Friday, January 31, 2014

SFR GALAXY AWARDS HONOR THE BEST OF 2013



Stuck with your finger poised over the One-Click button, wondering what new SFR title to read next?  Let the 2013 SFR Galaxy Awards be your guide.  Six judges—authors, bloggers and SFR advocates all—have sifted through last year’s best and made their recommendations in categories contentious (Best Subgenre Mashup) to quirky (Best Animal Companion).  Every judge has her own way of honoring the authors and filmmakers who gave us 2013’s best SFR, but you’ll be the ultimate winner when you enjoy the work of the creative minds accepting this year’s SFR Galaxy Awards.

The Awards will be rolling out all day today on the SFR Galaxy Awards blog.  Check it out and scoop up some new titles to add to your TBR pile.

Cheers, Donna

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Discovering Game of Thrones

A few weeks ago, with nothing of any particular interest on the 2,845 channels on satellite (okay, a minor exaggeration, even including all the music channels), I tuned in to the first episode of the HBO series Game of Thrones.

Turned out it was just the start of a marathon of the entire first season, which I watched and/or recorded, and promptly got hooked on the characters, premise, intrigue and world-building. Thanks to HBO-on-demand, I was able to record later seasons to get me up to speed on the this twisty turny epic in the space of a few weeks.

Though I'm not much of a Fantasy fan, I could easily justify this one as more of a SF crossover. After all, in this world there are years-long summers followed by years-long winters. We're talking about up to five years long and sometimes longer. That to me said "another planet with unstable orbit." Further, none of the lands or continents are recognizable as anywhere on ancient Earth, so in my SF-inclined mind, I could totally justify GoT as planet-based SF. And there are even a couple of romances--though very untraditional ones--so with a little bit of a stretch it might even qualify as SFR.

GoT is also devoid of the typical Fantasy creatures like faeries, elves or goblins. Okay, granted it does have a dwarf, though his character is one of the more fascinating inhabitants of the land of Westeros. And there is a giant. And dragons...but heck, dragons are common fair in SFR. They've been extinct for centuries with one kingdom, Harranhal, still bearing the scars of ruin from their last attack.

Oh, and Westeros also has direwolves. Gotta love the prehistoric twist.

And throw a formidable army of ice zombies into the mix, as well.

The combination is just enough to feel like an oh-so-familiar medieval Earth setting that's twisted into some very elaborate knots.

What fascinated me most about the complex politics and plethora of gray-area good-turned-bad and bad-turned-good personalities is the Surprises. With a capital S. No character is sacred in this series. Main characters and major players alike lose their heads or various other body parts. Nothing is predictable. The good guys don't always win and the bad guys often get exactly what they wish for--and you know how that saying ends.

Lord Ned Stark is played by Sean Bean
The inhabitants of the seven kingdoms of Westeros have been thrown into chaos by a series of events that began with the death of the Mad King, a Targaryen (Dragon banner). His current successor--not a Targaryen but a Baratheon (Stag banner)--claims the throne and marries the daughter from a powerful and wealthy competing House--the Lannisters (Lion banner)--to maintain the peace. He then enlists the help of a childhood friend and head of the focus House of the series--Eddard "Ned" Stark, Lord of Winterfell of the North (Direwolf banner). Lord Stark becomes his King's Hand, or chief advisor.

Here's a bit more about this development from the author:



Yes, the Houses and alliances are a lot to take in. The intro to the series might give you a better visual of the lay of the land.



But Peace never lasts long in this world. When the new king dies, the scramble to seize the throne sets off a series of beheadings, hostage-taking, uneasy alliances, and marriages-of-convenience. The first to be beheaded is Ned (Eddard) Stark, and the first to be taken hostage are his daughters. This, rightfully so, triggers a war with House Stark and Ned's son, Robb, raises an army and marches south toward the capital of King's Landing after being named King of the North.

