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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And the winner is...

...still TBA. Sorry, I'm up to my armpits in a really ticklish First Rule situation. I *should* have it finally under control by this evening.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

What if the "American Spirit" found today in Massachusetts had also been found there in 1775?

Associated Press Writers. April 18, 1775.
MASSACHUSETTS COLONY - Eight hundred British soldiers set forth from Boston under the command Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith. The force had two goals; first to march on Lexington and capture noted rebel firebrands Samuel Adams and John Hancock, second to march on Concord and destroy weapons and ammunition stores gathered by the rebels.

"Despite our best attempts to maintain secrecy, word of the operation got out," said General Thomas Gage, commander of the British troops stationed in Boston. "Fortunately, the majority of the colonists recognized the importance of our work. The route was lined with colonists cheering our brave men in uniform, offering them food, water and probably a bit of whiskey, as well."

Colonists were enthusiastic in their support of the troops.

"Well, they're here to protect us from these right-wing terrorists," a local farmhand told us. "When the troops actually do something right, we want to show our appreciation!"

As this reporter was wrapping up his interview with the farmhand, his employer arrived and angrily demanded the farmhand "stop loafing and get back to work." The employer threatened the hand with loss of his job. When the farmhand claimed to be on his legally mandated morning break, it drew the attention of a British officer, who took the farmer into custody for possible violation of labor laws.

As the British force approached Lexington, a small force of approximately seventy armed men was discovered occupying the village green. Lieutenant Colonel Smith halted his troops while he considered the situation. The men claimed to be part of the Minutemen, a survivalist organization known to have strong right-wing leanings and suspected of being highly dangerous. Before Smith could negotiate with the Minutemen, a shot rang out.

While no one knows who fired the first shot, the British troops showed their mettle. A volley of return fire took down many of the Minutemen and put the rest to their heels. Unfortunately, both Adams and Hancock had fled Lexington. Unable to complete the first part of his mission, Lieutenant Colonel Smith led his men on towards the weapons store in Concord.

Commenting on the brief exchange of fire, second in commend Major Pitcairn said, "This is why it is so important to maintain strict control over firearms. Men such as those Minutemen are far more likely to hurt themselves or those they love than anything else. Why, when one has the British army available, would one even consider a firearm necessary for protection?"

This reporter found the Major's comments compelling, as did other Massachusetts colonists with which this reporter spoke. Alas, the Major's comments were prescient as well as compelling.

Upon arrival at Concord, the British troops found a large body of Minutemen waiting for them. As there is a general consensus among the subjects of the Colony of Massachusetts against private firearm ownership, it is thought the majority of these Minutemen were rabble from other colonies. The most likely source is thought to be the southern colonies where the subjects are known to cling to guns and religion.

Wherever they came from, it was obvious the good villagers of Concord wanted nothing to do with them. Led by the village council, they left the village in an orderly fashion, all the while chanting, "Hey hey, oh oh, Minutemen have got to go!"

Once non-combatants were out of the way, Lieutenant Colonel Smith could deal with the rabble as he saw fit. Fortunately for Smith, loyal subjects had sent word back to Boston concerning the Minutemen uprising. General Gage immediately dispatched reinforcements, who arrived in Concord at this time. With his much greater force, Smith surrounded Concord and called for the Minutemen to lay down their arms and surrender. The Minutemen refused.

At this point, the wise mayor of Concord approached Lieutenant Colonel Smith, saying, "We are true and loyal subjects of the crown. Do what you must to clear our village of these unsavory elements, even should that require you burn Concord to the ground!"

Cheered by such hearty support, Smith's troops opened fire. When the fighting was over, all of the Minutemen lay dead or wounded. The brave Redcoats suffered only minor casualties. The villagers cheered as Smith took possession of the weapons and ammunition stored in Concord, though all were sobered when they realized the size of the cache.

Claims by Adams and Hancock that their fellow colonists would rise up and harass the Redcoats during their return to Boston proved unfounded. The British troops were, instead, met by cheering crowds, praise for the gallantry and profound thanks for capturing the cache of weapons.

"We will all sleep more safely in our beds tonight because of the actions of these brave soldiers," proclaimed the Mayor of Boston as he welcomed the British soldiers back to his city. "Tonight, we are all Tories!"

While I feel Massachusetts has fallen farther than any of the other original colonies, I do not believe enough of the original American Spirit exists in any of those original colonies to rise up against a tyrannical government. Think about that this Fourth of July. Think on it and mourn.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

Exciting night last night. A big storm system moved into the area between 3 and 5 a.m. Much thunder and lightning; biblical deluge-class rain. The dog went nuts.

I suppose I could say the dog went "barking mad," but that would be too cute by half. Dimwit—a.k.a., Pyro Puppy, a.k.a. a whole lot of other names I'd rather not put into print right now, but for clarification, see Steve Martin's The Jerk—is a force to be reckoned with. I usually call her a Labrador for simplicity's sake, but she's actually a Labradinger. A Labrador-Springer cross: she's as big as a Lab and as highly strung and neurotic as a Springer, plus she suffers (she suffers?) from severe separation anxiety issues. Ergo when all the thunder and lightning began, the neurotic mutt tried to dig her way under the bedroom door, so that she could get into our bedroom and hide under Mommy—

So let's just say I'm a little short on sleep this morning.

Anyway, here it is, Saturday again. If you're new to The Friday Challenge, this is Open Mic day, and the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you might feel like sharing with the group here?

One idea I've been toying with for the last few days is that of a Book Exchange. I've got books out the wazoo. In fact, I have so many books, I had to rent an extra wazoo to store the backlog. I've also been exchanging email lately with one of our regulars, who's moving soon and looking to unload a heap o' books. It seems to me that there should be some reasonable and fairly inexpensive way for us to engage in an ad hoc redistribution of books. Any interest? Any suggestions?

Anyway, that's all I've got this morning—well, that, and an insecure Labradinger who's trying to lay on my feet while I write this. Over to you.

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 6/26/09

Light turnout this week; perhaps the 6/19/09 Friday Challenge was too unfocused. In any event, as of the deadline, the entries received are:

Torainfor, "Asimov's Levy"

The Bandit, "Moderation of the Community"

Henry, "Stories from the Singularity"

As always, even if you haven't submitted an entry this week—even if you never submit an entry in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the authors' blogs, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

And now for this week's challenge:

______ and _______

In case you've somehow managed to miss it, one of the hottest-selling titles in the world right now is, I kid you not—

That's right. Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, rewritten as a zombie horror novel. It's #4 on the NY Times trade fiction list, #6 on the Amazon fiction list, #23 overall; I've had otherwise sane and intelligent friends call me up to tell me how hilariously great this book is and how badly I need to read it. Yes, of course the author already has a major-studio movie deal.


In hindsight, this is one of those ideas that seems so simple and obvious, you can only wonder why you didn't think of it first. In foresight, there's probably no point in actually writing such a thing yourself, as every writer and her cat is no doubt already working on a quickie ripoff and every publisher in the English-speaking world is about to regurgitate if he or she sees one more pitch for Great Expectations and Ninjas.

But in the here-and-now-sight—

Okay, that's this week's challenge. The formula is simple: take one public-domain great work of literature. Fold in one screaming fanboy trope: zombies, werewolves, vampires, ninjas, nazis, pirates, aliens, undead nazi zombie pirates; whatever. Mix thoroughly and beat to a fine pulp, and then write a few paragraphs of pitch describing the book you would write, if someone gave you a nice advance to write it, if you had an agent to send the pitch to.

