I first posted an interesting link about HAL, the walking-assist, cyborg-like technology out of Japan, a few years ago. It is now available in the U.S. at last, though for therapy and only in one Florida clinic. The hope is for broader applications to help the elderly and disabled gain more mobility and independence. At the end of this article, there is also information about the inventor, whose focus on helpful rather than military tech appealed to me from the start. https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/18/health/japan-cyberdyne-brain-wave-exoskeleton-wellness-scn-hnk-intl/
Celebration (Interesting People)
The name Rube Goldberg brings forth so many memories for me from playing mouse trap to standing fascinated at a New Jersey train station, watching marbles set a wacky machine into motion. How could I not include this article on the true life of such a creative and curious person? The only thing missing is a snapshot or video of the machine the Queens Museum chose to materialize, though I suppose you have to go to the exhibit in Queens, New York, if you want to see it. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/queens-museum-brings-rube-goldberg-machine-life-180973297/
Book one of the science fiction series Liminal Sky introduces a fascinating world with a glimpse of ways science can work with nature to broaden our world. It reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama with one critical difference: human ingenuity creates this world ship with the assistance of AI ship-minds. The artificial intelligence gained by complex, mature ship-minds is not explained, or even really explored, but rather appears as an outgrowth humans did not intend nor do they understand. I like this take even if, in gaining sapience, the AIs develop more human characteristics and flaws than I consider plausible. It certainly works within the story.
The book is in three separate parts, strung along the same timeline and providing a beginning, middle, and end to this portion of a complex tale. Each is self-contained while building on what came before and with people existing or directly tied to those in the previous sections. It makes reviewing a little harder because I don’t want to spoil anything and so can’t even use character names. I can say the first and last are more action adventure with a touch of philosophy while the second is more philosophy and psychology with a touch of action. These styles are relevant to the focus of each section and so equally compelling.
It took me a little to get into the book because of some rough passages and the isolated introduction of all four main characters, including the AI. Once they started interacting, though, I came to know them better and make my own bonds with them. In the latter sections, the characters are introduced more naturally.
Characters are one of this author’s strengths. The main characters are distinct and compelling, coming into the story with histories relevant to what happens, but also elements there only to give depth to the idea of each person. Having said the last, I was surprised to realize the early female characters, whether human or AI, behaved in what appeared to be stereotypical ways. The good news is when the issues introduced in the first part come together, it’s a nuanced, tear-inducing scene that transforms what touches on biased presentations into personal choices with consequences once again. My response to that scene and others shows, even with my reservations, I was engaged with all the characters. I will say since my favorite character is female, the problem I had with the early portrayals clearly did not extend through the whole book. It was amusing, though, to have a male character in the second part vocalize the very bias I’d identified. So for those who see the same markers I did, I counsel patience. The journey is worth it.
As far as the technical aspects, I found the advances both plausible and well thought out. The AIs, despite developing too much humanity at times, had their own natures. I loved the various ways humans interfaced with the AIs and my favorite springs from the consequences of an illegal mod. The creative solutions, both tech and non-tech, to the various problems were fun to see being worked out even in those times when I’d already made the leap before the characters.
The third piece is something I’ve touched on with the AI, but there is a strong element of philosophy and religion. Personhood, and whether human beliefs are broad enough to encompass divinity, are explored among other questions. This type of pondering is an interest of mine, and I enjoyed these characters’ thoughts. I sometimes found the characters a bit slow to recognize consequences or to explain things in such a way that would clear up some conflicts. However, I’ve already stated this as my interest so I’m probably more practiced than most, especially those, like the characters, who focused their careers on the more tangible aspects of life. It made me appreciate the characters more when they matured as the story developed.
