Magazines & Anthologies
Rampant Loon Media LLC
Our Beloved Founder and Editor-in-Chief

Follow us on Facebook!


Read them free on Kindle Unlimited!





Blog Archive

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

We all know what that line refers to now, but in early 1977, that cryptic line was all anyone knew about a new movie called Star Wars. I think it's one of the great movie taglines but, due to the initial limited release of the movie, we'll never know quite how great it could have been. It did get me to wondering how taglines for other science fiction movies might compare. For a genre of ideas, it seems good taglines aren't that common...

"From out of space... A warning and an ultimatum." I think a poster of Gort with the words "Klaatu barada nikto" would have been much better.

"Incredible! Invisible! Insatiable!" Certainly better than "They're like alien peas in a pod..." And, in all honesty, it's a pretty good tagline.

"Unspeakable horrors from outer space paralyze the living and resurrect the dead!" Too bad it couldn't resurrect the dead actor...

"An epic drama of adventure and exploration." Yes, a tagline just as boring as the movie, itself; interesting for the 90 seconds in which the overture plays and the apes are banging things but goes straight downhill after that.

"Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven." A very British tagline that works well for this very British movie of violence and social decline.

"Makes Ben Hur look like an Epic." An excellent tagline for an Arthurian movie with such a low budget they couldn't afford horses.

"In space, no one can hear you scream." But they can hear your spaceship blow up at the end of the movie. Other than that little detail, a truly brilliant tagline; perhaps the best ever.

"The human adventure is just beginning..." Too bad none of that adventure was included in this movie. A better tagline would have been "Special effects, the new frontier..."

"He is afraid. He is alone. He is three million light years from home." Obviously, millions of people saw this movie because of Spielberg rather than the tagline.

"He's the only kid ever to get into trouble before he was born." Very clever, telling viewers to expect a good dose of comedy with the time-travel. One of the best taglines.

Skipping forward a couple of decades, "Can't stop the signal." One of the best taglines ever, with one really big caveat. It played off of the series and also showed fans that their efforts to keep 'em flying had been appreciated. The biggest problem was that it probably didn't bring in many viewers who weren't already sold on the movie.

"The future begins." Not bad for the reboot of Paramount's signature franchise, but not that great without 40+ years of television and movie culture to stand on.

"Enter the world." Maybe it has more appeal to ten foot tall blue people?

Without my not-so-subtle hints, how many of these thirteen movies could you have named just from the tagline? If I'm honest with myself, I probably could have only named six of them. (Confession: I used the Internet Movie Database to find almost all of the taglines.)

And what do you think is the best science fiction tagline ever? Despite the whole "hear your spaceship blow up" bit, I have to go with "In space, no one can hear you scream." It's freaking brilliant, even if they do violate it in the movie.

Let the arguments begin!

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

New picture this week. I was looking for a really good image of an Me-163 "Komet" in boost phase and found this one, in a wonderful library of old Luftwaffe photos you can't find anywhere else on the web—except on this Argentinian site, of course.

I swear, you can't make this stuff up.

As for why I was looking for such a photo: that ties back to last week's column. I was researching the history of the early near-sonic and possibly transonic aircraft, and found myself once again fascinated by the Messerschmidt Me-262 and Me-163.

The Me-262, if you need a refresher, was the world's first operational jet-powered combat aircraft. It could have been a decisive weapon, had it been built in sufficient numbers and used as a fighter/interceptor, but fortunately for the world Hitler saw the prototype, declared that it should be redesigned as a bomber, and flew into a rage and ordered production stopped when he learned that it was still being built as a fighter. In a deeply perverse way the world is lucky that Hitler was a frothing madman. Had he been just slightly more sane, things could have gone considerably worse for the rest of world.

But never mind that now. The Me-163, in contrast, was the world's first and thus far only purely rocket-powered combat aircraft. Fantastic acceleration, incredible rate of climb, devastating firepower—and an operational range of about twenty miles, after which it ran out of fuel, and with luck, returned to base as a glider.

In his autobiography, Adolph Galland reported that the Luftwaffe pilots loved the Me-262 (when it was working) and feared the Me-163. The Me-262 was plagued by unreliable engines, and while nothing else in the air at the time could match the performance of a working Me-262, they were easy prey for the American P-51's and P-47's if the engines acted up. The Me-163, on the other hand, was little more than a liquid-fueled bomb with wings and guns attached, and with a living man for a guidance system. If the Me-163 cracked up on landing—which happened with depressing frequency—and if the oxidizer tank ruptured in the crack-up, and if there was anything left in the oxidizer tank when it ruptured, death for the pilot was unavoidable, hideous, and not nearly instantaneous enough.

Why then build something like the Me-163? Germans are not, generally, suicidally insane. One plan that was drawn up for repelling the expected Allied invasion of France involved attacking the invasion fleet with vast swarms of manned V-1 kamikaze missiles. The plan was never used because of a distinct lack of volunteers willing to commit certain suicide for the Reich.

Instead, the answer lies in the idea of mission profile. All fighting vehicles, be they ships, tanks, aircraft, or whatever, are built with the idea in mind that they will perform one specific mission very well. At least, that's where the designers usually start: thereafter usually comes a complicated calculus of compromise, funding, assessments of the enemy's ever-changing capabilities, assessments of your own supporting and competing capabilities, great ideas that turn out to be not so hot in practice, and to some extent, vogues and fashions.

When the Me-163 went operational, American and British heavy bombers were wreaking havoc on Germany. Lacking the effective long-range radar that the British had employed so well during the Battle of Britain, the Germans opted for point defense. When an approaching bomber stream was detected, the objective was to get as many interceptor aircraft up to operational altitude as quickly as possible, and given the fuel/weight compromises required in order to achieve this, to then do as much damage as they could in the brief time that they could remain at altitude before running out of fuel. To this end the Germans designed and built a great number of very dangerous aircraft, of which the Me-163 was merely the most numerous and successful.

While considering the Me-163's mission profile, I was struck by one of those oblique inferences to which I am so often prone. A decade ago, during the 2000 presidential election campaign, George W. Bush took a lot of flak from certain parties who demanded to know why he had not finished out his hitch in the Texas Air National Guard by flying combat missions in Vietnam. While there are a lot of ways in which this question can be answered, the essential truth of the matter lies in the concept of mission profile.

There was a time back in the late 1940's and 1950's when it was believed that the greatest threat facing this country would be vast fleets of Soviet bombers, coming in over the North Pole at very high altitude and supersonic speed to deliver Uncle Nikita's H-bombs to every city and town in America. To counter this threat we built first the DEW Line, which was a network of radar stations in the Arctic, and then the SAGE tracking system, which begat so many other cool things it warrants an article of its own, and finally a series of ever more specialized interceptor aircraft, culminating in the F-102 Delta Dagger series, which is the one combat aircraft George W. Bush was trained for and qualified to fly. In hindsight, the mission profile of the F-102 was remarkably like that of the Me-163, only writ large. To wit:

1. DEW Line operators in the Arctic detect Russkis coming in over the pole.

2. Waves of F-102 pilots from the Dakotas to Texas scramble to get into the air and up to altitude as fast as possible.

3. SAGE operators vector the F-102 pilots onto head-on intercept courses.

4. As soon as they get within range, the F-102 pilots disgorge their load of six Falcon air-to-air missiles. Then, missile bays empty, they turn tail and head for home, low on fuel and mission accomplished.

5. With luck, the Falcons get good guidance-system locks and do their jobs, dropping the Russkis somewhere in the less-inhabited parts of Canada. With even more luck, the Russian bombs are not armed and do not detonate on impact.

6. Win, lose, or draw, World War III is over before the F-102 pilots have time to land, refuel, and re-arm.

In this regard, the F-102's essentially functioned as manned first stages in a surface-to-air missile system. Lacking even token guns, they were designed to fulfill one specific role and one role only in a larger strategic defense plan, and around one particular weapons-delivery system and one mission profile. Considered in these terms, they were successful.

