Friday, August 17, 2018

Liner Notes 9

Some notes on the ninth instalment of my space opera serial, In Mitigation For The Crime Of Mutiny and also for the attendant piece, Anti-Gravity.

Liner Notes 9

This, the trial and interrogation story, was the most fun story in the series for me. It was one of the ideas from the start and also always slated to be in the second half of the planned 13 instalment run. I had a firm handle on the characters and the Deep Patrol as they were in practice, rather than the sketchy notes I began with, so by the time I wrote this I could put them all through variants on the theme of questioning. I hope you enjoy the nonsense they put Ashtree through.

If not, then maybe the Secret History of the Deep Patrol™ will have interested you. For various reasons you get half the story here and half next month. Why is this a two-parter? Well, it just is.

Okay, I considered dumping all the background for the Deep Patrol in one story, but it means about half of an instalment would be a three thousand word essay on what’s been going on in the background and why. This is meant to be light hearted adventure fiction. It seemed a bit much. So you get half here in the middle of the trial story and the other half where is was always going to be, in the encounter with an Oracle. How to deal with an Artificial Super Intelligence that can predict what you’re going to do before you can. That’s the question I’m setting up here. I can’t think of a better cliffhanger.

Liner Notes 9a

If gravity is broken to the extent that anti-gravity is possible then all of space and time is up for grabs. Hence the weirdness about time and chronology I keep making references to. Even if I’m not building up to a time travel story it’s good to keep it in the background, just in case (and to cover up any errors).

Thursday, August 16, 2018

When Should You Write For Free?

It's just a sample invoice
It is with regret that I note that this piece was inspired by a discussion within a writing group I am a member of; regret not so much due to the source but because the only way to make sense of it is to criticise another writing group. For a full introduction see this extremely useful essay Use Maths To Find Your Minimum Price Per Story by Matthew Brown. (Indeed, this piece might be considered a footnote to his work). In brief; the group Thanet Writers was putting together an anthology of stories, offering a payment of £10 per story. This is quite low for the amount of work needed for quality writing. Skirting awkwardly over that, allow me to riff off the topic by asking the following provocative question:

When should you write for free?

Never write for free, he said, slipping an invoice into his Mum’s birthday card.
I don't really invoice birthday cards

But seriously, when should you write for free?

Here’s when you shouldn’t write for free: when a commercial, for-profit publication is using your writing. You should carefully consider how much your writing is worth, and be sure not to underestimate. And then add a bit more. Your work is worth money, and the greater the value you put on it, the greater the value the publication will put on it. Also if they try to negotiate a smaller fee, you’ve already added some bargaining room in!

The problem, such as it is, is that there are so many places trying to exist in the space between for-profit publications and personal outlets that the writer controls and uses for their own purposes. Worse still, there are for-profit publications deliberately trying to take advantage of the ambiguity. There are also many places that do not pay, or only pay a token, but that’s not unreasonable in some circumstances. Navigating these requires some thought.

For example my local parish magazine does not pay for contributions. It does have a subscription and carries adverts*. I don’t think this is exploitative, for a number of reasons:

- Those contributing are doing so to benefit the community they are part of (or are leaders of in many cases).

- The contributors are often promoting their own ideas about the community and their own events that take place there.

- In several cases they are already paid for a job which writing in the Parish Magazine can be considered part of (full time clergy etc.)

Another example might be an online literary magazine I follow that grew out of an online community. It started as someone who wanted to highlight the writing in that community, so they built a website and asked for written pieces to publish, and they got quite a lot of them. Having done that, they then promoted it far and wide, so it grew beyond the community is originated in. The question here is; at what point should they consider paying for contributions? (The harder question is - from where do they get the money, a struggle that remains outside the scope of this piece.)

Is this litmag still just a hobby, a group of friends working together to celebrate their writing and promoting it to the world? Or has it crossed over into being a publishing entity run for the benefit of the editors and publishers, which should be paying for the writers?

(To return reluctantly to the offer that sparked some of this, I think Thanet Writers went wrong when they advertised outside their group. If Thanet Writers members were coming together to make an anthology, and all they can afford is a token payment, then that's members of a group working on a project they want to support. Which is a good thing. If they’re going out saying “Hey we’ll publish you – and you get paid £10!”, they’re acting as a publisher and should act like one; pay properly)

So, when should you work for free?

I mean, you’re going to have to make up your own mind. But here are some questions you should ask before doing so:

- Are you publishing it yourself, and if so, is there somewhere else it might attract payment or more attention? What are you giving up in return for those?

- Can the publisher pay for other things? If so why are you the one not getting paid?

- Is it being published by, or for, a community you are part of? Will it benefit that community?**

- Will publishing it there help you in your writing career or in other ways? What exactly is that worth to you?

