The job of a science fiction writer

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Tue Jul 30 12:26:49 2013.

As writers, it’s our job to inspire as well as entertain. But science fiction writers have an additional duty, and it’s a monumental one.

Some of the earliest science fiction writers were scientists. Johannes Kepler, who figured out the laws of planetary motion and thus paved the way for Isaac Newton and modern physics, wrote a short story in 1630 about a trip to the moon. It was called Somnium, Latin for “The Dream”, and it featured a young student traveling to the Moon. Some consider this work the very first science fiction story, for even though it featured supernatural elements, it treated the setting with scientific vigor. The traveler was affected by gravity and observed planetary motion as understood by Copernicus. Of course, in Kepler’s time there was no conceivable scientific way of actually getting to the Moon, but it was the dream that mattered. The dream wouldn’t go away.

In 1865, Jules Verne wrote a story called From the Earth to the Moon, which took the technological advances of the recent American Civil War and applied them to peaceful pursuits. While his idea for a massive cannon to launch space travelers wasn’t actually practical (the muzzle would have to be too long and the acceleration too great for human survival) he made an attempt to do some rough physics calculations to make the story seem plausible.

In 1903, Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published a refutation of the physics in the popular tale, and was inspired by the story to ask the question: if cannons wouldn’t work, what would? Out of this came the theory of rocketry: Tsiolkovsky calculated a relationship between the mass of a rocket, its fuel, and its velocity. At the time no foreign scientists appreciated his work, but a German translation of his book found its way to a young engineer by the name of Wernher Von Braun, who filled it with his own notes and calculations. After Germany’s defeat in World War II, Von Braun led the American team that finally landed a man on the moon in 1969.

This is only one example of science fiction influencing reality. Young men who watched Star Trek as boys would often go on to invent some of the things they saw on the television show: talking computers, portable communication devices, and hand-held electronic displays. While it may seem as if progress in space travel has slowed since men landed on the Moon, people like Elon Musk—who wrote science fiction-themed computer games as a kid—are now developing the beginning of commercial space travel with SpaceX. There is a direct line between imagining something is possible and making it possible.

You can’t go to space without the appropriate technology, but you don’t get the idea for the technology without science fiction. Instead of predicting the future, the goal for science fiction writers should be to invent it. How else are we going to get there?

Views: 2937  Comments: 2

Knotty Geeks Episode 28 - To the Moon!

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Mon Jul 29 11:43:41 2013.

In this episode of Knotty Geeks, we get fueled up on coffee and doughnuts and it takes us all the way... to the Moon!

Starting with a discussion of the Amiga computer and the Video Toaster, we segue over to the Raspberry Pi and tiny robots-- and if you can launch lots of tiny robots, could you build a moonbase? We think you can, and we’ll be developing this idea in future episodes.

Links from the show:

Mars One opens for applications

Views: 2527 

A new cover image for newLISP on Rockets!

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Tue Jul 16 21:03:24 2013.

newLISP on Rockets is my rapid web application development framework, which powers this blog and other sites. The code is available for free under the GPL at the newLISP on Rockets Blog.

I decided that I wanted to have a little nicer-looking logo and front page graphic for the framework than the little cartoon rocket I started with. So I whipped up a new model in Blender using simple cylinders and basic commands like Extrude and Size. Blender is really easy once you get the hang of all the shortcut keys, and those keys make things MUCH faster than using primarily mouse-driven 3D software.

I UV-unwrapped the model in Blender, got a free stock metal texture from, and put the UV-wrapped texture together in Photoshop (I got the logos from The background picture is from a NASA weather observation satellite.

Views: 2291 

The power of writing every day

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Thu Jul 11 13:43:16 2013.

Eighteen days ago, I made a decision that changed the fate of my third novel.

I decided I would write a thousand words each day, every day, without stopping, until I was finished.

At first it was hard to know if this was even going to work. My writing schedule for the first two novels was maybe 350 words on weekdays, occasionally doubling that if I was really productive. It took about a year to finish a novel, as long as I didn’t get distracted or miss too many days in a row.

I worried a bit that I would just be writing crap to make the word count. Sure, I could always go back and fix it later, but what if it was unfixable crap? It turns out that’s not how it happens. The fixed word count policy actually increased the overall quality of the text.

How could this be possible?

If you don’t take a day off, even on weekends, your brain never stops thinking about the story. Every day you have to have something to write, so during the day your mind is always thinking about what you wrote the night before. When it comes time to write, you rarely feel blocked.

I chose to write in the evening, on my laptop, just before I go to sleep. To avoid staying up all night, I installed f.lux, a free application that changes the color temperature of my laptop after sunset to look less like the daytime sun. This ends up working perfectly. By the time I’m finished writing, I’m satisfied and ready for rest.

