Characters and neat pictures

Characters and neat pictures

I recently posted a picture of my head-casting for Jire on Twitter and figured I’d put up some of the other reference pictures that I’ve got floating around just for fun. While the images you guys might’ve had are probably different, that’s OK. There’s not really a definitive version of anything since there aren’t any official illustrations in any of my books (yet). Here goes.

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Sydney Park is Jire now.

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Credit: BricksandStones

A resounding clatter rang through the valley, as bright and clear as the sun that shone on them from a gap in the towering mountains to the east. Seeing Matthieu’s alarm, Leopold rode up to him and settled his horse to a walk at his side.

“Do you see those bell towers there on the peaks?” Following Leopold’s pointing finger, Matthieu could almost make out one of the stone structures that dominated the pass. “For over four hundred years they have stood watch over us; now, they herald our return. Welcome, Matthieu Sartonné, to the Wonderful City.”

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Credit: Emmatyan

“It does not start with you, your father, or your grandfather. Rather, it starts with my sister, Greta Frandt. We were at the time both younger than you are now. She was the most delicate thing you ever laid eyes on. Tender in feeling and of such a bright countenance as to melt a frozen stream.”

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Credit: pingallery

The cathedral and its proud dome had stood for hundreds of years, a memorial to the city’s patron saint and a gathering place for all the land’s faithful; to discover that it moldered, a broken shell, was a loss like that of a loved one.

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Credit: wyldraven

“Are you ready?” he inquired. “This will be quite cold,” Matthieu said as he bore her from the rocks to the rippling water. Finding a small hollow carved in a large boulder with smaller stones beside it, he knelt and laid Heide in front of him.

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Credit: Gaia Gandolfo

When he entered the great hall, the first thing that struck him was the sight of Lord Leopold seated on a dais at Lord Garrand’s right hand, looking much more the nobleman he truly was than the beggar he had seemed in Fleidt. Clothed in his finery and wild hair now cropped neatly, the man’s uncommon bearing even in prison was no longer surprising.

Now some random ones that aren’t things mentioned specifically in anything but just look neat.

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Credit: merl1ncz

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Credit: JonathanDufresne

I also rarely ever go on Tumblr but Medieval PoC is one of the more interesting ones I’ve found. Check it out for good examples of depictions of non-white people in medieval European and Renaissance art. Turns out there’s a whole bunch. Granted, most of these are some variation on the Adoration of the Magi, since Balthazar is traditionally shown to be black (just like John the Beloved is usually shown without facial hair, or dogs symbolize fidelity) and the rest often specify that the African characters are either pages or merchants. The latter make a lot of sense, since the Roman Empire had trade and marriage relationships with states as far away as Nubia and China so of course there would be people from those places looking to make a buck.

Costs of travel would be a kind of filter for who entered European life and therefore who got depicted in art. Non-white pages and servants would be there as a result of later colonial enterprises, especially with so many Africans living in various forms of servitude in both the New and Old Worlds. Asian presence in Europe also increased around the same time, as European kingdoms treated with rulers in Island Southeast Asia to work out trade deals for spices, slaves, and sea products. It makes me wonder if this filter contributed to the Orientalist notion that Asia was a land of magnificent riches in addition to its exotic customs and people, since the only Asians the average European ever saw were probably merchants or ambassadors.

Sort of the reverse situation occurred in Southeast Asia, where most of the Christians and Muslims encountered by Malay rulers were merchants, and so the assumption seemed to enter the region that Christians and Muslims were all rich. There are some prosperity gospel threads to pull out of that one, since the connection was made even then (16th and 17th centuries) that since it looked like the Christians and Muslims were all rich, they must have some extra special connection to the divine to be rewarded with wealth. What the Malay rulers didn’t see, of course, was all the Christian and Muslim peasants back home who weren’t any more well off than the Malay peasants.

Stuff to think about. In the meantime, enjoy the art.

Here’s the deal: A Land of Promise

I should say first that this isn’t Expanse fan fiction. Rather, it’s a story idea that I’d had for a while in an original universe but only recently finished. It originally just centered on a retiree who colonizes his own planet, partially for fun but also just because he’s a bitter and rich old man looking essentially to stick it to the world. That last part didn’t really change over time, but The Expanse really helped me push the idea into a new direction.

All this talk of space Mormons made me want to address the concept from an insider’s perspective, more so than I’ve already done elsewhere. The big questions would be the kind of issues that would come up for a real space Mormon who wanted to leave the system behind for good. There are reasons why I personally don’t think this would be likely in the real world, mostly related to the belief that Jesus is coming to Earth (as opposed to any other planet) soon, which means that leaving would logically be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Of course, that’s no fun if everyone just decides to stick around, so I turned this story into a proxy for exploring a situation that The Expanse only really addresses in a cursory manner. Basically, can someone who’s grown up in a tradition known for separating itself from the rest of society ever really leave that past behind, even when everyone around him is telling him that leaving is wrong?

