Sunday, October 13, 2013

It's in his kiss

What is in a kiss? Consciously, it's a method of showing affection or getting a partner sexually aroused. Subconsciously it's a lot more. Sure, kissing helps build a more stable, fulfilling relationship, but before you even commit to the guy it guides you to mates who are genetically compatible. Lots of stuff from a relatively simple, if close, encounter.

Why do I mention this on my writing blog? 'Cause a lot of books have kissing in them. While kissing is often included as a sexy, romantic start of the relationship, how often do characters think about the smell of the man/woman they're kissing? How often does a kiss suddenly confer intimate knowledge of the health of the prospective partner? I submit kissing, as often as it's included in fiction, is underutilized as an information conveying tool.

Speaking of evolutionary(ish) science and mating, it turns out that, at least for a group of hunter-gatherers in Africa (who you can see here), women who have extramarital affairs resulting in children have better reproductive success than similar women who don't. A caveat--the women in question are all in arranged marriages, so the extramarital affairs are likely helping them in substantive ways that wouldn't be the case in a love match. Still, kinda cool that there may be a subconscious reason for women to look around even while in a stable relationship. Usually we assume only men have a reason. Guess again!

Other cool science I've read this week:

Unintended consequences of controlling phosphorus pollution: nitrogen pollution. Okay, totally including this one because it's something I want to work into my own writing. Here's the background--we all know that phosphates are environmentally unfriendly. That's why we're encouraged to be frugal with our soap use and why soaps are being reformulated to not have phosphates in them (much to the chagrin of clean freaks everywhere since phosphate containing soaps are so much more effective than non-phosphate soaps). Anyway, we've done such a good job controlling phosphate pollution that we've also seen a marked decrease in the number of oxygen-stealing, fish-killing algal blooms. Unfortunately, we've also seen more nitrate pollution, which has its own nasty impacts on water quality, apparently because the phosphate-induced algal blooms were cleaning out the nitrates that otherwise accumulate in the water. Yeah.

Any fascinating conflicts jump out of this week's melange for you?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Sponges in the marine desert

One of the things I think is most awesome about science is when people identify or otherwise figure out the awesome adaptations animals have that allow them to live in places you simply wouldn't expect them to live. This week's Science Sunday is featuring an article out of Science magazine that reports why coral reefs are able to exist in parts of the ocean that would otherwise be considered marine deserts.

Mostly a thriving, productive ecosystem is only possible in places where nutrients are abundant. In the oceans that means near upwelling regions, like the coast of California and South America, the west coast of Africa, parts of the coast of Antarctica, and the equatorial Pacific ocean. All of those places have significant upwelling and, consequently, an intense blooming of life.

Those regions are far from the only productive parts of the ocean. Indeed, some of the highest diversity and highest productivity in the ocean occurs at coral reefs, which occur primarily in areas lacking significant upwelling or other nutrient inputs. In fact, coral reefs occur in regions that are so nutrient poor they're considered marine deserts. The question is, how does that happen? We know that corals have photosynthetic symbiotes, but are they productive enough to overcome the nutrient scarcity of the local environment?

In a word, no. But sponges are. Sponges, which are really heterotrophs turn out to be major producers of biomass on reefs. They filter out dissolved organic matter (DOM--basically any carbon-containing molecule or larger particle in the water) and turn it into their cells. Filter cells then get spewed out into the larger ecosystem and consumed by everything else, supporting much of the food chain. The cool thing about the de Gooj, et al. article is that it suggests the amount of waste produced by the sponges is close to the amount of gross primary production required by the coral reef ecosystem.

How does that work into fiction? Well, imagine you need to create an ecosystem on a desert planet and need to come up with some way to support that ecosystem. Sponges (or some analog) are very simple, easily overlooked creatures, and might be one way to support your ecosystem. If, say, you wanted to give your story a relatively hard science feel to it.

Monday, September 30, 2013


I love good dystopia. I love reading fun thought experiments where something gets tweaked in the society in an interesting way--banning books, subjecting everyone to the thought police, altering human reproduction in some way--and then we see where that society goes. A good dystopia, in my mind, is one that sheds light on our current society by changing some fundamental and then putting us readers in the position of empathizing (or at least following) someone who has grown up with that fundamental.

I'm not going to list all my favorite dystopian literature, but I am going to say "Birthmarked" is getting a spot on the list. It's about a young girl, Gaia Stone, who is a midwife. As a midwife she's expected to hand over the first three babies she assists in the birthing of to the enclave--basically the walled-off upper eschelon of the society. She has no reason to question this practice. It's well-known that kids inside the enclave live lives of relative luxury, with access to education, better food, and better medicine than those outside the walls can afford. Her older brothers both went to the enclave. She, however, was scarred by and accident with hot wax when she was young and so she wasn't picked to be 'advanced.'

Shortly after she delivers her first baby to the enclave, she discovers her parents have been arrested and taken to the prison inside the enclave. She, of course, has to get them back so she sneaks in, just in time to watch the execution of a very pregnant woman. Gaia convinces the man responsible for disposing of the body that she's a relative and quickly slices open the woman's belly, saving the child but landing in prison. From there she slowly unravels the mystery of why her parents were arrested and why the enclave wants the babies in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why I love this book. First, it is a well-told story. I didn't ever want to put it down and was always anxious to pick it back up.

Second, unlike many science fiction dystopias there weren't any egregiously bad science details for me to get hung up on. This could as accurately be classified as a science fiction novel and the science in it is good. There's no magic science allowing people to control others or know things they shouldn't be able to know.

Third, human life is valued within the framework of the story. One of the things I dislike in many dystopias is that human life is considered worthless, or at least very cheap. That attitude is so thoroughly divorced from my experience as a Western person that I have a hard time accepting it. Sure, under extreme situations those of us raised in the western world would have the potential to treat (some) human lives as expendable, but not as an every-day thing. I think the suicide rates and prevalence of PTSD and other psychological disorders among our combat veterans speaks to that strongly. When you're raised with the idea that human life is sacred, living in a situation in which human life is suddenly completely expendable does serious psychological damage.

