Women’s Book March: The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

The next entry in my Women’s Book March is The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander! I seem to be reading a lot of alternate history lately (see Everfair by Nisi Shawl, which kicked off this challenge). It could be my response to current events, a heightened desire to seek out alternatives to the way history seems to be proceeding, although it’s not out of any escapist impulse–indeed, if anything, the alternate history Bolander sketches in this powerful novella somehow paints an even darker portrait of a certain shameful period in American history.

The back cover copy relates, as it says, the facts:

In the early days of the twentieth century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island. These are the facts.

Bolander weaves these two events together to create a poignantly angry tale of injustices great and small that asks, Are there some histories that should be indelible, never to be forgotten lest we perpetuate the same mistakes? Or is the truth of history always destined to be twisted out of shape in the retelling?

This was not an easy story to read. The lyrical language is immersive and beautiful, but requires close attention to follow sometimes. And often Bolander is using that beautiful language to describe horrible things: her description of what it’s like to slowly die of oral cancer (acquired from ingesting radium) is completely horrifying.

Yet at the same time I found this story difficult to put down: in less than 100 pages, Bolander creates a fully fleshed out elephant culture, with an origin story, kinship system, and social structure. Her characters are deftly drawn and so real-seeming that it makes the injustices they suffer all the more infuriating. And yet the ending suggests a kind of justice may still be possible even at the cost of one’s own life — the small but essential justice of having one’s voice heard after living in silence.

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Women’s Book March: Monstress Vols. 2 & 3 by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

I’m kicking off April with Monstress Vol 2: The Blood and Monstress Vol. 3: Haven, a graphic novel dark fantasy penned by Marjorie Liu and illustrated gorgeously by Sana Takeda.

Okay, so I cheated a bit in that these are technically two books by an author-artist combo I know, but they are part of one continuous story, so I’m counting them as one. I’d be tempted to binge the series if Volume 3 weren’t the last trade paperback currently available.

Set in a sprawling world filled with fantastical technology and nonhuman beings, the Monstress series tells the story of Maika Halfwolf, a young arcanic woman whose body is being slowly taken over by Zinn, a many eyed, many tentacled monster with the powers of one of the old gods.

If that paragraph was a lot to absorb, you’re not alone — while I enjoyed the first volume of Monstress, I often found myself grappling with a bevy of unfamiliar terminology around the peoples and history of this world. At first, the story has a serious case of fantasy name terminology that made it hard to grasp what was going on at times.

Here’s the quick and dirty if you haven’t read the series:

Ancients are a race of animal people that existed in the world before humans and were once worshiped by them.

Arcanics (like Maika) are the hybrid descendants of Ancients and humans.

– The old gods are a race of giant beings that came to this world from Somewhere Else. Long thought to have gone extinct, leaving only their ghosts floating in the sky, there are hints the old gods are merely imprisoned and waiting for a chance to break free.

-There are also talking cats (hm, I’m sensing a theme!) who are considered the children of the goddess Ubasti.

Got all that? Great, on to the story!

In Volume Two: The Blood, Maika and her companions Ren the cat and the arcanic fox girl Kippa take passage on a pirate ship to the mysterious Isle of Bones, in search of answers to Maika’s past. In the process, they learn more about the archaeological research her mother was doing into the Shaman Empress, a legendary magician and inventor from ancient times.

While Moriko Halfwolf, Maika’s mother, was a bit of a mysterious figure in Volume One, we learn more about Maika’s relationship with her here: Moriko is portrayed as a driven, abusive parent whose relationship with Maika was based more on shaping her daughter into a weapon than loving her as a person.

It’s heartbreaking and realistic despite the fantasy setting, even more so because Liu makes sure to show how the attitudes Maika absorbed color her relationship with Kippa. She’s hard on Kippa when she doesn’t need to be, and doesn’t seem to see that the harsh life lessons she imparts to Kippa were handed down by her mother earlier in the same cycle of abuse.

It’s character notes like these that really made me bond with the characters in this volume compared to the first. Monstress: Volume One confirmed Maika as a badass, but in Volume Two we see her be vulnerable, and I love that.