An update of sorts

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these things, so I figured I’d do one now. Here we go. So first things first, I’m working on getting Jire beta-read in preparation for putting it up for sale on Amazon. If you haven’t checked that one out yet, it’s set in the same universe as The Default King but takes place much later in a different location. The connections will be made more clear in time, though there should be enough clues for someone who paid attention to Kaschar’s Quarter to figure out more of what’s going on. That being said, you don’t have to read any of my other stories to understand it. For now at least, this is the only appearance that those characters make and there aren’t any direct connections plot-wise between the two stories. What I do want, though, is for a hypothetical someone out there who may one day read everything I’ve written to be able to say “hey, I finally figured this thing out!” Basically, it’s just leaving a bunch of little easter eggs around for nobody in particular and hoping that I’m not the only one who ever finds them amusing.

The next thing on my mind is if I want to use my free cover art that I made for Jire or commission an original cover. Yeah yeah, self-published authors are pariahs and scumbags who use free stuff and expect to get paid for it, blah blah blah. And yes, I read this Chuck Wendig post too. I largely agree with him about the more grievous graphic design signs which the self-publishing domain is heir to, but I’m also trying to be money-conscious here. That doesn’t mean that I’m broke, but rather that I’m aware of the investment level I’d need to get commissioned art and what that then means I’ll need to recoup to call the investment successful. I also don’t think I’m going too wrong with using artwork I know to be 1.) good quality and 2.) free. Thanks, Getty!

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That is my mock-up, soon to be the real thing unless I find a good deal on a portrait artist who can deliver something to my specifications and budget. I am admittedly picky with art and I blame AP European History.

Also, another reason that I’m balking at commissioning what will likely be a $100-200 e-book cover is that Jire won’t appear in print on its own. The plan for now is to wait until I have more shorter pieces in this same universe (many of which are planned) to bundle them together in a print edition for around $10. I see an awful lot of self-published authors charging in the $12-20 range for their printed books and given that the only time I’ll pay that much for a book is if it’s by James SA Corey and/or has lots of pretty pictures, I try to keep my prices down. That and I know my market share is not much larger than my mom’s book club and some other intrepid self-publishers I’ve encountered on the internet, so I’ve decided to keep my prices down. One fewer barrier to entry. The point is that I’m trying to stay realistic about my ability to earn back what I’d pay on cover art, knowing that if I commission ten separate pieces now, I’ll have to earn that much back plus whatever I’d spend for cover art on the anthology. That kind of math just doesn’t work in the favor of what’ll end up being a 13k-word novelette, unless of course it exceeds all my wildest expectations, sells a bajillion copies, and catapults me into a world of literary stardom. Sure, and the Cubs will win the World Series. Oh wait, they just did? Then… ummm the Diamondbacks will win the World Series. I’ll just cry myself to sleep in the meantime waiting for both, or I could keep working on other stuff instead.

The other stuff, of course, includes The Default King Book Two. It’s chugging along but don’t count on a release this year. My target is next April, though this depends on how hard grad school wants to hit me over the next two semesters. Other things on my plate at the moment include a sci-fi story that’ll pretty much be adventures in body horror, another one about a space Mormon, and finishing The Ryosh within something even vaguely resembling a reasonable time frame.

I try to keep myself busy.

Inkitt Deleted My Account, and Other Forms of Nefarious Vanity Press Skullduggery

Inkitt Deleted My Account, and Other Forms of Nefarious Vanity Press Skullduggery

I joined Inkitt on May 23rd, 2015. I know this because after they deleted my account, I started feeling a little retrospective and wanted to verify just how long I’d given that site a chance before they decided to pull the plug. Also, I want to show that I wasn’t just some recent fly-by who’s salty because they only entered one contest and didn’t win. I had eight or nine stories on there, the most popular having a little over 1000 reads and the others somewhere between 50-200. Not that I can check that anymore, since my analytics are gone with the account, but it should go to show that I was in there for a good while and gave it a pretty good shot, in my opinion.

With that established, let’s get to the goods. Inkitt, as some of you may know, is a story publishing site similar to WattPad or FanFiction, if not in how the site operates but in that it’s ostensibly a community of writers and readers. I say ostensibly because, as some of you may also know, a lot of Inkitt’s fame in the e-publishing world has come from both its spamming and being labeled a spammer (Exhibits A, BC, and D, with the last one coming from the venerable Queryshark). Whether it’s promos for stories they host or “publication offers” that turn out to be popularity contests, the site has certainly been getting its name out there and not always in a good way.

Instead of just repeating what these articles say and calling it a blog post, I’ll give you guys some insight into experiences had by both former employees who wish to remain anonymous due to the negative experiences they had whilst employed at Inkitt and myself to complement what’s already been said.

First off, as a now-former Inkitt old-timer, let me just say that the site used to be pretty pleasant. The community was well-managed and active, the contests were varied and frequent, and even though the promise of publication was still just off in the distance, there was no reason for users like myself to really suspect that things would take a turn. However, they certainly did that. I don’t know if I can pinpoint a day when this happened since it felt fairly gradual, but it did happen. What changed was a shift away from short story contests to ones accepting only novel-length works. The forums, which used to be so full of discussion, turned into nothing but endless promos as writers were now hesitant to help each other in the contests, which were won by votes and page views instead of using human editors. The Inkitt Academia board, the only one immune to endless promos, got shut down after its moderator was dismissed. With other employees who were instrumental in running community affairs either quitting or getting fired, celebrity endorsements (they once sponsored a fanfic contest with Alan Tudyk, naked Paul Bettany not included) and AMAs dried up overnight. What we were left with was a popularity contest masquerading as a golden ticket to publishing superstardom.

