Sunday, November 29, 2015

Magic v Science v Semantics

Arthur Clarke is usually credited with saying that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I think it may have been Larry Niven (I am too lazy right now to look it up) who came out the the corollary, that any sufficiently rigorous magical system is indistinguishable from technology. I personally do not even try to distinguish between them. To me, it's all semantics.

The way I look at it, if you understand what, how, and why, then it's science. If you understand what and how, but not why, then it's an art. If you understand what, but not how or why, it's magic. Gunpowder used to be magic in Europe. Until people figured out how to mix it up for themselves. Then it became part of the Art of alchemy.

Alchemy is the perfect example. To many people in Europe, alchemy was magic, pure and simple. White magic or black magic, depending on who you asked. But magic. To the alchemists themselves, it was The Art.  They knew what to do, and how to do it, in order to make some things happen. They had even started to figure out a few basic rules and principles. But still, they didn't know why some thing happened in certain ways when you mixed certain earths in particular proportions. They just knew that they happened. Even in the 18th and early 19th century, people who called themselves chemists were, in many cases, operating by guess and by gosh with their fingers crossed. Finally, people started learning about molecules. Light began to dawn, and alchemy became the science of chemistry.

Medicine is another prime example. Up to the nineteenth century, tribal healers in rural areas often used herbal remedies that were sneered at by European doctors and their colonial offshoots. In both cases, the healers, tribal and Euro, were practicing an art rather than a science. Neither of them had a clue as to why some people got sick and others didn't, or why some people got better and others didn't. The difference was that in many cases the tribal healer was more adept at the art and, instead of acknowledging this, the city dwellers sneered at the tribal healers art and called it magic. Thereby shoving it into irrelevancy.

Then that pesky French guy, Pierre Louis, had to ruin things by proving statistically that the time honored and slmost universally revered tradition of bloodletting was not just useless. It was killing people. Shock and dismay ensued. What?! One of medicine's most cherished rituals, one that had been practiced for an unholy number of centuries, was actually mere superstition?! Blasphemy!

Ignaz Semmelweis later proclaimed that if doctors and nurses washed their hands, it would keep disease from spreading. If I am not mistaken, there is something about ritual cleansing after handling sick people and such in a book called the Old Testament. Since the ancient Egyptians are reported to have successfully conducted trepanning, oral surgery, amputations, and cured a variety of communicable diseases, I suspect a lot of this had been well established as part of the medical Art for a while. But Europe got ethnocentric for a couple of millennia and preferred to use traditional magic. While the tribal healers were in fact practicing an art. It wasn't until somebody started processing the data with numbers that it all turned into a science.

You know, like him or hate him, Robert Heinlein was right about one thing. If it can't be expressed in numbers then it isn't science. It's an opinion. The corollary of course, is that if it can be expressed in numbers, then it is science. Not art or magic. If someone makes a categorical statement, and cannot show the numbers to back it up, they are chanting an incantation.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Another One About World Building

One of the issues with writing fantasy is the difficulty of being believable. I don't mean making your fantasy world believable. It can sometimes be even more difficult to convince the reader that the mundane aspects of your character's existence are true to life. It can be accurate, it can be completely true to life. But if the reader doesn't accept is as truth, facts become irrelevant.

A big part of the problem is that many people, mostly city dwellers, are either uninformed or have distorted ideas about what life is like under primitive conditions. And many people nowadays are sadly bewildered when it comes to low tech. Because relatively few people actually use low tech tools now.

Even people who do a fair amount of camping have only vague ideas of how much water has to be hauled in buckets for cooking and washing dishes, much less laundry and bare minimum standards of personal hygiene. It's a constant job. And the firewood cutting never stops either, winter or summer. Not even for a day. And almost no city dweller in the US has actually used a washboard.

I have in my possession a wooden shucking peg, made by my grandfather. It's about seventy years old. I have yet to show it to anyone under the age of fifty who knows what it is or what it's for. Obviously, if for some reason I wanted to write a story where one of the characters was shucking corn by hand, I would have to gloss over the details or risk befuddling most readers. And people in general seem, to me, to be getting less familiar with the old ways with each generation. I also have a hay fork, only the Creator knows why. I actually enjoy showing that one to people. The expressions are hilarious.

You can't describe many of the day to day activities of people in a low tech society in any detail without getting into a long, involved description that would throw off the flow of the story. Usually that's fine. Unless you want to include a plot detail that depends on that particular activity. That's where it gets challenging. Oh well.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Need For Self Restraint

My book, Recompense, is going to be slightly longer than I had planned. Just slightly longer. Just means that I have to put in more late nights, I suppose.