Some combinations obviously won't work. I mean, Treasure Island, Now with Even More Pirates? Meh. Moby Dick and The Aliens? Star Trek already used that idea. Twice. Bram Stoker's Dracula by Fred Saberhagen based on the screenplay by James Hart inspired by the novel by Bram Stoker? Been done.

But, The Vampire Great Gatsby? The Old Man and The Sea Monster? The Fast and The Furious Ben-Hur II: Jerusalem Drift?


Doctor Faustus, Vampire Slayer? ("The true story behind Thomas Mann's famous novel!") Werewolf Old Yeller? ("You'd best be taking them silver bullets, Travis.") The Undead Decameron? ("A party of young Italian nobles fleeing from a zombie plague hide out in a villa and tell each other stories to pass the time.") The Creature From Walden Pond? ("Thoreau takes a suspiciously cheap summer rental and finds himself trapped there by a terrifying missing link from the Jurassic age, who insists that they discuss political philosophy and Keynesian vs free-market economics every night until dawn.")

Y'know, we just might be onto something here.

Anyway, that's this week's challenge. Throw good taste, decency, and your sense of shame right out the window; throw a great work of literature and a fanboy trope in the blender; set to purée; and let's see what pours out. Remember, the key word for this week's challenge is shameless.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, July 2.

Now go have some fun.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder here that the deadline for the 6/19/09 Friday Challenge is midnight tonight, Central time. That is all.

Heroes and Frogs

by Torainfor

My husband, who in all other respects is a fine man, doesn’t like Spaceballs. He thinks it’s disrespectful to Star Wars, or something. At least, that’s what he said. Then I gave him a little story to read about a knight who rescues an ancient high priestess from her home owners’ association. He didn’t like that, either. If you find yourself agreeing with him, you should probably disregard this article.

I, however, grew up in Oregon to an Anglophilic family who believed comedy should be as dry as the weather is wet. (Who else can claim to have been introduced to The Black Adder and the original Who’s Line? by their Sunday-school-teaching, deacon-serving grandparents?) With that in mind, I offer the following.

Marcher Lord Press is a sparkling new publishing company owned, operated, and bled over by Jeff Gerke, AKA Jefferson Scott. They (OK, “he”) specialize in Christian speculative fiction. The second round of offerings has just hit the market.

Their first release, however, included the little 598-page gem by college student Mitchell Bonds, Hero, Second Class (book one of “The Hero Complex”). It follows the young Cyrus Solburg who dreams of following in his father’s footsteps to become a fully qualified, dues-paying member of the Hero Guild. It falls to Sir Reginald Ogleby, the Crimson Slash, to train Cyrus in the importance of Capital Letters, the power of Arbitrary Numbers, and the danger of the Army of Darkness™. In the meantime, Cyrus discovers love, truth, and his own powers.

The Christian element feels somewhat tacked on and generally irrelevant to the plot. The language comes off as a bit modern at points. If I had one serious gripe, though, it would be that at six-hundred pages, I’d expect some closure. Instead, you get the set-up to the next installment.

But its good points greatly outweigh the bad. I’m not versed enough in RPGs to know how derivative it may be. I just know it’s well-paced and consistently funny; something I find very hard to pull off. And it taught me that all good heroes must learn to narrate their own battles:
“‘The evil Dragon quickly parried the attack with its pincer-like tail and countered with a blast of withering flame. The Hero brought his shield up and deflected the furious blaze. As it burned up in his hand, the Hero vowed to wreak his revenge upon the merchant who had sold him the “fire-proof shield.” Recovering quickly, the Hero vaulted into the air, preparing to deliver his signature “Blade of Fury” attack! Unfortunately, the Dragon somehow anticipated it and slammed the Hero with its tail, sending him flying into a—oof—nearby tree! Ow…’”

Life as a hero is no easier in the present day than it is in the fantastical, as Tzadik Friedman discovers in G. Xavier Robillard’s Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves. Despite the soy-intolerant super hero’s ability to sign up for a new credit card while fighting an escaped barbarian from Monsanto’s giant farm laborers breeding program, he can’t save his own career with Gotham Comix. Still, he has his adopted son and sidekick, DJ (who can turn easy listening music into a powerful sedative that instantly causes hapless bystanders to fall asleep), the ability to find recreational drugs anywhere in the world, and his fashion line is finally taking off.

But what really rubs the good Captain isn’t that his girlfriend continually returns to her life of crime, or his lost sponsorship with Carl’s Jr., or even the fact he owes his career—well, former career—to his mother. It’s his complete failure to find an arch-enemy. No super hero has gone so long without one, and even spending time with his personal dinosaur collection can’t ease the emptiness.

Tzadik isn’t nearly so innocent as Cyrus, or even Mr. Incredible, and the book reads more like the memoir it claims to be than a cohesive story with a defined arch. But it is funny and gives a poignant look into the type of life that fuels so many comic books.

David Perkins, in Tom Holt’s Falling Sideways, isn’t a super hero, but he will have to find within himself that courage and self-sacrifice if he is to save the world from the frogs that have been shaping mankind’s civilization since its inception. Provided, that is, he can sufficiently overcome his obsession with a seventeenth-century portrait of Phillipa Levens, fifth marchioness of Ipswich.

But that’s unlikely, seeing as how he has been in love with her for twenty-one years, ever since his mother introduced him to the museum in which she resides.

So, for the bargain price of fifteen thousand pounds, he purchases what is purported to be a lock of her hair. For a mere hundred quid, he takes the hair down to Honest John’s House of Clones to bring his true love back to life.

Now he just needs to figure out why she’s green, why his neighbor has no furnishings save a bag of sugar sitting in the middle of his living room, and why it is that every new face he meets seems to look just like Honest John’s.

Oh, and why there’s suddenly so many frogs jumping about.

Tom Holt has been compared (unfavorably) to the master, Douglas Adams. But he did get a blurb from Rob Grant of Red Dwarf fame, so there you go. I found the book to be delightfully surreal, and sufficiently confusing. The protagonist is a typical British male, swept along by forces out of his control. Gradually, he learns courage, self-preservation, and the truth about the frogs.

Captain Freedom was clever, but a little too seedy to rate prime bookcase space. Falling Sideways is a delightful tale that will attract a very specific audience—my mom, my sister, and any other Anglophilic scifi lovers out there. Hero, Second Class, will probably be the first BFFB my son reads. I think the subject matter and the humor will keep him engaged, and the message will easily get it past the mom-censor.

Torainfor forgot to submit a bio to go with this piece, and we forgot to ask her for one. Oh well, we'll catch that next time. She blogs at Rain Writes.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu


The first time I saw the trailer for Land of the Lost, for a few moments, I actually felt like I almost wanted to see the movie.


It's not like I have any nostalgic childhood affection for the old TV series, or anything like that. It came along too late to catch me. But writing for that weird, trippy, Sid & Marty Krofft thing did help some writers I respect stay fed and sheltered during the Great Sci-Fi Drought of 1974-75, and that's a good thing. And the trailer did look kind of amusing.


Two words. Will Farrell.

There are some actors who just make me break out in hives. Actors who I know, based on past experience, give good trailer, but the actual movies themselves will be excruciating to watch. Steve Martin, Chris Farley, Martin Short, Dana Carvey, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, Chris Kattan, and aside from one brilliantly awful skit with Christopher Walken and a cowbell, Will Farrell...

Is it just me, or are a disproportionate number of these people suffering from Saturday Night Live Syndrome?

