Recap of MarsCon 2019, Saturday

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

Most of my Saturday at the con was taken up by meetings for RavenCon programming (in particular the new Science Track, for which I am very excited!). However I did get a chance to browse the dealer floor, the art room, and attend a couple of panels.

In How Does One Write Near-Future Science Fiction?, panelists Patrick Dugan, Jason T. Graves, Drew A. Avera, and Gray Rinehart were moderated by Jim Beall. Unfortunately, though Jim was quite well prepared (a wonderful thing in a moderator), the authors on the panel did not seem to be well-suited for the panel topic, as most did not seem to have a lot of stories set in the near future themselves. However, most were writers of Hard Science Fiction (which is not necessarily the same thing). This mismatch is hardly the fault of the panelists, but perhaps Programming can take a note for future cons.

Though the panel did not spend much time actually answering the question posed in its title, I did walk away with several nuggets of useful information. One suggested way of avoiding the pitfall of having certain readers get too caught up in the numbers or “realness” of the story elements as if they are meant to be predictions is to a) generally avoid numbers all together if possible, and b) stick to explication only where you actually have expertise or knowledge based on research, leaving the rest implied. We discussed the questions of whether near-term science fiction has to also be hard science fiction to be good/enjoyable (not necessarily, and Neuromancer was offered as a counter-example), and also if near-term science fiction needs to attempt to predict the future to be useful (generally no).

I later attended The Big World of Small Press and Indie Publishing, featuring Michael Thomson, Leslie Heath, Melissa McArthur, Kacey Ezell, and moderated by Chris Kennedy. The panelists were all in some fashion indie or small press authors and/or publishers, with a good bit of diversity in how it was implemented (full-time, part-time, completely indie, traditional + indie, etc). All generally agreed that the major benefits to small press and indie publishing were: much more rapid turnaround at all points of the publication timeline (editing, feedback, cover selection, proof, release, etc), a much greater degree of control and input by the author at all points in the process, a more personal connection with everyone involved, and generally a larger percentage of the overall pie. The two major downsides being that mass exposure is much less likely or perhaps impossible, and that the author is expected and required to take on more (or complete) personal responsibility for the product at every step of the process.

The panelists listed the following mistakes they have made in the past that future indie or small press authors should avoid

  • Series sell the most, and waiting too long to continue a series can kill its inherent momentum.
  • Always read a contract, or even better, get a lawyer to look over it (it’s probably cheaper than you think).
  • Don’t forget about pre-marketing, and make sure to do the work to build up a community around a work before releasing it.

Further big news from the con, though it was not particularly con-related… I found out that I got in to the advanced fiction studio at The Muse Writing Center in Norfolk that I applied to last week! I’ll be starting that on February 4th, and I’m looking forward to focusing on my sequel to Red Soil.

Recap of MarsCon 2019, Friday

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series MarsCon 2019

I’m a little embarrassed to say that I missed MarsCon the first year I was living here in Virginia. I saw the name come up on a list of area conventions, and assumed it was a technical and semi-technical con specific to Mars and Mars colonization (like a Mars Society convention or something), not a sci-fi and fantasy con. Then this year, I was expecting to not be able to make it at all due to work travel, but here I am furloughed with all official travel cancelled so… against many headwinds, here I am at MarsCon 2019!

Today I attended two panels. The first was entitled Writing Military Themed Stories, featuring John “Cal” Baldari (Army veteran and a professor of military ethics), Chris Kennedy (Navy veteran and author and publisher of military science fiction), and moderator Kacey Ezell (active duty Air Force helicopter pilot).

We discussed several themes and motifs that appeal to readers, and give war stories lasting appeal: the ideals of duty / honor / sacrifice / service / etc, the vicarious power to use authorized / sanctioned / “moral” force (when in modern civilian life violence is generally prohibited), and the inner journey of becoming a soldier and pushing oneself beyond previously perceived limits to do great things.

