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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Vinland Verða Vera Sjálfstæður!

As I hope you've all gathered, the point of last week's exercise (What if...?, parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) was to illustrate how to start with a few simple assumptions and end up with a fantastic world that has history, depth, complexity, and most importantly, plenty of room for action and adventure.

Now, here's the tough question: where's the story in this world? Or never mind "the" story; where's any story? It's easy to sketch out history, but as so many writers have proven, history alone does not make a tale.

As a writer, what is the one story that you would want to tell in this world?

UPDATE: Hello? Anyone out there?

[sound of crickets chirping]

Okay, look, the challenge here isn't to capture the broad sprawl of history, it's to zoom in and find the human story that wants to be told here. I mean, imagine you're a young Roman from Neapolis, enlisted in the legions and sent off to cold and barbaric Britain to stand watch on Hadrian's Wall. Or better yet, imagine you're an older soldier near the end of your enlistment, stuck in northern Gaul, charged with keeping the peace between the ungrateful Franks and the untrustworthy Saxons and hating both of them almost as much as you hate the runny cheese and the lousy wine.

Or how about this? Imagine you're the owner and captain of a second-rate roundship. It's not much, but it's all yours and it's all you've got, and together you and your 7-foot-tall Watutsi first mate eke out a living along the less reputable stretches of the North African coast. Sometimes you haul cargo; sometimes you smuggle; and you're not above a little piracy, if the odds are in your favor. Then one day you're just sitting there in a little dockside dive in Tunisia, minding your own business and worrying about some old debts, when suddenly fate drops this ancient Pictish geezer and his smart-mouthed young ward in your lap. The Pict offers you an insane amount of money to make a run up to Britain, and when you ask him what's the cargo, he says it's just him, the boy, two slaves, and no questions. You make some kind of offhanded crack about local trouble, and he says, ominous as all Hades, "Let's just say we'd prefer to avoid any Imperial entanglements."

And right about then, every alarum in your head starts screaming that you would have to be blind, drunk, stupid, and crazy to take this job, and that all the deal needs is some smartass slave girl in a bronze bra to make the chaos complete, but on the other hand the Pict is offering you an unbelievable amount of money to make one quick little garum run, and having that cash in hand sure could solve a lot of your more immediate problems...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

What if, part 5

Claymore guesses where all this is going.

Meanwhile, over in Vinland, interesting things are happening. The original Icelandic colonists clashed often and violently with the indigenous skraelings, but in time they realized their future lay not in conquest and colonization, but in cooperation. This development was not as unusual as it might seem. An earlier wave of Norsemen had gone into Germany and Poland, settled down and married local women, and become the fathers of the Goths. Later waves of Vikings had settled in France, married local women, and become the Normans, while still others settled along the Dnepr River, married local women, and became the Kievan Rus. The Icelanders themselves were overwhelmingly the products of intermarriages between Nordic men and Celtic women.

[One can't help but wonder: perhaps the real reason why Norse men went viking was to escape Norse women?]

In any case, once peaceful relations were established, the Icelandic colonists found that they had brought some vitally important cultural baggage with them from the old country: things like masterful shipbuilding, navigation, and sailing skills. Sheep and flax, along with shepherding, spinning, and the art of weaving. Experience in mining, metal-working, and the knowledge of how to make and temper steel. And perhaps the most important thing of all, Icelandic parliamentary government.

In return, the skraelings of Vinland provided the four things the Icelanders most desperately needed. Manpower. Woman power. Food in abundance. And room to grow, free from Roman interference.

It is now the early 13th century. The loosely federated collection of tribes that calls itself the Iroquois Nation reaches from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the eastern bank of the Mississippi River valley in the west, and from the barren polar wastes of the north to the swampy mid-south. To the west, the savage Sioux tribes are proving an obstacle to further expansion, while to the south, it's mosquitoes and malaria. Mines and foundries dot the Delaware River valley, productive fisheries line the Atlantic coast, and the St. Lawrence River has become the artery of commerce for a young and vigorous nation. Literacy is common, thanks to the legendary Sequoyah Olafsson and his Cherokee runic alphabet, and no self-respecting Iroquois man would be seen in public without his combination tool, weapon, and religious icon, Thor's Hammer.

