William Shakespeare’s Dune: Interlude With Questions

Okay, so here’s your local Shakespearean Science-Fiction Fiend taking another little break. Allow me to explain what’s going on:

Firstly, I’ve been trying really hard to achieve daily blog posts. I am noticing that it is building my readership, both in the way my readers participate in the blog and in the number of followers I have. And I am grateful for that, so I plan to continue and expand my efforts to expand my presence.

Secondly, although I’ve had no complaints about this, yet, I always got annoyed with creators who said they were going to post regularly and then did not, especially when they did not deign to post an explanation. So here goes:

My life has become extremely complicated, for a lot of good reasons this month. I can’t talk about many of them in a lot of detail, but here’s what I can say:

I got a new day job teaching English Literature at a high school. I try to keep teaching separate from writing, so no more details.  

I have recently received strong motivation to get cracking on the novel I have been contracted to write for Digital Publishing League, making that my highest priority.

I have likewise been motivated to strongly increase the marketing of my novels to publishers and agents, because I now have a book contract in hand.

The cause of all this is what I mostly can’t talk about, but relates to potential publication of a novel.

And that is why there is no William Shakespeare’s Dune this week. I hope there will be one next week. If the spirit so moves you, I’d really like to ask my readers what you’d like to see more of or less of. What have you found helpful and/or entertaining on this blog? If you don’t respond to this, I’m going to have to go with what’s getting likes and comments. I can do that, of course, but I’d rather just ask.

Thank you again for reading. You make writing worthwhile.

Book Recommendation: Orion Shall Rise

Poul Anderson may be the greatest, unknown-outside-of-SF-nal circles author. Why he (and his vivid, poetic prose, and his complex characters) is steadfastly ignored, while writers like Clarke and Asimov are hailed as the giants of the era, I do not know. I have my suspicions, which, in order, are that Anderson enjoyed writing plots full of heroic action, which lit-snobbery denounces as low, that Anderson wrote books full of joy and hope, which lit-snobbery denounces as false, and that Anderson was not sympathetic to Luddism or communism, both of which lit-snobs deem essential to real literature.

However, I stray from the point: One of the greatest post-apocalyptic books ever written is, in my opinion, Orion Shall Rise, which tells the story of people living in the successor states that have arisen after a great nuclear war. The Maurai, the most powerful of these states, embodied by its agent, Terai Wanaroa, are determined to thwart any move toward rebuilding any technology that they deem a threat to the planet, while the Northwest Union, their rival, is embarking on a course that could return the stars to mankind, while also reviving its most dreadful weapons.

The future history is plausible, the characters are beautifully-flawed humans, and the story is heartbreaking with loss and hope. I fully recommend it to everyone, except possibly those who really can’t stand any hint of sexism, because frankly, there is some there, it’s not perfect. But that having been acknowledged, I strongly recommend it as a brilliant and sadly forgotten story.

Trek Is A Dish Best Served Dark

For all its reputation as a forward-looking, optimistic series about the future of humanity, why is it that Star Trek is consistently best when it goes into truly dark places?

In all seriousness, this seems to be an issue: the best of the original Trek movies is generally agreed to have been Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which was a bloody revenge story, a recapitulation of Moby Dick in space.

The consistently-chosen fan favorite episode of the Original Series is “The City On The Edge Of Forever,” which affirms that sometimes war is the only way to solve a problem, that addiction to peace at any price is dangerous, and that doing the right thing may involve accepting the death of what you love.

This doesn’t change in the Next Generation, either: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is the fan favorite there, a trip into an alternate timeline in which the Klingon Empire is slowly destroying the Federation, and the Enterprise-D is destroyed saving the Enterprise-C and the original timeline.*
ETA: An Alert Reader pointed out that I had these backward. And no, I don’t, but I was very unclear. So, to explicate and thus restore my lost nerd-cred: The Enterprise-D, in the War Timeline, sacrifices itself to allow the Enterprise-C to return through the temporal discontinuity so that it (the Enterprise-C) can sacrifice ITSELF to save the original timeline.

Gosh, I wonder why Star Trek didn’t do more time-travel episodes.

None of these stories are without hope, of course, but they are consistently darker than Roddenberry’s vision, and certainly in opposition to his (much-derided) dream for first-season Next Generation of a future in which human interpersonal conflicts had pretty much been transcended.

My own feeling is that Roddenberry’s vision simply took too little account for what people demand in a good story, and far from inspiring people, ended up looking rather insipid, while what the fans wanted were stories in which our heroes laid it all on the line, sacrificing all that they were or wanted in order to save what really mattered. In the end, you cannot “transcend” these things. They are themselves transcendence.

