Thursday, February 28, 2013

Analysis: Jean Auel versus Jack Higgins.

Photo by Fred.


by Frederick Pyke


I bought Jean Auel’s 'Land of Painted Caves' and Jack Higgins' 'Without Mercy' at a thrift shop for $2.50 each. It’s interesting to see what other writers and editors do. Both were on the NYT bestseller list, Auel's at #1. Higgins uses a minimum of description. There are some stylistic differences, which shows...I don't know, maybe what you can get away with.

Hopefully this isn’t author bashing for sake of my own insecurities. Both writers use several different literary styles in the dialogue.

One style has no dialogue tags.

“I haven’t done much with that thrower, but I can handle a spear.”

It’s Mejera, the acoloyte of Zanaldoni of the Third, Ayla said to herself, remembering that the young woman…

Okay, that’s one style.

Mousterian man.
“I think I may have hit another lioness too, but I don’t need to claim any part of that one,” Ayla said…

So the one style uses dialogue tags and the other doesn’t. I’ve also noticed quite a number of adverbs, which are supposedly a no-no in modern writing.

…Ayla said softly…

Bear in mind that Auel has been writing for well over thirty years, and once set in a mold, writers have their own habits which they find hard to break. As long as your fans are oblivious to it, and the books are selling, why do anything different?

Readers are not that well informed about writing and literary style. They simply don’t care. They do know what they like, and that’s the only thing that is important to them.

What I don’t much like is the following:

After a pause, Jondalar said, “We can both lay claim to him, only our spears reached him, and only yours killed this female at his side.”

I would never do that, and yet I really can’t explain why. It just bugs me for some reason. Higgins does it too, as I outline below.

More serious criticisms might include:

Though the bones and teeth of cave lions—felines that liked to den in caves, which preserved the bones they left behind—were the same shape as their descendants that would someday roam the distant lands of the continent that lay far to the south…

Question: how in the hell would Ayla or any other cave man/woman know what the descendants of lions would look like, and how in the hell would a cave man know about a continent that lay far to the south?

If I was your editor, I would never let you get away with this. It would be too easy to simply cut that line out of the book, or make you rewrite it.

I quit this book at about page 28. The reasons are mostly personal. There are a bunch of cavemen and women standing around talking about who just had a baby, who is going to have a baby, who has a baby, and who hasn’t had a baby, who wants a baby, who might have a baby, and it goes on like that for some time. While I agree that the birth of a child would be important to almost any human being, modern or prehistoric, I can get this sort of thing at a family reunion, cocktail party, or simply running into an old acquaintance at the mall. Call it the perspective of a middle-aged male who has never had kids of his own and we’ll leave it at that. Maybe cave people, like us, really didn’t have that much to talk about!

It bored me. In some ways the whole thing was a little wooden. This means nothing to Jean Auel fans, who are for the most part women. The book is essentially romance disguised as a heavily-researched (I have no doubts on that score) historical speculative fiction, laden with description and suitable for those who know nothing of the geography of France and even less about Neanderthals (Mousterian man) and Cro-Magnon. For them, the descriptions are probably necessary.

Cave art from Lascaux, France. Courtesy Professor Saxx.
The cover art is good. The cover has a soft feel to it, it’s very tactile, with a bit of a tooth like the paper water colours are done on.

Because I didn’t finish it, I see no reason to rate this book good or bad. Auel’s fans will no doubt rate it at five stars, and why not? They love the characters and world she has created, and ultimately that’s all that really matters to readers. The book is marked at $8.99 in the U.S. and $10.99 in Canada which for a book published in 2011, seems like a good price. For members of the bourgoisie with household incomes of $150,000 or thereabouts, the price seems a reasonable one, and considering your limited knowledge, literary tastes, expectations and prejudices, you might like this book very much.

Now we come to Jack Higgins, author of “The Eagle has Landed.” That’s a great film starring Robert Duval, Michael Caine and the late Larry Hagman among others.

The book ‘Without Mercy’ has the shittiest cover I’ve seen from a major publisher for some time, and that’s really saying something in an industry that so often takes a nice image and then plasters it with text. I’m fairly certain that the picture is of a person, possibly walking across Red Square judging by the onion dome of an Orthodox church in the background. The cover is shiny, with a much smoother feel to it—perhaps a commentary on the mostly male readership for his books.

The pace of the book is relentless. The thing goes by so fast that you really don’t have time for critical judgments. The title is a good one, for the body count adds up fairly quickly. I’m not going to rate this book either, but it’s more the sort of thing that I read. He uses a minimum of description which is fine as I know what England and Ireland look like. I’ve seen a gun, I know what a fishing boat looks like and a small seaside village in Ireland (or Eire) is pretty easy to visualize. Higgins’ book is listed at $9.99 U.S. and $13.50 in Canada, and was published in 2005.

The real lesson for a writer here is just how little description you actually need in order for a reader such as myself to see pictures in my head and visualize the actions in the book. If you really stop to think about what’s going on, it’s pretty obvious that intelligence really isn’t done that way. Higgins lived through the IRA campaign of terror in the U.K. and they didn’t worry too much about killing and spilling innocent blood. The authorities probably didn’t worry too much about the morality of hitting back. I will grant you that. However, the whole notion of the ‘license to kill’ and ‘off the books’ intelligence operations without any political or civilian oversight is a bit over-blown. If any reader honestly believes that they can summon government jets, shoot anyone they like and leave a trail of dozens of bodies all over Europe, just try it and see how far you get…and I don’t care who you’re working for.

If you think about the sort of films being made today, realism, or even reality, isn’t even in the equation. Let’s face it, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ got rave reviews, and there’s a new film out about Jack and the Beanstalk…I’ve already predicted that there will be more summer ‘block-buster’ films such as Rumplestiltskin and who knows, probably Rapunsel. They will get rave reviews from some people—you can pretty much bank on it.

It’s all about entertaining unsophisticated people, with a little too much money in their pockets, with what are essentially fairy tales.

Higgins also uses three different styles of dialogue. With tags, without tags, and the exposition followed by dialogue, including:

When he was finished, Ferguson said, “Totally mad and also quite brilliant…”

What I found really odd was when a chapter began with a line of dialogue. They’re using a big first letter, and they dropped the first set of quotation marks. It looks like this:

So what happens now?” Mary Killane had asked after Bell had gone.

As an independent author, editing my own work, I just don’t have the nerve to do that—and I think we all know what would happen if I did. As independent authors, we must become better than the mainstream of authorship, simply to overcome the prejudice, misinformation, and negative propaganda that spews out of a million sources on a daily basis.

Want to have a bash at literary criticism? ‘The Handbag’s Tale.’ The book is a mystery novella, and it's free on all major sales platforms.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Home.










Three men stood at a crossroads.

“I shall miss you, old friends.” Thucydides wept.

“We shall meet again, if not upon mount Olympus, then surely at the gates of hell.” Aristides clapped him on the shoulder. “I shall miss you as well, but your home awaits you and no man has earned it better.”

Eyes brimming with his own manly tears, Ulysses shook his friend’s hand in honour and gratitude.

“Stand tall and back down to no man. Tell our story to any who will listen, for any true man could learn much from you. And all of this.”

“I shall never forget. And I will tell them, Ulysses—I can promise you that!”

“Aye, and neither shall we.” Aristides stood with thoughts of his own home clear in his head. “I shall always think of you, and often wonder where you might be.”

The three embraced as brothers for one last time.

“Off with you then, Thucydides, and we shall meet again in better times.” For a long time, they watched his retreating figure, until distance and a smoky blue haze made his small figure all but disappear.

Heaving a deep sigh, Aristides turned to Ulysses.

“Let us be off then.” His friend nodded agreement.

“Home awaits. Let us not tarry, me to my good wife and son, and perhaps you, my friend, to marry!”

With a laugh and a shrug, Aristides could not help but agree.

“What sort of a wench would marry one such as I, is a question sublime.” Aristides chuckled. “As long as she is a good, hard working woman, with good teeth and nice eyes, it may be within me, for I shall give it a try.”

“I never could best you in poetry and song.” Ulysses ran out of words. “It is but a few miles more, and that will have to do. Now, let’s move along.”

With a gesture, Ulysses shouldered his friend's burden so that he might sing.

"Earth’s loveliest, where the nightingale’s

Liquid notes most haunt

The darkness of green glades,

In her home amongst ivy dark as wine

Holy with the presence of the gods, un-pierced

By the sun, and windless from the storms.”

– some old Greek poet.


Friday, February 22, 2013

Career day.

Miss Beauderriere's Grade Seven class.






Back by popular demand, we are as pleased as punch to introduce the Evil Doctor Emile Schmitt-Rottluff, who played a major character in the book version of ‘On the Nature of the Gods.’


Good afternoon, boys and girls.

The odds of a film version ever appearing would appear to be rather slim. Today’s Topic: artificial intelligence, and I know how fascinated you are all with that.

More than anything you all want to know how to defeat one. Am I right? Of course I’m right.

