Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Great Canadian Hero, Eh?

I'll admit, this post is more or less inspired by Canadian Twilight and Redneck Vampires. I wanted to post something for Canada Day, you see*, and came up with three options. The first, Great Canadian Scientists and Discoveries, and the second, Great Canadian SF Authors, both struck me as kind of dull and kind of done before, and what could I add, anyway? But the third, oh, the third…

If you're not aware already, one of the main ways Canadians show patriotism is not by drinking beer and watching hockey, or by wearing plaid flannel in an igloo. It's by making fun of ourselves. We're quite good at it. We're also good at understatement.

So, without further ado:

The Canadian Superhero

  • He (or she) doesn't need a mask. He already has a balaclava for winters, and everyone pretends they don't know who he is.
  • When he catches a criminal in the act, he announces himself with, "How's it going, eh?"
  • Every time he injures someone in a fight, he apologizes. Afterwards, he either takes them to the hospital or visits them there.
  • His colours aren't red and white, and his symbol isn't a maple leaf. He doesn't want people to think he supports the government, even if he does.
  • For those long nights of work, he gets his coffee at Timmies. He knows all the staff by name, and none of them ever mention the costume.
  • He knows just enough French for witty banter, and to read food labels.
  • His headquarters is either his garage, his basement, or his cabin. Why go to the effort of building something new?
  • He doesn't mind being heroic during football, soccer, baseball, or basketball season, but he won't go out when there's a hockey game on. Or curling.
  • He doesn't brag, and is actually a little embarrassed when the media mentions him.
  • He doesn't switch to his official winter costume until it's at least -10°C three days in a row.
  • The Canadamobile has winter tires and an attachable snowplow.
  • He thinks nothing of wading through snowdrifts in pursuit of justice. Standard winter, and all that.
  • His archnemesis is American. Canadians are too polite to be evil.
  • In the presence of his archnemesis, he plays up the accent, just to annoy him.
  • Rick Mercer has parodied him. 
  • He's either Canadaman or Benton Fraser.

Feel free to add to the list.

Also, if you're not aware, and you're probably not, the protagonist of my current WIP is a superhero. Who lives in Canada.** (I mentioned liking superheroes somewhere, didn't I?) 

*I know it's not till tomorrow, but I don't post on Thursdays.
** He's not the only Canadian hero. There's Wolverine, of course, but also the members of Alpha FlightCaptain CanuckJohnny Canuck, and Nelvana of the Northern Lights. I had to mention them, for thoroughness' sake.

Monday, June 28, 2010

A Short Story with Robots

The finest programming of DNC Industries' Swan line was naturally put into the Odettes and Siegfrieds, with special care given to the ones manufactured for Russia. Odette Cincinnati-2, checking her joints for the last time before her entrance, knew this just as she knew every pas de bourrée and échappé she'd perform in the next three hours. She wasn't jealous. The Russian Odettes gave two performances a day with little time for maintenance, and routinely travelled in cramped ex-military trucks over unpaved roads, while she gave only three performances a week and never travelled.

Did they envy her? No. With the strength and detail of their routines, they wouldn't have time to speak with humans, time to add to their simul-human codes, time to develop emotions and awareness and thought. All they had was the perfection of Swan Lake, and because they knew no better, it was enough.

Siegfried Cincinnati-1 entered stage-left with a series of careful steps and exaggerated looks at the image-real forest displayed on the back wall. His left shoulder looked stiff today, as if he'd neglected to oil it again, and Odette made a note to make the lifts in the pas de deux as easy as possible for him. It wouldn't do to have his shoulder give out. The company couldn't bear the expense just now. She also made a note to nag him later. He'd listen to her, if not to their manager.

The music flowed through one phrase, then another, and Odette rose en pointe and glided out onto the stage, her code swelling with the music.

The inspiration:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Geek Osmosis

You wouldn't know this by looking at me, but I grew up without cable TV. My family had the three, sometimes two, channels that came through the antenna on the roof, and we watched movies fairly often, but we didn't have TV to the same extent that everyone else I knew did. Looking back, that was a good thing because I read more and am close to my family, but at the time, you bet I was annoyed.

Of course, I didn't know how annoyed I should be because I didn't know what I was missing. I didn't even hear of Farscape, Babylon 5, Angel, Firefly, Futurama, and a whole host of other shows until I hit university, and Buffy and Stargate were largely off the radar until then too. I saw Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars IV-VI as a kid, but not Star TrekPrincess Bride, or Labyrinth. I was only vaguely aware that there were different kinds of Star Trek. I could go on, but I'm betting the geeks who did grow up with all that are dying inside right now.

