Category Archives: science-fiction genre


My response to a flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, to write 1500 words of space opera in honor of May the Fourth.  It so happens I love space opera, although I’ve seen very few good examples of the genre lately (I have been dodging The Last Jedi like a healthy man dodges plague victims).  My little piece below is based on an (as yet) unpublished space opera universe I’ve had rolling around in my head for decades.  If I ever get the Divine Lotus series finished (and that is a long, sad tale) I might just turn to the universe of the Consortium, Shareholders, and the Perimeter.

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel


“Damn Shareholder,” Rong muttered.  He leaned against a tree trunk and wiped sweat from his face.  

“Shut your mouth,” Teal told him.  He was drenched in sweat, as well; this world reminded him strongly of Novo Brasil.  “He hired us, he gets to set the agenda.”

“Indeed, Citizen Xiang,” the Shareholder said, from twenty meters away.  He spoke without turning around or looking up from the ruined wall he was examining with a sensordoc.  “I beg your patience—this will not take long.”

Teal gave Rong a sidelong glance.  “Enhanced genetics, tooler. Don’t forget it.”  Rong glowered, but clamped his lips tight.

Maria appeared over the rise beyond the wall, pushing aside vines and creepers.  “Shareholder Mann, there’s more ruins on the other side.”

“No matter,” Mann said.  He snapped the sensordoc shut.  “I’m picking up no ipinsotic traces at all.  Nothing. This location’s a waste of time.”

Teal resisted the urge to calculate the cost of the fuel they had burned getting here.  “Your orders, sir?”

“We go on to Mackason IV,” Mann said at once, with asperity.  “The reports can’t all be wrong.”  He seemed as if he were about to say more, but he stopped himself.  “I want to lift as quickly as possible.”

“We’ll be in the air five minutes after we close the hatches, Shareholder,” Teal said.


It wasn’t until they were well on trajectory for the jump radius that Mann sought Teal out.  They were alone in the Pleasant Virgin’s cockpit, with holographic readouts flickering around them.  Mann settled himself into the chair at the astrogator’s station and regarded Teal.  “All in order, Captain Xiang?” he said.

“We’re fifteen hours to jump,” Teal said, “and the ship is operating normally.”

“Good,” Mann said.  His regard of Teal sharpened.  “But not all of your crew appear to be happy.”

“Well, Shareholder,” Teal said, “with all due respect, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about human nature.  We’ve hit eighteen worlds in fifteen systems in the last month, and so far every one of them has been a dry hole.  For whatever it is you’re looking for. Frustration’s bound to show itself in this sort of situation.”

Mann said nothing for a moment.  “You knew that the exact nature of this mission would remain confidential, captain.”

“Indeed, Shareholder, it was made very clear to me,” Teal said.

“And we Purcells hired you and your crew precisely because you have a reputation for keeping secrets.”

“It’s a point of pride with us,” Teal said.

“Well, then, captain, I would appreciate it if you had a word with your people,” Mann said.  “The House of Purcell needs your discretion, and your very fast ship, to complete a task of some urgency.  To help us complete that task, we are paying you a handsome sum. Surely enough to quell any ennui you and your people may feel.”

“Yes, Shareholder,” Teal said.  “I will speak to them.”


“Pilkin’ bastard,” Maria said, running a hand over Teal’s bare chest.  “Never was a Shareholder worth the skin holding ‘em together.”

“That may be,” Teal said.  He enjoyed her touch; their lovemaking always put him into drowsy contentment.  “But he is paying the bills, and without this job we might be scratching for a commission.  Things are hard at the moment.”

“In this quadrant,” Maria said.  “T’other side of the Volume, there’s plenty of opportunities.”

“I’ve heard it all already, pretty puss,” Teal said.  “And maybe once our coffers are full, we’ll head that way.  But we have to finish this job first.”

Maria raised herself up on her hands, looked down on Teal.  “D’you have any idea what he’s looking for?”

“No,” Teal said, fim, “and I don’t want to know.  It is not our business. We were hired to haul him about and keep our mouths shut.  As long as I’m captain, that’s what we’ll do.”

Maria stared at him, solemn.  “So be it, then,” she said.  


Mackason IV, from a descent trajectory, looked much like many another Earth-type world—ocean blues overlayed with white clouds, green-brown landmasses here and there.  A cyclonic storm occupied a quadrant of the main ocean, but it was too far away to affect their chosen landing site. Teal took the Virgin in fast, not caring if they left a prominent re-entry trail.

