Monthly Archives: May 2013

Sci-fi’s Strongest Heroine?

Female characters in science fiction have come a long way since the pulp-era days. No longer are they always the cliché ‘maiden in distress’ or merely a means to have a love interest in the story.  Oh, there’s still quite a lot of that goes on, but it’s not quite so omnipresent throughout the genre anymore.

Speaking as an author, I love strong female characters (both reading and writing them). I feel privileged to live in a generation of great sci-fi heroines. We’re talking names such as Nyota Uhura (past and present), Ellen Ripley, Katie Sackoff’s Starbuck, Katniss Everdeen, Honor Harrington, Buffy Anne Summers (or practically any female character from Joss Whedon’s brain), Dr. Dana Scully, Sarah Connor, Susan Ivanova…the list goes on and on.

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OOOH YEEEAH…
*said in the Kool-Aid Man voice.*

These are the ladies who don’t need anyone to make them powerful, because they are already.  Helen Reddy songs would not be out of place blasting in the background as they go about saving civilization, humankind or the universe.

In this author’s humble opinion, there is one leading lady who takes the crown of strongest sci-fi heroine, and, wow, talk about a tough choice! But if I had to pick just one it would be…(drum roll)…Trinity from The Matrix.

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Hear me roar…and soar, apparently.

Note that this is the Trinity from the first Matrix movie, not the ones that followed. Sure, she was cool in those too…in the same way that Connor McLeod was also cool in Highlander 2: The Quickening. Cool, but just not the same. For the sake of this post, forget that the Reloaded and Revolutions movies ever existed. I do.

Here are the top three reasons I think this, along with the stereotype that Trinity shatters with a ‘bullet time’ slow-motion jump kick.

1.) She Looks Like She Can (And Will) Kick Your Butt

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Dodge this.

The first scene in The Matrix shows her taking out several SWAT team guys with martial arts moves that border on anime. I remember the first time I saw this in theatre. I was completely sold on the character’s capacity to kick butt.  Carrie-Anne Moss was in incredible physical shape in that role, and she completely owned the physical stunts necessary to convince us of Trinity’s formidable hand-to-hand skills.

Have you noticed in the movies how many times we see a rather diminutive female character going toe-to-toe in a fistfight with goons more than twice her size and weight? Yet she wades through tons of them as though they were nothing. Does that really seem believable to you? Most of the time it looks pretty forced, leaving many of us thinking um, what? With Trinity, her combat abilities don’t seem out of place at all. Once you know that she can bend the Matrix, it makes even more sense that she can go through even highly trained special ops-types without breaking a sweat.

2.) Not Just Another Pretty Face

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Whoah…

Carrie-Anne Moss (and thus Trinity) is beautiful, no doubt about it. At no time in the film, however, was she so glammed out that she no longer fit the role. Trinity comes from a dark and hard world, one where she risks her life on a daily basis to fight a system that has enslaved humanity without its knowledge.  If she couldn’t pull her own weight on missions, she wouldn’t have survived for so long. In that sense, she doesn’t suffer from “Bond Girl” syndrome, where her usefulness and contribution to the story are just skin deep.  Quite the opposite, in fact − she’s integral to the story.

Also, Trinity is uber competent at what she does. Even after Ted “Theodore” Logan came along to become the Kwisatz Haderach, she remains one of Zion’s elite operators.  When Neo goes in to rescue Morpheus, who’s the other half of the assault team, in what was surely a suicide mission, the one he could not have done it without? Sorry, rhetorical question.

3.) Her Femininity Doesn’t Clash

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Trinity à la Nagle.

Okay, ladies, here’s a question for all of you. Does it feel like some female characters are stripped of their femininity when they are put in what would be traditionally considered a ‘man’s’ role? It’s almost as if the idea of a woman who knows how to mix it up in a brawl or a firefight can’t be considered womanly.

I disagree with that idea, of course. More than that, I disagree with the underlying assumption that puissance at arms is something uniquely masculine, or (more to the point) not feminine. While The Rules would not approve of ladies who know how to field strip an M-16, set explosives or do anything else a Navy SEAL might be trained in…I do. For me, femininity and masculinity are not about what you do, but who you are.

In the case of Trinity, she is very much a woman. At no time does she come off as mannish or butch, and she doesn’t need to adopt the caricature of male persona to be brave in the face of nearly impossible odds, or to fight for her cause or for those she loves. She doesn’t have to give up one to have the other, and I love her for that.

