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(1) WHAT ELSE BELONGS ON THAT SHELF? At Kalimac’s corner, blogger DB answers “if Tolkien is …”

A recent conversation presented me with a chance to answer the question, “If Tolkien is my favorite fantasy author, who are my other favorites?”

To answer this, I’m going to have to turn back to a long-ago time, before recent fantasy giants like Martin and Pratchett, before even Donaldson and Brooks, not quite before the Ballantine Unicorn’s Head series but before I was aware of it, and report on my perplexity at the recommendations I was getting from friends and helpful librarians for “things like Tolkien” to read after him. They were sword-and-sorcery authors like Robert E. Howard, and the likes of comic-book superheroes. I tried these things, but I was not even remotely attracted to them. I could see the superficial resemblance – battles involving mighty heroes, often in a semi-barbarian pseudo-medieval landscape – but that’s not what Tolkien was about, or what he was like. They were badly written, crudely plotted, and their heroes were all like Boromir. The likes of Frodo and Sam didn’t even exist there. They only had the crude surface resemblance, and not what I went to Tolkien for: his soul, his depth of creativity, his sense of morality. I quickly learned that surface resemblance has nothing to do with what makes Tolkien distinctive or worthwhile. That inoculated me against falling for all the Tolclones to come just because they were Tolclones, as so many did (and the Jackson movies are Tolclones in that respect).

What gave Tolkien quality I learned when I read the original Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin. These books were not very like Tolkien in surface appearance, but they had the depth of creative impulse, and a sure sense of moral imperative. Le Guin’s moral principles were different from Tolkien’s, but they were consistent, and morally defensible, and above all they were palpable. That’s what taught me that a coherent moral vision was what made for a real resemblance to Tolkien….

(2) CAPTAIN JACK. “John Barrowman gives his side of the story after tales of his naked antics on TV sets re-emerged” in a Daily Mail interview. He seeks to justify or mitigate several reports of his past on-set behavior, the details of which come after this excerpt.  

…Then a couple of months ago the sky fell in. Following accusations of sexual harassment against Noel Clarke, who played Mickey Smith – the boyfriend of Billie Piper’s character Rose – in Doctor Who from 2005 until 2010, historic footage emerged on YouTube of a sci-fi convention, Chicago Tardis, in 2014, released by The Guardian newspaper which had investigated Clarke’s behaviour on the Doctor Who set. 

In an interview in front of a live audience, Clarke is seen regaling fellow cast members Annette Badland and Camille Coduri with tales of John’s behaviour on the set of Doctor Who, exposing himself ‘every five seconds’. Clarke then jokes with the audience not to do this at their workplace or they might go to prison.

The allegations levelled against Clarke are extremely serious. At least 20 women have come forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and bullying, ‘inappropriate touching and groping’ and secretly filming naked auditions before sharing the videos without consent. 

He denies all the allegations, but BAFTA has since suspended the Outstanding Contribution award it bestowed on him just weeks earlier, and the BBC has shelved any future projects he was working on with them.

Now John’s behaviour on the sets of both Doctor Who and Torchwood has come under scrutiny once again. The furore has led to a video of Captain Jack Harkness being expunged from the current immersive Doctor Who theatre show Time Fracture, a planned Torchwood audio production featuring John and former Doctor Who lead David Tennant being scrapped and doubt about whether he will be invited back to the Dancing On Ice panel. 

…  ‘The moment has come to set the record straight,’ he says from the Palm Springs, California, home he shares with his husband Scott Gill. ‘This is the first time – and the last – I will address this subject. And then I plan to draw a thick black line under it.’…

(3) FOR SOME OF YOU, BEWARE SPOILERS. In an appearance on The Tonight Show, Mark Hamill talks about voicing Skeletor in the He-Man continuation Masters of the Universe: Revelation and how he pulled off the coolest surprise ever in The Mandalorian.

(4) RESCUE MISSION. In “The Haunted Mind of Shirley Jackson”, New Yorker reviewer Zoë Heller argues the importance of a new Shirley Jackson biography.

Here’s how not to be taken seriously as a woman writer: Use demons and ghosts and other gothic paraphernalia in your fiction. Describe yourself publicly as “a practicing amateur witch” and boast about the hexes you have placed on prominent publishers. Contribute comic essays to women’s magazines about your hectic life as a housewife and mother.

Shirley Jackson did all of these things, and, during her lifetime, was largely dismissed as a talented purveyor of high-toned horror stories—“Virginia Werewoolf,” as one critic put it. For most of the fifty-one years since her death, that reputation has stuck. Today, “The Lottery,” her story of ritual human sacrifice in a New England village (first published in this magazine, in 1948), has become a staple of eighth-grade reading lists, and her novel “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959) is often mentioned as one of the best ghost stories of all time. But most of her substantial body of work—including her masterpiece, the beautifully weird novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” (1962)—is not widely read…. 

