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The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I don’t usually note the translator of translated works I read, but in this case it’s Ken Liu, and he is himself a notable writer of science fiction. It’s one of the best works of translation I’ve ever read: the translator notes are clear, concise, and well-chosen. At the risk of playing armchair psychologist, I would guess that Ken has a lot of insight into what he would want someone in China or Tanzania or Bosnia to know about his stories if they didn’t have that background, while simultaneously being able to say, “Ah, okay, here’s a place Anglo readers are going to trip.”

As for Cixin Liu’s book itself, I recommend it to hard SF readers and to people interested in China, because oh my goodness, it is so Chinese. It starts with the Cultural Revolution, and the awareness of that permeates the book so thoroughly. Even western authors who are trying to write about Chinese characters who endured that period have never managed, in my opinion, to make it so organic and integral as it is to these characters’ thought processes. It shapes all their reactions to the science fictional elements. The fact of having to rephrase “sunspots” so that they don’t have political implications is exactly the sort of grounding detail it’s hard to figure out you’ll need from a different cultural background. Of course a scientist who has had that as their life circumstance will react very differently to news of aliens, will speculate quite differently about who those aliens might be and how humans should react to them. It’s hard to get all that right from the outside. This is why we need more SF in translation.

So anyway: you have people–scientists, thinkers, mostly, celebrities, a few ordinary people–playing a game that’s helping them think through the biggest news in the world: that aliens are coming. That aliens have already interfered from afar and are about to interfere from closer up. And I don’t want to spoiler more than that. It’s fun, it’s good, you should read it. Especially if you like near-future SF or literature in translation, but especially especially if you like both.

Please consider using our link to buy The Three-Body Problem at Amazon.

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Revising Humor

One of the things I find hardest in the revision process, that I don’t remember seeing people talk about much, is revising the funny parts. It’s not the ones that aren’t working that trouble me–those are easy enough with good feedback. I have the lovely kind of critique group that will say, “And that line about [blah] was just awful, it just didn’t work,” if I really missed with something that was attempting to be funny. (I even trust them to say, “What was that about [thing]? I didn’t get that part,” if the attempt at humor is so bad as to be not clearly an attempt at humor, but happily for me they haven’t had to do that yet.)

No, for me the problem is more the opposite: revising other things around something that is working as a piece of humor. Mostly I try not to have JOKES in my work. I often say things like, “I don’t like humorous fantasy because I like things that are funny,” and this is snide and horrible of me but also sort of true: with the exception of Terry Pratchett, most of the authors whose work got labeled humorous fantasy when I was imprinting on sub-genres as a teenager were just not funny. They were jokey and horrible, always jogging your elbow to make sure that you got it (GET IT GET IT DO YOU GET IT?), but not actually funny. Whereas there were plenty of people who weren’t labeled humorous fantasy but could make me have to put the bookmark in the book so I didn’t lose my place while laughing.

But the thing about that kind of integrated amusing bit, as opposed to JOKES, is that if you’re revising a manuscript, you have to look at it all the time along with everything else. If you’re changing a detail–like whether some key event is mentioned by the characters as happening over takeout pizza instead of home-cooked stew, or whether they say they’re expecting someone to arrive at 8 instead of 7, or whether you had two days in a row being Saturday and have to fix the timeline–it’s the sort of detail that you have to read carefully to make sure you get all the references to. It can be important in characterization or in making the details of an action plot flow exactly right; it’s the kind of thing that’s worth getting right. And yet it means detailed, close reading of the whole section in which it appears–funny parts included.

Now. Think about the funny stories you have about your own life. Think about the times you’ve told them. Imagine that you’ve told them four, five, six times in a row–to utter silence. No response. Not a groan, not an eyeroll. Nothing. Wouldn’t you consider not telling that funny story any more? Wouldn’t you at least change how you tell it? This, for me, is the biggest hazard of revision of something humorous: the risk of over-revision. There’s no way to make the same lines feel fresh and funny to me each time, and without the direct feedback, I start to feel like they need changing just because…well, just because.

