Saturday, February 28, 2009

Vignette: Villain Wiretap

Wiretap transcript picks up after The Hammer returns from the diner’s restroom . . .

The Hammer: “So that’s the plan? Let me tell you, it sucks.”

Psycho-K: “No, it doesn’t. It’s gonna work.”

The Hammer: “Yeah, right up until the part where we get nailed at the docks.”

Psycho-K: “That ain’t gonna happen. You weren’t paying attention.”

The Hammer: “Well, I’m sure the rest of it was nice. I kind of focused on the part that was crap.”

Unknown Voice (possibly Gentleman Johnny? Cross-reference with clues below): “Will you two just—“

Psycho-K: “Oh, yeah, I forgot your incredible power of focus.”

The Hammer: Taps table. “Like a f***ing laser, baby.”

Unknown Voice: “Seriously, this constant bickering grows tiresome. I could be pursuing my own goals--”

The Hammer: Snorts. “Give me a break. Like that pays the bills.”

Unknown Voice: “What is that supposed to imply—“

Psycho-K: “Wait, I’m getting a mental impression here. A definite message. ‘I could be knocking off another museum and stealing a bunch of useless old shit nobody can fence.’”

The Hammer: Laughs. “’Oh, but first I have to pick the gayest possible thing to steal. Diamond-studded eggs?”

Psycho-K: “Statues of naked guys with no johnsons?”

Unknown Voice: “You can both pucker up and kiss my ass, you ignorant Neanderthals.”

Psycho-K: “Hey, I’m sorry if we interrupted your art collecting to offer you a chance to make actual money.”

The Hammer: “You mean to offer us a ticket back to prison.”

Jostling of silverware, rustling of clothing.

The Hammer: “What are you doing down there, man?”

Psycho-K: “I’m just looking for your balls, man.”

Unknown Voice: Voice muffled. “Wonderful. Here we go again.”

Psycho-K: “Just sayin’, you seem to be lacking in the cojones department all of a sudden.”

The Hammer: “Pointing out the huge gaping hole in your piece of shit plan is not—“

Psycho-K: Calls to the waitress. “Miss? Have you seen a pair of balls lying around anywhere? Big brass ones? My friend here seems to have lost his.”

The Hammer: “Fine, a**hole. You wanna go? Is that it? You wanna test the invulnerability again? Just say the word.”

Unknown Voice: “With great power comes great stupidity.”

Psycho-K: “Hey, don’t lose it with me because you’re afraid.”

The Hammer: “Afraid? I’ll leave the Gauntlets of Mars in the car, mother-f*****. How about that?”

Psycho-K: “You’re not afraid of getting hurt, amigo. That would be like me being worried about satisfying the ladies. You’re afraid of going back to stir.”

The Hammer: “And you want to go back? Hate to tell you, that doesn’t make me afraid, it makes you stupid.”

Psycho-K: Shakes his head. “Hell, no, I don’t want to go back. But I’m sure as s*** not going to live ducking my head and shuffling my feet hoping that the Man or the capes don’t notice me. Think about who you are, brother. You keep doing this small-time s***, people are going to think you up and died." Pause. "Back me up here, G.”

Unknown Voice: “He’s right about one thing. You can’t hide your light under a bushel.”

The Hammer: “How are you falling for this? You're the one with a college education.”

Unknown Voice: “I’m serious. Either you do these things, live this life we’ve chosen, or you don’t. You go straight. If you can, perhaps that’s the wisest course of action. But I can’t walk the path of the straight and narrow. I've tried. Leave aside the money and the material things I covet. I can’t give up the thrill, the edge, that sweet taste that comes when you get dealt a winning hand and actually beat one of those holier-than-thou spandex bastards. And you, you’ve sipped that nectar so many more times than have I. You can’t hope to replicate that sort of thrill unless you face true challenges to your ability.”

Psycho-K: "Time to step up to the big show again, my brother."

The Hammer: Sighs. "I don't know."

Psycho-K: "C'mon man, you know you want to say it." Pounds table. "It's Hammer Time, baby!"

Unknown Voice: "Could you possibly attract more attention, you amped up . . . ."

Coffee believed to have spilled on the surveillance device. Transcript ends.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Feeling a Bit Better

Got a decent exercise program started, done a few different volunteering things with the kids recently, tried to ease up on the critical self-talk. So I'm feeling a little better.

Facing a tricky decision about my upcoming birthday. I have one of the shorter wish lists that I have ever compiled, which is good. But times are tight, so I have to decide between getting some expensive free weights that will allow me to make increases in very small increments (which I think will be psychologically and physically better for me, making steady progress without overtaxing some of my joints) and getting a graphic novel that completes a series I've collected, a book on language and magic, and a subscription to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I can see the magazine subscription and the book as further explorations of my efforts to write (testing a likely writing market and developing my understanding of some topics relevant to my current writing interests), while the weights would be part of my physical maintenance and development. Honestly, the physical side is easier to see gains in, though it is more expensive.

Whatever I do, I'm trying to stick with a clear budget for the year.

In another sense my recent sense of improvement has come from what I've let go of. I haven't been blogging as much or with as much effort, which has been good. When nobody really reads your blog--and only one person reads mine with any frequency--it becomes essentially a journal. And there shouldn't be pressure to maintain that. I started altering how I wrote the blog to make it more accessible to people and the result was that it was more time consuming and stressful to write and I can't say I got any more hits, even from immediate family and close friends.

I think the blog and the website held the false promise of gaining readers and others interested in my ideas. But honestly, there is just too much noise out there on the web. I don't stand out and few people have ever expressed much interest in what I have to say, in part because I'm not blogging about everyday issues or seeking to become a clearinghouse of information for certain topics. So I can understand people not having the time or inclination to look. I don't read that many blogs written by other people.

I think I'll keep making some updates to my web site over time as the urge takes me. But so far the Internet has been kind of a lonely experience.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Big 4-0

I just wrote a lot of words in a lengthy draft about how I feel with my 40th birthday rapidly approaching. I don't know if I'll post that or not.

Distilled to its essence: I feel like I've lost more than I've gained in the past ten years. Professionally, physically ("loss" here applies in terms of overall health and well-being, not weight), and socially.

The steady state: I continue to have a loving and supportive relationship with my wife. I love my parents and they are a great comfort to me. I'm fortunate to have very wonderful in-laws, which is a blessing many people don't share. I had all these things ten years ago (well, I wasn't married yet, but the relationship was still there and strong) and I would say they have had more ups than downs in the past decade.

The big improvements: The addition of my son and daughter, who are wonderful and interesting people as well as beloved children.

The losses: Friends and family left behind, with no new friends to show for eight years of living here--at least nobody close enough to invite to my birthday party or who would think to send me a card. A freelance career that is wildly unpredictable, provides little professional camaraderie, and pays sporadically in place of a challenging but rewarding career where I had gained the respect of the majority of my peers and bosses. Nagging injuries that assault me everywhere-- shoulder, wrist, ankles, knees, hip, and back--sidelining every workout program I've embarked upon for the past two years. A city, Boise, whose sole advantage over Austin is that the traffic is better here (surprising how far that edge will go to making life more enjoyable, but Boise is just never going to be as cool as Austin). The opportunity to pursue my writing has led to fewer tangible results and more disappointment in my lack of achievement than I expected.

The plan: I'm going to keep searching for workout regimens that my body will tolerate, lowering my sights a bit and trying to include as much stretching as possible. I'm also trying to reconcile myself to a certain amount of aches and pains. I'm going to try to stop beating myself up about the writing, write when I feel like it and read more stuff that I like. I'm going to try to enjoy my time with my kids more. As for friends, I honestly have no idea at this point how to find like-minded folks up here. I think I'd settle for more casual friends. Also I'm going to take a stab at reading some more self-help stuff that I already own and relaxing myself mentally. A lot of it boils down to being more pro-active.

