Monthly Archives: June 2013

Scalability

One of the hardest things about writing sci-fi (IMHO) is handling the technology. All too often the real world will catch up to science fiction levels in just years rather than centuries.  I may write about such things as invisibility fields or nanotechnology when all the while they may be just around the corner. Just do a google search for either of those, and the tech in the pages of a sci-fi novel may not seem so far off.

Even though we don’t have flying cars (yet), I am continually surprised at the things that modern scientific research discovers every day.  I mean, in the next few years, we might actually have found the Higgs-Boson particle or developed hand-held energy weapons, personally cloned organs, powered exoskeletons and life-extending treatments and/or drugs – all things that previously existed only in theory and imagination.

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Okay, Star Trek, we’re looking in your direction.

So what’s a lowly sci-fi writer to do to make sure that actual technology doesn’t exceed the set pieces that he creates? It might be a peek behind the curtain, but I’ll share with you one of the techniques I use on a pretty regular basis.

Scalability.

Let me give you an example of when this was not used. In the novelization of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we get a few scenes that do not appear in the movie. Consequently, we get to know some of the scientists aboard space station Regula 1. As it turns out two of the scientists are game designers, and they have just completed work on their latest video game, Boojum Hunt. It was supposedly the largest video game ever (by 23rd century standards) in terms of how much computer memory it occupied. It was so large that the computer mainframe of the space station only barely contained it.

Any guesses how at much space it took up? 60 Megabytes.  Megabytes with an ‘M.’ Yeah, it’s safe to say that modern technology blew that one completely out of the water. At the time of the novel’s release, 60MB might have seemed unthinkably enormous, but nowadays not so much.

Flash Drive

This flash drive holds 32 gigabytes.

Consider this, though − what if the novel had just said that the game was the “largest video game ever created,” and left it at that? Chances are someone reading it today would scale their expectations up to whatever the norm is currently. The same goes for someone reading it twenty years from now.

That’s scalability. It’s presenting a concept without the parameters that will eventually invalidate it. That way, it scales up to whatever the reader expects it to be. Certainly  Boojum Hunt’s claim would have held up without that troublesome measurement to sink it.  So, this idea can be applied to practically any claim we put on sci-fi set-piece technology. Saying, “A warship of the highest magnitude,” tells you everything you need to know in only a few words in the same way that saying, “She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen,” can describe a character.  It’s a bit of ‘smoke and mirrors’ to handle it that way, and you do wind up speaking in superlatives quite a bit, but it works.

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Hey, no peeking behind the curtain…ah, okay, just this once.

So what happens when you need to put some sort of real-world perspectives on your tech? Well, you can do that. Hard science fiction does it all the time, but they run the risk of being shown up by the onward march of human ingenuity and understanding.  For the sake of argument, let’s say that you have to put something down for one of your gadgets.

Here’s what I would do: I would figure out the modern measurement equivalent and then either quintuple or sextuple the order of magnitude.  I ran into a situation like this in The Backwards Mask when I had to give an indication of how large a particular hard drive was aboard the Hornet.  I didn’t want to make the same mistakes as Boojum Hunt, so I first thought of how large the ‘Canary Drive’ was in 21st century terms. I’m used to thinking of gigabytes (109 bits) in the here and now, so I then kicked it up to yottabytes (1024 bits). BTW, a single yottabyte equals a quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) gigabytes.

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That’s a big Twinkie.

As astronomical as that number may seem, there may come a day when devices store hundreds of yottabytes of information, and it’s no big deal anymore. They might look at my description of the Canary Drive and laugh to themselves at my short-sightedness.  Well, I think I’ve bought myself a few decades before that happens. If folks are still reading my book in 30 to 40 years, I still call that a win.

So, what’s the upshot of all this? I consider scalability an important tool in my writer’s toolbox. You can use it to bring technology up to the reader’s level of understanding (truly state-of-the-art) so it doesn’t get overrun by actual science quite as easily.  Of course no science fiction is bulletproof, but scalability at least allows it wear to Kevlar.

