Fusion drives – interplanetary science fiction takes one step closer to reality

NASA is developing revolutionary fusion drive

NASA is working on a fusion engine that has the potential to revolutionize interplanetary travel. For decades, science fiction has imagined the possibility of humanity reaching for the stars, propelled by the power released by mashing together atomic nuclei. As with so many other technological developments, I have little doubt that many of the scientists and engineers involved on this project had their the seed for this work planted in their youth while consuming mountains of stories about space pirates and green aliens hailing from unpronounceable planets.

This highlights two key issues:

1. Youth literacy is essential. There are so many great ideas out there that simply cannot be adequately covered in a movie, TV show, or computer game, that if kids don’t read, they will have a high likelihood of not being exposed to new ideas to pursue; and

2. Science fiction authors are going to have to stay on their toes. So many ideas that seemed to be possibilities only in the dim future are rapidly coming upon us. Authors will need to stay abreast a wide field of rapidly-evolving science so that they can come up with the next wave of weird and wonderful ideas with which to capture the next generation of scientists and engineers, providing them the drive to try to bring to reality whatever mind blowing concept they read about (or yes, even saw in a movie) when they were a kid.

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The Genius Crucible

available at Amazon.com

The Genius Crucible (available at Amazon.com)

A year ago, I was exposed to my first real experience editing a novel. I lovingly and patiently wrangled words and wrestled phrases into a greater level of cohesion for my father on his first outing,  The Genius Crucible. I discovered that this was in fact an enjoyable experience. Although I have been dealing with mountains of paperwork in my day job, there is certainly something special and delightful about using words to bring imagination to life rather than simply fuel the fires of bureaucracy. Here is a short excerpt for your reading pleasure:

CHAPTER ONE: 2015 Karimui, Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Snakes; God I hate snakes. Even a garden hose can scare me. I hold a strong contradiction when it comes to snakes. I inherently fear them. I startle when my subconscious mistakes an unnoticed stick along a trail. A primitive part of my mind thinks it’s a snake, but I also feel they are beautiful critters. I can only marvel at how they locomote, all so alien and exotic. It’s as if my conscious mind can admire snakes, but my subconscious mind is scared the hell of them.

My consciousness seems to identify a gnarled stick on the trail as a piece of art, an image of interest and wonder. My subconscious, though, notices it first, not as a stick, but as a Papuan death adder ready to expunge my existence. Such thoughts are inevitable when one marches through the jungle in the dark.

When the moon escaped from the clouds, I can see massive cumulous clouds rapidly building from the Papuan Gulf as they advance toward the Highlands like an army of huge siege towers electrified by Tesla1 himself. I hope the damn moon will stay out since the trail is covered with kunai and kangaroo grass. Although not tall, the slender and sharp leaves made a nice knee-high tunnel along the trail, perfectly suited to hiding snakes; big and dangerous ones, like Papuan pythons and taipans.

Why can’t they just have garter snakes in PNG? Aren’t they scary enough on a rainy night, in the middle of nowhere, with a dying headlamp?

I had never hiked on a New Guinea trail at night alone. The batteries of my headlamp are failing again and thoughts of snakes are exploding in my mind. This isn’t merely some kind of joke my brain is playing on me; snakes in New Guinea are a real threat. I wish my subconscious mind wouldn’t continually remind me of the string of possibilities lying below my next step because I wish to think about the big event. I met Nara today.

Stubborn fool; the people of Dibe village insisted that I stay the night since all sort of demons are out on rainy nights. Wawi, my translator, afraid of demons, refused to do this hike with me tonight. Negabo village is a long way off, but luckily, there are no big rivers to cross. Damn mossy logs for bridges.

Right now, everything is scary. Hell, this morning Wawi found a small but deadly black scorpion in my boot. How did he know to look in my boot? I have a doctoral degree, yet I’m an ignorant blockhead when it comes to this environment. The jungle is so beautiful, so ominous and aloof, and for the naive, so dangerous. The rainforest is like its snakes, its miraculous birds and in fact, its people. The jungle is mysterious and foreboding.

As I trudge on with all my senses set to high gain, I think: What the hell am I going to do when all my spare batteries are used up and my headlamp dies?

