Had Wendy’s for lunch.

The cashier hands me my tray.

“Fresh out of the grease,” she says.

Mmm. Appetizing.

On “hard” and “soft” sci-fi, and SKYLIGHTS

I’ve been re-reading, and doing a final edit/polish, on my own book all weekend.  Guys, I have killed so many semicolons.  Not all of them, but so many.  Anyway, it’s gotten me thinking about science fiction.

Gimme a second, here, while I post the cover again.  Not just for promotion; this is actually relevant:

Cover Final Colors FLAT REF

For the purposes of the conversation I want to have right now, there are two kinds of science fiction: hard and soft.  Note, by the way, that if you’re a dedicated science fiction aficionado you may find much to quibble about with these definitions that I’m about to explain; be aware that I’m probably not going to be willing to argue with you about them.

Anyway, soft sci-fi can basically be characterized as stuff what is In the Future or at least involving Spaceships or Aliens in some way.  Soft sci-fi can bleed over into other genres (fantasy, in particular) and does not always worry itself too much about, well, science.  If you’ve ever read or watched something involving a space battle using laser beams, you were probably watching soft sci-fi.  The Benevolence Archives, insofar as it is science fiction at all, is crazily soft.  You’re not getting any explanations for how anything works in there, and I’m holding true to the Star Wars rule of never explaining how close anything is to anything else while I’m at it, too.

Hard sci-fi, on the other hand, is concerned greatly with scientific plausibility.  These authors have done their damnedest to make sure that everything in their books is as scientifically accurate as possible.  The Martian, to choose a book uncomfortably close to mine in subject matter, is quite possibly the hardest hard sci-fi I’ve ever read.  There’s chemistry in it.  (It’s also the best book I’ve read all year.  It’s better than Skylights.  You should read both anyway.)

So what’s Skylights?  Skylights is what I’m choosing to call “hard enough” sci-fi.  Here’s the thing: the technology in the book?  Exists, or is pretty damn close to existing.  This book, which is the reason why the main character’s nickname is “Zub,” details how a lot of the technology that got them to Mars and kept them alive there would work.  The book is set in the 2020s; we could do most of this now.  The space suits on the cover look a little… tight, right?  This article came out last week.  Think the technology behind the iLid(*) sounds a little far-fetched?  Not really.

Then again, look at the sky on the cover.  The first time I saw it, I griped about it.  The Martian sky simply never has clouds like that, and the sun is too far away to have that effect when it shines through the clouds that Mars really doesn’t have.  Casey had a word with the colorist about it, and the colorist either got stubborn and doubled down or didn’t quite understand his instructions, and increased the craziness in the clouds before the next time I saw it.

At which point I told them I loved it and to leave it alone, because who cares if it was realistic.  It was awesome.  Those skylights?  They’re really there.  They exist.  We don’t know what’s in them.  Probably not what I put in them.  Hopefully.  But the skylights themselves are real!

At one point I had carefully mapped out what the timing on the book had to be, so that all of the dates for trips to and from Mars matched up with Hohmann transfers properly.  No one but me was ever going to notice that.  (And then I blew it all, by shoving the book four years farther into the future without bothering to screw with the dates any more.  You’ll live.)

Here’s the thing about the science in Skylights: I really did do a fair amount of research on how things worked for this book.  That said, if any actual astronomers, and particularly any actual NASA people, read this book, they’re probably going to find shit that they want to smack me upside the head for.  Some of the stuff is going to be things I deliberately ignored.  Some of it will be stuff I screwed up.  (I got a bit too far onto Mars in the first draft before realizing that Mars had less gravity than Earth, not more, for example.  That mistake’s fixed, but I know there will be more.)  I’m just hoping that it doesn’t detract from the enjoyability of the book.  Three of my four main characters are scientists; they spend a fair amount of time explaining shit to the fourth character, who is the main POV character and the stand-in for the reader.  I know I’ve stuffed a lot of narration into my dialogue; I hope I’ve done it in a way that entertains rather than bores.  We’ll see if I hit the mark or not.

I want the book to feel realistic.  I don’t necessarily need it to be perfectly realistic.  And I’m really looking forward to seeing how it goes over with everyone.

Skylights comes out on Tuesday at all major ebook retailers (although it’ll probably pop at Amazon first, and most of my links will be to there) for $4.99.

(*) I did a little happy dance when I realized that my magic contact lens had to be called the iLid.  It looked like this:


BY REQUEST: Geography blogwanking


Haven’t posted this map in a while either.  There aren’t really any surprises on it, I don’t think, other than the continued refusal of anyone from Kosovo at all ever to come visit my blog.  I swear, guys, I’ve been chasing this one: I have Kosovo as a search term in my Reader and I Like every single post that is tagged “Kosovo” and not one single person from Kosovo has come back to my blog from Kosovo to read my blog in Kosovo.


Also, Svalbard island, but I’m less annoyed by that because I know no one but polar bears actually lives there.

