So I Am Committing Sci-Fi Heresy

And going against everything Project Rho and their excellent compilation on sci-fi tech, with far more physics than I could understand, says about stealth in space. http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/spacewardetect.php

That is, they infamously drone, “There is no stealth in space.” And then they laugh at you for trying the alternatives. And here is where I think they are thinking too much like a physicist who assumes information equals certainty. Not enough as a tactician who has to interpret the data, the poor snob reading the scope, and let alone the politician who has to decide whether or not to go to war based on those blips that he may or may not see on the screen.

First of all, I am going to agree with this article against Rho: http://scienceblogs.com/builtonfacts/2010/03/10/while-doing-some-poking-around/ and say “Internal Heat is irrelevant.” Now, that is not the case to the crew who has to deal with said heat–like the Normandy in Mass Effect. You’d need massive heat sinks to bury your signature for even an hour. But the potato is a viable analogy. Internal heat does not mean the skin is hotter. And as long as the skin remains essentially dead space, you aren’t detected. So if you train your bloom away from the detection apparatus of the enemy, and then ensure you don’t heat the skin, you should be clear from anything but luck.

Second, we can scan the entire night-sky in four hours. But anything outside your star system is essentially irrelevant. By the time you could intercept, they would jump away, and your fleet is going the wrong direction. Battles would naturally occur near fortified or strategic targets, or on the trade routes between them. Anything else, and space is so big, awareness of existence is pointless.

Third, if it’s so easy to detect everything in the night sky, why do so many asteroids go by at bullet burn range? After all, the sunward side of these is heated well above background. They should be seen for weeks, if not months, before they slip past Earth. Instead we hear of events like this: http://www.thedailysheeple.com/undetected-asteroid-explodes-over-the-atlantic_012014 on essentially an annual basis. So again, if you know where the enemy is observing from, and you orient your ship so your trail is aft of the other guy’s heat sensors, there should be functionally a low enough signature to make it unclear if you’re a ship, or just another piece of space junk.

And this is where I have my beef with Rho. Stealth as we know it isn’t ‘invisibility.’ Even a submarine doesn’t operate on absolute non-existence, or you get detected for being an impossible hole in the ocean. (I can neither confirm nor deny personal knowledge of such phenomenon.) Stealth is about the creation of doubt. The ability to convince the guy at a radar board that he’s looking at a bird instead of a plane. That the submarine is a whale, or a school of fish. Just the same, if you can make your Super Star Destroyer look like a freighter, even if your enemy knows SOMETHING is there, they may not know the Galactic Empire is on their doorstep and bombardment is ready to begin until they disintegrate your orbital defenses. Would it give them enough time even to refer that portrait in the sky to his High Command? Perhaps enough to make your President jittery about lighting off your orbital defenses?

Also there’s the issue of the difference between detection and targeting. You know an enemy is there even perhaps. But between passive stealth, active jamming, and decoys, can you be sure of what you’re shooting at? Can you be as sure as the guy who only has to shoot at one ship, which he’s positively identified and has a firm tactical solution on?

I agree that the Cloaking Device, and such gimmicks for ‘absolute’ invisibility would be impossible. But this is not the same as “Stealth is irrelevant.” This is like saying that because jamming doesn’t stop every missile, it isn’t useful, even if it stops 90% of them. It’s sure a whole lot easier to shoot down 1 missile with your point defense than 10.

So there’s still room to wish confusion to the enemy. IMHO.

Future Food

Always good to think about how your characters eat. 😉

Mad Genius Club

It seems inevitable that I would wind up writing about food here, given that I do so regularly over on my blog. However, what sparked this train of thought was something a little lower than food… Fads. We know that foods have fallen in and out of favor as long as there has been some options to choose. You may not know, for instance, that the French Aristocracy invested heavily in potatoes, which the peasants wouldn’t eat, and in the course of the publicity campaign for potato eating, Marie Antoinette wore potato flowers in her hair. Cornflakes were originally health food. Butter fell from favor early in the 20th century, to be replaced by the cheaper but dubious health benefits of margarine.

