story of the frozen protagonist, but it's not fiction.

Over at SFF Chronicles, a British science fiction community website, there’s a writer's topic that’s run hot and cold for a few months now in a couple of different threads: Does a novel’s main character have to change over the course of the story? There’s been a lot of back-and-forth on this, but interestingly, most of those arguing ‘no’ are referencing TV shows as their rationale for why the character shouldn’t change.

So let’s examine that.

The Force Awakens: Star Wars’ Greatest Hits with A Few New Numbers

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (aka Episode VII) was a good film, but not a great one, and I’m far from the only person to say so. It felt like watching an 80s rock band perform their greatest hits, with a few new numbers thrown in for good measure. Some of my friends were quite happy with that. I wasn't. (My Star Wars geek credentials are here and here.)

Yes, this has spoilers for the newest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens -- a lot of them. If you’re so inclined, see it first or forever hold your peace. UPDATED! READ ON FOR SPOILERS

Rejection: Living the Writer’s Life

This is the first year that I’ve made an effort to make money from writing fiction. The decision to start trying to create and sell short stories grew from the fact that I’m getting closer to finishing what I hope will be my first published novel. So, the time had come to start acquiring publishing credits (and contacts) through shorter works.

Everyone tells you that it will be hard, and it is. As we near the end of this year, I thought I’d share my experiences, if you're interested.

De-mythologizing the Lightsaber

Obi Wan called it a more elegant weapon from a more civilized age, but is the lightsaber really all that great a weapon?

When all we had was the original trilogy, the lightsaber appeared to be the top weapon in the food chain: it sliced, it diced, and it made limbs go away. But then George Lucas gave us the prequel trilogy. Suddenly Lightsabers were both more and less than they were before.

A Thought: How to Pre-emptively Stop Mass Murders

Since the most common-sense idea -- "no guns" -- won't work in America, here’s a simple idea, and not even my own, although I’m going to build upon it: Pre-emptively removing fame from the equation. Let’s ensure that people who commit atrocious acts will be belittled by society. Let’s agree that they will be publicly shamed and then forgotten. Yes, I know this is childish, but it's the mindset we're dealing with, and we need to speak to their level.

Wither Luke?

It’s the hot question on the Star Wars obsessed mind, fuelled by the release of the new posters. Why isn’t there any sight of Luke in the trailers? Why isn’t he on the main poster?  Where is he?

It’s a given that he’s alive at the beginning of the film, since Mark Hammil has been cast to play him. Beyond that, we speculate.

So, let’s look at some scenarios. (UPDATED)

READ ON

Reflections on Living in Namibia

THIS POST is rather off-topic for this blog, but is a reflection of an integral part of my life. I lived in the town of Ohangwena, Namibia from December 2007 until October 2009. Lately I've been reflecting on my time there and what I learned.

It’s been three years since I left Africa, possibly, but hopefully not, for good (and six years since I lived in Namibia). Time gives distance, perspective, a chance to appreciate the value of what you’ve experienced. One of the hardest aspects of working there was the fatalism. It’s frustrating to repeatedly be told that something can’t be changed or fixed because “this is Africa.”

READ ON

Re-writing a Dead Author's Legacy

I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, worrying about what would happen to my characters after I’m dead given that a) I’m not even published yet and b) I’m alive (as of this writing), but re-inventing or re-interpreting or re-imagining another’s masterpiece feels wrong. Doing it after they're dead and can't respond, is worse.

I’m not talking about West Side Story (a re-imagining of Romeo and Juliet). I’m talking about Wicked, a story that completely redefines the roles of good and evil in The Wizard of Oz. If Frank L. Baum had wanted the Wicked Witch of the West to be a sympathetic character, he could have written her that way. If the author of Wicked wanted to write about misunderstood, sympathetic witches, he was free to do so, but doing it within Baum’s universe feels incredibly disrespectful, like peeing on a grave.

Thoughts on Station 11

Station 11 is a book with a bit of a buzz around it: written by a Canadian expat living in New York, it won the British-based Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of 2014, but has been slow to find an audience in the US. I’ve just finally gotten to read it, and have some thoughts.

First and foremost, as others have said, don’t mistake this for a science fiction story. If you expect science fiction with all the tropes that implies, you’ll be disappointed. If you're avoiding it because you're worried it might be too science fiction-y, take a chance on this book. It does take place before and after a plague wipes out 99% of the world population, but it’s not a book about science fiction ideals, utopian or dystopian society. If anything it’s about malaise and learning to forget the good old days.

