Category Archives: science fiction

Writing prompt: Submarine day

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

“Submarine day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.  Because St. Pat’s would be too obvious!)


The sub was beginning to stink. It reeked of sweat and mildew. Jansen had been short-circuiting the timer on the air-lock. It was his fault, I knew it. We wouldn’t get fresh air for another month, and the filtration system was already going at max.

Something long and tentacled swam past my window. I knew why Jansen rushed the air-lock—there was something wrong about this planet. The little submarine felt like an oasis in a wet desert, a safe space in a world of monsters. The survey had revealed some large native lifeforms, but our sub, which apparently resembled a good meal, brought them out in numbers we couldn’t anticipate.

But the company said it was alright, and we had signed contracts, so we would stay until the next crew arrived.

Construction was behind schedule. The initial design specs were insufficient in light of the lifeforms in the ocean. If one of the large ones rammed the base, the original design wouldn’t take that.

Another creature, head like a folded umbrella, long like an eel, swam by. Several of its eyes blinked. I wondered if it could see me.

Science Fiction and the West: Part 2

The western landscape is absurd. There are massive towers of rock, ancient ruins, and strange colors. There are fields of lava and dunes of drywall. In a recent post, I talked about how the west evokes much of the science fiction I read. Well, I went driving again, and I found more science fiction in the west. Specifically…


Underground kingdoms

Carlsbad Caverns lie under southeast New Mexico. At any moment, I imagined that goblins would pour out of the ceiling and down columns around me. Carlsbad evokes visions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, Cthulhu, and Middle Earth. Right now, the elevators at Carlsbad are offline, so you must walk down into the gaping natural entrance. If you are a science fiction enthusiast, it’s hard to escape the feeling that you are on a journey to somewhere of lore.

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The Great Room in Carlsbad Caverns.


 

Strange pieces of history

There are some silos out west that look exactly like daleks. This one is by the city of Alamogordo. Nearby, I found a scrap yard full of derelict missiles and circuitry. Seriously, where does one find a silo shaped like a scifi creature next to cruise missiles other than science fiction and the west? (Okay, maybe the Ural Mountains.)

At first, it seemed rather extraordinary to find a missile sitting in a scrap yard a mile outside a mid-sized city, but this is the storage yard for the New Mexico Museum of Space History.

Still, I prefer to think that giant daleks roam New Mexico, and they have missiles!

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A real life Canticle for Leibowitz

East of Albuquerque is the Salinas Mission National Monument, a set of three missions from the 1600s. The sites were inhabited by pueblo indians going back centuries. After the Spaniards arrived, they built missions to convert the indians. They also functioned as part of the salt trade, which is where the name “Salinas” comes from. After the pueblo revolted in the late 1600s, the sites were forgotten, and only rediscovered in the mid 1800s.

I visited the Gran Quivira site this weekend. It contains a pueblo village that once held 2000 people, a completed church, and an extremely large incomplete church that was in construction at the time of the revolt. From the site, you can see for miles around. There are a few ranches, but few other signs of inhabitance.

As I mentioned in my last post, I just reread A Canticle for Leibowitz. And wow did Gran Quivira evoke the book. The ruins of a church next to a town, just like the abbey next to the town of Sanly Bowitz. From the site, one could see a pilgrim traveling the road. Overhead, the sun bakes all. Okay, so the book was set in Utah, but it felt real to me!

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Salinas Mission National Monument–the Gran Quivira Site.


White Sands

Have I written about this place enough? It’s a bunch of dunes literally made from powdered drywall. I think I’m in love. It’s Tatooine, Mars, Arrakis, and Vulcan.

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And that was all in just one long weekend. If my former state of Virginia was for lovers, then New Mexico is for romance.

 

Science Fiction and the West: Part 1

Three events inspired this post: 1) I reread A Canticle for Leibowitz, set in future Utah, for the first time since moving west, 2) a member of my scifi club out east joined wordpress (check out his blog here), and 3) I visited the fantastic Bisti Wilderness Area in northwest New Mexico. All at once, I was reminded of sharing the west with friends out east, and confronted with the west in future fiction and the west’s natural absurdity.

