Mark Niemann-Ross's Blog: mnr2U

January 23, 2015

Plastic Thingy was selected by Tangent Online for inclusion in the 2014 recommended reading list.

It's a long list - but I'm honored to be included.
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on January 23, 2015 16:09 • 24 views • Tags: science-fiction, tangent

September 1, 2014

Plastic Thingy, a story I wrote and that appeared in analog magazine, might seem frivolous, but it's a surprisingly personal look at my family and friends.

I consciously pulled in my son.

I apparently pulled in my sister.

I pushed across a self-imposed literary boundary.

Apparently there was a more to the story than I realized.


Let's start with Roger. He's just a guy in a hardware store. Roger isn't a hero. He's plays video games and doesn't aspire to greatness.

I've come to accept Roger for who he is. Some of us need to wash dishes and make beds. There's no shame in that, although I used to point out to my kids that menial tasks were the result of no education. That might be true - but I should have also pointed out that everyone deserves respect.

I majored in Industrial Education, and one of my instructors gave a lecture on the practical side of teaching. His best advice was regarding Job One on Day One - introduce yourself to the janitors. They know everything about the building and the people in it - and they have ALL THE KEYS - literally and figuratively. Need to get into a storage room? Find the Janitor. Need to get into the politics of budget planning? Find the Janitor. Janitors are the honorable part of society.

Roger is one of these honorables, aspiring to finish the day. It's unlikely they will appear in a history of the world - but they don't care. Maybe historic immortality isn't the end game.

Roger is introduced to an opportunity. To his surprise, he seizes part of it; possibly the best part. Roger could have followed the flow of events and wandered into space - instead, he actively chose a path. And that's the message I want to share; be active with your choices.

Even though my youngest son, Aaron, worked at Hankins Hardware, Roger isn't his doppelganger. Roger is a conglomeration of the stories I heard after Aaron returned from work - and the stories from his co-workers. I want them to know their lives are honorable.


My sister, Christine, is a dancer. When I was ten, I went with my Dad to retrieve her from Saturday morning ballet practice. We would arrive before the end of the session and wait in the balcony of the converted church. From the balcony, I watched dancers stream across the floor. At the time, I didn't internalize the grace and athleticism displayed below me. Grace isn't something a ten-year-old understands until forty-five years later.

Three of the dancers would surge across the floor, north-east to south-west. Three steps, leap, recover, two steps, then turn to wait. Immediately, three new dancers would move northwest to southeast, repeating the same flow.

I'm unable to describe that experience without falling back on cliches. But power and grace are the best words. Power, as in physical strength. Grace, as in physical beauty, smoothness of lines, the completion of an idea you are just beginning to grasp. I watched dance make music physical. I watched music resolve to a pleasing chord, expressed as movement through space. I wasn't writing about my sister in this story - but she is clearly part of the backstory of Sara Ferrous.

As a writer of science fiction, I'm allowed to jump outside boundaries, so why not declare an alien's primary mode of communication to be physical, instead of verbal? Why not use dance as primary communication?

I've always been opinionated about how aliens might communicate. The Hollywood notion of English as the lingua franca is just too convenient. We barely understand the communication of animals we live with on a daily basis, so why would we assume a "superior" race would have the interest - or vocal cords - to reproduce human language?

How would a culture communicate if the atmosphere was too thin to effectively carry sound waves? Why is it odd to think of sign language as a primary vocabulary? Why would sign language be restricted to hand motions? This is the world Sara Ferrous occupies - movement is communication. Nothing odd about that.


Science fiction has a bad reputation about aliens. Green, bug-eyed monsters stealing bikini-clad women.

How preposterous.

The physics, and costs, of interstellar travel quickly eat into the ROI of enslaving humans, or stealing water, or invading the earth. There's plenty of ice floating around the universe. Efficiency experts tell us humans make crappy slaves, and the earth is too far from anywhere to make it worth invading. If aliens are visiting earth, it's to gather something completely unique.

