Dec 11

Giant Microbes: A Great Holiday Gift for the Microbiologist in Your Life!

If you’ve wandered near a microbiology/cell biology lab recently, or maybe even a grad student’s apartment, you might have noticed some fluffy-looking microbial denizens.  They’re called Giant Microbes and they have been multiplying for years!

I’ve been collecting these things since undergrad.  Sometimes I’ll add them on to an order at ThinkGeek, or I’ll get them as gifts from friends and family.  At current count, I have eight – enough to fill a box with squishy, lovable, deadly diseases.

So why bring them up now?  Well there are some new Giant Microbes that have just come out and the company was nice enough to send me a few to review. Continue reading

May 20

Science Fiction Vs. Fantasy or The One Change Rule

Usually this blog is reserved for little newsy updates about my life, but I’d like to take a moment to address a topic that I’ve been semi-scholarly thinking about for many years now.

Science fiction and fantasy are the Siamese twins of literature.  Sometimes people mention other major genres together, such as romance, suspense, and mystery, but this has more to do with describing the bookstore than the books themselves.  No, the two genres that I will collectively pool together under “speculative fiction” are almost always thought of in concert because so many of their tropes and literary devices blend together.

So what’s the point of comparing the two?

While there ARE a lot of great similarities between science fiction and fantasy, there are also some distinct differences.  In the past, people tended to focus on defining science fiction so that everything else can be tossed into the fantasy hat.  This is probably because science fiction people tend to enjoy rules in their literature, so they take more time to think about these things.  Or maybe they’re just a bit snootier.  I’m a bit snooty about SF too, so we’ll start along that line of reasoning.

“Science”

The oldest definition of science fiction is that it must heavily emphasize space, aliens, and/or advanced technologies.  This seems to be the obvious way to go because it’s right there in the name: science.  Unfortunately, even in the earliest days of science fiction, space operas and other science-based adventure stories contrasted sharply with more cerebral, clever, and thought-provoking works characteristic of The Golden Age (see any SF anthology edited by John W. Campbell for examples).  A laser gun does not a science fiction story make!

Hard and Soft

After this, SF people got more crafty and invented “hard” science fiction.  The delineation here was in the rigor applied to the science component.  Stories that kept away from faster than light (FTL) travel and other impossible physics (by today’s theoretical standards) were deemed “hard.”  Stories that took place in space or the future but utilized flimsier logic were deemed “soft.”

This “hard/soft” system is still used to a fair extent today because it is useful.  Whenever a reader is shopping for their next novel, they can get a grasp of the complexity or difficulty of the subject matter by the inclusion of “hard SF” somewhere on the dust jacket.  Unfortunately, I think the “hard SF” label tends to imply authenticity and thus it does not give “softer” SF the appreciation it deserves.  Think of Ray Bradbury’s work for instance.  Dandelion Wine is a fantastic collection of short stories and most of them take place in a relatively quiet town in the midwest.  While some might characterize them as fantasy or “soft SF” by the setting, I think there’s a better, less derogatory way to think about them.

The One Change Rule

Whenever I read a piece of speculative fiction, I run it through a little mental algorithm called The One Change Rule.  I’ll freely admit that this is my own invention and I welcome lively debate to help refine it.

I ask, “Starting with our reality, how many changes did the author make for his story to jump from realistic to speculative fiction?”

If the answer is one, I will usually say that work is science fiction (regardless of its “firmness”).  If the number is greater than one, and usually this number is a great deal higher than two, I will classify the work as fantasy.

That said, there are some caveats: What counts as a change?  The characters are an invention, are they a change?  What about a future setting?

Exceptions and Givens (and Excuses)

The One Change Rule has a few exceptions and givens.  Setting the story in the past or in a reasonable future doesn’t count as a change because one can assume that time is going to progress forward anyway.  If the author, for instance, places the story in a future where human society follows a logical progression of space exploration stemming from present day, this doesn’t count toward their number.  If that future includes travel by something like a “stargate” on the other hand, that would count.

This same given can be made for technologies as well.  While it is futuristic to think of ships that approach the speed of light under the power of atomic blasts, this is not outside the range of what could stem from our current evolution.  If a ship could travel FTL by some sort of SF magic (be it warp speed or hyperspace), that would count as a change.

The exception to this rule is the “fruit of the fictitious tree” idea.  If you make a single change and that leads to OTHER logical changes, then it still counts as one.  For instance, if you wrote a story where unicorns were somehow real (and no other mythical creatures), then a story stemming from the magical properties of a powdered unicorn horn would not count doubly against you.  A better, published example is coming up in a moment.

Lastly, anything that might be permissible in normal fiction (characters, plot, intrigue, conspiracies) is fair game and should not count against the author.