There's no denying the cultural impact of the show. It's introduced the country to some great bands over the decades, and it did give us Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy, who used to be really funny, before he caught that alien brain parasite or whatever the heck it was that happened to him. And Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin alone probably was the decisive factor in the last election.

But aside from Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, Jane Curtain, and possibly The Blues Brothers (which admittedly is an acquired taste, but I like it), has there ever been a good movie that started life as an SNL skit, or an actor or actress who emerged from the SNL sausage factory that you can stand to watch for more than five minutes?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

250 Words

The question keeps coming up: "How do you write a novel?"

The answer is, "One word at a time."

That, of course, is readily dismissed as a smartass answer—which it is—but it's not that far removed from the truth. One of the reasons I still like to compose rough drafts on a typewriter is that it gives me a better sense of word count. One page of manuscript-format typescript is 250 words, and if you're out to write a book, that's a good pace to begin with. Try to produce 250 words daily.

How much is that? Don't trust the word count function in Microsoft Word; it does not deliver an accurate count. Instead, observe:

Another warm summer evening; another sheet of paper scrolled into the typewriter. The writer sat on the deck, listening to the drone of the neighbor's lawnmower and the erratic clatter of his old Olivetti as he covered the page with inky, marginally meaningful sympt--

"Symptoms," Davis completed. "You distinctly were going to write, 'symptoms.'"

"I meant symbols," O'Brien grumbled.

"Right," Davis said. "The subconscious never lies."

("Except when it does," O'Brien muttered.)

"Pure Freudian slippage. You were about to write 'symptoms.' Indicative of the diagnostic nature of your exigesis. You hope that your writing reveals information that can help to illuminate your anomie, your existential dilemma, your je ne sais quois."

"No," O'Brien answered. "I only did it to have an excuse to explore the following question. To wit, is it possible to fill an entire page with meaningless blather, and work towards my mandated minimum of two-hundred-and-fifty words daily, without actually saying a damned thing?"

Davis looked up from the page. "I believe so. We're already past the halfway mark."

"Dialog is so easy," O'Brien mused. "You don't even have to fill up entire lines. You can make an entire paragraph out of a single word."



"This is cheating, you know," Davis said, frowning. "No modern editor would let you get away with this in contemporary mainstream fiction."

O'Brien nodded. "Of course not. We've reached the end of the page and I still haven't mentioned my penis."

There you go: 250 words. Write that much daily—write it every day—and in a year's time you'll have a full-length novel. That doesn't look so hard, does it?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I was out in the car Saturday morning, wondering just what I was going to write about this week. Out of the blue, or more accurately, the left lane, came my answer. I'm always interested in reading bumper stickers, hoping to run across something clever that I've never seen before. I did not run across anything clever or new this time. Instead, I ran across one variant of a series of bumper stickers I find...irritating. It read "My parrot is smarter than your honor student."

I was tempted to pull along side and yell, "How much English did your parrot learn on its own? Did your parrot figure out to say 'tooken' as the past tense of 'took,' showing your parrot to be more logical than the English language? The first time your parrot saw fireworks, did it coin a phrase such as 'dancing stars' to describe them? Then again, your parrot has probably never seen fireworks because they'd scare the crap out of it. Has your parrot gotten together with a group of friends and, while still an adolescent, presented fairly logical arguments why he's convinced time travel is impossible?"

I didn't do that, of course. Challenging the bumper sticker would waste my time and irritate the parrot owner. Why it's okay for the parrot owner to irritate me with his bumper sticker but it's not okay for me to irritate him by responding to it, I'll never understand.

I was about to put this whole thing out of my mind when I exited the highway and pulled up behind a car with another bumper sticker. It read "My [insert dog breed here] is smarter than your honor student." At that point, I figured someone was sending me a message.

Why do those bumper stickers irritate me so much? It's all just a joke, right? Maybe, except you can tell a lot about a society from what the society considers funny. I find bumper stickers are all the more telling because they are something people purchase and choose to display. In other words, before a bumper sticker shows up on a car, some thought has gone into the message on the sticker. Bumper stickers, even supposedly funny ones, give us an insight into a person's values. To me, all of those "My critter is smarter than your honor student" bumper stickers are really saying "My critter is more valuable than your child."

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's paid attention to the political landscape over the past few decades. You need look no farther than PETA's claim that President Obama "executed" a fly on television last week to see just how deeply some people have taken their "animals rights" beliefs. These are people, all from the far left wing of liberal politics, who honestly believe it is more noble to allow a child to die rather than have an animal suffer as part of testing for medicine that might save the child. These are people who believe maintaining the propaganda against DDT -- none of which was borne out scientifically -- is more important than the estimated 850,000 children under the age of five who die from malaria every year (World Health Organization estimates for the years 2000 - 2003). Almost all of these deaths occur in the wretched poverty of sub-Saharan Africa.

These are people who will argue that all humans should be vegetarians because all creatures have an equal right to life. When pushing this argument to impressionable children, they invariably show photographs of cute, fuzzy baby foxes and cute, fuzzy baby bunny rabbits. Who would want to harm cute, fuzzy animal babies? How about those cute, fuzzy baby foxes? The foxes would be more than happy to kill -- in a non-humane manner -- and eat those cute, fuzzy baby bunny rabbits! This, to me, is the greatest hypocrisy to the entire animal rights movement. On the one hand, they tell us foxes and rabbits are the equals of humans and that killing them is as morally indefensible as killing another human. On the other hand, the foxes must kill the rabbits in order to survive. If a fox is the moral equivalent of a human, why is it okay for the fox to kill and eat the rabbit but it's not okay for the human to do the same?

To bring this back around to people and pets, I've had pets in my family since I was four. We've got a couple of cats lazing around the house right now. They're lovable little critters who add a lot to our life. Despite that, if someone told me that sacrificing one our cats would save the life of a child I do not know nor ever would know, I would begin mourning the cat and rejoicing the life of unknown child.

Am I stretching to say everyone with one of those "My critter is smarter than your honor student" bumper stickers believes all of this? Probably, but I still believe anyone who would put such a bumper sticker on their car has a skewed impression of the value of their pet as compared to my child. There is no moral equivalence between an animal and a child. There never will be a moral equivalence between an animal and a child. I just hope to God none of those who believe otherwise ever become parents.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

And the winner is...

Snowdog, I think, although at the moment I'm at a loss to explain exactly why.

I'm going to let it sit overnight and make a definitive call with more useful commentary in the morning.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like sharing with the group here?

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 6/19/09

Nice turnout for the 6/12/09 Friday Challenge, a.k.a., "Chapter Five." The entries received are:

Torainfor, Book 3, Chapter 5

Snowdog, Snowdog's Untitled Western Vampire Story - Chapter 5

Arisia, The Guitar, Chapter 5

Ben-El, The Unseen World, Chapter 5: White Queen to King’s Bishop Seven

Al, Wizard and Wing - Hatchling

The Bandit, Sneak Preview: Emissary of the Loa

While I would hope you don't feel you need permission to do so, I'll repeat the usual statement. As always, even if you didn't submit an entry this week you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the authors' blogs, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words.

Also, please remember this caveat: the challenge this time was to give us a chapter from a work in progress. The criteria for judging this one therefore is considerably simpler than that used for our typical short-story contests. When you get down to it, what we really are interested in is the answer to one question and one question only: Does what you've read here make you want to read the next chapter?

So read, comment, vote. Vote early and vote often. The winner will be announced on Sunday. Honest.

