It’s a new year, as you may have noticed. I have plans. Goals. As one does.

So, in 2020 I will:

  • finish and publish volume 3 of The Voidstrider Saga;
  • begin work on my next Johnson Underwood project, working title Florida Man versus the Elder Gods;
  • write more in this blog;
  • write and send actual letters to old friends in far-off places;
  • reconnect in person with old friends in more nearby locales;
  • make efforts to be less cynical and angry, focus on positive things.

That last one … eh, we’ll see.

I’m very excited for the Florida Man project. It’s something that’s been percolating for the last three years. It will be, like the previous Johnson book, sarcastic and satirical. It will be my first real foray into cosmic horror, also. (I’ve dabbled a bit in short form once or twice over the years, but this is my first real effort.)

Ideas are still coming together, but some themes I intend to tackle are the meaninglessness of existence (a proper theme for eldritch cosmic horror, no?) and the What Now? of early middle age. Also, again much like Jimmy Stick, the book will have a whole lot of what the fuck is wrong with these humans anyway? Plus, a lot of humor.

So those are my plans for the New Year. Wish me luck, and in turn may all your own endeavors bear delicious fruit.


Well, that’s over with. Good riddance, right?

I started 2019 in my living room, hanging out with a favorite coworker, my then-girlfriend, and my dog. We drank and played Red Dragon Inn and Layla (the dog) threw up on the floor.

I ended the year at a weird hotel party in Louisville, Kentucky, drinking with some people I know and some people I don’t and some people who just wandered in. A young woman showed me pictures of her 18 cats.

I won’t miss 2019, not gonna lie. I’m glad it’s over. It was a real fucker of a year for me. I have still not managed to finished Voidstrider volume 3. I had a permanent falling out with two once-dear friends whom I had known and been close to for over a decade. Went through a weird, if civil, break-up. Went through a cancer scare (I’m fine!).

I watched the world around me continue to grow darker, more grim.

There were good bits, of course. Some magnificent. I ended the year with hope and optimism, despite that stinker of an ending for a certain beloved franchise. I ended the year with love. I ended the year with a positive balance in the bank, a roof over my head, and food in my belly.

The world is dark and grim, but it is also filled with lights. Some sparkle, others blaze. Watch out for the ones which gutter in the stirring of breezes, the ones that flicker and struggle. Cup your hands around them, if you will, if you are able. Prop them up and preserve them. We’re all we’ve got.

Moving forward, as we always do, as we must, I wish you all the best. May 2020 be a better year than 2019. May you find what you seek, create what you desire, and hold what you cherish. Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes.

Things I Might Say If You Weren’t a Troll Hell-Bent on Ignoring Reason and Facts in Your Noble Quest to Trigger Me

I just saw another manbaby ranting about The Last Jedi, specifically the “Holdo Maneuver,” on Facebook. Quelle fuckin surprise.

Essentially his complaint boils down to: if that’s possible, then why haven’t people been doing it all the time? Why didn’t they blow up the Death Star like that? Why is a woman (especially with unnatural hair color) allowed to do something important? Oops. He didn’t say that part out loud. This totally breaks Star Wars, he did opine. Previous films are rendered suddenly unrealistic!

Wow, bro! You cracked it! No one has pointed that out before, and if they had then any counterarguments would have obviously been dumb SJWs just virtue signalling at each other because they’re so triggered!

I’m not going to get into it with Facebook trolls, not today Satan. But, despite having grown up on the Internet, I still fall victim to one of the classic blunders. I may never have gone in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, but I almost always read the comments.

I was pleased to see a number of people pointing out some serious flaws in his argument, and dismayed to see every reasonable comment met with a bellicose chorus of “but her e-mails!” Shit, I did it again. I mean, of course, that there was a snarky man-baby ready to answer every salient point with completely irrelevant bullshit.

If this is possible, then there would be ways to defend against it. Star Destroyers have no defense against it, ergo it’s not something they need to defend against, ergo it is not possible.

