Reading challenge part 1 (1-5).

Short reviews of the first 5 books read for my 2017 reading challenge.

Vigil

Angela Slatter

Category: A book that’s been on your TBR list for way too long

I kicked off the year with Vigil, as it’s been on my TBR pile since July last year (ok, I have books that have been on there longer but they’re mostly anthologies and collections and I wanted a novel). Disclaimer: I know Angela, and I love many of her stories, so I’m not exactly an unbiased reviewer here. Vigil was a fun (it is dark though), quick read, with mythical creatures living alongside mundane humans in Brisbane (or Brisneyland). There were lots of little deft touches I appreciated. 4 stars

Ugly

Robert Hoge

Category: A book by or about a person with a disability

I read the younger readers edition of Ugly as it’s on my selection list for the school library this year. I wanted to be able to sell it to the kids (and the teachers). Another disclaimer: I also know Rob, and have been meaning to read this for a while. I think Ugly is a must-read, and am planning to read the adult’s version as well. 4.5 stars

Poison

Sarah Pinborough

Category: A book with a red spine

I picked up Poison because it has a red spine. The blurb promised a sexy retelling of Snow White. I read the first page and the writing seemed fine so I borrowed it. Read it in a couple of days. Poison isn’t amazing, it was an enjoyable read, though I had some issues with the storytelling. 3 stars.

Fingersmith

Sarah Waters

Category: A bestseller from a genre you don’t normally read

I am so thankful for this reading challenge as I never would have read this book otherwise. I loved it, even though it was quite hefty I devoured it within several days (I even stayed up late to read it, which I rarely do now). It’s kind of a LGBT Dickensian con story, with love and intrigue. 5 stars

Everfair

Nisi Shawl

Category: A steampunk novel

I had some big issues with this novel, from a narrative perspective. It was structured like a bunch of short character vignettes to tell the story of the country Everfair (spanning 1889-1919), which meant that there wasn’t any real plot to follow. It took me over 100 pages to feel any kind of pull to continue reading, and I came very close to abandoning it purely because there were only a couple of characters I could really “see”, and I was having trouble keeping track of everyone else. I like character-driven stories; “idea” stories where the characters serve as chess pieces moving around the board don’t tend to drag me in so much, and I did think this book has too much of the chess board feel. Which was a pity, as I desperately wanted to love it (African steampunk!) and it’s a fabulous concept (I loved the prosthetic limbs). Lots of key action moments happened “off-screen”, POV characters died but were mentioned in passing as having died in a vignette set a couple of years later. There were quite a few “plot” devices that made no sense, and lots of character moments that made no sense. There are some very comprehensive Goodreads reviews that summarise my exact feelings about the novel. 2.5 stars

Popsugar Reading Challenge

So I signed up to participate in this reading challenge with a group of workmates (librarians!) I’ve let my reading slip since having children, and over the past few years have been mostly reading short stories because 1) I write short stories 2) they are quick to read 3) my attention span was pretty fragmented for a while there. I used to love reading big thick novels but these days my patience is gone for rambly, under-edited novels. And if the writing frustrates me or I’m bored I’ll happily give up on it. (That, by the way, is why my Goodreads ratings tend to be on the higher side, because I rarely rate books I don’t finish as I feel it’s unfair).

When I was invited to participate I saw this as a good way to read a bunch of novels this year, for once. You can see the categories here. I’m also setting myself an extra challenge to ensure I get a good mix of diversity in my authors and protagonists, and there’ll be some children’s books as well. At the end of the year I’ll do a break down to see how I go with that. I’ll do a post every 5 books to provide brief reviews. First one should be up soon.

2016… woah.

It’s becoming a bit of a cliché to complain about 2016 being an awful year. It’s been a… layered… year for me. There have been bad things, awful things, good things and great things to come out of the year.

sealife-photo

Ridiculous family portrait

Writing-wise, my accomplishments are as follows:

  • “Sea Borne” published in SQ Mag
  • “Searching for Cidalisa” published in Aurealis
  • “Women and Parkour” published at the Dangerous Women Project
  • “Heat, Flies and Cane Toads” reprinted by Poetry and Place 
  • “Three Trophies” mentioned on Ellen Datlow’s longlist and selected for reprinting elsewhere (not sure if the ToC has been released though)
  • “The Heart is an Echo Chamber”, a chapbook of vignettes (one by me) and the cover art by me, published.

So I did managed to meet my goal of selling two stories, phew. That list… well, could have been better, could have been worse. It was a pretty crazy year at uni though, so it is what it is.

At uni I managed to get all 7s (high distinctions) this year. I have 3 subjects left, so should be finished by the end of 2017, barring major catastrophes.

