Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts

What Are Your Top 5 Books?

So, your favorite books. I know, I know. Choosing favorite books is like choosing favorite children, but I figured I'd give it a shot. For the record, these are my favorite books, which is a different thing than what I would consider the "best" books. For example, the best Nazi movie might be Schindler's List, but my FAVORITE is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

See the difference?

Ender's Game -- Yeah, the computer game that explores his psyche is a little much, but the kid's a tactical genius with a heart. I will never get tired of that.

The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings -- Do I really need to talk about this? (And yes, series count as one book. IT'S MY GAME SHUT UP!)

Dune -- I talked about this once, but for those who missed it: sandworms, desert ninjas, Sting.

Mistborn Trilogy -- The newest one on the list, so I'm not sure how it will stand the test of time. But at the moment? Original and awesome superpowers, clever heists, immortal tyrants, and subverted fantasy tropes all over the place.

Marvel 1602 -- An interesting look at what Marvel superheroes might be like in the 16th century rather than the 20th. Hey, I had to put one graphic novel on the list, and this one creeps me out less than Watchmen and V for Vendetta (though both of those are good as well). Plus it's written by Neil Gaiman. Double win.

Now that I look at this, it's interesting to note that 4 out of 5 of these revolve around the Chosen One trope. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess.

Of course you all hate my top 5. So what are yours?

Books I Read: Open Minds

Susan Quinn is a regular here at Author's Echo and (I'm proud to say) one of my critique partners. She wrote this book. It comes out tomorrow.

It's pretty cool.

Title: Open Minds
Author: Susan Kaye Quinn
Genre: YA Sci-Fi
Published: 2011
My Content Rating: PG-13 for make-outs, tense situations, and the occasional bullet

In a world where everyone can read minds, Kira is a zero -- a freak who can't read or be read. When she accidentally controls her best friend's mind, nearly killing him, she discovers she's a different kind of freak entirely: a mindjacker. She can't admit the truth, but fitting in means lying and controlling the minds of everyone she loves. It gets worse when she gets in over her head in the mindjacker underworld, and discovers the government knows more than it's letting on.

The best part of this book is the world. A lot of stories have mind-reading as the special power, but here it's the norm. The book does a fantastic job of exploring what that world would be like, and what it would mean to be a zero or a mindjacker.

I also love how there are no easy choices for Kira. Lying is not just about fitting in; admitting she can control minds could get her in serious trouble. But what else can she do? And really, her choices just get worse from there.

If you like sci-fi and/or paranormal (cuz this book is really that, too), check this one out.

Fantasy Slang: Starting from Scratch

Last year, I wrote some posts on where slang comes from and how to make your own for a sci-fi/fantasy novel. Among other things, I said coming up with unique terms and idioms for a world was "very hard" at first.

Man, was I right.

The last couple of days I've been working on the beginnings of a glossary for my post-apocalypse world. The bad news is it's just as hard as I remember it being the first time around. The good news is, I've figured out some steps to help you (and future-me) start your own fantasy glossary.

1. Determine what feel you want. Old West slang (like Firefly) has a very different feel from pirate slang (like Air Pirates) or Mexican slang or British rhyming slang. Each will flavor your book and your world differently.

2. Research that type of slang. Write down words you like, that sound cool, that are so obscure you think you could use them without most people knowing the source. Even for words you don't like, write it down if it means something you think you'll need. In that case, pay attention to where the term came from (if possible) and see if you can use the same method to create something new.

For example, when researching pirate slang, I wrote down "grog" and "booty." The terms were too well-known for me to use them (and, in fact, their origins made it impossible for me to use them realistically), but they helped me get the right feel for my own.

3. Know your world's origins and metaphors. If your world is at all based on Earth, you'll want to think about how language might have evolved. For example, Firefly mixed Chinese phrases and swear words with English based on the idea that the two "mega-cultures" had combined.

And Earth or not, every world has its own metaphors. What is (or used to be) important in your world? An icy world might have snow and cold metaphors (like, maybe they'd say "Toasty!" instead of "Cool!"). An agricultural society might use farming or animal terms -- like "groundhog" for someone who's never flown before -- while a city-planet might not know what a groundhog is (though maybe they used to know, and it's become a dead metaphor!).