We also got several recommendations from the panel for books/movies/stories that they felt portrayed some aspect of the military experience well: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (for the day to day experience), Full Metal Jacket for the training portion, Twelve O’Clock High for the how and how-not-to on leadership and command chain, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller for the insight into military bureaucracy, The Black Company for the moral ambiguity, and several others

The second panel I attended was Moral Conflict in Genre Fiction, which featured Michael D. Pederson (moderator), Professor John “Cal” Baldari, Jason Gilbert, Kettle Macaulay, and Valerie J. Mikles. The panel was less a primer on how to create morally conflicted characters (which is what I was hoping for) and more a discussion of of characters that create moral conflict for the reader/viewer, such as sympathetic villains (which was still interesting). However, I still got several useful nuggets from the discussion. Particularly, I was intrigued by the idea of science-fiction and fantasy settings being actually advantageous for presenting the audience with contemporary moral challenges, as the speculative elements help control / hone the message while cushioning against defensiveness that can arise in real world depictions of complex issues.

The most useful takeaway for me personally from the panel was a realization that I think I have a tendency to try to provoke moral conflict in the reader, and use that to get around creating characters that are truly morally conflicted themselves. It was an epiphany that caps off some recent reading of The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maas. It goes to show that participation in these types of in-person con discussions can often prompt synthesized realizations that may not be obvious from simply getting the information content from somewhere!

Looking forward to tomorrow’s panels, as well as a chance to meet the rest of the RavenCon planning committee for the first time. (I’ve been helping with the new Science Track.) Onward to Day 2!

My RavenCon Schedule

I’ll be at RavenCon 2018 next weekend (April 20-22)!

The Con of Opportunity returns to Williamsburg, Virginia with over 300 hours of programming in one action-packed weekend! Gaming, panels, signings, kids’ programming, workshops, readings, vendors, authors, artists, tournaments, costuming, anime, movies, concerts, books, books, and more books!

My panel schedule is below:

Ask a Scientist: Kids Edition – Saturday, April 21 • 1:00pm – 1:55pm – Room G. Those curious scientific questions we’ve always wondered about but have never been able to ask a scientist, until today!
(Robert V. Aldrich*, Les Carter, Richard Groller, N.A. Ratnayake)

2001: A Space Odyssey: 50 Years – Saturday, April 21 • 4:00pm – 4:55pm – Room E. A discussion of the 50th anniversary of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and how it stands up to today.
(Jennifer R. Povey, N.A. Ratnayake, Chris Shrewsbury, John C. Wright*)

Reading: Chris A Jackson and N.A. Ratnayake – Saturday, April 21 • 8:00pm – 8:55pm – Room 4. (I will probably read from unpublished work, either from one of the two novels I have in progress or a short story that is currently in submission circulation.)

If you can’t make any of these panels, you can also find me wandering the con. I’ll be live tweeting (@quantumcowboy) and tooting (@quantumcowboy@wandering.shop) throughout the weekend. I’ll also have the remaining few promo USB drives containing Red Soil Through our Fingers plus my two published short stories.

My Capclave 17 Schedule

My first con appearance since moving to Virginia will be next week at Capclave 17, a literary sci-fi convention organized by the Washington Science Fiction Association. I’m looking forward to meeting new readers, writers, and fans of science fiction and fantasy! My panel schedule is below.

  • Does Hard Science Fiction Have to be Opaque to Non-Techies? – 10am Saturday – Frederick: Panelists will discuss how writing about quantum computing, string theory, nanotechnology, genetics, chemistry, rocket science, etc., can be done in a way that is scientifically accurate, yet understandable by people who have no science background past high school and maybe college distribution requirement. E.g. making Bose-Einstein Condensate understandable to someone who never got past “physics for poets.”
    Panelists: Jack Campbell, N.A. Ratnayake, Mike McPhail, Ian Randal Strock (m), David Walton
  • War on Science – 6pm Saturday – Rockville/Potomac: Some of America’s leaders don’t believe in global warming, want creationism taught in schools, and others want to ban human cloning or restrict genetic modified foods. Why this distrust of science? Is it growing? Are political leaders trying to appeal to the ignorant or do they really believe this? And what is the danger to the planet?
    Panelists: Carolyn Ives Gilman, Inge Heyer (m), Thomas Holtz, James Morrow, N.A. Ratnayake
  • What Are The New Questions That SF/F Should Be Asking? – 11am Sunday – Rockville/Potomac: SF in particular is meant to be a forward-looking genre. What questions should contemporary SFF writers be asking that they are not? What issues are being successfully addressed?
    Panelists: M’Shai Dash, Caroline Ives Gilman, Malka Older, N.A. Ratnayake
  • Positive Science Fiction – 1pm Sunday – Bethesda: Much SF these days is dystopian or grim. Why isn’t there more positive SF? Jetse DeVries’s anthology Shine demonstrated that it’s possible to write positive SF even when dealing with issues such as climate change.
    Panelists: Malka Older, Sarah Pinsker, N.A. Ratnayake, Bud Sparhawk (m)