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My Favorite Mistakes

Some writers are naturally able to edit their own stuff. I envy those who fall into that category. Me? Not so much. Oh, I do okay to catch the majority of the boneheaded mistakes I make on a regular basis, but invariably there are some that slip past me.  Many times I know what I meant to say, so I’ll confidently breeze past an error without seeing it. It might as well have a Klingon cloaking device strapped to it.

This can instantly undermine what credibility you have if people know you’re a writer.  They’ll read an email, blog post or something you did on the fly and think, “Wait, this guy’s an author? Are you sure? Shouldn’t he know better than to make mistakes like that? Shouldn’t his stuff be perfect?”

Klingon_Bird-of-Prey

He pressed SEND! Maltz, disengage cloaking device!

Truth is, I’m not a very clean typist as my editor, Beth, is all too aware. I routinely look over things I’ve written (including posts on this very blog) and find mistakes that have eluded me. Well, I’m a big proponent of knowing your weaknesses as well as your strengths. So, I put together this list of the Top 4 mistakes that  keep cropping up with me.

I mean, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery, right? Right?

1.) Missing “To” on the Infinitive

Two little keystrokes. Just two. T−O. Yet when they are missing, it can really foul up your sentence when your infinitive isn’t properly introduced by “to.” This is apparently my favorite-ist of favorite mistakes, since I make it more often than any other. I can’t tell you how many I corrected in my original manuscript of “The Backwards Mask.”  There are likely a few that made it past the filters, despite all my best efforts.

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__be or not __ be.

2.) Dropped Word

Similar to mistake number 1, I will drop a key word from the sentence.  The word “not” seems to be a popular one (particularly when the sentence hinges on that one word), but I don’t limit myself just to that. Oh, no…quite the contrary. I’ll go back and look at something I wrote and find something like this:

With speed fueled by desperation, he spun around to find the glaring red eyes of a staring back at him from the darkness.”

So…is it a vampire? A Decepticon? A guy in dire need of Visine? What?

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Bad writer, no cookie.

3.) Repeated Word

Not content to leave words out, sometimes I put extra words in that don’t need to be there. Sometimes this comes from a line break temporarily fooling me into thinking I haven’t already typed it. I wish that was the case every single time. Nope. I merrily add in an extra “the” at random intervals along with “their” and “from.”  Sometimes it’s just a word I apparently liked so much I thought it needed to go in twice. You know, for emphasis.

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Repeaters gonna repeat.

4.) Switching Gears Mid-sentence

Sometimes I pause in the middle of a sentence to think about what I’m really trying to get across in it. I’d like to think that I’m like Socrates in this regard (who would stop and stand in place for hours or days at time while thinking), but chances are that I’m really just second-guessing myself – the literary equivalent of changing horses mid-stream.  When I come out of my ponderings, sometimes the second part doesn’t quite match up with first part.  I tried to recreate this phenomenon here, but it just didn’t work.  You’ll know it when you see it, though I hope they are all fixed by the time you read something of mine. *fingers crossed*

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In your own little world again, I see. Excellent!

Wow, two Trek references + Shakespeare + Socrates just in pictures alone? That has to be a personal fanboy/nerd best for me. In any case, these are my favorite mistakes…but, you know, not in a Sheryl Crow kind of way.

I put it to you – all my fellow authors out there − what are your favorite mistakes?


Backwards Compatible – Part 2: Just a Few Hurdles

When we last left off, our author was tasked with reigniting a milieu that had long since grown cold. We also secretly switched his coffee with new Folger’s crystals. Let see what happens (particularly since he doesn’t even drink coffee)!

Okay, so there were some immediate challenges facing me on this project, which I will outline here in a conveniently number format.

1.) Lack of Clear Direction

When we started, all we had to go on was the name (The Backwards Mask) and the existing cover art in black and white. There was no indication of where the storyline was going from the second book or how Paul Brunette intended to wrap up the trilogy.

