Thursday, 29 September 2016

Shout-Out: Murder in the Generative Kitchen by Meg Pontecorvo

With the Vacation Jury Duty system, jurors can lounge on a comfortable beach while watching the trial via virtual reality. Julio is loving the beach, as well as the views of a curvy fellow juror with a rainbow-lacquered skin modification who seems to be the exact opposite of his recent ex-girlfriend back in Chicago. Because of jury sequestration rules, they can’t talk to each other at all, or else they’ll have to pay full price for this Acapulco vacation. Still, Julio is desperate to catch her attention. But while he struts and tries to catch her eye, he also becomes fascinated by the trial at hand.

At first it seemed a foregone conclusion that the woman on trial used a high-tech generative kitchen to feed her husband a poisonous meal, but the more evidence mounts, the more Julio starts to suspect the kitchen may have made the decision on its own.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Video: Dust

I saw this on io9 and it's definitely worth sharing. It's a beautiful and haunting story and the special effects on the creatures is incredible.

The description from their site:

A Sci-Fi, fantasy inspired by anime and classic horror, Dust is set in a harsh and unpredictable natural environment where people have isolated themselves in an ancient city behind a massive wall. A socially marginalized tracker teams up with a black-market merchant to save the society that has rejected his way of life.

Dust from Ember Lab on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Book Review: Steeplejack by A. J. Hartley

Pros: brilliant world-building, fascinating protagonist, complex mystery


Anglet Sutonga is a steeplejack. When she was younger she cleaned chimneys. At 17 she’s too big for that, so now she works the factory stacks. After a series of events, including the theft of a city landmark, she’s hired to investigate a series of crimes that the police are ignoring. Meanwhile race relations in the city of Bar-Selehm are breaking down between the white upper class, the black Mahweni (those assimilated to city life as well as the tribesmen living traditional lifestyles outside of it) and the brown Lani, brought to the city by the whites as indentured servants and still not much better off, making her job urgent. And as tensions rise in the city, war between their northwest neighbours, the Grappoli, seems increasingly likely.

Bar-Selehm is a unique setting based on 19th Century South Africa but with fantasy overtones. The book is very contained to the city and its immediate surroundings, only mentioning Grappoli but not the wider politics of the outside world. Which keeps the book focused on the city and its problems. I loved that Anglet was able to mix with people of different races in different ways - depending on their social status, and how status and race were shown to be holdovers from the past, despite the current ideology that everyone is equal. There’s a great quote later in the book which sums up a lot of modern racism - and blindness towards it:

“We say we are all equal in Bar-Selehm, but you know as well as I do that that is not even close to being true. You cannot simply take people’s land, property, freedom from them and then, a couple of hundred years later, when you have built up your industries and your schools and your armies, pronounce them equals. And even when you pretend it is true, you do not change the hearts of men, and a great deal of small horrors have to be ignored, hidden, if the myth of equality is to be sustained.”

When going to the Drowning, where most of the Lani live, Anglet encounters hippos, monkeys, an ibex, and other creatures. She also mentions a few things that are made up, like weancats, which make the world feel both real and other at the same time. Similarly, the mineral that Bar-Selehm was built up on, luxorite, is made up, but the trade concerns, her brother-in-law’s stubborn effort to pan more, and how society interacts with the mineral is explored in some depth.

The author brings in just enough minor details of taste, smell, sight, and touch to make the world feel 100% genuine without bogging down the narrative at all.

I loved Anglet as a character. She’s necessarily tough and has to make a series of difficult decisions that change her life. I loved that her choices had consequences, and that as the book went on she often questioned the decisions she’d made. In several situations there was no good outcome, just the best she could do for now.

I liked that she encountered a wide variety of people during her investigation. The paper girl was probably my favourite, but Anglet meets people from several levels of society and cleverly finds ways to interact with them.

