Holiday Gifts For Writers

What do you get for the person who has to a to-be-read pile a mile high? For the person who clicks and clacks away on their keyboard all day? Clearly not more books. What are they going to do with those? Stack them higher? The answer is actually to get them a collector’s edition of their favorite book. But what if you don’t want to get them that? I’ve got the answers for you.

A Great Notebook

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Every creative knows the torment of having more ideas than they know what to do with. This can actually be a real problem because with every new idea that jumps into a person’s head it becomes that much harder to focus on their current project.

I’ve dealt with this problem by keeping a commonplace book, or a journal if you prefer to call it that. This book is for any idea that occurs to me or for anything I want to remember. Everything from meeting notes to random thoughts to outlines of entire novels. If I have an idea I want to remember I write it down in this book.

It’s done wonders for my productivity. It helps me to stay focused on my current projects, helps me plan out future ones, and make sure I remember anything else that pops into my head that seems important.

You might be wondering, why a notebook? Why not the notes app on your phone? Phones work, but I feel that writing in a notebook has a certain joy to it that can’t be replicated. Plus imagine how much smarter a person looks in a coffee shop with a notebook instead of a phone.

Anyway, what notebook should you get? Personally, I love Rhodia’s Rhodiarama softcover dot grid notebooks. The dot grid is a great compromise for someone who wants to write and diagram at the same time. Another great option is Leuchtturm1917.

Now let’s imagine that they already have a notebook or you want to get them something else besides the fantastic notebook you just got them. That brings us to our next topic.

A Great Pen (Or Pencil)

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Writing implements are like guitars. Any old one will do, but once you’re hooked you just want more and more and more. Just like guitars, writing implements come in a lot of flavors. So I’ll only focus on a handful.

Fountain pens might seem antiquated or mysterious but they are anything but. Nothing beats the feeling of how a good fountain pen glides across the page. A great and commonly recommended fountain pen is the pilot metropolitan. At about $20 it packs a lot of value and can accommodate a variety of refills.

If your gift recipient prefers pencils one of my favorites is the Kaweco Special S. It has all the benefits of a modern mechanical pencil and all the charms of their wooden ancestors. Of course, I would be remiss if I did not also mention just about everything from Rotring, a company that is famous for the quality of its drafting pens and pencils.

Finally, what if you want to get them a more conventional writing implement? A ballpoint or rollerball perhaps? The good news about high-end pens is that they tend to be refillable. If you don’t like what it comes with you are free to try something else. And in that area, you simply can’t beat a Parker Jotter or Parker Jotter XL. These iconic pens are so iconic that the industry refers to the cartridges they take as “parker style.” Parker has made so many unique takes on this design that it’s nearly impossible not to find the perfect jotter.

But what if that special person needs a break from creating content? I’ve got that covered too.

Kindle Paperwhite

I know, I know. Nothing will ever replace the feel of a paper book. But the fact is that our homes have a finite amount of space in them and that space can all be taken up by books (or can it?). I resisted ebooks for a long time but they are invaluable for consuming content. They save space, they often go on sale, and they allow me to immediately get the next book in a series.

I recommend the Kindle Paperwhite myself. It doesn’t quite match the experience of reading a traditional book, but it comes extremely close. Kindle Unlimited is a great option too for all those voracious readers out there.

Audible

More best sellers, more podcasts, more Originals

I used to be one of those people who didn’t think that audiobooks were really books. I was a purist and I was wrong. Audiobooks are a fantastic way to catch up on reading and to expand your horizons. I especially like the Great Courses on Audible. I find that good non-fiction can provide the best inspiration for some great fiction.

I really can’t undersell the value that Audible provides for just $15 per month. There is of course the 1 credit per month that can be spent on any book. But Audible plus now comes with an entire library of free books. It’s a great chance to catch up on the classics.

An Audible subscription is free to try for a month and comes with a free book. But you can also make your own account and send audiobooks to whoever you want. It’s a gift that they probably don’t know they want but will be extremely grateful for.

Conclusion

It’s hard to find a gift for that special someone or that someone who seems to have it all. I can’t imagine having all the answers, but if you’re still in need of some check out my page of recommended products. If you are a creator who has products to sell for the holidays please link them in the comments below.

