Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sunday, Fun Day (#2)

Sundays I like to post something fun in a puzzle or recreational math line. This starts a little slowly but I do get to some numerological relevance after a build-up, so bear with me if you like that sort of thing ...

The past week saw the United States finally and belatedly coming into compliance with the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, with President Trump’s order to move the American Embassy in Israel to that country’s capital in Jerusalem. 

The aforementioned law, which stipulated that half the State Department’s funding should be forfeited starting in 1999 until they moved our embassy to Israel’s capital, in accordance with usual custom and common sense. In spite of the Act’s passage by wide margins (374-37 in the House, 93-5 in the Senate), the embassy remained unmoved and the State Department saw no inconvenience as a result.

The last of the five Senators who had voted Nay departed the Senate in 2010. That was Robert Byrd, the notorious former Klansman Democrat from West Virginia, who left the Senate upon his death that year, R.I.P.


The date of the Trump announcement is foretold numerologically in the cube root of the year, 2010, when the last Senate opponent to the 1995 bill left office. That cube root is 12.6 2017.



Soon it will be 2018 A.D., but the Hebrew calendar has a different numbering system for the year that started in September. To find it, write 2018. On the next line, copy the 8 below:

2  0  1  8
__ __ __ 8

Then take the digit you just wrote (8) subtract the digit above and to the left, and write that in the next spot. Eight minus one is seven:

2  0  1  8
__ __ 7  8

Continue. Seven minus zero is seven. Seven minus two is five.

2  0  1  8
5  7  7  8

And the Hebrew calendar year is 5778.


This is a triangular number, by the way. (The spirit of Dr. Matrix explained those in this post.) Perhaps President Trump is moved to support Israel’s capital this way because of an affinity with the current Jewish calendar year, since Trump is the 45th President, elected in 2016, and 45 and 2016 are also triangular numbers.

There is a simple test for whether a given number is triangular, which I “discovered”. (It’s not deep mathematics or anything, but I’ve never seen it published.) Take the number, double it, add 0.25, take the square root, and subtract 0.5. If the result is a whole number, the original number was triangular. Applying this to 5778 gives 107, so 5778 is the 107th triangular number: it is 1+2+3+...+105+106+107.



I’ll close with an original seasonal puzzle for the stout-hearted: if you’ve read this far you’re probably a mathie like me. The letters in MERRY CHRISTMAS each stand for a digit, the same letter for the same digit throughout. So MERRY is a five-digit number and CHRISTMAS is a nine-digit number, and the R’s stand for the same digit wherever they appear, as do the S’s and so on. (The word for this kind of puzzle is "cryptarithm".) So here is the puzzle, and it's a tough one: If MERRY is a perfect square and CHRISTMAS is a triangular number, what are the numbers?


Saturday, December 9, 2017

“The Kings of the Corona”

My first story, or anyway my first “real” story (with, you know, plot and characters with motivations and all), is “The Kings of the Corona”, and appears in the anthology TALES OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, along with about 20 other stories by other authors. I’ve read the collection with pleasure.

But for me, the experience of doing something I'd always wanted but never managed was thrilling. I’d wanted to write fiction, either science fiction or fantasy, for a long time, and in the past four or five years I've begun thinking more seriously about it. I had started reading John C. Wright's blog about how the culture wars are playing out in SF/F circles and the idea of contributing something to "building our own culture" attracted me. It was the fracas over the 2015 Hugos that stirred me into making preparations—like Mauregal, the hero of my story, I’m very big on methodical preparations—jotting down story notions that randomly occurred to me, and in a few months I had a list of ideas that could form the bases of many stories—but still no actual story begun. 

About this time I read Anthony Marchetta's anthology, GOD, ROBOT. The theme of this anthology—a line of sentient robots that muse on matters of faith and take up religion, and the interactions they have with humanity over the centuries—intrigued me as much as the stories themselves (which are delightful and thought-provoking—if you haven’t read it yet, go get it), and got me thinking more seriously than ever about buckling down and writing.

