What I Learned at ConGregate

Two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being a guest at ConGregate, one of the nicest small science fiction and fantasy conventions I’ve ever attended. I had a great time, as usual — testament to the great folks who put it all together!


I should be singing, not just sitting around in the cantina! (Photo by Donna Smith Parker.)

And, just like at LibertyCon earlier, I learned a few things at ConGregate:

  • It feels great to hear people report that they enjoy Stephanie Minervino’s performance narrating the Walking on the Sea of Clouds audiobook — and even better when I can watch their eyes light up as I tell them that she’s my daughter, performing under her married name!
  • It feels pretty good to find out people are saying good things about your work even when you’re not around to hear them. (In this case, a friend was recommending the aforementioned lunar colony novel on the strength of its portrayal of a wheelchair-bound character.)
  • I may be on to something with respect to the novel I’m writing now. I read the first chapter of it, to generally complimentary reactions (though I don’t recall anyone at a reading ever being critical), but when I explained the general idea behind the story about half the room gasped and said, “Ooohhh.” I’ll take that as a good sign.
  • Recent research shows that centripetally induced gravity as low as 0.3g may be high enough to overcome some of the difficulties that people encounter in space (e.g., calcium loss, inner ear problems). Some earlier research took 0.8g as the minimum required, but when it comes to building any future rotating habitats 0.3g would be more attainable in the short term. (Hey, it shouldn’t be any surprise that I’m interested in learning about space stuff!)
  • I really need to learn to play Jonah Knight’s song, “King of Nebraska.” Someone asked if I could play it during my set in the “ConGregate Cantina,” and I had to disappoint them. So, that’s one thing added to the “to do” list.
  • Loaning my guitar out to friends is one thing. Getting it back from them the next day is sometimes harder than anticipated.
  • Finally, just as at LibertyCon: Even though I criticize my own music and writing quite a bit, and generally find them lacking compared to my friends, folks genuinely seem to appreciate what I do. That feels pretty good.

The convention was not without its hiccups, but the ConGregate staff handled everything with good humor and general excellence! I’m very pleased that they let me participate, and I hope they’ll let me come back again!

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Some Things I Learned at LibertyCon

Over the last weekend in June, I was honored to be part of another LibertyCon — a most excellent science fiction and fantasy convention. I had a marvelous time with a fantastic group of people!


After another epic round of Terraforming Mars. I didn’t win, but I had a great time! (L-R: Rich Groller, Karl Gallagher, yours truly, Steve Jackson, Norman Johnson. Photo by C.S. Ferguson.)

And this year I learned a few things, too:

  • Terraforming Mars is my new favorite game. I was invited to play as part of the convention programming, as seen above — how cool is that? — and ended up playing three complete games. Even though I didn’t win any of them, the game is structured in such a way that I was so interested and focused on what I was trying to accomplish that I had tremendous fun with no regard to the outcome. (And, yes, since then I’ve bought my own copy of Terraforming Mars and look forward to introducing it to my family, with hopes of putting it into our regular game rotation!)
  • My children know me very well: They were correct when they predicted that I would not enjoy playing Cards Against Humanity. I don’t have the right sense of humor for that game. C’est la vie.
  • Marie Curie (a/k/a Madam Curie) is credited with saving a million lives during the First World War. She brought x-ray equipment to the field that enabled surgeons to find and remove shrapnel, and also used a radium-based method to sterilize wounds. (This historical tidbit courtesy of Jim Beall.)
  • If I could write quickly to a specific market niche, I would make a lot more money at this writing thing. But, I just write the stories I want to write — and would like to read — and I haven’t mustered the will or mastered the ability to crank out chapter after chapter in workmanlike fashion. (This observation probably applies to music as well.) So much the worse for me.
  • I would very much like to produce a new CD. At the past few conventions, folks have asked when I might come out with new music and have seemed to like my newest songs. However, since I’ve only made back a fraction of the money I spent on the first two CDs, and don’t have a ready supply of cash to pay the production expenses, I think a new CD will have to remain TBD — as in, “to be done.”
  • The entry requirement for participation in Sigma, the science fiction think tank, does not specifically include a doctoral degree. All this time, I thought only PhDs were invited to be part of the group. I don’t reckon I’d have very much to contribute, as my technical credentials and publishing history are both sketchy, but it would be pretty nifty! They get involved in some interesting projects.
  • As much as I criticize my own music and writing and find them lacking, other people seem genuinely to appreciate what I have to offer. That feels pretty good.

