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The Exoplanet: PAX East Steampunk Worldbuilding Workshop

April 19th, 2012 No comments

This is how 80 PAXers brainstorming awesome look.

A mad scientist opens a gate to another planet in Trafalgar Square. Colonists from Earth pour through to exploit the rich mineral resources on the other side. Years later, they’ve got their own culture, complete with shortwave radio arm clocks, a ruling class of albino weather control engineers, and a faction of rebels who disguise themselves as birdwatchers.

This was just some of the output from the steampunk worldbuilding workshop I ran with colleagues Carrie Willis and Andrew Linstrom at PAX East this year. We took a room of about 80 PAX participants, divided them into groups, gave them the seeds of a world, and had each group develop one aspect of it.

Carrie Willis has posted the full output of the exercise here, at the Steampunk Exoplanet blog. The material is Creative Commons licensed, meaning anyone can take it and make stuff with it — including commercial products — as long as they attribute it.

A lot of people complimented me on the format of the workshop, but I can’t take credit for it. That should go to Peter Rice and the late, great Wm. John Wheeler. Rice & Wheeler collaborated on some cool projects for FASA back in the day, but they’re probably best known for the Dungeon Master’s Workshop they ran at Gen Con back in the ’80s. A very similar worldbuilding exercise was part  of that workshop. I’m pleased that it was able to thrive at PAX.

Let’s do it again next year!

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Boskone 49!

February 23rd, 2012 No comments

I’m not sure how I’ve lived in Boston for seven years and had never been to Boskone before this year. Maybe the frequent laments from the fan community that this con ain’t what it used to be kept me away. I shouldn’t have listened. Boskone still attracts some people you really want to hear sharing their ideas, as evidenced by the day of panels I went to on Saturday, February 18.

The Highest Frontier (cover)

The Highest Frontier (J. Slonczewski), a Luna-as-Ark novel

First up was Occupy Luna with Vince Docherty, Allen M. Steele, Ian Randal Strock, and Alexander Jablokov. The panel topic was how to create a progressive, non-coercive society on Luna. I had high hopes for this one, and while it was a really interesting panel, it didn’t generate a lot of discussion of the central topic. It touched a little on anarchocapitalist/libertarian versus anarchosyndicalist/anarchocommunist ideas about what a Lunar society could look like (Lunar offshore banks vs. energy collectives, for example). But the discussion got bogged down in correcting misconceptions (mostly voiced by the audience) about the technical details of founding a Lunar colony.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time learning about this, I found the discussion of topics like why doming Lunar cities wouldn’t work to be kind of a snore. I’d like to see a discussion like this again — maybe with the moderator working more to keep it on political topics.

I did catch one interesting book mention: Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier (right), a post-climate change Luna-as-ark novel. (Slonczewski was on a panel about climate change later in the day; read on).

The next panel was The Year in Astronomy & Physics with Mark L. Olson, Jeff Hecht, and Guy Consolmagno. Topics ranged from FTL neutrinos (debunked two days later!) to the recent banquet of exoplanet data we’ve been getting from the Kepler and other sources.

The data on exoplanets we’re not getting disrupts current models of planet formation. The long-held model of how Earth’s solar system formed from a stellar accretion disc explains why we have small terrestrial planets and metals close to the sun, with gas/ice giants, silicates, and water ice farther out. Finding exoplanetary systems that look nothing like this has called that model into question. At the same time, it offers tantalizing possible explanations of  things like why Mars is so small and why Uranus and Neptune have unusual orbits. Astronomers are only in the first stages of puzzling out what it all means, though.

Brother Astronomer, by Guy Consolmagno (cover)

Brother Astronomer, by Guy Consolmagno

My favorite person on this panel was Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteors at the Vatican observatory, so later in the day, I went to his solo talk, Discarded Images: Astronomical Ideas That Were Almost Correct. Wow. If you ever get a chance to see this guy talk, jump at it. He’s a font of knowledge, from stories of bartering with shadowy European collectors for access to their privately held meteorites, to tracing the winding path to a heliocentric view of the solar system. He’s also a Jesuit, and by the end, I wanted to go up and wish him Good Apert to see if he got the joke.

Next up was How Not to Produce an E-Book with Stephen Segal, Neil Clarke, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. This panel was mostly a technical download, and while I could have learned a lot of this stuff if I got off my butt and googled it, it was good hearing opinions on the various technologies out there from people who’ve been doing it successfully.

