A Close and Common Orbit book review

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The closest picture I have to an alien

I’m suffering the consequences of my gleeful debut working in the garden for the year. It was so nice to be out there and get mud on my hands that I stayed out too long. As I sit here, I can feel that I paid the price in my back, hands and glutes. So, since then I’ve been spending my evenings couch sitting doing a lot of reading.

I don’t consider myself qualified to discuss writing – if I don’t stumble over the words, or have to wade though overly verbose language, I won’t notice the words just the story. I recently heard this sentiment described more eloquently – prose is like a window pane, it can be a beautiful stain glass window atop a story or clear glass (or anywhere in between). Some people like looking through the stained glass masterpiece, but I like the clear glass.

However, since stories are a fundamental part of being human, I am qualified to discuss stories I like. And I’ve recently found one – A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

It’s a sequel of sorts to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, (which I was going to write a review for and still might), but I just finished A Closed and Common Orbit last night and something about it really resonated with me.

Recently, I’ve been feeling inundated with news of public figures trying to exclude entire groups of people, it was so nice to read a book with such a sense of inclusiveness with vastly different sorts of people (and aliens) living together in a working society.

It’s a world with sentient AI’s, but they are not considered people and it’s illegal for them to take the form of a sentient being. The story follows an AI newly in a human form struggling to fit into her world. The book is science fiction, but not action. Even though they live on a tidally locked moon far off in the galaxy, it’s a very human story.

The world is complex and not without conflict, but it’s a future could live in. The characters are complex and flawed enough they could really exist. I hope she writes more stories set in this future.

Settler Chronicles – just a taste of the first chapter

I’m going to be brave and share the first chapter of my book. I’m still wordsmithing the text, but I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m aiming to launch the entire thing as an eBook later this year.

Part of the reason I’m ready to share is because I submitted this chapter to a podcast run by two professional editors. They read it and gave a critique here. I found their comments helpful (although it was weird to hear someone read my words aloud) and they left me feeling ready to share.

Settler Chronicles is about a group setting up a colony on a far away world. Nothing goes according to plan then they discover a conniving plot one of the settlers has set up to ensure the colony fails. Will they catch the saboteur before it’s too late…

14:21hrs Day 114
“Mayday, mayday, mayday.”

Hovering by the control room door, Gary Holbrook kept his eyes glued to the monitor as Joan Taggart’s voice crackled over the radio.

“Right engine’s down, left’s responding sluggishly. Have to land. Over,” said Joan sounding infinitely far away—and for practical purposes, she was. Outside, beyond the safe colony walls she was piloting Shuttle 2.

In the control room, the main monitor displayed Joan’s forward cockpit view. Towering spires of rocks extended towards the sky in all directions and Shuttle 2 was losing altitude bringing the rough terrain closer and closer. Acting Captain Craig Spares leaned over the duty officer, Lucas Ordaz, to get a closer look at the landscape.

Gary took two more paces to towards the main video feed. As the ship’s doctor, he felt outside his element, but unwilling to leave. He happened to be walking by when he heard his wife, Margo’s voice over the radio – she was on the shuttle with Joan. Taking a deep breath, he tried to forget that he hadn’t taken time that morning to ask Margo why she was going.

“There,” Craig said, pointing to a piece of landscape that looked the same as the rest. He picked up the microphone and pressed the transmit button. “Shuttle 2, there’s a flatter region at your 2 o’clock, aim for that. Over.”

“Margo get your helmet on,” Joan said, unaware she was transmitting. “Control, say again about landing site, over.”

“Your 2 o’clock.”

“They don’t have helmets on,” whispered Gary, his eyes fixed on the screen displaying the shuttle’s forward view. All sensors showed that Thesan’s atmosphere lacked oxygen. If the bubble of the shuttle’s hull was compromised, their atmosphere suits were all that would keep the two people on the shuttle alive.

“Dr. Holbrook, get ready to receive casualties,” said Craig without looking away from the monitor.

Gary didn’t move; rescuing Joan and Margo was impossible. The colony’s only other shuttle lay trapped beneath a mangled hangar door.

The three of them in the control room watched helplessly as the shuttle’s flight pattern grew more erratic, creating the illusion that the pillars of rocks were dancing and twisting. As the shuttle got closer, the rock formations appeared to be grabbing at it with Lovecraftian tentacles. Watching made Gary feel sick to his stomach, but he couldn’t turn away.

A single rock tower loomed in the display. In a split second, the monolith of pock-marked grey consumed the view. The display went black, and Joan’s life sign monitor winked out.

