Monday, November 28, 2016

The Science Fiction by Scientists Anthology is out!

I am happy to announce that a new anthology of Science fiction short stories written by active scientists and writers who'd trained as scientists is finally hitting the electronic and real book shelves. The anthology is edited by Michael Brotherton, an astronomer whom you know as an author of Star Dragon and Spider Star novels (Tor), and founder of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop for Writers. I am thankful to Springer, an academic publisher for their interest in the project, and to Michael for picking up the task and doing such a great job of working with us. This anthology renews the tradition of Isaac Asimov's Great Science Fiction Stories by the World's Great Scientists series, and it is something I dreamed of doing one day -- although I am even happier that Michael has stepped up to the plate first and did all the hard work, leaving to us the pleasure of story writing. We were told to base our stories on real science (as theory, fact, or occupation) but not forget to thrill and entertain, as good fiction supposed to do.
Here is a quote from the original call for submission:  "Our goal is a balanced volume, ideally covering multiple disciplines such as physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, planetary science, robotics, etc., without being focused too heavily in only one or two areas. ...  Show us what’s fascinating, exciting, or important about science.  Bring us a sense of wonder.  Share what it is to think like a scientist.
Inspire us to want to support science.  Point out the dangers and responsibility ever increasing knowledge brings.  Write a story that puts the science in science fiction
Check out how we did!

Back in the day
Yes, I have a story in this anthology, titled The Gatherer of Sorrows. It is inspired by one of the quiet scientific revolutions afoot today: the study of epigenetic regulation of the human genome in general and of epigenetic inheritance in particular.  As I write this post I have not yet received my author's copy. I hope to add more material to this post once I get to read the whole book!  In the meantime, here are links to other resources related to this anthology:
Available from Amazon
A review in Nature Physics

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Exploration narrative, magic, and the Thing

So, "And Then We ate the Dogs" -- some thoughts triggered by the panel discussion at ICFA, and by reading Locating the Thing: the Antarctic as Alien space in John W. Campbell's "Who goes there?" an article by Elizabeth Leane, published in Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jul., 2005), pp. 225-239.

Without delving into exploration as a human endeavor and the reasons behind it,  let us just assume as a default that at least some societies were, are, and will foster the enterprise of exploration and at least some people in all societies will be exploring whatever they can get to explore, either on their own or as part of an organized enterprise. What I want to discuss instead is why an exploration narrative invites, more so, can't help being perfused with the fantastic, which let it readily colonize science fiction when the latter came along as a genre.

Here is what I think may be the answer. All starts with the capacity of a human mind to generate ideas of the fantastic, wondrous, and miraculous.  I believe it is innate, something of a side effect of a highly developed consciousness. Our minds are figment generators as well as consumers, and  this ongoing "magical thinking"  may be a just another part of a healthy relationship with the world and reality, as important as its opposite -- the operational assumption that the world is regular, understood, predictable, and mundane. The fantastic is brain's sugar, the mundane is its oxygen.  And the fantastic, in this context, needn't be a fully developed Narnia or Skyrim, it can also be all kinds of small, everyday, sometimes deeply personal "magical" associations, explanations, fables that we generate spontaneously. It can be something as trifle as "crows carefully swap plant tags in my vegetable garden" or "rocks self-generate underground in wintertime and then work their way to the surface". 
If so, it is not surprising that the fantastic needs a legitimate place, a safe harbor where it can dwell unmolested and unquestioned by the mundane and regular; and what better place than the terra incognita beyond the boundary of the well-known world? Thus Coleridge uses a sea voyage to the South Pole, and before him, Mandeville needs a journey to the Arctic to introduce strange creatures and occurrences; let's also not forget Gulliver's travels.

As the world became more and more explored, mapped, and regularized, and the terra incognita shrank, new dwellings for the fantastic had to be found. Mars became one of these places in the 19th century, boosted by the notorious discovery of the martian "canals".  And the space, of course, the cosmos, has proved the best of them all. It is practically infinite. It can accommodate endless output of our figment machines. As if the Universe was not big enough, however, we are already claiming a multitude of parallel Universes for the same purpose. Not to mention rounding up virtual realities, refurbishing the past through time travel, and carving out new caverns of terra incognita in zones of urban decay or natural disaster.

