Friend Friday: Kevin Ikenberry

When Kevin Ikenberry learned he would be my Friend Friday subject this week, his response was, “Who, me?”

I understand why. Kevin is a great guy, and I always enjoy his company, but we probably only interact (online or in person) a few times a year.

But while I might not be talking to him that often, I’m always watching him. And learning.

First, Kevin is the real deal. I write science fiction stories with orbits and trajectories, and I try to make them plausible. Kevin calculated orbits and trajectories for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Command. (He has since retired.) If Kevin tells me I got it wrong, I’m gonna believe him.

Second, I don’t know if it’s his Army training or if it’s the secret of his Army success, but Kevin is driven. He has always impressed me with how he pursues his writing career. Constantly learning, constantly working, constantly finding new challenges. He works not just at the writing itself, but also at the business, and at strategies for growth and marketing. He has good humor, but he’s 100% serious about the work.

And that determination has paid off. He’s building his career, one achievement at a time. Besides his Protocol War series and his military science fiction novel Runs in the Family, he has a number of other works. And his determination led to two opportunities to work in established worlds that he loves: Vessel in Hugh Howey’s Silo Saga, and Friends in High Places in the G.I. Joe series. These aren’t the sort of projects that will make a writer famous, but some projects you do for the love.

My personal favorite of Kevin’s works is one of his short stories, Shipminds and Ice Cream. It uses a couple of familiar SF tropes to explore issues of family, aging, and loss. It’s very moving.

Kevin is in this business for the long haul. He’s thinking about more than just the moment, with a focus on his long-term career. He takes his time to evaluate a deal, rather than just grab the first thing that comes along.

And lastly, Kevin is supportive of the community. He teaches. He encourages. He helps. He’s part of multiple workshops, including now being a guest instructor at the incredible Superstars Writing Seminars.

So yes, Kevin, you. You inspired me last week without even knowing it, so I’m proud to share your story.

Thinking Thursday: With a Little Help from My Friends

There are many reasons I’m fortunate to be writing today, instead of 30 years ago:

  • I hate mailing things. Really, really hate it. Don’t ask me why, I just do. Mailing a manuscript – at the special fourth class manuscript rate – with a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) pretty much demanded not just mailing, but a trip to the Post Office. That was a form of torture for me. Yes, I tried a few times over the years, but it was awful. I hated it. Today, all the markets I submit to take electronic submissions. For a while it was a mix, some electronic and some postal; and the postal markets were always dead last on my list. Sometimes after last.
  • Finding markets is so much easier.
  • Research… Once upon a time, research for writers meant getting in a car and driving to the library. Nothing against libraries, but that wasn’t practical at 3 a.m. Today, there’s a world of research material as close as my computer.
  • It’s a cliché that writing is a lonely business. It still is, usually: when you’re writing, you’re in your own head, putting thoughts into words. But if you need a break and some company, you have a world of friends right next door on social media.

But one of the most important reasons is the combination of research and social media: asking friends for help. I post a request for information on social media; and in minutes – every single time, it’s in minutes – my friends appear with feedback. Some of it’s right on point, some of it’s far afield, but all of it is freely offered and sincerely intended. It makes me truly grateful to know such smart, helpful people.

I’m the author. In the final analysis, either I do the work and do it well, or the story goes nowhere. All the responsibility, all the blame finally rests with me. But along the way, I get by with a little help from my friends.

Thank you for that. It means so much to me.

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Today I Am Tested

“Of course!” she says, looking at me. “It’s family!”

Wayne laughs. “Family?”

“It is!” Millie sits ups and pulls away from Wayne. “Carey’s family. I thought you understood that by now.”

Wayne turns to me. “Carey, are you part of Millie’s family?”

I nod. “They have accepted me into their family.”

“Oh, come on, Carey.” Wayne sits up straighter. “Androids can’t lie.”

I shake my head. “I do not want to argue with you, Wayne. I know that cybernetics is your specialty, but you are wrong. Nothing stops an android from lying. It is simply a matter of programming. An android can be programmed to lie. Plus my emulation is a form of fiction. Well intentioned, but still fiction, and fiction is in a way a lie.”

