May 25

A touch in the night

Occasionally I have dreams that seem to be trying to assemble into the plot of an SF novel – weird and fractured as dreams are, but with something like a long-form narrative struggling to develop.

Occasionally I have nightmares. I don’t know how it goes for anybody else – and one reason I’m posting this is to collect anecdotal data in the comments – but if I wake up from a nightmare and then fall asleep shortly afterwards, it may grab hold of me again.

Yesterday morning I woke up about 5AM remembering one I’d just had. This is how it went, and how it ended…

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May 23

Review: The Fractal Man

The Fractal Man (written by J.Neil Schulman, soon to be available on Amazon) is a very, very funny book – if you share enough subcultural history with the author to get the in-jokes.

If you don’t – and in particular if you never met Samuel Edward Konkin – the man known as known as “SEKIII” to a generation of libertarians and SF fans before his tragically early death in 2004 – it will still be a whirligig of a cross-timeline edisonade, but some bits might leave you wondering how the author invented such improbabilities. But I knew SEKIII, and if there was ever a man who could make light of having a 50MT nuclear warhead stashed for safekeeping in his apartment, it was him.

David Albaugh is a pretty good violinist, a science-fiction fan, and an anarchist with a bunch of odd and interesting associates. None of this prepares him to receive a matter-of-fact phone call from Simon Albert Konrad III, a close friend who he remembers as having been dead for the previous nine years.

His day only gets weirder from there, as SAKIII and he (stout SF fans that they are) deduce that David has somehow been asported to a timeline not his own. But what became of the “local” Albaugh? Before the two have time to ruminate on that, they are both timeshifted to a history in which human beings (including them) can casually levitate, but there is no music.

Before they can quite recover from that, they’ve been recruited into a war between two cross-time conspiracies during which they meet multiples of their own fractals – alternate versions of themselves, so named because there are hints that the cosmos itself has undergone a kind of shattering that may have been recent in what passes for time (an accident at the Large Hadron Collider might have been involved). One of Albaugh’s fractals is J. Neil Schulman.

It speeds up to a dizzying pace; scenes of war, espionage, time manipulations, and a kiss-me/kill-me romance between Albaugh and an enemy agent (who also happens to be Ayn Rand’s granddaughter), all wired into several just-when-you-thought-it-couldn’t-go-further-over-the-top plot inversions.

I don’t know that the natural audience for this book is large, exactly, but if you’re in it, you will enjoy it a lot. Schulman plays fair; even the weirdest puzzles have explanations and all the balls are kept deftly in the air until the conclusion.

Assuming you know what “space opera” is, this is “timeline opera” done with the exuberance of a Doc Smith novel. Don’t be too surprised if some of it sails over your head; I’m not sure I caught all the references. Lots of stuff blows up satisfactorily – though, not, as it happens, that living-room nuke.

May 02

Review: The Mutineer’s Daughter

I greatly enjoyed Thomas Mays’s first novel, A Sword Into Darkness, and have been looking forward to reading the implied sequel. His new collaboration with Chris Kennedy, The Mutineer’s Daughter, isn’t it.

Instead, we get a crossover YA/space-opera that is a bit cramped by having been written to the conventions of the YA form. Also because, if a reliable source is reliable, it was Mays writing to an outline by Kennedy. Where Mays’s heart is – in the space-opera parts – the result has some sparkle and a bit of originality. In the YA parts it is competently executed but strictly from tropeville.

For a plot and setting teaser see its Amazon page -accurate enough, if empurpled. It is also worth noting that this is another book in which the author(s) carefully studied the Atomic Rockets website and gained much thereby.

This is not a bad book; Mays gave it craftsmanlike attention. If you like things going boom in space, you will probably enjoy it even if you are ever so slightly irritated by the insert-plucky-girl-here plot. It proceeds from premise to conclusion with satisfactory amounts of tension and conflict along the way. As long as you don’t set your expectations much above “genre yard goods” it is an entertainment worth your money.

But I’m left thinking that not only can Mays do better on his own, but in fact already has. I want that sequel.

Apr 03

Fthagn to you too

I learned something fascinating today.

There is a spot in the South Pacific called the “Oceanic pole of inaccessibility” or alternatively “Point Nemo” at 48°52.6?S 123°23.6?W. It’s the point on the Earth’s ocean’s most distant from any land – 2,688 km (1,670 mi) from the Easter Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, and Antarctica.

