Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


A sonnet a day

Just saw this on tor.com:

Allow Sir Patrick Stewart to Read a Shakespearean Sonnet to You Every Day

For the past month and a half, Sir Patrick Stewart has been reading one sonnet by Shakespeare per day and uploading the videos to his social media under #ASonnetADay.

Stewart is reading them all in order, and currently he’s up to Sonnet 51 of the 154 first published in 1609—so we’ve got plenty more to look forward to.

Here’s the YouTube link if the idea appeals to you!

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Taking UFOs seriously

Here’s an interesting post at Vox: It’s time to take UFOs seriously. Seriously.

I have my doubts, I must say. But sure, let’s see what kind of case this article actually makes . . .

The Pentagon recently released three videos of UFOs recorded by the Navy — one taken in 2004 and the other two in 2015. The videos, which first leaked a couple of years ago, show … well, it’s not exactly clear.

There are various objects — two of which look like aircraft — spinning through the sky and moving in ways that defy easy explanation. As the images bop across the screen, you can hear the pilots’ excitement and confusion in real time as they track whatever it is they’re seeing.

I’m not what you would call a UFO enthusiast, but the videos are the most compelling I’ve ever seen. They seem to confirm, at the very least, that UFOs are real — not that aliens exist, but that there are unidentified objects buzzing around the sky.

The most compelling out of how many videos? Does this author spend a lot of time seeking out and watching UFO videos?

I will add that fake videos of all kinds offer compelling visual evidence of whatever. Did you see this one where the golden eagle snatches up a toddler?

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

But sure, a couple of those naval videos are embedded at the linked article, so let me take a look . . . well, I’m not a pilot or whatever and they just look like shapes to me. You can click through and see what you think of the images and the pilots’ voice-over.

So, the rest of the Vox article is an interview with a guy who is kind of a UFO enthusiast. Click through and read it if you’re interested. It’s mildly interesting to me. The article offers a couple of ideas about why aliens might be present but not making themselves known. I bet there are literally a hundred reasons offered in SF novels. Plus, if challenged, I bet SF readers and writers could come up with ten times that number (some might be variations on a theme).

I bet no one would suggest Andrea K Host’s answer from Starfighter Invitation. Maybe some version of the one in And All the Stars.

Meanwhile, though, I thought this other article offered a fun way to extend this topic. This is an article from last year, where apparently Britain had a poll on what people should do if contacted by aliens.

If aliens call, do not hold a referendum on what to do next, say Britons

In the event that aliens ever contact Earth, the British public is clear on one thing: do not hold a referendum to decide what to do next.

The option to hold a planetary vote on how to respond to inquiring extraterrestrials ranked bottom in a poll of 2,000 Britons asked how humanity’s reaction should be determined.

In a survey commissioned by researchers at Oxford University and conducted by Survation, only 11% of respondents thought such a referendum was a good way to agree on Earth’s cosmic communications. No other option scored lower.

The most popular vote was “Leave the decision to scientists.”

Well, I sure don’t agree with that. Wow, no. Actually I would feel much more confident taking not a planetary vote and not a vote of scientists — however defined for this purpose — but of science fiction readers and writers; plus historians. Those are the two groups I’d ask for opinions and options. Oh! And ethologists. That’s a bit egocentric of me, but it’s honestly very difficult for people to believe that creatures can truly have different instincts than humans. SF readers and writers help there, but so do people who are broadly aware of animal behavior.

Anyway, a couple interesting articles to start the week!

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Livingon inhospitable worlds

Here’s a column by James Davis Nicholl at tor.com: Five Truly Inhospitable Fictional Planets

Nicholl offers a look at five worlds that can’t be easily terraformed and are lethal outside atmospheric domes. Let’s see which worlds he picks out of the pile . . .

Cyteen. Yep, good choice. Remember that the first Ari would have died because she once took a breath of unfiltered air? Of course someone killed her first so that didn’t turn out to limit her lifespan, but still, wow.

I have to say, she was not really a loss. Ari 2.0 was a LOT nicer.

Komarr. Yep again. Remember how Miles wound up handcuffed to that railing, watching someone else die because he hadn’t checked the air supply of his breather. Not nice. Personally, I’d rather live on Sergyar — at least once they got the worm plague under control.

Courtship Rite. Wow, it has been a long time since I read this. Yes, it does offer a terrible planet. No need for a dome, it’s the nutrients that are the problem, not the air. Grim social development. I only ever read it once, even though I admired it a good deal when I read it the first time.