Volume Three: Haven kicks the action up a notch: Maika and her companions take refuge in the neutral city of Pontus from the war brewing between the human Federation and the arcanics. The Pontians’ price for letting them stay is that Maika repair their shield, an ancient piece of tech that only someone with her bloodline can activate. It doesn’t help that a witch of the Cumaea is coming to Pontus hellbent on freeing one of the old gods to wreak havoc on earth.

Haven is my favorite volume of the series so far: the baroque worldbuilding, which at times felt overwhelming in earlier volumes, seems more fluid and cohesive and plot-relevant in this volume. We get some very interesting hints about the titular monster, Zinn, and their connection to Maika’s bloodline, which I am excited to see play out in later books. The volume ends on a truly epic battle sequence whose aftermath delivers one of the crueler cliffhangers I’ve read recently – but in that good way that makes me yearn for the next volume, even as I’m still absorbing and thinking about this one.

Finally, I’d be remiss if this review didn’t give a shout-out to Sana Takeda’s artwork. I’ve rarely read a graphic novel that was this richly illustrated. Takeda’s lush, meticulously detailed style meshes extraordinarily well with the fantasy setting. The two covers above are a taste of what’s inside, so if you like what you see, check it out!

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Women’s Book March: Night’s Gift by Camilla Ochlan and Carol E. Leever

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

Next up in the Women’s Book March is Night’s Gift, an indie-published novel by Camilla Ochlan and Carol E. Leever! Leever also apparently painted the delightfully old-school cover, which I’m not ashamed to admit is a big part of what made me add the book to my tottering TBR pile in the first place. I can just see finding this book in the sci-fi and fantasy section of Waldenbooks in the late nineties alongside the Tad Williamses and L.E. Modestitt Jr.’s.

As for the book itself, I quite enjoyed it. Ochlan and Leever weave a swashbuckling fantasy adventure in a land brimming with strange creatures, powerful magic, rich lore… and did I mention talking cats?

Young Omen Daenoth is visiting the city of Hex when his bracelet is stolen. That’s more than an inconvenience, as the bracelet keeps his psionic powers from raging out of control. In trying to get it back, he falls in with the hotheaded Prince Templar, and the two of them make a deal with an undead alchemist who purchased the bracelet. He’ll return it if they just retrieve some property for him. It’s too bad that involves sneaking into a supernatural cage match surrounded by Night Dwellers who think humans make tasty snacks. But when the lads accidentally free Tormy, a talking kitten the size of a border collie, things really go to hell…

Night’s Gift is clearly inspired by D&D in its setting: the land is populated by humans, dwarves, and elves, swords and other European medieval elements are abundant, and magic is common. I have a limited tolerance for D&D motifs, yet their presence here never felt wearing, perhaps because they were well-used and never leaned on too heavily. I found a lot that was surprising here, from the richness of the descriptions (unusual in what I am guessing is a YA book, since the protagonists are in their teens), to the twists and turns as Omen and Templar navigate the Night Games, to the bits of lore the authors slip in about Hex and the wider world of the story.

Tormy is a wonderful character–though a magical being, he is clearly and recognizably a cat, with catlike behaviors and impulsiveness, and I bonded to him about as quickly as Omen does. I especially liked the choice to have Tormy speak in an imperfect patois reminiscent of the lolcats meme. If you’re into fantasy YA, D&D, adventure stories, and of course, cats, check it out — I think you’ll have fun.

Already read Night’s Gift? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

 

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Women’s Book March: The Race by Nina Allan

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

My next installment in the Women’s Book March challenge is The Race, by Nina Allan.

I have mixed feelings about this one. I’ve had The Race on my to-read list for a while, in part because it was praised by one of my favorite sci-fi authors, Alastair Reynolds, who called it “a gorgeously and superbly strange SF novel”. Another blurb promised a blend of “English country novel and hard science fiction”, which is a pretty intriguing mashup.