I am still working at my uni library. I’ve taken on more hours so it’s been fun trying to navigate work/study/family.

I wasn’t going to post about my kids, but I will post a little about each because they each inspire and challenge me.

Eldest graduated primary school. She’s going onto high school as part of a solid group of seniors, who will spend the holidays strengthening their bond. They are all so very different, and yet they do a good job of looking out for each other. She’s been accepted into her high school’s language immersion program, and ended the school year by tackling some academic demons. She started piano lessons this year and is picking it up very quickly. This year, Eldest showed me that her sense of herself is firm and she won’t be manipulated or coerced into being something she is not. And that, my friends, is astounding to me, and oh so beautiful (and let’s face it, a relief, given high school is right there staring at us).

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Eldest and I on the way to Woodford

Middle amazed me this year. She rocked out the end of year concert on drums, playing “Seven Nation Army” with her teacher on guitar. She goes from strength to strength–this year her emotional development has been phenomenal and her ability to advocate for her friends and herself is growing. Middle is endlessly curious and surprising. I think my favourite part of her growth this year was that she organised and led a protest at school about something she thought was unfair, and that protest led to change!

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Middle plays “Seven Nation Army” at EOY concert

Youngest… what a year. While his speech is still mostly single words or scripted speech, he is using it to communicate more and more. He showed us a phenomenal “splinter skill” (paed’s words, not mine) in his ability to make words out of letters, purely from memory. He’s still affectionate and funny, he has a reputation at daycare as a climber (takes after his mum!) and has been stealing food (at daycare) like a little magpie. Oops. There are still a lot of challenges to navigate but I do feel very grateful he makes it easy to love him.

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Loves selfies

Contact was a highlight of the start of the year. Things fell apart personally for a while after that, but I’ve achieved an equilibrium. In October/November a whole bunch of near-disastrous things (and some actual disastrous things) happened and I managed to deal with them all without falling apart so obviously I’m getting a bit more resilient.

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Gorgeous bar scenery

I haven’t managed to keep up my fitness as much as I would have liked. I did True Grit in August and Spartan in September, but I injured my wrist at True Grit and have had to rest it a lot since. That meant I haven’t gone to parkour much. Rockclimbing also fell by the wayside. But, it’s never the end and I’ll pick it back up again. I did a few hikes in the cooler months, and am looking forward to getting back onto the trails.

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After the Spartan Sprint

I went to Woodford for a day… it was my first time! Everyone is always shocked by that but if you know me well you’d understand that crowds+uncertain weather+long drive+the unknown=me finding any excuse to not do the thing. Anyway, it was fun but I think it would be better if I stayed a few days. My eldest is camping with friends so she’s enjoying the full Woodford experience.

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Giants at Woodford

Carrie Fisher’s death had a big impact on me. It might sound awful, but none of the celebrity deaths this year have really moved me beyond “that’s sad, X was too young” (or “that’s sad, but good innings eh?”). Until Carrie Fisher. Princess Leia was my first hero… I mean, I had a massive crush on Harrison Ford, but he wasn’t my hero. Leia was. Here was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, unfashionably pale, short woman standing unapologetically with fire and determination. I wanted to be her, and I wanted her to be real so badly. I struggled with the knowledge there was a real, flawed person behind the character I loved. I didn’t want to know that she was suffering as a result of something that had given me so much joy and inspiration. When I saw Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally I pretended she was a different person (honestly, she looked like my mum… and while I love my mum I was young enough to not want my hero and my mum to look like the same person–now I’m older I think it’s pretty funny!). As a consequence of my bizarre doublethink I didn’t read any of her books, or even try to find out more about the real Carrie Fisher. And then I saw her GMA interview when The Force Awakens happened and she was fucking hilarious. I couldn’t stop laughing. I read an interview with her about her affair with Harrison Ford and felt so many emotions. I was starting to feel ready to accept and embrace the person behind Leia… and then she died.

You know, I know this all sounds weird. To be honest I don’t think I have any other childhood heroes because it was such an unsettling realisation, that the public persona (in my case, Leia, a fictional character, but let’s face it most celebrities have a semi-fictional public persona) had a “woman behind the curtains” that I shunned celebrity worship for the rest of my life. I was completely unprepared for how this would affect me. I watched a whole bunch of interviews of her on Craig Ferguson’s Late Show the other night… binge-watched. And I’ll be reading her books too, because why the fuck didn’t I do that earlier? (I know why, it’s a rhetorical question). The stupid thing is, Carrie Fisher was awesome. She was the kind of person I aspire to be. Carrie, that is, not Leia. I wish it hadn’t taken me until her death to really figure that out.