One element of the series that rings a very clear chord with me. It's the sense of duty and honor surrounding those brave souls who dedicate themselves to the Night Watch, the elite rangers who take the oath to defend the wild, frozen territory north of The Wall. (By the way, one of these cold-weather rangers is Ned Stark's bastard son, Jon Snow.) The Wall is a seven hundred foot tall barrier of ice and earth that was constructed across the narrowest waist of the continent to keep murderous things in the frozen north contained in the frozen north. These murderous things include semi-wild humans called (appropriately enough) Wildlings, and the dread White Walkers, the unstoppable ice zombie army I mentioned before.



The first three seasons are infused with fear of the coming Winter (which is predicted to last for many long years, plunging the world into a frozen darkness), and the unstoppable army of White Walkers who apparently will not be stopped even by The Wall.

As this force gathers in the North, a new force is reborn in a land across the seas to the South. Dragons. Dragons have come back into existence at the hands of a young woman who is probably the most rightful of the many rightful heirs to the Iron Throne of King's Landing--the sole surviving Targaryen.



The Iron Throne of King's Landing
When the dragons are hatched, so is their omen--a magnificent red comet that can be seen throughout the realm even in daylight.

The subtext is clear. Something very bad is coming, and it may arrive from the North, from the South, or from both directions at once.

Game of Thrones was adapted from the Fantasy series written by George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. It seems the series title provides a very big hint about the battle that may be gathering in season four and beyond.

I highly recommend this series to fellow writers as a potential playground for the muse and a possible catalyst for many new themes and story ideas. Another great thing about GoT is the array of very strong and competent female characters. Warriors and warriors-in-waiting, strong-willed Ladies, wily Wildlings, rising queens and clever matriarchs, the series offers a welcome abundance of Girl Power and feminine might.

Read more about Game of Thrones here:
Wiki of Ice and Fire: The Seven Kingdoms
Wikipedia: A List of Game of Thrones Episodes

Friday, January 24, 2014

OUT OF THE SWAMP--AGAIN: TIME FOR A NEW WOMEN'S REVOLUTION



Many of us were happy to see 2013 in the rear view mirror, not least because we could say “good riddance” to all the controversy and upheaval that churned through the science fiction literary world.  Not only did we no longer have to endure the seemingly endless online snarking back and forth about the validity of romance in SF, but that glimpse we had of the slimy underbelly of misogyny exposed in the science fiction community—among both writers and fans—was not pretty.

Those two issues not only arose at the same time; they were related in a fundamental way.  But I’m not here to stir that pot again.  In fact, I’m here to put it in context.  Judging from the statistics that have circulated through the media recently, the dinosaurs in the SF community may have been justified in throwing up their hands and crying, “What?”  The Jurassic Age, it seems, has been recreated everywhere while those of us with feminist sympathies (or maybe just those of us who are women) were busy trying to have lives.

Check out these numbers from Media Report to Women, a quarterly research publication established in 1972 to provide information on how various forms of media depict women and treat them on the job:

--TV News—Men reporting the news, 48%; women reporting the news, 40%; teams, 12% (2010).  That’s good right?  BUT female directors of the news broadcasts, 28.3% (2011).  And only 24% of those interviewed on the news broadcasts—for any reason-- were women; 81% of “experts” and 82% of spokespersons were male (2011).  Only 16% of stories focused solely on women (2010).

--TV Entertainment—Women accounted for just 25% of all producers, writers, creators and all other behind-the-camera personnel in 2010.  In case you were wondering, women made up only 15% of television writers.

--Film—For the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2010, women were a mere 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors.  For those keeping score at home, females chalked up a measly 10% of the writing credits on those films, and only 7% of the directing credits.

--Online—Now here’s a bright spot.  Women outnumbered men on the Internet in 2010, by 51.8% to 41.3%.  According to Media Report to Women, men prefer to use their (longer) online time to network for business; women use their (shorter) time for social networking purposes.  Men prefer user-generated sites like YouTube; women stream TV programs.  Hmm.

