Panning for e-gold

The internet is not free…

Write about what?

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERASometimes finding information of real value on the Internet resembles the search for gold. A shiny nugget in the stream catches the eye of a lucky person and news spreads like wildfire. Soon crowds spend long hours filtering the water for the tiniest specks of gold dust. However, usually only a few find enough gold to make a living. It is the people who supply the food and equipment for the prospectors that strike it rich.

E-gold should be easier to uncover than attempting to find the real thing as depicted by the TV show Gold Rush. However, new ideas for using the Internet are quickly imitated or sometimes deceitfully lifted by claim-jumpers to make someone else rich. (Ever hear of the lawsuit filled life of Steve Zuckerberg? [1]) Search engines and social networks multiply because those companies that take on the mammoth task of helping us navigate and communicate…

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To tell the truth

With more information, the truth is getting harder to find.

Write about what?

DSCN9574 c1When Adobe inadvertently made free downloads of Creative Suite 2 available, a student mentioned seeing it on Tumblr, but discounted it as one of those rumors so easily spread on the Internet. However, my own child was eager to have some version of graphic software that would work with a pen tablet received as a gift. So, I did my own research.

Unable to find information on I checked Google. Forbes said the free download was not available. I sorted through recent posts on IT newsletters (some of my more reliable sources to deal with technology rumors) and armed with two links I was able to locate the actual page on It explained that although this download might have trouble running on Windows 7, the software was available at no cost. So the gift of an out-of-date version of Adobe, was now available.

Often, I hear teachers bemoan students lack…

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Unnerving new genres

NY toll road (1) _a copy

Slipstream refer to airwaves around an object that is moving ahead you. Move into slipstream–if you have enough nerve to follow another vehicle that closely–and your travel will become faster and easier. Slipstream is also a writing style. It is gaining acceptance as a technique or genre (depending on who you ask). As a genre it is a story that depicts unnatural events found in fiction that are not already categorized and codified in another genre of speculative fiction, such as the fluid movement within time from past to present to future or in any other order without distinction. Supernatural events in slipstream often occur naturally, unaided by machine, technology or even psychic power.

The best example of this that I could offered happened recently. Driving out of my neighborhood in Oklahoma City, I almost immediately passed a sign signaling, Roads closed ahead. Grumbling I ask, “How am I going to get around this as my destination was only a few blocks away. So I continued doggedly on and found that the road was not closed, not even partially blocked. “The sign lied.” I snarled.

“No,” my daughter replied. “At some time in the past, this road has been closed and at some time in the future, it will be close. It is simply not closed right now.

I suppose that with roads in Oklahoma City frequently subject to such temporal closing, I should be grateful for slipping into a time in which the road was open to traffic. In slipstream a person may be traveling in his mind to the past or in the future and back in, often in a way that connects seamlessly to the present: the same season, same place, same family.

When reading walking the clouds an anthology of indigenous science fiction edited by Grace L Dillon. I noted how slipstream differs from time travel in European and American canon. Slipstream travel does not require going through a worm-hole, a hole in the time space continuum, sophisticated technology described by HG Wells, or even the sinister merry-go-round of Ray Bradbury. In his classic “Something Wicked This Way Comes” the ability to manipulate time by moving backward and forward in age results in a painful experience and even death for one individual. In the literature of Native Americans and other indigenous authors, this movement in time is considered a natural movement between the curves of the spiral history.

So, if you want to try a new genre that defies categorization, experiments with the other science fiction genres and ignores theirs conventions, try writing in slipstream.

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Easily deceived

Can you tell who is telling the truth?

Write about what?

