Saturday, February 6, 2016

What I Read in January 2016

New Year, new collection of awesome short fiction to peruse. As always, this column is meant to shine a spotlight on a few stories I really enjoyed from the previous month. Clarkesword, in particular, had a selection of great stories. 
  1. Extraction Order by Rich Larson. I loved his short story (also published in Clarkesworld) 'Meshed’ and I also loved this. Intense gritty military sci if. Not sure I fully buy the standard alien spore threat but the atmospherics here make the whole thing work. 
  2. Everyone Loves Charles by Bao Shu translated by Ken Liu. Amazing Chinese novella. “Everyone Loves Charles” the kind of story Philip K Dick might right if he grew up with social media. Bao Shu’s style is talky but always fascinating. Probably one of the best of these translations from Storycom.
  3. The Dark Age by Jason Hurley. This charming heart-felt hibernation story appears in Lightspeed Magazine. An astronaut preparing for a generations long journey to the stars learns that he will be a father. The cruelty of this scenario is softened somewhat by the depth of the emotions on display, the sincerity of the pain.
  4. All the World When It is Thin by Kristi DeMeester.  My favorite story from the most recent issue of The Dark. Beautiful work with some of the themes of Shirley Jackson’s “We Always Lived in Castles.” Here a strong weird fiction element tells of a family knitted together in tragedy and town torn asunder by that loss.
  5. Maiden Thief by Melissa Marr. All sorts of bleak things going on in this one from Tor.com. Very little magic but enough fantastical overtones to create a sense of otherworldly menace. Not particularly suspenseful because we have a good idea of the identity of the Maiden Thief by the beginning of the story. But still there’s enough mystery here to draw the reader along. Very effective.

Monday, January 25, 2016

New Story Announcement: The Mystagogue in Cyclopean Issue#1

My story "The Mystagogue," a tale of subterranean dread and outsider art appears in the first issue of the new Cyclopean digital magazine. I'm honored to have my work included and I can't wait to see what other stories are in the first issue.

Thank you to Cyclopean Press for selecting my story!

Also, I want to take a moment to mention the cover art on this issue is awesome. It reminds me a little bit of a Simon Bisley Doom Patrol cover which really strikes the right mood for cosmic horror and weird fiction.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Expanse (SyFy Channel): Boosting the Signal

The Expanse is the new, heavily promoted, space opera television show on the SyFy channel, part of its renewed embrace of, you know, SCIENCE FICTION. I have been talking up this show for purely selfish reasons. I like the story and I want to see it reach the end of the first book.


Characters from the SyFy Channel series, "The Expanse" from the left; Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), Det. Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo)

I saw this morning that the past few episodes have not had the audience that SyFy was looking for. That's a shame and I hope that the cold-eyes execs can hold on for a little while because a show this good is absolutely going to find an audience. 

I'm going to dispense with any arguments about how you, a SFF fan, should watch this show out of some sense of obligation. The fact is, although The Expanse is unlike any other show on television right now, we're not exactly living through a SFnal drought. There's something out there for everyone and if this gritty take on Mundane Science Fiction isn't your cup of tea then I think that's fine. Go support the shows you love. Perhaps the notion that there should be ONE channel that actually shows science fiction and fantasy is outmoded anyway.

I will say that while not perfect, The Expanse has plenty of virtues. What The Expanse does well, it does VERY well.

So let's focus on that. First off, the world building on this show is very interesting. Based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym used by a pair of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank), the show has a dense, lived-in feel that obeys its own set-up and internal rules. James S.A. Corey have rejected the term 'hard SF' for their series and although both the books and show spend a great deal time making its depictions of Newtonian forces feel real, this should not be confused for "The Martian." Although not discussed in the show, the central conceit of the Expanse universe is that mankind discovered a reactionless drive permitting free travel around the solar system without the need to lug around enormous reservoirs of fuel. This is not hand-waving on the level of warp speed or transporters but it is important to make this distinction.

Unleashed from rigorous thermodynamics, The Expanse brings us a solar system filled with human settlement. Various colonies exist on the Moon, Mars, and Belt asteroids. Mars has developed along quasi-libertarian lines, while the various Belt colonies are the oppressed underclass of the solar system. Belters, as they call themselves, are squeezed by the two big powers of Earth and Mars, and by the relentless pressures of survival in low-gee, resource poor environments. The show does a great job bringing the Ceres station to life, filling it with squalid claustrophobia and simmering rebellion.

