Thursday, September 30, 2010

Astronomy Photo of Day (Because There is More to Life than Prejudice)

Stars and their planets are born in cold, dark, interstellar clouds of gas and dust. While exploring the clouds at infrared wavelengths, astronomers have made a surprising discovery -- dozens of cases where dense cloud cores shine by reflecting infrared starlight. Based on archival Spitzer Space Telescope data, these panels illustrate the newly described phenomenon, known as coreshine. At longer infrared wavelengths (right) the core of cloud Lynds 183 is dark, but at shorter infrared wavelengths (left) the core clearly shines, scattering light from nearby stars. As seen in these panels, the elongated core covers a mere 1.5 light-years. The scattering requires dust grains that are about 10 times larger than previously thought to exist in the clouds, about 1 micron in size instead of 0.1 micron. For comparison, a human hair is about 100 microns thick. The larger dust grains indicated by coreshine could change models of the early phases of star and planet formation, a still mysterious process hidden within the interstellar clouds. Dark nebula Lynds 183 lies around 325 light-years away in the constellation Serpens.

When I post commentary on the NASA photos, it is by an astronomer and comes from the Astronomy Photo of the Day site. It is not by me. Patrick says I need to make this clear.

Elizabeth Moon and Islam 3

The question then becomes how do we deal with prejudice. The Wiscon con comm has suggested the following:
We know that opinions are not changed by running away from them, but instead by engaging with them, challenging their assumptions, sharing knowledge, seeking understanding, and by lively and candid discourse. And we think that provides a pretty good short description of a typical WisCon.

One might say that WisCon excels at the difficult conversation -- and sometimes the hardest conversation is with an idol who turns out to be human. We have begun addressing our difference of views with Ms. Moon directly, and will continue to do so over the coming months and at the con itself. We hope you will join us in this difficult conversation.

Timmi Duchamp has a fine post on Ambling Along the Aqueduct arguing that attempting to have a reasonable discussion about pig-ignorant prejudice reduces us to the simplest level of discourse: Prejudice 101. In doing this, we lose Wiscon's great gift, which is sophisticated discussion and a chance to develop our ideas about beyond the introductory level.

So what do we do? There is direct confrontation, a time honored technique of all the various movements that have helped change America: march, run a picket line, carry signs, shout slogans, sit in, walk out, get in the oppressor's face and mess with his daily activities.

People have suggested walking out of Elizabeth Moon's GoH speech. The trouble is, Nisi Shawl is also a GoH; and she has every right to have to good time at the con, not get mixed into an ugly fight.

And direct confrontation may bring us back to the level of Prejudice 101.

My current plan -- as I told con comm -- is to attend Wiscon and avoid every bit of programming that involves Elizabeth Moon. This is something like the English trade union technique called, 'sending to Coventry,' where workers refuse to acknowledge the existence of any fellow worker who does not support the union.

Because I am not a very confrontational person, and because the thought of being in the same room with Elizabeth Moon makes me feel sick, I figure this may be the best I can manage. It's quiet. It won't damage other people's experience of the con.

The only problem is, I have to figure out how to hear Nisi Shawl's GoH speech, without hearing Elizabeth Moon's. I am still working on that problem.

Elizabeth Moon and Islam 2

I talked in my previous post about how the history of the US has been the history of accommodating new people and minorities. What I didn't mention is how difficult this often is, and how hostile and violent the majority has often been. Consider slavery and the struggle to end it. You don't get much more violent than the American Civil War, at least until the 20th century.

Which brings me to the famous Frederick Douglass quote:
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.

Struggle need not be as violent as the Civil War, and let's hope it isn't. But Douglass is right about power. It doesn't concede anything without demand, and that demand must be backed by determination.

The problem right now is twofold. The US needed an enemy after the collapse of the Soviet Union to explain why it remains so highly militarized and why ordinary Americans cannot have the country they want.