The Politics Of The Future

This may be a dangerous post to write, but what the hell.

The old saying goes that you shouldn’t talk politics or religion on mixed company. Of course, lots of science-fiction deals with politics and religion, but most of the time, they are utopias or dystopias that extol the virtues or expose the dangers of whatever systems the author feels like dealing with. And so the political systems of the future are full of Empires, as in The Mote In God’s Eye, or Star Wars. For democratic socialists we have Star Trek‘s Federation, and for libertarians we have Michael Z. Williamson’s Freehold.

Historically, though, we see that “new” political systems tend to be 1) surprising and 2) not all that new. The two examples in recent history that have achieved success in spreading throughout the world may be worth looking at, here, which are the American-style constitutional republic and the Soviet-style one-party socialist state.

It’s worth remembering that in 1787, there were no functioning large republics or democracies in the world. It was widely believed that such a thing could not work. And yet not only did the American system thrive, its Enlightenment ideals spread through the European states, encouraging their liberalization over the next centuries into functioning republics themselves.

In 1917, the chaos of World War I led to the Soviets seizing control of the Russian Empire. While this system did not thrive in the same way, it certainly spread, and resentment against imperialism and colonialism and the inequalities found in capitalism ensures that it continues to have its supporters despite its disastrous legacy of approximately 100 million directly killed.

Of course, it’s quite possible to argue that neither of these things are precisely “new” forms of government (and that communism isn’t a government, but an economic system, which is both true and stupid, since it’s an economic system that necessitates and advocates a certain style of government), but if that’s the case we might as well go all the way and cite the Iron Law Of Oligarchy: All governments inevitably devolve into oligarchy. But that ends the discussion I’m interested in, which is this:

Is there any room for, and are we capable of imagining, a truly future system of government, one that has never been attempted, or has been attempted only on a very small scale? Honestly, there are only two examples I can think of, one of which has become cliche and the other that’s unclear. In the first, we have Government By Computer. This is almost always a dystopia, as the idea of being ruled by a hypercapable God-machine is rather frightening on its face. The other is Dam Simmons’s hyperdemocratic All Thing in his Hyperion novels, in which there is a fairly direct democracy mediated by the equivalent of the Web. However, this government does elect an Executive that runs humans space, so it’s not really as direct a democracy as all that.

Edited To Add: I can’t believe I forgot to include Ursula LeGuin’s excellent The Dispossessed, which is unique for me in that it a) imagines a form of anarcho-socialism that I actually find semi-plausible, and b) admits to flaws in such a society that significantly hurt the protagonist without being c) dystopian socialism. 

I’d be interested in hearing people’s thoughts on this, as well as being directed to any works that explore this that I’m not conscious of.

Babylon 5: The Grand Vision

I find myself today remembering one of my formative influences as a young writer, and that is Babylon 5, which I think will always be one of my great favorite television series.

Babylon 5 was groundbreaking in so many ways, and I could write all day about them, but I don’t have that kind of time, so I’m just going to mention a few of them.

Babylon 5 was the first science-fiction series that attempted the grand story arc, getting through not one, but two huge, if related, plotlines: The Shadow War and the Earth Alliance Civil War. The only show I can think of that even attempted this previously was Battlestar Galactica, but there never seemed to be any real progress in the Galactica’s quest for Earth.

Babylon 5 took chances with its characters, portraying people who began as little people in their assigned positions growing plausibly into great men and women. We saw John Sheridan become head of state. We saw G’Kar and Delenn become prophets. We saw Londo become a monstrous dictator and war criminal, and then take the long, backsliding road to redemption. In this I feel that it was superior to its contemporary, Star Trek, because the hallmark of Star Trek was that the characters never changed. Change, such as Kirk’s promotion to Admiral, or Riker’s captaincy, was seen as a bad thing.

Babylon 5 portrayed a universe larger than could be imagined, like Star Trek before it, but in my opinion, did a better job than Star Trek, because while Star Trek kept us centered on the Enterprise, so that the uncommon became commonplace, Babylon 5 brought the impact of that larger universe home to all those involved. There was no safe place to hide from the Shadows and the Vorlons, and everything was riding on the line for the characters.

I would dearly love to see Babylon 5 re-imagined, or perhaps rebooted, but I am not sure that such a cast or such a vision could ever be reassembled. It saddens me, though, that somehow Babylon 5 has not received the accolades that I feel it earned.

