Category Archives: Science Fiction

A Strange Blip in History

 

Make Death Proud to Take Us
Make Death Proud to Take Us

The future history of “The Fourth Fleet” (available in the anthologies Make Death Proud to Take Us and There Will Be War: Volume X) makes several assumptions about the course of historical development over the next century or so. However, they were intentionally left out of the story. They weren’t immediately relevant, and including them would have bogged the story down.

A big part of the setting of “The Fourth Fleet” is the course of history of the United States between now and the time of the story. The United States of America, at the time of the story (the specific year is intentionally left off in order to give me maximum story flexibility, but assume that it’s roughly 150 years from now) is no longer the nation that we think of today. It’s borders have changed but also – and more importantly – its government has changed. It is no longer a democratically representative republic. Unlike the government of today, which more often than not acts as an empire, the government of my future world is an empire. However, much like the Roman Empire of old, it strives hard to maintain all appearances of still being a constitutionally limited republic.

Some examples: President Covington is currently serving his fifth four year term in office. Before that, he finished out the term of his predecessor. It’s an open secret that he had his predecessor assassinated, but nobody very much minds because the man was a Nero-like lunatic. He was “elected” by the people in sham contests that garnered him vast majorities of the votes. He will never lose an election in the system as it exists in the books.

Simultaneously, the geopolitical landscape around the USA has changed. In the early twenty-first century, the powder keg we call the Middle East exploded (hmm…). After a time of constant warfare, much of the region was finally forcibly united under a single ruling warlord calling himself the Caliph, and the new Caliphate was born. World War between the US, Japan and Europe on the one hand and the Caliphate on the other left Europe mostly a smoldering husk, including a few literally nuked cities. It is no longer a hub of civilization.

China rose – but not as fast as many feared. Despite the calamity facing the rest of the world, China had its own issues – including economic issues that are unfurling now in the real world and massive wars for Asian dominance against India, Russia, and Japan.

Thus in the story you have a sort of triumvirate of global (and extra-global, as it is a space story) powers: the US, China and India. The severely weakened but not destroyed Caliphate tries to play in this power game as well, but is most often lagging behind.

I would’ve liked to have worked more of this directly into the story. But the reality is that it would’ve bogged it down quite a bit. Even here in this form it took 460 words to very briefly summarize. The entire tale of “The Fourth Fleet” is a mere 8,017 words. Expanding the story by literally 6% (probably more after working it into the story cleanly) just to add this backstory would have ended up being cumbersome, and the reader would have bogged down in details that were only loosely relevant.

Instead, the story provides quite a bit of clues to give the reader just enough of a framework to figure out the major balance of power. It then leaves the rest to the reader’s imagination.

There’s another part of the backstory that I don’t particularly mind didn’t make it into the tale, because it really was irrelevant to this particular story. I am also strongly of the opinion that the Protestant Reformation is an aberration (albeit it one triggered with good justification) and that eventually (perhaps much sooner than many would think) the majority of Protestants will find themselves rejoining the fold in the mother Church. The Church will eventually come to regard this as “that weird little heresy that lasted for a short blip there.” The church thinks on different timescales than you and I. To a two thousand year old church, five hundred years just isn’t the same thing as it is to us mortals.

There Will Be War: Volume X
There Will Be War: Volume X

I also believe that the Church will find itself mending the Great Schism and reconciling with the Orthodox churches, although that will likely be more complicated. The Great Schism wasn’t primarily over issues of doctrine; it’s proximate cause was political conflict with Rome. Egos will have to be soothed and face maintained. But I believe that will eventually happen.

Within the context of the world of “The Fourth Fleet,” the churches largely reunite when a future pope calls for a new Crusade to respond to the potentially world-ending threat of a nuclear armed new Caliphate.

Interesting as it may be, all of this is just the speculation of a sci-fi author, right? Maybe.

Then again, maybe not.

There Will Be War: Volume X Review

There Will Be War: Volume X
There Will Be War: Volume X

I finally had a chance to finish all of the stories by my co-authors in There Will Be War: Volume X. With apologies to my other co-authors, I didn’t actually receive my author’s copy until about 24 hours before it went live on Amazon. Then the holidays hit. And then John C. Wright sent me a manuscript, and I got a little sidetracked.

