The Shiny Is Live!

The first Immerse Or Die anthology, All These Shiny Worlds, is now live. In it you will find my Hard SF story, “The First Man In The World” as well as 14 others.  There are some really good stories in it–Jefferson Smith asked the survivors of his IOD report to submit their best work, and then had a panel of judges choose the best of them.  The stories represent a wide selection of SFF–science fiction, fantasy, horror, and a few that cross genre lines. Highly recommended, and it’s FREE! 

Edited 4 Feb 2016: Well, it’s supposed to be free.  At the moment there is some back and forth between the publisher and Amazon on that issue.  Sometimes it’s free, sometimes it’s 99 cents. Check it before you buy. 

Click To Buy--for FREE!

Click To Buy–for FREE!

 

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I have a new guest post up on Castalia House

My review of Nifft The Lean by Michael Shea. 

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Rumpots, Crackpots, And How Are You, Mr. Wilson?

2016, so far, is shaping up to be an interesting year.

By some combination of coincidence, serendipity, and/or an unseen hand, I have four on-line acquaintances who have projects coming together more or less in parallel.  While they are four very different projects, there is a common theme in their stories. Each of them began with a crackpot idea that ran contrary to modern conventional wisdom and pursued it anyway, and each of them discovered that conventional wisdom was wrong.

Let me explain:

Jefferson Smith:  Conventional wisdom says that self-publishing, by its very nature, can have no objective standard of quality control.  There are too many books, too many bloggers, too much marketing.  It’s a deluge, we are told, with no way to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The Crackpot Idea: “Immerse Or Die” Jefferson looked over the indie books that he read and the ones he gave up on and decided to focus his reviews on asking the question, “Why did I give up on these books?” The answer, he decided, was a lack of reader immersion.  Something happened while he was reading the book that knocked him out of the story.  Bad writing, bad grammar, a scene that didn’t make sense–something broke his concentration.

He began to judge books on how long he could read without encountering a moment that broke immersion.  Since he was in the habit of walking on a treadmill for forty minutes every morning, and like to read while he did so, that forty minute walk became his benchmark.  Thus was the Immerse Or Die Report born.

The Fallout: Steadily building momentum and growing interest.  The treadmill image is a nice hook for news stories–it’s a quirky novelty.  But more than that, both authors and readers are attracted to the transparency of the review process and a level playing field.  Every book gets forty minutes, and the reports show exactly what works, what doesn’t, and where the problems are.  While it is impossible to entirely remove the reviewer’s own prejudices, the IOD Report gives concrete examples of the mechanical issues that lead to a reader losing interest.

 

Jeffro Johnson: Conventional wisdom says that modern readers are too sophisticated and too jaded to be interested in the fiction of the past. Science Fiction and Fantasy have grown up and left behind the childish and naive pulp tales of yesteryear.

The Crackpot Idea: “Appendix N” Jeffro decided to take a good hard look at the roots of fantasy fiction.  To this end he took his reading list from the Dungeon & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide (Gary Gygax, 1979).   Appendix N is Gygax’s list of recommended reading–those books that most inspired him and which he felt would be of interest to D&D players.

Jeffro located and reviewed the works on Gygax’s original list, and went on the locate other works by some of the authors listed.  What he found was that the fantasy and science fiction of the first half of the 20th Century was a lot different than you’d expect if you just read what has been written about it recently.  He went on to post retrospective reviews of the Appendix N fiction, and is currently collecting those reviews into an upcoming book.

The Fallout: He was nominated for the Hugo Award for fan writer.  He has also been viciously attacked on-line and described in terms that would make Lovecraft blush.  He has kept his head and a (mostly) civil tongue during the controversies that have surrounded Appendix N.  Although it’s still tough to judge any long term effect, he is introducing a new generation of readers to the likes of A. Merrit and Leigh Bracket.  He has gotten people talking about the roots of fantasy, and he is getting people to read them, and that is what he set out to do.

