Rendezvous With The King’s Ransom

30 January, 2014 at 4:10 pm

My 8-year-old daughter is taking an IEW writing class as a supplement to her homeschool curriculum. For this her most recent assignment, she was supposed to re-write a story from a selection of Aesop’s Fables according to her own design. In addition, she was supposed to get one of her parents to do the same assignment, to help rusty old out of school folks remember what it’s like to go through the process of writing.

I might have rubbed my hands with glee at that point. “Oooh! A writing assignment? SIGN ME UP.”

My wife was only too relieved to hand this one over to me.

My daughter chose the following story as her subject for the rewrite:

The Good King’s Feast

A good and great king once sent letters to all parts of his kingdom to say that on his birthday he was going to give a feast and a purse full of money to all the poorest persons who would come. So from all parts came poor folks who wanted to share in the king’s good gifts. They came from east, and west, and north, and south. One poor blind man was going slowly along the road, feeling his way, -tap! tap! tap!, with his stick; but of course, as he could not see, he could not go fast, and he feared that he would not be able to reach the palace in time. At last he fell against a lame man. The lame man could only creep a step or two at a time. The lame man was also trying to get to the palace to share in the good king’s gifts. So the blind man said to the lame one, “If you will climb on to my back, you can tell me which way to walk, because you can see, and I can walk fast, so that we may both be in time after all.” And so they did. The king was so pleased when he heard how they had come, that he gave each of them twice as much as he gave to anyone else.

Yesterday afternoon, I sat down to write my three paragraphs. I knew right away I would be turning it into a science fiction story. (Shocker, I know.) I didn’t expect to pound out over 3,000 words.

Now that I have, I’m glad I did. This is a universe that I’ve only just started sketching out, but I like it, and I think I may want to revisit it in a longer story. Until then, I hope you enjoy my 3rd-grade writing assignment: Rendezvous With the King’s Ransom. 

 

preview

The announcement had gone out fleet-wide. The King’s Ransom – the capital ship that served as the central governing body and manufacturing center for the flotilla – was offering supplemental provisions to those ships with the greatest demonstrable need. For the past year, the 334 ships of the Earth Memorial Federation had been flying through space occupied by a race known as the Senfari, who made up for what they lacked in technological sophistication with numbers and sheer brutality.

The resource ships that perpetually probed for usable materials had been able to land only sporadically, and then only on moons and planets so barren as to offer little of substance. Everything worth exploring already hosted Senfari colonies and bases, and they had proven fiercely territorial. Consequently, many of the ships in the fleet were running dangerously low on critical supplies. Without the necessary maintenance on their environmental recyclers, and low on the basic protein substrate that could be printed into rations, many smaller ship crews faced imminent starvation or life support failure. With resources so limited, the offer of emergency supplies could not have been an easy one for the Federation leadership, but it was, quite literally, a lifesaver.

The Lightfoot was a small, corvette-class cruiser with a crew of seven. Lightly armed and armored, it had been badly damaged during the most recent battle with the Senfari. A direct hit from railgun fire had punctured the hull through-and-through. Though the hull breaches were patched with emergency nano-sealant before all the atmosphere had escaped, the penetrating round had bored through and completely destroyed the ship’s navigational computer. Astrogation had become impossible. Both short and long-range sensors, including proximity detectors, were out. Autopilot wasn’t even an option. In a word, Lightfoot was flying blind.

In Lightfoot’s current condition, it was far too dangerous to fly in close proximity to the other ships of the fleet. Any drift or piloting error could prove fatal, and the exterior cameras gave an incomplete view of the immediate vicinity, providing very little sense of perspective for piloting. Left with no other choice, the Lightfoot hung back behind the rest of the pack, whoever was at the conn forced to make visual course corrections through the use of the viewscreen just to keep the ship from being separated from the larger group. In this region of space, the consequences of falling too far behind had become clear. The Senfari had the mentality of pack animals, always looking for the weakest in the herd.