I’ll post what I learned on this panel next week. Clarke in particular had a lot of good info to share.

Under the Moons of Mars (cover), edited by John Joseph Adams

Under the Moons of Mars, edited by John Joseph Adams

After lunch, I hit up John Joseph Adams’ reading from the new Under the Moons of Mars anthology. I’m a sucker for this one; I loved the John Carter stories and went back to them when I was working on Mars for Eclipse Phase. This antho will definitely be on my to-get list (it’s got a Peter Beagle story!), although unfortunately it wasn’t on sale at the con.

Adams chose to read the story Three Deaths by David Barr Kirtley. It’s a tale told from the perspective of a green Martian who loses a fight to John Carter, and it’s pitch-perfect.

After that was the panel Environmental Rearguarding: What to Do After It’s Too Late, with Alexander Jablokov moderating, Jorin T. Kare, Jeff Hecht, Tom Easton, and Joan Slonczewski. The topic was great: how do we adapt, and even profit, if climate change gets completely out of control? Unfortunately, both the panel and audience seemed more interested in talking about ways of stopping climate change. Hey, I love the progressivism of sci-fi, too — but I wanted to hear more about evil profiteering! Jablokov kept trying to steer the panel back that way, but it didn’t take. Oh well. I learned some interesting stuff from the engineer on the panel about proposals for seeding clouds with various albedo-raising substances (some of the proposals were crazy — pipeline to the clouds, anyone?).

The audience for this panel tripped one of my pet peeves. Please, don’t be that person who sits in the front row and tries to have a dialog with the panel. It’s just rude, both to the panelists, and to the rest of the audience. I don’t care how knowledgeable you are. And if you’re a panelist, don’t enable this behavior. You might think you’re being nice, but you’re not doing anyone any favors.

I finished off with Creating Worlds for Online Gaming, with Brianna Spacekat Wu moderating, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter H. Hunt, Timothy P. Szczesuil, and Margaret Ronald. I’d meant to avoid gaming panels (especially a month before PAX), but the panel I was originally going to had really loud filk right next door. (A pox upon filk — and also upon anime credit music singalongs, which seem to be the younger generation’s equivalent). Although I picked up a lot of interesting information about the gaming biz, my favorite part of this panel might have been Hunt, a voice actor, discussing how he had one recording session that was nothing but him grunting thirty different ways to simulate the character getting beaten on in combat.

Beyond panels, the con had a decent-sized huckster room, where I somehow managed to contain my book addiction long enough to make it to the door.

So I’m not sure why rumors of this con’s demise still circulate. It might be smaller than it once was, but I won’t be missing it next year.

 

Eclipse Phase: Panopticon & Broken Time Blues Go Live

August 17th, 2011 No comments
Panopticon cover

Eclipse Phase: Panopticon. Is that a monkey & an octopus in a pit fight? You bet your sweet ass it is, paatno-san.

The new Eclipse Phase hardcover, Panopticon: A Focused Eye on Transhumanity, Vol. I, went live for PDF sales on DriveThruRPG.net today. It’s available as both a standalone PDF and a Creative Commons-licensed hack pack so that players & GMs can mash up the art for their own use.

Physical copies of Panopticon will be available in  gaming stores (at least in the U.S.) on August 31. Support your FLGS! But if you just can’t wait that long, or don’t have a game store that stocks Eclipse Phase, it’s also available through Indie Press Revolution.

Panopticon features new material on uplifted animals, ubiquitous surveillance, and space habitats (the chapter I co-authored with Justin Kugler). Along with beautiful art and detailed setting information, it’s packed with new morphs, new gear, and new mechanics of use to both players and GMs. This is a great book to own if you’re into the high tech dungeon crawl or political aspects of the game, and the chapter on sentient animals is essential reading if your campaign involves uplifts. And the opening story, El Destino Verde, also written by me, ain’t too shabby, either… in my entirely humble opinion.

# # #

Broken Time Blues cover art

Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring Twenties

Meanwhile, on the fiction front, my story Der Graue Engel appears in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring ’20s. It’s got a little bit of Fritz Lang, a little bit of Cabaret, and a little bit of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, all turned loose in a Weimar Germany that’s about to hit the skids big time. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book myself, because it’s also got stories by three of my Clarion West 2010 classmates — Frank Ard, John Remy, and Andrew Romine — as well as by Paizo’s fiction editor, the estimable James Sutter. Keen-as-hell art by Galen Dara ices the cake. Our editors, Jaym Gates and Erika Holt, themed their last anthology, Rigor Amortis, around zombie erotica, so I highly doubt they pulled any punches on this one.

