The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu (Ken Liu, translator)

As the Hugo nomination debacle unfolded, one of the few bright spots was the replacement of Marko Kloos’s novel with The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, who is apparently a Big Name in SF in China. This got a good deal of buzz when it was released in the US, and I’ve sorta-kinda been meaning to read it for a while. Having it move onto the Hugo ballot provided a great excuse to finally crack it open. And given that I wasn’t blown away by the other two non-Puppy nominees on the slate, or the one Puppy book that I had already read, I had great hopes this would redeem the category.

Alas, it was not to be. As I’ve already said on Twitter, I didn’t like this book at all, and very nearly gave up halfway through, but it’s pretty short, and when I looked for online lot summaries it sounded like there might be some cool setpieces toward the end, so I stuck it out. And, yeah, I probably should’ve given up.

The problem isn’t the concept of the book, which is loaded with cool ideas– secret societies, scientific conspiracies, alien messages, apparently miraculous events. All of this in a primarily Chinese setting, with the Cultural Revolution as a background. It has fantastic potential.

The problem is that it reads like second-rate Asimov. The characters are incredibly flat, and the key points of the plot are explained in horrible, leaden expository speeches. A lot of the plot turns on scientific ideas, and the speeches where the characters explain science to each other are just excruciatingly awful. The big setpieces toward the end that sounded cool in an online plot summary sounds pretty much the same in the actual book– like an online plot summary of something that would’ve been awesome in a different book. And the big reveal at the end is presented in the form of an awful infodump about what is basically comic-book science.

And, you know, as a good squishy liberal, I feel a little guilty about not liking this, because, you know, maybe the style that I really hate is just a characteristic of Chinese storytelling or something, and it’s culturally insensitive of me to not appreciate it more, etc. But that only goes so far– honestly found the science-y exposition intensely awful to read, both in a “human beings don’t talk like this” sense and a “that’s not how science really works” sense, and there’s just no getting past those.

This leaves me in a bit of a bad spot Hugo-wise, because I’m not sure how to vote this. I’m not sufficiently outraged about the concept of slate voting to put the two Puppy nominees below No Award just on principle, and the authors of those aren’t the sort of awful people I feel free to No Award just because they’re consistently awful (like, say, 80% of the Novella category). I don’t think the latest Dresden Files book was worthy of a Hugo, but I certainly enjoyed it more than I enjoyed this, and I might very well like the Kevin Anderson book more than this.

As for the other two non-Puppy books, Ancillary Sword was… fine. It’s very much the second book of a trilogy, though, so it wasn’t as strikingly original as the first book, and it was kind of lacking in the satisfying ending department. And I gave up halfway through The Goblin Emperor, which I can at least recognize as a very well done example of a kind of thing that would have great appeal to people who aren’t me.

So, yeah. Didn’t make the voting situation any better.

And now I kind of want to read the new Neal Stephenson book as an antidote, just because the expository bits will probably be the best part of the whole book…

The Real Access Problem with the Hugos

There has been a lot of stuff written in response to the Hugo award nomination mess, most of it stupid. Some of it is stupid to such an impressive degree that it actually makes me feel sympathetic toward people who I know are wrong about everything.

One of the few exceptions is the long essay by Eric Flint. This comes as a mild surprise, as I’ve always mentally lumped him in with the folks whose incessant political wrangling was a blight on Usenet’s rec.arts.sf.written back in the day; now I can’t remember if he was actually one of the annoying idiots, or if I’ve mistakenly put him in with them because I associate them with Baen…

Anyway, Flint’s post is very good, and gets to the thing I think is the real problem here. A lot of the anti-Puppy writers take the basically correct position that since the Puppy slate was put in by a tiny fraction of the eligible nominators, the solution is to just get more people to nominate. To this end, there are measures like Mary Robinette Kowall’s offer to buy supporting memberships for random people. Which is a lovely gesture, and I applaud it, but I think it kind of misses the point.

I don’t think the real barrier to Hugo nomination is financial– after all, there were thousands of people who already had memberships but didn’t nominate at all, and many more (like me) who sent in nomination ballots with a lot of the categories blank. What’s stopping those people isn’t lack of money, but lack of information, because of the factors Flint identifies:

The first objective factor is about as simple as gets. The field is simply too damn BIG, nowadays. […]

Forty or fifty years ago—even thirty years ago, to a degree—it was quite possible for any single reader to keep on top of the entire field. You wouldn’t read every F&SF story, of course. But you could maintain a good general knowledge of the field as a whole and be at least familiar with every significant author.

