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Friday, July 31, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 7/31/09

As Snowdog himself has suggested, it's clearly time for The Second Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition!

But I'm out of time right now, so more to follow...

Update: on Saturday
The concept here is simple. We've had 26 challenges so far this year. Was there one you really wanted to enter but just couldn't find the time? Or maybe you did write an entry, but it didn't come together they way you wanted by the time the deadline rolled around and so you didn't submit it?

Well, damn the deadlines and full speed ahead! For the Ultimate Snowdogging Competition, every challenge thus far this year is reopened. It's do-over time!

So first, you may wish to revel in the glory of a half-year of Friday Challenges:


And then pick one you'd like to revisit (or more, if you're ambitious) and take another whack at it.

In keeping with the spirit of this particular challenge, the open period for this contest is two weeks. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, August 13, 2009.

Well? What are you waiting for? Get slacking!

I see from the comments that some of you have tracked down the First Annual Ultimate Snowdogging Competition, which was held over in the now-defunct Ranting Room. If you really want to use one of those old challenges as a starting point I suppose you can, but be advised that some of them are more than four years old. In Internet Time, that's like, ages ago, and I'd be surprised if any of the associated links still work.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

In praise of Gerry Anderson

This week I want to talk about an old friend: Gerry Anderson. He's not really an old friend; I've never met the man, or had even a near-miss with his coattails. But when people ask who my influences were, and particularly whether watching Star Trek had any influence on my interest in science fiction...

Well, no. But somewhere way back in the dim mists of time, deep in the memory vault, before watching Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, before discovering Bradbury and Clarke, before even Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein, there was Gerry Anderson.

And, God help me, Supercar and Fireball XL5.

If the names don't seem immediately familiar to you, you still probably know Anderson by his work. He first put a dent in the zeitgeist as the man who invented "supermarionation," the peculiar combination of live-action and puppetry used in the TV series Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, and of course, Thunderbirds. To put it plainly, without Thunderbirds, there would have been no Team America: World Police. (By the way, Anderson reportedly loved Team America and thought it was absolutely hilarious.)

Later, Anderson went on to make the "cult classic" TV series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, UFO and Space: 1999. ("Cult classic" apparently translates as, "nobody watched them in their original release.")

Anderson has been somewhat on my mind lately because of this little item, which appeared in The Register: CGI Thunderbirds sadly not go. For once again, we see proof that it's not about being original, creative, or unique; it's about who controls the film rights.

But never mind that. Right now, I want to raise my cup of coffee in salute to Gerry Anderson, unsung genius, who successfully warped the impressionable little minds of far more children than one ever might have thought possible. To Gerry: Thunderbirds are go!

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, July 28, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

With rights come obligations. We all understand that, don't we? With freedom of speech comes the obligation to refrain from slander. With freedom of religion comes the obligation to respect the religious choices made by others. With freedom of assembly comes the obligation to behave in a responsible and respectful manner towards others, their possessions and their property. With the right to bear arms comes the obligation to use those arms safely, either for individual defense or against a tyrannical government. (Don't tell the government about that last one. They don't believe in it.)

We all recognize and respect those obligations inherent in the rights our forefathers claimed for themselves and us. Now, as we watch our rights expanding almost on a daily basis, we need to consider the new obligations inherent in these new rights.

What are the obligations for the new right to affordable housing? First, there's the obligation to buy a smaller house than you might want or need. After all, if you waste all of your money buying a house bigger than you really need, you'll have less money to pay for the houses of those less fortunate than you. You know, the people who spend every single dollar they earn as they get it? The ones who have a really flashy new car and who sneer at your ten year old car. The ones who have all the latest video game systems, a fifty inch high def TV, a wall full of Blu-Ray DVDs and six hundred channels available on cable. The ones who pack all of that into a little one bedroom apartment because that's all they can afford after paying all their credit card bills. Yes, you owe it to those people to live well within your means so they can live beyond theirs.

Let's not forget the right to a living wage. This one is tough, as what constitutes a living wage is going vary depending on where you live. But there's no doubting that people have a right to be paid enough to support themselves and their family. Just because you studied hard in high school, went to college, studied hard, graduated and got a good paying job doesn't mean you weren't a winner in life's lottery. Just because the unfortunate ones partied in high school, dropped out of community college and were unable to keep their jobs as unskilled laborers doesn't mean they don't deserve to earn more money just for sweeping floors. Now you owe doubly to those people, so live even more within your means so you can afford to pay more to receive less.

Now we come to the biggest new right of them all; the right to free health care! What obligations do you have to ensure others can enjoy this right? Once again, you have the obligation to live well within your means -- even more than before -- so those people without insurance can have insurance provided for them. It doesn't matter if those people are illegal aliens. It doesn't matter if those people have access to other government provided coverage but haven't bothered to sign up for it. It doesn't even matter if those people are earning a comfortable living on their own and have simply decided to go without health insurance so they can have more disposable income. It's your obligation to spend less so they can spend more!

But the right to free health care goes beyond simple monetary issues. You have an obligation to lead a healthy lifestyle so you won't become a burden to your fellow citizens. You owe it to them to eat less, to exercise more, to stop smoking or never start. You owe it to them to use up as little of the free health care as possible so there will be more free health care available for them.

Finally, when you're old enough that there will only be a few years of benefit to be gained from your free health care, you have an obligation to die and stop using health care all together.

It seems to me that these new rights put a lot of obligations on me without actually providing anything I want. Since no one forces you to use free speech or to bear arms or to partake in any of our other rights, I'm sure the government will understand if I simply choose to opt out of these new rights.


Monday, July 27, 2009

"And They Hived Appily Ever Lafter"

by Guy Stewart

Last lines have always been relegated to the status of either meaningless or trite. Fairytales—at least the Disney ones—frequently end with the de-spoonerized version of my title. The last lines of popular Nebula, Locus, Hugo and Gandalf winning books are no exception. My title could just as well be the last line of a great science fiction or fantasy masterpiece and it would have just as much effect on the story as the real last line.

Don’t believe me? Try quoting the last line of Frank Herbert’s DUNE. It won the Hugo, the first Nebula, it was the first hard cover SF best seller, and is often cited as the world’s best-selling SF novel. I’ve even heard it referred to as the best SF novel EVER written. If you think a bit, you can probably remember – if not the first line, then the first situation. But do you have even a CLUE what the last line is? Here it is:

“While we Chani, we who carry the name concubine – history will call us wives.”

Was it what you thought it would be? Is it profound? Does it make you want to read the book? Hmmm…I’ve seen better.

Let’s take a systematic look at the last lines of SF and F novels I’ve placed in three loose categories: Modern SF&F, one book a singleton and one book the first in a series; Classic SF&F, one book a singleton and one book the first of a series; Obscure SF&F, one book a singleton and one book the first of a series. The question I’ll be looking to answer is: is there any conclusions we can draw about last sentences? Do women write better last sentences than men do? Did the classics have last sentences nailed – or do the obscure, one-off books have that honor? You can draw your own conclusions, but I’ll be sharing mine.

The two modern SF&F novels I’ve chosen are Connie Willis’ DOOMSDAY BOOK and J.K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS (those who would like to argue that “children’s books don’t count!” either didn’t notice the irony of saying that after reading DH or they haven’t chatted with my 77 year old father, who recently read the entire 7 book series and enjoyed it immensely). Here are the NOT famous last lines:

DB (SF): “‘I knew you’d come,’ she said, and the net opened.” (10 words)

HPATDH (F): “‘And quite honestly,” he turned away from the painted portraits, thinking now only of the four-poster bed lying waiting for him in Gryffindoor Tower, and wondering whether Kreacher might bring him a sandwich there, ‘I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime.’” (41 words)

The two classic SF&F novels are H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS and J.R.R. Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. Here are the NOT famous last lines:

WOTW (SF): “And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of smoke and mist, vanishing into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sightseers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the tim e when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day…and strangest of all is to hold my wife’s hand again, and to think that I have counted her, and that she has counted me, among the dead.” (130 words)

TFOTR (F): “Then shouldering their burdens, they set off, seeking a path that would bring them over the grey hills of Emyn Muil, and down into the Land of Shadow.” (28 words)

Lastly, two more-or-less obscure SF&F novels, the first DAWN, by Octavia Butler (no slight meant here – I absolutely love her prose, as near poetry as science can get…in my humble opinion); and SHADOW OF THE TORTURER by Gene Wolfe. Below you will find their last lines:

D (SF): “She let Nikanj lead her into the dark forest and to one of the concealed dry exits.” (17 words)

SOTT (F/SF?): “‘It is no easy road.’” (5 words)

First I’ll point out the conclusions we CAN’T draw:

1) Fantasy is wordy. (Total last words: F = 86, SF = 157)

2) Science fiction uses more concise language.

