Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Props to the Man From Singapore

A Singaporean member of my alternate history Internet forum--who I actually met in person when I went to Great Britain in 2006--came up with some very interesting snippets that, in my opinion, would make a sound basis for speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, or horror).

The first one emerged as a result of discussing Singapore's plan to build an underground nuclear reactor.


The board member whose handle is Nietzsche suggested this meant Singapore was well on its way to becoming a real-life Dwarven kingdom.  Flocculencio (the Singaporean) riffed on The Lord of the Rings a bit and posted the following:

Fifteen hundred years later...

The King under the Equator held in his hands the gate between East and West...but the merchant princes of Singapore delved too greedily and too deep and they woke the sleeping Darkness. Who knows what dwells in the nighted caverns at the bottom of the world, who knows what strange blasphemies burrow the living rock?

No man knows. But the jackal and the lizard haunt the vine-encrusted towers of Singapore- Queen of the East, once proud now dust. Mariners sail far clear of that cursed isle for at dawn and dusk they say the shattered lights of the City glow once again, and in that hard, unwholesome light strange things are seen.

But they do not like to speak of it.
The second snippet came from a discussion of Stephen Hawking's warning that contact between humankind and a more advanced alien race would not end well for humanity.


Flocculencio suggested the reason Earth hasn't been visited by aliens before is because we're the first species to achieve sentience.  He then wrote out the following scenario:

Maybe we're the first ones. A million years from now they will speak of us; Human, Terran, words that mean angel- or demon- in a billion languages. We walked among the stars in fire and shadow, we stretched our hand across the galaxy and called it our own. At our command races were uplifted or cast down. Only a few fragmented tales and corrupted records remain of those times. And spacefarers still speak of dark and disturbing legends, of the few damned ships which have slipped off course and come at last to ancient Sol where the husks of mighty defence platforms still ring storied Earth and the brave- or foolish- spacer who slips past comes at last to the threshold of glory and awe and madness, the ancient planet where Humans raised themselves from the dust and from whence they hurled themselves across the void. The legends are whispered for few- if any- are those who return from that dire globe, if the legends be true. A strange light glows in the ancient cities of Earth and things live which should long since have perished for the Humans knew secrets far beyond the ken of any latter day sentients. Perhaps the foolhardy spacer who has grounded his craft in an ancient city will step forward and walk the dusty streets and who knows what will step forth to greet him, shrouded in dark energies? Some things are best left undisturbed, a memory of glory and agony among the stars and the name of Human should not be spoken lest it summon that which cannot be endured. They are the First Ones. Let them rest.

That was so awesome it initially gave me the chills.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Productivity Update, With a Technological Twist

Here's the latest productivity update...

Chapter Five of "Escape from the Wastelands" went before the Lawrenceville group Sunday.  Not a whole lot of criticism, beyond some technical stuff involving the speed at which a company of soldiers can board an airship, something my friend Jamie (a major steampunk enthusiast) echoed.  They also pointed out the chapter is a bit info-dumpy, something that shouldn't take too long to tweak.

Nobody took issue with the fact the chapter was told from the POV of a character who arrived on the scene relatively late, which is something I feared based on comments from members of the Kennesaw group when I broached the topic.  Nor did it bother them that from this point on, the story would be told in the alternating points of view of Andrew Sutter (the protagonist) and Grendel Black (the antagonist, who first appeared in this chapter).

Although I did elicit some groans when I said Grendel's combat gear (which we'll see in the next chapter) makes him look like the Kurgan from Highlander, complete with a helmet fashioned out of a tiger's skull.  That image has been in my head since high school, so it's going to stay.

Now it's time for Chapter Six.  I might well split that chapter, since in its current form, it begins with Andrew and some other survivors contesting the Flesh-Eater entry into Carroll Town, has a middle section where Grendel oversees the interrogation of some other survivors about where they got "Old World" (pre-apocalyptic) weaponry, has an Andrew POV where he has the chance to shoot Grendel but, not knowing who he is, shoots a Flesh-Eater officer instead, and then has a Grendel POV where he restrains his Obsdian Guards (his personal troops) from chasing after Andrew en masse due to the fact the rest of the town is crawling with Flesh-Eater and other OGs and there's little chance Andrew could escape.

