Friday, July 30, 2010

Songs as Inspiration

A lot of writers take inspiration from poems, quotes, and songs. They'll take the feel, the mood, and the sound of the work, and use it for mood and concept in their own. Sometimes they'll take the quote and expand on it, often for the theme but sometimes for the very basic plot. But that doesn't happen often with song lyrics, I don't think. With songs, it's almost strictly inspiring sound, as far as I can tell, unless the songs happens to be traditional. (Folk ballads about fairies are popular, for instance.)

Why don't more people use modern song lyrics as the quote their plots are based on? After all, a song is really a poem set to music, musicians have been doing it to writers for years, and it's not like there aren't plenty of songs to choose from.

I've always thought it would be a great challenge to write a series of stories based on songs—the greatest hits of classic rock, maybe, or the top twenty jazz standards, if there's a way of actually calculating that. I mused on Twitter the other day about writing stories based on Leonard Cohen songs. You could even do a wonderfully meta project of writing stories based on songs based on stories.

Some samples that would work for science fiction and fantasy:

Those fingers in my hair, / That sly come hither stare / that strips my conscience bare / It's witchcraft.  - "Witchcraft", Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh

I see a bad moon rising / I see trouble on the way / I see earthquakes and lightning / I see bad times today. - "Bad Moon Rising", Creedence Clearwater Revival

I'd like to be under the sea / in an octopus's garden, in the shade - "Octopus's Garden", Ringo Starr

And lastly, because there's no one example stanza:

Are there any songs you'd like to see adapted into a story? Have you every written anything based on a song?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clothing and Protons and Cyborgs, Oh My!

Clothes grown by bacteria*. I haven't looked into the actual science behind this, but it's a very cool concept: use bacteria to create a material that can be used as fabric. It's sustainable, it can probably be done at home, and the clothes are almost certainly biodegradable. They're a little see-through, but whatever. Layering will fix that. (And they said we'd be wearing paper in the future. Ha!)

Invisible computer mouse. Not, sadly, a piece of invisible plastic with electronics inside, but nearly as good. Apparently, if you hook up a laser and an infrared video camera, you can use hand motions to manipulate a cursor. This makes me wonder if we could think outside the box a little, and code crazy functions to the lesser-used fingers. For instance, tapping with the pinky could change screen resolution and the thumb could scroll through a document. (Also, the inventors' explanatory video uses Tom and Jerry footage, which makes this announcement about twice as awesome.)

Acoustic fibers.** Clothing that functions like a microphone-speaker? Why the heck not? I think the article says it best: "In addition to wearable microphones and biological sensors, applications of the fibers could include loose nets that monitor the flow of water in the ocean and large-area sonar imaging systems with much higher resolutions: A fabric woven from acoustic fibers would provide the equivalent of millions of tiny acoustic sensors." Or we could plug our iPods into our pocket and use our jackets like boom boxes.

Best cyborg arm yet***. It has joints, independent finger motions, and excellent dexterity. It is sensitive enough to mimic touch. It's also controlled by the brain. This has, of course, gotten a DARPA contract, so the Terminators probably aren't far behind.

Throwing off quantum mechanics, in one simple step. So the proton is apparently smaller than we thought, meaning that there is a) something massively off about current quantum theory, b) another subatomic particle we haven't discovered, c) both a and b, or d) something wrong with the experiment that got these results. Being a geek, I'm voting c.

Travel through time, without killing Grandpa. The closer you get to creating a paradox, the more likely it will be that something highly improbable will happen to prevent you. There is a valid scientific experiment behind this, so it's not just talk. Does make me wonder if H2G2's Heart of Gold ever stopped a paradox, though. Possibly by turning someone into a penguin.

*via BoingBoing
** also via BoingBoing
*** io9, this time

Monday, July 26, 2010

Reading Habits

There's a lot of advice for writers floating around the internet. I want to follow it. I know it's there for a reason, and following it will improve my writing. Unfortunately, there's one piece of advice in particular that I struggle with, and that's "read outside your comfort zone".

