Personal Alert (15 September 2016)

Just a quick note to anyone who’s following any of my current projects.

I’ve been dealing with health issues for almost two weeks now. Most of that time I’ve either been in a great deal of pain, or currently not in pain but having to function in a sleepy fog due to the pain medication. The day job has been taking up pretty much all of my remaining spoons. I have been able to get a little writing done, but it’s mostly been low-impact stuff like revising an old story or producing some fan-fiction.

This is not life-threatening. Indeed, it could decide to clear up on its own any day now, and I’ve got a treatment plan that should have me back in operation by the end of September even if it doesn’t. Still, big projects like the world-building book, or my first space-opera work for self-publication, have been dead stalled for a while now. Patience, please.

Review: The Shannara Chronicles, by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar

shannaraI don’t often post reviews here. Usually, when I do, it’s because I’ve come across something that surprised me in some way, that exceeded my expectations. Something that I find I want to call to people’s attention.

This time, it’s a TV series: The Shannara Chronicles.

The Sword of Shannara was a fantasy novel by Terry Brooks, first released in 1977. At the time, the American commercial market had not yet “discovered” the epic-fantasy genre. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had attained considerable success, after some backing and filling in the 1960s involving an unauthorized American edition. Kathryn Kurtz published Deryni Rising in 1970, and Stephen Donaldson published Lord Foul’s Bane in 1977 as well. Still, it was Brooks’ debut novel that really cracked the door open for the genre. With an engaging plot aimed at younger readers, and illustrations by the Brothers Hildebrandt, The Sword of Shannara rocketed onto the best-seller lists. For the first time, we saw that someone not named Tolkien could attain significant commercial success in the genre. The book made Brooks’ career – as of 2016, he’s written dozens of novels, many of which have again made the best-seller lists, the vast majority of them set in the Shannara universe.

I was one of those who read The Sword of Shannara when it was first released: a twelve-year-old kid who was just discovering fantasy fiction, exactly the audience that Brooks found most congenial. At the time it was one of my favorites. Today, I have to admit that the story hasn’t aged well for me. Sword in particular is enormously derivative of Tolkien. Although plot and characters have moments of originality, the list of elements mapping directly to The Lord of the Rings is extremely long. The early Brooks certainly had a literate prose style, but he wasn’t very concise, and he kept succumbing to the temptation to write really long expository passages.

Okay, it was a debut novel, and many a new genre writer has had to find his voice by imitating his predecessors. Even the second novel in the series was much more original, and I understand Brooks has long since come to stand on his own as a genre writer. In any case, someone who has written as much outright fan fiction as I have can’t afford to throw too many stones!

Still. I read the first two sequels upon release . . . but then I lost track of the series and didn’t feel motivated to seek it out. A couple of years ago, I was actually rather surprised to discover just how many Shannara novels have been written, flying entirely under my radar.

I therefore had no reason to search out The Shannara Chronicles. Blame this review on a bad case of insomnia, which had me up very late the other night with nothing to do but browse Netflix on my tablet. A familiar name caught my eye, I tapped it open, and holy cow. An hour later, I caught myself thinking: That . . . was actually not at all bad.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles was released on MTV early this year. It consists of ten hour-long episodes, which constitute a rather loose adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara, the second novel in the series. (I understand someone else is sitting on the rights to The Sword of Shannara, which means we may never get to see an adaptation of it. A few characters and plot elements from Sword do appear in the TV series.) The entire season is now available on Netflix.

The early Shannara books are bog-standard epic fantasy: we have a set of Five Races, mysterious wizard mentors, evil sorcerers, magic artifacts, epic quests, hopeless battles, the lot. One interesting and original point is that the setting, the “Four Lands,” is not positioned in some alternate world or the Earth’s distant past. Instead, we’re looking at a future Earth, thousands of years after a nuclear-biological-chemical holocaust that nearly destroyed all human life. Geography has changed beyond recognition, humanity has diverged into several subspecies, and ancient magic has come back into the world once again. Still, travelers in the Four Lands often come across relics of industrial-era technology and lore. This theme is apparently more prevalent in the later Shannara novels, and it’s been back-filled into this adaptation of an earlier novel in the series.