Today, that’s simply impossible. Leaving aside short fiction, of which there’s still a fair amount being produced, you’d have to be able to read at least two novels a day to keep up with what’s being published—and that’s just in the United States. In reality, nobody can do it, so what happens is that over the past few decades the field has essentially splintered, from a critical standpoint.

This problem of not being able to keep on top of things is especially acute for the Hugos, because as Flint points out, they’re designed around how the field was fifty-odd years ago:

Both the Hugo and the Nebula give out four literary awards. (I’m not including here the more recent dramatic awards, just the purely literary categories.) Those awards are given for best short story, best novelette, best novella, and best novel. In other words, three out of four awards—75% of the total—are given for short fiction.

Forty or fifty years ago, that made perfect sense. It was an accurate reflection of the reality of the field for working authors. F&SF in those days was primarily a short form genre, whether you measured that in terms of income generated or number of readers.

But that is no longer true. Today, F&SF is overwhelmingly a novel market. Short fiction doesn’t generate more than 1% or 2% of all income for writers. And even measured in terms of readership, short fiction doesn’t account for more than 5% of the market.

Taken together, you have the reason why so few people nominate, and why many of those who do send in ballots that are 75% blank. The market is so big and diffuse, and three-quarters of the categories are for stuff that just isn’t widely read. You can see this in this year’s stats: over 1,800 people sent in ballots with Best Novel, but just over 1,000 nominated for Best Novelette. And that’s with the Puppy voters inflating the totals.

It’s not just a matter of getting more people the right to vote– the set of people who nominated a novel but didn’t nominate any short fiction is about three times the plausible size of the Puppy bloc. What you need is a way to get those people the information they need to fill out those categories they’re leaving blank.

Now, in an ideal world, those people would all read a lot of short fiction and make up their own minds about which stories are their favorites, and the voting will take care of itself. In that same ideal world, I have a pony. A magical nanotech pony that eats carbon dioxide and craps out diamonds.

It’s not enough to buy memberships for more people: you can already more than fix the problem with just the set of people who already nominate, let alone the people who were eligible to nominate (there were something close to 10,000 of those, I think, from last year’s Worldcon attendance). What you need is a way to help those people nominate in categories of works that just aren’t that widely read.

And that’s a really tough problem to crack, if you’re implacably opposed to counter-slates. There are a few relatively neutral recommendation lists, but they’re not much use. The Locus recommended reading list usually does a decent job identifying high-quality works, but it’s mostly useless to a low-information potential voter– in the most under-nominated category, novelette, they recommend more than 50 stories. Only a fraction of those are readily available on-line, with most of them in a bunch of anthologies that voters would need to buy or get from the library. And the Locus list comes out in February, leaving barely more than a month to read enough of that to make an informed decision.

(The situation isn’t a whole lot better in the other short fiction categories; the list of recommended novellas is at least short, but about half are published as stand-alone books, where you could get about a third of the novelette nominees out of the same handful of anthologies. The short story list is about the same size as the novelette list, but at least those are, by definition, shorter. Another option would be the various “Year’s Best” anthologies, but those have similar size and timing issues, though they would reduce the expense somewhat…)

I’m not sure how you fix that without slates, or something that will look too much like a slate to satisfy a good chunk of the anti-Puppy crowd. Tweaking the nomination rules isn’t really a fix, but it’s probably the best you could do– of the options, I’d probably go for keeping the nominations per ballot at five and expanding the number of finalists to ten. Yeah, that doesn’t leave a lot of time to read the ten finalists before the voting closes, but it’s still better than trying to plow through the Locus list. And even before the Puppy nonsense started, it was a rare year when the Hugo ballot didn’t feature a few books and stories I stopped halfway through.

That’s a slow change, though, because of the way WSFS works, and the best it can do is limit the impact of slates (so, for example, it wouldn’t prevent everyone’s least favorite walking prion disease from oozing his way onto the Best Editor ballot). If you’re going to do all that Business Meeting work to change the rules, you might be better off changing the categories instead, to better reflect the modern market.

Good Examples of Science in Fiction

I continue to read way too much about the ongoing Hugo mess, and will most likely eventually lose my battle not to say anything more about it. In an attempt to redirect that impulse in a productive direction, I wrote a thing for Forbes about some of my favorite treatments of science in SF:

Of course, now that I’m a professional scientist, I end up finding a lot of stories about science to be lacking. Not just in the usual “the laws of physics don’t apply” sense, where science is bent to serve the purpose of the story– I’m generally pretty accepting of that, because sticking too strictly to known science dramatically limits your plot options– but in the way fictional science is done. Fictional portrayals of science lean very heavily on tropes like the Lone (Possibly Mad) Genius and other lazy clichés, and because of that, they often fail to ring true because of that. My reading over the last fifteen or twenty years probably skews a bit more toward the fantasy side of the genre as a result, because I’m less likely to be bothered by the implausible behavior of people working with magic.