The murder mystery was tightly twisted so that while I figured out two of the twists at the end, several others were complete revelations. Looking back on the book as a whole the clues were there, but you take such a roundabout way to the end that it’s hard figuring out everything that’s going on. I found the ending quite a shock and really felt for Anglet.

It’s the first in a trilogy, but can easily be read as a standalone as the mystery is entirely wrapped up at the end. This a great novel with all the things people in SFF circles have been asking for. I can’t believe it’s not being more widely read and talked about. 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Getting Writing Ideas From Travelling

Note: I'm saying fantasy novel as that's my main focus for reading and writing, but these could easily apply to any genre.

Peru was a magnificent country to visit, with such a huge variety of cultures, climates, landscapes, foods, etc. And it got me thinking. While I'd love to see an Incan fantasy series (like what Aliette de Bodard did with the Aztecs), there are so many aspects of travel that can be used to inspire writing that don't require tons of research or transporting a particular culture wholesale into a book.

Food. So often in fantasy books people will travel across countries and continents and yet never comment on the food they're eating. And yet, food differences can be huge. Consider what your character ate at home and then question whether they foods they encounter on their travels will be spicier or blander, use ingredients unavailable at home, look strange even though it's a familiar dish (for example I had stew in France that used only medieval ingredients, so the carrots were white instead of today's common orange and tasted different as a result). Different countries tend to focus on different grains - depending on growing conditions. The rice in Peru, for example, tasted to me like a cross between white rice and Japanese sticky rice (so, a little sticky but without a distinct flavour of its own, as with bismati and jasmine).

Language. I know 'common' has become short hand in fantasy novels for having peoples of different backgrounds talk, and when there is no common tongue somehow the protagonist understands 7+ languages. But wouldn't it be fun to watch a protagonist enter a city and try to bargain for something only to realize they can't understand what's being said? You can get a lot of information across using gestures or by drawing pictures and it might be fun reading about the difficulties of communication in a fantasy novel.

Transportation. I come from a country where most people have cars. Unless your city has good public transportation or you live downtown in a major city, it can be difficult getting around without one. But other countries have numerous forms of transport. Peru had buses, combini (like buses only privately run and departing only when full or nearly full), taxis, motortaxis, etc. And traffic was insane. There were stop signs that I'm sure only 1 in 20 cars paid attention to. Traffic police were constantly blowing their whistles to keep people moving...

Noise. This is something one of my professors in University pointed out, that the noises were hear every day - and learn to tune out - would have been completely different in the past. And travelling somewhere with different noises can remind you of that. I stayed one night on an island where a donkey braying woke me up, and in the jungle howler monkeys were my alarm clock. But even the lack of traffic can bring forward other noises you forget about. Insects are LOUD. And pervasive. Bird song. Running water from a stream. Frogs around ponds and lakes. Medieval societies would have had mills grinding grain and creating a racket that likely went on day and night. Think of what's in a town/city and what sounds those things make. Does your city have room for wagons to go down cobbled streets? That's a racket, not including whatever animal is pulling it.

Then there are things you might not think about that people in the past did that you only learn because you researched or travelled to a place. The city of Cusco was built in the shape of a Puma. The head was a hilltop defensive bastion, the heart was the location of the temples and worship. Other Incan cities were also based on animals, which is a pretty interesting method of city planning that I'd never heard of before.

Sometimes it's good to get out of your comfort zone and go to a place that's very different from what you know. You'll discover you have some habits that are hard to kick, and notice things you've never considered before. And if you can't afford to travel, libraries have books and videos on different places. I learned a lot about Peru before I went there. And that learning made my experience - and my ability to notice little things - greater.

Now, you don't want to bog down your narrative with thousands of little details about food and travelling and language and culture, but the occasional aside about how something is different from home gives a touch of verisimilitude that can elevate your novel from good to great.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 4: Puno to Lima

We got back to Cusco and checked-in to our hostel. An hour later we got the news that our tour bus to Puno the next day was cancelled due to an impending two day strike in the area. The next day we frantically tried to find a way to get to Puno so we could continue our trip and eventually got tickets on a night bus.

