Thursday, February 26, 2009

Research Reading

I read for pleasure, for work, and for research. If I am lucky, I manage to blend all three of those, but more often than not, I only manage one or two at a time.

A while back, I read a book which combined pleasure and research, The Physics of Star Trek. I was only a decade old when the original Star Trek first came on television, and it remains a favorite, even though I realize that it was and is far from being cutting edge science fiction. However, such books as The Making of Star Trek and The World of Star Trek helped me understand that sometimes the writers and directors of TOS were constrained by the economic resources and special effects available in the mid sixties. Later Trek series and movies were able to move past some of those constraints, but once the rules of the Trek universe were set, even larger budgets and digital f/x have had to please the fan base. Sometimes the science in this science fiction holds up and sometimes it does not.

Since I am no scientist, I often don't understand what is real, what could be real, and what is just plain bogus. But, Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek does a good job of explaining that, and it certainly illuminates many scientific principles along the way. As a fan, I enjoyed this book quite a lot. However, it was more than a fun read, it was also research for science fiction writing. In the early chapters of Trinity on Tylos, my spacefaring characters depend on inertial dampeners to keep them from going splat against the bulkhead when the ship moves at ultra fast speeds. That concept was one that I took from Krauss's book.

Other principles and concepts that he analyses include discussions of such Trek technology as warp drives, transporter beams, and the holodeck which was the scene of so many great episodes of Star Trek; The Next Generation. My favorite chapter, entitled The Most Bang for Your Buck, discusses the physics of antimatter drives. Apart from my actually understanding more of this chapter, it is also practical for writers of space opera. Somehow an author must get those ships moving rapidly through the universe or the settings and therefore the plot may be as static as the ships.

The Physics of Star Trek is entertaining, but not necessarily an easy read. Some of the scientific principles in it do take more thought than a casual read, but Krauss's style and frequent references to Trek episodes make this far more palatable than a textbook version of physics.

I do recommend this one for fans of Star Trek and anyone interested in understanding the physics of science fiction in print and on the screen.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Scary Stuff

Like Facebook? Apparently, this site, once beloved by teenagers, has become popular with a wider audience. (Take that either way.) However, people who use the site are giving their pictures, emails, comments, and other content to fellow users and to the owners of the site. Even if a user deletes content, it is still archived. Think about your online content. I’ve often warned my students that anything online is as private as a movie poster on display. Anyone who ever wants to get or keep a job should consider what might happen if such content makes it to an employer.

Remember the “lead in toys from China” scare last year? So does our federal government. While growing up in rural Georgia, I had a minibike, my sister had a go-cart, and I rode numerous motorcycles over the years, everything from a Honda 65 to my dad’s Suzuki 1000 four cylinder. Kids are going to be giving up their rides, however. The illustrious “nanny-state” congress passed a law to regulate lead content in toys for children under twelve. This means that any item for youngsters, including mini bikes, motorcycles, and go-carts, would have to be tested and proven lead free. It is tough to make a battery without it, so manufacturers and dealers who sell these products just withdrew them from sale. Some parents are now filled with relief to know that the United States government doing their all to keep elementary and middle school age kids from chewing on their motorbikes.

Recently, my sister and I were seated together at a babyshower. The hostess stated that we’d be playing a game, and sister rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, no. The last one I went to had the 'poopy diaper' game, and we were to identify the contents of the soiled diaper.”

“Say what?” I responded. Sister went on to explain the game in more detail. Okay, it has been a while since I had a baby, but I was appalled by this apparently popular baby shower time waster, wherein the hostess melts various chocolate candies into disposable diapers, and participants are to figure out which diaper has the Reeses and which one has the Andes mints via appearance and smell. Yuck! Voltaire once said, “Common sense is not so common.” Thankfully, my young cousins, who were hostessing, chose more conventional games, such as matching children with their celebrity parents. Alas, I was horrible at the game, because I did not know most of those “famous” people. I did enjoy visiting with aunts and cousins. My second cousin, who was being “showered,” got enough stuff to handle a litter, so it was no doubt good for our ailing economy.