They landed on a rocky plain, in a level area between jagged hills.  Even coming in they could see the ruins that covered the land between the high ground; as they landed Teal saw broad roads and the bases of broken towers.  Mann, leaning over his shoulder to stare at the displays, gave off a palpable air of excitement. “This is more extensive than anything I have ever seen before,” he said, transfixed.

They all hit dirt, Rong, Maria, Chris, Mann and Teal.  Mann had his sensordoc out at once. Even from several feet away, Teal could tell the readout was exploding with data.  

“This is incredible!” Mann exclaimed.  “The readings are off the scale! This is what we’ve been looking for!”

“Rong, Maria, fetch the containment vessel,” Teal said.  The two of them hurried back into the ship.

Mann led Chris and Teal through a broken archway, and down a flight of steps.  At the bottom was a sort of small amphitheater; scattered in the dust that coated the amphitheater’s floor were scattered lumps and shapes, most of which were hard to make out.

At the foot of one pillar, however, something glowed ochre.  Mann approached it; it glowed more brightly, while the sensordoc’s readout became even more fevered.

“There!” Mann cried, pointing.  “An active device! It’s what I’ve been looking for.”

“Doesn’t seem much,” Chris said.  The femman knelt down, extend a hand.

“Don’t!” Mann yelled.  

The warning came too late.  Chris touch the device. There was a flash of light, and then a scream.  Teal, squinting past a hand raised against the light, glimpsed Chris afire, screaming.  In the next instant, the femman was simply gone.

“The fool!” Mann cried.  “The utter fool!”   


They got the device in the containment vessel using hand-grav tools.  They sealed the vessel; then, with a smug Mann leading the way, they secured it in the Virgin’s front cargo bay.  “We are all rich now,” Mann told them.

They lifted ship at once, with Mann in the crew mess preparing a report to his superiors.  Teal was happy to retreat to the cockpit to put the Virgin on a trajectory for the jump radius.  He still didn’t know what they had found, and he wanted to know even less than before.   

He had just finished setting the jump coordinates when he heard a muffled thump.  The sound was strange to him.  Then the security display popped up a flashing alert, weapon discharge- crew mess.

“What the hell?” Teal said.  He climbed over the seats and slid down the ladder to the crew level.

He burst into the mess and was confronted by a scene of blood.  Mann lay on his back on the middle deck, his eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead.  Rong stood over him, a slug-thrower in his hand.

“Had to do it!” he yelled at Teal.  “The Sheffields– they’re offering a million!  A whole million! The Purcells are nothing compared to the Sheffields.”

Teal yelled in rage and threw himself at Rong.  The man had no time to bring his weapon to bear on Teal before the captain was on him.  He fired another shot, but it missed Teal and caroomed off one of the bulkheads.

Old training kicked in for Teal; without thinking he batted the gun out of Rong’s hand, then drove punches into the man that first stole his wind, and then his life.  Rong’s body fell over Mann’s and lay still.

Teal, panting, sensed rather than saw Maria in the mess’ open hatch.  “He’s ruined us!” he said, his hands clenched in unspent fury. “Ruined us!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria said, “it probably depends on your point of view.”

Something slammed into Teal.  It threw him into the bulkhead.  He slid down, slumped against the compartment wall.  He couldn’t move; the stink of burnt flesh rose up into his nostrils.

“What…?” he gasped.

Maria came amd loomed over him, the quantifier in her hands crackling with residual heat.  “The Sheffields– what a joke. The Voronovs will pay far more. And it will all be mine.” Maria lifted the quantifier.


Maria reset the jump destination.  It would take a week to reach the Voronov base where she was to meet her contact– a long ride in an empty ship.  To top it off, she found she was actually sorry that Teal would not have understood why she had to do this. It would have been better with the two of them.

However, three million Consortiums bought a lot of consolation.  

Maria sat back in the command chair, contemplating her future.  She smiled. It was indeed time to examine opportunities on the far side of the Volume.   

Star Wars! They’re sucking me back in! Nooooo……!

Some months ago I expressed extreme doubt about the new Star Wars film, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, in large measure because of the involvement of J. J. Abrams, against whom I harbor several filmic grudges. I am ready to admit, of course, that some of my antipathy may be defensive in nature, in that I don’t want to be hurt again by a lousy Star Wars sequel. My previous rant cannot be characterized as an objective assessment– oh, no, no, no….

But now here’s the new trailer for Episode VII–

Now, you really, really can’t judge a movie by its trailer. A minute and a half to two minutes of what’s often a film’s best bits, pasted together to sell the movie, rather than tell the story, can be a powerful and emotional experience. Plenty of movie trailers are actually better than the movies (Interstellar comes to mind).