Watching Alien For The First Time

It’s the middle of NaNoWriMo but that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken a few (a lot of) breaks. During one particular break, I decided to watch Ripley Scott’s Alien after I noticed it on Prime Video.

Some movies become such a large part of popular culture that even if you haven’t seen them you might as well have. Alien is not one of those.

There are a few scenes we’ve all seen, or at least we’ve seen parodies of them. The face-hugger, the chest-burster, the alien itself. Yet most of the movie has safely stayed out of those references. That meant that most of the movie was unknown to me going in and I’m going to say that it was good. Good in that it’s well made, the effects still hold up in that they are dated by not so much that they ruin your immersion, and that I can appreciate it for what it is.

I can’t quite say that I enjoyed the movie, however. The first half is slow and I struggled to pay attention to it. By the time the plot picks up in the second half the movie is a lot more enjoyable but it was hard to follow because I struggled so much to pay attention in the first half.

That said I’m glad I watched it. It’s one of those classics that I’ve been neglecting and it’s always fun to see these older staples of the genre.

Dune

I tried to manage my expectations. I really did. But I failed. And that’s okay because this movie is fantastic. It met every expectation that I had and surpassed them.

It’s a problem inherent in every movie adaptation. Too many times readers have been disappointed by movie adaptations made by people that don’t seem to understand the source material. We can’t always expect to get the Peter Jackson treatment, as much as we all wish that wasn’t the case. But this time, this time readers were not let down.

This movie is amazing in so many ways. I was worried that all of the lore and politics that the book dwells on so much would seem hamfisted in the movie. I was totally wrong. So wrong. Villeneuve and company distilled all of that worldbuilding into its most essential elements. It all just worked. Everything was made with an obvious appreciation for the source material that is hard to find in movie adaptations.

However, I really want to talk about what made the movie better than the book. Yes, you read that right. Sometimes the movie is better. In some ways. Sometimes.

Here, the movie succeeds in how large the world feels. Science fiction is littered with planets that feel like villages. The book series that is Dune is filled with a few planets that feel like universes. In the first several books the narratives focus exclusively on events that take place on Arrakis. That single planet feels big and there is a lot that happens there. We are told that there is much more out there in the rest of the universe but we mostly have to take the narrator’s word for it. In Dune Messiah we are told that Paul’s armies have rampaged across the known universe, but we are only told that. We aren’t shown that. We only ever focus on the lives and actions of a handful of characters.

That’s okay. It’s characters who are at the heart of any narrative. But it’s also hard to feel like the rest of the universe is really out there. The movie doesn’t have that problem and that is where it really shines.

From the book, we know that the Atreides are one of the great houses and that they are powerful. In the movie, we see that. We see that in the army behind them at the signing ceremony chanting “Atreides” and in all the pomp and ceremony that we see when the Atreides arrive on Arrakis.

Everything in the movie is big. All of it is focused on Paul and the other main characters, but everything around them is so much bigger than they are.

Honestly, it’s nearly perfect. Just go watch it. And then watch it again. And again! In my mind, Dune is to SciFi what Lord of the Rings is to Fantasy. They’re not the end all be all, but their shadows loom large. It’s so good to see Dune finally get the treatment it deserves on the big screen.

The History Behind the Character Names in ‘A Memory Called Empire’

A Memory Called Empire (Teixcalaan Book 1) by [Arkady Martine]

This is a book that has been sitting in my TBR pile for quite a while now and truthfully I am not done reading it, but the naming conventions interested me so much I decided to look into them a bit and write this post.

The book follows the new ambassador from Lsel Station, Mahit Dzmire, as she arrives at the imperial court of the Teixcalaanli Empire. Her first priority? Finding out what happened to her deceased predecessor. That’s enough context for now.

What I really want to talk about are the names of the characters from the Teixcalaanli Empire. The first one we meet is named Three Seagrass and we are soon introduced to many others like Nine Maize, Ninteen Adze, Six Direction, Fifteen Engine, Thirty Larkspur, and so many others. Luckily, we see all this through the eyes of a character who is new to the culture and her assigned cultural liaison is able to provide some context. In short, all names consist of a number and a noun. Parents then use certain customs such as a belief that low single digits are good luck to decide on the name of their child. It’s further implied that the noun used in their name may sometimes reflect what is important to daily life in their place of birth.

