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Coming soon the 2nd of the Enigma Front anthologies - it's already listed on Amazon but not available yet (the launch is on the 12th of August 2016) - with short stories from 21 authors including a Hugo and Nebula winner.  It contains my 2nd published short story, "Slayer's Revenge", about a dragon hunter looking for payback. If you are going to When Words Collide 2016, it will be available in paperback, or as an ebook or print copy from Amazon.

Specialists and Experts

"...the rash of home renovation or cooking or talent shows has empowered a whole generation to truly believe that, if the put their mind to it they can appear as gifted as any so-called specialist."

(Globe and Mail, Sat, 16 Jul 2016, Songs in the key of life). While true, something about the statement bugged me, so I mulled it over while walked to stampede breakfast. I came to the conclusion that the phrase "so-called specialist" was the problem. Some specialists/experts aren't what they claim to be, but specialism and expertise are important.  We mustn't throw out the baby with th bathwater, and our relationship with the notion of expertise and specialists is skewed. Some would say that if you aren't a specialist, you can't do that task. That is wrong. Others say that anyone (almost) can do that task, so specialism is useless or even elitist. That is wrong. The truth is in the middle.

The book reviewed was about human limitations - in particular amusia - but the quoted sentence highlights our relationship with experts and specialists. Ignoring the very real limitations of our own bodies that the review and book focussed on, it's not that we can't do anything. But we haven't. Specialists can do what they do because they have paid their dues - not in money, but in time, in practice. Sure, I can tile my bathroom floor, sing a song, shoot a basketball, and if I enjoy those activities then I will. But make no mistake, I can't do those as well as the specialist can, nor as quickly. I can become a specialist interior decorator, if I want to, but I haven't paid my dues yet - in practice. I haven't made the sacrifices needed to spend the 10,000 hours, or whatever other measure you wish to use. I've spent my time on physics (a decade+ of study and research), dance (ballroom and other styles) (most of my adult and teenage life), software (20+ years), writing (1.3+ million words) and a raft of hobbies. That's not to say I can't lay a tiled floor - I can - but I won't be as fast or as good as the expert. I would do my research, practice first, and even then, take the extra time to do a good job.

At a motivational speech given by a very successful local business owner (he started and owns a pizza chain) a few years ago, he pointed out that no one can be an expert in everything. His message was: choose your skills, focus on those, and find others with other skills to help each other.

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An excellent speech about fantasy - and esp. faerie-tale based fantasy - by Terri Windling.  It's rather long, but well worth listening to.

http://www.tor.com/2016/06/22/faerie-led-thoughts-on-writing-meaningful-fantasy/

As the speech progressed, I found myself thinking of my own writings in her terms, and they match well.  I've long maintained that the setting, natural and social, is one of my characters.  Indeed a friend said half a year ago that she thought I was a milieu writer, and others have since agreed. And that seems to me to be the heart of her message - the mystery of place, the ability to find oneself in the quest into the unknown lands.

Now, unlike her stated preference, I build no mystery into magic. I'm a scientist at heart and the magic in my worlds is as rationalistic as any science.  However, that being said, the consequences of that magic can be strange and bizarre, as mysterious as any other.  I see beauty and mystery, even the sublime, in Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism, in theoretical quantum mechanics, the shimmering northern lights, and yes, even in the understanding of how they come to entice.

Moreover, in all my stories I try to use the mystery of place, of the forest, of the ancient ruins, the vanishing mountain valley, even of the decaying concrete city.  Indeed, all my longer works are about people who are questing for a place in the world - their small haven, literal, spiritual or emotional, in the wide world of the unknown.

Ms. Windling also spoke of preferring the intimate fantasy - not the world-saving epic.  I concur on that basis also.  I also prefer to cast a bright light leaving shadows in the corners, and enjoy reading that type of story.

