Category: science fiction

Launch Pad Days 6 and 7

A Picturesque Saturday Morning

Saturday mornings are quiet on the University of Wyoming, Laramie campus. I actually slept in a bit, after staying up late chatting with folks in the lounge. I had a text from Chaz Brenchley telling me that the student union was closed and that he would be heading over to the Turtle Rock cafe to get his writing done. I lazed around a bit longer and finally headed over in the direction of the Turtle Rock cafe at around 7:30 am.

Laramie Morning

The streets were empty. Even the sidewalks were empty. On my walk to the cafe, I saw exactly 1 person, an early-morning jogger. But it was gorgeous out. Not too warm, and that blue sky that goes on forever in this part of the country. The picture above gives only a partial glimpse of what it was like.

Chaz and Doug had already found a table and were writing away. There wasn’t much room at their table, so I chose a different one to do my work, ordered a bagel and set about my blogging and other writing for the day. Later, more people showed up and we ended up joining tables and chatting before heading off to lectures.


Saturday’s lectures were among the most dense and most interesting lectures of the week. We started where we left off on Friday, talking about the galactic center and then gradually moving further and further out, to other galaxies, taking up Hubble’s Law, galactic clusters, gravitational lensing, interacting galaxies, active galaxies and Seyfert galaxies. And we didn’t stop there. We moved onto other related topics like cosmic jets and radio lobes, and quasars and their spectra. And all of this was crammed into a marathon 2-hour session, which we did without a break. My brain was humming when we finally set off to the cafeteria for lunch.

After lunch, we jumped into another marathon session on cosmology, this one covering Hubble’s Law in a little more detail. We talked about the expanding universe (and what that means), the age of the universe, and how we are able to look back at the early universe. We discussed the cosmological principle, the shape and geometry of the universe, and general relativity. From there, we moved into discussions of the deceleration of the universe, model universes, dark matter, baryonic dark matter, the cosmological constant, and the cosmic microwave background.

(Deep breath!)

We wrapped up the final day of lectures with a fascinating discussion of cosmological themes in science fiction. Finally, we took our post-test to see how much we improved from when we first arrived at Launch Pad.

Sweet Melissa’s

A group of people that included Christian and Jeri, Andy, Jenn, Douglas and Anna, Brenda and myself went back to downtown Laramie for dinner on Saturday evening. We went to Sweet Melissa’s, where the other gang went the previous night. We had a leisurely dinner there, and I tried their margarita, which was good, surprisingly strong, and quite inexpensive. A few people went to the local bookstore and picked up various things. Then it was time to party.

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Launch Pad Days 4 and 5 (Catching Up)

I did not get a chance to blog yesterday. I gave fiction-writing priority because I’d finally broken my 140-day writing streak the day before and I wanted to get right back on the horse. So what follows is two days worth of Launch Pad covering Thursday and Friday. Hold on to your hats and glasses, kids, this here is the wildest ride in the wilderness.

A Walk in the Woods

By Thursday morning, Chaz Brenchley, Doug Farren and I had cleared established our routine. We’d gather by the elevators at 7 am and head over to the student union to write for a few hours. On Thursday, Brenda Clough joined us. Chaz, Doug, and I sat at our regular table and Brenda took a table behind us so she could spread out her things. I spent that writing session blogging and did not get a chance to write fiction. It turned out to be my only opportunity of the day, and so after 140 consecutive days of writing, my streak came to an end. Behind us, as we wrote, Brenda kept laughing aloud. She continued to do this for pretty much the entire time we were there. Apparently, she was re-reading one of her older novels in preparation of putting it online, and found it to be very funny.

Around 9:45, we all gathered by the vans. We lathered up with sunscreen and bug spray and then caravanned over to Vedauwoo recreation area for a hike around Turtle Rock.

Slip Slidin’ Away

There is, apparently, a long-standing tradition here at Launch Pad, of having to visit the emergency room at least once per workshop. My understanding is that last year, no visits were required, and I am happy to report that as if this writing (Saturday morning) no visits have been necessary in our group. But that is not to say that there weren’t a few missteps.