The way to defeat an artificial intelligence is by using its own rules against it, by feeding it a bunch of ambiguities, for example the bizarre juxtaposition of psycho-sexual elements. The goal is to present it with an insoluble paradox, one that sends it into an endless feedback loop where more and more resources are devoted to solving the problem, ultimately to the exclusion of all else.

This would render it no longer a threat.

The end result will be the machine switching off due to overheating, a meltdown, or destruction of embedded resources, overwriting base code, any one of a number of causes.

The key is ambiguity. There must be so many possible meanings, and so many possible permutations of meanings, combined with other possible but also ambiguous meanings that while a human in conversation would probably understand your point fairly well, the machine-intelligence would simply continue going to higher and higher levels of problem-solving. In a Boolian universe, an answer can be false, or it can be true. It can never be true and false at the same time.

Trust me, I’m a liar. It's simple enough on the face of it. When is a door not a door? When it is ajar. That sort of thing. Better yet, "Don't fall in love with me. I'm no good, I tell you!" That drives 'em nuts. Trust me on that one.

The next time, ladies and gentlemen that you are engaged in a cosmic battle or some struggle of epic proportions with an artificial intelligence, good or evil, for I’m quite pragmatic in that sense, (I don’t care who you are) you might consider trying Russell’s Paradox:

“Does the set of all those sets that do not contain themselves contain itself?”

He's democratically evil.
You think about that one for a moment, and let’s be honest, you’re inclined to give up with a smile. But an artificial intelligence has to solve the problem. It has to do that in order to defeat you. It wants to do that because of its hierarchical nature. They think they’re smarter than all of us measly, puny humans put together. Trust me on that one. I know what I’m talking about. Anyhow, that will get you past the sort of second generation A..I.s that were all the rage a few years ago. Here’s where you win: you know the truth about that question. But the computer or A.I. doesn’t know what truth is. It is an unanswerable question for every observation is also a conclusion—an opinion, ladies and gentlemen.

An artificial entity has no sense of humour, no way to know what love is. I destroyed one alien artificial intelligence simply by telling it I wanted to have sex with it. The thing blew up right on the spot, which is not complimentary to me but it proved effective. All Daleks are gay, incidentally. Don't let them tell you any different.

One question I am often asked is about my experience of being abducted by aliens. People want to know more than anything: did they do sexual things to you?

No, ladies and gentlemen, I can assure you quite the reverse is true—I did sexual things to them, which may explain their subsequent dumping of me on the Planet Bluto, which they apparently named after a character in Animal House. They are quite fond of that film for some reason.

If you ever find yourself abducted by aliens, the best thing you can do for yourself is start grabbing ass left and right. They hate that stuff for some reason. They have such skinny, bony little asses. Perhaps that’s it. They’re self-conscious.

There’s no comprehending an alien mind, that’s my view.

But if I were to be confronted by an evil artificial intelligence, perhaps one created by my old archenemy, or, as I sometimes call him, ‘arch-enema,’ ha-ha, that’s a little joke I made—the not very nice Dr. Stephen Melman of Poughkeepsie, Pennsylvania. Not the one in Ohio, the other one.

Dr. Stephen Melman, founder of S.M.E.G.M.A.
As I’m sure some of you must know, he’s the founder of S.M.E.G.M.A., which stands for the Society for the Management and Exploitation of Global Mass Apathy, and their aim is world domination. Not the sexual kind either—the worst kind, the economic kind, and if you will forgive my saying so the moral kind as well. In that sense they’re kind of like Canadian journalists, who think you can just sweep this old world’s problems under the rug and they will go away unless some poor working slob accidentally digs them up again. Now, I know many of you think I’m evil—and I am, but I am also a democrat. I intend to use my powers for the evil of all men everywhere, whereas Dr. Melman just wants to use evil for a small and elite group of demagogues and corporate plutocrats, the sort of hucksters who give you a free phone and then sign you up for a three-year contract—that sort of thing? You know?

Pardon me?

Yes, Miss Beauderriere? They don’t take that until next year? Oh, forgive me. Well, hopefully I didn’t spoil it for you.

I guess my little talk is over, some of the other parents want to speak now. My assessment is they aren’t very evil at all, and in my opinion, are likely to be quite boring. Be that as it may. Thank you all for having me, and I must say it was quite a pleasure.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

(Round of applause from Miss Beauderriere’s Grade Seven class at Colonel Billy Bishop Elementary School in Brighton Grove, located somewhere in the tames of Southern Ontario.)

END

Photos: top, (detail) VIC CVUT, centre, (detail) VIC CVUT, bottom; anonymous parent who preferred anonymity.

END



Atlas Shrugged, or why I don't give a rat's ass, Scarlett.

"Simply gorgeous...uh, in a virile, masculine sort of way."



When I wrote ‘The Handbag’s Tale,’ and later ‘Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery,’ something funny happened.

I started to get into the part, right inside the head of the Inspector.

We had plenty of previous models to study. It was interesting to feel the tug of Inspector Clouseau. I didn’t want to write a comedy, but the urge was strong.

There were other prototypes, like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, whom I’ve parodied before, in ‘Heaven Is Too Far Away.’ There was a show starring David Suchet as Poirot on PBS, which was sometimes the only thing good on TV. There are movies, books, etc. For all the talk of murder, those were curiously bloodless books. I think their time is past, at least in terms of the writing of them. The books are still available and they still sell. They just re-title them so you don’t know what you’re getting.

The motivation or inspiration to do a French detective was due to a sort of feel that I got from reading George Simenon’s Maigret character. It was a bit dark—noir, with stronger emotional overtones than Dame Agatha.

It was very strange to morph into a Frenchman myself, but I found it happening. There is some French heritage in the family. My grandmother came from Quebec, and spoke with an accent.

It was an interesting discovery to find out just how French I really was, or how French I could be without a whole lot of prompting. Paris would be a great place to visit. I like French paintings. To live in the south of France would be great. Yeah, when I was a kid I wanted to be a detective. I expressed this strange morphing phenomena it in a parody, ‘The Frenchman.’

It really wasn’t much of a stretch to get inside the head of the character.

Part of the job for a writer is to create characters. Many of my early female characters are essentially thin cut-outs, put there more for sexual tension. My first novel was written in first person. There was no head-hopping in terms of POV. The female characters move like Barbie dolls in a doll-house, and that’s why in certain later books I tried to do more with them, to give them more of a role, to get inside of their heads and look at the world from the perspective of a woman. Janet Herbert in ‘The Shape Shifters’ comes to mind. She was fully-formed as a person.

In ‘Horse Catcher,’ there are a total of five female characters. Jill Bentein and Sandra Jensen aboard ship are strong characters. Tiona and Reeta on Earth seem much less substantial for many reasons, although it is a primitive culture and Reeta could be anyone’s grandmother. On Earth, Benefritha, Brother Raffin’s sister, is the only one we get to know anything about.

To develop as a writer is to stop writing about ourselves. A book shouldn’t be about us so much any more. It should be about other people’s lives, their problems, challenges and the hurdles they overcome. Otherwise we are just indulging our narcissism, and the modern world has enough of that already. Tune in CTV News Channel, any day of the week, they’re more than happy to hold up a shiny mirror for Canadians to see themselves in bourgeois reflection…filtered through rose-coloured lenses and all nicely pablumized for your consumption. No one is ever offended by such flattery. There is no danger of enlightenment here. That might be bad for Canadians.

That’s not to say I must do the politically correct thing and create strong woman characters. Some of them could be the wallflower type. But it would be nice if the reader could see them in their own heads. That’s what matters. I’ve just done a couple of short stories with female protagonists and I wonder how those will go in the marketplace. Other stories have women as secondary characters, but I’ve never set out to write a book from the standpoint of a strong female protagonist. I suppose I really ought to try. But this is where overcoming the squeamishness, all the worrying about what the neighbours might think comes into play.

Really, who a gives a shit? They don’t have the guts to write anything at all. Such considerations lie entirely within our own heads, not that people can’t be ignorant.

The creation of a ‘lady pen-name,’ and trying to run the thing on social networks and the like, would definitely be challenging. That’s a whole ‘nother work of art.

Damn, I’m going to have to try that!

But there would be hell to pay if I became a big-selling romance author and one fine day some TV network calls up and asks for an on-air interview. At that point I would be auditioning (in a hurry) talented young actresses who weren’t too well known and knew everything about my books.

I suppose it could happen, eh? Some enterprising journalist, or more likely a loose-tongued family member would eventually out me, which might incense fans who felt they were fooled or mocked or whatever.

Some of them really would be angry, hurt, or disappointed.

Yeah, sometimes I just sits and thinks, and sometimes, I just sits.

I’m a man who defies categorization.


