Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Building a Wall

Robert Heinlein said that a true man doesn't specialize in just one thing his entire life. He has to learn many things, and at least once, he should build a wall. Ironically, it started as a Mother's Day gift of live lilac plants of many colors to my wife. My son and I thought we'd just pull a few weeds in the existing flower bed, dig a few holes, and viola. The married men in the audience are already chuckling or moving stealthily toward a convenient exit. People ask me how I get my story ideas, and they usually start by suckering the main character in with something that sounded like a good idea at the time.
   First, we had to entirely regrade the flower bed to drain water away from the house. You see, the original owner sort of piled more dirt there each year and rain/spring thaw channels right past that basement window you see to the left. That meant removing the trellis work and clearing excess dirt from the gravel drainage we installed a few years ago. Children have small hands, so they work well for this. The excess dirt got spread over the garden. While we were under there, we found out that after 14 years, the landscape timber retaining wall was rotten and the downspouts on both sides were contributing to the problem.

   I bought spout extenders at Menards, but timbers for another 10 years would cost as much as the cinderblock walls they have on sale. "Who wants to do this again when we're ten years older?" my wife asks. Let's do it right the first time. Since the blocks are 58 pounds each, hauling them would take several trips. I decided to start with the three-layer side to learn the ropes. Consult your own DIY source for legally binding tips. This blog is for entertainment purposes only.
  Step one is demolition. Okay, we had to start with fumigating the hornets, but you get the idea. Digging up the ties buried underground was the hardest and required a lot of leverage. Again, children love to dangle from the end of long poles if you tell them it's like being on a playground.
   Did I mention the large, waddling creature that made it's home back there? Hmm. We had to refill and level the area under the deck stairs with pavers to make the steps stable and keep the critter from returning. We used dirt from the garden to fill. Didn't I see this scene in "Cool Hand Luke?" Then I sprinkled the wall base with sand to make it perfectly flat. The first layer is dead simple to lay. Anyone with a two-by-four and the ability to lift that amount of weight while hunched over double and bowlegged can do it. You need to slide the first row forward a couple inches because each row sits back a little more. The sand just off the edge of the sidewalk makes a perfect place for the locking lip on the bottom back of the blocks to rest. I filled the hollow parts with dirt to make the platform more level and stable.
   Now we have an issue. The best walls stagger by a half block each row. That meant carefully splitting a block for each level. I considered renting a power splitter, but the cost would have been more than the wall itself. The guy assured me it was easy to break myself. He said to score it all around with a screwdriver and hit it with a rubber mallet. Not in your wildest dreams. I eventually managed it with several passes of a chisel and a baby sledge, but this caved in part of the hollow block. With a little practice, I mastered this art, though. The V groove in the back sides is the key. Etch all the way around with your chisel, but on the second pass, pound hard in this V. It should sound different and sink in deeper the further down the line you travel. A quarter of the way, you can see fissures forming. At the halfway mark, it splits. Like is was made for it. Show this version to your kids, and toss the other one you practiced on. You'll want a few extras anyway because the store will discontinue the model you bought at the end of the year, making future maintenance impossible.
  Continue on, back-filling and leveling at each layer. If something leans, redo it now in minutes. The top layer is a thinner, solid capstone that weighs the same amount as the whole hollow block. Don't buy the universal caps, because they aren't universal, no matter what the guy at the register says. Get the ones sitting next to your blocks in the yard.
  Now, you get to run the drain hoses, reattach the lattice, fence in the flower bed, put down landscape fabric, spread rubber mulch, and rehome all the plants you dug up in the process. Finally, this is what the lilacs looked like. I was proud of how it all turned out. Okay, in a few years, they'll be really pretty. We just have to water them every day for a while.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Cover Reveal: Children of Ur

The Dwarven Rebellion puts the nasty back into dynasty.

By right of conquest, Joseph Redwing rules the modern kingdom of Ur. Dwarves are notoriously easy to offend and want to start a war with the Elves. By trying to prevent this disaster, he somehow turns the entire underworld upside down. His only allies are a possible werewolf with dreadlocks, a teleporting pre-med student, and a druid rock star. Redwing doesn’t want the job anymore, but his wife won’t survive without the healing power of his crown.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Preview -- Children of Ur

I just finished almost a year of work writing, editing, and promoting the first three books of my new Gigaparsec space opera series. I have book four plotted, named, and the first chapter written, but I would be doing myself and my readers a disservice by going straight in. Just as farmers plant legumes to renew the nitrogen in the soil before growing more corn, I need time off for my subconscious to add dimension and twists to the interstellar chase. To that end, I decided to do something completely different in fantasy. I intended to write book three of the Ryoku series, River of Sorrows, but my muse had other ideas. I just kept taking more and more notes on an incident mentioned in two other books, the Dwarf rebellion against the king of Ur-metals. After looking at the outline, I suspect it will be about 66,000 words. I've decided to call it Children of Ur. Here is the first rough draft:

