Yearly Archives: 2009

Book Triptych

Just arrived at the Scalzi Compound:

From the left: The Portuguese edition of Old Man’s War, the physical copy of The God Engines, and the Tor trade paperback edition of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded. The first of these is out already; the latter two are imminent — TGE is shipping by the end of the year, and Hate Mail is scheduled for January 5th (which means a few might have already leaked to stores). They all look great. I love the new Hate Mail cover (not that I didn’t like the one with me as a devil on it, it’s just that this one is probably better for a mass market), and The God Engines is simply the coolest-looking book I’ve had so far, thanks to Vincent Chong’s awesome cover and interior art (some of which you can see on the SubPress order page for the book). Really, it’s like Christmas came early around here. By, uh, three days or something.

As a TGE addendum, it’s gotten another positive review, this time by the Sacramento Book Review:

Scalzi somehow manages in a mere 136 pages to create believable, like-able characters who exist in a world that, while fantastic…is both wonderful and convincing.

Short but potent. I’ll take that.

The Big Idea: Chad Orzel

Want a Big Idea that’s about a really big idea? Well, this week’s book is about quantum physics, and it doesn’t get much bigger than that (well, given the scale quantum physics works on, it actually doesn’t get much smaller than that, but you know what I mean — it’s a really big idea about really small things). Just the words “quantum physics” makes some people itchy, and don’t think author Chad Orzel doesn’t know it — he teaches physics for a living as a professor at Union College. But to show the subject is not as intimidating as all that, Orzel proposes to show that even our canine friends can follow the subject — and use it to their advantage when, say, chasing squirrels.

Thus: How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, featuring Orzel and his dog Emmy discussing Particle-Wave Duality, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the Many-Worlds Interpretation and other very cool ideas in quantum physics. Does it work? It does indeed; this is a great book for folks who are interested in science and physics, whatever their previous level of knowledge on the subject (that’s a hint for you last-minute Christmas shoppers). I personally liked the book enough to give it a blurb; I’m a big fan of books that make science understandable for everyone, and Orzel (and Emmy) have just the right touch for that. This is a fun and fascinating book.

All of this leaves unanswered the question: “Why would a person think to teach physics to his dog in the first place”? Here’s Orzel to explain.

CHAD ORZEL:

There’s an old saying that you never really understand a subject until you try to teach it to someone else. It turns out that the best way to understand quantum mechanics is to teach it to your dog.

The big idea at the heart of the book is “Quantum mechanics is just about the coolest thing ever.” Because, really, it is– you’ve got particles that behave like waves and vice versa; objects whose properties aren’t determined until they’re measured; even “virtual particles” that pop into existence from empty space, and disappear again in a fleeting instant. What could be cooler than that? It’s even weirder than science fiction– if you had tried to sell modern physics to a pulp magazine in the early 20th century, they’d have laughed at you. And yet, quantum mechanics is one of the best-tested theories in the history of science. All of these bizarre phenomena are experimentally verified, to something like 14 decimal places.

And quantum physics is not just some abstract idea with no practical implications. Quantum ideas are the basis for most of the coolest things in modern life. You wouldn’t be able to read this without quantum physics: the modern telecommunications networks that form the backbone of the Internet use diode lasers, which rely on the quantum nature of light and matter to operate. Even the computer you’re (presumably) reading this on would not be possible without a detailed understanding of the quantum physics of electrons inside solids, and how they can be manipulated to make silicon computer chips.

Of course, “Quantum mechanics is just about the coolest thing ever” is not, by itself, enough to make a book. If you want to write a new book on the subject, you need a hook to grab people who wouldn’t ordinarily read a book about physics.

In my case, the hook is a talking dog. My dog Emmy, to be precise, whose interest in quantum mechanics and its potential use in catching squirrels and bunnies is the jumping-off point for explaining the theory. Each chapter opens with a conversation between me and Emmy about some aspect of quantum physics, followed by a more detailed explanation of the physics for interested humans (and dogs).

I’d like to be able to say that the whole talking-to-the-dog-about-physics thing was a carefully calculated move to bring physics to a general audience. In reality, it was a total accident– I wrote a couple of talking-to-the-dog blog posts (Bunnies Made of Cheese and Many Worlds, Many Treats), and they were a big hit. The book just sort of happened after that.

