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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current greater-than-lesser but lesser-than-greater Friday Challenge, "Writing the Winner" is next Thursday, October 7, at midnight, Central time. The "winner" you'll be writing is Watkinson's entry in the "One tiny, practically insignificant change..." challenge. You can find it here. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (Friday Challenge terminology for posting an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. Take advantage of that time if you need it!

There is no current greater Friday Challenge and nothing is due this week.

For those unfamiliar with the Friday Challenges, lesser challenges run for one week. Entries can be of any length, though are generally less than 1000 words. That is most definitely not a rule or requirement. If your muse instructs you to write far more than 1000 words, write on! Greater challenges run for three weeks. Again, entries may be of any length, but are generally longer than 1000 words. Again, that is not a rule or requirement.

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is "challenge" to login as a guest.

Critical Thinking

This week is national Banned Book Week, sponsored by the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association, among others.

I didn’t actually know this until, after a convoluted, forgotten series of onward clicking, I found Laurie Halse Anderson’s blog. You may remember the name from a review I did a few months ago of her novel Speak.

Apparently, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University named Wesley Scroggins is trying to get Speak taken out of schools. He feels the (briefly noted) representation of the sex lives of high schoolers and the two rape scenes classify the book as soft-core porn.

Ironically, the point of the book is to encourage readers to find their voice, to use their right to speak to defend themselves and fight injustice.

I’m trying really, really hard, here, to rein myself in and not go off on a ten-page diatribe. I’m from Oregon where I joke that people will euthanize their elderly relatives before they’ll burn a book. Book-banning hasn’t been a big part of my life. My ma didn’t let me read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, and held off on the steamier Anne McC’s until I was older. (Meanwhile, she was trading Marion Zimmer Bradley and Jean Auel novels with my grandfather.)

So I don’t have the visceral reaction some people have when they hear about book banning. What sends me through the roof is people not properly educating their kids.

Popular culture has a long, respected tradition of teaching as it entertains, be it Aesop’s fables or Blue’s Clues. Good literature reveals something about the human condition, brings it out into the open where readers can examine it and make judgment calls. Good YA literature (and Speak is among the best) does that in the context of the young adult world—in large part as a supplement to parenting. Even the best, most thorough parent is going to miss something (whether by lack of total immersion in their kids’ world or just by dint of the sheer mass of information) that can be filled by good books. And movies. Probably not so much video games.

And it is very often the very parents who rail against libraries who prepare their kids for adulthood the least. Every child, every situation is different. But the world is the world, and hiding kids from it isn't doing them any favors. (Whew! I made it without going off the deep end! Or once mentioning the Quiverful Movement—oops.)

As most of you know, we got to live in Hawaii for three glorious years. “Caucasian” is the second largest ethnicity in the islands. Japanese is the first. And that doesn’t count the tourists. One of the biggest spots for Japanese tourists to visit is the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. Word was that many of them didn’t know what it was for. They didn’t know about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their government was defeated, so, in disgrace, they took that bit out of public education.

I know what it’s like to grow up having very few adults explain things to you. Books have the potential to fill that gap. Banning them isn’t going to take away the issues they address. It’s just going to leave fewer people who know what to do about those issues.

Various and sundry links:

American Library Association
An interesting map
About.com article
Wow. There's even a handbook.

Kersley Fitzgerald has not so much "banned" books in her house as simply refused to read an excess of Thomas the Tank Engine. In fact, it is the Creature who has decided he's not ready to read The Chamber of Secrets. Maj Tom is not pleased. The Creature is not allowed to watch an HP movie until he's finished the book, and we're getting awfully sick of The Sorcerer's Stone.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

A few weeks back, JP Franz over at SF Signal asked me to weigh-in on what at first seemed like a pretty strange question. To wit:
After talking with some of the new hires where I work, I've come to realize that most of them have never seen the original STAR WARS movies. Instead, their knowledge of STAR WARS comes from its pervasiveness in our culture and from the later prequel movies or THE CLONE WARS. Given the success of the STAR TREK and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboots, our question is:

Q: Should STAR WARS be rebooted?
Hmm. Should Star Wars be... Y'mean, like Star Trek? Battlestar Galactica? Doctor Who? James Bond? Hawaii Five-Oh? Just start the franchise up all over again, and...?

Well, you'll find my initial answer and a few others over on the SF Signal site at this link, but since I wrote it, I've given it further thought, and I now present it to you as this week's Ultimate Geek Fu. No, not a mere reboot; we're talking—

Star Wars: The Complete Remake!

It's bigger! Longer! Louder! With better CGI, and better actors! Why are we remaking it? Because we can! Because it's almost 35 years old! And because, what the heck, we want your money!

Hence today's challenge. If we're going to remake the original Star Wars, the first question is: who do we cast in those unforgettable classic roles? Ewan McGregor would seem to have a lifetime lock on playing Sir Alec Guinness playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, but after that, who else? Michael Cera as Luke Skywalker? Robert de Niro as Jabba the Hutt? Nathan Fillion as Han Solo? Snoop Dogg as Darth Vader? ("Luke, Obi-Wan never told you....")

And then when you've finished savoring that one, here's the next question: what one scene or element got terribly short shrift in the original movie and would be vastly improved in your remake? Should Leia scream "DIE, FASCIST MOTHERF@@@@R!" before she caps that stormtrooper in the ship's cargo hold at the beginning? Should Han get into a brawl with Greedo and six of his evil henchmen in the cantina? When Luke blasts an Imperial Stormtrooper, should it turn out to be something more like a Terminator or a Cylon? Does ALF get a prominent cameo in the Rebel Command Center during the battle for Endor?

Me, I'm all for casting Sigourney Weaver as Governor Tarkin, so we can turn Leia's big interrogation scene on the Death Star into some hot girl-on-girl BDS&M action, a la Battlestar Galactica...

Your move.

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Random thoughts from a random access mind.

At work, I've recently been introduced to Microsoft's OneNote application. It's part of MS Office and may be the single most useful application Microsoft has ever created. It's extraordinarily free form, allowing for the placement of notes, document links, graphics, photos, audio and video files, and a host of other things all within the same "notebook." I can easily see the possibilities for a writer to use OneNote to help outline and organize his novel.

A "notebook" can be made up of multiple pages -- perhaps one for each chapter -- and information can easily be moves from one page to another or from one location on a page to another. A writer could put simple one-line notes, reminders, character sketches, and even fully fleshed out scenes all on the same page, allowing the writer to get a feel for the flow of the story. As I said, I've only recently begun playing around with OneNote at work, but I can imagine a writer finding a lot to like in the application. I'm even planning on using it to keep track of people, places, and events for my role playing games. If you already own MS Office, you may already have a copy and not realize it (I did). Fortunately, the application can be purchased separately and there are freeware programs that do approximately the same thing available if you search for them.

I'm going to get political for a minute. Remember back when the Patriot Act had just recently been passed and the newspapers and talking heads were up in arms over the possibility that the government might be able to find out what books you got from the library? We currently have an administration that is seriously considering assassinating an American citizen without the benefit of a trial, yet those same newspapers and talking heads don't seem to be nearly as upset about this as they were about library books.

The new Halo game for the X-Box 360, Halo Reach, was released on Tuesday. According to news reports, the total time spent playing the game online over X-Box Live has already surpassed 6000 years. Yes, years. And Halo Reach was only the second most played online game this week (the latest Call of Duty game was number one). Add in the release of Civilization V, the first new Civilization game in five years, and I wonder just how much productivity was lost to people spending time with these two games.

Staying on the gaming topic, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving a California law intended to restrict the sales of violent video games to minors. Rather than use a rating system similar to that already in place for video games, the California law would require game publishers to judge their work for various criteria and provide that information to prospective retailers for the game. Game companies could be fined for incorrectly labeling their games and game retailers could be fined $1000 per copy sold to someone the law claims shouldn't be allowed to purchase the game. The problems are many.

The law describes a violent game as being one in which "the range of options available to a player includes killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being." By that wording, Lego Star Wars, a game that the current rating system rates E (for Everyone), could quite reasonably be considered a "violent game" unsuitable for sale to anyone under the age of 18. Further more, this law would only apply in California. Other states would be able to create their own laws and apply their own definitions of what constitutes a violent video game. It would simply be impossible for a video game publisher to adhere to so many different laws. Along the way, innovation within the industry would be strangled.

