Writing About Titan and Giant Bugs

Cirsova’s Fall 2019 issue is out, and included in the collection is a story I wrote about life on Saturn’s moon Titan! It’s meant to be a hard SF (with regard to the territory) mixed in with the charm of a monster movie from the 1950’s, sans the damsel in distress. (The heroine is more competent than her male companion, whom she is always saving.)


Fall 2019 Cover

I spent a year researching Titan for a novel project I trunked. After doing so much work I was determined to put it to good use, so for a bit of fun I wrote Titan in an evening. I tossed it to a few beta readers who told me one thing: more giant bugs! I heeded them and sold the story right after those edits.

It was important to me to depict Titan’s treacherous surface accurately. There’s quite a bit of research available, including video from Huygens’ descent that shows us the moon’s surface. Scientists know quite a bit about the moon, so I spent the year trying to visualize what it would be like to walk around (well, bounce) on the surface. Titan is covered in tholins (Gk. Θολός, meaning “hazy” or “muddy) which combust in an oxygen environment – a bit of a problem for humans who would need to build habitats with oxygen to breathe! Colonists would have to be meticulously clean or risk disastrous fires. Hydrocarbons are abundant, meaning that Titan’s surface organics far surpass oil reserves on Earth. This moon has a dingy sky and is covered in ice and carbon-bearing materials. While all of this is technically interesting to scientists, I wanted to depict the drama of living in such a place.

I’m certainly not the only SF writer to attempt this. There are novels such as Ben Bova’s Titan and Michael Carroll’s On The Shores of Titan’s Farthest Sea, both written with great attention to the terrain and how colonists would likely live. One of my favorite short stories about Titan is Michael Swanwick’s Slow Life which is available to read in Lightspeed Magazine.

After all of this reading I added the giant bugs. Why? Because it’s cool, that’s why. I’ve been fascinated with Cicadas since my childhood. I used to collect their perfectly preserved exoskeletons and put them around the house: on curtains, on my cardigan, etc. (Sorry, mom.) I lived in Ohio during a 17 year emergence cycle and the bugs were so abundant that the grass in my front yard moved like undulating water. The air was full of their screams and they hung like bats from the trees above us, their white bodies dotted with thousands of bulging red eyes that seemed to observe us as they let their fleshy wings dry. The birds could not keep up. I remember walking to the bus stop with glee as the ground crunched under my feet. My parents were upset about the trees being ruined but I was unable to fathom those adult concerns.

Once I decided on Cicadas, it was only natural that I give them the only predator that made sense: wasps. And so the poor colonists in my story not only have to fight to survive on an inhospitable moon, they find themselves caught up in a war between giant insects.

Titan has been reviewed by Tangent Online and is available on Amazon. Consider giving it a read!


Sources to Check Out

  1. Infrared Images of Titan (Cassini) from NASA
  2. Maps of Titan’s surface pieced together from images collected by NASA
  3. Let’s Colonize Titan: The Scientific American
  4. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets by Charles Wohlforth and Amanda R. Hendrix
  5. Entomology: An Aid in Archeological Studies

Rethinking Lavinia

In 2011 I was one of those people. I left a one star review for Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel Lavinia. My problem with it was that, in my mind, she just rewrote the Aeneid.

arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris

It’s hard to upstage Virgil.

So, I wondered, what was the point of rewriting the entire epic from Lavinia’s point of view? There was something unremitting about the narrative, and I had hoped for something fresh. Instead of a new tale I saw Lavinia go through the motions of Virgil’s canto, and frankly, I had already read that.

I’m not that much older or wiser now, but I have had a bit of an epiphany about this work. The tribute Le Guin makes to epic literature is on the nose (oh yes, even with references to Dante and his Virgil), but it’s not the point. The point is that the feminine point of view isn’t useless or unimportant, it’s just different.

“Without war there are no heroes.”

“What harm would that be?”

“Oh, Lavinia, what a woman’s question that is.” 

The feminine, in this book, is about constancy in tribulation. It is a source of energy that never burns too brightly and all at once, like the glory of a male warrior, but steadfastly like a warm coal. A man’s stubbornness is a weakness, something dogged and without joy.

“Men call women faithless, changeable, and though they say it in jealousy of their own ever-threatened sexual honor, there is some truth in it. We can change our life, our being; no matter what our will is, we are changed. As the moon changes yet is one, so we are virgin, wife, mother, grandmother. For all their restlessness, men are who they are; once they put on the man’s toga they will not change again; so they make a virtue of that rigidity and resist whatever might soften it and set them free.”

I once had a philosophy professor point out that feminine traits are often equated with something undesirable when men show themselves to have them. Even crying, he said, can be something men are conditioned to be ashamed of. This is a prison. Closing all of the doors only makes a person adapt to living in the dark, and we know how those odd, blind creatures in caves strike us, no?

