Proxima Centauri b reality check

Artist's_impression_of_the_planet_orbiting_Proxima_Centauri

Proxima Centauri b: Very, very cool news, but not because it’s a planet the size of Earth that’s not too far away. What’s really neat about this is that it’s a planet that’s orbiting a Red Dwarf. Red dwarfs are small and cooler than our sun, but they’re the most common stars in the universe.

We now know that planets appear to be a pretty common feature around the universe, and this indicates that there could be unimaginable numbers of similar planets in existence. That’s pretty exciting stuff right there: out of those numbers, there’s going to be other Earth-sized planets right smack in the sweet spot where water can exist.

That’s a pretty good starting point for assuming that there’s life out there in the universe. Anyone who reads science fiction has probably assumed that we’re not alone in the universe. When you consider the sheer number of stars out there, even a small fraction containing water-bearing planets would be an unimaginably high number. A small fraction of that containing life would be the same.

It’s exciting news, but there’s something interesting with how it’s portrayed.

Here’s a collection of headlines that have popped up throughout the day this week:

This Planet Just Outside Our Solar System Is ‘Potentially Habitable’ (NPR)

Discovery of potentially Earth-like planet Proxima b raises hopes for life (Guardian)

Possibly habitable planet found orbiting nearest star (CBS)

A planet orbits around the closest star to our Solar System — and it may be habitable (The Verge)

New neighbor: Scientists discover closest habitable exoplanet (Fox News)

You can see the common point in all of these: Proxima Centauri b does appear to be in the habitable zone of its host star, but that’s not to say that Proxima Centauri b is Earth-like, habitable and ready for us to move in.What scientists discovered was a planet that appears to be about the size of Earth, in the habitable zone. But, there’s a lot that actually makes a planet habitable. Venus is a planet that’s almost exactly the same size as Earth. It’s a bit too close to our sun, but it’s the atmosphere that really makes it a nasty place to live. It’s thick, has lots of pressure and acid. Every spacecraft we’ve dropped to the surface have melted in a matter of minutes. (We could live in the atmosphere, if we wanted to try some floating cities).

My friend Andria Schwortz pointed out that even if it’s Earth-sized, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a rocky planet like Earth: we literally only know the planet’s mass and orbit. It could be a gas planet. It could be a rocky planet without an atmosphere. It could also be an Earth-like planet with an atmosphere and liquid water.

Atmospheres are important, because they help regulate temperatures on the surface, whether or not there’s liquid water, and so forth. Earth-sized doesn’t necessarily equal habitable for humans. There’s a long distance from the right size all the way up to habitable. The atmosphere needs to be right (which means nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc), the right pressure, the right temperatures, and so forth.

Our environment is the product of billions of years of life and some external factors. There’s also Earth’s plate tectonics and its moon, which could have aided life. There’s also Earth’s magnetic field, which helps protect the surface from radiation from our Sun. Life is complicated. Our Moon and some of the outer planets are responsible from shielding Earth from devastating asteroid impacts. There were lots of points along the way that made our existence pretty spectacular. The sheer number of planets make the difficulty of life coming through certainly possible.

Also, we’re probably not going to set people down here. It’s four light years away, which means it would take just under two hundred thousand years to reach this system with our conventional technology, or about the same length of time humanity has existed. These are unimaginably large distances. If we can boost our way up to a sizable fraction of lightspeed, we’re still talking about hundreds of years in transit.

My Approach to Book Reviewing


I’ve been asked a couple of times from various people about reviewing books and my approach to the types of articles that I’ve written in recent years.

It seems like there’s a couple of general forms for these questions / requests:

  • How do you go about picking books to review?
  • Can I please give you a copy of my book? You don’t have to review it, just read it!
  • How do I get you a review copy? / How do I get the attention of a reviewer?

Let me preface this by saying that this is my approach, and that generally, reviewing books is a side exercise to most of the reporting that I do and have done. There’s not a whole lot of demand for it across the internet, and the loss of genre-specific publications such as SF Signal, A Dribble of Ink, and others tightens up that market considerably.

Because I’ve been doing this for a little while and because I’ve written for places that get decent traffic, I’m on the mailing lists for a bunch of publishers, who want me to take a look at what they have. (For a good look into how the publicists work, listen to SF Signal Podcast #275)

What that means is that I’m getting to know my postman and UPS guys pretty well. They stop by my house 2-4 times a week. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll probably see that I post up pictures every couple of days of what I get in. Those books pile up fast, and there’s no humanly way possible for me to even read a fraction of what comes through the door. Getting the books is fine: I read over most of what I take in, to see if I’m interested: I come across some interesting books that way that I might not have otherwise found.