So wish me luck looking on the bright side and enjoying my birthday.

Review: Shadow Cities

The full title is Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, A Urban New World by Robert Neuwirth. Interesting—the author spent time living in squatter communities in Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Nairobi, and Istanbul, comparing and contrasting the experiences of the inhabitants and how they are treated by the legal system.

In Rio de Janeiro the squatters have won many concessions from city authorities. Some of the older favelas are hooked up to city utilities and one even has a paved public street running through a large portion of it. Newer squatters still stuffer many hardships in more primitive settlements, and it is hardly a pampered life, but there is a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy and creativity being displayed on a daily basis in these communities. The one thing that seemed odd was that the role of the narcotics trafficking gangs, which I had been led to believe was rather significant, is downplayed here.

In Nairobi, conditions are much, much worse, with most people living in homes made of mud, some with metal roofs (though it is mentioned that these are very hot and uncomfortable). There is open sewage everywhere and access to clean water is difficult. Here the corruption of the local tribal and city authorities and the impotence of the international aid agencies is heavily emphasized. The legal system is set up to prevent squatters from expanding their own homes and efforts to bring even basic infrastructure services into the slums are defeated by the avarice of politicians and contractors, who pocket the money without finishing the work. Many city leaders actually own mud homes in the squatter communities which they rent out to families, generating solid returns on a literally dirt cheap investment. It all works to undermine community and individual efforts to improve conditions and start businesses, though there are some success stories. All in all the impression is of dignified people struggling to get by in squalor.

Conditions are hard in Mumbai as well. Here there is a political movement to empower the squatter population, though it seems to do relatively little for them. People display the same drive and creativity as seen in the Rio favelas, but the government has a bit of a schizophrenic attitude toward them. Slums that get built up may be torn down for development. There are programs in place to provide public housing for displaced squatters, which is progressive, but the concrete tenement houses offered by the government offer something like 200 square feet per relocated family, which is less space than most people not living on the street possess. And the tenants are prevented from improving or customizing these apartments. So many of the squatters with longer tenure refuse the deals. All in all, Mumbai clearly depends on the labor of its squatter community but likes to pretend it does not exist.

Finally, in Istanbul squatters seem to have a reasonably good life, with even more legal protections than in Rio. Again, these aren't suburban tract homes we're talking about for the most part. Fresh water and sewage facilities remain difficult issues and people often live on very small incomes that make acquiring necessities difficult. But some of the old squatter neighborhoods in Istanbul are indistinguishable from any thriving city neighborhood--the buildings are big and permanent, utilities are metered, and there are roads and bus stops.

There's also some history on squatters in New York City, which I skimmed. The author's conclusions are that aid agencies and officials too often focus on tearing down the slums without respecting the ingenuity, drive, and sense of community that has grown up within them. The solutions are too often cookie-cutter housing projects that offer no incentive or freedom to improve to the inhabitants. The suggestion seems to be that legalizing existing slums and providing more access to basic services by extending water, electricity and sewer lines into them would be more efficient than big public projects, because once you have a few major infrastructure arteries entering a big slum, the inhabitants will figure out how to use and distribute them for themselves.

Rating 4.0/5.0 for addressing a largely ignored topic in a way that made me think about it differently—though Shantaram had started me thinking along these lines already.

Damn You, Blogger!

For some reason the "Post Options" feature on Blogger malfunctioned three times in a row, immediately posting entries that I had scheduled for the next few days. And I can't change them back. I really hate glitches like that.

And now a post I wrote yesterday, scheduled to be published, doesn't show up at all in my blog lists. That wasted 20 minutes of my time. I guess this service is worth what I'm paying for it.

Review: Gridlinked

Read this first novel by Neal Asher based on liking a short story in the Years Best Science Fiction 25th Annual Collection that was set in the Polity future he introduces here. All I can say is: good grief, this book was awful. The characterizations are poor and one dimensional. As an added bonus, the characters aren't particularly likeable. But they sparkle next to some of the most stilted, unnatural dialogue I've come across. At times it reads like this book was translated somewhat ineptly into English. The plot is heavy handed and contrived as well. I'm still not sure why the last 50 pages or so played out as they did and I don't care to go back and try to figure it out. This novel reads like a very poor man’s Richard K. Morgan Takeshi Kovacs story.

Rating 1.5 out of 5 for amateurish execution.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review: The Year’s Best Science Fiction 25th Annual Collection

This is the latest edition of the annual collection edited by Gardner Dozois. Pretty good overall.

Really liked these stories
“Tideline” by Elizabeth Bear. The story of a marooned war robot, the refugee boy it helps raise, and the arduous yet simple homage it seeks to pay to its fallen human comrades. Original and touching.

"Alien Archaeology” by Neal Asher. Gritty, interesting look at a future involving a cold war with aliens, a black market in both ancient and corrupt alien technology, criminals, and some espionage.

“The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” by Ted Chiang. Marvelously thoughtful and interesting take on time travel, fate, and Allah's will set in the Caliphate from the perspective of a devout Muslim. I've never read a bad story by Ted Chiang.

“Finisterra” by David Moles. A lyrical and weird story about outcasts and criminals living on giant floating animals. The science is improbable and not well explained, but the writing and characterizations are strong and have excellent style.

"Sanjeev and Robotwallah” by Ian McDonald. An interesting take on young soldiers tele-operating war drones in future India and the hard truths they are forced to confront. Evokes a distinctive sense of place.

“The Mists of Time” by Tom Purdom. A time-travel story that is more about rescuing an overlooked period of history, when the British Navy played a dangerous game, stopping slave runners on the high seas in pursuit of both prize money and abolition. But it has just enough science fiction elements in it to warrant inclusion.

“Steve Fever” by Greg Egan. A lot of Egan's work frankly goes over my head, but this story of what happens after a dying scientist named Steve puts his consciousness into a nanobot swarm that keeps replicating and briefly infecting humans to get them to pursue the fruitless task of resurrecting him was quirky and interesting.

Also Liked, But to a Lesser Degree

Liked “Saving Tiamat” by Gwyneth Jones, “The Sky is Large and the Earth is Small” by Chris Roberson (more alternate history than science fiction), “Glory” by Greg Egan, “ “Kiosk” by Bruce Sterling, ““The Accord” by Keith Brooke and “Sledge-Maker’s Daughter” by Alastair Reynolds, and “Dark Heaven” by Gregory Benford.

Did Not Like

Michael Swanwick’s “The Sky-Sailor’s Tale." As usual for Swanwick, this came across as a rather pretentious, achronological mish-mash of a story with no clear point in which interesting ideas are tossed before the reader without being developed and boring mundanities like the menu at a large dinner are presented in excruciating detail. For me, reading Swanwick is like looking at modern art installations and wondering what the hell the point was supposed to be.

Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact." Slow and dull, with characters that were not offensive so much as uninteresting. Again, similar to the other Baxter stories and novels I've read (well, I never actually finished his novels).

Robert Reed’s “Roxie." This bothered me not because it was badly written, but because it was not science fiction and it dealt entirely with a guy reminiscing about his many years of love for a dog that, to be honest, sounded annoying, as did his lack of concern for how his animal worried the neighbors. I wouldn't have wanted to live next door to either of them. This should have been in a mainstream fiction collection not this one, and I would gladly have not read it.

Nancy Kress’s “Laws of Survival." Wow. This story read like it had been written by somebody heavily drugged. There was nothing really compelling or believable about the premise or the action--even for a science fiction story it required me to suspend too much of my disbelief. It would have been perfect as a bad sci-fi television episode. "Imagine in a future in which powerful aliens land on Earth and create massive impenetrable domes staffed by robots with limited English and miracle technology, which they then use to imprison a refugee woman to have her train stray dogs to act as surrogate hosts for alien grubs." I kid you not. Now make the story really long. Nancy Kress wrote an interesting book about characterization, and I've liked some of her short stories in the past, but the last few stories I've read, as well as the practically unreadable novel Probability Moon, have not impressed me at all.