“Can you get any visuals?” demanded Craig. Lucas looked down to the secondary screen in front of him and began searching the video feeds. “Margo, can you hear me?” transmitted Craig, seeing that Margo’s life signs remained strong.

“It appears she got her helmet on in time, but she only has 25 minutes of air. No, make that 20 minutes,” said Lucas reading Margo’s suit sensors. He turned to Craig. “Her suit has a leak. She needs to fix it right away.”

“Margo, do you hear me?” said Craig into the comms system. There was no reply.

“Can you bring up her helmet cam?” Lucas turned back to his display.

“It appears to be damaged, look.” Lucas switched the main display view. The screen showed mostly black with a few patches of smudged light.

“Okay, keep trying the other cameras.”

Lucas flipped through views until he came to the shuttle’s cargo hold view. The camera, once showing the shuttle’s interior, now surveyed the grey landscape. Harsh blue light from the brighter sun illuminated the area. They could see a slice of the valley floor surrounded by finger-like rock formations. The crushed forward section of the shuttle could just be seen at the top of the screen. Debris littered the landscape between the two sections.

“Margo, please respond,” transmitted Craig.

The three of them stood in silence as they waited. Gary closed his eyes hoping to hear Margo’s voice.

“There, movement,” said Lucas pointing to where the valley floor moved. Gary too another step closer to look. A grey mass extended upwards. Thick waves of what appeared to be viscous drips slowly revealed the mass to be a human form.

“Is the valley floor liquid?” asked Craig.

“It shouldn’t be, but I can’t get any in situ details,” said Lucas. “All the shuttle sensors died in the crash.”

To Gary it looked like thick mud coated Margo’s suit. With muddy gloved hands, she was trying to wipe the sticky goo off her visor. After a few moments, she must have got enough muck off to see the aft part of the shuttle wreck. With viscous fluid reaching halfway up her shins, she started wading towards the wreckage.

“Ten minutes of air,” said Lucas.

“Margo, respond,” said Craig again.

Gary watched Margo emerge fully from the sludge and walk to the aft section. Mud clung to every surface of her suit.

“There’s no way she’ll find a tear in her suit covered in gunk,” said Lucas, checking the sensor readings once again.

Margo stopped and stared directly at the camera. Gary couldn’t make out her face under the smeared surface of her helmet. Alarms must be going off telling her she was leaking air. Why isn’t she trying to fix her suit?

“Five minutes.”

Margo turned and stepped out of view.

“Bring up her helmet camera,” snapped Craig. “Margo! Respond!”

“Leave her alone,” said Gary his eyes fixed on his wife’s life signs. “Let her have some peace.”

“She’s out of air,” said Lucas slumping into his seat.

On cue, Margo’s life sign monitor winked out.


And that’s all I’m sharing at this point. What do you think? Please comment below.

A years worth of food (2016)

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Baskets of beans

There are good reasons to garden revolving around food security, ethics and reduced environmental impact which matter a lot to me. Some of these issues come with a rabbit hole worth of depressing information that can suck me in. Discovering more about all the nasty ways corporations are dissecting our worlds to make a profit does not leave me feeling empowered or even motivated. Part of me thinks I should write about these things but in all honesty, they leave me wanting to put my head in the sand and ignore the issues entirely.

So, positive reasons to grow my own food include flavour, variety and quality (for example, I grow the best cabbage I’ve ever eaten). Gardening also gets my family outside and covered in soil. Just spending time being still surrounded by nature and I notice things I wouldn’t normally see (like ladybug sex).

Food production is also a constant human problem that will always need to be solved. It’s an old problem, going back perhaps more than 10,000 years. It’s also a current problem urban dwellers mostly avoid. And, it’s a futuristic problem if we’re going to go off an inhabit new world (this is where my geek-dome comes in).

So on to the numbers: In 2016, I grew 120 kg of food, less than 2015 where I grew 196 kg. The biggest difference was I purposely didn’t grow many squash (I still have squash in my kitchen from 2015). I also got a full time job in April which combined with being a grad student made planting everything I intended to difficult, as a result many things didn’t get planted or harvested (my bad).

All the below, works out to feed a person requiring 2000 calories a day for 50 days – a few days less than the 62 days worth of food from last year. That extra 12 days of food was likely all squash, so no loss really.

Eggs – 149 (just over 12 dozen), these numbers are low because I sent the hens to a farm in the spring (a real farm, honest).

Roots – 6.1 kg (down from 13.54 kg in 2015), I never got around to planting carrots. I do however still have plenty of beets yet to dig up.

Greens – 5.2 kg (down from 10.49 kg in 2015), this year I lumped the kale and collards in with my brassica category.