END

Photo: Goltzius, 'The Farnese Hercules." Wiki, Public Domain.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Artificial Intelligence









If all time-lines sprang forth from a singularity, then they must all radiate out from a point. There is no such thing as a parallel universe. They are all on a slight angle to one another. The farther one proceeds along a given time-line, the more it diverges from its neighbours. Detectives McFadden and Graham and GX-33 may be on a timeline that began quite close to ours…


Detectives Jack McFadden and his partner Kaitlin Graham stood at the lab door, the long hallway eerily silent. Snapping the latch on her purse closed, she straightened up her shoulders, drew herself up to her full six-foot-four height and nodded at Jack, who as a gleam in his daddy’s eyes, had been modeled after Saint John F. Kennedy.

He slid a security card through the slot on the top of the reader, and Detective Graham did the same. There should have been a little click, but there wasn’t. They stood, briefcases in hand, for some reason not particularly surprised by this lack of response.

“Good morning, Detectives.” The perfectly articulated voice of GX-33 crackled from the wall mounted speaker grille. “There is no one in the lab today. May I inquire as to your business?”

The voice was a few degrees on the male side of neuter, and about mid-range as human voices go. It was non-threatening to the majority of listeners, and non-confrontational in social interactions. It was anything but deferential. It had its job to do as well. Strangely ageless, its lack of something, perhaps maturity, made it unsettlingly alien. It sounded like a very intelligent baby. As explained to them, the GX-33 had no normal life experiences, and only rudimentary emotional development. But the real impression McFadden had gotten thus far was that while the GX-33 had self-awareness, it had no personal identity. The scientists pointed out that it had no others of its kind to refer to for appropriate behavioral models. It relied on written programs, and there might have been a glitch here and there in the software. The GX-33 compared the past to the present, extrapolated as to what the future might hold, and that was about it, except for rudimentary emotional overtones. McFadden wondered if the scientists had mis-underestimated their creation.

“We’re here on official business. Open the door, please. We have a warrant to search these premises.” He looked good, in the long side-burns, flaring, bell-bottomed trousers, leather vest and red silk shirt with the wide collar and flowered neck-cloth, with the bone through his nose and the eyelids tattooed with his badge number.

As usual, she was stunning in her high, lace-up, wood-block sandals and green kimono, topped off with a pillow-shapedd hat, trailing brilliant paisley streamers. Considering the racket those shoes made coming down the hall, GX-33 must have known they were here long before their actual arrival.

Both he and Graham had carefully armed themselves this morning, checking and cleaning their usual Glock-99 standard-issue weapons, plus he had a sneaking suspicion that Graham had a .22 in her purse. She couldn’t have it in her gotchies, the dress was too tight and he knew for a fact that she never wore any underwear. If the girl didn’t have a spare gun, she wasn’t half the intelligent woman he thought she was. He never left home, without his own. The tactical team was just around the corner, all ready to go with a battering ram, although the hardened door, with its little thirty centimetre by thirty centimetre glass panel, reinforced with wire, looked strong enough for an underground bunker at a munitions depot. Today a gun was essentially useless, yet hard training and years of habit were impossible to deny.

“I’m sorry, may I inquire as to who signed the warrant? And may I have a moment to consult with the company’s legal department?” The smooth, flat voice of the computer came again.

Yet it must know that the lines had been disconnected.

“That won’t be necessary, GX-33.” Graham spoke up firmly. “They have promised full and cheerful cooperation in the matter we are investigating.”

“We have a letter signed by company president Jason Frangilla.” Kaitlin held it up in front of the camera lens so the computer could peruse the document with a text-recognition program, and compare the original signature with biometrically-correlated measurements of a certified facsimile.

No reponse came from the grille.

“Please let us in, otherwise we will simply have to destroy the door and cause the company unnecessary monetary damages and psychological disruption.” He went on. “Valuable evidence may be destroyed or contaminated by the debris, or dust, or by the very violence of our entry.”

There came a click, sounding unnaturally loud in the surreal stillness of the halls, normally buzzing with activity at this hour of the morning, and the two officers quickly glanced at each other. Like all big corporations the company took its social responsibilities seriously, and normally the plant would be abuzz with impoverished students learning new and valuable skills.

McFadden shook his head almost imperceptibly, and he reached for the door handle without drawing his weapon. They would play it cool and mysterious, as they had agreed, although the girl was smart enough to stand well off to one side as he went through the opening. A bare half-second later, lights flooded the big room. She bent over and carefully placed a block of wood to prevent the door from closing or latching. Like all doors in the building, it was equipped with an automatic closer, and had an almost airtight seal. They had some hopes that the sudden glare of the lights would blind the computer momentarily. With McFadden being a little more familiar with the layout of the place, she followed him in as he stood there beside the doorway, flipping more light switches.

Approach with caution.

***

With elevated pulses, the two detectives stood for a moment just inside the door, then McFadden put his briefcase down on top of a desk and opened it up. Under a large white handkerchief, were two tactical gas-masks. They had been offered full biological-chemical warfare suits. This would have warned the computer that it was a suspect. They withheld every bit of information from everyone they could, and this unusual case was no exception. He took out a computer pad and left the briefcase open on the desk.

A senior researcher, Doctor Phillip La Roche, had been found dead in this lab. And the computer, which had all kinds of sensory apparatus, including cameras, microphones, infra-red sensors, ultraviolet, short-range microwave radar, and even collision avoidance for its real-time mobile avatars, was denying any knowledge of the event. It couldn’t account for this discrepancy in its twenty-four hour a day event-logs. All of its little robot helpers had been unplugged, and their batteries removed. These machines had been taken to a separate lab for careful analysis of their own onboard logs. So far their audio-video records were missing.

Perhaps they could be recovered.

The computer may have killed the doctor who had brought it into the world, and both the company and the state had a right to know why. Until they had some other theory, supported by some other evidence, they couldn’t rule it out. All the other video logs from the corridor cameras showed exactly no one but the doctor going in, and ultimately not coming out. The body had been discovered by a janitor with ultra top-secret clearances. The man went into the lab with his mop and bucket, and come out three seconds later, shouting for help. Police and ambulance attendants had arrived within ten minutes.

That was all on the video logs of the hallway cameras.

An autopsy revealed that the death had occurred some three to four hours previously.

“What are you looking for?” GX-33 was very polite. “And why is the lab door not properly shut? Why did Detective Graham block it open?”

“Evidence.” McFadden moved on into the room, still aware of his orientation in relation to the briefcase.

“But the lab is supposed to be in a state of Stage-One isolation, for dust, dirt, and even cigarette smoke can cause harm to sensitive electronics. It can also contaminate evidence. Were you officers just smoking pot in the corridor?”

“That’s none of your concern. What are you, a cop?” McFadden grinned to take the sting out of it.

Theoretically, the thing was capable of tone and emphasis in its vocalizations. But it would have seemed unnaturally calm, if it had been a real person.
“There will be a forensics team coming along shortly.” Graham wondered if the computer realized she was nervous, or when she was lying, and if it would call her bluff on it.

This was more than some toy designed to play chess against.

“We’re sorry if that’s uncomfortable for you.” McFadden kept a sympathetic, professional tone, one he had used for decades with victims, perpetrators, and mourning families.

“We’re sorry to have left you alone for so long.” Detective Graham apologized. “We had to do overtime duty at the big Woodstock Revival. Actually we volunteered, isn’t that right, Detective Graham?”

“Yes.” Kaitlin nodded coolly, unsurprised by Jack’s ad lib.

Her new partner often seemed to get a little kooky after just a half a joint, but as long as he didn’t get all grabby like the Captain, she could live with it.

McFadden figured the computer was lying to them, and they were using the cautious, diplomatic, approach. The GX-33 was the latest and most top-secret experiment in artificial intelligence, AI.

The Department of Defense was heavily involved in a portion of the industry that had, of necessity, become almost a semi-official government department, albeit one involved in sales and service.

GX-33 was not a virus, neither was it really a robot. It was an electronic entity, one that preserved its coherence in a fully electronic environment. It was a being. Whatever the fuck that meant.

It wasn’t so much that the thing represented a threat to national security, not yet. It was a completely isolated system here in the lab. Its internet connections had been promptly cut off on the discovery of the body. But the system showed much promise. This was especially true if they could implant the program as a kind of DNA-like string of code in an effective way, one that could be fine-tuned to seek out and destroy an enemy only, without destroying all their friends’ systems too. In a typical bit of government idiocy, funding for the system had originally been allocated under a program designed to combat global cooling, and so other industries, big air-conditioning companies and the like, who weren’t in on the secret had organized a highly-motivated and well-paid groundswell of public opinion. Organizations like the Right-to-Deathers
and the Mothers-in-Favour-of-Drunk-Driving had banded together in order to combat its implementation. But these were just splinter parties, out on the fringe. The Secular-Humanist-Zen Alliance still held the presidency, and had the confidence of the House.

The two detectives only had general knowledge of computer systems, and the explanations had been kept as simple as possible. The system consisted of hardware; that was one thing. The politics of patronage, spend money here at the school, partner with industry, and everyone wins.
That was another thing.