I pondered my bookshelf. The genre is not as teeming with western themes as one might think of a genre that grew up side-by-side with the cowboys and indians craze. There’s Joe Haldeman’s Worlds, which briefly depicts a future lawless Nevada. I thought of an Ursula Vernon short story and a series by R.S. Belcher that I have yet to read. But nothing else. It seemed odd. Then I saw all the books about Mars—in many ways, they are books about the west. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Philip K. Dick’s hallucinogenic Martian books, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land… whenever Mars is a character, it feels a lot like the west.

And it’s no surprise that the Mars of fiction feels like the west. John Carter was filmed in southern UtahTotal Recall filmed in Nevada. Robison Crusoe on Mars filmed in Arizona and Death Valley. It’s more than just superficial: NASA has tested rovers at White Sands National Monument, because the dunes are similar to those on Mars. NASA even brought a piece of rock to Mars from New Mexico on the rover for calibration purposes.

This post is just the first on this topic. I’ve lived in the west for six months now. I’ve traveled it only a little. I need to read the science fiction of the west, the science fiction of Mars, and to experience the natural surreality of this land. But for now, I leave you with the science fiction west.

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Book review: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin 1974)

Rating: 2/5

I first read The Dispossessed in high school. I wasn’t wild about it. But high schoolers lack knowledge of government and people and how we get along together, major topics of the book, so I figured I owed it a reread.

I wasn’t wild about The Dispossessed the second time either. It may be the talkiest modern book I’ve read. With all the talking, I never felt like I emotionally connected with the countries, the characters, or the conflicts. In contrast, Le Guin’s other Hugo and Nebula award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, is structurally similar and is one of my favorite books.

The Dispossessed takes place on a world and an inhabitable moon, the Earthlike Urras the harsher Anarres. Politically, Urras has rich and poor and countries of different political persuasions. Anarres is inhabited by descendants of anarchists from Urras. On Anarres, the people are equal and they struggle together against the harsh climate. They don’t own anything and they are free because of it. The main character is Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres. The book alternates between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and Shevek’s visit to Urras. Shevek is the first person from either world to go to the other. The book contrasts to the two societies using Shevek’s eyes, a man who doesn’t quite fit in on either world.

Much of the book describes the society of anarchist Anarres. People work for the good of society. No one is strictly obligated to, but social shame is applied to those who don’t, those who “egoize”.  Everyone, even the physicists, is expected to spend part of their time laboring for society. Men and women are equal, the intelligent and less intelligent are equal too. The book does discuss where these ideals start to break down, but still, I had trouble believing in the Annaresti society. It felt one-dimensional, like its whole purpose was to be a foil to hedonistic, classist Urras, and moreso, hedonistic classist Earth.

Ultimately, I didn’t believe in the book. All the characters orated on social issues, and I often forgot who was who. I didn’t feel for any of the characters. The two different societies never felt real to me, just exaggerations of two extremes. Neither Urras or Anarres was shocking or insightful to me.

I wonder how the book felt in 1974. Roe vs. Wade happened in 1973. Title IX passed in 1972. A book by a female author about equality and respect was probably a breath of fresh air. Today, to me, maybe the story’s equality read a little too like a fairy tale. Too neat and tidy when we see female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno pilloried for being ugly. There’s a lot of steps in between 1800’s style ownership of women and the ideal of female equality that the book tidily skips over.

Interestingly, The Dispossessed has a similar structure to The Left Hand of Darkness. A man who exists outside two societies visits and contrasts both of them. But for me, Left Hand has so much more feeling. I felt both cultures, and I loved the main characters. In both Left Hand and in The Dispossessed‘s Anarres, the battle against the elements forces a sort of communal behavior. Both books examine gender in society. But for me, The Left Hand of Darkness works, while The Dispossessed doesn’t.

Diversity in Science Fiction: Some Diverse Reads

Science fiction often touts itself as the genre of the future. But science fiction is a reflection of today as much as it is a dream about the future. Science fiction has been too white and too male, both in authors and in protagonists. This is a reflection of the biases in our society.

