Rocket Launches via Augmented Reality

On May 11 it looked like conditions would finally be favorable for the launch of SpaceX's Bangabandhu Satellite-1 mission. The Bangabandhu-1 is the first geostationary communications satellite for Bangladesh.

As time approached for the launch, I thought I would hunt for a good app to let me follow launch status. (There's not much point in running out to the beach to watch a launch until the likelihood of launch looks pretty good!) I only had a few minutes to spare before the scheduled launch time. By sheer luck I discovered a fantastic app, dubbed "321 Launch."

321 Launch is sponsored by Florida Today and USA Today newspapers. Several cool things struck me as I downloaded the app and opened it. First, you can set up an augmented reality simulation of the launch on any flat surface. I chose to set it up on the floor of our oceanside balcony. By aiming my phone in the right direction, I could walk around a replica of the launch pad and the Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket, zoom in on different features of the rocket and the pad, watch it launch (as it were) from our deck, and then watch a model of the rocket climb (as it were) into the air in front of my face. (Being a fairly cloudy day, this was just about the best way to follow the action.) Meanwhile, I had live video feeds from cameras on the first stage of the rocket (the booster) as well as the second stage of the rocket. Once the booster separated, I could follow it's descent. And if that wasn't impressive enough, I could switch to a mode that showed me the rocket's trajectory through the sky, and the path of descent of the booster, in 3D, from where I was standing, about 25 miles south of Cape Canaveral. Of course the video feed from the droneship showed me when the booster had landed.

If you're a space buff, or a technology geek, or you just want to give your kids or your students a fascinating experience, download this app and watch for the next launch. It's the next best thing to watching a launch in Florida. (Even if you're in Florida.)

J. G. Ballard's "The Crystal World"

I was about eleven years old when my parents signed me up for the Science Fiction Book Club. I had outgrown the Weekly Reader Book Club years before. I had seen subscription postcards for SFBC inserted into many of the paperbacks I was reading, including The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series published by Ace Books. Yes, I thought, I want scifi! This is what I want to read!

One of the first books I received from SFBC was J. G. Ballard's The Crystal World. Recently I reread this book. I had vague memories of a mysterious space-time-defying crystallization of the jungle, and the dangers of becoming trapped within it. Finishing the book for the second time in over fifty years, the sense of wonder returned, and I quickly finished it.

I also recalled a certain sense of difficulty with reading it at eleven years old. Now, with rereading, I realize why. Ballard's style is much more literary than a lot of science fiction. And there are some adult themes of love and sex, of intimacy and perceived betrayal, that went right over my head when I was in the sixth grade.

I was also reminded of the power of mystery, as I recently described in one of my blog postings. I see now that at an early age I latched onto this power, even hungered for it, though I might have had a hard time explaining what it was I sought. Fortunately over the years I've found many other books to satisfy this need. I can only hope that I've succeeded in introducing mystery into my own writing.

Worldbuilding, Maps, and Atlases

Recently I posted on the creation of character names as a part of worldbuilding. Another major aspect of worldbuilding is geography, and sharing that geography using maps.

I remember as a young boy taking Shell and Esso roadmaps and plotting the route of our annual vacation to visit relatives. I would start from the dot marking Satellite Beach, Florida, and tally the mileage numbers from there to Cookeville, Tennessee, so I could create a table that would tell me, as we reached each major city on the route, how much further we had to go before we arrived. I remember noting each body of water we would cross, wondering where their names originated.

Maps of foreign lands, and lands of the imagination, were no less intriguing. I could follow the journeys in The Lord of the Rings using the maps tipped in to the Houghton Mifflin hardbacks, and the travels of Conan the Barbarian using the map shown in each of the Lancer paperbacks. Certainly, the more detailed and expansive a world a fantasy author creates, the more helpful a good map (or maps) will be.

Entire authorized atlases have been prepared for some fantasy fiction, giving fans resources that draw together not only maps but much background information as well. Some of my favorites are the amazing atlases authored and designed by Karen Wynn Fonstad, including

  1. The Atlas of Middle-Earth. (Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings)
  2. The Atlas of the Land. (Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant)
  3. The Atlas of Pern. (McCaffrey's Dragonriders)

Another excellent atlas is Barbara Strachey's Journeys of Frodo: An Atlas of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. (Unfortunately, it doesn't appear like Ms. Strachey published other atlases.)

