Thu, Nov
Thu, Nov 23, 2017

The Places Where We Remember

ttc-4449-york-20171123.jpgA year and a week ago, I learned that my mother had stage four pancreatic cancer. And the way I heard about it sticks in my mind.

I had no idea that my mother was so sick. She was having trouble with blood clots in her legs, and she had been prescribed anti-clotting medication to deal with them, but other than that there were only small hints that we came to realize were symptoms, after the fact. Then, one day, she accidentally took two doses at once and, fearing an overdose, checked herself into hospital, just in case. The nurses laughed a little at her worry and calmed her down. It was unlikely she overdosed. However, she did complain about a pain in her back, and thinking this was odd, one of the nurses checked it out. Suddenly, it wasn't a laughing matter anymore.

Of course, we didn't think so at the time, but in a way, I think that this accidental diagnosis was lucky. No, it wasn't early enough to stave off the inevitable, but it did alert us to what would happen over the next seven weeks before my mother died. We still weren't prepared, but we did get some time together to say goodbye.

But what I remember most about that day, however, was going into Toronto. It was later than I usually do, but I was planning to take the ferry to Ward's Island and take some time lapse footage for the Night Girl book trailer. I would attend the launch party of JM Frey's Forgotten Tale. I boarded the subway at Yorkdale station, and dove underground where the cellphone signals couldn't reach me, and when I emerged at the streetcar stop at Queen's Quay and York Street, I began taking pictures, before I noticed that there were messages on my phone.

It was my father, calling from the hospital, crying. He was calling from the hospital's payphone, so I couldn't call back. I could only listen in stunned silence to the news and the prognosis. I crossed the streetcar tracks, probably not looking where I was going, and found a place to sit down, just absorbing and dealing with what I'd been told. I cried. Quietly. Then I called Erin, as I strode back towards Union Station looking to catch the express train home.

I did manage to get home in time to head to the hospital and have a relatively normal conversation with my mother, but of course everything had changed in that moment. And that moment has a very specific place.

A few times, now, I find myself coming back to that streetcar stop on Queen's Quay and just standing there, watching the cars go by and the people, and I remember. It's not quiet. It's not restful. Today, it was bitterly cold. But, strangely enough, being there is helpful. It's like a grave site to me. I think I'm going to be going back there again and again.

Last year, I missed the TD Book Awards Gala because of my mother's diagnosis. To put it mildly, I wasn't in a celebratory mood. However, earlier this week, Erin, Vivian and I went into Toronto (with thanks to Eric for picking up Vivian from school and watching Nora for the evening) to attend this year's gala. It was time to sparkle.

This year, a lot of time was spent remembering Sheila Barry, a renown editor most recently with Groundwood Books, who passed away unexpectedly due to complications from cancer earlier this month. A eulogy to her life and contributions received a standing ovation from the crowd. That was right and appropriate. I was, however, surprised and appreciative to hear other names read out afterward in memorandum, and to hear my mother's name listed among them. It was a bit of a shock, for myself and Vivian -- we were not expecting it -- but it was right and appropriate, and I am grateful that she was remembered.

Sun, Nov
Sun, Nov 19, 2017

So... Why Mercury?

messenger-artist-concept.jpgSo, why would people colonize Mercury?

Asking that sort of question for any science fiction colony that isn't a duplicate of Earth does promote resistence. For science fiction writers, I suspect, their first answer is, "because it's there! ... Fictionally, I mean... You know what I mean!"

But in terms of good world building, good science fiction should at least offer hints about why people chose to be where they are. Yes, we can get away with a lot. We have colonized all sorts of inhospitable places (Svalbard, anyone?). Sometimes we have no choice. But quite often people find places and figure out how to make opportunities in them, and then the children born there think of their inhospitable rock as home and long for it when they're away.

I picked Mercury as the location of The Sun Runners after being blown away by the worldbuilding in Kim Stanley Robinson's book 2312. His idea was to keep the main city of Mercury, called Terminator, on tracks, and use their expansion from the heat of the sun to push the city ahead of the dawn line. This put some ideas in my head, and I played around with the concept, giving Mercury more than one city, and making them move more actively along their rails -- even reversing direction when they had to. The towering city of Terminator became a more streamlined ten-kilometer long train.

