Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Sunday Snippet: the Mayake Chronicles

From AKAELA (the Mayake Chronicles Book 1), Prologue:
“You ok?” Athel shouts, his voice amplified by the narrow space etched between the walls of rock.
I search for a new crevice, stick my right foot in it and lift myself up.
My bare fingers brush against the gravel. A harsh sun peeks down, the sky a pale blue hazed by the smoke of distant fires. I stretch one hand up and grope for a new handhold. After a while I stop thinking about the void below me and climbing becomes automatic: firm grasp in the hands, right foot in crevice, lift. I no longer pay attention to my split nails or my bleeding fingers. All I want is up, up to the top of the cliff.
The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

Still working my new YA project, this is exactly the continuation from last time. Please let me know what you think. Also, what do you think of the word "Chronicles"? Shall I go with it or is it overused in fantasy books?

Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"Science is a modest hero, transforming our world for the better": author Peter Cawdron talks about his love for Darwin and hard science fiction

If you've read the Telepath Chronicles, the second volume of the Future Chronicle anthologies produced by Samuel Peralta, then you've certainly enjoyed Peter Cawdron's story #DontTell. I confess that I wasn't familiar with Peter's work, but after reading his story now my Kindle is stuffed with his books, starting from his latest release, My Sweet Satan, whose premise is mind blowing: a remote Saturn moon; an unmanned probe; one message: "I want to live and die for you, Satan."

How can you resist a premise like that?

Welcome to Chimeras, Peter!

EEG: What spurs your love for science and how does it inspire your work?

PC: For most of my adult life, I was tragically antiscience, not in an overt way, but with a bias toward creationism. Science was inexplicable, something to be tolerated, but not trusted. I was sincere and well meaning, but wrong. I would often hear preachers talking disparagingly about Charles Darwin, often in the same breath as comments about Adolf Hitler. I knew Hitler had waged war on the world, brought untold suffering to Europe and killed millions of soldiers and civilians alike. Charles Darwin, though, was a scientist, a naturalist and from the depictions I'd seen, seemed somewhat soft spoken and gentle. There was a disconnect there that never really sat right with me and left me wondering.

To someone on the outside, creationism probably seems pretty silly and somewhat simplistic. For me, it was contradictory. I could see a variety of different Christian groups offering what seemed to be equally plausible explanations for cryptic sections of scripture. They all had the same approach. The Bible is right, everything else must be shoehorned to fit. Only they couldn't agree between themselves on which shoehorn to use.

I found myself feeling somewhat like a hypocrite badmouthing Charles Darwin while never actually having read a single word he wrote. One day I stumbled across an old, ragged copy of On the Origin of Species in a garage sale and picked it up for two dollars. I started reading and found myself highlighting section after section as Darwin methodically explained the course of reasoning that led him to the theory of Natural Selection. Far from being on par with the Nazis, I found Darwin's writing to be remarkably honest and refreshing.

As much as I loved On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man was even more remarkable, and I came to appreciate science as the only viable means of explaining the world around us. But science doesn't stop with explanations, once we understand the science we can apply it to improve our quality of life.

Science is not a sideline, background curiosity in our lives, it is the bedrock foundation of modern life. In the 1850s, Ignaz Semmelweis was ridiculed for introducing the washing of hands for medical students visiting his wards, even though mortality rates dropped from 20-30% down to less than 5%. But the lessons weren't learned. Semmelweis was ridiculed and driven insane. Barely a decade later almost two hundred thousand Americans died of preventable infections during the Civil War. When the polio vaccination was introduced in 1957, the number of reported cases dropped from 58,000 to 5,600 in twelve months. The smallpox vaccine is credited with saving over half a billion lives, and yet we face an increasing backlash from antivaxers. I cannot imagine growing up in a world without refrigeration, antibiotics, vaccines or basic hygiene, and yet in some parts of the world these appalling conditions still remain. It seems to me that science is a modest hero, transforming our world for the better, but the job is barely half done.

Having been so ignorant for so long, I'm keen to do all I can to encourage scientific awareness, and so a common theme in all of my books is that of science and knowledge being the hero.

EEG: Your personal discovery of science is simply fascinating! So, if I may say so, you are a Darwin convert, something to be proud indeed! Speaking of Darwin and evolution: many of your books explore the future of the human species. What do you see realistically happening to humans in, say 1000 years from now (supposing we survive all the mess we're making now!)?

PC: The most remarkable thing about the time we live in is how rapidly we are embracing change. In terms of evolutionary time, the scientific revolution we've undergone over the past five hundred years is the bat of an eyelid. Mammal species form and diverge over tens of millions of years. We are changing nature and, indeed, domesticating Homo sapiens and dozens of other species at a rate that is absurdly quick given the 3.8 billion years life has existed on Earth. I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but we need to be realistic about the change we are forcing on our planet. We're driving species extinct at an alarming rate.

A thousand years from now, races will probably not exist in anything like the form they do at the moment. They'll be more culturally based than based on physical characteristics, simply because of how globalization is forming a homogenous genetic mix, probably resulting in a racial type closer to our current asian form than european. But the pity will be the lack of biodiversity among other species on the planet.

Climate change is a contentious issue, but humans have been changing their environment for tens of thousands of years—cutting down forests and growing farms. When the Americas were first settled, bison numbered sixty million, now there's less than a hundred thousand, but we've got lots and lots of cows, pigs and chickens (even if their lives are short lived). It sounds silly, but this is a serious problem. Indigenous animals are displaced by those that taste great when deep fried. The UN estimates there are currently 19 billion chickens in the world, at the expense of numerous other species that have been driven to extinction or to dangerously low numbers. And a lack of biodiversity isn't just an academic concern, there are very real consequences if we get to the point of runaway extinction because the biosphere collapses. It's happened before. It's up to us to stop it from happening again.

The point is, we're changing our world at an alarming rate. Climate change is just one more injury we've inadvertently inflicted on what may be one of the most astonishing planets in the universe.

To those that deny climate change, I say, hey, so did I. Don't be close minded. The same scientific method that brought you the computer you're looking at right now has led us to understand the very real impact carbon emissions are having on the atmosphere and the detrimental impact a rise in temperature has for life on this planet. It's time for us to grow up and take responsibility for our actions.

EEG: How are your stories typically born?

PC: Coming up with some crazy idea is generally the easy part. It's the execution that is tough, building a quasi-credible plot with realistic characters.

I love hard science fiction, which essentially means there's no magic hand-waving to get characters out of trouble. In the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness, there's a scene where Kirk is on the Klingon home world and has desperate need of some engineering advice. He flips open his handheld communicator and talks with Scotty in real-time back in a bar on Earth, even though the two worlds are separated by dozens of light years! As much as I loved that movie, that scene was lazy writing. I'd use a situation like that to force Kirk into thinking laterally. Sure, he'd bemoan the absence of Scotty, but that would make him dig deeper for answers, and THAT makes for a better story.

EEG: You just published My Sweet Satan: can you tell us a bit about this book?

PC: My Sweet Satan is not satanic. It's not a horror. It's a thriller set around the idea that First Contact is not going to be intuitive or easy.

We struggle communicating with people from different countries and cultures. We can't hope to hold a conversation with a dolphin, an octopus or a cuttlefish, and yet all of which display remarkable problem solving skills. That makes me think that First Contact is going to be fraught with difficulty and the potential for misunderstandings. My Sweet Satan is about how a First Contact mission could go horribly wrong, but as with all my writing, it ends on a high. I think it's pretty good, but I'm probably a bit biased :)

EEG: What are you currently working on and what's next on your publishing agenda?