Looking forward to a great con!

My Boskone 54 Schedule

I’m honored to announce that I’ll be appearing as a panelist again at Boskone 54! The con will be held February 17-19, 2017. Below is my panelist and reading schedule.

Inspiring the Next Generation of STEM Leaders Through YA Fiction, Saturday 10:00 – 11:00, Harbor II (Westin): Science fiction has inspired countless young people to become astronauts, engineers, and scientists. We’ll discuss current science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) topics in YA fiction — and our favorite must-reads from today’s authors. Panelists: Christine Taylor-Butler, Rob Greene, Brenda Noiseux (M), N.A. Ratnayake

Immersive Technology, Saturday 13:00 – 14:00, Marina 3 (Westin): The first computers took up entire rooms; we had to invent whole new languages so we could “talk” to them. Now we control mobile phones through hand gestures. Will virtual or augmented reality become common in our daily lives? Will the next phase be a direct human/computer connection? Will we lose ourselves within our technology? Panelists: Dan Moren , Daniel P. Dern, N.A. Ratnayake (M), Karl Schroeder, Flourish Klink

Earth 2.0: Manned Space Flight in the 21st Century, Saturday 15:00 – 16:00, Burroughs (Westin): From SpaceX orbital jaunts to interstellar travel, the practical boundaries of 21st-century manned space exploration are expanding with each new technical advance. What space flight possibilities have we got in the works today? What more might we achieve in the not-so-distant future? How about a little later out? What are our chances of reaching any of the potential New Earths? Panelists: Ian Randal Strock, Jordin T. Kare, Janet Catherine Johnston, N.A. Ratnayake, Allen M. Steele (M)

The Year in Astronomy and Physics, Saturday 16:00 – 17:00, Burroughs (Westin): An annual roundup of the latest research and discoveries in two sciences that matter. Our experts will share what’s new and interesting, cutting-edge and speculative. From planets to particles, and beyond! Panelists: Mark L. Olson (M), Jeff Hecht, N.A. Ratnayake, Janet Catherine Johnston

Reading by N.A. Ratnayake: Sunday 13:30 – 14:00, Independence (Westin)

And there’s a lot more nerdery to be found in the Boskone Program. Hope to see you there!

Panel Postmortem: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise?

This post is the first in what I intend to be several recaps of some of the most thought-provoking moments during this weekend’s Arisia science fiction and fantasy convention.

First of all, I have to thank Andrea Hairston. As a panelist and audience member, moderators have consistently been the most significant factor affecting the experience of con panel. Andrea was our fearless leader during this panel and I think we all owe her thanks for her energetic and positive management of the conversation.

Panel Description: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? – Marina 2, Literature, Sun 11:30 AM: We are hearing, after a long sojourn in dystopia and postapocalypse, that optimistic SF is making a comeback. Is it really the case or is the optimism of yesterday just another type of nostalgia? When climate change, postantibiotic medicine, and resource depletion are major factors in our lives (topics that are not always as well addressed in optimistic SF), is there a way to temper our optimism and inspire those who might be able to face these problems? Panelists: Andrea Hairston (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, Matthew Kressel, T.X. Watson, M.J. Cunniff

I was happy that the conversation could begin with every panelist answering the titular question in the negative: no, optimism is not just nostalgia in disguise. We had different perspectives as to why and how to move forward, but it was great to have that connecting thread. I won’t (and really can’t) give a transcript or summary of the conversation as it happened, but here are some of my key conclusions that I took away.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Star Wars: Rogue One, skip the section “Positive Stories in Negative Spaces.”]

