My 2012 Hugo Vote: Best Professional Artist

I’ve examined the 4 representative artwork samples provided for each of the 5 artists that are up for the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Professional artist. First, all of the artists are deserving, but this decision, more so than many of the other categories, is, of necessity, very subjective. Other people’s tastes may differ substantially from mine. Personally, I’m drawn towards artists that are detailed and almost photo-realistic, which is why, in the past, some of my favorite artists have been Michael Whelan and the late Keith Parkinson. For me, this means that the more stylized artists are at something of a disadvantage when it comes to securing my vote (sorry, but that’s the way it is).

Bob Eggleton is a great artist, and a past winner of this award, but his artwork this year didn’t resonate for me. Not to worry, I’m sure he’ll be in the running again. He’s won 8 times out of 23 nominations.

I really liked Stephan Martiniere, whose art ranged from the realistic to a streamlined metallic feel reminiscent of John Berkey. He’s my runner-up. I’d definitely like to see more art from him. Stephan won previously in 2008.

Dan Dos Santos is a great artist — he’s the guy behind those superb covers for the Mercedes Thompson series by Patricia Briggs. He’s clearly good enough to win, but if I’m judging him on the provided samples, then I don’t think they showcased him at his best.

So far, John Picacio has been a perennial nominee — this is John’s 7th nomination without a win. His representative samples just didn’t do it for me this year. I hope he wins in the future, though, because I think he’s an excellent artist.

That leaves Michael Kormack, who is obviously my choice for this year’s Best Professional Artist based on the provided samples. His work is detailed, striking, and vibrant. His artwork makes you feel like you’re right there in the center of the action. Congrats, Mike, you’re getting my vote in 2012.

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Hugo Voting Packet

I’m attending the 70th World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago at the end of August. Members of the convention are eligible to vote for the Hugo Awards, which is sort of like the Oscars for science fiction and fantasy literature. I’ve attended several world cons before:

  • 56th World Con – 1998 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • 59th World Con – 2001 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 63rd World Con – 2005 in Glasgow, Scotland
  • 64th World Con – 2006 in Anaheim, California
  • 66th World Con – 2008 in Denver, Colorado

So, this is my 6th world con. But I’ve never voted for the Hugos before. Despite being a major science fiction fan, I’ve never felt I was current enough to vote. I don’t buy many hardcovers, and the novels that are up for the Best Novel Hugo are invariably available only in hardcover. For the shorter fiction, most of the stories have appeared in magazines that I haven’t read or anthologies that I don’t own.

This year, though, I bought my membership well in advance. One of the things that the convention has made available through its web site is the Hugo Voting Packet. Which is amazing.

It’s like Christmas, only in May.

The packet contains, in electronic form, every item (except for the long and short form media items, i.e – the TV episodes and movies) that is up for an award. This includes copies of all of the Best Novel Hugo nominees, even the best-selling A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin, the graphic novels, cover art for the Best Artist award, the novellas, the novelettes, the short stories, an album that’s up for the Best Related Work award, etc.

I don’t know if voting packets have ever been provided like this before. For all of the other world cons, I bought my membership either mere weeks before the convention or at the convention itself. If there was any sort of voting packet before, well, I certainly never knew about it.

This is my challenge, then. I will vote for the Hugo awards this year. And to be informed, I will read as much of the Hugo Voting Packet as I can in the remaining three months before the event. Eight novels, dozens of shorter stories, 5 graphic novels or series (one of them topping out at a mind-boggling 829 pages), one album, a podcast series, a web site, three non-fiction works, fanzines, artwork, etc.

In my spare time.

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Extreme Short Stories

An old issue (November 2006) of Wired Magazine includes an interesting feature on extremely short stories. Specifically, they asked a bunch of writers to come up with dynamic “stories” in only 6 words. The lineup of writers included prominent science fiction and fantasy writers such as David Brin, Charles Stross, Neil Gaiman and others, as well as screen writers (Joss Whedon) and graphic novel writers (Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Howard Chaykin).

