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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Thumb-wrestling Cage Match--Rudy Rucker vs. Robert Sheckley

These two authors share much in common: both have relaxed styles, a feeling of spontaneous invention at novel lengths, a penchant for humor derived by putting humans in awkward and bizarre scenarios.

They do differ in literary approach, however. While Rucker's characters tend to feel more fleshed out, Sheckley's emphasis on examining the human condition spurs breadth or depth of thought. Rucker also examines the human condition but as a consequence of examining some mathematical or physical anomaly in much the same manner as Edwin Abbott or Hal Clement, who take concepts and push them to extremes. A child-like wonder suffuses Rucker's approach, seen for instance in "Inertia" where Rucker asks if there might be a difference in masses from gravity to that determined by force. In Masters of Space and Time, Rucker inquires as to how one might travel forwards or backwards in time: by shrinking or enlarging, depending on the direction one were to travel.

Sheckley, meanwhile, might try to separate the best and worst of human nature in a manner not unlike Stevenson's "Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde" presents two sides of one man. Sheckley's Status Civilization, however, operates on a societal level, sifting and isolating the undesirables to one planet and saving Earth for the good people. Here Sheckley devotes his time to examining questions of "status" and its permutations of meaning between these two societies in addition to questions of what "civilization" is.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

"Approaching Perimelasma" by Geoffrey A. Landis

Availability:
  • Year's Best SF 16th Annual, St. Martin's 1999 tp
  • Explorers: SF Adventures, St Martins 1999 tp
  • Impact Parameter, Golden Gryphon 2001 hc
  • Mammoth Book of SF, Carroll & Graf 2002 tp
  • Beyond Flesh, Ace 2002 pb
  • Infinity Plus [text online]
  • Diamonds in the Sky, NSF-sponsored anthology, 2008. [text]
  • Beam Me Up, [online audio, occasional mispronounciation]
Pre-Reading:
  1. Black Hole (includes probably the best animation on gravitational lensing)
  2. Event Horizon
  3. Gravitational singularity
  4. Schwarzschild radius
  5. Tidal force
  6. Worm Hole (wormholes in fiction and other media)

    Summary: A man can edit and upload a copy of his personality into a machine that can descend into a black hole. Two problems: 1) Who are you if you're a copy--a copy edited with new memories? How do you get back out again?

    Questions:

    1. If you can think of other possible questions , please let us know.

    Commentary:
    Applications:
    • Physics
    • Physical Science
    • Mathematics
    • Astronomy
    • Dimensions (Space/Time)

    Tuesday, December 6, 2011

    "Breaking Point" by James Gunn

    Availability:
    1. Space Science Fiction Mar 1953
    2. Breaking Point, Walker 1972
    3. Space Opera, ed. Brian W. Aldiss, Futura 1974
    4. audio
    5. text online
    • Psychological piece
    • Locked room SF-mystery (not a whodunnit, but a whatsgoingon)
    • Written before Twilight Zone, but it has a similar feel.
    Synopsis: The crew of a ship are subject to an alien presence that sees what they are mentally made of.

    Saturday, December 3, 2011

    R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Čapek

    Availability:
    1. Science Fiction Thinking Machines, ed. Groff Conklin, Vanguard 1954
    2. The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics, ed. Harold W. Kuebler, Hanover House 1954
    3. Of Men and Machines, ed. Arthur O. Lewis, Jr., E.P. Dutton 1963
    4. Science Fact/Fiction, ed. E. J. Farrell, Scott Foresman 1974
    5. The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces, ed. Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, Arbor House 1983
    6. Philosophy and Science Fiction, ed. Michael Philips, Prometheus 1984
    7. Great Tales of Science Fiction, ed. Robert Silverberg & Martin H. Greenberg, A&W/Galahad 1985
    8. The Road to Science Fiction Volume 6: Around the World, ed. James Gunn, White Wolf 1998
    9. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), New York: The Oxford University Press 1923
    10. R. U. R. and The Insect Play, Josef Capek & Karel Capek, Oxford University Press 1996; tr. by Paul Selver
    11. Project Gutenberg: text online
    12. eBooks@Adelaide: text online
    Pre-Reading: .

