Prestigious Tattoo Locations

Let’s say for a moment that there is a field of sporting competition where, rather than a trophy or a belt, the winner earns the right to wear a special tattoo. As with every other sport, some awards are more prestigious than others. Where do the most prestigious awards go? Face, maybe, for world championships, but how do you rank lesser awards?

Obviously I’m writing a story where exactly this is the case, and our main woman has new ink for a recent win in a regional contest. “It’s only forearm,” I wrote, but then I hesitated. Forearms are pretty visible, and by proximity to hands might be pretty choice real estate. Or not. How do you rank thigh, calf, and elbow?

As I ponder this, I think if I were sponsor for one of these events I’d offer a prize of a tiny little star on the earlobe.

And! I bet there would be integrated tattoos, that formed a triple-crown meta-tattoo if someone gets them all.

And! Kids with promise could choose to put their high school state championship on their thigh to save room for greater rewards to come. The hubris! The insult to the people who got you to where you are! But here’s one trophy case you can’t rearrange later.

To be honest, none of this matters in the story I’m writing, except the “It’s only…”. Jaqi is shrugging off her most recent victory.

But honestly, I think UFC should consider this.

Space Opera Without Magic

I enjoy reading space opera, but almost all stories that involve space ships, and in particular space ships shooting at one another, require certain levels of magic to work. There is an agreement between reader and writer that certain inconvenient facts can be glossed over, and a few magical technologies are added (or magically removed) to get things to work.

I wanted to create a setting that had space battles around distant stars, but included no magic. I was… mostly successful, but I did have to resort to using social magic to replace some of the technological magic.

The first future-techno-magic is, of course, is faster-than-light travel. Without it, it takes a long, long time to get your ships to the star system where the battle will occur. The alternative is creating a machine that can accelerate to near the speed of light and then slow back down again to arrive in the target system. I consider that to be extremely difficult — almost magic, but possible. This method also removes the immediate need for another bit of magic — artificial gravity.

So these machines with people in them are spending a few years to get to their target. Once they get there, any intelligence they have about the target system is decades old. Also, the occupants of that system will see them coming from a long way out, and have plenty of time to arrange an unpleasant welcome.

The logistics problems don’t end there, because after the battle either the ship has to wait decades for a signal to get back to the command center and for new orders to arrive, (those “new” orders possibly long-stale by the time they arrive), or command has to be sending out streams of orders all across this part of the galaxy to cover all foreseen contingencies. It would make prosecuting an interstellar military campaign really, really difficult. But it wouldn’t (quite) require magic.

The simplest solution to the logistics issues would be to have independent ships raiding planets with no larger political goal. But that wouldn’t be space opera.

Now our ships of war have arrived in a hostile place, to encounter other, somewhat similar ships.

Conventional Space Opera includes an array of magic to make such a battle meaningful. The core magic to make this happen is “shields”, sometimes called “deflectors”, that neutralize certain attacks. Shields use energy to stop lasers and other threats, and when ships are slugging it out, the strength of the shields is always an important metric of battle progress. “Shields at 29%!” or the beloved “The shields can’t take much more of this!”

Why are shields necessary? Because otherwise when an armada was heading your way, you’d send a bunch of nukes into the formation and blow the shit out of them, then resume your lunch.

Those invading ships will have all sorts of weapons designed to stop the nukes from getting close enough, but it becomes a numbers game, especially since without magic “close enough” is still a long, long way away. My cloud of nukes will cost a tiny fraction of the amount you paid to get your spaceships here.

One possible counter to that strategy is that the ships are so valuable that it would be better to capture them than to destroy them. That has actually been true for much of the history of naval warfare. But during that time, capturing the other ship was one of the fastest and safest ways to end the battle; if the ship that was losing could have sunk the other, it would have. Still, maybe that lets the combatants get close enough that a cloud of nukes is no longer an option.

Interestingly, the The Expanse series, although it includes one massive bit of super-future-tech-magic, has no magic made by humans. What stops them from using nukes in their space battles? In fact, in that series the very first act of space-violence involves a nuclear warhead, but this is received by the people of the solar system as an atrocity. So warships carry nuclear weapons, but are very hesitant to use them — not for military reasons, but for social ones. Battles once again belong to ships piloted by people shooting tiny pieces of metal at high velocity at one another.

Since there is no artificial gravity, the limits of what the ships can do are dictated by the limits of the people in them. The written version of The Expanse spends a lot of time talking about the technology used to keep people alive and functioning during battle.

