Category Archives: Reality in fiction

Dear Flying Superheroes: FLY HIGHER

Back in the days when I read more superhero comix, and today when I watch a movie with a flying superhero — especially one with some kind of ranged attack, IRON MAN I’M LOOKING AT YOU — I’m super annoyed when they just happen to fly low enough for an opponent with no ranged attack to grab or hit them.

JUST FLY HIGHER, DUMMY.

“But the plot requires me to get close enough to let my opponent start a thrilling grapple…”

SHUT UP THAT’S LAZY-ASS WRITING.

Same goes for every drama that features a standoff with a gun and the hero stands there holding the gun on the villain as the villain creeps closer and closer until they can just grab the gun. It rarely makes sense. If there’s something about the character holding the gun that makes it make sense, fine. Maybe they’ve just realized that they can’t bring themselves to shoot another human being. Or there’s some overriding reason that shooting and maybe killing the villain would be a terrible idea.

But that’s so seldom the case. More often than not, it’s a contrived situation to up the tension.

Don’t be lazy and write things that don’t make sense. If you want more tension or whatever, and it doesn’t make sense, GO BACK AND WRITE IT DIFFERENTLY SO IT MAKES SENSE.

If the tiger catches the drone, make sure there’s some internal logic to it.

I, Robot Is Old-School Apolitical And Socially Neutral Science Fiction — Um, Right?

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I and some fellow writers (and reviewers, some may pick nits, but isn’t reviewing also creative writing? Yes, it is.) are getting together at The Scary Reviews comment section on Wednesday the 16th at 7 pm to discuss I, Robot. The idea is we’re to review the book on our own sites to kick things off. If you’d like to read a proper review, Lilyn G. over at SciFi and Scary wrote one.

I, however, rarely review anything in the traditional sense. In fact, I have avoided reviewing anything by a living author for years after seeing some of the one-star brigading of indie and self-published authors over personal conflicts and butthurt over receiving critical reviews (I’m going to avoid linking to any accounts of these incidents, as I don’t want to wake up any ill-tempered sleeping dogs).

I’m still thinking the above over — should I say “screw it” and jump in anyhow? Am I being a wimp? Lilyn isn’t afraid to throw a one-star review along with a reasoned explanation of why it wasn’t more. Feel free to chime in with a comment on my possible cowardice. But, onward:

When I do review these days, it’s a dead author.

Well, Asimov is dead, you say. So what’s the problem?

There’s no problem. I enjoyed reading I, Robot in high school 25+ years ago oh crap I’m getting old who could have predicted this indignity and I enjoyed reading it short story by short story over the course of the end of last month and the beginning of this. Good stuff, if you’ve ever only seen the movie you should read the stories because the movie, as usual, missed and skewed A TON. In fact, more than usual. The stories were really just inspiration for the movie, not much more.

But reviews, as I suggested just a bit earlier, aren’t really my thing.

So I’m going to talk about old-school science fiction, what it isn’t, and what it is, using I, Robot as context.

Asimov wrote this collection in the spirit of Gernsback, a bedrock figure in the US science fiction scene. A scene that some of the right-wing Sad Rabid Puppies movement in current US science fiction hold up as a halcyon age where the genre was all about fun adventure reading that maintained neutrality in contemporary political and social movements.

But as I wrote in an earlier post about Gernsback and his work, that’s bullshit. Gernsback wrote about technocracy and world government — which, if you think about it, continue to be political and social movements across both political wings and anywhere between or beyond the wings today.

Gernsback was a pretty clumsy writer. He wrote the kind of stories that are rejected from slush piles today, because they were all about worldbuilding — describing potential technological advances and their potential ramifications — and had very little actual story in the story.