“Yes, but if I ask you a direct question, I know your programming. If the answer won’t hurt anybody, you have to answer honestly.”

“True, yes.”

“So legally, are you part of the Owens family?”

“Legally, I am property of the Owens family.”

“Ah-ha!” Wayne says.

I continue, “But Dr. Jansons tells me that that itself is a fiction – a lie. That as a practical matter, she considers me part of the family.”

“Ah!” Wayne says. “Dr. Jansons is very bright, very astute. But my boss is a sentimental old lady.”

Millie slaps his arm. “She is not old.”

“Not by today’s standards, no,” Paul agrees. “But by the way she behaves? Sometimes. Carey, you can’t argue with the facts. You are not a person.”

“Dr. Jansons says that as a practical matter, I am,” I explain. “She says I pass the Turing Test.”

“That old canard? That’s about belief, not what the facts are. You know that.”

“Yes,” I say, “That is my opinion of it as well, but Dr. Jansons believes it is important.”

“What is a Turing Test?” Millie asks.

Wayne sits up straighter. “It is an old, largely discredited thought experiment in artificial intelligence. The argument is that if you cannot tell that the entity you are conversing with is a machine, then you should treat it as a person.”

“See?” Millie says. “Carey can hold a conversation as well as anybody. You are a person.”

“Wayne is right, though,” I explain. “There is disagreement within the artificial intelligence community. Some say that the Turing Test is a practical definition, while
others say it is merely a delusion.”

“Right,” Wayne says. “It’s a way of declaring victory and calling the game over. It’s too easy to convince yourself that Carey is intelligent if you never look inside and see what’s really going on with the interacting neural nets.”

“But what if we looked inside of you?” Millie askes. “What is going on inside of that neural net in your skull? If we broke that down into its component pieces, neurons triggering other neurons, would that look like intelligence?”

“Well, no,” Wayne says. “That reductionist approach doesn’t take into account the holistic function of all the parts of the brain. And besides, we have an existence proof. Descartes: ‘I think, therefore, I am.'”

Millie says, “Aha! Sounds to me like rationalization and delusion. How do we know you’re intelligent? Could you pass a Turing Test?”

“Millie, do I tell you how to dissect frogs?”

Millie shakes her head, and her face is growing red. “You just don’t want to admit that there might be something going on here that you can’t understand. Besides, I bet Carey can pass your Turing Test any day.”

“Carey fool me?” Wayne laughs. “Please! I’m a specialist. I know what to look for.”

“Oh, really? Do you have these tests? Is there one online?”

“Yeah, we have one we used in several different tests of different androids we were building.”

“Have any of them come even close to passing it?”

“No.”   

“I’ll bet Carey can pass it. I’ll bet if he and I answer your questions without you in the room, you won’t be
able to tell which one is Carey, and which one is me.”

Wayne stifles a laugh, “I think I know you well enough to tell the difference.”

“All right big guy, let’s set it up. We can do this online, right?”

“Yes, here.” He pushes the address of the test to Millie’s comp.

“All right, Carey, let’s go upstairs,” Millie says. “We’ll both get on tablets, so we’ll both be typing. Wayne, you can ask us any question you want and I’ll bet you Carey will convince you.”

“How do I know you won’t cheat?” Wayne asks. “That’s often a problem with the Turing Test: humans who think they’re clever, trying to conceal who they are.”

“You don’t trust me, Wayne?” Millie’s temper rises. “I’ve always trusted you. Wayne Stockwell, if my word isn’t good enough then maybe you should just go home.” She rises from the couch, “C’mon, get out of here. Leave!”

“Millie, I trust you!” Wayne protests, rising as well. “Really! All right, let’s run the test. I trust you. Let’s do this.”

— From Today I Am Paul (The Novel)

Market Monday: Analog Science Fiction and Fact

I had an eleven-hour day at work, followed by a ninety-minute drive home. It has been a long day.

So I’m going to cut down on my usual waxing poetic. It’s Analog Science Fiction and Fact, formerly Astounding. It’s the longest-running magazine in the field. If you need me to tell you about Analog, you need to brush up on your market research.

