Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Another Use...

...for the state of the art 3-D imaging techniques now being used for mammograms.

Researchers have managed to use them to pick out some letters from the Herculaneum scrolls - an ancient library we have never been able to read because the scrolls, buried under ash and lava from Vesuvius, are too fragile to unroll.

It's not perfect, but for the first time we have a hope of being able to read this ancient library - which may contain knowledge mankind has forgotten for centuries.

Note that I leave on a vacation tomorrow. I'll be back and posting on February 2nd!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Okay, Okay...People, Please.

...get it right.

Amazon Japan has a new one-off item for sale: A 13 foot mecha. The company is asking $1 million for the prototype...and the arms (and weapons) cost extra. It's supposed to be a toy...that's one expensive toy.

So, I google Kuratas and here are the headlines:

Meet the $1 Million Robot You Can Buy on Amazon

There's a functional $1 million mech robot for sale on Amazon

Giant wearable mecha robot suit currently for sale on Amazon Japan for $1m.

Even the suit's maker, Suidobashi Heavy Industry, is calling it a "human ride robot."


It's not a robot if you control it from inside.

It's a mecha.


Jeeze. Don't you people know how to speak English? (Well, "human ride robot..."

The worst part is that one of the few outlets using the correct terminology is the Daily freaking Mail, which is a rag, but has the headline "Amazon selling 13ft exoskeleton Kuratas for ONE MILLION"

When the Daily Mail is doing better than you...

(Okay, I know. Common usage. I shouldn't complain, but I can't help it).

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review: The Light In The Gloaming by J.B. Simmons

This short novel feels more like a historical novel set in somebody else's world than fantasy. There's no real magic - there's a sword that may be magic or it may just be believed to be magic - and that's it.

It's also subtly Christian and supposedly deeply philosophical - unfortunately, I didn't quite get the philosophy, although I did get the point - that throwing somebody down as far as possible makes them a better leader in the end. Maybe. (I also suspect that his Gloaming prison may have been partly inspired by the underground prison in the Batman comics, also seen in the movie The Dark Knight Rises - if not, then we have some great minds here).

It works better as a straight story than as an allegory, but it's very well written and pulls the reader in. Some people might be put off by the length - it's very short for a fantasy book, although it's more in line with what I'd expect from this kind of philosophical/allegorical fiction. However, there's nothing on the outside of the book to indicate it is an allegory. The nice thing is it's not so preachy as to annoy the non-Christian reader - Simmons is no C.S. Lewis, but he does try his best.

The fun part was that the good guys and bad guys alike were trying to work within their political system (Similar, by the way, to the Holy Roman Empire) to solve their problems instead of just killing each other.

Quite an enjoyable read.

Four and a half stars.

(Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book with my WFC membership).

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Update

The Silent Years: Crone is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Smashwords. (It can be read without "Mother" but I do recommend getting both, obviously).

I will be out of town from Thursday of next week until February 2nd - I'll probably be answering email if it's urgent, but other than that...I actually plan on trying my best to be on vacation.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Does Science Fiction Have A Purpose?

One of the common things you hear said about science fiction is that it's about "predicting the future."

It's true that science fiction has predicted a lot of things. Here are a few examples:

1. By an amazing guess Jonathan Swift, in Gulliver's travels, tells us that Mars has two moons. He even got the orbital periods right...
2. In From The Earth To The Moon, Jules Verne put a major launch site in Florida, the location of current Cape Canaveral. Because of the earth's spin, it's safest to launch rockets on an east coast (or on the west side of a poorly inhabited desert, which was the Soviet choice) - so this is a fair prediction, even though he thought we would be firing space capsules out of giant guns. Then again, rail guns are a potential idea for the future.
3.  H.G. Wells put giant, armored, wheeled war machines on land in 1903. The first tanks were deployed in 1916.
4. In 1911, Hugo Gernsback had a character use a video phone in his serial Ralph 124c 41+. The first video phone showed up in 1964, although we now use computers and tablets more than phones for video talk - the larger screens help.
5. And in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke predicted geosynchronous communications satellites being used for television. Before broadcast television existed.

