Release: Destiny Fulfilled (Tales of Two Worlds 5)

We’ve come a long way. Some of us more than others. And in the case of two characters from this installment of Tales of Two Worlds, the distance is unimaginable.

For some, the other world is home, and ours is the alien land. A man on a mission discovers that the land he believed a paradise is instead something else entirely. His sister, happy in the life she has made, fears for him, yet she wants him to experience the same wonder she had a year ago. And her husband would gladly forget about the other world altogether, but he knows he can’t. The bonds of family are strong, even when pulled to their limit.

Since it’s an Otherworld story, you know it’s exclusive to my Patreon. And you know it only costs you 3 bucks a month to pick it up. So I don’t need to say that…except that I already did.

Well, no matter. The next in line is also the last. Tune in this November for the Tales finale, “The Price of Freedom”. Until that day comes, keep reading!

Politics and the escape

Seems like we can’t get rid of politics these days. It’s an election year, combined with a manufactured crisis, a race war, and whatever else is going on in the world. No wonder stress-related health problems have skyrocketed in 2020. Not just for me, but for the whole country.

In times of trouble, when the real world is an awful place to be, I normally turn to fantasy or science fiction. Some people have other escapes, but my strongest has always been my imagination, aided where necessary by the words of “genre” fiction authors. The past decade has allowed me to make my mark, and I have consistently stated that I write what I do because I am, at heart, an escapist.

But it’s getting harder and harder to avoid the thorny political problems of the world around me by diving into a novel. That isn’t because I’m having trouble reading. Oh, no. Since being placed under effective house arrest in March, I’ve read more than a dozen different books. Most are nonfiction, history or science books that caught my eye. A couple were fiction, part of my ever-growing “books to read” pile.

I have others in that. I started reading Brent Weeks’ The Burning White this week. Blood of Empire (Brian McClellan) still waits. The Infernal Battalion? Still untouched. And so on.

Why haven’t I been reading as much speculative fiction? If you asked me a while back, I’d say it was because I didn’t have enough time. Or I didn’t feel like committing to it. Those are both lies, of course. I’ve got nothing but time. I have no problem rereading my own novels. I don’t mind checking out an archaeological history of England, a humorous account of mathematical errors, or a study of idioms originating in the King James Bible.

No, my present problem with fantasy and sci-fi boils down to politics. As part of my treatment for depression and anxiety, I’ve been tasked with a series of introspective exercises, and those have helped me come to terms with this.

In a nutshell

It isn’t politics per se that turned me off fantasy. I don’t mind a novel with political wrangling, as long as there’s a good story in there. But I feel like I’ve read all of those. Martin has basically stopped writing. So has Scott Lynch. Jim Butcher needed six years to come up with a new Dresden Files entry, and the reviews I’ve seen of Peace Talks say it’s incomplete at best.

I’m not even opposed to political allegory, if done properly. I mean, I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My Nocturne, written in November-December 2016, was unabashedly political. (Funny how its themes are still relevant now.) I don’t mind exploring an important topic through the metaphorical lens of fiction.

But there are good and bad ways to go about it. Lately, I see too many authors—prominent, professional authors who really should know better—taking the bad route. It’s one thing to write a character, even a central character, to hold a firm opinion on an issue. I’ve done it often. In my Otherworld series, Ashley starts out as a stereotypical feminist, while Damonte is openly socialist. Martevis, a protagonist of my Hidden Hills novels, might have common friends, but he retains an aristocratic view of social class. The Modern Minds short stories feature a character whose mother is a very…zealous evangelical.

Too often, the pros I once idolized have made the decision not to write characters like those. Instead, they preach. It’s not enough for the characters to believe in a cause. No, the narrator has to believe in it, too, even when that narrator has no connection to them. And the cause has to be front and center at every possible opportunity, whether or not it contributes to the progression of the story.

Most of the examples I see in fiction today are of the leftist bent. As I’ve stated in prior posts, I’m, well, not. “Classical liberal” is the closest label I’ve found to describe my leanings, and it’s far from perfect. But I’m not complaining because I disagree with the politics. I’d say the same thing if the narrative preaching were progressive, conservative, libertarian, authoritarian, anarchist, or any other form you could imagine. (Seriously. Ask me about Ayn Rand sometime.)

No, it’s not that I don’t like what you’re saying. It’s that I can’t stand how you’re saying it. Berating the reader is never a good recipe for success. Beating me over the head with political theory in what was supposed to be a fun, relaxing escape from reality takes away any joy I might have gained.

