I like The Expanse

20150216_151303Yesterday I did a ranty post, so today I thought I should write about something I do like. Here’s one: The Expanse, from the SyFy channel, and the James Corey books that they come from.


Why I like the books:

The Corey books are fun space adventures. That’s a great start. But they’re so much more than that. For starters, the authors try to get the science broadly right, and I love that. I’m skeptical of their protomolecule, but dynamics of spaceflight they make use of are lovely, as are their toxic planets. (I also have both reservations and curiosity about their wormhole network, but I’ll leave that to another post.)

Furthermore, the books feature a diverse array of flawed characters collaborating to solve problems. Marvelous! They depict a future that’s politically complex and believable. They bother to play around with language and culture, and show how it’s affected by the environment. They make space sucky, yet still worth visiting. Which is exactly as it should be, IMO. The plotting is complex and tight, which I relish.

The books are also flawed, of course, like everything. Sometimes the military slugfests can feel glutinous and dull. The motif of ignorant, self-indulgent bullies ruining it for everyone else without much reason gets old even while it remains painfully honest to the human condition. And the series is getting kind of long and episodic. But I don’t care. I’ll read them all anyway, because they’re a cut above most of what I come across. So yay.

Why I like the TV:

I don’t watch much TV. To be honest, I hardly watch any. My three-year-old needs alarmingly little sleep, and so when I do watch anything these days, it tends to be animated and involve at least one talking animal. My entertainment time, when I get some, usually goes straight into catching up on things I’ve been wanting to read. But I made an exception for this series and I’m glad I did.

Was it because I liked the books? In part. But beyond that, I was inspired that SyFy decided to try to do justice to them. They made the bold, good choice to put some money behind some decently complex SF and bring it to life on the screen. And, broadly speaking, I think they pulled it off.  They chose a mature, intelligent series with wide appeal, and then they properly went to town on it. With a good cast. And politics. And decent zero-gee. And plot that moves forward with each episode.

IMG_20140217_194711I guess the first series is way old news by now. But still, I think it’s worth acknowledging a job well done, both by the authors, and the TV team brave and industrious enough to pick up their work. May there be more of it, and more like it. I shall cheer it all.


On Superheroes

IMG_20160306_150432In a recent post, I came clean about my feelings regarding Star Wars. Today, as I idly scanned io9, I felt another stirring of long-suppressed fatigue and annoyance. This time, it was about superheroes. I decided it was time to be honest about that topic too.

IMO, superheroes are lame. There, I said it. This much-loved iconic style of good-versus-evil storytelling that has informed my generation and inspired millions, just isn’t very good. But before you condemn me as a cape-hater, I encourage you to let me explain why I struggle with it, so that you can dismantle me in the comments. And please do that, because nothing would make me feel more at peace with this genre than finding some kind of meaning in it.

First, though, I will happily admit that there has been some truly great writing in this space. The Incredibles, for instance, is a near-perfect movie. I like Megamind too. (I’ve never encountered a movie character I identified with so deeply, except maybe Dr. Evil.) How to Succeed in Evil by Patrick McLean made me laugh out loud. So did Mystery Men. Kick Ass was both brutal and surprisingly deep. But you may be noticing a pattern here. None of what I consider the great work in the superhero genre takes it seriously. There’s a reason for that.

Here are my top three problems with the genre.

1: There’s no science. But the genre pretends to have science.

Superhero stories are science-ish. People invent machines that do transparently magical things. Nobody ever bothers to explain them. Nobody even cares. This makes my skin prickle for the same reason that Star Wars does. It’s lazy. But who cares, right? So long as the machines and suits are cool, whatevs. And that brings me on to my second point.

2: It’s all about cool. Just cool.

Cool suits. Cool powers. Cool machines. Yawn. Attending to a cosmetic notion of ‘cool’ is like flipping through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room. It’s an empty experience, IMO.

Years ago, my brother came to me asking for suggestions for a role-playing game he was involved with. Players created their own super-heroes to battle evil. He asked me for ideas. Here are two characters I came up with on the spot.

Mr. Entropy: His power is to accelerate the inevitable process of decay that dominates all things. He touches you and trillions of years scroll forward in the blink of an eye. You turn to dust. Then your protons decay. Then your proton byproducts decay. Mr. Entropy’s weakness is that he’s incredibly depressed all the time. It takes him a huge amount of effort to engage with any conflict, because he knows the outcome is both inevitable and sad. Mr. Entropy always wins, because entropy.