Sorry, no, there are no Viking settlements in Mnisota. That's Sioux territory.

Far to the southwest, the Mayans are in retreat, and the Aztecs are coming to dominate central America. On the southern continent, the Incan Empire is in full flower. In Asia, Genghis Khan is dying, but the Mongol Empire is in the capable hands of his son, Ogedei. In Europe, the Romans are enjoying a brief respite from Mongol advances, but their economy is teetering and they're greatly worried about where they will find the gold necessary to maintain their expensive armies and navies.

The stage is set...


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What if, part 4

It's now the 12th century. Two hundred years of unbridled prosperity and uncontested power have taken their toll: while there is still vigor on the frontiers, the heart of the Roman Empire is soft and rotten. Out in the provinces of Europa the regional governors are constantly scheming and plotting against one another, while in Rome itself the members of the Imperial Senate seem more interested in lining their pockets and maneuvering to become the next caesar than in dealing with the real problems facing the Empire. Roman power still projects all the way from the Azores to Assam, it's true, and there are beautiful Roman villas and estates all along the coast of South Africa, but in the east, a new power is rising: the Mongol Empire, under the leadership of their brilliant Khan, Genghis.

The last decades of the 12th century are filled with a terrible tension. While the Romans and Mongols engage in trade and maintain superficially diplomatic relations, the Romans can't help but feel that the Mongols are checking them out and seeking their weaknesses, for that is exactly what the Romans themselves are doing to the Mongols. There are numerous "incidents" and "accidents" -- always between distant Roman outposts and Oriental "pirates" and "bandits," and always quickly papered over with diplomacy and reparations -- and while the Romans can't help but feel proud of the way their navy swats pirates like flies, they also can't help but notice the way that Roman-trained local militia are easily overrun by bandit cavalry, nor the way in which the Mongol Empire is rapidly gulping down all of its nearby Asian neighbors. In the Imperial Senate, the debate over the Oriental Question and expanded funding and new weapons for the legions drags on for tedious years, with neither conclusion nor commitment.

The Mongol strike, when it finally comes, is terrifying in its swiftness and brutality. In a matter of months the Mongols overrun and destroy the Khwarezmid (Persian) Empire, along the way seizing all the Roman way-stations in Sindh and cutting off all Roman outposts east of Oman. The Romans are stunned by the speed with which their garrisons and legions are overwhelmed; their infantry can't stand against Mongol cavalry, their armored war chariots are no match for the swift and nimble Mongol horsemen, and potentially decisive weapons such as the steam chariot and the repeating arbalest were never procured in great enough numbers to make a difference. What's worse, the Roman navy, which performed so well with ballistas and Greek fire against pirates in wooden sailing vessels, is completely flummoxed by the appearance of armored "turtle" ships, mounting gunpowder cannons and ably crewed by the Khan's loyal Korean vassals.

The Roman defense of Baghdad is a futile disaster that serves only to make the massacre in Damascus worse. Within two years major Mongol hordes are deep into Anatolia and Rus, smaller groups are extending feelers around the northern coast of the Black Sea into Hungaria, and a third great horde is pushing towards Alexandria. Faced with the prospect of losing both the Suez and the Red Sea, Roman naval strategists begin to wonder: is it true that by sailing west from the Azores, they can circle the world and launch a strike against the Mongols unprotected eastern flank?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

What if, part 3

As a kid, I built a working model of Hero of Alexandria's steam turbine. (Imagine that: my parents actually encouraged me to experiment with real fire and live steam, and yet somehow I survived!) My point, though, is that the Romans knew about steam power; they just never thought of anything worthwhile to do with it. But given a little more time...