As a result of the increased attention I've been paying to "Escape" and my increasing efforts to hit the gym three times per week, my other projects haven't seen much work.  My "Revenge of the Fallen Reboot" (a Transformers fan-fiction) has not been updated in a couple of weeks and since I've been sending the writing groups "Escape" chapters, none of them have seen "Breeding Pair" (the story about the humans abducted for an alien breeding program that discusses the theological implications of Jesus appearing to a non-human culture).

"Coil Gun," "Picking Up Plans in Palma," and "Melon Heads" are all being considered by magazines so far.  I haven't heard back from any of them yet.  "Palma" was sent to Asimov's, whose response time is less than three months, so it's still in the acceptable range.  "Coil Gun" went to Tales of the Unanticipated and "Melon Heads" to GUD, and Ralan.com doesn't have their response times.

Now for the technological twist.  I have recently purchased my first audio book.  I initially sought Drakon by S.M. Stirling, but it wasn't available on iTunes.  Other, more recent audio-books, like Stirling's "Emberverse" and "Island in the Sea of Time" novels, were incredibly expensive.  I ended up settling for the abridged audio version of Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton, which I already own in print form.  Pretty cool so far.

I listened to around the first hour of the two-and-a-half hour presentation at the gym Friday afternoon.  I'll probably listen to the next hour tonight, with the remainder of the book being done Wednesday.

Off to the gym now!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Comedy Central Wimps Out

Comedy Central has censored one episode of South Park and removed another one from its streaming archives entirely after an radical Islamic web-site claimed that the creators of the series would end up like Theo Van Gogh.  Van Gogh, a distant relative of the painter, was killed by an Islamist upset by his film Submission that was, how shall I put it delicately, extremely critical of Islam.


Although the web-site did not make a threat pe se and the owner of the site is not a major Muslim leader or scholar, Comedy Central quailing before even that gives hooligans of all stripes incentive to make threats to get their way and is a setback for freedom of speech. 

After all, if some nobody can make a semi-threat and cause one of America's most important TV networks to cower before it, it stands to reason that some more impressive fellow who makes a real threat will be more likely to be obeyed.

One of my friends from college posted a screengrab of Mohammed from the episode that was removed (by Comedy Central) as his Facebook photo as a protest of the Islamists' threats and Comedy Central's cowardly reaction to them.  I've done the same with mine.  If many thousands of people do this, that should send the message to those who think it is appropriate to threaten violence against critics of their religion, political ideology, etc. that their bully tactics will not work.

This is not an insult to Muslims in general--if I recall correctly, in the episode removed from the live streaming service, Mohammed and other religious figures form a superhero team to fight against a thinly-disguised version of the Church of Scientology.  It is a response to the thuggish attitude certain people have.

Freedom of speech forever.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gym Cyclists Help Power Hotel


Now this seems like something that benefits everyone--the hotel's power bill is somewhat reduced, there's a good chance it might make some extra money in the restaurant (if the meal ends up costing more than the voucher), and the guests get exercise.

If all facilties that had cardio equipment used them to generate power, that would be beneficial both economically (saves on the power bill) and environmentally (less fuel burned).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Some Selections from "The Armed Man"

A few weeks ago, I saw Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man" in Griffin, Georgia.  It's a group of musical numbers, complete with video snippets and, in the case of the Griffin performance (and apparently no others on Earth), a ballet.

I really enjoyed it, but unfortunately, there were no CDs available for sale.  However, since "The Armed Man" has been performed all over the world, there are plenty of snippets on YouTube.

My two favorite numbers were "The Armed Man" (the opening number) and "Sanctus."

I'm going to experiment a bit with posting video.  Here's a performance of "The Armed Man"

Here's the same people performing "Sanctus"

There were other musical pieces as well, including the ending song "Better is Peace" that sounded a whole lot like "The Armed Man," to the point I think it was a deliberate remix.