 

Alex Kimball: Conventional wisdom says that Sword & Planet fantasy is dead.  John Carter Of Mars tanked at the box office, and that was a title that some people at least had heard of. Even most science fiction fans respond to the genre name with a resounding “huh?”Weird Tales style “iron-thewed barbarian fights aliens with a big sword” are simply not going to sell to 21st Century readers.

The Crackpot Idea: “Cirvosa Magazine” Inspired, in part, by Jeffro’s series on Appendix N, Alex decided to try reviving the genre.  He put out a call for submissions on his blog and started assembling a magazine.  He offered extremely competitive rates–which also went against the “short stories get paid in exposure” conventional wisdom these days–and he got authors willing to give it a try.  (Including me, by the way.)

He then took his project to Kickstarter–not to fund it, since he paid out of pocket for the writers, artists, and production costs–but to sell advertising and to start funding the second issue.

The Fallout: He’s made his goal, and more besides, and the campaign isn’t over yet.  He is already collecting stories for the next issue.  People are interested, both readers and writers.  It remains to be seen what the response to the first issue will be when it hits the stands, but there is some respectable pre-release buzz.

 

Eddy Webb: Conventional wisdom says that role playing games have to be dark to attract players.  After all, White Wolf’s “World Of Darkness” (which Eddy has worked on extensively) isn’t called the “World Of Happiness”. Depressing, bleak settings and required, and characters should be tormented monsters who betray each other.

The Crackpot Idea: “Pugmire”  Eddy decided to combine two of his passions–epic fantasy and dogs.  At first it was just a cute image, pugs dressed in little suits of armor.  Then he began to ask some serious questions about what if the human race vanished suddenly and dogs were left to build a society on their own.  What would it be like?

He used his skills in RPG design to make a system that reflects and encourages canine virtues–loyalty, cooperation, courage, sacrifice.  The ethos of the game is summed up in the command, “Be A Good Dog!”

The Fallout:  Pugmire is HUGE.  The response has been overwhelming. The Kickstarter asked for $15,000.  As of this writing it has raised nearly a hundred thousand–and it has 36 days left to run.  The playtesters, who were largely recruited from players used to being vampires, werewolves, and other monsters, embrace the positive, family friendly ethos of the game.  People, it seems, want to be good.

 

Personally, I find the successes of these projects to be very encouraging.  It tells me that following trends is not the only way to reach an audience.  In fact, it’s probably not even the best way.  Instead, follow your heart.  Make the art that you want, the work that satisfies your own soul and gets you excited.  Because it’s likely that what you want is also what other people want, and just ignore the “experts” who want to pontificate about the next big thing.

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Pugmire!

It is in the far distant future.  The human race is gone, vanished from the Earth, leaving behind ruins and their successors–those who have been their companions and protectors since the dim reaches of history.

You are one of those companions of the vanished human race.  Armed with your wits, your courage, and your loyalty, you fight to rebuild civilization from the chaos, guided by fragments of human knowledge and their command to all of your kind:

Be a good dog.

Welcome to the world of Pugmire. It’s the brainchild of my old friend Eddy Webb.  Eddy has been a game designer for quite a few years now, first with White Wolf and then on his own as a freelancer.  Eddy also happens to love pugs. I used to dog-sit his first pug, Puck, now lost to us over the rainbow bridge.

Eddy has designed a fantasy role playing game which is set in a post-human world populated by animals with human intelligence and tool using ability.  It is based on the d20 Open Game License and designed to be family friendly.   The focus of the game is on dogs as player characters and contains rules for creating characters of different breeds and classes.

There is more information–and some cool artwork–on the Pugmire Kickstarter Page.  Eddy has partnered with Onyx Path Publishing, who will be handling the printing and distribution of the finished game.

I know, I very seldom post links for crowdfunding projects, and here I’ve posted two in the same month.  I’m not even involved in this one (although I’ll admit to being part of the genesis of the project–when Eddy posted his first thoughts about a game involving talking dogs in a D&D style game I was one of a couple of dozen people who encouraged him to go for it.)

But I think it’s a cool idea, I know Eddy’s work and he’s good at what he does, and I know that some of my blog readers are also avid gamers. So if you’ve ever had a hankering to be a Corgi with a battleaxe (and come on, who hasn’t?) check it out.