Yeah, my railfanning probably had an influence, there.

Still, this answers the how, but not the why. Why would anybody want to colonize Mercury? How do you make an economic case?

This article from the online magazine Universe Today offers a few possible explanations:

Mercury is composed of 70% metals whereas' Earth's composition is 40% metal. What's more, Mercury has a particular large core of iron and nickel, and which accounts for 42% of its volume. By comparison, Earth's core accounts for only 17% of its volume. As a result, if Mercury were to be mined, enough minerals could be produced to last humanity indefinitely.

Its proximity to the Sun also means that it could harness a tremendous amount of energy. This could be gathered by orbital solar arrays, which would be able to harness energy constantly and beam it to the surface. This energy could then be beamed to other planets in the Solar System using a series of transfer stations positioned at Lagrange Points.

Also, there's the matter of Mercury's gravity, which is 38% percent of Earth normal. This is over twice what the Moon experiences, which means colonists would have an easier time adjusting to it. At the same time, it is also low enough to present benefits as far as exporting minerals is concerned, since ships departing from its surface would need less energy to achieve escape velocity.

Lastly, there is the distance to Mercury itself. At an average distance of about 93 million km (58 million mi), Mercury ranges between being 77.3 million km (48 million mi) to 222 million km (138 million mi) away from the Earth. This puts it a lot closer than other possible resource-rich areas like the Asteroid Belt (329 - 478 million km distant), Jupiter and its system of moons (628.7 - 928 million km), or Saturn's (1.2 - 1.67 billion km).

For many, the reason why we go somewhere is usually because it's there. For many more, the fact that there's money to be made is a good side benefit.

mercury1-photo-nasa.jpgThe image above is courtesy NASA/JPL.

Last month, before a bunch of deadlines ambushed me (strange how they do that, even when you're expecting them), I managed to add a few thousand words to The Sun Runners after a long period of dormancy, and pushed the manuscript above 60,000 words. It feels good to be thinking about fiction again after so long. This past year hasn't been a good one thing for me in terms of creative energy, and that is not a surprise, frankly. It may be ambitious, but I hope to write "The End" for this draft of The Sun Runners by the end of this year. And then it's time to go back to the beginning and write the whole thing again. It's been a good draft, but it's still a draft. It needs work.

The story is now split between two protagonists standing astride a difficult period in the history of the Mercury colony. We have young Frieda, the Crown Princess of the latitude-town known as the Messenger, on the moment when the Earth wakes up from "the Silence" and sends a message asking to meet with the leadership of Mercury. We also have her grandmother Adelheid, currently the dowager regent who doesn't trust the Earth one jot, and we see her fifty years earlier, at the moment when the Earth went silent due to environmental and economic collapse, cutting off and isolating its space colonies. With the Mercury colonies far from self-sufficient, this means a very bad time for the people there.

In this section below, we see military officer Adelheid who has, practically against her will, risen to the level of command as the situation deteriorates around her following the Earth's collapse. Here, after the Messenger has pulled across the dark of Mercury close to the dusk line in order to have time to make repairs, she has managed to wrest some stability for her latitude-town, but she's made some hard choices, and is not feeling in the mood to celebrate, even if back on Earth, it's New Year's Eve, 2312.


She glanced up, and saw Felix standing at the doorway in the dim light. She smiled. It was unfamiliar enough a feeling that she marvelled at it. "Yes, Felix?"

He stepped forward, hands behind his back. "Apparently, the repairs are complete."

Adelheid straightened up. How long have I been working here? "Already?"

"A little early, as it turns out," Felix replied. "We had some lucky breaks to get the repairs done quicker."

"Oh." Strange. I don't feel lucky. "Thank heavens for some small mercies, right?"

Felix smiled. Then he brought out his hands. One held an envelope, which he held out to her. "And, in other news, I apparently have to call you Colonel, now."

Her brow furrowed. "What?" She snatched the envelope and opened it.

"You've been promoted." He took a step back and watched. "We all have."

"But, who--" She shook her head. "With Ramkin dead--"

"The civilian council made the decision," Felix replied.

"We haven't got a civilian council anymore," Adelheid snapped.

Felix picked up the paper and glanced at the signature. "We do have assistant deputy clerk Meitner, apparently. Head of filing. That's as high up as the civilian leadership goes, I guess."

