Sci-Fi Saturday: Review May #1 – Dawn Among the Stars

Sci-Fi Saturday

For Review May (a follow up to Indie April on twitter), I am reading indie novels and posting reviews here and on Goodreads and Amazon, when possible. The first in what I hope to be a series is Dawn among the Stars by Samantha Heuwagen (2018, Trifecta Publishing). It is available on Amazon here.

Dawn Among the Stars is the first in a series of novels that depicts Earth caught in the grip of an alien invasion. The Temorshians, an aggressive species, threatens Earth and another species, known as the Shielders, aims to protect the human species. The human protagonists, Kayin Aves, Henry Rickner and Melissa Pebbles, find themselves cut off from each other while the battle rages. Dawn among the Stars focuses on their quest to understand the world around them, figure out who to trust, and find a way to rebuild and fight back.

The novel does a good job of bringing the reader into the action. I did find myself wishing at times that the story had started a bit earlier, so that we could get a sense of the character’s lives before the invasion and to get to know the aliens as well. Most of the plot and character development is driven by confusion, anger and uncertainty in the wake of the invasion. Our understanding of the aliens, too, is shaped by the fog of war, so it is focused on the tactical and psychological needs of the present rather than a deeper first contact. I hope the sequels allow for more world=building and contact. Dawn among the Stars seems to be more psychological and personal in tone than some alien invasion stories. It doesn’t have the political overtones of V or the communicative complexities of Arrival, but it tells an intriguing story – or should I say a trio of converging stories. Fans of alien invasion tales who want to focus on interpersonal relationships are likely to enjoy this story. Without spoiling anything specific, the book does end with a “to be continued” that leaves the story arcs unresolved. I don’t mind that, personally, but I think it bears mention for anybody who expects a novel to tie everything up neatly at the end.

I’m giving this novel four stars because I believe it tells an engaging take with interesting characters caught in compelling situations. While I would personally have preferred more world-building, deeper social and political themes and richer character backstory, I don’t think the novel was aiming for these things. What I got was an introduction to characters in extremis in a world that only offered up broad strokes and faint outlines of the cosmic big picture. On that basis, the story works. It leaves you wanting more, hoping that answers might lie on the other side of that “to be continued.”

Writing Wednesday: Space Cygnus – A Short Story

Writing Wednesday

Now that Warming Season, my science fiction novel, is live, I’d like to share with you the next installment of a short story series that began in Nature’s Futures section. The first installment “In Cygnus and in Hell” showed Dorothy Fenton’s decision to join the Xi-Zhong colony expedition, and the second, “Home Cygnus,” showed her beginning her journey. “Space Cygnus” begins her next step in becoming one of the First Hundred Cygnan pioneers.

Here it is, without further ado…

Space Cygnus

by S. R. Algernon

     “Crewmate One hundred, report for assignment” said Mission Commander Wang, the middle of five bald women in jumpsuits, seated around a semicircular table. Wang wore black. It matched her dark eyes.

     I have a name, thought Dorothy. Why remind me yet again that I’m the last one?

     Dorothy stepped forward, feeling the itch of her white jumpsuit and the chill on her shaved scalp. Dr. Neumann said close-cropped hair was a safety precaution, but she suspected that Mission Commander Wang preferred the austere look.  

     I’m not even supposed to be here, thought Dorothy. It’s plain in her eyes. I’m just taking up space meant for another.

     “Doctor Neumann cleared you for stasis,” said Wang. “After some consideration, we have decided to assign you to construction. Commander Liu?”

     The woman at the far left of the semicircle, who wore crimson, stood and presented Dorothy a white feather. Red was a prosperous color and white the color of death. Prosperity through death, the rallying cry of a ship casting itself into the void. Or was it death through prosperity, the ecological curse of 21st century Earth?

     “You should know, Construction Commander, that I’ve never built so much as a chicken coop.”

     Liu smiled.

     “You will adapt,” she said.

     Will I? Or will I always be a hanger-on, there to round out the first hundred?

     Liu pinned the white feather on Dorothy’s jumpsuit with a clasp shaped like a hammer.

     “Meet me at the airlock at 0800 hours to begin your orientation,” she whispered, before retaking her seat.

