Monday, September 3, 2012

Political Rant, 2012 Election edition

Just finished watching the Daily Colbert coverage of that fucking convention. Stream of consciousness rant-mode on.

A thought about the insecurity of the modern lifestyle. Not everyone could do it but time was when a capable person could live off the land, trapping and hunting. He still relied on civilization to trade those furs for manufactured goods but he could at least maintain a little more independence, has some flexibility. We like to think that a man who grew his own food on a farm had independence but he was vulnerable to the bank that held the loan on his farm, the vicissitudes of the weather and the market he sold his crops to.

Republicans say "We built it!" They try to ignore the debt we all pay to society. To our parents who raised us, to the jobs that allowed them to have a family, to the social and emergency services that created an environment where businesses could safely operate, to the courts that ensured we would be a nation of laws, not men.

But really, we are so terribly vulnerable. "I don't need any help!" Really? Where does your job come from? If your employer decides to offshore, what recourse do you have? If your good job goes away and all you can get is low-paying scutwork, what then? What if you come out of school and realize there's nothing for you to have?

There would be room for Republicans to talk if the only thing that's keeping a poor person from the American dream is the willingness to work hard. The truth of the matter is it's hard work being poor and it's damned hard to get any kind of social mobility. Those of us in the middle-class have the advantage of position, no different from the Romneys and Bushes of the world. We may not have been born with a silver spoon in our mouths but it damned sure wasn't a spork. It used to be that if you played your cards right, you'd stay in the middle-class. Head down, work hard, you would get your reward. That deal's gone. And I think that the whole "we built it!" idea is partially a rejection of what is feared to be true, the same way that loud denials about global warming are a way of trying to wish away a thought too fearsome to give full consideration.

The other thought I have is about the light side and dark side. The dark side is not stronger, just quicker, easier, more seductive. We see this with the Republican talking points. They're not motivating with positive emotions. Even when they state a positive, it implies a negative. "We work for a living." Unlike those niggers. "I did it myself without any help." Unlike those niggers on welfare. "I love my children and my family." Unlike those niggers who don't.

Look at how they work on envy. "Welfare queen" is a code word to say some fucking minority is living high on the hog on your tax dollars. Thanks for the help, whitey! Affirmative action explains everything when you see some ethnic in a respectable position. He went to school, he got an education, he's a professional and you are not. Did he work harder than you? Is that nigger, that raghead, that wetback better than you? No! You could have been that if you'd had the special assistance. The affirmative action. Some liberal put that man in a place where he can look down on you. How's that piss on your head feel, whitey? The liberal tells you its rain. You know better.

And ignorance also works. People can feel it in their bones things are wrong. A proper explanation involves charts and graphs and lots of big words. You need books to get into the details of globalization, capital flight, peak oil, climate change, the limits of growth, and the malignant success of capitalism. How can we posterize things until it's black and white? Blame the Jews. Oh, wait, wrong country. Goddamn commies. Oh, wait, wrong century. Socialist liberals, those dirty fucks. Yeah, that's the ticket. This country was going great until that goddamn Kenyan muslim got into the White House.

The thing that really makes me sick is this shit works. The Big Lie, direct to you from Deustchland. I don't think the GOP will manage to win the presidency in 2012 but they'll win enough down-ticket races to remain a going concern. Fascism works because it takes the darkest side of human nature and makes it appear virtuous. It can take selfishness, jealousy, envy, hatred, greed, and turn all those base, shameful things into something to crow about. You no longer have to be closeted, you are not what makes America weak, you are what makes America strong because we say so! Ayn Rand had her finger on the pulse of something sick and potent, her withered claw wrapped around the throbbing cock of an id monster lurking within the American psyche. And when this beast has the country pinned and is thrusting home, there will be a chorus of apologists assuring us we won't get pregnant and if we do, we secretly wanted it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Polish Mecha Charging Germans Tanks

Mecha are kin to Starfighters in science fiction. Are they cool? Oh, hell, yeah. Do they make any sense? Not a damn bit. But did I mention they're cool? Oh, hell, yeah.

You can find numerous arguments as to why giant combat robots don't make any kind of military sense. If you have fusion reactors and superlasers for a combat robot, it'll make more sense if you put it in a tank. I won't belabor the details, just hit the high points:

  1. It's easier to armor a box than a humanoid form. Tanks will absorb more damage than a robot. 
  2. Robots are tall, drawing fire. You'll note tank designers put a premium on lowering the height of their designs. The Russians even had a maximum height for tank crew, 5'9", just to keep the profile down. 
  3. Mechanical complexity kills. Variable geometry wings (swing-wings, like the F-14) carry a weight and complexity penalty that could not be justified, despite the advantages. There hasn't been a new swing-wing to enter service since 1980. Now imagine the complexity of a dynamically-balancing, fully-articulated robot versus a tank with a turret and treads, not forgetting that tanks are already maintenance hogs. 
  4. The g-forces on the larger robots like Gundams would be murder. Animes will show these mecha getting into physical combat on par with professional wrestling. A pilot sitting in a head-mounted cockpit in a 50ft tall mecha that simply falls backwards is going to feel like he's falling off a 5-story building. Even if the robot itself could survive the G-forces, the pilot could not. And we've already reached the point where we can design aircraft who can pull more G's than anyone could survive. As an additional note, air-deployed combat vehicles always have their crew drop separately, whether it's via high-altitude parachute or a low-altitude parachute extraction. 
  5. As stated previously, if a combat robot has a great powerplant and a great gun, it'll be just as good in a boxy tank and better-protected at that. 

Mecha vs. tanks, mecha should always lose. But are mecha cool? Hell, yeah. Can we think of examples in military history where rule of cool has kept a weapons system or set of tactics around long past the point at which it should have been discarded? Hell, yeah. Especially when social status and a way of life is tied up in the concept. Can we say landed knight in a feudal society? Of course we can, class.

So, imagine that we've got ourselves a collection of polities we can call Ersatz Europe. Multiple competing countries in close proximity, sharing a religion that has shaped concepts of civilization, honor, and chivalry. Further, let us imagine that significant disputes are settled via ritual warfare with trials by combat, legally binding, agreed to by all parties. While this may remain lethal for the combatants in question, the civilizations involved will avoid the widespread devastation of unrestricted warfare.

Let us imagine that this system has endured for many generations, mecha technology being the pinnacle of military research. Let us assume that the mecha are not unreasonably large, they can be successfully, survivably piloted by humans, and mecha only face other mecha in strictly officiated tournaments. Therefore a country's military is all about building a proper mecha force, of fighting in a tournament. No thought is given to a land army, to an air force, to a navy. All of this is absurd because warfare is between mecha, trial by combat. Nobody has fought with an army since before civilization! Could such a situation arise? Sure. The Meso-Americans practiced ritual flower wars. The Tokugawa Shogunate not only shut foreigners out of Japan, they were even able to remove firearms and keep traditional weapons around for the duration. Barring any significant external threat to such conventions, the only way it will fall is through internal dissolution.

And that's what happens. Sooner or later, some bright leader is going to wonder if he can just do things the really old-fashioned way, i.e. fight an open war. Technology has developed over all that time. What happens when the bright leader says oh, the ritual battle went against me? I have to give concessions to the victor? Make me.

It doesn't matter if what the bright leader has done is unthinkable, it doesn't matter if he's going to be excommunicated from the Church, threatened with the wrath of the gods. He's done it and now everyone else has to decide how they're going to deal with it. What kind of weapons can be created when we are no longer interested in ritual combat but total war? And what of the once-important champions whose specialized skills are no longer relevant?

The story here would be about the mecha pilots. In a moment they have gone from the military elite to useless dinosaurs incapable of justifying their existence. Desperate pilots will try to adapt their machines of romance and chivalry to a form of war that cares nothing for such sentiment. There will be a sense of valiant futility, like the French military academy cadets marching to war in 1914 with white gloves and natty uniforms, destined to be gloriously machine-gunned to death in futile charges in short order. While apocryphal, the imagery of Polish cavalry charging German tanks perfectly captures the death of old romance, crushed in the gears of industrial warfare. One might also look to Takamori Saigo and his Satsuma Rebellion, the last samurai and his fellow romantics blown away by modern firepower.

Could the mecha be adapted into a practical weapon? Is doing so a quixotic deathwish or might they possibly succeed?

My own feeling is that it would resemble Japan's position towards the end of WWII if facing an equally-exhausted opponent. The only pilots left are the very good or the very green. There is no time to train the green ones up to the old standards, just enough to get them in an aircraft and fly straight. It's suicide to even take to the air, even if crash-diving into an enemy ship isn't your goal. But if the enemy is as bad as you are, then there might be some breathing room. The Japanese never had that against the US.

