Saturday, 16 January 2016

Today I called in punched in the face

So I was on my way to work. I was early and I hadn't had breakfast yet. Tim Hortons sounded good. I ordered my sandwich and sat down to eat. 

There was a couple behind me arguing very loudly. I wasn't paying too much attention but he was screaming at her to shut up. He'd yell shut up, stand up, say he's leaving, walk to the door, then walk back and start arguing again.

The manager came out and politely asked them if everything was all right. They said yes; he left. They kept arguing and he started threatening to hit her so the manager came back and asked him to leave. She said she was just leaving and they left together.

They stopped out front of the store and kept on arguing. I couldn't hear them anymore since they were outside, but I could see the guy gesticulating and pacing and walking away and coming back. 

Then he took a swipe, grabbed her hat, and threw it in the street. He pushed her and didn't look like he was about to stop.

I left the store and walked up to the guy and told him to back off. He turned to me and yelled "Or what? What are you gonna do?"

I actually hadn't really thought that far ahead, so I just spread my hands. He lunged and shoved me hard to the ground. I didn't hit anything, so I got right back up and stood still and didn't say anything. He hauled back and punched me right in the mouth. I didn't go down but my lip was split and dripping blood. 

Three men and the manager came out of the store and stood between us. The manager seemed to know this guy and shouted at him to stop and back off, with the help of two of the other men. The last guy checked on me to see how badly I was hurt - it didn't feel too bad, nothing seemed wrong with my teeth or jaw, I was just awfully bloody and swelling.

The guy yelled at me that the next time he saw me he'd break my glasses, then stormed off. The girl apologized and left in the same direction and I think they went off somewhere together - not sure who was following who.

The manager walked me back into the store and had me sit down. He got a first aid kit and cleaned me up while a woman called the police and checked on me again. The manager offered to get me food and drinks for the rest of the day, recommended I press charges, and stuck with me while we waited for the police to arrive. He kept apologizing to me because this happened at his store, which I thought was unnecessary. He was awesome. I think his name was Ben.

In the meantime I called work and asked if it was okay for me to take the day off because I'd just been punched in the face and my lip was super swollen and split and I didn't want to make it worse. The store owner called me a little later to make sure I was all right and encourage me to rest up.

Police showed up and took my statement and the security camera footage. They told me they were pretty sure they knew this guy and where he would be. 

Getting knocked down and punched didn't hurt much. The actual knuckle to the face part hurt, but then it stopped hurting. I was bloody but not in pain afterwards. When the manager told me I should press charges my first thought was actually "Why? I'm not even hurt" but yeah, people shouldn't really go around punching others in the face, so sure I'll press charges.

Random people at the Tim Hortons, the manager, and the police told me I was brave and they admired what I did. I didn't know what to say to that because I wasn't really thinking about what I was doing. I saw something that needed to be stopped so I tried to stop it. As I said above, I didn't even consider how I was going to stop him - I got out there, told him to back off, he asked me what I was going to do, and I didn't know. That, plus not being particularly hurt or injured, left me feeling kind of surprised at all the support.

I just hope the police find this guy before he goes after that girl again.

Bonus punched lip photos, click if you want to make bigger. Not super gross.


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Easing back to writing. Also magic.

I made a big deal a few weeks ago about how I finally had an idea for a novel that could work and I'm actually going to do it this time.

On October 23rd the Heart of Thorns expansion for Guild Wars 2 launched and I have literally not written a single word of novel since that day. When I haven't been working or sleeping or out with friends, almost every minute has been spent playing Guild Wars.

I don't know if I'm slowing down yet on that front, but during my hour-long transit to and from work, and occasionally during quiet moments, my brain has slowly been drifting back towards the story and an element I've been considering for some time.

In this story, dreams and ghosts and spirits all exist and have their own parallel worlds. There are various ways for the human world and the other world, or the populations of both, to interact or cross over into the other worlds. A lot of people or beings have special abilities relating to these kinds of interactions.

