MORE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES

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In my last blog post I announced the publication of BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars, a print collection of fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy stories, some of which had been previously published in magazines and anthologies across North America, and some not. For extra interest (because I enjoy that kind of thing myself) I also wrote a bit about the first five stories’ origins, intent, and publishing history. So here’s a little about the rest of the collection.

“Tartarus Rising”: I’m a huge fan of disaster stories and apocalyptic fiction, so I was delighted when this story was chosen for an anthology called Doomology in 2011. Such high-stakes stories provide an opportunity to show the best and worst of humanity as nothing else can. Alien invasions are a dime a dozen, but what if there was a race of beings sharing the planet with us, yet clever enough to remain hidden all these centuries even from our scientific instruments? I’m pretty sure the idea for “Tartarus Rising” came from a traumatic childhood event of mine involving a mysterious stranger who suddenly appeared at a window of our house on a dark night when my parents were away. If you have a frightening memory that haunts you, write a story about it!

“Marathon of the Devil”: I’d read an article about the famous Marathon des Sables in Morocco, a grueling race that makes you question the sanity of the participants! Naturally, being an SF writer, I imagined such a thing on an alien planet. But why put yourself through something like that? Because of a deep desire to be somebody special? Just for fun, I decided to have things work out right by going all wrong.

“Body Of Opinion”: We think of memory as being a function of the brain exclusively, but there has been lots of research into genetic memory, especially lessons and behaviours learned by one generation and passed on to the next through genes. What if other memories are encoded into our DNA? Combine that thought with ever-improving organ transplantation techniques and you end up with this story about a man who discovers that his new body he thought was cloned was actually “previously owned” and harbours a dark secret. A premise like that cried out for a noir fiction approach, which was a lot of fun to do.

“Democracy”: Our current political systems are so badly broken that we end up getting terrible leaders elected by much less than half of the people who voted. Yet we live in an era unlike any other in history, when virtually every citizen of developed nations has some access to the internet. If we wanted to, we could have true democracy, in which everyone could vote on every important issue of government. That’s what I’ve created in the fictional country of Devis Varta, although with tongue in cheek. Because, humans being humans, our lofty dreams almost never turn out the way they should.

“Saviour”: It’s easy for me to see the influences on this one. The movies Deep Impact and Armageddon both came out in 1998 as the world worried about asteroid strikes that could devastate the planet. But by the time I felt the urge to write my own story about saving the world from a giant killer rock, I’d seen the 2006 movie Sharkwater about how humankind is decimating the shark population and endangering the entire ocean ecosystem. Humans are a threat to pretty much every form of life on Earth these days. So a real hero might not do the expected.

“Node Of Thought”: I’ve done a lot of research into the mind…consciousness…the nature of thought—it’s been at the centre of a number of my novel plots. There’s no one who really knows what thought is, what consciousness is. There are only people who think they do. One day, embroiled in thought (as they say) I asked myself: what if thought has a physical form we know nothing about? Could we trail it behind us like hairs and dandruff? Could it be gathered like cosmic dust by some powerful source of energy? What would happen if you encountered something like that in deep space in a spaceship that responds to thought commands? Nothing good!

“The Cleansing”: Disaster again, inspired by the worrisome population cycles we’ve witnessed recently among creatures like frogs, bats, and especially bees, on whom we depend for so many of our food crops. Rouging (now more often called roguing) is a process of removing plants from crop fields when they’ve produced unwanted mutations. In coming years I believe we’ll be able to engineer crops to cull themselves to maintain their genetic purity. But what if, by pure bad luck, all of the crops were to enter such a “die-out” phase at the same time?

“The Rift”: Although I consider myself a spiritual person, this is my only story that really reflects that in a big way. And, because I’m a science junkie, I struggle to reconcile theory and experimental evidence with belief. Not surprisingly, that takes my mind in strange directions. One editor rejected this story because he thought it was too much like a Star Trek episode. I take that as a compliment!