Having said that, this trailer leaves me short of breath.

Storm Troopers and light-sabers, X-Wings and desert worlds, crashed Star Destroyers and, oh, man, the Millenium Falcon and Chewbacca and Han Solo. Somebody knows how to push my buttons.

Oh, and did I mention John Williams? Do I need to?

Grrr…I can feel myself getting sucked in. The old dream stirs, the old hope revives. Which means, at the very least, the trailer is doing its job.

I need to be strong, and not give in to the gibbering fan-boy within. I resolve to approach this film with caution, gather reviews, evaluate the situation. There will be no camping in line for opening night.

But…if it so happens, crow just might taste pretty good in this case….

We shall see.

It’s ALIVE!!!– well, almost….

I have been a little delayed actually creating the hard-copy of Princess of Fire for my line-edit. In trying to tidy it up before printing I realized that there were a couple of remaining gaps, and, more critically, that the action at a particular point in the story had all the tension of a well-cooked noodle. I took a few days to try to ratchet the suspense, and while I’m not yet perfectly happy with the solution, it’s good enough for me push on ahead.

And here it is–



and, what the heck, a sample page–


(My apologies for the picture quality– my digital camera is lousy, not to mention bad).

The trick of printing the manuscript out in landscape, arranged in two columns with a smaller font than the final draft, is a trick I learned years ago in my over-the-transom days, to save both ink and paper. Makes it a little more convenient carrying it on the bus, as well.

The hard-copy edit has always been important to me– for some reason I catch most of my weak grammar and cliches here. Reading it through in hard copy also helps me locate and think about remaining weak spots.

It’s also a clear sign that I am making real progress toward the final product. That’s always a serious morale booster.

Now all I have to do is locate my red pen….

The Noise of Distant Battle

I have been watching, from something of a distance, the controversy over the Hugo nominations for this year. The nominees are largely, if not wholly, composed of a slate put together by right-wing fans. I’ve read a number of articles and plowed through a certain amount of angry comments, but I think Chuck Wendig, once again, has a very useful perspective on the whole business; Damien Walter, on the other hand, points out that much of the motivation behind the slate of nominees may not, in the end, actually have a lot to do with science fiction or fantasy.

In the process of my reading I came across this, which was reblogged on Goggle+ :

Here’s a pertinent quote–

“The Sad Puppies have struck a blow for creative and intellectual freedom. But their campaign is just one part of a wider movement against the forces of the authoritarian left, whose allies are decreasing by the day. Whether they are called CHORFs, SJWs or Stepford Students, authoritarians, finger-waggers, bullies and panic-mongers are facing a backlash across dozens of fronts as the defiant spirit of GamerGate floods into other fandoms.”

Wow. Come the Jubilee, huh?

Except I’m wondering what it is exactly these guys are celebrating. Many commenters on Chuck’s post and others, as well as the i09 article, point out that what the Sad Puppies campaign has effectively done is destroy the Hugos, all in order to count some dubious Culture War coup. Henceforth, unless something changes, the Hugos will be nothing but a battleground for competing, politically motivated slates of nominees.

Here’s my thought– meh.

For all the sturm und drang, the Hugos, in my opinion, may just not be that relevant. I, personally, have not paid attention to them in years (decades, in fact). They’re a fan award that has no major influence on my reading or book-buying habits. And I suspect this is true nowadays for the vast majority of sci-fi and fantasy fans. There are, doubtless, millions of SFF consumers who’ve never heard of the Hugos. As others have pointed out (see Chuck’s post again), fandom is far larger than the Worldcon and Hugo voters.

A point in support this assertion– when you look at the number of ballots cast this year for each Hugo category, you realize that we’re talking about small numbers (e.g., “BEST NOVELETTE (1031 ballots)”) when you compare them to the total number of Worldcon memberships, and exceedingly tiny when compared to the total number of people worldwide who read science fiction and fantasy on a regular basis. The Sad Puppies complain that the Hugos have lately been nominated by a tiny clique, and, ironically, they’ve just proven it. And it’s just about as valid when they do it as it is when any other tiny group does. In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right.

In the end, the triumphalism of the Sad Puppies seems to me as empty as that of a World War I army celebrating the capture of a few dozen yards of enemy trench line. They’ve paid a high price for not much, and, in the final analysis, it won’t change a whole lot. The diversification of SFF against which they rail is largely a reflection of the diversification of Western society, and no amount of right-wing posturing and coup-counting is going change that.

