Friday, November 27, 2009

Imagine a Ring Around the Earth

This particular youtube video has been making the rounds for the past couple of weeks.  It is a conceptualization of the Earth encircled with a ring system identical to Saturn's (except resized to fit our much smaller planet). It starts with views of the system from space, showing different perspectives and Earth's shadow on the rings. Then it shows what these rings would look like in the sky over several famous locations.

I've enjoyed watching this video for several reasons. The first is the simple pleasure of seeing beautiful and interesting places recast from such a fantastical point of view. But I also enjoy the video from an education standpoint. It attempts to illustrate why the rings would look different from different latitudes, and does a pretty good job at it. Of course, the general public might be confused as to why someone would want to see Saturn's rings around Earth in the first place. So that confusion might muck up any educational message.

And the third reason I like the video is, of course, that it gets me thinking. Looking at the 'view' from Ayers Rock in Australia, for example, with in the rings and full moon on display, is so intriguing. How would human mythology differ had we had such a spectacle in our sky? How would the development of agriculture, navigation, and mechanics have changed if rings had been a part of our everyday environment? Would they have allowed us to understand more, and faster? Or would they have been a source of confusion, making it even more difficult to figure out what things were made of, how far away they were, and their true scale?

And the inspiration for the sci-fi muse needs no explanation. The thing that strikes me, looking at the image of a thin, edge on ring view from the equator, is how it resembles the ring in Larry Niven's Ringworld. Of course, it's quite different. Niven's Ringworld was a huge ring that encircled a star at a distance of 1 AU, and it had an entire ecosystem lining the inside. But from anywhere on the inside surface of the ring, the rest of the structure would appear to arc away into the distance, arching above and around the sun. One character was convinced that distant arch was a structure he could walk to, and was spending his life in an impossible pilgrimage to reach it. Never realizing that he could circle the entire star and never 'reach' the arch that was always right beneath his feet. What else do the images make you think about? What stories have been written with rings around the Earth as the premise or setting? I'm coming up short on that one. Which makes me think again about how this might be more sci-fi story fodder.


Image credit:  Roy Prol

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Enceladus Plumes - An Underused Sci-Fi Idea?

The pictures from Cassini's second flyby of Enceladus are amazing. Plumes were discovered when the spacecraft made its first pass, but this second close up view put the plumes in gorgeous profile. This icy moon has plumes of what are likely to be a combination of gasses and dusty or icy particles. How are these 'ice volcanoes' powered?  No one is quite certain.

Perhaps even more cool, so to speak, is that us planetary folk pretty much think that Saturn's E ring is composed of particles spewed from these plumes - Enceladus is the source of the particles that are replenishing one of the rings of Saturn.

Plumes were originally spotted in the outer solar system on Neptune's moon Triton. The Voyager II spacecraft was swinging by the giant planet in 1989 and captured images of Triton with geysers of gas and dark particles shooting 8 km from the surface. The middle image shows the dark streaks of material down 'wind' from the plumes at each end.

The plumes were thought to resemble the geysers at Yellowstone National Park. (Note image with geyser and startled Buffalo going WTF?) But geysers like Old Faithful are driven by high pressure steam heated by underground geothermal sources. Yellowstone is actually an active volcanic area. This exact process isn't available on a small, cold world like Triton or Enceladus. Where is the heat coming from on a frozen moon to drive these geysers?

Some ideas speculate that there is some source of latent heat within these worlds, perhaps radiogenic elements, although this is unlikely. Another possibility might be tidal heating, an extreme case of which is responsible for the incredible volcanic activity on Jupiter's moon Io. But again, unlikely, since dynamical models would not predict this. Another idea was that of an 'ice greenhouse' where clear stretches of ice would allow the pale sun to penetrate, heat darker ice beneath, and eventually allow pressures to rise to the point that gasses would force outwards. After all, on a world as cold as Triton, nitrogen itself can freeze. And it does not take too much energy to change its state from ice to gas. Still, this model has its own problems. And what of the fact that the plumes on Enceladus are all at the South pole?

