Shifting Reality – book review

I just finished Shifting Reality by Patty Jansen. It’s been out a while, but I just stumbled upon it (it’s science fiction – so the story won’t be outdated for at least several more centuries).

The story is set on a space station filled with competing factions from bored, purposeless youth, to criminals to law enforcement, with a military base on top (plus geckos and chickens). Told from a single point of view, the story is fast paced with plenty of action.

Melati is from the worker class – originally taken from Indonesian, culture, heirlooms and all. Since they are low in the station hierarchy there is not a lot of options for this group – ice mining, small business, crime and selling their bodies. Melati works at a military support unit on the station caring for ‘constructs’ – people created for a purpose (how exactly is never explained). These people go on to become soldiers, technicians and pilots, but first they have a short childhood.

One of the minds to be installed into a group of construct children isn’t right. Melati realizes the problem isn’t a simple computer glitch. Her investigation takes her down an interesting rabbit hole of secret societies, internal politics, enemy factions and aliens.

Melati isn’t an stereotypical hero. She’s a compelling character caught between two worlds (plus she’s gutsy). Fitting in in either place is a challenge for her. Mostly she’s trying to do the right thing – even if it isn’t popular. The story has unexpected twists and turns that kept me reading. I’ll be going on to read the second book.

a mid summer update

love-in-the-mist

A wonderfully alien looking seed pod from love-in-the-mist. It’s been years since I’ve had to deliberately plant these, and they still come up every year.

It’s hot and smokey here (the smoke’s from the fires in the B.C. interior, fortunately nothing near by is burning). The garden is happily growing and I’ve been keeping busy with a plethora of projects. Since I stopped my monthly garden updates a few months ago, I thought I’d give a general update of what I’ve been working on.

Growing stuff

I’ve cut the water to the beans in the front yard. They all have lovely pods, so if all goes well, they’ll be dry enough to harvest by the end of the month. Potatoes are also ready to harvest, as will soon be my onions. The winter cabbages are putting on nice heads and we’re getting all the cucumbers we can eat.

And check out my hairy melon:

melon

Isn’t it delightfully hairy?

I planted some bigger fruit producers late winter including an apricot, cherry, assorted currants and gooseberries. All are doing well. As is my deck based lime tree (which will come in for the winter).

So far the only seeds I’ve collected have been from the Alexanders (a perennial relative of celery) – we had enough to eat their shoots this year. Not bad for an early spring crop.

Other random projects

Miso – I started a batch out of soybeans with a friend last night (will have to wait at least 6 months to taste it). Now I’m thinking of making a batch out of my homegrown tiger eye beans – mostly because I could call it tiger miso.

Tempeh – we started a batch last night and I’m struggling to find a spot the right temperature for it to ferment. I have no idea if it’ll work out or not.

There’s a watering system that needs to be put in – I have the stuff and having a working watering system would simplify my life. The hard part right now is most my ground is cement-like, so if I want to dig anything in I’ll have to wait until the rains start.

Writing

Settler Chronicles book 1 – I’ve started my final edit, at this point I’m just wordsmithing. My cover should be ready this fall (October) and I’m on track to release then. I also have the first draft of the second book written.

I put up the first scene on this blog a little while back (see here). Should I put up more of this book here? Perhaps the first couple chapters. Let me know in the comments below.

Deep Trouble – A current day action-adventure I’m co-writing with a friend.  I’ll put up the first chapter soon (it was titled ‘Benthic Adventure’ until a friend pointed out that most people don’t know what benthic means. Perhaps it is best I don’t try to surreptitiously improve readers vocabulary in a fluffy, fun action adventure story)

And I’ve started drafting another story for Wattpad – science fiction with lots of action (I’ll share more on this soon).

Reading

Solitude – a non-fiction book by Michael Harris about how creativity grows out of solitude. So far I’m enjoying it. I’ll likely write my own review, but for now there’s a review here.

The Nakano Thrift Shop – a novel by Hiromi Kawakami, translated from Japanese. I’m trying to broaden what I read, so this one is quite different from what I normally read. It’s about the relationships between the quirky staff of the thrift shop, and I’m quite enjoying it (although I will need a good action book when I’m done). There’s a review here.