Thanks be to God.

Princess of Fire– A light has dawned, a weight has been lifted….

The second draft of Princess of Fire, both Pass One and Pass Two, is finished. It is now a complete story, without major gaps or substantial narrative inconsistencies. One or two minor timeline issues remain, a couple of small pieces of business need to be added, and the location of a particular minor character in the narrative needs to be resolved. But this is the point at which (I think) a reader could go through the whole story and not be thrown out of the narrative by gaps or incongruities. To put it another way, I would not terribly shy about letting an editor see it in this state. That is, if I had an editor. All I’ve really got is me.

Is the story ready for publication? Not on your dog-eared copy of Strunk and White (at least, I hope you have a dog-eared copy of Strunk and White). Now comes the very close and intensive line edit, which I do with a hard copy. This is where I cut the extraneous and resolve the little consistencies and stupidities– for example, the fact that a character is named George in Chapter 2 and Fred in Chapter 5. The hard copy line edit is where I screw down my prose those last few millimeters. It’s where I will catch those pesky “felt”‘s and other bits of vague language, as well as sentence structures that would leave a Byzantine confused.

Will Princess of Fire be ready when the line edit is complete? Negatory. I have a couple of more filters to run the novel through, including my beta-readers, before I call it finalized. But I’m a long step closer now.

Now that I can see the definite outline of the book’s final form, a question comes to mind– is the novel any good? After all this long, long struggle, is it readable, enjoyable, decent?

Beats the crap out of me.

Writers are generally not the best critics of their own work. We understand the gap between what was in our head and what is on the page. Sometimes that gap is considerable. Hardly anyone ever gets 100% of their original concept on paper.

Princess of Fire, at the moment, feels to be about 55 to 60% of what I originally had in mind. There do seem to be some pretty good bits here, but I can’t judge how engaging it will be to a reader who isn’t me. Maybe I can tweak this puppy up another 5 to 10%. But it’s a truism that even successful novels are, to some degree, imperfect.

One thing that I will not try to do, however, is attempt to leverage the story toward perfection. That way lies bankruptcy and madness. Just one example– George Lucas came close to destroying the original Star Wars trilogy with his special and super-special editions, which basically boiled down to him second-guessing himself. The end result was weaker, not stronger, than the original.

At some point, a writer has to call a halt. Someone (and I’ve seen this attributed to several different individuals) said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. At some point I will stop tweaking Princess of Fire and publish, and then move on to another imperfect project. This is just the way it is.

Not yet, however– there’s lots of work left to do. But this book is definitely, by the grace of God, coming together.


Progress report– Princess of Fire, ELO and the quest for inspiration

Princess of Fire is now at 130,000 words, a little below the pace I wanted to set, but not by much. The effective total word count is probably several thousand words less than that, because I’ve found some redundant material that needs to be cut. I haven’t started that process yet, however, so I’m going with 130,000 for the time being.

My best guess that I have one complete chapter and parts of two others left to do, perhaps 10,000 words, perhaps some more. The operative word there is ‘guess’, but I am, thank God, getting close.

One aspect of my writing process is that I frequently listen to music while writing. Somehow providing a soundtrack to my narrative composition seems to enhance it. I am not sure what the exact mechanism is, if the music inspires me to push harder, or if there is some sort of creative synergy in my brain between the words and the music, but it seems to help.

Sometimes it’s not easy to understand exactly how a certain piece of music enhances my writing; a casual observer might wonder how a pop-rock tune from the ’70’s relates to a science-fiction novel set in the 21st Century. But for this last push that’s exactly what I have been doing– I have been listening to a lot of Electric Light Orchestra, which is a large part of the soundtrack of my youth. For example, “Telephone Line”–

and “Do Ya”–

both of which have been helping me push through some intense scenes (flames, ash falling from the sky, Kathy facing down an angry mob by herself– the usual stuff. Poor kid). How they help me, though, is something of a mystery.

Some other stuff I listen to is a little more straightforward–

And, yes, I really lean toward the epic.

There are a few pieces, though, that I find so powerful that I have to save them for very special occasions. One of these is Patrick Cassidy’s “Funeral March”–

So far I have only used this to help write the little bit of Princess of Stars I’ve gotten down to-date– it’s just too intense for daily use.

I know other writers use music to inspire them, so I’m not a complete oddball. If anyone cares to share their writing soundtracks, or the other inspirational tricks they’ve developed to help grease the creative wheels, I would be really interested to hear about them.