The Hellmaker: She looks like a timid school-girl, but there is horror in her eyes. She can fire a bolt of energy that traps a person in a sphere of personal hell. That hell seemingly lasts forever, and their suffering keeps her young. They scream without end, and she can always hear them. Nobody deserves the amount of punishment that she can deliver, because it’s obscene, just like any notion of Hell. Her weakness is that she’s used her powers only once, and that was by accident. She’s been traumatized ever since and will run away from any conflict because no amount of evil is worth her using her ‘gift’. The only person who can defeat her is Mr. Entropy. Because entropy.

Surprisingly, my brother didn’t like either of these ideas. But here’s the thing, they’re both as legit as anything else in the superhero genre. They’re both potentially interesting characters. They just instantly explode the idiocy of ‘cool’ powers that aren’t particularly powerful, or novel, or complicated. Because, let’s face it, ‘cool’ powers are just a vehicle for fights. Which brings me to my third point.

3: It’s low-budget empowerment.

Superheroes are fantasy embodiments of the abilities we’d like to have. A lot of the genre’s appeal comes from seeing someone larger than life who we identify with have a big, symbolic punch-up with someone who’s face we’d like to punch.  And who doesn’t like a punch-up now and then? But there’s a difference between, say, kung-fu movies and superhero movies. Martial artists have done some work to acquire their awesome rather than simply being bitten on the ass by a spider or some such. Part of the glee in superhero stories comes from how easy their power feels. There’s that rush of discovery that they can suddenly do an impossible thing, without having to pay for it.

Of course, there are plenty of stories in which heroes discover the costs afterward, and subsequently become deeper more responsible people. And that’s better, certainly. But even stories with this kind of arc still elevate the idea of special individuals with awesome advantages kicking ass because somehow they’re just right. Social checks on their behavior are not required.

At root, the superhero genre feels to me like a salve for people who feel powerless in real life, as we all so frequently do. But, frankly, fuck the salve. Which is better, investing in stories that encourage us to not be powerless, or slathering on yet more salve? And how do ordinary people become not-powerless? By organizing. By learning. By getting better through struggle. By preventing the assent of bullies who didn’t pay for their powers. Certainly not by waiting around for a spider to bite us on the ass. That’s what I want to read and write about: making ourselves super, through effort and cooperation and a refusal to lie down and be salved.

IMG_20160208_074501So, there you have it. Now, it may be that I have the wrong end of the stick. Perhaps I’m not doing a vast and sprawling creative arena justice. I’m ready for that to be true. But if that’s the case, then please explain and end my torment, because if someone wedges another Marvel character promo in my face today, I think I’m going to scream. I urgently invite your rebuttals.


Teeny tiny life-achievement kinda unlocked

PictureI did a thing! Last night, I ran an applied improv workshop here in Santa Cruz for the people in my coworking space, and broader community. I’ve been wanting to do this for over two years now, but the chaos-tunnel of lead-parenting plus writing novels rendered that goal, to all extents and purposes, inconceivable. I have tried to get this event up and running a half a dozen times and stumbled at every hurdle.

In the end, we had just six people—the absolute minimum viable number. There was a nice lady doing the vacuuming while we played games. And given that I’ve run workshops of this sort for audiences of hundreds at major international training conferences, it might not seem like much. But for me, it constituted a major win. It’s a piece of my life turning back on after a long period of difficult dormancy.

IMG_20160416_162555I think it’d be hard for people who aren’t parents to grok how going from 300 people to 6 plus vacuuming support can feel like a victory. But it does. It really does. Today six people playing silly games in a meeting room. Next week, presuming we can find a space, there  might even be seven. After that, babysitter-permitting, the world.


Start the week!

IMG_20160508_184205So I was determined to start this week with a bang. I was going to crack on with marketing, tell the world about my new book and all that, and then Monday morning happened.

Once again, it was a fugue-state of solo-parenting in which I was trying to squeeze a three-year-old out of the building, prep the house for the cleaners, and push forward all the other random crap that floods our lives. By the time I got to my coworking space, I was already knackered.