Tanya Schofield's "Awaken: Melody's Song, Book 1."

Tanya Schofield's YA fantasy novel, Awaken: Melody's Song, Book 1, is a very enjoyable book which I believe a broad range of readers will appreciate. I received an Advance Reader's Copy in exchange for an honest review.

Melody, a young lady with powers she doesn't understand, is pursued by those who fear her and those who would use her. As she struggles to come to grips with who and what she is, she receives help from a number of people, some of whom develop close relationships with her. As readers, we learn as Melody learns, and we wonder, as she does, where the revelations of magic will carry her. The story starts off quickly and draws the reader in. From there it keeps up a good pace, flowing nicely from one scene to the next. As the story nears the end (of this first book of the series!), the pace picks up and the reader is treated to a heart-rending cliffhanger.

The author did a great job at worldbuilding. It is not easy to set up a new world, especially in a book of this length. Many fantasy novels are much longer. I found the length of the book just right - I wasn't discouraged by the prospect of working my way through a long book (and risking the discovery that, at the end of it, I wouldn't like it and was sorry for the time I invested in it).

While the novel may be classified as YA - and I am long past being in that target audience - I never felt that the story was exclusively a YA story. There is both sex and violence in the story, but not gratuitous sex and violence. They occur in the story in a natural sort of way; sexuality is handled deftly, and details of wounds and death do not go too far. I also appreciated that the author was able to develop characters of both sexes in a natural sort of way.

As a writer myself, I have to admit feeling jealous of this writer's talent.

I enjoyed Awaken quite a bit, and I'm anxious to read the next book in the series. I just hope it's not long before Book 2 comes out ... I hate when I can't remember the story from the previous book in a series!

Worldbuilding and Character Names

Scifi/fantasy author Ursula K. Leguin said it well: "God knows inventing a universe is a complicated business."

Whether it's a world of Biblical proportions or something more modest for a fantasy novel, worldbuilding is difficult work. Particularly when it comes to naming characters. (Of course, all God had to come up with was "Adam" and "Eve." From that point on, the characters could name themselves.) The recent guest post by author R. R. Brooks pointed out some of the difficulties involved in naming characters.

What makes a good name? The article, "How to Pick Character Names: The 7 Rules for Choosing Names for Fictional Characters," gives some great guidelines. While the author of the article was not focused on fantasy characters, the principles can be carried over to fantasy writing.

There are many other principles shared by writers. One approach is to make the name of a fantasy character similar to an English name. This can help the reader in remembering the name, as long as it isn't something as common as "Tom", "Dick", or "Harry". It also helps the reader imagine how the name is pronounced, although in my own writing, I don't necessarily care how a reader pronounces the name as they read it. Sometimes a name can evoke certain feelings toward the character (best done subtly). A good example might be "Maleficent." Without thinking, we expect a character with such a name is not a "good" person. A bad example might be "Prince Valiant," which is much less subtle. Some of the worst character names I've come across were ones that were simply English words spelled backwards, such as "Osneve Ylnoelcitset Eno" (from a fantasy novel I read as a teenager) or "Tixe Ylno" (a villain in an early Man From U.N.C.L.E. novel).

An author ought to have some system to naming fantasy characters. In my soon-to-be-published fantasy novel, the names of men and women tend to have endings used just for their gender (e.g., "-or" for men, "-is" for women). In early drafts of the novel, I used the suffix "-ius" in naming characters who were supposed to have significant powers of sorcery, healing, or telling the future. That convention was scrapped once I read an article that pointed out using pseudo-Roman names in this fashion was overused and obsolete. Most names of my characters are a single name (no surname), and are usually multisyllabic. Insignificant characters are more likely to have single syllable names. A demon who figures prominently in the story has a very unusual, guttural-sounding name ("Jogaziddarak") because, well, demons are very different from humans. An unusual name is befitting an unusual character. Another character is known as "Longhorn" for two reasons. First, his "true" name is too difficult for most people in the story to pronounce, and second, it makes it easy to remember him because he carries a long horn of an antelope-like animal everywhere he goes.

