The Mad King

I did something the other night that I generally avoid like the plague: program-surf on TV.  Now, I gave up cable/satellite years ago because I used to succumb all too easily to the urge to channel-surf for hours on end.  There is in fact no activity more pointless, nor pathetic, than channel surfing…

Nowadays, I generally go into Amazon Prime or NetFlix or whatever with at least some idea as to what I want to watch.  Whether it be some form of obscure movie, or binge-watching TV series, or getting into a documentary, I pretty much only turn the TV on when I have something resembling a purpose.

Usually…but not always.

So, there I was, blankly surfing the Amazon interface, looking for something — anything — to watch.  I tried a few shows, but nothing really worked for me.  Then…well…

A new production of King Lear with Anthony Hopkins?  Oh, hell, why not?

Now, I’m not the biggest Shakespeare fan in the world — I was forced to read too much of his stuff in high school and college to not harbor some (petty) resentment — but some of his works just have too meaning and import to ignore.  King Lear is one of “those” works with something to say…it has a very great deal to say, in fact.

I’m partial to good visuals and interesting retellings in my Shakespeare, rather than reproductions that are 100% true to what would’ve happened back in The Globe.  The best of Shakespeare’s works address modern, current issues just as much as they addressed the issues of his day.  Okay, so that was enough to hook me at the time.  Of course, as much as I love Anthony Hopkins, he was going to have some real work to do to keep up with my favorite versions/derivations of King Lear (King of Texas and Ran)…

Oh shit, did he keep up.

Actually, Hopkins did more than keep up, he freaking nailed it.

I love the juxtaposition of modern imagery and settings with the formal, rhythmic language of a Shakespeare play.  It worked with Romeo & Juliet a couple of decades ago (set in New York), and it worked even better with King Lear last night.  Oh, it ain’t always to watch — or understand — but it is powerful…

I could get into all the meaning and weight we attach to a play like Lear, into the arguments about rationalism versus emotion, or the needs of the individual versus the good of society, or the ravages of time and the limitations of love and family…  Crap, I could get into all of that, and more, and barely scratch the surface.  So I won’t…get into all that, I mean.

Also, I honestly do think that every work of true significance and power should be able to stand and communicate on its own.

king-lear-anthony-hopkinsWe all take different things from works like Lear, depending on our situations and experiences in life, and that’s the attraction of a good story/play/poem.  All I can really do is internalize my own personal reactions and interpretations, and encourage other folks to do the same.

So, if you’re bored and looking for one hell of a production of a weighty topic, dive in!

Microfiction Friday: “Past The Breakers”

I thought about writing a post dealing with our ever-more-quickly declining political sphere.  I thought about it, then I decided even my all-star level of cynicism wasn’t quite up to dealing with the most recent event of bombs mailed to anti-Trump figures.  Nope…I mean, just how many times can I repeat “We’re fucked” before I start to go insane?

I thought, also, about writing a semi-humorous post on the topic of “Who Is The Coolest Person Ever.”  But…well…I mean, c’mon — we all know it’s Miles Davis, and anyone who says different is either nuts, or selling something.  Or probably both…

Ah, hell…screw it.  I’m a fiction writer, and I’ve been thinking about meaning and subtext all day.  Maybe it’s time to go back to the basics:

Past The Breakers

The boy was afraid of the waves.  He’d always been afraid of the waves, and always would be, he thought.  His brothers swam and played out in the waves, tried to draw him in, but his faltering legs refused to move deeper into the sea.

What if I fall? he thought.  What if the water gets me?

Water to his ankles…warm sand and even warmer sun…all the comfort of other kids, and their parents, close around him.  There was safety where he was, even if that safety lacked the daring of his brothers.

He ran and played in the shallows, but always with the soundtrack of those familiar voices shouting and calling, “Come out with us!  You can handle the waves, that’s where the fun is!”

Tears, then, of frustration and fear…and of anger.  If he never left the shallows, how would he know if the waves truly were fun?  How would he know if he could ever overcome them?  How would he know?

Water to his knees, then to his hips, and a wave knocked him down.  A spit of salty water and he climbed to his feet, anger pushing the fear far behind him.  Soon, his feet left the sand and he was swimming, ducking under the waves as they broke above him, then surfacing for a gasp of air.

His brothers had been right!  It wasn’t just fun, it was exhilarating, and he threw everything he had into his frolicking battle with the sea.  He felt tremendous, he felt…powerful.  A look around and he realized he’d done it, he’d swum father than any of his brothers!  He felt like he could do anything.

A moment more and that excitement faded as quickly as it had come.  There were no more waves to battle.  There was no more exhilaration, nor excitement.  There was no more anger.  There was just fear, and an incomprehensible sense of loss.

The voices calling to him from the shore were tiny and incomprehensible, too distant to hear.  His arms were beginning to numb, and his legs wouldn’t kick properly.  He was exhausted, he discovered.  Although the waves were gone, the ocean still moved, and with every heave the waters washed over him, higher and higher.  

He heard a voice, then, barely.  One single voice, that of a brother, “…he’s too far out…”

Too far out.

Another heave of the sea, and he slipped under.

The voices called and called, the shouts turning to shrieks and cries, but nothing could penetrate the sea.

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


Our Place in the Universe, or How We’re Not-So Not-So-Special

nerdalert_091412So I promised, a while back, a two-part post about astronomy and sci-fi.  I’m finally following through on that promise!

This post is — finally! — the first part of that “series.”

Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I am an astronomy nerd.  Hell, I just bought a couple of new college textbooks solely because my old ones are getting somewhat out-of-date.  By the way, if you want a little light reading before bedtime, hit the chapter on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.  You should probably leave the excitement of the section about dark energy for some afternoon reading, however…

Anyway, I wanted to tackle a bit of “Our Place in the Universe” before I got into the second post, the one about how I try to include that in my sci-fi writing.