Is it a good story? Yes. Is it without its problems? No.

Former Astronauts and the Causes They Champion

After years of training and in some cases as little as days in space, astronauts need to decide what to do next with their lives. Many will get a second chance to go to space, with all the training that that new mission will entail. But eventually, you’ve done your last space flight. Being an astronaut is, still, a very high profile position. Do you use that position as a platform to champion a cause or to move yourself into a longer-term career?

I want to look at some of the astronauts who have decided to champion causes, and what they’ve done.

The Martian is NOT a true story (but could have been)

So the buzz this morning is that a number of people are leaving theatres after seeing The Martian, believing that what they’ve just seen was “based on a true story”. Why are people coming to that conclusion?

For The Martian to have been based a true story, we would have had to have put people on Mars three times (The doomed expedition was the third mission to Mars). We would have to have a cool spaceship like the Hermes to ferry people between planets. None of which is true.

So why do so many people believe that it is a true story?

Ethics: The Right to Be Forgotten vs Censorship

Recently France’s privacy commission ruled that the European Union’s “Right to Be Forgotten” law applies to Google worldwide, not just Google’s European operations. In theory, the right to be forgotten sounds like something that we should have. In practice, such a ruling, if corporations are forced to implement it, would be tantamount to censorship.

Is R2D2 Being Demoted?

What happens when your old astromech gets replaced by a shiny new one? R2D2, along with C-3PO, was an iconic symbol of first the 1980s, then the 2000s. Now he's being replaced by a pipsqueak, half his size.

Realistically, R2’s brand took a hit with the release of the prequel trilogy. In those films, the little droid that could revealed himself to be superdroid - look, in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s R2D2! There was nothing he couldn’t do - fly, fight fire, fight warrior droids, or any combination thereof. And he was invincible! All it cost was his role as comic relief.

So now we’re at the precipice - the arrival of a non-George-Lucas-helmed third Star Wars trilogy. We’ve all seen the hype - if you’re reading this, you have, I know. There are many intriguing ideas revealed, and few questionable ones (Luke’s/Anakin’s light sabre? Vader’s mask? Is this a film about fandom?)

One of the most interesting elements was included in the first trailer, BB-8. It’s the next generation R2 unit! (I haven’t heard that specifically, but that’s what it looks like - an R2 head on a beach ball.). So what becomes of R2D2?

Creator Intent versus Reader Ownership

Who owns the meaning of a story? There’s an anecdote about Kurt Vonnegut that may be apocryphal. It goes like this:

A university student contacted Vonnegut and told him that the professor teaching Vonnegut’s book had bizarre interpretations of it, and insisted that the class embrace his views to pass the course. Vonnegut sits in on a lecture then argues with the professor on the interpretation. The professor’s finally refutation is along the lines of, “What do you know? You’re just the writer.”

Arrogant, isn’t it? Why am I thinking about this? I just had a twitter conversation that would fall along those lines, with me arguably cast as the nutty professor. READ ON

No Consensus on the Best Science Fiction of 2014

What does it say that the four top awards for science fiction had zero consensus on what deserved to be honored last year? In America, the Hugo is awarded by the fans, and the Nebula by professional authors (technically the Hugo is worldwide, but American voters are the majority). The Arthur C. Clarke and BFSA (British Fantasy and Science Fiction) Awards don't align with the American choices at all, and don't match up with each other either. Also interesting is that the winners of both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Nebula Award don't appear as a finalist on any of the other awards.

Hugo Awards 2015: Justice Served or Much Ado About Nothing?

So, the most hyped, bitterly fought and controversial Hugo Awards season has come and gone. The “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” each of whom tried to ensure that only their candidates were nominated, won a total of zero awards (ONE actually, if you include their pick of Guardians of the Galaxy as best long form presentation).

Where the "Puppies" had managed to get the full slate of five potential candidates set as their choices, the voting members decide to give “No Award,” something that the rules allow. You will also see "No Award" in the middle of some listings. Voters rank their choices, and No Award is one of the rankable choices, allowing you to say, "Well if my choice(s) isn't going to win, then I want no award given."

Star Trek: Red Shirts Had It Better Than Blondes

Forget being a Red Shirt, being blonde on Star Trek could be fatal (to your acting career). After recently viewing Shatner's Chaos on The Bridge documentary and watching an old episode of Voyager, it hit me: blonde women didn’t usually last long on Star Trek. Grace Lee Whitney, Denise Crosby, and Jennifer Lien all didn’t make it through their respective series, all were blonde, and none had prominent acting careers afterwards. (Every rule has its exception, for this one, it’s Jeri Ryan. More on her later).