3) Science fiction has more to say about the real world than fantasy does. (Review those last sentences if you doubt me.)

4) Fantasy is obviously made up, science fiction appears real.

Conclusions we might draw:

1) Fantasy uses more made up words than science fiction does, especially in naming places.

2) The line between SF&F is blurry – there’s no way to tell which endings belong to SF and which belong to F stories.

3) Men tend to wordiness while women to brevity – at least in last sentences, though Gene Wolfe beats all.

4) F offers more “take-away” value than SF.

Few of these last lines have anything meaningful to offer us. Two of them offer “take-away” lessons in these final sentences: “It is no easy road” and “I’ve had enough trouble for a lifetime”. Both seem to be poster material while, “I knew you’d come she said, and the net opened” seems to lack for a sense of drama – if not for resolution. But it doesn’t “say anything” important. It’s not a line I’d scribble down in my journal or tag on the end of my emails.

Perhaps the question I should be asking is: do the final lines of any work really need to say anything? Aren’t they to be as invisible as periods, serving the same purpose – making everything neat and tidy but nothing else? That seems like a cop out. While you can’t make EVERY word in a novel meaningful, it seems that the first and last should bear some weight. Shouldn’t they be like bookends, neatly bracketing the elucidation of the theme with pithy reminders of what was most important?

I think they should and while all of the books above contributed something to the literature of the fantastic, none of them did so “in conclusion”. Some of them did in their opening lines and when you read them out loud, those familiar with the genre say, “Oh, isn’t that from…” But if you do the same thing with the last lines, people won’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.

Because of this, I make a pledge to myself to finish my stories with lines worthy of the rest of the story – and certainly making a greater effort to support the theme as clearly and obviously as possible!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

And the winner is...

Well, that was a pleasant change. For the first time in far too long, we actually found the time this evening to read and discuss the entries in the 7/17/09 Friday Challenge before picking a winner.

Al: there are some clever ideas in "Dark Mirror," but it reads more like a sketch or an outline than an actual story, and the reference to Speaker Pelosi in the final paragraph undercuts the whole thing by making it seem more like the setup for some not terribly clear contemporary political joke. Interestingly, we agreed that if the name "Pelosi" were simply removed from that last sentence, it would greatly improve the tone of the entire piece. The active characters in the story are the President, "Bob," and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. If that last sentence were to refer only to The Speaker of the House, it would be more in keeping with the rest of the story.

Unless, of course, it was meant to be a joke at Speaker Pelosi's expense, in which case, we didn't get it.

However, that's going quite far off on a sidetrack. The depiction of the gallery of history in the Library of Congress is a very strong idea, and we wonder if there isn't more you could have done with that, or some way you could have presented that without the framing device of the President's conversation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. You've really developed the alternate history well. It's the framing story that's weak.

Henry: actually, we couldn't find anything to ding in "The Declaration." It's an engaging story, well told, with a great setup and ending. You do a nice job of establishing the alternate history without succumbing to the risk of slipping into a Don & Rob lecture.

For anyone not familiar with the expression: that's always a risk when doing stories of this kind. When you find yourself with information readers need to know in order to understand the story, but that the characters living in the story already know as a matter of course, there's always a terrible temptation to just blurt it out by having Don turn to Rob and say, "As we both know, the course of history took a dramatic turn when..."

Good job establishing the alternate timeline without sounding like you're establishing an alternate timeline. Very smooth.

However, in the final cut, we picked Guy as this week's winner. There are just so many enormously cool and weird things all going on at the same time in "Throwing Wotan's Spear" that we don't know how you managed to fit them all into one very short story. Transatlantic zeppelin service, Zulu peacekeepers in occupied Berlin, Robert Goddard and Albert One-Beer meeting in a German beer hall to discuss liquid-fueled rocketry and atomic physics while under the influence of too much beer and Wagner. I had the feeling the story was missing just one thing that would make it perfect, but couldn't quite put my finger on it, until just now as I was writing this up and realized that what it was missing was a cameo guest appearance by either Jerry Cornelius or Una Persson.

Anyway, it was fun, weird, trippy stuff, and this week it's our winner. So Guy Stewart, come on down and claim your prize!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 7/24/09

It's been a long week, and at the moment it doesn't look as if next week will be much better, so I'm going to begin by apologizing in advance for any further snowdogging and schedule disruptions that may or may not take place, in the near- or mid-term future.

Glib and marginally sincere apology successfully delivered, we now move on to the 7/17/09 Friday Challenge. In the order received, the entries are:

Guy Stewart, "Throwing Wotan's Spear"

Henry, "The Declaration"

Al, "Dark Mirror," Part 1 | Part 1.5 | Part 2

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:

The Honorable Senator Foghorn Leghorn
Do you write for the ages, or write for your contemporaries? Consciously attempting to write for the ages too often produces ponderously awful turgidity, while writing for your contemporaries—well, that can lead to other problems. On the one hand, there's a strong temptation to pander to the groundlings and write vampire were-seal action-adventure soft-core porn; on the other, it's true that writers have an obligation to speak truth to power fearlessly, and to pursue truth wherever the tail leads. On the gripping hand, though, litigation is expensive, and in some times and places litigation may be the very least of the fearlessly truth-seeking writer's problems.

Thus we enter the realm of satire, parody, and allegory. The best Russian science fiction, I've been told, is actually satirical allegory about the Soviet system. Similarly, I've been told that Joseph Heller's Catch 22 is only a pale imitation of The Good Soldier Schweik, the best novel ever written in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but I've never actually read the latter.

We haven't quite reached that point, just yet. In the American Empire it's still fairly safe to insult people by name, provided you target one of those people or groups that it's still safe to insult. (Say, a member of the Palin family.) But if you want to insult someone not on the Approved Targets of Derision (ATD) list...

This is when we resort to verbal caricature and allegory. Older readers may remember Walt Kelly and Al Capp, and characters like The Loan Arranger and Joanie Phoanie. Younger readers in the Upper Midwest may remember all the fun we had during our four glorious years with Governor Turnbuckle. Myself, I'm developing my own cast, for stuff I haven't quite found the nerve to go public with just yet, but in my private moments I'm scribbling little stories about Senator Cokesnorting Buffoon, Mayor B. S. Rykrisp, President Agitprop, and of course, the first practicing Native American peyote cultist elected to Congress, the Honorable BarkingMad Moonbat.

That's this week's challenge. I want you to create an allegorical vehicle for thinly veiled political satire, and tell us an entertaining little story about this person, organization, aggrieved class, or agency.

The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 7/30/09. Not surprisingly, we're still playing by the never-updated Official Rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is on the equally infrequently updated Door #3 list.

And remember: as clearly as you may have your target pictured in your mind, make sure he/she/it/they/them is sufficiently obscured as to maintain the scrim of reasonable doubt.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Snow(dog) Day

I'm buried in what I hope is fluffy clean white stuff this morning, so rather than pretend I'll find the time later today, I'm just going to declare a 24-hour deadline extension.

Catch you tomorrow.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Outlaw School, by Rebecca Ore

Review by Kersley Fitzgerald

I just returned from a Pacific Northwest tour that included a reunion with a few childhood friends. We all had stories of the church where we’d met. One couldn’t have a church wedding because she’d already moved in with her fiancĂ©. She divorced, and is now shacked up with the vulgar son (also divorced) of super-religious church leaders. The oldest in the group spent a decade or so living as a lesbian before marrying a man and having a daughter. One attendee’s entire family was driven out when her mom divorced her dad after thirty years of his drinking. Missing were the once-teenage mom and the more permanently same-sex oriented man. All of us were rejected by the hard-nosed, hard-headed, hard-hearted church of our youth—except for our hostess, the former youth pastor’s daughter with an open heart and an eleven-year-old trained to pour mixed drinks.

So I thought I was fairly qualified to read a book about a girl growing up in a legalistic society.

Turns out the reunion was more interesting.

Jayne lives in a controlled world. In order to prevent the freedom of thought and creativity that would lead to singularity, Americans have been segregated, pigeon-holed, and given only the information and opportunities deemed appropriate for their rank and status. (It took me half the book to figure that much out.)

