Thursday, June 30, 2016

June's Writing Prompt [Amazing Stories]: Going Down

As a blogger on Amazing Stories, I do what I can to keep the magazine's age-old speculative spirit alive. Part of that is thinking of the most mind-bending writing prompts I can, regardless of natural or social science inspiration.

This month's is a purer science fiction than last month's. My psychology is better than my physics, but here's a physics-based prompt that anyone who grew up playing pinball should find fun:

Going Down

Let me tell you a story about a place called Downland. In Downland, there are hills, ramps, staircases and elevators, much like in the real world. However, no one can ever go up them. Once you’ve gone down, you can’t return. You can walk on the level all you like, of course.

Does it matter whether your travel is voluntary or involuntary, such as being catapulted? What about changes in elevation (probably due to human intervention given how long topographic changes take naturally), like a Bottle Imp Paradox of sorts?

Much like Flatland, Downland is a place where one simple premise sets off an explosion of possibilities. What would you do with them? How would you react to visiting this world? What would you see? If you were a native, would you consider climbing a flight of stairs as fantastical as Earthlings consider flying?

There are more scenarios at that bolded link too.

So if this is your eternal future...

(from Wiki - oddly, from the article entitled "Stairs")

What then?

Friday, June 17, 2016

June's Book: The Revolutions

The Revolutions by Felix Gilman
Science Fiction (2014 - 413 pp.)

The Revolutions is a book I hadn't heard of before buying it last summer on a lark. This is when the dust jacket of a book is important. Victorian England? Secret societies? Arcane code languages? Mars? I was immediately interested in seeing what Gilman could do with these themes.

The first part of The Revolutions sees protagonist and suddenly out of work journalist Arthur Shaw struggle to find a new living in London. Considering the current state of journalism and the high cost of living in London then or now, this is a premise that resonates today. He and his fiancee Josephine Bradman become embroiled with occultist Martin Atwood, a cast nicknamed after celestial bodies, and Atwood's nemesis Lord Podmore.

Along the way, Arthur takes up work under a man named Gracewell, who has Arthur write out codes for long hours but good pay. Arthur barely understands what he is doing but Gracewell assures him the work is worthwhile. The job feels like a cross between investment banking and programming - again, relevant now. I would have enjoyed seeing Arthur's exhausted reactions to the job more. The visible stresses of someone faced with so strange a task are a plot point I would have liked to see linger: "Money without apparent legitimate purpose. Secrecy, codes, conspiratorial oaths. Dimmick, a thug if I ever heard of one. It doesn't take a master detective to smell a rat, does it, Vaz?" (71)

Gilman uses setting well, especially on Mars. A loose grounding in the scientifically verified descriptions of Mars as red and rocky with two moons, combined with an imaginative world including telescopic towers and dragonfly-esque citizens, puts the reader in a familiar yet fantastical realm. Descriptions of Martian constructions, such as "Though the window was empty, looking through it was somewhat like looking through a finely crafted lens" (336), direct the action toward Arthur's understandable shock at most of what he sees. That Arthur handles Mars so well speaks to his experience working for Gracewell.

Gilman isn't afraid to break rules like "show, don't tell", as he does in the selected quotation in the above paragraph, which makes the narrator part of the story. The narrator's observations on the settings and plot, or general narrator snark, act as a running commentary of the unnamed* storyteller's opinions. A phrase like "There were unforeseen difficulties, as anyone might have foreseen there would be" (260) doesn't evoke the vividness of contemporary writing circles - it instead makes the reader feel like the narrator's along for the ride too. It's an interesting narration style that works well in this sort of story, in which so many quirky things happen** it's comforting to have a virtual someone sharing the double-takes.

The fractured journal entries during Arthur's employment allow Gilman to switch between first- and third-person narration, which gives the reader greater perspective into Arthur's thoughts. (68-78) The numbered introduction of Atwood's magical grouping, from Sun to Neptune, draws the reader further into the plot. (168-178) With so many ideas taken, it's not necessarily plot that'll define good writing. Humanoid aliens, to use an example from The Revolutions, have been described so many times as to be trite. Narrative techniques like jumping from character to character, using lists instead of normal paragraphs, or any other devices make stories fun.


My one problem with The Revolutions is the end. The Atwood/Arthur fall from the sky feels epic, and Josephine's escape has that everything's-once-again-at-risk feel, she and Vaz waking up in Jupiter's house unknowing of what's going on makes the reader feel mystified, but then... nothing. The fast-forward to 1937 felt rushed, and it also answered the questions of what happened to the characters not requiring a large emotional investment. Arthur and Atwood are the characters I felt most strongly about, and Josephine was missing for so much of the book that just knowing the rescue was successful was enough to know about her.

