Earth and Moon, a distant dance

I try not to use too much real estate here posting to other sites (although some could argue that's all I do anymore because I'm too busy editing my manuscript to post new content on the site -- to them, I say ... yes, you are correct, and I apologize for that). But when I do post a link or an image to another site, it's something that I cannot shake.

I can't think of anything more profound -- philosophically, emotionally, physically -- than the image of our planet from afar. Every image or video ever posted in the past, including the famous "pale blue dot," has brought me to a point of awestruck reverence for the speck of life that is planet Earth. Forget god, forget religion, looking at our planet and moon from a distance is enough majesty for me to bow to the universe itself. All its laws, properties, planets cold and warm, gaseous, liquid, and solid, come into such powerful focus as we watch our own planet being transited by the moon. It's something that defines and humbles our place in the universe. We are a small, simple planet in the middle of a 300-billion-star galaxy, and that's good enough for me.

It is an inspiring sight, a breathtaking sight, and there's never really a bad time to share such a thing.

From the Smithsonian, and of course from NASA's Juno satellite (good job, satellite), watch this jaw-dropping view of the moon transiting the earth, and then inexplicably racing off screen as the satellite zips past the moon and uses Earth's gravitational pull as a slingshot. It gave me chills the first time I watched it, talking to the screen and begging the moon not to stray too far, and the subsequent view teleported me from my chair and into the craft itself, imagining what it would be like for future astronauts approaching such an inviting foreign planet. Images like this can only continue with greater support for a strong, well-funded space program, and, of course, reaching an alien world will forever be an afterthought without politicians and voters (and private businesses, too) taking the time to understand how important space exploration is -- not only to current generations, but future generations, as well.

If you're still skeptical, you heartless bastard, watch the second video in the link where the Deep Impact spacecraft turns its lens back toward the planet and catches a beautiful lunar transit.


LONTAR: Speculative fiction from the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, Laos, and Vietnam

The first issue of LONTAR has arrived to the world of speculative (science) fiction. Call it whatever you like, I've long believed the future of science fiction resides in Asia, where the dichotomous social/economic divide is bound to pump out strange, unique, and culturally-expansive literature, and LONTAR aims to crack into the market with a fresh take on the genre. I talked in previous posts about China being a focal point of up-and-coming science fiction literature (assuming the Chinese government approves of what the authors have to say), but it's exciting as hell to see another voice emerge from the region.

You can read 25% of the first issue for free, featuring the king of science fiction -- Paolo Bacigalupi -- and a host of other talented writers. I mowed through the first 25% online and am now desperate to add the hardcover to my collection. That's not hyperbole. I'm desperate. Do you see how fucking cool that cover is?  There's a spider who lives outside my door. I say hello to him when I leave and arrive. Every night, his web is strangely knocked down, but every morning, he sets about rebuilding the elegant weave. I used to worry he was going to break into my house at night and make a home in an open orifice, but now I know the only thing to worry about are his laser eyes.

Really looking forward to seeing more from this collection of authors, as well as more science fiction from a new cultural voice in Southeast Asia in LONTAR.

Pacific Rim Is Delightful Science Fiction Porn

I wasn't sure what to expect from PACIFIC RIM. I knew that one of my personal idols and a favorite director of mine, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone, Cronos, and of course BLADE II), created the film, but I also knew that it had the potential to be a Michael Bay-sized disaster. del Toro explicitly said he didn't want to do GODZILLA, but how can you do giant, city-destroying kaiju without channeling the monster-of-all-monsters?

Unsurprisingly, del Toro found a way, as he always does. His monsters are so deliciously-unique, so un-earthly in their size and structure that Godzilla is more of a distant uncle for del Toro's beasts than a DNA-clone. For fans of science fiction, this is NOT a great achievement in hard science, but it IS teenaged fun that I haven't experienced in a movie theatre since, well, I was a teenager. PACIFIC RIM isn't a perfect film -- the script is so awful it's almost funny ... almost -- but it's a film that knows exactly what it is and why it exists.

del Toro, famous for his lengthy and splendidly-intense artistic process, clearly spent the bulk of his time laboring over the art and design of the kaiju and jaegers, and very little time knotted around a vacuous narrative. The monsters and robots carry his aesthetic in every pore and joint and dent, and del Toro's quiet, childlike fear as a storyteller is lost to the BOOMFUCKYOUKAIJU! As a writer, it sucks admitting that the script didn't matter, but not once during the movie did I care that the script sucked. That's bad, right? I should care. We all should care!

