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Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Cool Things About Japan: Space Kites!

In Japan, Real Space on May 31, 2010 at 4:50 am

Solar Sail

I’m also filing this one under “Real Space” because this kite is really out there.

Ordinary Earthbound kites use air currents and wind to stay aloft. There’s no air in space, but there is a kind of wind–solar wind, caused by a steady stream of charged particles shooting out of the Sun. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, has just launched a craft that uses the solar wind to accelerate. They call it a solar-sailed “space yacht” but it sure looks like a space kite to me.

The kite is 66 feet (diagonally) across and only the width of a human hair. In addition to being a sail, it also uses thin-film solar cells to generate the electricity needed for ion-gas propulsion. It’s a hybrid vehicle! This system is supposed to allow the kite to reach the edge of the Solar System in about 5 years, compared to traditional rocket-propelled craft like Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, which took about 25 years to make the same trip.

This first test kite is named Ikaros after the mythological boy who flew too close to the Sun and got burned up, presumably because solar sails constantly accelerate away from the Sun out of fear for their lives. Then again, if sailboats can tack into the wind, can the same be done to navigate solar sails inward from the outer edge of the Solar System back to Earth? Like, say, if a ship of squidlike aliens needed to find their way to Earth from the orbit of Saturn? Hmm…


The Living Words

In Science! on May 28, 2010 at 11:32 am

I love it when science and fiction collide in new and unexpected ways. The winner this week is the team of genetic engineers who included the immortal words of James Joyce as a “biological watermark” into the genome of the world’s first synthetic organism:

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.”

As science writer Carl Zimmer notes, the genes that comprise these words in the synthocritter’s DNA are now subject to the same process of spontaneous mutation that drives evolution in all other living things. Since the quote was written in a part of the genome that has no practical effect on synthocritter’s life functions, mutations will collect over time until the words are no longer legible.

But wouldn’t it be great, instead, if changes could be selected for on the basis of reader response? If synthocritter offspring with nonsense changes died off, and if the remaining synthocritters became more viable as their quotes randomly changed to become more exciting, memorable, or emotionally resonant, we might evolve a line of synthocritter novels in just a few hundred million generations!

Philosophers like to imagine what might happen if you forced millions of monkeys to type nonstop at millions of typewriters, but practical matters of cost and cruelty have prevented them from putting their plans into action. A million synthocritters, however, would probably fit in a petri dish.

Just saying.

The Galaxy is in Their Hands

In Galaxy Games on May 27, 2010 at 6:58 am

Today Galaxy Games (or whatever it will eventually be called) goes to the acquisitions committee in advance of their meeting next week. For me, it’s another round of pins and needles. Unexpected things tend to happen when a committee gets involved. Not that committees are inherently bad–they’re actually a great way to apply multiple viewpoints to an issue or to solve a problem–but you can never know in advance what will come out of the process of discussion and debate. It’s going to be another nervous week and I won’t be dancing in the streets until I have an actual contract in my hand.

Books don’t get to this stage without an editor solidly behind them, vouching for their artistic merit and market potential, so that’s something and grateful for and count myself lucky to have. But the committee is making a business decision based on the needs of the company as a whole, which I imagine will include its ongoing social mission, corporate identity, and strategic plans for the future. It’s an exciting time for this particular publisher. They’re launching a new imprint and expanding into new markets, and I like to think that my book is just what they need, but of course I’m biased.

I don’t want to jinx anything so I’ll hold back the publisher’s name until the decision is made.

Huzzah to Kate Messner!

In Huzzah to... on May 26, 2010 at 5:34 am

Huzzah to fellow New Englander Kate Messner for winning the E.B. White Read Aloud Award for THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z at this year’s BookExpo America, providing yet another reason for those of us not attending to wish we’d been there. (From what I hear there was also a pretty awesome Steampunk Salon.)

Kate gave a great workshop at this month’s New England SCBWI conference for authors/illutrators  who want to conduct school or library visits via Skype. So if there’s also a “Read Online” book award, she’s got that one sewn up too.  Way to go, Kate!