     “Dismissed, one hundred,” said the Mission Commander.

     The Commanders in the semicircle carried on a conversation in Chinese as Dorothy left. Dorothy wondered if they planned an airlock accident for her. Perhaps another death would be an acceptable loss to preserve the purity of the mission.

     Dorothy arrived at the airlock despite her misgivings, wearing the red jumpsuit, which was thicker than she expected. The neck ended in a plastic ring.

     “Glad you could make it, Crewmate Fenton.”

     She handed Dorothy a transparent helmet with the clear expectation that she put it on.

     “I’m going out there?” said Dorothy. “I’ve never done a spacewalk before.”

     “Don’t worry,” said Liu, as she put on her helmet. “I’ll be with you. But first, look out there. What do you see among the stars?”

     “Nothing. Blackness. Void. Perhaps the same thing Mission Commander sees when she envisions Earth’s future.”

     “She believes we will be the last of humanity. It is a heavy weight to bear. Look closer.”

     Tethered to the station, a sphere glittered in the ship’s light. Dorothy turned to Liu, who smiled and held up a shimmering sphere the size of a marble in her hand.

     “It doesn’t look like much, but imagine thousands of these, tied together.”

     Liu closed her hand around the marble, and the glittering sphere outside expanded into a geodesic structure larger than the ship, larger than Great-Grandad’s farm.

     “Together, they keep the air in. The sphere will be our factory and our garden until we find a habitable world. Out here, free from gravity, we will harvest asteroids to build what we need.”

     Liu opened her hand.

     “But, right now,” Liu continued, “it is just a seed. You’re going to help me test it.”

     “For what?”

     “For leaks. We filled the sphere with oxygen we harvested from a comet in the Oort Cloud. We must check every facet for escaping gas before we activate the interstellar drive.”

     “I’m going out there?”

     “Come on. Take my hand.” Liu kept one hand on the tether and extended the other to Dorothy. Liu led Dorothy along the tether to the sphere’s airlock and let her inside. She unhooked the tether and let herself drift, still holding Dorothy’s hand.

     Under the ship lights, each facet of the sphere shimmered. Dorothy focused on their reflected light to take her mind off the emptiness and the fear of vomiting in her suit.

     “Wait, Commander.”

     “Out here, call me Big Sister.”

     “Why did you bring me out here? Why not anyone else in Construction?”

     “I’m not just testing the dome. I wanted you to see you can learn to do the work.”

     “Maybe,” said Dorothy, glancing back at the ship, “but I still don’t fit in.”

     Liu unsnapped a pocket on her suit and took out a metallic object, an old Chinese coin with the square hole in the center. She held it tightly so it wouldn’t float away.

     “Mission Control wouldn’t like me having this. Commander Wang would call it a relic of capitalism and empire. My grandmother gave it to me, and it will have a place on Cygnus. You will too.”

     Dorothy wished she had brought something with her of Great-grandad’s. After they finished the task, Dorothy felt the petulance of a child at bedtime.

     “Can we breathe in here, Big Sister?”

     Dorothy unhooked her helmet and glanced at Lui before taking it off.

     “Yes, but be careful. No more than a minute or two.”

     Each inhalation of pure oxygen sent a rush. Dorothy wondered if maybe the Holy Spirit had hitched a ride along with that comet. She breathed deep and sang, imagining the stars to be a choir of angels.

Will the circle be unbroken

By and by, by and by?

Is a better home a-waiting

In the sky, in the sky?

     Habershon and Gabriel wrote the song as a plea to the heavens. It belongs here, and if I carry it with me, maybe I belong here too.

     The sound waves filled every centimeter of the air.

     If Earth does fall, thought Dorothy, and nobody follows us, we will expand to fill the void. It’s not our hands or our bodies that matter. It’s the ripples we leave behind, the echoes of our souls — and they are infinite.

     Now ready for the centuries of sleep ahead of her, Dorothy played the last verse of the song in her mind, certain she could answer in the affirmative.

One by one their seats were emptied.

One by one they went away.

Now the family is parted.

Will it be complete one day?

