Wednesday, August 31, 2011


The lovely Laila Knight at Untroubled Kingdom has passed me the Liebster Blog award. The idea of this award is to spread bloggerly love to some deserving bloggers with fewer than 200 followers.

I have to thank and link back to the sender - done - and nominate a few people to tag in return.

So, in no particular order, I hereby Liebsterise the following:

Steph at Across the Border
Elizabeth at Devious Diversions
Unikorna at Why I Wake up Every Day
Saloma at About Amish
Mysti at Unwritten

Friday, August 26, 2011

Another good reason not to get a boat

The campground at Pacific Playgrounds is right next to a marina and boat launch.

We returned from an outing one day to find this little drama unfolding at the boat launch...

Can you see what it is yet?

The car was only two months old.

Thankfully, no-one was hurt in this incident.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The changing face of vacation pastimes

This is the third year running we've spent our main summer vacation at Pacific Playgrounds, on Vancouver Island's east coast.

Some things have stayed the same:

Since our first visit here, we've asked for - and got - the same pitch. We know this pitch, we know how the car and trailer fit into it, it suits us.

The river, beach, and pool are still here, as is the convivial family atmosphere that draws us back each year. Everything is now homely and familiar.

The patchy wi-fi hasn't changed either, which means there's a 50-50 chance of this post managing to appear before we leave.

But the main focus of our leisure pursuits has changed each year.

First year, we swam in the river and spent hours swinging in off the rope swing someone tied high up on an overhanging tree. We also visited the beach many times and made sandcastles, boats, trains, spaceships - one marathon construction each day to be washed away on the tide leaving a blank canvas for the next day.

Last year, the river ran higher and made useable rapids running into the deep pool under the rope swing. So a drive into Courtenay secured some decent river tubes and we all spent long afternoons tubing.

This year, beach and tubing are still on the agenda, but now the kids have got the fishing bug. So, another drive into Courtenay and they now have rods, lines, and tackle.

Wonder how their tastes will have changed by next year?

Friday, August 12, 2011

I Hate You

Tessa Conte, over at Tessa's Blurb, is hosting a Hatefest today.

The idea is as follows: On August 12th, post a story, an excerpt of your work or a poem you've written that shows HATE of some form or another - your character hates someone, someone hates your character, or maybe you hate someone / something?

So, of course, I've picked a passage from Ghosts of Innocence, because, of course, in a story of tit-for-tat revenge for the toasting of your home planet there's never going to be any kind of hate showing.

Is there?

Here, professional assassin and revenge-seeker, Shayla Carver, has stolen the identity of a newly-appointed public servant, has infiltrated the Imperial Palace, and is face to face with her unsuspecting quarry for the first time.

There were guards at the doors and ranged around the walls. None of them had weapons drawn. The nearest was a good twenty feet away. Shayla stood alone in front of the desk, scant feet from the Emperor himself.

She looked at him with a mixture of loathing and curiosity, carefully masked under an expression of bland obeisance.

I could kill you here and now!

The feeling was overwhelming. It would be so easy. She could end it now, and she didn't care what happened to her afterwards.

But she submerged the burning rage under glacial determination. I don't just want to kill you. I want to destroy you!

Emperor Julian Skamensis leafed unhurriedly through a sheaf of documents floating across the surface of the desk. He spent a few seconds reading each one, scrawled notes on some, signatures on others, oblivious to the simmering hate standing opposite.


In order to calm herself, Shayla forced herself to gaze past the Emperor's shoulder to the tall windows behind him. Fountains played in the courtyard behind. Rose beds formed a blaze of regimented color. The whole effect was more sumptuous and welcoming than the solitary fountain and tired flagstones of the court outside Shayla's window. Her eyes followed the tracery between the window mullions, the high glass panels glowing in afternoon sun depicting scenes of Imperial conquest. She hastily tore her eyes away and instead followed the plush folds of green and gold drapes.

At length, the Emperor looked up from his desk.

Housekeeping note: The timing is a bit awkward for me, but this blogfest was just too interesting to ignore. When this entry gets posted my Internet access is likely to be patchy at best. I will try to get online to visit other participants, but please understand if I don't get around to it for a couple of weeks.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Of Quarks and Ships and Shimmerblades...

