Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sound Off: Did Science Fiction Just Become Fantasy?

It's been a long while since I've written a Sound Off article, but I have these thoughts boiling just under the surface really need to be voiced.  So pardon my rant.  In advance.  As you know I don't do political commentary on this blog.  Ever.  But this is going to come pretty darn close. 

You've probably read my frequent laments on shutting down our shuttle program, laying off thousands of NASA employees and tossing decades of space savvy know-how to the four winds. What country would be so stupid as to give up their advances in the final frontier? Why would we do this when we have no system to replace the shuttle?  And why retire the shuttle fleet when we currently have American astronauts serving on the ISS (International Space Station) that we presume would like to see their families and homes again someday.

These questions have been pooh-poohed by those in power who sought to kill the shuttle. "Simple solution," they said. "Our astronauts will just hitch rides to and from the ISS with our friends the Russians on one of their Progress spacefreighters until we have a new manned space program back in place, in ohhh, maybe four or five years.  Or maybe a decade if we run into problems re-inventing the wheel.  Or maybe never, if our economy continues this meltdown.  But *shrug* no one really cares about the space program anyway.

Don't we?  Shouldn't we?

Maybe you haven't heard the latest news?

Not a surprise, since most American news networks seem determined to bury it, because...you know...we wouldn't want to make anyone in power look bad for the devastating decisions they've made about our future.

That Russian Progress spacefreighter we were counting on? Yeah. Well, it had an accident. Surprised? Yeah, me too. Surprised and wondering why the news gave more coverage to Somebodyorother's wedding than something as monumental as a catastrophic failure of a spacecraft system we're really counting on. Fortunately, this flight wasn't manned, but Russia wants some time to investigate and re-evaluate after the mishap. Can't really blame them, can we? The USA certainly did the same after the accidents we suffered.

Meanwhile in the meager bits of news we're getting about this situation, the public is being assured the astronauts aboard the ISS have *plenty* of supplies to last them until the next flight which is now delayed until October.  The flight which, incidently, is in question of being launched at all.

I wonder what our astronauts are thinking right now as they look down on the beautiful blue world that is Earth.  Do they wonder if they're going to make it back home again?

I can tell you what I'm thinking from my perspective here, safe and sound on the good, green Earth.  I'm thinking Science Fiction may have just become Fantasy, because I don't have high hopes that after disassembling our current space program that we'll ever get it back as a nation. Gone are those wondrous, heady days of the 1960's when we first met the challenges of space travel, and the 1970's - 2000's when we as a nation, gained cutting-edge knowledge, and expanded our sciences, technologies, and medicines through our space program. And we dared to dream positive dreams about a brave new future. 

We can still dream.  But like the proverbial castle in the air, we've now burned down the foundation we'd made so much progress in building beneath it.

What about commercial space flight? Well, that's the key word, isn't it?  Commercial. While I applaud pioneers like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, I don't see space flight as something that's going to be profit-generating for several generations. I also think they're going to be subjected to the same political whims and budget cuts NASA has suffered. I fear once the novelty wears off, most commercial endeavors are going to go the way of the buffalo. I hope I'm wrong, but that's not what my gut tells me.

Now it's your turn to sound off.  What do you think?

Friday, August 26, 2011

SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED


I get the feeling the universe is trying to tell me something. I just wish to hell I could decipher the message. Run for the hills? Yeah, maybe something like that.

It’s one thing to read about earthquakes in some remote part of the world—Haiti or China or even California. It’s another thing entirely when your own house in seismically somnolent Virginia starts to rock and roll like it did this week. My home in Fredericksburg is about 30 miles from the epicenter of the quake in Mineral, Virginia. At 5.8 on the Richter scale, the tremor was sizable enough to cause an audible rumbling. The house shook, pictures fell off the shelves, the dog began to bark and, well, you saw the news. In the nation’s capital, people rushed into the streets (where the bigger danger was getting run over by a taxi), the White House and the Capitol were evacuated, the Metro slowed to a crawl and general chaos ensued.