Revel in the feminine. Be free. Be whole. And understand the point of re-imagining an epic story so often dominated by the male gaze.

That’s what I’ve learned.

Five Stars.

I Have Some Good News This 2016: Published!

So yea, 2016. This wounded artery of a year.


But, I am able to share good news for once: I sold my first short story, to be published in a Science Fiction Anthology either this Dec or Jan.  The contract is signed and the publisher working away on the printing.  I’ll share the details once it’s put up for sale.

Honestly, this is amazing news. I’ve worked very hard to get here, and hopefully this is the start of a writing career. I have several other subs out, so I’m hoping to keep up the momentum!

This particular story was rejected 6 times- but the sub times were long. One publication held it for five months, so I lost some time there. I finished the story in March 2015, after it went through eight drafts. The rewrites were helped along by Critters (I’ll report to them this “Woohoo!” once published) and one last, very incisive critique by a major magazine editor.

Making art is hard work. Lots of rejection, lots of technical and creative skills required, many late nights spent just trying to hit a word count so that they day can be considered well spent.

So, here’s to my little story. Hurrah!

How Politicians Used to Argue

From Abraham Lincoln:

“If you have ever studied geometry, you remember that by a course of reasoning Euclid proves that all the angles in a triangle are equal to two right angles. Euclid has shown you how to work it out. Now, if you undertake to disprove that proposition, and to show that it is erroneous, would you prove it false by calling Euclid a liar? [Laughter]

From the Lincoln-Douglas Debates


By T.P. Pearson, Malcom IL- Carl Schurz, Reminiscences, Vol II, McClure Publishing Co. 1907, facing p. 84, Public Domain

I Don’t think I Like Isaac Asimov


Illustrations by Mark Zug 

I feel like such a brat. I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading Asimov: I, Robot,Foundation, and a few shorts. My favorite is Nightfall (The short, not the book with Silverberg). I read it in college and loved the premise, loved the ending. It resonated. So, I tell myself, I need to read more Golden Age Asimov if I’m a TRUE FAN of science fiction right?

Well, I don’t regret reading his works, but I’m just not very enthusiastic about them. Whether it’s the Laws of Robotoics or the laws of Psychohistory, I put his books down feeling like I just read a textbook. Here are some rules, here are some possible, cold and calculated, eminently logical results of those rules, and then the book ends. The characters are like chess pieces instead of breathing people. We don’t, as readers, get to see much of what Hari Seldon really wants (I admit that I will add to my vocabulary, “For Seldon’s sake!” when I’m mad).

Perhaps the format of Foundation does not lend itself to good characterization, but after reading a Canticle for Leibowitz, I’m convinced that this format can be done well, and I don’t think Asimov quite made it. The premise requires constant jumps in time. One crisis averted, on to the next! I had the same trouble with I, Robot. Susan Calvin is an extremely interesting character, the thread that ties all of the robot stories together, and yet she’s not very likable. Asimov shows us one instance of her personality peeking through when her love interest dashes her hopes. She responds by vindictively (and understandably) lashing out at a robot who led her false. Every other view of her is her professional opinion, and she dies without leaving much of an impact. Just a cog in the wheel of history, a figure we are supposed to view as a museum relic.

And maybe that’s what Asimov is to my generation: a text showing the beginning of something great, because this speculative fiction thing has to start somewhere, right? I can now appreciate how derivative other works are, even if , in today’s world, Asimov doesn’t strike me as fresh. I think that’s ok.

When your Hobby becomes a Job is it Ruined?

So if you get published, suddenly, the hobby you indulged in while away from life and work becomes a job. Does the magic stick?

Reading an article by Jaye Wells is an eye opener:

Turns out, I started out right. I found a hobby that was rewarding and fun. It was when I became a pro that I got off track. See, what I figured out is that everyone needs a hobby. We each need something that doesn’t have ego or income tied to it. When my hobby became my job, I lost that safe space where I could create without fear.

Why Tradition can Never Be Divorced from True Art


Color Study warm/cool

What are rules? Annoying constraints on free expression? Rigid, stubborn adherence to how things were done, “in the good old days” instead of organic developments? I’ve seen discussions of tradition err in this way: why worship the ashes? Why persist in the Old when we live in the New?

I think that this is a mischaracterization of what tradition actually is. Sure, dumb things have been done in the name of tradition, and sometimes those things are silly or inexplicable. A fraternity might tell its members to wear the same t-shirt and do shots at the same bar when midterms hit, because “it’s tradition, man.”  That’s not tradition, that’s a stubborn adherence to a fleeting fad that has the appearance of a social norm. Tradition is wisdom. Fads are like matches struck once: bright for a fleeting moment, and then gone in smoke. Wisdom is a kindled fire that burns steadily and brightly, and it only needs to be tended by a few.