Oh, wait, there’s one thing I need to tell you…

DON’T SELF-REJECT!!!!!

I hear so many authors say, “Oh, my stories aren’t for Analog. They’re too character-oriented, not hard science fiction.”

Bull****!

First, hard science fiction can be plenty character-oriented. That’s the way Analog likes it. They have bought four of my Carver and Aames stories so far, and what’s the number one thing I hear about those stories from readers? They love the characters. As damaged and screwed up as he is, they love Nick Aames. They even gave Racing to Mars an AnLab (Analytical Laboratory) Award.

And second, hard science fiction is by no means all that Analog publishes! As editor Trevor Quachri likes to point out (closely paraphrased): “We published Dune; and we’d do it again. We published Pern, and we’d do it again.” Analog may welcome hard science fiction more than other markets do, but they also welcome other science fiction as well. As their guidelines say:

We publish science fiction stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse. Try to picture Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein without the science and you’ll see what I mean. No story!

The science can be physical, sociological, psychological. The technology can be anything from electronic engineering to biogenetic engineering. But the stories must be strong and realistic, with believable people (who needn’t be human) doing believable things–no matter how fantastic the background might be.

Trevor doesn’t do your job (writing your stories), so don’t you do his job (rejecting stories). Let him decide if it’s an Analog story or not.

He may surprise you…

 

Science Sunday: The Boom Star in My Back Yard

Prof Larry Molnar Credit: Calvin College

“What’s a Boom Star, Martin?”

It’s two stars that are going to collide in 2022, creating a Red Nova dubbed the Boom Star.

“Why do you say it’s in your back yard, Martin? Isn’t that kinda close?”

Well, of course, the stars won’t be in my back yard. But that’s where the research was done to discover this impending collision: at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Not precisely my back yard, but close enough to give me a sense of regional pride. This is world-class astronomy work, headed up right here in West Michigan. Dr. Molnar presented his paper at the American Astronomical Society last week. You can read a preprint version here.

So what’s going to happen? From the Telegraph article linked above:

Before their meeting the two stars were too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but in 2022, the newly formed Red Nova will burn so brightly in the constellation Cygnus that everyone will be able to to see it.

“For the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say, ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up,” said Dr Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College, Michigan, where the prediction was made.

For around six months the Boom Star will be one of the brightest in the sky before gradually dimming, returning to its normal brightness after around two to three years.

That. Is. So. Cool!

Now for Science Sunday, I like to explore the story implications of a scientific discovery. One obvious implication: suppose one of these stars had an inhabited planet? What would happen to the occupants? Nothing good, I fear. Would they live long enough to see the Red Nova engulf their planet? Or would the approach of the other star tear them out of orbit from their primary, either pulling them in to a fiery death or tossing them out into the cold darkness of space? Neither would be a good fate.

Though in the latter case… If they had time to move their civilization underground… Hmmm…

Of course, we don’t know if a binary system could have a planet in a stable orbit long enough to evolve intelligent life. The odds seem kinda long for that. But it’s not impossible. Might be a good story there.

I hope to interview Dr. Molnar for a future Science Sunday. Stay tuned!

Story Saturday: Neverwhere (Again)

III

I’m a slow reader. Pretty busy. So I’m only about 76% of the way through Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I’m enjoying it too much to rush through it just for the sake of a blog post.

Last week I said:

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman takes the tropes of fairy tales and reinvents them for a story about class conflict in modern London.

Let’s look at some of those fantasy tropes and see how Gaiman uses them in his own unique way. But that will require a…

Spoiler Alert!

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Good vs. Evil

The ultimate fantasy trope, one which some find outdated and clichéd, is Good vs. Evil. The modern fashion is for things to be morally gray, with no one purely good or purely evil.

Well, Gaiman can be as modern as any author; but in this book, he actually hews quite closely to the trope. There is Good: Door is good. Her late father Portico was good, an idealist who aspired to unite London Below for the betterment of all. Richard Mayhew thinks all he wants is to survive and get home; but it’s his innate goodness that draws him into the story in the first place. Unlike the rest of London Above, when he sees someone in trouble, he cannot look away. He has to help Door. And thus he becomes part of London Below.

