Monthly Archives: December 2013

Book Review: Lilith’s Brood (Octavia Butler 2000)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

 Rating: 4.5/5

Lilith’s Brood is a collection of three novels by Octavia Butler published from 1987 to 1989, gathered together in 2000. The set of three books, also called the Xenogenesis trilogy, is about 750 pages long. They were published as three novels, but I would highly recommend reading them back to back as I did. The world that Butler builds over the three novels is complex. I would have had trouble trying to read the second or third novels after a long gap.

Lilith’s Brood was my first book by Octavia Butler. The writing is incredibly readable; I easily covered 50 pages an hour.  Some science fiction novels dump world-building at the beginning;  it can be something the reader has to fight through. Butler does not do this; she develops the main character first and then the environment from the eyes of the main character. The world she eventually develops is intricate and explained in detail, but by the time she got to it, I was engaged.

The trilogy opens with Lilith, a woman who survived World War III on a now ravaged Earth. She is held alone by aliens called the Oankali. Without going into spoiling detail, the Oankali are extremely alien. All three books develop the Oankali, and they are as much of the world Butler builds as anything. The Oakali want something from Lilith, though she is unsure what. Lilith finds them physically frightening, and is uncertain about her future.

Butler approaches situations from the character’s emotional response, rather than from a technical aspect. The book explores themes of gender, sex, humanity, and community–some pretty hefty topics that sci-fi sometimes skirts, especially at the time of its writing. I rate the book as a 4.5/5 partially because of this novelty and distinctiveness. In many stories, I enjoy rooting for a protagonist or a certain course of events. In this story, I didn’t know what I wanted, which was odd, but not bad. My only real criticism of the story is that, while certain aspects of the world were highly developed, it was hard to imagine living in this world. While I enjoyed reading about this world, I think I would find it profoundly dull. Still, I highly recommend reading this, especially if you haven’t read Butler before.


Writing Prompt: Intrigue and Alchemy

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

This prompt led to my short story “The Alchemist’s Contract“, which appeared in Swords and Sorcery Magazine in November 2013.

“Intrigue and Alchemy”

“Beware the alchemist,” the man said from the shadows of the tavern. I wasn’t sure if he was truly real at first- I could see only the glow of his pipe, the shine of his glassy false eye, and his oversized black boots emerging, crossed, from the shadows. The soles were crumbling and peeling, looking more eaten at by some creature than by wear and years.

The room grew quiet as our party turned toward the man.

“Pay no mind to him,” someone behind me said.

“We have business with the alchemist,” I said. “He is a man of business, and we have the coin to entice him.”

“Don’t mind me, then,” the man in the corner said. He leaned forward. I expected gruffness, a man who’d lived a harsh life. His skin was smooth and pale. His one eye reflected distress and concern.

“Boy, you’re not more than 25,” my companion said. “Making stories about the alchemist to rile traveling strangers.”

“You’re mistaken,” he said gently, “I’ll be 80 next month.”

“Is this at all true?” my companion asked the barkeep.

The keep looked away and began to polish glasses.

“The alchemist,” the man in the corner said,” took my age from me, as sure as the Long War took my eye.”

“I’d like such a theft,” I said, three beers in.

“Well then, take yourself to the alchemist.” He stood and walked out the entryway, with the gait and pace of my grandfather.

The Science of Snowflakes

If you’ve ever seen a photo of a snowflake up close, you know how beautiful and intricate they can be. People say “no two snowflakes are alike”–this is true, because of the way snowflakes grow. Each snowflake grows according to the crystal structure of ice and the conditions it experiences as it falls to the ground.

From Wikipedia, click for link.

What is an ice crystal?

A snowflake is a single crystal of ice. Many substances are crystalline, but most of the ones we encounter are polycrystalline, or composed of many crystals. Some examples of crystalline materials are metals, bone, ceramics, and jewels. Different kinds of crystals grow in different ways– some are cubic and some are hexagonal. (You can see great crystals in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, DC. Some pictures are in this link.) Table salt, for instance, is cubic.

Salt crystals, via Tony Wong on Flickr.

Ice has a hexagonal crystal structure, which is why snowflakes have hexagonal symmetry. A snowflake tends to grow along six vectors (or directions) separated by 60 degrees each. Some particle of dirt nucleates, or initiates, the beginning of a snowflake. The exact mechanism is not known. But once growth has been initiated, the snowflake grows. (If you have ever made rock candy, you create a supersaturated mixture of sugar in water. Then you add a sugar crystal, onto which more sugar crystal grows.)

Snowflakes are unique

Snowflakes are so varied because each snowflake experiences a slightly different environment. Tiny differences in temperature, pressure, and moisture change how each snowflake grows. In the snowflake above, you can even see flaws in tiny parts of the hexagonal symmetry. Even across a snowflake, tiny differences change how the crystal grows. Snowflakes as big as a dime have been documented, but theoretically, there is no size limit.

Learn more!

One of the first photographers of snowflakes was Wilson Bentley. He photographed over 5,000 flakes from his home in Vermont in the 1800 and 1900s. The children’s book Snowflake Bentley describes his life and work.

Ken Libbrecht, a professor of physics at Caltech, also maintains an awesome website about his research on snowflakes. In his lab, he studies how to grow snowflakes, to better understand the conditions under which they form. He has grown crystals up to an inch wide. His Field Guide to Snowflakes is a beautiful and informative resource on snowflakes, accessible to all audiences.