But despite their virtues, the F-102's time in the sun was comparatively brief. The projected waves of Russian high-altitude supersonic bombers never materialized; the Russians instead built uninterceptable intercontinental missiles. The F-102's AIM-4 Falcon armament gave way to newer and more capable missiles, which could not be fit into the aircraft's internal weapons bays. (Helpful hint to would-be fighting starship designers: put your space torpedoes on pylons on the *outside* of the hull. This not only makes them easier to replace with newer and better weapons, it also makes them easier to jettison in an emergency. Besides, do they really need to be kept nice and warm—and ever so slightly moist—inside the environmental habitat of the ship?)

The F-102's themselves were soon replaced in front-line service by newer, more capable, and more flexible aircraft, and surviving aircraft were relegated to training squadrons, national guard units, and third-world allies. More than a few ended up refitted as unmanned target drones and destroyed in weapons tests. Some F-102 squadrons were sent to Vietnam, but absent a North Vietnamese high-altitude strategic bomber force to be intercepted they were retasked as ground attack aircraft, a role to which they were not well-suited and in which they were soon replaced.

Chuck Yeager, in his autobiography, reckons that he got out of combat flying at just the right time. He considered the Korean War-era F-86 Sabre to be the last and best real gun-armed dog-fighting combat aircraft ever built, and felt that after that air combat became no longer a test of man and machine, but mostly a matter of who had the better radar and smarter missiles. He foresaw a day not too far off when there wouldn't even need to be a man in the cockpit, except possibly to take-off and land the thing, and even that need would go away when the avionics and autopilots finally improved enough. Finally, he felt that at about Mach 3 manned aircraft had reached the point beyond which it was not even possible for a human pilot to see something with the naked eye, and react to it before it was receding into the distance behind.

Remember that, when you're tempted to put your hero into the cockpit of his trusty Mach 5-capable laser-cannon-equipped SuperMegaStratoblaster and send him flying off into the skies, to battle the forces of evil with no flight plan and no mission profile.

SPLATTERING GUTS FOR FUN & PROFIT runs every Tuesday and is an open column. Do you have a desire to write about some weapons- or violence-related topic that is near and dear to your heart, or at least your spleen? Guest columns are always welcome. For more information, email us at slushpile at thefridaychallenge dot com with a few words about your proposed topic.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Six and a half years ago, I attended Meet the Teacher Night to meet my son's second grade teacher. She had over 20 years of experience, so her presentation was concise and to-the-point. Everything she said sounded good and she turned out to be one of the two best teachers my son has had thus far. But what really piqued my interest was her Friday afternoon Story Time. A parent signed up for one date during the year to bring snacks and read a couple of books to the children. Now that was the kind of parents-in-the-classroom activity I loved! I couldn't wait to get to the list and sign up for the earliest possible date. The line moved slowly along until I finally got to the sign-up sheet and discovered the earliest open date.

December 5.

That was four months off! I felt like a kid who is told Christmas is just around the corner at the beginning of September. So I waited. And waited. And waited. And eventually December arrived. On Monday, I started going through my son's books, narrowing down the selection pool. On Wednesday, we had a parent-teacher conference, after which I asked the teacher some questions about my Friday reading.

"I'm so proud of you for remembering!" she said. "All of the other fathers who do this have to be reminded again and again by the mothers."

"You don't understand my husband," my wife told her. "He's been looking forward to this since the day he signed up!"

On Thursday, I still had a bunch of books I was trying to choose from. At that point, I sought expert advice; I asked my son which books he thought I should take. He looked through the books and pulled out The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. He liked the story well enough but knew if was a particular favorite of mine (though I admit I would have preferred a more traditional approach to the artwork).

"You want to read this one, don't you?" he asked.

"Yes," I replied, "but only if it's okay with you."

He looked thoughtful for a minute then said, "Okay, you can read it. But only if you tell I'm in Charge, too."

I'm in Charge is an original story of mine. I made it up when the Boy was four as a bedtime story. I have no idea how many times I had told him the story over the previous three years, but it was (and still is) a particular favorite of his. What parent/writer can turn down a request like that? I agreed.

Friday afternoon, I arrived at the classroom carrying juice pouches and snacks. Seeing I had brought only one book, the children made sure to tell me that parents were supposed to read two stories, not just one. As I was passing out snacks and drinks, I told them that my son had asked me to tell a story I had made up as the second story. That really seemed to intrigue them.

I took a seat at the front of the room, with my son seated next to me, and read The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish. Apparently, my son's opinion of the book was more in line with the typical second-grader than mine was. Oh, the kids enjoyed the story just fine but the artwork was puzzling to them and not easy make out when I turned the book so the students could see the pictures. In other words, there was the typical rustling and squirming you get when a bunch of second-graders are asked to sit still and be quiet for ten to fifteen minutes.

After finishing the story, I let the children get the wiggles out for a minute or two before starting I'm in Charge. Prior to this, the largest audience I'd had while telling the story was three; my son and the two children of some close friends. I wasn't nervous but did hope the story would appeal to this much broader audience.

I launched into the story and made the discovery all modern storytellers eventually make. There was no longer a barrier between me and my audience.

I know we don't like to think of a book as a barrier, but in this situation it really is one. The book occupies at least one of your hands, limiting the gestures you can make during the story. Worse, while reading the words you can't really make eye contact with your audience. You can flick your eyes up briefly, but then you have to look back at the book so you don't lose your place or stumble in your reading. Without having to refer to a book, I had the luxury of extended eye contact. I could make the story truly personal for the children just by focusing on each of them for a few seconds. Without the book, I didn't have to worry about stopping the story every two pages to show pictures to the children. The flow of the story was not interrupted. As an added plus, without pictures to rely on, the children's imagination took over, creating their own pictures and making the story even more personal.

Looking over faces filled with shining eyes, watching them laugh or gasp or simply smile, I knew I had discovered something special. I had made a direct connection with each child that day; something I could never have done had my story simply been read to them.

This one event changed me, broadened my perspective. While I still wanted to write stories for children, I had another dream to pursue. I wanted to be a storyteller even more.

And that exactly what I became.

Henry Vogel really is a professional storyteller and he has finally even setup a website for his storytelling business (comments and criticism welcome). He hopes to add video of him telling stories in the near future. Henry's column, Ruminations of an Old Goat, appears every Monday morning here at the Friday Challenge.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

And the winner is...

As you may have gathered from this morning's incomplete and half-baked column, both Henry and I have been pretty tied up this weekend. Therefore, after brief consultation, we have agreed to defer announcing the winner of "A Strange Bot in a Strange Land" until after we have had a little more time to discuss and evaluate the entries.

However, judging "Your 2050 Census" was a much simpler matter. M produced an interesting build-up with a nice bit of speculation concerning the impact of answering Census questions forty years in advance, and overall we like the sample questions presented and the overall feel of the entry. If anything, it was too short—but then, this was a lesser challenge, and JS-Kit definitely constrains the length of comments. Waterboy, on the other hand, wrote a neat little exploration of the effects of technology, and particularly of intrusive technology, on the Census. It was a sweet little self-contained story, but dealt more with the technology of gathering the Census than with the contents of the actual Census form itself.

Given that this turned out to be a showdown between the two previous challenge winners, then, we're going to go with M's entry. Both were entertaining and well-written, but M did a better job of directly answering the challenge, and while that is not always the most important criteria in picking a winner, this week, it is. Ergo, M, come on down and claim your prize.

And speaking of prizes: our record-keeping has been a little sloppy of late. Is there anyone out there who is owed a prize and has not received it yet? Let us know.

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

...continued from last week...

No one can turn you into a successful writer. Anyone who claims he or she can is trying to sell you a seminar, or at least a how-to book. Nor is there a universally agreed upon definition of "successful." To a large extent you have to find a satisfactory definition within yourself, and take it from one who's been there and done that, the definition can be as slippery and elusive as as shape-changing salamander in a bucket of Vaseline. Is it getting your story finished? Getting it published? Getting it published in a market that actually pays real money? Getting it published and attracting enough attention to land a deal for a novel? Getting your novel published and selling so many copies it becomes an international bestseller, turns into a multi-picture movie deal, and makes you rich enough to spend the next few years sitting on your private island in the Bahamas snorting pure Bolivian cocaine through straws made from rolled-up hundred-dollar bills?