Robert Silverberg’s “Against the Current.” The story of a guy moving backwards through time. A couple good notes about currency and that's about it. This could have been told in 500 words or less and it would have been better, though it would still have lacked a conclusion or a memorable main character. More evocative descriptions of his passage might have saved this.

Overall Rating for the Anthology: 4.5/5.0 for the number of good stories.

100 Books in a Year

I set myself a goal of reading 100 books in 2009, which I realized I haven't mentioned elsewhere. I'm not sure that I can hit this goal, but I thought it would be interesting to try. I'll be posting short reviews on the books that I've read so far on the site.

The first of these reviews applies to the two books of the Golden Age trilogy that I read in January and February and quite enjoyed. You can read my earlier post about the trilogy here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Updated the Web Page

Updated my web site, Dreaming Empires, with some Kirai tech, background on the unique life cycle of the Ogodal, and RPG stats for some of the aliens, including some not yet written up in the background. Just keepin' it unreal.

School Fightin' Man

My friend Aaron's post over on Anecdotal Evidence gave me an idea for breaking my current blog drought (not that I haven't been busy--in the past week I've added 70+ pages to my website, Dreaming Empires).

So, without further preamble, here are the three "fights" I can remember winning (in the sense that when the fracas ended, I was more or less fine and the other person was less so) in my K-12 career:

Choking Troy Ragsdale

At least that's what I think his name was. He was basically a redneck in training who was much cleverer than you'd think at first glance. Probably did okay for himself. Anyway, as I recall this incident, he was taunting me rather effectively on the sidewalk just outside of elementary school one afternoon and I told him to shut up.

He punched me in the shoulder or something and said "Make me," or words to that effect. I said to quit it and he replied with a classic along the lines of "What are you going to do about it?"

So I lunged forward and grabbed him by the throat. Looking back, I think I actually clipped him pretty good in the larynx with my spastic assault. I'm not entirely sure that I got both hands around his neck, but I remember him turning kind of deep red and gagging. Then I let him go and he coughed a bit and called me crazy.

(Interestingly, when I googled Troy Ragsdale, one of the hits that popped up was for the membership of something called "Saturday Evening Fisticuffs" a site following local boxing. So it's entirely possible that Troy could kick my ass now.)

Breaking Jason's Finger

I don't remember much about this kid except that he was short, blonde, fairly athletic, and rather annoying. And a Cowboys fan, which sort of goes with the annoying bit. Oh, and I saw my first Playboys ever while at a slumber party at his house. So he was not all bad.

This was one of those rather gay elementary school "fights" that involves a lot of kicking and slapping. Except in this case Jason was performing a sort of poor man's Flash imitation, running past me and kicking me in the ass before darting away, or zipping in to slap my head. Based on our relative builds this was like a terrier taunting a giraffe. I have no recollection what started the whole thing. Jason may not even have thought of it as a fight. Just horsing around with a clumsy nerd.

But I was getting pretty pissed off. I lunged at him a few times and missed, but finally he mistimed his pass and I grabbed his hand. I used to have a fairly ferocious grip for someone as puny as I was--my dad had these hand grips that I squeezed all the time as a nervous habit. Anyway, I couldn't keep a hold of his hand, but I had a couple of his fingers in a death grip. I pulled as hard as I could and his momentum and my effort swung him in around in a circle before he slipped free and went sailing into the sandpit they used for long jumping.

He rolled around screaming that I had broken his finger. I told him he deserved it.

Now, I doubt that I really broke his finger. On the other hand, he kept complaining that I had for the next couple days, and I swear he came to school the next day with a split on his index finger. But I have no recollection of his parents calling my parents or ever getting in trouble for this incident. How is that possible? If someone broke my kid's finger in a fight, especially in elementary school, you can be damn sure they'd hear from me about it.

So, has society changed that much since the 1970s? Or is my memory of this event just that bad?

The Anonymous Kneecapping

At some point when my dad was an enlisted grunt in the Army at White Sands Missile Range, I recall some rather butch looking woman in fatigues showing me a few ways to defend myself against bigger, tougher opponents. Which, if you discount height, was going to be more or less anybody within a grade of me either way who picked a fight.

I was not to use this arcane knowledge for many years. Then, one fateful lunch recess, we were playing Three Flies Up with a Nerf football. I was damn good at 3 Flies Up. I was taller than most of the other kids, I could jump reasonably well, and I had the aforementioned grip of iron, which is especially helpful when catching spongy Nerf balls.

I sucked as the thrower, however. This annoyed some other players, as games consisted largely of me as the "flier" alternating with whoever caught my three wobbly, off-target throws. So one day this kid keeps shoving me in the back, hard, every time the ball was tossed. That was bad enough, but then he started hitting me with elbows and kicking at my legs. I told him to stop and he told me to stop being a wuss. Finally, I caught a ball and he chopped at my hand to knock it free.

At that point I stepped back and launched a slow, unbalanced kick with the heel of my shit-kicker boot (not a cowboy boot or a more modern hiking shoe, but a big clunky hightop shoe with a waffle sole--we used to call them shitkickers or stomps) that hit him right in the knee.

Had he been expecting this, he would no doubt have caught my foot and dumped me on my butt. Instead, he screamed in pain/shock and crumpled like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Needless to say, I was gratified that my results had matched my intent.

This time, however, I was sent to the principal's office, where Mr. Sheldon stared at me in horror as I explained what had taken place and that yes, I totally meant to kick that kid in the knee. Because the other kid was, frankly, a known dickhead, I was a good student, an often-picked on nerd, and clearly clueless as to the possible ramifications of wrecking a kid's knee, I got off with a stern lecture and a warning.

Mr. Sheldon basically told me that people don't fight that way. Punching and wrestling were the appropriate methods, not that he was approving them for use on school grounds. I filed this under "stupid rules written by people who benefit from them."

Summing Up

I kind of sort of bloodied a kid's nose in high school with an elbow, but I can't count that as a fight because, though it was a retaliation for an "accidental" stick to my groin in floor hockey, it came a couple minutes later and I shamelessly claimed it was unintentional, to the point where I accompanied the kid to the trainer and sucked up to him a bit. Fortunately, he was dim-witted, because he could have beaten the crap out of me.

I'm not listing the fights I lost here unless someone asks me. Most of them are sort of vague except for the one where I actually threw a blur of punches at a kid named Kevin, only to have him bob and weave away from all them until I hit my fist on a brick wall behind him (shredding my knuckles) and he slugged me in the gut. That was embarassing. Also getting clocked by Jimmy Valles, a kid so short he literally had to jump into the air to punch me flush on the chin. Seriously.

But the lesson here is probably that if you start a fight with me, I use elbows and I go for the weak spots with all the inept fury I can muster. And I'll probably lose, but if I happen to win, I might blog about your ignominious defeat 25-30 years later.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

REVIEW: The Golden Age by John C. Wright

I've got a bad cold and a hurt knee, so I feel pretty lousy. I thought it would be a good time to fall back on a review, given that my brain is not firing on all cylinders. Since I just finished a very entertaining science fiction series, I thought I'd discuss it here.

For an imaginative, challenging, and altogether remarkable science fiction series, I highly recommend The Golden Age by John C. Wright. The trilogy consists of The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence.

This is far future space opera in which the scale and scope of the technologies manage to boggle the mind without resorting to technologies like faster-that-light travel, anti-gravity, or force fields. In fact, the bulk of the action takes place in the Solar System—but a Solar System in which Venus and Mars are both terraformed, Jupiter has been converted into a sort of proto-star, and the Sun itself is being ringed by a giant construct designed to prevent solar flares and sunspots from disrupting the communications networks and commerce that hold human civilization together.