Hmmm, how do I finish from that? Look, I know there is a lot to be depressed and despairing about looking back on 2016, and glancing sideways into 2017, but that way madness lies. Maybe it’s a kind of mania that encourages us to grip tightly to hope in the face of certain doom, but that’s my kind of mania. And it’s served me well so far. And with that… photo of the year is me up a tree, because why not?

A photo of a woman sitting in a tree

Me up a tree.

“Searching for Cidalisa” published in Aurealis #96

Cover of Aurealis #96 features two faceless men

Cover art by Brenda Bailey

My short science fiction story is now available to read through Smashwords. It’s directly inspired by my Master of Information Science studies, featuring Google AI and rogue databases. I was thrilled to see the artwork by Andrew J McKiernan, he did a fabulous job of the Boolean too (you’ll have to buy the mag to see the artwork though, sorry)! It’s the first time I’ve had a story illustrated, and I absolutely love it. The issue will set you back a mere USD$2.99, so get onto it!

***

In my dreams, I searched the databases. Input search query, examine results, refine search query. Fields, proximity operators, even the antiquated Boolean queries—I tried every combination I could think of, all night, until I woke in the morning in a haze of exhaustion, eyes glued together, mind overloaded. I’d thumb my earLink on and mumble the names of the databases into my journal so I knew which ones I’d searched. It was habit born of delusion. Once I’d had my first coffee I deleted the cloud entries. Those databases didn’t exist anymore. My fevered dream searching was pointless. Unresolved issues are the root of repetitive dreams, I’d read.

What was I looking for? Information. Answers. And maybe, an end to the tension in my shoulders, the ache in my gut. Closure.

I was searching for Cidalisa.

From the blurb: “Aurealis #96 features Patrick Doerksen’s ‘Extracts from a Life of Science Fiction’, a poetic meditation on the nature of science fiction and humanity, S G Larner’s ‘Searching for Cidalisa’ which explores a near future society of implanted memories and rogue databases, and Annika Howells’ eerie and lyrical ‘Obsidian River’ that will live with you long after you’ve finished reading.”

“Sea Borne” published in SQ Mag #29

My dark fantasy story “Sea Borne” is now available to read online at SQ Mag #29. It’s free to read, and only a bit over 4000 words so you have no excuse.

Cover art for edition 29

Art by Kodi Murray

Here’s a teaser for the story…

The sea peeled back from the bay, sucked by a force stronger than tides. Laid bare beneath the sun, fish glittered and flopped, and deep furrows in the naked ocean floor traced the line of the currents. The horizon bulged. Ahli gaped, as cries went up around her.

“Myr wave!”

Her father, Yune, dropped the net they were piling into their little round bowl-boat. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed inland.

“Run.”

If you like it, please share!

Spider silk: a rich harvest for science fiction writers

Science is going crazy over spider silk, and science fiction writers should be too. The unique properties of spider silk have enormous implications in the fields of technology, health, acoustics and wearable armour/fabric. If you’ve ever wanted to include some spider science in your stories, look no further! I’ve collected some resources to inspire your sci-fi tech, all based on actual real scientific research.

First off, some background. How is spider silk harvested?

Harvesting

As you can imagine, harvesting spider silk is not easy, and is the main reason scientists are trying to develop synthetic spider silk. Unlike silkworms, spiders bite, and golden orb weavers cannibalise each other. Unless you’ve dreamed up some placid, non-venomous species for your story (where’s the fun in that?) harvesting is going to be a concern for your characters or your world-building. So let’s get started. Warning… this video is highly creepy! (The preview is even creepy).

Ethics

If you’re like me, ethical treatment may not be the first thing that springs to mind. I have a healthy hatredfear of spiders and I haven’t lost too much sleep over this. BUT WAIT, what if your society is run by vegans? What if the spiders are sentient, or animals just have more basic rights in this society you’ve concocted? You might want to have a bit of an understanding of the ethical considerations of harvesting spider silk.

Screenshot of a description of the process used to sedate and restrain the spider humanely

Comment responding to outrage over the treatment of the spider, by the Oxford Silk Group

Of course, not everyone was satisfied by this explanation, so you need to consider the ethics of spider silk harvesting in your stories.

Properties

However terrifying spiders may be, their webs are beautiful and technical constructions. The golden orb weaver produces yellow silk, as seen below. Scientists are still discovering the unique properties of spider silk.

Golden orb weaver spider in yellow web

By Stephen Friedt. Available at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

Acoustics

It’s logical that spider silk has interesting acoustic properties. A spider web is multi-functional: it traps prey, alerts the spider about the imminent victim, and must be strong enough to hold struggling prey. It’s the vibrations that alert the spider.