I hope you enjoyed the story. Stay tuned for more of Dorothy’s journey in future blog posts. For a step further into the Cygnan journey, please take a look at Warming Season, the first of a series set in the Cygnus universe. It picks up over three centuries after the Xi-Zhong landed on a moon of 16 Cyngi Bb, where the question asked by Dorothy (and countless country singers) looms over the colony. Will Cygnus be unbroken or will its people scatter like the embers of a flame? To find out, check out the e-book on Amazon. If you like it, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads to share your thoughts.

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Thank you for reading, and as always, happy reading and happy writing!

FX’s A Christmas Carol: The Spirit of Christmas in Divisive Times

The ghost of Marley walking towards Scrooge, who is warming himself by the fire

   Illustration by John Leech, 1843

     FXs A Christmas Carol miniseries offers a new perspective on the Charles Dickens classic, one that explores 21st century themes without leaving its 19th century roots behind. It departs in many key respects from the original novella, particularly in the nature of Scrooge’s development.

First, without spoiling anything, let me say that A Christmas Carol was visually engaging, offering memorable new images of the Three Spirits and rich scenes of 19th century Britain as well as more fantastic locales. The tone of the miniseries struck me as more cerebral and rational than other versions. Emotion is there, to be sure, but the characters – and not just Scrooge – seem less driven by their emotions so much as guided by them. That detachment, and the Victorian setting, left me feeling like I was watching Sherlock Holmes, rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t see this as a bad thing. Ambitious, calculating characters populate many of Dickens’s works, and a Christmas Carol shorn of some of its holiday sentimentality still feels Dickensian.

I felt the acting was up to the task, but I can’t think of a specific stand-out performance, except maybe Andy Serkis as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Stephen Graham humanizes Marley, Guy Pearce does well as Scrooge, and Vinette Robinson takes on an expanded role of Mary Cratchit.

Overall, I would say this is a strong cohesive vision of A Christmas Carol, but maybe not one that will become a holiday classic, for reasons which veer decidedly into spoiler territory. As Marley says, “Prepare ye…”

This story starts with a young man pissing on Jacob Marley’s grave, letting us know that the emotions explored in this version are not going to be the greeting card variety. I watched the series without knowing anything about it beforehand, but the tone of A Christmas Carol makes sense knowing that it was written by the author of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises. The tone is less sentimental and moralistic than other adaptations, befitting a morally complex world that does not offer redemption or absolution very easily.

Its spirit of Christmas isn’t a feel-good escape from the everyday world. Instead, the spirit of Christmas is bound to that everyday world. It is a Christmas spirit of compromises, not commandments. It offers release from torment, but not forgiveness or easy redemption. It leaves us with the sobering sense of wrongs left unrighted and work left undone. In this respect, it may be the most “adult” of the adaptations to date. This is starkly clear in its closing. Instead of Tiny Tim’s “God Bless us, everyone,” we see Scrooge bidding his friend Marley to rest in peace and Mary Cratchit remarking that there is more work to be done.

The departures from Dickens emphasize a controlled, transactional world. Marley and Scrooge play a more prominent role as business partners, allowing us to see precisely how he and Scrooge forge the chains they wear.

Marley, as a spirit, seems grimly frustrated by his lot in the afterlife, and his appearance before Scrooge is a means to an end.

Scrooge is rational, eager for facts and understanding at his best and at his worst. In one harsh scene, he ensnares Mary Cratchit in a cruel experiment that offers a crucial insight into this version of Scrooge: he is willing to part with money in order to obtain understanding and control. Scrooge post-redemption is no less analytical. He has simply expanded his ledger so that the lives of others factor into his analysis and have greater weight than his own.

That is not to say that Scrooge doesn’t have his emotional side, just that it has been numbed and stunted by childhood trauma’s. Scrooge seems to realize that the emotional transformation is beyond his power and satisfies himself with the chance to enable others’ joy. In stark contrast to George C. Scott’s exuberant, extroverted scrooge who embraces the Christmas spirit, this Scrooge seems content to remain. I think it is telling that Fezziwig’s and Cousin Fred’s family gathering are downplayed in this version. Scrooge accepts his eventual death and seems content to be solitary. His attitude toward Tiny Tim is protective but detached, a view that makes sense in light of the “old pain” that still haunts him – abuse at the hands of the school headmaster as a boy.