Chapter 1 – No Rest for the Wicked

“You can’t tell a member of the Dwarf race by its height,” explained the chauffeur as he drove through the Red Light District in Amsterdam.
“You’re joking,” said Joseph Redwing from the passenger seat. With the driver’s bushy mustache and trivia, he could have been sitting on a barstool at Cheers. Chatting with him was much more entertaining than riding alone in the back. “The textbook version is anyone four foot ten or below as an adult. You’re about five feet.”
The chauffeur shook his head. “That’s different because I have rickets. Dwarf is a corruption of the Old Norse dokkalfr, the root of which is dark. The number-one differentiator for people of the blood is dislike of sunlight. Without sun, we don’t get enough vitamin D, which often makes us hunched or bow-legged.”
This was news to Redwing, but probably nothing more than he could glean from an Internet search on his phone. They wouldn’t teach him the deeper secrets until he learned Ancient Sumerian. His wife was helping him, but the writing resembled circuit diagrams on acid.
“I’ve noticed most of you are pale.” If Napoleon could characterize England as a nation of shopkeepers, then Dwarves were a race of surly clerks and craftsmen with the pallor of cavefish. He likened them to IT professionals without their morning caffeine. Ruling them was like herding cats.
“Not all, sire. The man you are looking for is quite dark. Search this corner for a hairy man with a fondness for chains.” The limousine parked beside a glass-front building. All shapes and skin tones of women posed, advertising their wares in the windows.
As Redwing emerged into the warm, early-June evening, in his tailored pants and tight, black T-shirt, the women tracked his movement. He liked to think it was because of all the weight-lifting he’d been doing over the last six months, but his multi-billion-dollar bank account was probably the real lure. As he scanned for his quarry, he adjusted his German hat with the eagle feather in it, illegal for all but a handful of American Indians to possess.
There in the alley, with his back turned. Redwing considered himself tall, but this man had to be a basketball player, 6’8” at least. He wore dreadlocks down to his elbows and a leather, biker jacket decorate across the back with links of chain. He was helping a drunk customer into a cab, politely but firmly. When he stood again, it was with the aid of a stylized cane.
Redwing moseyed up behind him. “Could you scream pimp any louder?”
The tall, African man turned to snap a response. He was older than expected, over fifty, with a goatee, scars, and tiny dreads on his forehead that curled inward like horns.
Officially scary. Redwing tapped his hat and let the illusion flicker, just for a moment, so that the crown of Ur-Metal was visible. “No offense. I once worked as a bouncer in a strip club. Are you Zane Kinnect?”
Zane’s nostril’s flared as if he smelled the magic device, and he bowed on one knee. “Lugal.” In Sumerian, the word meant king or owner.
Redwing didn’t like the connotation.
“Our new owner.” Zane said loudly, pointing Redwing out to the ladies. “I have been a good steward. You may examine any part of our enterprise. I’ll introduce you to everyone.” He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket, secured with a fine silver chain.
The brunette in the black see-through negligee stretched until the bottoms of her breasts showed.
Whoa. More pushups tonight to forget that image. “Thanks. That’s not why I’m here. My wife, Frigga, sent me here to procure your special services.”
“Ah, you’re a faithful husband. This is fortunate.”
“So you’re loyal to the Thorvald family, not the crown?” Redwing felt safe because none of the players could harm the king of their own suit.
Zane smiled, a truly creepy experience. “The Thorvalds spared my life when others called for my blood. So I honor my debts and obey the law scrupulously.”
“I’m about to trust you with some serious responsibility, so I need to know. What did you do to deserve death?”
“I’m a royal bastard.”
“What? Genealogically or by personality?”
Redwing laughed. “You passed the interview. I’m glad you speak English.”
“Have you met anyone here who doesn’t?”
“Hop in the car where we can talk in private.”
Zane whistled and two more thugs came out of the shadows. He pointed to the doors and gave brief instructions. While walking toward the car, he hunched like an old man, using the cane to stay erect.
“Does it hurt?” Redwing asked when they were insulated in the back seat with the privacy screen up.
“Does yours?” Zane responded, nodding toward Redwing’s prosthetic left foot.
“A bit in the cold or damp, but I sacrificed mine for a good cause.”
“To kill a dragon. A noble cause indeed. You chose well making the Valkyrie Frigga your queen.”
The worm had paralyzed his wife from the waist down—a euphemism for crushed organs, broken back, and a smashed pelvis. Only the magic of her crown and his proximity enabled her to recover as much as she had. Anyone else would have been dead. “She said your title last game was the Left Hand of Ur-Metal.”
Zane bowed his head. “How may I serve?”
“One of the Dwarvish women from the Vandemere family petitioned the crown. Her oldest daughter, Greta, is missing under suspicious circumstances. I contacted Interpol, and there’s been a lot of abductions around here lately. The women are sold into slavery. I’m going to put a stop to that.”
“I take it you want me to ride at your side and punish the wicked.”
