My Novel Idea

Last year, I participated in National Novel Writing Month and succeeded in completing a 50,000 word novel in those 30 days. I am still proud of that success and it is in fact the motivating experience behind this blog and my (less successful) 100 Days, 100K experiment. As of now, I am beginning the re-write process on that novel, not only polishing it but expanding it to the more usual 75-100K words. Note that this means my posting on this blog, especially short fiction pieces, will slow noticeably (I’m sure both of you are heartbroken). On the upside — if you can call it that — I will be writing more about the process of writing, specifically in this case about the process of working through a novel re-write (which I have never done before).

 

NaNoWriMo was fun and hard and exciting and frustrating, but most of all it was the perfect distillation of my greatest weakness as a writer: the desire to get the damn story told, already. Any of you have have read the fiction I post here can likely attest — most of it is short (1000-2000 words) and pretty rough around the edges. Both are strong clues that I sat down with an idea and pushed it out of my head (probably with the help of some wine or a few beers). I like a lot of what I write in that fashion, but when I look at those things later, they are not nearly as strong as other stories that I spend a lot of time on. The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo was just like that. Obviously, I did not write it all in one sitting, but I did formulate an idea and then push that bastard out as fast and strong as I could. I think the novel has a lot of merit, but it is also rushed and rough.

 

The interesting thing is that it is not the novel I planned in the weeks leading up to the start of NaNoWriMo. I plotted and worked on another novel for a whole month prior to last November, but when it came time to pull the trigger, I flinched. That idea is too important to me, I think. It feels, in my head, like my Great Novel, and so I am afraid to start it. The novel I did write was much easier, much less important to me. Don’t get me wrong, I like what resulted and I hope that I love what comes out of the rewrite, but I chose that idea among the many floating in my head simply because I thought it was one I could finish in a month. Of course, I did not finish it in a month, because I am about to start finishing it now, but you see my point.

 

I hope to finish the rewrite before November. If I do and it goes well, resulting in a book I am proud of and feel is my best work, maybe I will take this year’s NaNoWriMo to finally face down that Great Book looming over me.

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Oblivion: Details vs Drama

I finally had the opportunity to see Tom Cruise’s most recent sci-fi epic, Oblivion, and it inspired a few thoughts. First of all, note that this is not a review. I found the film relatively entertaining, if a bit long, and Cruise was his usual combination of charming and competent, but other than that I have little to say on the subject of whether Oblivion was “good.” Rather, I am more concerned about what the movie represents in regards to science fiction plotting and the interaction between drama and speculative elements in SF.

 

Be aware that in the following paragraphs, spoilers for Oblivion abound. If you have not seen the movie and wish to, please do so then come back and read.

 

Oblivion is a post apocalyptic film set in the aftermath of an alien invasion. We are told, through Cruises’s protagonist character Jack Harper, that alien beings called Scavs broke the moon, which sent the Earth’s climate and geology into chaos. They took over the desolate remains while humans moved to Saturn’s moon Titan. Only Jack, his partner Victoria and a space station called the Tet remained. Jack and Victoria were tasked with ensuring that giant fusion producing oceanic power plants remained operational so that the Titan colony/refuge would have power and, at the opening of the film, they only had two weeks to go before they themselves were freed to meet the rest of humanity at Titan. Oh yeah (and here’s the suspicious part) Jack and Victoria were operating after a mandatory, mission-security required memory wipe that ocurred five years earlier. Couple that with imagery of Cruise’s character and an unidentified woman (read: not Victoria) in “modern day” New York City and there’s all the reason in the world for the audience to distrust the narrative as it has been presented us.

 

Without bothering to go to deeply into the twists and turns of the actual plot of the film, here is the circumstances as they are revealed to actually be by the end of the film: Jack Harper, Victoria and the woman from New York named Julia were all astronauts on a mission to Titan when the alien Tet structure arrived in orbit. It abducted Jack and Victoria (Julia, Jack’s wife, was among other astronauts in “sleep pods” and Jack managed to eject that portion of their ship before being abducted) before breaking the moon and invading the earth with an army of Jack clones. That was fifty years before the film started (revealed five minutes before it ended, however). After humanity was all but wiped out (human survivors filled in as the Scavs in the Tet’s narrative to Jack and Julia) the cloned astronauts were set up as essentially maintenance workers — their job was to keep heavily armed drones operational while the giant oceanic power plants bled the planet dry so the Tet would, one surmises, move on to the next system and start the process all over again. Not bad for fifty years’ work, especially presuming centuries or millennia in transit between star systems.

 

It is long and convoluted but overall serviceable as a sci-fi plot, except for one aspect, which is what inspired this essay: never, in all the back story or display of current circumstances, is a reason ever provided for why human clones are ever needed at all, ever, even a little bit.

 

The central conceit from a dramatic perspective, that  Tom  Cruise’s character is a clone and the memories found in that clone will allow him to fall back in love with a long frozen wife who fell back to Earth and in so doing inspire said clone to rebel against its creator and free the human race, has exactly zero reasons to exist in the first place. Why does an alien entity that can create hyper-capable killing machine drones need an army of human clones for the initial invasion or, more inexplicably, a human duo (in love and apparently having little to do in the off hours than go skinny dipping) to maintain its massive energy consumption system. Moreover, why does it need to create multiple sets of that couple unit and quardan them off into sectors (through the use of fictitious radiation zones) so that each set can maintain drones and go skinny dipping? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t and that is just what needs to happen to get the story to turn on its dramatic fulcrum and shut up and eat your nine dollar popcorn.

 

There is nothing wrong with story conceits, character or setting or otherwise, that bring the audience to a particular place, emotionally. However, I believe that if you know what you want to do and where you want to bring your audience, you need to support those things throughout the work, whether prose or film or game or anything else, and make it happen organically and naturally, at least from the audience perspective. Ultimately, everything in fiction is a conceit and every dramatic turn is a manipulation. The key is to make your audience forget that while they are engaged in the work.

