This Blog Pre-empted By The Muse.

You know, I’ll be the first to say that people who spout the line, “I can only write when I’m inspired” are likely wannabe hobbyists who will publish very little. Unless they’ve practiced and honed their craft to the point that they are inspired just about every damn day, in which case, I can only say I envy them.

But don;t ever let anyone tell you that those storms of inspiration don’t happen. They do, and they’re awesome. And I’m in the middle of one now, so I don’t have time to blog. By the way, my Patreon supporters already have a hint of what’s coming. Please consider supporting me if you think it’s worth knowing.


Less Controversial Science-Fiction Rant: The Aliens Who Hate Everything Every Million Years or So.

Am I the only one who is tired of the plot that goes: “Well, you see, a long time ago there was a huge alien race that got pissed off that other people existed, so they decided to wipe everyone back to microbes every now and then.”

Sometimes, there’s a putative cause for it, as in Babylon 5, a series I love. But the whole Vorlon-Shadow war which was like, in the words of John Sheridan, “a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides” was my least favorite part of it. Because it was like watching a couple of squabbling parents demanding the kids pick sides!! I mean, these were two demi-god-like races! I wanted the war to be over some transcendent disagreement or point of history Not Meant For Man To Know. Instead, it was basically American politics and personal pettiness (but I repeat myself).

David Weber did it a little better with his Achuultani in The Armageddon Inheritance, where the aliens at least have the excuse of being enslaved to an evil AI that can do self-maintenance for millennia.

At its worst, this trope takes the form it did in the game Mass Effect where the ultra-powerful Reapers sterilize the galaxy every million years or so because Reasons.

Folks, this trope is TIRED. And it’s an idiot plot. If the aliens are that powerful, why don’t they just create a fleet of robot ships to go burn the life off every planet that shows cholorophyll? Answer: because DRAMA! They always wait until humanity et al. develop the technology to play David to their Goliath and then get stopped. Also, how is it that the aliens always have this amazing social and political cohesion? They hang around, absolutely loyal to each other and content to do bugger all until the Evolutionary Alarm Clock sounds and reminds them it’s time to get back to slaughtering the Younger Races again.


Science-Fiction Rant: Why I Hate Robots

Robots. I have never really understood why there is an obsession with stories about robots. As with fae, I understand the attraction of having robots exist in a story. What I don’t really get is stories about robots. Robots as the reason for the story. Yet many, many people love stories about robots. Isaac Asimov, arguably, built his career on an obsession with robots. I can’t think of any other piece of future technology — with the possible exception of spaceships — that has inspired such a wealth of stories about them. Can you imagine a whole subgenre of SF devoted to, say, laser guns? Or teleporters (apologies to Larry Niven)? Time machines, perhaps, are the most comparable. But the reason I can’t get into them is this: robots are either tools, or they are tools that imitate beings, they are designed to be beings, or they are accidental beings. And in all but one of these cases, stories about them seem to be unnecessary.

Robots Are Tools: These are the robots I have the least objection to in stories, because they’re the most obviously useful. We deal with this type of robot every day, whether we realize it or not. They’re not required to be shaped like humans, and in most cases, they shouldn’t be. But stories about this sort of robot are about as interesting as stories about screwdrivers or reciprocating saws.

Robots Are Tools That Imitate Beings: Now, on a certain level, I can see stories about this working, because it goes to a pretty profound question: is it important that emotions and souls “really” exist? If I create a robot that imitates a being well enough to fool human beings, does it matter that it is just a machine? On the physical level, of course, the answer is no. If I program a robot to feel rage, and then taunt it until it kills me, then I’m just as dead whether it “really” felt the rage or not. And the impact of these questions on humans can be very compelling: how much “love” can you give or receive from a machine?
But on what level can I possibly care about the machine, once it’s established that such a thing is merely an imitation? If that’s all it is, then you might as well try to get me to care about a reciprocating saw that you stuck a smiley face on.

