NOVEL CONCEPTS #8: Wake Up Call

I hate time travel stories.  The part of my brain that loves physics never shuts up the whole time.  I don’t care how many gigawatts you shoot into a Delorean, it ain’t going back to 1955, or anywhere else.  It’s just gonna be an overdesigned car from the 80’s slowly building charge.

What does intrigue me are stories that use time manipulation in other ways.  Remote viewing, or remote messaging for example (think Deja Vu, or Paycheck).  The idea of sending information into or out of the past is much more likely to me than the transmission of matter back and forth through time.  Even the ancient Egyptians figured out how to transmit data far into the future.  Surely we may develop something sooner or later.

I’m also fascinated by the concept of a conversation with one’s self.  More accurately, I’m interested in what my past self would think of the life that I’ve made for myself currently and, armed with that knowledge, if they would choose to deliberately break from that path.

Here is the basic story premise.

You’re a young engineer.  You conclude a job interview and are heading back home.  Along the way, you get a call on your cell phone.  The number is unknown, but you take the call anyway.  You’re astonished to hear your own voice on the other end of the line.  Your future self tries to convince you that this is not a trick.  The future self explains that he is calling from exactly one year in the future, as the alignment of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun allows for such a call to be made.  (I know that’s not really accurate, but take the journey with me.)

You’re skeptical, so it will take a bit of convincing to get you on board with the idea that this is real.  I imagine this would involve accurately predicting random events, perhaps news that takes place in a certain area chosen by the past self, on a particular date or at a particular time.  It will be an interesting intellectual exercise to see what would convince a person that they are indeed talking to their future self.

Any time-travel story depends on certain rules, and how closely they are followed (or not).  For this, I’m thinking that the calls can go both ways (past can call future and future can call past).  The calls should be limited to one per day.  Using the notion from Farscape (and plenty of other sources) that, if nudged close enough to course, events in timestreams have a way of working themselves out, then the future self cannot send information back that would radically alter their past self’s path in life (e.g. no lottery numbers or preventing disasters).  It should be enough that the future self could prevent you from making choices that he himself did not make, and would be able to ease anxiety about certain upcoming events, with the knowledge that all would work out (or subtle ways to avoid malicious outcomes).  The events that could be affected would have to be relatively small in nature.

After trust is established, a period of increasing opportunity is created.  Assistance with choices about finances, personal relationships and occupational help.

That’s the first half.

One day you call your future self and he doesn’t answer.

That’s strange.

Then you call again the next day, again, no answer.

Concerning.

You call the following day and he doesn’t answer.  Instead, the voice on the other end informs you that your future self has been murdered.

In shock you end the call and shortly afterward you are unable to reach the number of your future self’s phone.

Now you have one year to solve your own murder.

 

 

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #7 – Heisenberg In Gotham

Heisenberg In Gotham

I usually try not to blatantly use someone else’s idea.  In this case, it was simply irresistible.

Colin Liotta had a brilliant idea in 2012.  Before the ultimate fate of Walter White was known, Liotta posited that the character could warp into a Nolan-verse version of the classic Batman villain Mr. Freeze.  At first, I was skeptical, but, as Mr. Rogers taught us, things tend to grow in the garden of your mind.

I’ve been impressed with much of Mr. Liotta’s other work.  He has a respect and understanding of the Nolan version of Batman that matches my own.  With my longstanding desire to write something about a John Blake Nightwing and the possibilities implied with the nexus of two great franchises, I thought I’d take a crack at writing a prologue, just to see what develops.

Here I present a work in progress.

Gotham: Frostbite

The gloves were still the strangest part.  Gloves weren’t a common sight in Albuquerque and he’d felt odd having to wear them ever since the accident.  Gloves and long-sleeve shirts, it was the only way he could think of to keep his latest mistake from being noticeable.

That was the real trick.  In New Mexico, there was enough open space and enough distance for a man to not feel like he was constantly being watched, but, the further east he went, the more eyes he felt watching him.  It was nothing more than a feeling, a sense of social claustrophobia.  The southwest had been his home for so long that he’d almost forgotten about the east-coast style of living.