I usually dislike sequels, but The Revolutions was a book that was asking for one. Having Josephine and Vaz launch a rescue mission for Arthur, with Podmore replacing Atwood as the main enemy, would have been an incredible read. Starting the book with Arthur on Mars could have been a nice touch. Now, even if that book is written, some of the suspense will be lessened because the reader knows exactly when Josephine dies.

When the worst thing about a book is that there isn't more of it, that's a good sign.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

*The Revolutions is at least nominally in third-person, so there's no reason the omniscient narrator would be named.

**Our heroine Josephine is transformed into a telepathic Martian dragonfly-like creature for the second half of the book. If that isn't quirky enough for you...

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Me on Amazing Stories: A Coordination Game in "The Isolinguals"

I'm back at my monthly exposition of modern themes in classic science fiction. Check out this month's entry on Lyon Sprague De Camp's 1937 classic "The Isolinguals", discussing applications of the story to (more) modern game theory.

A Coordination Game in "The Isolinguals"

People have become stricken with a sudden affliction that makes them speak dead languages and recall memories of people who could be their ancestors. Terrified by (then) modern New York City, they see no choice but to group among their linguistic lines. Their behaviour resembles a coordination game in which multiple players have to align their actions in order to find each other. That bolded link up there tells you how.

As an added bonus, unlike May's entry, this one doesn't contain spoilers.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

On the Over-Proliferation of Life Hacks

Everyone loves life hacks, including me. Who wouldn't want to make a funnel out of printer paper, or keep the dogs out of the cat litter? The consensus is that life hacks make our existences more efficient and less stressful.

Wikipedia's definition of life hack is simple and effective:

Life hack (or life hacking) refers to any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life. The term was primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming.

When everything is a life hack, or a hack of some type, the phrase loses all meaning.

"Life hacks... [for] 2016" include gems like "Make a healthy and filling breakfast". Precisely how making breakfast hacks anything, or why 2016 is the time to start making it, is left unexplained.

"Job search hacks" would make sense if they were, say, cover letter templates. "Be a storyteller", though? That's a tip on presentation, not on productivity or efficiency.

"Romance hacks" appear to be (usually) decent relationship advice clouded in verbiage that make them sound like used car promotions. Phrases like "With this, she knows you care but more importantly, she knows you LISTEN." and "Honestly, I've met men that were ripe for the picking because their wives/girlfriends didn't show any appreciation or seem to value them at all" make me scratch my head.

As if the proliferation of life hacks hadn't yet jumped the shark, "walking hacks" include advice like "Walk when it is cooler" and "Bring water". When bringing water on a summer walk is a hack, what isn't? (That said, the article did teach me that June is Great Outdoors Month. Guess I'll go for a walk soon.)

Much like the flogging the poor word "leverage" endured in the '90s and '00s, "hack" is becoming so ubiquitous it's losing its original meaning. If Jessica Stillman writes a 2017 companion article to the her article I linked in the previous sentence ("8 Phrases You Really Need to Stop Saying in 2016"), I sure hope "hack" finds its way there.

For those more inclined toward the technical side of things, including a healthy dose of the meaning of hacking itself, Gizmodo's article from a couple years ago does a good job. My examples were published since that article came out. Consider this entry Anti-Hacking for Business Students.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

May's Writing Prompt: Locked In

Earlier this month, I promised monthly writing prompts on my Amazing Stories blog page.

When I promise, I deliver.

You are alone in a house. It can be a nice house, an old Victorian perhaps, or even a spacious Southern mansion. It can also be a small house, maybe a bungalow, or – to be drastic for a moment – a broken-down hovel only moments away from being collapsed by a strong wind. It can be a castle… but would it be a functioning place of government or drafty ruins?

The commonality in these scenarios is that, for some reason, you have no desire to ever leave.

The purpose behind writing prompts is, at least to me, more like the purpose behind math problems than it is the purpose behind most fiction writing. There's so much to explore. It's an analytical exercise. I use nine questions in my prompts as examples of where a writer can go: three for setting, three for character(s), and three for plot. Much like my synopsis-style April prompt Lifeforce Expired, which will also appear as a fictional movie* in a book I'm editing now,** I bring prompts that delve through topics that speculate about the way our world is and could be.

If you were in that situation, what would you do?

*A fictional movie: it's a thing. It's a movie fictional characters discuss seeing that doesn't actually exist but that exists for the purposes of the fictional work in which it appears. A good example is the movie Prognosis Negative from Seinfeld.

**One of my favourite things to do is invent fictional culture. Everything from books to movie to advertisements that we don't see in our world but that could plausibly exist, exists in what I write. Think of it as the arts/social sciences/business version of the gadgets employed in some science-fiction books.