4. Make up some basic terms. Once you've collected everything above, start with some or all of the following (apologies in advance for some of the examples):
  • A greeting ("Hey!" "What's up?" "Are you well?")
  • A couple of honorifics (Mister, Miss, Your Honor, Madame, Sensei)
  • A term between friends (buddy, bro, mate)
  • One or two insults (bastard, prick, rat orphan)
  • One or two oaths (oh my God, damn it, sh-t)
  • A positive epithet (cool, awesome, rad, pure guava)
5. Play with it. Try writing a dialog-heavy scene with your new terms. Don't worry about presenting it to the reader (or about writing well at all, actually). Just try to see where the new slang feels wrong, where it might be too much, but especially where you make up even more terms or phrases (e.g. where you've used some modern cliche that wouldn't make sense in the fantasy world).

Once you've got the world in your head and a start to the language, it gets easier. You build momentum for thinking up future phrases, and the bigger your glossary (because you are writing them all down, aren't you?), the more momentum you have and the easier it gets.

At least I hope it gets easier. Otherwise I got a loooooong road ahead of me.

Books I Read: Perdido Street Station

Title: Perdido Street Station
Author: China Miéville
Genre: SF/F/Steampunk/Horror(?)
Published: 2000
Content Rating: R for language, sex, and the sucking of brains

Beneath the ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, arcane races, and bio-engineered Re-mades live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. Everyone's got something to hide, including Isaac -- a brilliant scientist who's in over his head. He's been hired to help a de-winged birdman fly again, but that's not the problem. The problem is one of the specimens he collected for his research: a caterpillar that feeds only on a hallucinogenic drug. What finally emerges from the cocoon turns out to be so terrible, not even the Ambassador of Hell will aid in its capture.

The world in this book is AMAZING. It felt like a dark, more-serious version of Terry Pratchett's Discworld. It's got everything: steampunk tech, psuedo-scientific magic, fantastic sentient species, monstrous terrors, mafiosos, oppressive governments, even artificial intelligence.

The writing is really good, if you don't mind the tangents into a description of some new burrough of New Crobuzon (which really aren't tangents, as the city is one of the main characters in the book, but some might not see it that way). The plot, too, was really strong. I admit there were moments I felt were too coincidental (like when Isaac learned what to feed the caterpillar), but it led me along nicely. And especially once the cocoon hatched, I couldn't put the book down.

Assuming the content doesn't freak you out, you should totally read this book.

Time Travel for Writers

Technically, time travel is impossible, but as Isaac Asimov said, "I wouldn't want to give it up as a plot gimmick." Unfortunately, time travel has also been done A LOT, which leaves it open to accusations of cliche. It doesn't mean you can't do it (You can! Do!), but you need to know how it's been done and where your story fits into that (vast) collection.

Just because it's impossible doesn't mean you can't do it. Four common methods:
  1. Faster-than-light travel. If you travel close to the speed of light (theoretically possible), you actually travel into the future. If you could travel faster than the speed of light, you would go back in time. You can't, of course, but this is fiction. See also rules #3, 4, and 5 for space travel.
  2. Dial-a-time. You've seen Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, yes? Keanu Reeves' finest hour (if ever there was one). Their time machine was the soft sci-fi standard: don't explain how it works, just punch in a time and go. See also: Back to the Future.
  3. Wormholes. This is probably the most scientifically feasible method. If wormholes can be used to leap through space, then it should work for time too.
  4. In the minds of others. Like Quantum Leap, you don't go back in time yourself, but your mind does, implanting itself in the minds of others. You might be a watcher or you can take over that person's personality for a time and change things through them.

Most time travel stories must, at some point, deal with The Paradox. That is, they must answer the question: what happens to the present if you change something in the past? The impossibility of time travel means nobody knows, so you have a lot of freedom here. Beware, though, some of these devices are hard for a reader to wrap their head around.
  1. Time fork. If you change the past, then you actually create a fork in time. There's the "old" present that you came from, and the "new" present created by the events you changed. If you take your time machine back to the present, it will always be the "new" present, unless you can undo the changes you made.
  2. The Butterfly Effect. Like the time fork, except that any change--even your very presence or the butterfly you just swatted away--will have drastic effects on the future. This makes it highly unlikely that you can undo said changes.
  3. No change until you return. Say you kill your great-great-grandfather. In this scenario, you will continue to exist until you try to go back to the present, at which point you (and all descendants of your g.g.g-father) disappear. It doesn't make much sense, but it means you have a chance to undo things.
  4. Change occurs gradually. Like Back to the Future, your changes to the past become a ticking clock. If you stop your parents from falling in love, it's only a matter of time before you cease to exist.
  5. Change occurs immediately. If you kill your ancestor, you cease to exist there and then. Of course that's the true paradox: if you never existed, how did you kill your ancestor? Wouldn't that undo everything? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. This is where stories get REALLY complicated.
  6. Events cannot be changed. The opposite of the paradox. Any attempts you make to change the past will either (A) be thwarted (e.g. the gun jams, your ancestor trips and dodges the bullet, your ancestor is saved by a medical miracle after you leave the scene, etc.) or (B) prove to have been a part of the timeline all along (e.g. he never was your ancestor, but his death is what brought your real ancestors together).