She is cursed with more curiosity and intelligence than allowed in a middle-manager’s daughter, but a wicked case of dyscalculia that prevents a slide into true genius. Her parents and school counselor put her on “school drugs” to keep her under control. The only legitimate ways to get off them is to lose an eye and become a Judicious Girl or get pregnant. In a moment of uncalculated rebellion, she opts for #2.

It gets her off the drugs, but now she has another choice. One is to sell her baby, go to a special home for pregnant girls, spend tens of thousands of dollars, lose an eye, gain a surgically reconstructed hymen, and become a Judicious Girl. Two is to take a class demotion and marry the guy. Three is to spend thousands of dollars, go to a mental institution, and sell the baby. She chooses the institution.

In the midst of her personal Girl, Interrupted experience, Jayne meets Ocean, an alcoholic agent for a quietly rebellious organization we’re never told anything about. Ocean arranges for Jayne to go to college and take on a life as a super-secret operative whose missions include teaching hookers how to use spreadsheets and tutoring chop-shop mechanics in proper English.

Then, somewhere right before the last chapter, Jayne does something spectacular that we don’t get to read about.

Story-wise, the book was OK. I got through it relatively quickly, so it must not have been boring. Ms Ore has some interesting ideas like the ultra-rigid class control and the “Judicious Girls” who lose an eye and keep their virginity in exchange for the honor of becoming snitches.

But, man, was it hard to follow. Despite the fact the first fifteen pages (!) were back-story on the lead character, I had a difficult time getting a handle on the culture. The world Jayne lives in is revealed in fits and starts and comes across as so depressing I wondered why she was trying to save it.

I doubt Jayne knew, either. The only motivation revealed for her actions is that she didn’t want to be a Judicious Girl, and she wanted to “help people.” She wanders through her life, making a grand total of two deliberate, decisive (although not premeditated) actions. Everything else is haphazard, opportunistic, and apparently based on the fact that while she doesn’t wish to conform, she doesn’t want to get caught, either.

Against the unraveling backdrop of a pale girl living a colorless life scroll stories of far more interesting people doing fascinating things—that still aren’t explained. Ocean is a mystery that could have been revealed further. On the other hand, we read quite a bit about the murdering, psycho, lesbian, dominatrix-hooker who befriends Jayne in Charleston. Although I’m still not sure she adds anything to the main plot beyond context.

In real life, Rebecca Ore is an internet systems administrator. Several scenes delve deeply into a tech world I’m not familiar with, and there’s a sub-plot about open software hidden in the depths. I suspected that I missed a great, over-arching allegory that drew everything together. After nearly three weeks, I think I got it.

I think maybe she meant to equate people with proprietary software, forbidden to be opened up to improvement by outside forces. If that’s the case, maybe she could have dumbed things down, just a bit, so that more than a handful of people (many of whom, I realize, are in this very audience) could get it.

Writing-wise: did I mention she started out with fifteen pages of back-story? Overwhelming, convoluted childhood memories that still didn’t explain anything.

Other than that, her writing reminded me of William Gibson in Neuromancer. Except with more occasions to use the “c” word. And no space-Rastas.

(I will not alight upon the soapbox of reasonableness to rail against the distractions of unnecessary over-usage of swearing, sex, and drugs in modern literature although I will whine for exactly one, admittedly long, sentence.)

There are the standard literary errors ubiquitous in the bookstore, yet forbidden to unpublished authors. The entire book is Jayne’s third-person POV sprinkled with occasional slips. Telling, of course, abounds as in most writing that already has an agent. All of the characters, save perhaps two of the more colorful ones, share the same drab, clipped speech.

I actually wonder if it wouldn’t have been better written in unreliable first person. At least Jayne might have come across as more animated.

There are introspective character-based authors and action-packed plot-based authors. I think Ms Ore is one of the ever-elusive setting-based authors. She seems to have a very clear picture of the world she’s created and its ramifications on her characters’ lives. Sadly, both the character development and the plot are given as little love and attention as Jayne, herself. I’m not asking for less science fiction, just more story.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

"Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons..."

As promised, this week's topic is Harrison Ford. Is he some kind of national treasure? If you've seen American Graffiti, Witness, Blade Runner, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, or any Indiana Jones film except the Crystal Numbskull, probably yes. If you've seen Force Ten From Navarone, Sabrina, or Six Days Seven Nights, perhaps not, but then again that last one may be Anne Heche's fault.

And then there's the big kahuna: Star Wars.

It is my contention that Han Solo is the hero of Star Wars, not Luke Skywalker. Okay, so the script mostly follows the farmboy—but Luke has no choice in the matter. It's Fate; it's Destiny; he's The Chosen One; he's The Only Son of The One Who Was Previously Thought To Be The Chosen One; he's got the magic sword, the super powers, and the little green muppet sensei. Luke can't help but to become the Great Hero in the last reel.

But Han Solo: he has a choice. He's snarky; he's cynical; he's capable of chaos and cowardice; he has a sense of self-interest and self-preservation that seems to elude Luke. He can make mistakes, and sometimes they're doozies; he can get hurt, and when he gets hurt, sometimes he gets pissed-off. He's the guy who's fully capable of blowing away a bounty hunter with a gun hidden under the cantina table—

And let's make no mistake about that one: Han shot first. That is the defining moment for his character, as definitive as when Bogey plugs Major Strosser in Casablanca or John Wayne snipes Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and for Lucas to have changed that scene in the reissue just proves that Lucas didn't really know what he was doing.

—but as I said, Han has a choice. He has to choose to act against his own self-interests and come back to help Luke in the final battle. That scene when Luke is in the trench, trying to hang on for just a few more seconds, and Vader is hot on his tail and moving in for the kill—and suddenly Vader's wingmen get blown apart as the Millennium Falcon comes diving in out of the sun, with Han Solo at the controls, a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' like Harry Luck in The Magnificent Seven—that is the single most exciting moment in the entire damn Star Wars octology, and the fact that there is no comparable character in the first (second?) three movies and no comparable moment mostly proves that Lucas didn't really have a clue what he was doing.

At least, that's my contention.

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, July 21, 2009

And the winner is...

After rereading the entries, and giving this another night to settle before I hit post, I still come up with the same answer. All three entries were very good; very well-written. But Torainfor, your untitled and allegedly "rough" submission is the one that really changed the polarities and made me rethink the original story. Very, very, nicely done.

Arisia, "Supersubstantial" was very thought-provoking and it certainly will give me pause every time I repeat that prayer. But on some emotional level, I just failed to connect with it as a story. Henry, you have written what is perhaps the ultimate arch-villain's monologue, and it's really good... But in the end, it is just an arch-villain's monologue, and somehow, I expected a villain with an IQ of 200 to have some brilliantly intelligent reason for all that he had done, and not just an old grudge leftover from high school.

Still, good entries all, but Torainfor is the winner this—well, last—week. Now, as for this week's challenge...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I hadn't meant to delve into ancient Greek history for this column. But, as I tried to write on another subject, the words just weren't there. Meanwhile, a book I recently finished reading -- a history book on Xenophon and the March of the 10,000 -- put Greek history back on my mind. No, I'm not going to write about Xenophon a second time. I'm going to write about a battle everyone knows about, or at least thinks they know about -- the Battle of Thermopylae.

Even before the movie 300 was released, many people thought they knew about Thermopylae. They knew that three hundred Spartans held off a Persian army numbering a million men for three days, losing the pass of Thermopylae only through treachery. In other words, what they knew was wrong and the movie didn't do anything to change that. In fairness to the movie, it was based on Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which did not claim to be an accurate retelling of history. I read and enjoyed the graphic novel, just as I watched and enjoyed the movie.

What I'm going to try to do is set the record as straight as possible -- there are no first hand accounts of the battle -- and then explain why I consider the Battle of Thermopylae to be the most important battle in the history of western civilization.

First, let's get a little background. In 490 BC, the Persian emperor Darius sent an expedition to Greece with the express intent of punishing Athens for supporting Ionian cities who had rebelled against Persia. Outnumbered approximately two to one, the Athenian army met the Persians on the plains of Marathon. Brilliantly utilizing the terrain to his advantage, the Athenian general Miltiades negated the Persian army's size advantage and routed the Persians. Darius was not pleased at this result but died before he could attempt another invasion. It fell to his son, Xerxes, to bring Greece under Persian rule.

