Tag Archives: sci fi

Writing prompt: Middle name pride day

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

“Middle name pride day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays. This one is a little dumb, but that’s what is freeing about writing prompts. Sometimes they can be dumb, but they didn’t take very long.)


“Hey Jane, what’s your middle name?” Anka asked, her voice swaying with song. She hung upside down from the hover monkey bars, her pigtails dangling by her ears.

“I told you, I don’t have one.” Jane walked toward the hyper see saw.

“Is that so? I saw you name on the attendance list. ‘Jane X. Stuart.’ You liar.”

“Well why should I tell you anyway! We’re not friends!”

Anka rolled down from the bars and pursued. “Oh Jane, are you keeping a secret? Your middle name’s not anything embarassing, is it?”

Jane went cold. Anka smelled blood. This wouldn’t end well. “No. Go away. Stop following me.”

“What could it be…” she mused. “Xylophone? No…. Xavier? No… oh no… it couldn’t be…”

Jane didn’t turn, she just kept walking.

“Could it be Xagolonix?!” Anka cried.

That was it, Jane couldn’t take it anymore. She turned and pushed Anka. “ I said, go away!”

“You’re named after a monster! Do you know how many people Xagolonix killed?”

“I was born before that. Before that, it was a perfectly normal Martian name.”

“Jane Xagolonix Stuart!” Anka sang. “Jane Xagolonix Stuart!”

“Anka!” Mr. Svetloff barked. “Are you picking on Jane?”

“No, Mr. Svetloff,” Anka simpered. “Jane was keeping secrets.”

“Miss Anka Hitler, I don’t suppose you see anything odd about your name, do you?” Mr. Svetloff intoned.

“No, it’s a perfectly normal Earth name,” Anka said.

“About that,” Mr. Svetloff began.

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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Writing prompt: create a vacuum day

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

“Create a vacuum day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

 

“Aren’t you the asshole that wiped out Charlottesville?” the woman said, spotting me from across the diner. She walked over.

“Well, technically no, it wasn’t me,” I rubbed my arm. I felt eyes study me from all around.

“Your work then. Whatever. I didn’t think I’d ever see you in person, or at least not without a fake beard.”

“I’m not ashamed of what happened,” I said. “Regretful, yeah, but not ashamed.”

“How do you work that out? Wiping out thousands of homes and businesses because you did something stupid?”

She looked genuinely curious. I was used to being berated. But maybe she would understand. I launched into the speech I’d recited in my head so many times. The speech no one ever let me speak. “Have you ever seen a vacuum chamber setup? A real, scientific one? For trying to create nothing, the suckers are enormous. And chock full of specialized equipment, like pumps that can literally be destroyed if they have to push thousands of atoms rather than tens. Frankly, I thought it was all a mess. I thought I could do better,”

She cocked her head to the side. She looked like she thought I was nuts, but she didn’t look angry.

“It was a wild idea,” I continued. “So wild I didn’t tell my advisor. But I didn’t need to tell him, I had the materials to get it done on the cheap.”

“Yea, yea, yea,” she waved her hand. “You decided to make a black hole in one instead, I watch the news. And trust me, no matter how you tell that part, it won’t sound clever to someone who lost a house to it.”

I looked away. “I can’t do anything about that now. I ran simulation after simulation that looked fine. I still don’t know what happened.”

“You got it wrong.”

“I really don’t think I did,” I said. “And I’m not afraid to be wrong—really, go find my undergraduate biology professor. I don’t have any data, it all got destroyed, but something other than just a black hole happened that day.”

She frowned. “You got it wrong. Apparently you are afraid to admit it. How sad that you can’t even see that.”

She walked away.

“Excuse me,” an elderly woman with a colorful scarf said from a booth nearby. “I can’t help but have overheard your conversation. And I have a theory about what went wrong that I’ve entertained for a while. Are you willing to try to reproduce your experiment?”