Now here’s where I explain how this superstardom was pitched. In the new contests for novel-length manuscripts, the way to win was to reach 100 “reserved copies”, each representing a user who actively read your book. Once your book reaches this cutoff, something Inkitt always refers to as “the algorithm” takes over. While it’s apparently a trade secret, I suspect that this is just a hyped-up page view counter. Because the system is operating on pure numbers instead of being read by judges, you can imagine that it’d be pretty easy to game it, especially if you already have a significant fanbase from another website. Keep in mind that this was the goal of the spam emails and Tweets mentioned in the articles above: to poach writers who were already popular on other platforms with the promise of publication through Inkitt.

So let’s say you win the contest. According to Inkitt’s publishing guidelines, they’ll then shop your story around to traditional publishing houses in an effort to score a contract with themselves as the agent. The site then takes a 15% of net royalties, which is about standard for a literary agent. At least that was how the two StoryPeak and StoryPeak2 contests worked, because everything after The Novelist drops any mention of a traditional publishing deal, probably because they knew they couldn’t promise one anymore. This is important, because Inkitt still markets itself as a publisher, when the actual publishing is (or at least was) intended to be outsourced.

This is where things take a turn from their optimistic pitch. Of all the winners Inkitt’s had so far, none have been published traditionally. What’s happened instead is that Inkitt self-publishes the winners as e-books in Amazon KDP. Having gone this route before, I’m quite familiar with how this works and can explain it fairly well. So in the KDP interface, Inkitt would be in charge of inputting all the relevant information into the publication template (author, publisher, illustrator, genre, price, etc). While Inkitt credits the book to the author, it’s actually only the publisher that gets paid out from KDP, since there can only be one bank account linked to each Amazon author account.

A book that doesn’t get picked up by a major publisher goes through this process of KDP publication with a few stipulations.

  1. Inkitt pays up to $6000 for advertising, but this is NOT considered an advance. Rather, the book has to out-earn this figure before the author sees any royalties.
  2. An Inkitt publishing contract does not run your manuscript past in-house editors, as would a real publisher.
  3. Any royalties the author sees after earning back $6000 in net profit will come at one of two different royalty rates, which is at Inkitt’s discretion.
  4. Rights to books that earn back this amount in a year will belong to Inkitt, while rights to those that don’t are reverted to the author after a year.

There are a few problems with this, and pointing them out is what got my account deleted. First off, if Inkitt were a real publisher instead of an agent pretending to be a publisher, they’d be giving you an advance with a publishing deal instead of a hole to dig yourself out of first. They may as well make you buy a garage-load of books to sell yourself but since it’s all in KDP, you don’t even get that. Incidentally, my last post in the forums before my profile got nuked was me comparing them to a vanity publisher, which I guess got under their skin.

Second, Inkitt gets 50% of all royalties for the duration of the contract, whether that’s just a year or in perpetuity. Because of the way Amazon KDP operates, this will come at either (0.99*0.35*0.5) or (2.99*0.7*0.5) depending on how they price it. Standard Inkitt procedure is to price initially at $0.99, then go up to $2.99 after a few days. Of course, if they ever want to change this price, it’s out of your hands, just like with a traditional publisher. The main difference here, though, is that traditionally published books still earn the authors the same amount of royalties at sale prices as they would at regular prices. Brandon Sanderson explains more about that here but you should really just watch the whole series because it’s fantastic. Anyways, what this all means is that an author published by Inkitt would have to sell the right amount of books between ((6000/(0.99*0.35)) and ((6000/(2.99*0.7)) at each price point to break even. In just copies sold at $2.99, this would be 2867 copies. If all these came at $0.99, which is unlikely but possible if they ever lowered prices to boost sales, this would come out to 17,317 copies. It’s after this number is reached in whatever combination that an Inkitt contest winner starts to see money, and now they no longer own the rights to their story. That would be third.

Still with me here? So the beginning of the end of my time at Inkitt started about a month ago, when I got inspired to point out some of these observations on the forums. After all, there is a board for suggestions and comments, so I figured I’d give it a shot. While the reaction was never negative, it was just corporate and bland. I followed up and followed up some more, hoping that it would get somewhere but suspecting that if things hadn’t changed before, then they probably wouldn’t now. It was at this point that my posts started getting hidden (not really deleted, since I could still access the posts from my notifications bar) in the forums. I kept posting and asked why my questions were disappearing. It was at this point that I got an email from an Inkitt employee, asking if I’d like to take my concerns up with Ali Albazaz, the site’s owner, over Skype.

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I’ll be honest. At this point, I was ticked. After this much time and effort invested in the site and nothing to show for my concerns but brush-offs from various employees, I didn’t want anything to do with Ali (much less have a private call with him) if he couldn’t reach out to me himself in any way. I figured that if he’d posted rather frequently on the forums before under his own name, it wouldn’t be too much for him to address this personally if he really wanted to address my concerns.

Since I was already in touch with some former Inkitt employees and users, I asked what questions I could about how the community could’ve gotten this way while being careful not to violate any Non-Disclosure Agreements they could’ve signed.

It was at this point where my account got deleted in the middle of commenting in the forums. You can still see my posts there as Deleted User. If you don’t believe me, here are some screenshots I took before and again shortly after my account was deleted.