What exactly does the "comfort zone" refer to? The books one is interested in? The books one gravitates to for entertainment reads? The books one will willingly read when handed?*

I answer each question differently, you see, and this is why I can never tell if I'm reading within my zone or not. I also struggle with the whole problem of (lifespan) / (x zillion books) = (divide by cucumber error), and frankly have no interest in medicine, politics, cooking, self help, or interior design. Here's what I read:

Interesting: steampunk, cyberpunk, space opera, urban fantasy, comic fantasy, science fantasy, occasionally horror, paranormal YA, fantasy YA, forensic mysteries, historical mysteries, literary mysteries, historical fiction, the occasional piece of literary fiction, the occasional piece of chick lit, histories of objects or cultural aspects, pop quantum mechanics, pop string theory, pop biology, pop astrophysics, sociology, cultural commentary, some biography, some memoir, medieval literature, some Renaissance and 18th-century literature.

Fluff and Entertainment: steampunk, space opera, urban fantasy, comic fantasy, science fantasy, paranormal YA, fantasy YA.

When Recommended: 18th-century literature, Victorian literature, poetry, women's fiction, literary fiction, most science fiction written between 1900 and 1980(ish), epic fantasy besides Tolkien, thrillers in the Ludlum and Brown veins.

Admittedly, I do tend to concentrate on the speculative fiction end of the literary spectrum, and I figure I'm okay to weight my reading list that way, since that's what I write and plan to continue writing. But it's not the only thing I read and I'd like to think I'm reasonably familiar with the conventions of most genres and types of non-fiction out there, even if there are some I greatly dislike reading, and some I won't read at all.

But you do kind of see where my problem with the "comfort zone" definition comes from. If we go with entertainment reading, I do read outside my zone, but if we define "comfort zone" as everything I gladly pick up, then I mostly don't and I need to bone up on Dickens, who I can't get into at all, and possibly Picoult and David Foster Wallace.

And yes, I'm embarrassed that I don't really like a lot of old SF (or haven't liked what I've read, at least), and I know I'm prejudiced against some types of books because I've had bad experiences or have ideas that don't quite match with the reality. Mostly, though, I'm a little ashamed that there's so much stuff I want to read that I'm unwilling to spend a lot of time on what I should.

How do you guys deal with that? Or am I reading broadly enough already that I shouldn't be worried? (And who out there reads outside their zone? Show of hands?)

* Note that I'm aware these groups aren't mutually exclusive.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Science of Firefly

Ask a random collection of geeks together, "What is the best science fiction show ever?", and some of them are guaranteed to respond with "Firefly." I'm one of them. For me, the best science fiction isn't about the science, it's about people dealing with the science and the fallout thereof. Asimov and Clarke I find to be a little heavy-handed. Star Trek is hit and miss. Farscape … would probably be up my alley if/when I watch it. But Firefly is, to me, perfect. It's got spaceships, fancy guns, witty banter, and human troubles. What's not to like?

Well, the mysterious lack of Asians in a world run by the Anglo-Sino Alliance, and possibly the gender roles in some places, but that's going to the side today because it's messy and I want to talk about something else.

Namely, the science. It occurred to me a few days ago that there isn't really a lot of hard science in the show, and what sci-fi elements there are, are mostly in the background and never explained. (This isn't a criticism. As I kind of indicated above, I'm not big on technobabble unless it's by a mad scientist.) However, because I weirdly like ascribing science to fiction and because I'm curious just how much "science" there is in the show, I'm going to make an annotated list. (I'm not including Serenity, the movie, though. I'm pretty sure I'd miss something if I included that.)

If you haven't seen Firefly, be aware that there will be spoilers in this list. Actually, what am I saying? If you haven't seen Firefly, close this window and do so right now. Then come back and join the discussion.