So who can say in a hundred years, or more, what we will be eating? I’ve seen some, ah, interesting ideas expounded in science fiction. Vat meat springs…

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I Am Neither GrimDark Nor PollyAnna

While reading the ever-amusing Ace of Spades Book Thread http://ace.mu.nu/archives/352551.php, I followed a link to this article, where it seems that some have had their fill of Sci-Fi Dystopias. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathryn-cramer/speculative-fiction-book_b_5916266.html

This does not surprise me, as I suspect Dystopias grew popular in science fiction for the same reason that GrimDark rose to rule Fantasy. (A fact the author of the above article misses completely.) That is, that anti-heroes have grown from a once legitimate literary device to complement the hero/villain structure, to turn all of writing into a gray ammoral world where the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is who the primary point of view indicates we should root for. A fact Sarah A Hoyt commented on in her Human Wave manifesto (indicating this is no new concern):

5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, I’m not flinging my kindle.)

I am pleased to see those who hailed the arrival of these ‘ambivalent heroes’ now finally come to the ground we have held for most of a decade. I find it amusing that of all people to blame for no longer envisioning big futures, ASU’s president picked Neal Stephenson. Whose Anathem was probably his biggest and most optimistic future, set well after the more dystopic cyberpunks that made him famous. And even his retro-futures, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle provide optimistic glimpses of science, finance, and the progress of society. There are MUCH better targets to aim this charge at than Neal Stephenson. Also, at this point, I remind you of my posts on dystopic Sci-Fi’s mystic cousin, Grimdark fantasy here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/how-grim-is-too-much/, and here: https://tariencole.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/i-am-over-grimdark/. Blatant pessimism, moral ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, and no attempt to even FIGHT for a better world does not make for an entertaining story. Not fantasy, not sci-fi. And the prevalence of this nonsense is a large part of the reason for Mysteries being the big genre fiction for profit today. At least in those, there is closure, resolution, and a knowledge that justice has been done.

I don’t like them, by and large. As they are too formulaic, and the contrivances of the genre do nothing for me. However, their elevation at a time that Speculative Fiction is screaming ‘Diversity” and “realistic characters,” and hemorrhaging readership all the while, probably hints at a problem in the mindset. A problem that runs through the love of Dystopias, antiheroes, and an unwillingness to embrace a true heroic journey. You see, if you’re committed to moral relativity, there can’t be heroes. Everyone is just a different point of view. We can’t accept that some things are legitimately beyond the pale. A mystery gets around this by having a protagonist who is only judging the ‘facts.’ But what speculative fiction writers have to realize is that sympathetic aspects to a culture, or a villain, don’t make them heroic, as such. Just like flaws in the hero don’t make for anti-heroes, as such. A hero seeks to overcome their vices via their best qualities (and often they have the vices of their virtues). A villain makes a virtue of his vices. A hero admits there is darkness and accepts a measure of (gasp) hypocrisy in any moral creature is unavoidable. A villain spreads his arms like Don John and says, “At least I am plain dealing!”

Yeah, that doesn’t commend him much. This isn’t to say villains can’t be redeemed (over time), or that heroes won’t fall. This isn’t to say people can’t die trying to change the world, and the villains maybe even win. It means that we accept that morality exists outside of who wins or loses. And that the true hero may calculate the odds, but that doesn’t mean they refuse to do the right thing because of them. Or for comparison, let me leave with this:

A hero: The Iron Code of Druss the Legend: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

An Antihero: Jayne Cobb from Firefly: “Like my Daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t do the smart thing. Do the right thing.”

A Villain: “Kneel Before Zod!”

Building Your World: Economics Overview for Fantasy Writers (non-technical!)

A fascinating article, and as someone whose fantasy worlds often delve into questions of economics and the associated intrigue, I approve of the questions.