… In a new, meticulously researched biography, “A Rather Haunted Life,” Ruth Franklin sets out to rescue Jackson from the sexists and the genre snobs who have consigned her to a dungeon of kooky, spooky middlebrow-ness….

(5) SCARY MOVIES. SYFY Wire says these are “The 25 scariest sci-fi movies ever made, ranked”.

… As Aliens celebrates 35 years of thrilling audiences, SYFY WIRE revisited some memorable sci-fi scare-fests and ranked the best of the most terrifying movies both science fiction and horror have to offer…. 

15   Scanners (1981)

Director David Cronenberg’s Scanners is firmly indoctrinated into the Cult Movie Hall of Fame, thanks in large part to an iconic scene early in the film that features an exploding head. 

Scanners is a barebones sci-fi thriller about a man capable of telekinesis and psychokinesis forced to hunt down others like him. His hunt takes him and audiences on a dark and unsettling tour of where government bureaucracy and supernatural science intersect, where individuals with the ability to weaponize thoughts are subjugated by those who think of them only as threats. Despite its low-budget trappings, Scanners packs in a considerable amount of deep thematic ideas among all the gore and unsettling bits. 

(6) WINCHESTER. Edward M. Lerner suggests his book signing in Virginia on August 7 is the right destination if you’re ready to fly the coop. “SF and Nonsense: Has the time come? Are we (as opposed to my protagonists) *less* doomed?” (And the area boasts some historic sites worth visiting, too.)

Is anyone ready to get out of the house and resume “normal” life? And I don’t mean to observe Bastille Day. (I hear a resounding chorus of “YES!“)

Then please join me for my first post-COVID book signing, upcoming on Saturday, August 7th (2 to 4 PM) for Déjà Doomed. 

Unfamiliar with this, my latest novel?  That’s easily remedied. “DÉJÀ DOOMED is … finalement here 🙂” is what I posted on its recent release date. Naturally, I’ll be happy to discuss it — or pretty much anything — in person.

Where? you ask. The Winchester Book Gallery, on the lovely walking mall of scenic, historic Winchester, VA. 

(7) NOT OFF THE SHELF. Jayme Lynn Blaschke’s video “A Moment of Tiki: The Wall Is Lava” is a progress report on his DIY tiki bar.

Episode 29 of A Moment of Tiki is now live on the YouTubes! This time out I walk viewers through a build of a faux lava accent wall. I spent the bulk of last summer building out this project in the Lagoon, and it was more of a time-consuming than I’d anticipated. Editing all the footage taken over the course of several months proved a challenge unto itself.

Still, this is a vision I had way back when I started this whole crazy home tiki bar build project…

(8) MEMORY LANE.

  • 2006 – Fifteen years ago, Eureka premiered on the SciFi Channel. It was created by Andrew Cosby and Jaime Paglia. It had a very large ensemble cast: Colin Ferguson, Salli Richardson-Whitfield, Joe Morton. Debrah Farentino. Jordan Hinson, Ed Quinn, Erica Cerra, Neil Grayston, Niall Matter, Matt Frewer, Tembi Locke and James Callis were the principal performers. It had a five-year run and lasted seventy-seven episodes plus a handful of webisodes. Though set in Oregon, it, like so many SF series, was filmed in British Columbia. Though critical reception was decidedly mixed, it did very well in the ratings and the SciFi Channel allowed it to wrap up properly. Audience reviewers at Rotten Tomatoes give it a most excellent eighty-eight percent rating.  

(9) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.

[Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]

  • Born July 18, 1913 Red Skelton. Comedian of the first order. The Red Skelton Hour ran for three hundred and thirty-eight episodes.  I remember Freddie the Freeloader. He’s here because ISFDB says he wrote A Red Skelton in Your Closet which is also called Red Skelton’s Favorite Ghost Stories. He also has cameos in Around the World in Eighty Days and Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, both of which I consider at least genre adjacent. (Died 1997.)
  • Born July 18, 1913 —  Marvin Miller. He is remembered, if he’s remembered for it, for being the voice of Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet. He would reprise that role myriad times in the next few decades in such films and series as The Invisible Boy, the first Lost in Space series and Gremlins. (Died 1985.)
  • Born July 18, 1933 Syd Mead. Best remembered on his design work on such films as Star Trek: The Motion PictureBlade RunnerTron2010: The Year We Make ContactShort CircuitAliensJohnny Mnemonic, and Blade Runner 2049. There’s an excellent look at him and his work, Visual Futurist:The Art & Life of Syd Mead. (Died 2019.)
  • Born July 18, 1938 Paul Verhoeven, 83. Responsible for Starship TroopersTotal Recall, Hollow Man and Robocop. He’s made the final list for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation three times (Starship TroopersTotal Recall and Robocop) but has not won it. 
  • Born July 18, 1966 Paul Cornell, 55. Author of both the Shadow Police series and the Witches of Lychford novella series which are quite excellent as well as writing a lot of television scripts for Doctor Who including his Ninth Doctor story”Father’s Day” which was nominated for a Hugo, Primieval and Robin Hood. He was part of the regular panel of the SF Squeecast podcast which won two Hugo Awards for best fancast, one at Chicon 7 and one at LoneStarCon 3. And he scripted quite a bit of the Captain Britain and MI: 13 comic series as well — very good stuff indeed.
  • Born July 18, 1967 Van Diesel, 54. Guardians of The Galaxy franchise (“I am Groot!”) and other MCU films, The Iron Giant, xXx which is more or less genre, the Chronicles of Riddick franchise and The Fifth Element which I absolutely adore. He’s apparently in the third Avatar film. 
  • Born July 18, 1982 Priyanka Chopra,  39. As Alex Parrish in Quantico, she became the first South Asian to headline an American network drama series. Is it genre? Maybe, maybe not, though it could fit very nicely into a Strossian Dark State. Some of her work in her native India such as The Legend of Drona and Love Story 2050 is genre as Krrish 3, an Indian SF film she was in. She’s got a major role in the still forthcoming Matrix 4 film.
  • Born July 18, 1994 Taylor Russell, 27. Judy Robison on the current Lost in Space series. She had a recurring role as Evelyn on Falling Skies, and she’s done a lot of horror films given her age.