from Wikipedia
  • Serenity, the spaceship - We never learn what kind of propulsion system it uses, and what we see of the engine is basically a bunch of moving parts that look cool. However, the exterior shots of the ship look like it's got some sort of ion drive. The "wing" engines on each side of the ship seem to be jet engines, used when in an atmosphere. They pivot, so the ship can fly in any direction. Serenity also has a life support system and artificial gravity.
  • canned protein - A dietary staple on board. It makes sense, since you can't keep fresh food fresh for the length of time it takes to travel between planets.
  • the Cortex - a.k.a. the Internet, except shinier and with better graphic design. Communication comes through in "waves", which, if memory serves, get bounced from place to place until they catch up with the receipient.
  • the Alliance ships - Actually, I'm not sure if they're ships or space stations built in the middle of nowhere. They're certainly big and fairly city-shaped and imposing. Designed to house and train attack forces and wage wars, I'd imagine.
  • the Alliance's Sonic Rifles - What it sounds like; capable of throwing a man for yards. I'd imagine we're talking very low-frequency pulse, with high power and narrow scope. We're already using sound as a weapon, though we haven't scaled the system down to a mobile size.
  • laser guns - Also what it sounds like. I think we only ever see on, an obsolete model, and it's been a while for that, but I've had reason to research laser weaponry and that gun? Has to have a new kind of battery. Lasers require an incredible amount of power, and not one that's likely to be portable.*
  • automated garbage pick-up - Again, what it sounds like: flying robotic drones that grab garbage containers and fly them to a dump. 
  • floating estates - Once you've mastered artificial gravity, antigravity, which appears to be what holds up the estates in "Trash", can only be a step behind (or was it first?). 
  • terraforming - We're told that a number of planets are still undergoing terraforming efforts, but we never see anyone terraforming anything. We do see the efforts in progress though, in the visuals of California scrub on the more "rural" planets.
  • HOB rods - Thin rods that emit ultrasonics that cause internal cranial hemorrhaging, followed by death.
  • the experiments done on River - River's amygdala, we're told, has been stripped of myelin. That would have to be massively invasive, very precise surgery, since myelin coats neurons, and the amygdala isn't the most accessible part of the brain.
  • the brain scan - In "Ariel", Simon takes River to a hospital for tests. The imaging system is an interactive hologram. If this is anything like today's technology, there would be a host of cameras and sensors trained on the hologram area to detect movement. I'm not sure how the hologram's made visible—there's obviously no mist or glass to make the light appear as strong as it does.
  • the 'suspended animation serum' - An ex-comrade of Mal's reappears in a corpse-like state so realistic that Simon starts performing an autopsy. He'd been in that state for several weeks, and (again, if I remember correctly), there was an injection involved. So far, the only suspended animation we've achieved has been with a) cold or b) gas, so the injection's something new. It would work on the same principles of slowing vital signs and lowering body temperature, though.
  • Niska's space station - Self-explanatory.
  • Reavers - Humans who've gone mad from a space-induced cabin fever (according to the TV show) or a drug that's supposed to make everyone happy and complacent, and which backfired in a small but significant number of cases (according to the movie).**
That's more science than I initially thought, but as I said, it's all backgrounded, glossed over, never explained. Very good world-building, though, in that watchers are led to take it all for granted from the start, and a fair bit of the science interconnects (like the gravity manipulation stuff, and the sonic weapons). 

There's a lot of fine background details in Firefly actually, all of which betray an extensive world-building session (or ten), and not a huge amount of exposition on top of it. That's how world-building should be, in my opinion. It's certainly how I try to go about it.

*not that that's stopped me
**It's highly likely that I've missed something. Let me know, if I have, and I'll add it. (Working from memory here.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Retro-Futuristic Predictions and Me

Maybe it's because I've got a strong cynical streak about what the next however-many years hold for Earth and the species on it, or maybe it's because I'm an optimist at heart, or maybe it's because I have a Thing for nostalgia, but I always get excitedly dorky when I encounter the past's predictions for the future. The stuff the scientists and futurists came out with, specifically. My dorkiness over novels, TV, and movies are on a per-case basis.

For instance, when I came across the concept of Computopia on BoingBoing, I may have actually giggled. The whole idea sounds silly, but if you think about it, a lot of those predictions have actually happened, just not on the timescale the magazine said. For instance, automatic vacuum cleaners, videophones, teachers who are really images on a screen, and robotic surgeries* are all possible, even commonplace, today.

So imagine my glee when I discovered Paleo-Future earlier today. This is a blog devoted to all those old predictions. It arranges them by decade. It has illustrations. It has searchable topics. Seriously, I could get lost on there for hours. Some of the predictions are, like Computopia, both way off and bang on if you mess with arrival dates a little. Others are hilariously strange or brilliantly steampunk or almost gleefully scaremongering.

I know two things for sure now. I'm adding this to my feed reader along with How to Be a Retronaut, and I'm going to be using it for story fodder in the future. **

*Engadget, see also this TED video
** pun not entirely intended

Monday, July 19, 2010

Solving My Metaphor Problems

I was never very good at identifying literary devices in school. You know those exercises where you had to read a passage and make a list of similes, metaphors, personification, and imagery? I struggled, and only managed to squeak by because I could identify "like" and "as" consistently. I knew the definitions perfectly; they just never clicked with what I was reading.