As he drove through St. Louis, he wondered if that paranoia would ever really vanish.  Over the past couple of years, he’d been driven through every emotional state that a man could have, or so he thought.  Many men had known what it was to become famous, fewer had known what it was to be infamous, but lesser still were those who had both built an empire and seen it crumble.

He gassed up at a station outside Indianapolis.  He discreetly pulled up his sleeve.  The blue pigment was halfway to his elbow.  If it continued at this rate, he’d have less than a year before his entire body was saturated.

That would be a problem for another day.

Through Pennsylvania he’d managed to find a bit more calm.  Despite the desperation that he felt, he was quick to remember that things could have been so much worse.  Junior was safely ensconced in a solid California university.  Skyler showed signs of stabilizing, though her prognosis was still not good.  That the threat from Hank had been neutralized still made him cringe.  He lamented the lack of elegance in how that had been handled.  Still, when there are no good options, one had to make do with the best of the bad ones.

Looking beyond all the troubles that he’d left in the west, he was able to focus on the most comforting thing he currently possessed: a plan.

Gotham was still reeling from the chaos that it had experienced in the last decade.  The culmination of the madness had been a neutron bomb exploding only a dozen miles off-shore.  The local populace was still greatly frazzled.  They had begun to climb out from their hiding spaces like every timid mammal does after great events wreck their home.  The first bridge to be fully repaired had been completed only three weeks previously.  The city was going to come back to its former self and Walter knew that a thriving drug trade would be as much a part of the new Gotham as it had been in the old.

What had given him a few million in New Mexico, he hoped to use to greater effect in the new Gotham.  It was going to be an uphill climb, but he had both desperation and experience on his side.  Used in conjunction, he had no doubt that he would be able to do what was necessary.  Skyler’s condition must be dealt with.  Holly would be cared for.  The cost of Junior’s education would never burden him.  These were all absolutes and the solution to all of them was just a matter of money.

Money: that’s what Gotham represented in his mind.  It was a city that had been built on finance, had been blackened by crime and had been shaken through terror.  The perfect recipe for a river of dirty money.  And with the downfall of their celebrated vigilante, he felt nothing but potential as he neared his new home.

He took the black pork pie hat from the passenger seat and put it on.  An emperor shouldn’t enter his city without his crown.  Traffic was terrible at the Tri-Gate Bridge.  He sat in a molasses stream of cars inching their way towards the skyline beyond the water.  To his left he could see the docks.  To the right, the skyscrapers at the heart of the city.  He gazed for a long moment, looking for one in particular.  The fog broke just right and he spotted it: Wayne Tower.  That distinctive W that marked the city like a brand.  He tipped the black hat in a silent salute to the Wayne family.  Their empire had risen and fallen much as his own had.  Though he was determined to see his rise once again.

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #6 – The Last Game

Caesars Palace - Vegas

What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

Morpheus, The Matrix

What would you do if you could truly do anything?  Imagine a scenario where your potential was only limited by your imagination.  With the power to manipulate the world and your place within it, what kind of world would you create?

It’s a startling question, but one that will be familiar to writers throughout history.  As storytellers, we constantly create and reshape the worlds that we describe, the only distinction being that we cannot enter those worlds ourselves.  We have to be content to be the Gods of our own stories, crafting fate, character, irony and chance to suit our whims and goals.

Imagination is one of those ethereal concepts that is impossible to accurately explain.  It seems to defy definition and it is simultaneously the engine with which we defy expectations.  Being a fan of both human nature and the nexus of reality and opportunity, I felt like exploring the nature of both.

Let me preface this by saying that it’s gonna look and feel a lot like The Matrix but this concept is a little different.  Bear with me.  It’s also worth noting that the outer details of this story could be told in a lot of ways.  Some stories are driven by character, some by plot.  This is an attempt to drive one purely from the philosophical questions it evokes.  It’s one of my more unusual premises and plots, to be sure.

