Sunday, June 28, 2009

Review: The Confederation Handbook

On my camping trip I finished reading a Father's Day acquisition (another used book purchase from the Rediscovered Bookshop), Peter F. Hamilton's The Confederation Handbook, published in 2000. It's subtitled "The Essential Companion Guide to the Night's Dawn Trilogy: The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and the Naked God."

Ironically, I started reading the first volume of the Reality Dysfunction and couldn't quite wade through it. It's a general problem that I have with Hamilton's longer work--it's really, really long. I find that in stories that immense and sprawling I lose contact and interest with the characters and events taking place. I might try my hand at his work again, as he's a pretty popular writer in the genre, but just as I felt that Alastair Reynolds's first novel, Revelation Space, was easily 100 pages longer than it needed to be, I think Hamilton could use a more aggressive editor. But the market seems to embrace this excess, as least to a degree: it's one reason why I've simply stopped reading Neal Stephenson's novels.

That said, I actually found The Confederation Handbook to be a bit too short. It's an interesting look at some fairly sophisticated world-building. I picked it up as one of the many references I've gathered on fictional worlds as I embark on my own science fiction and fantasy projects.

The book gives a nice overview of the primary human cultures in the books, the Adamist and Edenist cultures. Although frankly the Edenist culture is presented as so powerful, so nice, and so superior with its use of affinity that links everyone together into a collective group mind that also maintains individuality that it grates a little bit even in a presentation as dry and brief as this one. (That said, I think living in an Edenist culture could be pretty cool. But they come off as Mary Sues here, even with the brief mention of the presence of the very rare Serpents.) You do get an interesting mix of technologies and societies here.

I found the section on Starships and Weapons to be a bit too brief. I still can't visualize the structure of the Adamist starships from reading Hamilton's description here. The main focus is on the voidhawks, which I suppose is appropriate. This section is the first one that really suffers from a lack of any kind of artwork to help you visualize what Hamilton is describing (without a great flair for visual description, I might add).

The Members of the Confederation section is hit or miss. The section on Earth is interesting, as is the stuff on Kulu, Tranquility, Norfolk, the Dorados, and Valisk. These are distinctive enough to be cool and have a lot of potential story hooks laid throughout them. The rest left me kind of blah. It's interesting that so many VERY earthlike planets have been sought out for colonization and it fits with the scope of Hamilton's setting. But I would really have liked a simple time line of when various colonies were settled and some sort of reference outlining the basic steps for founding and developing a typical colony. Too many of the details of that process are hinted at vaguely here. I have a hard time understanding how the starting stage for an interstellar colony always begins with a somewhat backwards agricultural society. I'm not saying it isn't feasible, but Hamilton needs to lay out his logic here more clearly to make it believable after all the other high-tech elements. The whole bit about mixed ethnic-religious colonies being a complete failure also strikes me as a pretty high-handed judgment and is presented as fact without much to back it up. Seems like all the technological elements influencing Adamist culture would have made SOME changes to the way people interact and view each other over several centuries.

The aliens section also suffers greatly from lacking illustrations. The Kiint are interesting while the Tyraca aren't--but primarily because the Tyraca aren't fully described here for fear of giving away spoilers. I think that's another shortcoming of the book--it's rather coy with certain facts that you WANT to know when reading something that bills itself as a handbook.

The book's total absence of even the most rudimentary artwork or illustration is a big letdown and seems a bit puzzling considering that it was a mass-market release tied to a a major science fiction series. I can't see why the publisher couldn't have afforded a few line drawings or diagrams to illustrate some of Hamilton's aliens or spacecraft. Sure, it's a slim, mass market paperback. I've got a fairly crappy anthology of the same dimensions from 1986 (Body Armor: 2000) that includes an article called the Warbots reprinted from an old Galaxy magazine that is loaded with fantastic bits of b/w line art (I've posted an example here of what you can do in a plain paperback). So something simpler than this could have been done for this book. Even a map of interstellar space or simple graphic for the various colonies would have been nice.

The writing in general is rather dry but usually fairly clear with the information that it does try to get across. What's startling here is that no one thought to include quotations or vignettes from the novels to illustrate some of the concepts or places described in the handbook. Really? Those wouldn't have greatly improved the readability, illustrated some of the more difficult concepts more effectively, and held my interest to a greater degree? A rather dumbfounding oversight given that the author of the series is credited as being the author of this handbook. Wasn't he willing to permit himself to quote himself?

