Experiments In Immersive Storytelling (and procrastination)

warmachine tableI’m supposed to be finishing a novel. Really, it’s three quarters of the way done. And to the people asking where’s the sequel to Tearing Down The Statues, it’s so cool that you’re asking. And I’m sorry that I’m not even done with the one I’m working on to start that one. So forgive me for this article; but look at that tabletop there! That’s cool, right?

It started around Halloween. My birthday’s in November; and I coerced my wife and kids into playing Dungeons & Dragons with me as my present. Haven’t played since before college, no idea what I was doing. Just thought it would be awesome. I crammed on the game mechanics with Critical Role (thanks Matt Mercer, you’re a gifted genius!) Then when we needed some figurines for the tabletop to help me keep track of what was what, we went to a gaming store and something magical happened.

Some dudes were in the back staring intently at a grassy landscape with trees and steampunk robot miniatures playing some kind of game. I asked the guy helping me what they were playing. He described it as like chess only more complicated and with steam powered robots and magic. Warmachine. I was about to go deep and didn’t know it.

The D&D game went fantastic, by the way. There was a mysterious box with a kraken egg inside, goblin attacks, and three riddles you had to solve before a crushing room at the inn squeezed them into pancakes. They set loose the last baby kraken at the end. Was amazing. But Warmachine, though. Tell me more about Warmachine.

A dude named Matt Wilson started Privateer Press with a couple of friends around 2000, to ‘create expressions of his own original property concepts’. Sounds pretty liberating. I’m glad he did it. Warmachine and its ugly sister, Hordes, are his masterworks. What attracted me was the notion of clashing strategies with steampunk robots on gorgeous scenery, an all-out war in miniature on a tabletop played like a gentleman’s game of chess. Maybe not so much the storytelling side of it, though that will come, but the blend of art and reason.

IMG_8361Since it was Christmas and New Years, and too miserable cold and snowy outside to do anything else, I made some Papercraft houses and started watching videos on making terrain. You should watch this guy. He’s a miracle worker!

I got some sawdust from a guy named Kenny at Lowe’s that cuts lumber, sifted it to a fine powder, and stirred it in with green egg tempera paint. The kids had to step over it on the paper in the garage as it dried out. When it’s glued on primered foam, it looks amazingly like grass. If you get into this sort of thing, you should google ‘drybrushing’. Super easy.

IMG_8364I twisted some wire strips together and bent them to look like limbs, then stuck that into holes I drilled in an old flagpole dowel glued to wooden bases from Hobby Lobby. After I hot-glue-gunned the crap out of them and primered them, I pulled and stretched on some steel wool to make netting. I drybrushed the trunks with brown and white and sprayed the steel wool with spray adhesive. Then I dunked them upside-down in a tub of the dyed sawdust. Boom! Trees. Honestly, you should see them in person. Not bad at all.

IMG_8363I carved out a cavity in a flat piece of insulation foam and coated it with joint compound, glued some rocks I picked up when I was walking the dogs, and glued some dyed sawdust to it too. The bushes were made just like the trees. I drybrushed the lake bottom, then poured some clear resin from Hobby Lobby to make the water. The stuff reeks, but it looks pretty good when it cures. I messed up and put brown paint in it. My daughter said it looked like Willie Wonka’s chocolate pond.

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The game is played on a 4ft x 4ft tabletop; and I was avoiding learning how to assemble and paint miniatures anyway, so I took a stab at the wargaming table. The textured surface is gritty sand poured on plywood, sprayed a bajillion times with watered-down Elmer’s glue, and then painted with browns and greens using a ripped sponge. My daughter picked out the dark stain for the wood. Nice choice.

IMG_8367I can’t paint. Never have I been able to paint. It’s bad, seriously. Wish I could. I avoided putting those models together and painting them like it was the plague. Then it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. I used some metallic paints my wife picked up on Amazon and the good stuff Privateer Press puts out. That made up for the scarcity of talent.

The rules are a bit thick. Clear and well structured, yes. But there’s a lot to it. So I had to study it before game day. My son, who’s 15 and grumpy and doesn’t like anything even promised me a game – “because you’ve worked so hard on it”, he said. My wife agreed to one. My daughter didn’t. My daughter’s boyfriend, however, is fascinated although she won’t let him near me when I’m talking about it.

And so game one, entirely solo so I could learn how to play, is over! My approach was to hit the other side as hard as I could with the best and most dangerous strategies possible, then trade places and do the same on the other side. It was an experiment in immersive storytelling, particularly for an intriguing clash of two armies in a custom landscape. I’d like you to live it with me, because it went quite well.