So far that’s all that’s been explained so far, it’s possible that more will come later in the book but I am impatient so I decided to do some digging. To begin, I started out looking for the historical inspiration that Arkady Martine most likely drew from in crafting the Teixcalaanli Empire. If your instinct was to think “mesoamerican” then congratulations, you and I think a lot alike.

I began in the place where all research begins, Wikipedia. There I found an account of the Mixtec king Eight Deer Jaguar Claw, or 8 Deer for short, who was the only Mixtex king to ever unit them all under one banner. The Mixtecs were later conquered in the 16th century by the Spanish and there are about 800,000 Mixtec still living in Mexico today.

Map showing the region covered by the Mixtec civilization. Imaged sourced from Wikipedia.

So that was a good start and it gave me what I needed to look a little further. As it turns out, the basis for Mixtec names came from the calendar that they used, with individuals being named after the day they were born. So Eight Deer would have been named after the day on which he was born. There are thirteen days and twenty symbols on this calendar. Eventually, I found this site which offers much more context on Mixtec names and mesoamerican culture in general.

Basically, the day a person was born would be their name as we already established, and the individual may then add to their name or change it later in life. The day a person was born was believed to reflect their future including their profession, personality, and even spouse.

So that’s the basis of names used in Arkadi Martine’s A Memory Called Empire. It’s a great bit of worldbuilding on Martine’s part. It makes complete sense that after several millennia parents would stop using the literal date to name their children and instead name them based on their hopes for their child’s future. Depending on how involved Martine chooses to get with the names later in the book, a character’s name could say a lot about what their family expects of them.

I’m not finished reading this book, but my initial impressions are nothing but positive. I really like the worldbuilding based in mesoamerican culture and can’t wait to see other ways in which that history and culture is incorporated.

Have you read A Memory Called Empire? What did you think? Did you find any good resources to learn about the historical inspirations for Arkady’s worldbuilding? Let me know in the comments!

The Seventh Son

Fury of the Seventh Son: The Last Apprentice, Book 13

The other day I decided to try watching a movie that I had forgot exist and I would strongly argue should not exist; Seventh Son. It’s a movie starring Jeff Bridges and others loosely based on The Spook’s Apprentice by Joseph Delaney. Also called The Last Apprentice by us Americans. The books series holds a special place in my heart, I devoured the books in middle and high school and remain a fan to this day. The world of The Last Apprentice is wonderfully constructed. And after all these years I finally read the final book in the series, Furry of the Seventh Son.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Ten years later I don’t find the books anywhere near as scary as I used to, which is to be expected. But the plot and the worldbuilding are still exemplary.

The best-written part of the series is the protagonist, Tom Ward, he is so incredibly annoying. He is stupid at times, he makes the wrong decisions all the time, but he still does his best. That’s probably the best part of the series. Because at many times throughout the series he keeps things from his master, The Spook, for various reasons, in nearly every instance it turns out that he should have been honest from the beginning. Yes, The Spook doesn’t want to compromise his morals for the greater good, but also Tom never tried to make the case for that option. Because as much as this series highlights the difference between light and dark, but when it comes down to individuals there are a lot of shades of grey.

The Spook, over the course of the series, eventually makes compromises for the greater good. But I think he could have reached that point and a lot of evil could have been averted if Tom had just spoken up and shared what he knows.

But’s that’s one of the great things about this series. Tom was doing the same thing that you or I probably would have done. It’s very easy to say what the right thing to do is, it’s another to actually do it. You and I would probably not do the smart thing if we were in Tom’s shoes.

But I will tell you what the right thing to do is. Read the books. Don’t see the movie. It’s bad. Read the books, you will be glad that you did. While this is certainly a YA series, the story and worldbuilding are hard to beat.

Is There Such A Thing As Stealing An Idea?

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Well, yes and no.

Yes because you absolutely can steal another person’s ideas by lifting them off of one page and putting them on your own. No, because while taking someone’s work and passing it off as yours is wrong, we are all constantly influenced by the work being done by others.

