This Is The Kobayashi Maru…

…nineteen periods out of last publication. We have struck an approaching day job, and have lost most of our time… motivation punctured and we have sustained much loss of productivity.

Yes, so, between novel,  new day job, marketing, a child’s birthday, Patreon obligations, and a number of other things, the blog may have to be the last priority for awhile. I’m afraid it truly is a no-win situation, except of course, for people who buy my books! Those people ALWAYS win!

I love all my readers and will strive to back to daily output as quickly as possible.

How To Tell If You Are In Literary Magical Realism

Firstly, you will notice that something amazing has happened. Not just to you, because then you might simply be insane. And this will not do for magical realism, where everyone must be insane. Or behave like it. No, it must be something incredibly amazing that happens to everyone, like everyone sprouting butterfly wings, or water squirting on people whenever they have bacon and eggs for breakfast or something. Except people don’t eat bacon in magic realism because awareness. Soy.

Secondly, under no circumstances must anyone change their behavior because of this. No one will wear rain slickers when they have soy and eggs. There will be no widespread disuse of bicycles or running shoes because people take up flying.

Thirdly, whatever has happened, it is only really important to one person. Your character. And it will open up his or her or their soul, because this is the person the universe rotates around, and has changed itself to illuminate their one specific problem that is extremely important that no one has ever had to deal with before. Like finding fulfillment. Or falling in love.

Third-and-a-halfly, your character must studiously ignore any larger implications of something amazing, and only ask things like, Grandma, do your wings ever catch on your clothing. And not use quotation marks because decentering spoken discourse challenges the patriarchy or capitalism or something and is really important, okay?
Were you talking there?
Who can tell?

Fourthly, The End

Seventhly, make sure there is no resolution of anything.

Sixthly, play with narrative conventions, such as chronological order, making clear you won’t be bound by them or sentence structure grammar because freedom, I mean liberation

The LEGO Movie: How To Build A Bridge

My last post got me thinking about why I liked The LEGO Movie so much, and it occurred to me that along with the more cliche tripe the movie spouted (The Wise Child, Everyone Is Special)* there was a more subtle point that was made, which really is a good thing for children to learn, and a wise thing even for adults to consider.

In what might be considered the turning point of the film, Emmet, our putative hero, is disrespected by everyone on his own side. He doesn’t have the talents and skills they do to build whatever he imagines. If it weren’t for the prophecy, they wouldn’t even let him near them.

But then Emmet does a fascinating thing. Without ever conceding the rightness of their cause (freeing LEGOland from the tyranny and perfectionism of the evil Lord Business and stopping his plan to Krazy Glue all the sets in place), Emmet points out the inherent weaknesses of the Master Builders: Firstly, they are all such individualists that they cannot formulate and stick to a coherent plan of action as a group. Secondly, they are so dedicated to looking iconic, all their activities are easily tracked and recognized.

The strengths of Lord Business’s robot collective follow from that: he doesn’t need to rely on Master Builders (admittedly, that’s partly because he imprisons and mind-controls them) to be powerful: the instructions allow even people like Emmet to be part of building awesome things. Moreover, he can get things done consistently.

And Emmet then proceeds to use the lessons he learned following instructions to sneak through Lord Business’s security and harness the Master Builders together as an effective team. He acknowledges the strengths of his opponent, and uses them.

It is a valuable lesson to teach our children that opposing someone does not mean denying that they possess any worthwhile attributes. We must teach them that any person, any system, including themselves and including systems that they must defend to the death — like a representative democratic republic, just to name one — has its own strengths and weaknesses to be celebrated and compensated for. They have their admirable qualities, and their despicable qualities. This is a lesson for adults to bear in mind as well. Obviously, it would be a terrible thing if, within our own nation, we descended into such distrust and antipathy for one another that we started treating one another as vermin to be destroyed (ahem!)

I could go on, but I feel that my readers are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions from here. He that hath an ear, and all.

*Although given the comments about “stuff you might find on cat posters” it’s a safe bet the writers knew exactly how cheesy they were being, and were more than willing to poke fun at their own theme.

Just For the Joy: The LEGO Movie

Yesterday, I got to have a lot of fun. I pooled a little of my own private blow money together with the money my son has been faithfully saving, and went on e-Bay and found a copy of Benny’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP! from the LEGO Movie. It arrived yesterday, and we spent the afternoon putting it together. What I learned from this:

1) It’s incredibly refreshing sometimes to go back and do something you really enjoyed as a kid, with your kid.
2) That’s the biggest LEGO set I ever put together.
3) Damn, but I’d forgotten how sore putting together LEGOs for hours can make your fingers.
4) Like the movie itself, this kit was more fun than I thought it would be. The designers did far more than they had to, apparently for the sheer joy of it, and including features that were not obviously included in the movie. Variable-geometry wings, pop-out concealed missile-launchers, drone robot/fighters, detachable auxiliary attack sleds, and a detailed engine room complete with something that resembles a Star Trek antimatter warp core.