    Summary: Steena, Bat, and Cliff investigate the mysteriously derelict spaceship, Empress of Mars. What at first seemed a handicap becomes a necessary attribute in difficult circumstances.

    Questions:

    1. If you can think of other possible questions , please let me/us know.

    Critical commentary:
    • From Fantastic Universe Science Fiction: "An odd story, made up of oddly assorted elements that include a man, a woman, a black cat, a treasure—and an invisible being that had to be seen to be believed. Under normal conditions a whole person has a decided advantage over a handicapped one. But out in deep space the normal may be reversed—for humans at any rate."
    Applicability:
    • Chemistry, Physics, or Physical science: Introduction to Electromagnetic Radiation.
    • Biology: Limited: colorblindness or bat behavior.
    • Inclusion: People with special needs are shown in a positive light.
    • English: This might fit well with a unit on comparative literature, genres, fairy tales, or science fiction.
    • If you can think of other possible uses, please let me/us know.
    Resources:

    Saturday, January 29, 2011

    "Good News from the Vatican" by Robert Silverberg

    The next pope is a robot. Why did Carr, del Rey, and LeGuin think this an important story? It was probably the then recent Vatican II that many saw as the beginning of many changes within how religion--at Roman Catholicism--was interpreted. Without historical context, the story loses some of its power. Another lens to read the story would be through race relations with the fear of robots running operations. Nonetheless, despite allusions, metaphor and theme, sometimes a robot is just a robot. It is often more useful to read at a literal level before advancing to other topics and heading off into misinterpretations.
    • Universe 1, ed. Terry Carr, Ace 1971
    • Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year, ed. Lester del Rey, E.P. Dutton 1972
    • Nebula Award Stories 7, ed. Lloyd Biggle, Jr., Harper & Row 1973
    • Unfamiliar Territory, Scribner’s 1973
    • Social Problems Through Science Fiction, ed. Martin H. Greenberg, John W. Milstead, Joseph D. Olander & Patricia S. Warrick, St. Martin’s 1975
    • The New Awareness, ed. Patricia S. Warrick & Martin H. Greenberg, Delacorte 1975
    • The Best of Robert Silverberg, Pocket 1976 The Best from Universe, ed. Terry Carr, Doubleday 1984
    • Beyond the Safe Zone, Donald I. Fine 1986
    • The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. IV, ed. Terry Carr, Avon 1986
    • The Norton Book of Science Fiction, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin & Brian Attebery, Norton 1993

    Friday, January 28, 2011

    NPR Audio story

    I played this for students:
    Are U.S. Schools Really Falling Behind China?
    The idea behind this was to get students to see how current politicians and other countries consider science and math not only important but also vital to their future. Students had plenty to say. Also relevant this past week:
    In The Heartland, Obama Calls For Innovation

    "The Stone Cipher" by Tony Pi

    Written by a Ph.D. in linguistics, "The Stone Cipher" does play with his expertise but also with religion, the literalization of the Gaia hypothesis, and human responsibility. The protagonists, Pierre and Marie-Claire, decipher the mystery of what the statues are saying. Their revelations, however, make them rather unpopular.

    The science of reading lips was fun. The central imagery of the talking stone statues stirred the imagination. On the second read, the ending was emotionally moving in an Ovid's-Metamorphosis manner. Yet would the protagonists have chosen this way? Perhaps a particularly trusting and romantic couple might. Also, how does Marie-Claire so quickly switch from an adherent to Catholicism to adherent of the earth goddess? A transition period may be in order (unless she mixes religions or combines the earth goddess in an unusual way). Still a strong piece.
    • Writers of the Future, 23

    Thursday, January 27, 2011

    James Gunn on Isaac Asimov

    West Virginia University hosts James Gunn's speech on Asimov at their October '10, Festival of Ideas. KU's Center for Science Fiction has the video from that event.

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011

    "Ishmael in Love" by Robert Silverberg

    Synopsis: Ishmael, a dolphin who helps out humans on the island of St. Croix, falls in love with Lisabeth Caulkins. He saves the island for love of her, but she does not love in return.

    Commentary (science): Despite its presence on a website called "Biology in Science Fiction," very little applies directly to the general study. Yet much is pertinent in its examination of love (unrequited): What is love? What makes a creature fall in love with its own kind (sexual characteristics, etc.)? Can it be enough to touch the mind of someone to kindle love? Can one fall in love with another who is almost wholly other, or are we not built that way?

