Archive for July 2011

Crapness seems to abound in ebook software. I’m running the Kindle software on my PC since I don’t own a real Kindle and while it’s far from great so far it’s been tolerable.

Today though I got a popup to tell me ‘Version 1.6.1 is available’. So I told it to remind me later. About one minute later I got another popup to tell me it was available, so I told it to remind me later. About a minute later I got another one, etc.

So I told it to download. While it was downloading it continued telling me that there was a new version available. I don’t care! I’m downloading it! Stop telling me!

But then it got stuck at 99% and I had to kill the process. So I downloaded it manually and installed it, thinking that would solve the problem.

Ha-ha. Now when I start up the Kindle software it tells me that version 1.6.1 is available and asks if I want to download it. Even though I have 1.6.1 installed. Even though when I go to the ‘About’ box it says 1.6.1 is installed.

Oops, and after I told it to ignore that update, now it’s not even starting up.

Why can’t software developers do something as simple as prompting for and installing an update without making a colossal mess of it?

No, I’m not talking about my life, but writing. One of the biggest rules in writing a story is that nothing can go right.

Imagine, for a moment, that your heroes have found the Evil Weasel’s lair, and they sit around for ten pages making up a careful plan as to how they’re going to break in any capture said weasel. Then they go in, and they follow the plan, and it all works perfectly.

Well, what’s the point? Instead of reading the hundred pages where they execute their clever plan and it all goes right, you could just read the ten pages where they made up the plan. In order for that hundred pages to be interesting, it has to go horribly wrong. Not just ‘oh damn, I broke a nail/dropped my favorite coffee cup’ wrong, but so wrong that the reader actually believes they’re going to fail.

In addition to that, unless stupidity is an intentional part of the protagonists’ characters, it has to go wrong despite them making their best attempt to get it to go right. As a reader I want to see the characters do their best to succeed and be thrown back by events, not fail because they decided to walk in the front door with a big flag saying ‘Death to the Evil Weasel’.

This is one of the problems I’ve had and one of the big problems I see with unpublished scripts and stories that I critique; either too much goes right, or when things do go wrong they don’t go wrong for the right reasons or they don’t go wrong enough that I think they’ll actually fail. It’s also been a problem with a number of recent movies, where I never believe that the protagonist is going to fail so the whole movie is one long anticlimax.

There was a thread on the Kindle Boards forum recently about writing goals. Here are mine:

1. Write 1,000 new words a day.

2. Publish three or four novels a year.

3. Try to make each one better than the last.

On a related subject I just finished the fourth draft of Uncle Howard’s House which fixed up most of the remaining problems. I’ll be doing a fifth to tweak the things I noted but didn’t fix this time, then sending it off to some writer friends to look at so I can fix any remaining problems before putting it up on Smashwords and Amazon.

“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”

Apparently da Vinci said that, but I thought I’d stolen it from a movie director; I guess they read da Vinci too.

Either way, it’s true. Every one of the movies I’ve edited has been sent out the door when we were truly sick of the thing and couldn’t imagine improving it any more.

In almost every case I’ve watched the movie since and noticed a number of things I could have improved or fixed up if I’d had the time. One particularly memorable instance was two members of the crew standing in the background in different shots; I’d spent months editing, sound mixing and grading the movie, must have watched it a hundred times, and not once had I noticed them standing there. Of course the good news is that no-one else has ever seen them either, so ultimately it didn’t matter.

I’m starting to feel this way about Uncle Howard’s House, so that should bode well for my chances of getting it out in a month or two. If I can ever come up with a good title.

Horror Movie is progressing again with a couple of thousand words completed tonight, though I don’t think I’ll quite make the plan of having a complete first draft by the end of the month.

I’m a bit burned out on Uncle Howard’s House and wanted a break before finishing the fourth draft and sending it out to some readers. Horror Movie is an idea I’ve had lying around in my list for years and I knocked together about 20,000 words in my spare time on a business trip to Holland earlier this year, but then put it aside while I worked through Uncle Howard’s House.

The story was inspired by my experiences of working on indie movies in England, it’s a horror comedy about a group of people who go to make a horror movie and run into some real horrors. Yeah, not the most original idea in the history of literature, but I think it will be a little different to any previous version that I’m aware of.

And on the positive side I have the title and have a rough cover, so that side is pretty much covered once I get there.