So, is the purpose of science fiction to predict the future? Not really. Trying to predict the future is fun, but not all science fiction is about it. And some science fiction, of course, predicts a future none of us would want to see. Dystopian fiction is extremely popular right now, most recently with The Hunger Games and Divergent, but older classes such as Brave New World enjoy some popularity. And apocalyptic fiction is a sub-genre with some staying power - books such as Ill Wind (Kevin J Anderson and Doug Beason), Wool (Hugh Howey) vie with classics such as Lucifer's Hammer (Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven) and A Canticle for Liebowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.). All of these are still science fiction, but they aren't predicting a future we should work towards. In some cases, they may warn us of one we should avoid.

If it's not predicting the future, then why write science fiction? What, other than entertainment, is its purpose?

I'm going to put forward a different hypothesis. As editor of Analog, Stanley Schmidt defined science fiction in 1999 as "fiction in which some element of speculation plays such an essential and integral role that it can't be removed without making the story collapse, and in which the author has made a reasonable effort to make the speculative element as plausible as possible." So, what's a speculative element?

It's simply a "what if." What if you could build a submarine and thus become self sufficient? (Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). What if a giant asteroid hit the earth? (Lucifer's Hammer). What if a plague turned most of the population into zombie-like animals? (My own recent release The Silent Years).

So, the purpose of science fiction, by that definition, would be to postulate a "what if" and then answer it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Tools Or Language?

Which comes first?

The answer should be obvious - tools. Many species of bird use tools, but don't appear to have languages as complex as ours (Appear being the strong word - I'm fairly sure they communicate more than we know).

The development of human language is a complicated thing, that probably had many different causes, but researchers have discovered that spreading complex toolmaking techniques is impossible without some kind of language. So, did humans invent language in order to teach each other to make knives?

It seems possible.

And can one envision a society and cognition in which only the toolmakers, the "smiths" use language?

Maybe...and it's worth considering that throughout Europe the smith is considered to be a magician...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Can We Trust Ted Cruz With NASA?

I normally keep politics out of this blog, but in this case it's relevant to science and exploration.

Ted Cruz has been named chair of the senate committee that overseas NASA (amongst other things).

The immediate reaction is that this is a bad thing. Actually, Cruz's record on NASA itself is mixed. He's attempted to cut the space agency's already rather thin budget, but he's also said he supports it. And he can only go so far against it given the Johnson Space Center is in his state - and Texas voters would probably not appreciate job cuts there.

Cruz's record, though, indicates that the alarmist kneejerk reaction that he will "defund" or "destroy" NASA might be premature. On the one hand, he's a Tea Party darling in very much in favor of cutting, well, anything he can get away with cutting.

On the other, he is in favor of manned space exploration and is likely to put a lot of weight behind Orion. However, he may well be against the use of commercial companies for access to the ISS (Something I'm very much in favor of), if for no other reason than because Obama likes it.

The other big issue with Cruz is that he's the climate change denier of climate change deniers. Which means he's likely to try and cut funding to NASA's earth science programs.

Here's the thing. Even if you're skeptical about climate change, those programs are useful. EPIC will launch this month and is programmed to take a panoramic photo of the entire planet. This will be a first. EPIC will be part of the Deep Space Climate Observatory, which will park at the L1 to monitor our planet. Cruz is unlikely to be able to stop this launch, but he might cut funding to the scientists actually getting the data from it. And guess what's also going up with it - a satellite to monitor the solar wind more accurately.

If Cruz messes with earth science programs at NASA, he'll mess with climate monitoring, meteorology, solar wind monitoring (useful for predicting flares) and possibly even programs designed to protect us from asteroids.

Therefore, I suppose, I'd like to make this a bit of an open letter to him - don't mess with NASA's earth science programs. Even if, Mr. Cruz, you don't believe climate change is happening, you should believe solar flares are a risk to our civilization. You should believe farmers in Texas need the most accurate meteorology we can get. You should believe that asteroid impacts are a risk.