Once again as in years past, the whole LibertyCon staff did an amazing job (especially considering the series of difficulties they overcame!) and put on a wonderful convention. Next year’s event is already sold out (and did so in record time), so here’s looking forward to LibertyCon 33!

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We Will Congregate at ConGregate

Here we go, NC folks! The ConGregate science fiction and fantasy convention runs Friday through Sunday in High Point, with all the usual festivities! It’s a small but extremely well-run convention, full of fun and friendly people — plus me! 😂

Here’s what I have going on:

Friday:

  • 1:00 p.m. — “Science Fiction Writer’s Showcase”
  • 3:00 p.m. — Open Filk
  • 4:00 p.m. — Solo Concert!
  • 8:00 p.m. — Reading

Saturday:

  • 11:00 a.m. — Open Filk
  • 1:30 p.m. — Baen Books Traveling Slide Show & Prize Patrol
  • 4:00 p.m. — More Music (in the “Cantina”)
  • 6:00 p.m. — Open Filk
  • 9:00 p.m. — Panel, “How Much Science Should a Science Fiction Writer Know?”

Sunday:

  • 9:00 a.m. — Prayer & Praise Service
  • Noon — Open Filk
  • 1:00 p.m. — Round Robin Music Fest

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it to the Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse on Sunday, but a friend volunteered to moderate that session so it will go on as scheduled!

Here’s looking forward to a lot of fun with my fannish friends!

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Ground Control to LibertyCon …

Ground Control to LibertyCon …
Take your bourbon shots
And put your Jayne hats on …

It’s that time of year again! The fannish family reunion known as LibertyCon starts today!

LibertyCon Illustration by Todd Lockwood
(Illustration by Todd Lockwood, from the year I was the LibertyCon MC.)

I’ll be busy right out of the gate, and tonight is packed:

Friday:

  • 1 p.m. — Author’s & Artist’s Alley — come by and chat!
  • 4 p.m. — Autograph Session — again, come by and chat!
  • 5 p.m. — Opening Ceremonies — at which I will sing, so beware
  • 6 p.m. — CONCERT (or, “LibertyConcert”) — at which I will sing more, almost certainly including “LibertyCon Oddity” (quoted above)
  • 8 p.m. (until 10:30) — Terraforming Mars — playing the game in front of an audience
  • 11 p.m. — Open Filk — at which I will sing even more, and hopefully other folks will, too!

Saturday:

  • Noon — Banquet — always a fun time!
  • 2 p.m. — Baen Books Traveling Road Show
  • 4 p.m. — Panel, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Writing Advice” — and remember what free advice is worth …
  • 11 p.m. — Nerd Music Free-for-all — like Open Filking, but nerdier? (is that even possible?)

Sunday:

  • 10 a.m. — Kaffeeklatsch — which for me involves something other than coffee
  • 1 p.m. — Reading — with my friend David B. Coe!

I played my first game of Terraforming Mars last night, and had a lot of fun, so the convention’s already started well for me! If the rest of the weekend goes as well, it’ll be a fine time. Let’s make it so!

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The Respect Question

A few weeks ago I asked my newsletter subscribers* to chime in on this question: “What is respect, to you?”

I asked the question because the topic of respect had been much on my mind based on some newsworthy events. In particular, I wanted to find out if very many people would agree with me that our society seems to be lacking in respect these days.

I was pleased to receive some very thoughtful responses. I don’t know if “pleased” is the right way to describe my feeling about the fact that nearly everyone who responded agreed that respect is in short supply in our current society.

Several friends (everyone who gets my newsletter is a friend, in my book) presented ideas for why respect has fallen out of fashion. We discussed it back and forth (I always try to reply when subscribers take the time to write back), and in general we thought the observed level of disrespect generally didn’t have to do with people being less respectable than they used to be. That is, everyone is still worthy of being respected. Instead, we discussed whether it might be a combination of two things: parents not teaching their children how to display respect, and adults in general not modeling respectful behavior for young people. Since respect seems to be something we learn (like manners, which themselves are indicators of respect), that led to the question of whether respect is something we need to practice lest we forget about it or start to ignore it.