 

Working backward from the big reveal or the story climax gives the creator the opportunity to build a support structure for that reveal or climax, to ensure that it satisfies the expectations set by the body of the work.  Demanding of oneself as a creator consistency and internal logic in the story creates a better experience and empowers the audience: their expectation, anticipation and even pride over having figured out what is going to happen is much more powerful than the disappointment or confusion born in a poorly thought out plot point or unsupported twist ending.

 

In the case of Oblivion, what was needed was a believable reason for the clone situation. Every other story element grows out of that conceit and on it hinges all the emotional resonance of the film. As the writer of a story like Oblivion, you would have to ask yourself what kind of being the Tet should be that it needs to clone humans rather than use its own “native” machines to get the job done. I won’t bother listing different options that I think would make it work because, as science fiction fans and writers yourselves, I am sure you can see right off the bat a number of potential explanations. The point is that speculative explanations exist that would be more satisfying than the non-answers provided in the film itself.

 

I do think that in general science fiction films are more commonly guilty of unsupported conceits than other works and media.  Films are very expensive and must appeal to a diverse audience in order to be considered successful. I think that it is common for producers of such films to assume a less than creative and intelligent audience and therefore push for easy, if nonsensical under even moderately close scrutiny, explanations for the central conceits of those films. Ironically, this attitude does not seem to help such films very much and sci-fi films bomb more often than not. That films that are often considered surprising hits, like District 9 or Moon, are often those that treat their intended audience with a modicum of respect and assume a degree of intelligence and sophistication.

 

Oblivion could have been a very good science fiction film but was instead merely “okay” because it failed to fully consider how its speculative elements interacted with its dramatic ones. I think it makes for a valuable cautionary example in that regard, a reminder to creators who want so bad to get to a narrative or emotional place in their stories that they ignore the details of the path to that place. Emotional investment requires a lot of trust and plot holes and bad or missing explanations violate that trust, making for a far less satisfying experience.

 

By all means, watch Oblivion. It is a reasonably entertaining ride despite its flaws. But if you write science fiction, take note of where it fails to provide a strong narrative foundation for its final dramatic construction.

100 Days, Not Quite 100K

When I “officially” launched this blog on my birthday, I instituted what I called the 100 Days, 100K (words) project — an attempt to motivate myself to work consistently enough to produce a novel’s worth of writing, fiction and otherwise, in one hundred days. Having successfully participated in National Novel Writing Month last year, I figured it would be easier. After all, 1000 words per day is only a little more than half of what you have to do to write 50K in a 30 day calendar month, right?

 

It’s never that easy.

 

The first thing I realized is that writing a novel is actually easier in its own way than writing a large number of shorter works. Once you get rolling, anyway, a novel sort of just rolls out in front of you. My writing process mostly involved going for a few mile run and thinking what happens next or how I was going to get where I needed to be later in the work, then sitting down and pumping out a couple thousand words. The consistency of both the story and the schedule made working easier. Not having the singular focus of a novel’s plot and characters and setting, though, meant that coming up with, fleshing out and producing each individual work of the last 100 days took more time and effort than working on the novel.

 

The next lesson was in time management. Last November, were were between sports and in that cold but not winter-wonderland season. In other words, it was easier to find time to write than the middle of the freaking summer. Seems I should have thought that one through. Not only did my son have a very intense baseball schedule — I am not complaining; I loved being at almost all of his games — but we had family vacations and a lot of school and related activities (many of them to do with or because of last December’s shooting, so we were much more obliged to be a part of them). Even simple facts like later summer bedtimes for the kids and more social gatherings and libations for the adults contributed. In other words, it was much easier to not find time to write.

 

Finally, I did not realize how much I would rely on outside motivation. One of the great dangers of the Stats page is being able to see how many people are reading your work — or, more to the point, how few. This was especially difficult to parse moving occasional writings from Facebook to a more consistent blog format. On Facebook, friends hit “like” easily; they want to offer you encouragement. That does not always translate to them clicking the link, and only rarely in commenting on the post. I was hoping to watch my writer page like goes up, my per-post views grow steadily, and my followers list get ever longer. Those things did not really happen and at times it became a source of insecurity for me, who would sometimes stop me in my tracks on a piece or motivate me to do something other than write.

 

All that said, it has been a very educational experiment and I will come away from it a better writer and a better blogger. I think the blog needs some format and focus changes, and my goals as a fiction author similarly need some review, if not revision. I did accomplish something on the order of 50K words over the course of the 100 days, about half of which is fiction that may or may not, depending on the particular piece, be workable into something I can sell. I still have not decided whether I want to deal with Gatekeepers (editors and publishers and the like) or strike out into the wild frontier of self publication, but that’s a different post.

 

I do want to thank those of you that have read and liked and shared and commented and followed. You’re awesome.

Table Top Roleplaying Games as Literature

Previously, I talked about how games in general might serve as literature, but I want to focus specifically on the aspects of table top roleplaying games here. TTRPGs are primarily a hobby, enjoyed by millions (so they tell us) with varying degrees of dedication, but I would argue that they are also a narrative medium and, as such, literature. Note that I am not talking about RPG tie-in fiction or even the books written for use in and out of play, from world defining guides to adventure modules to rule books. Rather, I am referring to the play itself as well as the sort of post-play revision of that play (which I’ll talk about more later).

It is the narrative feature of TTRPGs that allow their play to be considered literature. In many cases, that narrative is shallow and/or linear, relying on overly-worn tropes and cliches. This truth, though, should not disqualify it from being considered literature, as much of what is thought of traditionally as literature is also shallow, linear, obvious and cliched. In rarer cases, the play of a TTRPG becomes something special, surprising the very people engaged in it and becoming, at least for the time they sit at the table and often for years to come, something wholly new and brilliant and engaging. Because TTRPGs rely on a collective to achieve successful play, with each participant providing not just character and dialogue but narrative structure, the literature that results resembles nothing so much as an improv troupe performing a mash up of Lord of the Rings and Monty Python’s Holy Grail.