While Xerxes didn't come close to bringing a million men with him when he invaded Greece in 280 BC, the army he brought was huge by ancient standards. Estimates vary, but the prevailing opinion puts Xerxes army at about 250,000 men. Marching in from the north, the Persians demanded and received the surrender of all northern Greek city states in their path.

The southern Greek city states scrambled to throw some troops in front of the Persians to stop, or at least slow, their advance. The Greeks decided to stage their defense in narrow pass of Thermopylae. For various reasons, only 7000 hoplite warriors were on hand to defend the pass. Among those were three hundred Spartans led by one of the Spartan kings (the Spartans had two kings), Leonides. The other Greeks may have wished for more Spartans, but there was no doubt in their minds who should be in command of the defense -- Leonides.

As Miltiades had done ten years earlier, Leonides made superb use of the terrain, choosing to defend a narrow pass that negated the Persian army's much greater numbers. Meanwhile, out at sea, the 270 ships of the Athenian navy, under the command of Themistocles, prepared to defend the Straight of Artemisium against the 1200 ships of the Persian navy.

On land, the Greek forces held the pass of Thermopylae for two days. Wave after wave of Persian soldiers crashed into the Greek line. Always, the Greeks held, inflicting huge casualties on the invaders. The Persian losses were so great, soldiers had to be whipped from behind before they would advance on the Greek line.

The Persians couldn't match the Greeks in any way. The Greek armor was bronze, with a large shield made of wood and reinforced with bronze. The Persians had leather and padded armor with wicker shields. The Greeks fought with a long spear which easily penetrated the Persian shields and armor. The Persians fought with a much shorter spear and were rarely able to get close enough to even attempt an attack. The Greek citizen soldiers trained regularly, allowing them to fight as a disciplined unit. Many of the Persian soldiers were poorly trained conscripts or even slaves. The vast Persian army usually fought armies similar to themselves, armies much smaller than the Persian army. The Persians had never fought anyone like the Greeks before and they simply weren't prepared for it.

As Xerxes watched his soldiers charge the Greek line and die, a lesser known part of this battle took place at sea. In the Straight of Artemisium, Xerxes navy was attempting to move troops past the pass at Thermopylae to surround the defending Greek forces. Out numbered six to one, Themistocles led the Athenian navy into battle against the Persian ships. The Greeks were aided by storms during the first day of battle and were easily able to keep the Persians bottled up in the straight. The second day passed with little fighting as the Persians repaired their ships. On the third day, the two fleets actually joined in battle.

As all of this was taking place, the Persian army had received a major boon. A Greek by the name of Ephialtes went to Xerxes with news of a goat path around the Greek line of defense. Xerxes sent a detachment of his professional soldiers, the Immortals, to follow Ephialtes through the goat path. Leonides had known of the path and had set 1000 Phocian soldiers to guard the trail. The Phocians were less than vigilant and the Immortals were within a few hundred yards before the Phocians even realized they were under attack. Thinking the entire Persian army was attacking them, the Phocians retreated back to Phocis, their city-state, to help defend it.

When Leonides learned of this on the night of the second day of battle, he ordered the rest of the Greek soldiers to retreat from Thermopylae. His Spartans would stay and cover their retreat. Even here, the 300 did not stand alone. A force of about 400 Thebans and 700 Thespians volunteered to stay with the Spartans. With the retreating men, Leonides sent word to Themistocles that their position was lost and there was no longer any reason for the navy to hold the straight. Unfortunately, that word did not reach Themistocles in time to stop the sea battle.

At sea, the two navies met in a day long battle that saw the Greeks hold their own against the numerically superior Persians. In the end, the Athenians lost half of their ships; ships they could ill afford to lose. The Persians lost about the same number of ships, though they could absorb the losses more easily.

On land, the Greeks did not wait for the Persians to attack. As they were already surrounded, they took the battle to the Persians, intent on fighting to the death. Leonides was killed in that initial round of battle and his body became the focal point of the fiercest fighting through out the day. In the end, the Spartans were killed to man. The Thespians surrendered after being completely surrounded. Nearly all of the Thebans died in the battle, as well. Finally victorious, the Persian army marched into southern Greece and lay waste to all who stood before them, including the sacking and burning of an abandoned Athens.

About a year after the Battle of Thermopylae, an army of 40,000 Greeks met the Persian army at the Plains of Plataea. The Greeks were out numbered three to one and fighting on terrain that allowed the Persians to use their cavalry and superior numbers to great effect. It didn't matter. In one of the bloodiest battles of the ancient world, the Greeks, led by the 10,000 man Spartan army, dealt a devastating loss to the Persians, killing over 80,000 Persian soldiers during the course of the day long battle.

Battered and defeated, the remnants of the once great Persian army retreated back to the empire. Never again would Persia attempt to invade Greece.

Back at the beginning of this column, I said I was of the opinion that the Battle of Thermopylae was the most important battle ever fought in the history of western civilization. That's kind of a strange thing to say about a battle in which the westerners lost, isn't it? Yes, if you don't consider the overall effects of the loss, which were two-fold.

First, the Battle of Thermopylae showed just how superior the Greek hoplites were to the average Persian soldiers. Estimates place Greek losses during the battle at about 4000 men. Persian losses were well in excess of 20,000 men. The Greeks had gone toe to toe against the Persians and shown themselves to be the superior warriors. This had to embolden the southern city-states.

Second, the Spartan self sacrifice, refusing to surrender and dying to a man, stirred the hearts of the rest of the Greek city-states. Many of those same city-states had been ready to surrender to the Persians without a fight. Instead, they rallied around the 300 Spartans and chose to fight. That fight was the battle at the Plains of Plataea.

Without these two effects of the battle, all of Greece would certainly have fallen under Persian rule. Ancient Greece's great philosophical experiments in democracy would never have occurred. Without those experiments to show the way, Rome would never have developed as a republic. Without both Greece and Rome, it's doubtful Europe would have eventually developed their democratic governments. God only knows what the United States would have become, had it come into existence at all.

Dramatic? Yes. I'll be the first to admit it. But the decades that followed the Persian attempt to conquer Greece were decades during which the great Greek experiments in democracy and individual rights took place. Had the Persians conquered Greece, none of those experiments would have been allowed by the empire. Had the Persians conquered Greece, we can only imagine how different the history of western civilization would have been.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 7/17/09

An exceedingly long day at the end of a long week: 'twas nearly devoured whole by Otogu, I was, but at the very last moment I managed to free myself from his stinking rotten gingivistic jaws and drag myself to safety, where I collapsed into the La-Z-Boy, near to fainting from exhaustion.

At least, that's my lame excuse for why I'm finishing this up and posting it on Saturday morning, and I'm sticking to it.

We received three entries in last week's challenge, "Benedict Arnold, Hero". Disappointingly, not one of you tried to snowdog in an entry in the extra day I inadvertently gave you. Apparently you're learning to respect deadlines—which if true, is a sad development. C'mon, folks, deadlines were made to be broken! In the immortal words of the late and much beloved Douglas Adams:
"I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."
Well, nothing to be done about it now. In the order received, the three entries in last week's challenge are:

torainfor, untitled

Henry, "I, Lex Luthor"

Arisia, "Supersubstantial"

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:

How do you get ideas for stories? One way is to take a look at some historical watershed and play the "what if?" game. What if one person had made one seemingly insignificant decision differently? What if Pure Dumb Luck had chosen another path? What if on December 7, 1941, Chuichi Nagumo had chosen not to scrub the launch of his third wave of attack aircraft? What if in August of 1945, Fidel Castro had decided not to go to law school and instead to concentrate on his baseball career? What if in February of 1968, some lucky V.C. sniper had picked off Walter Cronkite?

Or here's one I discovered quite by accident recently, while researching something else:

1779 is not generally considered an historically significant year. The American Revolution had been going for four years already, and it would be another two years before Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown and four years before hostilities were officially over. In the north the active land war had effectively ended with Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga in 1777, and the British were now settled on a southern strategy that involved holding the major northern cities, taking Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, and bankrupting the colonists into submission with a naval blockade. Accordingly the majority of King George's mighty Royal Navy was tied up patrolling the Caribbean and the North American Atlantic coast, while the bulk of the British Army—some 30,000 officers and men—as well as all the German mercenaries King George could afford—roughly another 30,000 men—was tied up either in occupying the north or preparing for their campaign in the south.