Captain Taphorn – known by his crew as Tap – knew that no ship in the flotilla was more in need of the promised supplies than the Lightfoot. But there was simply no safe way to navigate to The King’s Ransom, let alone dock with her. The odds of a collision flying on visual only were just too great. He was considering making a request for an escort – something he wasn’t sure the Ransom would be able to provide – when his comm panel chimed. He touched the screen and listened as the speaker flared to life.

“Attention all ships, attention all ships. This is Captain McFadden of the Faraday, requesting emergency assistance. We took some point defense fire to our engines during that last skirmish. We’ve been nursing them along, but the whole system just decided to give up the ghost. We are dead in the water. I repeat, dead in the water. Our inertial drift is wonky, and we won’t be able to stay with the fleet for long.”

As he listened, Tap couldn’t believe his luck. He quickly pressed the transmit button on his communication panel and waited for the “clear line” tone. Then he spoke.

A Working Writer’s Manifesto

29 January, 2014 at 11:19 am

Writers-Manifesto

I’ve been looking to build a side business of freelance writing. One of my 2014 goals is to get published in new outlets, instead of just the ones where I have existing relationships.

Looking through Craigslist last night was depressing. As was my perusal of most of the other freelance writing job boards out there. All these outlets are desperate for great content, but they’re not willing to pay for it. In fact many of them think they can get away with offering nothing, or at most, 1 or 2 cents per word.

This is unacceptable.

Finally, I posted a Craigslist ad of my own. Under the headline, “Writer Looking for Fair Compensation, Respect for His Craft” I just let my thoughts and feelings flow.

What came out was this:

I’m a writer.

I’ve been doing it a long time. Since I was a kid, really.

There was the time I placed second in the bumper-sticker contest in grade school, or the time I won the all-school fiction writing contest in the fifth grade, earning me a trip to a major publishing house to see how the big leagues work.

I won the school spelling bee in 7th grade, and went on to the regionals, even if I never made it all the way to DC.

The journals I wrote while travelling Europe in college were circulated far and wide after I emailed them home. A letter to the editor of the school paper turned into a weekly column, by far one of the most popular during my time there.

After graduation, I worked for a company that did marketing for a non-profit dedicated to stopping the drug dealers destroying communities and the lives of teens. The founder of that organization had lost his son to a drug overdose at a party, and my words captured the depth of his emotion in a way he didn’t know how to express. After reading what I had written, he looked at me, a strange, pained expression on his face, and asked how I could know what he felt so clearly.

I’ve ghostwritten for executives at one of the largest corporations on the planet, authored thousands of blog posts on topics ranging from religion to robots, been published regularly in two international outlets and had my work picked up by major newspapers after their editors saw it online. I’ve written copy for businesses and non-profits alike, crafted emails and announcements designed to handle highly delicate situations, and created the first communications plan in an organization’s 60-year history.

I have been solicited by a publishing house to write a non-fiction book, and I’ve just completed 50,000 words of my first novel draft.

I am a writer.

I have never worked full time as a writer. I have never been able to simply put this title on my resume. But it is what I am, what I have been, what I always will be. Since the time I was old enough to write letters in pencil with a faltering hand, I have written. Told stories. Communicated beauty with words.

And I am not alone.

Please don’t ever insult a writer by telling them that you can’t pay them, but that they can have the pleasure of featuring the work they do for you for free in their portfolio.

Please don’t ever think that a writer is dumb enough not to realize that anything less than five cents a word is slave wages for a hard-earned skill that you do not possess. Please don’t think we’re ignorant enough to think that anything less than ten cents a word is fair pay.

If you are taking advantage of a writer because you know how hard it is to make a living in this line of work, because you know that we’re hungry or can’t afford to pay the heating bill or need gas to get to that retail job we’re working so we can continue to focus on our craft — if you are doing these things, it will come back to you.

There will always be a desperate writer. There will always be a starving artist. There will always be someone so insecure that they don’t recognize how much more they are worth than the insulting offers that you make to them.

If you prey on those people, you are a predator. If you give them opportunity and fair pay, you build a relationship with someone who can supply you with the words you need to compete and succeed in a world where it has become impossible to do business without storytelling.