Cool Things About Japan: Violinist Robots!

In Japan on May 23, 2010 at 10:02 pm

"Play Freebird!"

In the United States we have practical, puck-shaped, boring robots that vacuum floors. Well, not me personally, but some people have them. Meanwhile, in Japan, cute humanoid robots are tap-dancing and playing the violin. Now that’s the one I’d buy!

When it comes to creating violinist robots, isn’t just a matter of tech-savvy but also cultural willpower. You have to really want a violinist robot, and that’s where Japanese robot makers shine. They want to make cool stuff, and so they just do it.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the role of robots in the story world of Galaxy Games. If it becomes a series, maybe I’ll have the chance to show one playing the violin.

Myserious “Project G” Finally Revealed!

In Galaxy Games on May 21, 2010 at 10:55 am

For the past few years I’ve been working on a manuscript I’ve only ever mentioned by the cryptic code name, Project G.

My previous blog readers quickly determined that Project G had to be some kind of book–a wondrous magical book that “they” didn’t want anyone to read, which was the only possible explanation for why “they” kept returning the unpublished manuscript with letters like this one:

Snoopy gets a harsh rejection.

Ouch! That's harsh.

That was the trend until earlier this year, when a talented editor saw something in Project G that her colleagues had missed. “Hey, this is good stuff,” she observed. After a bit of revision and a light vacuuming, Project G is headed for an acquisitions committee!

Today I’m finally prepared to reveal the mysterious true identity of Project G. It is the first book of a middle-grade sports and science fiction series called “Galaxy Games.” The series, if it becomes a series, will follow a team of Earth children through a sports tournament against alien children from planets across the galaxy, all competing for the galaxy’s ultimate prize.

The book is full of humor and is a whole lot of fun. The hard part has been biting my tongue to keep myself from blogging all the details and ruining everyone’s surprise at the events in the first book.

Sorry for Being So Bad at This

In Metablogging on May 17, 2010 at 10:00 am

I’ve been blogging since 2001, which is a very long time to keep doing something I’m not good at. Before we get to far into this reboot, I need to apologize in advance for the following deficiencies:

1. Timing, or my spectacular lack thereof. When exciting things happen, I’ll probably have no time or energy to blog about them. When I am idle enough to pop out an entry, it’ll almost certainly mean there’s nothing much to say. If I try to save up my exciting news items for a rainy day, they will very quickly become stale. I see no solution to this problem.

2. My skill-set doesn’t support journalling. Fiction writing takes planning, thoughtful deliberation, and a willingness to revise. Blog writing requires the ability to pump out a workable first draft and then just leave it alone. Some very lucky people have both sets of skills, but not me. I take way too long to draft each blog entry, and then my typing fingers immediately get all twitchy with the urge to revise, revise, revise.

3. Naval-gazing. When it comes to blogging, I don’t have a very good sense of audience. I tend to write for myself, using introspection to develop half-formed thoughts that might not mean anything to other people. And look what I’m doing right this second–I’m blogging about blogging. That’s metablogging, the dullest kind of blogging ever invented! I know that nobody else will ever want to read this, and yet I can’t force myself to stop.

4. Sporadic updates. Blogging isn’t a priority in my life and never will be. With the best of intentions I will create a schedule for regular updates knowing that it will never stick. When something needs to be cut from my day it won’t be family, friends, writing, other work, household chores, or my favorite TV shows–it’ll be the blog every time. I’m letting you know in advance that there will probably be long gaps without an entry.

I’m giving this blog thing another try because exciting things will be happening in my life and blogging is more practical than standing on a rooftop with a megaphone. If all goes well, I will have at least one book from at least one publisher under contract within the next month. And I’m up for another round of co-directorship of the annual New England SCBWI conference around this time next year.

There will be news, I will share it, and it would be nice if you could stick around and forgive my deficiencies as a blogger. Thanks.