Thursday, December 31, 2009

Aught to say about the decade

As 2009 draws to a close (and good riddance), we also conclude a decade. The web is replete with lists, retrospectives, and observations about the year and the decade. Here are a few items that seem especially apt for this blog's readers:

Top 10 Science Fiction Disappointments Of The Past Decade, in part because I sympathize (not to say I've even seen all of these) -- but mostly because I can't resist this image. 

Top Ten Tech Stories for the Decade, because, well, I'm a computer guy as well as an SF enthusiast.

The Top 10 Science Stories of 2009 [Slide Show], from Scientific American

The 2009 Science Fiction Power List, is full of SFnal awesome.

SFcrowsnest Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction Books Chart, from across the pond (and, I'll modestly disclose, a book of mine is well-placed in the list). 

From National Geographic, Top Ten Space Finds of 2009: Nat Geo News's Most Viewed

From, 9 Astronomy Milestones in 2009

And finally, not exactly fitting the theme: Stars Find Fountain of Youth Via Vampirism and Collisions, because, really, how could anyone resist?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

District 9 / Plan 9

District 9 was NOT a traditional choice for Christmas Eve viewing. I admit it.

In my defense, Netflix listed District 9 as a long wait. The DVD being at the top of my queue said nothing about when D9 would appear in my mailbox.

If you're not familiar with this 2009 movie, think: Alien Nation meets The Battle of Algiers meets Enemy Mine.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fictional frontiers redux

I posted a year ago about my "appearance" on Fictional Frontiers (WNJC-AM, Philadelphia), about my then newly released novel Fools' Experiments (dealing with AI, artificial life, and virtual reality, among other topics). The blog entry about that interview is here. It was my first radio interview, and I don't mind admitting I was a tad nervous.

But the conversation apparently went okay, because I was invited back to discuss this year's newly released book, Small Miracles (about near-future medical nanotech). In the intervening year, Fictional Frontiers had moved from its Sunday morning time slot to a far-more-widely-heard slot during Monday evening drive time. The new interview aired December 7th.

The latest conversation is now available as streaming audio (part 1 and part 2). If your Internet connection isn't streaming-media friendly, the interview segments can be downloaded from those pages as wma (Windows Media Player) files. 

I didn't think I was nervous about my return visit -- which shows all I know. Invited at the end of the interview to give my website URL, I managed to give it wrong! As shown elsewhere on this site, the correct link is

(Holiday) cheers, all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

And the speculation is rampant

At every con and book signing, and in every SFnal chat room, it seems that the craft of writing and the business of publishing eventually come up. There's a sort of symmetry in play: most writers are inveterate readers, and many readers aspire to be authors.

So: I'm delighted to have been given the opportunity by WriterHouse to teach a weekend seminar on writing speculative fiction. The seminar will be held Saturday and Sunday, January 23-24, in lovely Charlottesville, VA.

Lovely isn't mere politeness -- among its charms, Charlottesville is home to Monticello and the University of Virginia, both legacies of Thomas Jefferson. The image is of the UVa Rotunda, designed by Jefferson.

For a course description and info about registration, see here. (The spec-fic seminar is at the end of this Winter Term course catalog.)

WriterHouse is also hosting me the evening before (Friday, January 22nd) at a book signing and discussion open to the public.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

And we're still here!

For all last year's fuss when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was first turned on, its recent restart -- after some rework due to bad solder joints and a supercoolant leak -- has drawn comparatively little public notice. You may recall concerns (foolish concerns, I might add) that the LHC would create black holes that would swallow the Earth.

The LHC's new low profile is both good and bad. 

The good? The hysterics have found other things about which to obsess. The bad? In the wake of Climategate, science could use credit for doing something right.

In the short time since the LHC's restart last month, the new collider has:

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

To your good health

The Year of Science enters its final month by celebrating health science. (Is health science different than medicine? Beats me.)

Health-wise, science must be doing something right. To know that, we need only look at trends in lifespan and at the once untreatable conditions that medicine can now address. And consider the many quality-of-life improvements, from prostheses to painkillers.

Health science will only get better -- if public policy doesn't kill off R&D in the name of funding universal care.

Below the fold, the shape of things to come:

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Road trip

I'm off soon on a book signing mini-tour promoting Small Miracles. (I did local signings, in the DC area, in October.)

If you're in the neighborhood, consider dropping by. (I'm happy to sign anything I've written, so check your bookshelves.)

Read on for places and times:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Life, the universe, and everything (SFnal)

I knew this interview was pending on the popular book-review site Bookloons, but not exactly when the transcript would appear online. Today, as it happens.

We covered a lot of ground. Among the topics:
  • themes in my recent novels (which the interviewer dubs "near-future, near-apocalyptic thrillers")
  • the prospect of societal controls over new technologies
  • how SF portrays artificial intelligences
  • if/how AI might come to be
  • the risks of nanotechnology
The interview ends with a sneak peek at my next books (probably 2010 releases), one a collaboration with Larry Niven and the second a Lerner solo.

Bookloons also posted its review of the recently released Small Miracles, concluding: "I highly recommend Small Miracles to anyone interested in relatively near future SF, and in the fascinating possibilities of nanotechnology."

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving appetizers

Thanksgiving makes for a shortened work week (and yet here you are, surfing), and the turkey et. al. aren't going to eat themselves. 

I'm going to post this ahead of The Day, before the blogger (and perhaps a reader or two) succumbs to a tryptophan stupor. So, herewith a few pre-holiday mental appetizers ...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Feel the chemistry

November's theme at the Year of Science is chemistry.

Good stuff, chemistry. You won't hear me complaining this month about wishy-washy, politically correct themes. This is science.

(But not, IIRC, the stuff of much SF. I'm hard-pressed to think of a single chemistry-centric SF novel. Can anyone out there suggest some?) 

And chemistry is the basis for indispensable technology. Think of DuPont (and countless others) bringing us Better Living through Chemistry. Where would we be -- no irony intended, if you should wonder -- sans (to name a few chemical products) preservatives, plastics, petrochemicals, and pesticides.

I'm inspired to remember long-ago chemistry classes -- where I learned to respect the people who really could ascertain something in the lab. (Ever been given a mystery chemical and a few hours to identify it? I might have been given been a flask of phlogiston dioxide for all I know.) Identifying mystery chemicals takes real skill.

But somehow the YoS people neglected to include Tom Lehrer singing the periodic table. Trust me: it's a hoot. The retconned video only makes it better.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Destroyer of Worlds

Fair warning: this is a commercial announcement. (But likely my last for a while. Gotta refill the pipeline.)