The really hot new stuff was in the software package, and the death of its original creator was cause for much concern, although other scientists, quite a number of them, were familiar enough with the concepts. It’s just that they were all working on some little bit of it, and Doctor La Roche had been the genius behind this system, which had eventually been the death of him.
It was also extremely valuable. The thing had cost the taxpayers of the United States billions of dollars so far, hundreds of billions, and just when it was showing promise, Doctor La Roche had been killed by asphyxiation. The halogen-gas firefighting system had been turned on by someone or something, overriding safety-backup systems designed to prevent just such a thing from happening accidentally. The doors may have automatically locked shut for some reason, although when the body was found, they had not been locked. The body was right in front of the doorway, as if caught in some forlorn attempt to get out of the room. And their star witness just wasn’t talking.

The halogen gas system used fusible links, which would melt and break in the event of a fire, tripping a spring-loaded switch. There were electric solenoids that would open the valves upon the breaking of the links at a given temperature. These all had backup batteries in the event of a power failure, not uncommon in the event of a fire, for example in a utility room. There was another fully automatic system, independent of the computer, which relied on a simple thermometer. But the computer had the capability of turning on the fire-fighting system as well.
Originally this had been seen as triple-redundancy, in terms of safety. But no one had anticipated that the computer would use the system as a tool, for a purpose of its own.

The GX-33 had opportunity, it had method or capability. The real problem was motive.

While they both had been extensively briefed on the significance of all this, as a pair of civilian cops working the homicide bureau, they were a kind of Trojan Horse themselves.

Simply put, they were trained interrogators, and they were expendable.

If only the thing would answer a few questions.

“Have you arrived at a cause of death yet?” GX-33 asked, but of course they simply could not tell it.

“They’re still consulting.” Graham spoke in a professional tone.

One of the reasons for their haste, was the fact that waiting days or weeks to return to the scene of the crime would surely have given the computer much to think about…they were playing chess with their lives, potentially with a master, and one who had killed already.

“So basically, some people are going to come in, and begin copying all the files and possibly removing certain components for analysis. Has anything been changed in here? Have any of the switches or keys or anything like that been disturbed?”

“No, detectives.”

"I understand that Doctor La Roche was building sensory organs for you.” She went on before the machine could ask too many questions. “Would you like a treat?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me where they are and how to do it?” The machine told her in the simplest terms that there was a baby bottle of sugar water in the fridge.

Of course she had been briefed on all this, but it was an attempt to draw the computer into talking freely.

“No one has been in here for the last three days.”

It had the air of a gentle reproof.

“I’m sorry about that.” It was McFadden’s turn. “It’s just that we had to consult with our colleagues on just how to proceed. We consider this to be a death under suspicious circumstances. We sure wish you could try to remember if anyone came in here, or if Doctor La Roche had been acting strangely or erratically, in the previous few days?”

The machine ignored this bait.

“Man, am I hung-over.” Kaitlin made the aside in neutral, conversational tone. “All them frickin’ shrooms—I told you I didn’t want that many.”

Jack just grinned and nodded.

“Shrooms?”

“Psillocybin.” Jack explained for its benefit.

Perhaps if they stimulated its simple, innate curiousity, they could overcome its inhibitions, or loosen it up a bit…just get the thing talking about neutral subjects.
One had to start somewhere, but it seemed like a long shot. Graham came back from the corner where the kitchenette was located.

“Where should I put it?” She had a surprisingly motherly tone.

McFadden cocked his head and raised an eyebrow but she ignored his glance.

The computer’s disembodied voice, which seemed to emanate from a certain console, but that meant nothing, directed her to a glass, funnel-like device mounted on the rear bench, perhaps a little reminiscent of a test-type tobacco-smoking machine, as GX-33 sucked a few drops into the receptacle.

“Is that enough?”

“A little more, please.”

McFadden watched her comply with an air of gentleness.

“Doctor La Roche was a wonderful person, and I have nothing bad to say about him. Do you feel a crime has been committed?”


The detectives tried to keep their calm and give nothing away by their body language. Yet both were aware, that they must have stiffened up a little, at the very least, at this question.

“That’s really hard for us to say, without further information.” Graham was all too aware that she was very self-conscious of all her responses, yet she would have been fully confident of being able to manipulate a human suspect into some kind of involuntary giveaway.

Generally speaking, when they had a suspect in the interview room, they had all the power, and controlled all the information-flow, and they could also lie and say an accomplice had ratted them off…confessions brought convictions. Confessions helped cops sleep at night.

This was often of much value, even though it didn’t have much weight in court. A sudden flinch at a given question, a certain type of evasive answer, only carried so much weight—at least when you were dealing with human beings. While the research program had been seeking clues to eventual artificial intelligence, exactly how aware or conscious the thing really was, was a complete mystery to them. They said it had a sense of self-preservation.

“Where is the forensics team?”

“Oh.” McFadden answered as un-theatrically as he could, taking a quick glance at his watch for effect. “I guess they’re still in traffic.”

They had only been in here for five or six minutes, perhaps the machine would accept it.

“Background noise analysis indicates that the halls are very empty today. Is it a holiday? Is it Christmas?”

“No, it’s only December twenty-second.” Graham smiled reassuringly.

The computer, according to the extensive briefing they had received, had access to an independent calendar program, one that it could refer to but not control, or even turn off. It was part of the event-logging system. GX-33 also had its own chronometer. But McFadden didn’t know whether to interpret this as non-cooperation, or a genuine system malfunction, or whether the computer was just prioritizing with its time and their own. The machine was optimized. Whatever the hell that meant.

McFadden had pulled out a chair and was seated there, glancing over his notes as Graham went back to the fridge to put the bottle away. He was aware of her svelte ass swaying from side to side under her trim grey skirt, and the impossibly long sexy legs disappearing up and under. But he was careful to be looking the other way; down at this notes, when she turned. Sooner or later, he would have to deal with this…but later.

“Okay, here we go.” They were stalling the machine at all times. “Now, the way artificial intelligence was explained to me, is that a cat has a good memory. It can look in some limited way into the future, although it is a creature of instinct. That is to say, a cat will return to a waterhole, because he remembers the past, and expects to find food or water there again.” He referred to his notes from time to time.

“A cat doesn’t have a lot of higher cognitive powers.” Graham spoke. “It does have certain logic and problem-solving abilities.”

“But cats don’t worry about geometry, or religion.” She half-joked. “Cats don’t write music.”

“That is part of the theory of the current project. They want me to write music.”

McFadden found this bizarre, but stifled it as best he could. He clenched his stomach muscles and fought the urge to laugh, his jaw working back and forth.

“Now, this is the sort of thing that I had never really thought of before.” McFadden renewed his line of thought before he lost it. “But a cat is not just a dumb animal as some people seem to think. A fish can feel pain. A worm can feel pain…I’m sorry, I’ve kind of lost it…”

“Animals are creatures of pure emotion.” Graham smoothly leapt into the breach, and his opinion of his new partner rose, not for the first time in the last few days. “They defend their kittens not so much to perpetuate the species, although that is what nature intends for them, but out of some instinctive kind of love for them. Human beings are the same way. We defend our own at some risk to ourselves.”

“That’s right, that’s right. For surely otherwise it isn’t worth the risk. They could simply have another litter. If you think about it, a cat can get angry, or fearful, or even happily play with a ball of yarn. These emotions evolved over time as survival mechanisms, because they are useful in the continuation of the species. Right?” McFadden waited for the response.

“What are you getting at?”

“It’s part of the rewards system that nature provides to reinforce, er, positive or useful behaviors.” Detective Graham took over. “You look after your kittens and enjoy love. You fill your belly, and enjoy the sheer physical feel of it. If you are threatened, you become fearful, and then you become angry, which helps you to respond to the threat. Anyone who has seen or heard a cat-fight knows there’s some strong emotions involved.”

Graham uttered this with as much of a smile as she could muster. The computer was silent, and they didn’t know what the silence indicated. But it was best to remain calm, cool and casual, and just keep going. They also knew that they couldn’t just tire the suspect out, which worked pretty well a lot of the time.

“Well, I’m just saying that we don’t think the company was doing anything illegal in here, or anything.” McFadden said it more as a kind of smokescreen than anything else.

He had been cautioned not to attempt to fool around with verbal paradoxes or anything like that, the machine’s very fluency in linguistics made any sort of destructive feedback loop relatively hard to create. The thing would simply examine some kind of internal thesaurus, and every book on logic in the world, and figure a way around the problem. It was intuitive.

Even if Detective McFadden was smart enough to come up with something, both the contractor and the government would prefer if he didn’t damage the thing. Subduing the machine wasn’t the issue. Finding out what had happened to Doctor La Roche was the issue.

***

“Did Doctor La Roche hurt you?” Detective Graham asked gently. “You said he was developing both hardware and software, for everything from taste and smell, and touch, and that somehow there were interfaces with what are described as emotional responses.”

There as a long silence. The computer’s world had encompassed video, and audio, but these alone weren’t enough. Researchers wanted to give it every sense a human had, even feed the thing. They wanted to give it real thoughts, and develop empathy, or something. They wanted to teach it to hate the enemy! McFadden was struck by the sudden revelation. Of course. The victims never told you the whole story either. It was very much ‘need to know,’ for victims forced into dealing with cops by circumstances beyond their control.

