Tag Archives: Science

Writing Tools: Lore and History

Lore and History are part and parcel of world-building as a writer.  Knowing what happened (and why) allows a writer to project what will happen (and why).  History gives your characters roots… all the more so when the details are debatable.  Was one man a hero or a villian… well it depends on who you ask.

What are these things for a writer?  In many cases, History and Lore are never published.  They are notes or sometimes just ideas that the author has and are something that they base their world upon.  History is easy enough: this is the major events that have happened in this world.  I’ve personally used everything from a chronological timeline to a hundred-plus page document.  This is the stuff that you know has already gone before.  This is the cold hard facts.  Births, deaths, wars, all the framework for what has gone before.

Lore, on the other hand, is what the characters and readers know and feel.  This is the story about the valiant rebel who stood up to the bloody-handed tyrant or the murderous brigand who accosted the king’s lawmen.  Where history is what the author knows is the truth, lore gives the feeling of real-life.  Lore is made up of the urban myths, the rumors, the stories, and the legends.  As the author, you may know that the great hero who overthrew the King was actually an ambitious poser, who wanted to take the throne for himself… but your characters might still respect or venerate him because they don’t know that.

History is dry, dusty, and often boring… but Lore, that’s where you can get some interesting character conflicts.  Longstanding feuds, cases of mistaken identity, and tensions between clans or nations are all great fodder for writing some interesting character conflict.  Exploring how a character deals with such prejudices and overcomes them (or not) can make for interesting reading and fun writing.  Granted, this is secondary to making the characters themselves interesting, but it does give you excellent levers on character motivation.

So how do you go about designing history and lore?  Well, much of that comes back to what kind of story you want to tell.  If you want a story about betrayal, revenge, and star-crossed lovers, then a history of murders and assassinations, with a lore of each family blaming the other, makes for a great setting.   Your characters will have a history of violence to draw upon, where such solutions are expected by both sides.

That said, it is easy to go overboard in world-building a history.  You don’t necessarily need to know everything.  I know fellow authors who do seem to know everything.  They have page after page of notes.  They know why one group hates another group, why the first group likes the third group, who married who, who killed who… but they haven’t got beyond page ten of their actual manuscript.

The other area to go wrong is the (in)famous infodump.  This is where the plot stops and the reader is confronted by a wall of text about why this all matters.  Some readers love this, others… not so much.  The history and lore you’ve spent so much time on should be there in the background as a framework and as character motivation, but it shouldn’t step up front and stop the action of your story.  There’s a balance to strike between the reader having some idea of what is going on versus destroying dramatic tension and pacing by throwing hurdles of text at your reader.

Of course, the other end of the spectrum is where an author has no idea or at best a vague understanding of what has come before.  When the reader doesn’t know what has happened and the author doesn’t bother explain why this all matter in the greater scheme of things.  An author can pull this off if they have a strong, character-driven story… but it’s a lot easier to have that framework to build upon.  If the author doesn’t have a strong story or characters and they have a history/lore that is basically nonexistant… well, then you get a sort of generic story that is at best, not memorable and at worst… pretty much unreadable.

There is a tremendous advantage in being an author of fantasy or science fiction in the ability to craft the lore and history of your world to fit the story you want to tell.  A few hours and some jotted notes can give you a universe for your characters to explore and a framework for you to write a more vibrant and alive setting.

 

Advertisements

A Few Updates and a Review

First up, Tom Knighton, an excellent author, has a great review of Echo of the High Kings up. He had some comments that I really appreciated and if you don’t read his stuff, I think he’s a fantastic blogger and author. You can read his review here.

My Liberty Con review went up on Monday. As I said, I met a lot of great people and I mentioned a few of the people I met there at the convention, I didn’t list them all, because I don’t think you want to see long lists of names, but it was funny to me because some of them are names I see every day on Amazon, on the list of “People who bought this book also bought…”

I also wanted to update everyone on my upcoming airing on American Ninja Warrior. The Military themed program will air on Monday, July 6th on NBC and Tuesday, July 7th on Esquire Network. I can’t say anything about what you’ll see, but I had a great time at the event. Be sure to tune in and watch!

Lastly, I wanted to say that I’ll be creating a new program, for those who want periodic updates but don’t regularly read my blog. I’ll have a mailing list which I’ll send out a newsletter once a month with free fiction, snippets, updates on my writing progress, and announcements when books are released. I’ll have a tab on the side and you can sign up now by using the “Contact Kal” page or messaging me on FB with your email.