Writing Prompt: Cleaning the Lab

Time: 7 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Cleaning the lab”

Ash scowled at the mess sitting in front of her. What a mess decades of research could produce. Now, as the last student, it was her job to clean all of it, whether she knew what it was or not. What a graduation present!

She started with the stack of archaic computers. No one even knew the passwords to operate them anymore, not that anyone should care to. Top of the line, decades ago. If you need to make a killer cassette recording, this is your machine! She loaded them onto a cart, bringing them batch by batch to the electronic reclamation center. Their problem now. Three cartloads later, and at least that batch of junk was gone. The dust under the pile was incredible. While it wasn’t her job to clean the dirt of the lab, something was too disgusting about this dust not to try to improve. She didn’t have any cleaning implements. She wetted a rag and wiped the worst of it away. Three lines of the dirt remained, sinking into the painted cinderblock walls. They almost looked like a door…

She looked closer, and the cracks were the dirt had stuck seemed to penetrate into the concrete. She thought of the floor plan for the building—was there anything on the other side of this wall? There was an office next door, but it seemed like there was a dead space in between. She would have assumed it was for ventilation, if she’d ever thought of it before, but now she was looking at a tiny, bizarre door, about 2 feet high and 2 feet across. She got a crow bar from across the room and wedged it into the crack. She pulled, and the door yielded. Inside were thousands of tiny sprites, chained to tiny desks, in a room no more than 4 feet by 4 feet.

“What on earth is this?” She exclaimed, more to herself than them.

“We make the science,” one of them said, forlornly, before returning its hands to its intricate task at hand.

Publications and Ph.D.s

Some brief (and exciting) updates!

Check out my first story, “The Alchemist’s Contract”  here at Swords and Sorcery. I’m still adjusting to the notion that something I wrote has been published =).

Then check out this nice review at Black Gate (toward the bottom). It looks like an excellent resource on the recent happenings of medieval and high fantasy. (I’m usually more familiar with the science fiction end of the spectrum, so I’m new to this end– very cool!) Check out their main Black Gate page here.

And on a more personal note, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation on Friday. Hooray, I’m Dr. Vironevaeh! Happy Wednesday, all!

Book Review: Marooned in Realtime (Vernor Vinge 1986)

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters or the cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5

Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge is the far future sequel to The Peace War, set on Earth 50 million years in the future. The Peace War introduced the concept of “bobbling”, a scientific discovery where a spherical bobble, impervious to the laws of physics, can be created. Anything inside the bobble doesn’t experience what happens outside of it; a year can pass outside the bobble, but no time passes inside it. The time length for which a bobble exists can be tuned. This was used to great effect in The Peace War as a mechanism for sequestering weapons. In Marooned in Realtime, the people who were bobbled through various circumstances come together and try to reestablish humanity after it was somehow lost.

If you like other Vinge stuff, you’ll probably like this, and it’s a lot shorter than some of his things. I recommend reading The Peace War first, although I think I like this book slightly better. There are some references back to the characters in the first book and a novella written between the two, which got a little annoying eventually. Also, I am not sure if the ubiquitous bobbles and their governing rules would be totally obvious reading this as a stand alone. It has been several years since I read The Peace War, and though I remembered the basics, I found myself wishing I could remember more clearly.

Overall it was  a solid Vinge book, with good hard scifi and far-flung and fun extrapolations. Vinge is a computer scientist, and he makes the most of this background. Don’t expect to read Vinge for the emotions. His forte is playful futurism and making everything go wrong at once. I read Marooned in Realtime easily in three days, and I’m not the fastest reader. It was easy to get into, and the first book I’ve read off my holiday reading list.

Writing Prompt: Monkey Day

Time: 5 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Monkey Day” (This is actually a real thing, every December 14)

Today was Monkey Day, the biggest day of the year for the elevated chimps and tarsiers. Although it originated centuries ago amongst humans as a joke, it was no such thing now. The elevated walkways for the monkeys above the streets were be-decked in glittering tinsel, far more interesting than the lights that glittered below for Christmas. Monkeys swung across the path, throwing toys and playing with tinsel. Not that such things held their mighty intellects anymore, but Monkey Day was a celebration of how far they had come since those days. It was a day where elevated primates had a little joke at themselves, where they had come from. In a way, it was like April Fool’s Day, except the monkeys actually recognized the inherent silliness of all sentient beings, rather than pretending such things were isolated to a few members of the species.

Bananas decked the table of every monkey, and the day started with the shrill, high-pitched laughter one used to hear only in zoos. Beware, humans, it was the Monkeys’ Day!


Which is the fictional critter?

Because nature is weird, and I like science fiction, which is the real creature, and which is the fictional critter?

Critter #1 is 1 mm long critter that:

  • Can survive in space and at the bottom of the Mariana Trench
  • Contains a set number of cells in its body
  • Can be rehydrated after over a century
  • Can survive thousands of times more radiation than a cockroach

Critter #2 is a bird that:

  • The males deliberately sets fires as a mating ritual
  • The males perform this ritual in pairs, in case one catches fire
  • After the fire spreads, the fires leave masses of cooked meat. The birds scrape off their meals with their distinctive, blade-like beaks

So… which critter is real, and which is not? For bonus points, in what book did the fictional critter appear?

Read the Answer