Oniony things – 9.3 kg (up from 3.75 kg in 2015), there was a bumper crop of onions and shallots.

Sprouts – 1.8 kg (up from 0.99 kg in 2015).

Brasicas – 14.3 kg (up from 0.5 kg in 2015). I had tones of broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.

Peas/beans – 4.1 kg (up from 2.6 kg in 2015)

Herbs – 2.6 kg (up from 1 kg in 2015)

Fruit – 11.1 kg (down from 16.6 kg in 2015)

Mushrooms – 0.8 kg (up from 0.5 kg in 2015)

Tomatoes – 33.6 kg (similar to 2015)

Peppers – 2.4 kg (down from 4.8 kg in 2015)

Cucumber – 5.6 kg (up from the pathetic 0.5 kg in 2015)

Dried beans – 12.9 kg (up from 5.75 kg in 2015)

Potatoes – 2.8 kg (down from 33 kg in 2015, but I planted them as an afterthought)

Squash – 2.5 kg (down from the ridiculous 67 kg from 2015)

Amaranth – 2.1 kg (got almost nothing in 2015)

Sunflower seeds – 1.4 kg

Popcorn – 1.2 kg

Changes are coming

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I took this photo on a recent trip to the local butterfly gardens

I started this blog shortly after going back to grad school after more than a decade away from anything academic.

At first, I didn’t think academic writing would be a big deal as I’d been writing fiction and journaling since I was a teenager. My supervisor suggested I start writing early (good advice), so I quickly produced a text destined for my thesis. Well… that first chuck of text got handed back to me covered with red ink and I was accused of being a taciturn writer (a word that I had to go out and look up).

Standing there with my massacred text, it hit me that I had to make myself into a better writer. All the research I could find suggested the best solution was to practice writing more – and (gulp) send my writing out into the world. I’d written 4 novels by that point which very few people had been allowed to read. Perhaps those books suffered from taciturnity, but my readers were kind enough not to mention (Some day I might work up the nerve to re-read those stories).

After an unnecessarily long time spent pondering the issue, I decided starting a blog was the best solution. I was both afraid to share my writing and worried I wouldn’t have enough ideas. But, ideas beget more ideas and writing this format is fun. I ditched thoughts of fiction and started focusing exclusively on non-fiction. I even stopped reading fiction – a state I stayed in for years.

One day, my husband’s co-worker loaned me The Martian. I loved the book, then I remembered some notes about a story idea I’d had years ago. I dug out the notes. It was an outline for a book with themes similar to The Martian (Even if I’d come up with the exact same idea, I would never have been able to execute it as well as Andy Weir). This got me thinking… maybe my story ideas could be good, maybe even good enough to share.

The Martian had the side effect of getting me to start reading fiction again – The Night Circus, Wool, Station 11, The Girl with all the Gifts and on and on. I’ve been reading fiction like mad since.

And (in case anyone noticed my blog posts have gotten a bit sparse) I started writing fiction again. I’m now three drafts into novel number 5 and one of my major goals for 2017 is to finish it and (gulp) publicly share it.

So now that I’ve admitted that I’m going to publish my book, I’m going to start shifting the focus of this blog (it is about tangents after all). There’ll still be some science-y stuff, still some mucking about in the garden and I want to start sharing some of the fiction I’ve been reading and loved along with some thoughts (not necessarily mine) on creativity.

I’m also going to share some fiction.

Some tidbits

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Black amaranth growing in a random place.

Here are some tidbits of science-y garden bits I’ve come across in the last little while.

Blue Food
I grow blueberries and blackberries. My brassicas all have a nice blue-ish tint. Last year I grew blue tomatoes (not tasty enough to bother growing again) and this year I’m trying to grow blue popcorn. I have black amaranth from last year volunteering itself everywhere, which I’d argue fits into the same colour category as those above – which is really more purple than blue. So, Why are so few foods blue?

Along the same vein of blue, I stumbled across this berry eons ago – too bad it isn’t edible (it sure is pretty).

Space Grass
We’ve been actively converting grass to vegetable garden here. This spring, we doubled my veggie growing space by taking over most of the front lawn (the area in front of the food forest). It has the most sunlight of anywhere on my lot, so I’ve filled the space with beans, corn, amaranth, sunflowers and brassicas. What I don’t want is grass, so I was surprised to read about astronauts growing grass on the space station. Why not more food? Lettuce has been grown successfully up there. Or more flowers? There has already been zinnias in space.

