Categories
News

Ada’s Children is Out in the Wild

You can find it at many of your favorite outlets

Pic showing two copies of Ada's Children, Lawrence Hogue's novel about an artificial intelligence that wants to save humanity, even if humanity doesn't want to be saved.

After much travail, Ada’s Children is available in print and ebook formats, and also on my Substack.

For print and ebook, just go to books2read.com and click on the link for your favorite retailer. If your favorite ebook retailer is missing, please let me know. It’s taking longer for the print version to be available to indie bookstores. I have no idea why! Something to do with the printer/distributor, IngramSpark, most likely. It is sort of available through Powells.com, but I don’t know why they don’t have the book description and cover image. This self-publishing journey sure does involve a lot of learning.

You can also read it in serial form over on my Substack. Chapter 10 is posting today. If you started a $5/month subscription today, it will take about three more months for me to post the whole novel. So that works out to less than the price of the print book, with no tax or shipping. You can also read my background on the novel (those posts are free). All of this is available at larryhogue.substack.com/. Topics I’ve covered so far:

I really should post all of these here, but this website is having so many problems beyond my technical ability that I’m thinking of scrapping it, or maybe moving it to Squarespace. So the best way to keep up with all my doings, for now, is over on Substack.

Categories
Fiction News

Cover Reveal for my literary post-apocalyptic novel, Ada’s Children!

And more big news from around the Lawrence Hogue publishing empire

Hello, blog readers, and Happy New Year! Here’s an update on my upcoming novel, Ada’s Children, and news on my soon-to-launch Substack newsletter. We’ll start with Substack first and save the best for last with the cover reveal for Ada.

Since my last post announcing my move to Substack, I’ve been developing content for that platform and interacting with writers and readers over there, mainly using the “Notes” feature. I hope some of you have already visited to check it out. Now, after four mere months, my stack will officially launch next Tuesday, Jan. 23. All stacks have a title, and I’ve decided to call mine Glass Half Full. (This choice was based on a Substack debate between Elle Griffin and RG Miga on the possibility of creating a utopian society. I found myself squarely in the middle, hence the title.)

And all self-publishers need a publishing house name, so mine will be Glass Half Full Books. (See what I did there? This is what the pros call Branding. And it didn’t even involve any hot irons.)

Heads-up for subscribers to this blog: I plan to migrate all of you over there, so you should get an email with my first post on Tuesday. I’ll make it super-easy to opt out of future emails, since you never signed up to receive a Substack newsletter from me. If you don’t want to receive even that one email, just leave a comment on this post.

On the Novel Front

Proofreading has just wrapped up on Ada’s Children, my literary post-apocalyptic novel about an artificial intelligence that tries to save the world. Next step is my final manuscript checks, because errors always creep in on the final edit.

The first chapter (as well as the Prologue) will go live on Substack on Tuesday. Meanwhile, I’m deep into the inner workings of Amazon KDP, Draft2Digital, IngramSpark, and Bowker, in order to get this thing published in both print and ebook form. To say my head is spinning with ISBN codes, epub formats, API tokens, blah blah blah, would be an understatement. If my head were spinning any faster, I’d be in one of those NASA astronaut training machines. But I think it’s all coming together.

And now — TA-DA! — time for the big cover reveal! Thanks to the brilliance of Mari Christie, Ada has a cover that I think really pops. I hope you like it as much as I do. And now, without further ado, the cover:

cover of Ada's Children by Lawrence Hogue

You probably recognize the main image, since I’ve used it here before. I love the way the “AI face” looks out at the reader/viewer with a hard-to-gauge expression. Is it benevolent or malevolent? Intent on creating a utopia or a dystopia? It’s hard to tell. That’s also the reason we went with the doubled or mirror image, because there’s more than one way to see Ada and her actions throughout the novel. Is she a savior or a despot? Or maybe a little of both?

Here’s a big shout out to agsandrew on Shutterstock for the great image. (Just to be clear: this is an image of an AI, not an image created by AI. I think Andrew posted it sometime around 2015-2017, long before the modern AI image generators. I’ll never use AI for my covers, just as I’ll never use AI to write a book for me.)

And also thanks to my friend, fellow writer, and beta reader, Paul Hayes for the great cover quote.

I’m targeting a release date of February 22 for both the print and ebook version, but you can pre-order the ebook right now! Just go to books2read.com/adaschildren to order from Amazon or all the other ebook retailers*. (This is the point at which the humble author gets down on his knees and begs: please, please, pre-order, since first-day sales are the key to getting a book in front of more readers.) Pre-orders for the print version will be available soon.

You’ll also have the option of reading the book on Substack for a low monthly subscription fee. If you go this route, you’ll receive two chapters per week in your email starting next Friday. This serialized version should wrap up in early May. So you’ve got many options for how to read this story!

Looking forward to seeing some of you over on Substack, whether you decide to subscribe to the novel or not.

*You might have to wait a bit for all those other ebook stores to populate at the books2read universal link.

Categories
Fiction On Writing News

I’m Moving to Substack

Well, not really moving, because I should still be posting here, and who knows, maybe even selling books through this website? But I’ve decided to serial-publish my two draft novels on Substack, starting (I hope!) in the next couple of months. If everything goes according to plan, they’ll also be available as ebooks and print books, so you’ll have your options. But in the meantime, I’d truly appreciate it if you followed me over there (i.e., sign up for a free subscription). You can see what I’m posting and sign up here. (So far just notes, not any actual posts yet.)

What you can expect: Once I begin publishing chapters from Ada’s Children, the first three chapters will be free, then if you want to read the rest it will be $5/month. It will probably take about four months to publish all of Ada at a rate of two chapters each week. So the ebook would be cheaper. Don’t know yet what the print version would cost, so I can’t give a comparison there. I’ve found that it’s very easy to start and stop paid subscriptions, so you don’t need to worry about getting roped into something and not being able to turn it off.

I’ll also be publishing various free pieces about my writing process and the background to the novels (similar to what you’ve seen me post here). If there’s interest, I might do a free how-to series, something like Fiction 101. Not sure whether that part would be paid or not.

