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Tuesday
Aug262014

TO BE, OR NOT TO BE...LITERARY

In my last post I mused about the plight of SF magazine On Spec losing some significant grant money, and whether or not it was partly due to a seemingly eternal stigma borne by genre fiction as compared to literary fiction.

I’m a fan of both. I love literary fiction for its deep insight into Life and the evocative language of its prose. I love SF for its startling ideas and the breadth of its imagination. And I especially love it when I discover both “genres” displaying the qualities of the other. That’s happening more and more. There may have been a time when the prose of SF was a bit rough and tumble and the characters somewhat flatly sketched. Even now there’s a lot of space opera that’s basically action/adventure and doesn’t pretend to be anything more (though there exceptions to everything). There’s also a growing wealth of fiction that sets out to do everything literary fiction does, but with more flash.

In Canadian literary circles the immigrant experience has been very big for a few decades. Why not? There’s a lot to be learned about the human condition through the story of the outsider—it reveals the new, while shining fresh light onto the old. I can’t think of a genre that has more stories of the outsider than science fiction. Are the observations somehow less profound, the emotions less valid, the insight less sharp because the outsider is an extraterrestrial among humans, a human among aliens, or a man/woman out of his/her own time? Certainly not. In fact, I would argue that the revelations can be even more enriching, since they not only explore the vagaries of life as we know it can be, but also life as we can barely imagine it to be.

I’m blown away by the exquisitely well-chosen words and phrases of writers like David Mitchell and China Miéville. But recently reading Bowl Of Heaven and Shipstar by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, I found many tasty passages there too. And they’re considered hard science fiction writers. While literary authors are praised for opening our eyes to both the sweeping vistas and the exquisite minutiae of our world, are such descriptions less magical because they involve objects that only exist in the mind’s eye? Are observations of human nature less poignant because the mirror being held up is a creature of scientific extrapolation or complete fantasy? I don’t see why.

Maybe bookstores will always need to restrict certain kinds of stories to specific shelves for the sake of efficient commerce. For book readers to allow their minds to remain forever bound by such artificial constraints would be a sad state of affairs indeed.

Let’s rejoice in the richness of all fiction, and leave the labelling behind!

Wednesday
Aug132014

ON SPEC--GOOD NEWS AND BAD NEWS

Good news this week is the release of the anthology Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories: An On Spec 25th Anniversary Retrospective by Tyche Books. It includes my story “A Taste Of Time” (in fact, the blueberries in the bottom right corner of the cover would be mine, I believe). To have a story chosen as one of the best representatives of such a high quality magazine from the past twenty-five years is an incredible honour. Once I’ve had a chance to read the anthology, I’ll certainly put a detailed review on my Goodreads page, but frankly, as a reader, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this book sight unseen. It’s guaranteed to be a showcase of Canadian speculative fiction without many equals, and that means a juicy read, to say the least.

That brings me to the bad news of the past week, the news that the Canada Council for the Arts has turned down On Spec’s application for funding for 2015. This means a loss of up to $25,000 to cover production costs (including paying writers). Certainly a shock to the Canadian SF community (and very unfortunate timing, to have the elation over the launch of the anthology punctured by such a disappointing decision). But even harder to understand was the jury’s criticism of the magazine’s quality of writing and production values.

On Spec holds a special place in my heart because my very first short story sale was to them, a story called “The Wind Man”. That was a tremendous validation because I had great respect for the quality of writing that On Spec consistently displayed. In fact, “The Wind Man” didn’t end up being my first published story because On Spec’s commitment to thorough proofing and editing took more time than other publications. On Spec doesn’t just supply the mind-expanding ideas and lustrously-imagined landscapes of good science fiction and fantasy, but also the richness of literary prose. For the Canada Council jury to criticize the quality of writing in the magazine is mystifying. Some of my compatriots in Canadian science fiction have suggested it’s because of an age-old prejudice that genre writing of any kind cannot rise to the level of “literary fiction”. I hope it isn’t that. One would think that in light of work by David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, and so many others, such a bias would once and for all have been put to rest.