I’ve contemplated reading manuscripts to an audience every so often, just to see the reactions and remind myself that the funny bits are funny, the startling bits are startling, and not over-revise the silly thing, but while that has its benefits, I think it also has its drawbacks. Chief among them is that most people experiencing a particular manuscript will experience it in its written form. So “this works when I’m reading it with the right intonations” will only get me so far; I still have to believe that it works as a piece of written work. So I think I just have to re-watch Bull Durham every so often (it’s full of great advice! you just have to translate from baseball and/or sex to writing) and not trip over my own feet too much when revising humor. Even when I’m getting the details surrounding the funny parts right. Because “you have to get all new funny sections every time you have to change a detail” is just not a feasible option.

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I’ve latched onto something here, but I’m not sure it’s the affirmative.

I was singing “Accentuate the Positive” this afternoon, because I am clinging rather stubbornly to this as a theme this week, and also because we watched “LA Confidential” with my workout. (I love that movie, and Alec had never seen it.) And then I got to a line that’s always bothered me.

To illustrate my last remark: Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark!

Okay, no. Jonah may be the single worst figure in the western tradition–religious, historical, literary–that the songwriter could have chosen for this line. This is just a terrible line. Jonah? Is one of the Bible’s great whiners. If you open the Bible to a random page, you will find someone who accentuated the positive and eliminated the negative better than Jonah. Go ahead, do it. “And there they found the Moabites, who were pasturing their goats–” And the subtext, friends, is that both Moabites and goats were making a great deal less fuss about the whole thing than Jonah would have. “Joseph in the jail.” “Isaac on the stone.” Literally any figure in the Bible. Job on the dung heap, though I haven’t made that scan yet: still more of a positive thinker than ol’ Jonah.

Ending up in the whale is not just one of those things that could happen to any of us, like having to get your milk from Hell or your significant other dying and getting turned into the Moon. Jonah gets swallowed by the whale (Leviathan, whatevs) for very specific reasons in that Bible story, and it’s because he won’t stop lipping off to God about how he doesn’t waaaaant to go prophesy in Niiiiiineveh.

And it’s not like “whale” is needed to make the rhyme work. The things that rhyme in this verse are remark, ark, dark. So literally anything that goes DAH dah Dah dah DAH would have fit just fine. You need a stinger and two iambs, which is just about the easiest thing to find in English, and you need them to be more positive than Jonah, which is just about the easiest thing to find in Western cultural references.

For example, may I suggest “Brutus and the knife”? He was certainly taking a more proactive approach to his problems “when everything looked so dark” than running from them and whining and pitching fits at God, which is where Jonah was at the whale portion of that story. But people remember what Brutus did with the knife, and Jonah…well, we’re just supposed to remember that there was something something whale. You cannot trust scansion, people! Scansion is a cruel, false mistress!

I still do not advocate messing with Mr. In-Between. Let no one take this post as favoring messing with Mr. In-Between. I just had to get the thing about Jonah off my chest. It’s the sort of thing I know a lot of you think about, and I needed to let you know you weren’t alone.

Okay, so probably not. But you might now! And my work is done.

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Now don’t say I never give you anything nice.

1. Yesterday my friend Ginger Weil and I both had stories in the new issue of Apex. Mine is called The New Girl and is in the same universe as some other stories you’ve seen from me–most recently “The Salt Path,” also in Apex. Ginger’s is The Stagman’s Song and happens to be her professional fiction debut. Go, read, enjoy. (There’s also the rest of Apex I haven’t gotten to yet.)

2. Today I have a story in Nature, Boundary Waters. There is also a guest blog post from me on the Nature blog about it. So if you don’t have time to read “The New Girl” and “The Stagman’s Song,” “Boundary Waters” is much shorter but one hopes also a good read. (My two pieces go thematically together more than I expected, since I didn’t write them together and couldn’t plan that they would be published together. Very different settings and so on. See what you think.)

3. Speaking of my stories, there’s still time left in the Not Our Kind Kickstarter. It’s more than 60% funded, and there are new backer rewards that are worth checking out.

