2015/11/30

Geek Gab Episode 33: Happy Geekiversary!

Yesterday, Geek Gab celebrated its first year on the air! Join Daddy Warpig, Dorrinal, and myself for the festivities--which mainly consist of us bitching about Hollywood.

Show highlight: DW reads an unintentionally hilarious excerpt from Star Wars: Aftermath.

Check it out!


2015/11/27

Dark Ages Now

John C. Wright offers a brilliant defense of the dishonestly much-maligned Dark Ages.
The elite were not a different religion from the commons then, but agreed on the basics of the basic vision of a just life. Not every king was a good king, but there was a basic agreement on what a good king should be.
Sneer me no sneers about the divine right of kings placing some men above others: that doctrine dates from the Reformation. The legal theory of the Middle Ages was Roman and hence, in the technical sense of the term, republican.
(And do not bring up that tiresome old slander, prima nocte: the idea that lords could commit adulterous rape on the wedding night with any comely peasant lass is a slander invented by Voltaire, who could not find any real medieval laws to mock, and so invented one. Ironically, it is one Voltaire’s fellow atheist and practitioner of modern scientific and secular values, Lavrenti Beria , actually indulged in.)
This legal theory, best explicated by Thomas Aquinas, does not promise civic equality to all men, and so is anathema to the modern age. But then again, the legal theory of the Modern Age started with Machiavelli: both sides of the great conflicts of the Twentieth Century, Democrats or Socialists, justified their politics on the basis of it being a necessary evil, an evil that is done that good might come of it.
The idea of a state whose mission is to encourage the virtue of its citizens comes from the days when the clothing and architecture and music likewise was meant to be both useful and beautiful. Nowadays we dress in drab denim, and live in steel boxes. The society that lives for its own pleasures and powers produces ugliness; the society that lives for God, for something greater than itself, produces pleasure and power.
My comment: Why didn’t Aquinas explicate a legal theory promising equality and freedom to all men? Because he would have instantly recognized the incoherence of the idea.

The notions of human rights that emerged during the Enlightenment are collectively called Liberalism–the political theory that government’s proper role is the use of coercive force to preserve every man’s freedom from coercive force.

See the problem?

Some people speak wistfully of a return to Enlightenment values–as if we weren’t at this very hour groaning under the near-total triumph of those values.

The division between Self-styled Classical Liberals and neo-Puritan SJWs is not one of basic ideology, but of priorities. The old Liberals designed a state that would enable each man to pursue his individual preferences as far as possible, to the limit of harming others. SJWs appeal to the state to maximize the freedom to pursue one's preferences, to the limit of committing often invisible aggression against designated victim groups.

For 300 years, the previous generation of Liberals has stared in dismay as the next generation took their perpetual rebellion one formerly unthinkable step further.

State power cannot guarantee equal liberty for all. When two or more parties inevitably find that the exercise of their liberties is mutually exclusive, the state must choose who gets to be free and who doesn’t.

Liberalism only ensures that those currently in power enjoy maximum freedom at everyone else’s expense.

A proposal too horrifying to contemplate: perhaps the proper role of government is securing the common Good instead of the quixotic pursuit of total egalitarianism and license.

2015/11/25

Hollywood in Crisis

Even in the information age, industries whose true workings are obscured by layers of glamorized PR abound. Whenever insiders pull back the curtain to offer a glimpse at how the sausage is made, their stories rarely fail to intrigue me.

One of the most highly romanticized and poorly understood industries is Hollywood. Max Landis, screenwriter for Chronicle, American Ultra, and Victor Frankenstein, recently sat down with Mike and Jay from Red Letter Media to give an inside look at conditions in Hollywood.

Those conditions are, in a word, dismal. See the interview for all the gory details. Like everything that RLM produces, it's worth watching.


My comment: in the process of defending his film from critics--an inadvisable move in almost any circumstance--Landis aptly illustrates the crisis facing Hollywood. He discusses how studios militate against any project not based on an established IP, and why skilled indie film makers aren't being given chances to break through to the next level.

The stagnation and creative micromanaging that Landis describes is the result of Hollywood fully embracing the blockbuster mentality to the point of complete unwillingness to take risks on original films. But as Landis points out, the problem with trying to build a business model on mega-hits alone is that blockbusters are unreproducible black swan events.

Hollywood producers are slowly realizing this fact. And as their old formulas for predicting box office success increasingly fail, studios are retreating into the presumed safety of known quantities.

I've said before that the only way out of this malaise is through. Expect more sequels, remakes, reboots, spinoffs, shared universes, and generally derivative product from Hollywood until someone figures out how to disintermediate the studios.

2015/11/24

Geek Gab Episode 32

On this episode of Geek Gab, Dorrinal expresses his distaste for Netflix's Daredevil, Daddy Warpig tells how Jessica Jones made him feel dirty, and I make puns about the awesome South Korean martial arts revenge flick Old Boy that are almost as horrifying as the movie is.

Plus, I flog Souldancer, which I just finished and have sent to my artist for cover sketches.

Experience all of this and more below or at the link.


2015/11/23

Castalia House Bonus Offer

Grow or Die
 I'm thrilled to announce that I'm teaming up with Castalia House to promote the launch of Grow or Die: The Good Guide to Survival Gardening. This guide to post-apocalyptic gardening, the second in David the Good's series, has already reached #1 in its category.

As a special bonus to their subscribers, Castalia House is offering my space opera/horror novel Nethereal for free to Castalia New Release members who buy Grow or Die within the first three days.

Congratulations to David, and thanks to Vox, the rest of the Castalia House team, and our readers.

Update: according to last night's KDP report, yesterday's sales of Nethereal exceeded my daily average for the last month by almost 50x. The Kindle version is also holding steady in the top 300 in Space Opera and the top 18k on Amazon overall. Those rankings are both an order or magnitude better than they were on Sunday.

My sincere thanks go out to Vox Day, David the Good, and everyone at Castalia House. If I understand correctly, CH is planning more of these free giveaway bundles with their new releases in the future.

The International Lord of Hate sagely advises authors not to do free without a plan. In my experience, Castalia House has a plan, and it's worth being a part of. I encourage other writers to get in on future promotions.

2015/11/20

The Right Movies for Star Wars Saga Titles

A few of us were kicking the ol' peanut around yesterday on Twitter, and as is the wont of geekish gab sessions, Star Wars came up. I started contemplating the titles of the films in the main series, and the germ of an idea took root.

Late last night, that idea matured and yielded fruit: most Star Wars titles and their movies are simply mismatched.

Here you will see a gallery of works that should have been given the titles that Star Wars movies got instead.


The Phantom Menace
Jar Jar
The actual movie: political drama/series of flashy action set pieces wherein a pair of space cops team up with an unfunny Roger Rabbit-reptoid hybrid and a whiny kid as an excuse for lightsaber fights.

The movie this title belongs to:


carbon monoxide

Carbon monoxide safety video


Attack of the Clones
Attack of the Clones
The actual movie: more political intrigue as an excuse for CG clones and more lightsaber fights.

The movie this title belongs to:


Clones

Schlock 1970s sci-fi/horror film


Revenge of the Sith
Revenge of the Sith
The actual movie: the politics, CG clones, and lightsaber fights rise to a crescendo. A main character--and more than one audience member--loses the will to live.

The movie this title belongs to:


slasher

80s slasher flick; particularly a later, half-assed installment in a Children of the Corn/Omen/Halloween style "bad seed" supernatural horror series.


A New Hope
A New Hope
The actual movie: A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...the Rebel Alliance, having won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, must destroy the Empire's ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, to restore freedom to the galaxy.

The movie this title belongs to:


40s propaganda

A 1940s war propaganda film. (Which is no accident.)

Runner-up: a sports period piece, especially a boxing movie set in the 20s.


The Empire Strikes Back
The Empire Strikes Back
The actual movie: arguably the best ever made. A true black swan event resulting from an unrepeatable alignment of stars that elevated George Lucas' unintended sensation to unparalleled heights of brilliance.