We don’t come here posting ads asking for a job where we don’t have to supply any work but get to sit in your cozy office while you get to be “a part of the career of an up-and coming writer from the ground floor” and tell you smugly that “we can’t actually do any work for what you’re paying us, but we’ll give you great exposure and you can put our name in your portfolio of employees.”

Give it a rest.

All we ask for is some decency — and some good, honest, paying work.

I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up. Feel free to share this if you agree.

UPDATE: In my original post, I had set the floor on “slave wages” at 10 cents a word and 20 cents a word for “fair pay.” I was ranting and not doing the math (I’m a writer, not a mathematician.) I’ve been paid 20 cents a word as part of a regular gig, and it’s certainly decent (and what I was thinking about as I wrote it). But I get paid about 6 cents a word now, and it’s worth my time to do it if I can turn it around quickly. That comes out to $50 for an 800-word post. If I can do that in an hour (alas, I rarely take less than two hours for a piece that long) then I’m earning minimally fair compensation for my trade.  At 10 cents per word, a two hour post nets me $40/hour. It’s low, but it’s acceptable.

Since I’m going on about fairness, it seemed to be only right to update this post with what I realized are more reasonable expectations. The original Craigslist posting has been updated as well.

Remembering Challenger: 28 Years Ago Today

28 January, 2014 at 10:23 am

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It was January 28, 1986. I was in the third grade. I don’t know why I wasn’t at school that day, but I remember being at home when the phone call came.

For some reason, when I think back to it, I keep seeing that big beige receiver in my mother’s hand. It was a rotary phone, hanging on our kitchen wall in our second floor rental in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. The corkboard beside the phone was papered with notes and numbers. The walls were laden with busy drawings of fruit, baskets, and flowers, the wallpaper a riot of images that filled the room beside the kitchen table. The long, spiral phone cord looped low and stretched out beneath the plastic housing. It was my father calling. He had been pulled from a meeting in New Haven and given some terrible news.

I don’t remember my mother’s reaction on the phone, but a sense of urgency pervades the memory. She rushed to the living room and turned on the news. I stood there with her, watching the video replay on our little TV.

It was the early days of cable news, and for our family, the early days of cable television, which we had gotten just the year before. We were not yet bombarded with a 24/7 news cycle full of tragedies and violence that desensitized us to loss. Unfiltered and unprepared, the tragedy of what was happening hit like a gut punch. My mother started crying as she watched, and as she put her arm around me, I started too. My father’s meeting was cancelled, and everyone from his office was sent home. Back then, a story like this was more than just a report. It mattered. We came together as a nation to mourn.

All those lives lost. All the excitement turned to tears.

The loss of the Challenger would stand out among the most powerful images from my childhood. The Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The Tienanmen Square massacre. The opening salvo of the Gulf War.

As a young boy, I was enchanted with all things space. Over my young life, I gave plenty of thought to the idea of being an astronaut, but every time I heard how much math was involved, I blanched. (I’d much rather write about space than calculate a trajectory through it.)

Seeing that explosion, watching that shuttle tear apart, irrevocably ending not just the mission but the lives and dreams of all those aboard — it was my first real inkling that space exploration was extremely dangerous stuff. That the line between life and death was as thin as the layers of fabric protecting astronauts from the unsurvivable vacuum and impossible cold outside their suits.

I recently saw the film Gravity, and I was reminded of the Challenger explosion. It captured that same feeling of something beautiful gone so wrong, and of the utterly unforgiving nature of space, of orbital velocity, of strapping a rocket to your back and heading for the stars.

The film, of course, played out in digital high resolution glory, unlike the grainy analog news footage from 1986. The computers that we use for making movie special effects today are exponentially more powerful than the ones that powered space missions decades ago. Advances in materials science, structural engineering, and even space suit design have come so far since the 1980s.

When I read about the successes (and trials) of Virgin Galactic, about new missions to the moon and even Mars, I can’t help but get excited. NASA may be grounded for now, but the potential for space travel, whether public or private, is virtually untapped. 

Challenger reminds us that the dream of exploring space is risky. But with so many wonders to discover, I believe that it is worth the risk. The brave astronauts who died aboard the Challenger no doubt thought so. I doubt a single one of them would have wanted their tragedy to stop mankind from reaching for the stars.