I just found that the entirety of the performance can be purchased from Amazon, either as a CD or an MP3 download.  Hopefully these two videos will whet your appetite for more.  I might well buy the CD myself.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Book Review: "Eisenhorn" (SPOILERS)

I finished reading the entire Eisenhorn omnibus, which consists of Malleus and Hereticus as well as Xenos, which I already discussed. Now for the review...

I didn't like the later two books as much as I did the first one.  I think the extreme time-jumps played a part in that.  Both the second and the third books take place many decades apart from each other, with one character dying off-screen and being replaced by his daughter as Eisenhorn's pilot.  The first third or so of the third book also kills off or incapacitates many cast members rather abruptly, although it is necessary for the plot.

They also featured a quasi-romance between Gregor Eisenhorn and Alizabeth Bequin, which didn't go anywhere because Eisenhorn is a psyker and Bequin is a "blank" (someone who has no warp presence, whom psykers find it painful to be around).  There is one line in the third novel which describes it in a rather darkly comic manner--to paraphrase it, the pain of being separated wasn't as bad as the pain that would come with them being "together" (sex?)--and in the second book, Eisenhorn fears pain and even insanity if they were to get "together."

(If they both love each other and this issue is so much of an obstacle, more detail would have been nice.)

This didn't turn into a "romantic plot tumor" as I feared it would be in any movie based on Xenos.  However, I imagine if this were made into a film, they would find some unrealistic way of overcoming this problem just to make it more marketable.

(Although it would be interesting if there were a sex scene in a movie in which Eisenhorn is obviously in pain due to the psyker-blank situation and afterward, both of them agree that this was a bad idea.  It could even be construed as a subtle mockery of trying to force a romance between these two characters in the name of having a non-tragic romantic subplot.)

The second and third books do a good job of explaining just how factional the Inquisition is--both novels feature outright violence between different factions of the Inquisition. 

The Big Bad of the second book is a rogue Inquisitor who has consorted with the demonic powers of the Warp in order to try to create a device that (he thinks) would cause the Eye of Terror (a zone where the Warp and the material universe overlap, from which the forces of Chaos regularly attack the Imperium) to implode, while in the third novel, Eisenhorn is persecuted by rivals in the Inqusition for dealing with demonic powers himself (he had to call on a captive demon for help against a Chaos Titan that was massacring his entourage).  His rivals happen to be aided by a former member of his entourage, who is convinced Eisenhorn has become a heretic and is trying to save his soul.

Eisenhorn's arc over the course of the three books is also interesting.  He goes from being a Puritan, an Amalathian in particular (zealously fighting against Chaos in all its forms, although being basically conservative in outlook) to a de facto Xanthist (Xanthists are Inquisitors who have no problem trying to use Chaos against itself, something that often ends badly for the Inquisitor). 

This is done gradually, in a large measure due to the things Eisenhorn needs to survive (calling forth the demon to destroy the Chaos Titan) or in vengeance for wrongs done to him and his entourage (the demon had spent a century or more trying to frame Eisenhorn for consorting with it in order to provoke Eisenhorn to destroy the body he'd been forced to inhabit and free him--then Eisenhorn traps him into a new body and keeps him locked in the basement for a few decades), without any radical changes in Eisernhorn's personality.  It's all very organic and I think that's good.

One of the latter two books does contain an interesting cultural detail.  In the 40K universe, most humans worship the comatose God-Emperor of Mankind in a church that is very medieval-Catholic in style.  When he enters an Imperial cathedral in the story, Eisenhorn makes "the sign of the eagle" in the same manner as a Catholic makes the sign of the cross.

Overall, I think the Eisenhorn novels are a good read, even for those who are not into Warhammer 40K.  Thanks to the way Xenos is written, one doesn't really need to be familiar with the overall universe.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Constructive Suggestion...

A conclusion I've reached in recent years is that anyone can complain about something.  Coming up with a solution to a problem, however, is far more respectable and constructive.

I've complained about farm subsidies in the Political Chat section of AH.com and the one good argument I've heard in favor of it is that it keeps agricultural land in agriculture.  If farm subsidies were abolished or drastically cut, many farms would be sold to developers and urbanized.  This destroys or at least greatly diminishes their potential agricultural productivity.