We begin in Hollywood.  Maggie Jamison, a young Hollywood star, will be our guide for the first act.  Amongst a pile of fan-mail, she receives a rather unusual document.  It’s a newspaper clipping announcing a marriage between her and a man she’s never met before.  The clipping seems to have been copied onto an otherwise unremarkable sheet, the original not being delivered to her.  At first, it seems like an overzealous bit of fan mail: a daft attempt at a marriage proposal delivered to a movie star that gets two crazy proposals per week.  Over time though, the details of the article (a long story about the supposed relationship and background of the star and this man) spark a certain curiosity to learn about the source.

The clipping describes her suitor as a military hero who had returned home from a tour of duty in a dangerous part of the world and had become an athlete, playing football for the Detroit Lions.  A quick search reveals this to be false, but the effort put into it is certainly passionate and genuine.  Our star files it away but otherwise takes no action.

Shortly after this, Maggie gets a phone call from an FBI agent.  The agent asks her if she’s received a strange article recently and she tells him about the clipping and reads it out to him.  The conversation ends shortly thereafter and our star is left wondering if something is amiss.

Two weeks later, a meeting is called to discuss an upcoming project.  At the conclusion of the meeting, Maggie is asked to stay for a moment longer.  She is escorted into a room with Franklin James, who is famous amongst computer experts, but not widely known to Maggie or the world at large.

Mr. James explains that he runs a computer company that has a highly secret governmental contract.  They have created an interface that allows the user to experience an immersive reality.  In effect, the system software creates an experience so real that it is essentially indistinguishable from reality.

The technology was developed for the Army to allow soldiers to train in an environment where the details would appear real while the consequences would be non-existent. (i.e. if you die in the sim, you don’t die in real life).  As the software became more advanced and capable of running more elaborate and detailed simulations, other applications presented themselves.

Over the past five years seventeen special operations soldiers have been incapacitated during enemy action.  Elite soldiers with no immediate or extended families, these men and women served with distinction during secret operations that the public was unaware of.  These soldiers sustained wounds that would have rendered them into a comatose or vegetative state.  Medically, the soldiers were incapable of surviving without life support.  Without a constant medical intervention, they would perish.  Seeking to reward our nation’s heroes and having access to a powerful simulation processor, Mr. James offered a long-term service to the Army.

Using the simulation software, modified with an interface that could access other areas of the brain responsible for emotions, the wounded warriors were placed, without their knowledge, into a simulated environment.  The virtual world that the soldier inhabited would be continuously updated to allow them to achieve a maximum of happiness.  Seventeen different simulations were begun, with no interactions between them, each with a single mind at the core whose desires become reality.

Obviously always getting your way is a recipe for extreme boredom and the software accounts for this paradox by creating challenges and presenting problems that the subject is usually, but not always, capable of overcoming.  The setup is grand, but the details are still as lifelike as possible.  The goal of the system is to provide a pleasant and painless transition from life to death for as long as the soldier’s life functions can be sustained.

One of the soldiers to undergo this process was the mystery man from the newspaper clipping.  His real name is Jackson Turner.  Jackson was a combat veteran who had received a traumatic injury that would have prevented him from having a normal life.  Upon entering the simulation, he became unaware that the world he perceived was in any way artificial.  Instead he quickly was able to achieve many things that he had always consciously or unconsciously desired.  He came home to a hero’s welcome from adoring citizens.  He tried out for and became a starting player for the Detroit Lions.  The simulation software could glean from his synapses the dreams that he had and then present him a world where they were readily achieved.

Maggie is shocked by this news and clearly is confused as to her position within all this.  It is explained that the newspaper clipping is just a printout of a virtual image created within the simulation.  A screenshot from a very advanced game, one in which Jackson had desired to have a meaningful relationship with a real Hollywood star, just as he’d always dreamed of.

At this point, the confusion Maggie feels becomes even more pronounced.  If all this is true, and it appears to be, what are they asking of her.  Mr. James explains that the technology is too dangerous to be let out, but, with her being exposed to it and presented with evidence of it, this meeting was called to evaluate the potential risk of her knowing about it.

I’m afraid the holodeck will be society’s last invention.

– Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert)

A technology like the one I describe (which, again, has been very successfully described elsewhere) is more than a game-changer, it’s a game-ender.  Articles analyzing the potential for such an invention invariably agree that, if properly executed, there would be no reason to ever cease using the machine.  If you are within a world where you can have whatever you want, the act of being removed from it would be horrifying to contemplate.  Akin to being awoken from a very pleasant dream or interrupted on a perfect weekend afternoon, but taken to the nth degree.  To remove a person from a condition of maximum happiness is an act of maximum cruelty.

This is the reason for absolute secrecy.  If the technology existed and was known, it would be nigh-impossible to stop the general public from breaking down the door and demanding to be let in.  Any person who fully realized the potential would likely want to, at the very least, sample the technology, and the experience would be more addictive than any drug in the history of mankind.

At this point I have different branching pathways that I can take the story.  I freely confess that I am not sure what the best course would be for a tale such as this.  The questions that I wish to explore in many cases do not provide readily-available answers and so the central conflict would be between a side which sees this technology as the ultimate evil (the embodiment of sloth and decadence) and a side which sees it as the greatest good (providing a supreme amount of happiness to those who need it).

I feel like a romance provides a certain transcendent background to this.  Taking an obvious cue from Inception, can the reality you inhabit (artificial or not) provide you with the maximum of happiness if it’s not the the same one inhabited by your beloved?  To put another way, imagine a married couple that each wishes to undergo their own simulations.  Placed in separate realities, each might generate a simulation of the other, but if the simulation of their beloved is anything less than 100% accurate (another nigh-impossibility) is the happiness that is created of any real value?  For that matter, are emotions generated from a false reality any more or less valid than those created in the real world?

Fiction provides a great proving ground for the testing of hypotheses and answers to theoretical questions.  When absolute truth is not attainable (there being no truly correct answers to any of the questions I’ve posed here) the garden of one’s mind becomes the best place to look for answers and more questions.  The key is to plant a seed and watch it grow.

NOVEL CONCEPTS: #5 – SHATTERED UNION: An Oral History of the 2nd American Civil War

Shattered Union for Xbox and PS2

A tank from the Republic of Texas in Shattered Union

With great interest and fond wishes, I have watched the slow descent of my beloved home country, from mild psychosis to full on paranoia.  Since 9/11 we have, like the poor folks on Maple Street, looked for the greatest enemy we could find, and it was ourselves.

In truth, it’s really not that bad.  We used to get along a lot better, but. in many ways, the things that divide us are vastly outweighed by the ones that unite us.  It’s easy to forget that in the midst of a political season.  The trouble is, it’s always a political season.

For the past few months, I’ve been stirring over a simple idea.  I think it can be widely agreed upon that half of the country thinks that the other half of the country doesn’t deserve this country.  It’s a sentiment that is echoed widely in social media, if not spoken that directly.  The left and right wings are spreading farther from each other and, as with any material under that type of pull, the middle is becoming strained at the tension created from both sides.

A few months ago I floated the idea of a national divorce.  Not like a secession where the departing states broke away without consent, this would be done more subtly, with assent of most involved.  The idea of two American republics, one for the left-wing and one for the right, standing side by side, without a civil war, had a certain dramatic interest to me.  I think we’ve reached past the stage where an all-out war would be the initial reaction, but I freely admit I could be wrong on that point.

As is so often the case, I have much more by the way of premise than plot, but, since this blog is meant to be a repository for ideas, I’ll do my best to get it all onto the page.

We begin in the year 2024 on election night.  A Republican president is ending his 2nd 4 year term and the Vice President, the current Republican nominee, has lost the election, giving the Democrats back control of the White House (essentially a similar situation to election night 2008).  Rather than blithely accept the loss of power, the Republicans, under the leadership of their outgoing president, begin a complex legal process.

