Monday, August 17, 2015

Mixing Genres in Speculative Fiction: Another Look

Astronaut Wizard by Jordan Grimmer
jordangrimmer on Deviant Art. 
I am a huge fan of work that encompasses more than one genre.  Regardless of it is a game, a movie, a work of art, a novel, or whatever - I'm always pleased to find myself in a complex world, with many strange or scary or wonderful things afoot.  I've written before about crossing genres, first in an introductory post here, and then a follow up here.  Still, things have changed since that first post (back in 2010), and I felt it was time to once again sing the praises of mixed genre work.

The artwork at right "Astronaut Wizard" by Jordan Grimmer (jordangrimmer) is an evocative visual display of multiple genres.  The artwork does such a good job of focusing our attention on the juxtaposition - all the light is on the magic hand reflecting off of the helmet.  The rest of the suit and background are lost in shadow.  I enjoy how it jars the imagination - one does not expect magic from an astronaut.  Just the thought makes the mind race with possibilities and questions.  What would space exploration be like with magic at hand - in this case, literally?  What would our past have been like (historical fiction) or our future (science fiction)? 

As far as novels, I read Watership Down by Richard Adams when I was about nine years old and adored it.  On the surface it is a fantasy about rabbits seeking a new home, but it includes so much more - political maneuvering, adventure, mystery, and even a nod to the supernatural.  It's also a very literary book, as far as I see it.  Thinking of it as a fantasy seems limiting, even if basically correct.

Sometimes science fiction is even better with mystery, or romance, or a bit of something scary thrown into the mix.  Certainly the scariest movie I've ever seen was Alien and it was, again on the surface, straight up science fiction.  But wow.  Horror.  Really incredible suspenseful horror.  I'm getting creeped out just thinking about it.

And then how about video games … I'm thinking of the Steampunk groundbreaker "Arcanum" which included magic, robots, monsters and more.  It even felt a bit like a western in places.  My character was always suited to be an arbiter - someone who solved problems by negotiation, and tried to avoid conflict.  This led to navigating some interesting political situations.  There were mysteries to solve, as well as battles to be won.  A generally great, complex game. 

So back to writing.  Fortunately, the tide has turned as far as the acceptance of cross-genre work.  Although it might still be difficult to pitch and categorize such work (and therefore difficult to sell such work) readers seem to be quite keen to read it.  There are lots of posts and articles that will give you tips and hits on how to write and pitch something that includes multiple genres.  I've put a few here as examples you might want to peruse.

Alan Rinzler, Ask the Editor:  Is it OK to cross genres?
Penny Lockwood Ehrenkranz, Mixing It Up:  Writing Across Genres
Brian Klems, How to Write and Sell a Cross-Genre Novel

And there are a lot of commonalities between the articles. Here are a few take-aways for writers.

1. Read any genre you want to write in. Make sure you actually like what you are reading, and are motivated and enthusiastic about the genre. Be sure to understand the conventions, and what it is that gives a particular genre its appeal.

2. Focus on story. That means as you are writing, worry less about genre and more about creating a really compelling story that people will clamor to read. As usual, the reader has to care what happens to the characters. And something interesting does need to happen, somehow …

3. Stay consistent. No matter how complex the world, stay consistent within that world.

4. Eventually, you will need to know the primary genre of your piece. No matter what, there is a dominant genre in your work somewhere. It might not be by much, but it is in there. This is important information when trying to pitch or advertise your piece, or when trying to figure out how to tag or select keywords for searches. After all, readers have to start somewhere when they are looking for a new read.

5. Be confident. Don't listen to people who say you can't or shouldn't mix genres. If the story calls for it, then write the story.

Image Credit:  Astronaut Wizard by Jordan Grimmer, jordangrimmer on Deviant Art. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Naming Revisited - Pluto and Charon Get Tagged

Informal names for features on Charon
In my post on "Naming Astronomical Objects - Power, Productivity, and Privilege," I noted that naming astronomical objects was a serious issue (indeed, that naming anything was a serious issue).  I also mentioned that there was a tension between being able to name things fast enough (given the rate of discoveries) and that of wanting to be thoughtful about it.