In my story, I had to resort to “social magic” to get space battles back into the fun zone as well. In my case, using weapons of mass destruction is something “Only a mammal would do.” (In my story, spacefaring species are all based on a reptilian template, but now humans are out there, too.) You, mammalian reader, wouldn’t understand, not really, but just know that the reptiles have this idea of “the future” that mammals don’t seem to possess — at least, not during times of stress.

But let’s go back for a moment to the measures taken to keep a pilot alive as she flings her fighter ship into battle. Surely her frail flesh is the limiting factor for the ship. And why are there people operating the guns shooting at her? These are two tasks that, if you remove the organic component, you will improve the system dramatically.

We have discovered a new sort of Space Opera Magic, or maybe anti-magic. When Luke Skywalker straps into the gunner’s chair in the Millennium Falcon, the assumption is that he can do something better than a machine can — even though the machine is trying to tell him where to shoot the whole time.

Perhaps the machine’s sensors can be jammed. But… clearly sensors in the optical range of the spectrum work just fine, or Luke and Han wouldn’t be able to see the ships out there. Maybe they should hook up one of those fancy new smart phones to the targeting computer and then just stay out of the way. Or if the sensor has to be organic, I’m sure the techs down in the lab could grow a bunch of retinas to put into the targeting sensors. Aiming those guns is just not a job for people.

Nevertheless I wanted strike craft in my space battles. They’re fun! But what non-magical means can one use to justify putting living creatures in them? Two ingredients are needed: Something to make remote control impractical, and no artificial intelligence.

Remote control becomes impractical if the space battle is over a large enough theater that the speed of light introduces a lag between controller and ship, plus there are opportunities for the other side to intercept or block the signal. So it’s not too hand-wavy to rule that out.

AI can be a little tricky, though. It could be argued that true AI just may never happen, but how “intelligent” does a fighter pilot need to be, anyway? Any organic cleverness lost will be far outweighed by massive performance enhancements to the ship and to the utter fearlessness of the guidance system. Or perhaps tunable fearlessness. If we have machines now that can carry a pizza through city traffic to your door, it doesn’t seem a reach to believe that with a few hundred years of further research we can’t come up with a system expert enough to do space battles.

Once more I resorted to taboo. AI is another Slippery Slope to Extinction, something careful, long-view reptilian minds would not contemplate. Super-expert systems are treading too close to the edge.

In my story creating genetically-modified pilots that can handle greater stress is considered taboo, also — after all, modifying your species is another future-threatening activity — but perhaps not every reptile-template species in my story adheres to that taboo as strongly, which creates an asymmetry in the space battle that the good guys have to deal with.

In some ways, eliminating magic makes space opera more difficult to write. By design space opera resembles old Horatio Hornblower stories, and inherits much from the battles in those old stories (with airplanes added). And while I found myself cringing at my own hand-waving to preserve some of my favorite space opera elements, eliminating magic also created complexities for the occupants of that universe that can be turned into interesting conflicts.

The people who started the war will be long-dead by the time it is over. The soldiers on the front lines have no illusion that they will ever understand the outcome. And through it all, no one, anywhere, can see the big picture.

The Places I’ve Made

If I could get paid for the settings I’ve imagined, I’d be retired now. I’ve spent more than one November bouncing around a world I’ve imagined, looking for a story.

Remembering Topstar

Perhaps the most extreme example of that was Remembering Topstar. The setting is awesome. It’s a planet, you see, that’s quite a bit warmer than ours, so that only the poles can support life. At one pole there are people. They don’t know day and night, they only know seasons. Eventually they start to wonder what (or who) might be at the other pole.

I wrote it as an adventure story, and I think that was the right call. But it never found its mojo.

Setting details:

Metal is rare (a colleague suggested the planet’s sun be a red giant, an older star, which would mean there was less iron around when the planet formed). The traveling party brings with it a massive Foucault’s Pendulum to measure their latitude, and it represents an immense investment, comparable to us building a Superconducting Supercollider.

As the party moves south, wind and rain and jungle and creatures that live in the jungle get very, very, nasty. Then there’s the entirely devastating moment when the scientists with their pendulum tell you that you’ve barely left your front porch.

What a great place to put a story! Maybe I need to imagine that setting, then imagine Jules Verne growing up in that setting, and then write the story he would. A science fiction adventure story written by someone who lived on that world.

Glass Archipelago

Then there is Glass Archipelago. Miami, not long from now, when southern Florida is under water. Some of the towers have fallen, providing breakwaters protecting the remaining ones from the ravages of the superstorms that sweep across the Atlantic. Each tower stands as a city-state, ruled by a feudal overlord.

The oceans are almost completely dead of complex life; algae blooms have grown to just be the new normal and the water has no oxygen. While you might think aquatic mammals would still be all right, none of them are vegetarian, not even baleen whales. They all are gone.