"We should do something about that," said Adelheid. "Call an election."

"When we have the time. In the meantime, he and the others at his level had a vote. They made the call."

Adelheid paused, then sighed. "I guess somebody has to."

Felix straightened up and saluted. "Congratulations, Colonel Koning."

She looked away. "Felix, stop it."

He sagged, and stood silently. Adelheid could almost feel his stare on her, but she said nothing. At the same time, she didn't order him to leave.

She heard Felix step back and pull something from his jacket. She hear the clink of two things being planted on the tabletop. By the time she turned, he'd unscrewed a small bottle and had poured out a clear liquid into two glasses.

"Alcohol ration," he replied to her questioning gaze. "For today."

"What day?" asked Adelheid. She looked up at the calendar, but she hadn't updated it.

"December 31, 2312." Felix checked his watch. "Twenty-three fifty-four Greenwich Mean Time, apparently. That explains the noise you may have heard outside."

Adelheid peered past him at the door, and listened hard. It took her a second, but over the purr of the Messenger, she finally heard it. The sounds of celebration.

"Happy New Year?" muttered Felix. He raised his ration shot of alcohol, looking for the possibility of a toast.

Adelheid sighed and took her glass. "They won't be saying it on Earth, you know. Assuming there's anyone there left to say it at all."

But Felix kept his hand out, glass held high. After a moment, Adelheid tapped her shot glass to Felix's. She slugged it back and wished there was another.

"Do you think we'll keep the Earth calendar?" she asked. "Measure everything in Earth Years when there's no-one there to keep time?"

"Maybe." Felix leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. "I don't like the idea of measuring things in Mercury Years. Too many New Year's festivals. I'm not really in the mood to celebrate."

"Neither am I." Adelheid put her face in her hands.

"But we have to celebrate," said Felix. "At least once an Earth year."

She looked up. "We do?"

"Yeah." He stepped back and opened the door. The sound of celebration echoing through the corridors increased. "Because despite yesterday, we're here today. We've stabilized our rations. We've repaired the Messenger. We can hold out indefinitely. We can get through today, but we need something to get us to tomorrow."

She gave him a wry look. "Nice inspiring speech. How long did you take to think it up?"

"It's true, though." He took a deep breath, then looked her in the eye. "We're still here today. And we're going to be here tomorrow. So, let's celebrate that, at least. Celebrate... and remember." He stepped back a bit, indicating the door.

Adelheid sighed. Then she put the shot glass down and stood up.

This brought her close to Felix, and she hesitated. They stared at each other, and the silence lengthened. In it, Adelheid thought, Felix. Always been there. Looking on the bright side of things. Making me hope rather than fear. My best friend since we were in pre-vocational school. I'm so glad to have him here. My best friend.

She frowned. My best. Friend.

Felix looked away. He cleared his throat. "We should get going," he said. "I think the new Colonel should address her troops."

"Yeah," said Adelheid quickly. They turned at the same time for the door, and bumped shoulders. They stopped, staring.

Felix took a step back and let Adelheid lead the way.

They walked into the corridor, towards the sounds of celebration.


(The image above is courtesy

Below is a piece I wrote for The Curator of Forgotten Things. The story is still at the "throw everything at the wall and see what sticks" stage, and this monologue probably will not make it, but it helps me understand the world that protagonist Lucy Shao is living in...


Dad lost his job when I started high school.

That sounds more traumatic than it was, which shows you how well society handled the transition, if you think about it.

He was laid off because his profession had been automated. I'm surprised, now, that it came as a surprise: everybody cheered the launch of self-driving cars, and they did make our streets safer, our transportation more convenient, and our insurance premiums negligible. But people didn't realize that self-driving cars meant self-driving trucks, and the economic case for them was beyond compelling.

Robot drivers don't get fatigued. They don't get distracted. They don't drive impaired. The Luddites who fought against the automation of the industry (and I'm not insulting them; they called themselves that, with a sense of historical callback that I appreciated, but ironically no sense of what actually happened to the first Luddites in history) didn't stand a chance.

Fortunately, somebody in management or in the government was wise enough to soften the blow. Dad was laid off, but he got a generous severance package. And then his pension kicked in, ten years early and higher than expected. And Mom was a teacher, so she was bringing in a decent income of her own, and we had enough to live comfortably, with a roof over our heads.