The story here is not nearly as derivative as in Sword. Tens of thousands of years ago, long before humanity spread across the Earth for the first time, a great army of Demons was sealed away into a hellish plane known as the Forbidding. The seal on the Forbidding was held in place by a magical tree, the Ellcrys, which has ever since been in the care of the Elves. Now the Ellcrys is dying, and a few of the most powerful Demons have already escaped the Forbidding. When the tree dies completely, it will release all of the Demons to destroy the living world. Before that happens, one of the tree’s Elven guardians must take its last seed to a magic-source called the Bloodfire, to grant the Ellcrys rebirth.

Wil Ohmsford is the son (grandson in the original novel) of the hero of Sword. The Druid Allanon pulls him into the struggle, as the last surviving scion of an ancient Elven lineage and its magical legacies. While Allanon helps to defend the Elven kingdom, Wil travels with the Elf-princess Amberle and a human girl named Eritrea to find the Bloodfire. Along the way, they are helped and hindered by a diverse cast of humans, Elves, Gnomes, Trolls, and supernatural creatures. Wil must learn to control his magical inheritance, while struggling with his increasingly complicated feelings for both Amberle and Eritrea.

The adaptation of the novel’s plot is fairly close (Brooks himself has stated that he’s happy with the adaptation). The dialogue is much more colloquial than in the novel; characters speak more naturally and use slang expressions. There’s more graphic violence – bloody wounds are shown, and there are a lot of character deaths which involve a great deal of blood. There’s also a lot more focus on romantic relationships than in the novel, and a fair amount of nudity and implied sex. The overall impression is “Game of Thrones light” – take a well-known fantasy story, season with generous helpings of sex and violence, but in such a way as to aim toward a young-adult audience.

The series is another product of the booming New Zealander film industry. This shows, most of all, in the sheer visual impact of the production. Sets and scenery bear a lot of physical resemblance to pieces of the Tolkien films. In a few cases, I had to wonder if filming had been done in the exact same locations. One can also detect a lot of Weta-Workshop-derived expertise in costuming, creature effects, and visual effects. Visuals in general are superb, at a very high level for an hour-long drama.

The cast is packed with relatively young actors, drawn from all over the world. Astin Butler has some acting chops, injecting more than just good looks into his role as Wil Ohmsford. Ivana Baquero and Poppy Drayton play off one another well, as Wil’s adventuring companions and potential love interests. John Rhys-Davies brings some much-needed gravitas as the Elven King Eventine. New Zealander actor Manu Bennett does a very good Allanon: prickly, difficult, but also radiating sheer physical presence. (It was interesting seeing Bennett out of the pounds of albino-orc makeup he was forced to wear during the Hobbit films.)

The script is fast-paced, full of snappy dialogue and plot twists. At times the plot may be a bit confusing. There’s a lot of implied back story, geography, and lore, and characters seem to travel back and forth across the landscape with no clear plan. There are also at least two major plot-lines and several subplots going on at any given time, often in different locations. The production does make good use of establishing shots, to give the viewer hints as to which piece of the plot comes next. I’d advise sticking with the story, as it becomes easier to follow once all the major recurring characters have been introduced.

The early Shannara novels didn’t qualify as great literature. This series doesn’t qualify as ground-breaking film. Still, I found it quite entertaining and it had moments of strong character drama. Several sequel hooks remained open in the final episode, and the series has already been picked up for a second season. Well worth watching.

Time to Rethink

I believe I have a confirmed diagnosis.

Proximate cause: “A Fire in Winter” just picked up a rejection from Fantasy & Science Fiction. Once again it was a good personal rejection, one that indicates that C. C. Finlay personally read and enjoyed the story on its merits, even if it didn’t quite work for him.

Once again, an editor has taken the time to specifically identify the problem he saw with my story: a problem with pacing.

A little over a year into this sustained effort to sell short fiction to the pro markets, I’ve collected 38 rejection messages and made no sales. However, an unexpectedly large number of those rejection messages have been better than boilerplate. I’ve gotten several personal rejections with scraps of useful critique, from editors as busy as Neil Clarke and C. C. Finlay.