With the possible exception of the Hunger Games trilogy, that theme isn't even hinted at. It's just assumed that once society descends into chaos human life will become cheap and will forever stay cheap (Margaret Atwood, I'm looking at you). I simply don't think that's realistic. People raised with a western mindset will reassert the value of human life once some measure of stability is possible again. People are too big an investment, even if you don't educate them all that well, to just throw to the meat grinders.

Lastly, instability doesn't last all that long, certainly not decades. Humans, flexible as they are, like stability and will work--hard--to create it. I'm concurrently (sort of) reading Rob Ziegler's "Seed." It's hard to know how long the conflict in that story's been going on, but it sounds like people have been on the move, dealing with serious ecological disasters for decades. That's simply not realistic. Yes, people have been nomadic in the past, but with much smaller population densities. If we returned to a nomadic lifestyle, even if it were a sort of itinerant farming kind of lifestyle, human population would drop to the level that would be supported ecologically within a few years at most and you'd stop having mass starvation all the time. Droughts, floods, or other disasters would occasionally stomp on the remaining human population, but those events wouldn't be yearly. So, yeah, the image of starving farmers drifting zombie-like across the plains is heart-wrenching and frightening, but not realistic.

Far more realistic is the image painted by O'Brien: a smallish city, isolated, but eking out an existence based on locally available resources and the remnants of technology preserved by the (now) upper echelons of the society.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Science

These will likely be pretty quick posts in general, more notes on something cool I've read that might spark a story idea or add fullness to world building.

Here's one that I already kind of knew from my own research, but in canonized form. According to the 2013 IPCC summary, the water cycle has changed noticeably in roughly the ways we expect. I'm linking to this post that quotes the relevant section rather than the entire document, but if you want to see the whole thing, it's linked too. Anyway, in a nutshell, what the summary of the summary says is that snow and ice cover has decreased and the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events has increased thanks to anthropogenic warming. Also, the amount of the Earth's surface that is subject to the monsoon has increased.

Obviously not all bad--more summertime rain for the regions with monsoons is probably a good thing, especially since those tend to be the regions that depend on snow pack or glacial melting. Not all good, though, since snow pack is an important water source for many semi-arid regions, meaning droughts are likely to become more severe.

Why I like this for science fiction: there are plenty of stories where weather plays a role in setting the tone. Not that I have numbers, but tone or mood is probably the most frequent use for weather period. That makes sense, since most of the time weather is backdrop to the action of life. There are a few where storms or droughts are significant parts of the plot, but not often in science fiction or fantasy. Kim Stanley Robinson incorporates extreme weather into the "40 Days of Rain" series (which is specifically about global warming) and Brandon Sanderson includes highstorms (which are magical in nature, so probably don't really belong here, but I like the usage) in "The Way of Kings." Mostly they are plot devices, a way to throw in some man vs. nature action. This is mostly to say that such man vs. nature is likely to become more prominent in our future.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Science and fiction

I love science fiction. I love the tropes and the exploration of the what if scenario. I love hard sci-fi, where the physics of the world create the drama and I love space opera, even thought it might as well be fantasy.

I don't write science fiction, though. At least not often. I'm far more likely to create a fantasy setting than a science fiction one for the simple reason that I like science too much. I get far too wrapped up in the world building and forget about the human drama, which makes for pretty boring stories.

I have definite world-builder's disease.

It's a shame, too, because there's so much human drama still to be explored. To pick on my own science, climate change has a huge impact on populations, yet it's not something that's very often a feature of books. Part of that is scale, I'm sure. It's easy to tackle a single event--a flood or drought, hurricane, tornado, or tsunami--but the human lifetime is too short to really register climate change. Historically, climate change has more often been the driver of extinction, yet apocalyptic fiction tends to utilize things like plagues, nuclear winters, and meteorites to kill off the majority of the human species. Again, the scale is the issue here. Climate change is slow and a relatively slow famine isn't sexy.

There's also nothing to be done about one.

My plan over the next who knows how long is to post a weekly feature talking about something I've seen in the science world that I think would create interesting drama, or at least flesh out the world of a story. At worst, it's an excuse for me to spend some time talking about cool science ideas I think are underutilized or too poorly known.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

Salisbury writer's forum

Today I went to my second writing conference. Lots of good thoughts, but I'm tired and headachy, and I've worn heel far too long today. So, here are a few highlights from my notes.

There is no big secret to getting published. Work hard at your craft.

Each project brings new challenges. Some lessons learned will be helpful; others might hold your writing back. Learn when to rewrite and when to leave it alone for a while.

A memory file (the mind) needs frequent updates. That's why some of us write.

Successful writers have at least one of the following:
  --A spouse who earns a lot of money. Allows freedom to devote oneself to writing.
  --Personal ability to not feel responsible for other people.
  --The capacity to generate a revenue stream from writing related activities (speaking, involvement in conferences and workshops, etc.).
  --Good enough to get out of Australian market.

First page reading by editors/agents showed how subjective liking someone's work is. None of the submissions were universally liked, though basically if one person hated it, everyone hated it. There is a basic level of good writing, but beyond that it's subjective. I really wish I'd submitted something, but oh well--next year.

Lots more, but mostly it was just fun to hang out with a bunch of other writers.

Friday, August 23, 2013


A few nights ago my husband and I watched Oblivion. Visually it's a stunning. The genesis of the movie in a graphic novel is obvious.


I'm enough of a scientist that I have a hard time shutting off the analytic/logical part of my brain. While I can kind of ignore little logic holes in fantasy by pretending there are just different physics (to a degree, in any case) I'm very critical of science fiction. Thus, my not so impressedness with Beth Revis' "Across the Universe."

