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Posts tagged ‘science fiction’

How to Read: Science Edition

Last week I’d offered to do a full write up of how to read scientific paper critically, and asked if there was any interest in such a topic. No one asked for this, but here you are anyway. I did the research, and I’ve got nothin’ else! Besides which, it’s a fascinating topic to me, and every time I delve deeper into it, I get happier about my career decisions that led me away from the publishing train. Because a lot of the problems in science today stem from the way scientists are evaluated: have you published anything recently? In a serious journal? No? Ok, any journal will do. Did you have positive, real effects? No? No one cares you proved a negative, go back and get me a positive. We want results, or you’re fired! Which, human nature being what it is, leads to… well, it’s not science, unless you’re talking about the study of human psychology when backed into a corner and one’s livelihood threatened. In dire cases when the scientist’s government gets involved, one’s life might be at stake. And that’s even without getting into citation padding, authorial padding (there’s an ongoing scandal in South Korea where researchers have been adding their children’s names onto their papers to pad the children’s academic resumes), and duplication of results. Not replication, which is the gold standard, but using the same results in multiple papers, which is highly unethical and will lead, if caught, to a retraction of the paper. Enough of those, and you will lose your funding, position and have to start over. Read more

The Grim and The Bright

(Thanks for rescuing me. They were threatening to make me write romance novels as a form of punishment until I showed them one of my pen names and the Harlequin-esque novel. They hurriedly gave in to your demands and now I’m free.)

Part of the issue today with aspects of science fiction is that some authors believe that there is no hope in the future. This reflects in their writing, and their public personae as well. Far too often we’re trying to hook teens and young adults on gritty realism and bleakness when we should be offering them hope and escapism in a story. I know that the kids at my work don’t want to read a book about the grim realities of life. They prefer superhero movies where there is a chance at the hero to be a hero.

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Trendy Trendsetters, All

There are trends, and then there are trends.

Look at it this way: you could be trendy and buy jeans with fake dirt on them, for $425. Frankly, I raised an eyebrow when I first saw this go viral, because it’s an interesting psychological study. We are, culturally, fetishizing the working man. Think about it. It’s like guys buying used women’s underwear. It makes them feel like they’re sexy. Dirty pants? Sexy also, I guess. I mean, look at this book cover, and tell me that guy isn’t wearing dirty pants. For that matter, it you scroll through the romance listings, you’ll quickly note that there are some strong trends, and two of them are rich guys (who presumably could afford the fake-dirty jeans) and tough guys (who presumably don’t need no fake-dirty jeans). There are a LOT of writers putting out stories for the trends. But what happens when the trends end?

I suspect there’s a growing market segment that would like to see more sweet romance. I know I hear that from people I talk to – and the one romance I’ve indulged in, I kept sweet. Not just because my Mom and grandma were going to read it (Hi, Mom!) but because it worked better for the characters. I didn’t see a need to write to a trend. I’m not knocking it – there are writers making a ton of money because they are playing to the market and surfing the wave. I just can’t do it myself.

But then there are other trends. The ones that slowly build, and build, and then suddenly take off like a rocket. Susannah Martin interviewed Brad Torgerson and I about the self-publishing trend, and I highly recommend you click on over to her article.

But don’t forget to come back here after!

It’s not that I have anything else exciting to say… Oh, who am I kidding. I have a book.

Persistence has paid off, and two long years after the publication of my last novel, my seventh novel is now available for sale. It’s not out in print yet – that will be about two weeks from now. I could probably just not bother, but it is rather nice to hold this hefty chunk of paper in one’s hand and say ‘I wrote this.’ Right now, I’m looking at all of you out there, readers, because I know most of you are also writers. Two things: one, don’t give up on the story even if you feel like you can’t do this, or you can’t do this fast, or life is in the way of it happening. Keep working on it when you can. I got to a few points with this book where I was doggone good and ready to give up on it. Even my First Reader couldn’t help much, he was too close to it. In the dedication I thank my Mom, and one of my best friends, who both read it as alpha readers (before it was done) and egged me on to finish it. Mom actually was reading it as I wrote the end, because I was working on it in a shared Google Doc file. It was funny to see her colored cursor following mine as the words came out on paper, er, screen, and to have the comments in the side bar when I goofed up, or she wanted clarification on a thing. I wouldn’t recommend that for most situations, but it really did help me finish. I had to, so Mom could read it all!