The rebellion sub-plot and the cold war between Mars and Earth is the other great strength of this show. Similar to Game of Thrones (a book Corey's work is often compared to) there are no good guys here, no absolute villains. There are many shades of grey and plenty of hard moral dilemmas but a viewer would also find genuinely interesting depictions of interplanetary politics and warfare. The two main characters of the show, Thomas Jane's Detective Joe Miller of Ceres and Steven Strait's Jim Holden of the Ice Hauler Canterbury, each provide a distinct perspective on these tensions without really overlapping much. This is clever because it provides an illusion of considerable breadth in a series only a few episodes in. I've seen this show described as Babylon 5 told from a dock-worker's perspective, which gives you both a sense of its scale and its scrappy, hard-luck attitude.

Lastly, the show handles suspense extremely well. Whether dealing with an abandoned freighter, sneak attacks by mysterious space ships, a slow leak of air in an escape pod, or simply getting into a secure vault, the show displays a mastery of the slow-build. The show hit an early high point in the fourth episode "CBQ" which I can't really describe without spoiling key plot developments. Suffice to say, The Expanse has its own unique and thrilling take on space combat.

Knowing the show will get a second season, I want the show to focus on these strengths and addresses some its flaws. The big one for me is the Earth subplot centering on Chrisjen Avasarala, the UN Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration's political maneuvering. I have never seen Shoreh Aghdashloo's work so I'll reserve judgement on her talent. Her presence here is underwhelming. I'm not sure if it's a script problem or a mis-match between the actress and character, but many of her scenes are wooden and exposition-laden. She is a character I don't remember appearing in Leviathan Wakes but one that might have been imported into the television series from later novels. Assuming that's the case, perhaps this character becomes more essential later on. Right now it feels like a distraction.

I consider myself a media consumer of some patience. I stuck with Agents of Shield during its plodding first season because I had faith the show would find its way. This isn't one of those situations. The Expanse is already a much better show than AoS was then and comes from a detailed and well-structured source material. It's a show that deserves a chance. I'm hoping enough other viewers give it the benefit of doubt to allow it to reach its full potential.



Thursday, January 21, 2016

Future of Mars

This past weekend, I sat on a panel at Arisia entitled the Future of Mars. All things considered, it was a great panel, and I was happy with my contributions.

I did have a few thoughts about the panel afterwards, about what the conversation might mean, and where I’d like to take my thoughts regarding Mars in the future.

First a quick biographical note. The first story I ever wrote was about Mars but I have an ambivalent relationship with it. Not that Mars cares, being a planet, but I go back and forth on the whole idea of what happens next to this planet. Mars, as a topic of speculative fiction, is the setting that never quite leaves science fiction. We're always twenty years from going there. We always learn some new discouraging fact about the planet. Dust, perchlorates, and even the possibility of microbial life, all make the effort to reach Mars that much harder to realize

We keep talking about Mars and yet, year after year, we somehow fail to be on Mars.

To be sure, Mars is having a big couple of years. From the landing of Curiosity, to the discovery of liquid water, and the increasing amount of work to bring humans to the surface of the Red Planet, Mars is getting a well-deserved second look. Is this a place where Mankind can establish a second home? Is this a blank slate for humanity to use to take use somewhere different?

My own personal view is that Mars, as a place, has already been colonized. It was colonized mentally, psychically through the efforts of generations of speculative writers. Part of the problem in summoning up the collective will to put a person on the fourth planet is that the adventures we’ve already had there, as a species, will never be surpassed by what an exploration of Mars is actually going to be like. To put it bluntly, Mars is a very cold, nearly airless rock with very little of what human beings need to survive.

I don’t think the drive to colonize Mars ever quite survived the hit it took from the Mariner and Viking probes. Where Mars was once a dry and inhospitable world, filled with Martian cultures and ancient cities, we now have a cratered and barren wasteland. Instead of a world that presented an abstract challenge to colonization, we have a world that seems a little less suitable to human life every year.

Yet, I’m not signed up to any anti-colonization newsletter. I’ve never written a story where the point was to not go there. I follow Curiosity on Twitter and post articles about how awesome it would be to live on Mars.

Part of my fascination with Mars stems from recent writers who’ve shown how the stark, inhuman wilderness of Mars could be a compelling stage for human drama. Kim Stanley Robinson, in particular, adopted the conceit that Mars was a sterile laboratory for human experimentation. Through his Martian Trilogy, the drive to make Mars suitable for human life doesn’t only alter the planet, but also the humans that dwell upon it. Mars makes humans Martian. This is of course the same basic point of Ray Bradbury’s classic tale, Million Year Picnic, but when translated into hard sci fi, the terraforming process assumes the glory of epic poetry.