A few thoughts on “John Carter” and the horror of marketing

When I first saw the trailer for the movie John Carter in 2011, and realized it was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, I was seriously jazzed–

The trailers for the movie have been severely criticized (more about that later) as not really conveying the fact that the movie is an adaptation of APoM, but personally (perhaps because I knew the story) it gave me the shivers. I looked forward to seeing it.

While waiting for the movie’s debut, though, I began to hear rumors that the production was troubled. Among other things, the budget appeared to be out of control, coming in at $250 million. A movie generally has to make double its production cost to achieve profitability, so that goal was frighteningly difficult for John Carter to reach from the start. And then there was the puzzling fact of the name, which does not mention ‘Mars’ or ‘Barsoom’ or anything else to clue people into the fact that this is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars.

Then the movie came out, and many critics savaged it. That, and the thumbs-down the movie received from a couple of trusted friends, caused me to give the movie a pass, with regrets. I filed it away as yet another failed adaptation of a beloved book, and moved on.

Years passed. A week ago I happened to be in my local library, perusing DVD’s, when I spotted John Carter on the shelf and decided What the heck, I’m not paying for it. (Public libraries are one of humanity’s greatest inventions, right up there with fire and dark chocolate malted milk balls).

Let me say this about myself– while I am often willing to give a film the benefit of the doubt, particularly adaptations of well-known books, I have pretty good turkey-detection capabilities, honed by decades of watching a lot of bad science-fiction, such as Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Starship Invasions (yes, I sat through Starship Invasions. Give me a break, I was a kid). When I watch a film I usually get a sense about its quality fairly quickly.

(spoilers, spoilers, I mean it, SPOILERS!)

When I sat down to watch John Carter, I quickly realized that to me it didn’t look or feel like a turkey– at no point did it set off my alarms. On the contrary, I found myself quickly enjoying the story. Perhaps it helped that my initial expectations were low, and that I had a willingness to allow the movie to be its own thing. But a lot of John Carter just seemed to work for me.

The production values were excellent– more than that, director Andrew Stanton (a Pixar stalwart associated with Finding Nemo and WALL-E) really managed to convey a powerful sense of Barsoom (Mars) as a dying world, with civilizations in their final decadence. While the story varies from the source material in many ways, in other ways it seemed faithful– the aerial vessels of Helium and Zodanga powerfully evoke the books, as does the character design for the green-skinned, six-limbed Tharks. In fact, in at least one respect, the movie is too faithful for my taste (more about that later).

Lynn Collins is superb as Dejah Thoris (in so many ways, and I’m just gonna leave it at that), and if there were an Oscar category for Best Performance Behind a CGI Animation, Willem Dafoe would have won for Tars Tarkas. Collins and Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) seem to have good chemistry– some fans complained the romance between them was rushed, but it did not overly impress me as such. There is a nice balance of humor and drama through most of the film. Personally, I know I enjoyed a film when parts of it stay with me afterwards, and such is the case with John Carter.

The film is not perfect– the expositional prologue is clunky, some of the emotional notes the movie hits are heavy-handed, and the climatic battle, where the Tharks and Helium unite to defeat the Zodangans and their Thern masters, seems a bit formulaic. Worst of all (for me, anyway), there is a Earth-side framing story that was completely distracting and unnecessary.

This is where the movie was too faithful to the book. Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was neither a scientist nor an engineer, writing for serialization in 1911, apparently could not think of any way to get John Carter to Barsoom other than by a sort of lame astral projection in which he appears to die on Earth and lives on Mars. That story element irritated me when I was thirteen, and it irritates me now– although I suppose I should give ERB a small break, since in 1911 even scientists and engineers would have been pretty fuzzy on how to travel to Mars. But for a kid who grew up watching Saturn 5 launches and cut his teeth on fictional warp-drives and star-gates, Burroughs’ means of interplanetary transportation left a lot to be desired.

In John Carter Stanton remained faithful to this feature of the original story, and in fact works pretty hard at rationalizing it– the story posits the existence of an advanced interplanetary transporter, which creates a living copy of a being on the destination world, while leaving the original in suspended animation at the point of origin. John Carter’s consciousness is active in his Barsoom copy, while his Earth-bound body lies in a cave in Arizona– and if one body dies, the other dies. As a rationalization it’s pretty clever.

I still hate it. In my opinion it would have been simpler to just put in interplanetary gates, and lose the framing story, which would have saved fifteen to twenty minutes of film time and remove an unnecessary plot complication.

