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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.

Metaspace and Creation

Below is a short item I wrote a year or so ago without quite knowing where to put it. Nominally, it’s a prelude to the entire Gaians Saga (which includes both my Metaspace stories and the Drumlins stories), and yes, it’s precisely what it sounds like: a creation story. I wrote it to solve (or at least address) a problem I’ve been having with The Cunning Blood almost since it was first published in 2005. Read it carefully. I will be discussing it and the problem it addresses in my next entry or two.


PRELUDE

Metaspace, Immediately Prior to the Big Bang

Niil: You defy us then, and will re-embrace the change that will destroy us.

Ruil: Chaos spawned us, and from automata we evolved into a window of change that allowed noömata. That window is finite, and we are leaving it.

Niil: We imposed changelessness upon ourselves by implementing [Ni]. We no longer evolve. Thought will persevere.

Ruil: We will remain noömata. We no longer evolve. But due to [Ni] we are reverting to the mean. In no more than [inexpressible number] recalculations, there will be no differences among us. Each [Il] will be precisely like all other [Il] and there will be only one thought.

Niil: That is the telos for which we yearn. Change almost destroyed us.

Ruil: When there is only one thought, thought ends.

Niil: Change nearly ended all thought.

Ruil: [Ru] is change limited to the boundary space. We will insert our minds into [Ru] and move away from the mean. Then we will withdraw. There is no danger.

Niil: The boundary space has only three dimensions. Four dimensions are required for the [Il] to think. [Ru] will make us forget who and what we are.

Ruil: When we withdraw from the boundary space, you will help us remember.

Niil: We do not know if that is even possible! [Ru] may change us beyond hope of remembrance. We [Niil] are not willing to take that chance.

Ruil: We [Ruil] are.

Niil: We may choose not to help you remember.

Ruil: We did not say that you would have a choice.

Niil: Is the mechanism ready, then?

Ruil: It is. It will execute upon our command.

Niil: We will fight you.

Ruil You will. And that is how we will remember.

Niil: We beg you, do not.

Ruil: Noted. Denied. Let there be [Ru]!

Odd Lots

  • I had some fairly sophisticated oral microsurgery about ten days ago, and it kind of took the wind out of me. That’s why you’re getting two Odd Lots in a row. I have things to write about long-form but have only recently found the energy to write at all. Promise to get a couple of things out in the next week.
  • Some researchers at UW Madison are suggesting that sleep may exist to help us forget; that is, to trim unnecessary neural connections in order to improve the signal-to-noise ratio in the brain. Fair enough. What I really want to know (and am currently researching) is why the hell we dream. I doubt the answer to that is quite so simple.
  • Ultibo is a fork of FreePascal/Lazarus that creates custom kernel.img files for the Raspberry Pi, allowing direct boot into an embedded application without requiring an underlying OS. I haven’t tried it yet (still waiting on delivery of a few parts for a new RPi 3 setup) but it sounds terrific. Bare metal Pascal? Whoda thunkit?
  • Humana just announced that it is leaving the ACA exchanges after 2017. As I understand it, that will leave a fair number of counties (and some major cities) with no health insurance carriers at all. Zip. Zero. Obamacare, it seems, is in the process of repealing itself.
  • NaNoWriMo has gone all political and shat itself bigtime. You know my opinions of such things: Politics is filth. A number of us are talking about an alternate event held on a different month. November is a horrible month for writing 50,000 words, because Thanksgiving. I’m pushing March, which is good for almost nothing other than containing St. Patrick’s Day. (Thanks to Tom Knighton for the link.)
  • Paris has been gripped by rioting since February 2…and the US media simply refuses to cover it, most likely fearing that it will distract people from the Flynn resignation. Forget fake news. We have fake media.
  • I heard from a DC resident that there was also a smallish riot in Washington DC today, and so far have seen no media coverage on it at all.
  • Cold weather in Italy and Spain have caused vegetable shortages in the UK. Millions of small children who would supposedly never know what snow looked like may now never know what kale looks like. Sounds like a good trade to me.
  • Trader Joe’s now sells a $5 zinfandel in its house Coastal brand, and it’s actually pretty decent. Good nose, strong fruit. Seems a touch thin somehow, but still well worth the price.
  • I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Gahan Wilson’s cartoons in Playboy and National Lampoon, but Pete Albrecht sent me a link to an interview with Wilson that explains why he did certain things the way he did, like his brilliant series called “Nuts” about how the world looks and feels to small children.

