Saturday, July 25, 2009

Science fiction fandom camp in Lithuania: applied demonology

Aurelijus Katkevičius, the editor of a magazine "Verslo Klasė", stopped by at the science fiction fandom camp for a couple of hours. He gave a talk (here's a picture) "On applied demonology, or how to overcome a writer's block". A surprising combination of subjects, you'd say? Those were supposed to be two different lectures, of which he asked us to choose one; since we couldn't choose, he combined them. So, how are demonology and writer's block related?

When you hit a wall in your writing, there are several ways to get yourself unstuck, and most of them are based on the notion that once you start writing anything and do it for long enough, the magical writerly juices will start flowing, and you'll know how to proceed with your work. You could write about what's in front of you, like a cup that's sitting on your desk, or be Zen about it: surrender to your block, and write about how stuck you are. Or you could examine your protagonist in detail. This is where applied demonology comes into play. If your protagonist is a demon, you can create an entire science around him or her. You can determine what class, genus, and species he/she/it is, where does he live, what are his feeding habits, etc. You can write all this down on paper. It probably won't make it into the final draft of the story, since infodumps are typically unnecessary. But regardless if your character is a demon or anything else, the detailed examination can give you an insight into what his past and his condition would motivate him to do at a particular point in the story, thus giving you ideas how to proceed with the plot.

This method has actually worked for me, and I've figured it out just recently. When I'm drawing a complete blank on how to proceed with the plot, I try to visualize a secondary scene that does not appear to be important to the plot at all. I write it out in detail. And inevitably some important aspects of the characters' behavior, or of the world my novel is set in, emerge and become "hooks" for thefurther chapters of the book.

At least I thought that was the connection between demonology and writer's block. Then there is another angle: writer's block may be caused by demons each of us harbors. From here on out, the discussion took a turn that made the skeptic in me bite my tongue. It seems that any discussion on intellectual matters in Lithuania must at some point pay homage to cliches about the Orient. It is mandatory to say that it's a place where people Know Something We Don't, and we Should Not Even Try To Get It, lest we go crazy. I personally don't believe in any kind of special oriental wisdom, definitely not as a better alternative to a technological way of living; while I do know that people in those countries arrange their life's priorities somewhat differently than us (collectivism versus individualism), I don't see it as a manifestation of wisdom. But to voice dissenting opinions in a conversation where everybody seems to take this for granted would mean at least to start a debate no one is interested in having. And of course, that would be rude.

We also chatted about the state of book publishing in Lithuania. It's not great, though not disastrous either. Most science fiction published in Lithuania are translations of English / U.S., and Russian SF. Several speculative fiction and horror novels, as well as a few anthologies of short stories by Lithuanian authors have also been published lately. However, genre magazines do not survive. There are currently no exclusively science fiction / fantasy / horror magazines in Lithuania. We had some in the early nineties, but they did not last past the first 2-4 issues.

I asked if any Lithuanian publishing houses were publishing stuff electronically for e-book devices; to everyone's knowledge, none do. Electronic publishing in Lithuania may be a non-starter for the simple reason that piracy is so prevalent in Lithuania. I can't completely understand, though, why isn't piracy enough of an hindrance to electronic publishing in the US, or UK, or other developed countries. Do people in those countries obey the laws more willingly, or are there not-so-obvious technological reasons for that?

New pictures from the camp (with English and Lithuanian captions) have been added to my photo gallery.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Science fiction fandom camp in Lithuania, part 2: Museum of Ethnocosmology

As I said in my previous post, the camp was near an observatory. Not long ago, a person who used to be the head of the observatory built a so-called Museum of Ethnocosmology here, also referred to by the folks as Flying Saucer because of the resemblance. We toured this museum. Ethnocosmology may be a valid field of study of creation myths from around the world, and I imagine there's more than one Ph.D. dissertation to be made in it. However, this museum did not present a case for it. Overall there's not much in it (maybe because it's still new). The halls were almost empty, except for an exhibit containing pieces of meteorites, some folk art with no apparent connection to astronomy or cosmology, and some pretty, generic space photos on the walls.

