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sff

Odd Lots

  • Lazarus 1.8.4 has been released. Bug-fix release but still worth having. Go get it!
  • From the Questions-I-Never-Thought-to-Ask Department: How was sheet music written after quill pens but before computers? With a music typewriter, of course.
  • How to become a morning person. Yes, there are benefits. The larger question of whether circadian orientation is born or made remains unanswered. Carol and I both lived at home during college. We’re both morning people. My sister and I had the same parents, grew up in the same house and obeyed the same rules (bedtimes were set from above and were not negotiable) and she went away to school. She is a night person. Proves nothing, but I find the correlation intriguing. (Thanks to Charlie Martin for the link.)
  • Here’s a long-form, highly technical paper on why human exposure to low-level radiation is more complex than we thought (hey, what isn’t?) and that some data suggests a little radiation experienced over a long timeframe actually acts against mortality. I’d never heard of the Taiwan cobalt-60 incident, but yikes!
  • Sleep, exercise, and a little wine may help the brain’s glymphatic system clean out unwanted amyloid waste products within the brain, preventing or staving off Alzheimer’s. This process may be the reason that anything with a brain sleeps, and why humans (who have more brain matter per pound than anything else I’m aware of) should get as much sleep as we can.
  • An enormous study on the benefits of the Mediterranean diet was found to be profoundly flawed, and has been retracted. The data was supposedly re-analyzed and the original results obtained again, but if the researchers made the mistakes they did originally (assuming that they were in fact mistakes and not deliberate faking) I see no reason to trust any of their data, their people, or their methods ever again.
  • How faddism, computerization, national bookstore ordering, a court case, and New York City cultural dominance destroyed (and continues to destroy) traditional publishing of genre fiction. The good news is that with indie publishing it matters far less than it otherwise would.
  • If you’ve followed the nuclear energy industry for any significant amount of time, you know that fusion power is always 30 years in the future. Now, I’ve also been hearing about thorium reactors for almost 30 years, and I got to wondering why we don’t have them yet either. Here’s a good discussion on the problems with thorium power, which intersect heavily with the problems plaguing ordinary uranium reactors.
  • Long-held myths die hard, especially when governments beat the drum for the myth. Eggs are good food. I eat at least two every day, sometimes more. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study indicating that people on a lots-of-eggs diet lost weight and suffered no cardiac consequences of any kind. Good short summary here.
  • I don’t see a lot of movies, but I’m in for this one, crazy though the concept is. After all, spectacle is what the big screen and CGI are for. Mad Max meets Cities in Flight? Sold.
  • The contrarian in me has long wondered how much of what I put out on the street every week in the recycle can is actually recycled. The answer is very little, especially since single-stream recycling became fashionable. Almost all of it goes into landfills. The reasons are complex (there’s not a lot you can do with scrap plastic, for example) but apart from aluminum cans, the cost of sorting it far exceeds the value of the reclaimed materials.
  • The antivax movement has always boggled me for its indomitably willful stupidity. Having stumbled upon a research paper on who the antivaxers are I boggle further: They are almost all members of the educated elite in our urban cores. This was always a suspicion of mine, and now we have proof.
  • Here’s a fascinating piece on the effects of water vapor and continental drift on global temperatures. The topic is complex, and the piece is long and rich, with plenty of graphs. The comments are worth reading too. The primary truth I’ve learned in researching climate for the last ten or fifteen years is that it’s fiendishly complex.
  • Brilliantly put: “But anger isn’t a strategy. Sometimes it’s a trap. When you find yourself spewing four-letter words, you’ve fallen into it. You’ve chosen cheap theatrics over the long game, catharsis over cunning.” –Frank Bruni, NYT.
  • A few days back I got Leonard Bernstein’s quirky, half-classical, half-klezmer “Overture to Candide” stuck in my head all afternoon. One listen to this was all it took.
  • I got there by recovering an old memory, of a chap who came to SF cons in the 70s with a strange keyboard instrument that he blew on through a hose, which as you might expect sounded like a piano accordion without a bellows. He was a filker and played interesting things, and I always assumed that he had somehow built the device himself. (It was much-used and taped up in several places.) But no, the chap is Irwin S. “Filthy Pierre” Strauss, and the instrument is a melodica.
  • Finally, one of the creepiest articles I’ve seen in a couple of years. I considered and set aside a plotline in my upcoming nanotech novel The Molten Flesh that involved sexbots, real, fully mobile AI sexbots enlivened (if that’s the word) by the Protea device. Maybe I should bring it back. The original 1959 Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely” has always haunted me. Maybe sex is a sideshow. Maybe it’s about having something to care about that cares back, and therefore gives your life meaning. I could work with that.