Even so, story is achieved. What is interesting about TTRPG story development is that it is iterative in a few different ways. At its most basic level, during play, it is iterative in that occasionally decisions are reversed or results altered in order to strengthen or tighten the emerging narrative. On another level, iteration occurs during the ongoing connected adventures referred to as a “campaign” where rough edges are filed off and plot holes filled between adventures. This process is similar to the patchwork “retroactive continuity” or retconning common in comics books, with so many creators operating in shared universes with the same characters. It is smaller scale in TTRPGs, but exists nonetheless; inconsistencies and/or bad ideas are inevitable, and the campaign iterative process creates a more cohesive experience and narrative. Finally, there is an iterative process in reporting. That is, when the game is complete and the participants are telling the story of the story, ten minutes later or ten years, they refine that narrative through intentional modification and omission, reconstructed memory and post-play assessment. When a player tells you about how his 18th level paladin totally backstabbed Orcus, that is iterative narrative at work.

The problem with TTRPG play as literature, of course, is that, aside from that reporting iteration described above, there is most often no record, no text of the event. This is changing as more and more groups record their play and post it as podcasts on the internet. Especially when that play revolves around commonly shared experiences (Paizo’s Adventure Paths or beloved Dungeons and Dragons modules, for example) those recordings become very interesting documents indeed. Imagine different groups of actors all producing a version of Hamlet in one night with no script on hand, then comparing the results. There are so-called “actual play” reports common on gaming message boards, as well, and they provide a unique view into (usually) one individual’s perception of what happened during play. Those are not as reliable sources for what actually occurred, but are often much better literature to emerge out of play, as they are commonly the last step in the iteration of the story.

An on-line archive of TTRPG play, both in recorded format as well as post-play reports and transcripts, would go a long way toward establishing what happens at the table as a form of literature. I do not think it is likely that anyone would put such a transcript up for a Pulitzer, let alone that it would win, but that’s not the point. However small and niche and even weird the hobby of table-top roleplaying — of, essentially, a group of friends getting together to tell a story, with some rules and randomizers along to iron out disagreements about how things should develop in the narrative — it is, I believe, a form of literature and should be preserved and examined.

The End

It took humankind ten thousand years to go from the first farm to the Moon. Ten thousand years after that, we had colonized the solar system out to the Kuiper Belt. We had sent probes and explorers and colonists into interstellar space, but to no avail. They were all lost and, ultimately, forgotten.

Three and a half trillion sentients populated the system: human, uplifted, engineered, cybernetic and energetic. Lifespans ranged from a standard century to a millennium. The only beings older were the artificial minds and they had become so alien they existed only in the quantum network anymore. For everyone else, it was the usual struggle of life, if perhaps on a protracted scale.

It came as a surprise, then, when The Probe entered the solar system. With a mass as great as Pluto’s, it was obvious to all the sensors as soon as it crossed the Outer Banks. It emitted constant signals, but could not, or at least did not, communicate. After a century of touring the solar system, it sent a powerful signal into the depths of space and then went quiet and dark.

The longevity of the inhabitants of the solar system served our greatest weakness. We were used to taking decades to analyze, discuss, plan and solve issues. We were still debating whether to begin physical exploration of the probe when a signal replied. The Probe returned to life and moved immediately toward the Sun.

Some of us understood the danger immediately. We gathered in the few remaining Greatships and launched into the interstellar void. There were only nine million of us. The rest braced themselves, hoping for a miracle where we saw the truth.

Eight hundred years later, we still do not know why. Was it because of the size and breadth of our civilization? Did we represent a threat? Or was it the opposite? That we had not established an interstellar civilization in so long a time, was that the black mark against us? Were we simply irrelevant, so alien and/or minuscule as to not warrant a disruption in their plans? Perhaps someday we will have the answers. As it is, we only know the result.

The Probe caused Sol to destabilize and collapse, ultimately going Super-nova. That our sun did not possess near the mass necessary to do so means The Probe did more than upset the balance of the star. In any case,the trillions of beings in our system were wiped out. Worlds were burnt to cinders and all that was left was a small singularity.

From our vantage point nearly two light years away, we watched the first massive vessels emerge from the singularity and launch their Pluto sized Probes toward stars not unlike our Sol.

We move outward, looking for habitable worlds. Even in the face of utter Armageddon, humanity’s children go on.

Elysium and Technological Impacts in Science Fiction

The following is not a review of Elysium, the new film by Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon, but it does contain spoilers for the film and I discuss certain plot elements in some detail.

 

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In popular science fiction, films in particular but in many novels as well, usually hinges upon a singular technology or scientific principle, then fails to explore the real impact of that technology or principle in any depth . This is because the technology is most often chosen to serve the story the author or filmmaker wants to tell, rather than the other way around. This is understandable, especially in media like short stories and novellas or films where the story space is very limited, and in many cases is a good thing: concise storytelling can sometimes seem a lost art when one looks at a bookstore shelf and sees series after series of thousand page, multi-volume epics in every genre from high fantasy to space opera to supernatural romance.

 

The film Elysium is no exception. What is interesting, though, is that the core technology driving the plot is not the titular habitat for Earth’s wealthy and elite that orbits above a destitute planet. In fact, there is no reason in the film at all for Elysium to be a space station; any separate, hard to reach utopia would have sufficed, from super tall skyscrapers over shadowed slums to a domed city on the ocean floor to a  simple gated and well guarded community. All that mattered for the story of the film to work was that getting access to Elysium was reserved for the privileged and dangerous for everyone else.

 

The real science fiction technology at the heart of Elysium’s story is the near-magical “med bays” that can instantaneously heal not just chronic diseases like cancer but also severe physical trauma, even going so far as to bring back the recently deceased so long as the brain is still intact.The primary motivation of Matt Damon’s protagonist Max is dependent entirely on this technology, as is the secondary plot that provides the emotional punch of Max finally learning not to be such a self centered prick. Once we accept the magic of the med bay, the film is a fun ride with a slighted ham-fisted social and moral message coupled with some great design and absolutely wonderful bodily dismemberments.

