Archive for category Plot Thoughts

A Writer Reviews: Almost Hollow, the Sleepy Human

SleepyHumanTwo new genre shows debuted on Fox this year. One was an insane notion of turning the legend of Sleepy Hollow into a weekly series. The other was a high concept future buddy cop show headlined by a successful movie star. If I had to put money on only one of the two shows succeeding, I’d have put the one starring a bankable star with the safer premise.

Which is to say, I’d have bet on Almost Human beating Sleepy Hollow.

However, we’re now in mid-February. Sleepy Hollow got a pickup for season two before any other new show this season, and Almost Human is possibly limping towards cancellation. So this raises a question, what did the one do so right, and the other do so wrong?

Let me first say, before I start digging into the shows, that I really do love both of them. Almost Human is one of the first hours of television I catch up with every week. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty to indict the show on, nor has my enjoyment of the characters left me blind to the flaws of the show.

First, these two shows are equally weird. That I felt Almost Human was more approachable demonstrates my bias towards science fiction over fantasy. However, asking a broader audience to accept androids, quasi-sentient bullets, and sexbots is no different than asking them to accept the headless horseman, witches, and zombie George Washington. That’s right, zombie George Washington is the sexbot in this comparison. You’re welcome.

Fantasy has also been on more of a winning streak on television lately. But I don’t think that the problem comes down solely to the different genres. One of the most popular shows on television, Person of Interest, has slowly become one of the more compelling science fiction shows of the last two decades.

So what did Sleepy Hollow do right that Almost Human did wrong?

If I had to chalk it up to one factor, I would say Sleepy Hollow better compelled an audience into its world. From the word go, the show hardly let up. It trusted the audience to be willing to come along for a ride. Frankly, it had to. I was dubious going into the show, but it didn’t give me enough of an opportunity to think about what an insane piece of media I was watching.

Almost Human, on the other hand, has given the audience too many opportunities to stop and think about what they’re watching. Look, the dynamic between the two lead stars is incredible, but too often the show has relied on their dialogue in the car. The world is painted on, a thin veneer that relies on the audience to remember Blade Runner. It was only in Episode Nine when the show was willing to embrace the world, and show the audience that there was something out there beyond a familiar pastiche. Unfortunately, that’s too late for a lot of viewers.  Nearly a third of the initial audience has abandoned the show.

It’s far too late to make a thesis statement now.

So what’s the lesson?

First, trust your audience. They want to be taken for a ride, take them for that ride. Don’t feel the need to apologize for a story being what you want it to be. There are so many stories and novels that someone can pick up and read, be your own.

Second, make sure you have a world. If you spend too much time giving your audience a chance to build the world on their own, many are going to fight that. Others are going to paint in another, similar world, and be upset when they get the details wrong. Don’t give them the opportunity to make the world their own, because the world is your own.

I’m still holding out hope for Almost Human. Both from the story telling department, and in my hopes that it gets a second season. Plenty of brilliant genre shows have had slow starts. If it does survive, then everyone needs to stop giving Fox shit about cancelling science fiction.

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RPGs and Story Telling: The Worlds

Oh lord, the worlds. After I’ve finished reading through the character sheets and looking at how characters are built in the game, it’s time to look at the rest of the book. And that’s where worlds are born and live.

This is one of the power of systems designed to translate across multiple settings. It’s what GURPS tried so nobly to get right, though I found it often got lost in all the rules. It’s what Fate Core has achieved thus far.

I used to buy those old GURPS books. Never played the game much, but the books were fantastic resources. They would take a setting, such as Steampunk, or pulp adventure, or Discworld, and walk through not only new rules for the location, but go through the major points of the genre. The essential stories, the essential movies. They weren’t about creating restrictions, they were about showing how the base rules could be expanded, and how to tell stories in these worlds.

That’s what running a game is, after all. It’s telling stories. This isn’t advice to grab these books and start telling stories entirely in these worlds. Unless you’ve been properly licensed to do so, in which case you certainly aren’t reading this. But this is advice to grab books set in interesting worlds, and find the bits that interest you. Grab the books that are guides through a genre, and follow their examples.

Or, just grab the books at random. Like I’ve been doing through Bundle of Holding. Look through them, and find the bits that interest you. Find the things that make the worlds fun or unique. Take small bits, change them around, make them your own.