Illustration 1: The Expanse

It wouldn’t be a PPC post without some illustrative examples, so here’s what I’m ranting about this time. First, The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey. I enjoyed the opening book, Leviathan Wakes. It got me back into space-based sci-fi after a decade away. And the series continued to impress. Cibola Burn had some major plot holes, Babylon’s Ashes was forgettable, but the whole thing was just so fun and refreshing.

In the seventh book, Persepolis Rising, I became thoroughly disillusioned. It was around that point that I noticed there were no stable, monogamous, heterosexual relationships anywhere, except for the villains. Holden and Naomi are content to FWBs. Alex is coming off one failed marriage when the series starts; he adds a second in the 30-year jump between books 6 and 7. Amos is a psychopath who avoids commitment. Holden’s “parents” are a group of seven people who did some genetic trickery to have a baby sharing DNA with all of them—mostly for tax purposes, not because they wanted to perpetuate their lineages.

Yet there are plenty of…alternative arrangements that take center stage. In Abaddon’s Gate, we see a lesbian couple whose names I can’t remember. Babylon’s Ashes has Pa and her polyamorous crew. The only “traditional” family that gets more than a brief mention is that of Duarte, in Persepolis Rising. The megalomaniacal Martian who (spoiler alert!) ends up conquering the entire solar system with the help of alien technology is just about the only man with any serious screen time who has a wife and a child. Earth’s population had somehow reached fifteen billion by the starting point of this series, and I’m left wondering how.

The Expanse’s political browbeating doesn’t stop there, alas. Early books were fairly neutral. Earth has its share of good and bad. Belters very naturally develop a terrorist wing due to their constant persecution. As the series progresses, however, it takes a hard left turn. Corporations are ubiquitous in the setting, but they are rarely, if ever, shown in a positive light. The idea of “consent of the governed” is widely viewed as fringe, if not crazy.

The killing blows, in my opinion, are twofold. Persepolis Rising introduces the new bad guys, and I couldn’t help but imagine the authors (James S. A. Corey is a shared pseudonym) saying, “Why don’t you understand that we’re talking about Trump?” It’s okay to base a foe off an important historical figure, but this is much too transparent. Adding insult to injury is the way essentially every male character has been marginalized or emasculated. In the future, apparently, boys aren’t allowed to have heroes.

Illustration 2: Demon Cycle

Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series is another one I liked to start. The Warded Man was a great book, and I’ve sung its praises on this site before. Brett has a great worldbuilding mind. He can handle dialect, something few others bother to try. And he made a great antihero in Arlen Bales.

It’s everything else that’s the problem. The enemies of the setting are the Krasians, who are best described as Muslim ninjas crossed with the Bene Gesserit from Dune. Arlen’s first meeting with them is as a trader who joins their fight against the nocturnal demons who haunt the world. He leaves in disgrace, beaten and raped, and this seems to be a common theme in the series. Okay, that happened in history. Not so bad, right?

But it goes downhill from there, in my opinion. The patriarchal, indeed misogynistic (and I, unlike your average Twitter user, do not use that term lightly), Krasians are secretly controlled by their women. Their emperor’s wife uses blood magic to control his mind—when sex doesn’t work, anyway. His daughter secretly creates a women-only assassin squad. The whole thing is more full of holes than the official coronavirus narrative.

It takes away from what was otherwise a decent, innovative fantasy series. The whole message at every turn seems to be “White men can’t do anything right unless they’re helped.” Arlen was a prodigy, but he’s about the only one. Rojer comes across as somewhat bumbling, and ends being manipulated by women. Jeph, Arlen’s father, is just plain pathetic. Every other white male character is an oaf, an opportunist, or a cuckold. Meanwhile, the women of the setting rule everything, whether behind the scenes or out in the open.

Go broke

If that phenomenon were limited to a single series in fantasy or sci-fi, I wouldn’t have much to say. I’d just not read those books. But this is pervasive, and it all goes in only one direction now. It’s the same problem Hollywood has. It’s the same problem video games have. Story so often takes a back seat to diversity, yet diversity of thought is never allowed. The good guys must never be just guys, for instance, because that’s sexist. Capitalism always results in dystopia. Religion is only ever tyrannical, unless it’s tribal shamanism, in which case it’s the most powerful force in the world.

But that’s not an escape. If I wanted to read about the black transgender heroine facing off against the evil colonial corporation that’s all-white, I’d just go on Tumblr, or Reddit, or Twitter, or Mastodon, or…you get the idea.

Fantasy worlds aren’t ours. They don’t have our problems; they have their own instead. I’ve written scores of articles about this very thing, but it’s only getting worse. The political cancer has spread into my last refuge. Is it any wonder I’m depressed, or that I’ve switched to reading history and science books?