The title this movie belongs to:


Empire Strikes Back

The F***ING Empire Strikes Back



Return of the Jedi
Return of the Jedi
The actual movie: after a musical number in a desecrated monastery, an elite fighting force from a Kardashev Type II civilization is demolished to a man at the teddy bears' picnic. Then the Jedi don't so much return, as a Jedi and a Sith Lord destroy the Sith.

The movie this title belongs to:


The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Episode VII (by all accounts)



The Force Awakens
sw7 poster
The actual movie: that would be telling.

What this title belongs to:
remainders
A vanilla Star Wars Expanded Universe novel that's been languishing on indie book store bargain shelves since its forgotten debut sometime in the mid-90s; its canonicity long since revoked.

This was my best shot at coming up with better matches for Star Wars titles. I'm open to your suggestions.

2015/11/19

No Going Back

Reader JD Cowan left a thoughtful and prophetic reply to yesterday's post on Hollywood remakes that I thought deserved a more extensive reply than I could give in the comments.

Here's JD:
This must be why only Pixar and Marvel get my movie dollars these days with the occasional Nolan film squeezed in.
We're a long way from the days of Terminator, Ghostbusters, Aliens, Highlander, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, Blade Runner, and Die Hard. I'd say it's pretty clear that they're never coming back.

My initial comment
That's correct--as long as big studios call the shots.

The entrepreneurs who fled Edison's monopoly for an obscure patch of Southern California desert where they could make the movies they wanted have long since become they tyrants they once rebelled against.

Disintermediation offers hope, as it did with the music and publishing industries. On one hand, it's never been easier for a bunch of college kids to make a movie to 90s pro standards with a digital video camera and a copy of Final Cut. It's not uncommon for micro indies to get a hold of Red cams.

On the other hand, this type of guerrilla film making isn't positioned to undercut cinema's gatekeepers like indie authors did with publishing. Hollywood could probably survive on foreign receipts alone, even if Americans stopped seeing their movies altogether.


What we'll probably see is a truly independent indie film market (not those Sundance and Miramax scams) operating parallel to Hollywood. Even a shoestring film is far more expensive than writing a book. And while writers have Amazon, indie film makers don't have anything like it in terms of distribution.

I've had the pleasure of attending a local film festival that runs independent horror movies from around the world. Every year I see films there that are more imaginative and entertaining than anything Hollywood produces these days.

The main hurdle keeping these truly talented film makers from reaching wider audiences and earning a living from their art is a lack of funding and proper distribution. I thought that legacy publishing was clueless when it came to marketing and promotion.

Then a friend regaled me with the real-life horror story of trying to get funding to expand his short indie film into a feature. He found a group of investors who expressed interest in drumming up cash for the project--but they insisted that he pull the short version from festivals/his web site/etc.

You read that correctly. One of their conditions for promoting the film was a ban on showing the short that was made to promote the film.

The movie, which Tony is still trying to get made, is called A Chance in Hell. He wrote it out of frustration with so-called zombie Nazi movies that tantalize you with the prospect of Nazi zombies but only have either zombies or Nazis onscreen at one time.

Then he got help from the community: a WWII history buff with authentic period props and costumes, a business owner willing to let him shoot after hours in a Victorian-era watch factory, and a RED camera. Tony described A Chance in Hell as George Romero meets John Rambo.

You can sample the results in the official trailer below.


Now tell me you wouldn't want to see that made into a feature-length film.

JD is right. The big studios' glory days are gone, and there's no going back.

But if indie film makers can find an effective way to reach wide audiences, there might be a way forward.

2015/11/18

Hollywood Is Just a Remake Machine

Hollywood is out of ideas. In fact, the studios' original thought well ran dry so long ago that pointing out their creative bankruptcy would be a cliche if not for the massive doses of cynicism and intersectional identity politics they've injected into their tedious remakes.

Here are just a few of the remakes, reboots (hard and soft), and reimaginings coming to a theater near you--whether you like it or not.


Point Break 2015
Point Break
Warner Bros.' remake of Kathryn Bigelow's 1991 action-schlock classic has the earliest release date among the movies on this list (it's scheduled to hit theaters on Christmas Day). Not only is Point Break 2015 shaping up to be another second-rate retread helmed by lesser talent that is doomed to be forgotten the week after its release, It's giving the bank robbers a motive beyond pure thrill seeking: wealth redistribution.

This tacked-on motivation, inspired by Occupy Wall Street sympathies, is meant to elevate the film's social consciousness above the original's lowbrow guns and Xtreme sports thrills. What it's already done is indelibly date the remake in audiences' minds before it's even come out. We'll revisit this phenomenon later.


Memento
The clever independent film that introduced us to Christopher Nolan is now slated to be remade by AMBI Pictures.

I can't speak for the producers of the new Memento, but the only possible motives for remaking a film that relies so heavily on the reproduction of a magic trick we've already seen are greed, rashness, or ignorance.

There are only two outcomes here. We'll either get a pathetically dumbed-down detective flick, or a shot-for-shot clone as disconcerting as Gus Van Sant's Psycho.

Nolan is the kind of rare technical and stylistic virtuoso that Hollywood only sees once or twice in a generation. As with Bigelow, anyone attempting to remake his work is all but guaranteed to face a massive talent disparity. Upstarts are warned to proceed at their own risk.


Jumanji
Jumanji
File under: The Body's Not Even Cold!

Yep, the ghouls at Sony Pictures are planning a Jumanji remake. It's no exaggeration to say that the late, great Robin Williams saved this admittedly weak concept from its own banality. The question is, what will produce more nervous foot shuffling among already doubtful audiences: attempted erasure of Williams' past show-stealing performance, or posthumously Forrest Gump-ing him in?


Bautista
Highlander
This is a tough one, because there's only one remake on this list that I actually want to succeed more than Highlander.

The 1986 original epitomizes the kind of semi-schlocky, occasionally outright bizarre action movie that would never get made on its own merits today. And unlike a lot of cases, the original had some flaws (mostly involving production values) that a remake could conceivably improve upon.

Then there's the casting of Dave Bautista as the Kurgan. It's an intriguing choice, since Bautista is one of those Hollywood Cinderella men from outside the industry who lands a role out of the blue and turns out to have a gift for acting.

Even more impressively, Bautista realizes that he's been given a golden ticket for a magic carpet ride and is striving to make the most of it. He enrolled in acting classes, and if his performances in Guardians of the Galaxy and Spectre are any indication, they're paying off in spades.

On the other hand, the new Highlander has had a rocky production that's been a revolving door for talent. With an unproven director currently attached, this remake might be riding on Bautista's mighty shoulders. Is he up to the challenge? We won't know till the movie hits theaters.


Ghostbusters 2016
Ghostbusters
What we have here is nothing less than a perfect storm combining all the worst mistakes of every remake on this list.

Tantalizing reports of a third Ghostbusters movie had been circulating for years. Mastermind Dan Aykroyd had, at various points, managed to get nearly all of the original cast and creative team back on board--with the crucial exception of Bill Murray.

Now, after being teased with the prospect of Ghostbusters 3 for almost a decade, fans have learned that we're not getting a sequel, but a reboot; directed not by Ivan Reitman, but Paul Feig; starring Tammy instead of Murray.

Let us count the flaws in this comedy of errors.

Unnecessary reboot: the original Ghostbusters is as close to perfection as a work of human hands can get. What's more, it's a perfect work of comedy--the most difficult genre to do competently, let alone perfectly. By definition, one cannot improve on perfection. Thus the remake is a cynical cash grab.

Intersectionalist virtue-signaling: Hollywood must be as insular and parochial as everyone says, because they are way behind the curve on the amount of identity politics that audiences will suffer to have shoved down their throats.

