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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Critical Thinking: Talkin' 'bout my e-du-ca-see-on...

A do-it-yourself column.

A while back, a friend’s daughter interviewed me for a career-day paper. She wants to be a writer. One of the questions was regarding higher education. I told her that if you want to be a genre writer, get a degree that speaks to the genre. You don’t need a MFA to write sci fi, but a background in science might help. Knowledge about criminal justice is important for crime thrillers. High fantasy writers who know nothing about horses are in trouble.

That made me start thinking about real science fiction writers and their education. So I looked it up. Below is a sampling—with some military experience thrown in. What correlations do you see about the type of education your favs had and the style of writing? Is higher education essential for specific types of SF, or can you self-study your way into it? How has your education informed your writing? If you could go back to school for anything, what would it be?

Elizabeth Moon:
Rice University – BA History
BA Biology

Robert Heinlein

Ben Bova
BA Journalism
MA Communications
Doctorate Education

Spider Robinson
BA English

Douglas Adams
BA English Lit

Isaac Asimov
PhD Biochemistry
Army (drafted)

Arthur C Clarke
Royal Air Force
First-Class Degree mathematics and physics

Anne McCaffrey
BA Slavonic languages and literature

Madeleine L’Engle
BA English cum laude

Frank Herbert
Attended college but didn’t graduate

David Brin
BS Astrophysics
Masters Electrical Engineering
PhD Space Physics
Post Doc Fellow Cali. Space Inst.

Jules Verne
Law degree

Ursula Le Guin
BA French
MA Romance Languages

Orson Scott Card
Bachelors, masters, and doctorate, but I can’t find what in

Ray Bradbury
No college

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

RFES (Request for Emotional Support)

Your kind thoughts, prayers, and emotional support are requested today for Friday Challenge regular Guy Stewart, whose wife is having major surgery this morning. Here's hoping the procedure goes as well as it possibly can, her recovery is blessedly quick, and the Stewart family has many more happy years together in their future.

More news as it becomes available.

Ultimate Geek Fu

This one turned up in the shop the other day:

And I have to confess, I did read it. (It was either this or a 30-year-old novelization of a 40-year-old Dr. Who script.) I chose this one because I needed some fast and lightweight mind popcorn, and I do enjoy a good Tim Zahn yarn every now and then. He has a real knack for telling a tightly paced tale that just grabs onto you and takes you racing to the end.

But...the official movie prequel?

Yeah, I read it, and I guess I must have enjoyed reading it, because I finished it. But all the way through, I kept getting the sense that I was reading... I dunno. A TV series spinoff? An established character is put into terrible peril: "Oh, nothing will happen to her. She's part of the regular cast. She won't even have an interesting thought or a meaningful experience in this story." A new character gets introduced: "Aah, he's not a regular cast member. He is gonna die a horrible death before the second commercial break."

Is that it? Have our expectations been so shaped by the ubiquitous Star Trek redshirt that we're simply unable to imagine a story evolving in a different direction? I wonder.

But never mind that question now. Here, in all innocent honesty, is the question I really wanted to put up for discussion today:

To the best of your knowledge, has there ever been a truly good and necessary prequel?

Let the arguments begin...

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

Speaking of gasbags, no sooner does some fool* write a column totally dissing giant airships than this video clip turns up:

That, my friends, is the prototype Lockheed Martin P-791. Is it a fast blimp? A modern dirigible? Actually, they call it a Hybrid Air Vehicle.

No, that doesn't mean it's powered by Prius engines. (Although the thought of covering the topside with some kind of thin-film photovoltaic array does suggest interesting possibilities.) Rather, it gets some of its lift from the helium in the gas envelope, and depends on ducted fans to get off the ground, but while in forward flight at speed also gets lift from the shape of the gas envelope, which acts as a lifting body. If the engines were to cut out it would (hopefully) settle gently to the ground, but by design the thing can stay aloft for periods measured in weeks, as long as the engines remain working.

To me, of course, the most amusing aspect of the P-791 is its feet. It doesn't have conventional landing gear. Rather, those four foot-like pods are built-in hovercraft, which enable it to land on and take off from just about any flat surface, including water or swamp muck. Reportedly the fans in the feet are reversible, too, meaning they can stick to the ground like giant suction cups, if needed. (Presumably this would be a bad idea if you'd landed on, say, water, desert sand, or a beach at low tide. Unless you also wanted to have the world's largest clam-bake.)

My understanding is that this beastie is the result of a DARPA RFP for a long-range flying machine that can carry an entire infantry brigade, along with all of its equipment and vehicles, loaded for bear and ready to deploy anywhere in the world on a few hours' notice. Reportedly the design can be scaled up to carry cargo loads measured in hundreds of tons, so so much for that fool* who so rudely disparaged the idea of airships "the size of ocean liners."

Still, no design is without its drawbacks, and this concept has a significant one: because the gas envelope also functions as a lifting body, its shape must stay within a pretty rigidly defined set of parameters. Because a flexible gas envelope's shape is in turn a function of the balance between interior gas pressure and exterior atmospheric pressure, this limits the operational ceiling. Lockheed claims the design can soar up to 20,000 feet, and I've no doubt they're absolutely right, but other sources say 10,000 feet is a more realistic practical limit, which puts it well within range of even older shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. So I don't think you're going to see fleets of sky-battleships anytime soon.

But still, as fodder for the sci-fi writer's imagination: ain't it cool?

* me

Monday, March 28, 2011

Danger and Speed

He was stored in a box, surrounded by fabric of asbestos fleece. His presence had been heralded as the defining moment of the 2011 AWANA Grand Prix event (mostly by his maker) and anticipation was high.

At his reveal, he was mocked. "How adorable!" whimpered the whimpering women. "Is it a hedgehog?" the men said derisively. He said nothing. He knew they were not the true judges of his character.

Settled into their stalls, the other entries eyed him cautiously. The ladybug trembled in fear, her spots dangerously close to falling off. An amorphous blob, obviously designed for speed and not beauty, reeked of fumes of axle lubricant. The banana split, three slots down, sat in a pool of melted fake whip cream.

But the garden gnome, catty-corner, was his true rival. It stared blankly, straight above. Was it running through mental exercises? Preparing for the competition to come? Or was it afraid even to turn its head.

The first heat was the harbinger of things to come. The helicopter took an early lead; the purple, glitter-covered race car pulling ahead of the police car at the last moment.

Our hero skidded to a stop, two feet from the finish line.

The door handle won the next heat, easily out-pacing the snowman, the garden gnome and the pink, glitter-covered race car.

Our hero stilled himself a foot from the finish.

The third race was the same. The red and white rocket zoomed ahead, barely behind the strange orange racer. And the fourth heat--despite cheers of encouragement from the formerly insulting crowd--still, our hero ended before the line.

Some say his axles were out of alignment. Or that his wheels rubbed against his wooden body. But he knows the truth. It was fear. The other cars took one look at his visage, his eyes carefully shielded by goggles, and fled before him. Their terror-induced sweat flew back, coating his track with a sticky, putrid slime that stopped him in his tracks.

He'll take that. It's better to be feared than fast.

And he absolutely cleaned up the design contest.

He turned that gnome into mulch.

Because he is...


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hey. It's Saturday. What's going on with you?

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Friday Challenge - 3/24/2011

Obviously, the plan to dedicate March to getting caught up on loose ends and old Friday Challenge business is not working well. Gazing into my crystal ball—or maybe it's a snow globe, I can't be certain—the less-immediate future does not look much better. Otogu has already laid claim to my every free waking minute for the next three weeks, and beyond that, no matter how I phrase the question, the answer is always, Reply hazy, ask again later.

