Sci-Friday #129 – Panic in Year Zero – Scifi with Jazz

Panic in Year Zero is scifi with a jazz soundtrack, a classic tale with yesteryear stars, and a masterclass in indie filmmaking. A special treat for Sci-Friday, one of the greatest post-apocalyptic movies you’ve never seen. You’ll want to watch Panic in Year Zero for a lot of reasons: 1) It’s Scifi 2) It features Jean “Lina Lamont from ‘Singin’ in the Rain'” Hagen and Frankie Avalon and 3) the house from ‘My Three Sons.’ Panic in Year Zero wrote the book on ‘post-apocalyptic scifi’ storytelling, inspiring hundreds of movies up to and including Cloverfield. Now you can watch it on Archive.org for free:

The key to enjoying any ‘B’ movie is to set your expectations low. If you can do that, you’ll enjoy Panic in Year Zero, which one of the first movies of its kind and deserves a lot of credit for deep storytelling on minimal budget. The cinematography and dialogue is pretty decent for the period, too. Thanks to BoingBoing for the tip – enjoy this campy scifi classic to kick off your weekend. I hope you enjoy this Sci-Friday and dive down the rabbit hole of every other Sci-Friday I’ve published in the past couple years. Have a great weekend!

 

Solarpunk – The Greatest Story I Never Told

Solarpunk - The Greatest Story I Never Told

This is a quick blog post about what happens when you get an idea that sucks. Let me tell you about a solarpunk short story I came up with, and how it turned into the greatest story I never told. The whole ugly affair began, as these things always do, with @Scalzi in the vicinity …

The equation for a good story works out as follows:

Cool Technology Idea + Red-blooded
humanoid type
= Compelling
Story About the Future

You can’t have a scifi story without a cool technology, but where do you get the tech from? I comb through different resources (Popular Mechanics, Wired, back issues of Omni) to come up with items that get my juices flowing. What you want to do is find the interesting thing that makes your brain go ‘hey, what if …?’ Channel that interest, cultivate that spark. That’s what I was doing when I responded to @Scalzi’s tweet – I thought “hey, new story idea!” and then got to Googling.

Not every idea is a good idea. Doing deep dives into emerging technology gives you multiple perspectives. It’s up to you to filter out the probable from the possible and the impractical. You quickly learn that while The Dream of Carbon Air Capture Edges Toward Reality and the world’s biggest carbon-removal plant just opened, others criticize the idea of carbon capture to the point where some ask: Isn’t CO2 emission reduction without carbon capture somewhat pointless?

All of this brings us to the unavoidable conclusion that carbon capture, while ambitious, is unlikely to be the story of a kid figuring out a simple way to get the fizz back into his Coke Zero. To paraphrase James Cameron on why he made Spiderman’s webs biological, rather than technical, “it’s more credible to find a way to tell the story of a company inventing the best carbon capture device for a high school boy to be able to produce a wonder technology in his spare time that 3M could not make.”

Now, that might all feel incredibly disappointing but it teaches us a valuable lesson about science fiction stories that I want to pass along here:

  • Some discoveries create other discoveries
  • Possible doesn’t mean practical
  • Everything is garbage until it isn’t
  • Discovery doesn’t sound like ‘Eureka,’ it sounds like “wait, what?”
  • Sometimes the work is the real story

In a nutshell, don’t get too excited if you find yourself down a rabbit hole. Every effort teaches you something, whether it’s leveraging discoveries, or learning how to do things more efficiently the next time. ‘Goofing off’ is often the first step toward the most important work of all.

So dear reader, that’s the story of the greatest solarpunk story I never told. My hope is that the next time we talk, it’s about the cool new story I discovered using this method. Or maybe you’ll tell me about what this method helped you discover, who knows? 🙂

Write on!

PS – I finished Chapter Two of Cinderellavator – the novel is taking shape!

Sci-Friday #128 – Monty Python Star Trek MashUp

Love Star Trek? Love Monty Python? Enjoy this Monty Python Star Trek Mashup as the “The Knights of the Round Table” from Holy Grail is performed by Star Trek: TOS:

Everyone has their own reasons for loving Star Trek and Monty Python. For one, both franchises can be appreciated on their own merits, and satirized without losing any of their charm. Monty Python and Star Trek are also alike in that they examine social rules and concepts that defy logical explanation. If you grew up understanding that the world is an arbitrary place with no patience for non-conformists, Monty Python and Star Trek provided safe harbors for reflection and introspection.