Spiders ‘tune’ their webs like guitar strings

Exploiting this acoustic quality, an engineering student manufactured a violin made from spider silk and resin. He says the blend of materials makes the acoustic qualities flexible, and they could be applied to other sound equipment.

A visionary scientist has made a violin with spider silk – and it sounds extraordinary

                                    By Imperial College London. Available on Youtube.

As well as transmitting sound, scientists have found that spider silk can dampen sound. Certain frequencies do not pass through the microstructure of the silk, and manipulating the tension of the silk changes the frequency blocked. This also means spider silk can act as an insulating material against heat (read the article at the link for an explanation).

Spiders spin unique phononic material

Health

A team of researchers from Stockholm are working to develop a genetically-engineered spider silk “bandaid” to heal chronic unhealing wounds. The concept is fascinating and has implications for ways in which you could include spider silk augmentation.

More medical uses for spider silk include sutures, implants, artificial skin and cartilage replacement.

Infographic of different medical uses for spider silk

Source: CNN.com ‘Medical applications of spider silk’ from “Harnessing spider powers to heal human bodies” by Kieran Monk.

Technology

Spider silk allows scientists to break the laws of physics. Recently scientists in the UK used spider silk to increase the magnification possibilities of microscopes.

Spider silk: Mother Nature’s bio-superlens

Scientists are discovering that spider silk is a promising material in the area of fibre optics. Traditional materials used for fibre optics are inert, but spider silk is “made up of very long proteins rolled into a helix structure whose bonds are sensitive to a number of chemical substances“, which has sparked the imaginations of researchers in the field. Perhaps your society has a communications tech based on spider silk?

Using Spider Silk to Detect Molecules

                  By École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Available on Youtube.

There are a number of qualities of spider silk that could be exploited in different ways, such as the discovery of the hybrid liquid/solid qualities of spider silk, causing it to behave like a liquid wire. This could have implications for structural engineering, medical technology and other fields that require unique materials.

Spider Silk Inspires Creation of Liquid Wire

By University of Oxford. Available on Youtube.

Fabric/armour

Amazingly, spider silk can be used to make fabric. The image below is of a cape woven and embroidered using the silk of golden orb weavers. It was a massive undertaking, so if you’re wanting to incorporate spider fabric into your story, consider ways it might be made possible.

Golden silk cape made from golden orb spider silk

By Cmglee. Available Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

The first minute of this video discusses the way the spider silk was harvested from golden orb weavers in Madagascar. It sounds like a logistical nightmare. It’s worth noting the spiders were released when the silk supply was exhausted (and re-captured when their silk supply was replenished). I wondered how the spiders would be able to catch prey with no capacity to spin webs? The rest of the video outlines the processing, weaving and embroidery of the fabric. It’s a fantastic video, highly recommend!

                             By Victoria and Albert Museum. Available on Vimeo

The below article reports on the same spider silk fabrics, with images. I was particularly interested by this explanation of the difficulty of producing artificial silk:

Part of the reason it’s so hard to generate spider silk in the lab is that it starts out as a liquid protein that’s produced by a special gland in the spider’s abdomen. Using their spinnerets, spiders apply a physical force to rearrange the protein’s molecular structure and turn it into solid silk. –  1 Million Spiders Make Golden Silk for Rare Cloth

More exciting than spider clothes is the idea of wearable armour made out of spider silk. Imagine a team of elite soldiers wearing spider silk armour, climbing and leaping across hostile terrain, no heavy, stiff material to hinder their movements. Most fascinating, this isn’t spider silk from spiders… this is spider silk from genetically engineered silkworms.

US Army’s Newest Defense: Genetically-Engineered Spider Silk Body Armor

The Army is Testing Genetically Engineered Spider Silk for Body Armor

Graph comparing strength and flexibility of kevlar and spider silk

By Vincentsarego. Available Wikipedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ll leave you with a talk by Cheryl Hayashi for a few more possibilities to consider. As fodder for science fiction stories, you can’t really beat spider silk. It can provide inspiration for new tech, fabric, acoustics, health, and the ethical make-up of your society. I still don’t love spiders, but you have to admit they are pretty cool, and spider silk is nothing short of amazing.

New art — creepy painting

I had some fun with art yesterday. This little guy was born out of my brain playing tricks on me as I was scrolling through Facebook. Acrylic and pencil on paper, with digital manipulation.

I did an informal poll on social media and the desaturated one seems to be the favourite, but there is an interesting gender skew with men seeming to prefer the oversaturated one, and women the desaturated one (there are a few women who prefer the overdone one though).

facebellyman-desaturated

Face-belly-man desaturated © S. G. Larner

facebellyman-oversaturated

Face-belly-man oversaturated © S. G. Larner