Review of “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt

The Swerve: How the World Became ModernThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the surface, it is the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century Italian scholar who uncovers one of the last remaining manuscripts of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. The meta-story is really about the power of ideas to survive the fall of empire, the dark ages that come after, and re-emerge as the seeds of enlightenment. The narrative is engaging and coherent, and I left both inspired by humanism but also regretting how much knowledge must have been destroyed over the centuries by the forces of superstition and dogma.

View all my reviews

Review of “The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

The Wright BrothersThe Wright Brothers by David McCullough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My first audiobook! I chose a topic of which I had prior knowledge, but I was surprised how many new things I learned from McCullough’s account of the Wright brothers’ journey to making the world’s first controlled, powered flight in an airplane. Like all good historical nonfiction, the account interweaves the individual human level with the big picture. McCullough shows the personal lives of the Wright family as well as the broader technological and political implications and context of their work.

I especially enjoy that the book is also a fine counter to the myth that genius is the product of natural talents and sudden epiphany. McCullough shows the childhood influences the brothers had to encourage tinkering and creativity, and details at length the decades of thought, experimentation, innovation, and perseverance through failure, injury, and ridicule that were necessary to arrive at their world-changing achievements. The book is as much a testament to the personal qualities and character of the whole Wright family as it is an account of their technological contribution to history.

View all my reviews

My Indie Titles Will No Longer Distribute on Amazon

I have decided to pull Red Soil Through Our Fingers from Amazon’s e-bookshelves and refrain from allowing Amazon to distribute any of my future indie-published books for the time being.

Before I go any further, a word to Kindle users: You can still read my books! Buy from Smashwords, and you will be able to download the book in .mobi format. You will need to move the .mobi file to your Kindle (via USB), or you can read it via the Kindle Reader mobile or desktop apps.

My reasoning for taking this action is multi-fold. Most of my reasons break down into two categories:

Continue reading

Response to VVEV: Section I – Low Earth Orbit

This is Part 1 of a six-part response to Visions, Ventures, and Escape Velocities: A Collection of Space Futures, which is available for free from Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination thanks to a grant from NASA. I say “response” and not “review” because I intend to engage with the ideas presented from my own point of view.

VVEV is illustrated by Maciej Rebisz.

Section I of VVEV is entitled Low Earth Orbit, and contains two short stories and three essays:

  • Vanguard 2.0, by Carter Scholtz
  • Reflections on the Dual Uses of Space Innovation, by G. Pascal Zachary
  • Mozart on the Kalahari, by Steven Barnes
  • Past Empires and the Future of Colonization in Low Earth Orbit, by William K. Storey
  • Expanding Our Solution Space: How We Can Build an Inclusive Future, by Deji Bryce Olukotun

This blog post contains spoilers!

Continue reading

Review: Dune, by Frank Hebert

Dune (Dune Chronicles #1)Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve come to this book later than most, and I’m so glad I did.

I’ll start with the criticism. First let me acknowledge that, as a book published in 1965, Dune contains a few elements that are likely to be problematic to the modern reader. The world depicted (which is an active choice made by the author) is almost universally patriarchal — not just one society, mind you, but all of them, with the possible exception of one. (However, even that one, the Bene Gesserit multi-generational society of powerful sorcerer-ninja women, is incomplete and cannot fulfill its ultimate purpose until a LONG-PROPHESIED MALE CHILD is born to do what somehow none of them can.) And apropos of long prophesies, the story is definitely among the Chosen One narratives, which seem to have gone decisively out of style (at least in more literary science fiction).

All that said, I was thoroughly engrossed in the world: the captivating setting with its desert aesthetic strongly influenced by the Islamic world, the interweaving of complex politics and deep religions, and the layers upon layers of motivations and counter motivations that tear at almost any character with a name. Dune also falls within the prestigious company of those few books that I’ve read which manage to blend hard science fiction and fantastical elements seamlessly together in the service of evoking wonder — such as Revelation Space or Anathem.

I’m hooked. I can finally understand why Dune became the genre’s gold standard for science-fiction that isn’t afraid to talk about the human element, and does it exceptionally well. I definitely plan to add the rest of the series to my To-Read list.

View all my reviews

Review of “Bladeunner 2049”

The original “Bladerunner” was possibly my favorite science fiction movie for a long time. After seeing Bladeruner 2049 yesterday, I think the sequel has pushed the series back to the top of my estimation.

