Thursday, July 23, 2009

A foreign country

I saw Harry Potter and the Whatever this weekend and was thinking about writing a review but... eh. I guess I had my fill of boarding school stories when I was young (thanks, Enid Blyton) and I didn't get past the third HP book. I also skipped a couple of the movies.

Looking back now, I think I know how my love of boarding school stories (The Naughtiest Girl and Malory Towers series) morphed into a love of science fiction. I enjoy imagining new worlds, alternative societies and strange cultures - preferably in plausible settings. Boarding school was a big romantic mystery to me. My only source of information about the concept came from Ms Blyton, and those books were written in the 40s. ("The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."*) (I also like history books but my brain is like a sieve when it comes to remembering anything about history.) I guess I could've got hooked on travelogues to get my culture-shock fix, but my left-dominant brain also likes science. Mix the two together and you get speculative fiction.

Back to reality: The monsoons are here. It's hot and humid and our air con is broken.

*One first line I've never forgotten - from L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between, which we studied in Year 11 English lit.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Forty years on

(I wanted to post yesterday but Cox Communications is crap. It dies at the first clap of thunder.)

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The USA landed 6 missions and 12 men on the moon over a period of 3 years, and since 1972 no one has been back.

As a science fiction writer, I imagine a future where space travel is commonplace. Today, that future seems a very long way off.

When are we going back to the moon? When will we visit the next pretty bauble in the sky - Mars? In the 60s it wasn't too unbelievable to imagine that by the twenty-first century we'd have lunar shopping malls and a Martian Disneyland. Compare the state of technology then and now, and marvel at our lack of ambition and adventure.

Here are two ideas in the works about how to get to Mars and establish a base (after all, it takes 9 months to get there, so we'll be staying a while).

The first stems from Bush's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration initiative: we first build an outpost on the moon, both as a trial run for living on Mars and as a launchpad to the red planet. NASA estimates we may get to Mars by the 2030s.

The second is a quicker, cheaper method because it skips the moon altogether. Developed by the Mars Society, Mars Direct involves launching an unmanned Earth Return Vehicle ten months ahead of the manned craft, the Mars Habitat Unit. The ERV mines methane and oxygen from Mars, which provides the fuel for the return flight.

Either way - or some other way altogether - I hope we get there.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Man on the moon

Yesterday I saw Moon at The Loft, our local movie theater. We were in the upstairs screening room, which is even more loft-like than the lower. Small with fraying decor, and if you don't mind sitting up front you can lounge on bright red sofas.

I'd seen a couple of scenes from the movie online, before the musical score was added, so I already knew Moon was going to have a bit of a 2001: A Space Odyssey feeling about it. It certainly does feel retro. Director Duncan Jones also claims Alien, Silent Runing and Bladerunner as influences. The movie cost $5 million and is all the better for havng a low budget. The interior sets are wonderful, gritty and lived-in, just the way I like them. There are no expensive firefights or chase scenes - and really, who cares about those when the story stands on its own? Well, movie distributors care, so the movie will have no commercial success.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), sole caretaker of Lunar Industries' mining operation on the far side of the moon that provides helium-3 for most of Earth's power needs, has two weeks left on his three-year contract. He's lonely and bored and can't wait to get back home to his wife. Gerty, a HAL-like robot that uses smiley faces to express emotion, is his only companion. Gerty is at first as sinister as you'd expect a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey to be, but admirably feigns compassion and other suitable emotions.

After an accident on the lunar surface, Sam wakes up in the infirmary with no memory of the incident. A few days later he recovers an injured man from a crashed rover - a duplicate Sam Bell in rapidly failing health. Sick Sam and Healthy Sam have to figure out what's going on - what the company is up to, whether there are any more Sam Bells, and what they're going to do about the situation.