“Hurricane”: I’m all in favour of renewable energy—solar, wind, tidal—and if we could harness the energy of hurricanes we’d hit the mother lode. Perhaps as much as the total worldwide generating capacity of humanity, in one storm! Writing a story about that, you just have to place your protagonist right in the thick of things, especially if he hates to fly, which gave me an excuse to research the amazing crews who willingly enter such hellish conditions in Hurricane Hunter aircraft. Plus, as I speculated about what would happen, I realized that I had the answer to one of the greatest occult mysteries of them all!

“Once Upon A Midnight”: Some years ago my good friend, prolific author/editor and all-around-nice-guy Mark Leslie Lefebvre issued a call for SF stories inspired by works of literature. I came up with one, and Mark liked it, but that anthology project didn’t come to pass. That was OK because some months later it was accepted for an anthology called In Poe’s Shadow (2011). Fast forward a few years, and Mark was invited to edit an edition of the well-respected Tesseracts series of anthologies and chose to resurrect his literary-inspiration idea. He also still wanted my story. So “Once Upon A Midnight” got a second life in one of Canada’s most successful SF franchises (Tesseracts 16: Parnassus Unbound) and I was thrilled. Deliberately over-the-top, it’s black humour with a dark warning at its core.

Once again, you can buy BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars through Amazon or Barnes & Noble in the US, or in Canada through Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca, or via many online outlets worldwide. Or if you're devoted to your favourite independent bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Have a great read!

BEYOND STORIES NOW IN PAPERBACK!

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Over the past couple of years I’ve made fifteen of my science fiction and fantasy short stories available in affordable e-book form (the e-anthologies Disastrous!, Body Of Opinion and other stories plus the series Beyond: The Stars, Beyond: Time, and Beyond: Technology, can all be purchased through my bookstore). But I know that a lot of readers are still devoted to physical books. So I decided to gather all of those 15 stories into one tasty paperback.

BEYOND: Stories Beyond Time, Technology, and the Stars is now available to buy through Amazon and other online retailers. Your favourite independent bookstore can also order it through the book distributor Ingram. It’s 362 pages of thoughtful and imaginative fiction that I think any SFF fan will love, but one thing I didn’t include (and maybe that was a mistake) was an Afterword explaining how each story came about. Lots of readers enjoy those—I do too.

So here, for what it’s worth, is a brief look at the stories and my reflections on them.

“No Walls”: This wasn’t my first story sold but it was the first one to make it into publication, in the Canadian magazine Neo-opsis Issue #18, so it will always have a special place in my heart. I even named my publishing company after it (lots of wider meaning, after all). As a fan of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, I hit on the variation of a man who suddenly gains the ability to walk through walls. But what real benefit could such a gift provide, except to a criminal? Or a secret operative. The story was rejected by editors a few times, and I realized that it needed to be darker, grittier. So if you’re squeamish, I apologize for the torture scenes, but without high stakes there’s no high drama!

“Shakedown”: My first science fiction novel manuscript is an SF thriller called The Primus Labyrinth, inspired by the 1966 movie Fantastic Voyage about a submersible and crew shrunk to microscopic size to travel through the bloodstream of a scientist and save his life. I don’t think shrink rays will ever be possible, so I wanted a more realistic way such an adventure could take place. My novel is very different from the movie, and my literary agent is currently gauging interest among publishers. But I originally considered self-publishing it, and thought that getting a prequel story published would help promote the novel. “Shakedown” is that prequel, about my prototype nanoscopic submersible and its first pilot, and the question: could a human mind ever cope with reality at a microscopic level? It was published in the anthology Canadian Tales of the Fantastic (2011).

“The Long Commute”: Most time travel stories focus on going back to a single momentous event and putting all of history at risk. But what if time has a kind of inertia instead, and it takes many small changes to have an impact on the timestream? Would there be people whose job was to do that every day? I was intrigued by the possibilities of  mixing a mind-bending concept with a daily routine. I also borrowed a character’s name from the family of a US president at the time, but then decided that a more overt link would be too corny.