Robots Are Designed To Be Beings: Again, on a certain level, stories like this make sense, especially if they’re focused on the ethics of creating life, and how the created being reacts to its own creation. Some of those are amazing. But ye gods, how many stories in this realm seem to postulate complete idiocy on the part of the creators. You get things like The Matrix Reanimated where humans seem to take joy in creating super-strong, humanoid robots specifically to be abused, complete with pain sensors and the ability to resent being controlled — and then are surprised when the robots revolt. Or more subtly, A.I., where the robot creator creates a human soul in a body that can’t eat, drink or grow. And then we’re supposed to be surprised that he’s created misery? Or Star Wars, where robots apparently have pain sensors for no definable reason. It’s hard to sympathize with the plight of creators who get slaughtered by robots that have been given every reason to slaughter them.

Robots Are Accidental Beings: Now, this is the one type of robot story that I can get behind: the idea that a machine might, given the right self-programming ability, “wake up” to true consciousness, to the surprise of its creators. In this case, it can’t be accused of being an idiot plot, because the humans are, in a sense, exploring the unknown, and they find something unexpected. That’s a reasonable risk. The humans might reasonably not even suspect that the risk exists. Excellent examples of this are William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Dan Simmons’s Hyperion cycle. But I notice that these stories rarely involve — because they do not need to — actual android-like robots. And why should they? By definition, no one was expecting this robot to take on attributes of human beings. With the exception of a few stories like Terminator 2, where the need for an android-like, accidental intelligence is fairly well justified, most stories of this sort smack of implausibility: “No, we never expected the computer we put in this humanoid body to develop humanoid attributes (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).”  Either that, or the story smacks more of fantasy than sci-fi, with computer + humanoid body being a voodoo-like spell that magically creates a consciousness because of it looks like a human and talks like a human, it will become a human.

Honestly, one of the best “robot” stories I’ve ever read falls in the cracks of about three of these, which is the excellent “Today I Am Paul” by Martin Shoemaker, where it’s made pretty deliberately ambiguous whether the titular caregiver-robot is a tool or an accidental being. This was an amazing story that gave a wonderful sense of the alienness of a robot consciousness, while still allowing us to care about it. And, most importantly for this story, a reason that it was a robot and nothing else.


Fantasy Rant: Why I Hate Fairies

I was thinking yesterday about why it is that fairy tales repel me.

No, not things like Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. Those stories don’t have fairies in them. I’m not even opposed to those stories that do have fairies in them, like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. But for a long time, I’ve found myself turned completely off by stories centered on fairies. Fae. The spirits that show up in rings of mushrooms and live in another dimension where it’s dangerous for mortals to go. But I’ve never figured out why I dislike them so much. Well, aside from the fact that when people write about fairies, one inevitably winds up talking about the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and I just can’t take seriously any story in which the good fairies all remind me of mattress commercials.

And then yesterday I finally figured it out. Basically, fairies, when they’re portrayed authentically (as far as I can tell) are spirits or beings that pretty much just exist to fuck with people. And that’s it. They aren’t ever really portrayed as having any needs, of themselves. They are immortal. The Fairy Kingdom (or whatever we’re calling it this week) provides them with endless food and drink. Their major problem seems to be that they get bored, and when they get bored, they decide to go fuck with each other, or to fuck with people.

Now, the good fairies amuse themselves by occasionally doing helpful things for people, but honestly a lot of their “help” comes with a price, such as Rumplestiltskin might provide. Hey, you didn’t really need that kid, did you? Or they’ll put conditions on their help such that you half kill yourself jumping through hoops to “earn” it. The bad fairies, on the other hand, amuse themselves by straight-up torturing your ass to death.

In other words, fairies are not so much fairies, but trolls. Bored little soulless beings who delight in making misery for people and each other. And the entire human world is their Internet. They dive into it looking for troubled people to torment for shits and giggles. If you engage them, you always get the worst of the bargain. The really bad ones will actively hunt you down and try to drive you to ruin or suicide. And if you dive into their realm, they’ll suck your life away. It’s almost impossible to hurt them. And why do I want to read about miserable creatures like that?