Hot Peppers
One of the podcasts I listen to recently had an interview with one of my favourite authors – Mary Roach. The interview was about her most recent book (Grunt) which came out earlier this month, and I ordered. The book is about the science behind keeping soldiers alive, I’m hoping to start reading my copy this weekend. It turns out she was inspired to write Grunt after a research trip to study the science behind hot peppers. Here’s the article.

Although, I have no plans to weaponize my hot peppers, my plants are growing big and healthy. Hopefully I’ll get a bumper crop to turn into hot sauces.

a saga of imperfect timing

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I captured a shot of this guy while on a recent trip to our local butterfly gardens – I love its eye.

In April my PhD funding was scheduled to officially end. My awesome supervisor had scrounged extra money for a few more months, to the end of the summer at most. But, I was suffering from financial angst, i.e. a fear of being unpaid which would quickly become a problem. I’m progressing on my dissertation, its mostly just writing now. Most of my first draft is done, but I expect to be revising for quite some time. I knew I was very unlikely to finish before my funding ran out. The best case scenario I could come up with would have me finish early fall. Timing that just didn’t match my funding.

To abate my financial angst, I started dabbling in freelance writing, actually found a few paying gigs (I discovered a secret talent for creating logic puzzles). It was an interesting experience, but there was no way I could earn ‘enough’ doing it in the short term.

I planned a massive garden as groceries cost. We turned most of what was left of the front lawn into food garden – effectively doubling the annual veggie beds at the house. Plus, there was my parent’s garden to plant and I signed up for an allotment with some friends. Because I wasn’t busy enough, when I came up with an idea for a novel last summer I decided to start writing. It’s a science fiction who-done-it with lots of plants (and butterflies), and writing it has been a fun diversion from dull academic writing. And, my busy three-and-a-half year old deserves plenty of my time.

In the midst of everything, a job in my field came up. I got it and with rather short notice started in April. It’s a perfect fit for my skill set and has removed my financial angst and much of my free time. It’s all good – however, adding full time work onto my already full plate left me overwhelmed. I had to let some things go (unfortunately this blog was an early casualty). I dialed back my garden plans, backed out of sharing an allotment, and gave my chickens to a friend with a farm (a literal farm, not a figurative one). I stopped freelance writing and cleaned up many of the ‘experiments’ I was running around the house.

I’ve managed to keep puttering on my dissertation. I no longer have to be in a rush, hopefully I’ll be done in a year. Surprisingly, I’ve finished a first draft of my novel and am puttering away on the second. It turns out, for me writing fiction is a nice late evening task. I like my story and am planning on self-publishing it, maybe late fall.

The garden is looking organized, beds are dug over, sprinklers on timers are set up and plenty of things are planted. I lost a few pepper plants due to not re-potting them in time, so I just bought replacements. With my husband’s help we are in good shape to finish planting in the garden. Plus, we’ve created a small plot for my daughter which she has chosen to fill with strawberries and flowers. I’ll try to keep posting updates here, but I don’t promise to be regular for a while.

April garden update – and I cause wind storms

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Garden on 1 April 2016. The new raised bed in front of the chickens will be for my daughter to fill – she’s already been discussing the relative merits or radishes and carrots.

The last few days have felt like someone switched on spring. Plants have been rushing to bloom (including the last of my overwinter greens) and there is new growth everywhere. I’ve been able to putter outside in just my t-shirt – and the monster mud pit is starting to dry up.

At the beginning of March we finally got the greenhouse covered, but not strapped down yet. Within 24 hours we had a major wind storm that nearly blew it away. That day I was out there holding the greenhouse down (not easy to do) while my husband was screwing the strapping on (my three-year old ran around inside delighted with the excitement). For the next few weeks we had a windstorm every other day – since windstorms around here are a November thing, I’ve concluded putting up the greenhouse caused them. We’ll need to do some fixing, but the greenhouse has survived and is now filled with young plants.

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Inside the greenhouse – originally I got specifically-for-outside-poly clear tape to hold the cover on, but it didn’t stick. So we resorted to the red tape, which is ugly, but holding well.

The front food forest has been a bit of a deer-ravaged-weed-zone, but I’ve started to get a handle on it. The perennials, bushes and trees are coming to life and I hope will grow enough this year to drown out some of the weeds. And, even though the deer have been eating my sprouting broccoli, there was still plenty left over for me to harvest. On the agenda for April is putting up a better fence!

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The sawdust paths are looking more defined and it looks like I’ll get boatloads of blueberries.

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Blooming honey berries, which should be the first berries ready to eat.

 

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I know these aren’t edible, but they are pretty

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Primroses in the morning – these are edible, but not tasty

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The plum behind my back fence is putting on a nice show of blooms – and there have been plenty of bees.

practice, practice, practice

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These guys are now up.