Two things happened near the end of my university career that finally helped me to understand what everyone had been trying to teach me: I took a class on style and rhetoric, and I started writing for fun instead of for assignments. I'm not (exactly) suggesting either of the above could be a teaching tool, but I personally found them helpful.

In the style course, we spent a lot of time looking at passages taken from various media: books, of course, but also plays, screenplays, news articles, and advertisements. We'd break down the text for anything that promoted one meaning over the other, which meant word choices, punctuation, and the ways of marking speech, as well as the whole range of literary techniques. There'd be discussions of why you'd do what the writer did, how readers would react to variations, and exercises in changing news from positive to negative slants. It wasn't all that different from high school, I guess, but everything was clearer to me this time around. I think it was all the discussion, which was in contrast to the blanket statements my high school teachers tended to give ("Birds always symbolize freedom or prophecy," for instance).

What really, really helped me click, though, was writing fiction. I wanted to make my stories richer than the sum of their plot points and characters, so I started describing settings, actions, characters, and dialogue* in terms that would make my nearly-imaginary readers recall or think of things that either weren't in the text or weren't in the scene. If my hero was a big sports fan, I'd have him describe events in sports terms or use sport-related verbs for his actions. If the climax involved aliens, I'd drop vague references to spaceships and sci-fi throughout the rest of the story.

I didn't realize until a few months into the Preliminary Rabid Writing Stint that what I was doing with all those descriptions and allusions was what my teachers had been saying all along—that writers use literary techniques to tell the reader things about the characters and situation without saying it outright. Once I'd figured that out, I started using the techniques more fluently, because I could call up those old lessons and apply them to what I was doing. I began to use the more complicated kinds, for starters, and began to weave in random literary references just to see what people would notice. I also, because I'm me, tried to invert symbolic meanings as often as possible. (I was already slathering on irony, because it's always been my favourite tool.)

At the same time that my use of literary devices in my own writing improved, I started noticing that I was picking up more of them in others' work too. I'd be reading a Victorian poem for class, or whatever my book of the fortnight was, and I'd kind of stop and go, "hoho! I see what you did there now, and I've read you before!" It was very thrilling to finally get it. I'd even like to think my grades on analytical English essays improved, but who knows.

I've also learned a lot about what makes good writing from reading bad writing and from editing my work and others', but my mental fingers always point back to that one rhetoric course and that moment of, "hey, so that's what I'm doing!". I'd also like to say that I'm still learning, still improving, still working my way towards a possibly unattainable elegant perfection.

Perhaps I shouldn't be mentioning this. Perhaps I should be supporting the illusion that writers were born as all-knowing creatures who could wield a metaphor like an inky sword from the get-go. But perhaps there are others out there who had the same problems, or still have them, and perhaps they'd benefit from reading this. And perhaps the infallible author thing is over-rated and the world needs to know we're always learning too, and that we maybe didn't start out writing as beautifully as we make it look.

So, anybody out there?

*Yes, even the dialogue. I wince when I read that stuff now, but I did learn from it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Near-Future SF and Reader Reactions

It's unusual for me to do two deep, thinking, writerly posts back-to-back here (I'm more random than that), but I want to follow up Monday's thinky-thoughts on urban fantasy with some on a more general speculative fiction topic. Like a lot of sci-fi readers, I occasionally read books that are set within the next 50 to 100 years. I've read a couple recently, and read reviews of some others, and I've some thoughts to share about reader reactions.  Specifically, the reaction that, "she's doing the world-building wrong because my present is this way" or "because we've already reached that stage".

There seems to be a tendency to assume that any recent development in reality should be reflected in the world-building of near-future stories. If we perfect household robots in 2011, though only the wealthy have them, then a book that posits household robots for the wealthy in 2060 is going to get flak for getting there too late. If two nations have gone to war, or if we've made another advance in cloning, or if we've cured a major disease, and there are novels that assume otherwise or place those events later in the timeline, they're going to get criticism. If there's a fictional world where social media only takes off in 2025… you get the idea.

Now, I know I default to "present" when I encounter things like wheeled cars, coffee shops, laptops, and three-piece suits in fiction, and that I only reset to "near-future" if I'm given cues like moon bases, augmented reality, and human cloning. (I suspect I'm not alone in that, that it's a standard human trait to pick "now" over "later" with stories, but not being telepathic, I can't speak for anyone but myself.) So I understand how mismatches between fiction and reality can jar people out of the story, and I understand the desire to want them to line up as much as possible.