The biggest problem with time travel is how powerful it is. If you can go back in time and change any mistake before it happens, it immediately raises the question, "Why don't you just...?" Like, "Why don't you just go back in time to before you made the machine and stop everything from happening?" This is another place where time travel gets all headache-y, and where you need to be the most careful. Some ideas:
  1. The machine is broken. So you can't go back and forth until it's fixed. Of course, once you fix it, you could just go back and undo everything, but if everything is right again, maybe you don't want to.
  2. It's against the rules. Time travel is essentially magic: you make up the rules, then stick with them. If there's a plot hole, make up a rule to patch it up, but make sure that new rule is consistent with everything else that happens. Maybe time travel is uncontrollable (as in Quantum Leap, or anything with wormholes), or you can get somewhen in a broad sense (say, a certain year), but not close enough to fix details (i.e. the exact place and time where you would have opportunity to fix everything). Maybe you can't change the past. Maybe you can only go one direction (forward or backward, not both) or you can only jump a specified amount of time (like in 5-year increments).
  3. It makes things worse. In an attempt to subvert the plot hole, you do go back in time to fix it, but your old self doesn't listen, or someone worse comes back and fixes the machine after you broke it, or you killed a butterfly and spaces monkeys take over the planet in ten years. Whatever.

The short version of what's been done in time travel fiction is: EVERYTHING. Nothing's original, we talked about that. If you want to see for yourself what's been done, take a week off of work and read these.

However, anything can be done well again. Mix it in new ways and make it your own. Just don't make the mistake of thinking you're the first person to come up with the idea of time tourism, time police, fixing the future, stopping someone from wrecking the past, beings that move through time, a modern-day teenager stumbling upon a trip to that period in history he can never seem to understand in school (God bless you, Keanu)...

It's all been done, but you can do it again and better. Just don't be boring, and you'll be fine.

So You Want to be a Geek

Fine, nobody wants to be a geek, except those of us who are already geeks and need a way to feel proud about that (God bless you, Internet, for giving us that way!). But maybe you want to hang out with geeks? Understand what's going on at Comic Con? Date a geek?

Stop laughing. It happens.

Consider this an unofficial, non-exhaustive primer on the things you should know to understand the geek world...or at least to be able to visit our world without falling asleep or cringing all the time.

Please understand that the term "geek" is very broad (and yet completely distinct from "nerd"--we'll have that conversation later). The following list will help you with the most common breed: the sci-fi/fantasy geek. Although geek types frequently overlap, this list will not be as helpful with computer geeks, techno-geeks, math geeks, physics-and-other-hard-science geeks, history geeks, or any other form of "useful" geekery.

1. Watch the original Star Wars trilogy. Original theater edition is preferable, if you can find it.
         a) Although you are not required to have an opinion on the matter, know what it means that Han shot first.

2. Familiarize yourself with some form of Star Trek. Preferably TOS (the Original Series) or TNG (the Next Generation).
         a) You are not required to watch more than one episode or movie, but you should be able to recognize (by name or face) at least 3 crew members.
         b) Watching the new Star Trek movie is acceptable (because it's awesome), but assume that conversations about Kirk, Spock, etc. are speaking of the original series, unless otherwise specified. If you, for example, say, "Spock and Uhura are so hot together" without specifying the context, you will be known for a fraud.
         c) Actually, just avoid stating opinions in general.

3. Know your comic book superheroes:
         a) The origin stories of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man.
         b) The identifying powers/features of the aforementioned superheroes, as well as: Wolverine, Cyclops, the Incredible Hulk, Punisher, each of the Fantastic Four.
         c) Although you should see Nolan's new Batman movies (again: awesome), do not assume the original Batman ever trained as a ninja. Though he should have.

