My Grandfather’s Antenna

My grandfather turned 90 last month, and I’d like to share an anecdote from the Long, Long Ago. I love this anecdote because it encapsulates a number of my granddad’s characteristics, and because it has a serious atompunk/dieselpunk flavor to it.

In the late 1940s (no later than 1950 anyway), back when a television in every house was still a new concept, my grandfather got a TV for the living room. You had to have those big branching metal antennae up on the roof in those days, of course. If you’re too young, you may yet have seen them in old TV or film or in a period piece set in the mid 20th century. You know, the man of the house has to go up on the roof – preferably in his housecoat and pajamas – to jiggle the thing back and forth while the wife and/or kids shout encouragement and irritating feedback from the window or front door. It’s usually played for comedy.

So my granddad doesn’t want to go up the roof every time he wants to change from the station. What he does instead, he cuts a hole in the roof and drills a hollow shaft down into the bones of the house. He cuts this shaft down through the (almost certainly load-bearing) wall of the living room, beside where the television will sit.

He then mounts his antenna on a metal pole which, rather than mounted to the roof, goes all the way down this open shaft.

In the living room wall he cuts out an alcove, a little nook really. It abuts the shaft. There’s a plywood backing, maybe some drywall over that, and two cut-outs for the rope. The rope goes into these holes and attaches to the metal pole inside the shaft. The other ends of the rope? Tied near the ends of a pair of bicycle handlebars he’s got mounted on a swivel in the little alcove.

When my granddad needs to adjust the antenna, he just leans over and turns the handlebars like he’s steering a bike or operating a periscope (he wasn’t a submariner, but he had been a sailor).

And that’s him. That’s John C. Underwood, my granddad. Thinking outside the box, refusing the accept the limitations of available technology, coming up with some crazy DIY solution, and building it. Absolutely with a healthy dash of retro sci-fi thrown in for flavor.

I remember the house he and my grandmother lived in for most of my childhood. They built it themselves, back in about 1986. Completely from scratch, no blueprints, no contractors. It was this DIY gnome-wizard’s castle with inbuilt bookshelves, three different staircases, lofts, hidden panels, five different levels (all split-level style, the house was barely more than a standard two-story height), a couple of decks. It smelled of books and pipe smoke and sawdust forever.

Where he’s at now? His reading chair is near a corner and if he leans back and elbows this hidden switch on the wall? A corner panel pops open, and a shotgun falls directly into his lap. Pointed at the door.

Lost: 15K Words, Reward Offered

Last month, my five year old laptop bit the dust and I lost 15,000 words.

The laptop had been acting funky for a minute. Finally, without me actually telling it to, the laptop reformatted itself.

I’ve used Dropbox for over a decade, and since I bought that laptop in December of 2013 I’ve also made some use of OneDrive. All my writing and other absolutely irreplaceable files are stored in the Dropbox folder. Scrivener saves directly to Dropbox. Every month or so I’d back up a copy to OneDrive, but Dropbox was the automatic.

I’d been planning to replace the laptop this year even before the old one started acting funky. I’d figured on the fall, which is when my real-person-job is most profitable. September perhaps. Two months shy of six years seems a decent enough lifespan for a work computer. So it’s inconvenient but not catastrophic that I had to go ahead and order a new one at the end of April.

It arrives and I unpackage the new machine. It is sleek and sexy and of course six years newer. I am pleased, except by the touchpad (the old one had touchpad with two separate buttons, the new is just the touchpad that clicks down in the lower corners, and I have always hated this design) and Windows 10 (but hey, I despised Windows 8 when I first got it. And actually that’s been true of every iteration of Windows since goddamn 95, so…)

I boot up, run through the setup, and then get down to replacing my program suite. Scrivener, Dropbox, Brave in place of Edge. A few others but that’s the core.

That’s when I discover my old laptop apparently had another problem I hadn’t noticed. Last time Dropbox synced was apparently April 2. (This despite the fact that I watched the little blue sync icon turn into a little green check mark every single time I finished a writing session and before I put the machine to sleep.Every single fucking time.