(Dave Howery, who made the argument, said topsoil is trucked away and dumped somewhere.  From personal experience, I've seen areas cleared down to the clay and then left fallow turn into fields with tall grass and young trees in less than two years, but that's not the same as consistently-productive farmland.  It could easily be years if not decades before the soil quality is restored.)

Dave was concerned about the US becoming dependent on imported food, something that could theoretically happen if a significant quantity of our farmland is turned into suburbs.  And then there's the whole issue of America's food exports on top of that.

So I pondered a solution to the problem.  Here's what I've come up with:

Abolish agricultural subsidies and when the farms fail (let's not kid ourselves--many will), have the National Park Service or whoever is in charge of this kind of thing buy the land and let it return to nature.  It will regain its productivity as the years go by and thousands of plants and animals live and die above it and, if need be, it can be cleared and farmed again.

In areas where many farmers sell out and leave the land, you could restore large chunks of territory to its natural state.  Animals long absent from the territory could be reintroduced.  Heck, I've heard someone suggest restoring elephants to North America (they lived here during the Pleistocene period, not all that long ago in terms of geologic time), while if you really wanted to go hog-wild and had the necessary science, you could bring back the mammoths.

(I do hope nobody is going to seize on my comment about mammoths and use that to write off my entire argument as bonkers.)

Now, lest I be accused of supporting some un-conservative government spending program, unless one is shelling out colossal sums, a one-time payment of buying the land of farmers who no longer find it cost-efficient to farm is financially more responsible than paying out subsidies year after year, forever and ever, amen.

Furthermore, it would pay to be prudent if you get a large tract of territory being returned to a natural state and you want to bring back large animals.  I sometimes frequent FreeRepublic, the online loony-conservative forum, and one of them cited a case of a man who got into legal trouble after shooting a bear that was heading towards his sheepfold in a threatening manner.

If one is going to reintroduce large and potentially dangerous creatures, this should be done only in areas where there aren't any people left at all.  Furthermore, the rights of people to defend themselves, their families, their livestock, and their property against predators should be strengthened accordingly, lest there be incidents.

More Farm Subsidies Foolishness

Here's something I read online today.  The US is now in the business of subsidizing Brazilian cotton farmers as well as our own.


Let's see--instead of cutting $147.3 million per year from our own budget and thus helping, however incrementally, to close our yawning deficit, we instead spend an additional $147.3 million per year to effectively buy off Brazil.

That's spending nearly $300 million per year instead of cutting nearly $150 million per year.  That's not something we need to be doing right now.

The article also has the good point that cotton production is rather environmentally taxing.  I'm not some hippie who would rather people suffer than plants, but if our subsidy policy is encouraging irresponsible use of natural resources, that's another reason to get rid of it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Crowning Moment of Heartwarming

Snarf is now several chapters into his story "Even Sheepdogs Were Wolves Once," which is a novel set in an alternate version of the Draka timeline I wrote.

Here's an excerpt from the story I found particularly heartwarming.  I am not exaggerating--it was genuinely moving, to the point I thought it would be a good idea to post it on TVTropes as a "crowning moment of heartwarming."  Snarf said I could post it here.

(For the record, Tony de Vries is a drakensis, a member of the genetically-engineered Draka "master race," who was taken from the fallen Domination as a child and raised in the United States.)

He was about seven years old, not too long after the Niewendyck family had adopted him. He had some memories of his original family, but not many—mainly of a life on the run as the Alliance forces tore through the Domination.

The Niewendycks had taken him in, treated him as one of their own, something that even a lot of standard human foster children couldn’t claim. Joseph and Olivia Niewendyck made sure he got plenty of food, something his own mother wasn’t able to do toward the end. He had plenty of toys and even when he had to see the ‘special doctors’ once a month the visits were never unpleasant. There was that story about how he’d really come from New York after the bomb hit, but he really didn’t have anything else to offer and who’d listen to a kid anyway? Especially one with a funny accent.