That brings me to a second point concerning video game sales. Where are the parents in all of this? There isn't a single video game retailer in my city who will sell a game rated M (Mature) to anyone under the age of 17 without a parent being present and specifically giving the store permission to sell the game to the minor. It's entirely possible a parent could simply just give their permission without paying attention to what the sales clerk is telling them. That is hardly the fault of the game publisher or the ratings board. I've heard people try to excuse parents by saying there are too many games and they simply can't keep up. That's nothing more than lazy parenting. As an excuse, it's a crock

There are many online sites which provide detailed reviews of video games, including details concerning why the game received the rating it receive. Many magazine reviews generally provide sufficient information to allow a knowledgeable parent to make an informed decision. I know this because I use both review sites and magazines to determine what games I'll allow the Boy to play. If I can't find out enough about the game to satisfy myself, the Boy doesn't get to play the game. It's as simple as that.

This issue with video game sales was inevitable. Invariably, the growth of new media (movies, comic books, TV, rock & roll music, and now video games) must go through growing pains and fight to determine just how much regulation the government may impose on the media. Now it's the video game industry. Who knows what will come next?

That's it for this week. I'll try to have a single topic next week.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

And the winner is...

In the matter of the 9/3/10 Friday Challenge, "Read Me A Story,", the judges are still working through the entries. With eight stories to evaluate, this is taking us a bit longer than we'd originally planned. Kindly bear with us a little longer and watch for the judges' announcement later this week.

In the matter of the 9/17/10 Friday Challenge, "Just one tiny, practically insignificant change...", on the other hand, two of our judges had to admit that they'd both never seen Citizen Kane and never read much Lovecraft, so this is going to go embarrassingly fast.

Van, The Quish, "Hearst vs The World"

Kersley: Pass.

Henry: Interesting idea that the removal of Hearst left Pulitzer to rise from publisher to dictator, though I'm not sure how that was accomplished. It seems as if you're setting up for a spy thriller, with Hearst as the "good guy" working to overthrow Pulitzer. Interesting premise.

Bruce: I like the clever double meaning of the title, "Hearst vs The World." Henry's right in that this is an interesting premise for a corporate thriller, but he missed a subtle point: in your story William Randolph Hearst is employed by Pulitzer, and it's his son, George Randolph, who's plotting to overthrow Pulitzer. Personally I'm far more interested in what's going on in Europe, what with Churchill assassinated and Adolph Hitler diverted onto a much different path, but this one could potentially work.

Watkinson, "Just one tiny, practically insignificant change..."

Kersley: I like the non-American/European vibe. I’m just wondering, would a tourist-trap of a country with legal drugs and prostitution try to take over the world? Of course, the rich playboys of America and Europe might like it if those freedoms extend to the new territories.

Henry: You point out one of the problems with alternate history on the site; it's bound to be U.S.-centric. That said, you came up with a very good alternate history in the Pacific based on the one change in the U.S. I really like this one a lot. It give us a peek at history for which the rest of us have very little knowledge. Based on what you've written, your story takes a very reasonable path forward to the coming war in the Pacific. Very good and very evocative.

Bruce: So let's think this through: a completely different WWI means -- what? No Gallipoli campaign? No Australians and New Zealanders getting slaughtered by the thousands under British "leadership"? No Anzac Day? No Lithgow Small Arms Factory getting established in NSW so that later, should Australia get cut off from Mother England and need to rely on its own resources for defence...

What I want to know is, what is Japan up to while all this is going on? And India: I should think a greatly weakened England would have some serious implications for the Raj.

I really like your start here. I'd like to see you develop it further. In fact, I find myself wondering if an "Australia Alone" alternate history might find an audience. There is a lot of potential is this idea you've presented.

Avery Maxwell, "Avery Maxwell's Citizen Kane"

Kersley: Aaaand once again my ignorance shows through. I never saw Citizen Kane.

Henry: I'm afraid I've never seen "Citizen Kane," either. I know, horrible of me, but there you go. From what little I know, you've taken an interesting path with the same story, but I'll have to defer to Bruce for final judging on this entry. I hang my head an abject same and humiliation for this lapse on my part.

Bruce: You've... never... seen... Citizen Kane? Seriously? I mean, like, never? Oy. Okay, this one plays very nicely off the original, and I find myself wanting to solve some of the puzzles it presents, but in the end this one is just a little too "inside" for me. I can think of certain literati types who would really get off on it, but—as our judges handily demonstrate—for two-thirds of the readers, it would be incomprehensible.

Arvid, "The End War and the Rise of Tian"

Kersley: I really like this one. Where did China get the tech?

Henry: This strikes me as a cross between an alternate history and the original Buck Rogers comic strip. In Buck Rogers, the world was conquered by the Mongols, who had great flying machines that flew far higher than anything the rest of the world had. However, you confused your Roosevelts; it was Franklin, not Theodore, who was President during WWII. Both Roosevelts were Assistant Secretary of the Navy, but those are political positions held by appointees, not military ones held by serving officers. So neither one would likely to have become an admiral, other than in an honorary sense. I do like how you leave things open concerning the vast Chinese technological advantage. Perhaps the aliens crashed in China rather than Area 51?

Bruce: There are a lot of very clever and thoughtful ideas in this one. On the other hand there are lot of historical miscues, and I wish I had time right now to point you to some sources that I think you'd find enlightening. When the Chinese show up with advanced tech, of course, it then veers into pure pulp adventure territory, and I'd love to see where you have in mind going with this.

Carmine, "mki'tfegmwah ohsf'bauw"

Kersley: Pass.

Henry: Besides never having seen "Citizen Kane," I admit to finding Lovecraft virtually impossible to read. I know there are people who love his work, but it just doesn't appeal to me. That said, I hold enough general knowledge to see where you're going with this. I found your non-Cthulhu part of the story quite interesting, with the tensions that led to WWI simply simmering for a couple of decades before leading to a new war. Honestly, I think this entry would have been stronger without the Cthulhu part, though you'd have to come up with some new way to explain the outbreak of war between the U.S. and China.

Bruce: I'm with Henry on this one. The non-Lovecraftian part of this story is interesting, but then it turns into simple pastiche. This one is good for about a 1,500-word writer's joke, but not much more.

And the winner is...

Kersley: I have to pull myself out of judging this challenge due to not knowing enough to judge. I AP’d history so I wouldn’t have to take it in college, and I’ve never looked back.

Henry: In the end, my favorite is Watkinson's entry. I think he took the challenge in the most interesting direction. I admit the freshness of a Pacific-centric point of view probably helped, too.

Bruce: Watkinson's entry is the one I found myself continuing to think about long after I'd read it. It opens up so many interesting cans of worms and leads to so many fascinating possibilities — and that being the heart, soul, spleen and kidneys of alternate history, I'm going to call it a job well-done and declare Watkinson the winner of the 9/17/10 Friday Challenge.

Now, as for the 9/24/10 Friday Challenge, "Write the Winner" — more hints, clues, and ponderings to follow in the next few days.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

Good 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? Did you place a story in the Friday Challenge Rewrite Drop? 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?

Fitz of Distraction


Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist, but the cheese-eater belongs to Dianna Gay.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 9/24/2010


Critical Thinking discusses meeting an editor from the Christian Brokers Association and wonders how the next Big Name author will be found when everyone in publishing is looking for clones of the last Big Name author. Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu delves into the world of science fiction movies which are so bad they're good. Some wonderfully horrible movies surfaced in the discussion. Share your favorite...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit explains why alternate history is so tough to write, including detailed examples of the chain of events that led to the development of a couple of iconic weapons. Join the discussion...

Ruminations of an Old Goat has the temerity to begrudge a ninety-year-old man his latest Hugo Award, draws the ire of one-time Hugo Award Administrator, and then things get really interesting. Join the discussion...

Bruce Bethke discusses what readers look for in an author's "Best of..." anthology and wonders what title to use if Rampant Loon published his anthology. Contribute your title idea...

Also, Fitz of Distraction explains the perils of discussing research for your latest novel with the neighbors, Topher and Ben-El share the win for "The Kid, the Boy, and the Creature", and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum. All this and more, this week in, THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

Just one tiny, practically insignificant change...

Turning now to the 9/17/10 lesser Friday Challenge, "Just one tiny, practically insignificant change..." as of the deadline we have received the following five entries:

Van, the Quish, "Hearst vs. the World"

Watkinson, "Just one tiny, practically insignificant change..."

Avery L. Maxwell, "Avery L. Maxwell's Citizen Kane" (drop.io, password "challenge")

Arvid Macenion, "The End War and the Rise of Tian" (drop.io)

Carmine Vrill, "mki'tfegmwah ohsf'bauw" (drop.io)

If we've missed any entries, or if anyone has snowdogged in an entry after the deadline, please let us know so we can fix this list.

But wait, we have two Friday Challenges due this week!

