Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Welcome to the Commercial Age

Several controversial bills have been making the rounds in U.S. legislative circles lately, one of which, H.R. 3261 Stop Online Piracy Act, otherwise known as the "SOPA bill", stands to cause the most impact on our every day lives.

We've seen the anti-piracy campaign since our childhood.  It's an old tune.  Piracy is the same as stealing, and stealing is wrong and illegal.  On the surface, it's a pretty simple concept, and one that's easy to get behind.  It's also a concept that strikes close to home with me.  I'm an author, and as such, I stand to be affected by the piracy of my own work.  I've invested some time and effort into studying the topic, and if you're an author, I suggest you do the same.  It's in your best interests.

While the anti-piracy stance seems on the surface to be a no-brainer - full of justice, integrity, and the maintenance of good law and order, it's not so simple.  Of course, nothing ever is.  There are two sides to this, and the flip side is as compelling, or more so, once you dig a little deeper into the topic.

Piracy is a Crime, © Stephen Dann

If piracy is stealing, why would anti-piracy laws not be necessarily a good thing?  How could one condone such illegal behavior with good conscience?  How could one advocate against something that supports the laws of the land, especially laws that ensure the creator of something gets a fair share of the profits gained from its sale?  Because most people don't really even understand the issue.

Part of the problem is understanding Digital Rights Management, or DRM, and what it prevents and causes, and more importantly, what it doesn't.  DRM was created with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to fight copyright infringement online and help the copyright holder maintain artistic control and keep earning money from their work.  At least that's how it's supposed to work.

The virtual world has created problems we're often unfamiliar with because of what it is and how it works.  When I was young and I wanted to buy music, a movie, or a book, I'd go to the store, part with my hard-earned money and return with a physical copy of what I wanted.  It was mine, and I was free from that point on to do with it what I wished.  I'd given the author his cut of the profits by purchasing the item.  From there, if I wanted to read it, give it to my sister to read, and then legally sell it to a friend for whatever he wanted to pay for it, I could.  The book was mine because I'd purchased it.  It didn't matter how many times it was sold, traded or given away after the initial purchase.

Complications arise in the virtual world when we purchase a book because it isn't physical, and therefore needs a place to reside.  Further complications arise when we understand that moving anything digital isn't moving it at all.  It's copying it.  Even if we destroy the original, we've still copied it to move it.  And that's where DRM becomes an issue.  To a computer, there is no difference between copying a file from an old computer to a new one, retaining possession of the work, and duplicating it to another person's computer for their use.  DRM attempts to curb the illegal distribution of virtual works, but at the expense of taking away rights the owner would have if it were a physical copy.  Furthermore, the point can be made that publishers are actually encouraging piracy with their anti-piracy efforts.

This discussion gets even more interesting when we learn that many authors are against DRM, because in clamping down on the illegal distribution of their work, it limits accessibility and arguably doesn't stop people from stealing it anyway.  And several authors have pointed out that encouraging people to pirate their works has boosted sales, not stifled them.  After all, obscurity, not piracy is an author's worst enemy.

So how does this relate to the SOPA laws the government is trying to pass now?  Well, the two are loosely affiliated, guided by the same goal, and that goal is commercialism.  The entertainment industry, including commercial television, motion picture, music, and cable and satellite distribution entities, has spent a collective $2.5 million dollars so far lobbying congress to pass this bill.  And it's all in the name of controlling content, and as a result, money from that content.

Already we're seeing the effects of a bill not yet even passed into law.  Courts are already imposing online crackdowns, much like what we'll see happening with this bill.  Because of the bill's general and ambiguous wording, entire websites can be shut down virtually at will, and indeed the popular, user-driven content site Reddit has already warned this bill would likely be the end of the site.  And if Reddit, a site owned by a parent company with a good deal of resources to deal with SOPA-generated claims, fears it won't survive, smaller sites don't have a chance.

It's been said SOPA will kill the Internet, or at least kill the Internet as we know it.  Many people are echoing this sentiment; it's not a knee-jerk reaction by a few on the lunatic fringe.  Many are voicing concerns against it, loudly and repeatedly.  It's a legitimate concern.  Unfortunately, corporations, driven by profit motives, and not wanting to adapt old fashioned business models, are throwing money at this bill hand over fist.  And because congress still seems to have the intellect of a five-year-old regarding such newfangled technology such as teh interwebz, they're going to take money and run, passing this bill along the way.

I'm scared of this bill.  I blog here, and share virtual content in part to build my online presence and let people know about my writing.  It's how many authors and artists battle the obscurity that threatens to stifle the sales and promotion of their books.  Most just want a voice.  We want our books out there for people to read.  It's not about the money, but we know the originators deserve compensation for their work.  I know if this blog disappeared, it would be a lot of extra work and time lost, and it would cost much more to get back to even where I am now.  I try diligently to use only work that's labeled for reuse, and I always credit the originator to my best ability.  But it would only take getting it wrong only once to make all this disappear, and that's scary.

In spite of huge advances in user-driven content everywhere you look, society is driven more and more by commercialism.  Big business is behind almost everything, and is going strong no matter how loudly folks like OWS scream about it, or how quickly anti-corporate sentiment trends on Twitter.  Big business is good.  It provides a lot for society - a lot we don't often even see.  But in some cases, it's driven by goals that ultimately work against it's own long-term good.  "Make the money now and get out" is the mantra repeated by those in charge.  And they repeat that because what's good in the long run for business often is contrary to their own short-term good.

