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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The foundation of world building

A plan for creating alternate worlds

Write about what?

earth 045As a child, the stories that fascinated me the most were set in other lands. As an adult, reading passages that describe an unknown world still intrigues me. Simply throwing me into a story without a describing the setting leaves me floating in a void without stimuli, similar to floating in an isolation tank. At first this may be enjoyable experience but soon I become disoriented. I prefer the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a concrete world around me.

Basing the alternate world loosely on some existing culture or mythology transported to another time and space, does not do away with the need to flesh out the environment. That is the foundational step in world building.

In The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R, Tolkien gave personalities of regions within Middle Earth– the humble, homey Shire, the menacing Misty Mountains, the eerily unnerving Dead Marshes and delicately balanced Isengard, trying to flourish…

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What is the opposite of steam punk?

World building can be a challenge. Advice from someone well-versed in geology, history, or sociology will help when designing world differing from the one we inhabit. My desire was to create an alternate world in which civilization was advanced as ours but uneven in development due to a missing critical resource. How about a world without fossil fuel?

My son, who has some advanced classes in extraterrestrial geology assured me that with large populations of living creatures, there would be fossil fuels. Perhaps, he suggested, the people had not discovered fossil fuels because they were unable to access them. They could be using geothermic energy with an adequate number of volcanoes own my imaginary world. So, my decision was to alter the one missing resource from fossil fuels to a scarcity of ductile, malleable metals like iron and tin.  (I suppose I couldn’t get rid of iron completely as it is an essential part of blood).

Without sufficient iron and no tin, the inhabitants of this world could not make steel.  Remove steel, and they cannot mine coal, cannot drill oil, so an abundance of fossils fuel would not help them. But I realized there was a cascade of even more differences—the city would look vastly different with no steel beams for sky scrapers, no steel cables for bridges, no steel to reinforce freeways, or build train tracks. Any mode of transportation, such as a car, bike, boat or aircraft would be made of inflexible wood, or flimsy fabric and rubber.

They have no steel for iron-horses, or steam engines, or internal combustion engines so I have created an anti-steam punk world. The structures of this anti-steam punk world would be made of mostly stone, ceramics, wood and glass.

In the end I decided not remove all metals. They must have some ability to manufacture some instruments, so only a limited amount of light-weight aluminum, magnesium and titanium would remain. But these metals are more fragile, so they cannot risk wrecks of light weight vehicles. However, my original premise was a world as developed as our own.

Then I realized that my son’s suggestion that they live near geothermic energy was a good one. This would typically be near the ocean, near beaches with lots of sand (which is mostly silicon). Computers where invented in our world at the same time as combustion engines. So, the societies of my world would  have delved into using computer controls earlier out of necessity. As they were not spending time building steel structures and vehicles, they would have learned to make silicon circuits earlier. More widespread use of computers would allow for individuals and companies to use computing to create safer modes of transportation based on grids to direct driverless vehicles.

So, it is not oil I delete from my world, but steel. That gets rid of guns of and steel, two parts of the source of European hegemony, according to anthropologist Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. This society would not reflect the life in Victorian England at all.  The masters of this new world would be those who can conquer germs, and my major character can be from the people that prize understanding the natural world.

So, choose a difference, take a all of the way through to its logical conclusion, and voila, a world that does not resemble any of those copycat world builders.

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Charming characters can’t be trusted

800px-2445_-_Milano_-_Università_statale_-_Adolfo_Wildt_(1868-1931)_-_Sant'Ambrogio_-_Foto_Giovanni_Dall'Orto,_22-Feb--2008The character with charm, with the twinkle in the eye, who speaks noble words with the perfect voice, who makes the impassioned plea to turn the crowd around– the character with all the traits of charisma that we desire—that character doesn’t fare so well in fiction.

Historically charismatic leaders don’t have a long life span. Authors often reflects that reality.  In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar the charismatic Marc Antony has the well-known and often the quoted (and parodied) speech at Caesar’s funeral.  As a close friend of Caesar, he is permitted to speak at the funeral on the basis that he will not blame the  conspirators who assassinated Caesar.  But, Anthony displays the skill of his golden tongue. With just the right amount of sarcasm and emotional appeal, he begins to praise Caesar, and cast suspicion on the conspirators, until the people rise in rage to hunt down these men.

It would only seem natural that Antony would take his place as the leader after avenging  the death of his ally ,Caesar. However, history has shown that in the end he lost his life running from another member of the ruling triumvirate, named Octavius. Once a person is known for his charm, he cannot simply be pushed out of office. He must be destroyed.

Purely fictional characters that are charismatic also don’t have a good reputation. In Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country, the main character, Stephen Kumalo, goes to visit his brother, who now has a reputation as a political activist.  John Kumalo has a deep commanding voice, that can draw in an audience and send them out fighting for their rights.  He has a passion to free blacks from injustices, such as separation from families to working in mines in which the white people make the huge profits. But John has a cowardly streak, as he speaks to gain attention more than he speaks to gain justice for his countryman. He is not brave enough to ruffle the feathers of the authorities when it comes time to call for action.

Why does the charismatic person seem to have great promise in real life but not in fiction? The first problem is that as much as we are drawn to those kinds of traits, such a person is suspect, simply too good to be true, when found in a novel. The trope of a smooth-tongued politician whose secret desire is to become another Hitler has been used a few too many times. There is also the possibility that authors are a bit jealous of personalities that appear larger than life in public. Their skill is in the written word, not in persuasive speaking. So, the best revenge is to turn the bold, charismatic character into a self-indulgent tyrant.

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Literary devices and charisma

How lessons from English class can help you be more charismatic…

Write about what?


“Edwin Escobar Luz” by Herbert Rouge – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Most people determine a leader’s charisma using nonverbal characteristics, such as conveying emotional states, demonstrating passions through gestures and compelling use of vocal intonation. But charismatic leaders still have to have some to content their speeches. The goal of charisma, after all is to inspire people to act on your words.  However, be careful to keep your message simple and not say too much. The more complex the speech is, the more the listeners have to use of higher level thinking, and the less inspired they will be by the speaker. So what techniques do you use to fill in the words if you only have one simple point to make?

Start by collecting stories and anecdotes that convey the idea of your point. During one of the typically boring college dinner…

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Creativity and Charisma

Charisma and creativity–what is the connection?

Write about what?

DSCN0565c.jpgLook though recent articles on leadership and you will find that creativity to be in high demand. IBM’s Institute for Business Value conducted a survey of 1,500 chief executives and discovered that creativity had risen to top as the most valuable attribute of a leader. The ability to generate new idea, and solve problems creatively has become the new competency that is supposed to ensure the success of a business in tight economic times. [1]

But you cannot keep adding to new competencies without some sacrifice.  Basically any business needs to consider which attributes, such as team player or works well with others, that they are willing do without in when they hire a creative person. Øyvind L. Martinsen of the BI Norwegian Business School recommends that “An employer would be wise to conduct a position analysis to weigh the requirements for the ability to cooperate against the need for…

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