Second, whack your inner perfectionist on the head and gag her. This book isn’t what I started out to write. Which is not to say that I don’t think I’ve produced a good book – it’s not the book I’d intended. It grew organically in ways I didn’t expect. But Cedar, I can hear you say, you’re a pantser, don’t they all go that way? Sort of. Only they don’t all take two years to finish. I think the longest I’ve taken before this is the Eternity Symbiote, and it’s got issues, being my first novel written and with a half-assed ending. I changed, as a person, my life was radically different, by the ending of the tale. That affects my writing. And that’s why I needed the reassurance from early readers that yes, I was on the right track, and no, I didn’t need to scrap it all.

My main concern was that the pacing was too slow, and that the characters would develop erratically. In the end, I think that although there’s not a lot of action – and by that I mean exciting combat scenes – the pacing does work. And I think that the growth arc is consistent. But I couldn’t see that while I was in the middle of it. I encourage you to not rely on your own perceptions if you are working on a similar problem with your writing.

Oh! Check out the awesome blurb Dorothy Grant created for the book!

When the starship’s captain died midway through a run with a cargo of exotic animals, the owner gave first mate Jem one chance, and one choice. The chance: if he successfully runs the trade route solo, he’ll become the new captain. If he fails, he’ll lose the only home he’s ever known.

And the choice? He’s now raising an old earth animal called a basset hound. Between station officials, housebreaking, pirates, and drool, Jem’s got his hands full!

Cover Art: Fractals

I promised a cover post, and this is one. I’m not going to re-cover old ground (much) and talk about how the cover is not a representation of some exact scene from the book. The cover is meant to convey a sense of the book, to grab the reader’s attention, to draw them in and compel them to begin reading the blurb. The blurb then hooks them into buying the book and reading the first chapter… you get the idea. The cover also ought to signal the genre, loud, clear, and proud.

As an artist, I had long lamented that my personal style was not suitable for the kinds of books I write, or the people who hire me to create covers for them. I spent a lot of time working on becoming better, using the tools at hand… and then one day I discovered Apophysis.

Apo is a fractal flame generator, and it’s capable of an impressive array of special effects, including stunning star fields and nebulas. Suddenly, I could create a lot of space art that was cover-worthy. So in this post, I’m showing you how I do some effects, and where you can find the program (It’s free!) and a ton of tutorials that will help you learn more. If you want to see some of the things you can do with it, check these out: Last Exhalation, Zygotes, Apocalypse Rose, and Hydrangeas.

Explosion

here’s the workspace for Apophysis 7x, my preferred version of the program. You can start by clicking on one of the random flames that are in the left column, as I’ve done for this.

For very simple effects, all you need to know is that those triangles control the ‘shape’ of the flame. The gradient (icon in the top toolbar) controls the colors. I’ll show that later. if you click on one of the triangles and drag it, you’ll see your flame in the tiny editor box change shapes.

explosion 2

note that there are ‘variations’ and I have the red triangle (#1) set to: flatten=1, spherical 0.79, and swirl=0.20

This doesn’t work for an explosion, which is the element I’m working on for a cover. Too much geometry! It needs to be more fluid and abstract, since it’s going to be an exploding spaceship. I’ve dragged the triangles around a bit more, in the image below, to get the look I wanted. You’ll also note I’ve changed the colors with the gradient tool, using ‘summer_fire’ to get flame colors.

explosion 3

Now this is more like it. Here you can see in the editor window a few things: the gradient, which can be used to ‘paint’ the flame by sliding the center bar around. Also, I’ve changed the scale, so I can see what the ‘splosion will look like far away, and so I make sure I’m not clipping off bits when I render this.