We're unique because we dance, we sing, and we tell stories. Hopefully we do it well. Wouldn't it be ironic if the arts are the gateway to the heavens? Wouldn't it be a surprise if the green-skinned aliens laugh at our feeble attempts at math, but are wowed by our artwork? What if our best artists don't measure up to the intergalactic virtuosos? We'll be trying to trade our Picassos for warp drives, only to be told our palettes are "limited and immature"!

Historically, earthly invasions are done for land or resources, rationalized by politics. Unexpectedly, cultures intermingle. Songs are exchanged, religions cross-pollinate, genes are swapped. Ireland, for example, has been repeatedly invaded, yet still exists and continues to give us a stream of song and dance. They aren't remembered for their land - they're remembered for their culture.


The alien trappings I create in Plastic Thingy try to obey the laws of physics and chemistry. Sociology, unlike physics and chemistry, is far more fuzzy, so I'm allowed to stretch the edges. That said, there are limits. It's not reasonable to assume aliens speak English. It's not reasonable to assume they are bipeds with sensory organs clustered at the top of their torsos. It's not reasonable to assume they experience the same emotions. Or, perhaps they do. Like Roger implies, we don't know what we don't know, so it's reasonable to assume we are exhibiting our ignorance. Plastic Thingy follows these assumptions, presenting my idea of aliens and their behavior.


By the way - Hankins Hardware is a real place. It's at 1720 SE Hawthorne in Portland, right across the street from McMenamins Barley Mill Pub. If you visit the Barley Mill Pub, you'll understand why I refer to it as Jerry's Bar. But be sure to walk into Hankins and proudly exclaim "I need a red plastic thingy". The friendly folks working behind the counter will smile and welcome you into the club.
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on September 01, 2014 13:59 • 29 views • Tags: backstory, science-fiction

March 31, 2014

Pavlov is enjoying a pint in the pub.

The phone rings.

He jumps up and shouts: “Hell, I forgot to feed the dog!”
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on March 31, 2014 17:44 • 65 views • Tags: pavlov, science-joke

March 27, 2014

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis CarrollI recently read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" as part of Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World offered through Coursera. I'd like to say I re-read it, but I feel like this is the first time I really sat down and focused on the story.

You might think of Alice as the central character. However, I came away thinking Charles Dodgson placed his love of math central to both stories and only included Alice as a convenient plot device.

For example, two-thirds into the first chapter Alice begins discussing folding herself up like a telescope. It would be forty years until T. Sundara Rao would publish "Geometric Exercises in Paper Folding" - a series of geometric proofs based on paper folding - but it is clear math professors such as Dodgson would have experimented with this concept long before Rao codified the practice.

Only one short chapter later, Alice makes a curious statement; "Let me see: four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate!"

At first glance, this is gibberish. In fact, Alice provides an advanced demonstration of non-base-ten math. Four times five is indeed twelve - when calculated in base twelve, rather than base ten. Four times six is thirteen in base twenty-one and four times seven is fourteen in base twenty-four. This pattern of multiplier, multiplicand, result, and base continue until four times nineteen, after which the result can no longer be expressed without resorting to the use of letters in place of numbers. Alice, in fact, cannot reach twenty.

Dodgson does this repeatedly throughout the book - weaving a sub-story under the story. In my writing, I sometimes bring in subtle quotes. For example, in "Cup of Dirt", Captain Jerwin asks a question of Enzo:
“Is that correct? There are no tomatoes?”

Enzo admitted that yes, there were no tomatoes.

My feeble attempt at subtly, Enzo is mangling the chorus from "Yes, we have no bananas". Dodgson does this type of thing repeatedly and with much greater skill - look for this to appear in my future stories.
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on March 27, 2014 16:46 • 36 views • Tags: alice-in-wonderland, alice-through-the-looking-glass, fantasy

March 17, 2014

A TCP packet walks into a bar, and says to the barman: “Hello, I’d like a beer.”