The buildings make their living harvesting algae and sending it off to processing plants on the new US coastline, hundreds of miles away.

Setting Details:

Not too far under the ocean’s surface the city of Miami still exists, and there’s a good living to be made scavenging. There is another culture, the rafters, who live on giant rafts and make a living skin-diving for loot.

There are naval bases, nuclear power plants, medical research facilities, and on and on, all now lying under the ocean. Also, some of the algae produces serious hallucinogens.

My attempts at a story in this setting so far centered on a rafter, and I’m pretty sure that’s a good vector. Special bonus: living in the open on a raft her whole life, she’s got pretty serious claustrophobia.

Math House

Which brings us to Math House. Isaac Asimov once imagined a science he called “Future History”, in which the movement of large enough populations could be predicted statistically. The great Hari Seldon predicted the fall of the Galactic Empire and using Big Math created the conditions for the following dark ages to be as short and benign as possible.

But what if the Galactic Empire had discovered Future History first? Would they not use it as a tool to prolong their dominance? Would not statistics become a tool of the oppressor?

Yeah, that’s probably not a hypothetical anymore. In the Math House world, math unsanctioned by the government has been outlawed. When math is outlawed, only outlaws do math.

There are the titular math houses, underground hideaways where the art is advanced. When the cops bust them, they do their best to convince the authorities that they are just watching the (required) television and doing drugs. Drugs are not legal, but they are sold by extralegal government arms, and not buying drugs will put a red flag in your file.

The math houses advertise themselves to potential members by posting elaborate puzzles embedded in graffiti. The clues will be scattered all over the city and it will take some serious math to work it out. If you can solve the puzzle and get to the right door with the right greeting, you have proved yourself worthy.

There are tiers to the math houses; finding the truly elite houses requires “publishing” through graffiti something new or innovative.

The best part of this world is that the cops who hunt the math-heads have to learn a lot of math. Eventually each of them realizes that their own success puts them on the suspect list.

Seems like a story in this world almost writes itself. Apparently not for me.

The End

I’m not sure this one belongs on the list. The world is blasted. The Armageddon wasn’t (entirely) nuclear, it happened when wizards went into a bare-knuckle brawl and wiped each other out, along with the planet. Now there is almost no fertile soil and crazy-ass creatures roam the spaces between, starved to the point of insanity.

Now there is just pain hunger and the occasional artifact, showing up when it is least welcome.

I did start to put a story in this setting, or at the very least a character study. The narrative gets rolling with what I have only now realized is the only actual human in the story dying.

Everything is poison. Everything is dead. Everything wants to kill you. Which is all just the way of things, no big deal, unless you are motivated by love.

The Garden

This year’s effort. Although I found some story possibilities late in the process, this is one of the most complete worlds I have ever built. Earth is gone (probably), and the last of humanity are really expensive hitchhikers riding alien battle fleets.

The core observation is that reptiles are much better-suited for interstellar space travel than mammals are. In this world, reptiles can be put into cryosleep, allowing them to slumber through the years of interstellar travel, while mammals, and humans in particular, must live through those years.

It creates an entirely different view of time between the two allies.

Why do the reptiles go to the extravagant expense of having humans on their ship? Because when shit gets crazy the mammals can burn brightly and reveal solutions. The reptiles, with their long view, are consumate strategists, but humans are the master tacticians. Decades of planning will go into each battle, but once all the shit is going down, having a mammal in charge is an enormous tactical advantage.

Historical Interlude:
I’ve been led to believe that George Washington was a great planner and logistics guy. However, word on the street is that he really sucked at adapting his plans as the battle unfolded. In my story, the lizards are like George Washington, and the partnership with humanity has given our favorite reptilian conquerors a massive advantage over their also-George-Washington rivals. The humans bring a fluidity to battle they have never known before.

Every human on those boats is there to help their hosts win battles, and negotiations, and perhaps, (unofficially) political rivalries. Every human is measured by the service they can provide to the ship. Perhaps fifteen percent of conceptions reach adulthood, and that’s just the way it is.

As a setting, it’s a tight, closed world where tiny things become big things, and so the powers that be work overtime to prevent the tiny things. Seems like a volatile world to write a story in. Volatile means interesting.

In conclusion

If you need a place to set your action, call me.

World Building and Storytelling

This is my nineteenth time doing NaNoWriMo. Dang. NaNoWriMo is an abbreviation of National Novel Writing Month and the challenge is to pump out 50,000 quality-optional words in the thirty days of November.

In my head I’m composing a retrospective come December about all the great settings I’ve created over the last nineteen years that never found a story (so there’s something you can look forward to). This year’s effort may or may not qualify.

