Sunday, March 29, 2015

Cast a Giant Shadow

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the long shadow cast by MER Opportunity, operating on Mars for more than a decade (pretty good for a ninety-day mission, no?). What a shame NASA has apparently set Opportunity's budget down to zero next year. Why toss away a perfectly good functional vehicle?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ring Around the Sun

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows shows a multiple-image view of the March 20 solar eclipse. Thanks to the less-than-perfect shape of the Moon, we get to enjoy some beads and a ring.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Spot in the Camel

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows NGC in the constellation of Camelopardalis. Can you spot any other galaxies in the image?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hunter

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Orion the Hunter in the early spring sky. March, the time for Messier Marathons!

You know Orion always comes up sideways.
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And rising on his hands, he looks in on me
Busy outdoors by lantern-light with something
I should have done by daylight, and indeed,
After the ground is frozen, I should have done
Before it froze, and a gust flings a handful
Of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney
To make fun of my way of doing things,
Or else fun of Orion's having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
These forces are obliged to pay respect to?"
So Brad McLaughlin mingled reckless talk
Of heavenly stars with hugger-mugger farming,
Till having failed at hugger-mugger farming,
He burned his house down for the fire insurance
And spent the proceeds on a telescope
To satisfy a lifelong curiosity
About our place among the infinities.


(Robert Frost, The Star-Splitter)

Collecting Anthologies

In this month's episode of The Three Hoarsemen (a member of the SF Signal Family of Podcasts), we talked about anthologies. I thought I would write up my thoughts on the several sets of anthologies that I chose to talk about.

The first pair are not only shared world anthologies, but became shared world anthology series. In fact, the first, Thieves' World, may have been the first original share world anthology (or series). Other than Star Trek (which, at that point was still mostly the works of James Blish and Alan Dean Foster) and Star Wars (mostly Alan Dean Foster—both as a ghostwriter and under his own name, Brian Daley and L. Neil Smith), a series of stories or novels sharing a common background by multiple authors was not a "thing".

Thieves' World, or it's rebooted edition Thieves' World: First Blood is worth reading not only for the stories (and to see who contributed), but for Robert Lynn Asprin's essay at the end of the (first) book. Asprin was a relative newcomer at that point and certainly not a "name" that could launch something as risky as a anthology (let alone a new concept such as a shared world anthology). But he managed to play an extended game of poker, getting one author to sign on by hinting that another was already in, offering "real estate rights" in order to persuade people, etc. Once he had his lineup, he then had to learn how to herd cats: in the days before electronic mail (let alone wide us of faxes and overnight delivery of manuscripts), Asprin and co-editor Lynn Abbey worked to coordinate story, setting, sequencing of stories and more. It's a fascinating tale and got the series off to a good start that lasted for several more books. The series even spun off solo works by David Drake, Janet Morris and Gordon R. Dickson (although in his case, we got the character but the setting was different).

I regularly read entries in the series until it seemed to winnow down to a relatively few author's. The stories were still good, but I missed the input of early contributors such as Joe Haldeman (who really hasn't dabbled much in fantasy at all). Lynn Abbey tried a recent reboot of the series with the above-mentioned Thieves' World: First Blood, but also Thieves' World: Turning Points, Thieves' World: Enemies of Fortune and Sanctuary; between the four, a mix of old and new stories, short works and a novel. Alas, the reboot did not seem to gain traction.

Thieves' World is also notable in that it spawned off a unique gaming property. Chaosium, then mostly known for it's popular RuneQuest roleplaying game, bought the license to do a roleplaying supplement and instead of exclusively keeping it for RuneQuest, opened it up for all the then existing major roleplaying game properties. So, you could run a RuneQuest adventure...or Dungeons & Dragons...or Traveller (and more). Mayfair Games produced a boardgame based on the property and there has been an attempt to relaunch a roleplaying game around the time of the relaunched books, but this interesting early attempt at "open-source gaming" is (alas) forgotten by most.

The next shared world anthology series that hooked me (by then, there were several but most faded quickly into obscurity) was one helmed by George R. R. Martin, not the force behind Game of Thrones, but a guy behind some books and stories and a television series called Beauty and the Beast. Martin lived in the Santa Fe area, surrounded by many genre folk including Melinda Snodgrass and Roger Zelazny. He ran a superhero-themed roleplaying game for them which started to consume more and more of his time (prepare for adventure, run adventure, write up notes on what happened, prepare for next session, etc.) that he eventually decided to see if he could make the "free work" into "paid work" and do a shared world anthology series based on the game. Out of this came Wild Cards, a series which has spawned short story collections, novels, "mosaic" novels. The series has gone across four publishers (Bantam, Baen, ibooks, Tor), has in itself spawned roleplaying game supplements and comics, and now is under development (given that George R. R. Martin is now known for that television property Game of Thrones) as either a movie or a television series.

