Tag Archives: science fiction

Maturation

9809020_sI’m working on two novels these days. One of them is A Sip of Fear, the first story in the new series The Illuminated which I described in the last post. The other is The Rapier, volume three of Refuge. Since Refuge, unlike most of my work, is science fiction as well as fantasy, I’m able to do more in the way of incorporating speculation about where we’re going as a species and a civilization. The two alien races incarnate as human beings give me a good platform for this, as both of them lived in advanced, high-tech societies before they blew each other to bits.

One passage in The Rapier has Amanda Johnson, the Andol leader, visiting with Deirdre Kane, leader of the Humanity Faction that’s struggling to keep the human race independent of both alien races. The third person in the meeting is Terrence Franklin, the only human being to have the Refuge spell that lets the Andol and Droon reincarnate after each death with all their memories intact. Terrence got his spell from a Droon in the fourteenth century, shortly after the aliens arrived. Here’s how that conversation goes:

“Do you mind if I grill you on a couple of things? To get a second opinion after Deirdre’s.”

“Not at all. I have nothing to hide.”

“Hmm,” said Deirdre, “that’s a switch.”

“Be nice,” said Terrence, looking sideways at Deirdre.

“Well, she has a point,” said Amanda. “Actually, I have quite a few things to hide, but the reason the Andol are here and what we want aren’t among them. The answers are simple. We’re here because our home world was destroyed and our species is extinct. We sought a refuge by magic. We found one. Now we’re trying to survive here and help humanity achieve its potential.”

“See, Amanda, it’s that second part that bothers me,” said Deirdre. “We’d like to achieve our potential without meddling by aliens — you or the Droon.”

“I understand,” said Amanda. “Really, I do understand. You’re in a very different place now than you would have been if we hadn’t come. But sooner or later, Deirdre, you would have faced the decision you face now. As far as we know, there are only three possible ways to go.” She held up a finger. “You can mature as the Andol did.” A second finger. “You can mature as the Droon did.” A third. “Or you can destroy yourselves. Most intelligent species take the third path.”

Deirdre shook her head. “How many intelligent species did you find out there in space?”

“Including extinct ones, about fifty or so.”

“How many that weren’t extinct?”

“Ourselves, the Droon, and the four species the Droon had enslaved.”

“And the slaves never matured because they never got the chance, right?”

Amanda sipped her tea. “Right. But —”

“So you know of two mature species, you and the Droon. And from that you decide there are only two ways to get there?”

“What third way could there be?”

“Amanda,” said Terrence, “what do you mean by ‘mature’?”

“A mature civilization,” Amanda said, “has a sustainable society. It has abolished war by establishing a global government, and it’s gone green, as you would put it — no danger of self-destruction either by war or by exhausting resources or poisoning the biosphere.”

“Hmm. So that’s it? Global government and environmentalism?”

“Essentially, yes, but there are many changes to culture involved with both of those — in one direction or the other.” She paused. “There’s a lot of resistance to those changes from people who fear modernity and want to cling to old ways of doing things. Some of them want to make money without considering other people, let alone the biosphere. Some cling to old religious traditions or to nationalism. Maturation involves getting past that resistance, and there are two ways that can happen. Either people come to their senses and change their ways, or an enlightened elite takes complete control and makes them do it. The first is the Andol path. The second is the path of the Droon. Can you think of any other way?”

Deirdre never answers Amanda’s question, because Emily comes into the room ready to advance the plot. But it’s a good question nonetheless.

I’ve long believed that human society is in a transition as profound as the one that took our ancestors from foraging and hunting to farming, leading to classical civilization in all its glories and horrors. That deceptively simple change created a completely new paradigm of society, with formal government, organized religion, class structure, patriarchy, and slavery, none of which had existed (except in embryonic form) when humans lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. Since roughly the sixteenth century, we’ve been moving away from this civilized way of life, what I call the Classical Civilized Paradigm, into something radically different that I call the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. It might also be called the Mature Civilized Paradigm. The transition to the Classical Civilized Paradigm flowed from an ability that humans gained which they hadn’t had before: the ability to control their food supply so as to produce a food abundance and allow population growth. It also flowed from the inherent limitations of this ability: that it took a lot of work, and that it required settling in one place.