The question I've been turning over is whether there's any magic in the world. Like, fantasy wizard magic with spells and spellbooks and magic schools and enchanted artifacts.

In the original idea, which was for a D&D campaign setting, magic was a given. It was going to be a D&D game, of course there would be magic! That changed when I decided to give the world more of a 1950s noir feel. Suddenly the setting became "like the real world, except ghosts and spirits and dreams are real", and I decided to cut out high fantasy magic entirely and focus solely on the interactions between the worlds. But that line is blurring the more I think about how the setting works. 

Example. Ghosts are real. They exist. Some are trapped in our world; most hang out in the Ethereal (ghost world). People can summon and bind and free ghosts, or cross over into the Ethereal.

But how does that work exactly? What is the process of summoning a ghost? Is it a ritual? Because that feels a lot like high fantasy magic. Is it done by sensing and manipulating energies? That sounds  like a D&D sorcerer. Or like the Force, which is space magic.

Now I'm thinking maybe high-fantasy-style magic does exist, and its actually pretty common - most people have either the natural talent or the learned knowledge to do some kind of magic. However, most of that is going to be weak, and most people will only know one or two basic tricks or own some nifty trinkets. Maybe I can light a candle by snapping my fingers and turn off the light without getting out of bed, but nothing fancier than that.

A few people, though, can do quite a lot more, either through greater natural ability or through education. But even then, powerful magic requires confidence and force of will. "Learning a spell" isn't really about memorizing formulae, it's more about convincing yourself you can pull it off. 

In terms of actual function, how you believe it works is far more important than how it "really" works. If you believe that magic is really a science and it can be mastered through study and calculation, then that is true for you. If believing that magic is about meditation and tapping into the energy of the world is how it works for you, then great, it is.

And confidence is key. If you believe you don't have the capability of doing anything more than lighting a candle with your fingertip, then that's all you can do. You do need some amount of natural ability or training to throw fireballs around, but once you have that, you're golden. If you can throw fireballs around but something makes you doubt your capability or the spell's effectiveness, then you're going to have some trouble.

So I think that's going to be my basis for now. It's interesting enough to feel like a real system, but vague enough to leave me a lot of wiggle room. I'll play with that and see where it takes me.

P.S.: this post was written to put my thoughts into words and force it to make some kind of sense. Thinking with a keyboard, if you will. I'll probably do more of these to settle arguments with myself as I make more progress.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Writing novels and not finishing them

Up to a week ago, I thought novels weren't my thing. Over the years I've started writing three novels and haven't managed to finish even one complete draft.

The first novel I tried to write was based on a Dungeons & Dragons game I ran for my three brothers. Well, when I say "based on", I mean pretty much a transcription of the D&D game with some adjustments here and there. If I recall correctly, and I may not, I had probably a hundred and thirty typed letter-size pages - about a hundred thousand words - when I deleted the whole thing off the family PC.

This was back in high school. It was the first D&D game I'd ever run, if you don't count the aborted single-session game where I realized after an hour or two that we all needed to read the rulebook again. My brothers had fun with the game, which obviously meant I was a good dungeon master, and maybe this story is worth writing down!

One hundred thousand words in, after showing what I had to my parents and a couple of relatives, I had an epiphany: I wasn't a very good writer. I was in high school and had no real practice or training in writing fiction. When compared to real novels, like The Lord of the Rings or the Thrawn trilogy (Star Wars), my story was formulaic, full of old tropes that I hadn't thought to dress up or disguise. An ancient evil has returned, the characters have to collect four MacGuffins hidden in four dungeons to unlock the dungeon where the weapons that can destroy the ancient evil are hidden. Yawn. So I deleted it.