Overall, I suspect I'm spoiled by the quality of science fiction RPG supplements over the past ten years, such as Transhuman Space, GURPS Traveller, or Centauri Knights. They provide a more thorough background in what amounts to a similar number of words if you strip out the gaming stats (though the layouts are quite different). I'd argue that a supplement like Centauri Knights actually does more than the Confederation Handbook accomplishes in less space.

I think this book could have been improved by either expanding it and adding some illustrations OR by shortening it to a long essay hitting the highlights of the Adamist and Edenist cultures and given away free on a web site.

So, while mainstream setting handbooks like this are interesting to pick up once in a while, the Confederation Handbook is mediocre even given the advantage of having been written by the author of the books whose setting it references. Probably worth getting it used as I did if you are a fan of the six-book "trilogy" (I know the novels were published as three books in Britain, but they were absurdly long in that form). But don't buy the mass-market edition Amazon is selling--by no stretch of the imagination is this book worth $17. I wouldn't even pay full-price for the earlier printing, but that's closer to the true value.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Review: Spade & Archer

Just before I left on my trip I finished reading the hard-boiled mystery novel Spade & Archer by writer Joe Gores. Didn't have a chance to write a review at the time or on the trip, thanks to the incompatibility between my iPod Touch software and Blogger's interface (I can view, but not post blog entries).

So the novel bills itself right on the cover as "The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon" and that's pretty much what it is. Gores begins with Book 1 "Samuel Spade, Esq." This starts in 1921 with Spade solving a simple case in Tacoma before leaving the employment of the Continental Detective Agency and heading back to San Francisco to open up his own private detective agency.

We get a glimpse of his future partner, Miles Archer, enough to see that the guy is a jerk. And we learn that his partner's hot and somewhat trampy wife, Iva Archer, was once Spade's girl before Sam went off to fight in World War I.

To be honest, it has been a LONG time since I read the Maltese Falcon or saw the movie, so this stuff, which sets up events that take place in the later novel, was not that important to me. [And I just learned that there was a 1931 version of the movie before Bogart's more famous 1941 version. The earlier one apparently had more sexual innuendo--both heterosexual and homosexual--and once the Code censors were established it was banned for release in the U.S. until the 1960s.]

But the meat of the book deals with the cases that Spade handles from 1921 to 1928 and the contacts that he makes or re-establishes during that period. The cases are interesting, involving things ranging from the theft of gold bullion from a freighter to the stalking of a young woman friend of Spade's secretary to the mysterious death of a prominent banker and the ensuing coverup. There's some attempted union-bashing and references to the strike breaking of 1919 (Spade is shown as being more sympathetic to the striking union men than to the bosses) to boot.

Each of these cases shows that while Spade is a tough guy who can handle himself in a scrap, he solves his cases through a combination of being a shrewd judge of human character, being willing to take chances to look at things and people first hand, and having a lot of contacts in various places to gather information. He doesn't just strongarm or intimidate people into giving him info. And, particularly early in the novel, Spade doesn't always resolve cases to his satisfaction. It becomes apparent, at least to Spade, that there is a recurring criminal opponent playing a role in the cases he is taking on.

The cases themselves read almost like a collection of novellas. But unlike a collection of short stories, everything in this novel is tied together. For one, you don't get re-introduced to Spade at the start of each new case, nor do you revisit the details of places like his office or apartment unless those have changed in the intervening time.

For another, the resolutions of later cases depend upon Spade's relationships with people that he meets in the earlier cases. I found this to be a satisfying way of linking the stories without pushing the idea of a mastermind criminal behind the scenes too heavily. Spade pursues each case as if it was unrelated to the others, with any connections only surfacing along the way or after the fact. His relationships with the people develop over time in interesting ways.

And just like the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler's classic Philip Marlowe stories, the Bay Area is clearly a strong supporting character. Gores does a great job of evoking a sense of time and place with his myriad but simple descriptions of locales, clothes, and customs from 1920s San Francisco and its environs.