One friend made an excellent distinction between “simple” respect and what he called “high” respect — the difference between the most basic respect we pay to someone as a fellow human being (or even that we pay to the uniform they wear or the office they hold), and the higher respect that they earn by … well, by acting respectable. I contend that we do people a terrible disservice if their failure to earn (or keep) our high respect leads us to deny them even simple respect. Furthermore, I think it’s possible to withhold a measure of respect without blatantly disrespecting someone — though it may be difficult, and uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, as another friend pointed out, some people have used respect as a shield — or perhaps a bludgeon — by demanding or expecting it rather than actually working to be respectable. She suggested that “the whole concept has been cheapened” as a result. I find that idea just as sad as the generally high level of disrespect I see every day.

I was interested in one friend’s equating respect with trust, and he’s right: it is very difficult to respect someone if we don’t trust them. That’s quite a contrast with respect as the foundation of manners, which can be thought of as the way we ensure that people are comfortable being around us: as one friend wrote, displaying good manners demonstrates that you respect someone. (One of the things I learned long ago about manners — in a talk given by Tony Campolo at a National Youthworkers Convention — is that they may be most needed when we least want to use them. When thought of that way, showing manners to people we may not respect very much demonstrates the difference between simple respect and high respect.)

As another friend wrote, “You don’t treat someone else with respect so that they treat you with respect, or even because you think they are ‘worthy’ of respect — you do it because YOU are worthy of respect, worthy of self-respect, able to meet your own eyes in the mirror.”

respect
(Image: “Respect,” by Martin Abegglen, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I deeply appreciate everyone who offered their opinions and ideas. The more I think about it, the more I’m not sure we can overstate the hazard to society from being unwilling to treat people with simple, basic respect regardless of whether they have earned or squandered any deeper respect. That’s how debates boil over into arguments, arguments boil over into disputes, and disputes boil over into violence. The issue reminds me of an old Robert A. Heinlein quote about the loss of politeness (again, coming back to the question of manners, which themselves demonstrate respect), and how it’s “more significant than a riot” in identifying a dying culture.

I wish I knew how to fix it. I hope it can be fixed.

Do you have any insights? I’d love to hear them.

Thanks, as always, for your time!

___
*If you’re not on the list already, you can subscribe to my newsletter at this link.

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Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse Meets Tomorrow!

Yes, it’s the third Sunday instead of the usual second Sunday of the month, but The Writers Coffeehouse will convene tomorrow at 2 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books (4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road, Raleigh). We slipped the schedule a week so as not to interfere with Mother’s Day last Sunday. Note that the unusual day also means an unusual setting: we’ll be meeting upstairs instead of in our normal spot.

If you’re a writer and you are in the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, you’re welcome at our branch of the Writers Coffeehouse — a nationwide set of free monthly networking events, originally started in 2002 in Pennsylvania by NYT-bestselling author Jonathan Maberry. All writers — young or old, published or unpublished, struggling or accomplished — are welcome at every meeting. As Jonathan says, we’re just “a bunch of writers sitting around talking about writing … with coffee.” (Note that you have to bring your coffee [or the beverage of your choice] with you, but there are a couple of places nearby that are pretty convenient.)

The Writers Coffeehouse

You can learn more about (and join!) our local group at the Research Triangle Writers Coffeehouse Facebook page. But if you’re free on Sunday afternoon, we’d love to meet you! (I, however, will have to meet you at the June meeting — I have another commitment tomorrow, but two people were kind enough to step up to moderate the discussion in “tag team” fashion.)

And, rest assured: It doesn’t matter what you write, where you write, or how much you write, you’re welcome at The Writers Coffeehouse!

___
P.S. In case you missed it, Lost Signals of the Terran Republic, an anthology set in Charles E. Gannon’s “Caine Riordan” universe and that includes a short story by yours truly, is available now — order your copy today!
P.P.S. Also in case you missed it, my novel Walking on the Sea of Clouds is available as an Audible audiobook. Check it out!

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Maybe We Need a Freedom Gauge

I had the idea, probably months ago now, and set it down in my long list of strange, passing thoughts, for something called the Freedom Gauge, or Freedom Meter. I think that might be helpful in making political decisions and informing political opinions.

Why? Because, at root, every government restricts citizens’ freedoms in some way(s) — after all, we accept certain limitations on complete, anarchic freedom as part of the social compact — and every law that is passed curtails some freedom(s). The question is, how much?