Don’t worry about the rules, just follow what happened. Assume it’s all dice rolls and stats on cards to see what happens when you try something. Let’s dive in! (View the pdf instead of these pics if that’s easier)

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I can’t believe I’m still not working on the novel. It’s been an amazing diversion; but it’s really time to get back into the action. Everything I do affects my writing, so I’m sure something will be different this weekend when I get the ball rolling. Maybe more action, maybe the introduction of a slightly different aesthetic, or maybe a character that likes wargames. I don’t know. The characters are in a difficult bind right now, and trapped. I think maybe I need now to be a little more strategic in what they do next.

Or I could just build some cool ruins and play another game.

 

 

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Using Text Analytics In Your Writing

CaptureA while back, I used a wordcloud on the text of my own book to tune and get insights into my writing style. Here, see what I mean. The idea is to try and take an objective look at your work in progress, a book you’ve got cooking and that you probably think is awesome (of course!) using text analytics rather than your brother or your dad.  Go ahead and blast me as a nerd, tell me machine learning will never take the place of emotional impact, and blah blah blah. I zoned out on you. What I’m suggesting is a supplemental tool to get another set of eyes on what you’re creating to go deep into it, and make it the best it can be.

You can wiki ‘text analytics’ with the link above; but the short version is to break down the raw text with software into just its individual words, ignoring common words like ‘and’. Typically, you’d also ignore capitalization and punctuation. Once it’s just a bunch of the remaining words, you can count their frequencies and display them in a way that highlights that. Wordclouds like the one in the header here just make them bigger if they repeat more than others. You could as easily chart them. I used the R programming language with ‘tm’ and ‘wordcloud’ packages for mine – here’s the code if you want it:

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I won’t go into the deets on what that cloud tells me – I covered that sort of thing in the other article. Quickly though, I do see I’m consistent with similes and the mindset in my narrative style of trying to think like a movie camera. This book I’m writing now is a much more intimate book, less bombastic grandiose scale than my first one. Since it’s more visceral and up-close with the characters, I’m seeing even support character names showing up in the cloud. That surprised me. I actually went back to earlier chapters and shifted who was acting and speaking to even out the balance when I saw one of the main characters dominating.

I am experimenting with something called ‘sentiment analysis’, which also sounds useful. I couldn’t make it work, or I’d be writing about that right now. Sentiment analysis relies on lexicons (there are three of them out there that I know of) which contain a crap-ton of English words with assigned scores for positive/negative sentiment or emotional content. For example, the NRC lexicon scores ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for a word for positive, negative, anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise, and trust. That means you can get a rough measure on the emotional content of the storyline, even chart the course of the book and see when things started getting more hopeful, sadder, or whether you overdid the foreshadowing. If I can get that into something meaningful, I’ll share it with you here and tell you how I did it. The book I’m referencing is called Text Mining With R.

Anyway, that’s the thought. Maybe the real advice for me isn’t that I need another way of getting feedback on what I’m writing, but rather just to stop getting distracted by shiny things and sit down and write it?! Yes, I don’t need software to tell me that. I’m two and a half years in on this one, though I had dreams of finishing in a year. I feel good about it; and it’s going to be a sharper, fresher work because of all the time I’m spending on it for sure.

Still, I’d like to see it on my bookshelf!

Merry Christmas, guys!

 

 

Raindancer: Little Things That, Now, Only You Know

raindancerSay you’re standing somewhere, bored, and glance at your phone to pass the time. Is there some bit of news you can imagine reading there that would hit you hard enough to make you lose your breath, fall back to sit down, and just crowd out the world while you process it? That happened to me a week ago. In a small way, this post is a celebration and a way to grieve. More than anything though, I’m looking to make it a cyberspace memorial for somebody who deserved that.

At the height of the noisy disaster that was the 2016 political season, when you couldn’t read the news or watch late night television without hearing somebody’s views on how much you suck no matter what you believe, I wrote this:

CaptureLook, I’m not a great guitar player. And I don’t sit around writing music anymore. But when I needed some sanity and a calm, happy place, this memory of a guy named Tim who you would have loved dearly just did it for me. I wish you could have met him. He’d  have made you laugh, would have gotten you talking about something you love. If you’d been lonely and scared in a junior high cafeteria staring at all the strangers and being told you were sitting in somebody else’s seat, he would have sat beside you and started talking about AC/DC. That was Tim.