And then, once you’re done checking out the character sheets, creation, and reading about the world…maybe grab some dice and a pencil and actually play one of the games. Cause that’s fun, too.

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The Immram of Jack Vance

Not to long ago on this very blog I was looking for a word associated with a type of storytelling that involved going from island to island and solving mysteries on each one, on the way to a final destination. I discovered it’s a story form from Ireland, a place that knows from sailing west towards mystery, called an immram. Remember that? From way back on Wednesday? I thought it sounded like an interesting style of story that could be translated well to science fiction.

Five_Gold_BandsYesterday, I decided to finally pick up one of the Jack Vance Ace Doubles I have in the basement, that whole problem I have with not reading the giants of the science fiction genre until they sadly pass. One side of the Double is his Hugo-winning novella The Dragon Masters. Figuring that the better of the two, I started on the flip side with a novel called The Five Gold Bands (aka The Space Pirate). Here’s the gist of the story: In the future, humans have spread to five planets and rapidly evolved to best live in their new environments. These five races have kept the secret of space travel from their home planet, doling out just ten pre-made black box propulsion drives to the planet every year. Thus, stolen drives can be worth a king’s ransom.

Through an act of self-preserving genocidal assassination, the Irish protagonist gets a series of five clues that will lead him to the segmented instructions on how to make the drives. He travels from planet to planet with these often cryptic clues, and once he lands must solve the clue to get the next piece of the puzzle before arriving at his planned final destination.

The story is, in short, a science fiction immram, right down to the choice of an Irish protagonist. Now, the classic immram features westward travel (to the point that some Celticists discount Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a true immram because they travel east), but the classic immram is also taking place on the surface of a globe where “west” makes sense as a direction of travel. There are other key elements of a classic immram missing, but in terms of finding a story about an Irishman bouncing from planet to planet solving puzzles and riddles on his way?

I suppose the seed could be placed further back in the classic voyaging myths of legend, these kinds of island hopping adventures are not exclusive to the Irish immram, but it was that inclusion of an Irish protagonist, and picking it up so close to discovering the term… I guess what I’m saying is the world is full off odd little coincidences sometimes.

As for the book itself. Oh, gosh. Traveling to five alien worlds in just half of an Ace Double is a rather tightly packed itinerary. It’s a great concept, but I think it would be better told in double, or even triple, the word count. I feel like I’m reading the most detailed outline I’ve ever picked up, but that it’s still an outline, still just bones that need a little more flesh on them. It’s got about 20 pages left, and in that time has to wrap up the fifth planet, retrieve the pieces of the puzzle left on a sixth planet, and get back to earth. That’s the sort of breathless pace this book is built around. Entire planets are visited and left again in the course of 8-10 page chapters.

Still, I see several reviews citing this as an early work and cautioning not to judge Vance’s output on just this one novel, so I’m still looking forward to flipping it over and tucking into The Dragon Masters.

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What’s That Word?

I did this once before, and got the word I was looking for. Today it’s not a word I’ve ever heard before, I cannot vouch for its existence, but my wife recalls it from her childhood, perhaps in a Time/Life Book. So here goes…

There are several stories that feature a hero sailing from place to place. Island to island, frequently along an archipelago. At each stop, the hero must solve some sort of riddle, or problem, or puzzle in order to escape and continue the voyage. A few stories I can think that might fit in this rubric are the Odyssey, the Argonautica, or the Aeneid. Going beyond classical literature, it could also be said to include Gulliver’s Travels, or even the Vinland Saga.

The three important points: (1) a hero (2) sailing (3) from place-to-place. The word may be German. It is not Bildungsroman.

Does this word sound familiar to anyone else? Have you heard it? Do you know it? Do you know of it? Let us know in comments, please, because I’m curious if this is a word as well. Especially since there’s a clear way of translating it from seafaring to spacefaring.

Edit: We may have a winner: Immram. From wikipedia:

An immram (/ˈɪmrÉ™m/; plural immrama; Irish: iomramh, IPA: [ˈʊmˠɾˠəw], voyage) is a class of Old Irish tales concerning a hero’s sea journey to the Otherworld (see Tír na nÓg and Mag Mell). Written in the Christian era and essentially Christian in aspect, they preserve elements of Irish mythology.