Some, like those behind the "DeSopa" Firefox add-on, are already hard at work to combat the effects of SOPA, which is a good thing.  Technology is largely misunderstood because it's always changing.  It's always a step ahead of you, even when you're the one creating it.  It will survive, even against such draconian measures as the SOPA.  In the meantime, hunker down against the inevitable, watch the Internet crumble around your ears, and then stand by as those short-sighted enough to enact the bill struggle to reverse their self-destructive decisions.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Movie Review: Ladyhawke

It's one of the best cheesy fantasy films ever made.  It helped propel Matthew Broderick into the spotlight.  It was one of Rutger Hauer's few really good roles.  It starred a young and very beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer.  You've probably all seen the movie, and if you haven't, for shame.  Go see it now.  I'll wait.

Now that you've seen it, I really don't have to talk about the plot.  It's a pretty basic one anyway.  Get back to the castle in time to break the curse and end all that "hawk by day, wolf by night" nonsense that's keeping the lonely couple apart.    And while there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, you probably knew how it would turn out in the end.  Highlight the hidden text below if you want to find out what happens.  Spoiler alert:

They live happily ever after.

The real beauty of the film, besides Michelle Pfeiffer of course, was the cinematography - the setting and scenes of giant castles and quaint medieval towns.  Much of it was filmed in Italy, using the castles and picturesque towns of Rocca Calascio, Castell'Arquato, and Torrechiara.

Rocca Calascio, © Aurelio Candido

Rocca Calascio is a mountaintop fortress (lit. Rock, in Italian), in L'Aquila Province, Abruzzo, Italy.  At 4,790 feet above sea level, it's the highest fortress in the Apennine Mountains, and overlooks the Plain of Campo Imperatore in the Navelli Valley below.

Rocca Calascio, © Federi

It was built as a watchtower to accommodate a military garrison sometime around the 10th century, and was expanded over a period of time, especially in the 14th and 16th centuries.  It was never challenged in siege or battle, but was badly damaged in a powerful earthquake in the year 1461.  The movie distinctly shows how impenetrable it most likely was, with its high walls and inaccessible surrounding terrain.

Castell'Arquato, © Andrea Lodi

Rocca Viscontea di Castell'Arquato is a castle by the tiny town of Castell'Arquato in the hilly Emilia Romagna region of northern Italy.

Castell'Arquato, © Sergio & Babriella Trentanni

It's one of the best preserved castles in Italy, with picturesque views overlooking the town and surrounding countryside.  Much of the town dates back to the 13th century, allowing a distinct look into the history of the region.

Torrechiara, © Hellis Reverberi

Built in the mid-15th century, Torrechiara was the main castle "Aquila" featured in the movie, and is located in the province of Parma in Northern Italy.  Sitting high above the Parma river valley, it has remained almost unchanged since it was first built, a bold and formidable castle, a truly great setting for the final showdown with the Bishop of Aquila.

Torrechiara, © Luigi Alighieri

All in all, the movie is highly entertaining.  In part because of the actors and the plot, but also because of the magnificent scenery throughout.  It feels more like a fairy tale, an old story told around the campfire of some medieval band of merry adventurers.  So next time you watch it, take in the scenery and the footage of the beautiful Italian castles and towns.  Pay attention to the architecture and grand panoramic shots.  After all, you already know how it's going to end.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Aaaaaand I'm Spent!

As of midnight tonight, National Novel Writing Month comes to a close.  For some, it eases out with the pop of a champagne cork, as they celebrate 50,000+ words spilled out into a manuscript in less than thirty days.  For some, it clangs shut like a steel safe door on fingers not quite ready to let it close.  For those belonging to the former, congratulations!  For those in the latter, hey, next year contains the month of November too.

Champagne, © Chris Chapman

Writing that quickly isn't for everyone, but it's an exhilarating experience.  I've never personally participated in NaNoWriMo, but I have cranked out the requisite amount of words before.  76,000 words for a complete novel in 26 days flat.  It was quite the rush.  I was on a roll.  And I didn't stop until the novel was finished.

Agatha Christie Books, © Eric Huang

Not everyone can write that fast.  A number of authors were renowned for writing slow.  J.R.R. Tolkien took twelve years to write the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and didn't publish it until 17 years after The Hobbit was published.  Some authors, like Agatha Christie, could crank out a novel in a couple of weeks.  That's pretty fast for anyone, even if you're cranking out formulaic serials.  Getting pen to paper, or in today's digital age, getting pixels to word document, isn't easy.  It takes dedication, no matter how long it takes you.

Agatha Christie, © Eric Huang

So once you finish cramming in those last few thousand words, take a moment to congratulate yourselves and reflect on your accomplishment, no matter how many words you've written, even if it's Day 29, and you have 47,000 words to go.  Allow yourselves to feel like Agatha Christie for a day.

And then let it sit.  Don't send it off to a literary agent right away - ask any of them - they'll tell you the same thing.  It's going to be a long time, and several more edits, before that baby is ready for prime time.  No novel is ready after a single pass.  Hell, a lot of them aren't ready after several.  Even when you've edited it until you think it's completely perfect, it will get hacked to pieces by agents and editors and béta readers.  But that's a good thing, trust me!  After getting Separate Worlds back from my editor recently, I was shown firsthand just how much another set of eyes can do for a story.

You're full of enthusiasm now, and you can hardly wait to share your masterpiece with the world.  They'll see it all in due time.  For now, let it rest a bit, take a break, and get involved with another project.

Trunk it!

Trunk, © Brian Ford

No, not that one.  This one!