The book covers several big questions including those of a more tangible nature. This future Earth is the path we are currently on with climate change, political warmongering, and resource depletion all playing a role. As much as I want to say more about this aspect, I cannot without revealing parts from the later story. I’ll say only that there is a danger in tackling these kinds of issues without giving them enough space as the impressions left might be other than intended. I already have the next book in my queue and suspect some of the clarity I wanted will be dealt with there as the seeds of conflicts to come have already been sown.
On a pure writing standpoint, the book does a good job of setting up what is to come. Sometimes, the red herrings are so complete that the real answer takes a moment to sink in despite also being plausible. The map of this world, both politically and physically, is much changed from ours, information introduced in the narrative when relevant rather than set up ahead of time. The blend of characters from many backgrounds and representing different cultures, sexualities, and genders was refreshing while I appreciated how the viewpoints informed the reader about shifted norms rather than pointing them out through info dumps.
This is a complex, intriguing mix of science, psychology, and philosophy. The Stark Divide caught and held my attention through both the “gee whiz” factor and characters who faced real internal and external challenges. It’s a worthwhile read for science fiction fans whether you’re in it for the advancements, people struggles, or a glimpse at what our future might hold. It contains more than one nail-biting crisis with very real consequences to appease the adrenaline junkie in all of us.
J. Scott Coatsworth, an author of diverse speculative fiction, has graciously agreed to share some insight into his writing process. The Shoreless Sky, book three of the science fiction series Liminal Sky, comes out this week. Be careful not to miss the excerpt and giveaway after this article.
Thanks, Margaret, for hosting me on your blog today!
Margaret asked me to write up something about my research process regarding this book. I’d like to broaden that out to include the whole trilogy. 🙂
The Liminal Sky series is science fiction, so a lot of what goes into it is necessarily speculative and hard to pin down via research. I did need to do some research to back it up, though, especially the physical aspects of the world. The first thing I had to do was to find an existing asteroid that had about the right mass to serve as the basis for the world I was building. I found a few that would work, and ultimately settled on 43 Ariadne, which had the mass I needed to make the size of the world that I wanted — a gigantic, sealed cylinder named Forever where the population lives on the inside of the tube.
I also had to come up with a way to provide gravity — centrifugal force in this case, from the turning of the world. And I needed light, so I came up with the combination of the spindle — a glowing filament that runs through the center of the world — and glowing plants and pollen that provide additional illumination.
But from there, I had to jump into pure speculation:
What would an AI really be like? How might humans interface with it? Might humans become AIs themselves someday, or at least digital versions of themselves? How might humanity evolve over the coming centuries? Can an AI have a soul?
There’s no roadmap to answer these questions definitively. There are discussions and theories, and books by many other authors, but in the end, each of us as a science fiction writer has to go it alone.
In Liminal Sky, I chose to explore all of these things, but the most challenging of them was religion. I have been agnostic about organized religion and Christianity since I left the church in my late teens. At that time, few churches were openly supportive of the LGBTQ community, and I saw no reason to stay. But three years ago, my husband Mark expressed a desire to go back to church after his mother passed away. So we found a local church called the Table that’s super LGBTQ friendly, and I have been exploring my spirituality ever since.
In fact, the series title, “Liminal Sky,” was inspired by a sermon by Pastor Matt in which he said that John the Baptist was at the liminal edge of society in his time. Matt’s a big word geek like me, and when I looked up the definition of “liminal” basically at the bleeding edge or a point of transition — it seemed perfect for this trilogy.
All of that spurred me to take another look at religion in my writing. This series includes a few characters of faith and some big questions about the relationship between technology and the Divine. Spoiler alert — I don’t answer any of them comprehensively. I think the mystery is sometimes more important than the answer.
So where does that leave things regarding research? Liminal Sky is a strange blend of research, speculation, and wild hybridization of the things that interest me as a human and as a science fiction writer. It’s a heady brew, and one I hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Thank you, Scott, for this window into the challenges science fiction authors face as well as how you have drawn inspiration from many parts of your life. The links to purchase all three novels (assuming you’re as intrigued as I was) are below, as is the sign up for the giveaway. To get a taste of the series before you run off to pick up your own copies, right below the sign up is a standalone excerpt from The Shoreless Sea. It offers a glimpse into the reasons for building worlds like Forever and what might drive someone to risk it all out in space.