Oblivion falls short for me in the logic. Not that I can totally remember everything, but there were enough little things--claiming Chicago sits on bedrock; no explanation of the aliens stealing Earth's water when there are other more water-rich planets in our solar system; Tom Cruise's magic impregnation of his wife who was an astronaut and thus almost certainly on birth control; the convenient way in which the plot drives when the probes get shot, rather than there being, I don't know, a spot on them that has to be hit--enough little things that bugged me just enough that I couldn't quite turn off the science brain.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The AnaSwitch

Reading "The AnaSwitch," by Angie Baron, is so enjoyable I didn't notice not much happens plot-wise for most of the book. The story is pretty simple: Anna L Hare (our tall, awkward protagonist) finds out after her father's death that her name is actually Helanar Gatwick and she isn't human--she's half Elvari and half Cloaker. She's whisked off to a mansion where she makes friends with the other six Cloakers who are still alive (and conveniently about her age). In between tea parties, fancy dinners, and tours of their amazing mansion they teach Halanar/Anna about the world she's suddenly thrust into and (sporadically) try to decode the clues left by Helanar's father to lead them to to the AnaSwitch, a magical bracelet made from Helanar's mother's hair that she needs to survive. Along the way Helanar falls in love--twice--thus giving us our YA love triangle.

The world Baron creates is so lovely, and her writing so much darned fun to read it's a hard book to put down. The characters are quirky and fun, from Helanar, who is sweet and evokes such sympathy you don't want anything bad to happen to her ever, to Misty and her cloak of wonders (including an infinite supply of possibilitea, a microwave, and a whisk named Horace), to the tortured Jasper with his spider and snake friends and swoon-worthy hair. This is a book you read for the ride, and it is a fun-filled, magical ride.

(I admit, I might love the book in part because it's set in Australia. It's just a bit comforting to read about footy and winter in June.)

For those who care about the cleanness of books--this one is squeaky clean. Kissing is as scandalous as it gets, and most of the swooning is accomplished over chaste pecks to the cheek. This is a book that you could easily hand to a twelve or thirteen year old, but I still very much enjoyed as an adult. The darkness Helanar faces is of the variety most of us will face in our lives--self-doubt, selfishness, greed. There are hints that Baron is planning to turn the tables on our heroes as well, forcing them to confront more complex ethical questions. I'm expecting these characters are going to face some significant growth in future books.

My only worry while reading the book (and annoyance when I finished) is that most of the action-y stuff happens in the last few pages. I didn't read this book very quickly--it's too fun--until the very end, at which point I started devouring page after page. The ending is fast--it feels like a pleasant trot through the enchanted woods for the first 90%, at which point you're suddenly a contestant in the Kentucky Derby. While there's resolution for one major plot arc (the AnaSwitch itself) Baron leaves most other major plot threads hanging. Grr. Baron does have a fantastic sense of humor about leaving us hanging, at least, so if I ever have the fortune to run into her I'll simply glare in annoyance for a few moments before offering her a proper cup of tea with a frothy pink cupcake.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Heroine's Journey

Last night I watched a Barbie movie (Princess Charm School) with Sylvia and Paul. Having now spent a bit of time listening to people talk about the hero's journey, I noticed that there were definite aspects of the plot that fit that mould.
  • Our heroine, Blair, is an orphan who, at the beginning, receives a call to adventure which she initially denies before ultimately accepting (like every hero's journey ever it seems). 
  • Blair has a mentor who tutors in the feminine arts in which she's deficient, just like a good mentor is supposed to. 
  • She 'meets' her dead parents in the form of a painting of them where her mother looks a lot like her. 
  • In order to prove she is the true princess she and her friends go on a quest to look for the lost crown that will reveal Blair's true identity, eventually venturing into an underground vault.
  • The underground vault is under the control of the primary antagonist, and the girls are locked in there in the climax of the story.
  • After they escape from the vault the girls are chased by the security guard who is in cahoots with the primary antagonist.
Yeah, so I know Hollywood is basically in love with the hero's journey. In some ways I'm glad to see they use the same formula for a girl adventure. Treating Barbie/Blair as the hero(ine) with a path to struggle along in pursuit of her goals is empowering and it's exhilarating to watch Blair (and some other key characters) grow as people.

I just wish the skills Blair and the other girls have to master weren't quite so lame. Supposedly being a princess is the most important job in the realm, yet all the girls learn about in their classes is how to deport themselves in very traditionally feminine ways--with grace, beauty, and modesty. Most of what they're shown doing is learning how to walk and dance and be traditionally (and expensively) beautiful. I don't really begrudge the characters those things, but in my mind those things are the perks of being in the ruling class, not 'skills' you have to master to become part of the ruling class. There's essentially no mention of book lernin' or critical thinking or any of the other, more masculine traits that are characteristic of people truly in the ruling class.

And then there's race. Blair is, of course, blonde-haired and blue eyed ('cause she's Barbie). Anybody else with a speaking part is white. There are some darker-skinned girls shown, notably in the crowd of hopefuls at the lottery, but they're all in the background.

Anyway, not a terrible movie, but problematic in kinda predictable ways.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Good TV, Bad TV

I don't have tons of time to watch television, so I try to be a little selective. Even so, I'm pretty much always a sucker for spy shows and anything science fiction-y.

At my library I picked up a couple of spy shows on DVD: Spooks (aka MI5, I think, in the US), which is a BBC production; and The Protectors (Livvagterne in Danish, where the show was made). You know, I had high expectations for Spooks, but in the end it was just annoying. It felt like the creators couldn't decide if they wanted to make a joke out of the show or not. The characters were very cliche'd, they all had stupid issues, and they really not consistent from one episode to the next. The worst was a romantic subplot in which, in stereotypical TV fashion, once Ellie, Tom's significant other, finds out he's a spy (and not really named Matt) she loses trust in him and turns into a petulant, over-emotional wreck. They finally patch things up in the last episode, but Tom accidentally locks them in his house with a bomb he unwittingly took home. It's a bad sign when as a viewer you're secretly hoping the bomb will go off and remove the idiotic, unbelievable characters from your life.

The Protectors is completely different, in spite of also being a spy show and having basically the same cast of characters. The difference, I think, is that instead of giving characters stupid drama to deal with, and spending a lot of time then dealing with it on screen, we only get to see the parts of their drama that interact directly with the plot. For instance, the only time we see Jasmina, a Muslim immigrant, dealing with the tension between her and her more devout sister is in plot arcs where their conversation can give deeper meaning to greater plot. That happens not infrequently, as several of the plot arcs involve the tension between Muslim immigrants and Danish society. It also does a nice job of showing the diversity in Muslims and Danes. The writers take their characters seriously, and while their characters are stand ins for the broader society, they're also realistic individuals.