Soft SF has been colonising planets for a century or more, but why would you do that in hard SF?

The simple answer is that I can’t think of any reason to do so. There’s nowhere in the solar system other than Earth where you could live without building your own self-contained environment, so why not just build a habitat in space instead? Mars is the one possible exception as it could potentially be terraformed to give an environment somewhat similar to Earth, but the effort required to do so would almost certainly be better spent on building vast numbers of habitats instead.

Outside the solar system the problem is even worse. The most realistic option for interstellar travel would be a ‘generation ship’ — but note that with life extension the same generation of passengers may survive to the end of the trip — and a fusion pulse engine; that would allow you to travel at perhaps 1% of the speed of light, so you’d be looking at several centuries to travel to the nearest stars. But if you’ve been living in a self-contained habitat for centuries, why would you then want to get off on a planet, so long as the habitat was still viable?

Note that finding a ‘habitable’ planet might even be worse. If we found a planet in another solar system with a dense atmosphere and life, there are probably good reasons to expect an atmosphere similar to Earth’s because oxygen is the easiest element for life to use and the concentration in our atmosphere is about as high as you can go without dramatically increasing fire risks; the concentration might be lower but probably no worse than living on a mountain. So breathable air and water should be fairly common.

But when we get to the life, that’s a different matter. The odds of such life being based on DNA or a similar molecule are probably fairly high, but almost certainly not in a human-compatible form. That should hopefully mean that Earth disease wouldn’t readily infect the local life, and vice-versa, but it may well also mean that Earth life would be unable to operate within the local food chain.

Overall, I’d say that you’d need some pretty special reason to justify colonisation in hard SF whereas in soft SF you can just pick the technology you’re going to use to support your story. This is one of the things that makes writing hard SF more difficult; instead of deciding the kind of society you want for your story and then picking technology to support it, you have to pick the technology and then figure out what kind of society that would lead to.

The Thing and Petrina probably don’t quite qualify as hard SF, but they’re pretty close.

But one of the biggest problems I’m finding with trying to write hard SF is finding a reason to have humans in space at all. The SF traditions of Mars colonies and space mining really don’t work; there’s no reason whatsoever to mine things in deep space and ship them to Earth because the cost of doing so is far greater than the value. I’m sure we’ve all seen the ‘one single asteroid contains trillions of dollars worth of materials!’ articles, but even if you could find a cheap way of bringing them back to Earth you’re just left with a big rock in space to mine when you could be mining big rocks on Earth instead. Worse than that, while there may be billions of dollars of gold in that rock, even if you could extract it for a reasonable cost you’d just crash the gold market when you brought it back.

So no-one is going to be shipping iron ore millions of miles to Earth unless we have a sudden attack of nuclear-transmuting iron-eating bacteria which destroy all the iron, or some such insanely unlikely event. Any kind of cargo to be shipped around the solar system must be high value relative to its mass and difficult to make locally; complex electronics, perhaps, or uranium and other fuels with a high energy density. But by its very nature, that also means a limited market; an asteroid uranium mine, even if you could find uranium with a density high enough to be worth mining, would probably only be shipping out a few thousand tons a year which wouldn’t keep many freighters in business.

Habitats may be another option; people want somewhere nice to live, so if you can build them an O’Neill-style habitat then they would want to buy it. But then you’re back to a chicken and egg situation: before you can build habitats you need enough people to want them and those people need to be doing something that will pay for them to build those habitats.

Spacecraft construction is in a similar bind: we could build shipyards in orbit around the Moon or at L5 or whatever, but if there’s nothing for people to do in space then why would they buy them?

Telecommuting would be an option if you can do something that doesn’t require a physical presence. But telecommuting from light minutes to light hours away is always going to be less efficient than simply finding someone on Earth to do the job, and the cost of living in space is likely to make wages unaffordable compared to workers on Earth.

Developing dangerous technologies is another possibility; if you’re going to try to build self-replicating nanotech or genetically-engineered microbes, then being millions of miles away from anyone would be a useful safety feature. However, a society so scared of such work that it wouldn’t be allowed on Earth is unlikely to be willing to let you sell the products on Earth either; otherwise building a secure lab on Earth is likely to be much cheaper than doing it in space for the forseeable future.