The Vedauwoo recreation center is up in the hills above Laramie, at an altitude of maybe 8,000 feet or so. It was beautiful and the weather gods sent us gorgeous weather. I took a bunch of pictures, most of which you can find over on Flickr. Here is one panorama shot to give you a flavor of the place:


During the course of the 2+ hour hike, we had four minor slips. It began with Jenn Brissett, who slipped on a path coming down from the parking lot, before we really even got started. Then, not long after we were underway, Brenda went down. She had turned to talk to me and tripped over a rock. She was unhurt, but I felt guilty, as I had been the one she’d turned to talk to. Some time later, walking down a small dip in the trail, Jeri slipped and skidded down the path. She was okay. Perhaps the most dramatic fall of the day came toward the end of the hike. Chaz tripped on a rock or root and face-planted. All six-plus feet of this tall, English writer went sprawling face-first into the ground. His camera followed him. He ended up scratching his nose, but otherwise, both he and his camera were unharmed.

After the hike, we returned to the picnic area and wolfed down the sack lunches that were packed for us. Then it was time to head back to campus for the day’s lectures. The afternoon’s lectures went into great detail on the death and end states of stars. (My notes are extensive.) After this, we were visited by an astronomer who studies interstellar dust and gave us a quick, but detailed lecture on dust and what you can learn from the dust floating about in the galaxy.

An Impromptu Lecture

After dinner on Thursday, I had agreed to give an impromptu lecture on using Evernote. I went back to the dorm after dinner, and began putting together some hastily constructed slides. Kelly called and I got to see the kids via FaceTime. It was so good to see them. But I couldn’t get detailed slides done in the short time. So I winged it.

Those who wanted to attend, five or six people, I think, met back at our main classroom at 6:30 and I proceeded to discuss, demonstrate, and lecture on Evernote for the next 90 minutes or so. I think it went over pretty well. It was the first time I’d ever given an impromptu lecture on Evernote, but I think I managed to cover all of the important bases.


Baseball, Beer, and Science Fiction

Thursday evening, Doug Dechow and Anna Leahy arranged for folks to meet at O’Dwyers for beer. Chaz and I got to the bar just past 8 pm. Doug and Anna were already there and I discovered they were baseball fans, so we chatted about baseball, as well as some computer science topics and even super-nerdy things like Markov chains. All the while, drinking beer, of course.

Eventually, Andy, Liz, and Caren also joined us and the conversation grew and evolved. I think we finally left the bar at around 11 pm. It had been a long day, but another fun one, reminding me on countless occasions how lucky I was to be able to attend Launch Pad.

Asleep at Breakfast

I have been trying to make the most of each day while I am here. Lectures and other activities usually don’t start until 10 am, and I have been getting up early in order to take advantage of the downtime. I have typically been getting barely 5 hours of sleep each night. It all caught up to me Thursday night. I was up Friday morning at about 6:15, and went with Chaz, Doug and Brenda to the student union to write. I didn’t blog because I was determined to get fiction writing done and not get derailed simply because my streak had come to an end. And I did write, adding about 1,000 words to my story. But I was tired, sluggish, and the caffeine just did not seem to be working.

Jay O’Connell had joined us and at about 8:45, he and I walked over to Turtle Rock cafe to meet some of the others for breakfast. We sat outside on the patio, basking in the warm, morning sun. Eventually, Andy, Jenn, Jennifer, and Liz joined us. I’d had a muffin earlier and so I didn’t order any food. I listened to the conversation around me and before I knew it, I’d fallen asleep in the wicker chair in which I sat out on the patio, with the voices of my new friends chittering on around me. I did not sleep long, twenty minutes, maybe thirty. But I did sleep, and since I rarely (if ever) crash in the midst of a gathering, I think it illustrates just how worn out I was. It might also have been the altitude. Jeri skipped the morning lectures because she wasn’t feeling well, also the affects of the altitude.

Smiling at Saturn

We had another full day of lectures, beginning at 10 am with black holes, a fascinating topic and also a favorite of science fiction writers. Mike covered black holes in detail and it was a great lecture. Next, Andria gave an interesting lecture on science ethics, which included stories about some of the personalities behind sciences biggest discoveries. After that we headed to the cafeteria for lunch. They offered lasagna today and it was some of the best dorm food I’ve had since getting here.

After lunch, Mike gave his second talk on science fiction-specific topics. This time he covered interstellar travel, and once again, it was a fascinating and useful topic for science fiction writers. We took a break after this lecture to run outside and get a group photo. We set it up so that we were facing Saturn in the eastern sky. On the other side of Saturn, the Cassini probe was photographing the ringed planet with Earth in the background, so we all waved to Saturn:

Launchpad Group


We enlisted a student who was innocently walking by to take the photo. I didn’t get his name, otherwise, I’d give proper credit.