First off, a bit of background that I’ll call the “Nothin’ Special Principle.” Most astronomers hold and adhere to the idea that neither the Earth, nor the Solar system itself, is special in any way.  They look at our little neighborhood as completely “average,” and build theories and assumptions from that starting point.

The problem is, that principle is looking less and less true.  There are a number of “special” things about our system, and about Earth itself.  Now, before I list those things, there is the one big thought/question that comes to mind: are we here because of those “special” things, or in spite of them?  The answer to that one is out of my paygrade, by the way…

Okay, so to the “specialness” that kinda, sorta sets us apart…

First off, it’s the age of our Sun.  In order to have complex life — let alone intelligence and development — you have to have metals*, and a lot of them.  You have to have things like carbon and oxygen and iron and copper and potassium and the all the other crap we take for granted.  Hell, even before we got around to using those metals to make tools, we had to have them as integral parts of our biology.  And the only way in the universe you get elements heavier than hydrogen and helium is through the life cycles of large stars (birth – rapid growth – death by supernova).

*A quick explanation: words in astronomy are generally different than they are in chemistry or, indeed, in real life.  In astronomy, any element heavier than helium is a “metal”.

Our Sun is either a 4th or 5th generation star (thoughts and opinions differ on precisely which).  That’s pretty normal, by the way, for a mid-sized, main sequence star.  But, the simple fact is that we as a species needed those previous generations of stars in order to have the planet and solar system that we call home.  No first generation star still exists (long, different story on that), and the 2nd-3rd generation ones that are still around just don’t show the metals required for life.

The important deduction from that is that any star that is able to support the development and evolution of life has to be around the same generation star as our own in order to have a sufficient level of “metallicity.”  Now, our Sun is currently about 4.5 billion years old — pretty much middle-aged for it’s size, generation and composition — and the Earth is something like 4 billion.  If we guess that similar stars/planets are about the same, or younger, that would put any intelligent aliens in another system at about the same level of development as us (give or take a few millennia).  We might, when you get right down to it, be the first — or among the first — example of intelligent life in the entire galaxy…or even the entire universe.

Okay, so that’s the “specialness” of the Sun.  What about our solar system itself?  We used to think it was pretty much normal and average….then we started discovering planets and systems around other stars.  The more planetary systems we find, the more we understand that there really ain’t no such thing as “normal.”  In fact, our system is looking more and more like an unusual outlier than the norm.

Four billion years ago, when the Earth still had that new-planet smell, the solar system was a very different place.  Most of the planets’ orbits were different, and there were something like 4-5 times as many planets and bodies running around.  It was also a shooting-gallery, with all those bodies smacking into each other on a regular basis.

Why does that matter?

Two reasons: the gas giants, and Earth itself.  Jupiter and Saturn were, back then, in resonant, mutually supporting orbits that kept either of them from migrating closer to the Sun through the inner solar system and, well, screwing everything else up.  Those two also “adjusted” the orbits of the other planets into the stability we see today, along with either eating or ejecting from the solar system an awful lot of “extra” bodies.

As for the Earth itself…well…one very specific part of that shooting gallery made all the difference.  The Earth, Mars and Venus really aren’t all that different, when you get right down to it.  Similar sizes, similar compositions, and roughly similar orbits.  So why is Venus a hellscape, and Mars cold and dead, while the Earth is what it is?  Why is the iron core of the Earth almost twice as big (in relation to overall planet size) as the cores of the other two?  Why do we have a moon that is almost a quarter of our own size, when they have none (Mars’ two tiny captured asteroids don’t really count).  Why?

Because we got smacked.

We got smacked hard….and it made all the difference.

Not too long after the Earth formed, another planet — about the same size as Mars — hit us.  Now, getting hit by another planet would usually be considered a “bad thing,” but this one hit us just right.  It hit at an angle shallow enough that it didn’t just shatter the shit out everything, but deep enough to merge the two bodies together…and to create our helpfully large moon in the process.

The real key to that merger is that the Earth kept the other planet’s core, in addition to our own.  That “second” core gave us a natural magnetic field that is much stronger than we “should” have.  That stronger field is why we still have an atmosphere, where Mars has almost none remaining (about 1% of ours).  No extra-large core, and very, very likely there is no life on Earth bigger than bacteria…if we even got that much.

And the water we have…  Oh, the water…  We have too much.  Okay, so it’s not really all that much, not when compared with places like Ganymede and Europa, but it should have all boiled away while the sun was still an angry teenager and flaring like mad.  It probably did boil away, in fact, but we got more…and no one is sure how.  Asteroids and comets, most likely, but no one really agrees on any one mechanism for that.

So, it all worked out for the best in the end, but do you have any idea of the odds against all that working out?  The right amount of metal…two gas giants not doing what most of the other giants we can see have done…a collision that added rather than destroyed…oceans and lakes for swimming and boating and, oh yeah, growing life…

We beat the odds as a species — and that’s pretty damned cool — but there is just no way in hell you can argue that we are average.  We kinda need to consider the possibility that Our Place in the Universe, or at least Our Place in the Milky Way, comes down to one word: alone.  We might be it, we might be all there is when it comes to intelligent life.

That thought is depressing as hell.

Okay, okay…if you want a bit of hope that the entire freaking Universe is NOT culminating in Trump, Pelosi and the Kardashians, here it is: there are something like 300-400 BILLION stars in our galaxy, and something like 300-400 BILLION galaxies in the observable universe.  That is roughly an astronomical shit-ton of stars.  Out of all those stars, there has to be at least one that also beat the odds!