Then a couple I haven’t read, click through to see if you have.

Here’s one Nicholl missed: Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. Fantasy world that … wait, is this fantasy? No, look, it’s SF! With . . . are those dragons? Maaaaaybe not exactly.

The native biosphere is a real problem on this world, which is being slowly terraformed, although no one knows it except the reader. This isn’t clear to the reader either for a long time, though surely everyone figures it out when they meet the nomadic people with the goats.

The question on my mind when I think of this amazing wonderful stunning series is: should I re-read it now or wait a little bit longer and see if the fifth and sixth books actually do come out eventually? So far, still waiting. But this is my favorite truly inhospitable world, though it’s partly terraformed by the time we see it.

Who’s got another pick for a great book set on a terrible world?

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Livestock in secondary world fantasy

A post at Book View Cafe, by Marie Brennan: New World: Livestock

The post begins:

Whether it’s chickens and sheep, fantasy animals, or alien creatures from another planet, characters in a novel are likely to depend on some kind of species for food — if not their meat, then their milk or eggs, or other secondary products like hide, wool, horns, and so forth. Which means it might be useful to take a moment to consider what makes an animal suitable for domestication, and how we’ve tended to relate to them.

To begin with, I should note that domestication is not the same thing as taming. A tame animal has been socialized to accept human contact and control, but you have to go through the socialization process all over again with that animal’s offspring. Domestication is the process of permanently changing a population of animals over a long period of time, selectively breeding them to have more of the qualities humans like, and fewer of the ones we don’t.

I get questions on Quora every day that go something like this: Couldn’t we domesticate tigers the way we did cats? If I got a wolf cub and raised it right, wouldn’t it be domesticated like a dog? Why were moose never domesticated?

I hadn’t realized before I started with Quora how many people apparently find this a really interesting topic.

So I’m happy to see Marie Brennan start off by explaining that domesticated is not the same thing as tame. I will just add that according to Google, over 60,000 people per year go to emergency rooms because of cat bites. I often mention this when suggesting that domesticated is also not the same thing as harmless. You’d think people would know this, but I guess lots of people think it would be fine to walk into a pasture and pat a bull.

Marie Brennan basically sums up this subject pretty well in a short post, including factors that are less often considered, as here:

 You also need your livestock to be relatively placid . . . because if they aren’t, then they’ll either bolt when something freaks them out, or bash themselves to death against their enclosures. Deer panic; reindeer don’t. Now see which one we’ve domesticated.

Finally, it helps if the wild species is gregarious and hierarchical. The former allows you to keep them in herds, and the latter helps you control them: either by controlling their leader, or by getting them to recognize you as their leader.

This is all true, but I will add, hierarchies are not all the same. African painted dogs are hierarchical, but not in the same way as wolves; they are less aggressive toward each other and use many fewer intimidation behaviors. Unlike wolves, sisters tend to stay together for life and so do brothers; new packs form when a group of sisters meets a group of brothers and they all decide they get along. This lets African painted dogs form much larger packs than wolves — wolf packs are hardly larger than a nuclear family with maybe a few older sibs hanging around, but African painted dogs routinely form much bigger packs than that, or used to. Packs of forty or more were not unusual before they became so endangered.

Some of that would be really neat to use in designing an alien species, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, the patchy coloration of these animals may exist as a unique form of camouflage — it helps the individuals blend into their own pack, enhancing social bonding. If one puppy runs ahead of his littermates to get fed, he’ll be snapped at and driven back into the group and then the whole litter fed at once.

It’s hard to work with African painted dogs partly because they are extremely shy, typical of wild canids; but also because our feelings about what ought to work with a dog or even a wolf get in the way. Generally people who work with them agree they can’t be domesticated. I expect they probably could be, because I imagine there’s variance for tameness vs terror, which is probably the only important thing to select for at first. But they would be difficult to work with. There’s no suggestion that any African painted dogs ever hung around the edges of human encampments, self-selecting for lack of fear, which is probably what happened with wolves. African painted dogs are near the bottom of the predator hierarchy in Africa; most likely their relationship with early humans was hostile, as early humans most likely joined lions and hyenas as tougher competitors who stole African painted dog kills.

This is one of my very favorite species. Very endangered, unfortunately. It’s too bad people don’t paint pictures of African painted dogs in noble poses at the top of a cliff gazing out into the distance. That might help.