4. Not at all speaking of my stories, Tim is having his holiday print sale early this year. Lots of excellent new work in that as well as old favorites, and an easy way to see the existing photo gallery behind that link if you’ve been trying to remember what it was you wanted.

5. I have been doing a new craft project or art project or something. I have been making things. And the problem is, I am surprising people with these things for Christmas, so I cannot say what they are. I am even surprising Mark, so when he isn’t traveling for work, my materials get bundled away into my office closet. I am really not good at not talking about this kind of project, and it’s driving me a bit bazoo to not be able to talk about what I’m figuring out from first principles and what I’m learning from other people’s successes. A few of you are getting this on email. The people I would most want to say it to, though, are my mom and Stella and Sherry, and they are the people who most need surprising. It keeps coming up naturally in conversation and making me go, “Nnnng!” There was even a Terry Pratchett joke I couldn’t make yesterday. It is so unfair, and we’re nowhere near Christmas yet. (On the other hand, we are near enough to Christmas that I do need to keep working steadily on these items when Mark is out of town!) I finished Kev’s yesterday, and it’s lovely, it’s–

Not a pony. It is not a pony. Nobody is getting a pony.

That’s all I have to say about that.

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Books read, late October

Holly Black and Ellen Kushner, editors, Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands. I read some of the Borderlands books when I was a teenager, when I could find them in used bookstores mostly. This collection is much newer–a few years old–and features stories by a much newer set of authors as well as authors whose Borderlands stories I loved as a teenager. There is a tendency for Borderlands stories to feel quasi-autobiographical, and this works beautifully for some authors and less well for others. Catherynne M. Valente, for example, wrote a story that fits so perfectly in the Borderlands universe that one is tempted to explain it with the year she spent in Bordertown in college. Other newcomers who fit in so seamlessly that one is sure they have always been there include Amal El-Mohtar, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and Janni Lee Simner; stories by Emma Bull and co-written by Ellen Kushner and Terri Windling reminded me of what I’ve always liked about this series.

Chaz Brenchley, Bitter Waters. Discussed elsewhere.

A. S. Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale. This felt a bit like an out-take, like a run-up to better work, particularly The Children’s Book. There were some goodish bits, but mostly it was a bit abstracted and none of the major characters ever really connected for me.

Jean-Pierre Courtiau, Paris: Cent Ans De Fantasmes Architecturaux Et De Projets Fous. Projets Fous: crazy projects. Yep. This is a French book of pictures and discussions of the crazy stuff people have proposed to do to Paris. Like enclosing Notre Dame in plexiglass. My standards for crazy are probably a bit high, but it was still entertaining.

Max Gladstone, Two Serpents Rise. The middle of the three books of the Craft in terms of publication order, the first chronologically. I don’t know anybody who’s started here, and I wouldn’t, but I was still glad to read it and am still looking forward to more.

Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper. A bit disappointing as Ross King books go: not a lot of nitty gritty about pigments or materials. Still reasonable if you’re looking for a discussion of what it says on the tin. Just not as all-out nerdy about How He/They Did That as King’s usual stuff.

Margaret Maron, Death of a Butterfly and Death in Blue Folders. Two in a mystery series that impinge a bit on the New York art world of their time (a few decades back). I’m generally on the lookout for a readable new mystery series right now, but this isn’t actually helpful, because the library only has one more. I found them quite readable, though, and will be glad to get to that one. Artists, organizational details, people sorting themselves out despite inauspicious beginnings sometimes.

Juhani Paasivirta, Finland and Europe: The Period of Autonomy and the International Crises, 1808-1914. Weirdly focused on newspapers and their subscribers, but okay, that’s useful to know. Also touches on pieces like how Russia wanted their new Grand Duchy not to have access to Sweden and how they attempted to cut that tie and where they succeeded and failed.