And now for this week's challenge:

The Singular Singularness of Singularity
The Bandit writes:
Hi ~brb,

A friend of mine linked this 2005 Futurist article on the coming technological Singularity that will wipe out mankind (or something) and it really sent my sci fi idea engine into overdrive. Now my mind is world-building in the background while I'm trying to concentrate on the job at hand. Anyway, you might not need it since you've always got such great ideas for the challenges, but some week if you're hard-pressed for one maybe the Singularity concept would resonate with the others like it did with me, so I thought I'd pass it along.

At this point I'm going to digress. First off, there's no need to flatter me. One of the difficult lessons that has taken me a very long time to learn is that just because something is my idea, that does not necessarily mean it's a great idea. (Or sometimes even a good idea. Believe me, in fifty-plus years of life I've come up with more than my share of "Omigod! Run, screaming!" ideas. As Henry, Guy, Joel, Vox, my wife, and my agent can all attest.)

So I am always happy to get new ideas for this site. Let me restate that, with more emphasis. I am always happy to receive your ideas for new Friday Challenges, and for other articles, commentary, and reviews you'd like to see on this site. I am especially happy to receive pitches for articles and reviews that you would like to write for this site.

I can't promise I'll use every idea that comes in through slushpile@TheFridayChallenge.com. Some ideas that have come in have been too vague to use; others just haven't fit in thematically with what I'm trying to do here or have been problematic* in other ways. But I can promise you that I will read everything that comes in and treat it seriously.

[* For example, "Write the best explicitly erotic sex scene you can involving the protagonist, a sheepdog, and a common kitchen vegetable." Sorry, no. There are other web sites that cater to that sort of thing, and if that sort of thing is your thing, I suggest you go Google for them.]

So to get back to the point of my initial digression: if you have an idea for a Challenge, yes, by all means, send it in. I'd love to see it. I can't promise I'll use it, but you never know until you try.

End of digression.

Getting back to The Bandit's original idea: what we're talking about here is what's commonly called the Kurzweil Singularity. (Personally I have some difficulty calling it that, as I have a deep-seated distrust of people who seem to spend most of their time promoting the idea that they're geniuses and not actually doing genius-grade work. If anything I think we should be calling it the Vinge Singularity, in honor of Vernor Vinge, who coined the term and wrote about it extensively some twenty years before Kurzweil, but Vinge acknowledges that he was only building on the work of others, so perhaps this is a topic best left for another time.)

In one very tiny nutshell, the idea of the Singularity is that thanks to recent advances in technology, we are rapidly approaching an historical "singularity" as significant as a gravitational singularity (e.g., a "black hole"), after which humanity will be superseded by "transhumans" or "post-humans" and Everything Will Be Unimaginably Different. The challenge for the SF writer then becomes to imagine how different unimaginably different will be.

Kind of a recursive problem, no?

This is the core stuff of science fiction, folks. SF writers have been writing about what comes after humanity for at least the past century, or more. Some see a glorious future populated by vastly intelligent and beneficent "transhumans;" others see the world dissolving into nanotechnological biological goo, as Greg Bear did in Blood Music. Some think this change will usher in a new Golden Age, except of course we will evolve past the need for gold; others think it's clearly a recipe for mass slaughter, human extinction, and TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It). As one possible answer to this question we get the X-Men; as another, we get C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, except that he called his transhumans "macrobes."

This, to reinforce the point, is a really huge question. Writers have made entire careers out of exploring it. The Futurist article The Bandit cites is a good introduction; I fight a daily battle with Moore's Law, but I'd never even heard of Monsanto's Law. The Wikipedia article is much better background reading, but perhaps a little dense for a first taste. Then of course there's always Kurzweil's site, and perhaps there's a story in the idea of a man making great amounts of money alternately stoking and stroking people's constant fear of the future.

Personally (again), I'm of the opinion that the short-term future looks a lot more like Idiocracy than anything populated by superhuman intelligences, and the long-term future looks more like The Time Machine than any transcendent golden age, but maybe that's just because I spend more time working with normal humans than collecting honorary doctorates. I dunno. Maybe it's just a failure of vision on my part.

But anyway, that's this week's challenge: have a look at the various articles about the Singularity that are linked-in above, and then see what kind of story idea pops into your forebrain. To repeat my assertion one more time, this is a huge topic, more suited to a big fat science fiction novel—or maybe even a whole series of BFSFNs—than a short story, and I don't expect you to produce much more than a rough sketch this first time out. But take a look at the linked articles, then engage your idea generator and see what spins out.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced Official Rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind the recently restocked Door #3. The deadline for this contest is midnight Central time, Thursday, 6/25/09.

And good luck in the transhuman future, okay?

Afterthought: To sweeten the pot, I'm putting an autographed copy of old chum Dr. Robert Metzger's epic BFSF Singularity Novel, Cusp, on the table, for this contest only. (Ignore the 1-star reviews on Amazon, okay? It really is a cool book.)

Otogu Demands a Sacrifice!

Therefore the usual Friday Challenge post will appear later today. Sorry about that.

(Wonderfully ghastly artwork by Vidad.)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Battlestar Frakkalactica

The bastridges. Battlestar Galaxative Season 4.5 doesn't come out on DVD until the end of July. How does it end?

Don't tell me; I actually know already. But the Mrs. doesn't, and she's counting down the days until the DVD set comes out. She got really hooked on this one, but in the end, we had to watch it on DVD, because all the dragged-out cliffhanger endings just got too wearying. Better to wait for the DVD, and then ease that dangerous and annoying tension by watching just a little bit of the next episode and finding out how they escaped certain death this time.

For reference, we also have the "original" Battlestar Galactica movie, which was spliced together from the series pilot and the first few episodes and unleashed on unwitting movie-going audiences worldwide some thirty years ago. In terms of acting, effects, story-line, and pretty much anything else you'd care to name, this new series is a quantum leap beyond the "original." (Even if it did from time to time turn into "Escape From The Planet of the Evil Robot Lingerie Models." And I put the term "original" in scare quotes, because there was absolutely not one word of original thought in the "original" series, and there were copyright infringement lawsuits to support that contention.)

But now that it's all over, and before the please-God-no! prequel series begins, we must ask the question. The New & Improved Battlestar Galactica, The Next Generation: was it good, bad, or fugly?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

And the winner is...

...being announced much too late. Sorry about that; we got overrun by a stampede of dinosaurs here, followed by a succession of train wrecks and then an earthquake. Otogu must be most displeased with us this week.

Diving right in then:

Ben-El: "As I Die Laying"
What can I say? This story just cracked me up, again and again, from the opening paragraphs to the moment when that terrible delayed-action pun of a title finally detonated. I've been cornered at parties by way too many Arts, all babbling with great sincerity and passion about the most insane things, and I think I probably would have gone a little further outside of him and spent more time describing him as the others see him, from the barbecue sauce spots on his shirt right down to the rundown heels of his smelly Converse Chuck Taylor's. As for the baseball cap (for which team?), when Mike says, "Shouldn't that be made of tinfoil?", I think that rather than admit that it is tinfoil-lined, it would be better if Art almost got sidetracked off into an explanation of why tinfoil isn't nearly dense enough to provide adequate shielding—say, using something along these lines—and then had to recover.

The dialogue between the Liberal and the Conservative is great, but would benefit from being sharpened. Cathy is kind of a nullity until the end, and given her prominence then, she probably should have more to say earlier. (Why, when I envision her, do I see certain empty-headed t-shirt-wearing women I've met at past parties? For example, that one in Chattanooga who was wearing the t-shirt that said, "I'm only here to get drunk and get laid.") Jack, Mike, and Cathy all would benefit from a little more physical description and about a ten-percent reduction in dialogue. The whole thing needs at least one more good rewrite for tightening purposes.