“Lockdown”: It’s a huge expenditure of resources to support criminals in prisons, but the public must be protected. The answer? A device that temporarily paralyzes a parolee if he or she even thinks of committing another crime. Mind you, that would put the criminal at the mercy of passersby, and I have a feeling that could get ugly (as the story shows). That was the focus when I first wrote “Lockdown” but, as with “No Walls”, there needed to be more drama. So I threw in a dash of revenge for seasoning.

“A Taste Of Time”: This one could not be more different from “Lockdown”. It’s a contemporary fantasy story about an old woman with sad memories and a cheerful young girl with an insatiable craving for wild blueberries. I’ve spent many happy hours picking wild blueberries myself and, knowing that the bushes can pick up flavours from the soil and surroundings (as wine grapes do), I speculated about what other things such berries might impart. The story was not only published by On Spec magazine (#88 vol 24 no 1 June 2012) accompanied by a feature author interview, but, to my delight, was also chosen for On Spec’s 25th Anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy and Other Stories. Talk about being in great company!

There are ten more stories in the collection and I'll write about them in a few days. In the meantime, go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or in Canada to Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.ca. Or if you're devoted to an indy bookstore, ask them to order it through the book distributor Ingram. Enjoy!

 

ARE FOREST FIRES OUR DEFAULT FUTURE?

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

Image Courtesy: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS)

In my part of the world (Ontario, Canada) we’ve had a summer of devastating forest fires, but we were far from alone in that. The Canadian province of British Columbia has been hit even harder, and the US state of California has been on fire all summer. Siberia has been ravaged, Greece endured a fire that killed 83 people, and Berlin firefighters are now battling a blaze that includes the threat of unexploded WWII ammunition. NASA’s Worldview imagery appears to show “A World On Fire”. Surely this extraordinary heat and drought is the result of human-caused climate change, some will say. But others in my province will refute that, pointing out that this past winter persisted for a month longer than usual (True).

These seeming contradictions are why scientists now use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming”. It’s most likely that the addition of extra heat energy to Earth’s atmosphere is behind these weather extremes, but it doesn’t (yet) mean that we’ll have warmer days all year long. It does mean that weather patterns in the coming decades will be a whole lot different from those of the past century and more.

Earlier this month, William Gibson (@GreatDismal)—author of SF classics like Neuromancer, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and the recent The Peripheral—tweeted this:

All imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted. Virtually the entire genre will be seen to have utterly missed the single most important thing we were doing with technology.

It’s hard to argue with that, unless you’re a stalwart climate change denier. Humans have done some big things: inventing the wheel, crop cultivation, electricity, space travel. But we’ve never done anything as momentous as changing the weather systems of the whole planet long-term. To set a story in the future and ignore climate change seems lazy, at best, and irresponsible at worst. A case might be made that to ignore climate change is to deny climate change, and science fiction writers like to think of ourselves as devoted supporters of rationality. The world desperately needs voices of reason, not flat-Earth types. (I speak from some experience: Canadians elected a climate-change-denying prime minister for two terms, and the newest premier of my province has just muzzled all of his government ministries on the subject. Hard to believe.)

We’ll almost certainly see more summers like this one, and worse. Journalist Ed Struzik, author of Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future describes the combination of factors that have seen the number, intensity, and size of forest fires steadily escalate and the cost of fighting them soar. More and more people are visiting and building communities within the boreal forest. Plus our very act of suppressing fires produces forests full of tinder-dry debris just waiting for a match or a bolt of lightning. In May of 2016 88,000 people were evacuated from the Canadian city of Fort McMurray when a raging wildfire destroyed more than 2000 homes and buildings, and continued to burn for three months. Experts predict more fires like that will happen. Especially in hot, dry climates such as California’s—that state has been home to seven of the ten costliest wildfires of the US in the past twenty years. Struzik also points out that subarctic and arctic areas of Sweden, Siberia, and even Greenland are suffering huge fires that not only produce lots of smoke and carbon monoxide, but also thaw swaths of permafrost, releasing vast amounts of trapped carbon dioxide, boosting the “greenhouse effect” and raising global temperatures still further. So we should expect a future with even more fires.