Formal government and organized religion were needed as systems of social control because the increased number of people living close together created frictions. Class structure flowed from the increase of wealth, along with the need for lots of work to generate the food supply, which also resulted in slavery. The possibility of population growth created a necessity of population growth in competition with other societies, and that led to patriarchy, because women who control their own fertility tend to have fewer children. And that’s why we see this pattern developing universally throughout all agrarian civilizations, including ones that had no contact with each other, in both the old world and the new.

The transition to the Advanced (or Mature) Civilized Paradigm is also being driven by new abilities. We can produce wealth with little or no work. We can communicate with each other instantly over huge distances. And there are two darker abilities we’ve gained, the ability to destroy our civilization in war, and the ability to undermine the natural support base of human life. From this flow two things, a possibility and a necessity.

We can, finally, have an egalitarian society in terms of wealth and political power, and a genuinely democratic government.

We must end our propensity to kill each other on a massive scale and to behave irresponsibly towards the biosphere.

The first of these has driven all of the political and social movements of the past centuries towards equality in terms of gender, race, religion, and other characteristics that have divided us in the past. It has driven the movements for democracy and for socialism, for the abolition of slavery, and generally all of the goals and efforts labeled “progressive” in political discourse, with the exceptions of the anti-war movement and environmentalism, which instead are driven by the second one, the “must.”

As Amanda noted, maturation meets plenty of resistance from people who are uncomfortable with these changes to society, and some of the strongest resistance comes from traditional religion. All of the so-called “great” religions of the world emerged during the period when we lived under the Classical Civilized Paradigm. While all religions have an ultimate, timeless source in spiritual experience, all of them represent an interface between that experience and ordinary life, and the nature of ordinary life has changed radically since the Buddha meditated under the tree, or Jesus was crucified, or the Prophet Muhammad fled to Medina. Many of the views and attitudes and moral precepts taught by these traditional religions have therefore become obsolete.

I’ll go into the ramifications in more depth in the next post, coming soon.

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Book Release: The Ingathering (Refuge Volume Two)

the ingatheringRefuge Volume Two: The Ingathering is now available from Amazon and Smashwords and will be available at many other outlets shortly. You can preview the book by scrolling down a bit.

Here’s the book description from the vendor sites:

Claire’s magic is so powerful it makes her mentally ill. Suffering symptoms of bipolar disorder caused by her undeveloped talent, she escapes a Droon murder squad and reluctantly seeks training from the Andol. But the enemy follows and launches a plot to destroy the Andol stronghold and kill everyone in it, including Claire.

Meanwhile, the war between the Droon and the Andol is heating up, as the Andol seek human allies with magical talent, while the Droon hunt human magicians down and kill them. It’s a race between the Andol rescue operations and the Droon murder squads. Who will win the race? Can Claire recover her sanity and develop her powers in time to save herself, her friends, and the Andol from certain death?

From now until the end of November, I’m also dropping the price of Refuge Volume One: The Order Master to 99 cents. It’s also available at Amazon and Smashwords, and the reduced price should be effective at other vendors within one to two weeks.

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Dark Fantasy, Dystopia, Optimism, and Generational Shifts

villainFor some time now — although I believe (and hope) that the trend is reversing — science fiction and fantasy storytelling have trended towards darkness. Dystopia, post-apocalyptic visions, and fantasy featuring anti-heroes and non-heroes have predominated. These stories run the gamut in terms of subject matter and science fictional or fantasy elements, but all of them have something in common, and that’s the fact that no characters are to be wholly admired. That’s especially true if the character is an authority figure or someone who, in conventional thinking, is supposed to be admirable. Another common element is that pessimism is universal and optimism decried. A vision of the future must be bleak, with matters getting steadily worse, and any progress made either illusory or a temporary reprieve of the overall slide into awfulness. This is regarded as “realism” (never mind that, in view of actual history, it is completely counter-factual).

Dark fiction features no sharp moral lines. There are no good guys and either there are no bad guys or everyone is a bad guy. The best such stories have protagonists who at least have some redeeming features, but we are offered no one who could serve as a role model, no one whom we can admire without reservation, or only with the reservation that everyone has at least some flaws. There can be (and usually are) double-died villains, but the “heroes” must be no better, or only marginally better, so that the reader is inclined to say, “They’re awful, but the alternative is even worse.” This is fiction for cynics, for those who have believed in someone or something in the past, been disillusioned, and reached a determination never to get fooled again.