I've ranted so much recently about the use and explanation of advanced technology in the sci-fi world, that I decided I'd better hold my own misdemeanors up to the light.

So here is a brief rundown of some of the technology that appears in Ghosts of Innocence.

Have I followed or broken my own rules? Let the bloggers decide.

Faster than light travel

Exhibit A, M'Lud: The "hopper" drive moves a ship from point to point in space by jumping between higher-dimensional folds in visible space-time, effectively taking a short cut from A to B. Individual hops in open space are typically tens or hundreds of miles long, and the drive may make a million hops a second, giving superlight speed.

The charge: Significant exposition at one point on how pushing the drive too far can result in cumulative damage to ship and crew, akin to radiation exposure.

Also a suspiciously techie turn of phrase later on: The heat of the sun posed no threat, but the invisible grasp of its gravity tugged on the particles of ship and crew as they flung themselves across a fractal labyrinth of inter-dimensional chasms.

The defence: At no point is anything about the drive mechanism explained in any kind of detail. Risks are hinted at in the reactions of the crew at various points, and illustrated when a ship they pursue explodes.

The one piece of exposition is delivered as dialogue, when a very ill Shayla talks to an engineer on board a ship racing to beat the bad guys. The engineer explains why Shayla and other crew members are getting sick, but nothing about how the drive works. This sickness is a crucial plot point, as they are forced to stop for medical aid which leads into the next phase of the chase.

On the offending sentence I offer no defence. I just enjoyed writing it.

Materials, drugs, biotech


Nicodyne: A stimulant, widely used to keep people going around the clock. Trylex: A drug which robs the victim of all voluntary movement and unable to resist the suggestion of external commands. Animastin: A memory-erasing drug. Nacrolin: A nerve poison which paralyses and kills the victim in hours or days of agony, depending on the dose.

Refractory materials: Capable of withstanding a high-grade plasma.

Chemical recognition signals: Examples like the "nose" mentioned in an earlier post.

Subcutaneous implants: Biotech disguise that allows a person to voluntarily change appearance.

Mitigating pleas: None of these are explained at all in the book. The effects are illustrated as they occur. See earlier post for an example.



Miscellaneous big guns: Quark bomb, pulse bomb, plasma cannon, particle beams.

Hand held weapons: Particle beams, needle guns, and the shimmerblade - a kind of knife with extraordinary cutting power.

The charges: Gratuitous inclusion of advanced technology, and inclusion of techie jargon like "quark" and "plasma".

Also one-line description of the shimmerblade which borders on the jargonistic: Her pocket knife was another matter entirely. Looking perfectly commonplace, it was a shimmerblade like Finn's. When activated, the vibrating crystalline edge could shear effortlessly through anything short of military grade vehicle armor.

The defence: Here I suspect I'm on shakier ground, but in this spacefaring society I decided I needed advanced weaponry to go with their level of technology.

Quark bombs were a simple extrapolation beyond the release of chemical energy (conventional explosives) and nuclear energy. They are not described nor seen in action, just referred to in hushed tones. They are touchy buggers and impractical to deploy in warfare, but make a potent terrorist threat.

Plasma beams are seen, big time. I needed something futuristic that could plausibly level a city in a single blast.

Most of the other weapons are commonplace sci-fi staples that really needed no introductions. The shimmerblade, I decided, was different enough to warrant something to justify its potency, having just seen it behead two people with minimal effort.

In no case do I try to explain the technology behind the weapons, but I'll accede to the charge of gratuitous jargon-dropping if the court so sees fit.


Artificial gravity, handheld computers in the form of flexible scrolls and notepads operated by drawing and writing, limited artificial intelligence in surveillance systems and ships' control and battle systems.

These are all seen as part of the everyday fabric of life. No explanations offered.

Summing up

Throughout the book, I've tried to adhere to some simple principles:
  • Showing technology in use, showing its effects in the world and on the characters.
  • Avoiding any kind of lecturing or explanations of underlying function.
  • Introducing additional detail only where essential to the plot or to the reader's understanding of events, and trying to do so as naturally as possible.
  • Giving items mundane names, or names that could be trademarks (especially the drugs), and steering away from anything sounding too geeky. In other words, using terms that you could envisage being used in everyday conversation.