4. Watch or read the entirety of LORD OF THE RINGS. Reading is preferable but, dude, it's 1,000+ pages. We understand.

5. Watch every episode of Firefly. (NOTE: This may no longer be relevant in 5-10 years, but for today's geek it is a necessity).

6. Know what anime is.
         a) Know the difference between "anime" (Japanese animation, which includes many different styles) and "anime-style" (non-Japanese animation that looks like it).
         b) Know the difference between dubbed and subbed.
         c) Never, under any circumstances, assume or imply that because something is animated, it is for children.

7. Watch one or more of the following, preferably subbed:
         a) Neon Genesis: Evangelion
         b) Vision of Escaflowne
         c) Cowboy Bebop
         d) Naruto (one season is acceptable)
         e) Dragonball Z (the cartoon, not the live action movie; one season is acceptable)
         f) Any film by Hayao Miyazaki (e.g. Laputa, Nausicaa, Porco Rosso, My Neighbor Totoro, etc.)
         g) Avatar: the Last Airbender (this is not anime, but I think it counts)

8. Play one of the following RPGs for at least one hour:
         a) Dungeons & Dragons
         b) World of Warcraft
         c) Any Final Fantasy game

9. Know the following terms:
         a) Saving throw
         b) Red shirt (from Star Trek)
         c) Orc
         d) d20
         e) Klingon
         f) Mech or Mecha
         g) Skynet
         h) XP
         i) Grok
         j) Holodeck

10. Memorize some obscure piece of trivia related to any of previous items. Example: "Did you know Neil Gaiman wrote the English dialog for Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke?" (true story).

I know that seems like a lot of work, but nobody said being a geek (even an honorary one) was easy.

Also understand there are many, MANY things that could adequately replace items on this list. If my fellow geeks were to make similar lists, they would all be different and would include things even I'm not familiar with.

So to you: Do you know everything on this list? What would you add/replace for someone who wanted to understand the geek world?

How to Use

TV Tropes is a fantastic site, collecting every story trope humanity has ever done, along with examples. If you've got a spare month or two (not a typo), I highly recommend heading over there. If you've never been, let me give you some tips on how to use the site.

1) Let it depress you. Start with some trope you're writing, say air pirates. Follow the links to all the interesting, related tropes--especially ones you thought were original--like cool-looking airships or the villain's airborne fortress that threatens to rain cannonballs on the goodguys. Come to the realization that there is NOTHING original in your story AT ALL. Quit writing.

2) Let it encourage you. After you've quit writing for a few years, realize that nobody ELSE is original either. That makes unoriginality okay (within reason). The goal in fiction is not originality, but to take what's been done and make it fresh and interesting again. To make it YOURS.

3) Let it inform you. Now that the tropes are no longer soul-crushing, find your favorite trope to see how it has been handled before, how it's been subverted, and how famous the examples are so you know what you can get away with. Come up with subversions of your own, or mix it with other tropes in new and interesting ways.

4) Let it inspire you. Stuck for ideas? How about the origin story of a Judge-Dredd-style adventure hero and his possibly-insane sidekick facing an evil tribal circus in the African jungle. If that doesn't work, just hit the TV Tropes Story Idea Generator one more time until you find something you DO like! And if it sounds too lame or familiar, just add ninjas (or samurai or pirates or mecha or whythehecknot all of them). Because it's AWESOME.

Are any of you even still reading this, or did I lose you like 15 links ago?

5 Reasons You Should Read Dune

I noticed some of you haven't read Dune. That's okay. I mean, there's TONS of books I haven't read. But because Dune is one of my favorites, I thought I'd give you a few (more) reasons to read it.

Sandworms. In the desert, these ginormous creatures follow any vibrations that feel like life. One of them will swallow you whole before you realize those are its teeth rising out of the sand all around you.

Fremen. They're like desert ninjas. You know the sandworms? These guys ride them.

Spice. It turns your eyes blue, enables faster-than-light space travel, sometimes gives visions of the future, and tastes like cinnamon. What more could you want? Well, maybe something less addictive, I suppose.

Sting. Okay, so he's not in the book. He was in the movie (that you should never see), but you can imagine him while you're reading.

Arrakis. Imagine a world with almost no water at all, where you need a special suit to reuse as much of your body's fluids as possible, where massive sandstorms rage across the surface, rivaled in their destructive power by only the monstrous sandworms that prowl the desert. It should've been a useless world, except for one thing: the spice. Without it, travel between the worlds is impossible and the Galactic Empire crumbles, and the spice is only found on Arrakis.