OK, chucklefuck. Beyond the basic logical fallacy in your argument’s construction, consider this. We’ve all seen how making the jump to lightspeed works. Ship travels an extremely short distance rapidly in realspace before vanishing into hyperspace. Have they ever done a jump to hyperspeed where the ship lurches across two or three light seconds before vanishing into that higher dimensional disco? Nope. So: the Holdo Maneuver can only be initiated from very fucking close to its target, which in the case of a Star Destroyer has actually quite a lot of options in defending itself from another ship at close proximity.

Remember that time in Empire when Han banks the Falcon around, completely ignoring common sense and the lack of air resistance in vacuum to charge head-on at a Star Destroyer? And the guys on the bridge are like, “lol, wut” and “what suicidal dipshit would attack a Star Destroyer head on at close range?”

The Holdo Maneuver works for a couple reasons. One, no one would expect it to be successful. Which means no one would expect some idiot to try it. Two, it happens when the ship is being evacuated and the First Order have spotted the fleeing Resistance shuttles and would reasonably assume the capital ship is no longer in the fight.

Yes, that doesn’t mean tactically they should then ignore it as a potential threat, but (a) human beings are not always terribly smart, especially in heated moments and (b) there are soooo many dumb things people have done in SW because of plot requirements in the previous films.

Why didn’t they just blow up the Death Star that way?

See my above point regarding Star Destroyers, and consider how many Rebels died at Yavin when they got close to the thing they needed to get close to in order to blow it up.

It’s a deus ex machina!

Come back when you learn what words mean. Yes, even the Latin ones. I’m sure you’ve been having trouble with quid pro quo lately as well.

It doesn’t make any sense for her to sacrifice herself when they could just make a droid do it. (She probably just wanted attention. You know. Women.)

Droids are sentient, dude. It’s already kind of a problem how they’ve been used.

It makes everything that came before pointless and/or unrealistic.

Come here, buddy. Have a seat right here. Let’s have us a chat about some motherfucking space wizards.

Wait, back up. We may have to start out a little more basic. You do know the difference between real life and make believe, right?

The Angel and the Djinn preview

I swear sometimes this book is going to kill me. I’ve been working on volume 3 of The Voidstrider Saga for almost two years. (I wrote the first one in six months.) The light is showing at the tunnel’s end, at last. I’ve got about 18,000 words to go and then of course the revisions, but let’s not think about that now. Today, I want to give you a little taste.

This is, it goes without saying, raw first draft stuff which will likely see some heavy changes before it goes to print. It’s a little spoilery but not too bad. (And it will make no sense unless you’ve read the first two books, obviously.) Here we go:

Interlude – SADIRA

Garish holograms and flashing OLEDs competed for attention with twirling aug mirages, visible only to those with the right implants or an expensive set of lenses. The aug usually won, thanks to its interactive nature and freedom to dance and twirl in midair, performing dazzling and impossible contortions over the heads of slow-shuffling tourists with wide eyes and deep pockets.

Inebriated business magnates from Earth and Luna mixed with Cerean merchant princes and wealthy Martian patricians, staggering through the haze of light and sound as they made their way to the next attraction. Rich kids from all over the system stumbled about, laughing and heedless of the constant noise of bells and sirens or the neverending clatter of chips emanating from every other establishment they passed.

A middle-aged man in rumpled business formal haggled with a three-armed, green-skinned prostitute outside a red-lit entrance. A servitor, tall and spindly like a stainless steel coatrack, hauled an obese woman in her sixties from another entryway and tossed her carelessly to the ground. She rolled onto her back and stared with eyes gone hazy from some potent narcotic. Nearby, a young man horked vat-grown shellfish into a mobile trash receptacle as his three Belter buddies stood round laughing uproariously.

Downtown Eros on a Saturday night.

A beautiful woman in a loose-fitting, red slacks-and-jacket ensemble strode purposefully along this crowded promenade, ignoring the the outrageous sights and deafening sounds of the glittering asteroid city of sin. She was trailed by six companions, spread out in a tight arc behind her and clad in the same shade of red she herself wore. They moved with purpose through the chaos.