I wrote right around 15,000 words in April, divided between two projects. One was a brand new project last month, so I lost the entirety of that story. I likely will not start over on it. My other project is book 3 of Voidstrider, and it was …. nearly finished. Already way past my intended deadline, but nearly finished. I’ve been set back just under 10,000 words on it (call it around 25-35 pages for you non-writer-types).

I haven’t lost a manuscript or partial manuscript in almost 20 years. Back then I smoked a lot of things and drank a lot more and I won’t say I had more emotional equilibrium because there’s a difference between muted, partially numbed emotions and actual emotional balance, but you can see how the effective difference is perhaps negligible.

I lost my goddamn mind when I found out I’d lost an entire month’s work.

And then, two days later, having accepted it and pointed out to myself the only way forward is to move on, I sat down last night to start the process of recreating what was lost.

Some thoughts on the attempt:

I managed a little shy of 1100 words in a two-hour session. Rewriting without the original draft is … weird. Some parts are much easier to get down, due to the fact that I’ve done this already. The hardest part is behind me. Figuring out what goes where, who says what and when they say it, how a scene moves. Other parts are infuriatingly difficult as I try to remember the exact phrasing of a particular ‘graph or a sparkling gold sentence that I was so goddamn proud of a week or two ago. There were bits of the scene I worked on last night that, the first time through, I sat back and smiled and said to myself, “Yeah, that’s it right there, that’s fucking perfect.” And those are gone.

The opening of this scene used far fewer words second time around (about a 30% trim, probably for the best). Setting description went from about 500 words to about 300. And some of those sparkling gold bits I mentioned? Those were in the description, and I mourn because description is not my best strength.

The second bit of the scene, which highlights the characters and shows what they’re about to do, used more words this time. I added some bits I forgot the first time. Details, a bit more difficulty in reaching the objective, makes it more real. So, again, probably best.

Original scene was ~1800 words. I’m at 1K but only about 40-50% done. So overall it will be a bit longer this time, but I’ve trimmed the (best written but ultimately least important) opening and expanded the middle.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever written a second draft without being able to reference the first. My normal process is to edit inside the existing draft. I did do several complete fresh drafts of Jimmy Stick, but I also spent eight and a half years on it.

Anyway. That’s what’s happening with me.

The Sad Tale of the Ininite Monkeys, Who Just Wanted Science Fiction Without Politics

This post is adapted and expanded from a Twitter thread. It may sound familiar to some of you.

Do not click this link. (“Indie Sci-Fi Authors Are Upending Traditional Publishing, And It’s Turned Into A War”) It’s hot garbage. I warned you. It’s an article from The Federalist, a conservative web-magazine founded about six years ago. The site generally tries to be both savvy and serious, although it has been accused of pandering to lunatic conspiracy-theorists. I don’t recall having ever read anything from The Federalist before a link to this article popped up in my dashboard. I was aware of the magazine and its general reputation.

I clicked the link for two reasons. First, because it’s undeniably in my wheel house. I am an indie sci-fi author. (I have yet to upend anything more serious than a game of Monopoly.) The other reason is that I make it a point to read things from sources I know I won’t agree with. I avoid the echo-chamber effect where possible, while keeping my blood pressure in mind. Did you appreciate the layers of that Monopoly reference though?

The TL/DR is this: the publishing establishment has been “violently” taken over by left leaning extremists bent on pushing their progressive agenda on hapless readers who were just hankering for a good yarn. The piece contains an extremely revisionist overview of the Sad Puppies bullshit from a few years ago, connecting it to a currently extant group called 20Booksto50K, which I will hereafter refer to as The Infinite Monkeys.

The Infinite Monkeys started as a Facebook group created by a cat named Michael Anderle and his buddy Craig Martelle. Anderle did some research and figured out that “he needed to produce 20 books to make $50,000 a year so he could retire in Cabo.”

The more I looked into the Infinite Monkeys after reading the piece, the more I felt like Anderle and Martelle had also figured out how many conferences they needed to hold in exotic destinations like Bali, and how many American dollars to charge attendees, in order to retire in Cabo. But that’s just my opinion.