He who controls the spice controls the universe.

Have you read Dune? If so, what's your favorite part about it? If not, why the heck not?

Sketch: Harkonnens on Hard Times

So Emmet Blue called me out on my Quick and Dirty fantasy map. He made an educated guess (Indonesia), and now I owe him a sketch. Let that be a lesson to the rest of you: before putting a Google Fantasy Map in your book, maybe rotate it, tweak the coastlines, and don't ask Emmet if he knows where it is.

It's been over two months since I drew anything for you guys, though. Maybe I deserved it.

The commission was, and I quote, "an Elvis-suited Baron Harkonnen singing karaoke while floating at an odd angle, maybe with Sting backing up on bass. That, or whatever that imagery makes you think of." Here's what you get:

Space Travel for Writers

Five basic rules for space travel in science fiction. Sci-fi writers probably know these already, but I'm still surprised how often they're ignored.

(The NRI, or Nerd Rage Indicator, is an estimate of how likely you are to get flak for breaking a given rule. 1 is the least likely (e.g. that guy who runs your local comic shop cares, and only that guy). 5 is the most likely (e.g. Wil Wheaton and John Scalzi publicly destroy your sci-fi cred)).

RULE #1: There is no sound in space. Sound means fluid (air, water, etc.) vibrating against your ear drum. No air, no vibrations, no sound. This happens more in movies than novels, but you should still be aware of it before describing that "bone-shaking explosion that ripped the skies."
NRI: 1 (as important as it is, most people don't notice until it's brought to their attention, especially in prose).

RULE #2: Astral objects are really, really, really far away from each other. The moon is 384 megameters (it's a thing!) away. At our very fastest, it takes us 10 hours to get there. Not so bad? Try Mars. At the same speed, it would take 2 months to get there at best. Jupiter? Almost 2 years. The nearest star system (which may not even have planets)? More than a century. Mostly this means your spaceships either need fuel and provisions for the whole trip, or they have to go really, really fast. The latter, though, raises other considerations (see Rules #3 and #4).
NRI: 5.

RULE #3: Spaceships can't travel faster than the speed of light, no matter how much we want them to. Unless science is wrong, it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object to the speed of light. There are ways you can mess with this (see Rule #5), but you should at least give a nod to the rule before doing away with it.
NRI: 4 (I figure Wil Wheaton can't complain too much since the biggest violation of this rule is Star Trek's "warp speed").

RULE #4: If you travel fast enough, you have to deal with the weirder effects of special relativity. In particular: time dilation. Effectively, the closer you get to light speed, the slower time moves for you. So if you fly to Jupiter so fast it only takes you 2 days, then decades will have passed back on Earth (and probably faster spaceships will have been built, which is pretty interesting in itself).
NRI: 3 (Star Trek totally ignored it, and most people have a hard time getting their heads around it. I'd say you're 50/50 for getting flak on it).

RULE #5: You can bend the rules, even make them up, but you must be consistent. Wormholes, hyperspace, jumpgates, folding space--these are all viable (and mostly-scientific) methods of faster-than-light travel. The details are entirely up to you, but once you make up the rules, don't break them. If you use a jump gate to get from Earth to Epsilon Eridani in five minutes, you can't say later, "It'll only take three hours for the Eridanis fleet to come through that gate and destroy us all!"
NRI: 5.

A lot has been done already in science fiction, which actually makes things easier for you. You don't have to explain jumpgates or wormholes much to include them. But even if you don't explain them to the reader, you need to know what's behind them. Not the science, necessarily, but the rules that govern it.

Are there any rules I missed? To the comments!

Waterworld and Other Worst Case Scenarios

I learned some interesting things in the aftermath of the Rule of Cool post. In particular, did you know the underwater future of Waterworld can never happen? Shocking, considering one of the main messages of that (stupidly expensive) film was: "If we don't take better care of our planet, this is what will happen."

In order for the world to be entirely, or even mostly, covered with water, sea levels would have to rise over 8 kilometers.* But if all of the ice in the entire world melted, sea levels would only rise about 80 m. At worst, the Earth would go from this:

To this:**

Interesting. Devastating. But not world-destroying, which, really, is what I was hoping for.