Yes, I know, you West Coast folks are laughing your tails off at our reaction. It’s as if God just took a stick and stirred up an anthill to watch the poor things scurry in panic. But, you know, we don’t have earthquakes back here. My daughter, who works at a daycare facility, searched in vain in their Emergency Action Plan for protocol for “earthquakes”. “Nuclear holocaust”, yes, “earthquakes”, no. Same thing for my friends at the local YMCA. Finally someone thought, okay, maybe we should go outside.

For myself, I was in my basement media room watching TV and eating lunch. At first I thought the boys at the Naval Surface Weapons Center some miles away at Dahlgren, Virginia had gotten carried away. We often feel the pounding when they conduct tests. Then I thought, in rapid succession, truck-accident-through-my-door-gas-explosion-oh-my-God-EARTHQUAKE! At that point, my recliner had turned into a vibrating Barcalounger, but the electricity gave nary a flicker, the TV went blithely on and I heard nothing but the rumbling of the ground. About 15 seconds in, the dog barked (so much for animal prediction—maybe they need to be familiar with the pattern first?). About 30 seconds in I thought I should make a move for a doorway or something, but by that time the shaking was tapering off.

When it was over I checked around the house and found a few photos down, one piece of glass that had rested on a windowsill broken. Some of my china had fallen over in the china cabinet, but was miraculously still in one piece. No cracks, no dust, no craziness. I looked outside. No people in the street. Okay, no harm done.

I went to check the news. OH LORDY LORD! IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD! CALL US IF YOU HAVE DAMAGE!! (Yeah, they actually asked the TV audience to spread the panic.) People milling about in the streets of D.C. Millions of dollars of damage (mostly to replace expensive stonework on the National Cathedral). For a minute I thought maybe I should start panicking.

Then I got a grip. Legitimately, some apartments in the D.C. area, some businesses and historic buildings closer to the epicenter did sustain substantial damage, but really, folks. Go to Haiti and see what earthquake damage looks like. This was a very mild quake, exacerbated by the type of soil we have in the East, which shakes like Jell-O for a long distance from the epicenter. This wasn't a release along a major fault, like the New Madrid. (When that went last time--in 1811--the Mississippi flowed backward.) We were lucky. This time.

Now, this hurricane coming up the coast? That’s something to worry about. The last time a big one came through Virginia some homes were without power here in Fredericksburg for two weeks. Trees crashed into roofs and blocked roads, flooding damaged homes and crops, people were killed and injured. We’re battening down the hatches as I write, a state of emergency has already been declared for the eastern part of the state and cities further up the East Coast are girding for Irene, too. Just another economic blow this country doesn’t need in a year that’s already seen too many of them.

So I’ll be holed up this weekend with some candles and bottled water and a stack of books to read while the wind screams and the rain washes over me. I’m just grateful the house is still standing! And as soon as things clear up I may just read the writing on the wall and pack a bag for the distant hills.

Donna's Journal

Some good news in the midst of all this gloom and doom: Trouble in Mind is a finalist in the Paranormal/SFR/Urban Fantasy category of the 2011 Rebecca contest (Land of Enchantment Romance Authors--New Mexico)! Not only that, but since Laurie has been too busy to mention it, she is also a finalist in the Rebecca contest, in the same category, for her SFR novel Project Pyramid! Of course, the judges will just have to flip a coin to determine a final winner!



Cheers, Donna




Saturday, August 20, 2011


Donna’s Journal
Brevity is the Soul of Wit; or
Dog Days Edition II

Time has gotten the better of me this Friday, so I just have a few brief notes to pass on. The good news is that I have returned to work on my WIP Fools Rush In, the third in my Interstellar Rescue series, this one set entirely away from Earth. I discovered the missing element in that story, the piece that, like a misfiring piston, was keeping the engine from starting up. It should have been obvious, but for some reason, it wasn’t.

The story lacked a villain.