The immrama are identifiable by their focus on the exploits of the heroes during their search for the Otherworld, located in these cases in the islands far to the west of Ireland. The hero sets out on his voyage for the sake of adventure or to fulfill his destiny, and generally stops on other fantastic islands before reaching his destination. He may or may not be able to return home again.


One of the first Celticists, Heinrich Zimmerman, attempted to link the immram with the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Some of the parallels they make are between the immortal women in the tales who bestow immortality on their lovers for the time they remain with them and the giant sheep on islands in both stories. These parallels have since been debunked by William Flint Thrall.

I’m waiting to hear back from my wife if this is right, but her suggestion of The Dawn Treader in the comments led me to this word. If this is, in fact, it…well, color me surprised that the word is Irish, rather than German. Though I suppose the Irish know much more about islands.

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Spoiler Alert!

Billy_Idol_-_White_Wedding_1982_single_picture_coverSomething happened this week on Game of Thrones. That something has broken the internet, especially among those fans who watch the show but don’t read the books. Now, I haven’t started reading the books yet, and I’m a year behind on the show as I don’t have HBO. But I know what happened this last weekend. Perhaps not specifically, but in general terms. I’d seen just enough people who read the books saying “holy crap” about what they knew was about to happen to know it was big. And that avoiding spoilers would be almost impossible.

So I spoiled myself. I did the research on what the holy crap moment was, what it entailed. I don’t know every little detail, but I know the broad details. Know what? It makes me that much more excited to get to next season, for those episodes to hit DVD, to get through to the ninth episode, because holy crap. I know why the readers were excited to see it, and why the viewers were blown away by what happened.

This isn’t unique to season three. I knew the Big Event from Season One. And I went into the season excited to know how things would get to that point.

Two years ago a study from the University of California, San Diego suggests that spoilers…aren’t. That they don’t actually spoil the experiences of readers or viewers. Over twelve selected stories, they discovered that readers who went in knowing the big twist endings reported generally higher satisfaction. This means I’m not alone in getting a thrill out of knowing what’s going to happen and enjoying how the story will get me there.

I bring this up not just because of Game of Thrones but getting back to Into Darkness as well. It was a movie replete with spoilers due to JJ Abrams and his infamous practice of hiding as many details of his movies until possible. Going into the movie I knew who Benedict Cumberbatch was playing. Did it ruin anything? To the contrary, there was almost a giddy fun in knowing who he was and what he was capable of several reels before any of the characters worked it out.

If a spoiler succeeds in actually spoiling a piece of media, I’d argue the fault lies in the media, not in the spoiler. As one of the professors behind the UCSD study observed, “Plots are just excuses for great writing. What the plot is is (almost) irrelevant. The pleasure is in the writing.” It’s why we can enjoy a movie we know the ending of. Why we can enjoy a well-crafted story outside of our genre comfort zones.

This isn’t to say that everyone feels this way. Which is why I’m not going into the actual spoilers in question. But as writers I think we need to remember that writing is the essential element, not the cleverness of a twist. People who’ve read Game of Thrones went into Season One and Season Three knowing the big “holy crap” moments at the end of each season. And yet they watch. I know the big twist of Fight Club, yet I’ve rewatched it several times. The discovery is a giddy moment of thrill, unwrapping the present, but the enjoyment has to come from the broader experience. Are you unwrapping a new Nintendo, or are you unwrapping a pair of socks put in a deceptive box? Each is a surprise, knowing which is a spoiler to your present, but it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy that Nintendo any less.

So…be a Nintendo. Not socks. Never socks.

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What a Twist!

[Note: A version of this article originally appeared on Unleaded: Fuel for Writers, but was victim to a data loss, so I’m recreating here.]

Before we start, I want to be clear. I’m about to talk about twist endings. And to that end, I’m going to specifically talk about the twist endings of two movies. The first is The Sixth Sense the second is Safe Haven. If you don’t want either movie spoiled, this is your time to walk away. Also, in my own little twist, I’ve not actually seen Safe Haven, which is why I’m not considering this post a review. Rather, I’m working off the movie’s reputation as outlined in several other reviews and articles.

That out of the way, let’s begin.