(10) MAX LEGROOM. Scott Stinson explains why “Mad Max: Fury Road is a ridiculous masterpiece — flaming guitar bad guy says it all really” at National Post.

…Fury Road is a thrill ride, is what I’m saying. Our hero Max is captured right off the jump by a bunch of marauding fellows, imprisoned and used as a blood donor. His captors call him a blood bag, which really underscores the unlikelihood of a fair trial and eventual release. It’s quickly established that the gang is beholden to a cult leader, Immortan Joe, who has respiratory and skin problems but does control the water supply, the source of his power. Next comes Furiosa, a bad-ass truck driver who is leading a supply run. (There is a shortage of everything in this world except sand and orange lens filters.) But, wait! Furiosa is actually double-crossing ol’ Joe and has stowed away his harem of wives. Joe is greatly displeased and a convoy heads off in pursuit, with Blood Bag Max strapped to the front of one of the vehicles rather awkwardly.

This all happens with such quick pacing that it feels like it could have been one of those “previously on” catch-up scenes on a TV series…. 

(11) MR. GREEN HAS ARRIVED. Here’s another argument why “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” BasedCon organizer Robert Kroese tweeted —

(12) CREATIVE DIFFERENCES. Fansided discusses “How Dr. McCoy’s age changed Star Trek’s The Way to Eden” in The Original Series.

…Once [D.C.] Fontana turned her draft of the script in, a producer told her McCoy wasn’t old enough to have a twenty-one-year old daughter because he was Kirk’s “contemporary,” even though DeForest Kelley, the actor who portrayed Dr. McCoy, would have been 48 in 1968.

Fontana was livid that the writers’ guide wasn’t even read so that the script could be considered. She requested her name be removed from it, choosing instead to use her pseudonym “Michael Richards.”…

(13) COPTER ON TITAN. The Planetary Society tells “How Dragonfly will explore Saturn’s ‘bizarro Earth’ moon, Titan”. But it won’t arrive until 2037.

Why send a typical lander when you can send a dual-quadcopter?

That’s the question Dr. Elizabeth Tuttle and her team at The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory asked when they developed NASA’s next New Frontiers mission to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. The dual-quadcopter, aptly named Dragonfly, will carry a suite of instruments designed to analyze Titan’s surface, which can vary from pure water ice to crumbly, orange-tinted organic sands.

Over a series of flights throughout its three-year nominal mission, Dragonfly will hopscotch over Titan’s surface, investigating new places to visit and previously identified safe sites. Dragonfly’s science instruments include a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to analyze the elements beneath its ski-like legs, a UV light to detect fluorescent, organic molecules, and a mass spectrometer to analyze more complex, biologically relevant samples….

Life on Titan, if it exists or ever existed, would need to adapt to a life of Antarctic-like temperatures, near-constant twilight, and transient liquid water. What sort of life could possibly survive in such a hostile environment?

That’s exactly what Dragonfly aims to investigate by flying to Selk Crater, a geologically young impact crater just 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) north of where Cassini’s Huygens probe landed in 2005. 

(14) THE CLAWS THAT CATCH. An #OwlKitty parody video from 2019: “If Baby Yoda was a Cat (Mandalorian + OwlKitty)”

(15) TENTACLE TIME. This link was sent together with a note of concern that Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s soliloquy “Octopuses” is probably too profane for a Scroll item, “but it’s genre-adjacent and really funny.” So you know. From the transcript —

…And before we start, I am fully aware that there are plenty of amazing animals in the ocean, which is, as we know, a big wet trash bin full of God’s weirdest typos….