9/11 provided an enemy. Unfortunately the enemy in question was a tiny group of criminals. Hardly a replacement for the Soviet Union. So the enemy had to be expanded. This was done by connecting Al Qaeda to Afghanistan and Iraq. There were Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan at the time, though the plotting for 9/11 was done in Germany and the people involved were mostly Saudi. Strange that the US did not attack Germany or Saudi Arabia... Iraq had no connection at all to Al Qaeda, but it did have lots of oil, and a strategic position in the Middle East. In any case, the enemy was expanded first to Afghanistan and Iraq, then to the entire Islamic world, except American allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

It is an odd, cobbled-together, patchwork enemy -- not a state or empire, as the Soviet Union was, but a bunch of varied countries and people who do not necessarily get along. None of these countries has anything close to the military power of the old USSR or anything close to Soviet Union's international reach. Even together, they are not comparable.

So, that is one issue: the need for an enemy. The second issue is demographics in the US: the country is less and less white. It will be majority nonwhite by the middle of this century, and this is making many white Americans crazy. At the same time that this is happening, lift is getting less good for most Americans, and they need an explanation for why this is happening -- aside from the obvious explanation that the rich are sucking up all the nation's wealth, leaving very little for the rest of us.

The current hatred of Muslims is in response to the patchwork enemy, created because the US government needs an enemy, and the changing demographics in the country. There is a lot of political power and white fear behind this hatred, which makes it dangerous; and it is a distraction from the real issues that the US needs to face, if the country and the planet are going to survive.

In general, I have faith in America's ability to overcome its old habits of prejudice and become a richer, more complex, more varied nation with much better food.

But never underestimate the power of jerks and fascists.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Elizabeth Moon and Islam

I am going to post here, since my blog is not read by many people, rather than in a more public place. I don't want to add to the heat and noise. But I do want to think out loud.

(In case you don't know, Moon put a post on her blog saying that Muslims don't make good American citizens, because they refuse to conform to the American mainstream culture. She and Nisi Shawl are guests of honor at Wiscon the next year. Since Wiscon takes a strong position against prejudice, Moon's post is making the Con Committee and a lot of regular Wiscon attendees unhappy.)

I have read the Moon essay twice. The first time it gave me an upset stomach and headache that lasted two days. It is poisonous. Given the current mood in the country, it is also dangerous.

What country did this woman grow up in?

The US is full of groups that did not conform to the community at large and who demanded that society accommodate them. The Irish and Germans did not give up their Catholic religion, though English stock Protestants hated it; and they refused to send their kids to the secular public schools. In addition, the Germans opened beer halls and drank publicly and loudly, though it made their Protestant neighbors crazy.

Jews, Hindus and Buddhists have kept their religions and established temples, though this has often freaked out majority Americans.

The Amish dress distinctively, pull their kids out of school after eighth grade and refuse to fight in America's wars.

The Mormons believe in science fiction and live in a theocracy, if the stories I hear about Utah are true. They are also rumored to wear odd underwear.

Native Americans have struggled -- and continued to struggle -- to maintain their native cultures and religions, in spite of the best efforts of white Christian Americans to turn them into white Christians. Black Americans demanded first freedom and then equal rights, though many white Americans were -- and are -- extremely uncomfortable with the idea of free and equal black citizens. Women fought for equal rights and their own independent lives. Gays and lesbians came out of the closet and demanded an end to prejudice against them. Disabled Americans demanded access to education, jobs and public spaces.

The history of the US has been a history of minorities challenging the dominant culture, and the dominant culture changing.

On some issues, the dominate culture remains firm. We do not allow polygamy or genital mutilation, and we are not likely to change our minds about this.

However, in my America, there is a constant negotiation over what American culture is, and a constant expansion of acceptable ways to be American. In this America, Muslims ought to fit in just as well as Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, drunk German Catholics, socialist Finns, out lesbians, and people in wheelchairs who are unwilling to stay at home.

I have wondered for years what American culture is. I guess the answer is, it's subject to change.

Sioux Falls

Patrick and I drove to Sioux Falls this past weekend to attend the Northern Plains Indian Art Market. The market was disappointing: far smaller than it used to be. However, most of the artists I like were still there. They are all people from the Dakotas. The Blackfoot from farther west, who do awesome beadwork, were not there. Nor were the plains Ojibwa, who are also fine beadworkers.