And in so doing, they fool themselves. But never mind that; fiction isn’t necessarily supposed to reflect the real world. But it does give us what we imagine that we want.

If I were to define “dark fiction,” I would say that it is fiction characterized by three essential characteristics:

1. Pessimism. The world inhabited by the characters in a dark story (whether fantasy or non-fantasy) is one that is bad and likely to get worse. Whatever social problems characterize it — income gaps and class differences, corrupt government, racism, environmental callousness, declining liberty, whatever — they cannot be solved and they’re going to get worse in the future, or at least never get better. The characters’ own personal problems may be solvable (although at least in part they’ll be just as intractable), but the world is plain screwed.

2. A dearth of heroes. The characters in a dark story aren’t just flawed (all good characters in any fiction have flaws), but they’re so flawed that we can’t admire them much, even when we identify with them. If the Star Wars story were rewritten as dark fantasy, Yoda and Obi-Wan would be revealed as opportunistic posers, self-seeking con artists, or self-righteous and judgmental pricks, as bad as the Emperor and Darth Vader (or at least nearly so). Dark fiction can have completely villainous and evil characters (although it need not do so and the best examples arguably don’t), but it can never have characters that the reader wants to admire, emulate, and feel confident about. Nobody wears a white hat. The protagonists are, at best, clad in gray.

3. Moral ambiguity. This may need some explanation, because moral ambiguity can take a number of forms and not all of these are properly considered “dark.” Confusion about the right action to take, or moral convictions on the part of characters that reflect poor vision and understanding or dogmatic thinking, are not in themselves “dark” qualities. The type of moral ambiguity that characterizes dark fiction is not just moral uncertainty on the part of the characters, but a situation in which there really is no clear moral difference between choices, so that characters can act on selfish and self-centered impulses without remorse, and never end up feeling good about themselves, no matter what they do.

I tend not to write dark fantasy at all, and although I have put out one dark science fiction novella (Robin), it’s not my preference. Dystopia serves a purpose in that it highlights a danger that may be arising and so gives us an opportunity to prevent it from happening, but there’s a difference between a story that says, “Watch out, we’re in danger of something bad happening if we don’t reverse course,” and one that says, “We’re just plain fucked and all we can do is survive.” There’s a difference between stories with realistic characters suffering from the usual array of human flaws, and one in which nobody is admirable at all. There’s a difference between stories in which the protagonists are faced with difficult moral choices calling for sacrifice on their part, and stories in which they are never called upon to do the right thing, because there is no right thing. I can enjoy a story like that once in a blue moon, but it will never make my favorites list. In this, I differ from some other readers, particularly those somewhat — but not too much — younger than myself.

What’s occurred to me recently is that the trend toward and away from dark fantasy may be driven by generations. Specifically, the rise in dark fantasy’s popularity is driven by Generation X, and the decline in dark fiction recently (as one can see from a perusal of the Amazon Kindle Store’s fantasy and science fiction best sellers, most of which are at this point not dark) to the maturation into their main reading years of the Millennial generation. Earlier periods in which dark fiction rose to prominence and then declined (because the current phenomenon is certainly not the first time it’s happened) were, I believe, possibly driven by the emergence of previous Reactive generations followed by Civic generations (according to the generational cycle theory presented by the late William Strauss and Neil Howe in their books GenerationsThe Fourth Turning13th Gen, and Millennials Rising).

My personal experience as an author reflects this. I’ve received my worst reviews from Xers and my best ones from Millennials. (As noted, most of my writing is distinctly non-dark.) Mostly, when I’m taken to task in a really serious way, and always when it’s in a way that annoys me, it’s because my writing is distinctly non-dark. There’s plenty of conflict, but it’s optimistic. The protagonists in my stories, at least some of them, are genuine heroes, people the reader is expected to admire and look up to. And moral choices are often clear. One person recently expressed a “sinking feeling” that the Andol (the “good guy” aliens in my Refuge series) won’t be revealed as secretly nasty and evil in future books. Now, I’m not going to give spoilers, so I won’t say whether he’s factually right about that, but I will say that if this causes a “sinking feeling,” then perhaps he’s not really in my target audience.