Obviously, I’m valeca (named after the main character from my story Divided House) until the last comment. I had more threads deleted which I couldn’t get screencaps for in time, since I didn’t have a link to the page anymore. What it looks like is that Inkitt can only hide posts on the forums instead of actually delete them, because I could still access posts invisible in the forums by clicking on the notification link when a post got a new comment. Why they’d have it work this way instead of actually deleting them is beyond me, and probably indicative of the extremely high turn-over rate for employees there. Either way, I can’t get to all the ones I missed since my account doesn’t exist anymore, but I’ll gladly post what I’ve got if anyone asks for more.

If you’ve gotten this far and are wondering what the takeaways are from this, the biggest would be that Inkitt is not the magic solution to years of unfairness in the publishing industry. You’ve seen the accusations that the site encourages and practices spam posting, and I’ll second (really fourth) that. What’s more is that even if you win one of their contests, the most basic comparison to traditional publishing makes Inkitt inferior in every way. Between no advances; no human editors; little community support; contests that operate more as moneygrabs for the site than author incentives; and pointless Amazon giveaways, an Inkitt winner is still losing out.

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You are reading this right. The idea was that you get the voucher, then use the honor system to buy Inkitt’s book. Of course, doing this means that for every $1.08 they spent on these vouchers, they’d make back $0.34 per e-book, while the author sees exactly diddly-squat. Between you and me, I used the voucher to buy an e-book from another former Inkitt writer who’d been ostracized by the founders for asking too many questions (do you see a theme here?).

So if all this is something that you still want to put up with, then by all means, don’t let me stop you. Go ahead and try your luck. After all, founder Ali has said numerous times that what he’s looking for is the next 50 Shades of Grey. Even if this is a reference to quantity of sales instead of quality of writing, do you really want your book to get slapped with that sticker? Does that contract look good to you, despite it flying in the face of anything that’s ever actually made any author successful? If you can actually put in the time and effort to learn how to market your book well enough to succeed on Inkitt, why not just cut out the middleman and do it yourself? Or if you don’t feel confident in your ability to self-promote, why not use another website like Tablo, that has guides for new writers, and DeviantArt, with a large, active community? At least you’d learn and get to keep all your royalties along the way when you finally decided to self-publish.

And really, “hipster’s library”? That’s gotta be the silliest tagline I’ve ever heard.

P.S. If Ali or any other staff member is reading this, don’t waste your time trying to give me a canned PR response as has been done on other blogs that disagree with you.

P.P.S. It appears that in the 10 hours or so since I started writing this post, Inkitt decided to block my IP address. That’s one way to keep their user base from asking too many questions, at least for now.

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If you read this far and feel as sketched out as I have by Inkitt and their practices, then I’d encourage you to help get the word out there. It’s not even about them stealing anybody’s stories; it’s about using your time wisely to maximize your visibility and reach as an author who’s in the same boat as all the rest of us who try to self-publish. You’re even free to keep using Inkitt if you want, but just bear in mind that while there may not be that one secret trick to becoming a successful author, there are certainly better platforms more deserving of your patronage and effort.

Some easter eggs

Some easter eggs

Just FYI, you should probably wait on this one until you’ve read Kaschar’s Quarter.

 

 

 

Writing is weird. So much time gets spent by an awful lot of internet writers I’ve encountered on ensuring that their stories are original, to the point that most of the writing subreddits I follow are filled up with posts of story outlines and plots posted so that others can point out tropes and help the authors get rid of them. Another one that pops up often is writers, oddly enough including a lot of fan fiction writers, going to or at least inquiring about going to great lengths to ensure that their story can’t be plagiarized. Copy-pasted copyright notices, all caps disclaimers about original content, the whole works.

I don’t really buy all that, even though I do put copyright notices in my e-books. Sure, I don’t want to fall into traps already littered with the corpses of unsuccessful writers/imitators of great writers, but I don’t really sit around and fret about what my story would look like if it was written up on TvTropes. Mostly, I like putting little things in my stories that tie them either to themselves or to other literature that I enjoy. Here’s some off the top of my head.

In Kaschar’s Quarter, Matthieu’s beloved Beate and her sister Heide play important roles in his character development even though they only appear briefly. For the first few chapters, Beate is completely absent for the reader, just as she has been for Matthieu while he was at school, and soon becomes nothing but an ideal that he clings to under duress. For those of you who’ve read Dante’s Divine Comedy, the connection should be pretty clear. Beatrice, Dante’s beloved, exists only as a mental guide to him as he passes through Hell and Purgatory, finally appearing to him at the end of the second part to guide him into Paradise. As with Beatrice, her name goes back to the Latin beātus, or blessed, but she doesn’t save Matthieu as her counterpart does Dante. Trapped in Purgatory with the soul of Leopold Ment, he and the reader finally meet Beate as she is called in by Matthieu’s guide to persuade him to continue in his torture. What Matthieu doesn’t understand at the time is that she wasn’t brought to him for a happy reunion; rather, it was the guide’s intention that her rejection of Matthieu’s brutality would give him the last push he needed to fulfill his contract. And speaking of contracts…

Beate’s sister, Heide, plays a different role. Dying of the plague when she’s rescued from Heilicon, her role is mainly to ask Matthieu the Gretchenfrage in reference to Goethe’s Faust Part One (not Part Two, because that one’s strange and I haven’t finished it yet) that leads him to question the sincerity of his belief in God and the Global Church. Literally, the “Gretchen question” is meant to arrive at an uncomfortable truth, usually the truth about one’s religious convictions. This is about where the similarities end with Gretchen/Margaret and Heide, though there’s also a character named Greta (Matthieu’s grandmother) who shares a similar sort of fate with Faust’s lover.