Many fans refer to media clearly influenced by preexisting works as “filing off the serial numbers” and Heinlein even referenced this in one of his books. Even scientists and other academics borrow ideas and steer their research in new ideas based on the work of others. You can find a list of these influences in the references section of academic publications. Creatives do the same things when they get asked who their influences are. In fact, it’s practically required for authors to list comparable works when they are trying to get published.

So creators worrying about “stealing” someone else’s idea should in fact feel free to create whatever they want. Maybe you recently read a book or watched a movie that got you thinking about a certain type of setting or plot and you would like to try your hand at something similar. Are you worried that you are just stealing the premise of that media? Don’t be!

Sure, someone might have made something similar already, but as long as you make it different you are making it your own. In

The Last Watch: A Novel Of The Divide by J.S. Dewes

The Last Watch (The Divide Series Book 1) by [J. S. Dewes]

This book first came to my attention thanks to a “Big Idea” post on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever. In that post, Dewes explained that the original inspiration for the book came from a single line sung by Johnny Cash in the song “Highwayman.”

“I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide.”

That instantly hooked me because like Dewes I’ve listened to that song many times and thought that there must be a story somewhere in that line. Turns out Dewes found it.

The Last Watch follows a group of Sentinels, soldiers sent to stand guard at the edge of the universe as a punishment. That’s how Adequin got there at least. The other POV character, Cavalon, was once the heir-apparent to one of humanity’s royal houses, THE royal house in fact, or as close to this universe has to one. Forcing him to enlist in the Sentinels was a convenient way to get rid of him.

In a way, both Cavalon and Adequin are out of place in their current posting and are in conflict with each other. At the start, Adequin is trying to beat Cavalon into an acceptable soldier and Cavalon is just trying to be…Cavalon? He really wants to be better he just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut.

Both of them will learn a lot by the end of the book. They accomplish a lot too. In this book, Dewes manages to tell a small story with large implications. I think that’s a skill. We are so used to protagonists with outsized importance. The characters that Dewes created do have a great deal of importance, but they have also been completely relegated to the edges of society. And I mean it when I say edges.

The book’s back cover promised an existential threat that only the Sentinels could avert. It didn’t disappoint. There are a lot of ideas in this book coupled to a lot of fun. The dialogue is great, the ideas are better, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the second book. You should go read it. Right now.

Dan Simmons’ Mystery Box

Mystery can be a great driver of plot and a trap at the same time. J.J Abrams is notorious for using this strategy in Lost and blowing it at the end. The problem is if you set up some huge mystery at the beginning of a narrative you better have a satisfying answer to the mystery by the end. Or do you?

I would argue that you don’t. If you do it right.

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, Book 1) by [Dan Simmons]

If you have a great answer to the mystery you present to your audience at the beginning then by all means share it, but if you do you better make sure you are very confident in the answer. Your audience will not thank you if your answer fails to live up to their expectations. Remember how disappointed Spongebob was to find out Patrick has just spent the entire episode hiding the string in his secret box?

I am here to argue that sometimes it’s best to leave mysteries unsolved. There is both terror and wonder in the unknown, that’s part of being human, there’s no reason the stories we tell shouldn’t reflect that.

I am using Dan Simmons as an example here because his 1989 science fiction novel “Hyperion” is fantastic. It’s the kind of “genre fiction” that gets literature snobs to lower their barriers. But I think it would have been better if Simmons had never written a sequel. Let me explain.

Hyperion, unsurprisingly, centers around the planet Hyperion. A planet at the edge of known space, one that is not incorporated into the network of gates that allow instantaneous travel between worlds.

Traveling to Hyperion means sacrificing a great deal of time and accepting a certain amount of risk. Many accept this because Hyperion is a planet of mysteries. It is one of the labyrinthine worlds, worlds with great labyrinths constructed by unknown aliens. It is also home to the Shrike and the Time Tombs. Both have been sent back in time for an unknown purpose.

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One group of humans, the Shrike Church, believe that the Shrike is a punishment for humanity’s sins and traveling willingly on pilgrimages to Hyperion where most of them will be killed in various horrible ways by the Shrike. It’s strange how the bishops never go themselves, isn’t it?