I don’t care what you believe. If you want to think that communism is great, fine by me. I vehemently disagree, but that’s your right. Think that America should expel anyone who isn’t a white Christian? I’ll oppose you with all I’ve got, but I won’t stop you from expressing your opinion. Until your ideology infringes on my rights, it’s none of my business.

That said, is there any reason to force it into your writing? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. Nothing should be forced. That’s just poor writing. You may pat yourself on the back for making your characters so “woke” that you get all the internet points, but it doesn’t make them deeper. Cardboard cutouts are boring no matter where they fall on the Political Compass.

No, if you can’t be subtle about it, leave the real-world politics in the real world. I didn’t come to your book for a lecture on how awful the conservatives/progressives/whatever are. I came to get away from that.

Thanks to all

To Samuel, Mary, Luis, Karl, Henri, Ali Abdullah, Renee, Enrique, Brother Bernhard, and Father Alonso: Thank you for starting me on this journey. You were my first, and I will never forget you.

To Jay, Jane, Max, Agosto, Sienna, and Vance: Thank you for letting me dream. I needed it so badly at the time, and your nightmares led to my peace.

To Dusk, Captain Varens, Hella, Porter, Princess Leliya, and Tod: Thank you for providing catharsis and vision. Because of you, I learned more about myself.

To Shade, Kellis, and Artoran: Thank you for being my best. You’re still on my mind, and the world still needs you.

To Asho, Chei, Gallan, Martevis, Jarra, Taniss, Issa, Madon, Leli, Kagen, Deena, and Yanna: Thank you for the wide expanse. You let me explore my favorite theories.

To Rick and Drew, Thomas and Mira: Thank you for being in the right place at the right time. Yours may not be my most notable works, but I still remember and cherish them.

To Levi, Justin, Gabriel, Nic, Hanna, Mika, Lucas, Ed, Malik, Reza, Tori, Derry, and Alicia: Thank you for the sheer fun you bring. I can’t not smile when I think of you.

To Jessie, Dirk, Tabitha, and Isaac: Thank you for the window to the past. I know my grandparents would have loved to meet you in your own time.

To the other Lucas: Thank you for showing a side of me I didn’t know I had. I’ve found my own angel to love; I hope the rest of your tale can come true for me, too.

To Cam, Cassie, Lana, Anthony, Charlotte, Angie, and Britney: Thank you for fighting back the darkness. I fear the monsters in the real world aren’t so easy to tame.

To Ian, Steph, Blake, and Trish: Thank you for playing this game. You almost killed me the first time, but I’ll get back to you soon, I promise.

To Benit, Lia, Coss, Raneph, and Ketah: Thank you for showing both sides of a conflict. Yours is too gritty for me right now, so hold on a little while longer.

To Alex, Amy, Ryan, Jenn, Jeff, Ashley, Lee, Sara, Ayla, Ramon, and Damonte: Thank you for the world you opened. It’s been a great escape.

To Nimiesa, Irai, Niel, Egas, Desva, Cambi, Asirii, Nisha, Jeidis, Donyalei, Chaerys, Etanya, Direlmas, Nateya, and Chahin: Thank you for letting me into that world. I wouldn’t mind living in it…as long as you don’t worship me.

To William, Tyler, Emily, Jeanette, Joel, Phenom, Taos, Donny, Cristina, Zach, Damian, Kyle, and Jordyn: Thank you for carrying the torch. You brought fresh blood to my magnum opus.


Wow. I thought I was over a hundred total narrated characters, but I wasn’t sure of the final tally until this. The magic number is 114, apparently. A hundred and fourteen different points of view. That many other voices in my head. Nothing special about the number at all. I just wanted to know. Call it a census, because that’s a thing this year.

I consider all my characters to be something like my children. Now that I see just how many I have, I’m…proud. And I really do thank them. By speaking through them, I’ve been able to say things I would otherwise keep to myself. By looking through their eyes, I’ve seen many strange and wonderful sights.

For those wondering, here are the specifics. I only included characters whose perspectives I have written, whether in the first or third person. The list is grouped by story or series, for the most part. The Otherworld group takes up three slots: the first season’s expedition team, the natives, and everyone else. They’re just too big to treat together. Except for them, it’s mostly chronological order, but that’s not perfect—I can’t remember exactly when I wrote some of these!

I haven’t published Heirs of Divinity, Shadows Before the Sun, or “Satellites” in any fashion, and “Miracles” has been rescinded until I can edit it. The fourth Orphans of the Stars novel, Time in the Sun, is unfinished, but the points of view are set, so I counted it. I did not count Blue Mesa, as I have no plans to go back to it; it’s ten years old at this point, and it was frankly awful to begin with.