You’ll note that it still looks very fluid. In space, an explosion is going to release gases and they are going to glow, and to behave differently than in atmosphere. Check out images of nebulas (like this one of the Crab Nebula), and you’ll see what I mean. You might want to keep in mind that a nebula is a space explosion, just on a really large scale, and that a LOT of the nebula images on google were actually created with a fractal flame generator. Anyway…

explosion render

Rendering is the most important part.

You’ll have to render your flame to use it, once you are happy with what you have. I keep mine set to a fairly low working render (between 15-20, you’ll see the drop-down selector for this on the top tool bar) so I don’t have a huge lag when I’m working on a flame. This means that the final render will be both smoother, and brighter than the view on the screen. Keep this in mind if you like (or hate) the grainy appearance. I set my elements to a reasonable pixel size – in this case 3000x2000px. I’m not usually using them for a full 6×9″ cover, so I can scale as I want to. The bigger you go, the longer the render. The density is important, this allows you to faithfully render tiny details. I usually set mine to 5000 or 10000, and the filter radius to 0.2 (you could make this bigger if you like the graininess) with the oversample at 2. Don’t increase the oversample unless you plan to render overnight. I have my computer set to use 2 cores, you could set to one (the default) or more if you have a bigger processor. This element took about 40 minutes to render. I’ve had renders run 13-14 hours. For some reason star fields can be freaking huge. Not all of them, and I haven’t figured out why yet.

oh, you may have noticed the flame moved and got bigger. I didn’t want to render it tiny – I’ll scale it on the image later – and I wanted to rotate it (same editor window as the gradient) to fit the image size better. Finally, while I have Apophysis set to a black background, the completed render is a png with transparency, making it super easy to set on an existing image without having to delete unwanted background. It also has some drawbacks, but I’ll show you what to do about them.

roughed in explosion

This is the thumbnail sketch I sent my client. He approved the layout, knowing the weird splashes of color will be replaced with a cool explosion. By the way, the ship and the starfield in the background are both fractals.

If you want to be able to make your own cool starfields and nebulas, check out some tutorials.  Bear in mind there are several versions of Apophysis. I have two loaded on my computer, along with three of Mandelbulb, which is what I rendered the spaceship with (I’ll do another post on MB3D at a later date. it’s awesome, but holy heck the learning curve is steep).

Capture

it’s not about the size, it’s about the placement.

I’ve dropped the fractal element on the image (having made my silly splashes disappear) but as you can see, you can see right through it. Hardly what you’d expect when a very solid ship blows up.

I’m going to scale the image by dragging on the corners, tilting and maneuvering it until I’m happy with the placement, and then I’ll duplicate the layer, so I get some opacity from it.

explosion

And here we have a classic exploding spaceship, at the moment of utter destruction.

I’ve duplicated my explosion layer, rotated it, set one layer to color dodge, and chopped up the edges with a smoke brush set to eraser tool. I also toggled back on the splashes (what, you thought I deleted them? Never throw anything out, you might need it!) and they add a little something under there, so I’m keeping them.

After some discussion with my client, we chose fonts for the author name and title (he’s using Counter Strike, from dafont, for the title). I applied those to the finished art.

Sabrecat cover3

Tom’s comment on seeing the cover “that right there is full of win.”

And hey, presto! All original art, all explosions, all science fiction. I could have spent a LOT more time on the ship, but it took me a month just to get this far. And I’m happy his book will have a cover that ought to enhance his sales a touch.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments! I don’t think WordPress supports image comments, but I’d love to see your efforts if you play with Apo, so try putting them up with Flickr or facebook or deviantart, and linking here.