So what's an inspiring author (who wants a world covered entirely in water) to do? Here are some possibilities:
  • Fantasy World. It's not Earth, so who's to say how much ice may or may not have melted to drown the civilization underneath?
  • Ice Meteor. An asteroid made entirely of frozen water crashes into the planet, and then melts. Such a meteor would have to have a radius of 900 km (about a seventh the size of the moon) to contain enough water, and that kind of meteor collision would have other consequences. But we're talking thousands of years in the future anyway, right? A crater the size of Australia wouldn't be a big deal by then.
  • Shrink the Earth. Theoretically, if enough internal pressure were released such that the Earth shrank, the existing water would be enough to cover the globe. Of course the very act of releasing that pressure, combined with whatever catastrophic event triggered the release, would probably wipe out life on Earth anyway.
  • Science Is Wrong. This is my favorite one to fall back to. Science is not often wrong, but considering how much we don't know and those times science has been wrong before, it's always possible. Maybe the Earth is filled with water that comes to the surface. Maybe there's more ice underneath Antarctica than we thought. Who knows?
I'm not saying I'm going to do any of these to my world, but it's fun to think of the possibilities. Speaking of which, this list of risks to civilization is all kinds of awesome, especially for those of you considering post-apocalyptic scenarios that are scientifically possible.

* The metric system is just better, sorry. Do your own conversions.

** The map isn't entirely accurate. The program that generated it just uses altitudes, so places like the Caspian Sea wouldn't actually get bigger like they do in the picture.

The Kitchen-Sink Story VS. The Rule of Cool

The Kitchen-Sink Story: A story overwhelmed by the inclusion of any and every new idea that occurs to the author in the process of writing it.

The Rule of Cool: Most readers are willing to suspend their disbelief for something that is totally awesome.
-- TV Tropes (intentionally unlinked because I care about you)

Yesterday I posted this on Twitter and Facebook:

Most of the responses were combinations. Steampunk ninjas. Jumper elves. The most common response, though, was all six: elven ninjas with Jumper powers, driving steampunk mecha in a genetically perfect waterworld (possibly fighting dragons).

It sounds great, largely due to the Rule of Cool stated above. Take two cool things, slap them together, and nobody cares how impossible the outcome is BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME!

But the fear, then (well, my fear), is being accused of writing a Kitchen-Sink Story. "You're just throwing in ninjas because you think they're trendy, not because they add anything to the work!" "Mecha don't make sense anyway, but in a world covered entirely in water?!"

At first glance, it sounds like these are two different sets of people: the SF geeks (who love ninjas) vs. the erudite literary heads who Take Fiction Seriously. But the SF geeks who find all this stuff awesome are also the folks who will nitpick your story to death. They want the cool stuff and a world they can dig deeply into (I know, I'm one of them).

Fortunately folks like me are willing to accept any explanation you can give them, provided it's consistent. So I think I'll do what I always do. You can feel free to follow suit:
  1. Ignore those who Take Fiction Seriously. Much as I'd love to win a Hugo, those guys aren't my target audience.
  2. Pick the elements I want, figure out why it makes sense later. It worked with Air Pirates, after all.
  3. Apply the Rule of Cool where necessary. Giant mecha don't make sense, neither tactically nor physically, but who the heck cares? They're awesome.
  4. Ensure whatever I make up follows its own rules. Sufficiently strange technology, or elements that don't exist in the real world, is treated like magic. State the rules, then follow them.
I don't know what I'll actually decide (depends on the story, I guess), but I'm definitely going to lean on the Rule of Cool rather than be afraid of the Kitchen-Sink Story. What do you think?

Oo, KRAKEN! Those are definitely going in the waterworld.

Books I Read: Favorites of 2010

I know it's a bit late, but here are some of my favorite books I read last year. A few I've talked about before. Those have just a brief summary and a link to my original post on the topic, but there are a couple here outside my regular genre(s) that I wanted to point out.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Mark Haddon, 2003, Mystery/Literary
An autistic teenager investigates the death of the neighbor's dog and ends up learning secrets about his parents he was never meant to know. Read more...

Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner
F.X. Toole, 2000, Short Stories
A collection of stories drawn from the author's experiences in the world of boxing. Now I don't like boxing, and I don't normally like short stories, but I really enjoyed this book. The trainers and fighters in this book are smart, showing that boxing isn't just about hitting the other guy until one of you drops. It's about strategy, timing, knowing where and when to do the most damage. As Toole put it, "Boxing is like chess with pain."

Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins, 2008, YA Science Fiction
Do I really need to talk about this book more? It's awesome. Worth all the hype (the two sequels are pretty good too). Read more...