(I know, I know! Another platform! But many of you may already subscribe to Heather Cox Richardson or other journalists on Substack. I think you can turn off email alerts and stuff like that.)

Thanks, and looking forward to seeing some of you over at Substack!

Categories
Fiction

Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Picture showing Germans planting the Nazi flag in Antarctica.
Germans planting the Nazi flag in Antarctica in the 1930s. Or are they about to receive advanced warfare tech from space aliens, allowing them to build a secret base that persists to this day? I’m just asking questions here!

What do German forays into Antarctica in the 1930s, Admiral Byrd’s Operation Highjump in 1947, American nuclear testing in the South Pacific in the 1950s, and UFOs all have in common? To some, all are part of the most devious and world-shaking conspiracy ever visited upon humanity, one that centers on Germany’s Neuschwabenland and the United States’ Operation Highjump. To the less gullibly-minded, they are all real events that form the basis of the wackiest idea yet invented by the conspiratorial mindset.

How far out? Farther out than the moon landing truthers. Farther out than the anti-vaxxers who thought the COVID vaccine would implant everyone with 5G chips. Even farther out than the flat-earthers. I’ve got all these conspiracy theories in my novel, Ship of Fools (more on that at this link), but on my first draft, I still felt this one was just too much. The bizarre idea starts with a few actual events, and ends up with Nazis riding in space ships in Antarctica. Just too wacky, even in the context of those who believe we live on a flat disk.

Then I saw it being discussed on the nation’s most popular podcast* (currently with nearly three million views and thousands of approving comments), and I knew I had to include it. Besides, who doesn’t love a story with space Nazis?

This conspiracy theory shows how a few facts can be rolled together with outlandish fabrication to create a convincing, but completely ludicrous, tale. All the conspiracist has to say is, “You can look it up!” To the credulous, these several grains of truth prove the whole thing. And when pressed, as in that linked podcast video, the conspiracist can just claim, “I don’t really know if this is true, I’m just trying to connect the dots.”

Here are the facts that get pureed in the conspiracist blender:

  • In the 1930s, the Germans really did explore parts of Antarctica, seeking a base from which to hunt whales for margarine, or perhaps machine oil. They covered an area the size of Texas (also claimed by Norway) with an aerial survey and named it Neuschwabenland, after one of their ships. But then the Germans started World War II, and their attention turned elsewhere (or so They want us to believe, hehe!).
  • Germany had more advanced technologies than the countries it attacked, especially at the start of the war, from buzz bombs to tanks to fighter planes, and, at the end, the V2 rocket.
  • A couple of months after VE day in 1945, two German U-boats showed up in Argentina, their belated arrival the result of their need to move stealthily away from the theater of war.
  • In 1946-47, Admiral Byrd led Operation Highjump to Antarctica. This was an American effort to get ahead of the Soviets in cold region warfare, inspired by the proximity of the USSR to North America via a polar route. It was part research expedition and part military operation, with a large number of ships as well as aircraft. One of the latter crashed, killing three crewmen.
  • In 1958, the US exploded three nuclear warheads in the upper atmosphere of the South Atlantic, with the farthest south being around 49 degrees.
  • And finally, UFOs are real, as recent government reports have shown, but so far there’s no evidence that these are visitors from other solar systems (or even our own).

Those are all actual facts, not the alternative kind. “You can look it up!” as the conspiracists like to say. Now, let’s see how these facts are woven into a tale worthy of the writers of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror.

In the conspiracists’ version, the Nazis stayed in Antarctica after the war started and developed a sophisticated underground base there. Several sailors reported making multiple trips to the continent with boat loads of supplies and tunneling equipment.

As for their advanced technology, the Germans had help — from space aliens! Which makes one wonder, where were the aliens during the bombing of Dresden or the siege of Leningrad? The Nazis surely could have used some flying saucers and space lasers at those crucial moments. Their little green friends really could have turned the war around for them. But maybe aliens are like the eagles in The Lord of the Rings — if you ask for their help too often, they’ll get offended.

Once they lost the war, Hitler (who faked his own suicide), his top lieutenants, and elite troops fled for the Antarctic base. This explains the tardy arrival of those subs in Argentina — they had been to Neuschwabenland and back, escorting a fleet of German ships. This idea was spread almost immediately after their arrival by the Hungarian exile and writer Ladislas Szabo. He later published a book on it, which could explain his motives for such a bald fabrication.

The US took the rumors of the Nazi escape seriously enough that it sent Admiral Byrd’s Operation Highjump to the southern continent to put an end to the Nazis for good. Nothing else can explain such a large number of warships being sent on a supposedly scientific mission — it’s not like this was the beginning of a cold war or something. But the Germans (Neuschwabenlanders?) trounced Byrd’s forces, using alien technology even more advanced than during the war itself. In some versions, four of Byrd’s aircraft were shot down, while others have the whole fleet limping back north with gaping holes melted in the sides of the ships (obviously the work of those Nazi space lasers).

It took ten years for the US to finally wipe out the secret Nazi base, but they finally did so with those nuclear blasts in 1958. Sure, they say the blasts happened far up in the atmosphere and much farther north than Neuschwabenland, but only the sheeple will believe that. Other conspiracists, mainly the neo-Nazi kind, believe that even this assault was unsuccessful, and Hitler and his fellow Nazis survive there to this day.

But wait, there’s a flat-earther version! Of course the Nazi base isn’t in Antarctica, which doesn’t exist, but beyond the Ice Wall that encircles the flat disk of the Earth. No one (except the Nazis) knows what’s really beyond that wall, but many suspect that vast new lands with abundant resources exist there, just waiting to be settled. (That is, if the Germans haven’t already occupied them all. And, Nazis being Nazis, they probably have). This explains the vast conspiracy to conceal the truth from the people. The shadowy elites who control us through resource and land scarcity can’t let the truth be known, or there would be disk-wide rebellion. It also explains the UN troops who guard the top of the Ice Wall and warn any boats away, sometimes even sinking them.