Jim Rasenberger, High Steel: The Daring Men Who Built the World’s Greatest Skyline, 1881 to the Present. A bit breathless, both about New York and about its steelworkers; my consistent mistyping of this title as “darling men” was perhaps Freudian. Also the timing of “the present” was very close on the heels of 9/11/01, so there was quite a lot of that and not a lot of the building thereafter. This is understandable–it’s an event that’s hard to overstate in the history of that skyline. But inevitably you will get a different perspective on what the work is like a few months after than a few years. Anyway, there were some startling and some head-shaking anecdotes in this. It was not ultimately very deep, but it didn’t have to be. The interviews with/profiles of steelworkers from different ethnic groups were worth the price of admission alone.

Sarah Rees Brennan, Unmade. The end of its trilogy, and for the love of Pete do not start here. I felt that it was a satisfying ending, albeit rather tied up in a bow in a couple of ways that were predictably more for its main audience than for me. If you’re worried that she won’t carry through on some of the darker aspects of the premise, though–no, there’s dark here, there’s follow-through. It’s not a downer of an ending, but it also doesn’t flinch from consequences.

Michael Roberts, Essays in Swedish History. Mostly the early modern period here. Pre-industrial, mostly politics, mostly powerful groups and political things rather than peasants and artisans, but I’m told one can’t have everything, and certainly one can’t fit it all in one volume.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show. Sylvia Townsend Warner never met an Aristotelian unity she gave a damn about, and this book is not going anywhere it looks like it might from the first few pages. It is a ’48er book. There are places where its attitudes about race and religion are remarkably progressive for its time, and places where that still falls short, just for a warning if you’re not up for that. But gosh. What a thing. What an odd, perfectly itself sort of thing to have, wandering around the barricades with its jewelry and its prejudices and the prejudices of other people it can see clearly. Gosh.

Peter Watts, Beyond the Rift. Short story collection that overlaps only somewhat with the one I read a few weeks back, plenty of other things to ?enjoy? ?appreciate? whatever the verb is for what one does with Peter Watts stories. Other than read. Read is a good verb.

Roger Zelazny, Unicorn Variations. There is only so much first-person asshole narrator one can have at once, and this was right up at the edge of that for me. Several bits of this are the places where Zelazny was most influenced by Hemingway, which…made me want to sit him down with several volumes of Elizabeth Gaskell until he felt better. This sort of impulse rarely ends well.

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Bitter Waters, by Chaz Brenchley

Review copy provided by author, who is an online-and-conventions friend.

So few single-author collections have a unifying element these days, or when they do, it’s because the author is a one-trick pony. This does, and Chaz is not. There is a deliberate unifying element of melancholy here–some sweet, some darker– and of male same-sex relationships of varying types. There is a lot of water here, mostly seawater, but not enough to make it feel obligatory. Not enough to hit the point of “here we go again.”

What does not unify the collection–and this is fascinating too–is setting, or genre, or a particular set of characters (though there are some character commonalities across a few). Some of the stories are very clearly in high fantasy settings. Others are what used to be called urban fantasy, before paranormal romance made that term uncertain. Others have no clear speculative element at all but are suspense or “mainstream,” character studies, relational stories. There is an assured movement from each to each, a sense that the reading protocols will be signaled so that no story will be unsatisfying but each will be uniquely and completely itself.

There is love, or not; there is loss, or not; and where there is genuine love, there is sometimes genuine grief to match, and sometimes that love is undermined and taken apart by darker revelations. I finished with the sense that Chaz could have done more of these, that this happened to be the set that he had now but that this was by no means an exhaustion of what he had to say with these themes.

Please consider using our link to buy Bitter Waters at Amazon.

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Nobel Conference 50: Where Does Science Go From Here? (Wednesday)

See my first post for a description of Nobel Conference and Tuesday’s speakers.