This sort of critique, in which I’m taken to task for writing stories that are exactly what I intended to write, infuriates me. I don’t mind legitimate criticism, and Gods know my work is not without flaws. I have written stories with too many characters that confused the reader. My dialogue, although I think it’s generally good, sometimes drifts away from believable speech into dissertations. I have trouble depicting romantic relationships that are deep and credible. I know all of this and deeply appreciate any critical help in improving all of these and other genuine problems in my writing, because that will help me to make it better — and I want to be the best I can.

But that my fiction isn’t dark fiction is not a flaw. When someone tells me that I need to write dark fiction as if that were the only kind of fiction that is any good, my answer is to simply say, “No. I won’t. I don’t want to, and I don’t have to, and that’s that.” If that means I’m writing for Millennials more than for Xers — so be it.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone who likes dark fantasy or any other dark fiction should’t read that stuff, or that people who want to write it shouldn’t be writing it. I’m against arbitrary limits on the arts — that’s the main point of this post, after all.

I’m just saying that we shouldn’t see darkness as synonymous with quality. And that consequently, the decline in the dark fantasy fad is a good thing.

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On Optimism In Fiction

10034764_sIn fantasy, and perhaps even more so in science fiction, there’s been a tendency in the recent past to make the vision as dark and dismal as possible, viewing the future and the possibilities inherent in the human condition with dour pessimism and a belief that nothing ever improves. Depictions of a future society in which any of our current problems are solved, in which people live more egalitarian lives, in which corporate interests don’t dominate and control all functions of government, in which we have a sustainable society with respect to the natural world or one in which war has been abolished, are seen in many quarters as naïve, utopian, and unrealistic.

What’s actually unrealistic, though, is the belief that the problems we have today won’t be solved, and that we’ll still be facing them hundreds of years from now. That isn’t realism. It’s a failure of the imagination and also reflects a very poor understanding of history.

Hundreds of years ago, whole economies in the richest and most powerful of nations were founded on slavery. Today, slavery still exists but only in poor and backward countries and on the fringes and margins of the economy, such as in the sex trade. Workers in mainstream industries today are coerced by subtler means and much better rewarded for their work than slaves ever were.

Hundreds of years ago, the government was not only influenced by the rich and powerful, but actually restricted by law to those who were born into privileged families and held titles of nobility. Today, that isn’t true even in countries where titles of nobility still exist.

Hundreds of years ago, women were regarded as the property of men, either of their husbands or, if unmarried, of their male relatives or in some cases of religious institutions such as convents, which were part of organized religious structures that were run by men (even if the convents themselves were often run by women). Today, while we still have a ways to go to achieve true gender equality, that attitude is no longer accepted and mainstream.

Hundreds of years ago, war was not only constant but regarded as normal, noble, heroic, and necessary to build national character and the strength and dedication of each new generation of youth. In fact, that attitude persisted until a mere hundred years ago. (It was the First World War that put an end to it.)

A person from the world of a few hundred years ago, magically transported by a wizard’s spell or a time machine to today’s world and looking around, would on first impression think he had entered Heaven. No constant war? No grasping nobility? Enough to eat even for the poorest people? Men can’t rape their wives with impunity? Why, this is a perfect world!

Of course, on closer acquaintance he would discover that problems still exist. They’re just different problems than the ones he was used to. But because we are always focused on the problems we have before us, the idea that those problems might some day be solved seems utopian. It’s what we hope for, or cynically fear to hope. And yet nothing is more likely than that they will someday be solved. And so do depict a future world in fiction where such problems persist isn’t realistic, but just the opposite.

That’s particularly true of the two problems that threaten the survival of civilization today. One of these is war. The other is unsustainable exploitation of the environment. It’s not unrealistic to say that these problems may not be solved. But it is completely unrealistic to depict a future society in which they still confront us. If they are not solved, our civilization will cease to exist. Therefore, any future society will either be one in which they are solved — or it will not exist. And that in turn means that a fictional portrayal of a more advanced society than our own, either human or non-human, must be a peaceful and ecologically sustainable one, not because the future will turn us virtuous (although in fact it may), but because any civilization that survives to become substantially more advanced than ours is one that has solved these problems.