The governor of Texas (a key player in this plan) declares home rule and announces Texas’s secession from the Union.  (Texas has really always been one excuse away from this anyways.)  Now, obviously this would never hold up, but over the course of his terms, the current President will have put several Supreme Court justices into place.  The ruling that they hand down will have the force of law (as do all Supreme Court rulings).  So, even with the blatant unconstitutionality of the act, with a sham court, stuffed with nominees who agreed to this plan should the need arise, Texas is allowed to withdraw, with a few other connected states in the south, west and midwest quickly following suit.  I could see the spread going so far as to cover from Alabama to Texas laterally and perhaps as far north as Nebraska.  Call it 7 states in total.  For the sake of story, I’d want the two nations to have a contiguous landmass and we’ll ignore Hawaii and Alaska for the moment.

The President-elect, technically powerless in this situation, would be forced into a corner and there would likely be a compromise put into place, one in which the seceding states would give up certain military and/or industrial considerations in exchange for the right to leave.  American military forces, (with a few notable exceptions) would withdraw to the remaining 43 states of the Union.

Within a few months the newly formed republic (which, borrowing from a right-wing pundit, I’ll take to calling Reagan) establishes a cohesive government amongst it 7 states.  Texas would likely have a dominant role, with having advantages in size, population and resources.  A capitol is established in Dallas and all the usual trimmings of a new nation begin to take shape (flags, an anthem, a legislative system).

During the transition period, over the course of 2025, there would be massive migrations both into and out of the new nation.  Many citizens would flee from a government that would be less concerned with equality and more concerned with an unrestricted free market and the promotion of the Christian religion.  A mirror of that would be those in blue states who would actively desire to live in a place that promotes Christianity as well as a flood of economic right-wingers who would want to try their luck in an unfettered market.

The first year or so would be one of upheaval.  Markets and international concerns would greatly affect both nations.  There would be dramatic shifts in so many indicators of the status-quo.  Unemployment, gas prices, international relations, all would be thrown into a spin at this dynamic shift.

I can foresee the original American republic (the Union for purposes of clarity) adopting many more liberal stances than are currently in place, with the lack of a strong right-wing opposition.  Off-hand, I’d say one could expect guns to be highly restricted or outlawed; a tax system that creates much more balance between the extremely wealthy and the working poor; a promotion of science and art programs that would not have passed in the previous political climate.  You could expect to see an increase in social programs and a strain on finances, which, accompanied by the national debt, would cause a severe strain on the economy.  Large corporations would use the upheaval as an excuse to realign assets and there would be a struggle to bring the system back into balance.

Simultaneously, the republic of Reagan would suspend economic controls and have many successful super-businesses within its borders, many of which would hold a great deal of political sway.  All non-Christian faiths would be put under fire and those who did not profess would find themselves surrounded by hostile neighbors.  In many cases, this would not be a new experience for them.  Like any theocracy, the infighting would be fierce and frequent, but the worst violence would be practiced on any non-Christians who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave.  Minorities would have it pretty rough as well, but in general, those most hampered would be the working poor.  A pure capitalist system, being Darwinian in nature (the irony!) inevitably leads to a domination of the poor by the wealthy.  It would not be a terrible stretch to imagine a quasi-feudal system in place, where anyone in the lower classes was slavishly tied to a corporation, out of fear of a personal economic disaster.

Obviously you can’t write a decent novel on tax evasions or the toll exacted by world financial markets (at least I can’t, but if you want to give it a shot, then have at it).  In truth, I’d be just as satisfied if some video-game developer would do a decent remake of the Shattered Union game from Xbox and Playstation 2, but, as is so often the case, if I want to enjoy the expression of an idea as it stands in my head, I’ll have to create it myself.  Additionally, this ground has been covered often and I fear the field is fallow.  Stories about a distopian America are so common you can throw a rock and hit one.  Stories about a split of America into warring factions have made for excellent televsion, video games and novels.  If this is an idea that I choose to pursue, I’ll need a hook.