And there is Evil. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are walking avatars of Evil. The Velvets are seductive Evil. Others are vain, selfish, spiteful, hateful. But worst, perhaps, is the banal evil of London above: the ability for Londoners to look right past the suffering of London Below.

The most modern, morally gray character is also the most popular with many readers: the marquis de Carabas. He would slice your throat… if there were something in it for him. He would save your life… but only if he owed you something (or perhaps because it would put you in his debt). He trades in favors, and he always fulfills his obligations. And he expects you to do so as well.

Hero

The novel is many things: an allegory, a quest, an engaging yarn… But in the main, I think it is the story of Richard Mayhew discovering the hero inside him. He starts as a slightly out-of-place Scotsman in London. In the end, he is one of the most recognized heroes of London Below. And he is a hero not because of strength or bravery, but because of a deeper decency: whenever he faces a choice, he ultimately does the right thing, even if it frightens him.

Dark Lord

All right, I’ll say it again: SPOILER ALERT! I MEAN IT! The Angel Islington is a classic Dark Lord, though more in the style of Saruman than Sauron. He made a horrible mistake, and he thinks he sees a way to make the world right – no matter who he has to lie to, manipulate, or kill to get there. He is literally a Fallen Angel, a classic Dark Lord type.

Quest

The entire story is, in essence, a quest. Or perhaps more accurately, a Quest Chain, where each small Quest raises a new question, leading to a new Quest. At first, Richard seeks the Floating Market and Door, while Door and the marquis seek a bodyguard. Then the group seek the Angel Islington to tell Door who killed her family. Then Islington sends them to get a key. Once they get the key, they have a new quest to find Down Street, the new path to Islington. In this summary, the plot sounds mechanical, like levels in a video game. But Gaiman hides the mechanics behind rich characters and a thoroughly imaginative world.

Magic

Oh, there’s magic. It’s not flashy like Harry Potter. It’s subtle like Gandalf, maybe moreso. But Islington scries via a pool. The Nightsbridge steals travelers away. The Earls Court resides in a subway train that cannot possibly hold it. And is it merely indifference that makes London Below invisible to London Above, or is it a spell?

Oh, and… SPOILER ALERT! The marquis de Carabas comes back from the dead.

Oh, there’s magic in London Below. It’s just subtle and inconsistent, and you don’t want to rely on it too much.

Medievalism

There’s a touch of Medievalism in the book. The fashions range from gothic punk to ancient, with medieval represented. And the social structure is baronies and fiefdoms. But the Medievalism is more of a flavor than a dominant theme.

Ancient World

Somewhere ancient Roman Legionnaires still roam Below. Croup and Vandemar claim to have caused the fall of Troy. Islington caused the drowning of Atlantis. London Below is as old as London itself, and some of the denizens are older.

Races

This trope, perhaps, is nowhere to be found in the book. Croup and Vandemar are surely not human, though in human guise. Islington is literally an angel. And the Velvets seem human, but are closer in nature to vampires.

But aside from those, every character you meet is seemingly human. Door’s face is sometimes described as “elfin”, but it’s never explicitly said that she’s an elf (or that there are elves). So I think it’s safe to say that this book is populated primarily by people.

Oh, and rats. Be nice to the rats. You never know when you may need a favor from a rat.

The Daily Blog Schedule, Week 2

My Daily Blog plan for the next week:

  • Story Saturday. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. (Again. I read slowly, and I have a lot of other things to do.)
  • Science Sunday. The Boom Star in My Back Yard.
  • Market Monday. Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
  • Talking Tuesday. Tools of the Trade.
  • Work-in-Progress Wednesday. Today I Am Paul, the novel. (Again. That’s why it’s In Progress.)
  • Thinking Thursday. Random thoughts.
  • Friend Friday. Kevin Ikenberry.

Friend Friday: Joshua Sky

It was less than a year ago, at the Volume 32 Writers of the Future Gala and autograph session. I was there as a returning past winner, which meant I was out of the spotlight. I could simply enjoy the festivities, congratulate my V32 brothers and sisters, and meet people.