Which brings me to my own Refuge series, which I characterize as both fantasy and science fiction, and which includes two fictional alien species, the Andol and the Droon, who destroyed each other in an interstellar war and some of whom have reincarnated on Earth as human beings. In some ways these are personified good and evil creatures. The Andol are egalitarian, benevolent (if often ruthless and manipulative), and have attitudes that are socially and culturally more advanced than any but the most enlightened of human beings. The Droon are just the opposite: elitist, thoroughly nasty (they like to subject their inferiors to years of torture just for fun and games), and bent on reducing humanity to a race of slaves and pain toys. Some might see both races (I suspect: especially the Andol) as unrealistic. I contend otherwise. It all comes down to the fact that those two problems, war and environmental stress, must be solved for an advanced civilization to survive. But there is more than one way for a society to reach that point. There are in fact at least two. One of the Andol describes this as follows:

A mature intelligent species has a unified planetary government, doesn’t fight wars anymore, and has a sustainable relationship with nature. It’s in no danger of destroying itself either in war or by exhausting the planet’s resources. That puts it in a position to explore the nearby stars, especially since it usually discovers faster than light travel about the same time. . . .

But you lay those things out in front of most people, and they’ll think ‘utopia.’ That’s not always true. The Droon prove it. They had a unified government, didn’t fight wars anymore, and had a sustainable relationship with nature, and yet they also had a master class that turned all the rest of their people into slaves. That’s one way a species can mature. The master class imposed harsh rule, stamped out all the Droon warlike tendencies, and forced their society to go green . . .

We had a global economy, planetary government was set up to regulate it, and then a democratic movement took it over. We came to our senses collectively. It meant we were a lot less polarized than the Droon. We had no master class in the end, but we could have gone the same way as the Droon, if the democracy movement had failed.

There might also be other ways besides these two. But the point here is that depicting a future (or alien) society in either of these modes isn’t unrealistic at all, but shows two ways in which a society can survive to become advanced.

The only thing that is quite unrealistic is depicting a future (or alien) society that is exactly like our own in its fundamentals. We can be absolutely confident that that, at least, will not happen.

Copyright: annmei / 123RF Stock Photo

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The End of “Religions”

13843867_sFor this week’s post, I’m going to present a scene from my work in progress, Refuge Volume Two: The Ingathering. Here Claire is having tea and a talk with Maria Valero. Their discussion covers an important subject in the evolution of religious/spiritual thought.

Maria Valero is an Andol, an alien spirit from an extinct advanced civilization in the body of a middle-aged woman. Claire is a young woman with prodigious magical talents, who is reluctant to develop them. Their discussion begins with why, and goes into other related areas.

After the conference, Maria Valero took Claire’s arm and said, “Walk with me, please.” Not seeing any good reason to refuse, Claire accompanied her into the glittering hallways. “I had a talk with your friend Richard earlier. He says you’re reluctant to develop your magical talents.”

“I am. I’m sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?”

“I know you need magic to fight the Droon. I wish I could help you.”

“Hmm. Well, it’s your choice, Claire.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you mind helping me understand it, though? Maybe over a cup of tea. Shall we go to my rooms?”

“Oh — um, sure.”

Maria smiled and led the way through the hallways to a door much like any of the others. “I miss my house in San Francisco,” she said as she pushed open the door.

“What happened to it?”

“Oh, it’s still there, but I have so much work to do that can best be done from the Birds’ Nest. Also, I think the Droon know who I am. They kill any of the Andol they can identify.”

Maria busied herself making tea while Claire found a wicker chair and set down. “Why is it called the Birds’ Nest?”

“It’s a bit of a joke. The Andol in our original bodies were bird-like. We were smaller than humans, with feathers instead of hair, and we could fly, although not very well.”

“I see. What were the Droon like?”

“Bugs.”

“Ick.”

Maria chuckled. “A common human reaction. The Andol thought they looked tasty, although we’d seldom admit that. We would never have made a meal out of intelligent creatures, even the Droon.” She set the teapot down on a little table and poured two cups. “Both species are extinct now. Those of us who survived to reach exile have become human. I’ve lived a dozen human lives, counting this one. That’s a lot more years in a human body than as an Andol. Same for the Droon, of course.” She took a sip of her tea. “Now, why don’t you tell me why you don’t want to develop your magic. Most humans leap at the chance.”

Claire took a sip of her tea and frowned. “I don’t know if I can explain that. My magic — it doesn’t feel like it’s a part of me. Or it is, but an alien part, like a virus, or a demon spirit buried deep in my brain. It makes me crazy.”