Hendrick_ter_Brugghen_blame 4Our eyes may deceive us. Two witnesses of the same event rarely, relate tell the same story. On a smaller scale, we often misread words. If two words have a similar spelling, we may read the one that we think should go into a sentence rather than the one that is actually there. Our ears may deceive us. Research has shown that when people listen to a recording in which an occasional syllable is replaced by white noise, they think that they have heard the word they expected to hear. Most people do not even recall that part of the word was replaced with non-phonemic sound. [1]

However, most troubling if that other people deceive us and often we do not catch on to their lies. Despite believing that we can discern when people are lying, most people are not very accurate at this. The typical signs that we look…

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Please make me think

Bioshock character

Science fiction in films was once an outlet to comment on society, often with a critical view, such as Fahrenheit 451 and Silent Running. As recently as ten years ago I was intrigued by the British Science Fiction film, Moon, which ending in a startling critique of business ethics. But, very few Americans even know about that film.

However, when I watch science fiction produced by Hollywood now, I feel I am viewing a slick version of an early Hitchcock short. It was shot at night with existing light, and watching it was like trying to find the bath room in the middle of the night in a strange house. Because of the low lighting, I had to watch and listen intently in order to absorb what was happening. But even that is not true of current films.

The invention of CG special effects has made creating the illusion of mystery easier. There are not only shadows, but bird’s eye views of of gleaming sky space ships and whirling galaxies, accompanied by the dance of flickering lights, and punctuated by the occasional flare of a engine. The camera zooms in and out, leaving me both spooked and dizzy.

These scenes are jam-packed with mood, but the special effects make it difficult to attend to what is actually happening. And, I noted a habit that I’ve developed when a scene like this starts in modern movies. My attention wanders because frequently not a lot is happening beside special effects. When action does occur, the close-up might slam it right into my face.

So, I’ve also learned not to worry about missing any clues as to what is occurring. The dialog in the next scene will be an info dump that tells me everything I missed. As I view these films, the question asked in an article by David Sterritt almost twenty years ago still echoes in my head, “Are we witnessing what some critics call the dumbing down of American cinema?[1]

Actor Simon Pegg also notes the dumbing down of movies in the U.S. “Obviously I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema but part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste.”[2]

So, I continue to watch not caring if I miss anything important in the movies, because there doesn’t seem much important in them. And, I bemoan that movie producers seem ignorant of what I really miss–movies that have real characters with moral struggles, in which the ending isn’t obvious, and the dialog is subtle enough that I actually have to pay attention.

[1] Are Hollywood movies being dumbed down? Christian Science Monitor, June 15, 2001

[2] Simon Pegg criticises ‘dumbing down’ of cinema, The Guardian, 19 May 2015

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After the fall

burbn time horizontalIt is difficult to have a novel without a problem. The same in true for post-apocalyptic books. If everybody’s life is wonderful after the fall of civilization, the novel will be a bit boring. So there real are no post-apocalyptic books in which the world is better. Most are about turning society around to heading in the right direction. Some novels blame the problems on “partial” people such as zombies, or mutants, but they are just forms of humans we feel okay hating. These books simply become a war, in which the survivors who maintain their humanity battle the ones who do not. I prefer post-apocalyptic books that deal with humans as they are.

The Postman by David Brin may seem like a dystopia, but it is a society pushed back to a primitive time by plague. Oddly enough, many of the people the postman encounters are willing to help him. And there are some genetically enhanced people on both sides of the conflict. In fact, this hopefulness at rebuilding society seems is the theme of the book. However, I actually prefer to movie to the book. There are large differences in the plots, such as the movie lacks super computers or genetically enhanced people.

The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick is a YA book that deals with preserving literature is a gang run society that somehow survived an unspecified environmental catastrophe outside the protective bubble. But it becomes evident that the gangs are evolving into a kind of useful government. Those inside the bubble ate giving those outside a new technological entertainment that feeds directly to the brain. This addictive way to escape their troubles is the real problem. So, the actions of some residents of the prefect society in the bubble are the major problem. This book doesn’t really blame either side as much as it deals with the first steps in reuniting the two separated groups of humans.

It is true that humans are bent on achieving the power that allows them to destroy the earth in A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jrbut there is always a small group or remnant that remains. The concept of the monastery preserving knowledge and dignity of mankind in the same way that many did medieval times is very interesting. As is the fact that the action in this book spans millennia. This is probably my favorite post-apocalyptic book that ends on an optimistic note (although a very bittersweet one).