I wrote another scene last night, one that isn't, in the strictest sense, required by the plot. Although it does tie in with something later that is plot critical. Yet I think it adds a valuable piece of texture to the world and also fleshes out the main characters.

Mark Twain, during an article where he disembowels a book he emphatically did not enjoy, described one of his problems with it by saying an author is supposed to make the reader love the good people and hate the bad ones. But in the book he was criticizing, the reader hates the good people, is indifferent toward the bad ones, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

I interpret this to mean that the reader is supposed to identify with the protagonist and want them to succeed, because they see themselves walking in the protagonist's shoes. But none of us lack flaws. It comes back to making both the protagonists and the villains human. The hero and heroine need to face internal challenges and prove their mettle. Or fail to prove it, and thereby show that they, too, are mortal.

In this latest scene, one of the protagonists does something with honorable intentions. In fact, with the intention of saving the life of a beloved friend. Yet the action, if the friend learned of it, would cause the friend to recoil in revulsion, and might even end their friendship. The action also has the potential, in fact the near certainty, of causing serious consequences later on. 'The road to hell in paved with good intentions,' etc.

But it was a cleft stick situation. Not taking the action would have meant letting something else happen. Something that would have been, in the opinion of the protagonist, even worse. A major moral quandary. Just like we all face sometimes.

And now that I think about it, I can see how it will have a major effect on the plot after all. Not the plot in Recompense. The plot in the next book after this series is done. One rock can start an avalanche.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

World Building

I filled in one weak point that has been bothering me for years. Why would anyone voluntarily become one of the undead? They are horrible creatures, and I don't care what Hollywood says. The whole effort to take shuffling zombies that drink blood to sustain their unnatural existence, and transform them into sparkly sex objects has always puzzled me.

There are undead in my universe, and I am a stickler for logical internal consistency. Or I try to be. I believe I have explained the ghaunts, finally. But the vampires were still nagging at me. I can see why victims become vampires, if the disease is communicable. But where did the first vampires come from? What caused it to come into existence, and why did it happen? Then it hit me.

Maybe the vampirism wasn't the objective? Maybe the vampirism was simply the price of doing business? I plugged it into the story and it actually fits. Hm.

New Word Count

I'm currently up to 252,773 words on Recompense. That's after some more editing. I am stumbling forward. It's going to be close to the wire whether I make my self-imposed deadline and finish it this year. But I won't stop trying.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Progress Report

Just checking in. I have been averaging about a thousand words a day for the past three or four days. Right now the count is about 249k words, because I have also been doing some editing as I go along. I am still shooting to have it done this year. If I live, and retain my sanity, and the electricity doesn't get cut off, etc.

Harend is being difficult, though. I thought I had him settled, but he is getting fractious and causing more trouble than I expected. Stubborn, refuses to give up. Have to kind of admire his persistence, but this is getting to the point where he has gone beyond the pale. Too bad, but there it is. Time for some tough love.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Male versus Female

Periodically I come across an article or a forum post that touches on the ancient question of gender differences in the way writers express themselves. Do men and women write differently? If so, are the differences inherent or learned? The argument has been going on a lot longer than I have been around, and no doubt will continue as long as we continue to have two genders.

I have written characters of both genders many times. I've never had anyone complain that my characters don't ring true. In fact, I have had several members of  the opposite sex tell me that my characters are "amazingly" accurate. I have no idea how, unless it's the fact that I don't write characters who are men or women. I write characters who are people. The fact that those people happen to have certain types of plumbing installed does not change the basic fact that they are all people.

I think that there is no question about males and females acting and reacting differently, at least part of the time, to equivalent situations. My theory is that there are basic inborn differences, but that the way we express those differences is a matter of cultural conditioning.

It's also true that all of my characters are written from the viewpoint of my attitude and world paradigm. This inevitably spills over and is expressed through their eyes, and thoughts, and choices. Even allowing for gender variance, an American man and an American woman are going to look at the world, and react to the world, in a similar way. And it is quite possible that their differences will be less than their similarities when compared to, for example, an equivalent pair from China or Iraq.

So, are there any points of variance that are consistent between men and women of all cultures? Probably. Am I going to express my opinion on what they might be in a public post? Not for all the coffee in Columbia. My secret weapon is to hunt down as many beta readers of the opposite sex as I possibly can and get them to tell me if I missed the target. If anyone knows a better way, I am happy to listen.