The woman was tall – not quite Belter tall, but tall and slender atop long legs. She had dark brown skin and silken black hair that flowed free over broad shoulders. She walked with her spine straight and her eyes straight ahead, betraying no sign of the nervousness she felt. Sadira had not physically set foot on the asteroid in almost four years. She was counting on anyone who knew her to assume she was here as an aug and nothing more.

She was accompanied by a diverse group, though each was stunningly attractive and none boasted unnatural skin tones like the three-armed streetwalker who had just concluded negotiations with the drunken bussinesman. Three women, two men, one enby; they had as little in common with the green-skinned prostitute as a mountain lion shares with a house cat.

Eros was an exclusive playground for the system’s most obscenely wealthy, but more than one visitor had risked bankruptcy and ruin to spend an evening with one of Sadira’s Companions. Their time and attention came at a steep price, and not for something so trivial and fleeting as sex – although those few clients fortunate enough to earn a Companion’s physical affection often claimed the experience had changed their lives forever. Nevertheless, it was for other skills Sadira’s Companions were so highly sought after.

They had yet other talents as well, talents not for sale or lease at any price. In all the worlds where humans dwelt, none but Sadira could have called on those talents. It was for these talents she brought them along this evening.

Sadira reached the far end of the plaza and continued on along a narrower corridor branching off to one side of the main thoroughfare. The glitzy frontages fell behind as she and her Companions passed into a less heavily trafficked area of the station. Two hundred meters off the plaza, the corridor came to a dead end in a set of double doors undecorated by lights or holos. Above the doors, laser-etched into the wall itself, the emblem of Station Security glowered down on any who approached. Sadira ignored it, leading the way inside.

It was a typical substation, anonymous and interchangeable. It had been chosen by simple virtue of being the closest to the docking spar where Sadira kept her ship. Inside was a wide, featureless lobby with bare steel benches, two cramped visitor’s kiosks, and a long counter. Behind the counter, a bored young woman in uniform sat pretending she wasn’t watching some muted gameshow on her handset. She looked up, bemused at the entrance of seven gorgeous strangers in matching scarlet finery.

“Can I help you people?” the woman managed after a second.

Sadira ignored the officer. It was one of her two male Companions – Bolaji – who leapt the counter in a blur of red fabric and rippling black skin. Bolaji landed beside the startled woman soundlessly. His delicate hands shot out to either side of her head and he jabbed two slender fingers directly into each vagus nerve. The woman crumpled to the floor in a dead faint.

Sadira meanwhile made her way to the end of the counter, where a section lifted up to allow entry. She and the others came around to join Bolaji where he stood gazing down at the unconscious woman. He knelt as Sadira approached, checking to make sure the security officer was still breathing. Like all the Companions, like Sadira herself, Bolaji was determined not to kill anyone.

“Come along,” said Sadira. Bolaji met her eyes briefly, then nodded. He snatched a holstered electrolaser from the woman’s hip before rising to lead the way deeper into the substation. Behind where the stunned woman had sat was a broad corridor leading deeper into the station. Interrogation and holding cells lined one side, offices and a small lab the other. Past these, the corridor ended in a T-junction.

Bolaji and another of the Companions, alabaster-skinned Mariko, preceded Sadira and the rest. They were halfway to the junction when two half-armored officers charged round the corner from the left, a trio of cylindrical crowd suppression drones at their heels.

Sadira stopped and ducked into the alcove of an interrogation cell doorway as her Companions advanced. Crackling electrolaser beams flashed past her shallow cover. Grunts and other sounds of exertion, followed by broken-off screams, reached her ears. She heard flesh and bone striking composite alloy, the throbbing hum of a pulser. Sounds of breakage. Silence.

Sadira stepped out from the doorway and continued down the hall. Her six Companions fell in around her as she reached the junction. Ignoring the two unconscious human guards and three piles of mangled scrap, she turned right at the corner. The central lift was five meters ahead.