These realistic individuals deal with their life dramas in internally consistent ways, which I have to say is also refreshing. The character arcs feel specific to each character. While each character serves a purpose on the show, they evolve and react in ways I can see real people reacting. For example, in one episode in the second series Rasmus shoots and kills a child. It is, in the moment, the appropriate course of action but it haunts him and eventually leads him to leave the protection service. I admit, part of what I love is that he offers to be a stay at home dad, because he realizes he wants a more normal life. Anyway, in the same episode, Jonas kills someone. Again, it's the appropriate action in the moment. Not that we see too much more of Jonas in the series, but it's pretty obvious he hardly thinks about that action. He was simply doing his job and thus is able to completely divorce himself from any serious feelings of guilt. It's all the difference between the characters. Rasmus is always a more empathetic character, which causes him to feel immense guilt over the mistaken killing. Jonas is more self-centered, which is why he cheats on his wife and is able to move on from the negative part of his job.

I could go on, but I've thrown in enough spoilers there. Protectors was a fantastic show. I wish it'd kept going, though I'm happy with where it ended. The second series was increasingly dark and I think dragging it on would have left the more realistic characters of the show dealing with serious PTSD. More than just Rasmus, anyway.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Other books I've read

I don't feel like I've read a lot this month, but apparently I have because I managed to fit in three books. Granted, I think I read all three in about a week and a half, meaning the rest of my month has been pretty devoid of reading, but I did have that lovely literary binge in the middle.

Anyway, in addition to "White is for Witching" (reviewed earlier) I also read "Miss New India," by Bharati Mukherjee and "Zahrah the Windseeker," by Nnedi Okorafor Mbachu. I chose all three of these as part of the women of genre fiction challenge. I enjoyed reading the other two books far more than I enjoyed "White is for Witching," and in hindsight, I kind of wish I'd reviewed one of those. Oh well.

"Miss New India" is about a woman, Anjali/Angie who is coming of age in India and being pulled between a traditional life, focused on marriage to a man of her parent's choice, or a modern life in the vibrant, pulsating cities like Bangalore. She's really kinda lazy, and until her soon-to-be-fiancee rapes her, she's on track to do the easy thing and just get married like her parents want her to. After that she leaves for Bangalore, where she meets people (one of whom turns out to be a terrorist), has a bunch of adventures (including being detained by the police because she looks like her terrorist friend), and grows from a pretty much overconfident youth into a much more humble, insecure adult. She also never really gets a job. It was interesting. In some ways it felt like Angie was supposed to be sort of an Indian every woman, and it felt like the author was critiquing certain Indian attitudes, especially regarding marriage, work, materialism and beauty, and changing cultural norms. At the same time, Angie felt like a real person, especially in those moments where she's most flawed. I don't know that I really liked her, but I understood her.

"Zahrah the Windseeker" is the other book I read and it is one of my favorite reads in quite a while. I was expecting a YA and really it's  more of a middle grade (MG) book; that said, I loved reading this book. Zarah, our protagonist, is a girl born with vines growing in her hair--she's 'Dada.' It isn't until later that she realizes her dada-ness also allows her to fly, and then she has to overcome her fear of heights to actually use this amazing gift. Zarah lives in a world where all the familiar technology we know is provided by plants, and that world is probably what I loved most about the book. This is a hero's journey in which Zarah must overcome her fear and a bunch of monsters of the forbidden jungle in order to save the life of her friend. It's a fantastic read and one I'm really surprised I haven't heard more about. At the same time, I don't really have my finger on the pulse of MG and it was published in something like 2005, so that may explain why I hadn't heard about it. But a great book!

Friday, May 17, 2013

White is for Witching

I am not into literary novels. For that reason alone, I probably should have avoided this book. "White is for Witching" is a very literary read, which translates into beautifully written but meandering, lacking in plot, and full of characters who aren't necessarily interesting or sympathetic. In fact, the most sympathetic characters are the minor characters. 

The story (such as it is) follows Miri and her twin brother, Elliot, who are mourning after the death of their mother, Lily. Miri, who had pica to begin with, totally loses it after her mother's death and basically starves herself stupid. Very stupid. Not stupid enough to keep her out of Cambridge (?!?!), but stupid nonetheless. I suppose the book could be seen as chronicle of a  mentally unbalanced woman killing herself through starvation and dragging loved ones down with her. It's not a very pleasant arc, and the inciting incident isn't quite satisfactory, but again, it's literary fiction. Things don't apparently have to make sense here. They often don't.

A folk tale appears many times in the story and I suspect WifW is supposed to be a re-imagining of the folk tale, but it doesn't work as that for me quite. In the folk tale a soucouyant is stealing the life force of young people. In the end, a brave girl banishes the soucouyant by rubbing salt and pepper on her skin (which she steps out of at night like a day dress). In WifW it's never even clear who the soucouyant is, which is a point even made in one of the chapter titles. In my reading the house (or the goodlady, who I think is the soul of the house) is the most likely candidate, though Miri is certainly also a candidate. Ore (who tells the story) makes a comment about her story mostly being about the end of the soucouyant. I suppose this could also be a story about the beginning of the soucouyant, though even there it's not quite right because the house starts collecting people long before Miri's around. It's not really clear why, or at what point the house changes from a benign run-of-the-mill house to a rather more sinister eat 'em up house, but there it is: we're dealing with the end of the soucouyant, not the beginning.

I also wasn't pleased with the dangling threads all through the book. Yes, I know it's far more realistic to have things that are never resolved, but in a book I don't expect half the book to be scenes that deal with something or someone that is so peripheral to the plot they might as well not be there. There most glaring to me were the multitude of subplots revolving around immigrants. The Silver/Dufresne family members are very WASP-ish and yet surrounded by immigrants, both legal and illegal, from all corners. The Silvers are very sympathetic toward immigrants, but the house they live in isn't. In fact, the house works hard to get rid of everyone except the Silver women, apparently seeing even brothers and husbands in the same light as the Kosovoan refugees are seen by society at large. I wonder if the author was trying for an allegory here, but it's not one that works for me. 