The barman replies: “Hello, you’d like a beer?”

“Yes,” replies the TCP packet, “I’d like a beer.”
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on March 17, 2014 16:24 • 46 views • Tags: science-joke

March 10, 2014

The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) by Jacob GrimmThe first book read in "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World." is Grimm's Fairy Tales. If you haven't read the original - you should. Grimm's fairy tales are not the children's stories of Disney films.

Studying Grimm's - which is different than simply reading Grimm's - points out the ticklish business of interpreting words without context. The culture of 2014 is quite a bit different than the culture the original fairy tales originated from.

The written word is a marvelous thing. Unfortunately, it doesn't carry cultural context, an omission we interpret as license to reinterpret the story using our personal beliefs. When a story uses medieval peasant life to illustrate a point, it is lost on those of us living in urban twentieth century. We jump to incorrect assumptions and often miss the original point.

Grimm's Fairy Tales is a excellent example of interpretation without context. Modern Americans think of Grimm's Tales as Disney movies - or the television show "Grimm." The original stories have been recast with happy endings, conflict resolution, and good versus evil. Modern Grimm heroes experience adversity, then success. Beautiful people win, ugly people lose.

In reality, Grimm's Fairy Tales is a collection of folklore, orally retold by bored women spinning flax. These stories were ribald, gruesome, gossipy, realistic, and occasionally moralistic. Similar to cat videos or soap operas, these stories weren't intended to teach - only to entertain.

The Grimm Brothers strove to capture the oral history of their country and share it in printed form. Their first publication of these oral traditions was true to the originals told by the flax-weaving women - but deemed inappropriate for children because of the adult themes. Many of these stories include torture, abuse, implied rape and murder.

Over time, the Grimm Brothers realized the commercial value of their work would increase if they re-wrote to a wider audience - parents of children. They tamed the ribald stories of the flax-weavers and recast them along the lines of their Calvinistic upbringing, inserting morals and clarifying the roles of good and evil. This recasting continued with re-tellings, resulting in the sanitized and harmless versions told by Disney and modern publishers.

This is one of the themes I play with in "The Music Teacher", appearing in "Stupefying Stories, July 2013" Stupefying Stories  July 2013 by Bruce Bethke. The story introduces a musical device. Several people encounter and believe they know what it does - but are actually hampered by their pre-conceptions. In the end, they don't have the cultural context necessary to understand what it is - much less make use of it.

Grimm's Fairy Tales is a journey. By itself, it is a collection of stories. But stories are never told without context; the storyteller always has internal motivations, and those motivations color and change the original story. As listeners, our task is to listen to the story, then seek to understand the context.

Brothers' Original Fairy Tales Offer Up A Grimm Menu , NPR. Alison Richards. November 09, 2012
1 like · Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on March 10, 2014 18:30 • 109 views • Tags: coursera, fantasy, science-fiction

February 23, 2014

A photon checks into a hotel and the porter asks him if he has any luggage.

The photon replies: “No, I’m traveling light.”
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on February 23, 2014 16:39 • 139 views • Tags: science-joke

February 20, 2014

I've enrolled in an online course titled "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World." I did this for several reasons, but mainly, I hope to improve my writing by studying the writings of other authors. I appreciate the opportunity to do so under the formal guidance of an accomplished instructor.

This course is taught by Professor Eric Rabkin with the University of Michigan. He won the 2010 Science Fiction Research Association's Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to science fiction criticism - so it appears he knows what he's talking about. In the short time I've been enrolled, I'm impressed by his depth of knowledge and how he brings interesting concepts to each story. Up to this point, I've only been exposed to the brief reviews doled out by the sf journals and peers - Professor Rabkin's reviews of these classics gives me a new perspective on how to read and what to expect.

