100 Years Ago

A century ago, a man was killed in a battle that almost no-one remembers. In France, during World War I, Private Reginald Johnston died in the Battle of Hill 70. The battle began on August 15th, 1917, and Reginald died that day or the next. He wasn’t alone. By the time the battle ended on August 25th, some nine thousand Canadian troops were killed or wounded, and German casualties amounted to some twenty-five thousand.

Reginald was my great uncle by marriage. He was 22, had not married, and had no children. However, his brothers did have children, and one nephew and one niece survive. The niece is my mother-in-law, Ethel. So Ethel is off to France this week to lay her uncle to rest, and my wife Caroline is travelling with her. Caroline is the family’s genealogy buff, and one of the more experienced at international travel.

The remains of some soldiers were uncovered in 2011, when foundations were being dug for a new hospital and a new prison. It took time, but Private Johnston’s identity was confirmed by a tribunal: a military historian, a forensic specialist and a DNA expert agreed that it’s him. His Manitoba Métis ancestry made it easier to get a clear match through mitochondrial DNA. He will be laid to rest this week, and a new memorial to the battle will be unveiled.

For more background on Private Johnston, see this CBC article. For an overview of the Battle of Hill 70 and its significance, try this BBC piece.

On a personal level, Ethel and Caroline’s trip is proceeding more or less according to plan. More, in the sense that they got to Toronto, then Paris, and then Arras okay. Less, in the sense that Caroline’s cousin Carol was supposed to be escorting Uncle Dale, but as dates and travel arrangements changed, no one noticed that her passport was going to expire 83 days after she came home, rather than 90. Until she went through security at the Winnipeg airport, and was denied boarding. Ethel, Dale and Caroline set off for Toronto while Carol paid a frantic visit to the Winnipeg passport office. Miraculously, she was back at the airport within hours, and the same agent who had turned her away before was still on duty. He greeted her with a hug and rushed her through. She got on a later flight and arrived in Toronto with just forty minutes to travel the length of Pearson International, but was able to board the plane to France with everyone else.

Last I heard, the whole group was going for lunch, then taking a nap to try and cope with jet lag. Caroline is keen to try some French food and wine, but the schedule is quite busy after today. There’s a visit to Vimy Ridge with a ceremony for an unknown soldier, a talk with a historian, a meeting with some military brass and a reception, then a tour of the battlefield at Hill 70, the interment of Reginald Johnston, and probably some interviews with a CBC crew. Then the return trip.

I have it easy. I just have to look after two cats and a dog for a few days.

 

“The Emperor’s Dragon”

I’ve sold a short story, and it will appear in the next issue of NewMyths.com. I’m not sure it’s science fiction, because it introduces no extrapolated science or technology ideas. Instead, it looks at the development of aviation in the distant past.

When I was doing some reading on the history of aviation, something struck me: the Wright brothers were not ahead of their time. I say this because of the way aviation exploded across the globe in the years following their 1903 flight. It was as if they let the genie out of the bottle.

For thousands of years, humans had dreamed of flying, but progress was sporadic and slow. The Montgolfiers flew a hot-air balloon in 1783, but it went nowhere. Did we have transatlantic balloon flights in 1800? Nuh-uh. Dammit, they were French: they had Champagne. They could have been doing a thriving business in sight-seeing excursions. Pardon the pun, but it just didn’t take off.

Otto Lillienthal made over two thousand glider flights in the late 1800’s and any modern observer would recognize his aircraft as a hang-glider. But he remained a novelty, a curiosity. There could have been hang-gliding clubs taking railway excursions to fly the Alpine slopes in droves, but there were not. Where was our dream then?

But after the Wright brothers did their little hop at Kitty Hawk, progress was exponential. A mere sixteen years later, in 1919, Alcock and Brown flew across the Atlantic. By 1931, the Supermarine S.6B was flying at 400 mph (on floats!), and in 1947, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in level flight. Let’s stop and think about that: we went from the first powered flight to the speed of sound in less than fifty years. Orville Wright was alive, aged 77, when Captain Yeager flew the X-1.

The speed of this progress suggests that aviation was waiting to happen, like a dam about to burst. The Wright brothers made not the first crack, but the critical, fateful one.

I omitted the role of war in my summary, but it is inescapable. The Vickers Vimy flown by Alcock and Brown was a modified WWI bomber. The S.6B was a forerunner of the Supermarine Spitfire. And Chuck Yeager’s flight was at least partly a military project.

Aviation is good for warfare, and vice versa.

But what if the dam had not burst in the twentieth century? What if the river had flowed much earlier?

China had silk and bamboo a long time ago, and they experimented with manned kites and developed a good understanding of some aspects of flight. To say that this was before the Wright brothers would be an understatement; it was around the time of Jesus Christ.

By a thousand years ago, the Chinese had gunpowder, and were close to developing rockets. I think they could have devised a form of powered flight, and could have used it to defend the Great Wall on their northern border.

The technology I imagine is plausible, but risky. You wouldn’t volunteer to pilot such a contraption.

You’d have to be conscripted.

“The Emperor’s Dragon” will appear in issue #39 of NewMyths.com on June 15th.

Keycon 34: Sunday

I agreed to three hours of programming on Sunday, and I ended up doing four. That’s kind of nuts, but it was actually okay. All of the rooms were within one floor of each other, so walking time was minimal. I had two back-to-back sessions, then a one-hour lunch break, then two more back-to-back sessions, and that took us to the closing ceremonies.

First up was an hour of readings. I joined Sherry Peters and Melinda Friesen for this, to try and improve the audience numbers. To be honest, it didn’t really work. Still, our tiny audience was nice, and there were questions. I read the first scene from Avians, Sherry read from Mabel the Lovelorn Dwarf, (the first of her series) and Melinda read a suspenseful scene from Subversion, the sequel to Enslavement. We kept our readings short, in the five to seven minute range.

Right after that was a panel on Critique Group Survival with Lindsay and Daria. I was grafted onto this panel late in the game because the convention planners didn’t want to make my Sunday so hectic. But when Lindsay asked me, I jumped at the chance. Their critique group made a huge difference to my novel opening, and quite likely helped make it good enough to get a publishing contract. See this older post for more. So I talked about that, and we urged the writers present to seek out critique groups. Take your pages. Leave your ego at home. The harshest criticism will do the most good.  Try to find a group with at least some members in the same genre.

Lunch, and the three of us joined a group of other writers in the hotel’s restaurant: Gerald Brandt, Craig Russell, Sherry Peters, Melinda Friesen. Craig entertained us all with a devious thought experiment about the desirability of intelligence and honesty, and it gave me a chance to unwind for a bit.

Next up was Lindsay’s panel on Aviation & Airships. She had everyone fill out a five-question quiz. Not exactly True or False, the choices were more like Plausible and Improbable, or something similar. The idea was to look at some tropes and misconceptions, like, “If a pistol bullet is fired through the skin of an airliner at altitude, there will be an explosive decompression.” While the audience was scribbling, we talked about some aviation fiction scenes that missed the mark. Lindsay’s questions were devious enough that no-one got all five right, at least not by our definition. Two guys tied with four out of five, and we settled it with a run-off question. In the end, I gave both of them signed copies of Avians. I don’t think my book was the draw here. I think it was the chance to participate and compete that drew people to this panel. Lindsay gets all the credit on this one – I was dubious, but I now count this a lesson learned. I’m already scheming to do something a bit similar at my next convention.

Last was How Do Writers Read? This panel featured Author Guest of Honour Kelley Armstrong, DAW author Gerald Brandt, and Den Valdron, who is with Five Rivers, same as me. I originally planned to nod politely while the better-known authors did most of the talking. However, for personal reasons, Gerald asked to step out of the moderator role, and I was asked to fill in. Not quite at the last minute; I had four hours to prepare. But during those four hours, I had three hours of panels. The show must go on. I basically winged it from the program description. Luckily, all the panelists were in fine form, and it was a fun panel.

As you can see, I had no time on Sunday to attend anyone else’s stuff. Said some quick goodbyes in the Dealer Room, and then I had to run, because we had a drive home ahead of us, and a deadline to retrieve our dog from the kennel.

This was the most involvement I’ve had in any con, and it could have been grueling, especially with a schedule that put so much on one day. It could have been, but it wasn’t: I had a really good time at Keycon this year.