(16) VIDEO OF THE DAY. [Item by Martin Morse Wooster.] Creating The World Of Harry Potter:  The Magic Begins is a 2009 documentary, which Warner Bros. posted to YouTube in April, about the making of Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone.  It has a lot of behind-the-scenes footage which if you’re a hardcore Harry Potter fan you’d want to see,  I thought the footage of filming was interesting and the adults in the interviews are British pros who know how to be entertaining.  The kids are a lot less interesting.  I dunno what the British equivalent of “inside baseball” is but here are two things I learned:  the Hogwarts uniforms come from the films and not the books because J.K. Rowling declared that Hogwarts students didn’t have uniforms.  She was persuaded that uniforms were the right look for the movies.  Dame Maggie Smith declared that her character, Professor McGonigall, was Scottish, so her hat isn’t a witch’s hat but some sort of Scottish hat. Harry Potter fans will find this worth an hour.

[Thanks to Martin Morse Wooster, JJ, Michael Toman, John King Tarpinian, Cat Eldridge, Mike Kennedy, and Andrew Porter for some of these stories. Title credit belongs to contributing editor of the day Andrew (not Werdna).]

2018 Novellapalooza

[Editor’s note: be sure to read the comments on this post for more novellas and more Filer reviews.]

By JJ: I’m a huge reader of novels, but not that big on short fiction. But the last few years, I’ve done a personal project to read and review as many Novellas as I could (presuming that the story synopsis had some appeal for me). I ended up reading 31 of the novellas published in 2015, 35 of the novellas published in 2016, and 46 of the novellas published in 2017 (though a few of those were after Hugo nominations closed).

The result of this was the 2016 Novellapalooza and the 2017 Novellapalooza. I really felt as though I was able to do Hugo nominations for the novella category in an informed way, and a lot of Filers got involved with their own comments. So I’m doing it again this year.

The success and popularity of novellas in the last 4 years seems to have sparked a Golden Age for SFF novellas, with Tor.com, Subterranean Press, NewCon Press, PS Publishing, Book Smugglers, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Tachyon bringing out a multitude of works, along with the traditional magazines Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog – so there are a lot more novellas to cover this year. By necessity, I’ve gotten to the point of being more selective about which ones I read, based on the synopsis being of interest to me.

It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book despite not feeling that the jacket copy makes the book sound as though it is something I would like – and to discover that I really like or love the work anyway. On the other hand, It is not at all uncommon for me to choose to read a book which sounds as though it will be up my alley and to discover that, actually, the book doesn’t really do much for me.

Thus, my opinions on the following novellas vary wildly: stories I thought I would love but didn’t, stories I didn’t expect to love but did, and stories which aligned with my expectations – whether high or low. Bear in mind that while I enjoy both, I tend to prefer Science Fiction over Fantasy – and that while I enjoy suspense and thrillers, I have very little appreciation for Horror (and to be honest, I think Lovecraft is way overrated). My personal assessments are therefore not intended to be the final word on these stories, but merely a jumping-off point for Filer discussion.

I thought it would be helpful to have a thread where all the Filers’ thoughts on novellas are collected in one place, as a resource when Hugo nomination time rolls around. Which of these novellas have you read? And what did you think of them?

I’ve included plot summaries, and where I could find them, links to either excerpts or the full stories which can be read online for free. Short novels which fall between 40,000 and 48,000 words (within the Hugo Novella category tolerance) have been included.

Please feel free to post comments about any other 2018 novellas which you’ve read, as well.

(Please be sure to rot-13 any spoilers.)

(fair notice: all Amazon links are referrer URLs which benefit non-profit SFF fan website Worlds Without End)

Read more…

Edward M. Lerner: Crafted Science, Convincing Characters

Edward M. Lerner

By Carl Slaughter: Retired professional scientist Edward Lerner talks about a host of hard science fiction topics, plus his collaboration with Larry Niven, his participation in SIGMA, and his nonfiction column for Analog.

Carl Slaughter: What was the deciding factor in getting out of full-time science work and getting into full-time fiction work?

Edward M. Lerner: There were two factors, as it happens. The first: I had to become ready for a radical change. While I had greatly enjoyed my career in science and engineering, much of the work eventually came to seem repetitive. Second, I had to prove to myself I had developed the necessary writing skills. My debut novel might have been a fluke, and for about a decade after that book’s publication my day job kept me too busy to write much. It wasn’t till after I’d sold a second novel, plus a couple shorter stories to Analog, that I took the leap.

CS: But in the end, it wasn’t all fiction, was it?

EML: As it turned out, no. Years after the career change, I developed a new interest: writing popular science. The chief example of that is the series of “the science behind the fiction” articles I did for Analog. Each article explored the science and engineering, sometimes speculative, that might underpin a common SF trope (such as faster-than-light travel, time travel, or telepathy), and is “illustrated” with SF stories, TV shows, and movies that made use of—or anticipated—some of that tech.

CS: Your science career, like your science fiction career, is all over the map. Which aspect of your science career contributed, directly or indirectly, to which aspect of your science fiction career?