With the photo taken, we headed back in for our final lecture of the day, given by a computer scientist and amateur astronomer. The lecture was on amateur astronomy and the process of doing amateur astronomy, including what you needed and how long it took to get up to speed. It was very interesting. I never realized how important to the science amateur astronomer were. It is one of the few sciences in which amateurs can make significant contributions.

The Oldest Bar in Wyoming

We decided to jump ship Friday evening and go out to dinner, instead of eating in the cafeteria. We broke into two groups, the vegetarians and the carnivores. We all went into downtown Laramie, the former going to a place called Sweet Melissa’s, and the latter going to a place called Altitude. I was in the carnivore group, along with Doug Farren, Jay, Mike, Brenda, Chaz, and Jennifer.

Altitude is also a micro-brewery and so we got to try some good beer with our food. I ended up ordering a bacon-wrapped tenderloin in a red wine reduction, and it was fantastic! While our counterparts at Sweet Melissa’s talked Dyson Spheres, we chatted about more mundane things, like our kids and potty training.

After dinner, Mike took us to a local called the Buckhorn. Regular patrons claimed that this was the oldest bar in all of Wyoming. Inside it was dark paneled wood with moose heads hanging everywhere. We ordered some shots, and then also had a local shot. I can’t remember what the latter was called, but it was sweet and fruity.

We finally made our way back to the dorm, and then a bunch of us including Liz, Andy, Chaz, Caren and I chatted until 11:30 or so.

Today is the last day of Launch Pad and it is, of course, bittersweet. I’ve made some great new friends here and I’ve learned so much. But I miss Kelly, the Little Man and the Little Miss, and I’m looking forward to seeing them tomorrow evening when I arrive home.


Launchpad Day 3: At the Top of the World

The first two days of Launchpad have been long days and nights. I’ve been doing my best to take advantage of the time, so despite the fact that I was pretty tired, I was still up at about 5:20 am. I spend the first hour of the day writing up my Launchpad Day 2 blog post. Then I showered, and started in on the fiction writing. At 7 am, I once again headed over to the student commons with Chaz Brenchley and Doug Farren, and spent the next hour or so writing. I managed about 600 words of fiction, making it my 140th consecutive day of writing. Here are two-thirds of the writers at work (the other third is busy taking pictures):

Writers at work

I headed back to the dorm at 8:15 to meet the gang for breakfast. We once again walked over to the Turtle Rock cafe. The weather was just about perfect and we once again sat outside, eating our breakfasts and talking. It was wonderful. And not just the weather. There is a camaraderie that is growing within the group. Writing is a lonely business and is a wonderful just to be able to talk to other writers about writing, because you are talking to people who know. They’ve been through the same things you have and have complete empathy. And you can learn a lot from them, too.

Lectures started at 10 today, and as it turned out, today was a kind of brass tacks day for science fiction writers. We began the day learning about exoplanets, which meant starting the day with binary stars. Binary stars rotate around a common center of gravity and can occlude one another when seen from earth. This occlusion is one way in which exoplanets are discovered (it’s called the “transit method”). Getting exoplanets right is a very practical matter for science fiction writers because we often write stories set on worlds that are not within the solar system. There was a time when we had no idea if such planets even existed. We now know different (there are over 3,000!) and it’s useful to have real information about them.

After a short break, we went downstairs for a lab on planet hunting. We learned to read the data from the light output of stars and so we went to this lab room which had computers for all of us, and set about using a website called, a citizen science project, to attempt to classify stars and identify possible occlusions. This was a lot of fun, to say nothing of practical. And, as it so happened, one of our group, Doug Dechow, discovered a star that had a very regular occlusion–and it further turned out that he was the first to identify them. So who knows, maybe Launchpad 2013 will have discovered another exoplanet.

When that lab was over–no one really wanted for it to be over because it was too much fun–it was lunchtime and we headed to the cafeteria.

LP Lunch

After the lecture we had a break and then headed over to another building for a demonstration of astonomical image processing by astronomer Chip Kobulnicky. The room we were in had computers for each of us to use. The computers had software for image processing, as well as some images from both Hubble and the University of Wyoming. The photos were taken in several different filters and the software is used to combine and manipulate the results.