I'm also immediately impressed (overwhelmed?) by the amount of reading it takes to keep up with a serious literature course. We will be reading the following list, one per week: Grimm's fairy tales, Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, Dracula, Frankenstein, Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," "The Artist of the Beautiful" and "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment", Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Well's The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, "The Country of the Blind," and "The Star", A Princess of Mars & Herland, The Martian Chronicles, The Left Hand of Darkness and Little Brother. I'm already scrambling to keep up to date.

In addition to the reading, we are expected to write a short essay providing an additional dimension for our peers. We're not allowed to phone in a summary; we're expected to be brilliant, insightful and able to write a clear argument.

I'll add my expanded essays to this blog for your review. As always, I'm interested in your comments and thoughts.

Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on February 20, 2014 22:45 • 112 views • Tags: coursera, fantasy, science-fiction

August 21, 2013

Humanity by Proxy was my first solo-author sale, appearing in the 2011 January / February issue of Analog Magazine and continues to be my favorite. It came to me as I watched Janell, my wife, having an argument with our car's GPS. Janell has strong opinions about the fastest way to drive from point A to point B. She is frequently (mostly? always?) correct. If she says we should turn left - I don't argue, I turn left. However, the GPS also has strong opinions on the fastest route, which sometimes conflict with Janell's recommendations. Technology suggests a right turn, My true love suggests a left turn. What am I supposed to do?

(This is obviously a rhetorical question. If you don't understand why, call me and I'll explain.)

My sons suggested I record Janell and place her voice in the GPS. Wouldn't she feel better if the GPS was using a familiar voice? How would I feel?

How much of our humanity do we place in the circuits of our machines?

I've been a Software Product Manager and am familiar with the design, testing and release of complex products. From the outside, software engineering is a boring process of endless meetings and isolation in front of a monitor. From the inside, it's an emotional and creative endeavor, sometimes involving loud voices and tears - certainly frustration. Walter, Jonathan Benally and Monty Cohon, three characters in the story, are distillations of the people I've met during this process and their passion is in the story. I felt honored by this comment from Stanley Schmidt when he bought the story for Analog...

"I reread this and was freshly impressed by how well you convey the flavor of engineering--which is seldom appreciated, much less understood, by the many who've never done any but take for granted the fruits of its labor."

Honestly - this comment made the entire story worth every keystroke. (Thanks Stan).

~ ~ ~

The first of the three stories, centered around Tiffany Stott's encroaching dementia, was also the first segment I wrote. It was supposed to be the only segment. I explored the idea of technology echoing someone's previous relationship and considered the short story a finished topic, only requiring three-thousand words. I shared it with Rick Lovett who informed me about the nuances of word count in the traditional Science Fiction publishing world. Three-thousand words was too much for flash fiction and not enough for most short-story buyers. Besides, Rick felt there was more to be said.

I wanted to sell the story, but I liked it as is. Adding a character, or a sub-plot, or extending Tiffany's final confused walk wasn't working for me. If I was going to extend the story, I needed something unexpected. I looked around for a part of the existing story that might have interesting potential. Officer Renfro wasn't part of the story just yet, which left the Doctor, the Roomba and Walter.

I realized Walter was worthy of further exploration. But, since Walter was dead in Tiffany's story, Walter's tale would happen before Tiffany's. However, I liked Tiffany's story as it was; adding an additional story prior to Tiffany's would require a re-write - the ending just wasn't strong enough to carry both Walter and Tiffany. The not-so-obvious solution was to have Walter's story appear after Tiffany's, but set chronologically before it.

After I decided this was to be a two part story, the middle segment exploring the military background of the L.A.S.S.I.E. came to mind. But it needed people - the stories are about human relationships, not technology. Additionally, those people needed to relate to Tiffany and Walter; the overall story was developing two threads: L.A.S.S.I.E, and the relationships between the characters. I enjoyed the emerging challenge, but realized I needed to start taking notes to keep things straight. The characters were intertwined, and their lifelines needed continuity with each other. Here's the resulting timeline...