Inspired by World War Z, I’d take a more personal tone with the narrative, going with short vignettes from voices of people on the ground or in important positions.  Talking to gun-runners about moving across the border would be a good chapter, a legal analyst for a constitutional discussion on the break, an account from a Muslim inside Texas of the struggle to get their family to old America and the abuses that befall them when they fail to do so; testimony from one of the ‘Angels’ that keeps morality in line in Reagan;

Eventually this would culminate in a full-scale conflict, though, for the sake of variety, I’d likely have it be the story of two conflicts.  The first would be infighting amongst the various interests within Reagan and an internal shooting war amongst the citizens of the new nation.  The culmination of that local war would be the retaking of the wayward states by Union forces, sweeping through to clear the remnants and restore the territories to their original position as states within the Union.  I think it’d be interesting to cover a final showdown from both sides and to have an explosive shocker of an ending, perhaps the leveling of Dallas with a MOAB or something of equal or greater force.

In closing, let me make a point to say that this is not a daydream or a liberal fantasy that I’d care to explore in real life.  The dissolution of the Union fills me with more horror than any other political situation I can think to imagine.  In truth, we need a lessening of tension to avoid a snap such as the one this story hypothesizes.  While I think it would be interesting to see the results of an experiment such as this, the wreckage would be to terrible to sift through.  Sadly, the only solution to the American psychosis is the therapy of finding common ground and waiting for the voices of irrationality to succumb to the forces of silence and time.

Photo is from the Shattered Union video game.

Cliff diving on Miranda

Novel Concepts: #4 – Miranda – A Challenge Accepted

Featured image

With the possible exception of Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova is my favorite author.  I’ve read at least a dozen of his novels and have thoroughly enjoyed each one.  Bova’s greatest work, in my opinion, is the tapestry he has woven within his Grand Tour series.

The Grand Tour series tells a generational story of mankind colonizing the solar system and parts beyond.  It is still ongoing and I anticipate it will only get better in the future.  The titles of the Grand Tour books are primarily simply the name of a place in the Solar System.  Each story has threads that lead it to the others.  A side character here will be a main character there.  An event in one will get a passing reference in another.  The tendrils are enough for a careful reader to recognize, but not so heavy that they come off like the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Last week, on a lark, I visited Dr. Bova’s website and was pleased to find a contact page there.  I had assumed that Dr. Bova would be far too inundated with fanmail to take much notice, but, I wrote a short note thanking him for his work and recommending that he do a novel set on Miranda, one of the moons of Uranus (stop giggling).

To my great surprise, I received a response in less than 12 hours.  Dr. Bova told me that Miranda seemed interesting and challenged me to name a reason why any non-scientist would want to go there.  I must admit that I hadn’t thought the matter through as much as I really should have.  For a long moment I was well and truly stumped.  A few ideas occurred to me though and I wrote back with a short outline of 4 possible suggestions for a journey to Miranda.  Dr. Bova replied again suggesting that I had the necessary interest and talent to write a novel about Miranda myself.

Challenge Accepted.

I worked out the basic plotline and central characters on a long drive home from Virginia last week.  A long drive on a straight highway has always done wonders for me cognitively.  In this case, it allowed me to flesh out a complete story from start to finish.  That’s relatively rare for me as most of the time when I start to write, I have absolutely no idea how I will finish.

Here I present my outline for Miranda.

Allow me to start with a quick data file about Miranda and the Grand Tour’s universe.  (I don’t believe I can use the Grand Tour setting without Dr. Bova’s permission, but for the moment, I’m using it to give some background to my story.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll be impressed.)

Miranda is, in my opinion, the most interesting of the moons of the outer solar system.  The smallest of Uranus’s five spherical moons, it was discovered in 1948.  Almost all data about Miranda has been obtained from observations made by Voyager II as it flew past in 1986.  The photographs and scans have shown Miranda to be a geologist’s paradise.  Unlike almost all the moons of the outer solar system, which have rocky cores underneath icy surfaces, Miranda is a jumbled mess of rills, canyons and broken formations.  The current speculation is that Miranda must have been shattered at some point in the distant past and the pieces scattered in orbit.  The various pieces, over time, coalesced into their current shape, a random pattern of water ice and rock mixed together.  The moon has less than 10% of Earth’s gravity and orbits Uranus once every 35 hours.  Due to axial tilt and orbital mechanics, only one side of Miranda (the southern side) faces the sun.  Essentially this combines to say that if you are standing on much of the southern half of Miranda, Uranus would appear to not move at all and the sun would appear to move very little.