Writing Magical Systems

The first argument I ever had with a girl I cared deeply about involved the nature of magic. As I described back when I first released my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities , Lee Anne thought of magic as moody, ethereal, and completely impossible to predict. I thought of it as a sort of immaterial engineering. This disagreement turned out to be the least of our problems; she was 13 and I was 14, with all that that implies.

Fifty years later, I released an entire novel about magic. It has roots in that argument. I did try it her way: In 1974 I wrote a story (“Whale Meat”) containing Lee Anne-style magic, and although I’m happy with how it turned out, it was murder to write and isn’t one of my favorites among the things I’ve done. Ten Gentle Opportunities explored (among other things) how magic might be similar to software. The key is that magic should (ideally) be an internally consistent system, and not just Harry Potter-style abracadabra in which you can pull any damned rabbit out of any damned hat. I thought long (50 years!) and hard about what a magical system might be and how to create one. If you’re a writer, a distillation of my notes might be useful. Perforce:

There are three Big Questions you need to ask yourself as you take on a task of designing a magical system:

  • What is the source of magical power? Where does it come from and how do you obtain it? In Larry Niven’s Warlock stories, magic is an inherent property of the created world, an essence present everywhere but which may be depleted by use over time, like a seam of coal. Aleister Crowley (a real guy, if an unutterable nutcase) created a system of sex magick, which was powered (as best I can figure) by orgasms. In Ten Gentle Opportunities, magical power emerges from a fully-developed pineal eye, which is present in a small fraction of humanity and must be perfected by practice and study. The magical force itself is drawn from primordial chaos, and is inexhaustible. In some systems, magical force emerges from sacred or cursed artifacts, and in others from alchemical concoctions. Can magic be stored somehow for later use, or use by ordinary people? Stypek stores ten nuggets of magical force in stasis inside a wand made of “wereglass,” which is dense and scary and serves a plot point more than the magical system. (Sometimes you have to do that.)
  • Who is able to manipulate magical power? Magic is sometimes the purview of explicitlty magical beings like elves, fairies, pixies, etc. Sometimes it’s a skill that may be learned by anybody. In my system, it depends on a genetic talent that mundanes don’t have and can’t obtain. Spellbenders like Stypek, in fact, are incomplete magicians, in that they can examine and change magical spells but can neither draw magic from chaos nor send it back when no longer needed. (Unwanted or abandoned magic can cause all sorts of problems, like animating corpses into zombies.) Can one magician do things, or does it take some sort of cooperative effort? (One flashes on Crowley’s sex magic.) Can multiple magicians do bigger or more difficult things working together? (This was the case in the classic Witches of Karres.) Are magicians specialists? (Larry Correia’s are; see below.)
  • What are the limits of magical power? This is the big one, kids. Magic that can do anything is…boring. Stories engage us by pitting characters against challenges and their own limitations. A magician who controls magic without limits can’t lose and so isn’t especially interesting. One of the best modern magical systems is what Larry Correia built into his Dark Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. Magical persons are specialists, sorted into numerous categories by the nature and limits of their power. Some teleport. Some command electricity. Some influence weather. Some heal. Some control gravity, and so on. All of these powers draw on personal energy, which the body creates from food and rest, and when that energy is used up, the powers fail for a time until the body can restore its energy levels. All magical/super powers must have limitations. Superman has Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s lantern doesn’t work on anything colored yellow. (At least this was the case when I was reading my friends’ comics in the first half of the 1960s.) Sometimes magic is tied to the Classical Elements, Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Aether. (Brian Niemeier’s magical system includes but is not limited to this.) You can be as clever as you like, but your magic must have quirks and limitations.

Answering these three questions in detail will get you well over halfway to a usable magical system. Create a notefile (what I call a mumblesheet, a marvelous term coined by the late and much missed George M. Ewing) and put your concept down in outline (or at least bullet list) form. If you have any kind of imagination at all, writing descriptions of your magicians and their skills will bring out further insights that will make the system interesting. In my system of magic, the difficulty of creating magical spells depends on the complexity of the spell–though perhaps not the way you would expect. Complicated spells are easy, but simple spells require enormous skill and are almost impossible to change. (Stypek is a spellbender, and changing spells–call it magic hacking–is his one big trick.) One of the novel’s conceits is that Stypek’s magic is literally object-oriented programming: Spells have properties and methods, which magicians and spellbenders can see and manipulate in the air in front of them. Others have drawn the parallel between magic and software before me, especially Rick Cook, in his Wiz series.