Fortunately, university coincided (not entirely uncoincidentally) with unlimited internet and access to cable. I've been absorbing as much as I can ever since, but there are some shows and movies I just don't have time to watch. Wikipedia and IMDB are extraordinarily helpful, as are movie reviews, but it's amazing what you can learn from passing references, online conversations, icons, and screencaps. That's how I know that Fry and Leela have a Thing, that Kirk vs. Picard is a never-ending, often polarizing debate, and that MSTing refers to captioning movies (and fanfiction) à la Mystery Science Theater 3000. I can tell you what The 4000 and Eureka are about—I've only seen a few scattered episodes.

Fanfiction is actually a really useful way to get up to speed on a show without watching it. I'm not talking about the Suefic, badfic, or pronfic*, which I know is what a lot of people think of when they hear the term. I'm talking about stories where a character makes a different decision than on the show, where a character reflects on something that happened in the show, or where a completely new plot happens with references to a canon one. Crossovers are also good if you know one of the fandoms involved, because they let you meet a different canon in familiar surroundings. Because of fanfic, I knew the arcs of all seven seasons of Buffy before I saw more than a handful of the early episodes, I know how Dark Angel "ended", and I know who's Marvel and who's DC**.

I know that getting knowledge secondhand isn't as good as getting it firsthand, but a passing familiarity is serving me well so far. I know which shows*** I want to actually see and I know which ones I'll only ever want basic knowledge for. I can reference all kinds of geeky things in conversation, blog posts, and fiction.

One thing I'm not sure of, because of how I've approached geekdom somewhat retroactively, is how much osmosis everyone else has gotten, versus how much personal knowledge. My brain keeps trying to convince me that I'm the only person ever not to have to watch every geek film, tune in to every geek show, and read every geek novel. I know this is, as Spock would say, illogical, but I do occasionally get the impression that I'm still woefully behind everyone else. Anyone want to share their stories?

Random Friday science:
Growing crops in shipping containers
Are we making ourselves extinct?
What ended the ice age?

* Okay, maybe on that last one, but I don't read the genre so can't comment on it.
** I also know this because of this guy.
*** and books/authors. All these methods apply equally to printed stories as to filmed ones.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Science Reporting, a Reader's Perspective

I spent a lot of my childhood reading pop science articles. My parents subscribed to National Geographic and Discover, and the town library had Popular Science, which I'd read waiting for my parents to pick me up or during meal breaks while I was working there. Eventually, I read enough that I a) became seriously oversaturated on the subjects of hominids, dinosaurs, quantum physics, Mars, and the Hubble telescope; and b) decided that there were only a finite number of science article types:

  1. The New Discovery, Hyped Up: This article will take a discovery, usually archaeological/paleontological, and take up 5-10 pages discussing how the artifact or bone was found, what it looks like, and then speculating at length about what the artifact or bone could mean—while couching the speculation in the language of fact. The large collection of hominid bones in this cave suggest a large community over an extended period of time, something that has been unheard of so far. Previously it was assumed that these hominids were nomadic and travelled according to season. "We're going to have to rethink everything," says Dr. Smith.
  2. The Excuse to Show Off The Photographer: The photographer in question generally being a satellite, Martian robot, or Hubble, meaning that the photography is usually of space. Sometimes it's of landscapes or new species of animal, however. This article will have lots and lots of beautiful, glossy photos with captions, and the occasional quote from the photographer or a scientist about the Beauty Of Science.
  3. The General Explanation: This seems to crop up about once a year in each magazine, though not always on the same topic. For instance, you might find the Full and Complete History of Human Evolution, The Birth Of The Solar System, How Old Is The Universe, The First Bird, or What Goes Into An Atom, but you won't find all those articles together. The science in these articles tends to be the accepted, conservative science, but does a good job of giving the gist of things and the history that's intended.

You can see how this could get old, fast, especially to someone with a good memory. Sometimes I think a lot of my cynicism was born from reading variations of the same article and realizing that there was more "maybe" in them than actual "fact". Not what I'd signed up for.

And of course, options 1 and 3 make for bad science reporting. I'm not quite sure why science mags feel they need to dumb down the science quite as much as they do. I'm more sure that there has to be a way to write a science article in layman's terms that actually gets things right. Option 1 is the worst for that, because of all the speculation that goes into things.