Having many dark shadows (either exciting or terrifying, or both) is easy in a short story that focusses on only one person for a few hours or days at most.  However in my first multi-novel sequence, David and Fiona - and yes, I much prefer the ensemble cast no matter how unpopular it might be today - are confined to one (admittedly large) island while they struggle to return home and journey to discover what home and life means to each.

Some writers giving advice to new writers say that the larger, the grander, is better.  I don't agree.  One of my goals was to create the sense that they are two dots in the much larger, and to them, unknown world.  They are insignificant except to themselves and their personal friends and foes.

On the other hand, my Tower stories start rather like Orwell's 1984, the brutality, the invasive technology augmented with mind-stripping magic.  However, during the arc of the stories, the world itself undertakes the quest back to towards the unspoiled rivers and large forests that Terri Windling spoke of desiring.  In each successive story, the focus narrows, either in place or in character while the mysterious dark margins grow and the remaining technology decays away.  So, that sense of loss she spoke of in LotR is there too (I hope), a longing for the old world. In this case the old world is the global pre-apocalyptic civilization, so it's a yearning that dark-ages Europe might have had for Rome.  Indeed, the Carolingian empire was one of my inspirations.

I hope my stories speak to modern life and our issues the way Terry Windling calls for us to create.  Among other things I write them to be about finding oneself, the power of community (for good and ill), depression, the need to belong, the need to be true to oneself, religious freedom, sexual identity, bigotry and racism, the dangers of the modern world (yes even in a fantasy setting), and the fear of death and insignificance.
With the excitement surrounding the "discovery" of planet 9, I just want to caution peope who want to use this as the basis of a story, especially doomsday stories.  There have been a number of sensationalist articles about the danger it poses:  to wit that it could destroy all life on earth any day now as claimed by, for example, a NYP article.  Utter nonsense.  So any sci-fi writers out there, please be careful if you use this as the basis of a story.

The argument goes that it might knock Kuiper belt objects out of orbit, which then become a hail of comets and one could slam into the Earth and cause a major extinction event.  So far as that goes, no problem.  However, there are problems with the way some people are writing about it.

  1. The planet hasn't been discovered yet. There is strong evidence that it might exist. (3 sigma is the value I've seen, not nearly enough for "proof"; not a smoking gun.) That is more than enough evidence to hunt for the planet, but no one has found it yet. We don't even know where it "should" be. We just have a very large region of space that it might be.   For speculative sories set well into the future, that's not a problem.  That is a problem if you want (or for a character) to actually scream that the sky is falling now.

  2. Extinction events in the past (and any future ones like those) have not wiped out all life as the NYP is claiming. The worst extinction event (the Permian-Triassic event; not the one that killed the dinosaurs) killed 90 to 96% of all species. That's a lot (and would include us in all likelyhood) but not all life.  If you want to wipe out all life in your story, then find a different cause.  Otherwise, if you catagorically claim all life will be/was killed, I, for one, would stop reading your story right there and then.  You clearly don't know what you're talking about.

  3. Next month? Apparently several doomsayers are claiming this.  You only have to do a Google search to find them.  I have to laugh and snort in derision.  We don't even yet know where this hypothetical planet is (not even where on it's conjectured orbit it might be). We have eliminated a lot of possibilities,(the last I saw, about 90% of them), but not pinned it down.  And for writers, the important thing is that even if it did start knocking Oort cloud objects out of their orbits right now, we'd still have years before there was any threat, and we'd almost certainly see the resulting hail of comets years - decades - before one actually hit us. The Earth is very small, and these comets are even smaller, so the overwhelming chance is that they would orbit the sun many times before one actually hit the Earth.  If you want any comet to hit the Earth on the first pass, you might as well have your blind hero fire a gun and bounce the bullet off a speeding car to hit the dancing enemy's one and only weakness in his pinky finger.