    Commentary (literary): Clearly, with Moby Dick's first line in the title, an allusion is here--however overt or subtle. How close is the connection? Can we find one? Perhaps summarize both in a way that teases out a relationship. In Moby Dick, a man loathes a "fish" so much that he risks himself and his entire crew to kill it. In "Call Me Ishmael," this time the "fish" saves the lives of all humans on an island for love of one woman. Are there other correlations?

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    Science and Math Interactives

    Phet.colorado.edu has a gold mine of interactives for physics, physical science, chemistry, biology, earth science, and mathematics. Some of these have become integral--particularly "Reversible Reactions," which is probably one of the best tools I've seen to make this abstract concept more real. I tell students they can't break the equipment because it's so expensive. They generally break the apparatus and fail to cough up the millions the equipment costs. Kids these days.

    Quizlet

    Quizlet has some great chemistry quizzes where you match chemical names and ions. This may be the best way to teach this material.

    Monday, January 24, 2011

    Your Gramma's Grammar

    Grammar Book is a website with free explanations (both written and video-recorded) and a handful of free quizzes. Like any set of grammar rules, it may disagree with another set in a few regards. The benefit of this set is their brevity and getting to practice what you learned online. If you use this as your only source of review, you can subscribe for 29.95 (institutions pay more).

    The review process is probably faster than with a book. The problem with speed, however, may be recalling the information later, which is easily rectified by revisiting within a week or a month, which I'd recommend as a teacher.

    While a good, comprehensive review, this is probably not as useful for larger sentence-, paragraph-, and paper-level issues. Also, it is not commercial-free, but the ads aren't too distracting (although the multiple-part videos might have been combined).

    Sunday, January 23, 2011

    "Forty, Counting Down" and "Twenty-one, Counting Up" by Harry Turtledove

    Synopsis: This is a wish-fulfillment story that goes awry... only to work out in the end. Justin Kloster has found a connection between string theory and computers that allows him to go back to when he was twenty-one and set things right with his ex-wife (then just a girlfriend), Megan. But first, he has to convince his younger self that he's real and that he should be her boyfriend

    Spoiler: The older Justin fails and heads home, dejected. The enraged younger Justin takes his older self's money to invest and build a company based on the scant yet do-able knowledge his older self supplies.

    Creative Writing: Point of View:
    1. Is one story necessarily better than the other? Why or why not?
    2. Does Justin's story need two tellings, or would one do? Explain.
    3. How might the two stories be combined into one for a dual perspective?

    Saturday, January 22, 2011

    "Story Child" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

    Synopsis: Much of the population had mysteriously disappeared one morning--what the survivors called the "Abandonment." What followed was two years of one epidemic after another, filling the local high school cafeteria. A doctor, the narrator, mourns his family's disappearance. Even he falls sick to disease. A mysterious child appears on a skimmer. The child heals the sick by telling stories about the abandonment. Paradoxically, the pain that should accompany being reminded of the loss of one's loved ones begets hope. The people heal and leave the hospital.
    • What are some possible themes?
    • How is writing like medicine? How is it not like medicine?
    • Within the narrative, how do the two stack up in action?

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    "Down in the Bottomlands" by Harry Turtledove

    Availability + Resources:
    Summary:
    • Radnal vez Krobir takes visitors on a tour of "Trench Park"--the widening between present day two continents. A mountain range rises up connecting the continents and dries up the ocean so that a vast desert stretches between them. Moreover, the Neanderthals did not disappear but exist with an uneasy peace between themselves and the other human species. Any small act could upset the peace.
    • That's exactly what happens. An enemy officer, a citizen of Morgaffo, is murdered and a starbomb (nuclear?) is planted--either of which could spark a war.
    Questions:
    • After reading the story the first time, point out the foreshadowing in the following passage:
    "The pretty Highhead girls looked particularly upset. The placid donkeys worried them more than the wild beasts of the Trench.