It was about 35,000 words in that perhaps the actual story began. All that stuff before? Things happened to people, people learned things, but it was all in service of defining the world these people live in. It was all world building.

It is a high compliment in my circles when someone says a writer is a great world-builder. There are big ideas (the world is actually a ring that goes all the way around the star) and subtle ideas (busy busy busy).

But a quick word to all you nascent writers that hang on my every piece of advice: World building is not storytelling. World building is the writer’s process for defining an interesting setting that creates a context for a great story.

For the love of Calliope, don’t spend pages telling me about the rules of magic in your story, or tell me about the vampire’s society, or draw me a fuckin’ map. Show me the world through your characters’ eyes. Tell me what they taste, what they feel, and how the world touches them. Chances are those people are going to change the world, so it’s their view of the world that matters.

You can (and should!) write all those other pages, and draw your maps or whatever you need. Just don’t make me read them. I don’t want to sit through a dissertation about your clever world. If it’s a swamp, start me with my boots in the mud and we can go from there.

35,000 words in, I had maybe 1000 words that could one day be published. But I was really starting to know where Malika lives. Now at 40,000 words, I have one potential plot and one unrelated story. Awesome if I can bind the two, but that seems a reach right now.

But as of 35K, I am definitely making somewhere.

A Storytelling Conundrum

I have created a setting that is rather bleak, but the people in that setting don’t really know that. How do I communicate that the walls are unadorned, if no one in the room has ever seen an adornment on a wall? They’re just… walls.

November 1st, 2019

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output to these hallowed pages. This year I’ve got a setting I like very much, and an opening that I can get behind, and little Malika promises to be a handful. But I don’t actually have much of a story figured out yet.

This part works, though, if you ask me, and sets up perhaps a Young Adult hard-sf story centered on a female character.

If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s based on a little piece I did a while back, but from the point of view of the more interesting person.

The Garden

The children walked single-file along the path, gravel cruncing softly beneath their feet. Malika was near the back of the line; only Remi was older than she was. She had walked this same path almost every day since her fourth traditional birthday, at the very front to start with, until Barry had come along and taken her exalted spot. Over the years new kids started at the front of the line and the older kids dropped off the back, to begin their vocational training and take the next step toward adulthood.

She had resented Barry at first, but after years of staring at the back of his curly-haired head, it had come as a shock the day he wasn’t there anymore. Now she followed Abigail’s pony tail.

They reached the half-bowl-shaped depression in the center of the garden, its gently-terraced sides providing seating in the lush grass. The little ampitheater was large enough for the whole clan to gather, but most of the time it was just the children, come for their daily histories.

They filed down the slope, and occupied the first two rows. The ground was cool beneath her, moist to her touch. She pushed her finger into the soil, then raised it to her nose to breathe its life. The garden was the center of her tiny universe.

Malika loved the history stories. It meant time in the garden, with the smells of the soil and the plants and the air heavy with moisture and oxygen. It was a symbol of their weakness, the older ones said, this desire of scarce resources, the drive that had been the undoing of her kind. But Malika didn’t care. She was a mammal, and she liked what she liked.

At the focus of the arc Evie waited for them to settle in, her pale face with that half-smile that almost never wavered. Evie was much paler than most of the children she faced, which was one reason Malika’s clan had traded for her. New Blood. Even now Evie’s belly was starting to grow for the second time. Malika’s family said that this baby was probably going to work out better than Evie’s first one had.

Most days, Evie would open her book of history and tell the children about one of the times a general or an ambassador had made a difference. These were the moments when all the other lessons the children recieved in the sterile classrooms outside the garden, from calculus to psychology, were put in context. When Malika was younger she had revelled with stories of success, tales of clever planning and dexterous adjustment, but now she was more interested in the failures. That was where the true wisdom was to be found. If Malika was going to be a general one day — which she most certainly was — then she needed to learn from the mistakes of those who came before.

Remi, to her right, would not be a general. Remi was smart, but he was a dreamer, and there was nothing in the universe worse than being one of those. When Malika leaned close she could feel his intelligence radiating from him, but he was unable to apply it to anything useful, anything that would justify his oxygen allowance. It’s not that he didn’t try, but his thoughts were often slow to develop. When he reached that thought it was often profound, at least to Malika’s ear, but profundity had little value. If he was better at math he might become a scientist, but numbers were as slippery as ion-repellent lubricant for him, never lining up in the orderly way they did in Malika’s own head. But there had to be some way he could contribute.

