Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Genre Musings and Whiteface

One afternoon, ensconced in the posh InterGalactic Medicine Show offices, fellow Assistant Editor Eric James Stone and I fell into a disagreement.

“What genre is Jared Oliver Adams’s Whiteface?” he asked.

I put a dollop of caviar on a slice of baguette while I considered his question.  “Historical fantasy.  Historical because it presents a culture similar to a primitive culture that might be found on Earth.  Fantasy, because even though they are humans, and their culture is analogous of a number of pre-historical societies, they are not factual.”

He mumbled something and fetched some crab dip.  He spread it on a Ritz cracker.  Plebian, I thought.  There are slices of crusty ciabatta right next to the dip.  Might as well put it on Goldfish as put it on an abomination like a Ritz cracker.

“It’s sociological science fiction,” he declared at last, crumbs tumbling from his lips, sprinkling his goatee.  And the divan I was stretched out upon.

I looked at him.  He blinked at me.  He did not offer to pick up the crumbs.

I signaled the maid.  While she swept up his mess, I asked, “How do you figure it’s science fiction?  There’s no science in it.”

“Anthropology is a science.  Certainly knowledge of previous cultures plays a part in Whiteface.

“Anthropology isn’t at the center of the story.  Anyway, science fiction has rivets; fantasy has trees.  There are trees in Whiteface; there are no rivets.  Ergo…”

“That’s simplistic,” Eric James Stone said.  With his mouth full of crab dip and crackers.  “It’s a what-if story about human culture, and the culture does play a central part of the story.”

“All fiction is a what-if story about human culture,” the maid said.

We stared at her silently until she left.

“All fiction is a what-if story,” I said, resuming the conversation.  “It being a what-if story doesn’t make it science fiction.  If the beings depicted in Whiteface were described as aliens, then it would be science fiction.”

“The culture is alien.”

"The culture isn’t science.” I took a sip of aqua gassata.  “If Otter had made a point of studying other cultures in a kind of…nascent anthropology then maybe you could call Whiteface science fiction because science would be at the heart of the story.  But no—instead, the story focuses on the human connections between Otter, his wife, his son, their tribe, and the enemies of the tribe.”

“By that definition, the only science fiction is hard science fiction.”

“By your definition, some Westerns are science fiction.  For Pete’s sake, Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear is science fiction!”

From there, the conversation devolved into fisticuffs.  An hour later as I held a nicely aged, perfectly marbled New York strip to my eye, and Eric swallowed mouthfuls of crème brulee to get his adam’s apple back in place, he said slowly,

“I seem to recall you once said that Monster Hunters International is science fiction.”

At least his mouth wasn’t full this time.  “Yes,” I said.  “Because of the focus on weapons  technology and the pseudo-scientific nature of the way Correia’s protagonists approach hunting them.”  I neglected to mention that I never actually finished MHI

“And you think Peter Beagle’s Trinity County, CA is also science fiction.”

“Yes, and for the same reason.”

He shook his head.  “You are a moron.”

I threw my New York strip at him.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nanoparticle Jive—Tomas Martin

I started writing the story that would later become 'Nanoparticle Jive' when I was halfway through my PhD in nanophysics at the nanoparticle-jiveUniversity of Bristol. I don't know how many of you are familiar with the work that goes into a doctorate, but over the course of three hard years I gradually came to refine my definition of a PhD as a 'voluntary nervous breakdown with graphs'.

Research is a gruelling process that often requires long hours trying to make your experiment work, but it is the existential angst of not knowing  the right answer  that really got to me. When you start a science PhD, you are given a task - some small aspect of science that is unknown, no one knows how to solve it and it's your job to go away for 3 or 4 years and work it out. I was lucky enough to finish in just over three years, but I know people whose doctorate took far longer.

I studied physics at the university of Bristol, England, and started a PhD because it was related to a field I was extremely passionate nanoparticle-jiveabout - solar power. My task was to research the modification of artificial diamond crystals with lithium, in order to make a semiconductor that could potentially generate electricity from heat. The eventual plan was to concentrate sunlight onto these crystals using large mirrors, giving a more scalable solution to concentrated solar power than the existing water-based turbine systems being built in deserts around the world.

