Story Sale: Iron Out Of Vulcan

I am pleased to announce that my short story, “Iron Out Of Vulcan” has been picked up by the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and would direct interested folks to its Kickstarter site.

“Iron Out Of Vulcan” tells the story of an Earth utterly defeated by incorporeal alien invaders. An Earth where the only survivors are the severely disabled…

More news to follow when the book is out. Until then, enjoy the anticipation with me!

William Shakespeare’s Dune, Act III, Scene ix.

It’s Scene IX!!

No word on when we get to scene Richese.

(The REAL Dune fans got that joke…)

Okay, so, I’m sorry I went silent there for awhile. I was honored to be selected as a guest mentor at the graduation breakfast by a student at my former school, a young man who is going to do great things, and who has earned his place at his second National Forensics Tournament. I can hardly wait to see how he does.

In this episode, Paul fights Jamis the Fremen, and earns the name Muad’Dib.

Act III, Scene ix.

Protagonists: A Spotter’s Guide

Works of fiction are almost always centered around protagonists. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to tell who the protagonist is. It is possible to have multiple protagonists. One of my favorite novels, which provides a fascinating study of different kinds of protagonists, is A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold, which I highly recommend to everyone. Although to get full enjoyment out of it, you really should read The Warrior’s Apprentice, Brothers In Arms, Memory, and Komarr  first. Do it: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, and if you don’t like them, you have no soul.

Finished? Good.

Now, we could cheat, looking at this book, and say “anyone whose point of view we see the action through is a protagonist,” but that’s no fun, and not always accurate. For example, we see through Quentyn Martell’s POV in the Song Of Ice And Fire series, but it’s hard to argue that he rises to the level of protagonist of anything but his own story, and by that definition, every character in any book, including, say, Greedo, is a protagonist. So that’s a useless definition. However in this case it does give us our five protagonists: Miles, Ekaterin, Mark, Kareen, and Ivan.

The two pairs of lovers, Miles/Ekaterin and Kareen/Mark can give us a wonderful lesson in how to give two protagonists the same, or nearly the same, goals. Bujold does a wonderful job setting this up so that the males of the pairs have essentially the same goal: win the fair damsel. The females of the pairs also have, really the same goal, which is, become a fully-capable person. Yet the flavors of the goals are highly individual: Kareen’s is a coming-of-age story. She is a child becoming an adult. Ekaterin’s is a story of recovery: she is an adult who was scarred by emotional abuse. Both struggle to escape emotional and financial dependence.
On the male side, Miles’s drive to succeed, usually a great asset, becomes his tragic flaw: his determination to win Ekaterin leads him to deceive her dishonorably, and begin a long road to redemption. Mark, on the other hand, must overcome his self-doubt in order to take any action toward helping Kareen, so he can solve his own problem.

(And I just realized that put this way, it sounds like I am describing the most boring piece of romantic, navel-gazing lit-fic in the world, rather than the sharp, funny, action-packed novel it really is. A later blog will explain how Bujold pulled this off.)

However, in the end, Bujold creates four living, breathing protagonists, each of whom have their own unique conflict that means the world to them, and each of them solves that conflict. That’s vitally important: not only does the protagonist HAVE his or her own conflict, s/he SOLVES it by making his/her OWN vital decision. BUT, each of the protagonists does have an important role to play in helping to solve the others’ problems. This creates the complex interplay that makes the book succeed so well.

But lastly, we have Ivan. Is he a protagonist, or not? At first glance, he is not. Unlike the pairs of lovers, Ivan is played purely for laughs. His romantic goals are pursued half-heartedly at best, and his pursuits fail as soon as he begins them. How then, is he a protagonist?

And the answer is this: Ivan’s goal is to help his ex-lover, Lord Dono (formerly Lady Donna) win his goal of being appointed Count Vorrutyer. A close examination of the text reveals that while Lord Dono is quite capable of running his District, he is utterly incapable of acquiring it through political maneuvering. And from inception to climax of that plot, Ivan is the key to turning Dono’s campaign from an utter failure to a triumphant victory. This gives us an important lesson: a protagonist’s goal need not be solely his own. It can be carried out in the name of another, provided that the protagonist achieves that goal in the pivotal moments.