But there’s rather too much negativity in SF right now, so I want to offer something a little more positive: a list of fictional stories about science that get things mostly right. Or at least, more right than a lot of what’s out there. This is not by any means a definitive list, just some of my personal favorites (which is why it’s heavy on physics), and I welcome additions to the list in comments. I’m also trying to promote some lesser-known stuff– I am well aware of Vernor Vinge and Greg Egan and other science-heavy authors, but I’m deliberately leaving them off.

I doubt this will contain any surprises for regular readers here, but go check it out, anyway. There’s also an image gallery version, courtesy of the Forbes staff.

On Hugo Voting Slates and Clustering

This Hugo nomination scandal continues to rage on, and much of what’s going on is just a giant sucking vortex of stupid. Standing out from this, though, is the guest post by Bruce Schneier at Making Light, which cuts through the bullshit to get to what’s really important, namely using this as an excuse to do some math.

One of the many terrible ideas being floated is to use some analysis of the clustering of ballots to identify “slate voters,” and having done that… something. Target their address with orbital lasers, maybe, or just sternly “Tsk tsk” in their general direction. This depends, obviously, on having clearly identifiable “slate voters” who stand out from the norm. Which clearly depends on how much clustering you would normally expect.

Without access to the original ballots, of course, you can’t perfectly answer this, but you can use the publicly accessible data to put some limits on this. You can’t say whether there was significant clustering of ballots in the real set of nominations, but you can say something about the maximum and minimum possible influence of “slates” which are defined for this purpose as individual ballots that have some degree of overlap with each other.

How to do this? Well, the data files on the Hugo site give the total number of nominating ballots for each category, and the number of votes for each of the top N works in that category. So, for example, in 2009, there were 633 nominating ballots, and the top vote-getters were:

  1. Little Brother, 120
  2. Anathem, 93
  3. Graveyard Book 82
  4. Saturn’s Children 74
  5. Zoe’s Tale 54

So, what can we do with this? Well, first of all, we can say that the minimum number of “slate” voters is zero– the votes for the eventual finalists come to just 423, well under the total of 633. So these results might’ve come from a set of ballots where no individual voter nominated more than one of the eventual finalists.

What’s the maximum influence of slate voting, then? Well, clearly, you can’t have more five-member slates than the vote total for the last of the finalists, so a maximum of 54. We could round out the rest of the finalists by adding partial “slates,” say, due to imperfect coordination of votes. That would give you a bloc of 20 people who voted for 4/5 finalists, then 8 with 3/5, 11 with 2/5, and 27 who only voted for Little Brother. So we can say that, in 2009, “slate voting” could involve at most 54/633 ballots, or about 8.5% of the nominators.

How typical was 2009, anyway? Well, I picked it because it stands out in my mind as a year where the final result was skewed by the personal popularity of one of the finalists (that is, I thought Anathem was head and shoulders better than the field, but Graveyard book won because Neil Gaiman). I also did the same thing for the last three years worth of stats. The following list shows the year, the size of the biggest “slate” you could make including all of the finalists, and the total number of ballots:

  • 2012 71/958 ballots
  • 2013 118/1113 ballots
  • 2014 98/1595 ballots

Together with the 2009 results, that’s an average maximum “slate” contribution of about 8.2% of the total nominations for the Best Novel category. So, yeah, a block of a couple hundred people all voting exactly the same way would stand out really clearly.

The other question you might ask would be whether Best Novel, the most heavily nominated category, is somehow anomalous. I pulled the same numbers for Best Short Story, and got the following:

  • 2009: 31/448 ballots
  • 2012: 36/611 ballots
  • 2013: 34/662 ballots
  • 2014: 43/865 ballots

(Note that in both 2013 and 2014, there were fewer than 5 finalists because of the “5% rule” than any finalist must get at least 5% of the total. If you wanted to include a “full slate” of 5 that would encompass the unsuccessful next nominee or two, the 2013 total is 28, and the 2014 total is 38.)

“Best Short Story” is generally the most scattered category, as you would expect from the failure to produce a full slate of finalists the last two years, so the “slate” contribution here is smaller, just barely over the 5% threshold– about 5.5% if you looked at the “full slate” cases including the would-be finalists excluded by the 5% rule.