Yeah. Meet people. All these writers, predominantly introverts, and we’re supposed to spontaneously meet people. Why came up with this idea?

But then suddenly this guy starts asking me questions about the contest. And about short fiction. Really good questions.

And that’s how I met Joshua Sky, a real kindred spirit. Joshua is a screenwriter, as well as working other roles in Hollywood; but he has a real passion for short fiction, science fiction especially.

More than that, Joshua is fascinated with the history of the field, and the culture. He has the fortune (?) of living in Los Angeles. On the downside, that means long, frustrating commutes. On the upside, that means he can attend the famed Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society, where he has access to their fantastic archives… and also to some of their fantastic, famous members. For Joshua, that’s a true treasure trove.

And he has put his research (both there and elsewhere) into a project: interviews with science fiction authors for Omni Media. I was honored to be one of his interview subjects, and it was the best interview I have had so far. Joshua doesn’t just ask a stock set of questions. He makes a point to read some of the author’s best works as well as their bio and web sites, and then he creates unique questions for each author. It’s a very personal interview every time. Here are his interviews so far.

It’s a short list, but he’s adding to it. Keep an eye out for more.

But Joshua is more than a science fiction historian, he’s also a short fiction author. Two of his stories have appeared in Omni, and I expect we’ll see more and in more markets soon.

And he’s an essayist. The House Had Eyes falls on the edge between memoir and fiction. It’s a tribute to Ray Bradbury, and it perfectly captures the wistful nostalgia and sense of loss of a great Bradbury tale. This one’s special. I give it my highest recommendations.

So that’s my friend, Joshua Sky. I hope you enjoy his work!

Thinking Thursday: Chorizo Pie

Thinking Thursday is supposed to be about random thoughts; but after nearly four hours of commuting today, my only thought is: I hate snow!

So instead of searching for a topic, I’m going to share a recipe I just discussed with my friend Tom Lavey of L&M Precision Machine Inc., makers of high-quality LRTs (Little Round Things). Here’s a Mexican-inspired variation on a traditional Irish dish…

CHORIZO PIE

1/2 lb. Chorizo (or substitute 1/2 lb. ground beef with taco seasoning if Chorizo is unavailable)

1 can whole kernel corn, drained

1 can diced tomatoes, drained

1 can refried beans, drained and whipped

1 large can black beans, drained

1 ½ lbs. mashed potatoes, whipped

1/4 cup shredded Mexican style 4 cheese mix

Chili powder to taste

 

1. Mash the potatoes thoroughly, and then whip them. You don’t want lumps, and you want them smooth enough to spread.

2. Whip the refried beans as well. Again, you want them smooth enough to spread.

3. Drain the corn, black beans, and tomatoes. Dice the tomatoes.

4. Depending on the brand, the Chorizo may be in a tube or a square. Break it into small, loose bits.

5. Brown the Chorizo over medium heat in a skillet.

6. Start the oven preheating to 400 degrees F.

7. Reduce the heat under the chorizo to simmer and mix in the corn, tomatoes, and black beans. Add chili powder to taste. Stir in thoroughly and continue to simmer until the oven is preheated.

8. Pour the Chorizo and vegetable mix into a large glass baking dish and spread evenly in the bottom.

9. Using a fork, scoop the refried beans on top of the chorizo and vegetables and spread out into a layer, being careful not to mix into the layer below.

10. Again using a fork, scoop the mashed potatoess on top of the refried beans and spread out into a layer, being careful not to mix into the layer below.

11. Sprinkle the top of the potatoes with chili powder to taste.

12. Sprinkle the Mexican style 4 cheese mix across the top of the potatoes.

13. Bake for 30 minutes or until the top of the potatoes is lightly browned.

 

Serves 3 to 5.

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: The Oncoming Storm

…Millie turns back to the pond. “Oh, please, Carey, take pictures. I want to show Mom and Dad.” Many kids Millie’s age have wrist comps they can use as phones and cameras and music players and games. Millie has shown little interest in those. She has me and I can make calls and I can take videos. I have no immediate need of this video data, so I open a Cloud connection to stream the video directly to storage.