Destroyer of Worlds
Destroyer of Worlds, released today, is a far-future space epic. It's also my latest/third collaboration with Larry Niven -- all part of our Fleet of Worlds series.

Destroyer, like our earlier books, deals with Puppeteer manipulations -- these aliens are aptly named for more than their appearance. And the afraid-of-everything Puppeteers have more than ever to fear, because on the horizon looms another, particularly scary, alien species: the Pak.

(That brings us to our second cover snap [below the fold].

Friday, November 6, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (Earths)

That's Earths, plural. Obviously Earth itself exists and can hardly be a trope.

But what about the many Earthlike planets in SF?  (How often does the starship Enterprise encounter a solar system without an "M class" planet or moon?) Are Earthlike worlds realistic or a trope?

Our native solar system has but one Earth, of course. Real-life searches for extrasolar planets best spot large, massive, and close-to-their-primary objects. The observational methods are not yet sensitive enough to spot Earthlike planets (see current list of extrasolar planets here).  IIRC, the smallest extrasolar planet yet found is about five Earth masses. There may be -- and presumably are -- other Earthlike planets, but searches to date say little yet about the prevalence of such planets.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Future shlock

Today is Election Day in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Yup, we're one of the two states -- not, you will note, that we call ourselves a state -- with regularly scheduled statewide elections this year. (New Jersey is the second.) In theory that's so state elections go unaffected by national political tides. The Law of Unintended Consequences remaining in force, it really means the national political parties focus on these two states, making the electoral process here (a) a referendum on the national balance of political power and (b) a dry run for methods to be tried in the following year's  Congressional elections. And so, national money floods into -- and distorts -- Virginia state races.

The national/state overlap is always bad in Virginia, because we're just across the Potomac from DC. There's not even travel inconvenience to discourage national politicians from meddling. The problem is made worse this cycle by our outgoing governor happening also to be the party chairman for a national party.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Are we alone? How about now?

How does life emerge from lifelessness?  How does intelligence emerge from totally instinctive life? Science's answer to both questions has been, "don't (yet) know."

There's a business-school axiom, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." The scientific version is, in essence, "If you can't reproduce it, you don't understand it." Or, at least, you can't know that you understand it.

And so, synthetic biologists want to move from describing what nature has offered to building organisms from scratch. When we can build cells totally from inanimate material (and assemble DNA, not splice the good parts from living cells), then we'll know that we really understand the molecular mechanisms of life.

At least life as the DNA-centric readers of this blog know it. Because maybe we have other readers. 

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I spent much of last weekend at Capclave 2009. Capclave is the annual DC area SF con. I don't always make it, but this was my fifth time there.

Like the dodo logo?  That's the Capclave symbol, befitting their slogan, "Where reading is not extinct!"

Capclave is a small, intimate con -- about 200 attendees in a typical year. It draws lots of local writers, including MAFIA.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rock of ages

No one minds me calling a billion years an age, do they?

Earth, the third rock from the sun (I loved that show), is ~4.6 billion years old, the sun a bit older. (Exact estimates vary, of course.)  In that time, lots has happened.  The sun grew about 30% hotter (and it's not done).  The Earth cooled from the heat of collapse as it coalesced out of the primordial material of the pre-solar system. Oceans and atmosphere formed. Life emerged. In time, oxygen-producing life evolved and totally changed the atmosphere.

Interesting things keep happening. Radioactive decay keeps the core hot and drives plate tectonics. Carbon-bearing rock disappears into the inter-plate subduction regions, and is returned to the atmosphere by volcanic eruptions. Continents drift, also driven by plate tectonics. There's erosion, and mountain building, and sedimentation. Ice ages come and go.

Oh yeah: early in Earth's history, a Mars-sized object smashed into our planet, melted the top many miles of Earth's surface, and blasted enough stuff into space to re-coalesce as the moon

And on, and on. 

In short, Earth is a complicated place. Geoscience, this month's theme at the Year of Science, deals with this very complex amalgam of physics, biology, and chemistry. After I harped at the non-science of recent months' YoS themes, I'm happy to see a real science recognized this month. Check it out.

And don't miss this six-minute video that introduces geoscience and has some absolutely stunning imagery. Earth is a beautiful place.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Small Miracles

Fair warning: this is a commercial announcement.

My latest near-future thriller -- this time dealing with medical nanotechnology -- was released on October 13. A new book's release is always exciting, but this release is doubly noteworthy. That's because SMALL MIRACLES is this month's "SCI FI Essential" title.

And what is that? "SCI FI has teamed up with Tor Books, the largest publisher of science fiction and fantasy in the world, to spotlight some of the best new science-fiction novels, from both new and established authors.... Each month we select a new book as a SCI FI Essential. That means it deserves to be counted among the finest works of the genre."

To top off that endorsement, here are some early quotes:

Saturday, October 10, 2009


For the next couple of months I'll be guest blogging at That's a great SFnal website, by the way ... if you haven't yet checked it out, you should. In addition to a large set of bloggers -- many names you'll surely recognize -- the site features first-rate free fiction. For example, Cory Doctorow has a long serial now running. 

During my guest-blogging stint, I'll continue blogging here at SF and Nonsense -- if not necessarily as often.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Not to make light of things

This morning brings news that the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, and George E. Smith.  Kao was recognized for his work with fiber-optic cables, central to modern digital networks. Boyle and Smith were recognized for their work with charge-coupled devices, the key component of digital cameras.

Well deserved recognition, of course. And yet, I'm struck by whom the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences continues to slight: Nick Holonyak.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Life by the numbers

I last formally studied biology in high school.  (No clues will be given how long ago that was.) Lots of memorization. Little in the way of organizing principles. At the time, I didn't find it very interesting.

In recent years, though, I've been revisiting biology. It probably didn't hurt that two of my college physics buddies eventually got their PhDs in biophysics. And in the course of reintroducing myself to elements of modern biology, I recently read a book that reexamines cellular and molecular biology with tools very familiar to me as a a physicist and computer guy.  

The book is An Introduction to Systems Biology: Design Principles of Biological Circuits, by Uri Alon (of the Weitzman Institute).

Circuits, you ask?

Circuits, indeed. Take the process of gene transcription: which genes in which cells are activated to express which proteins.  And which cells lock into particular tissue types, and why, despite all cells in an organism having identical genetic makeup.  It all happens amid lots and lots of feedback loops, because proteins (some acting as proxies for environmental factors) influence gene expression influence proteins influence ...

The fascinating theme of this textbook is: straightforward underlying principles drive this complexity. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Shakes his head ...

Do the folks organizing the Year of Science not know what a science is?  Or do they just not care?