(sidebar: I don't mean to say I was a horrible dungeon master and writer who shouldn't dungeon master or write things. There were some good ideas in there. I was a new dungeon master and writer who still had a lot to learn. The next D&D game I ran, which I called Ravenshore, was a lot better in almost every way. When I had another couple of years of experience I ran Ravenshore for a new group of players in university, better than the first time. With feedback from that run, and experience from several more campaigns, I have more improvements in mind and want to run it a third time in the future... but that's a story for another blog.)

The second novel I tried to write was based on a concept of a man stuck in two different times, switching between them each time he goes to sleep, holding himself together by building nearly identical lives in both eras but desperately yearning for a way to break his "problem" and live only one life. The story introduced the concept of the time-split life, then jumped into a shake-up: he met an identical man in both times, a man who seemed to be watching him. In the end he'd have to choose which of his two families he'd abandon.

I wanted to write it as a sci-fi noir mystery story, and I quickly banged out a strong beginning and end, but I had no middle. I introduced the core concept, then I introduced the hook for the mystery, and then jumped straight to the conclusion with no idea what to put in between. I think the problem was that I hadn't seen enough mystery stories to have any idea how to build up the complexity I'd need for a full novel. A little later I decided the ending was sickeningly positive and preachy and changed it, but may have swung too far in the opposite direction. I still had no plans for a middle so I shelved the idea after about twenty pages of writing.

The third novel I tried to write was going to be a sci-fi adventure epic of a ship's crew on a mission to remap and rebuild the fringes of a human civilization that had gone dark sixty years ago when all faster-than-light communication technology failed. I mapped out systems and planets, and even came up with some reasonably plausible scientific explanations for how the ships' weapons, shields, gravity, and drive systems worked (or at least, a friend studying space engineering didn't tell me any of it was blatantly terribly wrong).

This time the problem was that all my efforts went into the setting, and the "characters" did only what was necessary to get the reader to the next bit of worldbuilding. I pushed the main character arc too hard and too fast, and tried too had to make the future seem progressive about gender. I ended up writing an introductory adventure and putting the whole thing aside because I ran out of steam without any ideas for a major story arc or characters that actually seemed like people instead of plot devices.

At this point I decided I just wasn't a novel guy - I could write good short stories and video game reviews and D&D campaigns, but not novels. That was fine, lots of good writers don't write novels. I kept doing my other stuff.

Recently I decided that when writing D&D I shouldn't just focus on one core idea - the more I toss in, the richer and more complex each world would be. With that in mind, I was going over some of my dozen or so half-baked D&D world ideas. One of them was for a setting where there was the mortal world and a parallel ethereal world where souls went after death, with all kinds of specifics on how various types of ghosts and undead worked. This is exactly what I'd been thinking about: a world that could be interesting, but could be a lot more interesting with even more stuff going on. So I tossed in even more stuff.

Where it really took off was when it occurred to me that this setting would be way cooler if I skipped the standard D&D fantasy ideas and instead had a strong 1940s/1950s noir theme alongside parallel worlds of ghosts, spirits, and dreams. That combination suggested some possible characters, which suggested a possible story and meaning, which in turn suggested more worldbuilding and history, and so on and so forth.

All of a sudden I feel like I've got the full package tumbling around in my head: a three-dimensional protagonist with complex motivations and relationships, a rich world with tons of room for exploration and expansion, and a long-term story arc and antagonist with personal connections to the protagonist that will allow for change and growth, with some actual meaning to boot.

And before I know it my word count is over nine thousand.

I'm starting to suspect I might finally have a real potential novel.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Forever War, Forever Peace, Forever Free

These three books are by Joe Haldeman. The Forever War in particular has shown up on a couple of "top 25 sci fi novel" lists so I figured I'd get around to reading it. As a warning, this post isn't super extensive - possibly because I read all three books before I started to write down any thoughts.

The Forever War seems on the surface to be about a really long war with an alien species, but really it's about a soldier coming home after his tour of duty to find that he doesn't have a place in the world anymore except in the military. Or at least, that's what I was told after finishing the book. As I was reading the novel, that theme didn't particularly stick out to me as primary, probably because I was more interested in something else.