I’m making near-misses, which is not something to get discouraged about. That’s a sign that my game is just not quite up to the level I would need to start making sales.

The one consistent factor in the critique I’ve gotten has to do with pacing. Nobody seems to be complaining about the quality of my prose, or the characters, settings, or plots as such. It looks as if the primary factor that’s still getting in my way is that even my best stories are just not tight enough.

Okay, if the problem has a credible diagnosis, it can be fixed. I’ll need to work on that.

At the moment, I have two stories out in the slush-piles, one at Asimov’s and one at Compelling Science Fiction. I’m guessing these will collect rejections too, which is fine. I believe I’m going to pull all of my stories back to the inactive list for the moment, and spend a couple of months of my short-story time on pacing. Reading some lessons on the subject. Practicing writing tight scenes. Jotting down a dozen or so narrative seeds that I think I can turn into fast-paced stories. That sort of thing. Then, when I have two or three stories ready to go – probably completely new work – I’ll start the slush-pile queue up again.

Then we’ll see.

Progress Report (31 July 2016)

No major milestones in the past few weeks.

Work continues on the rough draft of Worlds Without Number. I’m working on the section which describes the “science of star maps” – the galaxy’s structure, the formation and evolution of stars, how stars are distributed through interstellar space, and so on. Progress is a little slower than I’d planned, but I’m still reasonably confident I can have this section finished sometime in August. I got quite a bit done just this weekend, in fact. I might also make some first-cut revisions to the section I released to readers and playtesters in early July.

Incidentally, one of my readers points out that Worlds Without Number is a bad choice for the title, because it comes too close to mimicking the title of a published SF roleplaying game. I’m going to have to find a new working title for this project. As soon as I find one I like as well . . .

The slush-piles continue to be unforgiving. “A Fire in Winter” caught a rejection from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, which I found rather discouraging – I thought it was the kind of story they might like. Ah well. Off to the next market on the list. No new results for the other two stories I have out.

In all honesty, I’m beginning to re-think my strategy a bit. Not to give up on the traditional approach, but I’m beginning to think that the space-opera setting I’ve been calling the “Human Destiny” universe is just not likely to sell to those markets. I think I might just set those stories over in the self-publication track, along with the ones set in the Greek Heroic Age. Or I might take a hybrid approach for those, and keep a truncated pro-markets list for them. In short, I may send them only to the three or four markets I know will respond in days rather than months, on the principle that you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. Still debating.

I also spent some time this month researching my ballot for the 2016 Hugo Awards. This was a slightly less frustrating experience than last year. I applied the No Award option a little less liberally, although I did still consign one entire category to it. I believe I will resist the temptation to blog my ballot this year. The controversy hasn’t been stoked to as high a pitch this time, so it doesn’t feel as necessary to lay out my conclusions in public.

Spent some time this month working on fan-fiction. I published two new chapters of The Silk Revolution, and I’ve started doing a second-draft rewrite of All the Western Stars. I don’t like spending more than a slice of my time on fan-fic any more, but those projects do permit me to accomplish something significant with a relatively small investment of time. That can be important, given how much I’m juggling writing time against my day job and my declining health.

Speaking of which, good Lord, I have got to work on that last.

I learned a couple of years ago that I’m a diabetic. Fortunately, that was detected and brought under control before I could take serious damage to anything I would miss. My weight is a little high but under control, and my heart and blood pressure seem fine. The one thing that does seem to be giving me trouble is my legs. There’s some minor nerve damage, enough to make me a little unsteady on my feet. I’m also suffering an odd syndrome that some diabetics get, in which one leg – not both legs, just one – starts losing a lot of muscle mass and muscle tone. That means I walk with a limp now, and am starting to think about using a cane. Not to mention looking kind of odd and asymmetrical when I wear shorts.

On the other hand, my doctor seems confident that if I just get more exercise, I can halt or reverse some of the atrophy, and it would help me keep my blood sugar under control too. So now I try to get some walking in every day . . . and today I went to the local gym to do some work focused on the big muscles in my legs. Ouch. Less than twenty minutes, and my bad leg was about ready to go entirely on strike. It was genuinely difficult to walk out to the car and drive home. I can see that I have a lot of work to do.