Asimov writes in much the same way, except he does it much better. He gives you a bit more humanity, and his writing, while equally lean and unflourished, is just plain better at drawing you into what is going on. He’s not very descriptive, but the little he describes sticks in your mind. His characters are sort of cardboard, but the drawing on the cardboard, at least, is interesting. The human story isn’t deep, but the technological story he tells is deep and engaging. The technology-driven story doesn’t hook on to the characters’ humanity — it hooks on to the reader’s humanity by speaking to elemental philosophical and social questions.

Asimov, in I, Robot and elsewhere, writes the epitome of old-school science fiction: technological, revolving around puzzles to solve and difficulties to overcome, basically hopeful of humanity, and inescapably linked to the social and political questions of the day.

A few examples from the collection:

Robbie speaks to the 1940s fear that advertising and television — technology — will warp and subvert the minds of our children as they are raised immersed in it. But Robbie the robot shows the reader that such needn’t be the case. Robbie risks his robotic life to save his young charge’s life and inspires the little girl to value love and loyalty — humanistic values encouraged  by using technology in constructive and mindful fashion.

Reason grasps the irrationality and logic-rejection of religion and the easy handle it presents for manipulating the faithful through the presentation of a robot prophet who organizes a robots-only cult (the profession of robot faith, uncomfortably, mirrors the Islamic profession of faith, giving the Christian reader an out to avoid applying the story personally — but the principles apply equally to any zealous subset within any religion who reject sound science and observation on the theory it must automatically be incompatible with faith). The story’s resolution leaves faith unconquered — but unquestionably wrong, wrong, WRONG.

The Evitable Conflict is utterly, totally politically charged. Place it in its proper context, the United States at the close of the 1940s, and the global political situation. The story revolves around the tendency for technology to rule humanity, in the familiar trope of artificial intelligence attempting to control human events — or dare I say, take over the world? But the story itself is critical of nationalism and Western powers dominating and controlling world affairs, suggesting what is practically political heresy now and was definitely heresy then, that the wheel of history may yet turn and political dominance may pass into hands that are not Western at all. The story suggests that the reader consider that deliberately managed peaceful globalism may be the solution to humanity’s most destructive problem, war, and that humans have never been so in control of affiars as politicians like to imagine, but instead at the mercy of economic and sociological forces.

How’s that for “good old fashioned apolitical science fiction”?

 

Donald Trump Is A Big Orange Bag Of Supervillain Tropes

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Or green. Green is a good color for a villain.

If I wrote Donald Trump as a character, he would never fly outside of overt satire. “He’s too one-dimensional, too absurdly over the top, too poorly conceived. But worst of all, he’s just a trope. In fact, you threw every major supervillain trope but one together and called it done.”

You’d be right, too.

First trope: he thinks he’s the hero. But usually the villain has a rationale for thinking so that makes sense. Like Magneto, out to save the mutants from the humans. But Trump is no Magneto. Trump isn’t that well thought out of a character. More like Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, Trump thinks he’s the hero simply because he is himself. But Mr. Burns is a satirical character, representing greed and the blindness of old money to the daily concerns of the poor and the workers and the middle class. A serious character in a serious story needs to have more to him, and Trump doesn’t.

Trump is a sore loser AND an ungracious winner, which is both a villain trope and a bully trope. Fine, plenty of villains are bullies and vice-versa. There’s nothing too wrong with giving a villain both of these traits; they’re common enough in the real world among assholes. The only real problem is just throwing them willy-nilly in with the rest of the package of tropes without any real justification. Why is Trump a sore loser and an ungracious winner? Because he was raised a spoiled rich brat and has never known being denied everything he ever wanted? That doesn’t wash – Trump HAS been denied things he wants. He has lost properties and yachts and control of businesses because of corporate bankruptcies forced by runaway, mismanaged debt. He began his business life by blowing a million dollar loan and having to appeal to his dad to pull strings to get him tens of millions of dollars in credit, which credit line he promptly maxed out, requiring his dad to give him millions more to bail him out. He’s had opportunity to learn, but apparently hasn’t learned from any of his forty-plus years of experiencing denial and defeat. It’s just not a credible backstory for the character. It’s poor writing.

