Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bugs in the Snow

For a number of years, quite a bit of research has gone into "Global Dimming." Most everyone has heard of Global Warming, but until late, Global Dimming has been obscure. Basically, the dimming occurs from particles in the atmosphere - think smog, pollution, and natural elements. The higher the concentration of "stuff" floating around in the air, the more light is reflected away, and the lower the temperature falls. Some researches have even suspected the contrails of jets were adding to the overall dimming of the planet.

This begs the question: what about Global Warming? The answer offered is that they two have been working (unintentionally) together. And without Global Dimming cooling the planet, Global Warming would increase dramatically. To work with a metaphor, one could say that the planet is addicted to pollution, and quick withdraw will cause other problems.

But I'm not here to discuss Global Warming or Dimming. It just so happens that the stuff floating around in the air isn't all unnatural pollution. To create water droplets in the atmosphere, the moisture needs to bond with some type of particle. Basically, the moisture attaches to something floating in the air, gathers more moisture, and becomes a raindrop. That heavy drop of water falls to the ground. So, increased Global Dimming adds to the amount of rain in some areas, and seems to limit it (drought) in other areas. And when scientists started peeking at snowflakes, they not only found the usual dust and soot and minerals along with man-made pollutants, they spotted bacteria.

Actually, it seems that the majority of the nucleators (stuff inside the snowflake or raindrop) is bacteria. The type recently found is Pseudomonas syringae, a critter that causes disease in several types of plants. Another factors that appears to be related is that dry areas might increase the amount of bacteria concentrated in the atmosphere. So imagine a region where a drought has killed off the planets, and some of these plants have the aforementioned bacteria, and now that bacteria moves to the area, causing rain in another region. The end result is both good and bad for a plant. And the cycle might repeat.

Take all of the above, but mix in a bacteria that affects humans. "Rain of the Dead"? Thunderstorm plagues? Don't worry, none of this has happened. It's just an idea - frightful - but only a notion.

Either way, this makes catching snowflakes on the tongue less appealing perhaps.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Epidemic of Pandemics - Biopunk

The last few decades have seen advances in medicine, and advances in newly discovered diseases. Also advancing is the fear of the "coming epidemics." Countless books on the topic have been written, both non-fiction and fiction (see Meteors, Marx, and Lovecraft on non-fiction/fiction). This is a topic that seems to be in the social consciousness. Perhaps the best way grasp the scale is to look at the fiction (this includes film). In most of these fictional works, a genetically designed virus decimates humanity, or a virus that has been lurking in some hidden location suddenly appears and it steamrolls over the planet. The popularity of this works reveals a macabre interest, and perhaps a growing fear.

For years, the terror of technology held sway over many people. Now the fear of a microorganism seemingly dominates the landscape of imagination. And don't count out bacteria; they are just as lethal, even if overlooked in most fiction works. The two, technology and biology, are often combined to create unstoppable horrors. Such books and films came in many forms: cyborgs from the future; human organ farms; clones; mad scientists with killer petri dishes...

All of the above also described the fiction genre of "biopunk." It has existed for a number of years, and the label never did quite catch-on as did "cyberpunk." In fact, the label is so obscure that I'm not sure it is even fair to label works as biopunk. Either way, we have it, and it does seem to focus on a trend in fiction and in culture. And once the label is understood, that produces more material - for good or for ill.

If you're still wondering what biopunk is, think of most any work that involves biology as a key element, maybe even to the point where the "biology" can be considered a character. It can take the form of genetic engineering, human experimentation (drug testing), or even organ theft. This last one, by the way, is a non-fiction topic as well. It seems that "biopunks" are organ hunters - people who find organ donors or people who "appropriate" organs for transplant. And I'm certain most of us have heard the tales about organ theft. And if not, watch this YouTube video - it does have something to do with the topic, so wait until the end. It is titled, Charlie the Unicorn.

Some fiction works that fall under the category of biopunk are:

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear
The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton
Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling
There are countless others. I would add William Deitz's Bodyguard series to the list, as they also deal with the same topics. Of course, Horrors Beyond 2: Stories of Strange Creations contains a number of tales that fall under the heading - "strange creations" are sometimes biological.

Another category of fiction that fits the bill (in some cases) might be Zombie fiction. Usually classified as apocalyptic fiction, zombie films and books sometimes have a bit of bio-hacking in order to bring about the zombies. The computer games and film series Resident Evil, and 28 Days Later come to mind.

