Tag Archives: sci-fi

30 Days of Giving 5: Heinlein Society

I was introduced to science fiction by the Laura Donovan Elementary School librarian, who picked out a Robert Silverberg book for me to read. I’m pretty sure I read it at least three times, given the rather narrow selection of the genre in 1969 — but then I was introduced to the Monmouth County Library system, where Robert Heinlein, Silverberg, Isaac Asimov and others awaited. Science fiction has continued to be a staple of my life, with John Scalzi, Cory Doctorow, Charles Stross, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Mieville, and a host of others filling my head with visions of what is possible, impacts of the future on current policy and politics, and how we might bridge the present and the near present.

I discovered the Heinlein Society through a posting on John Scalzi’s annual holiday postings, where he allows readers to represent their artistic and charitable works to a wider audience. The Heinlein Society attempts to pay forward the legacy of one of the greats of the genre, and my donation supports its educational efforts. Hat tip to both Scalzi for networking good works, and to friend Marc for renewing my interest in my first sci-fi literary crush over a series of breakfasts.

Day 5: Support the Heinlein Society with a one-time, one year membership.

John Scalzi’s “Fuzzy Nation”

John Scalzi is definitely one of my favorite sci-fi authors. While I enjoy books that leaving me thinking, head-scratching, pondering serious questions and sometimes collapsing all of those mental states around a quantum mechanics problem centered in the harder sci-fi, Scalzi’s books are uniquely hopeful. I wouldn’t go so far as to call his writing happy because I think that makes potential readers somehow discount his ability to tell a thought-provoking story.

Fuzzy Nation pits man versus The Man in a money or morality mining pit story. An independent prospector on a remote planet discovers a vein of gemstones that will make him wealthier than several corporations. He also discovers the “fuzzys” – cat-like aboriginal creatures who appear to be sentient. If the fuzzys are people, his claim is worthless; if the fuzzies are merely animals then he only has to maintain his (fighting) arm’s length relationship with the mining company that controls the planet. Scalzi’s story unfolds in a way that makes you question every slippery moral slope, and the value you place on selling your moral judgements about people, places and things.

As I read, I found myself thinking about aggression diamonds, conflict-free tantalum, and the early days of South Africa’s precious metals mines — all cases where the human costs were not nearly as precious as the materials extracted. I’m not the only one fascinated by Scalzi’s latest, as the book has hit the NY Times bestseller list. Reading it was the best two nights of this week.

Scalzi/Wheaton Book Of Awesomeness

One of my summer projects was to spend more time writing, and I used a variety of writing contests (Erika Napoletano, ESPN/Stymie and Scalzi/Wheaton) to force action on that thought. I think I had the most fun working on the Scalzi/Wheaton fanfic contest, mostly because it was the first time I’d written science fiction, fan fiction, or even any kind of fiction excepting a few Little League board meeting minutes that needed the extra sauce.

I didn’t win the fan fic contest, but it was fun.

The winners, along with stories by Scalzi, Wheaton and others (and some insane stuff like a song, an interview with Scalzi, and sci-fi poetry) are now published in Clash of the Geeks. This is beyond awesome in so many ways: it’s free, it’s DRM-free, it’s instantly downloadable, and it’s free. But it’s also meta-awesome, because if you want to download the book, you really should also make a contribution to the Lupus Alliance of America, per the directions and incentives on the right sidebar; the whole project started as a fund raising idea and if you are inclined to participate in the “free as in beer” part of the deal you should support efforts for some “free as in freedom” for those suffering from lupus.

Robert Heinlein Had His Bad Days, Too

Robert Heinlein was the first science fiction author that I read. Not read as in one book or one story, but read as in going to the library (pre-Amazon days), finding every single piece of his work, and checking them all out early in the summer and using those long, hot days by the YMCA pool to work through what is essentially the sci-fi canon. In the 35 or so intervening years I’ve taken the same approach to Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi, Charles Stross, Greg Bear, and others, but Heinlein definitely imprinted a love of the genre.

Scalzi has a blog entry about Heinlein as seen through a new biography of his life, as part of Tor’s online forum dedicated to Heinlein. What I liked about Scalzi’s commentary was the way in which he captured Heinlein’s bad days as a writer. When I half-joked about crossing “writer” off of the potential career list, I did so knowing that there are authors who are more prolific and creative than me, and many late-night slots, plane trips and hours spent in proximity to outdoor water are made wonderful because of them. I never thought that being a writer meant having a bad day at the office. Scalzi shines the same light on science fiction authorship that Rush drummer Neil Peart aims at the rock and rock lifestyle in Road Show.

Wheaton Unicorn Kitty Versus John Scalzi Orc

My wonderful wife and I often conclude a rather improbable, highly entertaining or four sigma to the right of center story with “You just can’t make this shit up.” For instance: What if Wil Wheaton, recently joining the ranks of my favorite authors, was riding a unicorn kitten (not a unicorn chaser, mind you, but you get the idea) and attacking sci-fi favorite author John Scalzi who had morphed into an orc? And of course, there’s a volcano in the background, WoW-style weaponry, the kitten is flying Pegasus-style, and that sweater is involved.

Scalzi looks like the love child of Shrek and Glee’s Sue Sylvester on a bad Cheerios hair day. And I’m not saying that just for the Google hits on Glee searches gone horribly randomly wrong, although it helps.