I must say, though, I am blown away by this collection. I am absolutely honored to have my own piece set beside these other contenders. There is not a single weak piece in this collection. Seriously. I make a few nitpicks about some of them below. This should not be taken in any way to mean that I didn’t enjoy them.

I did definitely enjoy some more than others – but I can almost guarantee that your experience will be different. Ever story in here is strong enough that somebody will consider it to be his favorite. Heck, two poor, deluded souls even thought my own story was the best in the collection, for which I’m very grateful but I ask you to please stop smoking crack.

Below the fold are my own thoughts on the individual stories for any who would like to read them. There are no huge spoilers here, but neither is it fully spoiler free. Proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading

There IS War!

There Will Be War: Volume X
There Will Be War: Volume X

There Will Be War: Volume X is now available from Amazon! I’m very honored to have my story, “The Fourth Fleet,” included in this collection and I can only hope that readers find it as worthy as the rest. I just got my author’s copy yesterday, so I haven’t had a chance to read the other stories yet – but I’m definitely looking forward to it!

Sales Through Controversy

File770 has graciously shared the announcement of There Will Be War: Volume X, for which I am grateful. But I’m even more grateful for TechGrrl1972, who left this gem in the comments:

I love Jerry Pournelle’s work. His politics, not so much at this point. But I absolutely will not throw one single penny into that publishing house’s coffers.

Excellent! You see, for every comment like this that’s out there, one person will go buy it just to piss off her side of the debate and two more will go buy it just to find out what all the fuss is about. As a contributor to this particular work, I couldn’t bee more thrilled to see this comment. Except perhaps by the several others that follow in the same thread.

Thank you, TechGrrl1972! Thank you!

(H/T to Vox Day, the publisher of TWBW)

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

Star Wars FansStar Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. In Part 1 I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal. In Part 2, I noted that the philosophy underlying everything else came from the second installment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back. Yesterday, I talked about how much depth was added by the Extended Universe (EU).

But the richest source of the depth often attributed to Star Wars comes from an unexpected source: the collective imagination of the fans. If you look at the series – the films, the TV shows, the novels, the comics, and – heaven forbid – the Star Wars Christmas Special, if you really look at them, what you’ll eventually realize is that most of the depth we’ve attributed to it for decades isn’t really there at all. Aside from the occasional trip into real depth in the EU, there just isn’t much.

But in another sense, the depth is very real. To all of those who imagined our own stories set inside the Star Wars universe, to all of us who stayed up late into the night discussing frivolous technicalities of the world, the depth that we added was very nearly tangible. Our imaginations filled in the gaps, and we created a nearly infinite mythology.

The problem is, the depth that we created was never really there to begin with. And this is why there are so many people out there who never did – and never will – “get” the movies. For better or for worse, they lack the imagination to flesh it out in their own minds. In the early days, this was a rather large portion of society. Those of us who did “get it” were the outliers: nerds, geeks, and weirdos. Today geek culture reigns, and the majority of Americans seem to get it.

But how many of them truly got it on their own? How few were there all along, right in with the fun? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not out to label anyone as a “wrongfan.” I don’t care. It’s a movie, and if you didn’t enjoy it then but have learned to enjoy it since, I consider that an act of growth. It’s good for all of us to get outside of our comfort bubble. But I do have to admit that I laugh a little every time I see an old friend or acquaintance – the kind who resolutely made fun of those “Star Wars nerds” in the 80s – now profess that they’ve been “Star Wars nerds” all along.

This is also the reason the prequels were ultimately so disappointing. To be fair to George Lucas, nobody could have created a mythology that lived up to what we’d already collectively built. But putting the man who’d only ever created the genius accidentally back in charge of it was guaranteed to be the worst disappointment of all.

Beginning at midnight tonight, many of us will get to experience the next chapter in the Star Wars saga. Early reviews are positive, which is encouraging. But as someone who camped out for all three prequels – I was second in line for The Phantom Menace at my local theater – I’m approaching this new film in a much more sober manner. It will be good. Or it will be bad. Or it might be mediocre. But now matter how good it is, it will never live up to the mythology that exists in my own head after thirty seven years of daydreaming.