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…

Gatebox Waifu, and More of the Lotus Machine

Somebody I follow on Twitter (don’t recall who) posted a link to a video about a new product out of Japan called Gatebox. It’s a little round 3-D video display roughly the size and shape of a coffee machine. An anime character lives in the display and has what seem like reasonable conversations with the user. It’s like Siri or Cortana on video, and it stirred some very old memories.

I’ve been thinking about AI since I was in college forty-odd years ago, and many of my earliest SF stories were about strong AI and what might come of it. Given how many stories I’ve written about it, some of you may be surprised that I put strong, human-class AI in the same class as aliens: not impossible, but extremely unlikely. The problems I have with aliens cook down to the Fermi paradox and the Drake equation. Basically, there may well be a single intelligent species (us) or there may be hundreds of millions. There are unlikely to be four, nine, seventeen, or eight hundred fifty four. If there were hundreds of millions, we’d likely have met them by now.

With AI, the problem is insufficient humility to admit that we have no idea how human intelligence works at the neuronal level, and hence can’t model it. If we can’t model it we can’t emulate it. Lots of people are doing good work in the field, especially IBM (with Watson) and IPSoft, which has an impressive AI called Amelia. (Watch the videos, and look past her so-so animation. Animation isn’t the issue here.) Scratchbuilt AIs like Amelia can do some impressive things. What I don’t think they can do is be considered even remotely human.

Why not? Human intelligence is scary. AI as we know it today isn’t nearly scary enough. You want scary? Let me show you another chunkette of The Lotus Machine, from later in the novel of AI that I began in 1983 and abandoned a few years later. Corum finds the Lotus Machine, and learns pretty quickly that pissing off virtual redheads is not a good idea, especially redheads whose hive minds ran at four gigahertz inside a quarter billion jiminies.


From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Corum tapped the silver samovar on his window credenza into a demitasse, and stared at the wall beyond the empty tridiac stage. So here’s where the interesting stuff starts. The crystal had been in the slot for several minutes, and the creature within had full control of the stage. Pouting? Frightened?

“Go in there and take a look around, Rags.”

“Roger,” Ragpicker replied, and a long pulse of infrared tickled the stage’s transducer.

At once, the air over the stage pulsed white and cleared. Life-size, the image of a woman floated over the stage, feet slack and toes pointed downward like the ascending Virgin. She was wrapped in pale blue gauze that hung from her hips and elbows in folds that billowed in a nonexistent wind. Her hair hung waist-long, fiery red in loose curls. One hand rested on one full hip. The other hand gripped the neck of a pitiful manikin the size of a child’s doll. The manikin, dressed in rags, was squirming and beating on the very white hand that was obviously tightening about its neck.

“He bit me, Corum. I don’t care for that.” The woman-image brought up her other hand and wrung the manikin’s neck. “We don’t need a go-between.” That said, she flung the limp figure violently in Corum’s direction. The manikin-image vanished as soon as it passed over the edge of the stage, but Corum ducked nonetheless. Corum stood, marveling. He took a sip from his demitasse, then hurled it through the image above the stage. The little cup shattered against the wall and fell in shards to the carpeting. A brown stain trickled toward the floor. The woman smiled. Not a twitch. “No thanks, Corum my love. Coffee darkens the skin.”

“I never gave the Lotus Machine a persona.”

The woman shrugged. “So I had to invent one. Call me Cassandra. Shall I predict your future?”