 

The thing is, those magical med bays are emblematic of the unexplored impact so common in popular science fiction. In the film, the med bays are common enough to be found in every home on Elysium, relatively small and, we learn at the end of the story, can be loaded on shuttles en masse for medical relief of large populations. Unlike similar devices in Ridley Scott’s Alien “prequel” Prometheus, the med bay is not just an automated surgical unit. We are never told precisely how the med bay works, but we are given a tantalizing hint when a child is saved from advanced stage leukemia when the illness is “re atomized.” That sounds quite a lot like magic wrapped up in Star Trekian technobabble. Moreover, its only limitation seems to be that it cannot repair a damaged brain, or if it can it cannot return it to its previous state so perhaps the revived subject would be brain dead; it’s unclear.

 

The technology working that way is fine for the plot on hand. In fact, it is perfect for it and I suspect that it was created specifically to serve the story, both overall and at particular plot points. This is as it should be for a concise tale, as mentioned above, but does leave open a vast sea of unexplored impacts.

 

Imagine a device that can re-arrange biological matter at the atomic level so as to eliminate everything from radiation poisoning to blunt trauma to cancer. Even if the power of the med bay is limited to returning biological mass to an undamaged state, it has huge implications in not just medicine, but food production — GMO crops not allowed, or absolutely required! — and ecology — bring on the oil soaked pelicans and glean their insides, too!  We know that genetic predisposition is different than genetic expression, so how do the med bay’s interact with conditions caused by prenatal exposure or childhood malnutrition? Can you “fix” a birth defect or erase the impact of years of smoking? If so, how does that effect attitudes toward pollution or drug abuse?

 

The point of this post is not to answer those questions, but rather to point out that they exist. Similarly, the real impact of the transporter system in Star Trek is largely unexplored (although The Next generation did tie it to the food replication system, which was an admirable step in the right direction). Cyberpunk fiction rarely looks at how human-machine interface and bionic enhancement effect, say, agriculture and it is rare indeed for works relying on cryonic hibernation for slower than light travel (Aliens and Avatar are both guilty here) interacts with life extension. Let’s not even get into how time travel could impact experimental research.

 

Every time a science fiction writer invents a new technology or adapts a well worn trope to fit their story, an opportunity presents itself to explore potential impacts. Writers that do this are often referred to as Futurists, whether or not the technologies presented in their works have any chance of becoming reality. I think the reason for this is that we intellectually separate a story from a thought experiment. They are not really separate things, though, as a good science fiction tale is a thought experiment with plot, character and other story elements grafted on.

 

If you are a science fiction writer, the next time you come up with a plot (a Martian falls in love with a Europan mermaid) and a technology to make that story work (a bloodborne nanoswarm that allows the Martian to live in the frozen sea) stop for a moment and consider at least one of the impacts of that technology (a nanoswarm that breaks oxygen away from water and release heat in the process could be widely used in agriculture in environments otherwise too cold to support it) and write a story centered on that impact instead (there’s just not enough pastoral sci-fi).

 

Non-Visual action Description 3: Arkham Origins Trailer Adaptation

The following is a prose adaptation of the Batman: Arkham Origins cinematic trailer. This is part of an exercise in how to write effective prose action scenes without over reliance on visual descriptions. The exercise was inspired by my reading of what I considered to be little more than a transcription of the very cool Star Wars: The Old Republic cinematic trailer titled “Deceived” in the novel by Paul S. Kemp of the same name. It is my opinion that the strengths of prose are very different than the strengths of visual media like film or comics and therefore an adaptation of a visual media should not solely rely upon a by the numbers description of the events in the inspiring work.

 

Here is my attempt to create a prose version of such a primarily visually arresting action sequence.

 

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From across the bay, Gotham City on a winter’s night appears civilized, almost serene. It’s concrete and glass towers twinkle with reflected Christmas lights from the streets below and a layer of pure white snow lays over the city’s ugliness like a shroud over a corpse. Closer in, along the waterfront where the empty docks and abandoned warehouses decay, the snow is just another layer of makeup on a whore long past her prime.

 

The Suburban — black, of course — came in hot, smearing that make-up like a slap across the face as it skidded to a halt. Jay B was driving and he was mad. Driver pay was half what muscle pay was. Later, he would realize what he bought with that lost cash and he would know he made out on the deal.

 

Before the SUV was completely stopped, Freddy D stepped out of the back driver side door and slammed it behind him. When his feet touched the pavement he could feel the layer of grit and grime covered up by the snow. It made him feel at home. The Bushmaster slung over his shoulder made him feel safe. He opened the rear door of the Suburban. He reached in and grabbed one handle on the big, green box they had been hired to deliver. His brother Billy D was already out of the SUV, too, and grabbed the other side of the box. They lugged it quickly toward the warehouse.

 

Donnie X sneered after the D brothers. Carrying heavy things and breaking weak bones were about all the two were good for. He pushed the back of the Suburban closed and pounded on the door, telling Jay to get lost. The kid did not hesitate and stood on the gas. He had potential, Donnie thought.

 

Inside, the warehouse was not so abandoned. Donnie and his crew had been working out of it for weeks, in fact, marking off the days until finally, on Christmas, tomorrow, the job would be done and their pay would come in. All they had to do was wait, and not screw this up.

 

Freddy and Billy apparently tired of lugging the box and dropped it. The crass echo sent a shiver up Donnie’s spine and a rush of heat to his face. He jerked off the mask, the hard plastic skull face that had come with the job instructions, and tossed it onto the table where his calendar and last nights lo mein sat. He did not dare take off the ski mask, though: If The Ds were not taking off theirs, he sure as hell was not taking off his. In a city where one boss could end up in Arkham Asylum and you had to find work with a rival boss, anonymity mattered.

 

The warehouse was dark except for the moonlight streaming in through the windows. Donnie flipped the switch to bring up the coils of Christmas lights wrapped around the rafters — in Gotham, it paid to illuminate all the dark corners. They sputtered slowly to life, bathing the place in a mockery of cheer, before one popped and darkness swallowed the corners again. The heat in Donnie intensified and he grumbled a curse.

 

He let the D brothers stand there stupidly for a three count before he barked, “Check the breaker!” at Freddy — or Billy. He couldn’t tell the difference, nor care.