Fan Participation: Star Wars vs Star Trek

I hope that I don't have to tell you that I'm a Star Wars fan. I've been less demonstrative of my love of Trek, partially because that's how Trekkies/Trekkers roll (all logical and all that crap) and partially because JJ Abrams seems to have used the last two Star Trek outings to audition to direct Star Wars Episode VII. But I've lived inside the fan bases of both of these franchises and they are very different. I think one key difference comes down to how they are nurtured by their respective frachise owners, Paramount and Lucasfilm: the originality that Paramount nurtures versus the inclusion that Lucasfilms promotes.

Initially, there wasn’t much to tell them apart. Both had conventions, comic books, paperback new adventures, and not much more, then things changed...

Terry Pratchett Stories That Will Never Be Told

Terry Pratchett, make that Sir Terry Pratchett, was visited by one of his creations, Death, this past March. The world of fantasy and humour are worse off for that visitation.

I wouldn’t say that I am his biggest fan, I’ve only read 35 of his 41 Discworld novels and four or five of his non-Discworld novels. I haven’t read any of the companion books, for example (Science of… Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook… etc.). So you know, I’ve only read about forty of his books. So I guess I’m not a big fan… ;-)

… but even I know that Terry not only left a rich world, he left one full of interesting, yet untold, stories.

A Rainy Day Movie List - Some Sci-Fi to Watch

There has been a lot of good science fiction movies in the past few years, and there have been some blockbusters. But those haven't always been the same. Think of a Venn Diagram, two circles overlapping, there's a few movies that appear in the overlap (perhaps Guardians of the Galaxy or Mad Max: Fury Road), but most fall outside one way or the other. Here’s a list of some great-to-decent science fiction films that weren't blockbusters, but weren't bad. They cover a spectrum of styles and moods. You can probably find one or two that you haven’t already seen.

10 Novels that have stayed with me

David Gerrold, noted science fiction writer, had an interesting article on his website, 10 Novels that have stayed with me. One thing that amazed me is how much of a crossover there was with his list and my (then hypothetical) list. One thing that saddened me was that he gave the list (2 actually, one of books and one of authors), but no rationale for how they had impacted him. I thought I'd make my own list, but giving rationales for each. Read on...

Artificial Intelligence: Malicious in Movies, Benevolent in Books

Why is it that the portrayal of artificial intelligence in movies and books are contradictory? Almost universally, movies portray AI as adversarial to humans. I’ve noticed a disconnect between how books and movies portray artificial intelligence but I don’t have a clear explanation for it. Perhaps I have an observer’s bias and this is completely wrong. If you could be so kind as to read the article and use the comment space below to help me flesh out either this obvious disconnect or my obvious bias, I’d appreciate it.

What’s up with Jurassic World’s Blue Raptor?

If you haven’t been watching the trailers for Jurassic World, well, good for you. I’m not too keen on this movie, it just seems like it’s full of stupidity. But that’s not the point of this screed.

Today’s question for Jurassic fans is what’s up with the blue raptor? If it isn’t clear in this gif, then look at the first 15 seconds of this trailer. The raptor has blue waxy streaks down the sides of its torso and tail - AND - they appear to flash colour as if they had an electrical charge.

... More and bigger images inside...

How Does Luke Skywalker Live with Himself?

At the end of Star Wars (1977) our intrepid hero destroys the Death Star.

Yay, the good guys win!

Note that Luke didn’t kill the bad guy - he survived for the sequel. No, Luke killed the minions. When the Death Star destroys Alderaan, Ben says, “It’s as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” But that was the bad guy's fault. Luke is a good guy, isn't he?

How many people were on the Death Star? Wookiepedia puts the number at 1,148,309 or just over 1.1 million people. And you cheered when they died, didn’t you? Feeling a little guilty? No, not yet? Read on...

Buying a Book for all the Wrong Reasons

Can there be a wrong reason to buy a book? I think there can, and I think I’m guilty of it. The book in question is Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which won the Hugo (Science Fiction’s premier award) in 2014 for Best Novel. Even before I knew that the book had won the Hugo, i had seen the cover and been intrigued enough by it to pick up the book and read the back blurb. Something about the blurb always put me off, and I didn’t buy it. Now I have, and now I know I should have listened to my gut and saved the money.

What led me to buy it? The “Sad Puppies.”