PC: My two girls (12 & 14) asked me to write stories for them, so I'm venturing into some young adult fiction with my next two novellas: Things We Left Behind & Mister Fluffy Bunny.

Things We Left Behind explores the world of a teenaged girl struggling to cope with the zombie apocalypse. It's a story of hope against insurmountable odds.

Mister Fluffy Bunny might sound like a children's story book, but it's about a young girl in a Mexican orphanage caught in the middle of a drug war.

I think teens and adults alike will enjoy these stories. They're a departure from my normal hard science fiction, but are thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.

EEG: Aw, that's so nice that they asked you. My kids are the same age as yours and after telling them that no, they can't read my adult thrillers, I, too, decided to write something appropriate for their age. Except so far it looks like they are still more interested in my adult thrillers than the YA I'm writing. Go figure.

If you were to travel on a spaceship, what's the first place you'd go see?

PC: Earth.

Seriously, we have such an astonishing planet with an incredible array of diversity, from the Himalayas to the Sahara, from the arctic circle to the rainforests of South America. We live in the jewel of the crown. I'd love to see the rings of Saturn, the great spot on Jupiter, the ice volcanoes of Enceladus, but as breathtaking as they would be, I don't know that you can top Earth. Without exception, the Apollo astronauts that walked on the Moon all marveled at the view of Earth, and that's quite profound when you think about it. These men had the opportunity to walk on another celestial body, but they marveled at the small blue sphere we call home. I think our wanderlust will take us to the far flung corners of our solar system and beyond, but Earth is without a doubt the #1 destination and we're already here!

EEG: Best answer ever. :-)

Thanks so much Peter for chatting with us today!

PC: Thank you for inviting me to be a part of your blog.

You can find Peter on Twitter and Facebook and a full list of his novels is on Amazon.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sunday Snippet: a new project

From AKAELA (the Mayake Chronicles Book 1), Prologue:
The most dangerous parts of a droid are its hands. That’s the first thing Athel and I learned. They’re also the most precious components, with state-of-the-art microchips and the fastest nanobots ever made.

Like human hands, they can flex, grab and hold. Unlike human hands, they can be fired off their body as explosive projectiles. The scavenger M3 we’ve been tracking down the gorge has three-millimeter caliber rifles embedded over its knuckles. So long as its hands are busy collecting samples from the ground, we’re fine. But once those hands point at us, we stand little chance against its bullets.

Luckily, Kael, our trained falcon, has no problem dodging fast-flying bullets from scavenger droids. As I climb higher along the wall of the gorge, I raise my head and watch the falcon circle the sky, his black feathers shimmering against the harsh sun.

“So, here’s the plan,” Athel messages me through our Wi-Fi connection, his words forming on the right corner of my eye. “Once you reach the top, you signal Kael to attack the droid. The M3 will fire first. They usually deploy their rocket hands as a last resort.”

“We’ll make sure it doesn’t have a choice,” I send back.

“It won’t, once it exhausts the magazines. As soon as the M3 fires its missile hands, you jump. Make sure the droid follows you and not me.”
I swallow. Right. Easy peasy. Sometimes I wonder why I even listen to my brother’s crazy ideas.

My left foot loses its grip and skids, sending pebbles tumbling down the wall of the gorge. At the bottom of the ravine, the M3 freezes. It elongates its neck with a subtle whir and slowly pivots its triangular head in a full circle.

Good thing it didn’t look up.

Athel waits with our two mares just outside the gorge. He sends me a new message, his anger flashing in capital letters on my retina. “Do not screw up!”

I bite my lip, find a new handhold in the rock and climb farther up, careful not to make any noise this time.

The droid’s lenses zoom out of their sockets, examine the length of the gorge, then retract back into its head.

“It smelled the horses,” I reply to Athel, the words forming on the right corner of my retina. “Keep Maha and Taeh away!”

“Let me handle it,” Athel shoots right back at me. The message flashes a few seconds longer then fades away. A gust of wind travels down the gorge, making my skin tingle.

Twenty feet below, the M3 seems unaware of our presence. Its treads scrape the ground and roll over the rugged terrain, adjusting to its uneven contour.

Athel’s words careen on the corner of my eye. “I can see you now. Twenty-five feet from the ground. Five more to the top.”

He can measure how high I’ve climbed thanks to his built-in inclinometer. Five more feet and I’ll reach the top of the mesa from the bottom of the gorge. My bare fingers brush against gravel. A glaring sun peeks down from above, the sky a pale blue hazed by the smoke of the Gaijins’ fires. I stretch one arm up and grope for a new handhold until I reach the top of the ridge and climb over the edge. Up here, the M3 scavenger droid can no longer spot me. It will keep scraping the rocks in search for titanium-rich sediments and other metals, robbing our volcanic land of its richness.

Robbing us.

I scan the horizon. Kael hovers above me, his shadow drawing black circles over the solar panel fields. Beyond the fields, the forest brims with tension, naked trees retracing the snaking path of the Kawa River. I raise a hand and feel the ridge lift—the wind hitting the cliff side of the mesa—blowing up.

Time to set our trap.

“Now!” I message Athel. Kael catches my signal and swerves down into the gorge. The M3 droid spots it immediately, its thermal imaging sensors built to detect the slightest rise in temperature within a radius of five hundred yards. Its lenses zoom out of their sockets, trained on the falcon diving down between the high walls of the gorge.

The droid lifts its right hand and balls its metallic fist. Its decisional algorithm has deemed the threat worth shooting. I crouch over the edge and watch, grinding my teeth. The first rounds zip through the air. Just as fast, Kael dodges them, his cyborg reflexes fueled by nanoelectric impulses traveling down his brain. He swoops over the droid and then lifts up again, the M3’s bullets trained on his movements yet failing to catch him. Three more clicks and then the gunfire ends. Kael makes another dive, and this time he gets so close his talons claw at the droid’s head. The M3 zooms both lenses, rotates one hand and points it, its reflexes slow compared to Kael’s.
Come on. Fire the darn thing!

And then comes the blast. The droid’s right hand shoots out of its metallic arm and arcs up in the air.

“I’ve got it!” Athel types on my retina. I hear the horses jump out of their hiding spot, but there’s no time to watch them gallop away to catch the missile hand before it explodes. I run to the edge of the mesa and dive off the cliff, wind whipping against my face.

That moment when time stops, suspended in the breeze. That brief moment when I could crash down and die and yet I know I won’t.

That moment when I’m as alive as any creature could ever be because I feel.
And yet I’m not human. And I’m not robot.
I’m both.
The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Influences from Michael Ende, German painters, and invisible dragons: Stefan Bolz reveals the inspiration behind his children's books

Today's guest author is quite special, as he was born and raised in Germany, and it wasn't until he came to the US that somebody told him he should really be writing. And I'm glad he followed the advice! Stefan Bolz is the author of The Fourth Sage and The Three Feathers, and yes, he writes in English, which is a huge relief, isn't it? ;-)

Please join me in welcoming Stefan to the blog!

EEG: You were born and raised in Germany: what brought you to the US and where you already reading books in English as a child or did you start when you moved to the US? And in particular, when did you start writing in English?

