Decline and Fall

When you write speculative fiction, one of your biggest tasks is world-building.  Whether you’re writing a star-spanning sci-fi civilization, or a medieval kingdom in fantasy, that world-building is just as key as are your characters.  If the world is neither compelling nor unique, pretty much no one is going to give your (presumably brilliant!) characters a chance to reveal themselves…

Now, I do a lot of prep and background work long before I write a story.  I do it for my characters, yes, but for my “worlds” also.  In fact, I probably do a bit too much.  I work out details and histories and facts that no one will ever see, especially given the tight focus I like to keep on my characters.  I do that background work — that invisible work — because I think the depth and “reality” are necessary.  Characters are shaped by their society, and their society is shaped by it’s history.  A Pole and a Czech are not far apart in space, their respective societies are not far apart in respect to the time the modern iterations have existed, but their histories…their histories make for vastly different people and outlooks.

I started thinking about world-building over the last couple of days not because of the work I want & need to do on a new story, but because of the news.

Yep, the news.  The real world, boring, obnoxious news.

One of the favorite tools of the speculative fiction writer is the “empire in decline.”  From the decline into senescence of Tolkien’s Gondor to the fall of Moorcock’s Melnibone…

From the disintegration of Martin’s Seven Kingdoms to the disintegration of Asimov’s Galactic Empire…

Hell, from the fall of Lucas’ Old Republic to the destruction of just about everything in the Walking Dead, the decline and fall of a civilization offers far-too tempting — and far-too effective! — a backdrop for any speculative writer to ignore.

Of course, I’m not just a writer, I’m also a historian.  More than that, I’m a historian whose academic training is in the decline of the Roman Republic, and its transition to Empire.  That training and knowledge tends to give me a certain perspective on, and fascination with, civilizations on the wrong side of the peak.

560d2cee9dd7cc10008be5e5-750The thing about all those declining kingdoms and empires in stories is that they are there to give the characters something to look back to, something greater and more wonderful to hope/dream/aim for.  They’re plot devices as much as they are world-building.  That’s why you never (or very, very seldom) see good stories place the protagonist as a member of a civilization at or near its peak, not unless that power is something to be hated and overthrown.

And you certainly never see a protagonist sit amidst all the power and splendor of a dynamic, vibrant empire and say, “You know, this is all going to shit…”

So, as I said, I’ve been reading the news: You know, this is all going to shit.

As a politics geek, and a history nerd, the realization that I am living on the downslope of such an empire, that every passing year in my country will be worse than the last, is troubling and depressing.  To think that we are no longer capable of things that seemed so simple just a few years and decades ago…to think that every crisis, every problem, will just get worse…


But as a writer?  As a writer, that thought offers all kinds of possibilities and ideas…and challenges.  We can’t forget the challenges.  To create hurdles and problems that have meaning, that matter, is not easy when you’re talking about a society at or near its peak.

Writing-Exercises-1024x512Writing and thinking about all this has inspired a bit of a writing exercise (that will probably never see the light of day…just like most of my “practice” exercises): can I create the basis/plot for a story that works in a similar setting?  Can I create a fantasy or sci-fi setting and circumstance that sets a protagonist willingly and happily amidst a power actually at its peak?  Can there be stakes and challenges that mean something in that setting?

I Don’t Do Nostalgia

Something scary happened to me the other day.  Now, I get disturbing and unsettling things fairly often, and I get irritating things every single day, but scary?  Not so much.

I was talking with an acquaintance.  Arguing, really.  It was a discussion about the best sci-fi TV series of all time.  Nothing unusual for me in a debate like; while I have strong opinions on shows I love and hate, I am always looking for ways to get another perspective, always willing to talk about shows and movies.

images-3.jpegIn addition to writing and music, I am also — if you haven’t guessed — a movie and TV nerd.  We all have regrets from when we we were young.  We all have those annoyingly nostalgic memories and thoughts of paths not taken.  Well, my biggest regret, my worst missed path, was in not following my love of cinematography and directing.  I worked in film/TV in high school, even did some in college, but I never trusted myself enough to pursue it.  Of course, I didn’t trust myself to pursue anything in that first stint in college…which is probably why I drank my way through it rather than study…

Ahem.  Never mind.  That particular little bit of random regret is most definitely not what I sat down to write about…

I’ll spare you all the gory details of the debate itself.  I mean, you already KNEW Deep Space 9 was the best of the Star Trek series, that the (relatively) recent re-make of V was muddled garbage, and that HBO’s Game of Thrones is better than the actual books right?  Right?!?  Of course you knew all that.