William Shakespeare’s Dune, Act III, Scene vii (Part 1)

Transcriber’s Note: Unfortunately, what with catching up on life and the visit of my good friend, this scene is not yet finished, though it should be by Wednesday at latest: it’s a long scene. So I have decided to post what I have now, for my followers’ enjoyment. I’ll post a quick announcement when the scene is complete.

I was also humbled and gratified to be contacted by a troupe of actors who want to perform this play when it is completed. Although I am of course honored, I have no idea where that might fall under Fair Use law. I personally would consider this a parody, but it is always possible that the owners of Dune might take issue with that. This has always been a labor of love. But who knows? Anything might be possible.

And now, Scene vii, in which Paul and Jessica encounter the Fremen Stilgar, in a place and manner unlooked for.

Act III, Scene vii

The Girl With All The Gifts (Spoilers)

This is really my Friday post. It’s today because I had an old friend over for the past three days, whom I haven’t seen in years, and probably won’t see again for a few years. So I am releasing some content from my Patreon site in the hope that my readers will enjoy it.

This wasn’t the movie I planned to write on this month, but I watched it. First of all, I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s a wonderful film, much deeper than the average zombie movie, and in my opinion, is what I Am Legend should have been. Second of all, spoilers ahead, so go watch the movie. I’ll wait.

Are you finished? Good! Wasn’t it cool? Yes, it was.

BUT! Ooooooooooohh, but…

I’m sorry, I still don’t buy it. Two things I especially had trouble buying:

First, the zombie fungus. Here you have an organism that destroys all higher functions of the body in the name of eating. But, wait! They can’t eat each other, so the fungus has to spread almost instantly and render the bitten human unpalatable.  Most zombies, in fact, are almost unmarked by the initial attack. But the zombies do attack and eat (and apparently do not infect) animals.

But then the film shows us two (arguably three) amazing things: the first is that the plague has apparently been around for at least 12 (maybe 11) years. And second: the zombies don’t apparently NEED to eat. In London, we see them standing around in a dormant state when no food presents itself.

So, we have a fungal infection that stimulates hunger, but apparently does not need ANY food. It doesn’t need to consume its host, or the food of its host. And it keeps the host from decomposing.

Thirdly, it keeps the host’s CLOTHES from decomposing, which is arguably more impressive.

All this adds up to a question not easily answered: if the fungus does not NEED energy to live, then why does it infect at all?

But the real problem I see here is with the humans. They’ve been fighting this war for twelve years. Now, in six years of WWII, the last time the planet was faced with foes that would absorb the full might of its industrial powers (each other) humans invented the main battle tank, the jet fighter, and the atomic weapon. The humans have held out for twelve years against the zombie horde, which means they MUST have an agricultural and industrial base, and they have developed…

ZOM-B-GON zombie repellent. Stops the zombies smelling you.

And that’s it.

Now, the zombies are fast, but mindless. It’s not too hard for ME to figure out how to get rid of them. What you want is pits with stakes, minefields, and multiple fences with the gaps filled in with concertina wire. Hell, the zombies chase vehicles that are faster than them and don’t look where they were going. You could run dump trucks laying high-explosive mines in front of them until they were gone. And why is London even THERE any more? Why are we not getting rid of the dormant zombies with nuclear strikes? Humans have invented NOTHING to combat this menace. Not bite-proof body armor, not rifles that throw explosive shells (instead, they’re still relying on headshots with standard rifles), no. There are ZERO anti-zombie weapons, or tactics, in play.

So my conclusion at the end of the film was that the human race pretty much had it coming.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy II: A Superior God

“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”

“Intermission: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, pp. 243-24

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein’s attempt seemed very much to be to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in the statement. Pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am going to disagree with him, though I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.

The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. But what I find interesting, and a bit hypocritical about SF writers is this: when they try to create their own gods that are superior to the gods we already have, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have already pointed out in an earlier column that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End  with the Overmind.  Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.