I found Wright’s vision of how humanity might alter itself—in particular the alternate mental structures that people might choose for themselves and the different social systems they might construct—to be fascinating. The language is often evocative, the dialogue can be stilted one moment and then very wryly amusing the next. There are tons of brilliant ideas every couple pages.

The first novel is the hardest to grasp. It throws you right into the dizzying setting without much of a safety net. Much of the novel follows the protagonist’s quest to discover his missing memories and the secret that they conceal, all while trying to determine just who his real allies and enemies are. I’ll just say that the dream he has sacrificed so much to pursue turns out to be one that seems very worthwhile to me.

In the second novel our hero, Phaethon, knows more or less who he is and what he wants to achieve, but there are plenty of obstacles in his way and more mysteries to uncover. This novel moves at a brisker pace and was very enjoyable.

The finale in the concluding novel is big and bold and dramatic, though I felt it bogged down in a few spots near the end as the author described the philosophical and psychological limitations of the artificial intelligences doing battle. But it was still a wonderful read overall.

I read John C. Wright’s first story, “Guest Law,” many years ago and was so impressed that I spent the next couple years looking for his first novel. Then I gave up and recently stumbled across this trilogy, which was written in 2003 and 2004. A really fresh and enthusiastic vision of big, bold space operatic science fiction.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


What if all the humanoids populating a typical fantasy setting were explicitly defined as different hominid species that managed to coexist? This theme has intrigued me for a couple years now.


Fantasy settings often include Dwarves, Elves, and other humanoids alongside Humans. For that matter a lot of science fiction is populated with aliens that look and act like people with a few prosthetics attached.
These beings are enough like us to communicate but different enough to be exotic. I was raised on Tolkien (my middle name is from Lord of the Rings) and Star Trek, so I like this convention.

But I wanted to move beyond the standard fantasy and space opera tropes while paying homage to them. And human evolution is a fascinating topic. So, taking a slew of scientific liberties, I’ve come up with a list of suitable hominid candidates to replace the typical fantasy races, complete with associated names in the fantasy tradition.

NOTE: I really hate the way the term "race" gets substituted for species in fantasy
literature. So I don't use it.

The Species So Far

I’ll elaborate more on each species in future posts, but the basic ideas follow.

Humans (Homo Sapiens) Not too complicated on the surface, but I've been thinking about how psychic abilities might tie into human brain structure. Specifically, what if the reason people don't demonstrate strong psychic abilities is that there is no place for the waste heat and associated pressure (caused by expanding blood vessels) generated by psychic power to go within the confines of a skull? Could explain the terrible headaches, nosebleeds, etc. often associated with such abilities. Also a reason for all the trepanation taking place in prehistoric skulls--venting the pressure and heat produced in the skull.

Trolls (Neanderthals) Neanderthals are the perfect Troll creatures in my view. They're powerful and people visualize them as brutish, but they had bigger brains than us.

Trolls hibernate during intense winter, which is why the Neanderthals were exterminated on our world. I got this idea after reading an essay the collection What I Believe But Cannot Prove, in which a scholar suggested that Neanderthals had fur because we don't have enough physical evidence of clothing and fire to explain how they could have survived in glacial conditions.

So I wondered if Neanderthals might have possessed the ability to hibernate in extremely cold conditions, say glacial winters. I have no scientific basis for this supposition, but I like it.

Elves (Homo Floresiensis) I know everyone is calling these the Hobbit people. Not me. Somehow Elves were transformed from little folk of the forest into these tall, slim, stately, elegant fashion models. Bah. Elves were the Kindly Ones because people were scared to call them "the terrifying little bastards."

Elves are congenitally dyslexic but gifted with remarkable talents for song, based on a very flexible voicebox and an innate gift for memorizing and copying sounds and musical notes. Basically I'm playing with the idea that certain birds, such as ravens and grey parrots, are very bright despite having tiny brains. So maybe an Elf brain just works differently from our own, but they are still very sharp-witted.

And oh yeah, they're tiny (that's an adult skull on the left). I'm thinking childlike sizes--an adult being about 3 feet tall and weighing 40 to 50 pounds, tops.

I've been playing with the idea of Elves as shapeshifters, and I like it. They can't change their mass, so they can only assume miniature forms of animals and people (so they could disguise themselves as children but not adult humans) or full-sized forms of smaller animals. (Which would still be scary--a 40 pound wolverine, bobcat, hawk, or snake could be tough--I've done some calculations and a hawk that weight would have about an 8-foot wingspan.) Other species would copy the Elven shapeshifting but the process gets too energy-
intensive with greater levels of mass.

Goblins (Homo Habilis) An advanced variant, to be more precise. But lacking the power of speech. Goblins can't talk and must communicate solely through sign language. Their feet are also very primate-like, with long grasping toes that aid with climbing. I envision them living and moving about on the rooftops and upper floors of the cities they live in, adding a sort of third dimension.

Really they're kind of like classic ape-men. I'd compare them to the primates of Planet of the Apes, but these guys actually have longer arms than legs and they can climb well.

Oh, and they're not stupid just because they don't talk.

Ogres (Gigantopithecus) Note that Gigantopithecus is a primate, not a hominid. I've got no real notes for these guys yet. But how could I pass up a gigantic Sasquatch/Chewbacca species?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Few Notes on Religion

While reading the Oxford University Press book Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, by Daniel Keown, I came across a reference to the work of religious studies scholar Ninian Smart.
Smart came up with a scheme for studying religion that addressed the elements that he felt all religions shared, so that differing religions could be studied without trying to define precisely what religion itself was.

This is Smart's Seven Dimensions model of religion in brief:

  1. Doctrinal (The systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.)
  2. Mythological or Narrative (Stories that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and humanity's place in it.)
  3. Ethical (Rules about proper and improper human behavior, often regarded as revelations from supernatural sources.)
  4. Ritual (Forms and orders of ceremonies, private and/or public)
  5. Experiential or Emotional (The sensations of dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss associated by believers with their faith)
  6. Social and Institutional (The public, social means by which the belief system is shared and attitudes practiced by a group. Often includes rules for identifying community membership and participation.)
  7. Material (Ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.)
So, for example, the doctrinal aspect of Catholicism would include the catechism and papal bulls of the Church, the mythology would include the Bible and the lives of the various saints, the ethical aspect would include rules such as the Ten Commandments, the ritual would be the holy sacraments, the experiential would be sensations such as rapture and guilt, the institution would be the Church itself and the social dimension the public community of worshippers, and the material aspect would be the physical churches, cathedrals, crosses, candles, and the Eucharist itself.

As I’m thinking about the religions in my Illyria setting, I’m happy to have stumbled across this framework, which seems like an interesting way of organizing the material.

Vignette: Rainmaker

This scene is based on the content in the Elementalism Clarified, Part 2 post.

Dax stood in the field and tried to work the kinks out of his neck as he surveyed the early afternoon sky. Yesterday’s rain-calling had been more difficult than usual for this time of year, and it had been late afternoon before he’d soaked the earth at Gressa enough to move on to Karcher, where he’d had to keep the clouds busy into the night to make up for the late start and poor volume. The Karcher folk had been none too happy about that—they’d paid his fee, but the ceremonial meal he received for his services had been paltry and cold.

Still, he was on schedule, moving from village to village in his little contractual domain and calling down steady rain for a day to nourish their crops and fill their catch-basins. Six villages in all, two in a day, the cycle set for a dozen years now, arranged to give two steady days of needed rain each week to the village fields while not competing with the work of his fellow Rainmakers in the neighboring communities.

You could make the rain come, if you had the gift, but you couldn’t squeeze water from a stone or draw too many clouds too close to where another Rainmaker was crafting. The sky held only so much water and it had to be parceled out wisely.