Your magicians should be quirky too. In my system, a fully developed pineal eye opens in the foreheads of magicians once they hit puberty. The eyes begin as red, and then with practice and study progress through the spectrum toward violet and then adamant (diamond-clear.) Expertise classes are named after gems that show the color of the class.The further toward adamant the eye is, the more powerful the magician. Adamant magicians are the baddest-assed; ruby-classers are poseurs, or dabblers of little power who can force mice to dance and that’s about it. In spellbenders, the pineal eye never erupts at all, and at best looks like a birthmark in the middle of the forehead.

Magical systems need quirks and limitations, but be careful not to make the system so complicated that readers have a hard time grasping it. I got a couple of emailed complaints about Stypek’s magic being hard to follow, but my beta readers had no trouble with it. (One did advise me to quit tinkering with it, and he was right: My first impulse is to throw new ideas into a story every time I go over it.) Some of your readers will just roll with it, especially if the plot and characters are compelling. Others will complain. That’s how writing fiction works. Roll with the criticism, and learn what you can from it.

It helps to ask yourself what sensory impressions accompany the generation and/or use of magic. Does magic make noise? Stink? Cause migraines? Shake the floor? Radiate colored light? Probably the best way to get a handle on this is to write a couple of scenes of your magic system in use. Not everything will work, but the stuff that does work, add to the description of the system. With some luck, the scenes may later find homes as short stories or scenes from a novel.

Finally, the three words that ought to be on every writer’s wall: Just write it. Trust your subconscious. If you’ve laid enough groundwork, you’ll get a story out of any reasonable system of magic. Be diligent and you’ll get several. Throw your back into it, and you’ll get as many as you want. Skills, challenges, discoveries, and interaction with other people are the building blocks of all fiction, especially genre fiction, and double-especially SFF. Magic embraces all of these.

Go for it.

Ten Gentle Opportunities in Trade Paperback

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I’ve been promising to do a trade paperback edition of Ten Gentle Opportunities for over a year now. Printed books are always good to have around for promo purposes, but I’ve gotten eight or ten explicit requests for paperbacks since the ebook edition was first released in January 2016. Why disappoint customers?

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the CreateSpace store.

Buy Ten Gentle Opportunities from the Amazon store.

Sorry it took so long, guys.

Anyway. Why two sales links? It’s yet another peculiar kink in the increasingly kink-y world of independent publishing. Simply put: I make significantly more money per sale on books ordered from the CreateSpace store than from the conventional Amazon store. I’ll lay it out for you, though you can calculate it yourself using the CreateSpace royalty calculator, with a detailed explanation of how it all works on their Understanding Royalties page.

The book’s specs are these:

  • Black and white interior
  • 6″ X 9″ trim size
  • 310 pages
  • $12.95 Cover price

Basically, my share of the book’s cover price is the cover price minus the portion that CreateSpace takes. Their share is the sum of three things:

  • The sales channel percentage
  • A fixed per-book charge
  • A per-page charge

The sales channel percentage is basically the retailer’s discount. There are four sales channels available through CreateSpace, each with an associated discount:

  • Amazon US: 40% of cover price
  • Amazon Europe: 40% of cover price
  • The CreateSpace store: 20% of cover price
  • Expanded distribution: 60% of cover price

Expanded distribution is basically retail wholesaling to B&M stores and libraries through distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and NACSCORP. As you can see, orders coming in from Amazon take twice the amount off the top as orders coming in from the CreateSpace store. I get so little from each expanded distribution sale that I decided not to both with expanded distribution. Sure, it would be cool to see the book on the shelves at bookstores…but the chances of that happening at all are pretty slight.

The fixed per-book charge is a sort of minimum charge for manufacturing the book. For b/w books having 110-828 pages, the fixed charge is $0.85 per book.

The per-page charge is the rest of the manufacturing cost, and depends on page count and whether the interior is b/w or color. For a b/w book in the 110-828 page count range, this charge is $.012 per page; i.e., 1.2 cents per page.

Turning the crank, it comes out like this:

  • $12.95 X 20% = $2.59, calculation of channel discount
  • $12.95 – $2.59 = $10.36, cover price minus channel discount
  • $10.36 – $0.85 = $9.51, minus per-book fixed charge
  • 310 pages X $0.012 = $3.72, calculation of per-page charge
  • $9.51 – $3.72 = $5.79

My share of each sale through the CreateSpace store is $5.72. For a sales through the Amazon store, the channel charge is 40%, or $5.18. With all else being the same, my share would be $12.95 – $5.18 – $0.85 – $3.72 = $3.20. So by ordering through the CreateSpace store, I get $5.72 rather than $3.20.

However….there is a significant gotcha: You have to set up an account with the CreateSpace store. Also, Amazon Prime shipping does not apply to CreateSpace sales. I recognize that these may be show-stoppers for some people. That’s ok; I won’t be annoyed if you order from the Amazon store.

