Thursday, August 16, 2018

My favorite SFR

I'm a re-reader. Not every story will grab me, but if it does, I'll read and re-read. One of those books that hit the sweet spot was Linnea Sinclair's Hope's Folly. If you'd like to read the book's blurb, you'll find it here.

Yes, I suppose this is a review. But for me, it's also a statement of what works in science fiction - for me, personally, which, let's face it, is what a review is - a subjective point of view. This is a writer I admire – right up there with my all-time faves. So let's do the review thing. But if you're a writer, take note of how well this story has been built.

Hope's Folly is a love story, set in a time of political conflict and approaching war. The human Empire is being run by Tage, who has usurped the power of a weak and failing Emperor. Tage has decimated the ranks of the Admiralty, replacing senior fleet officers with people more likely to dance to his tune. But not everybody is going quietly. A rebel Alliance has risen to oppose Tage. Amidst the turmoil, the two alien species in the Galaxy see their opportunity to expand their own borders.

When the story opens we meet Admiral Philip Guthrie, who escaped the purge of the Admiralty by the skin of his teeth. He's 45 years old, with a shattered right leg healing slowly and the weight of the deaths of many colleagues on his conscience. Tage used Guthrie to plan his purge. Now, Guthrie is determined to join with other Alliance leaders to build a new fleet and defeat Tage's Imperial forces. But the Empire wants him dead and the Farosians want to capture him to swap him for their own leader, who Tage has imprisoned. On top of all that, Guthrie's new flagship is a very old ex-fleet cruiser which was disarmed, decommissioned and used as a freighter, and he has to enlist a crew from wherever he can, knowing some of them will be plants.

Lieutenant Rya Bennton is the daughter of Guthrie's captain and mentor, back in the day. A 29 year-old Imperial Security assassin, she turned rebel when her father was killed in that purge. She's no dolly bird, tall and built with curves and a lovely ass – and a spare thirty pounds she could afford to lose. She remembers meeting Guthrie when she was a pudgy 9 year old and he was a 25 year old lieutenant who showed her how to fire a laser pistol. She, like Guthrie, has a love bordering on obsession with hand weapons. The description when Rya first sees Guthrie's Norlack laser rifle is a wonderful piece of innuendo. In this scene, too, we see the connection between the two, the way they think alike.

“Is this,” she asked hesitantly, “what I think it is?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Norlack 473 sniper, modified to handle wide-load slash ammo.” There was a noticeable reverence in her voice.
He pulled the rifle out, hefting it. She had a good eye. Norlacks weren't common. But recognizing it was modified for illegal and highly destructive charges … Then again, she'd seen it in action. “It is,” he confirmed, amused now by the expression on her face. It had gone from reverence to almost rapture.
“That is so totally apex.” Her voice was hushed. “May I,” and she glanced shyly at him, her eyes bright, spots of color on her cheeks, “fondle it?”
He stared at her, not sure he heard her correctly. Then he snorted, laughing. Fondle it, indeed. He handed it to her. She took it, cradling it at first, then running her fingers lovingly down its short barrel. Sweet holy God. He didn't have enough painkillers in him to stop his body's reaction to the smokiness in her eyes, or the way her lips parted slightly, the edge of her tongue slipping out to moisten them, as her hands slid over the weapon.

Ahem. Back to the review.

The love story between these two is gorgeous. Rya keeps insisting she has a huge crush on her commanding officer – that's all. What would he see in her, anyway? And that thirty pounds... Guthrie keeps realising that not only is he too old for her, but he has a duty to her father's memory to protect her, not lust after her. He also has to get his almost defenceless ship past Farosian raiders and Imperial warships, regardless of Rya and a broken leg. But circumstances fling them (often quite literally) together in what used to be Rya's father's ship as Guthrie tries to build a cohesive team from a bunch of disparate people who don't know each other. And one of them is a mole.

So why did this story grab me and not let go?