Steamer Trunk, © Justin Masterson

And once again, congrats on a job well done.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dystopia and the Occupy Movement

Hama Al-Assy Square 2011-07-22, © Syriana2011

The winds of change are blowing.  The world is changing.  As early as the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010, a cry of protest rose, the effects of which I think we have only begun to see.  Similar sentiment rushed through the Middle East, with speed and intensity only matched by a wildfire.

Large anti-Mubarak protest in Egypt's Alexandria, © Al Jazeera English

Well over a dozen countries there have seen protests, from minor rallies in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to complete chaos, fighting, and the overthrow of governments in Egypt and Libya.

Where the Smoke Clouds Came From, © Al Jazeera English

In an earlier post, I wrote about the dystopian reality we can find around us, with images of stark decay, squalor, and crumbled infrastructure, pictures of places time has seemingly abandoned.  This time, let's take a look at the societal aspect of dystopia, and how it can be seen in the world events unfolding around us.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

Whether triggered by the protests in the Middle East, or only coincidentally related, the Occupy Wall Street movement has become a key discussion point in today's discourse.  Not since the 1970's have we seen this level of widespread and volatile dissension in the United States.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

This is neither a pro- nor an anti-OWS post, so if you're here for that, you'll be sorely disappointed.  I am not here to make a statement, whether ideologically, politically, or morally, regarding the pros or cons of the movement.  I see it as portraying a number of key social discussion points that appear in many works of science fiction.  There are discussion points from both ends of the spectrum, many with no clear-cut answers.

Occupy Wall Street Day 60, © David Shankbone

Sociology and science fiction are linked, perhaps far more closely than the average reader imagines.  It's not hard to draw parallels and see examples of these discussion points whenever there is a significant social movement.

Occupy Wall Street Day 28, © David Shankbone

Whether art imitates life, or it's the other way around, we find subcultures, factions, and cliques emerge whenever there is a large group of people put together for any significant amount of time.  It's who we are as social animals.  It's inherent in our makeup as humans.

Occupy Wall Street Protests, © Caroline Schiff Photography

No two people think or act alike, and as such, even while we see blatant examples of Orwell's doublethink at work, we see factions and differing opinions presenting themselves as well.

Occupy Wall Street Day 17, © David Shankbone

Seaking of Orwell, we indeed see examples of his dystopian 1984 world alive and well on both sides of the Occupy movement.  Not only do we see protesters echoing a singular voice, often without fully understanding what they're supporting, we see a similar solidarity and unity of action with the police forces reacting to these protests.  An individual supporting either side would probably react less strongly one way or the other outside the context of collectivism within their like-minded group.  I'm hardly the first to recognize links to 1984, and I won't be the last.

Occupy Rome 1984 Orwell, © Remo Cassella

There are countless pictures of the movement, which isn't hard to imagine with a crowd whose every member wields a camera.  Some are iconic, viral examples of the passionate nature of the movement.  Most are obviously taken to express a singular point of view, either for or against these protests, but when viewed as a whole they provide a mosaic from which we can study the sociological issues at play here.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

From the absurd to the ironic, one can see almost anything whenever a large group of people amass.  And each singular view is necessary to view the mosaic as a whole.  Each picture tells its own story, or even conflicting stories.

Occupy Wall Street Day 60, © David Shankbone

No matter what your position regarding this movement, or what "percent" you claim to be a part of, these images present a number of key social issues and questions that apply to both reality and fiction.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

What does a government owe its citizens, if anything?  What does a citizen owe society, if anything?  Should personal responsibility be graded on a sliding scale?  Where does one draw lines in the gray area between universal human rights offered to all and benefits offered to some?  Is what is good for an individual the same as what is good for society as a whole?  How about the other way around?  Do the rights of the many merit sacrificing the rights of the few, or are the human rights of each individual sacrosanct, even to the detriment of others?  We generally agree that one person's rights end where another's begin, but the main bone of contention seems to be exactly where that imaginary line is drawn.

Occupy Portland, © Kit Seeborg

Sometimes these questions are not only difficult to answer, but may not be immediately apparent.  For example, most people would probably agree everyone should be given equal treatment and opportunity.  But on what basis do we form this equality?  Some argue we should create a higher standard of equality for the many by enforcing unequal treatment to the few.  Some argue we should enforce strict equal treatment to all, regardless of success or need.

Occupy Rome, 15 October, © Remo Cassella

Again, this circles back to the question of who owes what to whom, a question impossible to answer.  For every ten people asked, you'd probably get eleven impassioned answers.  One could make the argument that different societies would answer these questions in very different manners, producing very different societies, much as we see in various countries around the world.

Occupy Sevilla, © Tom Raftery

These are vital questions not only to actual society, but to authors of science fiction.  For as a creator of a society, no matter how fictional, the structures which hold that society in place have to make sense to the reader.  If the society you describe is not a viable, realistic society, it compromises belief in your entire story, not just those elements.

Occupy Berlin, © Adam Groffman

If you create utopia, the checks and balances must be there to maintain it as such, while at the same time exposing issues which may ride just under the surface as they did a year ago.  Because the word utopia resembles both the Greek words for "no place", outopos, and for "good place", eutopos, utopian fiction usually portrays a society which seems perfect on the outside, while leaving several critical sociological issues unresolved.  This allows the author to weave plot into the tapestry of the environment of the story and create the possibility for conflict and climax.

Occupy Wall Street, © Mat McDermott

If you create dystopia, on the other hand, the basic elements for strong conflict should be in the forefront, with no easy resolution in sight.  I like to think of a dystopian society as one slightly older than a utopian one.  Once the basic tenets of the utopian society have crumbled, dystopia emerges as the main framework of scene.