My own top 20 sci-fi novels list features 18 books by white men, and two books by Ursula Le Guin. The Guardian’s list of top 500 scifi novels featured the names of 18 women. Any scifi reader starting out will hear about Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Too many people get defensive when someone points this out. (See: the Great SFWA Shitstorm.)

The answer is to read widely, and to continue to read widely. So in that spirit, I list below some diverse science fiction*, some of which I have read, and some of which I ought to. For further reading, here is a great article listing a lot of great authors from the LA Times.

  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler: we destroy ourselves with war and aliens come in and save the survivors, mostly people from South American cultures who avoided the bombs. Oh, and the aliens want weird weird sex. A fun and weird read.
  • Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: A western man goes to future Bangkok. The native Thais and the genetically-engineered windup girl are the stars of the show, though.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: One for me to read! A best seller in China, recently translated into English.
  • Downbelow Station and Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh: Distant future novels where women kick ass in militaristic and scientific settings, if you can get past the info-dumping at the front.
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Orakafor: Another for me to read! Far future, post-apocalyptic Africa.
  • The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold: I have looked for these for years in used bookstores. I guess they fall into that awkward old-enough-to-be-out-of-print-, not-so-old-as-to-be-reprinted phase. They won a buttload of Hugos. And they feature a disabled protagonist.

*Note: I think it’s currently easier to find diverse fantasy. Maybe this is because it’s straightforward to use alternate mythology to Western mythology. I personally vastly prefer sci-fi. I think diversity in far future sci-fi is a challenge, because our whole concept of diversity is rooted in today’s culture. Just giving everything Chinese-ish names isn’t very satisfying. In LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Genly is black, but this isn’t relevant to the story at all. But I would like to see more female protagonists!

 

Book Review: Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie 2013)

Note: in this review, I spoil nothing beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie grabbed me quickly, with tight writing and careful and intriguing word choice. The winner of both the 2014 Hugo and the 2014 Nebula Awards, the most prestigious in sci-fi, it clearly had this effect on others. Only on page 3, we get the wonderful phrase “She was probably male”. The novel reminded me a lot of C. J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, with high space opera and sophisticated scheming. The protagonist, Breq, is a semi-human fragment of an artificial intelligence. I found Breq interesting in expression and nature, and she was easy to root for.

You will notice gender in this book. Breq is from the Radch Empire, where gender is not determinable from appearance nor is it important to try, and thus everyone, male or female, is referred to as “she”. Surprisingly, this totally achieved gender anonymity for me. In Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, all pronouns are male, which left me picturing every character as male even though some of them are physically ungendered. Perhaps because female doesn’t seem like the default pronoun, using “she” didn’t feel the same. We know that Breq is a female human and her companion Seivarden is a male human, but we don’t know the gender of most of the characters.

Unlike Left Hand, Ancillary Justice doesn’t dwell on gender. The Radch convention is what the characters use, unless they are speaking in another language, and that is that. We never find out why the Radch in particular ignore gender in a way that must have been a determined effort at that level. Have their sexual proclivities evolved with their language too? I wondered. In a way, not knowing answers to questions that had inspired such curiosity in me bothered me. But in a way, it was in keeping with the Radch Culture– gender wasn’t important there and it wasn’t important in the book, and it was my hang-up only that kept it there. Why did anyone’s gender matter to the story?

I suppose it’s strange to devote such a chunk of my review to something that the book doesn’t dwell on. But still, in the contexts of our language, it was a major choice on the part of Leckie. It makes my brain itch in such a delightful way.

The novel has several other nifty science fiction ideas. Breq’s current sentience versus her life as an AI is wonderful. Leckie uses music to characterize Breq in a way I really enjoyed. The Radch Empire is also pretty interesting, though it sounds obnoxious. They run around and brutally conquer and are filled with narcissistic oligarchs like Seivarden. The empire is run by several thousand clones of the same person, Anaander, who for some reason I kept on picturing as Edna Mode from The Incredibles, but that weird detail is almost certainly on me as a reader.