Women play a more prominent role in this adaptation. Scrooge’s sister Lottie takes on a dual role as the Spirit of Christmas present and is actively protective of him throughout the story. Mary Cratchit, too, makes sacrifices for Bob, Tim and – in a roundabout way – for Scrooge himself. Bob Cratchit and Fred, male counterpoints to Scrooge’s avarice are less prominent here, to allow for Lottie and Mary’s expanded roles. In light of the #MeToo movement, these changes could reflect a theme of predatory masculinity. It is interesting that this version of Christmas Carol shies away from the Christian concepts of eleventh-hour redemption. This story is unwilling to let Scrooge off the hook. Scrooge accepts at the end that he deserves a humble, unremarked grave, to be pissed on like Marley’s. His path forward lies in clearing the way for others, like the Cratchits, so that they might find the deeper happiness that eluded him.

Scrooge wonders during the film why Christmas isn’t reversed… why we don’t spend 364 days being nice to each other and one day (Scrooge Day) being beastly. In a way, the miniseries captures that ethos. Scrooge spends one day facing his shortcomings so that he can show some humility and empathy for the rest of the year. The exercise is not about redeeming Scrooge, but rather repurposing him so that he is no longer toxic to those around him.

Knowing how Dickens tormented his characters, I imagine that Dickens might be fine with an adaptation that denies Scrooge a quick redemption and, likely, a family life beyond what-ifs in his memory. In these politically and culturally challenging times, this might be the Christmas Carol  for anyone who isn’t ready to heal old wounds, but needs to move forward nonetheless. For the rest of us, I would stick with the fun Muppet version, the more standard versions with Alastair Sim and George C. Scott or the wry retelling in Bill Murray’s Scrooged.

And… be sure to check out my post-scarcity take on A Christmas Carol in my flash-fiction story “The Chains of Plenty

That’s my review of A Christmas Carol. I hope you found it informative. I hope to review more books and movies in the coming year, time permitting. Until then, happy reading, happy writing and Happy Holidays!


Writing Wednesday: Holidays in Science Fiction

Writing Wednesday

Science fiction can be either escapist (seeking strange new worlds in a galaxy far away) or rooted in the nuts and bolts of scientific challenges (as exemplified by stories like “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin). It may seem at first blush that science fiction is the polar opposite of holiday gatherings, which bring us back home and remind us of the sentimental, rather than cerebral, things in life.

However, that apparent disconnect only makes holidays more powerful when they appear in science fiction. Holidays on far off worlds make those worlds seem less distant. Holidays in the future show us the continuity between our past and our future, or they make us long for what we have lost. For people (in the broadest sense of the word) to celebrate holidays in science fiction underscores that their lives offer more than escapism, adventure or cold theorizing. Holidays either force our characters to have deeper, richer lives or reveal the meager lives of our characters for parody and satire.

Conversely, science fiction offers a way for writers outside the genre to strike deeper sentimental chords. A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life (both holiday classics) achieve their poignancy because they are willing to explore alternate futures. To see Tim Cratchit struggle with illness and disability stirs our emotions, but to see the void left by his absence calls forth a horror and emptiness with such immediacy and force that even a miser could not hold up against it. For George Bailey to wish he had never been born has a plaintive air of quiet desperation. Allowing George Bailey to envision such a world challenges him in ways that a story rooted in the here-and-now never could.

When holidays and science fiction intersect, the result can be incisive, yet satisfying. That’s not to say that they have to be. Science fiction can play holiday tropes for laughs or unintentionally evoke holiday merriment by trying to capitalize on the holiday season. Whether motivated by sentiment, satire or sales; science fiction forays into the holiday spirit rarely fail to leave an impression.

For your holiday pleasure, I present five holidays in science fiction and share my own perspective on why they stand out to me.