The first section of the book starts strong, delivering a story about a near-future England ravaged by fracking. Racing illegally genetically enhanced greyhounds, called smartdogs, is big business for the former resort towns of the English coast. One such town is Sapphire, where Jenna and her brother Derek live and breathe smartdog racing until Derek’s daughter is kidnapped and held for ransom. Derek plans to win the ransom money by racing his beloved smartdog in the biggest race of the year, but things don’t go as planned.

This first section was taut and gripping, with gorgeous prose and characters who are flawed in relatable ways. There’s enough worldbuilding to sell the smartdog racing idea without bogging the story down, and the ending has a great twist.

I say ending because after the first section, Jenna’s story ends and the novel becomes something else. In the next section we are introduced to Christy, a woman who lives in fear of her abusive brother and is grappling with the possibility he may have committed a murder. It’s still set in England, but not the same England as Jenna’s story; in fact, all elements of science fiction vanish from the tale for about 200 pages, and what we get instead is more like a suspense novel.

It’s only in the fourth section that we return to something like the world of Jenna’s story, this time to follow the kidnapped girl, Maree. Now a young woman, Maree is learning to use her empathic abilities as part of a government project trying to decode what may or may not be an alien signal from outer space. Unfortunately, what could have been an interesting conclusion to the book sort of fizzles. We don’t get any answers about the origin or nature of the signal, and as a result the novel’s end feels more like setup for its sort-of sequel, The Rift.

My ultimate issue with The Race is a matter of concept versus execution. Nina Allan clearly has writing chops and a lot of interesting ideas, but the story is not disciplined in how it deploys those ideas. At times it felt as though Allan included an idea or storyline not because it served the story but because she couldn’t bear to cut it. This was especially true of the “suspense novel” section of the book, which could easily have stood on its own as a separate short novel.

The Race shows enough promise that I would be interested in returning to this author after she has a few more novels under her belt, and has perhaps become more disciplined about story structure. There’s still enough good stuff here, especially in the first story, that I’d suggest checking it out if you’re still interested. Your mileage may vary, and if the book had been marketed as a series of linked novellas rather than one novel, I probably would have enjoyed the whole much more.

Already read The Race? Let me know what you thought in the comments below!

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Women’s Book March: Everfair by Nisi Shawl

I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!

My first read for the Women’s Book March challenge is Everfair by Nisi Shawl! This steampunk alternate history re-imagines the Belgian Congo if King Leopold’s colonizing forces had been repelled by an alliance of native Congolese, African-American missionaries, and British socialists who then establish their own independent, multi-ethnic country, Everfair.

Say what? If the above seems baffling, you’re not alone. I was only vaguely aware of the history of Belgium’s colonization of the region of Africa now called the Congo. Nisi Shawl lays out the facts in brief but horrific detail in her opening to the book:

This novel derives from one of history’s most notorious atrocities: King Leopold II’s reign over the Congo Free State. The exact number of casualties is unknown, but conservative estimates admit that at least half of the populace disappeared in the period from 1895 to 1908. The area thus devastated was about a quarter of the size of the current continental United States. Millions of people died.

The steampunk genre often works as a form of alternate history, showing us how small changes to what actually happened might have resulted in momentous differences … This is that kind of book.

The result is an original, and at times deeply weird, story that unfolds from multiple perspectives over thirty years from 1889 to 1919. The alternate history aspects are deftly balanced with the steampunk, as well as some fantasy elements inspired by Congolese folklore. We see the newly minted Everfair through ups and downs, from its victory (at high cost) over the Belgian colonizers, to its dilemma over whom to side with in WW1, to internal racial tensions that threaten to tear the country apart.

I thought the steampunk elements were very neat: people who suffered amputations at the hands of rubber barons get modular bronze prosthetic arms and hands; airships are a common form of transport; and factories turn out shonguns–based on a traditional Congolese bronze knife, the shongo, these are guns that shoot knives. How cool is that?

At less than 400 pages, Everfair sometimes feels too short for its ambitious concept. The chapters unfold more like vignettes, separated from each other by months and sometimes years, than a single continuous narrative. The cast is huge, and though the characterizations we do get in each brief chapter are very good, at times I wanted to spend more time with a character to learn what makes them tick. There were a couple instances when characters had revelations “offscreen” which affected their perspectives or actions, and I would have liked to see those revelations play out on the page.