SB: I came to the States for the first time in 1996 for a three-month retreat in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Most of what I knew about the U.S. was through movies and TV shows like Knight Rider (haha, I know) and The Cosby Show. I remember watching Twin Peaks in English with German subtitles a few years before I got here. The first time I set foot into a diner - it was the famous Roscoe Diner on route 17 about two hours north west of New York City - I thought, wow, this is just like on Twin Peaks. And the apple pie was just as delicious as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks had promised. I met my now ex-wife during this retreat and moved here permanently in January of 1997. As you might now, there is something utterly liberating in condensing your life to two suitcases and a bicycle, even if you do it only once.

I never read anything in English besides textbooks for English class in school. Not sure when you started taking English in Italy but we have English as a main subject beginning with fifth grade. Also, about 98 percent of our music is exactly the same as in the U.S., so we all grew up on Blondie, AC/DC, and Rapper's Delight. That makes it a bit easier to learn the language as you basically listen to it all day. I knew every word of the lyrics to Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell when I was fifteen. And then, of course, you have those instances when you hear something in a song that is so completely different from what it actually says. Journey's "walking down the boulevard" becomes "hold on to the boulevard" which changes the whole thing into a very different experience, like being drunk in Vegas.

I started writing in English when I went to college here in the U.S. in 1998. One of my early writing teachers encouraged me to write. I was very surprised, as nobody had ever told me that in Germany. I love to read German literature and we went through all the classics in school - Schiller, Goethe, Hesse, and so on. I remember my dad reading to me at night from those tiny books that were available back then. I think Reader's Digest had published them. They weren't larger than two by three inches and the font was miniscule. But it had all the major classic poems in them. I think even though you can't take the language with you to another country, you can take the sense of rhythm, the imagery, and the feel for what sounds good and what doesn't, and that stays with you. At least it stayed with me.

I began to write more frequently around 1999. My first project started as a novel but turned very quickly into a screenplay because all I saw where camera angles. I love to read and have read a lot during my teens and twenties but my true passion is movies. I wrote four screenplays (one of them almost got optioned), then a good amount of poetry, essays, and shorts before I began and finished my first novel.

EEG: You have several books out now. Tell us a little bit about them.

SB: The Three Feathers, my first one, is a fable for adults and children. In it, Joshua, a young rooster, wakes up one morning with the realization that there must be more to life than the coop and, more importantly, that there must be more to himself than what he thinks he is. One day, he musters all his courage and flies out of the pen - and into an adventure that will change his life and the lives of everyone he meets. One reviewer said it was "Lord of the Rings with critters." I'm very honored! :-) I loved every minute of the writing process and very often felt like a kid in a candy store as I discovered where the story was going. I realized at one point that all of my subsequent books - the ones that are out already and the ones I have yet to write - all have but one goal: to bring the reader to The Three Feathers.

In the midst of writing that one, I began to think that this was not only an adventure story but also a spiritual journey. As I have been on a spiritual path for at least half my life, I thought it might be helpful for some readers to find out about the symbolism in the story and how they translate to our own quest for meaning in this world. I called the book The Dawning of the True Self, just because I believe that every spiritual journey, independent of its specific language and path, has as its goal to help us find who and what we are in truth. To give you an example, in The Three Feathers, Joshua and his companions enter a world called Hollow's Gate in which the laws of nature as they know them, are suspended. Time flows differently there, your friends become your foes, and danger lurks at every turn. I always felt that Hollow's Gate in The Three Feathers was not unlike our unconscious mind which we inadvertently come in contact with, once we are on a spiritual quest of some sorts. The Dawning of the True Self is a very personal book and I don't really push it very much because of that. Read at your own risk :-).

When I had finished writing The Three Feathers, I had a few more lines in my head but didn't know what to do with them. Eventually I wrote them down. That was basically what you can now find in the first paragraph of The Fourth Sage, a YA sci/fi fantasy thriller where a fifteen-year-old girl fights a ruthless corporation in a dystopian world. I loved writing this book even though there was not a single writing day where I wasn't overcome with doubt about my ability to go through with it. I'm sure you don't know at all what I'm talking about ;-)

The other book that is out already is a paranormal / dark fantasy novella called Dark World. This one is about an angel, hell bent (pardon the pun) on revenge after humans kill her daughter. It's about the notion that love can be covered over by all kinds of dark emotions and that if we give into hatred and rage, we forget the love that is underneath. The angel forgets her daughter's name in the process of taking revenge and because of that, she can't remember where she came from and who she is. I adapted Dark World from a screenplay I had written about ten years ago. It's dark and bloody and beautiful because it describes what happens if an otherwise pure being slips toward the darkness and how she can possibly be brought back before the world as we know it, ends with her.

In stark contrast to that one is Georgia and the Dragon, a children's book that is about to be published (December 2014). I had a real estate client who has a daughter named Georgia. My client posted a quote from her daughter on Facebook and I thought this might be the beginning of a really sweet story. The quote goes something like this: "Whenever I'm supposed to be napping, what I'm really doing is listening to my Dragon tell me about the time he learned how to fly." Georgia, in the story, is six years old and she and her invisible friend, Dragon (a dragon the size of a Labrador retriever), have many adventures together.

EEG: Oh, that is sweet indeed! Can't wait to read it! Since you are from Germany and you write YA, I have to ask you about one of my all time favorite children author: Michael Ende. Having read The Fourth Sage, I confess that I did find some of Ende's influences in the story, whether it was intentional or not on your part. Have you read Ende's books as a child?

SB: Guilty as charged. I LOVED Never Ending Story as a child. I remember the feeling of wanting to stay in the book rather than coming back out to reality. I think it would be a really cool exercise for us writers to go back into the stories we have written and see what the influences had been and where it all came from. I know that several items from Michael Ende's books made it into my stories. Most of it was unconscious though. For example, in The Three Feathers, there is a huge turtle. I'm pretty sure this came out of Never Ending Story. But then there is a scene in The Three Feathers where the companions are attacked by Hyenas. I had no clue how they had gotten into the story until this summer on a trip to Germany, when my sister handed me a book we had read as children. There was a drawing of a rooster attacking a hyena. That was amazing. I didn't even remember that book. But my subconscious evidently did. Ende wrote another very influential book, called Momo. In Momo, there are those gray men who live on borrowed time from regular people and Momo, a young child, has to get the time back from them.

Speaking about influences, you might know Hans-Werner Sahm. He is a German painter of surrealism. In most of his paintings, the natural laws as we know them, are suspended. They have always touched that part of me that longed to not be bound by the laws of nature. I remember as a child dreaming about swimming under water while being able to breathe, or fly. When I took writing classes, I had learned that story can be driven either by character or by plot. I think we should add location to that list. Sahm's paintings inspired me to let my mind go further and break the barriers of the plot/character principle. If you look at some of his scenes, you can get a sense of limitlessness and that, beyond what we think is real, there is another place we might want to explore. The Three Feathers is very heavily driven by those locations and the magic in the story comes, in part, from that.

EEG: Momo is my favorite of Ende's books! As a child, I wanted to be Momo. :-)

What are you currently working on?

SB: I'm working on a few secret projects right now. They are very exciting but I can't talk about them quite yet. Besides those, I have two projects going on. One is the sequel to The Fourth Sage, called The Fourth Sage - Revelations. After that, there is another one planned, called The Fourth Sage - Battle for Earth. You can guess what this one is about :-). Behind that in the line-up is a story called The Second Searcher which is actually the prequel to The Three Feathers. When it's all said and done (and written), I will hopefully have five books that are all part of the Circularity Saga, an interconnected series of books that span over a few thousands of years.

