A probably-incomplete list of books and short stories I read in 2020. I’d have expected a longer list, given COVID lockdowns, but then I’ve also been working a lot more than usual over the past several months. Most of the fiction was re-reads, as I haven’t seen much lately that appeals to me. There are also several books not listed that I grew bored with and gave up on – something I normally don’t do, but in each case the reading was a slog and was keeping me from reading something more interesting and useful.
- “Alone on the Ice”
- Giants Series: “Inherit the Stars”
- Giants Series: “The Gentle Giants of Ganymede”
- Giants Series: “Giants’ Star”
- Frank Herbert, “Dune”
- Walter Tevis, “Mockingbird”
- Isaac Asimov, “Foundation”
- Niven and Pournelle, “The Mote in God’s Eye”
- H.P. Lovecraft, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”
- H.G. Wells, “Anticipations”
- Herodotus, “The Histories”
- Lawrence A. Rubin, “Bridging the Straits”
- “There Will Be War”, vol. 5
- “There Will Be War”, vol. 7
- “20 Master Plots and How to Build Them”
- Nassim Taleb, “Antifragile”
- “How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen, How to Listen So Your Kids Will Talk”
- “Miss Manners Minds Your Business”
- Harvard Classics: “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin”
- Harvard Classics: “Journal of John Woolman”
- Harvard Classics: “William Penn: Fruits of Solitude”
- Harvard Classics: Plato’s “The Apology,” “Crito,” “Phaedo”
- Dumitru Bacu, “The Anti-Humans”
- Clark Ashton Smith, “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros”
- “Collected Works of Robert E. Howard”, vol. 4:21
- Balmer and Wylie, “When Worlds Collide”/”After Worlds Collide”
Netflix’s Mars series “Away”, starring Hilary Swank, debuts next month. Check out the official trailer. It appears to focus on the relationship of a mother leaving behind her daughter for a 3-year mission.
What caught my eye was the Earth-Moon-Mars bracelet Swank’s character gives her daughter prior to departure. Not nearly as cool as Amber’s pendant in In the Shadow of Ares, but still an interesting parallel between the two stories.
In a word, it was regrettable.
Continue reading “Movie Review: Ad Astra”
NAWA Technologies has announced that it will begin mass-producing carbon nanotube based ultracapacitors. Compared to lithium batteries, ultracapacitors are capable of near-instantaneous charging and discharging.
It was these characteristics that led us to select this technology, in our novel In The Shadow of Ares, to power various devices on a future Mars, ranging from mobile agents to the autonomous “diggers” (mining robots). More specifically, it was the near-instantaneous discharge of huge quantities of energy that made them particularly appealing.
Although the 2019 versions of ultracapacitors have shortcomings (low energy density and high leakage rates compared to lithium units), it is rewarding to see the technology we described a decade ago reach mass production.
So what say we buy one, bring it to full charge, and see what happens when we damage the charge regulator?
Someone is now marketing something we proposed in In the Shadow of Ares: robotic solar panel cleaners. I received information on these via an email brochure from Sentro Technologies USA (unfortunately information on theses robots is not available on their website). These devices are certainly something my employer, a significant developer and owner of renewable technologies, would consider for our larger solar arrays. Here are two images from the brochure:
The first runs on a rail, much like we envisioned when we had Amber engaged in her chores, cleaning dust off solar panels because the robot wasn’t functioning. I find the second autonomous, mobile unit more interesting. The engineering challenge would be to get it to move from array to array, especially where those arrays have tracking systems and vary in tilt and orientation relative to one another.
Alistair1918 came up in my Amazon Prime queue this week, a found-footage movie with a science fiction (specifically time travel) theme.
The story concerns a social work student making a video on homelessness for her master’s program, who encounters a strange man who claims to be a British WWI soldier. At first she and the friends helping her film dismiss the guy’s claims (quite understandably) as the delusions of a mentally ill man. But there is something about them that compels them to dig further and to help him out. Ultimately they come to the conclusion that he actually did travel through time, and set about finding a way to help him get back to 1918.