If you had been there in, say, 1988 in my bedroom with us playing weird noises on those guitars, you’d have seen Tim’s eyes drift off while he dreamed up crazy lyrics. I wish I could have heard them now. Maybe he knew how sad he was going to get without telling anybody. Maybe he was sad then. I don’t know, he never told me anything about it. We called each other best friends for 30 years; but he never told me he was sad enough to kill himself with a shotgun. I want that image to go away. And I only want to see him there strumming that acoustic guitar beside me wearing his stupid straw panama hat. On my dad’s patio in the summer sunshine, right before we head out to some antique malls or to the lake.

I want you to think of someone you know who might be alone, right now. Even if it’s awkward and has been a while, I want you to call them. See how they’re doing. Dig.

It’s a beautiful world; but it can be a mean world too. That’s why there’s a bunch of us. If you’ve used your mind’s eye as you read this, then in a way that’s very, very important to me, you know something only me and a guy named Tim knew. Now it’s like you were with us back then.

I’d appreciate you remembering.

Love Letter To ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’

king in yellowI imagine you’ve heard of the King In Yellow by Robert W. Chambers; but if not then I have a birthday present for you. An 1895 book of short stories – only four of which matter – by a dude who wrote bohemian romance stories and historical fiction and whatever else would pay the bills. Somehow, in a sizzling flare of genius very early in his career, this Brooklyn artist wrote one of the most intriguing, ahead-of-its-time, white-hot weird stories ever put in words. This guy:

Robert William Chambers.jpg Don’t take may word on this – the basis of these four stories has inspired writers you’ve read or at least heard of: HP Lovecraft, James Blish, Lin Carter, Charles Stross, George R R Martin, Neil Gaiman, blah blah blah. Seriously, google it. Core concepts pop up in True Detective as well, if you’re into that show.

Go listen to Peter Yearsley read The Repairer Of Reputations on YouTube. You can hire Peter here if you need a voice actor – this guy has a voice and delivery ideally suited to give you chills in the sunshine. That’s the key story I want to talk about – the one that opens the collection. If you’d prefer to read it, the book’s also on Gutenberg.

Did you do it – all the way? Man, is that creepy or what?

The story opens with a bang, outlining a 1920’s New York imagined in a 19th Century European style and following a war with Germany. Government sponsored suicide chambers are being christened throughout the city. The narrator casually mentions a fall from his horse a few years ago and speaks of his doctor like somebody he needs to kill:

“At last he decided that I was well, and I, knowing that my mind had always been as sound as his, if not sounder, ‘paid my tuition’ as he jokingly called it, and left. I told him, smiling, that I would get even with him for his mistake, and he laughed heartily, and asked me to call once in a while. I did so, hoping for a chance to even up accounts, but he gave me none, and I told him I would wait.”

A banned play circulating in bootleg copies is mentioned, titled ‘The King In Yellow’. You can get away with reading Act 1 and only go a little crazy. But read farther into Act 2 and you’re nuts – maybe you’ll kill people, maybe you’ll scheme and wait for the mysterious ‘yellow sign’ to rise up in revolt, maybe you’ll blubber like a lunatic in the corner.

“It is well known how the book spread like infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in ‘The King in Yellow’, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked.’

A bit of unintended magic happened here. Since Chambers wrote this before the turn of the century, what is an alternate history now was just an extrapolation of pre-WW1 Europe reproducing its pageantry and courtyards and brightly plumed soldiers on horseback in the new world. Every time I read this, I imagine Miyazaki’s alpine city in Howl’s Moving Castle. Except with suicide chambers and lunatics roaming about.

Steampunk didn’t exist when this was written; but now that’s what it is. An unreliable narrator. Meta-style self-references. Larger-than-life, scheming caricature grotesques right out of Dickens or Gormenghast. Gentle, wicked hints at the looming threat instead of blatant noise like many popular hacks writing today. Chambers made absolute magic happen; and he probably didn’t even know how he did it. And unfortunately, he never matched his success either.

Rather than me ruining it, do me a favor now. Here at Grailrunner, we try to show you something that inspires…things that are awesome and want to steal your attention long enough to make an impact that will last forever in how you think. ‘The Repairer Of Reputations’ will do that for you. Have patience with it. Let Peter Yearsley’s creepy voice work its hoodoo on you.

Go meet the eerie Mister Wilde and his stalking, vicious cat that tears at his face. Follow the panicked, desperate Vance into the shadows on his mission for the King. Sit with Louis and his cousin at midnight in the park by the suicide chamber and read ‘The Imperial Dynasty Of America’. See if you think it’s a shining crown in a safe or a pasted tinsel in a biscuit box.