Wednesday morning began with a rare livestream session, this one from Steven Weinberg. He talked about the clues we have to the hidden world beyond the standard model: where do things get weird consistently, and what would it take to find out what’s going on there? I was particularly pleased that he wanted a positive reason why formal mathematical simplicity should appear in our theories–that “we just like it a lot” is not a great reason and in fact can lead us astray, as it may have in the current formulation of Einstein’s equations, which he suggested may be more complicated than we think due to undetectable terms due to extra powers divided by very long lengths. My favorite moment was when he declared something “of no fundamental interest–well, it’s interesting to astronomers, but they’re interested in a lot of things.” (I am like astronomers in this.) I found the talk energizing and fascinating, ranging as it did across interaction strengths and neutrino masses, but the reaction of the people around me was frankly disheartening: they did not seem to follow what he was getting at.

Then came one of the stand-out first-rate blow-your-mind talks of the conference, one of the ones that moved me to tears, one of the talks that made me sad that standing ovations have become so common so that people do not feel the impact of it when I leap to my feet, because quite often people stand, particularly when they are about to leave for lunch. Harry Gray is the father of bio-inorganic chemistry. He is also, quite incidentally, a former professor of my friend Ctein, I learned later, but that had nothing to do with his talk, which was mostly about a thing he calls the Twenty-First Century Solar Army. And wow, wow, wow, wow. I came away a convert to Harry Gray’s Solar Army. If you know a teenager who’s interested in chemistry, Harry Gray will send them the materials they need to help participate on a genuinely useful level in this really cool project. They can help find two different catalysts, one for reducing and one for oxidizing, seawater, to use for clean hydrogen fuel. It’s explained very clearly on the website, and they’ll go into more detail if you’re interested and contact them. Harry Gray is the sort of person who is big enough that he doesn’t need to hog credit–he was giving names of specific high school and college students who have helped with breakthroughs, because he can, he needs to, he wants this to work, and he wants more help with it working. He talked about the range of things he wanted to try requiring either robots or students, and he preferred students because they’ll talk back and tell him when he’s wrong, and I went, oh, yes, you, you are the guy. (Although I’m hoping we’ll get robots there too someday. But that’s another Nobel Conference.) They did a really cool photo anode with an intercalated N2 in the middle of the WO3 that the referees of journals did not believe until they got confirmation from both Berkeley and Brookhaven because it was just too far “out there.” It’s great stuff. And you don’t have to be in the US to do it, he’ll take recruits to the Solar Army from anywhere and send them materials. The kids involved have started having their own conventions, SEAL-CONs, to talk about their work, and it’s been going on long enough that a lot of them are going on to work in the sciences as grad students or beyond. It was so wonderful. I ran into one of my old professors afterwards, and we were so excited that we hugged each other twice, and we’re both from here. So. Yeah. Solar Army, look into it, wonderful stuff.

Thank heavens lunch was between that and Jennifer L. West’s talk, because if there hadn’t been a substantial break, I’m not sure I could have coped. And West’s was the other talk that moved me to tears with how good it was. She led in with talking about matching the scale of the treatment to the scale of the medical problem. She touched on growing biomimetic patterned tissue to match certain types of cells (mostly thin/avascular cells) and the need to figure out how to grow capillaries on scaffolds. Then the main body of her talk was about nanoshells and their use in cancer treatments through photo-thermal therapy. These incredibly small silicon balls have finely determined shells of gold. They’re injected into the blood stream of cancer patients, and their size is selected such that they won’t be filtered out in the kidneys but will collect at the tumor sites due to the way tumors form blood vessels–basically, tumors are kind of crap at forming blood vessels and end up with leaky vaculature compared to normal cells, so if you get the size of your tiny nanoshell gold-and-silicon thing right, it will congregate in just the spot of the tumor. Then when you irradiate with light near the IR spectrum (650-900 nm), it’s harmless to the rest of the healthy tissue but causes rapid heating of the nanoshell (15 C hotter than surrounding tissue) and burns off only the tumor.

This. Is. Amazing.