In Paris and Madrid, this was recognized as a once-in-a-millennium opportunity. Carefully, cleverly, plans were drawn up to form a mighty Franco-Spanish armada, which would invade the Channel, sweep away the British Home Fleet, seize Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, and land two armies totalling 40,000 men, who would then advance upon and take London.

It was a brave plan; an audacious plan; possibly a brilliant plan. Unfortunately it was also a plan that required close cooperation between the French and the Spanish, and it may as well have required mighty armored wagons hauled by great teams of trained draft-cats.

In actual execution, the Armada of 1779 turned into a complete and disastrous botch. Spanish captains refused to take orders from French admirals. The theoretically mighty French fleet was in fact a paper tiger, filled with men taken from hospitals, prisons, and asylums and terribly short of experienced gunners. The Bourbon monarchy was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and rushing headlong down the road to its own bloody revolution, and therefore unable to resupply the Armada or make good its losses once it set sail. The Spanish had their own agenda, which mostly involved trying to con the French into supporting their failed attempts to take Gibraltar and Minorca. In the end, after four months of desultory floundering, terrible losses from disease, and a few inconclusive dust-ups with the British Home Fleet, the French gave up in disgust and went home.

But... what if?

What if, halfway through the American Revolution, the Armada had succeeded in landing a large invading army on English soil? The Spanish still had territorial ambitions in the New World, and they still held La Florida and the territory later to be known as the Louisiana Purchase. The French also had territorial ambitions in the New World and throughout the Caribbean. How would the British have reacted to this invasion? How would the Americans have reacted? What would the map of North America look like today if the French and Spanish had successfully attacked England in 1779?

The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 7/23/09. Not surprisingly, we're still playing by the never-updated Official Rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is on the equally infrequently updated Door #3 list.

Now go put on your thinking caps and work out the implications. And remember: have fun.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

The Actor and His Role

Al writes: The perfect actor in the perfect role can make a movie. The wrong actor will utterly destroy it.

When word of the X-Men movie first came out, I had my favorite to play Wolverine. He had the physique, the look, the attitude...the *presence*...that Wolverine needed. His name was Chris Benoit, and he was a professional wrestler, and he was perfect for the part. Hugh Jackman did beautifully, but I've always wondered if making the switch from wrestling to Hollywood, like Dwayne "Rock" Johnson, would have headed off Benoit's fall from the cliff.

I've been wrong a few times, of course. I knew there was no way that "Mr. Mom" could pull off Bruce Wayne, let alone Batman, and was pleasantly surprised. Other times I've been dead-on correct (like the way Jim Carrey mangled "A Series of Unfortunate Events").

So, the topic up for grabs today involves your opinions on the following topics. Who are your picks for:

1. They were absolutely perfect for the role and no one could have done it better.

2. They were miserably horrible failures and a trained chimpanzee would have been better.

3. This movie hasn't been made yet, and the perfect actor to play the role is...

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.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

The good old days. Old folks talk about 'em like the good old days were so much better than the bad new days. I'm on the wrong side of fifty, so I guess I'm supposed to start doing that, too. As this blog site is mostly about science fiction, I started thinking about what was so good about the good old days of science fiction. And I even came up with an answer.

The good old days were all about shared experiences. In the 1960s and early 1970s, science fiction fans were few and far between. At least they were in my neck of the woods. Out of about 750 people in my high school, there were only a handful of us and we all knew each other pretty well. Actually, we knew each other pretty well even before we met because of our shared experiences with science fiction. What shared experiences am I talking about? The books we'd all read, of course.

Chances were, any science fiction fan you met would have read a lot of the same books as you. We had all read Asimov's Foundation Trilogy and his robot stories. We all knew Heinlein's Starship Troopers and had cut our teeth on his juveniles; books like Farmer in the Sky (the first real science fiction novel I read), Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky and Citizen of the Galaxy. We'd all read Clarke's stories "The Star" and "The Nine Billion Names of God" along with Childhood's End and Rendezvous With Rama. Everyone had read Frank Herbert's Dune, but nothing else by him (still the case with many of us). By high school, you could add Niven's Ringworld to the list. We were all familiar with Poul Anderson, L. Sprague de Camp, Clifford Simak, Roger Zelazy and Keith Laumer.

We wouldn't have read all the same books, of course, but we'd have a solid foundation for discussions about our passion. Plus, each of us was able to broaden the other's horizons by introducing a new author to them, someone whose works our friends hadn't read yet. In my group, I was the guy who "discovered" Larry Niven and H. Beam Piper. We'd pass our paperback books around among ourselves because the school library only had a few dozen science fiction books. Those paperbacks got so beaten up that sometimes we'd have to buy new ones, but it never once occurred to us not to share our treasures.

But books weren't the only things we had in common. We all watched Star Trek reruns once it hit syndication. We had all watched such stellar TV shows as Land of the Giants and Time Tunnel and the cheesy British show UFO. We had all watched Bruce Dern in the first tree hugger science fiction film, Silent Running, and caught every Plant of the Apes movie as they were released. In 1971, we'd gone to see an odd movie called THX-1138 and, of course, had seen 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I'm sure I've forgotten some of the names of the authors we all read. I'm sure I've forgotten some of the science fiction movies we saw. But I'm not forgetting very many of them because there simply weren't that many big name authors to read or big release movies to see. I'm not saying there were only a handful of science fiction authors. I'm saying there were only a handful you could count on finding in every bookstore with a science fiction section. And, in reality, it was because of the limited choices we had that we had all read the same books.

So, exactly what am I saying about the good old days? Apparently, I'm saying things were a lot better when there was a lot less for us to enjoy. Lack of choice, that's what made those instant shared experiences possible. Does that make any sense? Would science fiction really be a better field if there was less of it? Okay, it might be, but only if I got to pick the dreck we got rid of.

Since I don't get to pick what to get rid of, I'll settle for picking what to read, instead. For all that I loved that instant connection of yesteryear, I'd much rather have access to Bujold's Vorkosigan series, David Weber's Honorverse (well, except for some of the recent bricks he's been putting out) and Elizabeth Moon's science fiction universes. I'll settle for having science fiction TV shows that run for years (except Firefly, *sigh*) and being able to see a bunch of big budget science fiction movies each year in the theaters.

While there was something special about the shared experiences, I cannot believe that any of those fans I knew back in high school would object to where the field is today. Because there is so much more to discover in science fiction than there used to be. And isn't discovery what science fiction is all about?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

And the winner is...

The Bandit.

Elaboration to follow tomorrow, in the comments.

Saturday, July 11, 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, July 10, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 7/10/09

Thanks for bearing with us. While I've been deep in the throes of a First Rule situation this week, Google has been having problems of its own. The scheduled post function, which we rely on, has been unreliable, and there have been days when I could not even get into the blog in edit mode. As well, JS-Kit has been exhibiting its usual old eccentricities again.

Well, at least it still works better than CoComment.

Despite that, two brave souls managed to work through the difficulties and submit entries in response to the 7/3/09 Friday Challenge. They are:

Al, "July 4, 2049: The Days"

The Bandit, "Hillside History Lesson"

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, I turn the microphone over to Al:

Benedict Arnold, Hero
In the early days of the Christian church, there was an offshoot Gnostic branch that felt the mainstream church had everything... backwards.

In their version, the deity of the Old Testament used power stolen from God to create the world and humans as his playthings. He banned them from learning (the Tree of Knowledge) and from achieving immortality for themselves (the Tree of Life). The True God sent a messenger to Adam and Eve to open their eyes to what this malign deity had done to them, and the messenger came in the form of a snake. (In many ancient cultures snakes were a symbol of immortality, because a snake is "reborn" when it sheds its skin.) Adam and Eve ate from one tree, but were caught before they could eat from the other, and as punishment, the malign deity saddled them with a new stack of curses and rules.

Years later, the True God sent the same messenger, this time in the form of a man, to help people open their eyes. The deity that created this world had so much sway over the people that he managed to get the new messenger nailed to a tree for opposing him.

Obviously, this interpretation has not been widely accepted...

But the concept makes for an interesting twist on a familiar story. Other writers have used the same "everything you know is wrong" concept as the basis for their stories. Mary Stewart's The Wicked Day featured Mordred as the lead character. Fred Saberhagen's Dracula Tapes and Frankenstein Files each retold the originals with a very different point of view. More recently Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West has found a large audience and spawned both a trilogy and a touring Broadway musical.