The New Horizons Mission to Pluto found a unique way of dealing with that situation when they offered a poll this spring, asking people to vote on what their favorite names would be for potential features in the Pluto system.  The campaign was called "Our Pluto," and thousands of people responded to the call.  The campaign ended in April 2015, allowing the New Horizons team to be ready with a pocketful of names when they arrived in the Pluto system in July 2015.  Before long, the first maps of Pluto and Charon were constructed, and the informal names given to the features were indeed those chosen by people from the Our Pluto voting. 

Informal names for features on Pluto
And many of the names are surprising, given their origins in popular culture, such as "Mordor" and "Balrog" from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, "Vulcan," "Uhura" and "Kirk" from the Star Trek franchise, "Skywalker" and "Organa" from the Star Wars Universe, and "Cthulhu" from Lovecraft's mythos.  These names have been submitted to the IAU for formalization - it will be interesting to see how that body chooses to react, or if any of the names will be considered unusual at all.

For the most part, I really like the names, and many people agree.  Authors of articles in The Guardian, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Wired, and io9 talk about the good aspects of the naming campaign, and that they feel positively about these names potentially becoming permanent.  But given my previous post on the issue, I feel just a bit edgy.  One issue we've come up a lot with in the SF, F, H community is dealing with great work from not-so-great people.  The issue has been discussed at length more than I can do justice to here, but was dealt with head on using necessary honesty by Nnedi Okorafor in a post (has swearing) about winning the World Fantasy Award.   (So the place name "Cthulhu" for example, may not be a universally lauded name ...)

Still, we're a democratic society, and voting is as close to public participation in official naming that has come to pass on a major planetary body (in my opinion).  I agree with many of the authors of the articles in that having the public involved is a wonderful thing.  It does not absolve us of our need to be vigilant in naming, but it does offer the opportunity to create and nurture community while we do so.

Image Credit:  NASA/JHU-APL/New Horizons

Saturday, August 1, 2015

It Was a "Very" Interesting Week

I did indeed do my experiment to eliminate the word "very" from my writing and speech for a week.  It was actually ten days, for reasons that are opaque even to me.  Anyway, here's what I discovered (at least for what is pertinent my own word usage.) 

"Very" in speech isn't easy to remove.  Substituting other words often results in conversation that doesn't seem natural to the ear.  Reconstructing sentences to avoid the need for the word seems to make for stilted speech.  While the exercise has expanded my thinking, I've chosen to change my word usage in speech by only a small amount.  This holds for most of my written dialogue as well, which isn't a surprise.  It is easier to spend the time to construct good sentences without "very" in them during writing as opposed to "on the fly" during speaking - so it is in fact easier while writing to reduce the use of the word and still create believable dialog.  But not using it in a situation where someone would "obviously" use the word again makes for conversation that just comes out wrong. 

But as for writing, I found many places where I was using "very" in a lazy fashion.  This applies to all kinds of writing - my blog, essays, papers, fiction, whatever.  A little extra effort in any place where I was about to use the word "very" usually resulted in a more interesting and more exact sentence.  This might mean using a different word, or better, restructuring to eliminate the need for the word completely.  That is, saying what you mean more directly, rather than using qualifiers to make the point (i.e. "exhausted" rather than "very tired").  This is not news, since writing coaches and "how to's" have been giving this sort of advice for years.  Still, it is nice as both the scientist and experimentalist that I am that I have the chance to prove it for my own personal condition.

Oh yeah, I forgot to add - this was a real pain for ten days.  We speak and write so freely.  Watching every word, and then going back over and correcting for the stray "verys" that got in there?  Serious pain.

Image Credit:  Once again, it is me and my awesome PowerPoint skillz.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Week Without "Very"

Ah, the word "very."  As we know, there is much discussion about this little word in writing circles.  Let's start off with a few well known quotes about writing this word "very" ...

"So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.  A man is not very tired, he is exhausted.  Don’t use very sad, use morose," spoken by the character John Keating in the Dead Poets Society.  And there is this one, the first version of which was most likely the product of William Allen White, "Never use the word, ‘very.’ It is the weakest word in the English language; doesn’t mean anything. If you feel the urge of ‘very’ coming on, just write the word, ‘damn,’ in the place of ‘very.’ The editor will strike out the word, ‘damn,’ and you will have a good sentence.”