So, that’s about as much information as I think you can get out of what’s readily available. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares to the analogous numbers this year, and also whether there’s a big drop from the last finalist in the Puppy-dominated categories to the best of the rest– some numbers I’ve seen suggest the Puppy contingent was around a couple hundred nominators, which wouldn’t be all that large compared to the typical Best Novel nomination pool, but would blow away the typical Best Short Story pool by a huge margin.

And, you know, having an excuse to play with numbers is an infinitesimal bright spot to go with this giant pile of awful.

Actual Hugo Comments

So, as alluded to over the weekend, the Hugo nominations this year are a train wreck. The short fiction categories are absolutely dominated by works from the “slates” pushed by a particular collection of (mostly) right-wing authors and that prion disease in human disguise “Vox Day.” The primary purpose of the “slates” is to poke a stick in the eye of people on the other end of the political spectrum within SF, which is why three of the five nominees in one category got to John C. Wright channeling the spirit of Ayn Rand. If you want a round-up of the entirely predictable reactions to this mess, File 770 has you covered.

I was waffling about going to Worldcon this year– on the one hand, promoting the Schödinger Sessions, on the other hand, it’s $1000 to fly to Spokane– and this probably ensures I won’t go. I will, however, be buying a supporting membership so as to be able to vote these jackasses below “No Award, because, really. On the bright side, the reading for this will be simple, as I’ve already read two of the three Best Novel works I might plausibly vote for, and gave up halfway through the third.

(I will at least start the other two novels, assuming they’re in the voter packet, but I don’t expect to get all that far… Likewise the short fiction.)

In terms of the many discussions now raging about how to fix this, I’ll cast my vote with Jim Henley and his call for competing slates. The highly complicated WSFS constitution and amendment process means any rule-based fix (say, limiting the number of nominations a member can submit to less than the size of the list of finalists) will take at least a couple of years to implement, and in the meantime, the slate-pushers will have free rein.

And while I would like to sympathize with the people invoking the grand mystical tradition of everybody voting for the works that deeply moved them and everything magically working out, that’s nothing but a myth. The Hugos have always been an ungainly mix of literary award and popularity contest– the infamous second-ever Best Novel winner is proof enough of that. Every year, the final ballot includes nominations for works that get there based less on their merit as works of fiction than the personal popularity of their authors, and sometimes those works even win. (Two of the four Worldcons I’ve been to in person, in fact…)

If I cared less about the result, I might enjoy the irony of a bunch of mostly conservative folks making radical changes to the system, while a bunch of liberals pine for the good old days of inside networking when the right people just knew the right people to vote for, but I’d actually prefer explicit and open campaigning. (Also, this situation is too much a depressing reflection of real-world politics…) So, suck it up, and somebody put together some counter-slates opposing this nonsense.

Of course, I’m not without self-interest in this, in that I feel a little guilty about my role. I was eligible to nominate for the Hugos this year, and sent in a ballot with five Best Novel votes but the short fiction categories left blank. I don’t have much time to read these days, and strongly prefer novels to short fiction, so I just don’t know enough about the state of the field to make a sensible vote, and most recommendation lists were too long and diffuse to do me any good. I would happily consider voting for a slate of short works put together by sensible people, though, if it means not having three-fifths of the nominations going to a single turgid polemicist. If nothing else, cutting down the list of stuff I have to read before I fill out my nomination ballot would be a huge improvement.

(I have a sabbatical starting this fall, so I might make some effort to read more short fiction with an eye toward being able to nominate a reasonable set of stories, as one of my occasional attempts to be a better person. The novella category is probably a dead loss, though, as I’m just not going to pay hardcover prices for single novellas in small-press editions, which seems to be what all the cool kids do these days.)

So, anyway, there’s my marginal-participant contribution to the whole business. For what little that may be worth.

Recent Reading: Unusual Fantasy Settings

All the way back in 2001, I got started on the whole blog thing by beginning a book log. That’s long since fallen by the wayside, but every now and then, I do read stuff that I feel a need to write something about, and, hey, the tagline up at the top of the page does promise pop culture to go with the physics…

I’ve actually been on a pretty good roll with fantasy novels over the last few months, hitting a bunch of books that I’ve really enjoyed, without any real duds. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the first of these, Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names. This got good reviews, but it’s a fantasy novel with muskets, and I’ve always been a little leery of that. I really enjoyed this, though, and I think it helped me pinpoint the problem I’ve had in the past– most of the books I’ve read in that kind of setting are by people who really like Regency England, and as a result, they’re wayyyy into the manners and social class stuff, and that just makes me itch. Wexler’s world is conscious of social class, but doesn’t revel in it, presenting a much flatter sort of hierarchy, that’s much more congenial to my American tastes.

