Putting the life back in science fiction


Scion of the Zodiac Feedback Post
July 27, 2011, 10:00 pm
Filed under: livable future, science fiction, Uncategorized, Worldbuilding, writing

Simple topic. A few months ago, I self-published a SF novel called Scion of the Zodiac. I just dropped the price and made the first half free. Check it out.

I posted about it on Antipope, where John Meaney guest-blogged about world building. Since I spoke up about it, I figured I’d better provide a venue, in case anyone wants to comment on it.

Criticism is fine, and constructive feedback is much appreciated. Note that “It’s okay,” “I liked it,” and “it sucks,” don’t really qualify as constructive feedback. I’m trying to make the next one better, after all.



Is it better in the past?
May 31, 2011, 10:45 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, livable future, science fiction, Worldbuilding

Wow, I haven’t posted since…Um yeah. Where did April and May go? Right. Living in my secret identity.

Anyway, random short-ish thought. I’ve been finishing up a time travel manuscript, and now I’m figuring out how to sell it.

The one thing (as I’ve noted below), it’s set partially in deep time. This isn’t the killing-Hitler type of time travel, this is getting back into the Paleocene and other parts of the Cenozoic. While I like human history, I see no need to show off my modest knowledge of the subject, besides which, people with real history backgrounds have been embellishing human history for decades. It’s not like there isn’t, oh, 400 million years of other time to explore.

So I’ve been thinking to myself, “Self, one of the biggest problems I have is getting anyone to believe that a livable, sustainable future isn’t, well, chunky, and funky, and terribly earnest, and only available in a limited color scheme, and…well, not much fun, really. We all “know” after all, that dysfunction and sex are what sell, and if everything functions well enough and people know how to keep their zippers zipped, where’s the fun in that?” It’s that whole eating your broccoli-sprouts feeling about a sustainable future. It doesn’t matter how cool and hip the solar decathletes are, how much we know we need to do it. It’s just missing…something.

At least, that’s my thought. So no, I’m not trashing the past, exactly. What I’m thinking about is the question of where do we find our sustainable inspiration. I think it comes from the past. Perhaps from Eden, or Shangri-La, or the hunter/gatherer paradise, or even Lothlorien. Just think about these places, and those long, glorious green shadow of the past reach out and romantically embrace us. Right? As a society, we’re steeped in the mythology of the fall, of paradise lost, of how things used to be better back in the first chapter, the golden age. Even the silver age.

So what better place to put the sustainable future than the deep past, before humans even evolved. There’s something like 400 million years of livable planet back there, long enough for thousands of civilizations to rise, live, and fall. The only catch is that, if such places existed, they must of been masterful environmentalists, because they’ve erased every trace of themselves from the world.

Of course, this only works if time travel is easy. If time travel is easy, they must be hiding it from us, right? What better inspiration to environmentalism than to live the good life, keep the riff-raff of the unenlightened future out.

So that’s my question: not how one goes about hiding a civilization (I figured that one out already), but does it feel better to have that livable future back in the past, hiding from the fossil record? Is it a cute conceit, or could it actually be inspirational for those of us stuck in linear time?



December Fun, Part 1
December 7, 2010, 9:04 pm
Filed under: fiction, pseudonyms, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

Charlie Stross has posted another neat topic on his blog.

In other news, there’s an interesting SF Novel, Scion of the Zodiac up on Smashwords and Lulu, and the author is mumbling something about putting it on Amazon and other similar sites, unless a publisher buys it first.

If you’re interested in hard science fiction with a huge dose of biology, environmental ideas, sustainability, dragons, and neat microbes, you might like this one. Check it out.

I’ll post links to the novel as I get them.

UPDATE: Currently the story is available at Smashwords and Lulu. Getting it spread more widely is proving interesting.



NANOWRIMO 2010
November 30, 2010, 9:11 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding

Ah yes, the sound of silence on a blog. That was me finishing NANOWRIMO 2010. 50,000 words, finished with 12 hours to spare.

This is the third year I’ve attempted it and the second year I’ve completed it. Last year’s version is sitting in publisher’s slush piles, and I’m considering self-publishing it on Kindle for Christmas.

One thing I’m finding is that my addiction to world-building makes story telling…complicated. Much of what I wrote this year (as last year) isn’t so much story, it’s trying to figure out the world and how it works, so that I know what the characters are getting into.

Last year I had fun with the old idea of a low-tech culture on an alien planet (think Pern, Darkover, etc). But it had to make sense ecologically. When even the soil is alien, how do people grow enough food to survive? And how did they get there in the first place? And why are they low-tech? The last question was easy: the microbes on the planet think that industrial polymers and lubricants are yummy, because the local plants and fungi use analogous chemicals as structural compounds (yes, the plants are plastic. Be careful in what you burn for your fire!). The rest of it? That was complicated.

