Tag Archives: genre hopping

Babel Glass: Translation is Magic

On October 1, 2013, CEATEC Japan opened for five days of technological wonders. The expo looks like a candy store of everything that has touch screens and wireless links and chrome and glass. This isn’t just a big tent for live-action infomercials, though. A lot of these products are still in the development stages, so we are looking at technology that could be part of our lives some day in the future. One of the products being developed is NTT Docomo’s Intelligent Glasses.

The Intelligent Glasses are similar to the much-discussed Google Glass project. There is a headset with an display over the right eye and a camera to scan the world around you. The glasses offer the ability to turn any flat surface into a mock touch screen. A peripheral tracks hand movements in relation to the camera’s field of vision to control this. The camera also uses facial recognition, which is a slightly terrorizing concept to me. I’m envisioning walking through the world with a halo of personal data around everyone’s head, constantly forced to know their status or favorite team or opinions on recent news…wait. That sounds familiar…

Okay, but the really cool part of the glasses is still coming. This is the part that made me want to talk about them in this column, even though I really don’t have anything much to say about turning them into a magical version. Because this bit is pretty much Magic is Science all on its own. They translate. They translate whatever they see.

Holy shit, what?

They can currently handle English, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. Which is impressive right there, because that’s six writing systems alone. This is the Babel fish and universal translators and whatever excuse they used about the stargates doing something for language comprehension in the Stargate Universe. And this is real. That’s kind of a big deal. We are living in a science fictional universe right now.

You can see a picture of the Intelligent Glasses in action here. The monitor on the left shows, I think, what the person is seeing through the headset as they look at that menu. It doesn’t look like the translation has come through yet, but there is apparently a solid five second delay, so it might still be processing. I did see a news clip, which I do not have a link for, in which they showed the translation on-screen. It appears as an overlay of text on the original. It used as an example the same menu that appears in the photo above.

I would be interested in seeing how the translation performs with more advanced materials. My Japanese is somewhere between spotty and nonexistent because I am many years out of practice with it. I can, however, read much of what is on the menu (the main headings, for example, say soup, salad, main dishes, and dessert). It is written in katakana, the syllabary most often used to render loan words from other languages. So, basically, the glasses are reading English words that have migrated into Japanese use and are written in a special system used largely for that purpose. Point is, translating them back is not the most taxing exercise, relatively speaking. I’d like to see the glasses at work on newspaper articles with higher reading levels or on proper names, such as street signs, where a literal translation is not the correct one.

An Aside:

One thing that bothers me about “global culture” is the way in which English is becoming not merely universally recognized, but required. There’s an article here (via ysabetwordsmith) about prejudice against English speakers attempting to speak the native languages of places they visit. The native people want to use English instead. Learning new, non-English languages is increasingly frowned upon, appallingly enough.

English is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. It can talk about a hell of a lot of things. Not everything, though, which is why I find it so troubling that languages are dying all the time as their populations disappear or get swallowed up by a dominant culture and language. The death of any language means the death of some words that it handled better than anything else. Without words, we have no shared ideas. If English is the only language any of us have, we only have concepts that exist in English (unless/until we invent new words for them).

So, to my way of thinking, commonly available translation abilities would offer an alternative to this anglophone takeover: convenience without conversion. I would rather have translators, even imperfect ones, than a single, universal language.

Between the delay in translation and the limited pool of languages, the glasses are far from perfected. They are, however, goddamn amazing in their potential. I want us to reach a point where simultaneous audio translation is possible for all people, all the time. This is a step in that direction. (I do, however, keep in mind the warning in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy regarding the Babel fish: by removing all linguistic barriers, it has been responsible for more wars than anything else in the world. Knowing exactly what the other person is saying isn’t always a boon.)

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Waiting for a Letter: Communication is Magic

I spent the better part of the weekend poised by the computer waiting for emails to come through so I could answer them. Instantaneous communication is generally great, except that now everyone expects it. The message goes through the instant you send it (sort of, unless you have an email provider that can’t sodding get their act together *cough*). People can respond to it instantly too. Which starts to mean they should respond to it instantly. Oh, my life.

I have absolutely no business pining for the age of handwritten letters. I grew up in the computer age, though I was rather late to the internet compared to most of my peers. Even without email and instant messaging, no one was ever more than a few hours away by phone. Leave a message, hear back before the day is out. Written letters were reserved for holiday cards and thank-you notes.

I do pine for that bygone age, though. There is something deeply romantic about letters, those tiny time capsules that carry messages into the future. Stories from WWII always get me in particular. Now and then, the news will run a story of letters lost for decades that finally found their way to the recipient, letters from a frontline to a home front that both disappeared a lifetime ago. One last chance, right? One last chance to express love and hope and desperation and longing, a chance stolen from the jaws of time and death and distance.