If all of that is unfamiliar, I envy you.

And if you’re a wordslinger, maybe you’ll do like so many before us and steal from Chambers something that strikes you as too good to leave alone. Something that needs to change shape and whisper in a different way, but with the same fascination.

I envy that too.

 

The White City Devil: How To See Through Nonsense

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Read this and tell me what’s wrong with it:

“Born in 1861 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire, H.H. Holmes was one of America’s first serial murderers. He took over a Chicago pharmacy and built it into an elaborate maze of death traps to which he lured numerous victims during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He was eventually captured and hanged in 1896.” link

I have a thing for wanting to know things other people don’t know…I want to really know nonsense when I see it, especially if the crowds are stampeding in the other direction. Not sure why that is. It’s just how I think. I read The True History Of The White City Devil recently; and it got me thinking about this side of me again. I’ll get back to the Holmes thing in a bit. Stick with me.

A few years ago, after reading a book about the Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story Of The Mary Celeste And Her Missing Crew, I compiled a few rules for how modern myths develop, which I’ll share below. At the time, it struck me how so many of the “unsolved mysteries” I grew up fascinated by were probably benign and dull in fact, but made salacious by people with agendas and a need for good gossip to spread. In this Mary Celeste book, the traditional view is a ship’s crew disappeared with warm food on the table and no log explanation or damage to the ship. Gone – into thin air. Google it; and you’ll read about black holes and aliens and teleportation. I’m not sure you’d buy and read anything that just suggested fumes from burst barrels of alcohol drove people to the lifeboat and subsequently got them separated from the ship in a storm.

Arthur Machen’s introduction to his story “The Bowmen” captures this myth development process in its tracks. Go read that – it will blow your mind.

Have a look at the convoluted history of the Voynich Manuscript and see if you don’t agree this thing is just a hoax. People see what they want to see. The 2016-2017 political climate should make that point as loudly as anything I can tell you here.

Here are the rules I’ve distilled regarding myth development:

  • The story needs a new or interesting hook to rise to critical mass in the first place
  • Often, the story suits or in some way encapsulates its era, or symbolizes a way of life (like Jack the Ripper’s foggy London)
  • Confirmation bias is the first sign of critical mass – contrary evidence starts getting ignored
  • Major players involved in the story’s propagation have agendas (like selling books or their story to news outlets, career advancement)
  • Details begin to accumulate and attach, which aren’t true but fit well with the original kernel

Back to the book about H. H. Holmes, the problem with the statement I provided above is it’s basically not true. The reviews for “The True History Of The White City Devil” said in a big way that the book is bland at times because it’s so well researched. In fact, I adored this book because of that. No junk here – the author cuts through the noise and has spent countless hours dredging through microfiche and dusty library stacks to bring us truth. It’s a lot less sexy of a story than the traditional view of a lusty villain in his murder hotel luring innocent visitors to the World’s Fair into their dooms. It’s the story of a pathological liar and con man who got himself stuck in his schemes and wound up doing away with a small handful of people to clean up the mess. In fact, no one at all may have even rented a room in what has come to history as the “Murder Castle”. Fascinating.

I put this myth development concern at the heart of my first novel, envisioning a mystic who manipulated myth development to guide history.

There’s a TV show on now presenting a relatively popular theory that Holmes was in fact also Jack The Ripper. It’s a theory being propounded by a great-great-grandson of Holmes himself. What’s presented as evidence is actually just crackpot talking heads in a lot of cases. Anything working against the theme is waved off as an obstruction to the truth. It’s absolute nonsense; and I’m not even going to give you a link to it.

Anyway, if you’re into truth and can appreciate a well-researched study done by someone who cares about cutting through the noise, pick up a copy. It’s worth your time.

‘The Dark Tower’: We’re gonna need more dunce caps…

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Don’t go see it. Please.

Go ahead and nod knowingly, and tell yourself here’s just another fanboy with his diaper full because the movie wasn’t just like the precious book. You need to know specific reasons first – why the new ‘Dark Tower’ movie with Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey is a steaming pile of it. I can do that for you…if you promise me you’ll skip it. Skip it so the lack of box office revenue will force the rights back to someone who can think beyond making diluted nonsense in hopes of creating their own Marvel-style connected universe. Please, God, stop with the connected universes!

Full disclosure – I am a fanboy, though. Those books are amazing. Seriously. But I digress.

There are probably spoilers here; but unless I can make them more interesting than the movie did, you’ll forget them as soon as you read them anyway. I wouldn’t worry about it.