Despite Gamer Gate and Sad Puppies showing that people of all political stripes are sick and tired of social justice lectures, Narrative-advancing vehicles like Star Wars: Aftermath, Point Break, and now Ghostbusters prove that the message hasn't sunken in with our cultural elites.

Exhibit A: Ghostbusters director Paul Feig employing the first resort of SJWs whose opinions are challenged.
That's right, Ghostbusters fans. Paul Feig has served notice that if you dare criticize his heavy-handed feminist pandering, he will publicly label you a misogynist.

Note to Hollywood PR agents: if one of your tactics for getting people to shell out cash for your product can be likened to extortion, you took a wrong turn somewhere.

Exploiting the legacy of a beloved comedic genius hot on the heels of his death: Harold Ramis deserves even more credit for Ghostbusters than Robin Williams does for Jumanji. Unlike Williams, Ramis served as a co-writer whose contributions were instrumental to his project's success.
Those guys, Danny and Harold [Ramis], were at the top of their game [for the first movie]. They were burning nitro at that moment. Unless you have a really clear vision, you’re always trying to recreate that.
--Bill Murray 
When Ernie Hudson, the conscience of the original Ghostbusters, warns that a reboot is a bad idea, we'd all do well to listen. I throw the term around a lot, but the Ghostbusters reboot is looking to be an actual clown funeral--at least it won't be Ramis', whose sterling memory transcends cynical hacks' efforts to tarnish it.

Besides, Ghostbusters: The Video Game was already the Ghostbusters sequel we deserved, if not the sequel we need.


It'll Get Worse before It Gets Better
The argument has been made that, with American audiences already tiring of endless remakes, the death of this malignant trend is close at hand. Sadly, the diminishing importance of domestic audiences next to foreign markets hungry for anything starring an American A-lister means that Hollywood can keep cranking out derivative tripe until EVERYONE ON EARTH gets sick of it.

My advice: vote with your wallet. Just as with national elections, your entertainment choices have a negligible effect on our societal decline, but they're a chance to absolve yourself from cooperation with those who seek to tear down our culture.

2015/11/17

First Principles

Newton Principia
Photo by Andrew Dunn
Civilized society is governed by time-tested principles. Refined over years; sometimes centuries, by trial and error, these rules have laid the foundations of luminous lives, legendary careers, and vast empires.

One such venerable convention applied to rules themselves is that the most important rule comes first. Let's see what wisdom we can glean from the first principles of various systems of rules.

Thou shalt not worship strange gods...

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

Don't get high on your own supply.

You do not talk about Fight Club.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.

Cardio

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Given any two points such as A and B, there is a line AB which has them as endpoints.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.

Don't move too soon. You negotiate first and you attack last.

An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

All conditional phenomena and experiences are not ultimately satisfying.

Don't Panic

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

You have the right to remain silent.

What benefits the enemy, harms you; and what benefits you, harm the enemy.

Don't move

Jen

Sit and stare at the blank page for four hours.

SJWs always lie.

The first law of the market is self-interest, or the profit motive.

For any proposition A: A = A.

People are stupid. They believe things mainly because they either want them to be true or fear them to be true.

The first principle is: act with the utmost concentration [trace the ultimate substance of enemy strength to the fewest possible sources; compress the attack on these sources to the fewest possible actions; and subordinate minor actions as much as possible].

Do not talk about /b/

A firm foundation for the sciences requires a truth that is absolutely certain; for this purpose, I will reject all my beliefs for which there is even a possibility of doubt, and whatever truths are left will be absolutely certain.

Abolition of private property in land and application of all rents of land to public purpose.

First proposition. The reasons for which "this" world has been characterized as "apparent" are the very reasons which indicate its reality; any other kind of reality is absolutely indemonstrable.

Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.

Law 1: Never Outshine the Master

You've got to know when to hold 'em

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

You must write.

2015/11/16

Sad Puppies, SJWs, and Ethics

business ethics

The SJW cult had been going from strength to strength in recent years. From academia to the hard sciences; from SFF publishing to comics, their dominance seemed total--and not about to wane anytime soon.

But like the tyrannical governor whose tightly squeezed subjects increasingly slip through his fingers, the dominant Narrative has started to crack in a few unexpected places.

Activist journalists bit off more than they could chew when they tried imposing the social justice script on gamers. At about the same time, Larry Correia's Sad Puppies campaign reached critical mass under the leadership of fellow Baen author Brad R. Torgersen.

Though Sad Puppies 3 largely failed to restore the Hugo rocket's honor as a populist prize awarded to meritorious works of SFF, Vox Day's parallel Rabid Puppies slate seized the initiative to spectacularly fulfill its objective of making the World Con CHORFs burn down their own awards.

As I and my esteemed colleague Daddy Warpig have noted, Larry and Vox were the real winners of this year's Hugos, despite not taking home a single trophy. Larry's observations of a biased clique controlling the awards were proven true for a conclusive third year in a row, and Vox's fiendishly laid Xanatos Gambit forced his opponents to publicly self-destruct.

The Sad Puppies/Gamer Gate/Superversive movement now faces the perennial problem of resistance forces that have had their first taste of major success: internal conflict over what to do next.

A recent post by Sad Puppies 4 organizer Kate "The Impaler" Paulk sparked debate between factions invoking Enlightenment values of civility and fair play ("He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.") vs. those lobbying for scorched earth tactics ("It's the only way to be sure!").

Witnessing this philosophical squabble has forced me to reach a troubling conclusion:

By no means is this a statement of intellectual or--even more absurdly--moral superiority. It's simply an observation that, to my knowledge, no member of the Evil Legion of Evil has formal training in moral theology (corrections welcome).

Certainly their dread ranks contain lawyers, economists, accountants, soldiers, and philosophers of the highest caliber, but ethics is a complex discipline in which I happen to have some specialized knowledge.

Almost all of the thought leaders in SP/RP profess some form of Christianity and/or espouse Enlightenment values that are derived from and dependent upon Christian doctrine. This makes my task much easier, since I can cite basic moral principles with which a majority of people who maintain allegiance to classical, Christianity-derived Western concepts of morality can agree.

My aim here is to offer information that may help the champions of civilization devise effective, ethical tactics for vanquishing the SJW cult.


Morality Is Absolute
"Subjective morality" is an oxymoron. By definition, moral principles apply to everyone, everywhere, at every time. Objecting that extenuating circumstances can affect the moral value of an act is a self-refuting appeal to an absolute principle in an attempt to refute the existence of absolute principles.

The existence of absolute morality is essential to the concept of inalienable rights. If some things aren't always right and some things aren't always wrong, then citizens have no leg to stand on when their government deprives them of life, liberty, or property in the name of the "greater good".

In short, the only two options are absolute morality or no morality.


How to Define an Act's Moral Value
Every willful human act has three elements that determine whether it's good or evil.

  • The object/matter of the deed itself: the immediate end willed by the actor (what was done).
  • Intent: the actor's ultimate motive (why it was done).
  • Circumstances: conditions that can modify, but not fundamentally change, the nature of the act (who, when, where, how)
Here's how to do the math: if all three elements of an act are good, then the act is good.

If even one element is evil, then the whole act is evil

God intends for the good, i.e. Himself, to be the final end of all human beings. Therefore all of our actions should be directed toward the good. This principle rules out intentionally doing evil, even if good might come of it (Romans 3:8).

Let's look at two examples of how to apply these principles in concrete situations.

A pro boxer enters the ring so he can excel as an athlete and earn a living. He trained hard for the fight, so he wins.

Another boxer agrees to a match for the same good reasons. He also wins--by loading his gloves.

Both cases have identical outcomes, but the second fighter's cheating makes his whole effort evil regardless of the goods he obtained.


Just War
Some people jump to the false conclusion that these principles dictate total pacifism. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Western moral tradition has acknowledged the justice and necessity of self-defense since at least St. Augustine's time, and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that when defending oneself, even lethal force can be justified.

Civilized people aren't required to knuckle under in the face of an existential threat. And in case you haven't been paying attention, SJWs pose a threat to Western civilization itself.