Patrick bought a ring from Paul Szabo, a Lakota silversmith from the Rosebud Reservation. I got a pair of earrings that Szabo made: highly stylized, geometric spiders. The Lakota trickster is Iktomi the Spider, though I don't know if my spiders are Iktomi.

There has been heavy rain and flooding through the Upper Midwest. Driving back, we dcided to take two lane highways rather than the Interstate. We ran into a detour on the Highway 14, which was probably flooding along the Cottonwood River. But it didn't take us far out of way; and the drive was pleasant, through golden fields under a bright blue sky.

We got some terrific photos in Sioux Falls of the falls on the Big Sioux River, which is running very high.

I wrote a poem:
We are photographing the Big Sioux River,
twice as big as it’s supposed to be,
flooding houses and garages,
cars half under water.
A guy says where he’s from in Iowa
flood water took out a dam a week ago.
“It isn’t supposed to be like this,
not in September.”

We don’t mention global warming.
Instead, we drive down to Sioux Falls
to photograph water crashing and foaming
over ledges of pink sioux quartzite,
people walking on the stone at the river’s edge,
watching and taking pictures,
mostly quiet and serious,
as if this is somehow important.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day from NASA

What drives auroras on Saturn? To help find out, scientists have sorted through hundreds of infrared images of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft for other purposes, trying to find enough aurora images to correlate changes and make movies. Once made, some movies clearly show that Saturnian auroras can change not only with the angle of the Sun, but also as the planet rotates. Furthermore, some auroral changes appear related to waves in Saturn's magnetosphere likely caused by Saturn's moons. Pictured above, a false-colored image taken in 2007 shows Saturn in three bands of infrared light. The rings reflect relatively blue sunlight, while the planet itself glows in comparatively low energy red. A band of southern aurora in visible in green. Inspection of many more Saturnian images may well lead to an even better understanding of both Saturn's and Earth's auroras.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day from NASA

Why does this galaxy have such a long tail? In this stunning vista recorded with the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, distant galaxies form a dramatic backdrop for disrupted spiral galaxy Arp 188, the Tadpole Galaxy. The cosmic tadpole is a mere 420 million light-years distant toward the northern constellation Draco. Its eye-catching tail is about 280 thousand light-years long and features massive, bright blue star clusters. One story goes that a more compact intruder galaxy crossed in front of Arp 188 - from left to right in this view - and was slung around behind the Tadpole by their gravitational attraction. During the close encounter, tidal forces drew out the spiral galaxy's stars, gas, and dust forming the spectacular tail. The intruder galaxy itself, estimated to lie about 300 thousand light-years behind the Tadpole, can be seen through foreground spiral arms at the lower left. Following its terrestrial namesake, the Tadpole Galaxy will likely lose its tail as it grows older, the tail's star clusters forming smaller satellites of the large spiral galaxy.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day

Today, the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south at 03:09 Universal Time. Known as an equinox, this astronomical event marks the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere and spring in the south. Equinox means equal night. With the Sun on the celestial equator, Earth dwellers will experience nearly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Of course, in the north the days continue to grow shorter, the Sun marching lower in the sky as winter approaches. To celebrate the equinox, consider this view of the Sun in extreme ultraviolet light from the Sun staring Solar Dynamics Observatory. Recorded yesterday, the false-color image shows emission from highly ionized iron atoms. Loops and arcs trace the glowing plasma suspended in magnetic fields above solar active regions.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Patrick takes his camera when he goes bike riding. This is one of his photos.

Tow Boats Docked in St. Paul

This is another.

African Wattled Crane

This is from our trip to the International Crane Center in Wisconsin. Another Patrick photo.

Chatty Today

I am chatty today. Soon I will get dressed, go to the bank and library, and then write in a coffee house.

I was at 11,000 words on the Lydia Duluth story on September 1. I now (20 days later) have something like 18,000 words. The story is done, except for a wrap-up scene. Right now, I'm going over the printed-out manuscript, making corrections and cutting material that is not needed, though it's still a long story.

