Things that are surprisingly SciFi (but don’t get credit for it) Part 4: Recycling

The 1960s – and 2001 – made a strong case for future materials and space age manufacturing, what with their gleaming grey, smooth megastructures and match-cut-level sleek designs. Manufacturing, then, was the future – the ability to take organic, wood, oil, and metal inputs and come out with a self-evidently artificial, unnaturally aerodynamic, custom-built (and single-purpose) products.
This, of course, was the appeal of the space age: that we could make anything we needed to, cheaply and to order, and that we should feel no shame about waste as a result.
But plastics, at least the first generation, were not limitless: they were brittle, they were inflexible, they were very susceptible to heat or cold, and they did not decompose productively, once they had failed in their primary (and only) use.
Recycling is the unsexy child of that first wave of innovation; the undesired progeny of the excesses of synthetics production. Recycling was (and in the US, generally speaking remains) the unwanted, uncool patch job on the torn jeans, the obvious darning on the dress – it was, at best, an acknowledgment of scarcity. At worst, it was an expensive, inefficient method for pointing out how imperfect and unsustainable the space age really was.
But recycling is underrated.
Even now, recycling does not solve the issue of limited resources completely (indeed, it is likely that nothing can), but it re-awakens the potential in these items, and points the way forwards for material mining and usage. Recycling is not universally cheaper than mining new materials, but it generally does require less expenditure of energy to repurpose a material already converted into plastic, or aluminum, or other alloy, than it does to produce a fresh batch. Both through advancement of technology and through the accelerating scarcity of key materials, the recycling process has come a long way since its days as the lead nerd in the after-school specials.
And, dare I say it, recycling is pretty damn SciFi.
No, really. Consider the simple case of a spaceship made of single-use plastic and metal and sent to the stars to seek a new home. Sleek and sexy? Certainly, but also, almost certainly doomed to failure. Once broken, individual pieces of the vessel would be hard or impossible to replace, and would be dead weight once broken. Carrying spare parts would be theoretically possible, but between the need to use the space for food and life-support machinery, and the prohibitive cost of excess weight during lift-off, having significant stock of duplicates would essentially be a non-starter.
Only recycling – by which I mean the modern process of recycling, including separation, refinement, and production of new material – would allow such broken items to be used again.
And think past the flight itself: once landed on a foreign moon, settlers would have little use for their former cargo bays, thrusters, or even most navigation equipment (assuming, of course, this colonization is a one-way trip). Stripping material from the spacecraft and bending or welding it into place might be a temporary solution, but in the long term, the creation of a stable, inhabitable colony would require more stable building materials. As a result, a colonization ship would need to include a recycling unit as a core piece of equipment, both for mid-flight maintenance and in order to reuse the components of its spaceflight for the purpose of colonization.
Recycling isn’t flawless, it’s not cheap in terms of energy expended, and it may be a stopgap measure for a runaway consumerist society, but it is very SciFi.

Old Fool’s Errand: On-trend and on point.

If you haven’t had the chance to check out Old Fool’s Errand, my short story about a crotchety failed astronaut latching on to a second chance at the stars – and a one-way trip to Mars, you may want to take a look, as things are getting pretty real:

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, is now back to take a shot at being the first person on a foreign planet.

Now, to be clear, I am not by any stretch of the imagination calling Tereshkova a failed astronaut – far from it! – but it’s another, exciting chapter in the Mars saga, and another step towards a real-life Old Fool’s Errand.

NASA’s 3D Printed Rocketry – Just Really Cool

Meanwhile, in the realm of real science, NASA has taken advantage of 3D Printing (not the prosumer/hobbyist kind, mind you!) to develop and test new rocket parts. This is exciting for the acceleration it brings to the innovation cycle and the promise it has to lower the costs of rocket-building in future. It’s true that this is still an early-stage application, but it represents a sea change in the cost model and a potential further democratization of the spaceflight process. In other words, NASA’s 3D printing initiative has the promise to make rocket-building cheaper, technological development faster, and production more readily scalable than would be possible otherwise.

Additionally, of course, it brings AutoCAD that much closer to cool, which is actually pretty important. Hell, if this had been happening while I was in high school I might have become an engineer.

Self-Publishing Resources (#1): Scrivener

I’ve tried a bunch of different programs, techniques, and styles over my writing career. Some have been marginally useful, some not useful, and some downright counterproductive. When I started dealing with e-books, the formatting issues were honestly enough to get me foaming at the mouth and nearly throwing my computer. I’m not a meticulous person by nature, and in general when I write things can get a bit loose and creative, so it was with absolute, abject horror that I saw my first attempts at e-books jump from single to double spacing, skip whole pages, and randomly indent – despite my word file showing no evidence of this capricious formatting!