A cursory look at any week's bestseller list should be sufficient to dispel the notion that being published is the only meaningful measure of success, and remind you that far too often, "huge commercial success" and "lowest common denominator" are interchangeable. The road through literary history to this point we call today is lined with the bleached bones of vastly talented people who wrote utterly brilliant works that were never published at all, or if published, never reached more than a small audience.

Today's one critical take-away, then, is, "Don't worry about that." Let history make that decision. It's not your problem, and you have very little control over that part of the story, anyway. Commercial Success is a fickle, idiot, bitch-goddess who often bestows her favors without sense, rhyme, or reason, and can just as quickly snatch them away again.

Worse, if you do worry overmuch about courting her favor, pretty soon you might start to believe that the way to earn her attention is by pandering shamelessly to the lowest common denominator—and again, take it from one who's been there and done that, while doing so can sometimes succeed, it can also result in career blowback of staggeringly devastating magnitude.

I've much more to say on this topic but a marked shortage of time this morning. It's Palm Sunday and I need to be showered, shaved, dressed, and at church in an hour. Ergo, once again: to be continued...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fitz of Distraction

Kersley Fitzgerald is...running late.

Open Mic Saturday

Good morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Friday, March 26, 2010

The friday Challenge - 3/26/10

This week in The Friday Challenge:

Kersley Fitzgerald and Guy Stewart make the next cut in Amazon's Breakthrough Novel contest. Congratulate them here...

Henry Vogel goes off on random topics, though he appears to have hit a nerve discussing tolerance for political opinions different from your own. Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke is still waiting for someone to "Name This Column!" He also discusses writing as art versus writing as craft, comes out as a coffee Luddite and discusses how a change in magazine editor can make or break an author. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu asks the question on everyone's mind; does science fiction exist primarily to provide non-religious ends of the world as we know it? Join the discussion...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit tells us what sound is, explains how the speed of sound is not a constant and delves into sonic booms. Join the discussion...

Also, long time contributor Waterboy wins the 3/12/10 Friday Challenge.

We have two challenges to judge this week. Let's take a look at the entries.

The greater challenge is A Strange Bot in a Strange Land. As of the deadline, we have received the following entries:

Guy Stewart - The Vet also available at drop.io

miko - Cera

Ben-El - First (drop.io)

torainfor - Cymate (drop.io)

Patrick Henry - I get a "Page not found" error clicking on the link you posted. Contact me ASAP with the correct link!

If I've missed anybody's entry, please let me know ASAP.

The lesser challenge is Your 2050 Census. As of the deadline, we have two entries:

M - 2050 Census

Waterboy - 2050 Census

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you never submit an entry in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. Don't be afraid to leave comments on the writers' sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that somebody out there is reading their words. The winners of each challenge will be announced on Sunday, March 28.

And now for this week's Friday Challenge.

With the explosion of TV channels over the last few years, more and more expensive programs are being presented to smaller and smaller viewing audiences. Along the way, producers and executives have discovered that "reality" TV shows are cheaper to produce and can bring in higher ratings than star-studded dramas or sitcoms. Almost anything and anyone can pitch a reality show. Most recently, we've seen that Sarah Palin's proposed reality show about Alaska has been attracting attention.

Your challenge for this week is to concoct a reality show about your state. Or about a state you love but don't live in. Or about a state you hate but don't live in. You choose. We're not looking for a full scale presentation, just a somewhat detailed one page description of the show. Everything about the show -- whether to give prizes or eject contestants or whatever -- is entirely up to you.

As usual, we're playing by the loosely defined and never written rules of the Friday Challenge and for what's behind Door #3. Your deadline is midnight, CDT, on Thursday, April 1. Get ready, get set, write!

And remember, let's have fun out there!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, Your 2050 Census, is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. Take advantage of that time if you need it!

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, A Strange Bot in a Strange Land, is the same.

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is "challenge" to login as a guest.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award

Sorry, couldn't wait.

Guy and I both made it to the next round!

Thanks for all the prayers, good thoughts, and attributions of accidental pet rodent deaths!


[Ed note: Originally posted at 9:31 PM 3/23/10. Re-timestamped to bump it to the top of the page. CONGRATULATIONS KERSLEY & GUY! ~brb]

Edit again.

Kindle downloads of the novel excerpts are now available.

Guy Stewart's Victory of Fists

Guy's also posted his first two chapters on his blog, here.

Kersley Fitzgerald's Thunderbird

And on my website.

If you don't have a Kindle, this app supposedly allows you to read Kindle downloads on your PC.

I believe that if you have a log-on to Amazon you can leave a customer review. It's not supposed to affect the judges' ratings, but Guy and I would love to hear you gush!

- Kersley (24 Mar 10, 7:02 pm Mountain Time)

Ultimate Geek Fu


As I continue to try to get the stench of 2012 out of my mind, and it occurs to me that what I've just watched is a deity-free apocalypse. Call it, "Left Behind for Atheists."

To wit: in the beginning there are Signs that the end of the world is nigh, which only those with True Wisdom can see. Then there are made manifest many Wonders, which foretell terrible things to come. Then, as it begins to sink in that Armageddon is truly upon us, the secret masters reveal themselves to the Few Chosen, and explain that the Elect will be gathered up, taken bodily into the Heavens, and spared the Tribulation.

And then comes the payoff: scene after scene of disaster upon slaughter upon ever more cataclysmic violence, but ending with a beatific vision of the Elect preparing to take up new lives of peace and plenty in a virginal green land.

Is that one of the true great appeals of hard sci-fi? That it provides a mechanism for writing horrific end-of-the-world stories without all that messy "God" stuff? And what's your all-time favorite TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) book or movie?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

What, precisely, is sound?

It starts with motion. Something, somewhere, moves. A clarinet reed vibrates; a book falls and hits the library floor; a well-swung bat connects with a baseball. Something moves, and in doing so imparts kinetic energy to the air surrounding it.

Interesting stuff, air. It's a thin soup, made up of all sorts of atoms and simple molecules, drifting around with plenty of elbow room. This is what makes air compressible. You can squash the molecules closer together; when you release whatever force you used to compress them, they immediately spring apart again, in the process nudging their neighboring molecules. Therefore, when you make a sound, what you are doing is imparting kinetic energy to the local air molecules, by rapidly compressing them and then releasing that compression, so that they pass this kinetic energy on to their neighbors, who pass it on to their neighbors, and so on, and so on, until eventually this pattern of air compressions either hits a living creature's eardrums, whereupon a whole other chain of small miracles happens, or else in accordance with the workings of the inverse-square law the energy generated by the initial event dissipates, and becomes indistinguishable from the background noise of Brownian motion.

We call these patterns of alternating compressions and rarefactions of air molecules in response to mechanical stimuli sound waves, because they're most readily visualized by thinking of the pattern of surface disturbances that radiates out from the point of impact when you drop a pebble into a still pond. This is still only a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional event, though, for water waves occur only at the interface between water and air. The pebble imparts kinetic energy to the water; the water, having nowhere else to go, pushes the air above it out of the way in reaction.

Water, it is worth noting, cannot be compressed. A sample of water taken from a thousand fathoms down is no denser than the same volume of water taken from the surface. The crushing effects of the ocean deeps are the result of the weight of a miles-high column of water, bearing down on a given point under the sea and trying to squeeze out anything less dense than water—such as, say, the bubble of air inside the thin metal skin that is a submarine. The deadly effects of bringing some deep-ocean creature to the surface too quickly likewise are caused by the dissolved gasses within the creature's flesh and blood, being released from the compression caused by the weight of water above it, suddenly trying to expand and reoccupy their surface-level volume. Gas under pressure, when released, always tries to reach a state of equilibrium with the pressure of the gas that surrounds it.

When we talk about the speed of sound, then, we are properly speaking of is the speed of sound in a medium: the rate at which the kinetic energy of the triggering event is transmitted from one molecule to the next. Sound travels fastest in non-porous solids. The speed of sound in solid rock, for example, is around five kilometers per second, which is what makes seismographs so useful. Sound travels next fastest in liquids; for example, the speed of sound is water is slightly under 1.5 kilometers per second, so remember that the next time you're writing a submarine thriller.