A recent case in point is the announcement of artificial life that I talked about here. There's a "rebuttal" to the announcement here that is required reading for anyone interested in Bad Science Journalism. The articles I linked to were all "zomg we're almost God, we're so awesome, major breakthrough", while the rebuttal points out that "hey, guys, this is only a baby step, it's nothing special". Seriously, go read it.

You'll find the same overblown reporting for everything. Yes, we'll need to "rethink everything" about the evolution of birds based on that one fossil, but it's not (usually) as if we'll need a lot of rethinking. So Protobird X has a different kind of tail than Protobird Y, which has a different sort of feather or a different beak. So we've discovered another exoplanet, or a jawbone that might belong to a new hominid. How is this groundbreaking, exactly?

Of course, there are instances where the discovery is considerably more important (water on the moon, water on Mars) and instances where the discovery is in a kind of grey area (life on Titan). Those I can live with. But the journalism that takes one thing and turns it into another? Speaks of agenda and dumbing down and not trying to educate, and that bugs me.

On the other hand, it's occasionally quite fun to take that Bad Science, pretend it's all entirely fact, and see what stories come out of it. If there actually is life on Titan…

Monday, June 21, 2010

On Dystopian SF and Show vs. Tell

I finished The Difference Engine this weekend. I picked the book up because of its seminal place in the steampunk canon, and because I've been meaning to read more Gibson than Burning Chrome. I think I'm going to either have to reread it or let it drift through my neurons for a while before I get the full impact of the story, but I liked it. I mostly enjoyed it for the alternate history, rather than the plot, though. I kept thrilling at the details of "Oh look, he's here! They mentioned that!" when I should maybe have been thrilling at the action scenes or mystery. Not that I didn't enjoy that stuff too, but it was the historical aspects I found most interesting. I might have chucked the book at a wall* if it had been set in the present or future.

Why? Because I haven't met a futuristic-dystopian-slash-cyberpunk novel I've liked. Granted, I haven't read a huge number of them**, but they all seem to have the same "trope" of not answering very many of the questions raised unless the reader's willing to commit to massive brainpower and possibly rereads as well.

This is well and good, I'm not slagging cyberpunk as a genre at all, I love the ideas and extrapolation, and there are surely millions of people who don't mind doing the thinking—but I'd like to know more about the bad guys and their motives than just oblique references. If nothing else, I'd like to feel more of a definitive conclusion than what I've encountered, which is along the lines of "There was fighting. John was injured. Three months later, John had healed. He knew that justice had been served, though at no time did anyone tell him who'd been behind The Plan."*** I'd like Sherlock to come in and say, "Well, obviously, my dear Watson…."

I'm starting to suspect I'm simply not the right audience for dystopian mysteries. I'm also starting to suspect I'm in the minority, or there's some sort of disconnect between writers/publishers and readers. It's probably me, though. This isn't the first time I've Just Not Gotten Something.

However, realizing what my problem with cyberpunk/dystopia is, got me thinking about the show vs. tell dichotomy. You know, how you're supposed to show everything and tell nothing, except for when it's t.m.i. or slows down the pacing? My tastes lean towards showing enough, in a clear enough manner, that no one's left wondering who the bad guy actually was. When I'm writing, I try to make everyone's motives clear and not keep the reader at the same level of confusion as the protagonist. When I'm reading, I'm most satisfied when the author does the same. In my mind, there's nothing worse**** than a character who exists in a state of panic/reaction/confusion for 80% of the novel, then suddenly switches to knowing what's going on. This is especially true if they then refuse to share their newfound knowledge with the reader.***** There's one writer I'll never return to because they've done that to me too often.

I'm not saying my opinions are The Opinions To Follow (heavens forbid). I know that logically there must be people with different tastes and opinions who will gladly read the kinds of fiction that peeve me. I'm simply, for better or worse, outlining one piece of my writing philosophy, and maybe getting some acolytes for my trouble.

One last thought: Somewhere out there is a dystopian mystery that does explain things to my satisfaction. When I find it, I'll let you know.

* not really
** four
*** and yes, that kind of ending also popped up in The Difference Engine
**** probably an exaggeration, but danged if I can think of something I hate more right now
***** Gibson doesn't do this, from what I've seen

Friday, June 18, 2010

Transformation, Psychology, and Getting Ideas

I've always been fascinated by transformation—the standard fare of vampires, shapeshifters, illusions, superheroes, and mutants, but also personal journeys, backstories, and multiple identities. It's partly due to the biology of it all—how does the Hulk add body mass and change color because of a hormone imbalance?—but a lot of my interest is in the psychology:

  • How does it feel to be a werewolf? How does it feel to transform? To live with the monster within while human? To be a human in the mind of a wolf?
  • How would someone cope with getting superpowers? What would cause someone to choose the heroic route, another person to choose the villainous, and a third to go to ground, as it were, and not mention their new abilities at all? How would it change them?
  • How does acting as multiple people change a person? How would one keep them separate? How long could you keep them separate? What happens when they start blending together, or if trauma forces an actual split?
  • How would someone truly react when they discover that Person A and Person B are really Person AB? How would that reaction change depending on relationships and preconceptions? 
And so on, and so forth. I could probably keep the questions coming for hours. (I'm really big on the psychology.) 