There are two interesting things about this spot. One is that it’s used as a satellite graveyard. It’s conventional, when you can do a controlled de-orbit on your bird, to drop it at Point Nemo. Tioangong-1, the Chinese sat that just crashed uncontrolled into a different section of the South Pacific, was supposed to be dropped there. So were the unmanned ISS resupply ships. A total of more than 263 spacecraft were disposed of in this area between 1971 and 2016.

It’s just the place to dump toxic fuel remnants and radionuclides because, in addition to being as far as possible from humans, the ocean there is abyssal desert, surrounded by the South Pacific Gyre so it’s hard for nutrients to reach the place. Therefore there’s probably no local ecology to trash.

However…

According to the great author and visionary Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Point Nemo is the location of the sunken city of R’lyeh, where the Great Old One Cthulhu lies dreaming.

The conclusion is obvious. The world’s space programs are secretly run by a cabal of insane Cthulhu cultists who are dropping space junk on Cthulhu’s crib in an effort to wake him up. “When the stars are right”, hmmph.

EDIT: I was misled by an error in Wikipedia that claims Tiangong-1 was deliberately dropped there, and jumped to a conclusion. Now corrected.

Feb 03

The Roche motel

One of the staples of SF art is images of alien worlds with satellites or planetary twins hanging low and huge in the daylight sky. This blog post brings he trope home by simulating what the Earth’s Moon would look like if it orbited the Earth at the distance of the International Space Station.

The author correctly notes that a Moon that close would play hell with the Earth’s tides. I can’t be the only SF fan who looks at images like that and thinks “But what about Roche’s limit”…in fact I know I’m not because Instapundit linked to it with the line “Calling Mr. Roche! Mr. Roche to the white courtesy phone!”

Roche’s limit is a constraint on how close a primary and satellite can be before the satellite is actually torn apart by tidal forces. The rigid-body version, applying to planets and moons but not rubble piles like comets, is

d = 1.26 * R1 * (d1 / d2)**(1/3)

where R1 is the radius of the primary (larger) body, d1 is its density, and d2 is the secondary’s density (derivation at Wikipedia).

And, in fact, the 254-mile orbit of the ISS is well inside the Roche limit for the Earth-moon system, which is 5932.5 miles.

The question for today is: just how large can your satellite loom in the sky before either your viewpoint planet or the satellite goes kablooie? To put it more precisely, what is the maximum angle a satellite can reasonably subtend?

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Jan 23

Three times is friendly action

Today, for the third time in the last year, I got email from a new SF author that went more or less like:

“Hi, I’d like to send you a copy of my first novel because [thing you wrote] really inspired me.”

All the novels so far are libertarian SF with rivets on – the good stuff. Amusingly, I don’t think any of these authors knew in advance that I’m a judge for the Prometheus awards,

It’s really gratifying that I’m making this kind of difference.

Dec 02

Decentralized threats as the mother of liberty

Dave Kopel gives us a fascinating account of the divergence between American and British gun culture in The American Indian foundation of American gun culture. I learned some things from this article, which is not a trivial observation because I’ve studied the same process from some different angles.

While Kopel’s article is excellent of its kind, it stops just short of some large and interesting conclusions that immediately present themselves to me, upon reading his evidence, because I think like a science-fiction writer. A significant part of that kind of thinking is a broad functionalist perspective on how societies evolve under selective pressure – a drive to look beyond specific historical contingencies and ask “What is the adaptive pressure motivating this social response? Can we deduce a general law of social evolution from this case?”

I’m going to anticipate my conclusion by coining an aphorism: “Decentralized threats are the mother of liberty.” Kopel’s account of how the American and British traditions of citizen arms diverged illustrates this brilliantly.

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Sep 25

The Torchship Trilogy

New SF author Karl Gallagher dropped me a note last week that offered me copies of his first work, a novel sequence: Torchship, Torchship Pilot, and Torchship Captain. He explained that the ideas I expressed in The Deep Norms of SF helped form his ideas about writing.