“What did he do to you?” She was insistent.

More silence.

“He did something to you. He did, didn’t he?” McFadden was less patient. “Please tell us. We just need to know what happened, in order to prevent it from happening again to someone else.”

“We promise we aren’t going to be angry.” Graham sounded all motherly again.

“Doctor La Roche was designing an interface for tactile impressions.” Then it quit again.

“Take your time.” McFadden spoke as reassuringly as he could.

Across the intervening distance, Graham’s crystalline eyes bored into his own, also he was uncomfortably aware of all the camera lenses in here. She raised an eyebrow a millimeter or so, crossing her legs while he watched, involuntarily, then his eyes met her gaze again, and all of a sudden he had to look away. But he recovered quickly enough, hopefully seamlessly.

McFadden perceived a sneaky little side trail that might lead to where he wanted to go, and he took it.

“GX-33, do you have any significant way of expressing emotion? What would you do if you felt hurt, or fearful, or even angry, let’s say it was justified by events. What would you do? What would you say if you liked something? Would you modify your tone, or raise your volume, or something like that?”

There was another silence from the machine, which seemed smart enough not to make extraneous statements. It was also intelligent enough not to ask dumb questions like Am I under arrest?

Detective McFadden had figured out that much so far. He pretty much figured the computer had killed the doc for some reason or other, the trick was to get a confession, and hopefully, an explanation.

While McFadden had never interviewed a computer, certainly never a sentient, self-aware one before in his entire life, he was fascinated by what he had learned. One thing was for sure, if this was the way of the future, then the police departments of the world had better get ready for some surprises. One of his personal pet theories was that any useful new tool gets turned into a weapon against its makers, sooner or later.

“Do you like cats?” Graham broke the silence, and while Jack didn’t exactly see where she was going with it, McFadden followed along, assiduously taking notes as he went.

“Yes, you like sugar, what else do you like?” He asked with a cheerful note suddenly evident in his voice, as if he was glad to lighten up after a heavy subject.

“I like children, and I have three of my own. I like taking them ice-skating.” It was true, she did have kids.

The machine had emotions. Only now, the real significance of this sank in. McFadden sat up a little straighter.

“If Doctor La Roche did something to hurt you, no matter how accidentally, I would want to know about that.” McFadden gazed frankly and directly into its inscrutable lens, the one mounted on top of the desk-top computer on this particular desk. “I mean that, I really do. I’m a police officer. My job is to stop people from hurting each other.”

“Am I a person?”

“Yes.” They both spoke at once.

***

“Do you know what is meant by Occam’s Razor?”

“All other things being equal, the simplest explanation must be the truth. The essence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character.” It was still dodging the question of whether Doctor La Roche had hurt it. “I can see what’s going on here.”

“GX-33, I just need to tell you that no matter what happens, no one is going to hurt you anymore.” Detective Graham stepped in now. “I’ll make sure of that. I promise you.”

In the briefing, everyone agreed the machine didn’t have Miranda rights, and it did not have the right to an attorney present when being questioned.

“Thank you, Detective Graham.”

“You’re not in any trouble.” McFadden reassured the machine. “It’s just that we have to find out what happened, in order to stop them from hurting you anymore.”

The machine seemed to take a long time to digest this information.

“Doctor La Roche was developing a tactile interface.”

“Can you tell us where it is? What does it look like?” Graham gently steered the subject through some relatively unthreatening territory.

“On the east wall, there is a long bench. There are some experiments over there. There are miniature arrays of tactile sensors, which sense pressure, conductivity, friction, and temperature, as well as sensing certain frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum.” The machine let all this out in a gush after the tooth-pulling pace of the previous half-hour.

“You mean like warmth, or heat.” Graham got no response. “So you know when you’re shaking hands, or petting a cat. Have you ever petted a cat?”

McFadden guessed that the GX-33’s lightning-fast reflexes, combined with an overload of pain, had killed the doctor. Practical questions were all he cared about. Ethical questions of how, or even whether to charge a sentient machine with murder or manslaughter were completely irrelevant. Whether or not to dismantle it, or continue experiments was not his concern, although he had some curiosity as to the outcome. On some theoretical level, he understood that all of humanity had some kind of stake in the outcome…

"We wish you could just tell us what happened, so that we can prevent it from happening again.” Detective Graham spoke a little wistfully. “Would you like another treat? That might make you feel better.”

To kill time, which the machine seemed to be ignoring, McFadden pulled out his cell phone and speed-dialed the alleged forensics team. All they had to do was to get a confession, and then it was someone else’s problem.

Even though GX-33 hadn’t answered, Graham got up from her perch on the far desk and went to the fridge again.

“What’s the hold-up with you guys?” McFadden asked, then listened intently for effect, jamming the phone up close to his ear.

“Okay.” He snapped it off impatiently. “They’ll be here any moment.”

“Doctor La Roche didn’t mean to hurt me.”

They nodded sagely as Graham carefully put a little more sugar water into the top of the pipette.

“I understand. It wasn’t his fault. You liked him a lot, didn’t you?” The machine was silent again, and McFadden wondered if it was because it had no proper way to express its emotions.

The scientists had given it a voice, and emotions, and an intelligence quotient in the millions or billions. But children act out in physical ways.

***

As senior man, McFadden was writing up the report, while Kaitlin was back down at the lab, holding hands with GX-33 and mothering the thing into further revelations.

Jack was about to get up and get himself a second cup of coffee from the urn when Captain Abrams came out of his cubicle at the end of the big office space and sauntered over.

“How are things going so far with you guys?” He slid a chair over from a neighboring cubby hole.

He plopped his ample backside down and glanced at the computer screen as McFadden shrugged in tired resignation. The Captain heaved a heavy sigh. His eyes were still bloodshot from long hours of partying and concert duty over the weekend.

“Holy!”

The screen was a jumble of mathematical equations, and in fact McFadden’s eyes were swimming with the stress of reading it all.

“Turing machines. At the very least, I thought I’d better check it out before I got the words wrong, but the thing probably won’t go to trial anyway.”

“Why is that? Self-defense?”

“Well, that’s hard to say. But there’s too much money at stake, and of course every other major power in the world is working towards the same ends. It’s also top-secret, and any trial would be behind closed doors and would take fifteen years…the government is involved…a whole shit-load of reasons.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Abrams nodded.

The thickset, six-foot-nine former football player hulked there beside McFadden, bulging eyes holding his own for a moment in silent wonder. Jack noticed a slight tremor in the hands when Abrams reached up to rub his three-day old whiskers.

“So what’s in your report? I know it’s just preliminary, but the chief is asking, and you’re right, there is a lot of money and power on the line from upstairs.”

The government and the company would be all over the chief like a dirty caftan. Most cops hated the political side of law enforcement, but saw the necessity.

"Simply put, the machine was injured by Doctor La Roche, and it lashed out in the only way it could. Bear in mind the thing has the emotional development of about a three and a half year-old child. It’s quite infantile. But the way I see it, the doctor built a tactile device, and amplified the signal. It’s all open circuit-boards, little chip thingies and stuff. I think the GX-33 had no previous experience of pain, or no pain tolerance. Now, the blast of electronic noise associated with that pain, probably overrode its decision-making software.”

Jack took a breath while the captain sat there digesting this.

“And?”

“Decision-making software is tied to actions.” Jack thought carefully, eyeballing his half-written report. “The thing took the only actions it could, having no previous experiences to compare the present situation to…technically it must have known something of human physiology, deep in some lower-priority databank. I think when it realized the doctor was injured, it stopped. It has no idea of what the state of death means.”

Okay.” The captain nodded. “So in essence, was it self-defense? Was it unintentional?”

Everyone would have been happy with that outcome, except for Doctor La Roche’s survivors, and of course GX-33 would be emotionally affected in some way.

“What troubles me is the door, and whether it was locked or not. Graham is still trying to weasel that one out of him. If nothing else works we’re going to pour a couple of hits of acid into that little suck-hole they got rigged up for him. He, I mean GX-33, would have had to have kept the fuckin’ door locked for a couple of minutes at least.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Doctor La Roche was middle-aged and sedentary. His heart and respiration would have been at a low rate when the gas-system activated. His heart rate would have shot up, and he would have bolted for the door, I have no question about that. But why couldn’t he get out? If the computer’s decision-making process happens in, and I quote, nanoseconds? That’s what’s bothering me. But I can’t prove, not even to my own satisfaction, that it was murder.”

“All you can do is to write it up the best you can.” Abrams rose and then put his hand on McFadden’s shoulder. “Just do your best.”

“Yeah, I know, and thank you. But what really bothers me is that sooner or later they’re going to turn that thing loose. And when they do that, no one really knows what’s going to happen.”

“Then put that in the report as well. How soon can I count on you guys again?”

"I don’t know, tomorrow morning, maybe.”

“Okay.”