The Sixth Sense. This is a movie about a child psychologist trying to connect with a troubled young boy who can see ghosts. The big twist ending is that the psychologist himself is dead and has been since about ten minutes into the movie when he was shot by a deranged former member of New Kids On The Block. It’s one of the classic twists of the the last 20 years, and was pulled off so perfectly and shrewdly that the movie forces a second watching to see just where and how the filmmakers tricked the audience. From a financial point of view, it’s brilliant. Who doesn’t want to make a movie where people are almost forced to watch it twice?

Safe Haven. This is a romantic drama about two people being dramatically romantic at each other. Alright, that’s not fair. Here I am already being dismissive of the movie I haven’t seen just because it’s a Nicholas Sparks film. A woman with a past makes a new friend in a small North Carolina town and falls in love with a widower. The twist: she doesn’t realize that the friend is why her new lover is a widower, being the ghost of his dead wife and all.

So two movies that have, at the highest level, the same twist. One character is, in fact, dead and a ghost. So why is it that The Sixth Sense is one of IMDb’s Top 250 movies (#142 at the time of writing this), and one of the text book examples of a twist ending, while Safe Haven appears at the top of at least one online rundown of the worst twist endings, and was torn apart in review after review after review by the critics?

Rules. The answer is rules.

Within The Sixth Sense, ghosts are one of the rules of that world. And it’s a very carefully constructed rule. We see them very clearly, and frequently, from Haley Joel Osment’s point of view. They’re established as the literal dead rather than just being a child with an active imagination. That’s what the birthday party scene is all about, why Osment needs to show everyone the video of the mother slowly poisoning her child. It’s a horrific moment, but it cements the last bit of the rule. These are ghosts, no ifs, ands, or buts. So when Bruce Willis turns out to be a ghost, it’s consistent within the world.

In Safe Haven? No review that I’ve read, no plot breakdown, nothing anywhere says that ghosts are an established rule of that universe. Instead the end of the movie just hits the viewer with “Gotcha! It was ghosts all along!”

Why is this less satisfying? Because humans love magic tricks. We like being tricked, but we want to know that there was a trick behind it. After a certain age we no longer believe someone has actually be sawed in half before our very eyes, but we still enjoy suspending our disbelief and getting lost in the showmanship of it. That’s what The Sixth Sense manages. Through careful misdirection the audience misses all the tells the first time through, then on going back can see all the invisible wires and sleight of hand. The audience wants to feel that they could have seen it, could have gotten it all, if they had just paid a little more attention to the magician’s right hand while the left was waving a silk around. Per every review, this is what Safe Haven lacks.

A twist ending as a magic trick isn’t my own metaphor. It’s no coincidence that one of the better twists of the last decade came from a movie about magicians, The Prestige. A movie that, from the outset, all but tells the audience “this whole film is a magic trick, and will engage in a lot of misdirection.” Then the final hammer comes down, and as viewers we forget what we were told, and realize the movie got us.

This is the power of a perfectly crafted twist. It’s almost literally magic. This is also the challenge of perfectly crafting it. M. Night Shyamalan himself has gone on to show it’s not as easy as it looks, especially when people start looking for the strings. How do you do it? I can’t tell you. If I knew how, I’d already have done it. But, as with a lot of writing, looking at examples is one of the best ways forward. Movies are a great source, it’s why I started “A Writer Reviews” as a sub-feature. Looking at films that do things well, looking at films that do things poorly, and recognizing what the difference is between them. That’s your path forward.

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St. Malachy and Apocalypses

I suspect over the next few weeks we’ll hear a lot about the Prophecy of the Popes. Per legend, St. Malachy prophesied a list of all future popes until the end of the world. It’s going to get a lot of play because, per the list, Benedict XVI is the second to last Pope. The next Pope is Petrus Romanus, Peter the Roman, who will “nourish the sheep in many tribulations,” and at the end of his papacy, “the city of seven hills will be destroyed, and the dreadful judge will judge his people. The end.”

Alright, the prophecy of St. Malachy is likely complete bunk. There are no written references to it until 1590, 450 years after Malachy’s death. But even with the authorship of Malachy highly dubious, the list did still reach well beyond the 16th century and there’s been a cottage industry in trying to morph later popes to fit the pithy two to three word descriptions given. John Paul II was “the labor of the sun” because he was born the day of a solar eclipse. Paul VI was the “flower of flowers” because his coat of arms features the Fleur-de-lys.