Read Me a Story

Next up is the 9/3/10 greater Friday Challenge, "Read Me a Story." As of the deadline we have received the following eight entries:

Ellen, "Daddy's Worst Supper" and "The Treasure in the Creek" (drop.io)

Van, the Quish
, "A Bedtime Story: of Chivalry and Snails"

the bandit, "The Boxes"

Miko, "The Doors of Wickham's Hall" (drop.io)

Al, "Quinn in Trashland" (drop.io)

Carmine Vrill & Arvid Macenion, "My Dead Uncle Rob"

M, "Once Upon a Thyme-Sprig" (drop.io)

If we've missed any entries, or if anyone has snowdogged in an entry after the deadline, please let us know so we can fix this list.

As always, even if you haven't posted an entry this week—even if you never enter in any week—you are invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the writer's sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that somewhere out there, someone is actually reading the words they have written. The winners of the challenges will be announced Sunday evening.

And now for this week's new challenge.

Writing the Winner

We told you we had something different in mind for this challenge and we won't disappoint! Some day, no matter how much you may try to avoid it, you may find yourself required to a story based on an idea by someone else. It happens to screenplay writers all the time and probably to authors who work on a long-running series such as The Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. You are about to have the chance to join those illustrious, anonymous writers!

Your challenge this week is to write the alternate history story presented in the winning outline for the "Just one tiny, practically insignificant change" challenge. I know, we haven't announced the winner yet. That's why we're going to give you two weeks to complete this challenge.

As always, we're playing by the loosely enforced Official Rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #3. This is a major challenge so the deadline for this one is midnight central time, Thursday, October 7.

Now, go read those outlines with an eye toward writing one them! We'll announce the outline you must use Sunday evening and will update this post with that information.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, "Just one tiny, practically insignificant change..." is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (Friday Challenge terminology for posting an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. Take advantage of that time if you need it!

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, "Read Me a Story", is also tonight at midnight, Central time.

For those unfamiliar with the Friday Challenges, lesser challenges run for one week. Entries can be of any length, though are generally less than 1000 words. That is most definitely not a rule or requirement. If your muse instructs you to write far more than 1000 words, write on! Greater challenges run for three weeks. Again, entries may be of any length, but are generally longer than 1000 words. Again, that is not a rule or requirement.

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is "challenge" to login as a guest.

Critical Thinking


We had a special writers’ group last night. Our fearless leader invited an editor for a major Christian publishing house to speak. The audience was all women, most of whom wrote fantasy and/or romance and/or historical. If you’ve considered publishing in the CBA (Christian Brokers Associations), you’ll find some good stuff here. If not, you may find some good stuff, anyway.

(Please note that by “Christian” I mean the conservative Protestant market. Not that there’s anything wrong with the other markets; that’s just who he happened to work with and the short-hand terminology that was used.)

When my friend announced the editor was coming, I jokingly said, “Great. He can tell us how awful the industry’s doing in person.” Both she and her daughter piped up, “Yeah, but he’ll be really nice about it!” And he was. He said that as an editor at a publishing house, he feels that his #1 responsibility is to his authors—those he’s signed and even those whose submissions he’s passed on. Loyalty to the company is in there, but he first and foremost wants his authors to succeed. To that end, if he doesn’t think he can make a book successful, he won’t take it, even if it’s the best book in the world. It’s not to the best interest of the author or the book.

Someone asked about platform—blogs, Twitter, “finding your tribe.” He said it is essential to “find your tribe,” but he wasn’t enthusiastic about blogs, and he wasn’t sure about Facebook. We were pretty much at a loss as to where this mythological “tribe” might be. New Guinea, perhaps? Not much internet, there. But, at the end of the day, word-of-mouth trumps every other platform. And this includes saturating your local bookstores (“local” meaning within a several-state radius), and talking to them personally about your book.

As an editor, his job used to be to find really great authors who knew their craft. Now it’s about landing the next big name. He literally said, “It’s about finding the next Joel Osteen.” That didn’t sit well with us, as you can imagine, and it doesn’t sit well with him, either.

Here was something that personally shocked me. I thought the whole thing was a lot more passive aggressive, but it turns out to be very straight-forward: if a Christian publisher is finishing up a book that has the slightest bit of edge to it, they will take it to Lifeway (the bookstore branch of the Southern Baptist Convention) and ask if it’s okay. They will then go to the author with Lifeway’s comments and ask the author to make the changes. The CBA market (Lifeway, Family, and Mardels, to name the biggies) make up 35% of retail business for Christian books. Amazon and Walmart are growing, but the CBA market still rules the roost. The key question always on the minds of bored publishers is: “How far can we push the envelope and still sell to Family?”

That’s a big question with a lot of little answers. Dragons are okay; brownies are not. Thriller, even horror, is all right; sci fi doesn’t work (try Marcher Lord Press). Regional, historical romances are in like Flynn; female reverends who serve the sacraments, not so much. Oh, and Christmas-themed books are fine, but retailers will yank them off the shelves come the first of January.

What they do need: books for tweens that don’t kill brain cells. Strong YA fiction that intrigues the readers with relevant topics and doesn’t freak out home-schooling parents (no one’s talking about you, Vidad!). He contrasted what the secular YA market offers (vampires, werewolves, and…vampires) and what the CBA market offers (slowly growing out of brain-killing boredom). And the age-group are voracious readers, so they need a lot. (Who has that Nicki, monster-slayer series going? Get that thing written!)

It’s also about the trilogy. We were allowed to ask one question or give a pitch. In response to several pitches, he asked, “Do you have an idea for a trilogy?” (My answer: “I could come up with something…”) Christian book retailers want to know that more will be coming. They like consistency. Hence all the Amish romances (or “bonnet-rippers” as my friend calls them).

In the end, the CBA market is just as confusing as the secular market. He’s seen Thunderbird, and apparently had no comment. I pitched another YA, anti-Twilight, Jane Austen-adaptation, and he said, “Cool,” with slightly glazed-over eyes. When my friend-the-author prompted me, I pitched my 8-yo-boy-goes-into-space-and-learns-about-jet-engines-and-rockets story.

He said, “Send it to me.”


I soooo do not get publishing.

Kersley Fitzgerald just remembered she has half a cookie in her purse. And will be editing Joshuwu tomorrow.

She will be editing
Joshuwu tomorrow. The cookie offered, but she ate it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

On a Tuesday way back in October of 1977, several college friends and I wandered down to the local theater in Clemson, SC, to catch a movie. Back then, Tuesday was Dollar Day at the theater, with all tickets costing just a dollar. It was a popular day for students to catch a movie and we were no different.

This was the year Star Wars had hit the theaters and changed the face of movie science fiction forever. It also resulted in a rash of crappy, quickly produced movies attempting to cash in on Star Wars' popularity. Because of the low ticket price, we were willing to take a chance on one of those rushed-out movies. It was titled Starship Invasions and even had two actual stars; Robert Vaughn and Christopher Lee. Here's how the Internet Movie Database describes the plot:
Captain Rameses and his Legion of the Winged Serpent brigade are out to claim Earth for their dying race. Out to save Earth is an alien guard patrol located in the Bermuda Triangle, the League of Races. LOR leaders warn Rameses that he's breaking galactic treaty rules. The alien villain responds by launching an invasion which telepathically drives Earthlings to suicide. The LOR implore UFO expert Professor Duncan to help them. Eventually, the two alien forces battle. Will the Earth be saved?
Sounds bad, doesn't it? Alas, the description doesn't do the movie justice. It was worse than bad. Examples:
  • The aliens all used "mindspeak," which means they stared at the camera, didn't move their mouths, and we heard them speak.
  • The good guy aliens all wore white while the bad guy aliens all wore black.
  • The bad guy aliens needed to find a new planet on which to settle their entire race because their home star was about to "go supernova an explode." Yes, that's a direct quote from the movie.
  • The bad guy aliens' brilliant plan was to have a lone space ship circling earth issuing some kind of suicide ray. The area over which the space ship passed had a big surge in suicides. The idea was to have the human race wipe themselves out, keeping the good guy aliens from realizing what was going on. The biggest problem with this plan is that the surge in suicides was sufficient to make a major news story but would have required centuries to have any effect on the overall human population.
  • When the good guy aliens had computer damage on their ship, they repaired it using parts taken from the main frame computer on which one of the humans worked.
  • Later, the computer went out again while the good guys were racing through the solar system to reach their hidden fleet out around Jupiter. The bad guys, guided by the supercomputer they had stolen from the good guys, were able to take a fast route through the solar system. Then the good guys got hooked the same computer guy up to their navigation system using special telepathic headphones and he calculated their course using his handy-dandy TI calculator. With this setup, the good guys quickly outpaced the bad guys and their silly supercomputer.
  • After the climatic battle, we watched Christopher Lee's spaceship crash on the moon. It caught fire and burned.
Christopher Lee's character wore what looked like a wrist watch in which there was a slowly expanding red dot. When the red dot filled the dial, his planet's home star had gone supernova (and exploded). This led to one friend of mine giving this description of the plot, "The aliens had to kill everyone on earth before Christopher Lee's wrist watch went supernova." He left out "and exploded."