I’m going to keep writing every day in this way until I finish my novel. It really is a great way to write. If you find yourself struggling for motivation, I definitely recommend doing this.

Views: 2649  Comments: 2

Knotty Geeks Episode 27 - Zombie Geeks

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Wed Jul 10 12:23:44 2013.

This week on Zombie Geeks, we eat brains. And when we eat brains, we discuss why eating brains is so prevalent in modern-day society, when there are many other delicious food choices available.

Like all mindless zombies, we went to Starbucks for coffee to do this podcast. Terry, Brian and I talked about why zombies are so popular these days and what to do about it.

Links from the show: BRAAAAAAAINS!

Here’s a quote from one of the academic papers that Terry found on zombies:

“…expresses, with unique force and intensity, at least one important aspect of what the horror film has come to signify, the sense of a civilization condemning itself, through its popular culture, to ultimate disintegration, and ambivalently (with the simultaneous horror/wish fulfillment of nightmare) celebrating the fact.”

Views: 2489 

The Pegasus gets a new coat of paint

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Fri Jul 5 12:51:54 2013.

This is from my in-progress game mod using the Freespace2Open engine. I added a few more polygons to the model, fixed some flipped normals (I’m always flipping my normals!) and added a new texture. I still have to fix the UV wrapping and add more texture details to various spots, but it’s looking a lot more like my original vision all the time.

Here’s a closer look. You can see the turrets, and the various decals on the side. I still have to add bump maps, glow maps, engine glow, and all sorts of other niceties. But I’m getting there!

Views: 2337 

Report on Startup Grind: Vancouver

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Thu Jul 4 18:42:56 2013.

Thanks to my good friend Lois, I found out about the Startup Grind: Vancouver event that went on yesterday. The special guest speaker was Boris Wertz, who cofounded JustBooks, a used book trading site that was acquired by AbeBooks and then later Amazon.

Boris had some great stories about the pre-dotcom boom days of the late 1990s, when Web 1.0 ruled the world for a very brief period of time. Like many a successful entrepreneur, Boris became an angel investor and is now a venture capitalist, helping to fund the next generation of startups.

The most interesting thing Boris said was when someone asked if succeeding as an entrepreneur was easier today or fifteen years ago. He argued that it is harder to be successful today. Ironically, the reason is because it is so much easier to start a company than ever before!

Back in the day, it took $200,000 of venture capital just to purchase the server hardware and software needed to just have a website! Whereas today you can just use Amazon EC2 and start a website for free, using free software tools (like, say, newLISP on Rockets!)

So because it cost more to get off the ground, there were far fewer Internet companies back then. Once you got funded you were off to the races. Now, sure, it’s easy to start a website, but you have to compete with the millions of people who are also starting websites.

I see parallels in this story to the publishing industry. Back in the day you had to get approved by a publisher, but once you did, you were guaranteed sales because you were in the bookstores. Now, anybody can publish, but making money is harder.

It’s just the way the world has gone, however. I think it’s a mistake to try and live life by the scripts that worked for people fifteen years ago. We have to write our own stories.

I met a lot of interesting people at the networking portion of the talk. I was glad to see that it wasn’t twentysomethings-- there were lots of people of all ages, and lots of people trying different paths to entrepreneurship. One interesting fellow is building a company all by himself using just the server in his basement, but he has some great ideas. I’ll be checking that site out when it launches next week.

Overall, it was a great event. It made me realize that there are many different paths to starting a business, and following the techniques that worked for others in the past may not be the best idea. We all just have to muddle through and figure things out ourselves. As Boris said, if he pitched his old team and idea to his venture capital company today, he wouldn’t fund himself!

I’m still figuring out my own path. Like many things in my life, I’m confident I’ll get there eventually.

Views: 2209  Comments: 1

Knotty Geeks Episode 26 - Robots and Ruin

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Sat Jun 29 20:00:05 2013.

This episode is about ten minutes shorter than usual, and that’s because I managed to accidentally stop the recording without noticing it for about ten minutes. Needless to say that ten minutes that was lost was the most amazing, epic, mind-blowing discussion ever.

Never mind that! The rest is pretty good too. Terry and Brian Palfrey and I went down to the beach and moved around some stumps to create an impromptu Round Table, then we talked about robots, and Star Trek, and what it all means. Then we watched some guy fly a couple of kites.

Download .mp3 file directly or play on iDevice

Views: 2344 

What was the deal with OS/2 anyway?

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Thu Jun 27 20:56:27 2013.

A lot of people today have some sort of vague idea about what OS/2 was, why it existed, and why it failed. Why did IBM fail to unseat Microsoft Windows? The reasons are many, but mostly it boils down to a very successful big computer company being afraid of disruptive change.