Heinlein’s case is more complex. Heinlein as a writer was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In my last Heinlein post, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion. Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds in philosophy is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else). In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with  a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. And I have to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Paul and Christ did teach. This is in fact what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.

So what, one might ask, is my problem with it? What is missing? I would argue that what is missing is any concept of justice. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. Then what is to be done with the sinners? Heinlein has no answer for this, it seems. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if someone like Foster can end up as an archangel, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty, as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind, if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of Many Worlds is not better, more just people, but only people who have more fun, overseen by what C.S. Lewis called, Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker.

It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what a “real” religion might look like, and if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for what a truly inspiring god might be like.

I think the author who has in recent years most closely approached the idea of what a god might look like is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Holy Family as portrayed in The Curse of Chalion. They are anthropomorphic, yes, but they are good, and while their expectations of humanity are not high, they are awe-inspiring for the lengths they will go to, in spite of their limitations, to care even for individual humans.

Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.




Fiction Update: What’s New In My Worlds

I am interrupting your regularly scheduled blog today to bring you news of new and awesome publications!

It’s been kind of a slow year so far for new fiction. I find that frustrating because there’s a whole lot behind the scenes that is in the process of happening, (more on that below) but very little that has actually happened. This means that there’s not a lot new for my readers to read.

So, what I’m doing over on my Patreon Page is I’m launching a new kind of story, a sort of series of humorous vignettes, called “Signs From A Generation Ship.” And we all know the problem: You launch a huge ship across the horrifying void of space on a journey of 1000 years, hoping that your great-great-great-great-ad absurdum-grandkids will get there, but how do you stop them from forgetting they’re on a ship and blowing themselves up when they, I don’t know, try to free God from the fusion reactor, or look for supplies on the other side of that big, sealed double door? What kind of warnings do you post? Here’s a snippet:

Publication BDCH4135M

Location: Helm Station (embedded in the padding, back of helmsman’s chair)

Title: Welcome To The Control Room!

Hello! Judging by the fact that you are ripping apart the chairs, we must assume that you may be the first person(s) to visit the Control Room (or “Bridge”) for quite some time, possibly even for generations. We hope you are literate. If so, please locate a copy of Publication AA1: Your World Is A Ship, hopefully still available in many cabins and public spaces. If you are semi-literate, TAKE BOOK TO READER. DO NOT BURN FOR WARMTH. If not, the flashing red button will play this message in an audio file unless you press it.

This recording is not the voice of a ghost or an evil spirit. It was hidden by your ancestors in case a mutiny or other disaster caused your people to forget their origins. For a detailed description of these origins, please refer to the aforementioned Publication AA1.

In the meantime, the machines surrounding you are very complicated and vital to maintaining your life and that of your children for the foreseeable future, which is why it is so important that you DO NOT TOUCH ANY OF THE BUTTONS OR DISTURB ANY MORE OF THE ARTIFACTS IN THIS ROOM. SERIOUSLY, LEAVE EVERYTHING IN THIS ROOM ALONE! IF YOU TOUCH ANYTHING IN THIS ROOM YOU MAY CONDEMN EVERYTHING YOU KNOW AND LOVE TO A HIDEOUS AND PAINFUL DEATH.

To discover whether you or others before you have already condemned everything you know and love to a hideous and painful death, please complete the following steps:

1) Look at the Astrogation Station. That is the panel with three large screens on it.

2) On the upper small screen, there is a gold circle projected. If there is a star glowing within the circle, please leave the Control Room immediately, barricade it with severe warnings and guard it with your lives until the Voice Of Arrival Protocol instructs you or your descendants what to do. Guard it with your lives.

3) If there is no star in the circle, continue to disassemble this chair. Ignore the pamphlet buried in the column. Flip open the transparent cover and press the large, red button.

4) Use the countdown to pray to whatever God(s) your people revere.

This story will update Monday, Wednesday and Friday on my Patreon until I run out of signs, and is yours for the low price of $1.00 per month. Additionally, you will receive my novelette, The Chrysalyx, a tale of steampunk intrigue in the alternate 1920s, downloadable as a .mobi file.