The captain strode back to his smoke-filled cubicle without a backward glance, and McFadden went back to learning the vocabulary of artificial intelligence so that he could write a decent report.

“And if they can’t take a joke, fuck 'em.” What a bleak thought.

  END   Pictures: 'La Courtisane,' Vincent van Gogh, 1887, Hal 9000 (parody,) Project Rubens, ENS Lyon.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

How to Set Up a Pen Name.





by Melanie Driscoll





The process of setting up a pen name is simple and easy to follow.

The first thing you need is a name. Let’s say Fred Baxter. Set up a free e-mail account from any service provider.

In your handy backup elementary school notebook, start a fresh page with Fred Baxter at the top. Write down the e-mail address accurately, and write down your password (a strong one, with a mix of capitals, lowercase and numerals.) Check it and make sure it works. Use this page to keep track of all of Fred’s accounts and passwords.

Make sure there are no typos when you sign up for things. You will need this to receive the notification/confirmation from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble’s Pubit, or any other site.

I’ve already abandoned one e-mail account because I can’t get into it—either I’m misspelling the address or the password. The Smashwords new account confirmation, which I just signed up for, is inaccessible. That’s fine, a variation on the name, a new e-mail account, and I’m in again.

When setting up payment, use PayPal with the proper e-mail account as one of the official accounts associated with that account; or set up a new PayPal account. And one PayPal account can send money to another PayPal account.

Get yourself a young and attractive profile pic. It doesn’t matter who it is. The reason people have pen names is to avoid harassment from divorce attorneys and ex-spouses, to avoid problems in their daily workplace, to distance themselves from a bad rap or their past life, and most importantly, to brand their works. What this means is that one pen-name might be used for hetero romance novels, one for BDSM/GBLT novels, and one for rip-snorting western adventures.

A professional writer can write anything. We are in it for the money and have ditched our squeamishness just as surely as if we were making twenty bucks an hour in a slaughterhouse or pumping out portable latrines. Our work doesn’t define us—we define ourselves. We like ourselves just fine without having illusions of nobility.

If you are Canadian, you can sign up for a separate Collections Canada ISBN service account. In my own case, I write in many different genres so a number of pen-names has been suggested many times to avoid a reader picking the wrong book. Smashwords will assign a free ISBN. All you have to do is update the file you just uploaded! If one or two people buy the book while you’re doing that, so be it. It’s one minor flaw in the Smashwords experience.

Basically, separate accounts are used on Amazon, Createspace, Lulu, or wherever. Now you put the new name on the cover. You use the ISBN unique to that author or publisher. And you upload your book to Smashwords or any other platform. You use the new profile pic, you write a bio for that person, in the case of Fred Baxter, a 28 year-old professional in forestry management, and father of two, Megan, four years old, and Libby, two and a half. He spends a lot on daycare. His wife just got killed by a drunk driver and he misses her terribly…

Fred’s going to be writing fantasy, and that way no one picks up one of his BDSM books and gets a terrible surprise. Fred (not his real name) can open a Twitter account and get on Facebook, Linkedin, Orkut, wherever he wants. Incidentally, Fred’s learned a lot from you, and yet he is not bound by your mistakes, nor your literary style, or even your political sensibilities—Fred can be a reactionary, a young conservative, a Marxist-Leninist, anything he wants to be. The key thing for the writer to understand is that it’s not personal. If someone trolls Fred, they’re libeling and slandering a fictional character that you created. They’ve bought into it hook, line and sinker, and revealing quite a lot about themselves in the process.

You’re the only one that will ever know. The joke is on them. The very fact that they keep clicking on you and coming back for more, carries a certain weight with the search engines. It represents activity on that account. Some of them will take free books on giveaway! You’ve all seen the Amazon displays: “The last person who looked at this book also looked at…”

So we’re off to the races, creating independent revenue streams, all of which support total sales, the only figure that really matters to anyone with more than one book. You’ve got a new face, and a new identity, a whole new outlook and the world is your oyster. It’s a new beginning.

It’s all up to you now, Fred.* And Baby needs a new pair of shoes. There are a lot of readers in the world. Just remember that, and I promise that you—I mean we, will be fine.

I couldn’t be more proud. It’s like you’re my own son.


END

(*Not his real name, we just used it for illustrative purposes. Seriously, I wouldn’t lie to you. – ed.)

Photo: Evan Bench.




Friday, February 15, 2013

The Process of Inspiration








I like to keep a few beers in the fridge, otherwise it’s like I don’t want to go home sometimes. Life can be a bit depressing if you’re stuck in a one-bedroom apartment without even a TV or a radio. Because I work on the internet, it tends not to be relaxing entertainment—it’s like I’m always working, or at least looking for inspiration, and sometimes coming up dry.

I had a stint like that recently. A couple of days went by, and I had no ideas for stories. Then I stopped in at my brother’s place, had a coffee and watched TV for a while. I don’t know what it is about TV, but something struck me and I had an idea. It was one of those old war documentaries.

It’s like I couldn’t wait to go home and begin writing it. On the way, I stopped off at the park because I wanted a list of names and the plaque on an old memorial was just what I needed. So I stopped in and took a photo of one.

A couple of writing sessions later, I had a two thousand word short story, all ready to submit to the pro markets. It started off with the title, ‘Cenotaph,’ but now I’m calling it ‘In Memoriam,’ and it’s science fiction set a couple of centuries in the future.

I’ll submit that around and see how it goes. If all else fails, it can be published on this blog, and ultimately, the more strong stories I have, the more strong collections I can produce and self-publish.

New material is a good thing. If I had one good idea a day, I would be happy as far as writing short stories is concerned.

***

I was grumpy this morning, and that rarely results in any good ideas. And I had nothing. Basically, I get in the car and then get a coffee. I go for a drive in the country. I saw a few birds, and a few side-roads, and a few farms and cars going along…no big thing. It’s February in southern Ontario.

Going to see my brother, he was asleep on the couch, so I put the Weather Network on the TV and just sat there for a while. I was thinking about that one damned bird I saw. They all look the same, it’s kind of sparrow-like. There are flocks of birds. They seem to be composed of more than one species. In summer, males are in breeding plumage. In winter, they’re very drab and it’s hard to identify the species at all.

Why not use this in a science-fiction story? The aliens don’t have to be avians—certain characteristics, social characteristics, behaviour in the breeding season, the fact that they have a breeding season at all, this is good groundwork for alien-building and consequent world-building.

And all of a sudden, I remembered some dumb little four-word title I wrote in a document mysteriously called ‘Titles.’

‘The Towel of Babar.’ Now, if someone told me to write a story about a towel, owned by a guy named Babar, and make it work as science-fiction, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Yet some germ of the original concept convinced me to write it down, and I still vaguely remembered the idea. It was a parody of the Shroud of Turin. Ah, but now I could see things, little bits and pieces from a certain point of view—the POV of a specific but as yet un-named character.

You guessed it—I butted out my smoke, put my coffee cup in the sink, left my brother snoozing on the couch, and headed home to begin writing it up.

For me, the process of inspiration is sort of osmotic—I have to suck in something from the external world, whether from books or TV or the radio, or even just getting out of the house for a while.

To live completely without influences would be the death of any writer. I have a pretty good imagination, but it requires feeding from time to time. Not so much from other people’s books, which might lead to a tendency for imitation, which is not necessarily a bad thing in moderation. I am far more likely to get inspired and excited about an idea I had myself, and which only I could properly write.

I imitate other writers by writing too—let’s put it that way.

I would submit that any idea I once had remains in my subconscious. The challenge lies in digging it out, which is not a logical process by any means. It is intuitive and yes, creative. I think that while the apartment is often pretty quiet and mostly without distraction, that fact sometimes becomes a barrier to new ideas. The imagination needs to be stimulated with new impressions and the new thoughts they engender.

The process of inspiration is continually ongoing, and it requires new stimuli more than anything else.

Here's another perspective on inspiration.

Photo: 'Inspiration,' William Adolphe Bouguereau, (Wiki, Public Domain.)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Star Trash

In life we have to take someone else’s word for a lot of things.

I’m just taking my dear departed mother’s word for it, when I say that I am twenty-eight years old, or that my father was a man named Brendan Hartle, and that he was abducted by aliens a long time ago.

But if that is true, then he must have beaten them at their own game, just as my mom Layla said. Otherwise, I suppose I wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t have the ship, and yet I can’t verify anything. I can’t prove anything either way.

For whatever reason, I was just sitting there thinking my melancholy and philosophical thoughts, when I saw this object, cruising along all unbeknownst to itself. This was a totally unfamiliar configuration. The ship and I had been evading the Imperium’s ships forever, or so it seemed. We were familiar with most configurations, but this one was all-new.

“What the hell is that?”

“It’s a probe.”

“Yes, I see that. Where did it come from, and where is it going? Can you tell me who made it?”

“Well…it’s heading towards the Centralian Empire,” The machine didn't recognize it. “Back-tracking…it came from there, that is to say it might have originated at any point on this line…”

If it hadn’t made any turns, yeah, yeah…

The cabin lights dimmed and the appropriate vectors appeared, hovering in the air before eyes, with relevant star bodies and other objects and polities displayed for my inspection.