Oakland Police Ready for Violence, by Soozarti1

I don't think anyone could accurately tell whether or not what we're seeing with these movements reflects this change.  I don't think anyone wants it to.  But regardless of what happens in the future, what is happening is a great opportunity to look at elements of a dystopian society.  For a science fiction author like me, that is an additional facet to it, and one that makes it more fascinating than it might otherwise be.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


1872:  "Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction." - Pierre Pachet, Psychology Professor, Toulouse University

1873:  "The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon." - British Surgeon-Extraordinary Sir John Eric Ericksen

1876:  "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." - Western Union officials via an internal memo

1895:  "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." - Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society

1943:  "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM

1949:  "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." - Popular Mechanics magazine

1957:  "I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year." - Prentice Hall, Editor of Business Books

1977:  There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." - Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp.

1981:  "640K ought to be enough for anybody." - Bill Gates, Microsoft founder and CEO

Great Lakes Steamers, © James Vaughan

We've been laughably wrong over and over throughout history regarding technology and science.  Nothing illustrates this better than viewing the exponential growth in new technology since 1899, when the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."  My apologies to any of his decedents viewing this blog, but just wow!  Talk about short-sighted!  Last year alone, the United States issued 244,341 patent grants.  What's more, there has been a steady increase of patents, and considering the breakthroughs we see every day, it's not likely to peak any time soon.

Old Fashioned Telephone, © Lisa Stevens

Just in my lifetime, the growth in technology has been astounding.  I don't mean to make you feel old, dear reader, but it's likely you remember a time of rotary telephones, slide rules, and giant square televisions. And what the hell was the Internet back then? Now it's an inconvenience not to be able to take care of business, pay bills, and buy merchandise online.  In fact, the National Retail Federation projects consumers will conduct 36% of their holiday shopping this year online, up from 32.7% in 2010.  It's not hard to imagine that people who didn't even grow up with a computer in the house will soon conduct almost all of their commerce online.

TRS-80, Computer History Museum, © Marc Smith

Our children take for granted the constant technological innovation.  Even as the latest innovations roll out for sale, they nod and smile, and wonder when the next model is coming out.  And they're right in their complete and total numbness to the speed of progress.  After all, just a couple of years after you buy the shiniest, fastest computing machine on the market, it's already well on its way toward obsolescence.  In fact, wait a few years more, and it will be hard to find current programs that even run on it.

Android Phone, © Mark Lincoln

In 1991, 14.4K dial-up modems were the state-of-the-art way to connect to the Internet.  Twenty years later, if we don't have 4G capability with our little wallet-sized phones, we're behind the power curve.  My current phone has two hundred thousand times the memory of my first computer!  That isn't a typo.  Two hundred thousand times the memory capacity!

So how far into the future will we be able to look back and laugh at how impossible we thought time travel was?  How long will it be until we just send an object via the Internet to someone?  How long before we travel that way ourselves?  How about viewing a virtual overlay of augmented reality through our own unaided eyes?

Yep, the future's so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Predicting the Future

Science fiction writers try to predict the future.  It's what makes their stories believable.  The better they are at it, the longer their stories remain valid, and the more real they seem.

We've seen stories get it disastrously wrong.  The Terminator series, for example, has predicted a number of doomsday scenarios. In the original, released in 1984, artificial intelligence becomes self-aware in 1997. They pushed that prediction forward to 2004 and then 2011 with subsequent sequels, and even prompted BBC News earlier this year to ask "How close were the Terminator films to the reality of 2011?"  Even with an amended timeline, one can easily make the argument they were way, way off in their predictions.  In fairness though, that wasn't the only thing they were off on.

Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey was actually pretty close to the mark with its predictions of the future.  Released in 1968, it's known in part for scientific accuracy.  The film shows a space station orbiting Earth, a moon outpost, and a mission to Jupiter.  While we're behind schedule on some of those accomplishments, we've been working with space stations in low Earth orbit since the mid-1980's.  And it's not hard to imagine we'd have an outpost on the moon if we'd kept the interest up.  We haven't been back to the moon since 1972, but certainly not for lack of ability to do so.  The possibilities of missions to Mars or Jupiter might also be far closer to reality if we hadn't seen such a high mishap rate with the Space Shuttle program.

Another interesting facet of the film was the computer technology.  HAL, a "heuristic algorithm" of artificial intelligence, is rather similar to advances in the field we're seeing with such AI forms as Cleverbot and Apple's Siri.  While 2001: A Space Odyssey was a decade early in predictions of such intelligence, those predictions were eerily accurate in terms of the applied technology.  Compare:

Yep.  Eerily similar.  Of course, that does beg the question, does art imitate life, or is it the other way around?  In either case, Kubrick was fairly close there, way back in 1968.  It's hard to imagine a science fiction storyteller getting any closer with predictions of the future.

So how do we predict the future that accurately in stories?  I've opined on the subject before, but the truth is, if we were that good in predicting the future, chances are we wouldn't be in the economical mess we're in right now, facing the worst recession since the Great Depression.  No, we're not that good at predictions at all.

But I'm going to take a stab at it.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict where the future of technology leads.  We've seen the trends in the past.  Technology is shrinking in size, becoming more portable and more interactive.  We're seeing the demise of physical media and the rise of the virtual world.  That is nothing new.  In fact, chances are, you'd agree we're going to see the death of almost every physical form of media such as CD, DVD, BluRay, and even newspapers, magazines, books, and other such formats.  Maybe not right away, but they're all facing a very dire future, and will likely be as popular with future generations as the 8-track is to today's.  But that's the easy prediction.