I use the word "very" a great deal when I am speaking.  I hear it plenty from friends, family, in various media, at work, etc.  Yet the word is so vilified in writing.  Somehow, I wanted investigate the strange phenomenon of "very."  I kicked around a few ideas and finally settled on the concept of just not using it for a week, either in writing or speaking, unless as a direct reference.  

I'm not sure I can do it, actually, and I keep re-reading my post here to see if it has found its way in somehow.  I have a feeling this will be an interesting week.

What do I hope to learn?  I'm not exactly certain.  Perhaps there will be a difference in how hard it is to avoid in speech versus writing.  Maybe I'll give it up easily and gleefully.  Maybe avoiding it will be irritating and I'll stop after three days.  Not sure.  But let's give it a try, anyway.

Image Credit - Me and my awesome Power Point skills

Monday, November 10, 2014

And off we go again - NaNoWriMo

Amongst the crazy things one can do in November is to decide to write 50,000 words in 30 days, i.e. the NaNoWriMo challenge.  I've done this five years running now and I do like to keep up a good streak.


Writing 50K words in *20* days, that's even crazier.  And that's the position that I'm in because I only just started today.  This month has been so demanding.  The whole fall has been that way, actually, with proposals to write, classes to teach, science to do, education research to publish, conferences to attend and my usual Halloween bash to throw.  And then I got sick.  For a week.

At first I figured I'd just skip NaNo this year, since it is always tough, and I really don't need the extra stress.  But that idea just wouldn't sit right in my gut.  I kept on coming back to the idea that I had this great streak going, and didn't I really enjoy the pressure in some weird way, and wasn't it in fact a great way to get some writing done after all?  In five years I've managed to produce the full drafts for about 2.5 books.  Not bad.  That on top of my usual writing means about a novel every two years.

Now if I could manage to get them edited and published ... but that's another thing completely.

Right now is about the 'write now.'  And that's what I've decided to do ... so off we go with the scary zombie/vampire story with a dash of gay romance and a twist of apocalyptic flavor.  It may never get read, but I know I'm going to have a fun time writing it.

UPDATE:  I did indeed manage to pound out the 50K again this year!  This was the easiest time I've had of any past year, as well.  (So I can never use the "I'm late" excuse not to start.)  I think it was because I had a really solid idea and some scenes and chapters sketched out in my head.  Plenty to write about.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Naming Astronomical Objects - Power, Productivity, Privilege

Naming things has incredible power.  As a writer, I have a great deal of faith in the power of words.  Naming focuses our thoughts, makes them more clear, and changes our relationship with the object (or person) in question.  Naming creates a written and oral history for an object.  Conquerors and colonists have long known the power of names.  They have renamed objects and forced people to take new names in order to exert their power over them.  Renaming obscures the past, allowing for the new regime to more fully fill the minds of the people. 

Naming is language.  Language is culture. 

So we need to exercise some care when naming.  As any parent knows, it can be agonizing to finally choose a name for a child.  After all, a name is forever.  Well, until it is changed or forgotten, anyway. 

When I was just a kid, my father bought me a gift - my name on a star, as certified by one of those "star registration" companies.  At the time I thought it was great - I also thought it was completely official.  After all, the certificate was impressive and said the name was "insured."  I was really pleased with the gift, until I became an astronomer myself and found out that the name wasn't "real" at all.  That is, no official scientific body, society, or nation recognizes these "registered" names.  I was very disappointed.  I didn't mention anything to my father since I didn't want him to know that the star in question would never be referred to by my name.

There is another company active today that, instead of registering star names, registers the names of craters and other features on the planet Mars.  I have very mixed feelings about this.  The major con to the situation is that the names are not "real".  Again, they are not recognized by any official society or scientific naming body.  I don't like the idea of someone being disappointed when they realize that money was spent to place a name on a "people's map" of Mars, and not to officially, scientifically, name an object on another planet.