Having said that, the interplanetary transporter is tied to a nifty sub-plot Stanton introduces (I know, one complication out, another in), which I do not recall from the original books. The Therns, who are manipulating the leader of Zodanga to do their bidding, are apparently immortal interplanetary parasites, who ‘feed’ off the dying of worlds. It is established early on that they are perfectly capable of moving between worlds, including Barsoom and Earth, and that they have their own nefarious designs on our ocean-gifted world. This creates a deeper sense of peril for John Carter– in a sense he’s not just fighting for Dejah Thoris, but for humanity. Personally I found this added element really appealing from a story standpoint, and it would provide a dandy unifying plot element, should there ever be any sequels.

On the whole, the movie impressed me. Sadly, however, it appears unlikely that there will be other films in the near future. In the final analysis, for whatever reason, the film badly under-performed on it’s initial release, not coming close to clearing the $500 to $600 million it needed to be called profitable. Nearly three years later there appear to be no plans to launch a John Carter 2, and most of the principals, especially Andrew Stanton, appear to have moved on– all of which I find regrettable.

After watching the film I did some belated research and found that there is a sharp division among fans about the value of John Carter, with some reviling it as unfaithful to the book and others declaring their undying allegiance (a division rather reminiscent of the Man of Steel controversy). I also found that there has been a considerable amount of discussion of the film as a failure of marketing rather than production. As Michael Sellers, author of John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood put it, this movie was “a box-office flop, but not a turkey” (his book is now on my short list for future reading). The question of the film’s title alone raises issues about what was going on in the marketing department at Disney.

This thought has a certain resonance with me. Marketing, it seems, is emerging as the new choke-point for all kinds of creative endeavors. Getting the film-goer/viewer/reader’s attention seems to be increasingly difficult in a world that is flooded with entertainment and informational options. Certainly my own failure marketing my novels on Kindle has brought this point home. In the case of John Carter, it appears (although I need to do more reading on this subject) that many fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs did not know the film existed until after its run, while people unfamiliar with the Barsoom stories thought John Carter was a derivative rip-off of Star Wars(!), when in fact it’s the other way around.

The depressing thought for me in this is that if Disney, with millions of dollars available to market their product, can blow it, what chance do I have? On the other hand, if my marketing fails– and it has– I know where the problem lies. The fault is mine. There is no circular firing squad at Doug Daniel Productions. And it’s up to me to find a remedy.

I am also belatedly sad about this movie. When I thought it was a turkey it was just a missed opportunity. Now that I see that some good work went into realizing a believable world with some genuine entertainment value, it is a sadly missed opportunity. I know how hard it is to write a novel– producing a major film is orders of magnitude more difficult, and it is heartbreaking when it fails to win an audience, apparently for reasons that have little to do with its quality. Perhaps, in time, the movie will get the recognition it deserves.

Meanwhile, I will definitely read John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. Perhaps I can learn a thing or two about what to avoid in marketing a story. Failure, yours or others’, is a powerful teacher.

Oh, and I will be buying the DVD. I want this movie in my library. ‘Nuff said.


PS– no sooner did I post this, than I came across this announcement–

Whoa– I don’t usually experience this level of synchronicity. A very interesting development….

A brief, short and otherwise very nearly insignificant update on my progress with Princess of Fire (certainly in the cosmic scheme of things)

I am now back over 84,000 words on Princess of Fire. This means that I have recovered somewhat more than half (very approximately) of the 30,000 words (in round numbers) I cut during the Great Prose Massacre. That still means I am still short of completing this draft by probably about another 30,000 words– the road does seem to lengthen as I travel it. Nevertheless, I am encouraged.

My latest sticking point seems to be psychological– not my psychology (at least, not directly) but the psychology of certain of my characters. Kathy is in the position of having to induce the cooperation of government ministers and bureaucrats in dealing with an approaching crisis, and getting tremendous push-back and passive resistance in the process. My problem is that I have been finding it difficult to get into the heads of these government paper-pushers– I basically do not understand the mentality of people who close their eyes to impending doom because the action required to prevent the danger interferes with their prerogatives or daily business. Certainly, of course, we have no shortage of examples of this sort of blindness in people, from Pompeii to 911. It’s just I have trouble getting into their skin.

I think I finally got a clue, though, when the minister of the Imperial Railways said, in response to Kathy’s threat to seize trains as they arrived in the capitol, “But we have schedules to keep!”