Mistborn trilogy
Brandon Sanderson, 2006-8, Fantasy
In a world where the nobility exhibit super powers just by ingesting metal, a small band of thieves sets out to do the impossible: start a revolution among the commoners, and overthrow the immortal tyrant known as the Lord Ruler. Read more...

Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment
Ella deCastro Baron, 2009, Memoir
A collection of stories, poems, and essays that serve as an ironic resume of experiences one wouldn't normally tell a potential employer. Ella is a first generation Filipina American who writes about her struggles with faith, prejudice, eczema, death, miracles, and more. I'm biased, as Ella is a good friend of mine, but there is a lot here to make you laugh and to make you think. I was most moved by the story of her friend Emilia who died of cancer, and Ella's struggle to trust a God that didn't answer our (because I was there too) repeated prayers for her to be healed.

 So tell me, what were your favorite reads of 2010?

Overthinking Dr. Seuss

I read a lot of Dr. Seuss (9 kids will do that to you), to the point where I've caught myself thinking about the story behind the story, wondering if the good doctor ever considered these angles.

What do you mean I'm over-analyzing?

The Zax -- Evolution or Cruel Experiment?
"Never budge! That's my rule. Never budge in the least! Not an inch to the west! Not an inch to the east!
I'll stay here, not budging! I can and I will if it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!" 

A North-going Zax and a South-going Zax bump into each other during their long, seemingly pointless journeys, each stubbornly refusing to step aside for the other.

Are there more of these creatures? And are these the first to ever run into each other on their (presumably, magnetically perfect) paths? This appears to be a potential evolutionary problem.

Or is it intentional. One mentions a South-going school. Is there some genetic scientist who has trained them and set them on colliding paths, just to see what they would do?

The Sneetches -- The Economy of Beach Bums
Then, when every last cent
Of their money was spent,
The Fix-it-Up Chappie packed up
And he went.

And he laughed as he drove
In his car up the beach,
"They never will learn.
No. You can't teach a Sneetch."

Plain-belly Sneetches live oppressed by their star-bearing brethren. Until a con man convinces them to change their stars back and forth, taking all their money and leaving the Sneetches poor and confused.

But where did they get this money? In the entire book, the Sneetches have neither homes nor jobs nor clothes (it's cool, they're birds). Maybe their economy is just never shown, or maybe they are the world's most successful beach bums, spending vast welfare checks only on marshmallows and frankfurters.

The Sleep Book -- A Message from Big Brother
We have a machine in a plexiglass dome
Which listens and looks into everyone's home.
And whenever it sees a new sleeper go flop,
It jiggles and lets a new Biggel-Ball drop. 

From one perspective, the Sleep Book is about the bedtime and sleep behaviors of various creatures as the countryside goes to bed.

From another, it's subtle propoganda composed by a totalitarian regime. The message? "Everything is fine. All are sleeping peacefully, except you. We know."

Five Stages of the Science-Fiction Author

STAGE 1: Idea
I'll write a book about time travel! Nobody's done that well yet.

STAGE 2: World-building
I wonder if I should relate the history of the war between Morlocks and Ferengis here or in chapter 2. Oh, I know! I'll add a prologue!

STAGE 3: Characterization
Let's see... I've got the absent-minded professor vs. the mad scientist. Oo! And how about an android struggling to understand human emotions. Screw it, I'll just do an ensemble cast. What should I name the Asian character?

STAGE 4: Craft
How many l's are in "mellifluously"? Never mind. I'll just say "dulcet-like".

STAGE 5: Career
I wonder how many Nebulas you have to buy before they just give you the Hugo?

Books I Read: Mockingjay

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Published: 2010
Content Rating: R for violence

Thanks to Susan Kaye Quinn, I got to read this book in the same year it was published -- the same month, even, which never happens. (Even better, I got to read it with my wife, who got hooked and caught up in less than a week).

I figure it's kinda pointless to tell you what this book is about, yes? Either you've read the first two, and you know. Or you haven't, and the last thing you want is a summary that could potentially spoil the earlier novels. I also don't want to spoil it, so I'll just tell you how I felt.

Overall, I liked it as much as I did Catching Fire. Everything fit, and there was plenty of tension to go around (especially towards the end). There were only a few times where I could see the author's hand nudging the plot in a specific direction. In the end, there were things I wished had happened, but it felt right.

I'll talk more in the comments, but with spoilers. So don't go there if that's not what you want.

