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The Baltimore Washington area learned a new word recently. Derecho: a fast moving severe thunderstorm with hurricane force winds. Ours hit like a category one, with little warning. Our lights flicked out at 10:30pm. For an intense and frightening half hour we huddle together with our flashlights watching the trees do backbends in the wind while listening to reports on my battery operated radio. There was no mention of tornados so we wandered off to bed expecting the power to come back on during the night. Wrong.
Not only was the power out, but our cell phones weren’t getting a signal. We were able to get a few calls out on our land line before it went out as well. The entire area was in the dark. A quest for coffee led me five miles away into the next county. It took over a half an hour to make my way through the line which snaked through the store.
At least the kids (teens) got to sleep in. With little else to do, we dug out our lanterns, made sure the grill had propane and listened for updates on the radio. Nearly a million people had no power and the damage to the power grid was worse than after Hurricane Irene. Oh, and a heat wave was hovering over the entire area.
Throughout the day the radio continued to report the outages and destruction. We listened closely as temperatures rose into the 100’s. Would they give out dry ice? Regular ice? Who had power? Air-conditioning? Sure, all we had to do was check a website for the list of locations. Say what? No power, no phone, no cell phone, no internet. Did we miss something? We listened for the next report and sure enough, we could find more info on-line.
Ok, maybe the newspaper would have more information on Sunday. The next day I checked every article in both the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun. You guessed it. All we had to do to find a cooling center was go to a website. So why do I pay for a newspaper?
Is our society so reliant on instant internet that we’ve forgotten to use simple forms of communication? Not every American owns a smart phone. We were hot, tired, and found this lack of information extremely frustrating. Luckily our car had gas and a friend across town had power, saving most of our food and giving us a respite from the heat. Many others weren’t so fortunate.
Late Sunday I just happened to be listening to WTOP, the major radio news station in Washington, when a woman called in to complain about the lack of information. She also had no power, no internet and, no smart phone. Apparently no one, I mean NO ONE, in the entire radio studio considered that people didn’t have access to the internet during a power outage. Within the hour they began announcing the location of cooling centers. Sadly, the newspapers never did. I only hope that in future emergencies all our news sources consider those of us not permanently connected to electronics.
Warning: Potential for mild spoilers ahead
I enjoyed The Hunger Games and recently flew through the next two books. I'd heard from other people that they didn't like the second and third books as much as the first, and the more I read, the more I found myself agreeing with them. Whereas my first impression of Katniss was that she was a great role model, a strong female character who faced suffering and still managed to survive with her spirit intact, I began to grow weary of her indecisiveness and passivity.
One of the major differences between science and technology is that new scientific discoveries can completely invalidate previous theories but any device that worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Even if anti-gravity were to be discovered tomorrow, wheels would continue to exist for as long as humans do. The circumstances in which a given engineering concept or technology applies may be reduced by new concepts or technologies but very few things disappear entirely.
In Hit List, the latest volume of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels, Anita Blake comments on a piece of mandatory equipment – her bullet proof vest:
When we got to the SUV we put on the full gear for monster hunting, including the vest, which I hated the most. It hampered movement and it wouldn’t stop either a vampire or a wereanimal.
The problem with bullet proof vests being that they are useless against sharp weapons such as blades and claws. Now, there is a something that offers some protection against sharp weapons, but it’s been around for hundreds of years and is consequently dismissed by many as obsolete. Yes, I’m talking about chain mail. Of course, if you’re going to arm a modern character with something like that, you’ll want to update it. Take this description from Changes, the twelfth volume of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels.
Molly was dressed in her battle coat, which consisted of a shirt of tightly woven metal links, fashioned by her mother out of titanium wire. The mail was then sandwiched between two long Kevlar vests. All of that was, in turn, fixed to one of several outer garments, and in this case she was wearing a medium-brown fireman’s coat.
I’m sure that the U.S. Marshal’s Service could come up with something a little more polished, but you get the idea. As with fashion, any good engineering concept or technology is likely to be reused sooner or later.
Another area where authors can run into trouble I’ll call “technological inertia” – the assumption that some things work adequately and so there’s no reason to believe that they will be substantially different in the future.
In the Honor Harrington stories by David Weber, shipboard systems (such as weapons) are managed from the bridge by way of “control runs” – dedicated communication lines. The problem with control runs is that they are vulnerable in combat. Such as in chapter 33 of The Honor of The Queen:
“We’ve lost the control runs to the after ring, Skipper!” Commander Higgins reported from Damage Central. “We’re down to two-sixty gees!”
A full half of the ships propulsion system is inoperative because the dedicated lines have been severed by combat damage! Very bad design for a ship that is hundreds of years in advance of anything that we could currently build. Ordinary twenty-first century technology could put together control systems that would be invulnerable to such damage for the simple reason that they would be massively redundant.