All in all, I greatly enjoyed this novel. From other reviews that I've read, I suspect that Hammett fans will appreciate how Gores has captured Spade's voice and the atmosphere of Hammett's San Francisco while developing the relationships with key characters who appear in the Maltese Falcon. I liked it as a good hard-boiled detective story that demonstrated that if you have enough style, you don't need to resort to guns blazing and explicit sex scenes to keep the reader's attention, create dramatic tension, and establish your bona fides as a real P.I.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Variable Tech Indices

Once again, my pal Aaron has inspired me with a recent post on his blog (Anecdotal Evidence: One Laptop Per Child: Vision vs. Reality) about the One Child, One Laptop movement and its problems (see this link for the original article in the Communications of the ACM).

For me, the thrust of the article boils down to this key point: even if you could GIVE AWAY laptops, one per child, in developing countries, you cannot ensure that they will result in the same educational benefits in developing that having every kid in a middle class suburban American classroom equipped with a laptop might achieve, much less the educational revolution envisioned by the OCOL's founders.

The problems are manifold, but they center on lack of technical and pedagogical training, insufficient infrastructure, and institutional inertia. To wit:
  • Teachers need to know how to use the computers and the accompanying software themselves before they can guide students effectively in its use or TRUST students to use it properly. This means they need to be trained, which means you need the money, facilities, and educators required to train them.
  • Even free computers need technical support. Again, this requires skilled IT personnel or a training program to produce them.
  • Someone has to supply the software. Emerging markets often lack the indigenous technical experts and coders needed to create the software locally. This means they have to find outside sources. That means either dealing with licenses for proprietary software or using shareware. Shareware tends to require some technical expertise to get the most out of it, plus it isn't being produced in the local languages of the kids in developing countries.
  • You need other physical infrastructure to surround the computer. This can be as simple as needing a printer (and being able to repair and resupply it) or as complex as securing adequate internet connections in remote regions.
  • Teachers need to see the computers as tools, not threats to their authority. You can't just get large government ministries to accept the validity of the project's goals; you need the teachers in the classroom to see the laptops or other technologies as means of empowerment that improve their ability to do their jobs rather than simply complicating their lives.
  • Brands have considerable power in emerging markets. In other words, if the locals are only familiar with certain very well known versions of high-tech products (the kinds used by the wealthy in their countries), are they going to trust that shareware and off-label brands will provide them with the knowledge and experience they need to integrate into the global marketplace? And might they be right to be concerned about this point?
The real world struggles of the OCOL reminded me of the situation in the veteran science fiction roleplaying game Traveller. In Traveller, you have a bunch of worlds with really high technological indexes, capable of building and maintaining some truly staggering technological inventions.

And within a week or two of travel distance you've got planets that are practically preindustrial, where the citizens may use high-tech devices when they can get ahold of them, but they can't build or repair them.

The examples of Africa and to a lesser degree Central and South America seem to bear out the likelihood of this model existing to a greater degree than many people once thought.

I wonder if the introduction of new technologies like the Fab Labs will mitigate this situation to some degree by providing communities in emerging markets with highly flexible, localized, small-scale manufacturing and repair capabilities. But I suspect that what will happen will be somewhat different.

Instead of being able to build or fix the equivalents of current generation technologies in the developed world, locals will be able to buy, copy, and repair outdated bits of tech as well as developing their own innovations (based perhaps on technical specs that are obsolete in the developed world). Over time they might kludge together some very useful but very unique technologies that will be severely lacking in standardization and compatibility but will serve their immediate needs admirably.

But that would still leave a significant divide between the tech used by the dominant cultures and markets and that used by the emerging markets. You'd be much more likely to find really unusual stuff being made by locals, stuff that you'd have to have some talent to fix because it would be a mish-mash of parts. And that would be interesting from a story perspective.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Hide Your Goals

In this post, my friend Aaron links to another blog that basically argues that telling people your goals typically leads to positive affirmation. Sounds good, right? I mean, one of the recurring fears that people express about trying to make big life changes (new career, body transformation, relationship changes, creative pursuits) is that they'll get mocked or criticized for their plans.

But it turns out that this positive affirmation for something you haven't actually accomplished gives you a false sense of satisfaction, as though you have already achieved the goal you shared. When in fact you are just stating your desire and intent to pursue and achieve that goal.

The ironic result is that the encouragement and support of others for your stated goal ends up undermining your efforts to reach that goal. You start acting and thinking as if you had already accomplished the goal you set for yourself. This takes away from your focus and drive. So you are less likely to achieve the goals that you share with people.