His self-absorbed egotism and lack of empathy, again, aren’t unbelievable in and of themselves. They’re just so over the top, so glaring. Cartoonish, even. Like reacting to the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11 by saying he now has the tallest building in the city. Who the hell would be THAT bereft of humanity? Outside of satire, nobody is going to buy that. Especially if this Trump character is supposed to be a savvy villain. Would Lex Luthor be stupid enough to say something that obviously self-absorbed, even if he believed it? In private, maybe. But TO A JOURNALIST IN A TAPED INTERVIEW? Too cartoonish, outside of maybe a one-shot comic issue where there’s no time for any subtlety or nuance at all.

He’s frequently driven by anger and mocks others for inborn characteristics like disability or physical appearance. SERIOUSLY, COME ON. Those are traits of nameless thug characters, not of big bosses. To be a believable major villain, they have to have some shred of self-control. They can’t just be lashing out randomly every time they don’t like someone. Plus it doesn’t really fit well with the ‘believes he’s the hero’ trope. Again, that trope requires at least a veneer of self-control that this ridiculous Trump character so obviously lacks.

But somehow, he harbors grudges, often for years, over setbacks both minor and major. If he’s so out of control he can’t help but mock a reporter for having a withered arm or resurrect a twenty-year-old feud with an actress over an entirely unconnected matter, how the hell is he focused enough to hold on to all these long-term grudges and plot revenge?

And on top of all that, he’s also blind to major portions of reality. He imagines himself winning when he’s losing. He calls abject business failures – by the way, bankrupting casinos during a gambling industry boom? Failing to sell VODKA, STEAKS, AND FOOTBALL in the United States? Who’s going to believe that shit? – victories. He thinks he’s suave and professional when all he has to do is watch his own interviews to see differently. He thinks he’s an opinion leader when he constantly changes his opinion on every position he’s ever taken.

It’s all too much. Way, way too much. All this isn’t needed to establish a character as a villain, unless he’s deliberately written to be a campy parody. And it’s not even subtle enough for that. There’s a point where the reader says, “this is all too crude and clumsy. It’s not interesting. It’s a mere catalog of assholery. This writer should have just written a listicle entitled “Ten Ways To Be A Total Prick” because I’m not buying the character AT ALL.

And after all that, what is this villain’s nefarious plan? To become the President of the United States and… not do the job. That’s it. To hand the whole job to the Vice President and travel around the country being a cheerleader, giving rah-rah speeches. Really. That’s the big revenge.

BORRRRRRRR-ING.

What’s the missing trope, you ask?

Trump isn’t a casual killer.

As far as we know.

Hey, go read my guest post on Sci-Fi & Scary!

-I Have to be a Scientist to Write Hard Science Fiction  Right   by S.A. Barton   Sci Fi and Scary

It’s right through this click — go read it!

It’s about writing hard science fiction when you’re not a scientist, which is a lot of what I do, so I speak from experience. If you write or read science fiction I think you’ll like it. 🙂

SciFi News Network 2291: Job Hunting

Pluto Icecap

SFNN> Classified> Off-Earth > Outer System> Kuiper> Pluto> Jobs> Technical> Supervisory

HYDROPONICS AND RECREATIONAL GENERALIST (HRG)

Salary Band 8(b)

This is a position with the Eurasian University Cooperative (EUC), Facilities Maintenance Division.

Successful applicants must pass a comprehensive full-record Onboard DNA-ROM Codex (ODNARC) examination. Felonies of any nature and offenses of any level of or related to plagiarism, intellectual property theft, academic/research honor code violation, or violence are disqualifying without appeal.

