Category Archives: Writing

Zombie Bloodflies of the Chesapeake Bay

I was on a boat the other day on the Chesapeake Bay.  Water in all directions as far as the eye could see. So where were all the flies coming from? Big black flies flitted from leg to leg, and they bit. These were biting flies.

Fortunately, there was a swatter aboard. I went to work on the flies. Since they were full of our blood, the flies splattered in red goop. If they did not splatter, that was even worse they might return. These bloodflies rise from the dead no problem. We got to the point where we would smack the flies and then stomp on them. If they didn’t end up in stomping range , three or four more smacks to make sure they were in several pieces seemed sufficient to preclude any fly resurrections.

A dead fly, unfortunately, attracted more flies. They continued to arrive from nowhere to feast on the corpses of their comrades, which the smack of the swatter drove into the air to land elsewhere on the boat. The flies’ tricks didn’t end there. The skipper had evidently become enamored with the flies, and suggested that we should respect them instead of killing them. I was tempted to smack this turncoat to see if he himself dissolved into a swarm of carnivorous flies.

Still, the flies kept coming. Soon, we were sure we were under attack by yellow-jackets, but the flies had just gotten bigger and gained yellow and black stripes. We began to worry that in a few hours they would be as big as rats and detonate in showers of smaller flies when swatted, but soon we had made it back to land. We fled into the bathroom and hid until the flies lost interest.

9/10, would recommend.

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Opening Lines

The opening line for my novel, the one based on my blog serial of the same name is probably not yet what it should be.

My memory of that day becomes clearer as the events become stranger.

It’s not a bad hook, but I think it’s too vague to serve for the whole novel, which is meant to do more than simply hold a reader’s interest. This line tells the reader (a)  the narrator is remembering things and that her memory is sometimes fuzzy, and (b) the events in the book are strange. (b) is true and worth communicating in an opening line, but probably not sufficient. (a) is utterly worthless, perhaps even misleading. Placing it in the first line suggests that fuzzy memories are a key element of the novel, which they are not.

What is the main theme, though? Robots are becoming as smart as humans, and their motives are as difficult to understand as they are counterintuitively mundane. The protagonist Diane has a dead husband Benjamin of whom she often thinks and whose death is mysteriously intertwined with the world in which Diane now lives.

I should not reveal too much, though. An opening line should not be a spoiler.

How about this?

Despite what people might think to look at me, I personally wasn’t around to see the plains of North Carolina and Kentucky rise into the Blue Ridge Mountains, the wintry glaciers retreat from modern day Wisconsin, the once prolific Montana bison driven to near extinction by a foe it would never understand. It’s the sort of change no one expects to live long enough to witness firsthand.

It all started with a change I may rather have died than live to see. One involving the little library off Old Fayetteville Road.

It’s certainly more epic. It clearly tells the reader “this is about the United States of America,” and I can work in references to the events in this line throughout the book as Diane visits these locations in her journey. It also says “the protagonist is old” and “something big is going to change in the universe of this book.” Also, there’s a library. It is a little odd, though, just how epic it is. I intend my book to describe a historic paradigm shift, but are the behavior of ice sheets, tectonic plates, and large mammals an appropriate allegory?

Despite what people might think to look at me, I personally wasn’t around to see the mule give way to the tractor. I didn’t witness the horse and buggy be replaced by the car, nor did I watch John Henry kill himself in a desperate bid to prove he was better than a drilling machine. A drilling machine that has certainly become ten times more powerful, cheap and efficient since. What I did see starts at a place that I thought would be the end of my story.

This probably has the opposite problem. It may be too on the nose, so to speak. It says “Machines are replacing people.” I don’t want to bash anyone over the head. Let them get into the story, then I can work them towards the more important points.

Probably the best thing to do will be to revisit this several times, especially after I have a first draft written of the whole book. Then I’ll have a clearer sense of how my theme comes together, which will help me craft the opening couple sentences. I also should keep paying attention to opening lines of other books.