I've been averaging 350 words a day. This is a good-sized novel a year. For some reason, I have always counted in pages, not words, estimating 250 words a page. 350 words a day is 510 pages after a year, which is an amazing amount of writing for me.

John Scalzi has a long post on writing on his blog. Here is part of it.

If you want to be a writer, than be a writer, for god’s sake. It’s not that hard, and it doesn’t require that much effort on a day to day basis. Find the time or make the time. Sit down, shut up and put your words together. Work at it and keep working at it. And if you need inspiration, think of yourself on your deathbed saying “well, at least I watched a lot of TV.” If saying such a thing as your life ebbs away fills you with existential horror, well, then. I think you know what to do.

I mentioned this to my friend Ruth Berman, and she said, "This isn't true. There are times when I am simply not able to write."

Ruth is a fine poet, prolific compared to me, and also a fine writer of short fiction, though she has written more poetry than fiction in recent years. She mostly publishes in literary magazines, though she has also published poetry and fiction in Asimov's, among other SF places.

I would call Scalzi a production writer, producing novels the way a production weaver produces scarves and a production potter produces pots and mugs. Like such artists, he has a workmanlike and practical attitude toward what he does.

I would say that Ruth and Scalzi are two different kinds of writers, and that what's true for one may not be true for the other.

I am on the Ruth end of the writing spectrum. Scalzi is able to make a living from writing. I cannot, and I have always been the main support of my own personal household. I think there's no question that working a day job has cut into my writing time and energy. Often, I have been able to write in spite of the day job. But as I aged and as my jobs became more interesting and demanding, I wrote less and less. Now that I am unemployed or retired, take your pick, I am writing more.

Like Ruth, I have often had the experience of not being able to write. Wherever the writing comes from is empty. I have to wait till it refills. Could I force the writing to come? I'm not sure. I know there are times when the words come with difficulty, and they are dead on the page.

Over the past 40 years, I have averaged something like 28,000 words a year. This is one novella or several short stories a year. After three or four years of work, I have a novel. My longest novel, A Woman of the Iron People, took 13 years instead of 7, because I took a long break in the middle and wrote another novel. I did this because I simply did not know where Woman was going.

Could I have written more if I'd been more disciplined? Maybe, and maybe I would have produced pages full of dead words, and stories that were not -- ultimately -- about anything.

What I'm trying to do when I write is create a work of art that is distinctive and personal, that says something I've never said before, that pulls as deeply as possible from whoever I am. I want the words to be alive. I want the story to have ideas that are seriously considered. I want it to be my best effort at describing what it's like to be human and live in this universe. Yes, I want my writing to be entertaining. But I also want it to be serious art that tries to meet the standards of the very best art.

When I write something that doesn't feel alive, that doesn't feel like my best effort, I trash it or put it away till I feel I can finish it.

Am I saying Scalzi doesn't do this? I have no idea, since I have read very little of his work.

I think he's wrong when he says writing isn't hard. I've done it a long time, and I find it quite difficult.

The Death of Cities & Poverty

What amazing me is how the death of great American cities is nothing to worry about. Just as it's no big deal to have 10% unemployment, which is now expected to continue for years. If you add in people who are underemployed or have given up looking for work, the unemployment rate is about 17%. That is one person in six. One family in eight is on food stamps. The number of Americans living in poverty is rising. It's now 15%, almost one person in six.

The poverty line in the US is $22,000 for a family of four. Severe poverty is half of this: $11,000 for a family of four. And severe poverty has risen even more sharply than poverty in general. It is now 6.3% of the population. That is one person -- one family -- in fifteen.

I pay $750 a month for an apartment. This is pretty close to the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the Twin Cities. $11,000 is $916 a month. If I had to live on $11,000, I would have $166 a month after paying my rent. This is assuming no taxes at all. Obviously, there would be no money for any kind of health insurance or a car or much of anything except food. My current food budget for one person is around $250 a month.