With those answers in hand, you will have a fair idea of what the situation is. And remember, never undervalue your work! If someone can pay then your writing is worth them paying for. So if someone with their name prominently displayed as editor of a good looking magazine that carries adverts (or has a subscription or donation page) offers to publish your work, but unfortunately can’t offer any money, ask yourself...

Who is getting the benefit from this?

More free writing by Neil Willcox can be found on his blog Night of the Hats. In addition he currently has a space opera serial running on his Patreon, where you can read for free or pay if you want. Finally his Edwardian comedy-crime novel The Inexplicable Affair of the Mesmerising Russian Nobleman is self-published on Amazon, where it can be purchased in paperback or for Kindle.

* The printer does get paid which raises one or two questions.
** Hence why I’m not getting paid for this piece, grr.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I Read Books: Robur The Conquerer

Robur the Conqueror by Jules Verne (1886)

The story opens with mysterious noises coming from the sky all over the world (causing at least one duel because Jules Verne liked writing about duels). However the Weldon Institute of Philadelphia is not interested; they are building an airship, a lighter-than-air craft that will go as fast as a horse, maybe? Their meeting is raucously unable to decide if the propeller should go in front or behind.

Then they are interrupted by the mysterious Robur who addresses them on behalf of heavier-than-air flight. They are so outraged that they chase him outside, where he vanishes.

Later that night the President and Secretary of the Institute along with the (sigh) comic relief black servant are kidnapped by Robur onto his Aeronef the Albatross. It’s electric*, and has lots of vertical screws from the top that lift it, and is pushed forward by propellers (this is a gyrodyne apparently).
Yep, this is it

Anyway, it’s a big impractical helicopter.
An alternative illustration

Robur takes them on a world tour, because why not if you can travel the world in safety at a hundred and twenty knots? Anyway we end up with an inferior knock-off of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but Verne wrote that too so I guess he’s allowed to revisit his own ideas. Eventually the Albatross is damaged in a storm, the kidnapees set a bomb to destroy the craft and escape onto the Chatham Islands.

Returning home to Philadelphia they build their balloon, only for the rebuilt Albatross to come and watch the first flight. The balloon goes too high and bursts, Robur rescues them, and then declares that mankind is not ready for his genius and vanishes again.

Read This: For some wacky proto-steampunk adventures*
Don’t Read This: Read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1870) instead
Also: Available for free online, and there’s a sequel Master of the World

* Shoutout to Serge whose theory that Steampunk is really, really interested in electricity

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

I Watch Films: IT

Just to clarify: IT is the name of the doctor, not the monster he made.

No but seriously, this is a good horror film. It starts with child dismemberment and murder, so if that’s a thing for you, probably best to not watch. Mostly we get the adventures of some thirteen year old kids over the summer as they grow up, tangle with bullies, and try to deal with a mysterious sewer-dwelling clown who has been emerging every 27 years to steal children. Occasionally the adventures slip over from nostalgic strangeness into monstrous horror as the clown creates their deepest fears and manipulates reality.

The book (and to a lesser extent the mini-series from the 90s) frame the historical events within the 27-year-later time period. This film, which reveals at the end is IT Chapter 1 (SPOILERS), is solidly set in 1989. This is a strength for the movie as we do not know the stakes or how it must end. It may end up a weakness for Chapter 2, but I don’t need to worry about that for another year so that’s okay.

Watch This: For a cool horror film that does a pretty good job of keeping the special effects restrained so the real horror is people in the town, at least until the last twenty minutes.
Don’t Watch This: If children in danger does not work for you

Monday, August 13, 2018

I Read Books: Skylark of Valeron

Skylark of Valeron

This, the third in the Skylark series (previously reviewed on this site are the first novel, The Skylark of Space, and also the second, the confusingly named Skylark Three) opens to reveal that Richard Seaton’s Nemesis, Marc C DuQuesne did not die at the hands of the Fenachrone supermen in Skylark Three*, but instead was able to steal a battleship from them before their planet was destroyed. DuQuesne then goes to Norlamin, lies to the locals, and claims to be an employee of Seaton and Crane, whereupon they give him a very powerful spaceship with all the technology from the previous book. DuQuesne then conquers the Earth, and becomes very popular by abolishing war and crime, and creating full employment by building a defence system for the planet.

But what are Seaton and Crane up to? They were deep in intergalactic space chasing the Fenachrone at the end of Skylark Three; their velocity is so great that it’s easier to visit a new galaxy than turn around and come back. They encounter mental beings of no physical form, the “Intellectuals,” who decide they want to recruit Seaton. To escape Seaton and company rotate Skylark Two (Skylark Three’s lifeboat) into the fourth dimension.