Visually, this was one of the very best films I have seen: a fantastic future as if imagined from the 1980’s, which allows it to stay true to (and even surpass) the original aesthetic.The atmosphere accurately and brutally captures the paranoid, soul-twisting vision of Phillip K. Dick, and the questions raised are just the kind that would keep PKD up at night. What is reality? What is the self? What constitutes human / consciousness / memory / morality? And what happens to our identity, love, and sense of self when the above can be commercialized and sold?

The experience of watching the film is jarring, and the questions it raises are uncomfortable. A few people walked out during a certain scene, and I am not surprised that it did more poorly than expected at the box office. But this is exactly the kind of science fiction needed to jolt people out of the endless desire for escapism, low-brow action, and stock plots in the genre. With the current pace of biotechnology, artificial intelligence, climate change, off-world colonies, and mass surveillance, we cannot afford to ignore the issues raised in this film.

THINK. It’s not illegal yet. And see this movie.

How to Submit a Short Story

A friend in my writer critique circle asked how to go about submitting short stories for publication. There’s a lot of information out there on this subject, but I thought it might be helpful to collate the information that has been helpful to me, as well as throw in some examples from my personal experience. In this post I’ll describe where I find markets, the submission process, and what goes into a cover letter.

Continue reading

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!

Stories Can Lead the Way: More Policy-Relevant SFF Is Needed

FutureShift has a blog post up entitled Missing from our Speculative Fiction: Government that Works. Below are the leading paragraphs.

Speculative fiction and political intrigue go hand in hand, yet we tend to see the same few stories about the same governments, over and over. In fantasy, you have your monarchies (benevolent or corrupt) or the occasional oligarchy, mostly based on hereditary power structures. This is your Game of Thrones territory. In science fiction, there’s only slightly more variety: oppressive dictatorships like Big Brother (our nightmare), or weak and corrupt democratic republics (our criticism of our present situation), or more rarely, various takes on socialism, ranging from deeply critical to cautiously optimistic.

Only rarely do we see other systems of government represented in our fiction, and it’s distressingly uncommon to see government working effectively for the common good — especially governments that resemble our U.S. system. In pop culture, democracies are corrupted by moneyed influences, elected officials are power-hungry, inept, or both, and government employees are bureaucratic drones who’ve had the joy sucked out of their lives by their dull work and sterile offices.

I sympathize, both with those crying out for new ideas to lead us in a positive direction, but also with the writers trying to do so — because this is a tall order. In effect, this is what I am trying to do in the as-yet untitled sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers: depict the messy process of throwing off old systems that no long work and replacing them with ones that do, all the while staving off attacks from everyone who has a stake in the outcome… which is basically everyone. Summary: it’s hard. I find myself spinning my wheels often.

The double whammy is that not only is the substance hard, but at the end of the day it’s also got to be a good story or people simply won’t read it. How do you make socio-economic systems and the politics of structural oppression both interesting and accessible in a world where the bottom line is that readers/viewers want to be entertained with escapism, spectacle, character and adventure? It’s certainly not impossible, and the bloggers at FutureShift do point out a few examples.But we need to acknowledge that the bulk of the genre is not explicitly thinking this way, and we will have to make stories that not only have policy-relevant substance, but ALSO appeal to the masses to actually prompt change.

SciFi Policy posted a list of policy-relevant SFF markets which I think is a great start. However, I note that very few of the markets listed actually focus on this kind of story. We need more than incidental inclusion. I think more paying markets — even a single anthology to start — that specialize in constructive, forward-looking, policy-relevant fiction without sacrificing character and story would be a huge boon to this effort.

The topic reminds me of a panel at the last Arisia: Is Optimism Just Nostalgia in Disguise? The link there is to my panel post-mortem on this blog.

Finding My “Creative Mind” Again: Mindset and Writing

Photo via VisualHunt.com

Our move to Virginia from Boston about five months ago has had a hugely positive effect on my writing. That’s no slight to Boston, a creative city with a long literary history, that I do miss dearly. However, now that I’ve had some distance from the move, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the factors that have made a huge difference in my ability to regularly put words to page. I’ve discovered that specific mental patterns and habits have led to more creativity, and my hope is that others can find ways to carve out spaces in their lives for these ways of thinking as well.

Continue reading