The photos and the photographers of “Circle of Champions”

The photographers of Unsplash.com provided me with a great collection of photos for my pass-the-baton December story: “Circle of Champions

[Warning: This post contains spoilers. I recommend you read the story first and then enjoy the art below in its full glory.]

Let’s start with the main image for story. The only alterations I made to this photo were to crop it to fit and add the text. Here is the original, unaltered photo in all its glory.

Salem stares at her mech

Woman with goggles looking to orange window. Photo by Kyle Johnson (unsplash.com/@kylejeffreys).

Actually, this photo was untitled, so I gave it the above descriptive title.

Kyle Johnson hails from Seattle, where he shoots mostly on film with a Nikon F3, an Olympus Stylus, and a Sony A7iii. He enjoys shooting outdoor and urban subjects.

3 secrets of my first Writing Contest story

Here I reveal some behind-the-scenes secrets of the September Contest story “Hello, Universe!”

But first, the October Contest has just begun. The deadline is October 15, 2020, so you have plenty of time to read the story and write your own ending in 500 words or less. It’s lots of fun and if you enter, you may win a prize!

Image of white farm house. Text: Almost Home--Win a prize if you write the best finish to my story
Finish my story, Almost Home, and you could win one of 3 prizes.

You can also read contest rules here.

First Secret–How I came up with ideas and scenes

1) The Story Origin–I wrote the beginning of the September Contest story “Hello, Universe!” in early August, when my Sci Fi blog and my website were barely a month old. By that time, I had already decided to start a story contest where I write the beginning of the story and the contestants finish the story in 500 words or less. I also had in mind a concept for the first story–a concept still unfinished today–when this one came to me.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I listened to Beatles music wafting from the smart speaker in the living room. I love the Beatles, but I don’t know all their songs. A song I don’t know very well, “Across the Universe,” began to play. If you have read the story, then you know this song is featured in my story beginning and in the contest-winning ending. (If you have not read it, then read it now. It’s fun! And besides, this post has spoilers!)

I looked out the bay window to my deck and the yard beyond. The song and the smart speaker made it into the story. The deck, the blue Adirondack chair on the deck, and the suburban location of our house also all made it into the story. When the story opens, Jess, our hero, sits in a child’s Adirondack chair to watch stars from his back deck.

Second Secret–How I combined ideas to create a story concept

2) Bringing the Elements Together–Long, long ago, I read that good stories are often the combination of two unrelated ideas, facts, or concepts that the writer blends together to create something new. Since then, I have made it a writing strategy to combine two or more unrelated concepts to create an original story idea.

Here, I began daydreaming with these lyrics:

Words are flowing out like

Endless rain into a paper cup

They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe

That got me thinking about sending messages across space. And the dreamy quality of the music helped put me in (and keep me in) a Sci Fi space-themed mood, too! (I’m humming it right now.) I dreamed up Jess sending messages into the night sky using a flashlight, but I had to figure out why he was doing it. Who was he trying to reach?

Asteroids floating in space
Asteroids in our Solar System can range from specks of dust to bodies larger than the Moon.

It occurred to me that the beams of light shooting into space could last forever, traveling at the speed of light in the vacuum of space, unless they hit something like a star, a planet, or rocks or dust in space. (Read more about asteroids here.) By then, my mind was really racing! So many possibilities!

That’s when I hit on the idea that Jess was not trying to reach anyone. He was simply trying to leave a mark on the universe that time could not erase. That idea really wowed me. To think that Jess, or any of us, could create something that would outlive the Great Pyramids, Shakespeare’s masterworks, and even the Solar System itself–well, it was one of those mind-shifting ideas that we find in Science Fiction. One reason I love Sci Fi so much!

Pyramids at Giza. Photo by Joseph Ashraf (unsplash.com/@yusufashrafjoe).

So, to me, “Hello, Universe!” is a combination of the lyrics of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe,” human fear of mortality, and sending messages into space. And to my surprise and delight, it set up a fun story beginning that Frasier Armitage–the contest winner–so artfully completed.

You can read some of my thoughts on why Frasier’s entry shone above all the rest. (It’s stellar!)

Third Secret–How I found my story title

3) The Story Title–When I finished my first draft, I struggled to find a good title. I was toying with a couple of different names. I don’t even remember what the others were. They were that boring.

I wanted a title that did not limit the endings the contestants could write. For my contest, it’s important to write an open-ended story and an open-ended title. That focused my attention on the very beginning of the story, where Jess sends his first messages into the sky using just a penlight.

“Hello, _________,” I thought. Hello, what? Hello, Galaxy? No, that’s ridiculous!

Eventually, I landed on “Hello, Universe!” I probably got the word “universe” from “Across the Universe.” Or maybe because Jess was beaming his messages in every direction, it just made the most sense.

For a while, I thought of it as a working title. I thought it was funny and upbeat but kind of cheesy. And I was not sure that the title tone matched the tone of the story, which starts when Jess is thinking deeply about life and death. But then I decided to use the story for my first contest for a number of reasons:

a) It’s approachable and relatable to a wide audience, including adults and teens and maybe even people who don’t read Sci Fi.

b) It has a hard science core to it, but it allowed contestants to go in any direction they chose.

c) It was done.