The protagonists of Hyperion have all been selected for what will probably be the last Shrike pilgrimage. At the start of the book, it is stated that the Time Tombs are opening and that a group of transhumans called Ousters are about to attack the planet. There’s not much hope that the planet will hold out either. None of them are members of the Shrike Church, none of them know exactly why they were selected, all of them have their own reasons for accepting the missions.

The book is a futuristic retelling of the Canterbury Tales. In between chapters that narrate their journey to the planet and their attempts to determine who among them might be a spy, they each share their stories about what led them to accept their place on the pilgrimage.

Through their stories and their motivations, Simmons explores imperialism, artistic integrity, betrayal, love, artificial intelligence, technological reincarnation, fatherhood, and many more themes. In some ways, the book is also a love letter to John Keats.

In the end, despite their differences, they joined hands and walked to their fate. Then the book ends. The series should have ended there too.

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Instead, Simmons continued to write in this universe, which eventually became the Hyperion Cantos. The second book, The Fall of Hyperion, wasn’t that bad. It largely follows an artificial reincarnation of John Keats and much of the book’s events are told through his experiences. But we also see the POVs of the characters from the first novel. This is where the problem arises.

In writing the second novel Simmons had to explain all of the questions that arose in the first. In doing so he brings up a lot of interesting ideas that were totally unprecedented in the first novel. So instead of leaving the mysteries of the first book as mysteries, he chose to answer them with time-traveling agents from the future and messianic powers that came out of nowhere.

The first book was an amazing opportunity to explore multiple stories at once, to get close to deeply flawed characters with mixed motivations for being where they are, and to see them accept the uncertain future in front of them. I think the series would have ended beautifully with just one book. Instead, Simmons decided to keep writing.

That’s not to say that I hated the second book. I enjoyed most of it. Just not as much. I think I would have enjoyed it more if some of the concepts introduced in the first actually mattered in the second. Powers that destroy the Shrike don’t bother me as long as we the readers were given reason to think they might be possible beforehand.

But we weren’t.

I keep looking at the third book on my shelf and I don’t know if I can convince myself to read it. Hyperion is a great book and if it was the only book of the Hyperion Cantos that you read it will likely remain a great book in your eyes. Because the answers provided in the later books simply don’t hold up to the questions posed by the first. If you haven’t read Hyperion yet then you definitely should, but consider skipping the books that follow.

Page Break with Brian McClellan: The Perfect Podcast for Creatives?

In short. Yes.

Brian McClellan is the author of The Powder Mage Trilogy and Uncanny Collateral. Now he’s a podcaster as well.

Page Break is an interview-style podcast where Brian sits down with other creatives and talks to them about their work. But don’t worry, you won’t need to be familiar with the person’s work to understand the conversation. Instead of focusing on any specific work by that episode’s guest, Brian talks to them about their career path, their creative styles, what their segment of the industry is like, and their recent meals.

The best part of all this is how relatable it all is, and affirming too.

It’s easy to see a name on a book cover or in end credits and forget that there is a real person behind the name. It’s also hard to convince yourself that you might be able to be the person behind the name one day. Page Break brings the people behind the names into the light in an incredibly relatable way. A way that makes you think that you could do it too.

Each of them has a different path that brought them to where they are. A great reminder that there is no one right way to create, you just have to keep working at it.

Science for Scifi: Breaking Into Orbit

Rockets are expensive. Not only are they limited by the weight of their fuel, but also by their cargo capacity and reusability. While commercial entities like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have been unveiling new systems that promise alternative ways of reaching low orbit or reusing rockets, there are still a lot of limitations that prevent space travel from becoming ubiquitous in the short term.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Space flight does not have to be easier for good scifi, in fact, I would argue that it should be hard. It helps to impose limits on the characters and promote conflict. A thriving space industry could still be expensive and thus impose limits on who goes to space and why.

That said, once your setting is to the point where colonies throughout the solar system are becoming viable I think that it’s time to start exploring other ways of getting to orbit. I think rockets will always have a place, but forms of mass transit will make the entire endeavor a lot easier.