This is where the triage comes in. The books that don’t make that first cut go into a couple of piles:

  • 2-3 stacks, for the books that are coming out in the next couple of months. These aren’t ones that I’m planning on reading, but they look sufficiently interesting to hang on to, so that I make sure they end up on New Adventures for The Verge.
  • Discard pile: these are books that have a) either come out already, b) I have a copy already, or c) it’s not a book that I can/want to include on the list for any number of reasons. I’ve been bringing these piles to my monthly book club for people to take – they’ll whittle down the pile, and I’ll hand off the copies to family members, friends, etc. If I have a lingering pile by the time I hit a convention, I’ll usually drop that off on the free pile. Others will get donated to a library.

If I get a book that I’m interested in, I’ll haul it up to my office, where it gets stuck into another chronological pile by release date. This is something I want to review. It looks interesting, and it’s essentially my to-get-to pile. There’s some books that immediately come to the top as a high priority to read, while there are some others that I’ll pick up if I can get to them. Some books, even high-priority books, get dropped off because I miss the release date, or because I get a couple of chapters in and didn’t like it.

There’s a second pile that I’ve got going up here – books that I’m planning on reading, but which the release date has passed. I might still post up a review, or I might just read it because I like the author, what the book is about, or the cover art. I tend to keep my eyes open for what others are saying about it. There’s some people who’s judgement I trust, and if they’ve liked it, that’s helpful to know. (But, it’s not failsafe – I’ve despised some well-regarded books, and loved some books that people hated).

Review dates are important here, for a couple of reasons. Publishers and authors are working to get the word out, and potential buyers, fans and interested readers are looking. This is the best time for a review to go up, because you have a certain amount of attention that’s looking to be steered towards a review or commentary on the book. However, how much traffic a book will generate isn’t the first consideration that goes through my head when I pick up something to read. In all the time that I’ve been reviewing (with SF Signal, io9, Lightspeed, Verge, etc), I’ve never been asked to review a book because it’ll generate traffic, or because there’s some sort of deal in place at the site.

Finally, I pick up the book and read it! Some books get dropped halfway through so that I can cut my loses and move onto the next one. The pile for the rest of the year? ~20 books, with an additional four that I’m reading now. I tend to read 4-6 books at any given time. I’ll take a stack with me and read a couple of chapters at a time between a couple to see what breaks out for me, and when one does, I’ll finish that up. There’s times when I’ll also pick up an audiobook, particularly a book that’s taking me a long time to get through, to listen to when I’m driving, which helps move the pace along a bit.

When I’m done with the book, I’ll jot down a rough outline and get it written up while it’s fresh in my mind. I don’t usually take notes or anything like that, but I’ll go back and read up on a passage or chapter if I need to. Then, the review gets posted in the appropriate venue (currently, either this blog, Verge or Lightspeed), and I move onto the next entry in the pile.

With that in mind, here’s a couple of questions that I’ve gotten:

Can I please give you a copy of my book? You don’t have to review it, just read it!

Erm, no. I’ve seen this question pop up more than once, particularly along self-published authors, and I’m not sure why it’s only in that small subset (I could be wrong, but I’ve never had a traditionally published author ask me that).

The problem with this question is that most of my reading is tied up with professional commitments. I have a finite amount of time in the day to read, and there’s already a waiting list. If you’re doing the digital equivalent of shoving a book in my face with a demand to read it, you’re demanding my time, which is finite.

The books that I’m reading for review are ones that I deem interesting and worthy for the outlets I write for, and that’s judgement that I’ve honed as a reviewer, and a quality that my editors seem to like. For my own pleasure, I’m picking up books that interest me the most.

How do I get you a review copy?

I’ve got a ton of books already, and adding more to the pile means that the mailman / UPS guys have to make another trip over. If you’re a regularly published author (I.E., not self-published) with a publicity department, feel free to have your publicist get in touch. If you’re self-published, free free to send me a link / blurb. If I like what I see, I’ll let you know. If I don’t, I’m not really interested in having a book that I have to get rid of – it’s not a good use of resources for you or me.

Why do you hate self-published books?!