The other story I'm working on is called A Path Across Time. That one is based on the first screenplay I had written way back when. It's a love story. This, together with The Fourth Sage - Revelations - will come out next year. As you have read Fourth Sage, I should probably tell you one or two things from the book, right? When I was in my teens and early twenties and up until this day, I loved movies and stories where the main character had to learn his or her special skill. Luke Skywalker went through Jedi Training, Spiderman learned how to shoot spider webs and climb up buildings, the Karate Kid learned Kung Fu, and G.I. Jane became a Navy Seal. The Fourth Sage - Revelations is basically just that. Before the backdrop of an impending and massive Alien invasion on earth, Aries, Max, C.J.k and the others have to develop their latent skills to get ready for the battle for earth. I am SO excited about that book, especially because of all the locations, like Mongolia, the Arctic Circle, Malmoe in Sweden, a small island outside of Japan, the Max Planck Institute for Advance Physics in Germany, and so on. It'll be AWESOME! At least for me :-)

I'm very honored to also have given the opportunity to write the foreword to The Alien Chronicles, the next Anthology in The Future Chronicles. Produced by Samuel Peralta, it will come out in December. Last but not least, Georgia and the Dragon, the children's book I mentioned above, is coming out December 1st as paperback and for the kindle. I look forward to that one. It's a chapter book of bed-time stories about a six-year-old girl and her invisible friend, a dragon. I had lots of fun writing it.

EEG: I often joke that being bilingual, in my case, doesn't mean that I'm fluent in two languages, rather, that I can no longer speak either language perfectly. On the other hand, there's an enrichment that comes from not only being bilingual but being bicultural. In your case, how has this bilingual/bicultural growth enriched your stories?

SB: Basically, me being bilingual gives my editor a good time. I'm here to entertain, so why not him? Whether I go out on a limp instead of limb, drop the whale vs the veil, or write other hysterical nonsense that just basically sounds right to me and nobody else, I like to inundate my editor with challenging material. I really don't know why he agreed to work with me. David Antrobus, you're the best, my man!

I remember my sister-in-law who helped me with The Three Feathers, wrote numerous small notes trying to make me understand, for example, that water, not air, gushes and many other small errors that would have been really funny if left in the book. But I think I can draw a lot from my life in Germany and include that in my stories. I never went to college over there but learned my trade in a printing press manufacturing company. A kind of foreboding, perhaps? :-) I learned everything from electrical stuff to welding, pneumatic, any kind of metal work like forging, etc, wood working, and turnery. Not only is that such a helpful education to have for real life, it also helped me quite a bit with my writing. In The Fourth Sage, for example, Aries works in Electrical in the high rise she lives in. I know how her feet feel in her steel reinforced boots, how the weight of the tool belt is distributed, what metal dust or a solder iron smells like, etc. That makes for a rich writing - and hopefully reading - experience. On the other hand, I'm missing a lot of vocabulary that others have. I am in awe, by the way, of your writing, Elena. I have started Gene Card and I love how you use words. I could never do that, I think. Really cool. So, my one regret is that I wish I'd have a few thousand more words at my disposal without looking them up in the thesaurus each time.

EEG: Hahaha, how funny, I do stuff like that with idioms all the time! Though my favorite stories are about my kids translating literally from English to Italian. I'm saving the best ones to embarrass them on their wedding day. :-)

Anything else you would like to add?

SB: Please check out my YouTube channel. I am in the process of putting ALL my books on YouTube, read by yours truly. So, if you can stand my voice, The Three Feathers is already there in its entirety. Fourth Sage is getting there and Georgia and the Dragon will be part of a 'read aloud' series so kids can just listen to me rather than their parents while playing, etc.

EEG: I've heard your voice on Hank's podcast and it's a beautiful voice! Your German accent is really slight and unless one knows you're German, it is easily missed. Unlike, er, yours sincerely ... 

Thanks so much for chatting with us, Stefan!

To learn more about Stefan and his books, check out his author page on Amazon, or visit him on his blog/website and on his Facebook page.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Celebrate Imagination: win free books and take advantage of a unique promotion

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What is Celebrate Imagination? It's a new event including a party and epic book sale for Science Fiction and Fantasy lovers. On November 20th, 26 authors will be hosting a facebook event to kick off the holiday season. We'll be giving away ebooks, paperbacks, audiobooks and other goodies. One lucky winner will receive a Kindle Paperwhite chock full of science fiction and fantasy novels. We'll also be doing our favorite thing, talking to readers!

In addition to giveaways, we will have dozens of books listed at huge discounts and for free. They run the gamut including paranormal, space opera, fantasy, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, cyberpunk, and techno thrillers. For a sneak peek at our entire catalog, the sales we'll be offering and to grab a few free reads to tide you over until then, visit Celebrate Imagination.

Tell your friends, come to the party, win great stuff. Most of all, it’s a celebration of the science fiction and fantasy stories we all love. We’ll have reviewers, bloggers, podcasters, readers, and authors all mingling and getting our geek on.

Join us on facebook here to get all the latest goodies, find out when your favorite authors will be hanging out, and meet other Science Fiction and Fantasy fans! Don't forget to enter to win the Kindle Paperwhite stocked with great novels, the entry form is below and will be active November 20-22!

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Monday, November 17, 2014

"I love stories of redemption": author Hank Garner talks about his path to writing and publishing

I met today's guest author, Hank Garner, through his Author Stories Podcasts: every week Hank interviews a new author in a very casual, yet informative way. Through the podcasts I've gotten to know the many different approaches to writing and publishing, and I've discovered new books I otherwise wouldn't have known of. Including Hank's own Bloom, a story where "Love, loss, friendship, and betrayal play out against the backdrop of the deep South." Hank is a great guy to talk to, and I had the pleasure and honor to be one of his guests: you can find the podcasts here. We chatted about plotting, characters, and the many joys and woes of publishing.

Welcome to Chimeras, Hank!

EEG: You've always been writing but it isn't until a few years ago that you started "to write down the stories that I have carried around in my head for years" (quoting from your bio). What was the spark that started this?

HG: My dream was always to be a writer. Since I was a small boy I would make up stories, and growing up in the rural South, I learned quickly to entertain myself.

As an adult, I have pursued writing, but in different ways. I wrote a column for my local newspaper, blogged, and published in various other short forms, so I have been writing for years, just not fiction writing. Writing fiction was always something that seemed far off in the distance, but I always knew that one day I would sit down and start writing down my stories.

In the summer of 2013 my wife and I started talking about this story that I had an idea for. For a lot of different reasons, I felt like I was ready to tell this story. The time just seemed right. I wrote out the first couple of pages of what would become Bloom. I got a feeling for the main characters and walked around with them in my head for a while and last November I signed up for NaNoWriMo and wrote over 50000 words of that book. Over the next few months I revised, cut and added to it and then published it in March of this year.

EEG: If you were to find a common thread across your books and stories, what would it be?

HG: I love stories of redemption. I believe in the innate goodness of people. Sometimes we don't live up to our potential as humans, but I think there is always hope. If I were to nail down a common thread in my writing, it would have to be hope and redemption. I don't want to become so cynical that I don't believe that people can be better than they are.

EEG: You have a large family (congratulations!): how does this inspire your stories?

HG: My family are my alpha and beta readers. I run everything past them. My wife Dawn is my first line. She is the one I bounce ideas off of, and one of her best traits is that she is brutally honest. Always. She is not afraid to tell me if an idea is terrible, or if the idea is good, but needs something more.