Most of the rest of the places I haven’t had at least one hit from are either third world countries, theocratic dictatorships, or former Soviet bloc countries with -stan in their names, and frequently they’re more than one of those at the same time.  Oh, and Cuba, which doesn’t quite fit into any of those categories but also doesn’t surprise me too much.

But seriously, Kosovo.  You’re in Europe.  There’s no excuse.  Come say hi.

Sunday blogwanking

I always feel like there’s no reason for anyone to be interested in these, but they always end up creating some conversation, and I find myself popping in when others do similar posts, so maybe I just don’t know anything about what people find interesting.

That said, the tl;dr version of this post is “not much has changed lately.”

One thing I really wish WordPress would do is institute some sort of chart to keep track of Followers.  They’re really inconsistent in how they keep track of your numbers (the phenomenon where I hover around a single number for a couple days then suddenly jump by 30 has not abated) and I’d really like to see some sort of trend.  That said, the blog is fifteen months old and has 3800 followers.  I should pass 4000 in the next couple of weeks.  Still only 76 Likes on Facebook, a number that hasn’t budged in forever; most of the readers seem to be coming directly here, but I still see more referrals from Facebook than any other single source other than Google so I’ll keep the page alive.

So how many of those people are coming here?  Let’s look at charts:


Monthly first.  I’m still looking to see if I get that huge spike in readership that happened last winter; while there was a bit of a bulge toward the end of the summer (and an expected drop off once school started) traffic has been pretty steady, especially on readers as opposed to page views, since April.  I generally get between 5-6000 page views a month and around 2000 visitors.  September, I think, is going to end up just barely behind August, mostly due to the several days where I was sick and hardly posted.  It won’t be back by much, though.


Here’s weekly views, where it’s even clearer that not much has changed in the last several months.  Big drop at the start of school and into that week where I was sick, but other than that everything’s been pretty steady.  That week in April where I got 900+ hits in a day for no clear reason at all still stands all by itself.

And, just for the heck of it, here’s Twitter.  See if you can figure out at which points I started, and stopped, actively trying to gain followers:



I should probably keep pushing on Twitter until I get above that magic 2k mark, but haven’t had the time and energy for it lately.  We’ll see.

At some point I should probably either put some energy into putting together some sort of long-term strategy for this place or hire Gene’O to write me one, but on the other hand, “write about whatever the hell I want whenever the hell I want” seems to be working okay so far.  We’ll see.

And now, to spend the rest of the day staring at Word files and cursing at Microsoft.  Fun!

(EDIT:  Just noticed this– this is my 850th post.)

SKYLIGHTS excerpt!

Final Cover Mock Med…the prologue, specifically.  On sale Tuesday, September 30 everywhere ebooks are sold, for the entirely reasonable price of four dolla ninety-nine cent:


Flashbulb memory, they call it. It’s when you remember exactly where you were when you first discovered something or saw something happen.

If you’re younger than me, which a lot of you probably are, then your first flashbulb memory is probably related to terrorism somehow. Anybody in, say, their early thirties or older probably remembers exactly where they were on September 11, 2001. A little younger than that and your first flashbulb memory is probably one of the bombings in Chicago in 2018.

I was six years old when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. It was January 29, 1986, at exactly eleven thirty-nine in the morning. I was in first grade. For some reason– I could look this up if I wanted, I suppose, but my first-grade self didn’t know, so I’m not going to bother– NASA had decided that it would be great if they put a schoolteacher on the Space Shuttle. Her name was Christa McAuliffe, and she’d been a middle school teacher, her students not a lot older than I was at the time.

There was a ton of publicity about her presence on the shuttle. Come to think of it, might have been the reason that NASA put her there in the first place. Every single kid in my school was watching the flight launch on television. The Challenger took off, and we all clapped. Seventy-three seconds later, an O-ring failed on the shuttle’s right Solid Rocket Booster. There was a little puff of smoke from the side of the ship.

Some of us were still clapping.

I remember noticing it and wondering, for the split second that I had, what had happened. And then the Challenger, with me and millions of other people around the country watching, silently blew apart. There were a few seconds of shocked silence in the room, and then every kid in the class– every one in the building, probably– started crying at once.

You know what? Writing that just now, I wondered what my teacher must have done afterwards. I can’t even remember her name. I can remember the wood surface on my desk, because I dug my fingers into it so hard that day that they scratched it and I got splinters. I can remember the wood-grain on the television set they had us watching. I can remember being surprised that Rachel Douglas, the biggest butthead in the entire first grade, was crying as hard as I was. But I can’t remember a single thing that our teacher did to try and bring everybody back to sanity after watching that happen. That’s how flashbulb memories work; you’ll remember the event itself forever, but that doesn’t mean you’ll remember anything else that happened around it.