Playing with fire

candle

A candle on earth

I remember making candles when I was a kid. We filled empty food cans with paraffin wax – the stuff that comes as a opaque block about the size of a deck of cards. The cans were then put into a bath of boiling water until all the wax melted. A few crayon stubs were added to each can, creating an array of colours. I tied a thick piece of cotton string, destined to be the wick, around a pencil for easy dipping.

Next, dipping (the messy part) could begin. With each dip another layer of wax clung to what was already there, increasing the diameter of the candle-to-be. I rotated through the colours, creating what must have been gaudy candles. When the candle was thick enough to stand on its own, the fun part began: we could light them.

A flaming match held to the exposed end of the wick has enough heat to vaporize wax within the wick and react with the oxygen in the air. Within moments a teardrop-shaped yellow flame flickers to life. The heat from the candle’s flame melts the wax, and the melted wax is drawn up by the wick, sustaining the flame. At its hottest, a candle’s flame can reach 1400 degrees Celsius.

Heat vaporizes the wax creating a gaseous cloud where combustion takes place. Combustion is a series of chemical reactions converting molecules into new combinations – an inefficient process resulting in heat and light. Light, along with its cousin heat, signify the release of excess energy.

Compared to an incandescent light bulb, a candle produces 100 time less light, which is probably why candles are now mostly used to set moods, conduct rituals and provide light in power outages. I don’t often light candles, after all they are one of the leading causes of residential fires and they put soot and chemicals into the air I breathe. But, when I do have a reason to light a candle, I enjoy watching the flickering flame – I find something about it quite mesmerizing.

In my mundane earth existence, when I light a candle the hot gases formed are less dense than the air around them, and so they rise in a process of natural convection into the familiar teardrop shape. This natural convection hinders complete combustion, so soot forms which makes the flame yellow.

Out in my funky futuristic (imaginary) spaceship, where there would be no gravity, natural convection wouldn’t occur, and I would get a perfectly spherical flame. And, the flame would require ventilation or it would smother itself as its temperature would be evenly distributed. (here’s a good, but slightly inaccurate video) On the plus side, the combustion would be complete – so soot would not form. The flame would be bluer and more efficient.

Another effect of gravity on a candle’s flame is the flickering. The frequency squared of a flame’s flickering is proportional to the force of gravity over the diameter of the candle. Meaning that a candle with a smaller diameter would flicker at a faster rate than one with a larger diameter. So a candle on another planet (with different gravity) would flicker at a different rate than the same candle on earth.

A candle on my spaceship wouldn’t flicker at all (I would have to be mesmerized by its pretty spherical blueness instead).

note – this post was originally published back in May 2010 (here)

another note – I downloaded the image from here

rambling with a cherry on top

Rainier Cherries

Pitted cherries – in total 10lbs of them. This batch went into the dehydrator to make tasty snacks.

I’ve been pitting a lot of cherries lately which is one of those repetitive tasks that keeps my hands busy and leaves me room to think. One of the topics I’ve been pondering is artificial intelligence because I’m about to delve into a near final (I hope) edit of my science fiction novel where one of the characters is an AI.

After the picture above, I feel need a segue such as AI is like cherries… hmmm, nope I can’t think of a witty ending. So how about, here’s some thoughts about AI with a cherry on top?

What will artificial intelligence look like?

No doubt machines have more computational power than a human, but when a machine becomes aware will the first thing it does be to turn on the humans around it like Hal or humanity in general like Skynet? Or will it spend its time trying to figure out how to be human, like Data? Or will they just take all our jobs as news stories suggest?

Will humans be replaced in the workplace as news stories suggest? My job requires specialized, technical knowledge with a peppering of creative thinking – it’s a good human job but perhaps in a few years it could be great job for AI. I’d bet a AI would be faster and more accurate.

As a tangent – would a post-job society free me up to focus on being human? Perhaps. There’s an interesting article about that here.

Or will they be one of us, like Lovely in the the long way to a small angry planet (there’s a nice review here)? Will we discriminate against aware AI? Humanity does have a long history of discrimination. Will AI discriminate against us? Will AI even want anything to do with us? Or will they keep us as essentially pets? Will they even care about us at all? Maybe they won’t identify us as intelligent.

