Monday night, the Quillians met on Second Life ostensibly to judge the submissions for the Song Inspiration Challenge for July. Those of us who got on early gathered in the meeting room to listen to the Writing Excuses podcast as a group.

Once most of us were finally gathered, the group moderator cracked open the submission box . . .

. . . and discovered that only three people had actually submitted a story.

<sad face>

So we postponed the judgment night until Monday, August 1, 2011. This should give other people more time to complete the challenge.

Hint. Hint. Hint.



Song Inspiration Challenge

A Cannibal Star © 2010 NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

A Cannibal Star

A few months back, I was doing a series of challenges organized by The Quillians, my writing group on Second Life. I managed to miss out on May’s and June’s challenges because of the Project That Ate Summer™ at work. But I’m back for July.

The challenge was simply this: in 250-350 words, write a flash piece inspired by a song. Bonus for guessing the song!

(The bonus is because what we do is gather together one Monday night at 6pm Second-Life Time, read all the entries, and then vote on which ones we like the most. The votes are then tallied, and the winner gets a cash prize (Second Life in-game cash, that is), as do the second- and third-place winners. This time, whoever can correctly guess which songs inspired which stories gets an additional prize.)

Now, I can’t give the name of the piece or the song that inspired it, because I know some of the Quillians read this blog. :) The name comes from the lyrics of the song that inspired it, so I’ll just call this “Name Withheld” for now. I’ll update this with the actual name and the song later. Or make a new post. Whatever.

Once again, when given a word limit, I tend to hit it exactly. But this time, I hit the LOW end instead of the HIGH end. Hm. Interesting. So this is exactly 250 words.

He parked the ship just inside the orbit of the third planet, the one they used to call Jupiter after a long-forgotten myth. The eyes of the worlds were watching, and he wanted a good vantage point, but it would be stupid to endanger himself just to get a story.

He was not the only one here. The proximity sensors indicated several million other ships of various sizes and configurations, some further out, some closer in. All positioned with an unobstructed view of Earth.

Humanity, in all the forms it had assumed and in all the far-flung parts of the galaxies to which they had migrated, still remembered home, or at least some few of them did. Still felt enough nostalgia to mourn—or at least mark—its destruction. But for most of humanity, Earth wasn’t news. It wasn’t even a distant memory. It had been uninhabitable for several billion years. All that was left was just a burnt husk. A useless cinder.

Still, that cinder was the cradle of one of the most powerful civilizations the Cluster had ever known.

He cut unneeded systems to conserve power, unfurled the solar arrays, launched and programmed the recorders to capture all wavelengths at maximum bandwidth and density in three dimensions. Stellar transitions weren’t predictable to split-second accuracy, but it would happen long before he ran out of supplies.

He got comfortable. When Earth was engulfed by the expanding sun, Man would be here to bear witness, after all.

Hope you enjoyed it. I think I really like this piece. I tried making it longer, but I hated it every time I did.

We’ll meet Monday (7/25/11) night and vote. If you do have a guess as to what song this was inspired by, do feel free to guess. I moderate all comments, so if someone guesses, I can just hold them until after Monday, then let them through. I’m interested to see if it’s obvious.


Review: Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Fuzzy Nation
Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy in the early 80s while I was in high school. I loved the Fuzzies and I wanted more. I found the second book of the trilogy (Fuzzy Sapiens), but got very frustrated with my book store when they did not have the third book available.

It was at this point that I discovered that Piper had died before publishing the third volume of the trilogy. GAH! I wanted to know how it ended!

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Shortly after I read the first two, I discovered that author William Tuning had published his version of the final volume, called Fuzzy Bones. I read it. Then, yet another author—this time Ardath Mayhar—published yet another version of the final volume, called Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey. I read it.

I liked both of the non-Piper versions. But then, in 1984, Piper’s widow discovered the completed manuscript of the third novel in her husband’s effects. It was published as Fuzzies and Other People. Finally, at long last, the trilogy had not one, not two, but three complete, slightly different, third volumes.

I was skeptical when I heard Scalzi was rebooting the story. It reminded me of the silly attempts to remake “Planet of the Apes” and “Revenge of the Nerds”: Why tamper with something that’s already great as it is? Isn’t three endings enough?

I heard him interviewed on a couple of podcasts. He explained that the reboot was a labor of love and that it had been endorsed by the Piper estate. He said all he was trying to do was to update the story with more modern sensibilities, but that he tried to preserve the essence of the original.

I snapped up the novel the day it hit the book store. But before I could get a chance to start reading, a friend reminded me of something I had forgotten: Wil Wheaton had recorded the audio version of the novel.