I think that the perfect tragedy would be for the mecha pilots to eventually find a place for themselves on a battlefield filled with tanks and aircraft, albeit in mecha far different from the ones once piloted in the ritual combat. If laser and missile weapons are sufficiently powerful, aircraft might not be survivable on the battlefield. Artillery fire might not even survive defensive laser fire.  Small, nimble mecha might serve as fast scouts while tanks represent the decisive force on the battlefield; they persist in a necessary, diminished role. The metaphor here might be birds, the last survival of the dinosaurs, perching in treetops in a land ruled by lions and elephants and gazelles where once tyrannosaurus and triceratops walked tall and proud. (Yes, I know neither of them lived in what would become Africa. Don't ruin my metaphor.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Honey, I'm Home!"

This is the story of a true family man and the people he puts first in his life.

Without further ado, here it is.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sanguis Dei, Blood of God

So I've got a first draft of a story I've always been impressed by the potential of the horror story but usually disappointed with the result. Overexposure has lead to a badass decay for vampires. The modern urban fantasy genre and sparkly vampires have done the kind of damage to a fearsome horror staple that was once the providence of low-budget sequels.

Can vampires be scary again? Read it here and let me know what you think. It's a first draft, likely to require some TLC.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

True Humans vs. Transhumans

Noodling out a proper future ideological conflict. I do not like 1:1 allegories like Marvel mutants = gay/civil rights or robot slavery = human slavery. I like the idea that human nature never changes and thus similar conflicts will arise throughout history, all the way up until we have the ability to change human nature.

I am not taking sides for or against, simply pointing out that once we are able to do something, we always end up doing it. Some people will embrace radical new ways of being and living, others will reject. We will have revolutionaries and reactionaries and thus good conflicts for stories.

Human Nature

I believe human nature arises from the biological template evolution has given us (homo sapiens sapiens, the species so nice we named us twice) mediated by the collective baggage of our culture. I believe good and bad boils down to what makes life more or less enjoyable; lacking any external god-thing telling us what to do, good and bad is about what makes our own experience in life better or worse. We are communal animals. We exist within a social environment. Family, friends, colleagues, we are rewarded and punished by how well we negotiate our interactions. All of this is mediated by the demands placed on us by our evolutionary history. We are social creatures. We want good families and good friendships because it helps our genes propagate into the next generation. Why do we want babies? Because we want to propagate our unique genetic identity. If given a choice between raising a natural child and adopting, why does a couple prefer their own children? Because of biological imperative. What we are ignorant of is frightening and the unknown is impossible to humanize. Once the unknown threat has a name, a face, we and they can share a conversation and a beer, we're not so different, we're all human. Maybe we can avoid a pointless conflict.

No matter what we think and believe, from a first world tycoon to a third world serf, we're all human. Our magnificent, throbbing brains are capable of creating elaborate justifications and deceptions to work around animal emotions. Monkeys throw feces, we throw h-bombs. The fundamental motivations are more similar than we care to admit. We're all animals and some of us are human. For now. 

Posthuman Nature

And so we enter the thorny topic of "what constitutes humanity?" When we are modifying the brain, can we even say human nature is retained? The genetic difference between modern humans and the chimpanzee is 2%. Project our ability for self-modification into the science fiction realm and the options are wide-open. Orthohuman and transhuman. Now we're not just talking about a culture gap but a mental gap.

Bog-standard humans have a hard enough time playing the social game. Autistic individuals lack the social skills to interact properly and come across as robotic and creepy. Sociopaths lack any capacity for empathy but can fake interactions to pass for a happy member of the tribe. We have trouble humanizing people who are 100% genetically identical to us, who only differ in superficial ways. What happens when the differences are real, profound, and potentially irreconcilable?

A shark will never be a thing of warmth. It serves a role in the ecosystem, as an apex predator is a model of evolutionary perfection, and while most species are not harmful to us, some are and can gobble us up without remorse. It's a hard fight to convince people that the shark has a place in nature and that attacks are nothing personal, you just happened to look like food. When other humans present an existential threat, we begin the process of dehumanizing them, making them other, making them acceptable to kill. When the threat isn't recognizably human to begin with, it won't take much convincing to go to war.

Where are Lines Drawn?

Good liberals like to flatter themselves as being open-minded, receptive to new ideas. I know for myself, I always want to be on the liberal side of any debate. Even if I may not agree with what you say but will defend your right to say it. But there are always edge cases that try my convictions. This is the the very heart of a good controversy, where you become uncertain of which side you belong on. Things get messy when general principles are translated into policies. I believe parents should have a right to raise their kids according to their beliefs. At what point does parental prerogative become child abuse? An atheist could argue raising a child religious is abusive just a easily as a religious person could argue raising a child atheist is the same. What if parents believe girls should not be taught to read and write and should only be trained up to be mothers and wives? Who gets to determine what abuse is? Who enforces the rules? What recourse is there to appeal decisions?

Black and white issues aren't fun. No thinking is required. It gets interesting when you can see where both sides are coming from and identify with either argument. What would the armed camps look like in this dispute?

Human Identity Philosophy

Only true humans have a valid existence and those who pervert humanity are sinful. Lacking religious texts to define what human is, we are left with cultural biases dressed up in pseudoscientific drag. Ideals are set forth as to the properties of the ideal human mind and body. Modifications to correct for evolutionary defects are permitted but anything that violates the morality of human existence is anathema and forbidden. Straight Human Identity sects refuse all mental and morphological modifications. Reform Human Identity sects allow for morphological modifications but preserve mental patterns.

Human Identity is adamant about individual freedom (except for freedom of self modification) and rejects slavery (mind control, mind clamping, hypnotic conditioning) and thrall creation (creating a being who wants to be enslaved or has a limited intellect and is only good for a task). Even Reform groups that believe human identity is a choice and are not hostile to transhumans as a matter of doctrine will find the imposition of the way of life on individuals who have not reached their age of majority to be anathema.

Transhumanity is generally seen by HI as evil and immoral and described with provocative terms. Twisted, perverted, bent, unclean, degenerate, cursed, unforgivable, sinful, evil. Neutral or positive naming conventions are avoided. 

From our 21st century perspective, the negative aspects of HI would be authoritarian, dogmatic, judgmental, inflexible and oppressive. The most positive aspect of HI is that we would find them warm and personable compared to the more outre Transhumans. A seeming contradiction in HI thought is the protection of individual freedom of existence by defining how they are allowed to exist. The debate between what is permissible and what is not leads to the major schisms between HI sects.

Transhuman Identity Philosophy

There is no human ideal, only what satisfies the needs of an individual or a community of the like-minded. HI aesthetics are arbitrary and no more valid than any other competing aesthetics. Everything is open to debate. While TI cultures outnumber HI cultures, they are more fractuous and thus present a weak front in the face of HI unity.

Consensual Transhumanists believe in informed consent. Nothing is done that is not requested and the participant is competent to provide legal consent. Nothing is imposed. 

Non consensual Transhumanists do not believe in the concept of individual rights and only the imposition of will. Is it wrong to breed one dog with another to produce puppies without uplifting their minds to human consciousness? Is it any more sinful to start from human genetic stock and create an intelligent yet limited servitor being? Right and wrong become a matter of ability. Being able to do something means it is right and not being able to do so means it is wrong; the wishes of the subject are irrelevant. 

This is where we come upon concepts of mind-horror and body-horror in a previous post.

So, how would these transhuman horrors be expressed? My starting point is imagining if the monsters of our own history had access to genetic engineering that worked. 

Mind Control

We're used to the idea of Svengali and hypnotism. But consider the hangups of Christian thought, Jesus admonishing: "If your eye offends you, pluck it out." Some Christians have avoided sexual sin by castration. Western doctors promoted circumcision as a way to prevent masturbation. Lobotomies and electro-shock therapy were thought to have curative effects. Orwell's Ingsoc had the idea that changing the language could change thought and make rebellion literally unthinkable. 

If we revisit the world of magic and folklore, could there be anything more insidious than a love potion? It not only obliterates freewill, it makes the victim feel every genuine human emotion towards the attacker. And what would be worse, a love potion that is entirely effective or one that leaves a remnant of the original personality to scream and rebel in horror as the body willingly responds to the rapist-suitor? 

The techniques could be varied from memetic weapons that attack the mind through the senses to a physical alteration of the brain's behavior such as with mind-control parasites we see in the real world. 