A few thoughts.

First, I wonder if these results hold true for goals revealed at different stages of the process. For example, telling people that I got a gym membership and I'm going to be working out three days a week and lose weight right after I get the membership is probably a bad idea. Whereas telling people halfway through the process of reaching that weight loss goal seems a little less likely to derail me, as I've already established some of the work habits needed.

To me the key seems to be establishing and ingraining the habits needed to achieve the goal before you start telling everyone about it. Because by that point you've got a bit of mental fortitude built up to help you resist the urge to pat yourself on the back too much if you get positive reactions from people. And everyone needs some positive feedback at some point.

Second, I wonder how this jibes with the idea I've read in various texts on modern magical thought that acting and believing "as if" a goal has already been achieved is a key to attuning yourself to receive whatever positive potential related to your goal is out there in the world. Maybe the key difference is between being active and passive. Or there could just be a strong disconnect between these two types of thinking about the world.

Third, I wonder how this process relates to the idea of giving yourself daily, positive self-affirmations when working toward your goal. In other words, does giving yourself positive reinforcement also undermine your likelihood of achieving a stated goal, or does the negative impact occur only when you share your goals with other people? I'd be curious to see a study evaluating this aspect of the hypothesis, because positive self-affirmations and visualizations have been shown to have a positive effect on actual, real-world performance. So perhaps only the social aspect of praise--the role played by others in developing our self-image--has the potential to derail our pursuit of our goals.

From my personal experience, I suspect that the broad claim about not sharing your goals with others in order to be more productive about reaching those goals is true. It never pays to tell people what I'm writing about or planning to write about. I never get as good a reaction when I tell someone what I want to write as I do when I actually show them what I have written. It's just too hard to explain an outline or story out loud and I always feel a little embarrassed.

Someone whose name I've forgotten noted in a guide to writing that one should "Tell everyone that you are writing. Tell nobody what you are writing until it is done." If you allow for sharing manuscripts with people for review during the process, which has been very valuable for me, I think this advice is solid.

This is another reason, I think, to break goals down into specific, manageable chunks, because then it takes less time to achieve them, at which point you can tell somebody until you get some positive feedback and encouragement and then set out upon your next goal with some renewed energy and sense of accomplishment. And you don't tell anyone any specifics about that goal until you've reached it.

For writing and physical health, some manageable goals that I've attempted with some success are:
  • Write X amount of words a day for Y many consecutive days or until a total of XX number of words have been written.
  • Write for X amount of time each day for Y many consecutive days or until a specific target date.
  • Lose five pounds in X amount of time and keep the weight off for Y amount of time en route to reaching a bigger weight loss goal.
  • Do X amount of cardio exercise Y many days a week.
  • Improve a particular lift by 2.5 pounds each week until you can lift a desired amount of weight.
One of the biggest challenges, of course, remains continued motivation after a goal is reached. That's why I think the most successful approach is to integrate habits and behaviors that support your goal into your daily routine and everyday lifestyle, so that you stop thinking about them and simply grow to appreciate them as part of your life.

That's also why it's hard to focus on too many goals in life--you can only accommodate so many aspects into a consistent lifestyle.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Review: Gentlemen of the Road

Just finished re-reading Gentlemen of the Road, a short swords-and-horses pseudo-historical novel by Michael Chabon. Quite a treat and something any fan of Chabon's or the genre should read for themselves.

The novel follows the misguided adventures of wandering Jewish physician and swordsman Zelikman and the African ex-Byzantine mercenary Amram as they travel eastward past the Crimea and toward the Caucus Mountains. They stumble across a coup in the mysterious nation of Khazar, a state formed by steppe nomads who adopted Judaism instead of Christianity or Islam. And against their better judgment they end up helping one of the sole remaining heirs to the position of war bek (the temporal ruler of Khazar, who is supposedly under the authority of the spiritual leader, the kagan), a person who is not quite what they seem to be, on a lurching, uneven journey toward a kind of justice.

In his afterword, following a lengthy (and for my money completely unnecessary) explanation of why a serious writer is tackling such escapist adventure fare, Chabon explains that he wanted to write a story about Jews with swords that wouldn't be immediately dismissed as an attempt at satire or surrealism. And in the long-lost kingdom of Khazar he found a brief time and place where he could tell a story filled with wild invention and supposition while still retaining a historical element.