All in all, I really enjoyed Everfair. Even though I wanted more, what’s here is lush and beautifully written and thought provoking. If you dig alternate history, steampunk, or stories told from points of view not usually represented–or all of these!–check this book out.

Already read Everfair? Let me know what you thought in the comments!

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New Blog Feature: Women’s Book March!

Hi everyone! This is a quick post to announce a new post series launching this March on the Expansion Front: the Women’s Book March!

I’ve had it in my head for a while to challenge myself to read only books written by women and femme authors for a full year. I’ll be starting that challenge this March 2019 until March 2020.

The Rules:

  1. I’ll focus on women’s prose fiction for the challenge. Graphic novels and nonfiction may also creep in, but my goal is to read more widely of women novelists, particularly in science fiction and fantasy.
  2. Since I’m trying to expand my horizons, I will limit authors I’ve previously read to 30%. The other 70% must be women authors I haven’t read! Assuming an average reading speed of 4 books per month, this means one can be a known author and 3 must be new authors.
  3. Once I’ve read a new author, she will move from the “unread” to the “read” category.
  4. I will define women and femme authors as cis women, trans women, and nonbinary people who identify as femme.
  5. I will write a summary post of my impressions on the blog and on Goodreads for each book I read for the challenge.

The Goal:

As an agender-femme person, lifelong science fiction fan, and now science fiction author, I’ve heard over and over that women don’t read or write science fiction, or that women make up a tiny percentage of sci-fi fans and authors. While less prevalent in fantasy, this stereotype needs busting.

I hope this blog series reveals how many great female and femme spec-fic authors there are to choose from, and introduces me (and you, reader) to some awesome authors we would never encounter otherwise.

March on, reader!

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I’m answering reader questions on Goodreads in September!

To celebrate Absence of Blade‘s upcoming one-year release anniversary, I’ll be answering reader questions on Goodreads all September!

Visit my author profile on Goodreads and ask me anything about science fiction, publishing, the writing process, or something random if you’d like.

Did I mention there are prizes? Everyone who posts a question will get a free deluxe edition of Shadow Game, the newest novella in the Expansion Universe! Shadow Game tells how Gau, the embittered assassin in Absence of Blade, gained his first ally on the war-torn world of Rreluush-Tren. The story stands alone and is a great entry point to the series.

 Shadow Game will also be available for purchase on Amazon and other stores, or as a free download on this site when you sign up to my mailing list.

What’s in the deluxe edition? You get the novella, plus a special sneak peek into the next Expansion novel and bonus alien concept art by my very talented cover designer, Daniel Lambert! I asked Daniel to create totally new sketches of the Urd and the Arashal, two lizard-like alien species that feature prominently in Shadow Game. This art is exclusive to the deluxe edition.

What are you waiting for? Head over to Goodreads and ask me a question!

 

 

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Why Can’t Deadpool Die?

Warning: Spoilers for Deadpool 2, Logan

“There are two constants in life: death and sequels.” – Me

I saw Deadpool 2 last weekend. Despite a problematic, fridging-dependent premise, I enjoyed it a lot and thought it nailed the fourth wall-breaking, wisecracking tone of the original perfectly while engaging with some heavier themes.

Yet something about the ending didn’t sit right with me.

Of course, we know from comics canon why Deadpool can’t die: his mutant power is that he’s riddled with cancer that has a regenerative effect rather than killing him. But my question is why the film won’t let Deadpool die, even though its setup promises us that very thing.

A Brief Recap

The film begins with Deadpool smoking a cigarette next to a figurine of Wolverine impaled on a branch, referencing the poignant ending of Logan and, presumably, drawing a thematic connection between the two movies. This is echoed in the trailer, which marketed Deadpool 2 as “Brought to you by the studio that killed Wolverine”.

Moments later, Deadpool reclines onto six barrels of kerosene and flicks the cig into one, blowing himself up as his voiceover promises, “I die in this one.”