Well. That clenched that. I’ve been a fan of Wheaton for a long time. I bought the audio version as well. (Hey, it would be hard for Scalzi to autograph the audio version if I ever meet him at Dragon*Con. I like to think of it as “planning ahead.”)

Not to mince words: I enjoyed the hell out of this book. Scalzi did exactly as he promised. The book is, in essence, the same story that Piper told nearly five decades ago, but updated to appeal to a more modern audience. This is the first Scalzi book I’ve read, so I can’t say much about his usual style, but if they’re all anything like this, I’ll be reading more, rest assured.

The character of Jack Holloway was deeply flawed, but also, at the core, a decent man. Maybe his motives weren’t noble, maybe his irreverent, sarcastic, f**k-you attitude toward everything made him come across as unlikable at some level. But you can’t help but pull for him. After all, he did have the Fuzzies’ best interest at heart. And so what if it benefitted him, as well? As flawed as the good guys were, the bad guys were truly evil. It wasn’t hard at all to dislike Wheaton Aubrey, Joe Delise, and the entirety of Zarathustra Corporation. But it also wasn’t at all difficult to believe that such people exist, because we all know people like them. Well, hopefully not just like them…

I loved Carl the dog. I don’t remember Piper’s characterization of Carl, but I think Scalzi did a great job of using Carl to make Jack come across as more human and less mercenary. It was just the right mix.

And the Fuzzies! Scalzi put so much depth of character into those little guys, you couldn’t help but love them. Just like the original books. Their wide-eyed, innocent cuteness hiding intelligent, feeling, sentient persons. When Papa Fuzzy testified in court…I admit, I not only laughed out loud, I pumped my fist in a “YES!” motion a few times, and shed a few tears, as well. On a plane. My seatmate edged away from me.

As good as Scalzi’s writing is, and as wonderful as I thought his characters were, I think Wil Wheaton’s performance really pushed my appreciation over the edge. He has just the right tone of voice for Holloway. And when he read that court scene where Papa Fuzzy testified…well, as I said above, it moved me in more than one way. With just his voice, Wheaton was able to turn in a fantastic performance that added so much depth to the story.

I do hope that this book does well enough to allow Scalzi to continue the trilogy, or even to turn it into a series. I look forward to reading more from him, and not just in the Fuzzy universe. I highly recommend the book—audio or otherwise—to anyone who likes science fiction with a twist of courtroom drama; cute, sentient aliens; intelligent dogs; or characters who know how to dish out just desserts.

View all my reviews


Does Not Compute?

"Evidence or GTFO"

Evidence or GTFO

This will come as no great shock to anyone that has known me for any length of time, but: I’m a card-carrying skeptic. There. I’ve said it.

Now, by “skeptic,” I don’t mean “that guy who always says ‘nuh-uh!’ every time anyone makes a claim. Nor do I mean the habitual debunker, who feels compelled to—often gleefully—reply all to every credulous chain email with 5 links disproving whatever silly story is contained therein.1

I also don’t mean the kind of “skeptic” that simply doesn’t believe in something because it goes against my particular world-view or dogma or agenda.2

I’m the kind of skeptic that is epitomized by the image of James Randi above: give me evidence or don’t be shocked when I fail to believe your claim.

I don’t believe in ghosts, magic, bigfoot, psychic powers, angels, demons, gods, devils, alien abduction, mermaids, the Loch Ness monster, qi/chi, homeopathy, therapeutic touch, ear candling, or a very, very long list of other things too numerous to mention for which there is simply no well-tested scientific evidence that shows an effect that could not be accounted for by other things such as abnormal psychology, pareidolia, coincidence, or the placebo effect.

When people know or learn this about me and then see the kind of thing I write (science fiction, fantasy (epic, urban, and dark), and horror), I sometimes get the response where they tilt their head to one side and you can practically hear their neurons undergoing cognitive dissonance.

“But…if you don’t believe in any of that stuff, why is that all you write about?”

It’s a very good, valid question. And one for which I didn’t have a good answer. But something occurred to me during lunch, today, and I think I have a glimmer of understanding.

One of the most basic tools in the Skeptic’s Toolbox is this simple question: If X is true, how would that affect the world?

For instance, here’s an example. If homeopathy3 were true, how would that affect the world?

Well, first of all, every time you drank water, you’d get what amounts to a massive dose of medicine that should cure every known disease or ailment. And the irony of homeopathy is that the less of it you drink, the higher the dose.

If that were true, how would that affect the world?