So today I'm going to toss out two news items for your consideration, and then a question. First, from this morning's St. Paul Pioneer Press:

E-book author from Austin, Minn., inks $2M deal with N.Y. publisher

Amanda Hocking, whose career we have been following with considerable interest, has just signed a $2M/four-book deal with St. Martin's Press. I recommend you read the entire article, but think the money quote is this one, from Matthew Shear, the publisher of St. Martin's.
[Shear] said that he wanted "pretty badly" to win the auction for Hocking's books [...]

"I think a lot of authors are looking at self-publishing as a way to perhaps make a certain amount of money sooner rather than later," Shear said. "But a publisher provides an extraordinary amount of knowledge into the whole publishing process. We have the editors, we have the marketers, we have the art directors, we have the publicists, we have the sales force. And they can go out and get Amanda's books to a much, much bigger readership than she had been able to get to before.
So, got that? Part of the rationale behind this deal is that there are a whole lot of middle-men and -women whose future careers depend on proving that the publishosaurs are not becoming irrelevant.

The other notable quote in the article is this one, from Ms Hocking herself:
"I want to be a writer," she said. "I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."
Interestingly enough, that's approximately what Vince Flynn said when he gave up self-publishing, and as good an explanation as any for why the four e-books I'd planned to have out by this point in time still haven't materialized.

Otogu is a most demanding demon.

Also worth noting in the news, here's an item that got little play in the local papers so I had to go to the Sydney Morning Herald for the link:

Google library plans shelved

The gist of it is that after years of litigation and negotiation, a Federal judge has rejected Google's incredibly audacious attempt to grab and profit from everyone else's copyrights. As someone who has long been following this case with rapt attention and a personal stake in the outcome—when I finally got into the Google books database, I was appalled to discover just how much of my own work they had scanned and were claiming as "orphaned" copyrights—all I can say now is, GOOD!

Finally, as promised, here's the question I want to put forward for serious discussion.

Things, obviously, are not going well here at The Friday Challenge. Most of my attention is elsewhere, on personal problems of far greater urgency. Henry, Kersley, and Guy are likewise in similar situations, although some situations are better than others.

We cannot continue to keep going as we have been going in recent months, limping along and hoping things will be better next month. The Friday Challenge must either change or end.

So, which is it to be? Should The Friday Challenge change, and if so, how? Or is it time to say that it's been a fun six year run, but the time has come to close the show, strike the tent, and go do something else?

The lines are now open. I look forward to the discussion.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

A friend, the Boy, and I saw the movie Paul last Saturday. If you're not familiar with the movie, the gist of the plot is that two British geeks who have just come from attending the San Diego Comic-Con (like Dragon*Con, only bigger -- much bigger), are finishing up their holiday by taking an RV tour of famous science fiction movie sites with a stop-off as close to Area 51 as possible. The alien held in Area 51, who calls himself Paul (after the dog he accidentally squashed when his spacecraft crashed), escapes from the government and steals a car. Paul crashes the car right in front of our British geeks and convinces them to give him a ride to Montana, where his people are coming to pick him up. Paul is, of course, being pursued by government agents.

The movie has received some negative press on conservative and religious sites for its over-the-top depiction of a fundamentalist father and his adult daughter. I'll go ahead and get this one out of the way first. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost may think their two fundamentalist characters are over-the-top caricatures, but I know people who hold many of the same beliefs held by these two characters. The people I know are mostly sane and generally reasonable people. They hold certain beliefs I do not hold, but they aren't in-your-face about it. Conversely, the daughter spends most of the movie wearing a t-shirt featuring Jesus shooting Charles Darwin with a pistol. The caption reads "Evolve this!"

Did I laugh at some of the jokes stemming from this situation? Yes, I did. I have friends who would have laughed much harder and at more jokes, simply because the jokes reinforce stereotypes they hold. I have other friends who wouldn't have laughed at any of the jokes and would have been offended by most or all of them. And this is the really touchy part about Paul. If you think this kind of situation will offend you, I recommend you see another movie and leave Paul alone.

In a way, Paul reminds of me Blazing Saddles. There is an abundance of swearing and foul language. Some of the humor is drawn from the fundamentalist daughter's fumbling attempts to learn to use foul language. But a lot of the humor comes from science fiction movie references, just as Blazing Saddles drew a lot of its humor from western references.

Some things which have stuck with me (minor spoiler below, one you could figure out anyway):
  • There are plenty of Star Wars references, generally well-handled and funny.
  • There are several Spielberg references, including E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (that one caught only by the Boy).
  • I don't recall a single Star Trek reference. The friend who went with us suggests this is because most of the references are to science fiction movies rather than TV, but there were a lot of Star Trek movies, too. [Update: I asked the Boy to read this before posting and he reminded that there was a Star Trek reference fairly early in the movie. *Sniff* I'm so proud!] [Update 2: The Boy insists I include this statement from him: "I am not a Trekkie!]
  • Alien gets its due and there's a brief Buck Rogers in the 25th Century bit near the beginning of the movie.
  • The scene where Paul flies off manages to riff two science fiction movies and an arena rock band album cover. I had to point it out to the Boy and my friend and seriously doubt anyone else in the theater caught it.
  • For some reason, the people sitting behind us brought their five year old son. In case you were wondering, five year old boys think bare alien butts are hilarious.
As with Blazing Saddles, this movie could have been endearing and really good, clean fun. As with Blazing Saddles, it's generally too crude for the "clean" part to work. But if you aren't offended by language and can get past the fundamentalist caricatures, Paul is a pretty funny movie for geeks. It's not as funny as Galaxy Quest, but that is a rather high bar to measure against.

Finally, this movie may be too clever for its own good. As best I can tell, my friend, the Boy, and I were the only geeks in the theater last Saturday. At least, there were points when we were the only ones laughing at some of the in-jokes. Even some of the ones I considered blatantly obvious, such as the Mos Eisley Cantina bit, seemed to be completely missed by the rest of the audience. This just further highlights the deplorable state of education in this country.

I don't know if this column will inspire any arguments, but if it does then let them begin!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit

And now a few words about gravity.

Gravity is an innate property of matter. Everything made of matter has gravity. You, me, my coffee cup, this chair I'm sitting in, the Earth itself, the Sun; everything made of matter (and presumably antimatter as well) exudes a gravitational attraction towards everything else. The larger and denser the object, the greater the attraction it has.

[Insert obligatory flippant one-liner here: something like, "And now you know why fat and stupid people have active sex lives."]

As for what exactly gravity is, many theories have come and gone over the centuries, but today it's generally accepted that Einstein was basically right: gravity is a deformation of local space/time caused by mass. And I would insert a really spiffy illustration here, but they wanted money for the reprint rights, so instead I'll give you an offsite link: "Gravity Well Detection Tests" by Theophilus Britt Griswold, at Science-Art.com.

While I'm at it, here's another pretty neat bit of comparative gravity well visualization I found on xkcd.com. It doesn't have anything to do with this column. It's just really cool.

There is a hypothetical gravity particle called a "graviton," and gravity appears to propagate at the speed of light in a form resembling waves and in the usual accordance with the inverse-square law, but it's questionable whether it's even possible to detect gravitons and gravity waves with any instrumentality that can physically exist in this universe, much less to control them. So before you go equipping your mighty starship with a propulsion system that emits a stream of coherent anti-gravitons, remember: only Star Trek is permitted to use such galloping blatant pseudo-scientific gobbledygook.

