Near-future SF Author Spotlight: Aaron Hodges

Last year I decided I needed to read more indie science fiction and ecofiction. I didn’t want to write in isolation, and in keeping with my desire to focus on the writing journey as much as the finished product, I wanted to be part of a larger conversation. I added Book Reviews to my blog and hoped to publish a review a week. Well, that’s not happening, but I have been able to get out 1-2 per month. And along the way I have met some very interesting authors and read stories that I never would have encountered by sticking only to what gets traditionally published. Indie fiction is not usually as polished, or as formulaic, as what hits the mainstream press. It takes more risks, and fails more often. It is a wild ride that brings you right up against the uncomfortable and inconvenient truths of the writers’ condition. But that rawness–that raw courage–is a big part of why I still read and write books at all in this age of increasingly sophisticated electronic media.

Author Aaron Hodges
Author Aaron Hodges

One of these authors is Aaron Hodges, a kiwi writer of dystopian science fiction and fantasy. He hails from New Zealand, but his Praegressus Project series takes place in the mountains of central California, not too far from where I live now in Silicon Valley. It is set in the year 2052, after the fall of the USA and subsequent rise of the totalitarian Western Allied States.

I have been intrigued by stories of the USA de-uniting for years, with that interest accelerating and getting more personal after our 2016 elections and the social, political, and class divisions they laid bare. The novel American War by Omar El Akkad, about a second American Civil War, was published earlier this year to broad acclaim (read my review here). I talked with Aaron Hodges via email about his world-building, the de-United States, and his vision for the Praegressus Project series.

KLA: You are from New Zealand. What made you interested in setting your book in a future North America with a defunct United States?

AH: This was actually more of a pragmatic choice than anything. The majority of my readers are from the States, so I decided that would be the best place to set the story. Unfortunately, I have only ever visited the west coast, so I decided to base the majority of the story around that region. Which meant the west coast obviously had to end up being the victors in the civil war!

KLA: I have also been working on a novel that is set in the former USA, which has federalized into different regions. I live here, so I have been inspired by things I’ve read around the Presidential elections. Red state/blue state maps are very popular, for example. What made you divide the USA into the regions you chose?

AH: There was definitely a bit of red/blue state stuff going on! It’s never explicitly stated, but something in 2020 led to California ceding from the union – after which Washington, Oregon and a few other states out west promptly followed. However, as that sort of split was more historical than anything by the time the series begins. I wanted to highlight another division that takes place all over the world even today – the divide between rural and urban populations. I wanted to show a world where the population- and wealth- drain from the countryside into cities had reached a breaking point, and explore the sort of characters that come out of that.

KLA: How is climate change working in your future world? As the century progresses I would have expected Sacramento to get warmer and drier, not colder as depicted in your first chapters. What weather patterns could account for this?

AH: It’s actually a common misconception that climate change means warming all year round. While internationally temperatures may be increasing, on a local scale the effects are far less predictable. Climate patterns such as El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) have a much greater impact on local climate than climate change, and exactly how climate change affects these patterns is very much a black box (i.e. we have no idea how it will end up impacting them!)

Sorry that got a little technical😆! Climate was a big part of my science degree back in the day. Basically, the effects of climate change depend on location, and can have seemingly opposite results. For instance, California is likely to see an increase in droughts AND heavy rainfall events such as tropical cyclones over the next century. Likewise, summers may get hotter, but inversely winters may also get colder. Then you throw in something like a La Niña year, which means less rain and colder temperatures and…things get complicated😆!

KLA: I have degrees in biological science, and often I think the biology in science fiction is pretty unbelievable. But I thought your explanations of how the Chead are formed were quite good and plausible. Even though they are speculative, they make sense and didn’t throw me out of the story. Did your background in biology inspire this part of the plot? How does it inform your writing generally?

AH: Haha–well it’s good to hear my memory from genetics hasn’t completely failed me yet! I actually first started thinking about this project during my Genetics 202 class, when we were discussing homeotic genes and how a virus could be used for genetic modification. I found it all fascinating, and thought it would be interesting to write a scifi novel with genetically modified humans that were still grounded in some science.