Outside of fiction, some of the real world biopunks are those who play with DNA -- hacking the genetic code. This is a bit more sophisticated than traditional hardware or software hacking, often requiring a considerable amount of costly equipment to undertake the venture. This means it is limited to corporations and governments, a connection back to cyberpunk. Plenty of fiction springs from this area as well. And being in both out thoughts and imagination, it seems these works are readily accepted, along with the notion of an unknown, but coming epidemic - or perhaps an apocalypse.

Decades ago, it took quite a bit of background information to propose that a super virus was lurking in the remote regions of the world, or that a vast corporation was brewing up one (see the classic 1949 novel Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart). Today, we simply accept the possibility. This makes biopunk fiction easier to write - and perhaps read (and speaks to our acceptance of the notion). No lengthy setup. A virus has hit and that's that. Likewise, readers seem to respond to the lack of technical data dumps, rather just waiting for the devastating results. Oh, and there is a very early work by Mary Shelly that today would be classified as biopunk.

Oddly, this sub-genre, if it can be called one, has garnered little direct attention, while the fiction within it is quite popular (even excluding the zombie works). Perhaps, if we use fiction as a thermometer for society, the increased number of biopunk books, stories, and films reveals a symptom, or a worry of the readers. Most of the these stories culminate in disaster. Yes, the protagonists survive (sometimes), but the world is often very changed or destroyed. I wonder what that says out us and our fears and dreams?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club

Kim Newman is a skilled and talented author, with an imagination that produces brilliant fiction. In his book, The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club, all of these elements come to the surface. For those familiar with Sherlock Holmes, the title of this book reveals the premise. It is based around a club founded by Mycroft Holmes. Well, the club is something of a U.K. investigation unit, or intelligence service. And the "club" delves into a number of uncanny and weird investigations.

This collection spans decades and centuries. For fans of Newman, most of the stories are familiar, previously published, but having them in one collection is wonderful. In his typical fashion, Newman brings to life interesting and thoughtful characters, believable figures, and interweaves them into clever tales. At the thematic level, the collection deals with "good and evil," but the historical settings and events prevent these stories from appearing commonplace. With each story, Newman approaches from an interesting angle, making the collection enjoyable and worthy of re-reading.

The Secret Files of the Diogenes Club is something of a prequel to The Man from the Diogenes Club. Readers can start with either book first - although I'd suggest "Secret Files" first. The "adventures" are supernatural, weird, and Lovecraftian, full of mysteries and suspense. Because every tale in the collection is a gem, I'll not discuss each, or cite favorites. They span from the 1860s to the 1970s, and fit together nicely, providing a delightful backdrop for the clandestine intelligence service. This is a grand book, clever, powerful, and entertaining.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Meteors, Marx, and Lovecraft

It is seldom that an intersection of meteors, Marx, and Lovecraft occurs. Or maybe not. Ray Huling, recently posted an article on The Escapist titled, "When the Sky Comes out of the Ground" that brings these three things together. For those who have not read it, I suggest you do. Some of the interesting points it makes is that Lovecraft wrote allegories of science, and that by making a recent meteorite impact into something "Lovecraftian," the event has become "unreal." Similarly, he connects Pravda's reporting of the incident with the propagandist version of an allegorical retelling of the event (my words, not his). This links us back to Karl Marx who attempted to reveal the "reality" behind historical progress. Okay, maybe "reality" is too strong of a label; perhaps "truth" is better? I'd imagine Foucault would disagree (I'll not bring him into this).

So now you're probably wondering What is he posting about? The answer is the connection between fiction and history and reality (and I suppose a meteorite). I'll try to make it brief. Marx claimed that history as it had been written was something of a fraud -- it revealed "progress," but the "progress" in reality was submission to a social/economic order. That is oversimplifying Marx, but we don't need to get into a discussion of dialectics. So Pravda comes along, and being a vehicle for the former Soviet Union (a rather unMarxist state), it reveals the "truth." Normally this is done by pointing out flaws and failures and falsehoods in Capitalist states. Or, in other words, telling a "Marxist" allegory about "reality." In case you're wondering where the meteors come in, read about it in Pravda -- the claim is that a meteorite that fell in Peru was a U.S. Spy satellite.

At last, we move Lovecraft, who wrote allegories of science. Although, I'd say he thinly veiled the "science" of his day. He seemed to fear of the degeneration of the human species, which the "science of eugenics" placed at the feet of the interbreeding of various races (think "Aryan" being the superior race of Lovecraft's day, and all others inferior). Eugenics was one of the predominant "sciences" during Lovecraft's life, and perhaps the most lacking in scientific method, study, and data. It was an allegory in itself. This means that Lovecraft was twice removed from the topic he thought to be the "truth." (For those unaware, the United States had a very active eugenics program in the early 20th century).