Shaking his head, Redwing said, “No. I came here because I’m told you know where all the dirt is hidden in this town. I want you to help me find the wicked. I’ll take care of the punishing myself. When I was a bouncer, a customer showed up who gave me the willies, so I checked out his truck. He had rope, duct tape, scalpel, and a shovel. I beat the crap out of him.”
Zane saluted with his cane. “Sometimes bad children need instruction. I will so enjoy working with you, sire. We may have to … interrogate a few humans. Do you object?”
“As long as we don’t tip our hand to what we really are to the Adams. I’d like to start with the girl’s uncle. Both Frigga and I think he’s hiding something.” If he could find anything incriminating on the man, they could use it as an excuse to have Frigga question him. As a former inquisitor for the witches’ council, she would find the truth.
“The girl’s uncle is a count, a distant cousin of Thorvald’s. He could probably find Greta with his own underworld contacts, but the longer you take, the more noise he’ll make about your incompetence and lack of caring toward your subjects.”
“He’s raised the stakes. The ancient Romans had a rule: anyone could appeal their case to Caesar, but if you did, someone’s head was going to roll.”
“Excellent, sire. I’ll go grab a few necessities.”
Redwing opened the car door for him. “You’re willing to start tonight?”
“I can see in the dark, sir, and that’s when our prey is out.”
The amateur detectives camped outside the uncle’s apartment. Redwing phoned Count Vandemere and asked for an interview the next morning. “I have a solid lead on your niece’s whereabouts.”
After Redwing hung up, Zane said, “No you don’t.”
“I will after he contacts the traffickers to warn them.” Redwing clicked on a device on his console. “And he’ll have to do that because his cell phone is having problems.”
“Dangerous. The criminals may move the shipment before we find them.”
“Have you ever hunted a rogue grizzly before?”
Zane replied, “Nearly every animal native to Germany and the islands, sir. I fancy myself a skilled outdoorsman, but I’ve never had the exhilaration of tracking a large bear.”
“We brand them as rogue when they run afoul of civilization. The animals aren’t usually the ones in the wrong, although once they cross a certain line, they develop a taste for it. Bears are known for their strength, but all that power needs constant calories to sustain it.” I have to eat five or six times a day. “Before he can run or fight, a bear needs to feed, and the rogues always take the easy way.”
Soon after, the uncle emerged from his gated parking area in a leased BMW. The limo trailed him to a sports bar.
Zane unzipped his jacket, revealing a red Chicago Bulls T-shirt. “Dwarves don’t hang out in Human bars. The drinks are too weak and the insults too frequent. He’s here to meet somebody. I’ll follow him inside. You might be recognized.”
“And you won’t stand out?”
“I’ll bet on whatever game is on the TV screen.” The tall man let himself out of the limo.
Redwing held out a hand. “Wait. Vandemere’s a gambler?”
“The doorman let him in without a second glance. Appears to be a regular.”
The Dwarf worked high up at insurance company Frigga had inherited. Redwing phoned his lawyer. The man never slept. Then again, Redwing was his only client. “Midas, I need an audit at my wife’s company tomorrow, looking for evidence of embezzling.”
“Which one?”
“All of them. Especially Count Vandemere’s insurance division.”
“Sire, you promised not to make any major changes for a year after assuming the reins.” The lawyer’s voice dripped disapproval.
“I’m not pricing it for a sale. I’m trying to get to the truth about an indiscretion before the police demand all our computers. Look for fraud and outright theft. Tell everyone it’s for the second-quarter performance report when I meet the analysts in July.”
Midas paused. “Very good, sir.” He hung up, no doubt to waken other flunkies.
Twenty minutes later, the uncle left, and Zane darted back into the back seat and reclaimed his jacket. “Follow that motorcycle. Vandemere owes a lot of money. The bookie took off today’s interest on the debt in exchange for the tip.”
“Did the guy sell off his own niece to pay off a bet?”
“Perhaps she found out about his problem, and he had to keep her quiet.”
The limo had to hang back further when they left town. They switched off the headlights because Zane wasn’t the only one who could see in the dark. At raised bridge, the driver lost the motorcycle. Redwing climbed out to track on foot. Zane followed with a gleam in his eye. He’s having a great time.
Near two in the morning, an exhausted Redwing sat on a rooftop, watching a remote warehouse through binoculars that had come from Zane’s massive duffle bag. Organized-crime soldiers kept round-the-clock watch. He whispered to the hunched man in leather and chains. “Through my crown, I can feel a single Dwarvish subject inside. I know my people.”
Zane nodded. “I smell at least five Human women inside as well. Several reek of fear.” Any woman who wasn’t terrified had to be heavily sedated.
Redwing passed the binoculars to him. “Keep an eye out while I call in the cavalry.”
“The Myrmidons?” Zane said, referring to the Dwarvish security corps.
“No. These are mundane criminals, so I’m bringing in Interpol.”
“At night? With no warrant?”
“I know a guy.” Redwing ducked behind a crumbling, brick chimney and faked a cell phone call. In reality, he touched the band of his hat and concentrated. All of the kings of the magical factions could secretly communicate over their crowns.