EML: Certainly my employers were all over the map, metaphorically and geographically. But that first career? I’ll assert otherwise. The unifying theme—notwithstanding the mix of commercial and government-contracting employers, and the variety of situations addressed—was the tackling of complex problems with computers.

To your larger point, however, much of that experience did carry over to writing SF. For example, I put in seven years as a NASA contractor at Hughes Aircraft (now a part of Raytheon). That particular background transferred mostly after the fact, because Hughes/NASA had me working six, and sometimes seven, days a week. (Reference: the abovementioned lag between my first and second novels. But some of that Hughes/NASA experience did figure directly in the second novel.)

More generally, building any complex, responsive, mission-critical system cultivates a mindset. One learns to: consider everything that might go wrong, including recalcitrant users; design features to head off undesirable outcomes; provide ways to mitigate the consequences when such precautions nonetheless fail. As an SF writer, I also consider the implications of technology and how it might go wrong. I try not to rely upon venal or careless characters—as in most every Michael Crichton novel—to drive my stories. If, for example, a plot problem requires information from the bad guy’s computer, the solution ought not to be for the good guy to hack a computer in ten seconds flat, or for the bad guy to walk away from his desk while leaving his computer logged on. When a computer break-in is necessary, I want to make the penetration credible.

I spend much of my “writing” time wearing my engineering hat, asking myself: what about the technology available in a certain situation might go wrong or be abused? Then: what would a responsible engineer have done to minimize that risk? Then: what might a bad guy (or nature, being recalcitrant) do to circumvent those preventive measures? Then: why wouldn’t the designer have anticipated that hazard, and already done something to counter it? Iterate till no party to the developing storyline is being obtuse merely to advance the plot.

Case in point: there are many fictional examples of nanotech run amok. Most such, IMO, rely on thoughtlessness or carelessness on the part of the fictional nanotechnologists. At the start of writing my own nanotech novel (Small Miracles), I did a lot of research—and had a lot of back-and-forth with doctors, biophysicists, a biologist, a neurologist, and nanotechnologists—to come up with defensively designed medical nanobots that might nonetheless, in unforeseen circumstances, have unanticipated effects.

CS: You also did a lot of management work. You even have an MBA. Did your management background help or hinder your science fiction writing?

EML: My immediate reaction was that, apart from its utility on the business side (versus the creative side) of being a writer, my management background had no relevance. While economics is known (hat tip to Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle) as the dismal science, it’s hardly the basis for much science fiction. And when accountants do delve into fiction, we get messes like Enron and the 2008 financial crisis.

My second thought was quite different. Lots of SF, much of mine included, overlaps with the mystery genre, wherein a common method of unraveling plots and solving crimes is to “follow the money.” Maybe that’s why I’ve written three major business-oriented protagonists (and I suspect I’d find more if I did a thorough review of all I’ve written).

The best known of these protagonists is accountant Sigmund Ausfaller (in the Fleet of Worlds series, coauthored with Larry Niven, about which I expect we’ll talk further). Sigmund first appeared decades ago, in Larry Niven’s Hugo award-winning “Neutron Star” and “The Borderland of Sol,” as the foil for his protagonist, derring-do space pilot Beowulf Shaeffer. Those stories revealed little about Sigmund himself or how he came to be a super spy. To develop Sigmund’s back story (for Juggler of Worlds), I got Sigmund into—and out of—life-threatening peril through accounting. Really. (No big spoilers there: that much about Sigmund comes out in the novel’s opening pages. Sigmund went on to have many more adventures, occasionally drawing upon his accounting skills, in the course of this and subsequent novels.)

And, as it happens, my latest story series, kicked off by “The Company Man” (Grantville Gazette, May 2017 issue) has a forensic accountant as its antihero ….

CS: You’ve described some of your work as “meticulously researched novels.” What do you mean by that phrase?

EML: One corner of the broad genre of speculative fiction, as you know, is called “hard SF.” IMO that’s a terrible label, by which “hard” often gets misconstrued as meaning (too) challenging to read. The term is supposed to convey fiction in which real science is integral to the story, the adjective referring to an early emphasis within the subgenre on the so-called “hard” sciences, such as physics and astronomy. I write mainly hard SF—and getting the science right is important to me. That means research.

As for whether my research qualifies as “meticulous,” opinions will vary. To support my claims of research sufficiency, I’ll offer two anecdotes.

Take the aforementioned Small Miracles. I was researching a particular biological/medical detail that would affect where in the human body my medical nanobots could go and/or how I could design them to reach specific places. After refining the details through several iterations, a biophysicist who was helping me declared us done. He said, “Ed, it’s only a novel.”

Did I get the biology right? A doctor friend was discussing the finished novel—during surgery, over a patient—with a colleague. The colleague rushed out after surgery to order a copy, and later ordered a second copy for me to autograph as a gift for a physician relative. The medical aspects couldn’t have been too far off :-).