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Dilettante rules


According to modern conventions, Shakespeare made many grammatical errors, and his spelling was inconsistent at best. So people who categorize writers as amateurs if they make any type of spelling or grammar error would certainly have a thumbs down for Shakespeare’s work.

Language changes over time, so what is considered correct grammar and usage is fluid.  Despite the prohibitions repeated many times in my youth, it is okay to end sentences with prepositions and to split infinitives. If we try to keep these fake “rules,” some sentences will end up sounding awkward and not like real English.

Others, with good intentions, espouse the spare type of writing. They advise the new author to cut out certain words ruthlessly (Did you see that? I just used “ruthlessly,” an unnecessary adverb. I could have just said “to ax certain words.”)  But economy doesn’t always work. Overuse of a single technique, such as describing all actions with adverbs can become monotonous, but so can eliminating them completely. Interesting writing requires understanding balance.

Some critics  advise novice writers to reduce all compound verbs down to a single word. I don’t know how many times I have a sentence with a past progressive, such as “He was rolling down the hill,” circled in red by a well intentioned editor type stating I should get rid of the passive verb. They do not realize the passive form would be “The hill was being rolled down.”  (Did you see that? I used a passive verb and ended the sentence with a preposition.) However, passive and past progressive verbs exist to add an extra dimension to our language.

Editing can reduce the problems with weak style and unacceptable grammar. However, editing won’t fix the problems with content. The ability to develop complex characters with real motivations and an interesting but plausible plot are the true marks of a writer whose skill is beyond that of an amateur.


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Roman replicas

DSCN0562c2One type of government that keeps appearing in modern Science fiction is a replica of the Roman Empire. From the gladiator-like entertainment  by in the hunger games to the takeover of the Galactic Republic senate by Supreme Chancellor Palpatine in Star Wars, elements of the Roman political system keep appearing. Why does the Roman Empire fascinate us? When it comes to re-creating the Roman Empire in a story the reader does not see themselves as the underclass slaves or the impoverished plebeians. Even those who fought in the Colosseum had a greater reputation than the poor rabble that cheered them on to their deaths.

Novels often harks back to those periods we are familiar and times where we imagine ourselves. The majority of people admire strength and we have been trying to imitate the Roman empire ever since it crumbled to a slow death. Trying to re-create it not just stories but in real life. From Charlemagne’s crowning himself as the Holy Roman Emperor to the naming of the Russian and the German rulers (both czar and Kaiser are variations of the word Cesar) people in history have paid homage to the power of Rome.

But this fascination with this empire of dreadful strength is a love-hate relationship. Secretly we know such power is capable of spawning monsters. Nero-like characters have found their way in sci-fi novels as extremely evil villains. For an author, choosing a government that resembles the Roman Empire and a leader that resembles Nero provides an instant conflict, and an instant type of world familiar to a wide range of people. This provided a jump start for the plot and makes the matter of world building easier.

But is a science fiction book really better if one dispenses with the often tedious task of world building?

Part of the fascination and science fiction is discovering the true nature of the world the author has imagined. Surmising this from a ready-made political system, borrowed from the past is so obvious to the reader that it does not provide the full thrill of a science-fiction story.  The writer must embellish the plot elsewhere to make up for this. Do not assume that borrowing from one of the most well-known empires will make writing excellent science fiction any easier.

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The inherent politicism of world building

planet saturn C

Art by S. L. Listman

Imagining your own fictional world requires imagining not just the rules for your world, but who (or what) rules your world.  You are obliged to create some system of organization for your community of characters, even if it as simple as a local chieftain whose word is law. Designing any type of government means that your book will be inherently political.

Often the government plays a major part in speculative fiction works about alternate histories and dystopias. It is much easier to have an exciting plot when a there is an evil government that needs to be overthrown. Authors do not devise all this villainy on their own. Rather they look at past political menaces and there are many variations from which to choose: governments like Ancient Egypt with a pharaoh who claims to be a god, governments that resemble the Roman empire, with a decadent upper class, the bread dole for the poor, and the violent entertainment of gladiator circuses, genocidal governments, in which people were encouraged to inform on neighbors, such as the third Reich of Nazi Germany.