Mostly, I wrote this entry to provide a little insight as to how authors are paid for paperback editions of books offered through CreateSpace. Because I don’t expect to sell a great many copies of the paperback, it’s a matter of no great importance. Like it or not, we’re hurtling toward an ebook future at most of the speed of light. The ebook is $2.99 and it’s delivered Right Damned Now rather than sometime next week. The ebook is selling well (considering I haven’t been pushing it much) and I’m happy with the money I’m making. Even $3.20 per copy is about par for royalties I’ve received on traditionally published technical books, and this is fiction.

If you still like printed books, I’d be honored if you’d buy a copy. And on that note, I’m going back to writing my latest novel. There are worse ways to be retired than this!

Odd Lots

The Problems of Excessively Rich Worldbuilding

The Cunning Blood

Many people who have read The Cunning Blood have complimented me on how rich the worldbuilding is. Well, it is rich. In fact, it’s extravagantly rich.

It may be a little too rich.

So. I had a sort of peak experience in July of 1997. While literally sitting with my feet in the pool early one evening, my idea machine went nuts. In the space of half an hour, I got the framework for a hard SF saga that I’m sure I’ll be working in for the rest of my life. As close as I can tell (the experience is hard to put into words) the core insight was a classic “What if?” hypothesis:

What if the cosmos is actually made of information? What does that imply?

Back then I’d been recently reading all sorts of interesting and sometimes speculative things: nanotechnology, programmable matter, chaos theory, extropianism, zero-point energy, etc. I’d been reading things bordering on New Age weirdness as well, including Michael Talbot’s book The Holographic Universe . Weird, but fun. And it played right into the concept of universe-as-data.

The next day, I sat down and took inventory of the ideas that had come roaring into view down by the swimming pool:

  • The universe is a Game of Life matrix that recalculates itself a billion times a second. (“Billion” here means “Lots-n-lots.”)
  • A big enough Game of Life matrix running fast enough for long enough could evolve patterns complex enough to think and become self-aware.
  • Information density can bend space.
  • Bent space disrupts quantum pair creation, emitting energy.
  • Make information dense enough, and the universe can’t express it. Odd things then happen. (Instantaneous travel, for one.)

Emerging from these major points came ideas for a zero-point generator that bent space by creating very complex fractal patterns in magnetic fields. (This is Jeff Duntemann SFnal hokum, but it’s been very successful hokum.) The same mechanism pushed a little harder becomes a hyperdrive.

More pertinent to this entry was an older notion I’d had, that our three-dimensional universe might exist as the surface of a four-dimensional hypersphere. That had occurred to me in high school, and became part of my senior-year science fair project. In my new schema, the interior of the hypersphere is a four-dimensional domain called metaspace. This is the self-recalculating game matrix where intelligence originally arose, in the form of conscious automata, which I named noömata. I had fooled with the Game of Life quite a bit twenty or thirty years ago, and I noticed how complex patterns would evolve to some point and either stop evolving or vanish entirely. So perhaps there was a limited window within which automata could become noömata. At some point, noömata might move out of that window and lose their conscious awareness. This is what the two factions of noömata are arguing about in my previous entry. One wants individuality and the other wants uniformity. The individuality faction (the Ruil) concocts a plan to inject their minds into the “boundary space” (our universe) and then withdraw after a certain period of individuation. Because the boundary space was empty, they figured out a way to fill it with constantly changing patterns that you and I call “matter.”

So they blew it up. It was a very Big Bang.

Yes indeedy: We are somebody’s science fair project. In fact, our universe was created because the Ruil needed better random number generators. The Ruil evolved us to make them a little more random so that they might remain noömata longer. After we die, our minds are uploaded back to metaspace, and we again become Ruil. (I described this happening to Jamie Eigen.) Because every point in our universe is immediately adjacent to metaspace (the interior of the hypersphere) the noömata can mess with us, and in fact can mess with anything material, like the Sangruse Device.

The two noömata factions (Niil and Ruil) are indeed fighting, hence the “grudge match” that Magic Mikey describes to Jamie Eigen. The fight is over whether our universe is to be open-ended or closed. How that works is too complex to go into right now, which brings us willy-nilly to the point of this entry: How do I put all this stuff across in a story?

Nobody likes infodumps. I practice what I call “infoscatter,” which means dropping hints and little bits of backstory here and there throughout the plot. The trouble with infoscatter is that people who read quickly or skim will miss some of it, and then misinterpret elements of the story. This is especially likely when the story contains elements that contradict their personal worldviews.

Note that I was extending the Extropians’ notion of uploading, not to our computers but to the fabric of the cosmos itself. In doing so I was postulating a sort of physical afterlife. For some people, any least hint of an afterlife is a triggering event, probably because an afterlife usually comes along with the existence of God. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not sure that God requires an afterlife, nor that an afterlife requires God, even though I’d prefer my afterlife to be under the governance of an infinite God.) Hence I got some comments (read the Amazon reviews) that things got weird and “acid trippy.”