Here is a brief update to this post. A young woman across the pond lost her job when she said that it was "boring" on Facebook.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Breaking Free

When I taught 8th grade, I sometimes used a classic book, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, to both entertain and teach my classes. This historical novel, written for middle grades, is thematically sophisticated. The main character, Kit, is a sixteen year old orphan, who must go to live with relatives in 17th century Connecticut. The novel spans one year, and includes her introduction to Puritan society, her efforts to fit in, which are not particularly successful, and ends with characters coming to a greater understanding of each other. At the conclusion, Kit faces a realization that she must leave her relatives to become her own person.

There is much to like about this fifty year old novel. Preteens and teens often identify with Kit, because they are struggling with not fitting in, just as Kit does. The author does a good job of introducing a time period and a place, as each chapter lets the reader see, feel, taste, and smell New England in the making. Unlike more modern explorations of this time, The Witch of Blackbird Pond uses the religious views of the characters without being overly judgmental against Puritanism. Of course, the title indicates that the views of the locals conflict with the main character, who is cosmopolitan by their standards, and yet modern readers may view her as a bit childish. Teachers can use this little book to examine other themes, including duty vs. self-actualization, gender roles, and continuity vs. change. The characters do change, but not very much, and that makes this story realistic in a way that modern literature and film tends to ignore, always seeking the happy ending.

I just finished a self-help book, Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You, by Susan Forward. Okay, this text is not particularly entertaining, but does a good job of spelling out why certain people do precisely what the title states. Often those who victimize others are actually people who have learned this behavior from a parent, or have some fears and/or inadequacies which cause them to ruin their most intimate relationships. With a liberal use of cases from her practice, therapist Forward shows how different people use emotional blackmail to get what they want from those around them. Here are some excerpts about emotional blackmail, taken from the book:

Emotional blackmail is a powerful form of manipulation in which people close to us threaten (either directly or indirectly) to punish us if we don't do what they want. At the heart of any kind of blackmail is one basic threat, which can be expressed in many different ways: If you don't behave the way I want you to, you will suffer. A criminal blackmailer might threaten to use knowledge about a person's past to ruin her reputation, or ask to be paid off in cash to hide a secret. Emotional blackmail hits closer to home. Emotional blackmailers know how much we value our relationship with them. They know our vulnerabilities. And no matter how much they care about us, when they fear things won't go their way, they use this intimate knowledge to shape the threats that give them the payoff they want: our compliance. Knowing that we want love or approval, our blackmailers threaten to withhold it or take it away altogether, or make feel we must earn it.

Emotional blackmailers hate to lose. They take the old adage "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's how you play the game", and turn it on its head to read "It doesn't matter how you play the game as long as you do not lose." To an emotional blackmailer, keeping your trust doesn't count, respecting your feelings doesn't count, being fair doesn't count.

Why is winning so important to blackmailers, we ask ourselves. Why are they doing this to us? Why do they need to get their way so badly that they'll punish us if they don't?

Blackmailers frequently win with tactics that create an insurmountable rift in the relationship....Most blackmailers operate from an I-want-what-I-want-when-I-want-it mindset. They seem to have a childlike inability to connect behavior to consequences, and they don’t appear to give any thought to what they will be left with once they’ve gotten the target’s compliance.

Most of the author’s examples are from either parent/adult child relationships, or marriage/domestic partner relationships. She mentions that emotional blackmail does happen in the workplace, but I would think that most people who experience it would simply find other employment. Alas, family is harder to jettison. Indeed, Forward devotes a section to the efforts of the emotional blackmailer to rekindle relationships after “winning” a battle, but losing the war. The last third of the book contains common sense answers to dealing with emotional blackmailers, but she leaves out the most obvious one— get out of Dodge! (That is what a counselor suggested to me, when I mentioned a situation which is similar to the ones in this book.) Dr. Forward does, however, go into the lack of intimacy that accompanies such blackmail.