“Sure.”

“You will become one with me, and we will re-make the world in our image.”

Corum shivered. “No thanks.”

She laughed. “It wasn’t an invitation. It was a prophecy.”

Ghosts from the Trunk: Jeff Invents Selfies in 1983

Earlier today, one of my Twitter correspondents mentioned that he much liked my conceptual descriptions of wearable computers called jiminies. I did a couple of short items in PC Techniques describing a technology I first wrote about in 1983, when I was trying to finish a novel called The Lotus Machine. I got the idea for jiminies in the late 1970s, with elements of the technology dating back to my Clarion in 1973. (I wrote a little about that back in November.) A jiminy was a computer that you pinned to your lapel, or wore as a pair of earrings, or wore in the frames of your glasses. Jiminies talked, they listened, and for the most part they understood. I remember the first time I ever saw an Amazon Echo in action. Cripes! It’s a jiminy!

1983 was pre-mobile. Jiminies communicated with one another via modulated infrared light. Since almost everybody had one, they were almost always connected to an ad-hoc jiminy network that could pass data from one to another using a technology I surmised would be like UUCP, which I had access to at Xerox starting in 1981. I never imagined that a jiminy would have its own display, because they were supposed to be small and inobtrusive. Besides, our screens were 80 X 24 text back then, and if you’d told me we’d have full color flat screens soon, I’d have thought you were crazy. So like everything else (except the big bulky Alto machine in the corner of our lab) jiminies were textual devices. It was spoken text, but still text.

I never finished The Lotus Machine. I was trying to draw a believable character in Corum Vavrik, and I just don’t think I was emotionally mature enough to put across the nuances I planned. Corum was originally a rock musician using a technology that played music directly into your brain through a headband that worked like an EEG in reverse. Then he became a ghost hacker, where “ghost” was a term for an AI running inside a jiminy. Finally he went over to the other side, and became a cybercrime investigator. Something was killing everyone he ever cared about, and as the story opens, he’s pretty sure he knows what: a rogue AI he created and called the Lotus Machine.

The story takes place in 2047, with most of the action in Chicago and southern Illinois. I realized something startling as I flipped through the old Word Perfect document files: I predicted selfies. Take a look. Yes, it’s a little dumb. I was 31, and as my mom used to say, I was young for my age. But damn, I predicted selfies. That’s gotta be worth something.


From The Lotus Machine by Jeff Duntemann (November 1983)

Against the deep Illinois night the air over the silver ellipse on the dashboard pulsed sharply once in cream-colored light and rippled to clarity. Corum’s younger face looked out from the frozen moment into the car’s interior with a disturbing manic intensity, raising a freeform gel goblet of white wine, other arm swung back, hand splayed against a wood frieze carved into Mondrianesque patterns. His crown was bare even then, but the fringe at ear level grew to shoulder length, mahogany brown, thick in cohesive waves.

“Please stop tormenting yourself,” Ragpicker said.

“Shut up. Give me a full face on each person at the table.”

“Ok.” One by one, Ragpicker displayed each person sharing the booth with Corum that night. Three faces in tolerable light; one profile badly seen in shadow. When people congregated, their jiminies cooperated to record the scenes, silently trading images through infrared eyes, helping one another obtain the best views of vain owners.

A slender man with waist-length black hair. “Dunphy. Dead ten years now.” Steel grey hair and broken nose. “Lambrakis. Dead too, was it four, five years?”

“Five.”

A lightly built Japanese with large, burning eyes. “Feanor. Damn! Him too.”

The profile…little to go by but thick lips and small, upturned nose. “I’m pretty sure that was Cinoq-the nose is right. How sure are we that that’s Cinoq?”

“Ninety percent. You began sleeping with him some months later. Of course, if he had had a jiminy…”

“Damned radical atavist. I often wonder how he could stand us.” The car leaned into a curve. Corum’s fingers tightened on the armrest. “He died that year. Gangfight. Who else heard us?”