I don't know. It's a book that I think is trying to get me to think about it, but the characters and plot aren't compelling enough for me to really invest in.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Like many creative people I am beset by feelings of inferiority, anxiousness regarding my performance, and feelings of worthlessness. It's not fun, it's not helpful.

It's the basilisk's eyes.

I killed my dream of becoming a scientist by staring so deeply at my insecurities I paralyzed myself. I effectively made myself irrelevant. Nobody else had to tell me I sucked at science; I was very good at that all on my own.

I started out writing thinking, "Oh, this'll be better. I don't feel insecure about this so it'll be better. People like my writing."

Now I'm something like 30K words in (so probably half to a third of the way through my book) and the insecurity is kicking in.

I find myself asking, will people like my story when it's done? Is it really that well written? Is this dumb? Are my characters boring, flat, inconsistent, too similar, too much like me? Is this plot going to work, or are there gaping holes that I don't see because I'm too close to this?

I've failed once. I don't want to fail again. I hate failing. I don't know if I can handle another failure. If I never get published, fine, but I want to give this writing thing a go. I may never make a living at it, I may never find an audience or success, but I just want to finish this story, make it the best I can, and get on with life.

Is that too much to ask, basilisk?

I know I can improve when it comes to writing. I know I can become a better story teller, better writer, better thinker. I never had that confidence with science. I always thought the amount of scientific ability I had was fixed, and fixed relatively low. I never felt like I improved, never felt like I was critical enough or consistent enough or creative enough. I never felt like I could find good ideas.

Writing is different for me there. I can get better, I can find and create good ideas. I can identify the places I need to get better (or find people willing to help me find them) and then focus on improving. That is a powerful thing.

Enough winging. Time to write.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Across the Universe

So, overall I enjoyed reading Across the Universe, by Beth Revis. I'll probably read the next one, too, even though there were things about this book I didn't think were stellar. It's a first novel and a YA, so I can excuse a certain amount of heavy-handedness and other flaws. This certainly isn't a book I'm going to think back on in the future, though.

I'm more than a little surprised, too. Revis posted the first chapter of this book on her website and it's so good I've thought about it regularly, basically every time I look at my "to read" list on goodreads and realize I still haven't knocked it off the list. It's a stellar opening--Revis gives us a sympathetic protagonist, Amy, dealing with a wrenching emotional decision (whether or not to accompany her parents on an interstellar journey that will require her to be frozen for 300 years or stay on Earth and live out a life with her Aunt, Uncle, and boyfriend) and an intriguing mystery (why the freezing is continuing even though the launch has been delayed).

There is no answer to that mystery. Amy's parents are lost to her anyway. The first chapter really is just setup. It's also the best chapter in the book, imho.

Amy is awakened accidentally (kind of) and, because of the way she was unfrozen she can't be re-frozen. The scientist in me wonders why they can't just wait a few years for her tissues to completely turn over/heal (if it even takes that long) and then re-freeze her, but that's nothing ever explored. Now that Amy's thawed, she's thawed for good.

The other protagonist is Elder, a 16-year-old boy who was crushing on Amy even before she was unfrozen simply because she's a red head. Apparently it's not just in fantasy that red heads have super magical powers. Science fiction red heads are apparently super attractive, especially to a boy from a mono-ethnic culture.

A note on mono-ethnic cultures: humans pretty much evolved in mono-ethnic groups. We also pretty much fought in mono-ethnic groups for most of our existence, since most fighting was with neighboring tribes who also, not coincidentally, were often kin. Does this have anything to do with the book? Well, let's move forward.

So, as it turns out, Elder is the next in line to be supreme leader of the people aboard the generation ship. His mentor, Eldest (gee, I wonder if there's any significance to the similarity of their names) is teaching him all about being an effective leader. By effective leader he really means a tyrant willing to do whatever it takes to keep the people on the ship happy and alive. It's a completely closed system and it sorta makes sense democracy as we know it just wouldn't work, but the tyranny espoused by Eldest is over the top. He claims the three reasons for strife are 1) differences, 2) lack of a strong leader, and 3) individual thought.

As it turns out, it's so over the top, Eldest's favorite leader is Hitler. You know, 'cause he was a strong leader who sought racial homogeneity and stamped down individual thought.

Oh, and Lincoln sent the blacks back to Africa to maintain the racial homogeneity of North America.

Yeah, I get it, rewriting history is bad. This is so extreme it's hard to take seriously, and it just feels so lazy. I know it's YA, so Revis may have felt she needed to use kind of lowest common denominator history in her book, but it's got to be possible to use someone other than Hitler, and defame someone other than Lincoln. Sheesh, she could have made up her own, in-world leader and let Amy fill us in on the details. Really, she already shows in so many other ways how bad a person Eldest is that the Hitler thing is redundant anyway.

But anyway, Elder doesn't quite understand things yet and Amy is a wrinkle in Eldest's plans for continuation of his little corner of the human species/ship domination. Eldest does stuff to isolate Amy, most of which pushes Elder toward her more firmly; there's a subplot revolving around protecting the other people in stasis, some of whom are murdered through improper unfreezing; there's this thing ominously called "the season" that's obviously a frenzied mating season. Stuff happens.

The murder subplot's really pretty obvious since there are only about six major characters, and the motivation of only one of them is left unexamined.

The season thing is also pretty obvious, though the scientist part of my brain didn't quite turn off enough to buy it. The humans on board have a single mating season when they're 20 years old. All women, from basically a few days of mad sex with whatever male is nearest, get pregnant immediately. They then raise their children, who subsequently have a single mating season at 20. Okay, I get that they manipulate everyone's hormones to time them together; I get that they have magic science that informs them if a woman is likely to conceive.

Something like 20% to 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. I guess they get around that with their magic gene splicing serum that also turns some of the people into mad geniuses and keeps the rest docile. Fine.