The dearth of real exhibits may be why the tour guide filled up the time with New Age'y blather. He announced he was going to have a conversation with us about the meaning of life. Because you know, none of us thought about it before coming here. Then he rehashed a bunch of cliches about how the ancients perceived time as cyclical, while modern people see it as linear, and how technology made us forget the meaning of life (something I profoundly disagree with). He did not neglect to mention that oriental people perceive the world differently -- with their heart, not the logical mind. In other words, he slung some old, tired, and mostly untrue cliches.

The tour got a bit more lively when the guide pulled several kids into acting out a live model of the solar system. Well, it was limited to the Sun and the first 4 planets, which he positioned in proportional distances from the child who played the Sun. Given the scale of the Solar system, it's not suprising that the room was too small to accomodate the outer planets. :-) After that he took us 12 floors up to an observation deck that revealed a view of the surrounding lakes (there are seven of them) and woods. Then we walked up another 2 floors to look at a telescope, which wasn't working yet. The guide proudly told us this was going to be the largest telescope in Europe for public use.

I'm not sure what kind of expo this museum will have when completed. But I certainly didn't like the vaguely anti-science attitude it promotes, all the more regrettable that it comes from an organization that has facilities and staff to carry Carl Sagan's work in Lithuania, if they so chose. Maybe it's just me; some people did not feel the anti-science attitude as sharply as I did. But everybody agreed that the tour was, at best, bland.

The Ethnocosmology museum looks really remarkable from outside, though:

Ethnocosmology museum

Pictures from the camp (with English and Lithuanian captions) are in m photo gallery.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Science fiction fandom camp in Lithuania, part 1

While I was in Lithuania this year, I went to a science fiction fandom camp. The camp is put together by members of Dorado science fiction club of Vilnius, Lithuania, but is open to anyone interested in the genres of speculative fiction. There were around 20 people, and we all lived for 3 days in what could be described as a cabin in the woods, 2-3 people to a room, with an outdoors toilet and no showers. Then I found out there were empty rooms in another house nearby, which had a shower and bathrooms, and I moved there for the last night.

The camp has been taking place annually for a number of years in a scenic rural place between hills and lakes that's also a home to an observatory. So it's the right setting for speculative fiction lovers. The camp started out as a writers' retreat. Over the years, writing took a backseat to relaxation activities, such as swimming, hiking, volleyball, movies, games and chatting.

This year, my first year at the camp, there was only one creative writing task, prepared by Lina. She had us exercise our writerly muscles by writing what she called a "shadow prose". We each could choose one of five speculation fiction texts about 10-12 sentences long. We had to write our own prose between the sentences of the original text, while preserving its coherence. Two of the texts were well known -- "Alice in Wonderland" and Robert Silverberg's "To See the Invisible Man" (a great story, which is why I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole). Another two were excerpts from Lithuanian SF authors stories. The fifth one was "Micromégas" by Voltaire. Wikipedia cites this story as a "significant development in the history of literature because it originates ideas which helped create the genre of science fiction". It's a satirical story about a giant (many miles tall) from a planet orbiting Sirius. The premise did not appeal to me, and after reading an excerpt it was clear that it was one of those stories that has survived purely because of its historical significance. It's a pain to read, too. Every sentence in it runs on for a paragraph. So of course, I took it on as a challenge. I tried to follow Voltaire's style, which wasn't difficult because I have a natural inclination to be verbose. The result may have preserved the spirit of the story, but it wasn't funny (not that the original was either). So my story got very few votes. Stories that got the most votes were the ones that were fun to read. One of the best, written by SielojRamiakas, employed a very simple method of "mirroring" the original onomatopoeically (if there is such a word). I realize I'm not making myself very clear. It's one of those "you had to be there" things. It had the audience in stitches.

