Category Archives: Greg Fishbone

Goodbye, Lovely Readers

Goodbye Graphic #21You might not be aware that when this blog was created, the original group of posters agreed to keep it going for 843 days exactly. We had done some pretty complicated calculations on the shelf-life of a blog about speculative fiction for teens and pre-teens, with some assistance from several persons (and a robot) who arrived from the future to warn us about impending utopian conditions.

So here we are at Day 843, feeling compelled to say goodbye so that we can enjoy the sudden utopia we have been informed is about to be created on Earth. (We’ve been told there will be free iced coffee and several Harry Potter sequels for everyone.) We’d like to thank you, blog readers, for following us for so long (two and a half years! over 500 posts!). We’ve appreciated your comments and silent visits alike. We feel this has been a great opportunity to explore our thoughts on various topics important to us science fiction- and fantasy-lovers, and to chat with people we otherwise would never had known existed.

We hope that you will continue to visit us on other places on the web so that we can chat about books and hear your recommendations for what we should be reading and share thoughts about writing and publishing. You can find links to our websites here. Thanks, lovely blog readers, and Happy Reading!

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Easter Eggs in Space!

Quick! Identify this image:

Guess what: Speckled eggs?

Speckled eggs? No...

Although they may look like speckled eggs, these are alien worlds: a few of the 1,235 exoplanet candidates identified since 2009 by NASA’s Kepler observatory. Before Kepler, about 500 exoplanets total had been discovered, painstakingly, one-by-one, over more than a decade–which demonstrates how dramatically the pace of discovery increases as new tools come online.

The “eggs” above are stars arranged in size order. The “speckles” are planets in silhouette. The entire image, created by a scientist named Jason Rowe, can be seen here.

On this scale, our own sun (occluded by Jupiter and Earth) would look like this:

Space egg

Note: Earth is almost too small to see.

Based on the information the Kepler project has gathered so far, astronomers are estimating that there may be as many as 50 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy with 2 billion of those being about the size of Earth, about 10 million of which might be in a range to hold liquid water necessary for the development of life.

If you’d like to participate in your own Easter egg hunt in space, check out Planethunters.org for a chance to be part of a crowdsourced project using Kepler data to find some of the exoplanets that Kepler’s automated algorithm may have missed.

–Greg R. Fishbone, hard boiled

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Time Travel Banned In China

Recently in China, there have been a glut of popular time travel television shows and movies. Typically, a character from modern China goes back in time and discovers that the past was a great place to live: lots of unpolluted air and water; horseback rides instead of traffic jams; epic battles for a noble cause; and romance everywhere.

Chinese Time Travel scene

"OMG! This picture will rock my Facebook page!"

This seems like a fun idea, but the Chinese government has taken a hard line and reportedly banned the entire time travel genre until further notice, as well as historical dramas based on certain works of classical literature. (Although I’m still hoping it’s all a big April Fool’s joke.)

From the Chinese General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television (via Boing-Boing):

“The time-travel drama is becoming a hot theme for TV and films. But its content and the exaggerated performance style are questionable. Many stories are totally made-up and are made to strain for an effect of novelty. The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

If the pretext is that time travel stories are frivolous and inaccurate…well, duh! Here in the United States, cartoons about Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman, debuted in the 1950s as part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody was a Gallifreyan Time Lord whose botched regeneration had given him the form of a talking dog. Sherman was Mr. Peabody’s companion, whose sole purpose was to wander around asking, “Where are we, Mr. Peabody? What’s this, Mr. Peabody? And who is that, Mr. Peabody?”

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Also, Mr. Peabody needed Sherman's opposable thumbs.

According to Wikipedia, 91 segments of “Peabody’s Improbable History” were aired, with each containing a silly plot that ended in a horrible pun. Did the writers “treat serious history in a frivolous way?” Heck, yeah! But that didn’t make anyone want to ban Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine, Doc Brown’s DeLorean, the Doctor’s TARDIS, and all other depictions of time travel on TV and in the movies. There’s got to be something else going on in Beijing.