So that’s how I see it. Of course, I’m a guy, so me going on about all this might be comical to some of the ladies out there. Let’s just remember that this is an opinion piece, after all.

What do you think?

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Backwards Compatible – Part 1: Genesis

You knew it was coming…the inevitable post about my novel. This is, in fact, the first in a series of posts explaining how my novel came about.  The road from its inception to execution was a long and twisting one.

Well, let’s start at the beginning.

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No caption required, really.

In the mid-90s, Games Designers’ Workshop (hitherto referred to as GDW) launched their expansion to the popular Traveller RPG universe, entitled “Traveller: The New Era.” Unlike previous milieus of the game, which centered around a massive star-spanning Empire, this one was post-apocalyptic. Now I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill Mad Max/Tina Turner post apocalypse. No, this was devastation on an interstellar scale.

In the time period of The New Era, the great Empire is toast, laid waste thanks to an insidious, self-aware computer virus that makes Skynet look like shy and retiring by comparison. The virus (appropriately named “Virus”) has ravaged the Empire and its citizens, leaving trillions dead in sector after sector of smashed and ruined worlds.

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Geez, I’m bad, but not that bad.

Yet not all hope is lost. There are little islands of civilization among the vast ocean of cemetery worlds and boneyards that struggle to recover in the wake of the worst calamity in all of human history. It’s an uphill climb for the survivors to avoid a descent into barbarism and darkness.  If that weren’t enough, Virus is still out there, waiting to finish what it started. Civilization itself hangs by a very thin thread.

Pretty bleak stuff, huh? Well, many fans of Traveller thought the same thing, including yours truly. The epic scope of the previous settings shrank dramatically. Instead of focusing on an empire of 11,000 star systems, the new setting introduced the Reformation Coalition, a small polity with a little over 20. It was a controversial move and one that would divide fans of the ‘classic’ Traveller universe from those of the New Era to this day.

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Welcome to the new age, to the new age.
I’m radioactive, radioactive.

To promote this new setting, GDW added a trilogy of science fiction novels to their lineup to explore the setting in detail.  Paul Brunette was chosen to tackle this project.  He produced The Death of Wisdom and To Dream of Chaos. Before the third novel − The Backwards Mask − could be commissioned, however, GDW went out of business. The New Era trilogy went into limbo.

Years passed, until I happened to meet Marc Miller (the creator of the Traveller universe) at a convention.  At the time I was working as a writer for a game company. Though I was just a fan, Marc took the time out of his busy schedule to sit and talk with me. There was a great richness to the Traveller universe that I felt lent itself to fiction, and Marc agreed. After the convention, we started an email dialogue where we discussed possible Traveller fiction ideas. It was during this time that Marc dusted off the unfinished TNE trilogy and offered me the chance to write the third installment.

Of course, I jumped at it.

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


My Origin Story

So, how did all start for me? What’s my origin story? Sadly it does not involve radioactive spiders or being launched from Krypton as it exploded. At least, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

The following is a look at how I became a storyteller. Note that I use the word ‘storyteller’ instead of ‘author.’ As you’ll see, I was telling stories before I ever started writing them down. Parts of this are shamelessly cannibalized from the ‘About’ section of my website and this blog.

So, I grew up in a pretty small town rural Texas. I often describe it as being a lot like the Dukes of Hazzard, though with far fewer car chases. I was an only child. Though I had plenty of cousins who were like brothers and sisters (and still are to this day), I was often in need of ways to entertain myself. Television of the 80s played a big part of my childhood. Sure, many of the shows like The A-Team and Knight Rider really don’t hold up all that well when you watch them now (even if they have very hummable theme songs), but they were fertile soil for my young imagination. It also sowed the seeds of my eventual fanboy-dom.

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Try to be in a bad mood while humming it.
Go on, try it.

Both of my parents were big fans of Star Trek. Some of my earliest memories of watching TV include scenes of Kirk, Spock and Scotty arrayed in their bright 60s uniforms. I think the Enterprise (1701) started me on my life-long love of ships. I was pretty young when I started creating stories in my head. Sure, most kids make up stories at that age, but I found that I built up a repertoire of stories that I could recite consistently and on command. And, well, I never really stopped after that.

Many of those early forays included cartoon characters from the 80s teaming up to go on adventures together. (The tale of Optimus Prime and Rick Hunter teaming up to defeat the mechanized legions of Mumm-Ra springs to mind.)

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Mumm-Ra must be stopped…no matter the cost.

