Review: Starhawk, by Jack McDevitt

This is something of a prequel to The Engines of God where we see Priscilla Hutchins’ early days after getting pilots license for taking the big FTL interstellars out into the void. A lot of her early days are the frustration of not being able to get a steady job as a pilot, especially after she blew off one such job over an ethical issue. She still gets a little work here and there, but mostly she’s parked at a desk.

But it’s also the story of one of her instructors, Jake Loomis, and his flirtation with retirement. After a frightening brush with death, he decided he was done, but the business of interstellar flight was not quite done with him. So he kept getting pulled back in, “just for one more flight”. Ultimately the decision on whether or not he was going to retire was made by someone else.

While it was not as satisfying as a sequel to Cauldron would have been, it was fun to see Hutch back when she was still merely Priscilla, and to see how she earned her nickname in the first place. If you’re a fan of the Academy series, definitely check it out.

Review: Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi

This is another book in the Old Man’s War universe, and it takes place during the same time period as The Last Colony. In fact, it covers many of the same events as The Last Colony, but it does it from a different POV, specifically Zoe’s.

Zoe is the adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, both veterans of humanity’s ongoing war against an endless parade of alien species over galactic real estate. How the three of them came together in the first place is a spoiler-ific backstory, so I’ll merely direct you to Old Man’s War and Ghost Brigades. Suffice it to say, John and Jane kick ass, and Zoe became the most famous five-year old in the galaxy quite some time back. As a teenager, it’s starting to wear thin.

So, just as The Last Colony was, this is the story of the human colony of Roanoke. A large interspecies alliance has placed a ban on new colonies, and humanity has decided to thumb their noses at the ban. This puts the colonists of Roanoke in grave danger, but never fear – the Colonial Defense Forces have a plan. Unfortunately, that plan isn’t necessarily such a good idea in the long run for humanity, let alone the poor folks sitting down on Roanoke.

I have to admit, I had some worry when I started into this book, since I knew it was essentially retelling a story that I already knew. There were not a lot of grand revelations lurking behind the scenes – most everything had already been put out there in The Last Colony. However, it really comes down to the writing, and John Scalzi knocked this one out of the park. The book was filled with little moments that were merely off in the background of the first telling that were quite moving when seen up close. An early chapter about a jade elephant pendant brought me to tears.

But it’s not all poignant vignettes and cool POV twisting. One unknown had been left out there by the first telling in The Last Colony, and here we finally see what really happened with Zoe went off on her own. We had already known she had met with some degree of success, but now we finally see how she did it. Zoe kicked ass even better than her adopted parents do.

So, even if you think you already know the whole story from The Last Colony, this is definitely worth the read.

Review: Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein

This was one of Heinlein’s juvenile books from the 1950s. It’s the tale of a young slave, Thorby, rise from the very bottom of society – a beggar’s slave – to the pinnacle of corporate wealth and power. I confess my motivation for reading this was that someone compared a bit of my own work to it, so I thought I would go check it out. I hadn’t read any Heinlein in perhaps 20 years, so I figured it was time to look again.

It was okay. Mostly, it simply didn’t age well. Maybe it was that it had been written as juvenile, which back in the 1950s was aimed quite a bit lower than today’s Young Adult fiction, or maybe it was merely that SF and narrative styles have changed a lot in 60 years. There were a number of sociological ideas that were belabored in a “Hey, look at my cool idea” way. That was fairly common in the early love affair between science fiction and libertarianism, but it’s kind of dated now. Also, the narrative style was a somewhat clutzy omniscient POV, which has fallen out of favor in the last few decades. As such, it robbed the story of the kind of punch-in-the-gut immediacy that I’ve come to enjoy in current fiction.

Nonetheless, it painted a broad canvas for humanity, and took our young Thorby through quite a bit of it. It did, however, end on something of a cliffhanger. Sure, things are more or less resolved, but there’s this big, fat challenge sitting out in front of our hero, and then the tale ends. As far as I know, he did not write a sequel, so it’s just left hanging.

So, I think that for its intended audience of kids in the 1950s, it was spot-on. Today, less so.

