The Veil War

"and then I was like, 'Holy crap, goblins!'"

Category: Really Big Idea

The Really Big Idea: M. H. Mead

I was going to say something clever about the interesting essay that follows. But I am totally distracted by horror at the thought of rule 34 applied to this phrase:
Meaty Tiddlywinks. Once you recover please read this excellent essay:

Meaty Tiddlywinks

Car crashes are scary.  The auto companies spend millions every year trying to convince us that their cars are the safest, but we know better. We’ve watched too many movies that show us how easy it is for cars to shoot into the sky, roll over, and blow up. Thanks to YouTube and dashboard cameras, we can watch Stupid-People-Who-Are-Not-Us smashing into other cars left and right, rebounding from stationary objects, and blasting pedestrians into the air as if they were meaty tiddlywinks.


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In films, the scariest crashes aren’t the ones we see from a distance, but rather the interior shots where gravity suddenly seems cancelled due to lack of payment and the view out the windshield  stops making sense. When the passengers dangle from their safety restraints and their personal possessions begin the mid-air waltz of underwear in the tumble dryer, we have to cover our eyes.

If watching car crashes second hand is bad, the near-misses we’ve had are terrifying. Looking into a rear view mirror in anticipation of a rear-ending makes us feel helpless. The loss of control that we feel when the tires hit a patch of ice makes our hearts seize and our breathing stop. It’s probably the lack of control in general that is so unnerving; one likes to be the captain of one’s destiny, the pilot of one’s soul, the composer of one’s metaphor—and we don’t like when reality intrudes on that delightful illusion.

We both drive a lot, and almost all our trips take us on the highways around Detroit. We see the carnage of driving-gone-wrong every day. Maybe that’s why crashes scare us so. We know we’ll probably never be taken hostage by bank robbers or flee from a tsunami. But a car accident? Highly likely. In fact, they’ve already happened to both of us, and in Harry’s case, it was nearly fatal.

There are a lot of car crashes in Taking the Highway—terrifying collisions where the people don’t just have to worry about their own driving or the dubious skills of the other drivers, but about the very technology that is supposed to keep them safe.

In the fictional world of Taking the Highway, cars and highways work together to keep drivers safe. Overdrive technology—an artificial intelligence system—lines every highway in Detroit. Overdrive monitors the flow of traffic and sends override codes to cars to keep them from speeding, veering, or crashing.

That is, until things go horribly wrong. Someone is sabotaging Overdrive, confusing the sensors and causing horrific accidents. Is it somehow connected to the carpool laws, and the professional hitchhikers who are paid to fill cars? Or does it go deeper, into the sordid politics of Detroit itself? The only one who can stop the crashes is homicide detective Andre LaCroix, who has to arrest the culprits before becoming their next victim.

Writers are told to write what they know. But it’s more important that we write what scares us. And what scares us is car crashes. We hope it will also be what scares you, because cars of the future will be safer than ever—and will fail in ways we can only dream of.

M.H. Mead is the shared pen name of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion. When not writing books together, they can be found at their homes in Michigan watching very bad television and eating key lime pie.

Buy Book: Taking the Highway

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The Really Big Idea: Chris Braid


A while back, of a Sunday I was feeling sick and out of sorts. I pulled out the phone and started reading my twitter feed. I saw a tweet pimping a zombie book. Zombies, I thought. Just the thing for a rainy sick Sunday. So I went and bought it. (And so I am living proof that social media works to get books into the hands of readers.)

And it’s fun. Also grim, bloody, British and filled with zombies. Here’s Chris Braid to explain:

Going Viral

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. Encouraged by parents and grandparents I would more often than not walk around with a comic book or paperback stuffed into my back pocket, ready to be whipped out and perused at a moment’s notice. At least, as soon as I started wearing trousers with pockets. (Mine was the last of the UK’s ‘short trouser’ generation; being given and allowed to wear full-length trousers with pockets was seen as a rite of passage. Thank the Lord that times change!)

But I digress. I do that a lot.

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It seemed a natural progression to go from reading almost anything I could get my hands on to writing. The first few ‘books’ I wrote were when I had just become a teenager. They were a series of detective novels whose hero, Wes Chisel, just might have been inspired by Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. (It was surely coincidence that I was collecting – and reading – all of Spillane’s books at the time!) But what I really wanted to write was fantasy; I just didn’t know it yet.

I’d taken a break from Wes Chisel’s latest case to read the most recent issue of Marvel Comic’s Savage Sword of Conan comic. Yet again I noticed that almost every one of the QNS’s† letters referred to a book called The Lord of the Rings. Which I had often heard of but never read.

This time I decided to do something about it. I got hold of a pretty tidy copy from a local second-hand bookshop. Luckily it was the summer holidays. I read the whole thing in two sittings and spent the next three days wondering around like a zombie (I liked zombies, even a thirteen year old schoolboy had a chance against a zombie, as opposed to a werewolf or vampire!) due to lack of sleep.