But what does this have to do with the film The Matrix, you ask? (a very insightful question). What I'm adding to this mix is that the film, The Matrix, used allegory to speak about the "truth," or what the writers deemed the truth. Some people called it propaganda. With its tubes, wires, cables, and tentacled machines, combined with the fear of computers designing "reality," Lovecraft is readily found. And the dominant alienated labor theme brings Marx into the film. But it didn't have a meteorite.

All of this leads to one path, and it is an old one: fact and fiction can be allegorical. Ray Huling makes the point in his article that the materialist roots of Pravda and Lovecraft are now used today to deny reality, rather than reinforce it -- enter The Matrix: it looks real, but it is artificial reality. That is one of the birthmarks of our era (sometimes termed "postmodern"). "Better than real" is the slogan. The simulation is much more entertaining than the real world. In fact, where is there room for "truth" in such a system? Maybe there is only space enough for a "New and Improved Truth." But that implies there once was a Truth.

So was the meteorite in Peru filled with alien space germs? Or was it a spy satellite, poisoning everyone with radiation? Or did the collision send underground toxins into the air, making those in the area sick? I guess we are left to pick our own "truth," and move through our own "reality," sharing it with those who agree. At the very least, we know that fact is sometimes fiction, and fiction is sometimes fact. That has to be comforting in itself.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Omegacon - Sunday

I think the convention came to a much better close than it did at opening. The early problems were addressed, and for the most part handled. This was the first Omegacon, so bugs are to be expected. For those interested, I'd suggest trying it next year. It does have nearly one of everything.

I had no panels on the last day, so I managed to prowl about. I regret that my camera malfunctioned, so I can only a couple of pictures. The rest, I'll try to summarize.

First, I need to mention the group of alien musicians who marched throughout the convention halls. While they didn't actually play their instruments, they did have a CD playing. Folks who put on shows such as this are often overlooked at conventions. But they do create a pleasant mood. If the events are the plot of the convention, then those who perform and entertain are the theme.

Also, Alan Dean Foster did drop by several times, and he kindly submitted to have his picture taken. I can't imagine that anyone reading this blog hasn't read his books. But if you haven't, do try them. He is a talented writer, and a very friendly man.

Overall, the fiction related panels at Omegacon seemed to be focused on writing. I was on panels such as "Reading like an Editor," "How to Edit Yourself" (related to writing, not speaking), "Marketing Your Book," and "Blogging."

I'm not sure how I ended up on the "Blogging" panel. I suspect it is because I am always telling writers to create blogs, and that was passed through the chain of command during scheduling. Yet, it was good to be with a group of others who also say the same thing about blogs. The panel had Joy Ward, Lou Anders (moderator), J. F. Lewis, Allen Gilbreath, and me. It seems that Lou Anders, editor at Pyr, strongly urges his writers to use blogs, and he had many valid reasons why. I'd say the most compelling argument produced by the panel was that blogs help writers connect with an audience, and build an audience.

From the above titles, it is obvious there was plenty of content for writers. Such panels are common at conventions. But I would have liked panels related to enjoying fiction, or discussing it. Much can be learned from hearing an author speak about her or his work. Or hearing two readers discuss their takes on a book. This is helpful for readers and writers. In fact, if you haven't tried it, give it a shot. Discuss a book with someone and see how that person responded to the book. And make sure to get out to a local convention.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Omegacon - Saturday

Since yesterday's post was rather long, I'll keep this one brief. There were a number of great panels, and many more people arriving. I'll try to summarize some of the panels I attended in future posts.

There was one strange thing that appeared in the middle of the convention. It seems to come from some other time or place. It looks very much like a police call box, but I suspect it isn't. There are a number of film and television fans at the convention, and this just happens to represent one of them. I figured most of you have seen Stormtroopers before - plenty of those around as well

Friday, March 14, 2008

Omegacon Friday

The convention is off to a bustling start. From what I've heard, there were 1700 pre-registrations. I've not idea how many walk-ins. Of course, with any convention this size, there are complications. The programs were a bit mixed -- and altered. Some rooms were changed last minute, and a program book wasn't included in the "goody bag." However, the folks running the convention responded quickly and re-organized.

To the right and above is a image of the registration line.

As I mentioned before, the dealer room is quite vast, and it would require too many pictures to convey the size, so I won't venture down that path. Instead, here are a couple of offerings.