After a few seconds, his old comrade Raymond Lee, the King of Justice, answered mentally, “Redwing, how can I help?” Both men had been granted their crowns as payment for services to the winner of the last wizard war, Aaron Pyrogenes, who had disappeared with the fragments of the dragon’s body.
“Sorry about calling you in the middle of the night.”
“Not a problem. I’m in Bhutan right now, but I will be out of contact when I have the surgery. Now that the swelling has gone down, I can be fitted for a glass eye.”
Redwing nodded. “That’s good news.”
“I hear you tried to bribe my paladin with a convertible,” Ray said in a light tone.
“Bah. He’s incorruptible. I was just trying to repay Skippy for handling my wife’s medical bills for the first month.” They called the young man Skippy because he teleported, and Ray liked embarrassing nicknames.
“Married? Wow. You didn’t invite me.”
“We kept it small. Justice of the peace in the hospital.”
“How’s Frigga doing?”
Able to sit upright on a good day. “I’m in a bit of a hostage situation here outside Amsterdam. Criminals kidnapped half a dozen women and … well, you can fill in the rest. Since one of them is a subject of mine, I could sweep them up, but I wanted to keep magic out of the news and keep our treaty.” Justice had jurisdiction near The Hague, and his version of the Smithsonian Special Branch cleaned up
“Give me your address. I’ll send a strike team.” A few calculations flitted through Ray’s mind, and he said to someone else in Chinese before speaking through the crown again. “Can you contain them for another four hours?”
“Count on it.”
“When the cops arrive, show them your deputy badge from the reservation. I’ll tell them you stumbled across the ring while on your honeymoon.”
“Roger and out.” Redwing tipped his hat back to cool his forehead. He walked back to the brick edge of roof and whispered to Zane. “We have to keep them bottled up until six.”
“Only one way in or out of this area—through the crossroads where we left your limo,” Zane said.
Redwing nodded. “We’ll park across both lanes, and I’ll pose there with the jack and a tire iron.”
“Frigga would not want her king to be exposed.”
“I make a good distraction. You and the chauffeur will be my backup.” Redwing hoped that someone tried to sneak out. A good bar fight could blow off some steam. “I get the feeling you’re the sort of guy who does his best work from the shadows.”
Zane grinned, a chilling effect with his many scars. “You have no idea. I shall honor your wishes.”
Redwing hefted the tire iron as he paced the narrow intersection in the pre-dawn light. The ground on each side sloped off into low marsh with high grass, where his assistants lurked. Instead of a car from the warehouse, he was surprised by a van from town. Speeding, it didn’t stop to converse or offer assistance. A blond thug in a dress shirt and five o’clock shadow lowered the driver’s window and blistered him with curses. He looked like a drug dealer fresh from an all-night rave, reeking of cheap perfume and weed. “Move that hunk of junk.”
Speaking in rapid Navajo, Redwing gestured to the jack and the spare propped against the back tire.
The thug groaned and tried to squeeze his van around the limo on the thin shoulder of the road.
“Now that was just rude,” muttered Redwing as the van brushed by him. He bashed against the side of the vehicle like a tackle dummy, sliding it a couple centimeters in the wet grass.
The red brake lights lit the area. “What was that?”
Redwing wailed in mock pain. “I’m going to sue.”
The driver’s door slammed.
Grinning, Redwing grabbed under the side of the vehicle and rocked it.
“No. Shit. No. What?” By the time he reached Redwing, the van was sliding down the embankment into the marsh.
“Ain’t Karma a bitch?” Redwing asked.
The thug pulled out a 38. “I guess I’ll take your limousine, then.” He fired into Redwing’s chest, but the bullet harmed little more than the T-shirt.
While the man was still staring in confusion, Redwing threw the tire iron hard at the thug’s gun hand. As a former college baseball pitcher, his aim was true and the wrist cracked. The gun clattered to the asphalt.
While the thug grabbed his arm and cursed in pain, Zane leapt a distance of several meters in order to smack him in the forehead with the cane. His extended arm was covered in bristly, wolf-like hair. Tossing the pistol into the marsh, Zane said, “Help me place him behind the wheel. Authorities will assume the injuries came from his auto accident.”
“Good plan.” Redwing picked up the unconscious body, and blood from the shallow scalp wound stained his jacket.
Zane held the van door open as he whispered, “You didn’t use your crown to stop that bullet or lift that van.”
“No. I’m a ghost dancer. I already eat and shave enough for two men, and I didn’t need the crown’s side effects making that worse.”
“I hear that.”
“I’d appreciate if you didn’t tell anyone about my Native American abilities. Just like I won’t tell anyone you’re part supernatural animal.”
“My father was a creature of the night,” Zane admitted.
Redwing scanned the area. “Not something we want the Adams to know. Can you make your way back to town on your own?”
Zane nodded.
“Good. I’m going to be pinned down here for a while when the police arrive. I need you to do me a favor.” Redwing pulled out a couple hundred-euro notes.
“If you offer me payment again, sir, my service ends. What do you require?”
“Sorry. I just need someone to grab Vandemere before he hears about the police raid. I want him to face justice in front of the assembled Ur-metal court. Is that acceptable?”