And when you take out the irritatingly mannered stuff, the military tactics and so on are weirdly fascinating. And while Wexler’s no Steven Erikson, he makes a decent stab at the military banter that’s one of the best features of the Malazan books, so this was good fun. The second book, The Shadow Throne moves back to the capital of Wexler’s imaginary empire, and basically does the French Revolution in a fantasy setting, only with good guys inside the Bastille to keep everything from going quite as horribly wrong. It’s a very different book than the first, but still fun.

The realization that muskets per se weren’t what bothered me, and the third book in Wexler’s series a while off, I picked up the first of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy The Promise of Blood (a sale aided in part by McClellan saying smart things about book promotion…). These are more obviously epic than Wexler’s books, but start out in a manner that appeals to my anti-class tendencies, with one of the protagonists staging a coup against a corrupt and dissolute monarch, then guillotining hundreds of aristocrats, declaring an end to the age of kings. This turns out to have some unforseen magical consequences…

The Promise of Blood was a fun read, with lots of twists. The next one’s queued up, and the trilogy is complete, so I know that if it continues to be enjoyable, I can get to the end right away.

In between Wexler and McClellan, I plowed through a whole bunch of Kelly McCullough’s Fallen Blade series, starting with Broken Blade. These are magical-assassin stories, with a cool backstory: the protagonist, Aral Kingslayer, was a member of the Blades of Namara, an order in service to the goddess of justice, who existed as a check against the abuse of power. When a king or another high noble got too far out of line, a Blade would be sent to kill them. But several years before the start of the series, the other gods decided to get rid of Namara, and the few Blades who escaped slaughter were chased into hiding. Except the story is more complicated than that…

Unlike the other two series, which I’ve seen reviewed in Locus and elsewhere, I had never heard anything about these. Which is a little weird, because they’re successful enough to have run to five books, with a sixth due at the end of April. And also because they’re pretty good– the bits where Aral struggles with the drinking problem he developed after the fall of the Blades get a little tedious at times, but McCullough did a nice job setting up a scenario that limits and balances the badassery of his main character, while still allowing for fun ass-kicking when appropriate. I’ve got the fifth one lined up in the near future, and that’s longer than a lot of series last for me these days…

While I’m plugging fantasy series, earlier I read Harry Connolloy’s Great Way series, starting with The Way Into Chaos, which he referred to as “Epic Fantasy With No Dull Parts” on Twitter while writing it. That’s not a bad description, either– they start fast, and really don’t slow down. I wasn’t 100% happy with the ending, but then it’s a rare series that sticks the landing, and getting 80% of the way there is pretty good.

I got those because I backed the series on Kickstarter some time back, which also got me a bonus copy of A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, which Connolly calls a “pacifist urban fantasy.” I’m about halfway through that, and at least to this point it’s the opposite of all the other books in this post in everything but pace– it moves along quite briskly and enjoyably without big epic battles. I don’t know yet how it will end, but pulling this off for even half a book is an achievement. Connolly’s a damn fine writer, you should go buy his stuff.

And that’s what I’ve been enjoying reading recently. And for at least a little while into the future, at least to the limited extent I’ll have time to read with the new term starting on Monday…

Announcing the Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction

A few years back, I became aware of Mike Brotherton’s Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and said “somebody should do this for quantum physics.” At the time, I wasn’t in a position to do that, but in the interim, the APS Outreach program launched the Public Outreach and Informing the Public Grant program, providing smallish grants for new public outreach efforts. So, because I apparently don’t have enough on my plate as it is, I floated the idea with Steve Rolston at Maryland (my immediate supervisor when I was a grad student), who liked it, and we put together a proposal with their Director of Outreach, Emily Edwards. We didn’t get funded last year, but the problems were easily fixed, and this year’s proposal was funded. Woo-hoo!

So, we’re very pleased to announce that this summer we’ll be holding “The Schrödinger Sessions: Science for Science Fiction” a workshop at the Joint Quantum Institute (a combined initiative of the University of Maryland, College Park and NIST in Gaithersburg) to provide a three-day “crash course” in quantum physics for science fiction writers. The workshop will run from Thursday, July 30 through Saturday August 1, 2015, on the Maryland campus in College Park, with housing, breakfast, and lunch included. There’s a fake schedule up on that web page, that we’ll fill once we get JQI scientists signed up, but it gives the basic idea: three days of lectures and discussions with scientists, and visits to JQI’s labs.

The web page is a little sketchy, because we were using a pre-existing template to speed things up, but that’s why I have a blog: to provide much more information. Which we might as well do in semi-traditional Q&A format:

This sounds cool, but what does this have to do with public outreach? The idea is to bring in science fiction writers, and show them some of the latest and greatest in quantum physics, with the goal of inspiring and informing new stories using quantum ideas and quantum technology.