For the rest of my work, such as my fantasy series, my studies in geography and environmental science were more important for the world building. Having a bit of knowledge about how mountains/forests/oceans affect local climate was very useful in developing a new world that might almost work in reality!

The final book in the Praegressus Project series, Retribution, is scheduled to be published next week, and this post is part of a blog tour in celebration of the series’ completion. During the blog tour, the first three novels in the series – RebirthRenegades, and Retaliation -are free. There will also be a Goodreads giveaway for three paperback copies of Rebirth, ending December 25th. Look for my blog review of Rebirth in the coming days!–KLA

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Mundane Monday: Holiday Cards

I am really in the thick of it right now. I enjoy sending and getting holiday cards, but keeping the addresses up to date, getting the right postage, the address labels, finding the cards that I bought on sale last year on December 26th and stored in the garage, and printing the newsletter and getting it and the kids’ pictures, if appropriate, into the cards is always a bit much when it is going on.

I decided that if I do a batch of around 10 a day, I will get done soon, and in a timely manner. I missed a day already. I had a concert this weekend and was very busy with that.

But there’s a decent pile there for the mailbox, and tomorrow is another day.

For the Mundane Monday Challenge #139.

 

Thursday Doors: Tis the Season

My birthday is exactly 3 weeks before Christmas. I like having all the decorations and festivities around, even if they are really intended to honor someone other than myself!

The night of my birthday this year we went to downtown Mountain View to see a tree lighting. In Massachusetts where we used to live, the tree that was lit was not home-grown. It was trucked in from somewhere in Canada, but it was still a standard evergreen tree. It usually wasn’t cold enough to snow at the beginning of December either, even in MA, but there was often fake snow. In particular one of the banks went all out and had fake snow falling from a machine on its roof.

California is a little different. There was a whole stage with chorus singing the usual carols, next to this tree:

DowntownSceneAuthor

Traditionally, the lights are hidden and just kind of peak out from behind the needles or the–ahem–snow. Well, this kind of tree is pretty too, in its own way.

And since it’s Thursday Doors, the Mountain View City Hall door shows that they have taken a more traditional approach.

CityHallDoor

Darkness bothers a lot of people this time of year, but I think the lights make it better.

This is also a season for concerts, and I’d like to share this piece from my son’s high school winter concert. My son is in the cello section and his face is hidden by the music stand. But it was so crowded we were actually lucky to get these seats so front and center, even if mostly all I could do was watch his arm moving back and forth.) They have a beautiful sound.

A Happy Holiday season to all!

Mundane Monday: Birthday Cake

Today is my birthday, so it’s not as mundane as the other 51 Mondays this year. We all know the downsides of social media, but I’m liking the Facebook anniversary function and the “rediscover this day” function in Google photos. One thing it led me to re-discover was cakes of birthdays past.

One year while I was still living in Massachusetts, my birthday fell on orchestra/choir rehearsal night. It is an experience like no other to be serenaded in the birthday song by full orchestra and choir in four-part harmony. My stand partner and best friend attached a mylar balloon to my chair and brought a sheet cake for the intermission refreshments.

Blade Runner 2049 birthday scene

While I remember the music at that celebration very well, at least in the US, cakes tend to occupy the center of attention. In the recent film, Blade Runner 2049, a birthday cake scene was still one of the most powerful memories of a happy childhood.

I found making birthday cakes to be one of the more fun parental duties. I especially like the Hello Kitty and Minecraft-themed cakes I made when my kids were small:

Then there were the years when the main decoration was the sentiment:

And the years when we just couldn’t resist the lure of the Carvel ice cream cake (no, I don’t work for Carvel, just a satisfied customer!):

Okay, now I’m getting hungry . . .

Here’s to all the birthday cakes, whether they’re homemade from scratch, out of a box, store bought, ice cream, gluten-free, nut-free, sugar-free, or somewhere in between!

For the Mundane Monday Challenge #138.

 

Thursday Doors: Steve Jobs’ Garage

Earlier in the year I started a series of blogs about the “Geekiest Hot Spots” in Silicon Valley, with the first one being the HP Garage in Palo Alto–where two Stanford students, David Packard and Bill Hewlett, started building the audio oscillators that would be the foundation of Hewlett-Packard. That garage is informally known as “The Birthplace of Silicon Valley.”