After the film was released, someone asked Robert Vaughn and Christopher Lee why they had been involved in such a dog of movie. Both gave the same answer. The producers lied to them.

Over the years, I've gained such enjoyment relating the whole silly movie to friends that it's more than made up for the time and (minimal) cost spent to see it in the theaters. Starship Invasions will always be my favorite truly bad science fiction movie for just that reason. Can you top it with a worse movie?

Let the arguments begin!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

The temptation when writing alternate history is to assume that your one chosen detail of history has changed, but everything else—and everyone else—has remained roughly the same. Yes, in your timeline Lincoln lost the 1864 election and as a result the Union settled for a negotiated peace with the Confederacy—but a decade later, you've still got General Custer in command of the 7th Cavalry as it rides across the Dakotas, towards its fateful appointment with the Sioux on the Little Bighorn.

Wait a minute. General Custer? General George Armstrong Custer? Who rose through the ranks so rapidly because he was the hero of the Battle of Appomattox Court House? Which in our timeline took place on the morning of April 9, 1865, which means that in your timeline, it never happened?

You begin to see the problem?

History is Brownian motion expressed in human lives. We like to imagine that we see grand sweeping vistas and irresistible forces working to produce inevitable results, and those sorts of patterns are easy to discern (or at least imagine we discern) in hindsight. But to the people living in the moment, it's just a constantly swirling blizzard of tiny changes, which only later can be thought to have had a pattern. Case in point: as we were toying with the alternate timeline that might flow from this week's Friday Challenge idea, the tiny changes began to snowball with astonishing rapidity. The U.S. never gets into the Spanish-American War—

Well, some claim this war was a historical inevitability. In the 1890s the United States was feeling its oats, and the State and War departments were full of younger men who'd missed the Civil War and were eager to prove themselves. If not Spain, then somewhere else: perhaps Mexico, or maybe China. We were a pugnacious young country then, and history as told now conveniently elides the fact that in 1895 we even went to the brink of war with England over the border dispute between British Guiana and Venezuela. Luckily, trouble elsewhere in the British Empire pulled our chestnuts out of the fire, by motivating the British to accept a negotiated settlement so that they could turn their full attention to more important matters, and by the end of the Second Boer War the Brits had decided we were more useful as allies than adversaries.

But let's stick with our initial assumption: that the U.S. never gets involved in the Spanish-American War, and the jingoistic faction in our government doesn't find another suitable war to take its place. What kind of snowflakes are in motion and perturbed by this change?

How about these? In 1892, as part of a modernization program, the U.S. Army replaced the post-Civil War single-shot Trapdoor Springfield rifle with the Krag-Jorgenson, a beautifully made bolt-action rifle whose .30-40 cartridge was perfectly suited to hunting whitetail deer. Likewise, in the same year they retired the venerable .45 caliber 1873 Colt Single-Action Army (a.k.a., the SAA, or "Peacemaker" of cowboy movie fame) and replaced it with the brand-spanking-new 1892 Colt Double-Action Army, in the then-new caliber of .38 Long. Similarly, in 1895, the Navy and Marine Corps adopted the 6mm Lee, the rapid-firing high-velocity wonder weapon of its days, along with the Colt "potato digger" machine-gun in the same caliber and the M1892 Colt .38 revolver.

In the Spanish-American War, American casualties in combat were relatively light: for every American killed in battle, ten more succumbed to tropical diseases. This was largely due to the poor training, morale, leadership, marksmanship, and equipment of the Spanish soldiers, a fact which George Orwell would comment on at considerable length forty years later in Homage to Catalonia.

Once in a while, though, the Americans ran into Spanish soldiers who were well-trained, -led, and -equipped, and then it was a different story. The Battle of San Juan Hill, for example, would probably be considered a classic military clusterf### of the please-let's-change-the-subject variety now, if not for the involvement of a certain future President. In this battle, a force of 15,000 American troops assaulted a hill held by about 750 Spanish troops—no, I did not drop a zero—who were adequately trained, led, dug-in, and armed with the latest Mauser rifles.

The Mauser came as a nasty shock to the Americans. It was more accurate, more powerful, and had longer range than the Krag. Worse, some of the American troops were still armed with Trapdoor Springfields, and when they fired their black-powder .45-70 cartridges they may as well have been lighting smoke grenades and waving flags saying (in Spanish), "WE'RE HERE! SHOOT AT US!" The Americans took 1,400 killed or wounded before they overran the Spanish positions, and probably wouldn't have taken the hill at all without excellent use of supporting fire from their Gatling guns.

Nonetheless, take the hill they did, and in due time they won the war, thus gaining control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Whereupon a new problem arose: some Filipinos weren't happy with the notion of trading one colonial master for another, and the Philippines promptly erupted in a bloody guerrilla war that lasted years.

If the .30-40 Krag-Jorgenson was a disappointment in Cuba, the .38 Colt proved to be a disaster in the Philippines. As many Americans learned to their profound but very short-lived dismay, you could shoot a charging Moro tribesman six times in the chest with the Colt .38, but if you weren't lucky enough to hit his central nervous system, he could still decapitate you with his parang before he died or you finished reloading.

It was as a direct result of these two experiences, then, both related to America's involvement in the Spanish-American War—the inadequacy of the Krag in Cuba and the failure of the Colt in the Philippines—and a third experience, that of the discovered folly of equipping the Army and Navy with completely incompatible rifles when soldiers and Marines might end up fighting side-by-side—that the War Department launched two crash development programs. The first was to find a rifle and cartridge that equaled the Mauser and met the needs of both the Army and the Marines, and the result was the legendary M1903 Springfield, with its entirely new .30-03 cartridge—which had some teething problems, and was quickly superseded by the .30-06. The second was to find a pistol and cartridge that would stop a charging Moro in his tracks, and the result of that was the equally legendary Colt 1911, and the all-new .45 ACP cartridge.

And to imagine a 20th Century without either .30-06 rifles or Colt .45 automatics...

Well, now you know why my alternate history prognostication process seized up shortly after 1900.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

The Hugo awards were handed out at Aussiecon over Labor Day weekend. There was a time when I would have read most of the fiction nominated for the award. That time is well in the past, as I hadn't read any of the fiction with the exception of a couple of the nominees for Best Graphic Story (Fables and Girl Genius). I saw three of the five movies -- excuse me, dramatic presentations, long form -- and four of the five dramatic presentations, short form. I haven't read anything by the five nominees for the John Campbell Award for best new writer and hadn't even heard of four of the five nominees for Best Fan Writer. Strangely, I had heard of the guy who won the award for Best Fan Writer.

Frederik Pohl.

Yes, that Frederik Pohl. A writer with four Hugo awards and multiple Nebula awards, including being given the Grand Master Award in 1993.

I've never met Fred Pohl, but I've always enjoyed reading his work. I found his autobiography The Way the Future Was to be a fascinating glimpse into the formative days of science fiction. I've read and enjoyed his novels and stories, ranging from early works through his major award winners. I've even read The Way the Future Blogs, for which he won the Hugo for best fan writer. It's well worth reading. I was even touched by the message Pohl posted on the blog after learning he had won:
To say that I’m pleased to have won this Hugo doesn’t really cover the subject, because I’m not just pleased, I’m tickled pink. So I want to thank everybody who voted in this year’s event, whoever they voted for; to thank as well all the nice people, beloved friends as well as total strangers, who sent me messages of congratulation and affection; and finally to thank the whole world of science-fiction fandom, which I have inhabited since before I quite reached my teens, and to which I will stop giving my allegiance when I stop breathing, but not before.
It was such a heartfelt message that it almost made made me rethink the next sentence. You see, I don't think he should have won the award. I don't even think he should have been nominated for it. He shouldn't even have been eligible for it because Fred Pohl is not a fan writer. He's a pro writing a blog for fun.

I'm sure there are plenty of people -- many of them Hugo Award voters, it seems -- who will disagree with me. They'd probably point out that Fred is writing his blog to share his love of science fiction. I wouldn't disagree with them. They'd probably point out that he's not getting paid for writing the blog. I wouldn't disagree with them, there, either. Despite agreeing with them on both points, I still do not accept the idea that Fred Pohl is a fan writer.