  1. Life Day in Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is a sight to behold. While I found the Life Day aspect to be tacked-on and superficial, that superficiality is part of what makes the holiday special jaw-dropping, off-the-rails, goofy fun. Pervasive half-baked weirdness undercuts any attempts at gravitas or dramatic tension. To be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way. The spirit of Life Day, as far as I can tell, is to throw off the shackles of story and plot, and just let the characters be themselves. There are worse holiday messages, I guess.
  2. Christmas in Brazil: Brazil has so many weird elements that it is easy to overlook the fact that the story takes place during the Christmas season. This allows the bleak dystopian elements to coexist with a facade of holiday cheer. Brazil might not have the dense ideological core of George Orwell’s 1984, but it allows us to explore a different kind of moral decay in a totalitarian Britain. The holiday allows us to see that culture has been corrupted and turned into a farce, rather than simply stripped away.
  3. Christmas on Chiron Beta Prime: After the despair of Brazil, I thought I’d highlight a song that casts the holiday in an absurd dystopian light. Jonathan Coulton’s chipper song about a family imprisoned by robots has a poignant undercurrent beneath the humor as it illustrates the lengths to which people have to go in order to preserve the illusion of normalcy in horrific times.
  4. “Night of the Meek” (Twilight Zone): The episode is a fantasy story in which Santa’s bag brings purpose and joy to a man who is down on his luck. In the context of Twilight Zone, it could read just as well as an allegory for technological progress. The modern world (of 1960 or 2019) offers its own bag of plenty in terms of consumer goods and technical wizardry. Can we, as humans every bit as flawed as Henry Corwin, find ways to share these gifts to bring joy?
  5. “Day of the Dead” (Babylon 5): The Brakiri Day of the Dead occurs in the fifth year of the shows five year arc. By bringing back dead characters, it offers a chance to reflect on the events of the past four seasons and underscores a theme in the show that people leave an impact on the world that continues after they have gone. The theme runs through the show, from the souls in Season 1’s “Soul Hunter” to the series finale, “Sleeping in Light.”
  6. “White Christmas” (Black Mirror): Like Brazil, the episode uses the holiday to frame a dark scenario, but in this case a more personal one. “White Christmas” presents perhaps the bleakest holiday vision of this list. The others offer the hope of redemption or at least the escape of death.

I freely admit that my own experience in science fiction is hardly comprehensive. There are no doubt many stories of holiday gatherings in science fiction that I simply have yet to encounter. Despite having owned a copy of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, for instance, I have never actually seen it. I plan to update this list for Sci-Fi Saturday and include stories suggested to me by followers on Twitter, along with any others I might encounter between now and then.

For now, have a happy Thanksgiving if you are celebrating and a good weekend. Happy reading and happy writing!

Writing Wednesday: Foreword to Warming Season

Writing Wednesday

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The work that would eventually become the Cygnus series began over two decades ago, while I was in Japan as an exchange student. It was the closing years of the Clinton administration in the U.S., with the world seeming to move toward peace and prosperity on many fronts. China was growing in strength and had just retaken control of Hong Kong. I saw at that time, a growing potential for cultural and political conflict under the surface. I found myself wondering how this would play out in interstellar space, if different countries and cultures expanded to other planets.

The late 1990s also marked the end of the Babylon 5 television series, which had impressed upon me the possibility of a long, pre-planned story arc in a sci-fi series, a contrast to the more episodic shows. With Babylon 5, Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series in mind, I set out to create my own cosmic sandbox and populate it with characters.

At first, I thought of a world stratified by altitude, with wealthy surface-dwellers and the poor living in tunnels and caves beneath them. I rejected this as too trite (already done by Star Trek for instance), but then another idea came to me. What if there were two colonization events, one slow ship of early pioneers and another faster ship that left later in Earth’s history? They would be worlds apart in their technology, their culture and their perspective on the world. I thought, what if the first ship left Earth in a time of crisis, while the second left Earth after its recovery in more prosperous times? In this duality, the Spire and Peng-lai City emerged. I think that I chose to highlight Chinese and Asian influences on the first colony ship because China was ascendant at the time, and it was easy for me to imagine them being a dominant power in a tumultuous 22nd century. I could imagine the story playing out differently, with Americans or Europeans being the first settlers. I’m not sure which scenario casts either culture in the best light, but I tried to create a world rich enough to go beyond cliches and stereotypes. I hope that the characters define themselves through their actions and moral decisions, and not simply by which side they are on in the conflict.