Another con is that money is required to do this.  How much of a "people's" map is it really, when names must be bought?  This creates a situation where only those with monetary privilege can name an object.

But there are pros to the situation.  The money raised is being used for research and education efforts.  And some people don't care if the name isn't official, they just like the idea, and enjoy the experience of naming.  It puts them in touch with space, and opens new ways for them to be engaged and interested.

It is a confusing and complicated issue, this naming of astronomical objects.

The only really official naming body is the International Astronomical Union (IAU).  They have a somewhat lengthy process for assigning a name, since each body has a theme.  But no money is required to propose a name, and for the most part, any reasonable name for a major feature will be accepted, eventually.  Not always - a coauthor and I were unable to get a name for a certain channel on Mars, and so ended up having to refer to it as the "unnamed channel" in an actual research paper published in a journal.

Which brings up part of the problem here.  There are now more features, asteroids, and extrasolar planets to name than the IAU can keep up with.  (Note that some of these have been assigned numbers or identification tags, but not names.)  Their process works relatively well for small numbers of major features, but not the inundation of small features and worlds being identified by current space missions.  So how do we arrange to name things so that the names are there as soon as we need them, but also are chosen with care and assigned properly?

Some would say the "people's map" is the answer.  Others might say it is too random, and too rarified with only those with disposable cash being able to contribute to the effort.  I don't have the answer.  I do wish that my "unnamed channel" had been named properly.  But I also wish my star had been "officially" named as well.  How do you get it both ways?

Still, my little personal story has a very happy ending.  My star name might not be official, but I was indeed honored with my name on an asteroid.  A real, official name based on my contributions to science and education - 7807 Grier  Wow.  :)

What are your ideas for naming objects?  What is legitimate in your eyes?  How do we solve the problem of needing to name a large number of objects well and quickly?  It is a complex matter of the power names, the productivity of our work in scientific research and exploration, and the privilege of those who get to name, and why.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Friday, April 11, 2014

Where the Science Poets are for NaPoWriMo

Some amazing science (and speculative) poetry is in the works this year for National Poetry Month - NaPoWriMo.  A bevy of fearless poets are attempting the challenge of writing a poem a day for the whole month, and many are bravely posting them on their blogs!  (Unlike myself.  I do like to keep the option of later publication open, and so I keep my drafts off line.)

Here are some excerpts from a few of the poems already offered this month.

@asrivkin writes of Skylab, where as his title states, he likens the space station to "The Summer Cottage" ...

They never did have the neighbors over,
though they did hitch
their camper vans together
and drink vodka.
Did they all look longingly
at the Moon overhead?

In "If I should die in the desert after stargazing" @Tychogirl calls us to compare our stargazing to other voyages, artistic and otherwise ...

If I should die in the desert after stargazing
know that it was enough, that final view

of stars frozen in their movements
like Van Gogh’s crows

@iyzie writes in "The Rings of Chariklo" of reconciling scientific versus artistic depictions of space and the planets ...

One of the lessons taught to me
by Chariklo and her jewelry;
the whimsical illustrators
of the early space age
weren’t so wrong after all.

So here are some of the people to follow, both twitter handles and blogs.


Did I miss you?  If you are writing science or speculative poetry this month, I'd be happy to note you here as I update the post!  NOTE you don't have to be posting your poems to have your twitter handle/blog included here.

Image Credit:

Monday, January 27, 2014

Astronomical Observing - Actually Getting Data

Sunset view from 2.1 Meter catwalk.
So after days of writing about cirrus, humidity, and telescope shut downs, I figured it was time to write about the glories of when it works.  It looked a bit cloudy to start the night, and we were wondering how it would go.  But the worst of the clouds have moved through.  We've been chugging along well so far (fingers crossed for more) and hope that more clouds won't come along until after sunrise.

So what are we doing up here, anyway?  We are looking at asteroids, for the most part.  We are getting image data (in a handful of colors) of the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter.  These are a population of asteroids that orbit the sun at the same distance as Jupiter, gravitationally influenced to stay in two groups, 60 degrees in front and behind Jupiter's orbit.  These objects have not been extensively studied, and may hold some keys to the early formation of the solar system as a whole.