Sound travels slowest in air; around 343 meters per second, or 1125 fps, if you're thinking in cartridge ballistic terms. However, because of the tenuous nature of air, the speed of sound in air varies significantly depending on the density, humidity, and most of all, on the temperature of the air. That 1125 fps number you'll find in most textbooks is a qualified number: it's the speed of sound in dry air, at sea level, at 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Go higher into the atmosphere, and the speed of sound slows down measurably. Mach One, then, is a relative value, not an absolute.

An interesting thing happens when you accelerate a solid through the air at velocities approaching Mach One. Instead of sliding away, the air molecules begin to pile up; no matter how sleek the object, the air simply cannot get out of the way faster than more air molecules pile in. At Mach One and beyond this results in the formation of a standing shock wave, which observers on the ground experience as a sonic boom shortly after the supersonic object passes. The boom is not a one-time event that occurs at the moment the object "breaks the sound barrier." It is continuous, along the entire flight path, for as long as the object remains supersonic.

These characteristics of air and sound have some very important implications as you think about putting airborne fighting vehicles into your stories. For example, consider the basic airfoil:

As you can see, the way an airfoil provides lift by forcing the air passing over the top of the wing to move slightly faster than the air passing underneath the wing, thereby creating an area of low air pressure over the back portion of the wing, which results in lift. Now, look at this diagram, and think about what's going to happen as this shape approaches Mach One.

Ten points if you figured out that the air going over the top of the wing is going to go supersonic before the air flowing underneath the wing, resulting in the formation of a shock wave that will render any control surfaces on or behind the wing useless. This is the reason why all modern supersonic aircraft have thin swept or delta wings; to ensure that the inevitable shock wave is formed far enough back to avoid interfering with the craft's control surfaces.

Back in the 1940s, a lot of P-38 pilots died before they figured this one out.

Next I want you to consider the common helicopter, and especially, think about the main rotor and the angular velocity of the rotor tips. If, God and Sikorsky both willing, this ship were ever to begin to approach to Mach One, which part of this craft would go supersonic first?

Another ten points if you figured out that it would be the rotor tips on the right side, while the rotor tips on the left side would be dropping to subsonic speeds even after the rest of the craft was at Mach One. The buffeting, presumably, would be spectacular. So, sorry, Airwolf. Enjoyed the show, but for a helicopter to go supersonic and survive the experience it'll require a lot more than a couple of JATO bottles.

Finally, as this column is running much longer than originally intended, I want to leave you with a gedanken experiment. (German for, "no funding available.") Given what you now know about the speed of sound and the behavior of shock waves, what do you think the prospects are for the development of propeller-driven supersonic aircraft, as featured in Theodore Sturgeon's famous 1941 novella, "Microcosmic God"?

Your thoughts, comments, and observations?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

It's been a busy weekend, leaving me little time to figure out what to write about this week. In other words, today you get random thoughts from a random access mind...

Well, I did it again. Despite having little interest in basketball, I entered the office pool for the NCAA basketball tournament. Every year, where ever I work, someone in my group sets up one of these fill-out-the-brackets things online and invites lots of people to join and play. Every year I think, "Why should enter this thing? It's just a good way for me to give money to someone else." Then I enter anyway. And then I give my money to someone. Based on the first two rounds, I'm well on my way to giving my money to someone else yet again.

Why is it that otherwise rational people come unhinged when presented with people who hold political opinions different than theirs? I've seen this happen from all sides of the political spectrum, so it's not something you only find on one side. Over the weekend, we had a bunch of friends in for a role playing game. During a brief break, the vote on the health care vote came up. One of the players simply stated his opinion of the bill. One of the other players was so upset at the stated opinion that he nearly walked out. These are people who have been gaming together for years and it's the first time politics has ever come up. Why is it that people only recognize political propaganda when it comes from the other side of the argument? Why is it people cannot accept that it's possible for people to hold different political opinions and still be good people?

A few months ago I wrote a column noting that my fascination with rockets started young; kindergarten in the column. Over Christmas, I found out it started even earlier. When I was three, my mother took me along when she went to pay the rent for the apartment we lived in. The office had a TV and it was turned to the launch of the first American in space. According to my mother, while she paid the rent and chatted with the people in the office, I was glued to the TV, fascinated by the rocket. Apparently, I was only unwilling to leave the TV until the rocket launched. It's too bad there is nothing so exciting for the Boy to watch as he grows up.

Along those same lines, I recently read an excellent graphic novel, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow by Brian Fies. Cleanly illustrated, the graphic novel follows a father and son from the 1939 World's Fair in New York and into the future, the graphic novel takes us from the dreams of a gleaming, bigger than life future through to the future we have today, slowly changing from the hopeful optimism of the late 1930s to our more cynical current times before leaving us with a future that returns to the earlier hopeful theme. While the son grows very slowly, going from a wide-eyes youngster in 1939 to a cynical teenager twenty-something years later in the 1960s, the exploration of the times are accurate, engaging and evocative. I highly recommend this one.

My wife and the foster son watched Avatar recently. The foster son thought it was awesome. At the point when Jake Sully is first taken to the Home Tree, my wife, who had not read anything about the movie, turned to me and said, "This is Pocahontas, isn't it?"

Mentioning movies, I read recently the Warner studio is hoping to duplicate the success of the Harry Potter movies with a not-so-new franchise -- Frank L. Baum's Oz books. Certainly, there are a lot of books in the series; at least twice as many as there are in the Harry Potter series, but it seems like a risky proposition if you ask me. With Narnia, Disney has already discovered that beloved children's books do not always turn into big money at the box office. The movies did well enough at the box office but the production costs were so high that very little money was made. Will Warner have more success with Oz? Only if people can get past the classic 1939 version of the movie.

We're just over a month from May, the biggest movie month of the year. Every weekend in May has something big on the schedule. I find myself most interested in Iron Man 2 and Prince of Persia. I hope the same sense of fun and adventure that carried Iron Man will also carry the sequel. As for Prince of Persia, it just looks like a fun, sword and sandals adventure. There's also a new version of Robin Hood coming out, reuniting Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe. I happen to be a big fan of the legends of Robin Hood, but I just haven't seen enough about this one to figure out how interested I should be. But, hey, it's Robin Hood, so I'll go see it.

That's all for now. I'll be back next week with an actual topic.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

And the winner is...

Tough choice this time around, in judging the entries in the 3/12/10 Friday Challenge, "I Still Want My Flying Car." As you may remember, the challenge was to make the intellectual leap to the day when the Trial Lawyers Association finally permits flying cars to come to the market (okay, so I added that spin myself), and then to write the advertising copy to sell that flying car of your dreams.

Without further ado, then:

Vidad: It was really good to see an entry from Vidad again, even if it was a fairly brief one. As we've come to expect from Vidad, this is really good ad copy: all emotional appeal, without a single hint of logic or reason, and it's a really good emotional appeal at that. "The sky is no longer the limit." "Freedom has never been so uplifting." Great lines! Plus, the footnote concerning the sadly predictable legal limits of freedom just cements this as vintage Vidad. Excellent!

Miko: This is good, retro ad copy, reminding us of the kind of stuff we've read in 1950s car ads in National Geographic and heard in the early car commercials from that time. "Master the sky with the Buick Skymaster" is a brilliant line. Comparing the Dyna-Glide propulsion system to both a contented and hungry lion is truly inspired. Great stuff all around, Miko!

Waterboy: From beginning to end, we could picture this entire commercial. It's all image and no substance, just like our ads today, and really sells the idea of the Rocket Car. It also makes better use of Mazda's "Zoom zoom" bit than Mazda has made of it in many years; the only thing it's lacking is a quick flash of an RX-7 somewhere in the initial montage. "The Ride of the Valkyries" was a truly inspired choice of music, too, as long as no one makes the connection to Apocalypse Now. We're pretty sure we'd get goosebumps just watching this commercial; well, the first three or four dozen times, and only up to the point near the end where we see the cars in the showroom. It's a necessary part of the ad, just not as inspiring as the opening and seems more like something Toyota would do. But overall, we love it!