What is true is this: the Infinite Monkeys will never produce the complete Shakespeare, but they will churn out books for the sole purpose of getting rich. Now, I want writers to make money. Since I am one. But I’ve seen enough of these build-your-backlist-as-fast-as-possible types to smell the stink. It’s a content-mill practice, and this sort of thing genuinely does – on average – lower the overall quality and perception of indie, self-publishing. Yes, there are four-book-a-year writers who are AWESOME.

But the majority are shit-merchants peddling garbage in their quest for quick riches.

So, The Federalist praises these Infinite Monkeys. Not for their Amazon-gaming business insight, but for their stated purpose of being “apolitical.” A term which – I can attest, having been a member of many online writing groups for years – is typically used by right-wingers whose definition of apolitical is actually “in line with my personal beliefs so that it doesn’t seem political to me.”

Here’s the part that made my brain explode:

The 20BooksTo50K group is focused on appealing to readers—and what most readers want out of science fiction is escapism and fun. The big authors of the past understood this, and that’s why we still hail so many of the greats like Frank Herbert, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert Heinlein. The classic stories have a vision that brings fun and awe to their readership. Modern establishment publishing stories are mired in literary traps and identity politics in order to impress elites, but most readers don’t identify with those kind of stories.

Jon Del Arroz, indie sci-fi author of what should now be obvious character, writing in The Federalist. Emphasis mine

Holding up Robert A. Heinlein as an example of “apolitical” writing is one of the most absurd, laughable claims I have ever seen. Robert A. Heinlein wrote to express his political opinions. They changed over the course of his life, which can give a false impression, but the man had strong opinions first and became a writer second. He became a writer to share those opinions. Anyone claiming otherwise is wrong. Were he alive, Heinlein would tell them they were wrong. He would write a fucking novel telling them they were wrong, and probably win a Hugo.

If you’re interested in Heinlein, his politics, or the internal fan wars of the 1930s that are almost identical in tone to those of today, I cannot over-recommend Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding.

I grew up reading Heinlein. I loved his books. The wild disparity in his early, liberal thinking (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) and his later fetishising of the military (Starship Troopers) and strongly conservative ideas, sprinkled with almost-but-totally-not hippie-ism like Stranger in a Strange Land…

To think he was apolitical is to take a lifetime of work and reduce it, to ignore the evidence of a man whose thinking evolved over the course of his life, and to completely fail to understand anything about literature. It’s a fucking insult.

“In terms of morals there is no such thing as a ‘state’. Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts. I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free, because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything that I do.”

Robert A. Heinlein, “apolitical” writer, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein once said, “I do not think we have better than an even chance of living, as a nation, through the next five years.” He was talking about the content of his writing. See, he had this well-known and well-documented goal of INFLUENCING THE FUTURE THROUGH HIS FICTION. Does that sound apolitical to you? At all? From a science-fiction writer who described a Lunar colony’s war of independence, or a fascistic global state where only military veterans are enfranchised?

And, by the way, Frank Herbert? You thought Dune was apolitical? You’re on more drugs than he was.

For that matter, ALL OF CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION IS POLITICAL. Or, at least all of it that’s still in print. You just don’t recognize it as such. There are three possible reasons for this:

  • It’s not pertinent to the CURRENT discourse
  • It’s in your echo chamber and you don’t notice because it doesn’t make you think.
  • You’re a fucking moron who lacks reading comprehension skills.

If they wanted to hold up some classic writer as an example of “apolitical” in defense of an infinite-monkey group churning out text for no reason but money, L. Ron Hubbard would be a much better bet. MUCH better.

And as for those who like their science fiction to be without political aspects: you are fools. Science fiction is and has always been political. You just don’t like the conversation the rest of us are having now. You’d rather we didn’t. And you know what? You’re welcome to that opinion, but when you start targeting the industry as a bunch of “extremist” “elites” that you want to overthrow, when you try to silence the conversation and wave it all away as “political” when you just wanted a ripping good yarn, when you try to drown out the voices you don’t agree with …. there’s a fucking word for that, but you’re not going to like it. It’s a political word.

