Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Writing Assignment: Writing About Three Objects

Friday, May 10th, 2013

Writing a description of a single object is always a good exercise. If you add another thing, write about two objects, you can compare and contrast them. Add a third and you have a set and the possibilities multiply. The set is often more interesting than the objects contained in the set.

Sets go beyond mathematics. They are they ways we organize our lives. Two objects are interesting—three is a collection.  Look around you: the things that you use and value are often found in groups of at least three. My desk contains no fewer than ten manual writing implements at any one time. Observing that alone would give you a clue that I may be a writer.

Here’s my example:

Above my office bookshelf I have a selection of science fiction pulp magazines. I’ve had each carefully prepared and framed with museum-quality mounting. The entire issue is carefully preserved—not just the cover. They are also primarily Volume 1, Number 1 issues (accept for the three issues of Astounding carrying the serialization of Robert A. Heinlein’s “Double Star”).

One of my favorites is a single frame holding three small format magazines, each v.1, no.1. They are a set: Vanguard, Venture, Vortex.

Their covers are endlessly fascinating. Vanguard shows the tail of a blasting rocket in space where an unlucky astronaut has fallen into the fiery exhaust. Venture’s cover has a powerful, bare-chested caged man in the background. He appears dominated by the strong, redheaded women in the foreground. Her breasts are covered by metallic cones and she wears a sheer top. It is clear that she is in charge, but of what? Vortex displays either a giant microscope focused on a man and a women fallen upon the slide surface, or is it a miniature couple, reduced in some mysterious way?

Each cover promises a story, action, and exotic adventure. I’ve learned that most of these magazines, called, “pulps” because of the poor quality paper used in their printing, also have equally poor writing, but not all do. Within their covers the greats of the golden era learned their trade and built a powerful genre. The stories, good or bad, were wrapped in glorious, lurid covers. There’s a promise in these covers. And that’s why I display them in the room where I write, where I work.

For today’s assignment, take three like objects, even if they are very little alike, and write about them. You can spend some time, but not much, describing them. Your task with this assignment is to talk about them as a whole, a set. What does the set itself evoke? What does combining these objects unlock, allow you to think and then write about?

It shouldn’t take you long to look at your surroundings, find three like objects and begin writing about them as a single thing.


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Writing Assignment: Write A “What If?”

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Life, history, is a continual stream of choices and events. History may not be just “one damn thing after another.” I think it’s closer to “the story of things that almost didn’t happen.”

These things that happened and didn’t happen are an exceptionally fertile playground for writers.

I’m a fan of science fiction and the sub-genre of “alternate histories.” It’s fun to think through what the world would be like if one particular event didn’t happen, or happened slightly differently. Change one thing, just one tiny thing, and does it matter? Or are there big, world shaping changes from that little change?

For science fiction fans, a little story by Larry Niven titled “The Return of William Proxmire” is a beautiful example of this and a loving tribute to one of the genre’s giants, Robert A. Heinlein. In this story Niven asks, “what if Heinlein didn’t get tuberculosis and stayed in the Navy instead of getting sick and becoming a science fiction writer?” It’s great fun and you’ll find the story in What Might Have Been, Volumes 1 and 2

Changes don’t have to be earth shattering. It’s interesting to think back on one’s own life and imagine what it would be like if we’d taken that other job, missed that plane, talked with that stranger a bit longer. It’s a terrific exercise for the imagination as long as you don’t become lost in speculation or obsessed with what might have been.

For today’s assignment, pick an event, either historical or personal, and then write a short piece describing how life and history might have been different. What if Lincoln hadn’t died in Ford’s Theater? What if you had picked a different school/job/career? What differences can you imagine? What would life be like?

This is a useful exercise when looking at the past, but also interesting for looking ahead to the future. You can perform the same exercise, imagining what your life will be like depending on the choices you make. [Note: research tells us that we’re more accurate with predicting someone else’s future based upon their decisions and often overly optimistic when predicting our own. See Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert for more on this subject.]