[An excuse: sometimes even a true “change” can be given a pass if it simply aids in the telling of the story.  For instance, there are several tropes like FTL travel that allow authors to take us out of our own solar system or galaxy in a reasonable amount of time.  Whenever I see a vague FTL method alluded to or conveniently explained for the sake of conciseness, I tend to not count the change.  FTL travel isn’t the only good example, but it’s certainly the most common.  Alien-human linguistic aids are another common one.]

What’s the point of all this?  Why should it matter if there is one change or one hundred?

I’ve found that stories that take OUR fundamental universe (past, present, or future) and make ONE change can use that singular device to make a powerful analysis of an idea, a character, or a practice that is still bound to our own reality.  Once more changes begin, the author has really created a NEW universe in which to explore concepts that may or may not relate back to our own.

A great example of a seemingly fantastical story is Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.  The book is set in a different universe, has an entirely different world culture, has highly advanced technologies that we might never discover, and YET, it passes The One Change Rule quite gracefully!  How is it possible?  Well I won’t spoil the story for you, but all of these impossibilities are the result of a single theoretical change (more of a massage, even) that helps bridge quantum cosmology with Platonic forms.

Another similar example might be Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, which only posits the possibility of alternate universes (which still obey reasonable laws of physics).

Speaking of books, I will add that many books probably have a harder time passing The One Change Rule than their short story counterparts because longer stories lend themselves to more extended thinking and perhaps more  changes.  The two books included above are possibly rare examples to the contrary.

What is Speculative Fiction?

Recently the term “speculative fiction” has popped up as a new way to describe the SF/F genres.  While you might think I’d oppose the apparent glossing over of disparate entities (especially with my oh-so-carefully crafted rules!), I find it is a welcome relief.  The new, larger genre not only lets readers spend less time haggling over subdivisions, but also makes room for new styles of fiction that push the boundaries of any established classification.  My rule would place an author like Neil Gaiman squarely in the realm of fantasy, but I’d like to think he’s one of those guys really pushing into his own personal genre of spec fic.

Where to go from here?

There are still a lot of questions left open by The One Change Rule.  We can weed through the “space fantasy” pretty easily with it, but some legitimate fantasy starts to flow back the other way.  Where do The Dragonriders of Pern end up?  Is the existence of dragons, or even just crash landing an alien planet that HAS dragons (among other things), enough to constitute more than one change?  Most would say this story is clearly fantasy.

Maybe fantasy tends to be defined less by the rules that SF readers love so much and more by the aesthetic it portrays.  Let’s ponder it together, shall we?

[SPACE MAN Image | City of Primary Colors Image | Anathem Cover from Harper Perennial]

Apr 02

Spring Has Sprung!

Well, it’s that time of year again!  The bees are buzzing, the birds are chirping, and everyone has realized that…they haven’t cleaned, their todo list is an epic poem, and finally it’s warm enough to get outside again!

For me, this means it’s time to dust off all my old hobbies and see what’s fallen by the wayside…

Research

My first priority right now, of course, is grad school.  I have a Research In Progress talk (RIPs) coming up in the middle of April.  This means I need to give a 30 minute or so talk about what I’m working on at the moment.  It’s also the first time I’ve had to speak publicly about my research to the department!  I’m a little nervous.

Magic

After that, I’ve got Magi-Whirl coming up.  It’s a mid-Atlantic conference for magicians of all shapes and sizes.  The headliner there is going to be Losander, who is considered one of the greats of levitation!  It’s also just a great weekend to enjoy the company of fellow magi and great lectures.  Plus, vendors will be there, hawking all of their fabulous (EXPENSIVE) goods!

[By the way, if you’re up for a great magic show, all of the greats at the convention will be doing an evening show for the public…tickets are 15 bucks and WELL worth it (these are international talents, what did you spend on your last local rock concert?)!]

The conference has also gotten me worried though.  I’m afraid my recent hiatus from magic has left me rusty.  I’ve been breaking out all my go-to books and trying to at least get my regular repertoire up and ready again!

Writing

Lastly, I’ve been working super hard on my new-found love of writing.  I still don’t know if I have any particular talent at creating fiction, but I feel like I’m at least getting better with every attempt.

My recent energy has been focused on a longer piece (maybe 7k words when I finish with it?) that spans space travel, galactic machinations, and close-quarters squabbling.  An early reviewer said she thought it was very interesting and much better than my first piece, Let’s Do Lunch, which I am still trying to sell.  I’m about 4/5ths through it, so I just need to ride out the end!

That first piece has now been rejected about 10 times.  I expected as much, as no matter how inspired, one’s first works are usually pretty horrible.  That said, I don’t think it’s unreadable.  Also, after reviewing more over at Critters, I realize how my particular story is not particularly novel in its construction.  There are MANY pasty white guys out there trying to sell a neat idea with no plot or drive to back it up.  At least it has been a good lesson on the overall process!