An interesting SF premise. And the writer (and lead actor) Guy Bartwhistle actually does a somewhat decent job with it. But…there were a few problems that I saw with the genre elements and the storytelling:
- Alistair is a compelling character mainly because of Birtwhistle’s portrayal, but as written simply wasn’t believable as an Englishman transported from 1918 France to 2018 Los Angeles. He was entirely too matter-of-fact about a situation that would have been bizarre bordering on incomprehensible to someone actually in that situation. He doesn’t marvel about plastics or aluminum or television or assorted technologies that we take for granted with which a man from 1918 would have been completely unfamiliar. Even modern versions of technology like telephones and cars and Google Maps he accepts and uses without wonder or confusion – indeed, from the very beginning he’s completely at home with the film crew pointing modern digital cameras and microphone booms at him, with an anachronistic understanding of what they’re doing and how it might help him. One could on the other hand focus too much on the fish-out-of-water aspect of the character’s situation, but that element needed more explanation than simply stating that he’d been 2018 for 30 days already to account for his easy acceptance of the strange new world around him. I don’t recall him even once responding with wonder to any of the infinite number of things that to him should be marvels verging on magic.
- Likewise, his manners and views were jarringly anachronistic. A randomly-selected middle-class Englishman from that time ought to have been openly religious, especially one freshly plucked from the front line of the Second Battle of the Marne. His telephone etiquette would have been more formal than was shown (think of how different it was before cellphones, when one actually answered the phone with a greeting rather than a grunt). When one character (inevitably, because Hollywood) casually reveals that she is a lesbian, he has no reaction to that revelation at all, nor to the fact of that same character (platonically) sharing a bed with another character who is pining for her. Nor to the fact of that same character inviting him to sleep on her couch. For an ordinary middle-class Englishman of that period, such things should have seemed inappropriate, but Alistair accepts them without comment (apart from not wanting to impose) exactly as a contemporary man or woman would be expected to respond. It’s not that he’s biting his tongue, or cautiously withholding judgment of these future-people and their unfamiliar ways – it’s that he doesn’t appear to notice them at all.
- The science fiction element of the wormhole is handled poorly (and, this being a low-budget flick, the special effects involved are terrible). I liked the concept of naturally-occurring wormholes moving around unseen and waiting for the right conditions to be opened, but the technobabble tried too hard to explain things and ended up cringe-inducing. A better appreciation for the genre conventions would have kept the exposition to a minimum and left more to the imagination. It would have made things a little more believable had the scientist in question already been aware of the wormhole that brought Alistair to 2018 through sensor data or the like, and that this natural occurrence serendipitously confirmed and corrected elements of her theory, allowing her to finally understand the phenomenon well enough to manipulate it.
- I did not like the first attempt to manipulate the wormhole phenomenon. If it was going to fail, it should have failed utterly with no visible effects at all, making the scientist look just as delusional as Alistair appeared to be. Like Alistair with modern technology and mores, the modern characters accept this holographic blob appearing above a swimming pool far too readily. There is no wonder or apprehension at this unfamiliar apparition before them. Far better for us and them to see nothing, Alistair makes his leap based on blind faith in what she thinks she is seeing based on instruments alone, and the whole thing fails as shown and they’re all disillusioned. Then later, when they try again and it actually works, then you give the characters and audience some sort of visual indication as confirmation that this time she got it right. And because this is a low-budget film using the found-footage gimmick, that visual indication can occur partially or wholly off-screen, with the characters backing away in awe and caution from the wormhole that’s just materialized before them, the steadycam whirling around as they flee and only getting a fleeting, overexposed shot of the phenomenon itself and Alistair disappearing/having already disappeared into it.