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Living In The Future, Keeping It In Your Pocket

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

I bought a new camera the other day. It doesn’t matter which one—they change so rapidly. It literally took me months to make up my mind and choose one.

I find digital cameras frustrating. When I was a kid I got a good quality 35mm camera and used it for over twenty years. It was still in perfect working order when I sold it and bought a new camera. Now I regret letting it go, but then again, I could go down to the excellent Columbus Camera Group and buy one very much like it for a few bucks.

The most use I’ve gotten out of a digital camera is about five years. The last one I bought about five years ago and has mostly sat on the shelf for over a year while we used the quite passible cameras in our iPhone 4 (not “S”, just 4).

And while the camera in the iPhone 4 and the superior iPhone 4S are very good, the lens is tiny and they don’t take great pictures in many situations. And we found that we just didn’t feel comfortable without a really good camera. On the other hand, we didn’t want to spend thousands and get a big Single Lens Reflex (SLR) with lots of interchangeable lenses to carry around. I asked friends who know about these things, queried the net, and bought a camera. It still took me months to actually go out and buy it (and by that time, the camera that had been recommended had moved on to the next model).

It’s a pretty good camera, but what is astonishing is just how much real super tech is hidden inside this package smaller than a deck of cards.

It will take very good photos in almost any situation. That’s the baseline. But it also has integrated GPS, so it knows where each photo is taken. I bought two 32 gigabyte SD memory cards—Class 10 high speed memory cards. Each cost less than $40 and each will hold up to 10,000 12 megapixel pictures or two hours of high definition, widescreen video (1080p). A few years ago I paid thousands of dollars for 2 megabyte chips for computers, and now I’m buying little pieces of metal, plastic, and silicon with orders of magnitude more memory for forty bucks. I also recall that before my first daughter was born I bought a pretty good 35mm camera for around $300 (which we still have and which still works), but it’s big and heavy. It takes between 24 and 36 photos on a roll of film. We also bought a VHS video camera. It too was big and heavy, the kind that you had to balance on your shoulder like a TV news crew. It would record two hours of grainy video on a single tape, if you had enough battery power. My new digital camera weighs a fraction of what the battery for that old unit did.

When you look at the LCD covered back of the new camera and point it at something, the camera is alive with information, the type of display we’d see when watching a futuristic movie. If I’m pointing the camera at a person or group of people, it recognizes faces and puts little squares around them, focusing automatically. If something is moving, it will track them. There is astonishing computing power in this little camera. And there’s nothing particularly special about this specific make and model. Virtually all modern cameras have these capabilities.

You may be new to the world and things may have always seemed this way to you, but I am not. I see that there are astonishing leaps in technology that many others take for granted. Just in this one device costing a bit over $400 are capabilities and powers that twenty years ago would taken a budget of hundreds of thousands of dollars to fake with special effects for a high-flying science fiction movie.

Yes, the toaster still browns bread by overheating wires, but I carry a Star Trek communicator/tricorder in my pocket, just like millions of other people. There are lots of things that people think of as futuristic high tech, like shooting rockets into space, but those things are actually very low tech items, things we’ve been doing since World War II. And this is the problem with the rapidly accelerating sci-fi world. It’s leaping ahead of us, ending up in our pockets without us even realizing what we have. Someday, soon, we’ll likely all wake up with our jetpacks and rocket cars and ask ourselves, “When did that happen?”

It happened yesterday.

A word or two on the term “Sci-fi.” Sci-fi is a very fifties sounding word, and for good reasons. America in the fifties was mesmerized by the rocket-whizzing science fiction world that was just around the corner. You no longer wanted a record player, you wanted a High Fidelity stereo system or Hi-Fi. Forrest J. Ackerman made the connection and coined the word “sci-fi” and it stuck, although some fans of the genre greatly dislike it.

Both of those terms stand for something, but the modern equivalent, “wifi” does not. It’s simply a catchy term that follows the pattern. Wifi does not stand for “Wireless Fidelity.” That doesn’t even make sense. It’s simply the name of the thing that follows in the footsteps of HiFis, Sci-Fi, and beeping satellites.