Switching over to my science fiction stories, all of which are in the same timeline, the main thing I keep consistent is that the fictional Interplanetary Resources Incorporated shows up in four of them. It’s Andy Lukassen’s employer at a lunar mass driver in First Instance, the operator of a passenger freighter in Divided House and a scout ship in The Ryosh, and Rell is a climatologist on one of their terraforming inspection teams in Waiting on the Rain.

The “why” of it could turn into a much longer essay on how corporate interests will affect space exploration, so I’ll just say for now that I think it’s a neat callback to much earlier events, giving readers something consistent in the background to link all the stories (for now) together in an unobtrusive fashion.

Or something like that.

Here’s the deal: Waiting on the Rain

It was when I got halfway through writing this one that I started thinking it was basically just Stargazing in space. That almost put a damper on things during my twenty minute break to go get a spicy chicken sandwich at Carls Jr and think about what would happen next in this story. Thankfully, the damper didn’t go on all the way and now it’s done (or at least the first draft).

So this one is the first complete story I have in the big, centuries-long space opera I’ve been planning for a few years. It brings up a lot of things that other stories I’ve put out there in the same setting (First Instance, Divided House, and The Ryosh) won’t touch on for another couple hundred years, while also featuring Interplanetary Resources Incorporated once again. I hit on the idea of including them as a sort-of constant easter egg, not unlike Stan Lee appearances in Marvel films, when working on First Instance. Writing-wise, the appear first in Divided House as the owners of a passenger/cargo ship coming into Ceres from asteroids in the orbit of Jupiter. Since then, they’ve taken on a larger role as the human corporate future moves out from the Sol system to include other stars.

By the time Waiting on the Rain rolls around, it’s now 2915 AD. A lot has happened between then and First Instance that I haven’t entirely written yet, but I have certain important events hammered out. The biggest of these result in the first interstellar human government, the Terran Confederacy, splintering into competing factions. Some of these, like the Confederated Markets and Human Collectivist Union, see themselves essentially as glorified economic systems with a military. But what really is a nation but an economy with guns, at least in the meanest terms? Others, namely the Rim Systems Alliance and Frontier Systems Congress, see themselves as bringing law and order to the rapidly expanding edges of human settlement, with varying results. This is where the Human Progressive Expansion League comes in.

They aren’t pleased with what they see are concessions made by different human governments to alien species, some with their own interstellar governments. These concessions include agreements to reserve certain sectors of space for other species, mostly by not terraforming planets these species could potentially inhabit. IRI enters the terraforming business over time, first by collecting government contracts to scout out potentially inhabitable star systems and then develop them for human colonists. Projects like this can sometimes take centuries to complete and every step along the way has to be carefully evaluated by experts: climatologists (like Rell), xenobiologists, xenobotanists, etc. Basically anyone with xeno- on their title has a stake in making sure that these worlds are not just cataloged and surveyed, but properly acclimatized to future human occupants. This, it is argued, is the best way to guarantee the long-term survival of the human species.

Of course, not everyone is pleased by terraforming. Atmospheric modeling is the process of re-configuring a planet’s atmospheric gases to make it not just breathable, but within the survivable surface temperature range. Greening usually takes place after atmospheric modeling has produced enough carbon dioxide for plants to survive on the surface and exhale oxygen. The end result of these processes is usually that the planet is then rendered uninhabitable by not only other alien species, but also whatever native life forms were already there. Efforts to mitigate this damage include salvage xenobiology, which means that a team of scientists is subcontracted by IRI or a similar entity to collect as much important data and specimens as they can within its time and budget constraints. While these teams try their best, it’s inevitable that the vast majority of surface life (mostly microorganisms but occasionally larger animals and plants) will be destroyed in the terraforming process. Only then could repopulation, mostly with terrestrial species tailored to the specific environment (think GMO patents on DNA sequences but done with pretty much anything the colony would need to survive), occur and make the new planet truly hospitable, at least for humans.

This result could only be downplayed for a while before leaked data revealed the true toll that terraforming operations had on most planets. Energized by what they saw as genocidal actions by companies like IRI, human and alien protesters became increasingly involved in the movement to make terraforming more sustainable, if not stop it altogether. By the time Waiting for the Rain comes around, human and Thevashi groups have become militarized in much the same way that HPEL was. High-ranking fleet officers or other saboteurs joined the movement with more and more military hardware, intent on putting an end to what they viewed as mass murder with little payout.

There’s a lot more that could be explored here but I’ll save that for future blog posts and “wouldn’t that be neat” worldbuilding sessions during hours when I should probably already be asleep.