Then, spring 2016, Declan Finn had Anthony Marchetta and several of the GOD, ROBOT authors on his Catholic Geek podcast, and I made sure to listen. The whole podcast had me enthralled: these were the writers of the stories I’d just read, some of them experienced authors, some (unless my memory is tricking me) only a little further along than I was—except that they’d actually done it while I was still only thinking about it! 

But I was most excited when Anthony remarked that his next project would be an "Arthurian juvenile" anthology: tales of King Arthur and the knights of Camelot, but in any settings the author might like: they could be pirates, cavemen, as wild as you please: or even in the traditional Old England. He planned to invite submissions and make his selections that summer.

As soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to be in that anthology. I turned to my "story notions" notebook and looked at all the ideas I’d jotted down. Most of them I couldn’t imagine fitting into an Arthurian frame, even with the wide latitude Anthony had suggested, but there was just one that had possibilities. I still have it, exactly as I wrote it down when it had first occurred to me—please pardon the informality:
Fantasy world: the people are ruled by a king, who had a kind of halo. When king dies, halo moves to someone else, not predictable. If king orders someone to do something, and they don't do it, misfortune befalls them. 
Alternative: world has magic, but con men tell that story to stranger when all they really have is the halo.
Alternative: Kingship transfers to a reluctant peasant. POV his brother? friend?
What other magic enters into the story?
Is the story about the end of the halo spell? Learning something about it? The effect it has on characters?

That was all. If you read "The Kings of the Corona", as I hope you will, you'll see that the final story differs from the original germ in many ways: the "alternatives" I played with in the note fell by the wayside, and I settled on "Corona" (Latin for "crown") as the preferred name for the thing, avoiding the religious charge of "halo". This was because, as I began to work on the story seriously, I realized that the power to make someone do something just by issuing a command would be so overwhelming that it had to be the bad guy who wielded it. If the good guy had the Corona, there'd be no story. The story has to be about fighting against the King of the Corona, and somehow winning, which meant I had to work out a back-story for the Corona, and then show how a Knight of King Arthur defeats it.

I started writing, first describing the little isolated kingdom of Palavel, ruled by a man made king by the Corona, from the point of view of a young man, a brewer's apprentice, named Mauregal. Then I would have the Knight, whom I named Sir Sagradur, arrive ... but as I wrote, I realized I was telling a different kind of Arthurian story.

Pardon me for a digression. A formula that many stories have used, from the Knights of King Arthur all the way to Star Trek, consists of presenting a place with a problem, and a good guy rides up in his horse or spaceship or whatever, solves the problem, basks momentarily in the gratitude of the people, makes a nice speech that shows how he's finer and better than they are, and rides off into the sunset, warp factor 6. Granted, I'm parodying here to make a point—the point that this formula is actually pretty anti-libertarian, anti-dignity-of-the-common-folk in its philosophical implications—but I think you will recognize this formula. 
The Lone Ranger used it. Have Gun, Will Travel used it. James Bond used it, only without the "gratitude of the people" part because in the 007 adventures the general population is so benighted they never even know they've been rescued, or that they were in danger in the first place.

But, as I wrote, it turned out that I wasn't using it. I didn't really set out to write the anti-Paladin story, but somehow that's exactly what I did. Sir Sagradur is a noble character, he’s a much-needed inspiration for Mauregal, and he’s crucial for the plot: if he and his dipsomaniac squire Kincarius hadn't arrived, Christians among pagans, but totally focused on the mission King Arthur had given them, nothing would have happened to save Palavel. But in the end ... well, I’m trying to give up my bad habit of blurting spoilers, so enough already. 

Another thing I didn't set out to do, but did anyway, was write a story that went over Anthony's length-suggestion (well, length-limit, originally). It was supposed to be up to 10,000 words, or not much more. I had started by writing a rough outline, like a detailed plot summary, and then working from that. The summary was about 2,000 words, and as I went along it seemed to be "inflating" at a good ratio of about five finished-words to one summary-word, so I figured I'd be fine. Then I got to the last quarter, and something happened to the ratio ... somehow, that last quarter of the outline took a whole lot more words to turn into final story than the rest of my outline did, and my first draft of the story weighed in at about 15,000 words, if I remember correctly. However, it was 11 PM of the last day of the submission period, so I sent it off with an apologetic cover note. I figured the worst Anthony could say was no, and if that was the decision maybe I could find some other use for it.