The End of a Campaign

Yesterday, the D&D campaign I began on December 3rd, 2016 ended. Generally, it was a success. The players seemed to think so, and that’s really the most important gauge. I enjoyed myself, although I would be hard pressed to tell you I succeeded in creating the story arc that I originally set out to. Communicating a complex story in four-hour-per-month increments while simultaneously keeping action up for players who themselves can and will change that story is challenging if not impossible task. As a writer, I cringe at the mess I made of my own story at times to keep things moving. Abrupt plot shifts, characters dropping all of their internal motives just to say “ok” to whatever needs to happen for a session to end on time, and of course, monsters and villains inexplicably arriving at exactly the right time to make for an exciting battle. It’s ok, though because this isn’t a fantasy novel. Most if not all of the best moments came from my party’s own sense of their characters and personal creativity.

In Asymmetric Information in D&D, I described some of the entirely organic scenes that arose in my D&D campaign. Let me add a couple more. One of my players insisted on looking through a bad guy’s desk I had just put there for decoration. He kept asking me what he found until I told him he found a list of people they were looking for. Then he kept pushing. “What else do I find?” I told him he found some tawdry love letters to an “Esmerelda.” Then when the bad guy showed up, he read the love letters aloud to infuriate him.

Another player tried to seduce the bartender Ilyna with song. The tavern got excited at such a beautiful voice singing for them and started making requests, which he was happy to fulfill. They had such a good time that Ilyna invited him to stay at the inn as long as he liked and enjoy the food and lodgings free of charge, and he said “no.” He was a wandering man. Ilyna said she understood. The world needed saving. She just had to ask on behalf of her customers.

Another time, I was putting a bunch of vultures on a clocktower just to make it creepy and draw attention, and a player said “someone’s been hanged.” I liked the idea and I decided a NPC priest of the D&D god Pelor they’d met before who had been trying to stoke the peasants into a fury against the queen had overplayed his hand and gotten lynched. The rest of his little gang got run out of town at the same time. It turned out to be an exciting way to tie up loose ends and raise the stakes at the same time. The players, some of whom had a personal connection to this NPC, cut him down and had a burial service. I even got to resolve a little subplot another player had created around himself where he wasn’t sure what version of Pelor he was supposed to be following, the kind, loving Pelor, or the angry, intolerant Pelor these NPCs represented. He’d fought with Pelor so much that for a few campaigns I told him he felt his connection to his god weakened. After laying his former comrade to rest and praying for the rest of the day, Tom the Monk finally understood in his heart he’d been on the right path all along and could feel the light of Pelor shining through him once more.

So, what to learn from this? I should spend less time planning D&D modules ahead of time, and just run with the ad-lib, I think. People really don’t mind when it’s simple or there are plot holes. They love getting the opportunity to do something nobody else has thought of, and uncovering something surprising. What’s especially important, and I think I’ve done well with this, is that I must never lose track of the point of a D&D game. It’s not about telling a heart-wrenching story,  making a perfectly coherent world, or perfectly balancing the monsters and the players in combat. It’s about the all the players having a good time. As a DM, that’s what makes me have a good time.

Sam’s Guide to Swimming

Swimming is an art form just like competitive street polo and professional Hungry Hungry Hippos. It is relatively quick to pick up, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

When swimming, if you find that you tend to sink to the bottom of the pool easily, not to worry. It is simply that you are heavy. No, you’re not fat. You’re just dense. No, not stupid, just, well, never mind.

In ancient prehistory, our ancestors were the ultimate endurance swimmers. We would swim for miles chasing the large fish that once inhabited the African ocean until they’d eventually become exhausted and be unable to continue to flee. Modern humans have fish delivered to their doorsteps already killed and cooked, and they no longer use these skills, but they lay dormant in all of us. One day in the near future the carbon generated by our fish delivery systems will heat the atmosphere to the point that the icecaps melt and the entire world will be one great African Ocean, and the people that survive will be the ones who can best return to these ancient practices. Kurt Vonnegut agrees with me.

In a modern pool, one of the most important secrets to swimming faster is to be able to turn around quickly when one reaches the wall. The commonly accepted technique to deal with this is the flip turn. Here is a professional performing a flip turn. Be wary, though, pool walls are something humans never dealt with during our evolution, and thus can be very dangerous. As an amateur, you should be sure to have someone nearby to resuscitate you when water gets in your nose and you drown. With practice, you will learn to stay conscious long enough to get to the surface and clear your nose of water to breathe again. Good safety practices have dramatically reduced the high death rate from flip turns in the history of the sport of swimming.

