Science Fiction vs. Fantasy

No, not a death match between the two genres, nor even a discussion of which is “better” in some way.  I like both in different ways.  Each suits a mood for me.  No, this is rather about when something is one or the other.  This will be something of a ramble.

Some folk have given long, involved definitions about when something is Science Fiction and when it’s Fantasy.  Me?  I like one similar to Orson Scott Card’s from one of his writing books.  Science Fiction has rivets and engineers.  Fantasy has trees and elves.

The late Arthur C. Clarke in his “three laws of prognostication” gave as his third law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Some folk, have inverted that: “Sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”  Those twin statements are actually quite telling in looking at the fuzzy border between fantasy and science fiction.

A lot of it has to do with mindset, both the mindset of the writing and the mindset I fall into while reading it.  Sometimes a book can be both or either depending on how you look at it.

Take, for instance, the late Anne McCaffery’s Pern books.  They are science fiction.  A colony ship reaches Pern, an almost idyllic planet.  However, once the colonists have settled in and are essentially committed, an unexpected problem arises.  Another planet in the system, one with a highly elliptical orbit nears the sun and, for reasons that are mostly glossed over, extremely aggressive fungal spores cross the gap between this other planet and Pern.  The spores, called “thread” cause serious destruction, basically “eating” anything organic they hit, but are fortunately short lived so that they don’t completely lay waste to the planet.  Still, this is a disaster of epic proportions for the colonists.  A biologist on the planet engages in an emergency program of genetic manipulation, taking an indigenous species of flying lizard that has already demonstrated the ability to imprint on people at birth (forming an empathic bond) and not only augmenting that imprinting ability to a true telepathic as well as empathic bond and increasing their size, forming human carrying, self-replicating flamethrowers–dragons.

This is far backstory, however, for the first published Pern stories.  When we’re introduced to them, the world and its characters, due to a number of crises over the years, are essentially in a dark age and have forgotten much of their history and science.  So it’s a pre-industrial age with dragons and dragonriders.

Truth to tell, even knowing the back story, even having read the key prequel that told the story of landing and the first dragons, it still reads like fantasy to me.  My “mindset” while reading it is the one that I use when reading other fantasy.  The “fantasy elements”–the telepathic bonds, the ability of the dragons to go “between” (teleporting) are decoupled from the in-story “science” and they become the functional equivalent of magic.

On the flip side you have Rick Cook’s “Wizardry” books.  Here, Rick Cook has a clearly magical world but the main character, brought in from an analog of the “real world” takes a scientific approach to that magic, treating it like computer programming where small spells are created that function as functions, routines, and lines of code.  By bringing a scientific approach to the magic, it in many ways reads more as science fiction.

Similarly there is the late Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.  The main character is once again taken to a fantasy world and approaches the magic of the world in an analytical way that unveils the deep thought Anderson clearly gave the magic of that world.  As one example, when the protagonist tricks a Troll into staying out past sunup and it is turned to stone, he realizes why Troll Gold is considered cursed.  The transmutation of carbon into silicon (the conversion from living flesh to stone) leaves the gold highly radioactive.  Anybody carrying it would soon sicken and die.

And so, this, too reads more like Science Fiction in many ways.

Now, consider Star Trek and Star Wars.  From the standpoint of modern physics, they are both ridiculous.  No, “reverse the tachyon flow” is no more scientific than “use the Force, Luke”.  (Someone basically just threw out the idea of “tachyons” from looking at the relativity equations.  If some particle had an imaginary rest mass and were traveling faster than light, in relativity that would give it a real momentum and a real energy.  There’s no evidence that tachyons exist.  And there’s nothing in physical theory that says they must, or even should, exist.  They’re just an idea someone tossed out in pure speculation.)

The two series’ have a lot in common.  Space travel.  Alien worlds.  Faster than light travel.  War, sometimes.  Exploration, sometimes.