Although using diamond sounds like it should be some expensive boondoggle, it is only natural, dug-up diamond that is expensive. In labs such as the one I worked in, it is possible to grow artificial diamond on a fairly cost-effective basis, using high pressures and temperatures to compress graphite, or growing diamond films using gas phase chemistry. For the first few years, the problem seemed impossible. I had many experiments that did nothing, and many days where I'd be in the lab for 10 or 12 hours without achieving anything.

I've always been a writer alongside being a scientist, and began to make my first few breakthroughs into the professional SF short fiction market as I began my PhD. The challenges of balancing slaving away in the lab on tiny slices of diamond in vacuum chambers with coming home and being creative was an interesting one. On the one hand, writing science fiction was a great outlet for my frustrations at the end of the day, but on the other hand the creative demands of trying to solve what seemed an insurmountable challenge at times left me drained of any desire to write. I was caught between two masters - science and art.

'Nanoparticle Jive' was a story that evolved out of that conflict. I'd already jotted down a few notes about the other part of the story - the reputation based economy, based on a short little story about the future of social networks. It also linked back into ideas I'd been reading about sustainability, the environment, and the economy, such as efforts by Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz and others to use something other than GDP to measure progress in a way that better reflected the world's needs. It seemed to me that social networks and the way the popularity of people on places like twitter and the blogosphere could easily work as a social currency, especially in a world where global warming and peak resources restrict the amount the economy can grow. People require such things as a sign of their status in the world, and even if the money dried up and capitalism struggled to a halt, I thought that those people who find their way into careers like investment banking would find other ways to get to the top of the status pile - which is where the idea of a reputation based economy emerged.

I began a story along similar lines, about a kid who is desperately nanoparticle-jivetrying to escape the poverty of his family upbringing by gaining reputation and becoming a famous DJ. The story had some game, it flowed nicely, but when I got about a third in, I ran out of steam. I needed more conflict to drive the story, something to give the main character Brendan a real choice. My fellow writers on the writers' forum Codex helped a lot to point this out when I had the story out for critique.

The struggles I was experiencing in my PhD naturally presented themselves as a solution. I began to craft that conflict between art and science into the main story, detailing Brendan's struggle to choose between selling himself out to gain the reputation he craves or pursuing an exciting scientific project. Once I had that conflict in place, the story fell into place, and I'm very happy with the result. I think it's one of my best works, and I hope you'll agree.

I received my doctorate in early October 2011, and left academia for a career in the renewable industry, where I can work hard in the day towards an achievable goal and still come home with enough brain space to write. A month later, this story was published in IGMS. That seems strangely fitting to the themes presented in 'Nanoparticle Jive.' In a way, I've made the opposite choice to Brendan about what I want from my life, choosing my art over science. In my case, I don't feel like I'm selling myself out. It's more like coming home.

--Tomas Martin

Monday, November 14, 2011

Under the Surface—Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I was taking a master writing class from Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch over on the Oregon coast, and one of our assignments was to write a story about a tsunami.  In Lincoln City, there are a number of blue Tsunami warning signs along the highway Under The Surfaceand the beach.  I did library research on tsunamis, and I also wandered the town, wondering what it would be like if a big wave rolled partway through it.

I had also been thinking about an offshoot branch of the magical family from my Chapel Hollow series.  Many members of this family have elemental powers.

I put the two together.  Unfortunately, I didn't get the assignment finished by the class deadline (I think we had two days to write it), but I did finish it.  "Under the Surface" is the result.

--Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Counterclockwise—Alethea Kontis

I had a dream last night that I attended NY Comic Con. It was a very nice dream. I lay in bed for a while after that dream, smiling. Eventually, I started thinking about all the work I had to do today: like writing the genesis essay for "Counterclockwise." I've been looking forward to this, because I had some great seeds for this one. You know, it's funny that we call them "seeds." One seed grows a plant. But a story is not just a plant. It usually takes many seeds that grow a story. The better analogy would be to liken a short story to a container garden...and something like the Ender series would be the pre-revolutionary grounds at Versailles.