There’s a bit of history here that needs to be explained. A few years ago, some members of the science fiction community noted that the Hugo tended to be awarded to (apparently straight) white male writers, which was fine when that was what the industry was made of, but the growing diversity of the writing pool seemed not to be represented in the Hugo nominees, and good works by women and people of colour (PoC) had little chance of being nominated. Some prominent people in sci fi started suggesting the names of writers who were being overlooked, and last year, the Hugo nominees were much more diverse than in previous years, and Anne Leckie won best novel.

Science Fiction Mullet: Party upfront, brawl out back

*Mullet: A men's hairstyle, short in front and long out back. See Bono, below.

Bono with a mulletFor most people, their main exposure to science fiction is through movies. This has been true for a long time, although in recent years that’s escalated. Even people who don’t like science fiction saw The Avengers. Many probably didn’t even consider it science fiction. Ditto for Gravity.

In the meantime, there has been a slow battle brewing deeper in the science fiction community. This year, science fiction’s pre-eminent award, the Hugos, is wrapped in controversy. One small, vocal group has managed to stack the nominations with works that may not represent the best of this year, or any year. I’m sure you’ve been following this controversy closely (not). If you want to get up to speed, George R. R. Martin can help you.

So while the most fanatical members of the science fiction community look inward and fight over the the soul of the Hugos, society as a whole is bracing itself for a romping summer of exciting science fiction.

When is your story not your story?

"Something unsavoury" happening in Hollywood may not sound original, but then again, when have you seen anything original come out of Hollywood?

To answer my own rhetorical question, I would have said that Interstellar and Gravity were two recent examples of originality, not based on books, that showed that Hollywood could still produce truly engaging original content.

It turns out that I may have been only half right, and that's where this gets unsavoury.

UPDATED - Read On

Thoughts on Shel Silverstein

Recently, Shel Silverstein has become a topic of conversation in the blogosphere, not bad for someone who died in 1999. The cause of this sudden surge of interest is a new interpretation of one of his classic works, The Giving Tree. The upshot of this new interpretation is that the book is not about compassion and greed, but in fact about "patriarchy" and that it “romanticizes self-destructive and self-negating behavior in women."

I guess that I'd have to say that people sometimes read a book too deeply, projecting their own themes onto those of the author. Shel wrote simplistic stories with a child-like perspective. I've always had a soft spot for that perspective, but he wrote in broad storkes, and in doing so, left room open for others to fill in the details as fit their psychology.

Tau Ceti - an update

The last time I wrote about Tau Ceti’s progress was in September when it was sitting at 77,000 words. I was worried at the time that the story might wrap up too quickly, that it might be only 90,000 words complete. A lot has changed since then. I got to spend a lot of time working on the story in December, and I’ve found that some key scenes took much longer to develop than I had expected, pushing the current, not-yet-complete, word count over 105,000.

Star Wars (1977) vs Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

In 1977 I fell in love with a movie that doesn't technically exist any more. That movie was called Star Wars. Its creator has tried his best to destroy every existing print of the negatives, to ensure that the movie would be lost. Why? Because he wanted to use the guts of the film to make a new "enhanced" version called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Will Aaron Sorkin Burn The Newsroom to the Ground?

Spoilers for The Newsroom, season 3 episode 5 follow. Read at your own risk.

Throughout this truncate season, I’ve had some real glimmers of hope for The Newsroom. The show, about a plucky, holier-than-thou newsroom that decides not to pander to the lowest common denominator, but to treat their audience as if they were intelligent, moral people, has had its detractors, many of them in newsrooms throughout the US. Personally I like the idealism that it strives for, but the show often brushes off key factors like ratings and advertisers, adding a layer of surreality to the proceedings.

Some of those neglected elements have been coming back to bite the fictional newsroom this season. The network has been sold to a nouveau riche new media ‘visionary’ who stands for everything the newsroom doesn’t -- citizen journalism and immediacy over fact checking and second-sourcing news. Add to this that the newsroom is still suffering from a loss of credibility for getting suckered into presenting a detailed and very incorrect report on the US military using sarin gas in Afghanistan.

Christmas in Malaysia

I’ve been meaning to write about Christmas in Malaysia since, well, last Christmas. I’m glad I waited, as this year I’m noticing things that contradict what I thought I experienced the first time.

Malaysia is a country at a unique intersection. It is a Muslim country* but it is also an Asian country. Although Muslims don’t generally celebrate Christmas, Asian retailers love any holiday that promotes consumerism, and in that sense, there’s no holiday like Christmas.

