Friday, 24 July 2015

Science And Magic - And The Arcanist

Hi guys,


People often ask me where as a writer I get my ideas from. Usually I resist saying something like the bottom of a packet of cornflakes and try to give them some sort of vaguely intelligent answer. But the truth is I often don't know. This is one reason I seldom tell people in the offline world that I'm a writer. In the case of the Arcanist I do actually know where the idea came from though. The Arcanist and a companion book which has yet to be finished were written as a response to one of my favourite computer games of all time – Arcanum. A game which sadly doesn't seem to run on either Vista or Seven – at least not for me.


Arcanum was a fun role play game which I spent uncounted hours playing before finally retiring that computer due to advanced old age and worn out keys! And while it was similar to many other role play games of the time it had one aspect that I found fascinating. The interaction between technology and magic.


In Arcanum magic and technology oppose one another, with each the downfall of the other. So for example wizards had to ride in the back of trains, as far from the engine as possible, because their mere magical presence might upset the delicate workings of the steam engine. Meanwhile the presence of technology might upset the ethereal balance of spells.


This dynamic also impacted directly on how you designed your character. If you wanted a spell caster to run around and zap people, you needed to make sure that he didn't learn any technological skills and only grew in certain attributes. Otherwise you'd end up with a weak character – which was never good when it came to fighting the big bad and winning the game. Similarly if you wanted a technologist as your character, you had to advance only certain technological skills and attributes or risk having his guns misfire etc.


That dialectic between magic and technology stuck with me for many years, not least because I realised that it is a tension that exists in the real world of the twenty first century. One that began in my view with the age of enlightenment and reason. Because science and magic are both aspects of two opposing world views.


Science is part of what is often called the materialist world view. The belief – and I use that word intentionally – that the universe can be understood. That it is all nuts and bolts, atoms and forces. And that if only we have enough time and knowledge we will eventually be able to weigh and measure, name and put to work everything there is. Nothing is beyond logic and reason.


Standing against this is the world view of the idealist. A view that says yes hey, science is wonderful and all, but it's not everything. There is more to this universe than those things that can be weighed and measured. That there are things called souls and true free will. That there is an actual right and wrong and life has a purpose. And that those who attempt to put everything in little rational boxes are actually cheapening the whole meaning of what it is to be human.


As you can see these two world views oppose one another directly and so for those who are firmly stuck in one camp the other is a complete load of twaddle.


Enough said about the philosophical side of things. I could waffle about this stuff for hours and bore the pants off you – please check that your belts are still done up(!) – but instead what fascinates me about this as a writer is the practical side of this debate. And despite the fact that all this sounds dry and academic there is a practical side.


What occurred to me is that for the past few centuries the world view of materialism has been in the ascendant. Ever since science started uncovering the explanations for many things that formerly seemed mysterious, the materialist has been crowing. Believing more and more strongly that everything is pure nuts and bolts.


But – and this is what mattered to me – as belief in the materialist world view strengthens it necessarily means that belief in the idealist world view weakens. That those who believe in magic and spirits and whatever else, are little by little relegated to the category of fools and madmen. They are considered delusional and sometimes even called liars and con men.


As a writer the question that struck me was what does any of this mean for magic and the unexplained? Especially if as many claim, magic is dependant in part upon belief? Does magic work but we simply refuse to believe it? Does it not work because the collective will is so anti-magic that it can't? And perhaps even more strangely – does science itself work in part because we believe in it?


It was this understanding that led me to start writing two books last year based on the opposite interactions between magic and technology. Both books began with the same character in the same social position; a man with a knowledge of technology and the gift of magic, but living in two completely opposite worlds. Superhero fans will probably think bizarro worlds here!


The first book was one in which magic and technology complimented one another. This is the book that became The Arcanist. The second world was one in which magic and technology interfered with one another as in Arcanum. That book, which may yet be finished one day, is tentatively called Wings.


Both books became in part an exploration of what it would mean for the worlds to have magic and technology both and for these forces and understandings to either work together or at cross purposes. They were also an exploration of what it would mean for a technologically minded man to have magic.


In one world for a technologist to have magic would be a complete disaster as it would undo everything he strived to achieve. Imagine him building a flying machine and have it fall out of the skies because there was wild magic in his bones. Equally for the world itself it would be a disaster as societies could not advance. Technological advances would be undercut by magic. Magical advances would be undercut by technology.