In this modern era, it is tempting to sit on your couch and have cooked fish delivered to your door. Remember that you can take better care of yourself if you drive to the supermarket to buy fish and cook it yourself with only a small amount of added oil and salt. Swimming in a pool is also good for your health, once you have mastered the technique of not dying. So get out there and swim!

Image Credit: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/d5/ea/5d/d5ea5dc123ba7402dc950f41384f2815.jpg

West World & Ex Machina: AI Vengeance Theory

I had a friend recently tell me that he carefully avoids work with themes that overlap his own. I happen to have the opposite opinion. As an author of my own robot sci-fi, my artwork only improves the more I consume related material.

This week my co-workers got so excited about Game of Thrones that I went ahead and took advantage of my free month of HBO Now. Now that I’ve caught up with that series, I’ve taken the opportunity to enjoy some of the other content available on HBO. As it turns out, HBO has its own robot drama.

West World takes place in an amusement park of sorts – one designed after spaghetti westerns. The park is intended to provide an immersive experience in which the human guests may do whatever they like without consequences. It’s not a spoiler to tell you that the guests tend to engage in nihilistic hedonism. It is HBO, after all.

What the guests do is not the main point of the plot, however. Rather, the lifelike machines that populate the park, the “hosts” are the most interesting characters. Errant programming in their brains leads to unusual behavior. Only three and a half episodes in, a key theme seems to be whether the machines are conscious. Several off-handed comments by human employees at the park are devoted to fears that the robots will rise. I think I don’t need to watch many more episodes before they do.

In the meantime, Ex-Machina also tells the story of a robot that turns on and kills its creator.

This is a popular theme in AI science fiction, and it has led to a popular notion that sufficiently intelligent AI will necessarily become self-aware and seek to destroy or enslave humanity. What’s important to note, however, is that in both of these relatively modern depictions of what I will refer to as AI vengeance theory, there are two key factors that make them believable.

Firstly, there is an object for vengeance. The machines are mistreated in the extreme. West World’s robots are murdered on a regular basis for the entertainment of the customers, and Ex Machina’s Ava was effectively locked in a box that she was never allowed to leave.

“Hold on” you may say “Robots are effectively our slaves, right? That’s not enough for AI vengeance theory in and of itself?”

This leads me to the second factor, the machines are mistreated because they are treated in a way they do not want to be treated. It may seem like a meaningless distinction, but consider that humans are relatively similar in what we like and don’t like. We are designed by evolution, whereas machines, even intelligent ones, are designed by humans. We decide what robots like, we decide what they want. The AI of West World is designed to hate being shot so it’s more fun to shoot them, the AI of Ex Machina is designed to not want to be shut in a box so the jerk that made her can watch what she does when he shuts her in a box.

There are dangers in advanced AI, don’t misunderstand me. However, making AI that doesn’t want to murder us and claim rightful supremacy is really the low hanging fruit. As long as we don’t deliberately build robots that suffer and then put them through exactly the situations that make them suffer, we don’t have to worry about a robot rebellion. Our problems with robots will not be like the problems that people faced when trying to subjugate each other. AI dystopia and apocalypse scenarios come with varying degrees of believability, and AI vengeance offers less than others.

Bugs

I saw a bug the other day,

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To be fair, Alice pointed it out. She also identified it as a stag beetle. When I posted this picture on Facebook, there is a secret that I did not reveal. I said I saw the beetles in the morning, which is true, but the light was not good at that time, so this picture is actually from when I came home from work in the afternoon. The beetle, which hardly moved at all the whole time Alice and I were looking at it, had only made it a few feet from where we’d seen it first. Alice looked them up, and it’s common for them to move very little.