None of that was the scary part, anyway.  Want to know what the scary part was?  Firefly.


Not just one of my favorite sci-fi shows, it’s one of my favorite shows of any genre and any time period.  I mean, crap, it’s on my list with Twilight Zone, I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H and Cheers, for God’s sake…

And it’s better than fifteen years old.


Holy shit…it feels like that thing just came out!  I mean…crap…I can still remember watching it when it when it was new!  Hell, I still binge-watch it at least once a year…

Fifteen years old.

The damned show can almost drive.  Pretty soon it’ll get married and have little baby shows!*  Crap, a barrel of scotch made when it premiered is just about ready to drink!

*Don’t I wish — Firefly’s tiny fourteen episode run is still far-too heartbreakingly short.

By the way, if you want a good lesson in the use of flashbacks and seemingly-random jumps in sequence and timing to tell a story, and to build pathos, watch the episode Out of Gas.  I’ve written before about learning from everything when it comes to writing, and I meant it.  Some of the most important lessons on writing and storytelling I’ve ever learned came from movies: Spielberg on foreshadowing, Hitchcock on tension and suspense, Scorsese on symbolism, Scott on mood and atmosphere, Singer on manipulating perception and expectations…I could go on for a long time, but I think I’ll save that digression for another time.

The original Star Trek is over fifty…Star Wars over forty…Blade Runner thirty-five…and none of that is quite so depressing as Firefly being fifteen.

Crap, I don’t do memory (when I can help it), and I avoid nostalgia like the plague…this is no freaking way to start a day…


Random musical interlude — nothing really to do with Firefly or the post I just wrote, nothing other than the fact that this particular song is one of the most evocative pieces I have ever heard.  I know it’s the key and the progression and the rhythm that all combine to evoke memory and nostalgia…I know that, but still it works:


Yay for stream-of-consciousness blogging today…?

What’s that, you say?  Why am I going all last-minute random on this post?

Because I’m a slacker…we’ve covered that already.  Sheesh.

writerThere was a time — not so long ago — when I kept 2-3 posts queued up, ready to go.  Those days, unfortunately, have long-since passed in a fog laziness and distraction.  So, instead, I sat down this morning, music blaring in my ears and my 2nd coffee (pot) of the day near at hand, and stared blankly at my iPad…

Should I do another random, funny post?  No, not really feelin’ all that funny this morning.

How about a flash fiction piece?  No, that’s for Fridays.

Maybe another politics post?  Oh, hell no.  I just took a shower, I don’t need to get down into the muck and mud, thank you very much.

Well, shit…maybe it’s time to, err, do a post on what this blog is ostensibly about: writing.*

*I should probably, by the way, update the “About” section of the blog, it hasn’t been anything close to the reality of how I write this in like two years.

Screw my iPad, I’m looking out the window now.  I’m looking out at the tail end of a snowstorm, at a grove of bare aspens half-buried in the drifts, at a frozen lake in the distance and a herd of deer digging for breakfast in the foreground, at an adolescent bobcat frustrated as hell because she’s too small to actually get one of those deer…

Err, yeah, I left the city behind for a reason.

Now, if I wanted to go all ambitious and thoughtful, I’d get into symbolism and meaning…get into how we — err, how I — try to use ostensibly “background” images and activities to communicate our — my — own thoughts and feelings as part of the story.

Err…umm…doing that full topic would be a lot of work.*  I think I’ll narrow it down…and then narrow it some more.

*Umm…slacker?  Remember?