I’d nitpick slightly on the issue of Medieval cities not being built around castles. Venice was built the way it was largely because it made it virtually unassailable. And many places that later grew into crossroads or had canals dug to them (Berlin) began as festering swamp holes that were chosen because no one would be able to attack them. England is distinct in a lot of ways because the island gave the entire Kingdom security. On the continent, and in ancient Mesopotamia as well, finding an easily defended location was its own currency.

Novel Ninja

Yep, I’ve been away for a while. I had some personal-life things to take care of. Nope, I’m not going to describe them here, because they don’t have to do with writing or fun stuff. This ain’t no LiveJournal or MySpace here, bub! (Aaaaand I just dated myself. Moving on.)

I was going to make my first post back be a book review, but instead I decided to get off my duff and start the worldbuilding series I’ve been meaning to do for months now. The reason is that two parts of my life have converged on the same topic very recently. The first is that my workshop at Christendom College has restarted; the second is that I play World of Warcraft on the side.

What’s the relevancy? you might ask, and rightly so. Warcraft players might be able to guess, of course, but I’ll address the workshop angle first. Most…

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Objects in This Article Are Not to Scale

One of the recurring arguments I hear is the Low Fantasy/Epic Fantasy argument. That is, does the audience want small-scale stories where we spend time close to a few (or even one) character. Or is the balance in favor of the traditional Epic Fantasy (“saving the world”)?

This article is relating to games. But it dredges through this argument on the side of Low Fantasy/”small scale” story telling again. http://toybox.io9.com/im-sick-of-saving-the-world-the-case-for-smaller-scale-1631918032?utm_campaign=socialflow_io9_facebook&utm_source=io9_facebook&utm_medium=socialflow

Here’s the first thing I’d say: It doesn’t matter.

No Really. This is a Much Ado About Nothing debate. Execution matters more than scale. Characters have to be memorable in either setting. And there has to be stakes, or we’re in the realm of navel-gazing lit-fic, and while you might get an award, you won’t have enough readers to buy you a pack of K-Cups. If the story isn’t something that resonates with the reader, it doesn’t matter if you’re a hacker hiding from the Corps in a CyberJungle, or off on the world-saving quest.

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence for an audience for both. Especially in books: Urban Fantasy sells. So does Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, or Malazan Book of the Fallen. Execute your vision well, market the story strongly, and there will be an audience. No, you won’t win everyone over. Guess what? No story does. But write your story with ambition, drive, quality characterization and a taut plot, and you have a chance. Don’t, and you won’t.

In games, I think it’s a little harder to prove. Everyone remembers Planescape. But it never really sold well, especially in comparison to the other Golden Era of Infinity Engine Black Isle/Bioware titles. The games we know: Mass Effect, Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights, Fallout, Diablo, and the Elder Scrolls series. They are all ‘save the world’ games. Set against that Planescape, a fine, if quixotic game. And if we’re being generous the Witcher series, which even here has a ‘global’ component to it. Now, do I think a smaller scale COULD work? Sure. But again, it has to be executed well.

I don’t buy what the article says about more ‘variety’ in smaller scale stories either. The only thing constraining either small or large scale stories is the imagination of the writer. Indeed, a large scale story can be comprised of several ‘smaller’ ones as subplots that tie into the overarching one. And a seemingly small scale story can blow up into a world-spanning one (See Dresden Files).

And as The Black Company showed, and Daniel Abraham is doing now with The Dagger and Coin series, one can write a seemingly large scale story from a constrained cast. Thus we see the universe as it effects each of the personal issues involves. Babylon 5 did this exceptionally well also. Londo and Mollari forming the heart of the story that the rest of the universe circled around.

So not only is this a Much Ado About Nothing Argument. In a very real sense, it’s an argument from a generation ago. This isn’t the Speculative Fiction environment anymore. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser CAN save the world.

What Do You Have Without Genre?

Perhaps this is why Damien Walter has lived for four years on the UK Government dole without producing the novel for which he was fronted. First of all, whether he likes it or not, Science Fiction is a genre.