Used Spaceship for Sale: missing Szyxcnik rotor Qewst engine

Or something like that.

I was car shopping a while back, and had joked on Facebook that hundreds of years in the future, not much would have changed about the process, only how DO you test-drive a starship? I mean, if you hit foldspace and just… Disappear into a cloud of scintillating dust, the used ship salesman will just tuck your stack of credits deeper in his pocket and turn his attention along with Brillo-Ray enhanced smile onto the next suckers in line.

Of course, the fact that I was shopping on a very small cash budget which limited me from even having to deal with Smarm, the purple alien dude, you know, the one with the tentacles on his upper lip? Anyway, that meant I was dealing with the jokers who advertised a car at one price, knocked a grand off it when I showed up to drive it, then when I got back from the test drive, had another guy there, who informed me he was selling the car for his dear old Auntie. Then he offered to call a friend who was a notary, as I’m looking at the name and feminine signature on the title, and cocking an eyebrow at the wall of testosterone in front of me. No, he wasn’t willing to meet me at the BMV to have it notarized, or at my bank… I’m not sure how I got away with a straight face, but the dude was quite disappointed when I texted him later saying my husband wouldn’t let me buy that car. Handy thing, that husband card. Playable even when not married, if you’re dealing with strangers.

But I am married. Married with kids, which is why up until yesterday we were house hunting. I was reminded of the scenes in Rolling Stones (the Heinlein book, not the band!) where the family was checking out the ships. In that future, like the one I’m working on for my nascent Tanager series, house shopping and vehicle and storage and trailer are all wrapped up into one package deal. Which has pros and cons if you think about it. I drove home yesterday towing a trailer for the first time in my life. It was a little bitty trailer, but no one died, so achievement unlocked – and it got me thinking. What happens to people like us in the future?

I’m not a big believer in the post-scarcity world of Star Trek, where everyone is happy with a cubicle in a ship, no windows, no choices (unless you are the Captain and even he got orders although following them was not his strong suit). Where are the tinkers, the tailors, the peddlers? The roving ship like the Serenity, carrying what cargo it can and making ends meet with a budget and a plan? The Rolling Stones, meeting new friends and working hard to feed the family?

I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of people like me, like my family, who work hard, earn our way up, and sometimes have to go car – er – ship shopping on the cheap. And I’m betting that shade-tree mechanics will morph into dark-side of the asteroid garages, long after the origin of ‘garage’ is lost in the mists of the Milky Way.

But to go back a bit, when we were looking at houses we weren’t necessarily looking for what the ‘average’ (you know, normal is just the high point on the gaussian curve. Us, the Odds, we’re on that steep slope off to the side, slipping happily down shouting Wheee! As we go) people want in a house. We need room for books. But not a TV, because we don’t own one. We want a big kitchen and space in the dining room for a table we can game on. We eyeball the windows and think about the light coming in, in terms of lighting for photography and art. And we do the normal stuff, too, like wanting a place in the country rather than in town, and googling to find out how close the local library is… Oh, well, maybe not that last. I mean, I do, but I can’t speak for normal.

All this is fun to think about in terms of story. Regular folks, making their way in life, and the plans they make to keep house and hearth warm. Then, we throw rocks at them, metaphorically, as authors. What happens when you scrimp and save and put down a deposit on that spaceship, only to have the broker disappear? What happens if a war breaks out and soldiers are quartered on your ship? Or if alien fungus starts spreading and you’re under quarantine?

I’ve got to do something to distract myself from the prospect of packing and moving, after all.

A Leftover Post

This post was originally published at the Otherwhere Gazette earlier this year. In the spirit of Thanksgiving leftovers, I think you all might enjoy a bit of history. if you’re looking for reading material in between naps to aid your digestion of yesterday’s feast, you might check out this space opera series, or this sweet urban fantasy novella, or if you really can’t stay awake, this edgy short story

I mustn't forget one of my favorite space operas: Schlock Mercenary!