“Yes, Richard told me about that. But I’m sure you also know that if you develop it, your symptoms should disappear for the most part.”

“I know. But if that happens, I’ll be changed into someone else, someone different from me. I know that’s what the magic wants. I’m not sure I want to be what it will turn me into.”

“Because you’re afraid you’ll hurt people.”

“Yes. That’s part of it.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

Claire frowned. “I’m not sure I can explain it.”

“Try, if you would. I’ve been around a while, you know.”

“Do the Andol have a religion? Or more than one?”

“Not — exactly. That is, not by the time we were blown up. And not today. In our ancient history, yes, many of them.”

“What happened? Did you all evolve into atheists?”

Maria laughed. “Oh, my, no. We evolved into — well, let me put it this way. A religion is a body of belief. It’s distinct from other religions, so that a human will say, ‘I’m a Christian,’ for example, and that implies a lot of things he’s not: he’s not a Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, and so on.”

“Yes.”

“That’s what we gave up, or evolved past. Religious ideas flowed into the universal idea marketplace. Where they came from didn’t much matter. Everything was open for consideration. It all mixed together, along with ideas from science and from philosophy and works of art.”

Claire nodded. “That is different from us.”

“Oh, no, you’re going through the same change.”

“We are?”

“Sure. Thanks to the Internet, which is one of the three great transforming technologies, along with farming and the printing press. With the Internet, it’s no longer possible for a religion to remain isolated. Its followers are bombarded by ideas from outside the corpus of doctrine every day, ideas from other religions, from science, and so on. The walls are cracking. We can see it happening. It’s also happening with other boundaries and walls, like the ones between nations and language barriers. The world is shrinking, all tying together, becoming interlaced, connected, always talking to each other.”

“Oh. So you ended up without religions as such, but a great mish-mash of religious ideas.”

Maria smiled. “Pretty much.”

“Can you tell me what the Andol believe today?”

“I can tell you what I believe.”

“Okay, that will do.”

“I believe that the universe is alive, a great conscious being spanning all of space and time, and we are parts of it and reflections or fractal images of it. I believe we can contact it by going deep into ourselves, where the roots of our being lie.  Between that timeless experience and our ordinary waking lives is a vast expanse of dream and imagination — the Blissful Dream, we call it. We shift in and out of it, focusing part of our consciousness there and part of it here, all the time.”

“That all makes a lot of sense. What does it say for morality?”

“Not a lot in itself. Morality — that was maybe one of the biggest mistakes the old religions made. And human religions still do.”

“Morality is a mistake?”

“Attributing it to God or the cosmos or whatever is a mistake. Morality is a human concern. Or an Andol concern. Or even a Droon concern, though I can’t say I like where they’ve gone with it. We do what we judge to be good. Or we fail to do it. The universe doesn’t judge. It loves all equally, giving birth to all things, and taking all things back into itself after their time is done.”

“So we’re on our own.”

“When it comes to making moral judgments, yes, we are.”

Claire set down her empty teacup and nodded. “Well. I think I can explain now why I’m reluctant to develop my magic.”

“I’m all ears.”

“That business about communing with the universe — it’s a lot like Buddhist meditation. Or it’s exactly the same. But the thing is, I believe magical power, spiritual power, it should be devoted to achieving that union, gaining enlightenment. When you use it for other things, selfish things, or even in service to a cause like saving the world from the Droon, you tie yourself to the world of illusion.”

“To the Blissful Dream.”

“Yes, and to the material world, too. I don’t want to do that.”

Maria nodded. “I see.”

“I mean, the universe loves all, right? It doesn’t judge, so it doesn’t condemn the Droon.”

“No, it doesn’t, but we do. Any sane and sound person would.”

Claire chuckled. “But I’m not sane and sound. But yes, I do want to condemn the Droon. I just feel I should transcend that Claire, just like I should transcend the Claire that gets greedy or snarky or horny or whatever.”

Maria sighed. “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water —”

“Well, that’s true.” Claire poured herself another cup of tea from the pot. “That’s only part of why I’m reluctant to develop my magic. It’s an important part, but maybe more important is what the power feels like to me. When I’m using it, like the time I zorched all those Droon in Seattle, I feel powerful. I feel whole. I feel like I belong in this world.”