Welcome to the future.

A Man Walks Into A Bar

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

It was the middle of the afternoon, but the way my day had gone I was done. Finished. So I found the nearest bar and walked in.

It had been so bright outside and so dark in that bar that I had to stand inside the door for several seconds, remove my sun glasses, and stand there, blinking, waiting for my vision to clear. The place was empty, empty except for one guy on a bar stool and a couple more in the back booth. The guy at the bar was leaning heavily on it. The two in a booth near the back were whispering urgently to each other. So I took a seat at the bar with a stool between me and the other guy. The bartender looked up at me from the sink where he was washing glasses. I ordered a beer and a shot of bourbon.

As he set the drinks in front of me, the man seated near me took a deep, noisy breath through his nose and sighed. I glanced at him and saw him staring at the bar in front of him and shaking his head. He licked his lips he said to the bartender, “Again.”

I looked away, threw back my shot and took a long drink from my beer. I closed my eyes, straightened my back, and allowed myself a little sigh.

“Yeah,” said the guy on the stool, “one of those days.”

I nodded without looking over at him. I could see him reflected in the bar mirror and he could see me.

“One of those weeks,” I told him.

He raised his glass, but it was empty. The bartender hadn’t made his a fresh drink yet. He frowned and shook his head. “Here’s to Tuesdays,” he said and sat the glass back on the bar. The bartender removed it and set a fresh drink on a napkin in front of him. The man chuckled a little and shook his head again, then took a sip from his drink.

“That really should be my last.” He signaled for the check and the bartender nodded at him and went to the cash register. I turned to my right to look at him and found him turned toward me on his stool, smiling at me.

“Back to work?” I asked, more to be polite than out of curiosity.

“Nope. Nothing much to do these days. He grinned widely, then reached out and picked up something from the bar. He held it up. It looked like a rectangle of glass in a black frame. He peered through it at me and winked. “I see you!” he said, grinning widely.

“OK,” I said and turned back to my beer.

“Franklin Schm-mm-e-er.”

I looked back at him. “What did you say?”

“Frank Schmit-e-miner-er-er. That’s you. Camden, Maine. You’re a long way from home, Frankie.”

He was too drunk to pronounce my name, but he knew it. I turned to face him. “Excuse me, do I know you?”


“Then how do you know me?”

“I don’t.” He put the glass thing back on the bar. “But you are known.”

“What did you say?”

He pointed at me and nodded his head with each word. “You. Are. Known.” He stretched out the word known into a growl. Knoooon.

“What the hell is this? Do you have something to say to me?”

“Nope.” He picked up his drink and practically poured it down his throat. He set it on the bar, wiped his mouth with his napkin and looked at me. He blinked several times, as if he were having trouble focusing. He reached for his wallet, pulled out a card, and handed it to the bartender, who swiped it and handed it back.

“That,” he stabbed his finger at the glass rectangle on the bar, “that is a hell of a thing.”

I glared at him, then turned back to my beer.

“No, really,” he said, “a hell of a thing. I look through this and I can see exactly what’s in this drink, the brand of Scotch, even where it was made and the in-greedy-yants.” He paused and took a deep breath through his nose. “Or people. Where they’re from, where they work, where they’re going.”

“OK.” I said and focused on my beer.

“And,” he started.

I turned to face him. “Look, I just came in here for a drink.”

“And you’re not gonna get that job after all. Sucks.”


“Doesn’t matter, they’re out of money. Won’t last another five weeks. You’re better off not going down the toilet with them.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Me? Nobody. No one.” He picked up the rectangle of glass and looked at me through it again. “But you. You shouldn’t be wasting your time out here. Chicago. That’s where you should be. The one in Illinois.”

I reached out and took the thing from him. I turned it over, but it just looked like a piece of glass. I looked back at him to see him nodding and wiggling the fingers of his left hand at me.