Because it's so real. In Linnea Sinclair's universe the ships are not run by all-powerful artificial intelligences. To me, they're not much different from what we have now, with engine rooms, weapons systems and the all-important environment systems all run using computers but with people running the show. Guys get to cut code, hack, mess about in the systems. The ships have blast doors. The pipes gurgle and knock, metal pings as it cools, or creaks and groans. Everything smells – hot engine oil, leather, soap, food, hair. The ex-freighter has a ghostly smell of oranges that comes and goes.

The people are real. Guthrie is tall, smart, the son of a rich family (which has its own drawbacks). But he's not a superman. He makes mistakes, has his own foibles, calls himself a Galactic-class ass on more than one occasion. I've mentioned Rya's issues with her weight. She's also impulsive and not much good at saying 'sir'. The secondary characters are just as convincing, ordinary people forced to cope with extraordinary circumstances.

The politics is real. I have a history degree and these things matter to me. I can see the Empire disintegrating in this way. If I were to be asked for a similar situation in our recent past, I'd go for Stalin taking over in the USSR.And then there's the cat. Captain Folly, who comes with the ship, leaves white fur all over the place and prefers women to men. He's a moggy, much loved by a little girl called Hope. He plays an important role in the story. You'll like him.

As always with Linnea Sinclair's stories, things move apace – except for the opening chapter, which I enjoyed more the second time around. This is the third book of a series and the first chapter orientates the reader, I guess. But persevere. From there on, the author works on the basis of 'if things can go wrong, they will go wrong'. Guthrie's relationship with Rya plays as an underlying complication to all the other issues the two face. Take out the romance, and yes, you'd still have a great story. But man, you'd miss out on soooo much.

Oh, and before I finish, I must mention the sex scenes. They're not many and they're intense, steamy and sensual, but not a how-to manual.

I loved this book, I loved Philip Guthrie. He is very definitely my kind of man. Sigh. I'm too old to be a fangirl. Five stars. But you knew that already.

So that's the review done. What can I learn as a writer?
  • Make the cause worthwhile - things people will lay down their lives for.
  • Engage all the senses.
  • Introduce a bit of quirkiness (the cat and the oranges).
  • Use humour.
  • Make sure ALL your characters are real people, with a mix of strengths and flaws.
  • Keep the pace up.
  • When your heroes are in trouble, pile it on.
  • Introduce the unexpected to add twists – but don't suddenly introduce cavalry without the reader knowing it's out there.
  • And probably other things like great use of words and getting into a character's head.
Anything else you'd like to contribute?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Mind-Driven Technology: Coming Soon?

Happy Monday the 13th. The day seems perfect for a blog about the wonders--and possible warning signs--for our near future.

When I penned the original draft of Inherit the Stars back in 2009, I envisioned a future where, not computers, but the human brain would operate prototype ships, tactical drones and biodroids (biological androids) via a neuro-connective direct link device. And with proper training and experience, a person could develop the ability to do all of these things...simultaneously!

After all, why build a machine to mimic the human mind if the mind can be trained and tapped to do it better, and without removing the human equations of sympathy and the differentiation of right and wrong.

Image available for purchase on DepositPhotos
As it turns out, we may not have to wait anywhere near the 1,500-years-in-the-future setting of my series for mind-driven technology to be developed. DARPA is working toward that goal right now!

According to a July 17, 2018 article by Jack Corrigan on, "The Defense Department’s research arm is working on a project that connects human operators’ brains to the systems they’re controlling—and vice versa."

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is working to develop this neural interface that would allow personnel to connect to tech devices via brainwave activity. The end result would be to allow people to control technology as seamlessly as if they were operating a body part. In Inherit the Stars, this idea is introduced by way of Con-Drive, short for neural-connective drive.

In reality, this program has been dubbed Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology, or N3, but it's exploring two different paths--non-invasion systems that are completely outside the body (ala the tech in my books) and a "minutely invasive" process wherein the individual must consume certain chemicals so that external sensors can read their brainwave activity.

In the very near future (if not already), such technology might help a 'mind pilot' operate an entire fleet of drones or robots for surveillance or tactical situations. Take that same concept and project it fifteen hundred years into the fictional future, and it may ring a few bells for my readers. A character developing the prowess to control a flotilla of multi-purpose tactical drones, operate a number of biological androids, and operate and pilot a prototype starship--all at the same time? Check and double check.