I had been writing blog posts for 2-3 months before I even made my website public. Then I spent a month madly polishing them, adding images, and posting them. The website was public, but it still felt a bit like a harried dress rehearsal.

The launch of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest at the end of August really felt like I was announcing myself to the world. And so the story title, which still felt a little cheesy, served as both Jess’s shout-out to the universe and my own greeting to all you great readers and supporters of my blog and website.

Hi

I am here

My name is Jess

And now, looking back, I’ve changed my mind about the title. When Jess sent his messages of light out among the stars, he really was saying, whether joyfully or desperately, “Hello, Universe!”

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Insidious Parasites in Sci Fi can be repulsive or beautiful

Photo by Nick Fewings (unsplash.com/@jannerboy62)

N.K. Jemisin designs a horrific parasitic overlord

N.K. Jemisin, a winner of both Hugo and Locus awards, writes about human-designed parasites that took over the world in her short story, “Walking Awake” in the 2019 short story collection Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 1.

Alien woman's face

“They were created from other things. Parasites–bugs and fungi and microbes and more–that force other creatures to do what they want.” Most human bodies on Earth are controlled by the parasites, called the Masters, and the remaining humans serve them. The parasite itself has waving head-tendrils and a stinger.

When a Master needs a new human host, it visits a transfer center, where human hosts are raised. The transfer is gruesome and painful for the old host and the new one.

“When the Master came in and lay down on the right-hand table, [the girl] Ten-36 fell silent in awe. She remained silent, though Sadie suspected this was no longer due to awe, when the Master tore its way out of the old body’s neck and stood atop the twitching flesh, head-tendrils and proboscides and spinal stinger steaming faintly in the cool air of the chamber. Then it crossed from one outstretched arm to the other and began inserting itself into Ten-36. It had spoken the truth about its skill. Ten-36 convulsed twice and threw up; but her heart never stopped, and the bleeding was no worse than normal.”

Stephenie Meyer imagines beautiful, peaceful parasitic creatures

Stephenie Meyer, who wrote the paranormal Twilight Saga, also wrote a beautiful Sci Fi novel, The Host. The parasites have taken over the dominant species on at least seven worlds. Earth was one of their most recent conquests, but only a few human rebels remain.

The parasites, which call themselves “souls,” also have a procedure in a lab-like setting where they insert a parasite into a human body, but the human body is unconscious and the procedure seems much more peaceful.

Up-close image of a blue eye with a ring of pale blue on the inside of the iris

“[The Healer] Fords concentrated on the unconscious body; he edged the scalpel through the skin at the base of the subject’s skull and with small, precise movements, and then he sprayed on the medication that stilled the excess flow of blood before he widened the fissure. Fords delved delicately beneath the neck muscles, careful not to injure them, exposing the pale bones at the top of the spinal column.”

. . . .

“[The assistant] Darren’s hand moved into view, the silver gleam of an awaking soul in his cupped palm.”

“Fords never saw an exposed soul without being struck by the beauty of it.”

“The soul shone in the brilliant lights of the operating room, brighter than the reflective silver instrument in his hand. Like a living ribbon, she twisted and rippled, stretching, happy to be free of the cryotank. Her thin, feathery attachments, nearly a thousand of them, billowed softly like pale silver hair. Though they were all lovely, this one seemed particularly graceful to Fords Deep Waters.”

. . . .

“Gently, Darren placed the small glistening creature inside the opening Fords had made in the human’s neck. The soul slid smoothly into the offered space, weaving herself into the alien anatomy. Fords admired the skill with which she possessed her new home. Her attachments wound tightly into place around the nerve centers, some elongating and reaching deeper to where he couldn’t see, under and up into the brain, the optic nerves, the ear canals. She was very quick, very firm in her movements. Soon, only one small segment of her glistening body was visible.”

Design your own parasite

Caterpillar with black head and back and translucent underbelly
Photo by Holger Link (unsplash.com/@photoholgic)
  • Will it possess humans, cats, elephants?
  • Will it look horrific or strangely beautiful?
  • Will the host remain conscious? What will it think?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is what you must know about the mysterious SciFaiku

Image: Huge doors splitting open, revealing line of bright white light. Text: This is what you must know about the mysterious SciFaiku.
Photo by Noah Buscher (unsplash.com/@noahbuscher).

In simplest terms, SciFaiku is haiku poetry written about science fiction topics. “SciFaiku” is a mash-up of the words “Sci Fi” and “haiku.”

What is the SciFaiku Manifesto?

In 1995, Tom Brinck published his “SciFaiku Manifesto” on the internet. In the Manifesto, he proposes a new form of poetry based on haiku.

“SciFaiku takes its form from contemporary international haiku. A usual poem is 3 lines and contains about 17 syllables. The topic is science fiction. It strives for a directness of expression and beauty in its simplicity. Here is a representative example:

The asteroid Bennu from NASA
The asteroid Bennu. Image from NASA.