From my perspective, this area is ripe for investigation by science fiction. And yet I'm hard pressed to think of a story that makes mention of the plumes, let alone features them. John Varley's novel 'Titan' might have been the sort of novel to have a mention, except it was written in 1979, ten years before the Triton discovery.  Anyone else know of a sci-fi story that features these ... features? Seems like fertile ground for solid scientific speculation, and some great sci-fi ideas.


Jackson Hole Travel Site image of Geyser with Buffalo

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Update: And A Little Horror

So I took a break from my blogging and novel writing to produce a very short story.  I noted a call for a horror story, actually, one of less than 500 words, and decided I would tweak an idea that had been on the back shelf of my mind, and submit it.

This is strange for any number of reasons.  Sci-fi is my first love, the most perfect of genres.  But I have been enjoying fantasy more and more over the years, and have continued to include elements of it in my stories.  Horror was something I never wrote, but would read on occasion.  Usually because the periodicals or anthologies I was looking at would carry all three themes, together, in a sort of "it's fantastical so we'll stuff it all in" approach.  So I ended up seeing quite a bit of horror, especially in short story form.

Anything "horrific" that I've written has always, always, contained fantasy elements.  Horror for me is almost by definition a fantasy concept.  Ghouls, demons, aliens with bad tempers and long probes, that kind of thing.  But this call was for a horror story that had no fantasy elements.  It had to be in a modern setting, and it had to be completely believable.  I thought about it for a long, long time.  I finally came to the conclusion that modern, believable horror was basically going to be like watching the nightly news.  The editors of the publication in question had in fact stated that they already had enough serial killers, and wanted something else.  I ... I'm laughing as I type that and I don't even know if it's funny.

But I did have this small idea, a good fit for a very small story, and thought I'd give it a go.  Well, it was the hardest 400 words I think I've ever written.  Writing it has taught me a very interesting lesson about myself.

I almost always write in first person, past tense.  I do this because my characters are me; I feel what they feel, hear their internal voices like I hear my own, and live their experiences with them.  Writing becomes a reporting exercise of "how can I present this so the reader feels like they are here, too?"  It is part of what makes sci-fi and fantasy so enjoyable for me to read and to write.  I can actually be there, be a part of amazing worlds and stories and futuristic adventures.

So horror, from this perspective, is HARD.  Painful, actually.  And I'm wondering, now having written a small story that had my palms sweating by the end, how anyone would find it enjoyable to read.  It scared the pants off of me, just writing it.  And yet people spend gazillions of bucks each year on the horror movie industry.  I begin to see why I don't usually read this stuff. 

I am chickens$!t.

Writing a story like this is creepy exactly because it is way, way too real.  The movie "Alien" is one of my favorites.  It is really super scary, and handles suspense beautifully.  Many people would describe it as space horror at its finest.  And yet, I can still watch it and imagine I'm basically safe.  It's on another planet with aliens, after all, and I'm a scientist.  The story I wrote is nasty and could happen to anyone.  And that's ... well ... horrible.

So on with the update.  I am enjoying maintaining my two blogs, and they are helping to keep me honest about my writing schedule.  I had a few tough days, and so didn't work on my NaNo novel, but got a little bit in on it last night.  Need to keep chugging on that.  It's up over 50K, now so I've met the obligations of the exercise.  But the story is shaping up, and so I'm going to continue and see where it leads.  And as above, I submitted a short story.  I'm also kicking around looking for blogs, forums, publications and such that have good information and a lively community.  As I find them I'm putting connections right here for easy access.  And I've been going through and finding some of the better RSS and blog services and listing with them, in the hopes that it will help others who may be interested in this blog actually find it.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lunar Water - More Fodder for Sci-Fi

So after decades of a paradigm of a bone-dry Moon, once again we scientists (and sci-fi writers) have to adjust our mindset.  It's one of the reasons I like science, actually; the constant questioning of hypotheses.  But since my own background is largely in lunar science, this one is taking a little getting used to ...

We all 'knew' the Moon was dry.  We looked at the Apollo rocks and saw no evidence for aqueous alteration of the minerals.  I've done work on them myself.  There was trace water detected in some samples, but it was generally attributed to terrestrial contamination.  Years of studying both the samples and orbital data did not create a coherent scenario to change that view.  When water was suspected to have been detected in permanently shadowed regions of polar crater walls - that wasn't too much of a shock.  Perhaps comets had been bringing very small amounts of water to the Moon, and it had trapped in these areas.  But still, we 'knew' there was no substantial water.