About a mile earlier, before the clouds started building, I shuffled under a casuarina tree, awakening a roosting mob of large fruit bats which, in unison, abruptly lifted en masse, reminiscent of a hat being removed from the head of the tree. The sudden burst of powerful wing beats from this swarm of great bats startled me. It was as if the giant Grendel had jumped out of the jungle. It appeared that they felt safe roosting as a horde.

Safe from what? I wonder. Is there something else I should be worried about this night besides snakes and falling into a ravine? A cassowary maybe?

I make no claim to be knowledgeable about tropical rainforests, but I do know enough that it wouldn’t be good for me to blunder off the trail and into the jungle itself. To the uneducated, the jungle is like the gaping black abyss at the outer edge of a coral reef or a dark alley in Bagdad. One wants to return quickly to the safety of the known.

Even at noon, if I wandered in more than six or eight feet, the fractal geometry of the vines, the massive buttressed trees and profuse understory would give me no clue as to a heading, a bearing. I would rapidly become disoriented by its great abundance. It’s all diffused light in there, no obvious sun, as a piss ant in a thick hairbrush. Even if I could climb into one of those giant trees, I could never get to the top to see anything anyway.

In the Karimui there’s nothing except dense tropical rainforest and a few highly scattered villages. My only hope would be to chance upon a randomly running trail, and that could take many days. My tropical quest is rapidly losing its appeal, and my mind keeps bringing up scary scenarios. But then again, I met Nara today. I met Nara.

Hearing the menacing roar of an approaching tropical downpour, a traveling waterfall, my eyelids tightened. Oh man, here comes the rain! This evening’s drenching. Great! To top it all, I’ll next be attacked by Indians.

The Seven Steps to the Perfect Story

Any author worth her or his salt has probably laid eyes on Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth and is familiar with the concepts relating to the The Hero’s Journey, which one should incidentally avoid using as an excuse for writing a poor story, or risk the wrath of Autotelic.

The CMA (http://www.the-cma.com/images/openmagazine/201210/seven-steps.png) has distilled the work into a brilliant infographic and tossed a few more tidbits in to optimize helfulness:

The Seven Steps to the Perfect Story

I love it! I just wish my printer could cleanly pump this graphic out so I could pin it up on my wall.

Writing Tips: Make Maps (Interior)

Writing Tips: Make Maps (Interior).

Shannon Thompson provides some concise thoughts on the usefulness and process of drawing maps of the interiors of buildings she uses to bring her stories to life.

I agree that such organization is useful, particularly once a story gets to be well-populated with a variety of locations, or when those locations are revisited infrequently. Being able to keep the continuity of details helps sell the story and prevents doubt from creeping into the reader’s mind, thereby helping to suspend disbelief.

Keep your eyes peeled, thar blows inspiration!

Fantasy horror toy shop.

Fantasy horror toy shop.

It’s funny how staying aware of the small things can be a boon to inspiration. Forget sweeping story arcs that need to be fed by globetrotting travels of self-discovery, forget life-changing trauma. Those can without a doubt be opportunities to find something to write about, illustrate, or simply share as an anecdote with friends, but they can be few and far between. When you’re in a bind, butting up against a particularly vicious bout of writer’s block, go for a walk. Forget the big things. Keep your eyes open for little things, things that would make a child wonder and giggle in amazement.

I took this particular picture a few years ago while strolling through an arts and crafts shop looking for some good illustration paper. There was a bin full of fantasy toys with an unusual assortment of models in promising positions. A quick shuffle of a dragon over to the princess’ corner and voilà! Ready-made damsel in distress to talk about. My inner child hooted and hollered, slapped his knee and wanted to make loud munching sounds. Since I made it out of the shop without being arrested, I assume I kept the unfolding drama securely under wraps for an external observer.

I keep the picture on my desktop for those moments where I feel like I’m running out of steam. It makes me laugh a bit, and reminds me to take things a little more lightly.

Book promotion tips from Teleread

Teleread on book promotion

Many posts on tactics for improving the exposure of a book seem to offer ideas, but little data to support how those activities help.

