Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Aliens!

Here is an interesting article about octopuses and weird brain architecture:

How the octopus got its smarts.

A mammalian brain is a centralised processor that sends and receives signals via the spinal cord. But for the octopus, only 10% of its brain is centralised in a highly folded, 30-lobed donut-shaped structure arranged around its oesophagus (really). Two optic lobes account for another 30%, and 60% lies in the arms. “It’s a weird way to construct a complex brain,” says Hanlon. “Everything about this animal is goofy and weird.”

Take the arms: they’re considered to have their own ‘mini-brain’ not just because they are so packed with neurons but because they also have independent processing power. For instance, an octopus escaping a predator can detach an arm that will happily continue crawling around for up to 10 minutes.

Indeed, until an experiment by Kuba and colleagues in 2011, some suspected the arms’ movements were independentof their central brain. They aren’t. Rather it appears that the brain gives a high-level command that a staff of eight arms execute autonomously.

Very, very neat. How many SF authors have ever designed an alien species as weird and neat as this? Though to be fair, authors rarely sit down and describe the actual brain architecture of their aliens.

But wait, octopuses are actually even weirder than that!

A complex brain needs a way to store complex information. Startlingly, the octopus may have achieved this complexity by playing fast and free with its genetic code.

To build a living organism, the decoding of the DNA blueprint normally proceeds with extreme fidelity. … A tiny section of the vast blueprint is copied, rather like photocopying a single page from a tome. That copy, called messenger RNA (mRNA), then instructs the production of a particular protein….

But … the octopus … modifies copies of the recipe on the fly. …

This recipe tweaking is known as ‘RNA editing’. In humans only a handful of brain protein recipes are edited. In the octopus, the majority get this treatment.

“It introduces a level of sophistication and complexity we never thought of. Perhaps it’s related to their memory,” says Eli Eisenberg, a computational biologist at the University of Tel Aviv. Though he quickly adds, “I must stress this is complete speculation”.

There’s much more at the link. One suggestion, awkward if you were designing an alien species, is that messing around with their genes all the time may be one big reason octopuses have such short lifespans (one year, three years, five years, it depends on the species, but they all short-lived.)

That would be either a difficulty to ignore if you were writing a fictional species, or a source of pathos in the story if you created a species with a very, very short lifespan. If you did that, it might be almost impossible to end in any way that did not involve the death of an important character. Very sad! But you could probably create a species where this was not necessarily quite so tragic. Remember the ending of Charlotte’s Web? That is one way I might handle this kind of intrinsically short lifespan.

Neat article. Click through if you have a moment.

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Well, that’s different —

Here’s a post at tor.com: How Cordwainer Smith’s Work Influenced the Writing of Mecha Samurai Empire.

This is a book by  Peter Tieryas, whose first book in the series was The United States of Japan.

This world is not necessarily something that would appeal to me — alternate history, Germany and Japan won WWII, I think that is unlikely and also very, very unappealing, so perhaps not my thing. But it’s interesting to see an author pointing out Cordwainer Smith as an important influence.

Teiryas says:


It was important to me to incorporate the same sense of wonder and excitement that I had discovering the worlds of Cordwainer Smith into the high school students of Mecha Samurai Empire as they learn more about mecha piloting. There are direct tributes to Smith, like experimental programs try to get mecha pilots to neurally interface directly with their cats (an idea explored in “The Game of Rat and Dragon”) and the fact that one of the mecha scientists is named Dr. Shimitsu (for Smith). I also thought of the elaborate rituals the Scanners had when devising the lore and culture of the mecha pilots…

I would certainly have recognized Smith’s influence if I happened across a detail where pilots interface with cats! 

Cordwainer Smith wrote unique stories that can’t go out of style because they have always been completely outside any style. They were different when he wrote them and I don’t believe they’re any more or less different now. I don’t have the slightest idea whether Teiryas managed any sort of echo of Cordwainer Smith in his novels, but if you’ve never read anything by Smith, then “The Best of Cordwainer Smith” is available and inexpensive on Kindle.



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It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day

I cannot quite imagine talking like a pirate today or any other day, but if you are not as inhibited, today is Talk Like A Pirate Day.