Well, you know what they say. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Progress Report (6 July 2016)

As of today, the first section of Worlds Without Number is finished in rough draft, and in the hands of my Patreon backers and playtesters for review. This is the section in which the reader can design (or randomly generate) the stars for a specific stellar system. While people poke holes in that, I think I’m going to back up and write some of the descriptive sections that talk about the structure of the galaxy, the layout of nearby interstellar space, and how to draw star maps based on random or real-world data. Objective is to have that piece done in rough draft in early August.

Without having heard any reviewer comments yet, I’m reasonably happy with this first section of material. I’m already finding ways to make the “rules” more flexible and yet more detailed and realistic than what appeared in the last edition of GURPS Space. It’s really helping that I’m permitting myself a bit more scope in the kind of mathematics I ask the reader to use. Not to mention that I can typeset equations in the text in a way that was never available when I was writing for GURPS.

I’m seriously considering generating a small region of interstellar space with attached stellar and planetary data, just to show off how well the system works. Might include that in the complete draft of the book, or I might release it for free as advertising.

Stories in the slush-pile queue continue to collect rejections. “Pilgrimage” has just collected its eighth. One more market, and it’s going into the self-publication queue, possibly in time for a Patreon pre-release with the next big section of Worlds Without Number. We’ll see how the timing works out.

I really need to finish another story or two and get them into the queue too . . .

Meanwhile, it’s been a while since I did the obligatory plugs. My Patreon page is over here. I should also mention the one piece I have out in self-publication so far, the novelette “Harmony’s Choice,” which is available from Amazon. Thanks for your patience!

Progress Report (26 June 2016)

More incremental progress on several fronts.

I seem to have lined things up so that my slush-pile submissions get responses all at once. “A Fire in Winter,” “Guanahani,” and “Pilgrimage” all picked up rejections in the space of three days. “Pilgrimage” went back out to Lightspeed and collected another rejection almost at once, but the others are taking a bit longer for their next response.

I’m a little disappointed with “Pilgrimage,” to be honest. It’s collected no less than three non-boilerplate rejections so far, including one from Clarkesworld, which I understand is a rare event. Yet it’s working its way to the bottom of my markets list with remarkable speed. I have two major markets left to try it, but I’m not at all sure it’s going to click with either of them. Well, this business is all about giving the lightning plenty of chances to strike, so we’ll see. That one’s definitely going in the self-publication queue if it doesn’t get published in a pro market.

Meanwhile, I’ve picked up another idea for a story in the Human Destiny setting, the same one that both “Guanahani” and “Pilgrimage” sit in. This one’s in the early timeline, just after an alien version of the Star Trek Federation launches a massive “human”-itarian intervention on Earth. Oddly enough, the viewpoint character in this one is going to be a white dude – but I’m not breaking my self-imposed challenge to avoid that, since dealing with the loss of a position of social privilege is one of the themes of the story. I’ve started a rough draft, but it’s not far enough along to be sure what will become of it yet.

Making continued slow progress on Worlds Without Number. At present I’m writing the rules for how to generate individual star systems. Ran into something of a snag this week, because I noticed that the rules in GURPS Space, Fourth Edition (specifically page 105, having to do with companion star orbits) were actually somewhat flawed in that respect and I needed to do some new mathematical modeling. Besides, I just finished a 50-hour work week with almost no time to write. Today is proving more productive, so I have some hope that I’ll be able to finish this section by the end of the month or early in July.

Meanwhile, I actually got a chapter posted to my Mass Effect fan-fiction novel, The Silk Revolution, which had been sitting on the back burner for far too long. Might be the start of a trend. I would really like to get that piece finished before the next game in the series is released, sometime in 2017, but I should be able to manage that.

Some Questions, a Few Answers

Agemegos had a bunch of questions regarding the Worlds Without Number project, some of which I have immediate answers for, others not.

