From the memory vault: Atlanta 2012

Growing up, I never really “got” gaming, not in the RPG sense. That only started to click in my head once I began looking into D&D and other games like it, which wasn’t until the early to mid 2000s. The first time I bought an RPG book was in 2006: d20 Modern. I saw it at the bookstore, thought it looked interesting (it had stats for modern weapons, among other things), and had the extra money, so why not? Although I didn’t buy it there; I instead ordered it from Amazon, because that was quite a bit cheaper, and not nearly as socially awkward.

It’s hard to believe that this happened when I was 22, and I’m now closing in on 35. It’s even harder to believe that the first idea I had for a campaign of my own, inspired by what I read in the d20 Modern handbook, is set in a time closer to then than now.

I’m bored and not very inspired, so that’s what this post is for. This is my chance to throw out an idea that came to me before I ever started writing fiction. I called it “Atlanta 2012”, and you’re about to see why.

The premise

Back in those halcyon days of 2006, we didn’t have to worry about the polarization of discourse, or social media privacy, or ISIS, or anything like that. We had the political turmoil of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, of course, and the violations of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11, but nothing like today. Thus, such troubles hadn’t seeped down into fiction yet, or into the mind of a young man whose head was already too full.

One thing that did interest me then was all the hubbub about the Mayan doomsday prophecy. If you’ll recall, the world didn’t end in December 2012, but far too many people thought it did, because they couldn’t fathom the idea of a calendar running out. Never mind that we were only a few years removed from the Y2K hysteria, which boiled down to the exact same problem. No, they were convinced the apocalypse was coming, and that the Mayans knew it down to the day.

The d20 Modern system, for those who don’t know, was an attempt at making a present-day adaptation of 3rd Edition D&D. (This was before 4E and Pathfinder, when everyone was making supplements, thanks to the OGL.) It wasn’t exactly the same, but it was pretty close. I don’t remember all the specifics now, but some that stick out are the wealth system—skill checks instead of tracking currency—and the horribly low damage that most guns did. If I did a game set in the present now, I’d probably use GURPS or something like that, but I was young, and I didn’t have the same resources at my disposal. This was what I had to work with.

These two threads tie in together, because they form the two sides of my campaign idea. The setting would be 2012, starting a few months before the presumed doomsday. I chose Atlanta as the “base” city because it was close enough that I knew a little about it, but far enough away that it wouldn’t be obvious I was doing a “hometown” RPG. Plus, it’s big, really big. There’s a lot of places to hide, a lot of gaps where stories can go. (For the same reason, I’ve used it as the main character’s effective base camp in my Endless Forms paranormal novel series.) The six years between play time and game time would give my players—my brother and a couple of my stepdad’s nephews were who I originally intended, as I would be the GM—the chance to play as either upgraded versions of themselves or fictitious contemporaries. And such a short time gap meant that technology wouldn’t change too much…except that I didn’t predict Facebook and ubiquitous smartphones, but you can’t win ’em all.

So, the game would take place in Atlanta, starting mere months before the end of the world. And that would be the first big storyline. My imagination had the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalyptic event, culminating in a trip into the jungles of Guatamala and the Yucatan. Since you can’t very well stop time, the big day would come and go, so Act I was a bit of a forced Bad Ending. But my idea was that the players wouldn’t know that yet. The effects would only show up later.

In the d20 Modern handbook, there are a few setting sketches. The authors never went into any great detail, because they expected you to buy worldbooks to fill those in. (I don’t think they ever wrote them, though.) Basically, you had a generic “real world” setting, one where psionic stuff was prevalent, and “Urban Arcana”. That last was the key, because it was described as not much more than “D&D in our world”. You could have orcs on a subway, or trolls walking down Peachtree (or Broadway, but I was using Atlanta, remember). You could have magic, even. There weren’t fixed ways of using it, but the leveling system of 3E meant that your modern-day hero could take a wizard level if he wanted—and if you had the book—and there’s your spells.

Putting it all together, that was the outline I devised. Part 1 was a detective mystery, with the players hunting down clues as to the nature of the apocalypse, then coming into contact with a shadowy organization that wanted to bring it about. Then, when the designated day arrived, Bad Things would happen. The superficial victory hides the greater threat emerging: magic, fantasy, mythology. The world would slowly open up to the supernatural, in all its myriad forms. The latter half of the campaign, then, is all about that. I don’t go in for horror, but I thought I might be able to mix it in a little, especially when the players first confronted something obviously inhuman. My plans never got to mind flayers and beholders and the like, but that’s because I eventually gave up on the whole thing.