We know that science fiction stories reach and inspire their audience to learn more about science, and even make careers in science– things like this astronaut’s tribute to Leonard Nimoy are a dramatic reminder of the inspirational effect of science fiction. Our hope is that the writers who come to the workshop will learn new and amazing things to include in their fiction, and through that work, they’ll reach a wider audience than we could hope to bring in person to JQI.

But why quantum physics? Well, because we think quantum physics is awesome. And because quantum physics is essential for all sorts of modern technology– you can’t have computers without Schrödinger cats, after all. And most of all because the sort of things they study at JQI– quantum information, quantum teleportation, quantum computing– could have a revolutionary impact on the technology of the future.

Isn’t quantum too small and weird to make good stories, though? Hardly. Quantum physics has figured prominently in stories like Robert Charles Wilson’s “Divided by Infinity”, and Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” (SPOILERS), and Hannu Rajaniemi just completed the trilogy that starts with The Quantum Thief, which you can tell from the title is full of quantum ideas.

The weirdness of quantum physics is a bit off-putting, but then that’s the point of the workshop: to bring in writers to learn more about quantum physics, and see how it works in practice. The hope is that this will make writers who come to the workshop more comfortable with the subject, and thus more likely to write stories with a quantum component.

OK, but why Maryland? Well, because the Joint Quantum Institute is one of the world’s leading centers for research in quantum mechanics and its applications. Just check out their collection of news stories about JQI research to get a sense of the range and impact of their work. If you want to see quantum physicists at work, it’s one of the very best places in the world to go.

Yeah, but isn’t the weather awful hot in July and August? Look, you can’t have everything, OK?

OK, let’s get to practical stuff. When you say “writers,” you mean people who do short stories and novels? No, we’re defining “writer” as broadly as we can. We’d love to have people who write for television, or movies, or video games, or online media. Really, anybody who makes up stories about stuff that hasn’t really happened is welcome, regardless of the medium in which that work appears.

How many of these writers are you looking for? The budget in the proposal called for 15, though that depends a bit on how much money we need for food and housing; if more people than we expected are willing to share rooms, we might be able to take one or two more.

So there’s going to be an application process? Yes. I mean, we’d love to have a huge number of people, but we have logistical constraints to deal with. We’ll take applications online starting later this week (my other major task for today is to put together the application web form), continuing for a couple of weeks, and hope to make decisions around April 1, so attendees will have plenty of time to make travel plans.

Speaking of travel, what’s included in this package? We plan to provide housing for attendees in the dorms on Maryland’s campus, and breakfast, lunch, and coffee/snack breaks will be included. We left dinners open, in case people want to explore the DC area a little (great restaurants there, that’s one of the things I miss from grad school…), but might look at doing one group dinner with a fun talk of some sort. The schedule is still being sorted out.

There is a possibility that a limited amount of funding might be available for travel support, but again, it depends on a bunch of other factors that affect the overall budget.

And what will the selection criteria be? Well, the ultimate goal of the workshop is public outreach, so we’ll be trying to invite participant whose work will be able to reach as broad an audience as possible. That means we’ll be looking for a mix of established and up-and-coming writers, and as much diversity as we can manage in terms of audience, subgenre, media, etc. I can’t really be any more specific than that, though.

What if I’m busy on those days, or just can’t afford it this year? Will this happen again? Can’t you at least let us get through one of these before asking that?

If it goes well, we’d certainly be open to that possibility, but it’ll depend on a lot of factors, mostly involving money, but also level of interest, success of the workshop, etc.


And that is the big news I’ve been sitting on for a while now. I’m pretty excited about this, and hope it will be a great program. If you know anybody who might be interested in this, please point them in our direction.

If I Were Ted Chiang…

(That title doesn’t quite scan as is, but if you stick an “a” in there, you can sing it to the tune of a song from “Fiddler on the Roof”… You’re welcome.)

The last time I taught my “Brief History of Timekeeping” seminar was in 2012, so I spent a bunch of time on the Mayan calendar. This time around, we’ve lost the obvious pop-culture hook, but it’s still so weird and fascinating that I spent a class on it last week. One of the things we talked about was what this system (what we know of it) says about the Maya concept of time. There’s a very obvious contrast between the interlocking cyclical time tracked by the Maya and the more linear Judeo-Christian version that starts with “Let there be light,” and proceeds forward to four guys on horses and violent red visions.

(Yes, I phrased it that way; no, nobody picked up the reference.)