But the anagrams just crack me up. The complete daffy lunacy of Art's theory cracks me up. Thanks for sparing me the ending I thought you were leading up to, which was Art waking up in the middle of the night to find Cathy in the bathroom, whispering into her compact. "He knows too much. We'll have to kill him." (Do women even carry compacts any more?)

I liked the first ending a lot. The second ending was better, or would be, with another rewrite or two to better integrate it. I don't know if this one could ever be publishable, but that is another question entirely, and a topic for another time. But even as it stands now, in first-draft form: I love it. It cracks me up.

Al: "The Nightmare Begins"
This one almost works for me. The writing is first-rate. You really jump right into the story; you kickstart it with a steel-toed boot, jam it into gear, and take off laying down rubber and never slowing down until the very end. You give us all the backstory we need without breaking the pace.

The problem is, this isn't a story, it's a first chapter. Maybe it's a moral failing on my part; maybe it's just that too many of these things were written in the 1950s—and then again in the 1970s—but I've gotten really tired of the whole paranoid/survivalist hiding-out-from-the-end-of-the-world trope. I guess I really just plain don't much like characters whose entire philosophy can be cooked down to, "I warned you once and you didn't listen to me, so screw you."

Maybe it's just that I wrote too many of those sorts of characters myself, back in the 1970s and early 1980s.

That, and I've always wondered why, if the sigma character has figured out the Great Evil Conspiracy and is running scared and paranoid from Everyone Who Is Out To Get Him, he (and it's always he) is always so willing to accept the situation when he finally runs into other people who have also figured out the conspiracy, and who are there to provide him with a convenient deus ex militia and all the things he regrettably was unable to pack when he first went on the run. (E.g., toothbrush, clean underwear, food, a place to hide, succinct and nearly omniscient exposition, false identity papers, weapons, a small army of selfless supporting actors, a smart-mouthed but ultimately totally hot and loyal girlfriend... See, oh, The Running Man, Total Recall, or most Bond films.) I mean, wouldn't a sufficiently thoughtful Great Evil Conspiracy plant such people, simply as a backup plan, in case their secrecy wasn't airtight and they failed to get the one guy who stumbled onto the truth?

And while we're at it: what's the job description, anyway? When the Evil Mastermind is hiring, is one of the interview questions: "Okay, suppose that somehow—unbelievable as it might seem—one stubborn person has learned the truth about our G.E.C. and is determined to escape and warn the whole world. Do you have any experience with directing thuggish and incompetent henchmen and running an ad hoc chase-and-capture operation?"

Anyway: in sum, this is a good, strong, first chapter, but it's not a story. I'd like to see how you'd develop this one. A character who runs and hides from evil is realistic, but not interesting. A character who resists is. He can be tragic; he can fail; but for God's sake have him go down fighting. Don't make him hopeless.

Arisia: "Alien Slave"
I'm still ruminating over this one. (No, wait, Henry ruminates. I need a different signature metaphor.)

The writing is superb, in an entirely different way than Al's is. It's wistful, dreamy; a disturbing and random walk through some fog-shrouded interior landscape. Watch out for the parentheticals, though. There's at least one too many of them, and they're jarring. (Have you ever experienced a rotten tomato? They really stink!) I really like the way you approach the central topic. Is Cynthia simply nuts, or is she actually onto something?

The ending...

Well, that's a problem. She's facing a terrible dilemma, but in the end she's Raptured out of having to make a choice. This is probably why overtly Christian endings generally don't work so well in most of the commercial market. I mean, how can you argue with Christ? How can you ask God to explain Himself? The answer just is, the end.

This is why it's called a deus ex machina ending, and it's been a problem since Sophocles was writing plays. Greek theaters had trapdoors and pulley mechanisms and the like. Deus ex machina literally means "god on a machine," and it was the sloppy playwright's way to wrap up a story. You've set up a terrible dilemma, put your characters in an impossible situation—and then BAM!, a god drops down from the rafters or pops up through a trapdoor, to resolve everything with a divine miracle or an omniscient explanation. The end.

So, getting back to "Alien Slave:" in the end, I'm disappointed. You've set up an interesting, if terribly, depressing situation. But rather than finding any solution within herself, Cynthia ends up being swept away by events beyond human comprehension. It may make good theology, but as a story, it simply collapses.

But given the theological nature of the ending, it also makes this one really difficult to comment on or criticize.

Torainfor: "Unity"
And now, having written so much on the other three entries, I'm afraid I must disappoint you by saying, "It's perfect. Don't change a thing. Take it off your blog and try to shop it around now."

Yeah, I have a certain innate resistance to stories that end with the G.E.C. winning, but that objection ignores the realities of Mat's (only one "t"?) situation. He is a dependent child, if a teenager. His parents have been coopted by the G.E.C., as has his doctor, and apparently almost everyone else. This is primal nightmare stuff, and you spin the web that ensnares Mat very, very well indeed.

And here you were two weeks ago, saying you didn't and couldn't write horror. Surprise! You just did! And it's great!

Anyway, that's all I have to say about this one, except to announce that as you might expect, "Unity" is this week's winner. So Torainfor, come on down and claim your prize!

On third thought, since I've made everyone wait so long: in order to bribe reward you for your patience, I'm going to declare this another "Everyone's a winner!" week and give prizes to everyone who entered. However, you might also want to wait until Saturday to claim it, as I've got two more boxes full of books sitting here waiting to be added to the Door #3 list.

Hey. It's a mutually beneficial exchange. You get free books, and I recover some valuable and desperately needed office space.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

As I write this, I can hear the drone of the TV set a couple of rooms away. One of the boys is watching something. I don't know what he's watching, but if the show is a sitcom or cartoon I can make the following prediction without any fear of being wrong; the father on the show is a bumbling idiot who is always being shown up by his smart aleck children and is always being corrected by his wonderful and wise wife.

I noticed the trend toward this back in the '80s. I didn't watch that much TV then and still don't watch all that much now, which likely means the trend is far more pervasive than even I realize. Bad as it is on network sitcoms, though, the situation gets far worse once you look at programming aimed at children.

Once you get past all of the shows aimed at very young children and hit cartoons, you would be hard pressed to find any cartoon with a responsible father. The first cartoon my son really got into was Rugrats on Nickelodeon. The show featured four fathers; the toy inventor who regularly left infants to fend for themselves for hours on end, the subservient father who was dominated by his super successful wife and his bossy daughter, the milquetoast widower who was afraid of everything and the dad who was so bland I nearly forgot about him. Without their wives and the babies to watch after them, this bunch of idiots would probably have drowned in the shallow end of the gene pool.

While I won't bore you all by listing every cartoon my kids have watched, I cannot think of a single one which portrays fathers as anything other than fools with much to learn from the brilliant children and spouse.

Apparently it wasn't enough for fathers to be morons. These days, most of the boys are idiots, too. I am hard pressed to name a single cartoon that doesn't have at least one boy who complete and utter moron. Conversely, I can't name a single cartoon which has even one girl who isn't clever and forever having to pull the moron boy's fat out of the fire.

I have to wonder exactly what all of these "males are stupid, females are brilliant" messages are doing to our boys. I know there are some who will say, "You're making a big deal over a bunch of silly cartoons and sitcoms!" Those same people will then protest that video games are turning our children into killers or that exposure to NRA gun safety training will get kids interested in guns and shooting. (Interestingly, these same people will tell you that detailed sex education will not get kids more interested in having sex.)