Given this, and the desire of all societies to advance, my thought was that this sort of world would swiftly become divided and isolationist. The natural inclination would be to isolate magic and technology with some cities and lands embracing technology, some embracing magic. In time those with one or other of the particular arts would find themselves forced to live in the appropriate land.


That is the world of Wings, where a died in the wool technologist suddenly finds his world turned completely upside down as he discovers he has magic – at the same time as all the technological devices around him start failing!


In the other world of course a technologist would welcome magic. Just imagine how much better his inventions would work with a spark of magic to boost them. Consider a gun built with both the best metallurgy and chemistry known and then boosted with a spark of magic. That would be a weapon to fear! Or how about spells enhanced by wizards who apply technological principles to them.


This is the world of The Arcanist where our hero has had both the aptitude for technology and the spark of magic for his entire life. And where he uses both to win his battle.


Anyway, enough rambling from me. Now you can all go rushing out to second hand stores and start hunting down old computer games!


Cheers, Greg.





Sunday, 5 July 2015

Real Villains


Hi Guys,



(All graphic elements were taken from PhotoMorgue.)

New topic for me. Having completed the first draft of the third volume of the Wizard At Law books – Money Matters, I had a little time on my hands. Enough time to create new covers for all three of them, and then to go on my various fora and get back into some serious chatting with other writers.
On one of them a question was asked that fascinated me. Not so much for the question itself, as what it said about the entire genre of fantasy and where it's heading. And yet on the face of it the question was a stupidly simple one. How do we make our villains more real?
This is a topic I have touched on briefly before when I wrote about not really wanting to understand villains – just dispatch them. But it's not really something I've explored in any depth. This time though I want to go into the psyche of the fantasy villain in more depth. In particular the concept of making the villain more “real” and the place of this within the modern fantasy sub-genre known as grimdark.
Grimdark is as the name implies, simply a movement in the genre towards the creation of worlds and characters that are more gritty – grim and dark. It is a movement where the heroes are flawed and the villains are often as much misunderstood victims as they are actual villains. And currently the best example of this movement and certainly one of the most popular is George R. R. Martin's Game of thrones. In his world, every hero has feet of clay and every villain has a reason for being as dark and terrible as he or she is.
Proponents of grimdark, and fans of course, will argue that this is more real. That real life is not black and white. That there are no white knights slaying evil dragons. And on the face of it that almost seems reasonable – until you remember that we're all writing fantasy! But then when another writer asked that simple question I I turn had to wonder – is it actually any more “real” than what preceded it? And my thought is that it actually isn't.
The movement towards grimdark in fantasy in my view has been born of a dissatisfaction with and a rejection of the former typical heroic fantasy of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. It is a reaction to having read and seen too many heroes of pure nobility and courage and of course pure hearts, racing in to save the world from the dastardly villain – and maybe kill a dragon or two along the way. And I understand that. You can only read the same thing so many times before you start to want to read something new and fresh. But while it makes sense to want something new, it doesn't make sense to believe that that something new is more realistic. True the white knight and the Bond villain were not real. But neither are the new crop of fantasy heroes and villains.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly in my view, than in the villains.
Consider the archetypal big baddies. Starting with Ming the Merciless – and seriously what baddie would call himself “the merciless” to begin with – it sort of gives the entire game away as to who he is! Ming was a simple villain. He wanted nothing more than ultimate power and to rule the universe, while his arch enemy Flash Gordon was the all American hero. Really there wasn't a lot of character development that went into our baddie. His motivation was simply a lust for power and that was enough to explain him.
And that pattern has continued for decades with a while host of Bond villains. You know the ones – petting their cats and coming up with ingenious plans to take over the world. They had no great depth until the more recent movies. And obviously this is no longer enough for audiences.
So obviously as writers we can't use these archetypes so much any more as a basis for our villains. But what do we use instead? Because that is where grimdark falls down.
We can't use real villains, no matter how much we want to make our villains more “real”. The reason is unfortunately as simple as it is sad. Real villains are sort of pathetic. Most of those who commit serious crimes, are from bad homes, raised with little in the way of education, and by and large simply aren't very bright. The reason they commit their crimes is usually a horrible lack of coping strategies. They actually find themselves in difficult situations and the only way they can think to get out of them is by doing something bad. As a basis for arch-villains they would by and large be unconvincing and boring.
Sociopaths became rather fertile ground to explore with the advent of villains like Hannibal. And for a while we were all thrilled by the idea of this super-intelligent plotter with no moral compass. But unfortunately while sociopathy is not nearly as rare as we would like it to be, the reality is that most sociopathic criminals aren't incredibly smart. In fact they aren't particularly smart at all. For a rather disturbing view of one of them you should watch the interviews done with Richard Kuklinski – the Iceman as he was known. With what is believed to be over a hundred assassinations that can be laid at his door, the man was cold and not particularly bright, with a violent temper and little actual understanding of people.
In reality the reason he was not caught for so long was that he was protected by organised crime and there was no relationship between him and his victims and therefore no reason to suspect him. It is this same lack of connection between victim and killer that makes most serial killers harder to catch than others – not any great intelligence.
Last I suppose there's the tortured soul. The angst ridden, long suffering wretch who is so twisted up inside that he can do the most vile things. Probably the benchmark for grimdark villains. These are the ones that readers want to believe are real. But really are they? Yes there are such people in the world. Sadly I've worked in an institution and met some of these people. But the sad fact is that these people don't generally become major villains. They sometimes commit crimes, sometimes horrible crimes. But as to taking over the world etc, it's not usually in their compass. It's hard to be taken seriously as a master villain when you spend your days talking to yourself, or curled up in a corner staring at a wall. And that's the sad fact of the matter. The more tormented the soul is the more likely the man is to be so badly broken that his capability to be an arch villain is destroyed.
Which brings us back to the central thrust of this post. The question that was asked. How can we as writers make our villains more “real”? And my answer is that we can't.
This is fantasy, and the villains we write are not real at all. They never were. They weren't real when they were archetypal power crazed despots and Bond villains. They weren't real when they were super-intelligent sociopaths. They weren't super-villains when they were based on actual criminals and in fact they were too boring for the most part to even pen. They weren't real either when they were tortured souls reacting to the horror's of their past lives.
Grimdark is no more “real” than heroic fantasy was before it.
So my thought is that as authors instead of concerning ourselves with questions like how real our villains are, we should instead ask the more accurate question – how believable are they? Because that's what people actually mean when they talk about “real”.
Well, enough wild ranting from me for one day. As always be good or don't get caught.
Cheers, Greg.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Battle Between Hard Science and Space Opera