But to my great gratification, he liked it! He decided to forgive me the extra few thousand words. I did further revisions, and struck out some of the excess verbiage in that original version over the following few months, but also added others, so that the final version was, I think, around 17,000. As with the periodic attempts to cut the federal budget, somehow the net result of each round of cutting was to make it a little bigger. Oh well, as an e-book it hardly matters, I hope.

As I say, I hope you'll read "The Kings of the Corona", in TALES OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. In the process of revising it I’ve read it many times myself and I still like it. Now that I’ve read the other stories in the anthology I have to say that it may not be the best story in the book, but it is still the longest. So any way you look at it, this is a book you should get.


And, if you've been giving any thought to doing some writing of your own, I hope you'll be as inspired by this anthology as I was by GOD, ROBOT, and start jotting down your own story ideas. I found writing to be a lot of work, but also great fun, and highly satisfying when you finish.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Awful Truth About Forgetting

L. Jagi Lamplighter has done it again: the fourth of the Rachel Griffin books is out, as of yesterday. This is a delightful series, based on a storyline devised by Mark Whipple, about a girl whose memory is supposedly perfect—she forgets nothing, and can bring to her mind anything she’s ever seen and replay it like a recording, even slowing it down as needed. This quirk, even more than the fact that she’s British nobility or that she’s a magic user at a school for sorcery, drives the plot. What brings it into high relief is that she lives in a world much like our own a few years in the future, but suffering from a strange sort of amnesia: no one (Rachel included) remembers anything about the great monotheistic religions of the world. (The polytheistic ones are still going strong, however.) Perhaps it’s a parallel world where the monotheistic religions were never invented; that would almost make sense, except there are certain details that don’t fit...

The explanation for the mystery is still elusive, but readers do get some more hints in THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT FORGETTING. I had the privilege to read a draft of it awhile back. As I recall, besides dealing with danger and intrigue, Rachel has some more usual schoolgirl fun and anxieties in this book: but lacking Rachel’s perfect memory I’m going to read it again this winter. The cover picture is of a particularly gorgeous and magical scene.

There are also five black and white illustrations in the book, drawn by John C. Wright himself! They ought to be in the table of contents too. If you want to turn to them, I found them in chapters 2, 5, 12, 22, and 37, either the beginning or end of each of these chapters. They also appear in this terrific trailer by Ben Zwycky (music by Gilbert and Sullivan, can’t go wrong!).

Another good installment in Rachel’s story. I hope we don’t have so long to wait for book five!

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Pulpy Titles as Starting Points

I've always wanted to write science fiction and fantasy, but only recently had my first success at conceiving of a real story with plot and characters and everything, finishing it, and getting it accepted in an anthology. The story is "Kings of the Corona" and you can (and should!) read it in the anthology TALES OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, edited by Anthony Marchetta. A friend who doesn't use Kindle bought the print edition and showed it to me, and it's very handsome. I was struck by what an excellent gift it would make to some book-lover for Christmas or any other holiday of your choice.

Okay, enough promotion for today. I'm currently working on several writing projects. One is a short story with a working title "The Stowaways" (I hope to rename it eventually) whose first draft I've finished. I'm taking my mind off of that for awhile so I can come back to review and revise it later with a fresh mind: based on how my work went on "Kings of the Corona", it seems to me that a lot of the magic comes in the revising and polishing stage. Meanwhile, I'm also about ready to start manuscript work on a story for Superversive Press's Luna anthology, and I have a pretty long line of other ideas I'm anxious to get cracking on after that.

Then there's this concept from Brad Walker on the Superversive website, of writing serialized fiction on one's blog. I've actually been considering that for awhile, and I'd like to do that too: I hope it would spur me to increase the regularity of both my blogging and my writing.