Here is the definition of genre: “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” From the 19th century French, for ‘a kind.”

Now, what is disagreeable with the idea of Science Fiction as a category of art? It is, most certainly literature. We can debate the quality of each work on its own merits. Are there similarities of form, style, and subject matter? Well yes. Damien Walter could not speak to the return of the space opera (Though Peter Hamilton in particular might ask when it ever went away), if there was not a form Ancilliary Justice was attempting to utilize within the Science Fiction genre. Yes, authors might subvert or turn their forms at places. In fact, I’ve heard some argue that Space Opera is better rightly considered “Fantasy.” And no less an authority than George Lucas considered Star Wars “Space Fantasy.”

This is not a new thing. Nor is it entirely new that it be done solely for the purpose of ideology: C.S. Lewis did this with his Space Trilogy. Like J.R.R. Tolkien, I heartily despise allegory, with its forced symbolism and outside narrative attempting to force the reader to see the world the same way. It’s a cheat, a bore, and an intellectually dishonest approach to writing, IMHO. I find this just as true when the symbolism is one I agree with (Like Lewis), or something I do not. So the attempt to subvert or play with genre norms does not prove something is not that genre. One has to recognize the fact norms exist in order to subvert them. Eric Raymond’s article discusses what they are in some detail.

I would add to his list that typical to science fiction is the question: “What does it mean to be human?” As opposed to Fantasy, where the question is: “What is the cost of Virtue?” Another distinction is that science fiction, as Asimov stated, must both internalize science and form lively prose fiction, or it cannot be both “science” and “fiction.” Fantasy has no external rules on plausibility in its world, only internal coherence matters, both within the worldbuilding proper, and by the characters to the setting. This is true in China Mieville’s steampunk: where Khepri are forced to confront the question of humanity and society as much as the main character. Of course, maybe Walter, considering steampunk the ‘halfwit cousin of cyberpunk,’ couldn’t be bothered to read it, even when the writer is from his own political persuasion, far more clever, and capable of actual character depth in a way Ann Leckie’s work was not. Really, the gender-pronoun confusion issue is hardly new, or innovative, or confrontational. It’s been done. And better.

Unlike some, I do not assume everything at a publishing house can be discounted as if you know what it writes. Nor do I despise any particular house. My favorite current authors are Jim Butcher, Steven Erikson, Ilona Andrews, Larry Correia, Daniel Abraham (and his alternate identities), Sarah Hoyt, and Brandon Sanderson. I used to count Neal Stephenson, but his last two major works (Anathem and Reamde) do not, IMHO, match the standard he wrote from his cyberpunk up through The Baroque Cycle. In that list are authors from Ace, Baen, Orbit, Penguin, and Tor. Given my stance in the Hachette/Amazon controvery, one might assume Orbit doesn’t belong on that list. But there are a number of their authors I enjoy (Gail Carriger is another). And there are Baen authors that do not interest me.

I would also note that I doubt the politics of that group is monolithic, and to say Butcher, Erikson, Andrews, Abraham, or Sanderson have catered ‘to Right-wing’ at any point is ludicrous. Nor did I know Larry Correia’s politics when I started reading him (at the suggestion of fans on both Butcher’s and Erikson’s forums). Stylistically, the prose of these authors range from the minimalist and action oriented of the International Lord of Hate, to the Iowa-trained “literary” flourishes of Erikson. So it’s not the form of prose that catches me either. It is the ability to tell a story, in any genre. Whether playing straight with the conventions, subverting them, or mashing them together (as Urban Fantasy is famous for doing, and I’ve done a bit in my own writing). You have to know what the norms are to use them. Otherwise, you cheat the audience and turn them off.

It’s telling in Damien Walter’s article that he doesn’t consider entertaining the reader, or even keeping their interest, a primary purpose. It also informs me that if, in the next four government-sponsored years, his attempt at science fiction were to actually emerge, I’d be safe to ignore it. Not because of the politics. Only those on his side of the fandom divide care about the politics over the story. No. It’s because he has no respect for the form, the history, or the nature of the art-form. He is not writing to entertain. But to pontificate.