Chip is an animated guy and you can tell from his enthusiasm just how much he loves astronomy. Chip explained how the CCD cameras that take pictures of stars work. The cameras in our phones are the same type of camera and work in the same way. The way the camera functions affect the quality of the images, and Chip explained the “noise” that can creep into the photos. We looked at raw images from the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as images taken here at the university. Chip then showed us how to use the software to combine images taken in different filters, and how to adjust them in different ways to get the maximum amount of information out of them. After playing around with the images, here is the results I got:

Image processing

The image processing class gave us a real sense of how astronomy is done. We also got to see raw images, with all of their flaws included. It is amazing how much cleanup work takes place on some of these images to produce the posters of amazing Hubble views of the universe.

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Launchpad Day 2: Sex In Space and Other Interesting Scientific Tidbits

Even though we seem to start late each morning (on Day 2, we did not get started until 10 am!) we pack in full days at Launchpad. Yesterday was a prime example. We got started with lectures at 10 am and we didn’t really finish until after 10 pm. And although lectures started late, my day still began early…

I was up at 5 am and after a shower1 I wrote up the Day 1 blog post, posted this week’s Going Paperless post, and did some fiction writing. All told, I wrote something like 3,700 words in the morning. As we did on Monday, Chez Brenchley, Doug Farren and I hiked over to the student union at 7 am to write. We sat at the same table and all three of us typed away. I stayed until 8:15, when I headed back to the dorm to meet up with a group that was going to breakfast at the Turtle Rock cafe.

The cafe was on the other side of campus and took a leisurely morning walk in that direction. Once there, we found seats out on the patio. The weather was gorgeous and we all sat around eating our breakfasts and posting recursive pictures of ourselves posting pictures to Instagram:

Turtle Rock

Memories of Pacific Rim still lingered fresh on our minds so there was more discussion of the awfulness of that movie2, but mostly we sat, and ate, and chatted, and soaked up the sun. We weren’t too concerned about being late to our first lecture at 10 am because our instructor, Christian Ready, was right there at breakfast with us.

Eventually, we did meander back toward our lecture hall for our first lecture of the day, this one on the electomagnetic spectrum, presented by Andria Schwortz. The lecture covered different types of radiation (light, nuclear radiation, etc.) and involved a handful of Greek letters that seemed unusually difficult to make on my Chromebook. We discussed wave-particle duality, frequency, wavelength, energy, visible light and color, atmospheric windows, false color images (which aren’t really false). It was a crash-course, but it was very interesting and we’d have some practical applications later in the day that would make it easier to understand.

We ate lunch in the cafeteria, all of us sitting at a long table together and chatting about various experiences at conventions and people we’d met. It was a good lunch, and afterwards, we headed to the physical sciences building for our first activity. Here, we learned how to identify a gas from its spectrum. We did it with a continuous spectrum and emission spectra (it was a little more complicated to do absorption spectra). This was a lot of fun and we all really got into it. For those wondering what these spectra look like, here is a continuous spectrum for incandescent light (you can see the spectrum to either side of the light):


I had a blast doing this activity and I think everyone else did as well.

I should mention at this point one usual thing that took place during the day. It seems that at some point, Andy Romine acquired a towel. For a period of several hours, wherever we went on campus, this towel went with him. I know this sounds odd, and very, well, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy-esque. And perhaps you don’t believe me. So here is the proof, Andy with his towel:

Andy Romine

After the lab activity we had a short break where several of us went to the Classroom Building to look for something with caffeine to drink, but the cafe there was closed. Eventually, I found a soda machine.

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  1. Dorm showers, man. It’s a small step up from showering at the gym.
  2. Relative awfulness, I suppose.

Launchpad Day 1: Space is Big… And So Are Robots

The first official day of Launchpad was a lot of fun. Several early-birds, including myself, Chaz Brenchley and Doug Farren headed over to the university commons, where the wireless connectivity was better, and where, rumor had it, the food and coffee places opened at 7am. The rumor was not quite true. The commons were, indeed, open, but they didn’t start serving until 7:30. We spent most of our time there writing. It is amazing how quiet three professional writers can be when sitting together at the same table, concentrating on their writing.

Our first instruction began at 9:30 am, which happens to be the earliest we’ll be starting all week. This seemed late to me, but astronomers are night owls and early morning is a foreign concept to them, I suppose. Mike Brotherton started with introductions. He talked about how and why Launchpad was conceived, and what goals he had for the program. He introduced our other instructors, including Christian Ready and Andria Schwortz. We learned that Christian worried long years over his career choice: either astronomer or UFOlogist. Ultimately he chose the former. He explained this was because, well, he was worried that he and the aliens might not get along as well as he’d like. Astronomy was therefore safer for the aliens.