I mustn’t forget one of my favorite space operas: Schlock Mercenary!

Space and Opera seem to be an improbable pairing. Opera, a form of entertainment popularly known for being high-brow, and involving the ‘fat lady singing’ and the genre we refer to as space opera with the exploding spaceships and exotic galactic locales. So how did they come to meet, like chocolate and peanut butter? What is the origin of the phrase, as the earliest origins of space opera, and certainly today, involve no ladies (fat or otherwise) singing?

Last week, at the Mad Genius Club and later on my blog, I provoked a discussion on what Hard Science Fiction is, whether it is still relevant, and finally, a list of 18 Twenty-First Century Hard SF books recommended by those who read the genre. It was truly fascinating to me to see not only that there are varying opinions on what makes a science fiction tale ‘hard’ – that I had expected – but to see that some, indeed, many, have no real distinction of subgenres within science fiction.

If I had to break science fiction into parts, there would be three of them (yes, I know that I don’t have to, but you see, there’s this heart of a librarian which rumor has I keep in a jar on my desk…) comprised of Hard Science Fiction, Space Opera, and military science fiction. Or maybe not. Eyes list. I think I could take that further… but today is not the day.

Space opera, according to that trove of wisdom, TV Tropes, is:

“A space opera is a work set in a far future space faring civilization, where the technology is ubiquitous and entirely secondary to the story. It has an epic character to it: The universe is big, there are lots of sprawling civilizations and empires, there are political conflicts and intrigues galore. Frequently it takes place in the Standard Sci Fi Setting. In perspective, it is a development of the Planetary Romance that looks beyond the exotic locations that were imagined for the local solar system in early science fiction (which the hard light of science revealed to be barren and lifeless) out into an infinite universe of imagined exotic locations.

Space opera has a lot of romantic elements: big love stories, epic space battles, oversized heroes and villains, awe-inspiring places, and insanely gorgeous women.”

So how does this have anything to do with, well, Otello, or Mozart, or… any of the singing ladies? The answer is that it didn’t originally. Between Space Opera and old-fashioned ladies belting it out before swooning gaily, is another step. The derisive terms of ‘horse opera’ and ‘soap opera’ lent more to space opera than Wagner’s Valkyries.

The term Horse Opera predates Soap Opera by about a decade, and was first recorded in 1927, Soaps, of course, got their name from the soap companies that paid for the programmes to promote their products. The thing they have in common is the use – some would say over use, of clichés, tropes, and audience expectations. Hold onto that last, we’ll get back to it.

Opera lends the grand, the epic, the melodramatic aspect to all of these genres. They are bound together with the common thread of plots that are over the top, improbable, and far greater in many cases than the everyday man will ever face. From saving the honor of their family, to saving the town, to saving the galaxy, and beyond!

commodore grimes

Space Opera: the art of the improbable

Wilson Tucker coined the term space opera intending it as a pejorative. As so many others before have done, the weary unwashed who want stories to escape the workaday drudge seized on the term and made it their own. Millions now thrill to the space opera on the big screens, and demand authors to write more of their favorites. Far from being an insult, space opera is now big business. Audiences expect to have fun when they hear the term space opera. They don’t expect the author or movie maker to ‘count the rivets’ in the story, the science is very much in the background. With some space opera, you need to hang your suspension of disbelief out the nearest window, lean back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

Popular opinion has always been in favor of having fun. Indeed, as we see with the popularity of science fiction, in particular space opera, which is regarded as playful and enjoyable, unlike the more science-accurate Hard SF, people don’t mind learning a little with their entertainment. When the stories of Doc Smith gave way to the silver screen, Space Opera was there, going where no man had gone before. It made perhaps the greatest impact on global culture with the hit success of the Star Wars trilogy in the 1970s. It is certainly not going away anytime soon, even if detractors still try to cut it down.