I stared blankly at my to-do list and thought to myself: I’ll do a little science first, before all the sensible extroverted stuff. That’ll pick me up. So I investigated ‘multi-level selection’ in the hope of being able to quickly put together some nifty citizen-science blog posts. Then 4pm rolled around, illustrating that my quick bit of morning simulation-building had turned into a mind-swallowing investigation. Furthermore, I still hadn’t beaten the subject into submission. (Perhaps understandable given that it’s a topic that has sparked a multi-year flame war between biologists and sucked up numerous careers.) Some people have games or Facebook. I have science. Same difference.

IMG_20160508_185818So another day swings by in which I achieve far less than intended. On the plus side, my grasp of adaptive modeling of Prisoner’s Dilemma is sharper than ever. Sadly, the only thing less financially sensible than writing novels is picking fights with evolutionary biologists over controversial hot-button science issues. 🙁

On second books

20160429_133124 (1) I did a reading this morning at Cruzioworks where I write.  It was fun. We had a great conversation. I also had less than a third of the people present compared to when I read from my first book, despite the fact that I now know more people in the space, and am more widely respected. That differential interested me, and I found myself thinking about in the context of other things I’ve seen about the authorial process.

There is a thing that happens to you as a published author. You write a book. You put it out in the world and you hope that it’ll get picked up. And then it does. Hooray! People are interested. They say they like it. That’s all well and good, but that’s where it starts to get weird.

Your publisher tells you to write another one. If you’re in SF or Fantasy, they generally ask for a sequel. So you do that. And, with luck, you do a much better job next time, because this time you know what you’re doing. You’ve met your audience. You’ve seen the process.

Then your second book heads out into the world and is met with… a sort of quietness. If you didn’t smash it the first time round, and create a miraculous self-sustaining wave of enthusiasm, you’re in trouble already. That’s because you’re no longer new. Even if your new book is five times as good, according to all your beta-readers, who’s going to notice? People have already decided that they know what you’re like, because they looked at the first one, or chose not to for whatever reason. If your wave was already big, it gets bigger. If it wasn’t big the first time round, it shrinks. Even those people who disliked your first book seem to vanish.

Is this the publishers’ fault? No. Publishers have little choice but to capitalize on this effect, and so find themselves reinforcing it, but they don’t create it. The problem comes from the way in which human brains process information. New, unfamiliar stimulus comes in at a priority so that it can be classified. Familiar stimulus is funneled into a pre-created mental bucket. Material that cosmetically looks familiar, but turns out to be different, generally creates frustration, not joy, because nobody likes to discover that they’ve made an incorrect prediction.

So how do you succeed if you don’t arrive with a splash, like most authors? Well, I guess you have to build back up, slowly, by surprising and delighting your readers one a time. You hone your craft. You hope that you can generate satisfied customers faster than people lose interest. And you do all this against a backdrop of fiction not being a self-sustaining exercise in the first place.

Is it worth the ego-hits that come along the way? Is there a point to marching forward through all that misty, uneasy silence, metaphorical pen clutched in your sword-hand? I think so. Because the only way to get through the valley of fear is to keep moving.

That’s why I liked my reading this morning. We had a great time, all six of us. We talked about the future of the human race, and robots, and genetic engineering, and AI. We explored.

20160429_141803I don’t blame the other people in my coworking space who didn’t show. They had plenty of other stuff to do. If I want them all to come next time, I have to earn back their attention. Then, even if I only get the same crowd that showed up the first time, I still know I’ve won. Because next time everyone turns up, they’ll know why they’re there, and so will I.

Distracted by Facebook

20160501_181706Ergh. Gosh, Facebook is a time-sink. Half my morning just evaporated when I should have been focusing on my slowly melting writer-life. Fortunately, this time, the conversation was awesome—a proper nerd-debate about multi-level selection theory. And if you can’t have a proper chewy discussion in your life from time to time, what does it mean to be alive? Challenge is fun. The dullest conversations are the ones where everyone agrees.

Frothing about SF and FTL

IMG_20160320_154040When I started posting blog posts here, I decided to keep off the science, put that stuff on the Tinker Point, and stick to personal, authorial, and SF related themes here. I’m going to break that rule a bit already, because what’s winding me up today relates specifically to SF and what I believe it stands for. And what the job of an SF author is.

There is a well-written, informative article over at iO9, written by the impressive Charlie Jane Anders. I have deep respect for Charlie Jane, and frequently enjoy her articles immensely. This one, though, drives me up the wall. So I have to respond.