By the early 9th century, the descendants of the men who'd built the roads and aqueducts of Rome had turned their attention to Egypt, and the ruins of the ancient canal that once joined the Nile to the Red Sea. The work took twenty years and cost the lives of 30,000 slaves, but fortunately, slaves were cheap and readily available, and by the time the canal was finally open for business the first primitive paddle-wheel steamers were ready to make the journey. Absent an Arab monopoly on land routes to the far east, the Romans never found it necessary to develop large sailing ships or deep-ocean navigation skills; absent a Portugese monopoly on the Cape Horn route around Africa, they never felt the need to imagine what might lie on the other side of the cold and dangerous Atlantic. Instead, they made the leap directly from triremes and roundships to side-wheelers, and shortly thereafter to a modified form of Archimedean screw that provided excellent shallow-water speed and maneuverability, and by the mid-9th century the first lumbering steam-driven ferratia (ironclads) were providing security for Roman merchants operating all along the eastern coast of Africa and in the Arabian sea. To support their operations they built a series of heavily fortified trading posts at regular intervals from equatorial Africa to the mouth of the Indus River; these served the dual purposes of providing fueling and way stations for their fleet and scaring the Hades out of the hated Persians.

While their naval explorations of Africa and Asia were slow and methodical, though, the Romans were very quick to realize the military advantages of rapid transportation within their empire, and by the end of the 9th century all of Roman Europe was linked together by a clever system of steam-powered bi-rail thru-ways — a rail-road system, as it were — that extended all the way from Gaul in the west to Byzantium in the east, from Germania in the north to Athens and Andulusia in the south, with convenient ferry connections to Londinium, Anatolia, Sicilia, and Crete. The ability to move legions great distances in a matter of days and deliver them fresh and ready to fight did wonders to improve the internal security of the Empire, while the secondary virtue of providing rapid and inexpensive transportation of trade goods led directly to the spectacular economic boom of the Roaring 10th century.

With all this excitement going on and all these vast fortunes being made, then, it's small wonder that the powers in Rome paid no attention at all to fact that several large parties of Norsemen, eager to be free of the blessings of Roman civilization, had set sail from Iceland and headed west, never to be seen again...

What if, part 2

Thanks to Knarf for the tutorial on Roman dates, but in the interests of making this intelligible and of not driving myself nvts, I'll stick to using Christian Era nomenclature. Remember, the whole purpose of this exercise is to give history a few strategic nudges, such that the Dark Ages (approx 400 AD to 1400AD) don't happen and Roman scientific and technological progress continues uninterrupted.

(Sidenote to Knarf: the Romans did all that fantastic engineering using only whole numbers?! Wow!)


1st Nudge. Following the execution of yet another Judean revolutionary, a heated debate broke out among his followers. Paul and his faction argued that anyone was allowed to join the movement, while James held that only observant religious Jews could receive the teachings of the Nazarene. In our timeline Paul won, but in this alternate timeline James won, with the result being that "Christianity," with its emphasis on strict dietary laws and adult male circumcision (ouch!) remained an obscure pacifistic strain of Judaism, not much different from any of the hundreds of other tiny cults that fluorished in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. The Romans still found Judea a troublesome and revolt-plagued corner of the Empire, which didn't settle down until they demolished the Temple in Jerusalem — and for that matter, most of the rest of Jerusalem, too — dispersed the surviving Judeans throughout their empire, and ultimately, renamed the whole region Syria Palestina, in hopes of erasing even the memory of the old Hebrew Kingdom.

2nd Nudge. Maybe Diocletian's political reforms took hold, so that Constantine never had the chance to rise to power? Or maybe it's a simple as, absent Christianity, Constantine never had the religious vision which inspired him to overthrow his co-emperors? In any case, in the early 4th century, Rome remained a tetrarchy, which meant Constantine never got the opportunity to split the Empire and build a new capitol city in Byzantium. (Poof! There goes the entire Eastern Orthodox church, along with most of Russian history up to the Romanov dynasty!)