 

It was Billy. Donnie should have known because of the two simpletons, Billy was the dumber one, which he illustrated by unslinging his submachine gun and tossing it to Freddy. Billy walked into the darkness away from the windows, armed only with a small Maglight.

 

He found the breaker box, opened it and stared at it. He thought to admit he had no idea what he was doing, to call out to Freddy for advice, but decided he did not want to appear an idiot. Instead, he put the Maglight between his teeth and stared harder at the open breaker box. It is possible that given a few minutes he might have figured out which breaker had flipped. He did not have the time, however, as the box suddenly rushed at him — then nothingness.

 

The crunching of bone against metal and the crackling of electricity against skin propagated from shadow to shadow until it hit Donnie and Freddy. They looked at each other, Freddy’s eyes dull and questioning, Donnie’s narrow and commanding. With a jerk of his head, Donnie ordered Freddy to investigate and Freddy, SMG in hand and ready, complied.

 

Freddy had never given much thought to what was beneath the wooden warehouse floor. If you had asked him, he might have guessed a basement or a mechanical room. A few seconds after he left Donnie’s side, he found out. He was more confused than frightened when the floor broke upward. The terror did not take him until he realized he was being dragged down not by gravity but by an iron grip around each ankle.

 

The steadily growing frustration finally boiled over. Donnie pointed his weapon at the hole and sprayed the gaping darkness with lead. He told himself it was rage, not fear, but in either case he held the trigger for two full seconds after the last bullet left the barrel. The void in the floor seemed to sigh at him and he retreated as he reloaded. He backed up one step, then two and three.

 

Later, Donnie would have just a brief moment to reflect on how it happened. Had he seen him out of the corner of his eye? Had he felt his presence behind him? Had his soul shivered against the night-creature that inhabited that armored suit? In any case, Donnie spun and fired but to no avail. The bullets landed harmlessly in floor, beam and wall. A powerful grip wrapped around his throat as his body strained against the steel cable strong muscles. He looked into the face of his attacker and he knew it was over. Square jaw. Black cowl. Pointed ears that were really devilish horns. Batman had him and there was no escape but inevitable unconsciousness, which Donnie accepted graciously.

 

 

Batman dropped the nameless thug. Sweat and splinters irritated where his cowl met his skin. He ignored the discomfort; that was his motif, after all. He scanned the room quickly to ensure no other enemies lurked. Satisfied, he approached the green Queen Industries lockbox dropped so unceremoniously on the floor. They did not know what was in it, he deduced. Nor did they care. This was a paycheck, a wad of cash to be burned on drugs, women, overdue rent, sick grandmothers, whatever — the motivations of the enemy only mattered insofar as it exposed their crimes.

 

Queen Industries was a strange choice for a target. Was Oliver hiding something — producing weapons, perhaps, or over reaching in his efforts to save people from themselves? Eager to find out, Batman kicked the strongbox open.

 

His first thought was to chastise himself for being so naive. His second thought was to move. The blocks of C-4 explosives and the chunks of concrete made for a perfect anti-personnel bomb. Whoever planted it wanted death — his death, no doubt — not property damage.

 

He forced his way through the wooden warehouse doors with one powerful, futile leap. Outrunning the shockwave was impossible. When the blast hit him, his armored cape absorbed the fire and the chunks of shrapnel. It was the concussion that slammed him hard against the snowy pavement. Like Freddy D, he felt the grit and the grim under the snow, and like Freddy it made him feel at home.

 

For just a moment, for a brief second of human weakness, the suit — the full utility belt, the armored undersuit, the heavily plated breastplate and arm greaves — felt too heavy. For just a flash, an imperceptibly short instant, he thought, “Stay down.”

 

It passed so quickly it might have never been at all. Batman pushed himself to his feet.

 

“Looks like you got my invitation.” The voice echoed from above, atop the stacked shipping containers. It was mocking and challenging and arrogant.

 

Batman allowed himself a half second to recover from the blast. For that very brief moment he felt every aching muscle and every bruise beneath the armor that had saved his life. He let his ears and head ring and tasted the blood in his mouth where the shockwave had loosened his teeth. Years before, thousands of miles away, he had learned to feel everything, just briefly, to accept it because it was true, but then move beyond it.

 

On the wall of containers, dressed in his blue and gold costume and bristling with weapons, the assassin known as Deathstroke the Terminator — aka Slade Wilson, enhanced super-soldier for the U.S. government gone rogue — said, “It’s just you and me. Come on!” and bolted. Batman’s half second meditation was over and he let loose with batarangs as he ran parallel to Deathstroke.

 

Batman might have worn the totem, but it was Deathstroke that seemed the avatar of animalistic power. He channeled nothing if not the leopard: powerful, fast, relentless. Batman’s blades sunk harmlessly into a container while Deathstroke sprinted, leaped and kicked his way along. He had trained for as many years as had Batman, and had also been given powerful, experimental drugs that made him equal to the greatest athletes and academics in the world.

 

Batman considered himself the best of both. This night would be the test.

 

Batman fired his line and flew. He was on Deathstroke, poised to strike like a bird of prey, but the assassin seemed to command gravity itself as he twisted and spun and knocked Batman aside with his quarter staff in mid turn. Batman hit hard and slid on the snow covered container He laid there longer than he wanted to too. His body still ached from the explosion. He was used to fighting thugs and common criminals, the superstitious and cowardly types that he defeated with his costume and voice before the first shot was fired or first punch was thrown. Deathstroke was different. He was not afraid.

 

Deathstroke leaped down and the butt of his staff dented the top of the container where Batman’s head had been.Batman came up swinging but was slow and weak. Deathstroke was a predator; e revelled in that weakness. Like a cat, he toyed with Batman, knocking aside one, two, three strikes before kicking Batman in the chest and sending him reeling ntil he slammed into a container wall.

 

What Batman needed was a moment, just a split second to regain the advantage. The truth was, despite the endless training and relentless self punishment, Matman relied mostly upon providence With luck or divine guidance or whatever one might call it, Batman would have bled out in an unmarked alley, killed by an unnamed thug, a hundred times in the year since he started his crusade. This night made it one hundred and one.