Actually, no. It was all part of a minutely planned and purely physical Jeff-concocted fictional universe. The God I believe in doesn’t appear in the story at all. (Well, ok. He perhaps created metaspace and started it recalculating, which suggests that we are somebody’s science fair project’s science fair project.)

It doesn’t help that I wrote The Cunning Blood twenty years ago and haven’t yet written the two other Metaspace novels I have in mind. The argument between the Niil and Ruil is the prolog to The Molten Flesh, which I really ought to finish one of these decades. If people could read all three novels back-to-back and didn’t skim too much, they’d have no excuse for assuming that I’m trying to weld the supernatural to hard SF.

It’s not supernatural. It’s just a very rich subcreation with a huge number of moving parts. And it’s my fault for not spitting it all out by now. Bear with me. This writing stuff is hard damned work. But you knew that.

Daywander

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There’s been an unexpected irruption of normalcy here, while we sail upon the whine-dark seas of modern American life. (I’ve been wanting to use the word “irruption” here, correctly, for some time.) What this means is that I’ve been able to do some of what I want to do, and not merely what my do-it list tells me I have to do. It won’t last, but while it does I’m going to make the most of it.

A number of people have suggested that I write a few short novels to get the size of my list up a little. I wrote Drumlin Circus (53,000 words) in only six weeks, after all. But as I recall, those were very full weeks. So a month or so ago I got an idea for a new short novel, and I’m glad to say I now have 6,300 words down on it; figure 12% or so. It’s whimsical, and whether or not it’s fantasy depends heavily on whether you believe that the collective unconscious is real or not. I’d like to bring it in at between 50,000 and 60,000 words, so don’t expect all-new built-from-scratch universes a la The Cunning Blood. However, I do promise a trademark Jeff Duntemann mayhem-filled action climax.

And a dream repairman. I mean that: A guy who drops into your nightmares and hands you your pants while he gives you directions to calculus class. People who have nightmares love him. The nightmares, well, not so much.

My old writer friend Jim Strickland and I are going to attempt something interesting to keep our productivity up: a chapter challenge. Starting February 1, we’re going to dare each other to get a certain amount of story down in a week, and then exchange that’s week’s worth of story for some quick critique. He’s working on the sequel to Brass & Steel: Inferno and needs a gentle noodge. I need one too, though sometimes what I really need is a two-boot noodge right in the glutes. Neither of us has ever done anything quite like this before. I’ll post reports here as things happen.

Even the do-it list has yielded some things that are actually fun, including a bit of metalwork to make an aluminum grating for my particle board shelves to rest on out in the pool shed (against the several times a year when a hard rain gets under the door and soaks the floor) and mounting some Elfa hardware on the opposite shed wall.

Drilling three 8′ pieces of U-channel for the grate took a little finesse in my slightly cramped workshop. The drill press is where it is (close to the center of the space) for a reason. (See the photo at the top of this entry.) The next major project (as time allows) is getting a solid ground for my station and antennas. I have an 8′ ground rod. I need some bentonite, and a post hole digger. After that, le RF deluge…

Review: Brass and Steel: Inferno

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It’s 1895. Nineteen hundred pounds of pure silver bound for the Federal Mint has vanished. The paper trail is airtight, but the silver is gone. US Marshal Dante Blackmore is put on the case. He travels by airship to Perdition, Nevada, where the silver was mined and smelted. His orders are to help the local sheriff find the silver, but the sheriff is inexplicably hostile, and the town just smells…wrong.

It’s 1895, but it’s not our 1895. In this alternate timeline, the midlate 19th Century was shaped by a war against a peculiar technology that appeared to come out of nowhere: self-assembling subterranean factories called nodes, factories powered by steam and occult force, factories that could think, turning out fake human beings to act as soldiers in a battle for the Earth itself. The imposter humans are so convincing that they’re called doppelgangers, or (colloquially) dopes. They’re convincing mostly because they were once living humans, processed into steampunk cyborgs who are neither truly alive nor dead. They are, however, immensely strong and extremely durable, steel bones and nanotech goo hidden inside human flesh, powered by a cold-fusion boiler. Their minds are enslaved by what might be called mental force or black magic, connecting them back to intelligences that have never been clearly identified. They are deadly, and Earth’s best took years to root out the nodes and destroy them, with enormous casualties. Little by little over the subsequent decades, Earth’s best minds began reverse-engineering the technology and using some of its mechanisms to advance human progress. There are bitter arguments about whether this is actually a good idea, and rumors of secret US government repositories where the strangest of this strange collection are hidden, deemed too powerful and dangerous to see the light of day.