Personally, I think it's a very interesting and educational idea that forces you to look at all sides of a story or character.

The challenge this week, then, is to take a well-known story and turn something on its head, making the bad one good, or vice-versa. Perhaps evil King John wasn't so evil that he had his eight-year-old nephews assassinated? (Wait, that's been done. Check out Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.) Perhaps a certain Sith Lord got a raw deal in the translation to the big screen? Or maybe the Terminator is merely misunderstood?

The deadline for this challenge is midnight Central time, Thursday, 7/16/09. Not surprisingly, we're still playing by the never-updated Official Rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for whatever is behind Door #3.

Now go have a good evil time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ultimate Geek Fu

The Toy That Wanted To Grow Up To Be A Movie

Henry writes: "This is the summer of the toy-based movies. (Transformers, and GI Joe is coming soon.) What toy should Hollywood give the big-budget treatment to next?"

Well. Let's consider.

Movies based on every old TV series ever made? Check. Movies based on almost every comic book ever published? Check, and both too numerous to count.

Movies based on board games? Check, Clue. Movies based on computer games? Check, Wing Commander, Doom. Movies based on rides at Disneyland? Check, the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy and The Haunted Mansion. (I understand that It's A Small World, After All is currently in development.) Movies based on role-playing games? Check, Dungeons & Dragons. Movies based on trading card sets? Check, Mars Attacks!

Movies based on messages found inside fortune cookies? Probably, but they won't admit it. Movies based on nonexistent toy lines that were imaginary spinoffs from fictional 1950s or 1960s television series and which subsequently became successful toy lines in their own right? Check, Toy Story.

So really, what's left? Indiana Jones and The Hungry Hungry Hippos? Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots: The Movie?

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.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ruminations of an Old Goat

If you're like me, no amount of money in the world could make you live through your middle school years again. It's during middle school when being the smart kid starts to be bad and being the athletic or good looking kid starts becoming paramount. I was not the most socially adept kid in my grade, which made those years the worst ones in my life. I can only imagine how much worse it is for a child who cannot detect, much less decode, the subtle social clues most of us pick up naturally long before reaching middle school. I can only imagine what it's like to have someone say to you, "Hi, I'm new in this school!" and have no idea what the proper response should be.

But that is the world for those with Asperger's Syndrome. That is the world for my son.

Social skills are unfathomable mysteries to a child with Asperger's, something most middle schoolers consider unforgivable. Add in the fact that most Aspergians tend to be both considerably smarter and considerably less athletic than other kids their age and you've got the recipe for three years of Hell for a child with Asperger's. As a parent, I can't tell you how much it hurts not to be able to protect your child from that Hell.

Asperger's Syndrome is, for want of a better word for it, autism lite. Most Aspies, as they have been known to call themselves, are very high functioning. They're generally quite bright and have strong communications skills for their age. I should qualify that; they have strong communications skills when communicating with adults (children are generally a different story). There's a fairly long list of symptoms of Asperger's, but one most people will notice is the child can easily filter out anything that's not part of his current focus. I know every parent reading this is thinking, "All kids are like that." And they're right, to an extent. A child with Asperger's, though, makes other children look wonderfully attentive in comparison.

All of this makes life that much more difficult for my son. Other adults can sometimes be as big a problem as children his own age. Those who do not know he has Asperger's and can get quite irritated at the way he acts. Worse are the adults who know he has Asperger's but who refuse to grant him even some minor consideration because of it. They generally claim he could act normally if he would simply try harder, as if he was choosing to be a social outsider.

Do these people walk up to blind kids and tell them to "choose" to see? Of course not. It would be cruel to tell a child something like that. These same people, though, feel it is entirely reasonable for them to expect my son to "choose" to act normally. Of course, I know the rationale. Blindness is an obvious physical problem. It's even easy to understand; close your eyes and try walking around for a bit and you can get a feel for what it's like to be blind. Asperger's Syndrome isn't obvious nor can you simply turn off the part of your brain that picks up on all those social subtleties. Asperger's is hard to diagnose and impossible for us to experience without completely rewiring our brains.

Looking back, there were clues to my son's condition that seem blindingly obvious now, such as his tendency to start spinning in place when the world overwhelmed him. I knew that was an "autism thing" but my son was obviously not autistic in the traditional meaning of the word. In school, we got reports of poor behavior right from the beginning. His kindergarten teacher was one of those who seemed to assume he could choose to behave. It was in first grade that we had the first suggested diagnosis. You can guess what it was -- ADHD.

I wasn't surprised when this was offered as an explanation for his behavior. After all, isn't ADHD the fallback position in the schools when a child isn't behaving as expected? I'd read plenty on this and was not going to be one of those parents who rushed right out and put his child on some kind of ADHD medication just because the school said to do it. I balked when his second grade teacher, a truly wonderful teacher with twenty-five years of experience, hinted that medication was something we should consider. I finally gave in when he was in the third grade, though not because of anything his lackluster third grade teacher said. It was something my son said to me.

After a particularly poor week at school, Brandt came up to me at home and said, "Daddy, I'm sorry I'm not as good a kid as you want me to be."

Ouch. Talk about a verbal cut to the heart. The next day we made an appointment to discuss medication with our pediatrician. When we finally found the right medication and the right dosage, his fourth grade teacher (his only male teacher through elementary school and another one we liked a lot) told us the difference was like night and day. Of course, that only lasted until he grew some more because then the old dosage wasn't sufficient any more. That's been an ongoing quest and will be until he stops growing.

It was shortly after he started middle school that one of Brandt's teachers suggested Asperger's Syndrome. She had a son who had been diagnosed with it and saw all the same indications in Brandt that she had seen in her son. We followed her advice and had Brandt evaluated. It wasn't cheap, but we're glad we did it.

Finally getting an accurate diagnosis has helped us immeasurably. My wife and I better understand my son's issues and try hard to take them into consideration. We've found social skills counselling with a group of kids who have his same issues. We've learned which battles to fight and which ones to back off and deal with another day. We've learned what we can reasonably expect from him and what he will have to work extra hard to master.

Now, if I could just get this across to the kids in middle school... Of course, if the kids in middle school were non-judgemental it wouldn't really be middle school, would it?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

And the winner is...

And so once again we've made it through the 4th of July weekend with our eyes, fingers, ears, and most of our nerves intact. No one in the immediate neighborhood fired off any really heavy ordnance this year; whether this is a result of the OPD's aggressive ticketing of violators last year, the general economic downturn, or the media outcry over the racially offensive Run Hadji Run firework, I don't know, but I'm guessing it's unlikely on #1, quite likely on #2, and you must be kidding on #3. However, the Parents of the Year did leave the Teenage Mutant Ninja Jerkoff home alone last night with an apparently endless supply of firecrackers, bottle rockets, and roman candles, so we decided to skip the town fireworks show in Scotchgard Park, stay home ourselves, and keep the fire hoses on standby.

It turned out to be unnecessary. We had a long, sleepless, but otherwise uneventful night, and now it's Sunday. The neighborhood incendiaries have died down to the occasional pop of a bottle rocket or rattle of a string of firecrackers, the dog is no longer trying to dig her way through the basement floor, and I'm at last able to give some attention to the Friday Challenge. Trying to get caught up, then:

6/26/09 - After Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
Given the nature of the 6/26/09 challenge, it was somewhat difficult to tell which were serious entries and which were mere jokes. Tom in particular threw out a lot of promising titles, but none of them with any descriptions. And of course, anyone who could suggest The Sound of Music and Nazis, well...

Ultimately, I pared the list down to these.

WaterBoy, The Brothers Karamazombyov. Some thought has definitely gone into this one. I think the details show promise. But then, to end with an old Mel Brooks joke—well, not really that old. I mean, there are Mel Brooks jokes that have been found carved into Egyptian obelisks reliably dated to the 26th Dynasty. Still...

My advice: wait until after you sell the pitch. Then start sneaking in the old Mel Brooks jokes.

Ben-El, Don Coyote de la New York. I don't know what to say about this one. Probably that I'd retitle it to A Spanish Werewolf in New York and get myself sued for doing so, but I think this bugger could actually work—if it was taken seriously enough, and if there was enough gratuitous sex. For further reference, check out the collected works of Mario Acevedo.

