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katerauner

Inspired by Science

I blog on katerauner.wordpress.com/ about the science that inspires my novels and poems. I read a lot of non-fiction, too.

It's Undeniable - Biology is Fascinating

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation  - Corey Powell, Bill Nye

Bill Nye recently participated in a controversial debate with young-Earth creationist Ken Ham. In his new book, Undeniable, Nye writes "For those readers who might be deeply religious, welcome... I did not disparage anyone's religion." He notes that "many people... see no conflict between their spiritual beliefs and their scientific understanding of evolution." This fact always makes me wonder how individuals can be so sure they speak for God. When someone makes an assertion in science, scrutiny across the world and over time weeds out falsehoods. Similarly, in religions wisdom accumulates over time. Why some individuals cling to the past puzzles me.
Nye writes that "evolution is one of the most powerful and important ideas ever developed in the history of science," with "essential practical applications." He fears that if the "pseudoscience of creationism" makes inroads into education, it "is an assault not just on evolution but on the whole public understanding of science."
Nye refutes creationism. For example, Ham claims that 7,000 kinds of animals were on Noah's ark - there are 16 million species known today, so eleven new species would have come into existence every day under Ham's vision of the Great Flood to reach today's total. Surely someone would have noticed if that happened. Kangaroos would have had to climb down from snowcapped Mount Ararat and hop to Australia without leaving any sign they passed through. No recorded sightings, no bones in Tibet, and across a land bridge that left no trace of its existence. There's loads of information available about the debate on the internet.
But most of the book goes beyond the debate with Ham. Nye begins with the major concepts of biology such as the age of the Earth, biodiversity, fossils, and mass extinctions; as well as history- the contributions of Darwin, Wallace, Lamarck, Linnaeus, Eldridge, Gould, and others.
He addresses topics in the news, such as vaccine safety, genetically modified organisms, human cloning, racism, extraterrestrial life, and research into the origin of life on Earth. If you're already grounded in biology, you might skip to these chapters.
Nye even tackles an evolutionary topic that leaves some people squeamish - the "short evolutionary distance" between us, apes, and other hominids. We can't say "that humans are no longer evolving, because we surely are." "Cue the spooky music."
Nye is known for his TV series, Bill Nye the Science Guy, which "aimed to teach a specific topic in science [in each episode] to a preteen audience, yet it garnered a wide adult audience as well."
In this same vein, the book avoids jargon and uses a conversational tone ("you and I ain't such a big deal," "I thought about how cool it would be," "he was in a bad mood in Tacoma") and personal references ("when I was a senior in college," "while my family was seated together eating a chicken dinner," and dressing up in a gorilla suit for a TV comedy). This makes the book quite accessible - as Steven Pinker says, statistics without stories are empty.
In addition to a teen audience, adults who haven't thought about the subject since high school will enjoy the book. I think even quite young kids who are interested can handle it - if you know any youngsters who rattle off a dozen dinosaurs' Latin names, you may agree.
I recommend this book to anyone unsure of evolution, new to biology, or interested in biology in the news. As Nye says, "evolution is inspiring" and "profoundly humbling" and well worth your time.

How The Giver Relates to Writing Advice

In my continuing quest to understand popular science fiction, I recently read The Giver

by Lois Lowry. The book won a Newbery Medal and was made into a movie. In an author's note, Lowry relates mail she received from people who say how important the novel was for them and that some have named their own sons after one of the characters. The edition I checked on Amazon has 7,099 customer reviews and 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. That's 83% 4 and 5 star ratings which certainly qualifies as popular. (As always on Amazon, some of the poorest ratings refer to receiving a damaged book and not to the content.)

The Giver is a short book - 125 pages for the story (not counting the introduction, sample from another book, etc.) in my Epub version. My version contains the first chapter of the next book in the series and it seems to be a different set of characters in a different setting, but from Jennie M on Amazon: "I recommend reading all three books, The Giver, Gathering Blue, and The Messenger. The final book does sort of bring a finalization of these characters." And yet Natalie Martinez writes: "The next book had absolutely nothing to do with the first."

The book opens in a utopian world, following the young boy Jonas. We learn about aspects of the world that are uncomfortable and disquieting - it would not be a utopia for us. But the people in it seem content. Then, at age twelve, something unusual (almost unique) allows Jonas to learn more about his world. The book becomes a thought-provoking examination of good and bad in our own world, and what trade-offs a society might be willing to make between pain and pleasure.

The book veers off in a different direction at the end. After being primarily cerebral, the story ends in ambiguous action and (perhaps) hopelessness. One reviewer, a middle-school teacher, says she assigns her students to write their own ending, which I think would be a fun assignment.

The Giver's type of ending seems to belong to literary fiction rather than science fiction. (The movie version is called a drama/fantasy.) One piece of advice I found on Smashwords says "never mislead your readers" about the genre of a book. Smashwords offers 27 genre categories and 11 sub-categories within science fiction - "utopia/dystopia" is a subcategory.