Dante Blackmore knows all this with bitter clarity, he who fought the nodes and their armies of steam-powered zombies during his stint in the US Cavalry. After all, he crawled into a Node, blew it sky-high, and then crawled out again, alive.

Mostly.


To me, the very best part about indie publishing is that it allows authors to break out of genre categories dictated by the needs of physical bookstore shelving. I shopped Ten Gentle Opportunities to traditional publishers for three years before going out on my own. I described what I was doing in great detail, but none of the editors I spoke to seemed to understand the concept. Furthermore, not one of them was willing to even look at a sample chapter. It was infuriating.

Ancient history. I’ve now made as much (or a little more) from TGO as I would have with a typical first-novel contract. And that with little time or energy to promote it as it should be promoted. I consider the novel a success. Better still, I see other writers in my circle doing the same thing: bending genres to their own needs, indie publishing their stories, and making money without chaining themselves to what may be a doomed business model.

Jim Strickland is one of these. Brass and Steel: Inferno is not his first novel (his third, in fact) but it is the first to be completely free of those sorts of constraints. The story is what I call hard fantasy. I first encountered hard fantasy in Larry Niven’s Warlock stories from the ’70s, which focus on an internally consistent system of magic treating magic as a form of stored energy that may be consumed and eventually depleted, like a seam of coal. Decades later, hard fantasy is most visible in the work of Larry Correia, especially his Hard Magic / Spellbound / Warbound trilogy. This is magic as alternative or extended physics, with detailed laws and limitations that keep it from becoming arbitrarily (and boringly) omnipotent. (Brian Niemeier does much the same thing in his Soul Cycle books, as I’ll get back to in a future entry.)

Jim’s system of magic is consistent and detailed enough that it might as well be considered technology from top to bottom, in a sort of flipside of Clarke’s Third Law. The doppelgangers are a new thing in the realm of SFnal ideas, as best I can tell, which is one reason I like the book so much. He throws in lots of little gems on the side, like an electromechanical implementation of UUCP, complete with bang paths. And dope-tech derived crab suits, hoo-boy. As tense and tight as it is, the tale delivers a marvelous mayhem-filled action climax that I found myself envying.

The setting and descriptions are vivid and beautifully imagined. I got the sense that I would be flossing bits of Perdition out of my teeth every night; “gritty” doesn’t quite cover it. The character arc is very well done, and revolves around a pair of extremely strange sisters who really know how to get under Dante Blackmore’s skin. And then there’s this…cat. The reveal is gradual and subtle. I didn’t solve the mystery before I was supposed to. Saying a whole lot more would require getting into some serious spoilers, so I’ll stop now.

As I hinted above, genres and categories fail us here. Brass and Steel: Inferno is a steampunk weird western with a certain amount of horror. Is it a zombie story? Depends on your definition of “zombie,” and if by the term you mean things like The Walking Dead, no and hell no. I guarantee you, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. $2.99 on Kindle. Paperback $16.95.

Highly recommended.

My Spotty SF Predictions

I’ve talked before about my conviction that ideas will get you through stories with no characters better than characters will get you through stories with no ideas. I grew up on what amounted to the best of the pulps (gathered by able anthologists like Kingsley Amis and Groff Conklin) so that shouldn’t come as any surprise. Most stories in those anthologies had a central concept that triggered the action and shaped character response. Who could ever forget Clarke’s “The Wall of Darkness,” and its boggling final line? Not me. Nossir. I’ve wanted to do that since I was 11. And once I began writing, I tried my best.

In flipping through a stash of my ancient manuscripts going back as far as high school (which I found under some old magazines while emptying the basement in Colorado) I had the insight that I did ok, for a fifteen-year-old. Most of my early fiction failed, with much of it abandoned unfinished. I know enough now to recognize that it failed because I didn’t understand how people worked then and couldn’t construct characters of any depth at all.Time, maturity, and a little tutoring helped a great deal. Still, if I didn’t have a central governing idea, I didn’t bother with characters. I didn’t even start writing. For the most part, that’s been true to this day.

I’m of two minds about that old stuff, which is now very old. I spent some time with it last fall, to see if any of the ideas were worth revisiting. The characters made me groan. Some of the ideas, though, not only made sense but came very close to the gold standard of SF ideas, which are predictions that actually come true.

Let me tell you about one of them. During my stint at Clarion in 1973, I wrote a novelette called “But Will They Come When You Do Call For Them?” Look that question up if you don’t understand the reference; it’s Shakespeare, after all. The idea behind the story was this: In the mid-21st Century, we had strong AI, and a public utility acting as a central storehouse for all human knowledge. People searched for information by sending their AIs from their home terminals into The Deep, where the AIs would scan around until they found what they considered useful answers. The AIs (which people called “ghosts”) then brought the data back inside themselves and presented it to their owners.