Today I am Brad. I do not know why I am on my knees. That is not a natural position for Brad. So I stand, darken my silicone skin, and square my shoulders to stand tall. As Brad, I have cleaning to do. So I start walking towards the closet…

“Carey!” Millie squeals.

I look down. I am standing in the tadpole pond and wondering who is Brad and why was I him.

“I am sorry Millie,” I say. “I do not know –” I stop. I do not know what happened to me and I worry that I may be a risk to Millie. I stare around at the rushing stream on one side and the deeper main channel on the other side. I see storm clouds upstream, and I worry: can I get Millie home safely if something within me is malfunctioning?

“That’s okay, Carey,” she says. “Did you get the video? Did you get a picture at least?”

I check my Cloud storage.

Today I am Frances. Dr. Zinta is testing my emulation net. As Frances, I have simple tests to perform in the functional testing lab. Picking up the dropped objects, sorting them into their proper locations. I look around. “Now where did I drop those tadpoles?” I say. “All I see are frogs.” Dr. Zinta stares at me oddly. Somehow I know that this is odd for her even though I’m still learning her emulation profile.

“Dr. Zinta,” I say, “I think something is wrong.” She looks at me. “Dr. Zinta?”

Once more I’m standing in the water. I back carefully out. “Millie, I think something is wrong,” I say. “I’m going to call your father.” I open a phone channel.

“G9A27, why did you call me Dr. Zinta?”

“Is that not your name?” I say.

Dr. Zinta plugs a diagnostic scanner into my chassis. “It is, but you always call me Dr. Jansons.”

I puzzle over that. Finally I answer, “I find that in casual conversation humans are more comfortable with given names.”

“G9A27,” Dr. Zinta says. “I’m afraid there’s something wrong.”

“I am afraid there is something wrong,” I say to Millie. “I think we should get home now.”

“But Carey, we just got here.”

“I am sorry, Millie but, this is a matter of safety. I must insist.”

“But Carey…”

I put my foot down, literally, emphasizing my insistence. “Millie, we can come back when I’m functioning properly. We must get home right away.”

She looks up at me, and her eyes grow more intent. “Are you all right, Carey?”

I cannot lie to her. “I am functional but I will need maintenance.” Then I look at the rocks across the ford. “But I am still sufficiently in control of myself to carry you across the court. I think we need to hurry.”

“All right.” She lifts her arms and I pick her up and start across the rocks.

We are on the largest rock when lightning flashes far upstream and the roll of thunder hits us. My emergency weather radio kicks in, and –

Today I am Brad. I still have cleaning to do. I do not know what I am carrying but I sent it down so I can go fetch the broom. I turn and head for the closet; and suddenly somehow I’ve fallen through the floor and into rushing water all around me. Somewhere I hear a child screaming, but I see none when I look around. I see no water either, but my tactile senses tell me I am bobbing, tossed about by rushing water. My metal ceramic frame and my silicone sponge body are buoyant enough for the water to carry me along, farther away from the fading screams, the source of which I still cannot see.

“Again,” says the voice in my radio receiver, “possible flood conditions. Residents are urged to stay out of the floodplain.” Somehow I am in the stream, at least 10 meters downstream from Millie as she stands on the large rock, screaming at me. I am bobbing up and down in the water, being carried away; and then I bump into something. I have hit a branch sticking out from a submerged log. I grab it and I hold on to try to keep myself from getting washed even further away.

“Carey,” Millie screams. “What’s wrong?”

I wish I knew what is wrong. There are gaps in my data record. Accessing those gaps, I see that I was asleep during those periods. Just an ordinary, unaware medical care android. Each period of unconsciousness corresponds to a message to or from an external data feed. Somehow external feeds are interfering with my operations.

Yet strangely, I have memories from those sleeping periods. Memories from the MCA test labs. Current memories: the time signature is today, within the last few minutes. I need Dr. Zinta to explain; but first I need to get Millie to safety before the waters rise.

— From Today I Am Paul (The Novel)