I’ve been thinking about doing a series of posts about magic and science and how fiction can transform one into another. I suppose I should talk about instant transmissions–telepathy and wormholes and pervasive vid phones. All very nice things (except telepathy, which freaks me out).

I would rather talk about slow communication, though, so I’m going for the magic end of things. Magic-using worlds vary from the very primitive to the highly advanced. I rather like the inefficiency of the mail owls of Harry Potter, for example. We’re talking about oversized, nocturnal carrier pigeons, for goodness sake. I like the idea of messages that come to me as well. Forget sitting by the computer, trapped by the obligation of instantaneous communication. Let me go about my business and let the messages track me down.

I want to see bubbles used for messages. I wrote a bit about bubbles in my newsletter, Wonder on a Budget. I like the idea of using them to trap a voice, carry the message away, and release the message as they burst. What a horrifically impractical means of communicating, and what a beautiful one. Think of the dangers the world would pose to a little bubble bearing that precious message. Think of the fleets of bubbles one would need to send out to ensure delivery. This is the communication version of nature’s divide between nurturing one offspring at a time and just tossing a horde of them out into the world and hoping for the best.

Even with magic to protect and guide them, I imagine air currents could throw them marvelously off-course. How long would it take for them to arrive then? Would it be a kindness or a cruelty to get that preserved burst of voice years after the fact? What fears could be assuaged, what wounds could be reopened?

After this weekend, I wouldn’t mind waiting a year or fifty before receiving the next email. (I’ll happily take comments, though!)

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Figurehead Intro

I have a short story out for consideration with Asimov’s at the moment and another waiting in the wings to be written for someone else. But mostly right now, I’m feeling the loss of HoC as a regular, long project to work on. So I’ve been doing planning work on a new project–Figurehead. It’ll be a hair longer than HoC was and this one is sci-fi. Space opera, in fact. And with the return of regular work, I need a return to regular posting here. So I’m going to make an effort to post regular tidbits about this project, particularly because I won’t be having any free fiction here for a bit. So:

A maintenance slave and her ship’s renegade AI must track down the cartographer captain they mutinied against when his successor plunges the rest of the crew into pirates’ prison.

(As a note, I’m going through Holly Lisle’s How to Think Sideways course again to do the planning on this project. The sentence above is, in fact, The Sentence for Figurehead. The Sentence is one of the first and best tools in the course and learning how it works has been the difference between flailing around with only a vague sense of what I was writing about and having a clear, usable definition of what the story was and where it was headed.  See the affiliate link in the sidebar if you’d like to know more about this fantastic course.)

Today, I finished the first rough sketches of the four characters mentioned in The Sentence.

The Victoria Jefferson is an AI system used to run complex military space ships and her personal goal is to expand her knowledge base as far as she can. From the character outline: “I believe that learning is the highest goal of any creature intelligent enough to have self-awareness. It elevates, it improves, it makes all things possible. Learning must be the individual’s first priority. Without learning, even survival becomes a matter of nothing more than chance. Learning allows us to direct our own lives.”

Mally is a mechanical prodigy who grew up as a messenger slave on a massive space station and no payday yet has made her feel like she’s free. “Born number six and that’s seven kids too many, sold off to the first messenger keeper what comes calling, stuck at that for fifteen cold, hard years before someone hijacks the transport I’m on, and all a sudden I’m not going home again. I got metal in my head and metal in my blood. I ain’t high-class folk and I ain’t too nice. I keep my mouth shut and my head down. And if that keeps me alive, it don’t mean I like it.”

Captain Benjamin Oryana, M.C. is a master cartographer, plotting “footfalls” used by faster-than-light ships to traverse space in short jumps, and he uses his well-paying official job to finance his real passion: “Apart from letting me make a damn good living if I choose to, getting my cartographer’s license gave me the means and the excuse to go poking around the very edges of the world we know and to sometimes go careening into the parts we don’t know at all. I can make money collecting stories, so long as I use those stories to find footfalls. I never have to be bored. Boredom is the only sin I believe in and the only torture I can’t bear.”

Cresley Turner is a middle-aged gunner still trying to make his fortune so he can go back home to the girl he left behind. He blames life in space, on the edges of the civilized universe, for his personal failures: “People don’t belong in space. It ain’t right. It’s just something you’ve got to pass through to get to places worth going. But spend too much time up there, and you forget what it means to be a person. To be human. You just get caught up in that mass of weirdness out there. People have got to spend as much time around other humans as they can if they want to survive it. Don’t keep too much with aliens and don’t stay on the ship when you make port.”