Here’s the deal: First Instance

Here’s the deal: First Instance

In trying to convince people I encounter on the internet to read this story for critiques, I always run into the same problem at the beginning: how to pitch it. Not necessarily what to say about the plot, because “space lawyers” seems simple enough. Rather, it’s how to fit it into a subgenre that doesn’t sound like the genre fiction equivalent of what’s happened in metal music, where something like “blackened pagan technical death metal” has become a laughable but still accepted descriptor. As much as I think that’s silly for bands, I’m stuck between trying to avoid that extreme while not giving anyone the wrong impression of where the story goes.

So here’s the deal. First Instance, at least to me, sounds and feels to me like something Heinlein would’ve written sixty or seventy years ago. Now my reading list of his works is fairly limited but what stuck out to me was the tone he adopted in works like Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. The characters, no matter what weird situation they were put in, were facing something new and exciting and terrifying all at once but were able to maintain some sense of composure and even humor in the face of it all. He’d drop in technology that seemed like a logical progression from what he had at the time, but that technology was ultimately just a tool in moving along a plot that was deeply focused on the characters and how they adjusted to their surroundings, whether it was Martians with telekinetic powers or giant space bugs.

And so we follow a handful characters who are waaaaay out of their league on a trip to the Moon. Corporate entities already exist there under the aegis of international laws and flag states (where they’re headquartered), mostly for mining, scientific research, or even building resorts. I see this as a logical outgrowth of the kind of questions we’re dealing with today, only with the added twist of how to fit these entities into laws regarding the Moon. Current laws forbid nations from militarizing celestial bodies or extracting resources for their own benefit, but I could see these restrictions getting manipulated when a way to do them becomes profitable, which it currently isn’t (sorry, Elon). But in, let’s say, a hundred years, when the cost of launch and recovery (thanks, Elon) drops to within the reach of more than just a few nations, then we’ll start to see a shift take place.

In my mind, at least, this shift would allow private companies to take out UN contracts to mine or construct mass drivers to move mined resourced back to Earth, while still operating under the laws of their home countries. Basically, it was easy to put up these laws in the 1950’s and 60’s, when breaking them wasn’t something the two largest space powers of the day couldn’t afford. But once the bar to entry drops enough that money can be made, it’ll likely be a different story. Maybe even my story, but who knows. That’s the funny thing about putting this sort of story out there that won’t occur in my lifetime, barring some unforeseen scientific advances. 2154 is still a long way off, and I don’t know that humans will change all that much before we get there, for better or worse.

But hey, this is sci-fi. I get to do what I want.

Jire and colonialism

Pre-script (is that a thing people do?): this blog post was mostly inspired by Indolence of the Filipino People by Jose Rizal, the polymath’s polymath. It’s a long read but he makes many of the same points I did, and reading that again inspired Jire significantly. The rest of the inspiration came from all those classes I took about Spanish and Portuguese colonialism in the Americas (where I wondered if I’d ever use that stuff again), as well as readings in one of my anthropology courses. For instance, an even longer read by Albert Memmi. Here’s one way I’m trying to use it.

 

I will only post one spoiler here for Kaschar’s Quarter, and I wonder how much of a spoiler it really is because the chapter in question has been up for a while, but here goes. In Chapter Seven (The Bathala, or Unworthiness), Matthieu is shipwrecked on an island that he believes to be inhabited by perfect people. This isn’t necessarily true but it doesn’t stop other Corastians from trying to recreate his voyage later. In a very Christopher Colombus-esque scenario, an Arcinan explorer named Ergenio Talfane “discovers” what he thinks are the islands from Matthieu’s story. He’s wrong, but that doesn’t really matter in the end, because even more follow him to the new land he totally found even though there were people already living there. A lot of people. People with their own diverse languages, governments, economies, religions, and cultural practices that developed without any aid or influence from Corastia.

This is where things take a turn. The islands which Talfane stumbled upon were north of a large continent the Arcinans would later call Achogo. Once there, they did what colonizing nations do: began a series of systematic changes to the society they found there in order to make money.

Jire’s world is a result of these changes, in much the same way that the world around us has many places which are the results of the changes wrought on them by various colonial powers over the centuries (millennia, really, since this isn’t something Western Europe just invented one day). Here’s how that process usually goes (see: Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and the Philippines but really just about anywhere else you can think of).

New place is “discovered”, which isn’t necessarily thought to mean that the colonizers are the first humans there (though it sometimes is) but rather that the place in question was previously unknown to the maps of the time. The new place is then described by contrast to the old place, often through a utopian lens that emphasizes the new place’s economic value because there wouldn’t be any point making a trip like that again if there was nothing to gain from doing so. Voyages return home, carrying goods (and sometimes people) from the new place and pitch the idea of even more voyages, this time with more ships and crewmembers.

The colonizers encounter resistance from the locals, which is totally understandable, and is then put down with military force. Mutilations, massacres, and divide-and-conquer tactics (to prevent local groups from joining forces against the colonizers) are often a centerpiece of this strategy, continuing into a prolonged colonial government. This new government is often built by using the enemies of a large regional power against it, placing the colonizers in a position where they can monopolize military force.

Now that the colonizers have an army behind them, they can begin making increasingly drastic changes to local lifeways. This could include religion but more often then not comes down to economics, specifically economic plans that benefit the colonizers. One way to do this is to concentrate native laborers into land grants and plantations, all bent on mass production of cash-crops. As before, the threat of revolt is always present, so the military and/or broad rights for landowners are used to keep laborers in line.