M: We were intrigued to see that two of the four entries went retro with this idea. We were even more intrigued to see that what Henry thought was a throwaway minor challenge inspired more than 5,000 words from you; and 5,000 really good words, too. While Henry doubts that he was ever quite as...staid...as Baily, he was reminded of his early days as a young adult, when he was driving a Volkswagen and wishing he owned a babe-magnet car. It sounds like Baily already has the babe, he just needed the right nudge to learn what was right.

Reading this story, we both got a distinctly 1940s-1950s vibe. As we suspect that's what you were aiming for, you clearly succeeded, but at the same time Bruce feels that this one would be a tough sell in the contemporary magazine market. Granted, it's purely a matter of taste and fashion, and no reflection on the quality of the story or writing, but it remains an obstacle. This one would have been a good fit in Would That It Were, a magazine that went for a distinctly retro style, but sadly, they've gone out of business.

Therefore, after further debate, and not an inconsiderable amount of hemming and hawing, not to mention a brief discussion of whether this situation warranted resorting to the Special Vidad Rule—

I'm going to invoke executive privilege and declare WaterBoy the winner, for submitting the most engaging entry that best meets the terms of the challenge. M, you submitted a truly remarkable story, and I think you've got a great deal of potential (and frankly, am a little surprised that you're not already publishing professionally), but the challenge this time was to write the advertising copy, not a story about the advertising copy, and in the end that's what split the difference. If I were editing a magazine I would be seriously considering buying this story for publication—but I'm not, so I can't. Sorry.

Ergo, WaterBoy is this week's winner, so come on down and claim your prize! And to all the rest of you, thanks for participating, and remember, we've got a double-header coming up on March 25, with deadlines for both the Greater Challenge, "A Strange Bot in a Strange Land," and the current Lesser Challenge, "Your 2050 Census Form.

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

I've dropped the exclamation point. While the "Name This Column" contest continues, it no longer seems to have that breathless urgency about it. The Sunday Morning Post? Phenomena, Comments, and Notes? Postcards from Edge? Sooner or later we'll either come up with a fitting name for this thing, or else we won't.

For that matter, sooner or later I'll make a practice of posting it at the promised time, or else I won't.

I didn't today. Some mornings you want to write. Some mornings you just want to stand before the picture window, savoring the dawn, and waiting for the percolator to brew up. The percolator?

Yes, I'm that much of a Luddite. My preferred portable always-on writing device is a spiral notebook and a pen. Despite (or perhaps because of) having made my living for the past thirty years using computers, my preferred way to write fiction is on a typewriter. We do have a Bunn Super Mega Turbo 9000, or whatever the heck they call that thing that Mr. Coffee only aspires to be, and it does spew out a perfect pot full of drip-brewed coffee in under three minutes, every time. But since the rest of the family drinks full-powered coffee, while I am only allowed two cups of caffeinated, max, I also have a clear glass stove-top percolator, in which I make my little pot of hand-ground decaf. The Bunn is for impatient types. I derive some strange satisfaction from all the fuss and bother of getting the percolator ready; from the cheerful sounds it makes as it reaches boil; and from the earthy aroma of coffee wafting through the house that tells me when it's ready.

Most people live by either "wake up and smell the coffee" or "slow down and smell the roses." I'm efficient. I've concatenated it to, "Slow down and smell the coffee." Besides, if I hadn't had to wait for the percolator this morning, I would have missed the wild turkeys slinking across the frost-covered cow pasture in the gray light of false dawn, and the way the first rays of light fell precisely from east to west at the crack of sunrise today, and the arrival of a mated pair of cardinals at the bird feeder, and later on, the way the yearling Holsteins came down to the south end of the pasture and split into two groups, with the heifers contentedly munching some dead grass that was still green while the three young bulls ignored the heifers and took turns mounting and humping each other.

On second thought, I'd rather not think about that last one.

I've also been doing a lot of thinking about The Friday Challenge lately, and in particular, the question of just what I mean to do with this thing. Yes, it may come as something of a surprise to some, but there is in fact a coherent theory and method behind this site: I'm just having trouble articulating it succinctly. This line of thinking has not yet emerged as a column because every time I start to write it, it keeps unfolding and revealing more layers.

Strange thing, writing. It's an art, a craft, and a business. The art part of it is what most literary types seem to lock-in on, or at least, they do seem to rather gas on about it at length. Me, I don't worry too much about the art aspect. Either you have some measure of innate, God-given talent, or you don't, and if you don't, there's not much you can do about it.

But—and this is the really important part—writing is also a craft, and craft skills can be turned into practices, and taught, and improved with study, practice, and effort.

Over the course of a thirty-plus year creative career, I have known literally hundreds of writers and musicians: maybe a thousand or more. The one absolute truth I have taken away from all this experience with all of these people is that raw talent does not matter. Good craft skills and good work habits beat gobs of talent and slovenly work habits six days a week and twice on Sunday. Especially on Sunday. Because on Sunday, the fantastically innately talented artist is most likely too hungover to work and sleeping in.

Anyway, if you're really interested in the art part of the equation, I recommend reading The Painted Word, by Tom Wolfe. Granted, it's about Modern Art, not writing, but the principles hold true. The question of what is or is not "art" is the domain of the professional critic, and professional critics by and large have a vested interest in slagging that which was popular previously and pimping new trends and fashions, the more outrageous and ephemeral the better. After all, how else are you going to convince people that you are an Important Critic, whose tastes are far more intelligent and sophisticated than those of common clods, and who therefore should be listened to with rapt devotion?

As for the craft and business parts of the equation: another book I've been reading lately is the long-out-of-print Seekers of Tomorrow, by Sam Moskowitz, which is essentially a collection of science fiction writer and editor biographies from the 1930s through the 1960s, written by a man who knew them all. I can only take this book in small doses, though, as it is so damned depressing. So many writer's careers have risen and fallen, not on the quality of the writer's work per se, or even on fan or critical response to the work, but on the petty piques, feuds, cronyisms, jealousies, and career ambitions of magazine editors.

I mean, consider an archetypical case: the newsstand sales of Stupefying Stories magazine have gone down, so owner Beatentua Pulp Publishing fires Joseph Blow as editor and gives you his job. Are you going to tell the publisher:
a.) "Blow basically was on the right track, so I'm going to keep buying stories and cover art from the same writers and artists he bought from"
b.) "Obviously, the problem with our sales is that Blow was buying crappy cover art and crappy stories by lousy writers. I'm going to drop all those clowns right now and find all-new writers!" (And then as soon as the publisher is out of earshot, would you call your six closest writer friends and say, "Hey! I just got the greenlight to buy anything I want!")
One of these days when I'm ready to finish committing career suicide, I will have to write the true secret history of science fiction publishing in the 20th century, at least as far as I've been able to put the pieces together. It's a tale filled with authentic nutjobs and weirdos galore and lots of riotous, if mostly unintentional, humor. However, that auto de fé will have to wait until I'm in a more combative mood, as right now there is no honest way to relate the history of SF publishing in the 1950s without going into detail about a certain litigious cult which purports to be a church, and I just don't have the patience to deal with those @$$holes this week.

And with that, I'm out of time. In lieu of a proper ending, then: To be continued...


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

Good morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently, when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Fitz of Distraction


Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist who is seriously running out of ideas. Please send yours in to kersley.fitz at yahoo dot com.

Oh, and, the next tier for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest will be announced on or about the 23rd. Guy Stewart and I are still in the running. All prayers, good thoughts, and small animal sacrifices would be appreciated.

Okay. No small animal sacrifices.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 3/19/10

This week in The Friday Challenge:

Kersley Fitzgerald reviews Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar, and finds hope that there still may be room for thoughtful writing in modern publishing. Join the discussion...