However, there’s a big difference between the two series.  In Star Trek the presumption is that the fantastic elements are the result of science and engineering.  Research will (in the story world) lead us to those discoveries.  Scientists will find them.  Engineers will build them.  In Star Wars there is a lot of stuff that is built by science and engineering, but the story doesn’t center around that.  It centers instead around mysticism and, frankly, magic.  “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.” “Your sad devotion to that ancient religion…” “‘You mean it controls your actions?’ ‘Partially, but it also obeys your commands.'”  And as the franchise developed, these mystics, these “space wizards” central even from the beginning of the series (from “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” to “You’ve switched off your targeting computer, what’s wrong?”–this mystical Force, this space magic and it’s users, were the key MacGuffin) grow to dominate.  It’s not the engineering and the science behind it that is central to the Star Wars universe as it is in Star Trek.  It’s the space magic.  Even the light sabers, a cool piece of technology in the beginning of the franchise, are quickly revealed (in the Expanded Universe) that one needs to use the Force to properly align the crystals at the heart of their operation.  They’re not cool tech any more.  They’re magic swords, forged by wizards.

So while both franchises have the trappings of science fiction, Star Wars, in many ways, has more of a fantasy feel.  But those trappings are enough for many people to still see it as science fiction.

And, so, in the end, it really comes down to the eye of the beholder.


On this day, November 7, 100 years ago

The Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace overthrowing Kerensky’s provisional government (no, the Bolsheviks did not overthrow the Czar, that was Kerensky), bringing about the nascent Soviet Union that would be the lurking shadow on world politics for the next 74 years with influence still seen today.

The train set in motion that day brought us:

The Red Terror, under Lenin.  Up to 1.5 million killed.

The Holodomor under Stalin, up to 12 million killed.

The Great Purge, also under Stalin, another 200 to 600 thousand killed (almost trivial by comparison–but this included a lot of people like experienced military commanders which would come back to haunt them later).

The German-Soviet non aggression pact of 1939, giving Germany a period of peace to the East so he could focus his forces on the conquest of France to the west, thus helping encourage the start of World War II.  Yes, WWII was pretty  much inevitable by this point, but this may well have hastened the start, lengthened the war, and led to more death and destruction.

The Soviet invasion and subjugation of the Baltic States.

Millions of unnecessary deaths in World War II (those experienced commanders purged up above?  Yeah.  Those.  Throwing masses of bodies at the enemy is no substitute for competent, experienced leadership.  You might win in the end–as they admittedly did–but only at a far higher cost than otherwise.)

The subjugation and oppression of Eastern Europe under the Warsaw Pact.

The communist revolution in China, including the “Cultural Revolution” and “Great Leap Forward” (what an ironic name) that lead to the deaths of over a hundred million people.

Communist revolutions in Cuba and Central America, leading to yet more death, destruction, and oppression.

Communist revolutions in Southeast Asia, leading to the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields.

“Socialism” being imposed in Venezuela leading to widespread hunger and misery. (And at this point we’re only hitting select examples, the rot has spread so widely.)

All that, from the results of November 5 (Gregorian Calendar) 1917, making this arguably the blackest day in all of history.

Snippet from Alchemy of Shadows

Johann Schmidt has used many names over the centuries.  Currently he was going by Adrian Jaeger, a young college student.  But something strange has been going on at the university, something involving his old enemies that he only knows as shadows.

The big man turned and looked at us through mirrored sunglasses.

“Becki, how nice to see you.  And this is?”

“Coach,” Jeff said, “this is a friend.  Adrian Jaeger”.

“Jaeger?” The coach smiled. “That means ‘hunter’ in German, does it not?”

I shrugged.  I knew quite well what the name meant but the youth I was pretending to be likely would not.

He held out his hand. “Aleki Ata.”

I did not hesitate.  A shadow riding a human had to depart its human host to touch me.  I took the hand.

“Pleased to meet you.”

Inside, my mind was racing.  The coach, and now one of the team members, both clearly ridden by shadows.  Had they known somehow that I was coming or was it just chance that I encountered a nest doing, whatever it was they do.

I tried to release Ata’s hand but he held tight.  He jerked me close, so that his mouth was near my right ear.

“What a pleaseant surprise…Johann.”

My eyes opened wide.  I pulled back.  The lights went out.  I tugged but Ata still held my hand fast in his grip.  By the dim light spilling around the curtains I could see Ata reaching for his glasses.

I’d left the magnesium flare in my right pocket.  Stupid.  I could not reach it with my right hand secure in Ata’s mitt.