Now, imagine a family of four living on $916 a month. Where would they live? A homeless shelter, I assume. Or (Patrick says) a friend or relative's basement. Their health care would be Medicaid or hospital emergency rooms. They might not be able to get to a food shelf, due to lack of transportation. They would almost certainly use food stamps.

You can't cook in a shelter, so all the food you buy will have to be already prepared in some way. This will make it more expensive, and it makes US government figures on how much it costs to feed a family of four ridiculous.

The Maplewood, MN Family Shelter provides three meals day. Families can stay up to 30 days. Is their poverty likely to go away after 30 days?

The Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul serves three meals a day. However, many of the people using the center are a bit scary. You might not want to take your kids there. The meals are things like spaghetti and hot bologna.

If the family is living in a basement, they will be able to cook. In that case, their food costs with food stamps will be something like $200-$300 a month.

That leaves $616-$716 for housing. Not enough to rent.

We're not even talking about clothes, school supplies, a car so you can get to work, money for prescription drugs, money for toys at Christmas.

Public housing in the Twin Cities is full up. Per the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Minneapolis is able to place 120 new families a year. This is entirely due to turnover.

For that matter, the shelters are full and turning people away.

One family in fifteen is living like this. Apparently, this is not a big deal.

Cities (A Poem)

I'm still tinkering with this. Patrick thinks it's too depressing. I should remember that Grace Lee Boggs is still in Detroit and still believes in the future. There are some remarkable people living in -- and fighting to revive -- our ruined cities. Maybe our future is there, among the trees.

But here is the poem:
Isn’t there something wrong with a nation
where the cities die?
Youngstown returned to grass and trees,
Detroit mostly empty,
New Orleans still a wreck
five years after the flood.

The list goes on:
Buffalo --
the factories gone
that used to fill the sky with smoke,
the people off to other places.
“Write when you find work.”

Rome was like this,
as old prints and paintings show us.
Think of Piranesi’s
Antiquities of Rome --
gigantic ruins
surrounded by fields,
trees growing
on top of triumphal arches,
tiny eighteenth-century shacks
standing in the shadow
of imperial colonnades.

(Early on
there was still an emperor somewhere,
dressed in purple silk and pearls,
surrounded by courtiers
assuring him that all was well.

The people in the ruined city
knew better,
as did the soldiers
no longer able to conquer.)

Here the highway machines
tear up paved highways,
turning asphalt back
to dirt and gravel.

Buildings are boarded up.
Libraries and fire stations close.
City lights go off.

Breaking Up Cities

From an article in yesterday's New York Times about St. Louis:
Law enforcement officials, politicians and historic preservationists here have concluded that brick thieves are often to blame (for house fires in St. Louis), deliberately torching buildings to quicken their harvest of St. Louis brick, prized by developers throughout the South for its distinctive character.

“The firemen come and hose them down and shoot all that mortar off with the high-pressure hose,” said Alderman Samuel Moore, whose predominantly black Fourth Ward has been hit particularly hard by brick thieves. When a thief goes to pick up the bricks after a fire, “They’re just laying there nice and clean.”

It is a crime that has increased with the recession. Where thieves in many cities harvest copper, aluminum and other materials from vacant buildings, brick rustling has emerged more recently as a sort of scrapper’s endgame, exploited once the rest of a building’s architectural elements have been exhausted. “Cleveland is suffering from this,” said Royce Yeater, Midwest director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I’ve also heard of it happening in Detroit...”

“They love (St. Louis brick) in New Orleans and the South — wherever they’re rebuilding, they want it because it’s beautiful brick,” said Barbara Buck, who owns Century Used Brick. “It really gives the building a dimension, a fingerprint...”

“The whole block is gone — they stole the whole block,” Mr. Moore marveled as he drove his white Dodge Magnum through his ward’s motley collection of dilapidated homes and vacant lots. “They’re stealing entire buildings, buildings that belong to the city. Where else in the world do you steal an entire city building?”

