- Newsletter July 20, 2021
I got to thinking about taboos in Science Fiction recently. Not the sort that SF has so famously challenged, starting with Stranger in a Strange Land and Dangerous Visions back in the Sixties. That’s become so mainstream that I can hardly think of a taboo that Game of Thrones didn’t break. I’m thinking of the new taboos that authors invent to add depth to their worlds.
- Newsletter July 6, 2021
The news this week that Tim Berners-Lee sold an NFT of the source code to the first web server sent me searching through my archives. Yep, I have a copy of the source code only slightly later than the version that was just sold (unsigned, of course). You see, when I worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, a colleague came back from a visit to CERN with a copy of Tim’s web server on a tape. Soon it was running on the VM mainframe at SLAC that my team managed, the first web server outside of Europe. One of the first things it served was a connection to the Physics Preprints database, which has evolved into today’s well-known ArXive database of scientific articles (housed at Cornell where I work today).
- Newsletter June 20, 2021
We get to talking about fireflies. My wife remembers the ones in Japan, which come out in the thousands for just a week in mid-June. They’re larger than New York fireflies, and they hover in the creekbeds, gradually rising higher as the night gets darker. In contrast, ours hang out in the trees and grasses, and are active for four to five weeks from mid-June to mid-July, far longer than the short-lived Japanese hotaru (ホタル).
- Newsletter June 6, 2021
About a week ago, I packed up everything from my office at Cornell University and brought it home. No, I didn’t retire or quit or anything like that. After fifteen months of pandemic, working at home has became the new normal. Leadership decided that our department along with several others will pioneer a new hybrid workplace. Most of the IT staff will work at home and our building will be remodeled as meeting rooms, teamwork spaces, and Zoom rooms. It will be more like a conference center than a traditional office building.
- Newsletter May 20, 2021
I’ve recently read three hard science fiction tales set in near-present time, centered around an existential threat to Earth, and featured a desperate space flight to seek a salvation. Those three were The Hail Mary Project by Andy Weir, We Are Legion by Dennis Taylor, and The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal.
- Newsletter May 6, 2021
When the protagonist of Knots walked through a fold in the world into a alternate land, it seemed only natural that he would be befriended by a talking cat. Trefoil was only a walk-on character at first, but quickly became a central part of the narrative. I dedicated the book to the cats who kept me company while writing.
- Newsletter, April 20, 2021
In Stellar Horizons, you build your own space program and advance out into the solar system, first tentatively with fragile robotic orbiters and rovers. With each success or failure you slowly gather scientific data and technical experience and move to more and more sophisticated crewed ships, and then bases, perhaps first on the moon, and then other planets.
- Newsletter, April 6, 2021
It’s finally showing signs of spring here in Upstate New York, even though friends from warmer climates have been posting pictures of blossoms for many weeks now. The Ume trees are the first to burst forth (their cousins in Japan have been out for a couple of months now and are already producing fruit.)
- Newsletter March 20, 2021
After finishing the excellent (but long and relentless) Otherland series, I was in the mood for something lighter, so I picked out some stories in a more humorous vein. I came up with three that satisfied the need, and reviewed them below. It started me thinking about how they used humor in different ways.
- Newsletter March 6, 2021
I’ve used a lot of aphorisms in my career, short sayings to make a point. Some of my favorites were:
Sufficient unto the day are the meetings thereof
Cheap hardware isn’t
Anything can be accomplished given sufficient caffeine
To explain simply, understand deeply
- Newsletter February 20, 2021
Time is something that humanity has always known and measured. Early humans marked the days of the year to know when the solstices were, when to plant crops, when to expect the monsoons. But we tend to think of timekeeping as a more modern device. Clocks to tell workers their shift at the factory, or when to expect the next train. (Time zones were the creation of the railroads to allow them to synchronize their schedules.)
- Newsletter February 6, 2021
This month we are featuring graphic novels, those beautiful volumes that marry artwork with storytelling. The stories can be as deep and as moving as novels that employ only prose, but their form brings both freedom and constraints to tell stories in a different way.
- Newsletter January 20, 2021
The writing of Sellenria II is moving along. It takes up the story of how Stenn’s ancestor Jonan came to be on Sellenria and explores how events can be surprisingly different than the legends told centuries later. Here, Perrhen is telling of the legends of even more ancient figures in the Kir Leth civilization.
“Gleomere was Polnedra’s greatest creation. In some tales, that was literally true, in that she shaped him to be beautiful, and admirable, and quick, and intelligent, and then imbued him with a portion of her own creative spirit.
- Newsletter January 6, 2021
If this were a normal year, I would be in Japan with my family. I call my wife’s mother’s house “the last house at the end of the rice fields before the mountains.” It’s in a small village at the edge of a populous river valley. Beyond it are steep hillsides, often planted with rows of tea bushes. Wild boar and monkeys make their home there, requiring a defensive perimeter around the family gardens to stop their depredations. There is probably a local legend of the gaijin who once a year walks over the mountain to see the temple on top and the ruins of a castle that stood there four hundred years ago. The few other hikers stare, but bow when I wish them akemashite omedetou – happy new year – as I pass. Even up here, small shrines and buddha statues are tucked along the path, hiding among the gnarled tree roots.
- Newsletter December 20, 2020
As 2020 draws to a close, we want to say thank you to all of our loyal readers.
This has been a year like no other, the sort of tale for which you sincerely hope no sequel will ever be made. It appears that we’ll turn the corner on the virus, and with luck, on the economy. There’s more to do, on climate action, on equality, on moving from discord to discourse in our public forums. Perhaps this is the year we can say we made a start on those.