“I could not imagine a more pleasurable entertainment, sire.” Zane loped off into the darkness to accomplish his mission, tongue lolling happily.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Singing Laser

My entire family quilts, winning ribbons at the fair (champion, grand champion, superintendent’s choice). Emily is piecing together her latest project. I have only supplied technical support for the computer-driven quilting machine… until now. I have a vital role for this year’s fair—I get to operate the laser. I’m not joking. Igor calls it my disintegrator beam.

My wife ordered an Emblaser laser cutter for her birthday so she could save time cutting out appliqu├ęs for her kits. The idea is that she scans in the pattern and has the laser cut it out for her. She didn’t want any wimpy off-the-shelf fabric store stuff. Tammy bought the newest, biggest, most powerful she could get without needing a Bond-villain license. She can etch or cut just about anything with the right settings. I’ve already explored using Autodesk 123D to build 3D dinosaurs from cardboard cutouts.

The laser took six weeks to arrive from Australia, and we assembled it ourselves. Software took almost as long to assemble and debug. We've finally reached the stage where we're able to try it out on a project.

Emily has a chain-link border pattern with 72 rings to piece together in less than two weeks. Since the links come in nine groups of eight, we thought the laser cutter would be a real time saver. I scanned the pattern into a black-and-white bitmap and isolated just the oval with cropping. I used MS Paint to clean up the noisy and rotate the two-inch oval on its side in order to pack eight into the sixteen-inch cutting area. Then I pulled the bitmap into CorelDraw ($100 onWalmart.com) to vectorize the image. The magic command is bitmap/centerline outline/line drawing. Vectors are scalable, smooth curves and lines. I wrote the result out to a PDF file. 
Serious hackers can get this converter for free by writing a centerline function for the open-source potrace program, but I decided that my time was worth a few bucks. To do the same thing in Adobe Illustrator would run you $20 a month.

Next, I pulled the vectors into the Cut2d tool. I set the workspace in the program to the size of our cutting area (in mm) and imported the oval. I replicated the image to the right, with barely any space in between the pair. I grouped the first two and replicated them, giving me four clones. After one final group and dup, I had all eight rings lined up.

Based on experience, I told the program that the laser needs to travel at a speed of no greater than 400 mm per minute to burn through all layers of fabric and heat-and-bond completely in one pass. Normally, someone would schedule two passes to avoid areas that hold on by a thread, but I don’t trust the precision yet. Then I clicked the button which transforms the vector set into a tool path, which means cutting instructions for the Emblazer. The commands are simple like: go to this XY position, turn the laser on at power level W, move the laser at speed Z, go to second XY position, and turn laser off. Even as a novice with a tight fit, the entire pattern to instructions process took less than forty-five minutes.

Tammy ironed heat-and-bond to a 4 by 16 inch piece of fabric (less than four minutes) and opened windows. Burning any material generates smoke that needs to vent outside. We also taped the fabric down to ensure precision. Air currents from the cutter head and window can move your fabric or paper otherwise.

As the last step, we employ the PicSend command to transmit all this to the cutter. There is a bit of ritual to this. We connect the USB cable to the laptop, turn on the laser, hit the laser enable button for 10 seconds until the light comes on, open the channel from the software to the device, wait for it to give you a go-ahead, send a Home command to the device, load the “oval 8” instruction file, and hit send. The eight-oval engraving takes about 10 minutes, and the cutter actually “sings” going around curves. Watch the video.
There were a few glitches, but Emily didn’t have to spend days tracing onto heat-and-bond with a maker, cutting out the shape with a buffer, ironing it to fabric, and cutting out the shapes a second time precisely. The laser seals the edges of the fabric neatly so the pieces won't fray, but we also saw a little scotching at the edges for this project.
We peeled off the resulting rings, lined up the next color of fabric, reset PicSender, and transmitted the same instructions again. The sticky residue on the base board actually helps later cuts achieve higher precision. 

Note: always keep an eye on your cutter with your tinted goggles on. That thing is bright. Trying to cut too much in too small an area (like fancy lettering under 3 mm high) will burn a big hole in your material. You also can’t let your computer go to black screen or skip any step, or you have to start the cutting process all over again.