They have to have more than one mating season. To have a stable sized population you need a replacement rate of about 2.1 children per female. So, if they only have one mating season, everyone has to have twins or triplets. I guess the 40 year olds could also get pregnant, though a lot of women are infertile by that point in their lives. Magic science, making women baby factories twice in their lives.

The thing I found most disappointing about the book, though, was that it's so very male-dominated. While it doesn't fail the Bechdel test, Amy is the only major female character. Of the three other named women one shows up in one scene only and another shows up twice, and dies in her second appearance. That scene (Amy taking Steela up to the fourth floor from which nobody has ever returned is one of those scenes where the character is so inexpressibly (and out of character) stupid you want to strangle someone.

I know, I'm complaining a lot. I really did enjoy reading the book. I liked Amy (most of the time) and liked Elder as characters. It's good that it's a fast read, thouh as it does not hold up to close scrutiny.

I don't know if I'll read the next one. The first chapter (included at the end of the book) again sets up an interesting problem and is quite well-written. After the promise of that other first chapter wasn't really realized, though, I'm a little wary of committing to the second book.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The House of the Spirits

I don't often re-read books. I always tell myself I know the ending, I've read it before, so how could I enjoy it again?

I'm especially wary of books I read in high school.

The House of the Spirits, by Isabelle Allende was one of the few books assigned in English that I remember truly loving. Now that I'm older, when I reflected on why I really couldn't remember. Was the book that good, or did I love it because there was a controversy attached to it (a number of parents thought it was inappropriate for high school students)? Did I love it because I read it during an important, emotional time of my life, or was there something deeper and more meaningful to my remembered emotion?

A few weeks ago I stumbled across it in my library and, just for grins, I picked it up and started reading. It really is that good. Allende creates a cast of characters that run the gamut from outrageous and hilarious to dreadful and menacing. I'm sure we discussed it in high school, but it wasn't until this time around that I understood this is the story of Esteban Trueba, not the story of Clara and her daughter, Blanca, and grand daughter, Alba. They are integral parts of the story, and are really more dynamic than the angry, self-absorbed Esteban, but it is more the story of his life than it is the story of any of theirs, even as Alba and Clara narrate.

In high school the main objection voiced by parents concerned about THotS was the amount of sex. I was too young then to notice it (plus, I was a reasonably sheltered girl) so the sex kinda went over my head. I caught it this time. I'm still pretty sure the sex that was there wasn't unnecessary. It certainly wasn't overly titillating.

Along side the sex (and the issue I wonder might have actually been at the heart of the parental misgivings) is a debate over economics and fairness in the economic system. For most of the book the country is run by capitalists, meaning those who are wealthy are also the ones in power. Esteban Trueba, as a rich, hard-working man, is one of the people in power. I wish I still had the book to quote directly, but he elucidates a viewpoint I think most rich people in this country espouse: they're rich because they earned it and if they were to hand over their wealth to those who work for them the workers would simply squander it. It's certainly a sentiment I've heard enough from conservatives in this country.

Esteban is the embodiment of the whole ideal--he pulls himself up by his bootstraps (fortunately firmly anchored to family land), turning a neglected hacienda into the prosperous foundation for further business. It's true that he worked hard, and it's true that the hacienda was effectively fallow when there was no patron. The workers on the land only lived at subsistence level without Esteban at the helm. On the other hand, once he took over he did exploit them, paying them in company scrip, enriching himself and not really rewarding the people who did the bulk of the hard physical labor, forcing them to adopt his views on vitamins, education, and nutrition. And then there was all the raping of the daughters, the illegitimate children he refused to claim.

Sure, Esteban is a self-made man, but he's also a duche.

Pretty much everyone around him is more liberal than him, and more willing to believe that poor people don't deserve to be downtrodden and constantly in want. There's a constant pull, then, between Esteban and the more liberal people around him. To his credit, Esteban indulges his liberal relations and because of that his fortune becomes a force for good in the lives of many people.

What I really loved about this book is that there aren't right or wrong answers to the economic questions, or really any of the questions posed in the book, with the exception of military intervention into the political arena. This isn't a book where all the bad guys a communist or fascist, or capitalist. There are enough positive and negative aspects to each character to make them whole, and a whole person is hard to see as entirely bad. The arguments each makes, the viewpoints each holds are similarly complicated, similarly whole, and thus, it's impossible to dismiss any of them out of hand. They're all right in some ways and wrong in others.

Something I definitely want to work into my own writing.

Friday, April 19, 2013


This month is Camp NaNoWriMo, which is kind of a NaNoWriMo where you set your own goal. Fortunate for me because 50K words is way out of the realm of what I could do. 10K words, on the other hand, that I can manage.

The cool thing is, I am managing it. I'm not necessarily writing every day, but I am writing consistently, and finding some benefits to that consistency. For instance, the writing is easier, both to get into and to finish. What I write flows better, sounds better to me, and is going over better with my writing group. Not that I've gone through the exercise yet of reading out loud, but I'd guess the things I'm writing now will sound better out loud. I'm getting a better idea of my characters, and remembering them better. Oh, and my secondary characters actually have personalities because the primary characters are more cemented, leaving me mental space to give secondary characters some attention.

Best of all, I'm having more fun writing.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The proposal

Yes, I know. If I watch rom-coms I deserve what I get.

I watched "The Proposal" last night. Wow, what a stinker. I mean, it's kind of a bad thing when you're watching a romantic comedy and hoping the besieged couple doesn't make it. The Sandra Bullock character was so unsympathetic--blackmailing your secretary into a marriage? Passing on his manuscript to keep him at your beck and call? Cutting in line?--I really wanted her to get caught and sent back to Canada.

The secondary characters might have been good--c'mon! Betty White was the granny!--except that, in typical rom-com style, they were totally overplayed, one-dimensional, stereotypical characters. 

The only reason to watch this movie is the great scenery. Pretty landscape, pretty people. Other than that, it's a pass.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


I really hope I'm not out of commission for writing.

Tonight I thought I'd clean some glass in my house. As it so happens, my kids love Windex. My son, determined kid that he is, tried to pull th bottle from my hands. In the process he broke the bottle, cut my hand, and strained some of the tissues in my hand to the point I can basically only use my thumb.