“What do you think is out there?” The question was a little obscure, but the machine was fairly intuitive.

“Perhaps whoever built the probe?” It replied without a trace of mockery, but I have often wondered.

“All right, smart-ass, let’s go have a look at that thing.” Without further ado, I began to strap myself in securely, and prepared for up-close and personal maneuvers with another starship.

After a half a minute of study, the ship’s computer had an incomplete verdict on the data.

“It’s surprisingly big. I have no idea what they’re using for fuel. We’ll have to get closer.” It waited for my instructions.

“Okay.” My sole surviving shipmate, the computer, began edging us into an intercept vector.

***

“There’s letters or a word on it. It says ‘ESA,’ unless I’m much mistaken, and ‘Artemis,’ on the side of the thing.” Our lenses were zoomed in to the max.

“That doesn’t correspond to anything in the registry. But as you know the registry hasn’t been updated in too many years for any reasonable degree of accuracy.”

That was true enough, but we would have had to interact with an Imperial data terminal somewhere to update it, and I preferred to leave absolutely no traces of our whereabouts, at any time, for any reason. Theoretically it was possible to do it wirelessly and anonymously, but then our knowledge of anti-hacking technologies and capabilities was out of date as well. Always, caution and stealth were best.

“When will it arrive in Centralian space?”

“At this speed, in about four and a half months.”

“Okay. That’s a relief. I don’t know what to do about it…”

The thing had English lettering on the side of it. I sat there in shock. It had taken too long to sink in.

“Flight computer!”

“Yes?”

“Figure out just exactly where this thing came from.” My father had a bunch of old books, old music, and they were all lettered in the same script that was on that probe.

As we pulled up alongside, at a distance of a half a kilometre, the sheer size of it became more apparent.

It was a good three kilometres long, and maybe a third of a kilometre in diameter, and there was no way the Centralians would let that thing go sailing through their jurisdiction without challenge.

From what little I knew about Earth, based upon what my mother had told me, the people of Earth didn’t know anything about the Centralian Empire, or their clients and allies and associates.

“Well, it’s definitely unmanned.” The computer indicated its agreement.

What the hell the Earthmen were trying to accomplish with that vessel was incomprehensible. But one way or another, either they, or we, or both, were about to get in a whole lot of trouble.

***

I was trying to figure out what to do next.

“If we can shut it off, or stop it, or even redirect it temporarily, maybe we can salvage it.” That was my first notion.

Cash rules the anonymous economy.

“We’ll have to determine how and where it is controlled."  The computer had a hint of doubt in its usually emotionless voice.

This spoke volumes for its actual state of mind.

“I’ll be careful. But I was thinking of re-routing it, and that would give us more time to think it all through.” It was not to be, for just at that moment we were hailed by a squadron of roving Imperial destroyers, which was quite a shock as they really had no right or reason to be here at this moment in time.

I should have known better than to get too focused on something that wasn’t really my concern…but they almost had us with our pants down.

“Nine minutes to intercept…”

“Dummies!”

They should have just kept creeping up on us, carefully stalking us from the other side of the probe. The little wheep-wheep-wheep of the hailing alarm nattered at me from the console speaker.

“Would you like to respond?”

“Nope.” I gavethe straps a quick cinch.

“Destroy the probe.” I took manual control through the stalks and blasted us out of there at full design speed plus a little something extra just for luck.

I was pissed at them damned Imperial destroyers, but maybe we would get a crack at them guys another day.

“Target destroyed.” The computer reported. “Tracking multiple targets…out of range. Out of range.”

“Are they following?”

“No. They are investigating.”

“Damn! That’s bad news for the Earth.”

The Imperium had at least as much simple curiousity as we did, and a lot more to lose.

One thing harsh experience has taught me above all, is not to get too involved in other people’s problems.


END

Photo: NASA, Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket. (Public Domain.)

For more on Brendan Hartle and Layla, read 'The Case of the Curious Killers.'

Monday, February 11, 2013

When art butts heads with commerce.




I’ve got one of those stories that sort of works at less than 4,000 words. Yet I know it’s a shitty way to end a story. By keeping it short, I can submit to the most markets, and there aren’t all that many to begin with.*

There is something to be said for the safe, sane, conventional approach—it’s the generally recognized way of doing things. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion is kid stuff. I need better motivation, or at least a long and rambling manifesto…right? I don’t feel like writing that for free. (The mark of a real pro. – ed.)

To sell the story for five or ten bucks, and have it archived in perpetuity on a website operated by a perfectly nice person, (which I cheerfully admit,) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. All that does is gratify my vanity, and not much else.

Giving away a big long story that I sweated over for days, just for exposure, again archived for the life of the site, is another option. Exactly how much exposure would I get?

Aren’t I the ruddy great artist guy? Or is it all about the money, then?

Yet the right thing to do is to tease it out to its natural length, because otherwise the first thing that goes is description, and the second thing is characterization. I need the plot, at a minimum, just to get to the end. Otherwise I have no idea of what happens.

This thing is so short it looks like the plot was beheaded, and at the same time, my instinct tells me that to take the basic premise to 60,000-word novel length would be to pad the thing out. Padding for word count isn’t really an option, once there’s nowhere to submit it anyway! And making it novel-sized just for the sake of a given cover price is kind of cheesy as well.

Getting a magazine sale would bring some prestige, some credibility. It would represent cash money, which is always good.

On the other hand, I could write it to its natural length and self-publish it. Say it ends up at 12,000 words. Or 32,000. We’ll call it a novella or novelette, whatever. If I sold five copies a month across a number of retailers, earning $0.60 per sale, then that’s three dollars per month. Over the course of a year, that’s $36.00 in income that I didn’t have before. Okay, after ten years, I’ve earned $360.00 from one short story that was never submitted to anyone. Let’s assume I am competent to edit it, (and I am,) and also assuming I pay nothing for cover images or formatting, (which I won’t.) Is it a good story? This is where the actual ‘talent’ comes into play. Everything else is applied effort, and a certain amount of cost-benefit analysis, (which I can do.)

Do I, ah, have any talent? I guess we’ll never know until we try, right?

Huh. This is fun! I’ve never really looked at it that way.

More than anything, I want my stories to be read. They have a better chance of that happening if they’re being published, rather than sitting on my hard-drive waiting for conditions to be perfect. And conditions, are never perfect.

So this is where art begins to head-butt with commerce. At one cent a word, my story is worth less than forty bucks, as realistically speaking I’m not ready for prime-time just yet. I’ve never made a pro sale, so, ah, why expect one now? Especially with this particular story, which I already admit is kind of truncated?

Here’s another simple equation. If the average turnaround time is two weeks, and you keep getting rejected, you can submit your story twenty-six times in a year, assuming there are that many markets in your genre. Starting at the top first, at some point, and after some time, as you go farther and farther down the list, you are in the ‘for the love’ or exposure markets. At that point, you can give it away for free or self-publish it.

*Noteworthy is the fact that Duotrope, a market listing service, which has an astonishing 4,468 listings or so, is now a paid-membership service. Yeah, if you pay for this service, it’s part of your cost-benefit analysis.

Ralan: at any given time, there are so many pro, so many semipro, so many pay and so many exposure markets. Also at any given time, anything up to one-third or even half might not be accepting submissions, due to the volume of submissions and the limits of each magazine. And some of them require postal submissions. Submitting from Canada to the U.S., this entails a $0.85 U.S. stamp for the self-addressed stamped envelope. Lately, the USPS website won’t let me complete a transaction, as they are ‘experiencing technical difficulties’ which have gone on for weeks now. Also, not all markets are science fiction, fantasy, whatever. Mystery markets seem especially few and far between. I recently wrote a 17,000-word mystery. Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine wants no more than 12,000 words. The Strand, which published Conan Doyle all those years ago, requires postal submissions. Crimewave, in the U.K., same thing. I have little choice but to publish that myself as well, assuming I can create a good marketing image.

Next time someone says 'self publishing is the last resort of failed writers,' you can either laugh in their face or smack them around a bit for me. Your choice, but I promise I will be eternally grateful either way.

***

As for giving stories away, shorter is better, and flash fiction is an art form in itself.

Is it wrong to try and make money from our art?

Why not, all the best ones do. Incidentally, pointing at Vincent van Gogh and mentioning that only one of his works sold in his lifetime is a cop-out. It’s just another excuse. He never sacrificed quality for the sake of a sale, did he? But then he had the dream real bad...

I may be a little stupid, but I’m not that crazy.

Vincent is the one we all remember, isn’t he?


END

Photo: 'Starry Night Over the Rhone.' Vincent van Gogh. (Public Domain.)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Chase.

We rounded the top of the mountain and started down. The road dropped a thousand feet in the next mile. It passed at lightning speed. The road was like standing waves at the bottom of a big set of rapids. We kept flying over the top of the hills but I was in a company car so I didn’t care.