Andria introduced herself. She is getting a Ph.D. in astronomer and education and had interesting and amusing things to say about Clan of the Cave Bear and The Dragonriders of Pern.

When Andria was done, the attendees all gave brief introductions. We learned, for instance that Liz Argall is originally from Austrilia, which gave her an unfair advantage when talking about seasons later in the day.

Finally, we took a pre-test, which consisted of 24 questions. Here is one sample:

17. When the sun reaches the end of its life, what will happen to it?

a. It will turn into a black hole
b. It will explode destroying Earth
c. It will lose its outer layers, leaving its core behind
d. It will not die due to its mass
e. It will retire to Florida and consume blue-planet specials each night for dinner1.

The idea here is to provide some analysis to see how well Launchpad improves attendees knowledge of astronomy. We will take this same test again when we finish up Launchpad. I’m a little nervous about this. I don’t want to be the first Launchpad attendee ever to score better on the pre-test than the post-test.

Mike Brotherton gave our first proper lecture which was on the scale of the cosmos. The lecture can be summed up as follows (Mike had this on an introductory slide):

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it s. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemsist, but that’s just peanuts to space.” — Douglas Adams, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, 1979

The theme for the day became space is big. This later morphed into robots are big, but we haven’t quite gotten there yet.

Actually, this was a good lecture to set the framework for everything else to come. It gave us a good notion of just how big space is (it’s really big). Mike demonstrated this by going through 12 steps, starting with a 16 x 16m square, and jumped out by a factor of 100 every step. By the time we got to step 3, for instance, we could see the whole damn planet. By step 6 we at about 100 AUs, or the entire solar system. At step 9 we were at 1,700 light years, or the extended solar neighborhood. Finally, at step 12, we were at the entire universe. Christian emphaiszed the point in a lecture later in the day, when he demonstrated that if the sun was a yellow ball on the roof of the Classroom Building (remember the Classroom Building?) the Oort cloud at the edge of the solar system would be as far away as the border of Mexico. And the nearest star would be in Hawaii.

At this point we took a break for lunch, because, as you might imagine, the scale of the universe makes one ravenous. We didn’t just eat lunch, we ate big lunches. Here are some of the Launchpad classmate during a break:


After lunch we continued with a lecture by Andria on the seasons and phases of the moon. This was interesting because it led to the first discussions of how what we were learning might be applied to science fiction. Discussion of the seasons on Earth (caused by the axial tilt and the angle at which light from the sun hits the Earth) led to discussions of astronomical scenarios that might account for the weather conditions in Westeros. This led into further discussions of things like circumbinary star system and all kinds of fascinating configurations.

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  1. Okay, this wasn’t really on the quiz

Launchpad Day 0: Welcome to Wyoming

I arrived in Laramie, Wyoming yesterday, along with all of my other fellow Launchpad attendees, in preparation for the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop, which actually starts today. Yesterday was more of a travel and getting acquainted day. And it was a lot of fun.

My flight was not too early, so my Sunday morning started out pretty much as usual. Kelly and the kids took me to the airport, and the Little Man in particular had a bit of a tough time saying goodbye. He knew I was going on a trip, but I don’t think it sunk in until I got out of the car at the airport. Actually, this is the longest time I’ve been away from both kids since they were born, and it was a little heart-wrenching, although I tried not to show it. I didn’t want to upset the Little Man any more than he was already upset.

My flight took me to Denver. It was an uneventful flight, and blessedly short, as I’ve grown tired of those long flights across the country that seem to drag on endlessly. I upgraded my flight, so I at least had leg room and a decent meal on the plane:

Airplane breakfast

I arrived at Denver International a little early. Attendees were being driven up to Laramie from the airport and so we were all meeting in front of the Burger King on the food court. It was here that I first met several of my fellow attendees, including Chaz Brenchley, Jenn Brissett, Claudine Griggs, Andrew Romine, Jeri Smith-Ready, Christian Ready (not an attendee but an instructor), and Jennifer Campbell-Hicks.

I ended up riding up to Laramie with Christian and Jeri Smith-Ready, Chaz Brenchley, and Andy Romine. The drive took about two hours and we talked shop, talked movies, talked Evernote, and even managed to catch some scenery as we drove1.