Boys already receive enough exposure to the idea that being smart isn't cool from their peers without having television drive home that same idea. Despite all of this, I rarely hear anyone in the media bring up this subject. There are a few who discuss the "war on boys" (including a book by the same title), but they are generally dismissed as right wing cranks who want women kept barefoot and pregnant.

On the other hand, lots of people in the media discuss the idea that video games are doing harm to boys by encouraging violent tendencies. But you know what, I've played a lot of video games and watched my boys play a lot more. Men and boys in video games aren't stupid. Many of them -- those in role playing games and the much maligned first person shooting games, in particular -- act heroically. (Yes, there are the odious Grand Theft Auto games which glorify criminal violence, but I don't let my boys play any games like those.) But this isn't a rant about video games, it's a rant about television.

It's way too late for me to get rid of the television. The boys have seen so many of these shows that they'll never forget them. Also, there are good television shows out there (really!), so I prefer not to toss out the baby with the bath water. Instead, I do what I can to offset the message drilled into them by the television. I praise them for good grades, for clever insights, for anything that shows they are using their brains intelligently. When they discuss their interests or plans for the future, I find ways to work in how valuable a good education will be (even if the plan is to become a professional skateboarder). And I never, ever, use "stupid" in reference to them, their friends or the things they're interested in.

Never, except for those television shows I'm ranting about. With those, I call 'em like I see 'em.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you—like, say, Henry, hint, hint,—might feel like sharing with the group here?

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 6/12/09

Four entries this week, including a few from people we haven't heard from in a while. As of this morning, we've received:

Torainfor, "Unity"

Arisia, "Alien Slave"

Al, "The Nightmare Begins"

Ben-El, "As I Die Laying"

As always, even if you didn't submit an entry this week, you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the authors' blogs, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

And now for this week's Challenge:

Chapter 5
You know that novel you always meant to write, if you could just figure out how to start it? But before you could do that, you had to figure out how to set up the backstory, which meant you had to plan out the plot, and you had to work out the main character's biography, which led you into an exercise in world-building, and before you knew it you'd once again set out to write fiction and ended up deep in researching the differences between Monophysitism and Monothelitism?

Well, you've started it. You've established the setting. You've introduced the sigma character and told us everything we need to know about him or her (or it). You've introduced the main supporting character or characters, and given us at least a strong foreshadowing of the conflict that's at the heart of your story. All that stuff that writers always get hung up on is already done. We, your readers, now know it in sufficient detail; any more explaining or scene-setting and we'll doze off. There is one and only one thing we care about now: what happens next?

That's it. The motor of your story is running. We don't care about what you see in the rearview mirror or what you drove past awhile ago. We aren't expecting you to end the story any time soon. We just want you to get this bucket moving and tell us the next few hundred to few thousand words of your story.

And make 'em good, so that at the end we'll be burning to find out what happens in Chapter 6.

As always, we're playing by the ever-evolving but still not updated Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind the frequently updated Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 6/18/09.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder here that the deadline for the 6/5/09 Friday Challenge is midnight tonight, Central time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Of Barrels, and the Scraping of the Bottoms Thereof

Just when you thought they'd dug down as far as they could go and scraped the bottom to the absolute limits of human ability, someone always manages to break through a layer of rust and find a whole new world o' crud. Case in point:
Liam Neeson in Talks for 'A Team' Film
Liam Neeson is in negotiations with 20th Century Fox to star in its long-gestating bigscreen adaptation of "The A-Team" as Col. John "Hannibal" Smith. Bradley Cooper is in early talks to play Lt. Templeton "Faceman" Peck in the Joe Carnahan-directed pic based on the 1980s TV series...
The ensemble isn't complete, though, and two key roles remain to be cast. As for myself, I pity the fool who must try to fill the shoes of the legendary Mr. T—

Sorry. Someone had to say it.

—and note with somewhat more than passing interest that the role of "Howling Mad" Murdoch also remains unfilled. Hmm. A near-insane pilot able to fly anything, anywhere, anytime? I know it would just P.O. Dirk Benedict to no end, but I understand that Katee Sackhoff is, as they say, "between roles" right now.

Never mind that. Today's topic is remakes. Lord knows there's no shortage of them. Ronald Moore, late of the Battlestar Galactica remake, is currently working on yet another remake of The Thing. The story is told in the dark and frightening places of the entertainment world that James Cameron is currently working on the Forbidden Planet remake trilogy. And the very thought of the abomination that was Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong near to brings tears to my eyes. Still, there must be some good reason to do a remake; some irresistable way in which it's better than the original. There must be...

[sound of crickets, chirping]

Okay, there's the new Star Trek movie. That's one.

How about it? What's your pick for the remake that was most worth making? Or barring that, for the one that was the worst waste of time, money, and talent you ever saw? Or how about the one that has not yet been made, but the mere thought of the possibility of which makes you wake up screaming in the middle of the night? Or, going way out on a limb, what's the remake you'd like to see made, and why?

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I got Dan Brown's next bestseller right here

Spam, spam, spam, glorious SPAAAAAAAM! I get no shortage of spam, but this one seems more amusing than most. A young lady whose fictitious name is being withheld to protect her fictitious identity and possibly even her fictitious life writes:
I am [name deleted] a computer scientist with central bank of Nigeria. I am 26 years old, just started work with C.B.N. I came across your file which was marked X and your released disk painted RED, I took time to study it and found out that you have paid VIRTUALLY all fees and certificate but the fund has not been release to you. The most annoying thing is that they cannot tell you the truth that on no account will they ever release the fund to you; instead they let you spend money necessarily. I do not intend to work here all the days of my life, I can release this fund to you if you can certify me of my security, and how I can run away from this Nigeria if I do this, because if I don't run away from this country after i made the transfer, I will be seriously in trouble and my life will be in danger.

Please you may not understand it because you are not a Nigerian. The only thing I will need to release this fund is a special HARD DISK we call it HD120 GIG. I will buy two of it, recopy your information, destroy the previous one, and punch the computer to reflect in your bank within 24 banking hours. I will clean up the tracer and destroy your file, after which I will run away from Nigeria to meet with you. If you are interested,

You should send to me your convenient tell/fax numbers for easy communications , so that there won't be any mistake.

Miss [name deleted],
Computer Scientist.

Oh, wow. A hot young Nigerian babe—well, implicitly hot, anyway; I'm sure if I asked her to send me her photo she'd look like exactly like Tyra Banks—wants to help me get all my funds out of Nigeria, and then run away from Nigeria to be with me and my money. Not only is she beautiful and unprincipled, she's got brains, too, as she is no less than a Computer Scientist—because only a real Computer Scientist would know that hard disks containing classified data are routinely painted RED, which is the telling detail I needed to convince me she's telling the truth. And all the poor girl needs is enough money to buy two 120GB hard drives...

(What is that these days? About twenty-five bucks? Do they even make hard drives that small anymore?)

Okay, enough snickering at poor desperate Miss Name-Deleted's expense. Now it's time to take off your skeptic's hat, put on your writer's hat—cinch the hatband down good and tight, to restrict the bloodflow to your forebrain and take your I.Q. down by at least 25 points—and then ask yourself the two or three really important questions:

"What if it's all true?" and, "Who cares? How do I get a bestseller out of this?"

