Hard Drop Milestone: 100 Goodreads ratings!

Hard Drop, the first title in the soon-to-be-expanded series about Tyco Hale and the OTL, has reached a major milestone: as of today, it has been rated 100 times on Goodreads.

It is a proud and humbling moment, and a good time to say thank you to everyone who has read the book since it was published almost two years ago: so, thank you to all, and I am looking forward to continuing the story shortly with the next novel, After the Storm!

In the meantime, Hard Drop can be found exclusively on Amazon.

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Battlefield Science?: Internet-linked telepathy

In an absurdly sci-fi development, researchers at the University of Washington have managed – in very limited fashion, with somewhat modest results – to send a brain signal from one person to another, using the internet to convey the sender’s thoughts.

While it is obviously early days with this technology – a 25%-83% accuracy rate is hardly conclusive per se – this is still very exciting, because it suggests that the realm of telepathy (albeit internet-delivered telepathy) may not be quite so far-fetched. That having been said, the current result is very much like the first word of a language yet to be developed – before this can become useful, an entirely new lexicon of brain usage and translation signals will need to developed.

At the same time, the battlefield implications of a thoroughly useful, consistent, soundless link can probably not be overstated – a unit, reacting in real time as a single, coherent, flexible entity could be a very powerful thing, and would be much harder to ambush.

Unless, of course, they lost reception mid-firefight.

The future of authorship and the creation of worlds: The Black Library

Before I start this post, I should explain: I cannot claim to be the biggest Warhammer afficionado, I don’t own any of the maps or armies, and I am relatively new even to the books. I am not here to critique, praise, or discuss plot in detail. But, having read a handful of the Horus Heresy series of books, I am convinced that the model of writing which they represent is the future of authorship, and more generally, media.

For those of you who are not familiar, the Black Library is the fiction publishing arm of Games Workshop, creators of the well-known, much-played Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 games, and they explore the universe(s) in which those games are set. The books published through the Black Library share a clearly recognizable lore and tone, and draw heavily from various and sundry influences including elves, orcs, demons, Greco-Roman, Germanic, and Norse mythology, as well as a wide array of other cultures, traditions, and legends.

What makes the Black Library so fascinating is that each book in the series is written by a revolving panel of writers and explores overlapping, but not necessarily directly consecutive, storylines within the broader universe. By collaborating, the committee of authors creates a coherent, rich timeline with deep storylines and – above all – a rapidly growing base of content. To put this in perspective, consider: the Horus Heresy series, the one I am familiar with, has been written since 2006. In that time, 30 novels have been published (some full-length, some combinations of short stories and novellas). And that is only a minority portion of the larger Black Library canon.

Some novels are indubitably better than others (and of course the series is not looking to appeal to every reader), but the fundamental, deeply impressive fact remains: if you are interested in Warhammer, there is, from the moment you start, an ocean of material awaiting you. And it is ever-growing.

Author collaborations are not necessarily a new thing – in some form, they have existed for some time – and of course Warhammer provides a fertile lore from which to draw, but to the best of my knowledge, the Black Library is unique, or at least remarkable, for the way in which collaboration is embraced, and for the speed and uniformity of content which it produces. The trend towards open-source universes is growing, of course: other authors (notably Hugh Howey and his Wool series) have begun to embrace the idea, while Amazon even supports monetized fan fiction for a variety of titles, but for now, at this moment, I have not yet seen anything to match the effectiveness of the Black Library’s approach. Where reliance on a single creator (such as George R. R. Martin) may be the default approach, with a clear plot and limited cast of characters, it is also achingly slow. By comparison, a lore-driven, universe-exploring, creation by committee process keeps readers satisfied steadily and unrelentingly. I expect to see much more of it in future.

Celebrate the weekend with on-sale Hard Drop!

That’s right, after a short absence dedicated to writing the Hard Drop sequel, I have returned to announce a SALE: through the weekend, get Hard Drop at up to 2/3 off!

As ever, reach out and get in touch, either here or at @vandervaartwill for more Hard Drop.