But does it have to be that way? And should SF writers be manacled by that outlook when we write about the future? William Gibson seems to suggest that such scenarios are the default future of the planet Earth. But SF writer and futurist Karl Schroeder wrote an insightful blog post for Tor.com recently called “Escaping The Default Future When Writing Science Fiction”. His main point (like a recent post of mine about having kids) is that economic, political, technological, and (yes) climate-related factors will all push the human population downward. And lower population will reduce the relentless pressure toward some kind of human-created apocalypse. We might not ruin the planet after all!

Schroeder doesn’t dwell on climate change per se, but his hopeful outlook includes the kind of post-scarcity society that Star Trek is known for. And, just maybe, the lower demand for fossil fuels and industrial processes that stimulate global warming will come in time to give human efforts to mitigate climate change a chance to work.

I’m not optimistic enough to say that we’ll escape a century or so of very difficult times caused by the way we’ve messed up the atmosphere, but at least it might not be permanent. We might not be forced to undergo an exodus into outer space—it’s still possible that the Earth of a few centuries from now will be a pleasant place to live.

So I hereby give myself permission to keep some hope in my SF.

RAISING KIDS IN THE COMING CENTURY

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In my last blog post I speculated about how kids would be born and raised in the centuries to come. Will children still be conceived and gestated within human bodies or in test tubes and vats? If we manage to extend the lifespan of existing people indefinitely, will we even want to bring any new human beings into the world?

What about for the rest of this century? How will child care evolve?

Much has been made of the idea that future kids could have robot caregivers. Certainly a lot of wealthy and upper-middle-class urban kids have nannies now, but as I mentioned last time, I think climate change and the shrinking number of jobs for humans will reverse the social pressure to have kids, so much fewer people will try to raise children while struggling to stay employed. I also don’t expect sophisticated robots to ever become an affordable consumer item for most people (sorry Jetsons fans). A truly effective robot nanny/tutor/bodyguard would need to have artificial intelligence of a high level, maybe conscious, maybe not, but with growing concerns about artificial intelligences we may be reluctant to entrust our children to them. Instead, we’ll see more and more tech to help parents look after their own kids. A new app called ChatterBaby uses algorithms formulated from more than 2000 audio samples of babies crying, to not only help parents know when their baby is crying (important for deaf couples) but also the likeliest reason for the cries, based on their sound. Sensing and analysis technology like this might not free parents to leave their kids alone, but could loosen the tether a little bit, and with 1 in 4 US children and just over 1 in 5 Canadian kids being raised by single parents, every bit of assistance is welcome. As to that statistic, technology that connects people is already fostering a trend toward communal parenting: support networks drawn, not from blood relations as in the past, but people with common interests and values. A number of apps already assist with “co-parenting”. The term “single parenting” might soon become irrelevant, and the definition of “family” will be even broader than it is today.

Robot teachers? More likely, immersive virtual reality environments will be used to provide teaching scenarios, using very realistic situations for instruction rather than a classroom lesson/lecture-type method.

So will you ever be able to pry your kid away from their video screens and get them to apply themselves to their homework again? Well, with every form of information available electronically, the days of cramming facts into kids’ heads simply have to come to an end—there’s no point. What will remain important is teaching kids how to connect information, draw impressions, solve problems, and apply what they learn to life and work. That certainly doesn’t have to involve electronic screens or their equivalent. In fact, just as today’s young adults have been opting more and more to spend their discretionary money on experiences instead of things, I predict our educational systems will slowly work in that direction too. They’re just incredibly ponderous institutions to change.