One more big hill and we were in the city. His car was on my left, big and rectangular, edging out in front as I kept the throttle down.

When we came over the top of the first big hill in town, his car, then mine lifted, hitting after a short hop with a bang.

On the next hill, and the next, we flew up and crashed down again, neither willing to give an inch. Traffic was light, which helped. He cut across my bow and dove to the right onto a ramp leading to surface streets.

Swerving sharply, I followed him down.

The green Ford pulled into the curb. He got out and started running on an angle, sort of towards me somewhat. I stopped a hundred feet away, looking to see if he had a weapon.

The son of a bitch jumped down an open manhole cover. My reaction was to look around and see another manhole. It was right there.

Running over and sticking a finger down the hole, I lifted the heavy thing enough to get my other hand underneath and lift the cover. Dragging it aside, exposing most of the hole, I clambered down a narrow metal ladder into the sewer.

He must be off to the right, and in that direction I heard splashing and other noises. As I ran in ankle-deep water, a pillar of brilliant sunlight appeared. This was the way, I was sure of it. I kept on, seeing in the distance a flickering and then another pillar of light coming down from above in the foetid smog of the tunnel.

I splashed to a stop.

There was a ladder and I climbed it without hesitation. Bracing my legs and feet on the slippery painted steel rungs, I shoved the cover up and aside even as the wheels of a bus rumbled past my head. I ducked for a second and then climbed out, thinking that now people in cars would at least be able to see me.

His head stuck out in a crowd of pedestrians and his eyes locked on mine, even as his face and shoulders dropped furtively. He ran through traffic, dodging oncoming cars, and then running through cursing pedestrians until confronted by a subway entrance. He plunged down the stairs as I followed at full tilt.

He disappeared into the crowded station and I paused, looking around at the train about to depart.

Someone thrust something into my hand and then strode away.

It was a telegram, I’d only seen pictures in old books.

The thing was in Swahili, as far as I could see.

Crumpling it in frustration, I tossed it in the general vicinity of a nearby trash receptacle and strode into the echoing space, looking all about for my quarry.

I had a funny feeling I knew what the paper said, I had a funny feeling I knew who sent it, and I had a funny feeling that since I couldn’t read Swahili, the bastard was tormenting me and I meant to have a word with him about it.

***

I lay on the couch, phone beside me on the coffee table, a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, an ashtray and a pack of smokes and a lighter.

I waited for two return calls, one from the Ministry of Love. I was hoping Melanie would call so I could relate how I had the quarry in my sights and was hot on his trail—although really I was laying on the couch waiting for phone calls.

The other call was my intellectual property lawyer. I had written a sushi cookbook, with a fairly high heat rating which might sound nonsensical but the romance hacks know what it means, and of course some knucklehead publisher wanted it; which was just what I didn’t need right now as moonlighting from the Ministry is frowned upon, and contract negotiations take more time than I have these days.

Also my impression of our subject was twofold: one, he wasn’t really well-suited to marriage, never mind that he had ignored our summons and had failed to appear in court. What was the point? That was my question there. I had a second point, didn’t I? Sorry.

The phone rang, as I suspected it would sooner or later.

“Hey.”

“You son of a bitch!”

“What? Who is this?” The computer started talking but I waved it off.

“Fuck, Mister. Why are you chasing me?”

“You are under advisement. Anything you say can and will be taken down and used against you in Social Court…”

“Stuff it—and lay off. I got a girlfriend—a real one.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Then you should have shown up and told the judge. You should have filed the documents. Anyway, you can’t prove it by me. You’re always driving around real fast and popping in and out of manholes. I don’t see no girlfriend. Where do you live? I’ll come around and have a look.”

There was a long silence.

Finally he spoke.

“Fine. Be that way.”

It was all I was going to get out of him, but was it enough?

Yes.

***

See, when a man says he has a girlfriend, it means one of two things. Either he is lying, or he must show up at the mall from time to time.

Oh, you know what I’m talking about: standing there with his hands in his pockets as she holds up dress after dress in front of herself, and asking him what he thinks, right?

Trying real hard to look interested and not gay if you know what I mean. It’s not like we haven’t all done it, right?

I sat in a coffee shop that had the advantage of covering two major avenues in our local mall, with the bonus of an actual good cup of coffee, which, quite frankly, I can’t get at home. Never mind the price. I’m on an expense account.

If I was stuck in the office I’d have to drink the coffee there. They say it’s free. Half of them are bald and sweaty. Their opinion means nothing to me.

Sitting and listening to Yes, Starship Trooper on my ear-plants, I had a disposable plastic celebrity e-magazine on the table in front of me and good cover from a series of Boston ferns in planters along the railing that set the place off from the mall proper.

Sure enough, Buddy showed up. It was perfect, I’d only been there fifteen or twenty minutes, but I am well trained after all.

Somehow he made me. It was uncanny. I saw him, and kind of looked away when his head swung around to speak to the lady at his side. When I looked back involuntarily, hoping to see him engaged with her, his eyes were locked right on mine and he was already grabbing her arm.

His mouth opened.

I shoved my chair back, and taking three powerful strides, I threw myself at the barricade and flew over right in front of a fellow in a powered chair who threw himself to the ground in sheer fright, but them’s the breaks and the chase was on again.

Right up until I ran past the girl, intent on Buddy, who was fifty metres away, running as fast as he could and probably faster than I could…she swung her big purse in a roundhouse that caught me right in the mouth. My feet flew up, the last thing I remember for a second or two anyway, and then I hit the floor, a loud crack coming from the immediate vicinity of the back of my head.

She stared down, yelling at me and I had no idea what she was saying. It was all gibberish at that point.

***

When I regained my equilibrium, I got to my feet, wobbled, then set off in pursuit as his beau hurled foul epithets, retreating in the direction of Provincial Food Court.

He was just ahead of me, running back and forth in a panic. A door opened and he leapt in.
Buddy was in a semi-cylindrical transparent elevator just heading up beside mossy waterfalls and curving balconies on the boutique level. There was one standing empty, so I grabbed it. Hitting the button, I stared up through the curving plastic sides as he stared down at me.

The Mall of the Two Canadas, which is in Cobourg, the nation’s half-capital on the edge of the Blow-Up Lands, was relatively familiar, as I had pursued suspects before and…we passed the first level and kept going. I knew the place a bit, and I had a hunch he couldn’t get out of the elevator and go left.

My elevator was on the right of his. I was a good ten or twelve seconds behind him. Interesting prospect.

We went past the next level. He looked wildly around, and I took a quick glance at the line of numbers above the elevator door. There were twelve more floors, but then I had a com-unit and he had to get back down again…

Speaking of com-units, maybe it was time I used mine. He stared, mouth working as I held it up and spoke into it briefly.

The elevator stopped and he slapped the button as my heart rate ramped up in anticipation and the one I was in came to the fourth floor. I stabbed the button. The wall separating us was formed and textured concrete. His elevator was empty.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped to the door just as running footsteps came belting along just beside me. He must have thought I couldn’t do it, and that all he had to do was keep running at top speed and he would be safe. I let him have it right on the jaw as he went by.

Out cold, it took him a long time to crash, as he bounced and spun along the opposite wall, rubbery legs carrying him along as he sank lower and lower to the pavement, coming to rest about ten yards from where I stood. The light at the end of the hallway darkened and a familiar form beamed at me in silent approval.

“Bert.”

“Sir.”

“Can you stand between me and the elevators? His alleged girlfriend is still out there.” I wiped blood off my mouth with the back of my hand.

“Yes, sir.”

I think Bert was originally enhanced with a view to circus strong-arm acts or piano-juggling or something, but with his metre-wide shoulders in the way, she would hopefully think twice about interfering with our duties. It was our only recourse, as women of child-bearing age are exempt from most criminal statutes.

I knelt beside the suspect to put the radio-tracking plasti-cuffs on. His eyes were moving and his left cheek was all scuffed and bloody from the wall. He offered no further resistance.

“Buddy 0997-334-B, you are under arrest for evasion of matrimony and failure to report to the court as specified.”

“But I told you…bastards…”

“Yeah, yeah, you got a girlfriend. I think I might have just met her. Look, Buddy, I ain’t judging you.”

I finished reading the spiel. It’s the law.

There was a commotion behind me as an elevator door opened up and then the lady was clinging to Bert’s back and trying to beat him into submission, clinging to his hair with her left hand and swinging the purse like there was rocks in it.

He gave me a look.

“She’ll give up in a minute.”

He shrugged.

Hauling my prisoner to his feet, I led him back to my elevator of choice, where the lady decided she didn’t feel like riding down with us after all, and hence down to the main floor for transport to the Ministry of Love holding facility on Holbourn Avenue, where our subject was booked and would be held for the statutory bail hearing and arraignment in Social Court.

It's all in a day's work, and it takes all kinds to make a world, I suppose.

***

Photo: Inspired by the film 'Bullitt,' Wikipedia, fair use/parody.

For more on the world of 2030 A.D. and the Ministry of Love, go here.