Harder to predict is the future of bio-medical engineering and its applications.  Nanotechnology is expanding by leaps and bounds, and it will only be a matter of time before nano-surgery becomes standard practice, not the exploratory science.  Doctors will be able to construct or reconstruct anything within the human body without even raising a scalpel.

We've seen recent advances with wearable computing and screen-less computers.  We've seen technology such as geo-tracking and wireless information transfer expand exponentially over the past few years.  The computer industry is redefining itself at such a rate that its advances seem almost like magic.

It's all going to come together, in ways we would think very intrusive today.  In another few decades, we will have media channeled to us individually, channeled via constructed relays from our brains to wireless connections embedded and integrated into our very flesh.  Want to watch a movie?  You won't watch it on a screen, or even projected in front of you.  It'll be relayed to your eyes, played neurologically to your mind via your own biological connection to the virtual world.  Want to listen to music?  You'll be able to access it and play it back to your own mind, completely unheard by anyone but yourself.

A decade or two after that, we'll see the extinction of all physical memory.  Using that same connection, we'll be able to tap into our minds and utilize those areas of the brain we don't actively use, and use them for memory storage or computing applications.  The mind is exponentially more powerful than the technology we use for memory today.  Tapping into the human mind for that will give us an unlimited amount of storage capacity, as one mind is far more powerful than the computing needs of a single person.

Eventually, we'll all be connected as much in the virtual world as the physical one.  The Internet will disappear, replaced by nothing physical at all.  We will simply have a virtual mirror of the physical world, available any time we need it, able to connect to media and one another with a simple command, or even a thought.  They say imagination is one of the most powerful things in the world, and we will see the fruits of that with a very real virtual world, melded completely with the physical one.

It's a scary concept, in terms of how we view society today, but a very real possibility.  At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

National Novel Writing Month

It's that time of the year, when inspiration strikes and authors around the globe begin madly writing.  NaNoWriMo is an interesting and very challenging concept, begun in 1999, designed to help jump start someone into actually finishing a novel, often for the first time.  The goal is to complete 50,000 words in one month.  It's a lofty goal, but one that often works exactly as it's designed to do.  I'm seeing a ton of folks doing it this year, and that's a great thing.  Keep at it, boys and girls!

I'm not participating this year.  Obviously it's not because I don't believe it's a great idea.  It is.  It's just not what I need to be doing at the moment.  I have a stack of finished novels already.  I can crank out another one to add to the pile at any time, and actually have two of them I'm dying to finish.

But priorities being what they are, I'm putting them off for now because I have editing to do.  I'm still working with my editor on Separate Worlds, and will be working on another novella to follow in my foray into the self-publishing world.  As such, they're short term goals, and that is what needs to occupy my mind and my time this month.

And when I'm not working on those projects these days, I'm doing a final edit on the first three books of the Plexus.  That's a much larger project, and one I need to spend some concentrated effort and time on.  It's a whole lot of fun, but it's also a ton of work, something I really shouldn't cut away from to write another book.

I'm tempted to, though.  Boy am I tempted to!  My next two books are very exciting ones, and I'm dying to get into them.  One's a dark murder mystery involving a ghost in Spokane's famous 1909 Looff Carousel.  The other is a chilling tale of horror based on the story I related a couple of posts back, about that terrifying experience on Mount Ellis in Southwestern Montana.  Yes, I want very badly to jump aboard, even a week or two late and throw myself into one of them.

But I can't.  It would be counterproductive, which is the exact opposite of what NaNoWriMo is supposed to accomplish.  NaNoWriMo is supposed to get you off your butt and working on that novel, and working on one of those, while productive in the sense I'd finish up another novel, isn't what I need at the moment.  I need those finished novels edited.  I need to concentrate on getting them perfected and polished further, so they'll be ready for publication.

So, those of you participating this year, know that I'm extremely jealous, but at the same time, I'm perfectly happy editing instead of writing.  The Plexus is a fantastic story, and one I simply must get perfect.  In baseball terms, it's two outs, two strikes, bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth in a tied game.  Sure, I can win the game with a single, but it's a grand slam waiting to happen, and it's up to me to deliver.

And that's why we edit.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Semper Gumby!

"Semper gumby".  That's Latin for "always flexible", or at least it should be.  While I learned that phrase in the Navy, it's as applicable to writers as it is to sailors.  Every writer should have it as their unofficial motto.

Why do I bring this up?  Well, because things haven't gone according to plan, and I have to adjust.  I'd promised you my novella, Separate Worlds, would be available sometime in October.  October has come and almost gone already, and it is still not ready for publication.

Things happen in this business, like any other business.  And because they do, things often don't go according to plan or schedule.  They call an endeavor like this "self-publishing", but that's really a misnomer.  At least it is if the author does it right.  There is more to it than simply writing a book and throwing it out there for folks to read.  There is a process that involves much more than that, including several types of editing and proofing.  More people are involved than just the author.  Fellow author David Gaughran blogs about this process, and is one of the better resources for this I've seen on the Internet.  Reading through his blog gives one a very clear picture of everything involved.

Suffice it to say this has been a learning experience, which is exactly what I wanted it to be when I decided to publish Separate Worlds as an e-book.  It's a foray into a world I haven't explored yet, and it continues to teach as I go along.  It's an interesting and educational look into the relatively new phenomenon that is e-publishing.  It's the wave of the future for publishing, whatever that future ends up being.