I did have to double-check the epilogue characters from Heirs of Divinity (the last four in the first group). Everyone else was from memory except Ketah. 109 out of 114 is a pretty good score, I think.

So much has happened since I sat down on a warm November afternoon and started typing out a scene of a seventeen-year-old young man from 18th-century York running for his life after a failed gunpowder bombing. My life has taken some turns. I don’t know if I’ll still be writing in 2030, but if I am, I’d like to come back to this post. How many new names would I be able to add to the list?

Release: A Life Complete (Tales of Two Worlds 4)

Four down, two to go. The Tales of Two Worlds series enters its second half with this fourth installment, “A Life Complete”, which returns to two of my favorite characters in the entire setting. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

To live in the other world is to cast away much of what makes a modern man…or woman. Amy knew this, and she willingly gave up the life she knew, its comfortable familiarity, for love of the unknown. Alex, by contrast, chose this path because he felt he had nothing to lose. Both see now that the road is hard, the struggle real, but they believe that, by working together, they can overcome the obstacles while bringing into their new lives a little piece of the old.

If you want to check this one out, you can find it and all its many brethren over at my Patreon. A mere 3 dollars per month is all it takes, and you get more than just a few novellas. So much more.

For those of you following along at home, the pattern should be obvious. We’ll come to the penultimate tale in September, and it’s called “Destiny Fulfilled”. I can’t wait, but you can keep reading!

Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: Number one

I actually finished reading this book a couple of weeks ago, but I’ve been so caught up in other things that I forgot to post my thoughts on it. And since I’m persona non grata at my old fediverse haunt, this is probably the only place you’ll see 2020’s entries in the Summer Reading List Challenge.

Science (non-fiction)

Title: Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors
Author: Matt Parker
Genre: Popular science
Year: 2019

The author is an Australian living in Britain, so you’ll have to forgive the misspelling in the title. Never fear, however. The rest of the book more than makes up for it. Humble Pi is a fun little look at some of history’s oddest, funniest, or occasionally deadliest math fails. The Gimli Glider, a jet airliner forced to land on an airstrip definitely not built for it, all because someone read the intended fuel load in pounds instead of kilograms. NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter, which crashed into the Red Planet because of a similar units mix-up. The Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the “flash crash” of 2010, overflow bugs, and secret islands, all these and more are covered in an irreverent, yet knowledgable, style.

I consider myself a recreational mathematician. I’ve read books about numbers and math since I could read, so going on 35 years now. I love this kind of thing. And I’ll admit that I already knew of most of the stories in Humble Pi, but not always the details. Parker does a good job of explaining those to the lay reader, while keeping the interest of someone who doesn’t need hand-holding. He’s deliberately vague in a few cases, which irks me. Fortunately, those don’t distract, and he makes up for it with good descriptions of things non-experts wouldn’t even care to learn. SQL injection attacks, for instance. Or statistics as a whole.

All in all, unless you’re deathly allergic to numbers, you’ll be entertained. Why? Because you get to see that, no matter how much everyone wishes it would, math just doesn’t go away. And people make mathematical mistakes the same as in any other field. Which is great for readers, as who doesn’t like to laugh at a billion-dollar corporation or government agency failing at something we’re taught in elementary school?

Revisiting religion in writing

(I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing a bunch of “woe is me” posts about depression, anxiety, and the like. Outside of release announcements and the Summer Reading List Challenge, that’s all PPC has been for months. Sure, 2020 sucks, but…I’m tired of wallowing in the mire. Let’s get back to worldbuilding and theory-crafting. “I do not wish to evade the world, but I will forever build my own.”)

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost five years since I wrote a post titled Faith and Fantasy. In that post, I talked about how the fundamental assumptions of “generic” fantasy (that it’s a feudal pseudo-medieval Europe, but with magic) are incompatible with the religious framework that authors insist upon. In other words, you can’t have Middle Ages Europe without Christianity. Change the faith of the people, and everything else changes, too.

All of my worldbuilding posts, that one included, come from my personal beliefs about creating a setting in any genre of speculative fiction. I have a “hardcore” worldbuilding mindset, in the vein of Tolkien and Sanderson, and I believe that the benefits of a cohesive setting far surpass the cost of research necessary to create it. I also practice what I preach, as you’ll see.

Recap

To summarize the previous post, the structures of the medieval West stem directly from Christian orthodoxy. Serfdom and the divine right of kings both come from Biblical interpretation. Other religions, if put in the same situation, would create different societies.