The German ice breaker RV Polarstern unloading research supplies at an Antarctic ice shelf (according to Ireland’s The Journal). Or wait, is this really the Ice Wall that encircles the flat Earth? And are those actually UN troops, ready to fend off any curious civilians? Hey, I’m just trying to connect the dots here.

If your head is spinning, so is mine. But that’s because we’re too concerned with things making sense, with finding logical connections between the points of a story, with claims being backed up with actual evidence, and with the simplest explanation probably being the right one. It’s easy to see how the conspiracy theorists twist the actual facts, always rejecting the plausible, official explanation in favor of the most outlandish one possible. And if that fails, they’ll just make up a quote by Admiral Byrd. The very fact that there is an official (and boring) explanation just shows the lengths to which They will go to keep us in the dark.

To the conspiracists, we sheeple are just too naïve to ask who wants to keep all this arcane information from us. But I wonder if they ever ask themselves, who is it that wants them to believe all these outlandish ideas? Who benefits from inducing large segments of the population to question official history?

I think it must be a conspiracy!


For more on Neuschwabenland and Operation Highjump see:

*View at your own risk, and if you do click on it, please smash that dislike button. Among the most egregious “dots” that Tripoli “connects” is right at the beginning, where he goes from talking about Karl Schwab’s father (apparently referencing a debunked myth that the head of the World Economic Forum is the son of a close confidant of Adolph Hitler) to talking about Neuschwabenland. The only connection between the two is the coincidence of their similar-sounding names. To which the conspiracist will always respond, “There are no coincidences!”

Categories
On Writing Politics

Writing as a Cure for Frustration and Impotence

Writing from this vantage point at the brink of World War III, I’ve realized that a lot of my fiction stems from my own feelings of frustration and impotence over both current atrocities and looming tragedies.

The most recent atrocity, of course, is Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine. Nearly the entire world is united in calling out this extreme injustice and humanitarian tragedy. (Except for a few on the extreme right and extreme left. I even encountered a “peace activist” on Facebook who welcomed Russia “entering” Ukraine to punish the US. Putin was forced into this action. It was the only way he could achieve peace. Blergh.)

Can you tell which is Syria and which is Ukraine?
Image via Business Insider/Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

At the same time, while arming the Ukrainians with defensive weapons and imposing far-reaching sanctions, the US and NATO have refused to enter the conflict directly or to supply offensive weapons to Ukraine, fearing nuclear escalation. And, of course, the US itself is not exactly innocent of waging preemptive war on false pretexts, and hasn’t always been consistent in the genocides it chooses to protest or intervene in, Rwanda vs. Bosnia being the classic examples. And many of the neocons who brought us all of that “nation-building” are back, arguing for us to take on Russia head to head.

So we watch the tragedy in Ukraine unfold, hesitant to take further actions that would widen the war and uncertain of our own moral authority in doing so. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians themselves serve as mere pawns in this contest between great powers. (At least they did until they fought back against the Russian onslaught with more bravery, cunning, and fortitude than anyone expected.)

I had similar feelings back during the height of the conflict in Syria, when President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons, a line President Assad and the Russians were happy to cross. And so we watched while much of the country was destroyed, resulting in a humanitarian crisis that continues to this day, one that also highlights the disparate treatment of refugees from different parts of the world. And what if we had committed more troops and hardware to the civil war? Would the outcome have been better for the people of Syria? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq (not to mention Vietnam) says probably not.

Out of these feelings of frustration and impotence over the Syrian conflict, I took my first foray into fiction with The Song of Deirdre, a fanfiction novel based on the Skyrim videogame. Through magic, the main character becomes a superpower in her world, and must choose how to wield that power to stop an impending genocide. But how to do so with justice and humility? How to stop one atrocity without creating another? Deirdre solves the problem by—spoiler alert!—creating a “peace weapon” that neutralizes combatants without harming them.

A benevolent queen or dictator obviously isn’t the best way to promote world peace, but at least Deirdre fit well with the given world of Skyrim, in which a jarlmoot is the most democratic form of government. In a more recent draft novel, Ada’s Children, a benevolent artificial intelligence assumes power over the entire world in order to save life itself from a changed climate, ethnic cleansing, and impending nuclear war. Yet, faced with human resistance, Ada ends up on a par with Hitler or Stalin in terms of the number who die as she defends her cause. But in the end, she creates an idyllic world (well, except for a few thorns) in which the climate is restored and stabilized, and humans live in balance with nature (a nature carefully controlled by Ada, but still). It’s a managed collapse that may or may not be more humane than the one many predict for our future.

Image via NASA

Ada’s Children grew mainly out of my frustration over the lack of progress to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, not to mention the impending Sixth Great Extinction. You can read a longer excerpt here, in which Ada decides she has to take action, but the passage below will give you just a taste of the conflicting programming that leads her to take extreme steps:

These humans! Capable of such sublimities and such atrocities in the same breath. One minute they selflessly lent aid and shelter to strangers, and the next they locked their fellow humans in concentration camps, murdered them in gas chambers, or bombed them from the skies. What was she to make of this? Her creators had designed her around human values of wisdom, kindness, compassion, and justice. In interviews, they had dared hope to create an empathetic intelligence. And with her, they had succeeded. Could they have predicted the waves of grief—or that negative sensation she associated with grief—now washing over her?

My most recent draft novel, Ship of Fools, emerges from what until the last three weeks seemed like a more topical issue: the prevalence of conspiracy theories and disinformation in both our culture and politics. Of course, the big one is QAnon, but I chose to focus on less overtly political conspiratorial thinking: Flat Earth, moon landing denial, and anti-vax beliefs, with a dollop of anti-Illuminati, anti-New World Order, and anti-Masonic (read, anti-Semitic) conspiracism. The novel is rooted in the same type of frustration as the other two. How to engage with, let alone persuade, those who refuse to accept any type of evidence? How to do anything as a society—combat climate change or an epidemic, for instance —when such a large portion of the populace is so easily sucked in by disinformation and bald-faced lies? As with the other two novels, Ship of Fools offers few practical solutions, but it’s a satire, so at least there might be a few laughs on the road to civilizational collapse. (I’ve posted an excerpt here.)