There are, I will argue, a couple of more reasons other than simply territorial, that solidify the union of exploration and fantasy, and these reasons may have to do with mental, physical, even biological effects the endeavor of exploration appears to have on an explorer. The unknown world both fosters conditions where fantastic becomes more prominent on the brain, and forces on a human something that rightfully belongs to the realm of the fantastic: the metamorphosis. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

ICFA 2016

Earlier this month I was at the annual conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts -- my first time attending this truly fantastic conference, which mixes scholars and writers of speculative fiction in an Orlando area hotel complete with a luscious pool and nearby -- a natural pond where fat carp dig holes in the muck and where one can readily spot off a view deck an alligator's snout sticking out of the water (besides, where else can one glimpse Ellen Datlow with a fishing rod, standing over that pond and fishing, no doubt, for the alligator?)
I had a great, great time, and I want to say big thanks to the incomparable Karen Burnham who invited me to attend the conference.
I took part in the panel cheerfully titled "And then we ate the dogs" where we looked at historic relationships between exploration narratives and speculative fiction, in particular the science fiction of space exploration. Moderated by the awesome  Siobhan Carrol, an author, scholar, and my Clarion West workshop classmate, we poked at the tropes of exploration/expansion into the strange and new, the romantic explorer, and last but not the least, the disaster.
I'm still mulling about all that, and I figured I might as well put some thoughts and impressions from the panel and from my homework for the panel, on paper (digital "paper," at any rate). But since I cannot compose it fast enough it will have to be in the next post.


Thursday, April 30, 2015

Thank you Dr. Vanstone, well said!

Reducing science to sensational headlines too often misses the bigger picture

Leon Vanstone, University of Texas at Austin

We are all being lied to, but it’s okay because we sort of know it. Exaggeration, sensationalism and hype are in the newspaper headlines and on the magazine covers we read and in the films we watch. Even the conversations we have with each other are exaggerated to make things sound that little bit more interesting. But what happens when you try to sensationalise science, and put little lies into something that revolves around truth?

The role of science in society is changing. Science is now in the mainstream, with “science editors” commonplace. But the little lies are creeping into science, designed to sensationalise, to entertain, to generate clicks online, to sell newspapers, and to make science sexy.

Missing the point

The best way to illustrate this problem is with an example. There is an ambitious idea called the Skylon project, essentially a rocket plane. Rocket planes are an excellent way to get to space, but building an engine is difficult. However, Skylon recently achieved this with their SABRE engine. This was widely reported with headlines tending toward the likes of “Now Possible to Get to Australia in Four Hours”.

In order to understand why that is important, a little context: rockets are a terrible way of getting to space. Large rockets weigh close to 1,000 tonnes, yet can only carry around ten tonnes of payload into orbit. Worse, most of that rocket gets crashed into the ocean in the process, and those rockets aren’t cheap.

Imagine if every time you took a flight you had to pay for the entire cost of the aircraft – ticket prices would go up, and the number of aircraft available would go down. The Skylon rocket plane is the first, completely reusable way of getting into space. This means in comparison to non-reusable rockets, rocket planes such as Skylon would hugely increase capacity and availability of flights and lower the cost of flying people and cargo into space. Everyone who could afford to buy a sports car could now afford to go to space.

The Wright Brothers first flight.

Getting lost in the headline

Yet all the reporting of Skylon’s new engine chose to focus on the idea that it would be possible to fly from one side of the world to another in hours. Sure it’s attention grabbing, but it misses the point. It’s like being alive in 1903. At this point in time, the only way to fly was with a balloon or glider. Then the Wright brothers invent powered flight. With the ambitions of many from Icarus to Leonardo da Vinci finally realised and mankind able to take to the skies, it would be absurd to report it with the headline: “Now Possible to Get to the Shops in 30 Seconds”.

We all know that powered flight changed the world. A century after the Wright brothers' breakthrough, two billion people and 40m tonnes of cargo were transported that year alone. Just 110 years later Voyager 1 would become the first man-made object to leave the solar system entirely.