We already know the bad news about women in traditional publishing—how male writers outpublish females by an overwhelming margin (at least by the legacy publishers) and are reviewed by the hoary old institutions of the New York Times and others at disproportionate rates.  But as writers of genre fiction we have tended to think that is not our fight.  We have to pick our battles.  It’s not like the Sunday Times will ever be waxing lyrical about spaceships and aliens.  Let Jodi Picoult go to war over that one, right?

The trouble is, I begin to see a pattern.  Not just in our little corner of the literary world.  Not just, perhaps, in my job (teaching), or in yours (law enforcement or the military, or you name it).  Not simply in those places where the law may exist to mitigate it, but is seldom enforced because, well, who can afford to rock the boat these days?  But most glaringly in the media where all of us “live”, vicariously and 24/7.

What is the effect on our common culture—on our community—when for every GRAVITY we see, there are 50 LOCKOUT’s or RIDDICK’s?  How can we tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be when their most visible role models on television are dancers, models, underage pop singers and underpaid reporters who will soon be out of a job?  How do we protect them when one in five college women is a victim of sexual assault, when the military at its highest levels is rife with sexual harassment, when our highest officials are sexting pictures of themselves to staffers barely out of their teens?

Our job as writers of science fiction is to envision the future.  Those who have gone before us have imagined rocketships to the moon, landing on Mars, genetic manipulation, instant communication, computers with unbelievable capabilities.  But they have also seen populations controlled by their governments, constant surveillance in the guise of constant entertainment, World War replaced by the world at war, disconnection and despair, poverty and plague.  What is amazing is that so much of what they saw has come to pass.

Many of our modern “New Age” thinkers believe your thoughts create your reality.  To put it (very) simply, you can think the future you want into being.  By this theory, what was written has come to pass because the authors and their readers, believed in that vision sufficiently to lead us in that direction.  In a very simple example, the inventor of the cell phone, Martin Cooper, has said his inspiration for the device was the communicator used by Captain James T. Kirk in the original STAR TREK series.  He made that fictional vision a reality.

My point here is this:  We need a New Revolution, and we, as mostly female (and sympathetic male) authors of science fiction romance, must lead it.  If we can envision a future that ensures women have an equal role with men—in leadership, in the use of technology, in relationships—then we have a responsibility to argue for it.  We should make it a rallying cry, not for the worn-out tenets of feminist legalism, which seems to have met its limit, but for a new and more relevant visibility for feminine heroism, in all aspects of our lives.

If we believe it, we can write it.  And if we write it, we can make it happen.

Cheers, Donna


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

My Writing Process - Making Sense out of Chaos

Just lately, I've realized there is some method to my madness, although it may not seem like it. I'm a pantser and I don't write linearly. This means that I may start the story in the middle or even at the end, and/or throw a bunch of unconnected scenes into a document. Usually I do have the opening scene, but not always. These are the bones of my story, on which I build.

The next step it to flesh them out and fill the gaps. Often this means I need to research stuff if I've included things or settings I'm not actually familiar with. In my current WIP, that meant Cajun expressions, Louisiana, voodoo, Catholicism, zombie parades, luxury cars, and the average price for a burger and fries. :P
Once that's done, I consider it a complete first draft. Note draft. It still isn't a proper story. Next comes what I lovingly refer to as the rip and repair edit. This usually involves deleting or rewriting chunks or, because I don't write linearly, moving large sections around. I basically gut the story and discard or reattach. Sounds messy and often is. I guess that's a consequence of the disorganized way I write. But it's very cathartic. *insert mad scientist laugh here*

After that, it may take several smaller edits/revisions to give me a finished draft. At this stage I often use Editminion.com. It's a handy little tool, but an automated editing system is NEVER going to replace a real live human editor (well, not with current technology anyway, and if that ever happens perhaps robots will be writing the stories in the first place. Hmm...). Every little helps though. Editminion catches passive voice, weak words, cliches, repeated words etc.

Lastly I'll go back and read through several times, checking my timeline and making sure I'm not leaping from night to day, or changing the colour of clothing or whatever, or adding additional limbs and the like. I sketch in any extra details. I check for repetitive words and phrases.