The LEGO Movie goes in my personal bank of Movies That Were Better Than They Deserved To Be. I mean, usually when people make movies based on games or toys, it’s because they are out of ideas and are desperate for cash and you get the load of crap you expect: Resident Evil. Transformers. Doom. Battleship.

But then, every once in awhile, you get Clue. A script written by someone who wasn’t told and didn’t care that it was supposed to be a potboiler, who just decided to have as much fun as possible by unleashing a wicked sense of humor while no one was looking.

I would argue that The LEGO Movie fits in the same category. The writers did an amazing job of synthesizing dialogue and jokes that would entertain both kids and adults, much as LEGOs themselves can, in the finest tradition of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, and folded it through a classic Hero’s Journey story that was all about rescuing the Legos from, essentially, an Empire Of No Fun. And no, it wasn’t about anticapitalism: it was about a little kid who isn’t old enough to see his father’s obsession with work as an adult necessity yet. Lord Business is evil (or evil is Lord Business) simply because Business (busyness) is what his Dad does. All he can see is that his dad has transformed even his hobbies into work. Which frankly is a reminder that adults need from time to time.  

It was fun. I had fun. Sometimes, that’s the accomplishment you need to strive for.

Good Friday Post: The Future Of Faith

This is probably going to be a rambling post, because I have to admit that I haven’t planned it. It just occurred to me that I might want to write something about faith in SF on the day that we Christians remember the death of our Lord.

It is a very common trope, about which I have written before, that atheists and agnostics commonly portray religion as a thing of the past, if they bother to do so at all. And we must not, of course, blame them for so doing. If they honestly believe that faith is no more than superstition, the fanciful fruit of childish minds, and if they also believe that humanity is advancing (toward what, I can’t imagine), then it is reasonable to expect such religions to wither and die, in the fullness of time.

Of course, any thoughtful writer who wishes to portray such a thing would do well to remember the historical fact that religions are possibly the longest-lasting human constructs of all, far outstripping governments, and rivaled only by languages and the family. “Optimistic” atheists have been predicting the end of religion for centuries, just as “optimistic” communists have been predicting the Coming Revolution, and so far both have been as disappointed as Fundamentalist Christians who have, in defiance of our Lord’s command, been predicting His imminent return.

I wish that it were more common in SF especially that casual mentions of faith existed. One of the best examples of that I can think of offhand is the role the Church plays in Niven and Pournelle’s Empire of Man as portrayed on The Mote In God’s Eye. It doesn’t play a huge role in the novel, but MacArthur has a chaplain, a service is held on Sunday, and it’s revealed that the Empire, like many historical kingdoms, is officially Christian, though there doesn’t seem to be any persecution of non-Christians.

Also well done is the Commonwealth Church that Alan Dean Foster came up with. It’s very much not Christian, and welcomes members of all faiths or none, but obviously, if we project faith into the future, it would be just as unrealistic to expect or portray only Christian faith as it would be to portray none at all. What’s saddening is that Foster and Niven/Pournelle’s work seems so alone in this assumption that faith will continue to exist when it seems to be the most reasonable assumption.

I’d be interested in a discussion about what makes this so difficult, but my guess is that since religion is so bound up in emotion, most writers simply don’t want to open themselves to potential attacks.

By the way, my story of Christianity in the future, which attracted several wonderful reviews, as well as being in the company of many award-nominated stories, can be found here:


The Mystery Of The Turd In The Truffle

So, I’m playing Elite: Dangerous, which, I want to make clear up front, is one of my favorite sandbox games of all time. Seriously, this is the game I have dreamed of playing since I was a little kid: you can outfit your own ships, trade between the stars, fight Evil Space Pirates, BE an Evil Space Pirates, mine asteroids, the works. One of the ways you can earn money is to take on a Famous Explorer mission.

The Famous Explorer missions are a commitment, in game time. Because while there are lots of games that claim to allow you to travel around “the galaxy,” Elite: Dangerous features a playing field the size of the ACTUAL galaxy. You can take missions to the Galactic Core. (All of Human-populated space is a “Bubble” about 500 light-years in diameter in the game-year 3304.) And given that it’s 23,000 or so light-years away and your ship can do “jumps” of a maximum of about 40 light-years, that takes a LONG time.