My first thought was that of being a watchdog over legislatures so that, in the process of new laws being proposed, debated, and enacted, the bills’ effects on personal freedom might be shown on the Freedom Gauge. Different legislative proposals could be compared in terms of their “Freedom Quotient” or something. The idea was to present in graphical form how much particular legislation would curtail freedoms. (And, in a flight of the wildest rose-colored-glasses fancy, I thought legislatures themselves might make use of the gauge to show how little impact their proposals would have on the average citizen.)

Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged
Yes, something like that … (Image: “Hypocrisy Meter, Pegged,” by Kaz Vorpal, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

My second thought was an international comparison of some sort: a monitor of the freedom(s) afforded — or denied — by different countries. Basic data might come from the CIA World Factbook or other trustworthy sources, and might include socioeconomic figures, crime statistics, human rights abuse reports, and whatnot. But I think the local version, the what-law-are-they-passing-today version, may be more useful.

If I had the wherewithal — the time, money, and know-how — I think I would register a website called “freedomgauge.com” or “freedom-meter.com” (both domains were available as of noon today) and build a site that would “measure” — somehow — and report infringements on freedoms: infringements in existence now, and ones that are being proposed. Alas, that seems like a monumental task. I suppose it would have to be crowd-sourced in some way, reliant on contributors the way online encyclopedias are. And that’s far beyond my level of expertise.

So, no, I don’t see myself making a “Freedom Gauge” happen, though I think it might be a good thing.

With that said: if you think the idea has merit, feel free to run with it and see what you can do!

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Blinded by the Dark

Considering a pseudo-random question that seems relevant to our current societal climate:

Why does being vehemently against something — hating it with a passionate rage — blind us to any merits of the thing?

careful now
Beware what lurks in the darkness of hatred and fear. (Image: “careful now,” by neeel, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Consider any number of candidate topics: abortion, guns, the President, nameacontroversialsubject. Why do so many of us end up so adamantly against whatever it is that we cannot bring ourselves to consider the least amount of good in it? Why does it seem that acknowledging even the tiniest merit is some kind of betrayal, rather than an admission that we don’t have all the answers and that most (if not all) issues are not clearly black and white?

Sometimes it seems as if we are afraid to recognize anything good in that thing we despise, because we might begin to question ourselves instead of the hated thing. But in general we’re careful not to question our own conclusions or premises, let alone how we got from one to another; and just as careful not to question our motives or our leaders — and so we build fortifications around our position and prepare not only to defend it, but to attack the other. We guard ourselves against an obvious risk: if we ever accept that the thing we hate has some good aspects, we may begin to recognize that its opposite, the thing we love, is not as pure and perfect as we thought.

As an artifact of my engineering training, I wonder: is there a scale, a curve, a function that describes the point at which opposition produces recalcitrance? And is there a way to draw one another back from the precipice it represents?

I may be the only person who wonders, or cares. But, then again, I’m quite comfortable in the “grey areas” of life — between the black and the white.

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Another Snippet from My LOST SIGNALS Story

Late last week I announced that Lost Signals of the Terran Republic, an anthology set in Charles E. Gannon’s “Caine Riordan” universe, is available for preorder right now. In that post, I included the opening of my story, “Botwright.”

Today’s snippet pays homage to Isaac Asimov and his “Laws of Robotics” against robots harming human beings. In the scene, our misfit robot maintainer — a/k/a “botwright” — Lloyd Cramer and his friend Eric Moorefield have just been attacked by the asteroid mining foreman who murdered a young lady. In the melee, Cramer sent out a distress call to the “Semi-Autonomous Multifunctional Miner/Mechanic” (or, SAM) robots he takes care of — and which take care of him.

We pick up the action …

A SAM’s foremost port ventral arm grabbed the mining foreman by the head, then the robot pirouetted as a few of its other limbs grabbed on. Still using two limbs against grab bars, it pressed the foreman into the nearest bulkhead as if it were trying to mate with him. Ashworth struggled against it but found no purchase, and the machine … so effectively covered his face that Ashworth could not even cry out for mercy.

… Moorefield’s eyes narrowed, and he spoke in a low, almost menacing tone. “You teach that bot to do that?”

Cramer shrugged, forgetting for a moment that he wasn’t well-grounded. He grabbed a handhold and said, “I told it to protect me.”

“Didn’t think that was possible.”