Fan writers have not made a living writing science fiction. Fan writers do not have Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. Fan writers are not, and never will be, named Grandmasters by SFWA. Fan writers will never be the pro guest of honor at a convention. That's because fan writers are fans; first, foremost, and only.

Fred's blog has links to his publishers and links to buy his books from Amazon. While his sales from those links are probably negligible, the entire blog serves as an ongoing advertisement for Pohl's work. I have no doubt he's sold at least a few novels as a result of his blog. I'm not saying that's the reason he does the blog, but the simple fact that he links to his work and makes it possible for you to click straight to Amazon shows that he's aware of the commercial implications.

Fan writers may have links to Amazon on their blog, but the links aren't for books they've written.

I think it's unfair to the other four nominees, none of whom has the name power to attract readers like Pohl's name does. Who knows how many Hugo Award voters had read none of the nominated fan writers and decided to vote for Pohl because they knew who he was. This may very well have been those other four nominees' one and only chance to win a major award. Pohl probably has major awards stuffed in boxes because he doesn't have room to display them all.

If George Lucas made a film in his backyard (I mean besides Episodes I, II, and III) would anyone seriously call it a fan film? Would anyone let him enter it in a fan film contest? If he was allowed to enter and won, would anyone seriously consider it to be fair that he was allowed to enter, much less win? And the answer to those questions is, "No." George Lucas is a professional film maker and can never be counted as an amateur again.

Dustin Hoffman could try out for summer stock theater and there's no doubt the troupe would be happy to have him. But they wouldn't consider him for any amateur acting award at the end of the season and rightly so. Hoffman is a professional, even if he works for free.

I believe those same rules should apply to Fred Pohl. I respect the body of work he's produced over the years and agree he deserves all but one of the honors he has won. He's a writer of science fiction who also is a fan of science fiction. But that doesn't make him a fan writer.

And I'd have thought Fred Pohl could have figured that out.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

And the winner is...

In the matter of the 9/10/10 Friday Challenge, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature," the results are:

Miko, "Stranded"

Kersley: It’s a beautiful metaphor. Personally, as a reader, I would have felt cleverer had you not overtly explained that the boy was an alien in that place. I’m lucky enough to be from a place where the mountains go right up to the ocean, but I certainly felt like this when we lived in Alabama!

Henry: A good story in which you totally nailed the "boy" voice again. It's like, I don't know, you've had experience being a boy sometime in the past! I think you spent too much time having the Boy contrasting the mountains and the coast. I can understand him being bored, but it seemed like the first half of the story was taken up by the internal complaint about the coast. Nice bit with the jellyfish as an alien creature, though, including the Kid's reaction to it. I think this story would be better if it was shorter, with a few examples about the Boy's love of mountains the distaste for beaches and then move on.

Bruce: I really liked this one. It could use another rewrite and some serious tightening in places, but the voice is terrific and it's a really beautiful metaphor. I'm not sure how to rewrite it—that requires more subtlety than I possess—but I think this is the first draft of a wonderful story about feeling like a stranger in a stranger land.

Arvid, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature"

Kersley: This is the best sci-fi/fantasy/poker story I’ve ever read! I like how you had the announcers explain things for their “audience.” I do think you might consider upping the ante when it comes to the climax. "The Kid wins and The Creature goes ballistic" is a little tame. I was expecting the Creature to get caught cheating somehow.

Henry: Interesting description of a poker game, though I note you had one a straight flush lose to four of a kind. Sorry, a straight flush is the highest hand in poker! Adding in the Creature from the Black Lagoon was pretty fun, but televised poker doesn't appeal to me that much, so this story fell a bit flat for the same reason. There's nothing you could do to offset that, it's just that I'm not your target audience.

Bruce: This is not only the best sci-fi/fantasy/poker story I’ve ever read, it's quite possibly the only sci-fi/fantasy/poker story I've ever read. Great dialog: normally I consider watching someone else play cards on TV to be about the most boring thing it's possible to watch—and there have been times when I have been required to watch paint dry—but you manage to make it sound exciting. The ending is a tad weak; it'd be better if the Creature did something more imaginative than simply going wookiee. But still, an entertaining read.

Topher: "Friday Challenge Entry #9"

Kersley: Lessee, paragraph 5, there’s a major POV break. Major. Huge. The first bit is a tad choppy with the descriptions intermingled with the dialogue. I think I’d have Pratley bringing the guy in and asking if he could leave, then Harper commencing the interview and having physical descriptions intertwine with the dialogue.
“Jack asked leaning back in his chair interested in hearing the answer.”
Big-time telling. To show he’s interested, have him lean forward and cut it off there.
“Did it now? And what did the creature look like, a great big beastie with dripping fangs and talons I suppose?” Jack asked jokingly thinking that he was being put upon and this was all some bizarre prank.
I don’t know about this part. He saw the crime scene. He knows how messed up the Kid is. It doesn’t feel in character.

This has tremendous potential, but the writing’s not there quite yet. The Kid goes from having horror visible on his face to attacking Harper pretty quickly. Once you work out the writing and the pacing, it’ll be a good story.

Henry: Nice bit of horror as the creature shifts from person to person, though I'm at a loss to describe exactly what the creature really is. I think the idea needed just a bit more description to get across clearly. I did follow the idea of the creature metaphysically jumping from person to person, but I think more could have been done with it. Perhaps the actual person is still inside, just forced to be a horrified observer as the creature takes over? Something that builds up some more horror.

Bruce: I didn't have a problem with the lack of physical description of the creature, as my imagination was able to supply sufficient detail. There are quite a few "craft" problems with the verbal mechanics one, all of which can be easily corrected in rewrite, and a few fiddly technical details about police procedures and life in 1959 that need correcting that you couldn't be expected to know. But all the same, this one has a great Twilight Zone -slash- Night Gallery -slash- Alfred Hitchcock Presents feeling going for it, and I really liked it a lot. I'd like to see you give this one a rewrite and put it into the drop.io Rewrite box for further comments and development.

Ben-El, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature"

Kersley: Too cute! Just a couple of rough spots, and it could have done with the climax (i.e.: the last two paragraphs) being drawn out just a bit, but I really liked it. The whole explanation about fishing without a marshmallow was funny.

Henry: Take a couple of boys and put them in a strange place, say on vacation, and suddenly they're best friends for the duration of the vacation. We saw this with the actual Kid and Boy at Dragon*Con. Add in the general fascination boys have for odd things -- and goat boys definitely qualify as "odd" -- and you've got a neat little story of friendship and the joy of scaring your sisters whenever possible. You've written a great little story of friendship.

Bruce: Great beginning; delightful middle; strange and somewhat abrupt end, but that's not a serious flaw.

And the winner is...

Kersley: For writing, I think it’s Arvid. For message, definitely Miko. Topher had the best story (in there somewhere), but Ben-El had the best voice. I think Ben-El has the least amount of work to make a really great story.

Henry: In the end, my vote goes for Ben-El. His story was just plain fun.

Bruce: Miko voted for Topher, Ben-El voted for Topher, Arvid voted for Miko, and Carmine voted for Topher. I know my fellow members of the troika voted for Ben-El, but I'm going to call it a split decision. Ben-El's entry was a great piece of fantasy and is probably closest to being a finished piece of work, but I'm a sucker for the Richard Matheson ending and I think Topher's entry—with at least one more major rewrite, and a good bit of elbow grease and polishing—promises to deliver that. So Ben-El and Topher, come on down, because you're this week's winners!

And everyone else, thanks for your entries and comments, and remember: the next two deadlines are coming up this Thursday!

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

On a matter of purest narcissism:
Assuming Rampant Loon Press keeps going, one of the things we're looking for is projects we can bring to market quickly and, quite frankly, cheaply, and one idea that keeps coming back up is a "Best of Bruce Bethke" anthology.

Except, good grief, that's a lame title.

I know, it can work. I have whole shelves full of such books: The Best of Hal Clement, The Best of Fritz Leiber, The Best of John W. Campbell, Jr., The Best of Lester Del Rey, The Best of Henry Kuttner, The Best of L. Sprague de Camp... One of my all-time favorites is The Best of Fredric Brown, and if you ever find a copy, I advise you to snap it up and read it cover-to-cover.

But to me, this title mostly smacks of defunct band at the tail-end of creative exhaustion with one more record due on their contract but too dysfunctional even to do a "live" album syndrome. (Except for The Best of El Roacho's Biggest Hits, which smacks of purest and most admirable chutzpah, because as far as I can tell it was their only record.) So what would be better title?

Beyond the Valley of the Cyberpunks? I kinda liked that one when I sold the idea to a publisher who subsequently went belly-up, but that was back in the 1990s, and honestly, it seems pretty dusty and shop-worn now. "[insert_name_here]" and Other Stories? Again, that seems to meet the old definition of an album: "the hit single and twelve tracks of [crap]."