In some stories, knowing a person's true name gives one a degree of power over that person. Alas, though I know all my characters' names, it doesn't mean I can always control them!


Guest Post: R.R. Brooks, "The Problem with Character Names"

Author R.R. Brooks has kindly given us permission to repost one of his blog postings.

R.R. Brooks is the author of the epic fantasy tale, Justi the Gifted ("A gift of the gods is good, but what if it is damaged?"), and, with A.C. Brooks, the new mystery, The Clown Forest Murders ("Will amnesia save the witness?). Both novels are available on Amazon, B&N, and at your local bookstore. A sample chapter from Justi the Gifted is available on

A review of Justi the Gifted can be found on Mark Lacy's blog.
R.R. Brooks' blog can be found at

Do fantasy authors have a problem?  I’ve encountered readers of my novel Justi the Gifted who can’t deal with character names of any oddity.  My sister read the book, an epic fantasy, liked it, but complained about the character names.  She couldn’t pronounce them and couldn’t distinguish so many.  Another person who received the novel as a gift said he couldn’t handle all the strange names.  A third reader echoed this concern.  None of these readers had ever read a fantasy book, which may have contributed to the problem.  I now have a pronouncing list of characters I give to buyers.  Even slipped them into the bookstore copies on consignment.  I wish I had included it in the book and will do so in the next book.
To be fair I should mention that other readers, including my twelve-year-old granddaughter, did not mention names as a problem, but I wonder if the fantasy genre is prone to the character-name barrier.  This seems true when the setting is an imagined world.  Mark Lacy’s The Dreamtunnel Sequence uses names like Enkinor, Visylon, and Banshaer, which are tough (the author does have a glossary of names, but it is hidden in the back of the book).  Renee Scattergood’s Shadow Stalker has characters named Cathnor, Cali, Kado, and Auren, different but short.  Tolkien, the grand master of the epic fantasy tale, hits us with Frodo, Meriadoc, Gondalf, Legolas and dozens more in the Lord of the Rings.  Yet readers embrace Tolkien even without having three movies with these characters.
Fantasy novels with imagined worlds entered from this world do get by with common names.  Phillip Pullman uses Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials where is takes a subtle knife to cut into the imagined word..  J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy uses ordinary names, but Neverland is entered from this world.  Just close your eyes, imagine happy, and fly.
Justi the Gifted is entirely a story about the Kingdom of the Zell, an imagined place where names are not the same as in this world.  Epic fantasy by definition involves different groups and different locales, which contribute to the number of strange names.  Name confusion is not confined to fantasy books, of course.  Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, a delightful British mystery, has two characters named Brydon and Bryony who I did not glean were different persons of different genders until well into the book.
I continue to wonder if the veteran fantasy reader has trained him/herself to deal with strange names.  Regardless, part of the solution to removing this barrier is to choose different names, maybe shorter and quite distinct and starting with different letters and sounds.  The real solution is to so establish the character by description, action, dialog, and quirks that only a stone would fail to know who they are.  Scrooge and Marley have strange names, but who could confuse them?  What’s your thought?

Failed at Faulkner

Freda Spell, my junior high English teacher from Mississippi, and Merilee Allen, my cousin who once volunteered at Rowan Oak, William Faulkner's home in Oxford, Mississippi, will likely disavow, disinherit, disenfranchise, and just generally "dis" me for the heresy I am about to proclaim.

I can't appreciate William Faulkner.

In junior high, Miss Spell assigned me some of Faulkner's works to read. All I remember was how Faulkner could stretch a single compound sentence, making judicious use of semicolons, across entire pages. Like reading German, where many times the reader doesn't know the verb of a sentence till she reaches the end of the sentence, I would find that by the time I got to the end of one of Faulkner's sentences I couldn't remember what the first part of the sentence was about.

Nevertheless, over 45 years later, I thought I'd give St. William another go. I picked up a small copy of Sanctuary. I went down to the beach, opened up my chair, applied some sun block, and began to read.

And shortly thereafter, I gave up.