I hereby throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Upcoming blogfest - I Hate You

I stumbled over this exciting-looking blogfest over at Tessa's Blurb...

Of course, there's no hate or anger or anything like that in my novel about planet-busting tit-for-tat revenge, but I decided to enter anyway. Why don't you check it out? Entries to be posted this Friday.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

BTW - we did survive!

Two weeks ago I posted about Ali and Megan disappearing off to the mainland for a whole week. I never checked back in, but suffice to say we all survived the experience.

On the home front, the week was driven by the clock. Matthew was booked into a day camp, so timing was tight getting to and from work between drop-off and collection. Then an evening Bible camp, that he's enjoyed in previous years and wanted to do again, happened to be the same week. That left just enough time in between camps to prepare and eat a meal.

So, it was all go, go, go for about 11 hours each day.

Then I had a clear 2 hours to myself and everything slowed down. It's amazing what you can get done in a couple of hours of unstructured time. A bit of gardening (we're trying to revive a flower bed we made a few years ago that hasn't managed to establish itself), a bit of critiqing, some reading, enjoying the evening sun on the deck.

Meanwhile, Ali and Megan had an absolute blast over at Agassiz. The official website and photos are here. Many of the patrols chose themes related to their sub-camps. Ali's patrol based theirs on their colour and chose "Perry the Platypus" as their theme. Apparently they became famous around the whole camp in their "Perry" t-shirts, and their camp was easily identifiable with the banners we made.

So, yes, we did survive.

P.S. They got so into the theme that they followed up yesterday with a movie & pizza night for the girls at our house, to watch the Phineas and Ferb movie.

We survived that, too!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I, Robot

Some of the comments on my previous post have sparked more thoughts.

Oooh! Scary!

If you think about it, a lot of the impossible (to science as we know it, anyway) concepts in sci-fi are never really explained.

There's a very good reason for that: if we had a good explanation then it probably wouldn't be science fiction - we'd be doing it!

As a rule, the more far out the idea, the vaguer any "explanation" will be. Something that's close to existing capability will likely be grounded in plausible science with only a slight extrapolation. But faster than light travel, for example, is usually founded on one of a few basic ideas (such as wormholes, or hyperspace) plus a whole load of hand-waving. Did Star Trek ever really explain warp drive? Or phasers? Or transporter beams? Nope. All they did was throw in a few techie-sounding terms to hide the fact that they honestly had no clue how these technologies worked.

And I think my previous post was, amongst other things, a rant against gratuitous hand-waving. Especially that where the sole aim is to make the writer look sciency and clever.

So, on the past post, Mooderino brought up the example of Asimov's three laws of robotics.

I say this is an outstanding example of exactly what I'm trying to illustrate - and not in a bad way.

The way I see it, Asimov's three laws deal exclusively with the real-world effect of the technology, stuff that people around the robots would be aware of and which underpins everything they do. What they don't do is make any attempt to explain how robots work!

In fact, for all its hard sci-fi edge, most of Asimov's robot stories are a fascinating delve into an alternate psychology. The plots revolve around how the three laws interact with the real world in sometimes unforseen ways.

This is 100% in keeping with the theme of my last post: show me how the technology is used, don't blind me with the science of how it works.

In this case, understanding the three laws is fundamental to understanding the story, so they are quoted repeatedly to keep them top of mind. Where I think Asimov strayed a little (Gasp! Heresy!) is when he talks about the robots' positronic brains.

To the world at that time, anti-matter was a cool and happening thing in science. So dropping a term like "positronic" into the text probably sounded a good idea at the time.

But my scientifically-literate mind now wonders why positrons are such a big deal. As far as we know, they are nothing more than electrons with a positive charge, so why would a positronic brain be any better than an electronic one? Apart from sounding marginally cooler. OK, maybe science will uncover some new property of positrons, or some way of using them, that offers real advantages, but until then the term nowadays dates the story.

Worse, I can't think of anywhere in those stories where the positronic nature of robots' brains was in any way important to the story. In other words, the term was dropped in there to no good purpose.