In Dark Secret, my latest novel (“The end of the world … and what comes next”), the supporting research ranged from gamma ray bursters to cosmic strings, from aberrant psychology to parasailing. For Déjà Doomed (the working title of my novel in progress), I’ve consulted with astrophysicists about fine points of orbital mechanics. Who says writers don’t have fun?

CS: Define artificial life. I mean, how is it life if it doesn’t form and evolve naturally?

EML: Like everything artificial, from sweeteners to skyscrapers, an artificial life is made on purpose. A conscious entity like you or me, and not (only) the impersonal and implacable forces of evolution, shapes it. This description doesn’t preclude adapting methods found in nature—nor does it preclude consciously influencing or eliminating random chance ….

Definitions of life vary, as do conclusions about whether particular things (such as viruses) are even alive. Wikipedia has a whole long article on the topic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life). In common usage, life is carbon-based, built from one or more biological cells, and must adapt to a physical environmental. IMO, that’s merely natural life.

I imagine your question arises in the context of my novel Fools’ Experiments. That book deals with the directed evolution within a computer of entities with none of the aforementioned characteristics. The fundamental building blocks of these entities, rather than atoms and molecules, are computer bits; the next level of construction is computer instructions (and a subtle point: that’s not human-written software); and the environmental constraints are virtual. Happily (if only for storytelling purposes) those creatures of artificial life discover how their virtual world can interact—dramatically, and often even catastrophically, so!—with our physical world.

CS: Define artificial intelligence. Again, how can it be considered sentient if it was programmed rather than evolving naturally? If you tell it what to think or how to think, it’s just a machine—isn’t it?

EML: As a practical matter, an artificial intelligence is anything humans consider (a) acts intelligently and (b) isn’t us. Why? Because we’re no more able to unambiguously define intelligence than we are to define life, consciousness, or awareness.

AI was initially approached as an exercise in computer programming. That approach failed quite spectacularly. Many newer, and more successful, AI efforts have involved adapting to, or learning from experience. For example, an AI intended to identify cancerous tissue samples might be trained using images of known cancerous and non-cancerous cell cultures. After each attempted diagnosis, internal parameters are tweaked to emphasize whatever internal features of the system leaned toward the correct conclusion and deemphasize whatever internal features leaned toward the wrong conclusion. Through feedback during routine operation, the system will continue to self-adapt. (For completeness, it’s worth noting that this form of machine learning isn’t the only non-programming approach to developing an AI.)

In concept, one could reverse-engineer from the internals of a learning AI exactly which lessons from its training set (and from its subsequent experience) led to a particular decision. In practice, the effects of particular lessons and experiences overlap so much that such case-by-case deduction is impossible. We simply don’t know the inner workings of a modern AI. (Much less of most fictional AIs, such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ava in Ex Machina.)

Looking out several years to when quantum computing matures and gets applied to artificial intelligence, it won’t be possible even in principle to understand an AI’s decision process. From basic principles of quantum mechanics, such computing will be inherently nondeterministic. My own cut at quantum-computing-based AI was the Analog detective novelette, “A Case of Identity” (December 2015 issue). If you recognized that as the title of a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s not a coincidence.

(For a far broader discussion of AI and some of the SF that best illustrates it, see my two-part nonfiction article in Analog, “A Mind of Its Own” [September and October 2016 issues.])

CS: Your stories have grand scale impact settings but also focus on the impact on individual characters. How do you strike this balance?

EML: Carefully?

But seriously, balance is the operative word. On the one hand, an unusual context—whether in space or time, physical law or the state of technology—is the distinguishing characteristic of science fiction. In a phrase, that’s world-building. So, absolutely, much of my fiction is meant to offer an exotic and impactful setting. On the other hand, all fiction, whether of the SF or any other variety, is about people. If an exotically located work of fiction doesn’t affect anyone therein, that is at best an imaginative travelogue and not a story.

And beyond making every story about people (even if they’re of an extraterrestrial, AI, or extraterrestrial-AI persuasion) I also strive to follow a dictum of Kurt Vonnegut: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

CS: How did you hook up with Larry Niven and what type of relationship do you have with him?

EML: At Noreascon 4, aka Worldcon 2004, Larry and I were both on the panel “My Favorite Planet.” As the name suggests, panelists were asked to name the world, real or imaginary, they would most like to visit. When my turn came, I named the Fleet of Worlds. In Larry’s best-known novel, Ringworld, the Fleet is a cluster of five inhabited worlds hurtling through space at relativistic speed. The Fleet and its impressively alien inhabitants are scarcely glimpsed before the reader moves on to the eponymous Ringworld. I told Larry he should write a story set on the Fleet. He said he didn’t have a plot for such a story. I emailed him shortly thereafter, to say, “Well, I do.”