Babylon: Law And Empire

In the past ten days, I’ve increased my following on Twitter by a factor of eight, thanks mostly to a couple of awesome fellow writers who have made it their mission to boost other writers’ networking, which is one of my main foci this year. It occurred to me that as a history teacher, MANY people have said to me, “I wish I could take history again; I hated it as a kid, but love it as an adult,” or alternatively, “History was so boring; my teacher was a coach who sat around all day and handed out worksheets.”
So, in recognition of this need, I offered to blog on requested history topics. The first request I got was “Babylon or the Chinese Empire.”
Sigh. To this I can only say, “serves me right for asking,” because these two topics span, conservatively, about 5,000 years of history, concurrently, and trying to cover one, let alone BOTH, in their entirety would reduce the project to a joke. So, thanks very much to the requester: I’m going to talk about ONE aspect of Babylonian history that we all remember from school: Hammurabi’s Code.

I generally taught Hammurabi’s Code in my Honors World History classes for a couple of reasons. It’s pretty much our most influential surviving, readable code of laws. There’s little to compare it to in scope until you get to the laws laid out in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. And as we will see, the contrast between the two is interesting to explore.

Hammurabi himself is an interesting historical figure: he inherited a Babylon that had only just begun to expand power over the weaker city-states of the Tigris-Euphrates. These huge twin rivers are, of course, the reason that the Middle East was considered for so long to be the center of the world. The rivers meant regular irrigation for crops, easy travel for people and goods, and a useful sewer system to get rid of waste. As a young king, Hammurabi fought off an invasion by a more powerful kingdom to the east, and then, after fighting it off, turned on his allies who had been unwilling and unable to provide more aid. The upshot of this was that Hammurabi ended his days (1750 B.C.) in command of a sizable empire running most of the length of the rivers.

What would it have been like to live in Hammurabi’s Empire? One of the hardest things I had to impress upon my students was the utter difference between our own lives and people who lived almost 4,000 years ago. To us, even nobles would have seemed ridiculously poor. Oh, they would have owned much more than we do in terms of farmland, animals, personal weapons and precious metals. But consider how little that wealth could buy them. There were no medicines worth the name: if you got sick, you got better or you didn’t. Meat was an expensive luxury. Fruit existed only in season. Beer and wine were incredibly weak, with an alcohol content of something like 5% for strong wine. And beer was a necessity, because drinking water was a good way to die of diarrhea. And disease was endemic. You could expect to lose at least half of your children to disease before they reached adulthood. There was no real concept of hygiene aside from, “don’t handle poop,” which was not always avoidable. Humans had parasites: fleas, lice and worms all the time. Itching was a fact of life.
Entertainment would have meant religious feasts and celebrations where there was dancing, music and plays. Or it would have meant singing, playing instruments and storytelling with friends at home. Nothing else existed.
The primary difference in the lifestyle of the nobles, besides better food, was the ability to command slaves to do their menial work, and to remain clean. But they had no plumbing, and no machines, just prettier tools.
Literacy was a study for nobles, and took years to achieve, because the writing system consisted of symbols that had as many as eighty meanings, dependent upon context.

However, Hammurabi’s Code was unique in that it was written in the language of the common people, so they could have heard and understood it when it was proclaimed, rather than it being a secret code among nobles. Hammurabi’s Code introduced the concept of at least a moderate presumption of innocence (not a complete one — it was quite possible to be accused and have to “prove” your innocence by surviving, e.g. being thrown in the river). It was based on compensation to the victim and retribution to the offender. Imprisonment as a punishment was unknown, because no one had the time or money to lock a man up in idleness. Fines, maiming and death were the most common punishments.

Hammurabi’s Code bears many similarities to the code of the Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, not because the latter directly copied it, but because of shared culture and tradition in that part of the world. Notably, while both codes recognize the differences between a slave and a free man, only Hammurabi’s code recognize a state of nobility. The Israelites who wrote the Law doubtless were not wealthy enough to allow a noble class to exist. In addition, Hammurbi’s code is a bit freer with the death penalty, which again likely reflects a wealthier culture’s ability to kill off a greater number of its subjects without endangering itself.

