Release: Fortress of Steel, part 1 (Modern Minds 4)

It’s time for a new Modern Minds short story. This time around, it’s Part 1 of “Fortress of Steel”. As always, we’ll start with the blurb:

Dirk is a young man looking for his future. His mind holds a secret strength, a defense few can understand, let alone break. Yet that very power will lead him further into the hidden world he has only just glimpsed, a world of mystery, wonder, and danger.

Head on over to my Patreon (at least until it gets shut down!) to pick this one up. All you need is to subscribe at my Serious Reader level, which only costs you $3/month. That’s not much at all. And you’ll get the conclusion of this one when it comes out in August.

Themis dev diary #4

Since my last update, I’ve now released the 6th alpha of Themis. It’s still not ready for primetime, alas, but I’m making progress. This particular milestone marks the introduction of ActivityPub support, one of the cornerstones of the Themis project. So far, the server can handle incoming Create activities (or post objects by themselves, which it converts into these as per the spec) and follow requests for groups…as long as they come from local users.

In other words, we’re not federating yet, but it’s something. I’ve never implemented a spec of this complexity before, and I’m still working alone. It’s harder than I thought, especially since so much of the AP spec expects you to be online. (In fact, it outright tells you not to deliver to localhost, meaning that I can’t even call Themis compliant until I’m done testing!)

Now, though, I’m taking a break from that and shifting my focus back to the front end. For Themis, this is a kind of SPA using the excellent Vue.js framework and the Vuetify UI library. It’s Material Design, but I’m a strange person. (Okay, you already knew that much.) I like the look of Material Design. It’s clean, uncrowded, and it has what I see as a nice feel. No design spec is perfect, of course, and Material does have some glaring flaws. Vuetify has even more. Still, I think it’s a good starting point.

The screenshot below shows what will become the front page of a Themis server. The login box switches to an account creation form when requested, the right-hand column displays a list of all known groups, and the middle portion will hold a server-specific description that can contain local rules, admin info, or anything else you like. (Editing that information is yet to be implemented.) Other than that, it’s pretty much final. All that’s missing is a logo, which may take someone with more artistic skill—compared to me, that’s anybody.

Because so many people use mobile devices instead of proper desktops these days, I’m also doing my best to make this front-end fully responsive. It’s not mobile-first, because I don’t believe in that philosophy, but Android phones and tablets will be first-class citizens in the Themis network. (I can’t afford to test Apple products, so that’s why they’re not included.)

So, after all that hard work to get 1/3 of the ActivityPub spec implemented, expect some faster progress now. Themis still has a lot of work to go, but I hope to get at least a feature-complete beta version out by October 1st. That’s my target, as it has been all along. Now, I think I can do it.

To share or not to share

Comic books have a long history of being set in a “shared” universe, and that has, in recent years, bled over into the movies and TV series made from them. Witness Marvel’s numerous offerings, how they all interconnect. Characters cross over, as can villains and plotlines. Major story events can reverberate through half a dozen individual series. (DC tried this, too, but they can’t seem to get it right the way their biggest rival does.)

In the world of “real” books, this kind of thing is not too common. That doesn’t mean it’s unknown, however. And there are a couple of ways to go about it. One might say that the Dune setting, for example, is a shared universe, as it has multiple authors working in the same world, under the same general constraints of style, characterization, and overall feel. The (now-defunct) Star Wars Expanded Universe is another good example: dozens of books, all able to build off one another, but still able to tell individual, independent stories.

The other option is a single-author universe. In this case, the meta-setting isn’t shared by multiple writers, but by multiple series. For this, the best example has to be Stephen King; The Dark Tower was his way of connecting all these disparate stories. Another example of an author placing lots of stories into the same universe is Brandon Sanderson, with his “Cosmere” setting. Again, the general principle is the same: multiple stories, all acting independent, but with signs that they are, in fact, set in the same world. (Or worlds, in this case.)

Even considering something like this is a massive undertaking, but…that’s just what I’ve been doing lately. And I’m fast coming to the conclusion that I’ve already started creating a shared universe for some of my works.

Let’s start with Otherworld, since it’s my biggest work yet. All along, I did intend it to be a place that could be shared. There’s a lot of worldbuilding and backstory that has absolutely no bearing on the main plot of the lost expedition. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to create a language for a race that won’t even show up in any of the planned 50 novellas and short novels that make up the “primary” Otherworld series. But that’s okay. In my mind, that gives me more room to try other stories. And I don’t even mind others trying their hand at something set in the universe. (Seriously. Just ask, and I’ll tell you all you need to know.)

One series does not a universe make, of course, but that’s where it starts getting bigger. My Endless Forms series of paranormal thrillers will soon see its second full release (next month in paperback and ebook formats), and I have slipped in a vague reference to one of the Otherworld “bridge” stories, specifically “The Control Variable”. It’s not overt, and it could easily be explained away as a chance coincidence, but I know the truth. And I know I should probably regret it. Now that I’m writing the third entry in Endless Forms, Change of Heart, I may end up adding more nods to Otherworld.

So that’s two, but not all. In November 2017 I wrote The Soulstone Sorcerer, the first entry in a series I’ve codenamed Gateway. The timing doesn’t work for it to reference either of the two above—it’s set in 2018, the others after—but I have gone the other way. The Second Crossing and Point of Origin, two of the 2nd season Otherworld novels you’ll see this year, both have oblique references to The Soulstone Sorcerer. Again, it’s not so obvious that you can’t miss it. No, this is nothing more than a mention. But it may grow into something more.

Shared universes don’t have to be connected through direct links like this, though. Thus, if I’m going to be doing this, then I have no problem saying that, for instance, Heirs of Divinity is set in the same world. There’s about 300 years of difference between it and any of the others, but it concerns essentially the same idea as Otherworld, Endless Forms, and Gateway: things on this planet are not as they seem.

That one’s a decision for later. The same could be said for “Fallen”, the novella I released for free last year. And “Miracles”, since it’s a direct spin-off of Heirs. Some others I have on my to-do list might also end up being in this shared setting, but we’ll see.

Obviously, not everything I write can fit this mold. Nocturne and The Linear Cycle quite obviously aren’t set on our planet. They’re fantasy stories in fantasy worlds. Orphans of the Stars is meant to be “harder”, so it’s out, too. The same goes for Before I Wake, although I may have made it a book that exists in the shared setting.

Hidden Hills is a tough one, though. On its face, it fits the fantasy theme the same as Nocturne. If you look at it the right way, however, it might actually be a far-future sequel to Orphans of the Stars. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but if you read the two, you can see how they could, in theory, be connected.

In other words, even the notion of a shared setting can lead to false friends, stories that look like they’re linked, but really aren’t. Also, I have to resist the temptation of drawing stories closer together when they’re meant to remain separate. I’m not ready for crossovers. I don’t think they’d fit my writing style at all, and they feel a little too…campy for my tastes.

Still, it’s something to think about.