Every substation on the asteroid was connected by lift to Security Central. This allowed Station Security to keep a minimal force in any given area, with heavily armed reserves never more than an elevator ride away. It was also Sadira’s way in.

The lift car arrived, empty. Sadira stepped inside. Her Companions followed her, turning around once they were aboard and spreading out to provide cover. The car, designed for the rapid deployment of entire squadrons, was far from crowded with only seven passengers. It rose smoothly, leaving the outer surface levels rapidly behind.

No one spoke. Sadira closed her eyes and focused on measured breathing to quiet her anxiety. Her stomach fluttered and dropped. Panic fed panic, and her heart lurched until she realized it was only the dereasing gravity as they approached the asteroid’s center. She opened her eyes, still counting down each breath.

The lift stopped and the doors opened.

Sadira and the others began to drift from the car floor the moment it stopped. Bolaji and the others flung themselves out, scattering to frustrate any ambush. Lennon, the enby, was last out. They slapped the door control on the way, locking it open. Sadira gripped a rail at what had been chest-height and stayed put. She sucked in breath, one two three four.

Beyond the open doors was an egg-shaped lobby, its long and short axes aligned with Eros’s own. Lifts lined every surface, with grablines criss-crossing the open space and leading up or down or sideways to the enormous circular aperture in the egg’s narrowest point: the entrance to Security Central.

Bolaji, Mariko, and the rest caught hold of grablines as they shot into the foyer’s micrograv. Spinning in place, they aligned themselves with the circular aperture and launched toward it. Cylindrical drones emerged from the aperture. Freed of the heavier gravity their counterparts had endured in the near-surface substation, these drones rose on airjets to meet the intruders. Electrolaser fire crackled, intermixed with the heavier weaponry of the suppression drones.

Sadira bit her lip. Breathe out, one two three four. Breathe in…

Her view was limited to the narrow opening of the lift car’s door. An occasional stunner bolt flashed like controlled lightning. After perhaps a minute, the e-laser fire was replaced by hurtling amethyst toroids of supercharged plasma that left drifting afterimages in her vision.

An unfamiliar voice shouted commands. Human guards had joined the drones, which might be a good sign. Or a very bad one. She heard more energy weapons fire, and the staccato chatter of a machine gun before it cut off amid a lot of angry shouting.

Sadira realized she’d closed her eyes again when she felt a warm feeling of pain building behind them. One two three four. She forced herself to loosen her grip on the rail. Her palm ached with the shape of it. She opened her eyes. One two three four.

The noise of fighting had died down in the egg-shaped foyer. A handful of straggling stunner zaps sounded and then it was quiet. Sadira’s breath caught in her throat on the three count.


She sagged against the wall. It was Bolaji’s voice.

Sadira allowed herself a second to regather her composure. Then she emerged from the lift car with as much grace as she could summon. She felt clumsy in comparison to her Companions, who waited over — er, down there at the circular entrance.

They hovered around the entrance, holding lightly onto the grablines converging there. As she pulled herself closer, Sadira saw that five of her Companions were clustered around a sixth, who was not moving. Oh no. No… Sadira drew herself to a stop at the edge of the group, staring in horrified anguish over Mariko’s shoulder.

It was Therexa. The woman hung motionless in the center of the group. Her hands floated limp, arms spread to either side. Burn marks scarred her scarlet blouse. A wide hole had been drilled through her midsection. Globules of blood welled up and floated ponderously from the ugly wounds. She was dead.

Sadira’s lip curled around a rising sob of anguish, locking the sound in her mouth behind an ugly, twisted snarl. Her hand reached for Therexa’s body of its own accord. Her eyes saw nothing else. There were sounds, muted. She blinked and the present moment returned, the egg room and her five surviving Companions clustered around her in commingled grief. She swallowed her pain and ripped her eyes from the corpse.

One two three four…

“Keep moving,” she said. “We’ll come back for her.” If any of us survives, anyway. She left that part unsaid. If any of them hadn’t known the risk, it was floating right there staring them in the face now. Therexa. She had loved dogs. Her quarters on the ship were filled with holographic puppies, jumping and yipping and licking at anyone who came through the hatch. Sadira shook her head. “Let’s go.”