Review: Rule of Evidence, by John G. Hemry

This is the third of Hemry’s (aka Jack Campbell’s) “JAG in Space” series, following the legal complications in Paul Sinclair’s career in the United States’ space navy. He is still serving aboard the USS Michaelson, and now he has risen up to the rank of Lieutenant. He is still the ship’s legal officer which is how he is usually dragged into the legal matters in the first place.

This time the legal drama hits closer to home for young Sinclair as someone close to him ends up in the crosshairs of a serious investigation. Instead of being a nominally neutral player in the legal games, this time he is hard over in the camp of the defense counsel, going up against the toughest prosecutor he knows. It’s not just personal. It’s desperate.

Overall I liked the book, but a couple of anachronisms bothered me. First, there was more of this notion of “US-controlled space” vs. “SAA-controlled space”. That bugged me in the first book, and it was back in full force here. Yes, I get the on-Earth naval parallels, but they did not translate well into space where the borders in deep space seemed to have no correlation to any planetary asset. Then there was a defense contractor conspiracy that seemed to be lifted right out of the Pentagon Papers. That translated into the future somewhat better – greed and ambition will always be with us – but I still found myself annoyed by it.

Still, the courtroom drama was good, and I liked the more personal stakes this time. I didn’t like it as much as the second book, but I will likely look for book #4 in due time.

Review: Captain’s Share by Nathan Lowell

This is the fifth in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper series, following the life of Ishmael Wang as he rises through the ranks of merchantmen. As the title suggests, this is the book where Ishmael finally becomes a captain, but that’s not all that happens.

It’s been a long gap since we left Ishmael in Double Share where he had gotten his first posting as an officer. In fact, it’s been over ten years, and while some things have remained the same, quite a few others have changed. While Ishmael is still on the same ship, now he’s first mate, and back on station, he has a wife. Pride and Prejudice fans should enjoy the opening homage.

Like all of the Solar Clipper series, this is not a tale of gripping adventure or thrilling crisis. This is the work-a-day world of a guy making the system function, day after day. Strangely, Lowell turns what some would call a detraction into an asset. If you’ve ever wished you could live on a starship, then this series is pure wish-fulfillment. If you’re that kind of reader, then even the routine things will fascinate you.

For this particular book, there are some rather dicey moments before Ishmael makes captain where he has to do a salvage operation on a dead ship. What is particularly chilling is that had Ishmael not made the choices he made back in Double Share, this was precisely the kind of fate that awaited him and his crewmates. Sloppiness kills in space, and this was a gruesome object lesson.

Once he becomes a Captain, of course, he had all new troubles. He was given the runt of the fleet, complete with all the problems you can imagine: rebellious crew, lazy and crazy officers, crappy ship performance, and poor profits. As always, he tackled them straight on. He made a few missteps along the way, but as always, Ishmael found his way. I had expected a bit more pushback from the crew and officers on this, but it seems they were desperate for any improvement.

So, if you’ve already been reading the Solar Clipper series, you probably already have this. If not, check it out.

Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

This is the tale of those poor schmucks in red who always seem to die just to prove how serious things are for Captain Twerk and Mr. Smock. Their situation is exactly as ridiculous and lethal as you would think. These poor blokes beam down with the landing party, and the killer robots announce their presence by shoving a jagged spike through some poor bastard’s red-shirted back. Or maybe it’s the subterranean sand sharks, or the exploding instrument panel. Whatever the threat, stage-left of Captain Twerk is probably the most dangerous place in the universe.

In short, it’s a hellish life filled with random brutality, and there is no way to transfer off this ship unless you’re fated to be killed in the exiting shuttle. There’s nothing they can do about it, and they can see the statistics on the wall just like anyone else – anyone except the dashing officers, of course. But then, one day, the find out why this is happening to them.

The why, of course, is the big reveal of the novel, and if you haven’t already heard it, it’s worth letting the book reveal it in its own way. But that’s not the end of it. Nope. The real tale is what these unlucky corpses-to-be decide to do about it, and I have to admit that even though I saw where it might be going, I was impressed by how they pulled it off.