Thinking black thoughts, she pushed a little closer to Remi on the soft grass. The moisture from the earth soaked into the seat of her uniform, a feeling she could only know during the history stories.
Except this day, Evie did not open the usual book of history. She opened the Book of Earth. “It is time we remember where we came from,” Evie said in her soft voice.

While the little kids in the front leaned forward eagerly, Malika groaned. Once she too had been eager to learn of Earth, but not anymore.

“It used to be, in a garden like this one, the air was filled with music.” Evie waved her hand and cocked her head, as if she could hear the sounds. “All around were creatures called birds. They were like reptiles, but covered with lightweight, fibrous things called “feathers”. She held up her book so the children could see the illustrations. On one page was a strange creature with a pointed bone for its nose, an insect crushed in its mouth. The bird had its wings outstretched, to show the feathers. The other page showed one of those feathers; it resembled a leaf to Malika’s reckoning. Birds were reptiles that grew leaves and could fly. At least they ate bugs.

“Earth,” Evie said, her voice reverent. “It was a place like no other in the galaxy. A place of such rich variety and vast resources that mammals could flourish and build a civilization. Imagine,” Evie said, gesturing up to the dull metal over thier heads, measured by a grid of lights that emitted a set of wavelengths calculated to match Earth’s sun. “Imagine the sky, like a cieling but far above, blue, but not the sort of blue you can touch. Sometimes water would fall from the sky, and people would dance with joy.”

Malika closed her eyes and took a breath. She had loved that image as a child, she had imagined herself standing under the blue sky as water blessed her, but now she was almost graduated and she could see Earth for what it was: a mythical place. A story you tell the children. And the reason they made it sound so magical was to drive home the real lesson. All the stories of Earth ended the same way.

“No one knows what the music of the birds actually sounded like,” Evie said, her eyebrows sad over that same half-smile. She paused to turn the page of her history book.

“And then the mammals fucked it up,” Malika whispered to Remi. He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise.

Evie hadn’t heard her. She held up the book again, this time to an image of desolation; trees burning and birds crying in fear as they were immolated. “But we know their music was beautiful. The first histories lament their loss.”

Evie pasted on a sad face as she turned to the next page of her history book. Malika didn’t have to look to know it would show their reptilian saviors.

“Malika.”

She whipped her head around to see Creche Master Willi rise from a bench in the foliage. The children went silent. Evie lowered her book, her eyes wide, her complacent smile forgotten. Willi held out his hand. ”Could you come with me, please?” It was not an idle question. The Creche Master held the power of life and death. It was the same question he had asked Barry.

Remi grabbed her hand without looking at her, but he let go as she stood on shaky legs. You don’t cling to compost.

Malika was having a hard time breathing as her heart tried to jump out of her chest. “Master Willi?” Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. She wanted to look him in the eye but inhaling was about all she could do.

His hand was still outstreatched. “If you could come with me.”

She didn’t have to stumble over anyone to shuffle up the slope to where Willi waited. Just breathe, she told herself. You’re going to be a general. She knew that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
Behind her the others were silent. She reached Willi, and he kept his hand out until she took it, gripping him tight. Her legs wobbled but Willi supported her through that link.

“Am I compost?”

Willi smiled, but it seemed forced. “We are all compost. You know that. Will you walk with me?” He didn’t wait for Malika to answer; he turned up the path to the bulkhead door, her hand still in his. The door opened and they both passed through quickly, allowing it to close again before too much magic leaked out.

The air outside the garden was brittle and cold, and left Malika always a little hungry for more. She followed Willi along a corridor, the deck the same gray metal as the bulkheads, stained here and there where humans were likely to touch. They turned in a direction that led to a door Malika had never passed through. A door to a differet world. No one ever came back through that door.
“Please,” Malika said. “I can be good.”

Willi gave her a sad smile. “I don’t think you can.” As her knees gave way he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her back up, supporting her. “But we’re not here to be good, whatever that means. We have to earn our way.”

They reached the portal that led from Malika’s tiny world to the domain of a star-conquering species. Willi lifted an oxygen tank from a rack by the door an Makila copied him, slinging the gas cylinder over her shoulder and putting the mask over her nose and nouth. “You are about to be judged,” Willi said. “I have told them you show promise. Don’t let us down.”

1

A Grammar Question

A question that will start with a rant. American sportscasters, who understand that “team” is a singular noun, will say, in reference to a basketball team, “The team is ready for the season.” Because they are referring to a single, specific team.

But those same talkers will say of a Soccer club, “The team are ready for the season.” As much as England gets its collective nouns wrong, it is offensively pretentious to suspend grammar when discussing something related to the old world. What the heck, why not just speak Portuguese when talking about soccer?