Creating a timeline was essential to this story. If you are a writer, continuity is essential - your readers will demand it; losing track will mark you with a big "R" - for "Rookie". I had to tweak this table several times to get it right.

~ ~ ~

Since I've never been in combat, the middle story required quite a bit of research and caution. I have no experience with automatic weapons and certainly no idea what it's like to take cover from enemy gunfire. All of my war experience comes from the U.S. Army's Stories of Valor (, "Saving Private Ryan", and Wikipedia articles about the M16 Rifle.

True-life Army stories give me shivers, but peering through the dispassionate account of the creation of the M16 rifle makes me extremely uncomfortable. The Wikipedia article on the creation of the M16 includes a chilling statement; "The number one predictor of casualties were the total number of bullets fired." Thinking like a Product Manager, I find myself breaking the problem down into features, benefits, priorities and dependencies. How can I maximize the volume of projectiles delivered by a soldier? That question fails to connect to the person targeted with the maximized volume of downstream projectiles; the humanity has been washed out of the story.

The L.A.S.S.I.E., unlike the M16, still has elements of humanity on it's motherboard. Private Renfro knows his Grandfather and Benally were instrumental on the project, but is unaware his improvised repair works because of their engineering ethics. Which is one of the messages I hope appears throughout the story - the ethics of engineers, in contrast to the popular myth of the amoral scientist.

The war segment may be the most exciting, but it's main purpose is to glue the first and last segments together. I will note I couldn't have written the last segment without having already written the second segment.

~ ~ ~

I'm not sure I would recommend this reverse chronology type of story-telling. It worked for "memento", but I probably confused some readers. Stan asked if I would add dates to the story to segment the sections. The additional date in the Karakoram Mountain segment was also his suggestion to clarify the sudden shift in perspective. It's all very tricky and Jo-Anne Odell with Tangent mentioned in her review "I felt tossed through a succession of hoops."

There are wisps of personal experience scattered throughout the stories, as well as appearances by many of my co-workers, friends and extended family. All characters appearing in this work are aggregates of cherry-picked mannerisms. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is only temporary. Since L.A.S.S.I.E. isn't a person, I'll admit it was directly inspired by the Big Dog robot from Boston Dynamics.

After writing this story, I worry I may not have anything else worth saying. I've incorporated most of my personal experiences, used up a lot of good quotes and emptied my storage locker of all the good characters. Perhaps everything I write from here on is just a re-hash of these themes.

But then, along comes a story like "A Cup of Dirt". I guess I have more stories in me...

Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on August 21, 2013 12:46 • 166 views • Tags: analog, robotics, science-fiction

May 28, 2013

I was delighted to find that Analog Science Fiction and Fact published my story, "A Cup of Dirt" in their June 2013 issue; and - as the lead story! That's quite an accomplishment and I'm extremely proud of it. Analog is one of the leading Science Fiction periodicals and I am frequently reminded that its authors are an elite club - self-referenced as the Analog Mafia.

If you haven't already read "A Cup of Dirt", you'll find a short story set on a space station orbiting earth. Enzo, an engineer from Italy working on a space station module install, gets bored and accepts a challenge to create dirt - soil - on the station. What's the challenge? Space stations are industrial clean rooms. Dirt ruins experiments, clogs filters, breaks machinery, and ultimately threatens lives, if not profitability. Enzo is actively breaking the rules on a dare. We've got secrets. We've got intrigue. Finally, we've got young station workers in search of romance. Forget the dirt - romance is the main problem.

The story is written in my comfort zone of hard science fiction. No laser weapons, no faster-than-light travel. Everything works according to common laws of physics. At some point, I may stray outside of these self-imposed rules, but for this story I chose to operate in an entirely predictable world. It does mean I have to be careful with staging. Space station employees can't just walk across the room unless there is gravity - and since we haven't discovered artificial gravity, I have to be sure that my scenes acknowledge this fact.