Or at least, please think it through far enough to realize that if your fictional civilization has developed the ability to engineer gravity and anti-gravity at will, the ramifications go way beyond your hero's having a space-board with which he can surf the gravity waves, or a flying car that periodically requires touching-up the chips in the coat of Cavorite™ paint on the underbody.

Ergo, if classic sci-fi anti-gravity is pretty much out of the question, how do you work against the tendency of all things, in time, to fall down?

The first method has been known since the dawn of time, and has been well-understood at least since Archimedes jumped out of his bath and ran naked and dripping wet through the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!" Buoyancy is the result of the combined interaction of gravity, mass, and density.

You must have gravity in order to have buoyancy. In space, hot air doesn't rise; in fact, it doesn't go much of anywhere. Put a person into free-fall and make him hold perfectly still, and pretty soon he'll be surrounded by a miasma of his own hot exhaled carbon-dioxide, flatulence, ammonia, and whatever. So you'd better equip your spaceship with a forced-air ventilation system.

But impose gravity, and in time everything stratifies very nicely. At the lowest level you get solid matter, composed of the heaviest elements; metals and the like. Next, you get a layer of liquids; for example, on Earth, water. Above that, the gasses, in layers of different densities ranging from only slightly less dense than liquids up to hard vacuum.

Buoyancy, then, is simply a matter of displacing a volume of something more dense with an equal volume of something less dense. Submarines work this way; a submarine is essentially a bubble of air, enclosed in a protective shell. It doesn't even need to be air. Some early bathyscaphes used tanks of high-octane gasoline for buoyancy, as the non-compressible nature of the liquid solved a host of engineering problems.

But we're not interested in submarines. Today, we want to fly. So how do we get a vehicle airborne? Well, if we approach it from a buoyancy perspective, all it requires is a container filled with a sufficient volume of something less dense than normal air. Hot air will do, for as long as the fuel supply holds out. Vacuum would be better, if you could come up with a container strong enough to resist implosion and yet light enough to fly. A purified light gas is the best compromise, as, much like the gasoline tanks in the bathyscaphe, it's buoyant, and yet has density enough to keep the container from imploding. But which gas to use?

Here on Earth, your choices are simple: hydrogen or helium. Beyond that, every other element is either a solid at room temperature or else a gas insufficiently less dense than ordinary air to serve the purpose. Perhaps a more complex gaseous molecule might work? Late 19th and early 20th Century fantastic fiction was full of miraculous balloon gasses, and there are some hydrocarbons and fluorocarbons that might conceivably work to a limited extent, but in truth, simple chemistry dictates that for pure lift, nothing beats hydrogen.

Excepting perhaps hot hydrogen, but that has it's own problems:

The other way to get a vehicle off the ground is by giving up on making it lighter than air, and instead using some mechanical means—rotors, ducted fans, turbojets, rockets, whatever—to displace a mass of gas downward greater than the mass of the vehicle. That, simply and sloppily stated, is what thrust is: a measure of the mass of gasses being pushed through the system. When the mass of gasses being pushed downward at any moment exceeds the mass of the vehicle, it lifts off. Provided the thrust continues, it stays airborne.

As anyone who's ever been around an operating helicopter or VTOL aircraft can tell you, it takes one hell of a lot of moving air to get the thing up into the air. And it's not even remotely close to being silent.

So why all the foregoing discussion? A few weeks ago, I made mention of one of Jules Verne's lesser-known books:

For the past week or so I've been playing host to some sort of undefined sinus and upper respiratory crud, and a couple of nights ago I was awake after midnight, sneezing, coughing, and watching the Insomniac Channel, when I chanced to catch:

Oh, boy, I'd forgotten all about this one! This 1961 epic, starring Vincent Price at his scenery-chewing best, co-starring a very young Charles "I've been in worse" Bronson, and featuring special effects that would embarrass a bunch of high school kids making a movie in the garage with dad's camera, is just so— so— so—

The script, by Richard Matheson (one of my writing heroes), is a mash-up of Verne's 1886 Robur the Conqueror, his 1904 sequel Master of the World, and some elements stolen from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The character of Robur himself is the sort of megalomaniacal genius who would be a villain in a British or American story, and could only be a hero to a French writer, living in the Third Republic and still pining for the glory days of Napoleon III. Robur's mad quest, to bring about world peace by flying around in his mighty airship and bombing the living s**t out of anyone who isn't peaceful, is the sort of utterly insane mission that would only make sense to a half-crazed 19th Century French science fiction writer or someone from the U.S. State Department.

But the more I think about these books and this movie, the more I focus on Robur's amazing invincible armored dirigihelibawhattheheckisthat?, the mighty Albatross.

I mean, sure, it's clearly the great-grandaddy of all those airships flying around in contemporary steampunk fiction, but seriously, what the heck is it?

France's answer to the zeppelin? No, it's sufficiently armored to be impervious to rifle and cannon fire, so that rules out its being lighter than air. Some sort of incredible 1880's proto-helicopter? The forest of rotors on the topside suggests that (and also reminds me of all those wind-power turbines alongside I-76 in northeastern Colorado), but in that case, the downblast from those rotors would make it impossible to have a conversation on the bridge, much less for anyone to walk along the promenade deck without being blown over the side and plummeting to their death. (There are good reasons why we, even with all our modern technology, do not build helicopters the size of ocean liners.) And certainly, this thing could not possibly be silent, which is a gimmick used repeatedly to explain how this Albatross—truly an utterly apt name—could sneak up on and attack non-peaceful (and therefore presumably awake) people.

In the end, I can only shake my head and chuckle softly. The Albatross was silly when Verne first created it in fiction, 125 years ago, but he can be forgiven that because at the time aeronautics was not even in its infancy. It was sillier still when he brought Robur back for the sequel, twenty years later, because by that time Verne really should have known better. It was absolutely laughably ludicrous when it appeared on film, fifty years ago.

It's now 2011. If you must write steampunk fiction, at least take the time and trouble to recognize that we know things now that Jules Verne didn't know.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

I'm still waiting on artwork, so there's nothing new to report concerning my epublishing plans. It seems as if my weekends are getting shorter even as the days are getting longer, so no column today.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

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? 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?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Previews of Coming Attractions

This morning's planned column has been derailed by Otogu, again. I'll try to get it posted later today, but in the meantime, I'd like to put this item on the table:

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in Paul

The link goes to Robert Wilonsky's somewhat deeper than average review in City Pages, our local alt weekly. The movie opens locally tonight. We'll be going to see it sometime this weekend, if only because we never miss a new Simon Pegg & Nick Frost movie.

So, what do you think? Is anyone else interested in seeing it and then posting a discussion of it in next Wednesday's Ultimate Geek Fu?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Critical Thinking

-=ad=- has bravely offered his flash fiction story “Questions” for dissection. If you're a member, you can find it here. If you're not a member, why aren't you a member?*

I like this one. It’s like a mix of Red Dwarf’s Better than Life and Doctor Who’s Cybermen.

First thing. In these types of set-ups (mysterious man visits protagonist), the protagonist is often a doctor or scientist. His profession usually has something to do with what’s going on. I can accept that the technology is ubiquitous enough that a relatively educated man would know about it, but it would be nice to know who Mick Vanora is. It could be slipped in as a thought—He’d retired from ___ to escape the suits like this guy. Or as part of the explanation of the tech—"I was a professional cat scratcher, not a rocket surgeon."