- The French scientist was a missed opportunity for some brilliant writing. She should have been an older woman, perhaps in her early sixties, whose grandfather (vs. great grandfather) fought in WWI, told her his stories personally, and introduced her to his war buddies. She would then have had a personal connection to men with direct personal experience of the war, allowing her to more believably recognize Alistair’s shell-shock and other subtle tells. Being from the area where Alistair fought should have been milked for clues that he was telling the truth (at least about having been there) – she could have served as an unexpected confirmation of details of his story that he couldn’t possibly have fabricated.
- Related to this, one detail that I didn’t see exploited correctly was the distinctive cut on Alistair’s wrist. This injury was presented as a Chekov’s Gun early on in the film, a clue prominently set up for later use, but never (that I noticed) delivered on later in the story. Imagine the scientist, at first doubting Alistair’s story of time travel, but gradually growing suspicious over the subtle, uncanny details that remind her of her grandfather and his friends. She comes to recall a hazy memory of an elderly Englishman, visiting her grandfather when she was small…a man with a distinctive scar on his wrist, who told her one day she would meet a man with an incredible tale and help him return home. (I should note here that we do something similar to this in Ghosts of Tharsis, inspired by my tripping over a ladder and not by this movie.) This would also have been a more effective way to twist the plot, with the moderns seeing him up to that point as a fascinating lunatic whose deep and detailed delusions have as-yet-unrevealed mundane explanations (he’s a history buff/reenactor, for example), and after that point accepting that he was telling them the truth all along. As presented, though, the ambiguity of whether Alistair’s predicament was real or delusion was drawn out well past where the story called for it to be decisively resolved.
It’s not the greatest movie, but it’s interesting and thought-provoking despite its many flaws. At worst, it’s another entry in the long list of genre movies whose script I wish I had been asked to review before filming started. So much potential right there, already in the mix, just not realized.
Thinking back on what I read in Analog over a twenty year span (as I’ve done a few times here recently), another all-too-common tropes that comes to mind is the use of some obscure scientific idea in a manner contrived to show off just how smart the author thinks he is.
There’s obviously going to be some element of science in science fiction (otherwise it’s space romance or space opera or fantasy or some other “soft” genre). It may be pseudoscientific, it may be totally fabricated but handled consistently as established knowledge for purposes of the plot, but central to the plot will be some element of systematic inquiry into natural phenomena or speculative technology or the like. The problem is not science in science fiction, it’s what science is used and how it’s handled.
What differentiates this kind of science fiction from others is the author’s selection of an obscure concept or theory which they then elaborate on to excess. The tell is that the story is more about this concept than its effects on the characters involved, more a demonstration of the author’s brilliance or cleverness in finding and relating the concept than an exploration of its consequences or potential.
I don’t have the time to delve into the 50-year collection and pick out specific illustrative examples, but in general any story involving obscure concepts from cosmology or quantum mechanics will fall into this category. The more jargon-laden and compulsively detailed the presentation of the concept, and the more tortured or cringe-inducing the effort to make it relevant to the plot, the more certain the reader can be that this is what is going on.
Like so many bad aspects of modern science fiction, this quirk seems driven by the need to demonstrate a superior intellect to others rather than the desire to explore ideas. It’s the class nerd shouting: Look at me! Look how smart I am! My brains make me special and superior! In short, it’s both a product of and a product aimed at the brand of socially-inept but delusionally self-important outcasts observed in the recent Hugo Award controversies and “pink SF” generally.
It’s also, I suspect, what turns a lot of mainstream readers off with regards to science fiction. They might like a popular science fiction movie and decide to give written science fiction a try. But when they encounter one of these stories, they are reminded of the gamma losers they knew in school, and it sours them on the genre as a whole. Whether that association is made consciously or not, I think plays a large role (along with the creepy sexual perversions and taint of pedophilia that stained the genre in the 1960s and 1970s) in why despite the success of science fiction in film and television, reading and writing science fiction are still looked down on.