Sorry, more digression. I did warn you.

The upshot was that Wes Chisel got fitted for concrete overboots and a veritable rainforest of exercise books were filled up with lots of sub-Tolkien …well, garbage, actually. Not long after I discovered that there were aliens living among us and a couple of years after that, aged 16, I joined the army as a boy soldier.

Fast forward a couple of decades. I’m still a soldier but far, far away from being a boy and I’ve married my own special alien (I’d found out that the species were known as “girls” and they were even more alien than I had ever imagined!). I’m undergoing a protracted stay in hospital with little to occupy myself apart from read the mountain of books supplied by my alien, sorry wife, when I realize that some of them are…not very good. When I mention this, I am told. “Well if you think you can do any better…” So I tried. And I tried. And I kept trying.

And got nowhere.

All I had to show for my efforts was a mountain of rejection letters. All containing the advice to, “Write about what you know!” But I didn’t know any elves. Or Dragons. Or wizards. Oh I knew a few Rangers, but they were not that sort of Ranger. And then Santa brought me a Kindle.

I was out of the army, with time on my hands. I went into a feeding frenzy. Books for Free? I’ll have some of that! And some of that. And that, and that and…well, you get the picture. I spent so much time with my nose buried in my Kindle I was walking about like a Zombie again. And then it hit me. I didn’t know elves but I knew soldiers; and surely the essence of a Zombie was not that they were the risen dead but that they were mindlessly driven to infect the living.

It was the “mindlessly” bit that finally helped the pieces slot into place. The so-called Zombies (or infected) cannot help the way they act; they are driven by their infection. It isn’t their fault! But the others, the people who knowingly, even joyously, prey on weaker, less fortunate humans, well they are the real monsters. And so The Virus Sequence was born. I’m not saying that Zombies (or infected) are cuddly or anything, don’t get me wrong. But they can’t help what they are doing. The “Black Hats” can. They know that what they are doing is wrong. They just don’t care.

† QNS (Quite ‘Nuff Sayer) – someone who has had a letter printed in a Marvel Comic.

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The Really Big Idea: Ian Healy

Superpowers are the heart of science fiction and fantasy. Whether the source of super-human ability is magic, technology, genetics, hand-waving or even pure pluck and gumption – sf examines worlds where people have extraordinary abilities. Since this sort of thing is so very common the trick, then, is to provide an entertaining and plausible explanation for these gifts… Batman’s monomania, nanotechnology, that ancient spell book, heredity. And the trick within the trick is to provide meaningful limits to power that grow out of your explanation. Here’s Ian to describe his world:

Day of the Destroyer

My forthcoming book release, Day of the Destroyer, is yet another foray into the weird and wonderful world of parahumans and their astounding and amazing abilities. Also, alliteration. Day of the Destroyer is set in 1977, well before researchers have begun to understand the science behind parahuman abilities within the Just Cause Universe novels, but it’s something I’ve put quite a bit of thought into, and wanted to discuss some of the ideas I have about how these powers can exist.


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“Superhuman” abilities have existed in some form or other throughout recorded history. Stories and legends abound of men and women with godlike abilities. Hercules. Moses. Paul Bunyan. Pecos Bill. John Henry. In the Just Cause Universe, these legends have some basis in fact, and these people are parahumans. In The Archmage, for example when the [SPOILER AHEAD] heroes have traveled back in time, they meet a man who thinks Juice is John Henry because they look so similar. Is it because John Henry may be an ancestor of Juice? They also meet Mustang Sally’s great-great grandmother, and witness that she has slightly greater-than-human speed. Indeed, both Mustang Sally’s mother and grandmother have speed abilities, which suggests that parahuman abilities are hereditary. In the JCU, that led Japanese researchers to eventually isolate the genetic markers which are common to parahumans.

So parahuman powers are mixed into our genes. But how does that explain such a wide variety of abilities? In the first novel, Just Cause, here is a brief list of the abilities represented on the Just Cause team: super-strength, absorption of electricity, invulnerability to physical damage, flight, telepathy, super-speed, and the creation and control of force fields. How can all these things be tied into a single genetic marker?

It comes down to three aspects, all closely tied together; a perfect storm that allow parahumans to do such wonderful things: dimensions, energy, and psionics.

Dimensions. The idea of parallel universes and dimensions beyond the three cardinal dimensions (plus time) has been around for a very long time. Some theories get kind of wacky with it. Bosonic String Theory, for example, requires no less than 26 dimensions. I’m postulating that one of these dimensions or parallel universes or alternate planes of existence provides the source of parahuman abilities. In what way?