Hi guys,

The Arcanist is in editing at the moment so I have a little time to spend on my blog. This time I thought I'd turn my thoughts to a controversy that keeps coming up.
This is a far from a new topic. In fact it's one that keeps coming up again and again and again in my various writing groups (Damn – almost said gropes – fingers aren't working well today!) How much science should we put in our books? One that rages through the world of sci fi. How far can we move from what we know – or what we think we know – about how the universe works as we write?
My answer is that sci fi is a genre based on two simple words – “what if?” It doesn't operate on the phrase – “well this what we know so lets work with that.” It goes beyond that to speculate on what we don't know. And sometimes to cross the boundaries between what we know and what might actually be.
Nowhere in sci fi is this tension between what we believe we know about the workings of the universe and what we need to speculate might be for our stories to work, more pronounced than in my own sub-genre of space opera. Because space opera is based on one founding acceptance, the idea that we can travel to the stars. Relativity on the other hand quite clearly says no. You can't go faster than the speed of light, and really that's pushing it too far. So realistically speaking the closest you can come to space travel is generation ships. I don't know about you guys, but if someone offered me a ticket on a spaceship heading for a new star to explore, with a round trip time frame of a century or more – I'd say no. I might sign up for a trip lasting a few months, but once we start talking generations I have better things to do.

So for me like generations of sci fi authors before me, I'll resort to cheating to write my space operas. I'll use hyperspace and subspace, warp drives and time dilation drives, worm holes and slip streams – maybe even the dreaded spin dizzy drive of Doc Smith. And though some people may – and have – criticised me for it, I won't apologise. Call me a scientific heretic – I'm comfortable with that though I prefer fantabulist! Because the ultimate reality is that I want to write books about travelling to the stars, about alien invasions, and interstellar wars.
In my mind those who want sci fi to limit itself to science fact, have lost a large part of the joy of the genre. They have lost the what if that is the heart of what sci fi is all about.