Some background: Agemegos is a long-time GURPS fan, who has been interested in the GURPS Space, Fourth Edition world design rules since their release a decade ago. At one point he even built an Excel spreadsheet to implement the system – quite a remarkable feat, actually – and he came up with a number of potential improvements for it at the time. So I’m pleased to see that he’s taking an interest in this project.

I imagine some of his questions are going to be of interest to other potential readers, so rather than bury my answers in an old comment thread, I thought I would post them here. Brett, let me know if you have any objections and I’ll reconsider.

For the moment, I have a couple of questions about the draft plan, most of which arise out of my interest in generating fictional worlds for real space; that is, in generating systems around stars that can be found in an actual star catalogue.

1) Do you consider that there might be anything to be said under the heading “Drawing Star Maps” about drawing non-random star maps based on data from catalogues or about placing random systems around real-world stars?

That is absolutely part of the plan! Most of the time, when I’m doing my own world design, it’s for real-world stars in the solar neighborhood. Hence I intend to include my tricks for such an endeavor in the book, to include:

  • How to convert equatorial coordinates (the most easily available) to Cartesian coordinates for mapping on graph paper
  • How to get Cartesian coordinates based on galactic rather than equatorial coordinates
  • How to get the properties of a star needed for the system from published materials, and how to fill in the blanks if there’s no source for some of the properties

One of my touchstones for the design will be to see whether the completed system can be used to gracefully match some of the nearby stars we know about – Tau Ceti’s dense Kuiper belt, Mu Arae’s weird metallicity and big planets, and so on. We have more than one planetary system to compare to now, so let’s use that.

2) I found in trying to run catalogue data through my Excel instance of the star system generation procedures in “GURPS Space” 4th ed. that I often had spectral classes and absolute luminosities, but that even the most complete and up-to-date compendium of data that I could find (the XHIP catalogue, at http://vizier.u-strasbg.fr/viz-bin/VizieR-3?-source=+V/137B/XHIP) was lacking in data on metallicity, mass, and age. Trying to work backwards from luminosity and spectral class to mass was easy, but going to age presented difficulties. Owing perhaps to observational imprecision in photometry and parallax, many stars seem to have luminosities that are incompatible with their class at any age.

I’ve run into that problem more than once myself. I think it should be possible to provide guidelines so that the reader can plausibly fill in gaps in the data, and possibly apply corrections if the data seem inconsistent.

3) Do you have a plan for the mutual tidal effects of moons and planets, together with system age, to influence the orbits of moons as well as the rotations of planets? A large planet in and old system that had rapid initial rotation slowed by tidal braking ought to have moved its moons (such as were initially prograde and outside the geostationary distance) outwards, and brought moons (such as were initially retrograde or inside the geostationary distance) inwards.

4) One of the things that commentators have complained about in using my ‘GURPS Handbook of the Planets’ is that many gas giants rotate too slowly. This turns out to be a result of parameter that controls the rate of tidal braking being estimated from the Earth, which is comparatively stiff. Gas giants and perhaps water worlds deserve a lower parameter. This being the case, is it entirely possible to determine rotation before composition, for a planet?

I’ll confess – as Brett knows all too well – the dynamics of tidal interactions between planets, their primary stars, and their satellites, are really fraught. The best models I’ve seen in the literature are wildly approximate at best, and very difficult to generalize from the Earth-Moon case that has been the most closely studied.

That having been said, the model I cobbled together for GURPS Space isn’t even naïve, it’s flat-out wrong, and gives very weird results in some cases. I can certainly do better than that now, it’s just a question of how complex I want the computations to be for the reader.

One approach might be (e.g.) to handle planetary rotation by determining the planet’s initial angular momentum, and then develop a computationally simple model to estimate how much of that angular momentum gets transferred to the satellite over time, causing it (in the simplest case) to spiral outward while the planet’s rotation slows down. But I need to do some more research on the physics, and see if anyone has come up with a mathematical treatment that can be generalized.

5) I note with approval that you have composition, age, rotation, and lunar orbits calculated before blackbody temperature, which has some advantages. Could you estimate tidal heating and the geothermal flux, add it to insolation, and do surface temperature in one step, thus obviating the need for special cases to handle e.g. very young planets in a stellar exploration campaign, of tidally-kneaded worlds like Io?