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My Arisia 2017 Schedule

I’m excited to be returning as a panelist to Arisia 2017, New England’s largest and most diverse sci-fi and fantasy convention! Arisia is coming up in just a few weeks (January 13-16, 2017)… Grab a membership soon, because the rates go up after December 31.

My panelist schedule is below, and besides these I plan to attend many more in Science, Writing, and Literature.

  • What Are the New Questions SFF Should be Asking? – Burroughs, Literature, Fri 5:30 PM: Speculative fiction needs to speculate, as changes in the world pile up thick and fast. News of these new developments – scientific, political, cultural, and personal – reaches a broad audience, sometimes even before the developments have actually developed. Does SF have space to speculate? Should we try to keep pace with the way the world changes? Is that possible? What new questions should we ask?
    Panelists: Dr. Pamela Gay (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, John Sundman, Steve E. Popkes, N.S. Dolkhart
  • How To Use Real Science In Your SciFantasy Story –  Alcott, Writing, Fri 10:00 PM: How can you use *real* science in your science fiction and fantasy stories? What is fringe science? Where do you dig it up? Where does STEM fit into your worldbuilding? And how do you adapt boring JSTOR studies to high-stakes action on a space-battleship or a magic kingdom? Our STEM panelists will teach you how to sprinkle a little science fairy dust to make even the most audacious story sound scientifically plausible.
    Panelists: Deborah Kaminski (mod), Timothy Goyette, N.A. Ratnayake, Ian Randall Stock, Stephen R. Wilk
  • The Intersection of Art and Science – Adams, Science, Sat 10:00 AM: Astronomical imagery, mathematical music, negative-space theorizing, gaming into data-structures. Panelists will discuss how they integrate their scientific careers into their artistic ventures, and vice versa.
    Panelists: Shelley Marsh (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, John Sundman, Sarah Smith, Drew Van Zandt
  • What We Know from Juno – Marina 3, Science, Sat 11:30 AM: Juno is a NASA space probe currently orbiting the planet Jupiter. For 20 months the probe will gather a wealth of new information including more details about the planet’s atmospheric composition and core density. Come find out what we’ve learned so far.
    Panelists: Jeff Hecht (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, Dr. Pamela Gay, Dan Brian
  • Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? – Marina 2, Literature, Sun 11:30 AM: We are hearing, after a long sojourn in dystopia and postapocalypse, that optimistic SF is making a comeback. Is it really the case or is the optimism of yesterday just another type of nostalgia? When climate change, postantibiotic medicine, and resource depletion are major factors in our lives (topics that are not always as well addressed in optimistic SF), is there a way to temper our optimism and inspire those who might be able to face these problems?
    Panelists: Andrea Hairston (mod), N.A. Ratnayake, Matthew Kressel, T.X. Watson, M.J. Cunniff

Boskone 53 Recap

What a wonderful weekend it was at Boskone! I had the pleasure of serving on five panels, one solo reading, and the Boskone Book Release Party. Below are the weekend’s highlights from my point of view.

My first panel was entitled Earth: We’re Stuck Here!. Moderator James Patrick Kelley led us in a lively discussion that took the contrarian view of spaceflight, with each member of the panel staking out different ground on the sliding scale of spaceflight optimist to pessimist. My own position was (and is) that human spaceflight enthusiasts are often too optimistic or hand-wavy about very real, serious challenges to human expansion beyond Earth’s orbit. My two areas of focus were Biology (encompassing not just radiation, but long term exposure to zero or low-G, birth, development, aging, and death in space, food, ecosystems, etc), and logistics (supply chain, manufacturing, replicability, reliability, etc). However, while I think these challenges will make human spaceflight much more difficult, costly, and time-consuming than many spaceflight enthusiasts think, I do still believe they are surmountable challenges. I remain pragmatically optimistic about the issues.

And, apparently, I had the quote of the evening.