  4. Please get your facts straight. The Oort cloud (not the Kuiper belt) is much more likely to be the source of the problem.  Most long-peroidicity comets come from the Oort cloud.  Moreover, by all accounts the planet 9's orbit is not in the ecliptic (that's important, and if you don't know what the ecliptic is, you need to do some reading before writing about the solar system) and its perihelion is 200 AU from the sun while the outer edge of the Kuiper belt is about 55 AU. 

  5. Finally, if you need a doomsday scenario, consider all the possibilities.  Comets and asteroids are sexy these days, but many of the extinction events on Earth had nothing to do with impacts. Some (the K-T event for example) probably did, but even for that one there is good evidence that it wasn't so simple as just that. There have been ~25 identified major extinction events (5 really big ones but 100s of minor ones) but only 2 or 3 of those (only 1 of the big ones) exhibit evidence of collisions, while there is strong evidence for other causes and those could be more useful for your story.  See for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extinction_event but even better, find several (to get differing opions) books on the subject or talk to experts.

  6. Don't be sucked into one of the cyclic theories of mass-extinction.  That's been over-used and there are other possibilities that could be useful for your story.   And frankly, even though many writers (including some big names) have jumped onto this bandwagon, in reality there is still a lot of debate and the jury is still out. Unlike some fields (climate change for example) there isn't general concensus among most of the experts.

Magic Consequences: Lightness and Flying

I was reviewing one of my stories the other day and reflecting on the behaviour of some drugs (potions).  It doesn't matter whether they are potions, spells, or other magical mechanisms, the effects would be the same.  The first was a drug that caused a person to weigh less.  Now, to be clear, the potion doesn't cause the person to lose mass, just weight.  This has many applications, for performers, dancers, acrobats, swimmers (it would be better than a life-jacket), medical evac, climbers (rope and mountain) and recreational uses (nudge, nudge).

However, such effects, when presented on screen (TV or movie) always seem fake.  I have realized why: landing speed.  Certainly a person jumping from a fixed height (say off a 15 ft wall) would hit the ground at a lower speed.  If we supposed that the spell reduced weight by 50% (which is substantial), then the impact speed would be reduced by 29%.   Only 29%.  The fall time would be increased by 41%, but that 29% is not much.

More importantly, if a person jumped and then landed on the same surface (like a figure skater, an gymnast, a dancer), the magic makes no difference to how hard they land.   Certainly, they rise further (about double - exactly double if one ignores the offset strength required to just stand) and can perform more spins, flips etc in the "hang-time" (41% increase) but, ignoring air resistance which is negligable for 50% weight reduction, they will land at the same speed they took off.  That means that if a dancer misses a landing from a leap, they will bruise just as badly with or without the drug.

The other effect is flight.  This is a staple of many a fantasy story (or game). Now, in a novel or short story, I don't want to see all (or any of) the following answered.  However, anyone who uses a flight spell will need to know the answers or suffer nasty consequences.  How does it work?  That is crucial.  If the magic allows 15 miles per hour flight, is that against the air or against the ground?  How long does it last?  How stable is the flight at top speed?  What about hitting birds, insects, dust?  How do you protect your eyes?  Breathe? How fast (or soon) can the spell be recast?  What about take-off and landing angles?  Highest altitude?  Altitude sickness? What about climb rates? Stable descent rates? Accidents?  Running into trees?

Remember that a 20 ft fall onto hard ground will kill most people most of the time.  Does your hero have special toughness to deal with that?  And I mean something magical because no Schwarzenegger-like toughness will save your hero from this kind of damage (nor will conventional armour).  This rips muscles, tears tendons, breaks bones from the deceleration and distortion, not from the surface "hit".  Sure, he's mentally tough, but flesh has a breaking point regardless of whether he is a book-worm or is Conan.