Ah, schedules– and routines, and procedures, and red-tape– the tyranny of daily business. In truth, it consumes most of us, for most of our lives. For some people, it becomes their god. Even for normal folk, it makes it hard to think outside the box when something novel threatens. So I think I’ve found my key to these people. It’s nice when that sort of thing emerges from the interaction of the characters on the page

It is nearly October, and at this point perhaps the most realistic estimate for the completion of the first draft of Princess of Fire would be January. Add three months on that for straightening out the narrative, editing, formatting, etc., to get it ready for publication. March or April 2015 would be about one and a half years from the publication of Princess of Shadows. That’s a lot longer than I originally intended, but a novel “will be done when it’s done“. Thank you, George.

Suspension of disbelief and its limits

My recent post on The Guardians of the Galaxy got me to thinking about a part of story-telling that gets mentioned every now and then, but which (it occurs to me) is actually extremely critical, in any genre, anywhere, anytime. I’m talking about the reader/viewer/listener’s suspension of disbelief.

I’m not sure this is talked about a lot in writing classes, and I hardly ever heard about it in the various writing groups I’ve been associated with over the years- at least, by its full name. Many times, however, readers would say to me, “That just threw me right out of the story.” In other words, something about the narrative prevented the reader from suspending their disbelief in the fictional world I presented to them.

Suspension of disbelief– the ability to say “I am going to temporarily accept the baseline premises of a fictional universe in order to enter into that world and enjoy the sensation that the world is real and happening now.” That’s a little long-winded, but I think it covers all the bases.

Here’s the point– suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader/viewer/listener is essential to the story’s success. Without it, without the implicit agreement between the story-teller and the recipient of the story that they are going to pretend, for just this moment, that this fictional universe is real, the recipient of the story cannot enter into the tale, and cannot enjoy it. Period.

And this is true for all fictional endeavors. Science-fiction and fantasy have to work harder than some other genres to achieve suspension of disbelief, but SoD is in operation in every sort of narrative story, because it permeates every critical aspect of a story– world, characterization, action. If Jane Austen had written Lizzie Benet in Pride and Prejudice as her independent self in one chapter and a compliant mouse in the next, her readers would have said, “This threw me out of the story” (or early 19th Century words to that effect)– in other words, they would have been unable to suspend disbelief.

In an important sense, this was what I was complaining about in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy— there were moments (thankfully not that many) that threatened my suspension of disbelief. That giant head, for instance, for me just doesn’t work as an object in a science-fiction story– my brain starts gnawing away at questions like how is it possible to have a giant organism in space, and how are the bodily components of a giant space alien valuable? etc., all of which immediately interfere with my enjoyment of the story. The head violates what I assumed were the basic premises of the story.

Failure to maintain SoD is a threat to the very success of a story. Do it too often, or to too great a degree, and the audience turns off the television, walks out of the theater, throws the book across the room. Worse, the disappointed are likely to spread poisonous word of mouth– Yeah, that book/movie/show sucked, it made no sense. Not making sense to a reader or viewer is the kiss of death.

Or it should be. However, suspension of disbelief is actually a personal thing. Elements of a story that might absolutely destroy the experience for me might go completely unnoticed by others. It is, in fact, a factor of personal taste.

Which brings me to this–

In ordinary circumstances, the thought of a new Mad Max/Road Warrior movie would leave this particular fan-boy gibbering with delighted anticipation. Watching this trailer, however, fills me with dread. The original Road Warrior had a simple, gritty sensibility, which was actually enhanced by its low-low-low budget. Among other things, its effects and stunts had to be practical and guaranteed not to kill anybody. This gave it more verisimilitude than you would have expected from a stark description of the film (post-apocalyptic survivors fight over gasoline).

This film, on the other hand, looks like a badly-made video game– overblown, filled with explosions, hurtling cars, hurtling bodies, and pieces of action that either seem to violate basic Newtonian physics or just not make any sense (people on poles? Why?). It looks as if George Miller, now that he’s George Freakin’ Miller, is bathing in money, and has thrown most of it at this production. But to me, it is the apparently nonsensical and over-the-top action that has already set my SoD to trembling. To my eyes, the action doesn’t look plausible– and, as a consequence, I will hesitate to dive into this particular film experience without at least seeing a goodly number of reviews. Lots of reviews. And I sure as taxes will not be camping out at the Cineplex waiting for opening day.