When we arrived at the University of Wyoming, Laramie campus, we met the rest of the attendees. These included Brenda Clough, Jay O’Connell, Liz Argall, Caren Gussoff, Doug Farren, Douglas Dechow, and Anna Leahy. Mike Brotherton, the Man Behind Launchpad was also there to greet us. Last, but not least, we also met Andria Schwortz, who will be one of our instructors, and who graciously served as our tour guide around the campus.

All of the writers attending Launchpad are being housed in the dorms, so we checked into the dorm and were assigned our rooms, and we were given our meal cards, for we are eating our lunches and dinners in the dorm cafeteria. It has been more than 21 years since I last slept in a dorm. Here is what my room looked like when I first found it:

My dorm room

We ate dinner together in the dorm cafeteria and that was an exercise in nostalgia. I worked in the dorm cafeteria at my school all four years I was there. The food was good but the company and conversation was even better. There was a lot of shop talk, and I think we scared Andria with our inside baseball of the science fiction world.

As if to repay us, Andria took us on a tour of the campus after dinner. We saw where we’d be having our lectures, and where we’d be doing some our activities. And we got to see lots of the campus, which is really quite beautiful.

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  1. We also got to meet an incredibly friendly Wyoming State Trooper, but that is a story for another time.

The Art of Michael Whelan


I was browing my table-top book, The Art of Michael Whelan, this evening. I first got the book in my senior year in college, I believe, which would have been 1993-1994. I scraped together what spare pennies I had to buy the book because I was (and am) a huge fan of Michael Whelan’s work. I am particularly fond of the art he did for Isaac Asimov’s Forward the Foundation.

There is something about being a writer–and a science fiction writer specifically–that is surreal. As I was flipping through the book, I was also recalling the Nebula Weekend banquet from 2011. Kelly and I attended and among the people seated at our table for dinner was Michael Whelan and his wife. Kelly was pregnant with the Little Miss at the time, and she and Michael Whelan’s wife spent the entire dinner talking about kids.

I spent most of my dinner in a daze.

Sitting directly across from me at the table was Michael Whelan. At the table, everyone chatted about ordinary things, but I was unusually quiet. I remember, quite clearly, thinking, “I am sitting at a dinner table with Michael Whelan. I remembered thinking about the young adult I was–really just a kid–at 21 or 22 years old–who’d spent what few pennies he could scrounge to buy this wonderful book of art. I remembered how I would sit on the bed in my apartment, flipping through the book, daydreaming what it would be like to be a Real Science Fiction Writer, hoping that it would be possible, but never quite daring to believe it would be possible.

And there I was, at the Nebula Award banquet, sitting a the same table as the guy who made all of that breath-taking art. I think it was that moment that it began to sink in, that I was a science fiction writer, and that one of the benefits of being a science fiction writer, one of those benefits that I never really considered, was being able to hang out with these demigods I’d grown up with in books.

Writing is a lonely business, but the perks make it all worthwhile.

Worldcon 2013 in San Antonio

Since I mentioned vacations in the previous post, I should also mention that I will be at Worldcon in San Antonio this year. I’m looking forward to it for 3 reasons:

  1. I’ll get to see friends, hang out, try to avoid talking shop, but get sucked into it anyway.
  2. San Antonio is a great city and the convention is in a great location, right on the Riverwalk.
  3. I am not participating in any programming!

This will be the first convention I’ve been to in a couple of years in which I am not a participant in the programming. It is a relief. I want to go and have a good time. I like being on panels, particularly ones for beginning writers, but I’m really looking forward to attending a Worldcon without the pressure of panels or readings.

I already have my membership, my plane tickets and my hotel room. All I need to do is get there. It should be a blast!

Longing to Return to My Vacation in the Golden Age

For some reason, views of my Vacation in the Golden Age posts have skyrocketed over the last several days. A lot of the traffic seems to derive from this post on MetaFilter. Seeing all of the traffic and some of the discussion has got me yearning to return to my Vacation in the Golden Age. Would I but have the time.

Fiction writing is going pretty well for me now (yesterday was 108 consecutive days of writing). And I’m picking up more nonfiction work. I’ve had nonfiction articles published in Lightspeed and Analog this year. I have a nonfiction column coming out in Blue Shift magazine, and it looks like I may have another nonfiction piece in a magazine later this year. Between the fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as the day job, the reading I do for my book review column for InterGalactic Medicine Show, and spending time with the family, there just isn’t time right now to squeeze in reading for my Vacation posts.