What made this worse (and all the more frustrating) was that I’m not, and never have been, bad with computers. Hell, I even do some coding (C++/Java, but still…). I get how compilers work and I realize that you have to play consistently by the rules to get cooperation from your machines. And, to be fair, if I worked hard enough on a document and turned on the ‘show formatting’ option, I can usually get my manuscripts through the Smashwords meatgrinder no problem. But…it’s annoying, laborious, and takes the fun out of finishing a book.

Which is why I’ve found Scrivener to be so awesome. It’s not a panacea for the ills of variable formatting (you still have to minimize the degree of variation in your text styles as much as possible, and trouble-shoot some issues), but it has several enormous advantages over sweating it out against Microsoft Word’s best efforts at sabotage:

1. It’s easy to use. For the most part, what you see is what you get. Better yet, you can ensure that it is by checking the ‘As Is’ box when you compile your project, although of course this may also preserve other errors in your formatting.

2. You can use it for a while to get the hang of it before deciding to buy. The trial version gives you 30 days of use – not 30 days from when you crack the seal, 30 days of actually opening the program and using the full version. If you compare this to other programs I’ve used (such as Final Draft or Photoshop), that’s a tremendous value-add.

3. The interface is great and hugely supportive of the writing process. While so far I have predominantly just copied and pasted word docs into the program to compile them for .epub and .mobi formats, there is a wealth of functionality available, from summary view to storyboarding (i.e. the digital equivalent of pinning index cards to a corkboard with thumbtacks), so you can see your story develop and work on it within the Scrivener program.

4. Tech support is terrific, and I do mean really great. They are fairly quick to respond (quick at least as far as typical tech support goes, they get back within 24 hours without fail), they are courteous, they are thorough, and they recognize that their program isn’t perfect. This last one I find especially important, as, over the course of my learning how to use the program, there were a few issues (such as not being able to include footnotes in an .epub) which proved really annoying. The responder I worked with acknowledged this limitation and helped me troubleshoot ways around it. Other times, of course, the issue was, as they say ‘ten inches in front of the monitor’, but they didn’t dismiss my issues or make me feel incompetent about it. In other words, great sales job, but I’m also very comfortable knowing that if something comes up that just doesn’t make sense to me, they’ll help me through it.

5. Ability to experiment with unique styles. Because of its straightforward interface and strong user support, the program gives authors the opportunity to experiment and innovate without having to worry about completely and irrevocably messing up the format of their book. This is awesome because, in the end, what author doesn’t want the chance to make their writing look interesting, different, and even artistic?

As aforementioned, it’s not a perfect program – there are minor issues (footnotes), some things aren’t as intuitive as they might be (i.e. you have to look in a different place for ‘contents’ and the ‘create table of contents’ settings), but all in all, Scrivener has been the best find of my indie publishing career. And, at $45, it’s pretty damn cheap.

Smashwords (and thus, soon, Apple, Sony, and other markets) are online!

Check out the Smashwords page here – other formats (including iBooks) to come.

More details on After the Storm coming shortly – plot details, outlines of characters, and maybe some more details on what, exactly, Flip is up to. Stay posted.

Things I’ve learned from Self-Publishing (so far)

It’s been a wild few months since Hard Drop first emerged on Kindle (and Nook, and Kobo), with some huge ups and a few disappointments here and there. So now, looking back on the steep learning curve, I feel qualified to offer a tenuous opinion on the subject. I hope the below is positive, interesting, and perhaps useful to other self-pubbers like myself out in the market. Without further ado, a few self-publishing thoughts:

1. Always edit one more time. If there is any doubt in your mind that you have edited enough, go back through the document. It is just too easy to miss something, or for Word to incorrectly ‘correct’ something, or to forget you never finished your sentence on p. 137 during the last set of revisions. Things fall through the cracks. I’m not advocating hiring an editor per se, but at the very least you should be completely sick of spell-checking and googling questionable words because you’ve forgotten how to spell them from looking at them too long. Why? Because, at the end of the day, even a very generous reader will give you 2-5 spelling errors, max, before they decide you’re just another self-pubbed hack. As for formatting? One strike is all you get.