Once I started, though, it became clear that dogs and quantum physics are a great fit. Anyone who owns a dog knows that they approach the world as an endless source of surprise and wonder, and readily accept many things that would drive humans nuts. If you’ve ever watched a dog staring intently at nothing, you know that the idea of “virtual particles” will be no problem for a dog. If dog treats appeared out of nothing in the middle of our kitchen, Emmy would take it as vindication (and you can be sure she would see to it that they vanished very quickly). Quantum indeterminacy is not a problem for a dog, as they never believe anything really exists until they’ve sniffed it thoroughly. And surely it’s easier to get your head around the idea of particles that are also waves than it is to figure out what cats are up to.

So, quantum physics is a natural fit with the canine mindset. And that turns out to be a great way to explain quantum physics to a human audience. People can relate to Emmy’s schemes to turn quantum physics to her advantage, and that provides an easy way to make a connection to even the weirdest ideas of quantum physics. If you can manage to think like a dog, it’s not that big a leap to an appreciation of the weird and wonderful quantum world.

Emmy’s voice is also a huge help in keeping the text moving. Whenever the explanations start to get a little thick (and they do, because quantum mechanics is heavy stuff), Emmy breaks in to ask for clarification, or express a key idea a different way, or just comment ironically on the density of the explanation. It’s a great way to keep the material from overwhelming the reader.

This was a fun book to write, especially the dog bits. And I certainly know a lot more about quantum mechanics than I did before I decided to try to teach it to my dog. I hope that humans reading it will enjoy it, and maybe learn some new science that they can teach to their own dogs.

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How to Teach Physics to Your Dog: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit DogPhysics.com, the official Web site for the book. Read a preview of the book and watch videos about the book. Learn more about Emmy, the physics-learning dog, and follow her on Twitter. You can follow Chad Orzel on Twitter, as well.

Avatar Review

One word: Impressive.

More than one word: Well, when Avatar was being discussed over at MetaFilter last week, in advance of seeing the film, this is what I said:

Cameron has enough of a track record that even without seeing this film I pretty much know how it will be: Amazing visually and technically, with a story that ranges from barely passable to moderately intriguing, with the weaknesses of the story compensated for by a better than average cast of actors and very well integrated action sequences. That’s pretty much a given at this point.

And that’s how it was.

But I think it really bears mentioning just how visually impressive this film is. Two major points here:

1. This is the first time I’ve watched a 3D movie and didn’t get a headache, which is especially impressive when you realize the film is two hours, forty minutes long;

2. I spent almost no time at all thinking about the fact that most of my time was spent looking at computer animation. The Na’vi (I hope I got the apostrophe right, there) exist on the other side of the CGI uncanny valley; between the actors and their animators, these are real performances. Also, note to James Cameron: The extra time spent animating eyeballs paid off.

To be sure, in this regard Cameron benefited not only from the advance of technology but also from the fact that audiences are now trained to accept computer animated characters as actual characters, not just walking special effects; Cameron owes a debt to Peter Jackson in particular for that, since what he’s essentially done is take Gollum, stretched him out ten feet tall, turned him blue, and made a couple hundred of him. Be that as it may, Cameron’s own innovations here work marvelously.

As do his other visual innovations as well. Cameron’s legendary for being a tyrant with his crews, but at the very least it’s for a purpose, because he’s also absolutely committed to making sure you’re seeing something on screen you haven’t seen before. He’s pulled it off — there are things in Avatar you really have never seen on screen before. It’s a film I want to see a second time not for the story but just to walk the world and to pay attention to everything on screen that I didn’t have time to pay attention to the first time. I very strongly suspect I won’t be the only person doing that. Also, the action sequences are just fantastic; Cameron’s not lost a single step there.

To go back to the 3D thing one more time, the smart thing Cameron does that I wish other directors would figure out is that he doesn’t use the 3D to poke at you, he uses the 3D to let you look through a window into a world. He’s also pretty smart about not messing with your focal length any more than he has to, which is why my eyes don’t currently feel like they’ve been run over a cheese grater. Basically, Cameron’s graduated 3D from stunt work to being a viable cinematic grammar. He didn’t do it 100% perfectly (there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me), but he does it will enough that this film really should be seen as the textbook on how to do that process right.