Reading that list, though, you probably got a bit of a sense of my taste in books. I like stories that poke and prod and get to the meat of the characters. I like stories that allow me to experience someone else's mind. I like stories that force characters (and me) to change their thinking, to grow, to find out more about themselves.

I'm not entirely certain how circular that argument really is. Do I like speculative fiction because of my interest in psychology, or am I interested in psychology because I grew up on speculative fiction? I'm inclined to think it doesn't matter in the long run. I like what I like. I am what I am. 

One thing I do know, however, is that the kinds of questions I ask and the kinds of stories I like definitely inform what I write about.* For instance, my musings about multiple identities spin off ideas about dissociative and multiple personality disorders, neurosis, and snowballing lies. The next step in story creation for me would be asking either, "Okay, who would really, really not deal with the lie situation very well, and can I make them neurotic too?" or "Can I write a coherent story with multiple narrators who are really the same person?" After that would come plot, setting, and all that. Usually.**

What attracts you to the kinds of books you read? How much does that influence what you write about? 

How many of you get ideas from asking questions the way I do? What other ways do you get inspired?

* Whether or not I write about them well is another matter entirely, and will probably be discussed at length by any fandom I manage to acquire in the future.
** This isn't the only way I come by my stories, but trying to pick apart the psychology of fictional characters has spurred quite a lot of mine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I Return!

When I started this blog, I launched into scientific reporting and speculation right off the bat, without introducing myself, because hey, the science will speak for itself and attract lots and lots of people.

Yeah. So, since I'm starting over in a way, I thought I'd say a little about myself. Ease people in. Warn them. That kind of thing. (You can also head over to the About Me Page, but this is different info, so keep reading.)

I'm a writer. Maybe not a great one yet, but I'm trying. I write speculative fiction, which probably sounds really presumptive and snobby, but it's a more concise term than "fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, the occasional bit of horror, and oh yeah, superheroes". I'm currently working on a novel that incorporates elements of all the above, minus the horror. As yet, I'm unpublished, unagented, the whole deal.

I'm a reader. I read everything from bus ads to cereal boxes to fanfiction*, but mostly I read fantasy and science fiction. I'm big on urban fantasy at the moment, but my bookshelves and 'have read' list have a lot of comic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, space opera and harder sci-fi, classics, mythology, pop science, pop history, and textbooks. I'm also quite interested in steampunk, but as of yet have only read 2.5 books that qualify, so I can't really call it a Thing yet.

I'm a nerd. I get excited about science possibly more often than I should. Life on Titan, string theory., quantum physics, exoplanets, King Tut's death, newly discovered species, water on Mars and the Moon, bog bodies, neuropsychology and cognition, languages, robots—all of these and more have gotten me squealing recently. I'm also interested in human history and by extension archaeology**, nanotechnology, and music. There's likely more than that, but I don't remember them right now. I'm sure they'll turn up in the course of my blogging.

I'm a geek—as if all the above didn't give that away. You can expect me to be a geek most of the time here.

So, um, yeah… This blog's going from Oh, Look At The Wonderful Science to more of a standard, run-of-the-mill writer's blog, with posts on everything that interests me, not just the science, although obviously the science is still going to be pretty predominant. But I'm also planning to talk about books, things I notice in daily life, and my own thoughts on writing.

I don't want to end on that note. Instead, some science links?

Have we found Caravaggio's bones?
Bending light (take note of the scientists' names in the second paragraph)***
One more crazy thing that water does

* Yes, I know.
** Hominids are awesome.
*** Yes, I also like puns.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Abject Apology

My life has been conspiring against me today, in the form of Travelling followed by Lack of Sleep followed by Rebelling Computer, so—no real post today, my apologies, it's blog or go to work. Please try to forgive me for being unexciting* and for doing this way too often. I know it might be difficult, as I'm feeling like this blog is generally unexciting these days, period. But try anyway, please?

*I'm going to try to be amusing again by Friday.