I'm all for manned exploration, but I believe partnering with commercial ventures is the most efficient use of NASA's money in this regard. NASA should be about doing science that has no immediate commercial payoff, now and in the future. While I realize funding will not and should not be infinite, that only means we need to use it carefully...and without putting partisan politics in the way.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Blood's Pride by Evie Manieri

If you go to World Fantasy Con, you'll come back with books, books, and more books. It's the "nature of the beast."

Evie Manieri is a new author and Blood's Pride appears to be her debut novel. It's secondary world fantasy, but steps outside the Tolkeinian norms.

The peaceful Shadari are attacked and invaded by the Norlanders. Rather than defending them, their clerics take their own lives during the battle. The Shadari are occupied slaves of the "Dead Ones," as they call the invaders.

The "Dead Ones" are almost vampiric creatures - although clearly alive not undead, they are cold, and cannot abide the touch of the sun or, for any long period, the touch of normal humans. They fall somewhere, I suppose, between vampires and drow - an interesting fantasy race. Oh, and they ride furred winged beasts called triffon that are just as nocturnal as they are.

Despite this, one of them manages to father a child on a local woman. But the real story is the conflict between the three children of the governor - one of whom wants to rule at all costs.

It's an interesting world, with a magic "system" that appears to be tied to bloodlines and is more clerical than arcane.

Unfortunately, I found the story didn't really stick with me after reading - it was an okay read, but it didn't cross the line into being one of those books that stays with you for hours or even days afterwards. If you have a voracious appetite for epic fantasy, this one is probably worth it - it's the first of a series.

If you're more picky, like I am, then it may or may not do it for you. The characterization is handled well, but some of the lesser characters seem to serve little purpose.

A solid work, but nothing truly special about it. Three stars.

Blood's Pride (Shattered Kingdoms)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Friday Updates

Strange Voyages - print proof has been reviewed. It's a print proof, so it lacks a lot of illustrations and other content. I'm proud of the fact that it has fewer typos in it than many published books, though ;).

I got my contributors' copy for Damien Broderick's "best of" anthology from his run at the Australian magazine Cosmos today. You can get your copy here. Broderick's a very good editor (and fun to work with) and while I haven't had time to read it yet, I trust him to have chosen some real favorites for this one. Besides, same TOS as Joe Haldeman isn't to be sneezed at from my perspective.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Oh, NASA...

...sometimes I love you.

You can get these posters as digital downloads, but I want a color print for my wall.

It's hard to visualize what different planets might look like, so artists working for the JPL have produced exoplanet travel posters.

The top one is particularly interesting, featuring red vegetation. It's very likely that vegetation on other planets will be a color other than green. Plants are green because its the most efficient color to be with our particular star and our particular atmosphere. Elsewhere...well...

Go check them out.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Signing All Those Documents

As a freelancer, I have to sign legal documents all the time. If you get into freelance writing, you'll find you're suddenly surrounded by them.

There are several kinds of legal document that regularly cross my desk:

1. Publication agreements. These are what a writer or publisher means by "contracts." A publication agreement signs over specific rights to a publisher or other organization in return for compensation (Or no compensation, but I've already stated my opinion on writers and artists working for free - always make sure you get something for it, and that that something is not "exposure").

2. Non-disclosure agreements. NDAs. If you are working on somebody else's property they will almost certainly have you sign one of these. An NDA simply means that you agree not to talk to anyone outside the company about unreleased work without their permission. NDAs can be a little bit scary, but think about it this way - what you're really agreeing is little more than "No spoilers."

3. Submission agreements. These are standard for comic book companies. If you sign a submission agreement, you are agreeing that if the company happens to do something very similar to your pitch you can't sue them. Companies are accused of stealing ideas all the time and because of that some people are reluctant to sign these. What they really do, though, is cover the company's rear - if you have more than one writer working on the same characters, it's not really a surprise if two of them come up with the same thing.

Here's a few things you should not sign:

1. A contract that grants exclusive rights in perpetuity. There should always be an exclusivity period that is laid out. The standard for short stories is six months from publication, but I have had as short as one month (Analog) to as long as several years. For novel contracts, expect several years. Never sign a life of copyright contract and avoid signing contracts that don't specify an exclusivity period at all - always ask. It could mean they don't care, it could mean they're trying to sneak life of copyright past you - or are clueless.