Hope springs eternal in the promise of the great beyond. For the astronauts of Challenger, I pray that they rest in peace.

The March for Life vs. The Hunger Games

23 January, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Maybe it was just interesting timing.

I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire within 24-hours of attending the 41st annual March for Life. I couldn’t help noticing the overlap in themes.

  • Human life is meaningless.
  • The government says it is perfectly acceptable to take a life for whatever reason we deem necessary.
  • The obvious fact that children are being murdered is of little consequence to both the government and the people.
  • The populace demands blood, or it will not be satisfied.
  • There is a growing discontent among the decent people of the country about just how callous everyone has become toward child bloodlust.
  • Decent people CAN make a difference, if they can only break through the media blackout.

These are my top-of-mind observations. You could probably supply more of your own, and I welcome them in the comments if you see fit.

I doubt that Suzanne Collins had any of this in mind when she put together her Iraq War/Reality TV/Roman Empire mashup series. The Hunger Games is just damned good fiction about oppressive governments and the real phenomenon of panem et circenses.

But the intersecting venn diagram between the abortion holocaust going on in this country and the popularity of the fictional Hunger Games that has been sweeping the book stores and box offices is hard to ignore.

Peeta-Catching-Fire-Interview

And then there is that moment. The moment when Peeta tells Caesar Flickerman that Katniss is expecting a baby, in the hopes of turning the tide against the cruel victor-reaping of the Quarter Quell. In the cinematic adaptation (which varies from the books) the crowd goes wild, with audible chants of “Cancel the games!” All because Katniss is reported to be with child.

And yet, she is a child, and they have no problem spilling her blood, or the blood of any other child contestant. Why would a society so sated by the murder of children struggle even in the slightest with a pregnant contestant? The very inclusion of this theme crushes the suspension of disbelief and reminds the viewer of the liberties taken with the source material. (It’s been a couple of years since I read the book, but I remember no such outcry from the audience when Peeta plays this gambit in the original story. Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

And this is where we are today. Moloch rules. It would not surprise me in the slightest if we came up with our own version of the Hunger Games.

Over 55 million lives of children have been snuffed out in the United States since 1973 – a far more brutal tale than an annual Hunger Games with 24 contestants from 12 Districts could ever be, even over a 75-year span.

But there is no rebellion. There is no Mockingjay. There is no secret plot born out of District 13 that will take down the evil, oppressive system once and for all. The abortion mills plod on, each child taken more grist for the machine.

People worry that The Hunger Games movies are too brutal for children. And yet every year, over 1.5 million American children are killed, just like that, with the blessing of our government.

Every child alive today is a survivor of America’s own Hunger Games. Every one of them is a tribute, a victor, a boy or girl emerged from the wheel of death that turns daily, churning out decision on who will live and who will die.

Nobody sees it. There are no sponsors. The heroes simply March, and pray, and try to convince a world gone mad that life is what matters. Life is what prevails. No matter how difficult, no matter how uncomfortable.

You cannot distract us with your bread and circuses.

Our generation must end the abortion holocaust. May the odds be ever in our favor.

Love From Larry Correia

16 January, 2014 at 11:50 am

sad-puppy2-2 It’s Sad Puppies Time again. For those of you unfamiliar with Sad Puppies Time, it’s bestselling author Larry Correia’s annual appeal to get nominated for a Hugo award. Appealing to only our basest emotions and our empathy for depressed, fluffy canines, the goodly Mr. Correia is trying to break the clique of far-left Worldcon idols and get some actual popular fiction nominated. It’s a people’s choice award, after all. Larry is one of my favorite authors. The kind where I never have to re-read a paragraph trying to figure out what esoteric concept he’s driving at. He’s a meat and potatoes SciFi and Fantasy writer, and I know that when he releases a book, it will a number of things I will enjoy. You can mix and match, but some constants include:

  • Many, many guns, described in near-pornographic detail
  • Explosions
  • World-eating alien forces and/or monsters from your worst nightmares
  • Protagonists you really enjoy seeing kick some ass
  • Moar guns
  • Villains that you love to hate
  • Larger capacity magazines for guns
  • Dark, ironic humor
  • Guns