My next panel was Key Moments in Space Travel. I enjoyed how this panel strove to go beyond the obvious moments of Yuri Gagarin’s first flight and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. As momentous as these moments were, they are also generally well known. We talked about the early X-15 program, our first forays into space, in which the pilots received their astronaut wings after the fact. I brought up Salyut 1, the first space station of any kind, marking humanity’s first attempt to establish a semi-permanent presence in space. Fellow panelists talked about Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia, and we reflected on the difficulties of spaceflight and the lessons learned from tragedy.  Finally, we looked ahead to what might shape our near future in spaceflight, with countries such as China and India setting out near term goals for their taikonauts and vyomanauts, respectively, as well as private space enterprise.

The panel 100 Years of Relativity kicked off a whirlwind Saturday afternoon of science and spaceflight. We discussed the history of Einstein’s infamous theory of warping spacetime as an explanation for our perception of gravity. We highlighted key observations in history that validated Einstein’s new view of the universe, such as the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, the bending of light rays as they pass near massive objects, gravitational redshift, frame dragging of spacetime around rotating massive objects, time dilation in a gravitational field, gravitational lensing, the existence of black holes, and (quite recently) LIGO’s direct observation of gravitational waves. We also touched on the social impact of General Relativity (Interstellar anyone?) and bit on how theories adapt and change over time.

Next up for me was The Year in Physics and Astronomy, where we discussed exciting new discoveries in two fields that have long had a symbiotic relationship with science fiction. We talked about Kepler 452b, one of the most promising candidates for an Earthlike planet outside of our solar system. Quantum effects observed in photosynthesis, flying a probe through a geyser on Enceladus, the New Horizons and Dawn missions, gravitational waves, pentaquarks, and baby universes being born inside quantum vacuum black holes rounded out a very diverse list of topics.

As Saturday afternoon passed into evening, I gave my first solo reading from my novel Red Soil Through Our Fingers. I proceeded directly to the Boskone 53 Book Party, where I got to meet many readers and fellow authors, several of whom picked up USB editions of the novel. So far, over two hundred copies of Red Soil Through Our Fingers have gone out into the world since the release last month. As people get around to reading and reviewing, I’m anxiously looking forward to seeing what readers think.

My final panel was Phun with Physics. We had a great crowd, doubly so considering that it was a Sunday afternoon panel! We highlighted some of the lesser-known quirky points in the history of Physics, such as early attempts to measure the speed of light, the Magedeberg spheres being used to demonstrate the power of vacuum, weighing and measuring the circumference of the Earth, debunking common misconceptions about Galileo and Archimedes, and looking at the important contributions of non-Western scientists who are often left out of the traditional Physics canon.

I’m delighted to report a major writer milestone: Boskone 53 marked the first time a fan I did not already know has asked for my autograph. It was right after one of my panels, and “Mark” approached the table with a print copy of We See a Different Frontier. He asked if I could sign the title page to my short story Remembering Turinam, which appeared in the anthology two years ago. I was so flabbergasted that I’m not exactly sure what I said or even if I can remember what my first real fan looks like. So Mark, if you’re out there reading this, please drop me a line! Thanks for your support and hopefully what I wrote was coherent.

Lastly, I’d like to congratulate Andrew Owens, a friend and member of my writer group, on a successful first stint as a part of con programming. Andrew was a panelist on multiple panels, moderated one superbly with no advance notice, and even led a solo workshop on Spaceflight in Science Fiction and Reality. Andrew writes for Asking How and Why, a new blog that translates complex science into clear explanations for the educated lay public. He also does some reviews of science fiction and nonfiction.

That’s all until next year Boskone! Thanks for an enlightening time.

My Boskone 53 Schedule

Join me at Boskone (February 19-21, 2016) in Boston, MA for New England’s longest running science fiction and fantasy convention. It’s going to be a fun weekend filled with books, film, art, music, gaming, and more. For more information about Boskone, check out The Boskone Blog, Twitter, and Facebook. Visit the Boskone website to register.

I will be appearing in five panels, a reading, and a book release party. Details below!

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My Arisia 2016 Schedule

I’m happy to be returning to Arisia as a panelist again this winter! New England’s largest and most diverse science fiction convention will be January 15-18, 2016 at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, near the convention center. My panel schedule is below.

Hope to see you there! (Ask for a signed copy of the USB edition of Red Soil Through Our Fingers!)

Edit 1/4/16: I was recently added to one more panel in the Literature strand, as well as a reading. These updates are now included below.

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