The fourth dimension is an extremely wacky place. You can reach past the outside of sealed objects (Seaton uses a tin of tobacco to demonstrate). More annoyingly the four-dimensional beings use shock tridents that reach inside the humans’ bodies and grasp nerve junction to control them. Also the three dimensional matter is much denser than the local stuff; the land appears to be flat; light comes from the surroundings and vanishes leaving the night pitch black. Finally time is all messed up; they’re only supposed to be there for one ten thousandth of a second yet it feels much longer.

When they come out they find themselves very lost, not recognising the nearby galaxies. Seaton realises that he will have to, at the very least, rebuild his Fifth-Order Projector to find their way home, and probably go further and build a Sixth-Order one (which operates on the frequency of thought). Fortunately his time in the fourth dimension has given him some ideas on how to do that, which is just as well as he needs to come up with something to deal with the Intellectuals. However he needs a stable planet and a nearby white dwarf star (for the heat/pressure to make a neutronium lens).

They find such a planet, Valeron, only it has recently gone through a close pass with another star leading to the death of most of the inhabitants (humans), and has also acquired a new planetary neighbour whose atmosphere is made up of chlorin** (sic). Unfortunately the inhabitants of this planet “Chlora” are amoebas who promptly lay siege to Valeron. Just as things are getting a bit hairy for the defenders Seaton and the Skylark arrive and save the day.

Seaton goes on to build what he wants to call Skylark Four (to get the accuracy they want it would need measuring circles four light years across, but that turns out to be impractical so it’s a sphere only one thousand km across) but Dorothy, his wife, insists it has a better name so it becomes Skylark of Valeron. Now to deal with the Intellectuals, and also DuQuesne, the very popular total ruler of Earth.

Read This: For more space adventures; the fourth dimension sequence in particular is full of cool ideas.
Don’t Read This: If building bigger ships and greater technology is boring.

* The book, not the ship. DuQuesne never boards Skylark Three (the ship).
** Word tried to autocorrect this to chlorinE. And just now lower cased that E. Well done, but not in this case.

Friday, August 10, 2018


 A brief essay on one under-emphasised aspect of my space opera series Chronicles of the Deep Patrol, namely some of the implications of a setting that includes:


Perhaps the most important development on Earth after the passing of the Wavefront was the discovery of working anti-gravity engines followed by their successful reverse engineering. With relatively cheap and simple anti-gravity drives the solar system was opened up for exploration. This also allowed easy contact with Minerva with mixed results.

Not neglected at the time was that working anti-gravity would imply that faster than light travel was possible. (The appearance of the planet Minerva and later the Wavefront removing more than half the population of the Earth and replacing a quarter of the land area would seem to be an indication, but none of that was placed on such a firm theoretical footing as to allow controlled exploitation of the phenomenon.)

Faster than light travel was developed in a handful of years by several different teams. By this time it was clear that local space had changed; exo-planets with oxygen atmospheres had been observed where there had previously been none and radio waves from other solar systems had been detected, including broadcasts in human languages.

These were not the only implications. Firstly, it showed that space-time was more susceptible to manipulation than had previously been thought. Creating gravity without mass warps not only space but time. Various states of local space thought to be impossible became merely implausible after the passing of the Wavefront.

In addition other types of travel were possible. Wormholes, or bridges, allowing instantaneous travel between two points in space by superimposing their positions were found. For various reasons they were favoured by human derived AIs; biological humans find them uncomfortable to use and all but impossible to control.

One final result was the ability to change space and time more fundamentally, varying them so that they no longer resembled those of our universe. These zones, the dimensional gateways, had initially been thought to hold the answers to the cause and source of the Wavefront. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

I Read Books: The Court of the Air

Orphans! Airships! Single shot guns! Steam powered sentient robots! Punch card computers! Workhouses and slums! Politics from a very strange angle! Ancient nihilistic gods!

Perhaps I need to calm down for a moment.

The Kingdom of Jackals is very loosely an 18th/19th century fantasy steampunk Britain. Very loosely. It has redcoats and crushers and upland clans with bagpipes and an industrial city with posh districts and a gutter press and orphans and poorhouses.

They had a war between parliament and the king and when parliament won they decided that no king would ever take up arms against his people again. So they surgically remove the king’s arms when he’s crowned. The capital, Middlesteel, is built on top of ruins which include the outlaw city of Grimhope. The ruins are from the time of the ice age when Aztec-themed gods ruled the people. And now they’re back.

This book is filled with stuff, much of it cool, all of it interesting. It all fits together as well, though not neatly, with a few rough edges that haven’t been sanded down. And it is in this way that the stories of Molly Templar and Oliver Brooks, both chosen ones though chosen for different reasons, feel more real than in many fantasies.

It is not for the faint hearted, also there is an extremely bad pun in the name of the miner who becomes a gunsmith.

Read This: For a weird flintlock fantasy that digs deep into the heart of Britishness and out the other side into strange oddities.
Don’t Read This: If you don’t want a fantasy that goes somewhat of the beaten track, but not too far really