My theory: time travel stories often include a political message or cultural commentary. By making a purposeful connection with the past, or by projecting current trends into the future, an author can make a powerful statement about the present. This goes back at least to H.G. Wells’s 1885 novel, The Time Machine, which took a stab at class warfare in Victorian England by journeying to a future where the upper and lower classes had evolved into two separate species–with one literally cannibalizing the other.

Morlocks

Behold the future of the lower classes!

Sometimes the subtext is open to interpretation, or may be an unintentional consequence of some throwaway joke in the script. Like when Robert Zemeckis gave us an alternate take on the origins of rock and roll music in the first Back to the Future movie. Did he really mean to create a scenario where African Americans stole rock & roll from white kids instead of the other way around? You be the judge!

Johnny B. Goode

"Hello, Chuck? It's me again. When you steal 'Johnny B. Goode' from that white kid, maybe skip the weird part at the end."

In recent Chinese time travel stories, “the past as a primo tourist destination” is a theme that could be perceived as clashing with the party line that “things have never been better than now.” And because the subtext can be subtle and subjective, the censors might have chosen to shut down the entire genre just to be sure.

It’s a shame because this apparently now-banned series looks seriously awesome:

–Greg R. Fishbone, time after time

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Justin Bieber has read an advance copy of my book!

Actually, I don’t know whether or not Justin Bieber has an advance copy of Galaxy Games: The Challengers, but how else can you explain what we all saw on the Grammy Awards ceremony this weekend?

At one point in my book, a young girl with a questionable hairstyle is plucked from obscurity and thrust into the international spotlight. On stage, in front of a huge crowd of adoring fans, she is suddenly attacked by ninjas!

In real life, a young boy with a questionable hairstyle has been plucked from obscurity and thrust into the international spotlight. On stage, in front of a huge crowd of adoring fans, he was suddenly attacked by ninjas!

The difference is that Tomoko Tomizawa has judo skills sufficient to defeat her attackers. Lacking that, Justin Bieber had to dodge the ninjas using only slick dance moves and pyrotechnics until Usher could come to his defense. A well-choreographed duet with Usher apparently has ninja-repelling effects–who knew?

But Justin, using Galaxy Games: The Challengers as his guidebook, knew that Usher wouldn’t be able to close the deal. For that he’d need a young martial arts champion on his side to scare his attackers away for good. And Tomoko, being fictional, was unavailable.

Enter Jaden Smith, a.k.a. “The Karate Kid.” Jaden’s father played Muhammad Ali in one movie and has been known to punch zombies, aliens, and robots right in the face in others. The ninjas took one look at Jaden and said, “It’s Fresh Prince Junior! And he’s been trained by Jackie Chan! Let’s get out of here!”

And speaking of punching aliens right in the face, why couldn’t Wil Smith do anything to stop Lady Gaga from emerging from her glowing green pod? Just sayin’.

Later in my book, Tomoko Tomizawa loses a Best New Artist award to Esperanza Spalding. It’s almost like she and Justin Bieber are the same person!

What Grammy moment do you think could have been taken from a speculative fiction novel?

—Greg R. Fishbone, Gramtastic

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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The Zombie/Ghost Spectrum

As I’m writing this entry, I have another window open with a current draft of the first zombie scene I’ve ever written.  I’ve always loved watching zombie films. Dawn of the Dead, I Am Legend, 28 Days Later, and even Shawn of the Dead had me on the edge of my seat. But for some reason, it’s taken me this long to attempt a zombie story of my own. I’ve come up with a theory about that. I think it’s because I tend to be an optimistic person, while zombie tales take place in the far-pessimistic side of the Zombie/Ghost Story World Spectrum.

The Zombie/Ghost Story World Spectrum:

Ghost stories, at one end of the spectrum, show an optimistic view of the world. They take place in a setting that’s so wonderful that some people can’t be made to leave it, even after death. Ghosts may have suffered horribly in life, but they’d still rather stick around than go on to an eternal resting place.