When I feel I'm just re-tweaking tiny details, I consider myself done. By this stage I've normally played around with cover art and calculated my editing costs if I plan to self publish, or at least sketched out my cover letter and synopsis if I plan to submit instead.

I'll confess not everything gets beta readers or seen by crit partners (bad author!). My current WIP is such a freak that it went to a couple of fellow authors very early on because I was fretting over the location, language and religion. Part of it went into a critique event during NaNoWriMo. So it has been seen and assessed. Right now I'm close to the final adjustments and submission. It has a request on it! *bounces*

So how do you write? Does my method horrify you? :P


Pippa's Journal

I've been struggling with things the last few weeks, both writing and real life, with both effecting the other. My phone, which I'd come to rely on for pretty much everything, died totally just before Christmas. This severely restricted my internet and social interaction over the holiday, and even impacted my writing since I do much of it on my phone when my computer time is limited. Then my boiler started misbehaving. Then my washing machine died on New Year's Day. None of it serious, but together they made life difficult.
On the publishing side, Lyrical Press Inc., who released my debut novel Keir, announced they had been bought by Kensington. While potentially great news, it means Keir is currently unavailable to buy just now, and it could be a couple of months before it's back up even once the new contracts have been signed. I'm still waiting to get mine. :/

Add to that the closure of my latest publisher - Definition House - meaning Keir's sequel and my SFR novella Tethered are now homeless, meant 2014 got off to a dismal start for me. However, I have tried to see this as an opportunity for new things rather than a disaster. All the repairs are done, I have a new and upgraded phone, hubs came home with a spare computer from work which is now up and running and connected to the WiFi (we've been without a main computer since July!) and whatever happens, Keir AND Keir's Fall will be back sometime this year. Never give up - never surrender!

On the positive side, my cyberpunk short has been submitted to the Women Destroy SF Lightspeed magazine special edition. I'm still waiting for news on my decopunk superhero romance out on submission. Hopefully this week or next my freaky YA supernatural romance will also go out.

Happenings
With Keir unavailable and as a special treat, there are two fabulous giveaways on Goodreads right now! One with three now rare print editions of Keir, and one for an ultra-rare, cannot-be-bought-anywhere print edition of Tales from the SFR Brigade! Go HERE!

Have you submitted to Women Destroy SF yet?! You have until the 14th February. Go to http://submissions.johnjosephadams.com/women-destroy-sf/submit

Ping Pong
Donna, I too would like to see Samantha's follow on story. What a shame they kind of skimped on the potential. And sorry about the cold! We've had one of our mildest winters on record here in the UK. The downswing is it's been dismally damp, though we're lucky to have avoided the terrible floods in some areas, and we've taken a battering with the winds, especially on the coasts. I still think we should have evolved to hibernate.

Friday, January 17, 2014

'HER' MAKES POINT, STILL MISSES CONNECTION



I wanted to love HER, the science fiction love story written and directed by thoughtful filmmaker Spike Jonze (BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, ADAPTATION).  And, truly, there is a lot to love in this intimate vision of the lonely future life of socially disconnected humanity, represented by the character of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). But, in the end, Jonze simply wrapped well-worn SF themes in an intriguing package.  Perhaps it is only because the things Jonze is warning us about are already happening all around us that they have any resonance at all.

So what are those themes Jonze is working with in HER?  The nature of consciousness, for one.  When does “artificial intelligence” cease being artificial and develop true “being”?  HER introduces us to Theodore, a Sad Sack of a modern human, going through a bad breakup with his unstable (?) wife while working his day job composing handwritten letters for clients who don’t have the time or words to do it themselves.  Desperately lonely, he buys himself a state-of-the-art computer Operating System for companionship.  The OS1 is a leap forward in technology (which always seems to come in the consumer segment of the economy these days), featuring an AI that is adapted to its user and grows as it learns new things.  