Some of my favorite quotes from the novel (bear in mind that all of these are set up by at least a paragraph or two of narrative that I feel are too lengthy to excerpt here but that make them all the funnier or more heartwarming):
"Just when did you acquire a conscience?" Zelikman said.
"A figure of speech. Which will it be?"
"I want Hillel. And do not repeat, Amram, that a horse is a horse, because, history, circumstances, and I have disproved that argument many times."

"Take care of what you say," Amram advised him. "He healed me of a sword cut to the neck five years ago, and I've been carrying him on my back ever since."
It was remarked by one of the eminent physician-rabbis of the city of Regensburg, in his commentary on the Book of Samuel, a work now lost but quoted in the responses of Rabbi Judah the Pious, that apart from Torah the only subject truly worthy of study is the saving of men's lives. Measured by the criterion of this teaching--propounded by his grandfather--Zelikman counted two great scholars among his present acquaintance, and one of them was a horse.
Filaq wiped the blade on the flap of his tunic and then handed it back, haft first. "Thank you for saving my life," he said.
"I don't save lives," Zelikman said. "I just prolong their futility."
"The offer to join us was a simple one, really," Joseph Hirkanos said when Zelikman tumbled into the basket, looking him up and down from the tips of his curled slippers to his blackened hedgehog of a plaited beard to the clumsy windings of his head wrap. "But I divine that you find a way to complicate everything."
"He is in love with a hat," said Flower of Life, frowning at Zelikman through the crook of Amram's arm. . . . "If so," Amram said, somewhat weary of the matter of Zelikman and hats, "it would not be the first time."
and finally
And then they took the first road that led out of the city, unmindful of whether it turned east or south, their direction a question of no interest to either of them, their destination already intimately known, each of them wrapped deep in his thick fur robes and in the solitude that they had somehow contrived to share.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Starblazer Adventures

Back on December 31st I pre-ordered a new science fiction RPG called Starblazer Adventures from a British company called Cubicle 7.

Starblazer uses the very cool FATE system as its core engine and is based not on the famous Japanese anime Starblazers but on a British sci-fi comic book series from the 1970s and 1980s that featured some one shot stories alongside a cast of recurring characters.

The .pdf for the game came with the pre-order, but as the book is a massive 600+ pages it proved very hard to simply sit down and read all the way through.

Well, yesterday my massive hardcover copy arrived in the mail, and I'm quite excited. I'm putting together a document presenting my Consortium Sphere sci-fi setting in a fashion that emphasizes the opportunities that it offers for roleplaying and adventure. Not sure when I'll get that done to my satisfaction, as it involves repackaging and expanding upon the existing content so that it reads less like an encyclopedia entry and more like a call to adventure replete with story hooks.

But my current plan is to send it to the guys at Cubicle 7 as a pitch for developing the Consortium Sphere into (sounds a little crazy) publishable supplement for Starblazer Adventures, along the lines of the very intriguing Mindjammer setting that I think I'll be purchasing when it comes out.

And if that doesn't work out, I might consider the possibility of adapting the PDQ or PDQ Sharp rules (each flavor available for free download here) to space opera excitement. First I'd like to get my hands on a copy of Swashbucklers of the Seven Skies, the newest PDQ setting, as I hear it has inspired the game's author, Chad Underkoffler, to run swashbuckling space opera. But I don't know what the licensing or sales potential of that might be.

UPDATE: The last week of June I got into contact with Chad Underkoffler, who sent me the details of the PDQ license and said he'd be happy to read a manuscript when I got it ready. At the moment I've just started a freelance project, so it will probably be the end of the year before I get something ready, depending on how I get going on my fantasy novel. But it's a start.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Deluge of Dresden

Recently I've been reading books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Our library is missing a couple of the books in the series and the others are often on hold, but I saw the 8th book in the series, Proven Guilty, sitting on the shelves when I took the kids to my local branch a couple weeks ago. I grabbed it, went and bought the 7th book in the series, Dead Beat, at my local bookstore, the Rediscovered Bookshop (a great store that I highly recommend to anyone living in or passing through the Boise area). I even got a discount on the purchase because we'd bought enough books over the past year for our buyer's credit to kick in.