Bolaji went first. The others followed him, Sadira coming last. The entryway was a narrow tube, one meter long. Beyond, Security Central opened out around them in a cylindrical hall. Sliding doors circled the hall, breaking up the gunmetal monotony of otherwise featureless curving walls. Guidelines ran along the walls and criss-crossed the open space in a chaotic spider’s web.

Sadira took a moment to match the disorienting layout in front of her with the map she’d memorized before leaving the ship. Bolaji and the rest waited, postures tense and eyes darting to and fro. She nodded to herself and indicated a door three quarters of the way down the hall and forty-five degrees around the cylinder.

They started off, picking their way along the network of guidelines. A door opened a little deeper in the cylinder. An angry face appeared, sneering behind a pistol. Lennon shot first. A nasty little hole appeared in the security officer’s face and he fell back out of sight. Globules of blood floated out into the central space. It took Sadira a moment to realize what Lennon had done. She looked at the enby in surprise.

“For Therexa,” they said with a murderous expression. “I say kill ‘em all.”

“We’re better than that,” Bolaji snapped from several meters ahead, where he was leading the way. The bitter anger threaded through his disappointment made Sadira take a second look at her own reaction. “We’re better than they are.”

“No,” said Sadira, frowning sadly. “They’re being controlled. Directly, indirectly, whether they know it or not. We’re not better than them, Bolaji. Just freer.” She turned her face back toward Lennon. “We’re here to balance that out and break the chains, not slay the chained.”

Lennon bit their lip and nodded. Bloodlust faded from the enby’s eyes, replaced with regret. Sadira reached over and clasped their shoulder. Their eyes locked for an instant. Lennon nodded again, firmer this time.

They made it the rest of the way to the door Sadira had chosen without incident. It wouldn’t open until Lennon shot the control panel. Sparks flew and the emergency system kicked in, slamming the door open to prevent anyone being trapped inside during power loss. The gunfire started immediately.

A bullet tore through Lennon’s shoulder, spinning them away from the open door. The enby clutched at the wound, hissing in pain. The rest pushed back and opened fire. Two heavily armored combat drones emerged, guns blazing. Sadira pushed away from the wall in a near panic. Bolaji screamed as a stream of bullets shredded his kneecap. Mariko tossed an EMP grenade at the drones and shrieked a moment later as machine gun fire tore into her abdomen. Lennon caught at a line to steady her spin and opened fire. The grenade went off. The drones sagged, weapons falling silent.

Sadira sucked in gulping breaths. She couldn’t seem to get enough air. Blood was everywhere. It was on her face. She didn’t think any of it was hers. She wasn’t sure, though. She caught a line nearby and pushed off to reach Mariko. The pale woman had collided with two lines where they crossed, and lay against them like a fly caught in a web. She was breathing still, if raggedly. Her stomach was a gory mess. She opened her eyes when Sadira reached her.

“Mariko…” She clasped the dying woman’s hand. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”

“Finish it,” Mariko said, the words bubbling through the blood in her throat. She coughed, spitting flecks of red across her lips. “For Therexa.”

“And for you,” Sadira promised.

Several moments passed. They could have been an eternity, or no time at all. Sadira looked up. Lennon had bandaged their shoulder as best they could and was helping a grimacing Bolaji adjust the tourniquet he’d wrapped around his thigh. The black man’s left knee was a shattered, pulpy wreck. He blew out a pained breath and gave her a half-hearted thumb’s up.

“You two wait out here,” she told him. “Watch our backs.”

Along with her two remaining Companions, Sadira entered the room. Kal was just a step ahead of her when the wall-mounted laser cut him in half. His face froze in a final expression of surprise as his torso slid away from his hips. Kel opened fire, her wail of grief lost in the thundering buzz of her e-laser. She raked the beam across both walls, scorching the paneling and blasting the mounted lasers to glittery bits. When she finally released the firing stood she lurched to her brother’s side and sobbed.

