10 January 2016

My Arisia Schedule

For anyone who might be in Boston MLK Day weekend, I’ll be doing several panels at Arisia

Popular Logical Fallacies         Sat 1:00 PM
Rhetoric, logic, and (proper) argument appear to be rare commodities (as recent presidential campaigns have amply demonstrated). From “ad hominem” to “No True Scotsman”, find out what argument styles just plain don’t wash, and learn how to avoid making these mistakes yourself.

The Technology of Star Trek         Sun 11:30 AM
Come celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek by discussing the good, the bad, and the ugly about the depictions of technology on screen and paper: communicators, tricorders, hand-held computers, and dozens of things you remember that the panel forgot.

How We Learn                Sun 8:30 PM
How does the human mind absorb, retain, and recall information? What psychological and biological processes are involved? Does one learning method work for all, or do some learning styles suit certain types of people better?

Read All the Things!              Mon 10:00 AM
Sure, we have limited reading time, but there are some authors whose works clamor to be read in their entirety! Which authors? Come to this panel and find out! Each panelist will discuss the author whose complete works they deem absolutely essential. Come develop your reading list for the next year!

I Hate the Hero                 Mon 1:00 PM
Is there a story with a protagonist that you dislike or maybe is just not likeable. I don’t mean, ‘The heavy is cooler than the hero,’ which is common. I mean you loathe the hero, to the point of rooting for the antagonist just to see them fail. What makes a hero likeable and do they have to be likeable for fans to be interested in the story?

I hope to meet some of you there!

24 December 2015

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis

Spoilers ahoy!

Was it really necessary to start this story with a long, repetitive argument between two college professors, over an intercom?

Doomsday Book is the story of Oxford Professor (Lecturer?) James Dunworthy and an undergraduate, Kivrin Engle. (At least I think she is an undergraduate, it is not especially clear from the story.) Engle, a historian, wants to be the first person to use this world's established time travel to explore the Oxford area of England in the 14'th Century. Dunworthy doubts the safety or practicality of the project, but is prevailed on to help her prepare.

After the opening sequence, the novel is split between Dunworthy's adventures in the near-future world and Kivrin's in the past. In what has to be conscious parallelism, they both live through terrible disease outbreaks, both of them experience terrible illness (the same one, in fact) that nearly kills them, and in general there is a lot of parallelism between the two plots in the two different time periods.

Doomsday Book won the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Lots of people clearly like it.

I did not.

It isn't badly-written at all. It's just overlong and plot-light and repetitive for my tastes. Everyone in my book club agreed that it should have been shorter, with estimates ranging from 20% to 40% as the amount to cut. The plots just get repetitive. How many times does Dunworthy have to encounter the same problems (intrusive, demanding bell-ringers; Professor Gilchrist is an obstructive idiot) or Kivrin have to encounter the same issues (caring for a sociopathic-age toddler in medieval society, being distrusted by the mother-in-law) before it's enough?

I have never, in reading many, many stories, encountered a novel before where the themes were so obvious as to be distracting. Yes, Ms. Willis, I get it. People's natures haven't changed since the 1300s. I know. I'm a biology guy. I knew that. Stop telling me! And the motif of imprisonment couldn't be more obvious if each page was watermarked with bars and locks. It just got obtrusive, for this one reader.

Finally, I'm an SF fan from way back. My brain automatically analyzes stories for consistency and logic. In the world of _Doomsday Book_, there is time travel, and it's entirely controlled by Oxford University. Really? No government body regulates time travel? For that matter, there is apparently no non-local government and no military. When a terrifying flu pandemic threatens Oxford town with mass death, no soldiers and no government health agency appear. In fact, no international health agencies or NGOs apparently exist in the world of this story. They sent a young woman, alone, to what is acknowledged to be a very dangerous time period, with no equipment except a voice recorder--not even a locator device for the only place she can visit to be returned to the present? On the word of one temporary administrator during a vacation?

Where the heck is Gilchrist's boss, who goes on vacation and vanishes off the face of the Earth? It's a major plot point that isn't resolved, because plot is at best tertiary in this novel. And if Dunworthy can't reach him, to override the idiot narcissist Gilchrist, surely he has a boss? But no, in this world the Dean of an Oxford college can never be overridden by anyone for any reason, ever. Really?

There's a flu outbreak in Oxford. Totally plausible, that. They quarantine the town to protect the rest of the world. Totally reasonable, that. The town starts to run out of food. What? Why would that happen? The trains are still running! Why would it be so hard to drive trucks (lorries, I suppose) of food into town? We know they have infection-protective suits, because they're used in the story.

All this non-logic and anti-reality stuff threw me out of the story, because it's a big part of why Dunworthy's plot runs so long. He's constantly solving problems that have no reason to exist.

I also felt that too much of Ms. Willis' research leaked into the story in a clunky way, as "Here's something you should know about 1348" material. Because the plot was so nonexistent for maybe 150 pages, it couldn't serve to camouflage the exposition.

I wish I had liked it. But I did not.

04 December 2015

Scientist Simon Winchester reports that A=A

I've liked Simon Winchester's work since The Professor and the Madman.
Professor and the Madman A Tale of Murder Insanity & the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

I'm now reading his Pacific.
Pacific by Simon Winchester
On page 314 he writes:

Most plates move relatively slowly--the North American Plate, for example, is shifting westward at about twenty millimeters a year, somewhat less than the rate at which human fingernails grow. The Pacific Plate, by contrast, is something of a speed demon: it moves ten times as rapidly, and in a habitual northwesterly direction, covering something like two centimeters each year.


Interestingly, when I did a fairly quick online search, I found that there are multiple inconsistent figures for tectonic plate movement speeds, and that at least one source lists both the North American Plate and Pacific Plate as moving about 7 cm per year.

I've written to Mr. Winchester through his web site to ask whether this was an error introduced during editing, or merely missed during editing.

27 September 2015

Surprise! Something everyone should already know!

In his "News of the Weird" column for September 27, 2015, Chuck Shepherd says:

Adam Partridge Auctioneers in Liverpool announced in September that the equivalent of $10,000 would be the starting bid on a two-pound mass of whale vomit (hardened into a chunk by aging in ocean waters) picked up by a beachcomber in Wales. BBC News reported that a six-pound hunk once sold for the equivalent of $150,000; when aged into "ambergris," the putrid waste product turns waxy and sweet-smelling and proves valuable to "high-end perfume houses."
Maybe it's me, but isn't ambergris incredibly well known? I knew about it decades before reading Moby-Dick. Is the very existence of an extremely well-known substance that's attested to in one of the best-known works of American literature so funny it's worth remarking on? Seriously, tell me in comments, because I don't get it.

30 October 2013

I am the Cheese

This has nothing to do with the webcomics of David Willis.

As we have finally announced, ICON Science Fiction is launching a new convention, called "LI-CON" and chaired by, well, your host here.

It'll be a blast. We already have Jody Lynn Nye (MythAdventures), Bill Fawcett (Mayfair Games), Paul Barnett (2xHugo winner, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction) and John Rennie (host of Hacking the Planet). And we're not even really up to full speed recruiting.

Of course, we still plan to hold the big brother convention, I-CON, a bit later in the year.

Please help out by funding us via Indiegogo. It will be a beautiful thing.

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