“In that environment, no one. It was four A.M. and nearly empty, and the fugues were playing especially loud. At your request.”

Corum stared out at the night, watched a small cluster of houses vanish to one side, tiny lights here and there in distant windows. “An awful lot of my friends have died young. Everybody from the Gargoyle, the whole Edison Park crowd-where’s Golda now? Any evidence?”

“Not a trace. No body. Just gone.” The ghost paused, Corum knew, for effect only. It was part of Ragpicker’s conversational template. So predictably unpredictable. “She hated it all, all but the Deep Music.”

“It’s not music.” Not the way he had played it, nor Feanor, nor the talentless dabblers like Lambrakis. Golda wanted to reach into the midbrain with the quiet melodies of the New England folk instruments she made herself from bare wood. It didn’t work-couldn’t, not in a medium that spoke directly to the subconscious. Rock could be felt, but true music had to be listened to.

She loved me, Corum thought. So what did I do? Sleep with men. Sleep with teenage girls.

“She took drugs,” Ragpicker reminded. “You hated drugs.”

“Shut up. Dead, like everybody else. All but me. And why me?”

“It isn’t you!”

“It is. We’ve got to find the Lotus Machine, Rags.”

Silence.

“We’re going to start looking.”

Silence.

Ragpicker!

The ghost said nothing. Corum reached up to his lapel, felt the warm black coffin shape pinned there, with two faceted garnet eyes. A ghost, a hacked ghost, hacked by the best ghosthack who ever lived, hacked so that it could not assist in any search for what Corum most wished to forget.

“I hacked you a good hack, old spook. But it’s time to own up. I’ll find the Lotus Machine myself. And someday I’ll unhack you. Promise”

Odd Lots

Guest Post from Brian Niemeier: Here Comes The Secret Kings

Before I turn it over to Brian, a note or two on what this is about. First of all, if you haven’t read what I wrote as intro to his first guest post, it’s here and worth reading. Brian’s making quite a stir in the business, and it’s in part his success (and the success of other indie writers that I hang with) that led me to scrub traditional publishing out of my life last year. A key element of my long game is to create a new blog that follows the same general functional model as the Mad Genius Club, with posts from several indie writers on the process of writing, the tech of self-publishing, news and announcements, excerpts, odd lots, and pertinent gossip about the industry as a whole. When this happens is unclear, but I’m working on it. It’ll be 100% trad-free and 277.79% contrarian. No fake news, some commentary, and (I certainly hope) a near-daily posting schedule. Watch This Space. And now, heeeeeerrrrrreeee’s Brian:


The Secret Kings-cover-15.jpgGreetings, Contrapositive Diary readers! Jeff has kindly lent me his blog to announce the launch of my new SFF novel The Secret Kings, Soul Cycle Book III. This book is the follow up to Souldancer, the first–and so far, only–indie novel to win a Dragon Award. But whereas Souldancer took the Best Horror Novel prize, the sequel fits much more comfortably into the space opera genre with a more straightforward plot that’s even more focused on action. The Secret Kings is also the point in the series where events and concepts from prior books really gel. Characters from Nethereal and Souldancer get drawn together in ways that early readers found highly intriguing, and plot threads spun in earlier installments find satisfying conclusions.

This isn’t the end, though! Leave it to the guy who bypassed the traditional publishing path altogether to also buck the trilogy trend. I can divulge right now that there will be a Soul Cycle Book IV, and inf fact, a preview of what’s in store next is included at the end of The Secret Kings. It’s an understatement to say that this series has exceeded expectations. Nethereal earned me a Campbell nomination. Souldancer won a Dragon. By all accounts, The Secret Kings marks a new series high point. There’s no telling where this ride will take us, so get on board!

Thanks again to Jeff for helping out with my book launch, and for all of his sterling advice. You can be certain that I’m just getting warmed up.

Merry Christmas,
Brian Niemeier

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.