I devoured the 7th book and was halfway through the 8th when I saw the 9th book, White Night, sitting on the library shelf. I checked that out and finished the 8th book and read the 9th while at a cabin by the Payette River in Garden Valley, Idaho. I came home for a day to take care of my lawn and dropped off some books--only to spot the 10th book in the series, Small Favor, on the library shelves. I grabbed that and started it this morning.

I have to think that there's some good karma involved in the timing of all of this, or at least some hints that I should be reading the series.

As for the books themselves, it's a pleasant series in that (a) Butcher has become a better writer as the series has gone on, and he was an enjoyable writer to begin with, and (b) each novel manages to be fairly self-contained while rewarding the readers who have kept up with the continuity. There are recurring characters and threats, questions seeded in one book to be paid off in the next, and an overarching, shadowy menace that began to appear in the series around book 7 (I think).

By this point Butcher is better able to pull off contemplative moments of introspection or observation than he was at the beginning of the series. He's also invested more words and energy into adding depth to his wide cast of characters. He's become particularly adept at making his recurring villains interesting and even sympathetic at times while not losing sight of the awfulness of the crimes that many of them have committed. (I think Butcher has been much more successful at keeping a balanced perspective on this issue of making evil characters fascinating without suddenly deciding that they are really okay at heart than the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer did in its final two seasons, where they simply looked the other way with characters like Spike and pretended they had suddenly redeemed themselves because the audience was enamored with them.) Butcher has also really pushed his characters into gray areas between purely good and purely evil, though there are still some characters who represent each moral extreme. It creates a nice continuum.

For me Butcher's calling card is his penchant for constantly increasing the crisis factor throughout the course of a novel, a tactic that would wear thin if it weren't for the frequent injections of humor into the dialogue and Dresden's self-reflections. He also makes his heroes pay a price for their heroism, which makes their sacrifices more meaningful and satisyfing than the typical action hero fare.

As for the magic and such that Butcher describes, sometimes I'm engrossed by it, but often it falls a little flat or repetitive in the actual execution, to be honest. Except for the one or two occasions in a given novel where the wizard Harry Dresden actually casts a ritual spell, which are typically well done and flavorful, the effect of most of the magic wielded by Dresden and his cohorts doesn't seem very, well . . . magical. It just feels like special effects, big blasts of energy and defensive shields, sort of like comic book superheroes dropped into an urban fantasy setting.

On the other hand, the monsters and faeries and spirits and evil magicians and assorted supernatural factions that Butcher introduces into the stories are typically a real treat, building over the course of the series into a very interesting setting full of many varied and often unpredictable characters who provide many sources of conflict and entertainment. It's good stuff that doesn't get dumped on the reader at first glance but develops over time as Dresden comes into contact with different groups and beasties.

I actually suspect that this approach makes the books more accessible to a broad audience, because even if you don't follow the rationale for the magic at first, you can still follow most of what is going on in the action sequences. And Butcher usually has at least one excellent action set piece in each novel, though the best ones are not always in the climactic scenes.

Throw in his increasing facility for sketching memorable character traits for the supporting cast and fleshing out the psychology, motivations, and personal sacrifices of the major characters, and it's no wonder Butcher has such a successful series on his hands. Not being a big mystery reader or a fan of the various multi-volume fantasy series that, while well-written, can't seem to satisfactorily end a story in 800 pages, it's rare for me to pursue a series this long without losing interest as the author begins to repeat him or herself or just runs out of steam. So color me impressed with the frequency and consistency of Butcher's Dresden novels.

After book 10 I'll be a little overdosed and happy to get a break before book 11 comes off the library's new books list, but I'm also gradually accumulating my own copies of Dresden Files books that I've already read. That's something I do only when I think an author's work is worth coming back to for enjoyment multiple times.

New Blog Direction

Slowly but surely I'm planning on moving over any of my setting-related material residing on this blog to my web site, Dreaming Empires. Much of the material has been moved already and there is a lot of additional stuff on science fiction and superheroes.

I'm going to try to shift the emphasis of the blog toward posts about my family (still using the anonymous approach where I don't reveal names and such), books I've read, and current events.

Because the majority of people who happen to stumble across the blog, who are largely friends and family, aren't really interested in the setting material anyway. My web site can keep focusing on that aspect of my interests. Might still keep the vignettes here, though.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pangaea Ultima and Alternatives

I like this projection of what the future supercontinent dubbed Pangaea Ultima might look like.