OK, Asimov didn't belabour the point, so although I think he shot himself in the foot I say it was only a flesh wound. But if he'd gone further and tried to dazzle the reader with details of how these brains worked, and how they actually implemented the laws (something I always wondered, knowing how difficult it is to program computers to do anything remotely non-stupid) then I suspect he'd have fallen flat on his face.

Other comments made me realise that my qualms about explanations apply mostly to technology that is well-established in the sci-fi world. There may be good reasons why some sop to intellectual curiosity might be appropriate.

(1) To keep your reader engaged. If the idea is so barking mad that simply dropping it out on the page and expecting your reader to accept it ain't going to fly, then you need something to stem the intellectual gag reflex. That might include some hint of explanation to bring the idea back into the realms of sanity.

(2) The technology is ground-breaking even in your speculative world. So the characters themselves are either going to have a hard time buying it, or be overawed by its sheer awesomeness. Then a bit of preening and showing-off of kick-ass cleverness might be natural.

(3) You may actually be writing for the kind of audience that says "I'm only reading the crummy story to get at all the cool tech stuff." In which case, I guess my only defence is that I'm not that kind of reader, and that is not my audience.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Never mind the matter/anti-matter photomultiplier - just give me warp speed!

Mooderino, over at Moody Writing, wrote a great post about being subtle in summarization and backstory. Along the way, this sparked some comments about explaining technology in sci-fi.

My position, certainly for my own writing, is that the technology should be pretty much part of the furniture. Not something that needs a scientific explanation for how it works.

Mood's point, which he clarified further, was that in sci-fi you can get away with rather more infodumping than in other genres.

I'd like to challenge that a bit, and open it up for debate.

The big temptation in sci-fi is to explain things, because it's a neat idea and maybe a clever spin on some scientific theory, and maybe you want to impress other geeks with how clever you are.

If you want folks to stop every few paragraphs in order to pick your explanations apart, then fill yer boots.

If, however, you want people to read and enjoy the story, then I suggest steering clear of anything that gets in the way.

I suggest that a detailed explanation for how a piece of technology works is only required, or even desirable, if the explanation is essential to the story.

Now, remember that how it works is not the same as what it does. The latter is usually important to understand, but can be usually conveyed by showing how technology interacts with the characters.

Here's an example from Ghosts:

Finn took a deep breath and nodded. "Time to pick up her trail." He handed Shayla a thin translucent strip about an inch across and a few inches long. "You know how to use a nose, don't you?"

"Yes, of course." Shayla took the strip and placed it across her eyes. It stuck to her skin and held itself in place. To outward appearances, this might have been nothing more than a fashionable sun visor. Perfectly reasonable in the harsh light up here.

Through the hard but flexible material she could just make out the outline of the path. Her vision cleared when she squeezed the topmost of a row of tiny protrusions at each end of the strip, and a luminous display hovered in her line of sight. Shayla gently fingered the bumps along the edge, tuning the device in to the chemical signature that had been planted on their quarry. This was another secret from the Firenzi materials laboratories, but one which the Insurrection had known about for decades.

"Got it." A hint of fluorescent violet hung in the air in front of Shayla. "Raven managed to plant the tracer OK."

The key point is how the technology is used in the story. There is not a word about how anything works, any more than you'd launch into an explanation of microwave transmission when you place a call on your cellphone.

And here, I suggest, sci-fi should be no more tolerant of infodumps than any other genre. If it's important to the story to understand a piece of technology, then work it in, preferably in a natural and subtle way as Moody so succinctly expressed.

To me, this puts sci-fi technical explanation on a par with, say, understanding political in-fighting in a thriller, or forensic science in a CSI-type story.

And, of course, you'll see I resist the temptation to give technology techno-geeky names. How different this passage would sound if I'd written it like this:

Finn took a deep breath and nodded. "Time to pick up her trail." He handed Shayla a thin translucent strip about an inch across and a few inches long. "You know how to use a micro-fluorescent chemical analyzer, don't you?"

"Yes, of course." Shayla took the strip and placed it across her eyes. "It emits microwave pulses and detects scattered radiation from which it can deduce chemical properties and highlight the presence of a specific compound."

Sorry if this sounds like a bit of a rant, but I think it's stuff like this that gives sci-fi a bad name, and gives the impression that it's only for sad gits in anoracks.

That is a myth I want to bust!
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