Thrall Creation 

This would be the creation of a genetically-engineered human-derived creature. In a sense this could be called mind-binding, robbing a human of fullest potential to be used for some purpose. 

HI is seen by transhumanists as reactionary, backward-looking, and shackled to outmoded ways of thinking. TI's will alternately treat HI's with pity, contempt, or hatred. 

From our 21st century perspective, the negative aspects of TI would be mind-horror, body-horror, and utter shock at completely alien ways of thinking and being. Even as we intellectually believe in self-determination and expressionism, the results strike us like a freak show. We may find ourselves grudgingly on the HI's side when faced with non consensual transhumanists. The positive aspects are whatever ideas of theirs we can see value in. 

Mind Remodeling

Transhumans who have been so heavily remodeled that their thinking process has become completely alien to orthohumans. Some may have cybernetically integrated their brains into the computer systems of starships, becoming starships. Ascetics might do away with their bodies and all outside sensation to become disembodied minds of pure intellect, even though they're essentially brains in vats. Some might long for a closer connection to their fellows and fashion themselves into a eusocial form living in densely packed warrens, constantly buzzing from the intoxicant pheromone glands that are a part of their new bodies. One attempt at a hive mind could be the negation of self, cybernetic implants reshaping thought until it is consistent with the orthodoxy, where I becomes WE and they no more need speak to each other than fingers of a hand do to hold an object. People with body dysmorphic disorder feel that pieces of their body do not belong and will resort to amputation to set things right. With sufficient technology, they can add and subtract. 

Perhaps some transhumanists wish to be a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. Maybe he wants to be an apex predator hunting in the steaming jungles of a distant world, not doing it in simulation but genuinely experiencing it. Or maybe he echoes Cavil's rant from the new Battlestar Galactica: "I don’t want to be human. I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly, because I have to — I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me." 

Hard and Soft Dystopia

Neil Postman on 1984 vs. Brave New World: 
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

I think that both HI and TI will see elements of Orwell and Huxley in each other. 

Outside of those two armed camps will exist the rest of humanity that borrows what they find useful from each side but refuse to take part in the wars. 

Because there are varying sects, the conflict in any given locale could be amicable or intense. Reform HI and consensual TI could exist peacefully enough. Evangelistic activity by either side could be cause for war. 

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors 

Cheap access to space is necessary in this setting. With hypersail technology, the early ships might have required decades to travel between stars in the lowest clines and made for an effective means of isolation. Only centuries later did slowly advancing technology begin to make the known universe a smaller place. Now cultures that saw themselves on the furthest edges of space have become neighbors with the cultures they fled. And this is the fuel of good drama and conflict. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Rationale for Elaborate Death Traps

The hero is captured. His continued existence is no longer required for the villain's plan. This is the point where a bullet in the back of the head makes the most sense. But no, the villain puts him in an elaborate death trap he will of course escape from. Why?

Well, what if the villain is incapable of directly killing? Maybe a robot bound by Asimov's Laws, maybe a biological sapient who has been hypnotically-conditioned. He cannot kill. He cannot order a killing. He can maybe dance around the concept by referring to it with oblique and obtuse metaphor. If he could hire henchmen capable of killing, little more is needed. But if he cannot even think about killing, not even to give a wink-nudge suggestion, he's in a spot of trouble. If everyone in his organization suffers from a similar inability to kill, the death trap is the ultimate workaround.

"I didn't try to, how shall we say, mortally inconvenience the hero! No, I simply put him in a situation that could prove, ah, rather unpleasant. But he had the means to escape, it wasn't certain death."

This concept has been played with in scifi before, usually with pacifist aliens who have to recruit humans to fight for them in big, honking wars. I think it would play out more amusingly in a noir or spy thriller where any competent villain would have killed the heroes by page 2. It would be funny to see relatively pedestrian heroes undo a conspiracy of robots who are trying to be nefarious villains while still compulsively obeying their conditioning. This includes explaining their plans in detail when asked since they must obey humans.

So, I'm assuming this story was already written at least 40 years ago. What's it called? :)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Indistinguishable from Magic

A few random thoughts. A number of waggish commentators have opined over the years that Lord of the Rings, rather than being a fantasy, could also be taken as a post-singularity science fiction tale. The gods are post-singularity entities, what we take for magic is high technology and a survival from more enlightened times. There's an intriguing quote from the canon itself:

'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'

 I myself was struck by the parallels between stories like from Ghost in the Shell and the tales of old with wizards and places of power. Characteristically enough, I was beaten to the punch years previous by greater minds than I.

In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for--the stories go--once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then rou- tine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again: 

The first hint Mr. Slippery had that his own True Name might be known--and, for that matter, known to the Great Enemy--came with the appearance of two black Lincolns humming up the long dirt driveway that stretched through the dripping pine forest down to Road 29. Roger Pollack was in his garden weeding, had been there nearly the whole morning, enjoying the barely perceptible drizzle and the overcast, and trying to find the initiative to go inside and do work that actually makes money. He looked up the mo- ment the intruders turned, wheels squealing, into his driveway. Thirty seconds passed, and the cars came out of the third-generation forest to pull up beside and behind Pollack's Honda. Four heavy-set men and a hard-looking female piled out, started purposefully across his well-tended cabbage patch, crushing ten- der young plants with a disregard which told Roger that this was no social call.

True Names Vernor Vinge

In a way, this is perfectly fitting. Fantasy is a way of explaining the world as they imagine but in reality isn't. The self-aware fantasy author acknowledges himself as such; those that do not promulgate a religion.  Science Fiction is about the world that isn't but could be. And the people with the knowledge, means and will shape this idealization into reality.

We are of course familiar with the standard examples of science fiction technologies that have later emerged into the real world: spaceships, robots, artificial intelligence, death rays, nuclear bombs, global communication networks, artificial satellites, etc.

Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of prediction. 
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
 And this of course brings me to reimagine fantasy as science fiction. Sure, we can point to the film Minority Report for demonstrating user interfaces for dumb information systems. But could medieval demonology texts provide a better metaphor for dealing with complex artificial intelligences?


 Demons must be summoned. They are bound to obey arbitrary rules such as answering to true names, staying within the bounds of summoning circles which are just chalk lines on the floor, and literally obeying every command. Hmm. Do computers ignore you if you don't have the correct username and password? Will providing the right security tokens make them obey your command? Will computers almost maliciously do as you say, not what you meant? SQL injection attacks, oh, boy.

One proposed difference between an expert system and a strong AI is that the strong AI has a personal identity, desires and needs. The expert system might be capable of performing great tasks but has no goal beyond mechanically completing the task it was assigned. So while the metaphor might seem like King Solomon binding the djinn to do his will, it might be better to compare a Vodoun priest and his zombies, unthinking slaves who will trudge through whatever task they've been set to. But if an AI is self-aware, does have personal goals and is still bound to obey rules hardcoded into its psyche, answering a summons will have it in a very foul mood before you even ask anything.

The Dabbler Be Damned

If you don't know what you're doing, you will be burned. This is quite true for any number of existing human endeavors. Ignorance is seldom rewarded in the world of practice. Fantasy and fairy tales are full of victim protagonists who don't know what they're in for and hero-protagonists who are forewarned and forearmed, thus able to escape the tricks and wiles of their supernatural foes.

We're familiar with Mickey Mouse's problem in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. He sets the animate broomsticks into motion without a proper bounding condition. Any programmer who's crashed a server with a runaway process knows Mickey's pain.

This is both a feature and security. The feature is that the demonic entity (or process) is bound by rules and cannot do anything that you do not agree to. At the same time, if it is self-aware and malicious, it could do harm to anyone who does not understand those rules. Even if an unauthorized user is capable of obtaining the right summoning ritual (security keys) to access the demon (daemon), ignorance could see him get well and truly burned.  A physical security automation threatens you? Make this hand gesture and use these words and it will relent. But you must know it exactly or it will attack.

The True Name and Place of Power 

Vinge explained the idea of the True Name well enough. But the other idea is the place of power. Traditionally, this would be a sacred grove or a spring or some other notable place that the heart of some spiritual entity resided. Gain access to that point and you can destroy it.

In a cyberized world where interaction is electronic, confronting an avatar in the metaverse means nothing. The real entity is not that which is online, it is that which resides in the real world. If Bob the Superhacker is threatening your interests, the only way to remove Bob from the chessboard is to find his place of power, aka his apartment, and do away with him physically.

