Friday, April 29, 2011

Wyrm Cult

Ned clenched his armrests. The solarshuttle rattled with the sounds of loose bolts as the ship's pressureplates compressed under the star's pressure. Babies cried, unable to equalize the pressure in their ears. He was too old to travel, his bones ached, a pain that wasn't just physical, but mental as well.

The holodisplays tracked the final images of Ceres II, sagging coastlines on intricately laid continents, visible from their near star orbit. His wife had left him for one of her young playthings, and Ceres II was too small for him to avoid her. When the robots had arrived, eliminating Ceres II's need for their only maintenance man, Ned had decided he needed one last trip.

Solar flares burst from the surface of the star. The ship exuded the mixture of lithium and helium gases that the starworms fed upon. A boy squealed, climbing onto his seat to point as the holodisplays focused on the star where a worm rose from the star's surface, the mouth unhinging in layers of energy. The image expanded to fill the ceiling as the worm swallowed the solarshuttle.

The holodisplay dimmed to show a movie and Ned rummaged through his pack to find a reader, swiping through schematics, tracing across the display where the stress points would lead to failures. Ned lost track of time. He'd had a knack for understanding the way things worked and fixing them.

"The shuttle is broken," said a young man, his cheeks tattooed with the mark of the wyrm. Ned tried to remember the man's name, but they grew so fast it was hard to keep them apart. Especially, those in the cult.

"The wyrm is not satisfied with our sacrifice. We will be imprisoned here until the beast receives what it wishes." The man stood in his seat where everyone on the shuttle could see him, his red hair brushing against the belly of the holodisplay.

"She is the traitor! She communes with the wyrm, forcing it to dream of the food it could consume inside this shuttle. The wyrm has not spewed us out on the other side of the wormhole because of her work."

Ned pressed through the narrow aisles between the seats. The other passengers stood, muttering under their breaths, listening to the man's madness. He tried to climb onto a seat, but his foot slipped on the edge and he fell, smashing his ankle.

"The wyrm needs a sacrifice to fuel its passage through the ether."

"No," shouted Ned, trying to be heard. "It doesn't work that way."

Men in the crowd hoisted the woman, her feet kicking, trying to break free of their grasp.

"Take him too! Only a traitor would argue against satisfying the Wyrm with a sacrifice."

"Yes, Salem." Responded the men surrounding the madman as they manhandled Ned through the airlocks.

The door shut, silence engulfing Ned. He wouldn't have much time. He looked at the woman, tears falling from her eyes. He roughly lifted her drop earring from her ear, bending the thin metal.

She slapped him. "You're no better than the others."

"No time. I can jury rig that panel with this hook." The panel was too far away. "But, I can't reach it."

She knelt on the floor and he stood on her back, his ankle hurting as he swiveled the metal into the lock. The panel fell loose and Ned climbed into the shaft, extending a hand to the woman. As he replaced the panel, the airlock hissed with the pumps beginning the evacuation of the air. He tightened the panel, thankful it had taken them awhile to operate the airlock.

"Salem's mad."

"I wish I'd known that before marrying him."

Monday, April 25, 2011

Worldbuilding: The New Yorker's Prophet Motive

Stephen Watkins is currently running a series (part 1, part2) on what he learned at the JordanCon 2011 writing track. I've only attended one Con, BayCon, and my favorite panel was one on world building. Keith Baker, lead author of the Eberron D&D campaign setting, opened my eyes to the beauty of a well-planned world.

Recently, I've encountered several blog posts advocating reading inside and outside your genre (Literary Lab, Magical Words). I subscribe to a number of magazines. Recently, The New Yorker has an article (Prophet Motive by John Cassidy) discussing the lagging economies of the Arab world and whether Islam might be the cause. I found the article fascinating because of specific things that cause non-obvious effects.

They discussed particular effects the Koran has on business:
  • it prohibits Usury (riba), or the lending of money at unreasonably high interest rates;
  • required two-thirds of a Muslim's estate be split amongst his heirs;
  • and encouraged trade.
The first and last points don't have a significant effect on business. I originally thought that usury caused problems for business, but that is because I thought it out ruled borrowing not unreasonably high interest. The item that has the most effect is the middle bullet. Dividing two-thirds of one's business among one's heirs places constraints on the types of businesses. Because of this inheritance, it is difficult to create a company that requires significant amounts of capital. Imagine a woman who owns a merchant boat with a husband and six children. Instead of continuing the business after her death, the boat is sold and therefore the company ceases with her death.