Less than usual, this planting season. There were years when he hardly had to work his magic at all to get a steady downpour. Easy living, that, but then those were the times when people grumbled about the need to be paying a Rainmaker at all. Dax snorted to himself. As if the farmers hadn’t made back his fee ten times over from the extra yields at harvest time or gained security from the ability to get paid a little in advance for bushels promised to the city merchants at the county market.

No, the real trouble he faced was not a lack of demand for his services. It was that whelp of Jerzy Klint’s, the moon-faced apprentice of old Prat Dauber. Word was that the Klint boy could whistle up winds as easily as call the rain.

Dax could barely hold a cloud in place on a breezy day, much less guide it along like a yoked ox. He had to break up the clouds, walk his way from one village to the next, and draw down the waters again. If the apprentice kept progressing in his studies, he’d be able to call a nice downpour and send it floating pretty as you please over three or four fields in a day. One way or another, that meant more rain on the crops and competition that Dax would have to underbid to beat.

The wind picked up in his face as if to spite him. He dropped his hand and flexed his fingers. He’d just have to diversify, was all. Youngsters got caught up in the power of calling down the rain, but Dax could stop up the clouds as well. And he had a knack for shaping snow in winter. Next time a wedding ceremony was in danger of being washed out, he ought to show up and settle things down just to remind folks.

He nodded to himself and then caught old widow Bonner watching him with a critical eye from the edge of the field. Her stern gaze reminded Dax that he was burning daylight talking to himself. He blew out his cheeks and rolled his stiff neck around one more time before throwing his head back and flinging his arms up to the sky.

Within a few heartbeats he knew something was wrong. The water heard him, sure enough, but there was a stronger voice calling, a long way off but strong in spite of it. Dax stretched his spirit out into the sky like a fisherman casting his net, trying to sweep those little droplets together, get them to join up and attract their kin the way they always wanted to once enough of them got together. But that far off pull remained strong.

He caught the thread of that call and tried to trace it to the source. For his trouble he got a shock that froze up his muscles and fixed his face into a grimace of pain. He broke the contact and fell to the field like a discarded rag doll.

His fingers clawed at the soil while he tried to stop the world from spinning. He’d touched the edge of a swirling thunderstorm, wind and electricity and rain drawn together in a terrible fury. No Rainmaker would call down a storm like that, even if they could. That was weather magic meant for war, to batter and slow down an army on the march, or turn a field of battle into a wind-lashed quagmire.

This was the work of a powerful sorcerer, for there was a clear unity of purpose in the voice behind the storm. Dax looked over his shoulder in the direction of the city, saw the darkness building on the horizon. Everything was being pulled to the city. But was it Balthazar Black drawing it to stop an army heading toward the city, or an invader trying to keep soldiers and citizens from getting safely inside the walls?

Either way, there would be no rainmaking today. Nor tomorrow. And one way or another there would be men coming, demanding food and shelter . . . and maybe worse.

Dax picked his way gingerly to his feet, rubbing life back into his sore muscles as the widow and the headmen of the village approached him, their worried eyes on the distant skies. In a final indignity, his hungry stomach growled at him.

Copyright 2009 by Doug Sims

Monday, February 9, 2009

Supercrew Redux

Last weekend the kids and I played another game of Supercrew. (You can see more about the rules and the character my daughter created in this earlier, much longer post.)

I have a cold and wasn't entirely up for the experience at first. My son also seemed a bit reluctant. But my daughter really wanted to give it a go and my wife needed time to do some work, so we headed down to the basement.

My son made up a new character with telekinetic powers and a Rank 1 utility belt. For a long time we were simply calling him "Mr. Silent," because my son just went blank whenever we asked for the hero's name. But eventually we settled on "T-K" as a good nickname. My daughter continued to play Alien Z, although now the character sheet was cleaner as I understood the intended mojo of her trained pet monkey power.

I happened to have a Heroclix map of the Justice League headquarters, so I grabbed a couple figures, whipped up a few sentences to describe the villain's powers, and made up a plot on the fly. I find that it works well to think of these games as episodes in one of the recent animated series like Justice League Unlimited or Superman: The Animated Series. Or even a story in one of the Justice League Adventures comics.

Basically you have to be able to sum up the plot in a couple sentences. A storyline that simple is easy for the kids to follow and can be wrapped up in an hour or so of gaming, which seems to satisfy them at this age. I haven't worried about continuity or a campaign arc at all at this point.

The kid's heroes were being given a special tour of the Justice League Watchtower by Plastic Man, the only Leaguer present as the rest had been called away to save a distant planet. Of course two villains, a trick boomerang wielding guy named Zoomerang and an ice manipulating Ice Queen, snuck onto the tower, up to no good.

Ice Queen quickly froze Plastic Man and the kids had to save the day. Alien Z jumped out and drew most of the villainous firepower, avoiding the majority with agile dodging and getting in one good surprise attack on Zoomerang. T-K whiffed with a telekinetic attacks and a failed gadget from his utility belt (getting a hero point).

Then Ice Queen made an ice wall, shutting out the heroes while Zoomerang ran into the trophy room. Alien Z charged the wall and bounced off once (using her Rank 1 Armored Costume power) before plowing through with a better roll and Superspeed the next turn. (The villains were using the time to execute their mission--see below) Alien Z ran right into a ice slick and took some damage bashing into the wall. T-K then unleashed a great roll, spending a hero point to use his Power 3 Mega-TK-Blast, and expanded cracks made by Alien Z to topple the entire wall on Ice Queen.

T-K knocked the dazed Ice Queen out with a thrown chair while Alien Z saved the frozen Plastic Man from an exploding boomerang but got wrapped up by a snare (in retrospect I should have awarded her a hero point or something for this selfless act). T-K got another lucky roll and clocked Zoomerang in the head with an ice shard just before the villain reached the teleporter.

But the heroes had not yet won. From the trophy room came the giant floating head of the Monster Mind Master (aka M3--I used a figure for MODOK, one of the sillier Marvel villains ever). The villains had been hired to free him from where he had secretly stored a hard energy holographic copy of himself in the very helmet the Justice League had used to drain his powers during their first (completely made up and non-canonical) encounter. He was still a little groggy, so the heroes had to act fast.

T-K used his Utility Belt (power 1) and its "turn one die to a 5 trick" ("Just the Right Gadget!") to produce an exothermic gas that melted the ice around Plastic Man, who promptly gave the kids the clue to how to defeat M3. Alien Z used her Heat Vision (Effect 2) trick to cut away the snare holding her.

M3 wiped out Plastic Man with a telepathic stunning blast, then fended off T-K's telekinetic attacks in spite of T-K using his last trick, Effect 2 ("Precision Telekinesis!"). (M3's stats were simple-Rank 3 Telepathy, Rank 2 Telekinesis, and a bonus that let him roll two dice for a reflex defense.)

Then Alien Z unleashed the power of her Trained Pet Monkey. Three dice, 2 6's and a "turn one die to a 5" trick later she had generated the 4 successes I deemed necessary to retrieve the Power Drainer Helmet from the trophy room and put it back on the holographic M3 to suck up his power.

Thus the kids defeated the villains. Plastic Man came to, took credit for the victory, and put the villains in the clink before continuing the tour. Alien Z asked him if he could get her Flash's autograph and T-K tried to swipe a batarang or something from Batman's room as a keepsake, both of which I thought were nice touches.

All in all, another successful game. I like Supercrew a lot for this sort of thing.


This vignette deals with the content in the Dragon Gods, Part 1 post.

Roarke stared at the ancient bones embedded in the rock, feeling something cold slither deep in his guts. There was no mistaking the familiar curve of the skull, the distinctive flare of the crest. His eyes followed the exposed surface of the fossil down to where it disappeared into the uncut stone.

“Tell the men to stop work for the day,” he said quietly. “Send word to the architect. We have to reroute the road around this hill.”

“But sir, that will take months!” cried Tover. “And the cost—“

“Keep your voice down,” hissed Roarke. “And get Malcolm here. We need an Earthshaper to cover this up.”

