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.