3rd Nudge. In any case, when the Huns appeared in the 5th century and drove the Goths, Franks, Lombards, and such south, they found Roma to be a strong, unified, and well-defended empire, not a tottering wreck, and so they entered it as grateful refugees, not as looters. Within a century the Goths et al had been thoroughly assimilated, via the traditional means of enlisting in the army and serving overseas, and so when a certain Arabian bandit chieftain started raiding caravans and gathering followers in the 6th century, Rome was able to treat it as a local law enforcement problem. With typical Roman efficiency they sent in the Legio VI Germanicus with orders to solve the problem, which the legion did with typical Germanic subtlety by killing every Arab they could catch, leveling Mecca and Medina, and poisoning every well and oasis they could find before withdrawing to Alexandria. As a result, the Red Sea remained a Roman lake, and by the late 7th century Roman sailors had made it as far as the Bay of Bengal to the east and Lemuria to the south.

How are we doing so far?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

What if...

Cute cartoon in this morning's paper. Non Sequitur, by Wiley Miller, and it starts off like this:

Danae: "Daddy ... Can I go play with Jeff in his time machine?"

Dad: "Sure, Danae. *snicker* are your travel plans?"

Danae: "Back to the Dark Ages to stop the religious fanaticism that delayed progress in science and technology by 1000 years. We could have had colonies on the moons of Saturn by now!"

Aside from demonstrating the keen grasp of history that we've come to expect from award-winning newspaper editorial cartoonists, Mr. Miller got me thinking. Let's see: to stop the religious fanaticism — by which I assume he means Christian religious fanaticism, as he probably doesn't have a problem with any of those truly great old-time religions like, say, Mithraism, and I doubt he lacks the testicular fortitude to criticize the religious convictions of those kindly and gentle Moslems who invaded Europe off and on from the 7th century through the 15th century, nor those devout and thoughtful Mongolian Buddhists and Taoists who paid Europe such an impressive visit in the 12th and 13th centuries —

Never mind that; just trying to think of everything that would have had to happen in order for the Roman Empire not to fall is making my head hurt, so let's skip directly to the creative challenge. It's the year 2006. Christianity never took root in the Roman Empire — they got more lions, I guess. The Empire never fell, Constantinople was never built, and now those fun-loving folks who invented decimation have had two thousand years of unbroken old-school Roman-style progress.

What do you think is the most fascinating thing about life in this alternate modern world?


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

It's still National Novel Writing Month!

Two weeks ago Claymore reminded us that it's National Novel Writing Month. Then he did the supremely brave thing, and wrote:
Back on task. The start of my novel. Ahem.. here goes...

The Bard reached for the bottle of Scotch, and got it. Captain Jinks had offered some of his prized "south side" Madeira for the occasion, but the honest Scott diplomatically and with all politeness common to the day, requested the stronger libation. All ears in the dimly lit wardroom were attentive to the Bard, who seemed to steel himself for the very tale that he was about to relate. Indeed, when he finished just two hours later, every officer of the USS Nightingale - commissioned August, 1778 - had his face set in grim, dry-mouthed determination. Two days later, without orders, they would haul anchor and slip out of Norfolk on a Northeastern course. Little did the crew know as they sailed past the phosphorescent shoals of the country they fought for and loved dearer than life; that the next time their ship would navigate these waters it would be many hundreds of years hence.

And then, the moment that always makes me cringe. He asked:
What do you think of my paragraph above? I just started writing that's what came out. Do you think I have any potential as a writer?

The answer, my friends, to be perfectly and bluntly honest, is that I really have no clue.

I first encountered this phenomenon decades ago, in my previous life as a musician. There are some people who are brilliant creative talents. There are other people who have no apparent talent of their own, but are brilliant at recognizing the talents of others. And then there are a very, very, very few people who are blessed with both gifts.

Me? True story. Back around '76 or so, I had a tenuous friend-of-a-friend connection with a guy named Chris Moon, who ran a little recording studio over in Minneapolis. One day somebody -- I want to say Chris, but it was probably Jeff -- showed up with this demo tape by this teenage kid from Minneapolis, and I've got to tell you, I just hated it. Too much weird noise, too much Chinese water torture funk percussion, too much bad Imitation Hendrix guitar. And the kid's name: Prince Rogers Nelson. What the hell kind of name was that? No, I didn't want to meet him. No, I didn't want to hear anymore of his tape.