I won’t get into the story except to say I found it serviceable, if predictable, and while I don’t really feel the same sort of moral outrage other people have about the “noble savage” stereotype as it applies to this film, it certainly does leave itself wide open for criticism along that line. But as you can tell from the pullout quote above, I go into Cameron films assuming I’ll need to compensate for storytelling anyway. That said, unlike, say, George Lucas, Cameron actually does attempt to tell a story and to give his actors something else to do except stand there. The story was serviceable, and serviceable, lest we forget, is actually a positive.

On a personal note, everyone who looked at the previews wondering if Avatar wasn’t in some way a little bit of a ripoff of Old Man’s War, I’ve noted before that any similarities are coincidence, but now having seen the movie I can say that no only are those similarities coincidence, they are fundamentally trivial coincidences at that. The stories and action really are nothing like each other. Which is of course perfectly fine with me, since should they ever make a movie with the OMW series, I wouldn’t want people to say it’s just an Avatar ripoff. They won’t.

Whether Avatar is the best science fiction film of the year depends I suppose on whether you like your SF films epic or intimate; if the latter, Moon is going to get your vote. But it’s visually the most impressive film of the year, period, and I can see every movie director with an SF property in their pocket going to the film and saying, “Oh, crap, now I have to compete with that.” It’s a challenge, like Star Wars was and like The Matrix was, for everyone else to step up their visual game. It’ll be interesting to see if they do.

Update: Spoilers are beginning to creep into the comment thread. You’ve been warned.

Quote of the Day

Yes, I have been made aware that a quote of mine had made it on a Quote of the Day service today; you can stop sending me e-mail about it. Thank you, however. I too think it’s pretty cool.

The quote was this one:

My marriage had its ups and downs like anyone’s, but when it came down to it, I knew it was solid. I miss that sort of security, and that sort of connection with someone.

Apparently at least a couple didn’t know it was a quote from a character in “Old Man’s War,” not me talking a general sense, so when it got to the part about the marriage being discussed in the past tense, there was some concern. Be advised that I am in fact still married and as far as I know, everything is groovy. I’ll double check with the wife to be sure.

My Nail Makeover

As part of my daughter’s holiday/birthday party this evening, attended by fifteen 10 and 11 year old girls, my wife offered free nail paintings. As they say, one thing lead to another, and thus:

So you can really appreciate the work, a closeup on two fingers, to highlight the red polka dots, which give the green fingernail polish an extra Christmastime festiveness:

I’m just hoping I don’t forget I have this on when I leave the house tomorrow. Because that will be an awkward conversation at the hardware store, won’t it.

The Big Idea: Laura Anne Gilman

‘Tis the season for trying new things, and the group of writers behind the online publishing collective Book View Cafe are doing just that, releasing their first eBook anthology of original fiction: The Shadow Conspiracy, a collection of related tales taking place in an alternate, steampunk world. What does it take to build up a home-cooked anthology and give it the depth and quality that these authors, professional writers all, expect and demand of their work? The Shadow Conspiracy editor Laura Anne Gilman is here to show you all the gears in this steampunk world.

LAURA ANNE GILMAN:

The Shadow Conspiracy, a steampunk ebook anthology launching this month, started, not in the usual “hey, here’s a great idea” moment most anthologies lay claim to, but as a natural evolution of BookView Café.

BookView Café is a co-op of professional writers, using our collected skills — not merely writing, but editing, and coding, and promotion and design –to bring our fiction directly to the readers, using the Internet as our medium.   The emphasis, however, is on professional-level work, with every member bringing an established career to the mix.

BVC started with free reprints – short stories, novels, cartoons, interactive fiction – then offered for-premium original material… and then, as we reached our year anniversary, we thought: why not try an original anthology?  Not a standard collection of stories, but something that represented what we’re doing here at BVC — the evolving, interactive, creative nature of our co-op.

The idea had to be one that could inspire all the writers — something that spoke to us all, that would be fun to write — but that we could also put a new twist into it.  Steampunk, everyone agreed, was the obvious answer.  Not because it was hot, but because it, like Bookview Cafe, defied a single definition.  It called on music, and fashion, exploration and science, design, religion, and desire… speaking to every writer differently, yet keeping us within the overarching theme of progress.

The Shadow Conspiracy was thus born out of a desire to see what could be accomplished by a true collective, everyone working both for their own good — every author makes money off the sales – and as a group, weaving their stories in and out of a shared reality.