Sigh. I was right on target for my April Camp NaNoWriMo super easy goal. I hope this heals quickly, or I get very good at this kind of typing quickly.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Where March went

So, it's this funny thing. March is gone and I have nothing to show for it. I didn't write much; I didn't read much; I basically didn't blog at all. All I have to show for the month of March are a couple of kids who were fed, clothed, and entertained reasonably well, and who only sustained minor injuries during that time. Oh, and Easter candy. Lots of Easter candy.

In April I'm doing camp NaNoWriMo with a very modest goal (10,000 words). So far I've done pretty well with that goal--I'm just a little bit ahead of where I need to be to finish my 10,000 words in one month. It's not entirely true that I didn't write in March. I finished one chapter (badly, but 2000 words, so not nothing) and I did a bit of outlining. Really, I did quite a bit of outlining.

I'm a discovery writer. I almost never start with an idea of where I want to end up; I start with an idea I think is cool and see where it takes me. Unfortunately, usually I just write around in circles. I'm attempting to get around that by listening to the advice of other writers and figuring out my ending and then what I need my characters to do/have happen to them to get to that point. It's a bit like figuring out a puzzle. I find I do enjoy the thought process, though then meshing the outline with the writing is still a challenge.

You see, I have a hard time doing mean things to my characters. I decided to shove one of them off a cliff in February, and another couple just lived through a massacre, so it's not like I can't do mean things to them externally, but then figuring out what my characters are going to do in response and how that works into the outline...

Friday, March 1, 2013


The day Alex met a mermaid was unusual only for the fact that the person she was complaining too actually agreed with her.

"I think he's just not interested in my project anymore. I mean, you'd think he'd want me to go for that fellowship. He's certainly making a big enough deal about Gregori applying." Alex pushed her fingers over the keyboard, distracting herself from the constriction in her chest. She had two more published papers than Gregori and a patent in her name. That ought to count for something. Somehow it never seemed to.

"Yeah, he'd kinda been a dick to you lately. I mean, Schmidt's always an ass to girls but up until lately he kinda overlooked your gender...hey, I think I can see the bow." James sat up as straight as he ever did as the pale ghost emerged from the inky black. The constriction in Alex's chest warred with her excitement as the almost unchanged form of the Titanic swept through the view screen. It looked just like the videos Alex had watched obsessively since high school, only this time it was live and Alex was sitting next to the guy piloting the ROV. Alex wanted to whoop with joy, to dance around the lab, to kiss James square on the lips. This was so far from where she thought robotics would take her, some days she still felt like pinching herself.

She closed her laptop and turned her full attention to James' screen.

"You know, you could be a little more excited," James said. 

"And how do you know I'm not excited?"

In trademark James style, he raised a single eyebrow.

A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. She gave in and smiled. "Whatever. Let's test out this baby. We've got to look for some suitably delicate task to test the fingers and then we can move into the vessel. Can you move through that opening there?"

"Here you go." James waved the joystick under Alex's nose.

She looked at him for a split second then snatched the joystick from his fingers.

"I knew you were excited."

"Shut up."

For two hours they tooled around the Titanic, cataloging. The robot's fingers worked perfectly, gently sifting delicate articles from the ooze. Once or twice Alex let go enough to smile.

"This is awesome. The fingers are still working perfectly, even at these pressures. This'll be another paper for sure." Alex shared one of her rare smiles with James.

"Hey congrats, I'm gonna hit the head. Don't find anything exciting without me, 'k?" James didn't wait for her response.

She turned back to her work. Of course he wouldn't be excited for her. 

An open door in a lower deck beckoned. Inside she found a simple room filled with what must have been barracks for the third class passengers. As she rotated around the ROV kicked up fines, momentarily turning everything white.

Pale fins flashed across the screen. Big fins, moving fast. Alex caught a breath. There shouldn't be anything big down that far. Perhaps something swam close. Perhaps she was a little tired. She leaned back and closed her eyes for a moment, rationalizing she needed to wait for the sediment to settle out anyway.

Refreshed and calm, Alex slowly, carefully moved the ROV into the room. A jumbled mass of something caught her attention--could it be someone's belongings? A body? It was morbid, she knew, but she would love to discover the remains of one of the passengers. She also knew the prospect was basically nil with the way organics decomposed under water.

The deft fingers of the robot fished a man's satchel out of the ooze, still intact after more than a hundred years. With everything that water corrupted it was amazing that some things were so well preserved. She made a note of the position of the satchel and the time on the video feed and ordered the robot to place the satchel in the basket. The arms moved slowly through beams of light.

Ghostly, freakishly white hands opened the bag and pulled out a pocket watch and disappeared.

Alex's heart beat loudly in her chest and her head felt like it was full of bees. She wanted to rewind the feed, to see if she'd really just hands--human hands--rumaging through the belongings of a dead person. She wrote down the time stamp, vowing she'd look it up when the dive was finished, when doing so wouldn't compromise the record.

The hands returned, accompanied by a face and body. And a tail.

The last graduate student Alex knew of who had claimed to see a mermaid left science soon after to become an organic farmer somewhere in the Midwest. Suddenly Alex wondered if she still had his email address somewhere.

The mermaid wasn't beautiful. It looked like a bloated corpse, like a zombie more than a creature capable of luring sailors to their doom. Its gender was indeterminate, its hair twisted and matted and full of things Alex was sure were once living.

The mermaid held up the watch and opened it, showing the broken face to the ROV. It pantomimed pushing the button down a couple of times then pushed the watch into the robot's fingers. It blew a kiss at the camera, then swam away, kicking up clouds of detritus.

Alex stared at the screen for a few moments. She shook her head, then ordered the robot to resume putting the satchel and watch into the basket. A sourness settled in her stomach, like she'd stayed up too late. She couldn't possibly risk such an amazing find, especially for a figment of her imagination.

The hands came back and snatched the watch away. The mermaid swam back into view, stuck its barnacled tongue out at her, and again pantomimed pushing the button on the watch. With a sharp swat of its hand it again replaced the watch and swam off.