In trying to go beyond Us versus Them or East versus West conflicts, I looked for ways to resolve the conflict without relying on the usual space battles, shootouts and fistfights that often determine the winners and losers in sci-fi movies. There are shootouts and dogfights and a space battle or two in Cygnus, but they don’t define the conflict, at least not if I can help it. If I have done my job right, the “winners” and “losers” in Warming Season reveal as much about the reader as they do about the story itself.

In trying to get beyond a dualistic approach to winners and losers, I strove to make sure that the characters had their own individual goals, ambitions and drives. Dee, Fergus, Pearce, Wang and others have their own objectives. Even President Mitchell and General Fenton have agendas that go deeper than which side prevails in the end. Warming Season is the opening act in a larger conflict that will cast everyone’s ambitions in a new light and pave the way for players who have barely taken the stage. I hope that Warming Season offers something new and unique that offers an exciting and satisfying resolution while drawing you into the next phase of the drama.

I had written a draft of one novel in the series (which will turn out to be Book 5) near the end of 2001. At the end – without spoiling anything – there would have been a climactic battle in which a character (I won’t say whom) brought down the Spire by ramming it with a military vessel carrying explosives. I intended this to be a Tower of Babel allusion, but the events of September 11th forced me to reconsider that ending, and as that year went on, to reconsider some of the cultural underpinnings of the story’s universe. In that time, I explored the nature of faith and spirituality on the colony and developed a culture designed to allow individual religious expression but prevent the seeds of sectarian violence from taking root. This led to the development of the Peng-lai movement and what would eventually become the Cygnan Trinity, the pillars of Cygnan faith.

Dee, David, Petros and even more worldly characters like Fergus and Pearce took on new dimensions as I viewed them through the lens of their cultural surroundings. In turn, they helped bring their civilization to life and took their story arcs in directions that I could not have predicted.

While I hate for my writing to profit from tragedy, 2001-2002 motivated me to deepen my world-building and move beyond simplistic views of faith, victory loyalty and justice. Now, over fifteen years later, I am still trying to go beyond simplistic tropes, and I hope this approach will bear fruit as the Cygnus series progresses.

I set aside Warming Season for a while in the 2000s and early 2010s to focus on other writing. At the 2016 WorldCon, which I attended as a finalist for “Asymmetrical Warfare,” it occurred to me that I should think about my work on interstellar travel in the context of real-world discovery of exoplanets. I knew about real exoplanets when writing Warming Season, but I had not anticipated how rapidly and systematically they would be brought to light. I decided, after returning to Singapore, to look for a real exoplanet that had the climate extremes that I wanted for my series. Luckily, in a few days, I had found 16 Cygnus Bb. Once I realized that 16 Cygnus in Chinese was 奚仲四, the fourth star of Xi-Zhong, and that the historical figure Xi-Zhong is credited with developing the chariot, I had a name for my first colony expedition. Knowing that 4 is a homonym for death in Chinese added a sense of fatalism and resolve to the venture. The colonists knew the magnitude of the risk they were taking.

I also thought of the Chinese Proverb, 千里送鵝毛 (A swan feather from a thousand li away). The proverb has its own history, and has been used in other works, such as The Joy Luck Club, but I think it captures a core Cygnan value. The first hundred colonists may be just a small fragment of humanity – a few feathers – but in crossing the distance between the stars they become something greater. On reading that proverb, I realized that the white feather (symbolizing the death of old ways) and the black feather (symbolizing the preservation of the bonds that hold the colony together) would be the bedrock of Cygnan culture. I hope that my use of these symbols doesn’t detract from their original meaning.

The Cygnus book series has itself been on a long journey, and I am glad that you, reader, are taking the first steps of this journey with me. After this foreword, you will join James Fergus, a man of ambition with a slippery heart. What he sees on an icy rooftop just after First Thaw will propel him and the Cygnus colony into a storm beyond even the scope of his imagination.

I hope you enjoy the book. To my blog readers out there, I hope you will read it when it comes out next year. Until the next installment, happy reading and happy writing!

Writing Wednesday: The Supernatural in Sci-Fi

Writing Wednesday

I have to admit that my early interest in science and science fiction was sparked by Dr. Venkman in Ghostbusters. The quirky (albeit seriously unethical) approach to research stuck with me. While I never envisioned myself as a ghost-hunter, and I certainly hoped to be more rigorous as a researcher, I like the fact that science can take you to unexpected places and give you unexpected answers to questions.