Henry Vogel gives us more of a glimpse into his family life than most writers probably would be comfortable sharing, and provides some first-hand insights into the workings and heartbreaks of the juvenile court system. Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke trudges on into the second week of the "Name This Column!" contest, along the way discovering that "The Saturday Evening Post" is not a good choice for a name, 2012 has set a new low bar for cinematic stinkitude, there's a perfectly good example of changing P.O.V. in mid-story on his own website, and as we all suspected all along, sooner or later, everything connects to Paul Gallico. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu presents a double-header this week, leading off with a topic near and dear to every True Geek's Jarvik 2000, My First Calculator, and then following up with an encore, "What the [heck] is that?"

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit discusses the sound of gunfire off in the distance. Remember, if you have any expertise and/or interesting thoughts on a subject relating to this topic, guest columns are always welcome. Join the discussion...

Also, the mysterious M wins the 2/26/10 Friday Challenge, Bruce Bethke asks for help deciding whether to buy a new laptop or a netbook, and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum.

With all that said, we move on to the 3/12/10 Friday Challenge, "I Still Want My Flying Car." As of the deadline, we have received the following entries:

Vidad: "The all-new Volkswagen Aeroflit"

Miko: "Buick Skymaster"

WaterBoy: "Mazda RC-1 Commercial"

M: "We Don't Plummet Out of the Sky Anymore" (on drop.io, password "challenge")

If I've missed anybody's entry, please let me know ASAP.

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you never submit an entry in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. Don't be afraid to leave comments on the writers' sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that somebody out there is reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday, March 21.

And now for this week's Friday Challenge.

The idea for this challenge arrived in, of all things, the mail. Specifically, it arrived in the guise of our 2010 Census form, and as I was reading through the form and finding myself ever more irritated by some of the intrusive questions within it, I suddenly realized: if you think this is bad, just wait a few more decades.

Hence, this week's challenge. Imagine it's—oh, 2050, or later. Bioengineering has really come online, as have cybernetic implants, cross-species genetic splices, and all that good gooey sci-fi stuff. You've just opened up your mail (it's the Federal civil service; some things never change), are looking at your 20x0 Census form—okay, yes, it's in SpaChinglish, but never mind that now—

And are finding yourself facing questions like:
57a. Are you or any adult member of your domestic lifestyle-sharing unit more than fifty percent (50%) cybernetic?

Don't know

57b. If the answer to 57a is "Yes," who is your primary parts vendor?

That's what we want to see from you this week. Envision your 20x0 Census Form. What are some of the sets of questions on it? What's the single most obnoxious question on it? Which are the questions that will have you wishing for a "None of your @@#*(& business!" option among the answers?

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, March 25.

And most importantly, remember: the objectives here are to stretch your imagination muscles, and above all, to have fun!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, I Still Want My Flying Car, is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (i.e. post an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. Take advantage of that time if you need it!

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, A Strange Bot in a Strange Land, is one week from tonight, on March 25.

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is "challenge" to login as a guest.

Critical Thinking: Reviews

Laurie Halse Anderson

The story review on Amazon read:

Since the beginning of the school year, high school freshman Melinda has found that it's been getting harder and harder for her to speak out loud: "My throat is always sore, my lips raw.... Every time I try to talk to my parents or a teacher, I sputter or freeze.... It's like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis." What could have caused Melinda to suddenly fall mute? Could it be due to the fact that no one at school is speaking to her because she called the cops and got everyone busted at the seniors' big end-of-summer party? Or maybe it's because her parents' only form of communication is Post-It notes written on their way out the door to their nine-to-whenever jobs. While Melinda is bothered by these things, deep down she knows the real reason why she's been struck mute...

It sounded interesting, so I asked for it.

The hook on the back page read a little differently—definitely gave away more of the plot—and made the story seem a little less surreal than I’d been looking forward to.

I started it on Saturday morning, as soon as there was light enough to read while Maj Tom drove to Copper Mountain and The Boy chattered endlessly in the back seat about his day of skiing. I finished it around 1:30 that afternoon, sitting on the patio outside the resort’s restaurant, The Boy’s Babysitter (she who hated Twilight) engrossed in Wicked across from me.

A quarter of the way through, I’d already resolved to give it to the Babysitter. Three-quarters of the way through, she said she’d already read it two years ago and thought it depressing. All the way through, I sat back, satisfied that there is something good and right in the publishing industry. And grateful that the Babysitter is confident and secure in her own life enough to not relate to the book too much.

I loved the way the book was so completely inside the character. It’s first-person, present-tense, and the immediacy is intense, but not overwhelming. The MC is neither the squealy-ear-drum-piercing nor the dramatic-world-is-ending variety of teenage girl. She’s a normal kid who has almost completely curled in on herself. Her slide is organic and natural. Unplanned, but almost inevitable.

I’d been getting discouraged lately. A (incredibly-small, brand-new, actually-know-her) publisher’s reader went through a couple chapters of my Best Beloved WIP and wanted me to cut the first six pages—six lousy pages of character introduction and building emotional tension—and get right to the explosion. The influences around the specific genre in which I find myself writing seem to value fast-paced adventure stories with just enough character development to allow the reader to relate. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just tend to find greater drama in a balance between dramatic explosions and the characters’ reactions to them. Not mushy emotional stuff, but more than “they went there and did some stuff and went there and fought a bad guy…” Speak left me feeling encouraged that maybe there’s still room for thoughtful writing.

The Good Fairies of New York
Martin Millar

If the plot of Speak meandered organically, the plot of Good Fairies charges forth like a flight of drunken, horny pixies. Scottish fairies Morag and Heather, who believe the Ramones are every bit as important as Scottish folk music, accidentally enrage the fairies of the clan MacLeod by cutting up their magical banner, and escape to New York where they discover an alarming number of dead street people. Tulip and Petal are fleeing their father, the evil fairie King Tala of Cornwall, while he and his twelve barons enslave the people of his kingdom in sweatshops. Kerry, suffering horribly from Crohn's Disease, is desperately seeking the materials for her Scottish flower alphabet art installation, which she hopes will beat her ex-boyfriend's production of A Midsummer's Night Dream because he promised to teach her Johnny Thunders' New York Dolls guitar solos, then dumped her. Dinnie, across the street from Kerry, just wants to sit in his squatter's apartment, eating canned corned beef and drinking beer, and watching...ahem...questionable commercials. Aelric is trying to rebel against the evil Cornish king and his industrial revolution, despite his attraction to the king's step-daughter. And Magenta, AKA Xenophon, scrambles across Manhattan, evading and sortying against Tissaphernes who either wants to destroy her Hoplite army or just recover his recipe for the hallucinogenic Fitzroy cocktail.

All in a book with scenes half the length of Neil Gaiman's introduction.

The writing could have used a good editing. A few typos, some unattributed dialog, a couple of out-of-sequence scenes, and an obviously British author.

But who stinkin' cares?! Plot-wise? Holy cats! Very tight; all wound up in the end. Meandering and confusing, but worth it. BTW: not for kids.

What have you been reading lately? What have you read that you liked? What would you recommend to these fine Hobbitses (and hirsute Elves)?

Kersley Fitzgerald is a wanna-be writer who's had Don't Speak stuck in her head since Saturday and the Ramone's I Wanna Be Sedated since Monday. (Wonder why.) And the delusion that she has Gwen Stefani's abs for the last 15 years.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu 2

Oh, this one is just too good not to post. Found on Google Street View.

Your theories?

Ultimate Geek Fu

It was the sort of conversation that only True Geeks can have. A bunch of engineers, standing around in the break room, drinking coffee and engaging in what can only be described as one-downmanship:

"My first calculator cost me seventy-five bucks and couldn't do anything more complex than square roots." "Oh, yeah? Well my first calculator cost me a week's salary and could only add, subtract, multiply, and divide." "Oh geez, you kids were so lucky. My first calculator was so slow, you could input a problem, go out to lunch, and be back before it finished." "Oh yeah? Well my first calculator..."

Actually, my first calculator was a slide-rule. I fished it out of the back of the desk drawer the other day and was mildly surprised to find that I still remembered how to use it to multiply and divide, although I couldn't remember how to do anything else.

Anyway, that's my story. What's your story about:

"My First Calculator"

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

by Bruce Bethke

I held off posting this Tuesday morning because I didn't want to step on the ruminating goat. It's just as well that I did, as the post as originally written wandered off into a long and complicated adventure in atmospheric effects and acoustic physics—which, after all, is my field.