I haven’t submitted to On Spec in some time because I’m concentrating on long fiction these days, but I would do so again in a heartbeat, and my subscription to the magazine is my best endorsement. If you’re not familiar with On Spec or Canadian SF in general, give it a try. A year’s subscription is a bargain. Or buy the anthology. Or both.

I don’t want to envision a future without On Spec.

Wednesday
Aug062014

THE BEST FUEL IS NO FUEL, IMPOSSIBLE OR NOT

There was quite a stir a week ago as NASA confirmed the success of an engine that runs without fuel. Your first reaction will be, “Where can I get one of those for my car?!” So perhaps I should call it a propulsion method with no apparent propellant. And it might be usable for spacecraft, but your Chevy is going to have to keep on sucking gas.

The first version of this system was something called the EmDrive by its British inventor, Roger Shawyer. The EmDrive produces thrust from electrical energy by bouncing microwaves inside a sealed container. Physicists said such a thing was impossible because it violated the law of conservation of momentum: to get something moving, you have to exert a force, whether it’s feet on pavement or hot rocket exhaust sprayed in the opposite direction—you gain momentum by taking it from something else. But Shawyer wasn’t deterred. He even got support from a Chinese team that built an EmDrive in 2013 and found that it produced enough thrust to potentially move a satellite around in space.

Non-Chinese physicists still weren’t buying it until an American named Guido Fetta built a microwave thruster of his own, persuaded NASA to test it out, and on July 30th, 2014 the NASA team unveiled its results: impossible or not, the microwave thruster did produce thrust using electrical energy alone—no propellant. The amount of thrust was much less than the Chinese results (Shawyer blames this on Fetta’s design) but still undeniable. The NASA scientists only reported their methods and results—they did not choose to speculate about how the thing works. But as Wired magazine points out, they implied that the microwave thruster may be pushing against the “quantum vacuum plasma”: a froth of the universe’s tiniest particles that, according to quantum mechanics, pop into and out of existence constantly in empty space. In that case, it’s not violating any laws. It’s also not impossible.

This is big news. One of the greatest challenges involved in space travel is the mass of propellant needed for any type of rocket engine. To be able to do without propellant is huge. An EmDrive thruster could be powered by solar energy or presumably, for interstellar travel, a nuclear reactor. The thrust produced is small, but steady, and over the vast distances of space it’s steady that wins the race.

To me, the aspect of the news that’s even more delightful is that it’s yet another instance of someone proving that the “impossible” is no such thing. I realize that the discovery of the laws under which the universe operates is at the core of advancing human knowledge. But when will people stop using the word impossible? I couldn’t begin to list all of the “impossible” things that have proven to be not only possible, but sometimes the next law against which other impossible things are measured.

For now, our best scientists still believe that such things as faster-than-light travel and time travel are impossible. As a science fiction writer, I don’t dare accept that because it would spoil too many great stories! But more than that, I’ve come to see that “impossible” just means “not yet” or perhaps “not within our current understanding”. I’d strongly urge scientists to remove the word from their vocabulary—there’s just too good a chance that they’ll eventually have to eat it.

Tuesday
Jul222014

APOLLO: THE LITTLE CAPSULE THAT COULD

Remembering humankind’s first landing on the moon forty-five years ago this week stirs a mix of emotions. To an SF-geek-from-birth like me it was a dream come true. I watched the landing “live” on TV (it was also the first time my parents let me drink wine!) It seemed like the human race’s colonization of the solar system had begun. In lots of ways we now live in a science fiction world of personal communicators, video conferencing, laser weapons, and stun guns (tasers, not phasers), but we haven’t colonized any other planets. No-one’s even been back to the moon since 1972. Space travel hasn’t ground to a halt, but it has stayed close to home.