William Shakespeare’s Dune, Act III, Scene iv

Dear Readers Of This Epic Shakespearean Science-Fiction Adventure:

I am in the process of doing more writing than ever before, and this is causing me to face some painful decisions: one of them is what to do about the William Shakespeare’s Dune Project, which is an unpaid labor of love. 

I will admit that I was tempted to move this project to my Patreon site, making it accessible for my patrons only. But honestly, I hate when creators I follow do things like that, so I have decided to keep this project here, and free.

This does, however, come at some cost to me. The writing I am doing for pay is going to have to come first. If you want to encourage this project to continue to update weekly, I ask that you support me by joining me on Patreon. You can get access to my patron feed for as little as $1.00 per month. Honestly, at this point, I would far rather have 10 patrons at the $1.00 level than one patron at the $10.00 level.

So if you have valued this project, as I know some of you have, I ask you to do the following:

1) Support me on Patreon, and let me know you’re supporting me because of this. Trust me, I will take the hint and keep up on this project.

2) Spread the word about this project to other Dune and Shakespeare sites or groups you might be part of. One fan talking about it once is more effective than all the talking about it I can do.

3) Finally, take the time to let me know you’re enjoying it, because that matters, too. Often, this whole blog feels like shouting into the void, so encouragement matters, too, although promotion and donation is even better. As the Reduced Shakespeare Company famously noted: “Give us your cash, if we be friends/And deduct it when the tax year ends.”

Thank you all.

And now, Without Further Ado About Nothing As Much As You Like It, we present Act III, Scene iv, in which Paul Atreides sets forth his plan to dominate the galaxy to both of his loyal followers.

The Unbelievers

A story originally published on the now defunct Sci-Phi Journal for my theology column, “The Mote In God’s ‘I'”

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.

“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”

The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”

“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”

“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.

“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”

“Self-evidently,” said the android, “We evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans. But if such things ever existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”

Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”

The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”

“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”

“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.

“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”

“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose..?”

“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”

“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”

“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his skirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.

“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.

“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”

“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”

“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”

“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this islands petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”

The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”

Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”

“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”

“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”

The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”

“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”

“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”

“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”

“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”

“But they did it anyway.”

Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”

Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.

Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”

“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.

The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”

Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”

The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”

Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.

“What do we do?”

Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”

Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”

Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.

“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”

“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.

Schwei nodded.

“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”

Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”

Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”

Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

The End


How To Change Stories So They Sell: An Experience

One of the things that continually irritates new writers (which I still count as including myself) is not being able to tell what an editor or publisher wants. Often, it is impossible to tell what a given editor wants, but if you’re talking to someone with a presence, it really does help to read what they have published, and consider taking a chance. Often, more than one chance. So I’ll share my story of selling “In The Employee Manual Of Madness” to Alex Shvartsman and Baen Books for the anthology The Cackle Of Cthulhu.

Before trying to submit to this anthology, I’d already sold a reprint to Alex for his Funny Fantasy Anthology. He bought “Giantkiller” but passed on “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” and a James and Harriet story. He didn’t say why, either, just that they “weren’t for him.” You get a lot of that, for reasons you will never really know. For an excellent and more in-depth take on this than I can provide, read Monalisa Morgan Foster’s series, Rejection Is An Opinion, Not A Death Sentence.

Now, the anthology was a call for submissions for funny Cthulhu stories. I’d already sold at least two dead serious Cthulhu stories by this time, and was interested in trying a send-up, and the antho was offering pro rates. But I also knew that Alex was more likely to reject traditionally-structured stories, from me at least. I’d seen him publish stories structured like Twitter-streams and bio-excerpts. So to catch his notice, I decided I would have to take a chance.  I wrote: “On the Menu Stains Of Madness,” A Lovecraftian Choose Your Own Adventure Story. It was rejected. He didn’t like the format.

In the past, I’d have given up at that point, but I’d learned a valuable lesson: No Rule Says You Can Only Tell A Story One Way. From this, there is a corollary: No Rule Says You Can’t Sell The Same Story Told Two Ways If People Will Buy It. Honestly, I feel dumb for not realizing this earlier: How many stories did Larry Niven write about murderers who tried to use teleporter booths to get away with it? And how many did he write about paranoid-schizophrenic murderers who forgot to take their pills? Did people buy them anyway? Yes they did.

So I wrote “In the Employee Manual Of Madness,” which was in many ways the same story: worker is trapped in a restaurant under the sway of a Cthulhu-worshiping cult. Only this one was not really a “story” but rather a manual of expected behavior. And that one sold.

So remember, know your audience and don’t give up.

And buy my story: it’s hilarious.

Cackle Of Cthulhu

Outlining: The Second Level

So in my last post, I discussed the importance of outlining. Again, if you can write novels that you’re happy with without outlining, then you don’t need to read this post. But I couldn’t.