But this has all changed now, with LCROSS putting the nail the coffin, so to speak, that was already being built by Chandrayaan.  More than one instrument on board the Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan had a positive detection for water.  Reports by scientists at the annual AAS DPS conference caused plenty of discussion; none of us really could agree on what the best models were for 'how much' water, and how the heck it got there.  But LCROSS was on its way, even that week, and by Friday the remains of the Centaur rocket that boosted it there crashed into the surface.  LCROSS flew through the plume (note the small, white cloud at the center of the inset image), and low and behold, detected water.

It wasn't a huge amount, but it was a 'substantial' amount by scientific standards, say two dozen gallons.  This still makes the Moon as dry or dryer than the most parched terrestrial deserts.  But the paradigm shift is quite important.

From my point of view as a scientist, it makes me wonder if our ideas for the origin and evolution of the Moon might not be a tad off (note sarcasm), and need reworking.  None of us know yet what the most likely source of the water might be, or might have been.  Is it being created by ongoing interactions with the solar wind?  Delivered by comets?  Or is it residual from the formation of the Moon?  A combination of these?  Unclear.

For those interested in human exploration of the solar system, finding water on the Moon is wonderful.  Water is useful both for people who want to travel (a fuel source) and to drink so they don't croak.  Is there actually that much water?  We don't know that, yet.

And, of course, for the life-crazed.  I'm not one of these people, who needs to use the 'is or was there life there' motivation to make space exploration interesting.  But for those who have that mindset, finding water anywhere is always a big green flag.

And lastly, most importantly, we as science fiction writers have a whole new view of the Moon to work with.  I tend to write most of my sci-fi with a strong science bent, when possible.  Last year, I would never have written a story with astronauts using water from the Moon for any purpose.  Sounds ludicrous.  Well, that door has just opened.  The new ideas begin to percolate.

How about you?  Does this new science finding spark your muse?  How?


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Leonids Meteors - Here They Come Again

The Leonids are a very famous annual shower of meteorites, having produced some of the most amazing astronomical spectacles on record.  The Earth is always running into small bits of dust and other particles as it travels in its orbit.  These form the phenomena called 'falling stars' which is a complete misnomer.  In any case, at a reasonably dark location, you might see as many as three an hour on any random night of the year.

But in November we get a special treat.  Each year, the Earth's orbit carries it around into a cloud of dust left behind by the comet Temple-Tuttle.  From about November 13 to the 21st or so, these particles rain down into our atmosphere and burn up, causing what we see as a shower of flashing lights (as in the NASA image at right).  The highest intensity (number per hour) of meteors is expected November 17 and 18.  Although it will be best viewed from China or thereabouts, anyone at a relatively dark site will see an increased number of meteors.

And very occasionally, a meteor shower can have a particularly strong peak.  This was predicted to happen during the years 1998 to about 2002 for the Leonids.  In the year 2001, I was outside with two other intrepid observers to try to see if something special might happen.  We were outside all night long, dusk to dawn.  At first, it was easy to see a meteor and call out a number, no worry of calling out the same one as someone else, or missing one in the meantime.  Then it started to get more serious.  The meteors began falling so quickly, we couldn't be certain of overlap or accidentally missing one.  They were even falling in short bursts all at the same time.

One of us intrepid folks posted an email report to friends the next day.  We are all scientists and astronomy geeks, so data for us is entertainment.  Here is an edited version of that email, with my name changed to pen name to protect the innocent in their own minds:

Yo.  Here's the east coast update.  Not nearly as rigorous, though we did have plenty of coyotes to help make up for that.