The West is suffering a crisis of virtue. The cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice are being replaced by "soft virtues" like open-mindedness, empathy, tolerance, and fairness. Because wisdom is necessary for understanding and applying moral principles, moral decline is inevitable in cultures that lose the "hard" virtues.

Our Western way of life, which gave birth to scientific and artistic marvels unrivaled in world history, is under attack. Our livelihoods, and if nothing is done, our lives, are at stake.

Just war theory allows proportional response in self-defense against tyrants and to punish enemies who are guilty of grave evil. Note that I'm invoking just war doctrine by way of analogy. Actual violence would be a disproportionate response. "Fighting" in this context means "standing up for your principles".

In the current crisis, with venerable and beloved institutions that bring about great good under assault, not only is refusing to fight back a guaranteed path to defeat, it's downright evil.


Warning against Proportionalism and Consequentialism
While the enemy poses a grave threat that must be resisted, we must take care not to fall into errors that are equal and opposite to cowardly despair.

Proportionalism is a faulty method of judging an act's moral value based solely on short-term outcomes. It's essentially making a list of pros and cons and calling the act good if the pros outnumber the cons by even 1.

Consequentialism is similar, but it tries to make moral calls based on expected long-term results. Using this approach is asking for trouble, since predicting the future is a notoriously tricky business.

The fatal flaw of both proportionalism and consequentialism is that they're forms of moral relativism. They start by denying that there's any such thing as an intrinsically evil act and treat all human actions as neutral until all of the results are in. If the outcome is mostly positive, the whole act is deemed good, no matter the methods used or the collateral damage inflicted.

In short, since both of these methods treat morality as relative instead of absolute, they actually deny that morality exists.

Rejecting relativistic moral systems shouldn't be mistaken for arguing against certain tactics on the grounds that by using them we will somehow "become the enemy". Despite being an ontological impossibility, such arguments miss the point.

All human action should be directed toward the good. Fighting off hostile and implacable foes falls into that category. But the enemy is not the sole standard of evil, and copying their behavior is not the only path to hell. We should fight, and fight ethically, because as fallen creatures we are susceptible to evils of our own.

2015/11/15

Geek Gab Episode 31: Spectre

Daddy Warpig, Dorrinal, and I return to discuss Spectre, the latest (and final Daniel Craig?) James Bond film. We also speculate about The Force Awakens and lament Hollywood's lack of originality in general.

Take a listen!


2015/11/13

Reviewing the Breakout Novel: Monster Hunter International

Monster Hunter International

At a recent party with several bibliophiles, I overheard a buddy of mine talking about how much he loved Larry Correia's books. Another guy chimed in with something like, "Larry's stuff is OK if you like books where every chapter ends with an explosion, but it gets tedious after a while."

That exchange illustrates the dichotomy between the high regard that Larry's fans hold him in and the running narrative that he's Not a Real Writer. While I don't begrudge anyone who makes the effort to read an author's work before deciding that it doesn't fit his tastes (like the guy above), there is a real and widespread prejudice against Larry in certain circles based on a straw man image of his writing.

I've reviewed Larry's work before. With his latest opus Son of the Black Sword tearing up the charts, now seems like a good time to look back at where his meteoric rise to the author D List began.

Most authors will never have a breakout hit. Most of the minority who do will toil for years in the word mines before scoring their big break.

It's a testament to Larry's artistic talent and business savvy (which are complementary; not opposed) that he made it onto the Entertainment Weekly best seller list on his first try. With a self-published book. That breakout novel was Monster Hunter International.


MHI Hits the Ground Running
MHI signed
Full disclosure: I received goods and services from the author in the form of a free copy of the book, which he signed :)
On an otherwise normal Tuesday evening I had the chance to live the American dream. I was able to throw my incompetent jackass of a boss from a fourteenth-story window.
Monster Hunter International, page 1
You always hear Moby-Dick or The Gunslinger mentioned when people talk about books with the best opening lines.

For my money, the above-quoted opening of MHI easily earns a place in the Best First Lines canon. It's a fantasy we've all had (admit it). It's grounded in otherwise mundane particulars to put us right there in the scene. And the irreverent voice in which the brutal facts are given sets a pitch perfect tone that never wavers throughout the book.


Twist on the Final Girl
The best evidence against claims that Larry is a semi-literate Neanderthal writing explosion porn for barely literate troglodytes is the intentionality and craft he puts into his characters. A truly glorious feather in MHI's cap is Larry's idea of populating the book with survivors of the bloodbaths you see in horror movies.

As a horror fan myself, a novel about a paramilitary group that hires survivors of zombie/werewolf/vampire/giant spider/etc. attacks as monster bounty hunters already turns my crank. But Larry took it a step further by subverting our movie-based expectations of these characters.

The bespectacled bookworm is deadly sniper and master tactician. The accountant is a former cage fighter and 3-gun champion. The intimidating, dreadlock-sporting former jock is a devout Christian and D&D fan. Every main character has hidden depths, which makes them seem real.


Breaking the Rules
One of Larry's pet peeves is literati types who try to impose their obsession with literary rules on others. He often cites how great authors like Dan Simmons frequently break the rules. The trick is being good enough to get away with it.

NB: I rely far more on rules and conventions in my own writing than Larry does. That's because I am an unapologetic pedant who's convinced that at least one little corner of the world would be a much better place if only there were more of us ;) I do agree with Larry that the law was made to serve man; not man to serve the law.

My rule-bound disposition leads to my only problem with Monster Hunter International. The book plays host to Said Bookisms, Burly Detective Syndrome, and unnecessary dialogue attributions which can sometimes break up the flow of the text.

Then again, this is a first novel from an author whose impatience with literary perfectionism is well known, so I can't deduct too many points for some sentence-level rawness. Besides, Larry has pretty much worked these minor kinks out of his writing by now.

A far better measure of Larry's talent is when he intentionally breaks the rules. When it happens, it's for all the right reasons, i.e. it's more fun for the readers and generally serves the story better. MHI is a prime example of profitable rule-breaking, since Larry violates the injunction against using deus ex machina, not once, but twice. It does indeed work, and it's a lot of fun.


The End?
Monster Hunter International rightfully stands among the elite ranks of breakout first novels. It expertly blends time-honored tropes of the horror film tradition with hardcore action appeal.

The protagonists are inventive twists on familiar archetypes that make them fresh while staying accessible. The villains are genuinely frightening; often deeply disturbing, yet have relatable and consistent motivations that make them all the more credibly threatening.

Though MHI brings a considerable share of horror to the table, a generous dose of earthy humor heads off any danger of the book descending into a bleak, alienating slog. It is fast-paced, intriguing, and most of all, fun.

Larry Correia gets a lot of flak for not being A Real Writer. As his first book shows, anyone who levels that accusation at him can't have been paying much attention to his actual writing.

Larry Correia hat

2015/11/11

Not Seeing the Forest for the Dead Trees: Amazon Numbers Show Readers Going Indie

forest

Back in September, The New York Times reported that eBook sales have "slowed sharply".
Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper. E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.
E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television
I instantly pegged this story as a brazen attempt by a legacy media outlet to boost the morale of  its fellow travelers in mainstream publishing, because I'd already read this report.

Author Earnings Report - September 2015 Sales

It turns out that the NYT's claims, based on an Association of American Publishers report, that eBook sales had fallen 10% while print showed signs of recovery, was pure wishful thinking.