To the left is an image of the far side of the convention hall. And the next image is of ESP -- turns out they were there as well. And across from the ESP booth is Marietta Publishing, the house that has produced quite a few Lovecraftian titles.

The first event of the day for me was the launch party for The Strange Cases of Rudolph Pearson. It was a great event, and I had the opportunity to meet quite a few nice people. But, I was unable to photograph anything. What I do have is the Books-A-Million display outside the launch party. The Pearson book is missing (not released yet), but they did have a nice display with Horrors Beyond 2 and High Seas Cthulhu.

Later in the day there was an autograph session. Because of some confusion, the Author Nook (launch room) was moved into the autographing room. This wasn't included in the program, so it resulted in a bit of confusion. Still, it was a busy afternoon -- and again, no photographs.

During the day, Alan Dean Foster dropped by. He is always pleasant to talk to, and he has quite a few interesting stories. Naturally, I had to ask a question about the original Aliens script (he wrote the novelization, and spoke with James Cameron about the film -- even suggested that Cameron should try a Lovecraftian film).

Around 6:00 pm, I was on a panel titled "How to Edit Yourself." This event was aimed at authors who had a chance to ask the panel of authors and editors about "self editing." Each panel member had quite a bit advice, and all of it useful -- for the audience and also for the panelists. It is a bit difficult to summarize an hour meeting, so I'll offer some lists on self editing (this should be humorous because I'm not editing this post):

* - Try not to edit while writing. Put the work aside for a period of time, and return to it to edit.

* - Do not become attached to any part of the writing. Sometimes writers need to part with their favorite sentences or paragraphs for the sake of the work.

* - Make sure everything in the story/novel plays a part in the work -- it should move the story forward.
* - If possible, find workshops or other people to read the work and offer comments. Even if the people are not "trained" writers, they can still provide useful input. When several people mention a problem in the same point in the story, it is possible there is something at that point in the story.

* - Read the work aloud. Yes, this is a common answer about editing, but it is still valid. While reading a novel can be a lengthy process, it isn't any longer than writing it. Reading aloud often catches problems that might be overlooked when reading "in the mind."

* - Make sure you read your work. This one sounds silly, but quite often writers produce a story/novel and more or less skim it rather than reading it.

* - Pay close attention to the opening -- the opening helps to sell a story/novel. If the editor isn't interested by the opening, then it is less likely the rest of the work will be read. Remember, readers in stores might not give a work more than a few paragraphs, so a strong opening is important.

* - Don't ignore the remainder of the work. A strong opening is great, but don't stop there. Organize the work, and keep the story moving forward.

Needless to say, there were quite a few other suggestions, and many good questions, but I can't cover all of them. Anyone who wants to add to this list, please feel free. Or if you have a question, ask. Most likely, a similar question was asked during the panel, so I can probably offer a broad answer based on several others' responses.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Omegacon -- The Start

At the moment, I'm in Birmingham, Alabama for the Omegacon convention. It is certainly one of the larger SF/F/H fiction and entertainment conventions in the U.S. The dealer room runs around 5,000 square feet, and events are scheduled 24 hours a day. If you're in the area, drop by the convention - it is certain to be great fun. If you're not able to attend, I'll post over the next three days events and pictures. At the very least, take a look at the website, forums, schedule, and guests at Omegacon.

Slated for me tomorrow is an interesting number of events:

Friday: 1:30 pm is the launch party for The Strange Cases of Rudolph Pearson. After the event, I'll offer up more details. For the moment, know that this is an event where authors talk about their books, and answer questions about the soon to be released or just released books.

What I will say is that those who attend will get a limited edition full color promo card, and a secret discount number if the book is purchased directly from Chaosium's website.

Friday 4:30 pm is a book signing. This one is pretty easy to figure out. I'll be in a room autographing books.

Friday 6:00 pm is "How to Edit Yourself." This is more about editing your own fiction rather than editing what you say in public. It is a topic is popular with writers, as knowing how much to edit and how to go about it can be more difficult than one might think.

Although the dealer's hall isn't open, I passed through it and found quite a stack of High Seas Cthulhu and Horrors Beyond 2 on the Books-a-Million retail shelf (they are also a sponsor for the convention, and have quite a display. The photo is from a distance, and the books are on the middle rack, 2nd shelf down from the top. It isn't wise to march into a retailer's area when the place is closed. Security isn't fond of that. So the picture is a bit blurry and far away.

As for other events, Richard Hatch, the actor from Battle Star Galactic (in both the original and new version) was nearby at dinner. And I've already ran into quite a few friends and familiar faces.