*deep breath*

Anyway, I’m here to discuss grammar with numbers. Recently I wrote “there is a bazillion power poles…” I read that a few times, uncertain. “There are a bazillion…” sounds more natural, and that’s probably my answer to my question. Eventually I changed that episode.

But “there are bazillions” is one thing, “there is a bazillion” is another. How many bazillions? One. A bazillion. By that logic, “There is a bazillion power poles” is correct. It just doesn’t ring right. Perhaps “There is a bazillion <preposition> power poles.” That reads better, but there’s no simple preposition that makes sense there. “There’s a bazillion of them dang power poles” certainly reads well.

I’m pretty sure the presence of a prepositional phrase should not affect the verb of the sentence, which backs up the “there is a bazillion” argument.

It just sounds wrong sometimes, is all. Can anyone supply the Ultimate Grammar Truth?

1

The Double-MacGuffin

A lot of stories are based on people competing for something. In many cases, what they are competing for is far less important than the competition — as long as the object of competition is important to them.

It might be a glowing thing in the trunk of a Chevy Malibu or it might be the contents of an ice skate bag. All that matters is that everyone in the story is willing to kill to get it or die trying.

But then there’s the Double-MacGuffin. This is a story where people are competing not for the thing, but for the thing that will tell them what the real thing even is, and perhaps provide access to the actual MacGuffin.

For the record, I just coined Double-MacGuffin, and in the annals of literature, when they discuss Double-MacGuffin stories, they will mention this humble blog episode in the “quaint backstory” part of their analysis.

It would be easy to confuse a race-for-treasure-map story as a double-MacGuffin, but that’s not the case at all. Even if the treasure is vague and MacGuffin-like, the map is not. It’s a competition for a well-defined thing that leads to an undefined thing. That’s a single-MacGuffin plot right there, bunky. To make it a Double-MacGuffin, the map itself has to be something so inscrutable that it can never be defined.

The characters in a Double-MacGuffin story are fighting to find the question, because they know the answer to that question is important.

I’m dancing around a story right now that wants to be a double-MacGuffin. And that’s actually not so hard, until you try to end it.

On Television right now, Lodge 49 is the perfect Double-MacGuffin story. An artifact that may or may not exist but everyone wants can provide access to something… undefinable. While the characters chase the artifact, the “undefinable” isn’t afraid to elbow people in the ribs. It’s beautiful.

Locally, Feeding the Eels has stumbled into that world, and is having a good time. And The Quest For the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy is an archetype of the double-MacGuffin trope.

Yeah, I put my writing into the paragraph right after mentioning one of the best-conceived television shows I’ve ever seen. But Eels has the Double-MacGuffin going, and that’s all right.

1

Blogtober Idea: Finish Something

Long ago I toyed with a frivolous serial fiction piece here called Feeding the Eels. It started as a parody of the noir genre, but gradually resolved into an homage.

I thought, what better way to get back into the fiction groove that pound out the conclusion to a story that had as a constraint that I spend a limited amount of time on each episode?

Eels had some pretty great moments as well, as far as I recall. It would be super-satisfying to actually finish something.

It’s been long enough, however, that I don’t remember all the ins and outs of the story. I was starting to tie up loose ends, but boy did I introduce a lot of factions in the early going. I clicked the category link in the sidebar and started reading.

So many comments on some of the episodes! There was an actual following for the story. A small following, but bigger than I usually get. I started reading, from the throwaway first episode (you can skip that one if you decide to read it) up to Episode 15: Year of the Rat. Next was Episode 14. Um… what?

Then 13, followed by 12.

Somewhere in the past I did some hijinxery to make the episodes in that category go from oldest to newest, with is anathema for blogs in general and WordPress in particular. Unfortunately, whatever I did is not compatible with the WordPress infinite-scroll feature of my current theme.

There is, at this time, no way to read past episode 15. Big Surprises and Heartbreak are soon to follow, but until I do some coding, it will be hidden. Suddenly my fun writing idea is dependent on a programming task. Sigh.

It’s worth doing, however; so tomorrow will be a technical day as I perform some server software upgrades and try to remember how I got the fiction categories going in the other direction, and how to make that work with infinite scroll.

Then over the course of October I will finish a story. And that will feel really, really good.

2

Headstrong is Code

In my last episode I mentioned that he use of “headstrong” to describe a female character is almost as bad as calling her “beautiful”.

Headstrong. I suppose I should explain why I find that appellation awful, even as it is widely regarded as a strongly positive trait for female main characters. We can add to the list ‘rebellious’ and ‘independent’. In a man, the exact same traits would be spun positively as ‘confident’.

Why is confident considered a separating characteristic for women? Why is independence a trait worthy of a fantasy hero?