I’ve been accused of this. The short answer is, I don’t. I don’t pick them up all that often, but there’s reasons for that: there’s a whole publicity apparatus set up by the major publishers, and it’s hard to get the word out in the flood of other books. I’ve read and reviewed self-published books — I recently picked up Cumulus by Eliot Peper and reviewed it for io9. A mutual friend recommended the book, and he queried me about how I he could get me a copy.

Most of the time, I’ll pass on a book if I’m queried – remember, there’s a whole system of piles – because it’s something I’m simply not interested in. (I reject a ton of traditionally published books, too!)

How can I stand out to reviewers?

Book publicity is hard, tiring and discouraging. I’ve been there: I had to market War Stories: New Military Science Fiction when that came out a couple of years ago, and it was an exhausting process to get people to look at the book. Some colleagues in the reviewing world picked it up and some didn’t.

The best way to stand out to reviews is to have an outstanding book. That might sound glib, but I’m being serious. Every author thinks that their book is the best out there. Some things do help: professional messaging, like a press package (blurb, cover art, a handful of review excerpts, etc) goes a long way.

Packaging your book helps too. While I primarily go by the blurb on the back of the book to decide whether or not I read it, the cover does make an impression. It doesn’t always factor in, but seriously, don’t half-ass it with Microsoft Paint.

Obviously, there’s exceptions to every rule: there’s plenty of great books with terrible covers out there (Just look at all the modern covers for Ringworld), and there’s plenty of great covers with terrible books (just look at Ernie Cline’s Armada).

What should I do if you tell me you’re not interested in my book?

Move on to the next reviewer. Seriously, move on.

Your book might not have worked for a number of reasons: I might not like that type of book; I might have reviewed something like it already; I might have too many books on my plate as it is.

If you decide to argue the point, I’m just going to delete your e-mail. If you tell me that I’m biased or that I hate authors/self-publishing/Fantasy/whatever, I’ve lost interest. I’ve already decided that I’m not interested in your book: what makes you think that I’m interested in your argument about it? Being rude isn’t going to help you.

 

The long and short of it comes down to resource and time management. I’d like to read everything, but I have to be selective. I try and make sure that everything that comes through the door at least gets publicized with a picture, and that I review the stuff that I like and that I think other people will like. The main criteria that I have for a review? I liked a book enough to tell people that I think that they should read it. Everything up to that point is finding the right book. I don’t find all of them, but I do try.

Anyway, that’s my approach.

The Unidentified Adventures of Raymond A. Palmer

 

One of my favorite films is Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by Steven Spielberg. While watching it recently, I realized something: I’ve never noticed a significant overlap between the science fiction community and the UFO community. Sure, there are science fiction stories about aliens invading Earth, and I’m sure that there are plenty of UFO fans who read science fiction, but otherwise, the two communities seem fairly separate.

The modern UFO community emerged during the 1940s and 1950s following some sensational reporting and incidents that they latched onto. A major component of this community had some roots in science fiction fandom in the form of Raymond A. Palmer. Palmer had edited Amazing Stories, and founded some of the more influential publications for that community.

Go read The Unidentified Adventures of Raymond A. Palmer over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Over my Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. Palmer shows up a couple of times here, and this book is good for context for the 1930s publishing field.
  • Seekers of Tomorrow, Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz mentions Palmer a bunch of times here, and provides some good context.
  • The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis. Nadis’s biography is a solid, entertaining read, and it’s certainly worth picking up for a more in-depth look at the author.

Online:

  • SF Encyclopedia: Palmer has an entry here that largely skirts over his connections to the paranormal / UFO communities.

Review: Pitbull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

I have to admit, I hesitated a bit when my wife first showed me a picture of Tiki on her computer screen. We had just gotten married, and were in the final stages of getting a house. A dog was something that we had talked about for quite a while, and we had gone through the ups and downs of searching through countless pictures of pets from the local shelters. I had my heart set on finding a black lab, a type of dog that I’ve always seen as loyal and family-friendly.

The description said ‘Lab Mix’, one of the more generic labels that a shelter can put on a dog. I hesitated because Megan pointed out that he was probably part pit bull.

I had only met a pit bull once, and it was a good experience. A friend of Megan’s owns a sweet dog named Peaches, who had broken every stereotype of the dog. Regardless, we went up to meet Tiki, and fell in love instantly. He’s currently sulking down in our living room because he was subjected to a bath.  He is, as my dad described him, a ‘dog’s dog’, the base unit of dog. Snout, tail, ears, friendly attitude, etc.