Ultimately I can only really see two reasons, which are somewhat linked: ‘because it’s there’ and ‘because Earth is too dangerous’. Even if nothing else was to change then eventually travel into space will become cheap enough with increased productivity and improved technology that people will move out into space just because they can; but that’s probably at least a century away. This makes the latter seem like the only realistic justification for stories with significant numbers of humans living in space in the near term; technology which is capable of putting people there can also be used for massive destruction, so the only way to be relatively safe is to be as far as possible from people who might want to harm you. That would lead to a future of paranoid ‘city states’ in space where visitors were unwelcome and trade was minimised. Even then a redirected asteroid could result in a very bad day for your habitat.

Fear as the driving force also leads to some other interesting implications. If you want to be as far as possible from dangerous people then you’ll soon find that the Oort cloud is the place to be; it’s a long way from Earth, there are resources to exploit, and it’s so big that people aren’t going to find you easily if you choose to hide out there. But once you’re there and living in a self-contained habitat which isn’t reliant on the resources of the inner solar system, then why not just ‘push off’ into interstellar space? Even if reaching another star system takes a few centuries, you won’t really care as your life won’t really change. The big risk would be a major system failure in deep space that you can’t fix, but that wouldn’t be much different to such a failure in the Oort cloud.

For me as a writer, the best thing about writing SF and fantasy is this:

You can totally make stuff up.

If I write a modern novel set in Tanzania where people sit around in evening suits drinking Earl Grey tea and talking about what a jolly good show the fox hunt was, then reviewers will say ‘what a dumb-ass, people in Tanzania don’t act like that’. If I set it five hundred years in the future in a resurgent British empire, then no-one can complain because it’s a world I totally made up.

Obviously there are a limits, but this allows you to concentrate more on the story than how it’s told. Taking my part-written SF novel The Thing (yeah, I’m really bad at titles) as another example, it’s set in North America; if it was modern day, people would complain that the characters don’t act like Americans, but it’s set nearly four hundred and fifty years after the United States collapsed in a war, so the time between then and now is almost twice the time between the founding of the country and the present day… no-one can say they aren’t acting realistically because anything could have happened in the meantime.

Of course reality does intrude; in that case many of the geographical and economic factors which applied to the USA also apply to the new culture growing after the Cataclysm. But most of the past is made up, so as long as it’s believable within the context of the story no-one can say that it’s wrong.

Skull, hourglass and candle

Preview

I suppose I should do an update. I’m on the fourth draft of Uncle Howard’s House and having spent much of the weekend trying to come up with a better title I may actually end up going with that one.

I also have a very rough cover, which needs the proper title and some decent fonts and a bit of tweaking. The image seems to fit the story, but I’m still struggling to figure out how to create text which goes with it.

This is basically just a tidying pass before I send it out to some writer friends for a review, after which I’ll update as required before uploading it to Smashwords and Amazon. Assuming I do actually manage to come up with a title… good ideas for a time-travelling Victorian/modern day monster story on the remote coast of Ireland would be welcomed.

Since Amazon aren’t releasing a version of their Kindle software that runs natively on Linux, unfortunately we’re stuck with running the Windows version through Wine. Version 1.5.0 wouldn’t install or run properly on Ubuntu 10.10, but it does run on Ubuntu 11.04 using Wine 1.3; you may not want to upgrade it to a newer version in case Amazon break it again.

Much worse was getting the Adobe DRM-ed ‘Digital Editions’ ebook software to run on Linux, as not only do they not want to let you download the DRM-ed books if you’re not using a Mac or a Windows PC, but they also don’t want to let you download the software (‘Sorry, but your system does not meet the minimum system requirements’); once it’s installed it seems to work fine, but they do their best to prevent you from installing it.

Fortunately after all of that they give you a backdoor route to download it which doesn’t try to prevent you because you’re running Linux:

Can’t install Digital Editions

Not that I actually want to do so because it’s probably the worst ebook reading software I’ve used, but if you happen to run into DRM-ed ebooks and need to read them legally then it’s the only option.

Of course this is one of the reasons why DRM is evil and why I would never knowingly buy or sell an ebook which is crippled in that way. While DRM-free ebooks can be used with any software the reader chooses which supports that format, DRM by its nature requires restricting people to a limited subset of software and if it’s not available on your platform, well, sucks to be you.