The brainstorming lamp is now lit. Have fun!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Seventeen years ago, the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World passed virtually unnoticed in the U.S. Many cities originally planned extensive celebrations only to cancel them in the face of a massive campaigns against them. It seems Columbus wasn't PC enough for the late 20th century. Later, I read an article that summarized many of the "issues" all these protesters had with recognizing Columbus' voyage and discovery. The article read like a laundry list of modern grievances against Western Civilization.

The Indian- excuse me, Native Americans, advanced the argument that it was stupid to celebrate someone who's chief claim to fame was getting lost (because Columbus originally thought he had found the passage to India rather than the New World). Another argument was that Columbus didn't discover anything new because the Native Americans knew the Americas were here the whole time. Women's groups complained that Columbus should have had women as part of his crew. Various others claimed Columbus' true legacy was the spread of European diseases and European greed among the indigenous races.

In other words, Columbus' actions in the latter part of the 15th century were judged using standards prevalent in the latter part of 20th century America. It was this hubris that angered me at the time. It is this same hubris that angers me today. Civilizations, like individuals, mature with time. Civilizations, like individuals, have needs that must be met before other, more advanced needs can even be considered.

First and foremost, a civilization must be able to survive before it can worry about anything else. Even in the earliest days of mankind, when the closest thing to civilization was a small tribe, survival of the civilization was the single greatest motivation. If two tribes found themselves competing for the same resources, they wouldn't try to sit down and discuss the best way to manage the resources. There was no time for that in a hand-to-mouth existence. After all, the food the other tribe takes today might be the food your tribe needs tomorrow. The tribes would fight brutally and to the death, for death would likely befall the losing tribe anyway.

Only when a civilization had advanced to the point where its survival was not threatened could the civilization look towards safety; permanent settlements, trade with neighboring settlements, development of laws (morality) and a bit of economic innovation such as developing pottery or agriculture.

Once safety is assured, civilizations can advance to include the concepts of love and friendship. Those options may not necessarily be accessible to all citizens in the civilization -- peasants through out history have lived on the edge between safety and love -- but certainly the wealthy members of society could indulge in love.

Anyone who's studied psychology can see that I'm applying Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which are generally applied to individuals, to entire civilizations. The point of this is that only the most advanced and wealthiest of civilizations are so safe, so strongly assured of their position that they can attempt to wipe out bigotry, be spontaneously creative, develop morals that apply to all people, write blogs and indulge the idiots who insist on applying the morals of the most advanced civilization the planet has ever known to societies which were only a few levels of development beyond survival.

That brings me around to writing and the question of what happens when the trappings of civilization are stripped away. Now, this is hardly an original idea and libraries are full of such stories. But the vast majority of those stories deal with just how quickly even the best of us fall into savagery. Wells' War of the Worlds is one such book. There's Goldings' Lord of the Flies, Frank's Alas Babylon and even Niven and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer. The latter two novels at least feature a small group of people struggling to maintain some form of civilization in the face of disaster. Even there, the "good guys" have had to make hard survival choices, such as turning away people seeking sanctuary with them.

It's easy enough to see how a civilization would change it's priorities when its major trappings were stripped away. But are there any stories in which the trappings of civilization do not change yet the citizens still fall to a lower level of civilization? How deadly would a pandemic have to be for civilization to crumble? How many zombies are necessary for civilization to collapse?

To bring this back around to the original topic, what would it take to knock those politically correct idiots right off their pedestal and into the muck of human survival?

Henry Vogel is a storyteller and former comic book writer. He is a prime mover for The Curse of the Were-Weasel. His column, "Ruminations of an Old Goat," appears weekly on Monday mornings.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

And the winner is...

After reading over both entries in the 5/29/09 Friday Challenge, and reading your comments, and reading the entries again and changing my mind, and then re-reading the comments, and re-reading both entries one last time—

Aw, heck, I'm going to drop back and punt. It's a tie. Prizes for everybody. Henry's entry hangs together better as a story and is closer to what I would have written; Vidad's is a hair funnier, weirder, and yet sadder, too. Here's poor Quetzal Arkwat, about to be executed for his failure, asking for permission to check his messages and update his Facebook page one last time. How sadly, pathetically, true.

Anyway, rather than try to split the hairs any finer, I'm calling it a tie. Thanks to everyone who entered, everyone who thought about entering, and everyone who took the time to read the entries and voice an opinion.

A small appetizer for thought

From a little book that's actually much better than you're probably inclined to believe it is, The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems, by Chuck Norris.

Yes, that Chuck Norris.
I first met Bruce Lee in 1968 at Madison Square Garden, where I was fighting for the World Middleweight Karate Championships. I won, but not without taking a beating of my own. As I was leaving the stadium, Bruce came over to introduce himself and congratulate me. I knew of him, had seen him put on a terrific demonstration at the Long Beach Internationals a couple of years earlier, and I had also seen him on the Green Hornet television series.

We got to talking, found out we were staying in the same hotel, and kept each other company as we walked back together. It was nearly midnight when we arrived at the hotel, but neither of us made it to bed that night. Instead, we worked out together in a hallway of the hotel, exchanging techniques until seven in the morning.

Now, I want you to envision this. It's 1968. You're in New York on business, staying at a hotel near Madison Square Garden. You're trying to get some badly needed sleep before a big meeting in the morning, but it sounds like there's a couple of crazed bull elephants having a rampage out in the hall. About 3 A.M. you finally lose it and tear open the door to your room, fully intending to give someone a major piece of your mind—and there in the hallway are Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee, duking it out.

What do you say? What do you do?

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Open Mic Saturday

G'morning all, and welcome to Open Mic Saturday. This is the place to share your news and perhaps do a little bragging. If you're writing a novel: how much progress did you make this week? If you're writing short stories: did you finish anything or submit anything this week? If you've sold or published anything recently: when is it coming out and where can we find it? In short, as a writer, what kind of progress did you make this week?

Or what else is on your mind, that you feel like discussing with the group here?

Writer's Block

by Kersley Fitzgerald

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 6/5/09

Even lighter turnout this week. I hope this isn't a trend. As of the deadline, we have but two entries in the 5/29/09 Friday Challenge.

Henry, "Enslaving the Human Race for Dummies"

Vidad, "JoinMyGroup"

As always, even if you didn't submit an entry this week—even if you never submit entries in any week—you're invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorite. Don't feel shy about leaving feedback on the authors' blogs, either. Writers thrive on knowing that someone out there is actually reading their words. The winner will be announced on Sunday.

And now for this week's Challenge:

The Grzelnorpian Conspiracy
Even though this apparently wasn't a barn-burner of an idea, I'm going to tempt fate and go with my planned next challenge anyway. The situation is still the same as in the 5/29/09 Friday Challenge, except that this time, the roles are reversed. You are now that character so beloved in pulp fiction: the one person who has accidentally learned the terrifying truth about the sinister Grzelnorpian Conspiracy to enslave the Earth! And now, as the doomsday clock slowly, agonizingly, inexorably, relentlessly—horribly!—ticks away the seconds counting down to invasion day, you must ask yourself:

What would Philip K. Dick do?

As always, we're playing by the ever-evolving but still not updated Official Rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind the recently updated Door #3. The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 6/11/09.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Deadline Reminder

Just a quick reminder here that the deadline for the 5/29/09 Friday Challenge is midnight tonight, Central time.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

Fighting Words

It's not all profound intelligence and refined tastes here at Casa del Calamaro. Some days I just want to sit down with a big glass of milk and a couple of Ding Dongs, or maybe park my butt on the couch, turn on the TV, crack a can of cheap beer, and watch a ball game. Other days, I might even go so far as to look at that Umberto Eco or Barbara Kingsolver novel sitting on my nightstand, say, "Nah," and then pick up—oh, it pains me to admit this—

A Star Trek novel.