PG at The Passive Voice has a post that might help if you are inclined to try talking like a pirate, but would like to be able to say more than “Ahoy, matey!”

He has also provided a helpful link to a computerized pirate translator, in case your coworkers today confuse you by talking a little too much like a pirate.

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Wow: Helm’s Deep

Okay, I know recently various of us were saying snide things about the cliffhanger in The Two Towers where Frodo is captured by the orcs and then The Return of the King where we pick the story back up way, way outside of Mordor, with Merry and Gandalf entering Minas Tirith and the Rohirrim recovering from the siege at Helm’s Deep and so on.

Well, in the movies, I just love the siege at Helm’s Deep. I love the bit where the elves march in to Helm’s Deep — you remember the scene — and you remember the part where the signal fires light on the mountain tops, summoning the Rohirrim to aid Minas Tirith? That scene sends chills down my spine. 

So, via File 770, this:

Mind-blowing LEGO recreation of Helm’s Deep


We’ve all seen some incredible LEGO builds before, but this one, by Rich-K & Big J, takes the cake as one of the most impressive pop culture recreations of all time! About 150,000 LEGO bricks and 1,700 mini-figures were used to recreate the Helm’s Deep battle scene from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. It took the duo about four months to construct the 160 pound, ping-pong table size creation….

I cannot imagine how long this took to build. Click through and admire the artwork.

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CSI: Mars

I’m sure we’re all devoting a lot of thought to the unusual aspects of conducting police investigations on Mars. You’ll be glad to know The Atlantic is on top of this important issue.

Consider the basic science of crime-scene analysis. In the dry, freezer-like air and extreme solar exposure of Mars, DNA will age differently than it does on Earth. Blood from blunt-trauma and stab wounds will produce dramatically new spatter patterns in the planet’s low gravity. Electrostatic charge will give a new kind of evidentiary value to dust found clinging to the exteriors of space suits and nearby surfaces. …

Click through if you’d like to write a murder mystery set on Mars. Lots of good information that I’m sure would come in handy.

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We don’t live in a science-fiction universe

Alas: Gravitational waves provide dose of reality about extra dimensions.

Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains the solar system very well, but as scientists learned more about the universe beyond, big holes in our understanding began to emerge. Two of these are dark matter, one of the basic ingredients of the universe; and dark energy, the mysterious force that’s making the universe expand faster over time.

Scientists have proposed all kinds of theories to explain dark matter and dark energy, and “a lot of alternate theories to general relativity start with adding an extra dimension,” said graduate student Maya Fishbach, a coauthor on the paper. One theory is that over long distances, gravity would “leak” into the additional dimensions. This would cause gravity to appear weaker, and could account for the inconsistencies….

University of Chicago astronomers found no evidence for extra spatial dimensions to the universe based on the gravitational wave data.

I’m sure we’re all sorry to hear that.

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Ranking all of Patricia McKillip’s novels

So, yesterday I was thinking about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which I am not re-reading right now because at the moment I am not reading anything by anybody, having instead become obsessed with the book I am working on. Still, there I was, thinking about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

I can’t read it right now, because as I said, I am obsessed with writing at the moment, but I would like to re-read it, maybe soon-ish. (This joins a desire to read Magic Triumphs by Ilona Andrews and Latchkey by Nicole Kornher-Stace, but all reading will remain on hold for the next, I don’t know, two weeks or so, probably.)

In the meantime, though of course I have posed about McKillip before, I don’t think I have ever taken a stab at ranking all her novels, so hey, I’m sure it will be an interesting exercise. It turns out I have not read one of her MG or perhaps YA novels, which, hmm, didn’t realize that, but used copies are pricey, so I guess I will continue to not read that. I’ve read all the rest, though! So let’s see how they stack up. 

From the bottom to the top, (almost) all Patricia McKillip novels:

25. The Night Gift. This is not actually a ranking. This is the one I haven’t read. I think perhaps it is not fantasy? There is no description at Amazon, but a helpful reviewer says this:

This is such a sweet and simple story about friends, that the positive messages slip in without a ripple to disturb the story. The three main characters include girls of different races, and one has a facial disfigurement…but that is not what the story is about … When the main character learns that the boy she has had a crush on forever, actually likes her friend and plans to ask the friend out, the main character avoids immature drama and finds a way to value her friendship above her acute disappointment… but that is not what the story is about either, it just happens along the way to being a story about unconditional love within families.

