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Archive for Science Fiction

Return Of the Nebula Weekend Conference: Part Three, The Pittsburghening

For the past three years, I’ve been attending the Nebula Awards Conference in a semi-official capacity as SFWA webmaster. Last year, I even gave a talk on author website best practices. This year, I learned I was going a little to late to make it onto programming, but I still have a little official meetings business to attend to, and I had some thoughts that I wanted to note for myself while the memories are still fresh.

It was disconcerting to realize that I’m no longer one of the youngest people in the room at a science fiction-related gathering. A lot’s been said about the graying of fandom, and it’s something I’ve picked up on since my first convention in 2002. This may be true of fandom, but writers run the full gamut of ages. I met writers as young as 25, and as old as… well. I’ll omit the specifics. The future of the writing of science fiction appears to be handing down to younger generations just fine. I still wonder in my darker moments if there will be anyone left reading it who doesn’t also write it.

Each year that I’ve attended, the conference itself has been better and better executed. The team of Steven Silver, Terra LeMay, and Kate Baker really bust their asses to make this a premiere event of the year. Sean Wallace deserves special mention for his work to organize the book room where many attendees could sell their books on commission. Prior to discovering the Nebulas conference, my convention of choice was WorldCon, but thanks to this amazing events team, I’m content to mostly attend the Nebulas each year and not much else. It really is one of the best conventions for my interests and needs. I don’t get to see all my awesome friends there, but I do see many of them. Please, come hang out in 2018. I’m pretty sure I’ll be there.

While I enjoy the weekend’s general activities and hangouts, I don’t usually to attend the actual ceremony. I skip formal events with fancy attire. I’m not comfortable around the well-dressed, especially given my slovenly appearance most of the time. Also, by the end of the conference, my introvert energy reserves run dangerously low. Instead, as is my tradition, I sat in my hotel room and listened to the stream while tweeting with folks. It’s a good way for me to not go home completely drained by all the amazing conversations. In my younger days, I’d run into the red badly and become depressed during the convention, but I know how to watch myself for it now. When I start to feel like everyone hates me and I’m a big dumb nobody, then I retreat to my room. I may well be a big dumb nobody, but I’d rather not feel like one.

Every year, I meet amazing new people that leave me in awe of our community. My memory for names is terrible, to suffice to say, if we talked for more than thirty seconds, you impressed me with your wit and charm. I will say that I felt a bit of awe to spend the time I did, brief as it was, with Grandmaster Jane Yolen. And that was only one of a dozen or more conversations in which I learned something new or felt I shared some of my limited expertise or experience with others (I won’t bore you with poorly recounted details). Not being the youngest person in the room means I seem to have some opinions I like to share with those who are just starting out. I tell a lot of people that if they want to write more short fiction, they should read more short fiction.

There’s so much energy and joy at this thing, regardless, I mostly come home feeling pleasant and buzzed. I lately feel a bit jaded about my prospects as a writer, but meeting with fellow writers who still have the can-do spirit inspires me to work harder in the future. Sometimes, the best thing that you take away from a conference or con is the general feeling of good will towards your peers.

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My Dad’s Books

We recently bought some nearly floor to ceiling IKEA bookshelves which has almost doubled our bookshelf space. This has allowed me to finally process my Dad’s books out of storage and figure out which I will keep and which I’ll try to sell or donate. For those who don’t know, my Dad died of lung cancer at the age of 46 a little more than a decade ago. I inherited my love of science fiction from him.

Lots of memories in these books. We don’t have a childhood home to go back to these days, but looking at these books, I can remember exactly where they used to be on shelves in the two different places we lived before I went to college. I can remember which ones he recommended (Saberhagen, McCaffrey) and which ones he said I shouldn’t bother with. (So many Gor books, and Stranger in a Strange Land, which he thought I wouldn’t understand until I was older. He was right.).

Dad was a bit of a pack rat and never got rid of books. Many of his books (but not as many as I remembered, oddly) were scrounged and missing covers, so I think someone had passed him remaindered books cheap. We bought a lot of stuff at garage sales. In the 90s, he became a SF Book Club subscriber, and there are tons of Anne McCaffrey hard covers; a love for her work was something we had in common. There’s also a surprising amount of Andre Norton and Ursula K. LeGuin (one for every Perry Rhodan and E.E. Smith paperback). A surprising variety of stuff across all subgenres really, even D&D and Shadowrun tie-ins. I think I got him hooked on the Shadowrun stuff when I was in high school.

It’s weird; I can’t really say that my Dad had taste you could pin down. He was pretty damned omnivorous when it came to science fiction and fantasy. In the aughts, towards the end, he didn’t read SF/F anymore; he’d decided he was done with that stuff and had moved on to thrillers and mystery. I was sad that for the first time in my life post-college, I had time to read, but we could no longer recommend each other books because of his shifting tastes.  He read everything I wrote, though, and often provided me pretty good feedback on those early stories.  He lived to see my first couple of professional sales, although by that point, I don’t think he read them, so far gone he was.

Really, I think the only books I heard my Dad even slightly disparage were the Gor books, and even then, he thought they were pretty hilarious, just outside my age range at the time. He never outright forbid anything on his shelf from me, except maybe the book he was reading at the time. There were a few times where I tried to steal the latest book club books before he got to them, but never pulled it off.  I wish to this day I had his speed; I don’t know how he did it, but the man managed to read 5-6 books a week. He was also an avid library user for most of my childhood. There was no way we could afford to keep up with his habit, really.

At the bottom of one box, I found a near complete run of 1982 Asimov’s. I think those hit me the hardest. God damn, but I really wish he had lived to see me publish a story in there a few years back. I knew he was proud of me. In fact, the last words he ever said to me were to those effect. But sometimes you kind of feel like you haven’t earned that pride quite yet. Still working on living up to that, every single day.