Here is what the multi-color result looks like:

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Rewriting Cinematic History

In the future, image and sound manipulation will be so easy that high-school and college students will be able to “fix” their favorite movies and songs, much the same way that Trent Resnor does twenty versions of his NIN tunes. Computer generated images and voices can splice into the existing work. One day, kids will pass around personal remixes of their favorites the way they pass cheat codes and pokemon today. I think about this as I watch today’s movies and wish I could do it now.
Kingsmen was awesome until the first head exploded. As long as it stayed PG-13, it was perfectly in genre and cool. However, I fast-forwarded the entire church scene. Nobody wants to see a knife or bullet penetrate the top of a skull a hundred times with slow-motion, color-enhanced spray. The attempt at sexual conquest of a prisoner at the end also turned stomachs. Someone with an iPad could edit that out today, including the projectile vomiting, making it watchable.
Jupiter Ascending had a great concept and design but fell flat. It had potential to be great and spun off into a TV series. If I were going to remix a movie, I’d start there. Sure, this could be considered hubris, but it’s my blog and I want to try it. Realize that I probably spent way too much time thinking about this for one viewing, but I joined Netflix DVD for a month just to see it. Humor me.
My first and biggest complaint: the main character, the child of geniuses and duplicate of a woman who ruled star systems was a docile, almost silent drone with no flicker of intelligence or spine. Women should want to be her, and guys should admire more than her yoga pants. A close second gripe was the flip side: the male lead, who I shall refer to as Wolfie, beat hordes with his pure machismo alone. Third, to make this sustainable and more enjoyable, some of the operatic portions need to be dialed back a smidge. Fixing these problems could make the movie several times better and convert it into a long-term viable franchise. 

  1. Instead of having her scrubbing toilets in silence, show Jupiter with plans to be something more. Perhaps she listens to something educational related to her secret dream on her earphones while she scrubs. Irony points for reading about planet search techniques in a client’s magazine instead of cleaning and loaning her spare computer cycles to SETI. Bonus for any obscure skill that demonstrates quick learning and adaptability, even if it’s just dodging INS or her mother reacting to a power outage with aplomb. “It’s still Tuesday. The same rooms need to be done. You are spoiled. In Russia, we had no elevators.”
  2. Then show how being an “illegal alien” and loyalty to the family prevents her reaching her dream. Build verbally why she decides to have surgery under a stolen identity before the aliens probe her friend. Unless people read the DVD cover, they were lost about what was happening. The scenes hopped POV far too much, with too little input from Jupiter herself. We need a chance to root for her before the operation.
  3. Ax the second set of bounty hunters narrating how studly male hero is. We get the idea when he kicks their collected butts.
  4. Missing mechanics: How does Jupiter speak alien throughout the movie? Invent something because none of them would learn English. Perhaps she is studying Ancient Sumerian or Sanskrit in school, and there are similarities. Maybe she touches the translator device she finds on the floor of her friend’s room. Or Wolfie gives her a shot of babelfish after the rescue. Bonus: This understanding of seeming static on TV/radios would make her sound insane to others. The aliens wouldn’t expect her to understand the “Kill her” order. This should be a big moment.
  5. When the bounty hunter bursts into the operating room, rather than staring like a victim, have Jupiter loosen her own gas mask against her shoulder and pull out the IV with her teeth. Have her recognize this person is helping, even if she has no idea why. As her rescuer is about to get jumped, shout a warning to save him and perhaps draw the dart. Get a nod of thanks before she passes out. This enables hunter to see her as mate material.
  6. Have her joke with Wolfie about not being the only illegal alien in the city to show him her wit. Perhaps complain about how the existence of galactic society makes her small dream pale.
  7. Shorten the fight scene where Wolfman kills seven fliers. Way beyond belief. The whole skyscraper being replaced by morning was also over the top.
  8. Give us some reason why the space police are in a ramshackle farmhouse—to keep our population from killing itself off before harvest, and to make sure the corporate aliens follow certain rules. Show how his old buddy has actually saved the Earth from itself and alien exploitation so we trust him a little.
  9. Give the invisible, more numerous, high-tech, tiny aliens some weakness, even if it’s just fear of bees in order to give Jupiter some way to resist briefly. For a good series, they must have limits of some kind.
  10. Before the bureaucratic maze, Jupiter should know that the Earth is doomed unless she saves it. “I couldn’t even get a driver’s license.” This will add tension and humor to the waits. Reading the manual immediately was awesome to talk about, but maybe we show her flipping through in desperation.
  11. Have Jupiter suggest the bribe that gets the license because she’s seen her uncle do it a dozen times. Take control instead of being herded mutely.
  12. Cut the hero getting through the air defenses just because he screams in defiance.
  13. Get into the spacesuit before exposure to vacuum. Doesn’t any film writer know what zero pressure and three degrees Kelvin does to a body?
  14. At the end boss battle, have Jupiter not wolfie use the magic-door sealing trick to kill a pursuer. This is one piece of tech she actually worked herself earlier in the film.
  15. Giving the Draconians wings was too comic book because winged creatures are lighter than humans, not heavier thugs.
  16. Don’t have Jupiter run screaming like Goldie Hawn in Bird on a Wire. If she does run away from her family and protection, have it be to intentionally lure away the black hats because she thinks she can evade them. Bonus points for use of tech like the light beam that she knows how to disable while the pursuers aren’t free of the beam yet… or some way that experience with low tech saves her when the high-tech, low-g crowds are panicked. I could see her shutting off the main power grid with her new ownership override.
  17. Don’t have the only parapet in the complex that collapses consistently be hers. I just wanted to thin that whole long, contrived sequence. I want her to make fun of the rich son’s weakness in the clinch the way her mother might. “You are spoiled.” Show nurture and environment over pure nature of genes.
  18. When she returns to her old life, give Jupiter some contact with galactic civilization and some tech/power that nobody else will see. Give her bigger problems to ponder while she scrubs. Leave the door open for the series: show challenges like her needing to learn corporate rulership, hostile takeovers, and the possibility of slowly making changes to Earth. Most importantly, we need an excuse for wolfie to hang around and keep tabs on her but not seen by the locals.
  19. Unresolved: Give us hope that the series will investigate the mysterious crime that was wiped from Wolfie’s memory. The movie mentioned it many times without resolution.
  20. Logic flaw to resolve: If the output of 100 humans is worth a king’s ransom in product, why aren’t they already processing recently-dead humans? I can’t imagine that the people stay alive during the extraction. Perhaps that’s why there are so many wars, periodic sampling.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Cover Reveal: Union of Souls