Energy. Energy is, at its simplest, the ability to do work. And if you have a lot of energy, you can do a lot of work. The dimension that originates parahuman powers is jam-packed full of energy. In fact, there’s no matter in it at all. It’s a dimension of pure energy (Cue the Information Society video for those of use who spent our formative years in the ‘80s). I’m conveniently ignoring the idea of the Zero-Energy Universe here, so don’t bring it up, punk. All that energy has the ability to do work, and that work can take a variety of forms. Since there’s an entire universe’s worth of it, it will take quite awhile for the parahumans to use it all up. Since that dimension/universe/what-have-you has no entropy of its own, the only way it can reach a lower state of energy is for that energy to be drained out, and that requires…

Psionics. Psionics is a fancy name for mind powers. Ultimately, in the Just Cause Universe, every parahuman with the appropriate genetic marker has a mind-power that allows them to drain energy from the alternate dimension and make that energy do work. Everything else is just special effects. How does Juice lift up a car and throw it? He might appear to be using his muscles, but in reality, he’s channeling energy from the other dimension to do that work. Doublecharge can fly, Crackerjack can laugh off physical harm, and Mustang Sally can run at supersonic speeds, all because they can control this extradimensional energy on a subconscious, psionic level. So why do parahumans have the abilities they do? Why can’t Juice also fly, or run at the speed of sound? Why can’t Mustang Sally shoot lightning bolts?

Therein lies the real mystery, and one which I may explore further in a later novel.

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The Really Big Idea: Vanna Smythe

My dutiful and obedient twitter bot (at least, until it takes over the world) has connected me with literally thousands of people. It is a good robot. But one day, not too long ago, I really thought it was screwing with me. One of the new followers it had found me apparently had written not one, but two books whose titles included the word “Veil.” Well, my heart just stopped. Had I been beaten into print by this Vanna person? Had she created a world not only with Goblins, Explosions and Marines, but also Love and Duty? Happily not. There appear to be very few Marines, Explosions or Goblins in this Veil. Maybe I should add some love to mine…

Can the Heart and Mind Function Separately?

The main theme, problem, conundrum that plagues the characters in the Anniversary of the Veil Series is the choice between duty and love. On a more whimsical level, this translates to the choice between following you heart versus following your reason, your mind. And the further question, which then arises is: Can there be balance if one is forced to make this choice so cleanly?

This question plagues me, the writer, as well, but it took me quite a while to come to the realization that this question is at the core of my series.  I am more of a pantster when it comes to writing, and trust that any deeper meanings, significance and questions I struggle with will be there to find once I tell the story I want to tell, with the characters I want to create.

So, Duty vs. Love in the Anniversary of the Veil series …

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In our lives, love comes in many variations: mother/father to child, man to woman, teacher to student, self-love, … so I have not placed any limitations on it in my series.  But the thread that runs through it all is that in each instance the man or woman involved must choose between it and following their duty and cold reason.  None of them can have both.

Protector Kae must decide whether to stay a Protector or follow Princess Issiyanna, the girl he loves, on her quest, which would make the first impossible.  First Captain of the Protectors Entan must decide between sacrificing Kae, whom he regards as a son, to the scheming of Head Priest Rhaldan, or force Kae to flee and thereby going against his oaths and his duty. Keeper Alet must choose between following her orders and sacrificing her sister’s daughter, Princess Issiyanna, for the greater good, or forsaking her duty and saving her niece. And Princess Issiyanna must choose between leaving her whole world and everyone she knows and loves behind to be with her one true love, her other half.

Yet a clean-cut choice like this is difficult, especially in a world such as the one these characters inhabit, namely one that is artificially separated into two by a Veil, which none may cross at will.  The worlds on either side of this Veil are completely different, and the bigger choice in the series is between allowing the Veil to continue to separate the worlds, or letting it fall and allowing the world to become one once again.

As of the end of the second book in the Anniversary of the Veil series, Decision Maker, most of these choices have been made, for better or worse. I will not go into the details here, as I don’t want to give it all away, but I will say this: I do not believe that clean-cut choices between love and duty are ones we can make without unplanned consequences.

In our (Western) culture I have often observed a sort of inability to weave our heart’s desire into the choices we make. Society dictates a certain path for us, which starts with finishing school, getting a job, getting married and having kids, and then working on keeping it all. And if those things are not precisely what you want, well, there will be time later to indulge in your dreams. Right? I don’t know, maybe.

Within reason, I do not believe we should ever disregard what our heart tells us is the right path, and I also do not believe that we can truly do so. No matter how much we pretend to the contrary. One way or another, this is also what plays out in the lives of all of my characters in the Anniversary of the Veil series, after they have each made their choice.

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Book One and Book Two of the Anniversary of the Veil series, as well as a free ebook sample of the series, are available from Amazon and other online retailers. Book three is coming this summer!