The article is entitled There’s Only One Way You Could Personally Visit an Exoplanet.  The main thrust of the article relates to the difficulties of cryogenic storage of interstellar passengers, and with that topic I have no issue. She’s right. It’s likely to be a furiously hard problem to solve—something I hope to cover in future novels. However, it is with the secondary premise that I have a problem—that faster-than-light travel (FTL) is impossible. So let me take a moment to dismantle it here.

First, let’s start with what we do know.

  1. Massive objects cannot be accelerated to the speed of light, and the only way we know of to make anything go anywhere is to accelerate it.
  2. There are no known patterns of spatial distortion (wormholes etc) that are stable and would permit the space between two distant objects to be circumvented.
  3. All we know so far about relativity suggests that enormous, ludicrous energies would be required to pull off anything remotely like a warp drive.

Okay, fine. On the face of it, one might say that FTL has been pretty successfully ruled out already. But no. Wrong. Wrong wrong wringy-wring-wrong.

Here’s why: we just don’t know the first thing about what space is. We have no idea what it can do. We have a very nice physics that covers baryonic matter and bugger all else that we know has huge glaring holes in it. We have no physics of space worth a damn. The only thing we have is general relativity, which, while lovely and very accurate at large scales, refuses to play well with quantum mechanics and has been known to be riddled with logical problems since the first years of its creation. Go look up a Godel Universe, if you care.

Every model of the fine scale structure of spacetime that we have, that I’m aware of, requires that the smooth, flat space that we’re used to is an emergent phenomenon. The universe, at root, is non-local. Have a look at this nice book if you don’t believe me. What this means is that at some basic level, FTL happens all the time.  Every day. Inside your body. In that cup of tea you’re drinking. In your cat.  Definitely in your cat.

Please note I’m not insisting that FTL for people is possible. I’m just saying that asserting that it isn’t is flatly unscientific. It’s sort of okay for an SF writer to say it, I guess, but any physicist who utters such a phrase should have to go spend a year or two on the naughty step without any dinner. That’s because ruling out a hypothesis that has not been disproven because it fails to fit in a popular but incomplete mathematical formalism is bad form.

Even if they are possible, FTL drives might not be something we could build even in the next ten thousand years. But this is beside the point I want to make, which isn’t about science, but science fiction.

The job of an SF writers, IMO, is to understand and explore the possible. To be the keeper and gardener of society’s capacity for awe. To treasure the edges of what we know, and to tease them back, into the dark. To willfully inhabit the unknown and to hope beyond hope that rationality can and will conquer all.

How, in Hell’s hell-flavored name, can we possibly do that if we deny that certain possibilities exist out of scientific ignorance? I don’t think we can. That represents a closing of eyes and minds. It’s a denial of the Enlightenment. To do that with FTL turns space exploration stories into fantasy, and while fantasy is fine as itself, shoehorning SF into it is shrugging, and saying ‘meh, we don’t have to care about science, it’s hard anyway’.

20160303_180428I want everyone to care about science. Science is how come we have cars and phones. If anything is going to keep us alive over the next hundred years, it’s having lots and lots of talented scientists. Open-minded scientists who can think beyond the single mathematical account they happened to find in their GR textbook.

So I’m going to try to inspire that next generation of scientists by giving them the stars. Because they deserve nothing less.

Where am I getting my awe from?

Last week, I posted about Star Wars, reviews, personal growth, franchises and a bunch of other apparently unrelated stuff. I talked about SF as the literature of awe, and the hyperbolic extent that I care about it. But awe is a commodity I find harder and harder to locate these days. I want books I can believe in, that build on what I know, and open new doors in my mind. So I decided to look back over some the books I’ve read recently and do something like a sequence of mini-reviews, to figure out where I’ve been getting the good stuff from. So here you have it, five small reviews of things I’ve actually been reading in the non-parenting seconds that life has handed me of late.

Something Coming Through, by Paul McAuley
(+) Atmosphere
(+) Settings
(–) Alien tech
This one really hit the spot. Love the mood and the quality of the writing. His mostly tidally-locked worlds in red dwarf systems are bang-on too. This future has real creepiness. How are eidolons supposed to work, though, given the variety of neuronal architectures they’re presumably supposed to co-opt? Paul has fabulous writing and science chops, so I wanted more meat on that. That detail stretched the plausibility of the work a bit, when a page or two of idea diving would have suspended my disbelief.

