Monthly Archives: May 2016

What Makes You Different From a Nemotode Worm?

In science fiction, we wrestle with big questions.  One of the biggest is the question of what makes humans different from others–whether it be the other species of our planet, the hypothesized creatures of other planets, or some form of artificial intelligence.  It’s a tricky question, made more difficult by the fact that we can’t even agree on the right vocabulary to use.  Here are a few of the terms common in science fictional treatments of the subject, and why they all fall a little bit short:

SENTIENT.  Sentience is probably the most common one heard in SF circles, and also the most inaccurate.  “Sentient” simply means to have senses, to be able to perceive the world around you.  A nemotode worm is sentient.  Your dog it sentient, as are its fleas.  For a computer, sentience may be a more interesting addition, but it’s still a far cry from the defining concept we’re looking for.

INTELLIGENT.  This comes a little closer.  We say “artificial intelligence” to mean computers that demonstrate at least the simulation of thought.  But intelligence is a sliding scale.  Mice have a level of intelligence.  Dolphins more so.  Worse, some people are not very intelligent, and yet still demonstrate many of the qualities we find definitive: a rich emotional life, longing, imagination, a sense of justice and morality, love of beauty, a drive to make sense of the world around us.

SELF-AWARE.  Like intelligence, this term is useful, but addresses only part of the picture.  Self-awareness refers to our ability to contemplate our own existence.  However, it’s fiendishly difficult for anyone except for the one who is self-aware to know if it is actually going on.  I know that I’m self-aware, but how do I know you are?  You claim to be, but I could write a computer program that claims to be self-aware and isn’t.  As such, it’s not a very useful measuring stick to compare beings.  Are dolphins aware of themselves?  Are human babies?  The concept seems to strike at something we consider important, but its ambiguity limits its usefulness.

SAPIENCE.  This may be the best term we have available, though it does a bit of an end-run around the question.  Instead of trying to define what we mean, this term riffs off of homo sapiens and essentially means “that thing that humans are.”  As such, however, it works where other terms fail.  Its only downside is that it’s hard to extrapolate to non-humans.  What about a creature that has many of the transcendent traits of humanity, but is very different from humans in other ways?  Would we call such a creature sapient?  How would we decide whether it is or isn’t?  Some have suggested the word “sophont” as an alternative (from the Greek word for “wise”), to disconnect the term from humanity, but that only changes the word itself, not its meaning.

The basic problem we have with settling on a term is that we don’t all agree, philosophically, with what does differentiate humanity.  If you are a Christian, like I am, you probably see human consciousness as a separate category, something created by God to imitate his own characteristics.  If, however, you’re a scientific materialist, you probably consider the human mind in the same category as that of other animals, differing in details, of course, but not in kind.  Depending on your philosophical framework, you might consider the differences between humans and dolphins to be trivial or profound.  You might consider computers close to being on par with us, or not even on the same track.

I don’t see our vocabulary problem being solved any time soon, but this kind of dilemma is why I love science fiction.  It gives us the opportunity to explore this space by imaging creatures–both organic and artificial–that may challenge our ideas of what makes humanity unique.  And a philosophical challenge is a great way to exercise that part of you that makes you different… whatever you want to call it.


Novella the Sloth Goes to Nebula Weekend in Chicago

Beth Cato here with a report on the 50th Nebula Conference, which took place May 12-15th at Palmer House in Chicago, Illinois. I attended as a novella nominee and only had the chance to sample a small part of the overall event, but wow, what a grand time. I don’t like to travel alone, so I did what any reasonable adult does: I brought along a small plush sloth named Novella.NebSloth1

See, my publisher, Harper Voyager, has a space-faring, sword-bearing sloth named Nova as its mascot. Novella is like the mini-me of the great Nova.

I flew from Phoenix to Chicago and soon enough found myself embedded in the awesomeness of the Nebula Weekend. The awards are the big event, but there’s a whole lot more to the con than that. SFWA has made a big effort to restructure the event and make it a professional-level informational resource for writers and those in the publishing industry. The programming addressed a range of topics from literary estates to medicine after the apocalypse to handling online harassment. The subject of diversity was a central theme, with talks on historical research from the margins to language as rebellion.

Meanwhile, there were constant opportunities to socialize in hallways nearby, in the hospitality suite a floor above, or at the ever-reliable and on-going bar-con in the lobby.

Palmer House itself is a famous institution in downtown Chicago. Its central location made it readily accessible by several mass transit lines, and there were abundant restaurants and places of interest within short walking distance.


[Novella found the Cloud Gate aka Chicago Bean a few blocks away from Palmer House.]

Friday night included an introduction of the Nebula nominees and a booksigning event that featured over 60 authors. The whole thing was open to the public and was a grand success, as it continued for almost two hours with a constant stream of book-lovers passing through. Book Expo America was also taking place in Chicago over the weekend, and this booksigning offered an opportunity for BEA folks to join in the sci-fi/fantasy festivities.


[There is no sloth in this picture, not unless I count, but it shows the opulent room for the booksigning soon before it opened to the public.]

