Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Book Review of The Arasmith Certainty Principle by Russ Colson

A geology grad student with a spiritual bent and a mystic from the Pleistocene find a modern skeleton in ancient rock and must risk their friendship to save the world from an unexpected danger lurking within the laws of physics. 

Jen Hewitt, a quiet geology graduate student, doesn't actually believe in time travel. Were it possible, rocks from the age of dinosaurs should already be cluttered with artifacts from future time-tourists. Nevertheless, she proves with fellow geologist Jonathan Renner that a human skeleton encased in Pleistocene rock came from their own time. Their work, coupled with fundamental research by physicist Susan Arasmith, reveals an unexpected character to the universe that carries them from the safe world of science into a struggle with powers and possibilities they hadn't imagined. The three friends, along with Kar-Tur, a frightening mystic from the ancient past, learn that discovery is sometimes as much about faith as knowledge, and that friendship and love are often found where least expected.

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*We were given a copy of this book in exchange for our honest review*

As a huge fan of all things science fiction, I was super excited to read this book, and it did not disappoint! For me, this book had all the goodies a sci-fi fan would want. Right out of the gate I loved the premise of the book. A geologist finds a modern human skeleton in 40,000-year-old rock?! Sign me up!

Not only does this book have a superb premise, but the characters are fleshed out as well. I loved how the chapters jump from person to person, giving the reader insights into their lives and thoughts. 

This story moves quickly as well, which is always something I enjoy. I may not have understood all of the science terms or language, but Colson explains the experients and concepts in a way that an average Joe could understand and appreciate. 

Fans of sci-fi, speculative and just plain adventure will love this book. Time travel, government conspiracies, and romance are just the tip of the iceberg with this book. 

Russ Colson is a scientist, teacher, author, gardener, and grandfather living in northwest Minnesota, far enough from city lights to see the Milky Way and the Aurora Borealis. During the dark northern winters, he teaches planetary science, meteorology, and geology at Minnesota State University Moorhead. In summers, he writes, gardens, and collaborates with undergraduate students on research projects in experimental planetary geochemistry. In 2010, he was selected by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE as US Professor of the Year.

Before coming to Minnesota, he worked at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at Washington University in St. Louis where, among other things, he studied how a lunar colony might mine oxygen from the local rock. In addition to science fiction books and books on Earth Science and gardening, he has published a variety of technical papers, science fiction short stories, and essays on earth science education.

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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Just Like Magic: Why You Must Avoid the Magical Cure Trope

Whether it’s the misuse, the lack, or the excess of it, magic usually holds sway over our fantasy worlds. If you’re more a sci-fi person, you know that technology takes the place of magic here. With this, however, comes a problematic road: everything is an easy fix.
Many fantasy authors argue that magic must have a cost. While I don’t necessarily agree, I do think the relationship between magic and people must be carefully constructed. It needs laws, or limits, whether those are because the wielder must draw their own blood to cast a spell, or because they did not survive the Water of Life, like in Dune. 
Magic healing, for example, becomes even more complex when characters have disabilities--even ones caused by magic itself.
I don’t disagree at all with portraying magic that causes a character to become disabled, depending on the context. But battling through an entire book by a character's side should never be cheapened by a magical cure. 
Often the cure is rewarded for being Good or Brave or Selfless and Doing the Thing. Suddenly they’re no longer blind or their limb is restored, or the voices of anxiety and depression stop their incessant yammering.
But that’s not how things work.  At the end of the day, magic is as real a cure as a parent’s kiss on a scraped knees. It paints a dark picture that if we’re not Good, if we’re in fact Bad, or Fearful, or Confident, then we will remain or become disabled. Follow that thought through to the next step:
Disabled people are Bad, because surely if we were Good, we would have been cured by now.
That’s not very inspiring or helpful to anyone, now is it? Plus, it’s way more interesting to read and write a book where the easy route isn’t an option. Sure, fantasy and science fiction are supposed to push the boundaries of our understanding of society, but I’ve always felt they also serve as examples of how people can live and what they face, regardless of the source. 
Another issue with the magical cure trope is it perpetuates the idea that all disabled people want a cure. Many, do. But often, like in the case of Autism Speaks, seeking a cure is actually driven by abled people’s need to be free of the “effort” of accommodating disabled people. What’s so wonderful about fantasy and science fiction, though, is you can build entirely different reasons why your character doesn’t feel they need or want a cure. Cures are unnecessary with magical and advanced accessibility. Example: they don’t need to be magically able to walk without pain, because their hover chair can go anywhere on and off the electro-mag grid.
I’m in pain most days. Obviously, I wish I wasn’t, but I can’t change it. What I can change is how I navigate the world and how others interact with me in regards to my disability. Perhaps your character doesn’t want to be able to hear, they just want to communicate and connect with people more easily. Besides, if you’re going for wow factor: changing a society’s perception is a way bigger miracle than just changing one pesky human body!
All this to say: magical wounds and madness are fantastic ways to explore disability and metaphor in alternate realities. Just be sure you’re exploring all the nuances of life as a disabled person, and giving us real rewards to aim for. You’ll find our wants are like most people’s: peace, friendship, and food!
Are you near Denver, CO? I’m teaching a workshop at the Siren’s Conference this October titled Navigating New Waters: Understanding the Nuances of Creating Disabled and Mentally Ill Characters. Let me know if you’re in the area!