“Ward is closer,” replied Tover, shaking his head. “And I can call a crew in here to help.”

“No!” Roarke grabbed Tover by the tunic with both hands. “No one is to see this without my say-so. And I don’t trust Ward to keep his mouth shut.”

Tover grabbed Roarke’s wrist as his face set in a scowl. “Are you mad? What is going on, Engineer?”

Emil, who had discovered the bones when his team had split a seam in the rock and sent it sliding down, had hustled his men away from the scene. Now he returned, taking slow, awkward strides like a sleepwalker. He passed the two men and stood before the skull, reaching out toward it with a trembling hand. He froze a fingertip away from the yellowed, daggerlike teeth.

“It’s one of them, isn’t it?” he whispered. “One of the Gods.” A few members of the foreman's team gathered a few paces behind him, worry flickering across their faces.

Tover’s eyes went wide as he let go of Roarke.

“Emil, get these men out of here,” said Roarke evenly. “You are confused.”

Emil ignored him and dropped to his knees, pressing his forehead into the dust and rubble. “I know what I see, Engineer. We have desecrated the resting place of one of the great ones. We are unclean. We must call for a priest to purify us.” He began to moan, a low, guttural sound soon accompanied by the other workers who joined him on the ground.

Roarke released Tover and backed away slowly. After a few moments he began to jog back to his tent, passing confused teams of road builders on the way, men who had stopped work and began to drift toward the hillside like moths drawn to a flame.

Inside the tent Roarke was throwing together key papers, his most valuable and portable tools, a skin of water, and what money he had lying about into his surveyor’s pack.

As he settled the pack on his shoulders, he found Tover blocking the way. “Why was the site not marked if one of the Great Ones was interred here?”

Roarke stepped closer, but Tover made no move to get out of his way. “I ask you again--what is happening, Engineer? You know something.” He stared pointedly at the pack.

Roarke fixed Tover with his gaze, then sighed. “I’ve seen something like this before. When I was an apprentice. My master was wise enough to hide the evidence before the word got out.” He rubbed his brow. “How old do you think those bones are, Tover?”

The man hesitated. “I couldn’t say. A few hundred years?”

Roarke snorted. “A few thousand at the least.”

Tover frowned. “But there were no Dragons here when the Gate was first opened.”

The Engineer nodded. “True. So those bones are from before. There were Dragons here once. Then there weren’t. And now they’ve come again, and we their humble servants have stumbled across something that is forbidden.”

Tover face went pale. “What do you mean? What could have . . .” his voice trailed off.

Roarke shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe these Dragons never mastered the ancient magics. Maybe they fell to warring with each other until too few were left to carry on. Perhaps something stronger than them came and wiped them out. Did you see the char marks on the bone where the right wing should have sprouted?”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we have seen evidence that the Gods can be destroyed. That they are mortal, not just individually, but collectively. And this is not the only case. Why do you think there are Humans and Trolls and Goblins native to most worlds but Dragons on only a few?”

Tover was blinking, as if shaking off sleep. “The Great Ones arise but rarely, on blessed and chosen worlds.”

“Or might it be that they survive on but a few worlds? That where they did not learn to harness the efforts of lesser species, they could not endure? Or that an ancient enemy wiped them out where it could find them?”

Roarke tapped Tover on the chest. “I tell you again, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that everyone who has seen this is going to die as soon as the Wyrms or their priests find out. This site will be sealed off, perhaps studied in secret, and destroyed. Because if it becomes common knowledge that the Gods were wiped out once, then some will wonder if it can happen again.”

Roarke gripped the straps of his pack firmly and pushed his way past Tover into the afternoon light. “I, for one, will not be here when they come.”

Copyright 2009 by Doug Sims

Dragon Gods, Part I: What They Want, What They Give

What is the impact of having gods that are not only real, physical presences, but mortal (if very long-lived) ones? Gods that face certain limitations based on their own physiology and nature? That’s Dragons, at least Elder ones, in this setting.

Dragons are the ultimate predators: bigger, smarter, and more powerful than people will ever be. Dragons don’t even reach maturity until they are a few hundred years old, and they continue growing throughout their lives. Elder Dragons can and do live for thousands of years with the aid of their magic.

And their magic is powerful. The Dragons were the first to master control of the Elements. Moreover, Dragon minds are powerful and flexible enough to comprehend the symbolic languages of multiple elements, more than any one human sorcerer can comprehend.

A world can only sustain a small number of Elder Dragons and not that many more mature Dragons. Once the population reaches a certain critical mass, conflict over scarce resources arises. Such wars, fought between small numbers of powerful magical creature, are very likely to lead to extermination. As Dragons traveled to other worlds, they found repeated evidence of self-inflicted genocide in the archaeological record.

In addition, Dragons by their nature are competitive and solitary creatures. Yet individual Dragons can only accomplish so much, even over the span of millennia. On their own, Dragons can barely sustain or advance a civilization. It took them much longer to develop certain cultural institutions.

In effect, Dragons need the help of lesser beings to fulfill their true potential by sustaining larger populations, waging proxy conflicts, and forming durable societies. In essence, Draconic civilization would not exist without their followers.

The Dragons taught Humans and other lesser beings the secrets of Elemental control and also fostered the study of alchemy. They encouraged the development of many other disciplines and technologies. In a sense, Dragons are capable of treating lesser species as their surrogate offspring, nurturing them in a way that their instincts prevent them from doing with their own biological young.

In addition, the Dragon-Kings and Queens protect their worshippers from the many dangers posed by other supernaturally powerful beings such as the Gods Above or the Dark Ones. (At least that’s how the Dragons present it.)

Sunday, February 8, 2009


This vignette deals with the content in the Alternate Worlds post.

Simon stood on the deck of the small merchant, bracing himself against the wooden railing as the hull rocked in the wake of the massive junk that churned through the dark waters ahead of them. The Samaran merchant had barely fit within the golden arc of the Gate that bestrode the causeway to Rocassa.

Simon glanced back, but the jumbled red rooftops of the port city were long out of sight, lost on the other side of the Veil. The horizon has disappeared as well, the heavens completely obscured by a dense fog that crawled along the surface of the water but stopped just short of enveloping the ships.

A Sea Dragon with a head the size of a cow emerged quietly from the water ahead of Simon, its serpentine body undulating behind it, the scales glistening with their own light. Along with its fellow Navigator somewhere ahead of the vast bulk of the merchant, the Dragon had contracted to shepherd the Samaran to its destination. Suddenly the vessel shot ahead, driven by an invisible current called by the Navigators. In moments it was lost within the fog.

Simon’s vessel was too poor to hire the service of Navigators. Its captain and crew would have to rely on darker forces to pass through the dreaming seas of the Veil. As would Simon and the other passengers. Most of them huddled below decks, trying to hide from the toll that was coming. But Simon had made rough passage before, and he knew that there was no concealment from what was coming, nor any pattern to who was chosen to pay the price. So he stood on the slick planks of the deck, free from fetid air and the stink of fear that filled the hold.

He could not have said when the Dreamers first appeared. They rose from the depths of the sea, bulbous bodies and streaming tentacles illuminated by thousands of phosphorescent dots like brilliant, multi-colored stars. Patterns shimmered across their skin, hypnotic and soothing. One of them broke the surface in front of Simon and drifted before his eyes like a soap bubble. His knuckles white where he gripped the rail, he stood transfixed as it extended a lazy tentacle and eased it into his skull.

Disconnected sensations and snippets of past events flashed through his mind in a confused jumble as the Dreamer probed his memories, rifling through them as a thief might sift through a chest, seeking the rarest gems. At last it came to a decision and gave him a choice as to the tribute he would offer. He closed his eyes and bit down hard on his lip, then chose.

There was a terrible pain as if something deeply rooted in his head was being plucked out, then a sense of disorientation and loss, and then darkness.