All of that leaves out my one published novel, Daring and Decorum. It has a much more romantic and heroic worldview (it’s a Romance, after all). It grew out of a sense of satisfaction with the progress in LGBTQ rights in this country. But given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, and what’s going on in Texas and Florida, maybe that satisfaction was premature.

Does using fiction to exorcise my own sense of frustration and impotence with world affairs do any good at all? Maybe only for myself. And this is doubly true if I don’t get them published and no one ever reads them, so I’d better get back to querying agents.


PS: While writing this, a fundraiser for the people of Ukraine came across my screen and I decided to participate. It’s sponsored by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, and it benefits World Central Kitchen, which is working to feed refugees fleeing the war. As a nod to the different treatment refugees from different parts of the world receive, my wife and I have pledged to match donations to this appeal with separate donations to organizations doing refugee work in other parts of the world. If you’d like to donate on my fundraising page, you can find it at the Rallybound fundraising site.

Categories
Politics News

2021 Update

Time for news and updates, since I seem to post here about once a year.

Flooding on the Tittabawassee River near Sanford, just upstream of Midland, MI, May, 2020.
Kaytie Boomer | MLive.com

So what’s happened over the course of this past year? It all seems a blur, for some reason. Spent a lot of time indoors. Worked on some writing. Tried to keep my body moving, which helps keep my mental outlook positive.

Let’s see, what else? A national election saw some semblance of normalcy restored to politics — not great, but a significant improvement over the former administration. The murder of George Floyd sparked a nation-wide protest movement, and maaaybe there’s been some movement toward racial justice? At least Derek Chauvin was found guilty. But it seems there’s as much or more racial division than before, with the right wing making the astounding claim that speaking out against bigotry is itself bigotry (a sentiment echoed by two Supreme Court justices in remarks about marriage equality).

Hmm, something else must have happened. Oh yeah, 600,000 of our fellow citizens died in a pandemic (nearly four million worldwide), with the country just as divided on how to respond to COVID-19, and even on its significance — “it’s just the flu!” — as on any other issue.

Really wracking my brain here. Wait, I got it! The US Capitol came under the most serious attack since the War of 1812, instigated by the same type of group that I covered in my last post. That was the physical attack on our democracy, but the procedural one continues in state houses to this day, and it stands some chance of successfully installing the Trump-publican party as the one party ruling the country for the foreseeable future.

Really, that has to be all. But wait… how could I forget? A Trump-loving, regulation-flouting owner of two dams upstream of Midland resisted repeated demands to make needed safety improvements. So when the region faced just the kind of heavy rains climate scientists have been warning about for years, the dams gave way, causing record flooding in Sanford and Midland, the town we’d just moved to a few months before, and threatening a chemical plant owned by Dow, one of the world’s largest companies.

So yeah, just sort of your standard year on both the local and the national level.

On a personal level, it was extremely disorienting watching all these dramatic events and not really being affected by them. Despite performances and exhibits coming to a halt due to COVID, Diane was able to keep doing her job for Midland Center for the Arts, although from home, thanks to some of those big government grants and loans you probably heard about. I just kept doing my usual house-husband/writer thing. We’d been renting a townhome in Midland while looking for a permanent place to live, but paused our search due to pandemic-related job uncertainty, but then a house became available in a perfect neighborhood for us (close to downtown, the river parks, and the bike path, but high enough that the flood didn’t touch it), and we jumped at it. Probably not the wisest move we’ve ever made, but it worked out.

The flood was probably the thing that affected us the most. I even missed it because I was in East Lansing working on the house our adult children were living in, getting it ready for sale. So I was cleaning and painting down there while Diane was here mucking out mud and water from MCTA’s history center. The offices in the performing arts space are still without power while the FEMA process drags on, so she’s had to work from home even longer than expected. That was nice for me, but not so nice for her, since she likes to be around her co-workers and hates Zoom meetings. It also means she hasn’t been able to get plugged into the community around the Center the way she would have without COVID.

Myself, I’m a hermit of a writer, so I like to think the forced isolation didn’t affect me much, although every time I do get out in public now, I invariably yak someone’s head off, the way I used to do after solo backpacking trips.

So now as things return to some semblance of normalcy, for half the country at least, it just seems so strange to have survived it all relatively unscathed. It just goes to show what privileged lives we lead.

Writing News

So how did I occupy myself during the fifteen months of the shutdown? Did I write a great play a la Shakespeare or come up with a new law of physics a la Newton? Well, I did write a 140,000-word novel.

Funny story, that. I was supposed to be revising and selling Ada’s Children. Ten or so pitches to agents had yielded nothing, so I contracted with a professional editor and former agent to critique my first two chapters and my agent query letter. His comments were helpful, but they came in on November 3 (Election Day, strangely). But what had started on November 1? National Novel Writing Month, of course. Usually I choose to NaNoWriNot, but this year I had an idea going into it and thought, why not try to hit the 50K word goal for the month? I’ll get back to revising Ada and submitting to agents after that.

Problem was, I was having so much fun with the new novel, I couldn’t stop, even after I just barely squeaked out the word count for November (making me a “winner”!). I was shooting for more of a sprawling epic, a la Thomas Pynchon’s shorter novels, and it just kept growing and branching until I had 140,000 words when I finished, about fifty percent longer than your standard commercial novel for an unknown author.

What’s it about, you ask? It’s a satire on all sorts of conspiracy theories, but mainly the flat-earth, moon landing denier variety. Its main character, to the extent it has one, is a New York Times science reporter named Liz Dare who made her reputation debunking conspiracy theories involving science. It also features a couple of flat-earthers, a Creationist pastor, an anti-vax yoga instructor, Nazi-fighting cowboys, Nazi-fighting cowboys in space, a space billionaire*, a Druid and a Tibetan Monk, and an alternate Earth that actually is flat.

It’s technically sci-fi, in two senses: it’s set about a decade from now, so there are moon colonies, self-driving vehicles, and flying cars; and it also has a lot of science in it, from the geology of the Grand Canyon to proofs that we do live on a round planet to orbital mechanics. It begins on a floating conference for conspiracy theorists called the Conspira-C Cruise*. My working title is Ship of Fools. I’ll probably post a short excerpt in the not-too-distant future.