I came across Bronwen Dickey’s book after reading an article about the negative response to her debut book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. After the book’s release earlier this spring, she’s had to get extra security and endure a relentless bout of harassment from anti-Pit activists who have condemned her as a sort of propagandist for the animals.

The book is a fascinating history of the type of dog – not a breed – but more importantly, it’s an in-depth look at how ideas get embedded in society, and how these ideas are slowly changed. I didn’t expect it, but it’s probably one of the best self-examinations of media sensationalism and good journalistic practice. It’s also a great book about dogs and how their role as human companions has changed with time.

The Pit Bull, Dickey argues, is a type of dog that has been maligned recently – in the early 20th Century and earlier, it was viewed as the best sort of dog – good with families, good companions, and so on. Dickey looks as the dog’s legacy as a fighter, which was eventually rolled into coverage whenever a dog bit or killed someone. The shorthand article of a dog whose history includes fighting kills someone only reinforces the idea that the bite or death was inevitable.

Pit Bulls have bitten people, and a they have killed people. It’s impossible to get away from that point. However, she notes, all other types of dogs are responsible for the same actions: there are golden retrievers and labs that have bitten and killed as well. Part of the general impression of these dogs stems from the type of coverage that they receive, which is disproportionately angled against these particular animals. They also aren’t the first – they’re just the latest in a long string of movements where they’re at the wrong end of public opinion.

Furthermore, there’s a deeply embedded level of racism that’s associated with these dogs.

Furthermore, there’s a deeply embedded level of racism that’s associated with these dogs. During the 1970s and 1980s, the dogs became synonymous with rising crime levels and as guard dogs for – predominantly inner-city (read: black) – residents. This further solidified the general impression that these animals had no purpose other than violence. Dickey points to the rise of breed-specific legislation as a means of not only quelling white, suburban homeowner fears about ‘killer dogs’, but also as a good way to discourage minorities – who prominently owned the dogs – from moving in.

The combined series of events and circumstances have really tainted the reputation of the dog, which is unfortunate, given that there’s absolutely no indication that there’s a ‘killer gene’ that makes these particular dogs inherently dangerous. Numerous studies and data show that there’s no breed more dangerous than any others.

What makes dogs dangerous? It’s likely living conditions and abnormal stresses from owners who want dogs but are ill equipped to deal with them, and that doesn’t extend to just pits. Dickey closes out the book with efforts that groups are putting together to help dog owners, whether it’s providing fencing, training, neutering, food or basic healthcare for those who might not ordinarily be able to afford it. Similarly, breed-specific legislations are beginning to fall across the United States, an incredibly positive step.

Stress also has its impact. Tiki is an incredibly friendly, happy member of the family, but he has his buttons that we sometimes inadvertently push. I got a bite on the hand once when I tried to get him out of the car – he had hopped in expecting a ride, but got nervous as I tried to grab him by the collar to pull him out. I hadn’t recognized how anxious he was, and how afraid he when I raised my voice. I now know how to recognize the signs when he’s upset, and haven’t had an issue since. When he hopped into the car the other day expecting a ride (seriously, saying the words ‘Car Ride’ gets him excited), I just hooked a leash to his collar and was able to get him out of the car without a fuss.

I’ve met more Pit Bulls or Pit-type dogs since we’ve adopted Tiki: some are sweet and adorable animals who are bursting with energy and ready to play and receive attention. Others encounters haven’t gone well: while walking Tiki one day, we came across a female Pit that grew really angry as we walked past: she slipped out of the tennis court that she was in with her owners, closed the distance between us and attacked Tiki, biting him in the neck. (His wounds were superficial), but the inattention of the owners (hers and myself – we should have turned around and walked the other way) led to the encounter. It appears to have been an isolated incident. Tiki was already a slightly stressed and anxious dog, and the encounter has certainly made an impact, one that we’ve worked on with training and reinforcement.

If you like Pit Bulls or really dislike them, Dickey’s book is one that’s really well worth picking up and giving an honest read. This is a book that’s evenly balanced, and cuts through hearsay and the accumulated bullshit that had become truth to so many people. (Another author to check out in the same vein is Maureen Ogle, with her book In Meat We Trust, a spectacular history of meat and the United States). Dickey’s book has had the unexpected impact of making me a better journalist and pet owner, all while providing a really interesting history of dogs and how we interact with them. I hope that it will help improve things for the dogs.