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Super Secret Shiny Sneak Peak

I am jumping the gun just a little bit here, but I really excited.  You already know that I am being featured in 2016 Immerse Or Die Story Bundle, right? I mentioned that.

Well, in addition to putting together a story bundle of Immerse Or Die Survivors, Jefferson Smith put together a collection of stories from IOD survivor authors, and I was invited to submit.

I put together a little story called, “The First Man In The World”, a Hard SF piece in which I tried to capture the feel of early Larry Niven.  It was outside of my usual style, but I thought it worked.  Evidently so did the panel of judges that Jefferson put together, because it was accepted.

Now, after some editorial work, I got the completed anthology to read over and make one last bug hunt.

Wow.

Just wow.

I sat down last night to give the formatting a quick look and ended up reading the first nine (of fifteen) stories straight through.

The stories aren’t just good, they are can’t-put-it-down, edge-of-your-seat amazing.  Most indie anthologies that I have read have a few good stories and a bunch of “meh” stories.

In All These Shiny Worlds, Jefferson Smith is holding the “meh.”  I haven’t finished it (I had to get some sleep eventually) but every one that I read last night was a real gem.  I feel humbled to be included among these stories–and you know me, my ego is naked eye observable from orbit.

It’s not available quite yet (as I said, we’re doing one last check for typos) but will be soon.  There is an official launch page where you can sign up for a reminder when it comes out, but I’ll also be announcing it here.

Seriously, don’t miss this one.  It’s going to be free, and it’s going to be awesome.

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The Worst Ending In Science Fiction History

Two notes:

First, this post is going to involve major spoilers for the novel The Shockwave Rider, originally published in 1975 by John Brunner.

Second, this post, as everything else I write, is my own opinion.  I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, and I make no claims to be a definitive source.

This having been said, I do believe that The Shockave Rider has the worst ending in the history of science fiction.

Although the novel shows up on a lot of lists of classic science fiction, and was very influential in its day, modern readers may not have read it.  Consequently, I will summarize the story.

The book was heavily influenced by Alvin Toffler’s non-fiction work, Future Shock. The title, for example, was acknowledged by the author as a direct reference.  Brunner doesn’t just take Toffler’s speculations at face value, though, he extrapolates the effect that technology has on society in ways that turned out to be chillingly prophetic.

The Shockwave Rider, in fact, accurately predicts so many social aspects of the internet that it is hard to believe that it was written in the 1970s, when computers were still room-sized machines that ran on punch cards and magnetic tape.

In particular, Brunner seemed to understand–long before anyone else I can think of–how the combination of anonymity and access to a large audience can bring out the worst in people.  He predicted many of the ways that global access can be misused, and saw both the positive and negative fallout of instant celebrity–what we call today “going viral”.

Granted, he also got a lot wrong, but all in all he painted a clearer picture of life in the early 21st Century than anyone in the Age of Disco had any right to.

Into this image he inserts Nick Haflinger, a young man with a prodigy’s ability to program computers remotely.  (The fact that Brunner has Nick hacking into computer networks via a cell phone is just one example of the novel’s creepy prescience.)

Nick is a fugitive, a serial fraud artist who uses his ability to set up new identities for himself at will.  He is a graduate from a secret government training facility–a kind of military academy, but for spies. (This is one of the novels weakest conceits, aside from the ending [and, yes, I’m getting to that] because there is little explanation for why such a thing would exist, except to bring up the Military-Industrial-Complex as a generic bad guy.)

Okay, on to the ending.  Nick has found that there is a group which is opposed to the big corporations that control the Net and has been fighting to make the flow of information truly free.  There are some entanglements, including a rather passionless romantic subplot, but that’s the gist of the plot.

So Nick has to use his super-hacker powers to save the group.  There is a direct threat that he manages to foil by sending a countermanding order on the Net, and that sequence works fairly well in a techno-thriller way.

But then, he goes on to use the power of computers to fix the world, and this is where the whole book falls apart.  Nick writes two “worms”–essentially what we would call viruses today.