Sounds perfectly charming, but not remotely fantastic.

24.  Solstice Wood. This is an actual ranking. Though other titles are weaker as individual titles, the violence this book does to Winter Rose makes me put it dead last. SW completely changes how WR is read, and I hate this. SW is dead to me. I got rid of my copy. I wish I’d never read it. If that sounds strong, sorry. Dead last.

23.  The Throme of the Erril of Sherril. There’s nothing exactly wrong with this one, but it’s very light-weight compared to almost any other book of hers.

22.  Stepping from the Shadows. I didn’t like it. It is just not my cup of tea.

21. Something Rich and Strange. For whatever reason, this one did not actually work that well for me.

20. The Moon and the Face.  Not as strong a story as the first book of the duology, Moonflash. Felt to me like McKillip wanted to go on with the story, but was not sure what to do with it and just threw stuff in at random. I liked it, but, well, it’s pretty weak tea compared to most of her other books.

19.  The House on Parchment Street. I liked this story fine. If it had been written by somebody else, I would probably rank it higher. Patricia McKillip has so many great books out that this slight MG title gets shuffled back toward the end of the list. 

18. Kingfisher. I was sorry not to like McKillip’s most recent title better, but I did not feel this novel was as compelling as many of her others. It has some wonderful details and elements, but does not seem cohesive.

17.  The Tower at Stony Wood. I liked this book, but … not that much. The foundation of the story is set on a, what? A misunderstanding? Or a deception? Or what exactly?

It is now getting harder, as we move into the books I really liked a lot, but before we get to the ones I truly love with all my heart.

16.  The Bards of Bone Plain. I did not like this one so very much the first time I read it. It’s got something of the same “based on a misunderstanding” as the one above. But I liked it better on re-reading it a year or so again. I will re-read it again one of these days and see whether I might move it up. But it’s getting to the part where it’s hard to compete.

15.  In the Forests of Serre. I loved this one, especially some of the imagery.  I was not keen on Ronan, who ought, for heaven’s sake, to have seen that giving up his heart might possibly be a terrible idea.

14.  The Bell at Sealey Head. I loved this story. I did not realize, until someone pointed it out, that the important pov characters have almost no effect on the plot. So strange. McKillip got away with it, at least for me, because the story is so beautiful and the characters so appealing that I literally did not notice that. 

13. Od Magic. This is a quieter, more meandering sort of story with roughly a million pov characters, or at least it felt that way to me. Their stories connect only gradually and tenuously. I would not suggest that a reader new to McKillip start with this one.

12. Moonflash. I love this quiet, reflective story, in which the internal quest for identity is precisely echoed by the external journey. But I do not love the idea that the moonflash, of such central importance to the one culture, was in reality so trivial to the other.

We are now getting into the books I truly, truly love, so again, it gets hard to rank them. Let me see. Um. Fine:

11. The Sorceress and the Cygnet. A beautiful story with such a confusing ending. Incidentally, I read the beginning of this story over and over while writing the first part of The City in the Lake. This is the McKillip novel to which I turned when I was trying to figure out how to do compressed time, starting a chapter when Timou was a baby and ending when she was seventeen.

10. Fool’s Run. This is such a lovely novel. But . . . it is so sad. What happened to Terra Viridian is so tragic, and spilled over into so many subsidiary tragedies, and ultimately all of that happened for so little reason. 

9. Winter Rose. I love love love the way the story about the curse is different every time we come back to it, remembered differently by every character. 

8. Ombria in Shadow. The place is the protagonist. Ducon and Mag are fully developed characters; Lydea and Kyel are much less so; Domina Pearl is very one-dimensional, but she’s supposed to me. The heart of the story is the city. The ending, not unusually for McKillip, is puzzling.