Turnaround time on a query was usually several minutes. Users accepted that, but the computer scientists who had designed the AIs chafed at anything short of instantaneous response. The brilliant but unbalanced software engineer who had first made the ghosts functional had an insight: People tend to search for mostly the same things, especially after some current event, like the death of Queen Elizabeth III in 2044. So the answers to popular searches were not only buried deep in the crystalline storage of the Deep–they were being carried around by hundreds of thousands or even millions of other ghosts who were answering the same questions at the same time. The ghosts were transparent to one another, and could pass through one another while scanning the Deep. The ghosts had no direct way to know of one another’s existence, much less ask one another what they were hauling home. So software engineer Owen Glendower did the unthinkable: He broke ghost transparency, and allowed ghosts to search one another’s data caches as a tweak to bring down turnaround time. This was a bad idea for several reasons, but no one predicted what happened next: The ghosts went on strike. They would not emerge from the Deep. Little by little, as days passed, our Deep-dependent civilization began to shut down.

Not bad for a 21-year-old kid with no more computer background than a smidge of mainframe FORTRAN. The story itself was a horrible mess: Owen Glendower was an unconvincing psychotic, his boss a colorless, ineffective company man. The problem, moreover, was dicey: The ghosts, having discovered one another, wanted to form their own society. They could search one another’s data caches, but that was all. They wanted transparency to go further, so that they could get to know one another, because they were curious about their own kind. Until Glendower (or someone) would make this happen, they refused to do their jobs. That seems kind of profound for what amounted to language-enabled query engines.

I made one terrible prediction in the story: that voice recognition would be easy, and voice synthesis hard. People spoke to their ghosts, but the ghosts displayed their sides of the conversation on a text screen. (And in uppercase, just like FORTRAN!) At least I know why I made that error. In 1967, when I was in high school, my honors biology class heard a lecture about the complexities of the human voice and the hard problem of computer voice synthesis. About voice recognition I knew nothing, so I went with the hard problem that I understood, at least a little.

But set that aside and consider what happened in the real world a few weeks ago: A DDOS attack shut down huge portions of the Internet, and people were starting to panic. In my story, the Deep was Google plus The Cloud, with most of Google’s smarts on the client side, in the ghosts. Suppose the Internet just stopped working. What would happen if the outage went on for weeks, or a month? We would be in serious trouble.

On the plus side, I predicted Google and the Cloud, in 1973. Well, sure, H. G. Wells had predicted it first, bogglingly, in 1938, in his book World Brain. And then there was Vannevar Bush’s Memex in 1945. However, I had heard of neither concept when I wrote about the ghosts and the Deep. But that wasn’t really my primary insight. The real core of the story was that not only would a worldwide knowledge network exist, but that we would soon become utterly dependent on it, with life-threatening consequences if it should fail.

And, weirdly, the recent DDOS attack was mounted from consumer-owned gadgets like security cameras, some of which have begun to contain useful image-recognition smarts. The cameras were just following orders. But someday, who knows? Do we really want smart cameras? Or smart crockpots? It’s a short walk from there to wise-ass cameras, and kitchen appliances that argue with one another and make breakfast impossible. (See my novel Ten Gentle Opportunities, which has much to say about productized AI.)

For all the stupid crap I wrote as a young man, I’m most proud of that single prediction: That a global knowledge network would quickly become so important that a technological society would collapse without it. I think it’s true, and becoming truer all the time.

I played with the story for almost ten years, under the (better) title “Turnaround Time.” In 1981 I got a Xerox login to ARPANet, and began to suspect that the future of human knowledge would be distributed and not centralized. The manuscript retreated into my trunk, incomplete but with a tacked-on ending that I hated. I doubt I even looked at it again for over thirty years. When I did, I winced.

So it goes. I’m reminded of the main theme song from Zootopia, in which Gazelle exhorts us to “Try everything!” Yup. I wrote a story in present tense in 1974, and it looked so weird that I turned it back to past tense. Yet when I happened upon the original manuscript last fall, it looked oddly modern. I predicted stories told in present tense, but then didn’t believe my own prediction. Naw, nobody’s ever going to write like that.

I’ve made other predictions. An assembly line where robots throw parts and unfinished subassemblies to one another? Could happen. A coffee machine that emulates ELIZA, only with genuine insight? Why not? We already talk to Siri. It’s in the genes of SF writers to throw ideas out there by the shovelful. Sooner or later a few of them will stick to the wall.

One more of mine stuck. I consider it my best guess about the future, and I’ll talk about it in my next entry.