In a sense, however, I didn’t. A lot of what made Atlanta 2012 actually went into Endless Forms. The same city is the focus. Instead of a team of investigators, I’ve just got one, but he is still investigating. There’s no overt magic, but supernatural creatures lurk everywhere. So, while I did abandon the RPG campaign, the story seed went into hibernation, sprouting a decade later. Funny how that works.

Amazon: Taking a break

In the past two years, I’ve posted quite a bit of my work on Amazon through their KDP program. That’s great. It really is. I won’t say I’ve been all that successful with it, but I have seen a modest number of sales here and there. Even better is the newer paperback option. I prefer physical books, and I truly love holding one bearing my name in my own two hands. That’s a wonderful feeling, probably the closest I’ll ever get to holding a child of my own.

Today, I had planned to release my novel Innocence Reborn in paperback. But I won’t. Why? Because I’m taking a break from KDP for a while. I don’t know if Innocence Reborn is ready for the platform, and it’s just too much trouble changing things around to fit their requirements. I’ve had no end of problems adjusting margins, for example, because LuaTeX (the engine I use to create print-ready PDFs) doesn’t play nice with whatever Amazon uses to measure. Thus, my “0.75 inch” margin—the minimum required for a book of the intended size—is somehow smaller than the “0.750000 inch” that they ask for.

On top of that, I have yet to get the print cover looking the way I want. In every case thus far (Before I Wake, Nocturne, The Linear Cycle, and The Shape of Things) the end result comes out too dark. Granted, I’ve used black backgrounds for three of those, and a dark red for The Linear Cycle, but…I’m no artist. I’m not a designer. I really don’t know what’s going on, nor do I know how to ask for help, let alone whether anyone would bother giving it.

This isn’t permanent. I fully intend to come back to the platform, but I really feel like I need a break from the hassle. Let me write. That’s all I ask. Then, once I’m done with the writing (and the editing, the re-editing, the re-re-editing…), I’ll worry about print-friendly cover art, half-title pages, and things like that.

Summer Reading List 2018 – halfway point

Summer has reached its height. The temperatures are awful, the storms are coming fast and furious, and it’s a good time to just sit inside, turn that AC on high, and read.

Back at Memorial Day, I announced the 2018 version of the Summer Reading List Challenge. Your task: 3 books read by Labor Day. As of today, you have 32 days remaining, so how are you doing?

Although I’m writing this on July 19, the two weeks between then and now won’t see me finishing a third book for the challenge. There’s just too much else to do. But that’s okay. I’ve got 2 so far:

Fiction

Title: The Core
Author: Peter V. Brett
Genre: Fiction/fantasy
Year: 2017

This is the final part of the five-book Demon Cycle that started way back when with The Warded Man. I’ve followed along through the whole thing, and I have this to say about the series as a whole: the worldbuilding is excellent. Here we have what’s basically a distant post-apocalyptic setting. Demons come up out of the ground every night, preying on humans, keeping them corralled into a handful of cities and numerous small villages. There’s magic, war, sex, violence, and pretty much everything you’d want out of an epic fantasy saga.

Well, this book cranks everything up to 11. That’s really the only way to put it. And it works, for the most part. The worst complaint I’ve heard about the Demon Cycle is the author’s use of dialect, which some found confusing or even incomprehensible. As someone who is used to Southern and Appalachian speech, it never bothered me one bit. Instead, I was more annoyed by the fanboy-like fawning over a certain group of people, the sometimes blatant Mary Sue nature of quite a few characters, and the Mass Effect 3 ending.

Other than that, it was a fun read, a fun journey. I won’t say The Core is the best book I’ve ever read, and at over 700 pages, it’s a pretty big investment, but this one was worth it. I love worldbuilding, I love interesting settings, and I love cinematic action. Going by that standard, this book’s got it all.

Nonfiction

Title: From Tyndale to Madison
Author: Michael Farris
Genre: Nonfiction/history
Year: 2007

One of the requirements of the Summer Reading List challenge is a nonfiction book. My choice for this year is a fairly obscure work I got from…somewhere, entitled From Tyndale to Madison. Its goal is to link William Tyndale’s 16th-century attempt to translate the Bible into English with the concept of freedom of religion expressed in the 1st Amendment.

Well, it pretty much fails at that. I have nothing against Christianity per se, or indeed Christian authors, but this book is a case where an author looked at a topic from a biased angle and, wonder of wonders, came to a biased conclusion. The historical parts of the book, a series of cases where the established English (and later Colonial) church used its power to suppress lesser sects, work just fine. They’re informative even for someone like me, someone who has researched the period to some slight degree.