But I am not giving up. They will continue at some point. Many people dream of winning the lottery. I don’t play the lottery. Instead, I dream of becoming a fulltime writer. When and if that ever happens, I suspect my day will be structured differently and I may be able to return to the posts then, if not sooner.

Still, it is nice to see the posts getting some attention.

My Love Affair with Writing Stories Has Just Begun; My Love Affair with the Inside Baseball of SF/F Has Come to an End

I don’t know if other writers were like me, but when I first decided I wanted to be a writer, part of it was driven by some innate desire to tell stories, and part of it was driven by, what seemed to me, to be the glamor of being a science fiction writer. I’d read a lot of science fiction, and I’d read about the lives of the people who wrote science fiction. The stories they told made the life of a science fiction writer seem somehow glamorous1 and exciting to me.

After I sold my first story, back in 2007, this interest in the backstage goings-on of the science fiction world increased. I started attending conventions. I started talking to other writers and editors about the “inside baseball” of the writing world, and I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that it seemed that my fascination with this world that I’d come into–the world of SF/F/H–overtook my enjoyment of the simple act of telling stories. This fascination probably reached its peak in late 2011/early 2012 and if I were to attempt to plot out this fascination of mine with the inside baseball of SF/F/H, it would look something like this:

Inside Baseball

This fascination of mine with the inside baseball–or shop talk–of the SF/F/H world has pretty much burned itself out. I think there are several reasons for this, the first and foremost of which is that something is always more fascinating where you are outside of it, as opposed to being part of it. We are fascinated by the lives of movie stars in part because we are not movie stars. Were I to become a movie star, I can imagine a graph that would look somewhat similar to the one above. Once I became a writer and got to see behind the curtain, things became a lot less fascinating.

Another important reason is that I was surprised by how little of the shop talk seems to focus on telling good stories. There was some of this, but it was a distressingly small fraction of what I saw going on behind the scenes. Instead, I saw the typical cliques forming, and discussions that were always polarizing. And although I participated in these discussions myself, I think I quickly grew tired of yet another discussion of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, or whether or not awards were good things. These were traps, all of them, that sapped away time from the thing I had come to do in the first place: telling good stories2.

I began to realize that, while I had set out to be a science fiction writer, the path I had really taken was one that would lead me to become a science fiction insider. “Where was the storytelling in all of this?” I’d ask myself. I considered–of all of the time I spent in the SF/F/H world, reading, attending conventions, blogging, etc., how much of that time was spent actually writing, and telling stories? I sketched out a chart to try to illustrate this:

Time Writing Stories

It wasn’t really until this year–when my love affair with the inside baseball of SF/F/H finally began to wane, that I really began spending the bulk of my time trying to write stories, trying to improve my craft and tell the best possible story I could. If you look at the trends together–the inside baseball and the writing trends combined, my time spent in each of them over the last six years or so looks as follows:

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  1. The idea of what is glamorous is relative, I suppose. Many writers lived in squalor, but were among the finest storytellers around.
  2. Or, at least, trying to.

Guest Post: “Created Words in Science Fiction — how do they work?” by Juliette Wade

I am currently away on an Internet Vacation. I’ll be back online on March 31. Today, in my absence, as a special treat, I am so pleased to have a guest post by my friend, and fellow Analog-writer, Juliette Wade In addition to being a wonderful writer of stories, Juliette is also a linguist by training. I urge you to check our her website, TalkToYoUniverse, and follow her on twitter, @JulietteWade. And with that said, let me hand it off to Juliette.

One of science fiction’s defining characteristics is the creation of new words to describe  worlds. While television and movies have seen a recent trend toward the creation of entire alien languages, word creation is vitally important also for written stories, even those set in worlds only slightly different from our own. I thought I’d take a look at some of the kinds of words which are created for science fictional contexts, and discuss how they work.

Created words can be arranged on a scale between most and least familiar. At the most familiar end are words from English which have simply been re-purposed for use with novel concepts. At the other end are completely alien words. Naturally, the further toward the alien end of the scale the words are, the more difficulty a reader will have in understanding them. Eventually, a narrative too full of alien words can become impenetrable, so my own rule of thumb says that if you want to create a sense of familiarity between the reader and the story, use as few alien words as possible, and if you want to create a sense of alienness, use more. If we look at examples from science fiction stories, we find that authors don’t use only one kind of word. They mix words from different areas of the scale.