Physics is the study of matter and energy and their interactions.  Chemistry is the study of the composition and properties of substances.  Biology is the study of living organisms. (Don't ask me to draw precise boundaries between physics, physical chemistry, and molecular biology.) Ecology is the study of the interrelations between living organisms and their environment.

What you don't see in any of those definitions is a value judgment.

This month's YoS theme is Biodiversity and Conservation.  Is anything wrong with preservation and efficiency? No (at least within limits). But this month's theme is about what to DO with nature, not how stuff in nature WORKS.

What goes beyond a reasonable limit? One extreme approach toward maintaining biodiversity (NOT suggested by the YoS folks) is the voluntary human extinction movement. That values conservation of every species but one: us.

My other gripe with this month's theme is that "conservation" sometimes masks a retreat from the notion of progress. Take eliminating the smogs that once blighted London and Los Angeles. Progress -- better ways of generating power; catalytic converters; more efficient auto engines -- had at least as much to do with that happy outcome as conservation -- driving fewer miles.

A note to YoS organizers: if it's not too late, let's talk about ... science.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (nanotech & replicators, part II)

As I obviously believe nanotech is for real, why am I using the trope subject line?

In that recent post, I cited the industry's road map, from nanomaterials to nanocomponents to functional nanosystems, all the way to scaled, atomically precise, productive nanosystem array systems. The trope possibility comes from the word you did not see: replicator.

Replicator, of course, is the SFnal term for things that copy themselves -- for plot purposes, generally without limit. They come from an idea in K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation, which popularized the notion of nanotech. Drexler discussed nanomachines called assemblers that would (duh!) assemble other machines, including -- and here is where the madness begins -- machines like themselves.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (nanotech & replicators, part I)

Nanotech a trope? Say it ain't so!

In fact, I'm not saying that. Nanotech is quite real, an up-and-coming revolution in how we will build most everything. Last year I said that in a lot more detail in two science articles, "Follow the Nanobrick Road" in Analog and "The Old Gray Goo, It Aint't What It Used to Be" in the The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Both articles resulted from my attendance at a 2007 conference, Productive Nanosystems: Launching the Technology Roadmap. I was at the conference merely as a journalist (and multitasking by gathering research for a future book). If you want to know much more, here's a link to the 200-page overview pdf.

The interesting attendees were nanotech luminaries across government, academia, and industry. They were there to publically release their vision of where nanotech is going -- or perhaps more precisely, where they are taking it. One highly visible organizer and speaker was K. Eric Drexler, whose 1986 science popularization The Engines of Creation brought nanotech into the popular culture. (The 1987 paperback edition still does respectable business on Amazon.)

We already have materials with nanotech aspects, even if sometimes used in comparatively trivial applications like sunscreens (exploiting really tiny particles of zinc oxide) and golf clubs (made lighter and more flexible by the use of carbon nanotubes in the shaft's composite material). The steady march of Moore's Law means electronics will be nanoscaled any day now. And over the next few decades, expect to see commercial nanotech steadily progressing from nanomaterials to:
  • nanocomponents (like motors, pumps, and bearings), to
  • functional nanosystems (combinations of nanocomponents), to
  • atomically precise productive nanosystems (nanoscale systems able to produce other nanoscale systems), to
  • (not my term -- it's way too clunky) scaled, atomically precise, productive nanosystem array systems (swarms of nanoscale manufacturing devices that cooperate to build macroscale objects).
And here is where we segue from tech to trope. Stay tuned for our next exciting installment ...

(And that neat image? It's a simulated nanogear, each dot being an atom, from the online gallery of Nanorex.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

State of the art

A few days after the fact, I have copies of Fools' Experiments -- the mass-market paperback re-release -- in hand.

Liking what Tor Books did with the new cover, I'll let it speak for itself.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Reason (or lack thereof)

Happy Labor Day weekend, all.

As I'll be laboring -- too many plot threads coming together -- must continue into alien warfare and other assorted mayhem -- I'm limiting this weekend's update to a favorite quotation:

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a theory he never reasoned into.

- Jonathan Swift

Apply that observation to the close-minded whomever of your choice :-)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Fools' Experiments redux

We are not alone, and it's our own damn fault.

This is a commercial announcement ...

Fools' Experiments -- my 2008 novel of artificial life, artificial intelligence, and unintended consequences -- was re-released today as a mass-market paperback. This latest format joins CD and tape options from Recorded Books, an audio download from, a book-club edition, and an ebook from Amazon Kindle.

I posted about Fools' Experiments when it was newly released last fall, and my website has a sampling of the rave reviews. Here's one I quite like:

"Lerner’s physics and computer science background serve him well for this pulse-pounding yarn about the creation of the first artificial life form inside cyberspace."

— BookPage Notable Title
But the proof of the book is in the reading, so here, courtesy of the publisher, is an excerpt.

And this being an admittedly commercial announcement, here's the Amazon link for Fools' Experiments.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One year (and counting)

One year ago today I made my first blog post. And while the traditional U.S. first-year anniversary theme is paper -- hardly apt for a blog! -- the modern theme is clocks. So let's look at what's happened over time.

In the blog's first year, I've posted 87 times. Which topics most interested you, the readers? That, it turns out, is hard to determine.

  • The free version of Sitemeter -- fairly enough -- offers only limited statistics. And Sitemeter doesn't count all traffic: it misses, for examples, views of cached web pages and via many blog readers.
  • Sitemeter misses, in particular, views of syndicated blog copies. For about two months this blog was featured at Analog and Asimov's web sites. The blog remains syndicated on an ongoing basis through
  • When readers arrive at the blog's front page, does that indicate interest in the most recent story or a routine drop-in?
  • How does one compare topics that generate lots of reader comments with topics that get a lot of views?
  • How does one contrast onetime topics with ongoing themes?

There are other complications, but you get the idea: The list of popular topics I'm about to give has an element of subjectivity to it. I am unrepentant :-)

Herewith my best guess of your interests. (Don't read relative rankings in the order of the list. The method is too imprecise for that.)

  • tropes in SF (a series)
  • alien aliens (a series)
  • science/technology news & opinion
  • my own writing
  • the state of the genre

That'll be input to -- but not controlling of -- future posts.

Thank you all for clicking in, commenting, cross-linking, and emailing. I appreciate your interest over the past year and look forward to continuing the dialogue.

An anniversary toast: to more SF and Nonsense.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Just the facts, ma'am

For anyone old enough to recognize the subject line: it's part of the Webb of truth. (I'll pause for you to groan.)

ANYway, I refer to the November 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, which has already found its way to my mailbox. I've not yet ready any of the stories, but I did read all the nonfiction -- and what I read was thought-provoking.