This is the power of vague prophecy. So long as enough people want to believe that past humans could predict our present (which is fun to believe, because it infers present humans can predict the future), there will be those willing to twist and turn a few vague words into grandly important statements. Most of the lines in the Prophecy of the Popes are two to three words long, and, with the exception of that last bit about Petrus Romanus, mention no one by name. The mental gymnastics required to fulfill some of the prophecies are fantastic. For example, the 100th pope in the prophecy is “From the baths of Tuscany” (when I say one or two words I mean in the original Latin). This is the Wikipedia explanation of why Gregory XVI fits: “Pope Gregory XVI belonged to the Camaldolese Order, which is said to have begun with two monastic houses. The first of these houses was Campus Maldoli, and the second was Fonte Buono, meaning ‘good fountain’ in Italian.” Nothing tying him to Tuscany, save that Tuscany speaks Italian.

I don’t need to tell you how prophecy works, how vagueness is a feature and not a bug, and that’s ultimately not what this post is about.

So let’s say you’re a member of the College of Cardinals. And, for whatever reason, you believe the Prophecy of the Popes. What do you do? It’s an unusual position in the best of times, to be one of the handful of individuals on the planet given a vote to elect a man who will have such a wide impact on the world, for better or worse. But to be in a position where you think you’re electing the last pope. Ever. The one who will be seated when, based on your interpretation, the church, the city of Rome, or perhaps the entire planet is destroyed. Given the ages of many Cardinals, each election they approach is likely the election of the last pope for the individual, but for the world as a whole?

What do you do?

It’s questions like these that fascinate me about apocalyptic literature, whether prophecy or fiction. According to Wikipedia’s List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events, and article I enjoy enough to justify two Wikipedia references in one blog post, I have survived the apocalypse 68 times since I was born. Heck, I’ve survived Harold Camping predictions of the Rapture alone no less than six times. What draws people into the belief that they are living in the end times, and how do they react to that. And, assuming this reaction isn’t a tragic mass suicide like Heaven’s Gate, what happens when the date of the apocalypse comes and goes?

I have, in the back of my head, the concept for a story where an entire society, perhaps an entire planet, counts years down rather than up. I don’t know where the story goes, but I know it’s set in the last few weeks of that countdown. What is that atmosphere? Is it the same atmosphere as a movie like Seeking a Friend for the End of the World where there’s a very concrete apocalypse incoming versus a vague sense of dread?

Apocalypses, man. Am I right?

There’s a broader theme behind the apocalypse in literature. It’s the ultimate mortality. It scales up all of our fears about death and spreads them out over an entire population. From a purely logical perspective, there are few differences between ones own death and a global apocalyptic catastrophe. Either way, one moment you’re alive, the next moment you’re dead. But that’s not quite right. There’s something so much more horrifying about the notion that you’re not the only victim. There’s no one carrying on, keeping things going, no next generation. It just…all ends. And that’s tough to wrap the brain around. Yet it’s been a concept haunting humanity. If one person could die, if one city could die, could everything die? It’s not worth stressing out over on a day-to-day basis, down that way lies madness, but it does turn into a powerful narrative tool.

So be on the watch for Peter the Roman to ascend, though I suspect there will be any number of “reasons” why the next Pope should be considered such. Watch the skies for asteroids. And be careful of any impending raptures.

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Killing Peter Bailey

“So. Mary kills George’s dad here, right?” We’re watching It’s a Wonderful Life, my wife and I. It’s one of those movies I like to watch every Christmas, along with Elf, A Christmas Story, and some adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s a question my wife has asked before when we’re watching the movie. Here’s the scene in question:

George is walking Mary home from the big dance, both wearing borrowed clothing from the Bedford Falls High School athletic department. They’re flirting in a wholesome, 1930s sort of way when they come across the old Granville house, a dilapidated hulk of a building where the young lovers will one day live as squatters after they’re married. George weighs a rock in his hand and prepares to huck it, explaining town tradition of making a wish and trying to break some glass. Mary tries to stop him, but he wishes anyway. He wishes to see the world, to shake off the dust of the town. Mary interrupts George by throwing her own rock and refusing to reveal her wish.