Space Elevators

Orbital elevators are a staple of science fiction. How it works is that a giant tether is built connecting the surface of a planet to a station in orbit. The tether is then held taught, allowing elevators to move up and down its length.

One of the primary challenges with an elevator is making a material strong enough to build the tether in enough quantities to make it work. A lot of authors choose to use some kind of carbon allotrope and this part might require you to invent your own very special flavor of carbon fiber or synthetic diamond. Remember that the tether will need to be much, much thicker than you think it will need to be.

My favorite part about this concept is that it allows a world to have regular trips to orbit and back in an environment that might resemble a modern airport or train station. Elevator pods could have large cargo areas and multiple passenger areas divided into economy, business, and first-class. You could have observation windows and restaurants. All the trappings of comfort or the lack thereof.

An elevator is probably best in a setting where space travel has become common enough for such a project to be profitable. A single planet will likely only have one or two placed in neutral or autonomous regions or controlled by a specific faction. Of course, the resources needed to build one might limit which worlds have a space elevator and which do not. If your setting involves multiple star systems it is likely that only the most developed of them will have one.

It goes without saying that such a large piece of infrastructure will make a very tempting target. If destroyed an elevator could cause immense damage to any settlements built around its base and cripple and the economies of multiple factions in a given system.

Skyhooks

For worlds that are not yet capable of a project as massive as a space elevator but still need regular surface-to-orbit transit, skyhooks may be the perfect solution.

You can think of a skyhook like a satellite that spins as they travel along the edge of the atmosphere. Its hook can latch onto craft flying in the upper atmosphere and accelerate them into orbit, and can also grab craft in orbit and bring them down into the atmosphere.

These are a good in-between stage between rockets and elevators for travel and could probably be set up a lot faster than a full-sized space elevator could. Which would make them perfect for worlds with some orbital traffic but not enough for a full elevator. Or they could be an option for planetary factions that do not want to rely on a space elevator that someone else owns. Or in instances where orbital infrastructure needs to be set up quickly. I’ll talk about a possible scenario for that in the next section.

An Invasion Scenario

Surface combat in the far future is likely to be small-scale and asymmetric. There isn’t much use in landing millions of ground troops when ships in orbit can turn a continent into radioactive glass. But we seem to crave depictions of ground-based combat anyway.

Let’s say a planet is host to an environment that is hospitable to humans or contains some vital piece of infrastructure that would be destroyed in a bombardment and that this necessitates the use of ground forces on a large scale. The first wave of troops could be brought to the surface with a combination of capsules and landers that glide down through the atmosphere much as the space shuttle did. Some of these crafts might be designed to return to orbit with a variety of energy-intensive designs. Since we all know that military objectives beat concerns like cost and efficiency any day.

If the planet already has extensive orbital infrastructure, which it probably does if its world attacking, these initial forces would work to establish beachheads and try to capture any space elevators that might be present. The attack on a space elevator could very well commence on both ends since it would be hard to use if the people at the other end of the tether were waiting to shoot you as soon as the door opens.

But perhaps the space elevator was destroyed or the planet really doesn’t have the infrastructure. Once landing sites are secured, ships in orbit could deploy prefabbed skyhooks to provide the infrastructure of occupation. From that point on if the locals continued to resist the war would probably resemble something like the conflicts in Vietnam or Afghanistan. Massed tanks and infantry make for awesome illustrations but are nothing a few “rods from God” couldn’t fix. In the long term, the construction of a new space elevator could be seen as the ultimate mark of ownership of the planet. A massive, sprawling symbol that the invaders are there to stay.

Further Reading (And Watching)

I realize that this post is less technical than previous Science for SciFi entries. I chose to do this because I am not a physicist nor am I an aerospace engineer. Instead, I wanted to highlight a few interesting concepts in science fiction and point you all towards some resources that can be an inspiration for your next story of a planetary invasion. If you liked this content consider supporting it by signing up for my newsletter or exploring my page of recommended products on Amazon.

For a start, Atomic Rockets is a great site for anyone who wants to dig into the physics of science fiction and learn how science has been incorporated into many great science fiction classics. For a fun and straightforward explanation of skyhooks, you can look to Kurtzgesagt on Youtube. The same channel also has a great explanation of space elevators.