Last year, I joined Worldcon, paid my dues, and nominated Monster Hunter: Legion for a Hugo. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut. I don’t think I even wound up voting for much of the final slate, because I just didn’t know and/or care about the majority of the nominees. Rumor has it that my membership is good for nominating again this year, if not for voting for the finalists. So you can bet I’ll be putting in my bid for Warbound. But I wanted to do more. So when I read Larry’s Sad Puppy post, and saw that he wrote in a part for a voiceover guy, I knew what I had to do. I took this:

VOICE OVER GUY: The ugly truth is that the most prestigious award in sci-fi/fantasy is basically just a popularity contest, where the people who are popular with a tiny little group of WorldCon voters get nominated and thousands of other works are ignored. Books that tickle them are declared good and anybody who publically deviates from groupthink is bad. Over time this lame ass award process has become increasingly snooty and pretentious, and you can usually guess who all of the finalists are going to be that year before any of the books have actually come out or been read by anyone, entirely by how popular the author is with this tiny group. This is a leading cause of puppy related sadness.

And I turned it into this:

It was the least I could do.

What I did not expect was Larry’s response. On Facebook, he wrote:

One of my fans Steve Skojec made this for Voice Over guy from today’s blog post. Holy crap. Watch it. I about died.

He then appended it into the space just above the voiceover text in the original post, and gave it its own post besides. It’s a silly thing, but I enjoy my unofficial contribution to the Correia canon nonetheless. My general feeling can be described as follows: so-much-win

Go Fundamentalist or Go Home

15 January, 2014 at 8:06 pm

fundamentalist

This morning, I was accused of being a fundamentalist for arguing in favor of what my Catholic faith actually teaches, instead of some vague, nuanced version that makes Catholicism indistinct from any other religion.

Not unlike being called a “rigorist“, being called a fundamentalist is euphemistic for someone who cares more about what a thing means than how people think it should be applied. Usually in direct opposition to whatever the thing in question was created to accomplish.

Or, as one of my friends put it:

“Fundamentalist” is a slippery label, but it boils down to the speaker’s incredulity at people who “believe that shit.” 

In other words, it says more about the labeler than the labelee.

I have to admit, I don’t get the problem with fundamentalism. The free dictionary defines it thusly:

A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

“Fundamental principles”. These are evidently problematic for a lot of people. Mostly for those who find themselves a part of something that they no longer, for whatever reason, really believe in. There’s a certain comfort in being a part of something, especially if it’s something you’ve been a part of for a very long time. Lots of people would rather try to change the thing they are a part of than to admit that they themselves have grown apart from the thing and don’t really believe in it anymore.

But really, that’s just lazy.

I’ve had tons of problems with my Catholic Faith over the years. And those problems have caused distance between myself and the Church. They’ve made it easier for me to doubt, easier for  me to sin, easier for me to wonder if any of it really means anything.

But I have enough respect for the people who don’t have those problems to not treat them as though they’re the crazy ones. If I don’t like being Catholic, I can pull up my big boy pants and leave. I can do the same thing if I’m an American, or if I’m an advocate of analog instead of digital recording, or if I believe Greedo shot first. It doesn’t matter what the canon is. If I think it’s crap, I don’t have to stick around for it. I don’t have to subscribe to it or defend it or wear a t-shirt saying I heart it.

The one thing I don’t have a right to do is to pretend that it’s something other than it is. I’m sorry everyone, but solipsism is bullshit. Stop thinking that the world is what you decide it is. Give others the respect of letting them have their own beliefs, even if you think they’re wrong. I have no problem with trying to convert someone to your way of thinking, but don’t try to tell them that what they believe in should change because it’s no longer relevant.

If you ever say that, you’re the one with the relevancy problem.

The strange thing about this tendency to eschew fundamentalism is that it only seems to apply to esoteric things. Could you imagine if some baker came out — say, the grandson of Betty Crocker — and decided that following recipes for things like chocolate chip cookies was disgusting fundamentalism?