After much debate and back and forth, Marc and I decided to create the new story as he put it “out of whole cloth.” I scoured the setting books and the two novels to figure out the core of the third story. In many ways it was harder than writing one from scratch. I needed to write a novel that was, if you’ll forgive the term, backwards compatible with the other books. At the same time, the series had been fallow for over a decade. While you could still find the first two novels in used book stores, Amazon and eBay, they weren’t readily available. That meant that the third story would need to complete the trilogy AND work well as a standalone story.

So how does one go about doing that?

Any which way you can

Whoah, thanks for the assist, Philo and Clyde!

2.) Literary Baggage

Since I was stepping in after two novels, I inherited characters and storylines that were not my own. It was not unlike a comic book author who takes over a title after the previous writer’s run. You want to tell your story, but you don’t to break faith with what has gone before too much, even if it’s terribly inconvenient. Sure, you can wave the ‘retcon’ wand around if you want, but that can work against you if you give your readers too much of a disconnect.

Much of the crew of the aboard RCS Hornet did not have given names. Instead, they were known by their taccode, or callsign. Even though it was part of the property, the excessive use of callsigns felt a little artificial to me, and seemed like a throwback to Top Gun.  I understand that many pilots in the armed forces (in real life) do use their monikers in place of their real names, but this wasn’t just limited to pilots. Practically every character involved with the Reformation Coalition had to have one, seemingly from the highest commanding officer to the professors at the academy.  Did the janitors and the mailmen have them in the Coalition as well? When a character’s mother, a politician or someone outside of the military addresses them, did they use their callsign then as well?

Negative, Ghostrider.  Clearly, I would have to fill in the blanks in some places, and explain away things that didn’t make sense in others. In short, I needed to write my way around certain elements to get free and clear to tell my story.

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What do you mean Whizbang and Bonzo have no real names? Seriously?

3.) Inconsistent Background Material

Besides all of the story elements, characters and history that I had to account for in the third installment, I had to contend with something else. The novels were not entirely consistent with the game books of the setting. There was some definite rule bending when it came to ships and how they operated. Even the game books varied at times from the ‘classic’ canon of the rest of the Traveller universe.

Worse yet, the game books themselves were not consistent with each other. One of the New Era books couldn’t decide who the Empress of Solee was (the leader of the bad guys) within its own pages. Was she an ex-naval officer who used her expertise to overthrow a planetary government and crown herself Queen, or had she been born a noble, inherited her throne by nefarious means, but had no real military expertise whatsoever?

There was also a ship named the Ashtabula, which was pretty much like the Enterprise in Star Trek (any of the non-Scott Bakula ones at any rate).  In one place it said that there were only two people alive who had served aboard the ship before she disappeared. In another place it mentions that one of the intelligence types attached to the government (who was still alive) had once served aboard her. And on…and on…

This left me on shaky ground. I couldn’t trust the previous novels to be entirely faithful to the setting, and I couldn’t trust the setting to be faithful to itself.

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But then…how do you know?

Once I had a solid look at the wall I was expected scale, it suddenly seemed much taller than I had originally thought.

But this was me…not giving up. *Cue the 80s inspirational power chords.”

[Check out the Backwards Mask on Kindle.]


Why I Love Villains

Okay, I’ll go ahead and say it – I love villains. Most of the time, I find villains far more compelling than the heroes who face them.  To clarify − before anyone goes there − I’m talking strictly about fiction here, and not the real world.

My interest in the bad guys goes way back to my earliest childhood. The first truly awe-inspiring villain I discovered as a kid was (surprise of surprises) Darth Vader. He was a mystery behind that all-too familiar mask of his, with that raspy respirator, hissing and sighing to announce his presence. He instantly commanded respect from those who served him, and brooked no sharp tongue. (I find your lack of faith disturbing!)  Vader was just cool, from the way he walked to his deep basso James Earl Jones voice. Like some Black Knight out of legend, he was powerful, strong and – if you’ll forgive the pun – a force to be reckoned with.