Counter Culture, Identity, and Nerds

I won’t ever forget the time that I heard someone tell me that I wasn’t really a nerd.

This came as quite a shock to me, let me assure you.  At the time, I was GMing an ongoing D&D campaign which had run two full years, playing once or twice a week for that entire time.  I was also playing MMO’s as well as Warhammer 40k and Fantasy.  I had grown up playing computer games like Starcraft and Civilization.  For that matter, I not only had a library of science fiction and fantasy novels, but I’d written three of them myself and was trying to get them published.  In high school and college I was a band geek, a debate geek, I played D&D, I liked math, these things weren’t something I just picked up because I thought it would make me look cool… I love this stuff.  Surely, I thought, my credentials were well established.

Not according to the young man who accosted me.  He was angry, irritated, really.  He told me that I was too well adjusted, that I hadn’t suffered enough, that I didn’t wear my badge of nerd-dom through my appearance and dress, that I needed to look the part.  Granted, he said this much less eloquently, and talked about how real nerds were outcasts, they were the people who rejected society because it rejected them and it didn’t understand them.  Nerds weren’t successful because non-nerds kept them down.

Now, say what?  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my fair share of rejection, but not what I’d call ‘oppression’, which seemed to be what this guy was hinting at.  And frankly, I’m not the type to curl up into a ball because I get my feelings hurt.  If that was the case, I probably wouldn’t have survived middle school.  Who cares about being insulted or rejected?  It happens to everyone, for one reason or another.  As for being beat up… well I could set there and take it, but it is far more satisfying to punch back.  Turns out that fighting back really is the best tactic to prevent bullying, who would have thought?

And, looking at society, there were a lot of successful people who are also nerds.  Bill Gates comes to mind as one of the standard lines.  But there are others.  In my circle of friends I know lawyers, military officers, engineers (lots of them), neurobiologists… these are people who are pretty much examples of success and are also total nerds (trust me, you should have heard the gales of laughter from my friend’s wife as we were discussing the pro’s and con’s of wizard versus sorcerer).  Oh yeah, and most of them are married, because contrary to popular opinion, being a nerd and having some social graces are not entirely mutually exclusive.

So why, exactly was this young gentleman accusing me of not really being a nerd (while wearing hipster faux glasses and button-up shirt he’d probably bought at Calvin Klein).  Well, it comes back to the counter culture idea.  Nerds are seen as the ‘cool’ people right now.  Shows like Big Bang Theory and Glee have somehow turned the nerdy kids into the ones to be… but along the way, those trendy types are emulating the appearance but not the actual spirit.  These people identify as nerds, but they do so because they think that nerds are somehow the victims, the downtrodden.  So, in this conversation, I’d mentioned that I didn’t feel particularly downtrodden by being a nerd.  Thus, the declaration that clearly I wasn’t a nerd or geek.

I just think this fellow was a bit confused, but that encounter wasn’t mine alone.  I’ve had other friends who trend towards the nerdy end of the spectrum confronted as well.  For that matter, I’ve seen science hijacked by the trendy crowd (I’m looking at you “I Fucking Love Science” with your overly simplistic science and your fancy pictures and charts).  While I appreciate that all things nerdy, from science and science fiction to comic books to gaming to roleplaying, are now somewhat fashionable… well, I think it’s more important that people do these things because they actually have interest, not hitting like or share on FB because they want to look cool, and definitely not trying to build their little cliques and power structures within greater nerd-dom.  I certainly don’t want some kind of victim mentality pushed on all of us because we’re different.  I like being different, thank you, so please don’t ruin it for me.

And as for you mister trendy nerd… well, I’m glad you’re showing an interest, but don’t go around flinging accusations, especially not when your own credentials include “I like XBox games and I played Mario Bros once.”

The Romantic Pessimist’s Argument for Space

I consider myself a romantic pessimist.  I hope for the best… and plan for the worst.  That said, I’m also a dreamer and most of my hopes and ambitions are tied to space.  Not surprising, then, that I write science fiction, eh?  I’m writing this post as something of a dialogue, a hope that we continue to look out and push the boundaries.