One Sunday morning in church he sat between his foster parents. He was fidgety, the way most seven-year-olds are when they’re forced to sit through adult business when they really want to play. As he was doodling on the back of a program with a pen, he overheard the minister’s sermon.

“We have paid the price for our meddling in God’s plan! We have created abominations the same way that the children of men did when they lay with the angels! Have we not learned? These...posthumans, they’re called—they are nothing more than modern-day Nephilim, and they should not be tolerated among God’s people!”

His mother put her arm around him and held him closer. His father suddenly had a dead stare to his face, as though he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. De Vries understood completely. Even at his young age he already knew he was different, drawing intricate geometric patterns on the church bulletin when his playmates were drawing race cars or spaceships or (in the case of the girls) flowers and cute cuddly animals.

They didn’t leave the service outright, but they didn’t linger long afterward. Later that evening, his father took him aside.

“Tony, I want to ask you something. Did you hear what the pastor said this morning?”

He nodded, sadly.

“I want you to hear something else.” Dad opened up his Bible. “’And as Jesus walked by, he saw a man which had been blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, ‘Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.’”

“John, chapter nine, verses one through three,” de Vries replied. He didn’t know all of the Bible but he did know quite a bit, along with quite a few other books. Lately he’d been working through Shakespeare and Aristotle.

“Think about that, son. You yourself are not the product of sin. You are a very special little boy. And there is a plan for your life that you’ll learn when you’re bigger. Don’t let narrow-minded people try to tell you you’re something you’re not. And you’re not an abomination. You’re our son, and you always will be.”

“But didn’t Jesus heal the blind man?”

“He heals those who need healing. You don’t need that kind of healing, you just need to grow up more and learn what He has in mind for you. And your mother and I will always be here for you to help you along.”

Little Tony de Vries smiled. “Thanks, Dad!” he said as he gave his father a hug.

It was from that point on that his adoptive parents became simply his parents. He didn’t recall going back to that church, or any other church for the remainder of his childhood, although his parents still prayed and read the Bible regularly. Joseph Niewendyck had passed away four years ago, but de Vries still owned that Bible, his most prized possession.

Wow.  That was one of the best parts of the story and it didn't involve explosions, superhuman feats, and that sort of thing.
Here's the link to the story.  Registration is required.  Snarf might post it on a web-site others can view, but he has not yet done so.  If he does, I will post the link here.
Here's the link to my timeline, "The Dragon and the Bear: The Domination vs. Russia."
(BTW, the Draka belong to S.M. Stirling and Baen Books.  Stirling lets fans play in the sandbox and has even "adopted" characters from fan-fiction into the actual canon, at least with his Emberverse novels.)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Another Book I've Read, Which Could Make a Good Film

Just got done reading Xenos, the first book in a trilogy of novels dealing with Inquisitor Gregor Eisenhorn.  It was collected in an omnibuswith the other two novels about him and some short stories that fill the spaces in between.

I think Xenos would make a good Warhammer 40,000 movie and possibly a sounder basis for introducing the franchise to cinema than the in-production Ultramarines movie I mentioned earlier.  You don't need to know scads about the 40K universe in order for the story to work.  Eisenhorn's adventures throughout the course of the book explain the Inquisition and its purpose along the way.  With the exception of the demon-host Cherubael (who can be left out in a film adaptation), the story ends without any loose ends.  And along the course of the story, Eisenhorn and company visit several planets and have lots of fun, gunslinging adventures.

As far as characterization goes, Eisenhorn is an Inquisitor who isn't an evil totalitarian enforcer (unlike many Inquisitors in the 40K-verse).  Although he recognizes the nature of his job means he's got to do ruthless and bad things sometimes, he regrets not being able to save the lives of badly-wounded people he comes across and he provides employment in his entourage for people he initially does not like, the Arbiter Fischwig and Bequin, a woman who has no psychic presence around whom he's always unsettled.  He also doesn't kill or order the killing of Imperial Guard who've seen supernatural manifestations in the course of helping him, unlike many other Inquisitors.