Oh, it had generic bad guys and forces that worked against my hero and heroine and all that. Things happened that kept them from their goal (and from each other). There was even a mysterious mastermind behind the dimwitted plotters who are murdered before they can talk. It was like my writer’s intuition had been screaming at me for chapters to invent this guy, and I just wasn’t listening. I was dragging my feet and hemming and hawing and things were going SO SLOWLY, all because I wasn’t paying attention to what my instincts were trying to tell me.

Villainy needs a face. And a name. And his or her own motivation. In short, the villain should be a distinct CHARACTER, not just Evil or The Others or some such. Seems so easy when you put it like that, right? (Well, it IS just a first draft, after all!)

I suspect the plotting will go much faster now that I’ve got my ears on straight.

Although my plan to read my way out of the doldrums seems to be working, I’m not about to give up just yet. My current read is Eloisa James’s delightful A Kiss Before Midnight, the Cinderella story retold as only the very funny queen of historical romance can do it. I thought James’s Regency take on TV’s House was a hoot, but this one is even better. I’ve been laughing out loud for days and falling in love with the hero and heroine at the same time. Wonderful!

Cheers, Donna

Friday, August 12, 2011

Donna’s Journal
Bookshelf
Books we're reading and mini-reviews . . .

Well, the dog days have hit, it’s a hundred degrees in Virginia, my grandson’s summer visit is over, and I feel like a starship drifting along on impulse. I can barely drag myself to the computer to complete the revisions on my “old” manuscripts in case anyone asks for them, much less fire up my creative spirit to do any new work. We all have these low-energy slumps, and I don’t fret over them. I pick up a book (or two, or seven) and read the results of someone else’s hard work.

The RWA National Conference is always a great source of new reading material (and new authors) and this year’s con was no different. I started with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the mother of all Scottish Highlander/time travel/ historical romances, one of the free giveaways at the authors’ opening panel speech in NY. Having read some of the “children” of this very popular subgenre—most notably Karen Marie Moning’s Highlander novels—I was curious about how such a huge trend could have found its start in what another panel at the conference called a “bumblebee book”.

When it came out in 1991, Outlander was a book that should never have flown—it was too long; it had too many historical details for a romance, too much romance for a historical; and there was this odd element of time travel—the heroine steps into a stone circle and is thrown back in time from 1945 to 1741. In the story the hero and heroine don’t meet right away, don’t begin their romance for another hundred pages; the author tends to go off on tangents about every little thing—medicinal plants, witchcraft, horse training, 18th Century European politics. And, perhaps bravest of all, the hero suffers abuse at the hands of the villain that would still be seen as shocking not only in historical romance, but in paranormal or urban fantasy as well.

Two things keep the book miraculously in the air, and both are the consequence of Gabaldon’s huge, uplifting talent. The first is the heroine’s remarkable voice. Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (she has occasion to use all three last names in the course of the book) has such a unique way of seeing the world—endlessly curious, compassionate, intelligent and brave—that you can’t help but want to hear all about it. If she stops to take a detour through some lost battlefield or 18th Century hospital, you forgive her, because she makes it so damn interesting. The emotions she describes—her own and those of the people around her—are just as real and finely drawn, as vivid as if this were a diary written by a perceptive observer.

It is because Claire falls in love with him that we fall in love with Jamie Fraser, the hero of the story. We see him completely from her point of view, but she allows us a deep insight into his character because he holds nothing back from Claire and she accepts him as he is. Writing from the first person is an extraordinarily difficult task—there’s always something you need to tell from the other person’s POV—but Gabaldon has managed it here with skill.

The second engine keeping this book in flight is Gabaldon’s talent for keeping the pressure on her protagonists. When you are reading along and every few pages you find yourself yelping, “Oh, my God!” or “Oh, no, she didn’t!”, you know you’re in the hands of a master. I had a writing teacher once who explained the process of creating fiction as taking a protagonist and giving him or her problems to solve. Well, Gabaldon gives Clair and Jamie problems in spades. Piles them on. I wish I could give a brief recounting of one example of this, but paraphrasing it just wouldn’t do it justice. Let me simply say that in one chapter of the second book of the Outlander series, Dragonfly in Amber, there are about seven reversals of fortune in the span of ten pages, ending with Claire literally running into the villain in the midst of an escape from someone else. Oh, and then there was her escape from him, so I guess that makes eight.