But when giant monsters are fighting giant robots, what else do you need?

It's science fiction porn. There's little substance in the narrative (other than a decent amount of humor tucked into the script), but when your pants are down and your eyes are glistening with shiny, colorful pictures, do you really need tortured poetry?

It's an interesting debate. It seems like audiences often choose one or the other, and Hollywood seems to follow that trend as well (why wouldn't they if audiences aren't clamoring for more substance?). There are rare exceptions, of course, where science fiction and poetry collide, where art can be fun and meaningful at the same time, and del Toro is one of the few directors who has shot (and succeeded) for that tone, most notably with PAN'S LABYRINTH.

Is there room in the medium for big & savvy science fiction? STAR WARS accomplished both, although it discarded savvy with the prequel trilogy and beyond (fingers crossed, J.J. Abrams), and STAR TREK has always been on the cutting edge of that difficult duo -- though the television series never had the budget for big -- but outside of the major franchises, both writers and filmmakers (and their bankrolls) always seem to shy away from epic/smart.

It's not a problem in the medium as a whole -- fantasy has huge successes in television and film with epic/smart content -- it's a science fiction problem, and it really shouldn't be. Science fiction literature is filled with the richest, most awe-inspiring content in the written word. Period. If you don't believe me, read "The Left Hand of Darkness," read "Pump Six," read practically anything in the genre and you'll be blown away. The scale, grandeur, and brains of science fiction literature is unmatched by any other genre, and yet the translation between novelizations and stories into other medium always leaves science fiction underwhelmed.

PACIFIC RIM could've been so much more, but in the theatre, pants around my ankles, giant kaiju battling skyscraper-sized robots, it was hard to think about anything else. I'm just excited to see what del Toro can do now that he's proven to Hollywood he can play their game and make them money. If anyone other than consummate sci-fi lord J.J. Abrams is going to do smart/epic, my bet is on you, Guillermo.

Editing: A progress report

My desk in a state of metamorphosis. Soon, a beautiful wild bookshelf will appear.

Happy Friday to all (and to all a happy Friday?). I've felt a wave of guilt over the sparseness of content on A, ROBOT for the past few months and felt it was time to rectify that.

I've been hard at work editing my manuscript, which, as most of you know, is a time-consuming process not unlike the cellular division of HUMAN BIOLOGY. It's fucking epic. After finishing my last manuscript, a 70,000 word young adult thing that I'm not entirely proud of, I edited the whole thing in a month. But, looking back, I realized I hadn't edited it at all. I'd looked for spelling and grammar mistakes -- the vestigial tale of a former newspaper editor -- but I hadn't really sunk my teeth into the material itself. I hadn't questioned what I was writing, why I was writing it, and whether it was a true reflection of who I was and what I was trying to communicate.

It wasn't. And I'm fucking relieved that the agent I pitched it to said, "No thanks, send us something else."

That was two years ago. A lot has changed in two years, and a lot of words have been written/edited over that span. The unquestioning (lazy?) practice of fast-paced copy editing has been replaced by a dense, OCD-riddled, self-introspective battle of true editing. It's difficult, but it's also fun (much like battle, I assume ...), and the quality of the material has grown exponentially in that time of growth -- that time of cell division. My work is tighter, my real voice is coming through, and, most importantly, I'm learning to actually enjoy my own work and be fucking proud of it. Never thought I'd see that day.

Editing has become a full-time job, which isn't always easy considering I already have a full-time job. But the routine is getting easier to maintain, aside from finding time to update A, ROBOT. Coming home from work and turning on a different computer to do a different sort of work has become a sort of Zen self-punishment (toward enlightenment?), but it's punishment I thoroughly enjoy. I make time, and find time, to edit at night and on weekends, and soon, with less than 80 pages remaining to edit, I will have completed the second draft of my story. High five.

The final draft -- the Dental Draft, as it's often called -- will require the last bits of delicate surgery before all the teeth are cleaned and polished and ready to glisten and chew on food and smile. And then it's time to submit, submit, submit. As soon as I have something more refined to share, I will post an excerpt to the site. But, of course, perfectionist that I am, I will have to pry that excerpt out of my own dead fingers to share, which will take some sort of magic to accomplish

Til next time.

