Category: Writing


UPrior to the invention of the telescope, five planets were known: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Earth, of course, is a planet also, but this was not recognized until the acceptance of the Copernican model of the Solar System. A seventh planet, however, is visible without a telescope: Uranus.

Hubble false-color infrared image of Uranus (Source)

Hubble false-color infrared image of Uranus (Source)

Uranus was not recognized as a planet until telescopes became available because it is so dim relative to the classical planets. In fact, at magnitude between 5 and 6 it is not visible to most people today, simply because artificial light has made truly dark skies hard to find.

The oddest thing about Uranus is that its pole is almost in the plane of the ecliptic. In fact, which is the North Pole depends on how north is defined. On earth, the sun, and every other planet, the right-had rule reigns. If the fingers of the right hand are wrapped around the equator with the finger pointing in the direction of rotation, the thumb points north. On that basis, the North Pole of Uranus is on the wrong side of the ecliptic. On the other hand if the astronomical definition is used, that the North Pole is the pole on the same side of the ecliptic as the Earth’s North Pole, the planet is rotating backward, with the sun rising in the west.

Like the gas giants, Uranus has rings, which being equatorial are nearly at right angles to the Ecliptic*. Its weather is not well understood, and its seasons must be extreme. After all, its Arctic and Antarctic circles are almost at its equator, while its tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are very close to its poles.

Wouldn’t working that weather into a science fiction story be fun?

(If the word Ecliptic is new to you, it is the plane of the earth’s orbit.)

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Map of the Misty Mountains, from the original English version of the book.

Map of the Misty Mountains, from the original English version of the book.

TT is for J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) He is best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and a number of short fiction books as well. But he was also a university professor and published a good many translations and scholarly articles. After his death his son Christopher published a good deal of the background information his father put together in the invention of Middle-Earth.

My own first introduction to his work was before his books were officially available in this country, when my uncle brought copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings back with him from England. I have lost track of how many times I have reread them.

I tweeted quotes from The Two Towers (and put them on my facebook pages) last week, and here are the contexts of those quotations. Note that all are from the books, and differ somewhat from the movies.

“I must cool myself and think, for it is easier to shout stop! than to do it. Treebeard has worked himself up about Sauruman, and feels he needs to cool off.

“I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side.” Treebeard talking to the hobbits, and explaining that no one else cares for the trees as he does.

“He has a mind of metal and wheels, and he does not care for growing things.” Treebeard’s description of Sauruman.

“If that happened I had rather not be on the other side.” Merry, thinking about an aroused Ent.

“We may help the other peoples before we pass away.” Treebeard, thinking that the Ents might accomplish something in their last march.

“Songs like trees bear fruit only in their own time: and sometimes they are withered untimely.” Treebeard, wishing that the songs about the Ents finding the Entwives could come true.

“I can’t stay with you. Not after what I did to you.” Bowling, Tourist Trap. Timi feels guilty over what Zhaim did by taking over his body, and refuses to accept that it wasn’t really his fault.

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SI used to teach basic astronomy, including the life cycle of stars. I ordered the Life and Death of Stars from the Great Courses as a refresher and to see what was new in the last 20 years.

The little "eggs" have baby stars in them. Photo Source

The little “eggs” have baby stars in them. Photo Source

A lot.

The Hubble space telescope has been in orbit for almost 25 years, and some of the information it was revealing was available back then. But newer space telescopes, and some on the ground, have yielded far more information. For one thing, the newer telescopes cover a far larger fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum than Hubble, which is essentially a visible-light scope. Newer instruments take pictures in wavelengths from radio waves to x-rays, giving a far better picture of the life cycle of stars than was available when I was teaching.

A planetary system forming. (The black center is a mask over the star.) Photo Source

A planetary system forming. (The black center is a mask over the star.) Photo Source

Some things have stayed the same. A star’s mass is still its DNA, controlling its life cycle, its color, its luminosity, and what elements it is able to produce. It is still true that nuclear fusion within stars, and the violent explosions that mark their deaths, produce virtually all of the elements except the hydrogen and helium we inherited from the big bang. But improvements in both observations and computer simulations have taught us far more than we knew when I was teaching.

The course is designed for non-scientists, and there were times I was bothered by the anthropomorphism applied to stars. But at the same time, I learned a lot. We knew that certain gaseous nebulae were cradles of star birth, but now we can peer into those nurseries with infrared and see individual infant stars. We know that stellar birth is often, perhaps most of the time, associated with the production of a family of planets. We are beginning to understand much more about the details of the stellar deaths that lead to planetary nebulae, and the more violent ones that produce supernovae and black holes.

If you are interested in the stars, and want to know more of what we have learned in the last fifteen years, this course is worth watching.

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R“April Showers bring May flowers?” Not in interior Alaska, where March and April are the driest months of the year with about a third of an inch of precipitation each, that being mostly snow! But April is also the month when most of the winter’s accumulation of snow melts, so we have no shortage of mud and puddles. At the moment, that means I need waders to get the mail.

Mine is the black box at the far end. We've had only .2" of precipitation this month, and that was snow.

Mine is the black box at the far end. We’ve had only .2″ of precipitation this month, and that was snow.