Once again, I have learned that even the most successful book does not appeal to everyone. Keep that in mind when your own work gets a negative review.

What about standard writing tips? I don't think following or violating any of these tips figures in reviews of The Giver. But if you get a mechanical aspect of writing correct, I suppose no one will comment. Here are a few tips I considered:

 

Advice: Tag dialog only with "said" and maybe "ask" and nothing else. Omit the tags when it is clear who is speaking.

Lowry omits many tags. For example: "His mother agreed, smiling. 'The year we got Lily...'"

But she is not afraid to use saidisms. All these examples tagged dialog:

Father confided

he went on

the attendant told him

muttered

pointed out

began

replied

called

suggested

commented

whispered

 

Advice: Characters should have demographic, family, and psychological histories.

Lowry does this for Jonas and it is important to the story.

 

Advice: Show, don't tell.

Lowry follows this advice and provides an interesting way for the Giver to "show."

 

Advice: Paragraphs should be neat and utilitarian, don't use show-off vocabulary, avoid passive tense. These tips come from Stephen King.

Lowry uses all these tips.

 

Advice: Purge adverbs.

I found 13 uses of "very" in the first 18 pages and didn't count further. "Just" appeared 15 times in 44 pages. Words ending in "fully" (such as carefully, fretfully, painfully) appeared 18 times in 53 pages.

I haven't tried counting adverbs in other books so I don't know how this compares, but Lowry does use adverbs.

Aside: Adverbs are words that describe (modify) verbs, adjectives, and other adverbs. English Club lists the 25 most common adverbs. "Very" is 13th; "just" is 4th. A more interesting list is at Grammar Revolution.

These are links to some of my other posts on writing tips:

Writers' Resource: Critiques Available

Successful Novel Defies Standard Advice

Sphere: Hit SciFi Novels Follows Some Advice, Flaunts Other

Stephen King's Writing Advice

Source: http://aterauner.wordpress.com

Herland - Novel from the turn of the last century

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

This book caught my eye in my library's electronic collection. As I started to read, I thought "this author really has mastered that old-fashioned style of writing." No wonder! The book was first published in 1915.

Herland is a utopia, where a nation of women-only is visited by three American men. It contains many of the unlikely anachronisms you'd expect: a large agricultural nation exists in secret in South America, on their journey there the men encounter "savages", and the women are Caucasian (!)

The book is heavy on descriptions and the history of the women's utopia, with occasional action instigated by the visiting men. As the author writes, "if the people who read it are not interested in these amazing women and their history, they will not be interested at all... there were no adventures because there was nothing to fight." It is fun to see some of the things the author feels are needed for a perfect society: cats that only catch mice and never birds, wonderful orchards, and practical clothes with lots of pockets, perhaps a reaction against the "Oriental opulence" fashion of her time. (I have a male friend who claims female authors always spend way too much time describing clothes.) The women are "not, in the girl sense, beautiful... [they are] calm, grave, wise, wholly unafraid, evidently assured and determined." You may be curious to see how the author manages to provide children for her utopia without men.

This might get tedious in a long book, but Herland is only 139 pages. As Wikipedia says, "science fiction developed and boomed in the 20th century." This may not be your favorite book of the year, but it is an interesting alternative to the pulp sensationalism I usually associate with early science fiction.

Scoundrels By Timothy Zahn - book review

This book is one of Zahn's Star Wars novels. It takes place between Star Wars IV: A New Hope and V: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo and Chewbacca have returned to their smuggling career. Although Zahn uses the characters' names and makes occasional references to Star Wars, this strikes me as gratuitous. Those references could easily be written out without any effect on the story.

This is a Mission Impossible or Ocean's Eleven story, set on a "galactic empire" type world. Han is hired to steal back some money that was stolen from his client. He assembles a team of thieves for the project, and discovers his target is an organized crime lord who also holds blackmail records that may be even more valuable. Zahn sets up a complex set of obstacles for Han to overcome and delivers an equally complex set of solutions. The characters occasionally stop and explain the convoluted relationships within the crime and why their actions are clever. Zahn does not let us in on some things Han knows, which is a technique that happens to irritate me. At times, it all seemed too cute, but the action moves right along. The epilog offers some of those missing ties back to Star Wars and sets up for the next novel. My e-copy also included 190 pages of excerpts from other Star Wars novels.

As long as you're not expecting a continuation of the Star Wars story line, this is a good book for those who enjoy the Mission Impossible sort of story.

Source: http://katerauner.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/star-wars-as-mission-impossible

Encounter with Tiber - Book Review

Encounter with Tiber, by Buzz Aldrin and John Barnes, is a hard science fiction story for fans of space travel and colonization of the Moon and Mars. The long book (570 pages plus a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke and biographies of the authors) contains two related stories framed within a future historian's voyage to Tiber.