So now that you understand the level of perception at which I routinely operate: yeah, sure, I think Claymore has potential as a writer. I've seen better opening paragraphs; I've also seen many far worse. I could critique this paragraph in terms how I would have written it, but that's beside the point. I think the real answer to Claymore's question lies in this counter-question: what does the next paragraph look like?

Remember: it's easy to start writing a story. The hard part is carrying it through the middle and getting to the end. And being able to get to the point where you can write "The End" is what makes you a writer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Blogs and Intellectual Property Rights

Claymore makes what turns out to be not an obvious observation after all:
This prompts me to think there is probably no such thing controlling rights to ideas submitted to someone else's blog. Doht!

This merits further discussion because of an issue that apparently has been burning much bandwidth on since early September and has ended up consuming up an inordinate amount of page space in the latest issue of the SFWA Forum. Innocent trees have died because of this.

To summarize extremely briefly (and taking great pains to avoid violating my "no gossip" rule): it seems that during the Hugo Awards ceremony at this year's WorldCon (didn't see it, didn't go, don't care), Famous Person "Alpha" did something boorish and obnoxious to Famous Person "Beta", live and onstage. (Still don't care.) Afterwards, Famous Persons "Gamma" through "Omega" went verbally batguano in various online fora, including, expressing their many various and heated opinions on the entire issue. (Don't care even more.)

What happened next is the interesting part. Desperately Wishing to be Famous Person "Zed" then copied some of those posts to his blog, resulting in the "making public of those posts without the consent of their authors," whereupon the full force and might of SFWA came crashing down on Zed's head! The poor twerp has been Officially Censured by SFWA — they had to create the penalty first, as there was no such thing in the Bylaws when I was on the Board of Directors — which means he can't nominate stuff for a Nebula, can't vote on the Nebulas, can't drink in the SFWA suite at cons, and I guess any SFWA members meeting Zed are 'sposed to turn their backs and pretend they can't hear him. Why they didn't just go the rest of the way and call it Double-Secret Probation is beyond me.

But the point is, this whole *@#&^storm blew up because a bunch of very professional writers making catty comments about other very professional writers somehow imagined they could make these comments in an online forum and keep them private. These people are communications professionals, who should understand better than anyone else the power of the electronic medium to distribute words far and wide and the way in which written words can take on an independent existence.

It's pretty simple, really. If you don't want to take responsibility for your opinions; if you don't want your private thoughts to become public knowledge; then for gosh sakes don't shout them in a crowded room, don't speak them in front of any microphone, watch out for people with cellphone cameras, and above all, don't post them on the Internet.

At least, not under anything even remotely identifiable as your real name.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Alarming News from Mars

There's disturbing news from the NASA this week. The Mars Global Surveyor satellite, which has been quietly and reliably mapping our neighbor for some years now, went silent over a week ago and has not been heard from since.

The BBC is dutifully reporting the official party line about a misaligned antenna, of course, as is, but as we all know, the story most vigorously advanced by an official government spokesman is usually the story that is furthest from the truth.

So here's today's creative challenge. Put on your propellor beanies and give me a one-paragraph synopsis of your story explaining what really happened to the MGS. Did it get spacejacked and taken for a joyride by some LGMs? Blasted out of orbit by a heat ray preparatory to the launch of the invasion fleet? Devoured by a giant space amoeba? Or did it accidentally snap some photos of that secret Russian base that's been up there since 1956?

After all, they do call Mars the Red Planet...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Bruce & Joel's Excellent Adventure

Okay, I'm back from a couple of days tramping around in the deep backwoods, with many nascent thoughts in mind, but frankly, I'm too tired to think, much less write.