So what do I think of space right now?  Well, to be honest, I’m afraid.  There is a very vocal percentage of Americans who seem to think that space is something that we should avoid.  Their arguments run a gamut of points.  Some are the simple ‘we need to fix things here before we worry about that stuff.’  Some are economic ‘it’s too expensive, we don’t get anything out of it.’  The most insidious, I think, are the people who seem to feel that humanity is somehow a corrupting influence, that we have polluted and destroyed our world and will go out and do the same elsewhere.

I’ll tackle those arguments, since they’re the ones I hear the most.  The first one, the one about fixing things here on Earth, is at its heart, an illogical argument.  What exactly are we supposed to fix here on Earth?  Poverty, crime, war, social injustice, sad puppies… the list goes ever onward.  The truth is, there will always be things that need to be fixed.  Humanity, is at its nature, imperfect.  We can never fix things here on Earth entirely, not without unlimited resources and a fundemental change in human nature.  Poverty is an effect of limited resources, economic factors, and supply and demand.  As wealth increases throughout  a system, it trickles down to others.  This is the free market… which can be imperfect and can be distorted, but that’s a can of worms I’ll open another time.  Crime is caused by a variety of factors, many of which stem from a society plagued by poverty, social inequality, corruption, and a failure of society to enforce the Social Contract.  War is another event triggered by limited resources and economic factors.  Add in perceived injustices and nationalistic fervor.  Sad puppies we can address at another time.  These are big issues, many of which do not have easy or simple solutions, no matter what some politicians say.  Most of them, short of a perfect world, cannot be fixed by us, they have to gradually shift over time.  Are we to focus all of our efforts upon these issues and any others, we still may not change them.  Indeed attempts to end poverty have often shown to make things worse, instead of lifting people up, they pull the rest of us down.  Attempts to end war, peacekeeping, is often a band-aid, which prevents violence while peacekeepers are present but fails to achieve long-lasting solutions.  Saying that we need to fix something first is akin to the man who says he’ll go look for a job… tomorrow.  Putting off a serious investment in space is not allowing us to focus more resources on problems, merely to offset the cost of space exploration to the future.

The economic arguement against space exploration and development is, in my opinion, the most spurious.  People said much the same about expeditions to the New World in the Age of Exploration.  Yes, many of those expeditions bankrupted people and others brought back only meager returns.  Exploration and development is not something that pays off instantly.  It, horror of horrors, requires hard work.  Space requires us to travel further, experience a harsher environment, and to put ourselves at risk… but in return we will gain access to resources and options far beyond what we now possess.  It will require the development of new engines, the construction of a space elevator, and yes, it will cost in lives lost in the effort.  Space is far harsher an environment than any place on Earth.  People have died in explorations of lonely mountains and remote polar regions here… but they expanded our knowledge and they died doing what they dreamed of.  It is far better to die doing something grand, in my opinion, than to live a life where you never accomplish anything.  And yes, I’m someone who lives and may well die by that opinion.  The resources we can harvest in space make our current resources laughable.  A single nickle iron asteroid could meet our steel requirements for a year.  Energy shortage?  A solar array in space could have more surface area than anything we could build in space, be dispersed, and still provide us with power, either directly beamed down in the form of light or converted to microwaves and transmitted down in that fashion.  No, these are not things that will come right away.  These are things we’d have to work for and work hard at… but hey, poverty’s one of those issues we want to fix, right?  Booming industry in space, lots of people needed, trained people.  New jobs created to train them and build the training areas.  New jobs created to provide them with support and services.  Going back to the previous argument, let’s fix the environment.  Don’t care for all those nasty coal plants?  Really like solar power, but you don’t like the nasty chemicals that solar plants produce?  Building it in space won’t contaminate our planet and if we’re smart about it, we could provide power to the entire world.  Cheap power for the entire world.  How’s that for fixing some problems down here?

The last argument is one of philosophy and outlook rather than one of reason and logic.  Some people seem to think that humanity is, at its core, a vile and wretched thing.  These people point out that wherever we go, we bring war, bloodshed, destruction.  Movies such as Avatar make me sick to my stomach.  Because under all that pretty CGI and ‘big dreams’ there is black withered heart that hates itself and wants to make you hate yourself too.  Those poor oppressed people who don’t really exist and those nasty military-industrial complex types who want to tear their planet apart.  It’s a movie with a message about how horrible people are… and how technology is evil and the only people who want to go out there to the stars are nasty, greedy, self-serving, types.  Why?  Why should we beleive that message, brought to us by Ferngully In Space?  Why should we look back at history and see only the negative… white Christian settlers slaughtering the peaceful Native Americans.  What about the Declaration of Independence?  What about great American artists and writers?  America the Beautiful, the National Anthem, Edgar Allen Poe.  What about the American Industrial Revolution that brought about the rise of the first real free society in the world?  What about standing up to the Soviet Union and showing that a free society is a match for a totalitarian regime any day?