As the panel went on, I found myself meditating on a comment from +John Scalzi, a natural reaction considering I was the target of the comment.

+Nalin Ratnayake, a fellow panelist, had made the point that Mars might function as a clean slate for humanity, a place where a new type of human being could develop. He meant this both figuratively and literally, I think, pointing out that Mars could inspire new, more rational political and economic systems and also require genetic tinkering of the human species. Thinking back on all the stories and dreams that the fourth planet has gathered to it, I wondered if that past should simply be thrown aside. Perhaps our future efforts there need to pay homage to the works of creativity about Mars.

Finishing my thought, Scalzi leaned back in his chair and made a “wait-just-a-minute” grimace.

“What is an Indian or Chinese (I’m paraphrasing here, by the way) colonist going to care about our culture’s science fiction?" he asked. "Why should he care about Barsoom?"

Which is a good point. I meant what I said in an inclusive sense, that all of human civilization’s musings on Mars should be incorporated into whatever Mars becomes, but that wasn't obvious.

Nevertheless, I stand my basic point. History is forgotten at the peril of the present. I don’t think that every particle of Mars should be named after science-fiction authors, but I do think the lessons from that body of fiction have a place in the discussions about Martian colonization. Because when you get right down to it, Martian literature is about survival. How do humans survive someplace where they’re not supposed to survive?

Speculative Fiction suggests three possibilities to answer that question:

One) Humans can’t survive on Mars. For whatever reason - reduced gravity, lack of some crucial nutrient or environmental factor - humans can’t colonize the planet. This means that we really belong on this planet. Maybe that’s not such a bad realization to have.

Two) Humans can survive on Mars WAY easier than we think. Mars One has it right. We have everything we need for a colony right now. This would be great. Mankind would have a new home and would be well on its way to becoming an interstellar civilization. It's possible we'll discover unicorns there too.

Three) Humans can survive on Mars but only after considerable adaption. New technologies, new biologies, and new cultures are required before we can successfully colonize Mars. Personally I think this might be the best option of all three. If there is one lesson I drew from my research on Mars for this panel, it’s that Mars SHOULD change us. That going into space is hard and dangerous and we shouldn’t pretend anything different.

For me, the final possibility is the most compelling reason to try colonizing Mars.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Fallout 4 Eldritch Creation

I've been working for the past few weeks on my Castle Fortress around a Lovecraftian theme. It's reached the point where I've gotten most of the details settled so I thought I'd put it up for your enjoyment (or derision).

View post on imgur.com

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Arisia 2016

This past weekend, Lauren and I went to Arisia for our sixth visit to the science fiction convention. We both had an amazing time, which I’ve shared through various social medias already. Posting on Ancient Logic gives me the chance to drill down into what is so great about this convention and what I’m going to take away from it.

An explanation for this follows. Scalzi on right, me on the left. (Lauren Shamitz-Crooks 2016)
First off, John Scalzi, author of Old Man’s War and Red Shirts, was the guest of honor. Scalzi has refused to attend any convention that doesn’t have a strong anti-harassment policy in place and after holding Arisia up as an example of a convention that has done this right, he agreed to attend Arisia 2016. 

Which created a kind of super-sized Arisia experience. There were good and bad elements to this. Although my experience in the Registration line was mild, I know friends who waited an hour+ for their badges. I haven't heard the final numbers but it felt more crowded this year. On the good side, I think talented and amazing panelists were also in abundance this year. I’ve seen my fair share of panel train-wrecks, but none were in evidence at Arisia 2016.

As mentioned, I had three panels this year, every single one amazing. During the Future of Mars panel, I even had the chance to talk with the guest of honor. Prior to the panel starting I presented him with a Fentimans Dandelion and Burdock soda, because he mentioned enjoying obscure sodas. He described the taste as being like “carbonated Ricola,” which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement but isn’t a total gift fail either.

So the panel. This was actually pretty great. Mars is one of those topics I have a natural interest in because I see it as the ur-topic of much science fiction. Even when a space opera isn’t set on Mars, per se, such as Tatooine or Vulcan, it’s really just a Mars story with the name changed. The conversation was wide-ranging and knowledgeable, with great input from Nalin Ratnayake, Jeff Hect, and Scalzi. Multiple people came up to thank Ken Schneyer for his moderation of the panel, which I personally think should be archived as a ‘how-to’ on running these things. I got a chance to talk with Nalin after the panel about his work. A bleak look at the future of education called “Parched Lands” appeared in Crossed Genres two years ago, and he just released his novel about Martian colonization, “Red Soil Through Our Fingers." I’d check out both.