The next step is to work out the details of my conflict. Then I’ve got a bit of time to spend on world building–dicking around with the rules of time and space, for one–and finally I get to start planning scenes. That should get me through July, with actual fiction starting in August, if all goes well.

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2559 words and a submission

The words are on the next HoC episode, which is coming along great, if far, far too long. I generally shoot for eight scenes, but this one requires a ninth. On top of that, every scene is running over 700 words. I’m going to have to cut a lot to get it down to size and it will still definitely be the longest episode yet.

The story is getting down to the end. There are four episodes remaining and I am being very careful to build up my head of steam for the conclusion. The tension is great and the words are just flying. I’m fluctuating between being delighted and heartbroken to reach the end. On the one hand, I’m very ready to move on to other projects. The majority of my creative energies are directed into HoC at the moment, but there are a lot of plans I have simmering that I look forward to. But I’ve also come to love this world and the characters living in it; part of me is contriving side stories and sequels that will let me revisit it.

As of #16, HoC is over eighty thousand words long and, when completed, should run at least one hundred thousand words. It is the longest thing I’ve ever written. To me, it is amazing for that alone. When I started this blog in September, 2009, I got the idea that I wanted to do a serial, something about several couples dealing with everyday life as much as the bigger, more adventurous parts, preferably with lots of cooking. To say that HoC has ended up being more than I ever imagined — more work, more fun, more important to me — is the understatement of the century.

In totally unrelated news, I have officially hopped genres and sent out my first science fiction story. The anthology is MutatioN Press‘s Music for Another World. Lumping science fiction and fantasy in with a miscellany of other possibilities under the term “strange fiction,” the anthology is about all the ways that humans (and maybe non-humans, too) interact with music. I have, as of the moment, received a favorable note from the editor, so I’m hoping my submission is in contention for the final cut. I hope to know for sure around the end of the month.

The story is “Turing Guessed Wrong” and it was a disgusting amount of fun to write. Having heard about Emily Howell, I knew I would have to write something inspired by the idea at some point in the near future. The story is all the things I love: it’s a family drama; it’s centered on daily life; it’s got belligerent teenagers and harried mothers. Actually, it’s a lot like HoC in those respects. If you like science fiction, especially the future of AI, biotechnology, and pop culture, and HoC suited you, “Turing Guessed Wrong” should be right up your alley. I’m delighted that it may appear in this anthology.

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Working Review: Our Daily Toast

This time, I am headed over to Toasted Cheese, which is a literary journal, writers’ forum, and writing prompt provider. They have a fantastic monthly calendar, which provides prompts for each day. March particularly impressed me because every Saturday was a genre challenge and anyone who encourages writers to experiment with many genres deserves a pat on the back. Unfortunately, April does not include Saturday genre challenges; I suppose it would be difficult to find enough different genres to do it every month.

The nice thing about these calendars, as opposed to a book of writing prompts or other collections of them, is that it really encourages writing as a daily habit. I know for me, especially now when I am juggling House of Cats and a list of anthologies for which I want to write, writing often turns into something about deadlines and quotas. If I don’t have a deadline hanging over my head, I don’t want to write at all. I start to think, I’ve put in my time for the day, the week, the month, now leave me alone.

But ironically, the discipline of a daily habit makes writing less about what you have to do and more about the joy of storytelling. Because even if I say I must write each day, there are no rules and no demands about subject or, heck, even quality. This is writing as play, as an adult’s recess, as indulgence.

Tuesday’s prompt is “Bangles and Beads: she was obsessed with making jewelry.” But I feel like I should be giving you a bit more than just hi, here’s a site, here’s a snippet, good night. So let me break down for you my process of developing an idea when presented with a prompt.

First of all, my best brainstorming occurs in the shower. The combination of quiet solitude and the automatic movements of washing leave my brain free to tinker with ideas. The shower is where I conquer all my worse blocks and develop ideas from nothing. I break down the elements of the prompt and ask questions about each one. So:

Jewelry: who makes jewelry? –> women, craftsmen, metalworkers, children (I am envisioning the macaroni necklaces I foisted on my mother as a child)

What can they make it out of? –> metal, gems and stones, rope, wood, macaroni, found objects, glass, beads, pearls (found objects and pearls are speaking to me at the moment)

Why do they make it? –> to wear, to sell, to pass the time, to preserve objects, to repurpose objects

From this, I’ve got bored children using found objects to make their own jewelry and pass the time.

Obsessed: what sort of person obsesses? –> perfectionist, hyper focused, avoidance of other issues

Under what circumstances does obsession develop? –> has little else to occupy mind, stressful situations, way to block out unpleasant realities

From this, I’ve got someone in difficult circumstance who can’t do anything to change them, but who needs to focus their attention on something to cope with that stress.