What used to be Steve Jobs' garage door in Los Altos
How many cars do you suppose are in there?

This garage in Los Altos, where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computers, is even closer to my home (I can easily bike there on my way to Trader Joe’s) and, it’s a new virtual Geocache site!

My husband and I found the virtual geocache (which means visiting the site and taking a selfie) one morning a couple weeks ago after the return to Standard Time made it too dark for us to go cache hunting in the evenings. If it weren’t for the geocache, and the obvious “No Trespassing!” signs, we probably wouldn’t have noticed it. It’s a very normal-looking house, with a normal-looking front door.

Front Door
No Trespassing!

What is it about garages? My theory is that here in CA nobody has a basement, so what used to go in the basement now goes in the garage. Or at least that is why, even after living here more than two years,  we still don’t park our cars in ours. Maybe we should all spend more time in our garages, being creative and puttering around!

KarenVirtualCache
The author in front of the house, on this very quiet street

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in at Norm 2.0’s link!

We are the World Blogfest: Saving the Environment through Art

Late November in the USA marks the start of the crazy holiday season. Thanksgiving. Advent. Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Giving Tuesday . . . With my daughter home for Thanksgiving and two concerts and my birthday coming up, I just wasn’t in the space for posting anything.

We are the World Logo

But the last Friday of the month came early this year, and it’s still November for a couple more days! The “We are the World Blogfest,” #WATWB, seeks to promote positive news on social media. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity. The good news story I chose for this month is called Saving the Environment through Art. As a musician who cannot always make myself understood in words, and who tires easily of the back and forth of discussion and debate, I am feeling more and more drawn to other, complementary means of artistic expression. The picture I chose for the featured photo on this blog is a painting in the OSU/Corvallis gallery at their eclipse art exhibit this past August. In the painting, the moon covering the sun looks like an eye, watching the earth, and us.

This article reviews an exhibit that I wish I could have seen: Sibylle Szaggars’ multidisciplinary performance art series, the “Way of the Rain: Voices of Hope,” at The Salk Institute, an elite biomedical research institute in the San Diego area. The performance includes music, dance, film, paintings, and photography.

Delivering a political or environmental message through art can be a powerful tool. It can also be a tricky one: striking the right balance between creativity and communicating a cause is a challenge.  These elements are rarely woven together successfully without compromising the artistic integrity of the work or trivializing the message it carries. Kudos to Sibylle Szaggars for successfully managing this delicate balancing act.

Complex works of art do not demand simple actions, but instead encourage reflection, and hopefully change and transformation as well. But slowly, incrementally, like the definition of a “sea change“. Rather than being spurred to a particular political action, I hope that people who experience this work and others like it will come to new ways of seeing and thinking about the world and the environment.

Shilpa GargInderpreet UppalSylvia SteinSusan ScottAndrea Michaels and Damyanti Biswas are this month’s co-hosts. Please link to them in your #WATWB posts and go say hi!

Mundane Monday: Density

Last week my 8th grade students learned about density by building mundane tinfoil boats, and filling them with gravel until they sank in a tub of tap water.

Boat with Gravel
Still floating, needs more gravel!

The point was to learn about density: that density = mass/volume, and that something with a lower density will float on top of something with a higher density. So when the boat sinks, its density has become equal to (actually just slightly greater than) that of the water it’s floating on. You can calculate the density of the boat (and therefore the water) by weighing the gravel and measuring the boat’s volume.

You can calculate the density of salt water, too, using the same boat. But you will have to add a little more gravel to get it to sink in salt water.

salt water
These cubes pictured are sinking, but they will float if you add enough salt to the water

We also showed the students a demonstration, the poly density bottle. I don’t have too many pictures of myself teaching, so I wanted to show this one. This is a pretty typical American science classroom, with a white board, a projector, and the American flag. Some classrooms have “SMART boards” which replace both the whiteboard and the projector and make it easier for teachers to integrate multi-media into their presentations.