 

When Batman hit the container, the one above, obviously stacked lazily and hanging precariously, let go and slid at Deathstroke.The assassin dodge the container easily but the minor distraction was enough for Batman who leaped and kicked. Deathstroke flew off the top of the container. Batman allowed himself a singular hopeful thought, but it was quashed. Again, Deathstroke commanded his body, and this time his staff, so perfectly that he caught himself and used his staff like an acrobat’s bar and flew back out of the gap between containers.

 

His feet came first. Batman knew they were coming and let them, allowing the force of the flying kick to send him bouncing down to the next level of containers. Had he been unawares, the hit and the subsequent falls would have been bone shattering. As it was, Batman rolled with both kick and fall and ended up precisely where he wanted to be.

 

the fight had gone on long enough for Batman to analyze his foe. Deathstroke was faster and stronger than he, but he was also arrogant and unsubtle. In a direct fight he helf sure to win, Deathstroke was actually weaker than in a congested arena with what he considered an inferior fighter. Batman stood there and challenged him with a grimace. Behind his one-eyed mask, Deathstroke smiled and acceptance of that challenge.

 

Where before they had met as rams launching themselves at one another, this time Batman and Deathstroke came together in a fluid dance. Deathstroke drew one of his two priceless swords. Batman fought with his fists and the armored, bladed greaves on his forearms. Deathstroke’s feeling of inevitable victory faded a little each time Batman blocked his sword strike, then collapsed as Batman caught the weapon in his greave-blades and jerked. The sword, forged by Japanese masters who were afterward killed to preserve the secret of the weapon and its twin’s construction, shattered.

 

Deathstroke fought on with broken blade, fists and feet. Their dance became a brawl as they kicked and punched and drove each other into containers walls. With each successful hit, Batman asserted his power. With each failed slice, Deathstroke grew more frustrated and less focused. By that time, the assassin was easy to fool. Batman allowed Deathstroke to grab his throat, only to reverse it by walking the wall of the adjacent container and then sending Deathstroke flying across the container on which they stood.

 

Deathstroke drew his sword. The pleasure of the hunt had disappeared. He only had murder in his heart.

 

Batman moved into a defensive stance. He had already won.

 

Suddenly, inexplicably, Deathstroke’s sword snapped in half. A moment later it was cut down to barely longer than a dagger. Fury consumed Deathstroke for just long enough for Batman to take advantage. While Deathstroke peered over the bay, searching the tall bridge piers for the shooter — it was the only logical conclusion — Batman upholstered his bat-line and fired. The grapnel caught Deathstroke’s shoulder and Batman jerked it in.

 

Deathstroke’s enhanced intellect and perception assessed the situation halfway through his tumbling crash against the container after Batman clotheslined him. Without missing a beat, Deathstroke changed strategies and was firing the .45 as he stood.

 

Batman was ready. That Deathstroke carried firearms at all meant he was ready to use them. That he had not yet meant that he reserved them for particularly dangerous foes. Batman had actively worked to put himself in that category. Against an equally skilled and medicinally enhanced opponent, Batman was fated to lose a martial contest. But he had trained every day of his life since he first saw the shattered corpses of his parents leaking their lives onto the broken pavement of Crime Alley to combat gun wielding scum. It did not matter whether it was a gang banger trained on the street or an assassin trained by the government, an enemy that relied on a gun was no match for Batman.

 

Batman disarmed Deathstroke with a sweep and moved in.

 

 

Batman and Deathstroke fought, punching and kicking and jumping and flipping. Deadshot shook his head with distaste. Fighting close, fighting fair, these were things that got one killed.

 

Deadshot pulled back the action on the .50 caliber rifle and peered through the scope. His cybernetic eye prosthesis, courtesy of the same government that had given Deathstroke mind and body enhancing drugs, calculated all the options. As the two warriors threw each other down into the snow and against cold steel walls, Deadshot found the perfect target.

 

When he squeezed the trigger, he felt like a child on Christmas morning, opening a present. The kid knew that it was almost certainly the thing for which he had asked, but he could not be sure. Deadshot was the same way. It was almost certain that his shot would hit is mark, but there was the tiniest possibility that it would fail and surprise him. That was really what he longed for every time he pulled the trigger: a surprise.

 

There were no surprises this time. The bullet cleaved the chain that held a container aloft above the battlefield. The container crashed down and Batman disappeared in a flash of steel and snow.

 

 

I had watched all of this from afar, by turns amused and disgusted. I needed to see for myself how skilled this Batman was, not to mention those assassins I hired. All had performed precisely as expected.

 

“Did you find a body?” I asked Deathstroke.

 

“No,” he answered. Of course he had not. Batman was far better than that. “And next time, keep your other assassins out of my way.” Such possessive bravado.

 

“You had your shot Deathstroke,” I replied, testing him. “But you’re not the only assassin. And the night is young.” When hunting Batman, a little motivation by competition could not hurt.

 

I left Deathstroke to his frustration then. He was as likely to go after Deadshot as he was Batman, but that hardly mattered. There were others waiting in the wings. Besides, I had more pressing matters: failures.

 

Donnie X was dragging himself away from the burning ruin of the warehouse when I found him. Billy had died in the explosion. Freddy was dead before that, sprayed full of bullets by the terrified Donnie. He was working very hard to get away. I admired that, in a way.

 

The reason I wear a mask, the reason I call myself Black Mask, is because I know Death. He and I are the best of friends. He has been with me since I took my first breath. I wear his face as my face and I move my hand as his hand. So when I picked up that burning two-by-four and used in to collapse in Donnie’s skull, I was not acting out of rage or psychosis. I was merely acting in my nature.

 

He is out there somewhere. Batman, I mean, He is probably testing ballistics from the shell casings Deadshot was too stupid or too arrogant to eliminate from her perch atop the Gotham River Bridge. It doesn’t matter. He is the World’s Greatest Detective. I expect him to find me.

 

How else am I supposed to kill him?