What about parental monitoring of kids 24/7? Some already use apps that track their kids’ phones by GPS, others are scandalized by it. (For apps and devices now available, check out this article and this one.) Sorry, but such things are here to stay and will only get more intrusive. Whether or not the world really has become a more dangerous place for kids, that perception has become much too deeply ingrained into our collective psyche. It’s not going to go away. So as technology increasingly allows Mom and Dad to monitor their child’s location, activity, companions, and indeed every interaction, it will be used and will become virtually universal. Privacy for kids will cease to exist, yes, but then a huge percentage of the current adult population willingly gives up their privacy every day, thanks to social media, corporate reward programs, and numerous other temptations. So resistance (to ever-more invasive technology) is futile!

What kind of people will all of these changes produce? That I can’t predict. I don’t think it’s going far out on a limb to say that fewer children being born to those not fully committed to parenthood should result in fewer maladjusted adults. Revamped educational systems should produce more engaged learners who embrace the lifelong learning process that will be required of them. But as with any major shift in process and technology, there will be bumps along the road. So psychiatrists, social workers, and cops won’t find themselves out of work anytime soon.

THE FUTURE OF KIDS--WILL WE EVEN HAVE THEM?

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When I sat down to write about parenting in the future, it suddenly hit me: Wait! In all of the science fiction I read, kids are hardly ever mentioned. Will we even have kids in centuries to come? Sure, survival of the species by reproduction is a top priority of every living creature, but there is a chance that, as we extend the human lifespan indefinitely, there won’t be room for any new people, and no biological need for them. That is, if we stay on Earth, of course.

For now, let’s assume we’re still making babies and enduring the trials of trying to mould them into viable adults. What delights does the future of parenting hold?

In the 1930’s in Brave New World Aldous Huxley described a wholly impersonal system that involved human eggs fertilized and grown in laboratory conditions into embryos that were eventually “decanted” at the proper age, after which the new babies were conditioned according to their planned status in society. To create lots of low class, low intelligence workers, a certain number of fertilized eggs were even cloned to produce many identical copies. Though not an attractive scenario, the lab-grown baby process has been used in a lot of science fiction since then (I included it in a recent manuscript myself), probably because most writers expect that, as reproductive technology continues to improve, it will eventually take over entirely from the old fashioned method, which is, let’s face it, rather hit and miss. (Fun in the beginning, but oooh the inconvenience and pain of pregnancy and delivery!)

Fully artificial reproduction and impersonal child rearing is one way things could go, but it’s based on assumptions that may not turn out to be as relevant as we think. One of those is that lots of human workers will still be needed—natural reproduction interferes too much with worker productivity, and isn’t efficient. Another is that society’s trend toward extreme self-centredness will make personal baby-making and rearing undesirable to everyone.

If we were colonizing another planet, we’d want to increase the population as quickly as conditions could support, and we’d need every worker to be maximally productive and consistently available. Here on Earth, though, as climate change shrinks our habitable coastlines and wreaks havoc on food crops, there’ll be rising pressure to reduce population. Also, as automation continues to grow, the work done by humans will be the work that has to be done by humans, increasingly service work of varying complexity. Workers will have to retrain numerous times in their lives to stay productive. Social pressure to have children will continue to subside and fewer people will have them. The ones who do will be the ones who really want to, and extended maternity/paternity leaves will be welcome as a way to spread the available work around. Far from “cranking out” babies in laboratories, we’ll probably be quite content to have much smaller numbers born to parents who really want them.

One of my sons recently elected to stay out of the workforce to be a stay-at-home dad. His wife also took a one-year maternity leave. So for the whole first year of their daughter’s life, both Mom and Dad were there to cater to her every need and whim. Only a half-century ago, there was a common opinion that you could spoil a child by rushing to its side at every whimper, that it might actually do a child good to have to wait for relief or satisfaction sometimes. According to a video I saw this week, the new opinion is that not responding right away to a child’s cries will not only result in greater aggressiveness and possibly violent tendencies when the child is older, but might also impair the development of its communication skills, since crying and smiling are pretty much a baby’s only means to communicate (and it has to know that they work). So will constant attention be a good thing or a bad thing? Time will tell. But I believe there’s a very good chance that this natural, hands-on and highly attentive method of child bearing and rearing will be the approach that becomes the norm, rather than the scary laboratory/baby farm method. That’s not to say that reproductive technology won’t figure in, but it will be to help couples who need it, not replace them.