This week's topic was inspired by hearing the Talking Heads on my car radio. Specifically:
"The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I'm getting used to it now."

-"Life During Wartime"

That must be a New York thing. Hereabouts, the sound of gunfire off in the distance just means it's deer or goose season. So just what does distant gunfire sound like?

Weather makes a huge difference. I live about three miles as the bullet flies from an outdoor rifle and shotgun range, and under the right weather conditions the popping of gunfire sounds as clear as if it was just down the block. Conversely, as one of my more interesting neighbors once demonstrated, under lousy weather conditions you can empty the magazine of an SKS rifle in your backyard and not disturb the neighbors a half-block away.

Direction is also important. A gun being fired at you is one hell of a lot louder than a gun being fired in the opposite direction, and it's not all psychological. There's an old soldier's saying that you never hear the one that hits you; I'm pretty certain that's true, as while I've never been an old soldier, I have worked as a target-setter and scorer in high-powered silhouette matches, which mostly involves sitting in a bunker, listening to the bullets fly past, and hoping that whoever is controlling the firing line doesn't screw up when he signals you that it's safe to come out of the bunker and reset the targets. I can assure you that when you're a hundred yards or more downrange, and people are firing high-powered weapons—which is to say, supersonic bullets—in your direction, you hear the THUNK! of the bullet hitting the target well before you hear the bang of the gun going off.

One other thing about high-powered weapons: even though it seems like such a tiny thing, a bullet traveling at Mach 1 or better still creates a sonic boom, which you hear as a distinct crack! a few microseconds after the bullet goes by and definitely well before you hear the bang of the gun being fired. So by the time you hear the sound gunfire in your direction, the bullet has already either hit or missed you. (And in the case of some of your higher-velocity varmint cartridges—say, the .22-250—the ear-splitting CRACK! from the bullet's shock wave is considerably louder than the initial firing of the rifle, which would seem to argue against the value of putting a "silencer" on a high-powered rifle.)

Finally, one more thing: I have never heard a ricochet whistle or whine off into the distance, the way they always do in the movies. I have heard tumbling bullets hum past, like very large, fast, and angry bumblebees. I'm not saying that they can't whistle, or that under the right conditions they might not. But in forty years of shooting, I've never heard it.

Any questions?

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Every now and then, most everyone feels overwhelmed by the events in their lives. Unfortunately, it's been one of those times lately for me as my wife and I try desperately to figure out how to get through to our foster son. Lately, it's seems like every time I start feeling overwhelmed, life steps in with a handy little lesson showing me that things still could be worse. I got one of those lessons last week.

Just a few days after Christmas break ended, our foster son decided to take a knife to school. Anyone with a child in a public school knows that in this post-Columbine world, that's a major issue. He didn't do anything with the knife other than show it off in the restroom, but word got out and he was confronted by a school official and the school resource officer (that's educationese for the police officer assigned to the school). Our foster son turned the knife over without any fuss but a report had to be filed with Juvenile Justice. I had to take him to meet with a counselor down there for evaluation. That's when things got a bit sticky.

The foster was totally unconcerned about the possible ramifications of his actions. This was more than just a 14 year old boy trying to act "cool," something the counselor and I both recognized. After spending an hour of trying and failing to get some indication that the foster understood and cared about what might happen, the counselor sent the foster out to the waiting room. We talked and agreed a court date might be just the thing to put some "fear of God" into the boy.

The court date was last week. It's where life stepped in with its little lesson for me. Life carefully taught me that, bad as things might be for me, I am way ahead in the game compared to many people. I sat through eight cases in juvenile court last week, including my foster son's case. These are some of the things I saw.

A very tall, very pretty fifteen year old girl was there for a probation violation. He father sat right in front of me as the judge spoke to the girl. As the judge pointed out her obvious talents and bright future, the girl's father nodded his head and wiped tears from his eyes. The girl looked ashamed of what she was putting her family through. After receiving a warning from the judge, she left with her family gathered about her. Of all the kids the judge saw that morning, she's the one I'd be willing to bet will come out okay.

In sharp contrast, there was a boy who had violated his probation for the fourth or fifth time. As he was about to be taken off to juvenile detention, the prosecutor asked that the court order include orders to the parents that they must take their child to therapy sessions, meetings with his probation officer, etc. The prosecutor requested this because the parents had not been doing their part in the past. The judge had to explain to them that they would face 30 days in jail if they failed to follow the court order. What kind of parent requires a court order to do what's needed to get help for your child?

A 13 year old boy was appearing before the judge for the eighth time. Multiple attempts had been made to get him the kind of help he needed, only to be thwarted by the boy's mother. She claimed that each time she was sure he'd had enough and was going to start being good. She seemed to be believe it, too. I think the judge got through to her in his lecture. I think maybe she understands that she's just enabling her son's slide into a life of crime. I hope so.

I watched a court appointed attorney defend a boy for the sixth time. The attorney was obviously anguished that none of his previous work had worked. While discussing past attempts to reform the boy, the attorney eventually just ran out of words. The boy was one of the ones taken off to juvenile detention.

I watched a girl stand before the judge, seemingly not caring that she was about to be locked up for two and a half weeks for yet another probation violation. Her parents hardly seemed to be paying attention to the proceedings.

I watched as the judge told a mother whose son was locked up that the wrong person was behind bars. The boy, who was waiting for a spot to open in a group home, seemed happy to be in juvenile detention rather than going home.

I listened to the judge lecture my foster son. The judge noted how articulate the foster was when speaking and how the judge didn't have to drag the word "sir" out of him when responding to questions. I listened as the judge told him the same thing my wife, his uncles, close friends and I have all told him; that he can have a bright future if he'd just aim for it. I was pleased when the judge, who apparently visits the local schools as time permits, told the foster he'd make a point of talking to him next time the judge visited the foster's school.

I was amazed at the dedication and devotion showed by the entire court staff. The prosecutors and the defense attorneys worked together rather than against each other, trying to find the right approach to get through to these kids. The judge obviously cared about each and every child who came before him. I could see the compassion clear as day on his face as he tried to hammer through indifference with words alone. God only knows how those people can get up and face work every morning. It takes more strength than I'll ever have.

In the end, I went from feeling ground down by the responsibilities of family to a better understanding of what happens when people ignore those responsibilities. And I realized that, for all of the problems in my life, things could most definitely be much worse.

Monday, March 15, 2010

And the winner is...finally announced!

It was a busy Sunday here at Friday Challenge Control, with the real world intruding by placing one judge on call at work and the other judge holding the first barbecue of the season. Come to think of it, both judges did some barbecuing, though the one on call was limited to just family (but the pork loin was very good). In other words, we didn't get the winner posted on schedule and a certain Monday morning column from an Old Goat didn't get written quite as promised, either. This Old Goat will be posted on Tuesday this week.

Now, here are the judges' thoughts for the entries to That's Just Sick:

M - Welcome to the Friday Challenge! We always love having new writers enter, particularly when they provide well written examples of what the world is calling "flash fiction" these days. Based on the sticker covering the address, it looks like it's not new writing, which is fine. There aren't any rules against entering something you've already written. Good setup, good payoff, good stuff.

Passinthrough - We think we speak for most of us here in saying you have, yet again, shown us a world different from our experiences. Our summer jobs were never so interesting; bagging groceries or general labor. You spend summer fighting forest fires! You provide just enough description of the results of Giardia for us to strongly sympathize with your crew without going overboard. Thank you, again, for inviting us into your world.

torainfor - It's good to visit with Sinead again, and we found this visit quite entertaining. Several of the manifestations of serpent flu were funny, but we laughed out loud at the Greek treasury bond bit. Your entry was well written, as usual, and has us wondering what's next for Sinead. Have you considered putting together an extended series of short stories featuring her? There may not be much of a market for an extended series of short stories in magazines, but maybe an open-minded book publisher would give it a look. Or perhaps you could consider electronic publishing of the short stories? Anyway, Sinead's a treat!

miko - That's an interesting take on the social convention of saying "Bless you" after a sneeze; one that never would have even occurred to us! The build-up of the story is amusing and about as realistic as possible when writing a story about a guy who makes himself sneeze for the blessings. We're not sure if the priest's sneezes were sympathetic or affected or what, but it was a nice touch, as was the resolution. Another excellent entry!

snowdog - We'll admit that we found your idea of making fun of Franken amusing and it might even have scored extra points from certain judges living in the state whose courts were responsible for sending Franken to Washington. We're also glad we were well past any meals when we read it. You definitely handled the gross side of illness quite...grossly. Your story was well written but suffers from one issue we can't get past; the Senate exempts themselves from things like universal health care because they have a much better plan already in place. We know you ignored that bit for humor's sake, but even the best story loses power if the details are wrong.