2. Be grateful. This one can be hard to do, but it is very important. Especially as a first-time author, even if you are convinced you are the next Stephen King / Stephenie Meyer / J.K. Rowling, remember that the rest of the world is not. Your readers are taking a chance on buying a self-published book with no track record or frame of reference (beyond the trial chapter(s) and your blurb), and more than that – they’re doing it in spite of the fact that, more than likely, you’ve tried the traditional publishing route and not gotten an offer. Never mind that it’s increasingly difficult to crack that sphere if you’re not writing Wizard/Vampire/Fight to the Death YA (and even if you are!), they don’t know you from Adam/Eve, and you are not entitled to their money. So be grateful for each sale, respect your fans, and…

3. Ignore the haters. There will always, always be someone who does not like your book for some reason that makes no sense to you. It’s too long, it’s too short, it wasn’t suspenseful enough, it ended on a cliffhanger, they didn’t like your choice to make up a language for the aliens, they didn’t think it was realistic the aliens would speak English, etc. etc. etc. Ignore the haters, they do not add to the conversation in any meaningful way, and the reality is that the market will make its decision about you with or without them. Do not change the way that you write because of one negative review, and whatever you do, don’t stop writing (or let writing become less enjoyable).

4. That having been said, reviews usually do have an element of truth to them. Sometimes, it’s as simple as acknowledging that your story isn’t for everyone, that yes, you really have made choices that some people disagree with (e.g., your vampires sparkle in the sunlight). Other times, you need to be a bit more honest with yourself about the structure of the story, or the character development/backstories, or (see #1) the amount of editing you’ve done. Mind you, I’m not talking about the star ratings here – those are subjective and questionably counterproductive. I’m talking about the actual text of the review. Ignore the hate, but do take a second to distill the useful feedback that sits somewhere in the one-paragraph screed about how completely you’ve missed the mark.

5. Keep writing, keep improving, and keep having fun. Writing isn’t always fun, mind you, but it is fun to have created something, and to share what you’ve created with other people. Meanwhile, self-publishing offers something that traditional publishing wasn’t really able to: the ability to track the improvement of your quality (or, more accurately stated, the degree to which your writing matches market tastes) on an incremental basis. Take a moment to objectively consider your reviews (positive and negative), consider what’s selling elsewhere in your genre, look over your own writing, and try again. If you do it right, there are a number of ways (short stories, novellas, free chapters, or various social media ways of interacting with your growing audience) to test yourself before you commit to writing a full-length novel. Keep moving, keep improving, and have fun.

That’s where I am right now.

We are go for Kobo!

Hard Drop and Old Fool’s Errand are now live on Kobo!

If you’re not a Kobo reader, never fear – both books are still available at Amazon (HD and OFE) and Barnes and Noble (HD and OFE) – take a look and let me (and others!) know what you think!

Things that are surprisingly sci-fi (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 3: Global Sports Competitions

With this year’s Confederations Cup in full swing, it’s time to tip the hat of science fiction to the phenomenon of global sporting events.

While in theory, we’ve had ‘global’ sports for at least a century now, the reality is that the early World Cups and Olympics were predominantly regional affairs – as athletes tended to be men of leisure (or college athletes, or both) in the early days, they tended to represent only wealthier nations, or at the least, only the wealthier classes of those nations.

While the number of nations participating increased steadily through the 1970s and 80s, the politics and ideologies of the Cold War overshadowed geographic and ethnic identities, putting the global nature of the competitions into the background.   While it would be difficult to pinpoint the emergence of truly global sporting events, the emergence of a single worldwide football market might be one milestone. With stars from Japan and Africa increasingly complementing and supplanting the traditional European and Latin American superpowers – and with the creation of an economically viable professional soccer league in the United States – it is safe to say that football had become a global sport by the mid 1990s.

Other sports have followed, with global tournaments in baseball and cricket being created and expanded, and the Olympics have increasingly become a two-week festival of international excitement and competition. NewsCorp has been an aggressive part of this expansion, of course, packing its satellites with live sports content from rugby to cricket to american football.

But why is any of this scifi? For two reasons: on the one hand is the creation of single, unified global market. And on the other is the larger picture:  humans from every corner of the world, meeting on a truly global scale to determine the fastest, the most strongest, and the best among them. Where the medieval version of this concept involved bloodshed and pillage, we now have a peaceful (generally speaking), cooperative competition, played with the goal of crowning a true world champion.

Because once we start thinking peacefully in terms of planetary supremacy, we are not far from considering new world. If for no other reason than to expand the TV market!



Old Fool’s Errand on Nook! (Hard Drop & OFE coming to Kobo within 24 hours)

Old Fool’s Errand is now out for the Nook – find it here! Kobo editions of both Hard Drop (Amazon and Nook) and Old Fool’s Errand (Amazon) are processing and should be up within 24 hours.

It is a pleasure to bring both works to these new platforms, and it’s exciting to have the opportunity to connect with new readers. And, as ever, feel free to reach out, either here or at vandervaartwill on twitter!