Space is Cool

Damn, this is an excellent picture from the Cassini Saturn mission:

Saturn’s rings, the small moon of Epimetheus, and hydrocarbon-laden Titan, fuzzy in the background. Gorgeous.

There’s more where that came from here. I’d go look at them if I were you.


Mmmm… (Power) Pop

It’s like a power pop math puzzle:

Fountains of Waynes’ Adam Schlesinger +
Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha +
Cheap Trick’s Bun E. Carlos +
Hanson’s Taylor Hanson =

Here’s the answer:

It’s a good answer.

Here’s a Newsweek article on the band.


Cat and Zoe

Cleverly addressing two constituencies at once, here’s a picture of Ghlaghghee and a picture of the mass market paperback edition of Zoe’s Tale, a contractually mandated box of which just showed up at my door a week ahead of its official April 28th release date. Both are quite lovely in their way.

The PB edition is actually coming out a little early, relative to the hardcover release: nine months out rather than a year, as these usually are. At first I was a little concerned about this, but then Zoe got nominated for the Hugo, so having it out in paperback soon enough to capitalize on the nomination is actually a bit of good luck. Funny how these things work out.

I’ll make mention of Zoe again on the official release date, which is, again, a week from today, but it’s quite possible you’ll start seeing it in bookstores before then. If you do, please remove it from the shelves by way of grabbing hold of it, marching it up to the book store counter and then furiously purchasing it. That’ll show them! Yes. That’ll show them all.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Michael Z. Williamson

Authors, the next time you whine and moan about your difficulties writing at home (or in a coffee shop or whatever), spare a thought for Michael Z. Williamson, whose latest book Contact With Chaos got done not in the comfort his home office or his local Starbucks, but while he was deployed in a war zone. That’ll put your wobbly coffee shop table into a bit of perspective.

A war zone filled with flying metal (in the form of planes; Williamson is in the Air Force) is also an interesting place to posit a civilization without metal. How would it work? Could it work? Williamson’s here to break it down for you.


I started with the idea of a non-metal, but technological culture. Just how far advanced could they be?  Selective breeding is pretty obvious, and so are certain glass, ceramic and chemical industries. Remember that during the Iron Age, most tools were actually wood. Metal as a mass medium of manufacturing is less than a century old.

However, with research, it turns out a great many modern technologies don’t require metal if you work around them.  Obviously, gunpowder isn’t a big deal.  Neither are modern nitrated explosives, though. Alcohols and obsidian blades allow surgery and antiseptic procedure…so if a culture has a scientific mindset, they can develop quite a few things.  Certain photo etching and printing techniques, ceramic rocket nozzles for artillery, poison gas of course…and bakelite and fiberglass pressure vessels for limited steam power and air conditioning.  Really.

This brings a culture up to almost WWI levels, with some workarounds for things like harvesting trees without chainsaws, more labor intensive digging, though explosives do allow for modern mining.

Of course, how would a habitable planetary system develop without surface metals?  Well, really, the only two metals I had to worry about were iron for tools and copper for wire.  Without those, most other metals are almost unobtainable.  So, if there are no large impactors, and an acidic environment, what metallics come out of volcanic action will dissolve quickly, and metal meteorites will be rare enough not to matter.  So the planet still had a dense core, and all the lighter metals for biological processes.  Someone explained the workings of aluminun-magnesoglobin for oxygen transfer, but as long as it works, I’m happy in my ignorance of the details.

As to writing it…I had some personal issues at home, including a pending deployment (Scalzi knows about the deployment.  He was the Emergency Holographic Michael Williamson, GoH, at InConJunction in my stead), then I deployed, (ever tried writing a novel at the end of 12-15 hour shifts 6 days a week in a war zone, with one day off to do laundry, clean gear…oh, and respond to the occasional disaster that knocks base power down and requires all engineer personnel to report in?  With a roommate with very annoying habits in a tiny room in what’s effectively a doublewide trailer with 30 NCOs in it, in 126 degree heat, with sandstorms, and very intermittent internet connections due to sandstorms, and very limited wireless because of the risk of interfering with air ops?  Don’t answer that, it’s rhetorical), then I came back, and then I had, and still have, service connected illness…but at the time, all I knew was that I was waking up gasping, hacking up my lungs until I choked, then kicking into an asthmatic reaction, then clogging up, then crashing asleep for two hours, then repeating.

I don’t recommend this as either a motivation to write, a good way to write, nor even as a character building exercise.

Still, somehow I got it written, and while it’s not the best I’ve done, I think I pulled the big idea off well enough.

Oh, wait–there’s more.

I’ve never liked that “We come in peace/war, take us to your leader” meme for first contact.  We’re not a monolithic culture, and I don’t expect others are.  I fully expect capitalists, pirates, crusaders, do-gooders, missionaries and warriors, from three or four different cultures, all to mix it up together, which historically is what happened.  It’s also foolish to expect the aliens to be simple or unified, and it’s a mistake to assume that their technological level dictates their intellectual capabilities or threat level.