I also had conversations with Ken Liu, John Chu, Sarah Weintraub, and Crystal Huff in the Genre Fiction in Translation panel. Ken and John have provided me considerable enjoyment as a reader from both their own works and the exemplary work on bringing Chinese speculative fiction stories into English. In addition to getting an impressive list of work to check out, the audience also heard the convoluted tale of how Ken Liu came to translate the “Three Body Problem” from China’s beloved author Liu CiXin (reviewed last year in Ancient Logic).

Saturday was the Geeky Bellydance show, where I saw my wife perform an amazing dance as a forlorn chicken with her Kira-luna partner Wendee Abramo. For the rest of the night I got to be part of a rock star’s entourage as people played tribute to the awesomeness of this number.

I had a number of great conversations with friends old and new, which I’ll list in no particular order: Alex LaHurreau, Gillian Daniels, Matt and Rachel McComb, Melanie Griffiths, Dan Toland, and Matt Timmins. 

Also cool was the Indie Game Expo which I'm hoping comes back next year. It’s the sort of thing really expands the reach of Arisia as well as bringing in local designers and creators. I played this game called Dragoon, which I'm totally buying, where you play a dragon with the power to either gather tribute from villages or lay waste to them all. Fun mechanics and clever art design make this is a winner. 

Finally, on the last day I took part in “The End of All Things” panel with Sarah Smith and Venetia Charles. We all took turns moderating the panel and enjoyed a huge turn-out for a panel scheduled second to last on the schedule. I added a bunch of titles to my to-read list and left the con feeling exhilarated but sad. The only real bummer about an Arisia weekend is having it come to an end and knowing it’ll be a year before it happens again.



Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Alive in 2015

Reading through some of my previous year-end posts, I was struck how optimistic last year's post was. I don't remember 2014 with much fondness and yet things then were arguably better than this year. 

I think 2015 is the year when a lot people decided to give up hope in slow, steady progress. I don't have any other explanation for what transpired. The Ebola panic of 2014 has become the immigration panic, ISIS panic, and the Trump panic, and half a dozen other emergencies that have to be DEALT WITH RIGHT NOW! Then, something that does represent an actual challenge for this country, indeed the world, Global Warming brings together the entire world in an agreement that while rudimentary, lays some ground work for the future (as we know it) on this planet. That is a huge achievement that this country helped bring into being.

And yet - we're told this is a country that has lost its greatness. That this country has been humbled and defeated. 

I simply can't believe it. 

I see a country that continues to do what it always does, prioritize business over nearly every concern,  look for quick easy solutions to complex problems, and put up barriers to people we should be welcoming to this country with open-arms. 

I also see a country that continues to be what it always has been, a place that finds meaning in community and fellowship, displays of great sincerity and ingenuity, and constantly changes its demographics and beliefs and outlook.

This country refuses to agree, like it always does. 

I'm not sure what 2016 is going to be like. I have long since stopped guessing about when or if Trump is going to drop out. The fact is, a significant portion of this country likes what Trump is saying. I think they are mistaken but then again, that is why we have elections. If people I agree with cannot overcome a demagogue like Trump, if there aren't enough of us, or if we don't try hard enough, or if we aren't smart enough, then we deserve to fail. 

I don't think we are going to fail.

Yet, it was precisely the idea of failure and collapse I returned to again and again this year. I joked that this was the year of the post-apocalypse. I get maniacal about topics every once in a while. Last year it was True Detective, the year before that -Star Trek, and well, this year I got really keen on reading and watching as much as I could about the fall of human civilization. I don't have a bug-out bag, and although I subscribed to r/collapse, I'm not going to look into fallout shelters any time soon.

I tried to write up my feelings about the post-apocalypse in a previous post but in revisiting it, I see that a lot of what we mean when we write about the end of the world is what we want to keep. What is important is that we fear we might lose. The best, most popular, works of post-apocalyptic fiction put that something in peril, and then show how it arises once more. Which is fine, but it also misses something. Collapses in history have not been abrupt cataclysms. They have been accelerated periods of transition. When the Late Bronze Age civilizations of New Kingdom Egypt, Hittite Empire, and the Mycenaeans fell into hard times, it didn't mean that people stopped living in the Mediterranean basin. It meant they stopped one way of life in favor of a new, more complex form of civilization. 

If I learned anything from this year, it's that while dangers and disasters happen, they often cause the most pain when people refuse to let go of what they perceive to be indispensable. Maybe somethings are worth defending but we have to, as a country, acknowledge that other things might not be worth the trouble.