I also read everything I write out loud to my children. They range in age from 19 to 10, so they provide feedback from their varied perspectives. I get many ideas from them. If you pay attention around children you can learn a lot. Children have the ability to see the wonder and magic in the world that most of us adults have lost.

EEG: They certainly do! In fact I finally decided to start a YA story and I'm trying to get my kids involved. And I know they can be brutally honest (that's the best part about getting the family involved), too, so it'll be interesting to see how that goes. ;-)

Can you tell us a bit about your job as an IT tech: has this inspired any of your stories?

HG: I have worked in the IT industry my entire adult life. I have also worked in radio and television production, which I think has helped my story telling. As far as it inspiring my stories, I am not sure. My stories are surprisingly low tech for a person that has been programming computers since I was ten years old. My stories are all based in a small fictional Mississippi town called Weston. Weston is a typical small southern town, but for reasons that will become clearer in later books, strange things happen. Fantasy meets small town life is how I would describe it.

EEG: Tell us about you current writing project.

HG: My current project is called Mulligan. Mulligan is nearly finished and will be out in the next few weeks. It is the story of a man that finds himself in a time that is not his own, and with no memory of his former life. The book combines time travel, psychic powers with very real human struggles like pride and arrogance, racism, greed and selfishness. Mulligan is a tale of time travel and second chances.

EEG: Sounds intriguing, can't wait to read it! Thanks so much Hank for talking with us today!

Don't forget to check out Hank's Author Stories Podcasts, you'll find many authors you already know and new ones you'll want to go check out their books and discover their work. To find out more about Hank's books visit his website and Amazon author page.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Chimeras audio book is almost here! And here's how I'm celebrating....

Thanks to the awesome team of Nick and Gabriel Grant at Rook Productions, and the talented D. Joseph Fenaughty who did a fantastic job narrating Track's first adventure, the audio book of Chimeras is about to hit the virtual book shelves. I am SO excited!

You can preview the book here:

Unfortunately I don't have a link to share yet because we just uploaded it and now we are waiting for the ACX to do what they call their "pre-flight quality controls." We were told it takes 2-3 weeks. I'll definitely post as soon as the link goes live.

In the meantime, let's kick off this launch with some celebrations.

Sign up to my newsletter for a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Chimeras: that's right, anyone subscribed to my newsletter is automatically entered in this giveaway. So, if you haven't signed up yet, click here. :-)  I will draw one winner on November 30.  The winner will be contacted via email and will agree to provide a mailing address for the paper copy. 

You haven't read the Kindle edition of Chimeras? You've read Chimeras but still need to download your copy of the sequel Mosaics? Are you looking for a gift for the Kindle addict in your family? For this coming week only, Chimeras is on sale at $0.99 (regular $2.99) and Mosaics is at $1.99 (regular $4.99).

A Readers Favorite Book Award Winner and a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award Finalist, Chimeras is the first in the Track Presius mystery series, a detective thriller where crimes revolve around medical research.

Get Chimeras at the sale price of $0.99 only.
Get Mosaics at the sale price of $1.99 only.
Buy the audio book.

CHIMERAS (a Track Presius Mystery)
Haunted by the girl he couldn't save in his youth, and the murder he committed to avenge her, Detective Track Presius has a unique gift: the vision and sense of smell of a predator. When a series of apparently unrelated murders reel him into the depths of genetic research, Track feels more than a call to duty. Children are dying -- children who, like himself, could have been healthy, and yet something, at some point, went terribly wrong. For Track, saving the innocent becomes a quest for redemption. The only way he can come to terms with his dark past is to understand his true nature.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Wizard of Ends, a new fantasy series from author Vanessa Finaughty

My guest today is fantasy author Vanessa Finaughty, whose books come alive with magical new beings, intense characters and high adventure. Vanessa grew up in Cape Town, and still lives there with her husband of fifteen years, her baby daughter and plenty of furry, four-legged ‘children’. Her passion for the written word started her career as an editor and copywriter, and she part-ran a writers’ critique group for close on seven years. She’s been writing ever since she learnt how, has always been an avid reader, and currently lives on coffee and cigarettes. Her interests include reading, photography, the supernatural, life’s mysteries and martial arts, of which she has five years’ experience.

EEG: Welcome to Chimeras, Vanessa! Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as a writer.

VF: As soon as I learnt how to read, I wanted to write. I think it was somewhere between ten to fifteen years ago that I finally put pen to paper, so to speak, and started writing my first book. The first few books I started were eventually left to gather dust (I don't remember getting more than a few pages into each) - it seemed so daunting to write a whole novel! Eventually, I decided to 'just write the story' and if it turned out to be a novel, great, but, if not, I would be happy with having written a short story (this is how most of my short story collections came about). Today, I don't really know why I found it so daunting a thought - it seems easy now, but that's probably because doing anything regularly for years makes that thing easy after a while. I've never studied writing or publishing - at least, not formally. When I started out - and even sometimes now - I Google anything I'm unsure of or haven't had experience with yet. So far, so good!

EEG: What's the premise of your Wizard of Ends and how did you get the idea for this series?

VF: The plot in Wizard of Ends, Book 1 revolves around the sorceress Assassa trying to claim rulership over the Kingdom of Ends. When the king refuses to give in to her intimidation, she conjures magical creatures of darkness to hunt the queen and kill her. The wizard, Lashlor Leaflin, is unwittingly caught up in the conflict and subsequently offers to help protect the queen. Overall, the series deals with Lashlor's unwillingness to use magic - at almost any cost.

Lashlor's character popped into my head one day - a wizard who refuses to use magic to the point where most people think he isn't really a wizard - and I started writing. The story pretty much wrote itself from the start, so I'm not sure I could say it was my idea - more like Lashlor's idea.

EEG: Do you listen to music while you write?

VF: I prefer silence when writing. Sadly, our neighbourhood (and home!) is a noisy one, so I do listen to music quite often, because music is less distracting than yakking dogs and other 'nuisance noises'.

EEG: What are you currently working on?

VF: I'm quite far (almost a third of the way) into writing Wizard of Ends, Book 3: Mountains of Eclador, and plan to finish writing that before I continue with the next book in my other series, Legends of Origin.

EEG: I can't wait to read it! Best of luck with your books and thanks so much for stopping by the blog today.

To find out more about Vanessa and her books you can visit her website, blog, her Facebook fan page . You can also follow her on Twitter and Goodreads. The first book in the Wizard of Ends series can be downloaded for free from the following sites:

Barnes & Noble

Sunday, November 9, 2014

From old ship artifacts to Amish science fiction: Chris Pourteau talks about his journey as a writer

One of the best things of being an indie author is to meet other indie authors. If you've followed my interviews for the past few months you've seen that I've met a lot of great authors who write in different genres, styles, formats, but they all have one thing in common: they are passionate and enthusiastic about what they do.

One such author is Chris Pourteau, who, as he introduces himself in his bio,
has made a living at one time or another as a teacher, a lab technician helping to recover one of Christopher Columbus’s ships, and a technical writer and editor. Shadows Burned In is his first foray into the world of long fiction.
I met Chris over a long chat about viruses (look out for his forthcoming book The Serenity Strain!), but I was so intrigued by the Columbus's ship story that I knew I had to find out more. So I'm thrilled to have Chris as my guest on the blog today!