So, while Dad may have been upset at no longer being a trucker anymore, he told me he was happy. He now had time to work in his workshop, and learn to use the tools he'd been gathering over the years. He built Mom a garden shed. The second time, it even managed to stay up.

By the time I'd graduated high school, they had stopped reporting unemployment statistics. Many economists were questioning their accuracy, anyway. A quirk of reporting on unemployment is that it doesn't count the number of people who aren't working. Instead -- and this is important -- they only count those out of work who are actively looking for work. If you've given up, because the industry you worked at has gone to the robots, or because you haven't worked at all for the past two years, or because there isn't a position anywhere that you qualify for, and they're filling up anyway, then you slip out of the system. The numbers don't count you. In the wrong hands, you can be forgotten.

Fortunately, somebody remembered. The year I graduated high school was the year the government brought in the National Minimum Income. Suddenly, every citizen and landed immigrant received a cheque from their government equivalent to working a full time job at minimum wage -- which had previously been set at $15/hour. And they abolished university tuition.

So, at the age of eighteen, I was suddenly being paid $30,000 per year to... just live.

It wasn't an extravagant living, but it was enough to get my own place and put food on the table, with or without my parents' support. Also, everything was cheap, another benefit of automation.

The tensions just seemed to end after that. The restaurants filled up. So did the coffee shops,. The libraries did brisk business. Governments were re-elected. Wars faded. We had what we needed, and all we had to do was sit there.

I didn't like just sitting there. I never have.

But by now there weren't many jobs available. The service industry was all but automated. Pubs served beer by ATM. Even the baristas were mechanical. A handful of places charged a premium rate for human service, but the people who worked those jobs clung to them. There was hardly ever an opening.

So, since I didn't want to just sit around, and since a University education was free, I went to University. I found my passions. I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

And I could have done it. And maybe I should have done it after the job I found ended up being sitting behind a desk at an empty warehouse. Maybe I should have quit and pretended to earn an income from my own business.

I didn't quit for a few reasons. For one thing, $30,000 a year isn't poverty but it's not far above it. The extra paycheque helped me build up a cushion, and I love cushions, both financial and memory-foam.

And as I looked out at a life without work, I couldn't see myself doing it. I am Lucy Shao, a graduate with a bachelor's degree in history. I work for a museum supply company, even if their warehouses are empty. I hope to work at a museum someday.

I don't need to work, but I want to work. Because I am Lucy Shao, and everything I told you about my career goals is a part of my name. It's a part of me.

I couldn't give that up. Not yet.

Thu, Nov
Thu, Nov 9, 2017

Tim Hortons and the Good Place


(The picture above is of a Tim Horton’s location in Moncton and is by Wikipedia user Stu Pendousmat. It is used in accordance with its Creative Commons License)

So, I was going through the drive through at Tim Hortons, ordering a quick set of snacks for the kids and me. The kids are at home. I pull up to the speaker and ask for a coffee (me), a sour cream glazed donut (also me), and two chocolate glazed donuts (for the kids). Then I remembered that Vivian prefers chocolate chip cookies, so I changed the order to one chocolate glazed donut and one chocolate chip cookie. The order appears on the screen, and I’m asked to pull up to receive it.

Well, a nice young woman takes my payment and starts handing out the order. There’s the coffee. There’s the sour cream glazed donut. There’s the chocolate chip cookie. And there’s two chocolate glazed donuts. Not one, two.

I know I paid for just one.

At first I think, “Cool! Free donut!” But then I think about The Good Place, and how little things can have big consequences for the rest of eternity, and my next thought is, “Damn! I’ve got to hand one of those back.”

I called the young woman back, and said to her, “I’m sorry, you gave me two, and I only asked for one.”

“Okay,” she said, taking the bag, and putting one more chocolate glazed donut into it.

“No, no,” I said. “You gave me too many. You gave me two instead of one!”

She cocks an eyebrow. “You want me to add two more?”


We got it worked out. Eventually. After some wrangling. She didn’t even have to talk to her manager or anything like that. So, I went home, chuckling to myself, and handed off the goodies.

And found that they’d accidentally substituted a chocolate glazed donut for my sour cream glazed one.

Michael Schur, I blame you.

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