At one point, two characters go to visit a third character in a maintenance room. Pressurized room on a space station is at a premium, pressurized rooms with gravity even more so. The easiest way to create gravity is with a hub-and-spoke spinning station, which places gravity rooms on the outside of the hub. Maintenance rooms are mostly likely located in one of the spokes. In-between are passageways with gravity that reduces as you climb "up" towards the center. Knowing the Analog crowd, I did my research to make sure the characters would do the appropriate actions. I did find a benefit - a floating ponytail plays an amusing part in the ensuing love triangle.
I originally conceived the story in the fall of 2010 when Janell and I were visiting World Fellowship, a camp she worked at during her college years. The camp staff maintain a collection of gardens, growing local produce and using them to produce incredible meals. There is nothing like the intense taste of a locally-grown tomato and for whatever reason, I transported the camp to the confines of a space station - including the staff and their love of fresh food.

A challenge of science fiction is to find the excitement hiding in the dry world of research. Science can be tedious - research requires repeatability and documented results - which implies doing the same thing over and over and over. Not as exciting as a high-speed chase through an asteroid field. My solution as an author is to look alongside the science at the people who do it and are affected by it. Yep - sociology is an exciting field when people's lives actually depend on it. In Cup of Dirt, I accepted the tedium of life on a space station. Any competently-run station will be a boring place. Regulations and double-checking every checklist is job one. Nobody wants drama in space and you're not allowed to make microwave popcorn - smoke from burning popcorn in a space station is a big, damn, deal.

The camp we were visiting provided me with a staff of twenty-somethings ripe for some interesting sociology. Shakespeare did wonders with this demographic and if you're even halfway paying attention, you'll notice I was inspired by his comedic romances.

The characters were almost handed to me completely fleshed out. With some tweaks, you'll find the 2010 summer staff of World Fellowship well represented in this story. I've never met them - but I do have their pictures from the staff wall. I've found that once I can find the photo of a character, writing their backstory is easy. Writer tip: use google image search to find portraits of your characters.

I had assumed space stations would have international staff and would include Russians, Americans, Japanese, French and Italians - probably more nations as well. So I dived in. And blundered around, making a terrible mess of the whole thing. I had Russians shouting "Skol!", and mispronouncing swear words. When I first submitted the story to Analog, Stan Schmidt kicked it back, requesting that I check my use of the Russian language. It takes a village to fix ham-handed language mistakes; in my case, Alex Shvartsman, writers from the codex writers forum, neighbors and friends. It was actually a lot of work getting everything fixed up and believable.

I've been accused of portraying the women in the story as vacuum-headed sexpots. Granted, there is a lot of sensuality being traded around. But don't get me wrong - I'm solidly in the camp of realistic portrayal. Nobody goes outside in a flimsy spacesuit, no matter what kind of body they might have to show off to the bug-eyed aliens. That would just be bad space-station policy.

But the Sidorova sisters are sexy - and smart - and human. Just like the twenty-somethings I hung out with during my summers at Camp Widjiwagan in Northern Minnesota. Of course, they are amped up - it's a short story after all and everything needs to be louder, brighter and quicker than in real life. Take a look at Captain Jerwin if you think all the women are objectified. I'd strongly advise you don't mess with her during a Senate hearing - or on the Judo mat.

Finally, I am really pleased by the reviews. Locus, SFRevu, and Variety SF all gave it favorable comments. Another bonus writers dig on.

Good results give me energy to keep going on other projects. Next up - more back story for the murder mystery!
Like  •  0 comments  •  flag
Published on May 28, 2013 19:13 • 262 views • Tags: a-cup-of-dirt, analog, science-fiction


Mark Niemann-Ross
Lots of things rattle around my head. A few of them are worth sharing.
Follow Mark Niemann-Ross's blog with rss.