So I took one of these Famous Explorer missions. Not sure I’d like it, I picked one that was ONLY 5,000 light-years away. It was the first time I had left the Bubble. And it was amazing how well this game was set up. First thing I noticed, suddenly, there were no other ships around. I jumped into a system, and it was deserted. Of course it was: I’d left the Human spacelanes, and the odds against seeing fellow explorer were incredible. I also noticed that signals — very common in Humans space, and indicating things like wrecks, distress signals, and convoys — those disappeared too, becoming very rare. There were no longer any Navigation Beacons around stars.

The I realized, as I continued toward the center of the galaxy, that all the things I was seeing in the big, glowing strip of the Milky Way were actual objects. I mean, they weren’t just images painted on a skybox, they were getting closer (minutely closer) with every jump, little smudges becoming enormous nebulae. I was having fun. I jumped into a system and found a strange object on my scanner and went to investigate. It was a neutron star, and do you know how I figured out it was a neutron star? Before my ship scanner told me so?  Because I could actually see the stars behind it being smeared around by the gravitational lensing! Yes, this game is that well-written!

So, by the time I reached my destination, a black hole, I was thinking of it as the climax of the trip, and rightly so. I had not seen one before, and as I got within 70 light years, I began to see it. Because the game designers had remembered that black holes form out of supernovae, so of COURSE there was a small, brightly-glowing nebula around this one, which got bigger and more ominous-looking as I approached, like the ghost of the dead star. I jumped into the system itself, and was surrounded by the bluish glow of the highly-energetic nebula. Carefully, I looked around and found the black hole. There was no brightly-glowing accretion disc around it, but you know, you can’t expect everything.

I scanned the thing, noticing that space was of course highly distorted around it, and expected that my mission would be over. Not so.

Interestingly enough, right beside the black hole itself on my navigational chart was an icon reading “Black Treasure” which was, after all, the name given to this particular black hole by the Famous Explorer currently sitting in my passenger cabin.

Very well, perhaps it was this mysterious object I needed to scan, which was, somewhat frighteningly, sitting right on top of the black hole. Okay. I locked onto it and dropped out of supralight drive.

It was a human-built tourist beacon. And there were other ships there. Several. Looking at the black hole. Just like any other tourist spot in the Bubble.

And the Hammer of Anticlimax smacked down on the whole adventure. It was like climbing K2, pulling myself up the summit after an agony of climbing, and discovering a sherpa grinning and ready to sell me an “I Summited K2 And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.” T-shirt.

Which brings me to my title: The Turd In The Truffle. That’s how I felt. I felt as if I had been enjoying an incredible meal at a five-star restaurant, only to discover that there, right on top of the elegant;y arranged dish, was a dog turd. This is not the first time in my life I have felt this way as a reader/player. And my question is why — and how — writers can do this to their audiences. I mean, obviously the writers of this game were and are intelligent and thoughtful. Why, then, such a moment of careless anticlimax?

I remember feeling a similar way when I watched the film adaptation of Watchmen. A beautiful film, well-made. But then there’s the scene in which Rorschach is being pried out of his cell by a criminal Boss who wants to kill him. Rorschach manages to handcuff one of the henchmen to his cell door, blocking the Boss.

Now in the comic, the Boss has another henchman kill the guy to get him out of the way, and continues to come at Rorschach. But in the film, he has his free henchman cut the trapped man’s arms off with a power saw while he is still alive to get him out of the way. It’s an unnecessarily brutal and horrifying scene, which I could in no way believe. Underground bosses who occasionally kill their own men when necessary? Sure. Underground bosses who torture their men to death for fun, just to emphasize their own evilness? No. That’s crazy, and no henchman wants to hench for a guy like that. Again, a Turd In The Truffle: a moment of thoughtlessness in brilliance.

I really don’t have an answer for why this happens. I leave it as an open question for the reader. Why do we find Turds in Truffles. I await comments with interest.

The Importance Of Rejecting Rejection

There is another set of lessons that I learned from my virtual mentor, Steven Barnes, which has been very valuable to me. Essentially, they go like this:

1) Always send a piece out ten times before you consider revising it.

2) Before taking advice about revising a piece, it has to come from two people. One of those people can be you.

These are very important rules. Why?

You’re going to get advice from beta readers, and as you get more practiced at writing, you will get more comments from editors about why your story was rejected. Mostly, you’ll still get form rejections about “this wasn’t right for us,” but if you got advice from every market, you would get a mess of contradictions. I have had rejection letters telling me that there was too much detail and not enough. That the character was intriguing but the plot was dull, and that the plot was exciting but the character flat.