I expect to be back on track before long.  I'll get out there, but not before it's as polished as it needs to be.  In the meantime, you'll just have to enjoy a shot of the cover, designed by my genius graphic design artist, Todd Bréda.

Separate Worlds, © Jonathan Dalar

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Most Terrifying Night of my Life

It happened back in 1990, when I was living in Montana.  My buddies and I used to hike the trails and wilderness areas of the Bridgers, the Gallatins and the Absarokas, year around.  We were well familiar and perfectly at home there, no matter the time of day or year.

One meadow in particular, below the 8,300 foot Mount Ellis, in the Gallatin Range was a favorite.  I've climbed the peak itself hundreds of times if I've climbed it once, and I've been to that meadow many more times than that.  My high school, named after the peak, holds an annual race to the top.  I won the race four years straight, from 1985 through 1988 primarily because I knew which exact routes were the fastest to the top.  I knew that whole wilderness area as well as my own backyard.

The meadow was beautiful, nestled between the surrounding mountain tops, with pure, ice-cold water gushing out from several natural springs into a small tributary of the trout-filled Bear Creek below.  It ran northwest-southeast, at the base of the ridge between Mount Ellis and the lower Mount Wilson to the north.  It was the idyllic place to camp, relax, and enjoy the beautiful Big Sky wilderness.

Google Earth image of the meadow, looking north, with a snow-covered Mount Ellis at the lower left.

And then it changed.  I don't know when it did, but it was palpable.  Somehow it was completely different.  It happened gradually at first, so gradually that we initially ignored the nagging feelings of uneasiness we felt there.  The feeling grew stronger though, until it could not be ignored.  It was a feeling that something just wasn't right, that we weren't alone up there anymore.  We were being watched.  We were intruding, and whatever was watching us did not like us very much.  We couldn't put our fingers on it, but it was impossible to disregard.

Topographic map of the meadow, looking north, with Mount Ellis at the lower left.

I distinctly remember trying to hike up to the meadow that summer, only to find myself running back down the trail, scared to death.  There was no physical reason for it; I just couldn't do it.  There was something malevolent up there, and I knew somehow I was in danger if I stayed.

As summer turned to winter (there really isn't much of a fall in Montana), it turned more palpable, more deadly in its intent.  The boys and I talked about it several times together in the "Dwarven Bowling Alley", the low, long attic hangout that also served as my bedroom.  All of us had felt it, and in the same way.  None of us could put our finger on just exactly what it was.

Google Earth image of the meadow, looking south, with the slope to Mount Ellis at the upper right.

And we weren't the only ones.  I know a girl who tried riding her horse up the trail and was bucked off when the horse first refused to go up it and finally bolted in fear.  I know of several other people who came back down from the area and wouldn't go back up under any circumstances.  There was something up there, and everyone who ventured into its radius felt it.  Inexplicable, irrational fear was the common theme.

We had a lot of different theories about what it was, but since it wasn't anything more than a mutually shared feeling, it was hard putting any amount of accuracy to them.  We speculated it might be some sort of human ill-intent.  A recent bust in the area had shed light on the fact the mountain was being used as a drop point for drugs.  We also thought it might be a wild animal such as a mountain lion, as the big cats were quite common in the Gallatins.  It could possibly be rabid, or otherwise unsound of mind.

Cougar, © Wayne Dumbleton

Supernatural activity of some sort could not be entirely out of the question either.  Just down the road from the trail head to the mountain we knew of a field littered with arrowheads and chippings.  It was at least an old Indian encampment, if not a religious place or burial ground.  These were all theories, though, and none of them could explain what we felt.

It came to a head one cold November night in the strangest of ways.  Nothing about the incident served as concrete evidence, but when you take everything in perspective, coincidence seems like a pretty bad bet to take.  In fact, the odds of everything happening as it did would be astronomical.

We'd made plans to go up camping in the meadow on the weekend.  Mitch*, one of my buddies, was off on Friday and wanted to go up a day early.  Both I and another buddy, Rick, had to work, but we'd join Mitch the next day.  I had a job slinging sliders on the mid shift in Bozeman then, so I was able to take Mitch up to the drop off point that Friday afternoon before work.

I hiked with Mitch to the meadow so Rick and I could find his shelter easily the next morning.  He decided to camp under a cluster of large trees on the lower side of the meadow, not far from the trail leading into it.  I left soon after, still with that same uneasy feeling I'd felt before, and if memory serves me correctly, I ended up running most of the way back down to the trail head.  All the way back, I had that same uneasy feeling of being watched.

Gallatin Range, near Bozeman, MT circa. 1990 © Jonathan Dalar 

Later at work that night the feeling hadn't gone away.  It usually wore off after leaving the meadow, but this time it intensified, and was to the point where I was on edge and jumpy, my skin crawling with fear.  It seemed like there was something behind me, watching, waiting, no matter what I did.  Finally I was going out of my mind in stark terror.

I worked for a while, but something was terribly wrong.  I could feel it.  It was a feeling of sheer paranoia, and I couldn't shake it, no matter how I rationalized it.  It finally got so bad I'd had enough.  Mitch was in danger and I had to go get him.  I told my boss I was quitting early for the night.  She didn't want to let me off early, but I finally informed her I was leaving no matter what she said.  I told her it was an emergency, even if I had no idea what kind of emergency it was.  I was scheduled to get off work at two that morning, but it was just past eleven thirty when I left.