So that’s one big idea—I call it “Stonepunk”–and a twist on the usual starry-eyed idealism.

I titled it “Beads and Trinkets.”  Toni at Baen insisted that didn’t have the right sound.  I wasn’t thrilled with “Contact with Chaos” at first, but it seems to have been prophetic in several ways.  It also does fit the story, and looks good on the cover.

And I’m really interested to know how it works for the reader.


Contact With Chaos: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Michael Z. Williamson’s blog. View an audio interview with him.


Teabaggers and Puppetmasters

An e-mail today, which I suspect is tongue-in-cheek, but which actually is worth making a point about:

Why do the teabaggers and their puppetmasters hate America so much?

Well, in terms of the teabaggers, of course, they don’t hate America. They love America, and no, I’m not being arch and sarcastic. They do. Deal with it. The problem is that as much as they love America, they love an alternate history version of America more, the one in which someone other than Barack Obama won the presidency, the Republicans aren’t the minority in Congress, and where they can not worry overly much about the excesses of big government because at least it’s their big government.

They love it so much that they are having a hard time grasping that it is an alternate history version of America, partly because where they live, it doesn’t seem like alternate history. Dayton, Ohio had one of the largest teabagger turnouts in the nation, and if you look the county election map for 2008, it’s easy to see why: Because Dayton’s Montgomery county is an island of blue surrounded by a sea of red, including my own county, Darke, which is incidentally represented by the GOP’s top congressman, John Boehner. When you live in counties that went 60% or more for McCain (Darke was at 68%), you have a hard time believing your vision of the US is the alternate one.

If you don’t want to believe this, I ask you to cast your mind back to, oh, say, November 3, 2004 and check in with how liberals and democrats were feeling that day, and indeed additionally for much of the time between then and November 4, 2008. Well, you say, at least we never threatened to secede. To which I say: Oh, I don’t know about that. Granted, it wasn’t the governor of one of those blue states getting himself all hopped up on secession fumes and blurting stupidities on national television. But this is neither here nor there regarding a chunk of the electorate being in shock and denial about how another, larger portion of the electorate voted.

So that’s the teabaggers. What about their puppetmasters — most specifically Rupert Murdoch and his minions at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the various other contributors to the whipping up of these alternate America lovers? You know, the ones that the tea baggers are adamant aren’t their puppetmasters, because no one tells their grassroots movement what to do?

Well. Rupert Murdoch doesn’t actually give a shit about the teabaggers one way or another, save retaining them as eyeballs for his advertisers. Murdoch understands the dynamics of American political opinion, and that outside the sixty percent of the US electorate that constitutes the fuzzy, unpredictable political middle, there’s a hard-edged twenty percent on either side that is reliable, predictable and loyal to its politics, and to those who support them. Murdoch long ago staked out one of those twenty percent for his own benefit and enrichment, and now maintains it assiduously. Done and done.

Limbaugh’s the same, although I suspect he’s less dispassionate about it than Murdoch; he’s enjoying the fact that for now, fortune has crowned him the right’s unofficial policymaker. Between Limbaugh and Murdoch and the teabagging rabble is a middle class of opinionators and politicians who may believe what they expound to a greater or lesser degree but who equally see themselves as chessplayers, moving the teabagging public into position for the next game, i.e., 2010.

Will any of it work? Doubt it in the short run; President Obama is being tricky by not actually playing their game and instead focusing on his own plans, carving out a constituentcy in the middle of the road and generally being successful at it, leaving the teabagging right, which will never support him regardless of what he does, to spin in tight, isolated circles and do its own thing — except when from time to time he reaches out them. Which they reject, which allows him to say “well, I tried,” and then do what he was going to do anyway, with the added benefit of making the right look petulant and insular. He’s already done this a time or two, with excellent effect, politically speaking. This is not to suggest Obama is an Ultimate Political Jedi Master. He screws up enough. But at the moment he is better at politics than his opponents, which is sufficient for his purposes.

Also, I doubt any of it will work in the long run, either. Not because conservativism is doomed — it’s not. But the current iteration of it — the socially fundmentalist, expansive government, rights grabbing, it’s-right-if-we-say-it’s-right-because-we’re-right version — almost certainly is. The smart conservatives (and the younger ones, not necessarily always the same) have already started to separate themselves from this dried-up conservatism, particularly its social fundamentalism: Note the recent appearance of Steve Schmidt and Meghan McCain at the Log Cabin Republicans convention, banging on the old guard for being clueless (or as McCain noted, for being “scared shitless”). These folks aren’t living in an alternate America, the one that denies that it’s lost the argument; they know the score well enough. They’re living for an alternate America, one in which they win because they have a better argument.

They know what most of the teabaggers don’t (and what their puppetmasters don’t seem to care about): No amount of hopping up and down about taxes or secession or same-sex marriage or whatever will mean anything if the majority of Americans have already rejected your message and see you as embarrassingly clueless about not getting the memo. So, no. The teabaggers don’t hate America. They love America. It’d be nice if they started living in the real one.

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