Spoiler: he doesn’t. Or at least not for good.

Deadpool starts Deadpool 2 a broken man: his girlfriend killed by a criminal he was contracted to kill and let get away, their plans to start a family dead with her. With nothing left to live for, he tries to make his exit via explosion, but even that isn’t enough to get the best of his regeneration abilities. He gets a second chance when the X-men bring him along to de-escalate a rogue mutant situation. Deadpool learns that the rogue, Russell, is an angry kid who was abused by the director of the rehabilitation center for mutants Russell was admitted to.

Deadpool’s arc revolves around getting through to Russell before he goes down a dark path of murder and destruction presaged by the cyborg time traveler Cable. Deadpool sees a lot of himself in Russell, and grasps at the chance to be a father figure to him. He comes to realize over the course of the movie that Russell, and the X-force team Deadpool assembles to save him, might be the family Deadpool never had.

When he realizes nothing else is going to dissuade Russell from his vengeance, Deadpool puts on the mutant restraint collar that takes away his healing powers and tells Russell that if he has to kill someone, to kill him. When the ploy fails and Cable shoots at Russell, it’s Deadpool who takes the bullet.

Deadpool is willing to die, permanently, to save Russell. And for a few minutes, I thought the movie was going to honor that. Deadpool has a drawn-out death scene where he says goodbye to his new family, above their protests, saying when they try to take off the collar to “let it happen”. As the audience knows, “I’ve been trying to do this for awhile.” He dies knowing he did a good thing, and reunites with Vanessa in an admittedly corny afterlife. Then Cable undoes it all with his time travel device because, as afterlife!Vanessa puts it, Deadpool’s family still needs him.

The Franchise Cycle

Now, on its own, I thought the death and resurrection plot was set up well. Yet I couldn’t help but feel a little saddened at what the ending says about the state of Hollywood franchise fiction.

In an economy where superhero movies are big business, it seems like the era of a popular franchise telling a complete story and then gracefully riding into the sunset is over. Deadpool can’t die, in the sense of his series reaching an endpoint, because the studio won’t let him. The argument could be made that the filmmakers are 100% aware of this, and that Deadpool 2 is a commentary on this endless cycle of reboots and resurrections, but that doesn’t mean the movie doesn’t participate in that cycle.

In contrast, a film I thought was truly subversive was 2017’s Logan. An aging Wolverine is at the end of his rope trying to protect the now-epileptic Professor X from the feds in a world where mutants are outlawed. Logan faces a similar choice to rise above his own misery and help a band of young mutants, including the daughter he never knew he had, to freedom in Canada. Like Deadpool, he begins the film having lost nearly everything, and proceeds to lose even more, including his life. But unlike Deadpool, at the end Logan is still dead. His death is narratively satisfying because it’s permanent, and as such, gives greater meaning to every action that led him to this point.

Death and the Limits of Action

What’s at the root of narrative shyness about death? Aside from the profitability of popular characters, I think a lot of it is fear. I see stories that aren’t part of multi-million dollar franchises pull back from killing characters too. The fear is of the permanence of death. Once a character is dead, they’ve reached the limit of their capacity for change. They no longer change and they no longer act within the story. They’re no longer directly part of the story at all.

Characters are engines of change, both in themselves and in how they affect other characters, so it’s understandable why writers might balk at the idea of removing a character altogether through death. However, in order for the changes a character goes through to make sense, they must coalesce into an arc: a progression of the character in which they face challenges to their goals, which forces them to grow. In order for an arc to be meaningful, it has to be definable; it has to have a beginning, middle, and end. And one potential end for a character arc is death.

Philosopher Mark Rowlands defines death as “the limit of life… the horizon that permits individual events in that life to stand out … without this horizon, there is, in all essentials, nothing that means anything at all” [1]. As in life, the choices that characters make and the consequences of those choices occupy space along a timeline which constitutes the character’s life, or at least the section we see.