One of my lengthier -- and most commented upon -- post series deals with tropes in SF ("Trope-ing the light fantastic"). In brief, a trope in SF is a science-centric author/reader agreement to willingly suspend disbelief. As in: what if faster-than-light travel were possible?

Some folks find such tropes unacceptable in *science* fiction. For them, there's a movement called "mundane SF." No FTL (for the lack of a basis in current science). Perhaps no interstellar travel of any kind (too hard). No time travel. Etc. Mundane SF stories tend to be Earth-centric and near-future.

In "Aiming High -- Or Low?", the editorial in the November issue, editor Stan Schmidt takes exception to the premise that what exceeds present-day science is beyond science (and beyond legitimate SF). Stan's challenge, in my brief paraphrase, is: we don't know what we don't know. A hundred years ago we didn't know -- to name only a few items -- about quantum mechanics or general relativity or plate tectonics. If a story's "science" premise can't be disproven, and if the imagined new science/technology is used consistently within the story, then, Stan would have it, it is legitimate SF.

New topic.

The adjoining graph, typical of many in the global-change conversation, shows a dramatic change. Note that that is somewhat a matter of representation. By showing only changes around a recent-year mean, the changes are emphasized. And by showing only a short period of time, long-term climate trends are left out. A graph of temperatures referenced to absolute zero and covering all the years since the Little Ice Age would look much different. I say this not by way of stating a position on the extent of global change but to emphasize we're dealing with measuring small (in relative terms) changes.

Which brings me to physicist (and SF author) Jeff Kooistra's "Lessons from the Lab" (an instance of the monthly Alternate View feature). I've long been aware of the measurement problem caused by heat islands: the effect of (for example) the expansion of paved areas on temperatures measured in cities. Jeff adds the complication of perhaps improperly calibrated weather measurement stations around the country. The article cites meteorologist Anthony Watts and his "surface stations" project, which surveys measurement stations of the National Weather Service. The project reports:
  • different paints used in the instrument enclosures (paints differ in how they reflect or let through energy),
  • extraneous equipment (that generates heat!) within enclosures,
  • measurement stations sited too near external heat sources (such as parking lots and air-conditioner vents).
Climate-change science deals with prospective changes of a few degrees over centuries -- the details really matter.

Finally, we come to the main science article. "Rock! Bye-Bye, Baby" deals, as you might expect, with possible asteroid/comet strikes on Earth and what might be done to prevent them. Current thinking has it an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. And astronomers very recently saw something smack Jupiter. It made an Earth-sized black mark.

Said Analog science article was written by Your Humble Blogger, a followup to attending last year's Asteroid Deflection Research Symposium. Writing SF is one of the cooler jobs in the world.

So there you have it ... much to think about.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Potpouri (the sequel)

I'm immersed in writing this week, so this post is going to be mostly a set of pointers -- with less commentary than usual -- to interesting stuff. (Well, I find it interesting. Your mileage may differ.)

August's Year of Science theme is Celebrate Weather and Climate. Important topics, to be sure. Much interesting stuff to be reviewed, and well-deserved credit for the increasing accuracy of weather forecasts. I'm less enamored of the superficial treatment of climate change.

Here's more news about the (in)security of RFIDs, in this case the cloning of proposed "unforgeable" UK identification cards.

Here's a recent fascinating extrasolar planet find: a world that orbits backward.

And a really humanoid robot.

Sorry to be so terse, but the muse is with me. Gotta write.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Time for another chat?

(Updated June 17, 2012) This post has become of historical interest only ... the chat log lived on someone else's website and is now overcome by events. But if chatting is your thing, check out my new discussion group at Goodreads). 

Where does the time go?

My thinking about occasional SF and Nonsense internet chats was: every couple of months. Today I noticed that the first-and-so-far-only chat was way back in ... January. Yikes!

That inaugural chat was a lot of fun. (Curious? Check the chat log here.) So: I thought I'd test the waters (see virtual toe dip) for doing another. Hence, the poll on the righthand side of this page, immediately below my profile. As before, the chat would be on a Saturday late afternoon (as such things are judged in Eastern time).

You want to know more? IIRC the last chat touched on many of the topics you read (and comment) about here: aliens, SF tropes, TV and movie SF. Those are all fair game if we do this again. But the calendar suggests my own writing as a topic (internet chat hasn't been foremost in my mind for a reason):

Last June: Juggler of Worlds (a collaboration with Larry Niven) was reissued in paperback.

September 1: Fools' Experiments will be reissued in paperback.

October 13: Small Miracles will be released.

November 10: Destroyer of Worlds (a collaboration with Larry Niven) will be released.

The poll runs through September. Vote early and often ;-)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Another short straw for short fiction

In recent years a fair chunk of my short SF has appeared in Jim Baen's Universe. JBU has been an excellent, thoroughly professional venue -- and now, alas, it's closing. JBU will be missed, as the market for short SF keeps shrinking ...

But it's not about me. My sympathies go out to the editors and staff at JBU. They produced a first-rate product and treated their authors with courtesy and respect. They deserved a happier outcome. Sorry, my friends.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Pardon our dust

The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA, with one "f," for reasons of -- at best -- historical interest) has given a face lift to its website. It's quite nice. If you haven't been by recently, check it out.

Like all big construction projects, the update comes with ... surprises. A surprise that strikes close to home for me is some inadvertent breakage to my authorial website. That's at (but you knew that. Right? :-) ). As the URL suggests, my website is hosted and webmastered by SFWA.

SFWA's web wizards will be cleaning things up. Till then, pardon the dust.

March 11, 2103 update: I have no idea why, but this post had a spate of visitors today. Given that my website moved almost a year ago (announced March 20, 2012, as Grand opening!), here's the link to the new(ish) and improved Edward M. Lerner: Perpetrator of science fiction and techno-thrillers.

Thursday, July 30, 2009


To succeed, the Launch Pad program must do more than foster correct science in popular culture. The portrayal of that science must also be accessible and interesting. That's why, besides a pure science track, the program also deals with how to include science in stories.

And that led one day to the roomful of authors discussing the dreaded exposition monster.

Exposition? That's conveying important background information to the reader. SF critics and editors pan exposition mercilessly, deriding it as an "infodump." SF authors have become gun-shy about the technique.

Exposition can, to be sure, be done badly. The exemplar / strawman is the "As you know, Bob ..." digression, wherein one character breaks from the story to tell the reader, in the guise of conversation with another character, what both characters already know. Nearly as cliched is the expert/novice pairing. Here, the expert character lectures an uninformed character (such as a reporter, politician, or a charming but clueless love interest) whose main purpose is to be ignorant -- in the interest of eliciting such lectures.