We arrived in Puno in time to see sunrise, but were quite tired for our tour of Lake Titicaca and its islands. The first stop was the Uros floating islands. The islands are made of layered reeds that have to be constantly renewed. The platforms are quite squishy, your feet sink into the reeds an inch or so when you walk around. Houses are built up on extra platforms of reeds, and must be raised for new reeds to be laid down underneath. For electricity the people now have solar panels.

It took about three hours to get to Amantani island, and most of us napped on the boat. Our group was split up for the homestay and sent off with their ‘mama’. Our host had a little garden out back, and a courtyard with rickety stairs we had to climb to get to our room. Lunch was delicious: quinoa soup, slices of tomatoes and cucumbers, two types of boiled potatoes, and a slab of fried cheese.

After lunch we hiked to the top of the island for sunset. The altitude was still pretty high, so it was slow going. Again, the views were worth the effort. In the evening we were dressed in local costume and brought to the community centre where a dance was underway. Many of us were too tired to dance, but I enjoyed watching others. We retired early.

The next day we had rolled quinoa pancakes with jam for breakfast and were on our way to the final island of the tour, Taquile. More climbing got us to their plaza de armas, and a pleasant walk around the island gave us more beautiful views.

Another day, another bus, this time to Arequipa. We passed some small lakes, got to see alpacas and vicunas, and saw a few mountains and volcanos. 

Our hotel was a converted colonial building, and had some great decor. The city’s plaza de armas was gorgeous - my favourite of the trip. The white marble looked so beautiful. From the correct angle you could even see the mountains in the distance. We visited the Jesuit church and its painted St Ignatius chapel (no photography allowed), and the the Santa Catalina monastery, which was huge. In many cases the nuns had a series of rooms to themselves, including their own kitchen (or maybe heater?). I got some nice night photos in the plaza before heading off to bed.

We flew to Lima and spent the first day exploring the Miraflores neighbourhood - including its stray cat filled Parque Kennedy and Mercado #1 de Surquillo, where we got lunch at one of the food stalls.

After lunch we did some shopping and then walked along the coast to the Barranco neighbourhood and the Bridge of Sighs. We had dinner at a restaurant that included a dance show. 

Our last day in Peru was spent in the centre of town, at the plaza de armas. We saw the changing of the guard, toured the San Francisco monastery and catacombs, and then walked to the park with the Magic Water Circuit - a series of lit fountains including a light show.

That night we picked up our luggage and headed to the airport for a 3:40 am flight home.

Puno to Lima from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 3: Inca Trail + Machu Picchu

This was both the highlight and hardest part of the trip. Highlight because Machu Picchu is amazing and the views on the trail were incredible. Hardest, because the trek is not easy. It's full of steep, uneven stairs (both up and down) and punishing heights (Dead Woman's Pass, the first of two high passes, is 4200 meters).

We started at Kilometre 82, where breakfast was prepared for us. The walk starts with 'Andean flats', meaning there's a lot of gentle and not so gentle slopes. There were a few high stretches that first day, but nothing compared to what we faced on the second. It's a good preparation day, and our company (Alpaca Expeditions) had us walk further than most companies, so we'd have a bit less of a hike on day two.

Day two started early and we walked a gruelling 16 km. Yes, I know 16 km doesn't sound so bad. But we started at 3300 m, went up to Dead Woman's Pass at 4200 m, down to Pacaymayu at 3580 m, where we had lunch, back up to 4000 m for the second pass, and then camped at 3600 m. And trust me, you can't adequately prepare for altitude hiking when you live close to sea level. There was another Canadian couple that was huffing and puffing the last 100 m of the first pass, leap frogging me, counting off 20 steps before having a rest break. And all those fantasy novels of people running up mountains and/or having no problem with them are wrong. Our porters - who were from mountain regions and properly acclimatized, were also taking rest breaks and huffing and puffing along (and not just because they were carrying gigantic packs).