Don’t believe me? There’s (generated) photographic proof right here. You just can’t make this shit up.

Actually, you can.

Wheaton and Scalzi are promoting a fan fiction contest to benefit the Lupus Alliance of America. Just (it’s always “just”) explain the picture. This is just so good on so many levels that it makes up for the extreme randomness of the picture, and welcomes second and third derivative cultural references. It’s conceiveable that some entries will maim the judges’ artistic sensibilities, permanently.

You bet I’m entering. I have had a sci-fi story idea kicking around for several months, and never had the right framing for it. The trick will be keeping it to 2,000 words.

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Foreground Process, Reading Input

I basically did a control-Z on blogging about a month ago. It was completely unintentional, a combination of too much travel, holidays, a short family vacation, a lot of work, and quite honestly, the NJ Devils going on an 8-game winning streak that had me devote significant time to coaching from in front of the television or streaming broadcast of their games. After spending a few solid, uninterrupted days with my family, the best thing I did was plow through a few books.

Doug Hornig’s “Boys of October” explores the 1975 Red Sox. I remember their World Series against the Cincy Reds vividly, not because I was a Sox fan but because the Red Machine had eliminated my beloved Pirates for a few years running, and I was happy to cheer against them. It was also the first series in which everyone was an armchair manager; I vividly recall hearing my elementary school friends discussing whether Bill Lee or Luis Tiant would pitch Game 6. It was a fun perspective, penned before the Sox lost the Series in 1986 and eventually won in 2004.

On the sci-fi front, Richard Morgan’s “Thirteen” was outstanding, possibly his best yet, and Charles Stross’ “Halting State” was even better. Most of Stross’ work could be described as the right-oriented cross-product of Hello, Cthulhu t-shirts and Benny Hill-flavored looks at Her Majesty’s bureaucracy. “Halting State” is “Numb3rs” meets Wikinomics with a Java jolt, literally, and it’s a very fast-moving story. I finished it the same night that “Numb3rs” featured a storyline involving an alternative reality game, which was both ironic and fitting.

I also listened to all seven parts of Cory Doctorow’s novella “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is The Best Time of Our Lives”, a superb riff on the Disney ride of the same name, and polished off Douglas Coupland’s “The Gum Thief.” I’ll admit to thoroughly hating Coupland’s “JPod,” mostly because I felt like he ran into character development issues and solved for j by writing himself into the equation. But “Gum Thief” made up for his prior detour with sharp writing and characters that blur in and out of story lines. In a week when I spent copious amounts of time thinking about blogging, writing (actually cranking out a paragraph of the now-dormant hockey book), FaceBook, and my hockey team’s web site, it seemed an apt metaphor for my own various states of matter(ing).

Finally, John Grisham’s “Playing for Pizza.” It’s not a great book, it pales in comparison to some of the other sports literature I’ve read, but it was fun. And that was the whole point of bringing reading into the foreground.

Someone Comes To Town

If you’ve ever heard me talk, in conference or via conference call, you know that I’m a huge, huge fan of Cory Doctorow. In addition to being one of the editors of boingboing, he’s a world-class, new-breed sci-fi writer, more focused on social issues and the socialization of technology (gotta love it) than on inventing science to forward his political agenda. Not that he doesn’t have a political agenda, of course, but you can see yourself fitting into his vision of the future without having to first wait for faster than light travel or parallel universes to appear.

“Down and Out In The Magic Kingdom,” his first book, is my basis for asserting that trust and reputation aren’t the same thing, and that we should re-evaluate how we build “secure systems” using that premise. “Eastern Standard Tribe,” book two, is the paradigm for how and why technology fractures us, or could unite us. It might have been written by Bono in 2018, except he’ll be on the U2 reunion tour. And “Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town,” Cory’s third book, is just something you have to experience. I’ve decided that it’s about families that suffer from stereotypes taken to the stereotypical extreme. Somewhat. But if you can envision the stereotypical Jewish mother as a washing machine, you’ll get it. If you can’t, well, read the book anyway.

Thanks to Tim Bray, a scheduling coincidence at ApacheCon, some mutual introductions and Cory’s trip east, I got to enjoy breakfast with him today. Big fun stuff on an otherwise rainy day in New York City.

We talked about collecting things that we don’t need, but like. We touched on teenagers and their use of technololgy. We spent most of our time talking about Digital Rights Management, licensing, GPLv3, and how ideas spread. And how rights protection may impair open source projects. Cory is insanely anti-DRM, which seems strange on the surface because he makes his entire living from content. But you can find all of his works covered by a Creative Commons license, creating a broader set of venues for their interpretation and appreciation. Ideas spread through means other than those controlled by rights management technology, which mostly serves to restrict flow rather than accelerate it.

One of my favorite games to play is “If PersonX was alive today, what would he (or she) be doing?” For example, if Mozart lived in the 21st century, he’d be more likely to be a kernel hacker than a professional musician, or maybe he’d do both. If Thomas Jefferson lived today, he’d be hacking hardware to eliminate DRM schemes. And if Cory Doctorow lived in the 18th century, he’d be Thomas Jefferson. A time warp worthy of good sci-fi. And a morning that left my brain with wings.