Cheers, Greg.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Stars Betrayed Almost Done

Hi Guys,

Just a quick update. The Stars Betrayed is nearly through it's final edit, and the cover above almost ready too. The artist by the way is Adam Kopala of Deviant Art though I added the text.

So hopefully in a few days The Intruder will take to the stars - and my first book of the year will be published. (It's been a long time between drinks as they say!)

It's a space opera as you might have guessed, with a strong theme of betrayal running through it. Essentially everyone save the hero is both betrayer and betrayed and that weaves together to form the plot. It is most similar to "All the Stars a Grave" though it's set in a very different universe. One in which humanity has been made second class citizens by genetically engineered Ubers, and a war is raging between the Terran Empire and the Alliance.

After this The Arcanist heads down to my editor - just in time for her birthday! I always give the best presents!

Cheers, Greg.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Of Warp Driven Spaceships And Betrayal

Hi Guys,

(Mock up model of The Intruder from my cover artist Adam Kopala - can't wait to see the finished version.)
Just sent off "The Stars Betrayed" for its second line edit, and so have a little time to spend on other things. So I thought I'd talk a little bit about the ship.
First, though the ship - The Intruder - is important to the story, this is not a simple "man in a battleship goes off to have adventures" space opera. The ship is just a vehicle (pun intended!) for the story. Rather this is a story of lies and betrayal - betrayal at every level. (Though I will not explain that any further since it might spoil the story by giving away some plot elements.) It's about why people will betray others including the ones they love. What will push them to do something almost unthinkable. And what sorts of betrayals can be forgiven. But also it asks the question, is their a longer term price to be paid?
It's also a story about Nietzsche's supermen. As some of you may know I am not a fan of Nietzsche, and I regard his supermen as people akin to sociopaths. People with no moral compass other than what they decide for themselves to be right and wrong, good and evil. That is not in my view a good thing. And when you give such people power, it can become a very bad thing indeed. When you give them ultimate power through say genetic engineering, it can be a nightmare.
Nietzsche himself saw his ubersmench as heroic figures in the ancient Greek tradition. Almost godlike and unbowed. He saw them as a vision of what men should be. He did not seem to accept that men have the impulses of both angels and demons in them. That yes we can be wonderful, true and loving. But we can also be monsters. And when psychologists tell us that one to three percent of our society have sociopathic tendencies, the monster within has to be recognised.
The Stars Betrayed grew out of these disparate ideas and also one further one - that some betrayals, even the most terrible can be forgiven. For example the father desperate to save both his drowning children who can only save one. He has to sacrifice / betray one to save the other, or else lose both.
Yes that can be forgiven. It can be understood even. But the cost of such a decision would be soul destroying for the father. And the question hardly ever asked is what would the sacrificed child think of his father's betrayal? Could he forgive him? Could he understand? Or is it a betrayal too great?
I hope that this book will make readers think about these same issues - as well as hopefully be entertained!
Cheers, Greg.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Yes - Something Is Actually Happening!

Hi Guys,
Sorry for not having written anything for a while - (why do so many of my posts begin with apologies?)
However I have a good excuse. No the dog did not eat my homework! I have however been writing and there is progress on the horizon.
In the last couple of months I have completed one sci fi / space opera book which is now sitting with my editor. Meanwhile I have commissioned a cover artist to design a spaceship and am sitting on tenterhooks waiting to see what he comes up with. The ship by the way is called The Intruder, and the book is titled "The Stars Betrayed". (Maybe there will even be a hope by then that my blog problems will have been resolved and I will be able to post an image of the cover here. If not I suppose it will just go to Facebook.)
My hope is that "The Stars Betrayed" will be released within about a month or so.
As well as this I have returned to an old fantasy book - "The Arcanist" - and just finished the first draft. As soon as The Stars Betrayed has finished its editing process The Arcanist will begin its hellish journey, and with a little luck both novels will be out by the middle of the year. It will also be getting a privately commissioned cover. Currently I am searching out cover artists that I think can provide an image similar to the one I want.
As for Mage - The sequel to Maverick with which I was having so many problems, it hasn't been forgotten. It just hit a rough patch at a hundred and fifteen k and I got distracted. (I blame the cat!)
Cheers, Greg.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