Let’s get specific.

You typically know an alien word when you see one. They look like this: “Na’vi” (James Cameron’s Avatar) “Ariekei” (Embassytown by China Mieville) “Dirokime” (A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge). They bear no linguistic relation to English, other than being written in English characters. Luckily, English speakers do still have ways to pull meaning out of them.

We use our sense of onomatopoeia, our sense of the “feel” of sounds. We’re familiar with onomatopoeia from words like “bow-wow,” and “cock-a-doodle-doo,” but also from words like “drip” and “drop,” “gallumph,” “pitter-patter” and “smash.” You can read my article about onomatopoeia at this link: . We find that, even across languages, voiced sounds like “b” “d” “g” etc. tend to occur in actions or sounds with greater intensity or lower pitch, while their unvoiced equivalents “p” “t” “k” tend to occur in actions with lesser intensity. It’s no surprise that when I created an alien word for a large waterfall, I decided to call it “sàth,” using a wide-open vowel and two unvoiced fricatives (s and th) that make you hear the rushing of water. I didn’t plan that word consciously, but imagine how much smaller that waterfall would have seemed if I’d named it “sìth” — and if I’d called it “dìt,” it wouldn’t have seemed very waterfall-like at all. We also use resemblance between words to evaluate potential meanings, as when we see a word like Frank Herbert’s musical instrument, the “baliset” (Dune). Inside that word live the echoes of familiar musical words — “balalaika,” “quartet,” or maybe “quintet” — helping to give the word its “feel.”

Beyond those hints, a reader must rely on the author to teach the meaning of the word. This brings me to another type of science-fictional semantics, all the way on the opposite end of the scale. Sometimes authors will take English words that we know very well, and change their significance for alien worlds. Take the word “Net”, or “Hosts” for example. The trick with using these types of words is that they can’t be too specific to our own world. The vast distributed computer system that extends across the galaxy in Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is called the Net; it wouldn’t make any sense to call it the World Wide Web, or even the Web, because that term has come to seem archaic in our own world, and Vinge’s Net is anything but archaic. Frank Herbert uses “Voice” to describe a tone of voice that creates a visceral command in the mind of its hearers. China Mieville uses the word “Hosts” to describe the alien residents of the planet on which his fictional human embassy is located. In doing so he defines the social relationship that the aliens bear to the humans, one of hospitality and also of tolerance, while leaving room for the aliens to be powerful and inscrutable.

A word becomes generic when it has been heard in so many different contexts that no single context wins an overriding association with it. That makes it an ideal candidate for extension to an alien environment. As with fully alien words, the author’s job is to teach readers what the word means in that science fictional environment. You can even see authors telling readers to look out for extra or different meaning when they use Capitalization, which suggests Greater or Alternate Significance.

So what other features can put us on the lookout for words that signify new concepts in a science fictional world? When we see alien words, our simple lack of understanding tells us to look for a new meaning; with redefined English words, capitalization can be a hint that pricks up our semantic senses. In both of those cases, we’re looking for the author to teach the new significance using surrounding context. However, those aren’t our only tools. There are two other word types I’d like to mention here:

  1. Derivative words
  2. Translation-derived words
  3. Compound coinages

These are all very common in futuristic science fiction, because they are clearly words from our own world, yet they can be quickly understood on the basis of their derivations.

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Archive Daily Science Fiction Stories to Evernote via IFTTT

I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but today, I created an IFTTT recipe that archives the Daily Science Fiction stories I receive via email each weekday to Evernote. My recipe assumes you use Gmail, but I imagine it would be easy enough to riff of this recipe for other email clients. For this recipe to work, you need to head over to the Daily Science Fiction website and subscribe to the daily story. It’s free!

Daily Science Fiction is a great source of short science fiction stories. There is a story each day of the week, delivered by email. The story appears on their website a week later. Many great writers (and stories) have appeared in Daily SF, including stories by many friends and writers I know. I also had a story in Daily Science Fiction, “Lost and Found” back in October 2012. If you are not a fan of science fiction and fantasy or you are curious about what the fuss is about, Daily SF is a great place to start because the stories are generally short and diverse in their genre and theme.

What’s great about the recipe is that it saves me a few steps each day. I usually refile the Daily SF mail when I get it and read it later. Now, I can skip that step entirely because the story will show up in my “to-read” saved search in Evernote (which looks for any notes tagged “to-read”) that I review at least once a day.

You can get find my recipe here.