In addition to the full draft of Ghosts of Tharsis, we have several stories in the works, more Dispatches from Mars by freelance journalist Calvin Lake, author of “Anatomy of a Disaster”. While that story was written tongue-in-cheek as a satire of several “sci-fi” tropes (notably the fiery redhead stock character and the annoying cat-fetishism of SF writers, indulged in by hacks and masters alike), it was the first use of Lake and his Dispatches as a framing device through which we could explore elements of the Ares Project universe that wouldn’t fit into one of the novels. We have at least ten of them outlined, with two substantially completed and one now finished and out for review. I’ll throw in a bonus description of a fourth story that has a full detailed outline, because I’m generous like that.
- “True Crime” (working title)
- Lake investigates an incident at Redlands Automation (makers of, among other things, the science pins mentioned in In the Shadow of Ares and “He Has Walled Me In”). When celebrity science popularizer Silas Hudson and his producer are murdered while visiting the settlement, order threatens to dissolve into mob violence as the settlers improvise justice for the killer. Eyewitnesses recount the murders and the dangerous days that followed – but are any of them telling the truth?
- The story tackles a surprising number of themes for a 22,000 word short story, including:
- The nature of science popularizers like Bill Nye and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Silas Hudson is their inverse, in that he’s actually brilliant in his own area of expertise and has learned through embarrassing experience to consult with experts in other fields before talking out his ass. He’s philosophical, he’s engaging, he shares credit with other experts, he’s earnestly curious about the way the universe works, he’s everything you could ever want in a science popularizer (apart from being dead).
- The problems of civic order and justice in a frontier settlement where there is no established law and order. This theme is meant to be explored in depth in a different Dispatch and in the third novel, but here you get a glimpse at what can happen when there are no formal methods for dealing with serious crimes.
- The invisible threat of “the crowd” in small, isolated populations like space settlements. We draw on Charles Mackay and Gustave le Bon to show how “extraordinary popular delusions” can spread as a social contagion and grow rapidly out of control and out of all contact with reality.
- The unreliability of personal accounts of crimes and other dramatic events.
- The value of sticking to the truth over taking the easy route of lying, which can be dismayingly tempting even to scrupulously honest people under certain circumstances – one seemingly small lie can snowball into tragedy.
- A variety of recurring themes in our stories, such as the “baby taboo”, immigration on bond/contract, the protection of scenic places, commercial development, the practical operations of a Martian settlement, “facers”, etc.
- This story is complete and out to our test readers for review and feedback. I expect we’ll have it published in the next 3-5 weeks.
- Lake shows us the single largest development project on Mars undertaken to-date, and the colorful businessman behind it. His attempt at obtaining an interview with Jedediah Thoreson leads to an unexpected journey through Thoreson’s past and Mars’ future.
- There are a few parallels to Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” here, but the development and outcome of the story are very different.
- The main themes here are free markets vs. anti-business zealotry camouflaged as environmentalism and humanitarianism, the importance of a clear vision to a large project, how large projects might be organized and funded on Mars or the moon, industrial development and future industrial technologies, and how people aren’t always who or what they seem to be.
- Despite our original intention that “Anatomy of a Disaster” be non-canonical given its farcical nature (remember that it was first published on the blog as an April Fool’s joke), there is a cameo appearance by one of the characters from that story, and Thoreson Polar Water itself is mentioned in that story as a reference to this (future) Dispatch.
- I especially like the narrative substructure of this story. Describing it here would reveal a lot of spoilers, unfortunately, so readers will just have to uncover it for themselves.
- This story is around 80% written out from the detailed outline.
- This Dispatch describes the First British Trans-Marineris Expedition. An eleventh-hour leadership change initiates an escalating spiral of bad decision-making. Initial successes despite bad choices lead to hubris and eventually catastrophe.