Now, this novel also has three “codas”, and it gets a lot of grief over that. These are basically three short stories that follow the natural consequences of what happens in the main novel. They’re not properly part of the same conflict and climax, but they are necessary collateral storylines that would have normally been left hanging. Instead, Scalzi wraps them up and does a good job with them. My only complaint was that he got a little too artsy in his choice of POV. That the first and third stories were in first person and third person respectively was just fine. But telling the second one in second person was a contrivance too far. I got what he was doing, but I felt it was unnecessarily awkward.

Overall, I really enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s Scalzi’s best work by far, but I won’t begrudge it the Hugo award.

FenCon 2013

I was at FenCon over the weekend. No, I’m not posting as in-depth a recap as I did for WorldCon, but here are a few highlights.

On the interstellar wars that populate so much space opera, there are two extremes to think about. At one end of the spectrum is when you only want to exterminate the enemy. In that case, planets can be fixed, vulnerable targets. Just send in enough high-speed asteroids, and even with a good planetary defense, a reasonable number of them are going to get through and wipe out the biosphere. But at the other end, you ultimately want to capture planets intact. Even if you intend to exterminate the population, you want that biosphere mostly intact for your own people. In that case, no matter how many ships in your armada, there is no substitute for boots on the ground. So, with all deference to the space navies, you’re often looking at either asteroids or infantry as your ultimate solution.

On all the dystopias we’ve seen lately, perhaps it’s not quite so gloomy as you might think. In many of the dystopia’s of old, like 1984, the oppressors were able to crush the human spirit. Even with love and intelligence and the need to be free, Winston could not withstand the might of the state. “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” In short, society was so badly broken that there was no escape from it. However, many of the more modern dystopia tales are actually stories of dystopias being overthrown or otherwise resisted. The Hunger Games is a good example of this. In that sense, perhaps we should not be too depressed, since in some ways at least, these are uplifting tales.

And a little Babylon 5 tidbit… I had completely missed this when it came out in May, but Joe Straczynski revealed why Michael O’Hare (the actor playing Sinclair) really left Babylon 5 after only one season. From Slice of Sci-Fi:

According to JMS, O’Hare suffered from delusions and paranoia due to mental illness.

That was the real reason he left the show after only one season. Straczynski explained how O’Hare struggled, how he was barely able to come back for a two-parter to close his character’s story, but above all, that O’Hare wanted people to know the truth after his death.

And the most important truth of O’Hare’s struggle with mental illness is that he loved the fans, that they were what sustained him during the difficult times in his life.

The article also links to some video of that conference.

It was a lot less intense than WorldCon, but I still had an excellent time. Cory Doctorow said a lot of interesting things around copyright and DRM, and it was fun seeing all the usuals from Texas fandom. I’m already signed up for next year, but this pretty much closes my con season. There will be an Austin ComicCon most likely later in the year, but I’ve never managed to go to one yet, and I see no reason this year will be suddenly different.

Starships Measured in Tons

Someone once asked me why I measure ship sizes in my space operas in tons of displacement. Well, here’s the short answer: I didn’t like any of the other measurements.

NimitzFor the long answer, let’s look at how some water vessels are measured. On the small end, they’re measured by length. We have the occasional 20-foot sloop for tooling around the lake. The America’s cup is a race between boats in the 18-30 meter range. Bigger ships, however, are rated by their weight. Technically, they’re measured by the amount of water they displace, but they only push away their own weight in water. (And no, it doesn’t matter whether that’s freshwater or saltwater, because they still displace the same weight.) The USS Nimitz measures just over 100,000 tons displacement. A common large oil tanker design measures over 400,000 tons displacement. Note that these are metric tons, i.e. 1000 kilograms.

Airplanes are measured in wingspan, though they are also often measured by their weight. This is mostly useful when looking at their maximum thrust for determining their flight characteristics. For example many modern fighter jets have more thrust than weight, allowing them to do a vertical climb at maximum thrust. Rockets are similarly measured by weight, but also typically by launch height. The Saturn V that carried Apollo 11 to the moon was 363 feet high and weighed in at 6.2 million pounds (or about 120 metric tons).