Tears streamed down Sadira’s cheeks. She pushed ahead. She had a job to finish.

Gunfire sounded out in the corridor. Reinforcements must have arrived, probably from one of the substations. Maybe more than one from the sound of it. Kel clutched at her brother and wept. Lennon and Bolaji fell back to the doorway, firing their commandeered weapons in seemingly every direction.

Sadira reached the massive computer bank at the back of the otherwise empty room. Tears blurred her vision. She wiped at her eyes with one hand, the other digging in her pocket. She pulled out the memory stick, held it up and scrutinized it before turning it around in her hand and searching the terminal before her for a port.

There. All she had to do was stick it in.

She knew the Djinn was dead, knew also the Djinn was always too wily to let that stop her. Somewhere out there, a digital copy of the woman still existed. As long as it did, it would never stop fighting the Angel. And neither would she.

“I told you once I owed you my life,” she whispered, seeing Melynaur’s face in her mind’s eye. “I think now the debt is finally settled.”

She rammed the memory stick into the port. Green light stuttered just above it. The data was transferring, the Djinn’s virus insinuating itself in the Angel’s proxy mainframe. Sadira hoped it would work.

How I Write Characters

You get bad character writing sometimes. You know, the plot’s chugging along and here comes a character you think you’ve got a handle on, but they do something that makes no sense. You know. Out of character. Because, well, plot.

Or you have the narrative telling you “this character is X,” when, in fact, they are demonstrably not-X. (This applies to many “brilliant tacticians” and skilled fighters in stories, and incidentally to pretty much every self-described “nice guy” IRL.)

This generally happens because of plot-needs. The brilliant tactician has to suffer a tactical defeat in order to come back or something. Or maybe it’s a case of the author not understanding what brilliant tactics look like.

I mean, I probably don’t. So I try to avoid having brilliant tacticians who have to prove it.

There are loads of methods for character building that help an author avoid this, you know. Character sheets, templates for which abound with a simple Google. I’ve seen people talking about taking personality tests for their characters, which I have not done but plan to start because – hey, cool. There’s more, but…

I’m not going to say I’m great at this, but here’s how I do it:

I have to see my characters in action first. I put some barely sketched people into a situation and see what happens. This is not quite the same as letting the plot drive the events, but it is fairly indistinguishable.

After a few things have happened, I take stock.

I look at what this character did, how they reacted. I hope it is consistent so far. If it is, I figure out what it says about the character. Extrapolate that to determine how they will react to some other event.

This way I build the character as I go. It’s a lot like getting to know someone. I don’t start out knowing who they are. I don’t have the internals figured out, just the most basic of the external.

Often, before I get into any internal stuff, I’ll look at other character’s opinions. I love to write a worthless drunk, a crazy bitch, a lazy stoner, a heartless robot … and then get into that character’s head and find the stuff that contradicts the external perspective, that demonstrates characters are more than (or completely different from) what other people think of them. In these cases, I start with the other character’s opinion and deliberately build against it.

Either way: the first couple scenes with a character happen before I define the character. I let those scenes define the character, and then I try to explore what’s been suggested.

After that, I have the beginning of a template. Each new element has to be held up to the rest to ensure it fits, and the template grows over time. I get to know the character better and better, fleshing out those most basic motivations with backstory crafted to fit the initial reactions and later reactions crafted to fit the established character.

I have to say: I have definitely fucked this up. Badly, and more than once.

However, it’s what works for me and I think it’s a great method. Revision is super important, as ever. And you have to check everything a character does against your evolving understanding of the character, but don’t you kinda need to do that anyway, regardless of your method? I dunno, go ask that brilliant tactician over there.

An example, before I go.

In Revolt on Vesta, I introduce Ekaterina Miranova with a physical description. I usually don’t with characters, but I wanted her to be physically unique: she’s had herself genetically modified to grow a tail. (I swear I wasn’t even thinking about furries at the time)

So, why?