Actually, the first option would ease up the telling creep you get into with Mick ignored the stranger for a long stretch. Thinking back to his job and how the appearance of this guy brings back memories would add a nice beat. It would also help to explain why the stranger was giving Mick this line of questioning. When I’m fishing, people don’t generally walk up and start talking about…well, I don’t fish, but you get the point.

This paragraph has a lot of unnecessary words that could be nicely cut for flash fiction. The way the description of the stranger flows into the dialogue, it feels like the stranger is speaking.

Mick gave him a puzzled look… Intentionally? How about something like Mick raised an eyebrow in question? You need to decide if you’re going to go with tight third-person or omniscient narrator. This bit straddles the fence.

...the man just stared at him, clear blue eyes below a balding head and behind small round glasses. There’s a more elegant way to say this, although I don’t know if I’m going to find it in a busy Starbucks with music that I swear sounds like Chrissie Hynde singing in French. (Why are they playing French on St. Patrick’s Day?)

In between small round glasses and "You know what..." you could easily slip in a bit about Mick’s change of heart. Glance around the empty lake? Think about the empty cabin? Realize he can’t eat three fish on his own? It would also add a much-needed dialogue attribution. Actually, watch your speech attributions throughout.

The verb “scooped” is great, but I had a vision of him actually scooping his hand into the barrel and pulling out some fish like a bear.

The stranger followed in silence, at a respectful distance behind him. Is following behind someone respectful in this culture? Considering the ending, maybe Mick could catch a glimpse of fear or apprehension in his visitor.

Mick’s visitor—if you use the appearance of this guy to compare with Mick’s former occupation, you can give him a more descriptive nickname.

Regarding the conversation. You’re having a “dumb puppet” convo without the puppet. Both men know everything there is to know. I understand the stranger needs to come onto the subject gradually so Mick realizes the implications, but it could be done more elegantly. Mick has been retired and out of touch for some time. His memory of the basics could be a little hazy.

Eg: “Uh…the guys who did that Lifeware thing?”

In addition, in a year and a half, there must be major advances in the tech. Mick may have learned the basics when he went under, but it’s very likely things have changed. That would give the stranger opportunity to explain more and lead less. Perhaps when Mick went under, they weren’t able to animate the comatose bodies yet. Mick honestly thinks he’s retired at a lake, but then argues that being in Lifeware isn’t so bad if this is what it’s like until Stranger nudges him to understand someone’s using his body? It sounds like that was where you were going, but it’s a little too subtle. And I like how the Stranger gradually leads Mick to realize he’s under. Maybe Mick thinks this guy is asking his help with the tech, and grows to realize no, the point is that he’s under? That might be too clumsy and cliché-ish, but Mick’s gotta be wondering why this guy’s here.

Oh-and-one-more-thing: mention how the “virus” needs to be physically present? Because I’m thinking the virus has to be at the mainframe at the command and control center, not physically next to the dreamer.

From Emergency Abort to Mick opened his eyes, I think this could be rewritten to be more Mick’s POV. Disorientation; words projected onto his retina? He feels the false input slide out of his brain, replaced with heat and pressure and pain?

I understand Mick’s just coming out of a dream-state, and he’s going to spend the first few moment taking in his environment, but the last paragraph is pretty static. There are a lot of “was” and “were.” And it’s written in omniscient POV. How does he know he’s in a burning building? All he can see is smoke through the scratched plastic of a face shield. What does it smell like? The metallic tang of an air tank or the fumes of burning computers? Does the armor feel confining after being outside in fishing clothes?

Imagine you’re waking up from an intense dream. What do you notice first? The air’s different? Hot breath on a mask? Shoulders feel heavy? Room hazy with smoke? Yeah, flash fiction has to be short, but short, choppy sentences will add to the mood.

I like the nice twist on the whole Matrix/Total Recall thing. Instead of our bodies static and our minds active, they’re split, doing their own thing. And the story is very immediate instead of academic. It makes me wonder if Cybermen dream.

Those were my thoughts; hoped they helped. What do you-all think?

*Yeah, I know it's a pain, but if we publish -=al=-'s story here, he can't submit it anywhere. And membership's free with one small sacrifice to OTOGU.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

Battle: Los Angeles
Review by Bruce Bethke

ARR, there be spoilers ahead!

The Kid and I saw Battle: Los Angeles last weekend, but before I get to my main comments I want to address some sidebar issues. Apparently in some circles this is already considered a controversial movie, and some critics are racing to heap opprobrium upon it. Along with the usual sci-fi wanker fanboys complaining that the SF elements of this film aren't explained to their satisfaction and you never get a really clear look at the aliens or their equipment, a large and vocal contingent of critics are complaining that the characters in this film are somehow not credible.

Hmph. I suppose, if you're the sort of person who thought Avatar was both a brilliant film and an honest and accurate depiction of the mind and personality of the typical American military person, you might find Battle: Los Angeles to be a bit off. But if this is the case, honestly, you really should get out more, and perhaps meet some actual armed forces members once in a while. While you can find the stereotypical dimwitted trigger-happy racist jarhead if you look hard enough, most modern American armed forces members are typically a lot smarter and just generally much better human beings than you seem to be willing to give them credit for being.

And with that said...

What I most admired about Battle: Los Angeles is how tightly focused the story-telling stays. All the action in the film takes place in the space of 48 hours, in a tightly constrained physical space (Santa Monica: I used to bike around it), and with a very small cast of characters. There is no cutting away to see what the President is thinking, or back to some general thundering orders at cowering subordinates in some command bunker somewhere, or away to watch some scientist at CalTech have a brilliant insight into the aliens' one weakness, or off to see what Lieutenant Martinez's pregnant wife is doing while he's away — frankly, the really short form of this review is that everything that made Independence Day totally stupid is not in this film, and it's vastly better for it. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, or any simulations thereof, do not appear in this film, so those are two big plus marks right there.

Instead, almost everything we see on-screen is tightly tied to the viewpoint of one character: Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (played by Aaron Eckhart, who you probably most recently saw as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight). Nantz is a mature career noncom at the end of his twenty; a decorated combat veteran and an authentic hero, but also a man acutely aware that men under his command died in the action for which he received his medals. All he wants to do now is finish out his hitch with a training battalion and retire quietly—

Okay, yeah, he's Clint Eastwood's character from Heartbreak Ridge — only without Marsha Mason, Mario Van Peebles, or an old Marine buddy he can cry in his beer with. So that's three more big marks in the "plus" column.

The action opens with the Marines in the thick of combat and really getting pasted, then immediately jumps back into what I considered a gratuitous 24-hour flashback. (However, Starship Troopers opens this way, so I suppose I can't complain too much.) The remainder of the action then proceeds in strictly linear form from that point.

It's the day before the invasion. The Earth waits, unaware. In a series of short vignettes we meet SSgt Nantz, 2nd Lieutenant Martinez, and the men of the platoon, and they're all just... men. Normal men. (Okay, Marines.) They have hopes, dreams, ambitions, personalities; they're just like any other group of somewhat physically above-average contemporary American twenty-somethings. They're black, white, Hispanic, Asian; they're from Down South and Jersey and Compton and everywhere else, including an immigrant who joined to get on the fast-track to citizenship. (Again, it bears repeating: there is no Mario Van Peebles in this movie! Big plus!) There is the slightest taste of foreshadowing: a news report, seen on a TV, describes an unexpected meteor shower that's predicted to hit the Earth in the next 24 hours.