By establishing a character’s death and then walking it back, as in Deadpool 2, the story robs that character’s actions and their consequences of staying power. It robs the conclusion of their arc and the choices which led to it of meaning by saying “Whoops, that wasn’t the end of their story after all.” This not only cheapens the events leading up to their “death”, it cheapens everything that comes after, too. Because the viewer can never again trust the writers to commit to finality, to a single arc of challenge, growth, and change that actually sticks.

I want the characters I love to change. I want them to grow. And yes, if it gives the life that came before it meaning, I want them to be able to die, too.

 

  1. Rowlands, Mark. Sci-Phi: Philosophy from Socrates to Schwarzenegger. 2003. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.
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What Would Life be Like on a Planet with Binary Stars?

It’s an iconic shot: Luke Skywalker watches double sunsets as evening falls on Tattooine in Star Wars: A New Hope. Science fiction films like Star Wars, and novels like Brian Aldiss’ The Dark Light Years and Fire Time by Poul Anderson, have often featured habitable planets with binary or even trinary stars. But could humans–or any complex life–survive on a planet with two suns?

What is a Binary Star System? Binaries are star systems with two suns. Trinary systems are also possible, but rarer than binaries. In fact, binary systems may be more common than our own single-star system: four-fifths of the stars in the night sky visible as single points of light are actually binary pairs.

Our sun may even have been part of a binary system. The other star likely formed in the same cloud of gas and dust as our own sun, but broke off and joined the Milky Way’s stellar population billions of years ago.

Binaries are classified based on their distance from each other (as either wide or close binaries), as well as how they look when observed from Earth (whether they eclipse each other in their orbit, for example). In a binary pair, one star may orbit the other, or the two stars may orbit around a common center of mass called a barycenter.

Life in a Binary Star System? One thing is certain: binary systems make it even dicier for life to evolve. Double-star systems introduce more variations—sometimes wild fluctuations— in the amounts of heat and light (as UV radiation) received by any planet orbiting them. Planets with climates that regularly go from freezing to boiling aren’t likely to support Earthlike life, which depends on liquid water and a relatively narrow temperature range.

Another factor is that binaries may make it more difficult for planets to form at all. The competing gravitational pull of two stars on a protoplanetary disk of dust and rocky fragments may disrupt the formation of those rocky grains into protoplanets. On the other hand, that same gravitational disruption may actually make it easier for protoplanets to form by “stirring up” the protoplanetary disk.

However, scientists think that both non-circumbinary planets (planets that orbit one member of a binary) and circumbinary planets (planets that orbit both stars) could harbor life if they are located within both the system’s habitable zone and orbital stability zone.

Night and Day, Fire and Ice: Astronomers don’t like speculating too much about squishy biology, but we can make some guesses based on what they know. For instance, Paul Sutter says,

 “Orbiting two stars at once, as our friend Kepler-47c does, makes life very elliptical, occasionally bringing the planet out of the zone. Life doesn’t take too kindly to frequently freezing over.

Orbiting just one star in a binary system? Well, sometimes you’ll have two stars in your sky at once, which can be a tad toasty. And sometimes you’ll have a star on each face of the planet, ruining the night. And don’t forget the double-doses of UV radiation and solar flares.”

So life that evolves on a world that dips in and out of the habitable zone might have evolved to withstand periodic freezing — by hibernation, or clustering around the lifegiving heat of deep-sea ocean vents. Periodic extreme heat might result in life that escapes the worst of it by burrowing, growing a calcified shell, or migrating to the cooler regions if the planet’s axis has a tilt like Earth’s does. We may also find extreme-heat-dependent adaptations, such as seeds that only germinate after forest fires. A montane plant called fireweed already uses this strategy on Earth.

Irregular day-night cycles might result in life with bio-rhythms attuned to two or more day-night periods, or to shorter active and rest periods. For instance, some Earth animals like rabbits, deer, and fireflies are crepuscular, or most active at dawn and dusk. On a planet with potentially multiple dawns and dusks in a 24-hour period, crepuscular cycles could be much more common!

Finally, exposure to higher levels of radiation and UV rays could have forced lifeforms to evolve powerful anti-oxidant and UV-blocking pigments to protect themselves from cancers and DNA damage. It’s even possible that their DNA (or equivalent hereditary molecule) could have evolved a more stable structure more resistant to damage.