Aperture: A Spaceman Returns

Commander Chris Hadfield, the mustachioed Canadian astronaut who stole our hearts from orbit, landed back on earth yesterday after five months circling the planet. Hadfield connected with people in a way that few astronauts before him have, embracing the online community (Twitter was my personal connection to Hadfield), using his extra-terrestrial position to share his passion about space and science with a flock of interested people, and being a kickass dude and unprecedented ambassador for NASA.

The Atlantic's In Focus, a constant source of inspiration here at A, ROBOT, compiled some of Hadfield's photos documenting his mission from launch to land, along with many of his own captions, show a playfulness in space that juxtaposes brilliantly with his awe and wonder at the rolling world below.

Welcome Back to Earth, Commander Hadfield


Kill The Troll: Conquering Writer's Block

©Erik Ian Larsen

I'm a fortunate writer. I have rarely struggled with Writer's Block. Yes, that's a proper noun; a monstrous, world-devouring entity that derails novels, consumes confidence, and renders entire conceptual universes insignificant. Writer's Block is an ugly troll, and for many writers, one whose toll is often too high to pay. You want to cross the fucking bridge, but ... troll!

I'm here to tell you that Writer's Block is a mirage. That troll? Nothing more than a puppet, controlled unwittingly by your own stupid brain. Writer's Block doesn't have to win, if you know how to beat it.

Invention is the true killer of Writer's Block. And while it's easy to say, "Hey, just be more inventive!" and sit back in this leather chair smoking multiple cigars at once whilst reading yachting magazines, being inventive takes a lot of practice. But if you can learn to be inventive, to hoard ideas like one of those old ladies on A&E, you can conquer Writer's Block.

But how do you do that? And more importantly, how do you translate that to your stories? The first step is to open your eyes. Open your ears, open your hands and accept ideas from the world around you. Ideas are fucking everywhere. Seriously. Go for a walk and try not to find something you want to incorporate into a story. A person's face, an eavesdropped conversation, a unique setting. It can actually be overwhelming at times, and if you don't have a good system for capturing those ideas, you constantly feel like you're missing out on something, that you're losing opportunities like the distant flickers of unjarred fireflies. Every day I go to Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, I have that fleeting feeling, like there's too much cool shit going on to really appreciate it all. But there are plenty of fireflies in the world. Our culture is inundated with deep mythic ideas, with deep ideologies that translate so delightfully well into stories, and they're splattered around us waiting to be seen. Our brains are primed to not only tell stories, but to collect fragments floating around for them. If you're struggling to come up with ideas, you're just not paying attention; you're not opening yourself up to absorption.

Go buy a small notebook and keep it on you at all times. Make it a notebook scar. You can't get rid of it, you just have to learn to live with its rigid form in your back pocket or purse. Find a smartphone application that allows you to take notes the way you need to take them. I use Astrid, because it allows me to quickly bang out a line or two about what I'm trying to capture without cluttering things with a billion options for what to do with that idea. It's simple, and while there are more complicated and nutrient-rich applications out there for taking notes, it works for me. I can't afford to slow down the capturing process.

The second step to defeating Writer's Block is to learn to think creatively. When presented with a problem, the first solution isn't always the best. Many writers, myself included, are guilty of feeling the heavy footsteps of Writer's Block creeping up on them and choosing the quickest escape from that troll. But that's not always the right choice. In fact, it usually isn't. Trolls live on bridges, after all. Think about it like this: If you were a painter, and you spilled paint on your half-finished work, you could maybe try to clean it up, or even just throw the canvas away and start over, and you might be able to preserve or recreate your original idea. Those are both easy solutions, and turning it into garbage is certainly quick, but the hardest solution -- trying to adapt and change to the problem; to creatively incorporate that problem into a solution -- is much, much harder. And that's where true creativity can shine through. My mom always used to tell me, as a young artist learning to paint and draw and write, "There are no such things as mistakes, only opportunities."

While most of what she says is complete bollocks, that one really stuck with me.

Creativity is invention. They're parallel concepts to me, and when you can take a step back and come up with multiple solutions to a problem, to give yourself options or to even have a collection of options at the ready from copious notes, observation, and organization, you're going to find a good solution to Writer's Block, not just the fastest one. You know the fastest way to get off a bridge?

Be risky, be bold. Look for the strangeness in our world and in your life and document it. Arm yourself with so many weapons you can barely walk without spilling flails and morning stars and space blasters in front of you. Uniqueness will never be punished, but being cliche will, and while the latter may seem like the quickest route away from Writer's Block, it's not sustainable.