Except they're not meteors, of course, they're landing craft, and they're coming in hot. It's only when they're seen to be decelerating that the powers that be realize something is up, and the Marines get the call to mobilize. The aliens splash down just off the coastline, near major cities all around the world; again, as the alien troops emerge from the water off Santa Monica beach we get our first blurry looks at them through the omnipresent eye of a TV news camera.

[One more sidebar: if you must have political relevance in your films, this is the point where I would have been very happy to see Tom Hayden striding confidently down the beach, eager to be the first to offer his hand in friendship to our new alien overlords. But that's just me.]

If you like to catalog such things, this is the point where it turns into War of the Worlds for a few minutes. (The 1953 version, not the 2005 version.) The aliens come out shooting. The slaughter of the curious bystanders is horrendous. The on-the-scene reporter is abruptly cut off and presumably killed. The Marines get the call to swing into action.

Again, at this point the movie departs from Hollywood canon. It takes time for Marines — even Marines who are already at Camp Pendleton — to get organized, gear up, and move out. By the time they get to the forward operating base the aliens have already established a substantial beachhead, and the platoon is tasked with a rescue mission. There is a party of civilian survivors in a known location behind enemy lines; the Marines' job is to go in, find them, and get them out, before the Air Force's heavy bombers come in and flatten the area. (Again, it takes time for the Air Force — sorry, yes, even the Air Force — to mount a fire mission.)

At which point the movie then turns into something like Black Hawk Down. [Another fair warning: if the "shaky cam" technique used in the combat scenes in Black Hawk Down or the Omaha Beach scenes in Saving Private Ryan made you queasy, be advised that the technique is used in abundance here.] The Marines go in. They make contact with the enemy. The aliens are tough, but not unkillable. The fanboys in the audience begin to whine, because we never get a really good look at the aliens, but in truth this represents an old axiom: "If you can clearly see the enemy and have them in range, the reverse is probably also true."

From here on out to the end, the movie does a masterful job of metering out information. The Marines fight their way in. When their original extraction plan goes to hell they fight their way out again. Everything they subsequently learn comes only from what they observe themselves. (Including one somewhat icky scene in which they perform a crude field dissection on a wounded alien, trying to figure out what its vital organs are.) There is only one serendipitous revelation; the Marines find a couple of stragglers from another outfit, one of whom happens to have a piece of information that's vital to their survival, although that's not immediately evident. [There is also another scene in here that gets the fanboys wincing. With their radios cut off the Marines are looking for another way to get back in touch with their F.O.B., and in a bombed-out convenience store they find a working TV upon which a CNN talking head is pontificating about a truly stupid rationale for the alien invasion. A number of critics have pounced on that scene as a flaw in the movie. I prefer to think of it instead as ironic commentary on the intelligence of CNN talking heads.]

Again, I can see why serious movie people are upset by this film, as it departs from Hollywood canon in so many ways. Lt. Martinez is young, green, and fresh out of officer's school, but he does not go to pieces emotionally and require SSgt Nantz to take over. One of the civilians the Marines rescue is the lovely Bridget Moynahan and she and Nantz seem to have a moment together, but they do not immediately tear off each others' clothes and have torrid sex. One of the stragglers they pick up is Air Force Tech Sergeant Elena Santos, played by Michelle Rodriguez, but she does not turn out to be a totally hot take-charge kick-ass one-woman assault force with more balls than all the men put together. One of the Marines turns out to be the younger brother of a Marine who was killed on the mission for which Nantz was given his Silver Star, but he and the sergeant do not have a fist-fight over it. SSgt Nantz gets to perform one insanely heroic feat, and afterward the lieutenant chews him out for "pulling that John Wayne s**t" when his first duty is to survive and complete the mission. Nobody gets drunk or drugged-up in despair, and absolutely no one stops the action in the middle of a firefight to argue about their relationship problems.

And in the end, the Marines win — the battle, but not yet the war. For unlike most Hollywood aliens, these buggers wisely did not equip their mothership with a big red button marked, "Press Here to Destroy Entire Alien Invasion Fleet." In fact, they don't even seem to have a mothership.

What else can I say about Battle: Los Angeles? It's an action picture; violent but not gory, brimming over with heroism, excitement, with a feel-good ending that might actually instill a sense of pride in the USMC — and did I mention that Mario Van Peebles and Jeff Goldblum are not in it?

Rating: *****

Monday, March 14, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Last week, I announced to the world that I was going to be electronically publishing one of my children's stories through Amazon.com, Barnes and Nobel, and any other electronic book sales outlets I could find. I had hoped this column of the Old Goat would be filled with details about setting the story up in the epub and Kindle formats. About that...

Looking through the reader reviews of some of the children's ebooks on Amazon, I ran across several for books which had no interior pictures. Inevitably, this would end up being mentioned by at least one, usually most, of the reviewers. It's a simple fact of publishing life that readers expect to find illustrations in books written for young children. I already knew that and had intended to get some illustrations done for my story, but my small sampling of reviews reinforced that idea.

Before I even wrote last week's column, I sent an email to my friend and former comic book collaborator, Mark Propst. I've worked with Mark more than any other two artists I've had the opportunity to work with. I know his style and trust him to produce good-looking artwork from my words. I asked Mark to produce five illustrations for my story. Why five illustrations instead of 10 or more? I picked that number for several reasons.

The single most important reason is five is as many illustrations as I can afford right now. Yes, despite my previous claim that a writer can publish his or her book at essentially no cost, I'm already proving that is not necessarily true. Before contacting Mark, I considered if there were other, low-to-no cost available to me. I thought about searching the internet for free clip art and trying to use them to put together illustrations for the story. That might even have worked, if I had been willing to have different artistic styles mixed in the same illustration and also willing to have the characters look different from illustration to illustration. Somehow, I think that approach would end up costing me more in sales than I would have saved in out-of-pocket expenses. I even considered using Legos to create scenes, then photographing them. Besides the possible legal considerations in that plan, I would like my characters to have some expression other than the standard Lego smile. Given I don't have the artistic ability nor software necessary to change those expressions, I'd have to hire an artist. And that brings me back to simple getting an artist I trust to produce illustrations for me.

Five illustrations will give me one illustration for every 400 words in the story. That's not a perfect breakdown, but it seems reasonable to me. Plus, I can also use one of the illustrations for the cover, saving a few more bucks. Also, I read a few books with illustrations on my Kindle. In every case, the illustration displayed on the Kindle screen by itself, with no text. I don't know if that's an actual limitation to the less expensive ereaders, but I don't think any illustration small enough to appear with text on a screen resolution of 600 by 800 will be large enough for for anyone to really appreciate, anyway. Even taking up a full page, the illustrations will still be smaller than most illustrations in children's books. I don't want to make them nearly impossible to see on top of that.

As you might guess, Mark is still working on the illustrations. I hope to get a first look at them sometime today, but I don't mind waiting. This story has been around for nearly 10 years, another few days probably won't hurt sales. The illustrations are specifically being created in black and white, as there are very few worthwhile color ereaders on the market right now. Having Mark produce black and white illustrations ensures they will look good on all of the non-color ereaders. I'm sure the software for the ereaders are designed to convert color illustrations to black and white, but that's no guarantee they'll end up looking good on a black and white screen. Plus, why would I want to pay extra for colors very few readers will see?

Please excuse a brief bit of solicitation, but if any of you decide to join in the fun of my epublishing experiment, Mark is quite willing to do commission work for any of you. His rates are quite reasonable, he works quickly, and you receive full rights to the artwork (not a minor consideration). You can get a look at some of his work on his Facebook page here. The samples on his site are primarily comic book style artwork, but Mark can change styles to match what you need. He's making a fairly radical change in styles for my story. I'll post a sample once he finishes. If you want to get in touch with Mark, just send an email to me (tabby dot wrangler at gmail dot com) and I'll be happy to put you in touch with him.