We see this in a few historical cases. During the same period, Islam tended to be more autocratic, for instance, without a hierarchy of kings, princes, dukes, counts, and barons. But the changes are even more subtle than that. To take one example: Islamic beliefs prohibit idolatry, which was quickly extended to any depiction of Allah or Muhammed, any engraved lettering on the Koran, and so on. Thus we find the elaborate geometric mosaics in mosques, as opposed to the crucifixes, frescoes, tapestries, and portraits in contemporary Christian houses of worship. Religion influenced art, and this was by no means confined to sacred spaces.

Likewise, the East had, at times, long periods of stability and hegemony. Chinese state religion has always been…hard to pin down, especially for those of us on other continents. Suffice to say, though, that the emperor was believed to have a divine mandate to his rule. (Except those times when he didn’t, which just so happen to coincide with periods of rebellion. But that’s a different post.) But there wasn’t the same faith behind that mandate as Rome had, so you don’t see the same results. The Chinese people didn’t have a belief system based around salvation from sin; while Buddhism, for example, does have recognizable concepts of heaven and hell, it emphasizes actions more than beliefs. Therefore, you don’t see Chinese cathedrals. They don’t go on a pilgrimage to Nanjing or Chengdu. And so on.

Out of this world

Take a fantasy setting, now, and you can see the problems arising. Even the best authors tend to “make something up” for their worlds’ faiths. In some cases, that’s because they’re trying to make a point. The Prince of Nothing series I used as an example in the previous post is intended to evoke the Crusades era, so it almost has to have analogues for Christianity and Islam. A Song of Ice and Fire has a number of religions, from the animist Old Gods of the north to the heptatheistic faith of the majority in Westeros, and their conflict ties into the overall plot.

Others don’t even bother with justification. The stereotypical D&D settings (Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms) are built around polytheism. Gods are active in the world, and they’re really just beings who have a very, very high character level. Okay, but then how did they end up with a social structure that’s so close to the High Middle Ages? Clerics of Mystra aren’t going to be chaste because of the words of Christ. Call 4th Edition non-canonical if you like, but its lore has it that the Raven Queen was a witch who killed the god of death, Nerull, and took his place. If people can aspire to that in this life, they’re not going to be satisfied with a society where the greatest rewards for most will only come in the next one.

Games are games, of course, but some novels also take things that far. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series, for example, follows the RPG tropes. The former emperor ascended to become the new god of shadows. His henchman/fixer, appropriately enough, became the patron of assassins. That happened within the books’ current generation, so there isn’t enough time to show any direct social evolution, but the unnamed world of the series shows a number of similarities to Earth. You have a mercantile empire, an island where the warrior caste is all but worshipped, desert-dwellers fighting a jihad…

Fantasy religions are as varied as their creators, but few authors go to the trouble of truly analyzing the effects their made-up belief systems would have on the societies housing them. I am not always immune to the lure of the cop-out, I’ll admit.

Introspection

Ignoring those novels and shorts set in the “real” world (including paranormal stuff like “Fallen” and the Modern Minds series), my fantasy worlds have religions with varying degrees of depth.

The Hidden Hills books do fall into the polytheistic feudalism trap, I’ll admit. The people of Stada (the primary kingdom of the books) follow about twenty different gods, each overseeing a different segment of life. Despite this, they have a Europe-like system of lords—one of the main characters is the son of a viscount. I justify this in the text by not justifying it at all. That’s the way things are, and nobody really bothers to think otherwise. Speaking as the author, however, I can say that the polytheistic faith derives in-setting from a combination of ancient tribes’ animist beliefs and the guiding principles of an advanced civilization.

That’s much the same as for Otherworld. There, the primary character focus is on the Virissea, descendants of Native Americans (Paleo-Indians, technically) transplanted from Earth at the end of the Ice Age. Going to another planet didn’t entirely disrupt their beliefs—not that we know much about them—but some came to glorify, then outright worship, the creators of the mechanism which took them there. In the present day setting, the Virissea are monotheistic, but they consider those “Altea” to be of a higher level than common human beings. Not quite demigods, but even modern Christianity posits that some people have greater rewards than others. Look at St. Peter, for example.

Otherworld has other races, however. And these are physiologically distinct, far more so than what we consider races. One such people has a kind of spiritual pantheism. Another follows a dualist good-versus-evil faith somewhat similar to Zoroastrianism. A third uses meditation and strict moral codes derived from what they believe to be the rational principles of nature itself. And that’s not counting the distinctions outsiders gloss over or just don’t notice; not all Asians are Buddhists, after all.

My other fantasy setting where religion plays an important role is the unreleased Occupation Trilogy. Here, the crusade is the start of the story. The Hevestine peoples follow the dictates of God’s chosen prophet, who has been slowly deified over the course of nine centuries. They have a central church, a collection of saints who are believed to have performed miracles, and a lot of other Catholic trappings. And their society reflects that, though it’s more of a post-feudal Baroque Europe.