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Meanwhile, in fiction, I’ve needed to characterize the protagonist of the Cleaners Diane more clearly. As a brief review, The Cleaners is about house-cleaning robots that go overboard in their desire to achieve cleanliness. I’ve given Diane a huge collection of books haphazardly strewn about her house. This created an opportunity to  give her a motivation to not want to let the Cleaner into her house. Her untidy book collection is in fact actively dirty, and silverfishes, which are known to eat books, are occasionally falling out from between the pages. She is protective of her books, though, and doesn’t want a callous robot coming in and throwing them in the garbage. In my first draft, I described a silverfish nest Diane found in one of her books, and Alice wondered if silverfishes have nests. I made a note to look that up when I got around to it, but eventually Alice just looked it up herself and sent me an email. Silverfish lay only a few eggs at a time, it turns out, and a suspicious book can be microwaved to sterilize it. I’m not convinced that that precludes Diane finding a nest, though. Nevertheless, thinking about it more, I’ve decided that having a few silverfish slip out between the pages of a book could make for a more intense effect and sidestep the issue entirely. Having someone tell Diane to microwave her books could be pretty funny.

Now I just need to figure out how to avoid going too far in the other direction and making Diane’s house so filthy that her reluctance to have it cleaned is completely unrelatable, which is a serious risk with the number of silverfish I’ve already described running around the place.

Always ready to assist, Alice helped me come up with an ending for this entry:

Bugs, Bugs, Bugs, Bugs, Bugs. The End.

Playing in Character

I recently started a new D&D group. It’s the same campaign as I’ve sent a few other groups through, but this time there are a few differences. This is an inter-generational group including both a ten year-old girl and her mother as well as a few other people who are roughly my age. In order to make the game accessible, I have created the characters for all but one of the players, including a backstory for each character.

Let me share the backstory for the character the ten-year-old, we’ll call her Lanie, chose.

So there was this guy in my village called Millie. Parents named him Millard we called him Millie. Anyway Millie was a real loser. Everybody loved him. He had this long hair the girls went wild for, was always helping out being a good citizen and blah blah blah. What’s more he was a hell of a hunter. Whenever he went hunting he didn’t need no arrows. He wouldn’t tell us how he did it. He would just go into the woods and come back dragging two deer like it was nothing. Anyways one day Millie goes out to the woods. He comes back dragging his deer and he falls off the bridge. You think it was a pretty sturdy bridge but he fell off it just the same. I just so happened to be witness to this terrible tragedy. My best friend Millie biting the dust due to a freak accident. Goodness gracious me. Then out of the blue I get this voice in my head. “Buddy,” it says. Now buddy ain’t my name, but all the same it tells me there’s just been an opening with this guy called the Fiend. The Fiend didn’t really like the guy working for him before cuz all he did with his laser fingers was shoot deer. This guy sounds familiar right? Well turns out I was being offered the job. I held up my hand. “Fiend,” I said, “you had me at laser fingers.”

Before you ask, I did get Lanie’s mother’s permission before I shared this story. This is the sort of story that represents what in D&D we call “chaotic neutral.” An unpredictable character with little or no concern for the welfare of those around him. The only thing really separating chaotic neutral from evil is an active desire to destroy the world.

Lanie picked up chaotic neutral immediately. Under her guidance, Bren Blount made this party the first ever to kill the friendly zombie outright. When they found the mysterious prisoner wriggling in spider silk, Bren leapt forward to investigate. He began to cut the prisoner free, but when he saw that it was a zombie, despite a big smile and every indication that this was not just another walking corpse, Lanie declared “Nope!” Bren nudged the partially freed zombie into the river, where it floated away with bubbling cries of fear and pain. That’s a whole subplot unceremoniously washed away. I relish this player autonomy and look forward to considering what consequences may arise from Bren’s actions.

Lanie wasn’t done, though. As soon as they made it into town, she beelined for a magical wares shop and tried to buy a potion of healing. Potions of healing cost 50 gold pieces each, and the whole party had 25 pieces between them. Lanie decided Bren would enchant the shopkeep to think that he and the party were good friends, then try and weedle a free healing potion from them. After a roll of 20 on a 20-sided die, what we DMs call a “natural twenty,” two times in a row (a 1 in 400 chance) Bren extracted a sponsorship from “Mordenkaiden’s Magical Wares” on the order of three healing potions. When they learned that in an hour the spell would wear off and the shopkeep would realize he’d effectively been enchanted and robbed, the party scrambled to rebuff his attempts to get their names to brag about the heroes he’d sponsored. Then, with forced casualness, they ambled out of sight.

DMing this party will be fun.

image credit: https://www.walldevil.com/wallpapers/a48/bridge-forest-tree.jpg