Single Player Campaign (Another DnD Post)

I mentioned a while back I’ve been DMing for a group of new-to-tabletop gamers.

So the plan is to dive into Waterdeep: Dragon Heist as soon as we finish the short campaign included in the Starter Set (which just keeps getting cheaper and cheaper if any of you Fearless Readers don’t play, want to play, are looking to get started…)

Sort of in preparation for this, and partially just because the full group can’t meet as regularly or often as we’d like, Gabs and I have been running a single-player mini-campaign the last couple of weeks. (We meant to play a session on our vacation last week, but although we took the source books, character sheet, and my notes … we forgot a fucking pencil.)

This single-player campaign takes place, in my mind, about fifty to sixty years before the events we’ll get to in Dragon Heist. Gabs’ character has no direct connection to the Dragon Heist campaign, and probably won’t be connected to her character in that game either (we’ve talked about what kind of character she wants to run in that game, although she hasn’t done any actual work on that future character yet so that may change.) The main thing that’s important is that her character in Dragon Heist is meant to be familiar with Waterdeep, and I wanted a way to introduce Gabs to the city so that she would actually have some of that familiarity…

My plan is to bring her character in this 1P game to Waterdeep through a story that is tangentially connected to a particular NPC I definitely plan on highlighting in part of the Dragon Heist campaign… (I don’t want to give specific spoilers since the players may read this.)

Because it’s a one-player campaign, I had her start her fighter at level 3 and took it easy in the first session. I had a role-playing encounter first off, in which the story set-up is delivered:

A mysterious illness struck your village, seeming indiscriminate. Those who fall ill run terrible fevers and the strength leaves them as their bodies begin rapidly wasting away. You were sent by the village chieftain to seek help in the city. You’ve returned, accompanied by an elven cleric who may be able to help…

The elven cleric is there to make combat encounters go a little more smoothly, but I’m not planning on keeping her directly in the story forever. And she can’t help with the illness because…

In your absence, a party of raiders attacked the village. With so many of the able-bodied wasted by fever, they met little resistance. Strangely, they ignored the houses where everyone was sick. They have abducted all the healthy children who were not struck down by sickness and departed to the east…

Keep in mind this played out over an entire session – those two blocks of text are just summarizing about an hour’s worth of play, questioning the surviving villagers – who have all miraculously recovered from their illness in the 24 hours since the raiders came to take the children.

Gabs’ fighter, Fritjof, sets off to follow the raiders’ tracks, still accompanied by the elven cleric. They also have a mysterious talisman found in the village, apparently lost or discarded by one of the villains. And at this point I threw in some hungry wolves, because it’s been a harsh winter and so on, but mainly to test the fighter’s abilities and limits. I started small and then threw in a couple more wolves to strengthen the pack. With the cleric’s help, this still wasn’t a problem, so I figured I’d found a good baseline for combat encounter difficulty with a single player (plus one NPC). And by then it was time to close out the first session.

I don’t know if this is of particular interest to any of you, Fearless Readers, but I’ll probably keep posting about it as the game goes on.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately – 2-19

I haven’t done one of these in two months. Whoops.

So, when last we spoke, I was working on The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett. And, while I liked that the book focused so strongly on fear and its effects on the three principal characters, I had some issues with its treatment of gender and especially with its Arab-stereotype “Krasian” culture.

Given that the second book focused largely on the Krasians, I expressed some concern … and well, yeah. I gave up about two thirds of the way through that book. So I can’t tell you how it ends.

Since then, I’ve largely been looking for a good fantasy read to get into. (Remember I was avoiding a re-read of The Wheel of Time.)

I checked out a few indies. One was godawful. One was really excellently written but the premise just did not excite me.

artwork by Tavis Coburn

For Christmas, I was gifted a copy of Astounding, by Alec Nevala-Lee. Ostensibly a biography of editor John W. Campbell (who edited Astounding, later Analog, and who is widely credited with ushering in science fiction’s Golden Age), this absolutely fantastic book chronicles the lives of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard in addition to Campbell. The four are inextricably linked, and their story is … fucking astounding, all right?