You, um, might say that I was more than a little inspired by him.  Just a bit…

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That’s me as a Sith Lord.
No, really, that’s me in there.

Vader started a trend with me. I found as I grew up that I seemed to gravitate towards the villains in the various cartoons I watched as a kid. (A notable exception is Transformers, where I liked the good guys better overall.) Take for instance COBRA from G.I. Joe.  They get all the sharp-looking  vehicles, armor and suits. Most of them wear ninja-esque balaclavas or use masks to hide their faces. Compare that to the Joes, who look like a bunch of regular people. Boring.  The only one on the good side who had that level of panache was Snakes Eyes, and let’s face it – he should have been on COBRA’s side. Come on, his name is Snake Eyes for crying out loud!

Unfortunately for all their style, COBRA wasn’t very competent.  Your average Viper can’t hit the broad side of an aircraft carrier, but then again, neither can any member of the Joe team. In fact, all of them in that franchise seem pretty incapable of basic marksmanship.  Be that as it may, even though COBRA is constantly thwarted in their diabolical schemes, they look great while losing.

Especially the Baroness. Ahem…

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Cooooooo-braaaaaaa!

It took me a while to figure out what it was about the likes of Boba Fett, Skeletor, Storm Shadow and Magneto that really called to me. Yeah, they were enigmatic and looked imposing, but it was more than that. It was because villains don’t play by the rules, or more to the point, they play by their own rules. One of the reasons they are so powerful is because they are not constrained like the rest of us. They operate by their own code. They’re rebels, they’re renegades. They are the ones who break from the pack and do what they want, when they want.  And, you know, there’s something very attractive about that idea.

When I discovered James Bond films, I found another deep well of villainy. Bond villains are a special breed. While they are all too eager to tell Bond about their master plan, and tend to have a predilection for Nehru jackets, they are all very smart (though not all that wise). Many of them are doctors, scientists, secret agents and the like. Intelligence is something that I think all great villains share. Moriarty, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Doctor Doom, Voldemort, Dracula, Sauron, Ozymandias, Roy Batty, HAL-9000 − geniuses all. And let’s not forget one of the most brilliant villains of all time…

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Come on, you know you wanna yell it out!

When it comes to a villain’s role in a literary sense, I think this old saying about sums it up: “It is the presence of the wolf, not his absence, which makes the deer strong and fast.” There is a symbiotic relationship that exists between heroes and villains. A hero is often defined by his nemesis, and vice versa.

Do me a favor − think about the last few movies, books, comics, stories, etc. that you found particularly powerful or moving. Now think of the villain of each one. Chances are they had a particularly memorable and/or potent opponent playing opposite the protagonist. Villains can make or break a story.  Even in those tales where the heroes are up against nature, society, or even their own natures, it is the obstacles they must overcome, the hardships they have to endure, that really make you empathize with them.

Villains are great at forging that pathos between the reader/viewer and the hero. Why? Villains are engines for conflict. Without some sort of conflict, you don’t have much of a story. That’s also why antagonists can be, and often are, much cooler/lethal/stronger/smarter/more awesome than the protagonist.  They have to be…or rather they need to be.

Sherlock-Holmes-and-Moriarty

Can you imagine one without the other?

If you didn’t have an incredibly competent, seemingly unbeatable opponent for the protagonist to face off against, victory would seem hollow and meaningless.  When our heroic lead manages to succeed, even when all hope seems lost, it feels so much more satisfying, right?

We as humans love underdogs, the ones who bravely soldier on against impossible odds. We love to see underdogs succeed even when all conventional wisdom says they should fail. So, the greater the villain, the greater the sense of achievement when our hero emerges triumphant in the end.

And that is why I love villains. At once they represent power, mystery, intelligence, style and the crucible in which heroes are made.

Oh, and the maniacal laugh. Definitely the laugh.