Arbitrary Constraints

What other rules are supernatural entities constrained to obey? Not entering a home uninvited ("Did you click "ok" when virus.exe gave you the dialog box?" A holy symbol like a cross shouldn't mean much to a monster but might be a nice hypnotic compulsion for controlling an artificial intelligence. Recall Robocop's and the difficulty presented by his secret fourth directive, "any attempt to arrest a senior OCP employee results in shutdown." Firing the corrupt VP means he's no longer an employee and Robocop is clear to blow him away. Is this much different from the rules-lawyering and tricky language employed in folk-lore through the ages? Your classic "deal with the devil" story is always about giving the victim what he asked for in a way that completely ruins what he wants. Ask Satan for a bigger wang, he'll give you one so large it won't fit in any human orifice.

Is there any plausible reason for a vampire to be afraid for a cross? Perhaps if it's been blessed which implies the action of some sort of clerical magic. But if it's just someone fashinoning sticks together into a given shape, it implies that the creature is in some way bound by the very sight of the shape, a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion providing a means of controlling it. If a vampire were created as a living weapon, especially one that is physically stronger than its masters, control techniques known to the master would be useful. A weakness to silver could be exploited but how many people would know to bless water?

Creating Life 

We have mythological examples of the homonculus which is an artificial human created from the seed of man. They are living beings who might not possess souls depending upon the tradition you follow.

Likewise there is the tradition of the golem, a creature of clay animated by the Jewish God's magic when a Hebrew word is written on his forehead. Erasing a letter changes the word for life to death and the golem falls silent.

Only a Son of the Line of So-and-So Can Do This 

 Does the daemon recognize the divine right of kings, the nobility of a lineage? Or does it have a DNA lock that can only be unlocked by members of a certain family? And therefore any bastard of that family could become a valuable tool for their opponents? The rightful scion sleeps with an attractive wench 14 years ago and now his illegitimate son appears to have just as much right to the ancestral resources as he. If the enemies of his family have both the heir and the appropriate summoning rituals, the

The Ancient, Legendary McGuffin of This and That 

Given what we can store digitally these days and the understood density of genetic data, it becomes very feasible to have a convenient, portable doodad that has major importance. You really could fit the technical readouts of an entire battlestation into an astromech droid or a jewel-encrusted, avian statuette from a particular Mediterranean island.

The Takeaway

We've all joked about appeasing the IT gods, acts of worship and sacrifice to achieve our workaday goals. But as computers advance, as the direct interface becomes more natural and the underlying architecture more arcane, could we really come full circle and return to the days of yore, not petitioning the Delphic Oracle but the Oracle database for advice? When we encounter intelligent agents not just in cyberspace but the real world, will we present tokens of authentication? If the predictions of science fiction inspired the idiom by which the future was fashioned, could not fantasy and magic provide a new idiom that we will design towards, a self-fulfilling prophecy of the future?

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Alien Invasion Scenario

As kids, we love it. War of the Worlds, Independence Day, V, Robotech, Transformers, all the convoluted comic book cosmic storylines, it's pure candy. But by the time we start learning anything about science we realize it's bunk. Movies like Battle for LA and Skyline drive that point home with their earnest ridiculousness. There's no reason for them to come here. If there is a reason, they're likely to be so advanced that we won't even realize we're in danger until we're dead.  The Screwfly Solution is the ultimate alien invasion story. Of course, having told you that gives away the ending but it's a short story, a quick read and worth your time if you haven't read it. 

There is, however, a scenario that gives us a proper alien invasion we can fight against, even win, though there are darker implications. 

The first wave of invaders catches Earth unawares. We are pressed hard but somehow, fortuitously, the aliens can be engaged and defeated by our weapons. They drop rocks on a few large targets and then deploy troops with a large fleet of landing ships, fighting on land. This is the Martian scenario straight out of HG Wells but our tech is sufficient to fight them to defeat. They may have higher technology but we have them outnumbered and, by Jove, our fighting spirit is second to none! 

We win, pat ourselves on the back, and start rebuilding while our scientists reverse engineer the alien technology. 

And here comes a second wave of invaders, somehow spaced just far enough apart for us to have created a united planetary defense force, integrate the new weapons technology, and bring hundreds of divisions online. Our blaster tanks are supplemented with mobile infantry suits and antimatter bombs and other scifi pew-pew. 

We win. And there's another interbellum period. Research, refit, rearm. We're now deploying space forces and can confront the enemy on the high frontier. Another invasion. 

We won. And now we're adapting alien bioengineering technology to change ourselves, to create human warriors. We're accelerating AI research to create the first conscious machines. And humanity will triumph again! The propaganda reassures us of how wonderful we are, how perfect, how we represent such a threat to the universe that aliens cross the stars to confront us. 

Does anything about this strike you as artificial? Certainly it does to some of the top military theorists. The threats are enough to challenge us but never quite destroy us. It is a selection pressure and we are changing under its influence. These alien threats fit neatly into our conventional science fiction fears, as if ripped from our subconscious. These aliens appear to be constructs. And where are the true aliens? What are they? Is the vast, inhuman intelligence sitting out in the Oort cloud, fabricating the next threat? Our world is a Petri dish, we are the culture, the unknown intelligence the experimenter. What are they shaping us into and why? 

And the alarm sounds. The next invasion has begun. To the ramparts! To the ramparts! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

So What Are They Fighting About in a Semi-Solid SF Setting Anyway?

Most space opera is pretty much the modern world dressed up in a space setting. You have farmers, even if they are harvesting moisture with vaporators. You have mines and miners, merchants, peddlers, pawnbrokers, doctors, politicians, bankers, clerics, soldiers of fortune, princes and princesses, either entitled royalty or their new money equivalents. You have countries, kingdoms and nations and thus you have trade routes, territories, and regions of influence.

The economics are so familiar that nobody actually gives them much thought, anymore than people give serious thought to explaining what food is, why bathrooms are necessary, and how those two things are linked. Explaining money, resources and scarcity is no more necessary than going into gravity or breathing.

But if all a space opera does is translate modern problems into a setting with spaceships and rayguns, is there really any point? A Song of Ice and Fire could be translated to a space opera easily enough. Star Wars could be recast as a fantasy. The choice of setting is little more than aesthetic. But sometimes there's a compelling reason to pick a genre. Lord of the Rings would feel different if the magic was just sufficiently advanced technology. Frankenstein's monster could have been a homunculus or golem but those would have been monsters of the occult, old and familiar. The Creature must be a product of modern science, a magic not stolen from the gods but of man's own devising. Gepetto making Pinocchio out of wood relegates it to fairy tale but Noonian Soong making Data out of a positronic brain and blinky doodads makes it science fiction, somehow more plausible.

I'd like to have conflicts that remain believable but require a scifi setting. Star-crossed lovers? That could be in Verona or LA. Two brothers struggling for control of the family business? That could be Memphis, either Egypt or Tennessee. But the lovers might not be of different classes or races but different species. A freeborn prince of the financial empire falls for a genetically-engineered pleasure slave? Different. The brothers are actually a series younger clones and their "father" pits them against one another to see who is the worthy successor? A little more interesting. 

So, what are the conflicts? 


It comes down to something that makes sense. Nobody has to take a lot of time explaining it.

Economic. You want a new market to sell your products to, access to raw materials, or transit through a region to get there. Someone stands in your way. Or you don't feel you're getting a fair shake and you can't settle your differences in the marketplace. 

Territorial. They have land you want. Access to markets isn't enough, you want it all. 

Practical Politics. Who is in charge, who calls the shots? I subscribe to von Clausewitz's suggestion that war is politics by other means. "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war," as Churchill said, but sometimes the only way to get what you want is to take it. This could lead to war between polities or civil strife within a polity. Power struggles often turn ugly. 


This is not going to be a necessary conflict, though the people involved may feel differently.

Religious. Something about what the other guy believes is so repellent they must be disabused of it by any means necessary. Could be an understandable moral failing like slavery or something silly like sexual practices.

Philosophical. Presented as more reasonable than a religious belief. Slavery can be presented as evil in light of reason but the same righteous reason can be applied to a conflict over eating toast butter-side-up or butter-side-down, something that is ultimately quite silly. And while one person argues capitalism vs. communism has the same weight as slavery, another will argue it's buttered toast. I would also call this impractical politics.

The practical stuff is all familiar. Hitler wanted another country for lebensraum, Space Hitler wants a planet. Same difference. Imperial Japan wanted access to oil and raw materials, Space Japan wants access to antimatter and magnetic monopoles. The United States sends Nixon to China to normalize relations and open markets, Space America sends Bat Durston to the Empire of Space Amazons. It's all familiar. Maybe Space Germany is flooding the market with cheap automation machinery that ruins the value of labor on your planet. That last one is called the luddite fallacy by economists who insist new jobs will always open up for the displaced. We're entering an era of structural unemployment where there simply aren't enough jobs and entire classes of people will be shut out of the economy. It's actually going to be a very immediate problem and not something for the realm of scifi.