In a world that doesn't have trains, planes and cars, 15 mph is fast !  Not for us, but for them a galloping horse is the highest easily imagined speed and that tops out around 30 mhp.  Most birds can fly faster than that, but most generally don't.  Wind speeds over tall mountains can frequently reach 100 mph (and that's not storm conditions).  Even on the ground, any storm of any significant strength reaches 20 mph or even 30 mph (and that doesn't include gusts).  So what is the benefit of a 30 mph flight spell?

Even suposing 30 mph air-speed on a calm day for 10 minutes (that's a long spell in most systems), that's only 5 miles, and that assumes no extra time to reach elevations safe from hitting trees, hills ...

Thoughts?
Having just been to When Words Collide, I have been editing my novel The Tower of the Ancients, cutting unnecessary words, phrases and sentences.   Adverbs are, these days, considered a sign of bad writing.  Same for adjectives, although not to the same degree.  I, however, defend the value of adjectives in particular and even adverbs.  Some are actually (!) useful. Sure "very tall" is weak, but "gloriously sunny" tells a lot, not just about the weather, but the character's mood and relationship to her surroundings.  And just try to say that something is blue in one or two words without using "blue", and that is an adjective.  You could be poetical and liken the object to the sky, an ocean or the eyes of a character that has already been established as having blue eyes.  But since the objective is to have efficient tight writing, that's not possible.  Furthermore if a character would use adverbs, then so should his voice.  That includes all speech and even any 1st person narrative. The upshot is that there are limits to how rigourously any rule should be applied.   Here is the list of what I searched for:

  • very              Watch out for constructs like: "The lie wasn’t very big".   That "very" is important.  Also, "I was also very, very hungry."

  • really            Like "very", this one is insidious.  It has proper uses, but for emphasis outside of speech:  yech!

  • there is         Get rid of them, but watch out for constructs like "That chair there is green."  The noun is "chair" and the "there" is pointing it out.

  • there was/were

  • knew that      This is a bad one for me.

  • saw that        Hardly any for me.

  • I saw             Depending on emphasis this could be useful, but not usually, except for the accusation "I saw that."

  • so                  Some characters might use it to mean very, but there also good uses for this word.  Don't use it for "very" in prose.

  • that/then        It's a judgement call on this one. If the sentence has any complexity, then use it.  If not, don't.

  • and then        Cut it. With prejudice.  Sometimes it's the "and" that needs to go, sometimes the "then".

  • of                   "off of", "outside of" Sentences ending in "of".  Bleh!!!!  Don't need to hunt for this one.  It's so horrible that I know I don't use it.

  • seemed         It's useful when a character can't connect the dots, but otherwise it's distancing.

  • quite              It's useful esp. when you have a character that is used to understating issues, but easy to over-use.

  • just                Also has it's valid uses, like "only", but in other places it can be removed.

  • perhaps/maybe    Those are worth looking for.  They suggest weakness, indecision, but sometimes that is what a character has.  Sometimes a character is guessing, or speculating about the future.

  • amazing         It has its uses but usually a more specific word can be found

  • literally           Unless you are saying something that could be a joke or metaphorical, and you are emphasizing that it isn't, get rid of this word.

  • stuff               Meaningless.  However I don't use it except in strange circumstances or as a verb "stuff the chicken into the oven".

  • thing              Generic.  When generic is needed: "for one thing, that is the wrong screw-driver."  that is fine.   When the antecedent is just before it, fine.  Otherwise, get rid of it.

  • got                 This is a very (!) feeble word, and should be removed, usually (adv).  However, once in a while it the best word available.

  • constructed verb tenses   These are the continuous verb tenses ("I am eating") or the perfect tenses ("I had eaten").  Simple tenses are more immediate and connect better to the reader, but I strenuously disagree with the current philosophy that constructed tenses are generally bad.   Try changing these into simple tenses without changing the meanings:  "I was working on my essay when you arrived."   "I had been working on my essay until you interrupted me."   "I have finished the essay."

  • gerunds          "ing" verb forms "After walking to the store, he took a taxi home."  So long as you are careful to not create causal temporal and logical inconsistancies, I defend them.