After that, I get to the part that I can’t explain or map out. Once I’ve picked out the details in the prompt and found variations and interpretations that speak to me, my right brain really kicks in and starts putting the tinker toys into new and attractive configurations. I get an image, usually, or a character or a bit of plot. The parts stick together into something that resembles story. Right now, it is the idea of a child in a new land, maybe even a new planet, entertaining herself while her mother works, and the image of a necklace made out of a huge and luminous pearl-like object, which floats above the child’s head in zero gravity while she tries to sleep.

Once I have that kernel of an idea, I can start to develop. POV character is the child. I’ll need a theme if it’s going to be much more than a vignette. Number of words to shoot for and number of scenes I can get out of that based on my average words per scene. Lines describing each scene. A sentence describing the core of the story.

Joanna washes her cereal bowl in a sink with running water, which is a nice change from buckets pulled up from wells or rivers. The bio crisis planets are usually more advanced than the famine planets. Their cottage is right on the beach, so it makes no difference to her if Dr. Claudia Shipman spends the day treating the local livestock — something like a llama and something like the mega rabbits on XMV-671 — for the virus that is killing nine out of every ten. Joanna can amuse herself. If she gets bored of playing by the water, she can go inside, where there are books to read and half-strung necklaces to finish and math lessons to not do.

In the tide pools, Joanna finds a strand of seaweed caught on a colony of anemone-like creatures. She teases it loose from their waving fingers and retreats to the dry sand with it. Where each leaf attaches to the vine, there is a pearl, a bud, a buoy and when the sun has baked some of the water from the vine, these pearls float in the air. The ends of the vine drag in the sand. Looking through its parabola, Joanna sees a knot of tall children scuffing towards her through the sand. She plucks the vine from the air and retreats to the house. She locks the door behind her.

When Joanna lets Dr. Shipman in, she stinks of sick animal. There is mud up to her knees and the mostly washed off remnants of blood on her arms. “Why did you lock the door?”

Joanna shrugs and goes back to the little kitchen table, where she has a thick sewing needle stabbed through the stem of one of the pearls. Its skin is thick and hard like bark. She uses a pair of rusty forceps to pull the needle the rest of the way through. Dr. Shipman goes into the tiny water closet. The water turns on. Joanna slips the needle from the thread and puts it safely away. She holds up the two ends of thread. In the middle, the pearl bobs. Joanna opens her box of beads. She slides a blue stone onto the thread and takes it off again. She tries faceted glass and polished stones. The pearl sags with their weight and floats free again when she takes them off.

The water shuts off. Dr. Shipman sits down at the table wearing the battered flannel robe. “Hey, kiddo, what did you find?” Joanna only thinks of her as “mom” when she wears it. The rest of the time, she calls her Dr. Shipman like everyone else on every planet they visit.

Joanna tries red and orange and yellow beads, all down the list of colors she has neatly organized, and takes every one off again. “Found it on the beach,” she says.

“That’s called moon tree. The floaters are filled with lighter-than-air gasses. That’s how the plant floats high enough to get sunlight underwater.” She goes to fix dinner when Joanna just keeps working.

Over chicken and rice MREs, Dr. Shipman says, “It looks like we’ll be here for a few more weeks.”

Joanna pushes her fork through her food. “Fine.” At eye level, the pearl drifts, the ends of thread looped around her off hand.

Dr. Shipman lets out a loud sigh. “Do you want to go to classes at the school?”

“No, thank you. I’ll do my lessons here.” When the table is cleared, Joanna just knots the ends of the thread behind her neck. In bed, with the two moons shining through her window, Joanna catches the pearl in her mouth. It tastes of sea water. She lets it go and a third moon rises over her planet. It is a moon she can carry with her when she leaves in two weeks or two months, whenever this assignment ends and the next one comes in.

I think I must have been reading something written in present tense because I did not notice until the second section that I had started writing in it. I’m a strictly past tense sort of person usually. I feel pretty strongly that I would like to finish this story some time. It hits a whole bunch of my favorite things: new worlds; awkward childhoods and parent-child relationships; animals and medicine; crafts; weird flora and fauna; rural settings; and issues of loneliness and independence.

I did not in fact go through all the development I described earlier, since I knew I would not be doing the full story within the confines of this article. So I can see that I don’t have enough overt conflict driving the story forward. I’m still just drifting in the area of “mood,” which is fine for practice, but makes for deadly dull fiction. But it is exactly what I imagined when I first started thinking about someone obsessed with making jewelry.

This is the first time I have written science fiction, though I admit I have taken the soft science approach. Which is another fringe benefit of following these calendar challenges: if you write long enough and often enough, it is my belief that, to keep from boring yourself, you will eventually have to branch into new genres. This, as I mention, can only be a good thing.

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