Wild Cards takes place in "our" world, starting shortly after World War II, but with aliens, alien viruses, mutated humans (the "Aces" and "Jokers") with various powers, heroes without powers, more aliens, politics, crime, magic and even Vietnam. When the series was bought by Tor, they started coming out with the original books (Wild Cards I, Wild Cards II: Aces High, Wild Cards III: Jokers Wild, Wild Cards IV: Aces Abroad) as well as moving the stories forward with new volumes such as Fort Freak and Inside Straight. Between the "rising tide lifts all boats" effect of Game of Thrones and Martin's general greater popularity, the number of superhero properties in print and on the large or small screens, and the potential of a movie or television series based on Wild Cards, it looks good that the old books will continue to come into print while new books continue to come out.

The series has varied in quality throughout the volumes but the early volumes (as reprints) are strong and stronger (thanks to some additional material) and the new volumes are consistently good (thanks to the guiding hand of collaborator Melinda Snodgrass, who is also working on developing the media property).

I'll end the look at shared world anthologies with a pair of anthologies that each share a single world in a single volume. Medea: Harlan's World (edited by Harlan Ellison) and Murasaki (edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin H. Greenberg).

Medea grew out of a seminar that Ellison helmed (which is included, in part, as a transcript in the book) and guidance from "Hard SF" worldbuilders such as Hal Clement and Poul Anderson. Kelly Freas contributed artwork to the seminar and between the seminar, the art, and the essays, stories were produced by Jack Williamson, Larry Niven, Thomas M. Disch and several others.

Murasaki's origins are not as clear, but seem to have grown from a similar set as Medea: Poul Anderson provided guidance in the form of an essay, as did Fred Pohl. Stories were devised by David Brin, Nancy Kress and others. The advertising copy (well, the Wikipedia entry) says that this "was the first anthology of this type that was entirely conceived and written by winners of the Nebula Award" (splitting hairs, given the number of Nebulas and Hugos won by participants in the earlier project).

Both have good stories, but both are recommended for other reasons: in both, the people overseeing the project have written extensive essays about the project, which fits in with comments made in the Thieves' World and Wild Cards books from the people running those projects and should be studied by anybody undertaking a project (I'd also recommend Harlan Ellison's extensive remarks in his screenplay for Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and his very long essay in the the novelization of his failed Starlost project as additional "lessons learned" if you work on a media project!). The military may teach you how to "herd cats" but most writers do not start off with those skills! Another recommendation for reading these two are the "world building" essays. While some may poo-poo Hard SF of late, these essays show the kind of thought you ought to put into a fantasy or science fiction world. Even if you don't "show your work" in the story (as a information dump, for example), you ought to think about the framework holding your story up.

To finish up, I'm going to revisit a series of anthologies that we discussed on the podcast in a previous episode: The Infinity series edited by Johnathan Strahan. Several of my nominations for the short story category in the Hugos came out of the most recent entry to the series, Reach for Infinity. The other entries in the series include: Engineering Infinity, Edge of Infinity, and the forthcoming Meeting Infinity.

I could have gone on with many more anthologies. Here's a sampling of some of the anthologies in my Current Reads folder on my various eBook gadgets: Upgraded, Space Opera, Twelve Tomorrows 2013, Twelve Tomorrows 2014, Carbide Tipped Pens, Hieroglyph, Arc Volume 1, War Stories, Starship Century, Old Venus, Old Mars, The Lowest Heaven, War and Space—Recent Combat, and Coming Soon Enough—Six Tales of Technology's Future.

That just scratches the surface of the paper and electronic anthologies (themed, unthemed, year's best, based on a specific magazine, old, new, single author, multi-author) that line my shelves. Give an anthology a try! You never know what new author you may fall in love with.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Bit of a Bang

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows a "new star" (nova) in the constellation of Sagittarius. A recently discovered nova has become (for how long) a naked-eye object. You have to get up early to spot Sagittarius this time of the year, but it might be worth the try!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Age of Confusion

Brian Michael Bendis & Company: Age of Ultron—The Complete Event (Marvel; 2013; ISBN 978-0785155652)

I first read this last year as the apparently-not-quite-so-complete event. Great beginning but confusing end with the story going completely off the rails at one point. Seeing a "complete" edition, I decided to give it a try to see if I had missed an important element the first time around.