Both franchises are alike in one other way – they’re smart. Star Trek combined ‘smart’ with ‘adventure,’ while Monty Python combined ‘smart’ with ‘funny.’ Star Wars in many ways is smart, but it doesn’t assume the level of knowledge that both Star Trek and Monty Python expect of their audiences. It’s made them cultural icons and emotional lodestones for the nerd/geek communities for nearly six decades, and it’s why we’re excited to see William Shatner blast off on a Blue Origin rocket next week.

So, for Sci-Friday #128 please enjoy this Monty Python Star Trek Mashup. I hope you enjoy this Sci-Friday and dive down the rabbit hole of every other Sci-Friday I’ve published in the past couple years. Have a great weekend!

 

Creating Art is Creating Yourself

Creating Art is Creating Yourself

One of the reasons I’ve declined to go back to other jobs or careers is because I need art. Indeed, I’ve come to understand through hard experience that creating art is creating yourself, and I need a space like that in my life. One thing about business is how it refuses to let you be sad if you feel sad, happy if you feel happy. You’re tenderized to always present things as ‘fine’ even if you’re bleeding inside.

Whatever they say on the surface, the reality is a depressing dystopia. Business isn’t interested in you being an interesting, fun person who’s emotionally available. Sure, if you are that person and as a result the business makes more money, great. But you’re still expected to be a tough, weathered, punching bag for your supervisors’ negativity. Yes, you should treat people with authenticity and empathy, but don’t expect to be treated that way. I was never strong enough emotionally to handle that burden. I’ve never met anyone who is.

Along with that, I’ve been doing more work to separate my personal feelings from the work. Cinderellavator is the first time I’m writing about someone else’s pain instead of my own. It takes work to get into the head space, into the skin of trauma, to write the scene in Chapter Two where Peetie the protagonist loses her mother. Not gonna lie, I’ve shed some tears over it. Painful, but necessary and therapeutic. It’s forcing me to get outside of my pain and put it into the context of other people’s experience.

How Creating Art Helps You Create Yourself

In addition, this work makes me confront emotional baggage I’ve been walking around with for decades. If I were a different person, if I had this ‘thing’* growing up, then everything would be fine. If I had the right people caring for me, everything would be different. Emotionally, you’re an amputee surrounded by people walking around as if nothing was wrong. Your scars don’t show, but you’re damaged just the same. You wish people could see it, understand it, accept it. Everything might be different, then.

Confronting those problems leads you down infinite rabbit holes as you try to get your baggage out on the table to see what it means. You feel like a homeless person out on the street; trying to find value in the possessions everyone else considers to be garbage. You could be wasting time, or you could be finding the answer. No one is there to guide the way.

Then you read more stories and personal experiences and it makes you realize that perfect childhood doesn’t equate to a perfect life. Perfect starts don’t equal perfect finishes. We’re living in a different world now. Accountability and authenticity matter. People can’t get away with being too rich to be nice, too powerful to be accountable. Even if you get the vindication you were hoping for, you can see the universe balancing things out eventually. Time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels.

There’s a bonus, too – the act of work forces you to improve your process. Practice makes perfect. Those living, learning skills you applied to others start to reflect back on you. Just as the sculptor in the picture above gets better with every project, every learning lesson makes you better at learning. Iterative improvement: Creating art, putting it out there, getting the feedback through publication, letting failure help you begin more wisely. Creating art is creating yourself, providing you’re willing to let the process change you.

Gluing the Pieces Together

In a perfect world, I’d only make happy art because I only felt happy, or at least functional. I’m not there yet. But creating art is creating myself in a way that expresses hope that I will be that person one day. I certainly won’t get there by sitting around waiting for it to happen.

Create yourself, whether that’s by creating art or whatever it is that really makes you who you are. Anything else is a waste of time and spirit.

Discuss This On Reddit

* ‘Thing’ in a general sense – everyone has a ‘thing’ they didn’t get – something they’re missing from their lives. What was important to me might not be important to you, and vice versa.

Items for Your Storytelling Toolbox

Hi there, fellow writer. Let me give you some items for your storytelling toolbox. Here’s why I’m giving them to you. I remember years ago being in woodshop and having to learn how to identify tools in order to make things.