IBM hired Microsoft to write OS/2 because IBM wasn’t confident in writing PC software. But IBM still had control of the design of OS/2, even though Microsoft was writing the code. The 386 chip had been released in 1985, but IBM wanted to write OS/2 to support the older 286 chip instead, a chip that Bill Gates had called "brain-damaged". IBM didn’t want to code for the 386 because they were worried it was too powerful, and would cut into their profitable AS/400 minicomputer business.

So if Gates didn’t like the 286, why did he let Microsoft go along with IBM’s plan? Because at the time IBM bestrode the PC industry like a Colossus. IBM was the "bear" and you were either riding the bear or you were under the bear, so Microsoft was going to ride the bear as long as they had to. If that meant dealing with IBM’s strange decisions, so be it. IBM made the rules for the PC industry, and Microsoft followed. Microsoft owed everything they had to the IBM PC and the clones that followed.

But Microsoft was smart enough to see that the winds were changing. IBM couldn’t hold back progress forever, and the decision to design OS/2 around the 286 meant that legacy DOS apps had to be run in the "penalty box", a compatibility box that could only run one app at a time and didn’t work with many apps anyway. (The 386, in contrast, had a ’virtual 8088’ mode that made multitasking many DOS apps fairly trivial).

So while Microsoft outwardly was promoting OS/2 as the next big thing, inwardly they kept dogging away at their Windows thing and they supported the 386 rather quickly (Windows/386 was in fact a special version of Windows 2.0 that multitasked DOS apps using the virtual 8088 mode, and all future versions of Windows would support this feature).

When Windows 3.0 was getting ready to be released, IBM offered to handle all the marketing and promotion, but in exchange IBM would own the code and the future of Windows. Microsoft wisely walked away from the deal. This was the beginning of the Microsoft-IBM divorce.

Windows 3.0 ended up being a smash success, and Microsoft realized that if they just kept telling other people that OS/2 was the future while they built their own Windows apps and stopped putting any real effort into OS/2, they could eventually own the world. Companies like Lotus that hated Microsoft with a passion just couldn’t wait to support OS/2 and ignore Windows. 1-2-3 for OS/2 (called 1-2-3/G) actually shipped before 1-2-3 for Windows. This gave Excel a chance to come in and just swoop up all the 1-2-3 for DOS users that were without a viable upgrade (1-2-3/G was not only late and missing features but performed extremely poorly) IBM eventually released a version of OS/2 that was coded for the 386 (although it still had 286 code in it for a long time) and tried to market it on their own with OS/2 Warp, but by that time IBM was no longer the standards setter in the PC business.

So what lessons can we learn here? IBM was afraid to push ahead its PC operating systems business because it might cut into sales of the more profitable minicomputer and mainframe lines. Microsoft, a more nimble and agile company, was able to ride this transition while preparing their own more powerful PC operating systems.

These days, Windows is the entrenched monopoly, and mobile devices are the disruptive force. The iPhone and iPad (and Android models) are rapidly becoming more powerful and finding their way into traditional personal computer use cases.

Windows, in this case, is the new AS/400, and the iPad is the new 386 PC. Microsoft doesn’t want to make the same mistake IBM did, so they are trying to make their own "386 PC" with Surface and unify their own "tablet experience" with the old school Windows. Thus you get the sort of odd hybrid that is Windows 8.

The market reaction to Windows 8 has not been positive, but Microsoft is used to playing the long game. Don’t count them out just yet.

Views: 2818 

Heirs of Infocom: Where interactive fiction authors and games stand today

Posted by: Jeremy Reimer on Sun Jun 23 12:48:13 2013.

In my review of Get Lamp, the documentary about text adventures, I mentioned that the original Infocom employees believed the market for these games could exist for hundreds of years. After all, the novel is still around today and, despite stiff competition from movies and video games, writing fiction is still a profitable endeavor. Why not interactive fiction?

The reality, however, is that since the demise of Infocom in 1989, many people have tried to make interactive fiction into a commercial endeavor. None have been able to figure out how to make the financial side work—until recently. Everything changed with the rise of smartphones and tablets.

I had a lot of fun interviewing people like Michael Berlyn for this article, and I think it came out really well. Now I kind of want to write my own text adventure... hmm...

Views: 2490  Comments: 2

About me

I'm a writer and a web developer. You may have read my articles at Ars Technica, where I write about the Amiga computer, video games such Starcraft, and the history of personal computing.

I write science fiction novels and short stories. You can read more about them here.

I'm also the creator of the rapid application development framework newLISP on Rockets, which powers this blog and a number of other sites.

I do a podcast with my friend Terry Palfrey called Knotty Geeks, where we focus on the 'big picture' impact of technology on our lives, with the two core themes being acceleration and convergence.

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