Where do ideas for good, pulpy SFF stories come from? There's lots of advice out there. One idea is to start with a title and make up a story for it. I decided to experiment with that, and loaded a database with a vocabulary taken from titles of Doc Savage stories, with a few I added myself that I thought had a similar flavor, and set up a routine to combine these at random (though with a few rules) and randomly interspersed with numbers and "of" and "of the". Then I let it crank out some titles.

Most of them were just nonsense, but I kept track of some that seemed interesting:
  • The Swords of Saturn
  • The Undersea Manhunt
  • The Six Magic Moons
  • The Poison War
  • The Deadly Shadow
  • The Mysterious Dimension
  • The Two Fantastic Quests
  • The Sky Tournaments
  • The Disaster Comet
  • The Child of Europa
  • The Fearsome Labyrinth
  • The Future Eagle
  • The Crystal Dragon
  • The Goblin Star
  • The Green Portal
  • The Caverns of Io
  • The Avenging Pirates
  • The Meteors of the Sargasso
  • The Midas Ogre
  • The Cloud Wizards
  • The Fiery Castle
  • The Encrypted Arenas
  • The Four Suns of Mercury
  • The Ocean Ambassadors
There are a lot here that seem suggestive enough that I'd pick them off the stand and thumb through them. "The Four Suns of Mercury"--what's that about? Does some evildoer create a space warp and swipe the whole planet out of the solar system to a new sun, where our heroes give chase and force him to flee to yet another sun, and another? Or could there be miniature artificial suns created to orbit the planet--and for what purpose? Perhaps some extra suns are INSIDE the (surprisingly hollow) planet of Mercury?

Or "The Undersea Manhunt": your fugitive flees in a submarine, in the dark and still mostly-unsettled three-quarters of the globe in the near future. How does the hero catch up with him? What's "The Goblin Star"? Perhaps a tiny white dwarf that's been approaching Sol without our noticing for centuries, and due to pass by shortly--but will the brutish inhabitants of its orbiting planet be content to pass along with it? How the heck can "The Encrypted Arenas" be a thing? Perhaps they're virtual? What's the point of encrypting them? Is something going on in them that the participants need to remain secret?

My evaluation: this is not a bad way to stimulate story ideas. As I say, I already have a longish list of "to-be-worked-ons", but please feel free to take on anything here that strikes your fancy. Maybe leave a comment if you do so I know the title has been done, when I look back on this years later.


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Review: Paragons: An Anthology of Superheroes

Russell Newquist of Silver Empire was so good as to send me a review copy of Paragons: An Anthology of Superheroes which I've been enjoying very much this past week. Thirteen tales of original superheroes make up the collection, exploring the theme of heroic adventures with fantastic powers.

There’s a wide variety of length and tone here. Steve Beaulieu’s “Medusa” is a good choice to introduce the anthology, being about a 1000-word short look at a superheroine’s isolation, followed by what I think must be the longest one in the collection, Kai Wai Cheah’s “Nightstick”, an intricate novella of a dark superhero fighting to protect his city in a near-future where many people, both good guys and bad, had suddenly acquired extraordinary powers.

Morgon Newquist, who also edited the book, wrote “Blackout”, which delves into the characters of two heroes: the optimistic and candid Jameson Hirsch, and his more brooding and tormented friend, Michael Turner, in an introduction that for me harkened back to G. K. Chesterton’s stories of Father Brown and his frenemy, Flambeau. The subtitle is “A Serenity City Story,” which makes me hope to see much more of their interactions with each other—and the still-mysterious Rhiannon Argall, for whose love they are rivals.

Jon Mollison’s knack for stories of high adventure with heroes motivated by deep family love comes through again in “Like Father”. Dawn Witzke’s “Deadly Calm Returns” takes a lighter look at a superhero’s family life and had the people in the donut shop where I read it wondering, I’m sure, why that fellow kept bursting into laughter. Declan Finn’s “Weather Witch” has his trademark well-told fantasy action. It's one of the few "origin stories" in this collection, and one of the few not set in a city.