Independent and whatnot are all traits that, applied to a fictional role model, imply that she is somehow special. But hold on there, Sparky! None of those things should be regarded as special. “She a woman… but.. she’s also independent? MADNESS!” Let’s just stop right there.

All those descriptions are code for “hasn’t met the right man yet.”

Seriously, I wish I was wrong. While there are a couple of notable exceptions, there exists shit-tons of novels and series of novels based on the simple premise that an otherwise-powerful woman must somehow care about the merits of her multiple asshole suitors, and when she chooses the best asshole-suitor prosperity ensues. Each asshole is almost-perfect, and fans can form teams around the assholes. But that misses the point.

Our girl doesn’t need any of those assholes.

So let’s get to the real headstrong. She’s got her opinions, and she’s ready to defend them, but she will also listen gracefully and accept when she’s wrong. She’s strong that way. She loves hard, and when her best friend says, “that woman is using you,” she says, “hope you’re wrong,” because she’d not going to stop loving. She’s not one to let go easily.

But she’s headstrong, and change isn’t so easy. It’s a curse she lives with every day, the inability to let go of the little battles to win the war. Her lover whispers in her ear every night, little nothings that add up to something, but nothing will erase the big picture, even for a moment. You can never stop being a hero.

2

The Creche

The children sat in a semi-circle in the grass, seventeen of them, aged three to nine in traditional years, their eyes fixed on Evie the storyteller, who sat cross-legged at the focus of the children, the Holy Book in her hand. The petite brown woman smiled, a little wistfully, and opened the Book. “Today I would like to tell you about Earth.”

Willi had to smile as he watched the younger kids sit forward eagerly while the older kids rolled their eyes. Will relaxed on his bench, partially concealed by the lush vegetation of the creche, but not actually hiding.

“Earth was a beautiful place,” Evie said. “It was like this,” she said, waving at the vegetation as it flourished under the lights of the creche, “but the air was sweet — and above,” she glanced at the gray metal over their heads, “above was the sky. It was like a ceiling, but far, far, above. And sometimes, water would fall out of the sky, and the people would dance with joy.”

Willi watched as one of the older children leaned over to the boy sitting next to her. With a thought and a gesture Willi tapped into her audio. “And then we fucked it up, because we are greedy mammal bastards.”

Willi groaned but he was watching today for precisely this event. He stood and cleared his throat softly. “Malika, would you come with me, please?”

The girl swung around and looked at him, her brown eyes wide in her pale face. “I didn’t…”

“Come with me.”

She stood and pulled at her jumpsuit, which didn’t fit her very well. Too small. They grow like weeds at that age, Willi thought. But there was no place for weeds here. Not in this garden.

Tears were escaping her eyes as she walked away from the other children. They watched her go with stony faces, internalizing the most important lesson of the day: There are some things you never say out loud.

Malika stood in front of Willi, her eyes fixed on his feet. He reached out and put his hand on her skinny shoulder and felt her shaking. “Am I compost?” she asked.

Willi let out a slow breath. He used his hand on Malika’s shoulder to steer her toward the exit. “We are all compost. But before we are fed to the grinder, we must justify the resources we consume.” To make his point he touched a control and the heavy door cycled open, revealing the stark passageways of the starship. Even outside the creche, the air in the sections used by the mammals was heavy with moisture and fizzing with oxygen. Expensive air.

“It is delicate,” Willi said, knowing that all his words might be heard, the same way he had eavesdropped on Malika.

She was crying now. “Please,” she said, as fluid ran out of her eyes and her nose. No matter how efficient the recycling was on the ship, the crew would never be able to condone such waste.

Willi leaned in close and whispered, “They resent us.” Her eyes widened and Willi gave her a tight smile. “For any one of us, the ship could support ten of them. Ten of them awake.” The lizards would hear those words, but that was all right. This was just part of the curriculum. Every kid got this lecture eventually, in one form or another.

“They hate us? Why do they keep us?”

Behind them the door to the creche closed, and they walked down the sterile gray passage, with no particular destination.

“No, they don’t hate us. They don’t — they aren’t capable of hatred. Which, indirectly, is why they keep us. But without them, we are lost,” Willi said. “Earth is gone, just a radioactive cinder orbiting an ordinary star. Our ancestors did that to themselves. This is our home now, and we have to earn our way.”

1

Basking in my Own…

A long time ago I published a Chapter One here on this blog called Gravity. It was a little bit that I thought had legs. Eventually I devoted a NaNoWriMo to exploring the character, and today I read much of it. It has some pretty sweet moments, if I do say so myself.

A Jane Doe awakens in a hospital, and feels gravity for the first time. Everything is wrong, even though everything is empirically perfectly normal.