“I refuse to use vanilla,” the young Mr. Crocker might write in his manifesto, “so I shall instead use a teaspoon of Sriracha. I do not subscribe to the theory that only baking soda or baking powder will act to leaven my dough, so I instead choose to make use of Borax! And chocolate chips are barbaric. I will only use cockroach larvae in my recipe!”

It wouldn’t be a long or illustrious career in baking for Mr. Crocker.

The same would apply to the average chemist, engineer, or nuclear physicist. Historians who decide to make up their own version of past events often get a pass, but that doesn’t make the drivel they produce any more true. Just because the Emperor wants to believe in the exquisite nature of his raiment does not mean that he is wearing a stitch of clothing.

Fundamentalism means understanding what a thing is and having enough respect for it to be a purist.

Whether that’s a Catholic who adheres to the teaching of the Church, or a Muslim who follows the path of jihad, fundamentalism isn’t just some pejorative term. It’s something pure. It may not be good. It might even be evil. But it is slavishly accurate. It hews to source material, eschewing deconstructionism and zeitgeist and clinging instead to the source. We do a disservice to truth to pretend that those who have taken the time to understand what a thing means really don’t understand it, and are instead serving some selfish principle.

If we’re telling them that, maybe we need to examine whether it’s really us, not them, who doesn’t care for or understand the thing in question. And if that turns out to be true, do a favor to the people who get it: go find something you respect enough to to be a fundamentalist about. Leave us alone.

My Childhood Fantasies Are Today’s Normal

9 January, 2014 at 12:15 pm

It’s crazy when you think about how much has changed since the 1970s. If you’ve seen American Hustle, you’re probably glad. (I did just have to get a new science oven myself this week.) The 70s were a weird time. But they’re also when I was born, so they form the basis of my perspective.

I often find myself talking to my kids about the way things were. About not having cable TV (and some family members not even having color TV) for a good chunk of my childhood. About rotary phones and card catalogs at the library and the ubiquity of payphones and the oddness of cell phones and the advent of the Internet and the Internet before it had pictures and computers pre-Windows and Atari and video game arcades and cassette tapes and vinyl records and VHS camcorders and so many other things that were but no longer are.

It’s been just one big avalanche of technological progress. Watching the Challenger explode on television  was, in many ways, less dramatic than watching a CGI space-station torn apart by orbital debris in Gravity. I have more power in my outdated Android phone than in the first three desktop computers I owned combined. I now use satellites to navigate, I can buy nanofiber pants that repel liquids, I can print three-dimensional objects, and I surf the net on a fiber optic connection that promises speeds of 75mbps and actually delivers 45mbps. (My first modem was 2400bps.) I saw footage today from a video game engine that is so photo realistic, it’s almost impossible to tell the environments from the real thing:

Today, I followed a link to a video about a new toy robot with gyroscopic balance and sensors that allow basic hand-motion programming. Interesting enough in itself, on the sidebar was a link to the most recent cover of Popular Science:

Cover3

 

Do you know what one of my favorite books was as a boy? It was this little gem:

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I recently bought a copy of this from a used book website because it was such a significant imagination-starter when I was a kid. I don’t know if you can make it out, but that cover depicts a “telepresence” (virtual reality) helmet-wearing operator of a lightweight mechanical dragonfly drone.

The book was published in 1974. Here’s the plot synopsis from Wikipedia:

Danny exacerbates a small electrical fire, altering an experimental crystalline semiconductor material Prof. Bullfinch was evaluating. Prof. Bullfinch is able to use this altered material to create ISIT (the Invisibility Simulator with Intromittent Transmission), a dragonfly-like probe which could be piloted with a Telepresence helmet and gauntlet gloves.

The trio each tries out the device. Irene uses ISIT to birdwatch. Joe uses the device to observe a beehive from the inside. Danny discovers a bully nicknamed ‘Snitcher’ cheating by copying the word list to the school spelling bee and dishonestly winning himself a boombox. The ISIT is outfitted with a speaker which is subsequently used by Danny as a means to pretend to be the bully’s conscience, in order get Snitcher to confess to his father.