Henry, Romeo and Juliet and Werewolves. Just write the book, okay? After looking at dozens of bestselling paranormal romances in recent weeks, this one would fit right in. (And according to Karen, who's currently got a three-novel-a-week habit, fully half of them are reworks of the Romeo and Juliet plot already, so why not just cut the crap and go straight for the real thing?) If it was my idea I'd update the setting and change the names—and change my own name, while I'm at it—but bring this one in at around 70,000 words and give Juliet a good kick-ass fight scene or two and a big sex scene in Act V, and you've got a bestseller. God help us all.

Torainfor, Little Shadow Women. Wow. This isn't a pitch for a book; it's a pitch for an entire series. Christian Vampire Romance? If you just de-Louisa May'd this one a bit and tightened and focused your pitch, I think you could get a Christian market publisher seriously interested in this and own the genre: be the next Charlaine Harris. If I were you, I'd give some serious thought to developing this further.

Arisia, MS Open Window. I'm afraid this one mostly confuses me. It's very well-written, as always, but I just don't get it. Something must be lacking my education.

Al, "Three Movie Trailers". At first glance— and at second, and probably also at third— I said, "Naaaah," but at fourth glance, what the heck: I did say to make it shameless, didn't I? The novelizations of the screenplays of the movies based on the plays? The titles need work, but factoring in extra credit for working Bruce Campbell into each pitch—minus a small deduction for failing to work in Kenneth Branagh—and we've got our winner. Al, come on down and claim your prize!

6/19/09 - "The Singular Singularness of Singularity"
Turning now to the previous week's challenge, we have three very strong entries. After reading, and rereading, and rereading them again, here are some comments.

Torainfor, "Asimov's Levy". As always, this one was beautiful, just beautiful. John Sladek would have liked this one very much, as it carries the Laws of Robish through to the horribly logical conclusion that somehow, despite all his vaunted intelligence, always eluded Asimov. Artificial intelligences reaching the realization that the only way to avoid harming humans, or by inaction allowing humans to come to harm, was to ensure that humans were never conceived in the first place? Remorselessly, horribly logical. I love it.

As for the story itself, I think it's one more rewrite away from being publishable. It feels like it's about ten percent flab, but as to exactly where that ten percent is, I can't quite say at the moment. I'm sure if you put it away for a week and then look at it again, you'll see it yourself.

The Bandit, "Moderation of the Community". I have to confess, I loved this one, even if no one else did. If I was editing a magazine, I'd buy this one.

I'll admit that at first glance it put me off a bit, by reading more like the ending of a story than an actual complete story. And that name: "Drodabbabob." If Torainfor's story is one tightening-up rewrite away from being marketable, this one probably needs two.

But then I realized: we don't need the backstory. In the tradition of fifty or sixty years of great little 1,000-word vignettes, we pick up all the backstory we need en passant as we drive straight to the punchline. The story of Phynx, Klizz, and —shudder!— Drodabbabob's odyssey to Cyterra probably doesn't need telling; what matters is what happens to them once they get there.

I could be wrong. Show me, oh, five more scenes the equal of this one, and I'll agree that there's a novel in Cyterra. But even as it stands now (and with the good tightening-up rewrite mentioned earlier), this would be a terrific 1,000-word filler in a magazine.

If there were still magazines. But that's another story.

Henry, "Stories from the Singularity". This week Henry wrote what clearly was the fan favorite. And it is a wonderful story; it's got that great Kipling "Just So Stories" vibe going for it. It's a clever little tale, told marvelously well, and would work very well if read aloud. My only objection to it, and it's a slim one, is that the idea seems a touch shopworn, like I've heard it before somewhere in the stories of Kuttner or Bradbury or someone like that. But as I said, it's a very slim objection, and my observation is that most people prefer an old tale told smoothly to a new story with jagged edges.


So after thinking it over, and talking it over, and giving it another night to gestate, we've decided to drop back and punt. Each story is very strong, but in a different way, and we can't reach consensus. Therefore Torainfor, The Bandit, and Henry; awards and kudos for all entries this week, so come on down and claim your prizes.

6/12/09 - "Chapter Five"
As for the 6/12/09 Challenge: while I've already announced that Snowdog is the winner, I never explained why. Therefore—

Therefore, crud. I'm out of time again. Maybe Tuesday.


Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Friday Challenge - 7/3/09

I woke this morning to the sounds of two highly intoxicated young men staggering down the street at 6:30 a.m., carrying on a loud conversation every third word of which was the F word. How young were they? I've become notoriously unable to judge the ages of people under 40 accurately, but I'd have guessed them as being no older than 19. What more got my attention though was their state of profound intoxication. They were in full staggering-in-circles-like-a-blimp-caught-in-a-cyclone stage, which at 6:30 a.m. is quite an achievement. Whatever they'd consumed, they must have consumed remarkable quantities of it. I base this assessment purely on BMI: one was merely tubby and flabby, while the other was downright morbidly obese.

So in place of waking up this morning thinking of some famous inspirational quote from Washington, Jefferson, Adams, or Paine, I instead found myself thinking of Dean Wormer. "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son."

How did we get to this point? When did this day go from being Independence Day, our one great national holiday to celebrate being free Americans, to being the Fourth of July, an occasion for mattress sales, used car sales, consumer electronics sales, and above all, liquor store sales? When did this day become just another three-day weekend? (Which in my case means another three-day working weekend. I thought I'd cleared enough time in my schedule so that I could spend yesterday morning getting caught up on The Friday Challenge. I was wrong. Sorry about that.)

The past is a different country; they do things differently there. I remember marching in Independence Day parades in my hot, scratchy Cub Scout uniform, waving my little American flag and trying not to step in the horse poop. I remember being in the mob of boys scrambling to pick up the ejected brass when the old guys from the Legion post fired a salute, and men of all ages marching in uniforms of every kind, and kids and their parents making parade floats out of bikes, wagons, and long rolls of red, white, and blue crepe paper. I remember boring speeches in the park, and big brass bands playing Sousa marches, and lying in the damp grass at night, watching the fireworks bursting right overhead, which was very exciting until the wind shifted and the ash and cinders started coming down in our faces. (I also remember coming back to the same park early on the morning of July 5th, to look for all the change that had dropped out of the pockets of the people on the grass the night before. If you found a wallet, though, that was off-limits. You were obliged to return a wallet intact and hope for a reward. Only the real hoods filched the bills from the wallets and then pretended they'd found them that way.)

What I remember most strongly, though, was the ice cream. If you made it to the end of the parade route, you got your payoff: you got to take off your hat and neckerchief, and then you got a little cardboard cup of ice cream, and a silly little flat wooden spade-like thing they claimed was a spoon that came in a paper envelope and always snapped in half lengthwise as soon as you tried to use it. If you were really lucky, your scout leader had a decent camping cooler and remembered the ice this year, and the ice cream was still mostly frozen. If you were unlucky, you got creamy molten goo in a cup. If we had a choice, I always picked vanilla. The so-called chocolate flavor was a strange pale brown substance that tasted like no chocolate I'd ever had before, and not in a good way.

The past is a very different country. I can't remember the last time I saw a drum and bugle corps, or a marching band outside of a football stadium. My town doesn't even have an Independence Day parade anymore.

How did we get from there to here? When did we leave the old country? I'm not sure, but I think it happened about forty years ago. In July of 1969, it was still possible to be proud to be an American, without sarcasm, cynicism, or apologies. On July 4, 1969, we were still less than three weeks away from the Apollo 11 landing.

By July 4, 1976, we'd turned some sort of hidden corner. Sure, we tried to put on a good show about the Bicentennial, but there was a deep cynicism behind the bunting and rot behind the facade. By 1976, only fools and farmboys still found it possible to be patriotic Americans, and more people were probably thinking about the centennial of Custer's Last Stand than the bicentennial of the American Revolution. There was still a future out there, true, but it was no longer an American future. There was no end of doom and gloom just over the horizon: oil shortages, an economy in shambles, overpopulation, acid rain, famines, global cooling (I couldn't resist rubbing that one in), Soviet expansionism, and in the face of all that, a terrifying American incompetence and impotence. All intelligent, educated, and properly thinking peoples agreed that the age of individualism was over, and the future looked more like some form world government, probably along Euro-socialist lines.

And that is our point of departure for this week's Friday Challenge. Imagine it's now July 4, 2049. What does the world look like? What kind of holiday are we celebrating today?