At the core is a battle between Liberty on one side, and Justice for All on the other (that’s how one side frames it, anyway). But it’s really a story of soldiers. Bitter rivals sharing a room, one crippled. Were she not crippled, Benji would have killed her and bragged about it later. But it was Jane’s own side that crippled her, that tore her down. They took her wings. And that is the only thing, the ONLY thing, Benji would never do. She was beautiful when she flew.

Though it would be irresponsible not to consider that Jane volunteered for this mission, confident that her own compass would never waver, even if her memory were erased.

Note: Benji and Jane never become a love interest. Seriously. You can discover respect without wanting to bone someone.

4

Buck Rodgers Cosmology

There is a certain class of Space Opera that has what I call “Buck Rodgers Cosmology.” In these stories it is never quite certain what a planet is. You see sentences like “It was still morning on [planet].” Or perhaps “It’s summer on [planet], so dress accordingly.”

And of course we’re all familiar with the “jungle planet”, the “tropical paradise planet”, and the “snow planet”, all of which are entire planets with only one climate zone, and that climate is easily recognized as one of the many on our own rock. So even though we live and interact with a shining counterexample our entire lives, we all too often are presented with a planet that apparently has no poles. Or perhaps it’s in a multi-star system that somehow warms all parts of the globe evenly.

I call it Buck Rodgers Cosmology because early Buck Rodgers adventures joyfully embraced a vague idea of planets that didn’t even seem to be related to stars.

Recently I read some not-very-good-but-for-some-reason-I-read-it-anyway-so-maybe-it-had-a-certain-charm Space Opera, and while the author seemed to have a certain grasp of stars, planets, and whatnot, it seemed that most of the time the planets managed to avoid any of the consequences of being spherical.

While I was reading this thing, I rolled my eyes and moved on. I wonder if the writer knowingly embraced Buck Rodgers Cosmology. I wonder if he made a conscious decision to make planets so easily characterized in order to make destinations more like those in Earth-bound adventure stories. One planet is Hawaii, another planet is Switzerland, and another is Arizona. In fact, these stories are actually set on Earth, an Earth in disguise, at a time when it takes many days to reach Hawaii, and where the inhabitants of Hawaii have blue skin. They’re not space stories at all.

In the end, I decided Buck Rodgers Cosmology was no less valid than the whole Faster-Than-Light-Without-Relativity conceit. It’s a storytelling device, and if the reader is willing to embrace it, then we can all get along.

The story I mentioned above also had big space battles that led to giant spaceships “listing to port” when they were badly damaged. I am far less forgiving of that phrase. The writer is drawing a parallel with modern sailing ships, but sinking boats list because of gravity. There’s too much water coming in on one side, and gravity tips the boat to that side. No gravity in space. No listing. No “port” even, though that could be defined in some sort of ridiculous three-dimensional fleet coordinate system.

I have read a great deal of space opera where opposing fleets of spaceships are all in the same plane.

The thing is, there’s another phrase for a stricken ship that’s more accurate and just as poignant. Stricken naval ships list, stricken spaceships tumble. It’s that simple. And tumbling makes rescue all the more difficult.

So I’ll give you the Buck Rodgers Cosmology, but I won’t give you stupid fleet mechanics. The former provides a storytelling shorthand, the latter is just wrong.

3

Knives Episode 26 Published!

With the Big Splash at the end of the last episode, it was time for Martin to take stock and do some planning. But not before contemplating just leaving everything and going back to his normal life as thief and assassin. But, well, there’s Elena.

On the patron front, it looks like my attempt to release more backstory was, well, unsuccessful. No worries — tomorrow I will do that first thing after taking down Christmas lights.

Episodes have been a bit slow lately, what with holidays and guests invading the Writing Bunker and whatnot, but episode 27 is forming up nicely and episode 28 is solidifying.

As always, thank you to all my generous patrons. You guys rock!

Read Knives.

Facts? Bah!

I was pretty pleased with myself when I realized it was perfectly logical for my point-of-view character to be claustrophobic. After all, she was born in the ocean (literally) and lived almost her entire life on a raft. Sure they had canvas structures to keep the rain off their heads, but overall, the sky has been her ceiling.

So when she’s on a submarine, that’s got to be pretty awful, right?

I got to that point and realized that I know next to nothing about: a) claustrophobia, and b) submarines. After about two thousand words in this setting, I have finally dug up a cutaway of a typical attack submarine, and, well, the sub in my story has a lot more decks. Maybe that’s why the ceilings seem so low to her; the decks are only four feet apart to fit them in a 33-foot diameter cylinder.

But that’s what rewrites are for, right?