Fleet of Worlds, our first collaboration, was the result. In the (woohoo!) bidding war over the novel, we got an offer as well on a sequel. That we hadn’t discussed a sequel, much less written one? We didn’t let that stand in our way. The sequel became Juggler of Worlds. The series grew to include Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Worlds, and finally Fate of Worlds.

Larry and I live on opposite coasts, three time zones apart. We worked mostly by email, picking up the phone as needed. But while we see each other only occasionally, at cons, we’re friends. When SFWA (that’s the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) declared Larry a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, I was honored to be invited to write the official appreciation for him (text at http://blog.edwardmlerner.com/2015/06/the-2015-nebula-awards-weekend.html.)

CS: Fleet of Worlds, Ringworld, Known Space. The setting and chronology is a bit hard to follow. Can you sort it out for us?

EML: Larry’s universes (your question deals with only one of those) are on grand scales. Briefly, Known Space is the overarching setting of a future history that opens with early human explorations of the Solar System. Known Space stories continue for centuries, ultimately offering adventures across a bubble of space—and civilizations—many light-years across.

Within Known Space, the Ringworld is a physical artifact. Oversimplifying a bit, this is a hoop-like structure a million miles wide, 600 million miles in circumference, circling a distant star. That vast structure has trillions of hominid (although not human) inhabitants. The novel Ringworld, a part of the overarching Known Space future history, deals with the discovery and initial explorations of this wondrous setting. (And, as I’ve noted, the Fleet of Worlds is a separate physical setting glimpsed early in Ringworld.) Larry wrote three sequels about how discovery of the physical Ringworld and the wondrous technologies it embodies affected various Known Space intelligent species.

The Fleet of World series, my five collaborations with Larry, is likewise set in Known Space, opening two hundred years before Ringworld. In our fifth book, Fate of Worlds—subtitled “Return from the Ringworld”—we wrap up both series. Explosively, I might add …

For a more complete discussion, including a recommended reading order(s), File 770 visitors might check out my blog post “Of fleet Fleets and Known Space” (http://blog.edwardmlerner.com/2011/02/of-fleet-fleets-and-known-space.html).

CS: Any plans to return to the Fleet universe?

I won’t say never—working in Known Space, and with Larry, was a blast—but we don’t have any plans to do so. For now I’m too into my own universes.

CS: What exactly are the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox?

EML: Together, the intellectual framework behind many discussions of the possibility of alien intelligent life.

In 1961, Frank Drake created an elegant equation to facilitate a conversation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The equation provides a way to estimate the number of technological civilizations currently in our galaxy—civilizations for which radio astronomers (like Drake) might listen. The equation relies upon a long list of input parameters, the values for many of which (such as the fraction of planets on which life emerges) are unknown. With different guesses at such values, the equation has been used to suggest both that intelligent and technologically capable life must be common in the galaxy and that humanity is surely alone.

The Fermi Paradox is a rebuttal—actually, a prebuttal, dating to the early Fifties—of the more optimistic versions of the Drake Equation. Suppose that the vast number of stars (and optimistic estimates of other relevant parameters) argues for intelligence arising elsewhere in the galaxy. If any alien civilization has technology only slightly in advance of humanity’s, then in an eye blink (by astronomical standards) those aliens could spread across the galaxy. So, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi challenged, where are they? Why have we seen no evidence of them?

(For more about the Drake Equation, the Fermi Paradox, and SETI in general, see my nonfiction Analog article “Alien AWOLs: The Great Silence,” in the October 2014 issue.)

All that said, let’s turn to explorations of these topics in my InterstellarNet novels.

Much popular SF, like Star Trek, rests on two conveniences: faster-than-light travel and nearby alien neighbors. Apart from authorial convenience, there’s no justification. The known universe seems to insist upon a light-speed limit, and we have yet to find an alien bacterium, much less alien intelligences. But for plot purposes, we authors want not only alien intelligence, but alien neighbors. And not only must the aliens be nearby, and intelligent, they need to have technology so similar to human level—no matter that our respective solar systems may differ in age by billions of years—that conflicts between us and them are suspenseful.

In my novels InterstellarNet: Origins and InterstellarNet: New Order, I stuck with slower-than-light travel and radio-based communications. But for an interstellar communications network to function, my aliens had to live nearby, within radio range, and be advanced enough to have radios. I got to wondering: could I find a justification beyond “It’s my universe, and I’ll construct it for my convenience?” I found out that I could—but that justification was a doozy. As constraints so often do, this led to a multilayered, and (if I can toot my own horn) interesting story. That’s my second-most recent novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma.

CS: How does in-person alien interaction affect each species differently than interstellar radio contact?

EML: With contacts limited to communications, initial impacts are “merely” cultural and technological. Early parts of InterstellarNet: Origins explore the dangers—as when, for example, an interstellar message makes fuel-cell cars practical overnight (and in the process destroys the economies of many petroleum-producing countries). Later in the novel, the interspecies contacts become more sophisticated, reliant upon AIs exchanged between civilizations. (See, I had a reason earlier to mention extraterrestrial AIs.) After AIs have been transferred across the stars, the opportunities for interspecies interaction—and mischief—greatly expand. How? Anything a human hacker might attempt via the Internet, so might an alien AI. And an alien AI might try things no mere human hacker would imagine ….