Surprisingly, some of the stories were quite striking. With this length, the goal seems to be to craft a phrase that, upon reflection, has a host of potential ramifications.

Now, I thought this was an interesting challenge, so I decided to try my hand at it. Here are some of the extreme stories that I came up with.

The moon shone like the sun.

If you’re a science fiction fan, there are some fairly obvious ramifications to this story. First, it’s night time. Second, the moon shines by reflected light, so the only way the moon can shine as bright as the sun is if it suddenly receives a LOT more light, like from a super nova. Third, if the energy from a super nova has begun to hit the opposite side of the Earth, then you’ll probably be dead by dawn if not sooner.

Silently, the stars all went out.

What could make all of the stars go out? The end of the universe? Or something else?

Hungrily, I tracked down my murderer.

The idea of being able to track down your murderer is interesting, particularly since you’re dead. Maybe the protagonist is a vampire? Anyway you look at it, somebody’s got trouble on his trail.

Danger detected. Terminate autonomous wetware units.

This looks like the Terminator scenario, where the computer wakes up and decides that humanity needs to be exterminated.

So, there you have it. Four examples of extreme short stories in only 6 words each. It’s definitely a fun writing exercise, but I doubt there’s much of a market for these stories. After all, at a rate of 5 cents a word, you’ll need to write a lot of these to make a living.

Note: Author Will McCarthy, who I met at a science fiction convention, was one of the contributors to the Wired article on extreme short stories. He revealed that the authors were paid $20 for their 6-word stories. Still, I don’t believe that there’s a large market for these types of stories.

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2012 Toastmasters District 29 Spring Conference

I just attended the 2012 Toastmasters District 29 Conference, which occurred on Friday evening and all day on Saturday. It was held at the Westfields Marriot in Chantilly, VA, which was nicely accessible. Since it was my first Toastmasters conference, and many other people in my club, the Ashburn Toastmasters Club, have also never been to one, I decided to write an after-action report to convey what the conference was like.

Friday Evening

The Friday evening keynote was by Geoffrey Abbott, a former Chief Technology Officer of the Coast Guard. The focus of his talk was on the benefits of encouraging innovation from the middle. He described how organizations could be more effective by empowering the people closest to critical problems to make innovative decisions.

One of his most effective examples was a heart-wrenching story from the Coast Guard’s Katrina mission. He described how helicopters delivered rescue divers to remote flooded areas to help find and rescue flood survivors. With limited fuel, however, the helicopters would sometimes have to leave the diver in place while they flew off to refuel.

In one instance, a helicopter left a rescue diver on the roof of a flooded house. Upon returning, the helicopter crew found the rescue diver to be extremely agitated and upset. The water was almost to the crown of the house’s roof. A family had been trapped in the attic, and had drowned because the diver had no way to get to them. He simply couldn’t get through the roof.

Upon returning to base, the helicopter crew acquired, on their own initiative and at their own expense, every fire axe they could find and equipped their helicopter and others with them. Following their lead, numerous other Coast Guard helicopter crews, as well as crews from other military services, did the same thing. This was an example of innovation from the middle.

Needless to say, it was an interesting, inspiring and often riveting talk.

Friday also featured the culmination of the Evaluation Contest, as well as the debut of a new event for team debates. With the Evaluation Contest, a model speaker presents a short talk. The contestants are then sequestered in another room, while one by one, the contestants return to provide a 2 to 3-minute evaluation of the speaker’s talk. A team of judges then decides which contestant was most effective in coaching the speaker.

Next, the debate pitted two 5-man teams against each other, and featured prepared speeches from both sides, counter speeches from both sides and one-on-one cross examinations. Unique and very interesting. Clearly a lot of work on both sides, but it looked like it definitely exercised some speaking skills that aren’t normally exercised in Toastmasters. Expect to see more of this in the future. The guy behind the event, Isaiah McPeak from Leesburg, has been asked to rewrite the Toastmasters manual on debates.