So yes, exposition can be done badly. That doesn't mean it can't be done well, or that readers universally object.

Some Launch Pad authors (I among them) argued that exposition has its place. The alternatives -- dribbling out the information over the course of a story, or assuming knowledge on the part of the reader, or hinting rather than telling -- aren't necessarily better.

And let's not forget, readers often choose a genre because the underlying subject matter interests -- nay, fascinates -- them. (Umm, don't science-fiction readers like science?) In other genres and for many bestselling authors, exposition is merely a tool of the trade. A few cases in point:

James Michener sold more than a few books, and he could start with, for example, the geological processes that formed Hawaii.

Tom Clancy sells fairly well, too, with his share of digressions on the history and operation of (choose your weapon system).

Westerns paint detailed pictures of the West.

Historical novels delve lovingly into their backdrop time and place: its origins, class structure, the implements used in daily life, the influence of geography, the social mores ... .

Technothrillers unashamedly discuss new and upcoming technologies.

So why does the SF literati like to beat itself up about a few paragraphs of exposition here and there? I really don't know.

What do you think?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Out to launch

I'm newly home from a highly enjoyable week in Laramie, Wyoming at Launch Pad, the NASA-funded astronomy program for authors. The Launch Pad mission: improving scientific literary through words and media.

It's as though someone doesn't want any more certified-science-free abominations like the recent mini-series Impact perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public.

So what's Launch Pad like? Immersion in astronomy, everything from the source of Earth's seasons to the nature of distant quasars. Immersion, too, in the company of fellow authors. Science-centric entertainment, from the stand-up routine of the Science Comedian to the these-are-the-ways-the-world-may-end stylings of bad-astronomy maven Phil Plait. A trip to the Wyoming Infrared Observatory.

Launch Pad is the brainchild of University of Wyoming astrophysicist -- and fellow SF author -- Mike Brotherton. Mike has done a bang-up (not to be confused with a Big Bang) job of documenting the recent festivities, including links to the many videos shot by our intrepid chronicler, writer and TV producer Stacey Cochran. (Spotting me among the videos is left as an exercise for the reader :-) )

I learned. I ate/drank. I spent a week with writers and scientists, during the International Year of Astronomy, overlapping the 4oth anniversary of the first moon landing! What SF author could ask for anything more?

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Beyond Impact ... struck dumb

I've generally resisted ranting about bad science in TV and movies. There's so much, it seems as if complaining has no point.

And then Impact came off the DVR ...

Here's where I would post a spoiler alert -- if only it were possible to spoil this miniseries.

In brief: a piece of space junk threatens Earth; brave scientists / plucky heroes must save us all. We've seen it all before, right? As in the late, unlamented Armageddon.

Wrong. The "science" in Impact makes Armageddon look like a graduate course in astrophysics. But rather than turn off the TV after five minutes, I bravely persisted -- howling alternately in outrage and laughter. To name only a few absurdities:

The impactor: a piece of a brown dwarf, described as a dead star. Umm, no. A brown dwarf is a failed star, an object that, if a bit larger, would have heated enough from gravitational collapse to start fusion. (Think something like Jupiter, only many times bigger.) Now a piece of a white dwarf or a neutron star would (on this single point) have made sense.

Scale of the impactor: about 1.8 Earth masses, but physically tiny. Despite its mass, it hid in a swarm of meteors. No one noticed any gravitational effect on the meteors (or the planets)? Hel-lo?

Shape of the impactor: very irregular and jagged. Umm, why wasn't it round? Planets are round because gravity pulls down any big irregularities. (The standard definition of a planet includes the object having enough mass for its gravity to make it round.)

How round is round? The tallest feature on Earth, Mount Everest, stands 29,029 feet (about 5.5 miles) above sea level. Earth itself is about 8,000 miles in diameter. So: Everest represents less than 0.1% deviation from roundness.) The impactor isn't called a planet, but it masses more than Earth, which IS. Why isn't the impactor round?

Impactor's effects: The object embeds itself in the moon -- giving the combined body a mass of about two Earths. The resulting object will soon crash into Earth.

It's mentioned the (unaltered) moon has a mass of 1/6 Earth. No! The moon has a mass 1/81 of Earth, and -- because of its smaller radius -- a surface gravity of 1/6 Earth. Moon plus very dense impactor would have a *very* high surface gravity, the exact number depending on how deeply the impactor embedded itself, and where on the surface (how near the embedded mass) one measures. In any case, *many* times Earth's gravity. So when, inevitably, our plucky heroes go to the moon -- the solution they implement there too handwaving to bear describing -- they should be crushed flat.

(Okay, a partial explanation of my gripe: our heroes bring a miracle machine that ejects the embedded mass -- which has a mass of 1.8 Earths! That's some portable generator!)

I could go on, but I won't (and you're welcome). The "science" was simply appallingly awful. One can only shake one's head at this miniseries airing (June 22nd and 29th) so close to the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing (July 20).

Must stop. Head spinning ...

Monday, July 13, 2009

How poetic

If you've ever looked closely at the covers of newly released periodicals, you may have noticed magazines' curious ability to arrive from the future. For SF magazines, at least, that seems fitting.

And so the Analog that just arrived in my mailbox is dated October 2009 ...

I'm delighted with this particular exercise in time travel. Why? First, because on prime magazine real estate, immediately following Stan Schmidt's editorial, I see an astronomy poem --

And July is astronomy month in the year of science.

"Insignificance" deals (as did, in part, the above-referenced post) with how astronomy reshaped humanity's view of the cosmos and our place in it.

Second, because -- although my fiction and science articles appear regularly in Analog -- "Insignificance" makes me a professional poet.

It amuses me to imagine the horrified/mystified expressions this event might bring to the faces of quite a few of my English teachers and professors. Maybe we should add announcement of the apocalypse (or of an ice storm in the infernal regions) to the attributes of the issue :-)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

To a galaxy far, far away

Woohoo! July's theme for the Year of Science is astronomy.

Astronomy is arguably the mother of sciences. Looking at the sky, and measuring and recording what is there to be seen, is very old. It goes back to Egypt and Babylonia (and other early civilizations, no doubt). The early predictions -- the timing of the Nile floods, say -- could be utilitarian; they were no less scientific for that. And the recording could be cumbersome -- such as, perhaps, Stonehenge, plausibly a big calculator of the seasons. Still: astronomy.

(Some would call astrology the mother of sciences. Not me: astrology is devoid of such basic scientific notions as "observation" and "test your theory by making predictions." Call astrology wishful thinking or magic or gibberish, as you wish. It's not a science.)

Certainly astronomy was my first science. I had a 3-inch telescope as a little kid. Even before that, I sometimes borrowed my dad's binocs to look at the moon.