 

Non-Visual Description, Part 2

For my “non visual combat” exercise, I chose the Batman: Arkham Origins trailer to translate into prose. I did not want to re-write the Deceived trailer, but I wanted something a) equally geek credible, b) equally focused on visual action and c) equally awesome. The following is the play by play of the trailer, without expansion or editorializing, that I will use to craft the finished scene.

———–

Gotham city skyline from across the bay. It’s snowing.

 

Gotham city street in a warehouse/industrial neighborhood. Street is covered in snow, unplowed. A black SUV speeds into the scene and skids to a halt. A thug armed with an assault rifle jumps out the rear passenger side and opens the back. With another thug he grabs a foot locker type box from the back. A third thug closes the back and pounds on the SUV. SUV speeds off. The two carry the box and the third follows them.

 

Inside a warehouse, the two thugs carry the box in and the third walks in front, apparently the leader. They put the box down and he walks to a table. He pulls off his mask which is hard black plastic and looks like a face/skull (Note — he is wearing a ski mask underneath and keeps it on). He tosses the mask onto a table, on which is a calendar open to December with every day through the 24th X’ed out and the 25th is circled.

 

Leader Thug1 turns on a light switch which causes a bulb on the christmas lights to blow. He orders Thug2 to check the breaker. (Note — Thug2 and Thug3 are wearing ski masks too, with their plastic skull face masks pulled up onto their heads.)

 

Thug2 walks up to the breaker box with a flashlight in hand. he puts the flashlight in his mouth before he opens the box. As he opens the box and hand comes from behind and smashes his face into the panel of breakers. Other thugs have heard something. Thug2 is down, bloody. The flashlight is still in his mouth but lit end in so his cheek glows red.

 

Thug3 readies his submachine gun and moves toward the noice. The floor opens up beneath him and hands drag him down. He scrambles for a grip but is pulled in.

 

Thug1 steps up to the hole and sprays bullets into it. He stops firing and backs away. he does not notice the looming figure of Batman behind him. When he does, he turns and fires. Batman blocks the gun and grabs Thug1 by the throat. Batman lets him choke for breath for a moment before headbutting Thug1 into unconsciousness.

 

Note — Batman’s costume is black with a grey breastplate, on which is a black bat symbol. No apparent yellow or other colors.

 

Batman throws Thug1 to the ground. he looks and sees the strongbox. It is green and marked “Queen” (apparently for Queen Industries/Enterprises/Incorporated).

 

Batman kicks open the box and hears beeping and sees red flashing. Inside the box is a bomb: lots of chunks of concrete plus 3 wired up squares of C4, one of which bears a timer starting at 4:95 (seconds). It counts down to 3:79.

 

Cut to exterior. Wooden sliding warehouse doors. Parked forklift. Snow. Batman (in slow mo) crashes through the doors, followed fast by a fiery explosion. The shockwave of wood and smoke slams Batman to the ground. Batman shows minor pain and fatigue as he picks himself up.

 

“I see you got my invitation,” says Deathstroke from on top of a stack of shipping containers. “It’s just you and me. Comeon!” he taunts and then sprints. batman throws three batarangs which just miss and stick in a container, then sprints on the ground after Deathstroke. Deathstroke parkours his way up higher on the container stack. Running after, Batman fires his bat-line and “flies” up to intercept a twisting-flipping Deathstroke. In slo mo, deathstroke draws his collapsable staff as Batman closes in and gets turned around enough to knock Batman off course with it.

 

Batman slams into the side of one container then slides down the snow covered top of another. He drops down another container level and hits hard on his back. Deathstrokes leaps off the same container and brings his staff down butt first but Batman dodges and comes to his feet. Deathstroke attacks with the staff and Batman blocks with his armored greaves.  Batman ducks to get around him, and Deathstroke attacks again. Batman blocks but leaves himself open and Deathstroke side kicks him. Batman flies back against a container which dislodges one above.

 

Deathstroke is forced to dodge the container which slides out of place at him, opening him up for a kick by Batman. Deathstroke is knocked off the container. As he falls between two containers, he twists his body and wedges his staff so it gets stuck like a high bar. He flips around it and flies up. Batman is looking over the edge and gets both Deathstroke’s feet in his face. Batman is thrown backward and down another level on to another container. Deathstroke jumps down and Batman drags himself to his feet.

 

Batman grimaces/scowls. Deathstrokes stares him down (with his one eye).

 

Deathstroke steps forward, draws his sword from his back and charges. Deathstroke attacks repeatedly and Batman blocks with his greaves. They step over a gap in the containers. Deathstroke goes for a jumping spin chop. When Batman blocks it his is able to lock it down and hit Deathstroke with a forearm across the face. They trade a couple more blows and Batman is able to catch the sword blade in his greave blades (arms up in an “X”) and break the sword. Batman punches. Deathstroke attacks with the broken sword. Batman leans back to dodge then comes forward and grabs. They grapple for a moment. Batman slams Deathstroke’s head against a container. Deathstroke comes back with a head butt and then bends Batman down backward and with his broken sword to Batman’s throat. Batman “walks” up the container side and flips over to a reversal and uses his momentum to throw Deathstroke ten feet or more (still on top of a container).

 

Deathstroke slides to a stop. He stands and draws a second sword but its blade is shot off. Deathstroke (without missing a beat) turns away from the fight and points the broken blade to the skyline across the river.

 

We see him through a high power, high tech scope. A figure in a nondescript green ski mask crouched behind what looks like a .50 cal sniper rifle chuckles. He moves his head away from the scope revealing a glowing red eye prosthesis and says, “Not so fast, Deathstroke. He’s my kill.”

 

Batman suddenly fires his bat-line at Deathstroke and grapples him by the neck. He jerks Deathstroke in and clotheslines him. After he hits the ground, Deathstroke draws his pistol and turns and fires. Batman knocks the gun away just in time which allows Deathstroke to stand as Batman goes for another kick. Deathstroke catches his leg and elbow drops Batman’s thigh/hip.

 

The two continue to fight in the now red hued sniper sight. Batman is behind a column or girder so the targeting reticle moves up to a coupling holding a hanging container. (Note — an electronic finder of some sort locks on the coupling before the reticle follows.)