Just before now, I finished writing another short story called Real-Live Thinking Cap, which has a decidedly more whimsical tone.  It’s about a boy who buys a contraption out of the back of Boy’s Life – delightful adventures ensue.  There is a decidedly less “hard SF” ethos to it, so I’m hoping the experience will allow me to broaden my writing style.  Until now, I’ve mostly stayed within a few well-defined tropes.  The story is going up on Critters next week, so we’ll see how it fairs!

That’s it for now.  I hope to publish a LITTLE more frequently in the future. :)

Nov 17

Writing Up A Storm!

As you can probably tell by the lack of post on this blog, it’s been a BUSY fall! I’ve taken on two sections of microbiology lab (only had to do one last semester and NONE over the summer) and that has kept me busy enough on its own.  On top of that, my research is continuously picking up steam and I’ve spent a lot more hours in the lab recently.

Beyond academic obligations, I’ve also been exploring a new hobby: SF writing.  Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I read the works of Asimov, Bradbury, and other “Golden Age” science fiction greats.  They inspired me to think scientifically and to consider alternate worlds and cultures.  I did also attempt some sci-fi writing (my favorite format has always been the short story).  Looking back on those early works, I see I was lacking a lot of the basic writing skills I’ve acquired through school and freelance blogging.

Recently I began working my way through The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge (above: Analog, a magazine I’d LOVE to publish in some day; the cover of the aforementioned book).  Vinge’s science fiction isn’t the absolute greatest out there, but he DOES have the distinction of having coined the word “Singularity” as it pertains to the field of Futurism.  As I read into his vastly complex stories, I began to get the old itch again, the itch to create something of my own!

I set down at my computer and figured out a really neat idea based on some thoughts on physics.  After some analysis, though, I determined that my theory wasn’t quite as interesting, original, or even feasible as I thought.  I needed to find something else to base my story around.

A few days later, I had an interesting conversation with a labmate about The Singularity and some “endgame” scenarios proposed by Ray Kurtzweil.  I won’t go into detail, partially to protect the plot of my story, but essentially the entire universe becomes this enormous computer.  I took that idea and ran with it, putting together a dialog-driven short story.  The first draft FLEW out of my head and into the Word file and in two sittings I was done.

For the last month or so I’ve been proofing, drafting, and handing the story out to a choice number of people.  My ultimate goal is to publish in a reputable (read: paying) magazine or SF website.

I’ve been reading essays all over the web about how to write in the science fiction genre.  One of the best resources is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website.  If you sit down and read all of their “new writer” articles you’re well on your way already.  Of course being able to write is important too…

Another important tool I have discovered is the Critters SF and Fantasy Workshop.  Part of the larger Critique.org, Critters is a wonderful place to submit your manuscripts and critique manuscripts of others.  In order to keep away story thieves and, more importantly, bad critiquers, Critters has an activity ratio system (similar to how a private torrent tracker works) so that you must pitch in and write great critiques before you can get your own work reviewed.  Here’s their banner, since banners are fun and I want the community to stay nice and large:

Unleash your inner Shakespeare at Critters.org

If you’re interested in reading/proofing my story, feel free to @me on Twitter.  Otherwise, I’ll keep you guys posted on the story’s progression and if I ever get it sold!  I’ve sold TONS of articles to blogs and a few to print publications, but fiction is a new area for me and it’s a little intimidating to be honest.  Wish me luck!

[Cover Art Image from DarkRoastedBlend]

Aug 06

It’s Been a Long Hot Summer

Good day everyone and welcome back to my blog.  I’m sure you’ve been wondering “where’s Jimmy gone?” That is, unless you’re one of the many people who sees me on a regular basis…

In any event, I am not a summer person.  Summer has the effect of really slowing me down…too hot to work out, too hot even do much thinking, so I mostly have just been sitting on my duff.  All that said, I still got a few things done recently.

First of all, I HAVE actually gotten some blogging done.  I’m still writing a few articles a month for Bright Hub.  I have never really enjoyed “SEO baiting” types of assignments, but I think Bright Hub has set it up so the experience feels less like selling out and more like a network for answering questions that people may Google.

My writing for Geeks Are Sexy has decrease a bit (I think it’s just cyclical…sometimes it’s nice to take a little break), but I also got one story out for them as well.  I tend to write in order to AVOID work, so when I have little to do, I tend to slack off on blogging itself.  Hopefully once I’m nice and busy again, the freelancing will be a nice little diversion.

Here’s the latest:

For the most part, the rest of my time has been spent puttering about in the lab.  Working in a lab over the summer can be tough because sometimes your experiments kind of hit a wall and you can’t figure out how to move forward.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading protocols or trying to make found protocols work in real life.  Thus far about half of the stuff I’ve tried has worked and the others just give me nothing!

The semester (and my move into new housing) is fast approaching though, so I should be neck-deep in new responsibilities fairly soon.  I’m ready for summer to be over and for autumn to rush in and take its place!