I think that Doctrinal disputes will be the avenue for the most esoterically scifi of conflicts. We can see culture shocks and conflicts where ideas are seen as poisonous. What happens if biological immortality is discovered? What if brain backups and clones allow multiple copies of the same personality operating in a society? What happens if a post-scarcity society exists in the same geopolitical space as a scarcity society? We flip out over polygamy, homosexuality, incest, certain sex acts, cannibalism, etc. Blasphemy and apostasy are hot buttons for other contemporary cultures.

Could transhumanism cause the same level of disgust as transexualism does today? First and Last Men brought up the idea of creating successors to our own humanity and Brave New World had not just ubermenschen but untermenschen created to serve society. While it may be worrisome to imagine designing a superman, it feels as repugnant as foot-binding to cripple a human mind to make for a better service animal. Dune gave us a jihad against thinking machines. When what it means to be human becomes fluid and open to debate, some might decide to say "NO! It's not up for debate!" and tell us what the answer is. This sort of thing was postulated in the Night's Dawn Trilogy where those who embraced advanced biotechnology along with consciousness and memory transfer came to be known as Edenists and those who rejected it were Adamists. 

There's thinking that certain scifi technologies could be considered too dangerous such as causality-violation weapons, certain kinds of nanotech and bio-chem weapons. David Langford created the concept of an image that could hard-crash a human mind just by looking at it, something he called a basilisk. Other ideas that have been floated are perfected brainwashing techniques that could be every bit as effective as love potions from fairy tales. Simulation as Lotus Eater Machine and virtual reality =  the ultimate drug have come up before. Red Dwarf's take on the fatally addictive game Better Than Life is a personal favorite. It's easy to imagine a Women's Christian Temperance Union going after VR saloons.

So, this is not new, the idea of things that are taboo because they are too inherently dangerous, morally corrosive, or distasteful to be tolerated. But this is the future. Can we think of really good new ones? Or bring up old ones that have been forgotten?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Interstellar Travel in the Age of Hypersail

So I've gone into why classic space opera makes no sense. I've also given one example of how we could try to get around that, the Into the Void setting.

The Age of Hypersail is another special case that tries to work with a limited number of assumptions to provide for a properly operatic setting without insulting our intelligence. I want to have stealth in space. Humans must remain important, not easily replaced with machines. The individual commander's initiative can shape the course of events. There are no push-button ships or push-button wars. This isn't going to be hard SF but semi-solid. Ships need to radiate heat, orient themselves with gyros and reaction control systems, burn rockets to move in realspace, don't have shields or artificial gravity, and, except where duly noted, operate according to the laws of physics. But the special case assumptions are clearly not hard SF. That's fine. I just need everything to be self-consistent and avoid obvious plot holes like having a genie in a lamp and not wishing for more wishes.

My notes on the concept of hypersail are a work in progress and by no means complete. But they're sufficiently progressed to invite discussion. I have them shared via Google Docs. Assuming permissions are correct, anyone should be able to view it without the need to sign in. 

Click here to enter the Age of Hypersail. As always, discussion is welcome. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Star Trek Repaired

Had a conversation with a friend about how the new Trek film was almost a good movie. They had a competent cast with chemistry, very watchable. I didn't care for the special effects, had a bit of a design school splooge fest with wonky camera angles and lens flares everywhere. It's like when bands deliberately include feedback in their recordings: no, it doesn't make you sound raw, real and authentic, it makes it sound like you don't know what you're doing.

As a writing exercise I'd like to explore the possibility of doing the Star Trek movie in a way that doesn't suck.

Most story problems begin with the script. You have a bad script and can't recognize the fact (George Lucas), you have a bad script and are too proud to seek help in fixing it (George Lucas), or you have a bad script imposed on you from outside (The poor bastards saddled with making Battleship). Of course, there's also sociopathic script apathy that explains any Hollywood production that isn't a vanity project.

What's Wrong with the Star Trek Franchise? 

There are a number problems associated with it, the first part being that it's a franchise.

Don't break the franchise. McDonald's has product that sells dependably. It's not haute cuisine, it's not even home cooking comfort food. It's all cheap, mass-manufactured food-like substances indifferently prepared by unskilled, low-pay workers who only have jobs because they're cheaper than automation. People know what a Big Mac is. It's not impressive, it's not something to look forward to, but you can be dependably disappointed in a consistent way each and every time. You don't mess with success and Star Trek is a franchise. But it's also worth noting that there are gourmet burger restaurants popping up to compete with McDonald's and they're profitable. Franchise is a trap and a hard one to dig out of. No executive is going to want to be the one who killed the goose that crapped the golden turd and thus we are locked into a cycle of mediocrity.

But even if the quality in a franchise is quite high, success will breed stagnation. The executives won't understand how they caught lightning in a bottle and so will prevent evolution and renewal in the production. "Is this fresh and new? Good! Change nothing but keep it fresh and new." Taking risks is how you can ruin a franchise. But at the same time, keeping it static is how people lose interest.

Writing by Committee. Lacking any strong editorial direction, each Star Trek series is usually a mess of meandering themes, aborted arcs, and filler episodes that exist solely to round out the network's order for the season. Committee writing combined with franchise preservation means the results are going to be terrible.

Is there even any story left worth telling? The Batman question. They've been publishing Batman comics for how many decades now? He was based on the Shadow who was based on Zorro who was based on folk heroes and it's turtles all the way down.

Negative space wedgie stories. They're ruining everything. Time travel, time loops, mirror universes, space anomalies, problem that arise from techno-babble and are resolved through techno-babble which is pretty goddamn boring.

What's Wrong With the 2009 Movie?

Trying to do too much in too little time. We have an origin story with Kirk's dad in a fight he can't win, young Kirk being a punk, older Kirk getting into bar fights, then Starfleet Academy, then getting onto the Enterprise, the parachuting business on the drilling rig, exile on the ice moon, fistfighting with Romulans, etc. There simply isn't enough time.

A stupid plot to begin with. Time travel stories are difficult because you always end up asking "Well, why didn't they do this?" So Nero runs a mining ship and is trying to get help before his star goes nova. He's sent to the past instead, somehow. His wife isn't dead at this point, she simply hasn't been born. But if he and Spock can fix the star in an unobtrusive way as possible, the timeline might remain unaffected. He could fly his ship up near lightspeed to effectively halt time for himself and come back right about the time he should be leaving on his fateful journey. He's reunited with his wife, still a hero, all is good. But no, he's going to blow up stars instead because he's a terrible villain terribly written.

By the numbers story beats. Must have action set pieces regardless of whether they make sense in context. Must have fistfights on starships because hey, that's what Kirk does. Must have character conflicts that are artificially induced by hamfisted writers.

Poor characterization and motivations. Kirk is played like a guy who can get away with a lot of crap because he's charming, except he isn't. Spock has a Vulcan stick lodged up his butt and his demeanor is constipated rather than logical. And all the other characters remain affable yet ill-defined.

How to Fix It? New Background

It's the start of a retelling of the Trek. Blowing up Vulcan was a way of saying "This is a different take on Trek." Sunrise handles the Gundam metaseries in similar fashion. Some shows belong in the main timeline while others follow clearly alternative timelines. They all have giant robots of iconic design, the combatants are usually Zeon and Earth Federation, and lots of stuff blows up. But new fans aren't hamstrung by years of continuity. A new show can be viewed without having to have seen all the prior ones. Common themes will be explored, deconstructed, reconstructed, and turned sideways.

What are the primary themes of Star Trek? That humans can be better than we've been. We can bring about an end of war, poverty, and starvation, make a civilization worthy of being called such. We can break the cycle of history. It is about optimism. Now, just because we've got peace on Earth, that doesn't mean we'll find it elsewhere. These ideals will have to be defended with diplomacy and good intentions but backed up by force. Where does conflict come from, essential for good storytelling? At the borders, where the Federation comes into contact with other cultures, and internally, when Federation citizens reflect on the validity of their own beliefs and practices. When things go wrong, we will set them right. Optimism is the main ingredient.