They can adjust them to do either imaging (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to scatter the light) or therapy (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to absorb, as above with the rapid heating). So you can get a good idea of exactly where the tumor is without injecting tagging drugs, or you can just blast the sucker. The “blast the sucker” preliminary results are extremely good on breast cancer and brain cancer in the lab so far, and in clinical trials on head and neck, prostate, and lung cancers, with no bad side effects and really great rates of efficacy. They are also looking at extending to multimodal uses and doing CT imaging–they could do MR if they included gadolinium, too. You can also add a thermally responsive coating of a chemo drug to expel the drug when the laser is on, so that it gets delivered very directly to the tumor site, at which point I was gasping, “What do you mean more therapeutic modalities?” and muttering, “It slices, it dices, it juliennes.” It was all just so much and so cool.

She noted in the Q&A that the structure of brain tumors often breaks down the blood-brain barrier anyway, and that nanoshells can take advantage of this. She also noted that the designers had to be careful of the surface chemistry to minimize risk of emboli, but that this care was quite effective so far.

This was a couple weeks ago, so I did think of Velma. I thought of other friends with cancer, some for whom this treatment is not in time. But it just sounds like it will help so many people. I scribbled furiously as she talked about the potential applications in retinopathy and other problems. And I cried, because it was just so very wonderful. A few days later, a friend was Tweeting something about how “we’re not going to cure cancer, but we *can*” [some other charitable assistance]. And I thought, it’s not a zero-sum game. “Curing cancer” is not all one thing. We’re closer to helping a lot more cancer patients than we think, and those we can help, can go on and help with other things that need doing in the world. I understand that it can be frustrating when your cause is not as popular as some other cause, but like the man says, we all do better when we all do better, and guys, this is one of the things better looks like. This really is better.

Antonio Damasio started out by giving the aphorism, “Never tackle the problem of consciousness before you’re tenured.” Then he gave a list of different things people mean when they say “consciousness,” narrowing his own focus to the experience of subjectivity, which he tries to separate in study from the mind-making part of consciousness, and further separate the interior and exterior-directed mind-making bits. He talked about the body phantom, interoception, and brainstem nuclei structure. He also talked about myelination and the role of risk in consciousness. Finally, he brought up second-order maps and the possible role of reflexive looping in creating sensation awareness and consciousness. It was one of those things that I wanted to go back over again with the diagram of brainstem nuclei structure several times to make sure I had the details right, but it was very neat stuff, and he’s got several books and articles out that will be worth tracking down.

Patricia Smith Churchland was introduced as Manitoba’s punk rock neurophilosopher. She theorizes about the neurological basis of moral values and is very, very much against Richard Dawkins and his social theories. She hypothesized that oxytocin and vasopressin were the hub and basis of the system that built up into much more complicated social rewards and eventually social and moral values. She included the caveat that any category will have fuzzy boundaries and be socially influenced, so she was less interested in the edges between what’s social and what’s moral and more in the center of the concept. She talked a lot about the uses of oxytocin and vasopressin in nurturance and attachment in different kinds of mammalian brains and how simple these things aren’t, how they interact with dopamine and other chemicals in the brain and out of it. She also talked about some things we don’t know–the human density of oxytocin receptors, for example, and the fact that almost all experiments in this chemical set are done on men because oxytocin tends to send women into estrus, so…I will be interested in how this is handled in future studies, because it seems like it’s worth knowing. A lot of people early on wanted to just have snorting oxytocin be useful for something, or more oxytocin be better for attachment, (I have seen this in SF writers, so I wanted to note it here!), but there are issues with blood-brain barrier and with it having different effects all over the body or with tipping over into entirely different behaviors.

And then I went home and collapsed and absorbed it all. Wow, wow.

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Nobel Conference 50: Where does science go from here? (Tuesday)

A couple weeks ago, I went down to my alma mater for an event they have annually: Nobel Conference. They get Nobel laureates and other cool scientists to come and give lectures around a particular theme for two days in early October. I used to love Nobel Conferences when I was a student, and they’re not just for students, not in the least. This year was the 50th anniversary conference, and as such they decided on a broader theme, the future of science. They brought back several favorite speakers from past Nobel Conferences, including inviting Freeman Dyson to be the banquet keynote speaker to finish the conference on Wednesday. Well. Freeman Dyson was my professor for a semester when I was at Gustavus, and he was a really lovely person. I was halfway talked into going when I was reading through the rest of the presenters, but when I got to him on the list, that was it: I had to go see him again.