Having edited two anthologies myself, and acquired many more during my editorial days, I was probably the Official Naysayer in this project.  I warned about the difficulties of getting everyone on the same page, of the time constraints and technical difficulties, and the ego conflicts that were bound to appear when asking everyone to ‘share’ their concepts and make sure that no story, however brilliant, undid or contradicted the work of another.

Despite my naysaying – or, more likely, because of it – I was asked to stand as editor-in-chief for this new project, working with Phyllis Radford, who was the overall project editor.

Despite the enthusiasm for the idea, getting everything in order wasn’t easy.  Editing an anthology is compared to herding cats for a reason; everyone had their own ideas, and their own takes on the history.  Our job, as editors, was to take all those views, and make them into a non-contradicting whole, without taking away from the uniqueness of each entry.  All of my worst fears were realized – and then put to rest, as everyone stepped forward with their best game, and their most professional attitude, giving us not only fabulous and wildly inventive stories – but working with each other to ensure that the continuity was logical, if not always marching in lockstep.

And, in the end, I’m proud and pleased to say that The Shadow Conspiracy, our first all-original anthology, is true to the nature of Book View Cafe: individual creativity, harnessed to a greater goal.

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The Shadow Conspiracy: Amazon Kindle| Book View Cafe Bookstore

Read an excerpt here. Visit Laura Anne Gilman’s LiveJournal.

Judge Sn Update + Limited Edition News

Subterranean Press just announced that “Judge Sn Goes Golfing” is now shipping, and also that it’s the perfect holiday stocking stuffer for anyone who enjoys science fiction, or golf, or both. Both of these statements are true.

Subterranean also announced (yesterday) that it had acquired limited edition rights to both The Android’s Dream and to Zoe’s Tale, so fans of both novels who’ve been yearning to own them in super-groovy limited form, your needs will be addressed. Forthwith!

I Got Your Author Mystique Right Here, Pal

Over at the Huffington Post, author Jason Pinter asks “Does Social Networking Kill the Author Mystique?” I’m quoted in the article, although I’ll note he didn’t use my direct comment to that question, which was “what author mystique?” Because, really. It’s not like SF/F writers were ever mysterious sorts of folks. We like hanging out in convention hotel bars too much. But maybe authors in other genres do more of that mystique thing.  Anyway, see what Pinter and the folks he interviewed have to say on the matter.

Tor.com Starts Podcasting

Tor.com, that groovy online site dedicated to science fiction, fantasy and other such wacky things, is inaugurating a weekly podcast, in which the folks there will discuss what’s new and notable on the site, and audio fiction will unspool, alternating between new fiction, and fiction already on the site. For the debut podcast, the fiction they’re featuring is mine — an audio version of my story “After the Coup,” set in the Old Man’s War universe and read by me. If you missed it the first time it was up, here’s your chance to check it out, along with the rest of the podcast. Enjoy!

The Big Idea: James Swallow

As the proprietor of The Big Idea, every once in a while I get to pull rank and pop up a book that’s of personal interest to me, and here’s one that is: Air, by James Swallow, which is an adaptation and novelization of the first three episodes of Stargate: Universe, which is, of course, the TV show I am the Creative Consultant on.

Science fiction writers and readers have varying opinions on novelizations and what they mean in the genre, but leaving aside that discussion, I think one thing that’s often overlooked in the discussion is the professionalism of the people doing the novelizations: Here are folks who have to take a script, bump it up to novel length, get it done usually in a short amount of time — and get it right. Yes, that’s work.

In the case of Air, it was brought to my attention when James contacted me during his writing, asking me questions about the show so that what ends up in the TV series is also what ends up in the novel — basically, doing the behind-the-scenes legwork and research that often gets taken for granted by readers (and sometimes, other writers).

I was happy to help him then, and right now, I’m happy to give him the floor to tell you a little more about what it takes to adapt and expand a script into novel form.

JAMES SWALLOW:

“I guess it’s not like you had to do a lot of work, really,” said the guy at the bookseller’s table, with a sniff. ‘I mean, it was pretty much all done for you already, yeah?”

Uh, no.