I am not a fighter.  One does not live as long as I have by getting into fights all the time.  I avoid fights.  But neither does one live as long as I have without being able to fight at need.  I lifted my left knee then stomped forward into Ata’s knee.  I then raked the edge of my shoe down his shin.  As his leg started to fold, I turned, twisting my right hand up.  I continued to pivot and drove the heel of my left palm into Ata’s wrist.  His grip, loosened in reaction to my kick, popped loose from my hand.  I drove my hand down into the pocket of my pants and dove aside, hoping to avoid the tendrils of shadow that he knew were protruding from his eye sockets.

I succeeded.  My hand wrapped around the magnesium flare, withdrew.

I struck the flare.  Light blazed forth.  Tendrils of shadow recoiled, not just from me.  Some, I saw, reached for Becki but those too recoiled.  Beck stood, her eyes wide for just a moment before her left arm rose to shield her eyes.  Her right arm hung limp at her side.  On the far side of the room Jeff stood, his mouth agape, his face cast into stark relief in the actinic light.  Daryll still lay on the bed, his arms across his eyes, his mouth open in a soundless scream.

I had to think fast.  The flare only gave me a few seconds of light.  My first instinct was to run, get away before the thing riding Ata could recover.  But the shadows kept their existence as secret as I kept mine.  That meant Jeff and Becki…

“Run!” I shouted.

Neither Jeff nor Becki moved.

I dove onto the bed, reaching across to grab the front of Jeff’s shirt.  I pulled.  It was like pulling on a tree, firmly rooted in a mountain.

“Run,” I said again.

Jeff stumbled, his arm still shielding his eyes but he started to round the bed in the general direction of the door.

I pushed myself off the bed but pulled up short.  Daryll had grabbed the edge of my sleeve.  I jerked away, harder.  Fabric tore.  The sleeve came off in Daryll’s hand.  I whirled and placed a hand on Becki’s shoulder, turning her toward the door.

“Run,” I said yet again.  I moved my hand from her shoulder to the small of her back as I chivied her toward the door.  We reached it just ahead of Jeff.

The fluorescent lights of the hallway provided what seemed a dim illumination after the brilliance of my flare.  Bright purple after images from the flare rendered me nearly blind but I could hear people shouting, see others running toward us.

I turned in the direction I remembered for the exit and pushed Jeff and Becki in that direction.  I did not have time to let my eyes recover naturally.

I pulled the vial of elixir from where it hid behind my belt.  The lesser elixir of life would serve for this purpose but even so, I dared not waste the little I had.  When I confirmed Jeff and Becki were moving, I twisted off the cap of the vial.  I tipped it to moisten a finger tip then flicked a few drops into first my left eye then my right.  My vision cleared immediately.

Hospital personnel were running for the room we had just vacated.  Strangely, nobody was paying any attention to us.  I moistened my finger with the elixir again and flicked some into Becki’s eyes, then into Jeff’s.  They both stopped as their own vision cleared.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said.

“What…what was that?” Becki said.

“Later,” I said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

I grabbed her by the arm and pulled.  She followed me.

Jeff hung back. “But…”

“Later,” I said again. “I’ll explain everything letter.  Right now, we’ve got to get out of here.”

The light leaking past the door to Daryll’s room died as the flare within burned itself out.

“Now!” I said.

Becki came with me.  Jeff followed.

The lights in the hall went off.  Gloom filled the hallway, broken only from the light leaking from open doorways along its length.

“Scheisse!” I whispered.

Door.  Where was the door?

Texas Church Shooting

I’m not going to say much about this because you usually start off with confused and contradictory stories.  For the most part I’m going to invoke the 72 hour rule.

First off my prayers go out to the victims and their families.  May the Gods grant comfort to the survivors and may the fallen find rest in The Shining Lands.

What we do know is that the alleged shooter was former Air Force (and this just angers me to no end).  Apparently he was Dishonorably Discharged, which is the equivalent of a Federal felony conviction.

Again, may the victims and their families find comfort and peace.


Road trip to Chicago.

Our custom in our family is that I take the family out for one major “eating out” a month, someplace that’s relatively nice while not too expensive.  Sometimes it’s one of the more elaborate buffets.  Sometimes it’s a “family style” sit down restaurant.  And sometimes it’s some form of ethnic cuisine.