 

Batman throws Deathstroke onto his back. Deathstroke kicks up with both feet and sends Batman flying back. The sniper fires his rifle and the bullet flies out in slo mo. The bullet severs the chain holding the coupling (again in slow mo) and the container lets go. Batman looks up to see it descending. We see the container hit and crash but there is no indication of Batman’s fate.

 

Dark.

 

Deathstroke is standing and an out of focus figure is walking up behind him. The figure asks, “Find a body?” Deathstroke answers, “No.” He turns and tosses his broken sword toward the feet of the approaching figure. “And next time,” he says, “keep your other assassins out of my way.”

 

The figure is revealed to be Black Mask (white suit, shiny black skull mask). He says, “You had your shot, Deathstroke. But you’re not the only assassin.” Then he adds menacingly, “And the night is young.”

 

Black mask walks over to where Thug2 or Thug3 is crawling away from the flaming wreckage of the warehouse. He squats down next to the thug, considers him, and stands back up holding a smoldering two-by-four. Very deliberately he comes down hard on the head of the thug with the two-by-four.

 

Dark.

 

The bottom of a shell casing in a black gloved hand. It reads “AMERTEK”. Hand drops it and it falls into black water.

 

Batman is kneeling a snowy bridge abutment top. He stands and looks heroic. Music plays. Titles.

 

END

———-

My final post in this series will be the prose I come up with to tell the above in a way that doesn’t feel like a transcript of a visual medium.

 

Deceived by “Deceived”; or, Using Non-Visual Description in Action Prose

Perhaps a year ago, being a Star Wars fan and interested in trying out some mass market licensed sci-fi, I picked up a copy of Star Wars: Deceived at my local library. That I chose this particular title as my first exploration of Star Wars novels since the Thrawn Trilogy was no accident: “Deceived” was also the title of the absolutely amazing cinematic trailer for the Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) called Star Wars:The Old Republic. I swear those four minutes were better than the entirety of the Prequel Trilogy, but we’ll leave that argument for another day. Here, were are discussing the novel Deceived.

 

Or, rather, we are discussing why I did not end up reading the novel Deceived.

 

Whether Paul S. Kemp is in general a good writer of science fiction in general or Star Wars licensed fiction in particular I do not know. Whether Deceived was a good novel that fit into and enhanced the Star Wars canon, I do not know either. The reason is simple: I stopped reading before the end of the first chapter. I did so because that first chapter was essentially a “novelization” of the aforementioned, amazing MMORPG trailer.

 

In those few pages I managed my way through before finally giving up in exasperation, disgust and even a little sadness, I learned something terribly important: Star Wars belongs in a visual medium, be it film, television or (my favorite kind of Star Wars) comic books. While it would be unfair to say that there was no literary value in Star Wars, or that there have been no good Star Wars novels, the fact is that Star Wars (and George Lucas’ beloved creation is hardly alone in this) was created for a visual medium and its greatest strengths trade on that medium. STar Wars is about swashbuckling adventure: super-space-samurai laser sword fights, asteroid field laden  space dogfights and capital ship battles, and pulp fiction monsters brought to grotesque life by stop motion and/or computer generated graphics. And where it isn’t visual, it’s aural: the woosh of land speeders, the crackle of lightsabers, the pew-pew-pew of blasters and, yes, the thunderous ijn-space explosions. Certainly there is (melo)drama and some character development in Star Wars, but these are neither particularly well realized nor central to what makes Star Wars what it is.

 

All that said, I want to reiterate that I am not criticising Mr. Kemp for his writing. I am certain that given the anticipation for the upcoming MMORPG and the popular reception of the Deceived trailer, orders came from on high to include, even start with, a literary transcription of the battle seen in the cinematic trailer. The problem was that it was indeed a transcription —  a beat for beat, action for action, verbal description of what happens in the trailer. The thing is, transcribing a primarily visual event, however exciting it may be upon seeing it, almost always results in a boring or, worse, confusing description.

 

Think for a moment about the last time you described in words a primarily physical event or undertaking to a freind. Maybe you were telling a coworker about how you almost hit a deer on the way to work that morning. Think about how you describe it, the language you use. Think about how you enhance that language with visual cues: mock steering, inflection and facial expressions. Now, imagining writing it all down and sending it to your coworker in an email. Under which circumstances do you think your coworker would be more rapt by your tale of near-deer experience?

 

That first chapter of Deceived was like that. The author was telling me what he saw when he watched the trailer — the architecture, the costumes and, of course, the space-kung-fu action. What he did not tell me was how it felt to be in that battle, or what it smells like when a lightsaber cleave a jedi in two, or how the dust from the initial assault crash made it hard to breathe. Worse yet, I had already seen the trailer (probably a dozen times) so the description lacked even novelty.

 

Again, the point of all this is not to harp on Kemp’s writing — here’s a link to his books on Amazon; buy some of his stuff! — but to talk about how action sequences, particularly those we traditionally experience visually in films and television, are conveyed through prose. Deceived merely happened to be so jarring, likely due in large part to how intensely visually satisfying the cinematic trailer was, that it prompted my reflection on the subject.

 

The strength of prose, I think, is that it has the power to engage all of our senses equally. It is true that humans rely on our sight most of all, followed by our hearing, but all of our senses work together to build the simulation of the world through which we move every day. At any moment, any one of our senses can grasp us and force us to relive a moment in our lives — the smell of a specific perfume, the feel of a particular fabric against our skin, the taste of a one spice over another. It is easy and even a little lazy to focus the vast majority of our effort as readers and writers on just two of our senses, especially since other media are so much better suited to utilizing sight and sound to convey meaning and atmosphere.

 

So, how do we go about this. How do we use prose to describe a laser sword fight between psionic Shaolin space-monks, without merely transcribing their movements? On top of it, we still have to convey a sense of place and motion, meaning that we cannot simply abandon visual elements, either.

 

In my next post, I will be giving it a try, as a writing exercise and experiment. In the meantime, feel free to give your thoughts on anything from Paul S. Kemp to Star Wars novelizations to the use of non-visual elements in action-scene description.