Whatever you celebrate – and we have readers all over the world, so we know that includes Christmas, Hanukka, 正月, the solstice, and probably Beltane as well — we wish you the very best of
fortune in the new year.
- Newsletter December 6, 2020
We often talk with each other about what books we’ve read, so this month we decided to share our list of all-time favorite sci-fi and fantasy books with you. We have similar interests, such as historical fiction, sci-fi grounded in real-world science, realistic characters, and epic fantasy world-building, so there was some overlap. We also learned some things about each other and ourselves. We seem to both gravitate toward classical sci-fi and “Golden Age” authors such as Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury, and our shared enthusiasm for Neil Gaiman’s works rang out clearly in the fantasy arena. But we each found something new in the other’s picks as well.
- Newsletter November 20, 2020
Connecting Science Fiction and Historical Fiction
The wind softly moans through the chinks in the drystone walls. The 2,000-year-old broch tower entrance is half sunk in the ground, and I bend low to scramble inside. Centuries of use as a resource for building stones have reduced it to a shadow of its former self. Still, as I emerge onto the rubble pile inside the old ruin, lit by the fickle sunlight of a Scottish afternoon, a familiar feeling begins to grow. Looking out across the water lies the island of Mousa, with its archaeological treasure clearly visible against the sky – another broch tower, dramatically different than the one in which I stand, for it is the only one in existence that is largely undamaged, standing over 40′ tall. Not a single other person, or indeed any hint of the 21st century at all, can be seen in any direction from this low promontory by the sea. There is a sense that comes in places like this for me, an almost palpable feeling of a connection to another time. Mixing passions for archaeology and science fiction together, my mind turns to wonder (again) about the idea that all of time might, in fact, be happening at once. Our limited ability to process time causes it to play sequentially in our heads like a movie. If true, they could still be here, these iron age people, still living their lives, and if I could peer around the right extra-dimensional corner at just the right moment, I might catch a fleeting glimpse of someone from another age drifting past, catch the scent of their smoky peat fire and hear the murmuring of speech in a language long lost.
- Newsletter November 6, 2020
Escape the Dark Sector
In these days of spending remarkable amounts of time at home, board games can be a fun diversion, so here’s a mini-review for a quick-playing mini-adventure game!
Trapped on an alien space station, you and your companions are imprisoned in a detention block and your ship has been impounded (and why is this you might ask? Don’t ask. It’s not important.) You must escape, running through the corridors of the space station, taking advantage of every opportunity to better equip yourselves, defend yourselves, or make the best of a situation. Some people you meet will be quick to offer assistance. Others will be just as quick to draw a blaster or report you to the authorities. If you overcome the dangers, traps, monsters, cyborgs and other nasties, and (literally) play your cards right, you just might survive the trip to the launching bay. Where the boss monster and final battle awaits!
- Newsletter October 20, 2020
When I first wrote The Starship and the Citadel
I didn’t start out calling it a series. It was a standalone story with a beginning, middle, and end. The main threads are wrapped up by the conclusion of the book, although there are a few deliberately unanswered questions (who is The Other)? But as I finished the epilog there were already stories I wanted to tell. Stenn’s ancestor, Jonan, had changed the world and brought to life legends from a long-ago war. What was his journey from starship engineer to dark warlock? How did Rowena ad Aulem become the general who opposed him? As Perrhen says, in his usual inscrutable way:
“It can be akin to a great rockfall that blocks a river. The rock did not ask to fall there, but still the river goes a different direction. One valley dries up, a new valley begins to form. All that live nearby, on either path, must adjust. The rock is mitthragentor, those who live nearby are mitthragorn. Jonan is mitthragentor.”
- Newsletter October 6, 2020
Imagine if the Lord of the Rings had been laid out as a pile of 3×5 cards: characters, plot lines, events, and turning points. Now imagine shuffling those cards and dealing them out on a table. What is the likelihood of them making sense? This is the challenge of creating a narrative board game. The designer wants to avoid “railroading” the players, but also wants to tell a story that the players experience as though they were characters in that story.
- Newsletter September 20, 2020
There is a drawer, every house has one,
where the old keys gather.
They huddle in their camps,
telling of the lost door, valise, or drawer
that they can open, if only they can find it again.
Some are seconds, or thirds, copies of copies,
but still they remember in their teeth
that there is a lock for them out there.
- Newsletter September 6, 2020
The Year that GenCon Went Virtual
There is a magical world where elves, androids, Jedi Knights, and superheroes hang around together and where fantasy and science fiction stories play out all day long. Normally, that world is in Indianapolis around the start of August each year, and it’s called GenCon, the largest board game convention in the US. Around 60,000 people attend each year.
- Newsletter August 20, 2020
Review: Terraforming Mars
The year is 2400. Over the next several thousand years, players lead large corporations who are working together to transform Mars from a barren landscape into a living, breathing world. Still, only one will prove the most successful and win the game. Over time they carry out projects to adjust the temperature, oxygen, and ocean levels, plant forests, build cities and carry out activities represented by over 200 unique project cards to make Mars ever more habitable. With the game maker’s attention to scientific detail, the game also provides a reasonably realistic high-level view of what a real-life terraforming effort might look like on the Red Planet.
- Newsletter August 6, 2020
Characters come to life in different ways during story development. Some characters tell me their stories as I write them, much as Gilwyr did in Sellenria. An orphan, raised by the Kir Leth with their unique color-based language, and trained as an assassin. I could hear her cocky, quirky voice from the first scene. As I wrote her in different situations, I realized that she would be hiding some insecurities. She was neither Kir Leth nor Human but caught between the two. It was fortunate that she had good friends who helped her see that as a strength instead of a weakness. She is summed up well in the line with which she starts the sequel I am writing: “The sky ship drew a sword across the night, as blue as chance.”