The rare prototype ships in my series represent various stages of the evolution of this technology, so have different levels and methods of connectiveness. Con-drive also makes it possible to go places other ships can't go--and to get there in times that no other ships can equal.

In our future, this evolving technology may allow for more immediate concerns, such as an individual who can sense the onslaught of a cyber attack or a malfunction.

Are there ethical and moral questions involved in such a technology? Certainly. And personal dilemmas? Of course. As with any 'enhancement' of the human mind, there are bound to be trade-offs. Such abilities may leave an individual feeling an outsider from his or her peers. Emotionally, and mental health-wise, there's a possibility this feeling of isolation could take a toll on the human psyche. It may leave someone with these enhancements questioning if they are not more--but less--human because of their abilities.

In many ways, direct mind connection to technology becomes like a futuristic superpower. And as with all superpowers, there's a personal price that must be paid.

Technology has been catching up to my Near Future SFR--The Outer Planets--for almost a decade now. But it's a bit sobering for me as an author to see that it's already beginning to catch up with a story set fifteen centuries into our future. As Dr. Alan Grant said in Jurassic Park, "The world has just changed so radically, and we're all running to catch up."

That seems to go double for science fiction authors.

Reference: DARPA  - Pentagon Wants to Bring Mind-Controlled Tech to the Troops

Have a great week.

Friday, August 10, 2018


Lots of players and itchy trigger fingers in today's romance world.

When people ask me how long I’ve been writing, I often answer, “All my life.” I think it’s that way for most writers; we can’t remember a time when we weren’t creating stories and putting them to paper (or screen). Writing isn’t just something we do, it’s something we are

And yet so many of my fellow authors are experiencing a kind of existential crisis right now. After five or ten or fifteen years of professional publication—either through traditional means or self-pubbing—they are giving up. Those who went the trad route made it through the gauntlet of contests, querying, rejections, the thrill of “the call,” more rejections, winning the contract at last, cover squabbles, revisions, release day, and anxiety over sales—sometimes multiple times. Those who went the self-pub route had to find an editor, find a cover artist (or do it themselves), format the manuscript, pay for all that, pay for promo and agonize over sales—sometimes multiple times. But despite overcoming all those challenges many authors are realizing the gain is no longer worth the pain. From author after author, the publishing world is hearing, “I quit.”

You can’t blame them, really. Institutions that used to encourage newbie writers, indie authors, niche genres and slow, but steady performers are drying up like ponds on the African savannah. RWA® is eliminating the Golden Heart® contest for unpublished manuscripts after having tightened requirements for membership in its Professional Authors Network to the point that only high-performing pro authors need apply. We almost lost the most comprehensive website for SFR book listings, SFR Station, until a “retiring” SFR author stepped in to take over from its founder. 

RT Reviews, a digital romance magazine that was a trusted source of reviews for SFR and other romance novels, folded without notice this summer, taking with it the RTBooklovers Con. That convention’s “replacement,” the BookLovers Con, which still focuses on romance, limited author participation in next spring’s event in New Orleans to “invited” authors only. As you might guess, those invited authors are the big names who can post the big sales numbers.

But even more discouraging is the kind of gold rush mentality that has overtaken the self-pubbing world in general, and the romance community in particular. It's common knowledge that you can use certain skeezy techniques to manipulate the sales and promo algorithms on Amazon, especially as relates to Kindle Unlimited. Scamming the system is apparently easier and a lot more profitable than actually writing decent books and trying to promote and sell them legitimately. 

With the encouragement of certain “gurus” like John Konrath, who promise untold wealth via self-pubbling, and the meteoric rise of new adult erotica in romance bringing in hordes of wannabes hoping to cash in on the latest craze, self-published romance on Amazon is the Wild West right now. Gunslingers, card sharps, scalpers and carpetbaggers of all descriptions abound, and it’s damn hard to find a place at the bar with all the bullets zinging past your ear.

So, what to do? Well, there are only two ways to go. Get the hell out of Dodge. Or keep your head down and write. Me, I don’t have a choice. I’m a writer. I’ve been doing this all my life.