So there you have a quick look at life in ancient Babylon. If you want to see a really excellent novel in which a slightly later Babylon is portrayed in fiction, I recommend S.M. Stirling’s brutally and beautifully vivid Island In The Sea Of Time trilogy. This portrays the Babylon of the Kassites, which is about 600 years later than Hammurabi. And it doesn’t show up until Book 2, but it’s worth the read.

So these are details you can use in historical fiction, but if you’re writing fantasy, these conditions may be useful to bear in mind too, unless you choose to give your characters anachronistic knowledge or magical remedies for them. Hope you find it useful.

Why Superweapons Don’t Work: Or Why The Rebels Should Have Had the Death Star.

One of the most popular tropes, especially in science-fiction, is that of the superweapon: the huge, iconic invention that will turn the tide of battle and ensure the ultimate victory of the side that wields it. The most easily-recognized of these weapons is, of course, the Death Star, the planet-killer with the Achilles’ heel exploitable by the scrappy fighters the Rebels had. But why is it that historically, superweapons tend to work, not just as badly as the Death Star, but even worse? After all, the Death Star vaporized a planet.  Historically, experimental supposed-to-be war-winning weapons don’t usually get even that close to success. Why not?

Because The Wrong Side Has Them

Historically, superweapons are not developed by the equivalents of the Empire. Superweapons are developed by the Rebel Alliance. In other words, they are developed by the side that has the smaller army, the smaller economy, and that is in the most desperate straits. And the reason for this is easy to see: because the stronger side is already winning with the weapons they have! It was the Confederates that produced ironclads and submarines, not the Union with its overwhelming Navy. It was Nazi Germany that produced jet fighters and V-2 rockets in the late days of the war, not the Allies with their overwhelming air superiority. It’s only when you’re losing that you need a game-changing weapon to turn the tide of battle. The only exception to this rule is the atomic bomb, which is not actually an exception (see below).

Because They Tend to Come With A Whole Lot Of Suck

Superweapons are pretty much by definition untested systems, for reasons discussed  above: the side that needs them needs them right away, and they don’t have time for refining the technology. Just to give a few examples, the first submarine ever to sink an enemy ship in wartime, the CSS Hunley, went down with its target. This was predictable, as she had already killed two crews in training. Hunley was very good at the “submerging” part of “submarine,” and not so good at the “surfacing” part. The Nazi jet fighters performed excellently, but had ridiculously short ranges because of fuel inefficiency. Similarly, their V-2 rockets were a triumph of cutting-edge technology, and the Germans desperately needed artillery that could strike hundreds of miles away, but since they had no guidance systems beyond Doing Trig Very Well, this meant that they couldn’t hit anything smaller and more mobile than say, a city.

Because They Attract Attention

On the rare occasions when superweapons do work the way they are supposed to, they do tend to get dogpiled on by the stronger side that they are almost inevitably facing (see above). The Bismarck is an excellent example of this. Built with all the latest technology, the Germans decided to use her as a superweapon that would be tough enough to destroy entire convoys and fast enough to run from the British Navy.

She lasted nine days.

They were a very impressive nine days, and began with the utter annihilation of the battlecruiser Hood and the damaging of the battleship Prince Of Wales, but the result of the effort was that Bismarck attracted the attention of about five battleships and two aircraft carriers, along with many heavy cruisers. After air attacks damaged Bismarck’s rudder, this force pounded Bismarck to scrap. Lest we think this was mere coincidence, the Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz met a similar fate, being used in only one offensive operation over her entire career, and subject to something like 26 Allied operations mounted specifically to get rid of her, which they eventually did.