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The Really Big Reminder

Just so you don’t forget, we’ve now done quite a few of these Really Big Idea posts, going back to over a year ago. I still haven’t read all of them (shame) but every single one of the ones I’ve read has been simply fantastic. So give them all a shot at your attention, and your wallet.

If the spirit moves you share a link to this page, or to the posts of the authors you’re most interested in. Let’s help some indie authors.

The Really Big Idea: Madeleine Holly-Rosing

I’ve long been fascinated by steampunk, so it is perhaps strange that I’ve read so little of it. The first steampunk novel I ran across was The Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling. I read it because of the authors’ previous work, but loved the world they created, a world where Babbage’s engines created a world infested by computers a hundred years ahead of schedule. There is something about the Victorians, a something that Neal Stephenson captured in a book set not in their own era but in the future. The Neo-Victorians of the Diamond Age were a conscious reaction to the follies of our era. (And if you read closely, the grandfather and Equity Lord who is the instigator of most of the action in the story is probably about 40 right now.)

While we may like the clothes, the industrial design, the steam engines; what fascinates me is Victorian confidence, the assuredness with which they lived. They knew they could solve problems, conquer worlds. And so they did. Our modern temporal parochialism insists that because they did not share our concerns they were benighted, bigoted, backward. So what would they do if they had mechanical computers, airships and Tesla death rays? Fascinating things.

Madeleine, though, is looking at other aspects of the Victorian Era. And between this entry and last week’s, I have a lot of steampunk to read.

Boston Metaphysical Society

When Stephen asked me to write this blog for his website, he seemed to be particularly excited this week’s guest would be talking about a webcomic.  I secretly think all he wanted was the pretty pictures and I’m happy to oblige. But be forewarned, writers are writers no matter medium we write in. However, I digress…

BOSTON METAPHYSICAL SOCIETY (“BMS”) is the name of the webcomic and for those of you who are not familiar with it the story is about an ex-Pinkerton detective, his medium/spirit photographer partner and a scientist who battle supernatural forces in late 1800’s Boston. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is a steampunk webcomic though in some circles it has been called steamgoth. (Think steampunk with paranormal elements.)

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What the heck is steampunk, you ask? Well, some people define steampunk as late 1800’s Victorian science fiction, i.e. Jules Verne. However, I think it evokes the time period in fashion, culture, technology and innovation. I also don’t believe it has to be set in Victorian England. If you do a search on Google, you can find steampunk stories and fashion that are influenced by other cultures and geographical locations. For instance NEXT TOWN OVER is a western steampunk webcomic. On Facebook, there are steampunk groups from every point on the globe. It is probably the most inclusive genre I’ve ever worked in but most of all, it allows people to be creative and express themselves as individuals without any hard and fast rules other than it must vaguely relate to the Victorian era.

I fell into steampunk by accident or rather it almost fell on me in the form of a former UCLA classmate by the name of Alex Diaz. He was in the MFA directing program while I was in the MFA screenwriting program and we met in a TV development class. I was developing BMS as a TV Pilot when he dropped down next to me on the couch in Melnitz Hall and uttered the words, “Steampunk.”  My reaction was like “OK and that’s supposed to mean???” He explained it and said he thought BMS should be set in a steampunk world. I thought it sounded interesting, so I did a lot of research, reading and determined he was right. I’ve been a huge science fiction and fantasy fan since my mom read me A WRINKLE IN TIME as a kid, so steampunk wasn’t really a stretch. I’m also a fan of period drama and watch BBC productions religiously. So, I re-developed the story and eventually adapted into it a six-issue comic mini-series.

All of the above is the short version of what you see on the website or the print edition on how this story came to pass.  However, the themes and issues dealt with in the comic have as much or more to do with my own fascination with class distinctions and social mores than anything else.

Characters who are derived from different classes have built in conflicts which are a huge plus for a writer. Societal expectations are different for the men and women of each class. Two very good examples of this are the TV shows SPARTACUS and DOWNTON ABBEY. How can you dare put these two shows in the same sentence, you ask? One excels in blood, lust (and blood lust) hard bodies and lots of naked people with a show which has very pretty polite people who remain fully clothed and generally argue over tea (except for the WWI scenes).  Easy, like BMS they are about class distinctions and expectations.

Spartacus and his people are slaves who are fighting their Roman overlords for freedom.  Their society expects slaves to do what they are told and can be bought and sold on a whim. However, even among Roman society there are cultural and societal expectations for men, women, sons and daughters. To challenge these rules of society usually results in something bad happening. In Spartacus’s world to challenge usually results in death. For Romans, the result can also be violent if a wife or child challenges their husband/father who is the defacto representative of Rome within the household.