When you come right down to it, interior Alaska is pretty dry. Our annual mean precipitation, between 10 and 11 inches, is less than that of Tucson AZ. Furthermore, less than 7” of that is rain – a lot of our precipitation falls as snow. In fact I live in a semi-arid region with widespread bogs, thanks to permafrost. That low precipitation, even lower when the Bering Sea was dry land, is also the reason Interior Alaska was never glaciated.

The sun rose this morning at 5:53, and will set after 15 hours 55 minutes at 9:48 this evening. Civil twilight (legal to drive without lights, though I never do) will last until 10:51. But even with our long days, the snow is still on the ground where it has not been disturbed. The white ice roads are just beginning to collapse. That will probably change rapidly this week. Although the overnight temperatures are still expected to be around freezing or below, the daytime highs are forecast to be in the fifties. I think I’ll start visiting the greenhouses this week. (Since I also start radiation therapy and Herceptin this week, I hope I’m not being too optimistic.)

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It’s Sunday again, and time for Weekend Writing Warriors (click on the logo above) and Snippet Sunday (click on the logo below.)

Today I have another bit from Tourist Trap. Roi has finally managed to get his glider on the ground, and has time to think as he waits for the others to join him.

There were still patches of snow, too small to have been seen from the cliff, hiding in the shade of the thicker tufts of dead grass, and he packed several handfuls around the hot end of the upright.  Shutting off the air supply should help, too, he thought, and he replaced the cover on the power pack compartment.  He must have dropped the power pack.

He couldn’t think of anyone except possibly Zhaim who might have wanted him dead.  And whoever had sabotaged the glider would have touched it, left traces of his personality behind.  Reading objects wasn’t one of his strongest talents, but Derry had told him often enough that his weakness in that aspect of esper work was simple lack of application.  “You don’t like eavesdropping,” his uncle had told him, “and there’s a lot of eavesdropping in reading an object’s history.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a useless skill.”

Blurb for Tourist Trap: A vacation with his three best friends from slavery and a manhood challenge: Roi is given the graduation present he has dreamed of. Dogsledding, hang gliding, a chance to see Pleistocene animals transplanted to a Terraformed vacation world, horseback riding, sailing … all the sports he has returned to with his recovery from paralysis, and a few new ones to learn.

They’re prepared for danger from weather, wild animals and extreme sports. But none of them realize that Roi’s half brother Zhaim, determined to recover his old position as Lai’s heir, intends to kill them if he can—and he’s decided that the dangers of the trip will make a perfect cover for his schemes.

How long will it take them to realize that the “accidents” they keep running into are more than just accidents?

Tourist Trap, the second novel of the Jarnian Confederation, won first place in science fiction and fiction book of the year in the 2011 Reader Views contest.

Reviewers say:

“Fans of Sue Ann Bowling’s novel Homecoming will not be disappointed with its sequel. Tourist Trap returns the reader to the world of the Jarnian Confederation—to Roi, Lai, Marna, and all of their friends and relations. The author does a stellar job of bringing these characters to life, allowing the reader to not only see their actions but to understand the culture and politics that motivate them. (ForeWord Clarion review)

“Tourist Trap” is a great read for anyone that wants motivation and feeling to accompany the action in their sci-fi adventure. Alien beings and super powers are an integral part of Roi’s story but what makes this novel really shine is the heart. Nobody is good or evil just because that’s their assigned role. Just like in real life, everyone has their own motivations and desires, and Bowling does a great job of letting the reader see what it would be like to walk in the shoes of Roi, Xazhar, and even madman Zhaim. (ReaderViews review)

Tourist Trap (iUniverse, 2011) is available from: Barnes and Noble, iUniverse, and Amazon in dust jacket, trade paper, and e-book formats.

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QQ is for quotations, and that is what two of the regular blog hops I belong to are all about: quotations from one’s own work, published or not. Today’s quotation is a continuation of last week’s, also on Science Fiction Romance Brigade Presents, and is from my work in progress tentatively titled Both Sides Now. Click on the logo above for information on the blog hop and links to other authors.

Kevi turned his head from side to side, trying to locate the source of the pain, but it was somewhere beyond the walls of hay. He stretched cautiously, testing his body’s responses. No real pain. His back was straight, which was a blessed relief, and while his hands and feet were distorted and tender, they seemed to be there and whole.

He struggled to a sitting position, in the process discovering that he was wearing a kind of long loose shirt, and then swung his feet to the floor. He had to suppress a gasp as he tried to put weight on them—the wounds had closed, but some of the broken bones had healed crooked. A quick inspection of his hands confirmed that they were in even worse shape.

Under normal circumstances, that would be no problem. He was a Healer, and part of his talent lay in his ability to realign and force knitting of even small fragments of bone. But Healing required both esper and empathic abilities, and Zhaim’s first move had been a massive overdose of hiControl. That didn’t affect empathic abilities or shielding, but his esper talents would be non-existent until he could get the antidote—and that was unlikely to be available on Horizon.