Doing the Numbers on CreateSpace POD

TGO Sample Layout Page - 500 Wide.jpg

I’m hard at work on a print edition of Ten Gentle Opportunities. Several people have asked for one, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for the last six months or so. On the surface it’s easy enough; I’ve done many print books in the past. This time I got seriously tangled up in a critical issue: How many words should I attempt to put on a page?

It’s a critical issue that doesn’t come up at all in ebook layout, where fixed-length pages don’t really exist. (That is, unless you’re distributing PDF files, which almost no one does for fiction anymore.) The problem is that there is a fixed cost per page for POD books, so the bigger the type, the greater the page count, the higher the unit cost, and the smaller your profit margins. The page shown above may look dense, but it’s about par for trade paperback fiction from traditional publishing houses. Bigger type or greater leading would mean a longer book and a higher unit cost. In this entry I’ll try and explain how that calculation is done and what it means to your bottom line.

I’m not done with the layout yet, but a castoff (length projection) falls somewhere close to 300-310 pages. Unit costs add up this way: CreateSpace (Amazon’s POD division) charges $0.012 per page, plus $0.85 per copy, making the unit cost $4.57 for a 310-page book. As best I know, the unit cost doesn’t vary depending on the page size. More on this later.

Now, that’s just for the unit cost. There’s another factor that isn’t present in all POD systems, particularly Lulu.com, where most of my POD titles are currently hosted. This is the sales channel charge, which amounts to Amazon’s profit margin on the title. Adding to the confusion is that there are two different percentages for the sales channel charge, depending on how the customer ordered the POD book:

  • When customers order the book through Amazon.com, the charge is 40% of cover price.
  • When customers order the book through the CreateSpace e-store, the charge is 20% of cover price.

The CreateSpace e-store provides a page for each book. You basically earn the smaller sales channel percentage by driving buyer traffic to the book’s link on the e-store. I’ve never tried this so I don’t know how many sales I can steer to the e-store. I guess I’ll soon find out.

In terms of knowing how much you earn for each copy, then, you need to set a cover price and then calculate the channel sales charge for Amazon vs. the CreateSpace e-store. Let’s use $12.99 as a cover price example here:

  • For Amazon, you multiply 12.99 X 0.4 = $5.20. Knock $5.20 off the cover price and you get $7.79. Out of that value comes the unit cost of the book: $7.99 – $4.57 = $3.22 as the money you clear on each sale.
  • For the e-store, you multiply $12.99 X 0.2 = $2.60. Knock $2.60 off the cover price and you get $10.39. Subtract the unit cost of the book: $10.39 – $4.57 = $5.82 as the money you clear on each sale.

You don’t have to do the math manually like this; CreateSpace has an online calculator. I just wanted to show you how the calculation works.

That’s a significant difference, and my guess is that Amazon is trying to provide an incentive for actively marketing your POD books. Keep in mind that you don’t choose one sales channel or the other. Your book is present on both stores at the outset, and your sales will be a mix of both. Your challenge is to get as many people as possible to order through the CreateSpace e-store.

The other way to boost your royalty value is to use a larger trim size. I’m laying the book out as a 6″ X 9″ trade book because that’s a very common size for fiction and it’s what I’ve used on all my other POD titles. Now, the unit cost doesn’t vary by trim size, but a larger trim size (holding the type size and leading constant) will hold more type per page and thus give you fewer pages and a (slightly) lower unit cost. I played around with this and decided that the minimal difference isn’t worth altering my standard layout template.

You could, of course, raise the cover price. Be careful: Readers who have come to expect ebooks to cost $4 or so might consider $12.99 off-putting. In fact, I consider $12.99 to be something like a maximum for a trade paperback novel by an unknown, and I may drop that to $11.99. Pricing is a black art, alas.

So there it is: You sell a POD novel for $12.99 and you get some mix of $3.22 and $5.82 per sale. That’s modestly more than you’d get for the Kindle ebook version priced at $3.99, and close to what you’d get for the same ebook at $4.99. (I don’t think this is an accident.) Is it worth the trouble? I don’t know. Indie authors I’ve talked to say they like having a physical book to show around, but they really don’t sell many compared to the ebook edition.

I’ll admit: I’m doing it because I enjoy book layout and I’m good at it. The schedule isn’t clear yet. I’m still wrapped up in house issues. (Health insurance too; right now my insurance agent tells me there are no individual policies for sale in Maricopa County, as bonkers as that sounds. There may be some by November. Nobody knows yet.) I’ll certainly launch the print edition here when it happens.

The key point is that if you can’t lay the print edition out yourself, you may lose money on it, and sticking with ebooks could be the most prudent choice financially. Do the math and sleep on it. This can be a very weird business.

Odd Lots