 

Book Review: Pandemonium (Daryl Gregory 2008)

Note: in this review, I avoid specific spoilers beyond the first few chapters or back cover blurb. I discuss my reaction to the ending, but none of the specific events.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I chose to read Pandemonium because it was the book club selection for a book club meeting I failed to attend (sigh, moving). I devoured this book in less than 48 hours and I really enjoyed the process of reading it. For two reasons, this book forced me to contemplate the nature of science fiction versus fantasy: 1) because the book explicitly calls out the artificiality of the separation and 2) because I myself strongly tilt towards science fiction.

Pandemonium is set in a world where demonic possessions happen. They come in many flavors; there’s the Captain, who possesses soldiers and performs acts of bravery and there’s the Little Angel, who possesses little girls and releases old people from the pain of the world. Del Pierce was possessed as a child, and now as an adult he suspects that the demon never entirely left him.

Science wants to understand these possessions as much as it wants to understand cancer in our own world. Del wants to be freed of his demon, by science or otherwise. He’s damaged by what he’s endured. He talks to scientists and to their less-scientific groupies. Del’s condition isn’t considered possible by science, and he’s exasperated by the limitations of science. The characters criticize the way the scientific community regards the demonic possessions. It felt like the tired criticisms of our scientific process. Perhaps, as a scientist, I’m over-sensitive to such things.

People separate fantasy and scifi in different ways, and here’s my separation: fantasy is about exceptions to the rules and scifi is about inevitable outcomes of the rules. Harry Potter is an exceptional member of an exceptional class of people. Piers Anthony’s Xanth stories are about the people with the best magical powers. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is about one of many sentient programs that through a unique set of circumstances becomes something more. Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain is about the first products of genetic engineering. Both genres often focus on exceptional characters, but in scifi the character is exceptional due to circumstances and in fantasy the character is inherently exceptional in some way that cannot be explained.

In arguing a lack of separation between science fiction and fantasy, Pandemonium has the trappings of fantasy but makes several explicit science fiction references. Early in the book, a character (named Valis) quotes Philip K. Dick and asserts that “you cannot separate science fiction from fantasy.” There are references to AE van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. I made a mental footnote to expect something genre-defying at the end.

After the book argued for the lack of distinction between the genres, the ending didn’t challenge my definition of fantasy. For me, this was a book about demons and possession and the human psyche. Which is fine. But like Chekov’s gun, after a lot of discussion about the blurred lines between two genres, you expect to partake in a book with blurred lines. I didn’t dislike the ending, but I didn’t feel affected by it either. I flew through the book, finished it, and shrugged.

Pandemonium is a lovely read. As a mild scifi snob, I am out of its core audience, and I can’t say how those with different genre sensibilities might feel about it. For me it just felt insubstantial, like a book that will fade from my memory.

Writing prompt: Reconciliation Day

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

“Reconciliation Day” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

The tone sounded on the radio. It rang out, long and steady and unbroken. The people stood, arrow stiff, looking to the sky. Aina found it all theatrical and disconnected. The city of Vironevaeh’s old hatchet had been buried. It seemed irrelevant. So they were at peace with Naenaiaeh. The ancestors of Vironevaeh and Naenaiaeh had fought. But Naenaiaeh was all the way on another planet. No one could get into orbit, much less to other planets. Even communication between the two worlds was recent. So they’d been at “war”. How much of a war can be held between two civilizations that can’t even talk? What exactly is a war that consists of shaking your fist at the bright star in the sky and writing scathing plays about those bastards in the sky?

The tone stopped at last. Aina’s classmate Yosef wiped a tear from the corner of his eye.

“How can you be moved by this?” she asked him.

“I don’t know… how can I be moved reading stories from Earth? Or fiction? People that I didn’t know that died long ago or never existed.”

Aina snorted.

“Long ago, our peoples were one. And when they were, they were strong. I guess I hope that our unity will bring us back the strength we lost.”