EEG: Welcome, Chris! Tell us a bit more about your "past life" as a lab technician in particular: what kind of lab where you working at and did this inspire any of your stories?

CP: When I was a junior-senior in college, I worked part-time as a student lab technician. This would’ve been 1989–1990. Texas A&M University is home to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (or INA). Our job at the lab was to recover artifacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck in the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was actually one of Christopher Columbus's ships from one of his voyages to the new world. Not one of the famous ones though! By the time I came on board the project, all the concretions (underwater rock formations with artifacts inside) had been brought to A&M for recovery. I became really good friends with my fellow student techs, and most of them I’m still close friends with today. It was a GREAT experience! The “lab” was actually an old fire station located on a repurposed air base near A&M. It was hot in the summer but a great job for a student, especially one who loves history like I do.

My job was to use an air drill to chip away the concretion without harming the artifacts inside. We’d place a concretion on a big sheet of Mylar, outline it, then use orthographic projection to show were artifacts were located in the concretion as we chipped away at it. That way you got a permanent map of how the artifacts had been arranged inside the concretion after you’ve broken it apart and fished the artifacts out. Most of the iron artifacts were gray jelly by the time we got to them, but because the rock had formed around them, they left impressions. Even though the artifact might be jelly, if you cut carefully enough, you could preserve a block of concretion that you could then use to cast a replica of the artifact that had been inside it.

I must’ve gotten the ship’s toolbox because I worked for a year on one concretion that was almost nothing but fasteners! (We’d call them nails now.) I used to joke that I was recovering where the toolbox fell over. ;-) My best day on the job—particularly after finding all those nails!—was when I chipped away some rock and found something shiny, like gold! Turned out to be a brass shoe buckle, but it still had the fleur-de-lis in the corners. And, brass or not, it was head-and-shoulders above finding another fastener!

The sexiest items recovered from the shipwreck were bombards, cannons, and shot. And a HUGE anchor. Once recovered and after treating them for oxidation and rust, the artifacts were boiled in long wax vats to seal the air pockets and preserve them against any further corrosion. I believe they’re now on display in the Turks and Caicos Islands in a museum. (You have to say those last three words in Harrison Ford’s voice from Last Crusade to get the full effect.)


In the above picture you can see the actual artifacts, including that anchor!

EEG: How cool! You make my job look so boring. :-) 

I really enjoyed your interview with Hank Garner (Hank is a fellow author who started a series of podcast interviews, I'll be talking about that more in another post), and my favorite part is when you talk about how cooperative, friendly and mutually helpful you've found the community of indie authors to be. I couldn't agree more. Can you summarize here, too, what you love about indie publishing that traditional publishing would never give you?

CP: I guess I had my first experience with traditional publishing when I was 19. I got my first agent then—and while that sounds like I’m trying to impress someone, trust me, I’m not!—and two more after that (so that tells you how those business relationships went). Despite three agents between about 1985 and 1992 or so, I had no success finding a home for my fiction. My experience was that the industry didn’t really care about authors, it cared about making money—which I get from a business standpoint. But authors were/are the grist for that mill. For example—and I don’t know if it’s still this way, though I suspect it is—in the Writer’s Market and its spin-off, the Guide to Editors and Literary Agents, writers are advised NOT to submit to multiple agents simultaneously. It’s considered gauche. What’s really happening is that agents don’t want to waste their time reading a pitch someone else might’ve bought a few days earlier. OK, I get that; who wants to waste their time? But agents can take months to respond. So, Traditional Publishing Industry, you mean you expect me to send one letter out at a time, wait months for a likely rejection (if it comes at all), then send another single letter out to another individual agent? Playing the odds of “rejections before acceptance,” I’d die of old age before I ever got an agent! (For the record, I blanketed submissions. Get over it, agents. My time’s valuable, too.)

By contrast, since getting involved with independent publishing, I’ve found a supportive community of fellow authors and readers who value quality in what they write and read. I admit, at first, I was very reluctant to read self-published authors, much less become one. I’m old enough to know the stigma of vanity press (where you pay a publisher to print your stuff; it’s not called “vanity” press for nothing). The stigma comes from the assumption that, if you have to pay someone to publish your writing, it must not be very good. In a lot of cases, that’s certainly true. In my mind, I considered “independent publishing” as simply a digital version of “vanity press,” even if I wasn’t paying someone (and I was publishing it myself). I know better now! Still, anyone can publish anything they want these days, and a lot of it is what you’d expect: well intentioned but, frankly, not that great.

I decided to take a chance on some independent authors because their book blurbs looked interesting (and at 99 cents or $1.99, they were a cheap chance to take). Specifically, these were Roberto Calas, Edward W. Robertson, Manel Loureiro, and Nick Cole. I was astonished! These guys can write! And they’re independently (i.e., self) published? They taught me that you don’t have to be published by a publishing house to be a good writer. And when I reached out to say hi, they emailed me back. Wow! That’s about as different a model from the detached, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” experience I’d had with traditional publishing as you can get, isn’t it?

Since then, I’ve gotten to know a LOT of my fellow authors—Michael Bunker, Jennifer Ellis, Hank Garner, Sam Peralta, and others—and all have helped me along over the last year as I’ve tried to learn the indie publishing ropes. As have you, Elena! I hardly knew you a week (and that only on Facebook) before you agreed to help me refine my idea for a virus gone wild in The Serenity Strain. It’s that kind of selfless “what can I do to help?” attitude that is such a contrast to my experience with traditional publishing. I feel like I’m a part of a vital community of comrades who get almost as excited when a buddy-writer finds success as when they find success for themselves. It’s AWESOME! It’s the way a community should be, writing-focused or otherwise.

EEG: I was actually very flattered that you shared your ideas with me. I can't wait to read the book! And I couldn't agree more with you on everything you said. Two agents "only" here and a TON of supposed advice and revision requests from not only agents but also a bunch of acquiring editors. I used to think they knew better because they were experts. I used to think they would ask for revisions because they wanted to make my story better and stronger. Until I realized exactly what you just said: "the industry didn’t really care about authors, it cared about making money." Let me switch that to present tense, because that ain't changed a bit. 

Ok, let's switch topic before I start ranting again. What inspired you to write Shadows Burned In? Was it one idea, image, or ... ?

CP: I actually starting SBI around 2000 or so. I was in my mid-30s, and my wife at the time and I were considering adoption. (We didn’t have any children.) It was also around this time that my father died, so a lot of the mid-life crisis stuff hit me: mortality issues, concerns over whether I could be a good parent if we adopted, etc. So, essentially, SBI is me working a lot of that stuff out. It was a very cathartic novel to write! I based a lot of it on my experience growing up in a small Texas town of about 3,000 people (the same kind of town the novel is set in).

SBI is a GREAT example of the traditional vs. independent publishing issue and why independent publishing is so important as an option for writers these days. When I first finished it, I shopped it back to one of my agents. Remember, this was 2000 so “vanity press” was still the only other option then. (Picture me with my nose turned up!) Well, the agent didn’t give me the time of day (and she used to work for me!), so I shelved it. I always regretted that though, because I felt like the novel had something to say—even if it was only to me and about mid-life angstiness. So in the summer of 2013, I dug it out, cleaned it up, and went the independent publishing route. Here’s exactly what I told myself: “You can sit around feeling sorry for yourself and blaming ‘lazy agents’ and ‘publishers with no taste,’ or you can put it out there and let the market decide.” So that’s what I did.