“You do.”

Claire shook her head. “No, I belong beyond it. This world is an illusion. I don’t want to be the person who belongs here. Plus I might hurt people.”

Maria nodded. “Well, as I said, it’s your choice. Tell you what, Claire.” She pulled a notepad from a pocket and wrote in it, then tore off a sheet of paper and handed it to Claire. “Here’s my phone number. You can also reach me through the computer net, once you learn how to use it. If you feel like talking more, call me.”

“Okay.”

Image credit: _ig0rzh_ / 123RF Stock Photo

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An Update on Refuge

13424453_sRefuge, my new work in progress, is almost done. It’s currently out to beta readers and I’ve gotten some feedback. You can read the first four chapters here. (This text may change somewhat, however, due to beta reader feedback.)

The pic at the beginning is the one I’m considering as the basis for the cover art. It’s part of a series of pictures with the Earth and various energetic effects, which might do for the series of which Refuge is to be the first volume.

I’m excited about Refuge for a couple of reasons that I want to share here. One is simply that, as I continue writing and publishing, I seem to be learning. Refuge is the beneficiary of a lot of that learning in regard to plot, pacing, and characterization. Which is a complicated way of saying that I believe it’s the best story I’ve ever written. In terms of writing style, it’s only slightly better than Goddess-Born, but in terms of story construction I would say that I may have finally come of age as a writer.

The other reason has to do with genre. Refuge represents something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, namely a fusion between science fiction and fantasy. Refuge involves alien species, advanced technology, nano-computing, particle beams, and ongoing research projects into human genetic engineering. That makes it science fiction, right? But it also involves magic and reincarnation, with the spirits of alien creatures now inhabiting human bodies, and being for most intents and purposes human. That makes it fantasy as well. The aliens themselves see no conflict between the two and move between using magical powers and using advanced technology with no sense of discontinuity.

All of this is of course part of world-building and creates the backdrop to the story itself, which involves a man’s quest for liberation from an imprisoning background. Mike Cambridge is the hereditary leader of the Scourge of God, a religious order founded in the 14th century. The Scourge of God is an order of assassins. It exists to bump off members of one of the two alien races, the Droon, whom the Scourge of God believes to be devils from Hell. The order was founded by one Osgood of Cambridge, and Mike is Osgood’s direct descendant and heir to authority over the Scourge of God.

Trouble is, he doesn’t want the job. He wants out. He is a child of modern times and can’t accept the philosophical and theological framework through which the Scourge looks at the world. He doesn’t believe in Hell and so he doesn’t believe that the Droon are really demons. (Although he has no doubt that they’re extremely nasty people, and they are.) Being a serial killer, even of the Droon, bothers him morally. He tried to escape from the Scourge of God when his father died, but they found him and forced him under a threat of death to assume his father’s position. If he tries to escape them again, they’ll kill him for certain.

The story opens with Mike and a member of his Scourge of God chapter breaking into the office of John Stevens, a Droon, and interrogating him under terms of the “Pact of War” between the Droon and the Scourge. That agreement requires a Droon to truthfully answer the questions of a Scourge of God Chapter Master who spares the Droon’s life. So Mike incapacitates Stevens and puts his questions. He finds out that the Droon are actually aliens, not demons, and that when they die they reincarnate in new human bodies with all their memories intact (rendering the Scourge attempt to kill them pointless). Most intriguing of all, he finds that the Droon are on Earth in human form because their home planet was wiped out by weapons of mass destruction used in an interstellar war — and that their enemies, the Andol, are here, too.

Mike then goes on a quest to find the Andol, as part of his personal efforts to free himself from the Scourge of God. The story winds its way through political intrigue, romance, gun battles, explosions, and philosophical twists and turns to a conclusion. I’m very happy with it overall. Anticipated publication date, in both e-book and print, is November 1, 2013.

One of the bigger questions I have on putting this out there is whether or not a science fiction/fantasy fusion can work. Of course, magical elements have appeared in SF before, but always with different terminology (psychic powers, etc.) and without recognition, most of the time, of the connection with magical traditions. SF has always been regarded as more part of the “real” world than fantasy, no matter how wildly speculative and “out there” the science fiction elements are. The Scourge of God, which makes use of magic, is a rather backwards, Medieval organization, but that can’t be said of the Andol and the Droon, who also use magic and call it that. So here’s what I’m wondering. Is such a fusion possible? Have I achieved it, or should Refuge simply be considered science fiction? Time will tell, hopefully.