Primary operating languages:

English, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi

Linguistic mastery of 2 or more Eurasian languages independent of translationware a plus

Successful applicant without onboard translationware will receive a discounted (66.67% discount) academic/professional grade global and dialectical translationware implant compatible with their current prefrontal bioprocessor OS. OS must be up to date with active and EUC-approved malware and spyware protection. Translationware purchased by this method will be billed in 50 weekly installments during first year of service at 0% interest. In event of early termination or resignation remaining balance will become due immediately with pending balances at 30% APR calculated on a weekly basis.

Qualifications:

Hydroponics tech certification (6-year instructional program), reduced gravity environment safety and competence certification (with residency). Recreational design certification (2-year instructional program) may be earned via VR learning during first two years of service. 3.25 GPA minimum to proceed; unsatisfactory progress is grounds for termination after 2 quarters academic probation.

1 year small team (2-20 individual) supervisory experience required, performance must be verifiable through 2 or more professional references.

Duty schedule, salary, benefits:

The HMG manages 2 subordinates at 5 days of 10 hours weekly and 0-5 educational or apprenticeship interns at 3 days of 5 hours weekly. The duty team includes 5 pre-AI android semiskilled laborers at 6 days of 15 hours weekly.

The HMG is on-call 24 hours with scheduled duty hours of 4 days at 10 hours plus 1 day at 5 hours weekly. Off duty/on-call days shall be contiguous except in EUC-valid extenuating circumstances and shall advance 1 calendar day per week to improve whole-community access to the HMG. Example: week 1 off-duty FRI-SAT becomes off-duty SAT-SUN in week 2. Likewise, regular scheduled duty hours shall advance 2 hours per schedule week. Example: Week 1 10-hour days of 0700-1500 become 0900-1700 in week 2.

The HMG is budgeted 260 hours of Paid Time Off (PTO) yearly accrued at 5 hours per calendar week of employment. No more than 90 hours shall be taken consecutively. PTO shall not accrue above 260 hours. Earned PTO not accrued due to accrual cap shall be paid at the end of each calendar week at a rate of 1.5x hourly pay as earned.

The HMG receives priority-personnel-beta (Band 2 of 5) for recreation (alpha priority (band 1 of 5) in the facility they manage), medical treatment and disaster relief.

EUC contribution to retirement fund is 7.5% of salary accrued weekly; HMG may choose to contribute a maximum of an additional 7.5%. Funds are limited to EUC-approved savings, bond, and securities instruments. Investment diversity is recommended.

Duties:

The HMG will maintain a hydroponics facility rated to serve a population of 10,000 individuals. The hydroponics ecosystem includes standard, drip, and mist components and includes composting, incinerating, and recycling human and animal waste and garbage.

Bacteria, fungus, plant, fish, amphibian, bird, and small mammal populations are part of the hydroponics ecosystem and must be managed and harvested for edible and otherwise useful biomass at optimal levels.

The hydroponics environment includes public-accessible parklands with maximum occupancy of 500. Parklands must be managed to optimize environmental support, recreational value, aesthetics, and agricultural performance.

The HMG is expected to optimize and improve the performance of the hydroponics facility on an ongoing basis through research, innovation, and implementation of upgrades, redesign opportunities, and integration of new discoveries in the fields of hydroponics and recreation.

The EUC utilizes the Global Blind Application System (GLOBAS) which strips demographics-revealing data from applications. If you believe your circumstances may confer priority status upon your application you may not state so to the EUC but must apply to GLOBAS for pre-GLOBAS prioritization. Making an assertion of priority status to the EUC regardless of veracity will result in disqualification.

The EUC has zero tolerance for harassment of any variety and utilizes an all-Artificial Intelligence 3rd party service for adjudication of internal incidents.

 

A Year Ago: “It Could Be Anyone”

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A little over a year ago I cooked up this little free short (you can read it here, complete and no download needed) in connection with a creative writing class in the MA program I’m finishing up now.

The protagonist is Ms. Gaither, an eighty-five year old woman, and she came out of more than just the proverbial sugar and spice and whatever we associate with little girls who grow up to become elder women. Wisdom and medication, I suppose?