Think about that. Only a century after we worked out how to take off from the ground, we managed to leave the solar system. And you’re telling me that the most interesting part of the SABRE engine is that you can get to Australia in four hours? No. Not even close. We are potentially ushering in a whole new era of human existence.

Yet somehow this message gets lost in the sensationalising of the world around us. Modern society has become obsessed with short-term gains and creating the illusion of progress and achievement. That is why popular media is full of these little lies and it is why we are trying to make science sexy.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson viewing Earth from the ISS Cupola, 2010.

Beauty is in the bigger picture

But when you make science sexy you lose the beauty, and there is tremendous beauty in science. That beauty is hope. Science is the hope of a future. Because if we just sit here on this planet and do the things we already do, getting places just a little bit faster, living just a little bit longer, happy to simply survive as we are then we know how humanity’s journey ends – and it will end, here, on this planet.

But if we do more than survive; if we discover and explore and expand, then our future is uncertain. Science is a demonstration that humanity need not exist only on some tiny rock in the outer spiral arm of a single galaxy. To me, it means that humanity refused to go gently into that good night. Will it make it? Who knows – but it’s important that we try.
The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Help! There is science in my fiction!

On Sunday, February 22nd I will be teaching a Clarion West One-day Workshop. As follows from its title (see above) this workshop is about writing science and scientists in science fiction. I am looking forward to it!
For details and registration follow the link here.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Russian fantastika reading list:Vita Nostra

Vita Nostra is an award-winning fantasy novel by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko, first published in 2007. When asked to describe the book, Sergey and Marina say simply: 
As with all our books, it is an investigation of those things called love and meaning of life. “In the beginning was the Word,” that’s John 1:1. But what does it mean? So we just tried to answer that question.”
A visit to the book’s Goodreads reviews page left me stunned
by the outpourings of praise
look it up on Amazon
in at least four languages — Russian, English, Polish, Ukrainian, and others I can’t recognize.
An attempt to draw a comparison revealed that readers have likened Vita Nostra to the titles ranging from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game; with Chuck Palahniuk’s The Fight Club somewhere in the middle.
I turned to Vita Nostra’s English translator, Julia Meitov Hersey, and asked her to tell me more about the book. 

JS: Tell us how you came to translate Vita Nostra.

JMH: Forgive  me an old, but in this case highly appropriate, cliché --sometimes books speak to you, and VITA NOSTRA has been more than eloquent. I came across it by chance – I love books about learning, about colleges or private schools; it is such a rich setting -- an enclosed space, where one is encouraged, or even forced, to grow intellectually, all the while being stuck inside with the same demons, external or internal. VITA NOSTRA is an example of my favorite genre – a slice of reality placed inside a fantasy concept. I eventually brought VITA NOSTRA to the attention of Lev Grossman, the author of THE MAGICIANS trilogy. I found it remarkable how both the Dyachenkos and Grossman had the same technical approach to magic, providing a step-by-step description of each new task their characters had to master. I mentioned the book to Lev at his reading/signing for THE MAGICIANS, he asked me to translate a few pages, and I ended up translating the entire novel mostly for his benefit; my non-Russian-speaking family members could now read it as well. Once the manuscript was completed, I sent a courtesy copy to the Dyachenkos using the contact information listed on their website. Luckily for me, Marina and Sergey actually read their fan mail and even take time to respond!

JS:  Any challenging or rewarding moments that you can share?

JMH:  There were three rather challenging moments. I was deathly afraid of missing certain technical or scientific concepts – such as the “spiral arms” at the very end of the novel, or mental health terms that Sergey (who was a professional psychiatrist before he became a writer) was likely to hide in the text. I still comb through the text every now and then for anything I could have missed. I also had to pay very close attention to the literary quotes and allusions hidden in the text –anything from Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Garshin’s The Scarlet Blossom, to Plato. And another thing that I found extremely difficult was translating those passages when all Sasha’s seemingly pointless labors begin to make sense to her. Those pages are so emotionally charged that I had an actual physical reaction to them. Here is a couple of examples of those passages:

Every second the world around her altered.  Some connections strained and grew, others broke. The process resembled convulsions: every now and then Sasha would stand still, listening to herself: inside, an invisible thread would tauten, cutting and rehashing, weakening and twitching again. Occasionally, she saw herself from the outside: a small lake of melted ice cream, and in the coffee-colored slush swam a tiny acrid nubbin—Sasha’s fear. Sasha disliked looking at her fear. It resembled a half-digested chunk of meat...”  