“Asteroids collide
 “without a sound . . .
“We maneuver between fragments.”

How is SciFaiku different than haiku?

Brinck explains that haiku suggests the form of the poem, but SciFaiku stretches that form into something new.

Purple plasma
Photo by Zoltan Tasi (unsplash.com/@zoltatasi)

“In striving for directness of expression, SciFaiku avoids abstract concepts and metaphors and describes rather than philosophizes. Leave the implications to the reader’s imagination:

“Like haiku, SciFaiku seeks terseness of expression. It is minimal and elegant. The standard length is 17 syllables. Traditional haiku is composed of 3 lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively. This is a useful guideline, but need not be followed strictly. More than 17 syllables is permissible if well-motivated. Fewer syllables or fewer lines are appropriate if the poem still successfully conveys a message.”

How to unleash powerful Sci Fi insights with SciFaiku

At the core of SciFaiku are three concepts:

  • Expressing a deep or powerful insight
  • Using the simplest expression
  • Wrapping it in a Sci Fi theme

“Every poem needs to clearly evoke a science-fiction premise as well as express its own observation of that premise, and this is perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing SciFaiku.”

. . . .

“Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of science fiction is how it provides deep insight into the human condition, even when the subject matter is computers or aliens. Not restricting itself only to the tangible, SciFaiku permits an exploration of the thoughts and feelings of characters within a poem.”

Here are some examples of SciFaiku

Brinck has collected many great examples of SciFaiku on his website. Here are just a few samples:

Spring showers
my best friend
rusts.

Greg Pass – gregpass@cs.cornell.edu

Timetravel is forbidden.
But kids
do it anyway.

Eva Eriksson – eva.eriksson@halmstad.mail.telia.com

Magnetic tazer fanblades
weave around each other
seeking your flesh.

Dave RichardsonKKZZ50A@prodigy.com

OK, now I’m going to try one. Here goes:

Inner eyelids click
Beneath languid eyelashes.
She’s so into me.

Matthew Cross

Write your own SciFaiku!

Woman in kimono tying message on paper to a tree branch
Photo by Library of Congress (unsplash.com/@LibraryofCongress)

Challenge yourself and your mind with SciFaiku

Before you try your hand at writing SciFaiku, here are a few final tips from Brinck:

“Imagery is often the finest point of all of them, not only the beautiful descriptions, but the ability to evoke an entire scene with just a few words. Subtlety and implication are the most powerful devices — the suggestion of a grander plan, a universal truth, or sometimes simply a personal truth that would otherwise go hidden. The language is also key. Most of these stick to the simplest of words, capturing very basic experience. Those that do go into technical terminology combine the terms into intricately beautiful patterns.”

Write your own SciFaiku and submit it below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Orbits–Giant solar systems and tiny atoms both contain orbits. Let’s explore giant and microscopic worlds!

Old model of the solar system. Text: Orbits--Giant solar systems and tiny atoms both contain orbits. Let's explore giant and microscopic worlds!

The solar system is made of giant, orbiting bodies: planets

Eight planets orbit the sun, forming our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Asteroids also orbit the sun in the Main Asteroid Belt and the Kuiper Belt. The planets and the Main Asteroid Belt orbit the sun in a flat plane, like an invisible plate in space where the planets pass mainly through the plate. Sometimes they rise higher than the plate, sometimes they travel a little lower, but not by much.

The planets are very large objects. The sun, at the center, is the largest object in our solar system.

Tiny atoms are made of microscopic bodies that orbit each other

Cover of The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

Next, let’s look at some of the very smallest objects in our universe: atoms. According to physicist and author Brian Greene, in his book The Elegant Universe, the ancient Greeks believed that “the stuff of the universe was made up of tiny ‘uncuttable’ ingredients that they called atoms.” The ancient Greeks thought the atom was the smallest building block of all matter. They said the atom was not made of anything smaller and could not be divided.

In the nineteenth century, scientists found that oxygen and carbon were made of the smallest pieces that could be recognized. “[F]ollowing the tradition laid down by the Greeks, they called them atoms. The name stuck,” Greene writes.

But it was later learned that oxygen and carbon atoms, and atoms of all the other elements, were made up of even smaller pieces. “Far from being the most elementary material constituent, atoms consist of a nucleus, containing protons and neutrons, that is surrounded by a swarm of orbiting electrons,” Greene writes.

Writers create new ideas by converting large to small or small to large

Sci Fi writers create fascinating creatures by turning something very small in the real world into something very large in their story. Consider the lowly worm. Frank Herbert turned the worm, a creature of a few inches, into his gigantic and fearsome sandworms of Arrakis in Dune.

Today, let’s do the reverse. Let’s take something very, very large–our solar system–and imagine it as small as an atom. If a sun were the nucleus of an atom, and if each electron orbiting around that nucleus were a planet, what kind of solar system can you imagine?

Build your mini-system!

Imagine your miniature solar system.

  • Would your planets be inhabited? Would the third planet–like Earth–support life?
  • Would travelers cross the vast distances between atoms to visit?
  • Where would your atom-sized solar system be floating? Would it be safe?

Please post your comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross