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Friday, February 29, 2008

More Guts of "The Launch Rail Ticket"

Starting out, the writing was easy and a lot of fun. It involved only a little revising, mostly to fill major story gaps, fix typos, and to try to sharpen the hook at the end of each installment. The first segment was easy. The laid-back pie-in-the-sky feeling of it matched my mood as I wrote it.

I began the second part and started working out the details. It was then that I realized that Jeremy's quest was completely and utterly insane. But hey, now I was committed. Now I might as well make it work. So I did.

On day number two, I had the idea for the Anniversary Materials humor piece. I loved it, and Mrs. Gruff and I brainstormed some great ideas (I thank her specifically for the idea for year seven's theme, poison). I decided that Valentine's Day was the perfect time to post it, so I busted the first part out that night, and didn't get a whole lot of sleep because of it. The next day was even worse, because I found that I had under-counted the number of anniversaries for part two. Thankfully, Baby Gruff slept while Mommy was off teaching, so I was able to plow through most of part two uninterrupted. That project finished, I went back to Launch Loop.

The remainder of the writing was an exercise in figuring out everything that could go wrong, researching how exactly it would go wrong, and finding a snappy ending. Since I didn't have every little detail worked out before the week began, I ended up revising each piece more than I wanted to the day it was to be posted. Then, inevitably, eight hours after each segment was posted, Mrs. Gruff would say to me, "You left out a word in this sentence," or, "You used the wrong its." I am a recovering perfectionist, so this annoyed me to no end. I learned to have her read each piece right after I wrote it, because then I could feel like her editorial comments could catch my errors before anyone else saw them.

So, it was a busy week, and a learning experience. I have some more stories in the pipeline, but I'll probably create a new section of the site for them so they don't clutter up the main page. Also, I'll plan ahead a little better the next time I feel the urge to go on a posting spree.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Delving into the Guts of "The Launch Rail Ticket"

A couple weeks ago I wrote my first 5-part short story ("The Launch Rail Ticket") for Books Under the Bridge. The idea was for this to be a recurring feature of the site, and I wanted to see how it would work. My goal was to write something easy and fun that could be posted every day, Monday through Friday.

So, how did it work out?

I'm satisfied with the end result, but the writing for that week was a lot more work than I expected. Little went as planned, much like Jeremy's quest to ride the Launch Loop (just not as extreme). For instance, I should know by now that writing shorter is harder. You can't put in all the description you want, you have to keep your funny quips and asides to a minimum, and there's little room for any kind of exposition. Your story also can't be too complex, or it won't fit.

Starting out was easy. I first read about the Launch Loop idea a while back at fredosphere.com, and I immediately thought, "Hey, this Launch Loop idea is pretty neat." It has the same basic function as a Space Elevator, an Orbital Ring, or a Space Fountain: to get things into space without having to rely on big rockets. However, even though I could think of a story with a Space Elevator (Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy), and a story with a Space Fountain (David Brin's Sun Diver), I couldn't think of a story with a Launch Loop. The idea occurred to me: "Wouldn't it be cool to ride it?!"

And that's how the story began. I'll write a little more about the process and the challenges tomorrow.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Colour of Magic, and Sir Apropos of Nothing

There are times when you want to read something light and goofy. For me it's fairly rare: although I read fantasy literature for the escapism, I like heavy fare. Strong characters and grim endings -- these are a few of my favourite things. (You'll notice that even when I recommend children's literature, the stories are not generally frivolous or even wholly upbeat.)

But to every rule there is an exception.

Recently I sat down with The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett). I think I must be the last person on the planet who isn't familiar with Mr. Pratchett's work, but never you mind... Colour is a compilation of novellas (I don't think published separately) that revolve around the hapless Rincewind, possibly the world's worst wizard, and the mind-numbingly naive traveller Twoflower. The two stumble around the Discworld and have all sorts of hilarious misfortunes imposed upon them. But even though the plot is, frankly, fragmented (fantasy sit-com?), Colour has an appealing undercurrent of serious. The moment when Rincewind stares over The Edge and sees, across an enormous gulf of space, the great cosmic turtle that supports the Discworld -- shivers. Mr. Pratchett draws out sympathy for the characters even as we laugh at their pathetic flailings; I'm certainly hooked and hope the sequels will make it to the top of my reading list soon.

In a similar vein, I stumbled across Sir Apropos of Nothing in a used bookstore and saved it for a time when I needed ultra-light fantasy food. It's, uhh, a bit odd, and quite hard to describe. The main character is named Apropos, for no clear reason (for all that it's explained in the novel). He's a bitter and angry young man, who is determined to avenge his mother's brutal death at the hands of a chivalric knight. Apropos moves through a world of explicit stereotypes, but he thinks that he sees through it all. He sneers at the nobility of knighthood, but signs on as squire in the hopes of rising to the top of the profession, slaying his mother's murderer, and ultimately proving that Knighthood is a hollow concept. The novel seems to exist largely for the exercise of Hapless Escapades and the occasional pun (not as frequent as you might expect, thankfully). And though practically everyone is a stereotype (usually quite self-consciously, again thankfully), Peter David portrays even the most praiseworthy characters with hidden flaws. The reader can find pity for the characters -- and even the bitterly cynical Apropos. Best of all -- and this could be considered a spoiler (seriously, back off people, I'm talking about the ending) this is not a novel in which a disillusioned man finds his faith in humanity (or whatever fill-in-the-blank subject you prefer) at the end. No, the ending is definitely unsatisfying from that standpoint, but far more satisfying for being less unrealistically pat.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Montreal Blogging

Mister Troll and I met in Montreal with our respective families over the past four days. We didn't get much blogging done, but we had a good time, nonetheless. We wandered aimlessly through tunnels under the city, followed our noses into cute bakeries and exotic restaurants, and tried to avoid the freezing gusts of the Angry Northern Wind God (as depicted on "High Wind Advisory" traffic signs in Quebec: A giant face that blows windy arrows in all directions).

Baby Gruff received the royal treatment in Montreal. Not only did he receive his usual fawning attention from strangers (you'd think we were a traveling petting zoo), but he was carried in a litter prince-like through the underground Metro system. His stroller functioned as the litter, and Mister Troll and I were his slaves. We were forced to carry him because the city is filled with stairs and escalators, but notably lacks elevators and ramps. The frequency of stroller-crushing revolving doors was also disturbing, although we could usually find hidden side doors to use instead. We saw a total of zero people with physical disabilities the entire time we were there, because the city is clearly not for them and they are presumably fed to wolves in supplication to the Angry Northern Wind God.

Despite this barbaric tradition, the people there were in general quite friendly.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The Launch Rail Ticket (Conclusion)

This is the conclusion of a 5-part short story. Part 1 was posted on Monday.

(Start with Part 1)

Spots appeared in his vision, and the knot twisted enigmatically. He yanked on the rope angrily, unable to realize that it would only make his situation worse. The knot tightened, and he thrashed in desperation. In his fury to get loose, his arm rubbed against the steel burr on the edge of the box. The arm of the suit tore, and the burr scraped Jeremy's arm. He thrashed harder. Suddenly, his arm slipped; his hand inched down through the loops of the knot. The rip widened, and then the arm fabric separated.

And he was free.

He fell in a daze, and he noticed that veins stood out on his arm. The flesh was mottled and marbled. It was bleeding. He didn't care. He shifted his gaze and stared into the ocean far below.

He could hear his breathing, could sense death hiding in his confusion. A niggle in the back of his brain said he should do something. He grasped at it, and noticed a fluttering string at his side. Of course. Parachute. He pulled the string and the parachute opened. He noticed that it did not seem to slow his fall.

Sometime later, his mind recovered somewhat. He guessed that he was falling slower, that his parachute was finally doing its job in the thicker atmosphere. The coast of Africa spread out along the curved horizon like a lion on a hilltop. His arm looked horrible, with a bloody, inflamed cut.

A few hours later, he hit the water off the coast of Senegal. He fired his flare gun, and hoped someone would come rescue him. Thankfully, someone did.

He stayed in a hospital in Senegal for twelve days. An air embolism, nasty cousin to the bends, had severely damaged his left arm and hand. The hand would be practically useless even after it healed.

He eventually made his way to China, his native country, where his mother had moved after his parents' divorce. His mother was overjoyed to see him, and she was the first to hear his story (he had lied to everyone else). She loved it. He told her to keep it secret, because he was ashamed, and because he feared the law's retribution. She nodded solemnly and promised herself that she would only tell her best friends. And from those three friends, his story spread across the country. It eventually caught the ears of Chinese and American officials.

Two Chinese officers in sharp suits knocked at his mother's front door one morning.

"Jeremy Chao?" they asked. He guessed why they were there. There was no point in denying his identity. He nodded, ready to be cuffed and hauled off. He held out his hands.

The officers laughed. "No! No!" the tall one said. "The government does not wish to extradite you! We wish to honor you as our newest national hero, the first Chinese national and first person in the world to fly in low Earth orbit outside a vehicle. The Americans can go hang with their charges."

He could not believe it, and almost fainted on the spot. A wild grin spread across his face, and he yelled to his mother. She danced, cried, and sang about interviewing with Martha Shen, China's answer to Oprah.

And had he really gotten that far? Jeremy was not sure how high he had gone. But at this point he didn't care. Let them exaggerate it. He had ridden the loop and survived, and somehow the fact that he had succeeded outweighed his foolishness in doing it in the first place.

The Fantasy Anniversary Materials Gift List (Part 2)

The list of Fantasy Anniversary Materials concludes today, on Valentine's Day. You can see part one here.

Year 13 - Fairies

Pressed Fairy books make good gifts, although they really upset the fairies. Tinkerbell's sister is quoted as saying, "Every time you kill a fairy, ten more die from sadness, you stinking jerk." And then she promptly died from anger (they're very fragile), only to be pressed into a book herself. A veteran fairy hunter once told me, "If you just clap a lot afterwards, and shout, 'I believe in fairies!' it makes it all better. At least I feel better." Lady Cottington provides a variety of pressed fairy products, if you don't have the time to make your own. You can give your wife fairy dust if you or your wife have a problem with murdering fairies and pasting them into scrapbooks.

Year 14 - Moonstones

Moonstones have quite a number of uses throughout the fantasy realms. Possible gifts include magical moonstones that allow limited teleportation, moonstones you can feed to pokemon to make them evolve, and moonstones that can be used alternatively as fuel and weaponry on certain brands of air ship.

My favorite type is the Britannian moonstone. Found only in the lands of Britannia and Old Sosaria, these create portals called moon gates. Each stone is attuned to a certain phase of the moon, and opens its gate for a limited time when the moon is that phase. To work, they must be buried in the spot where you want the moon gate to appear. Unfortunately, where they teleport you to is somewhat unpredictable (at least for me), and Mister Troll and I got lost in Britannia many years ago for about four months. Trolls are heavily persecuted there, so Mister Troll had a bad time. Even though their king is always touting his "eight virtues," most people are pretty insensitive towards anyone who is not human. However, I got to meet a nice talking horse, and I collected about eight moonstones in total for my collection. I hear they're pretty rare there now.

Year 15 - Silver

Anniversary 15 is the worst anniversary for werewolves. Beware to the naive husband who puchases a set of expensive silverware for his afflicted wife. She's bound to fly into a rage at his insensitivity to her condition, and change into beast form right there. He'll be lucky to avoid getting his head bitten off, literally. At least he'll have something with which to defend himself if the date goes bad. Highly polished stainless steel is an appropriate replacement in this situation.

For the rest of us, silver is kind of boring. Silverware is good, silver tea sets are good, silver jewelry is good, and silver-coated weapons are good. Sorry werewolf lovers, but not everyone likes drooling disease-ridden mongrel people who want to eat or infect everyone else with their nasty disease.

Year 16 - Element: Earth

First, I have a warning about all of the elemental anniversaries. Crass gifts are the domain of cretins. This includes the infamous "broken wind" gift and other bodily functions that can be roughly associated with the elements, or lighting on fire any of these things for the Fire Anniversary. If you subscribe to this behavior, you deserve a divorce as your present. I know you've been married a long time, and you're comfortable with each other, etc., but have some class.

Okay, back to the Earth Anniversary. Rock golems are very helpful for general work around the house, smiting annoying monsters or passers-by, or lifting the diminutive woman to high cupboards and shelves. Sculptures are good, especially if you are artistically inclined and build one yourself. A magical garden can be a nice surprise, but you had better staff it with a golem. Most people don't want a gift that requires them to work.

Year 17 - Element: Water

Vials of enchanted holy water in crystal decanters are pretty, and get a good reception. Fountains are nice, but expensive, and need cleaning (no problem if you got her that golem last year). Surprisingly, I have also seen a bidet go over well, but do you really want to give your wife one of those?

In my opinion, however, these all pale in comparison to the ultimate Water Anniversary gift: A Magical Vacation (tm). They're easy to charter, and fun for the whole family. Take her someplace tropical, such as Port-au-Prince-Charming. Just beware of rich handsome guys bearing glass slippers. Also, I hear tales of a guy named Lancelot who hangs out there, hoping to attract attached women. He'll probably leave your wife alone unless she's a queen, however.

Year 18 - Element: Wind

If you were smart, and saved some fairy dust from Year 13, you're all set. Magical Vacations(tm) by airship are a good choice. Wind chimes work if you're on a budget. Musical wind instruments can work, too, but avoid the horns of blasting. Although such an item can be handy, it is a tempting tool for the wife who cannot get her husband's attention (and we've all been there). These poor husbands have learned that it's much better to be screamed at then blown through the living room wall.

Little-known fact: Baba Yaga's flying hut was a gift to her on Year 18. She kicked her husband out when she discovered that the hut had chicken legs, and this was because he bought it at Yoko's Bizarre Flea Market and Circus Freak Seconds. To this day, he watches the sky and searches for large chicken tracks in the dirt, hoping to find her and apologize. Let this be a lesson to you: don't be a cheapo.

Year 19 - Element: Fire

Braziers of Incense are nice for keeping your house smelling like potpourri, which your wife may enjoy. Don't mistakenly pick up an Incensing Brazier, however. They are very different things. Ever-flaming candles are good if you promise many romantic nights to go with them. If your wife is the evil type, a flaming pit trap might be more her style.

Little-known fact: Hansel and Gretel were almost cooked in an anniversary gift. That's right, the witch received her oven from her husband on Year 19, and later cooked herself in it. It was a fitting end for her, because she used it to make her husband into cookie siding for her house years before her own demise.

Year 20 - Gold

It's the currency of many lands, so one of the easiest to lay hands on. However, if you give your wife a bag of coins on anniversary night, she's going to get the wrong impression. Weapons are no good, unless they're just ornamental. The "in" gift right now is Egyptian-style artifacts. Just don't get a cursed one, unless you're eager to fight mummies or have your little dog dance around in a circle until it falls over. You can find lots of uncursed and cleansed items at Portal 1 Imports.

Year 25 - Adamantium

Be aware that most people selling Adamantium are lying. These people try to pass off titanium alloys as the rare magical metal. If you come across a seller, you should give him a good drubbing, and then offer 1/10 the price. Then you can pass it off to your wife as the real thing, and save yourself some hassle. If you're lucky, you actually got the real thing at a deep discount. Testing for authentic Adamantium is a difficult process involving a sleeping dwarf, a vise, and a large hammer. Unless you want to risk the Dwarven Tentacle Oath (I don't know what this is, and don't want to know), or can pay off Snow White and her friends to let you borrow Grumpy for a while, then it's best just to settle for a knockoff. Whether you confess that it is a knockoff or not is up to you.

Year 30 - Orichalcum

This reddish-gold magical metal has the same problem as Adamantium, except the hucksters are selling copper-gold alloys and brass. Orichalcum is difficult to get, but there is one sure way to put your hands on it: Steal it.

The Prophets of the Unconquered Sun run a temple down in Exalted City. It's a big ziggurat covered in Orichalcum plates. Stealing a few plates is easy, and you can even do it in broad daylight if you're good. Once you have the plates, you can get a local smith to fashion them into whatever you want. The secret is that the Prophets want you to steal it.

Exalted City is a tourist trap for old people (like you on Anniversary 30), and the Prophets are at the center of it all. And they run a big business buying back Orichalcum objects at estate sales and pawn shops. They actually make more money off you while you're in town than they lose from your theft. Sucker!

Year 35 - Mithril

Mithril can be found in Middle Earth, and that's it. Everything else you find outside of Middle Earth, even if it's got the official stamp, is fake. It looks similar, and the metal is mined from the same caves.... However, the guy in charge has the process all wrong, doesn't refine the metal or shape it right. He didn't really learn the craft correctly from his dear departed dad, a true craftsman. In effect, Chris (the guy) is just profiting off the official brand.

Year 40 - Star Metal

Star metal is any strange metal that fell from the sky. If you throw any old hunk of metal high enough and let fall back to the ground, you can call it star metal. The official height necessary is 1000 hill giants tall. You might need some help throwing it. And finding it afterwards.

If it has a pleasing shape, it will make a good gift. There's just something special about raw star metal. Just wait for it to stop smoking before you give it to her.

Year 45 - Ioun Stones

Ioun Stones are shining, multicolored, floating stones harvested from the cores of stars. After you touch one, it will revolve around your head. They are said to give you magical powers as well. I'm sure any wife would be happy to have a couple.

They're actually not as hard to find as you might think. Ever since their original discovery, they have become rather common in the D&D worlds. Most people don't even know where they came from originally.

I know a guy named Rhialto. He calls himself "the Marvellous!" because he has "more Ioun stones than any other wizard! Even more than Ildefonse, ha ha!" Anyway, I don't see what powers they give him other than to make him so dizzy he falls over every time I call his name on the street. That's why I don't recommend more than a couple.

Year 50 - Ancient Technology

If you make it as a couple for this long , the Tech Anniversary will probably be your most exciting anniversary. Ancient technology, inscrutable, covered in a fine layer of metallic dust, always makes a unique gift. It also makes a fine show piece that you'll be able to talk about incessantly for your last few years alive.

My advice for gift purchases is to go with your gut, and get whatever strikes your fancy. It doesn't matter what it does, because part of the joy of this anniversary is the discovery process. Once she receives it, and gets over her initial rush of excitement, you can both fiddle with it until you discover its obscure purpose, whether that is burning someone to a crisp, transporting your wife to another dimension, summoning the Council of Time Lords, or giving your left foot its own personality.

This can be dangerous, but so what? You're freakin' old. If this was a medieval universe instead of a fantasy one, you'd be dead three times over. Live a little! Have fun with your new toy!

Maybe you'll get lucky and find in an old book shop the legendary technical manual, How to Become a Cyber-Lich in Twelve Easy Steps complete with mechanical assistant. If this happens, don't call me from your floating metal coffin. I don't care if it's installed with a telepathic intertron or what-have-you, I don't know what comes after year 50. Maybe I'll research it in a few years, and I'll put out a new article called "The Fantasy Anniversary Materials - The Immortal Years." Until then, you're out of luck.

One last thing. If you think you bought a bomb, take it back. Have a little respect for the lives of those around you who haven't reached year 50 yet.

The Launch Rail Ticket (Part 4)

This is part 4 of a short story. Part 1 was posted on Monday and the story concludes on Friday.

(Start with Part 1)

As the earth receded, the horizons seemed lower, the world seemed an island beneath him. Soon, he could see past the ocean, and the sun glared brighter through his visor. A vision pressed itself into his brain, that of Icarus and his wings of feather and wax, plummeting. Jeremy would perform a similar plummet into the ocean later today, but hopefully a more controlled one.

Jeremy's elbows began to throb. He figured this was normal for the arm strapped to the crate, but he was confused about his right arm, which seemed to hurt more. Worry fluttered. Worry bloomed into outright concern when his knees began to ache as well. Then, his lower back began to burn. Muscle cramps? Jeremy feared worse, because he had finally noticed a rhythmic whistle coming from the confines of his helmet. There was a leak, letting his air pressure out, or the pure oxygen it was sucking from the thin atmosphere was being contaminated with carbon dioxide. Whatever the cause, he was suffering the first effects of decompression, otherwise known as the bends.

Once again, he berated himself for this stupid thrill ride. However, he would ride it out until he knew he had to dismount. Too early, and he would land out in the ocean where no one would ever find him.

The cable began to level out, and the moon rose over the horizon, large like a zoomed-in shot in a movie or a fantasy painting. He thought about maintenance men for the cable, how unlucky he was to get a malfunctioning suit. Then, suddenly, he realized it wasn't luck, but bad planning. The cable of the launch loop could be lowered. The only time the maintainers would actually need the suits would be for very rare (perhaps nonexistent) circumstances in which they didn't lower the cable. Jeremy found it difficult to find a reason to do it, but he tried anyway. Maybe they occasionally rode the cable, like him, to observe its operation. Or maybe they had hopes to convert it into an honest-to-goodness thrill ride. Or maybe there were space bats that would attack the cargo, and the maintainers would have to fend them off with flaming swords. Or maybe.... Wait. Something wasn't right. He shook his head and looked up to see the moon overhead. His mind reeled, and dizzily he rolled off the size of the crate and hung out over the smooth sea. Sun poured in his visor, and he realized that his lungs were burning, his head ached, and he could not concentrate. Time to dismount, he thought, lazily. He looked up at the knot strangling his arm, and pulled at it. How did you untie this damn thing, anyway?

(Read the Conclusion)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Fantasy Anniversary Materials Gift List

My wife reminded me that Valentine's Day is coming up, and that got me thinking about gifts. We like to give gifts that follow the same themes as anniversary gifts. Every year the gift has to be of a different material, according to the established list of materials. You give a silver ring on one anniversary, a gold necklace on another, and so on, depending on what year it is. It helps make Valentine's Day a little more interesting, so we're not always giving flowers or chocolate or cards that look like pink hearts.

Well, I discovered recently that not a lot of people know about the List of Fantasy Anniversary Materials. This blew my mind, so I decided to write up a gift guide for all you clueless warriors, wizards, and fantasy creatures out there. I hope you enjoy it, and that it makes your upcoming anniversary or Valentine's Day that much more romantic!

Year 1 - Parchment

As the first fantasy anniversary material, parchment has little significance. Since it is made from the skin of a dead animal, it's difficult to make into a romantic gift, even if you scrawl your most heartfelt, gushing poems on it, pledging your undying love, etc. If your girl is into magic, she might enjoy a scroll containing a rare spell, especially if you researched it yourself. However, the rest of us will have to get by with a cheesy calfskin greeting card from HallMonk. At least the monks write good love poetry. With all that quiet time and sexual frustration, I'd write some mighty flowery verse, too.

Year 2 - Horn
It's best not to go with the obvious joke gifts on anniversary number two. A punny gift will ruin your hopes of anniversary romance, even if you think it's hilarious. If you can get a unicorn horn, go with that. It's simple, elegant, and you can convert it into healing medicine if you get your wife a more dangerous gift in later years. However, unicorn horns are hard to get nowadays. Chimera horns can be interesting conversation pieces, as can dragon horns. If you make up a fantastical story about how you slew the beast to get its horn, that's even better. Just don't talk about killing unicorns: "Then, I chopped off the pretty white horse's head, and ripped out its horn! It wasn't so white or pretty then! Ha ha! Hey, why are you crying?" is one sure way to ruin the mood.

Year 3 - Amber
Whoever decided that buying a piece of rubbery, fossilized gel for your anniversary gift needs to be frozen in carbonite (what, that's a sci-fi material you say? Hmm. Star Wars almost seems like fantasy to me). Whatever you do, don't get the ones with the dead things inside. Bad move. Many women hate bugs. It doesn't make it better for you to say, "Oh, but it's a metaphor for our love! It will last like this forever!" When I tried that line, my wife said, "You compared our love to a dead bug!?!" Couch time, big time.

Year 4 - Fur
There's many options with fur. Some girls like fur coats. Just make sure she's not a PETA girl. Golden fleece is a favorite, if you can find it, or if your name is Jason (and you're an argonaut). However, it's best to keep this year's anniversary gift away from last year's. Amber and fur are known spell components for lightning magic, and an unstable pair, especially if you rub them together during a thunderstorm. Don't be that guy who has to explain to his mother-in-law why her beloved daughter is a pile of ash.

Year 5 - Hide
Girls of the warrior persuasion like leather armor, from what I hear. There's also the option to go naughty with other leather items, such as whips, if you're into that kind of thing.

Year 6 - Bezoars
Bezoars are nasty. They're clumps of swallowed hair, collected in the stomach over the years, or greasy, rocky lumps found in livers, gall bladders, and other unsavory places. Yuck! The only reason I can think that they were added to the list is because some women got paranoid due to year seven's thematic gift.

Year 7 - Poison
Poison! It's the easy way out of the relationship, if you've got that seven-year itch. Of course, you don't have to kill your loved one, especially if you still love her. And I would never condone it in either case. Other options are sleeping pills, alcohol, opium, LSD, marijuana, Rohypnol, etc. Drugs are poison, too. I'd also be careful about any gifts you receive from her, especially if she feels as nasty about you as you do about her.

And this gets us back to bezoars. According to legend, eating a bezoar can protect you against poison. Someone was thinking ahead! However, you couldn't get me to eat a bezoar, even if my life was on the line. Disgusting.

Little-known fact: Snow White received a poisoned apple as a seventh-anniversary gift from Prince Charming. She gave it to Grumpy to shut him up for a while, and everyone had a good laugh when he never woke back up.

Year 8 - Feathers
Feathers make beautiful headdresses, and can be incorporated into many types of clothing. Just like the horn and fur anniversaries, feathers from more exotic animals make better gifts. For instance, phoenix feathers are a long-time favorite, suitable for use in the creation of wands (see Harry Potter) and potions, or for casual display. They have a fiery, shimmering appearance, but cause no harm to the holder. However, care must be taken with them; misuse will cause one to turn to ash. Thankfully, if you start a fire over the ashes, you have a chance of restoring it. If you killed your loved one on the previous anniversary, and you're feeling bad about it, phoenix down can also be used to revive her. However, this method of resurrection has a high chance of failure unless she's a Final Fantasy game character not named Aeris (sorry Cloud).

Little-known fact: Dumbledore gave James and Lily Potter a feather from his phoenix, Fawkes, for their eighth anniversary. This is the same feather that was used to craft Harry's wand. When Dumbledore handed the unasked-for present to James, Lily gave him the evil eye in response. Dumbledore replied, "What!?! My interest in James is purely platonic."

Year 9 - Potions
Love potions really should not be necessary, guys. Don't make this mistake and look like a moron. If you're really desperate to rekindle the love in your relationship, and you haven't killed her off yet, at least have the intelligence to relabel the bottle.

Potions of strength, stamina, heroism, slipperiness, and euphoria are classic gifts, perfect for a night of romance and adventure. This is such a popular combination, you can now get a convenient six pack down at your local Slay-and-Shop.

Perfume counts as a potion, as well, but it's much less favored than the above (and no, this is not a paid Slay-and-Shop ad. But you have to admit they have a catchy slogan: World Class Food You Can Slay Yourself).

Year 10 - Iron
Iron seems like a boring gift, especially for the monumental 10-year anniversary. However, it is a key material. It embodies strength, fortitude, and dullness (just kidding about that last one). It also has inherent magical properties that can be leveraged against evil fairies and spirits.

Octiron is a risky variant, but an option. If she loves Terry Pratchett, there's a good chance she'll break into giggles when she receives it. If she hasn't heard of Pratchett, she may say, "I don't get it," or, "This isn't funny." Here's the best predictor for success: If your wife insisted that you hang that old poster of a shirtless Rincewind from Teen Heroine Magazine in your guest room, then go with the Octiron.

If she is into Dungeons and Dragons, Cold Iron works. Only available in the D&D worlds, it will allow her to slay some nasty critters that would otherwise bug her to death. Everyone hates damage reduction.

Year 11 - Scales
Dragon scales are the best option for year eleven. Anything made from them is sure to get you the adoration you deserve. Don't give her snake scales and get the old, "Oh, my brave man! You shouldn't have! Did you go kill this in the back yard, all by yourself, you twit?" However, there is a slight difficulty with the scales gift. Everyone loves the metallic scales better than the chromatic ones, which means that more good dragons die every year from poaching, and evil dragons are left to rampage. We really need to turn this industry around. Thankfully, there is a new line of chromatic scale products called ResponsiScales. They sell themselves as the responsible alternative that shows you are a hero who respects your fair lands and the good dragons that protect them.

ResponsiScales are available at Slay-and-Shop. You can even kill the dragon yourself, and they have helpful workshops every Thursday that teach you how to de-scale your dragon carcass and fashion gifts from the scales.

Year 12 - Crystal
For the Crystal Anniversary, don't go home without a magical crystal. If you can get the shard of some dark and mysterious larger crystal (such as the Dark Crystal), this works well. Your wife gets to feel like she is a part of something bigger, even if the world is worse for it. If you live in one of the Final Fantasy game worlds, you can grab some Magicite or Materia for your girl, and she'll be just as happy. Not only do these crystals have the bonus of souls trapped inside, she can use them to upgrade her weapons or enhance her magic abilities.

If you live on the island of Vvardenfell, or in one of the surrounding lands, you can also get crystals that allow you to trap souls yourself! Once a soul is trapped inside, one of these little crystals can be used to power your wife's magic spells. This is a great opportunity for another night out, this time on a mission to kick some monster tail, and not only take their names, but take their souls.

Lastly, don't get her a crystal ball, thinking you are being clever. Without a doubt, she'll love it, but that's not the problem. The problem is that once she has that little bauble, she'll always know why you're late, why you didn't clean up the house, how the baby got hurt, etc., and none of your lame excuses will ever work again.

The list is continued with Years 13 - 50 in Part 2.

The Launch Rail Ticket (Part 3)

This is part 3 of a short story. Part 1 was posted on Monday and the story concludes on Friday.

(Start with Part 1)

Jumping was not an option until he untied himself. He reached for the coil around his left arm, but stopped. All the money and effort would be wasted. And how could he give up when he was on the cusp of success?

He breathed deeply, and in a few minutes he found he could look at the ocean again without panicking. He started to enjoy himself. Riding the launch loop was like flying, but better, faster. The accelerating box pulled his arm taut, and the growing wind buffeted him, but these were bearable discomforts. Looking over the edge of the box was like some surreal dream. The sun rose like it always did, but today he rushed toward it over a giant blue spinning marble. The launch loop glittered in a graceful silver line, stretching up into the sky before him. It was such a thin little thing, to be doing all this work. He had read that the track surrounding the loop ribbon was only about half a foot in width. He had found that hard to believe. However, here it was, his track to the sky, flying even faster ahead of him as his mount worked to catch its pace. He wondered at the dynamics of the magnetic system propelling the box and keeping it level. He had not read every section of the documents he had downloaded, but had focused on the basics. He knew that the rail was held aloft by its own momentum, and restrained at its height by long cables tethering it to Earth. He also knew that there was a small rocket on the underside of the box that would lift it into orbit once it was at max velocity at the top of the loop. Lastly, he knew that the constructed launch loop did not exactly follow the original, theoretical design that had been thought up years ago by Keith Lofstrom. However, he didn't know exactly how the design deviated. You could only do so much homework.

He repositioned himself to ease his restrained arm, and the raw fear of flying bit at him again. This time he laughed it off like a maniac. With any stunt, you had to let go of your natural fear of failing, or you would fail. His mind screamed little tidbits of information at him, like, "Max ground-relative speed of approximately 21,000 mph," and, "Max height of 36 miles," and "You are being held aloft by a pole you could wrap your arms around and slide down like a fire fighter in his little red house, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?!"

He politely listened to the screaming little part of his mind, then pushed it away. Jeremy continued his ride into suborbital heights, taking in the beauty of the world as the rail lifted him. He did not notice the slight whistle in the breathing apparatus of his helmet, the device that kept oxygen pumping out of the ever-thinning atmosphere, and the one thing saving him from decompression sickness and death.

(Continue to Part 4)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Launch Rail Ticket (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a short story. Part 1 was posted on Monday and the story concludes on Friday.

(Start with Part 1)

With a little help from an independent day sailor, he'd made his way to the artificial island that hosted the launch loop's western dock. To survive his launch loop ride, Jeremy had purchased a heated, insulated compression suit. God bless E-Bay for that. To further his disguise, he had bought a maintenance worker badge and matching security code. God bless underpaid staffers for that. If this whole thing panned out, they would make souvenirs well worth the cost. He had strapped on a parachute and a small backpack containing jerky, water, rope, foam padding, and a flare gun. If anyone asked about the parachute, he was sure he could bluff that it was standard safety gear for the inspection he'd be doing today. It had all cost him a small fortune, most of the money his American father had left him when he died.

Entrance to the loading dock was simple, with no questions, no hassles. Casually, he surveyed the cargo boxes, and picked out a good candidate for his ride. He boarded the magnetized loading platform to inspect the large metal box. It had convenient ridges that would serve as hand holds, and loading hooks to which to tie himself. There was a nasty burr on one edge; he'd have to watch that.

A buzzer sounded, alerting him that the platform would retreat and start the metal crate accelerating into position on the launch loop cable. He tensed, then turned as if to dismount. As the cable's magnetic field caught the box, he grabbed a hook and pulled himself on. Someone began shouting. He looked back and a man gestured furiously for him to get off. Jeremy smiled and waved back. The box left the building, and began to rise. Jeremy hurriedly pulled out his rope and padding, and tied his left arm to a hook with a complex, yet comfortable coiled variation on a sailing knot. If his research was right, the acceleration would rise to forces close to 3 Gs. Holding his body on at that rate would be impossible for very long.

His mind thrilled. He was on! He was doing it!

And then he freaked. This was insane. Probability of death was high. What the hell was he doing? He could jump now, before it rose too far. He'd be arrested, locked up. He could handle that. Maybe he could convince them he was insane. Maybe he was insane. It was better than being dead, right?

He gulped and he could feel his face twitching from his panic. Would his parachute deploy in time? If he hit the water from even this far up, would he splat? He had heard of that happening, seen a commercial with squished pop cans dropped from a bridge. Splat. Staring down at the bright patterned water, slowly receding, it was all that came to mind.

(Continue to Part 3)

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Launch Rail Ticket (Part 1)

The sound rolled across the ocean, and rushed over Jeremy like the salty wind: Wheesh! Morning sun glinted off the small metal dots rising in a gentle curve over the horizon. As the sound faded, they disappeared one by one into the sky. Mornings like these haunted Jeremy. They made him remember his dreams of space flight that never panned out.

At age of twenty-two, he knew that not all dreams came true. You didn't make valedictorian because you took an art class with a teacher who didn't believe in first-semester A's. Your favorite college rejected you because you attended Podunk High, rated number one in the state for academic grade inflation (except for the art teacher, of course). You were denied that aeronautics job because your background check showed you stole a candy bar in the eighth grade.

Some days, Jeremy looked over at the rail, then up at the morning sky, and wondered if his waning enthusiasm for space travel was a big case of sour grapes. Despite this growing feeling, the curvy liftoff of those metal dots captivated him. He may not be a spaceman, but he was educated as an engineer, and the launch loop that propelled those metal ship-dots held his mind like an invisible steel leash. Oh, to ride it.

Then, one Saturday morning as he sat idly daydreaming on the beach, that supersonic wheesh! washing electrically over him, he saw a kid and his dad flying a kite nearby. The kite had two tails like apron strings, and someone had tied a toy figure to one. As the kite fluttered past with its danging aeronaut, an idea crashed into Jeremy. And suddenly, that steel leash tightened hard.

He didn't have all the details worked out, but he knew he had found his ticket to ride the launch rail.

(Continue to Part 2)



Thus ends part one of our short fiction series. As you can tell, a device called a launch loop features prominently. It's an alternative idea to the space elevator, and it functions as a means to get objects from Earth to space in a way that's cheaper, faster, and more reliable than how we do it today.

This serial will run every day this work week, and conclude on Friday.

Religion in Fantasy, or An Irrelevant Quiz

I've had a recent series of posts on religion in science fiction (here, here, here, and there, too). I briefly compared sci-fi to fantasy. A typical fantasy novel has gods, priests, religion. (Although some have disputed it, I still maintain the opposite is true of sci-fi: the typical sci-fi novel has none of these things, when considering humans.)

As I was saying, the typical fantasy novel has religion - religions plural. Multi-culturalism! Admittedly, often of quite a crude sort, but the best fantasy authors envision wonderful worlds, with many interacting cultures and races, with differences good and bad, and richness of belief.

Quick quiz.

I spy with my little eye... a fantasy author who envisioned a beautiful world of incredible richness, with many races portrayed with wonderful depth, and yet not one culture had any religion whatsoever?

Even if there's more than one right answer, there's only one right answer.

And for you nitpickers, anything this author may have written down in notes unpublished during his or her lifetime... so totally, completely does not count.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Feature Fiction! Short Short Serials!

Ever since Mister Troll and I went public with Books Under the Bridge, I've been a little unsatisfied with how frequently we post new content. We try to write thoughtful, thought-provoking pieces. However, this usually means that we only have one or two posts a week. This is nice, but I've wanted to post daily since we started the site. We've come close a few times, but it's hard to do that with the type of content we're producing. And I want something up there every day for our readers to get into. It's one of my goals for the site.

Then there's the creative problem. I can be happy writing articles, but I like writing stories better. However, I am much more critical of my fiction than my articles. I have two short stories that are sitting on my computer, waiting to be sent to a publisher. I don't know when I'll send them. I keep insisting to myself that they need "one more revision" or "one major fix." And until I get over my perfectionism, there is zero chance that anyone other than a few close confidants will ever read my work.

Fortunately, I think have discovered a solution to these problems:

Short Short Serials

Next week I will post the first of what I am calling Short Short Serials (or S3s for short). These are 5-day-long stories, posted one page per day. They're short, easy to digest, and hopefully fun to write and read. I have a few that are in progress, and the first one will be ready to go starting Monday. It's entitled, "Launch Rail Ticket."