Saturday

Saturday’s morning keynote was from former Redskin (and Pittsburgh Steeler) Antwaan Randall El. He gave an inspirational talk about the power of giving. He spoke about how writing a check for a charity was a fine thing, but noted how much better you’d feel if you actually spent some time and effort physically helping your favorite charity. You too could make a change in someone’s life. It was so inspirational that he got a standing ovation from the crowd. It also turns out that he’s in Toastmasters himself, and attends a club in Leesburg. How cool is that?

Saturday’s luncheon speaker was Aneesh Chopra, former U.S. Chief Technology Officer. He described, at great length, how various information technologies are being used to provide a more transparent government that is increasing responsive and accountable to citizens. I believe his talk was supposed to be about 10 minutes long rather than the 50-minute extravaganza that he pulled out of his hat. Unless you were an IT professional like me, much of the talk went right over the heads of most of the audience. As a speaker, the moral here is that you should know your audience.

Saturday also featured breakout educational sessions on various topics. I attended one on effective storytelling and another one on how to get published in today’s market. Both were by recognized industry experts in the field. There were several other topics available as well.

Next up, Toastmasters business. Awards and election stuff. Lovely Lall is our new Division D Governor, replacing Edmond Joe. Mo Hamilton is our new District 29 Governor, replacing Shue Bartholomew. Mo becomes the second governor for District 29 since we split off (like an amoeba) from the overly large District 27 a year ago.

[For those who aren’t aware of this, our Ashburn Toastmasters Club is one of 5 in Area 45, which is part of Division D. There are 5 divisions within District 29. Our district is part of Region 7]

The day culminated with the District-level International speech contest. Five top-notch contestants presented some excellent speeches, with the winner going to represent our district at the annual Toastmasters International Conference in Florida.

Summary

I had a lot of fun at the event, met a lot of fellow Toastmasters and picked up some great speaking tips from people who were more practiced at public speaking than myself.

It was a lot of fun, and, at $95 including Saturday’s lunch, I thought it was remarkably cheap (particularly compared to what events in the IT field typically cost).

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Speak: An Unforgettable Documentary

District 29 of my local Toastmasters group held a public screening of the documentary, Speak, on May 12, 2012. It was a Saturday morning, and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I went to the screening. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I know I wasn’t expecting the riveting film experience that unfolded next.

The documentary, Speak, follows a set of six contestants as they compete in the Toastmasters International Speech Contest for the title of World’s Best Public Speaker. The film quickly introduces Toastmasters, a public organization devoted to public speaking and leadership training, and conveys the contest rules. Contestants have 5 to seven minutes on stage to tell their story, reach their audience, and win the support of the judges.

The real power of the film is revealed through the back stories of the contestants, which helps to explain their motivations and their drive to “be the best.” It’s a fascinating look at a diverse group of people united in their drive to be the best possible speaker that they can be.

It’s refreshingly different from today’s crop of artificially hyped up reality shows. This is real drama, with real people, who all want to win, and, maybe, even deserve to win. In the end, only one can go home with the top award. The documentary is remarkably unflinching in its portrayal of the contestants and is unafraid to show them at both their best…and their worst.

It’s well-directed, moves quickly, and juxtaposes the stories of all the contestants to good effect. It’s surprisingly powerful and affecting. Kudos to the directors, Paul Galichia and Brian Weidling, for capturing the sheer intensity of the contestants, and to the Toastmasters organization for both allowing and facilitating such a raw, honest look at the functioning of their annual speech contest.

Speak has initially been shown at film festivals and in an organized campaign of paid screenings by Toastmasters and other interested groups. I understand that Speak will be available on DVD in August. Check it out. It’s worth it.

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Project X

The Asteroid BeltI’ve been working on the background, concepts and characters for a series of stories, envisioned as novelettes and novellas, set in the Asteroid Belt starting around the year 2312. My working title for the series is currently Project X. This will obviously change later. My general concept for the series appears below.


The stories will focus on the expansion of mankind into the solar system, as hard-working people explore and tame the solar system in the same way that America was settled and tamed. And just as there were serious conflicts as America evolved into a nation, there will be similar conflicts in space, as the people who live and work in the Outer System establish their own societies and push for the rights they feel they are owed.