Cars are typically measured by weight and internal engine size. Again, it’s to give you some idea of their performance characteristics.

These are all useful measurements for the vehicles in question. But what about starships, particularly cargo-carrying merchant ships?

ContainerShipsMass seemed a likely candidate since out there in the free-fall vacuum of space, rules like F=ma are king, but for a cargo ship, mass is going to change all the time. That’s reflected in that those ocean-going cargo ships are often given two displacements: an empty one, and a maximum load one. Of course, no merchant ship ever wants to travel empty, but I found myself looking for a constant, and the only constant is volume.

I confess that some it came from my background playing the Traveller RPG back in the 80s and 90s. All of those ships were given in terms of tons displacement. Of course, for them it was not as convenient as tons of water where one cubic meter equals one metric ton. No, it was tons of the liquid hydrogen ships used as fuel, and that is not nearly as dense as water. One ton of liquid hydrogen takes up about fourteen cubic meters, so for you old Traveller fans, that “100 ton” scout vessel was closer to 1400 tons when comparing it to ocean-going ships.

So between Traveller and Earth-based ocean vessels, I found myself thinking in terms of volume based on tons of water displacement. With the 1 ton = 1 cubic-meter equivalence, I could have just as easily said cubic meters, but in writing it out, “tons displacement” just sounded better to my ear. Maybe that’s a lame reason, but there it is.

But as long as we’re talking mass, how much mass do these things actually have? Well, it is going to vary – one of the very reasons I didn’t use mass – but by and large, I would say that a starship is typically going to have less mass than the equivalent amount of water. In other words, put them in the ocean, and they’ll likely float.

I say that partly because ocean-going ships float, and I don’t imagine the interiors of starships being fundamentally different than ocean going vessels. There’s plenty of crew space, crawlways to various bits of machinery, and just plenty of open space around pipes and wires to be able to work on them when necessary. In short, they’re mostly air.

And the cargo? Well, with rare exceptions, it’s going to be mostly air as well. Let’s think about some heavy manufactured goods like a car. The storage space for my sedan is about 11 cubic meters, and that’s fairly tight. Its mass is about 1900kg, giving it only 17% the density of water. Again it’s mostly air. The only reason cars sink is that nothing but the tires are air-tight. How about a box of cereal? Mostly air. Clothing? Between the folds, the padding, and the interweave spacing, again mostly air. If you factor in the packing material around your fragile electronics, again… mostly air.

RawMetalsAbout the only time you’re going to cross over the density of water is when you’re shipping raw materials, and even then, you’ve got to be selective. Check out this table of common densities, particularly the metric columns on the right. Only those over 1000 are denser than water, things like cement, iron ore, and steel chips. The heaviest, lead oxide, is not quite two and a half times as dense as water. If you’re really going to weigh these guys down, you’ve got to go with more exotic stuff like uranium or iridium.

So, even loaded down, these starships are going to mass about a third to half the equivalent amount of water. They’ll still want to know their mass – especially those guys who travel to/from ground-based starports – but it’s going to fluctuate enough that I just didn’t find it to be a useful term for describing the size of a ship.

So anyway, that’s how I opted for displacement tons rather than mass or length for describing my starships.

ApolloCon 2013

I spent this past weekend down in Houston for ApolloCon. I had a fairly laid-back experience this year. I even stole away some time to exercise in the gym and do red-line edits to Debts of My Fathers. I don’t have access to the actual attendance numbers, but the con seemed a little smaller this year than in the last couple of years. Or maybe I did not go to the really popular events. It’s hard to tell.

Anyway, here were some of the panels I attended:

Genre Journalism: This was mostly a discussion of some great SF/F blogs and news sources. John DeNardo was there, and he’s the managing editor of the group blog He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, whose Hugo-winning blog started off about ten years ago just to share SF links with some friends.

Is There More to Space Opera than Space Fleets and Exploding Planets?: The obvious answer is yes, but we did spend a while talking about what makes space opera… well, space opera. Some argued that it required an epic scope… or rather, an EPIC SCOPE!! Others felt you could tell smaller stories within the larger backdrop.  From the audience, I pushed my own agenda for more civilian space opera, even though much of what I write does touch on the military.