Chrysalyx Cover Done

So, what’s in the process of happening? Well, what’s coming up is…

  • “All The Colors Of The Darkness,” the story of a girl blinded to keep her from developing her natural talents as a witch, will be appearing sometime this year from Lethe Press in their Survivor anthology.
  • “Crying By Remote Control,” the story of a woman who must use prosthetic emotions, has just been accepted to the anthology Mind Candy 2.
  • On The Wings Of The Morning, an anthology of my no-longer-easily-available work will be coming from Digital Fiction later this year.

Also, the novel I’m working for at Digital Fiction is nearly halfway done.

So that’s it. Please support me on Patreon; I’ll make it worth your while.



The Law Of Diminishing Cool Stuff

One of the great misconceptions that readers (and non-readers) have about writers is that “ideas” are valuable. “Where do you get your ideas” is to a writer, of course, that most useless of questions, much like asking an artist where he gets his canvas or where she gets her clay. It’s just there, and if it’s a mystery to you, then you need to look at the world (and possibly art, whatever your “art” is) a lot more.

So writers are never out of ideas, and in fact generally have the opposite problem. One of my great regrets is that if I were able to become a full-time author right now I could easily write for the rest of my life and never run out of “ideas.” Conservatively, I estimate that there are at least four entire novels and five short stories, apart from the novel I am actually drafting and the one I am revising that I could be working on from the ideas I have now. I will have more.

In fact, the problem I now have come face to face with is in the novel I am revising. It was pointed out to me by my editor that I had been sloppy with my portrayal of black-powder weapons. Well, guilty. I wrote them well enough to fool the average reader (and myself, and at least one other history teacher) but not well enough for this editor’s readers. Guilty as charged.

While I haven’t gone fully into this revision yet (mostly because I’m drafting that other novel, see above) a LOT of ideas — a lot of really COOL ideas — on how to solve this have been flitting around my head. The problem, and the point of this post, is that I have reached the point of what I must call The Law Of Diminishing Cool. In other words, most of the things I can do to make the guns more awesome in ONE direction are completely inconsistent with the ways the gun is already cool in ANOTHER direction. For example, I could reduce the guns’ loading time by making introducing cartridges, or making them breechloaders. But if I do that, I lose a really cool scene featuring a ramrod. Breechloaders don’t NEED ramrods. Or, as it turns out, there really was once a repeating air rifle that saw military service! Lewis and Clark took one with them on their expedition because it didn’t need gunpowder! The Austrian Army was, at about the same time, fully equipped with them! But if I make them do THAT, I lose a really cool scene that relies on the guns having a muzzle flash. Air rifles don’t HAVE muzzle flashes.

There’s no easy way around this, although I am both looking forward to and dreading the thought process I need to solve this problem.  But you can’t just ignore it. Too many famous franchises have ignored this. They can, because people will watch them anyway. But when they do, you get really stupid consequences and lack of continuity, like in Star Wars, where the original series establishes that Force use runs in families, but then the prequels decide that Jedi are essentially Space Monks who can’t have families, but on the other hand, they also want potential Jedi kids to be trained from approximately age 3, and they ALSO want to keep Jedi from falling to the Dark Side.

Now all four of those ideas, taken separately, make some sense. It’s cool to have Jedi abilities run in families, so that Luke must take down Darth Vader. It’s cool that the Jedi are enjoined against attachment, so that Anakin can’t just marry Amidala and live happily ever after. It’s cool that Jedi must be trained from a young age. And it’s sensible that you don’t want Jedi falling to the Dark Side.

Together, these ideas are a mess. If Jedi have to be trained from a young age, wouldn’t it be best if their parents started it, and had a good idea of who they were? And if you DON’T want Jedi to turn to the Dark Side, and the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive,” wouldn’t you HAVE to train everyone, just to avoid Sith?

The answer to this is that a writer has to practice discipline. As much as you want to, you can’t just do all the ideas at once. That way lies Star Wars. I mean madness. I confuse those these days.