As I drove home, my hands actually shook at the wheel.  At one point I was trembling so badly I could hardly function, but managed to get my winter clothing on and get my gear.  I was going up that mountain if it killed me, and the more I thought about it, the more I was certain that was exactly what would happen.

I headed out the door, armed and loaded to the teeth.  We hunted every year then, and going out into the Montana wilderness, let alone at night after some unknown danger, was unheard of without several guns, knives and assorted hardware.  I pulled out of the driveway in a cloud of dust, starting out to rescue Mitch.

I got the rest of the eerie story from Mitch and Rick that night in the attic.  Seems I wasn't the only one with such premonitions.  Mitch said he'd gone to sleep early that evening, somewhere close to four or five in the afternoon.  Darkness comes early in the mountains there during the winter, and it was dusk when he'd turned in.

He'd bedded down for the night, but hadn't made a shelter as we often did while camping.  There was no need for one that night, so he'd cleared the snow away, laid down some pine boughs and stretched his sleeping bag and bedroll out.  As he'd drifted off to sleep, he looked out from his bag over the crust of accumulated snow and noticed a red glowing light, like a candle, but still and steady.  He dismissed it at the time, thinking it was a light from one of the houses down the canyon to the north.  He said afterward that before falling asleep, he'd felt peaceful, so strangely peaceful in fact, that he'd wondered about it.  He later told me it was the most tranquil feeling he's ever experienced.  It was pure ecstasy, he said, like nothing in the world was amiss.

Darkness vs Candle, © Ankur Sharma

Later that night he awoke, all signs of his earlier peacefulness replaced by sheer terror.  He told us he'd never been that scared in his life, and has never been since.  He didn't know what was causing this terror, but he couldn't fight it no matter what he did.  It was more terrifying a feeling than anything he'd ever felt.  Whatever was there wasn't just watching anymore.  It was after him.  He could feel it breathing down his neck.  He grabbed his rifle and fired several shots into the side of the hill across from him, thinking to scare off whatever it was there.

Instead, his actions had the opposite effect from what he'd intended.  "It was like whatever it was said, 'oh, there he is,'" he told me later.  "It was like the sound of the shots drew its attention even more and let it focus directly on me."  He threw his stuff together, grabbed his rifle, and began running for the trail headed down to civilization.  He said all his gear had been packed, and he brought it all back out with him, but if he hadn't, I'm sure he wouldn't have cared.  All he could do was run for his life.

Now this is where the story gets really weird, as if it wasn't enough so before.  Rick said later he had awakened in a panic that night around ten thirty or so.  He really doesn't remember many details anymore, so all we've gotten from him is that he knew Mitch was in trouble and he had to go get him.  He's a real lunch pail kind of guy, not given to any sort of unusual flights of fancy.  He's a mechanic and a heavy construction equipment operator, with little room for any sort of such strange nonsense.  It was completely out of character for him to respond in such a way, but respond he did.  He dressed and sped across town and out to the trail head shortly after, and began hiking up toward the meadow.

Mitch and Rick met on the trail just above the split, where the trail to the right sheered off and headed up New World Gulch.  Mitch says he saw something coming up the trail at him, and in his terror did not even recognize it as a person.  He saw it as a threat.  He felt the dangerous presence closing in from behind and steeled himself for a last stand, sure he would not make it out alive.

As soon as he saw Mitch, Rick began yelling at him at the top of his lungs, screaming that he was in danger, and needed to get out of there immediately.  Finally Rick's voice cut through and Mitch realized who it was.  Even then he could hardly lower his gun out of the terror that still surrounded him.

Gallatin Range, near Bozeman, MT circa. 1990 © Jonathan Dalar

Mitch finally lowered his gun as realization sunk in.  "You've got to get out of here now!  Throw me your pack and run on ahead of me," Rick told him.  He grabbed Mitch's pack and shoved him down the trail, following as fast as he could.  They ran down the path, still feeling that ominous presence, following, closing in.  Hunting them.

They made it back down to the car, tore down the gravel road towards home.  They rounded the corner to my driveway a short while later, just as I was backing out.  We almost collided.  Any longer and I would have already been gone, driving up there to get Mitch myself.  Rick and Mitch tumbled out of the pickup, scared out of their minds.

That night in the attic, we put the jumbled pieces of the story together.  As far as we could figure out the timeline, all three of us felt the same panicky feeling that Mitch was in danger at almost the exact same time.  All three of us felt so strongly we were obliged to instantly do something about it.  I begged off work over two hours early, Rick got up out of bed and drove there from clear on the other side of Bozeman, and Mitch knew he had to get out of there as fast as he could.  The coincidence of all three of us simultaneously feeling the exact same terror was certainly unusual.  And the timing was impeccable.  While I had a slight delay responding, that delay was due to an obligation to work.  If I'd have left when I first felt it, I'm convinced we'd have all met at exactly the same time and place on that mountain trail.

We stayed up into the early hours of the morning, talking about what had happened.  What had happened was so staggeringly impossible it couldn't nearly be coincidence.  There seemed no way in the world all three of us had felt such strong feeling of peril for Mitch at the exact same time that we'd done what we had.  Some force more powerful than we knew was at work here.  The only problem was we had no clue what it was.

Even talking about the experience was terrifying.  It seemed the more we talked about whatever it was out there in the mountains, the closer it came.  It felt like it was still on the prowl, hunting for us.  And we felt even talking about it allowed it to focus and narrow its search.  Finally we agreed not to talk further about it for a day or so, even though we wanted to figure out what it was.  Enough was enough, and we weren't taking the chance that talking about it allowed it to find us more quickly.