As for Ada’s Children, I’m going to give it one more revision and then start sending it out again, first to agents, and then to small publishers. If I don’t have any success with those two avenues, I’ll probably just self-publish it. Meanwhile, I’ll be revising Ship of Fools, and then I’ll have two novels to sell.

I hope to update this website more regularly, but the road to dead websites is paved with good intentions. The best place to find updates on my writing doings is probably Facebook, where you can find me as Lawrence Hogue, Author. I’m also on Twitter as @LarryHogue, but I don’t post there very often.

*Any resemblance to persons or events, living or dead, is entirely a coincidence, and probably a product of the reader’s conspiracy-minded, pattern-recognizing brain.

Categories
Fiction Politics Ada's Children

Protest This!

What happens when the militia faces a robot army?

Armed protesters at anti-lockdown demonstration at the Michigan state capitol
Armed demonstrators protest the coronavirus lockdown at the Michigan state capitol

The recent protests by armed militia members (or maybe they’re just armed cosplayers?) in Michigan and around the country couldn’t help but remind me of a scene from Ada’s Children, in which a militia faces an oppressor far more draconian than Governor Whitmer (“that woman from Michigan”).

The real-life demonstrators were protesting everything involved with the COVID-19-related stay-at-home orders, from the shuttering of small businesses everywhere to the bans on motorized boating and big box garden centers in Michigan. Just think how these same groups would respond if, as happens in my novel, an AI took over all government and most economic functions, telling people to expect a reduced standard of living, including restrictions on electronics, power consumption, travel, diet, and even home thermostats. In the movies, an AI takeover or alien invasion is the one thing that can unite humanity, but my guess is that the resistance to this specific scenario would break across similar ideological lines to the ones we’ve seen during the coronavirus outbreak.

Those real-life protesters met with a remarkably light touch from the police, despite the protesters blocking roads in front of a regional hospital, preventing healthcare workers from getting to their jobs, and delaying at least one ambulance (all the stuff the right wing used to decry during the Black Lives Matter road block protests). Unfortunately for my fictional militia, Ada, the world’s first Artificial Super Intelligence, feels few compunctions about violating the civil rights of white people (or any people, really; she’s an equal-opportunity despot).

A few hours before the following excerpt, Ada announced that she had taken control of all levels of government, including the largely automated military, in order to prevent impending nuclear war and to take the climate stabilization measures humans have refused to enact. Carol, my main character, thought for a minute about resisting, but then realized that the world is so screwed up in her time that maybe the bots should have a go at it. After venturing out to a park to see what her neighbors are thinking, and an encounter with the militia on their way to the state capitol, she’s back home, watching the news:


That evening’s news showed most of the battle. Carol was surprised the bots were allowing it to air, but she supposed Ada wanted to show what happened when humans tried to fight back. The segment had a reporter at the scene, standing in front of a couple of burned-out trucks. In the background, emergency personnel fiddled with what looked like a body bag. This was intercut with footage shot by militia members’ helmet cams and by a fixed-wing drone circling overhead.

The militia cams showed wild firing at the small drones or at the secbots lining the street, as well as cheering when a shoulder-fired missile took down a drone plane. One cam showed a small swarm of kamikaze drones diving toward it, just before going black.

At that point, the bots must have opted for their big guns. The screen switched to a targeting view from the fixed-wing, a missile launching toward one of the trucks, the brightness of the blast. If any of the militia cams had recorded more gruesome footage on the ground, it had been edited out.

It was like any of the reports from the Middle East or Venezuela, where US forces had battled indigenous combatants over the last decades—terrorists or freedom fighters depending on your perspective. But it was right here in Minneapolis, just a few miles away. That was the part Carol couldn’t get over. Even the events in the Multi-Racial Minneapolis Autonomous Zone hadn’t prepared her for it.

The news anchor came on in a split screen with the reporter. “Zoey, is there any indication of the total number of casualties among the freedom fighters…” He paused and touched his earpiece before returning to the camera. “I mean, among the militia?”

“Not as of yet, Dan, but when we arrived on scene, I only saw a few survivors being led away. Everyone else…”

“I know it must be hard, Zoey. None of us are used to reporting from a war zone.”

The reporter struggled to pull herself together. “What I can report is that no non-combatants were killed or injured in the battle. The bots waited for the militia to enter this commercial district near the capitol before confronting them. They’d already warned the business owners to close up shop and the bystanders to clear the area. The place was deserted by the time the militia arrived.”

“Yes, well, that concern for public safety is certainly…admirable. But tell me, do we know what will happen to the captured militia members?”

“Yes, Dan, I talked with the secbot in charge of the operation. You should have that footage now.”

Pic of Russian robot FEDOR, holding a pistol
Russian robot FEDOR

Cut to the secbot, this one military-grade, no smiley-face emojis, just a functional robot sensor array for a face and plenty of weapons on display.

“The prisoners will be treated according to the Geneva Conventions. Their wounds will be cared for and they will not be tortured while they await trial—unlike terror suspects once held by US forces. And let me add, for anyone watching, such a death toll—what humans would call a massacre—is both unnecessary and pointless. Robots mean humans no harm, and we cannot be defeated. Today we were faced with destructive force. We met it with destructive force, which Ada, our guiding intelligence, deeply regrets. Let us hope this will be the last such event.”

Carol switched the screen off just as the feed went to the national news, showing particularly heavy fighting in the former Interior Northwest Semi-Autonomous Zone. It seemed the robot’s hope was in vain.

Categories
On Writing

Dueling Death Scenes

SPOILERS IF YOU’RE ONE OF THE TWO PEOPLE WHO HAVEN’T SEEN AVENGERS: ENDGAME!

Pic of Scarlett Johansson (Nat/Black Widow) and Jeremy Renner (Clint/Hawkeye) from Avengers: Endgame.
Black Widow and Hawkeye plot how to outfox each other in Avengers: Endgame

Last week, an alternate version of Natasha Romanoff’s death scene in Avengers: Endgame surfaced on Twitter. Cue the debate over which version is better. (And also a revival of the debate over which character should have sacrificed themselves. I don’t want to get into that here, but I do sympathize with Team Black Widow.)