Cheers, Donna

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A very local alien

A couple of curious youngsters eye us off. That's Fraser Island in the background.

I'm lucky enough to live close to Fraser Island in Queensland, Australia. The tour people will tell you Fraser is the largest sand island in the world – and they'll also tell you Hervey Bay is one of the best places in the planet to interact with humpback whales on their annual migration from the ice of Antarctica to the warm waters of the tropics. Up there the females have their calves, and then meander back down to the cold south, stopping regularly to feed their babies. The youngsters need to grow and fatten up on their mother's milk to survive the cold temperatures. 

The calm waters of Hervey Bay between mainland Australia and Fraser Island provide an ideal stopping off point. The juveniles come in to hang out and do some people-watching, the males pop in to fight for mating rights, the mums come in with their babies to get in a few large feeds.
The migration takes place between early July and early November and the whales you'll see in the Bay will depend to some extent what month it is. The early arrivals in July and August are mainly juveniles. Whales become sexually mature at around six or seven years. Before that, they're like teenagers - curious, wanting to explore.  They'll come right up to the boats. to people watch. They're like teenagers exploring their world. They can see very well through both water and air, and they can hear, too.

This one is doing what's called a spyhop, hanging vertically in the water with its snout above the surface. It's looking at the people on the boat.

The whales are curious and they're attracted to sound, movement, and colour. Visitors are encouraged to wave and call out to them.

They're happy to perform for an audience, slapping their pectoral fins, their tails, or performing spectacular breaches.

This picture gives a bit of perspective. Whales are BIG.

This whale spent about an hour checking us out. She's on her side, looking at us. Her eye is just in front of that large white blob on her side. You'll see her underside is mainly white. That's a characteristic of southern hump backs. In the Northern hemisphere hump backs are mainly black all over.

September and later the adult whales arrive. Males are interested in sex with as many females as they can manage and they'll fight for breeding rights, using the barnacles on their heads as weapons, pushing and shoving and making a lot of noise. 

Fighting males. There are three in this pod and the churned water, shoving, splashing and spraying (with sound effects) is amazing.

This mother and baby were very comfortable with the boat. She's brought the calf over to see us. In the past mothers would put themselves between the boat and the calf, but increasingly the whales know the boats here are not a danger.

They also know the big males are a risk to their calves. Whales don't play happy families. A big male will shove a calf out of the way to get at mum for sex. But we did get to see a courting couple (so to speak). BTW, the females are bigger than the males.

Females with calves are only interested in feeding and protecting their calves. A humpback calf is about fourteen feet (about four and a half metres) long at birth, but it needs to put on weight quickly to survive the cold waters of Antarctica. Hump backs are baleen whales (filter feeders) and they eat krill and very small fish. (As an aside, this is why I object to 'wild krill oil' being sold at 'health' stores. It's whale food. Why save whales if you're going to deplete their food source?) /rant.

Back to baby whales. Whale milk has the consistency of yoghurt, with a very high percentage of fat. The baby drinks about one hundred pounds of this stuff per day, putting on weight fast. Apart from feeding, caves have to learn how to do whale things, like what to do with those enormous pectoral fins and how to breach. Mum will show how it's done once or twice, and then the baby practices. Late in the season visitors will often see a calf doing breach after breach. In contrast, Mum hasn't had anything to eat since she left Antarctica. Breaching expends quite a bit of energy, so she's not going to do repeat performances.

 This calf has flung itself right out of the water in a spectacular side breach.
This little lady was only about three weeks old, trying to work out what to do with her pectoral fins. Her mum was just under the surface nearby, having a whale version of a nanna nap, secure that her baby was safe with the boat so near.

The whale doesn't spray water from its lungs. It is expelling breath from its blow hole. The air is travelling at 200kmh and vaporises the water above the blow hole. But there's plenty of water vapour to make a rainbow.

Well... that had better do. This is a compilation of many trips up to Platypus Bay. I could go on but it'll get a bit long. I wrote about my most recent whale-watching trip over at my own blog. Every trip is different, every trip is worthwhile. If you're ever in this part of the world in the months when the migration's on take the opportunity to meet an intelligence very different to ours. Quite alien, in fact.

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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.