Character Genders

I was recently given a URL for an interesting web site: Hacker Factor Gender Guesser.  It purports to use text to determine the gender of the author, and while I have no idea what the general validity of the method or how independent it is of things like education levels, socio-economic classes, religious points of view, cultural backgrounds, etc. the results of playing with it are interesting.  I put in text from three of my novels, starting with Thinking Outside the Tower.  It has a two character first-person POV: Allison and Sean.  I did the same for first-person sections of The Tower of the Ancients for Paul, Simon, Stephanie and Jenna.   For all those I used the formal results, since it is a book. I then put in spoken dialog from characters David, Fiona, Jirina and Klara, but I used the informal results since that was dialog.  These are the results I get:

  • Allison - female

  • Sean - male

  • Paul - male

  • Simon - female

  • Jenna - female (strongly)

  • Stephanie - female (strongly)

  • David - male

  • Fiona - female (just)

  • Klara - female

  • Jirina - female (strongly)

Now, many of those are described as weak, but the web site points out that European patterns tend to be weakly identified.  Since David, Klara, Allison and Sean have European-like patterns, that is perfect.  While Paul is a highly trained military officer, he is also fairly empathic and good with people.  Jirina is very strongly secure in her gender role and identity, so that also makes sense   Fiona is a heavily conflicted character who is ascerbic and judgemental, so I'm not surprised her patterns came out very close to the line. Simon did not surprise me: he's a highly educated historian, a sensitive character who's very conscious of his (poorly understood) emotions and not confident nor comfortable within himself.

Actually, the surprise was Stephanie.  She's a street smart and hardened, tough-minded witch that calls a spade a spade, contemplates eating her pet when she is starving, curses as swears like the best of them, considers many emotions to be a weakness and will be in your face if it suits her.  Sure, she understands loyalty, familial love and team-work, but when the cards go down, she's a survivor.  When she is attacked, she's more worried about her chickens (food supply) than the humans she might kill when defending herself.

A standard cliche we often see in film, and on the page, is the flying car, not just for science fiction but even for futurists.  A film that was commonly shown to early grade school children in the early 70s predicted that the average family would have a flying car by the end of the 20th century.  Despite not being presented as fiction, that film was more fiction than reality.  Why do we continue to dream of flying?

Flight represents freedom; freedom from gravity, freedom from the ground, freedom from traffic jams, freedom from rules, freedom of the spirit.  The ability to emulate the birds is a long-held dream, even for Icarus.

However, it's not going to happen.  Sure, the very wealthy might have private airports, and the middle classes can learn to fly and buy small aircraft even now.  However, the flying commuter car?  No.

But why not?

There are a multitude of reasons, each one good enough to stop us from having a flying-car in every garage.  There might be solutions to many of them, but most of those solutions would be expensive, probably very expensive.

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Urban Living with Nature

Normally, I ignore the very entertainment-oriented news surrounding many commercial web sites.  It's too trivial to bother with, and is usually irritating more than anything else.  However, I saw this image and it captured my interest.   It just seems to prove that we can live with quality and different options even in the urban jungle. It also reminds me of the elven architcture in Edhelbar in my Thinking Outside the Tower. I didn't specify that the trees grew in veranda tubs, and the vines were interior to the building, but it goes to show that reality can be as strange as fiction.

Nova: The Bible's Buried Secrets

Just watched Nova (25 March 2015), The Bible's Buried Secrets.   It was a fascinating look at the archeological evidence for the writing of the Old Testiment and Torah, and the development of the idea of monotheism.  I haven't seen a documentary of this subject that was that interesting before.   It was a documentary of the best kind, one that acknowledges other theories, and served to educate, rather than entertain.  Also. instead of relying on cheesy CGI effects, it used CGI to explain and augment the on-site photography and cinamatography.   I can recommend this one heartily.