The society and culture at DOWNTON ABBEY also has a clear set of rules. Don’t date the help. Marry within your class. If you’re a woman, you cannot inherit. If you’re an aristocratic man who can’t afford new plumping for the estate, forget about marrying for love you have to marry money. Arrogance and political position will often ride roughshod over any who think differently.  Here, the Earl is the defacto representative of the crown who is the one who decides the family’s fate.  Obviously, the Earl’s character is not one to lop off heads, but his influence is just as powerful as any Roman patriarch.

I’m not here to yammer on about the evils of patriarchy because many people, before and after us, find great comfort in knowing where they belong in the scheme of things. They wouldn’t dream of challenging the status quo because it tells them how to behave and what to expect from life. However, when those expectations are not met then you might run into a revolution or two.

All of the lead characters in BMS have or will challenge the social norms for the day. That is one of the most fun things about writing them. If they stayed put and led a “normal” life for someone of their class there would be no story. These characters are firmly grounded in their class yet on occasion they challenge it. Sometimes they will be rewarded for it, but they will also pay a price. Maybe not now, but later.

One of my favorite panels (see below) is after Caitlin curtsies to Granville and his response. For one brief moment she has crossed racial barriers and given him the respect he deserves, not only as an educated gentleman, but as a courtesy to a fellow human being. He responds in kind even though she doesn’t believe she deserves it.

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Another panel demonstrates the utter disregard of Jonathan Weldsmore for his servants’ well-being. His only thought is for his political and social standing.  The next panel (not here) shows Caitlin becoming angry, but she can do nothing about it.  Though she is a necessary to these people, her presence is neither wanted nor desired for three reasons: wrong class, wrong gender and she has psychic abilities.

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Even Samuel is caught between a rock and a hard place because of his social standing.

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In future chapters, we will see more of Caitlin’s mother, Erin, who is so entrenched in her social class that she will do anything to stop Caitlin from “over stepping.”  Members of B.E.T.H. will also challenge and be challenged by their own prejudices and presumptions.

Class defines how we were raised and our world outlook.  It is a theme that has bled into almost everything I have written including the novellas.  My question to you is what themes have permeated your writing and where did they come from? Understanding that will help you be the writer you are meant to be.

Read the webcomic | buy dead tree version | buy novellas and short stories

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THE CLOCKWORK MAN (A BMS Short Story) is available in the February issue of eSteampunk. THE WAY HOME (A BMS Short Story) will be published by Atomeka Press in September as part of a comic anthology.

 

The Really Big Idea: Ross Kitson

In fantasy, the line between the real and the unreal is intentionally blurred. The extent of the blurring may vary, but that line generally stays reliably outside the skull of the protagonists. The Infinity Bridge moves that line decidedly inwards. It strikes me that writing a believably insane character would be problematic for someone who is not themselves insane. We should be glad that Ross found writing those scenes difficult…

What it is about psychosis and dirigibles?

The opening text for the second chapter in my YA sci-fi / steampunk book Infinity Bridge reads:

Ever since he could remember Sam had seen monsters. That wasn’t quite true—he recalled the first time, so he must have been aware of the time before. His dad had just read him Not Now Bernard, a book about a boy who had found a monster in his garden.

Sam’s monster was actually shimmering behind the radiator, but the irony wasn’t lost on him.

He learned very quickly to keep quiet about it. If you told your parents about this sort of thing then they did one of two things: they either smiled then ruffled your hair or they made odd noises, like constipated hens.

Sam’s brother Ben had told them that he also saw monsters. He currently resided in a psychiatric hospital. That had pretty much made up Sam’s mind on the matter.

One of the core relationships in the book is that between Sam, the teen ‘hero’ of the book, and his older brother, Ben, who is being treated for schizophrenia. As we progress through the book we learn more about Ben and his subjective experience of  his psychiatric problems, and also start to wonder whether the fact he, like Sam, sees ‘rifts’ into other dimensions has created confusion with the diagnosis.

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I decided from an early stage that I wanted one of the key characters in the book to have schizophrenia, as I’d touched on other psychiatric illnesses in my epic fantasy series, Darkness Rising. It’s a condition that has fascinated me ever since I first treated patients with it during my brief stint in psychiatry. Yet being interested in it and writing about it in a believable, engaging and sympathetic way are two entirely separate things. How does one approach writing such a character?

The first is to try understand what the condition is and what it isn’t. I had some head start on this. There is a preconception, promoted mainly by crap films, that schizophrenia equates to (i) spilt personality, (ii) psychopathic serial killer or (iii) eccentric loner hobo characters. In reality it is a complex disorder, possibly caused by a mixture of neurobiological problems, genetic factors and environmental triggers, that may in fact represent a range of varying conditions. What it does involve is a break down in thought processes, altered perceptions, altered emotional responses and disordered beliefs. When I learned about it there was a division of symptoms into positive symptoms (hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder) and negative symptoms (depression, emotional flatness, self-neglect, poverty of speech).