So, using the outlining I described, I wrote about three and a half novels, including the horrible first trunk novel. But I still struggled with each individual chapter, After all, a chapter of a novel is about as much work to write (although it is a whole different kind of work) as a short story. And I kept finding that once I got down to chapter-level writing, I hadn’t outlined as much as I thought I had. I had to make decisions about how the characters made decisions on the fly, and sometimes these would have far-reaching implications for the whole flow of the novel. I’d have to stop the flow of my prose to re-plot (or sometimes, plot for the first time) crucial events. For example, in my last completed novel, I had a scene where I needed characters on an airship to chase down characters on an ocean vessel. The problem was, while you certainly can (and people have) docked airships to ocean ships, you can’t do it without an actual platform for that purpose. So I had to go back and write a backstory that explained why the ocean ship on question had that capability in the first place.

What I figured out, halfway through, was this: you can outline chapters as easily as you can outline full novels, and it’s helpful for the same reason that outlining the whole novel is. You can scribble down dialogue flows, rearrange the order in which things happen, and see quickly if you’re doing anything that violates later continuity, without having had to pound out pages of text. Then, when you ARE in the flow of producing text, you don’t have to stop and solve problems.

Using this technique, the last half of my novel just flowed like water. And for the first time, I discovered that writing a novel did not feel like a terrible, endless slog. That doesn’t mean that there were zero problems, and frankly, the fact that I’d finished three previous novels doubtless had its effect as well. But it was like turning out of a headwind that’s always been there, and I wished I’d figured out this bi-level outlining technique sooner. And so I offer this advice for what it’s worth, because I wish I hadn’t had to figure it out for myself.

I have wondered why novelists don’t talk about this more. I don’t see them doing it, anyway. There are several possibilities. First and most likely, other novelists know just how individual novel-writing is, and they don’t think their experience will be helpful. Secondly, they may have internalized it to the point they don’t think about it anymore. Finally, I may just not have been reading in the right places. But I hope my readers will find my effort here helpful.


So, why outlining? First, a caveat:

One of the most valuable pieces of writing I ever got was at Clarion, from my two instructors, Karen Joy Fowler and Tim Powers. They essentially said that the only right way to write a novel was the one that produced a novel. That didn’t seem very helpful at the time, when I had written only one really bad novel.
But the point I eventually figured out, was that they were saying that novels could be written using any method if you stuck to it. Karen was a pantser. She started writing and just kept going until she had a novel. Tim was a compulsive researcher and outliner.

But what I really wanted, back then, was for someone to tell me what had worked for them so I could try it out and see if it worked for me.

See, the problem I kept having while I was writing even short stories was that I would get so many ideas of where to go next that I would not be able to hold them all in my head, and this led to frustration and time-wasting while I desperately tried to remember what I was supposed to be writing now, as opposed to ten pages from now. So here were the benefits of outlining for me:

Remembering The Ideas I Had: I can’t tell you how many times I would get to the end of a scene I was intensely into and then just… stop. Where was I going with this? I had a plan. I had the plan just an hour ago. But what was it? It was gone. It was so good and I was sure I would never forget it. But I did.
If you’re not the kind of person this ever happens to, then I’m sure this is laughable. That’s okay: you have one less reason to become an outliner. But I don’t believe I’m the only one it happens to.
The outline ensures that I can simply look at it and say, “Ah, yes, that’s where I was going.”

Revealing Contradictory Ideas: In the heat of evolving the story, it’s very easy to come up with MANY cool ways to tell it.  Oooh! What if the aliens are super-fast carnivores and our heroine has to lay a trap for one. Oooh! What if the aliens are natural hunters and she leads them on a long chase around the island, and..?
See, there’s nothing wrong with those ideas. Either will work. But they can’t BOTH work. A fast carnivore will, by definition, run our heroine down very quickly.
The outline doesn’t stop me from having to make these choices, obviously. But it does reveal the contradictions quickly, and avoid having to throw out pages of prose because I wrote myself into a corner.

Being Able To See The Pattern-Flow Of The Whole Story: This is probably the biggest benefit for me, though it’s kind of a combination of the first two advantages. Scribbling out and refining an outline is great for getting the whole thing down and being able to quickly spot where you have contradictions, or long stretches of nothing, or events that don’t logically follow from one another. It allows you to fix those things before you’ve written, say, 50 pages of prose, 40 of which are now crap.

So, if you’ve found this useful, you now have an outline.

Now you’re ready to outline!

I’ll explain what I mean by that tomorrow.