Oh, and there's one more complication. I've already got the cover art I'd like to use. It's a wonderful illo Phil Foglio did ages ago for my story, "Jimi Plays Dead," and I not only bought the original art, I long ago negotiated the rights to use it for a chapbook that never happened, that was to be titled, More Stories About Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll. (If I get access to a scanner, I'll post the image later.) But that title doesn't work now, because those particular stories were only a small part of my output, and then only during a certain phase. More Stories About Punks, 'Bots, and Rock 'n' Roll? It seems like a stretch.

Which brings us to the last question: what makes for a good single-author anthology, anyway? What do you like to see? Just the hit singles? Something you haven't seen before? As many stories as can possibly be fit into a book? Stories focusing on just one particular style or theme, or a good cross-section from the writer's entire career? And what about the writer's voice: do you like it when the writer includes a little something about the story? Do you prefer a big something; e.g., longer comments about what the writer thought he was trying to do when he wrote it and what it took to make the story publishable? Or are you happiest when the writer just shuts up and stays the heck out of the way of the stories?

Your thoughts, comments, and observations, s'il vous plait?


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Open Mic Saturday

Good 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? Did you place a story in the Friday Challenge Rewrite Drop? 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?

Fitz of Distraction


Kersley Fitzgerald is an accidental cartoonist who actually had this conversation Thursday. Well, he did stay long enough to appear socially polite, but I'm pretty sure he wanted to leave like this.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Friday Challenge - 9/17/10


We continue to battle the "connection reset by peer" issue. What's supposed to happen is that TheFridayChallenge.com should link through seamlessly to the actual host, thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com. But what's been happening for the past few weeks is that some users, about half the time, go to TheFridayChallenge.com and get a "connection reset by peer" or "connection timeout" error instead of a working link.

If you go directly to thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com, there's no problem. Likewise, if you come into this site via the RSS feed, there's no problem. This only happens to people looking for TheFridayChallenge.com—which, unfortunately, is the URL we've been promoting for the past two years.

Thus far we have been unable to determine whether this problem is caused by Google, Microsoft, or some other third-party. All we know for certain is that it's persistent and has become aggravating enough to make us think that severing the automatic link, and serving up TheFridayChallenge.com as a semi-static front page requiring a manual click-through to the blog, is a good idea. (The thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com URL will remain viable for thems as are in the know.)

How about you? Have you run into this problem? What do you think of our proposed solution? Join the discussion...

And with that said: also this week....

Guy Stewart concludes his series on idea generation with the list of the final twenty-five SF/F story ideas he came up with starting from a single source. Is there one here you can use? Join the discussion...

Miko's entry, "Daysh's Homework" takes the win in the 8/27/10 Friday Challenge, "What I Did Last Summer," after one of the longer and most interesting debates we've had in some time. Want to review the judges' findings and argue over the results? Join the discussion...

Ultimate Geek Fu asks, what is that mysterious je ne sais quoi that enables some TV series to develop loyal followings and live on in the hearts and minds of fans for years after they're cancelled, while other more commercially successful series fade from memory as soon as the final credits from the final episode scroll off the screen? Share your ideas...

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit casts a jaundiced eye on steampunk: meaningful new contribution to the SF canon or simply the latest fashion? Join the argument...

Critical Thinking takes a bye week owing to the start of the fall semester, and likewise, caving in to the demands of Otogu, Ruminations of an Old Goat does the same. Drat those teachers and employers. They expect...results.

Bruce Bethke breaks some family news of the bad kind. What this means for the future of STUPEFYING STORIES and Rampant Loon Press remains to be determined. Read the rest...

Also, Fitz of Distraction tackles an important aspect of the writer's lifestyle, Rigel Kent announces his latest publication, Guy Stewart gives us a sneak preview of "Invader's Guilt", and the inmates discuss the view from their respective places in the asylum. All this and more, this week in, THE FRIDAY CHALLENGE.

The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature

Turning now to the 9/10/10 Friday Challenge, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature," as of the deadline we have received the following entries:

Miko, "Stranded"

Arvid Macenion, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature"

topher, "Friday Challenge Entry #9"

Ben-El, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature" (drop.io)

If we've missed any entries, or if anyone has snowdogged in an entry after the deadline, please let us know so we can fix this list.
Update: Well, it turns out that Ben-El has attempted to set a new record for snowdogging. His entry, "The Kid, The Boy, and The Creature" is on drop.io now; the password is "challenge". How about it? Shall we let him get away with it?
As always, even if you haven't posted an entry this week—even if you never enter in any week—you are invited to read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. Don't be shy about leaving feedback on the writer's sites, either. Writers thrive on knowing that somewhere out there, someone is actually reading the words they have written. The winner will be announced Sunday evening.

And now for this week's new challenge.

"Just one tiny, practically insignificant change..."

In keeping with this week's emphasis on steampunk, Henry and I conducted a little brainstorming session to try to come up with a point of departure for an alternate history. What we were looking for was just one small event, seemingly insignificant in itself, that occurred sometime in the late 19th century and that, had it broken the other way, might have changed the entire course of world history.

The event we finally settled on took place in 1885. The one tiny change is this: on the verge of committing a truly tasteless prank involving some professors' chamberpots, young college student and Harvard Lampoon writer William Randolph Hearst stops, thinks, "Nah, I'd better not," and doesn't go through with it.

The result? Young Hearst does not get expelled from Harvard but instead graduates and goes on to a successful career in—oh, real-estate speculation. Therefore his parents do not give him control of the San Francisco Examiner just to keep him out of trouble, and a decade later, his mother does not help him add to his growing newspaper collection by buying the New York Morning Journal. Therefore on February 15, 1898, when the U.S.S Maine explodes and sinks under mysterious circumstances in Havana harbor, Hearst's paper is not locked in a circulation battle with Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, meaning Hearst and Pulitzer are not competing to see who can scream the loudest for immediate war with Spain. Therefore the Spanish-American War never happens; the U.S. does not seize control of Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and scoop up the Republic of Hawaii while they're at it; a certain ambitious young Assistant Secretary of the Navy does not get the opportunity to resign his post and lead any charge of anybody up any hill, thus putting himself in position to be nominated for vice-president when William McKinley runs for re-election in 1900—

And that's when our prognostication machine seized up, because by 1900 the world was already so different from history as we know it as to be nearly unrecognizable. Ergo, we're going to lob it over to you. This week's challenge:

Sketch out, in three paragraphs or less, the synopsis of an alternate history story that you think you might like to write, beginning from this premise.

Note that we did not say to write the actual story itself. Don't do that now; we have something fiendish and deviously brilliant in mind for that. But definitely, develop at least one idea for a story.

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 this one is midnight central time, Thursday, September 23.

Now put on your steam-powered thinking hats and get imaginative!

The Friday Challenge - 9/17/10

Today's scheduled Friday Challenge has been temporarily preempted by a dinosaur stampede and will be posted later today.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Deadline Reminder

The deadline for the current lesser Friday Challenge, "The Kid, the Boy, and the Creature," is tonight at midnight, Central time. As I'll be asleep at midnight, Central time, those of you who have to snowdog their entry (Friday Challenge terminology for posting an entry past the deadline) have until early Friday morning to get your entry in. If you post much past 6:00 AM Central time, you'll be in danger of missing the deadline. Take advantage of that time if you need it!

The deadline for the current greater Friday Challenge, "Read Me a Story", is one week from tonight, on September 23, at midnight, Central time.

For those unfamiliar with the Friday Challenges, lesser challenges run for one week. Entries can be of any length, though are generally less than 1000 words. That is most definitely not a rule or requirement. If your muse instructs you to write far more than 1000 words, write on! Greater challenges run for three weeks. Again, entries may be of any length, but are generally longer than 1000 words. Again, that is not a rule or requirement.

Also, remember you can post to the Friday Challenge Drop if you want to enter but don't want your entry available to everyone in the world with internet access. The password is "challenge" to login as a guest.

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

SNOWDOG ALERT: "Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit" normally runs on Tuesdays, but due to circumstances beyond our control it was delayed until today. We will return to our normal schedule next week. ~brb

Twenty-some years ago, I just about got myself thrown off a panel at a WorldCon for advancing the argument that this "cyberpunk" thing was primarily a marketing label and a fashion statement, and we might as well be calling it cybervoodoo because most of the people writing it and nearly all of the people reading it clearly did not know jack $#!+ about how computers and networks really work and apparently thought Tron was a documentary.

Well, here we go again...