The Absurd Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors that I’ve continually missed over the years. For some reason, I never quite got around to reading Slaughterhouse-Five while in high school (or college), and I’ve missed his major novels as well. That said, one of the first science fiction stories that I ever read was ‘Harrison Bergeron’, which I also saw as a play when I was probably in Middle School – the Handicapper General. That story has stuck with me for years, and it’s a brilliant piece of short fiction.

My latest column for Kirkus (which is still running with me at The Verge) focuses on Vonnegut’s story, particularly how he pointed out some of the really ridiculous parts of modern life. I came across an interview where he said that he was the one person who benefitted from the Dresden bombings, a massive bombing campaign that utterly destroyed the city.

Go read The Absurd Kurt Vonnegut over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

TK

So Long, and Thanks For All The Trilobites

I regret to announce — this is The End. I am going now. I bid you all a very fond farewell.

So, yesterday was my last day at io9. I’ve spent the last year as their Weekend Editor, running the site on Saturday / Sunday, filling in and generally holding down the fort on the slow part of the week. I’ve been there even longer as a contributor. Now, it’s time to move on.

It’s been a hell of a ride.

I started writing for io9 back in 2008, after I answered a call for interns. I think I skipped pass the intern phase and became the site’s ‘research fellow’. I had written for a couple of places like SF Signal, but this was a whole new thing. Under Annalee Newitz, I had the chance to write about a whole new mix of things – Trilobites, Stormtroopers, spaceflight, books that should be movies (three of which have become or will be TV shows!), and scored a big hit with a rant on Military Science Fiction.

My term was up after 6 months, but I kept contributing the occasional book review or commentary. io9 opened a whole lot of doors for me, professionally. It helped me become a better writer and thinker – the range of articles that Annalee Newitz, Charlie Jane Anders, Meredith Woerner, Lauren Davis, James Whitbrook, Germain Lusslier, and many others put together shaped how I looked at science fiction, writing, science, current events, and so much more. It’s helped me get regular writing gigs, such as with Kirkus Reviews and Barnes and Noble, and to travel to places like the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.

In June 2015, I figured out that I didn’t want to stay at my day job anymore, and was able to join up regularly as io9’s Weekend Editor. The new gig allowed me to write about a ton of things that I loved writing about.

All of that is coming to a close. I’m jumping over to The Verge at the end of this month, something that’s exciting, but also slightly scary. It’s time for a bit of a change, and it’s the next step.

It’s hard to encapsulate everything I’m proud of with io9 – the list above is only a fraction of what I’ve done. io9 is genuinely an online home, and while I won’t be adding to it anymore, I’ll be keeping my eyes on the place.

Future Histories of Poul Anderson

While researching the Kirkus column, there’s a bunch of authors who frequently appear: one such author is Poul Anderson, a hard SF author whose career really began to take off in the 1950s.

Anderson represents part of the movement in the middle of the 1960s/1970s that ran counter to the New Wave: they tended to be conservative, and typically wrote about stories in space with realistic physics and knowledge of astronomy. Anderson’s an author that I’ve never quite read much of, but his name pops up everywhere, due to the sheer number of stories that he wrote over the course of his career.

As I’ve been writing this column, I’ve been really interested in the relationship between conservative / liberal politics that has been injected, but also just how those viewpoints have manifested themselves. Conservative authors tend to write about harder, tangible parts of SF, while some of the more liberal movements reject things like space. That’s a gross oversimplification, but there’s some roots to it. My suspicion is that this comes out of the connections to the space race between the USA and USSR, and all the trappings involved there.

This isn’t to say that liberal authors can’t write the hardest of the hard SF – just look at Joe Haldeman and his book The Forever War.

Go read Future Histories of Poul Anderson over on Kirkus Reviews.

Sources:

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss’s history of the genre has some good information about Anderson’s career and life.
  • Transformations: The Story of The Science Fiction Magazines from 1950-1970, Mike Ashley. Ashley’s book has some excellent information about his work in the magazines.
  • Science Fiction Writers: Second Edition, edited by Richard Bleiler. Sandra Miesel authored the entry on Anderson here, and it’s a very good background on his career and analysis on his works.
  • The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction, Paul A. Carter. Good additional contextual information here.
  • Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, James Gunn. This had some useful contextual information in it.

A trio of obituaries were useful, from The Guardian, New York Times and LA Times. The SF Encyclopedia, as always, has a very useful article about him.