2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo first used a telescope to study objects in the sky.

It continues to amaze me how much, and how often, astronomers have recast our understanding of the universe and humanity's place in the universe. From Earth-centrism to heliocentrism. From heliocentrism to a place in the fringes of the galaxy. From humans living in the one all-encompassing sea of stars, to living in one of the many galaxies in a far grander universe. From living in a static universe to knowing that the universe is forever rushing apart.

Along the way, the human urge to know more about the sky has inspired amazing technologies, from single huge radio-astronomy antennae like the Green Bank Telescope, to arrays of radio telescopes, to the Hubble space telescope, to the SOHO spacecraft at the L1 Lagrange point, to an ever-increasing cadre of robotic explorers.

Some people look at the night sky and come away with a sense of their own insignificance. I look at it, and think how much we have learned, and come away inspired.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Juggler interview with Tor Books

For those who don't subscribe to the monthly Tor-Forge newsletter, here's my recent interview (motivated by the paperback re-release of Juggler of Worlds):

Q: How do you describe
Juggler of Worlds?

A: Juggler shows what happens when a paranoid government agent really does confront vast alien conspiracies.
Sigmund Ausfaller comes by his paranoia honestly. He was ten when his parents disappeared amid a conflict with the Kzinti—and everyone knows the Kzinti eat their prey. He grew up to watch aliens for a living. It’s up to Sigmund to make sense of things when the super-secretive Puppeteers, who have made worlds and species across Known Space dependent on Puppeteer technology, suddenly disappear.
The Puppeteers had good reasons to hide. The last thing they want is Sigmund bringing the military might of the human worlds down upon their heads (of which each Puppeteer has two). It’s left to the Puppeteer operative known as Nessus to somehow keep humanity at bay. Puppeteers being philosophical cowards, they’re generally incapable of leaving home. Nessus can, and that makes him insane in his own way.
Q: Sigmund Ausfaller. Nessus. Don’t I know those names?
A: If you’re a Niven fan, then yes. Sigmund played minor but pivotal roles in two of Larry’s early, award-winning stories (“Neutron Star” and “The Borderland of Sol”). Nessus most prominently figures in what is perhaps Larry’s best-known novel, Ringworld.
More than any other reason, the book came about because I felt Sigmund had leading-man potential and unique insight into the panorama that is Known Space.
Q: Juggler sounds like some kind of secret history. I’m reminded of the Ender’s Shadow books, which parallel Ender’s Game and its sequels.
A: Exactly! Events in some of Larry’s stories that seemed independent or random or coincidental … aren’t. Sigmund and Nessus—and their interstellar game of cat-and-mouse—lie behind much that readers thought they understood about Known Space.
Our model was the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hangers-on at the Danish court and minor players in Hamlet, they are, of course, the central characters of their own play.
Wherever Stoppard revisits a scene from Hamlet, some dialogue repeats—interspersed with muttered asides and interior monologue Shakespeare never imagined. Unless you’ve memorized Hamlet, it’s hard to know where Shakespeare leaves off and Stoppard begins—yet much of the Stoppard play happens aboard a ship far from the Danish court!
Juggler interleaves events old and new, and occasionally dialogue, in the same way.
Q: Then Juggler overlaps chronologically with some of Larry’s stories and with your earlier collaboration, Fleet of Worlds.
A: To get away from the theater metaphors, Juggler is a mosaic in which other stories are some of the tiles.
Events are examined from new points of view. Heretofore unsuspected linkages emerge. Players in past stories are sometimes revealed—by reason of self-interest, nobility, or ignorance—to have told partial truths or been honestly mistaken.
It took planning, but we’re happy with how everything fits together. Where we revisit specific circumstances—say, the expedition in “Neutron Star”—it’s always from a different character’s point of view and the event is surrounded by heretofore unsuspected causes and unrevealed consequences.
Q: So who is the titular juggler, Nessus or Sigmund?
A: We leave that to the reader to decide—fully expecting opinions to change over the course of the book.
Q: What’s your next project, Ed?
A: Next up, also from Tor (out in October), is a Lerner solo. Small Miracles is a near-future technothriller of nanotechnology and medical nanobots. In a few words:
When Brent Cleary was caught in a gas pipeline explosion, it took more than one small miracle to keep him alive. Too bad the small miracles have an agenda of their own….
Q: Thanks, Ed. It was a pleasure talking with you.
A: My pleasure.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Progress (not!)

A surprisingly large chunk of writing happens away from desk and computer. Stories and characters evolve. Plot holes rear their ugly heads (yeah, a horribly mixed metaphor -- it amuses me). Exciting wrinkles suggest themselves. Those are all more likely to happen by free association than while pounding the keyboard. Long walks are an important part of the process.

So: weather permitting, I walk daily. The neighbors know that if I fail to notice them, I'm in a writing trance and not snubbing them.

And now about progress ... cell phones are wonderful technology. I truly believe that. I worked at Bell Labs when the early ideas for cell-phone networks were under development. Cell phones certainly make it easier to stay in touch. But is always being in touch good or bad? That depends on the context.

I won't go into the general argument about cell-phone use in cars. People spend hours a day in their cars. In that much time, maybe unanticipated or urgent matters DO come up to merit the increased risk of distraction.

Which finally brings me to that ... not! My neighborhood is a hundred or so houses, a few roads. Lots of cul-de-sacs and no through streets. And yet it's a rare walk where I don't see someone driving in the neighborhood talking on a cell.

Driving in my neighborhood -- and countless thousands of residential areas like it -- you are necessarily within a minute of your departure or your arrival. You do NOT need to be driving one-handed, clutching a cell phone. Curvy roads ... parked cars ... cars backing out of driveways ... joggers ... kids and pets at play ... pay attention to the ROAD, why don't you? Call before you set out, or call back when, seconds later, you arrive.

(Am I slamming my neighbors? No. We all drive more defensively when we know the kids running about. But visiting friends, trawling realtors, yard-sale hunters, delivery vans, yard service trucks ... there is the problem.)

Cell phones are great things -- but like all technology , they have their place. Sometimes, that's in pocket or purse.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Robots (first musings)

So when will we have robot servants (like Rosie the maid on the Jetsons)? Probably not this year, but clearly we are getting closer.

Already we can get autonomous robotic vacuums and robotic pets. The military, of course, uses teleoperated robots to spy from the sky and to find landmines. Robots -- albeit very specialized -- have long been at work in our factories.

Eons ago, when I started work on my computer science MS, to make a robot that could recognize and react properly to its environment was a huge problem -- PhD dissertation material. I shared an office with a guy whose PhD thesis involved a robot able to stack blocks. Not only was his robot physically huge, its questionable ability to model the real world necessitated that it move at a snail's pace for safety.