Did Amtrak just find the answer to Space/Time travel?

I was as blown away as anyone by the speed of Amtrak’s response in creating its writer residency program. The quick turn of events, from a quick retweet to a full-blown shot in the arm for the image and relevance of the ailing service, was yet another example of how powerful the internet and social media truly is.

However, that story is well-told and, frankly, boring.

What is interesting about the Amtrak story is that it has allowed the company to take what has typically been seen as a drawback to its service (namely the time required to travel from one place to the next) and turn it into a benefit. It has enabled writers to drop out, plug in, enjoy the scenery – and go to work. And that, for the right person, can be a powerful thing.

Being a sci-fi enthusiast, I immediately thought of the next step – the possible implications for space travel. Space is vast, as has often been said as well, and we are typically used to regarding this as a massive drawback. And, truth be told, it very likely is an obstacle that we may never learn to overcome.

But, just for a second, imagine a universe in which we do travel between the stars. In this world, science fiction has typically employed one of two conceits to overcome the time gap: the first, faster-than-light travel, decreases the time between two points though wormholes, warp drives, or other bending of space. The second, cryostasis, requires freezing the human body in time to offset the aging process as the vessel travels within the constraints of current ability and physics.

But perhaps, inspired by Amtrak, there is a third option: maybe it is possible that, instead of avoiding or attempting to overcome the time barrier of the journey, humanity instead embraces and celebrates it? In the aftermath of digital age, where artistic, scientific, or any other works might not require massive storage, or heavy materials for their creation, might not the long voyages in space offer potential to think, to collaborate, to produce and to refine? Might we not achieve our greatest masterworks while in limbo, waiting to begin our future on a foreign world?

Maybe, as Amtrak is currently suggesting, a little extra time between points isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Things that are surprisingly SciFi (but don’t get credit for it) Part 4: Recycling

The 1960s – and 2001 – made a strong case for future materials and space age manufacturing, what with their gleaming grey, smooth megastructures and match-cut-level sleek designs. Manufacturing, then, was the future – the ability to take organic, wood, oil, and metal inputs and come out with a self-evidently artificial, unnaturally aerodynamic, custom-built (and single-purpose) products.
This, of course, was the appeal of the space age: that we could make anything we needed to, cheaply and to order, and that we should feel no shame about waste as a result.
But plastics, at least the first generation, were not limitless: they were brittle, they were inflexible, they were very susceptible to heat or cold, and they did not decompose productively, once they had failed in their primary (and only) use.
Recycling is the unsexy child of that first wave of innovation; the undesired progeny of the excesses of synthetics production. Recycling was (and in the US, generally speaking remains) the unwanted, uncool patch job on the torn jeans, the obvious darning on the dress – it was, at best, an acknowledgment of scarcity. At worst, it was an expensive, inefficient method for pointing out how imperfect and unsustainable the space age really was.
But recycling is underrated.
Even now, recycling does not solve the issue of limited resources completely (indeed, it is likely that nothing can), but it re-awakens the potential in these items, and points the way forwards for material mining and usage. Recycling is not universally cheaper than mining new materials, but it generally does require less expenditure of energy to repurpose a material already converted into plastic, or aluminum, or other alloy, than it does to produce a fresh batch. Both through advancement of technology and through the accelerating scarcity of key materials, the recycling process has come a long way since its days as the lead nerd in the after-school specials.
And, dare I say it, recycling is pretty damn SciFi.
No, really. Consider the simple case of a spaceship made of single-use plastic and metal and sent to the stars to seek a new home. Sleek and sexy? Certainly, but also, almost certainly doomed to failure. Once broken, individual pieces of the vessel would be hard or impossible to replace, and would be dead weight once broken. Carrying spare parts would be theoretically possible, but between the need to use the space for food and life-support machinery, and the prohibitive cost of excess weight during lift-off, having significant stock of duplicates would essentially be a non-starter.
Only recycling – by which I mean the modern process of recycling, including separation, refinement, and production of new material – would allow such broken items to be used again.
And think past the flight itself: once landed on a foreign moon, settlers would have little use for their former cargo bays, thrusters, or even most navigation equipment (assuming, of course, this colonization is a one-way trip). Stripping material from the spacecraft and bending or welding it into place might be a temporary solution, but in the long term, the creation of a stable, inhabitable colony would require more stable building materials. As a result, a colonization ship would need to include a recycling unit as a core piece of equipment, both for mid-flight maintenance and in order to reuse the components of its spaceflight for the purpose of colonization.
Recycling isn’t flawless, it’s not cheap in terms of energy expended, and it may be a stopgap measure for a runaway consumerist society, but it is very SciFi.