    "'Let's put off the evil moment as long as we can,' Radnal said."
    • What is one of the criminals' names? If one name has thematic purpose, what might the other refer to?
    • Biology: What are some adaptations for life in the Bottomlands desert?
    • Earth: Find how long ago that the Bottomlands appeared (also reread early passage explaining). Check out this Classzone animation or the one on wikipedia. Hypothesis: How might the Bottomlands have kept water from flowing into its basin?
    • Prehistory: When did Homo sapiens appear? When did Neanderthals disappear? Considering the answer you came up with for Earth, how likely is this scenario? Hypothesize how something like this could have happened.
    • How is animal behavior responsible for the story's climax?
    Application:
    • Prehistory extrapolated 20 million years
    • Earth science: in particular Earth movement.
    • Biology: animal behavior, desert biomes
    Comment:
    • What if #1: Neanderthals continued to live?
    • What if #2: Laurasia did not separate into two land masses separated by an ocean?
    • Sexual content (for whom this may concern): While not explicit, the details here are not covert.
    • Less patient readers may have difficulty getting through beginning story set-up, but it should please them if they stick with it.
    Availability:
    • Prehistory extrapolated 20 million years
    • Earth science: in particular Earth movement.

    Thursday, January 20, 2011

    Orson Scott Card's How to Write SF & Fantasy

    Orson Scott Card's How to Write SF & Fantasy

    It's been some time since I first read this one.T he character advice was intriguing in how to play with who the protagonist and main character are--who do not have to be the same--and what makes a character effective. I'll leave it to readers to investigate, but some intriguing bits about Octavia Butler's Wild Seed, Darth Vader, and detective sidekicks.

    Familiar Character questions:
    1. Who was the most to lose?
    2. Who has the power and freedom to act? (Nelson Algren's National Book Award-winning The Man with the Golden Arm is an interesting counter example although its antithesis is depressing and probably proves Card's rule.)
    He also mentions the benefits of awe and mystery in a character.

    ***

    His discussion of the story types (MICE--Milieu, Idea, Character and Event--one not necessarily better than another) is essential to genre writing: "End the story that you begin." The reason prologues fail (Event), he says, is that writer is that we haven't been given a reason yet to care about the characters, who can take us slowly through the world and see what the event is wrecking upon the world.

    ***

    This one is worth rereading. I may have gotten more from the book now than when I first started out many eons ago.

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    "The Sun God at Dawn, Rising from a Lotus Blossom" by Andrea Kail

    Written entirely in letters, "The Sun God at Dawn, Rising from a Lotus Blossom" tells of King Tut or Ghazi writing to Abraham Lincoln. Like Lincoln #3, Ghazi is reborn to the future, but his life is not welcomed by all.

    SPOILER: Ghazi is in trouble politically with those who see him as antithetical to their political will and with those who see Ghazi as a potentially lucrative experiment. This is the story's zinger it holds until the end--and a potent one. Also effective is the use of Lincoln--also shot at. While generally dramatic, a good portion feels rather loose or structured as more of a novel than a short story. Moreover, is this the personality that Tut would have had, considering the society he grew in and his genetic propensity? Nonetheless, the story engages us in some painful questions.
    • Writers of the Future, 23

    Tuesday, January 18, 2011

    The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield

    The Scene Book has some great food for thought, solving some problem stories through its organizing of narrative--
    1. Beginning
    2. Middle
    3. End
    -- and some additional components:
    1. Event (built of beats)
    2. Point/purpose
    3. Emotional pulse
    4. Focus (pivotal moment--bump to change from situation to situation)
    It may be worth investigating if you've got a problem narrative.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    "Whensday" by Patrick O'Leary

    Read "Whensday" by Patrick O'Leary. How does the piece flow from idea to idea? How are the ideas unified (or not)? What do you think of the ending?

    Exercise (if the story charmed you): Using Mywebspiration, come up with some anecdote that gets you wondering, asking questions. Let that stream from piece to piece (fiction or creative nonfiction) until you come full circle. How will you end it? Will you tie it together or leave it messy?

    Exercise: Using Mywebspiration, come up with an anecdote that gets you wondering, asking questions. This time, distill that anecdote to an abstraction. Brainstorm possibilities. Shuffle the order of the anecdotes until they build up to something. Throw out any anecdote that doesn't add up to the conclusion. Feel free to invent anecdotes or how the anecdotes relate, one to another. How will you end it?