2. Any contract or document that refers to you as an employee. This usually happens with smaller companies and NDAs. Companies should not call contractors or freelancers employees, or they risk being liable for workmen's compensation if the DOL audits them. So, by refusing to sign the agreement unless they change "employee" to "contractor" you're helping cover their rear.

3. A contract that signs over rights the company has neither the intention nor ability to use. Some small presses try to lay claim on movie rights. Never sign these contracts. (I've stopped negotiations with a publisher over this before). Don't sign over audiobook rights unless the publisher has a solid history of using them on all, or at least most, books. If it's "If your book sells enough" then tell them you'll negotiate a new contract at that point. Note that anthology options are standard for many periodicals. A correct anthology option states that you are giving them the right to use the story on a non-exclusive basis in a future anthology for X extra compensation. Periodicals that use this option are generally those who produce annual "Best of" compilations and don't want to have to go back and re-negotiate for them.

4. A book contract that gives the publisher right of first refusal on all future works. (Series rights are a slightly different thing and may be acceptable). At the very least insist that they have a limited period, say three months, to look at the work. There are some contracts out there which basically give the publisher the power to decide what...and'll write again.

5. A contract that signs over your work for no compensation unless you really are getting something worthwhile out of it. Note that if the "exposure" you would get is significant enough to be worth it then the company should be able to afford to pay you. (Charity work counts as "getting something worthwhile"). It may also be worthwhile to, for example, give away a reprint for use in a convention sampler - I've done that.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

All Kinds...

...of animals give birth to live young.

No species of bird does (We aren't sure why - it would be an advantage to ostriches and rheas).

Frogs, now?

Only about 12 species of frog have even managed internal fertilization (meaning the sperm goes into the uterus instead of both eggs and sperm being released into water). Frogs, even the ones that do seem to manage it somehow, don't have penises or anything useful for pushing sperm into a uterus.

A few species of African frogs, all in genus Nectophrynoids, do give birth to live young, little tiny froglets. And Australian gastric brooding frogs swallow their own eggs and brood them in their stomachs for eight weeks (the females are pretty thin by the end).

But until now, no species of frog had been found that gave birth to tadpoles. Limonectes larvaepartus on the island of Sulawesi does just that...perhaps because some predator would make eggs too vulnerable.

Frogs also have some other interesting reproductive talents:

Strawberry Poison Dart Frogs lay their eggs on land and then carry the tadpoles to water-filled plants that grow in the trees. The mother will then lay even more eggs...unfertilized ones...into the otherwise empty pond to feed her tadpoles.

Darwin's Frog males keep their tadpoles in their vocal sacs.

Surinam Toad fathers carefully place the eggs on their mate's back...where the skin grows over them. They then emerge from mommy's back as froglets.

(Relevance to science fiction? Can you imagine a sentient alien race that used any or all of these tactics?)

Monday, January 5, 2015

Stellar Near Miss?

Apparently we're heading for one. In about 240,000 years, that is.

The star, HIP 85605, should pass our solar system at a distance of 0.04 parsecs and no, it won't knock the Earth out of its orbit. It might, however, disrupt the Oort cloud and send comets and other fragments hurtling towards the inner planets.

If we're still around then, that might be a bit of a problem.

Such cosmic near misses are pretty rare. But it's a definite reminder that the stars, while "set in their courses" by the forces of gravity, are definitely not sitting still. That includes the sun. At our best guess, the solar system is orbiting the center of the galaxy at a speed of about 200 kilometers per second, with an orbital period of 240 million years...

We just don't notice because everything's moving at the same speed.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Friday Updates

Good news - the print proofs for Strange Voyages were just ordered. We're still doing some tweaks with the backer content, but we're definitely in the home stretch on the project.

That's about it for this week - holidays don't really support productivity. Lots of fun, not much productivity.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

I'm partying today, wishes to everyone for a happy, healthy, prosperous (and book-filled) New Year.

May 2015 be better than 2014 in all ways.