Book review: The Tally Master by J.M. Ney-Grimm

My friend and former college roommate J.M. Ney-Grimm just released her latest fantasy novel, The Tally Master.  Now that I’ve fully disclosed all biases, I will tell you it’s wonderful.

It’s set in the bronze age Northlands of some of her other novels, and this one is a mystery.  It’s a strange sort of mystery.  Our hero, Gael, is a former mage who now tallies the ingots for the citadel of a troll warlord who fights against the humanity that Gael was once a part of.  Gael keeps a narrow hold on his vision of his life, for it is full of questions that he would rather not face, until the day he realizes that ingots are going missing somewhere between his vaults and the smithies.  Then it all starts to unravel, as this seemingly simple problem leads him deeper into understanding his friends and all their secrets and what he himself must do with this life he’s leading.

We barrel along as all the politics of the troll citadel play out, as Gael remains ignorant of the secret of the person closest to him, and as the highly detailed, fully realized world unfolds before our eyes.  Do you ever read a book where you feel you are inside the world, not just inside people’s heads and hearts?  The Tally Master gives you that.  It also gives you a driving need, Gael’s driving need, to find out what is going on with those ingots, because the answer to that question gives you the answer to a lot more.  I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers, but let me just say this one is worth checking out.

(And remember to leave a review.  If you like a book it helps the author even if you just leave two sentences.)

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Podcast for Hotel Mars Now Available

I had a fun chat with John Batchelor and David Livingstone about the Outer Space Treaty and related issues on their show Hotel Mars.  The podcast is now available on John Batchelor’s site here, where I understand it will remain for a week or two.  Just to be clear, I’m sure that I said the Outer Space Treaty was flexible, rather than that it contained loopholes. “Loopholes” makes something sound like a bug, not a feature. Also, the podcast is available permanently on David Livingston’s The Space Show site here.

If you like a little science fiction with your space law, check out Manx Prize or The Sky Suspended.

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Hotel Mars

I’m looking forward to participating in the Hotel Mars segment of the John Batchelor Show tomorrow night, Wednesday, at 6:30.  John plans to discuss the Outer Space Treaty.

UPDATE:  It turns out that was the recording of the podcast, which will show up on the site later.  I will try to provide a link when it appears.

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The Poetical Stuff

All industries have their own lingo.  The space business does.

I left my job as a space lawyer at the Federal Aviation Administration last summer.  In addition to missing a whole bunch of people, I miss the language.  I remember in Scaled Composite’s early days for SpaceShipOne, which is a rocket that launches from a carrier aircraft, I was on an email chain between my space folks and some aviation people.  One of the aviation people called the carrier aircraft the “mothership.”  With my soul full of joy and gratitude both, I thought how lucky I was to work in a job that allowed me to see some technical dude using the word “mothership.”  I’ve been in arguments over whether to call something a “spaceship” or an “orbital transportation vehicle.”  (Being a simple kind of gal, I preferred the former because it’s more easy to understand.)

But these terms have nothing on what the guys at the ranges say.  A federal launch range is one place you can launch your rocket from.  A commercial launch site is another.  Following in the footsteps of Heinlein and other science fiction writers, we call them all “spaceports.”  But I digress.  What do the guys at the ranges say that is so charming?  First, there’s the minus count.  You know, “3, 2, 1…”  Then there’s the plus count.  That’s for after the rocket takes off. There’s GO/NO GO and others.   There are lightning commit criteria, hazard zones, flight termination systems, black assets, and jettisoned stages.  The range is red.  The range is green.

The risk criteria are expressed in terms of “expected casualty.”  Most of the ranges are run by the military, after all.  When the FAA borrowed that term for its own regulations, I asked if we couldn’t use something less gruesome, like, maybe an “isolation factor”?  No way. That’s the word.  Everyone knows what it means, and this is one the lawyer doesn’t get to touch.  I didn’t even get to say “I told you so” for years, because that’s how long it took for someone else to object, and at that point expected casualty was in the Code of Federal Regulations.  One of my favorites is “exoatmospheric.”  That one’s kind of intuitive and means you’re outside the atmosphere, of course.

Then there’s the MFCO, which is pronounced mif-coe and stands for missile fight control officer.  He’s the guy who sits with his finger on the button ready to destroy the launch vehicle if it goes off course. (One of the great things about America is that there are industries where safety is achieved by blowing things up.)  We got a bunch of the MFCO’s together to interview once, to match what they did with what their handbooks said they did.  The biggest question one other person and I had was what did we call them as a collective?  A herd?  A flock?  A gaggle?  Then it came to us.  They were a murder.  No one else has picked up on this, but it’s still right.

There are other words, mysterious words you think you know because they are in English, and that is your native tongue.  But, no.  They are used differently, mysteriously, in ways not encountered elsewhere.  They are words like “support” and “tools” which mean neither support nor tools. I still couldn’t tell you what they really mean, though I might be able to use them in a sentence.

As a writer I want to use these words to add flavor to the story, to sprinkle little details that add verisimilitude and credibility and make the readers think they are there.  It’s a fine line to walk, however, for one must be able to distinguish between those that are beautiful and obvious, like the “minus count,” and those that are just difficult jargon.