 

Prose & Cons: Can*Con 2016, Saturday

Saturday I had no scheduled commitments, so I was free to hit the dealer room, attend panels and chat in hallways. I started with Weird and Different Sensory Perceptions in Animals, moderated by Julie Czerneda. There were other panels I liked at the same time, but I chose the animal science one for the implications about aliens and their possible senses. Scientist/authors Agnes Cadieux, Madona Skaff, Max Turner and Nina Munteanu were all entertaining.

After that, I went to two fantasy reading sessions. Leah Bobet was paired up with K.V. Johansen. I wanted to meet Leah, because she was on the panel I was going to moderate on Sunday. Besides, her Inheritance of Ashes just won the YA Aurora, and I wanted to hear a little of it in the author’s voice. I found it very moving. After that, I stayed put for readings by Gabrielle Harbowy and Fanny Darling because I like them, and Lesley Donaldson, who I was curious about. Fun all around.

Then science again, a panel called The First Great Terraforming Project: Earth, moderated by Ed Willett, with panellists Alyx Dellamonica, Katrina Guy, Nina Munteanu and Alison Sinclair. I took a fine workshop with Nina last year, and I wanted to see Alyx because she won the English Novel Aurora for Daughter of No Nation, a book I very much enjoyed. The panel looked at how the Dust Bowl was a man-made disaster, and what we can learn about undoing that kind of damage. We can change things if we try.

Next up was the Daw author reading, the one with the raffle. Tanya Huff, Violette Malan, Julie Czernada and Ed Willett all share not only a publisher, but also an agent. Laugh-out-loud stories about their interactions with her. Also, swag! I won the last book package, a set of books in the Confederation Series by Tanya Huff, the Author Guest of Honour. It was a generous set: three hardcovers and a trade paperback. Good thing I brought a big half-empty suitcase.

Took a lunch break even though I had highlighted three panels in the next time slot. Sacrifices must be made. Also, I needed to take that heavy stack of books back to my room.

After lunch, back for some more readings. The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide 2017 is the third in a series from Dreaming Robot, a press I approve of because a) they have good science fiction for young readers and b) they publish some of my friends. They were next on my list of places to query when I was offered a contract by Five Rivers. Angeline Woon went first, with a story from the 2016 book. I was fascinated, and thrilled to discover when I got home that my Kickstarter contribution gets me all three books in the series. Brandon Crilly is a long-time friend from Can*Con. We’ve shared anxious minutes as we waited to pitch the same publishers, and wished each other luck. He has a story coming in the 2017 Adventure Guide. Eric Choi, the convention’s Science Guest of Honour is in it too. He’s an aerospace engineer, and his story is about helicopter medevacs on Mars. I am eager to read the entire story because of my love of Alternative Aviation generally, and Sky-Fi in particular.

Squeezed in a quick RPG battle with Brandon, which I won by the skin of my teeth, then I stayed in the room as it turned over for Eric’s kaffeeklatsch. Science! We heard about his day job working with satellites, and I got to ask a question or two about Martian helicopter design, and we exchanged business cards because of our shared love of strange flying machines.

I started the evening with another Coffee Chat: How to Make an Anthology. Unfortunately, Gabrielle Harbowy wasn’t feeling well, and had to skip the session. Lucas Law filled in, joining Julie Czernada and Eric Choi. Lucas was a co-editor, with Susan Forest, of Strangers Among Us, which is generating very positive talk. Disclosure: I know several of the authors. I had no idea how anthologies were designed, so this session was pretty cool. The editors have a plan, and you should read an anthology from start to finish, in order.

Next I went to a panel on Authors Selling Books at Conventions moderated by Robin Riopelle. Jay Odjick colourfully illustrated the concept that the author is the brand, while the books are just the merchandise. Benoit Chartier had tips on how to evaluate different cons, and Pat Flewwelling talked about how the Myth Hawkers travelling bookstore offers a solution for indie authors and small presses that cannot miss everything else to staff a book table for three days.

Ended the day at the Can*Con party and talked about flying with fellow pilot Roger Czerneda. His father set the record for the longest non-stop flight in a plane with four piston engines: Hawaii to North Bay in an Argosy. The record will likely stand, because they don’t make planes like that any more. My uncle Leonard flew a Supermarine Walrus in the years leading up to World War Two. They don’t make planes like that any more, either.