Many fantasy/horror elements; such as psychic powers, magic, and ghosts; are not “scientific” in the real world in the sense that scientific investigation has not yet provided evidence that they exist. However, that doesn’t mean that any of these elements can’t appear in rigorous “hard” science fiction, for several reasons:

  1. In a fictional world, physics can be whatever you want it to be: Even if we, as readers or writers, don’t want to stray beyond what is scientifically provable, we can imagine worlds where just about anything is scientifically proven. In a world with psychic powers, for instance, I would expect scientists to study them and develop technologies based on them, as they did in Babylon 5. In “The Eye of Reason,” I proposed a school science fair in a world where the physical laws were what we would consider magical. The principles of scientific investigation, however, remain the same.
  2. The unknown leaves room for surprises: Science depends on repeatable observations. If something magical or miraculous occurs in your world, it could be real, yet unknown to science. In that case, though, as a reader I’d expect some explanation why generations of scientists have missed it, and how it fits into our known scientific laws. It brings to mind Sherlock Holmes’s “curious incident of the dog in the night time.” If the supernatural is part of our world, why have scientists failed to pin it down and analyze it? The answer to that question could be the heart of a sci-fi story.
  3. Science can produce magical outcomes: Computers, radio waves, antibiotics and other technologies have produced outcomes that generations ago (or even years ago). This is often a crucial aspect of time-travel stories and other stories where the past and future collide. However, it is easier to overlook how technological advancement can produce magical thinking. The concept of, let’s say, a familiar who obeys your commands or a device on your tabletop that predicts the future and shows you faraway places are now part of our everyday lives. Science fiction that examines the role of everyday real-world magic on the way we interact with the world can offer insights into our psyche. Have the powers at our command turned us into the heroes and villains of fairy tales? Have we become H. G. Wells’s Eloi, or have we become something different entirely?
    John_William_Waterhouse_-_The_Crystal_Ball                    (The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse)
  4. The search for the supernatural still makes for compelling sci-fi: Even if the fictional universe you create does not have actual supernatural elements, the search for the supernatural can lead to heartbreak and disappointment but also a sense of purpose and ultimately a deeper understanding of the physical world. I think back to the True Seeker in the Babylon 5 episode “Grail.” Whether or not the Holy Grail (the object of the Seeker’s search exists, it motivates characters who might otherwise be out of step in a 23rd century world. In Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” for instance, the main character is both an astrophysicist and a priest. The physics of the supernova do not detract from the fearsome implications of that supernova for someone who believes in the Christian God. It doesn’t matter to me, as a reader, whether I believe, or whether God exists in that world. The psychological reality of faith in the mind of the character is all that we need.

Supernova                        (Supernova Remnant 1604, Source: NASA)

In short, magic, spirituality and the supernatural play a role in hard (or hard-ish) sci-fi and not only fantasy or horror.

My upcoming novel, Warming Season takes place in a world that does deviates a bit from known physical reality, but – I hope – not in ways that are too inconsistent with 800 years of technological development. Faster-than-Light (FTL) travel is possible, but expensive. Artificial intelligences exist, but are not as far from 21st century technology as you might imagine. It’s possible that, looking back on it, people reading Warming Season might conclude that I was not ambitious enough in extrapolating technological advances, that people should be able to accomplish more.

Maybe so, and that brings me back to where we started. The Cygnan colonists in Warming Season were not seeking technological achievements. They sought spiritual salvation for the human species. Technology, for them, was not the answer? Even in sci-fi worlds, the characters and the worlds they inhabit must not be consumed by science. Our sense of wonder at the magic around us – whether it’s the enthusiasm of Peter Venkman as he catches a ghost or the somber reflection of a priest witnessing a supernova – is and has always been at the heart of science fiction.

With that thought in mind, I’ll return to Warming Season and its sequel, Cooling Season. Best of luck to everyone participating in #NaNoWriMo. Happy reading and happy writing!