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Thoughts on Augmented Reality Gaming and Pokemon Go

maxresdefaultI’m completely hooked so far on Pokemon Go, the latest augmented reality game from Niantic.  For those that don’t know (the internet is saturated with people talking about it this week), Pokemon Go is an augmented reality game that you play in the real world. Using GPS, the game spawns various pocket monsters that you can capture and add to your collection. Supposedly, different types of monsters spawn in different areas.  For instance, water-type pokemon are found near rivers and lakes (although my limited play time has not supported that idea).

Instead of sitting at home to play, you must walk or bicycle (the game detects if you are driving by speed and will lock you out for safety reasons). When you go to capture a monster you have encountered, your camera shows the real world around you and the game projects a 3D monster into the scene. You throw pokeballs at the monster with your finger to capture them.  It’s a very basic mechanism, completed quickly, but very immersive, and makes the little monsters come alive in a way they never have before in the dozens of previous Pokemon games.

In addition to the monsters to hunt and discover, there are two types of permanent locations on the overlay map. There are poke stops, which you can visit every 5 minutes to receive in-game items like potions to heal your monsters and poke balls used to capture the monsters. There are also gyms, which is where the main competitive element comes into play.

When you get to level 5 with your character, you are asked to join one of three teams. These teams then compete to control the various gyms around town. You use a team of your monsters to attack monsters installed in a gym. If you win, you take it over for your team, and each day you control a gym, you get rewards to make your monsters better.

There are more intricacies involving monster evolutions and power ups and such, but I won’t bother digging into those here. The main thing you do is walk around, capturing monsters, getting stuff from poke stops, and attacking gyms to take them over for your team.

The launch has not been without problems.  The company making the game, Niantic, has struggled put up enough server infrastructure to keep up with demand.  They previously made another augmented reality game called Ingress  The game chews through your phone battery like nothing else I’ve ever used.  There are crashes and hang-ups galore in the game.  But none of that is anything more than a mild inconvenience.

This blurring of reality and gaming provides all new incentives for activity and socialization.   Reddit’s subreddit for the game is full of stories with people getting in trouble at their jobs for playing, nearly having accidents, making new friends, and even making dates.  Because it’s a massively multiplayer game in the real world, as you wander around traveling to the locations, you will encounter other players in the real world.    And then there are the odd-ball stories like the girl who found a dead body in Wyoming while playing the game.

Augmented reality gaming is not just a technological phenomenon; it’s also a sociological one.  It will be fascinating to watch how it impacts the lives of the players over time, especially as the game becomes more stable.

I live very close to a small college campus, and there about 8 poke spots (corresponding with important historical markers, public art, and buildings) and three gyms within my usual walk circuit. I’ve taken to making a loop to hit things up and catch monsters along the way. Maybe adds 10 minutes to my walk time, and seriously boosts my step count on the fitbit. Being distracted helps me tolerate the heat, too. I’m sweating horribly, but I don’t notice.   I was already walking regularly, but this has added at least 3000 to 4000 steps a day to my counter since release.  I am busy looking around for new places around town to walk so I can expand my collection.  I’ve not talked with any other players, but I see them everywhere, and it’s only a matter of time until I end up in a conversation with them, exchanging tips and talking about our best monsters.

As a science fiction writer, I’m (of course) speculating about how these experiences will change with improved technology.  Even with the clunky interface and overlay of a camera phone, the game really triggers a sense that there’s a hidden world of creatures all around us.  I’m imagining how much more immersive this experience will be when we do not need a phone to provide the visuals, and instead wear special glasses.  Google Glass, only way better.  Microsoft’s HoloLens would probably be an example of the next step in interface.

Virtual reality, to me, presents a large number of difficult-to-solve problems involving basic biology and physics.  Augmented reality circumvents a lot of the spatial problems by using real world space.  No need for virtual walls or struggling to overcome nausea with higher framerates.   Augmented reality will present its own unique problems, too, of course.  Especially this:  what are non-players going to think of those who are playing in public spaces like Pokemon Go encourages?  There will likely be some backlash, and soon, at least temporarily.

Ultimately, if you’re interested at all, you can download Pokemon Go from an app store.  It requires a pretty new phone–with Apple, at least an iPhone 5.  It remains to be seen what kind of longevity the game will have, although Niantic appears committed to developing deeper game mechanics and general improvements.   Even with the problems now,  I’m finding it to be incredibly entertaining.  Give it a try if it interests you at all.  This could be the next stage of something pretty big.  And if it helps you stay fit? Even better.

 

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The Raycat Solution and Warning the Future

Problem: you are burying nuclear waste that will linger for 10,000 years.  How do you ensure that people in the future will not be harmed by this waste?  How do you send a clear message 10,000 years into the future, when language and culture will have changed in unforeseeable ways?

One solution?  Raycats.  What’s a raycat?  This 15 minute documentary does a lovely job of explaining it.

This kind of problem is a science fiction writer’s playground.  I’m spending a lot of time this weekend thinking about both the problem and the raycat solution.  If you’re interested in this sort of thing, Gregory Benford wrote a book about it called Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia. I’ve now added that to my reading list.  Hat-tip to Brian Malow for the recommendation there.

My personal idea to solve the communication problem for something you want to keep people away from would be a structure that somehow naturally create infrasound.  It’s been shown in a few studies that infrasound can be used to simulate a haunted feeling.  Why rely on visuals to creep people out when you can creep them out viscerally with sound waves?  There are other ways to accomplish “ghostly” phenomena too, including carbon monoxide.

This video also serves as a reminder to me to find more time to listen to 99% invisible.

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