…staring back into those eyes, Sasha realized with all her core being something that many understood before her. The creature did not care that she was loved by someone. And that she loved someone herself. And that she had a childhood, and she splashed on the sea shore; and that she had an old knit sweater with a reindeer embroidered on the front. There were plenty of people loved by someone, the ones who carried a seashell, a button, or a black and white photograph in their pockets; no one had been saved by memories, no one had been protected by words and pledges, and those loved greatly by others died too.”

There are some really frightening moments when Sasha’s body mimics the transformations that her mind is undergoing. You know how, when you study for too long, your eyes get red and your body feels all achy? Sasha takes it to an entirely different level:

“Her eyes no longer had pupils or irises. Only the whites with red streaks. Sasha threw aside the mirror but continued seeing herself; now she realized that she saw with something other than her eyes. She saw with the skin of her face, her elbows, neck; shaking, she pulled off her tee-shirt and saw the room through the skin of her back. She took off the sweatpants she forgot to take off last night, and with the sweatpants she pulled off her underwear. Now each spot on her body saw the entire picture, and combined, all these pictures constituted the world-without-Sasha. Her body—white, skinny, shaking in the middle of a messy dorm room—was the only entity outside this world.

Sparks ran along her skin. Shy little fires like rolling drops. Tiny flashes of lighting. Underneath the skin membrane, in nearly transparent places, she could see her veins, blood vessels and tendons—a mysterious forest. Her back itched like crazy—something was going on with her spine—it crackled, was nimble, alive, full of its own existence.”

This just makes my heart beat faster, and I wanted to make sure the reader’s heart would do the same. This would be the rewarding part of the process.

JS:  As a translator, how do English and Russian compare as medium of expression? What things are best said in English and what -- in Russian?

JMH: What I find extremely frustrating about English is the word order. In Russian, one can throw things around as one pleases – and the nuances change ever so slightly. I don’t have this luxury in English. English forces me to be far more disciplined. And then there is this painful issue of utter disdain or any other emotion one can express by using a particular form of a person’s name – and in VITA NOSTRA the heroine goes from being called Alexandra by her professors to Sashka by her peers to Sashenka by her mother. I eliminated all those forms of her name from my translation to make it a little easier for the English-speaking readers, but a big part of me hates me for it.

JS:  In your opinion, are there any barriers in understanding that an English reader can experience reading Russian fantastika? 

JMH: The main barrier is that the sci-fi/fantasy market in the U.S. is so incredibly oversaturated! However, Russian literature offers plenty of brilliant examples of one genre that is almost non-existent in the U.S. – a realistic plot prompted or directed by a sci-fi/fantasy premise. VITA NOSTRA is not a book about transformations or wings, it is a book about learning and the power of fear. Another book by the Dyachenkos I translated recently, THE VALLEY OF CONSCIENCE, is not a book about supernatural deaths; it is an extended metaphor of love and the choices we make when we have power over other people. This genre deserves recognition, along with steampunk, apocalypse, space travel, etc. To me, the social fantasy genre is what blends the line between literary and genre fiction.

So what does it mean, “In the beginning was the Word”? I hesitate to interpret this statement as it is sometimes quoted in its partial form, because it is, in fact, followed by “…and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and the agnostic in me has a tough time truncating it. However, the linguist in me rejoices – of course it’s all about language, of course, the world is the ultimate hypertext! The Dyachenkos will tell you all their books are about love – but VITA NOSTRA is also about learning, about the power of information, about constructing a new informational structure. It is the most cerebral Dyachenko novel to date. Its loosely associated sequel, DIGITAL, describes just that -- a society built on the new informational structure, but this is a topic for another interview.