Image credit: _ig0rzh_ / 123RF Stock Photo.

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There Can Never Be an Enchanted Blaster

English: How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excal...

English: How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water. Illustration from: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur. London: Dent, 1894. Français : How Sir Bedivere Cast the Sword Excalibur into the Water (littéralement « Comment Sir Bedivere jeta l’Epée Excalibur dans l’eau). Illustration tirée de Le Morte d’Arthur par Sir Thomas Malory, London: Dent, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking some more about contemporary fantasy, and about what might be considered a science fiction-fantasy melange. Futuristic fantasy, we could call it: a fantasy story set in a future world, with projected advances in technology and speculation on the social and political changes that follow from them — along with fantasy elements. Classic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, futuristic fantasy — not a bad classification system!

How can futuristic fantasy work?

It’s been done to a degree, although to maintain a sense of consistency and realism magic becomes psychic power while gods and super-beings become anything from incredibly advanced alien races to psychic projections of the deep unconscious mind to personifications of cosmic principles. Which, of course, simply represents a changing of names for the same phenomena. Magic, gods, quasi-humans, and monsters can all be incorporated into a science fiction setting.

What about magical items, though?

Well, magical items can work, too, but one must recognize the implications of modern manufacturing techniques, which render some of the milieu surrounding the magical items of classic fantasy anachronistic.

Consider a magical weapon such as Excalibur. Excalibur was a marvelous sword gifted to King Arthur by the mysterious Lady of the Lake, a super-being or a goddess. The sword itself was a wonderful blade that would never break and could cut through heavy armor, but the scabbard was even more astounding, for as long as Arthur wore it he could lose no blood from any wound he took in battle. When Arthur was defeated, he returned the sword and scabbard to the Lady of the Lake (with some difficulty), who would keep it for the next champion, or for Arthur’s return.

This works fine in a classic fantasy context. From the time when people learned how to make steel until the gunpowder age, advances in military technology that made much difference in the way war was fought could be listed on a single sheet of paper. The stirrup and the longbow were significant, but despite this a match between a Roman legion (which had neither) and a fifteenth-century English army (with both) would be a difficult battle to call. Put either one up against a twenty-first century force with modern weapons, though, and the result would be a slaughter. If Arthur were to return today, bearing the wondrous Excalibur, he would be hopelessly outclassed.

In classical fantasy, a magical weapon that retains its usefulness for ages and can be preserved by mysterious entities, or lost in an ancient tomb, waiting for the hero to rediscover it and bear it to glory, makes some sense. In futuristic fantasy it makes none. Not only is the weapon sure to become obsolete in a few decades at most, but there’s also the change to the way things are manufactured in modern times and beyond. Modern weapons are mass-produced. There may be a lot of precision and care that goes into them; they may be finely-machined and expertly crafted; with nanotechnology or even highly computerized manufacturing they may even be individualized — but they are still made in large numbers for use by large numbers of warriors. But magic cannot be mass-produced. Bear in mind the meta-laws of magic: magic is an inborn talent, it requires training and education, it exacts a price, and it’s dangerous. If it doesn’t comply with these rules, then it isn’t magic. If it’s something the masses can make use of, it’s a form of technology instead.

For this reason, combined with the fact that in a high-tech world technology advances rapidly, there can never be an enchanted blaster. Oh, to be sure, a wielder of the magic arts could perform difficult and time-consuming rituals, risking life, blood, and soul by invoking dangerous cosmic powers, to create a high-tech weapon with enhanced accuracy, augmented destructive power, or an aura that instills unreasoning terror in foes, but what would be the point? Wouldn’t it make more sense to create an amulet with the same powers, which would then enhance one’s combat abilities with all weaponry — including the Mark IV blaster coming out from the labs next week, which is far superior to the Mark III currently in the enchanter’s possession?

Magic items can certainly exist in a contemporary or futuristic fantasy, but for reasons like the above they will necessarily be different in some respects from the magic items of classic fantasy.

This is just one of the things to consider when mingling fantasy elements with a science-fiction world, or even with the modern world.

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