Moving away from the ideal “better than Heaven” world of ghost stories, we have the well-intentioned world of morality plays. You can always tell the good guys from the bad guys and it’s comforting to know in advance that the unrepentant rule-breaker will be brutally punished for his or her crimes. Good little boys and girls might find themselves in danger for a while but generally come out unscathed. The story takes place in a world that conspires to enforce a code of morality–the author’s code of morality–which has little or no room for shades of gray. Supernatural entities are enforcers of the law, while the real monsters are always human. It makes sense in a way our world never can, but it can also be uncomfortable for anyone whose moral compass varies by a few degrees from the author’s.

Vampire stories, in the exact middle of the spectrum, take place in a neutral world–the natural world of predator and prey. There’s nothing inherently good or evil about a wolf eating a rabbit, for example. The twist comes from making humanity into the rabbits. We’re one rung down from the top of the food chain, which causes tension for most of the in-story characters.

Stories like Frankenstein take place in a world where human intervention has altered the natural order. Inanimate monsters are brought to life, men play God, Gothic misery hangs in the air, and the balance of the world is thrown out of whack. Innocence and goodness will get you killed, if only to teach some other character a lesson. It’s a pessimistic place to be, but things can still go back to normal if the villagers band together with their pitchforks and torches. Or things can also go from bad to worse if the creature’s creator gives in to its demands to make a bride and/or groom.

And then there are zombies. Whenever they show up, you know the story world is doomed. It might start slowly, with a single zombie staggering mindlessly toward you. It’s probably not hard to escape, to find an effective weapon, or to band together with some allies. You can outthink a zombie, and in most versions you can outrun them or drive away from them. But eventually you will find yourself under siege, surrounded a a huge undead mob, with dwindling supplies and nobody left you can count on for help. In the long run, no matter what you do, the zombies always win.

Where does your favorite story world fall on this spectrum?

—Greg R. Fishbone, Destroyer and Creator of Worlds

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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From the Archives: Girls Are from Mars, Boys Are from Transylvania

Parker Peevyhouse wrote a blog entry last week about the current spate of paranormal YA romance novels.

“You’ve got girls falling in love with ghosts, vampires, dark fairies, angels, aliens… It’s all very popular right now.”

The question she raised was whether it was the thrill of danger that made these love stories so popular among girls, with teen vampires and the like representing the ultimate “bad boys.”

The question reminded me of a certain subgenre of anime/manga primarily for boys that might represent the other side of adolescent romantic wish-fulfillment fantasies. In these stories, ordinary boys get involved with girls who are aliens, spirits, robots, goddesses or the like.

Examples include Urusei Yatsura (ordinary boy becomes engaged to a flying, demon-horned, green-haired, but otherwise cute alien girl who shoots lightning from her hands whenever he so much as looks at another woman), Tenchi Muyo (ordinary boy is pursued by a half-dozen cute alien girls and a creature who seems to be half-cat, half-rabbit, and half-spaceship), Video Girl Ai (ordinary boy meets a cute girl who comes out of a video tape and she’s not at all creepy like that girl from The Ring), Chobits (ordinary boy finds a cute girl robot someone was throwing away with the trash), and Mahoromatic (ordinary boy hires a live-in maid who turns out to be a retired battle android–and of course she’s cute, too).

The boys in these stories tend to be nice guys, sympathetic, and deserving better than they’ve gotten from life so far. If dropped into a girls’ romance story, they’d end up home alone every night. But in a boys’ romance story, the perfect girl for them drops right out of the sky, or steps through a magic portal, or pulls herself out of a TV screen. Meanwhile the “bad boy” who gets so much play in girls’ romance tends to be shown up as a total jerk.

Another difference would be that paranormal romance for girls has the romantic elements on the surface with fantasy elements as flavoring. There’s a strong romantic element to the boy-centric version too but it’s buried under a huge dollop of fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, and/or adventure, like medicine spiked with sugar, because no boy is going to admit to liking a romance story.