Observing site:  Groton, Massachusetts
3 am food:  chicken flavored ramen

Bryce alone counted ~800 over the course of the night.  All the following counts are based on those numbers alone for consistency, not corrected to zenith, or anything.  I think we're 5 hours off UT here.  The sky was as dark as it gets in these parts.  We were easily getting to 5th magnitude, though I'm not sure exactly how faint we got.

from: to:
~9pm to 1 am: ~25 meteors
1-2 am 27 m/hr
2-3 am 45 m/hr
3-4 am 80 m/hr
4-4:30 am 120 m/hr
4:30-5 am ~300 m/hr.
5-6 am 390 m/hr
6 am-dawn ~30 total.
It started getting really light by 6.  We were being affected by 5:45 am.

Bryce had several periods of seeing 50 meteors in 4 minutes between 5 and 5:30, which is up to an average of ~750/hr.  There were some observations of ~10/minute, and times of 4-7 almost simultaneously.

As far as Bryce's sky coverage, I did a test where I faced opposite to Bryce.  I counted 45 in the time Bryce counted 50.  I estimate our overlap was ~50%.  Bryce was probably covering 1/4-1/3 of the sky.  We did not have a clear horizon in all directions.  We were not drinking, except for Bryce's brother :)   So the "real" rates we were seeing probably approached 2000-3000.

Wicked cool.

So although the Leonids are not predicted to have such a huge peak this year, it might be worth the time to check them out.  We still get our predictions wrong, and you never know what you might see.

Nuff for now.  I'll wax poetic about how such sights inspire my writing some other time.

Pax, all

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Update: Back to Writing, Again and Always

The last several days have been difficult, with ups and downs galore.  Writing is my passion, and nothing can stop me from writing for long.  Yet, sometimes it seems there are barriers in the way every time I try to sit down.

I long for the moments where I can 'just write'.  So much like the Zen meditation ideal to 'just sit.'  (Or 'just anything' for that matter.)

I've made some very good progress on my novel for NaNoWriMo; I'm already up over 40K words, and only half the month has gone by.  Even better, I'm pretty happy with how the draft is turning out.  It will need substantial edits, of course, every draft does, but it won't need a major rewrite to get it into readable condition.  I'm glad I chose a story that was totally unconnected with my massive Sci-Fi universe.  This is a wonderfully self contained project.  One book, one idea, one story.  I don't have to worry about continuity through millions of words of writing (which is what I have already produced for the series, so far).  Just one book, beginning to end.  It is wonderful to be able to be focused like that.

I've been able to keep up, more or less, with my blogging as well.  In addition to this new blog, I've been writing another blog on a totally unrelated topic for about a year and a half.  That has been both very enjoyable and very useful in a host of ways: as a means to get ideas down in one place, as a motivation for doing research into topics that interest me, to get occasional feedback, and to work through any issues that have me stuck.  That blog was a huge motivation for me to start this one, since it has been a really good experience.

I've also been doing some research into how to better serve the community of people I'm interested in, that is, writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy.  I'm already a part of the community as a reader, a consumer, and that entry point is easy.  But getting involved as a writer, a provider, is quite different.  As a consumer, I know exactly where to go to get what I want to read and watch.  I'm only beginning to learn where I as a writer need to go to find the resources I need to write and publish in the way I truly wish.

So update: one novel chugging along, blogs chugging, some research going down, and as always, the occasional work on my big universe.  Haven't written any poetry in a while, but that's a different part of the brain.  I don't want to disengage my full-steam-ahead novel circuits at the moment.

Up and out

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Profanity in Fiction - Sci-Fi Swearing

Swearing in the science fiction genre is a time-honored tradition.  Sometimes it is done poorly, sometimes well, sometimes to be serious, and sometimes for comic effect.  I've perused a number of great posts and articles, a few of which I discuss below, that deal with the subject.

First of all, sci-fi has a tendency towards gritty subject matter.  This is certainly not always the case, but as a genre, there is a general tolerance for some varying amount of tough topics like sex, profanity, torture, crime, and whatnot.  So swearing in one form or another is not uncommon.

The general trick with sci-fi is that we are often writing in times, worlds, and universes other than our own.  In some cases this means current standard human swear words are still appropriate, but like as not, things are different enough in the setting in question that one would not expect the swear words to be the same.

Of course, one would not expect any of the words to be the same.  That is, we imagine our characters are actually speaking a language other than English.  So technically, since all of this is translated, one might assume the swear words would be translated into their most likely English equivalent, as well.  But as both a reader and writer of sci-fi, I know you can get a lot of leverage from making up likely and believable words, including swear words, that will give your story a 'realistic' edge.