Keep in mind, this is the same Mary who professed her undying love for George once before, as a young girl at the counter of the drug store. She’s known he wants to leave the town her whole life, since that very scene in fact. He shows off his membership in the National Geographic society and wonders how someone couldn’t like coconut given its exotic origins. Mary doesn’t want coconut, though, and she doesn’t want the world. She wants a life in Bedford Falls. With George Bailey. So, naturally, her wish a decade later is for George to not leave town. For something, anything, to keep him in Bedford Falls.

Then, George’s father dies. George takes over the Building and Loan. He never sees the world. He marries Mary. They become squatters, and he lives his life in that little town he never wanted to do anything but leave. And it all started with Mary making one little wish.

The story already takes place in a world with a hint of the fantastic and the super natural. After all, there are angels interceding with the lives of mortals. It’s the entire purpose of the movie. It’s a small step from that to a world where wishes can, occasionally, come true. Though come true in a rather dark and unintended way. Mary only wanted George to stay in Bedford Falls. She didn’t mean to kill his father. You can see it in the awkwardness the next time they’re together. Her, knowing what she’s done. The guilt actually drives her away from George for a while, into the arms of Sam Wainwright. In getting what she wanted, but not how she wanted it, she was too anxious to take it.

But, our heroes end up together. They have to. Bedford Falls will accept nothing else.

Merry Christmas.

Update: I wrote the above in a humorous and flippant tone, but it’s made me think more about Mary and her role within It’s A Wonderful Life. And I’ve come to an odd conclusion. Mary Hatch Bailey is the antagonist of that movie.

Alright, I already know what you’re saying. Mr. Potter is clearly the antagonist of the movie. But in the classical sense, he’s not. Let’s outline the definitions. The protagonist is the main character of the movie. The protagonist has a goal. The antagonist stands in direct opposition to that goal.

While George Bailey lives a wonderful life and helps all the people of the town, it’s never his goal to do so. His goal, as stated several times in the first half of the movie, is to get out of Bedford Falls. To travel the world, see everything that there is to see. Mr. Potter is not the antagonist because he would also love George to leave town. If George leaves, the Building and Loan would fail, and Potter could take control of that last bit of town just outside of his grasp.

The character that stands in the way of that goal is Mary Hatch, later Mary Bailey. Leaving aside the above considerations of her witch powers, she is the only human actor that keeps George from leaving town. The most direct time she does so is during the bank run by offering up their honeymoon money so people can make it through the week until the bank reopens. In doing so she ties George to the town in the short-term, by not giving him his globe-trotting honeymoon, and in the long-term by securing the Building and Loan that he feels obligated to. If the Building and Loan failed, it would suck for a lot of people, but George would be freed from that one obligation and has the wherewithal and connections to land on his feet almost anywhere he chooses.

And this is all just to point out a few simple things. First is that the antagonist of a piece is not necessarily the villain of the piece (we see this also in The Dark Knight where the Joker is the villain but Harvey Dent is the antagonist). Second is that the antagonist opposing the protagonist’s goals doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person. And, third, that the antagonist sometimes wins without it really being a bad thing.

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Those Who Don’t Study History…

…are doomed to repeat it. At least, such is the classic trope. We are warned to remember the mistakes of the past so we do not make them again in the future. Which is all well and good when it comes to a broad societal level. However, as a writer recently caught up in relearning world history, may I instead say that those who study history are blessed to repeat it.

My education into world history (which currently involves the 180-someodd part The History of Rome podcast and the University of Houston Youtube course on the Crusades) has taught me things I didn’t know, reminded me of things I’d forgotten, and filled me in on details of events I thought I understood. Above all else, it’s given me story concepts. These largely fall into two broad categories, but I’m certain others will arrive.

Prester John as included on 1588 Portuguese map of Africa.

Reliving history. I first learned about Prester John during the Crash Course World History episode on 15th Century maritime exploration. For those not aware of the story, he is a mythic Christian king cut off from Christendom (by which people typically meant European Catholicism) but still keeping the faith. One day he would rejoin with the devout and help kick the asses of any non-believers in the way. At times his kingdom was meant to be in India, at times in Africa, always just beyond where Europeans were comfortable with the geography. At one point in history, Prester John even rose up and led his armies out of the far east to tackle the nascent Muslim threat spreading through the Arab world and knocking on Europe’s door.

Only…yeah, it wasn’t so much Prester John as it was Genghis Khan. Easy mistake to make, I’m sure.