Matthew Ingram at Fortune magazine interprets the data correctly.
When I first saw the story, I thought it raised two important questions, neither of which was really answered conclusively in the piece (although the second was hinted at). Namely: 1) Are e-book sales as a whole dropping, or just the sales of the publishers who are members of the AAP? And 2) Isn’t a drop in sales just a natural outcome of the publishers’ move to keep e-book prices high?
Data from the site Author Earnings, which tracks a broad spectrum of information related to digital publishing, suggests that both of those things are true. In other words, a decline in market share on the part of established publishers is being taken as evidence of a drop in e-book sales overall, and at least some of the falloff in market share that publishers have seen is likely the result of high e-book prices.
The irony is sweet indeed. Last year, Hachette battled it out with Amazon for the right to set eBook prices unreasonably high. The rest of the Big 5 followed suit. They did this in a misguided effort to decrease eBook sales and push readers back into print, where the Big 5 control distribution. Now, the Big 5 are reporting decreased earnings due to falling eBook sales.
Whether the Big 5 wants to admit it or not, they are confused and, if they are smart, more than a little scared by what is happening in the business. According to a Publishers Weekly article, EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) dropped last quarter and lower e-book sales were a big reason why. At HarperCollins EBITDA fell 23.6% over the same time period last year. It would have been down 33% had HC not purchased Harlequin.
Like a clumsy marksman with a gun tangled up in his shoelaces, legacy publishing keeps shooting itself in the foot. The record, film, and video rental industries may have fallen to digital disintermediation, but big publishing still thinks it's a special exception to implacable market forces.

Legacy publishing's stubborn ignorance has been an open secret in self-publishing circles for years, and it's good to see awareness of their suicidal arrogance spreading. Indie authors aren't the only ones celebrating over the Author Earnings numbers, as the exodus from the Big 5 stands to benefit small publishers.

Vox Day, lead editor at small publisher Castalia House, referred to the Fortune story on his popular blog.
In other words, the share of ebook sales that belong to the major publishers have plunged from 39 percent down 26 percent due to the rise in ebooks published by Independents and Amazon itself. This is due to several factors, ranging from increasingly mediocre authors being signed by the editorial staffs to foolish pricing decisions by the business people.
I suspect the decline in the self-published category was initially due to Amazon skimming off the best of them, followed by the change in Kindle Unlimited rules that deter the publication of very short ebooks. The KU change probably also explains why Indie growth has leveled off since May.
The figures lend credence to Vox's take on events. One correction: there's been no decline in the self-published category. This misinterpretation is understandable, since Author Earnings uses the terms "indie" and "self-published" interchangeably.
Indie authors outnumber traditionally published authors in every earnings bracket but one, and the difference increases as you leave the highest-paid outliers. But even these extreme outliers are doing better with their self-published works.
It's actually self-published authors who are gaining the most from the Big 5's loss. And unless legacy publishing has a sudden epiphany and stops gouging its customers on eBooks, their share of the market will continue to shrink.

2015/11/10

Movie Review: James Bond 007: Spectre

James Bond Spectre

SPOILER ALERT: This is a full review with spoilers. Proceed at your own risk if you haven't seen the movie yet.

Over the weekend, I saw Spectre, the twenty-fourth film in Eon Production's James Bond series.

First, some background. In my opinion, Daniel Craig's tenure as Bond has been a mixed bag. Casino Royale was brilliant. Quantum of Solace was dull and convoluted. Skyfall had its moments, but it didn't hang together very well.

My main problem with Skyfall is that the writers/director didn't seem to know whether they wanted the film to be in continuity with the two prior Bond films, a soft reboot, or some kind of standalone alternate universe detour. (We just had Bond's origin story six years before, and now he's over the hill?)

Resolving this conundrum is now impossible, since Spectre clearly establishes that all of the Craig films do indeed take place in the same continuity. But that's Skyfall's problem. I won't hold it against Spectre.

Which is good, because Spectre has enough problems of its own.


Troubled Production
Spectre ran into problems before shooting even began. The film's production suffered multiple and costly setbacks, including uncertainty about the return of director Sam Mendes, assaults by hackers, controversies over filming permits and foreign tax breaks, and massive budget overruns. Due in part to these extra hassles, Spectre is now one of the most expensive films ever made.


Villainous Plot
Bear with me as I try to sum up the plot of Spectre based on one viewing.

Mexico City: Bond chases a terrorist through a Day of the Dead festival. The scumbag tries to flee via helicopter, but 007 boards the aircraft and kills everyone on board with his bare hands. Not a bad start! During the aerial struggle, Bond recovers a ring engraved with a sort-of ghost, sort-of octopus thing.

Back in London, Bond is called on the carpet by M (Ralph Fiennes), who reveals that the shenanigans in Mexico City weren't sanctioned by MI6. We also learn that M's division has merged with MI5, which is headed by a weasely surveillance state quisling called C.

There's a major conference coming up where the intelligence agencies of nine countries will vote on sharing all of their information, and Bond is suspended to keep him out of trouble. For good measure, M has Q (Ben Wishaw) implant 007 with a nanotech tracking device.

Bond skips town anyway, heading to Rome for the Mexico City terrorist's funeral. Because M (Dame Judi Dench) tells him to in a postmortem video message. Bond saves and seduces the terrorist's widow (Monica Belluci), who directs him to a meeting of the secret ghost octopus society her husband belonged to.

The meeting is totally chaired by Blofeld (Christoph Walz), and there's not even any point in pretending that it's not Blofeld, but the movie tries to anyway. There, Bond learns where Mr. White has been hiding since Quantum of Solace. After a car chase that's more like a drag race with one or two obstacles, Bond goes to Switzerland to meet up with White.

It turns out that White was a member of the ghost octopus society, which is really called Spectre (not S.P.E.C.T.R.E.). All of the villains from Craig's previous Bond films are also revealed to have been members. 007 asks where he can find Blofeld and gets a referral to White's estranged daughter, whom he swears to protect. Then White blows his own brains out.

White's daughter is working at a clinic in the Alps. She initially refuses to accompany Bond, but she's forced to accompany a gang of kidnappers from Spectre. Bond saves her in a thrilling plane/car chase, and she agrees to help. At a hotel where she went on family vacations as a kid, they find directions to Blofeld's secret base inside a crater in the desert.

There's an awesome fight aboard the desert train that pays homage to From Russia With Love. Then Bond and Bond Girl arrive at the crater base. A toady invites them to have drinks with Blofeld after freshening up in an homage to Dr. No.

Blofeld comes on screen and monologues. He's still using an assumed name, but the fact that he's using C and the intelligence vote to gain control of the world's top secret information should clue anybody who knows anything about the franchise into the fact that he's Blofeld.

Blofeld reveals that:
  • He's Bond's sort-of foster brother.
  • He killed his own dad because he was jealous of Bond.
  • He's responsible for the deaths of every Bond girl since Casino Royale, including M.
  • His name is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (duh).
Blofeld tortures Bond with some kind of dentist drill/brain surgery device. Bond Girl uses Bond's exploding watch to help them escape. Immediately after suffering brain damage that was stated to affect his balance, Bond mows down a whole platoon of Spectre agents like he's an FPS character on God mode.

Bond returns to London, where he helps M take down C in a weirdly complex sting. But it turns out that Blofeld survived the watch explosion, except now he's got a creepy dead eye scar. Blofeld puts 007 in a Saw-style dilemma where he's got three minutes to either escape a building that's rigged to blow or else look for Bond Girl, who's also trapped in the building.

Blofeld doesn't think that Bond has enough time to find Bond Girl and escape, but he's Bond and he proves Blofeld wrong. Bond shoots down Blofeld's helicopter but decides not to shoot Blofeld--all to fulfill something that M foreshadowed earlier about 00 agents also knowing when not to kill, even though this really seems like a good time to kill somebody.

In the aftermath, Bond quits MI6(?) and steals an Aston Martin DB5, possibly to begin a no doubt tumultuous relationship with Bond Girl.


Analysis
Overall, Spectre is an OK Bond film. It's full of exciting action set pieces, except for the Rome car chase, which isn't the production's fault since a bunch of historical societies tied their hands out of fear that they'd mess up some old landmarks.

This time, Mendes and company did a much better job integrating classic Bond tropes with post-reboot Craig Bond. It felt like they found the sweet spot that eluded Skyfall. Spectre also manages the difficult feat of cobbling all four Craig films into something resembling a coherent continuity. Of the two films, I prefer Spectre.