The movie: A bad guy with cardboard back story who’s got superpowers and a ridiculous agenda of destroying the universe is kidnapping kids to do so. He’s awful and kills people so you’ll think he’s scary, and struts like a rooster afraid of nothing. Wide-eyed kid convinces battle-weary reluctant warrior to go to battle one more time and defeat the evildoer. You even get a scene where he teaches the kid how to shoot. Special effects. Special effects. Minor jokes. Climax. Victory. Open ending for sequels. The end.

It’s absolutely impossible for you to get confused because they outdid themselves with narration all throughout like you have no imagination whatsoever. Characters say things just to make the next scene make sense, or to explain the last scene. I’m not exaggerating here – it’s brutal to watch. The dialogue may as well have been stage directions.

“That’s how the demon died, a psychic could override it”

“Didn’t they lose a kid the other day? Maybe it’s the same kid!”

The plot is so eye-rolling plain vanilla that you could easily substitute the Power Rangers for Roland and have basically the same movie. If you just guessed at some scenes and some dialogue that the movie probably has, you’re almost certain to be right. I finished several lines in my head before the characters spoke them.

“Your shine is your weapon. The guns are mine.” That’s one of the lines I saw coming.

The Man In Black is intriguing in the books because he was part of the end of an age that led to the end to the gunslingers, a weird-western type of knight with supernatural six-shooter skills that defended Mid-World. He’s afraid of the lead character, and runs when he has to. He is a schemer and seducer, hiding and manipulating, and not necessarily up to his schemes because it’s his idea. Yeah, you get none of that here. McConaughey’s just the little Martian from the Bugs Bunny cartoon that wants his Iridium 238 Space Modulator so he can blow up the universe or whatever.

Roland is intriguing in the books because he’s a vestige of a fascinating old order. People step aside and respect him; and he helps when he has to as long as he can get back to his quest as soon as possible. He’s not afraid to sacrifice even his friends, and in fact lets Jake die when he first comes across him. He’s going to get to the tower no matter what. The movie version is your Hollywood archetype dude who’s amazing in battle but tired of it, and has a paper-thin motivation served up to you in a tight, 3 minute package with the guy from the All-State commercials.

I’ll stop, because you’re losing patience with my bitterness.

If Sony had paid closer attention to what works in the series, what is truly unique and inventive, this movie could have been paradigm-shattering. There hasn’t been a blockbuster ‘Star Wars’ for the weird-western genre yet. This could have been it! There’s a world of people out there pretending to be jedi to more deeply immerse themselves in their entertainment – this movie could have launched something similar for gunslingers.

There’s a body of Stephen King movies out there already that actually get tied together in the series – almost everything the man ever wrote comes together in these books. If they wanted a connected universe, what a twist it would have been to buy and show spiffed-up scenes from some of those already-existing movies? The rights would have been pennies compared to the interest drummed up by such a novelty. I’d rather have been marveling over how they pulled that off than spending time watching a male Rita Repulsa fire the deathstar beam from ‘The Force Awakens’ at a bland lego tower.

If you do go see it, please let me know your thoughts. If you never read the books, I’m particularly interested in what you thought of the movie. It’s hard to separate from what I’d hoped to see, so I could be completely wrong about all this.

But I doubt it.

 

Brain-hacking And The Glass Bead Game

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“…a mode of playing with the total content and values of our culture. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced…the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has obtained an almost unimaginable perfection. Theoretically, this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.” -Herman Hesse

I think I ran across The Glass Bead Game in a list somewhere of books favored by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges makes me jealous because even footnotes in his stories are interesting. If you’re not yet into this guy, go get this. It’s not really my point today that you should go read either of these books, although you of course should; but it is absolutely my launching point.

But so you know, in the case that you haven’t come across The Glass Bead Game, the idea is there’s a game in the future where the players link up themes or hidden associations between ideas and expressions and build massive intellectual edifices as they go. Not sure how you win or even how you play because it’s like chasing fog as you read that maddening book what the rules are. Worth it, though. If you’re at all into mind-expanding originality and chin-scratching genius…it’s worth the read. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the James Burke show from back in the day, Connections. Except maybe with more coffee and on another level.

Again though, not my point today. Let me tell you about synergy and neuroplasticity, then I’ll drop you back off here with Hesse. It was just a weird thing that started happening to me that connected a lot of things and opened up some of my writing. Maybe it’s happened to you too.