Ben’s symptoms are predominantly positive—he has increasingly active auditory hallucinations through the book, such as one point where he has a dialogue with a Sat-nav (GPS to the American readers). He has delusions about intelligences within computer systems, which ironically turn out to be true in the book. There is escalating paranoia through the book as he comes off his meds, and he also has ‘ideas of reference.’ This is where he misinterprets meaning within things as having a direct reference to him as an individual.

‘Ben flopped his belly on the bar and had a quick look behind it. There was a serviceable stereo system connected to an amplifier there, as well as an army of glasses. He smiled as he saw a packet of cigarettes and a lighter tucked next to a bar towel.

He tugged them loose and pulled one out. A tingle of horror ran through him. There were exactly six in the packet. That couldn’t be a coincidence could it?

Ben’s eyes darted to the far end of the bar. Sure enough, there were six beer mats on the end of the bar. He took a deep breath and looked at the optics above the bar. There were eight dusty bottles of spirits.

He stumbled back from the bar. His hand reached for the handgun tucked in his jean’s waist band. Six-six-eight. It was an omen, he was certain: a warning that danger was nearby.

Ben held the gun in his shaking hand then moved cautiously across the dance floor. Whispers were drifting like pollen on the breeze, tickling his ears, pinching his brain. Ignore them, Ben, he thought. They are working against you—making you more paranoid.

A poster was half peeled from the wall by the door to the stairs. It promised two drinks for three quid each Monday before ten’o’clock. Ben counted the words and then swapped the letters around in his head. It was a code. It really said—‘Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean someone isn’t really out to get you.’

He ran. His boots pounded on the stairs in time to his racing heart as he hurtled to the first floor. The large room was cluttered with furniture, mostly covered in white cloths. Like shrouds hiding corpses.

The whispers were getting louder.

Ben retains insight into his psychosis throughout the book, which makes his deteriorating condition more manageable. Often he will have an internal monologue going, an argument between himself and another voice, often Sam, and this allows him to rein in his impulses and compulsions when the pair enter a Steampunk alternate.

One challenging part of the character was to write decent dialogue. Some individuals with schizophrenia display distinct speech patterns, which in severe cases become an unintelligible ‘word salad.’ If you have ever seen the (excellent) film A Beautiful Mind you can hear how Russell Crowe’s speech deteriorates in the latter parts of the movie. There are features of rhyming words (e.g. Sam, spam), neologisms (I.e. fabricated words), substitutions (e.g. Nick, to ‘shaving cut’), repetition and changes in context, which may display their underlying thought disorder. The ‘derailment’ of the theme of a dialogue, with very loose associations between topics, can make it tricky to follow what is meant.

I tried to create a balance which displayed Ben’s underlying mental state, illustrated his meaning and thoughts, and also showed his warm humorous character. At times it involved a lot of rewriting to adjust the balance, not least because there has to be some ability for the reader to comprehend what he means within his dialogue.

Ultimately what I wanted to create in Ben as a character was a likeable older brother who, on a background of mental health problems, is thrown into a bizarre world of clockwork androids, intelligent computer viruses and alternate worlds. In doing that Ben displays courage and reserve that drag Sam through some of his own demons and insecurity, and indeed guilt, to come through for his friends at the story’s finale. In future books there is a lot more planned for Ben, and as difficult as it is to write him I look forward to every moment of it.

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The Really Big Idea: Paul Ducard

Theodicy is a real problem for literature. A real problem for anyone, sure, but the problem of the origins and nature of evil is a thing that most authors assiduously avoid confronting. When even the greatest writers try to hit it head on, the results are often… interesting. Outside the Old and New Testaments, the two most powerful and influential Christian works are the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. Milton was a believer, a puritan, yet when he set pen to paper to craft his poem, Satan ends up the hero. We can understand, and sympathize with, Satan’s cry of Non Servium! Lucifer has a human face – we recognize him. How can something we recognize be entirely evil? Flawed, perhaps…

God himself is ineffable, impossible to relate in fiction. Gregory Palamas said that we can’t know Gods’ essence, but we can know his energies, his effect on the world. Perhaps true evil is something else altogether as well – something more Lovecraftian. We can see the effects of true evil, but not know it without losing our sanity.

War in Heaven: The Other Side of Evil

“Are you religious?” It’s the inevitable question I’m asked whenever I explain the concept and theme of The Other Side of Evil to an interested potential reader.  My most common response, “No.  I was baptized Catholic but I’ve been to more Shinto shrines and Jewish Synagogues than Catholic Churches,” often leads to quizzical looks.  “Then what made you write the book?”  It’s not an easy question to answer.

Truth be told, I don’t adhere to any organized religion.  It was my interest in the development and history of religion that drove me to explore the foundations of the many faiths that proliferate, not the spirituality supposed ingrained in belief.  What I consider to be logical questions motivated me:  How do these religions have such a hold on so many people? Where did their rituals develop and what social and economic conditions influenced their core belief systems?  What was considered apostasy and why?  Who got to decide what was important and upon what basis were these decisions made?  What motivated people to release themselves totally to something that can’t be touched, tasted, or seen in a literal way?  It was the history of religion that drove me to classes on John Milton in university.