In case you've missed it, the Flavor of the Month is "Steampunk." Everywhere I turned at Dragon*Con, it was steampunk this and steampunk that. I heard Firefly described as a "steampunk space opera." I heard my own Wild Wild West described as an "early steampunk western." Maybe it was just a small group that I happened to cross paths with continuously, but it seemed like everywhere I turned, I was running into people dressed as if they'd just escaped from Girl Genius. Why, even our old friends at Weird Tales have discovered that they love steampunk.

Now, I certainly don't want to even begin to sound like I begrudge Phil and Kaja Foglio their success. They're wonderful people, and richly deserve everything good that comes to them. And as far as sci-fi fashion statements go, steampunk certainly is easy on the eyes. In a field where many of the female fans require serious foundation garments, the return of the corset is not unwelcome:

I could do without the men in skirts. I'm sorry, but if you're wearing a tartan with a sporran and the whole works, it's a kilt; otherwise, you're just a guy in a funny-looking skirt. But I suppose sometimes you have to take the bad with the good:

Especially considering the previously dominant fashion modality that's being displaced:

A couple of days into the con, I got into a pleasant conversation with an editor of long-standing acquaintance who was trying to get a handle on this whole steampunk thing. She wanted to know where it came from, because it'd slipped in under her radar while she was focusing on paranormal romance. I said Girl Genius. She countered with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I pointed out that Gibson and Sterling were using the term back in the late 1980s to describe this book they were working on that would eventually become The Difference Engine, and that Michael Moorcock was putting this kind of stuff into his Nomad of Time series back in the 1970s.

I thought of Katsuhiro Otomo's anime epic, Steamboy, but couldn't pull the reference in off the top of my head at the moment. I do get the sense that steampunk is 95-percent visual style. I have this vague feeling that Larry Blamire has been drawing his Steam Wars art since, like, forever, or at least that I first saw some of these things as magazine illos back in the 1980s. I 'spose I should ask him about it one of these days.

If I had unlimited time and money, I would have Rampant Loon commission and publish an actual Tales of Steam and Thunder, just so I could use Blamire's terrific faux cover art:

But on a philosophical level, I consider steampunk to be evidence of the utter failure and final exhaustion of science fiction. It's as if the entire field collectively woke up one day, realized it's the 21st Century, suddenly grokked on some subliminal level what this century is likely to be like based on the history of the past half-century, and then screamed in horror and shouted out, "NO! DO OVER! DO OVER!"

So if you're a dedicated follower of fashion and the sort who likes to chase trends; go ahead. Do over. Go back to Verne and Wells and do it all again, and pretend the 20th Century never happened. Have fun.

But if you do so, remember: there are good reasons why Verne is remembered now for Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and not Robur the Conqueror, and Wells for The War of The Worlds and not The War in The Air. There are good reasons why both Verne's airships and Well's land ironclads are errant nonsense; why Diplock's pedrail was beaten in both the marketplace and on the battlefield by Holt's caterpillar tracks; why the Great War was not fought between the Kaiser's and the Tsar's mighty air fleets of armored zeppelins.

Edgar Rice Burroughs at least took the time and trouble to invent a new principle of physics unknown to Earthly science in order to get his Barsoomian air battleships aloft. The Difference Engine was based on an actual viable science-fictional premise—that Babbage's analogue computers actually worked—even if the social changes envisioned as flowing from that change in history are rather silly. Do try to at least match that level of intellectual exertion.

But as for me; well, actually, I'll turn the last word over to The Kid. When we got back from Dragon*Con he immediately went rummaging in his closet, to find one of his old Nerf guns. Then he got out his paints and got busy.

"Cool," I said, when he showed it to me. "Why?"

"Dad," he answered, with that exasperated voice 15-year-olds do so well, "they were selling junk like this for fifty dollars in the dealer's room! I'm gonna buy up all my friends' old Nerf guns, steampunk 'em up, and sell them online!"

Some days I think The Kid is definitely much smarter than his old man...

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

We've got a serious question for you this week. Having just come back from Dragon*Con, where among other things they had a gathering of a world's record 571 people in Star Trek costumes—that's probably more people than ever had speaking parts in the original series, the spinoff series, and all of the movies combined—a serious question might seem out of place, but nonetheless, here it is.

Why is it that some science-fiction or fantasy-themed TV series develop devoted fan followings, while other more commercially successful series don't?

It's worth remembering here that the original Star Trek series was a commercial flop. It was canceled in its second season. Fan protests did a miraculous thing and convinced the network to rescind the cancellation bring it back for a third season, but it received the definitive stake in the heart at the end of the third season. Ratings-wise, it was even beaten out by some Irwin Allen steaming heap, though I can't remember now whether it was Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And yet, in the forty years since, Star Trek has become the focus of an almost cult-like fan following, and a multibillion-dollar multinational industry.

Likewise, Firefly lasted all of 13 episodes and one movie, and yet today, there are more Browncoats than ever, begging for another movie or a revived series.

Now compare these to series like—oh, Charmed. Beauty and the Beast. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Angel. Babylon 5. The X-Files. Perhaps even Stargate. All of these were science-fiction or fantasy-themed series that had long and commercially successful runs. All of them had decently high or even better ratings while they were in first-run production, and while they were airing, strong fan followings. At least one or two of them should make you scratch your head now and think, "Oh yeah. There was a series with that name, wasn't there?"

So here again is today's question: what is that mysterious je ne sais quoi that enables one series to develop a fan following so strong it lives on in the fans' hearts and minds long after the original series ends, while another series has its run and then fades from memory as if it was never there?

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, True Blood, The X-Files, The X-Men, The Man From Atlantis, or pretty much any other SF- or fantasy-flavored media property? Send it to slushpile@thefridaychallenge.com with the subject line, "Geek Fu," and we'll stuff it in the queue.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Please stand by...

For about the past two weeks, when I try to bring up the TheFridayChallenge.com, I get an "unable to load page" error message and have to retry a couple of time before the site comes up. This doesn't happen if I go directly to thefridaychallenge.blogspot.com, only when I go to thefridaychallenge.com.

Is anyone else seeing this behavior, or is this just the result of some strange interaction between my firewall and proxy server and such?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Where Do You Get Your Ideas - Part 3

by Guy Stewart
Part One | Part Two
Some months ago, I promised Bruce I’d write an article if he gave me a book. Rather than the usual “review” thing, I challenged myself and told him I’d not only write an article, I’d generate one hundred science fiction or fantasy ideas from said book. Then I’d throw them into the ether and see if anything came of them.

Ahem…just so you know, I failed my challenge.

The book Bruce sent me was an uncorrected proof of Jonathan Engel’s THE EPIDEMIC: A Global History of AIDS. Among other reasons for my interest was the fact that my brother-in-law Dan had AIDS for over a decade, and yes, I wrote what I meant, he had AIDS. No, I do not mean he was HIV positive. I mean, he had AIDS, full blown with symptoms and various and sundry opportunistic infections that come with an AIDS compromised immune system. Because he was part of a massive research program through the University of Minnesota, and because he never gave up and was determined to beat the demon, Dan survived his AIDS infection. He got it through a blood transfusion because of some accident or another in the mid-1980s. Dan has been a hemophiliac since conception.

The book intrigued me and though I tried for an even 100 ideas, all I have to offer you is an odd 75 that were sparked by reading this book. Because I don’t want to overwhelm you (or bore you) with all 75 at once, I’m giving it to you in three parts. I’d also give a bit of history, but if you don’t know anything about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, then go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AIDS (No matter what you think of Wikipedia, I contend that it’s a good place to START.)

All right then, to continue:

# 51 – Various myths circulated during this time to rebut the widely held notion that AIDS originated in Africa: Western scientists created a virus to kill all black people in the US and Africa; AIDS came back with the Lunar missions; AIDS was an escaped virus from the US germ warfare program; white folk firmly believed that AIDS was imaginary; AIDS was a fiction created by American drug companies to make cheap, fake drugs to sell; all because AIDS didn’t behave the way viruses “always had”. What if ONE of the above was true? Write a speculative fiction piece using: a) A white doctor in Minneapolis is visited by a dying African man transported from 2010 ; b) A racist black doctor from 1990 Lagos, Nigeria is magicked from his home by a white voodoo priestess living in Del Ray Beach, Florida.

#52 – “…most experts agreed [Africa] was the point of origin for AIDS….[it] had jumped species in central Africa…festered in relative isolation….spread to Haiti through…Haitian mercenaries…in Zaire. From Haiti, gay Americans…carried the virus to San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York…” What if a time traveler broke ONE of these links?

#53 – “In South Africa…corrugated iron shacks, adjacent to urban areas…[were] slums in which only one child in 40 attended school.” What if moderate Muslims from Saudi Arabia entered these shantytowns and set up schools?