It’s been said that the real impetus for the moon landings was political. These days, other than a small number of purely scientific probes, ventures into space are increasingly for economic reasons, with private enterprise becoming more and more involved. That’s not a bad thing, except that it’s bound to the vagaries of fickle market forces. Still, I’m grateful that there are entrepreneurs with enough vision to take such risks, knowing that returns on their investment are far from guaranteed. There are vastly greater amounts of money being pumped into technology to give your smartphone a bendable screen, or to let you instantly share pictures of your cat’s latest antics with thousands of your closest friends, because that’s where the profits are. Much has been made of the fact that the USB stick you use as a keychain is more powerful than the computers that navigated Apollo 11 to the moon and back. Think how much better we could do these days if we really wanted to.

Too expensive? Detractors have always pointed out that the money spent on the space program (more than $100 billion in today’s dollars for Apollo and its predecessors) could have been put to better use alleviating poverty and sickness on Earth. I find it far more objectionable that six members of the Walton family (Walmart) have a net worth of more than $140 billion.

It’s become a cliché to compare the cost of space exploration to the amount of money spent on weapons, but it’s an important comparison. Because the conquest of space is about life, not death: ensuring a future for our planet and all of its inhabitants. Transplanting manufacturing and resource extraction to the asteroids and moons to ease the stress on a depleted Earth wracked by climate change. Offering new frontiers for those oppressed by overpopulation. Maybe most of all, making sure that earthly forms of life are preserved for the future. There have been at least five mass extinction events since life began on Earth—we don’t want to still be stranded here for the next one.

Politics or not, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the dusty surface of the moon, we felt that the human race had achieved something truly momentous. Was that the last time we felt that way? Is it because of changing priorities, or have large scale problems brought on a global crisis of confidence?

We need the big dreamers to come to the forefront again. Instead of “how do we keep from backsliding?” we need more “I think I can, I think I can!

Tuesday
Jul152014

HOW SMART SHOULD OUR APPLIANCES BE?

It’s pretty cool to think that someday soon our fridge will detect that we’re low on milk and alert us about it, or even order more on its own. What if it also alerts our doctor that we’re eating too much cheese and not enough veggies? What if that information gets to our insurance company? Or if the government can tell we’re cheating the employment insurance system with an unreported job, because we’re buying expensive cuts of meat?

How smart do we really want our appliances to be?

Two stories got me thinking about that this week: Google just announced that it will join with Samsung and a number of other players to form the Thread Group, a means to establish a standard protocol for the “internet of things” (IoT). Which makes excellent sense—imagine the headache if our Proctor Silex toaster can’t tell our Whirlpool fridge that the bread is stale! And a new Telus/IDC study shows that 30% of medium and large businesses in Canada plan to deploy IoT in some way within the next two years. Since the internet of things could incorporate everything from your pacemaker to health monitors on cattle to traffic sensors to home smoke alarms, and countless more devices, there’s no question that within another ten years we’ll be surrounded by “smart” objects.

My SF writer brain thinks this is outstanding. Then my everyday brain slaps me upside the head and reminds me that I can’t even keep up with all the settings on my iPhone. Am I going to actually allocate time to decide whether or not my microwave should have “Location Services” enabled and if my bathroom soap dispenser should be able to talk to my treadmill? Not going to happen. Default settings will reign, meaning someone else’s idea of what information my personal belongings should collect and who they should send it to.

Yikes. I don’t think even George Orwell would have imagined being ratted out by his electric toothbrush. Although the more likely result is that I’ll start to brush my teeth and an ad will pop up on my bathroom mirror, assuring me that I can get even more whitening power for less money if I switch to new Galaxy toothpaste with Quantumcleen®.

The purpose of the internet of things is to make the products we use more efficient, and more useful, to make us better informed for the choices we face, to make our lives run more smoothly. It certainly has the potential to do all those things and more. As long as we know what we want and make our desires clearly heard. Right now, it’s big business that’s driving the move toward IoT, with the cooperation of governments, and we have a pretty good idea that what they want isn’t always what we want.

I don’t dare think about what could happen if our devices become even smarter. ‘Cause if my vibrating La-Z-Boy and my entertainment system decide to go on strike until I upgrade my cable subscription…I’m turning Amish.