I didn’t get to take part in many of the Palmer House activities on Saturday, as I had a tour of duty at Book Con down at McCormick Place. Book Con is like a Comicon-inspired extension of BEA that offers readers–not just publishing pros–a chance to meet their favorite authors and score free copies of brand new books. The space was busy but not overwhelming (especially compared to San Diego Comicon). I signed and gave away a plethora of copies of The Clockwork Dagger and advanced copies of my book out in August, Breath of Earth.

[Signed and gave away all of those books in 25 minutes! Craziness!]

[Signed and gave away all of those books in 25 minutes! Craziness!]

Saturday night brought the reception, banquet, and Nebula Awards ceremony. Just as anyone does when attending a fairly formal event, I brought my sloth.


[We shared a meringue with fruit. ]

Novelocity members were big winners, too. Lawrence M. Schoen was the recipient of the Kevin O’Donnell Service to SFWA Award, and Fran Wilde won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy! Yay!

[Novella felt very sophisticated and metropolitan while awaiting the subway.]

[Novella felt very sophisticated and metropolitan while awaiting the subway.]

After the tremendous highs of the weekend, reality was cruel and brutal. I didn’t get to attend any Sunday programming, as I had to scamper back toward home. Or tried to. TSA lines made scampering into a full hour and fifteen minute slow-motion trudge, but I arrived extra early so I had plenty of time before my flight.

[Everyone in this picture is moving like a sloth.]

The Nebula Conference will be in Pittsburgh in 2017 and 2018. No matter where you are in your writing career, do consider attending. This is an event where you can make and renew friendships, learn at panels, and spend days geeking out over books, all in a sloth-friendly environment. That’s my idea of paradise.

What’s Best at the Nebulas?

The day this posts I’ll be arriving in Chicago, one of hundreds of attendees who are coming in for this year’s Nebula Conference, several days of brilliant panels, engaging field trips, engrossing conversations, and oh yeah I think they also give out some awards. I’ve attended many times, and each year is its own experience. I can’t decide what I like best about this annual event, which in turn got me to wondering how other people felt about it. So about a week beforehand I used the awesome powers of the internet and queried a few people (who even now might be regretting sharing their email addresses with me) to ask them to tell me their favorite bits of the conference.

Here are the results from half a dozen folk who generously responded to my query when really they’re busily packing to fly off to Chicago:

Helene Wecker has only been to the Nebs once before, and is looking forward to the hyper-real, slightly out-of-body vibe that happens when she gets to meet folks she’s admired for years, and find out they’re as smart and awesome in person as they are on the page. Alas, her next book, The Iron Season, won’t be available until 2018.

Nominee Fonda Lee has never attended the Nebulas, but thus far she’s really enjoying getting to know the other nominees which makes her feel like she’s a part of this wonderful celebration of writing. Her next book is EXO, coming from Scholastic in January.

Laura J. Mixon narrowed it down to two things, citing last year’s sci-tech tours, and the fascinating conversations with people she doesn’t otherwise get to see very often. Her latest release was Up Against It, under her M. J. Locke byline.

Nominee Alyssa Wong‘s favorite aspects of the Nebulas are doing panels and getting to see old friends. Look for her new novelette, “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay,” coming to Uncanny Magazine in June.

Rachel Swirsky‘s most recent short story was “Love Is Never Still.” Her favorite aspect of the Nebulas is its size, small enough that she can get to meet and chat in casual, small group settings.

Nominee Kate Elliott tends to work in isolation and doesn’t have any local conventions; her favorite thing about the Nebulas is hanging out with friends, meeting readers, and getting to know new people or meeting in the flesh people she’s only known online. Her latest novel is the epic fantasy Black Wolves.

And that’s all I have to tell you this month. If you’re coming to the Nebs, please find me and say “howdy.” Here’s some of where I’ll definately be:

  • Thursday at 8pm, taking part in the Welcome Reception happening in the Monroe Ballroom.
  • Friday at 2pm, talking about Memory in the Ask An Expert Café.
  • Friday at 7:30pm, smiling and posing for photos at the Nebula Nominee Presentation in the Red Lacquer Room, followed at 8pm by the Mass Autographing in the same spot.
  • Saturday at 1pm, answering questions about Hypnosis, again over at the Ask An Expert Café.
  • Saturday at 6pm, is the start of the Nebula Reception, followed by the Nebula Banquet at 7pm, and the Nebula Award Ceremony at 8:3pm, all in the Empire Room. I’ll be looking snazzy in my tux at the start, but expect at least one dinner stain and some flop sweat as the evening goes along.
  • Sunday at 10am, doing a panel on Language, Dialect, and Code Switching in LaSalle 1.

The rest of the time I’ll relaxing in the SFWA hospitality suite, hanging out in the bar, stretching my legs and seeing some of the city’s sights, or off having a fabulous meal.

Free Booksigning Event – Chicago May 13th

SFWA Nebula Conference is coming up in Chicago May 12th-15th. If you are in the vicinity but the conference itself won’t work for you, fear not–there is a huge booksigning event that Friday night. This event is free and open to the public. Books will be available for sale, or you can bring in your own copies to have signed.