For example, I noted a book called "Brave New Words" which discusses all the great sci-fi words that have been made up over the years.  A post on the OUPblog contained an excerpt from that book targeted specifically at manufactured profanity.

And here's a post on made-up swearing currently in the genre which can be found at io9 (using the same photo I have here because it is very cool).  The post mentions an old favorite from Mork and Mindy - Shazbot.  Admitting that memory places me pretty easily on the age meter, I know.  But using that word was an excellent way to create both humor and a sense of the difference between Mork and the humans.

Personally, I think making up good words for use in sci-fi settings is a great skill, and those who are good at it can add a layer of complexity to their writing that can really make a story shine.

Later then

Image is of a license plate with the word 'frak'.  Some believe it was originally a Battlestar word, while others give credit to the old Star Trek for this one.  Either way - made up swears in sci-fi are a beloved part of the genre. / CC BY-SA 2.0

Monday, November 9, 2009

Profanity in Fiction - Radioactive Topic

There are people who object to profanity on religious or personal grounds.  For such people, no amount of profanity is acceptable, and that is appropriate.  We all have our opinions about what we enjoy, and if swearing isn't it, then by all means avoid it.  And I say this knowing that means some folks will avoid my work, since some of my fiction includes characters using profanity.

Still, I would like to venture that treating profanity in literature as a bomb is unlikely to make it go away, or make its usage any more skillful.  As with any difficult topic, we need to be willing to engage in meaningful discourse about it if we want our opinions to be heard.  Here is a post from two years ago on Grasping for the Wind that deals with stickiness of the issue pretty well, even though the writer is obviously uncomfortable with the topic (as a Christian, he generally does not approve of swearing in literature).  I do not agree with all of his opinions, but applaud his evenhanded discussion.

My preference is to work towards great fiction writing for everyone, readers and writers alike, and profanity is a part of the landscape in which I operate.  As I said last post, I think when swearing is dealt with well, it adds to the work.  It helps to tell the story, and makes you think about the themes within the story in a more robust and authentic manner.

I mentioned last post that I was reading a thread where many young people were posting about their novels in progress.  Several of them commented that their parents wanted to read their stories (which is great, of course), but because of that they were going to be forced to generate 'cleaned up' versions just for them.  I felt sad about that.  That some young writers can't share what they are really writing for fear of getting in trouble or lectured.  It seems to me that reviewing a young person's creative writing would be an excellent way to bring up some of these issues in a positive way.

For example:  Why use such language, and when?  In what ways does it accurately reflect our society, and in what ways is it misleading?  What are the risks and trade-offs of using profanity in writing, or in life in general?  It might also be a means to get some young people to read more classic authors, say Hemingway, for the express purpose of seeing how these issues have been dealt with in other literature.  To write is to give yourself a gift, and to share it takes great courage.  I hope they aren't put off by the difficulties all writers face, and continue to write.

On the morrow, then

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Profanity in Fiction - To Swear or Not to Swear


I noted on the NaNoWriMo Forums a thread called "Swearing is Good."  I checked it out, and found that it was mostly frequented by teen writers, some of whom were talking about ways one could use swear words to pad out their word counts.  I found this amusing, partly because I can easily write copious amounts of bad text without adding swearing.  Probably already in my text, as it is.

Anyway, I read the thread because I've always been interested in how writers (and readers) of fiction view the inclusion of 'touchy' words and themes, such as swearing, sex, torture, and more.  Being a sci-fi/fantasy writer and fan, I enjoy reading works where these things are handled well, and add depth, drama, and realism to the story.