You may not want to use a past empire to but invent something new. However, looking back at history will help this endeavor, also. Recall the Third Reich? This term basically means the third empire. The First Reich referred to the Holy Roman Empire that existed during the medieval era and the Second Reich was the Prussia Empire, which covered more than half of current Germany and lasted until World War I. If you look as how each of these empires built on past one, and yet changed the nature or their politics, you may be able to look forward and create a logical progression that yields the Fourth Reich.

If you decide to scrap the whole idea of a political system and create a plot without one, you’ll be attempting to do what has not really been accomplished before. No government means anarchy—one does whatever one likes. A book about a post-apocalyptic world may start out at the point in which order has broken down, but readers prefer a plot, which means characters deal with a problem and for the world to remain an anarchy solves nothing.

So, what kind of government will it be? You must choose carefully because whatever your own sentiments about whatever type is depicted will become apparent. This is an inescapable consequence of having the freedom to leave reality behind in your writing.

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The three little worlds

planet Mars2a

Illustration by S. L. Listman

The places of the imagination must have some semblance to earth, or we are confused by the nonsense as we try to take in an alternate world. Usually there is one difference–one factor that is altered to set the ball rolling—resulting in a cascade of other changes.

With this idea in mind, I followed three examples of that might seem like a minor change to life on earth, yet if it were to occur it would create an unrecognizable environment or an unrecognizable humanity. The first would be to eliminate paper–that ubiquitous thin tissue made of some organic substance (usually plant matter) which allows us to make printed books and money. Would you have created a society in which everyone carries a clay coated ceramic tablet, rather than a day planner, as in early Mesopotamian civilization?

The difficulty with eliminating paper is that it can be a made of most kinds of plant matter. Papyrus reed was an easy starter to make paper, as was wood bark, but so were the fibrous plants used for fabric like cotton and linen. Multiple cultures developed their own type of paper individually. The planet without paper would be one that is without any plants more complex than moss. The land would be either rock, frozen artic or a desert. And, that would be a drastic change. You suddenly have a world like the uninhabitable zones of earth.

On the other hand, you could get rid of humanity’s desire to record anything. Image a world full of people who do not care to keep to information that is any greater than they can  hold in their head. That change seems just about as drastic as eliminating the vascular plants.

Let’s imagine a world without guns, like the Hawaiian Island before Captain Cooke stepped on shore. The islanders venerated Cooke on his first arrival with the metal sticks that could kill from afar. And, when he returned, they killed him. Before the Europeans arrived, the Hawaiians fought with sharpened sticks. Their skirmishes were frequent but resulted in few causalities. No chieftain managed to control all of this archipelago with this limited power. Even would out guns there would be fighting and killing, just not of an efficient nature.

If the gunless society is to be more advanced, the lack of a few resources could eliminate the development of guns. One is iron and tin which makes steel. However, steel is the backbone of most of modern buildings and vehicles, so the material for structures and infrastructures must be imagined also. Developing anything like an industrialized society would have to take a completely different route. The other option would be to eliminate gunpowder and removing Francis Bacon from history is not enough. The Chinese also discover the explosive qualities of nitrates. This leaves the choice of removing a key element (like sulfur) or creating a society that abhors chemistry. That would leave strip the world of most advances, and not remove the ability to shoot guns.

The change in the third imaginary world seems a bit innocuous at first. How different would a world without glass be from ours. No fake jewels, no jars, and windows would be made out of flimsy paper. You may not realize it, but glass was being produced by numerous societies in the late bronze age. Melt sand and you have glass, as sand is composed of mostly silicon dioxide. Creating the heat necessary to make glass was the major challenge, but obviously not too great of one. Your major challenge in creating a world without glass would then be creating a world without silicon. Just get rid of all the sand.

World building can be a Sisyphean task.

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