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.