The Smell of Life – a poem by Kate Rauner

Methane can be made by lifeCuriosity_Rover_Arm_Camera
Or hydrothermal systems,
By microbes in the regolith
Or from the rocks, if not them.
Methane doesn’t last for long
Floating in the atmosphere.
Tens of decades, then it’s gone,
Reacting in the sunlight there.
What Curiosity has found,
Unexpected and delighted,
A whiff arising from the ground
Has scientists excited.
It doesn’t mean that there is life
Or that there was in past
It means we have a lot to learn
Before we’ll know at last.
What difference would it make to us?
Bugs aren’t likely to converse.
Even if they share our Sun,
Are we better off or worse?
I for one would thrill to know,
To find conclusive data.
Even if it pays no gold,
Life will always matter.

A couple wisps of methane found on Mars. It might be geochemistry, and there’s more to learn about that, too. But it could indicate the existence of life. Stay tuned.

Huffingtonpost, NYtimes, and many other sources

Pluto – We Are Coming

how I killed plutoWay back in 1999 I read a book Pluto and Charon - Ice Worlds on the Ragged Edge of the Solar System by Alan Stern & Jacqueline Mitton. I learned that plutophiles share a remarkable dedication. For example, when a rare occultation of a star by Pluto was visible only in Israel, “[a]s luck would have it, the great Israeli-Jordanian airwar was just then taking place overhead… Almost unbelievably, [the astronomers] managed to observe the event despite the circumstances overhead…[producing] the only astronomical observation ever made through a sky filled with dog-fighting”. Their observations led to the discovery that Pluto has an atmosphere.

When Eris was discovered in 2005, it became clear Pluto wasn’t a unique oddity but a member of a class of objects – the largest “plutino” in the Kuiper belt, but smaller than Eris in the scattered trans-Neptune disk. Pluto was famously downgraded to dwarf planet status by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 and many people were furious.

The last chapter of Stern and Mitton’s book described the slow progress towards launching a mission to Pluto. The authors noted “it will take NASA more years to get the Pluto mission out of the Washington, D. C. beltway, than Pluto Express would need to cross the whole solar system!” But they were optimistic a mission would be launched and ended with “guard your secrets while you can, Pluto! We are coming.”

They were wrong about one thing – it only took seven more years to launch the spacecraft New Horizons on January 19, 2006; while it’s taken nine years for the craft to reach Pluto. Alan Stern leads its team. Its systems have been activated and the exploration of Pluto and its many moons begins January 15, 2015.

Why spend millions of dollars to learn about a few rocky ice-balls at the edge of our solar system when there are so many problems here on Earth? That question implies money is all we need to solve our earthly dilemmas, but politics, prejudice, and pig-headedness are bigger impediments. If we wait until we solve all of today’s problems, we’ll never get to tomorrow. As Bill Dunford said, why waste time trying to figure out agriculture? We have so much work to do hunting and gathering. Why spend effort on boats? We have so many issues here on the land. Why fiddle with computers? There’s so much calculating to be done with these pencils.

Why explore space? To find out why. Good luck, New Horizons.

Pluto! We Are Coming! a poem by Kate Rauner

If you were standing on Pluto...

If you were standing on Pluto…

Pluto, god of underworld,
God in darkness, god in cold,
Fit to reign, but not below,
Not given domain over souls.
You mark an area of space,
Not under sea or under hill,
But far away and high above,
A belt of frozen volatiles.
Beyond the giant planets
Large objects should exist,
Not thinly scatter icy crumbs,
Never did we look for this.
Humans did not make the trip,
An imager will be our eyes.
We have a way to count the dust,
Spectrometers to scan your skies.
What surprises now await
To teach us of creation?
When sun was young and planets
Were early in formation?
Why are you red, not white or gray?
Our ignorance is stunning.
Now instruments are aimed at you.
Pluto! We are coming!

After a nine-year journey, NASA’s spacecraft New Horizons is about to answer some questions and raise a whole lot more.

Tomb and Throne

Abduction_of_Persephone_by_Pluto,_AmphipolisThe famous king, scion of an ancient royal dynasty, conquers a large empire. He dies in his new capital city, perhaps poisoned, perhaps from a disease picked up in his far-flung military campaigns aggravated by years of heavy drinking and many war wounds. In the battle for his throne, one of his generals puts his wife and young son to death, eliminating his obvious heir. His mother continues to wield political power, until the traitorous general murders her, too. But don’t feel too sorry for her – she may have assassinated her husband to help her son take the throne.

This king isn’t a character in the latest fantasy best-seller, he’s Alexander the Great. Now archeologists may add to his story with a wonderful mosaic uncovered in a tomb from the end of Alexander’s reign, near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece. The large mosaic shows the God of the Underworld kidnapping a red-haired goddess who will become his queen.

The large tomb was clearly intended for someone of importance from the period of Alexander’s death. The motif of a queen carried to the underworld leads to speculation the tomb’s occupant was a woman, and possibly Alexander’s wife Roxane or mother Olympias. There is even some basis for believing the mosaic depicts Alexander himself with his parents cast in the roles of gods. “Only time, and further excavation, will tell.”

“Day One of the Mars Era”

Orion launchLots of sources are reporting on this:

“The star of the day is Orion,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., according to the AP. He called the success “Day One of the Mars era.” The Atlantic

I’m working on a concept for a book set in a colony on Mars. I think the first settlers on Mars will have a difficult life. I don’t think I want to go – not that it’s likely to come up.