- The feel and certain elements of the story are modeled on the exploration missions of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, and specifically Mawson’s account in Home of the Blizzard. While none of these real-world expeditions went awry for the reasons shown in “Marineris”, those reasons are exaggerations of various leadership and mission planning flaws those early explorers experienced mixed with the authors’ own real-life leadership experiences.
- The main themes in “Marineris” are of course leadership and the planning and conduct of complex missions. In particular, why you don’t put gamma males in charge of anything, ever, and the importance of sticking to a plan, preparing for contingencies, and not overextending yourself. Other themes include the practical elements of such a mission (i.e.: an architecture by which settlers on Mars might pull it off), the stultifying dead-end of technocratic socialism, team dynamics under reckless and incompetent leadership, the thrill of discovery, and the majesty of wild nature (even when it seems to want to kill you).
- This Dispatch introduces a special-purpose hopper which will figure prominently in both Ghosts of Tharsis and “The Olympian Race”, and shows the origin of its name (it being the only named hopper in the MDA fleet). It also ties in to an unnamed Dispatch in which Lake buys a second-hand rover and runs into unexpected company on his way back to Port Lowell.
- This one is currently about 70% written from the outline.
- “The Olympian Race” (detailed outline complete and ready to write)
- Lake relates the dramatic true story of two “gentlemen explorers” vying to be the first man to reach the top of Olympus Mons. Each thinks he has an insurmountable head-start over the other, only for their rivalry to converge at the end in a deadly all-out race to the summit.
- This Dispatch is more an action story than a big-theme story. It’s a character-driven mixture of extreme sports and crime caper (remember that the MDA forbids all unapproved access to the Wilds, i.e. the lands outside of the settlement tract, which includes Olympus Mons and all approaches to it).
- For crossovers, it’s the only Dispatch we’ve outlined so far in which The Green makes an appearance, and as noted above, it features the special purpose hopper from “Marineris” (as well as another key piece of hardware used on that Expedition).
I read about as much as I could tolerate, which was not quite to the end of Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalities. I may tough it out through the last few pages, but that’s enough.
I still think there’s a lot of interesting potential in the Shaver Mythos, some interesting ideas, situations, and settings. Unfortunately, that potential is wasted with writing so bad as to be unreadable: long narrative dumps, stilted dialogue, corny and inconsistent descriptions of the imagined technology, goofy recycling of elements from other mythologies, poor story mechanics, etc.
Then there are simple writing mechanics and stylistic errors that any minimally-competent editor would have caught. For example: multiple instances of the same significant word in the same sentence or paragraph. It was a little thing to notice, something that happened that I might not have noticed had it happened only once or twice, but in one 5-6 page stretch I noticed that it happened so many times that, as it happens, I couldn’t not notice when it happened. Just as awful is Shaver’s frequent description of events or places as in some way “beyond mere words to portray” or “exceeding human ability to understand”, a cheap gimmick whose overuse fills me with a weary loathing I struggle to adequately convey.
I’ve read a lot of mediocre SF (I subscribed to Analog for 25 years), but I didn’t fully appreciate the term “hack writer” until I experienced Richard Shaver. I think if I taught English or creative writing classes at the high-school level or above, I would be tempted to teach my students editing by assigning small groups one story apiece. Go, and make this readable. Even government-school students couldn’t make it any worse.
I’m a few pages into the wonderfully-titled “Zigor Mephisto’s Collection of Mentalia”, the second of the stories in the collection, and can already see why Shaver is compared to Ed Wood. The writing is schlocky, the names are cheesy, the dialogue is campy, and the overall quality is at the level of a high-school creative writing assignment.
There’s something endearingly strange about it all, and something compelling about the storytelling. For all its faults, there’s something that holds my interest enough to keep going with it.
I suspect that someone could make a project out of rewriting Shaver’s stories in a more competent form (assuming they’re out of copyright) and organizing and clarifying his mythos along the way. Behind the ineptitude there are some interesting ideas a good writer could explore further in new Shaver Mythos stories as well.