To date, the book hasn’t been a HUGE success, but it’s gotten quite a few positive reviews. From what some readers have said, it’s touched a chord with them, too. And that’s what writers are trying to do, right? I think, over time, it’ll get some legs under it. We’ll see.

EEG: I love the premise of you next book, The Serenity Strain. Can you tell us a bit more about it and when will it be available for purchase?

CP: My novel is actually part of a larger effort called Apocalypse Weird. So, let me talk a little about that bigger picture first and where Serenity fits into that. Then I’ll talk about my premise.

So, you’ve heard of binge-watching TV shows, right? Netflix drops a season of a TV show all at once on its Streaming service, and folks wrap up in the covers and watch an entire season of 10 or 15 episodes over a weekend.

That’s kind of the premise behind Apocalypse Weird. There are about a dozen of us, including names you’ve probably heard of—like Nick Cole, Steven Savile, and Michael Bunker, just to name a few—all writing stories around different (but simultaneous) apocalyptic events occurring in different dimensions of what we’re calling the multiverse. Eventually the plotlines come together in a meta-narrative. I don’t really want to say too much more than that, but the larger story spans all the novels. In a way, we’re mimicking the Netflix model—and publishing all the novels, essentially at once, in early 2015. Have you ever finished a novel and wanted to go on immediately to the next one in the series, only to have to wait on the author to write it? Well, with this first batch of AW novels, we’re getting rid of the wait. Collaborating toward a common goal with such a talented team of writers—while doing my own thing in my own novel at the same time—is very cool and a lot of fun!

So, The Serenity Strain is a contemporary story set primarily in Houston, Texas, and the surrounding area. Basically, natural catastrophes combine with a scientific experiment to produce an apocalypse that feeds into the larger story I mentioned. The experiment involves a virus that, once introduced into a host, replaces certain genes in the medial pre-frontal cortex. In 2010, scientists discovered that this is where impulse control happens. And how well that center regulates impulses can affect addictions, criminal behavior, even ADHD. But what about individuals—like hardened criminals—who have MAJOR impulse-control issues? Could the therapy mollify them, maybe even turn them into productive members of society? In TSS, a scientist uses hardened criminals for his Phase 1 clinical trials, and the trials seem to go great—at first. What ends up happening in the end is that not only does the gene therapy not work. The body actually reacts negatively to the therapy, the net result of which is to increase impulsivity in the subject to the point where they become amoral, striving to satiate whatever appetites they have at the moment, regardless of the costs to their fellow human beings. So, it’s not zombies, like in The Walking Dead, but you know how zombies are simply driven by an insatiable hunger for flesh? My test subjects are like that—they’re driven to satisfy their appetites for food, sex, whatever they hunger for at the moment—only they can think. They’re human beings with no Superego, to use a Freudian term, to hold their Id in check. Fun ensues!

EEG: Any other new projects you’d like to mention?

CP: Actually, later this month, I have a short story coming out as part of an anthology, Tales from Pennsylvania. I was also co-editor on the collection. It’s set in the amazing world of Michael Bunker’s Pennsylvania. The 10-cent description of the world is that, about a hundred years from now, a despotic government, called the Transport Authority, basically regulates how and where people move. A young Amishman named Jedidiah Troyer becomes the hero of the novel as part of a resistance movement fighting Transport. Bunker invented his own sub-genre with Pennsylvania: Amish Sci-Fi! Once you get past the apparent incongruity of the term, it’s actually a GREAT idea.

Anyway, Bunker, I, and nine other writers—including Nick Cole and Edward W. Robertson—have contributed stories to the collection. It explores all new aspects of Bunker’s world, some I don’t think he’d even thought of. I know I’m biased, but as the first editor on the piece (David Gatewood worked with me as co-editor), I know these stories from the inside-out. They’re excellent! Strong characterization and great storytelling is how I’d summarize them. My own story, “Gelassenheit,” looks at how an Amish family deals with unreasonable demands by Transport. And one of the characters in that story inspired me to write new tales set in that world which follow the adventures of a company of rebel commandos in their fight against Transport. Those stories are Gettysburg, which reimagines the historic battle as a conflict in Bunker’s future world, and Susquehanna, the sequel. I’m planning a third tale to be published in January.

Anyway, short-form fiction is back in fashion, and Tales is a great example of how impactful and fun they can be to read. And quick!

EEG: Best of luck with it! Anthologies are also a great way to get to know new indie authors. 

Thanks so much for being with us today Chris!

Shadows Burned In is on sale at $0.99 this week only, and it's a great read, just like all other books by Chris. To find out more about Chris and his books check out his website and blog or feel free to drop him a line at

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sunday Snippet: The Elm Tree

From The Elm Tree, my contribution to the anthology The Telepath Chronicles:
Gentle, Celine thought, cracking open the ribcage—yet the procedure was far from gentle. She was breaching a sacred place, tackling the thin line between life and death, a temple that should never see the light. She forced her hands inside, her fingers prodding the softness of the tissues. 
Careful, now. This heart is young, with so many beats yet to deliver.

Come back to me, Celine pleaded, delicately compressing the heart between the flats of her fingers. Press, release, press, release, she thought, as if rehearsing a memorized prayer.

Lulled by the litany, she closed her eyes and gave in to the rhythm—press, release, press, release—until a grainy fog blanketed her eyes and the smell of burning candles filled her nostrils. 
The above is my Sunday snippet submission for the Weekend writer Warriors (you can find the Snippet Sunday group on Facebook, too). Make sure you check out all Weekend writer Warriors participants, it's a fun way to find forthcoming books -- all genres welcome, there's something for everyone's tastes.

The Elm Tree is the story of a doctor who performs a thoracotomy in a desperate attempt to save her young patient's life. I had no idea doctors could do this--crack open the rib cage and literally massage the heart to make start beat again--until I came across the true story of an ER doctor who, in a last, desperate attempt to save his patient’s life, opened the patient’s chest to manually “restart” the heart. What happened next left him completely baffled: every time the doctor compressed the heart and made it beat, the patient’s eye sprang open and stared at the ceiling. As soon as the doctor stopped, the patient closed his eyes. Imagine what this doctor must have felt, holding a dying heart in his hands, knowing that the minute he let go, the life of his patient would be lost forever.

The Elm Tree was inspired by this story and it's one of 14 science fiction stories dealing with different aspects of telepathy. Some are set in today's world, some in a future Earth, some in outer space. Each one is beautiful and enchanting in its own way. I feel honored to have my story featured with so many other talented authors.

Are we really evolving into super-humans?


I came across an article on the Popular Science website, which, turns out, is the excerpt of a new book on evolution by Science Guy Bill Nye. From the reviews I gather that Bill Nye is an excellent writer and, being also an entertainer, he knows how to not only expose well but also infuse some good humor to what he says. That's all fantastic. But while the article starts off with some rigor, his conclusion had me roll my eyes. Because, even though he does include some speculations that he himself labels the "science fiction future of human evolution" (which of course I agree is always fun to do), by the end of the article he's doing science fiction without calling it science fiction. So I'd like to take the chance to discuss what I did not like of the excerpt from his book.