While waiting for artwork from Mark, I've been looking for book review web sites; preferably ones which specialize in children's books. So far, I haven't found many sites dedicated to reviewing ebooks. Most review sites want to receive physical books, though I've stumbled across a few which will review PDFs or other ebook formats. This was a point brought up in an interview with Amazon's top-selling ebook author, the one ~brb posted a link to last week. In the interview, the woman said she used Amazon's CreateSpace to order physical copies of her books, sending those to reviewers. I've looked at CreateSpace and it's entirely possible to list a book there without any extra charges, though Amazon certainly does place a lot of professional services in front of you when you visit the site. I'll admit I didn't look for long, but one thing I could not find was a general price list to order your own books. Every other print-on-demand service I've seen had some pretty hefty prices for books, so this may be yet another place to spend money in your quest to have your book published for free.

While we're discussing potential costs to publish your book for free, my search for ebook review sites led me to the web site for Kirkus Indie. I expect most of you are familiar with Kirkus Reviews as many books have quotes from favorable reviews from Kirkus. Well, Kirkus Reviews does not review self-published books, so don't bother sending them your book. On the other hand, Kirkus Indie does review self-publish books. The good news is that you are guaranteed to have your book reviewed by an experienced, professional book reviewer who is familiar with the market for which your book is intended. Even better, your are entirely free to use the review in any way you wish, including quoting it on your book and the listings you create for it with online retailers. Kirkus will also highlight the review on through Facebook and Twitter and may select the review to appear in their monthly newsletter. The bad news is that Kirkus Indie is a paid service which will cost you $425. With a promised review length of 200 to 300 words, you'll end up paying anywhere from $1.50 to $2.12 per word for the review. If that translates into big sales, great, but with my expected 35 cents per copy royalty, it would take sales of 1215 copies of the ebook before I just broke even. Chances are, I won't be using Kirkus Indie, but if your book is going be selling for $2.99 to $9.99 -- the 70% royalty zone -- the service may very well be worth considering.

So, that's the current state of my journey toward epublishing one of my stories. With the artwork likely to arrive this coming week, I hope to have more solid, nuts-and-bolts details next week.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

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? 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?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Earthquake and Tsunami Hit Japan

The Friday Challenge was supposed to have an actual post today. Plans to write the post were superseded by images of the earthquake damage and video footage of the tsunami sweeping through Japanese cities. This sort of disaster certainly puts our personal problems into perspective. Rather than try to dredge up a post, we at the FC ask you to keep those suffering from the effects of the earthquake and the tsunami in your thoughts and prayers.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Critical Thinking

One more thing about setting. I just finished HG Wells’s The Invisible Man. The story, of course, is about an invisible man who wanders around, trying to find himself. (Ha-ha-ha! I kill me.) Story-wise, it was all right. A bit disjointed. But what impressed me was how much Wells thought about exactly what it would be like to be invisible. Clothes show, of course, but so do fingernails and recently digested food and dirt on one’s feet. Walking down stairs takes concentration, because you can’t see where your foot is in relation to the next step. We don’t get to see exactly what the public’s reaction to an average invisible man would be since the man in question is such an…unpleasant person. And I wondered, did men in England in that time have really tough feet? Because his feet were rarely mentioned considering how much walking and running he did outside. But the story was a really interesting example of both getting into the head of a character and watching that character react with his environment.

-=ad=- has offered up his story "Questions" to be torn apart/adored by millions. You can find it in the Yahoo! Group. Check it out. Come up with your own ideas and insights. I'll add my thoughts next week.

A month from tomorrow will be Maj Tom’s retirement ceremony. I’m really not sure where those last seven years went. We’re on opposing schedules in the excitement/freak-out cycle. And neither one of us can figure out why no one takes him seriously when he says he wants to work at Starbucks. Do they not understand how much we spend there? Our interactions with our environments are about to change drastically. It should get interesting.

Oh! Did you see this? I saw an article a couple of years ago about printing plastic, but this is seriously cool. Imagine if burn patients didn’t need cadaver skin or skin shaved off of their legs. They just offer a few cells and get it printed on. It’ll be interesting to see if it works with bone. Will the replicator be far behind?

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Further Adventures of...

In lieu of a column this morning, we'd like to redirect your attention to this article, which in print appears on the front page of this morning's St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Young Austin, Minn., author finds fame — and fortune — publishing her work online

Very inspirational. Enjoy.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Ruminations of an Old Goat

Back in August, I wrote a column in which I mused on the idea of a world without physical books. Electronic books, I wrote, were going to have a major impact on reading and, more importantly, publishing. It didn't take long for evidence to begin to trickle in supporting my contention.

Take the online article "The Very Rich Indie Writer," about a 26 year-old woman who has published nine ebooks through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing arm. Selling her books for $2.99, she qualifies for royalties of 70% of her ebook sales, around $2.10 for one of her three dollar books. Even before this woman began receiving tons of publicity, she was selling about 100,000 books per month. With figures like those, the math is pretty easy. This young woman is pulling in over $200,000 each month from Amazon.com. On top of that, she doesn't have to worry about dealing with editors or publishers or book retail chains or book tours. She only has to worry about writing novels.

Now, there's a very good reason this woman is getting lots of publicity. Her sales are hardly typical. The article includes a list of the top selling Kindle authors from a recent month. Out of the 26 authors listed, the bottom eight each had sales of around 2500 in the month; 97,500 less than the sales leader. Still, if you're making $2.10 per sale, sales of 2500 result in a monthly income of over $5000. As those authors add books to their list, it's likely they'll see that income go up. The woman from the article already does so well that no existing publisher is likely to ever be able to offer her a deal good enough to draw her away from epublishing her own material.

Because these people are publishing ebooks, their out-of-pocket publishing expenses are zero, zip, zilch, nada. Sure, they have to spend time writing their books, but every writer has to do that. They won't get an advance from a publisher, but unpublished writers don't get advances, either, unless they are already so famous the publisher knows there will be a demand for the author's book (or, more likely, ghost-written book). Most writers have stuff already written that they've either never submitted to a publisher or can't find a publisher who is willing to publish the book. We've had plenty of stories here on the FC about editors who only buy books which are aimed at specific markets, passing up excellent novels simply because the novels don't fit into their narrow publishing interest. Epublishing gives authors an opportunity to get their work out on the market without going broke self-publishing.

Barnes & Nobel has a program for the Nook that is essentially identical to Amazon's Kindle self-publishing program. They appear to offer the same royalties and putting the book up for sale looks to be equally as easy as on Amazon. Neither of these programs require authors work with them exclusively. In fact, Barnes & Nobel's program includes a caveat that your book's price at B&N must be the same price (or less) it is through other epublishing programs.

With the author in control of the prices of their books, they are free to give their books such low prices that readers will probably be willing to buy your book just on the off chance it's good. People who might hem and haw over buying an eight dollar book will likely just pull the trigger and buy an ebook with a price of only 99 cents. I know I will. And if the book turns out to suck, well, I'm out less than the cost of buying a cup of coffee at the local bookstore.

So far, all of the stuff I've written concerning the ease of publishing and people "pulling the trigger" on cheap books has been full of speculation. Well, I'm not going to speculate any more. Over the new few weeks, I will be epublishing one of my children's stories through as many venues as possible. I'll start with Amazon and Barnes & Nobel, but if you know of other epublishing venues, please tell me where to find them. I'll also be interested in suggestions for ebook review sites, so I can take advantage of as much third party press as possible.