Against them are the Ihneti. They’re…pagan, for lack of a better term. They believe in magic, don’t follow the right teachings, and they’re just all around bad people. Well, they aren’t, but they’re the target of a six-year war and decades-long occupation because, hey, that prophet said to carry the light of God to every corner of the world. And if they would just listen, they’d realize the undeniable truth, and they could be saved, too.

I’m consciously aware of the contrasts in these settings. In a way, they represent three “levels” of worldbuilding. Hidden Hills took the easy way out, as religion isn’t a fundamental part of the plot. The whole point of Otherworld is to explore the interaction of our modern American culture with one alien, but still recognizably human, so the beliefs of the natives are important, but not pivotal. And the Occupation Trilogy is meant to make you think of the Crusades and colonialism, so I emphasized the faith of the believers and how they see their foes as heathen.

Any one of these approaches can work. You don’t have to explore every nuance. There just isn’t enough time, and I know you’d rather write the story. But a little bit of extra thought when you need it, and this aspect of a fantasy society can become so much more real. Five years ago, I stated this as a hypothesis. Now, I can confirm the truth of it.

Parts of the whole

(I’m in the aftermath of a mental breakdown this weekend. Reflection and introspection are the ways I cope, so you get this. Enjoy.)

“Write what you know,” the saying goes. It’s one of the seminal pieces of advice given to budding authors, and there’s a lot of truth in it. Obviously, it’s easier to write situations, characters, and stories that are familiar. More outlandish people and places need more thought, more planning. That’s why you see a lot of authors working on dramas, “slice of life” stories, recollections of childhood, etc. By contrast, fantasy and science fiction, two genres that imply outlandishness by their very nature, are very much niches. They just take more work to create.

Of course, it’s also easy to go too far in the other direction, to create something too familiar. Writing only what you know is great if you’re writing an autobiography, but you have to think outside the box for fiction. After all, the whole point of fiction is that it didn’t happen. And it most certainly didn’t happen to you.

In my works, I try to strike a balance. Obviously, as I write speculative fiction of various sorts, I have to do the research and contemplation of creating a setting unlike our present-day world. That has taken me down some strange and wonderful roads in the past decade, from the settling of the Americas (Otherworld), to paranormal sightings and hybrid DNA (Endless Forms), to the logistics of interstellar travel (Orphans of the Stars), to Biblical scholarship (Heirs of Divinity), to the nature of dreams (Before I Wake). It’s been a fun journey, I have to admit.

In this post, however, I want to talk about the other side: my characters. In particular, I want to look at a certain subset of characters who best illustrate writing what I know.

Birds of a feather

They’re all the same, when you get right down to it. A very common theme in my works is…well, me. Not as a self-insert or Mary Sue, but a character who embodies a part of me. I’ve written before how the main POV characters of the Otherworld series are all different facets of me, and that’s true to an extent. But there’s a broader correspondence, too.

Many, though not all, of the stories I write will, at some point, feature a character who represents how I see myself: an intelligent, luckless, socially awkward or rejected, insecure male. I’ll freely admit that I sometimes dwell on those characters, giving them more screen time and deeper subplots. That’s because I’m writing what I know. I can get in their heads better, because they’re closer to who I am. Many of them also end up with “good” endings, and you can call that wish fulfillment if you like.

In contrast to these self-portraits, I’ll often have a character who is, in essence, the man I wish I could be. This character is still highly intelligent (I’m not good at writing below-average individuals), but he’s not necessarily a genius. Despite that, he has the confidence I lack, and he’s often in much better shape physically, socially, or financially. He also gets plenty of time as the center of attention, and he often has conflicts with the other sort of self-insert, but they’re often of the “friendly rivalry” sort.

With that in mind, I’m going to go through some of my works, whether novels, novellas, short stories, or the major series so dear to my heart. For my own peace of mind, you see.

Otherworld

Otherworld is where I first noticed this tendency. As it’s by far my largest series, that makes a lot of sense. Alex has been one of the central characters since the beginning, and he’s probably the most transparently like myself. He’s your stereotypical geek, caught in a bad situation due to what he believes is his own bad luck and poor choices. (About the only place where we disagree is that he’s into anime and manga.)

Over the many, many stories of the Otherworld series, Alex certainly grows the most of any character. He already suffered from some depression issues even before he and his team were accidentally sucked into another world, but the rigors of living there didn’t help at all. He wasn’t used to physical exertion, he didn’t think he could learn another language, and he knew he was a poorer fit for the strange land of Vistaan than he was even in America. Witnessing the death of a native friend broke him, as he would tell you. At least he knows what caused it. Some of us aren’t so lucky.