Well...great beginning, lots of great story elements even for a relative newcomer such as myself, interesting stories around the world...but...the story goes completely off the rails at one point (what in the name of heck does that Dr. Doom story have to do with anything else?) and a very inconclusive ending.

So: complete event or incomplete event, the edition didn't seem to matter.

Note: I liked much of the book. But there was no payoff. Turf battles at Marvel? Lack of an overall guiding hand? Hopefully the movie version brings it all around and in one nice package with a bow!

The Star Wars

The Star Wars; J.W. Rinzler & Company (Dark Horse Books; 2014; ISBN 978-1616553807).

Before there was Star Wars or Star Wars IV: A New Hope, there were a few mentions of The Star Wars in the pages of Starlog (then a new print magazine) and Newsweek (then still a print magazine) featuring a brief plot rundown and some artwork by Ralph McQuarrie (who I had encountered in the past as an illustrator for news coverage of the Apollo missions).

The plot outline was enough to excite me that when we were asked to do a fiction piece in English class in high school, I wrote my version of the movie, based on nothing more than those few sentences.

Several months before the movie came out, I spotted a novelization (with a fantastic cover by Ralph McQuarrie) and grabbed it (the odd thing is, well before we learned that Alan Dean Foster wrote this, I figured he was involved just from a few odd Fosterian phrasings). The plot was different from the summaries and the artwork. Where, for example, did all the laser swords (now called light sabers) that the stormtroopers were carrying go?

Now we know. Working from early concept art and an early script, J.W. Rinzler and a hosts of artists have recreated that first vision and what a strange trip it is. Multiple attacks by the Death Star. Many laser sword battles, including those laser sword-wielding stormtroopers. A wookie planet. Han Solo that is not human. And...if you thought the dialogue was wince-inducing at times in what you saw on the screen...some really wince-inducing dialogue.

Thumbs up to Rinzler and Company for undertaking this effort. What might have been!

Magnitude

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is the classic film Powers of Ten.

Monday, March 23, 2015

MMS Launch

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows an Atlas V lofting the Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission on it's way to exploring the space around Earth.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Friday, March 20, 2015

Different Light

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the Moon, lit by two different lights: direct light from the Sun and reflected earthshine from our own planet.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Active Skies

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is just one image posted of the solar storm that caused auroral activity in both hemispheres this week.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lunar Shadow

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day gives a different perspective on a total solar eclipse. Here we have the 2006 total eclipse from the viewpoint of the International Space Station.

Long Duration

In light of NASA's stated intention of "zeroing out the budget" (cancelling) missions such as MER Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, this article about a mission that has been ongoing for forty years is of interest.

Why cancel Opportunity and LRO, NASA? An operating vehicle is worth a lot more to science and the public interest than a vehicle that is only on paper!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Plough

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the main part of Ursus Major, The Big Dipper, or The Plough. Do you know how to use the Big Dipper to find the Little Dipper and the North Star?
 ("Mouseover" the image to get a star guide.)

Monday, March 16, 2015

Shadings

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day is a fantastic image of the complex nebula found in the constellation of Orion. We're not just talking the familiar Messier 42 in the belt and sword here: "mouseover" the image for a guide to the stars to show you how much of the sky is encompassed in this picture!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Polar Solar

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows a total eclipse of the Sun. Such events are often photographed by "eclipse chasers" who go through vast amounts of trouble and expense to get that perfect shot. This particular eclipse shot meant an endurance of a different kind: it happened in Antarctica!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

At the Cloud Top

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Expedition 42, returning via Soyuz from the International Space Station. A photographer on a chase plane captured this image before the capsule sank beneath the cloud tops and returned to Earth.

Friday, March 13, 2015

All Along the Watchtower

From a great wall in the galaxy to a great wall on the planet. Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the Great Wall of China, at sunset, with a rising full Moon.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On the Back of the Turtle

"I mean," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?"

Death thought about it.

CATS, he said finally. CATS ARE NICE.

Many thanks for all the books, Sir Pterry.

Good Walls Make for Good Neighbors

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows a part of the North American Nebula in the constellation of Cygnus known as the Cygnus Wall.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Quiet Earth

Above, the silent stars go by. Below, a volcano. Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day shows the Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala. "Mouseover" the image for a constellation guide.