Cramer looked down into the lower corner of the shop. “Not allowed … not the same as not possible.”

“True enough,” Moorefield said. “But what would Asimov say?”

Cramer shrugged again, but held himself in place. Now was not the time to debate the difference between artificial intelligence and artificial knowledge. “The laws of robotics are written by the programmers.”

What will happen next? We’ll have to see.


Pretty spiffy cover, eh?

If you want to read more — and in particular if you want to get all the stories by a tremendous group of authors — you can preorder the anthology either as a Kindle e-book or a trade paperback. Order today!

I hope you like all the stories!

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Preorder the LOST SIGNALS Anthology Now!

If you like far-ranging science fiction stories set in a remarkably solid universe of adventure and alien encounters, I highly recommend the “Caine Riordan” series by Charles E. Gannon — and not just because I had a part to play in its inception … and show up as a character in some of the novels! 😃

Welcome to the Terran Republic of the Twenty-Second Century. Just as humanity finally reaches out to the stars, it is challenged by several “exosapient” species whose motivations are as unusual as their physical forms. Troubleshooters like Caine Riordan — as well as commandos, crewmen, and correspondents — contend with both humans and aliens during the exploration, statecraft, and warfare that churn and change our post-contact world.

The best place to begin with the series as a whole is at the beginning, with the Nebula Award-nominated and Compton Crook Award-winning Fire With Fire, available on Amazon or directly from Baen Books in the Baen Free Library.

But if you’re looking for shorter fiction, there’s now an anthology of all-original stories set in the Caine Riordan universe, ready for preorder: Lost Signals of the Terran Republic.

And I have a story in it!

… no world is defined solely by the main characters who occupy center-stage. Lost Signals digs deep into the lives and struggles of those beyond the spotlight. Twenty new voices tell twenty gripping stories that blur the line between fact and fiction in the Consolidated Terran Republic, where high-stakes war and intrigue has played out over four national bestsellers.


Pretty spiffy cover, eh?

Because it’s one of the “earliest” stories chronologically, my entry — entitled “Botwright,” as in the person who builds and maintains robots … like a “shipwright” or a “wheelwright,” but with robots — comes right after a new story by Charles Gannon himself. My story puts you on an asteroid mining outpost with a socially awkward mechanic who witnesses a murder through the “eyes” of one of the robots he works on.

Mine is a quiet tale, and I tried hard to put you in the head of the main character and give you a realistic sense of his predicament. Here’s the opening:

“Uncle Lloyd! Are you in there?”

Lloyd Cramer grinned. Kelly wasn’t really his niece; she had started calling him “uncle” back on the Moon almost five years ago. And even though his smile felt distorted, awkward, on his face, Cramer would always smile for her, even when she interrupted him.

Kelianna “Kelly” Forester sailed into his workshop, trailed her fingers along the hatch to bleed off speed, somersaulted, and came to rest against an equipment locker. She was so graceful that Cramer felt clumsy just sitting on his perch.

“Yes, I’m in here,” he said. He slipped the wrench he had been using into its slot on his vest.

“I knew, anyway,” Kelly said. Her hair fluttered under a multicolored headband. “I checked your prox.”

Cramer chanced a look down at Folco. The bot’s limbs were paralyzed since he’d used its motive power supplies in other machines, but Cramer noted with satisfaction that its camera telltale was on. It had registered Kelly’s proximity implant signal, just as they all did. Or were
supposed to. “If you knew, then why did you ask?”

Kelly laughed, a bright melody that filled the space, and she pushed off the locker.

“Mind the clothesline,” Cramer said.

Kelly grabbed the cable-and-alligator-clip rig he had strung across his workshop, and came to rest beside him. She reached up and flicked one of the Mylar streamers that she had made him add for sake of visibility: the slender wire was almost invisible. “You know me,” she said, “I’m always careful.” She waited a moment for him to reply, but he had nothing to add. She was the mine’s safety director; of course she would be careful.

She shimmied a little closer along the clothesline. “Uncle Lloyd, I need a favor….”

I was very pleased to be invited and included in the anthology — with a ton of authors much more talented than I am! — and now that the book is in production I’m glad to let you know that you can preorder it now on Kindle or in paperback. I hope you do, and that you like all the stories!

And if you know any other science fiction fans, I’d appreciate it if you’d send them the link to the book (or just to this blog post) to let them know. Happy reading!

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