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Interview with Martha Wells

Tor.com’s got an interview with Martha Wells up today, if anybody is interested. Let me see, what questions are especially appealing to me … how about this one:

Which characters from your different series would you most like to have meet each other?

Offhand, I think Kade Carrion from The Element of Fire and Nicholas Valiarde from The Death of the Necromancer could do some awesome damage together.

Ha ha ha, yes, I sure bet they could.

If you had to spend a day with a character from a series you wrote, and in their world, who would you choose?

I think Ratthi [from The Murderbot Diaries] might be the most fun to hang out with.

Also the least stressful. Ratthi is just a nice guy. Plus if you’re with Ratthi, it’s highly likely that if corporate goons try to kidnap you or whatever, Murderbot will get you out of trouble as a side effect of rescuing Ratthi.

Click over to read the whole thing.

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Set the scene or dive in?

A Q & A at Janet Reid’s blog.

Here’s part of the question:

One school of thought says this: Ground the reader in your protagonist’s ordinary world. Then, get your reader to care about your protagonist. Because if they don’t care about your protagonist, then they won’t care when some inciting incident occurs to upset their ordinary world. After your reader is grounded in the ordinary world, they’ve met and liked your protagonist … THEN the inciting incident occurs that obliterates the ordinary world and your protagonist is given a challenge that they will either accept or refuse.

A second school of thought says: Open with action. Pull the reader in immediately. Why wait until Page 3 to deliver an inciting incident when you can do it in the first page, first paragraph, first sentence? Hit them over the head from the first word and don’t let up until they can’t put the book down anymore because they’re invested in your character.

That is a well-written question. I mean, I think both positions are well-expressed. Janet Reid’s answer to this question is the same as mine would be: it depends, do something that works.

She doesn’t add something I think is true: that when you’re looking at workshop entries, they often fail because they’re trying too hard to go with School Number 2. This is just a side note, though. What I want to mention is that the three novel beginnings Janet uses to illustrate her point — that it depends and you should do something that works — are great examples. I haven’t read any of these books, which are, let me see —

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane, which starts with pure background.

Black Mountain by Laird Barron, which starts with the protagonist.

The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett, in which we see nothing of the background or the character, but nevertheless the words on the page hold our interest.

Of the three, the one that appeals to me most is the one by Barron. I backed up to the first book (Black Mountain is the second) and picked up a sample to look at when I am in the mood for a thriller. The one that appeals to me least (by a mile) is the one by Follett, because, well, here is the first bit:

The last camel collapsed at noon.

It was the five-year-old white bull he had bought in Gialo, the youngest and strongest of the three beasts, and the least ill-tempered: he liked the animal as much as a man could like a camel, which is to say that he hated it only a little.

The protagonist then kicks and stabs the camel to try to make it get up, and poof, just like that, I’m done. Thanks for inserting this scene right up front so I know I will hate this book and don’t have to read any further; that’s a real time saver.

Anyway, it IS a good beginning in the sense of effective and evocative and making (some other) readers want to turn the pages.

As you know, I just read Network Effect and that was great, but it’s not a good choice if you want to talk about beginnings because (a) series book, and (b) imo the parenthetical notes are in fact a little overdone in the beginning of this one.

However, I did just start another novel and I thought it was a great example of a quiet but compelling beginning. I’ll post about that later.

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Recent Reading: A Posse of Princesses by Sherwood Smith

This was a fun story, hovering right between MG and YA, I think.

Rhis is sixteen, romantic, a princess of the tiny kingdom of Nym.

Nothing ever happens in Nym, until she receives an invitation to a celebration for Prince Lios of Vesarja, the largest kingdom around. Lios is as handsome as Rhis hoped, and she falls instantly in love, just like in her favorite songs. But life isn’t like the songs — none of her friends are happy, and then there is the Perfect Princess, Iardith, who keeps occupying Lios’s time.

Rhis does her best to fix things for her friends, as she pursues her romantic ideal . . . and then the Perfect Princess is abducted. Of course Rhis must go to the rescue . . . the princes right behind.

A charming story. Sweet and fast-paced, with low stakes and tension. Believable teenage characters.

Things I liked:

–Rhis falls out of love with Lios promptly, as soon as she has a conversation with him. She thinks he’s nice, but that’s all. Angst-quotient: very low.