Unfortunately, he was ill and couldn’t make it. But by then I’d already committed to doing it, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did I get to have lunch with my former advisor and see a couple of my other professors, I got to hear some really exciting lectures on a wide variety of topics. I also sat the first day with an earnest and wide-eyed high school student and the second day with some eager and fascinated old people, so that was fun too, the different people I ran into who were interested in coming together for this sort of thing. If you’re in the greater Minnesota-Wisconsin area–even northern Iowa, really–you should think about Nobel Conference. There’s nothing quite like it.

Steven Chu showed some very interesting graphs about costs, regulation, and energy, which did not do what economists predict or can explain at all. One of his interesting quotes was from Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, who said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end but not for a lack of oil.” He talked about room-temperature storage and long-distance transmission of energy from renewables (e.g. wind and solar) as major technical goals for the next chunk of time. He felt that his biggest successes were invisible to the public: recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers, especially those in their 40s, to this line of work, and to the National Academy of Science in particular. I didn’t mind not hearing about his original work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, because the stuff he’s done since has been interesting, too. I was definitely a Steven Chu fan by the end of his talk.

I wish I could say the same of Sir Harold Kroto. His original work on fullerenes was so impressive, I’d have loved to hear about that, but if not that, something else that was…not a rehash of every flat Atlantic or New Yorker article ever written on the subject of creativity, with a heaping helping of Kids These Days mixed in. Things are not as they were when Sir Harold was a youth, and Sir Harold does not approve! He’s not about to spend any time trying to understand, adjust, or God help us improve anything. He just does not approve! Some helpful person tried to steer him towards something, anything like a positive path in the Q&A session, and he was having none! Sadly I did not bring my cane, so I could not lend it to him to shake at some clouds. Seriously, what a disappointment. Fullerenes are so cool that even if you do nothing else interesting, you can always return to that–and should, if you have nothing else to other than harumphing.

With Sean B. Carroll, though, we were entirely back on track, and I am definitely looking for his book. He talked about the icefish, a creature that evolved to have plasma full of antifreeze that came from digestive enzymes. It’s one of less than a dozen vertebrates to lack red blood cells and absorb oxygen passively. This is the kind of random nerdy crap I really enjoy, and he went on to talk about more evolutionary examples in animal development, about European kestrels mutating to see in the UV instead of blue/violet and getting to see trails of vole urine as a result, because apparently vole urine is quite visible in the UV. Who knew! What lovely stuff. He also talked about the astonishing progress in restoring large species diversity at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Exciting, inspiring stuff.

Svante Pääbo talked about early humans and the hominids lines who contributed to homo sapiens, and then the hominid lines who contributed to them. I think the best part of his talk was that when he was first at Nobel conference in 2008, he gave a firm date beyond which we probably wouldn’t know anything about hominid line contributions, and now, six years later, he was thoroughly willing to rescind that, talking about an older hominid line that we can see contributing to the Denisovans the way the Denisovans contributed to us, and he’s no longer willing to say, “Here is the date before which we won’t be able to say anything.” I just loved that. I loved watching knowledge extend just that fast that he stopped trying to say what we can’t know. And I loved that he could put up a list of all human-specific amino acids on one slide.

I left early from Gary Ernst’s talk; he was disorganized and breathless and kept circling back around points that were either staggeringly obvious or really alarming. (“Drilling for oil has been contaminating the groundwater for 150 years and nobody cared before,” is as direct a quote as I could write it down. I don’t even. Just–no.) He was the last talk of the day, and I was tired, so maybe his talk got better, but I did not stick around to find out. In a slate of ten panelists, having only two of them give bad talks and the other eight somewhere between good and transcendently great is an amazing ratio.

I have more to say here, and the two best talks, the ones where the science moved me to tears, are yet to come. But this is already getting long, so I should break it into two posts, so I will come back to Wednesday’s talks in my next Nobel Conference post.