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    "Primetime" by Douglas Texter

    This story is incredibly well executed both from a plot and character development standpoint. Alex Davis is a time-traveling reporter--putting his personal safety at risk to get the better cinematic shot. The opening scene has him pushing the time limit in order to get the best moment of a soldier's death. His boss is livid.

    But someone higher up appreciates what Alex has done, so he gets promoted over his boss. Alex and his rival, Will, are up for different promotions--producer or reporter. Texter does a spot-on job with the tension, milking it. Again, later, Texter has Alex get caught by a bystander after the bomb hit Hiroshima, so that they have to decide whether to let Alex die in that era rather than mess up history.

    SPOILER: But Alex calls in a favor, and he lives... only to be made a spectacle much as he's made a spectacle of others. The character's epiphany is overt but feels reasonable given the type of introspective character he's supplied.

    • Writers of the Future, 23

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    "Amelia Pillar's Etiquette for the Space Traveler" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

    Posing as an old-fashioned if up-dated etiquette guide, "Amelia Pillar's Etiquette for the Space Traveler" is a lightly humorous vignette about what life (for humans and aliens) might be like aboard an interstellar craft: i.e. cramped spaces make loud noises and bad smells upsetting; hence, children....
    • Asimov's, July 2010

    "Sing" by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

    "Sing" is a sadly sweet tale of what can happen when two cultures meet and do not understand. A human studies another, alien culture, capturing their "songs"--except they are not aware of these songs. The songs turn out to be something that can kill them--an aspect of their soul. The narrator reflects wistfully on the alien's disappearance.

    This one should be collected one day.

    Saturday, January 1, 2011

    "Day Million" by Frederik Pohl

    Availability + Resources:
    Summary:
    • A thousand years from now, Dora and Don fall in love... only it's not any kind of love we'd recognize.
    Questions for Discussion:
    • How does the author set the story stage--not the scene or the characters--in the first sentence?
    • How do we gain an insight into the narrator as each sentence passes up until the first sentence of the next paragraph? What is his attitude toward the reader? What does that signal to the reader?
    • What do you think about the author breaking the "fictive dream" (see John Gardner quote below)? This was once common in older literature.
    • In what ways does the future differ from today?
    • How have humans from a 1000 years ago?
    • How much do you think humans will change a 1000 years from now?
    • Who is this reader that the narrator keeps addressing? In what ways does he differ from you? So do humans change--at least in habits?
    • What kinds of technology does the following sentence represent:
    "On Day Million, Dora swam out of her house, entered a transportation tube, was sucked briskly to the surface in its flow of water and ejected in its plume of spray to an elastic platform in front of her... ah... call it her rehearsal hall.
    • Inferring: What questions do you think the author is exploring?
    • Biology: How have humans changed or evolved in this story? Do you think it plausible (possible discussion of hypothesis of disappearing Y chromosome and its plausibility)?
    • Genetics: What chromosome determines one's gender? Can one be considered female but have (Klinefelter's Syndrome)
    • Scientific ethics: Do you think it's right to determine what a person is or will be moments after conception?
    Comment:
    • Excellent fodder for thought, especially in terms of human evolution.
    • Interesting comments on his then present-day 1960s readers--lifestyles often different from today, which is another springboard for discussion in case some readers think humans make no changes.
    • Sexual content (for whom this may concern): While not explicit, the discussion may make some readers uncomfortable.
    • More discursive than Pohl's usual work, but this may actually spark discussion in a creative writing class: Is there a place for expository writing in fiction? The Gardner quote below might toss additional logs on the fire for a lively discussion.
    Application:
    • Biology: human evolution, genetics
    • Scientific ethics
    • Creative writing: nonfiction styles in fiction
    Quote from John Gardner on the "Fictive Dream":
    “In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. This and nothing else is the desperately sought and tragically fragile writer’s process: in his imagination, he sees made-up people doing things—sees them clearly—and in the act of wondering what they will do next he sees what they will do next, and all this he writes down in the best, most accurate words he can find, understanding even as he writes that he may have to find better words later, and that a change in the words may mean a sharpening or deepening of the vision, the fictive dream or vision becoming more and more lucid, until reality, by comparison, seems cold, tedious, and dead.”