–Rhis of course falls in love with someone else, and that’s well-handed, with a huge emotional blowup that actually worked for me. I thought she got over it fairly fast, but that wasn’t completely unbelievable. Angst-quotient, actually still lowish, despite the huge blowup scene.

One thing that worked really well here is that Rhis has the Big Reveal and then is instantly plunged into urgent adventure as the plot suddenly snaps from house party to rescue mission.

–I enjoyed the heartless flirt character. She has her huge emotional blowup when accused of being a heartless flirt, and the funny part is, she really is a terrible flirt, though not actually heartless.

–I liked the other secondary characters as well. They are very simple, each one with a single defining characteristic, but that suits the story, which is also simple.

–I liked the details about the journey and learning to pitch in and help with the camp chores and so on. I like journey scenes, generally, if they’re at all well done, which this was.

Things that were just so-so:

–At sixteen, I know Rhis is a bit naive, but it was kind of hard to believe she would reveal her name at that one moment. Also, the singing diamond was a little contrived in a bunch of ways. Also, the get-out-of-jail-free card was more than a little contrived. Sure served to reduce tension, though, so if you’re looking for a low-tension read, here you go.

–Iardith is incredibly one-dimensional and too unlikable for me. I thought dialing that back would have worked better. A girl can be unlikable without being THIS nasty.

–To be honest, I thought the Message quotient was a little high. You Shouldn’t Judge People By Their Rank, but By Who They Are As People. Thank you, good advice. Of course for a MG/YA reader, that might not have felt as much like a bludgeon.

Things I LOVED:

I very much enjoyed how the parents step in and force the children to settle down and wait five years before they get married. That was soooo sensible, way better than the teenagers toppling into marriage on the strength of their adventure.

Sherwood Smith does a great job showing the young people mature through their letters, and the last chapter, where we see them as young adults, functions beautifully to tie up the story.

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First angry, then afraid, then dead. Is that the right order?

Wow, you seriously don’t want to be a condescending vicious sadist AND THEN mess with Murderbot.

On the other hand, if you happen to be having trouble with condescending vicious sadists, you know who you totally want on your side? Uh huh. Especially if they have already screwed around with Murderbot’s friends.

I just met the bad guys. Wow. They did not have the slightest idea what Murderbot was. At least one of them does now.

I now have a pretty clear guess about the broad outline of the story.

Loving this so far.

Update: Yep, great novel. Particularly pleased with SecUnit 3.

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Best SF adaptations

From BookBub: The Best Science Fiction Adaptations Ever, According to Our Readers

So, a popularity contest. I do not watch many movies . . . I just don’t ever seem to get to it . . . and I don’t go out of my way to watch adaptations. Nearly always, I prefer the book. The only real exception I can think of is The Hunt for Red October, where the movie is dramatically better than the book because:

a) Sean Connery

b) pacing is more taut in the movie

c) Sean Connery

d) Tom Clancy overwrites in terms of detail and isn’t that great at description and if you take all that away and just have images plus dialogue, you get a better product.

e) Also, Sean Connery

Of course, The Hunt for Red October isn’t an SF story. I know which SF adaptation I’ve liked best in the past decade or so. As I said, I’m choosing from a small subset of SF movies made. But I really liked The Martian as a movie — I thought it was ALMOST as good as the book.

Let’s see what BookBub picks out …

  1. The Martian. Yep. I am just another sheep following this herd
  2. Arrival by Ted Chiang. Oh, was there an adaptation? I didn’t know that. Chiang is a very skilled writer; if the adaptation stayed close to his original story, I bet it was indeed very good.
  3. Ender’s Game. Now come on. That was a terrible adaptation. It lost almost everything good about the book.
  4. Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey. Somebody did an adaptation, really? How ambitious of someone. Oh, this is The Expanse! I’ve at least heard of that tv show. I didn’t realize it was drawn from this novel. If any of you have watched The Expanse, how is it?
  5. Jurassic Park. Sure, okay, the movie was good. I mean, great special effects. All the stupidly unbelievable science is probably just as stupidly unbelievable in both the book and the movie.

Several others at the link. The other one I’ve watched and thought was really quite excellent was Guardians of the Galaxy. I didn’t realize it was based on a comic book.

I’m a bit surprised not to see Galaxy Quest here. Personally I think I’d count it as an adaptation of Star Trek and put it right up at the top.

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