Alex’s rival, of a sort, is Jeff. He’s still the nerdy type, and he’s far from outspoken, but he knows his role, and he excels at it. Jeff is the linguist of the group, and only really part of that group because they needed more interpreters. Going to another planet scares him as much as anyone else, yet he manages to keep it together.

These two grow close as time goes on, as they see themselves as similar enough that they could be friends. But their fates diverge. Jeff is seduced by a native woman; Alex assumes none of them would give him the time of day, the same as their counterparts here. Alex’s best claims to fame out there are determining their latitude and becoming a math tutor, while Jeff works on decoding the language of the ancient race who may have built the device that brought them there in the first place. In every case, you see the dichotomy: Jeff has humility, but Alex has self-loathing. Who I want to be, who I believe I am.

Hidden Hills

The Hidden Hills series is a little like Otherworld. Despite only being two books so far, and four total, there’s a lot of character development packed into those 1300 pages. And I made the same character decisions, just transplanting them into the pseudo-fantasy setting.

For these novels, we have Asho and Gallan. One is a tradesman, working as an apprentice smith under his father. The other is a junior scholar. Both are well aware of their corresponding places in the feudal-era society they inhabit, but they take those places much differently.

Gallan can comport himself well. He can talk to the nobility. He can do research. He knows how to manage, delegate, and lead. In the underground lair of the so-called wizards, he becomes the man in charge even before he becomes a man. Asho, meanwhile, never feels right. He doubts himself when it comes to building the machines of the wizards. He sometimes feels that even his little sister, only eight years old at the start of the first book, is more useful in the circle that he and his friends have created. And he’s scared to death when his mother works out an arranged marriage on his behalf.

These two aren’t the perfect metaphor that Otherworld provides, but they stick out to me. I’ve written two characters, one of whom is everything I want: a leader, a scholar, an inventor. The other? He doesn’t know what he wants to be, but he’ll be happy if he just doesn’t disappoint anybody.

Orphans of the Stars

My newest release, Innocence Reborn, doesn’t offer quite the same set of characters. I consciously tried to avoid the trap I’m describing here. Still, Levi is very much an idealized version of myself. He has the take-charge attitude I long for, though he also suffers from bouts of indecision and doubt.

Probably the closest to my self-image is Mika. Odd, as I don’t connect with my female characters to the same extent, but she shares a few of my demons. By the fourth book (which I’m currently writing), she’s deep in depression, and already past the breaking point. Not great for a fifteen-year-old girl. Not great for the 36-year-old man who first imagined her, either.

It’s harder to see, but this introspection has let me realize the similarities, and how I’ve been unconsciously steering Mika into more of a catharsis role as the series has progressed. Now that I know, I’m not sure what that will mean for her character development, but time will tell.

All the rest

My other works don’t possess the contrast, but one trope or the other almost always appears. I’ll treat the rest of the set together here, just for interests of space.

  • The Linear Cycle, being an apocalyptic fantasy, doesn’t have much time for doubters. Everyone has to work together to fight back the horde and keep society from falling apart. Still, Tod has a lot of the same qualities as, say, Alex. He’s a social outcast for a different reason, one specific to the setting, but it leaves him in much the same predicament.

  • Before I Wake‘s protagonist Jay fits the “insecure and inward” mold to some extent. As I wrote this novel following some deeply personal tragedy, I can only chalk that up to self-insertion. I wasn’t in the frame of mind to write very original characters, and the plot was, to me, more important.

  • In Nocturne, Shade is very much an authorial voice, at least in terms of his philosophy. As a person, he may represent some part of me, probably the part that feels like I’ve been rejected by society. Other than that, he’s like me only in his drive and his love for his ideals. But that’s still a lot.

  • Fallen, my free novella, follows Lucas, a tech who’s just been fired, who knows he’s a pariah because of his lack of faith. Well, that’s just me in a nutshell. (Okay, except the “getting fired” part. You have to get hired first.) You’ll get no argument from me there—it was mostly intentional. And Fallen might be the closest thing I’ve written to a personal fantasy. Meeting a perfect, indeed angelic, woman and falling in love with her? In late 2017, I would’ve killed for that. In 2020, I can say I got what I wanted. Next time I write a fantasy that’s going to come true, I’ll make sure it has a longer ending.

Most of the others are longer stretches. You could make a case that Dirk from Modern Minds fits the “how I see myself” mold in some fashion. You could also say the same for Luis from Heirs of Divinity…if I ever put that one out. And the Occupation trilogy almost pulls off the twofer. Main character Raneph is a Shade-like idealist and revolutionary, while humble helper Anit just wants to learn all he can without rocking the boat. (Or getting magically bound to the bed by his lover, but that’s another post.)