However, ISIT also causes problems, as soon afterwards Prof. Bullfinch is visited by General Gruntel. The general reveals (in very authoritarian language) he wishes to use ISIT as a tool to spy not only on enemy governments, but against Americans as well. General Gruntel attempts to seize the unit, but is rebuffed by Doctor Grimes. While going to get authorization to seize the ISIT, he leaves the professor’s lab under guard.

Danny, Irene, and Joe decide to take matters into their own hands and stealthily break into the lab to recover the probe. The probe’s absence is realized which leads to Colonel Twist, the commanding officer of the two guards, to delusively believe the device has been stolen by a foreign power. As he is being confronted by Twist, the Professor realizes the trio of friends are responsible. He informs Danny that without destroying his notes detailing the creation of ISIT, either the Soviets or the US military could still recreate it. While the local national guard arrives to secure the house against foreign spies, Danny and the Professor make their way to the probe’s controls and use it to cause a fire that destroys both the notes and probe.

Dr. Grimes arrives with orders from the Governor for the military personnel to stand down and leave the Bullfinch residence. Bullfinch informs Grimes that the device and his notes have been destroyed, leaving him the only man to remember the blueprints by memory. Professor Bullfinch also tells Dr. Grimes and Danny that he will not recreate ISIT until the world is ready for it.

Wow. Does any of that sound familiar? The ethics of drone usage, the desire for military application and spying on US citizens, the danger of the technology falling into the wrong hands…it’s all so 2014. And despite Professor Bullfinch’s unwillingness to recreate ISIT “until the world is ready for it”, it’s here.

From the Popular Science article:

Last February, the engineers sent their drone, called the InstantEye, to Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, for its annual Army Expeditionary Warrior experiments, where an infantry platoon used it to help complete a set of assigned missions. The soldiers gave it a “green” rating, one of the highest available.

[...]

Learning how nature creates superior sensors could lead to lighter, smarter drones. And as that happens, their range of applications will grow. Guiler and Vaneck plan to sell the InstantEye to the military and law enforcement. The British Forces have recently begun using a microdrone, a hand-launched helicopter called the Black Hornet, to scout for insurgents in Afghanistan. Microdrones may also have uses closer to home. They could allow police and SWAT teams to gather footage inside office buildings or banks and between skyscrapers, where winds typically gust.

Wood visualizes an even more diverse array of uses for RoboBees. A box of about 1,000, he notes, would weigh one pound. They could easily be shipped to a disaster site and deployed to search for survivors. They could also monitor traffic or the environment and help pollinate crops. Research scientists could use them to gather data in the field.

Whatever their application, microdrones are no longer a da Vinci–like dream of engineers. They’re taking off—agile, resilient, and under their own power.

As I was clicking over to grab that quote, I noticed something in my Twitter feed about the launch of a satellite later today from right here in Virginia. It’s all happening so fast.

I wonder what things will be like when my kids are my age.

 

Karakuri

31 December, 2013 at 4:09 pm

After almost a year, I’ve been back hard at work on the novel I started during NaNoWriMo 2012.

With a working title of “Halcyon” (subject to change as the story unfolds and I get hold of a better focal point) it’s about a young girl, Jade Vardis, living in Automated City 099, known by its residents as “Halcyon”, so named after the Halcyon Corporation which built and ostensibly manages the entire enterprise. Her life with her parents, both of whom worked as prominent Halcyon scientists, came to a tragic end when her mother was accused of murdering her father after he discovered her efforts to aid the resistance movement. Jade, whose father’s work was creating interfaces between the biological and the mechanical, was used as a guinea pig for some of his more secretive experiments, leaving her with a number of undocumented cybernetic enhancements. With her mother in an institution for the criminally insane and her father gone, Jade has no one to turn to when she begins manifesting strange and powerful abilities that give her access to and control over the ever present technological systems that surround her. Realizing that she may possess the weapon that the oppressed people of Halcyon have needed for so long, Jade starts pushing back, and in the process makes a terrifying discovery about the only home she has ever known.

Or something like that. It is, as they say, a work in progress.

In any event, one of the more interesting facets of Halcyon’s super-efficient technoculture is that almost everything governing the operations and management of the city is robotic. As part of the automated cities project (initiated after central governance and economic planning in the US broke down and more and more major population centers were going bankrupt), AC099 has been existing in isolation through self-sustaining means for nearly a century. And the machines are running the show.