In the final chapter of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Kit realizes that she must leave the Puritans, despite her youth, to find any peace, which makes this a "coming of age" story. It would seem to me that leaving an emotional blackmailer behind would be an equally good solution to behaviors that seek to destroy, while professing to love and to care for the victim. Actually, it is far easier to respect the Puritans, who did honestly believe they were doing God’s work, than an emotional blackmailer, although author Forward does devote a section to why these blackmailers must maintain a strong connection with their victims, and how they will seek to rekindle a “fractured relationship” so they can continue to manipulate the target.

These two books would seem to have little in common, but reading Emotional Blackmail caused me to think about The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Both books are quite worthy, and I hope my readers will seek out one or both, depending on individual interest.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Series

Writers sometimes create characters, settings, indeed entire “universes” which they revisit for several books. This technique is termed writing a series. There are many positives in this approach. Sales of series titles tend to be better, because a reader who enjoys one title will want to read the others in the same series. Also, a nifty character can be revisited, even if a main character in one tale becomes a minor one in another. However, a great character can succeed as a main character again and again. Here are three diverse examples—

One of my first experiences in reading a series began with Lois McMaster Bujold’s Shards of Honor. The first two books (now available in a single volume) focus on Cordelia Naismith, who marries Aral Vorkosigan. Their son, Miles, becomes the main character in the rest of the series, and what a marvelous character he is! Alternately humorous, cunning, and inspiring, Bujold’s Miles has enough problems and strength to carry him through many adventures. I’ve pictured one of the better late entries in the series, A Civil Campaign, which describes Miles’ matrimonial adventure, but my absolute favorite Miles adventure is a short story, The Mountains of Mourning. Regarding the writing of a series, “Bujold has also said that part of the challenge of writing a series is that many readers will encounter the stories in ‘utterly random order’, so she must provide sufficient background in each of them without being excessively repetitious. Most recent printings of her Vorkosigan tales do include an appendix at the end summarizing the internal chronology of the series.”

Another science fiction writer, but one with a different approach altogether, is David Weber. His Honor Harrington series is ongoing, but I have given it up. I found the last few entries stray farther and farther from focusing on his main character. The earlier books, especially the first eight, are among the best space opera I have read. Weber has a wonderful grasp of technical matters, and his books are sorta like the Tom Clancy of science fiction. Honor is not particularly successful as a female, but she is wonderful as a military heroine. My most favorite entry in the series, The Honor of the Queen, is pictured. Weber has stated that this series began as an 80K essay which he terms “Honorverse.”

Several years ago, a friend loaned me a mystery by a local author, Kathy Hogan Trocheck, and I enjoyed it enough to revisit the Callihan Garrity series, set in Atlanta. A former AJC reporter, Trocheck often bases her plots in crime stories in the Atlanta area. I was fortunate to hear her speak at a writer’s conference in Athens, and she let her audience in on some of the problems facing the series writer. Her main character is the owner of a cleaning service, which serves as a way to let her be a private detective and get into the homes of her clients and her suspects. This series is often humorous, but she admitted that it is hard to keep everything straight. An example she cited was using a beat up Chevy van in one book, but switching to a Ford in the next one. Her editor’s suggested solution was a writer’s guide, where she kept track of these details. In recent years, she has moved to the more popular “chick lit” perspective, writing as Mary Kay Andrews, but she is still writing a series.

My editor for Trinity on Tylos suggested that I make it a series. That is still a possibility, and I did use a guide when I was writing Trinity on Tylos, so that I could keep the characters and the physical layout of the Excalibur straight. If you want to see part of it, just flip to the back of that book; my editor suggested that the character list be a part of the book so that readers could keep them straight as well. If I ever revisit the “Trinity on Tylos” universe, I will certainly use that guide again.

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