This time, however, my wife wanted to go up to Chicago.  We could have a late lunch at a place she had picked out (more on that later).  We could go to the Japanese shopping center she likes.  And we could also visit the (free:  It Says Here.  Again more on that later) Lincoln Park Conservatory botanical gardens.

Okay.  I’m game.

First off, it’s about a two and a half hour drive just to get to the near side of Chicago.  But, Okay.  We get to the botanical garden.  Apparently there is free parking on the street.  I can parallel park.  Sort of.   I don’t hit anything, when I try but it generally takes several tries to get it right.  Sorry, but I’m very good at driving the car forward and have the Autocross trophies to prove it.  Backwards, not so much.

Only problem is that there were no spaces available.  I drive around trying to find a spot.  Nothing.  Oh, look, there’s a small parking lot associated with the conservatory.

Wait.  What’s that?  $26 to park there.  Well, given the level of traffic it’s either drive around hoping to pull up behind someone just as they’re pulling out (good luck with that) or park here.  Still, the Conservatory is free so it’s not that bad as a total price.  I pay and we park.  We go to the conservatory.  We go through the conservatory.  I don’t think we missed anything but in less than a half hour we’re done.

That was…not much for that $26.  As we exit I look to the left.  Oh, there’s a Lincoln Park Zoo.  Also free admission.  Since I want to get my $26 worth, I direct the family over there.  We don’t see the whole thing and a lot of the animals were in for the colder months (and so not out where we could see them) but by the time everybody is ready to go to lunch I figured I’d gotten a reasonable return on that $26–at least in terms of the time spent.

Back at the car I punch in the location of the place my wife wanted to go for lunch.

20 minutes to go three miles by car?  Yep, traffic is that bad.

Also turns out my wife wanted to stop at a beauty supply place a couple of doors down from the restaurant. (Ulterior motive?  Imagine my surprise.)

And once again parking.  I drive around and around looking for a place.  Nothing.  Finally my wife suggests maybe just letting her out so she can grab a couple of things and I can just circle around and pick her up out front when she’s done.  We can get lunch at someplace near the Japanese shopping center. (Considering that I’d probably still be circling if I’d insisted on finding parking, this was probably wise.)

Between one way streets and “through traffic prohibited” and streets that cut across at an angle rather than a rectilinear grid, getting turned around so that she wouldn’t have to cross the street when I picked her up proved a challenge.  She called to say she was ready before I’d managed it. (The traffic did not help.)

I pick her up and punch Mitsuwa Mart into the GPS.  40 minutes.  25 minute delay because of accidents.


Forty.  Minutes.  Later. We arrive in the vicinity of Mitsuwa Mart and we start circling looking for a place to eat.  We’re just about to give up and simply go to the store and get something at their food court (hard for me to make out there given my dietary restrictions–mostly rice and noodle based dishes) we find a Korean place.  Yay!  We can manage.  And I buy the family a very late lunch.

The place is almost next door to Mitsuwa (I started circling the wrong way to see it immediately) so from that point we just hop over to the store where my wife does her shopping (and I buy my daughter Athena a few things that strike her fancy).

From there, returning home is relatively straightforward.  No accidents.  No insane traffic.  No attempt to have to find some damn place to park or navigate streets designed by Escher.  Just some tolls and for those we have a transponder.

And so home returns the travel-weary wanderer.


Sleep Study

Let’s just say that was quite disappointing when I found out what it actually ways.

Some years back I had a problem with being sleepy all the time.  I wasn’t quite nodding off at the wheel of my car, but at my desk, when watching movies (no matter how involving), reading, trying to write (I don’t think my fiction is soporific), and pretty much anywhere.

My doctor at the time ordered a “sleep study.” For this, I went into a clinic where they wired me up like a hi-fi nut’s stereo system and I was supposed to sleep that way through the night.  Well, I managed to sleep with all those wires hanging off me and a few days later we got the results.

I didn’t have Sleep Apnea.  My blood O2, however, did go down while I was sleeping, enough that it interfered with getting a restful night’s sleep.  Also enough to cause potential long term health effects.  Bad juju that.

They prescribed 2 l/m of oxygen at night and an oxygen concentrator was ordered.