The Society of Genes, by Itai Yanai and Martin Lercher
(+) Clarity of exposition
(+) Reach of implications
(–) Attempts at empathetic engagement
I’ve been getting more and more of my awe from pop-science books like this one of late. And this one’s fantastic. I still haven’t finished it, but I’m putting it on the list anyway because I’m digging it so much. In drawing such clean, functional parallels between genetic systems and social ones, the authors create something that not only explores modern genetics, but has buried parables about politics and white-collar crime. Awesome. The only lurches for me came when they tried to shoehorn in the ‘human interest’ chapter openings, because that’s what science writers are told to do. Meh. The genes are the really interesting characters here.

Eden, by Stanislaw Lem
(+) Surrealist mood and content
(+) Veiled political commentary
(–) Quality of descriptive prose (in translation, at least)
Ah Lem, you are so brilliant. How I wish you were not dead. Eden is an old book (1959), but it’s great. It’s like reading a Dali painting. Except, it’s surrealism that turns out to be an almost invisible yet scathing assault on soviet governmental policies (IMO). There were passages I had to reread to visualize, but who cares. It’s a classic. (Though, to be fair, I don’t hold old SF to the same standards of plausibility that I hold modern work to. So is he getting a free pass? You decide.)

The Social Conquest of Earth, by Edward O. Wilson
(+) Theoretical impact
(+) Ease of reading
(+) Scope
(–) Err…
Wilson is right. Dawkins is wrong. This book is epic. The review won’t be long. This book has changed how I think about eusociality, what humanity is, and its place in the universe. I still haven’t quite finished it. I read it measured chunks like a fine chocolate. The thrust of this book has implications even in arenas Wilson doesn’t talk about, such as abiogenesis. The only flaw I can think of is that it tends toward ponderousness. Like any good fine chocolate, eating a whole bar in one sitting is less good.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu
(+) Flavor
(+) Use of detail
(–) Plot devices
This book felt different to most of the SF I’ve read recently. I guess that’s because the author is informed by a different cultural context than most authors I know, but I loved how fresh the pace and structure felt. I also liked the enthusiastic use of technical detail. When was the last time I picked up a new British or American novel that proclaimed a love for science so deeply? What tripped me up in this book was the dependence on some non-plausible ideas to make the plot function, undercutting the merits of the rest of the work. Most notably, (and this is a little spoilery,) spontaneous, context-free universal translation as concocted by human astronomers in their spare time. Still, a strong book.

There you have it. Five books all worthy of your time. Yay for awe.

Pivoty Pivot

IMG_20160112_212527Bgork. Today I am confronting the fact that my life is turning on a dime. My third book is in to Gollancz. That means that barring edits, my contract is up, and I likely won’t know whether they want more books from me for another year or so. At the same time,  it has become clear to me that building my presence online and elsewhere is going to be a slow process, and one that is fostered by engaging in dialog, rather than shrieking into the void. So what to do?

The answer, obviously, is: write something, stupid! But as yet, I don’t have a single project in my head yodeling louder than the others. Instead I have a competing cluster. That means mulling and waiting for my subconscious to pick a direction.

But when I reach inside myself and ask for an general direction to start marching in, garbled stuff bubbles up.

“Change the world!” my child-mind yells. “Write some SF so badass that it makes everyone forget all the franchise-tropes from their childhood. Overturn everything!”

This seems like a nice stretch-goal, but one unlikely to come off. However, it goes downhill from there.

20150522_121626“Invent warp drive!” it tells me. “Reinvent global politics! Solve abiogenesis! Create artificial consciousness! Turn noise into art!”

I have a six-year-old with ADHD living inside my skull, apparently. I have no idea what to do with him.

Blurry due to improv

IMG_20150925_103842This morning, I ran an improv workshop for my wife’s company, HiQ Labs. This is one of the many hats that I wear. I teach people communication skills using a variety of techniques that have their roots in theater while incorporating random material from neuroscience and elsewhere. It’s a lot of fun. I think they liked it. But now I am blurry. Very very blurry.

Perhaps it was because we did it outside, on a hilltop, in a garden, in blazing, unreasonable sunshine. Perhaps because I was putting out a little too much energy. Perhaps it was because I failed to drink any more than half a glass of water. But in any case, I am ruined for fiction this afternoon, and pretty much everything else. Blergh.