So enjoy the show, as best you can. I plan to take my children on Saturday morning. My very awesome boss rented out an entire theater for our small company, and no matter how good or bad the movie is, the experience itself will be a blast (just as camping for the prequels was, despite the poor films). May all of us enjoy some more accidental genius – this time with minimal involvement from Lucas himself.

And may the Force be with you.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_42664Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. In Part 1 I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal. Yesterday, I noted that the philosophy underlying everything else came from the second installment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back.

It’s important to understand that a large portion of the depth, however, came from entirely outside of the official “canon” of the series. I’m hardly the first person to note, for example, that certain non-canon entries – the so-called “Extended Universe” or EU – are vastly superior to some of the lesser films. Several of the EU novels – including the Thrawn Trilogy that kicked off the modern EU – are absolutely amazing, and add quite a bit of depth to the series. Even some of the video games are better than the prequels. Knights of the Old Republic was better than any of them, as was its sequel, despite being seriously hamstrung by Lucas Arts.

The backstories of both the Sith and the Clone Wars were handled better in a half dozen different EU settings – each. KOTOR in particular developed a massive world in the Old Republic, adding tons of history and giving a rich mythology to the Sith. The aforementioned Thrawn Trilogy hinted at a version of the Clone Wars that was far more interesting than anything we’ve seen on screen – but even the animated Cartoon Network series proved a more interesting take on this event than Attack of the Clones.

The brilliant thing that George Lucas did in his accidental genius was to create a framework that was solid and compelling yet vague enough to allow others to fill in the gaps in even more interesting ways. The Force can become philosophy, magic, or religion depending upon your interpretation. Jedi Knights are hinted at in a way that allows all of us to fill in the gap, conjuring up endless tales of excitement. The gigantic universe – only hinted at in the original trilogy – could hold any number of tales. And who doesn’t love space ships, blasters, aliens, princesses and laser swords?

A whole generation of talented authors and game designers filled in this void of vagueness with interesting ideas. They fleshed out the universe, adding depth far beyond what Lucas ever did. Yet when compared to the real drivers of the Star Wars mythos, even these extremely talented writers look amateurish.

Tomorrow: the real depth of the Star Wars franchise came from the imaginations of the fans.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2

Behind the Scenes of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. Yesterday I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal (some would claim that the philosophical depth of all of Star Wars is minimal; even by their standards, A New Hope is lacking). Seriously. Go take a minute to watch it again.

The spiritual depth of the entire film consists of an old wizard/sage/priest giving our young hero a brief description of the Force, telling him that legions of warriors who harnessed it once roamed the galaxy but are now nearly extinct, and that he should trust his feelings. That’s it, in the entire movie. Even in the lightsaber scenes (not just the duel, but also when Luke is training aboard the Millennium Falcon), the use of the Force is minimal. The only truly strong uses of it in the entire film are Obi-Wan’s Jedi mind trick and Luke blowing up the Death Star.

The philosophical depth of the Star Wars saga comes from three sources: The Empire Strikes Back (which, as we will see in a minute, was not truly Lucas’s film), the Extended Universe, and the collective imagination of the fans. Seriously – almost all of it comes from these sources.

First, Empire, which was the root of it. Notice that the Force gets a big upgrade in this film. We see people manipulating objects with their minds, performing athletic and acrobatic feats far beyond normal human ability, using it as a kind of “spider sense” for defense, and even using it to glimpse into the future. This is a big jump from the first film.

Then we get Yoda, who brings with him some pithy, vaguely Zen, deep sounding aphorisms: do or do not, unlearn what you have learned, much anger I sense in him, etc. To be honest, the depth even here is… modest. The speech of the movie puts forth a somewhat facile pseudo-Zen philosophy. As a child, I thought it was somewhat deep. As a 37 year old man with a philosophy degree, I find it fun but lacking.

What it did do, however, was present a surface facade of real depth – while remaining extremely vague. The vagueness is critical. It allowed the viewer imagine a lot more depth than was actually there. And for decades, that’s exactly what we did. Those of us who grew up with the movies made up stories in our heads, or while playing games with each other. We traded theories and rumors – rumors that were often so full of BS that they were literally made up by one of our own friends, who had no source.