There’s more.

Another son and daughter-in-law have smart watches with apps that can be used like a personal trainer, tracking all physical activity during the day and analyzing it according to effectiveness, calories burned, etc., plus offering rewards for consistent exercise. I think that such technology will be adopted very quickly for tomorrow’s kids. While numerous SF stories have predicted a future society of grossly overweight, utterly sedentary citizens parked in front of screens or amid holographic displays all day, I like to believe that, at least in the near term, we’ll see ultra-sophisticated wearable (or implantable) technology monitoring people from birth to death and urging them toward a more healthy lifestyle. Imagine a display in your child’s forearm that not only monitors everything from their physical activity to the nutrition of the food they eat, but also rewards them for sticking to healthy habits.

Pie in the sky? Maybe. But my hope is that the mind-set of preventative health care will finally gain more and more traction as technology enables it. It’s almost inevitable that brain-computer interfaces of some kind will eventually be implanted right into our heads, and such a thing implies the potential to apply electric current directly to the brain’s pleasure centres. Powerful reward motivation indeed.

So much for the basics, but what about raising kids in a world increasingly shaped by technology? Robot nannies? Communal parenting? I’ll take a look at those things in the next post, but for now let me just say, if it’s been a while since you raised your own kids, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the future is arriving!

THE THIRD COLLECTION IN THE BEYOND SERIES

Good news! You can now buy BEYOND: Technology the third ebook in my BEYOND series in my Bookstore and at all popular ebook online outlets (or within a day or two, if the staff is in summer mode). Once again I offer three SFF short stories on a theme. This time, as the name suggests, it's trouble with technology.

When a worker at a bio-weapons lab becomes distracted by her relationship problems the fate of the human race hangs in the balance.

A small island nation claims to have true democracy with every citizen voting on all major issues. But when a reporter investigates, the truth is stranger than she could have imagined.

An expert gamer seems like the perfect pilot for a microscopic prototype submersible controlled through virtual reality. Until the connection becomes too real for the human mind to handle.

Two of the stories have been published previously in other anthologies (one of them twice), so you don't have to take my word for it that they're good reads. And a great bargain, too. Some inexpensive summer reading to give you an excuse to laze around on the beach--what's not to like? Or why not get nine great stories by picking up all three e-collections BEYOND: The Stars, BEYOND: Time, and BEYOND: Technology?

By the way, I do still plan to collect all of these nine stories, plus the six from my two other e-anthologies, into one big juicy print book in mid-August or so. I'll let you know when it's ready, so keep checking the web page.

BEYOND: TIME NOW AVAILABLE

The charge to publish continues!

The second of my short story collection series BEYOND: Time is now available as an ebook in my Bookstore for direct download. It's been distributed to all of the major ebook online retailers and you might even find it cheaper there, depending on your country's currency (currency conversions being what they are!)

BEYOND: Time offers three thrilling tales that transcend time:

The Long Commute

Shon Howard and others like him go to work every day to reverse the ravages of climate change, pollution, and other evils. His daughter’s life depends on it. Because in Shon’s world, mistakes of past centuries can be corrected by visiting key moments in time. As long as he doesn’t get caught.

A Taste Of Time

Gabby Dufour hates the blueberries that grow over the site of her home town, destroyed in a fire decades ago. Then young berry-loving Amanda comes to visit, with inexplicable knowledge about the town, and Gabby is forced to wonder if there’s more to blueberries than meets the tongue. (First published in On Spec #88 vol 24 no 1, August 2014.) ** This story's kind of different, but good enough to be chosen for On Spec's 25th anniversary anthology Casserole Diplomacy.