Parts of the writing are straight-up savage, especially when it comes to L. Ron Hubbard. I found myself giggling at some of the snippets, and making disgusted faces at others. A lot of them ended up on my Twitter feed.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about Golden Age sci-fi … or the creation of Scientology … or how the nerds helped win World War II … or even just how seriously you should take Starship Troopers … pick up this excellent piece of non-fiction. I can’t recommend it enough.

After that, I considered a re-read of Asimov. (He comes off, in my opinion, as the most sympathetic of the four men in Astounding. Yes, he played grabass his whole life. But the others … well, even Heinlein has these moments that are just a little … creepily off-putting.)

Anyway, I thought about a re-read of the Foundation books, or the Robot books (the Elijah Bailey/R. Daneel books in particular, as they are old favorites). But I still hadn’t found a good fantasy read that scratched the itch I’d been feeling since just after Halloween…

So I have now embarked on a third re-read of The Wheel of Time. And you can expect me to be stuck on that for at least three or four months.

So. How about you? Read any good books lately?

90s Websites

Reading about the retro 90s-style Captain Marvel website (which I have not actually seen and only halfway believe exists) started me thinking about the net in the 90s, the old, wild web. And, basically, I miss it.

Don’t mistake me. I wouldn’t trade modern bandwidth for modem noises. And once Web 2.0 settled the fuck down and got over itself, it really was an improvement.

But the internet back then was something else. I remember building my first web site on Geocities, and I’m totally willing to talk about it openly because Geocities is gone and you (probably) can’t find it to shame me with.

It was perhaps everything you’d expect from a nerdy 15-year-old’s website in 1998. The color palette, the ridiculous embeds, the grainy GIFs. Ah yes. But it was also absolutely not something you would expect.

It was not a writing site, though I did put a couple hundred thousand words up on it. They were off to one side. Let me explain. I started with a home page, as one does. From this page, there were two links which I imagined as leading to either side, like two wings of a house. Or a museum. Or a mindfucking modern art installation that’s more haunted house than exhibit.

Depending which path you took from the main page, you’d encounter a series of other pages. Each with two links – go back, and go forward. Each page was connected only to the one before it and the one that came next. There was no skipping around. (You can right-click the back button and go wherever you want, so long as you’ve been there before, but that’s cheating.) This was an intentional part of the design, which I considered seriously before implementing, and not merely lazy or uninformed construction. Remember – haunted house. The two paths crossed in several places, and these individual pages might have three or even four links, allowing you to criss-cross in your wanderings through my mental madhouse.

There were hidden links as well, the hyperlink text rendered in the background color so it could only be found by meticulously moving the mouse all around the page until it changed shape. Because that’s an annoying thing we did back then. If you remember AIM, you probably remember people with “invisible” quotes in their profiles. Same thing. These links opened into “hidden” rooms, and those were where I put the really insane stuff.

There were terrible teenage poems and the text of at least three full “novels,” and images, embedded .WAV and .MIDI files, probably a few pieces of utterly mad, geometric “art” I doodled and scanned and painstakingly uploaded over the course of many hours.

I honestly can’t remember most of it. It was something I spent a couple weeks on and then largely moved on from. It was an installation, in the artistic sense of the word. An experiment. It was fucking bizarre and probably embarrassing but it certainly wasn’t typical and it got its share of weird looks and confused e-mails sent my way. So that was something.

Maybe what I really miss is having the kind of free time to throw away on a project like that. I dunno. Maybe. But probably not, because like I said: I built it, I watched it for a month or so, and then I moved on and pretty much ignored it forever. But the 90s internet had a lot of other things I miss. The community of Livejournal, the possibility of actual anonymity in the pre-social-media age (and the oft-times hilarious, other-times terrifying levels of confidence granted by said anonymity to one and all).

On the other hand, there were the absurd color palettes and design schemes of even professional sites, coupled with soul-crushing download times. So, eh, it’s a wash?