Girls are from Mars and boys are from Transylvania, or at least their idealized versions are. Girls see boys as wild creatures to be tamed, and if they actually are vampires that’s an even greater challenge. Meanwhile boys see girls as mysterious creatures they can never fully understand, and if they actually are aliens there’s even more excuse for consternation.

So what’s the potential for taking the spec-fic romance for boys genre from anime to literature, where many boys are loathe to tread? Has this been tried before? If so, what were the results? The fact that no such titles leap to my mind is probably a bad sign…

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg Fishbone

Originally published 2/7/09

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Princess Mashup and the Future of Genre Fiction

On one of the lists I’m subscribed to, I received an advertisement targeted to booksellers about a recent release. In the interest of protecting the parties responsible for its publication, let’s call it Princess Mashup and the Laser Vampire Steamship of Death (not the real title). I was especially interested in the ad’s claim that Princess Mashup is a “landmark work” and considered to be “the future of genre fiction.” This got my attention because I love reading landmark works and every author needs to know where the industry will be heading.

Based on the rest of the ad, the future of genre fiction–as contemplated by this one publisher’s marketing department–is going to be a rocky landscape of extremes. There are two main readership groups targeted by Princess Mashup: people who don’t read books at all; and people who obsessively devour books in all six of the genres that Princess Mashup falls into.

The ad envisions, first of all, a legion of non-readers stumbling into a bookstore for the first time in their lives when well-meaning relatives give them bookstore gift certificates for the holidays, perhaps as a joke. The ad instructs booksellers to hand-sell Princess Mashup “until every one of those gift cards are redeemed”…but why? They never say. My first thought was that books in the speculative genres are universally approachable vehicles to hook young readers into a lifetime love of reading–except that Princess Mashup is also touted as a YA/Adult crossover. By the time a reader is developmentally ready for such a book, their reading habits or lack thereof will probably be set for life already. Still, if you’re a sometimes-reader looking to survey six different genres to decide which you might like, maybe it is most efficient to get them all in a single volume.

For the second demographic of Princess Mashup, imagine a Venn diagram–that’s the one with two or more overlapping circles. We’ll start with circles for people who are rabid fans of vampires and those who love, love, love a good romance. At the intersection of those two circles are fans of the Twilight series, among other recent works, representing a number sizable enough to drive a book onto the bestseller lists. Then add a circle to represent more-than-casual fans of steampunk, and suddenly you’ve fragmented your potential-bestseller market into a hoping-for-a-cult-classic market. Now add three more circles for fans of alternate history, fans of dark fantasy, and fans of pulp adventure. At the intersection point of all six circles, you’ll find the set of readers who are omnivorous enough to already be familiar with the six distinct storytelling conventions required to truly appreciate why Princess Mashup is such a “landmark work.”

Giving Princess Mashup the benefit of the doubt, I figured it could actually be a fun cross-genre romp that the marketing department had no idea how to present. Then I just took a sneak peek at the opening pages and found them to be something about a princess on a steam-powered pirate ship using her magic sword to fight off a pair of startlingly handsome vampires in a world where the Macedonian Empire remains a world superpower. I know that sounds cool as a synopsis but the execution was underwhelming–and that shouldn’t be a surprise.

It’s hard enough to do just one genre well, but with six combined there’s an exponential increase in the difficulty level. My upcoming Galaxy Games series is a humorous take on sports and science fiction, and I had to pull out all my writing tricks and reader experience to make sure it was good science fiction, a plausible sports story, and genuinely humorous. Assuming my reaction to Princess Mashup is typical, cramming six different genres into a single book will only serve to nauseate a reader in six different ways at once.

This one publisher’s terrifying vision of the publishing industry’s future is one in which genre fiction becomes a mash-up, individual genres cease to stand alone, and all new books are grouped together in a single bookstore section ideal for non-readers and a select group of crossover fans. Readers will be required to either love the latest fantasy-romance-cyberpunk-zombie-detective offering wholeheartedly or give up reading altogether.

The blending may be starting already. In the past few years we’ve seen the monster genre almost entirely subsumed into the romance genre. I can’t recall any recent books about unrepentant vampire killing machines and the heroes who must stake them in the heart or die trying. After an entire tradition of standalone monster stories is lost, what genre will be next? I’m looking at you, Space Opera!