One of the photos shows our last public washrooms before our lunch location, a llama picture, and then there's a photo of the mountain we're about to climb, followed by a close-up showing that the minuscule coloured dots on the distance picture are actually people near the peak. Getting to the top of that mountain felt incredible. Though, around that last 100 m mark, someone else's guide came down and told some people ahead of me that the path down was worse, which wasn't what I wanted to hear when I wasn't even done this first difficult part.

He was right though, the path down was very steep, very uneven steps, and you had to walk with extreme care in order to not trip and break something. At lunch time our chef gave a demonstration of how to make lomo saltado (basically beef stir fry), which was pretty cool. The meals on the trail were a real highlight, though altitude made it so I couldn't do the meals justice. I didn't get sick (thankfully), but my appetite was down, despite the huge amounts of exercise I was getting.

Day two also had us entering could forest, which meant misty cool weather and lots of mosquitos at night. The mist cleared enough that we were able to see an incredible sky full of stars. The moon was half full, so it wasn't as starry as our guide wished, but there were a lot more stars than I can see from Toronto. We were all exhausted, so we didn't get to admire them for long.

Day three was the best. I was getting quicker on the downhill stairs - and it was mostly downhill stairs that day. It meant I was at the front of the group, instead of the back, and had stretches of time on the misty path where I couldn't hear or see any other humans. Bliss. Luckily the mist broke as we got to the first of the day's two gorgeous ruins, allowing us some lovely valley views. There were llama droppings on the ground and our guide quipped that they were 'llama beans'. The second ruins that day, Winay Wayna, were my favourite on the trek. They're quite large, and we almost had them to ourselves, which made photography a lot of fun.

We woke up early on the final day. It's only an hour walk to the sun gate, then another hour down to the site, but they don't let you start walking until 5:30, so by the time we made Machu Picchu it was full of day trippers.

The site itself is magnificent. Lots of interesting temples (the circular one is the Temple of the Sun, while the one that looks like a rock slide is the Temple of the Condor - the two big side rocks = its wings), sacred rocks, and architectural features. And again, that view! Absolutely stunning. We had a tour and then got to enjoy the site for a while.

Finally, we took a bus down to Agua Caliente, where we caught the train and then a bus back to Cusco.

Inca Trail + Machu Picchu from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Peru Trip Part 2: Cusco and the Sacred Valley

We flew from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco and got checked-in to our hostel before going out to explore the city. We started at the San Pedro food market, where I had a lucuma con leche drink (lucuma is a fruit that has a caramel style flavour + condensed milk). There were a lot of different booths - some with food items (prepared and ingredients), some with flowers, some with tourist goods for sale. I also tried choclo, the giant corn on the cob. I was expecting sweet corn as that’s what we have in Canada, but the kernels were hard and dense and I couldn’t finish it.

We made it to the Plaza de Armas (central square) around dusk, and so got some nice pictures of the Cathedral and Jesuit church (La Compania de Jesus) as the sun set. On the mountains in the distance, we could see the white Christ statue and three crosses. For dinner we went to Limo, which had great food presentation (tasted great too). The crescent moon looked really cool, lit from the bottom instead of the side like at home.

The next day we had breakfast at our hostel and then waited in the front lobby for our 8:30-9am pick-up for our day trip. At 9:20 we were still waiting, so we called the booking office. Six minutes later a frazzled looking woman came in, and hustled us out to the nearby square. There she hailed a taxi and got in with us. She didn’t speak much English and didn’t tell us what was going on, just talked to the taxi driver for a minute. Then she got out and the taxi drove away with us inside.