Then, Katia’s position as administrator of an asteroid colony is threatened. She’s basically being fired by the home office, but she ain’t having it.

Okay, so what’s her justification?

A subordinate murders the person who is charged with removing Katia from her office and sending her home. She could react a number of ways to this, but what she does is accept the hand this subordinate has dealt her. She decides to steer into the skid and launches an open rebellion.

Okay, what’s that say about her?

The tail: she recently visited another asteroid colony, where tails were all the rage. From that, I get that she’s trendy and fashionable. So I build that into future scenes with her. Not to the point of absurdity, mind you. It doesn’t need to be mentioned every time she enters a room. But here and there, an appropriate moment presents itself to remind the reader that Katia is fashion-conscious. It’s a minor background detail, but it remains consistent and thus makes the character more real. (I also get to avoid the typical body-language cliches. She’s got a motherfucking tail, guys. It lashes side to side when she gets angry.)

The position: she’s been a successful administrator. So in future scenes, I demonstrate how the colony has prospered better under her than under her predecessor. Ideally, I put her in a position to demonstrate through action on the page that she’s good at running a colony. She is knowledgeable in her field and competent at her job, so whenever something comes up I have to make sure her actions/decisions reflect that.

The decision: she’s a good businesswoman, sure, but she can be dreadfully stubborn and will take a bad option – even a criminal one – over one she doesn’t agree with. This can be explored as a major flaw, and it will definitely have extreme consequences.

The second and third items there give me a source of conflict for the character. She’s great at running the colony, but turns out to be awful at running a rebellion. She gets people killed. A lot.

This gives me all sorts of questions to look into: How do her people view her, and does it change when the rebellion goes poorly? How does her self-image fare through all this? What form do her doubts take? And, ultimately, how can she redeem what really feels like a terrible mistake in that very first scene? Will she ever be able to translate her management skill into something useful in this new situation? Or will she have to learn an entirely new suite of skill and expertise? Or, will she fail to do so and thus pay the price for her earlier hubris?

When I created the character, I had no idea where she would go. But that first scene gave me everything I needed to start finding out.

And that’s how I build characters.

A Problem With Language

Something’s been bugging me for a while.

In The Voidstrider Saga, I’ve sketched out the idea of a Mars colonized several centuries earlier by refugees from the last world war. The first colonists came primarily from East Asia and South America.

There are two official languages on Mars. Lingwa, which is essentially the common vernacular, the lingua franca. Yes, the name is obviously related to that. No, I didn’t make it up. Not entirely.

Lingwa de planeta is a real-world con-lang built from the most commonly spoken languages on Earth. The fictional Lingwa in my universe is not the same language, but related. Specifically, it is a conglomerate of multiple Chinese dialects, Spanish, and Portuguese. It has developed over the course of at least 350 years. I have not bothered to try and codify it any further than that.

This isn’t what’s bugging me. What’s bugging me is the other Martian language, Guanhwa. Occasionally referred to as “High” Martian. It’s the official language of government on Mars, though it is not widely spoken. In fact, most common Martians know very little Guanhwa, typically just the curse words.

I envisioned Guanhwa as essentially a linguistic descendant of modern Beijing Mandarin. In much the way that modern Portuguese is a descendant of ancient Latin. The official language of Mars is not modern Chinese, but a speaker of one would find certain words in the other to be familiar or even the same. Its basic rules are the same or near enough to be accounted for by dialectic drift over a couple centuries. Its vocabulary has evolved as well, borrowing words or phrases – especially from the other languages of the Martian settlers – but it is essentially just a new dialect of Chinese.

No one in The Voidstrider Saga speaks a modern language, by the way. Some speak “Anglic,” which is probably about as close to modern English (UK or American, either one) as modern English is to Middle or even Old English. Others use Outer Belt Unish, which is very similar to the modern constructed language Unish. Still others speak Interslavic, another constructed language.

Of course, the bulk of the text is in English. It is my first language and, despite a lifetime of fascination with and study of languages, the only one in which I feel comfortable writing or, indeed, reading for pleasure. (I have never studied Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect, for the record.)