All you need is a network of fiber-optic cables and routers. Fiber-optic cables are cheap enough and small enough that every bulkhead could have several small fiber clusters running through it. The routers are small enough that they could be placed at every intersection between two corridors on every level of the ship. As long as some fiber pathway existed between two systems, they would be able to talk, but with that much fiber, the number of available pathways would be huge. An enemy would just about have to cut the ship in two before controls on one end of the ship would be isolated from systems on the other. If you were really serious about redundancy, you could add wireless connections between routers as well.
From later in the Harrington series, in Honor Among Enemies there is this conversation – from a post exercise debriefing.
“I, uh, I rerouted the data, Ma’am—I mean, Milady,” Aubrey said, flushing darker than ever as he corrected himself, but she only shook her head gently.
“‘Ma’am’ is fine. Where’d you reroute to?”
“Uh, well, the array itself was still up, Ma’am. It was only the coupling. But the data from all the arrays runs through Junction Three-Sixty One. It’s a preprocessing node, and the blown sector was downstream.” He swallowed. “So I, uh, I overrode the main computers to reprogram the data buses and dumped it through Radar Six.”
“So that’s what happened,” Lieutenant Jansen said. “You know you cut half my starboard point defense radar out of the circuit when you did it?”
We’ll leave the enumeration of the many problems with this section as an exercise for the reader.
I don’t want folks to think that I dislike these books or that the technical shortcomings above have marred my enjoyment of them (much). For the most part, both authors do a very good with making the technical aspects of their works feel “real” and I can only hope that I will be able to do that well.
This opens up an interesting question, one that, as an aspiring writer, I can’t really pretend to know the answer to. What can we do during the research, writing or editing phases of creating a novel to insure that we don’t overlook technical details that will annoy our readers?
In a science-fiction related mailing list, a friend of mine posted a link to a news story about the possibility of hacking into insulin pumps that have wireless capabilities. In her email, she lamented “It’s going to get harder & harder to write science FICTION when things like this are real!”
So the question is then: how can science fiction authors predict this kind of thing so that their fiction can be more realistic? And the answer of course is that they can’t. Nor should they try. There’s a reason for the saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Furthermore, however much personal satisfaction an author might get out of successfully predicting some future advancement, that’s not what science fiction is about.
Sure, there are SF stories that focus on a particular idea or invention – how it was discovered, developed or explored and its eventual fate. Most stories, though, focus on the consequences of the idea, either for some select group or for society at large. Science fiction can thus present hope that an idea will help make life better or a warning as to how things could go horribly awry – or both.
I contend that the job of authors who deal with technology (science fiction or otherwise) is not to try to predict what technologies will be invented, but rather to create convincing pictures of what could happen in a society with a given set of technologies. It is considered polite, among science fiction readers to accept the scientific and technological assumptions that the author makes but the author must then make a convincing case for the effects of those assumptions on society in general and the story’s characters in particular. Before he can make his case convincing, he must carefully consider what those effects will be and fans tend to be righteously annoyed with authors who overlook details they believe to be obvious.
Sometimes I think writers are their own worst obstacle when writing. We’re either too busy, too tired, or too preoccupied to write. These can be valid reasons, but I learned that if you resort to them enough times, they turn into excuses and fallbacks to a pattern of non-writing. If left unchecked, these excuses have potential to become writer’s block.
This post shares my different methods in being proactive with writing. Feel free to share your own suggestions as well.
- Keep the ball moving.
At times when I come home from a day’s work, my energy just drains away. Being in the comfort of my home makes feel safe and at ease…but it also makes me lazy if I let the feeling dominate my mental state. It’s worse when you have a bad day; you are more prone to relax and make excuses as to why not to bother writing that day.
What I do to help combat this is to first be aware of the work adrenaline that’s running through me. Once I’m mindful of the energy, I try to keep it alive when I arrive home. I imagine having a ball of moving energy that reflects my adrenaline and to keep it running as long as possible. I even utilize mind tricks, thinking that I’m still working and can’t afford to stop. Resist the urge to sit down even for a second (stay away from that TV!), until you’re ready to write. Hopefully this technique should push you into the writing seat, though this technique can also help with other areas of procrastination.
- Just jump in… just write it… just do it.
Another method that helps me to my keyboard is to develop the habit to simply “jump in” without thinking and just write. Clear your mind of any second guessing, doubts and fears and just write. It sounds cliché, but there’s a reason why this works. At times, a writer’s inner critic and a desire for perfection makes you hesitant to write a scene you are unsure about. My method of beating this is plowing through my doubt and gagging the critic. Write whatever comes into your head, even if you think the sentence you’re writing bothers you, or that you’re writing nonsense. The trick is to jump start your brain into thinking ideas. You might be surprised by what you produce and besides, you can always edit your work later. If you have problems, think of past accomplishments you once considered impossible; your current dilemma is no different.