Where I take issue is the notion that these nonconformists were the sole reason why the Founding Fathers made sure to include the free exercise of religion (or the lack of such) into our country’s second most important document. The author tries to prove that this had nothing to do with the Enlightenment, the single most pivotal era in the history of science, philosophy, and rationality. He also dismisses the very well established evidence that many of those who founded the US, who were responsible for ensuring that Christianity in any guise would not reign supreme, were deists.

Yeah, that doesn’t exactly work. Even in its own text, the “debunking” fails. The colonial laws of tolerance the author so often quotes as being the precursors to the Bill of Rights invariably continue to outlaw deism, atheism, and other non-Christian philosophies. If, as his theory supposes, these were what Madison and the others of his time were trying for, then they failed miserably. And it’s a good thing they did.

So I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. The history parts are fine, but it’s blatantly obvious that the author has an agenda, and he’s willing to distort the evidence to confirm it. Leave that to Fox News. We don’t need it in our books.

Coming up

There’s still a #3. I haven’t decided what it’ll be just yet, but I’ve got a few ideas. I do want to read something a little older, maybe even a classic. The box I have yet to check is “a genre you don’t normally write”, so fantasy won’t cut it. Probably not sci-fi, either, unless I go for something a little…out of the ordinary. I’ll tell you around Labor Day, or you can follow me on the Fediverse (using Mastodon, Pleroma, or whatever your favorite platform): @mikey@toot.love. Keep reading!

Release: The Dark Continent (A Bridge Between Worlds 4)

Halfway across the bridge now, and we’re still going strong.

For Damonte, crossing the bridge between worlds was like going back in time. Choosing not to return home was one of the hardest sacrifices he had ever made. But it might be for the best. Here in this world, among a different sort of people, he has a chance. A chance to make a difference, a chance to right a wrong. A chance not only to be free, but to truly understand what freedom means.

The Otherworld series remains exclusive to my Patreon, and you can pick up this installment, as well as the rest of the story, for a pledge of only a few dollars a month.

A Bridge Between Worlds continues with Part 5, “The Lessons Learned”, coming September 25. Check back for more info, and remember to keep reading!

Future past: computers

Today, computers are ubiquitous. They’re so common that many people simply can’t function without them, and they’ve been around long enough that most can’t remember a time when they didn’t have them. (I straddle the boundary on this one. I can remember my early childhood, when I didn’t know about computers—except for game consoles, which don’t really count—but those days are very hazy.)

If the steam engine was the invention that began the Industrial Revolution, then the programmable, multi-purpose device I’m using to write this post started the Information Revolution. Because that’s really what it is. That’s the era we’re living in.

But did it have to turn out that way? Is there a way to have computers (of any sort) before the 1940s? Did we have to wait for Turing and the like? Or is there a way for an author to build a plausible timeline that gives us the defining invention of our day in a day long past? Let’s see what we can see.

Intro

Defining exactly what we mean by “computer” is a difficult task fraught with peril, so I’ll keep it simple. For the purposes of this post, a computer is an automated, programmable machine that can calculate, tabulate, or otherwise process arbitrary data. It doesn’t have to have a keyboard, a CPU, or an operating system. You just have to be able to tell it what to do and know that it will indeed do what you ask.

By that definition, of course, the first true computers came about around World War II. At first, they were mostly used for military and government purposes, later filtering down into education, commerce, and the public. Now, after a lifetime, we have them everywhere, to the point where some people think they have too much influence over our daily lives. That’s evolution, but the invention of the first computers was a revolution.

Theory

We think of computers as electronic, digital, binary. In a more abstract sense, though, a computer is nothing more than a machine. A very, very complex machine, to be sure, but a machine nonetheless. Its purpose is to execute a series of steps, in the manner of a mathematical algorithm, on a set of input data. The result is then output to the user, but the exact means is not important. Today, it’s 3D graphics and cutesy animations. Twenty years ago, it was more likely to be a string of text in a terminal window, while the generation before that might have settled for a printout or paper tape. In all these cases, the end result is the same: the computer operates on your input to give you output. That’s all there is to it.

The key to making computers, well, compute is their programmability. Without a way to give the machine a new set of instructions to follow, you have a single-purpose device. Those are nice, and they can be quite useful (think of, for example, an ASIC cryptocurrency miner: it can’t do anything else, but its one function can more than pay for itself), but they lack the necessary ingredient to take computing to the next level. They can’t expand to fill new roles, new niches.

How a computer gets its programs, how they’re created, and what operations are available are all implementation details, as they say. Old code might be written in Fortran, stored on ancient reel-to-reel tape. The newest JavaScript framework might exist only as bits stored in the nebulous “cloud”. But they, as well as everything in between, have one thing in common: they’re Turing complete. They can all perform a specific set of actions proven to be the universal building blocks of computing. (You can find simulated computers that have only a single available instruction, but that instruction can construct anything you can think of.)