Afterward, the old timers in the area started coming forth with their stories.  Seems we weren't the first to experience something like that around the Gallatins.  There was even a tale of someone who hadn't had the luck we had.  Rumor had it, a few years prior, a man had been pulled off the mountain just to the north of the meadow a couple of days after he'd gone missing.  He was stark raving mad, and was taken to the asylum in Warm Springs where he spent the remainder of his days.  And he hasn't spoken a word since.

Now I don't know if that last story is true or not.  It's what several older residents of the area have told us.  I do know our story as I've told it is completely true.  Every single word of it is true, or at least accurate to the best of our recollection.  None of us knew what caused our terror, but there was clearly something at work there beyond our understanding.  I don't believe any of us have gone up that mountain or into the meadow since.

We still don't know what it was that night that so terrified us.  Nothing can completely explain it.  Mitch is convinced it was spirits from an Indian burial ground, that something was done to disturb them and cause them to haunt the meadow.  He swears he's seen the place bookmarked as such a burial ground on Google Maps, but when we looked recently, the bookmark wasn't there anymore.  It wouldn't be a stretch to think that though, as we know there are remains of an encampment just down the road a few miles, and the whole area was once their home.

"The Frog", Northeast of Mount Ellis, looking Southwest into the Gallatin Range, near Bozeman, MT circa. 1990 © Jonathan Dalar

I've used the experience as inspiration for stories before, but until now, I've never recorded it with words.  I have a hell of a horror novel outlined, based on what we felt that night and the months leading up to it, but I haven't written it yet.  Mitch begged me not to write it until I was good enough a writer to do the story justice.  I think I'm there now, and as soon as I can work up the courage to address it head on, I'll write it.  Until then, I'll do what I've done for over twenty years, and that is push it to the back of my mind so the nightmares go away and I don't risk it finding me again.

*The names have been changed to protect what little innocence may be left.

Friday, October 7, 2011

An Egg from Space, or Something More Earthly?

Alien Egg, © Jonathan Dalar

There it is, folks.  In all its raw glory.  But what the hell is it?

I found it in my youth, circa 1980-1982.  It was lying on the surface of the ground in the middle of a wheat field in the heart of Eastern Washington's Palouse country.  It hadn't been unearthed.  It had no signs of being previously buried.  It was just sitting there on top of the dirt, so I took it home to find out what it was.

Wheat Fields in the Palouse, © Nikky Stephen

It's more or less egg-shaped, and consistent in material all around.  At five and a half inches long at its longest dimension, it tips the scales at somewhere over nine pounds.  The more interesting part is it's at least partially iron.  I'm guessing it's between 10% and 30% ferrous, which appears to vary some, depending on where you measure it.  It responds slightly to magnets, more so in certain areas of the surface than others.

Alien Egg, © Jonathan Dalar

I've dragged it around with me over the years, and have had a few interesting conversations over it.  A few folks thought it was a thunder egg, or geode.  At least initially.  They do until I point out the surface looks nothing like any geodes I've ever seen, and it does not feel hollow in the least.  It's too heavy.  It feels more like iron than a hollow stone.  One does not get the impression there are crystals on the inside, should it be cracked open.

Thunder Egg, © Joel Davis-Aldridge

The other thing often mentioned is a meteorite.  In spite of their relative rarity, it's easier to believe than a geode.  It's at least partially ferrous, which is a trait it holds in common with meteorites.  I haven't measured the exact percentage of iron it has, but the 10% to 30% common in meteorites isn't too far off.  You can feel the definite pull toward a magnet when you hold one to it, but it's weak enough they don't cling.

Meteorite, © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

It does not have any indication of rust, however, which is a trait commonly found in meteors.  After years of storage in various garages and back storage rooms, it would have certainly rusted by now if it's ever going to. In spite of the iron content it has, I doubt it ever will.

Holsinger Meteorite, © Samuel Hansen

It also does not have any true indication of pitting or thumbprints, also common in meteorites.  The surface is rough, and covered with small, shiny crystal faces.  They're flat and smooth, similar to those found with pyrite, or fool's gold.

Alien Egg, © Jonathan Dalar

It does, however share color and overall appearance with some types of meteorites, which makes the discussion a little more interesting.  The shape is also interesting.  While round rocks are not uncommon in nature, most have been shaped by water.  There is no evidence of such exposure to water with this rock.  It would be nice to find that it came from beyond our world.

2009 Leonid Meteor © Ed Sweeney

I'm still not sure what it is, and I'm not completely sold on any of the theories I've come up with over the years I've had it.  It's intriguing, if only for its feel and appearance.  It's probably just my overactive imagination, hard at work as usual, but there seems to be more to it than just a rock.  I'd like to think it's an alien egg, and that someday some sort of strange creature will emerge from it.  I'd like to think it's a chunk of some rare and distant metallic planet that somehow found its way to the fields behind my childhood backyard.  Maybe even from the same place as previous visitors to earth came from.

Easter Island © Stéphane Guisard

I haven't found out for sure what it is, primarily because of these fantasies.  Not knowing exactly what it is, however mundane that might be, keeps those wild and fanciful theories in the mix, even when I know they're not serious possibilities.

Someday my son and I will take it down to the University of Washington geology department, and see if we can't get someone there to take a look at it.  Someday we'll have a definitive answer.  We'll know exactly what it is and where it came from.  With that we'll rule out aliens, and probably even junk from outer space.  Until then, it's fun to think about the possibilities.