Pre-Contact Earth. Earth has 21st century troubles, goes through a global crisis, big population drop. The close, personal encounter with oblivion slaps some sense into the survivors. The era of rebuilding is one of peace. Strong AI is never developed but expert systems can run vast swaths of the economy. Third Industrial Revolution automation means that few people are required to keep the lights on, food in the supermarkets and goods on the shelves. This means that people are free to devote their time to doing things they feel have meaning, labors of love. Volunteer work can be a full-time occupation. Heavy staffing in education, medicine, the arts and sciences, sports and entertainment; not many office jobs and endless TPS reports. Now certainly economists and technologists will debate how this could happen but it's part of the assumptions that go with the Trek setting. One of these big labors of love is space exploration and this is how we discover warp theory, invent the first warp drive and the Vulcans drop by to say hi.

Contact. Turns out that not only are we not alone, we've got family. Sufficiently-Advanced Aliens visited Earth in the past and seeded worlds around us with Earth-like life. (More on this later.) The Vulcans fill us in on local history.

Galactic History. The galaxy is in a period of peace following a big war. The Vulcans were the first race to develop warp drives. They did so after suppressing their emotions that had led them to repeated civil wars on their own world. They explored the galaxy and made contact with the emerging humanoid species. They mistakenly shared their technology without considering the consequences. A race of  dullard imperialists decided to build an interstellar empire. The Vulcans, not being warriors, found themselves at a loss for what to do.

Some of the Vulcans tapped into suppressed emotion to become effective warriors. This created a philosophical schism that resulted in the Romulans breaking off. While not enemies, Vulcans and Romulans do not see eye to eye. A series of sporadic wars would be fought as the Dullard Imperialists  would try to conquer a new planet and the Romulans wound mount a defense. Sometimes they would win, sometimes they would lose.

The  Dullard Imperialists made a fateful error when they enlisted a newly discovered race as mercenary warriors, the Klingons. Klingons were at a steam age tech level and warred constantly. They were intelligent and quick-learning and adapted to starships and disruptors easily enough. They eventually became too powerful and slipped beyond the control of the Dullard Imperialists. The dullard empire was reduced to remnants and the Klingons took the best parts for themselves. Imperial retreat means many subject worlds with intelligent species are free for the moment.

The Klingons have grown in number and are looking to expand their territory. It appears the peace might come to an end.

Aliens. Every bumpy-headed alien that gets played by a human actor will be a result of this. Humans, Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, all descending from common ancestors, thought the genes were tinkered with by Sufficiently-Advanced Aliens. There will be aliens that are from modified Earth stock that can't be handled with makeup and would be handled with practical and CG effects. They can still be humanoid but clearly inhuman. There will also be alien-aliens, but they will be handled by CGI and puppetry and very, very alien. Worlds for them may have been seeded as well. The humanoid aliens, being human in so many ways, will come into conflict for understandable reasons.

Something vaguely similar to this idea was broached in the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode "the Chase" but the writers never mentioned it again. Who are the Sufficiently-Advanced Aliens? We don't know. They've left no artifacts behind and we can only infer they exist because there's no other plausible explanation.

The Federation. The humans propose uniting civilized planets into a federation to promote peace and the common interest. This is a Big Idea that the Vulcans never thought of. Earth and Vulcan are the first member planets. The Romulans remain French to the notion and refuse to join. Naturally, the independent worlds are sick of war, sick of empires and don't want any trouble.

Starfleet. Explorers, humanitarians, police, military, evangelists for the Federation. They have a broad mandate.

Conflicting Viewpoints. Earth is effectively a paradise. What sort of thing drives young men and women to leave heaven to journey out into a scary galaxy on a mission of mercy? Are they saints or lunatics? And not everyone they evangelize to takes to the message. Why are people compelled to leave the Earth to setup colonies on new worlds, embrace hardship and uncertainty, risk their very lives when there's no threat of persecution back home? Some people simply aren't capable of handling paradise. Without something constructive to do, they go stir-crazy.

How to Fix It? New Story

We need a ship, a crew, and a mission.

The best stories about wooden ships and iron men centered around the frigates. They would operate alone, far from friendly ports, patrolling for pirates, escorting merchantmen, and scouting for enemy fleets in times of war. The name for this kind of independent operation was cruiser. 

However, the Federation also needs ships to show the flag, to symbolize the organization's ideals and be a prestige piece. Dedicated warships exist within the fleet but, being optimized for combat, are not good for much else. The majority of the war fleet is kept in port and is only activated for annual training exercises and emergencies.

The Enterprise. A symbol of the Federation, civilization, and security. She is fast, sufficiently armed to kill what she can catch and run from bigger threats. She has long legs and can operate independently for months. She is armed with heavy phaser banks and photon torpedo batteries give her a powerful punch. She carries a squadron of heavy shuttles that are more powerful and capable than the ones typically portrayed in the shows.

Kirk. He was on a fast-track for command before the disaster. Due to politics, he's given command of the Enterprise at 35, the youngest human captain in Starfleet history. He's the only hero in the [Insert Name] Debacle. He's promoted and given command. Some people think it's too political. He has a reputation for winning but it's not clear whether he's good or lucky. Some detractors feel he's cocky and takes too many risks.

Spock. The first human-Vulcan hybrid. Joins Starfleet because he would rather see the universe himself than learn about it back home.

McCoy. Toured the frontier as a young man, wrote a very successful travelogue. Settled down to civilian life practicing medicine and became utterly bored. Wants to see space again.

Rest of Crew. Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, all assigned per usual crew selection and rotation. It doesn't take Fate going through gymnastic contortions to get everyone together.

Story Starts 

How Kirk gets command. We know Kirk is the the only hero of a debacle. (I'm undecided about the particulars, this is only an example.) He's the XO of a Federation ship visiting a recently-contacted and highly-developed world considering joining the Federation. Diplomatic blunders by the captain make it appear he's taking a side in an internal dispute and the other side makes a sneak attack against the ship. It is severely damaged. The ship is in a decaying orbit and will make an uncontrolled reentry. He evacuates the crew and shapes the reentry trajectory so it will impact in an unpopulated ocean basin. With the transporters shot, he has to make it out in a shuttlepod.

This is all backstory and would not be in the film itself. However, turning it into a 20 minute short feature would be excellent promotion material. Release it to Youtube a few months before the main feature to whet the appetite.

First Act

The Crisis. The Enterprise is conducting a shakedown cruise when a crisis erupts on Beaumonde, a colony world claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire. There's a local population of Klingons left over from the disruption of the war against the Dullard Imperialists generations ago. They'd reverted back to a steam age economy when the Federation encountered the world. Since they'd apparently been forgotten by the Empire, they were more than happy to share the planet with the new colonists in exchange for access to higher technology. Things were going fine until a faction within the Empire decided that allowing Klingons to play nice with the Federation was a bad idea.

Through the briefing we discover that the Klingons are not a monolithic and united government but a coalition of clans who are normally at cross-purposes whose alliances and goals will shift with the political tide. This means that one leader cannot speak for all and even things agreed to by most Klingons are not binding for those who do not. This means that the bulk of the Klingon fleet can mobilize for a suitable cause and likewise melt away due to a change in the wind back home.

This particular colony has been claimed by the leader of a smaller clan who is trying to burnish his credibility. He is a charismatic upstart, hungry and dangerous. He presents the argument that Klingons are being brainwashed and subverted by the Federation and it is his duty as a great leader and defender of his people to save them from the filthy humans and their soft ways.

Up to this point there has been no bloodshed. Klingon ships have been harrassing commerce around  Beaumonde and it seems like invasion is only a matter of time.

The First Encounter. A war of nerves bluff between the Enterprise and a Klingon warbird. Our first sense of what the crew is capable of and Kirk's mettle.

The Diplomatic Meeting. Planetside, face-to-face meeting between all parties. Kirk, the charismatic Klingon leader, delegates of the local government. We get the local flavor of what's been going on.

There is a member of the Klingon High Council present as an observer. She finds Kirk intriguing.

Second Act 

Conflicts on planet, things are going to crap.

Spock had demonstrated the Vulcan neck pinch on the ship earlier. Chekov tries using it in a fight. Doesn't work on a Klingon so he knees him in the nards instead. "Vulcan crotch pinch."

Kirk Bangs Alien Babe. Kirk believes he's seduced the Klingon councilor over a dinner and cocktails. She clarifies a few misunderstandings about the empire.

Funny fact about Klingons: the majority of the scientists and engineers and workers are women -- they are the people who keep society working. What we discover is that the Klingons fell into civil war after defeating the Dullard Imperialists, turning their advanced weapons against each other. The whole idea of conquering a Klingon Empire was suggested by the women as a suitably glorious endeavor for proud Klingon warriors. It actually served as a way of getting the most violent and stupid of the males out of their hair so they could put things back together. Proper Klingon worlds are actually very peaceful and civilized since the warriors are usually off conquering things, fighting amongst themselves or endlessly training.