When you think about storytelling as a job, at first it sounds like fun but then as you learn more it can feel quite overwhelming. Anyone can tell a story, but can you tell a story that people want to hear? It turns out, storytelling is a craft, a profession, and like any profession, there are tools to the trade. Having the right tools, and knowing how to use them, can make the difference between building the Taj Mahal, or a doghouse. We all want to be master workers at storytelling, don’t we? Your stories are going to become that much more fun to read when you make use of these items for your storytelling toolbox:

General Storytelling Resources

Like all great toolboxes, we start with some simple, general tools. These ideas form the basis of storytelling and are helpful no matter what kind of story you plan on telling.

More Information About the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (see above)

Now let’s dig into storytelling mechanics with two major areas: arcs and diegesis:

Arcs

Everyone knows what a narrative arc is, even if they don’t know it had a name. When you tell anyone what happened today (“I got up, I went to work, I came home, I ate dinner”), that’s a narrative arc. The narrative arc is the factual structure and shape of a story. But there’s more to the storytelling, story! In fact, there are two major kinds to arcs be aware of:

Storytelling ArcsMake no mistake, a storytelling arc is not the plot of the movie. As you’ll learn in the linked article, the plot is comprised of the individual events that make up your story, bu your story arc is the sequence of those events. Sure, the bad guy dies in act three, but you have to show the reader that the hero found the gun that shot him in act one. Your narrative / storytelling arc is how you’ll show all of these things happening, and in what order, to keep your audience riveted until the very last page.

Emotional Arcs – Kurt Vonnegut is a famous writer and he’s known for calling out the major categories of ’emotional arcs’ in the linked article. The main thing you should be aware of is what emotional arc you’re following in your story. You can use whatever arc you think works best, but it’s important to be consistent. For example, the worst movies you’ve ever seen frequently fail because they’re not clear on what arc(s) they’re using. Other times, great stories make use of several arcs simultaneously. Think about Raiders of the Lost Ark: It’s got a ‘Man in Hole’ arc, a ‘Boy Meets Girl’ arc, a ‘Bad to Worse’ arc. You never know ‘which way is up’ until the very end! So don’t be afraid to use one or several emotional arcs – just be sure you know what they are, and how they work together.

But arcs are only one category of storytelling tool! Now, let’s focus on another category that will take your stories into a brand-new dimension:

Diegesis / Diegetic storytelling

Understanding storytelling from a diagetic perspective creates a story’s texture and depth, but what is it? Simply put: Diagetic storytellign is a style of fiction storytelling that presents an interior view of a world in which:

– Details about the world itself and the experiences of its characters are revealed explicitly through narrative.
– The story is told or recounted, as opposed to shown or enacted.
– There is a presumed detachment from the story of both the speaker and the audience.
In diegesis, the narrator tells the story. The narrator presents the actions (and sometimes thoughts) of the characters to the readers or audience. Diegetic elements are part of the fictional world (“part of the story”), as opposed to non-diegetic elements which are stylistic elements of how the narrator tells the story (“part of the storytelling”).

Why You Need to Know About Diegetic storytelling – Eventually, you’ll have to explain to others what kind of story you’re telling. Is your protagonist telling the story, are they telling it as it happens? Does your story have a narrator, and does that narrator tell the story from inside the world of the story ( intradiegetic) or outside ( extradiegetic)? Is the story happening inside another story (metadiegetic)? Here’s more info on intra- vs extradiegetic storytelling.

I’ve used a number of diagetic modes in my storytelling. My next novel, Cinderallavator, uses metadiagetic storytelling because it’s a story happening inside another story. That’s what works best for the kind of story I’m telling. You might to do the same, or you might use another method. It’s all up to you, though. You’re the storyteller, so you’re in the driver seat!

I’m going to add more items for your storytelling toolbox over time. For now, I hope you found arcs and diagetic storytelling to be helpful in your personal writing craft. Questions, comments, things you don’t understand? Ask me about them on Reddit.

We’ll talk more, soon!

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All Story, No Parachute

All Story, No Parachute

Wet, drippy morning here in Eugene. Perfect for reflection on the boring dystopia we live in. No, don’t worry: I’m not going to rehash the current events. You came here to escape all that, right? No, I want to talk for a moment about being a broke author. Sometimes I feel like a tightwire artist without a net. Where some people have a safety net to fall back on, Jackson is all story, no parachute.