A few summers back, I went on a history binge and read these:

  1. A biography of Billy The Kid emphasizing his rise as folk hero by way of dime novels
  2. A book about 19th century political schemer, Boss Tweed and the role cartoonist Thomas Nast played in bringing public opinion down on him
  3. Fawn Brodie’s scathing biography of Mormon Church founder, Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History

These books aren’t related to each other in any way, apart from just my weird, scattered interests; but something glared back at me so obvious and bright when I finished the third of them that it really struck me. All three of these (forgive me if you feel differently about Smith) swelled into larger-than-life, mythical figures and in some cases shattered against the rise of literacy in 19th century America. As more people could read and as newspapers and dime novels grew in popularity, these three came to power (and fell); and they couldn’t have done so beforehand. It was a unifying theme, entirely unexpected.

I’ll hit you with another one. Happened over this past Christmas holiday:

  1. Practical Object-Oriented Design In Ruby (don’t judge me, I only understood half of it – just curious). This one did a nice job showing how object-oriented programming languages set up little balls of usefulness that act on their own, waiting on signals, and do only the stuff they’re asked but generate emergent behavior. Just a way of programming computers, but super satisfying when you think about it.
  2. The Cell: A Visual Tour Of The Building Block Of Life, which does a nice grand tour of the little balls of usefulness acting inside our cells – organelles and proteins, cytoskeletons building and unraveling, walking proteins…all acting on their own, waiting on signals, and doing only the stuff they’re asked but still generating emergent behavior.

You get me, yeah? Cells work like object-oriented programming languages. Whatever that implies. Somebody should write something about that.

Since our brains are neuroplastic, they rewire themselves as we try to think differently or encounter dramatically new types of information. If you start trying to learn to read music, for example, over time it will get a lot easier as you learn to think that way. You can actually see the brain doing this, by the way, making new connections. My overall point here is that if you get in the habit of looking for hidden connections like I happened across, like a Glass Bead Game player might, over time you’ll get better at doing so.

Seeing crazy connections and themes between things you run across or read or watch, expands your thoughts and makes you more creative. If you’ve spent any time at all hanging around this blog, you’ll know that’s kind of my thing.

Any crazy connections you’ve come across? Drop me a note, I’d like to hear about it. Some folks have told me they’ve actually played recreations of Hesse’s game – details, man! If you’ve done that, send me details!

Less whining. More Inspiring. Have a great rest of July!

What Is It With You And Science Fiction?

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You see that title up there, right? My dad asked me that once.  Maybe you know somebody – maybe you are somebody – that relates to the question. What on earth does the sort of thing those people dream about have to do with real life? I mean, you can find bajillions of romance and self-help titles, no end of action movies and romantic comedies. A better life. A way out. Love. Who couldn’t relate to those things? But when a stranger stands there with a cocktail in their hand asking what your “sci fi” book is about, just go ahead and watch that look on her face.

I did a fanboy thing the other day that I want to tell you about, then I’ll come back to this question. They’re related, believe it or not.

A while back, I read Lady Of Mazes by Karl Schroeder and thought it was meh. Then I read another one of his called Sun Of Suns and wrote about it, a little more impressed. Then I read the sequel. Not even kidding – a year went by; and the ideas from that first book are still kicking around in my head, simmering like vegetable soup.  I just finished Ventus; and I’m sold on this guy’s brain. He thinks big. I really like people that think big. Here’s how he describes his job:

“…both an analyst of future trends and a communicator, using articles, fiction, presentations and even games to show what might be possible, and where we might be headed.”

I don’t get much value out of Twitter but it’s there, so…you know…I found him there. Dropped him a note saying his book was getting me through some boring flights. And he answered, said something plain vanilla like, “Glad you liked it. I loved writing that book!” And I thought that was maybe a little more awesome than you do. Still, this idea of a guy who churns away all day, trying to extrapolate where blockchain technology or future forms of government may go…with the wild ideas Schroeder has…that’s exciting to me. He got me thinking about the power of science fiction to warn us and to inspire us, and its highest mission – to lay out the vision so we know which way to go.

Somewhere in my stacks, I’ve got a dorky book written by William Shatner where he traveled around and interviewed a bunch of cutting edge scientists working on the latest technology and innovations, and found a bunch of starry-eyed swooners who told him Star Trek was the reason they got into what they did. And yes, I went for the pun.  Something very much like that is what I told my dad, by the way.

Anyway, I noticed that Schroeder has been invited to participate in something called the Science Fiction Advisory Council. You can read a little more about it here. And that is what’s right with the world. The point is to bring these smart, imaginative thinkers together and generate content to inform and project what may happen in different sectors like government, energy production & distribution, health and technology, and the environment. They’ll be meeting quarterly either in person or virtually.