So, it's fair to say that the purpose of the task was not so much to improve one's writing, as to provide a break from the tough business of relaxation, and to bring the campers together for half an hour of laughter.

I'll write more about the camp in my upcoming posts.

Pictures from the camp (with English and Lithuanian captions) are in m photo gallery.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

ApolloCon 2009: Wil McCarthy on programmable matter

Wil McCarthy, a scientist and science fiction author, was the Guest of Honor at ApolloCon 2009. He gave a talk on the work he's been doing in programmable matter. He started off by showing the audience a piece of clear glass. Then he heated the glass with a hair dryer. An irregularly shaped reflective blob grew on the glass -- the heat turned the glass reflective. This was McCarthy's demonstration of materials he's working on in his startup.

Definitions and discussion of programmable matter can be found elsewhere on the web, and McCarthy did not dwell on the theory, but talked about his work in this area. His practical work in programmable matter developed from his nonfiction book "Hacking Matter", which it turn was born from his fiction. He talked about the events that lead to writing of "Hacking Matter", and how it attracted investors' interest, leading to creation of programmable matter startup. McCarthy talked about his company's journey to discovery of viable commercial applications for these materials, and why he avoids the word "nanotechnology" for marketing this technology to investors. He briefly discussed weapon potential and security issues of programmable matter with the audience. Finally, he talked about balancing his science and writing careers, or rather, impossibility thereof.

The whole article is available on my web site.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 are in my photo gallery.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

ApolloCon 2009: literary rap, materials science and space panels

I stopped by at a filk session on Friday or Saturday night, since the parties weren't exactly hopping. One quiet guy who sat in the corner until then surprised us (well, at least me) with a Game of Thrones rap. "Rap" is not quite accurate. The song had a simple melody with Celtic motives, but the melody was peripheral to the lyrics, which he delivered rapid-fire, never stopping to catch his breath. As a recap of a series of 700-page books, the song lasted a solid 10 minutes (not that I was looking at the clock). It was impressive, to say the least. If I understood correctly, the guy said he wrote it himself.

Then a woman said this reminded her of "Hamlet in 5 minutes" song, and she sang -- or rapped it, as that song is more or less pure rap -- right there and then. That's the kind of talented people we have lurking at the fringes of filk circles.

Beg, Steal or Borrow: Precious Commodities in the Space Colony

Maybe it's just me, but I noticed a hint of a theme in this year's ApolloCon 2009 -- many panels were related to material sciences (no wonder, because Wil McCarthy was the Guest of Honor), or space (also not surprising, because, well, this is Houston, home of NASA). When you combine the two, you'll get panels like "Beg, Steal or Borrow: Precious Commodities in the Space Colony". I regret I missed most of it. I wanted to check out a tea tasting, conducted by Ziactrice first, and then I was too lazy to leave the tea tasting midway and head to the panel. (It was worth it, as I got to taste some awesome, smoky lapsang souchong.) When I finally got to "Beg, Steal or Borrow", the panelists must have decided that none of those methods will get them far, because they were talking of manufacturing precious commodities.

You can ship oxygen you make on the Moon to a space colony in a lower orbit, cheaper than you would ship it from Earth. If you are just shipping freight, you could have a robot shipping system. Most of it could be automated. You could use solar sails as far as the asteroid belt. You could mine materials in asteroids, process them, and move them wherever they are needed. In many cases, what you need is just a fraction of the mass of the asteroid, not the whole thing. On the other hand, you should be careful with the economics of asteroid mining. If you mine a 700-meter diameter cast iron lump, you may dump too much of a good thing into economy, creating inflation.

Material sciences, or habitat design was also the theme of another panel, "Architecture of the Future Living in a Materials World", but the panelists did hardly more than complain how hard it is to build, or maintain, houses in Houston, because Houston climate is so tough on buildings. Well, that wasn't all they said, but the discussion was mostly about the present, not the future.

Pictures from ApolloCon 2009 can be found in my photo gallery.