Personally I was fascinated with the idea of a war that's temporally out of sync due to the restrictions of space travel. The novel mentioned that individual forces would destroy an enemy that didn't even know what a gun was, and then with a couple hundred years of real time between battles due to relativistic flight, in the next engagement they'd be crushed by an enemy with tech far ahead of theirs. That stuff wasn't explored enough for my liking, having been referenced a few times and mentioned as a possibility for one battle (which didn't pan out), but it did do a better job showing a soldier dealing with a thousand years of social change (though some of the ideas there feel out of date, particularly regarding sexual orientation).

Forever Peace is by the same author but has no relation to The Forever War. I actually liked this one better because it was a lot more thorough with the ramifications and side effects and personal impacts of its core science fictional idea. The novel deals with the military applications of mind-sharing and the safety issues of those military applications; the impact on romantic relationships when one can jack in and the other can't; the social prejudice from those who can't or won't get the enabling surgery; an unexpected side effect that could change the world.

Forever Free is a direct sequel to The Forever War, and it did not do what I expected. Resistance to the cloned hive mind is something I did see coming (even if the buildup was rather slow), but the consequences of the resistance and the big reveal of the true cause were not what I had in mind. 

Spoilers ahead.

Normally I'm intrigued by the idea that our understanding of the universe may be completely wrong and that there are impossibly powerful beings that we can't hope to understand because we're so limited and insignificant. That's why I like H.P. Lovecraft. I don't believe that certain things shouldn't or can't be known, but I like exploring the idea in fiction.

But I don't know what to think of Forever Free's revelation that our galaxy is an experiment set up by beings that are, to us at least, essentially omnipotent. My issue is probably how relatable those beings seemed to be. Rather than some incomprehensible elder god or titan from outside the universe, the being that the humans interact with just seems like... some guy. Some random scientist who happens to have the power to set up an entire galaxy and sentient civilizations for an eons-long experiment.

Spoilers finished.

Anyway, they're good books that are worth reading. I'm just picky about what I want from my fiction. Maybe I'll write a post on that.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Nineteen Eighty-Four & Starship Troopers

I normally only post about one thing at a time. Why am I writing about two? 

Because they're both classic, genre-defining science fiction novels, and my reactions had something in common.

I read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and... well, I read it. It actually didn't make much of an impression on me. I'm sure this is just another example of "Seinfeld is unfunny" hype backlash - having waited so long to check out the original, the ideas it pioneered aren't novel or interesting because they've been used so extensively elsewhere.

Which is not to say I found the story boring or uninspired. On the contrary, I was actually impressed at how fully developed the ideas and philosophies turned out to be, and it made me think that a lot of later stories copied the surveillance dystopia without paying as much mind to the details. Nineteen Eighty-Four explores how and why IngSoc and the state of perpetual war came to be, the complete philosophy and practices behind the Party, and the minutia of day-to-day life - work, relationships, leisure, psychology - under an always-watching police state.

Unfortunately the actual reading of the book was often rather dull. Long passages are devoted to exposition of history and philosophy - sometimes so blatantly as to go "Winston read a book and these are the exact words on the page". Those dry infodumps bothered me a lot more than any sense of the prose being dated.

In the end Nineteen Eighty-Four didn't have a particularly strong impact on me, so at the time I didn't write anything about it and instead just moved on to Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Before starting the book I was aware that Starship Troopers heavily defined the military science fiction genre, invented the idea of powered armour, and was the inspiration for the "space marine" concept (that last is ironic given some of the novel's content). I knew there was a movie, and might have seen it but don't remember much - regardless, I've been told the movie is based on an unrelated script and later got the license, so it's quite different and satirizes a lot of the novel's themes. But the movie's not important here. Except maybe for the fact that the cast agreed to a co-ed nude shower scene only if the director directed naked, which he did. 