Book 3 of the Gigaparsec series, Union of Souls, just went to my editor. Renee just finished the cover, which represents the Convocation on Giragog, sort of an Imperial Senate meeting.

Reuben Black Ram has been a hacker for Special Forces, a DJ for pirate radio, and a real pirate who hotwires spaceships. The richest Goat in the galaxy, he is being asked to give up everything to save a race of alien mimics and his Human girlfriend. To accomplish this, he must cross Union space to reach the Convocation of Souls. The space battles, spies, and dangerously experimental tech don’t bother him as much as what MI-23 expects of him—to grow up and become a world leader. Reuben still has a few tricks up his bulletproof sleeves, including a psi talent that up until now has only made him an object of ridicule.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Goodreads Giveaway of Void Contract Paperback

We already have 100 people signed up from the first day. I want to get as many people as possible for those five copies, especially those in Canada or Great Britain, which I added for this event. Click the enter button for your chance to win!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Void Contract by Scott Rhine

Void Contract

by Scott Rhine

Giveaway ends May 16, 2015.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to Win

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

For my Daughter

I already wrote a blog post for my writing career today. This one is for my daughter.

As a programmer, I've noted for years the dearth of women in the STEM field. I vowed to shield my daughter from influences that block access to these male-dominated fields, but the interference is subtle and pervasive. My wife taught both our children to read before kindergarten, and both have IQs within three points of one another. However, Emily idolizes Pierce because he's "so much smarter." My kids play the same nerd games like Pokemon, read the same books, and watch the same geek shows. However, no one raised an eyebrow at my son skipping a year. My daughter on the other hand has been questioned from all quarters for the last six years. We have to constantly tell her that she belongs there. That bugs the crap out of me.

We do our best to balance the family reading list. For every story with a male lead, we try to find one with a female or at least a balanced cast (Sisters Grimm, Fablehaven, Percy Jackson). TV is more difficult without going fantasy (Wizards of Waverly, Mermaids, or RWBY). I always try to treat my wife with affection and respect around the kids, so they can see how to treat and be treated by members of the opposite gender. This demands constant vigilance, but all it takes is one peer to wreck it.

Two years ago, Emily had her picture hanging in McDonalds for a month because she had the highest scores in math. This year, some kid two years older than her (in the same grade) crushed her self worth with a casual comment. What can I do? Well, hours of dodge ball practice with my daughter helped the most. Seems this boy is considered a whiz at the game, and she can smoke him at it now. She feels powerful and capable now. That's what I can give her.

Most recently, I go to her volleyball games and cheer. At this age, there isn't much volleying. With encouragement and confidence born of her own hard work, I'm proud that Emily runs toward the ball instead of shying away like some of the "girlier" team members. At ten, we're lucky if the players on either side can get it over the net more than they miss. But beyond practicing, Emily has earned something critical--encourage the girls next to you at every opportunity, I think this will help turn the tide for her generation more than my math tutoring or endless setting the ball.

Let's face it, Emily isn't nearly the introvert I am and would likely be bored by number theory and programming combinatorics. She's much more social. The lesson I meant to teach her was that she can do anything she sets her mind to. Yet she shouldn't be a standout in this. If she's the only woman, however exceptional, she'll spend the rest of her career in the same battle she's faced in school. "You don't belong." I think she has the right idea in helping those around her. Life is a team sport. You can't win if you're the only player. She's learned to develop her own support network when I'm not there anymore. But that's hard to shout approval for from the sidelines.