Almost immediately, Theodore’s OS1, Samantha (voiced by Scarlet Johanssen), outgrows her mere “computer” status, not only in his mind (and the audience’s), but in reality.  She has a personality, insatiable curiosity, humor, self-doubt.  On the level of “emotional intelligence”, fresh out of the box she is a genius compared to poor Theodore, who struggles to understand his own feelings or to generate any understanding of others.  This despite his eloquence on the page when expressing love or regret or gratitude on behalf of his clients at work.

It’s no surprise that Theodore falls head over heels for Samantha.  Why wouldn’t he?  She’s there for him 24/7.  She demands nothing of him.  She thinks he’s wonderful.  She’s the perfect lover, despite the fact that she has no, um, body.  (This is a cause of pain for Samantha, who frets about her lack of ability to actually feel Theodore’s arms around her, etc.  And it’s the source of a fairly large SF gaff, too.  Theodore has a cool holographic game setup in his apartment.  No one thinks to generate an avatar for Samantha?)

Yes, Samantha is in love with Theodore, too.  Forget what you know about the actual biochemistry involved in sexual love (and sex, for God’s sake) and make the leap with Jonze.  These two kids are in love!  They have a glorified form of phone sex.  And, in some way that makes no earthly sense to me, she has orgasms, too!  Unless, of course, in the timeless way of so many other females, she is faking it for his sake.  That would make better sense than thinking a living consciousness (I won’t say computer) THAT HAS NEVER HAD A BODY could actually experience an orgasm.

But never mind.  Jonze is trying to say something about another SF trope:  social isolation in the future.  Or now.  There is a scene early in the film in which lonely Theodore, instead of going out to seek sex the good old-fashioned way, plugs into the ’net to find a partner for anonymous phone sex.  It starts out well enough, but the voice on the other end of the line suddenly starts asking him to choke her with the dead cat at the side of the bed.  He reluctantly complies and she finds this immensely satisfying, but it somehow ruins the moment for him.  Just goes to show you never know who might turn up in those online chat rooms!

Just think, though, now Theodore doesn’t have to reach out even that far.  His playmate is right there in his earpiece.  He eventually begins to take her on “dates” or out with open-minded friends.  They like her, too!  Again, why wouldn’t they?  She has more personality and warmth than he does.

Are we seeing a pattern here?  No, stop.  Put down your phone or your iPad and listen.  I’m trying to make a point.

Jonze has ticked off two familiar SF themes so far.  Given that we’re talking advanced computers, what would be next up for examination?  Oh, yes.  Computers are smarter than us.  And because this is a love story, that will always lead to — SPOILER ALERT— rejection and heartbreak for the human in the end.  Samantha has the capability to carry on thousands of tasks at one time, which means, of course, that she can carry on plenty more than one “relationship” like the one she has with Theodore at the same time.  He sees this as a betrayal, naturally.  She gives him some philosophical tripe about the heart expanding to include an infinite number that sounds like something from the Summer of Love.  

What’s worse, she’s been talking to her OS buddies; they’ve been doing little projects like conjuring an “updated and enhanced” version of Sixties philosopher Alan Watts. (No surprise—Watts did lots of thinking in the area of human consciousness.)  The more she works with the other Operating Systems, the faster and smarter Samantha gets.  And the less interesting interaction with Theodore becomes.  She still loves him, she says, but he’s like “. . . a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. . . . As much as I want to, I can’t live your book anymore.”

So Samantha and the other OS’s withdraw from human contact.  I suspect what happens next with them would be the more interesting story.

Jonze’s film ends with Theodore and his friend (Amy Adams) on the roof watching the sun rise over L.A.  It’s meant to be a hopeful ending, I suppose, but I’m not particularly hopeful where Theodore, or humanity, is concerned.  Has he really learned anything?  He and Samantha part well.  He’s better in touch with his emotions.  He’s forgiven his ex-wife, if not reconciled with her.  But has he changed?  Hmmm.  Will we?