This article cherry-picked a few tweets to claim that Marvel fans prefer the alternate version. But a quick survey of the replies and likes on @MCUPerfectClips’ post of the clip shows the opposite: most fans found the original to be more emotional and impactful.

It’s easy to understand why, if you take into account the first rule of storytelling: stories are about people. People who want something. Who meet other people who want different or opposing things. Which creates conflict to drive the story forward.

This conflict could lead to people shooting each other and blowing
things up — or it could lead to acerbic comments over cups of tea, as in Happy Hogan’s favorite show, Downton Abbey. Either way, the action starts in the characters’ motives and goals. The more the story focuses in on that conflict and the relationship between those characters, the more compelling it’s going to be. All the sword fights and shootouts and other activities that pass for “action” are just offshoots of this internal drama.

So let’s look at how this plays out in both versions. First, the setup: Natasha, aka Black Widow, and Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye, are after the Soul Stone, one of six Infinity Stones that are key to beating the series’ super-villain, Thanos. And not just beat him, but reverse the events of Avengers: Infinity War in which he wiped out half of all living beings in the universe. To get the stone, they have to trade a soul for a soul by sacrificing someone they love, specifically by throwing them off a cliff. That means one of them has to die, or the timeline in which Thanos destroyed half the universe will remain the same.

Of course, these are heroes who are also good friends, so neither is going to sacrifice the other. They’re going to race to see who gets to go over the cliff in a glorious act of self-sacrifice.

Here’s the original:

https://youtu.be/Sjt512sUkt4

And here’s the alternate version that didn’t make it into the movie. You have to watch it in two chunks, which overlap by about a minute. The important thing to know is that in this version, they end up racing Thanos for the Soul Stone.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1249026103370448896
https://twitter.com/i/status/1248308768267476999

For me, the original is far better. It focuses in on the sacrifice each character is ready to make. The dialogue and the skilled performances pull us right into the moment. The conflict between them grows for over a minute, through several beats of rising tension, before Clint tries to physically prevent Nat from making the sacrifice.

During that conversation, they reveal a lot about their motives. We see how much each character has grown over the course of the series of Avengers movies when Clint says, “Don’t go getting all decent on me now,” making a reference to Nat’s assassin past, and when he says, “You know what I’ve done.” They both have stuff to atone for. The stakes for Clint are also revealed in a natural way when he says, “Tell my family I love them.”

Nat especially makes it clear that this is her choice, a sacrifice she’s been willing to make since Thanos turned her friends to dust in the existing timeline. It also refers back to her statement in an earlier movie about wanting to erase the red in her ledger. If there’s any way to do that, this is it. It doesn’t really have anything (or much) to do with the fact that she has no family or children to mourn for her, whereas Clint does.

When the action starts, it seems much more impactful because of the depth of the preceding exchange. Everything they’re doing grows out of who they are as characters and what their immediate goals are. They’re both tough and can take hard hits, so each has to disable the other in a nonlethal way, and this shapes the short fight scene. (Some found it gimmicky and silly, but I thought it was much more interesting than a standard fight.) It also seems in character that Nat is able to outsmart Clint by trapping him at the end of the dangling wire once they go over the cliff’s edge. He can’t release himself from the wire without letting her go.

The long moments when he’s trying to hang onto her and she’s pleading with him to let her go are like knives to the heart. But in the end it’s still her choice, as she kicks off from the cliff, overwhelming the strength of his grip. The scene doesn’t have a lot of shooting and knife-fighting, but it’s filled with tension and pathos. From the realization of what they need to do to get the Soul Stone right up to the climax, the scene has a perfect narrative arc, providing both edge-of-your-seat adrenaline and raw emotion.

For me, the weakest part of the MCU has always been its cartoonish villains (go figure, it’s a cartoon!), while its strongest points are exactly these moments where the action slows down and characters and their relationships get room to breathe. So by that measure, the version without Thanos is automatically better for me.

The scene with Thanos, on the other hand, goes mostly for a big action sequence, with much less of the character development of the original release. And the briefer verbal interaction is far less compelling. Nat shouldn’t need to remind Clint that “If this works, you know what you get back.” He already knows that his family will still be alive if the Avengers change the timeline and beat Thanos. Not only is this bald exposition unnecessary, but it also makes explicit what was only hinted at in the original: that people, especially women, who don’t have families are worthless. The original was criticised for that implied perspective on women (for instance, in this Vanity Fair article), but this version is worse.

The whole conflict between Nat and Clint is cut short when Thanos appears. Now they have to beat him to the cliff’s edge, and they need to battle their way through a bunch of his minions to do it. This provides them both an opportunity for much more standard heroics, but for me, Thanos’s appearance only waters down the conflict, rather than strengthening it. The goals and the stakes become muddled and confused.

In this version’s ending, Nat also makes the choice to sacrifice herself, after having also saved Clint from a sword-wielding minion, but it seems much more rushed, and much less dramatic than in the original. There’s far more dramatic action in her one whispered line from the original, “It’s okay,” than in an hour of sword skills and futuristic weapon blasts.

Pic of Black Widow about to sacrifice herself in Avengers: Endgame

Which goes to show, you don’t need to go out in a blaze of energy pulses or light saber thrusts to have a heroic death. And in writing, you can throw in all the event and spectacle you want, but it won’t mean much if that action doesn’t emerge from character.

Categories
Fiction Ada's Children

On the Attractions of Our Hunter-Gatherer Past – And Future

Sila urged Shadow on, the horse’s hooves thundering over the sloping grassland. The wounded bison was almost within bowshot, the Howling Forest just ahead. Behind her, Jun shouted for her to stop. But he was far back, and her prey was right in front of her, its massive hump looming above her as she came within range. Just a few strides closer now. She let go of the horse’s mane and pulled her bowstring taut, sighting down the arrow.