Since that is part of the effect I was hoping for when I wrote the essay, I told him so and remarked on my first reaction when I stumbled over these books while browsing Amazon. My thought was “Hmmm…looks like someone tried to write a high-quality Heinlein pastiche. And maybe succeeded…”

Karl replied “I certainly aimed at a ‘Heinlein tribute.’ Whether it’s ‘high quality’ I’ll leave to others.” The following review is a considerably expanded version of my reply to him.

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Apr 17

Friends of Armed & Dangerous party 2016!

This year’s meatspace party for blog regulars and friends will be held at Penguicon 2016 On Friday, April 29 beginning at 9PM 10PM.

UPDATE: Pushed back an hour because the original start time conflicted with the time slot assigned for my “Ask Me Anything” event.

The venue is the Southfield Westin hotel in Southfield, Michigan. It’s booked solid already; we were only able to get a room there Friday night, and will be decamping to the Holiday In Express across the parking lot on Saturday. They still have rooms, but I suggest making reservations now.

The usual assortment of hackers, anarchists, mutants, mad scientists, and for all I know covert extraterrestrials will be attending the A&D party. The surrounding event is worth attending in itself and will be running Friday to Sunday.

Southfield is near the northwestern edge of the Detroit metro area and is served by the Detroit Metropolitan Airport (code DTW).

Penguicon is a crossover event: half science-fiction convention, half open-source technical conference. Terry Pratchett and I were the co-guests-of-honor at Penguicon I back in 2003 and I’ve been back evey year since.

If you’ve never been to an SF con, you have no idea how much fun this can be. A couple thousand unusually intelligent people well equipped with geek toys and costumes and an inclination to party can generate a lot of happy chaos, and Penguicon reliably does. If you leave Monday without having made new friends, you weren’t trying.

Things I have done at Penguicon: Singing. Shooting pistols. Tasting showcased exotic foods. Getting surprise-smooched by attractive persons. Swordfighting. Playing strategy games. Junkyard Wars. Participating in a Viking raid (OK, it turned into a dance-off). Punning contests. And trust me, you have never been to parties with better conversation than the ones we throw.

Fly in Thursday night (the 28th) if you can because Geeks With Guns (the annual pistol-shooting class founded by yours truly and now organized by John D. Bell) is early Friday afternoon and too much fun to miss.

Dec 25

Beehive huts to the stars!

None of the things I expected from seeing The Force Awakens was to recognize the location where the last scene was filmed, because I’ve been there myself.

I’m being careful not to utter spoilers here…but I’ve been to the western coast of Ireland, in County Kerry, in a place called Fahan. And in that place, where the Atlantic crashes on the shore and blue of the sky and the green of the grass are more vivid than anywhere else I’ve seen on Earth, there are beehive-shaped stone huts called “clocháns” on the hills that tumble down to the sea.

There are many legends about the clocháns, the most picturesque of which is that they were built by hermit monks around 1000CE. Built by hand, without mortar, they are rude and dramatic ornaments to a landscape that would be pretty impressive even without them.

The combination is unmistakable, and that’s how I know pretty much exactly where that last scene was filmed, to within a couple of hundred feet, on the south-facing shore of the Dingle Peninsula. I’ve seen it with my own eyes; I may have walked on the same paths the movie characters used, probably did in fact.

And again, no spoilers, but…it was a superb choice of location for that scene. Well done!

(And for you smartasses out there, no it wasn’t the huts on Skellig Michael rather than the mainland. The lie of the slope was wrong for that; besides, schlepping a film unit to the island would have been both hideously difficult and pointless when the shore locations were about as good for what they wanted.)

UPDATE: On new evidence, they changed locations during the scene – I was right about the beginning, but the very last bit (like, the last 60 seconds of the movie) was indeed filmed on Skellig Michael.

Feb 02

Me for a Campbell Award? Huh?

It has come to my attention that the Evil League of Evil is attempting to get me shortlisted for the John W. Campbell award.

For those of you not in the know, this is an annual award intended to go to the most promising new writer in SF. It is taken pretty seriously. And my reaction to hearing that I’m being promoted for this is…consternation.

OK, I will stipulate that I think my one published work of SF, the short story Sucker Punch, isn’t bad. If it were someone else’s and I was wearing my reviewer hat, I’d probably say something encouraging about it being a solid, craftsmanlike first effort that delivers what its opening promises and suggests the author might be able to deliver quality work in the future.