I also know that readers who aren't aware of how publishing works (most of them) are probably more likely to not understand why there's a mismatch. After all, it only takes six months to write a novel, and only a few more after that to get the book into stores, right? Authors have no excuse for getting their facts wrong, because they're editing the book up to two weeks before publication.

Um, no. It doesn't work that way. Sure, maybe it only takes six months to write a novel, even with the multiple drafts needed to polish the thing. But then you've got to find a publisher (possibly find an agent, too), which takes time, and then the publisher will want the book edited some more, at which point you're looking at at least a year and a half between initial concept and initial print run. It's likely longer because the publisher will want to pick the right season to release the book in, and spring is better for your book than fall, which is when the novel was as finished as it was going to be.

So, roughly two years, minimum. That's a lot of time for reality to change. Two years ago, I'd have scoffed at the idea of jet packs and flying cars being real before I was 30, and now they're hella expensive, but they're here. And as I've learned with my WIP, writers can't keep changing their story and their world to keep up with reality, because even minor changes can snowball and change plot points*. At some point you just have to give up on absolute accuracy and run with what you've got.

What this all means is that near-future science fiction is going to be several years out of date before it hits bookshelves. Of course it's not going to take what happened three months ago into account. It can't. We shouldn't be criticizing authors for this, and we shouldn't be assuming this somehow makes them lazy or sloppy. If we readers can't wrap our heads around, "we didn't have X when the book was written, so we forgive the author for missing it" (and we should be able to, it's not hard), then we should go with the slightly lesser, possibly more palatable statement, "when I'm reading this, I'm going to assume something happened Y years ago that made X happen at a different time." The impact the world-building mismatch has on our enjoyment of the book should be minimal.

*especially true after the book's bought by the publisher. It's apparently very uncool to keep making major changes after that.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Reasons for Reading Urban Fantasy

The popularity of urban fantasy and paranormal romance is due to the escapism provided by the heroine. Readers of these genres enjoy imagining themselves as the heroine, and therefore the heroine must be strong, attractive, and supernaturally powerful. She must also get the guy in the end, and the guy must be equally strong, attractive, and powerful.
Whenever I come across a statement like that, I begin to feel annoyed and uncomfortable. The statement above (the Quote) is a paraphrase of many, but the latest instance, the one that spurred this post, comes from I've seen the same kinds of attitudes and statements coming from a number of people, in a number of different roles. 

Why do these statements bug me? It's complicated, but I'm going to try to deconstruct the reasons, because I refuse to believe I'm the only person who feels this way. Given how infrequently I run across opinions like mine, I suspect it's a marginalized attitude, one held by people who don't to speak up out of fear, insecurity, or shame. And I think we need to speak. (I'm not ordering from biggest reason to smallest, though. They'll differ from person to person.)
  1. Feminism. The Quote is a blanket statement. All women must read urban fantasy because they want to be like the heroine. First, to any blanket statements, there are exceptions (me). Second, this is basically saying that a major drive of women is being attractive, and that if they're not actually attractive, they read books that allow them to pretend they are. I thought we as a society had gotten past the stage of assuming that.
  2. I don't read for the heroine. I don't imagine myself to be her. Occasionally, I don't even like her*. I read urban fantasy for the mysteries, the magic, the world-building, and sometimes because I need a lighter read than the book I just finished. The series I continue with, and the ones I press onto people, are the ones with the best integration of magical elements into the real world, great characterization across the board, good mystery or adventure plots, and all-around good writing. I have no desire to be a sexy 6' werewolf cop, thank you very much.
  3. I don't imagine myself getting with the Love Interest. Heck, I've skimmed sex scenes to reach the "good stuff" faster. Of all the urban fantasy I've read**, I've never once read a physical description of a male I found attractive, and I've met a grand total of two men whose personalities I'd go for. This might be because most Love Interests are alpha males (as pointed out in the link), and I find alphas a turn-off.
  4. I want to see heroines who aren't strong, sexy, and powerful. I want to see women who aren't conventionally beautiful. I want to see women who are middle-aged or older. I want to see humans without supernatural powers. I want to see women who don't own guns, whose first reaction to "vampire in alley" is to run off screaming rather than beat it up, and who still manage to take out the vampire nest. I want to see weak women who become strong over time, not women who start strong and get stronger. Or, I want to see strong women break and rebuild, with any number of hiccups as they cope with the trauma. This is all out of a desire to see writers break away from clichés, and a desire to see more inclusive writing.
  5. The Quote implies that, for a series to take off, it's got to play into the desire to be the heroine. I don't like being told what to do. I want to write a thrilling and funny mystery set in a magically interesting and complex world, with an interesting person as a protagonist. I don't want to make it so people will imagine themselves as my heroine. I want them to like her, of course, and if they want to be her, that's their right, but I don't want to write a character whose main purpose is letting readers be her. And I don't want my Love Interests to be alphas or heartthrobs. Why can't I have one with adult acne and powers that fritz whenever he gets scared?