One of the students asked a good question about what modern physics would look like if it had been developed by a culture with a more cyclical conception of time. Which I don’t really have a great answer for, but it’s a lot of fun to think about. As I did while driving home Sunday from a weekend at my parents’, while the kids watched videos in the back seat.

And it occurred to me that there’s a really good Ted Chiang sort of story in there, around what would happen when that sort of culture developed astronomy to the level of being able to detect dark energy. Because, you know, the Big Bang would be easy to fit into a cyclical time sort of cosmology, in the expand-collapse-re-expand version. But the accelerating expansion of the universe would rock that sort of system to the core– the discovery that the universe will expand forever, faster and faster, unambiguously points toward linear time, which doesn’t bug folks coming out of the Western tradition that much, but would be really disturbing if your whole concept of the universe was built around recurrence.

Of course, getting that into an actual story is well beyond my abilities. Mostly because you would need to first get across the sort of alien approach to science that it demands, in order to sell the shock of the universe working in a very different way than the characters expect. In the right hands, though, it might have potential.

So, you know, I’ll throw that out there for anybody who might be inspired by it. If you pick this up and run with it, name a character after me, or something.

The Peripheral by William Gibson [Library of Babel]

Spent the weekend in Florida getting together with some friends from college, which was a much-needed recharge for me at the end of a brutal term. It’s probably fitting to ease back into routine with a return to my blogging roots, and talk a bit about a book. Specifically, the new William Gibson novel, The Peripheral.

I haven’t actually read any reviews of this, because I don’t really need to read reviews to know that I want to read a new Gibson– he’s that significant a writer. His work needs the proper context, though– while I technically started this a week or two ago as bedtime reading, I really read most of it on airplanes and in airports during my trip. Because, as I said on Twitter, those are kind of the perfect atmosphere for reading Gibson. Bruce Sterling described Gibson’s work as combining “high tech and low life,” writing stories about people on the fringes of their society. Even beyond their marginal social status, they’re kind of disconnected from the world in which they live– his classic cyberpunk protagonists are mostly drug addicts and sociopaths, while his near-future stuff features washed-up musicians and a marketer with an allergy to brand names. They tend to move through their worlds in a sort of bubble, present, but not entirely there.

It’s a pretty effective technique for the kinds of stories he tells– which is probably why Gibson is so much more successful at what he does than most of his peers from the cyberpunk era. It does tend to require a certain kind of mood, though, and airplanes and especially airports are great for that. When I’m spending most of a day on air travel, I get that same kind of bubble feeling– it’s a grindingly mundane experience, but airports are their own kind of alternate reality set a step away from the regular world. I spent close to three hours in Maryland on this trip, but BWI airport doesn’t really feel like Maryland, or indeed any particular place. Which makes it a perfect place to read Gibson.

(I had this realization about needing this weird dissociated feeling to truly get into his books while reading one of his previous books in a hotel restaurant in Japan (I think it was Spook Country— it was 2007 at the Worldcon in Yokohama), which is probably the most perfectly disorienting place to set the mood for his books…)

Anyway, this book is being cited as something of a return to classic subjects for him, because it involves much higher technology than the last few books he’s written. The book is split between two settings, a version of London a century or so in the future, where magical nanotechnology is common and alcoholic publicist Wilf Netherton gets caught up with deadly performance artists and Russian gangsters, and a closer-but-still-in-the-future rural America where Flynne Fisher lives somewhere non-specifically Southern, scraping together just enough to take care of her mother and her damaged combat veteran brother Burton. Both of them operate in bubbles of dislocation– Wilf because he’s a drunk, Flynne because she ought to be someplace better– and both of them witness killing that send them spiraling off into strange and dramatic events.

If you haven’t read anything else about this book, and that set-up sounds interesting, go read it. Preferably in a Japanese hotel or an airport, but a slightly seedy shopping mall would probably suffice. It’s very good.

If you’ve read more, there will be SPOILERS below, after a bit of space


I don’t have the mental energy to say anything incredibly profound about this, but here are three quick items that I wanted to talk a bit more about:

1) Sometime between the present day and Wilf’s London, the concept of a police sketch artist has apparently been lost. The weakest point of the plot is probably that nobody notices that Lowbeer’s plan is insanely dangerous and not strictly necessary. They should’ve been able to do a detailed reconstruction of the man Flynne saw, and get some idea of who he was from that without needing to infiltrate the party to ID him.

Now, of course, the real reason for the infiltration wasn’t the ID specifically, but to provide a physical link that let Lowbeer get in and wipe out the villains. Flynne wasn’t really an eyewitness, but bait. It’s presented as a “we need an eyewitness to spot the man from the balcony,” though, and nobody comments on that as the least bit odd.