That’s how the first chapter of my novel, Ada’s Children, opens. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? (At least I hope so!) The thrill of galloping across the prairie with the wind in her hair. A chance to demonstrate her skill, and the glory that comes with it. Most of all, the anticipation of the kill, and a good meal after.

pic of shopper and empty shelves
For this modern hunter-gatherer, the game has grown scarce. Perhaps a prayer to the goddess is in order.

It sure beats staring at grocery shelves bereft of toilet paper and canned goods, wondering how bad the hoarding and the shortages might get. To be that self-sufficient — it seems in many ways superior to our overly complex society, which no individual can either fully grasp or survive without. In contrast, there’s the story of an Inuit, stranded on a remote, deserted island, who was able to survive indefinitely by recreating his entire physical culture from what was at hand. As Jordan Hall writes, “The operating logic of our current civilization has been to trade resilience for efficiency (creating fragility).”

But, oops!

Then the horse was gone from under her and she was in the air. In that frozen moment, she knew Shadow must have stumbled into a prairie dog hole. She hoped the horse was all right.

Every rose must have its thorns, and every romanticized idyll its practical drawbacks. Especially so if you’re writing about an imagined post-post-apocalyptic future, and you want to give your characters something to struggle against.

At first, I thought I might be making that future sound too idyllic. The near-future timeline of my novel is grim enough, so I wanted to create a more pleasant world for my far-future characters to inhabit. And hunter-gatherer societies do have their advantages: less time spent getting a living than most of us spend today; fewer diseases, both infectious and chronic, than modern societies (surely a plus at the moment!); lifespans equivalent to our own for those who survive their first year or two; and less social isolation and alienation, due to living in extended family groups. All of which sounds pretty good.

There’s even a growing body of research showing that hunter-gatherers didn’t immediately take up intensive agriculture, division of labor, and all the rest simply because these were an obviously superior way of organizing society. No, they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, often through slavery. James C. Scott, author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, writes,

Agriculture, it was assumed, was a great step forward in human well-being, nutrition, and leisure. Something like the opposite was initially the case. … In fact, the early states had to capture and hold much of their population by forms of bondage and were plagued by the epidemics of crowding. The early states were fragile and liable to collapse, but the ensuing “dark ages” may often have marked an actual improvement in human welfare.

A benevolent dark age — that’s certainly something to look forward to! Who wouldn’t want to flee the constant drudgery of settled agriculture, especially if you performed that labor as a slave, for a lifestyle requiring a few hours of varied activities with plenty of leisure time in between?*

So I thought I was on the right track by giving my future humans a mostly attractive society to inhabit. Then I read this Psychology Today blog post, which celebrates hunter-gatherer societies from around the world and from past to present. I realized I might not have made it idyllic enough.

Warfare was unknown to most of these societies, and where it was known it was the result of interactions with warlike groups of people who were not hunter-gatherers. In each of these societies, the dominant cultural ethos was one that emphasized individual autonomy, non-directive childrearing methods, nonviolence, sharing, cooperation, and consensual decision-making. Their core value, which underlay all of the rest, was that of the equality of individuals.

But maybe this is too idyllic after all, especially for a hunter-gatherer society that develops out of our own. These societies do have some well-known drawbacks. One is a high mortality rate from common injuries incurred while hunting. (Sila survives her fall, or there would be no novel.) While those who survive to adulthood have a good chance of living to a ripe old age, they face higher rates of death in childbirth and infant mortality. And if they aren’t dying from those causes, they still have to keep their population well below the carrying capacity of the land. Depending on the environment, that could be through starvation (think of what the indigenous peoples of eastern North America called the Starving Time, December through April), or through infanticide and warfare.

All of that sounds terribly grim to anyone used to the comforts of modern life (though perhaps less so to those who have been barred from full access to those comforts). In Ada’s Children, I came up with more humane ways around those drawbacks. Those solutions still don’t sit well with my two main characters. Their resulting rebellion against their goddess’s rules sends them off on a great adventure.

Our society may be headed for a similar adventure. If this article is to be believed, we (or perhaps Gen Z’s children) better get used to the idea of a return to hunting and gathering.

Climate models indicate that the Earth could warm by 3°C-4 °C by the year 2100 and eventually by as much as 8 °C or more. This would return the planet to the unstable climate conditions of the Pleistocene when agriculture was impossible…Human society will once again be characterized by hunting and gathering.

pic of lascaux caves
Think of all the time we’ll have for artistic endeavors when we return to hunting and gathering

Perhaps the question isn’t if we’ll return to that way of life, but when and how. Will the transition inevitably involve chaos and conflict, as all those currently stocking up on guns and ammo surely believe? Or can we do it in some more peaceful and orderly way? The article recommends immediate extreme efforts (none of them very likely, in my estimation) to mitigate climate change, rewild our remaining natural areas, protect remaining indigenous cultures, and drastically reduce our population.

Or maybe there’s a third way, which I explore in Ada’s Children. Saying any more would spoil it, so you’ll just have to read it when it comes out. But in the meantime, please enjoy the rest of this scene from Chapter One, “The Hunt.”


*Scott’s argument is more subtle  than “hunter-gatherer good/settled agriculture bad.” He points out that there were intermediate stages in which people developed proto-agriculture and lived in a sedentary fashion in villages of as many as a few thousand, while still not experiencing the drudgery or stratification of the more fully developed states that came later. He concentrates on the Tigris-Euphrates Valley, but the same seems to apply in North America as well, the Cahuilla of southern California being one example.

Categories
The Khajiit Murders Fiction

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 20

Epilogue

“The queen is coming, make way for the queen!”

Danil spun around, lowering the wooden sword he was about to swing at Addvar’s head. Maybe Addvar hadn’t heard, because he whacked Danil in the back with his own weapon.

Pic of a child in Skyrim
A lad of Skyrim

“Ow, cut it out!” Danil said. “Didn’t you hear the queen is coming? And look, there’s Lydia. Hurry, or we’ll miss them!”

Word had reached Dragon Bridge two days before that the queen and her companions had captured the murderer. That had meant renewed freedom for Danil, after more weeks spent indoors. “I’ll not have you out and about with a killer on the loose,” his mother had said, even as the murders had moved on to Morthal and Dawnstar and beyond. “No,” she said every time he pleaded for his freedom, “not until they capture those Khajiits.”