The story I'll be publishing runs about 2000 words, so I'll be pricing it at 99 cents. This will net me only a 35% royalty, but it's a place to start. Later, if I have several stories available, I can always gather them in an "omnibus" edition and price it at the 70% royal range ($2.99 to $9.99). While I'm going through this process, I will give progress reports, highlight difficulties, and generally fill all of you in on how easy or hard the process will be.

It's going to be an interesting experiment. I hope you come along for the ride.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

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? 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?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Friday Challenge - 3/4/2011

This fortnight in The Friday Challenge...
Henry explores the question of just how wrong the great old science fiction writers of yore were about the near future, and about even such simple matters as the staying power of the slide-rule. Should science fiction writers even bother trying to spin tales with predictive validity? Join the discussion...

Kersley relates her further adventures with her new Kindle, and talks about some of the great old books that she's been re-reading (or in some cases reading for the first time) now that they're available in ebook format. Will the ebook explosion lead to a renewed interest in older books? Join the discussion...

Speaking of old books, Splattering Guts for Fun & Profit briefly revisits The Barbary Pirates, by C.S. Forester.

Ultimate Geek Fu leads off with an invitation to dance to suggest topics you'd like to see in future UGF columns, and then follows up on Henry's column with new information. Forget science fiction; if you want to see some really wrong predictions, read economics or serious futurism. Let's have a show of hands here: how many have been to visit New Atlantis lately? Join the derision...

(P.S. This column also reveals that everyone else is completely wrong. All bets about the future are off because our ancient alien overlords are coming back to check up on us on December 24, 2011. Look busy!)

Kersley reviews 9 and Bar Karma, finds one interesting and the other wanting, and then asks if there's a story, movie, or TV series out there that you really wish the writer had asked you to look over, before they turned in the final draft, just in case there were any obvious yawning chasms of plot holes? Join the discussion...

As usual, on Open Mic Saturday the inmates discuss the view from inside the asylum. Do you have any news that you want to share with the group? Join the discussion...

And finally, March is Snowdog Month! —which basically means we're going to try to get caught-up on everything we've let slide during the past six months' madness and figure out what our new definition of "normal" is, assuming there is one to be found. Join the discussion...

Seriously: About The Post-Petroleum Future
The idea for this Challenge started to come to me as I was driving across Wisconsin a few weeks ago and noting the typically poor condition of the highway surface after a few months of hard winter. Potholes, cracks, frost-heaves, more potholes... And then I passed a party of poor schlubs out there in their blaze-yellow highway worker gear, trying to patch one of the larger potholes in the sub-zero weather.

Most near-future post-Apocalyptic stories seem to assume the roads and bridges are still there—maybe with a few picturesque weeds growing up out of the cracks, but basically still there—and therefore travelers are not seriously hampered by the terrain. This must be a California idea. (You know, one of those ideas that makes sense only if you live in Southern California?) Here in the Great White North, without constant maintenance, our roads would revert to gravel in just a few winters, even without semi-trailer traffic.

Bridges are an even more frightening thought. In a few weeks we'll be deep in the throes of our annual Spring ice-breakup and flood stage, and we're sure to lose a few of the smaller bridges. We always do. Multiply this by a few decades without maintenance, and rivers will once again become serious obstacles to travel. (You writers who live in Colorado get a pass on this point. You don't know what real rivers look like.)

As for the prospects for having working motor vehicles in this post-Apocalyptic future; don't even get me started. Most modern gasoline formulations turn into a sort of gummy varnish if left standing too long, as thousands of my fellow Minnesotans will discover in about two months, when they pull their lawnmowers out of winter storage and try to start them up again.

But then it struck me: why does it have to be post-Apocalyptic? The post-Apocalyptic story line, I think, indicates a general failure on the part of the writer's imagination. Stories about people grubbing for survival in the ruins of our modern technological civilization are in a sense easy to write: all you have to do is imagine the cast and landscape from a Road Warrior movie, add a hero or heroine, stir briskly, and cut to the chases and fight scenes.

So I'm not letting you off the hook this time. I don't want to see any stories like that. What I want you to do is stretch your imaginations and imagine a post-petroleum-economy future that is not a post-Apocalyptic landscape populated with Road Warrior or Terminator: Salvation rejects, and then write a story set in it.

This is a Greater Challenge, of course, so the deadline is Thursday, March 31. The usual boilerplate about rules and prizes and all that applies.

But remember: we've already seen all the easy takes on this idea. Now go imagine something different.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Critical Thinking

Do you ever wish a writer had consulted you before turning in that last draft?
I recently saw the movie 9, and if you haven’t seen it and don’t want spoilers, it would be best to skip to the line-thingie, cus I’m gonna give it all away.

9 is about a little rag doll that wakes up in an attic in a post-apocalyptic city. In the room, he finds a little disk with strange markings on it. He unzips his front and sticks it in his torso, then goes out to see what he can see.

Pretty quickly, he meets an inventor—2—a nice guy with a funny hat. The inventor finds the disk and gets very excited. Then they’re attacked by a strange robot with the skull of a cat. The Cat Beast takes the disk and the inventor, and runs away.

9 tries to follow, but the Cat Beast is much quicker. Another rag doll, 5, shows up and brings him to a half-bombed church. 1 is the ruler there, and 8 is his giant henchman. 1 explains that his purpose is to keep the rag dolls safe.

9 appreciates this, but he feels obligated to 2 for rescuing him. So he convinces 5 to go with him to a factory where the Cat Beast had taken 2. They do get to the factory, and they find 2, imprisoned in a bird cage. Cat Beast finds them, but another rag doll, 7, decapitates him. While they’re catching their breaths, 9 finds the disk and realizes it fits into a depression in the wall. He nestles it in, despite cries to stop. A giant robot, the Fabrication Machine, awakens. In the chaos, the Fabrication Machine grabs 2 and sucks out his life force—think the Gelflings in The Dark Crystal.

7 takes 5 and 9 away to a library where the twins, 3 and 4 live. They can’t speak, but one of them can project movies through his eyes. He shows a film clip of a scientist who made a machine to make things better and a chancellor who used it. The machine turned on the humans, though, and the war destroyed all life and all the machines.

9 recognizes the disk in a diagram, and 5 recognizes it as something 6 had drawn. He takes 9 back to the church, where we meet 6, a mystical creature that looks so much like the voodoo-priest-boy in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that I had to continually remind myself what I was watching. While wrestling with what to do next, a bird machine—Winged Beast—attacks. 7 is injured. The rag dolls search for a new safe place, 8 taking time to get stoned off a magnet, when the Seamstress appears. She has the body of a snake, the head of a doll, and the tail of 2’s body. She captures 8 and 7 and slithers away.

9 convinces everyone to chase after the Seamstress. They go back to the factory and rescue 7, although the Fabrication Machine manages to steal the life force from 8. 5 destroys the factory, and the dolls are safe.

Well, not quite. The Fabrication Machine wasn’t completely destroyed, and it goes after them. They manage to escape, only losing 6. 9 insists on following 6’s advice to “go back to the source,” which he figures is the room where they woke up. 1 and 7 insist on destroying the Fabrication Machine. 9 sets off on his own and finds the corpse of the scientist—the same scientist that made the Fabrication Machine—lying on the floor, his hand resting over a music box. On it is a tag that says “For 9.”