Lots of fodder for thought.

dried cherries

In the end, 10lbs of cherries turned into this.

at the plum tree hangout

Ladybugs

The ladybugs are busy

I took a closer look at what was going on in my plum tree the other day. It turns out the tree is hosting the entire ladybug circle of life (cue Lion King music here). It’s good thing I didn’t get around to doing anything about the aphid infestation.

ladybug eggs

The orange circles are ladybug eggs and the clear insects (aphids) are food for when the ladybug larvae emerge

ladybug larvae

Here’s an aphid about to be dealt with by a ladybug larvae.

Ladybug larvae are my favorite backyard predator – they look so nasty, reminding me of the alien insects Kahn put into Chekov’s ear to control him (From the 1982 Wrath of Kahn).

Ladybug cocoon

Ladybug cocoon

The Refrigerator Monologues – book review

Sometimes something keeps showing up everywhere I look – a couple of weeks ago, The Refrigerator Monologues dropped into this category. I first stumbled upon a guest post (on John Scalzi’s Whatever) written by the author where she discussed the idea behind the book. Later the same day, she was a guest on one of the podcasts I normally listen too (The Writer Files). Because the book caught my interest twice in one day, I ordered a copy. It turned out to be a quick read.

Catherynne M. Valentine has created an original universe of superheroes including Kid Mercury, The Insomniac, Platypunk, Mr. Punch, Retcon, Professor Yes, Zigzag, but the book isn’t about them.

Instead it’s a woven tale of six women tangled with superheros. Their stories have ended while the superhero’s go on. None of these women got their happy ending, instead they ended up as forgotten footnotes in someone else’s story – or as Paige Embry, one of these women, says: “trouble is, my story is his story.”

The idea behind the book comes from Gail Simone, a comic book writer. She pointed out that comic book women often get killed, raped, brainwashed, driven mad or have their powers taken to further the storyline of a male superhero (details here and here).

In Deadtown, a richly complex underworld where it’s always the middle of the night and the River Styx now flows through the pipes of the Deadtown Municipal Waterworks, the women converge. Some are residents, some are passing through. Deadtown has “no fiery rings of artisanal punishment” – it’s just a place where residents can’t move on

The women are all now members of the Hell Hath Club – a forum to share their stories. And they do, the reader gets six tales of how each of them ended up in Deadtown and the spin is different each time.

“Dead. Dead. Dead. Flying ace of the corpse corps.” – and the whole book is full of this kind of wordplay.I love the author’s word smithing (okay I’m flat out envious). Overall, even with its tragic bent, The Refrigerator Monologues was a fun read.

something weird…

white maple leaves

While out walking today at lunch I spotted this odd group of leaves – each one completely white. The leaves higher up were normal, as were all the leaves on the other maples around. Something fantastically botanical was going on, but I have no idea what.

Perhaps, the explanation lies in the location – the area is called Mystic Vale.

Reading Fiction (my bookish secret)

beetle on a pin

This beetle has nothing to do with this post – I just find bug collections fascinating.

Years ago, a friend hooked me on romance novels. For a while that’s all I read. Almost every Saturday, I’d pack up the stack I’d recently read and trek down to the used bookstore where I’d trade for a new stack. I have no idea how many books I’d cycled through when it dawned on me – the novels were all the same story. I know some people love a formulaic romance story but, it turned out, not me.

My major complaint is that none of those books stick out in my mind. I can recite off the formula but not a single character name. Stumbling upon Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, hidden on the same shelf as the others, dragged me out of my formulaic rut. Even though Outlander is at it’s heart a romance, it has so much more going on and a protagonist I relate to and remember.

I now look for more complex stories preferably set in fantastic environments like a far off space station or a medieval world drenched in magic. Overly flowery prose bogs me down, and I prefer action to keep my attention (if a book is critically acclaimed as literary fiction I’m unlikely to read it even if doing so would make me a better person (what this really means is I’m happiest reading entertaining fluff – but don’t tell anyone)).

Some books draw me in and I can’t put them down while others languish in perpetuity with a bookmark part way through (I never pick them up again).