Basically, the minimum requirements for Turing completeness are changing values in memory and branching. Obviously, these imply actually having memory (or other storage) and a means of diverting the flow of execution. Again, implementation details. As long as you can do those, you can do just about anything.

Practice

You may be surprised to note that Alan Turing was the one who worked all that out. Quite a few others made their mark on computing, as well. George Boole (1815-64) gave us the fundamentals of computer logic (hence why we refer to true/false values as boolean). Charles Babbage (1791-1871) designed the precursors to programmable computers, while Ada Lovelace (1815-52) used those designs to create what is considered to be the first program. The Jacquard loom, named after Joseph Marie Jacquard (1752-1834), was a practical display of programming that influenced the first computers. And the list goes on.

Earlier precursors aren’t hard to find. Jacquard’s loom was a refinement of older machines that attempted to automate weaving by feeding a pattern into the loom that would allow it to move the threads in a predetermined way. Pascal and Leibniz worked on calculators. Napier and Oughtred made what might be termed analog computing devices. The oldest object that we can call a computer by even the loosest definition, however, dates back much farther, all the way to classical Greece: the Antikythera mechanism.

So computers aren’t necessarily a product of the modern age. Maybe digital electronics are, because transistors and integrated circuits require serious precision and fine tooling. But you don’t need an ENIAC to change the world, much less a Mac. Something on the level of Babbage’s machines (if he ever finished them, which he didn’t particularly like to do) could trigger an earlier Information Age. Even nothing more than a fast way to multiply, divide, and find square roots—the kind of thing a pocket calculator can do instantly—would advance mathematics, and thus most of the sciences.

But can it be done? Well, maybe. Programmable automatons date back about a thousand years. True computing machines probably need at least Renaissance-era tech, mostly for gearing and the like. To put it simply: if you can make a clock that keeps good time, you’ve got all you need to make a rudimentary computer. On the other hand, something like a “hydraulic” computer (using water instead of electricity or mechanical power) might be doable even earlier, assuming you can find a way to program it.

For something Turing complete, rather than a custom-built analog solver like the Antikythera mechanism, things get a bit harder. Not impossible, mind you, but very difficult. A linear set of steps is fairly easy, but when you start adding in branches and loops (a loop is nothing more than a branch that goes back to an earlier location), you need to add in memory, not to mention all the infrastructure for it, like an instruction pointer.

If you want digital computers, or anything that does any sort of work in parallel, then you’ll probably also need a clock source for synchronization. Thus, you may have another hard “gate” on the timeline, because water clocks and hourglasses probably won’t cut it. Again, gears are the bare minimum.

Output may be able to go on the same medium as input. If it can, great! You can do a lot more that way, since you’d be able to feed the result of one program into another, a bit like what functional programmers call composition. That’s also the way to bring about compilers and other programs whose results are their own set of instructions. Of course, this requires a medium that can be both read and written with relative ease by machines. Punched cards and paper tape are the historical early choices there, with disks, memory, and magnetic tape all coming much later.

Thus, creating the tools looks to be the hardest part about bringing computation into the past. And it really is. The leaps of logic that Turing and Boole made were not special, not miraculous. There’s nothing saying an earlier mathematician couldn’t discover the same foundations of computer science. They’d have to have the need, that’s all. Well, the need and the framework. Algebra is a necessity, for instance, and you’d also want number theory, set theory, and a few others.

All in all, computers are a modern invention, but they’re a modern invention with enough precursors that we could plausibly shift their creation back in time a couple of centuries without stretching believability. You won’t get an iPhone in the Enlightenment, but the most basic tasks of computation are just barely possible in 1800. Or, for that matter, 1400. Even if using a computer for fun takes until our day, the more serious efforts it speeds up might be worth the comparatively massive cost in engineering and research.

But only if they had a reason to make the things in the first place. We had World War II. An alt-history could do the same with, say, the Thirty Years’ War or the American Revolution. Necessity is the mother of invention, so it’s said, so what could make someone need a computer? That’s a question best left to the creator of a setting, which is you.

On the weather

It’s hot right now. Maybe not where you live, maybe not when you’re reading this, but today, for me, is a hot, steamy day on the edge of summer. There’s a slight chance of thunderstorms; I can see them on the local radar, and I’d give them 50-50 odds of getting here before they die down for the day.

Weather is an important part of our lives. Unless you live in an underground bunker or a climate-controlled habitat dome (Fallout and Surviving Mars fans can speak up here), you have to deal with it on a daily basis. Some of humanity’s first attempts at controlling the future were purely for the weather: winds, tides, rains, and storms. We go to great lengths to forecast it, and it’s so ingrained in our culture that the most generic icebreaker we have is “How about that weather?”