Now undergrads do robotics projects far more sophisticated than anything dreamed of by my office mate. See this article and its YouTube video, in which many of the robots are undergraduate projects. Watch the bots sense and react to their environments.

(I can't go without commenting on Robotuna. What a great name! "Sorry, Charlie. DARPA doesn't want tunas that taste good ...")

The maze-following robot in the video struck a chord with me. The artificial life in my novel Fools' Experiments was purposefully evolved by solving ever more elaborate mazes, involving progressively more dimensions and complex geometries.

Alas, my robot won't be here soon enough to spare me unloading the dishwasher.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Sifting through my "look at this someday" bookmark folder, some interesting stuff ...

Smart sponges: At last! A use for RFIDs with which I can be happy.

Smart imaging: In trouble, for lack of radioisotopes.

Exploration of the outer solar system: Perhaps also in trouble, for a similar reason. With all the trillions the U.S. government is sinking into debt, can DOE get thirty million for a worthy cause?

Now I hafta get back to writing ... I left Our Hero in a most precarious predicament.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ocean and water

The Year of Science returns, this month to celebrate The Ocean and Water.

I'm underwhelmed again this month. The Earth's surface is mostly water. Our cells are mostly water. Tell me something I didn't know in third grade (a long time ago).

How is trafficking in the trite supposed to get anyone excited about science?

Peeking ahead to July, though, we have astronomy. Yea!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The best of science fiction

Nope -- not shameless self-promotion.

I recently acquired a vintage anthology, copyright 1946, titled The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin with a foreword by John W. Campbell. And what a blast from the past it was!

Conklin was one of the early, premier SF anthologists. His anthos, more than any other single source, hooked me on SF as a boy. (These books were old already when I encountered them in my elementary-school library.) Campbell, of course, was the longtime editor of Astounding Stories magazine (renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact on his watch). Campbell not only nurtured the careers of such Golden Age greats as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, but was a great SF author in his own right.

Setting aside a few really vintage stories (like those by Poe, Conan Doyle, and Wells), the entries in this antho are from the 1930s and early 1940s. The science, of course, is quaint by today's standards. Attitudes toward some races, genders, and ethnicities make the modern reader wince. Aliens all too often are fixated, without explanation, on conquering Earth and destroying humankind. The prose style is, by today's conventions, often melodramatic and overblown (with too! many! exclamation points!!).

So why am I writing about this book? Because so many of the stories, when put into the context of when they were written, are brilliant. Classics.

Yes, the science is dated -- but sometimes it was cutting edge for the time.

Robert A. Heinlein -- sometimes writing as himself, sometimes as Anson MacDonald -- is a standout. The opening story in the book, "Solution Unsatisfactory" (copyright 1941) was an astonishing look at the implications of nuclear weaponry and its meaning to geopolitics. "Universe" (copyright 1941) is, to the best of my knowledge, the first story based on the concept of interstellar generation ships.

Campbell, writing as Don A. Stuart, had a great piece called "Atomic Power" (copyright 1934!) dealing with multiverse theory. Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline" (copyright 1944), when first published, brought the FBI to Analog's editorial office in search of a leak from the Manhattan Project. Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (copyright 1945) took the first steps away from the notion that any encounter with aliens is necessarily kill or be killed.

And many more ...

All in all, it was a most enjoyable step back in time. What more can any SF fan ask?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Juggler of Worlds redux

This is a commercial announcement ...

Juggler of Worlds, my most recent interstellar epic -- in collaboration with Larry Niven -- was re-released today in paperback. (JoW is now also available in various audio formats, for those who like listening to books.)

Naturally I posted about Juggler when it originally came out, and my website has a sampling of the rave reviews. But the proof of the book is in the reading, and so courtesy of the publisher here is an excerpt.

Friday, May 29, 2009

(Hopefully not the) Last Remake of Beau Geste

At least I find this time-travel story to be très drôle.

I posted in April that one of my favorite short stories, "Grandpa?" -- already a short film and having just come out as a podcast -- had achieved a multimedia trifecta (that post here).

That recent podcast led directly to a new first for me: my first movie remake. After hearing the podcast, Three Letter Agency (aka, visual effects artist Matthew Lane-Smith) contacted me. TLA has now optioned "Grandpa?" for a new short film.

(If you ended up here because you're a fan of the 1977 feature film, The Last Remake of Beau Geste, it amuses me to think of Marty Feldman [RIP] playing the professor in my story.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Alien aliens (macguffins)

This post started out with another subtitle: unknowable. Then -- a dangerous habit, to be sure -- I started to think.

This series of posts began in advocacy for *alien* aliens, as opposed to the human-in-rubber-suit aliens too common in (especially) TV SF. Certainly, you're thinking, aliens so different as to defy human understanding qualify.

Examples first:

The Eschaton series by Charlie Stross (disclosure: I've read only the first book, Singularity Sky). "Eschaton" is the end of everything, the ultimate destiny of the universe. The fictional Eschaton is an AI so advanced no one can comprehend its thinking.

The Buggers/Formics of Ender's Game. Humanity and this insectoid/hive species fight a battle of extinction because humans and aliens cannot communicate. Humans cannot even convince the aliens we are capable of communication.

The creatures of the Beyond, in Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought novels, most notably A Fire Upon the Deep. The farther one travels from the galactic core, the deeper mentality becomes. Beings of the Beyond may strike us as good or evil, but their capabilities and motivations are unknowable.

On due reflection, I decided unknowable aliens in fiction are nothing new. They're devices to move forward a plot involving beings we can understand: humans. Lots of fiction uses such devices -- items we don't understand but to which the characters must react. The Maltese falcon is one in the movie of the same name. Ditto the metal briefcase in the movie Ronin. Alfred Hitchcock called the device a Macguffin. Once the story gets underway, you forget to wonder what the MacGuffin really is.

So: in Singularity Sky, we deal with the Eschaton's human agents -- them, we understand. In A Fire Upon the Deep, a Beyond being chases some characters into slow-witted parts of the galaxy, where readers encounter (wonderful) aliens we can understand.

Buggers are a more complicated case. Throughout Ender's Game (the first book of a series, in fact two interlocking series) the Buggers are unknowable. In later books the hive queens suddenly have telepathic linkages with selected humans. The *human* story has progressed, and now the storyteller needs to establish a connection with the aliens -- and that required destrangifying (like that word?) the alien.

Might the universe have aliens so different from humans we'll never understand them? I don't see why not. But unknowable aliens in fiction generally aren't really unknowable, they're props. Tools of the authorial trade. MacGuffins.