MFA - Creative Writing Teacher Quits - With A Few Choice Words

Hi Guys,
Recently you will have read since its all over the blogosphere, about Ryan Boudinot, a former teacher of creative writing in an MFA programme who quit and then decided to leave a few unfortunate comments.
And of course there have been a great many (outraged) responses to his blog, which seems to have become something of a storm magnet. This is my own response which I hope will be somewhat more balanced than many.
To begin with let me just say that teaching is a hard job. Ask anyone who's been in the profession. It wears down the soul. And so first I applaud Mr. Boudinot for having made this a career of his and having tried to teach. But I would also say that given the general tone of his blog, I think he may have been in the job too long. It strikes me as the sort of post someone would write who's a bit on the jaded side of things.
I would also say that as has been said many times, the most convincing sort of lie is the half truth. The lie that has a nugget of truth at its core. And most of his blog post reads like that. It is not that there is no truth in what he says. If there wasn't people could simply look at it, laugh, and walk away. It is that there is a nugget of truth in there which is expanded upon and then made into a great flat blanket claim.
And last let me just say that Mr. Boudinot's claims - at least the headlines - read as black and white. As absolute rules that must be adhered to. But the truth is that with creative writing as with most other human endeavours there is a huge grey area. There are no hard and fast rules. If you do this you will not necessarily succeed. And if you do that you will not necessarily fail. You will just make things either easier or harder for yourself.
Okay, over to the claims he makes.
1 Writers are born with talent.
Well this is absolutely true. Everyone is born with all sorts of talents for all sorts of things. Maths, rugby and writing to name but three. But no one (or at least almost no one) is born with so little talent that they will never be able to produce great creative writing. And equally no one is born with such great talent that they can simply write masterpieces without some study and hard work. Mr. Boudinot actually alludes to this once you get past the salacious headline.
2 If you haven't started writing seriously by the time you're a teenager you're probably not going to make it.
Again a half truth. Yes if you start writing seriously at a young age you have a better chance of succeeding. The same is true everywhere. Tiger Woods would have to be the world's best example of how valuable starting as a toddler practically and training from then on can be. But if you start later does that mean you're doomed to failure? No. Even Mr. Boudinot says "probably". The fact is that many great writers have started later in life. What those of us who do start later - like me - is that the journey for us will probably be harder. But if we're willing to put the hours and sweat in, there's no reason to assume that any of us can't make it.
3 If you aren't a serious reader don't expect anyone to read what you write.
Well this ones a complete pile of pooh. Yes reading is vital to becoming a good writer. But is there any evidence that what you read will make you a better or worse writer? No. What we do know is expressed in that mantra every writer is told almost from the start - Write what you know. So lets take two well known authors - Dame Barbara Cartland and Feodor Dostoyevsky. Do I know what either of them read as kids? No. But is it a fair bet that the first read romance and the second serious literature? Yes. And what does this tell us? That That Dame Barbara Cartland probably couldn't write serious literature (don't you just hate the sheer snobbishness of the term) and Feodor probably couldn't write light romantic fiction. But is either of them not read? No. The truth is that both of them are highly read and respected. What you read won't determine whether you'll be read in turn. What it will do is probably steer you in a certain direction writing wise, and that in turn will decide who reads you - not how many. But that's one of the great things about creative writing. There isn't just one thing you can write to be read.
4 No one cares about your problems if you're a shitty writer.
And here were return to the issue of burn out among teachers. (Note that I choose to see things this way rather than the unfortunate alternative which is that this is how Mr. Boudinot always felt.) What I read here is that Mr. Boudinot is saying don't come to me with your problems unless you have something great to bring with them. As I said at the start teaching is a hard profession. But one of the things that stands out for me when I think about the teachers I've had, is that the best of them were the ones who understood that I like everyone else had problems and were willing to listen and help.
5 You don't need my help to get published.
Well this one is actually completely true in this day of the internet and the indie.
Okay guys. That's my two cents worth on this unfortunate episode in the annals of creative writing. Now it's up to you to go and write and prove this guy wrong.
Cheers, Greg.