I’ve been studying at an atelier (pronounced atel-yay) for four years now, learning traditional techniques and methods practiced by 19th century French artists. It is a rigorous studio school where basic concepts are drilled and drilled again. A student does not have any excuse for an error in a drawing because she and the teacher are able to see the same thing from the same position. The drawing (or cast, or figure) is set up in the same position and with the same lighting with the object of training the student’s eye. The results speak for themselves: the tradition works to make the student a master of painting and drawing technique.


My first color study with a warm/cool palette

And why does tradition endure? The simple reason is that traditions become traditions because they are tried and true. Someone before us tried something, recorded what worked, and passed that on to the next generation so that we wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes. But, we’re human. We like making our own mistakes, because we’re kind of stupid and prone to self-worship.

I’m religious and artistic, so this observation tends to tie things together for me. Bad art and bad religion have quite a bit in common: both assume there’s no need for any rules at all, and as a result they accomplish nothing. Balance is key: rules give structure, structure forms good habits, good habits are virtues that may then be put to higher use. The worst manifestations of bad religion or art result in the absurd self-fetish of the worshiper or artist. The privilege of doing things “your way” needs to be earned, not snatched jealously like a toddler using markers for the first time.

Take Jackson Pollock: most consider him an innovator, someone who wouldn’t let traditions stand in his way.  Well, he used industrial zinc based oil paint in his work. This is a problem because paints made with zinc white dry slowly (which can be desirable), but the colors shatter when dry.  His exhibits, today, are roped off because his works are flaking. Traditional artists understand (and understood) that taking the time to understand pigment and its relationship to different, natural oils makes all the difference. The sensation caused by Pollock’s “paintings” will die and literally crumble away, and when that dust settles still we will still have the enduring works of Rembrandt. I am forced to conclude that, a.) Pollock didn’t care about his paintings lasting at all, or b.) had no idea what he was doing.  If the former is true then that is lamentable, if the latter then he was just an imbecile.

There is, of course, room for expression of oneself in art. It wouldn’t be art without that necessary, creative spark. But this requires discipline.  Just as rigid fundamentalists can squelch creativity, lack of any discipline whatsoever blunts the senses and dulls the intuition. Your hands are the ambassadors of your heart, so form your heart well in the pursuit of virtue. If you’re a musician, learn your scales. Practice six hours a day, and then earn the right to compose your own masterpiece when you are well formed and can work out the problems and avoid common pitfalls. If you are an artist, learn value, form, measurement, anatomy. Be ok with being bad at it for a while.  Learn the difference between good and bad materials. Rigidity is not the goal of learning the rules, true freedom is, and true freedom is not license but responsible action.

I have often thought that the artists of my parent’s generation treat art as if it’s merely a self-actualization program or a yoga class. Loosen up! Be free! Since there are no standards, there’s nothing to compare to, nothing to aspire to. The most you might get in a figure class as a critique is something like, “make that look more like a knee” without any direction on how to do so. Technique is abhorred. This view is mired in all sorts of exasperating absurdity. Spray-paint a wall and take Instagram photos of it, and you’re deep. Try to imitate Rubens, and you’re just stuffy.


Progress of Study; start and finish of my 3rd Bargue

Without technique there is no great art. That much is true. There are those who refuse to learn anything and end up producing nonsense, and there are those that cannot bring anything real to life with the technique they’ve learned because they don’t have well-formed hearts.  Art, to be great, has to bring the heart and the hands together as one. Tragically, most “artists” are imbalanced because they obsess over one or the other exclusively, divorcing the truest and most beautiful marriage.

Will I ever get there? I don’t know. I’m focusing on technique now; gobbling it up like a starving child because I could never find anyone willing to help me until now.  It’s hard. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve broken pencils, ruined brushes, ripped paper off of my board and started completely over. I’ve noticed a bad measurement halfway through a drawing and had to backtrack. I’ve completely screwed up the value of a color study and had to throw in the towel.

And yet, I cannot argue with the results. I have also produced the best work of my life in these past four years. One drawing took me an entire year. It’s framed in my living room. Taking the time to learn something difficult is emotional and fraught with self-doubt, like gold being purified by fire. But I am content to become gold. Why wouldn’t anyone else?

New Bargue

My latest study

** All artwork in this post are my original works, all completed at the atelier. Check out the gallery for more updates.

Resources and More Information

Academy of Realist Art Boston

William Nathans Fine Art

Art Renewal Center

Classical Atelier at Home

Cast Drawing Tutorial

Michael Harding Paints

The New Old Masters: Jacob Collins Profile

Learning to See: Practical Drawing and Painting Info for Realist Artists