Extremely long sentences? No, not this time. Instead, within the first couple of pages, I got lost with which character was saying what. Faulkner's speaker attributions were alternately confusing or missing. Personal pronouns thrown around willy-nilly. Okay, I thought, if I persevere it will become more obvious. But before I could really and truly absorb this prose, I encountered consecutive sentences beginning with "Then [the woman did this]." Several characters were quickly inserted into the story without sufficient introduction for me to know whether they were sufficiently important to keep track of. And soon I had no idea what was going on at all.

And I quit.  

I know all too well the experience of prolonged deferral of gratification. Graduate school and student loans will do that to you. So will planning for retirement. But I have reached that point in my life, in my reading, where I no longer feel like trudging through "great literature" with the hope that I will feel gratified when I reach the last page.

Or maybe my attention span is growing shorter as I approach -- still from a distance, mind you! -- my second childhood.

I am not arguing against Mr. Faulkner's status in American literature. That truly would be heresy. Instead, I am simply saying, with apologies to Freda and Merilee, that I have failed at appreciating Faulkner's work.

Mysteries in Religion, and in Fantasy and Science Fiction

This time of year is one of several during the year sacred to Christianity or Judaism. One thing common to yearly observances of religious "holy days" is the aspect of mystery. The foundations of Christianity are based on events that go beyond miraculous - there is a deep mystery behind each one. How is it that a supernatural being chose to split part of himself off to become incarnate through the birth of a boy to a humble Hebrew virgin? How could the gruesome killing of the man that boy later became serve as a gateway for a renewed relationship between humans and their deity, with a consequent promise of life after death? How could that crucified man, both human and divine at the same time, rise from the dead and visit his disciples before returning to heaven?

Some of the most profound stories in fantasy and science fiction have great mysteries at their core. Who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel (2001: A Space Odyssey)? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? How are prophecies revealed? How was a hero's destiny created in time past, and by whom? How were the means by which the prophecies are fulfilled come into being? 

In some cases, sufficient research by characters in a story may elucidate these mysteries. Ancient ruins on other planets may be studied to understand the civilizations that left them behind. But in other cases, the mysteries run so deep they can never be understood, for they go well beyond what science can ever explain. They are literally of mythic proportions, and may form the basis of a fictional world's religions.

Have a good example of a fundamental mystery in a fantasy or science fiction story? Leave a comment and share with us!

Excitement!!! Re-release of my fantasy novel!

Rejection slips, though part-and-parcel of a writer's life, can often serve as triggers for an existential funk. When a writer has something accepted for publication, on the other hand, there is a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. I am really excited that my fantasy novel (known in its original incarnation as The Dreamtunnel Sequence) has been picked up by Cobble Publishing. In its new form it will be retitled and recovered, with some editorial improvements. (For those of you who have already read the book but didn't find the glossary in the back till it was too late, it will be moved to the front of the book. Thank you for your input!) Bookmark this website and watch for more news -- the novel should be released in July 2018.

With great power comes great responsibility: a review of the fantasy novel, "Justi the Gifted"

Justi the GiftedJusti the Gifted by R.R. Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

R. R. Brooks fantasy novel, Justi the Gifted, is the story of a young man with destructive power that is called forth when injustice and violence threaten. While this power can be wielded in many circumstances, as Justi grows up he struggles to achieve some level of control over it, to reach some level of maturity in understanding the proper use of this gift. In some respects, this gift is an imperfect one - even with the best intentions on Justi's part, a certain balance is called for. Mercerio, Justi's love interest, has a gift of her own, one of mercy and peacemaking. Her gift helps to balance Justi's, and the fulfillment of good and order in their world depends on both gifts. Neither alone is sufficient. In the process of restoring their land and vanquishing its invaders, Justi and Mercerio are aided - and thwarted - by an assemblage of humans and gods, from parents and friends to seers and warriors and warlords who follow, however unwittingly, the will of their gods. The thread connecting discovery and danger moves the story along to the triumph the heroes seek ... but the consequences of an indiscretion on Justi's part leave room for a possible sequel to Justi the Gifted, making us wonder how a more mature Justi and Mercerio can apply their gifts in meeting a new threat.

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