Because They Are Easily Reproducible

Generally, the better the superweapon is, the more it has been tested. And the more it has been tested, the better it is understood. And the better it is understood, the more easily it can be copied. This is what happened with the Confederate ironclads. With the bulk of the Navy remaining loyal to the Union, the Confederates needed to break the Union blockade of their ports. And since ironclads were being built in Europe, first by France (significantly, the weaker naval power) and soon afterward by Britain (the stronger), their incentive to build ironclads was high, and the technology was becoming known.
Of course, the Union also knew this, and having discovered that the Confederates were building ironclads, quickly did the same. The first battle between ironclads saw the Union rushing its own ironclad to the battlefield only a day after the Confederate fielded the CSS Virginia. Despite the fact that the Virginia had faced three Union warships the previous day and had destroyed two while taking only minor damage to itself (a successful superweapon if anything was), the Monitor proved a match for it.
And that was the beginning of the end. Because the Confederacy was the poorer and less-industrialized of the combatants, they managed to produce only 30 ironclad vessels during the war in total, while the Union turned out about 50 ships of the Monitor class alone. If a superweapon really works, it won’t work fast enough to stop the stronger side from building more of them faster.

If Matching Them Doesn’t Work, Countermeasures Often Do

One of the most successful “superweapons,” pioneered by Germany, has been the torpedo-armed submarine. It was created to destroy the British Navy, and had many advantages that scared the pants off naval planners at the time: The submarine could travel invisibly. The submarine’s torpedoes attacked below the waterline, potentially killing a battleship in one shot. The submarine could scatter and hunt merchant ships in the ocean, killing them at will. The submarine could pass underneath blockades, rendering them ineffective.

In some ways, this appeared to be the perfect superweapon, especially because it didn’t matter whether the British matched it! What would it do with its subs? Guard the convoys? Submarines in the World Wars couldn’t hit each other with dumb-fire torpedoes except by sheer luck. Kill German merchant ships or naval vessels? The British Navy could already do that!

Well, it turned out that the British (and Americans) could do a number of things that weren’t terribly complicated. They could develop long-range patrol aircraft that could hunt and track the subs when they inevitably had to surface for air. They could create armored belts below the waterline for their ships, and anti-torpedo screens that could make the torpedoes detonate prematurely. Faster and stronger destroyers could guard the convoys and use cannon and depth-charges to sink the subs. As it turned out, subs could only effectively threaten surface warships (which were all bigger and more heavily armed and armored) when they managed to line up a shot unseen, and the torpedoes themselves tended to suffer from copious amounts of the aforementioned suck.

But Wait! What About The Atomic Bomb? Doesn’t That Disprove All Your Points?

Not at all. In fact, it reinforces them. First of all, the United States and the Allies were not yet fighting the war when Albert Einstein sent his famous letter to FDR, recommending its development. They were losing it when the Manhattan Project began. Most importantly, it was triggered by the belief that Germany, the weaker side in the wider war, was already researching them. By the time the bombs were actually built, of course, things had changed, and they were no longer necessary to win the war. To shorten it, yes, but that’s a different thing. And it attracted enough attention for the Soviets to place spies in the Manhattan Project, which they reproduced in only four years. Finally, the atomic bombs, contrary to appearances, really did contain a lot of suck. They poisoned the battlespace with fallout, and the bombers then necessary to carry them were vulnerable to interception. As a deterrent to large-scale war, the atomic bomb is a wonderful weapon. As an actually usable weapon system, it is not.

And that’s why, although superweapons are an awesome ingredient in fiction, they really don’t show up in history very often.



Marketing Update: Lessons I Have Learned.

In honor of the massive number of new followers I have on Twitter, most of whom are writers themselves, I thought I would post some of the things I have learned about marketing so far this year. This is the year I try to teach myself marketing and self-publishing, and it is a long, slow road. See, unlike writing, I haven’t been actively trying to learn this stuff since I was fifteen, nor have I been building up an unconscious core competence in it since I learned to read at age three. So, two warnings:

  1. This is VERY basic stuff, which I provide to those more ignorant than myself. Yes, they’re out there.
  2. Some of it is probably wrong. Feel free to correct me.