Or one of these maps showing Pangaea and alternate visions of a future supercontinent might be a cool starting point.

The problem with using maps like this as actual world maps is that these supercontinents would have really hellacious and extreme weather conditions that would make living conditions extremely hostile. Super-monsoons and hurricane swirling along the coasts, massive mountain ranges, really bone dry and desolate desert interiors.

But take the shape of a given supercontinent and shrink it, maybe reorient it, and you could have one of several interesting continents as a result.

Nova Totius Terrarium Map

Thinking about using this old map as the basis for a fantasy world layout.

This version gives you a much closer look at the details.

You end up with a huge southern continent that would be settled along the coastlines but whose interior would be quite desolate. Also the North American continent would probably have some really dry interiors, unless you played around with the fact that most of Canada is missing and changed the shape.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Distractions and Mash-ups: Samurai-Fantasy-Horror-Western

One of my fundamental flaws as a writer is related to a basic component of my personality: I'm easily distracted.

I'm also curious about a lot of stuff. And I have an uncontrollable urge to mash concepts and genres together.

This relates strongly to the not finishing a story aspect. I get distracted by something new that I'm reading and try to force some ideas from it into a setting or character concept or plotline that is already developed. [This is related to another troubling issue--I get bored with stories once I think I've figured out how to solve the major challenges with them.]

I recently finished a novel that was something of a western homage to samurai films and legends, watched some vampire television, and listened to some western-themed instrumental music. So of course I'm now trying to apply all of these themes to a short story concept I had several years ago, as well as attempting to compress a story that was originally 22,000 words (way too long to submit to most markets and far too short to be a novel) down to 7500 or 5000 words.

It is, shall I say, somewhat rough going. One of those things where I wonder if I'm a loon for even trying. But I want to try to finish it.

I have, however, decided upon an ideal martial style for fighting among and against vampires: Japanese sword-fighting, with its emphasis on powerful slashing strokes that sever limbs and decapitate foes. Because you can't really stab a vampire to death unless you've got a stake and great accuracy. And any sane vampire in a fantasy setting would wear some sort of armor protecting their heart, front and back.

So you're left with the need to hack the shit out of someone to incapacitate them. Vampires are strong and fast and seem unfazed by pain in many forms, but unless you're dealing with the ridiculous stuff like "turns into fog," they aren't impervious to steel. Chop off arms and legs and they should slow down. This approach should also work reasonably well against zombies.

To make it a little cooler, I decided that the vampire samurai equivalents in this setting also carry a traditional pair of swords, but instead of the long and short swords favored by the samurai, they carry a metal sword and one made of hard wood with a sharp point. The wooden one is the "mercy blade" for dealing with mortals and the "finishing blade" for staking fellow vampires.

Plus I think that the samurai loyalty and artistic aspects go very nicely with vampires. A vampire lord's retainers will all literally owe their vampiric status to the lord, so their blood is his to shed. And if they live a long time, they'll eventually get bored with mastering the blade and have to cultivate some other artistic pursuits.

It would be too confusing and complicated to explain the western influences at this point. And I should add that none of the main characters is even a vampire at this point. Which shows how useful all this thinking is.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Daily Writing

Shortly after my last post, I made a resolution to write 1,000 words of fiction a day.

Since then, I've hit that target for 9 out of 10 days. I don't recall writing on Memorial Day at all. The total word count is at just over 14,500 words.

Note that some of those are much better than others, but I do have a complete story that I'm fairly pleased with as a result of the process. (It's awaiting one more revision before I submit it.) I've also got two other short stories in the works that I'm less confident about.

I can't say that I feel great about this process at the moment. I've got the plot and main characters of the two stories I'm working on all laid out, but I'm trying to write 5,000 word stories (because I think that's a better length to submit for an unpublished writer hoping to get published) with only one successful story told in that range so far. The other two are looking more like 10,000 word stories at the moment.

But my goals were to address two of my weaknesses as a writer:
  • Writing on a regular basis
I'm definitely getting some repetitions in on the first item. Maybe I need to just push through and complete these next two stories and then see if they can be revised downward. Also, I've got either a cold or bad allergies at the moment, and the kids are just about to get out of school for the summer, and both illness and big schedule changes tend to throw me off kilter and make me a bit more pessimistic.