For storytelling purposes, weather is mostly background information. You don’t even have to put it in, really; it’s assumed to be a sunny day (or clear night) unless stated otherwise. But a little bit of inclement weather can serve a purpose, if thrown in at the right time.

Have you ever seen the rain

Rain, of course, is the most obvious type of “bad” weather. We associate rainy days with dreariness, lethargy, and sadness. Harder rains can cause flooding, while a mere drizzle does nothing but annoy.

But that’s a bit biased. In temperate regions (like most of the US and Europe), rain can fall at any time throughout the year. Warm and cold fronts bring rain, and tropical cyclones can produce massive amounts. That’s how weather works around here. In tropical regions, however, you’re more likely to have distinct wet and dry seasons. The wet season, often what would be “winter”, can see daily showers and light thunderstorms. In contrast, the dry season is, well, dry. Some places, even in rainforests, can go months without even a trace of rainfall. Out-of-season rain is an event for these locales, and it’s usually caused by a storm—in fantasy, there might even be ulterior motives.

Most of all, rain sets a tone for a scene. A rainy day is…blah. You don’t want to go outside. All you want to do is either sleep or stare out the window. That’s a great time for introspection, dialogue, and all the hallmarks of what TV writers call the “bottle” episode. Your characters are stuck together, so now’s the time to let it all out.

The thunder rolls

Beyond rain, we have the thunderstorm. (Okay, some storms don’t have rainfall, or they have the virga phenomenon, where the rain evaporates before it reaches the ground. Bear with me here.) Storms produce lighting, which then creates thunder. Larger ones can drop hail, ranging from tiny pellets to softball-sized chunks of ice. Depending on where you—or your characters—live, tornadoes are also a possibility.

A thunderstorm represents violence, the fury of nature. It’s a good time for characters to wonder if the world is mad at them specifically. The aftermath brings a chance to spot and repair damage, as some severe thunderstorms and tornadoes can destroy houses, knock down trees and power lines, etc. A few, alas, are even deadly. (I used a killer storm in Written in Black and White, for instance.) If you can’t find a story in the tornado outbreaks that struck Joplin, Missouri or Ringgold, Georgia, a few years ago, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Lightning also kills, though that’s rarer. In fantasy settings, especially those with active deities, that might also provide a bit of a hook. For the sci-fi side of the coin, consider the more extreme storms that could occur on other worlds. I don’t just mean the Great Red Spot here; Earthlike planets with thicker atmospheres, for example, would certainly have stronger winds in their storms.

Let it snow

I’m a kid at heart, so snow is obviously my favorite sort of inclement weather. It’s got all the same downsides as rain, but add to those the cold, the lack of traction on icy roads, and sheer weight. Then again, it also gives us snowball fights, snowmen, sledding, skiing, and so on. For children, snow is fun. For the working man, it’s terrible. A perfect dichotomy, if you ask me.

Heavier snowfalls do the same thing as heavy rains and severe storms: keep people inside. (Sometimes, it keeps them inside for far too long. Look at, say, the Donner Party.) But where a thunderstorm usually lasts only an hour or two at most, the aftermath of a blizzard can stick around for a week or more. In places that don’t often see large amounts of snow (like Tennessee in 1993), that causes massive headaches for the populace. Set in older days, before technology allowed us to store over a week of food without trouble, you have an even bigger problem. A two-foot blanket of snow in a place that wasn’t expecting it could be the prelude to a disaster. And speaking of disasters…

The weather outside is frightful

Some of our most destructive disasters stem from the weather. Tornado outbreaks strike across the Great Plains in the US and Canada, sometimes also creeping into the American Southeast. I know those all too well: one 2011 twister touched down less than a mile from my house. Hurricanes and tropical storms, not as common in Europe or on the West Coast, strike the eastern US fairly often. We all remember Katrina and the others from the wild 2005 season, but every portion of the coast has a tale from Andrew, Hugo, Camille, Opal, Rita, or one of the many other retired names on the NHC list.

A true weather disaster is a story in itself, but it can also provide the impetus or backdrop for a story. The storm might be on the periphery, but it will affect the characters even from a great distance. News reports trickle in, loved ones may ask for help—you get the idea. All you have to do is turn on the TV or check the Internet to see what happens when a natural disaster strikes.

And that really goes for anything to do with the weather. We’ve got sites and channels dedicated to nothing else. You can’t miss it. The hard part is figuring out how to integrate it with your story. The first question to ask there has to be: do you need to? Maybe it’s enough to say that it was a cloudy day, or that rain was striking the roof.