Anyway. I read the first chapter of Starship Troopers and was excited but concerned. The first chapter deals with a hit-and-run Mobile Infantry raid and introduces the capabilities of the armour. That's cool! But the part that bothered me was how light on actual detail it was. It read like a summary rather than immersing me in the moment - it didn't make me feel like I was there experiencing the action with sensory and emotional detail, it made me feel like I was reading a report. The only other extended combat sequence reads the same: "this happened, then that happened, then we did this".

Most of the novel feels like military propaganda in the guise of training retrospectives and philosophy "debates". I put debates in quotes because they're all one-sided: the discussions are contrived to push a "mathematically provable" philosophy, not to actually explore an issue. I didn't get the sense that the book was pro-war, but it was heavily pro-military (and corporal punishment). Everything the army does is justified, every officer is only hard on his men because he cares so deeply about them, and all punishments are fair and regrettable but necessary for the good of the troops and therefore the good of society. Any faults or weaknesses that you can think of in modern militaries have been dealt with in the perfect sunshine-and-rainbows-and-guns military of the future, and the only people there are smart, kind, effective people with only the best intentions and never any malice or rivalry.

The novel talks about how only army men are allowed to vote because only army men are REAL MEN who care about more than just themselves. Not even the navy are REAL MEN, because they're not army, and the navy has no idea how hard the poor . Pilots are revered and would be real men if women didn't make better pilots. There are all kinds of little morally-superior asides, like the comment that since there's always fighting somewhere, "peace" means the times when civilians stop caring about military casualties.

Basically, I went in expecting hard military sci-fi action, and through the entire book I was wondering when the propaganda would stop and the action would start.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my reactions to both novels had something in common. That something is a kind of neutral indifference. I didn't enjoy Nineteen Eighty-Four or Starship Troopers, but neither did I hate them. I'm glad I read them and that I have a better understanding of the history of science fiction, but I won't read these books again and wouldn't recommend them for anything but scholarly interest.

I'm not saying they're bad - obviously, if they were, they wouldn't have created entire sub-genres and tropes. They're just...  not for me.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Fire Upon the Deep

Yes, that is a book title. A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. This is the kind of sci-fi novel I really love: big ambitious ideas that wouldn't work in any other genre, explored and fleshed out with a lot of depth.

The actual core plot of the book is somewhat unspectacular if you boil it down to its essence: people who don't fully understand the risks awaken an ancient evil that could consume everything, and a tiny handful of people are the only hope to stop it. The set dressing is more interesting than usual - the evil is a transcendent intelligence rebuilt from blueprints found in a five-billion-year-old archive written and re-written by thousands of civilizations, accidentally unleashed by a hopeful culture that took one too many risks and was fooled by a vastly superior intellect - but that core story of awakening an ancient evil is fairly unexceptional. I mean, if you want to get technical.

What makes it great is the universe and the ideas that tell the story.

The big thing is that the galaxy's laws of physics aren't uniform. The galaxy is divided into several distinct zones. The borders between the zones aren't easily visible and change slightly over time. People are generally unconcerned with zones below them, seeing them as insignificant and backwards, while often aspiring to ascend to the zone above.
  • The Unthinking Depths, around the galactic core, where only minimal intelligence and technology are possible.
  • The Slow Zone, basically our kind of place, where faster-than-light travel and communication are impossible.
  • The Beyond, further towards the galactic edge, where artificial intelligence and antigravity and faster-than-light travel are possible, allowing interstellar civilization and culture and organizations.
  • The Transcend, the edges of the galaxy and farther out, past the point of technological singularity where individuals may as well be gods compared to even the heights of the Beyond.
There have been a lot of solutions or workarounds to accommodate faster-than-light travel in fiction, but the idea that physics simply aren't the same everywhere is a new one for me. And the book does a good job of exploring the implications: it features characters from every zone (except the Unthinking Depths), and there's a big chase scene descending from the Beyond down to the border with the Slowness, during an unprecedented zone storm where the boundary is in flux. It shows the dangers of taking technology designed for a high zone into a low zone, and even includes some workarounds that "trick" lower physics into allowing higher technology.