All right, enough marketing. I’ve got another chapter of Eclipse Phase: Rimward to polish off tonight…

NPR’s Top 100 Sci-Fi Novels Ever

August 11th, 2011 2 comments
asimovfoundation

I really should read more Asimov. And Bradbury. And... yeah, you get the idea.

Locus Magazine reported on Twitter that NPR had done a listener poll asking people to nominate and rank the best 100 SF books of all time. Of course, this makes it a popularity content, but the 60,000 respondents were enough to represent an interesting sample size.

Here’s what they picked.

No huge surprises, although I was disappointed to see Ender’s Game, a book I enjoyed but feel is overrated, in the #3 spot. I was also surprised that Neal Stephenson’s books didn’t rank higher, and that Neuromancer, a pretty important book even in a post-VR world, didn’t make the top ten.

That said, this inspired me to collate (following NPR listeners’ rankings) my…

List of Important Fantasy & SF Books I Still Need to Read
(According to NPR Readers, Who May or May Not Be Trustworthy)

  1. The Foundation Trilogy, Asimov
  2. American Gods, Gaiman
  3. I, Robot, Asmiov
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood
  5. The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury
  6. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein
  7. The Mists of Avalon, Bradley
  8. The Once & Future King, White
  9. Childhood’s End, Clarke
  10. Cryptonomicon, Stephenson
  11. World War Z, Brooks
  12. The Last Unicorn, Beagle
  13. The Forever War, Haldeman
  14. Small Gods, Pratchett
  15. The Mote in God’s Eye, Niven/Pournelle
  16. The Road, McCarthy
  17. Old Man’s War, Scalzi
  18. The Dispossessed, LeGuin (just started reading this one a few days ago, actually)
  19. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury
  20. The Culture Series, Banks
  21. The Illustrated Man, Bradbury
  22. Red Mars, Robinson
  23. Doomsday Book, Willis
  24. Perdido Street Station, Mieville

But it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that I’ve got about two dozen books queued up on my shelf that I should probably get to before I run out & buy these…

PAX, a brief spell of Minecraft addiction, PaizoCon, Firefly & Points Beyond

July 21st, 2011 No comments
El Destino Verde cover

El Destino Verde, part one of an Eclipse Phase novelette

Stuff I’ve done the last few months…

  • Ran some games at TempleCon, including Eclipse Phase and the AD&D 1st Edition module White Plume Mountain (one of my all time favorites).
  • Spoke/discussed/brawled in panels at PAX (which we shall now call Prime rather than East, because it is bigger) and Total Confusion.
  • Played Minecraft until it warped my perceptions of the real world. (But I’m better now. I swear.)
  • Headed out to Seattle with my girlfriend to experience the novelty of a gaming con (PaizoCon) where I don’t do any work. Well, minimal work. Before heading back to Bahston, we spent a day in Seattle visiting friends & a few of my Clarion West haunts.
  • Built a giant bug (actually, it was a mammoth, but… long story… anyway) out of forest deadfall & burned it whilst a bunch of hippies danced semi-clad around it with fire.
  • The usual feverish writing in my off hours, including Eclipse Phase: Rimward.
  • My first piece of Eclipse Phase fiction, “El Destino Verde” came out in e-book. It’s the opening fiction for Eclipse Phase: The Panopticon, as well as first of a three part novelette. You can get it from both DriveThru RPG and the Amazon Kindle store.).

Stuff I’ll be up to…

  • Gen Con! I’m rather excited about it. I actually get to GM Eclipse Phase this year (as opposed to being in the booth the whole con). And I’ve even convinced a few people to observe the ancient Gen Con tradition of playing Dawn Patrol (aka, Fight in the Skies) on Saturday morning. Other than that, I’ll be in the Posthuman Studios booth much of the time.
  • Broken Time Blues, the anthology containing my story “Der Graue Engle” will be coming out soon. I’ll devote a post to it once I know the release date.

Cranky Stross is cranky.

November 5th, 2010 No comments

Nothing in this post ain’t been said before. Steampunk is hot because, like paranormal romance, people’re buying it. Tor & io9 aren’t “foisting” anything. They’re responding to the market. Still, a good summary of all that’s problematic in steampunk.