By my mention of the second in the series, it’s obvious I’m hooked on Outlander. Of course, Gabaldon doesn’t help her readers by ending each of her books on a cliffhanger. I did stop myself after the second book, though, making myself wait and read something else in between “episodes” of the Claire and Jamie story. Otherwise I’d be wrapped in a tartan and talking like Montgomery Scott until my husband disowned me.

The change of pace I chose was quite dramatic—Barbara Elsborg’s contemporary erotic masterpiece Strangers. Here is another book in that category of bumblebees—things that soar when they shouldn’t even get off the ground—and that big buzz you hear is the sound of readers who LOVE this book. Include me now as one of them.

Strangers is the story of Charlie and Kate, two lovers who meet as they are trying to drown themselves in the ocean. Not a promising start, one would think, but again, the story is saved by Barbara’s (and I’ll use her first name since she’s a “blog friend”) great talent for creating two characters who seem so real, so vulnerable, so warm and willing to try again that we can’t help but love them.

Charlie, a musician/film star almost destroyed by his fame, and Kate, a waitress with hidden talents and a devastating past, find each other at the lowest point in their lives and make plenty of mistakes along the way to a better future together. They aren’t helped by Charlie’s scheming agent or Kate’s so-called friends, either. What is wonderful (and awful) about Barbara’s story is the depth of human detail, the sense of reality in the dialogue between these two damaged people. Barbara doesn’t hit a false note anywhere, even though the material is often difficult—child abuse, grief, betrayal, abandonment. And yet, Charlie and Kate often face their lives with humor, and their relationship uses it to good advantage—Charlie is attracted to Kate because she refuses to treat him with kid gloves. Even while the two are still in the ocean at the very beginning of the story that humor emerges to save the book from the maudlin.

The question arises (in my mind, at least) as to what separates this novel from any “mainstream” contemporary romance, aside from the fact that it comes from a recognized publisher of erotica (Ellora’s Cave) and contains rather more than the usual number of sex scenes. I certainly wouldn’t compare it to other erotic novels I’ve read lacking well-developed plot, defined characters or, ahem, redeeming social value. But then, Barbara’s work is always a cut above, no matter what label you give it.

Cheers, Donna

Saturday, August 6, 2011

BEAM 'EM UP, COWBOY!

If you’re going to make a movie with the title COWBOYS AND ALIENS, you’d best have a sense of humor. Fortunately for their audience, director Jon Favreau and writers Damon Lindelof and Roberto Orci/Alex Kurtzman, maintained tongues firmly in cheek while crafting this tale of visitors from space landing smack in the middle of the usual wild west hoohah.

Daniel Craig turns in a creditable job as a post-modernist Man With No Name, waking up in the desert in the first scene with no memory and a big ole shiny thing-a-ma-bob on his wrist that no amount of hitting with a rock will dislodge. Harrison Ford shows up soon enough in the growly role of semi-evil cattle baron. He’s there to rescue his worthless, cowardly son, who’s been shootin’ up the town, but as soon as he lays eyes on Craig, he recognizes him and wants to kill him. Too late—the sheriff (Keith Carradine, always good in a cowboy hat) has already identified him as a wanted criminal and will hang no man before his time.

In the middle of all this, dad-burned ALIENS show up and really start shootin’ up the town, lassoing (yes, literally) citizens along the way. As you might imagine, six-shooters have little effect against what appear to be atmosphere-capable starfighters. But, much like Frodo’s Sting, our cowboy hero’s magic wristband begins to glow as soon as the aliens appear over the horizon and blasts one of the ships clean out of the sky.