However, the article explains that political governance this curious business more than religion. The Ottoman Empire expanded few resources in provincial areas to invest in the future and therefore discouraged development. Islamic countries have had economic success. Turkey is the 15th largest economy and Egypt and Tunisia -- where there has been political upheaval -- have seen steady increases in their GDP. This latter point is curious since I thought economics was part of the problem in the Arab world.

Some of the complaints in the Arab world include: high food prices, unemployment, and corruption. The interesting point is that infant mortality has declined significantly in the last thirty years and has caused the high unemployment.

From the standpoint of world building, I'm really intrigued by two parts of this article. The first is the unintended consequences of inheritance. I doubt it was introduced to discourage industry, especially, at the time there was probably few businesses where this would matter. Effectively, religions and governments create rules and and then the world changes. Not all of these rules will necessarily fit well once the world has changed. Also, I seem to recall having read something about England or Europe and how the Industrial Revolution was partially powered by having too many children to inherit from their parents and therefore being forced to find other ways to make a living. However, I can't recall the exact situation but it's interesting in the way it plays with the same type of rules.

The second intriguing aspect was the effect of an increase in population on the economy. In particular, a swelling of youth resulted in fewer jobs being available for them. Ironically, the unemployment for college-educated twenty-year-olds is much higher than less skilled workers.

I've written one short story that explores economics and population and the effects this has on the world. Have you read or written stories that play with these themes?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Eaglewing & Mastermind

"Last damn time I work for you. Only amateurs forget rope." Eaglewing stood on the edge of a cliff blocking their path through the rectangular cave.

"How was I supposed to predict the pit?"

"Where'd you get the moniker Mastermind. You couldn't outfight a scarecrow slathered in rapeseed oil. Look, caves underground aren't like a structured playdate; you could've at least wikipedied it, even they would've gotten this right."

"You don't have to taunt me. As if you've never made mistakes."

That stung. Eaglewing remembered when superheroes didn't need to be financial wizards to make a living. It wasn't her fault Bernie conned her, he'd conned thousands -- many of them celebrities. She was a victim. She wouldn't let that happen again. You planned for all possibilities, but how was she supposed to know Mastermind was really WormIQmind. What other mistakes had he made? "Wait. You bring spare batteries?"


"Like caves are pitch black. Don't think I'll babysit your ass when your headlamp fails."

Evil chortled, rumbling laughter filling the cave. "Welcome to my playground. You make quite the pair. A proper host introduces himself, but I doubt a face-to-face meeting is necessary, seeing as you're unlikely to collaborate with me again. But please... please try not to die prematurely. I deserve at least a little enjoyment before I clean my playground." The ground shook beneath their feet. "Yes. Yes. Indiana Jones-style rocks are so cliché, but I thought you would have gotten farther."

"We're going to die," Mastermind said.

"Shut up." The low ceiling would hamper Eaglewing's ability to glide over the bottomless pit. They had seconds to get to the other side or the boulder would steam-roll them or push them into the pit.

"Use your powers. Stop the rock."

"It's not that easy."

"I'm the mind-guy. You're the muscle. Save me."

Eaglewing rolled her eyes. The rock, round like in Indiana Jones, entered the glow of the headlamps. The passage was square. Eaglewing pointed at the pit's lip in the corner of the cave. "Hold on." She jumped to the other side, catching the lip herself where the rock would not catch her fingers.

"I can't. No finger strength."

Eaglewing did a one armed pull-up and grabbed Mastermind, yanking him into the pit, the body crashing against the edge.


The rock slammed into the far side of the pit, falling downwards and out of sight. Eaglewing pulled herself and Mastermind onto flat ground. "Time to go home."

"We can't forfeit my contract. What about my reputation?"

"Don't worry about your reputation. Like I'm going to keep my mouth shut after what I've suffered."