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day

What dark forms lurk in the mists of the Carina Nebula? These ominous figures are actually molecular clouds, knots of molecular gas and dust so thick they have become opaque. In comparison, however, these clouds are typically much less dense than Earth's atmosphere. Pictured above is part of the most detailed image of the Carina Nebula ever taken, a part where dark molecular clouds are particularly prominent. The image has recently been retaken and then re-colored based on light emitted by oxygen. The entire Carina Nebula spans over 300 light years and lies about 7,500 light-years away in the constellation of Carina. NGC 3372, known as the Great Nebula in Carina, is home to massive stars and changing nebula. Eta Carinae, the most energetic star in the nebula, was one of the brightest stars in the sky in the 1830s, but then faded dramatically. Wide-field annotated and zoomable versions of the larger image composite are also available.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day (Courtesy of NASA)

What created the strange spiral structure on the left? No one is sure, although it is likely related to a star in a binary star system entering the planetary nebula phase, when its outer atmosphere is ejected. The huge spiral spans about a third of a light year across and, winding four or five complete turns, has a regularity that is without precedent. Given the expansion rate of the spiral gas, a new layer must appear about every 800 years, a close match to the time it takes for the two stars to orbit each other. The star system that created it is most commonly known as LL Pegasi, but also AFGL 3068. The unusual structure itself has been cataloged as IRAS 23166+1655. The above image was taken in near- infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope. Why the spiral glows is itself a mystery, with a leading hypothesis being illumination by light reflected from nearby stars.

Click to enlarge and see more clearly. Pretty cool.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day

This amazing photo is credited to the European Southern Observatory. Click on it. It's even better when it's larger.
Why are these people shooting a powerful laser into the center of our Galaxy? Fortunately, this is not meant to be the first step in a Galactic war. Rather, astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) site in Chile are trying to measure the distortions of Earth's ever changing atmosphere. Constant imaging of high-altitude atoms excited by the laser -- which appear like an artificial star -- allow astronomers to instantly measure atmospheric blurring. This information is fed back to a VLT telescope mirror which is then slightly deformed to minimize this blurring. In this case, a VLT was observing our Galaxy's center, and so Earth's atmospheric blurring in that direction was needed. As for inter-galaxy warfare, when viewed from our Galaxy's center, no casualties are expected. In fact, the light from this powerful laser would combine with light from our Sun to together appear only as bright as a faint and distant star.

Plots 2

It occurs to me that plotting is simply an example of human need to make sense of life. Every human society creates myths and other forms of explanation. Aristotle said humans are the political animal or maybe the rational animal, I can't remember which. The ancient Chinese philosophers said humans were the animals with a sense of justice. Maybe we are the plot-making animals, the animals which are driven to explain.

The new Lydia Duluth story is coming together. I guess this could be called reverse plotting or plotting after the fact. But it works.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Astronomy Photo of the Day

This is an illustration, not a photo, but quite nifty. It's credited to April Hobart of the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
In the center of a swirling whirlpool of hot gas is likely a beast that has never been seen directly: a black hole. Studies of the bright light emitted by the swirling gas frequently indicate not only that a black hole is present, but also likely attributes. The gas surrounding GRO J1655-40, for example, has been found to display an unusual flickering at a rate of 450 times a second. Given a previous mass estimate for the central object of seven times the mass of our Sun, the rate of the fast flickering can be explained by a black hole that is rotating very rapidly. What physical mechanisms actually cause the flickering -- and a slower quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) -- in accretion disks surrounding black holes and neutron stars remains a topic of much research.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


Patrick found out he has a new job, beginning in October; and he is so relaxed that he can't wake up this morning. Which is why I'm writing so much.

Our trip to the Black Hills is off. We have taken very few trips, even short day trips, since we both got laid off, and I am feeling trapped. So I want to go out and wander around today. I could go by myself, but I'd prefer to go by car, rather than bus.

Anyway, I am blogging while I wait for him to wake up.

I have problems with plots, since I think they are mostly artificial. Most lives don't have satisfactory plots, though there are chains of cause and effect, and we can watch character develop and manifest itself.

