Response to VVEV: Section I – Low Earth Orbit

This is Part 1 of a five-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 do not intend to critique fictional stories or the non-fiction essays contained in the collection, but 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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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Camp NaNoWriMo: Red Soil II

It’s just a few days to July, and I’ll be using Camp NaNoWriMo to jump-start a first draft of the sequel to Red Soil Through Our Fingers. Having moved from Boston to a much lower-stress pace of life in Virginia a couple of months ago, I’m now through the post-move transition and ready to draft some fiction again! Incidentally, Camp Nano was what led to the initial draft of Red Soil as well, so it’s fitting that the sequel will begin its life the same way. I’m also excited that several members of my writing group are joining in, plus some friends of ours as well!

Here’s my working “back cover” premise:

Yoo Sun-Hee has been left in charge of Hellas-Dao, a Mars colony caught in a power struggle that now ripples across the solar system. Surrounded by enemies and unsure of her allies, she must somehow defend the colony against all comers and navigate a path to freedom. Meanwhile, the thousands of colonists under Sun-Hee’s watch don’t see eye-to-eye on the best course for the future. As governments and mega-corporations battle for supremacy of interplanetary space, those living on the red soil of Mars descend into infighting and faction. A single spark could set off violence that will destroy the colony — or its hopes — from within.

Questions I’d like to explore:

  • How do we construct a functional society from factions that vehemently disagree over fundamental values, to the point of active hatred and violence? Is separation the only/best choice?
  • When loyalty to principle conflicts with loyalty to those we love, how do we decide which takes precedence?
  • When is it morally permissible to disobey legitimate orders or reveal secret information you promised not to reveal? (Thinking about Ed Snowden, Reality Winner, et al here.)
  • What is the line between freedom fighter and terrorist, and who gets to decide? Is the difference truly just in the eye of the beholder? Are there ends so important that they justify morally questionable — or even reprehensible — means? (This is a touchy one… I’m by no means intending to justify terrorism, and I do believe there are both hard lines and gray areas. I find the broader question interesting though, from a social, political, historical, and not mention contemporary perspective.)
  • If we truly had an opportunity to “reset” a government/society and shed generations of precedent, what would we build?

I’m excited to begin!

If you still haven’t ever picked up a copy of Book 1, Red Soil Through Our Fingers will be FREE at Smashwords from July 1 to July 31 as part of their annual July Summer/Winter sale.

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Podcast Interview at Arjun’s Arrow

The podcast Arjun’s Arrow has set the following principles for itself:

  • provide a message through the grassroots
  • spread information through education
  • revive the human spirit through knowledge of self

I was honored to be the second-ever interview guest of Arjun Collins, host of Arjun’s Arrow, a good friend, and former colleague. Check out this audio interview of me about Red Soil Through Our Fingers.  We had a great conversation about economic exploitation, engineered environments, genetically engineered crops, the need for a strong public space policy, and how the exploration of space can help us develop technology for sustainable living here on Earth.

Post a comment and subscribe (either here or on Arjun’s Arrow) and I hope you enjoy the dialogue.

Haven’t yet picked up your copy of the novel? Learn more and order your copy now.

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Why Space?

A few weeks ago, Icame across an article in the Houston Press about Buzz Aldrin and Mars. Headline: “Buzz Aldrin Says NASA Should Ditch the ISS and Make the Mars Jump“. Aldrin’s statement is hardly anything he hasn’t said before,  but any debate about NASA’s next steps needs to start by discussing a more fundamental question: Why should we go into space at all?

Category 1: Human Spaceflight

Aldrin would probably say something along the lines of “because we as humans are born explorers, and it is the greatest challenge of all to venture out into the great vastness of space.” Human space exploration of the solar system and beyond as the goal of spaceflight has a sizeable contingent of supporters, and plenty of lofty rhetoric to match (think JFK’s famous Moon Speech). Inspirational appeals to our sense of adventure and wonder aside, it is practically true that doing the hardest things we can imagine results in incidental gains in scientific understanding, technological development, national morale/prestige, etc.

Distinct from human space exploration is human space settlement. For some human spaceflight advocates, the goal is not exploration for its own sake, but toward the goal of eventually spreading human settlement from our planet to orbit, the Moon, other planets, and maybe even someday to other star systems. If this is your truly  primary goal, your favored missions are likely to be different from those in the exploration camp. For example, building a permanent human city in Low-Earth Orbit is a far more practical and useful goal than a Mars colony in context, for a number of reasons. There’s the proximity to Earth, for starters, which would allow for far lower mission risk and cost for an equivalent-size settlement, and we’d be able to learn vast amounts of useful information about living well in space before venturing out further.

Category 2: Space Science

But detractors of the first philosophy tend to claim that the incidental advances we get out of human spaceflight are just that: incidental, and nowhere near worth the enormous expenditure required for human spaceflight. If we really want scientific understanding of space and our solar system, then robotic and uncrewed systems can get the job done for orders of magnitude less money. They don’t need oxygen, water, food, and pressure, for starters, and moreover they don’t need to come back.  Purists of this camp see multi-billion-dollar, rocket programs like the Space Launch System (SLS) as astronomical wastes of money, noting (correctly) that the bulk of the cost of such systems goes into making them human-rated. Instead, why not  take all that money and double or triple the number of robotic probes we send out to explore the universe on our behalf?

Category 3: Earth Science

The two camps described above tend to generate the most noise in space policy debates, and it’s tempting to think of them as ends of a linear continuum. However, a third major category of answers to the “Why Space?” question focuses closer to home. Space-based systems are essential to understanding, protecting, and improving life on Earth. Satellites help us understand a whole gamut of Earth-based knowledge, including climate change, weather and storm monitoring, atmospheric and ocean science, forestry land use, navigational and communication systems (such as GPS and the Internet), and even tools that enable sustainable and productive farming and fishing.

So which one should we choose?

As all three of these categories contain worthy pursuits in their own respects, it shouldn’t be surprising that NASA does all of them. (I should add that NASA also does significant and valuable aeronautical research that improves aviation and atmospheric flight around the world, but as this post is entitled “Why Space?”, I am setting this portion of NASA’s portfolio aside.)

It’s no secret that NASA is underfunded, given its wide mandate. NASA’s $19B budget is relatively small by federal standards, coming in at only around half of one percent of total federal spending. The perennial debates over where its missions should be going and what else it should be doing can devolve into fighting over scraps to preserve stability in legacy programs, and the tens of thousands of highly-educated jobs that these programs support.  These debates often miss the big picture.

While few people are arguing that NASA should pursue one of these aims to the exclusion of the others (Buzz Aldrin comes pretty close), the divides in the space community reveal a fundamental disconnect about what people find valuable, if anything, about going into space at all. This mismatch of values means we’ll continuously be talking past each other when it comes to deciding the “best” allocation of NASA’s portfolio. I think a good, public, and reasoned debate over the value proposition of each path would be a healthy thing for the agency, the space community, and the nation.

 

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