"But --"

"It's for your own good. You're going to kill someone, and not a supervillain," Eaglewing said.

"Wait. Wait. Come back. You can't abandon my playground."

Eaglewing sighed. Maybe another day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Craft Analysis: Tension, Suspense, and The Hunger Games

Spoiler alert: I wouldn't term anything in here as spoiling the books. However, this entry does touch peripherally on content of the stories.

Every reader is different. Most writing advice advocates creating strong tension so the reader can't put down the book. I'm that odd duck that doesn't fit the average reader -- I'm probably wound up enough with all the other stresses in my life that I don't need an additional stressor. If the book gets too tense, I need a break, and I either switch to another book, or I stop reading altogether. I'm typically juggling three novels and reading short stories at the same time.

I found the reading of "The Hunger Games" to be excruciatingly painful and would have not read the sequels if they hadn't been gifted to me. It wasn't that I didn't like the writing, or the characters, or the story. I never got a break from the tension.

Therefore, I found it intriguing that "Catching Fire" did not elicit the same reaction as I had when reading the first novel. Being a writer, I want to know why the first book went overboard and the second book didn't. I will examine the stories more careful in the future, but the following are some initial impressions.
  • Both novels are written in the first person. I might've suspected that as being part of what created the tension, because you don't have that past tense that makes you believe that things work out in some way. But because they're both written this way, I ruled that out.
  • Both novels are written in three parts. However, in the first novel two of those parts leave the protagonist in a life or death situation. In the second novel, only one part deals with a battle to the death.
  • In the first novel, the protagonist allies with another contestant temporarily, but never more than one at a time and usually the ally is injured so does not provide any help in fending off the other contestants. In the second novel, but becomes too large groups of allies who can all depend on each other somewhat and therefore it doesn't feel like violence is going to jump out of nowhere.
The latter two bullet points may be what caused this, but there may be something deeper with the way the tension was carried forth and that's what I'm going to look for as I perform a closer reading. I enjoyed the first two books and I plan on reading the third, after a break with some other stories.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Orchid Hearth

"Papa, you can't stay here." Grains of sand nestled beneath Renie's coarse garb, marking the distance of her trek. She pointed at the horizon darkening with evening except for the red veins flashing through the ash cloud hovering above Nyiragongo's volcanic flanks. "The diamonds are gone."

His voice husky. "My place here." He retreated into the doorway, his bent frame clearing the doorway as the dune spilled into the front room.

"Times change and you must move on." She waved at the other houses, woodgrains exposed beneath cracking paint. "Everyone has left this ghost town. Marrok and I have a spare room where you could stay."

"That dog. He took you."

"There was nothing left for me, except you. You mustn't blame him."

"More here."

Renie stumbled in the house's darkness, sand covering the floor. A rolling smoothness marred by Papa's footprints. He sat crosslegged on a woven mat, sand spilling from the chimney. An orchid grew, its slender stem vertical, its flower drooping, blue with white veins.

"Unnatural. It shouldn't grow here. We can buy flowers to decorate the room we set aside for you."

"Shush." Papa caressed a petal. "See pattern. Same as brown-green swirl of your mama's eyes."

Renie collapsed, leaning against Papa, closing her eyes to feel the fibers of the blankets mama had woven to keep Renie warm at night. "You can't stay. Maybe, we could bring her."

Papa shook his head. "Promise to visit?"

Renie hugged him tightly. A tear trickling along her nose.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Short Story Highlight: Michael Swanwick's "Steadfast Castle"

"Steadfast Castle" explores an interesting premise regarding an intelligent AI house and the emotional responses during difficult situations. However, what makes the story standout from the crowd is the dialogue. The story is told solely through dialogue and similar to the book Pirate Talk or Mermelade that Rebecca mentioned previously in her six sentences flash, it's told without quotes.

A common writing exercise is to present dialogue without any tags or action occurring with the emphasis on bringing out a difference in the voice between the two characters so that it is obvious who says which lines. Brandon Sanderson often takes short breaks from his writing during which he works on specific exercises and in addition to this, he and Dan and Howard on the podcast, Writing Excuses, dissect several examples of dialogue only exercises (part one, part two). What struck me about these exercises is how frequently the exercises differentiate the characters as one person who has expertise and someone who is an apprentice. However, after hearing several of these, it felt cliché because it was used so frequently and it was refreshing to come across "Steadfast Castle" and see this used in a different relationship.