Interesting side note: Mendes is the first man to direct back-to-back Bond films since John Glen directed The Living Daylights and License to Kill back in the 80s. Perhaps for this reason, Spectre reminds me greatly of the former of Glen's two films.

The main problem with Spectre is its script. It might be due to the difficult production, but the story is riddled with lazy shortcuts and unnecessary complexity, plot holes, and foreshadowing that's either insufficient or wasted.

Case in point: Blofeld. Having Walz's character use a red herring name until the last act serves no story purpose whatsoever. It would've been more effective just to withhold the character's name entirely until the end. The only reason he isn't called Blofeld from the start seems to be the same kind of metatextual gimmick that Star Trek: Into Darkness shoehorned in so annoyingly with Khan.

On the whole, Spectre is a decent movie that's one more draft short of great. It's too bad, since this might be Craig's last outing as Bond, and it would've been nice to see him go out on a high note.


Recommendations
Worth seeing in the theater if you're a moderate to hardcore Bond fan. Otherwise worth catching when it comes to Netflix.

2015/11/09

How I Got Here: A Writer's Journey

journey
Photo by Neil Jones
I'm a professional writer. Some of my work is self-published; most of it has been published by other people.

A common misconception about writers is that our work is our brand. That's only partly true. The one indispensable element of a writer's brand is himself. Audiences like to know about the creators of their favorite works--as if a spec fic author's personal details could be more fascinating than the fantastical worlds he creates.

Nevertheless, I've been doing this for a while, and it's time I told the story of how I got where I am now.

If you just stumbled upon this blog, and this is the first post of mine you've read, you might be expecting saccharine author platitudes like "chasing my dream", "living my passion", and having an "important message" to share.

Those who've been reading me for a while know better. Whoever you are, welcome. Even if my experience can't teach you anything, I hope it'll at least give you some perspective.


Why I Write
Every author is inevitably asked why he writes. The answer is surprisingly--one might say disappointingly--simple, and it's true for the majority of writers.

That answer is: because I have to.

Am I alluding to an inner, artistic drive that moves me to create and makes me feel guilty if I don't? Yes, but that came later, after I'd already been writing long enough to make it a habit.

In a much more immediate sense, I write because I actually have no other choice.


The Road Well Traveled
There was no childhood oracle that foreshadowed the turn my life would take later on (if there's been any "turn" at all), and there was no great epiphany that set me on my current course.

NB: having your life foretold isn't always a good thing. A fortuneteller warned the mother of a close friend that her son wouldn't live past 25. Luckily, he's now in his 30s and doing fine. But living under what amounts to a death sentence, even if he didn't consciously believe it, had an effect on him.

Put me down as the product of a typical Reagan administration upbringing. I was blessed to grow up in an intact, middle-class home. I went to church, attended private schools, and ate meals regularly.

There were no life-defining crises. That's not to say that it was all sunshine and Ecto-Cooler.

I've always been introverted, and growing up I was seen as mature for my age--probably due to my large vocabulary. Throughout grade school I only had one or two close friends at a time--more like unofficially adopted brothers--and more often than not, I had to spend my free time alone.

We've arrived at the part where you expect the misfit daydreamer to find refuge in science fiction.

Nope. Truth be told, only in recent years have I become a regular science fiction reader. Except for reading the Dune series in high school, I was always more of a fantasy guy.

What I did do was find my mom's old paperback copy of The Hobbit when I was ten. It's still the only novel I've finished in less than a week. (Yes, I'm a glacially slow reader.) I quickly followed it up with The Lord of the Rings, and then The Silmarillion, which is still my favorite Tolkien book.

Now, Tolkien is awesome, but come on. I'm a child of the digital age. Did you really expect my primary exposure to SFF to come from books? I was grooving on Star Wars tapes, the original run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and most of all, video games--especially the Final Fantasy series. Later in high school I'd transfer my escapist fantasies to pen and paper RPGs.

None of this led directly to writing. I would, however, wander around my block at home and the school playground, marinating in these pop culture influences--letting them merge and percolate and gel. I'd make up sequels to favorite movies, TV shows, and video games in my head; never writing any of it down.

I've always found it difficult to get enthused about things that most people around me find important. I couldn't care less about sports or presidential politics. I haven't watched TV in years. Technology for its own sake doesn't excite me. From where I'm standing, the difference between a smartphone and a toaster is mostly accidental. There are jobs I need to do, and they require the right tools. That's where the tools' importance ends.

The one thing I unreservedly care about is truth. It's like health: if you don't have it, you can't reliably get anything else.

And so it went for years. I've lost count of how often parents, relatives, and teachers told me during this time that "it doesn't matter what you major in, as long as you get a degree." As far back as I can remember, my grandma would eagerly speak of my inevitable college graduation. The image I formed of life was that at certain predetermined points things happened, and college was one of those things.


Divergence
The vast majority of the time, when the world holds something up and says, "Behold! The Next Big Thing! You should be duly, raptly impressed by this," I'm just not. My only strong social skill is high marketing resistance. I know almost immediately and effortlessly when someone is trying to sell me something.

In hindsight, that might be why I never had an answer when a teacher or relative would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up (another of those "inevitable events" that has yet to happen). My thought was always, "I'm me. I'd like to stay that way indefinitely. That's not enough for you?"

Turns out, the answer is "no". Utilitarian consumerism so dominates Western society that most people sincerely believe that others' worth can be judged solely on what they produce. They forget that the only reason anyone produces anything in the first place is to acquire things that can't be manufactured.

And that's how I ended up enrolling in college with no clear idea why besides that it was "expected of me".

You know the rest: graduating with a useless humanities degree; saddled with insurmountable debt; trying to enter the workforce while over-educated and under-experienced.

But lest you think I'm trying to shift the blame for my mistakes, what I came up with to solve my underemployment and crippling debt was to sign for a second tour of academia. There's no honest way to pass the buck on that one.

Somehow, I actually managed to land a job that held the promise of meeting my financial needs. I did well enough to get a promotion within my first six months on the job.

What I'd thought of as an answer to my prayers soon turned into a nightmare procession of gaslighting, kafkatraps, and intimidation that culminated in my superiors lying on a performance review to terminate my employment.

There's a monk's reward, though. Having been backed into a corner with my livelihood at stake, I launched an all-out battle for my career's survival.

In the end, I lost. But as I warned them, so did the incompetent sociopaths who took me down.

Most people talk about disillusionment as a bad thing. But if you think about it, the word really means casting off pleasant lies for sometimes uncomfortable truths, and that's always a victory.


Oh yeah, writing
If you're still reading, you're probably waiting to learn how I became a writer. Once again, the answer is simple. I started writing.

You want the secret to becoming a writer? That's it. Go open a new Word doc and stare at the blank screen for four hours. You'll either crack or start writing, if only to fill the unbearably empty page.

If you don't crack, then repeat the same process every day. In a month or so you'll develop a habit that will make you feel bad for not writing. That facilitates the process.

If you want to know why I became a professional writer, this pretty much lays it out:
  • I have a knack for language.
  • Building fantasy worlds is second nature to me.
  • I lack the skill and inclination to be an artist.
  • I have neither the skill nor the disposition to program video games.
  • A regular 9-5 job never appealed to me.
  • When I put in copious amounts of time, money, and effort to start a career anyway, it was detonated on the launchpad by paranoid psychopaths.
  • None of the people I turned to helped me--not even when it was explicitly their job.
  • The psychos were in tight with big wheels at a company that dominates my area. Exposing their incompetence leaves me with the choice of A) getting a guaranteed negative reference from a highly influential former employer, or B) leaving a fatal and otherwise inexplicable gap in my work history.
  • Facing a choice between A) seeking a defeatist lapse into sloth, or B) a pursuit that lets me hone useful skills while giving me a creative outlet, is no choice at all.
It seems like there's some truth to the old adage about windows opening when doors close. Providentially, I'd started writing daily before my job got nuked, and now this author gig might be the most successful thing I've ever done. That doesn't mean there isn't still a long, long way to go.