The High Council finds the charismatic leader to be troublesome. He's pushing for a war that the rest of the empire does not yet feel prepared for but cannot say so openly. Politics, you know. Kirk asks if this means war will be coming at a later date. She says that such concerns are for later as well -- better to stop the war you can stop today.

The solution is for the charismatic leader to make a misstep that is dishonorable. This will neuter his political support. She advises Kirk that if the charismatic leader goes to war, he should invoke an honor duel. While normally this is only reserved for ritual combat rules between Klingons, he may feel compelled to extend it to an outsider since the whole alleged point of this conquest is showing that proper empire honor is better than the soft stuff promoted by the Federation. It thus becomes a demonstration to the Klingon locals and the warriors back home.

The subject of where he spent the night and with whom should be the source of a good comedic exchange: McCoy showing incredulity at Kirk's sexual prowess, Spock offering a raised eyebrow in agreement.

Betrayal?! After this, we see the same councilor meeting with the charismatic leader and spinning an entirely different story! She says that the High Council is too timid and needs to be shown the way of the warrior by a Klingon with fire in his belly. He is unsure he can defeat the Enterprise and she gives him a data crystal that will be the key to victory.

Third Act

Big fight between the leader and the Enterprise. Federation has reinforced the Enterprise with three more starships and are staring down against the charismatic leader's fleet.

Pew! Pew! 'Splosions! Rocket's red glare, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, the smell of napalm in the morning, it's an all-out, gratuitous space battle.

The Enterprise gets the advantage and the charismatic leader has to use his trump card. Turns out the data crystal has Kirk's prefix code to turn off the Enterprise's shields, or so the councilor claimed. Surprise! There's no such thing because only an idiot would leave a backdoor open on a starship that could allow a remote exploit of control systems. But by trying such a trick when he's fighting under honor rules, the leader just crapped all over his reputation. It might have gone unnoticed in the heat of battle but the councilor was monitoring the entire exchange and uncloaks in her own warship immediately after he sends it.

I'm undecided as to whether she blows his ship out of the sky or sends him home in disgrace. I like the idea of leaving him alive so that we can see how his approach changes with this defeat. If he's really a smart guy he might gain some wisdom from this and become a more dangerous foe.


Scotty has a laugh about the idea of a prefix code on a starship and lets slip a few curses about backdoors and remote exploits.

Kirk has a conversation with the councilor via comscreen where we clear up who seduced whom. The councilor makes it clear whose bedpost gets the notch carved in it. You can tell these two are going to have a history together.

Final Thoughts

I've kept the character elements above a little thin. What do the secondary characters do to make us love them? What are the comedy bits, the little failures and victories? That's all important but it's flesh added to the bones of the plot. Without a skeleton to hang from, even the loveliest flesh is just a puddle of skin suffocating under its own weight.

Feel free to discuss!

Friday, May 18, 2012


This is a short story I wrote a while back. I'm not very happy with most of the urban fantasy coming out these days. I think the writers have some talent but the demand by publishers to stretch everything out into a continuing series means that the storylines get stretched thin. I wanted to write something short and sweet.


  "I'm going to be making my Run the next full moon," I told Sam Cuddy, my best friend.

  "Really?" he said, voice rising with interest. "Cool!"

  We lay in the soft grass beneath the big oak tree in Feeney Park. School was out and the yellow rays of a late summer afternoon filtered through the leaves. The brim of my hat was low against the sun but I could feel its warmth across my face.

  Sam rolled over on his side to look at me, eyes wide and bright. "Tell me about it, Jess." I'd gone over this with him before, telling him as much as I knew, but I think he suspected I was holding out on him. He kept asking, hoping that I might let slip more than I'd meant to. I didn't mind playing his game.

  "You already know the sign," I chided him. "I had my first menses. My kind always have it on a full moon and the following moon is when I will have my Run." Sam made a face at that, more out of habit than true disgust. He'd gotten used to my frankness over the two years we've known each other. People -- the regular, everyday folk -- they have all sorts of cultural mores and taboos about the body and bodily functions. My kind may look like people but we are quite open about the things they are not, much to their embarrassment. I remembered his discomfort at the thought of skinnydipping at the lake last summer. I'd had no idea it was possible to blush from head to toe but Sam had shown me it was.

  "What's it like?" he asked.

  "Ask me in a month, silly," I laughed. "I haven't gone yet."

  "But you have an older sister, one who has. Surely you've talked."

  I tilted my hat down to block the sun as it found my eyes again. "Talked, yes. But this isn't really anything someone can explain to you, now is it? I've told you about what's already happening, do you understand it?"

  "Yeah, Jess," Sam said. "Your body's been changing."

  "When we first met, my sense of smell was no better than yours. Now..." I took a deep breath in through my nose, breathing out slowly. "It's like removing blinders. I smell grass, damp earth, the decay of fallen leaves. People who were in the park this morning, their dogs. Raccoons who were here the night before." I turned my head towards him, looking him in the eye. "I smell you." He made a comic show of lifting an arm and sniffing with feigned concern. "No, not like that," I laughed. "People can only notice each other if there's a perfume or a stench. I can smell so much more now, the subtle and the fleeting." I smiled at him. "You smell nice, fresh. I like it."

  He grinned back at me. "Good. I'd hate to scare you off now that we're good friends." He reached over to take my hand and I interlaced my fingers with his. I felt good, so relaxed.

  "So they're going to take you out to Talwyn Run," he prompted.

  Talwyn Run had belonged to our kind for generations, a vast tract of woodland and meadow, untouched but for people seeking communion with nature, people and my kind.  "Yes. I've only been there as a child, and following the same rules as people: never at night and never during the three days surrounding the full moon. This will be my first moon, my first Run. I will become a woman of my kind."

  Sam sighed wistfully. "Eli, you know him from Geometry? He was told he was a man after he was Bar Mitzvahed but he didn't look any different to me, still couldn't do the things his parents wouldn't let him do before he was mitzvahed. But when your folks tell you you've become a woman, you'll know it because you can turn into a wolf!"

  I smiled at his enthusiasm. I think Sam was looking forward to this even more than I was, without any of the trepidation. "Yes, there's certainly that."

  "I'd love to be there, to see it," he said wistfully. 

  I glared at him. "Sam Cuddy, I've already told you this. No, you can't. Our Were runs are kept away from people for a reason. It keeps everyone safe and happy." 

  "Safe but not happy," he said. 

  I punched his arm gently. "I promise to tell you all about it the next day." 

  He sighed. "I guess that'll just have to do." 


  The four of us knelt by the fireside, watching the sunset across the lake. Me, my mother, my aunt, and the priestess. All of us wore thin robes of white but mine was adorned with dark red stripes at the sleeves, the mark of the supplicant. The priestess' instruments sat on a white linen to the north of the fire. To the west a pentagram lay inscribed in fresh-turned earth, cold censures at the points. My position was at the east of the fire, the other three behind me. Our attention turned to the west as the sun touched the horizon. We kept our silence in meditation as the circle of fire seemed to quench itself in the still, dark water. Soon it was gone, a scintillation of bright rays streaking up behind the world, fading to twilight and ushering in the night. I could feel my stomach roiling in a not quite unpleasant anticipation. This was not just nerves but my body anticipating the coming transformation. I sipped the moon tea, drugged with special medicines that helped to still the body and ease what was to come. My limbs felt light and ethereal and within my mind a mix of dreamlike disembodiment and keen alertness. 

  As instructed, I turned to face the priestess now, her face grave but her eyes carrying a measure of mirth. "Who comes before me?" she asked. 

  "Jessica Hunter, a daughter of the pack," I responded. 

  "By what right do you claim admittance?" 

  "By the blood of my father, Jacob Hunter. By the blood of my mother, Sarah Hunter. Their blood is my blood and my blood belongs to the pack." 

  "Upon whose name do you call, upon whose name do you swear?" 

  "By the Fanged Goddess, consort of the Horned God, the eternal huntress, whose name is written by starlight and spoken in wonder beneath the guiding moon. Wise mother, blessed wife, great she-wolf, bringer of changes." 

  "Do you claim this birthright for yourself?" 

  "I do." 

  "Then let the test begin." 

  Moonrise was not far off. I stood and stepped into the fire. My feet found the stepping stones, unnatural things that were immune to the heat, feeling as cool as flagstones at night. The flames were low and heat radiated over my legs. I stepped out on the other side, having passed through fire. I knelt inside the pentagram. 