Current estimates suggest 50-60% of known binary systems are capable of supporting life–that is, their planets, if they have any, would be both in habitable and orbitally stable zones. I don’t know about you, but I like those odds!


I drew on real science about binary star systems and how life might evolve on them to create the binary system in my novel, Absence of Blade. What’s the coolest fictional example of a binary star system you can think of? Tell me in the comments!

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Replenishing Your Creative Coffers

Creative work, whether it’s fiction, art, music, etc., takes a special kind of energy. Like any work, creative work demands our attention and concentration. However, creative work is usually something we have to fit in around other time demands, such as a day job and chores. We write or paint or compose music because it’s fun, and because we’re passionate about it–but this same passion means it can be hard to take breaks when we need to.

If someone were paying me for it, I could probably make a comfortable living reading those writing advice articles that tell writers to “write every day, whether you feel like it or not”. There’s something to be said for consistent practice, especially for writers who are just starting out. I have two serious bones to pick with those articles that hail producing every day as the key to success, though: first, they make no room for letting creative works lie fallow (more on this in a later article), and second, writing every day without stopping to recharge is a recipe for frustration and burnout.

It can be tempting not to think of creative work as work–after all, at its best, it’s fun, a kind of play. But even play takes energy, and if you draw on that energy without ever replenishing it, eventually your energy will run out. That can be a bad place to be for a creative; it’s much easier to recharge while there’s still some creative energy left than to rebuild your reserves from zero.

The good news is there are lots of ways to replenish your creative energy. The even-better news is that they are usually enjoyable in themselves! Here are my three favorite methods to recharge my creativity when I’m feeling in the doldrums:

Step away from the screen or paper. When you’re in the middle of a creative project–especially if you’ve hit a roadblock–it can be tempting to stare at the screen all day, but it’s often better to step away. Take a shower, play with your pet, go on a walk–anything to get your conscious mind off the creative work. It sounds counterintuitive, but creativity research has suggested that the solutions to creative problems often come precisely when you’re not consciously thinking about the problem. When the conscious mind is occupied with other things, it gives the subconscious more room to churn and come up with creative possibilities.

Make room for recreation. It can be tempting to devote every waking moment not taken up by your job and chores to your creative passion, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you do. Spending some of that precious free time on fun activities that are ends in themselves not only helps you recharge creatively, it enriches life. Play videogames and/or sports, read for pleasure, watch movies–anything you like to do that isn’t directly related to your creative work*.

*A word of caution: Avoid making excuses for your hobbies like, “Reading helps me be a better writer”, or “I watch movies to learn about writing in a different medium”. These claims may be true (I’d say they are), but approaching a hobby with this attitude means you’re still mentally at work when the point is to take a break. It’s not only okay to switch off from the productive mindset, it’s essential. Your energy levels, quality of life, and work-in-progress will thank you.

Switch creative gears. If you’re in the middle of a longer project like a novel, and feeling lost or overtaxed, it’s totally okay to work on something else if you have the urge. Draw some line art while the latest layer of paint dries on your masterpiece. Write a short story while that novel draft ferments. I’ve written about the benefits of switching gears to clear your head between novel drafts, but sometimes it can help to step back in the middle of a work-in-progress to work on something unrelated.

It can be even more stimulating to switch artistic mediums completely. That is, if you’re a writer, you might draw or paint. A visual artist might write fiction or do some journaling. Exploring an art form outside of your own can be a refreshing shock to the creative system. Plus, if it’s not something you do professionally, there’s often a lot less pressure to be “good”, and as a result, more willingness to experiment with the art form. And who knows, maybe something you create on the side will give you an idea you can use later in your chosen medium.

Taking the time to replenish your creative energy benefits not just you, but also your work. I mention above that the “write every day” adage doesn’t leave time for creative works to lie fallow; in my next article, I’ll dig into why sometimes writing means not writing, and why giving your finished work time to ferment is an essential part of the creative process.

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