Tune in on the fourth Sunday of every month for more on disability in fantasy and sci-fi. Learn more.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

A Bowl of Peanuts: What to Write About

My dad just told me a story in which he, returned from a late-night gig, wanted to wind down with a snack before bed. He took a bowl of peanuts and a glass of wine to the recliner and started to watch TV, only to wake four hours later, the bowl of peanuts on his chest, the TV blaring. 

I laugh at this, because my dad loves portraying himself as a silly old coot and telling me the goofy things he forgets. My favorite was the story about thinking a guy forgot his bag on the bus and readying himself to leap off the bus and heroically restore it to its rightful owner, only to see it claimed by... a totally different guy. 

When my dad tells my these stories, I can see him playing out the action in my mind. I can summon a vision of him in his fluffy maroon bathrobe, an updated version of the original "Big Red" I was comforted by as a kid. His slippered feet are kicked up in the recliner, and a dumb old cowboy movie is playing on the TV. I can see him drifting to sleep while the bowl of peanuts is perched precariously in that little divet between his chest and belly, which he jokingly calls a built-in cupholder. I can craft the time passing in my head, shape it into a story where something changes when he wakes up, drawing a picture of his character as he realizes his folly and immediately begins to laugh at himself. 

I used to think that to write creative nonfiction or memoir, I had to tell my whole story each time. Or that I would have to deliver pieces of my childhood trauma or the problems of my family. I do write about those things, but usually for myself, not to be shared. Often, the things I write bear some truth of my life or reveal something about who I am. But no one thing I write is going to perfectly represent my entire identity. Throwing out that pressure has been helpful- it has freed me from the unfair expectation that everything I write must be significant in a grave way. 

But I still need things to write about. Especially if I am writing every day (which I actually live up to for about a month at a time). I draw from memory, things I notice about people, things I see on walks through my neighborhood. Things happen - ordinary things - and if I can draw a conclusion or make a connection to something else, this might be fruit for writing. 

One of the people who encouraged me to do this was Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, which remains one of my favorite books about writing. She emphasizes that in order to be a writer, you have to write. What should you write about? Anything you can write about. One of the exercises she suggests is: tell me everything you know about school lunches. So I'll try that now, in my notebook, and share whatever comes out as (Lamott's term) a "shitty first draft." 

I never bought school lunch in elementary school. Our school didn't have it except one Friday a month when there was HOT LUNCH, which was to delineate freshly prepared food rather than bags that had been sitting in lockers all day, but which to me always seemed literally piping HOT! LUNCH! 
Usually it was pizza. 
So we were all brown bag kids on all the other days, but when your parents forgot to pay for HOT! LUNCH! you were especially noticeable on that day. That was me. I was also especially noticeable for the amount of mustard I put on things. The Catholics were suspicious of mustard; it had too much flavor to be virgin-Mary approved. I was dark German (baked potatoes and brown mustard among my favorite foods) and they were almost all Irish with a few Italians thrown in for excitement. I don't know why this was so significant but at some point it dawned on me that this might be the reason I was so very different from all of them.  
You were also especially noticeable if your Dad made your lunch instead of your Mom. I thought at the time I was the only one in this situation, but now I think I should have looked for the signs. It was immediately detectable from the handwriting on the brown bag, which also told if you were an only child (no name written). Most kids with siblings had full names written out in Mom handwriting. I had my first initial in black sharpie. And if I'd had a particularly bad day with the Catholics the day before, a funky angular heart went with it. <3 Moms also write cute little notes on napkins. Dads did not. No Dad would cut crust off of bread, but Moms did it all the time.  
But I never would have stopped dumping three or four packets of deli mustard on my ham and cheese when HOT! LUNCH! was sandwiches. And I never asked my dad to write out my full name or put a note on my napkin. I liked that he knew what kind of sandwich I wanted and wrote N to show me my lunch was distinguishable from my sisters. I loved that he absorbed the habit of initials in black sharpie and signed everything from then on: <3, D. 

See? You can write about anything. I know, I know. Now it seems I've taken this problem and whipped it around to the opposite side. If I don't have to write about everything that's ever happened to me, but I also can write about anything at all that ever happens, what the heck do I write about? 

I face this problem every time I write, it seems, which right now (thankfully) is every day. What's interesting to me varies, so I might write about how there is so much pollen around Providence right now, which would probably lead me to compare it to the pollen in Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the most aggressive Spring ever. Sometimes I write about a topic just long enough to know I don't want to write about it. This just happened for me with an essay about yoga and learning. I might write about my houseplants, or a little kid's funny comment on the street, or about ice cream shops or block parties. 

If you've read this whole post, you probably think I need to write about my Dad. Maybe. I certainly want him to know how important he is to me (if you're reading this, Dad, ahoy!). But right now I'm more interested in investigating news stories about how trees around the White House are dying (I know of at least two). The thing is, once you open your eyes and start noticing, like writers do, there is no end to the things you can write about.

Your assignments this week are all inspired by Anne Lamott. (You really should read her book).  

1. Write about your school lunches. 

2. Choose a topic to examine through a 1-inch picture frame. How can you describe that moment, that memory, that sight? 

3. Practice remembering. Choose a holiday or birthday party from when you were a kid and write everything you can see, smell, and hear. 

A final word of advice: sometimes (maybe most of the time!) the value is in doing the writing, not in what comes out. Translating my memories and the view from my little frame of reference into words gives me hope that I'll keep finding things to write about for the rest of my life.