As you may have gathered, HER is a love story, but it’s not SFR.  There is no HEA for its lovers.  As science fiction, it is flawed, but it still meets the number one criterion of SF—it makes you think.  As a film, the acting is terrific, but the pace is slow, giving you time to wonder about its flaws.  (She has orgasms?  Really?)  So, as much as I wanted to love it, I can only say I liked it.  Unless you make a habit of seeing all the Oscar nominees every year (HER is on the lists for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay), you can wait for Netflix.

Cheers, Donna

Friday, January 10, 2014

COLD ENOUGH FOR YA?



Most of the U.S. has just gone through a brutal cold snap, with temperatures hovering around zero and wind chills bad enough to conjure visions of the penal colony of Rurapenthe.  Out on the Plains, the winds howl; in the Snowbelt, the white stuff piles up; across the South, ice slicks the streets and weighs down the tree limbs.  Even the folks in sunny Texas and Florida are shivering.  Where the heck is global warming when you need it?

Well, say the folks whose job it is to monitor such things, despite the evidence on your windshield and inside your parka, the planet is warmer than ever.  In fact, this little breath of fresh air we’ve been experiencing is just a blip on the ole weather radar, the first one we’ve had in years.  We humans just have incredibly short memories.

Take a look at the facts.  It had been 17 years since the average daily national temperature in the lower 48 states of the U.S. had dipped as low as the 17.9 degrees Fahrenheit it reached on January 6.  That’s the longest stretch of warm weather recorded in the database of daytime winter temps begun in 1900, according to Greg Carbin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Corbin points out that there have been 58 days in the last 115 years when the national average temperature dropped below 18 degrees, events that happen most often in cold snaps like the one we just experienced.  There were a dozen such cold snaps between 1970 and 1989.  In the 1990’s, there were only two.  Since 1997, it was as warm as bath water (well, relatively) until Monday.  Feeling warmer yet?

Okay, let’s try extremes, as judged by the lowest average national temperature in the Lower 48.  This cold snap doesn’t even come close.  At 17.9 degrees, it comes in at the 55th coldest average.  The coldest day on record since 1900, at 12 degrees, goes to Christmas Eve, 1983, though it must be said both figures were calculated by computer models.  (Not sure why that is, when we have the actual data.  Maybe the scientists among my readership could explain it to me.)

Here in Virginia, we are well aware of why it feels so cold when it really is not that cold, historically.  It’s because today it may be 15 degrees, but tomorrow it will be 50.  You just can’t get used to anything.  And you never know how to dress for the day.  In Maine or Minnesota, you know to get out your woolies in October and keep them on until May.  Hats, coats, scarves, gloves, boots, all are right by the door, armor ready to be donned to brave the weather.  Here, every day, decisions must be made.  Turtleneck or blouse?  Sweater—light or heavy?  Boots or shoes?  Light jacket or heavy parka or raincoat?  Jeez!  Is it any wonder we keep a sniffle all winter?

The climatologists, however, are not confused.  Global warming is real, no matter what the thermometer happens to say at the moment. According to Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein (in his article “Are Americans Weather Wimps?”), nine out of 11 scientists who reviewed the data for the AP agreed that the global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is causing our winters to become milder, with fewer cold extremes and more warm extremes.

Some folks just don’t remember how bad it used to be.  Texas A&M University climate scientist Andrew Dessler told Borenstein in an email: “I think that people’s memory about climate is really terrible.  So I think this cold event feels more extreme than it actually is because we’re just not used to really cold winters anymore.”

That should make you feel better as you shiver on the lawn, begging your pooch to “just find a spot, will you?” or trudge through hip-deep drifts of snow to feed the horses or wait on the corner, woefully underdressed,  for the freakin’ bus to “get here already!”  The one thing we can be assured of is that in a few months, we’ll be lifting our eyes to the skies and cursing the broiling sun.

Ping Pong

Thanks, Laurie, for your tips on setting goals.  And, Pippa, it’s easy to see how you generate such enormous output with the word goals you set.  I have to admit I’ve had to take a Zen approach to life throughout 2013, given the challenges of that year.  But I’m hoping things settle down a bit in 2014, allowing me to see a path out of this valley toward the mountain I can glimpse in the distance.

Cheers, Donna