Here’s what got me started thinking about this. I ran across the following Reddit post about, among other things, Bill Gates. I confess, his life story as far as I know was Microsoft, Microsoft, and Microsoft. How does a skinny Washington nerd become one of the iconic characters of our techno-Industrial revolution? Turns out, it’s not just about luck or being in the right place at the right time:

It’s super easy to do those things when you have options. Being born to a rich family with many connections means there is literally no way you can screw up unless you just start doing hard drugs. When your life is “don’t worry about failure, you have a parachute” then you can take way greater risks than normal people. If Bill Gates failed at his endeavors he would still be a millionaire today because his parents were millionaires.

Poor people can’t take big risks, big risks mean big failures and big failures mean a lifetime of poverty. Rich people, when they fail they are still millionaires, they just have to ask their family or friends for more money or wait for them to die and they get more chances to be successful. Big risks also mean big rewards, rich people can freely take big risks because failure is impossible in the sense that it will ruin their life, they can just go back to being the son or daughter of a rich family. Poor people have to make safer bets, safer bets don’t pay out as much but they are ones you can recover from. You won’t be a billionaire with safe bets unless you were already a millionaire the day you were born and are able to make 1000 safe bets with the virtually unlimited resources you have.

No one’s saying it isn’t hard work but hard work is a lot easier when at the end of the day, you know worst case scenario is you bankrupt all your companies and your parents die and leave you a $2.3 million house and a $600,000 vacation house along with their $6 million investment portfolio the day they die. Really super easy to work 14 hours a day knowing your life is made no matter what and you can either make a Billion dollars or retire a millionaire. Really hard to work 14 hours a day knowing that if you screw up you will have bankrupted your entire future and will live in abject poverty for the rest of your life.

In a way, this person is talking about the difference between ‘wartime and peacetime scifi,‘ which is something I talked about a couple of years ago. Peacetime Scifi, like Peacetime CEOs, knows how to leverage advantage while Wartime Scifi is simply concerned about survival. I’m not an advocate of wartime scifi because it potentially puts me in bad company, but I can’t ignore that I’m lightyears away from the success that allows me to take big risks.

I’m sure you are, too. We’re in an ‘all story, no parachute’ world together. So let’s remember what they tell every highwire artist whether they have a net or not: Don’t look down. Focus on where you want to go. Trust that you’ll make it, and you will.

Write on!

New Short Submitted – Welcome to Conspiraco

Another scifi short story in the mix – ‘Welcome to Conspiraco’ is a new short submitted for consideration by the different SFWA-recognized scifi magazines. You can track the story’s journey on my Scifi Short Story Production Board.

In the future, utopian society needs fake conspiracies to give the eager adventurers some ‘evil plot’ to thwart in order to keep them from bringing down a wholly benevolent ruler out of a misguided need to be the hero. Conspiraco is the real organization that makes face conspiracies to achieve actual peace in the future. Before the truth can set you free, it might just try to kill you.

I’ll keep you posted on what happens when you submit new short stories. In the meantime, let’s see how ‘Welcome to Conspiraco’ does. Have a great weekend!

Write on!

 

Notes on Getting Kids into STEM

High-paying STEM jobs can be the way out of poverty for students. In the past, students who lived in poverty may have taken jobs in manufacturing or other trades. Many of those jobs are disappearing, leaving workers back in poverty. STEM jobs, on the other hand, are everywhere, and the tech industry shows no signs of slowing down. Even as certain STEM trends come and go, we can expect to see the overall number of jobs in STEM fields increase.

So access is one thing, but inspiration is another. STEM, for all of it’s benefits, isn’t on every parent’s radar. One thing I give Elon Musk credit for – he’s made STEM cool again for all the people who wouldn’t care about STEM otherwise. Doesn’t mean he’s a good person and I have my own issues with the guy, but consider all the attention on STEM that’s happened since SpaceX started. It shows people DO think STEM is important, but it needed some rebranding. Musk and his efforts have gotten many members of the non-STEM-aligned portion of the population to pay attention.

Still, can’t leave STEM in Elon Musk’s, or any other rocket-owning billionaire’s, hands. Musk doesn’t care about STEM kids. Let’s face it, he’s a billionaire and his priority toward STEM kids is “how can I use you to make me rich?” We can and we should do better. How can we – the people who can’t afford to sponsor kids like Taylor Wilson and Jackson Oswalt – do better? How do we help kids get into STEM? It’s like Bon Jovi said, ‘you do what you can.’