Satsuriku Hajime is a loyal servant of Halcyon. He pre-dates the city’s origin through significant cybernetic enhancements of his own, and is one of the few who remembers “the time before.” He is known by the people of Halcyon as “the Puppetmaster,” because he is a creator of machine/flesh hybrids that serve as some of the shock troops of HalcyOps, the city security and enforcement division.  Most significantly, he is the creator of the Karakuri Corps, an elite group of operatives who exist as mechanically-animated corpses of deceased human beings. They have the grace and fluidity of movement of biological lifeforms, but the endurance, obedience, and hive-mind of machines. Predominately used as assassins and espionage agents, the people of Halcyon refer to Karakuri operatives as “spooks.”

From the unfinished draft of Halcyon:

The citizens, especially those of the lower castes, had taken to calling his Karakuri warriors “spooks”, but he found this term exceedingly vulgar. His creations may have seemed unnerving to their childlike minds, but he had transformed them into the pinnacle of biotechnological perfection. It was true that they had been, at one time, merely human. But now, they had transcended. They had been sublimated into something other. Their once-living flesh – an ecosystem of muscle, tendon, and bone that produced the biological elegance and dexterity that purely robotic systems lacked – had been liberated from the encumbrance of what the simple referred to as a “soul”. Now, they were animated by higher means: lithium-ion chemistry, organic circuitry, nano-fiber, microprocessor-driven servos. The oxygen needed to keep blood flowing and tissue from decaying was pumped mechanically through subcutaneous tubes, making the Karakuri unnaturally motionless when locomotion was not required. They were like living statues; animatronic golems swathed in pristine, anti-ballistic compression suits. Their contorted, lifeless faces served an excellent foundation for grafting necessary equipment onto bone. Still, the aesthetic of these death masks was unnerving to most, so he had hidden them behind faceplates of dark, reflective polymer, adorned as necessary with instruments enhancing their ability to sense and communicate with the hive. These perfect instruments of his will were so much more than they had ever been before he had re-created them. Before he had hollowed them out and breathed into them the machine spirit. Their organic imperfections were shrouded, now, replaced with an intricate facade of artifice that made them breathtaking to behold.

Hajime is one seriously messed-up individual. He is, for all intents and purposes, a necromancer. But instead of magic, he uses science to raise the dead and put them to his bidding. Today, while I was laying on the couch having yet another flu-addled morning with the kiddos, I sketched out a spook on my iPad, then cleaned it up and added some more detail on the computer:

Spook1-with-filters&overlay

The idea here is that Jade is getting a look at one of these techno-zombies from a safe distance using her built-in VDS (visual display system.) I like the idea of these guys being faceless. Something about that makes them scarier.

Then again, you haven’t met Inari yet. I’m not going to spoil the surprise, but she’s sort of a super-spook who has several Noh masks that she wears, depending on the situation. Suffice it to say, a killing machine with a beautiful ceramic happy face with blood red lips is…creepy.

Anyway, the word Karakuri  comes from the Japanese word for “mechanism” (also sometimes “trick”) and is used in the phrase Karakuri ningyo, which are mechanized puppets that have been used in Japan for centuries. Like this:

Very cool, and a little bit unnerving. I’m not a Japanese scholar by any stretch, but I find their culture fascinating, and it allows me to add an exotic quality (plus: KATANAS!) to my story.  Not to mention, high-tech cyberpunk without Japanese influence is a disservice to the genre.

I am really looking forward to finishing the first draft of this book. I’m targeting March for completion, but we’ll see how things go.

Christmas: Impossible

24 December, 2013 at 9:42 am

Not coming any time soon to a theater near you. The kids and I decided to throw this together one not particularly wintry December afternoon…

Superpowers

24 December, 2013 at 9:26 am

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Alex: Being sick is kinda cool. When you touch things, you get to have them.

Me: (laughing) Oh really?

Alex: Yeah. It’s kinda like having a super power. Except, you don’t have to fight bad guys!

 

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