Humankind is on its way to the stars, a journey that will change it forever. Each of the stories in Liminal Sky explores that future through the lens of a generation ship, where the line between science fiction and fantasy often blurs. At times both pessimistic and very hopeful, Liminal Sky thrusts you into a future few would ever have imagined.
Excerpt from The Shoreless Sea, Part One, Chapter Three
Gordon peered over the edge of the low wall.
Seven figures in long robes stood in a circle in the middle of a wide roof. They were waving their arms in some sort of incantation, circling something he couldn’t see from his vantage point.
A warm breeze blew in off the Atlantic behind him, laden with moisture. Gordon sniffed the air. A storm was brewing. He’d learned the signs from long practice. It would blow in with dirty rain from across the ocean, likely as not.
The fires had receded for the moment. The air was about as clean as it would get.
His friend Xavi had gotten caught out in the open by one of the acid storms once, and it had burned the skin off his back. Lilith had paid for skin regeneration, but Xavi had never been the same.
Gordon made a mental note to be sure he was close to home by the time this new storm arrived.
The shadows cloaked him in darkness.
In the middle of the rooftop, something bright awoke, shining a greenish light between the bodies of the figures as they danced around it, chanting a string of syllables in quick repetition: Ahm nam rim semin sim… Ahm nam rim semin sim…
One of them glanced in his direction, and her eyes shone with the same greenish glow — or was it just a reflection of the strange fire?
The object at the center of the circle seemed to twist and turn, as if it were made of fire itself. Maybe it was fire, some kind of fire he’d never seen before. It reached toward the sky, quickly surpassing the height of the figures who surrounded it.
At the heart of the flames was a skinny human form, writhing as if in terrible pain as the flames above it climbed higher and higher.
The circle of figures stopped as one and raised their right hands toward the column of flame.
The column grew ever upward, wrapping around itself like water, emitting a sound like muffled thunder.
The thing in the middle let out a thin, reedy scream that chilled Gordy to the bone.
“Are you ready?” The man with the glowing eyes pulled down his cowl and held his hand out. He was much older than Gordon, maybe in his fifties, his chiseled face etched with fine lines.
A younger man stepped out of the shadows.
Gordon gasped and covered his mouth, hoping they hadn’t heard him. It was Crick, one of the runners for the Red Badge.
Crick had been kind to him once when he’d been out of favor with Lilith for screwing up a blackware delivery.
“I’m not… I don’t want to go, Bastian.”
Go where? Was there a way out of this dying place? Gordon edged forward to hear better.
“She needs you.” The man the boy had called Bastian loomed over him, exuding power.
“I can’t. I’m too scared. Please don’t make me go. Send someone else instead.”
Quick as a snake, Bastian’s hand whipped out and touched the boy’s forehead. “You will do as you are told and become a willing foot soldier for the intifada. Do you understand?”
The young man’s whole body shook, and his eyes rolled back in his head. Green energy enwreathed him from head to toe, and his mouth opened in a silent scream.
When Crick’s eyes reopened, they were dull.
Gordon shivered. What the hell had the man done to Crick? And who was inside the flames?
“Yes, I’m ready.”
The chanting of the others rose again.
Ahm nam rim semin sim… Ahm nam rim semin sim…
The flame rose as well, extending up into the sky.
There’s a way out. Gordon had to chance it. This opportunity might never come around again. In a few more weeks, the world would loop, and he’d be back where he started all over again.
He got up and gathered himself, ready to jump.
Lightning struck out of the clear sky, hitting the rod atop the superscraper, illuminating the whole scene for a fraction of a second with its overexposed glow.