When a character speaks English, it is an implied translation of the Anglic, Lingwa, or Interslavic. The one scene where Unish is featured, some of the dialogue is rendered in that language. I spent about four hours studying the basic vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of that conlang in order to get five extremely simple sentences right.

Guanhwa is another story. For one thing, it’s not a real language.

So I did something a little lazy. In the way I’ve used English to stand-in for most of the other languages, I tried to use something else to stand in for Guanhwa. And what I used was not one of the languages I’ve actually studied and learned, but the one modern language which is (in-universe) actually related to Guanhwa.

I didn’t just go to Google Translate, of course. Give me a little more credit than that. I spent far more time on it than on my five sentences in Unish, using a number of different resources, comparing, selecting, occasionally running what I found through Translate to English to double-check.

I’m a language nerd, but I was in a hurry. I spent hours on my few phrases of Guanhwa, but not days. I was writing what I initially intended to be essentially low-concept, pulpy sci-fi with an eye to churning out a quick beach read every few months. I wasn’t trying to be overly lazy, and I certainly wasn’t trying to be disrespectful.

But it started bugging me almost immediately. If someone who actually speaks standard Chinese reads this, I thought, they’ll probably slap their forehead and think “here’s another clueless author just using Google translate, for fuck’s sake.”

But I reminded myself it’s not modern Chinese. It’s a made-up language closely related to modern Chinese but separated by at least 350 years of drift. So if it comes across grammatically incorrect, that’s why.

This sounds like an excuse because it is, not because it isn’t true. The above statement is 100% correct, it just doesn’t really speak to the real problem, which took me a while to resolve in my head. I accepted my self-provided excuse because I couldn’t immediately figure out why it didn’t feel good enough.

The problem isn’t the fucking accuracy. It’s the fact that I’m cherry picking bits and pieces of a language I don’t speak or understand. It’s more than a little appropriative. The reasoning behind it is fairly stable, but not exactly sound. After all, I just used English for no less than three other made-up future languages. Why not just use English for the Guanhwa too?

Because it’s so very different from the ones descended from English; or Spanish and Portuguese; or Russian, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czech?

I don’t like what that suggests about me. It’s something to confront, and I believe it is simply an unconsciously internalized bit of nonsense that I will have to be vigilant against, rather than a deliberate bias.

Mars has been thorny for me beyond the question of Guanhwa, and that was part of how I figured this all out. I could say a lot here about how I imagined this future Mars, a post-diaspora melting pot community that has solidified rather than fragmenting. A culture that is dominated by the centuries-long project of terraforming a hostile planet, assembling itself piecemeal over time and only later on trying to seize bits of the more distant past, throwing up tea houses and water gardens in an attempt to recreate bits of an ancestral past poorly remembered or understood. I could go on for thousands of words about my vision of Mars, and future books in the series will explore these concepts as well as my imagined society/governmental structure for the Red Planet. I remain excited about this, because of all the bits of worldbuilding I’ve done in Voidstrider, Mars is my favorite.

But I have decided going forward to render any spoken Guanhwa dialogue in English, just as I have with the other languages. Sure, there’s the odd word in French from Martine, or the Martian grunts calling each other ‘mano as a shortened “brother,” and so on. And I may, when appropriate, use something like gan bei again in much the same way. There’s a lot of alcohol being consumed in the story, after all. I will consider it carefully, however.

Here’s the TL/DR:

I made an error in the way I handled one of my fictional languages. That mistake is appropriative, suggestive of an unconscious cultural or even racial bias, and generally smacks of disrespect. I regret taking the lazy route I did, and will be correcting course in future books. Nobody yelled at me, nobody (to my knowledge) is offended. But I have been bothered by it from the start, and now – having determined exactly why that’s so – I am disappointed in it and myself. I meant no disrespect to anyone.

My fictional world is for everyone, and if my choices have alienated even a single reader, I have fucked up and am sorry.