Well, there’d be practically no sickness, because all anyone would have to do to cure themselves would be to drink a glass of water. Doctors and hospitals would only be needed for treating trauma. Drug companies would go out of business. Insurance companies would deal only in accidental death and dismemberment policies. (Alas, no amount of medicine cures stupid.)

There would be no more depression, no more malaria, no more common cold, no more cancer, no more epilepsy, no more ebola, AIDS, herpes…the world would be entirely different.

And if by diluting a substance that causes an effect, you can cause the opposite effect in the body, think of the amazing new illicit drugs! Dilute something that causes pain and taking a miniscule dose of it would cause euphoria. Meth and cocaine and LSD wouldn’t hold a candle to some of the designer drugs you could whip up in your own kitchen sink.

Of course, you’d have to have a way of removing the ‘remembered vibrations’ from water, so there’d be a market for that kind of thing. If for no other reason than to make sure that the human race didn’t go extinct or have a population boom. Think of all the substances out there that cause either fertility or infertility. Dilute those enough, and you have a potent birth control (by diluting the fertility-inducers) or fertility drugs (by super-dilution of fertility-reducing substances).

On the other hand, maybe “regular” tap water is nearly perfectly balanced, so all the things that would cause X and all the things that would cause -X cancel each other out. Maybe diseases are caused by water supplies being slightly tilted in one direction or another. People who could analyze the content of municipal water supplies (or wells) could make a mint by offering to re-balance the water supply.

Imagine a world where you might be hyper-allergic to water, because it contains a massively dilute form of anti-histamine compounds. How would you survive? You’d have to have a way of “detoxifying” the water so you could drink it (i.e., removing the ‘vibrations’; erasing the ‘memory.’)

Ooh, or how about all the estrogen or testosterone that winds up in the water supply? Even if there had never been a drug industry churning out metric tons of artificial examples of both hormones, people gotta pee, and that pee’s gotta go somewhere. If your municipal water supply became gender-imbalanced…if there were too much estrogen and it were diluted enough, it would have the same effect as a massive dose of anabolic steroids. <shudder>.

Do you see what I’ve done, here? This is exactly what a writer does when doing world development. It’s just world-building!

If elves existed, how would that affect the world?

If ships could travel faster than light, how would that affect civilization?

If lycanthropism existed, how would it work? How would it affect the world?4

What if the ancient Mayans were right, and all their gods do exist, and the world really is going to end in 2012?

So I think the answer to the question, “How do you write this stuff if you don’t believe in any of it?” is that by being a skeptic and really looking at the world through a skeptical lens, you’re improving your ability to ask really interesting world-building questions.

Note: I realize that I have said some things here that will not sit well with some people. I will not allow the comments here to turn into a debate. If I have said something here to offend you, I apologize, but there will be absolutely no name-calling, no diatribes, etc. I mention the definition of a skeptic and the negative examples in the footnote below for informational purposes to show readers what I mean—along with the majority of the skeptical community—when I use the word ‘skeptic.’ If you have a differing opinion, you are certainly entitled to it. But we are not going to debate it, here. All comments are moderated. Capisce? Buona.

  1. Well, okay, I actually do this, but it’s beside my point.
  2. In other words, climate-change skeptics, who claim there is insufficient evidence that either our climate is changing or that mankind’s activities have contributed to it significantly; 9/11 skeptics (“Truthers”), who claim to be skeptical that 9/11 was perpetrated by terrorists; “Moon Hoaxers,” who claim that the United States never landed on the moon and that the entirety of the Apollo program was faked on a soundstage; “Birthers,” who claim to be skeptical that President Obama is a US citizen; or Holocaust skeptics, who claim that either no one was killed by the Nazis or far fewer than is generally accepted. In each of those cases, the scientific consensus goes with the overwhelming evidence, but the ‘skeptics’ go against that evidence. The kind of skeptic I’m talking about is the kind that goes where the evidence leads, even if that is to a place his/her sentiments oppose.
  3. This link at Wikipedia does a much more thorough job of explaining homeopathy than I can.
  4. At least one author in the Urban Fantasy genre (Kat Richardson) had one of her characters—a skeptic, amusingly enough—point out that the energy required to literally reshape the tissues in a living being into another form would generate enough heat that any such creature would explode. She uses this to explain why there are no were-beasts in her novels. Vampires, yes. :)


When Ideas Attack! (Next on Fox!)

The Idea

The Idea

It never fails. When I really really should be doing something else, that’s when ideas come to me.