Prester John shows up, or rather fails to show up, for several centuries, especially during the Crusades. The story naturally brings to mind a plotline I came across both in Earthman, Go Home and Delusion World in my Ace Double readings. It’s the story of humanity spreading so quickly among the stars that planets get lost or forgotten in the process. Take this trope, sprinkle in some Prester John, and now there’s a space opera spinning around in my head.

Rewriting history. Anyone who is looking to write alternate history must first be comfortable with the real history. Largely because not everything will change. But this isn’t even about that aspect of alternate history. This is learning about points in history that I now want to change. Especially in connection with the Nickajack world, asking questions about what is different about this earth not just in the 1860s, but in the 1760s or even 1060s. Yeah…maybe I’m thinking about writing a Steampunk story set during the Crusades. I’m still trying to figure out what the story even is there, but you can bet Baldwin of Boulogne, aka Baldwin I will show up.

So get out there, learn a little history. The stories of the past are fantastic fodder for genre fiction, and are sometimes just fun to learn.


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The Gold Paradox

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s not really a story, but it’s certainly fictional. I call it the gold paradox.

First, let us assume time travel that lets you travel into the past without creating a new timeline.

If you were to travel into the past intending to stay for any length of time, you would need something that could be used as currency. There are three options. First, you could bring back modern money, which wouldn’t work because no one would accept it. Second, you could bring back archeological coinage from the region and era that you’re traveling to, but outside Roman coinage this creates a supply and demand problem in the modern day. Third, you could bring back a commodity that has been traded as a secondary currency in several ancient societies and civilizations.

So you go for option number three, and you take back gold.

Gold would be the most universal currency for the backwards time traveler. So long as a non-zero number of ancient/pre-modern civilizations are willing to accept it as currency, there will be a non-zero number of backwards time travelers that take it back as a currency.

So let’s track an individual ounce of gold. There’s roughly a 10% chance that an ounce of gold mined in the year 2012 is brought out of the earth in the United States, so that’s where this particular ounce comes from. A time traveler buys that ounce of gold, and heads back in time where he trades it for goods and services in ancient Persia around 425 BCE, leaving the gold behind. The problem arises because that ounce of gold now exist in two places in the year 425 BCE, once in Persia, and once in the ground in the North America where it won’t be mined for another roughly 2500 years. So that gold that you left with the Persians is crafted, melted, and remelted over the course of twenty-five centuries until it eventually becomes part of a Krugerrand in 2012. This bullion is then bought by another backwards time traveler on his way to celebrate the millennium in the Holy Roman Empire (which wasn’t holy, Roman, or an empire). Now in the year 1000 there are three copies of that ounce of gold, one in the ground in North America, one that was in Persia, and one now in modern Germany.

And so on.

This creates a problem, and a paradox. As the number of instances of the same ounce of gold increase in the year 2012, the value of gold drops. Of course, this makes it all the more attractive as a currency for backwards travelers, until the runaway inflation created by these time travelers serves to crash all past commodity markets as well. So the first paradox comes from all commodity markets being destroyed (once gold crashes, we’d move onto silver, copper, diamonds, etc.).

This would also serve to turn most gold into a bootstrap paradox. Gold mining stops in the past for two reasons: 1) there’s less value to the metal and 2) there’s an easier supply of gold coming from those funnily dressed strangers.

There’s also the problem that every time this ounce of gold is taken back and left behind, it increases the overall mass of the earth by one ounce. It’s a little bit of mass at a time, but it adds up under repeated trips.

I talked about this paradox with my wife, and she made an observation. The gold stacks up until the day that time travel is invented, and then it begins to disappear as it is taken into the past to get caught in these loops. It would recreate the gold market, and put the earth on a diet as all the extra mass is lost. Assuming our gravity wasn’t so affected that the moon crashed into the earth or we went careening out of our orbit.

Potential solution to the hyper-inflationary problems: going back with consumable goods. Especially modern produce. Strawberries, pomegranates, modern bananas, kiwifruit. You’d still have the issues that the matter within those fruits existed in some form in the past, so there’s still the problem of increasing the mass of the earth, but at least the commodity markets would be largely unaffected both in the past and the present.

I’m certain there’s a story in here, somewhere. For now, I present it only as mental meanderings.

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