In Which I Prove We Will Achieve FTL Speeds by 2050

Supposedly it's impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. Supposedly it requires an infinite amount of energy.

But I posit that science knows far less than it does not know. At one time, it was believed man could not fly, the sound barrier could not be broken, and man could not reach the moon. Not just believed, but considered scientifically impossible.

And yet we did it.

So on the assumption that science is wrong about what we cannot do, I have collected the data on speeds man has attained over the past 300 years. The trend, ladies and gentlemen, clearly shows that we will send something through space at the speed of light around the year 2050.

If not, who cares? This was fun anyway.

Books I Read: Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA Science Fiction
Published: 2009
Content Rating: PG-13 for violence

After barely surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss finds herself in even worse trouble. The Capitol blames her for uprisings in the Districts, and they want her to fix things on her Victory Tour. She has no love for the Capitol, but the last thing she wants is for anyone to die because of her, least of all her friends and family back home. But when a simple show of respect for a Hunger Games' ally triggers a minor rebellion, she doesn't know what to do. Can she make things right? Could she run away with those she loves? Or could she become the leader the Districts are aching for?

I was worried about this book at first. I thought the Games themselves were what I loved about the first one, and I wondered if any political tension would be as compelling. About the end of chapter 3, though, I was just as hooked. Turns out it's also the Big Brother-esque Capitol that I like -- the realization that the only happy ending would be if the Capitol was overthrown, while chapter after chapter the Capitol proves that will never happen.

So I really liked it. Every time I thought the story was slow or predictable (which was rare, but it happened), something occurred to make me sit up and go, "No way!"

With one caveat: I felt like Katniss was kinda thick-headed towards the end. It's not that she should've seen the end coming (I didn't see most of it coming either), but once it came Katniss just didn't seem to get it, even after it was explained to her. I guess it's her character -- she never figured out about Peeta until the end of the first one either -- but it felt overdone to me in this one. It didn't ruin the book for me, but if she doesn't pick up on things quicker in the third one, I might be upset.

Books I Read: Kindred

Title: Kindred
Author: Octavia E. Butler
Genre: Science Fiction
First Published: 1979
Content Rating: R for beatings, whippings, and attempted rape

Dana, an African-American writer from the 20th century, is transported to pre-Civil War Maryland to save the life of a white boy named Rufus -- the son of a slave owner and Dana's ancestor. As Rufus grows older, Dana is called back again and again. Each time, her stay is longer and more dangerous. She refuses to be treated as a slave, but she has no rights and no help -- quiet submission is often less painful than the whip. But as Rufus grows meaner and more possessive, Dana must decide if slavery is worth her life, or his.

This is a dark book, but really powerful. It's an amazing look at slavery through the eyes of a woman born free in 1979 California. Dana is forced to decide what she really believes about slavery and herself. There are many times when she thinks she would do anything rather than be enslaved, whipped, or even raped, but when it comes down to it, the choices are much harder to make in reality. Rufus is an interesting character too. Alternately generous and vicious -- totally racist but less so than many others of his time -- it was difficult to hate him even when he did terrible things.

There's one scene in particular I want to share with you. Dana (the narrator) is talking with a mute named Carrie, another slave. Dana feels guilty for saving Rufus after all the terrible things he does to her and other people. Carrie reminds her that if Rufus died, things would be much worse; all the slaves might be sold off, families would be separated.

Carrie stood looking down at the crib as though she had read my thought.

"I was beginning to feel like a traitor," I said. "Guilty for saving him. Now . . . I don't know what to feel. Somehow, I always seem to forgive him for what he does to me. I can't hate him the way I should until I see him doing things to other people." I shook my head. "I guess I can see why there are those here who think I'm more white than black."

Carrie made quick waving-aside gestures, her expression annoyed. She came over to me and wiped one side of my face with her fingers--wiped hard. I drew back, and she held her fingers in front of me, showed me both sides. But for once, I didn't understand.

Frustrated, she took me by the hand and led me out to where her husband Nigel was chopping firewood. There, before him, she repeated the face-rubbing gesture, and he nodded.

"She means it doesn't come off, Dana," he said quietly. "The black. She means the devil with people who say you're anything but what you are."

I hugged her and got away from her quickly so that she wouldn't see that I was close to tears.

Content ratings based on what I think a movie might be rated, if the things shown in the book were shown in the movie. Ratings are very subjective, and I don't always remember/notice things. If you're unsure whether the book is right for you, do some research so you can make your own decision.