The first thing that happens when you do this is that people die. A lot. And not just individuals die, but societies and families begin to break down when the individuals of which they are composed become commoditized by the dominant economic system. Effects of this process can last for generations or even centuries, harming the ability of colonized peoples to recover from exploitation. These effects, wherein the colonized are rendered inhuman and the colonizers are given artificial superiority, ultimately dehumanize both groups.

Once the transition to large-scale mono-cropping of non-subsistence foods begins, the next thing to happen is that even more people will die. Soils which were once replenished by cyclical farming techniques begin to degrade within a few growing seasons. Delicate trade balances that kept food surpluses flowing between different regions and polities begin to break down, as the crops which once provided one community or another an advantageous economic relationship with another have been replaced with crops that only benefit the colonizers. As this process continues and systems of surplus exchange collapse, famine sets in. Concentration of once-widespread labor into plantations, towns and cities hastens the rate of collapse, diverting more and more wealth away from the natives and toward the colonizers. This isn’t to say that the native economies weren’t also based on their own system of economic stratification but that more often than not, one unfair system replaces another.

One result of this is that incentives to produce trade goods or even staples are eliminated when those who produce them feel that to do so would only be to their own detriment. Local industries collapse; farmers are distracted from their fields; substance abuse and gambling become increasing problems. All of this can be turned back on the colonized as proof of their backward ways, which can only be remedied by emulating the more industrious and successful colonizers. This emulation can take the form of language, fashion, religion, etc, but only to the degree which the colonized are allowed by the colonizers to participate. Participation in the new society naturally favors local elites, but they are not seen by colonizers as societal equals.

These local elites will want their due, because the advantages they once held are now threatened by foreigners who they outnumber. Countering this requires a two-fold reshaping of how elite status is conceived. First, the colonizers’ victory must be seen as evidence of cultural or biological superiority. Second, the colonizers’ continued dominance must be assured by any means necessary. Divide-and-conquer strategies return again, crushing attempts by the colonized to assert forms of societal solidarity, whether along economic, religious, ethnic, or national lines. The colonizers’ strategies work for a while, maybe even centuries, but revolts occur constantly. Native populations continue to fall, and not only because of death but because of interbreeding and the inevitable attempts by the colonizers to support their dominance by surrounding themselves with ethnic boundaries.

As the colonized society continues to transform, not only from the outside but from the inside as well, precolonial life begins to take on new meanings for both colonized and colonizer. The time before colonization gives rise to myths, some relying on the early utopian depictions of the colonized while others paint a more cynical picture of barbarism becoming civilization. Old traditions that were once suppressed are now markers of an emerging national consciousness that may not necessarily have existed before colonization, but now threatens the colonial order by promising to unify groups once divided along boundaries which the colonizers’ efforts toward cultural homogeneity have since smoothed over. National sentiment moves downward from colonials (who are likely but not always elites of mixed heritage, who assert themselves as citizens of a nation distinct from both colonizers and colonized) and takes hold among the peasants, farmers, and laborers who occupy the lowest but largest rung of colonial society.

In producing this new society, the colonial order has sown the seeds of their own undoing.

 

This isn’t something I’ve seen in fantasy before, but I’ve seen it all the time in history. Is that because I don’t read much fantasy? Most likely, yeah, but I’d still appreciate more of this kind of thinking being applied to a genre where continent-spanning empires, wars of mutually assured destruction, imposed monolingualism, and other hallmarks of colonialism are so commonplace. If you know of some fantasy books that do this, please let me know. Either way, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing until what I’m doing is done.

 

The Bathala, or where a dream meets real life

I first had the ideas for this book in high school but those ideas didn’t know then what they’d become. That happened a few years later, when I was living in the Philippines. I remember one day seeing a map of the island of Panay, where right about in the middle of it was a label that said “Sulod Tribe”. This puzzled me. Up until that point, I wasn’t aware that there were any tribal groups in the Philippines, much less the island I was living on, and that got the little hamster wheels turning in my brain that maybe I should find out more about them. At that point, I thought I was pretty good at speaking Hiligaynon and thought it would fun to see if this tribe I just learned about spoke the same language. That’s how it started.

Maybe six months later, after finding out that the “Sulod Tribe” was actually the Panay Bukidnon, creators of one of the longest epic poems in the world, these admittedly colonial thoughts I had of learning about them mixed in my imagination with this little story (really a collection of stories at this early stage) I had in the back of my mind called The Default King. There had to be a way to connect all these ideas I had, all while working in some of the utopian sort of comparison/contrast themes used by much better writers like Swift and Voltaire, where the good old noble savage trope exists to show the deficiencies in the main character’s culture. If you’re angry about how this is looking so far, then please hold off judgement until a little later.

At this stage in the game, I knew very little about pre-hispanic life in the Philippines. I still feel like I do, when I actually have read quite a lot and probably have an OK handle on things for the moment. My eventual grad studies in Philippine history may change that feeling but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. And so here I was, six months or so out from going back to the United States, and trying to make sense of all these images I had in my mind. The binukot, daughters of high-status families trained in seclusion to chant days-long poems. The poems themselves, whose stories I could only guess at since English texts were yet impossible to find. Islands of people who lived without knowledge of the Christian God, not knowing what was coming aboard ships bound for India and ports beyond. Something was coming together but not in the way I originally planned.