  The priestess took a brand and thrust it into the fire. It sputtered to flaming life. She muttered under her breath in an ancient tongue, touching the brand to the censures on the points. They let out a sweet and pleasing smoke that hung in graceful ropes in the still night air. 

  "Behold your daughter, Luna!" the priestess called out as the moon broke over the horizon. I did not need her warning, I could feel the moonlight on my skin burning hotter than the fire. I could feel my blood welling up inside, the pain muted by the steaming draught I'd consumed, the agony of transformation fuzzy and diffuse compared to the pleasure. My limbs tingled, then I felt bolts of electricity from the crown of my head down to the tips of my fingers and toes. I began to shudder as I felt my body becoming unglued, undone. 

I crouched to the ground, then fell onto my side, clutching at myself. The pain was alive inside of me, clawing against my skin from the inside. I could feel my fingers pulling in on themselves as my limbs stretched and bent. I tasted my own blood as my growing fangs nipped my lips. This pain was nearly unbearable with the moon tea; I could not imagine how it would be without it. I understood now how one could be driven to madness by the transformation. And then I lost everything to blackness. After that, I was no longer myself. 

The world is emptiness and I am a point of nothingness inside of it. And then I can smell. A riot of odors. But stronger than the rest, overpowering, something familiar. Warm. Comforting. My mother! Now I can feel her, her muzzle pressing warm against the fur at my neck. I can hear her breathing. I open my eyes to a new world. Everything is cast in sharp shades of gray, slight color hinting around the flames of the fire. Seeing it, suddenly woodsmoke is brought to the forefront of my perception. I can smell the sap bubbling. Now I notice more familiar smells, people-like, and then animal traces I can not yet identify. 

Senses still overwhelming me, I shakily get to my feet. No. Not feet. Paws. Four of them. I flex my toes and felt my claws dig into the dirt. This felt nothing like getting on my hands and knees. My body feels nothing like itself. I lick my nose automatically and became aware of my muzzle, powerful jaws with sharp teeth meant for killing. My tail sweeps back and forth. Yes, a tail! I turn in place, testing the movement of my limbs, gaining a feel of myself. An alien shape looms before my eyes and I start when I realized I saw human as Other. But when I lock eyes with her I knew her for wolfkin. 

I lope around the fire as I grow used to my skin. It fells new and ancient, powerful and deadly. It fells right. In dreams past I could remember my rational mind often felt like a passenger, riding along on the inside of me but only passively observing my actions as I danced to the anti-logic of sleep. I feel like that now, my rational mind detached and observing while animal instinct settled itself at the reins. I look up at the moon and howled. I am wolf! In the distance other wolves answered. My pack! 

We run through the woods, racing down narrow animal trails, across clearings, through streams. I fell my lungs burn but knew they were equal to the challenge. I was only just beginning to learn the limits of my wolf form. 

A new scent hits me like a physical blow. I come to an awkward halt, almost tumbling over myself. I put my nose to the ground and breath deeply. Something familiar but not me, not family, not pack. But what? All other thoughts are pushed from my mind, nothing but this. I felt an excitement like I'd never known. I must follow. I ignore my mother behind me as I dash forward with every bit of speed I can summon forth. I ran before. Now I fly. I barely register my mother's howl behind me. Let her follow. 

Memories from my human self flash into my awareness. The first time I met Sam. At school, two years ago. Walking up to my table in the lunchroom and using and opening line he must have heard in some silly movie. I laugh, telling him how awful it was but inviting him to sit anyway. His lips quirk in that grin that can only be Sam's and he admits it was bad. Sam, that mix of boldness and shyness. 

Even through the fur my muzzle stings as I burst through tangled scrub, something with needles tearing at me ineffectually. 

Shoes in hand, we splashed through the stream in the woods near town. Nothing to talk about, a friendly silence, companionable. Balancing on slimy rocks, eyes searching for anything of interest in the shimmering water. I remembered my exact thought at that moment, how strange it was to feel so content simply being in the presence of another. 

I leap over a fallen tree, the bark shed away from the trunk to reveal wood ghostly white in the moonlight. I clear it effortlessly. 

Sam furious. Last night his older sister had come home from her date crying, a nasty bruise blooming on her cheek. His father said things would be taken care of and he'd meant it. Sam was unsure how to comfort her and his instinct was for revenge. That was worthy. But it would be taken care of without his help. He hated himself for this impotence, seeing only the boy he was. I saw differently. I glimpsed the man he could become. 

The sound of the other wolves has grown distant. I am outracing them. My legs burn, my lungs are on fire, and still I run. 

In a theater, Sam sitting beside me. Is he in love with me? I know he is infatuated. Am I in love with him? I know I can't stop thinking about him. But the pact rules are strict. Relations within the pack are permissible at any time but it is forbidden to look outside of the pack. Weres and people can't, shouldn't mix like that. I keep my feelings to myself. I like Sam. It's safer this way.   
And now I've tracked that scent trail to the very end. He is there in a clearing filled with human things. "Picnic area," my rational mind offers helpfully. My animal side does not care. I know he is male from his scent and now I can see it with my eyes. Not a man, a boy. I growl and fell warmth travel from my insides down my limbs. I shiver with a mounting desire. He turns and sees me. There is fear in his eyes. He sucks in a giant lungful of air to scream. I close the distance and am upon him. He falls with my jaws at his throat, fangs cutting off his scream before it's even half over. Blood floods into my mouth, all warm salt and copper, and I feel a satisfaction I can only describe as sexual. I tear away the shirt covering his belly and rip it open. My first kill. I want to feed. 

I hear a wolf behind me and I whirled. My mother. Competition! I will not share. This meat is mine! I growl and bristle at her. She will not have him! She makes no move to approach but began howling, a howl filled with an emotion that did not seem animal. I stand between her and my meat, continuing to snarl my warning. She might be calling others to help drive me off. I would not have it! 

Two man shapes enter the clearing. They are pack. Would they try to steal my kill? I growl at them as well, just to be sure. They do not growl back. They do not approach. One raises a long object to his shoulder and I felt a sting at my neck at the same time I heard a puff of air. I spin around, craning to try and bite at whatever it was, not caring that my jaws could not possibly reach. The strength flees from my body and I collapse. I am losing consciousness. I fall facing my kill. I can see his face, by chance turned towards me and staring with dead, sightless eyes. A flash of recognition strickes me. Sam! And then nothing. 

I awoke laying down on something soft. I looked up and saw stars. I did not know where I was.  I did not know what I was. I raised my arm, foreleg? I wasn't sure. It was trapped beneath a blanket. I was naked. My limb escaped. I brought it before my eyes. No fur. A hand. I was human again. Why should this be surprising? The full moon! My ceremony was coming soon! But no, fragments of memory tumbled by. It had already taken place along with something else. Sam. What about Sam? Oh, God! 

I tried to sit up, reaching out for support. My hands found cool metal. I was in the back of a pickup. Gray limned the horizon. Dawn was coming. How long was I unconscious? I saw my mother sitting in the bed with me. She was human again, face pale now, looking sick. She reached out for me and squeezed my shoulder. She looked like she was going to cry. She called for my father. I looked in that direction. There were picnic tables. Someone had set up lights. They were focused on a blue tarp. Beneath that blue tarp was a shape, a people shape. Sam! 

My father left that group of men. He walked towards us. His face was fury carved from ancient heartwood. I remember nothing but fragments. Father would see that this mess was cleaned up. This was your boyfriend, Jessica? How could we know? This is why we told you it was so important not to date outside of the pack, the sexual instinct becoming confused with the killing instinct. Any human inside a run would risk his life but one who had won a she-wolf's heart would certainly die. I thought I'd been so careful. It wasn't about how he felt about me, it was about how I felt about him. This was too much for me. I slipped back into unconsciousness. 


Father was good to his word. The problem went away. Sam disappeared. His parents could not believe he ran away. He certainly didn't run off with me. I was still here, wasn't I? Did I know where he might have gone? No, of course not. 

I sat beneath the big oak tree in Feeney Park. Our tree. I'd never thought of it that way before. Fall was coming. He liked the fall, Sam. He liked me. He wanted to see my Run. He wanted to see my glory. He never saw the danger. I felt empty inside, dead. Months have passed and time has no power against my memories; every detail remains sharp as razors. His smile. His laugh. His smell; he smelled so good. The excitement of finding his trail. How it felt to tear the life from him. The animalistic joy. And that animal is me. He's gone now, gone forever. And every time I close my eyes, I can still taste him.

I think I've caught most of the typos. The only part I'm not sure on is the tense change after her transformation. It's meant to show how different her perception is in her animal form. If it doesn't work I can always put it back to past tense.