If that’s not the case, and you do need a storm to spice things up, think about what they do in real life. They bring people together, either physically (because it’s too dangerous to be outside) or emotionally (every major disaster brings out the charitable contributions). They can destroy homes, change lives. But they can also be a time to shine. We can always find the hero who threw himself atop his kids so the tornado would take him instead, or the boater who made six trips to the houses of flood victims, or whatever you’re looking for.

Or it might just be a little rain. That wouldn’t hurt.

On lunar exploration

The Moon. Our closest celestial neighbor, the body that gives light to our nights. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of mankind’s greatest achievement: walking upon that body. And we’re losing the heroes who accomplished that feat. With the recent death of Alan Bean, only 4 of the 12 remain alive.

Something must be done on that front. We can’t let the direct, personal exploration of our natural satellite pass out of living memory. Some private corporations (e.g., SpaceX, Boeing) are looking into the matter. Next July would be a fantastic time to make a power move in that space race.

But let’s take a step back, look at exploring the Moon from a storytelling perspective. That is, after all, what we do here. For the budding author of science fiction, dear Luna presents an interesting setting not entirely unlike Earth’s deserts, the deepest ocean trenches, or the vast emptiness of space.

The right stuff

As you know (unless you’re one of those lunatics—note the pun there—who thinks the whole thing was a hoax, in which case I have nothing more to say to you), 12 American men walked on the surface of the Moon between 1969 and 1972. A total of 24 traveled there, including those who merely orbited it. Stays ranged from a few hours on Apollo 11 to over 3 days on the final mission, Apollo 17. EVAs (moonwalks) lasted as long as 7 hours. And they did it all with 60s-era technology, with so many corners cut that it’s a wonder nobody died in space.

Since then, and even during the golden years of the Space Age, the media has been enamored with lunar exploration and cis-lunar travel in general. But that fascination extends much deeper into history. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, written about a century before Neil Armstrong’s small step, set the original standard for the subgenre. Pulp action from the early and mid 20th century painted a distinct picture of the Moon that today’s generation mostly knows from Looney Tunes and The Jetsons.

In the now five decades since Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” picture, we have the data to make much better fictional accounts. Some of the best, in my opinion, are actually biographical in nature: Apollo 13, as well as From the Earth to the Moon, the HBO miniseries named after Verne’s seminal work. More recently, we also have Moon from about a decade ago, the found-footage horror film Apollo 18, and many others. Advances in technology and cinematography can transport viewers straight to the Sea of Tranquility, Tycho crater, or any number of other lunar locations.

Literary fiction doesn’t have movie magic, but the same fire burns in the book world. Andy Weir’s Artemis, for instance, shows that writers’ love for the ball of rock next door has not waned completely. Mars might get more airtime, but the Moon is so much closer. It’s the perfect stepping stone, both for a species and an author.

Magnificent desolation

But the Moon also presents problems. In that, it’s both a setting and a source of environmental conflict, much like the “middle” Mars in my post about the Red Planet. Take out the dust storms (because there’s no significant atmosphere) and the months-long travel time, and you don’t have all that much difference.

The Moon has about half of Mars’ gravity, 1/6 g instead of 3/8, which can present more physiological and medical problems. Lunar dust is a well-known source of trouble. Without air—what little atmosphere the Moon has seems to come from solar wind interacting with dust particles—you have to search for consumables. Radiation is a much greater concern, more like the trip to Mars rather than living on its surface. All told, it’s not a place friendly to life in the least.

Yet there are upsides to the Moon. Besides its proximity to Earth, you have the simple fact that it’s tide-locked to us. Anywhere on the near side will always be in radio contact with some part of our planet. (Conversely, the far side is in total radio silence, one reason why so many astronomers want a telescope out there.) Building material is cheap and plentiful; lunar regolith has the potential to make decent concrete, according to some studies, and recent surveys indicate that our satellite, like so many in the outer system, may have a massive storehouse of water lurking beneath the surface. Also, unlike Mars, Europa, and the asteroids, the Moon is in Earth’s orbit, and thus close enough to the Sun for solar power to be reasonably efficient, so no need for perfectly safe, yet politically unviable, nuclear options.

Sailing the seas

The Moon might not make a good home for humanity. The hazards are too great. In the single sci-fi setting I’ve created, with the present day set in the 26th century, all that progress has seen only limited colonization of Luna. It’s treated more like a combination of Antarctica and an offshore oil platform. Space opera and science fantasy fans might differ on that point, and that’s okay. It’s your call.

Whatever your moon ultimately becomes, it’ll start as an exploration target. Somebody has to continue the story Apollo left unfinished. And that will likely be sometime relatively soon. Definitely in the 21st century, unless you’ve written some serious disaster that forces a period of technological regression, and very possibly in the next decade or two. (A good date for the first lunar colony, if you’re following a realistic timeline, is 2069, of course.) Robotic surveys will come first, as they do, but then you’ll get the flags and footprints, the serious scientific investigations, and all that great stuff.