This has been a long post, and I’m trying hard not to make it even longer. But I needed to write it, whether anyone ever reads it or not. And if you’ve ever wondered why some of my characters are the way they are, this is my reasoning. They’re me. In some form, they’re always me. Because that’s what I know.

Release: Innocence Reborn (Orphans of the Stars 1)

The time has finally come. Innocence Reborn, the first novel in my Orphans of the Stars YA space adventure series, is now available on Amazon KDP and in paperback!

Space is a frontier. Space is an adventure.

Levi Maclin was always interested in the vastness of space. He dreamed of sailing through the void, exploring new worlds, seeing alien suns. This summer, he hoped to have his chance. Instead of going to beach for their vacation, his family would travel across light-years to Outland Resort, humanity’s most distant colony, its farthest frontier. It was a getaway, an adventure, a dream come true…until it wasn’t.

Some vacations are ruined by hurricanes, others by blizzards, but Levi’s falls apart when a series of unidentified objects streak across the sky above Outland Resort. They aren’t meteors. They aren’t comets. They’re weapons, weapons trained on the resort and its whole world. Suddenly, his adventure takes an unexpected turn. As concern turns to panic, he can only think one thought: how did it all go so wrong?

Told through the eyes of Levi, his brother, and a number of other children and teens they meet along the way, this series is my attempt at making space acessible and fun in a way rarely seen today. Readers of all ages will find something to like about this one, I believe. The characters are young, thrust into an unpredictable and volatile situation that requires them to grow up fast, but they retain their youthful vigor and mindset throughout. While the science isn’t 100% rigorous (there’s FTL travel, for example), it’s far more than mere handwaving. There’s action, drama, adversity and triumph.

And there’s space. Lots and lots of it. Orphans of the Stars has space travel. It has ships, colonies, asteroid mining, domed cities, pirates, combat, and much, much more. Check it out on my Patreon in the Casual Reader tier or on Amazon for $3.99 (Kindle) / $11.99 (paperback), and remember to keep reading!

Release: Secrets Uncovered (Tales of Two Worlds 3)

Here we reach the halfway point of this newest bridge to the Otherworld. Tales of Two Worlds continues today with “Secrets Uncovered”:

Some things never change, and Jeff believes he has found many of those in the other world. And he has also found archaeological evidence from the most ancient days, tantalizing clues to the mysteries he has longed to solve for over a year. As a professor at an alien university, his responsibilities stand in the way of devoting himself fully to research, but he knows he needs something to show when his friends from home arrive for the third time.

I’ll admit that this one is more “slice of life” than my usual writings, but sometimes you have to take a break, right?

This tale, like the previous two dozen in the Otherworld series, can be found on my Patreon, where you can get the whole set by pledging only 3 dollars. That’s not even a Memorial Day deal—it’s always that cheap!

For the second half of 2020, I’ll be releasing the second half of this series. Next on the list is “A Life Complete”, coming in July. See you then, and remember to keep reading!

Summer Reading List 2020

Once again, Memorial Day is upon us. Although the world has been turned upside down in the past few months, some places are beginning to return to normal. Slowly but surely, cooler heads are prevailing. And one way to speed the process of recovery is to get back into your routine.

Thus, here at the unofficial start of summer, it’s time once again to start the Summer Reading List Challenge! This will be the 5th year I’ve done this particular self-imposed challenge, and I’ve refined the rules over time, polishing them into something simple yet daunting.

The rules aren’t so much rules as recommendations. Guidelines, except that that has become a loaded term lately.

  1. The goal is to read 3 new books between Memorial Day (May 25) and Labor Day (September 7) in the US, the traditional “unofficial” bounds of summer. (Anyone in the Southern Hemisphere reading this: yes, you get a winter reading list.)

  2. A book is anything non-periodical, so no comics, graphic novels, or manga. Anything else works. If you’re not sure, just use common sense. What’s important is that you’re honest with yourself.

  3. One of the books should be of a genre you don’t normally read. For example, I’m big on fantasy and sci-fi, so I might read a romance, or a thriller, or something like that. Nonfiction, by the way, also works as a “new” genre, unless you do read it all the time.

  4. You can’t count books you wrote, because they obviously wouldn’t be new to you. (Yes, this rule exists solely to keep me from just rereading my books.)

That’s it. You have over three months. I’ll be posting my progress here at Prose Poetry Code, as well as on the fediverse at mikey@letsalllovela.in when that server actually works.

Have fun, enjoy the summer, and keep reading!