Here are the folks joining up with him – see if you can find your favorite:

CaptureThe first project will be stories launching from a Tokyo-San Francisco flight that mysteriously appears 20 years in the future.

So go read Karl Schroeder and mull over the gargantuan ‘archipelago’ he dreamed up, figure out what “thalience” means, and imagine a world where people access augmented reality and personal scenario simulations at will or even send simulations of themselves off to deal with life while they fritter away sipping pina colada or whatever. He’s worth your time if you’re into dreaming big.

And drop me a note with what area you’d focus on if you were to join this council. Tell me about your future.

Comic Cons And Your Faith In Humanity

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Hey, have you ever been stuck in a silly disorganized line somewhere full of pissed-off people, waiting on something you know is going to be awesome? Attendants ignore you and shoot the face-palm to maybe remind you they’re not getting paid enough for this. Then people start cutting in line in front of you. Then a guy recognizes that and starts yelling. If there’s alcohol, it goes downhill quickly, right? And of course if there’s rain or it’s cold, fuhgedaboudit – right?

So I guess it should have been that way yesterday at Kansas City’s ‘Planet Comicon’, but it wasn’t. Because people of my tribe know better; and that is what’s right in the world.

Let me back up. I found this recently. Back in the day, ‘Starlog’ magazine was a place where you could find things like whether Han Solo was going to get out of the carbonite while waiting on the next movie, or where you could see a casual letter addressed from Sri Lanka written in by Arthur C. Clarke. It was a science fiction dude’s treasure trove. That link is the archive for all the issues. God bless whoever put that together because yay. I was interested in the science fiction world immediately prior to 1977’s release of ‘Star Wars’ and what it was like immediately afterwards because that was very much a pivot point.

What you’ll find should you follow in my footsteps is nerd culture was desperately clinging to decade-old episodes of ‘Star Trek’ and the relatively crappy ‘Space 1999’. They wanted so much more and were hungry for something to get lost in. It comes across on every page. They wanted somewhere to belong without catching crap from anyone about it. Strangely, it reflected exactly what I found in the letters pages of old sci-fi pulps from the 1930’s .

Now flash forward to yesterday in Kansas City with temps in the 40’s and cold rain, no parking downtown, a credit card reader in the lot not working and no attendant, and formless lines outside the Con snaking this way and that, in and out of the rain, with no one clear on which was ‘Will Call’ and which was ‘Walk-in’. People who had no tickets were going in front of guys that had prepaid. Here, see?IMG_5660Inside, it got nuts on Saturday with the crowds. Lines could take up to an hour for just fries and a drink. Was crazy, man. Crazy. And yet…

A dude in a steampunk hat at the parking lot offered to chant Swahili spells for me to make it work. A lady schlepping her Fairy Queen dress in bundles across the street just smiled. The guy who put together a lifelike Jabba The Hut replica didn’t charge anything for you to take pictures next to it. There was a little tiny kid, no older than 10 I swear, in a stilted Groot costume with a line going around the corner of people waiting to take pictures with him. I saw a dude and his dad dressed like Indiana Jones and Henry Jones from ‘Last Crusade’. Here, look at this:

And then I turned a corner and saw Chris Claremont. I’m not organized, I didn’t know who all was going to be there. But there was the guy that wrote some of the most influential comic books ever. The ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga and ‘Days Of Future Past’ from X-men were his brain-babies. He’s probably the reason you’ve even heard of Wolverine. And he was chatting and laughing, telling jokes and cool anecdotes to everybody in line.

I’m sure somebody from yesterday could tell you how wet and hungry they got and how rude somebody was to them. No doubt. Honestly though, if seeing a dad, mom and tiny daughter posing happily with alien-suckers stuck to their faces or cheerful Deadpool guys handing out fliers saying, ‘Free paper!” doesn’t warm your heart, what on earth will?

If you have any cool comic con stories, I’d love to hear them!

Logan’s Run And The Story DNA Hollywood Needs

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So I re-watched Logan’s Run the other day, for the bajillionth time. I’ve got a serious thing for the uber-creative science fiction material that came out of Hollywood in the seventies and early eighties. Can’t help it. Don’t care what the FX look like, I just appreciate that so much of it was out of absolutely nowhere with the ideas and trappings. Then like any compulsive nut who can’t let things go, I started re-reading the books – the trilogy by William F. Nolan (George Clayton Johnson helped out with the first book). It got me thinking about crappy Hollywood remakes, the Music Genome Project, and a skill that writers (and money jockeys in Hollywood) could use to make the world a better place. Please allow me to expand on that.