Paul Ducard cover

Sitting one day while discussing Paradise Lost, it struck me as odd when the professor introduced the idea of Satan as the “hero” of that most famous of modern epic poems.  It’s Milton 101, yes, but I was still an impressionable 19 year old and the concept was new to me.  I mean one simply does not naturally associate Lucifer/Satan/the Devil as the “hero” of anything other than evil.  But if one regards the “hero” as the main protagonist of a story, the character for whom the reading audience develops the strongest connection, the deepest sympathies, then Milton’s Satan takes the cake.  He’s the classic underdog so many people like to root for, leading the “free armies” of heaven to make things right.  His only real evil is that he does not obey God and for that he burns.  Literally, it turns out.

Identifying with this controversial take on the supposed author of all evil, I considered whether the stories we know of Satan were the stories of a crooning victor; God’s version of what happened, as biased as one would expect it to be. What conquering society hasn’t changed written history at least a little bit in order to persuade posterity that their cause was the right cause, carried out in the right way?  So far as I know, no ancient, medieval, or modern society has proven itself completely immune to this little creative indelicacy.

That got me thinking.  What if I had the chance to sit down with John Milton’s hero and understand the story of his fall from God’s grace…from the his point of view?  The loser’s point of view?  What would Satan tell me?  Would he lie, as all students of western religion are taught to expect?  Would he take the opportunity to give his jump-up-and-down-on-the-sofa, shouting out to the airwaves, “tell it all” story?  And if he did, and it turns out his claim is that God rewrote history to cover up what would otherwise be the proverbial chink in the armor of faith, what would Satan tell us about the lies God had to tell in order to justify the slaughter of so many of His angels and the insubordination of his most revered creation?  Even more, what would happen if Man came to know of God’s half-truths, fabrications perhaps?  Would Man’s faith, so elemental to accepting God as the divine light that so many religions claim him to be, falter when it became known that Man’s creator was, indeed, as malignant, deceptive, and self centered as so many of history’s victors?  “The story of Satan has to be told,” I thought.  My paper on the evolution of Satan as portrayed through literature got me an “A” in the class but, more importantly, it set me up to begin crafting the tale that would become The Other Side of Evil.

I harnessed my love and knowledge of ancient and military history to create a truly new storyline but with many of the same characters and places we’ve become accustomed to and comfortable with.  The Heaven and Hell of The Other Side of Evil had to be something no one had ever read before, yet it had to be plausible.  To that, Heaven had to be like any empire that’s existed through time.  Roman.  Vicious and singularly focused on making itself the most important power in the known world.  Byzantine in the huge bureaucracy needed to keep the known universe afloat, with the inevitable backstabbing and power brokering that accompanies so many people jockeying to get ahead.  Olympian in the sense that violent revolution brought the Supreme Being to power and his subjects were slaves to his ephemeral whims.  When, years later, I finally got down to putting words to paper, it wasn’t too difficult to dip into my many experiences working as a lawyer for international broker/dealers, banks, and government regulators, and develop the vile and vituperative world that had to make up the Heaven and Hell, in all their glory, of The Other Side of Evil.

As it turned out, the smoke-and-mirrors world of government and the faith-based world of religion were two sides of the same coin.  I mean, let’s face it.  What could the war of all wars, the war in Heaven, have been if not political?  And if it all came down to politics, why should any of us have the faith demanded by the great religions of the world necessary to achieve salvation?

In the end, The Other Side of Evil is fiction.  It tells a story.  It’s not meant to espouse atheism directly but it is meant to give a reader another angle from which to look at something that has often been taken for granted.  And if that reader comes away from my story and asks themselves some deeper questions than perhaps they’d asked themselves before, I’ve done the job I set out to do those many years ago, in that classroom, reading of Man’s first disobedience and the supposed cause of it.

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The Really Big Idea: Ross Willard

After a long absence, the Really Big Idea returns with Ross Willard, who found an interesting way to get around perfection.

If you were perfect, would you find your life interesting? Enjoyable perhaps. But there might not be many stories to tell the grandkids if every decision you made was correct and wise; if every path you took was lined with roses and adulation. But maybe the frustration of those who have to deal with you would be worthy of a story or two…

System Purge

When I was a younger writer, one of the problems I often found in my writing was that my protagonists tended to be “Too Perfect.”  Perhaps it was all that time I spent reading comic books, or perhaps I was creating the characters to comfort myself and couldn’t stand for my heroes to be flawed, but somehow all of my characters ended up being so good at absolutely everything that nothing was ever a challenge for them.  Not really, anyhow.