Self-Publishing Resources (#1): Scrivener

I’ve tried a bunch of different programs, techniques, and styles over my writing career. Some have been marginally useful, some not useful, and some downright counterproductive. When I started dealing with e-books, the formatting issues were honestly enough to get me foaming at the mouth and nearly throwing my computer. I’m not a meticulous person by nature, and in general when I write things can get a bit loose and creative, so it was with absolute, abject horror that I saw my first attempts at e-books jump from single to double spacing, skip whole pages, and randomly indent – despite my word file showing no evidence of this capricious formatting!

What made this worse (and all the more frustrating) was that I’m not, and never have been, bad with computers. Hell, I even do some coding (C++/Java, but still…). I get how compilers work and I realize that you have to play consistently by the rules to get cooperation from your machines. And, to be fair, if I worked hard enough on a document and turned on the ‘show formatting’ option, I can usually get my manuscripts through the Smashwords meatgrinder no problem. But…it’s annoying, laborious, and takes the fun out of finishing a book.

Which is why I’ve found Scrivener to be so awesome. It’s not a panacea for the ills of variable formatting (you still have to minimize the degree of variation in your text styles as much as possible, and trouble-shoot some issues), but it has several enormous advantages over sweating it out against Microsoft Word’s best efforts at sabotage:

1. It’s easy to use. For the most part, what you see is what you get. Better yet, you can ensure that it is by checking the ‘As Is’ box when you compile your project, although of course this may also preserve other errors in your formatting.

2. You can use it for a while to get the hang of it before deciding to buy. The trial version gives you 30 days of use – not 30 days from when you crack the seal, 30 days of actually opening the program and using the full version. If you compare this to other programs I’ve used (such as Final Draft or Photoshop), that’s a tremendous value-add.

3. The interface is great and hugely supportive of the writing process. While so far I have predominantly just copied and pasted word docs into the program to compile them for .epub and .mobi formats, there is a wealth of functionality available, from summary view to storyboarding (i.e. the digital equivalent of pinning index cards to a corkboard with thumbtacks), so you can see your story develop and work on it within the Scrivener program.

4. Tech support is terrific, and I do mean really great. They are fairly quick to respond (quick at least as far as typical tech support goes, they get back within 24 hours without fail), they are courteous, they are thorough, and they recognize that their program isn’t perfect. This last one I find especially important, as, over the course of my learning how to use the program, there were a few issues (such as not being able to include footnotes in an .epub) which proved really annoying. The responder I worked with acknowledged this limitation and helped me troubleshoot ways around it. Other times, of course, the issue was, as they say ‘ten inches in front of the monitor’, but they didn’t dismiss my issues or make me feel incompetent about it. In other words, great sales job, but I’m also very comfortable knowing that if something comes up that just doesn’t make sense to me, they’ll help me through it.

5. Ability to experiment with unique styles. Because of its straightforward interface and strong user support, the program gives authors the opportunity to experiment and innovate without having to worry about completely and irrevocably messing up the format of their book. This is awesome because, in the end, what author doesn’t want the chance to make their writing look interesting, different, and even artistic?

As aforementioned, it’s not a perfect program – there are minor issues (footnotes), some things aren’t as intuitive as they might be (i.e. you have to look in a different place for ‘contents’ and the ‘create table of contents’ settings), but all in all, Scrivener has been the best find of my indie publishing career. And, at $45, it’s pretty damn cheap.