Aperture - China, the future of science fiction

In this edition of APERTURE, we find ourselves in the dichotomous, strange, fantastic world of China, mingling with its people, seeing their successes and struggles, experiencing their lives with only a thin pane of glass separating our lives. The Atlantic's In Focus photo galleries are once again the source for these inspiring photographs, and In Focus recently released two breathtaking essays on China, each one filled with stories yet to be written.

When I read about China or see photo essays like the ones below, science fiction comes rushing to the surface of my brain. There is no country in the world, America included, that stirs such futuristic wonder for me. The Big Brother Communist state, the massive population, unprecedented infrastructure, a burgeoning super military, and a speed of life and production unparalleled in the world makes China a primordial soup of storytelling.

Chinese science fiction is still very much an untapped source of material. Part of that has to do with the censorship of the Chinese state; science fiction often deals with projections or metaphorical realities that shine bright fucking spotlights on the horrors of the modern world. But other than Joss Whedon's nod to China's futuristic influence in the language of the "Firefly" series, as well as a handful of Paolo Bacigalupi's short stories in the incomparable "Pump Six and Other Stories" and much of Ken Liu's short fiction, most science fiction stories trend more toward culturally-neutral (by modern Earth standards) space/future focused societies. It all seems a bit short sighted. The reality is that cultures will continue to develop, Earthly cultures, as our species progresses in space, just as they have for thousands of years already (China, Japan, Egypt, etc.). To ignore the prevalence of existing cultures in forward-thinking science fiction isn't really forward thinking at all, is it?

China: Portrait of a People - Shows the breadth of Chinese culture, from the rural, outcast Tibetans to the colorful-haired Fujian hipsters of modern Fuzhou.

China's Toxic Water - The harsh undercurrent of rapid societal growth. The buildings and cities continue to rise, but the runoff from an exploding population still leaves fatal marks on the less-fortunate of Chinese society.

Looks like it's time for some flash fiction.

John Hodgman and Neil Gaiman discuss audiobooks

I used to never read my work aloud. It wasn't an intentional decision, just not something that seemed like a part of the writing process. Written things were always meant to be devoured quietly, secretly, by a single hissing light bulb, but never aloud! Oh no! Fuck no! Never read something written aloud! Only non-written things can be read aloud ...

Reading my words aloud gave me a lot of insight into how fucking stupid they can sound sometimes. Like that last sentence. I could choose to read it aloud to myself right now, but I already know it's not my best work, so I'll just hover in an ignorant bliss until this is posted and I've begun drinking again. You'd think I'd just go back and rewrite it, but, hey, if I'm going to be lazy once, why not twice?

What really changed my mind was an accidental purchase of the original BBC recordings of "The Lord of the Rings." I found the boxed set (on cassette tape, naturally) at Goodwill for 99 cents, never expecting to actually listen to the enclosed tapes. I really just wanted the wooden box top to hang as decoration, but seeing as my used vehicle had a working cassette player, I figured what the hell and slid the first off-white tape into the dash. The familiar click-whizz of the tape player snatching another victim opened a portal to an audioverse of awful impressions and faux-British accents, grandly spewing the timeless words of JRR Tolkien. The story took on another life, and while I didn't particularly enjoy that life, it made me wonder what my own prose would sound like read aloud (while doing a faux-British accent).

Anyway, give a quick listen to this funny, interesting discussion between two funny, interesting people, talking about the power of reading aloud.

Lots to consume here for writers as well about the way your story can change (for better or worse) when transposed into a different medium.

Hey! An infographic!

In this week's episode of "Top Gear," the guys see whose home-built rover can scale Mt. Olympus the fastest.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989. Japan.

Only in Japan ...

One part horror film, one part cyberpunk fantasy, one part science fiction metal masterpiece (whatever that is), "Tetsuo: The Iron Man" is a story about a normal businessman who hits a metal fetishist with his car -- a man who gets pleasure out of sticking metal inside his body, naturally -- only to have his own body slowly transform into scrap metal as the fetishist's body mutates (with monstrous results). It's gross, stunning, and horrific, and I found the full-length movie available to watch on YouTube! There's no excuse not to watch this.

Director Shinya Tsukamoto shoots this 1989 flick with raw energy, giving it the feel of some horrific, found-footage piece much older than it really is, and his hand-made special effects are complex and gorgeous; a craftsmanship that brings reality to the surreal.

Don't say I didn't warn you.