I took a look around the net and found a few other things that caught my eye.  One was a blog post from January of this year entitled Profound or Profane? which includes an Ernest Hemingway quote I have always liked:

I've tried to reduce profanity but I reduced so much profanity when writing the book that I'm afraid not much could come out. Perhaps we will have to consider it simply as a profane book and hope that the next book will be less profane or perhaps more sacred.
In some ways, this encapsulates my view on the subject.  I've always seen my job as a fiction writer as a recorder of what my characters say and do.  As the writer, I naturally have some power over what I report, and how accurately.  I don't usually 'ask' them to swear, they do that or not depending on their personalities.  Occasionally, I'll force the issue one way or another to make a specific point in the story, but I don't have to do that very often.  Some stories I write simply have a lot of swearing, others have none.  There are times when you can't get rid of the profanity without simply ditching the story as a whole, and there is no point to that.  (Note post from Grammar Girl discussing attempts to remove or replace swears.)  Everyone is different, and some audiences want their stories with that kind of edge.  And after all, most mature readers have eclectic tastes, so at times they want such writing, and other times they choose something else.


Image Credit: / CC BY 2.0

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Novel in a Month


Strategy number two for getting into a better writing habit - join this year's NaNoWriMo.  If you are a writer anywhere online these days, you've probably heard of it.  NaNoWriMo is a program run by a non-profit organization that promotes National Novel Writing Month by encouraging authors to write 50,000 words in the month of November.  Each year, tens of thousands of aspiring and published writers converge on the NaNoWriMo site to sign up, get support, track their word count, and eventually bask in triumph on November 30th (or vow to try again next year.)

I first heard about NaNoWriMo from a family member who participated and finished a novel in a previous year, with much gnashing of teeth.  This person found attaining the standard 1667 words a day to be a pain, since I think she was actually trying to write something good.  Now, I usually have no trouble producing copious amounts of text, but it tends to possess little or no cohesion on the first go round.  The whole purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write without editing.  To just write.  No rereading and chopping out of bad parts.  And ideally, no starting over.  Just get the idea out into the world, and edit the freaking thing in December.  So anyway, she said, somewhat wryly, that I could probably handle it.  This already being my style.

And so for the first time, I'm doing NaNoWriMo.  I started a few days late, so had to do some catch up.  But as suspected, keeping up with the word count is no problem at all.  As usual, I give my characters a world and a scaffold of a plot and they immediately run off and start doing their own thing.  I just have to write down what they say and do.  It's one of the major reasons I write, because of how much I love to watch and record their lives (or in the case of this novel, their afterlives).  Now, readability, or marketability, of said writing remains unknown.  But before I can try to see if I can really turn this into my day job, I have to have a complete product of some kind.

The problem with my current stories is that I have thousands of them, all in one science fiction/fantasy universe, and they are all interconnected.  So writing any piece of it can alter the other pieces.  Keeping the continuity sharp has been challenging.  To start me on my way to "I do this for at least part of my living" I need something that is a package in and of itself.  One project, one book, no trilogies or more.  Something not affiliated with my usual stories.  I don't tend to write like that, since my universe is where my heart is.  But I do have other ideas that float in and out, and so I picked one for NaNo and ran with it.

So if you are interested, you can check me out on the NaNoWriMo site, along with thousands of other writers all exciting just to be writing.  And what else is there, really?


Image Credit:  NaNoWriMo

Friday, November 6, 2009

Time to Start Blogging About Writing and Publishing

It's time to start blogging about writing and then trying to get published. I've been writing for years, but never thought too seriously about trying to publish my stories. It's been entertainment for myself, only. But I'm going to give it a try, I think ...

I've been kicking around various ideas for a science fiction universe for many years.  I'm a huge fan of both sci-fi and fantasy, as well as some horror/unusual so I have some idea of what I like. So that's how I've been drafting my stories to this point; echoing the themes and styles I have loved, while trying to create some unique perspectives, and using my own voice. Problem is, the stories are not in the kind of shape I'd like them to be before showing them around, so that's one reason I need to get serious.

To make this happen I need to start being more disciplined about my writing habits. Create some kind of schedule or goals - right now I only write when the muse strikes.  That is the reason I've started this blog. A place to get my act together, chart progress, and maybe get a bit of support from other writers now and then.

Next. Bryce Ellicott is a pen name. I didn't like the ring of mine for sci-fi and fantasy. I used some amazingly complex scheme to come up with it (not). So you can assume certain aspects of Bryce have been made up, since I like fiction anyway. You can also assume that any writing that I say is mine, really is my original writing. Otherwise the blog has no point.


Image Credit:  NASA