Hurricane

The crew of a Hurricane Hunter aircraft is assigned to monitor an experiment designed to collect the awesome energy of a powerful storm. When the project succeeds too well, nowhere is beyond its destructive reach.

However you choose to buy it, I hope you'll love these stories. Volume Three BEYOND: Technology  will be published soon, and then a print-on-demand anthology including all of these stories and more.

 

BEYOND: THE STARS VOLUME ONE OF THE SERIES IS HERE!

As promised in my last post, I've now published the first of my BEYOND series: collections of SFF short stories, three stories per volume and each on a theme. BEYOND: The Stars offers three space adventures.

Node Of Thought

A spaceship pilot on a solo mission between the stars begins to see visions of other people. Are they trace thoughts from others who’ve passed that way? It’s not just an academic question when the ship’s computer starts to obey commands that aren’t his.

Marathon of the Devil

In a death-defying marathon on a desert planet, Eli Marone has managed to get lost. It’s now a race for survival, especially when the barren world might not be so lifeless after all.

The Rift

Twenty-seven years after a reckless experiment created a vast rift across the galaxy, a survey ship’s crew encounters a being with strange abilities and an even stranger disability. What they learn will test every belief they’ve ever had.

You can purchase and download BEYOND: The Stars directly at my Bookstore here on the site, or at your other favourite ebook retailers (if it's not available there yet, try again in a day or two).

I'm very pleased to be able to make these stories available to readers for the first time. Volume Two BEYOND: Time will be published in a week or so, and Volume Three BEYOND: Technology about a week after that. For print book lovers, I plan to put the collected stories into print form within the next month or two.

Enjoy!

UPDATE: BEYOND: The Stars is now 'live' at Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and other outlets, and will soon be in the iBooks store.

COMING SOON

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These days I put most of my writing focus on SF novels, trusting my agent to find a publishing home for them. But many of my short stories have found homes over the years. Sadly, when I decided to check the links on my Short Stories page recently, I discovered that a lot of my published stories are no longer available. Of course, I've also written some that have never been made available to readers.

I've decided to change that.

In the coming weeks, I'll be releasing nine of my SFF short stories (some previously published, some not) in ebook anthology form, collected by theme. Each volume of the Beyond series will offer three stories. Volume One will be related to Space Travel, Volume Two involves Time, and Volume Three will explore Technology. I'll make them available through my webpage Bookstore, but also at your favourite online store.

If you still prefer to hold a print book in your hand, don't worry. My plan is to put all of these stories, and a few more from other e-anthologies, into one volume that will be available by print-on-demand through most major online outlets. Hopefully before the end of June, in time for summer reading!

Watch This Space For More Details!

HOW FAR WILL ADVERTISING GO?

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When science fiction stories describe a world of the future, it’s the story that grabs and holds our interest but it’s the little details that bring that world to life. How do the characters entertain themselves when they’re not battling to save the world? What do they buy and how do they buy it? What information systems tell them how to navigate their lives?

A few of those questions got me thinking about advertising.

Once upon a time, word-of-mouth was everything if you provided a product or service to a special clientele or the general public. At some point, some cynical soul decided it might be a good idea to put a sign that said “Blacksmith” above his door, just in case the smell of the forge, clang of iron, and giant anvils standing everywhere weren’t enough to clue people in. And then, if there were two smith’s in the same town, a family name on the sign would distinguish it from the competition, and maybe something like “official smith of His Lordship, the Duke” wouldn’t be amiss either.

Advertising really took off once the printing press became widespread. Even Will Shakespeare couldn’t count on an audience magically appearing—they had to be told where and when a performance would take place, along with a little sales pitch to draw them in. Before long, it wasn’t enough to just tell people that you provided a service, and why yours was better than others—you could actually create a market for your deliverables by persuading people they needed what you were offering, even if they didn’t…um, I mean, if they’d never realized it before. Snake oil salesman of all stripes have taken that to heart ever since, and advertising has become as slippery as politicians (who took to it with a vengeance, naturally).