Alternatively, they come to me when I can least do anything about them, like while I’m in the shower or driving. Luckily, keeping a notepad and pencil in the shower (hey, don’t judge me) and a digital voice recorder in the car have solved those particular problems.

Today, I need to finish something else up. But I keep getting side tracked by this little voice in my head.

Every year, I participate in NaNoWriMo, which if you do a little looking around on this site, you’ll find several references to. The goal during National Novel Writing Month is to write a complete novel of 50,000+ words in just the 30 days of November. You can plan and plot and world-build and character-develop all you want before that; but the entirety of the words of the novel itself must be composed between midnight of November 1st and midnight of December 1st.

Last year, I ripped NaNoWriMo a new one, to put it indelicately. I wrote 78,000 words, then went on to write another 15,000 words or so to get my time travel novel (Killing Time) done.

But this year, I have four unfinished novels, dammit. I don’t need to start another one. But I want to participate. And yeah, I could use the month to concentrate on finishing one of the unfinished novels, but…well, I don’t want to. I think part of the fun of NaNoWriMo is the thrill of writing something new.

For the last month or so on the podcasts Escape Pod, PodCastle, and PseudoPod, they have run promos for a series of 34 stories co-written by four well-known authors (Tim Pratt, Jenn Reese, Heather Shaw, and Greg van Eekhout) that are collectively called “The Alphabet Quartet.” Each story title starts with a different letter of the alphabet.

You may be wondering two things right now. One: Why are there 34 stories if there are only 26 letters in the English alphabet? Two: What do all these disparate, seemingly unrelated facts have to do with the price of tallow in Ecuador? I’ll take those in order.

One: There are 34 because although there were originally 26, some of them were published elsewhere, and the magazine that agreed to publish them (Daily Science Fiction) wanted original works, so the quartet wrote brand new ones to replace the ones that had already been published elsewhere. But those of us who contribute to one of the three Escape Artists podcasts (listed above) get all 34. Because we’re special.

Two: I’m about to tie it all together. Stand back. Watch me.

I’ve been trying to come up with some ideas lately for shorter works that I can play with. Stuff that doesn’t require a bunch of world-building, character development, and plotting. When I heard about the Alphabet Quartet, my brain seized on the idea of writing 26 stories, each one beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. It was a cute idea. I filed it away.

A day or two later, a rhyme from Sesame Street long past (which was also featured in the film E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial) popped into my head: “A is for Apple. B is for Ball. C is for Cat that sits on the wall.”1 It played over and over in my head.

Eventually, I put the ideas together. To wit: I should write 26 short stories, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, but the titles themselves should make a little doggerel rhyme of that sort.

I jotted down a few ideas in Evernote. I tried to come up with single-word titles beginning with each of the 26 letters of the alphabet in such a way that each three-letter combination formed a ‘stanza.’ But the words had to be evocative; that is, they have to conjure up several ideas. They have to give me a spark. And I have to be able to rhyme the final word of the third line of each stanza with the second title. Think that sounds easy? I’m not a poet. :)

Oh, here. This will explain it better than I’m doing.

A is for Apothecary,
B is for Bard;
C is for Clowns that creep through the yard.

D is for Dragon,
E is for Earth;
F is for Forgetting what some things are worth.

G is for Graveside,
H is for Him;
I is for Innocence wrapped up in sin.

J is for Justice,
K is for Kiss;
L is for Lightning: a strike or a miss.

etc. You get the idea.

The third line of each stanza will give a clue to what that letter’s story should be about. And I’m not saying that these are by any means the final choices. Each alphabet word gives me a number of ideas. I especially like “C is for Clown” and “U is for Uranus.” Those are the two for which more or less complete story ideas popped instantly into my head.

So, the idea that came to me while I was trying to do something else—which then inspired me to write this post, which further keeps me from that something else—is that if I write 26 stories of about 2000 words each (on average), that’s more than enough words to win NaNoWriMo, and it gives me a finished “work,” even if it’s not a novel.

Now, if you remove the four days of holiday at the end of November (where we here in the US celebrate Thanksgiving)…well, golly! That equals 26, doesn’t it?

I think this sounds suspiciously like my brain done went and ambushed me with a plan! :)

  1. The irony of this is that I can find no reference of this anywhere on the Internet. I distinctly remember it, yet I’m probably wrong. It would be amusing in the extreme if my misfiring memory of something that never existed sparked this idea. When I get home, I’ll see if I can find ET and watch that sequence to see what it actually says. The one screen capture I saw online shows Drew Barrymore standing in front of a TV on which is displayed “B is for Banjo,” and it is on a wall.

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