#54 – “In 1988, Nigeria refused to admit to any AIDS cases at all…” What if in a stunning move, a wealthy, influential Nigerian Muslim health minister reversed the gag order and called for help from the world promising 100% of Nigerian crude for one month to the nation that helped MOST.

#55 – “…an orphaned teenager in South Africa fought off relatives who tried to…take his family [him and the surviving younger siblings] homestead…upon his mother’s death…‘It’s as if we don’t exist…” Pat Atkinson, an American missionary in Guatemala hears of the boy’s plight and adopts them all initiating a wave of ‘personalized assistance through African churches supported by Brazilian, American and Australian sponsors…and the boy gets an education all the way to a PhD which he uses to…

#56 – “Remarked one traditional healer after completing THETA (Traditional and Health Practitioners Together Against AIDS) education: ‘The training was useful. I can now diagnose HIV/AIDS related sickness without calling on the spirits.’” How was this play out?

#57 – “Zimbabwe, with possibly the fastest-growing epidemic on earth, faced a decline of life expectancy from 61 years in 1993 to 49 years by 2000.” What if a Billy Graham-style Zimbabwean evangelist appeared, cutting across tribal barriers with a message of faith in Christ as well as a firey commitment to purity?

#58 – “…the individual most responsible for the breakthrough was David Ho…turn[ing] his investigative acumen [to AIDS research] excited him both professionally and intellectually. Ho’s brilliance was amplified by his recruitment to direct the…Diamond AIDS Research Center…” What if he’d fallen in love and gotten married…right then?

#59 – [The drug treatments were] expensive: hugely so…a typical AIDS patient could easily exceed $20000 per year…for denizens of rich countries…per capita medical expenditures in sub-Saharan Africa hovering at $5 per year…” What if treatment for all AIDS patients had been mandated and a deep jungle traditional healer devised a way to make the medication flow from developed nation patients into Africans under his care?

#60 – “By 1996…protease or reverse transcriptase inhibitors…quickly promoted resistance, and within a year of wide-scale adoption of combination therapy resistant strains of HIV were being observed in nearly 50% of patients.” What if THIS combination worked, stopping AIDS after a 1 year treatment – but the treatment cost $100000? Who would get it (Obviously certain people would…and certain others wouldn’t…)? Would it make it into the hemophilia community? What if the largest stockpile was taken hostage by a group from ACT UP?

#61 – “…the Lazarus Effect experienced by many patients on combination therapy…patients presumed to have only a few years to life found themselves with years…decades of life ahead of them…” What if the combination produced ultra-healthy undead zombie folk still capable of infecting others but living normal (though rotting-flesh-colored) lives?

#62 – “…an Australian blood donor found to be HIV positive turned out to possess a rare mutation of the virus that…failed to progress to…AIDS…provide a template for a live vaccine? …others feared that given HIV’s high rate of mutation, the benign viral form…through an inoculation program…might change to a…virulent one.” What if scientists found a “mutation blocker” that got into human DNA and stopped evolution in its tracks? Call the story, “Come Toast the End of Evolution”.

#63 – “The continued epidemic in the IV-drug-using population was particularly troubling…this group [was] so compromised in life skills and decision-making processes that they would remain insensitive to essentially all public health measures.” So the French Health Ministry created a corps of voodoo healers and created a curse attached to AIDS. Ghosts appeared at drug deals. Monsters haunted the slums and horrible stories circulated that a new for of AIDS was making zombies and vampires of innocent drug users and people would actually eat their children. This proved so effective in France and the rest of Europe that an American doctor who is a confessed and ardent atheist is drafted to create an equivalent program here…

#64 – “People were living longer…gay men relaxed their guards upon recognizing that AIDS no longer constituted a death sentence.” Then a secret Catholic organization introduced a drug said to cure AIDS – and give the highest high ever…

#65 – “Too many viewed [AIDS] as the gay man’s diabetes – somewhat unpleasant, but eminently treatable and largely inconsequential.” What if a side-effect of this was that research monies earmarked for AIDS suddenly dried up just as they did when AIDS research took money from diabetes research in the early 1980s?

#66 – “President Clinton refused to lift a federal funding ban on needle exchanges…” which is linked by the media to a rejection of gay rights. So, Clinton gets slammed by the liberal/gay/AIDS activists so hard that his private life never comes to light because Monica feels so bad for him. Clinton wins an unprecedented third term with a promise to turn the government over to his wife, Hilary Clinton – and 9/11/2001 is his baby.

#67 – “Eugene Rivers, a Boston-based minister…wrote an open letter to African Americans urging them to focus efforts and resources on the ‘needs and interests of missions of orphans in Africa…12 million Africans have already died…you should stand up with moral outrage!” This was taken up as a battle cry for many African Americans and over a billion dollars made their way to Africa’s hardest hit cities. But a child whose parents gave away his inheritance is angry. So angry – and a little mentally disturbed – that goes to that place and…

#68 – “Education efforts had been stymied by continued black skepticism about the very nature of the epidemic...As late as 1999, blacks still expressed heightened suspicions that AIDS have been maliciously created by white scientists…” What if a group of black scientists created a real, whites-only virus and released it on the world, inadvertently killing any black person who had any white genetic material in them. What is the world AFTER the even like?

#69 – Same quote as above, but what if it was Haitian voodoo priests who laid the AIDS curse on rich black Americans? When the truth is discovered in 2012, write a story about what happens when a wealthy black student and a poor Haitian student on a scholarship meet and room together at Yale.

#70 – “Vowing to seek a homegrown African remedy [to the AIDS] threat and calling pro-pharmaceutical protesters ‘paid marketing agents for toxic AIDS drugs from America,” South African president Thabo Mbeki authorized his subordinates to use ‘native’ African approaches in responding.” What if one of the cures worked and effectively destroyed the virus in Africa – and they kept it for themselves?

#71 – “The mass migration of highly trained and gifted engineers and scientists from third to first world nations exemplified the desire of most people to capitalize on their creative powers rather than simply donate them to the common good…” A massive thrust for a one-world government to more effectively deal with the AIDS crisis is successful when it keeps genius where it is found. To the horror of the watching world, genius was abruptly snuffed out. Write a story about “The Last Genius”.

#72 – “While the Communist government had been able to substantially reduce prostitution in the 1950s, it had been unable and unwilling to stem heroin use…it proved to be the entry point for the disease…by 2001, 70% of IV users in [Yunan Province] were infected with HIV.” What if a time traveler went back, back, back in time and with a powerful herbicide, destroyed the proto-Papaveraceae, the plant that would become the poppy? What would she find when she returned home?

#73 – “In Russia in 2001, public health indicators pointed to a society in crisis on multiple fronts: healthwise, economically, morally and socially.” What if absolute morality, enforced by the world government of #71, held sway. What “morals” is it based on? What is the story of a young, evangelical Russian moralist who arose, who was also a doctor and had premonitions?

#74 – “A few smaller companies did direct resources at vaccine development…AIDSVax appeared to be effective in 40% of patients.” What if that was 93%, you were the company’s head researcher and a drug company agent offered you unlimited cash – and your brother and your best friend were gay?

#75 – “Rather a simple, reliable, long-acting, robust vaccination, available in injectable or oral form, was the only possible solution to the international AIDS pandemic…the best that Western medicine had to offer was simply not good enough.” So, an evil villain develops a vaccine and dangles it before a hurting world yet no one can find him or challenge him – except you, who have had the power to fly, leap tall buildings and have several other “super” powers. You have been brought up in a Tibetan monastery and while trained to use your powers, you long ago reach Buddhahood. Do you act – why, why not and what are your struggles?

So there you have it, the final 25 ideas – I’m not taking votes on whether they are good, bad, or indifferent they are simply here for your delectation. If they spark a different idea, cool! If a viable story comes from any of these ideas, I ask that you include my name in some form (forward, backward, first name, middle name, curse of power, name of a cow or pet rat, whatever) – oh, and let me know about it, too; I’d sort of like to keep track of what grows from these seeds.

All quotes above are from THE EPIDEMIC: A Global History of AIDS © 2006 Jonathan Engle. The following pages of the Uncorrected Proof are referenced:

#51 – p 207; #52 – p 211 ; #53 – p 216, #54 – p 222; #55 – p 223; #56 – p 226; #57 – p 228; #58 – p 242; #59 – p 246; #60 – p 248; #61 – p 249; #62 – p 250; #63 – p 268; #64 – p 269; #65 – p 272; #66 – p 277; #67 – p 286; #68 – p 281; #69 – p 287; #70– p 301; #71 – p 309; #72 – p 314; #73 – p 315; #74 – p 317; #75 – p 319
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