If you tried to satisfy every objection from every editor, you would never be doing anything else, AND with the added benefit that your story would be an unreadable hash of compromises.

I remember getting a different version of this advice from a workshop instructor. He was working on an accepted piece and disputing some of the editor’s recommended changes, and finally said, in some frustration, “Have you ever had an author who took every piece of advice you gave them?”
And the editor put his head in his hands and said, “Oh, God, yes.”
Wimpy writers are bad writers, and even editors don’t really want them.

So, why ten times? Have you, Scott, ever sold a piece after ten rejections?

Yes, I have. In fact, I just got paid for one that sold on its twelfth submission. The editor who bought it loved it.

It really can feel like, and I struggle with this, too, that you are completely powerless in this business, and have to do whatever people want to make it better. Especially when you have a story you really believe is good and no one will buy it, and you’re desperate to know what’s wrong with it.

Now, yes, sometimes a reader or editor will say something about a piece and it’s like a nova goes off in your head. “YES!” says the Morgan-Freeman-like voice in your head. “THAT’S THE ANSWER!”

This voice is not nearly as magical as it sounds, but that’s why the rule says, “One of these people can be you.” Just make sure it’s really the voice of your better writer, not the voice that’s desperate to sell this stupid piece however you can.

Patience is the hardest part of this business. That’s why you need it right now.

I’m Writing A Novel And Boy, Does It Suck. Here’s Why I Don’t Care.

So those of you who have been following my blog know that I’ve been commissioned to write a novel. Briefly, it’s for the Digital Fiction Publishing League, and it’s a mystery for kids, set on a Moon colony about a hundred years in the future. Think, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but without the Moon being a penal colony.

I’ve set myself the goal of cranking out at least a thousand words a day. The last two days, I met that goal. Over the past two weeks, i really haven’t, but that has a lot to do with starting a new day job. I’m about 13,000 words in, or about 20-25% of the total, and halfway through Chapter 4.

And it is terrible. And I don’t care.

Make no mistake, the last two thousand words probably represent the worst writing I’ve done in some time. So why don’t I care? I’m going to turn to one of my virtual mentors, Steven Barnes. Steven Barnes has, through his online presence, taught me an immense amount about the value of completing work. He’s also the author of at least a dozen novels, some on his own and other with Larry Niven and the late Jerry Pournelle. Basically, you learn through producing bad work, and you then have bad work that can be revised. And I’m going to revise the hell out of this chapter.

Now, a younger, less-experienced me used to think this was a terrible waste of effort. I knew revision was necessary, because it’s possible to write crap without knowing you’re writing crap. Obviously, you have to reread and revise the crap you unwittingly produced. But if you know you’re writing crap, surely the best thing to do is slow down and not write crap in the first place. That’s very tempting, and it is wrong, wrong, wrong.

The problem with that idea is that it gets you so concentrated on the minutiae of orchestrating a scene, that it inhibits the flow so necessary to the production of a coherent story. It’s as if a runner was so obsessed with perfect form that he would never run any length of race until he got every step perfect. He’d never even make it a hundred yards. More importantly, he wouldn’t be developing that perfect form in conjunction with the endurance required to win an entire race.

Another analogy might be cooking. If you obsess over getting the proportion of ingredients just right, your meal may be overcooked before you can ever mix them all together. You must move forward, imperfectly, before you can approach perfection.

Right now, I care about getting through this first draft. Then I’ll work on making it perfect, and most importantly, I will have an “it” — however awful — to perfect.

Worlds: Stupid Sci-Fi Film Tricks, The Nuclear Option.

A version of this post appeared earlier on my Patreon site, but I thought it was worth exploring here.

Let me introduce you to one of my pet peeves about SF movies in general, through that awesomely terrible film, Independence Day, a film that apparently existed for the sole purpose of trying to make Will Smith and Bill Pullman as President Lone Starr into badasses, if you kinda squint. Hard.

What was the funniest moment in Independence Day? Was it Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth,” line? Brent Spiner’s performance as the clueless Area 51 boss? No, I suggest that it was the parts where humanity attempts to fight 15-mile diameter floating city-battleships with air-to-air missiles. It’s kind of a credit to the movie that when the shields go down and the missiles hit the targets that the response from the audience is a cheer rather than, “Wow, the humans scratched the paint.” Which is pretty much the result of the attack. My first warning that this movie was going to be really, really bad was that the United States Air Force was actually sending fighters armed with air-to-air missiles up against these floating cities rather than, say, B-52s ready to carpet-bomb the damned things for a START.