For that, I say the best place to write is in a political blog. I’m sure Huff Post could use another writer.

Explaining Away the Magic

Ashley Capes shared an interesting take on “soft” magic systems today. http://mythicscribes.com/?wysija-page=1&controller=email&action=view&email_id=12&wysijap=subscriptions&user_id=712. I’ve had discussions on this in the past, including a rather interesting Twitter exchange with Nat Russo. While in general, I hold to Branden Sanderson’s First Rule of Magic, which is never have a PoV character use it without explaining it, it’s important to qualify that even there, he is talking about the Point of View character.

And even there, he’s quite willing to change the rules, let them learn things piecemeal, or just be flat out wrong on issues. See Kaladin in the Stormlight Archives. Neither he nor Shallan actually have much of the picture with regards to what they’re doing. And they learn more all the time. He did the same thing in Mistborn. So he’s certainly not adverse to having characters surprised by magic.

And I think that’s important. Especially if you have a character that doesn’t use or understand magic. Why should the reader inherently know more than the people living in the world? Let people be surprised. Let them learn by doing and interacting. Even when some things appear contradictory.

Contrary to the article, I don’t think this is a ‘market’ issue. It’s an issue of good storytelling. Whether you mean magic, tech in Sci-Fi, or high-stakes finance in a political potboiler. The rules the characters live under need to be explained as they’re encountered, to the extent they understand them. No more. No less. Neal Stephenson can get away with dropping an author tract that no one but ten people understand because he’s funny as Hell when he does it. But if your name is different from his, don’t get wrapped up in minutiae they haven’t seen. Let them explore, learn, read, and conjecture with the characters.

That’s what Speculative Fiction is about, at its heart, after all. The sense of wonder at finding the unknown, entering a new world and dwelling in it with the characters.

So Hercules the Movie Is Out

And it has The Rock, who I think it just about a doggone perfect Herc.

But I will not be seeing this. Why? General principle, it’s a “demythologization.”

Yeah, all those cool things you see in the trailer, they only happen in the narrative during the first 4 minutes of the movie. “Son of Zeus?” Yeah, Herc made that up so his enemies would fear him. We’re going for the “true” story, you know.

Like the “true” story of King Arthur and Troy, this is once again a sad attempt to strip away anything fantastic and leave the audience with a “real” sense of who the character was. For a given value of real where historical elements that could not have existed together are thrown together by Did Not Do Their Research Screenwriters (Llamas in Troy? Oh yeah). With the result that we get a by-the-numbers Hollywood cliche story attempting to be the biopic of a character we can’t know anything about without the myths.

What a load of tripe. You want to go sword-and-sandal non-mystical? There’s LOTS of stories to tell that could do it right. But those wouldn’t have the ‘name’ value. Say “Hannibal” and people think of a cannibal, or a black dude on an elephant (hey, btw, he was Phoenician w/ a Spanish mother, and thus olive-toned, but yeah “History Channel” you know). Never mind the Punic Wars would be an amazing series to bring to the screen. We need to tell people that no one believed that silly mystical stuff back then. Religion only comes from the rubes, you know. Oh wait, you mean Plato had a section about Atlantis? Welllll… don’t look here, because shut up. Instead, we get Hercules trying to play a mercenary general with a heart of gold. Because…”history,” meaning, “We made up the story. But we have to start somewhere, right?”

Whose history? The history the revisionist hucksters want to sell. There’s never been any sense of wonder or adventure in the world. So you can just sit back, dull your minds on Rom-Coms, and forget about dreams, faith, or anything that makes you creative. What a sad, myopic, universe to live in.

UPDATE: Oh, and here’s another beautiful “historical gem” from the Hercules movie. So Hercules, the Founder of the Spartans, the Warrior Elite of the Ancient World, whose classic saying was “With Your Shield or On It.” IOW, come back victorious or come back dead. The people who took a King’s personal guard to Thermopylae and commit mass suicide trying to hold off Xerxes Army (300, anyone?). Yeah, THOSE people learned all this from Hercules. Now this would be a very HISTORIC element of his life, if anything.