What those first explorers will find is anyone’s guess; I’m just here to tell you how I would write it. For the Moon, given its hostile environment, its lifeless nature, and its desolate appearance, I can certainly see a scientific thriller aspect. Every step takes you farther from the safety of your capsule/module/whatever. One wrong move can send you tumbling down the slope of a crater. Abrasive dust wears away the seals on your suit, not to mention the damage it might do to your lungs. (It smells like gunpowder, according to eyewitness accounts.)

It’s not hard to create terror on a lunar excursion, and that’s without invoking alien artifacts and the like. If that’s what you’re going for, then play it to the hilt. Yes, this is dangerous work. Yes, anything can go wrong, and the consequences are dire. But it’s a job that has to be done, whether for the good of humanity, scientific progress, or cold, hard cash.

On the other hand, part of the allure of exploration is, well, the allure. You’re exploring a whole new world. Maybe not a planet, but it’s still virgin territory for the most part, and the next wave of lunar excursions may take place hundreds of miles from the nearest human footprints. Wonder is the order of the day. As barren and bland as the lunar surface is, many of the moonwalkers would later wax philosophically about its “stark beauty”. For a story about the exploration itself, about painting a picture with the Moon as backdrop, that’s probably the aspect you want to emphasize. The craters, the rills, the lava tubes and other strange sights.

Exploration is fun. So many of my own works feature it, because I truly believe that humanity’s greatest moments come when we explore. Space is the final frontier, and the Moon is the first step into that frontier, the very border of an endless land of opportunity. It may be inhospitable. It may be inimical to life as we know it. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth experiencing.

Release: Lair of the Wizards (Hidden Hills 1)

Once again, it’s time for a new novel release. This one is Lair of the Wizards, Book One of the Hidden Hills series. It’s a monster that defies categorization, in my humble opinion, but I hope you’ll like it. Here’s the blurb:

For ages, the wizards guided the people of Stada. They brought knowledge, advancement. They were the bearers of the future. But generations have lived since the last wizards left the land to parts unknown. Now, war with a neighboring realm is bringing Stada to the brink, and the tribulations of battle reach even to the city of Karston. Here, the wizards may be gone, but not forgotten. Here, their knowledge lives on, their secrets have been preserved. The tales all tell that the wizards lived in the Hidden Hills north of town. Although they left, their home remains, and when an earthquake rattles Karston, it reveals the path leading to the lair of the wizards.

I actually started writing this novel all the way back in 2015. (Originally, I envisioned it as a short story!) I spent the next two years working off and on, mostly whenever I was taking a break from other projects. Lots of editing ensued, and I finally have something I feel ready to share with the world. You can find it over on my Patreon if you’re in the Serious Reader tier or above. That’s only $3 a month, and it includes DRM-free copies of all my other stories, like Nocturne, Before I Wake, and many more. No matter what you call Lair of the Wizards, whether fantasy or sci-fi or whatever, you have to call that a deal.

Check it out, and have a great summer!

New adventures in Godot

As I’ve said many times before, I think Godot Engine is one of the best options out there for indie game devs, especially those working on a budget in their spare time. Since I don’t have all that much spare time (rather, I have more than I know what to do with), I thought I’d put my money where my mouth is and try to make a game.

I know it’s not easy. It’s not simple. That doesn’t mean I won’t give it a shot. And I’ll be sure to keep you updated as to my progress.

What I’ve got so far is an idea for a casual word-find game. Think a cross between Tetris and Boggle. You’ve got a playfield of letters, and the object is to select a series of them that spells out a word. You get points based on the length of the word and the letters you use (rarer letters like J or Z are worth more than the common E or R). Then, the letters you chose disappear, and others fill the space.

That’s where I’m at now: getting the field set up. Then, I’ll work on the rest of the basic game mechanics, from selection to scoring. UI comes after that, and games need sound effects, animations, etc. Eventually, I’d like to produce a mobile and desktop version for you to download here or elsewhere. (Still weighing my options on that.)

Don’t expect too much, but if I can get this done, I hope to move on to more ambitious projects. Although I do focus far more on writing these days, I still love coding, and game programming remains one of my favorite aspects. Godot makes that part easy, and it does it without all the cruft of Unity or Unreal. It really hits the sweet spot, at least as far as I’m concerned.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 3

The world—rather, the universe—of Orphans of the Stars is not quite ours, but it’s meant to be much closer to that than some other futuristic space settings. To that end, I’ve gone into my usual serious level of detail in worldbuilding, in hopes of creating something that stands the test of time. While I’m well aware that no setting can be completely without fault, I like to think that I’ve avoided most of the more obvious flaws.