—Greg, who loves a good mashup and wishes everyone a happy Christmachannukkwanzanew Year!

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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The Universe: Now With Six Times the Alien Life!

As a science-fiction writer, I try to stay current with major developments in scientific fields that touch on my work. Since my current work is a first-contact story, I’ve become particularly interested in xenobiology, exoplanets, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I can’t put myself out there as an expert, but I have a basic grounding to keep in mind while I’m writing–and when there’s big news in the scientific community, I tend to get swept up in it.

Six times the fun!

Despite the lack of evidence, I’m fairly confident that extraterrestrial life must have popped up elsewhere in creation, given the mind-boggling size and age of our universe. Imagine trying to figure out whether there are other people living in your house by taking a quick glance at a cubic inch of space under your own bed. That would be more than the human race has been able to do so far, even with all of our telescopes and instruments.

So how many advanced alien civilizations are out there? About six times more of them than we would have thought just a few weeks ago!

I’m basing this number on two major announcements from earlier this month. First, there may be three times as many stars in the universe than we previously thought, according to Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University astronomer who led a research project at the super-powerful Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The extra stars are red dwarfs with long lifetimes and stable conditions that make them especially good places for life to develop. Three times as many habitable stars means three times as many habitable planets, which is like buying three times as many lottery tickets in the sweepstakes of abiogenesis. Whatever the odds turn out to be, you will have about three times as many winners. The one caveat is that these extra stars are all in other galaxies, so this discovery changes nothing about the odds of finding aliens in our own Milky Way neighborhood where we might actually be able to meet them.

Not recommended

The second announcement came from NASA, where geomicrobiologist Felisa Wolfe-Simon may have found a bacteria with arsenic in its DNA, RNA, lipids, and proteins (although there’s been some post-announcement buzz that this study may have been half-baked). You may remember arsenic as the murder weapon of choice in about a zillion murder mystery novels, or from news reports of arsenic compounds leeching into some community’s drinking water with devastating health effects. Organisms that ingest arsenic tend to become very sick or very dead.

But now there’s GFAJ-1. This little microbe seems to shift between a phosphorous metabolism, like the rest of life on Earth, and a weird alien-like arsenic metabolism. Early reports speculated that GFAJ-1 may have descended from a “second genesis” of life on Earth or a “shadow ecosystem” existing alongside our own–very cool science fictiony ideas. CNN’s Ali Velshi tried three times to put these words into the mouth of SETI researcher Jill Tarter, but she wasn’t taking the bait. These seemingly alien buggies belong to the same family tree as we do, they’ve just picked up some extra tricks that show up in the lab results and possibly out in the wild as well, in a little lake near the California-Nevada border that’s startlingly close to the hometown of my Galaxy Games protagonist.

The real significance is that we may have proven that life has at least one other major pathway it could take, and a new range of environments where it could thrive. If conditions hadn’t been as favorable for the kind of life we know and love, an alternate biome of arsenic-based plants and animals might have sprang into being instead. If you have a chance to travel to Arsenic-Earth, bring your own food supply, because every native food will be fatally poisonous. Well, poisonous to you and me, but perfectly fine for the arsenic-people who live there.

Together these two news items prove that life comes in at least two flavors, instead of one, and has three times as many places to inhabit. By my math, that means six times as many aliens in the universe!

—Greg, putting the arse in arsenic

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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Spreading the Evil by Banning the Evil

Banning books is harmful. Often, books that are challenged are the very ones most needed by young readers looking for a safe way to explore uncomfortable issues in their lives.

But that’s not why banning books is stupid.

Banning books is selfish and presumptuous. Book banners somehow feel their parental rights are being violated unless they are given exclusive rights to pick and choose which books other people’s children shouldn’t be exposed to.

But that’s not why banning books is stupid.

Banning books is unpatriotic. It opposes the democratic principles of free speech and free press enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, while embracing the thought-policing tactics of history’s most repressive regimes.