Nye starts off asks the following question:
Is there a Homo superius just around the next corner, waiting to take our place?
This is the part of the excerpt that I contest:
We cannot step away from evolution. Our genomes are always collecting mutations, and we are always making mate selections. Are humans preferentially mating with other humans who are tall? Blonde or not blonde? Are smart people actually producing significantly smarter offspring, who end up making more money and ever so slowly outcompeting other families? [. . .] I'm looking out for big changes that come from good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection. What trait would give a future human baby such an edge that she or he will grow up to produce some amazing new kid that can do something that stands out and will attract a similarly worthy partner with whom to mate? 
I understand Nye wants to make an impact on people who love science and in particular those who don't have a technical background to understand the nuisances of a scientific theory but still appreciate the importance of scientific rigor. The purpose of his book is to make people think, "This is cool. I totally get evolution." At the same time, I do believe that anyone attempting to popularize such a debated topic should go the extra length to make sure everything he/she says is rigorous, because if it isn't, it becomes easy target for those people who, instead, want to contradict it.

My points in particular are:

1) In his book he gives examples to illustrate evolution in action that are beautiful and clear and make valid points on how evolution works. But those changes have taken tens, sometimes hundred thousands of years to take place. Yes, you can draw the same examples from viruses and bacteria, but again those organisms evolve on a much faster clock than we do. So, you can't just blatantly extrapolate those examples and speculate, based on those, what will happen in the next few decades or centuries to the human species. There aren't "big changes that come from good old-fashioned Darwinian natural selection" on the time scale he's looking at. Nothing really changes on a scale of 100 years -- that's roughly only 4 generations. On the other hand, there are other things that are changing scarily fast and will hugely impact our lives in the next 100 years: climate, for example. Food and water are likely to get scarcer. And given how fast those are changing compared to how evolution works, the sad reality is that there is no adaptation that can save us this time. If the climate were changing on a scale of tens of thousands of years we could predict a new adaptation to the rising temperatures. But on this scale? Our only hope is technology and our own good will to fix things we've badly broken.

2) Intelligence. First of all, intelligence doesn't make us any more resistant to any pathogens and in particular not to the antibiotic resistant ones. The last Ebola strain that jumped from bats to humans did not ask the target person his or her IQ before infecting them. Intelligence might prompt you to vaccinate yourself and your kids, but so long as the vast majority of the people still believe in vaccines we have herd immunity protecting even the non-vaccinated people. On the other hand, there are many social constraints that put a cap on how "intelligent" the human species can be. Social events are valued more than isolated hours of working/studying/researching, and if you look back at the lives of people who've made a difference in science, literature or medicine (just to name a few), you'll see a common pattern: they were pretty unsociable. They chose their one passion over spending time with family and friends. Those are isolated cases because again, as a species, we have social constraints that only a few outliers escape.

3) "We are always making mate selections," says Bill Nye.
No, we aren't. Single individuals make mating choices under geographical and socio-economic constraints. We, as a species, make no choice. Even though cultural and socio-economic constraints are pretty stable, interbreeding has always happened and it's not going to stop now that geographical mobility has greatly increased compared to 200 years ago. When you look at the individual level you see choices. When you zoom out and look at the species level it's all random. And of course mutations appear randomly, but those who do reach fixation through this process they do so because of random drift, not because of mating choices, especially in today's globalized world.

Rather than mating choices, we need to look at geography, as Coop et al. have done in a paper in PLoS Genetics:
It seems likely that selection in humans is generally not divergent enough to generate large frequency differences at individual loci between population pairs that are either recently separated, or regularly exchange migrants. Furthermore, populations may be too mobile, or their identities too fluid, to experience very localized pressures consistently over the several thousand years that may be required for large allele frequency changes [3].
Does that mean that selection is no longer happening?

Selection and adaptation are of course still happening, but under very particular conditions. Nye does mention a few in his article: the Spanish Flu and the Black Death. Those events inferred a selective sweep on the human genome. But you can't just mention those and forget what happens in between those selective sweeps because that actually covers the majority of our evolutionary history. Most of the mutations found in our DNA have reached fixation through random drift, yet you never hear people say that. So many evolution "experts" out there go on and on on how every single gene in our DNA has been selected and perfected through evolution. This argument, not only is simply not true, but it makes evolution an easy target for the creationists because they (rightfully) say it's wrong. Random mutations, just because they are random, can be either favorable or not depending on the environmental conditions.

The mutation that causes a disease called sickle cell anemia is an interesting example: people are affected only when they carry the mutation on both gene copies. Heterozygous people, who carry the mutation only on one gene copy, are healthy. Since the disease significantly reduces the life span of affected people, under normal conditions, you would expect a deleterious mutation like that to gradually disappear from the population. So why is it still quite prevalent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa?

A study (you can read the whole post here) compared two African populations and saw that the population where the mutation was more prevalent had a lower incidence of malaria. It's only a hypothesis, but this could possibly mean that, under particular circumstances (i.e. endemic malaria), the mutation actually confers an advantage on healthy people who carry it on one gene only -- a phenomenon called heterozygote advantage. Now, this is selection in action. However, notice that the study was conducted on isolated African populations. In fact, the smaller the population, the faster selection acts. Unfortunately, in today's world there are only few pockets left of isolated human populations.

Another study I discussed a few months ago was able to find the effect of selective sweeps caused by historically documented epidemics in the genomes of the Rroma people. This population was ideal for this kind of analysis because over the centuries they remained ethnically homogeneous and only rarely intermingled outside of their group. In fact, one can retrace the migration of ancient populations looking at the people's genome, a concept pioneered by the great population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza.

We can definitely retrace the past, but the question is: can we really predict the future?

What would really help the debate is to hear the voices of real scientists, but real scientists get all technical and frankly what Bill Nye is saying when he envisions a super-intelligent human walking on Mars is far more appealing to the collective imagination than the concept of a handful of random mutations accumulating in our DNA. And as a science fiction writer, I get that because I do love to push the imagination. But then let's not call it science, let's call it what it really is: science fiction.

I'm writing all this not to criticize Bill Nye who's a science enthusiast working on spreading the beauty of science. And I do reckon that he has to do put a bit of this stuff in his book or else no publishing house would accept it. But they wouldn't accept it because us, the scientists, are once again failing to communicate not just the real science but the enthusiasm for (and the value of) scientific thinking.


[1] Salih NA, Hussain AA, Almugtaba IA, Elzein AM, Elhassan IM, Khalil EA, Ishag HB, Mohammed HS, Kwiatkowski D, & Ibrahim ME (2010). Loss of balancing selection in the betaS globin locus. BMC medical genetics, 11 PMID: 20128890

[2] Hafid Laayounia,1, Marije Oostingb,c,1, Pierre Luisia, Mihai Ioanab,d, Santos Alonsoe, Isis Ricaño-Poncef, Gosia Trynkaf,2, Alexandra Zhernakovaf, Theo S. Plantingab, Shih-Chin Chengb, Jos W. M. van der Meerb, Radu Poppg, Ajit Soodh, B. K. Thelmai, Cisca (2014). Convergent evolution in European and Rroma populations reveals pressure exerted by plague on Toll-like receptors PNAS DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1317723111

[3] Coop G, Pickrell JK, Novembre J, Kudaravalli S, Li J, Absher D, Myers RM, Cavalli-Sforza LL, Feldman MW, & Pritchard JK (2009). The role of geography in human adaptation. PLoS genetics, 5 (6) PMID: 19503611

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Telepath Chronicles launch party and the Winner Takes All mega-giveaway

Today's the Telepath Chronicles anthology launch day, a collection of 14 science fiction stories written by some pretty cool authors like Samuel Peralta, Susan Kaye Quinn, Autumn Kalquist, Endi Webb, Therin Knite, Vincent Trigili, and many others that I have yet to interview here on the blog.