I also found my love of reading at an early age, which was the gateway drug into writing stories. In Second Grade, I wrote a story in the form of a The Twilight Zone episode entitled “Identity Crisis.” When I read it to the class I did my best impression of Rod Serling speaking the intro, complete with the intense eyebrows.

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Not bad for a total n00b.

Even back then, I knew that the fantastical side of fiction was what really called to me. It wasn’t that I found real life boring. No, it was largely the creative canvas that fiction afforded me. If I wanted the colors of the rainbow arranged in a different order than they appeared in the sky, no problem. Say I wanted the Pacific War fought with dragons launched from giant turtles instead of aircraft carriers. Done. Not even the sky was the limit. I could take reality and reshape it as I saw fit.

Since that time, the thrill I get from creating worlds and writing fiction has never left me.

Sure, I could go into my years at school, which led to college and my eventual writing career, but all of that is mundane, the kind of stuff they skip in the comics or at the beginning of a movie.

Without a doubt, those early influences put my life on its current trajectory. While I didn’t uncover a powerful alien artifact or find that I’m a latent telepath, I did discover a deep and abiding love of stories, characters and far away horizons.

That love is a big part of who I am today.

True story.


Why Sci-fi?

Speculative fiction is my ‘thing.’

Fantasy, horror and sci-fi constitute the big three in my book.  They make up a disproportionately large segment of what I love to read, write and watch on TV and movies.  They resonate with the kind of headspace I seem to occupy most of the time. I lovelovelove all three, however, sci-fi is my favorite.  I can say with all certainty that it’s what I love to write more than anything else.

Why is that? Why do starships, aliens and planets trump elves, magic swords and dragons…or blasphemous books, tentacles and the shrieking, ineffable void?

There are a few reasons for this, which I will explain here (the top three, at any rate).  Now realize that this isn’t a case for why sci-fi is better than fantasy or horror, merely why I’m drawn to it as a genre.

1.) Just a Spoonful of Sugar

It’s amazing the amount of social commentary science fiction can pull off without the ruffled feathers you would get if you talked about the same thing in ‘real life.’ In that way, science fiction is an excellent way to talk about something without really talking about it.

Think about it, we can talk about religion, politics, man’s inhumanity to man and the horror and/or necessity of war – all things that can make people truly uncomfortable − if we couch it in a futuristic setting.  It somehow insulates us from the pricklier bits of what the story is trying to get across.

More than that, it’s a way for us to step back from our daily lives and look at some of the problems that surround us today. Even if the story takes said issue/problem/social inequity out of context, we still come away with a (hopefully) new perspective.

A prime example of this is the original series Star Trek episode, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield.” It starred Frank Gorshin, known for his role as the Riddler opposite Adam West as Batman.  Frank’s character, Commissioner Bele, is tracking a fugitive, Lokai. Bele believes that Lokai and his kind are of an ‘obviously inferior breed.’ Why? Bele’s face is white on the left side and black on the right. Lokai’s color scheme is the reverse. To human eyes, the two aliens look just alike, but this difference of appearance is responsible for incredible amounts of destruction and social upheaval on their home planet of Cheron.

Okay, so the message isn’t exactly subtle; it makes its point with a jackhammer. Even so, it speaks directly to the racial division and strife that was rampant in the 1960s. Do you think that any straight-laced TV show of that time could’ve talked about that issue so openly? Likely not.

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Okay, Frank, we get it.

2.) Possible Futures vs. Alternate Worlds

Most science fiction takes place in the future.  This might seem like stating the blatantly obvious, but there’s something to that. It takes place in the future − our future.

Usually sci-fi stories use the timeline of our real world as a foundation, or at the very least they don’t do away with it completely. Yes, there are always exceptions, such as Star Wars, but I’m talking in general.

For me, the most engaging science fiction stories are the ones that feel like I could jump in my time-travelling DeLorean or blue police box, dial it forward to the proper year and boom, I’m right there in the thick of things. I don’t have to reimagine the world from scratch, I just have to fill in the missing years between when I’m reading the book and the time period of the story.

Consequently, sci-fi feels very organic. It shows you possible futures rather than a completely alternate world that is separate and apart from the one we live in. In this way, sci-fi calls to me a bit more than the fantasy genre. Only in rare cases, such as Lord of the Rings or Conan, is a fantasy story presented as a sort of lost ‘pre-history’ to our world.

So, even though sci-fi takes flight just like other types of fiction, it does so by using us as a springboard.

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Lady Liberty — the sci-fi landmark of choice.