So what’s your favorite space opera? What do you look forward to when you hear the term? Spaceships, rayguns, and singing ladies. Oh, no, wait, not that last…

Bow Wow Meow?

Just a few moments ago I rolled over, looked out the bedroom window, and thought “the sky is aflame… wait, I couldn’t write that because it could be taken in other ways than the sky was lit up by the sunrise in brilliant pinks and oranges holy crap I have to do Mad Genius.” I then jumped out of bed, headed for the office… and tripped over the dog. I managed to catch myself on the book case and keep from taking a header, and I managed to keep the yell inside me so I didn’t wake my still-sleeping husband.

Our dog is not big, but she’s solid. About 60 pounds of all-black muscle on short legs. So when she takes to sleeping stretched across the threshold of the bedroom in the dark, we both stub our toes on her regularly. It’s not her only quirk. The other one (ok, another one – I will spare you most of them) is that she can’t stand for me to be awake and her primary person, my First Reader, to remain asleep. So she will go whine and yip at him until he gets up unless I drag her out of the bedroom. It’s not that we don’t love her, in a way, but argh! she can drive us crazy.

Black lab cross dog

Tricksy, the portable black hole.

But this got me thinking again about what happens when mankind takes the big leap off this mudball into the stars. Who will go along with us? Pets are a luxury, and an expensive one. If we follow the old patterns of emigration with the tough scouts followed by the hardscrabble miners, and then the farmers foolish enough to take family far from civilization… it’s going to be expensive and luxuries are going to be few and far between, and more likely to be related to personal safety and comfort than having a ‘furbaby.’

Which isn’t to say that animals won’t go along nearly from the beginning. But I see that as more of a working role than a pampered pet. Mice may become the spaceman’s canaries, for instance. I’ve never had mice as pets (they were fox food when my parents were trying to raise Silver Foxes) but they are warm and soft and fun to play with. They are also easier on the ventilation system than birds would be – having spent a couple of years with parakeets in my office (they didn’t make the cut for performing in a magic show. Who would have thought that parakeets are among the few birds who don’t shut up when closed into a dark place?) I am very aware of how much airborne mess even a small bird makes.

I’m working on a book, originally intended to be a short story about a boy and his dog, that was inspired by a friend who travels the Internet as the Basset (beware the Drool). In it, I speculate that dogs did not make the first jump into space, and have become so rare in the colonized galaxy as to be unheard of. There are woolies, which make spectacular fleeces in colors to order. And there are beeves, which more closely resemble massive furry slugs than the hoofed and horned fore-bulls they came from. But there were no dogs… Because, if you think about it, a colonist on a spaceship needs a dog about as much as a hole in his hull. There is no ‘outside’ to walk the furry little monster in. His hairs and dander (even our flat-coated labX produces enough fuzz to make a new dog every week, it seems) will be a serious nuisance in the ventilation system. Now, when that colonist is on-planet, a working dog would be an asset. But until ‘stasis’ boxes or transport of frozen embryos or some such technology comes along, the big livestock guardian dogs like the Maremmas and Great Pyrenees are not going to do well on a space voyage.

Soldier and puppy

A Dog and his Boy (photo found on internet)

I have also written a story in which I speculate that cats don’t make the jump. Admittedly, this was set in the world I started with The Eternity Symbiote, and that wasn’t how I expect mankind to begin their journey to the stars – on an alien ship and leaving Earth in a hurry just ahead of a genocidal crowd. But I know how people are, and young soldiers (of which there are a large percentage in TES) will smuggle along a pet or three. The story I will be releasing soon is set about a century after that exodus, so there are a few animals, but the cat the girl finds is very unusual and it’s no wonder she wants it, after he jumps in her lap, curls up, and starts in with that rusty purr.

I’m not even getting into livestock, and the various other critters I’ve kept (or my kids have) through the years.

What do you think? Who will come along with humanity for that wild ride and why? How will kids manage to conceal and smuggle along that adorable kitten (and you know they will)?