So here are the fun little seeds that grew my pretty little container garden labeled "Counterclockwise":


"Counterclockwise" was originally written for the Codex Writers counterclockwise2009 Halloween contest. (I tied for 3rd place with Cat Rambo, losing to James Maxey. Again.) As you may or may not know, this particular contest is one that starts with one member giving another member a "seed" that he or she must incorporate into the story. Coming up with the seed is one of the best parts of this challenge. Receiving your challenge is the next best. Sometimes, the more complicated the seed, the easier the story is to write. My seed for this story was: In some way, shape or form, your story must involve a penguin. This didn't give me much to go on, but in many ways left me free to write a story I'd been dying to get on paper. That particular story was:


As mentioned previously, I do have some pretty spectacular dreams. I wish I could record them and share them with you, because writing never does them justice. I've fought scorpion monsters and serial killers (and invisible Aliens alongside Luke Skywalker!), I've woken from a dream within a dream within a dream (worried that one would be reality and I'd wake up from that too), I've died several times (by fire, firearms, and an atomic bomb), and I've met some of the most amazing people (like an artist and his wife from Italy, and a monk whose gorgeous poem I totally plagiarized). I have the best Premium Channel in the world, and it's all in my head.

Prior to the Halloween contest I'd had this dream, of which I only counterclockwisevividly remember the very end. It was a well-dressed man in a pub of some sort, holding a white glove. He was meeting a beautiful young woman who sat at a table there. She did not recognize this man, even though he held her glove in his hand as proof that they'd known each other. I was hit with an incredible sadness as I realized: they live in opposing timelines, and this is the last time he will see her.

Yes, before you ask, this was long before the most recent season of Doctor Who. And no, I have never read The Time Traveler's Wife. Sometimes ideas--even the really cool ones--are just ideas. But I knew I had to write about these people, their incredible love, and that incredible sadness. Somehow. In some setting. That setting was:


Ever since I read Witch Week as a kid (which I enjoyed far more than the first Harry Potter novel, btw), I have been obsessed with Guy Fawkes Day. I have always wanted to be in England on Bonfire Night--someday I still mean to go. Witch Week, if you haven't read it (and you really should) is based on an alternate present where Guy Fawkes successfully blew up Parliament in 1605, and in doing so split reality into a World That Could Do Magic and a World That Could Not.

I did some extensive Googling of the subject (as we authors tend to do nowadays) and discovered Change and Continuity in Early Cosmology by Patrick J. Boner. In it, Boner discusses at length the birth of a new star in 1604, the celestial "Fiery Trigon" that resulted, and Johannes Kepler's thoughts and debates about how this unique alignment of stars affected the social consciousness of the time. (It is speculated that a Fiery Trigon also occurred during the rise of Charlemagne, and appeared at the birth of Christ as the Star of Bethlehem.) I was fascinated by the whole thing. I lost hours upon hours on the internet. And yes, I do still have a sick desire to get my nerdy hands on a translated copy of Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum.

counterclockwiseSo: IF the Gunpowder Plot had been successful, in the presence of this Fiery Trigon, it stands to reason that something celestially and psychologically cataclysmic could have happened, like the world splitting into two. Perhaps it DID, and we found a way to fix it. Perhaps, instead of a World With Magic and a World Without, it split a pocket of London off into two worlds: one that lived forwards, and one that lived backwards in time.

What would these Secondary and Tertiary Universes look like? Would they have the same technological development as British Prime? No way, my worlds would definitely be a little more Steampunk. But my story would not be a story about the worlds. This was a love story. And thusly, "Counterclockwise" was born.

If "Counterclockwise" is like anything, I'd say that it feels most like Somewhere in Time. That soft-focus feeling is the feeling I had while having the dream. I remember loving that film, but I haven't seen it in years. I know, I should really read Bid Time Return one of these days.

Coincidentally, Matheson's Bid Time Return won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel right around Halloween-time back in 1976...the year I was born. I wonder what exactly the stars were doing back then.

Happy Bonfire Night, everyone!

[PS - If you liked "Counterclockwise" and want to read more, there is a deleted scene which I will post in a password-protected blog on my website on Guy Fawkes Day. The password is what the denizens of Nodnol (Tertiary Universe) are called.]

--Alethea Kontis