The first one is far fetched, but at least the intent makes sense.  It makes every computer release any information that could impact a person to that person.  Yeah, kind of open ended there.  The examples that Brunner comes up with are mostly dealing with product safety (in case any readers missed the “CAPITALISM IS EEEEVIL!” drum that he’s been beating for the last 190 pages).  Things like printing the results of a suppressed drug test on the label of the pill bottle.  No clear mechanism for how a program could locate the information, decide where to print it, and override the machinery that prints labels is offered, but I’m willing to cut him some slack on this.  1975, remember?

It’s the second worm, the big kahuna, that makes me wonder if Brunner was under some serious editorial pressure to just finish the damned book already. Because Nick’s masterstroke has got to be the absolutely lamest idea that any vertebrate has ever had.

See, Nick writes a virus that sends a message to every computer in the world, asking the users to vote on a petition.  Now, even leaving aside that there is no way that this petition would have any legal weight (it’s kind of like if Change.org and Publisher’s Clearing House had a baby) the substance of the petition is not just completely screwy, it goes directly against everything that the character had stood for in the rest of the book.

Basically (I don’t have the exact text in front of me) it mandates that every profession’s salary be set on the basis of three criteria:

  1. The degree of danger and difficulty involved
  2. The amount of specialized training (or undefined “talent”) necessary
  3. The degree to which it benefits society.

The example that he gives of a profession that scored zero on all three axis was advertising–amusing, coming from someone whose livelihood depended entirely on advertisers.  (It’s also dead wrong, which he would have known if he’d ever had to try to sell his own books.)

I can remember being stunned at this when I first read it–and I was much less a libertarian then than I am now.  But we have a character who has spent an entire novel trying to live free of government control and at the end he proclaims that what we really need is much more government control!

The way that the petition is framed obscures the active party, but somebody would have to administer this mess. Who gets to decide what job is more difficult or requires more talent than another?  Who sets the baseline and decides how to adjust it? Who decides who “society” is and which benefits are most important? Who enforces these salaries and arrests people who are paying their electrician too much because their power is out on a holiday weekend and they really need an electrician?  For that matter, who tries and sentences violators and decides what is an appropriate punishment?

Brunner doesn’t address any of these questions, but it’s clear that he expected some faceless bureaucracy to simply appear, as if by magic, staffed by wise and compassionate people who would use their power only for good.  Nick is a slave who has spent the entire novel as a struggle, not to be free, but to simply to trade up masters.

And the craziest part is that there is already a very efficient mechanism to accomplish Nick’s stated goals.  It’s called the free market.

If a job is dangerous and difficult, then people won’t do it unless you pay them more.  If people with a particular talent are rare, then they can negotiate better salaries. If a community needs a particular service, then the citizens will agree to be taxed to pay for it.

Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Brunner felt that it was unfair that the people in general were allowed to hash out such things for themselves, rather than having a system imposed from above by a chosen few.  Emotionally, I can see his point.  I think that getting out of a warm bed to shovel snow at 5 am should pay more than going to meetings and writing reports.

What is less forgivable, however, is that he seems unable to extrapolate the consequences of his scheme.  It’s rather startling, in fact, given how well he was able to extrapolate so many other things in this book.

Suppose, for example, that it is decided that nurses should make more than plumbers because nursing is more beneficial to society.  No brainer, right? But have you ever tried to treat patients without running water? Does the plumber get to make more money fixing pipes in a hospital than, say, an advertising agency? And what happens when plumbers start hanging up their wrenches and going to nursing school because it pays better? Is someone going to force plumbers to work in a profession that doesn’t pay well because plumbers are needed? Or will plumbing suddenly become more beneficial to society so that their salaries can go up?

That’s the problem with central planning, and why nations that attempt such schemes always end up needing a nation with a free market economy to send them food.  No one can think of everything, and no central planning committee can see the whole picture and respond as fast or as effectively as the marketplace as a whole.

It’s kind of sad, because otherwise The Shockwave Rider is a pretty good book.

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I have a guest post up on Castalia House

My review of Tanith Lee’s Tales Of The Flat Earth Series is live on the Castalia House Blog.

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