No, not at all, actually. See, when I was hired on by Fandemonium Books to adapt ‘Air’, the first three episodes of the new television series Stargate Universe, what they asked me to deliver was a novel. That’s why they call it a novelization. Your standard sixty minute teleplay script? You’re looking at under ten thousand words, right there. I had three of ‘em, and I had to turn that into a book that deserved an eight buck cover price. I had to take what I had and, at the very least, expand it to three times its size. And not in the whipped butter kind of way, where they froth it up and pump air into it. No. I had to do it with words and prose and narrative, pitch and moment and drama – and all without breaking the story that had already been created.

I had to fill Air with, well, stuff that wasn’t just air. This is a bit about how I did it.

Air wasn’t my first novelization – I adapted The Butterfly Effect a few years back, getting to put back a lot of the stuff that had been cut in order to get Ashton Kutchner on screen as early as possible. That was a fun experience for me, memorable as it not only introduced my writing to a whole new demographic – teenage high school girls – but because it also got me more fan mail than anything I’d written before. A lot of it was from people asking me how I felt about the movie they had made of my novel.

The way I made Butterfly Effect and now Air work for me was linked to the way that I write. I see my stories unfold in my head like a feature film, and when I’m making notes I use script shorthand to set scenes; I try to write the prose equivalent of whip pans or contra-zooms, wide shots and medium shots. In short, I’m directing it in my head. I took this approach with Air, imagining myself doing the job that episode director Andy Mikita did in the real world – which is a lot more than just adding ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ to the end of Brad Wright’s and Robert C. Cooper’s dialogue.

In some ways I lucked out, because SGU’s producer Joe Mallozzi had a blog full of images from the show in production and of the actors they had cast, so I knew how Air was going to look and what the voices of the people in it would be. But then I was also up against the knowledge that I didn’t know everything about these characters, so I couldn’t lay in nuances and subtle clues that would pay off down the line, and anything new I brought to the party ran the risk of being utterly contradicted by the ongoing show.

And I didn’t have was any opportunity to see the finished cut and edit of the episodes until several weeks after the manuscript had been delivered. While I worked from the three episodic scripts that made up the pilot, I was a good way through the writing before I discovered the drafts I had were months old, with key details that differed from the final versions; it was only thanks to the help of a certain creative consultant that got solved (thanks, John)… The challenge was to paint inside the lines but still deliver something with originality.

So what did all this leave me with? In the end, Air the novel isn’t ‘Air’ the TV episodes, and I’m happy that it isn’t. After all, what would be the point of reading a book that slavishly follows every tiny element of the TV stories? What the novelization brings is what made me read novelizations as a kid – an internal viewpoint for the characters that explores them in a way that TV just can’t do, a seamless story experience that broadens out the scope of the narrative, and a chance to see the bits of plot that were cut for time.

The latter is the kind of thing that DVD extras bring us now, and in no small part I imagine that’s why then novelization is something of a dying art; but back in the day the book of the film was the only place where you saw that kinda thing, like, say, Alan Dean Foster’s tense adaptation of Alien with the chilling cocoon scene still in place. So I put back in Rush’s monologue about the origins of the starship Destiny and the confrontation between him and Jack O’Neill; but I also added new stuff and expanded out what was already there, lengthening scenes and deepening motivations.

There’s a perception that tie-ins are bereft of originality, that they’re a straight-jacket for creativity, and a haunt of lazy writers, but that kind of commentary largely comes from people who don’t read them; generally, from sniffy lit-snobs who complain that tie-ins are stealing all the shelf space in stores and think that all other media are barren artistic wastelands.

In a larger sense, writing a tie-in is no different from the work of TV scriptwriters working on a series that they didn’t create; and when you think about it, writers who adapt a book into a movie are eligible for an Academy Award, while writers who adapt a movie into a book (which requires considerably more writing) are often labeled as hacks.

But the fact is, a great part of telling a tale in one of these fictional worlds is that a writer actually has to work harder under these constraints, and that challenge can inspire you not only tell a tale that fits the texture of the world you’re writing in, but also to bring your own unique authorial voice to bear on it. Plus, you get to play with cool stuff, like Stargates.

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Air: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit James Swallow’s LiveJournal.

Anne, Brian, TAFF

My very good friend Anne KG Murphy and her beau Brian Gray want you (“you” being someone who participates in SF fandom to a greater or lesser extent) vote for them to be this year’s TAFF recipients. What is TAFF and why should they be its recipients — and can you vote, and if so, how may you vote for them? Answers to this, and the proverbial more, await you here.