One story starts with an alternative history of the end of the shuttle program and continues into the very near future with explorations of the Moon and Mars. This story is thick with detailed descriptions of technology and includes concepts familiar to fans of Aldrin's writing, like the Mars to Earth cycler spacecraft. Indeed, long stretches of this story seems to lay a plot on top of his non-fiction book, Mission to Mars. The second story tells of humanoids (very human in nature) who came to Earth in the past, seeking a new home for their doomed race. This story is similarly full of scientific details not needed to advance the plot or understand the characters; it describes being in space.

The book also deals with the politics of space. A recurring theme in both stories is 'political pressure leads to poor decisions and tragedy'. Since Aldrin has been part of NASA's space program for so long (yes, he is that Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon), it makes me wonder about the real-life events that led to this pervasive element.

Even in moments of strong plot action, the authors will divert into technical details, which can make the book slow to read. It requires more concentration than a typical fun summer vacation book, and several times I put it down for a while.

If you are not a hard science fiction/space fiction fan, you'll find this book tedious. If you love the details a space insider can provide, you'll be fascinated.

Read Latest Interview with Kate Rauner

Hi everyone.

 

There's now a recent interview with me on Wattpad at http://w.tt/1kKloGX.  Please take a look.

Science Fiction Action in the Wise-Cracking Mode

book coverOld Man's War ( http://bit.ly/19p4HVM ) by John Scalzi,is advertised as "continuing the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein... reads like an original by the late grand master." I'm no expert on Heinlein, but that seems true (middle-period Heinlein, without the later pedagogical discussions of government, sex, and religion.) Scalzi starts with foreseeable technology, briefly explained, and then goes far beyond, allowing his characters to accept it with a shrug. What Scalzi wants the reader to know is often provided by the characters directly hearing or reading an explanation.

The characters share an optimistic outlook and a wise-cracking sense of humor. The main character talks directly to the reader at times. They are all ready to take a one-way trip as soldiers in a space war based on very little information and without regret. This type of character does remind me of Heinlein. Also like Heinlein, in Part I the characters have sex for fun (without being pornographic) and the women have remarkable libidos.

Part I is fun with Scalzi's universe. The war promised in the title arrives in Part II (and the sex disappears). Quite the opposite of Star Trek, the characters' "job is to go meet strange new people and cultures, and kill [them] as quickly as we possibly can." The humans aren't especially noble, and while a friendly alien race is mentioned, generally everyone wants to kill everyone else to acquire worlds to colonize. Apparently, one battle on each planet is all that is needed, so the characters see many different aliens, and fight and die in a many different ways. The f-bomb is used a lot.

Battle scenes have never been my favorite reading, so I skim through them in most books. But I read Scalzi's battles; they are not overly long gore fests designed to pack the book with pages. In addition to being varied action, due to the large variety of alien and human opponents, they do contribute to the story. Part III delivers depth to relationships and to the war: some planets do require more than one battle. While this is the first book in a series, there is an ending to the story. Wikipedia says there are a total of eight books set in this universe.

Source: http://katerauner.wordpress.com/?s=old+mans+war
SPOILER ALERT!

War of the Worlds - a classic you don't know as well as you think

The War of the Worlds (Barnes & Noble Classics) - H. G. Wells

A Great Depression era broadcast has become an annual Halloween staple in America. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the radio broadcast of a version of "War of the Worlds" that, according to urban legend, sent America into a brief panic over invading Martians.

Contrary to popular belief, reinforced by annual repetition, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast. (According to slate.com. Oddly, snopes.com does not have an article on this subject. But I'm prepared to believe slate: I always found the tale improbable.) The legend began because:

"Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted... The legend of the panic grew exponentially over the following years." http://slate.me/1g8nH2N

I bet you know the story of the H. G. Wells classic, first published in 1898. A few immortal elements have survived from the book to the movies: Giant three-legged Martian machines that wreak death and destruction on humanity, death rays, terrified survivors hiding in a ruin as a Martian mechanical "eye" sweeps through, and the iconic ending (spoiler alert - if anyone out there doesn't already know) where the Martians are killed and the Earth saved when the invaders are killed by the humble common cold.

Have you ever read the book? I find Wells' actual theme fascinating and very English: that complacency is foolish and trusting the government to save you will be fatal.

Read the book. It's not that long (207 pages in my Readers' Digest version) and well worth your time. Not only is it immortal science fiction from the end of the Victorian era, which inspires endless nostalgia in America. It seems socially modern and relevant. The endless explosions of modern special effects, while technically amazing, can't really compete. The explosions can't compete with the real-life story of newspapers trying to fight off radio, either.

Source: http://katerauner.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/legend-of-the-war-of-the-worlds

Glitch

Glitch - Kate Rauner

A discovery in space set in a futurist vision of our near future. 

This new cover art was created for the paperback edition - it was added to the ebook, too.

Kate Rauner

Books by Kate Rauner.

Space Adventure

Venture - Kate Rauner

I'm new to BookLikes and playing around with the site.  This is the cover of my latest science fiction novel - available as an ebook or in paperback.

Glitch new edition now available

Glitch - Kate Rauner

Both ebook and paperback editions are now available with new cover art replacing this original retro-style cover.