The other big idea is pack intelligence. There's an intelligent species, the Tines, where the minds and souls of individuals are formed by the constituent members of the pack. A pack of six isn't a group; it's a single person with six appendages. They think and communicate with sound, so individuals can't get too close to each other or they'll interfere with each others' "thought sounds".

These things probably sound interesting on their own, but what's really fantastic is how A Fire Upon the Deep explains and explores the implications and consequences of its ideas. That quick paragraph I just wrote about the Tines really doesn't do them justice. Many of them are point-of-view characters, and it's amazing how the book keeps their point of view and gradually gets you to understand their minds and culture. In fact, I assumed the first Tines I met were "regular" people, and it wasn't until they started to mention "sending out members" that something seemed odd.

The way the Tines' minds work is explained through trauma: an individual's member dying, the person nearly splintering, but then incorporating a new fragment and becoming a new whole. There are Tines who experiment with crafting purpose-built personalities by breeding and selecting the right pack members. The species' big weakness is their reliance on sound to think; individuals have to remain meters apart to hear their own thoughts and stay coherent.

All of this is done without relying on infodumps. Occasionally some finer points are explained to humans, but it's amazing how the novel is written to lead you to understand. In fact, I'm confident that you won't properly understand how the Tines' pack mind works from the descriptive text I'm writing here - you're much better off reading the novel to get all the subtlety and the point-of-view thoughts to truly understand the concept.

Actually, quite a lot of the background information in the novel is told this way - the reader gradually piecing together the whole picture from several viewpoints, or learning/inferring through comparisons and exceptions. None of this "As we both know..." crap. Even great books have exposition, but the natural discovery of how things work in this novel feels like something special.

What's really crazy about A Fire Upon the Deep is that it's composed of many ideas that are each complex and interesting enough to build a whole novel on, but they're all worked in here together, and it not only makes sense but creates a world that feels incredibly rich and complex. I'll admit to feeling a little off balance in the first few chapters after being thrown into the world without knowing how anything worked, but figuring it out along the way made for a rewarding experience.

Read it if you're a sci-fi person.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Snow Crash

I read Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash a week ago, after a couple of friends have been bugging me to read it for literally years. I meant to write down some thoughts sooner than this, but I had to digest to pin down what was bugging me.

First, the good stuff. The main character's name is Hiro Protagonist and that's pretty much the best character name of all time. He's the best swordfighter in the world and an expert hacker, but despite being such a cool skilled guy, he's cleverly not portrayed as unbeatable as he constantly gets into trouble that can't be solved with swordfighting and hacking. There's lots of action and chases across franchise-countries, the deadly serious Mafia pizza delivery business, and eventually on a privately owned but still armed aircraft carrier.

The digital world is neat because it's not just a magical computer land - there are quirks and workarounds and backdoors because of haphazard development, and the history and reasoning are frequently explained.

The core plot deals with a neurolinguistic virus and all kinds of really cool ideas and history, which is normally the kind of thing I love. My issue with Snow Crash is that, unlike the rest of the book, all the neurolinguistic explanation is done via infodump dialogue - Hiro researching with the help of a librarian program that explains everything. The delivery of these segments feels clunky compared to the more natural revelations of the other history and background of the world.

Anyway, a neurolinguistic virus is an extremely cool idea, and actually quite similar to an idea I've been working on for a D&D game - a memetic infection, or "thought plague" - a plague that infects the mind through the spread of words and ideas. Stephenson's virus is more fleshed out and historically-based than my D&D ideas, which are more fantasy/horror than sci-fi. So that's given me some food for thought for D&D planning.

Oh yeah, and you should probably also read Snow Crash.