There are people who honestly are plagued by such guilt that they would rather see humanity huddling naked in caves than happy, prosperous, and long lived.  This nihilistic tendency is a nasty, virulent ideology that upholds that people are bad… and all to many of them seem to think that the best thing anyone can do is to take themselves out of the picture.  They hate themselves, and they want us to hate ourselves too.  Rather than conservation, they want nature to remain immaculate, untouched, perfect.  They have some image of the world without people as being pristine.  This would, by necessity, lead to the removal of the human race.  And in, their hearts, they’re glad for that, because not only do they hate themselves, they hate you too.  The very thought of us polluting ‘untouched new worlds’ and the construction that would allow us to reach them causes them emotional agony, not just from the thought of what we might do out there, but also because we might expand, live, prosper… and show that their beleif structure is flawed.  If we succeed out in space, we show them that humanity is not bad and we show the potential that we hold in ourselves.

We have in us a desire to go forth, to see what lies beyond the next horizon.  To pent that up, to reject it, is to reject ourselves… to reject our very nature.  Our past is here, our home is Earth.  Yet in the nature of all children, as we grow up, we must take those first steps away from home, to find our own path.  That path lies in space… and the sooner we begin that journey, the sooner we continue our growth to adulthood.

Here’s some interesting links, people who say some good things… and people who argue the opposite.  Feel free to link anything in that you think pertinent.  Thanks for reading.

http://accordingtohoyt.com/2014/02/07/a-radical-notion-a-guest-post-by-james-cambias/

http://debatewise.org/debates/137-space-exploration-is-a-waste-of-money/

Space Warfare: I Have the Power!

Cutdrawing_of_an_GPHS-RTGI’m continuing my blog post last week Friday and discussing space warfare technology.  More specificially, I’ll address what I see as one of the big issues: power generation and density.

The big issue with any kinds of space technology is the power source and power density.  If three quarters of the vessel is taken up by power generation to get a mediocre total, then all the other systems need to be more efficient (less cool stuff) in balance.  Contraversely, if you can power the entire craft with something the size of a deck of cards that yields terawatts of power, you can afford to put more of other stuff and use systems that are less efficient.

Power generation is one of the primary difficulties in current space travel.  All current systems utilize chemical-based propulsion (rockets) and have solar panels to assist in power generation.  The problem with solar panels is that their relative energy production efficiency is limited, typically they only generate at around ten percent.  What this means is that ten percent of the energy that hits the panels is generated into electricity.  As far as space combat is concerned, solar panels are also extremely fragile, and increase the target profile (the size of the craft as a target, which makes it easier to hit).  As an alternative, a number of early probes and devices such as Voyager used radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), which is a fancy way to say they have very radioactive material which produce heat and then convert that into electricity.  This is a simple form of nuclear power generation.   These types of generation were used only to produce electricity.

Other forms of nuclear power, both for propulsion and for electricity generation have been theorized.  Nuclear fission is the primary method, which is the most well-explored nuclear technology.  Pebble bed reactors, already more compact than a standard fission reactor, could be used to provide both power and propulsion.  As a source of energy, nuclear power is much more compact than standard methods of power generation.  Still, the current societal fears of radiation and ‘evil’ fission will likely make widespread use of nuclear power an uphill battle.

Other forms of power generation and storage have been theorized in science fiction as well as actual scientific articles.  Fusion, often seen as the next step of nuclear power, is an often seen trope of military science fiction.  The current hurdle is that a controllable, sustainable fusion reaction seems just out of our reach.  In theory, it would only require hydrogen as fuel to produce power.  The issue is that making such a power system compact enough to use.  This is likely to keep fusion power just out of reach.  Antimatter power generation is often misconstrued.  Antimatter, when combined with normal matter, annihilates one another.  The issue, is that antimatter doesn’t occur naturally in our area (luckily for us, because if it did, we’d have a big explosion).  So we have to generate it with something like the CERN collider.  This, in effect, turns antimatter power into a high capacity battery, and not necessarily a high efficiency one.  Containment of antimatter requires powerful electromagnetic fields, and any slip up would allow the antimatter to contact normal matter, and then you lose the battery and possibly the space craft.  Other, even more esoteric power sources include singularities and dark matter, both of which are well beyond our current technology levels.