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Year 10 Day 10

P

The denser ice, to the north and west of where I first encountered it, is indeed almost continuous, with only narrow (and often fast-closing) lanes of open water. It even looks like snow-covered land, with rough ridges as well as flat plains of ice. There are animals living on top of the ice, too, though most of those I have seen until today were obviously at least in part aquatic, with streamlined bodies, flippers rather than legs, and only a hint of land adaptations. I suspect they live on fish, which in turn live under the ice.

I’ve glimpsed others though. White foxes, for instance, though with the white on white color I’ve not been sure of them. Then today ….

Remember the animals I called bears, on land? Today I saw a white one, slightly more streamlined than the massive brown beasts I saw on land, but with the same powerful jaws and teeth and if possible even larger. And they are swimmers; I saw one swim across one of the lanes of open water, drying itself afterwards by rolling in the snow on the other side. From what I saw they hunt the seals I saw earlier, though the hunt I saw was not very successful. Still, this is not a predator I would want to face in its own environment!

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Letter O: OLLI

OThe Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, “A Health Club for Your Mind,” has been in Fairbanks almost since the turn of the century. Originally Adventures in Lifelong Learning and then Alaska Lifelong Learning, the name was changed to Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in 2006, after the Osher foundation provided funding. The program is currently part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Sessions, open to students 50 years and older.

Members celebrated OLLI’s 10th Anniversary in 2010. There are now 800 members in OLLI.

All instructors are volunteers, and many are current or former UAF faculty members. Most are delighted by the eagerness and willingness to ask questions that characterize OLLI students. I know I was, when I taught a class in basic genetics! As a general rule there are four sets of 4-week classes a year, in March, April, October and November. This spring I’m taking seven: iMovie and iDVD, Beringia, and Ancient Sumer in March; Alaska’s 1964 Earthquake, Climate Variability and Change, iPhone and iPad, and Alaska Weather in April.

As you can see I tend to go for the science and computer classes, but those are far from the only ones taught. There are classes in art and handiwork, computer applications, exercise and recreation, films and photography, healthy living, history and politics, literature languages and philosophy, science and mathematics, and social studies. In addition there are field trips and special interest groups.

There are OLLI programs across the country. All are university affiliated and received funding from the Osher Foundation, but they are run independently. Is there one where you live?

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Magestone coverNN is for Andre Norton (1912-2005) who was one of the first science fiction authors I discovered (in grade school.) She was the first woman to be Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy, first to be SFWA Grand Master, and first inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. She heavily influenced my own writing. N is also for Nik, a character in Homecoming and Tourist Trap.

“By surviving severe danger together, we have learned to cooperate.” Andre Norton, The Magestone. Merith of the Dales (who have been at war with Alizon) in her farewell to Kasarion.

“May the Light strengthen our resolve, and ward us against the Dark.” Andre Norton, The Magestone. Continuation of Merith’s farewell to Kasarion.

Warding cover“Apply your strength to some task that can be accomplished.” Andre Norton, The Magestone. Part of Merith’s thought of what Doubt, her long-dead fiancé, would have said. The whole quote is: “When you have more questions than you have answers, and when most of the questions demand time to be resolved, there is no use in wasting energy by fretting. Apply your strength to some task that can be accomplished, and let time furnish the facts you need to deal with the excess questions.”

“Patience was one of the female’s weapon-shields.” Andre Norton, The Warding of Witch World. Liara’s thought. She lives in the extreme paternalistic and warrior society of Alizon.

“Trust is something which can never be sworn to.” Andre Norton, The Warding of Witch World. Singala’s advice to Liara.

“With a common goal even enemies swear battle-oaths.” Andre Norton, The Warding of Witch World. Merith is telling Liara what her brother Kasarion has already learned.

“There are decisions you can legitimately make for him, but this is not one of them.” Sue Ann Bowling, Tourist Trap. Roi’s father Lai is trying to make a medical choice for him, and Nik, the physician and Lai’s half-brother, intervenes.

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MMansfield Park, the novel by Jane Austin, will be 200 years old on May 9. In celebration, I am reviewing as many spinoffs and DVDs as I can find, and today I am reviewing the second DVD,  based on a screenplay by Patricia Rozema, who also directed the shooting.

Fanny is not the Fanny written by Jane Austen. The basic plot elements are the same, and the three interlocking love triangles are still there: Fanny-Edmond-Crawford, Edmond-Mary-Fanny and Maria-Rushworth-Crawford. But Fanny becomes a combination of the Fanny of the original Mansfield Park and Jane Austin herself. She is a storyteller and writer, and many of the lines she is given were actually written by Jane Austen, in the juvenalia as well as the novels.

Ms. Rozema’s research into Jane Austen also turned up the fact that she greatly admired abolitionist writings. The original Mansfield Park has several veiled references to slavery, which was the ultimate source of the wealth Sir Thomas derived from his estates on Antigua. Ms. Rozema has brought the problem of slavery to the foreground of her adaptation, and made it the source of all the problems Sir Thomas has with his children.

As an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (which I like as it is) this did not work for me. As an independent movie looking at the interrelationship between the horrors of slavery (some of which are portrayed in Tom’s sketchbook) and the wealth of the landed gentry of England, it is excellent. But it is not Mansfield Park.

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