Importantly, Empire is the film (until this week) that had the absolute least input from Lucas himself. The film was directed by Irvin Kirshner, and the screenplay was by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. Numerous documentary evidence confirms that Lucas himself had little input into the script, and at one point during production he literally told Kirshner that he was “ruining my movie.”

Thus, the first burst of true depth and genius of the overall saga came not from Lucas himself but from his collaborators. And the reports of Lucas’s feelings about Empire confirm that he didn’t truly understand what made it great. The prequels only confirm that he still doesn’t – the beauty of the saga was just more accidental genius.

Tomorrow: the Extended Universe.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1

Lines to See Star Wars in 1977Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

First, let’s consider the original 1977 film. But let’s be clear about it: I don’t at all think that Lucas was slacking off when he made this film. The tales of how difficult the film was are famous and many. Lucas spent four years just writing the script, and then he famously fought sandstorms, studio executives, budget issues, and technical issues. And don’t forget that he spawned an entire industry to create the special effects that couldn’t previously be done.

Star Wars was a labor of love – or at least a labor. But go watch that original film all over again. Unless you’re a male, nerdy member of my generation – in that case, you probably already know the film word for word. You guys can stay with me if you like. The rest of you, go watch it again.

What kind of film is it? At the end of the day, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp. Now, it’s a really solid one. It’s tons of fun. It was set in a world that felt lived in and real – and also massive. It hinted at enough outside of the core story to suck you in and let you lose yourself in what was going on. And it did all of this while providing scenes of space battles and laser swords in ways that were completely unheard of before the film’s release.

But still, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp – deliberately styled after the pulp serials of the 1930s. George Lucas admits this straight up in interviews. Indeed, that’s a large part of the charm of the film. Many people I know still list it as their favorite of the series specifically because it’s just a fun adventure romp.

But it’s also a really strange film – and I don’t just mean its revolutionary special effects and kinetic space dogfights. The structure of the film is really bizarre, and it doesn’t map to standard storytelling conventions. It spends half an hour following the story of two minor characters, when it hasn’t even introduced the main protagonist yet. The near universal consensus is that said protagonist is whiny and annoying and is overshadowed by the rogue of the series. Everyone remembers that crazy pace of the Death Star assault, but the first half of the movie is almost painfully slow – I remember as a kid fast forwarding through the droids in the desert on my Betamax video cassette.

But the visuals are stunning. And quite a bit of the film was heavily experimental in its day: the special effects, of course, but also the narrative structure, the heavy reliance on an orchestral soundtrack, and the raw pacing of the aforementioned Death Star assault.

In short, it was a gigantic art house film.

It’s the most successful art house film of all time. George Lucas got really, really lucky with it. But because the film he was actually trying to make was an art film, he never truly understood why it resonated with everyone.

Forget Empire and Jedi for a moment, since they weren’t directed by Lucas himself. Besides, we’ll be discussing those later this week. Think about the prequels – and think about them as the most expensive art house films ever made.

The reason they didn’t resonate well with audiences is because Lucas never understood what made the Star Wars films so popular. He thought – and still thinks to this day – that everybody loved his little art house film because it was an art house film. That’s basically how all art house directors think. What he never realized was that the universal appeal of it was a happy accident.

He managed to get just enough right – and at just the right time – to appeal to a vast, previously untapped audience. Laser swords? Check. Aliens? Check. Spaceships? Check. David vs. Goliath story? Check. A frenetic pace that nobody had ever seen before? Check. Visuals unlike anything previously done? Check. Giant spaceships more awesome than anything… except for that even more giant space station that could blow up entire planets? Check. An awesome toy line in a world that hadn’t been merchandised to death yet? Check.

The thing is, even this entire package wouldn’t have had the appeal that it did if any of it had been well done before. But it hadn’t been. And on top of all of that, there were just enough hints of a cosmic half-magic, half-religion, half-philosophy underlying his universe to suck everyone in to the mythological side of his accidental genius.

But that’s for tomorrow’s story, when we look at the accidental genius of the saga as a whole.

 

There Will Be War: Volume X

TWBW_v10_480I’m deeply honored to announce that my story “The Fourth Fleet” will be reprinted as part of the upcoming anthology There Will Be War: Volume X by Dr. Jerry Pournelle. I have to admit to having been a bit surprised by this.