I guess maybe in a way you could say I see myself as the heroine. After all, I want my protagonists to be intelligent and not charge into dangerous situations knowing they're dangerous, without as many weapons and bits of backup as they can manage. However, I think it's more likely that this reflects a general belief about humanity, because real people doing dumb things also gets me mad. And I still don't want to be a sexy 6' werewolf cop, even if she's a tactical genius.

And yes, as I admitted in Point 2, I do sometimes read for "escapism", because if I read lots of dense, info-heavy, thought-provoking books back-to-back, I go crazy. I sometimes need something fun. I get that urban fantasy fulfills a similar role to chick-lit in that sense, and that chick-lit also gets the "escape and be the heroine" vibe. I know some women do imagine themselves as the heroines, and that some read for the Love Interest and the sexy times. I simply don't want to see a genre I love be discarded as "just fluff", and I don't want all readers of it to be seen as "in it for the sexy times". We're not that shallow.

Points 4 and 5 are probably the biggest beefs for me. I hate seeing clichés in fiction unless they're subverted, and I love being the person who does the subverting. I want to see more equality, different types of characters, people who feel more real somehow. I think world, plot, and characterization should be a writer's primary concern at all times, at least in urban fantasy, and that our characters shouldn't be just sex objects. I know we all have to play to the audience a little if we want to be published, but ramping up the sexual aspects doesn't have to be the way to go. 

To the people who say the Quote: Readers and writers of urban fantasy aren't identical, and we read and write for any number of reasons. Don't tell us who we are and how we should be. Stop it. Stop it right now.

*at which point I stop reading the series
** I know I've just scratched the surface with the 10-15 authors I've picked up, but my tastes are broader than just one genre and there's no time.

Edit to clarify: I wrote the quote I lead with. It seemed quicker than pulling a handful of similar comments off other sites, when they all said pretty much the same thing. Don't hate on the "quotee", because there isn't one. It's just me, paraphrasing an opinion.

Friday, July 9, 2010

How I Got Into Reading Fantasy

This post is inspired by Gail Carriger's latest post, "What Got You Into Reading Fantasy?", in which she asks:
I'd love to know, what got you into reading fantasy? Did you start out reading fantasy at a young age? Did you get into reading via a cartoon or movie or video game? Or did you come at it via steampunk or some aesthetic movement? Were you born into fandom, did you find fandom, or did you have fandom thrust upon you? Or do you not consider yourself part of the SF/F culture at all?
I was going to respond with a comment, but then I realized I probably had enough to say to make a blog post, so I came over here instead. I know I've said some of this before in previous posts, but please don't skim too much and bear with me?

As soon as I was old enough for bedtime stories to be novels, my dad read me The Hobbit, followed by Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Greek and Norse mythology. (Also Huckleberry Finn, which we're not counting because it's not fantasy, and Dune and Icelandic sagas, which we're not counting because they didn't get finished.) Mom chipped in by reading all seven Narnia books with me, and the five books in the Dark is Rising sequence. The last bedtime stories I got were His Dark Materials, by which point I wasn't getting read to to put me to sleep, but because it was something Dad got to share with his daughter and he was as hooked on the story as I was.

Of course, my parents didn't just read genre fiction to me. They also bought it! My memory of my formative years is sketchy, but they must've given me my copy of The Hobbit when I was 7 or so. I read it about four times in the first year. I can't even begin to list every book I've owned over the years, so I'm going to list one that's been incredibly influential to me, and which never gets old: The Hunter's Moon by O.R. Melling.