- Rewards system
This method I utilize the most. Sometimes, I gravitate to other activities, like browsing the internet, watching TV, or playing my 360, when I could be writing. To balance this out, whenever I write, I use my stopwatch. It stays on as long as I write, only stopping whenever I’m taking a break. The time I accumulate by writing goes toward my free time, which I use a timer to rundown. One twist I do is that the free time I gain from a day’s writing doesn’t transfer over to free time until the next day. That way, I find myself less tempted in going back and forth within the day. Check your cell phones, iPods, and other handheld devices to see if they have both a stopwatch and a timer.
- Positive Energy & Atmosphere music
Probably the most important element in keeping yourself writing (and all aspects in life) is having the right attitude. Depression, frustration, and stress that lingers can quickly deplete anyone’s writing energy. You can combat this by keeping positive and having positive people around you. For example, writer groups (the right ones) are a great source of inspiration and positive encouragement for writing. Always keep reminding yourself of why you wanted to write and what inspires you to continue. Try to retain the wonder and excitement of it. Reading over some of your previous works might also help.
Lastly, I love listening to atmosphere and relaxing music while I write. It might prove useful when writing in an area with distracting noises. I personally prefer listening to music without lyrics when I write (other words usually distract me), but everyone has different preferences.
I’m aware that sometimes just having the motivation to write isn’t enough to get people to write. There are writers struggling with time restraints, families, schools, and other obligations or even all of the above, which make it near impossible to write. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution for those situations. Perhaps someone can comment on that, but the only thing I suggest is that if you find some time and the will to do it, the way will open. I hope my suggestions help you on your writing endeavors.
I decided on an unorthodox choice and medium in picking a story that helped inspire me as a writer. Final Fantasy 4 is a story that I enjoyed since I was 14 and have come back to on numerous occasions. A tale of good versus evil, the plot is filled with fantasy lore, magic, love, redemption, and revenge. Oh yeah, it’s also a video game.
I’ll refrain from talking about the gameplay and only discuss the game’s story and characters. However, I should briefly mention that all Final Fantasy games are self-contained stories, with storylines that barely connect (in fact all of the games take place in different universes).
Final Fantasy 4’s story follows Cecil, a knight from the kingdom of Baron, who, after committing atrocious crimes under his liege’s orders, starts to question his King. Aware of Cecil’s wavering loyalty, the king strips him of his rank as captain and sends him on a seemingly meager task of delivering a simple package to the village of Mist. However, after unwittingly causing massive destruction and death to the inhabitants of Mist because of the package, Cecil decides to oppose Baron and its mighty military.
While the adventure itself is a fun and intriguing tale, it’s the characters themselves that make the story memorable. On the surface their motives may appear simple or single-minded, but there’s depth, charm and character development underneath their actions. For example, the protagonist Cecil initially looks more like a villain and has in fact killed innocents for Baron’s gain. But we can see that guilt wracks at him for performing those deeds. Cecil’s conscience gets in the way of his loyalty, making him unsure of himself. This inner conflict and shame prevents the knight from achieving his full potential.
Rydia, a young girl and the sole survivor of Mist, is forced to overcome her fear and grief in order to become a powerful sorcerer. Palom and Porom, twins who are also wizard apprentices, complement each other’s personalities and skills and prove to be a good example that kids can work side by side with adults and not be aggravating. Edward the Bard and his unique singing have inspired me in weaving some interesting concepts for one of my novels. Goblez, a dark warlock, plays the villain role well, with his mischievous machinations and his eerily organ theme song that plays whenever he crosses our hero’s path. But my favorite character is Kain, a warrior from Baron and Cecil’s best friend and rival. What makes Kain stand out (besides his awesome ability to jump great heights) is that he was hypnotized into turning against Cecil because Goblez twisted his hidden desire for Cecil’s love Rosa. I sympathized with Kain and how sad it was for him to harbor those feelings, but refuse to express them until they were released by Goblez.
Another reason why these characters are so memorable is because the plot is very connected to the gameplay. Different people with varying skills come and go throughout Cecil’s quest. These events are usually heightened by exciting plot points. Suffering a betrayal by Kain, coming to the aid of a besieged warrior, or finding help in my darkest hour from an unlikely person; these events drew me deeper into the game’s story.
While Final Fantasy 4 isn’t my favorite video game story, it’s one of the most influential one as for being the writer I am today. The story has it flaws, but also possesses a certain kind of charm. It’s a fun adventure, but still covers serious issues and doesn’t come away being too goofy or morbid. A game made for the Super Nintendo, Final Fantasy 4 is an old game by today’s standards, but is still considered fondly as a classic by many gamers and myself included. It really shouldn’t matter what medium of stories one enjoys; if they tell great tales, then that method of storytelling should be encouraged. I suppose that’s the point of this post, that a video game can tell an engrossing tale and help inspire your imagination just as much as any novel or movie.