Recently, I came across a space opera series with cyborgs that I couldn’t put down (The Fallen Empire series by Lindsay Buroker). While one the other hand, I tried to read two other space opera books (which were the first in series) where I didn’t even make it halfway in either book before I realized I just didn’t care. Based on the description, I should’ve liked all three series – so why did only one of them strike a chord with me?

Pinpointing what draws me into a story has been a challenge – it’s like unpacking ikea furniture and trying to determine if all the pieces are there. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • The protagonist needs to be imperfect but basically moral – and I need to like her/him (I know the anti-hero is a current trend, but that just doesn’t work for me). They could have terrible pasts where they’ve done less than moral things requiring atonement in the present. They can even be committing crimes in the time frame of the story with good reason.
  • I need a diverse cast of characters doing believable things. I want secondary characters to be interesting, even quirky – and I want to be able to tell them apart (unless they’re clones). Recently, I put down a book because it painfully failed here*.
  • The writing needs to be accessible and friendly with a touch of optimism. A requirement I’m currently testing by trying some Horror (Bird Box by Josh Malerman, which is creeping me out but I can’t put it down).
  • Every book has a typo somewhere – and I’m okay with that. However, continuity errors drive me nuts. Recently, I read a book with a ton of characters. Partway through the book a few of the characters ran into each other. They had never met or made contact of any kind – yet they knew each other’s names. I put down the book at that point.*
  • Bonus points for any story that can pull off a bit of humour (The Space Team books by Barry Hutchison pull this off well, kinda like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies)

So, what draws you into a novel?

* as a note – I will only be sharing titles of books I’ve enjoyed and recommend as I’m not comfortable writing negative reviews – the exception is Crime and Punishment, reading that left me clear on two points: killing two women with an axe is a crime and punishment is making me read about the protagonist wine about it.

Remembering the future

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t watched Arrival or read the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang and are planning to, I must warn you I’m about to give a big part of the story away.

I did something I don’t normally do – I read the story a movie was based on after watching the movie.

Normally, I make a point of reading the book first. That way I get to create my own versions of the characters and settings before the Hollywood creative guru’s present me with their compelling imagery. My own versions of Rivendell or a habitat on Mars, or even what Elrond or Mark Watney looked like (…well in my imagination Mark Watney did look like Matt Damon) are always different.

Once I started watching Game of Thrones, I felt no desire to read the books – and generally this is true for me. But Arrival was an exception because it got me thinking.

It’s a first contact story where alien’s arrive on Earth, but the purpose of the visit isn’t clear. The protagonist, a linguist, is brought in to attempt to communicate with the aliens. Their written language is non-linear, and as the protagonist deciphers more and more she realizes the non-linearity extends to how the aliens experience time. As she become more proficient in the alien language, she begins to experience time in the same non-linear way.

When I walked out of the theatre I wasn’t sure I liked the movie or not (It was really well done) because it left me feeling unsettled. When I think about the protagonist, a scientist like me, I can’t help but wonder what if she was me? (or what if I was her?) Would I make the same choices? Was the gift of knowing the future actually a curse? And does knowing the future negate our notion of free will?

How we (humans) experience time is routed in our perception. Physics doesn’t require the temporal linearity we experience. Free will, that is our actions are not predetermined, may be an illusion. But the movie didn’t go into the ramifications of knowing the future on free will, so I read the short story the movie was based on: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

The story isn’t as slick as the movie and it has less action – but, I felt it was infinitely better. It’s still a story about first contact and communicating with aliens, but more so it’s an intimate story about time that isn’t linear. Best of all, my concerns about free will was addressed nicely though an optics example which took away my concern that the protagonist was cursed (my perception that knowing the future is a curse is entirely rooted into my human view that time is linear).

Solaris book review

9cd3e-alien

My alien mascot

Solaris by T.M. Catron is a quick, fun read setting up what I hope with be a run of future adventures. It’s the first of a new space opera series.

It’s about a small crew on an independent ship that are smugglers anonymous transporters. In need of a new crew member, they stop over on the Captain’s home world. We are introduced to her home based complexities and why she’s chosen life on a ship. A new crew member is found with a too perfect resume just as they are forced off world.

I like a strong female protagonist and the Captain is certainly that. Her new crew member is intriguing with special skills that could make for interesting future plots. The book (novella?) is pure escapism – and sometimes that’s exactly what I need.