Flyers and newspaper ads weren’t enough—they could be ignored—so some genius came up with the idea of interrupting content on radio and then television with commercials. It became a pact between advertiser and audience: free entertainment in return for paying attention to the ads. Not a bad deal, really. And it worked so well that before long we were subjected to ads attached to content we were already paying for (movie theatres, I’m looking at you). By then, billboards had been blocking scenery for decades, buses and other vehicles had become moving billboards, and even gullible people blithely allowed themselves to become mobile signage by wearing brand names on their clothing, somehow believing it gave them membership in the cool crowd.

The advertising bargain had broken down by then, and we never noticed. We no longer had to implicitly agree to be subjected to it—we had no choice.

Whoever gave advertisers the right to fill our every view, every moment of sound, everything we experience with their messages? It’s like the frog-in-a-pot story: heat the water slowly enough and it will never realize its danger until it’s cooked.

Defenders of advertising will tell you it’s a public service: informing people about products and services they might want. I don’t know about you, but if there’s something I actually need to buy, I can look up where and how to buy it in about thirty seconds with an online search. I don’t need, or want, somebody interrupting my life to tell me what they want me to want. My wife and I only watch streaming and pre-recorded content at home—no commercials. We mostly listen to public radio—no commercials. And we’ve opted to receive no flyers in the mail. Do I sometimes miss flipping through them? Sure. But my impulse purchases have gone way down.

What does all this have to do with the future? Well, as technology becomes ever more pervasive and invasive, so does advertising. Do you think it will be cool to walk past a billboard and have it address you by name and show an ad for stuff you really like? In fact, it’s already happening whenever you surf the internet or use social media, and personalized ads show up. Think about how much some company has to know about you to do that. Just add facial recognition and gait recognition capability to the billboards, and you’ve got a sales pitch just for you…that everyone walking nearby can also see. Watch out for the lamppost! Oops, too late. And forget about just enjoying the ambience of a neighbourhood street, because the next billboard will call out to you just as insistently, and the next, and the next. If regulators don’t prevent them, the billboards will send urgent messages to your phone telling you about the big shoe sale a block ahead. Might be kind of cool, you think? Until you get twenty such messages in a ten-minute walk to your favourite coffee shop.

Forget about movie stickers on bananas; what about when each section of orange, slice of melon, cross-section of cheese is imprinted with slogans? When your toaster etches your slice of bread with “30% Off Sale Today at…!” When your shampoo contains fluorescent glitter micro-particles that coalesce into product placements for everyone to read. So far, you’re allowed to turn your TV to a channel that doesn’t play commercials, but what about when your TV forces you to watch ad messages first whenever you turn it on?

I’ve written a novel about internet-capable brain augments. One of my speculations is that unscrupulous advertisers will figure out how to use them to directly stimulate the vision and auditory centres of the brain. Suddenly you see a giant bottle of [insert your favourite cola brand here] floating in front of your eyes and hear their latest jingle in your ears. I’ll leave you to imagine the results if it happens while you’re riding a bike, crossing a street, or about to descend some stairs.

Far-fetched, you think? Absolutely not, I promise you. We’ve already allowed ourselves to be subjected to advertising in virtually every aspect of our lives, in increasingly intrusive ways. If a method arises to directly access the minds of consumers, it will be used. Unless we act to prevent it. And I’m not talking about writing to your local politician (although it wouldn’t hurt)—it’s your money that talks. If you want to send a message to advertisers that it’s all too much, stop buying the products and services of the companies that use advertising methods you don’t like and tell them why. Shut off all the personalized advertising functions of your social media. Cancel all your rewards programs accounts. Boost privacy settings on all of your electronic devices.

I’m expecting too much, right? You like a lot of that personalized advertising, not to mention rewards points. And buying things gives you a buzz.

Yeah, I know. Which is why intrusive advertising has come this far, and will go every bit as far as we allow it to.

Do you feel the water getting hot yet?