System Purge

Since then I’ve learned the joys of writing flawed characters, but in order to get from there to here took a certain amount of self-training, and the first step, for me, was writing second generation characters.

Essentially, I knew that if I created a whole new universe to work in, I would simply create a whole new set of overly perfect characters, in order to make myself start imagining characters who had to struggle and grow, I had to stay in the same universe I’d worked in before.  The logic went something like this: if I had a character who was a perfect fighter, and I wrote a story about, say, one of his students, then I clearly could not make that student as skilled as his teacher, thus I could make his life a perpetual struggle.

That’s correct, in order to write an interesting story, I had to trick myself into making an interesting character.  While I have long since abandoned most of the universes that I had to use this trick in, there was one world that struck me as interesting enough to bear revisiting when, after several years of practice as a writer, I stumbled upon some of my old writing.

The too-perfect characters I had created were a brilliant scientist and the sentient machine he’d created.  Both characters were far too intelligent and far too powerful to be interesting, but the effect that they had on the world was, potentially, fascinating.

It wasn’t just the introduction of self-aware robots and genetic engineering that captured my imagination, it was the legacy that the characters had left behind.  Specifically, I couldn’t help but wonder what their creations thought of the two.  After some thought, I realized that the man and the machine would be seen either as father figures, or as gods, which of course led to the even more interesting question: what does a society do when their gods abandon them?

In building the universe, and the backstory of these two absent characters, I realized that there were three groups with relevant perspectives: there were the machines, who had known their creator and progenitor personally, there were the genetically engineered humans, who knew of him, but only distantly, and there were those who lived in the ‘human’ world (ie contemporary society) who had been effected by both characters, but did not know anything about them.

My book has three main characters in it, each with a slightly different relationship to their ‘father.’  While it isn’t expressed outright, a lot of the subtext that I tried to put in it is about each of these characters coming of age.  Each one needs to ‘grow up’ in a very specific, and very different way, and each one is dealing with an very different ‘absence’ in their life.

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The Really Big Idea: Tim Miller

I ran into Tim Miller on the Twitter, and saw that he was a writer. Sweet, I thought. Then I saw that his book was titled, “The Hand of God.” Sweeter. Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down started playing in my head. I looked closer, and saw that there could be no song more appropriate to the matter of the book. Check it out.

PS., I am such an asshole to have this sitting in my drafts folder for so long without publishing it. My apologies to Tim, you the dear reader, all the small gods of propriety and the universe at large.

The Birth of the Hand of God

The idea for this story came from a combination of a several things.  I was at a time in my life, almost exactly one year ago, when things were going incredibly bad for me.  I had just had a business fail, we’d lost our house, cars and had to move across the country to find work.  Shortly after that our marriage totally fell apart and we’d separated.  During that mess, my ex decided to take our daughter and move to another state with her without telling me or allowing me to see her (that’s all been worked out now), so needless to say, I was in a very bad place at the time.  I was broke, lonely and quite angry.

During this time, I had begun watching Dexter.  Everyone knows who Dexter is, for those who don’t, he’s the serial killer who works by day as a forensic analyst for the Miami police department.  Well, I found the show highly intriguing and it made me think.  As I was thinking, I reflected on my up until now, useless college degree in Bible and religious studies.  I remembered when I was involved in ministry how many people in churches and even preachers would do bizarre, and often horrible things to others and say it was because God told them to.  They felt “led”, “guided” or “convicted” by the holy spirit to do whatever crazy off the wall thing it was, which in their minds got them off the hook.

So with those ideas, Pastor Charlie was born.  I thought, what if there was a preacher who thought God was telling him to kill sinners in a brutal and ritualistic way?  So I began writing it, but not from a cop or someone’s point of view trying to stop him, but from Charlie’s own point of view.  I thought it would be fun to take the reader inside of his twisted mind and see how he justifies what he does.  Things get more interesting in the book, when another preacher comes along with a few of his own tricks up his sleeve and the story continues to evolve from there.

Some of the biggest issues I had in the book was how grounded did I want the book to be in reality.  Did I want it to be totally realistic?  Or did I want to put a supernatural twist on it?  I struggled with this off and on a lot, but in the end supernatural won.  I figured you can’t have a book dealing with religion from such an angle without some supernatural activity.  I think in the end it made the book much more interesting and raised the stakes considerably. There is an underlying message all throughout the book that things are never what they seem, or what we might expect them to be.

The Hand of God was a lot of fun to write.  I’m currently working on a second book in the Pastor Charlie series.  The biggest challenge with any of these stories is getting him into these jams, and then figuring out how I’m going to get him out.  Especially with as powerful his enemies are.  Either way, I hope everyone enjoys reading it and maybe even learn a few things as well. I learned a lot while writing it.  Thank you to Stephen for having me here.  Feel free to contact me!

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