Which is good, because at this point I really can't stop.

It's been said that these posts are both inspirational and sobering. Very well. Let this post stand as an encouragement and a warning.

This is what it takes, aspiring authors. I have no stable career, minimal passive entertainment, and no social life to speak of (on weekends, I chat online for half an hour with a couple of other geeks, and one of us records it).

You can become a professional writer, but there are tradeoffs. There are sacrifices. It will probably cost you less than it's cost me. Now ask yourself: "Is this worth it?"

If yes, then open up your word processor and get to staring at that blank screen. May God help you.

Obligatory link to my book

2015/11/08

Geek Gab Episode 30

Daddy Warpig, Dorrinal, and I are back for another intense episode of Geek Gab!

We ran into some scheduling snags this week, but we managed to get our respective acts together and pull it off, because our fans are worth making the time for.

On this episode, we do what geeks do best: gab about movies and gaming, including some old school D&D stories from back in the day. Feel free to partake of some retro RPG nostalgia below.


2015/11/06

Souldancer Chapter 1

From the Amazon reviews for Nethereal:

"I look forward to the next book, and will buy it on kindle when it comes out."

"The story of Nethereal is a bold and memorable first step into the Soul Cycle series, and I will be eagerly awaiting the next instalment."

"After much travail and derring-do, the story's climactic battle is mind-blowing - and a good set up for the next book in the series."

"I look forward to the next installment."

"I'm definitely looking forward to the next."

"Brian Niemeier has woven a very complex and interesting space epic and I can't wait to see more."


You guys have been good, so here's a little present to tide you over.