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Short-short for your Monday morning

(It will not get longer if you read this later than Monday morning.)

Here is a new short story from me and Daily SF: Emma Goldman: A Biography for Space Aliens. As you will see at the top, this is in the Gronklorf and Fizzoom Notable Earthlings series. Gronklorf and Fizzoom’s Notable Earthlings! Buy the whole set for your spawn!

Or just read this one for free. Your call.

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It’s what you know that ain’t so: the high fantasy edition, volume 37

I can’t count how many volumes of high fantasy I’ve read that get categorized as inspired by medieval Western Europe. By this I mean I don’t feel like trying to estimate, because I have a spreadsheet that goes back over a decade and marks things by genre (“speculative,” though, rather than “high fantasy”–so it would be incredibly tedious). Point being: lots. Many to most of them pre-gun. Many to most of them featuring, at least peripherally, soldiers and armies.

Almost all of them have the soldiers in some kind of uniform.

If the soldiers are a major part of the narrative rather than “I passed a soldier in the street” (recognized by uniform), learning to march in step is almost always a part of the story.

And yet. Here’s the passage from Essays in Swedish History, specifically “The Military Revolution”:

The demand for unanimity and precision of movement led naturally to the innovation of marching in step, which appears at some date impossible to establish about the middle of the seventeenth century. And the principle of mass-subordination, of the solution of the individual will in the will of the commander, received a last reinforcement with the slow adoption of uniforms: ‘without uniforms,’ said Frederick the Great, ‘there can be no discipline.’ The process was already observable in the 1620s; but it was scarcely complete by the end of the century. The long delay is easily explained. As long as body-armour remained general, uniforms were scarcely practical; and even when armour was abandoned, the common use of the sword-resisting buff-coat prevented for a time a general change.

So…yeah. It’s not that movement in unison was unheard-of (if you have spears or pikes, you pretty much have to coordinate the movement–although in those cases shuffling together is sometimes as good as marching in step), and it’s not that nobody ever had clothes alike. But “this section of the army is so-and-so’s guard” is very different from “the entire army has a uniform.” If you look up “Flemish painting soldiers” or “Dutch painting soldiers” or either of those two ethnicities with “siege of” instead of “soldiers,” you will get paintings of people not dressed alike. Because they are off duty? Not in the sieges! No, because uniforms were not standard. Because an armband or something in your hat was what you had, more or less.

Here’s the thing: you can do this if you want, in your secondary world, even though it was not at all standard in this world in that period. You can do it no problem. “In my world they got there sooner, as a standard.” Fine. It’s one of the benefits of making it up. It’s a little dicey that so many people seem to want to. But you can jump on that bandwagon if you wish. Here’s the thing, though. Yesterday I read a blog post by Mark Lawrence in which he was talking about some of the questions he gets asked about why fantasy–his in specific–is “conservative” in some particular ways. And one of his answers–one of the standard answers–is that if the world is not focused on (in his example) a world with six suns or a complex symbiosis with aliens, putting those things in will bog down the book. And sure, yes. I get that. We end up talking about this when we talk about ways to draw on history, especially at Fourth Street–that of the cool ideas we discuss, it will be hard for any one book to take on all of them, because they will all take word count. It sounds like some of the questions Mark Lawrence is getting are pretty unreasonable, and I don’t mean to say that he does this specific thing–haven’t read his stuff.

But what I’m saying is: efficiency does not account for all of the conservatism of high/epic fantasy. sometimes the forms of “conservatism” that readers are noticing are historically inaccurate and bog down the book, and also are missing opportunities to be interesting. The books that I read that describe the soldiers’ uniforms, or describe soldiers learning to march in step: they are taking word count to make something simultaneously more generic and less historically accurate to the time period and general location that gets the credit for inspiring high/epic fantasy. It can be a phrase here and there, or it can be entire chapters. But in this case either historical inspiration or imagination would give you something more interesting than the blurred carbon copy of a misconception.