How To Get Kids into STEM

Most articles about ‘getting kids into STEM’ recognize the value of 1:1 interaction and encouragement. Spending time. Modeling behavior. I don’t have kids of my own, but I still want to help. So as an author, I made a decision – I could write about anything but I want to do my part. I take inspiration from authors like Micheal Anderson. Like Anderson, I write stories the kids who were like me; smart, poor, no opportunities, and stuck in the mental poverty cycle. It’s not enough to write a STEM story and go “This is about STEM, you should love it!” You actually have to write STEM stories that kids think are cool. How do you do that?

The point is, that if you want to get kids into STEM, you have to make it work for kids. Not just silly science experiments – actual projects. Make cool stuff, blow something up, build something crazy!

Champion Your STEM Kids

Beneath those details, it’s important to recognize a truth: The most important thing you to do to get kids into STEM is to help them understand what STEM helps them become. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math are powerful tools. Kids who come from no where, with no connections or help, can use them to change the world (Srinivasa Ramanujan, for example).

Think about it: One of the downsides of modern superhero movies is how the hero only emerges AFTER they get their powers. Peter Parker and the spider bite. TMNT before the secret ooze. Tony Stark and the Iron Man suit (honestly, could he have built it without Jarvis?). Hiroki from Big Hero 6 and Baymax. Over and over again – modern STEM-related movies say ‘you’re only a hero once some arbitrary event happens to you.’ That’s unfair to STEM kids. When you put them together, STEM kids change the world, but ONLY IF THEY KNOW THEY CAN AND THEY SHOULD.

Another limiting factor for STEM kids is how little nurturing they get, compared to kids in sports. America invested billions of dollars and generations of kids into playing sports. What have we gotten for our money? What if we fostered kids into STEM the way we do for kids sports? What kind of game changer would that be both for the country and humanity at large?

All of these points are why I told a story where those meek, mild STEM kids turn into geek warriors. Recruited into a technical academy the way you recruit kids to play football or basketball, they band together to take down their supersmart supervillain principal. The real message is ‘you don’t need special powers – you’re already powerful, the hero is inside of you.’ Take away the evil genius, Miramar Technical Academy is a powerful model toward building the next generation of titan technology.

And along the way, STEM forces you to develop a strong work ethic. You burn calories with your brain instead of your body in a STEM career. Blue-collar trades are hard work, and so is this – both career paths are important! Whatever a child decides they’re interested in, our job is to say ‘yes you can, and I believe in you!’

Do It For Them – Do It For Us – Do It For You

We’ve got many elder geeks who invested time in showing us how to do this, it falls to us to continue that legacy regardless of our circumstances. Now more than ever, we need to be the people we needed when we were younger.

We can help on a daily basis by keeping those kids in mind. Hear about a free computer? Tell them. Hear about a free STEM camp? Tell them. Internships? Opportunities? Resources? Tell them. Offer to help. “Do you know how to apply for a job? Let me show you.” “Do you know how to write a resume? Let me show you.” You can be that flashlight showing the way to a better future for that child and their entire family.

When it comes to STEM, some of those kids are going to get there regardless. Others are going to be barred at the gate through no fault of their own. We can open those gates in our own ways, enabling and encouraging them to use their innate talent to make the world a better place. It’s the modern version of ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk. Discuss This On Reddit

 

Cinderellavator – New Scifi Novel Draft

Cinderellavator - New Scifi Novel Draft

Rough night, but happy news. I got several hundred words so far into the new scifi novel draft of Cinderellavator. The first draft of anything is always exciting, and I’m glad I can share this news today.

Cinderellavator isn’t just a new novel, it’s the next step in my storycraft. With this project I used a character bible, story maps AND story cards. They help me build the overall structure of the narrative before I write the first word. Some of that work still needs to be done but it’s time to start. Like coding programs, you figure out enough of the design and then you let the design and work happen in parallel. This will help me end up with a better answer than I’d ever find on my own.

Meanwhile, had some interesting discussions over on Imgur about the 20th Anniversary of 9/11. I don’t have a 9/11 story to tell, but like everyone else it’s a pain on my heart and watching the old footage just brings it back. One tremendous missed opportunity from 9/11 was the answer to the question: “What does OK look like, and how do we get there?” Civilization never graduated from the hysterical ‘safety-at-any-cost’ mindset that allowed the powerful to harm the powerless and manipulate the ignorant.

What’s it like to write a novel where your protagonist is nothing like you? Stay tuned, I’ll have some thoughts about that later.