When Spec Fic Stole My Brain: This turned into a fun trip down memory lane as panelists discussed what piece of speculative fiction first sparked their interest. Their ages ranged from the 40’s to the 70’s, so there was an interesting range from seeing the movies on the weekend for a dime to staying up late with the babysitter to watch Star Trek. It was neat that one of them had been hooked by Ringworld, just as I had.

Aaargh! We Loves Us Our Pirates – But Why?: I had been hoping this would take a turn towards space piracy, but we stayed pretty thoroughly mired in the ocean-bound variety. Still, it was an interesting mix of history, legends, and pure myth.

Communicating at the Speed of Light… Social Media for SF/F: This was mostly a discussion of the merits and pitfalls of various social media services and independent blogs. It was clear that the tide has turned against Facebook as a useful marketing platform, unless you’re selling pictures of cute cats. Google+ got some love, but the message from these particular panelists was mostly personal blogs and Twitter.

Frack You! No… Frell You!: This was a fun panel on various made-up swear words, alien oaths, and fantasy curses. By Grapthar’s Hammer, I haven’t laughed so hard at a panel in a long time.

And that was it. Like I said, it was fairly laid back for me. I probably spent about three hours on Sunday just sitting out in the lobby, chatting with people who stopped by, and editing Debts when they left. I even ran into a couple of friends who might go so far as to call themselves my fans. (Happy Dance!)

Summer Writing Schedule

writing_iconI thought I’d take a few minutes to update you about what I’m working on this summer.

Hell Bent is officially in beta. I handed it off to the bulk of the beta readers in the last few days, and I’m working out a handoff for the last one today. Hopefully I’ll get all that feedback by mid/late July and then do my edits in August. If I can get it to the copy editor in the September time frame, I might manage to publish it in November.

Debts of My Fathers (the sequel to Ships of My Fathers) is still in pre-edit limbo. I have the printout ready and waiting, but I haven’t looked at it since I wrapped it up last November. I will very likely do my initial edits to it this summer with an eye towards getting it to beta readers in the early fall. Publication is targeted for around New Years, but at this point, it’s hard to nail it down.

But for now, I’m starting to draft new work. In fact, I’m planning to draft two new novels this summer, if time and brain allows. My goal is to draft two new novels this year, with some hope of stretching that to three, and here I am with the year almost half-gone and not a single one written. Time to dig in.

shattered_vaseThe first one, tentatively titled Shattered, is quite the departure for me and might actually be a throw-away novel. Why? It’s a mystery, something I’ve never written before. Then why am I writing it, especially now when I should be trying to establish a rhythm in my publishing career? A couple of reasons. First, my mother is not a sci-fi or urban fantasy fan, and she keeps asking when I’m going to write something she can read. Well, I’m going to indulge her and try to write a mystery.

But the other reason is that a number of SF writers recommend that every writer should write a mystery at some point in their career, the earlier the better. Apparently, there’s something to be learned from the way a good mystery lays everything out and yet keeps the reading from seeing the resolution until the characters wrap it up all together. I’m also going to try a few experiments with additional prep work. I won’t say I’m going as far as the dreaded outline, but I’m at least laying down a few details before I type “Chapter 1”.

The second book I hope to draft this summer is the sequel to Hell Bent, tentatively titled Stone Killer. My general goal in writing series is to draft the sequel before publishing the first, or to generalize it, draft N+1 before publishing N. I figure that improves my odds of fixing continuity problems before they go to print since it allows me to spot a problem in N+1 and fix it in N before it’s too late. So, since I hope to hand off Hell Bent to the copy editor around September, that means I’ll want to draft Stone Killer before that.

But if you do the math, you’ll see that’s drafting two full novels in the next two and a half months. Even considering that one of them is a mystery (typically a little shorter, targeting 65-75,000), the total for both novels will be in the range of 140-160,000 words. That’s about three NaNoWriMo’s worth in less than three months, while also trying to wrap up edits to Hell Bent and making my initial edits to Debts of My Fathers.

I honestly don’t know if I can do it, but that’s what I’m aiming for.