Sci-Fi Saturday: Introducing the Cygnus Characters

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Sci-Fi Saturday

As Warming Season opens, inventor Harrison Wu touches down on an alleyway in the mountain town of Silver Falls. He brings with him a secret that will save Cygnus or tear it apart… depending on who can get to it first. Here is a partial list of characters who enter the fray within the first few chapters. This is only a partial list, since there are others to be found in the story’s twists and turns. To make things interesting and to visualize the cast, I’m also adding suggestions for actors to play the roles.

Deepankar “Dee” Varanasi: An officer of the Spire Police force assigned to his hometown of Silver Falls. If you asked him why he joined the force, he would tell you it was to protect his family, but sometimes he wonders if he’s protecting himself from the dark places in his past. He leads the investigation into the death of Harrison Wu while simultaneously wrangling bureaucrats for the annual Winter’s End parade.

Suggested actor: Purab Kohli

Petros Varanasi: Dee’s brother. He finds Harrison Wu’s body and talks his brother into taking the case. He lives a quiet life keeping records for the Silver Falls temple, raising his son David alone after his wife’s death. Having a brother on the police force gave him a sense of security, but now it threatens to drag him and his son into a spreading civil war.

Suggested actor: Rami Malek

David Varanasi: Petros’s six-year-old son, who was walking his dog Cerbie when his father stumbled upon Wu’s body. Heedless of the danger around him, he concerns himself with his role in his school’s Winter’s End pageant.

I’m not sure who I would cast as a six-year-old.

Richard Pearce: Head of a paramilitary group operating in the city of Atlantis. Years before, he was Dee’s instructor at the Spire Academy. He strives to open Dee’s eyes to the wider, global conflict and to prepare him for the time when Silver Falls becomes the front lines. He has warned for years of growing lawlessness and relishes his place on the front lines.

Suggested actor: Jason Isaacs

James “Jimmy” Fergus: Disgraced former Spire Police Cadet and current fixer for Elijah Sterzeis III. He grew up an orphan in a work camp on the Snow Plains and resolved early in life never to be cold or hungry again. He resolves to use Wu’s death to his advantage.

At Temple, his canon is a collection of heist movies from Old Earth and Founder’s Day historical films. 

Suggested actor: Sam Heughan, Chris Pratt

Brooks Mathis: Harrison Wu’s supervisor and the Director of Research and Development for the Cygnan Power facility at Silver Falls. At the start of Warming Season, he has possession of Wu’s prototype, but can he keep it?

Suggested actor: Sterling K. Brown, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Vera Caballero: Incendiary journalist who rose to prominence as the voice of pirate broadcasts. Not much is known about her past, and she prefers to keep it that way. She witnesses the decay of Cygnan society, but will her words make a difference as the violence escalates?

Played by: Maria Conchita Alonso

Paulie: The only known android on Cygnus. For over two centuries, he has operated a restaurant on the southern outskirts of Silver Falls. He keeps out of the fray, but he knows more than he lets on.

Suggested actor: CGI, voiced by Tyler Labine

Paul Goldman: Paulie’s adopted son and one of Dee’s childhood friends. As a maintenance technician for Cygnan Power, he left Silver Falls to work in Atlantis. As Warming Season opens, his whereabouts are unknown.

Suggested actor: Jason Ritter

Wang Zhi-Xing: The first of Harrison Wu’s killers. A descendant of the Xi Zhong Mission Commander, Wang longs to escape Silver Falls and seek glory with the rebellion against the Spire. Though he begins as a cutthroat and bomber, Harrison Wu’s invention raises his profile within the rebellion.

Suggested Actor: Henry Golding

Karl Roessler: The second of Harrison Wu’s killers. Wang’s follower, a man of limited ambitions but dogged determination. He trusts Wang to give him direction, and will follow Wang’s vision of vengeance wherever it leads him.

Suggested Actor: Brian Presley

Timothy “Three Strikes” Young: A laid-off employee of Cygnan Power who turns in desperation to his former classmates, Zhi-Xing and Karl. They became friends on the ball field, but will their loyalty endure when Wang leads them in a more serous contest?

Suggested Actor: Landon Liboiron

To learn more about the world of Cygnus, check out “In Cygnus and in Hell” and “Home Cygnus.” Both originally appeared in Nature, and are included in my anthologies.

I’ll blog more about Warming Season in the weeks ahead and on other science and writing topics. Until next time, happy reading and happy writing!