Example of our data.  Asteroid highlighted by green circle.
So here we are, getting data on as many of these asteroids as we can.  And the observing program will go on for the next few years, since we need to look at a large number of asteroids in order to draw meaningful conclusions - at least for this study.

Our data roughly looks like this sort of thing.  An image showing stars and our target asteroid.  The telescope has been commanded to compensate for the rotation of the Earth, so the stars look like nice points, even after a long exposure.  The asteroid is moving at a different rate, however, so if you add the various images together, you can see that it has moved relative to the background stars.  So it looks a bit like a smudge or streak, here.  (The 'wavy lines' are not real, they are artifacts of the data and quickie reduction done for this example.)

Jupiter - Always fun, and amazing
Of course, the 'seeing' isn't always perfect.  Even on a nice night like this one, intermittent clouds can go by.  When that happens, we spend a little time on some very bright targets, until we can go back to taking our regular data.  This is what astronomers call 'having fun.' 

Image Credit:  Shot from catwalk, Andy Rivkin @asrivkin on twitter, example of data from our run, and same for Jupiter.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Astronomical Observing - Dealing With Weather

An (old) picture of the 2.1 Meter Telescope with lightning.
Ah, yes.  Can't write a series of posts about observing without mentioning the weather.  It is particularly appropriate right now - since I have time to write this post because weather has shut down the telescopes.

We'd hoped for clear skies tonight.  The forecast was for no clouds, and reasonable seeing conditions.  But sometimes it just isn't that easy.  When the weather is obviously bad, say you have lightning like in the picture, you know you won't be getting any data.  It is a very black and white situation.  When you have heavy clouds, or it is raining, that is also straightforward.  You can easily see that the conditions are simply not conducive to observing.  But there are less obvious factors that are just as important.

One of these factors is wind speed.  Most telescopes cannot be open in relatively high winds (say 45mph in some places) as this can damage the telescope and is a safety issue.  Wind is something you can feel, of course.  You may not know exactly how fast the wind is blowing, but you can look at a wind gauge and assuming it is working properly, it will tell you if it is safe to open or not.  Mostly.  The wind is not always steady, of course, and it can change value or direction, or there may be sudden wind gusts.  It can be much harder to determine what is or isn't safe under those conditions.  So it is possible to be sitting inside the dome on a clear night, unable to open, because the wind is occasionally gusting a bit too fast for comfort.  That can be a little frustrating.

Sky Chart predicting clear skies ... and high humidity.  At least for a while.
Another factor is humidity.  This factor is particularly frustrating, and is the reason we are closed at the present moment.  The issue in this case is not that we can't see the sky, but as with wind, that there is a possible issue with the telescope.  It isn't a safety issue, but rather that under the right conditions, water can condense right onto the telescope mirror.  This is very bad for the telescope, and could damage the mirror.  One way to avoid this is not to open the dome if the humidity is high outside, but that is not always a perfect indicator of dew formation.  Condensation (dew) is also a function of the air temperature, the temperature of the telescope, wind speed, and more.  To add to the frustration, humidity is highly variable across short distances.  It is possible that one telescope on the mountain is just fine to open, while another is not.

Bright Jupiter in a haze of humidity.
It isn't particularly obvious how humid it is outside until you look up and see the fuzz of light around the planet Jupiter.  As in this sky shot, the sky is pretty clear, but pretty much straight up (in the center) is a bright spot with haze around it.  That is Jupiter, and the haze is water in the atmosphere.

So here we are sitting under a clear sky, unable to open.  Adding to the frustration is the constant checking.  I am the sort of person who is uncomfortable with gray area.  I want it to be cloudy or not.  Raining or not.  Constantly checking the humidity, (and getting four numbers for four different instruments) is maddening.  Hopefully things will improve later, the sky charts says they might.  But our little corner of the mountain, well, who knows.

Image Credit:  2.1 Meter in lightning from  NOAO/AURA/NSF.  Clear Sky Chart from Kitt Peak Clear Sky Chart.  Sky Shot from  Kitt Peak National Observatory.

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