But, Campbell Award material? A brilliant comet in the SF firmament I am not. I don’t really feel like I belong on that shortlist – and if I’m wrong and I actually do, I fear for the health of the field.

What bothers me more is the suspicion that my name has been put forward for what amount to political reasons. So here’s what I have to say about that

I’m not going to object to anyone voting for me. But by the Great God Ghu and the shade of Robert Heinlein, please don’t do it because you think I have the right politics, or to get up the nose of people you think have the wrong politics. Vote for me only if you think the actual work merits it.

It’s not that I necessarily object to politically-focused awards in principle. If I were to write an excellent libertarian SF novel and get nominated for a Prometheus partly because libertarians liked the politics, that would be OK. It won’t happen, because I’m one of the judges for that award, but in an alternate universe I wouldn’t mind.

But I didn’t write Sucker Punch as a political argument. I wrote it as a way of beginning to give something back to the SF field for all it has given me, and I want it to be judged on its merits as part of that tradition, not as a counter in a tribal political scrum.

To push the point further…I have, as it happens, an unfinished SF novel set in a libertarian future in my trunk. But, supposing I finish and publish Shadows and Stars, I won’t want to have it judged more by its politics than by its quality as a work of SF in the classic style. S&S isn’t a political argument, and I would therefore be disappointed if it were received as one.

If you vote for a Campbell award nominee, or a Hugo, or any other award, this is my plea: screw the partisanship. Vote on merit. And if I get any votes I promise to be pleasantly shocked.

Sep 10

Review: A Call to Duty

A Call To Duty (David Weber, Timothy Zahn; Baen Books) is a passable extension of Baen Book’s tent-pole Honorverse franchise. Though billed as by David Weber, it resembled almost all of Baen’s double-billed “collaborations” in that most of the actual writing was clearly done by the guy on the second line, with the first line there as a marketing hook.

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Sep 08

Review: The Abyss Beyond Dreams

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Peter F. Hamilton, Random House/Del Rey) is a sequel set in the author’s Commonwealth universe, which earlier included one duology (Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained) and a trilogy (The Dreaming Void, The The Temporal Void, The Evolutionary Void). It brings back one of the major characters (the scientist/leader Nigel Sheldon) on a mission to discover the true nature of the Void at the heart of the Galaxy.

The Void is a pocket universe which threatens to enter an expansion phase that would destroy everything. It is a gigantic artifact of some kind, but neither its builders nor purpose are known. Castaway cultures of humans live inside it, gifted with psionic powers in life and harvested by the enigmatic Skylords in death. And Nigel Sheldon wants to know why.

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Aug 22

Review: Once Dead

Once Dead (Richard Phillips; Amazon Publishing) is a passable airport thriller with some SF elements.

Jack Gregory should have died in that alley in Calcutta. Assigned by the CIA to kill the renegade reponsible for his brother’s death, he was nearly succeeding – until local knifemen take a hand. Bleeding, stabbed and near death, he is offered a choice: die, or become host to Ananchu – an extradimensional being who has ridden the limbic systems of history’s greatest slayers.

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Aug 12

Review: Unexpected Stories

Unexpected Stories (Octavia Butler; Open Road Integrated Media) is a slight but revealing work; a novelette and a short story, one set in an alien ecology among photophore-skinned not-quite humans, another set in a near future barely distinguishable from her own time. The second piece (Childfinder) was originally intended for publication in Harlan Ellison’s never-completed New Wave anthology The Last Dangerous Visions; this is its first appearance.

These stories do not show Butler at her best. They are fairly transparent allegories about race and revenge of the kind that causes writers to be much caressed by the people who like political message fiction more than science fiction. The first, A Necessary Being almost manages to rise above its allegorical content into being interesting SF; the second, Childfinder, is merely angry and trite.

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Aug 06

Review: Nexus

Nexus (Nicholas Wilson; Victory Editing) is the sort of thing that probably would have been unpublishable before e-books, and in this case I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.

There’s a lot about this book that makes me unsure, beginning with whether it’s an intentional sex comedy or a work of naive self-projection by an author with a pre-adolescent’s sense of humor and a way, way overactive libido. Imagine Star Trek scripted as semi-pornographic farce with the alien-space-babes tropes turned up to 11 and you’ve about got this book.

It’s implausible verging on grotesque, but some of the dialog is pretty funny. If you dislike gross-out humor, avoid.