Teleread offers a little more insight, however, I find the survey results would need more definition.

What exactly are the results of? Is it a measure of effectiveness of the tactics, or simply a measure of what the respondents use? Who were the respondents? What is the effect these engagements tend to have on the sales or exposure of said book? Does it vary by genre?

I am looking forward to seeing more on the topic.

Finding inspiration for my illustrated book – It’s a process

A snippet of concept art for my upcoming book.

A snippet of concept art for my upcoming book.

When I set out to write my book, I had in mind a short picture book for kids to flip through and enjoy a fantasy encyclopedia of sorts. It was to have a dual purpose by providing sufficiently detailed illustrations to allow adults to flip through the pages and enjoy a rich visual story, perhaps drawing them back to time when life was simpler and they could take the time to let their minds wander through their imaginations.

My first step was to collate the various notes I’ve scribbled on notepads, notebooks, napkins, recorded in word processors, and other indescribable media over the years to pry out some useful ideas. A healthy dose of goofy imagery courtesy of the doodles I generate so that I can keep my ephemeral attention focused during long meetings helped crystallize a concept in my mind. I then mashed all of these together into a rough outline hitting the key characters I wanted to talk about in the story.

I had started collating some of my notes in a Word file many years ago, but had since migrated my computer to an Apple system. I’d never obtained Word for the Mac, since I had been using Apple’s “Pages” software for my shorter work projects. It’s a nice program, but does not handle large texts with numerous illustrations very well. At least, the version I bought back in 2007 with my computer does not like them at all. It isn’t very good at organizing information, either. I therefore searched the internet for a resource that would help me bring order to the chaos of my notes and help me visualize my story’s structure. I happened upon “Scrivener” a short while ago, and I must say that I am thankful for the way in which it allows me to coerce my information from a shapeless mass into a structured, if nascent, text.

I then built little blurbs for each of these characters and generated an art brief that I would be able to provide an illustrator to share my vision and inspire his or her work. These came together in the form of a project work description that I placed on Freelancer. I was surprised by the level of interest that the diverse community of artists that resides there showed for my project. In particular, a few artists rose above the crowd and became active participants in my writing efforts by coaching me through the Freelancer process and their perspectives on the nature of the work I was asking. In particular, Kenneth “Canifu”, and JJ Zhang were extremely helpful. I am humbled by their talent and their generous sharing of information. In the end, I settled with Art Corod because of the original vision he proposed and his inexhaustible enthusiasm. I may discuss my Freelancer experience and lessons learned in a later post.

After a short process of nailing down the visual style and going over specific project requirements, we set off on our grand adventure. The great thing about writing this book is that I am keeping my child in mind as the primary reader. Even though he probably won’t be able to fully appreciate it for several more years, I show him Art’s preliminary work and ask him which he prefers. As it turns out, a toddler can be pretty opinionated. This particular one appears to have a certain sense of aesthetics which is useful to the book’s art direction as well.

Somewhere along the way, my wife looked at the text I’d put together so far and asked: “Is that it?”

I could have immediately felt crestfallen, but instead sought her insight. She correctly pointed out that a young reader in the range I was designing this book for would be seeking more than fifteen to twenty pages of a fantasy hinterland’s wilderness observer’s guide. They would be seeking a story. At about the same time we were having this discussion, my illustrator sent me a wonderful landscape. You can see a small crop of the image at the top of this post

Although the image was unfinished, the amount of detail was astounding. Within its lines, a wealth of potential adventures played out. A light bulb lit so brightly in my mind that my brain is still sunburned. I was going to use the illustrations that Art was providing me as the inspiration for each of the book’s chapters. Just as I had provided the visual artist with just enough of an impulse to generate these rich images, the illustrations were going to serve as the catalyst for my stories.

Our collaboration has now become even closer, as both writer and illustrator rely on each other to develop the next story thread. As I receive an image, I quickly hammer out the corresponding chapter and feed it back to Art so that he can see where the story is going. This helps him come up with new ideas with which to populate his images, which in turn inspire the details to subsequent chapters. The main plot line will be unlikely to change much, but the detail that makes a story live and breathe will get richer with each passing illustration.

I am looking forward to the next image!