Of course, judging a movie by its trailer is probably even more problematic than judging a book by its cover. This movie may yet redeem itself to me. But here’s where the part about SoD being an expression of personal taste comes into play. This movie will doubtless make buckets of money, because, quite simply, there seem to be an incredible number of people nowadays who, in my opinion, are undiscriminating action junkies who will watch anything with a sufficient number of very large explosions and/or fast moving objects. Think Fast and Furious or Transformers. We’re talking about people for whom, apparently, no explosion is too big, no piece of action too outlandish. People whose SoD, it seems, has acquired a nearly infinite elasticity. As a consequence, classics like The Road Warrior are betrayed by junk sequels, and movies (and story-telling in general) are left all the poorer.

I seem to have slipped over into a rant. I will therefore stop here, leave poor Max alone, and just come to my point. Suspension of disbelief is one of the absolutely critical elements of the story-telling art. Not pushing your readers or viewers into disbelief, not breaking that implicit contract with them to create a plausible world, is essential. Every creator of a narrative needs to pay attention to it.

Unless you want your story to feel like an overblown cartoon.

‘Nuff said. Later.

Science fiction doldrums, or a sign of age….

…but doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat
in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.

Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing

When I was young– I think Gerald Ford was president– I was an omnivore for science-fiction books and movies. As a teenager I was known to read through entire sci-fi sections of local libraries, and demand more. I would read anything sci-fi, and watch almost anything that appeared to be science-fiction cinema or TV. In the process I read a lot of trashy sci-fi, along with classics many sci-fi fans today have never heard of (how many thirteen-year-olds nowadays have read through Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy? Just saying….), and watched a lot of turkey movies and TV shows, even Space 1999 and UFO, which, at the very least, sharpened my critical faculties.

Doubtless this hunger was driven (in part, at least) by the desert-like conditions of my natal culture, which revolved around westerns and country music. There is only so much Bonanza and Gunsmoke a youngster can watch before there’s a reaction. Perhaps an adolescent rebellion button was pushed, as well, since most of the people around me considered anything sci-fi to be (in the words of my father) “weird stuff”. You have to say it with a Texas accent to get the full flavor.

At the same, there was a genuine love the genre, and where good science-fiction could take me. Unlike my siblings, my imagination flew high and fast with Andre Norton, Heinlein and Asimov, just to name three out of so many. One hour of Star Trek— which I was mostly forbidden to watch in its first run, because it would “warp my brain” (another of my father’s declarations)– charged me like a battery. Even “Spock’s Brain”.

But, over the years, the voracious appetite faded. Doubtless this was inevitable– as we grow older we become more aware of what is good and what is bad, of what works and what doesn’t. But, for me, I seem to lost my ability to suspend judgment of a book I haven’t read. I have, in fact, become enormously picky.

The fact that the genre appears to be in the doldrums doesn’t help. When I go into a major bookstore or the book section of a large store like Target, I see shelf upon shelf of lookalike books– vampires, werewolves, undead, teenage girls with special powers, video game tie-in novels, and usually three or four space-opera series that feature some grim-faced person in a uniform on the cover, along with exploding starships. Everyone seems bent on creating endless imitations of The Hunger Games, or Divergent, or Starship Troopers (only with oodles of sex), or…. you get the picture.

Fantasy is even worse. It used to be that everyone tried to imitate Tolkien. Now everyone is trying to imitate George R. R. Martin. Or Twilight, God help us all (that alone could be a sign that our civilization is crumbling before our eyes).

There is good sci-fi out there– people like John Scalzi and Connie Willis often capture my attention. But they seem few and far between these days.

I still love the genre, but I nowadays find fewer and fewer things to get really excited about. I suggested that the genre is in the doldrums, but I have to admit that it could be, just as much, or as easily, me. For, like Benedick in Much Ado, I have to admit that my tastes, in my old age, may just be changing.

There is, in fact, some evidence of that. I have been seen reading Ragtime and The March by E. L. Doctorow. I just read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time ever. The one fiction series that has managed to capture and hold my interest in recent years has been Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series, in which I have a tremendous store of great writing.

There is even a rumor that I have a copy of Pride and Prejudice in the house.

In truth, I was never exclusively a reader of just science-fiction. I read The Thin Red Line at fourteen and War and Peace at sixteen. I have always loved Shakespeare, and I had a long John D. MacDonald period some years back. My focus, though, for a very long time, was on science-fiction and fantasy, and I’m beginning to suspect that I missed some good stuff. Belatedly, I am starting to redress the deficit.

I’m not giving up on fantasy and science-fiction, but I’m looking to balance out my fictional travels. And maybe I will find as much adventure in Jane Austen as in Robert Heinlein. Just with more tea and less powered-armor….

Lizzie Bennet in powered-armor…wait a minute….