Seventeen years and two days later, it happened again. This time, it was the shuttle Columbia, and I was twenty-four and no longer sitting in a classroom. In fact, when the Columbia was falling apart in the morning sky over Texas, I was stuck in traffic and late to work. I found out about it about ten minutes after I got in, when the smarmy dope from the office next door made some sort of comment about it to me. We had the Internet by then– yes, there was Internet back then, although I think we might have still been calling it the World Wide Web– and I saw the entire thing on CNN’s Web site. This time there weren’t any tears, just a dull sort of ache in the pit of my stomach. I spent the rest of the day on the computer, chasing down eyewitness reports and trying to devour whatever little bits of actual news managed to leak out. It was funny; I hadn’t spent much time thinking about space flight since the first grade, but suddenly the families of the men and women on that shuttle were all I could think about.

I was working for the Indianapolis Star at the time, splitting my time between a biweekly column in the science section and general reporting on local news for the rest of the paper. It was a good job; I was happy enough, and making enough money, but I wanted something different from my life.

I decided to write a book.

A year later, I’d completed Nothing to Bury: the Martyrs of the Space Race, a look at the lives of the astronauts who had died on the Challenger and the Columbia, as well as a host of other lives lost in the pursuit of space, and a look at the culture of NASA in between the two disasters. I was pretty proud of it as a piece of work; I wasn’t expecting it to necessarily sell well to the general public, but it was a good piece of writing. It did better than I’d expected, enough that I’ve been able to be comfortable with freelance writing since then. I’m still working for news sites and some of the few print papers that are left, mind you, but I can pick my own assignments and do my own reporting now as opposed to having people assign my projects.

You know where this is going, don’t you? I imagine you do.

On August 15, 2022, after years of technical and political delays, the space shuttle Tycho, carrying four astronauts, launched on a six-month journey to Mars. They were to remain in orbit around Mars for thirty days, during which they would land on the planet’s surface for the first time in human history, then to return to Earth. The run-up to the launch was the biggest public relations bonanza NASA had ever seen. Everything just stopped the day the Tycho launched. It was just like it had been for the Challenger, only times a hundred. They just weren’t as good at hype in the eighties, I guess.

I was watching at home, with a couple of friends– I actually had a little party for the launch. I didn’t realize how tense I was until I looked at my hands afterwards. There were furrows in my palms from my fingernails. Then the shuttle took off, soaring into a perfectly blue sky, and I held my breath for a few moments.

The launch went off without a hitch, though, and pictures of the Tycho blanketed every website and print doc on the planet over the next few days. For the next six months, everyone was obsessed with Mars. The astronauts provided regular updates on what they were doing. You could get daily blink messages from them if you wanted to, and progress along their flight path was updated live on a map running at the top of for the entire duration of the trip. Those six months, I’m convinced, inspired a whole generation of new astronauts, astrophysicists, and pilots. I’ve never in my life seen America more excited about science. It was amazing.

And then, on February 19th, 2023, when the long voyage was finally over, we… well, we don’t actually know what happened. The Tycho was supposed to aerobrake into orbit around Mars, stay in orbit for a day or two, and then the astronauts were going to leave the ship to descend to the planet’s surface in a lander. They were going to stay on the surface for two weeks or so, doing experiments, exploring the Martian surface, and making history.

There wasn’t anything resembling photo evidence, not good evidence at least– NASA had been sending a steady diet of pictures and video from cameras affixed to the outside of the Tycho for months, but they failed at the same time as the audio feed. But we were getting audio beamed back from inside the cabin. Right up until the point where the flight commander, a decorated Marine pilot by the name of Alondra Gallegos, spoke the last words that the Tycho sent back to Earth.

“Is that…” was all she said.

After that, nothing. No sound, no signals, no big explosion to be played on the news over and over again. Just nothing at all, and what started off as mild concern slowly morphed, over the next few days, weeks, months, into the certainty that, somehow, the ship had been lost. There was hope for a while that there had just been some sort of global communications failure, that the Tycho was still out there but had lost the ability to talk to us. Sadly, those hopes didn’t make much sense in reality– the Tycho’s communication capabilities were among the simplest systems on the ship, something a talented twelve-year-old would have been able to repair, and there was a redundant backup system. Anything catastrophic enough to have completely crippled the ship’s ability to talk would have caused fatal damage to the rest of the ship as well. We just couldn’t figure out what. Conventional wisdom eventually decided there had been some sort of asteroid or meteorite impact, something like that.

There was no flashbulb moment for the Tycho. The families of the four people lost on that mission– Alondra Gallegos, Daion Brown, Kassius Newsome, and Ai-Li Wu– will never be able to move on. Many of them are convinced that their family members are still out there somewhere. There was no national mourning like there was for the Challenger and the Columbia. It was as if, after three high-profile ship losses, this time the country just wanted to forget about it.

I got a few calls for interviews after the Tycho lost contact, and a few more a few months later, once NASA officially stopped trying to reestablish contact with the ship. I turned them all down, though; I didn’t want to base any more of my career on profiting from the deaths of people more heroic and important than I was. I didn’t want to write about space any more.

Little did I know.