The taxi driver didn’t speak much English either, so we weren’t sure what was going on. Was he our guide for the excursion? Was he driving us to meet the bus? Was he driving us to one of the sites? We eventually communicated enough to know we were going to Chinchero, the first stop on the tour. It was a wild ride - traffic’s pretty crazy in Peru at the best of times, and our driver wanted to pass a lot of cars and drove quite fast down windy roads.

We made it to Chinchero where our tour group was just starting to hear a presentation on textiles - how the wool is prepared, local natural dyes, and what some of the patterns mean. It was quite interesting and I’m glad we caught it. We then had time to shop.

The next stop was the ancient agricultural site of Moray. The belief is that these giant circular terraces (one’s been restored but there are 2 others that are unrestored at the same site) were used to create seeds for corn and potatoes that were acclimatized to the conditions at different altitudes. The first crop of potatoes would be grown in the bottom ring, and then would spread up and up and up, eventually covering all of the circular rings. The corn worked the same way, but was planted at the top of the straight area and worked its way down. The seeds would then be sent to people living at those altitudes, giving them hardy crops. Our guide on the Incan Trail believes the site was for growing medicinal plants, so not everyone agrees on its purpose.

Our last stop was the one I most wanted to see, the Maras salt flats. Water with 70% salt content pours out of the mountain and the local people channel it off during the rainy season. During the dry season (when we were there) the water evaporates and they can harvest the salt. The flats were down a steep cliff that provided some amazing views. The flats themselves looked amazing. There were a lot of shops where you could buy the salt (white and pink for eating, and black for bathing), salted chocolate, seasoned salt, and the regular souvenirs.

After the tour we had some free time in the city and so went to the Q’oricancha (Incan Temple of the Sun), now the monastery church of Santo Domingo. It was once covered in gold, with life-sized gold statues of people and animals in the courtyard. The Spanish pillaged the temple, tore down as much of it as they could, and built their church on top of the remains.

A festival was going on in the grounds, so we got to see some folk dancing.

We walked down some side streets and found the famous 12 sided stone, monument to the precision with which the Incans built their edifices.

The following day we had our Sacred Valley tour. We got picked up as scheduled and were on our way. We had a few short stops for shopping and admiring the view, with the first main stop at the archaeological site of Pisac. The Incans liked building close to their gods, so many of their cities were high up with incredible views. The walls of their cities were built with a slight incline, to help them weather earthquakes. Their doorways were also slanted towards the top, to help prevent damage.

We had a bit of time to shop in the market of the colonial city below the Pisac ruins before heading to our lunch buffet in Urubamba. We passed a street stall/restaurant cooking the local delicacy: cuy (guinea pig).

Then it was off to Ollantaytambo, the only remaining fully Incan planned city and its ruins. Due to the sun’s position, I didn’t get a good shot of the ruins from below, but I got some nice shots from above, and some of the other side of the city - with the ancient granaries and the face carved in the mountainside. There were some gigantic stones used at the top of these ruins for the Temple of the Sun. Our guide explained that the richest people were at the top, with the best architectural buildings, while poorer people were lower down, with their stone work not being quite as precise. It’s amazing how many of the old Incan aqueducts and fountains are still in use today.

The city of Ollantaytambo is quite small, just a plaza, the train station for Machu Picchu, the ruins, and a small series of narrow cobbled roads dating from Inca times (when room for cars wasn’t necessary, so they’re all pedestrian lanes). Doorways on either side of the narrow paths led to large open courtyards of houses that were quite beautiful (when you could look in). Our hotel had a beautiful garden outside the building.

There was an abundance of motor taxi’s, motorcycles with coverings and seating for 2 people inside, in the main square. Some had fanciful designs, like the Batman logo. At night there were so many stars in the sky. But I didn’t have a tripod and the confluence of valleys in the town meant the wind was so strong I couldn’t get my camera to stay still enough for a decent photo.

Cusco + Sacred Valley from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

Tomorrow it's on to the Inca Trail.