This year I decided to tackle time-travel. Learning about the past was the first challenge (I chose the Paleocene for reasons that are relevant to the story). The major NANOWRIMO challenge was figuring out a) who the time travelers are (more game wardens than secret agents, in my view), and b) the hard question: how do you go about designing a culture that is very good at erasing every trace of itself from the fossil record? That’s even less easy than it sounds, but ultimately it was fun to think out and write about. It takes leave no trace camping to a whole new level.

I still like NANOWRIMO, because having that contest helps everyone understand that they need to leave you alone and let you write. That’s not so easy, other times of the year. If you’ve ever wanted to try writing a novel, I’d recommend this as the way to do it.



Hot hot hot!
September 30, 2010, 12:36 am
Filed under: fall, livable future, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

We’ve had a cool year here in southern California (the tragedy, fog at the beaches. What will the tourists do?). This week we’ve finally gotten hit by some reasonably hot, clear days, and wow, it does feel like global warming is back on again.

Great time to go back to the future. How are we going to survive all this change?

I don’t have any answers, but for this time travel work, I’ve been reading about so many mountain buildings, great volcanoes, mass extinctions, ice ages, new evolutionary lines, grass taking over, dogs and cats living together (well, miacids living together before the two lineages split), learning how many times evolution can reinvent a sabertooth (answer: more than 4. And Counting)…. It’s made me a little, well, jaundiced about today’s problems.

I just want to throw up my hands and say, “Meh, I think we’ll manage somehow.” That’s the pleasure of the long view. I’d hate to live through what our ancestors survived, but somehow, enough of them lived that we’re here.

That’s one thing that inspires my conservation efforts. As I tell people, straight-faced, in California, people lived off native plants and animals for something like 10,000 years, give or take. Therefore, we know it can be done sustainably. Conversely, we’re having trouble with this little suburbanization experiment a few decades after we started. This strongly suggests that we should be conserving native plants and animals as an emergency back up, just in case we were wrong in assuming that importing water, power, and food was a good way to live here. We need something for the few survivors to fall back on, after the apocalypse.

For some reason, this doesn’t make me so popular with more ardent conservationists. I’m not sure why.

Oh well. What’s the future look like for you, in the hot days of autumn? Maybe we’ll start cycling through boom-bust civilizations every 2000 years, a la Niven and Pournelle’s Moties?



Describing the critters and the weeds
September 13, 2010, 9:41 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

I’ve wrapped up my Paleocene research for now. It’s a neat epoch, and I’m glad I checked the details, because landscapes are like people. Trite but true. The more I know about a place, the more it comes alive for me. Now, I can go from the snowy-topped cone of the Mt. Skye volcano to the shallow, muddy expanse of the London Sound, from the cypress-lined swampy banks of the early Thames to the walnut and oak-covered, steep-sided mountains of the Irish massif…Yep. It’ll be a fun place to write about, a place where I can (metaphorically) sit in the ferns in a pine-forested tree island, in the middle of the black lava field of Antrim, while a Ptilodus watches me quietly from the branches above…

That’s the fun of doing research. I wouldn’t have known any of this, except for that long-ago geology teacher who taught me the jargon, and a nearby university with just the books and papers I needed.

Communicating it is another matter. Today I was thinking of an exchange I had with another writer, who has a strong English-language background. The question was how to describe a weedy field, a vacant lot. As a writer, I said I wouldn’t identify species. She told me I was wrong to leave those details out. Very well, I told her, the field is covered by black mustard and rip-gut brome. Oh, how redolent of loss and death, she said. The black, the ripped guts…. That’s the point, I replied. Ripgut brome is a grass with prickly heads, and the rancher’s named it ripgut for what those seeds did to their cattle. The only thing that’s black about black mustard are the seeds, and that’s what we grind up to make yellow mustard for our hot dogs. I’m just talking about an empty, weed-covered field, of foxtails that stick in your socks. But the argument dragged on, because she was convinced she was right, and she didn’t know the reality I was referring to.

Details can get in the way. To a botanist, ripgut and black mustard are signs of disturbance, which is a polite way of saying an area has been bulldozed and/or burned repeatedly, and the native species are mostly gone. These plants cover places people don’t care for, at least around here. Weed-patches. To people absorbed by the nuances of the English language, those two plants have word associations which gently mislead them into imagining a place totally different than the one I was trying to describe.

So when do the details get in the way? Perhaps when a Ptilodus sits in the pine-tree over my head. Do I want to describe that multituberculate? Here’s a reconstruction. Do I call it a squirrel-possum, even though it’s neither squirrel nor possum? Worse, possum means two very different things to people in the US and in Australia, and in the case of Mr. Ptilo on the pine bough, he’s a bit more like one of those buck-toothed Australian possums than anything in the Americas. Except, according to some researchers, multis moved more like frogs and toads, rather than like any living mammal… A furry arboreal toad with a prehensile tail and rodent-oid teeth? Right. Hopefully he will just sit there being the scenery, while I just sit in the ferns below and finish this up.

What do you think? Any memorable times when the words led you astray? Or do they generally open up fantasy worlds for you?