3.) The More Things Change

The humans populating science fiction universes are a lot like us. Even if they live hundreds or thousands of years in the future, they are still understandable to those of us in this time.  Sure, future generations may have figured out a lot of things that we haven’t, such as FTL travel, overcoming disease and hunger, etc. They may even have co-ed showers because gender roles are no big deal anymore.

But they haven’t figured it all out. Most of the time they still have to contend with greed, arrogance, anger, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, war and host of other things that are problematic for us today. Maybe they go to a job but don’t like their boss, or they grapple with the fundamental questions of our existence and place in the universe. They may have access to a host of technological toys that we don’t, but seldom are they that much more advanced than we are right now.

There are reasons for that, of course. The most obvious is that science fiction is written by authors who are relatively contemporary to us. I choose to think of it in a different way, though. I like to think that the inhabitants of the future are like us because that allows us to project ourselves in their place.  If only we had the same training and access to technology, we might be able to trade places with them.

I think that feeling is essential in creating that sense of place in any good science fiction story. I’m convinced that it’s a big part of what draws us into that universe, and keeps us there.

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Some things change.
Marines don’t.

Well, there you have it, folks. I could go on and on, but those are the things that give science fiction a special place in my heart. Of the three branches of speculative fiction, it’s the one that seems the most inclusive to the reader just as we are.

I’m sure that purists of fantasy and horror are even now lining up to point out the flaws in my reasoning. Do you agree with me, disagree or are you just sort of ‘meh’ about the whole deal?

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.


Not Another Author’s Blog!

Oh no! It’s another author’s blog!

I bet he’s going to pontificate ad nauseum  about his ‘craft’ and why everything he does is high art…yeah, as if it’s Shakespeare or Hemmingway or something.  I bet he’s even going to try to plug his novel on us at every turn, and try to get us to “Like” him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and all that.

So typical.

Gaaah! Why did this have to happen?  It’s the end of the world as we know it, and Lenny Bruce is not afraid! Dogs and cats living together…mass hysteria.

 Noooooooooooooooooo!

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Yep, pretty much…

Yeah, that’s my reaction to a lot of author blogs as well. I’ve read quite a few of them in my time. Some are informative, while others are preachy.  Some seem little more than an outlet for the author in question’s ego − sort of a platform to say ‘here’s why I’m so cool. Bask in my wisdom!’

Well, as it happens I am an author and this is my blog. I will try to learn from my experiences and make this particular blog worth the reading.  A few things right off…

What This Blog IS:

If you’re visiting me here, you probably have some passing interest in my work. This is my way to try and connect with you, the reader, outside of a short story, novella or novel.  Each post will explore some topic that is of interest to me, and (I hope) to you as well.

Yes, I will talk about my writing process at times.  I will also recommend that you read my novel and connect with me on social media. You are welcome to listen to my suggestions, or not. There’s no pressure here. This isn’t a dealership for used cars; it’s a platform where I can share my stories/ideas/thoughts with you.

Could I go the hard sales route, as so many often do? Sure, if I saw my readers and fans as nothing more than a market for a product, I’m sure my eyes would spin with dollar signs like in the cartoons.

If you read one of my stories, you are sharing something highly personal from me to you. Each of my stories holds a special place in my heart. They mean something to me, or I would have never bothered to write them in the first place. That you might read something of mine − and perhaps come back for more – makes you far more to me than just a series of wallets waiting to be exploited.

But I digress…

What This Blog IS NOT:

This blog is not a soapbox for my political or religious views. I may offer social commentary at times, but not because I’m trying to sell you on any particular ideology. Likely it’s because it relates to something I’m writing. What can I say?  I like to explore anthropological themes in my stories, and you can’t do that without kicking over a few rocks and seeing what lives underneath them.  (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

I should also point out that these posts are not for my own aggrandizement. I’m not fishing for compliments here or hoping you’ll stroke my ego. I would appreciate it if we could keep things positive, but if you have something to say, say it. If you honestly disagree with something I’ve said or written, then I welcome any verbal riposte you have to offer.  Just be sure to bring you’re “A” game when you do.

One last thing, I’m a big proponent of Socrates and his idea that ‘the only real knowledge is in knowing that you know nothing.’ I don’t claim to be the absolute authority on anything, and I have little patience for people who do.  I believe that there’s always room for improvement no matter how good you are (or think you are) at something.  I approach writing and life from that perspective.

So, that’s what I’m offering here at the Sector M blog.

Do we have an accord?

We do?

Well then, drink up, me hearties…yo ho!

jollyroger

Yarr…n’ stuff.