In all seriousness, just from the outset, it should have been clear that even without shields, for fighting these aliens, nuclear weapons should have been the first and only option. The shields were only there so that humanity could use their most powerful weapons too late and discover that they were useless. And of course, once ONE nuclear weapon is proven useless, no one says “Well what if we tried two? Or ten? Because hopefully there does exist an upper threshold for damage that these shields can absorb?”

And of course the reason for that is shown later in the film: because the writer believes that nuclear weapons are infinitely powerful. Just one of them (used on an unshielded target) can destroy an alien spacecraft that is a quarter of the size of the moon.

Which brings me to my point: There are pretty much the only reasons nuclear weapons ever exist in science-fiction:
1) to highlight the awesome technology and power of the aliens in making them useless, (see also George Pal’s War Of The Worlds,) or
2) to provide humanity with a devastating knockout punch at the last second (see Pacific Rim, The Avengers, etc.). Nothing is ever damaged by nuclear weapons: there is only destroyed, or untouched.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Both the United States and the Soviet Union went to rather great lengths in the Cold War to devise shelters that would ensure that their assets could survive near-misses (and in the case of Cheyenne Mountain, direct hits) by nuclear weapons. The best defense against them is also the simplest: dig a deep hole.In addition to this, there are reasons besides political dick-waving that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and others invested so much time into building various sizes of nuclear weapons: they really aren’t doomsday devices. But they have been portrayed as doomsday devices for so long that many of my students in U.S. History are shocked and appalled to discover that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, today, thriving major world cities, and not smoking wounds in the Earth that glow in the dark. Nuclear weapons have been made to be larger, so as to threaten large cities with full-scale destruction, and smaller, to target massed enemy formations without necessitating the destruction of nearby cities.

Now I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that nuclear warfare is no big deal: obviously, no sane person wants a nuclear war. On the other hand, does any sane person really want any war at all?

I suspect that there is a sort of reluctance to address these facts, lest people adopt a more casual attitude toward nuclear war, as if saying the truth aloud would somehow encourage people to use the weapons, but given our history, I sincerely doubt that fiction is going to be the tipping point, here, so in the name of halfway decent filmmaking, I suggest we all grow up.

Movie Recommendation: The Court Jester

The Court Jester is one of those old movies that’s unfortunately fallen into obscurity. I can’t recommend it enough, because as I said earlier this week, it’s like a slightly sillier version of The Princess Bride, but with a much higher grade of acting talent and — yes, I’m serious, here — better swordplay. Suck it, Mandy Patinkin. I love you as Inigo and everything, but Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone seriously kick your ass. And the thing is, that’s repeated throughout the entire movie. You watch The Princess Bride, and there’s no doubt that it’s a solid movie, with snappy dialogue and great acting, not to mention wonderful fight choreography and a solid plot. It’s a brilliant, swashbuckling romance, ornamented by ridiculous and clever comedy. Then you hit The Court Jester, and it’s a bit like going to Maine for a lobster dinner after you’ve only ever eaten at The Red Lobster. There’s just no comparison. Or drinking, say, Franziskaner beer after never having drunk anything but Coors and Budweiser. All of a sudden, you realize that this is how it ought to be. And over and above that, you get through the whole movie and realize that it never once descends into crudity, while still being very aware of sexual themes and playing them for laughs. The scene where Glynis Johns first seduces the evil King Roderick in order to steal his key (really!) and then repels him by implying that she’s the carrier of, essentially, the Black Death is one of the best pieces of dialogue ever written. I’m not sure why we don’t do this anymore. I feel like maybe the lack of special effects and the stringent restrictions on Hollywood’s dialogue choices back in the day may have actually made them stronger, because they really had to write better and do more work to overcome those restrictions. And it’s not like writers and filmmakers are incapable of such cleverness, now: one only has to look at The Incredibles to realize that. But again, that’s a movie that labors under restrictions: it’s audience is children and it can’t go for cheap, crude laughs. So it actually has to be good. It’s not inevitable that screenwriters go for the cheap laughs and the eye-blowing effects: it’s economics. When horribly-written, cliche-ridden films like Avatar make the money they do, why should you spend the extra time and money making sure that they actually have coherent plots and intelligent dialogues? I suspect that, conversely, when the only thing keeping people in movie houses (besides the acting) were the dialogue and the script, the creative “muscles,” as it were, of the artists strengthened, and what seems today like an impossible amount of work was more like effortless joy to them. You know, sort of like parkour would kill me if I tried it, but to a young athlete, it’s just a fun thing to do on the way to someplace. Perhaps we should remember that. Now I have some more thoughts on this movie, including some valuable writing lessons it’s taught me, but that’s going on my Patreon page, where I hope you’ll join me.