The short story involves a house and a detective, which provides a good foundation for differentiating the two characters and also emphasizes the conflict between these two characters, which creates an intriguing story.

This story was published in the September/October issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and I highly recommend it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Dragon Eaters

Ilse remembered that day for the rest of her life as the day her life changed. Noises woke her, not the bumbling clash of swordfights because the prince, many thought she was destined to marry him but she'd known even at that age that other things were intended for her, had injured himself the previous night and the court healers had enforced bedrest and bloodlettings. As the prince's best friend, they had let her into the boy's room, standing beside her father, the wall at their back. She'd needed her father's hand while she watched the prince's skin sicken to turn bone white.

No, Ilse woke to thrumming voices, low bass rumbles like thunder rolling up the stairs or bumblebees alighting on flowers. The latter probably explained why for the rest of her life Ilse remembered that day through an amber haze. Sleep glazing her eyes, wearing only her nightgown, she sought the sounds, rising from her father's workrooms, encompassing the entire floor of the room below them.

On the workroom's threshold, stone ground against stone and Ilse gazed upwards at the slab falling towards her like a solid portcullis. Later, they would say it was the gods' and goddesses' will for her to attend, but her heart beat like a butterfly captured in her hands and she shrank into the shadows.

Her father stood within a circle of men, they all wore flowing robes like her father's court magician robes. A man with a twining beard held a finger-sized dragon in his hands. Fingers pinched the tail and the front paws. Rainbow shades of color mostly reds and purples shimmered across the scales. Her father mirrored the man's bow holding forward a blue and purple dragon. At the bottom of the bow, the man's eyes watching each other, the dragons leapt from their hands.

Light swirled through the room. Smoke puffed as dragon chased dragon circling between the candle mounted chandeliers and weaving along the walls and over the floor as bright scales burned black with ash. The other man's dragon, the red one, had fled at first, but now turned and the jaws caught the tail of her father's dragon. Blue tail twitching from its mouth.

The red dragon belched a smoke ring after chomping the tail. It's claws scratched along the floor as leather wings launched it in pursuit. The mouth unhinged as it flew forward to swallow the her father's dragon whole.

The man with the twined beard crouched to lift the dragon, the form now motionless. In the silence that emerged with the end of the battle, she heard the man's robes rustling. With a flick of the wrist, the dragon disappeared. Ilse couldn't tell where it had disappeared. The man turned to her father, bowed deeply and presented a flask with a cloudy yellow liquid in the base of it. Then the wizards in the room disappeared in columns of smoke leaving her father. Ilse coughed, breathing the smoke.

"Ilsebet!" Her father only used that name when he was angry. The bridge of his nose pinched with pain. The slab behind her groaned as it rose and she fell without the support. "You must forget everything."

She shrank from his extended hands, an intuition that they came not to help but to soften the memories leaving them wisps of dreams. "Are you okay?" Ilse's voice shook.

"You mean the dragons. You must forget what you saw. It was only a ritual form of greeting and I told you too much, but you must realize there is nothing to worry about."

"No..." She meant the frightened way he looked with his eyes dashing to and fro like the dragons that had fled about the room.

"Don't worry about the dragon. I owe Mage Connolly a favor and if he has need of me he will release my dragon and it will come to me and I will know his need. He has provided a potion that will heal the prince unlike the childish healers that do nothing but weaken him." He moved his hands towards her again. "You must forget."

"No." Ilse raised a finger, flattening the folds of flash creasing her father's face. "I want to learn what you do."

"It is not the world for you."

Ilse felt her blood buzzing in her hands and she opened her palm flat and a bee appeared and buzzed around her father's head. "I think it's chosen me now."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On the Writing of: Yuri's Butterflies

Lara Dunning blogged about using writing prompts to mine story ideas (they don't always work for her). I find using prompts to be intriguing, but I find that for them to work I typically need to pound a number of ideas together until I get something that has that niggling hook that grabs my attention.