7. Alphabet of Thorn. This book is a total masterpiece, except the ending is so quick and truncated.

6. The Cygnet and the Firebird. This story has my favorite dragon in all fantasy literature. But … it does not have my favorite ending. The story needed a third book, in which the relationship between Nyx and Brand could be brought to a resolution.

5. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. A lovely fairy tale. 

4. Song for the Basilisk. Pushed all my buttons in exactly the right way. Just absolutely loved it. Particularly Luna and her extraordinarily ambiguous relationship with her father. Incidentally, I notice it is only $4.99 on Kindle.

3. The Riddle-Master of Hed. A seminal work for me, I read this trilogy in my teens and it set my taste in fantasy forever. This is a more classic type of fantasy story — not so much a lovely gem of poetry disguised as fantasy, like so many of McKillip’s novels. 

2. The Changeling Sea. A perfect story. Flawless. Also, my copy has the incomparable Michael Whelan cover.

And for 1…. The Book of Atrix Wolfe. Also a perfect, flawless story. Plus with the single most perfect last line of any SFF novel ever.

It’s got the beautiful type of cover that characterizes McKillip’s books, but as far as I’m concerned, this ornate style can’t really compete with Whelan’s wistful girl above.

Okay, you may now tell me where I am completely off base! 

Which McKillip novel would you move dramatically up or down from where I placed it in my list?

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Aliens!

FBI mysteriously shuts down and evacuates observatory.


It starts with a newspaper report about suspicious activity at a space research facility—government agents and military vehicles. The local sheriff gets angry and confused. Then the TV news reports feature interviews with locals saying things like, “Nothing really happens here very much. And since nobody knows, it could be almost anything.”

All that has happened over the last week at the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, 130 miles southwest of Roswell—and the situation is still a mystery.

Oh ho! Roswell! The plot thickens!

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I think it had a blue cover

Over at Book Riot: How to find a book you’ve forgotten: tips from a librarian.

We’ve all been there, yes? I believe I once did something like this to my brother. “What was that one book with some unidentifiable characteristic?” He figured it out, somehow, as I recall.

It turns out that these days,, there are plenty of websites that might be able to help with this. Much more at the link. 

I will say, out of curiosity, I tried Big Book Search and Google to see if either would turn up a nonfiction book about animals I really liked as a child. I typed “Childrens book nonfiction animals green cover.” This did not yield any useful results, with all the results being picture books or books for very young children. 

If you happen to know a child who is really into animals, the book I had in mind is The Burgess Animal Book for Children.

Here is the copy I have downstairs:

For reasons that are not clear, the current cover, visible at Goodreads at the link provided, shows a … jaguar … on the cover. Since all of the animals discussed in the book are North American, I am somewhat bewildered by this. Perhaps the publisher of the newer edition is under the impression that children cannot tell the difference between a bobcat and a jaguar. I assure this publisher, whoever it is is, that they certainly can.

Incidentally, the picture above is from Abe Books. They will sell you this copy for $124. But it’s a first edition. Modern copies are very affordable.

But it’s a good thing I knew what the book was called, because “green cover” did not get me anywhere.

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I think I wouldn’t have bought a ticket

‘So shocked’: customer wins bookshop in raffle


The unusual prize was dreamed up by Paul Morris, who opened Bookends in Cardigan four years ago. The shop is profitable and would have made an estimated £30,000 in a sale, but Morris said he wanted to give someone else the chance to realise their dream of running a bookshop. Over the last three months, anyone who spent more than £20 was eligible to be entered into a raffle to win it.

Um.

I wonder if there’s a betting pool for whether the shop will still be profitable by this time next year?

I would absolutely hate to be dropped in the deep end as a brand! new! small business owner. Here’s a bookshop! Try not to go bankrupt! I would be very nervous if I had won this raffle. Which of course is why I wouldn’t have entered it.

“[Ceisjan] is a regular customer and I’m really pleased it was him [says the retiring owner].  He wants to run it. You can make a very good living from it – far too many bookshops have disappeared over the years.”

He wants to run it! Good for him. The new owner’s name is 
Ceisjan Van Heerden, by the way. He and a friend are apparently looking forward to taking a stab at running this bookshop. I hope they make it work!

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