This doesn’t completely get rid of the daytime sleepiness and, so, another test is ordered, a “multiple sleep latency” test.  In this I go in for the night.  They wire me up and I sleep in the clinic (this is to make sure I get a good night’s sleep), then the next day I stay–I can read, watch TV, etc. but several times during the day I’m supposed to lay back for a 10 minute “nap”.  The idea is to see if I actually fall asleep for those naps.  I do, for every one.  Diagnosis, “hypersomnia” which I call in my own head “Narcolepsy lite.”

They prescribe a medication, Provigil, to fight off the daytime sleepiness.  However, first dosage costs $70/month and that’s just the insurance co-pay. (There’s an alternative medicine, but it’s not only more expensive, but more strictly controlled so the pain in the keester factor in getting it would be much higher.) The first dosage is inadequate so they go to a stronger dose, which has a co-pay of $100/month.

Eventually, I decide this is ridiculous.  I get the same effect, a lot more cheaply, with caffeine.  So we cut out the provigil and I go back to drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages.  I can’t stand coffee.  I can tolerate tea.  And I actually like diet colas.

Several years later, a number of my health concerns were better under control we we tried an abbreviated test.  I wore a blood oxygen monitor overnight and, surprise, surprise, my blood oxygen was okay.  Yay!  I could go off the oxygen (and get rid of the monthly co-pay for the machine rental).

Fast forward several more years.  I’m having the same symptoms again.  The caffeine isn’t doing it.  So my doctor (different doctor since we switched to a different practice in the interim) orders another sleep study.  This time they send over a “home sleep study kit” from Novasom.  It has a gadget that I wear around my wrist when I go to bed.  A blood O2 sensor (basically a light shined through the fingertip) is taped to one finger and plugged into it.  A breathing sensor hooks just under my nose.  And a “breathing effort” strap wraps around my chest.  They all plug into the unit and I sleep wearing it.

It was actually a lot less invasive than that original sleep study.  A lot less in the way of wires and cables hooked up to me.  And, being self contained and worn on my body, turning over in bed doesn’t leave me all tangled in the cables.

In the morning you plug it into the charger which is a signal for it to transmit back (cell phone connection I suspect) the results to the “head office”.

Then repeat that for a second night.  They say they get more accurate results with a two-night study.

Once you’re done, you pack it back in its box, stick the return address shipping label on it, and the unit goes back to, I presume, be cleaned up and sent to the next poor sucker who’s having trouble getting a good night’s sleep.

So now we wait for the results.


Irons in the fire

Here’s a list of my current active projects. (I probably have twice as many “back burnered”–I need to learn to write faster.)

The Beasts of Trevanta

The Changeling War is over, the magic that permitted wizards to create nigh unstoppable hordes in The Hordes of Chanakra has been dispelled, to late, however, to save the kingdom of Aerioch.  But the King still lives, as does his son, the swordsmistress Kaila, her wizardly father, and Kreg, the strange outworlder.  As they set on the path to restore lost Aerioch they find a foe never before seen.  Strange, savage beast-men roam the land, slaughtering or enslaving all they encounter.  Can they survive these strange creatures and begin the task of restoring Aerioch to her former glory?  Do even the gods know?


Filling the awesome appetite for materials to feed a booming spaceborne economy is a monumental task.  To fill that need are the Wranglers family businesses that roam the asteroids in ion drive spaceships seeking asteroids rich in the heavy metals vital to industry.  They find the asteroids, mark them with identifying beacons, and divert their orbits down to any of several receiving stations.  But when marked asteroids fail to arrive, Tom Bardeau and his family must find out why before bankruptcy forces the sale of their ship and Tom becomes simply an employee working to someone else’s rules.

Dhampyre the Hunter

Dani Herzeg was a private investigator out of Nashville, but some cases were more private than others.  One of her tasks was to find, and kill, rogue vampires whose actions threatened to reveal the secret of their existence.   But when a case goes badly wrong, Dani finds keeping the secret the least of her problems as the death toll mounts in ever more public, ever more savage, ways.

Alchemy of Shadows

Johann Schmidt has gone by many names over the centuries.  An alchemist, whose very blood is the true, fabled philosopher’s stone.  But through the years he has been chased by mysterious beings he only knows as shadows.  He does not know what they want, why they pursue him.  He only knows that they want him and will destroy anyone who gets in their way with a freezing touch that not even the Elixir of Life can cure.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an ETA on any of these.  They’ll be done when they’re done.