9 opens the box, and a hologram rises up. It shows the scientist really did mean the machine for good, but the chancellor commandeered it. When the Fabrication Machine turned on the humans, the scientist realized he had endowed it with his intelligence, but not his soul. So he made the rag dolls. With the help of the disk, each of the dolls had a piece of his soul, the last bit going to 9 as the scientist died.

9 realizes what he needs to do. He returns to the others to find they have made a cannon. A fight ensues. 1 sacrifices himself so that 9 can retrieve the disk. The Fabrication Machine is destroyed.

9, along with 7, 3, and 4, take the disk to a street. They make a bonfire with five flaming spokes that branch out to meet wooden cross-pieces with fabric hung from them. Each piece of fabric bears the number of one of the rag dolls the Fabrication Machine had consumed. 9 touches the runes on the disk in a specific order, and the souls of the dolls rise up into the sky. It starts to rain. Rain saturated with the bacteria that will return some kind of life to the Earth.

Oh, it made me so mad! Everything was great until 9 came back to see 1 and 7 trying to destroy the Fabrication Machine. It seemed so obvious to me! The Fabrication Machine had the scientist’s intellect, but not his soul. Obviously, the rag dolls’ purpose was to give the machine the scientist’s complete soul. Then it could start repairing world.

Instead, we get some kind of weird separation. Four-ninths of the scientist’s soul inherits the Earth, and five-ninths of it…creates rain? Huh? What on earth were they thinking?

Okay, you can come back now.

I accidentally discovered a show that you can not only change, you can create. It’s called Bar Karma on Current TV. It’s about a man with unnaturally strong luck who appears in a bar in the middle of everywhere. He meets an Australian woman with bad luck, and Larry from The Newhart Show. (Neither Darryl have appeared, yet.) Their job is to wait for lost souls to wander in, then help them make different choices.

The bizarre thing is, fans plot the episodes. Fans can go online and make their own story boards. Once a storyline is coming together, the producers go back to the fans for specifics like, “What’s the name of the wine she’s drinking,” or “What will an office building look like fifty years from now.” They even have a contest—enter your own, full storyboard, and the winner gets a six-month writing contract in LA.

I have seen three episodes. I have to say the dialogue is not stellar. And the editing is…interesting. I don’t think they’ve gone so far as to let the fans write the dialogue, so that’s on them. But it is a very interesting concept, and something I could find myself devoting way too many hours on.

So, is there any story out there—book, TV, movie—that you wish you could tweak? Or change completely? And if you say, “I’d get rid of Jar Jar,” I’ll tell you to stop being petty and be more creative.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Ultimate Geek Fu

Last week Henry invited us to have some fun at the expense of all the old sci-fi writers whose predictions for the future seem laughably wrong today. Personally, I'm inclined to cut the old guys some slack.

Most of the time.

True, I do keep a copy of the 1962 edition of Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future handy, to turn to whenever I need a good laugh. For example, eliminating the hazards of transporting petroleum by replacing surface tanker ships with atomic submarines towing mile-long plastic bags full of crude oil? Good guess there, Art.

But in all fairness to the late Sir Arthur, his book was intended to be full of wild-eyed speculations, and he did have the decency to put out a new edition every few years, complete with admissions of where and why he was wrong. This alone makes Clarke unique among prophets. Generally speaking, in the field of futurism (as in medicine), the overwhelming impulse is to quietly bury one's mistakes, and hope no one remembers those stupid words that once came out of your mouth. For example I'm certain Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security advisor, would just love to take a D-handled shovel to this 1979 knee-slapper:
"What is most important for world history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? Some Islamic hotheads or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"
Likewise, as I watch the events currently unfolding in the Mideast and North Africa, I'm reminded of all the prominent foreign policy analysts who in 1979 predicted that if President Carter would simply pressure the Shah of Iran into permitting the Ayatollah Khomeini to return from exile, this would lead to a great flowering of freedom, democracy, and human rights in the Islamic world.

So while sci-fi writers might get the technical bits wrong from time to time—(good guess on the submarines, there, Jules, but not so hot on the unstoppable power of dirigibles; good thing many of those books are not readily available in English)—

They really can't hold a candle to the professional prognosticators. For example, take economists—please; like this gem from 1979. It is not without just cause that the snarkism is often repeated that the world's leading economists have correctly predicted 27 of the last 3 economic downturns. In an honest world The Limits to Growth would be found in the thesaurus, as a synonym for "so frickin' wrong you can't believe it."

Nor are ecologists and climatologists far behind. I have here in my hands a 1976 issue of National Geographic containing an article in which a half-dozen leading climatologists lay on lots of FUD about the coming ice age, which can only be avoided by doing exactly what they say. (However, in deference to the copyright police, I'm not going to scan and post anything.)

Then there were the Space Pimps and UN True Believers. Sometimes they were absolutely spot-on:
"A universal series of radio and television networks circling the globe will be possible as a result of simultaneous global ocean-spanning television with satellites acting as relay stations. For the first time, man will immediately be able to see as well as hear events taking place anywhere on the Earth's surface. This fact should help diplomats prevent trouble spots from erupting into "brush fire" wars or global conflicts."
Oops. Must have meant to lift a different quote...

At the dawning of the Age of Aquarius we got the Aquanauts, of course—

Spent much time in New Atlantis lately? It turns out most of these hallucinations visions were sponsored by oil companies, who thought that establishing colonies on the seabeds would make offshore drilling easier and lost interest when it turned out the work was more cheaply done by robots.

I personally have a fascination with works of the early Atomic Power Advocates:

One of these days I'll have to scan this whole thing and put it online. It's a fascinating artifact of the Atomic Age. Who else but GE would envision a future that involved selling refrigerators to Eskimos?

I wish I could claim that my own field was immune to this sort of wild-eyed, hysterical, and wildly inaccurate prognostication. Sorry, no. But on the bright side, I made good money working on a COBOL code remediation project in 1999.

In the Great Pantheon of Wrong there is probably no book from the past half-century that both aspires to serious prediction and is more wrong—and more pernicious—than this one. If I had more time I would launch into a spittle-spewing diatribe about how much I hate this book. Instead, I'll just ask you to take a moment now to envision the world that might have been, had it included the 150 million or so affluent and educated Americans who do not now exist because their mothers were required to read this book in high school or college, and took its message too closely to heart.

Of course, in the long run, it really doesn't matter. Because according to this book, the aliens who planted the colony we now know as the Mayan civilization are coming back to check up on it, on December 24 of this year. (No word yet on whether they'll also be looking to have a few words with the humpback whales.) So, everybody got that? Our ancient alien overlords are coming back. Look busy!

How about you? What's your favorite outlandish, ridiculous, or idiotic prophecy?

Let the arguments begin...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

March is Snowdog Month!

Frankly, these last six months have been absolutely batguano around here. But now that Spring is finally officially threatening to arrive, we're turning our attention to the Friday Challenge backlog.

(It was either that or turn our attention to the backyard, which as the snow melts is each day looking more like a place where we've been pasturing a quarter horse, and not merely keeping one large and overfed Labrador.)

By my reckoning we have at least six Challenges that have either never been closed or were closed but have never been judged. That reckoning may well be wrong. If you're still bearing with us — first off, THANK YOU! — and have a past challenge you're particularly interested in, please put a reminder to me in the Comments, and we'll get it settled this month.

Is The Friday Challenge returning to normal? Not exactly. Honestly, I don't think we ever will get back to our old definition of "normal." But we are actively seeking a new definition of "normal," and this is one of the first steps.

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