This classroom doesn’t have one, but I don’t really miss it. Our organization, Science from Scientists, tries to engage the students by giving them hands-on activities, like building the boats, adding the gravel, etc. themselves, rather than relying too heavily on teacher presentation. Although in this photo I look like a “sage on the stage” (the teaching model we are trying to get away from), for the second class I gave the bottle to one of the students to shake up and pass around instead of doing it myself.

Polydensity bottle
The author, with poly density bottle

What do you think is happening here? Why do the beads separate after being shaken, and then come together in the middle?

For the Mundane Monday Challenge #137.

Mundane Monday: Madrone

This is a time of year in the United States that people like to complain about the light. Basically, there isn’t enough of it. I sympathize: I have a devil of a time getting up in the morning when it’s dark outside. But what light there is, and the angle in which it falls on the landscape, can create startlingly beautiful images.

I was looking at old blogs and I noticed this one from almost exactly one year ago: Tree at Sunset, taken on the UC Santa Barbara campus. The current picture makes a nice follow-up. It was taken at mid-day, but still has some of those slanted light and shadows, contrast of leaves and branches with a deep blue sky.

Madrone

This tree also had a geocache hidden at its base, and it was located near the highest point of a trail in the El Sereno Open Space Preserve. The description of the geocache told me the tree was a Madrone, which is a cool-sounding name that I had heard before but didn’t know what it referred to.

The madrone is an evergreen, native to the northwest coast of North America. Its Latin name is Arbutus menziesii, named for the Scottish naturalist Archibald Menzies, who discovered it on Vancouver’s voyage. The cinnamon brown/red bark on the trunk and branches is one of its most famous and lovely features.

These trees, being native to the area, are relatively common and mundane around here, but as usual it took a photo challenge for me to really notice them. For PhoTraBlogger’s Mundane Monday Challenge #136. Stop by for some more mundane/interesting pictures from around the world!

Book Review: Muir Woods or Bust, by Ian Woollen

Muir Woods Or BustMuir Woods Or Bust by Ian Woollen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Muir Woods or Bust is a gonzo-esque romp through the near future. More hopeful and humorous than its dystopian cousins, it is like an On the Road for gamers and Science Fiction nerds. I had a little trouble suspending disbelief in the road-trip plot, at first. Even in context it seemed like something out of an earlier time, as if two aging losers–one of them a widely recognizable former TV star–would really be able to get away with all this with zero negative consequences. Still, once it got going, the action and the colorful characters that they encountered kept me turning the (virtual eBook) pages. As the trip unfolded, I also stopped viewing Gil and Doyle as aging losers, which was, of course, the point.

In fact I would have preferred that the road trip started a bit sooner. This novel is one of several that I’ve read lately that uses a book-within-a-book device, and what I’ve learned from that reading is that this device should be used sparingly, if at all. Like the perennial “writing about writing,” it limits your audience and can easily throw the reader out of the story. Here, the author pulls it off reasonably well, only occasionally overdoes it, and although things take a while to get going, he manages to slip the reader some interesting backstory about John Muir in the process. He also balances his writing about Gil’s Muir book with writing about Doyle’s old TV show, Yosemite Yahoos, and Chum’s video game, Phantom Vampire, and all three of these media adventures play a significant role in the plot and themes.

I was also happy to read female characters who were not just there to be hit on by our madcap road-tripping dude protagonists. Gil’s messy relationship with his late wife Melody, and his grief and attempts at healing, are poignantly rendered; as is Chum’s rudderlessness in the wake of his mother’s death. Less successful was the character of Amanda, an unstable and burned out graduate student whose skeevy ex-boyfriend—conveniently for our heroes–just happens to be a tech billionaire. Still, the author demonstrates enough sensitivity for what woman entrepreneurs and creators face in the tech world to make her a sympathetic, multi-dimensional character.

The book ends in California, my adopted home, and while the state’s portrayal is an exaggeration like everything else in this story, I recognized it as a place of reckoning, where environmental beauty and human creativity come together in a crazy but wonderful mix. It surprised me how much I had come to care about and even like these characters. And when it was over, like Gil, I felt hopeful that “we’ll find a way,” as a species, to deal with whatever gets thrown at us. After all, what choice do we have?

View all my reviews

The Brain—is wider than the Sky

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