As a character, she was born from something I have plenty of. Worry. My worry shaped a big chunk of her, and worry is something that, if I’m not careful, can dominate my mood and thoughts and pretty much everything in my life. I’m a bit less consumed by worry than I was a year ago. It’s still there, and some of it is still justified, but I’ve managed to let it become less of a distraction and more of a constructive caution. But I have always worried too much and I probably always will.

She also comes from my love of history — I probably spent an hour looking at vintage soda vending machines in connection with a scene in this story, for example. The first three minutes of it were necessary, the rest was just me having fun.There are a few other things in there.
The science fiction (maybe just science — plenty of debate to find, though I’m not well equipped to judge how seriously it’s taken) notion of alternate timelines, or maybe the science fantasy notion of psychic perception of the future — it’s unclear, deliberately. My mild fear of growing old and feeble (one of my hips is already feeble, how soon will the rest of me follow?), and my greater fear of *not* growing old and feeble because, you know, that damn death thing. Ick.
And the whole premise of the story, as well as Ms. Gaither’s role in it and her role in the lives of the father and daughter she meets, come out of something that comes to me as naturally as breathing: considering risk. It goes hand in hand with being, as my grandmother used to say, a “worry-wart.” When we drive farther than the store down the street part of me considers that we might break down, so I don’t dress to drive to the store, I dress to walk back or change a tire. I’m the one who checks batteries in the smoke detector and worries about the lint buildup in the dryer because fire. I’m first to move something away from a space heater or follow the little ones closely at the beach whether the waves are heavy or not. None of this is to say my wife and older stepson are careless. They’re not. Nor is it to say I never take risks, even foolish ones. I have and I do. I’m just the one who thinks of all of the unlikely things that can go wrong (which brings anxiety) and all of the unlikely things that could go right (which brings longing over stuff that’s probably not happening).

Pretty much every time someone writes, they leave a chunk of their psyche on the page. Sometimes writers who write about awful stuff get accused of believing or wishing they could do the awful stuff on that basis, which is very often wrong.But the writer is in there somewhere. Look for them when you read.

(This post first appeared on my Patreon page on May 6th. Patrons get to see most posts three days early and new ebooks THIRTY days early. Plus they get a FREE copy even if I’m charging for it elsewhere. They’re also a hell of a big help to my household, a boon to me as a writer and a human being, and wonderful people. So, you know… *nudge*)

“Half Sour, Half Sweet” Is About Finding Hope In The Depths Of Regret

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This is a story that comes, in part, out of my own life and experiences. Unlike David Brown, I am not yet seventy years old and I did not miss out on the love of my life. But I do know what regret is, and I do know what it is to wonder if my chance to have a good life got left behind in the past. David did leave his good life behind, and he’s wondering where it got to, and how he got so old. David’s redemption is in a little bit of magic that he mistakenly left behind at his boyhood home, if only he can find it and figure out how to use it. And maybe a bit in his grandson’s unknowing help.

My hope and redemption, you might (not) be startled to discover, is in writing stories like this. There’s a bit more of my past in it than usual, not that you’d notice if I didn’t tell you. David’s boyhood home is basically one I lived in when I was around five years old, though I didn’t get to finish growing up there like David did. The staircase and the vertigo one gets looking down it are there, if the house still stands. David’s grandson’s room is right where mine was, though of course in the mid-1970s there was no computer in it. I took some liberties — I had to move the creek across the field to a different position, and the creek needed to have a road next to it that never existed. I think the fishing is better in David’s creek than it was in mine, too.

But that’s fiction for you. We have to move some things around to make room for the fantasy. We have to include enough of the real for the fantastic to be grounded in our thoughts and feelings.

And we have to read it, of course. I hope you’ll read this one. David and I will thank you for it.

You can find it at Amazon, iTunes Bookstore, Google Play Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and at Smashwords.

It is also included among the twenty-one stories in the Not Gruntled collection, which is available in trade paperback as well as ebook formats.