“We weren’t strong because we were one, we were strong because we had technology that’s gone now.”

He shrugged. “Maybe we can regain it together. It would be poetic if our drive to reunite gave of the mechanical means to do so.”

Aina shook her head. She knew why the symbols of meaningless unity bothered her. Declarations of solidarity were just that—declarations. People cut and run when the opportunity presented itself. People told her that she should seek reconciliation too. It was the word on everyone’s tongues these days. But they didn’t know what they were talking about. Isn’t it better to live with one leg than to have a second that might betray you?

Writing Prompt: Make up your own holiday

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

“Make up your own holiday” (Inspired by this list of silly holidays.)

 

After the near miss, the year was three days longer. You’d think that not getting hit by a huge asteroid would be the most important outcome of The Scare. At first it was.

Only in the aftermath of something terrible do you see the little ripples and effects. Your birthday wasn’t your birthday. The fourth of July wasn’t The Fourth of July. And it wasn’t just the solar calendar. The asteroid pulled the moon farther out, which changed the lunar calendar. A lot of holidays run on the lunar calendar—Easter, Yom Kippur, Chinese New Year. Each group of people had to decide whether to switch to the new calendar or approximate the old one. Sects were formed, conflicts occurred. The surf was different. Some forms of life live like a clock with the tides, and random species we tend not to think about starting dying in droves. The days were a little longer too.

I was the first one to start it. I looked at the new calendar, I looked at the old calendar, and I said, I don’t care. I’m going to make up my own holiday. It happened roughly once a year, but when I said it would. It didn’t have to answer to anyone but me. I called it Time Dilation Day. We dressed up like Einstein. There were substances that influenced how a person perceives the passage of time. And we didn’t worry. It was a day outside the rigidities of calendars—solar, lunar, or whatever.

That was ten years ago. I’m afraid now that I started a cult. I don’t get to say when Time Dilation Day happens anymore. There’s another asteroid passing near the Earth in a couple of years. It’s not supposed to be close enough. But maybe I can change that. I don’t want it to hit, just another near miss would be swell. Once you control the passage of time, you don’t give it up.

Writing prompt: Abduct an extraterrestrial

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

“Abduct an extraterrestrial” (This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts. March 20th is Extraterrestrial Abductions Day, and after a member of our writing group misinterpreted this as humans abducting ETs, we went with that. It seemed more interesting.)

 

The light from underground was reddish. The instruments confirmed that it extended into the infrared.

“They’re down there,” Mason hissed. “The aliens!”

For the historical reader, I should explain that the presence of aliens wasn’t the novelty here, but the collection of this particular species for the St. Louis Zoo. At this point, we hadn’t understood that the Iotans travelled along subharmonic strings. We only knew at this point that they couldn’t seem to escape from caves or other underground places once they got there. We’d managed to capture two of them in this trap we’d set. A pity, it took at least three to breed.

“I can see that,” I told Mason. He was really more of a technician than an exobiologist. For him, the victory was that his trap had worked. I was an exobiologist. I needed to figure out how to get them to the zoo without them de-materializing—an annoying habit. Further, I had to figure out what Iotans ate and breathed and whether their excretions would dissolve the typical metal enclosures.

The Iotans realized now their predicament. The two of them wailed high and frankly unpleasantly. We didn’t know if they had language or if they could travel as they did simply as part of their unusual biology. I wish now that we’d known what a headache this pair would be for us. After we accidentally killed the Iotans, tough times came in the exobiologist community. I got sent to work at the facility on Mars—a humiliation. But that’s a different story.

The red light flashed white and the wailing squealed higher then abruptly stopped. There were no more signs on the instruments, no more sounds, no more anything. We cautiously crept forward. The cavern was twice as big as it had been and we saw no Iotans anywhere.

“Where are they?” Mason asked.

“How should I know?” I exploded. We were exhausted when we reached the surface, and I noted the failure in my records.

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!