Okay, so I just finished pigging out on one of these big bowls of literary junk food the other day, and I have to tell you, this particular ST novel had an ending that was just plain terrifying. No, I'm not going to tell you the title of the book or who wrote it. I just want to pose one question, relating to the ending of this book.

Could it possibly be true that in the glorious spacefaring future that is to come, the most frightening words known throughout the galaxy will be not some Klingon curse, Romulan threat, or even the prospectus for a Ferengi investment scheme, but rather the final line of dialog that I found in this novel?
"We're from the Federation, and we're here to help you."

Let the arguments begin.

ULTIMAGE GEEK FU runs every Wednesday. Have a question that's just bugging the heck out of you about Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Gallactica, Farscape, Firefly, Fringe, Heroes, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Smallville, The X-Files, X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Seeking Technical Assistance

Passinthrough writes:
On a different topic, my sisters have amassed a huge stack of family history. They are in the midst of digitizing it. They're having trouble getting the computer to keep the text with pictures when they scan them into the computer. Any ideas on what the solution might be? Thanks for your help.
I will readily admit that the answer to this question, whatever it might be, lies outside of my many areas of expertise. Anyone here have any suggestions for ways in which to solve Passinthrough's problem?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

In 401 BC, 10,400 Greek mercenaries joined with the forces of Cyrus the Younger, brother of the Persian Emperor, Artaxerxes II. Cyrus told the Greeks he was going to fight Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap who was claiming jurisdiction over cities loyal to Cyrus. There was only one problem -- Cyrus lied to the Greeks. From the beginning, he planned on marching into the heart of the Persian empire to seize the throne from his brother.

So begins one of the great, true adventure stories of all time. Known as the March of the 10,000, the story of the Greek mercenaries in Persia is one of the best documented stories from ancient history. Under the title Anabasis, the tale of the 10,000 was written by Xenophon, one of the Greek mercenaries and, eventually, one of their leaders. Sadly, this story is relatively unknown these days. Given that my son's sixth grade class was allotted one class period to cover all of Greek history (the teacher was appalled at the schedule she was given), it's hardly surprising.

Back to our story. The longer the Greeks marched with Cyrus's army, the more suspicious they became of his motives. Their leader, Clearchus, asked Cyrus if his actual intent was to attack his brother. Cyrus lied again, claiming his sole aim was to punish Tissaphernes. Cyrus must have been a very poor liar, because the Greeks remained suspicious and continued questioning Cyrus's eventual goal. Eventually, Cyrus admitted the truth and begged the Greek mercenaries, who he viewed as superior warriors to his own Persian troops, to stay with the army. The Greeks put it to a vote and decided to stay with Cyrus provided he increased their pay. Cyrus agreed and the army marched to Cunaxa, in what was ancient Babylon. There Cyrus's army and the Greeks would meet Artaxerex II and his Persian army.

When battle was joined, the Greeks were on the right flank, next to a river. The Greeks met the Persian flank and drove them backward for several miles before routing the Persians entirely. Along the way, the Greeks lost contact with the rest of Cyrus's army; something which was not that uncommon in ancient warfare.

Pleased with the battle, the Greeks marched back to rejoin what they assumed was Cyrus's victorious army. Instead of a hero's welcome, the Greeks found their camp looted, Cyrus dead and his army defeated. Oops.

This is when things started getting interesting for the Greeks. Artaxerxes sent word to the Greeks to lay down their arms and surrender. The Greeks refused, claiming they had won the battle. Artaxerxes pointed out that Cyrus was dead. The Greeks said Cyrus's death didn't change anything and demanded the return of their supplies, promising to return to Greece if Artaxerxes would do this. In return, Artaxerxes invited the Greek leaders to his camp to negotiate the details of their proposal. The Greeks agreed to the meeting.

After all the time Cyrus spent lying to them, you'd think the Greeks would have been less willing to accept another Persian's word. Artaxerxes had no interest in negotiating with the Greeks. The Greek leaders arrived at the Persian camp with an escort of about 200 warriors. Asked to disarm as a show of good faith, the Greek leaders left their weapons outside the meeting tent. Once inside, the Greek leaders were killed and their escort attacked. Few of the 200 man escort survived to return to the Greek camp.

If Artaxerxes thought killing their leaders would make the Greeks surrender, he was in for a surprise. The Greeks quickly elected new leaders, including Xenophon, and awaited orders. Correctly assuming Artaxerxes wasn't going to let them leave peacefully, the Greeks gathered what equipment and supplies they had and started marching back home.

Think about that for a minute. Over one thousand miles inside the world's largest, most powerful empire, with no supplies, camped just a few miles from the Persian Emperor's personal army, with every sword and spear in that empire turned against them, the Greeks just decided to march back home. When news of this reached Artaxerxes, I've got think he laughed at the Greeks' sheer bravado. Once he stopped laughing, he ordered his army into pursuit.

What followed was an amazing tale of courage, determination and brutality as the Greeks marched and fought and sacked their way through hundreds of miles teeming with Persian armies and tribes of savage natives. A big reason the Greeks were able to fight their way through the heart of the Persian Empire was the way the Persian satraps responded to them. Once the Greeks marched out of a province, that province's satrap left them alone. Had any of the satraps along the way been able to put aside their differences and work together, the March of the 10,000 would probably have been a lot shorter.

As it was, the Greeks marched across deserts, though snow-covered mountain passes and all forms of terrain in between those extremes. Xenophon and the other leaders were forced to change their tactics constantly to match ever changing terrain, ever changing opponents and their perpetual shortage of supplies.

Eventually, barely more than 6000 of the Greeks survived to reach the Black Sea and begin the sea voyage back to Greece. While this was not the end of the adventures of the mercenaries, it's where I'm going to stop recounting their tale.

Why did I write all about the March of the 10,000? I wrote about it because it's an excellent example of ancient history inspiring modern science fiction and fantasy. We all know that ideas aren't really that hard to come up with, but writers are also happy to snag the odd story idea that is already developed. Ancient history in a surprisingly good source for this.

Consider the March of the 10,000. What if, instead of stranding 10,000 Greek mercenaries in the middle of a rich and powerful empire, we strand a few hundred marines of the future on a technologically primitive world. Destroy their long range communications equipment and place them half a world away from the only space port on the planet. Toss in a spoiled prince to protect and return to civilization and you've got David Weber and John Ringo's Prince Roger series. The first book of the series is even titled March Up Country, which is one of the English translations of Anabasis, the title of Xenophon's work. If you like military science fiction, this series is a good one. I think Weber and Ringo should have gone for a happy ending after the third book. Instead, they carried their story on beyond simply returning home in triumph. The fourth book, while good, wasn't on par with the first three in the series. Worse, the fourth book leaves you expecting a fifth book which shows no sign of ever being written.

If you prefer to go interstellar, you could trap a lone fleet deep in enemy territory and force them to fight their way back to their home territory one star system at a time. That would give you Jack Campbell's Lost Fleet series, planned as a six book series for which five books have already been released. Campbell goes further, mixing in a bit of the Arthurian legend, too. If you like space opera and military science fiction, this is very good series.

I didn't write all of that stuff on the March of the 10,000 just to spend a couple of short paragraphs reviewing a few books based on the story. My main goal was to show how easily ancient history can be used as a spring board for modern stories.

The history of man is brimming with stories such as this. Next time you're stuck for an idea, check the history books. I'm betting you'll find more ideas than you can use in a life time.
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