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A Little Space Law on the Radio

For anyone interested in issues concerning the regulation of outer space, the link to the episode of The Space Show with me on it is at: .

The background for the very narrow point I was making comes from Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty.  It says:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

A lot of people take this to mean that if you want to build a habitat on the moon or mine asteroids you need to find someone in the government to approve you.  This is wrong for two reasons.  First, the words of Article VI don’t say you can’t go without permission, just that something is supposed to be authorized.  In the U.S., Congress requires authorizations for four space activities:  satellite remote sensing, satellite communications, launch, and reentry.  Until Congress passes a law that says lunar habitats require authorization from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the lunar construction is not forbidden.

Second, this provision of the treaty is not self-executing.  It is true the Constitution makes treaties the supreme law of the land, but only if they are self-executing. If a treaty promises that the signatories shall go off and do something to carry out whatever the signatories agreed to, it necessarily requires additional action by someone in the government. In the United States, that someone is Congress.  As the Supreme Court noted in Medellin v Texas in 2008, “not all international law obligations automatically constitute binding federal law enforceable in United States courts.”

If you are interested in this topic, I discuss it extensively at my law blog and again in my testimony to the Space Subcommittee in Congress.



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The Space Show

I will be on The Space Show tonight at 5:00 p.m. EDT to discuss commercial space regulation and Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty with host Dr. David Livingstone.  You can listen at  I’m looking forward to this!

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Space Subcommittee Hearing

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science Committee on Science, Space, and Technology will hold a space regulation hearing on Wednesday, March 8 at 10 a.m. in the Rayburn Building.  The hearing is titled Regulating Space:  Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations.  I am honored to be included on the witness list.

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Shedding the Sharkskin

I’ve loved science fiction since the missionary school I attended in Northern Thailand received a boatload of books from a nearby U.S. Air Force installation. One of those books was Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I had already graduated from horse books to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I knew deep in my bones that this book was different. The Heinlein had some realism attached to it, some small level of plausibility. It intersected with my world. It could, anyway. It really could. The book orders to my parents whenever they went to Bangkok switched from ERB to RAH. I loved the nobility, the heroism, and the love of the human race. I relished the observations about people and the world. And I read with grim determination the tutorials on orbital mechanics.

So, of course, I became a lawyer.

Fast forward a few decades to my decision to stop being a dilettante about my desire to write. I wanted to produce a book, one that I’d finish. It took a few years, but I did it. They say you should write what you know, so my first book was full of lawyers. Also, and some may find this sad, the stories running in my head always had lawyers. Additionally, as a space lawyer, I have notions about stuff, and I wanted to explore some of those notions, which was fun and amusing, for me, at the very least. My next book was about space debris, and the main character is an engineer; but, again, it was clear to me she needed a lawyer. After all, how else was I to dispense—in a blithe aside—with the issue of intellectual property rights in a satellite design if there wasn’t a lawyer lying around? (I’m kind of keen on the commercialization of space, so the private sector was taking care of cleaning up the orbital domain in my version of reality.) And if he wasn’t really good looking, what was wrong with me?

All this focusing on lawyers helped me work out a nagging question that I’ve faced during my many years of reading Bujold, Cherryh, Heinlein, and others. That question was always—after thrilling to the amazing things happening in a space story—what were they doing on Earth? Did they really mobilize that fast? Didn’t they all squabble with each other first? Drag their feet? Get it wrong? I have trouble envisioning us getting our act together in the face of an alien invasion. We would, but, first, bureaucracy had to happen. I worked at the FAA for a couple decades, so I know bureaucracy and the first two books have plenty of it.

But there’s more to science fiction than lawyers, and we can look for the pause that refreshes. So, what about lost colonies, humanity spreading to the stars, not keeping all our eggs in one basket, and finding a fresh start. That is still the pull of space. There have to be more worlds out there. Maybe I could visit one. Maybe I could visit one and leave my own kind behind. Maybe I could imagine a world with no lawyers. So I wrote Sleeping Duty, a story of a space marine trapped in a medieval lost colony. He isn’t awakened until three centuries after the lost starship limped to a reasonably Earth-like planet. There were reasons for that, but they are lost in the past, and his main problem is that the people who want him awake won’t let him wake up his wife.

This was a lot of fun. I wrote the first draft in a month. There’s only one lawyer, and he’s only in one scene. Really. But there was a glitch.

One of my beta readers pointed out that soldiers aren’t so unclear in their objectives. He’s not unclear, I protested. He’s thoughtful. He’s thinking things through. Then I stopped. I realized I had written another damn lawyer. The authorial indecision about certain aspects of the plot while I was making up my mind, which were fine to load onto a lawyer, were not good for a soldier. Who knew? As soon as she said it, I recognized what I had done. So I removed that excess of contemplation, the superfluous weighing of variables, and the whole on-the-other hand shenanigans with which I had weighted down poor Gilead regarding his goals. And he came back to life. All was good.

But it was a growth experience, and I do still like my sharks. They’ll be back.

My books: The Sky Suspended (which has an abundance of lawyers), Manx Prize (which has a lot less although there are still several), Sleeping Duty (which has only one and only briefly), and Out of the Dell (which has zero lawyers). No lawyers have appeared in the current work in progress, although there’s a bunch in the half-finished sequel to The Sky Suspended.

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