Some of you may know Dr. Pournelle as one of the science fiction grandmasters. Or you may know him from his days as a science adviser to President Reagan. Or you may not know him at all, but recognize some of the other authors on the list – Dr. Martin van Creveld, Larry Niven, or Poul Anderson.

I’m deeply humbled to find my name listed in such company, and I hope that the readers find that the story justifies its placement. As soon as I have a purchase or pre-order link available, I’ll post it.

Replicability

Science vs Magic - a discussion of replicability
Science vs Magic

Most of us in the science fiction and fantasy community are familiar with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Here’s an interesting factoid: many languages – especially pre-modern languages – don’t really have words to differentiate between the twin concepts of magic and science. Many languages – especially eastern languages – have only recently added words for the concept of “science.”

And yet in the modern, western world we understand a very clear difference between these ideas. Even in our literature, even in our games, we distinctly separate out that magic is magic and science is science and they aren’t the same. In fact, we break them apart so well that we clearly notice it when some tale or game that we read constructs a magical system that smacks too heavily of actually being a “science.”

So what, exactly is the difference? Here’s the way that I break it apart, and I think that almost all of us will find that these definitions work very well to explain the way that magic and science are viewed by the vast majority of the populace.

Magic involves bending the universe to your will. Whatever system a story has in place explaining how their magic works, at the end of the day it either works or doesn’t work because the practitioner has sufficient will to make it work. The steps to cast a spell don’t work if you’re a muggle, or if you’re weak minded, or if your midichlorian count is too low. Or maybe you’re not focused enough. Or maybe the steps for magic to succeed are different for each practitioner, because the steps aren’t really what causes the effect – they just focus the practitioner’s will.

Science involves finding out the rules of the universe as they are and following a series of steps that gives a particular set of results because it follows those rules. The steps are mechanical, and the result follows from a chain of cause and effect. The chain may be long and complex, but it will work every time, no matter who does it, and now matter how strong your will is.

In a word, magic lacks replicability. Science has it in spades.

Or does it?

Let’s consider, for a moment, antibiotic resistant bacteria. We know that the bacteria in the world are becoming more and more resistant over time to our tools for killing them. The miracle of modern antibiotics is slowly failing. A student of history, I’m aware of many of the ancient remedies that are laughed at by the modern world. “They used to do that as a treatment? Hahahahaha!

Imagine a world a thousand years from now where the learned men of the day are laughing hysterically at our culture. “They used to eat pills made from ground up mold to treat their infections? Hahahahaha!

And yet clearly these treatments work exceptionally well today, on a wide variety of ailments. Penicillin has truly brought on an age of medical miracles. But to these learned men of the future, the treatments we use with such great success now won’t work.

On the flip side… what if the treatments of our ancestors, the remedies that we laugh at today, used to work? What if they used to be highly effective, but the world changed in some way that we’re not aware of? Clearly they don’t work now. The “science” is no longer replicable.

OK, that’s a hypothetical (if an interesting one). And it’s easy to at least make the claim that these ancient remedies were never really science and are much better categorized as magic – and ineffective, at that. Maybe they never really did work at all.

So let’s take a more concrete example. In the last few years there have been some shocking papers coming out of the scientific community showing that many landmark studies can’t be replicated. I’ve linked to a sample of these reports. There have been more.

The common interpretation is that they never were replicable. Somebody found an outlier result, published it, and now we’re just discovering that these results were the outliers. The other common interpretation is that the researchers were corrupt or blinded by bias, and they found the results they wanted to find. To be perfectly fair, these interpretations are far and away the most likely.

But what if these interpretations are both wrong? What if something is changing in the world, and our science lacks the replicability that we’ve always believed underpinned it?

At certain extrema, we already know this to be true. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle tells us that we can’t measure sufficiently small subatomic particles without fundamentally changing them. And Einstein’s theory of General Relativity tells us that certain measurements change depending upon our frame of reference, especially at very high speeds. However, the conventional understanding holds that the Uncertainty Principle doesn’t apply at macroscopic levels and that Relativity’s effect is trivial at low percentages of the speed of light.

But what if something else is going on, something that’s fundamentally changing the world around us and mucking with our concepts of replicability?