When aliens come calling (as in InterstellarNet: New Order), physical interactions—up to, and including mass mayhem—become possible.

CS: Any plans to return to the InterstellarNet universe?

EML: A return isn’t on my to-do list, but I suspect I’ll eventually succumb. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing in that universe.

CS: What is SIGMA, what does it do, and what’s your involvement?

EML: From all those upper-case letters, you’d think SIGMA (http://www.sigmaforum.org/) is an acronym, but it’s not. SIGMA (aka, “The Science Fiction think tank”) is a group of hard SF authors with professional science or technology backgrounds. We consult, often pro bono, mostly with government agencies. Why would anyone want our input? Because we’re pretty good at thinking “outside the box.”

And me, personally? Through SIGMA, I’ve taken part in a colloquium on asteroid deflection (which turned out to provide handy source material for Energized, in which a captured asteroid becomes raw material for building solar power satellites), guest lectured at the U.S. Naval Academy, and been a panelist at an academic conference on nanotech.

CS: What’s on the horizon for Edward M. Lerner?

EML: Thanks for asking. A bunch of short fiction is queued up in 2017, at Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Grantville Gazette—and I have a couple more magazine-length stories in me yearning to be set free. I recently finished updating, expanding, and integrating my various “the science behind the fiction” magazine articles, a couple of which I’ve mentioned, into a nonfiction book. I look forward to placing that. And I’ll be finishing (I’m at about the halfway mark) Déjà Doomed, a near-future adventure novel mainly set on the Moon.

And thanks for inviting me to File 770.

First Annual Canopus Award Winners Announced

Canopus Award Logo100 Year Starship (100YSS) has announced the winners of the inaugural 2015 Canopus Award honoring excellence in interstellar writing.

Previously Published Long-Form Fiction 

  • InterstellarNet: Enigma, Edward M. Lerner (Published by FoxAcre)

Previously Published Short-Form Fiction 

  • “The Waves,” Ken Liu (Originally published in Asimov’s December 2012)

Original Fiction

  • “Everett’s Awakening,” Robert Buckalew writing as Ry Yelcho

Original Non-Fiction

  • “Finding Earth 2.0 from the Focus of the Solar Gravitational Lens,” Louis D. Friedman & Slava G. Turyshev

The winners were announced during Science Fiction Stories Night at 100YSS’s fourth annual public symposium in Santa Clara, CA.

Award judges included writer and 100YSS Creative and Editorial director Jason Batt; author and former Wall Street Journal reporter August Cole; Founder of International Speechwriting Associates Kathleen Colgan; teacher at the University of Edinburgh in the School of Education and Leadership, Janet DeVigne; editor Jaym Gates; 100YSS Principal and former astronaut Mae Jemison, M.D.; Chapman University creative writing student Alec Medén; Rutgers University Professor Ronke Olabisi, Ph.D.; faculty and advisor to the Singularity University David Orban; Georgia high school freshman Bailey Stanley; writer and anthropologist Juliette Wade, Ph.D.; Aeronautical and Astronautical engineer Paul Webber; journalist Sofia Webber;astrobiologist and creator of Yuri’s Night Loretta Whitesides; and,Major General Ken Wisian.

The full press release follows the jump.

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SF at 100 Year Starship 2014 Symposium

The 100 Year Starship 2014 Public Symposium boasts two explicitly science fictional programs. And don’t ask how that’s different from the rest of the conference — remember, the people going don’t think starships are fictional.

The Symposium takes place in Houston from September 18-21. At the end of Friday’s program attendees can unwind at Science Fiction Stories Night.

SciFi_Night COMP

Following a book signing featuring SF authors Yoon Ha Lee, Les Johnson, Nisi Shawl, and Edward M. Lerner there will be a screening of the original The Day the Earth Stood Still.

steampunk starship

Then during Saturday’s Deep Dive Workshop “Designing Interstellar Capabilities through Steampunk Technology,” Steampunk scholar Mike Pershon (Professor of Literature, Grant Macewan University) will guide participants through the opportunities steampunk presents on the interstellar journey –

Space is a very unforgiving environment and a deep space journey, which may take decades is one in which it may be impossible to carry every critical spare or replacement part needed, and that is where steampunk comes in.

The rest of the symposium has a purpose that is heavy on science and light on fiction —

We exist to make the capability of human travel beyond our solar system a reality within the next 100 years.

And Mae Jemison of the 100 Year Starship Trust knows why they picked 100 years.

If you said ten years — ‘Nah, we know that’s not long enough.’ If you said 500 years, people would say, ‘I can kick back for another two to three hundred years because I don’t have to worry about it.’ One hundred years is close enough.