Chapter 1 of Souldancer: Soul Cycle Book II

Souldancer-desert

Xander imagined the trail winding through the dunes as a golden road flanked by heaps of gold dust. Perhaps the heat inspired his daydream. More likely it was his mother’s tale—one of the few she’d told only in his father’s absence, and even then only in whispers. Her claim that Zadok had made the world in such a marvelous place was not contrary to Nesshin lore. But the rest of her story had seemed heterodox to him even as a child.
Xander recalled his mother’s words, if not her voice. God divided his body to make the whole universe. The spheres, the stars, and the White Well’s light are all parts of him. He divided his mind to make all lesser minds—humans, Gen, and malakhim. By learning from one another, each of us would teach God something new about himself.
The lesson that God most hoped to learn was how to destroy evil. So corruption entered the once pure world. Everyone suffered, but since God himself had been corrupted, he was powerless to save them.
Despite the passage of years, the tale’s bleak implications still troubled Xander. If the creator could not save creation, what cause was there for hope? His mother had smiled when she’d answered his objection.
You must never lose hope, my son. A man lost in the desert may look to the empty sky and, despairing, succumb to his thirst. But in so doing he may miss a peal of thunder that signals approaching rain. If he could see the clouds over the horizon, he would not need hope, for he would know. If we could see beyond our own minds; beyond the One Mind that contains us all, perhaps we would know the reason for our hope.
Xander sighed. Sometimes he envied his mother’s belief that each person carried a spark of the divine and a unique, God-given destiny. Though blasphemous, her way seemed more merciful than living as a servant bound for judgment.
But where is my destined place, if not here? The question had practical merit. Though he’d seen eighteen summers, Xander’s failure to prove his worth consigned him to extended childhood with no personal status in the clan.
These dreary thoughts woke Xander from his daydream. The street of gold faded, leaving only the well-worn path upon which his tribe’s caravan toiled. From Xander’s place in the rearguard, each wagon with its escort of tanned men in faded cloaks looked like one segment of a huge plodding beast—a beast that smelled of sweat and horse and iron.
Accustomed to lighter duty, Xander’s lungs burned and his muscles ached. He shaded his eyes with a plump hand to check the sky for the hundredth time. The sun’s distance from the horizon told him that three hours had passed since noon.
Past the hard part. The lead driver would soon call a halt, and the clan would make camp for the bitter cold night. Another late summer day on the Nesshin trade route through the Desert of Penance.
At least summer is what Father calls it, Xander thought. He wrapped a brown scarf around his shaved head to keep out the sand-laden wind. With Highwater two weeks behind, the mountains at the desert’s end—and Medvia beyond—would be only a few days’ journey east.
Xander trudged beside the rumbling wagon and dreamed of the oasis town with its verdant parks for sport and its dimly lit gambling parlors. Something struck his head, rudely shaking him from his second reverie.
Xander reflexively straightened and returned his spear to its proper angle perpendicular to the ground. His steps lengthened into the gliding stride favored by his people. He turned his bruised head in the direction of the blow, expecting to find one of the van wardens calling him to task with a disapproving frown. Instead he found…no one. Only an empty spot where his fellow guard Sem had been walking.
Another blow stung Xander squarely between the shoulder blades, originating from the formerly unoccupied space to his left.
Not wishing to be caught off guard again, Xander cautiously peered over his left shoulder and saw the tall, rust-cloaked form of his younger companion.
Sem’s grin failed to brighten his dull face. “Pardon me. I must be heat-addled to mistake the quartermaster’s son for a lazy ass. Perhaps it is for the best. A touch of the rod seems to work whether the ass is lazy or just fat.”
Xander rubbed the solid lump of his belly. Shame burned in his chest, calling to mind the kitchen of his childhood home, where his mother had been telling her last tale before…
Do not let memory cloud your thoughts! Xander urged himself. Fond memories hide the pain of the past.
“My girth is no hindrance on the field in Medvia,” Xander said as he fell in beside Sem.
“That was before. I’ll beat you this year!”
“It is time you gave up sport,” Xander said. “I could recommend you to my father. He always needs new ass-herds.”
Sem sneered. The butt of his spear swept down toward the bridge of Xander’s nose. Xander blocked. Sem thrust the spear point at his rival’s face.
Xander’s body couldn’t react to the blow in time, but his will responded by reflex. He stood unflinching as the spearhead stopped within an inch of his eye and slid away as if the air were a sheet of greased steel.
His balance upset, Sem fell to the ground. He was just regaining his feet when a blocky figure stepped between the two boys.
Xander tilted his head to peer at the newcomer. The broad-shouldered man bore a thick unpolished staff. His shapeless nose proved his experience with it. He wore a many-patched long coat that appeared to be washed regularly in mud. The original color of Azil’s coat was a perennial topic of debate among the drivers who served under him.
Azil growled as he hefted Sem level with his coarse bearded face. Sem interposed his trembling spear between himself and the lead driver.
Azil’s grin flashed from under his beard, managing to appear menacing and amused all at once. “Has no one shown you how to hold a weapon, boy?” he asked, peeling the spear from Sem’s grip with his free hand.
“I am no child!” Sem croaked through clenched teeth. “The Council of Merchants will declare me worthy when they convene in Medvia.”
Azil canted the spear over his shoulder and roughly set the youth on his feet. “Well, boy, bring a grievance against me at the next meeting.” He enveloped both spear and staff in one massive fist. “Meanwhile, I will hold onto this until you learn the difference between a fat human and a death worm. Now, go and see that Meiron’s horse is shod when we make camp.”
Sem turned his frustration on Xander one final time, checking the older boy’s shoulder before storming off on his errand.
Xander muttered his people’s vilest curse. “Thera emitte sherrad!
“If Thera shares his bed, I know not whom to pity,” said Azil. “It is a blessing that I came along, son of Altor; though none deny that you are blessed. If not for your father, I doubt you’d enjoy life so well.”
Xander inclined his head and spoke flatly. “Thank you for praising my father’s vital role in the clan. I will pass your remarks on to him. Perhaps your place in the market will be more favorable this year.” Raising an eyebrow he asked, “Is that why you came to my lowly post?”
“I have no need of a laggard child’s favor,” Barked Azil. “I was sent to bring you to your father’s wagon. ‘Unharmed,’ he said, as if afraid you would faint along the way!”
“He was probably more concerned about your ham-fisted wrath,” Xander mocked.
“Anyone else would have cause for concern. Now come, I have more pressing work than playing swineherd.”
Xander held his tongue and followed. Though he feigned indifference, being called weak stung worse than his bruised head. It was true that he lacked the raw strength and hardihood of his peers, but he had other virtues—subtler, yet no less useful.
Even Xander didn’t fully understand his gift. It had been bitter to receive, but he’d turned the ability to his advantage. Sem’s failed attempt to skewer his eye was proof of that.
Xander’s gift had other merits. Though only eighteen, he enjoyed renown as the tribe’s most lucrative sportsman and gambler. Not even the strange games played in distant towns could deny him victory. Darts, balls, and dice alike seldom went astray.
Azil marched Xander to the back of the lead wagon. “I trust you can find your way from here,” the driver said before moving on to the front.
Xander wondered why his father would summon him away from guard duty. None of the possibilities were pleasant. Except…perhaps the quartermaster would finally declare his son an adult.  Xander yearned for a place in the clan, but each year his rivals advanced while he remained behind.
Eldest custom required a Nesshin to demonstrate his worth as a mark of adulthood. Custom also excluded gambling proceeds, but that was the clan’s loss.
He’s probably found me a woman. Xander winced as past candidates sprang to mind.
Thank God he couldn’t be forced into marriage. Nesshin courtship law bound the suitor to approach the prospective bride’s father. After an exhaustive interview, the family patriarch would either give his blessing or irrevocably veto the union.
However, tradition didn't stop most grooms’ parents from voicing their opinions—a right that Altor Sykes often exercised.
Very well, Xander decided. I will hear my father out, nod when appropriate, and ignore his advice.
Glad to be free of Azil, but anxious over what awaited him inside, Xander hopped onto the lumbering wagon. He stepped through the back door as he had a thousand times. But somehow this time felt different.
            “You wish to see me, Father?” Xander asked as he entered the quartermaster’s cramped chamber. Dry sterile air gave way to the tang of spices, sawdust, and hot metal.
Altor sat cross-legged on a Thysian rug clutching a piece of silvered glass and a file in his callused hands. Xander sat down before his iron-haired sire without waiting for an invitation. Of all the Nesshin, he alone had that privilege.
The quartermaster worked in silence.
Xander glanced around the room. A jumble of heirlooms adorned the walls—relics of a vanished life. Most prominent were the mirrors, resplendent in frames of exquisitely carved hardwood. They were his father’s masterworks, testaments to a man who’d lost everything only to start again. He’d learned the trade to support a family—a son, and for a time, a loving bride.
            For far too short a time.
            At length, Altor set the silvered pane aside. “Yes, I sent for you. I’m surprised Azil brought you so soon. I didn’t expect you until after we made camp.”
            “You are still busy with the mirror,” Xander observed. “I’m sorry I interrupted you.”
            A smile made its way onto Altor’s weathered face. “Interrupted? Not at all. There is never an end to work. There is always time to speak with one’s son.”
            Xander studied the gleaming square at his father’s feet. Only then did he notice fine traceries in the polished surface: ethereal towers, birds, and people frozen in silver. Reflected lamplight filled the mirror’s sky with flickering stars.
That must be the world as it was before the Cataclysm, Xander thought. But never having seen Mithgar before its fiery chastisement, he couldn't be sure.
“You seem well suited to your new post,” Altor said. “Guarding the caravan is a vital task—especially now, if rumors among the trading camps have any substance.”
Xander seethed. He’d endured more than his share of humiliation already. “Why did you call me, Father? Was it to judge my worth as a guard, or have you another heavy-handed plan to make me a proper Nesshin? Should I betroth an obnoxious girl from a minor house desperate to win your favor? I know I can trust you to make the right match. What about Galia, Azil’s daughter? She has the perfect mix of frivolity and blind slavery to tradition!”
Altor’s head sagged. “So,” he sighed, “a deluded old man, enslaved by tradition and blind to his son’s wishes—is that how you see me, Xander?”
“No.” Xander lowered his eyes as regret stirred inside him. “But I often suspect you think me just a boy whose decisions must be made for him.”
Altor chuckled halfheartedly. “What irony that you should confess such feelings now, considering the offer I've chosen to make you.”
Taken aback, Xander weighed his father’s choice of words. “An offer? Is there a reason you use business terms with me?”
Altor nodded. “Business is precisely what I wish to discuss.” He took up his tools with shaking hands. “You see, my skill is leaving me. This piece will be my last. It’s my penance, perhaps—the price Zadok demands for sparing me from his judgment. Nevertheless, I doubt that God would begrudge an old man’s desire to pass on his life’s work. I would like to entrust my craft to you, Xander. If you agree to learn, I will teach you to fashion mirrors as the Highwater smith taught me.”
Xander brooded in silence. At last he spoke. “I respect what this offer means to you Father, but you know I cannot accept. I’m not like you. I do not wish my future laid out for me. I want to find my own way; to build my own life. Like you did.”
Altor shook his head. “I see. Somehow I knew your answer.”
“Then why did you ask?”
“As a mercy,” Altor said. “God made the land. Those whom he calls may walk it unafraid. That is the Nesshin way, and it saved us when the cities became tombs. Better to eke out a living in the wasteland than to die in the old world’s shattered remains.
“I know, my son, how you long for a place in the clan. But you have always sought something nameless; intangible. That’s why our customs chafe you so. It pains me to do this, but it is my duty as a father.”
“To do what?”
Altor swallowed; then looked at his son. “You cannot stay with us, Xander. For your own sake, and for the love of God, you must leave the Nesshin.”
Xander gaped. He’d expected criticism, rebuke, even punishment, but not exile! The choice between banishment and an offer that his father knew he could not take seemed monstrously unjust.
“We will reach Medvia in six days,” Altor said. “Once our goods are sold, we’ll decamp for the harvest in Vale. You will remain. You’ll get along with the townsfolk, unless they find out your secret.”
Xander stared wide-eyed at his father. The old man knew about his hidden gift?
Altor’s mouth curved in a sad smile. “You keep no secrets from me, my son. Your mother called it God’s touch. This world is coming back to life, but too late for me.” Moisture rimmed his eyes. “I hope and pray son, that one day a woman will bless you with her love. Your mother gave me my most precious gift before she left us.”
Xander sat stunned, incredulous at what his father had said. His mother’s death was an open wound that time had never healed.
Tilting his grey head to peer at his son, Altor gave his final advice. “I thought that God’s wrath had stripped me of love,” he said. “Then He sent my Sarel, and we taught each other to survive. Don not grow cold, my son. Perhaps you need no one else, but you may find someone who needs you.”
Xander had entered the lead wagon as a favored son. Now he stumbled out as an exile. How dare he invoke the memory of my mother? Would he stoop so low to have the last word?
He didn't realize that he’d strayed from the caravan’s path until he heard the guards’ cries. Their voices became thin and strained as if emanating from a great distance, but distorted and stretched like the call of a rider on a speeding mount.
          Xander strained to see what was going on, but all he could make out were the dim figures of the caravan guards, who gestured frantically at the sky. A deep hum pounded in his head as the world dimmed and went black. Then blazing white. Then black again.

Big thanks to all my readers--especially the reviewers. I hope you enjoyed your first real glimpse at Souldancer. You've probably noticed that it's not just a rehash of Nethereal, and I'm pleased to report that no one (except a few close confidantes who already knew my plans for Book II) has foreseen the direction I'm taking the story in. You won't have to wait much longer to find out.

Saying that I put a lot of work into Souldancer is a huge understatement. I actually started it before Nethereal, and as of this writing I'm about 70% done with final revisions. In the meantime, if you haven't read Book I yet, there's no time like the present to start.