The series begins in the year 2312, 300 years from today. Mankind has spread throughout the solar system, although the heaviest population concentration is clearly still Earth and the near-Earth area, including numerous orbital facilities and an extensive lunar population. There is a well-established and growing colony on Mars, where terraforming was begun 43 years ago, with centuries of effort still to come. There are scientific research stations scattered throughout the system, some almost large enough and permanent enough to qualify as colonies themselves.

The Asteroid Belt is being extensively mined for metals, water and other elements. As a result, an increasing amount of technological infrastructure is being constructed in the Asteroid Belt, in Mars orbit and even as far out as Jupiter’s orbit (the Asteroid Belt is located between Mars and Jupiter). The people who live and work in the Asteroid Belt have earned a reputation for being tough, stubborn and, maybe, just a little bit unsophisticated by Earth standards (like how a rich Bostonite in the 1800’s might look at a rough-and-tumble cowboy in the old American West).

The United Earth Authority (UEA), the organization that replaced the United Nations after the Fourth World War (the only war in which antimatter bombs were used on Earth) governs space operations. The UEA has become increasingly autocratic, and is considered by spacers to be out-of-touch with space-related issues; it always adjudicates such issues in favor of Earth corporations and governments at the perceived expense of those who work in space. Accordingly, friction between the denizens of the Outer System and the UEA has been steadily increasing, with some people already advocating armed rebellion.

The UEA also has problems on Earth, with the side effect that these local problems further distract the organization from dealing effectively with its space operations. The European Federation, based in Stockholm, dominates the UEA. As a result, the UEA acts constantly to increase its own power and to diminish the power of so-called Old World governments, notably the United States.

As a result, it has incurred the growing opposition of the United States, which was sidelined as a superpower by the Fourth World War and the devastating antimatter attacks that leveled much of the eastern and central United States.

Over the course of the series, these basic conflicts between the UEA and off-worlders will lead first to armed rebellion by spacers, followed by a declaration of independence, organized revolution and the formation of new nations in the Outer System. Other space colonies, notably Mars, will follow the lead of the spacers. This open rebellion will, in turn, evolve into a widespread solar system war.

Our characters will be living in interesting times. They will have to pick sides, make life-and-death decisions and try to cope as best they can with the terrifying prospect of war in space. For perfectly valid reasons, friends may become enemies, lovers may be forced to betray each other and good people may have to commit horrible acts. Even relatives may end up on different sides of the conflict. Some characters will inevitably die in the war. Some will go on to greatness. Others will try just to survive. The unscrupulous may even do everything they can to profit from the war.

Here are some key principles to be embodied in the stories:

  • Hard Science: Physics isn’t just a good idea; it defines what can and cannot happen. For example, there is no sound in space, space ships generally aren’t streamlined and they don’t bank to make turns. Technology keeps you alive in space. Accidents in space kill. Quickly.

  • Extrapolated Future Technology: Tired of future stories where characters fight battles with 1940’s technology? This is the future. Think big: this is 2312 – 300 years from now will be as different from now as 1712 was. Nanotech. Artificial intelligence. Space suits with limited on-board AI’s. Smart weapons. Easy body sculpting (for a price). Genetic modification. Large-scale space construction. Asteroid mining. Mars terraforming. Space elevators. But still no faster-than-light (FTL) space drive or anti-gravity.

  • Character-Driven Plots: The stories will be about people first and foremost, regular people caught up in events and reacting to those events in the best ways that they can. Characters, even minor ones, will appear in multiple stories, and everybody will have their own story arcs.

  • Gritty Feel: The focus is on making the future feel real. Cramped spaceships, ancient space stations, tunnels burrowed into asteroids, etc. Fights will be frenetic and scary, because space is already deadly; fights can only be worse.

  • Realistic Conflicts: No aliens. No evil twin stories. No time travel. I’ll have real people experiencing real problems in the most hostile environment known. And people clashing because of perfectly reasonable yet diametrically opposed future ideologies (Earth vs. spacers, etc.).

Welcome to the future. May you live long enough to enjoy it.

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