The wind grew to a howl, drawn by the flame to form a screeching vortex around the building. The column burned brighter and brighter, reaching a fever pitch of intensity.
Bastian gestured to the column. “Go!”
Crick hesitated, just for a second, but it was enough.
Gordon leapt from his hiding place and dove past his friend headfirst into the flames, knocking one of the cloaked figures aside on the way.
Tendrils of green flame surrounded him, and the figure in the flames howled.
Then Gordon himself screamed like a banshee as his body dissolved in the fire.
Scott lives between the here and now and the what could be. Indoctrinated into fantasy and sci fi by his mother at the tender age of nine, he devoured her library. But as he grew up, he wondered where the people like him were.
He decided it was time to create the kinds of stories he couldn’t find at Waldenbooks. If there weren’t gay characters in his favorite genres, he would remake them to his own ends.
His friends say Scott’s brain works a little differently – he sees relationships between things that others miss, and gets more done in a day than most folks manage in a week. He seeks to transform traditional sci fi, fantasy, and contemporary worlds into something unexpected.
A Rainbow Award winning author and Science Fiction Writer’s Association (SFWA) member, he runs Queer Sci Fi and QueeRomance Ink with his husband Mark, sites that bring queer people together to promote and celebrate fiction reflecting their own reality.
Whether you’re interested in 1911 New York City for research or just curious about an early period, this contemporary video offers a glimpse into the city that reading materials cannot as you are among the inhabitants and can hear the clip-clop, see the horse leavings on the street, and listen to the toot of steamships in the harbor. The reactions of those who realize they’re being captured on film are also fascinating. (Via Cliff Winnig) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aohXOpKtns0
In keeping with the first book in The Priestess Chronicles, Relic Seeker has Ariela thrown into a new time and place to uncover her mission. She left with friends, but arrives alone, something that bothers her friends just as much when they discover her absence. Ariela is a servant on the Senator’s estate while the other two find themselves suspected gods, or at least the answer to prayers, in a nearby Goth village. This separation allows our heroes to tackle the problem from both ends as they struggle to figure out who or what they were sent to stop.
This is another adventure where Ariela and her friends must adapt while seeking clues to show why the angel brought them to this place. The Romans and Goths have a tentative alliance built on the need for mercenary troops and a willingness to accept Roman coin. An insidious rumor, whether true or false, is enough to undermine the peace as magic and rational beliefs clash.
Toss in the emperor’s half-mad son, powerful relics from lost cultures, and a villain with a mission cutting a little too close to the heart of our heroes, and this book offers a more nuanced conflict. The view of the Romans, possibly a reflection of when they land, supports this additional complexity. Hints indicate it is the rule of Constantine who became a Christian rather than keeping to the Roman gods.
The separation of main characters allows us to discover the good in Romans and Goths alike, and learn something about both cultures. Our heroes make friends among the villagers and Roman staff who influence the course of their mission as well as expanding the characters we, as readers, come to care about.
The omniscient, rolling point of view (POV) had a few small hiccups where information is withheld to create what I consider false tension, but for the most part, the POV worked well and I never lost track of who held center stage. It allows the reader to follow both sides of a complex situation without a lot of explanation required as it would be if non-POV characters had to reveal what they’ve been doing off screen.
The spare, straightforward writing style, plus a lighter hand with the less appealing aspects of both Roman and Goth life, makes this novel a solid, fun read. It managed to draw my sympathies and endear me to characters new and old as they faced challenges to touch their hearts and minds. Relic Seeker raises interesting questions about the lines where cultures and people meet while exploring human struggles.
I enjoyed the story and spending time with familiar characters along with new ones. The series could easily have fallen into a pattern. Instead, it draws on the characters’ histories, along with changing times, to offer a brand new conflict and challenge our band of time-traveling heroes. It’ll be interesting to see how this is accomplished in the next book.
P.S. I received this ARC from the author in return for an honest review.