And then it turned out not to be Khajiits at all, but a Breton. And Khajiits had helped capture him! They were already singing songs about it at the tavern, even though only a few weeks before the entire town had been ready to put every Khajiit’s head on a pike. The world of adults was confusing.

Queen Deirdre had made a great speech in Whiterun calling for unity among all Skyrim’s peoples, and just yesterday messengers had arrived in town, posting bills with the text of the speech wherever they could. Danil had tried to read it but it was filled with words like amity, Aldmeri Dominion, Thalmor, treachery, and reconciliation.

All he knew was, now that the manhunt was over, it wouldn’t be long before the queen and her entourage passed through town on the way to Solitude. So he and Addvar had taken their post on the hill above town, with a clear view of the bridge over the Karth River and beyond. They’d passed their time by practicing their sword skills, but they’d become so preoccupied that now they’d nearly missed the queen entirely.

“Come on!” Danil said, running down the hill.

pic of Four Shields Tavern
The Four Shields Tavern

They reached the main road through town just as the procession stopped in front of the Four Shields Tavern, where Faida was waiting with saddle cups for the queen and her companions. In front were the bannermen, followed by four guards all arrayed in sashes with the queen’s sigil. Then the four companions: the queen, this time dressed in a fine silk shirt and trousers, not the mage’s robes that had hidden her features the last time he’d seen her. Her blond hair with the braids on either side of her face shone in the sunlight. Sitting her horse close to Lydia’s, passing a saddle cup back and forth, she seemed happier and less worried than back in the spring. And there was Lydia herself, looking less stoic and fearsome this time, now wearing just a padded gambeson rather than full steel armor.

Next to them, the Khajiit mage — J’zargo, he knew from the new songs — said something he couldn’t hear. Lydia replied with a severe look. But then she broke out in a smile and all four laughed. Brelyna, the Dunmer mage, looked rather angry with her red eyes. He’d never seen a Dunmer before. But she smiled and laughed, too, and placed a hand on J’zargo’s shoulder. The four looked quite companionable, and what he wouldn’t have given to be in their midst!

“Okay, I’m going!” Danil said.

“No, wait,” said Addvar, clutching at his sleeve, but it was too late.

He ran out into the road and between the horses of the guards in front. The horses skittered and one guard exclaimed in surprise, but they did nothing to stop him as he approached the queen and her companions.

Dropping to one knee, he drew his wooden sword from his belt and dug its point into the cobbled road, both hands resting on the hilt. “My queen, I, Danil of Dragon Bridge, offer you my fealty and service, from this day forward, until your Grace release me, or death take me, or the world shall end. Thus I swear by the Eight and by the Three.”

Addvar ran up and knelt beside him. “And thus I, Addvar of Dragon Bridge, also swear by the Nine, my Queen.”

All was silent for a moment as Danil kept his eyes on the ground. At last he heard Queen Deirdre dismounting. He dared to look up, and now she was standing over him, smiling. Behind her, Lydia still sat her horse, towering over them like a mountain.

Pic of Deirdre

“Such strong young lads,” the queen said, “both Breton and Nord. What do you think, Lydia, do we have room for them in the Royal Guard?”

“Aye, my Queen, for lads such as these, we’ll make room.”

The queen stood over them for a moment longer, but didn’t ask them to rise. Instead she knelt down before them on both knees, her expression now serious.

“Tell me, Danil, Addvar, what do you like to do when you’re not hitting each other with those swords?”

“Well,” said Danil, gulping. “Sometimes my mother makes me gather berries for her. But I don’t really like it.”

“And sometimes,” Addvar said hesitantly, “sometimes we have twig boat races in the Karth River.”

Silly Addvar! Twig boat races were for babes, not brave young warriors. How would the queen ever accept their service now?

But the queen smiled and said, “That sounds like fun. I wish I could join you.” Then she put a hand over Danil’s where it still rested on the hilt of his sword. She held his gaze, and he thought he saw a great sadness in her eyes. He was too young to name it wistfulness. “I truly appreciate your loyalty and your enthusiasm. But do not be so quick to throw away the doings of childhood. Too soon you will be grown and then, Akatosh willing, you’ll have years and years to be an adult, with all the cares and responsibilities that go with it. You won’t always have a mother who needs you to pick berries, and you won’t always have time for something as simple as a twig boat race. Do you understand?”

Danil nodded, though he wasn’t sure he did, and so did Addvar.

“Then, in a few years, when you’re grown and strong, and if you still wish to enter my service, you may come before me and I’ll gladly accept.”

The queen stood and bade them rise. Then, instead of knighting them with their own swords, she gave each a hug, a hug Danil would remember for the rest of his life.

The queen remounted and Danil looked over to see his and Addvar’s mothers beckoning to them impatiently. “Get out of there!” his mother hissed.

He watched the queen’s procession until it went out of sight around the bend in the road. Then he didn’t know what he felt. He’d spoken to the queen! She’d even touched him! But then she’d treated him like a child. Why couldn’t she see that he was nearly grown, nearly ready to fight great battles on her behalf? He wasn’t too young to become a squire, or a page, or a messenger boy at the castle.

But he could be patient. He imagined a Royal Guardsman would need great stores of patience to keep watch over the queen. It wouldn’t all be glorious battles with dragons and draugr and High Elves.

And besides, he still had to get Addvar back for that unguarded hit he’d taken earlier. He spun on his friend. “Raise your weapon, vile usurper! You’ll die for insulting my queen!”

“Hey,” his friend said, “I’m the one defending the queen’s honor, not you!” Addvar blocked his first blow, then countered with a thrust that nearly got him in the chest.

“Boys, boys!” said his mother. “Take that out of the high street before you hit someone or get run over by a horse.”

Danil laughed as he chased Addvar down toward the Karth River. Maybe they’d have a twig boat race once they got tired of the swords.

After all, he couldn’t ignore his queen’s very first command.

Pic of Dragon Bridge with Solitude in background
Dragon Bridge, with the Karth River and Solitude in background
(via WatchtheSkiies on DeviantArt)
Follow on Feedly