There are no huge surprises, no twist ending, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. In some respects Moon reminds me of a watered down The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Ursula Le Guin's short story), although by "watered down" I just mean that the main theme is played out on a smaller stage. I hope Duncan Jones remains on the path of making thoughtful science fiction movies, because hardly anyone else is walking it.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Edit letter

Today my editor Diana Gill sent the "edit letter" for Song of Scarabaeus. The hardcopy with line-edits will follow in the mail.

The reassuring part of this process is that Diana says it does not need a lot of work. Of course, once my manuscript has been written, revised and done with, to my mind, any further changes feel like a lot of work to me. Most of the work will be on characterization, and for the umpteenth time I need to rewrite the ending a little.

I have a month to get this done, and then about 3 months to finish the sequel. And I have a date for publication: May 2010!

Friday, July 3, 2009

You say tomato...

When I first moved to the US from Australia and noticed the scarcity of 2-ply toilet paper, I intended to start a blog where I could log the everyday differences I came across as I settled in. (I never did get around to it.) I did not suffer a huge culture shock - it's the little differences that jump out at me. The following list is based on my personal experiences with living in the state of Arizona. Note: this is not a list of complaints, just differences. Other than the Vegemite issue, I love living here.

  1. Let's start with the obvious: Americans drive on the other side of the road. This isn't has hard to get used to as it sounds. What's hard is remembering to approach my car from the other side every time I get in it. 
  2. Americans have a quarter instead of a 20-cent coin, one-dollar notes (bills) not coins, and no two-dollar denomination. After 4 years, I still dread having to count change in public. For someone who didn't grow up with the coins, in addition to the 20/25-cent difference, it's somehow a much bigger problem than it should be to deal with the US dime (10c) being smaller than the nickel (5c), which is almost identical in size to the quarter. 
  3. The US mail comes on Saturday. This is a good thing. A fantastic thing is that you can leave outgoing mail in your mailbox, and like magic it gets picked up! But it's illegal to put mail into, or even touch, someone else's mailbox. I think they are booby-trapped. 
  4. US fruit yogurt is much too sweet. US cream is white instead of cream-colored. There are no brown eggs at my store. There is no custard powder anywhere. (This was the tragedy of two Christmasses ago, when I had to serve 16 people peach cobbler [crumble] with no hot custard.) 
  5. Milk and gas (petrol) come in gallons; fruit, veg and sugar come in pounds; make-up comes in ounces; maps come in miles. 
  6. Restaurant servings are huge, often coming with free biscuits, breadsticks or corn chips, and usually you don't have to ask to get water on the table. On the other hand, I once asked for water at Red Lobster and got a tiny, expensive bottle of Perrier (which I sent back). 
  7. Could these be the only three American things that are smaller than their Australian counterparts?—"large" eggs (which are tiny), dress sizes (yay!) and the chocolate biscuit section of the supermarket (criminal!). 
  8. US tampon technology sucks (sorry, it had to be said), while toilet-flushing technology rocks. (I'm referring to the noisy suck that completely clears out the bowl with 100% effectiveness, as compared to the random swishy business that goes on in an Australian toilet. However, half-flushes here are rare, which is a pity considering I live in a desert.) 
  9. You have to carry your registration and proof of insurance (two old-fashioned bits of paper) in the car with you, and when you buy a second-hand car you have to wait all morning at the DMV to register it and get a new licence (license) plate. Speaking of which, most cars don't even have licence plates on the front. 
  10. If you donate to charity or buy something online, you'll thereafter be inundated with free mailing labels, credit card offers, magazines (at least six a week) and even a free blankie for your dog. 
  11. You have to allow for sales tax at the register when purchasing from a store, as it isn't included in the listed price. In Tucson, state plus city sales tax is 8.1%. 
  12. Aussie cutlery is US flatware, manchester is linen, petrol is gas, jam is jelly, jelly is jell-o, mousse is pudding, biscuits are cookies, scones are biscuits, cheese biscuits are crackers, the main course is the entree, the entree is the appetizer, gravy is often white, and there is no Vegemite.