I’m gonna go ahead and spoil all the story stuff for you here – if you don’t know what Logan’s Run is, I’m pretty jealous. Go watch that and read them and buy the lifeclock and Sandman shirt off eBay or something, then get back to me with pics of you wandering around Houston or Dallas or somewhere looking for where they shot the scenes.

The movie version: “A 1976 American science fiction film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter. It depicts a utopian future society on the surface, revealed as a dystopia where the population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by killing everyone who reaches the age of 30. The story follows the actions of Logan 5, a ‘Sandman’ who has terminated others who have attempted to escape death, and is now faced with termination himself.” -Wikipedia

There’s a domed city where people are pleasure-chasing sheep, watched over by paramilitary Sandmen in very cool uniforms who chase and eliminate the runners that don’t believe ‘Carrousel’ (their spelling, not mine) is the reincarnation they’re told it is. Logan discovers an ankh on a dead runner, which draws him into the underground network of runners and eventually in love with one of them and all that sort of thing. For me, it hits all sorts of highlights:

  1. Tough-guy gunslingers, with a buddy story
  2. Gorgeous and mysterious woman involved in intrigue
  3. Domed freaking city with futuristic technology and weird backstory
  4. Authoritarian shadow-government slamming down an unfair ultimatum on the hero with no recourse for him
  5. Cool scenery and high-stakes chase down into the ever-deepening mystery
  6. Post-apocalypse reveal, with burned-out cities

The folks at the Music Genome Project boil songs down to basic elements to allow for comparing and recommending them. Paul Hardcastle’s slow jazz song ‘Lost Summer’, for example, might include:

  • Smooth jazz elements
  • R&B and funk influences
  • Synthetic instrumentation and a melodic alto sax solo
  • Use of call-and-response melodies
  • A groove-oriented approach

Maybe if they were to strip down the Logan’s Run film, it would include some things off my list, or maybe things more basic like:

  1. Rebellion against authority theme
  2. Intrigue and inclusion of underground resistance
  3. Youth versus establishment theme

I imagine when these books first hit, the culture was ready for something that pushed these buttons. That’s kind of my point about crappy Hollywood remakes – that the buttons aren’t bothered to be identified or adhered to. The point is missed. If you read any articles about people wanting to remake this movie, they just want to make Logan a girl or stick some odd bits in that have no purpose other than spectacle. Of course, that goes way back. In Nolan’s introduction to the books, he said this of a meeting with a screenwriter in 1968:

“I recall a lunch with Maibaum in Beverly Hills shortly after the option had been picked up. He was already into the script and full of what I felt were bad ideas, none of which existed in the original novel.

‘There’s this giant surfing god on the shores of Hawaii’, he told me. ‘Big, bronzed guy about ninety feet high. We have all these young studs on flying surfboards fighting like crazy, zooming through the air around their god, ripping each other apart…just think of it as James Bond in Tomorrowland.'”

I mean – what?

The Kevin Feige-era Marvel movies got the tone right, I think, possibly a reason for the ridiculous amount of cash they’re pulling in. A little humor, some spectacle, cool rules like ‘the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets’ and the idea that no one unworthy can lift Thor’s hammer. I remember when I was a kid reading those comics how fantastic I thought it was that all those guys knew each other, that Peter Parker hung out with Johnny Storm and asked Matt Murdock for advice sometimes, and occasionally had uncomfortable conversations with Wolverine in a bar. So Marvel hit those buttons, triggering nostalgia, sure, but also the same chemistry I liked so much when I was a kid.

The idea that prompted me to sit for a while and jot this down for you is this:

What would happen if aspiring wordslingers like myself got really, really good at boiling down the STORY DNA of things, to the point that we know them instinctively when we see them, and could even read what the people are hungry for us to push?

Wouldn’t you say buttons like these would be timely:

  • Distrust of authority and government
  • Nostalgia for the feeling of freedom like a bike in summertime
  • Clear, decisive, and upright moral leadership without the taint of scandal
  • Inspirational stories of disparate people coming together for something bigger than themselves

I don’t know – what buttons do you see waiting out there?

Maybe we need a Literary Genome Project: a society of trusted book reviewers in all major genres and a set of agreed-upon themes and tropes that could be applied like the music folks are doing. Movie-makers could use it as a way of lowering their risk for untested concepts, by knowing what themes need to appear in the movie to avoid disappointing the intended audience. Authors could use it to replicate the feel of the works that inspired them without ripping them off.

Anyway, that’s a shower thought – probably only good while the water’s running. Let me know what you think!