In the end, we choose M's entry this week. His (assuming the photo attached to his ID is of him) entry is well written, short and funny. It wasn't about being sick, per se -- unless pregnancy gets defined as an illness -- but that's only a minor ding. So come on down and select your prize from behind Door #3! You'll find the instructions for what to do next at the top of the page in Door #3. Congratulations!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Opinions Wanted


Hard to believe, but Mr. Laptop is approaching his third birthday. While I have perfectly functional typewriters over a century old and my favorite everyday working typewriter is over fifty, three years is old for a laptop.

Mr. Laptop is also, as it happens, a company-owned machine, and the company has recently informed me that it's due for replacement, with my choice of either a new laptop or desktop. I'm leaning towards the desktop, as the rationale for providing me with a laptop has proven sadly true. With it, I can do company work anywhere, anytime, to the proven detriment of my family life.


But there have been plenty of other times when having the thing was just so blasted handy. So while I'm probably going to take the desktop for company work, I'm also thinking of getting some sort of portable device, for purely personal use, primarily doing email and web stuff while on the road.

Hence today's question: netbook, full-sized laptop, or something else? Do you have any experience, advice, or strongly held opinions on the subject?

The lines are now open.

Name This Column!

by Bruce Bethke

Good morning, and welcome to the special "I Forgot to Set my Alarm Clock for Daylight Savings Time" edition of my still-unnamed column. The first order of business today is to remind everyone that the "Name This Column" contest is still running, so keep those ideas coming. If we keep at it long enough, something brilliant is bound to turn up.

While working on this column last night, it struck me that The Saturday Evening Post would be the perfect title. However, it turns out that The Saturday Evening Post magazine is still alive, after a fashion, and not only that, it still claims to be a paying market for original fiction. The magazine that launched or uplifted the careers of Ray Bradbury, Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, C. S. Forester, Kurt Vonnegut, Paul Gallico, Louis L'Amour, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar Allan Poe, Sax Rohmer, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, Rex Stout, Jack London, and P. G. Wodehouse, among many others, should not be ignored. Someone check out their fiction submission policies and report back to the rest of us, okay?

Delving into the history of The Saturday Evening Post, I learned that, "After the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Post columnist Garet Garrett became a vocal critic of the New Deal. Garrett accused the Roosevelt administration of initiating socialist strategies." Garrett, it seems, was some kind of proto-libertarian, and a huge number of his works are available online at mises.org. Heh. I like him already.

Turning to other topics, I'm embarrassed to admit that we wasted two and a half hours watching 2012 last night. I was in the mood for a good, mindless, popcorn movie with lots of sh!t blowing up, and as a former Los Angeleno, watching the San Andreas let go and my old neighborhood slide into the Pacific was a perverse delight. But this movie once again reinforces my argument that much of science fiction is merely apocalyptic literature for atheists, and once again, Roland Emmerich has slapped together an "epic" composed entirely of scenes, ideas, and motifs lifted from earlier, better movies—in this case, oh, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds, U-571, Titanic, Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow, his own Independence Day (which is disturbing in some way I can't quite pin my finger on), Paul Gallico's The Poseidon Adventure (see how I cleverly tie the elements of this column together?), and most of all, When Worlds Collide, along with a half-dozen others that were painfully obvious to me as I was watching it but can't bear to think about now. When even Karen says, "Hey, didn't Jeff Goldblum say those lines in Independence Day?", you know you're watching a pastiche, not a film.

Helpful hint to would-be epic writers: if you're going to write an "it's the end of the world, who will survive?" story, be sure to include at least one character who the audience will want to survive.

I mean—harping on this much longer than I intended to—by the end of this mess I really had the feeling that I'd been watching the story of the filling of the Golgafricham "B" ark. These are the best and brightest; the people who have been selected to survive, to rebuild civilization and repopulate the world? And not one of these morons was bright enough to realize that you never build a ship with engines that can only be powered up after a John Cusack-type character, in a prolonged scene of great drama and self-sacrifice, removes an insignificant obstruction from a tertiary system? For Pete's sake, it's exactly the opposite! No matter what else happens, you want those engines to keep running! A ship without motive power and steerage is a wreck waiting to happen. If nothing else, how are you going to keep the bilge pumps running and the stupid thing afloat?


Okay, I've had another cup of coffee and stopped hyperventilating. Turning now to the subject of Gun P0rN, I'd like to direct a few of you—and you know who you are—to the website of my old friend, photographer Oleg Volk. If you're looking for lots of sexy photos of guns, feel free to browse the galleries and drool as much as you want. Fair warning, though: Oleg's site is not work-safe.

Changing topics again, Arisia asks: "So a good writer thinks about the political structure of his story's universe, even if he never overtly mentions it?"

In the immortal words of Dr. Peter Venkman, "I'm fuzzy on this whole good/bad thing." I think an effective writer gives some thought to and jots down a few notes about a whole lot of backstory issues that will affect his or her characters' attitudes, assumptions, and actions, but won't necessarily appear on-stage. In fact the story is usually better if they aren't mentioned overtly: I have read a lot of stories that were merely thinly disguised screeds for or against some political, economic, or social theory. Considering SF's roots in 19th century Utopian literature I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, but generally it gets in the way of the story, and self-identified "libertarian" science fiction writers are usually the worst.

Whoa. Wait, back up a tick. Make that, "if the writer is writing a story set in some place and time other than contemporary mainstream western civilization, the writer should give some thought to..," etc., etc. If you, like Paul Gallico, are writing a mainstream contemporary story, you can pretty much count on your readers sharing most of your implicit assumptions. But I think the single most jarring and irritating thing to find in a story set in some exotic, distant, or ancient locale is a character who speaks and acts exactly as if she was just teleported there, values and conceits intact, from a shopping mall in Pasadena.

Then again, the late George Alec Effinger got great mileage out of exactly this idea in Maureen Birnbaum, Barbarian Swordsperson. Good luck finding a copy of it.

Finally, re Miko's questions about shifting points of view: I think the general idea is that it's okay to do it, provided a.) it's consistent with your chosen narrative technique, b.) you don't do it too often, and c.) you give the reader some clear clue that you're doing it. For example, in Maverick, which is written entirely in Third Person Limited, I put in a chapter break each time I changed P.O.V.—which sometimes made for some short chapters, but that's okay—and cued the reader by using the P.O.V. character's name as the chapter title: e.g., "Janet," "Derec," "Maverick," and so on. Then, as the plot threads started coming together and multiple P.O.V. characters began appearing in the same scene, I began using place names as chapter titles and stuck to using one character's P.O.V. in that scene.

Do we need a discussion of the differences between Third Person Limited and Third Person Omniscient?

If you're telling the story in First Person, it's generally a bad idea to change P.O.V., period, unless you really club the reader over the head with the change notice. In short stories, first-, second-, or third-person, it is generally better to avoid changing P.O.V. unless there is a compelling dramatic reason to do so. In looking for a good example of the latter—while simultaneously working on my new web site—I'm afraid I caved-in to my inner Roland Emmerich and got self-referential, and so I would now like to direct your attention to AppliancĂ© as an example of a short story with a P.O.V. shift, and a compelling dramatic reason for doing so.

Your thoughts, comments, and observations, s'il vous plait?


P.S. And one quick afterthought: there are still plenty of review copies waiting to be claimed, with more being added all the time. If you've ever wanted to try being a book reviewer, here's your chance.
blog comments powered by Disqus