However, a lot of life seems accidental and pointless. We try to give it meaning by drawing conclusions about it, based on our belief systems. "She never should have married him." "See where hard work gets you?" "Talk about hard luck!" "She got what she deserved." "No one deserves that."

A novel or long short story needs some kind of skeleton, just as a large organism needs a supporting structure. That structure is a plot. In science fiction, which has a bias toward action, it is an action line.

(There are alternative structures. Italo Calvino's wonderful Imaginary Cities is a book of descriptions of imaginary cities. If there is an action line, I have never noticed it. But if I did a close analysis, I am sure I would find themes, ideas, recurrences, which give the book a shape.)

But let's return to the kind of stories I write, which have science fictional action lines...

The question is, is the plot arbitrary -- simply stuck in to provide load bearing support, or a way to get from A to B, or does it serve the meaning of the story? Should it serve the meaning of the story?

I plot more than I used to, but I still write a fair number of stories that begin with an opening scene or opening line, some images, a situation or idea. I like the process of finding out where the story is going and what it is about. Wandering takes me to some interesting places.

There are good arguments for plotting ahead. It's hard to sell an unfinished novel without a synopsis. I can write more rapidly, if I know what happens next and where I am going. My fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, took thirteen years to write, since I got stuck in the middle and didn't know where to go next. So I put it aside for a decade. The time was not entirely wasted. I wrote another novel in this period. But it's hard to have a successful science fiction writing career, if you write slowly and publish erratically. It can be done. But making a living at writing sf usually requires (as far as I can tell) a certain level of production. The usual rule used to be a novel a year. I don't know if the rule has changed.

I suspect most science fiction writers use a combination of plotting ahead and intuition

Bubble Nebula

On a happier note...

The NASA photo today is copyrighted, but awesome. So I provide a link.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010


I'm working on a new Lydia Duluth story, and I'm stuck at 11,000 words. I don't know how to end the story.

While thinking about this problem, I realized how mysterious the process of writing is for me. I started the story years ago, and then put it aside, because I didn't know where it went. But something about it must be compelling to me, since I've picked it up again.

It's one of those stories that wander. I began with no plot, just some images and ideas. It's about tunnels and homeless people and biology. I've known that all along.

Lydia goes to a new planet, and ends lost in the tunnels below a city. The tunnels are a modified version of the local life, which is a mix of carbon and silicon.

(When I checked on silicon-based life forms, I discovered they're impossible on a planet that humans can inhabit, so I had to add carbon. Per Wikipedia, there are carbon-silicon molecules, though I haven't been able to find out much about them; and many Earth life forms incorporate silicon. Grasses, for example. Tissue with silicon provides support and protection against pathogens and small herbivores, according to a quick check of the Internet. Glass sponges have 'skeletons' made of silicon, and light travels via the glass deep into the sponges, apparently for the benefit of photosynthetic symbiotes.)

In any case...

My tunnels are alive and build themselves -- and have become feral, growing out of control on the seafloor around the city.

I have no idea how I came up with the idea of the tunnels or why there is a Goxhat in them, along with homeless humans. The Goxhat is the problem I have to solve to end the story.

Homeless people make sense. Patrick worked with homeless people for many years. But why the tunnels and the Goxhat?

Beats me.

Today, after I wrote the above, I figured out how to solve the Goxhat problem -- giving the story a more or less coherent plot, though it still has a coincidence in the middle of it.

Which leads to another interesting question, though maybe a less interesting question. How does one take a more or less shapeless story and give it a plot? What is the mental process there?

Astronomy Photo of the Day

What does Earth look like from the planet Mercury? The robotic spacecraft MESSENGER found out as it looked toward the Earth during its closest approach to the Sun about three months ago. The Earth and Moon are visible as the double spot on the lower left of the above image. Now MESSENGER was not at Mercury when it took the above image, but at a location from which the view would be similar. From Mercury, both the Earth and its comparatively large moon will always appear as small circles of reflected sunlight and will never show a crescent phase. MESSENGER has zipped right by Mercury three times since being launched in 2004, and is scheduled to enter orbit around the innermost planet in March of 2011.