As I’ve mentioned before, this story started off as a more blatant allegory and morphed over time into something which I’d take more seriously, and this is about the time when that started. I made my first map, started putting cities on it, and tried harder to really stitch together the disparate short stories I had in mind that centered on Matthieu’s quest for a place he could call home. Here entered “the island”, as I knew it for a while, and with it these images of noble savagery that a later, more anthropologically aware me would call silly and potentially harmful if taken at face value. But as it was, these images came together with Matthieu at their center as the island of those he’d come to call the Bathala: Tagalog for “god”.

It made sense that this would be how he knew them. They were godly people without knowing it, even perfect people, whose language and story mirrored those of the ancient Filipino Visayans so closely that I ended up just choosing to have them speak an actual Visayan language called Kinaray-a. OK, so the actual people in the story didn’t speak Kinaray-a but their language was represented with it for the sake of ease and because not very many people outside of a small region of the Philippines speak it. The stories of the binukot made it into their legends as well, along with little bits of folklore to explain why they did the things they did. For instance, they sailed south to escape some old war and as their written records began to deteriorate, they trained young girls to memorize their legends in case they get lost otherwise. Or how they had to leave without knowing the way to these islands, assuming they existed, and simply sailed south until it got too cold and then turned north again. Little things like this made up the story from just an allegory into something explicable in the mechanics of the world I’d constructed. And yet even then, there was more to do behind the scenes that would have to exist in order for this to become more than just the noble savage story it appeared to be and in many respects still was.

That came much later, when I had finally convinced myself that this was a book I could finish in a reasonable amount of time, and one that constant work could complete and make ready for others to enjoy. By now, though, things had changed. I’d been back to the Philippines twice; I’d invested myself academically, personally, financially, etc in the effort to research Panay Bukidnon folklore: the very stories about which I was pulling hazy ideas to turn into my stories. Things had to change in order to make this something I could be proud of, especially considering that this little chapter of my book was going to be something reasonably read by human beings other than myself.

The thought occurred to me somewhere along the line, rather too long after a conversation with a friend I’d wrangled into editing an early draft, that Matthieu was and never should be expected to tell the truth at all times, much less really know the truth about everything he encounters. And so the idea was born that Matthieu, honest to a fault and eager in his search for an earthly utopia he was too sinful to enjoy, would either be seriously deluded concerning these islanders he called the people of God, or else lie about them in order to justify his own ends. It’s a different turn than the one I’d intended to take for a long time, but one I think will ultimately improve the trajectory of the larger narrative. Now, he has the freedom to make his own truth for his own ends and for its own sake and this reality, among other things, is what enables him to create the future he one day lives. It had to start with something, if not necessarily the Bathala themselves, then with the contrast he saw between them and the world he left behind.

What he’d left was the Global Church, the Evangelical Brethren, warfare, disease and all manner of imperfections which were clearly seen on all those around him. These islands, though, were different in every way from what he’d expected, and so he had no choice but to assume that the people were not regular mortals after all but enlightened beings living above our petty mortal concerns. They were mortal, yes, but different; higher in some way. He could see no sins in them, no warfare, no suspicion of lust or violence, and so they must be perfect. And if they were perfect, then he as an imperfect outsider would be forced to change everything about himself to fit into their company or else leave paradise for a place he could abide.

Here’s where things meet reality. Whatever illusions I may have once held about a vaguely utopian pre-hispanic past have fallen away at the new things I learn about that history. This was a time and place where various raiding tribes operated outside larger national or international laws to screw each other over at any convenience, whether through piracy or slave-trading, and there was no expectation of perfection to be fulfilled anywhere. This was a time of near-constant warfare and all the virtues and vices of humanity as they had been elsewhere were fully on display. The Bathala utopia was one that never existed in reality, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t exist in the mind of someone who didn’t know any better.

In the end, this image of my ignorant mind became Matthieu’s dream, or an episode in his fated life, or simply a way for me to work through the gap between expectations and reality. Either way, minding that gap is something that we do with more than just times and places we’ve never seen. We will always be trapped against the expectation that somehow, those people are in some fundamental way different than we are, whether for good or evil. It’s this assumption that causes many of our problems as a species, as a society, and as individuals. For Matthieu, just as it would be for me as an anthropologist, the expectation that those people are somehow more pure or base or whatever than I or we are is a stumbling-block that stands between us and where we need to be in order to truly understand anyone, including ourselves.

Of course, Matthieu can work these things neatly (or at least with some semblance of neatness) because he’s a character in a book. For us, who really have these debates in our heads about real people and real places, it’s infinitely harder but therefore infinitely more rewarding.

Let’s try not to screw it up.

Perception v. reality

I really do think that all writing is personal, if not autobiographical in a sense. Volume 3 is where it really started to get personal for me, or at least this is where the more personal sections I’d first written years ago ended up once I began plotting them all out. This becomes pretty apparent if you know me but not so much if you don’t.

What I will say is that one of the central questions of the book is the distinction between our perception of a person or place and the reality of the same. Where Matthieu holds onto his idealistic visions of the world and subsequently has these ideals confronted, I tried to put in some of my own struggles with this same problem to inform his reactions.

Without giving anything away prematurely, the events of Volume 3 are fundamental in shaping not only Matthieu’s character, but the goals that he’ll strive for throughout the rest of his life.