It's clear that this will give us more content, and more creative content at that. However, how does it solve my perfectionism problem? Well, I like to think that I'll be hitting the problem from two directions. The shortness of the stories lessens the effort I have to put into the work while the deadlines force me to let go of the work.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 4)

[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]

It's time to sum up. This has turned out to be a very interesting set of posts on the topic of religion in science fiction -- interesting for me to work out some thoughts I had, and interesting to read some comments that others have had. I opened with some musings about the portrayal of human religion in science fiction, followed up with a short aside on the alleged conflict between science and religion, and wondered why so little of science fiction shows humans with religion.

The thesis (or perhaps more accurately: supposition) is as follows:

Very few novels in science fiction portray humans as religious.

Please note that I am referring to religion of humans in science fiction (not religious themes, or religion of aliens). Religion may be rife in science fiction, but largely in the purview of aliens (religion as The Other). I would frankly expect the opposite -- that we would unconsciously assume religion to be a human endeavor, while rarely if at all ascribing religion to aliens. Instead I find that authors typically portray humans as areligious.

Lately I've been mentally contrasting science fiction and fantasy along these terms. A typical fantasy novel: the priest character is so common, he's a cliche (the use of a gendered pronoun was intentional, but not relevant to this topic). Don't tell me that religion is necessary to fantasy: sprites and gnolls, knights and magic -- all these can do just fine without gods. There's no need for religion at all. But pull a random science fiction book off the novel, and do you find the characters praying for their safety before dropping out of FTL? I think not. (And why not?)

Hence my statement that humans in science fiction are rarely portrayed as religions, and my confusion as to why this is so.

Of course, my thesis has been disputed by the commenters (you know who are), but the more I think about it, the more I think I'm right. (After all, nothing can convince a man -- or troll -- faster than someone who tells him he's wrong.)

In this post, I want to offer a very, very brief list of science fiction novels that do directly portray humans as religious. Not surprisingly, the commenters covered all the novels that I am familiar with, and offered some more that I will hopefully read soon. (With apologies for my pathetic attempts at one-sentence teasers.)

Let's start with the ones I was thinking about:


  • A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller, Jr.): humans have been nuked back to savagery, but the Catholic monastic orders preserve knowledge for the future of humanity.

  • A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle): Meg is torn by the long disappearance of her physicist father (hey, that's me!) and her concern over her very young brother's social isolation. The curious Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who, and Mrs Which offer their help, and Meg must do her part in the struggle against evil -- on the other side of the galaxy. (Thanks to Mrs. Billy Goat for reminding me of this fantastic series.)

  • The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood): in a near-future Christian fundamentalistic theocracy, officially-recognized concubines bear children in place of barren upper class women (male infertility is a subversive concept). (Frankly: boring.)

  • Contact (Carl Sagan): the novel itself is not entirely well-known, but you've probably heard of the movie. The main characters in the novel struggle with faith and religion, but this is certainly well into the background of the larger plot.

  • "The Last Question" (Isaac Asimov): this short story focuses on the question of whether entropy can be reversed. I had the opportunity to see a planetarium show adaptationy, and it was brilliant. You could probably get the same effect by reading the story out loud while pretending to be Leonard Nimoy. Try it. Let me know how it goes. (To be fair, short stories in science fiction often address religious themes. I have unconsciously equated "science fiction" with "science fiction novels" for this series of posts, but I like this story so much I have to mention it here.)

  • Space Trilogy (C. S. Lewis): Mr. Lewis' science fiction is garnering a little bit more attention. Like his better-known (and better-written) Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy is a vehicle for Mr. Lewis' Christian philosophies. The first two works, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, read more like late 1800's science fiction, and are not entirely memorable. That Hideous Strength, however, is quite good (and may be read on its own). Science fiction meets World War II England - very, very good.

  • Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein): a wonderful novel, and quite well known. Valentine Michael Smith grows up under the tutelage of Martians, but is returned to Earth and must painfully learn to understand just what brand of monkeys we really are. But still puzzling to me: what exactly is Heinlein trying to say about religion? Does he buy it? Or does he think it's total crap? Am I missing the point, or are his ideas entirely muddled?

  • Dune (Frank Herbert): brilliant (but for the love of all that's dear, don't read the sequels). Dune presents a wonderfully envisioned future of medieval, backstabbing politics. The plots and counter-plots swirl around the House Atreides, which is crushed on the desert planet of Arrakis. The heir, Paul Atreides, survives with the help of the indigenous Fremen.

  • The Hainish Cycle (Ursula K. Le Guin): I'm afraid no one- or two-sentence summary can describe these works. Some deal more explicitly with religion (The Telling), while others merely have religion quietly in the background (humans who belong to the Ekumen appear to have a kind of quiet spirituality). I can strongly recommend The Left Hand of Darkness (yes!) and The Dispossessed (double yes!), although as I mentioned, don't expect overt religious overtones.


In addition, the commenters kindly offered the following: The Sparrow, Children of God, Factoring Humanity, Revolt in 2100, the Riverworld series, Xenocide, The Rise of Endymion, the Long Sun series, The Electric Church, The Mote in God's Eye, Instrumentality, Return to Planet of the Apes, Gather, Darkness!, Players of Null A, Variable Star, and Starmaker.

Hopefully I got 'em all? A few I have already read, but most not; I think Sparrow, Instrumentality, and Gather, Darkness sound most promising.

However, I currently have a request list of approximately 40 books and movies at the public library, so clearly I won't be getting to these books soon. Thank to the readers who shared!

And finally, any missing books that show a science fiction humanity with religion?