That might be possible. I do need to go into more detail then I did in GURPS Space on how to handle surface temperatures when the world is getting heat from more than one source.

6) In determining the composition of the atmosphere, do you plan to take into account the effects of the carbonate-silicate cycle in adjusting CO2 concentrations to equilibrate surface temperature? It is likely to make a big difference to the long-term habitability of planets.

Yes. In particular, I need to find a way to do a better job of quantifying the level of tectonic activity and volcanism (to estimate the efficiency of subduction and recycling of carbon).

7) I imagine that in estimating ice-sheets you must be estimating the transfer of heat from the equatorial regions or sunny side to the polar regions or dark side. Had you thought of estimating windiness and storminess as by-product calculations?

Yes, although I’m not sure whether it’s wise to try to hang overly precise numbers on those.

8) Do you plan to have a go at indicating the diurnal and seasonal variability of weather as functions of e.g. day length, year length, obliquity of rotation and eccentricity of orbit? When I did up the GURPS Space 4th ed system as an Excel workbook I got extraordinary results for the annual variability from eccentricity alone: I think eccentricities were a bit big in that.

That’s part of the plan, yes. I need to do some research regarding the expected ability of atmospheres and hydrospheres to retain and transfer heat. The idea is that the reader ought to be able to estimate the local temperature (probably with rather wide error bars) based primarily on the angle of incident sunlight.

9) In my Excel instance of the GURPS etc. I opportunistically calculated the apparent sizes, apparent periods, and tidal components induced by the primary, any moons, and the star (if different from the primary). Users complimented me on the evocative power of those data. I also calculated the period of low orbit (which turns out to depend on the density of the planet alone, so it didn’t vary very much for habitable planets), which is useful for eyeballing e.g. the opportunities for launch to or reinforcement by as orbiting ship, for exploration campaigns etc. The scale height of the atmosphere can be important data, especially if you are planning to include and index of mountainousness. Could you please give some thought to whether you might include such output?

Those all seem like excellent candidates to add to the system, and none of them too difficult to compute.

10) I imagine that for your calculations of atmosphere and climate you will be estimating the saturated vapour pressure of the hydrographical fluid (e.g. water, on a garden planet) at the reference altitude at average surface temperature. Thus or otherwise, could you please output the boiling point of ‘water’ at the reference altitude and the boiling altitude of ‘water’ at the mean surface temperature?

We’ll have to see how that works out. For Earthlike worlds, the behavior of water on the surface and in the atmosphere is an important priority. Whether I want to do something similar for exotica like (say) ethane or iron carbonyls remains to be seen.

11) I am aware that the colour-correction and ‘exposure’-adjustment characteristics of the human visual system mean that no star of any habitable planet will ever be noticeably bright or coloured to a human on the surface (K9 stars are hotter than a light-bulb filament, etc.). Nevertheless I do think it is worthwhile to discuss the effect of bolometric correction for the star’s spectral type on the visual illumination of a planet’s surface. Blackbody temperature is determined by bolometric luminosity, but illumination is determined by visual luminosity. Human’s may not notice, but it seems to me that the difference will certainly be significant enough to affect the rate of growth of plants. Agricultural productivity will be inhibited on planets orbiting stars of ‘late’ spectral type, as also, I suggest, might the vigour and rate of development of the native biosphere, with delayed oxygen catastrophe on the planets of orangish stars.

I had this in mind, yes – it’s something that could easily be included in a table of spectral classes, so the reader could estimate the level of visual illumination on a planet’s surface. Also very important for very late-class stars that put out most of their radiation in the infrared – it might be tempting to look directly into the face of a red dwarf star, but that’s a good way to burn out your retinas very quickly.

12) Are questions of this sort helpful to you? How and where would you best like to receive them?

Absolutely! If I haven’t already considered some feature, this is the best way to make sure I include them in the final draft. Feel free to drop questions into comments here or on the Patreon page, and if you’re “playtesting” the book, I’ll provide a channel for detailed comments as well.