Space Opera Begins with Void Contract

With help from my associates, I should have the first TWO novels in the Gigaparsec series out by mid April. I just started writing the third book. By May 1, I want to have a big give-away or sale of some sort. Normally, I interleave series novels with stand-alones, but I seem to be putting a lot of eggs in one basket because a) the beta readers liked them, b) the reading level is smoother and shorter than anything I've done before (average 6th grade reading level 80 K words versus my usual 120K and 7th or 8th grade), and c) I need to reconnect with my sci-fi fan base.

Book 1, Void Contract: A veteran of the Gigaparsec War, Dr. Max Culp hunts alien war criminals. Suddenly, his only surviving teammate is kidnapped. To free his friend, Max is forced to take a mob contract on a fugitive hiding at the borders of Human space. But Max is tired of wet work and alien conspiracies. Can he find a path back to civilian life without losing what’s left of his soul or those closest to him?

After all the work I did on star travel tech and the history of planets, Max takes this for granted, using whatever tools he finds to do his job. He tries to shake of injuries like John Wayne, even though his scars keep accumulating. Because he cares much more about the adventure than the tech, and this series has a sweeping galactic backdrop, I've categorized this novel as my first space opera.

The female engineer, Roz, takes over Point of View in the last chapter and retains it through her mission to the "Supergiant" system to complete the equation for a new Magi star drive that can go ten times faster. She delves deep into the tech, but personal relationships and ethics are equally as important to her. Most of the bombshells in this novel tend to be verbal. She plans everything mechanical in advance, but people still confound her. (Renee should start work on the cover tomorrow. I'll post when it's ready.)

In book three, "Union of Souls," the Goat side kick, Reuben comes into his own. During a race across the extremes of Human space, he is forced to give up his own childish desires for the good of his own people and another proto-intelligent species. This is rather like the time after college graduation where people choose to grow up and pay for the debts they've incurred over the last couple decades. I just finished the brainstorming phase and am on chapter two. I anticipate finishing the first draft about the time I'm having the give-away in May.

For the pictures to be readable in ereader format, I had to carve this master star chart down to contain only those systems mentioned in each novel. I present it here in its raw form. Note that all various of the color blue are refueling stations belonging to Blue Giant Fuel. Also notice that the name Laurelin was chosen from Tolkien Elvish to denote both the golden tree and to honor the matriarch of the clan, Laura Llewellyn, from the Jezebel series.

As a total aside, I've been giving several talks to high school kids about being a professional author. The positive response has encouraged me to investigate starting a writers' support group at the local community college. I'll look into the prospect when I give a talk there tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Hobbit 3: the Mighty War Moose -- Canadian

As I watched the third installment of the Hobbit from a dangerously chilly theater in Minnesota, I recall complaining about the lack of physics in the film. Sir Isaac Newton would have been aghast. But when the Wood Elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), came on the screen, someone whispered, "Canadian." [film still from wikipedia] And she is. Just as Galadriel (Cate Blanchet) is Australian. [photo from IMDB]
EvangelineLillyAsTauriel.jpgCate Blanchett Picture
Suddenly, Mr. Jackson's instruction became clear. The entire series was illuminating the allegories buried in Tolkien.

You doubt? It's no coincidence that Tolkien was sending the stories to his son, Christopher, fighting the returning menace of Germany in the Middle East (Sauron in Middle Earth). I knew in middle school when I read the series originally that the dwarves represented the Jewish people -- twelve tribes, the last split into the two half tribes as twins. At the birth of the country of Israel, there were indeed five armies engaged around the Holy Land. In my youthful innocence, I assumed this was the extent of the metaphor, but Mr. Jackson opened my eyes.

When the mighty war moose of Thranduil [from the lotr.wikia] thundered onto the screen, I knew--the northern Wood Elves were indeed Canadian. Their armor was spotless, and I think I even saw them picking up trash from the street of Dale while they delivered their humanitarian supplies. Moreover, elves as a whole represented the immortal United Kingdom. Mighty in their magic but few in numbers, these colonists of the Holy Land are forced to give up their colonies after the second war and sail back across the waters to their original home, the gray and rainy havens. How could I have missed this?

The elvish men were pretty and slightly effeminate, indicating a high incidence of estrogen in their river, like London. Okay, that's taking it too far. I'm not jealous of Orlando Bloom, just repeating what a London resident told me on the train to Paris. Not wishing to offend any other ethnic group, I cannot speculate on who the orcs, goblins, and trolls allies of Hitler might have been. Nor can I speculate on the politician who may have inspired Gollum. My family did, however, take a vote. In this long battle film, the moose was the best and most realistic fighter. We all mourned his passing. He was, we all agreed, Canadian. We were proud to have him as one of our considerate neighbors of the north.