Friday, May 22, 2009

Hip, hip, hubble!

NASA leadership may have agreed to the latest Hubble repair mission only under popular pressure, but now that the repair has happened -- well, wow! Kudos to all involved.

The HST, a great national treasure, has had its life extended and its value enhanced yet again. And doing so required -- people in space. No robot yet devised has the strength, dexterity, improvisational skills, and mobility to match what the latest repairmen brought to the orbiting observatory.

Now what does ESA plan to do when either Planck or Hershel, both on their way to separate halo orbits around the Earth/moon L2 point, develops a glitch? Oh, to be able to travel farther than we could in 1968.

(And an aside to the talented crew: enjoy your day off while the weather in Florida clears up.)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (alien abductions)

When The X Files first aired (September 1993), I was a few months into the start-up of a major development program for NASA. (A part of the Earth Observing System, if anyone wonders. EOS was the third largest program at NASA, after the ISS and the shuttle.) The X Files, among other things, went by the wayside.

Recently, having finished my trip down Star Trek / memory lane -- Netflix being a wonderful institution -- I began watching The X Files. It can be entertaining, no doubt, but alien abduction? I just don't get it.

If aliens traveled the vast distances from ... wherever to Earth, it's conceivable they would abduct a few people to -- figuratively -- pick their brains. Having said that:

1. If ET understands humans well enough to selectively recover data from and/or edit our brains (alien abductions in fiction and tabloids tend to involve repressed memories), why can't they -- much more simply -- find out what they want to know by watching our TV, listening to our radio, and tapping our Internet? If ET abducted Nobel Prize winners and high-ranking officials, they might learn something they couldn't just pick out of the ethers. That's not who we hear is being abducted. What that's unique would ET learn kidnapping random folks on lonely country roads?

2. Suppose ET did abduct people. Why bother to suppress their memories and put them back? Not morality: ET has (in this supposition) kidnapped and altered the memories of people. That doesn't sound like ET has much respect for humans. Not to keep his presence secret: ET must by now know (in this supposition) that lots of abductees recover their memories. Whereas lots of people disappear without a trace all the time ... look at these FBI missing person statistics.

In short, I don't see the logic in ET abducting random humans. If ET did, I don't believe he'd keep putting them back where he found them despite, apparently, decades of failures in memory erasure.

So for SFnal purposes, I'll conclude alien abduction is a trope.

(As we are approaching tabloid territory, a true confession: I once tiptoed around the edges of committing the alien-abduction trope. In Moonstruck, my first-contact novel, aliens do abduct people -- but the aliens do not put anyone back. And there's a good reason why abducting regular Joe types makes sense. I won't be any more specific lest I ruin the book for anyone.)

All that said ... many people BELIEVE in alien abduction. There are plenty of books and articles that take the subject seriously -- without much in the way of evidence. Recovered memories? Not evidence, because recovery of repressed memories is a rather suspect mechanism. As the American Psychiatric Association says (here), "At this point it is impossible, without corroborative evidence, to tell a true memory from a false one."

Phew! That was a lot of words ... I think I'll go unwind in front of another episode of The X Files.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Is that all there is?

May's theme for the Year of Science is "Celebrate sustainability and the environment." To which, for the first time in the YoS program, I say: Bah. And: Faugh. And: How disappointing.

Wait a bit on the torches and pitchforks.

By all means, let's study how the environment works. Heck, we live in it. And wouldn't it be great if we came to understand how to build a stable biosphere. It'd be handy for, say, long-term spaceflight or establishing off-world colonies. And certainly I have no quarrel with efficiency.

That's no reason to make a goal of "sustainability."

I find sustainability fatalistic and inward looking, lacking in ambition. Whether I put on my technologist hat or my SFnal specs, I have to ask: why should our aims -- and our imagination -- be so limited?

There's an entire UNIVERSE out there. Why isn't our ambition to tap a few off-Earth resources? Why don't we consider moving the dirtiest industries someplace -- in orbit a thousand miles up, say, or on the moon -- where sunlight is unfiltered by atmosphere and unaffected by weather? Someplace where pollution won't matter? Why don't we think about moving out to the moon, and Mars, and the Belt?

The universe, presumably, is a zero-sum game. But one tiny planet? We're nearing the level of technology at which Earth limits us only if we let it.

To me, sustainability is less about science than it is a mass movement. And the sad thing about sustainability as a goal, and about those situations where environmentalism becomes religion or politics, is that once we lower our sights it becomes all to easy to forget how to raise them.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

It's an honor just to be nominated

I've read Analog since roughly forever. My first published fiction (a short story called "What a Piece of Work Is Man") appeared in Analog. While my short fiction appears in many markets, more has appeared in Analog than in any other venue.

So I was delighted to get my July/August issue (yes, I know it's early May -- but who better than an SF mag to use a time machine?) and find myself named in the Analytical Laboratory. (For you non-Analogians, that's the annual readers' poll).

More specifically, my novelette "The Night of the RFIDs" was the reader-ranked second-best novelette of 2008. Not coincidentally, I suspect, my Analog science article, "Beyond This Point Be RFIDs," was a finalist in 2007. Having concluded that article with a few paragraphs about the SFnal implications of RFID technology, I took one of them for myself.

(If anyone is keeping count of my RFID efforts, there is also "The Day of the RFIDs," which first appeared in the anthology Future Washington and leads off my collection Creative Destruction. Night and Day are related but independent stories.)

(Cue Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra ... hey, with the sun and moon references, it's gotta be the most SFnal work by lyricist or artist.)

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Death by the numbers

Swine flu (or whatever is the preferred name for the disease today) is a serious matter. Some have died; more have been sickened. For them and their family statistics hardly matter.

Then there's the rest of us ...

The death toll in the US from the recent, endlessly ballyhooed disease is -- one. To put that in perspective, check out leading causes of death in 2005 in the US (latest available complete data, from Centers for Disease Control):
  • Heart disease: 652,091
  • Cancer: 559,312
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809
  • Diabetes: 75,119
  • Alzheimer's disease: 71,599
  • Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901
  • Septicemia: 34,136
Again according to the CDC, about 80 people in the US die annually from lightning.

I don't know about you, but to me the swine-flu coverage (and concern) seems more than a little disproportionate.

Meanwhile, our vice president has responded to this situation by announcing he's advised his family to avoid air travel and mass transit. That doesn't exactly give me a warm-and-fuzzy about how clearheaded would be his response to other issues that may come his way. (My guess: If Bush 43 had been the one to make that statement, the press would be pillorying him.)

As an exercise in sociology, press and government reaction to the outbreak is fascinating. As public policy ... ugh.