Yuri's Butterflies is one of those stories that took a couple of different ideas and pounded them together until I came up with something. It started with an article in The Economist, "Reputation Management: Glitzkrieg". The article stands out because it's one of the few articles written in second person and it describes how one might buy respectability. The idea of a drug kingpin, or down-and-out dictator was intriguing to me and the way they might use or rather abuse their power seemed like an interesting character.

I mixed this with the world I'd first started with an addictive substance called dust that created illusions. I realized that the world was an alternate current day world with the addition of this fantastical element and that it would fit well as a backdrop for exploring a drug kingpin who is trying to become respectable.

This mixed a little bit with a recent New Yorker article, "The Art of the Billionaire", I'd read profiling philanthropist Eli Broad. It was an interesting article and didn't play significantly with the story, but it did provide information about the way that principal donors work with large art organizations.

Lastly, one of my favorite parts about Tad Williams Otherland series was the garden that Mr. Sellers kept at his house. I liked the sense of wonder filling this garden and the ministries around it and I always looked forward to these portions of the story. I hope I captured a little bit with the illusions of the butterflies.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Aidan's March Fiction

My fiction has participated in a number of flash parties. For the month of March, these include:

"Party Foul": a drabble that participated in Lily Childs' Friday Prediction about drugs and going a little too far and consequences.

"Kazuhiro's Dragons": another drabble participating in Lily Childs' Friday Prediction sparked by the tsunami in Japan.

"Praying to the Job Gods": a flash posted in response to Deb Markanton's Flashy Fiction prompt, "Friendship". Friends don't let friends summon ineptly.

"Clown Hearse": a drabble participating in Lily Childs' Friday Prediction that blends the horror of clowns with the horror of extremists.

"The Time Traveler's Hawker": a drabble participating in Lily Childs' Friday Prediction that considers a world where time travel might work.

"Trolls Squared": a flash posted in response to Deb Markanton's Flashy Fiction prompt, "Service, please!" Sometimes there's a reason the waiter is avoiding you.

Yes, there's a theme to where I've been posting fiction. If you haven't checked out Lily Childs' weekly Friday Predictions, you should check them out. There are a number of great writers posting drabbles, and they are a friendly bunch should you be interested in joining the horrors. Flashy Fiction is a fun site with interesting prompts.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Papier-Mâché Bean-Sidhe

The cell phone rests on the wooden chair, paint splotches the only remains of earlier failed works. I glance at the altar every few minutes, waiting for Åsa to answer the voicemail, text messages, and e-mail apologies. Newspapers crinkle underfoot as I drape each gummed strip lovingly over the Bean-sidhe's frame, the seven-and-a-half foot body, forty-two inch bust, superhero cape flying to fill my living room. My salted tears spice the flour glue. The phone's silence lingers as I remember Åsa's silence after the argument, her back turned to me, throwing dresses like angry splotches of paint into her suitcase.

Time means nothing. Days become weeks while working on Bean-sidhe. Passion destroys time. The masked eyes follow me as I dance with my strips of paper, coating her, applying flesh. The comic book splayed open before me, hours fly until my electric blue duplicates her artist's rendering of her tights. I feel something from her, a silence, an accusation. I move around her and bump the chair, the cell phone skittering across the floor to stop beneath the refrigerator.

I am done. I don't recall eating or sleeping, but I must have. I sprawl on the floor exhausted.

I wake, thin light shining through the dirt-smeared windows. My heart lurches to discover she's fallen. Papier-mâché chunks crumpled on the floor exposing her wire-mesh bones. Tears fall down my cheeks, I blame loss of sleep.

Underneath, Åsa lies with a bruise on her neck, thread-bare dress blending into her pale skin. Papier-mâché handcuffs link her wrists. Dropping to my knees, I stroke fingers through her hair.

She wakes, not looking at me but over me, eyes flashing like a bird trying to distract a cat from her fallen chick. Bean-sidhe's hand rests on my shoulder while Åsa flees.

Scene seed from Stefan Jansson's "The Ghost Who Walks", a photograph of a papier-mâché Phantom, the comic book hero.