It’s interesting how sometimes I notice the same idea coming at me from wildly different places. Lately, the concept of ‘practice’ has repeatedly emerged from very different sources.

A few weeks ago I listened to a podcast about Tetris (the 1980’s computer game). Compared to other video games out there it’s shockingly simple, yet it has endured in various forms since its invention. There is even a version on it on my computer right now. Tetris type games are my favourite type of games – mildly addictive and I never seem to tire of them.

The thing is, it’s impossible to win Tetris. No matter what one does, those blocks keep coming faster and faster until eventually they fill the screen. Every single game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot, I’ve lost. But winning isn’t the point, in fact, there is no set end point. Which links to the concept of practice, I can always play a tiny bit better, manipulate those shapes a little bit faster and that’s what keeps bringing me back.

I recently signed up for a new yoga class. The instructor has been talking a lot about practice and how it’s a way for an individual to push their own boundaries. There is no real end goal to yoga – well… enlightenment maybe, but that’s well outside my expectations in the same realm as winning a game of Tetris. For me yoga (or physical fitness in general) is not a project that ends. I can always push myself incrementally a bit further through deliberate practice.

Along the same vein, I just finished reading a writing book (The Creative Compass) that’s also advocating for a deliberate practice of generating words, a push to get ideas down. Although, I’m working on several finite writing projects (with my dissertation being the biggest) when I finish, I’ll simply start writing something else, a different project – I suspect there is no set end to my writing.

Gardening also fits into this practice model, as there are seasonal cycles but no real end. I can tweak what I do from year to year but it’s never complete – I can’t ‘win’ in any absolute sense (nor would I want to). There will always be weeding, planning, planting and harvesting to do. It’s the process that drives me, which is perhaps the point of considering it a practice.

(Perhaps parenting counts as another sort of practice as there is no real end state, no ‘winning’ just moment to moment choices.)

How to like squash

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This is one of my fancy French heritage squash I planted last year (Sucrine du Berry), according to the seed package it is supposed to have “a sweet, musky fragrance and a delicious sweet flesh” – it just tastes like squash to me.

So I have a little secret – I don’t actually like squash (the exception is pumpkin pie, which is the best desert on the planet). I thought I would grow to like it, but it was recently pointed out to me that turning all my squash into curried squash soup only really means I like curry.

But, for the last few years, squash has turned out to be my most productive crop – I’m still working through the 67kg I harvested last year and there is only so much curried squash soup one family can stand. Which has left me with no choice but to experiment. So we’ve had coconut squash pasta (which was good, but could just be me liking coconut milk), squash and black bean burgers (also good, but I couldn’t taste the squash) and squash muffins (about as far into baking that I ever venture). All reasonable options for reducing my squashy stash.

The best option by far is lacto-fermented squash. Once fermented it’s ready in the fridge whenever, and is an easy addition to a plowman style lunch. I’ve only had it, so far, styled as kimchi, but there is plenty of opportunity to experiment here – but not with spaghetti squash (I fermented some last year and it was not good and I’ve since come across others who’ve tried and come to the same conclusion).

Anyone have other ideas on how to prepare winter squash for those of us who don’t really like it?

 

garden in a cube

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an edible chrysanthemum – blooming when I rather it didn’t

As I sit looking out to the garden six lemon yellow flowers provide a cheerful punch in the winter garden dominated by greens and mud. They’re edible chrysanthemums, planted to provide winter greens, but they decided to bloom – in January.  The only other flash of bright colour comes from the Steller’s Jay that has taken up foraging the footprints of past compost bins, presumably ground full of tasty delights. The flash of blue keeps distracting me, but I don’t mind. Looking out always reminds me, the garden is about more than the food it produces.

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a company that outfits sea containers with hydroponic gardening systems. Inside, lights cast an optimized spectrum of wavelengths on vertical crops creating a glowing purple world. These gardens (factories? systems?) are reminiscent of a retrofuturistic world without ground to plant and gardens are for one purpose only – human food production.

This kind of food production could feed a lot of people. Since I have a ridiculously long and flat driveway for an urban dweller, I could easily accommodate one of these portable systems – and it’s even tempting. I wonder if there has been thought of sending these systems to the remote communities in the north? Could they produce fresh produce cheaper than flying it in?

I have to admit, I prefer a more polyculture style garden. I would never sit in one of these systems, while I’ll sit in my garden and observe. I prefer the lushness of a polyculture set up along with the wildlife that come in. Plus, I like the illumination of the full visible spectrum, not just the wavelengths that serve growth best.

Hey, there’s the Steller’s Jay…