I've refreshed my reservoir with new stories that will need to be told, some day. For example, there's the one about the night we discovered an important new principle of life: The Skunk Always Has The Right of Way. And then there's Joel Rosenberg's cautionary tale: "Never Tell The Smartass Waitress In a Small Town Restaurant That You Want Your Steak As Rare As They Can Cook It."

But mostly, I'm recharged. Physically bone-deep tired, but psychically recharged.

P.S. For those of you in southern climes, that's the full moon rising over a frozen lake.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Jules Verne reexamined

Okay, your answers were pretty much what I expected to see: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Verne and War of the Worlds for Wells, with a smattering of other titles. The Time Machine made a stronger showing than I expected, only because I expected it to make no showing at all.

Two interesting things about Jules Verne. (These are some factoids of the sort that I run across all the time while doing research, that I can't use in the actual article I'm writing, but that are just too good to leave unmentioned.) The first is that, while yes, Verne was an enormously successful author, 54 novels and uncounted short stories published during his lifetime, reprinted world-wide, loved by millions, yadda yadda yadda, it was the stage performance rights to Around the World in 80 Days that made him rich.

See? I told you: it's all about who controls the rights.

(Hmm. Verne lived long enough. I wonder if he ever saw Georges Méliès movie, A Trip to The Moon? While this very early silent is generally considered the first special-effects driven sci-fi film, it's also another important milestone: the first inferior adaptation of a much better print work for which the author of the print work was paid jack diddly squat.)

The second interesting factoid about Verne is that he's known in the English-speaking world primarily through the 19th Century translations that were done by some Anglican clergyman named Mercier, who took it upon himself to cut the books down to a more manageable size by removing all the "objectionable" parts, including all the anti-British sentiment that reportedly permeates most of Verne's novels. For example, in the original French, Captain Nemo is a Hindu, whose motivation is a direct result of the massacre of his family by British troops during the Sepoy Mutiny.

Huh. Didn't know that. Guess I owe the folks behind The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen an apology. Maybe. Just a little one.

Anyway, here's today's question. A project was reportedly begun in the 1980s to produce new and complete English translations of Verne's work. Has anyone here seen any of these translations, and have you had a chance to do a comparative read? Alternately, can anyone here read French well, and can you comment on the differences between the French- and English-language versions of any Verne books?


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Signature Work

This is for an article I'm working on, so I'll explain the context later. But right now I just want to toss some questions at you and get your reflexive reactions. Ready?

1. What is the first title that pops into your head when I say:

Jules Verne?

H.G. Wells?

2. Without cheating and looking it up, can you name, oh, five other titles by either or both of these writers?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Found it!

Thirtyfive-ish years ago, I clipped what I consider to be the funniest single-frame cartoon ever published out of The New Yorker. Even though I lost the original some years back, I can still see it in my mind and quote the caption from memory. The drawing is of a man sitting out on the porch, leaning on his typewriter, with a sort of painfully scrooched look on his face, while a woman in a dress is standing next to him, holding a sandwich on a plate, and saying:
"I've got an idea for a story: Gus and Ethel live on Long Island, on the North Shore. He works sixteen hours a day writing fiction. Ethel never goes out, never does anything except fix Gus sandwiches, and in the end she becomes a nympho-lesbo-killer-whore. Here's your sandwich."

For years I have searched to find this cartoon again — and now, of course, this being the Internet age, it's just a matter of knowing where to start looking: in this case, at You will find the cartoon in all its glory right here, surrounded by a bevy of merchandising offers. For example, for only $24.95, you can get the cartoon emblazoned on a t-shirt...

I actually looked into licensing the cartoon for use on a web site, only to learn that licensing fees start at $250/month and go up from there — which, I daresay, is probably more than cartoonist George Booth was paid for the original, back when it was first published in 1970. Here's hoping that Mr. Booth, who is still alive, is getting a generous share of whatever revenues his work might be generating for the Advance Publications empire, but in the meantime, let this be a lesson to you. It's not about being first, or fresh, or original, or creative; it's about controlling the rights.