So what does the movie do? Hercules gives a mealy-mouthed speech about how it’s more important to ‘survive’ than to win the battle. That’s sooooo historical. So truth-telling to power. Brett Ratner, you are a freaking clown.

A Hearty Endorsement

Of this list of questions: http://writerswrite.co.za/15-questions-authors-should-ask-characters

I’ve always been a fan of doing character interviews. I do them of my major characters in each book. Along with questions like, “What would cause you to abandon your plan?” for the antagonist (as in, “Does he do it because he wants to make the world better, as he sees it–and thus is a well-meaning extremist. Or is he just in it for Global Domination and the EVULZ). Even minor characters get a good helping of these questions. You never know when one might ‘step up’ on you.

For Yalissa, in my Hellenistic Fantasy, for instance. What would mentally destroy her has changed from Book 1 to now. In the 1st, the Destruction of her Temple and Faith would have undone her. She would have sacrificed everything for her fellow Chosen. However, the events of the second book tear away all of that from her. Now, her relationship to Sharit is more open to questioning. And what she truly cares for is the people she has freed from captivity.

How did she get from point A to Point C? Ahh. Not telling. lol. One day you’ll learn. I hope. 😉

Where We Discuss Who Tarien Cole Is.

Or More Accurately: Is Not.

I often hear the statement, “Your writing must reflect your beliefs.” I personally find this a ludicrous statement. My current work, for instance, is a Hellenistic Fantasy written with full polytheistic pantheons, the possibility of apotheosis, Pre-Christian philosophy regarding Government, Civics, and Economics, and the general presupposition that all war is Holy War. In short, it is a Fantasy Recreation of the world of Rome and Carthage in the Punic Wars. Minus even the far-off influence of Judaism and Monolatry (if not true Monotheism). My lead characters all operate within the views of that world. One a priestess whose Patron oversees Love, Beauty, Trade, and the City, as Tanith did Carthage. Nor do I apologize for their own personal agendas, some of which include things we consider quite odious in the modern world: Slavery, for instance, was commonplace in the era. Well over half the Roman population was servile. Carthage could not have functioned without them either. It would be a gross disservice to insert modern considerations on the topic into that setting. They simply did not exist.

The person who Tarien Cole inhabits has a very distinct set of values. Despite my love of steampunk, I enjoy my modern conveniences, thank you. Despite the fact my current WIP comes from a ‘pagan’ setting, I am comfortably Christian in confession. And I have other works where that faith does occur in characters. Including a Historical Fantasy set in 16th Century Prague with a Brandenburg-born Bohemian Lutheran with Calvinist sympathies (who takes a Romani sorceress as his wife). Despite the fact the economic system of both of those worlds predates Adam Smith, I am a believer in the Free Market.

In short, most of my works have little relation to me. Some have virtually none. I don’t, as a rule, cut snippets of myself off and make characters out of them. In fact, I made the lead male character of my Steampunk as divergent from myself in personality as I could imagine. Just to see if I could! Hence his rather Indiana Jones-ish mentality to everything from women to problem solving.

Am I saying it’s wrong to do that? No. There are no ‘right or wrongs’ in writing, except this: “Thou Shall Not Bore Thy Reader. Because That Simply Sucks.”

I happen to enjoy making characters from what I observe. In history, in reading, and in the setting itself as I formulate it. I don’t pre-program parts of myself into the story. And even when a character ‘somewhat’ aligns with myself, I’m still responsible as a writer to answer questions AS THE CHARACTER. Not as me. So again, I am almost always endeavoring to divorce myself from the process, and listen to the characters.

They are not me. They may be my friends (though their murderous, sadistic author has a strange way of showing it). But I am not a metanarrator. Consider this one more reason I resent using fiction as a method of message.