Weather.  No, really, I’m gonna talk about the freaking weather, for Pete’s sake.

Weather affects everything in the real world…and should in the written world, too.  From the rhythm and realities of life in the city as much as in the wilds, to our very moods and customs, weather is arguably the most dominant force in our lives.  What, you don’t believe me?

Have you ever been in the far north in midwinter?  In the butt-ass cold?  No sun?  Nothing but snow and cold and dreariness?  Yeah, cabin-fever is very real.

Have you ever lived at the beach?  Warmed yourself in the sun after a day of play in the waves?  

Have you ever lived amidst that stifling, miserable mix of heat and humidity?  Felt air so thick you could barely move through it?

Yeah, that’s all weather — err, well, it’s weather and climate, actually, but I think I’ll skip the pedantry today.  

So what does any of that mean in regards to writing?  How does weather come into (symbolic) play?

That’s a far more personal, and complicated, thing to answer than you might think.  Oh, sure, I could go back to high school creative writing and literature classes and quote the “standard” line about winter=death, spring=rebirth, etc… but that’s all simplistic bullshit.*

*Sorry, high school kids, but most of the curriculum they’re throwing at you is simplistic bullshit…

Look, I lived in northern New England, I understand cabin-fever.  I understand even more the dreary misery the depths of winter can bring, the depression that comes with entire weeks at a time with no sight of the sun…but I still love the winter.  I love a good snowstorm…just as much as I love being the first to hike the backcountry when that storm has passed.  I love the bite of the cold when I’m out, and the almost-unbearable heat that first hits when I come back inside.  I love sitting in front of a much-needed fire, and I love sitting out on the deck all bundled-up…

In short, winter does NOT equal the “season of death” for me.  Winter does NOT automatically equate to pain and misery and decay.  Not to go all-in on sophomoric philosophy, but winter is, for me, a necessary part of the cycle.  You have to have a time for sleep, a time for cold, a time for things to slow down, in order to have anything else.  Without winter, there is no spring.  Without winter, there is no life.

There is a reason, after all, why every single civilization/society in the far northern latitudes has a traditional celebration of warmth and life in the midst of winter.  Yes, some of that goes back to a sense of defiance of the cold and “death” of winter, but it also goes back to a feeling of re-gathering one’s strength, a feeling of freshness and preparation.  In sports terms, it goes back to that feeling of build-up you get in the locker room just before your step out onto the field (or the ice, in my case).

Crap, when I started working on this post, I fully intended it to be about writing, to be about how I use the weather to clue the reader in to my protagonist’s relationship with the Universe at any given moment.  Umm…  Err…  Ahh…


m0crikey_m_khakiIf I try to dive into that at this point, after 850+ words already, we’d be looking at a 3,000 word post.  Crikey!  Remember, by the way, when I mentioned that I’m a wordy sonofabitch?  That I started this blog as a way of working on short-form writing?  Yeah, today’s post just might be Exhibit A for why I need that practice…

Still, I want to close this out with at least something about writing.  Specifically, I want to close it out with a bit about how “overlooked” background elements can — and should, I say! — be used to indicate far more than just atmosphere and mood.

Bear with me, I’ll (try to) keep this short.  In the movie Casino, Martin Scorsese uses DeNiro’s clothes to indicate the character’s deteriorating mental, emotional and ethical state, to indicate how Rothstein (DeNiro) is breaking down as things fall apart.  As the movie progresses, his clothes move from stylish-but-restrained into colors and styles that are more extreme, that are brighter and more aggressive.  By the end of the movie, those clothes are in complete contrast to what he wore when he first moved to Vegas…just as is the character.  In terms of what I hinted at above — about how I use the weather in my writing — DeNiro’s clothes indicate the character’s relationship with the Universe…

In my writing, when I use winter, I am trying to imply more than just death, more than just misery and depression and despair.  I am trying to hint at rebirths and changes to come, at the re-gathering of focus and energy…oh, and at cabin-fever and frostbite, too.