False Summit – a poem by Kate Rauner

The valley’s in darknesstrail sign by Kate Rauner
Where lingering mist
Follows the river
Through each shaded twist.
The chill at a sunrise
In damp morning air
Just raises excitement
In each prickling hair.
The mountain above me
Is pink in the dawn
And it will be mine
Before day is gone.
A path through the trees
Is clear to my eyes,
Feel my muscles
Warm as I climb.
Sharp scent of the trees,
The hum in the air,
Songs from the birds
Follow me where,
Still below tree line,
I set my own rate.
Here comes the hard slog,
I make my own fate.
A pack’s on my back
But I’m traveling light.
Nothing will slow
My march to the heights.
My throat turns to dust,
So I drink as I move,
Snack from my pockets,
There’s no time to lose.
The path becomes narrow,
The trees become thin.
They lean down the mountain
Away from the wind.
A patch of bright lichen
Enlivens the trail,
Crystals in rock,
A bevy of quail,
The chirp of a pica
A hawk overhead,
They don’t impede,
They drive me instead.
I’ll carry the ache
Till I reach the top,
Place boot before boot,
I never will stop.
Trudging gets harder,
Muscles complain,
Rocks slip underfoot,
Unforgiving terrain.
Breath becomes ragged,
I push through the pain,
Embrace the discomfort,
The sweat and the strain.
Now I approach it,
The peak I discern,
My goal’s within reach,
All that I’ve earned.
A last tired scramble,
A scrape to the knee,
Heave over the ridge
And what do I see?
Mountains on mountains
Reach higher than high,
March to the horizon,
Scraping the sky.
I’m worn and I’m footsore,
But barely begun.
The mountains are endless.
I’ll never be done.
Seen from my poor perch
The outlook is vast.
In long evening shadows
I laugh and I laugh.
Inspired by hiking in the Rockies. And by living life.

Take That! Standard Writing Advice

Maze RunnerThere are lots of writing tips out there. I am reading popular science fiction to help me understand the “rules”.

The Maze Runner (book one of a series that also includes a prequel) certainly qualifies as popular. It rates 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on Amazon, with 324 reviews for the version I checked, and was recently made into a movie. It’s easy to read and I finished it in a weekend. I feel a bit overdosed on teenagers in dystopian worlds, so I don’t think I’ll read the next book.

The story’s setting is its strongest point – an enormous maze built from unclimbably-tall walls, some of which move at night, inhabited by weird and highly imaginative monsters. (How could movie makers resist these way-cool monsters?) The monsters may wander the maze during the day, but always, murderously, come out at night. Several dozen teenage boys live in the safe, central “Glade” where they raise crops and farm animals. Memories of their previous lives have been “wiped” and a new boy arrives once a month on an underground elevator. A few “runners” map the changing maze each day, seeking a way out. In over two years, they have failed to solve the maze.

The story follows Thomas, the latest arrival.

It seems obvious that author James Dashner intended The Maze Runner to be the first book in a series. Writing advice says “each book in the series must have satisfactory individual story arc resolutions.” It’s hard to discuss the ending without spoilers, but, while there is a major development, there is no solid ending to The Maze Runner – the ending sets up the next book. This criticism pops up in reviews of the movie, too. Thomas and the surviving boys (sort of) learn why the maze was created and why they were imprisoned there. The actions of the Creators of the maze seem counter-productive to their own goals – how did this help them? Baffling. And one of the characters, the only girl to ever arrive at the Glade, seems superfluous, only introduced to be there at the start of the next book.

One review on Amazon says such criticisms are misplaced, that everything is explained in the rest of the series. If you love the book, realizing there are two more books to buy may be a good thing. Personally, I appreciate each book in a series having its own ending.

Here are a few more observations.

Advice: Edit out typos.

Dashner’s book was beautifully edited.

Advice: Show, don’t tell.

Dashner provides a lot of action, so he follows this well. I did notice that the characters often refuse to answer each others questions. A little “telling” among characters would have been okay with me.

Advice: “There’s a concept behind [a series] that ties the books together and gives readers a reason to come back book after book… This concept will be at the heart of every core conflict. It will likely be the thing you say first when describing your series to people, as it will define what the series is about.” Janice Hardy

Dashner: The hook for The Maze Runner is definitely the maze, and it seems unlikely to me that the maze will reappear in the rest of the series. The second book has equally stellar reviews on Amazon, so this doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

Advice: Avoid saidisms – that is, the tags on dialogue should only be “he said” “she said” and, where it’s clear who’s speaking, drop them entirely.

Dashner: He mostly avoids saidisms – for example:

  • Thomas nodded at him. “A beetle?”
  • “Cuz you’re the newest Newbie.” Chuck pointed at Thomas and laughed.

But he’s not afraid of saidisms:

  • “asked” (To me, this one seems impossible to avoid when the dialog’s a question.)
  • “shouted”
  • “responded”
  • “murmured”
  • “demanded”
  • “yelled”
  • “replied”

A few times I stopped reading to go back to specifically check on what Dashner had used, so his saidisms didn’t interfere with my reading. But saidism advice is repeated so often, I’m intimidated and try to stick to “said” and “ask” in my own writing.

One other note on dialog. Dashner uses invented swear words, and uses them liberally. (Is it true teenage boys can’t form a sentence without a vulgarity?) It worked okay for me, perhaps because invented swear words don’t hit the same spot in my brain as real ones. I find endless use of swear words annoying.

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

Dashner’s whole premise of the boys having their memories wiped negates this advice. Take that! standard advice.

If you’ve read The Maze Runner and can compare Dashner to standard writing advice, or have other thoughts on writing advice, please leave a comment. Let us know what you think.

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