My parents certainly set the foundation for me, but my local and school libraries cemented the process. Even in the '90s before the whole YA fantasy craze really took off, a whole lot of the books in the kids' sections were fantasy or science fiction. I read my way through Lloyd Alexander, the Borrowers series, RedwallMonica Hughes, Bruce Coville, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and a number of one-offs, all before I hit puberty. (Also mythology, also urban legends, also paranormal non-fiction, also mummies.)*

I think what draws me to fantasy is the possibilities, the different worlds, the magic, and the adventure. I love seeing how people react in completely foreign situations. I love how various mythologies get woven  into stories and how writers integrate them into the real world. I love the idea of having abilities beyond average-human. Anything that's not genre pales in comparison: why would I read about a boy struggling in high school when I could read about a boy struggling in an alien high school?

I wasn't born into fandom, but I was certainly born into a geeky family. My mom's considerably more mainstream than my dad, but it was her idea to rent Ghostbusters and she's the one who goes to superhero films, not Dad. Fandom came in my third year of university, after I'd had a few encounters that didn't take. There was this show, you see, that my best-friend-and-roommate had gotten hooked on over the summer, and as one does when one is hooked on a show, she forced me to watch a few episodes. Which turned into me keeping tabs on when the next episode was airing, which turned into me looking at fanart and fanfic, which turned into writing and, uh, yeah. The rest of my fandom experience is here.**

Like I said in that last link, I've more or less fallen out of any overarching fandom. I'm still a fan of various shows and authors, though, and like most fans, it is my sacred duty to get as many people hooked on the stuff I like as I can. I've managed to get the aforementioned best friend into Firefly, and two other people into Discworld in a big way. My Supernatural DVDs have been leant out, as have a few books to people I trust. (I have utterly failed with my dad, however.) And of course, I work in a bookstore and spend a lot of time online, so my field of influence is pleasingly large. I have plans to try to reenter local fandom later on this year—starting this weekend, actually—and I guess we'll see how that goes.

So that's me. What about you? How did you get into reading fantasy?

*My teen years gave me Xanth, Pern, and Discworld, plus a lot of classic lit we're also ignoring even if Shakespeare is awesome. They also gave me Harry Potter because Mom started reading that to my sister.
** I don't know if that counts as having found fandom or having had it thrust upon me. Probably a bit of both.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Reviewed

Disclaimer 1: I won this book in a randomly drawn contest hosted by S. Jae-Jones on Twitter. Even though she's an editorial assistant at St. Martin's Press, the imprint that published the book, I don't think the contest was intended as a "give a book away to people who'll promote it" maneuver, even if I've been known to be wrong about people's objectives. However, since I did win the book and I did read it and enjoy it, I feel obligated to review it. 

Disclaimer 2: I tried to avoid spoilers but there might be some anyway. Ye be warned.

I put my name into the running for The Dream of Perpetual Motion because 1) steampunk and 2) allusions to Shakespeare, with 1a) requisite zeppelin. This is about all I knew going in. If I remember right, my brain put those ideas together and got "steampunked Shakespeare with action scenes!" 

Surprisingly or not, that's an incredibly inaccurate plot summary. A better one would be "man on zeppelin records his life story in a series of scenes and voices, and by doing so documents a society in transition". It's definitely a good book, but not fluff. It's a book to think about, to mull over, and to take slowly. I recommend it to anyone who wants a book that's more literary than fantastical and wants to have their conceptions of right, wrong, and sanity challenged.

Once I got past the initial "oh, so it's not a retelling of The Tempest", which took about a page, and got used to the bouncing times, perspectives, and voices (by page 20), I was hooked enough on the story that I had to find out how it ended, though not hooked enough to read it in one sitting*. The hints, allusions, and premise suckered me, and to a lesser extent so did the voices and the structure. 

I don't read a lot of literary fiction and what I have read has tended to be more or less linear and constrained to one or two narrators. The Dream of Perpetual Motion, in contrast, has at least six narrators/speakers**, who tell the story in first person present, third person limited, dreams, excerpts from media and diaries, recorded conversations, and other formats I'm surely forgetting. And it works, which I'll admit I didn't expect. I probably got a clearer picture of the characters and the world from reading the fragmented narrative than I would have any other way. I'm also pretty sure the structure plays into the big theme of the novel and allows for a lot of supporting symbolism that would otherwise be difficult to bring in—such as the stuff that crops up in the dream sequences.