Ah, so the thing was watching. Alex didn't want to damage the priceless relic with the robot's hands, but definitely didn't want to explain that a mythical creature's capricious behavior was responsible. Choosing the lesser of two evils she clicked.

The mermaid's barnacled tongue was out. It pantomimed pushing the button, replaced the watch in the grasp of the robot and swam away.

She waited and clicked again.

The mermaid was replacing the watch. It swam away, stirring up sediment just as before.

Alex looked at her own watch then pushed again.

Ten seconds were returned to her.

"Hah, you didn't listen to me. Good for you. That pocket watch is impressive." James leaned over her chair. His cheap cologne made her suddenly nauseous.

Alex looked up at him. "Can I tell you something?"


"I saw a mermaid."

"What? You're crazy."

Alex clicked.

"...didn't listen to me. Good for you. That pocket watch is impressive." James leaned over her chair. His cheap cologne made her nauseous again.

"It's a magic pocket watch. When I click it time rewinds ten seconds."

James smirked and rolled his eyes. "We haven't been awake THAT long."

Alex clicked.

"...for you. That pocket watch is impressive." James leaned over her chair.

Alex said, "I'm pregnant. Schmidt knows."

She clicked.

Too bad it's only 10 seconds.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

My Little Pony

Yes, I know. If ever there was a title to make other people run screaming it's that one. Nevertheless, I'm going to talk about "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic," the most recent incarnation of My Little Pony.

'Cause it's really quite good.

A couple of years ago I made the mistake of watching some old episodes of "Transformers." Actually, I should say I attempted to watch *an* episode of "Transformers." I couldn't force myself to sit through an entire 22 minutes of that incoherent, illogical excuse for entertainment. (Really explained a lot about the movies, though.) Since then I've shied away from re-watching any other childhood favorites for fear of spoiling my pleasant memories.

My daughter loves TV (or youtube, since that's really how we watch things) and one of the things she's gotten into is My Little Pony. At first I wasn't all that keen on her watching them. Honestly, I'm still not all that keen on her watching them overmuch; but as TV goes, I'm fairly happy with her watching My Little Pony. The plots are coherent and diverse--there's a good mix between interpersonal relationship plots, bad guy plots, and self-discovery plots. The characters have distinct, consistent voices and personalities. I don't actually watch the show often--mostly I turn it on and let my daughter watch it while I do something else like clean. But I listen frequently and even without the voice acting the characters have distinct voices. I'm definitely impressed by the quality of the writing.

The only aspect of the show I think keeps it from being appropriate for older kids/adults is the fact that the villains have simple, superficial motivations. As an adult I roll my eyes, but for a kid that's probably developmentally exactly right. Makes me feel ever so slightly better about letting her watch brain-rotting TV.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


A few nights ago I watched the movie, "Premonition," with Sandra Bullock and the guy who was the demon husband in "Charmed." It's a story about a woman who wakes up one morning and is told her husband died the previous day. The next morning she wakes up and he's still alive. The next morning he's dead again and she's going to the funeral; then he's alive and they're one day close to the day he dies in a car accident.

It's not the happiest of movies. It's also not the most consistent of movies. Things that have happened don't always show up when they should chronologically. The most glaring is that the daughter runs through a window (a rather amazing feat in and of itself) and the mom doesn't 'remember' because it hasn't happened yet, but nobody else remembers either even though supposedly time is moving normally for them. I suppose the implication could be that what the Sandra Bullock character chooses in her past days makes a difference in the future days, but mostly it comes across as inconsistent.

Anyway, the thing that really bugs me about the movie isn't even the plot; it's Sandra Bullock's character. They show her as a hard-working, more or less on top of things stay at home mom. She obviously takes her job seriously and she does a good job. Except when she doesn't, like when she, in the future, puts up stickers on the windows and then, because she's already done it in the future she forgets to do it in the past, leading to her daughter's accidental through the window incident. Which her husband then blames her for. Now, perhaps I should again be generous to the writers and assume they're showing how dysfunctional the relationship is between the husband and wife, but it still didn't sit right with me.

And then there's the seduction scene. Bullock's character, realizing she wants to fight for her marriage ('cause is there any other choice to make in Hollywood?) seduces her husband. By kneeling in front of him and taking off his shoes. It's all very traditional, very submissive, almost biblical in its imagery.

Not to spoil the ending here, but I'm going to. Bullock decision to fight for her family causes the accident that kills her husband. If she'd trusted him (which it turns out was warranted), if she'd just let things happen, if she'd somehow just been less feminine and less hysterical he would have gone on his trip, driven safely past mile marker 220, and he wouldn't have died. But don't worry, she got pregnant from that last night with hubby so she does at least have one last kid to remember her husband with.

How sweet.

As a stay at home mom I wasn't overly offended by the portrayal of Bullock as a really reasonably effective family manager. The only place she falls down is getting her kids to school on time, which I'd find completely understandable. The eldest daughter's chastising her mother for being late is a little unrealistic and does kinda show where the mom is in the family pecking order, though.

The rest of it, though, is annoying. Bullock does the typical movie "I'm not going to talk to my husband even though I should" thing. She's treated as hysterical by everyone around her. She IS hysterical much of the time, and it's frustrating--they have her doing some really smart things to try and figure out what's going on, but they don't allow her to be smart enough or emotionally detached/stable enough to really figure things out. I wanted her to be smart enough to figure it out, but they just didn't make her that smart. Or perhaps allow her to be that smart.

So, not quite an anti-female movie, but really not a movie that left a good taste in my mouth.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Journey to the other side of the Earth

We have completed our journey through the center of the Earth and emerged on the other side in the hamlet of Adelaide, Australia. I will not bore you with the details of our travails across boiling rivers of molten lava, through underground seas filled with the most fantastic of beasts, and through enormous caverns filled with beautiful crystals twice the height of a man; suffice it to say, we have arrived safe and whole.

True to astral predictions, it is summer here, and a very pleasant one at that. Other predictions (namely, that the citizens on the other side of the world walk on their hands) have proven fortunately false. I am glad I will not have to re-learn to type with my toes as this will speed my return to writing and corresponding with those of you we have left behind in our beloved homeland.

With much affection,

Mrs. H-------