 

Kenora to Calgary

Our trip is off to a fairly good start. I’m writing this from our Calgary hotel room, and my brother is safely in Kenora, cat-sitting with all his might.

The flight was uneventful, and the threat of rain in Calgary abated for our arrival. Once again, I did not recognize either pilot. I figure nearly five percent of WestJet pilots are personal friends/former co-workers, but they must all conspire to avoid flying the trips I have tickets on.

Cab-fare from airport to hotel was steep, (>$50) and the cabbie dropped us at the wrong entrance.

We had identified some nice restaurants downtown, but transportation looks to be a challenge.That means we’ll be looking for something within walking distance. Hats off to When Words Collide for providing a map of restaurants and stores close to the Delta South. I plan to post a Dinner Debriefing, but first we have to figure out where we’ll go.

 

When Words Collide

When Words Collide is Calgary’s big writer’s convention in August and it’s strong on Speculative Fiction. I wanted to go last year, but it sold out while I was waiting to see if a health issue was going to be a problem. This year, I not only get to go, I get to be a presenter!

I’m taking An SF Writer’s Glossary of Alternative Aviation on the road. Before I heard of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, I had the Glossary in mind as a talk/slide show to introduce other authors to some of aviation’s ugly ducklings. I wasn’t sure Calgary would take me on, as I have never attended before and don’t know any of the organizers. It seems the concept strikes them as original, so I’m in.

I have about thirty types of aircraft to talk about, and a one-hour time-slot to do it in. Subtract set-up time and a few minutes to get everyone seated and introduce myself, and allow ten minutes for questions, and I’ll have less than ninety seconds to talk about each type of flying machine, what it does best and badly, what kind of technology and infrastructure are needed to build and fly it, how it has been used in Spec Fic before, and what it can bring to a new story in terms of plot or worldbuilding.

I’d better start rehearsing to see how much I’ll be able to fit in. I don’t want to gallop through it- I’d like time for a weak joke or two. One thing I learned from the A to Z Challenge was that doing it in alphabetical order is not only practical, it actually lends itself to working from the simple to the complex. Many of the mash-up combination aircraft fall neatly into place after the simpler base concepts are introduced.

It’ll be a great way to meet people, and judging from the roster, quite a lot of friends and acquaintances are going to be there too. My own editor, Dr. Robert Runté, is a Guest of Honour, for instance. I’m stoked.

Zeppelin

ZZeppelin: Properly, Zeppelin is a trade name of the company of the same name. However, their brand has become somewhat genericized, and is often used to refer to rigid airships of the kind they pioneered, even if built by someone else. Historically, Zeppelin not only built the two largest airships ever, the hydrogen-filled Hindenberg and Graf Zeppelin II, they also partnered with Goodyear to build the two largest helium-filled airships in history, the USS Macon and USS Akron. All in all, Zeppelin constructed 130 airships, and a successor company, Zeppelin NT is still building airships in the twenty-first century. Fun footnote: the first airline (yes, the first airline ever) was DELAG, and they began passenger service with Zeppelin airships in 1910.

Tech Level: The first powered flight was made in a steam-powered dirigible in 1852, although the vessel could barely cope with a light breeze. Big rigid airships are a staple of Steampunk, although actual Zeppelins, at least the later ones, had diesel engines, so on technical grounds would more accurately fall into Dieselpunk. However, one reason airships are often featured in Steampunk has to do with their individuality. Like ocean liners, airships were one-offs, rather than mass-produced like, say, Boeing airliners. For more on the difference between Steampunk and Dieselpunk, see this blog post by my dieselpunk writing friend, Lindsay Kitson, or this one by Jason Sheehan. With airships, bigger is better: as they grow, their volume (and therefore lifting ability) rises sharply. A very large airship could carry such massive items as steam engines and coal for a long journey, or solar cells and huge batteries to fly at night, so both steampunk and solarpunk are possible.

Appeared In: Brand-name Zeppelins made multiple appearances in Indiana Jones movies. The Golden Compass, and many other Steampunk works, featured rigid airships of similar design.

For Your Plot: Rigid airships have bad history with thunderstorms, and early airships had unheated passenger cabins that were freezing cold due to the altitude. There must be a plot development or two there. Otherwise, airships are a grand way to factor aviation into alternative world-building, and you don’t have to stick with neo-Victorian.