The characters: I never really bonded with any of them, not even Harold Winslow, the narrator. I felt for him, Miranda, even Prospero and Caliban, but I don't think I really liked any of them. Possibly they were too true to life for me, with too few shining qualities or points of commonality. On the other hand, I did want to hit various people occasionally, which I've learned to take as a sign of good characters and good writing. If I can get worked up enough to want to stop a fictional person from being an idiot, or to stop a fictional person from hurting another fictional person, the author's done something right. So, the cast of The Dream of Perpetual Motion get my vote in the Well Done category.

The ideas: Since the book's mainly about ideas and challenging the readers', I should probably say a little about them. On one level, the story's a conversation between Good/Past/Simplicity and Bad/Future/Mechanization, though of course the people speaking for Future would have you believe it's Good. The conversation's never really resolved, which lets readers form their own opinions. In my case, I'm not thinking too hard about the ideas and not going out of my way to form a definite opinion. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I do, I'll end up not liking the results, or myself, because of how the juxtaposition of Past and Future ties into my Now. I think I'd have preferred a character arguing for a middle road between low-tech and high-tech, but I kind of get why there wasn't one.

Two minor points before I wrap up, because they go back to my initial expectations. First, the elements from The Tempest are there symbolically, to serve as a comparison of sorts between that story and this one. At times the story veers towards Tempest: A Tragedy, but I don't think it ever quite gets there. Second, I don't think The Dream of Perpetual Motion is exactly steampunk. It's got the zeppelin, the perpetual motion machine, the "mechanical men", and the heightened technology at the dawn of the 20th century, but I got more a sense of the Golden Age sci-fi futures, and Metropolis, than I did Verne and Wells***. It's not a bad thing; I'm just saying.

To reiterate: Good book. Recommended. Asks questions. Literary. Lots of symbolism. Good plot, too, though I didn't talk about that much because I didn't want to spoil. Not your average steampunk. Author to watch.

Story: 7/10
Execution: 9/10 

*It's incredibly rare for me to find a book that does that. Something about my ability to remember things forever, I think.
**I'm not entirely sure child!Harold, young!Harold, and zeppelin!Harold are the same narrator, or what is reported conversation and what is a new voice.
***They're always my baseline references, somehow.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Science Links and Speculation

I know I haven't really done a science-heavy blog since the reboot. I figured it was more economical to stash all the interesting links I came across in one article and post them in one go, instead of taking one article and trying to spin out my speculation into a post-sized length. I've got four cool stories now. I should post them before the list gets longer and the links get any more outdated.*

Functional, vat-grown lungs. Granted, they're barely functional and they're not human lungs, but I still see it as a breakthrough. From just the 'skeleton' of a pair of lungs, we can regrow something that will properly do the gas transfer thing when we stick it into a living creature. Once we figure out how to keep the lungs working and progress to human trials and beyond, we'll have a reasonably quick, effective way to cure lung cancer, tuberculosis, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis,**, emphysema, and other lung ailments. Heck, we could probably even manage to engineer lungs better adapted to different pressures. (And yes, I know I've posted on this topic before.)

Creating life from a Titan-like atmosphere. This could be how life started on Earth. It could be how life starts on another world. It could be how we start life on a different world, accidentally or otherwise. I can kind of see a mad scientist getting the idea to terraform a world by starting life from scratch.

A genuine flying car! No antigravity technology or jet engines here. Just fold-down wings. A two-seater vehicle with the ability to take to the air if given enough speed and enough road. I'm not sure I see this taking off, exactly—I think the flying car that sells is going to be the one that looks like the Jetsons'—but it would be danged cool if it did.

Print-a-laser. Or a lightbulb, or a TV screen, or solar cells. Do I really have to go into how cool this could be? Or how badly it would upset the economy? Or what will happen when makers get their hands on this technology? Instead of buying a TV for $1000, you could load the schematics on your computer and print one. Instead of dithering about how much work it would be to buy enough solar panels and cart them home, you could press a button and have what you needed within a few days, without ever leaving the garage. Anyone who used lasers in their job would see their budget expand for things that aren't lasers. Lightbulb manufacturers would go broke.
Soon, thanks to Jacek’s work, we may have millions of tiny lasers working in our homes lighting our rooms and even acting as pixels in printable TV screens. The lasers could also be used as components in optical computers, electronics, sensors, as cheap laser pointers in a range of colours or even fashion accessories.
Somebody needs to use this in a story. Seriously.

And that's all the links for today. Stay tuned.

* I was going to write a book review today, but since it's after 5 pm and the East Coast is going to bed soon, I think I'll save that for Wednesday.
** totally added for the long word bonus