When he awoke the sun of a new world was beating down on his face as he lay slumped on the damp timbers. Frantically he clutched at the purse hanging from his belt and loosed the drawstring, dumping its contents into his hand. He passed the little tokens and trinkets before his eyes, recalling the significance of each with a brief sigh of relief.

But then there was a single figurine, a small, crude carving of a girl with a terse inscription at the base. In Memory of Maria.

Simon leaned back, squeezing the figurine in his hand as if he could force some essential drop of the past to spill from it. But no memory came.

He heard the muffled pain of plaintive wails rising from below decks through the wood, only to be drowned out a moment later by the singing of the crew as they set about raising the sails to catch the sea breeze that chilled the tears on Simon's cheeks.

Copyright 2009 by Doug Sims


How do you get far-flung empires without space travel? Lots of Earth-like planets? Humanoid aliens that can eat the same food as humans? By visiting lots of alternate Earths. But certain limitations need to be enforced to tell the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

The Goal
I didn't want to tell alternate history stories. I didn't want to tell stories about how magical societies clash with modern technological cultures. I didn't want to tell Amber-style stories.

But in a wide-open alternate world setting, those types of stories are almost unavoidable.
where anything you can imagine must exist somewhere among the alternate universes. There's nothing wrong with those kinds of stories. Other people are telling them quite well, however.So I came up with some rules governing travel between alternate worlds. I want these to be logical, but their real purpose is to reinforce the kinds of stories I am interested in.

The Rules of Travel
There are probably an infinite number of alternate worlds, and with great effort and under certain limitations, you can travel between them. You can’t access all the alternate possibilities, however, for three reasons:
  • Law of Similarity: If the timelines of a pair of alternate worlds are too similar, you can’t pass between them. Think of it as the principle of like repels like in magnetism. You can’t go to an alternate world and meet a doppleganger version of yourself, for example. You can’t even find two versions of history in which Alexander the Great did different things. But you can find many cases of parallel evolution and development.
  • Law of Opposition: If a pair of worlds are too divergent in their timelines, you can’t create the necessary magical formulas for the gateway, and travel between those worlds is impossible. The underlying natures of the worlds are just too alien to be reconciled.
  • Law of Magic: Related to the magical Laws of Similarity and Opposition, this simply boils down to the maxim that you can’t forge a gateway between a world in which magic works and one in which it doesn’t. The fundamental laws governing each universe are too distinct for the gap to be bridged.
These conditions leave a large but still limited “window” of worlds that can freely interact with each other. In my setting there are dozens of worlds connected to each other by social, political, and economic ties. Worlds that belong to this interplanetary network are known as Named Worlds. Most of the Named Worlds lie within the sphere of influence of one or more of the major interplanetary Powers.

Cousins, Not Twins
The Earth is very similar in its general aspects from one alternate world to the next: the continents are the same basic shape, the world is the same age, the Moon is still there, the same principles of geology and meteorology apply. There is a representation of the fundamental geography shared by all Earths called The Map of All Worlds.

However, there are many differences that, while small on the global scale, are significant on the local scale. Coastlines are different, rivers run slightly different courses, and ocean currents may shift. Extreme events such as severe weather, volcanic eruptions, major earthquakes, and even meteor strikes can vary from world to world, leading to differences in climate.

And different species may have evolved, survived, or gone extinct. Mutations like blue eyes and red hair or violet eyes and white hair may have spread on one world and not another.

So each world has its own flavor. But all the variation is within certain parameters.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


This vignette is based on the setting content in the Setting Overview post.
"I was born when the Valley was still gray, when the high priests skulked about the moors by moonlight, their lips wet with bloody offerings from the faithful, and mere death did not release warriors from their sworn service nor common folk from their debts.
But barely a spring had passed before the Dragons came and swept the forests and fields clean of the Dark Ones’ stain. The walking dead were no match for the fires and magics that swept down from the heavens. So I was raised to recite the holy verses, to bow down before the little shrine of Irontongue Dragon-King in our home, and to prostrate myself when one of their shadows crawled across the grass, in case it was cast by the Sacred Wyrm himself.
I grew up with no great talents save a stubborn streak and a touch of the Second Sight, which marked me as unlucky among the Valley-born. That same unwelcome gift drew the eye of the King’s men-at-arms when I was conscripted into the unruly host that Irontongue and his brethren assembled and hurled across the Veil to war against the Celestial Empire. It was my first time crossing between worlds and the last time I saw my home.
I watched an avatar of the Gods Above, a wild-haired old man whose skin blazed with soul fire so bright it burned my Sight, do battle with a fully-grown Dragon and burst its skull like rotten fruit. Sorcerers called their elementals into battle against the gleaming ranks of the Imperial Immortals while simple men such as myself fell like wheat reaped by a terrible, implacable scythe.

I did not die, but they took me prisoner. I was lucky enough to be named the personal slave of one of the Immortals. My gift enabled me to make the sacrifices he needed to sustain his energies, gutting animals on the ceremonial altar in his quarters and trapping the smoky reside of their souls as they escaped.

He was a good man in his way, living most of his days in a crystal bottle, eking out the last decade of his 100 years of sworn service to the Empire. His mount was a great and regal creature, something like an Ogre shod and helmed in bright steel. He said it was the human shape that helped keep him sane when he rode, unlike many of the Immortals whose mounts were more beastly. I learned to make him incense whose scent brought back memories of his fleshly years.

Later I held the battered ruin of his glorious mask in my hands when the Gods in their wisdom sent the Imperial Legion across the Veil against one of the Awakened Cities, into the very seat of its power. And then I wandered away, to the edge of things, where your servants found me, my Lady."

He ended his tale and gazed at the thin-faced woman seated on the throne before him, wearing a gown made from thousands of jet-black spiders whose limbs interlaced into a weave that gleamed and stirred in the light of the hall. The Faerie Queen smiled. “I think you will be an interesting addition to my court.”

Copyright 2009 by Doug Sims


I'm adding another twist to my plans for revamping this blog:
For every bit of setting description that I post, I'm also going to write a short scene of fiction illustrating some of the concepts discussed in the post.
At least that's the plan. I'm going to try to adhere to the same 500 word limit as with the regular posts, though the formatting will be simpler. [NOTE: The actual limit in practice is turning out to be closer to 750 words for the fiction. But I'm happy enough with the results so far.]

The goals here are simple enough:
  • I need to practice my writing on a daily basis to improve my skills, but I don't have any story ideas that I feel compelled to write about
  • People like my wife aren't that interested in the setting material but might read the blog if it included fiction
  • If the goal of the setting material is to tell stories, I should see if I can translate the setting ideas into vignettes at the very least


How to recapture the feel of golden age science fiction without having to either (a) ignore the many changes in scientific knowledge or (b) ignore the limitations imposed by science altogether? In my case, by looking at the elements of classic science fiction space opera through the lens of fantasy rather than science.

The Goal

I wanted a setting with all the stuff I first enjoyed reading about as a kid:
  • strange yet familiar creatures (weird aliens, robots, humanoids, vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, and mysterious gods)
  • societies ripe for adventure (rival city-states, competing guilds, clever merchants, odd religions, empires spanning multiple worlds, murky criminal underworlds, and ahistorical egalitarianism between the sexes)
So I’ve tried to create a fictional place where all those things can coexist, albeit often in an altered form, with some internal consistency.

My current name for this setting is Illyria. Though this was a historical kingdom in the Balkans, I use it in the sense of the allegorical, half-imaginary location from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: a place that is partly real and partly dream.

Underlying Premises

  • Magic exists and is more highly developed than technology, playing a similar but distinctive role in the economies and societies of the setting. Science as we know it is not a common method of acquiring knowledge. There is always a price for magic.
  • People and goods travel between alternate Earths through the use of magic, allowing the existence of several major, world-spanning civilizations. There are limitations on the scope and frequency of this travel.
  • There are a variety of intelligent species interacting on these various worlds, most of them variants of hominid species. Some of the intelligent species are so ancient, alien, and powerful that they are commonly worshipped as gods by other intelligent species.