Are we having fun yet? Well, yee-haw, you bet we are! Throw in Olivia Wilde as the Mysterious Woman, Adam Beach as Harrison Ford’s much-abused half-Indian foster son/ranch foreman (think John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter in THE SEARCHERS), Indian attackers-turned-allies, a doctor called Reverend and a bartender called Doc and a priceless scene between Ford and a small boy recounting the horrific history of a knife and you’ve got more than enough to keep you entertained for two hours.

I gather some critics were disappointed that this movie does not meet expectations for opening up a whole new crossover subgenre for exploitation. Well, no. What it does is exploit beloved clich├ęs of both genres for pure entertainment value. Even the reason the aliens come to Earth is based on a common Western theme—they want gold. Gold is an excellent conductor and might be rare and useful to any advanced species, so it actually works here, too. There is no depth at all to this movie, but who cares? If you are a fan of Westerns and SF, and you can relax about it, you’ll have a good time.

Similarly, I wouldn’t look for depth in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. It’s all action all the time in this third installment of the Transformers franchise, which is just as well. The few moments we spend with Shia LaBeouf’s whiny, not-too-bright Sam Witwicky are largely a waste of time. And, fanboys, here’s an announcement: a guy like Witwicky would never have a girlfriend like Carly (model Rosie Huntington-Whitely). Just doesn’t happen. And, no offense, Hollywood, but I’m tired of seeing it onscreen when the flip-side—a “loser” female paired with a handsome, rich male—is never seen.

Two things save this two-and-a half-hour homage to Hasbro’s ingenious toy inventions of the Eighties: the effects, which are spectacular, and the wacky performances of some of Hollywood’s best. John Malkovich is a hoot as the self-parodying CEO of a megacorporation that hires Witwicky. Frances McDormand does a hilarious turn as the director of a government agency charged with minding the Transformers. Patrick Dempsey is beautiful—and smarmy—as Witwicky’s erstwhile rival. John Turturro chews the scenery nearly as effectively as the Decepticon’s grinding gear-and-bladed python. And Ken Jeong provides a good ten minutes of completely meaningless fun as one of Witwicky’s co-workers.

I was delighted to recognize Leonard Nimoy’s unmistakable rasp as the voice of Sentinel Prime. What better excuse for any number of TREK references in the dialogue throughout the film?

Okay, so far I’ve given one A and one B. Sorry to say I have to give a C this time out, too. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER had a lot going for it, but falters by taking itself way too seriously. You would think “camp” would be written all over a script that includes evil Nazis in possession of a secret formula; a villain with a red skull bent on world domination; a wasp-waisted female “handler” with a crush; and a hero that goes from 90-pound weakling to bulked-up he-man in seconds and uses a machine gun and an American-flag shield as his weapons of choice. But, no, everyone except Tommy Lee Jones (as the Army general who is supposed to find a use for “Captain America”) and Hugo Weaving (as Doctor Nazi Red Skull) seems to be treating this as Oscar material. Puh-leeze.

I could even have tolerated this until the ending, which, not to give away anything to those who haven’t seen it, is nothing more than a blatant come-on for a sequel. Well, I won’t be on pins-and-needles waiting for that one to come out.

DONNA’S JOURNAL

The August, 2011 issue of Romance Writers Report, the official magazine of Romance Writers of America, features an article by Larissa Ione, author of the Lords of Deliverance series of apocalyptic romance on dystopic, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic romance fiction. The end of the world has some appeal as a subject for SFR, says Ione, even beyond YA and digital publishers (a viewpoint I heard expressed among editors and agents at the conference in New York, also). The author points out, however, that working with such dark material isn’t always easy. As always, the worldbuilding must be meticulous, but not overwhelming. Some readers prefer man-made disasters, others, natural ones. And finding time for love among the ruins is a challenge. The article is available online for members at http://rwanational.org/.

Cheers, Donna

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Hosted by 5 Science Fiction Romance authors with 8 RWA Golden Heart finals and a RITA final between them. We aim to entertain with spirited commentary on the past, present, and future of SFR, hot topics, and our take on Science Fiction and SFR books, television, movies and culture.