So why does all this matter?  Well, as far as spacecraft design and warfare, power design is essential.  A compact system allows more of the spacecraft’s volume and mass to be dedicated to other systems.  More power allows more complicated systems and higher energy usage for those systems.  Where this comes into play especially is in weapons, but also in sensors, communications, defenses, propulsion and support systems.  A high energy weapon system such as a directed energy weapon (such as a laser) requires a lot of power, as would a rail gun or some other linear accelerator.  The pay off for weapons like these are their destructive capabilities.   Lower yield weapons require less power, but deal less damage.  Rockets, missiles and the like have internal power and so the craft pays for them directly in additional mass and volume.  The destructive capabilities of the spacecraft are hinged upon its ability to generate power and project it.

The other systems are integrated into this as well.  A ship which dedicates all of its capabilities to offensive weapons may have to sacrifice other systems as a consequence.  Energy requirements to sensors and communications are not entirely trivial, and they are essential for combat.  Propulsion systems may utilize the ship’s power source or have their own internal power, but will likely use as much power or more as weapons systems, and a ship which cannot maneuver is an easy target.  Defensive systems, which could range from jamming systems to smaller weapons designed to intercept enemy fire to the futuristic defense screens or shields will also be essential to combat and to the preservation of a vessel.  Other systems are not as crucial.  A warship may need to cut back on non-essential systems prior to combat, such as life support systems, internal lighting, and temperature control much like wooden hulled ships ‘cleared the decks’ of non-essential furniture and equipment prior to a battle.

In the near future, we are likely to see no drastic in power generation.  Solar panels allow satellites to function with relative efficiency.   If space combat does develop, solar panels will probably shift to use only on civilian or ‘neutral’ craft or installations.  Nuclear power will most likely see use in near future space combat, both the RTGs and possibly pebble bed reactors.  This will allow higher energy production and more powerful weapons (not counting those weapons such as missiles or rockets, which are internally sourced).  More powerful weapons will likely require better defenses; either in the form of concealment (hiding) or hardening (make it tougher).  And like that, the space arms race begins.

Thanks for reading.  Next week Friday I’ll discuss space weaponry and where I foresee the issues and difficulties, as well as some of the benefits.

It’s SCIENCE!

ImageI still remember the time I first got in an argument with a teacher. It was in a science class in middle school and the teacher was explaining how some simple physics would work in some rockets we were making (2 liter coke bottles with water and compressed air). Things went pretty well in the class until I asked a question about why the water worked better than just the air.

I know now that water has higher mass, that the compressed air pushed the water out and imparted a greater initial thrust. That’s not the answer the teacher gave me, that’s one I figured out later on. My teacher just said ‘because it works.’

My response, in typical twelve-year-old fashion, could have been more tactful. I said, “That means you don’t know.” Cornering your teacher with the fact that they don’t understand how something works is not a way to endear them to you.

What I didn’t really grasp then (and the teacher, who had a teaching degree rather than a physics or engineering degree, didn’t get either), is that science is about asking those questions. Knowing how things work is the key to science… and something our education system does its best to program out of students at a young age. I don’t have a degree in teaching, but it seems to me that telling someone to read the text book is not a way to encourage kids to ask questions. Nor is, oddly enough, having them take rote tests designed to ‘check on learning.’

Teaching science, as in teaching most things, requires interaction and participation. I’ve had a few teachers who understood this, but only one in High School who taught science. My chemistry teacher was so good at the time that I retook her class as a senior as an AP class, both for the college credit and to do some of the crazy experiments she’d put together. Creating methane bubbles in a classroom and lighting them on fire might not seem like an educational process. Doing that while discussing the properties of soap films and the exothermic reaction of methane and oxygen both gets the students to pay attention and to actually think a little bit. This was a teacher who wasn’t afraid to admit that sometimes she didn’t have the answer… but that we could work on it.

The scientific method, trial and error, these things are essential to learning and developing science. That’s something that we, especially as fans of Science Fiction, should always remember.