In one of the short stories, rather than go after a group of renegade Imperial Guardsmen who kill people they view as Chaos cultists with guns blazing, he shows up and tells them he's there to relieve them and their war is over.  This almost works.

The fact that, despite the often nasty nature of his job, he manages to retain his humanity would make him a good movie protagonist, even though he is an Inquisitor.

Hopefully, if a Xenos movie were made, the Hollywood types wouldn't try to create what TVTropes calls a "Romantic Plot Tumor" with the relationship between Bequin and Eisenhorn.  Given how Bequin initially thinks Eisenhorn is hiring her to be his concubine (and not for her psychic talents), this could easily turn into some kind of SF version of Pretty Woman.

(Someone on a 40K internet forum said that is reason enough to keep the Ultramarines movie direct-to-DVD, lest an Ultramarine end up dating a Dark Eldar witch who teaches him how to break-dance.)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Book Review: "The Forever War" (SPOILERS)

I just got done reading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Time for the review...

The novel was written by Haldeman, a Vietnam combat veteran, as a deconstruction of military SF and (I think) as a criticism of war. Many people also believe it's a philosophical response to Starship Troopers, which many people have accused of glorifying the military and war, but it's actually not. According to the Wikipedia, Haldeman actually liked ST and was happy to receive Heinlein's praise for TFW (according to the Wikipedia, he liked that better than winning the Nebula Award).

Overall, I thought it was a decent book. The combat scenes had interesting concepts, but were not executed in a particularly interesting fashion.

The parts I liked best were actually the ones involving the characters. The scene where the protagonist William Mandella is parted from his lover and fellow veteran Marygay Potter by an uncaring military bureaucracy that sends them to units that will be serving thousands of light years and decades if not centuries apart (due to time dilation--at 99% light-speed, a voyage that seems to be days will take years) is actually extremely touching and sad, while how their whole situation is resolved (I tried to make it so one could read spoilers by highlighting the text but can't figure out how to) is actually quite sweet.

Overall, I think Starship Troopers is a better book than The Forever War, but in terms of character development, TFW is superior. I had much more feeling for Mandella and Potter than I had for Johnny Rico and the other characters in ST.

Now to read Armor by John Steakley. That seems to be a straight up "power armor vs. the Bugs" without the politics of either ST or TFW.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Productivity Update...

Here's my latest productivity update:

Wrote and posted a new chapter on the "Revenge of the Fallen Reboot." The leadup to my planned uber-climax has begun.

(Not going to reveal it here, since some of my fanfic readers frequent my blog. Sufficient to say, it's going to make a lot more geographical sense than the film did, have the Fallen actually rising again, and have Starscream do more than just get abused by Megatron.)

As far as my original work is concerned, I've been having both writing groups review chapters of Escape from the Wastelands and tinkering further. Got some good suggestions, but I've only made a few revisions to the text thus far.

Much of the creative energy devoted to Escape from the Wastelands has been pondering whether to introduce Grendel Black, my story's Big Bad, in an earlier chapter, perhaps one taking place after the Flesh-Eaters curb-stomp the Carroll Town militia but before they occupy Carroll Town itself.  In my original plan, we do not meet Grendel himself until the aftermath of the storming of Carroll Town.  This chapter would explain in more detail why he, overlord of all the lands between the mountains, desert, and seas, is in some podunk town that's more a vassal of the Flesh-Eaters than an actual part of their territory.  Much more worldbuilding and character development (Grendel and Andrew will alternate POVs) this way.

Plus, although I referred to the story once as a "post-apocalyptic steampunk Western," I didn't think about including the most steampunky element of all--airships--until last Friday.  I was at the Honda place getting my 90,000 mile service and wrote a little on my notepad.  I described Grendel returning to his capital and, between the pillars of smoke from the industrial concerns, were airships.

This changes the military dynamic considerably.  Airships mean a much greater ability to do recon, aerial bombing, rapid resupply, perhaps even airborne troop insertions.

My Kennesaw writing group is meeting tomorrow, to discuss Chapter Four (the destruction of the Carroll Town militia).  We'll see how it goes.