The important places

Aside from Earth itself, which only appears directly in the Innocence Reborn prologue, the galaxy is a vast expanse full of interesting places. Obviously, the most prominent features of our Milky Way (and the slightly different one of the setting) are the stars themselves. Ours is one of billions, and a fairly ordinary one. Sure, it’s in the top few percent in terms of size, and it’s the only one we currently know of to hold habitable and inhabited planets. But that’s a limitation of our present technology. Future telescopes and instruments will be able to find “Earth 2.0” out there, and one of the primary assumptions of my Orphans setting is that the so-called “Rare Earth” hypothesis is dead wrong.

But let’s back up. As I said, we’ve got billions upon billions of stars out there. All of them, however, are quite far away. To reach them in any reasonable amount of time requires bending, if not breaking, the known laws of physics. That’s one of the few times I explicitly do so, and I’m not afraid to admit that I employ a bit of hand-waving to get there. (Remember that the stories are from the perspective of children. They wouldn’t know the specifics. Yes, that’s intentional on my part.)

I do give FTL travel a number of limitations, mainly for storytelling purposes, but also following some fairly obvious rules to make the process seem more realistic. For instance, it’s limited to the ship, not the surrounding space. There are no hyperspace pathways or subspace tunnels. And that means spacecraft moving faster than light are isolated from “normal” space. They can’t communicate, because they’re outrunning light itself, including EM signals. And radar, so they’re also flying blind. It gets them where they need to go, but there’s always a margin of error, and it sometimes happens that a ship has to spend more time finding its way once it reaches its destination than it needed to get there in the first place.

Those destinations, wherever they are, share one common feature: they’re meant to be plausible, given the assumption of terrestrial planets being common, but advanced lifeforms coming around much less often. The colony of Marshall, seen in the prologue of Innocence Reborn, orbits a star that really exists, one that has no known planets as of 2017. Maybe TESS or Gaia will find something that completely invalidates my efforts, but I hope not.

The same goes for Malacca Colony, the next destination of the renamed Innocence. I described it in some detail in the last part of this series, but now I’d like to talk about it from a wider perspective. Again, it may not be real. It almost certainly isn’t, in fact. But there’s no data I know of (as of this writing) that proves it can’t exist. And that was my goal.

Port of call

Since the world named Malacca figures so heavily in Innocence Reborn, I think it deserves a bit of screen time here, as well. First off, it is a colony world. It’s only got a few hundred thousand people living on it, and they all do their best to prevent contamination of the local biosphere. For the planet does have native life. Not much, and almost none on land, but there’s something there.

Canonically speaking, Malacca Colony suffered a very recent (in geologic terms) mass extinction event. That killed off what little land-based life there was, especially as this particular event was part of a “Snowball Earth” type state. Based on the planet’s orbit around its star, as well as influences of its neighbors and the other two components of the system (it’s a trinary, and the other two stars were only resolved as distinct in 2015), I saw this as highly plausible, and a good explanation as to why humanity felt comfortable “invading”. The colony of Pele, constructed on a volcanic archipelago, has a research center dedicated to studying the extant marine life, and that may come into play later.

Other than that, the world orbits at a greater relative distance, making it colder than Earth overall, and that factors into the colonial experience. Kids get cranky when they’re cold, and that shows in the narrative. But there are other effects, too. The same goes for the planet’s lower gravity, about 70% of Earth’s. People who live their whole lives there tend to be taller. Falls aren’t as painful. Combine that with the lower body temperature (another adaptation), and it’s not too great a leap to posit that they tend to have better cardiovascular health than their homebound counterparts. On the downside, it’s harder for them to adapt to the heavier pull of Earth, and so it goes for a bunch of still-growing children who live there for months.

Beyond the physical characteristics, there’s not a lot to say. I’ve already mentioned the five colonies, and the book itself goes into the reasoning behind that, albeit from a story-internal point of view. From the outside, I’ll say that I wanted the opportunity to have competing factions, even if I didn’t use them. And I think it shows an important part of the setting: humanity is not unified. We—or our descendants—are not exploring the galaxy as a single race. Our divisions, as we know them today, might not exist, but division itself is a constant. With what happens at the end of the sequel (which I won’t spoil for you, as it’s not finalized just yet), that may turn out to be a mistake.

This series isn’t, though. It’ll keep on going, because I’ve only scratched the surface. And I like talking about this kind of thing. I like throwing out my ideas in these behind-the-scenes specials. So I’m going to continue this, but probably not every month from this point forward. Whatever happens, I hope you’re enjoying this look into a possible future as much as I’ve enjoyed creating it.