Novelocity will be well-represented. Look for Lawrence M. Schoen, Tina Connolly, Beth Cato, Michael R. Underwood, and Fran Wilde! Check out the full list of attending authors.


Genrenauts Kickstarter

Hello, my lovely novelociraptor readers! Mike Underwood here, coming to you on a Monday rather than my normal Thursday.

I’m posting today because I just launched a Kickstarter to complete Season One of Genrenauts, my series of adventure science fiction novellas.

Genrenauts comes out of my love for genres and storytelling – if you like Leverage, the Jasper Fforde Thursday Next series, Sliders, and/or the comic series Planetary, it might be up your alley.

Here’s some information about the Kickstarter – I hope you’ll give it a look.

Pacing the Novel, part II: The Five Building Blocks of Pace

Last month, I introduced the ideas of Movement and Intensity as the two key aspects of pacing.  Now, we get to break down how these aspects are created on the page.

avignon 151

There are five basic types of prose you’ll use to build your scenes, and each one has different properties in creating the pace of your book.  I have listed them here in order of slowest to fastest movement.

  1. exposition and inner monologue

2. description

3. dialog

4. action

5. summary

1. Exposition and Inner Monologue

First of all, why lump these two things together?  Exposition basically means explaining something to the reader.  Inner monologue *explains* what your character is thinking or feeling.  Exposition usually includes backstory, history of the world, explaining how things work, why they work or what they mean (along with many other things).  Exposition and Inner Monologue are a step outside the story completely.  They stop movement in its tracks.  Nothing happens during these types of prose.  This is why you will be told to avoid info-dumps and other large chunks of exposition.  But in small doses, you’ll probably need them.  How can you express character thoughts and feelings without inner monologue?  Lots of ways–most of which are much more engaging than just reading about someone thinking.

the first way is. . .

2.  Description

Like exposition, Description stops the movement dead.  But in this case, it does so by engaging more deeply with the world–the setting, characters and situation–of the narrative.  Description is critical for  number of narrative purposes (revealing your world, engaging the reader’s senses, developing theme, planting clues–jeez–maybe I should just write a blog about that all by itself).  One of the most critical things your description can do is to reveal your character’s mood and attitude, ie, to show how they are feeling and what they are thinking about without you needing to explain it.

“A knife lay on the counter, long, clean, sharp:  the most beautiful thing in the room.  Just the thing for slicing open a ripe fig, or a bare arm. . .”

Description is one of your most powerful tools for building Intensity.

3.  Dialog

Dialog reads in real-time.  It is as if the reader is sitting in the back of the room, eavesdropping on a conversation.  This is why bad dialog is so very deadly to prose.  Imagine being stuck in the most boring committee meeting ever, without being able to leave, speakers droning on about things you don’t care about, sharing information in dull and direct ways, asking or answering questions that are purely factual with no sense of personality, power dynamics or conflict.  Dialog can be a fantastic tool for creating tension, revealing character, and propelling the plot. Use it wisely.  It can be a tool of either Movement or Intensity, and ideally, is used to support both.

4.  Action

Action is when things are happening on the page.  It is rarely a simple matter of lots of specific verbs and short sentences, although those are important for building Movement.  BUT!!  the right kind of action–clear, specific, character-driven, will propel your book at a nice clip with a high movement ration.  And the wrong kind of action–fuzzy, minor, external to your characters–will tend to slow things down abruptly.

“He walked across the room toward the door. He reached out for the doorknob, and grasped it.  He turned the doorknob and opened the door, then walked through it, closing the door when he got outside.”

Booo-ring.  If all you need is for this guy to leave the room, then just do it.  “He walked across the room and out the door.”  Done.

In fact, including minor actions can be a way to create Intensity.  You can use minor action in dialog tags to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings and to show their relationship to each other.  You can use minor actions in a critical scene to create suspense about the major action or revelation about to happen.  If the act of getting to and opening the door is, itself, important, then breaking down the action into smaller bites can bring the reader deeper into the moment.

“She crept toward the door, extended her hand slowly for the knob, but held back.  She caught her breath, her lip pinched between her teeth, and extended her hand a little further. . .”

You’ll notice I also used much stronger verbs for this, and worked to invest the character’s attitude about what she’s doing.  You can also incorporate description into passage of action in order to increase their impact on the reader.

5.  Summary

For key moments in the book, you’ll want to use dialog, description, and action to create strong scenes.  But for transitions or less important passages, you don’t need to linger.  While description can pause a moment indefinitely, and dialog can move it in real time, summary can make hours, months or years pass in a heartbeat.

“Two weeks later, tired and hungry, they arrived at the castle.”

If the journey is important, give it a scene.  If the only important thing is where they went and how long it took to get there, summary can do the job.  The caveat here is  that, if the passage of time is important, you’ll need to make sure the reader grasps how long has passed, otherwise summary can make time pass so quickly that the reader thinks only a moment has passed between the last scene and this one.  Look for other markers to indicate the length of time.  (think of sensory details like the length of someone’s hair or beard, visual or auditory cues to the change of seasons, etc.)

Next up:  Plotting to manage pace!