Christopher Nolan's Interstellar: The Great Filter and Timey-Wimey Stuff

This post most certainly contains spoilers for the movie Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan had a lot to say in Interstellar, and he took almost three hours to say it. I’m just not sure that it ever amounted to anything. In this film, ex-astronaut turned farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is convinced to leave his family in an attempt to save them (and Earth) from certain destruction. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Armageddon, this is a much bleaker, darker, and realistic doom — we’ve destroyed the Earth’s environment and now it’s killing us.

“You’re writing a book? Cool! Am I in it?”

It’s a question that I’m sure every unpublished fiction writer gets (published writers can tell you to buy the book and find out for yourself). I’m also sure that the answer is the same for 99.99% of them as it is for me.

No.

My books deal with situations that I want to explore. That means that the characters are defined by the needs of the plot (although as the story matures in writing, the characters also bring new perspectives and conversations to the storyline).

Writing Linearly, in the First Person - a challenge

I don’t write linearly. I don’t write the first chapter first, the second chapter second, etc., until the last chapter last. There are writers who write that way. I'm not one of them. I start at the beginning, write the end, then work out what has to happen to get from point A to point Z. I go back and add a detail or a piece of information that will become important later. I worl- build as aspects are revealed to me, and I incorporate them as I go along.

Things you never think about: does a 20-cent coin make more sense than a 25-cent coin?

I noticed that I seemed to need less coins to make change in Malaysia than I did in Canada. Canada, like its counterpart the US, uses the following coins for values under $1: 5, 10, and 25 cent pieces (under $1, so not counting the loonie or twoonie). While Canada does technically have a 50-cent coin, it’s not widely circulated and can be hard to spend or receive as change. Malaysia has the following coins: 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents. Canada, like Malaysia, no longer has a one-cent co

The Value and Bane of Word Counts

Writers live an die by the words they write. Invariably, they die by word counts.

Lately I’ve been setting myself writing goals for a novel I’m working on, Tau Ceti. Each month I project where I want the story to be at both the end of that month and the next. Unfortunately, missing those targets can be incredibly deflating. In July I missed my word count goal, and again in August. My story got stuck around 73,000 words and didn’t seem to go anywhere.

Gupta-Gate: A failure in South African journalism

In May 2013, a scandal broke out in South Africa over a private jet landing at the top military base. At the time, none of the statements being made by the government made sense, and they often contradicted each other. I wrote the following to draw attention to them and to ask that some journalist step up and actually challenge these "facts." 

Tau Ceti - The evolution of a story

Once, in the 1980s, I started writing a story, called The Key to Alexandria, about angels, demons, magical crystals, time travel and a modern-day hero named Jeffery Kard. In this story, our protagonist gets slowly drawn into a mythical realm that overlays our reality. He learns of three crystals and a battle by two warring factions, angels and demons, each intent on unifying the crystals for their own purposes.

Lesser-known Science Fiction Stories That Have Stayed with Me… and few classics that haven’t

There are some books that may not be well known as science fiction classics, but that I’ve found myself reading repeatedly. Dune is a classic, and I’ve written about it elsewhere, so it’s not on this list, not because it hasn’t influenced me considerably, but because it is so well known in the genre.

Making a physical book from an electronic manuscript as a gift

I decided to give my girlfriend a copy of my unfinished story as a physical book. She’d been wanting to read it for a while and her birthday was near, so off I went…

Step 1 - Selecting the size.

Given that I have an A4 printer and that A5 (half of A4) is an acceptable size for a hard cover book, I went with A5.

Step 2 - Sourcing material.

What would the navigational conventions in near-planet space be?

As I’ve been contemplating a crowded human space, in the Deacon Carver series of novels. I’ve started dwelling on how ships of various sizes and maneuvering capabilities would co-exist in a gravity well.

No, I don’t buy the “hand it off to the computer and forget about it” approach.

A Story-Teller Ascends Hopeful, Optimistic, and Naive

Throughout my life I’ve been a story teller: I drew my own comic books as a youth; I wrote fiction as a teen; I was a journalist; I defined information flows as an information designer; I communicated language as a teacher; and I've shone a light on some very deserving people as a communications consultant and fundraiser for educational charities in Africa.

Now it’s time to tell my stories.

And I’ve got a number to tell.

Agents of Firefly - Joss Whedon's Karmic Circle

I’ve been re-watching season 1 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and it dawned on me that the show really is just a larger budget, less engaging Firefly. I don’t think it’s far outside the consensus to say that Agents… wasn’t Joss Whedon’s most well-received TV show among his fan-base, even as it was a ratings hit.