I ended up giving the book a 4/5, though I still debate myself over the rating. A book that I read in a day and a half because I was so enthralled, a book that still has me thinking a week later should be a 5/5. But I felt like the book didn’t quite come together for me at the end, like it was all sweetness and no substance. I didn’t ever feel uncomfortable or uncertain as to the outcome. That said, I would read it again, and recommend it to others. Read it yourself and see what you think.

The slow and steady

Over six months ago, I challenged myself to do 100 illustrations of my city of Vironevaeh, the fictitious city that is the unspellable namesake of this website. I would build my world in myriad ways, practice art, and create some beautiful scenes. On Thursday, I finished the fiftieth color image. I have images of city streets, markets, pets, agriculture, constellations, architecture, pastimes, clothing, family, and weather.

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Eventually, I will have descriptions for each of them, and a place on the map. Eventually there will be at least 50 more. It’s a lot of work to do for something that probably won’t mean much to anyone besides me. But Vironevaeh is a city at my side for over 17 years, and it will mean a lot to me. I am so pleased with my progress. Here are a couple of my favorites:

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A man showing a child constellations in the sky. These constellations are of Abenn the hermit and Peep the mouse, who hid away on Neva the spaceship. These legendary figures are the subject of my recent and free fairy tale The Lonely Man on the Ship. Sharp eyes may note that the people here are blue and green.

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Children running with a kite in the countryside. A pretty typical scene even here on Earth, except for the lovely purple Vironevaehn sky. Also the fact the fog in the valleys behind them could be brain-eating. All in normal day!

Soon I’ll bind up a little fun book of my favorite ten illustrations, but for now, I’m basking. Onto the next milestone!

“The Lonely Man on the Ship”: Available now!

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“The Lonely Man on the Ship” is now available as an e-book! “The Lonely Man on the Ship” in an illustrated science fiction fairy about the adventures of a man stuck on a broken down space ship. It is appropriate for all ages.

It is a Fixed-Layout e-book, which unlike the traditional flowable e-book has pre-defined pages. A fixed-layout book takes more work, but take a look and you will see how beautifully “The Lonely Man on the Ship” turned out. This is the childhood storybook made portable.

I hope to set the kindle price to free in the future– kindle does not allow small-volume users to set a price of free, but sometimes will set it to free themselves to price-match other sites.

I am also working to place it in local businesses as a zine for a few bucks (so excited!). So check those digital versions out, or contact me about physical copies!

Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d Road

 

 

Bizarre Tales from the Three Notch’d Road is a collection of  eight science fiction and fantasy stories celebrating the 5th anniversary of our SFF writing group. It’s now available for the kindle here.

All the contributors are local to central Virginia, with stories from tropical islands, snowy oblivions, the distant past and the distant future. The name for this volume honors the Three Notch’d Road, which runs through central Virginia and dates back at least 300 years.

So check it out! It’s the first anthology our group has produced, and we’re very excited and proud!

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A Weekend at Ravencon

This weekend I went to my first science fiction convention, Ravencon in Richmond, and what a weekend it was.

The weekend started with a bang when our hotel had a fire alarm during a tornado warning. The hotel staff tried to gather us into a large glass atrium. As a Midwesterner, I refused indignantly.

I heard Elizabeth Bear read from her One-Eyed Jack book set in Las Vegas. I took Allen Wold‘s fiction writing glass and got so excited I could hardly calm down to write a hundred words for him. I went to two Jonah Knight concerts featuring scifi/fantasy acoustic guitar songs. I was also intrigued by authors R. S. Belcher, T. Eric Bakutis, and Lana Krumwiede.

So basically, I met a ton of people, had a great time, and feel quite motivated and inspired regarding science fiction. When I got back last night with a throbbing headache, I managed to bang out a first draft of a story about a pool that’s possessed by a spirit. It’s a bit incoherent, but it’s spontaneous and joyful, and I don’t sit down and write 2600 words as much as I should.

Still exhausted today, and it’s raining, which feels like nature’s way of telling me to take it easy. Will do, nature, will do. So that’s all I can manage to say today, but what a weekend.

(Oh, and check out my story “Ephemerality” at The Colored Lens about a girl who ages very quickly who falls in love with a boy who doesn’t. This one is my favorite story I’ve published thus far.)