If "Nightstick" had a darkness to it that reminded me of Batman, "Someone is Aiming for You" by J. D. Cowan made me think of The Shadow (though I blush to admit I still only know that series through the Alec Baldwin movie): a dark drama between good and evil metaphysical forces. The final story in the book, "Stalina" by Sam Kepfield, tells of a Khruschev-era idealistic Russian superwoman, devoted to Truth, Justice, and the Soviet Way...like many of the stories here that seem to cry out for sequels, "Stalina" made me want to read more about her.

A lot of these stories could be turned into series, and I hope at least some of them will be. I found Paragons to be a terrific read, and I'll be looking for more.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Thursday Review: WAR DEMONS, by Russell Newquist

WAR DEMONS follows veteran Michael Alexander who returned from the Afghanistan war with PTSD, but he also happens to have to deal with war demons of a more tangible variety. Michael enlisted after 9/11 to fight the people who launched that attack, not only from an overflow of patriotism and thirst for vengeance but also because of the gut-wrenching personal impact he suffered from the event. After he returns he finds that the real battle between good and evil is not only on the battlefields in the Mideast, and may never be described in the history books...

This book is filled with engaging characters and memorable, significant action scenes. The themes are serious and it treats them seriously, but there are moments where the somberness is broken not by levity but by hints of grace coming from above, like a sunbeam breaking through the clouds.

The plot builds to a page-turning rush of action that never lets up (well, eventually the book ends...but not till shortly before that). Some reviewers have remarked the first part of the book was slower; it is, but I didn't have any problem with it: Newquist does a great job setting out the background with intriguing storytelling even before you get to the zombies and vampires and...oh, just read it.

Since it's listed on Amazon with the subtitle (or whatever you call it) The Prodigal Son Book 1, I don't think I spoil anything by mentioning that the end leaves room for a sequel or two, or several, and I'm hoping those will be forthcoming. It's excellent reading.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This Week in Cultural Appropriation: Rarebit Fundido


A beery cheese sauce spiced up with salsa and completed (if desired) with leftover taco meat, cooked in the microwave in the bowl you're going to eat it from. Perfect for a night when the lady of the house is out doing something and you're fixing a fast, simple, tasty for yourself for while you watch old horror flicks on Svengoolie wearing an old T-shirt (because you'll dribble).


Ingredients:
Beer, one bottle: I suggest a strong, dark one like a porter or stout
Cheddar cheese, probably 6 ounces (150 grams)
Salsa: maybe half a cup. Check the expiration date on the jar.
Flour: about a quarter cup
Tortilla chips
Optional:
Garlic, one clove, crushed
Leftover taco meat, to taste


Procedure

Use a microwavable bowl, and--important!--it needs to be tall enough to hold the cheese and beer and still have about an inch of room left at the top. You don't want it to boil over in the microwave.



Grate the cheese into the bowl. Toss in the flour. Shake the bowl up and down and toss the cheese with the flour with your fingers. The goal is to coat the cheese with flour and hopefully not have much flour left. The fat from the cheese and the flour make a kind of roux, without needing butter.

Pour enough beer over the cheese to cover it and stir it around. This will not require all the beer in a bottle, so you will have to find another use for the rest of it. Sorry, forgot to mention that. Hope it doesn't make difficulty. If using garlic, crush it into the mix. Then put it into the microwave for one minute.

After one minute it will be a little melted but not smooth yet. Stir it with a spoon and then microwave it for another minute (take the spoon out).

After the second minute, stir again and it should be smooth. If it isn't, you can try mending it by sifting in a bit of flour, stirring to incorporate it, maybe a bit more, stirring again, and then microwave another minute. It's hard not to get lumps doing this. But usually it comes out pretty well for me.

After you have it smooth, pour in salsa to taste: I glop in a good half cup.

Then stir it up and microwave for another half minute or minute, and remove from the microwave.

If you want to add leftover taco meat, heat the meat in the microwave till hot through, and then pour a layer onto the top of the cheese sauce. Arrange chips around it on a plate if taking a picture for a blog, otherwise just grab the bag and head for the TV set.