“Touch control. Just my touch. But here.” He took it back from me, ran his fingertip back and fourth across the glass, then handed it back. “Now, you touch it.”

I held it at the edges, looked at it, then back at him. I set it back on the bar without touching the face.

“Suit yourself,” he said, then slid off the stool and managed to plant his feet and remain standing. He pulled his sports jack straight and searched his pockets, coming up with a pair of sunglasses. “But you should be in Chicago.” Then he walked behind me, patted me on the shoulder, and went out into the over bright day.

After a minute or two the bartender asked, “What’s in Chicago?”

“A job offer. Not a bad one. And maybe a girl.”

“So what’s keeping you here?”

I shook my head and finished my beer. “Not much after today.”

I looked down at the bar and there it was, the drunk’s little rectangle of glass. I reached out to touch it and suddenly it wasn’t a piece of glass. I could see that it was some sort of phone or something.

“Hey,” I said to the bartender. “It looks like that guy left this.”

He looked down at the bar and shook his head.

“You can take it. They leave those damn things in here all the time. I’ve got a whole box of them back here, all different.”

“What are they?”

He shrugged his shoulders and finished drying the glass, put it in a rack, and took another from the sink. “Hell if I know. I’m tired of ’em leaving them in here.”

I left some money on the bar, put the piece of glass in my pocket, and walked back out into the California sun.

The Foundation Of The Future: Isaac Asimov, Steve Jobs, and What’s Next

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

I hope you’ll allow me this momentary hyperbolic flight.

Isaac Asimov wrote a very interesting series of novels called “The Foundation.” In them, his character, Hari Seldon, developed a science called psychohistory, with which he was able to accurately predict the large scale course of human events. It’s a great series, and was added to by some other popular science fiction writers over the years.

This idea, that one man could both predict and influence human events, is both fascinating and incredible.

And yet we have our own Hari Seldon. It’s Steve Jobs.

Take a moment an look at the technology on your desktop or in your hand. No matter what manufacturer you bought it from, it was touched by Steve Jobs. The man is no messiah, no guru, and yet his insight, taste, and drive has changed more than just products. It has created wealth, shaped professions, and influenced nations. He’s changed how we work, play, entertain ourselves, and to a surprising degree, how we perceive the world.

I imagine that somewhere in the halls of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino that there’s a secret locked boardroom. The walls are covered with whiteboards. Written on them, if you could somehow get in, you’d find notes and flow charts that were first created in 1996, when Jobs returned to Apple. The vision it expresses marched forward twenty years from its own creation. It’s been updated and expanded over the past few years, but it predicts remarkably well where we are today. It plotted out how to transform the “beleaguered” Mac into the most successful and and profitable computer platform on the market. The plan stepped through the introduction of a personal digital music playing device, the revolution of the recording industry, and the eventual and inevitable creation of handheld and portable communications and computing devices. It foresaw and planned for the elimination of physically-based music media sales, then of movies and television, and now of software.

And this vision now stretches another twenty years into the future.

Companies would spend untold millions for a peek into that room. It’s the future of not just Apple, not just the technology industry, but of how people will live and work. It’s both thrilling and frightening.

I’ve imagined standing in this room and following the flow back in time. It’s easy to do when you take all of the current products and look back each step, all the way back to the candy-colored iMacs. I imagine that if I could get into that room I’d be able to touch the next three iPhones and iPads. They’re sitting there, just ready for final tweaks before being released, once a year, without fail. And the walls include the plans for not just the next revolutionary product category, but the next ten.

And someday soon, when Apple creates its new “mother ship” headquarters, a circular building with 2.8 million square feet of space,there will be another, bigger room, somewhere deep in the bowels of the behemoth. Very few will ever see it, or know it exists. This one will plot out the path for Apple for fifty, maybe one hundred years, maybe for millennia.

Someday, hopefully many years from now, Jobs will move on. But it won’t be the end of an era. No, it will only be another point on that white board, anticipated, planned for, even desired. It’s not the end point. What comes after, what comes next, will surely be amazing.