Making Stuff Up

Okay, it’s time for the second part of the “long post” I promised.  I did the astronomy bit last week, so today gets to focus on the sci-fi part…

I’ve already done a couple of posts on why I write sci-fi (most recently here), so I won’t go too far down that particular rabbit hole, other than to say that I like sci-fi as a tool.  That genre lets me play with social and political and cultural questions and problems in ways that “real world” fiction wouldn’t really allow.

Okay, that’s it for the theory part of the post.  Instead, I want to get to the nuts-and-bolts of how (and why) I turn my love of history and astronomy into science fiction stories…


That’s easy: I like making shit up.  I make a lot of shit up…and that’s the fun bit.

Crap…maybe I should expand on that explanation just a bit…

**By the way — if you’re as much a fan of cognitive dissonance as I am, you might enjoy the fact that I’m listening to a band called the Avett Brothers while I write…this song has many things going for it, but I’m pretty sure no one would ever associate it with sci-fi!**

First off, I am in no way or form a writer of “hard sci-fi.”  Hard sci-fi, for the uninitiated, focuses on evolving real-world, modern physics and science into the future.  It tends to be the product of those astronomers and physics professors who have turned their hand to writing…folks like Clarke and Benford* and a handful of others.  Now, a few guys have made it work, but the vast majority of “hard sci-fi” concentrates just too much on the “hard” part — the science and engineering become the story most of the time, and…well…that doesn’t often make for a good read.  Even good ol’ Arthur C. could get dry and boring at times…and that’s as close to science-fiction-blasphemy as I can come without an angry nerd-mob coming for me with torches and pitchforks.

*An old professor of mine, by the way…thanks, Dr. Benford!

No, when I write sci-fi the, err, science part is NOT foremost in my mind.  Character and story — and those social, cultural, and political problems that I mentioned before — are what I’m thinking about, not the details of orbital mechanics.  Don’t get me wrong, the science part of sci-fi part is important, but it’s there to serve what really matters, not define it.

A bit of perspective on that: in last Friday’s astronomy-nerd post I jokingly described faster-than-light travel as space magic, and it is.  The limit of the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) is the most fundamental and iron-clad of the universe’s many fundamental, iron-clad laws.  But, to be blunt, I wanted to write about a shaking/tottering/decaying Earth “empire” that is ready to fly apart without having to focus on voyages of many, many decades.  Even less did I want to even try to deal with the effects of relativity in terms of the passage of time.

So…space magic!

A wave my magic space bar and *WHAM* ships can go many times the speed of light.  Okay, okay … so they can only do so outside of a star system — I managed to restrain my baser impulses and keep enough “scientific integrity” to limit my ships to realistic accelerations and velocities inside a special (magic!) red line.  I haven’t completely surrendered my nerd-dom, after all…


And gravity…

Don’t get me started on gravity.

No, I did NOT want to deal with all the bullshit that comes with spinning ships/stations for gravity, and the Coriolis Effect.  Nope, not me.  Too much work.  Another wave of my magic space bar and *WHAM* artificial gravity!  My characters get to walk and talk and function like real folks!  Err, except when I don’t want them to.  Then I just turn off the gravity.

See…making shit up is fun!

I do, by the way, keep the universe itself the same.  I mentioned before the 3-D computer model I made of all the stars within 50 lightyears of Earth.  Well, part of that model was to create a list of the stars most likely to have planets suitable to supporting humans..and then to create “travel lanes” based on the limitations of my magic-FTL-drive.  From there, it was “simply” a matter of writing a few hundred years of “history” to define the expansion and development of my tottering/reeling society…

Okay, I have to admit, that bit was fun, too.

I do, I should add, have aliens…in spite of the realities I wrote about in last Friday’s post.  Those aliens figured in a big way into the two “trunk novels” that started/inspired my DockRat universe, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with the more “realistic” stories about Connor and Oz.

Of course, when the time comes to go back to those two novels and give them a (badly) needed rewrite…well…I’ll get to indulge my nerd-side quite a bit more than I can in the dark, gritty settings of two street kids…512x512bb