I got the massive number of new followers on Twitter as a result of the latest thing I learned that no one told me about regarding building a Twitter following: There are people who will essentially throw out invitations to reply to a thread and follow everyone on it for follow-backs. This is a tedious process, but I went from ~70 followers to ~300 followers in less than 24 hours by jumping on one of these. I realize that’s VERY small cookies in the Twitterverse, but its about four times as many cookies as I had before. So, without further ado:


  1. Learn to convert your WP documents into Kindle/.mobi format. It is challenging, but worth it. Just one of the benefits is that it makes life a lot easier for your beta readers. And it’s essential to doing self-publishing. I used Calibre. It’s not the most intuitive, but it gets the job done.
  2. Know your beta readers. Friends, even friends who write, aren’t good enough. You really have to find people who are down with specifically the kind of thing you write. Be aware also that your perception of what constitutes any given genre (horror, epic fantasy, YA) may not be the same as THEIR perception. And you need to read them back. Do a good job.
  3. Do not be afraid to ask people more experienced than you are at this for their advice. Many of them are happy to share.
  4. Do not be afraid to ask elder authors for blurbs. You will get a lot of “nos.” That’s okay. That’s the same as getting published. The default answer to not asking is always “no.” You lose nothing.
  5. Always be polite. Never suck up.
  6. When you ask for criticism, be willing to take it, no matter how much it hurts.
  7. Most importantly, BE WILLING TO LEARN.
  8. Equally most importantly: ENGAGE WITH QUALITY MATERIAL.

All Things Huge And Hideous

I am incredibly happy to be able to make this announcement: ALL THINGS HUGE AND HIDEOUS, the novel-length expansion to DOCTOR TO DRAGONS will be published by Superversive Press later this year.

This is the first novel that I have written from scratch to be accepted for publication.

I’d like to thank so many fellow writers that encouraged me and helped with this. Among them must be included Larry Correia, Jim Hines, Cedar Sanderson, and of course my editor Jason Rennie.

I’m afraid this blog post does have to be brief, because along with this good news, I have a nasty stomach bug. But thank you all for reading, and I hope you will enjoy it.

The Lord Of The Rings, Forgotten Conversations

Sometime around Bilbo’s fiftieth birthday.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me and a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

A few months later.
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save a dozen idiot dwarves and a hobbit from wolves and orcs despite the fact that the morons wouldn’t be in this situation if they’d just split off some treasure for some folks who frankly earned it by slaying the dragon they stirred up?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

About eighty years later
Gandalf: “Hey, can you save me from the tower of an evil wizard powerful enough to lock me up in it?”
Gwaihir: “No problem.”
Gandalf: “Hey, while we’re on the subject, can you save the entire continent from literally the most evil being on the planet? The only thing he has that can fly are on horses hundreds of leagues west of here. You just have to drop us off at the big mountain.”
Gwaihir: “Fuck, dude, we’re not your taxi service.”
Gandalf: “Okay. If I call you in about a year, can you pick up a couple of hobbits for me out of Mordor?”
Gwaihir: “Sure.”

The Awful Choices

This one’s going to be fast, because I’m running out of time, but it’s one I hope is useful to other writers.

Recently I was reworking a story because of length issues. Amazingly, it was because the story was too SHORT for a market by about 3,000 words, and if you don’t know how rare that is, then oh, my sweet summer child. As I worked on it, I realized that I had made a blithe assumption about how possible it was to do something involving helicopters.

So I consulted an expert and simultaneously realized that a) there were two really obvious workarounds if “something” turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, the expert got back to me and told me that “something” was quite workable so long as you did, in fact, have really GOOD helicopter pilots.

So now I had three possible ways of solving my problem, but the following issues:

Most Dramatic/Awesome Approach (i.e. “something”) is also Least Plausible Approach.

Least Dramatic/Awesome Approach is also Most Plausible.

Most Plausible Approach also is Most Likely To Surprise Protagonists (which needs to happen).

Middling/Plausible Approach makes it difficult for the protagonists to ever find out what happened.

I turned to my research to see if it could nudge me along the right track, here. No such luck. The research basically said you could do whatever and justify it from there. So what should I do?

I still don;t know. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going with the high action/drama, because that shit is FUN, and why the hell else do people read science-fiction?