But that’s not why banning books is stupid.

Banning books is ignorant. The most gung-ho book banners always seem to be the ones who don’t even bother to read the object of their scorn, relying instead on inaccurate book descriptions or reviews from biased sources.

But that’s not why banning books is stupid.

Banning books does the exact opposite of what the book banners intend. Every attempt to ban a book from a library or school only draws attention to that book, especially among curious young readers. Every book-burning rally requires the purchase of the offending title from booksellers who will restock the title and publishers who will reprint more copies. Every attempt to suppress a book provides free publicity and curiosity that increases that book’s sales.

That’s why banning books is stupid.

Which is why I was so saddened this week when otherwise intelligent people inadvertently drew attention to, increased curiosity about, and increased sales for one of the most vile and offensive publications imaginable. I won’t name it or link to it, because it doesn’t deserve any more fame or notoriety, but it’s a self-published ebook apparently meant to instruct child molesters in how to harm children more effectively while avoiding detection and capture.

This was the last book on Earth that should have received a massive Twitter-, Facebook-, and blog-based campaign driving traffic to a web page where the tile could be purchased. The book’s author is the last person alive who should have received prominent stories from all the major news outlets and a PR-boosting interview on a nationally-broadcast TV network. The fact that an ensuing surge of purchases rocketed the book, briefly, onto the Amazon bestseller list should sicken and mortify everyone.

The threatened boycott that took the book out of Amazon’s Kindle marketplace was a Pyrrhic victory at best. I suspect this ebook is still available through other outlets, including the virtual back alleys its intended readership might actually prefer for transactions that don’t leave a paper trail. I’m sure the book will be in especially high demand, now that it’s been successfully marketed to every pervert on the planet. And, as far as I’ve read, Amazon has not changed its policy about accepting books of this kind for sale–its decision to pull this one book does not extend to any others.

The book banners in this case were well-intended but short-sighted in a way that book banners always are. Book banners operate from a belief that a certain book crosses a line and threatens children with imminent harm unless somebody takes immediate action to remove it.

The knee-jerk reaction in this instance was no different from those seen by the would-be banners of Speak, Slaughterhouse Five, or any of the challenged books listed during Banned Book Week. The difference is that books on that list tend to be well-written, popular, and foster a helpful dialogue about difficult issues. I’m happy to see those kinds of books brought to the attention of booksellers, librarians, and readers as a result of ignorant and ineffective challenges, while I’m sickened by the idea of a handbook for evil getting a similar level of attention and publicity.

Challenging this previously unknown but now suddenly famous self-published ebook will do far more harm than good.

—Greg, as-yet unchallenged.

Greg R. Fishbone

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TAG, You’re It!

There was an interesting announcement recently from Sterling, the book-publishing wing of Barnes & Noble. They will be launching a YA imprint called Splinter that will debut in January with at least one fantasy title, Tiger’s Curse by Colleen Houck, followed by four more books in the Tiger’s series.

New fantasy imprints are worth watching. Books published by a retailer are a trendy topic. But here’s what really raised my eyebrow:

“…all books will be released simultaneously in hardcover and e-book formats, and the print editions will be imbedded with TAG codes that will enable readers with smartphones to scan the codes to access Web-only material.”

The commitment to publish an e-book edition of every book simultaneously with the hardcover edition shows how legitimate the digital format has become. But what in blazes is a TAG code? Could they mean that those ugly QR Code blocks will be plastered throughout the book?

Page 112 of Tiger's Curse?

Obviously this is just a rough mock-up but it’s fun to imagine a book with web-content footnotes using a technology that’s becoming more and more common.

There could be links to interesting facts about the setting, video of the author explaining how a scene came to be, references to other books or movies that the reader might be interested in, pictures, recipes, or whatever. It would be just like an HTML-based book with hyperlinks!

We’re now seeing the first printed books that incorporate some of the capabilities of digital books. Only time will tell whether readers will come to expect hyperlinked content in all formats or if this is just the kind of weird experiment we see when people go a little nuts with a new technology.

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