2) I don’t think it’s ever made clear why Clovis from the original timeline was ever present in Flynne’s home region. Was it? What we she doing there in the original past, to get the plate that ends up connecting Griff to Lowbeer for Flynne?

3) The thing I like best about this book might be the thing that it doesn’t do, namely spend dozens of pages going on about philosophical questions about the reality of Flynne and her friends and family. That seemed like the obvious place for this to go when the relationship between timelines became clear, and would’ve been really tedious.

I like the fact that Lowbeer just instantly decides that Flynne’s world is real enough to expend resources trying to ameliorate the worst of the jackpot in that continuum. That’s as important a statement about her character as Flynne passing the “party time” test is for her. (There’s also the implication that Lowbeer arranged for the death of Vespasian after getting the cube design that he got from worlds that he tortured, which again speaks well for her.) And even Wilf, who would seem the most likely to view the “polts” as things rather than people, accepts them with relatively little fuss, letting the plot move along much more smoothly.

I’m also grateful (maybe this is a “3a”…) that they didn’t end up speculating that Wilf’s London was just a continuum for some higher level of reality, which is the other crashingly obvious Keanu-whoa place for this set-up to go. That kind of “turtles all the way up” story kind of would’ve sucked, too.

Anyway, I enjoyed this quite a bit. It wasn’t a Neuromancer-level mind-blowing experience, but it was a good read, involving most of the features that draw me back to Gibson’s books. I also like that while it has some pretty grim stuff in the background, it also holds out hope for a kind of salvation and redemption in the future; that’s another characteristically Gibsonian element that a lot of lesser imitators forget.

And now, time to get back to actual mundane reality, namely the final exam I’m giving my relativity students tomorrow…

The Pleasure of Working Things Through

My bedtime reading for the past week or so has been Steven Gould’s Exo (excerpt at Tor). This is the fourth book in the Jumper series (not counting the movie tie-in novel), and ordinarily wouldn’t be worth much of a review, because if you haven’t read the first three, this book won’t make a lick of sense. If you have read the others, it’s a worthy sequel, but three earlier books makes for a lot of backstory to explain in writing the book up.

It’s worth noting, though, because it belongs to a sort of unofficial subgenre: books about Working Things Through. The story includes a huge amount of detail about the building of space suits and space habitats, which you might think would be crashingly dull. But it comes about fairly naturally in the course of the plot, while the main characters use the information to build a space suit and habitat, and because of that, it’s weirdly enjoyable. The characters are learning practical stuff for them, and the reader gets to enjoy a sped-up version of the learning process by proxy.

Most of Gould’s earlier books also belong in this same subgenre; they almost all feature a character learning or employing some sophisticated skill (martial arts, scuba diving, flying). Even when the skill in question is something impossible– say, in the three previous books about people who can teleport– there’s an enjoyable level of rigor to the way the characters work through their abilities, and figure out how to employ them in the right way to deal with the problems they’re facing.

Of course, Gould’s not the only one working in this general vein. I’ve read umpteen Recluce novels by L.E. Modesitt because they tend to scratch the same itch– the characters are generally apprenticed or newly enlisted, and spend most of the book working out how to do what they need to, and then systematically doing it. Another great one for this is Jack McDevitt, particularly the series I think of as Antiquities Dealers Innnn Spaaaace!!! (officially the Alex Benedict series). And, of course, there’s a lot of this sort of thing in older SF novels, though a lot of them tend to spoil things a bit by going on at length with their political theories about How The World Works.

The naive young protagonist who needs to learn the ropes is an eternal staple of sf, of course, being a very convenient excuse for infodumps in the form of instructive lectures. But the sort of books I’m talking about go well beyond that. The instructional sequences in most books are basically the literary equivalent of a montage in a movie– something you pass through quickly to get to the part where the hero confronts the Big Bad Guy. Harry Potter spends just enough time in class for his teachers to infodump about whatever new thing is needed to understand the plot of that book, but those are just a handful of scenes in a much larger plot. The books I’m thinking of make the learning central to everything; applied to Hogwarts, it would reduce the thwarting-of-Voldemort bits to a brief montage near the end.

The failure mode of this sort of book is that it feels light on plot– a number of the Recluce books are kind of anticlimactic, and the eventual confrontation with the Big Bad Guys in Exo just narrowly misses feeling tacked-on. I’m a sucker for this when it’s done well, though, and Gould excels at it.

(This is not unrelated to my desire for Ponder Stibbons stories. And also my general scientific leaning…)

So, you know, if you like that kind of story, check Gould’s books out. Exo is yet another example of a story where the real fun is watching the protagonist Working Things Through in a systematic way.