Friday, February 6, 2009


What if fantasy deities were basically very powerful alien species? How would this shape the kinds of religions they create and the nature of worship? This idea has been stuck in my head for some time.

Most fantasy pantheons resemble the Egyptian, Greek, or Norse deities: gods that are very humanlike. And most are credited with creating humanity, if not the world itself.

But what if the gods are neither humanlike nor creators? What if they are simply beings powerful enough to assume the role of deities? Note that such beings may have been around for a very long time, predating the arrival of lesser intelligent species.

In essence, I’m positing a hard fantasy scenario in which humanoids (or more precisely, hominids) evolved via natural selection but encountered much more powerful beings at some point late in the process.

I’ve come up with a number of candidates for the role of gods, each of which I’ll explore in more detail in later posts:
  • Dragons (only Elder Dragons qualify)
  • Spores from Outer Space (Cthonic fungi and infected human hosts)
  • The Gods Above (Beings composed of pure spirit)
  • The Awakened Cities (Living, self-aware metropolises created through sacred architecture and fueled by ley lines and the souls of their followers)
  • Enhanced Humans (Specifically, those humans capable of communing with and controlling the Lesser Faerie)
Note that these deities tend to be more numerous on the whole and less individually powerful than the typical pantheons of mythology, though some are more powerful than others. You might think in terms of the many different incarnations of deities in Hinduism or of the many angelic hosts in Christianity.

Polities, Not Pantheons
The gods aren’t personifications of concepts like War or Love, though they may tend toward being warlike or amorous. They don’t form bureaucratic hierarchies of gods tasked with overseeing specific pursuits or functions. Instead, they form factions with different philosophical and material goals.

What Do They Want?
Each type of god wants something from the lesser species, or else they would simply destroy them. Typical desires include:
  • labor (economic theory of specialization),
  • sacrifices/souls/hosts/energy (i.e., valuable resources and sustenance),
  • the influence to shape civilization/magic/environment to meet their wishes,
  • potential recruits for elevation to demigod status (reproduction)
  • inspiration and insight from differing perspectives
What Can They Offer?
This typically boils down to power, longevity, and knowledge.

New Approach to Entries

I'm going to experiment with my blog entries.

My Style Goals
First, be more concise. I'm going to try to limit posts to between 250-500 words, breaking longer concepts into discrete chunks.

Second, use more formatting. I'm going to try to make the layout/default font size a little easier on the eye, though I'm not sure how much I can do with that.

Finally, try out writing for the web techniques
. In particular, I'm going to try to adjust how I present the more conceptual content.

My Content Goals

First, focus more on my own writing. I'm thinking of putting more emphasis on the settings and stories I'm trying to develop. This is purely selfish--not sure how well it will be received. But my readership can't drop much lower.

Second, add more reviews. I read a lot and watch a fair number of movies. I can probably put more of my opinions out there.

Finally, more frequent blog entries. I don't know how well I can follow through on this one, but it's a goal.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ties to the Setting

The system of Elemental magic outlined in the previous posts (see the Schema, Elementalism I and Elementalism II)is practiced primarily within what I'm calling for now the Draconic League, an association of states (in the sense of being independent, sovereign polities) directed by the teachings and direct rule of Dragons.

The bulk of these states are feudal structures centered on land ownership, such as the Green Kingdoms. Some of the most influential are the independent city states known as the Seven Sisters. All share the fact that Dragons of various types were the first to master the art of communicating with and controlling the Elementals around them, crafts that they taught to their human followers, allowing those followers to conquer their rivals.

The key magics of the Draconic Leagues are Elementalism and Alchemy.

One of the major rivals to the Draconic Leagues is the Celestial Empire, dominated by worship of the various Hosts of spirit beings known collectively as the Gods Above. The Celestial Empire has mastered the manipulation of Spirit itself and tends to regard manipulating the Elements as an inferior practice, preoccupied with the impure material world.

Elementalism Clarified, Part II: Associations

Revised format and content on 2/8/09

One of the limiting factors on Elemental magic is the natural affinities and oppositions among the Elements themselves, which restricts the types of elemental combinations that can be attempted by sorcerers.

Compatible Associations: Diads and Triads
neighboring elements shown in the Elements diagram are compatible. This means:
  • They can be used in conjunction with each other without causing harmful interference patterns that disrupt magic.
  • They share similar symbolic languages, meaning that mastering one compatible Element gives a sorcerer insight into mastering one of its partners.
The most common compatible association is the diad. Typical diads include the magical Smith's use of Fire and Metal, the Miner's mystic connection to Earth and Metal, or the Architect's sorcerous talent for shaping Earth and Wood.

Triads are more complex and less common. A true Storm Wizard manipulates Electricity, Air, and Rain, for example. Mastering and balancing a trio of Elements requires talent (in the form of a very flexible mind), study, and practice. These limits do not apply to Dragons! Mature Dragons frequently master Triads; Elder Dragons can master as many elements as they care to study.

Whether Diad or Triad, most sorcerers who wield multiple elements are dominant in one and weaker in the others.

Here are the Primary Triads (so named because they are centered on one of the four Prime Elements, and thus have a stronger synergy):
  • Air, Electricity, and Rain
  • Fire, Electricity, and Metal
  • Earth, Metal, and Wood
  • Water, Wood, and Rain
Here are the Secondary Triads (because they are centered on a secondary element that mixes two other prime elements, and have less synergy as a result):
  • Electricity, Fire, and Air
  • Metal, Fire, and Earth
  • Wood, Earth, and Water
  • Rain, Water, and Air
Incompatible Associations: Oppositions
Elements on opposite sides of the diagram are incompatible. They can be used only to destroy or weaken their opposing element, not to combine with it. For example, Fire and Water are incompatible.

Elements can also be secondarily incompatible. For example, Fire is also incompatible to a lesser degree with Rain and Wood, which form a Triad with Water. One person cannot manipulate these Elements at the same time, and even group efforts are limited, because:
  • They will cause disruptive interference patterns if present and active in the same location.
  • They are based on very different symbolic languages that a human-level intellect cannot comprehend simultaneously. Remember, even mastering a compatible Diad or Triad is a rare gift.
Again, these limitations do not apply as strongly to Dragons. In particular, Elder Dragons are capable of truly remarkable Elemental combinations, though they must manage the resulting interference with great care.

The Prime Oppositions are:
  • Fire vs. Water
  • Earth vs. Air
The Secondary Oppositions are:
  • Fire vs. Water, Rain, and Wood
  • Earth vs. Air, Electricity, and Rain
  • Air vs. Metal, Earth, and Wood
  • Water vs. Electricity, Fire, and Metal
The Tertiary Oppositions are:
  • Metal vs. Air, Rain, and Water
  • Wood vs. Fire, Electricity, and Air
  • Rain vs. Fire, Metal, and Earth
  • Electricity vs. Earth, Wood, and Water
Other Limitations
If you are Bound to an Element, you cannot manipulate any other elements except those directly related to your chosen Element, and even then you do so at a serious penalty. You have immersed yourself in the symbolism and world view of one elemental form and have difficulty stepping outside of that.

In general,
the greater the elemental versatility available to a magic user, the less the intensity of any individual elemental effect. That is, a Firebound individual of equal skill to a Smith is going to be able to produce more intense Fire-related effects than the Smith.

A skilled sorcerer can produce dramatic synergistic effects by blending together compatible elemental forces, however.

The Special Case of Spirit

Manipulating the fundamental, intangible Element of Spirit is a completely different discpline and art than manipulating the Forces and Matter of the other Elements. It is not a technique studied or mastered by the Dragons or their human scions, but it is the foundation of the magic of the Celestial Empire.