Reunification Day, on which we celebrate ridding ourselves of that pesky American exceptionalism and humbly rejoining the community of responsible nations? Or Defeat Day, on which we celebrate a certain president's historic trip to Moscow, during which he stunned the world by apologizing for the Cold War and then unilaterally surrendering to Russia? Is today Oppressed People's Payback Day, the highlight of which is the ritual burning in effigy of an "Uncle Sam" cowboy at the big community bonfire tonight? Or is it perhaps even Dependence Day, on which we celebrate all the blessings of Mammon that Fearless Leader showers down upon we, the little people, who are too weak and foolish to know what's really in our own best interests?

Or is this, maybe, just perhaps, God willing, Blood of Tyrants Day?

Anyway, that's the challenge. The deadline is midnight Central time, Thursday, July 9—

Actually, no. That's just the deadline for written entries. The real deadline is July 4, 2049, because this is the real challenge, friends, and it never ends.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day, and may God bless America.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Glutton for Punishment

by Allan Davis

Every year, a worldwide collection of people—with little in common with each other besides clear and obvious masochistic tendencies—gather for an annual event. For one month, these people will push themselves to the absolute limit, risking friendships, jobs, even marriages, with their monomaniacal devotion to a single goal. Who are these people?

No, they are not looking to appear on Oprah, or any reality show. No, they are not members of a bizarre cult or political party. Gather them all together into one big—really big—room, and you'll find they cover the entire spectrum of humanity.

These people are writers, and the event is called Nano.

Nano is short for NanoWriMo. NanoWriMo is short for "National Novel Writer's Month." And the goal of Nano is very simple: to produce a full novel, fifty thousand sparkling fresh new words of prose, in a mere thirty days—starting at one minute after midnight on November 1st, and, hopefully, finishing at some point before midnight on November 30th.

Nano was originally the brainchild of Chris Baty, who started it in San Francisco in 1999 with a mere 21 contestants. He's also the author of the book, "No Plot? No Problem!" which kind of sums up the entire theme of Nano. The number of entrants (and winners, too) has increased tremendously every year, with nearly 120,000 people on board for 2008. According to Chris, more than 1.6 trillion words were fed into the Nano server for the 2008 NanoWriMo.

Writing a book—especially writing a book in thirty days—is a solo endeavor. Chris Baty, the Nano team, and other writers all do whatever they can to help. Many cities have kickoff parties and recurring get-togethers to help writers get going and keep moving. There are forums available, and often timed challenges through those forums—as in "who can get the most words written in the next fifteen minutes."

One of the most enjoyable parts of a Nano challenge, though, is the series of inspirational emails sent to all of the contestants. Chris lines up a weekly email from "real writers." Every week, you receive a moving and heartfelt "good luck!" message from people like Piers Anthony, Philip Pullman, Johnathan Stroud, and Brian Jacques. Besides cheering you on, these emails also give a glimpse into the minds of the writers behind them.

(And if you can't consider yourself a "real writer" by the time you're two or three weeks into Nano, maybe you should look for some other, easier obsession, like finding a proof for Fermat's Theorem or working out which alien planet the mates to all of your odd socks have been mystically teleported to.)

There are no serious, hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes a novel, probably because that would require some panel of judges to actually read the novels in question rather than write their own. The Nano attitude is generally easygoing and laid back, as in, "if you think you're writing a novel, we think so too."

You can visit the web site and sign up at any time before midnight on Halloween. You upload chunks of your novel; no one reads them except the Nano word-counting program. If your upload reaches the magic number of fifty thousand words, you win, and immediately gain access to all of the rights and privileges associated with being a Nano winner—most of which are bragging rights. I think there might be a t-shirt, and some cool widgets for your blog, too.

The real reward is the completed novel, of course. And the self-esteem boost that comes from knowing that you managed to crank out fifty thousand words in only thirty days. In fact, if you're lucky, a publisher will like your Nano novel, and the strength of it will lead to three more books—which is what happened to a friend.

It's a personal challenge. When you look at your life, with the daily grind of work, projects that need doing between work and sleep, the hobbies and activities that define what little time you have left for fun and enjoyment, and the quality time spent with family and/or significant other, you have to decide which of them will get moved aside for the month to make room for an obsession. And if you don't treat it like an obsession, you will never find the obsessive-compulsive level of focus needed to squeeze out those few minutes a day that will magically convert themselves from time spent to words written.

Here at the Friday Challenge, our esteemed host has made it clear that a mere 250 words a day could theoretically produce a novel in a year. To reach the Nano goal, however, that number jumps to 1,667 words per day at a minimum. You might want to shoot for over 2,000, though, because the family might not appreciate your disappearance halfway through Thanksgiving dinner. (Actually, on second thought, some families might not mind so much.)

Nano is about quantity, not quality. Nano is about forcing yourself to sit down at that keyboard, without fail, every day, even if the 1,667 words you crank out are absolute and utter garbage that will ultimately be cut from your novel. It's about training your brain to move forward without editing—because every minute you waste going back and fixing yesterday's words is a minute lost cranking out today's words. There will be a lot of garbage flowing from your brain to the screen through your fingers and keyboard, because you're forcing your brain to produce words it probably isn't in the mood to produce. But, interestingly enough, hidden among that garbage will be the occasional gem—the insult that brings a dialog to life, the childhood event that crystallizes the personality of the lead character, even the artistic flourish of descriptive prose that you don't even remember writing the next day. Two or three weeks into a Nano, you'll be surprising yourself with how many gems are appearing in the river of sludge...or is that a river of gems surrounded by a bare trickle of crud...?

I was introduced to Nano just in time for the 2005 challenge. My wife—a writer who had first signed up for Nano three years earlier—had read some of my short stories, and suggested I try it, and, fool that I was, I thought it was a great idea. An actual challenge that demanded I actually set aside writing time each day? There was no doubt in my mind that this was going to be fun. Well...fun is a relative term.

I actually managed to produce ten thousand words around the birth of our daughter that month. "Tangler: Web of Dreams" was quite possibly the longest thing I had ever written up to that point. The concept—a boy who was slated to become the next Guardian of the Dreamworld, and targeted for destruction by the Tangler, the Master of Nightmares—originally came from a bizarre dream I had written down almost twenty years earlier.

And just like that, I was hooked. I've signed up for every Nano challenge since.

I had a more ambitious story idea for 2006. More notes, more characters, more everything, for "Mystic Maelstrom," a story about four people destined to travel to a world filled with magic and vampires. And despite everything life threw at us, I actually managed to set a new personal record of over twenty thousand words—and still had not managed to move the characters TO the prophesied magical world yet!

With a new job (in a new state) that demanded oodles of overtime, 2007 ("Undying") and 2008 ("Wizard and Wing") went nowhere for me. I might have managed 2500 words for them. Combined. The plotlines of both are scribbled out, character sketches in place, tidbits of humor and horror put down for future reference, waiting for me to focus on them again. Bits of both ideas have become Friday Challenge entries.

Yes, you've read that correctly. Out of four Nanos entered so far, I have four failures. Four absolutely miserable failures, not even reaching half my 50,000 word goal on any one of them.

But...in those miserable failures...I have the outlines for four novels, plus scribbled out ideas for a dozen short stories. I have one novella of over 10,000 words that's actually made it three-fourths of the way through the plotline. I have one novel of 20,000 words that's nowhere near the midpoint of the story. I have well over thirty thousand words written that quite probably never would have made it out of the back of my brain if it weren't for Nano, and I try to put a few more words a week into them, as time allows.

Will I sign up for the 2009 Nano? Absolutely. Will I make my fifty thousand, this year, finally? Hopefully. But even if I don't, I will still have taken something away from Nano. No matter how hectic life gets, no matter what sacrifices the demons of Otogu (for the uninitiated, that's "Other Things of Greater Urgency") demand from me, I can still carve out a small chunk of my life and devote it to writing. And that's the most important lesson to be learned by anyone who considers himself (or herself) a "real writer."

Allan Davis is a programmer/photographer/writer living in Nebraska, and is currently "between jobs," as the saying goes, thanks to a layoff. Allan is a frequent competitor in the Friday Challenge, even winning on a few rare occasions, and also writes for Brighthub, while his photography is available on Redbubble and CafePress. He does admit that this article is much longer than it should be; it is wordy, goes meandering off down strange pathways and side streets, and could do with a major revision, by cutting at least several hundred words right off the top. But, leaving all that stuff in demonstrates the scale of a Nano challenge, because without that editing, the entire article works out to one day's worth of NanoWriMo: 1667 words.
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