The elements of the Grand Tour that are semi-essential to know for my setting are as follows.

– After catastrophic greenhouse flooding, the Earth’s political power rests with religious extremist groups.  One of these is the Christian organization called the New Morality, which controls what remains of the government of the United States and much of Europe.  The New Morality is no fan of the independent colonists in the Solar System and does whatever it can to bring them under the yoke of Earth control.

– Long before our story begins, a lunar colony named Selene became its own country and operates independently.  It has a secular government and a thriving business building ships using nanotechnology.

– Water is a resource in high demand everywhere in the Solar System and so mining it is a priority for many.  A colony ship in orbit around Saturn has a business which thrives on shipping water from the Trans-Neptunian objects (essentially asteroids found in the outer orbits which have water.

Okay, enough about our setting.  Let’s get into some character profiles: (Names, genders and certain personality traits are subject to change)

Mark Zimmer: Mark Zimmer dropped out of a very prestigious university to begin his own company.  At the age of 21, he unveiled a new product which he called Mr. Secretary.  Mr. Secretary is a program, a connected series of algorithms, that can accurately predict and exploit economic trends.  The program was adopted by the small nation of Eritrea in the African Union and within one year had expanded the treasury of Eritrea by 300%.  Soon, every nation and nation-state on the planet had purchased the program from Zimmer at an outrageous price.  The global economy stabilized somewhat under the collective control of the programs acting on behalf of national interests.  The stability is seen as a byproduct of the influence of the Mr. Secretary program and economic woe be unto any government that has not adapted Mr. Secretary as a decision maker in regards to its finances.

With his rapid success, Mark Zimmer became a billionaire and has spent the last 7 years aimlessly taking on projects, trying to fend off the boredom that often overtakes him.  His latest entertainment has been a series of tax dodges that he has created through charitable donations to the Smithsonian Museum.  Mark has commissioned the engineers of Selene to build very accurate working prototypes of famous spacecraft from the films of the 20th century.  After “orientation flights” where he pilots the crafts around the inner Solar System for a few months, Mark will drop off the spacecraft off at an orbiting outpost of the Smithsonian.  These “charity donations” of “artistic projects” have allowed Mark to move much of his money off-world.  Still, the fun of bedding supermodels in a replica of the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey has started to wear thin and Mark is hungry for a new project.  (For those playing the home game, yes this is a thinly veiled sketch of Mark Zuckerberg, with just a touch of Tony Stark thrown in for fun.)

Taylor Frost: (haven’t decided whether this character is male or female, but for the moment I’ll use masculine pronouns)  Taylor Frost is a hacker.  Taylor, in defiance of the authorities on Earth, hacked into the hidden files of the New Morality and the Sword of Islam and posted their secrets for the whole world to see.  His goal was to bring down the corrupt political machines by exposing lies and crimes that had been hidden to the public at-large.  The public remained unmoved at the revelations.  Due to a smear campaign and a massive media blitz, the crimes of the religious organizations of Earth were largely ignored.  Society either dismissed the evidence as bogus, or else put its focus on more pressing matters.  Taylor, being instantly ostracized and hunted, fled to the nation of Selene, on the moon.  At Selene, he received asylum from the lunar colony, but due to political pressure, was technically classified as a tourist (in order to avoid the implications of having such an infamous person as a full citizen).  Taylor has spent the past few years in Selene, living off the meager stipend provided by Selene and trying to find a use for himself without the benefits of full citizenship in the colony.  (Again, for those of you scoring at home, I’m aiming for an Edward Snowden ripoff in this character.)

Charles Hancock: Charles Hancock is an engineer living in Selene.  He has been Mark Zimmer’s chief designer for all the spacecraft that Zimmer has commissioned.  Zimmer and Hancock share a love of history, films and spacecraft and the two have a good working relationship, despite the fact that they have never met in person before our story begins.

Evelyn Fielding: Dr. Fielding is a resident professor of Fusion and Nuclear Studies at the University of Colorado.  She was a mentor to Charles in his university days and the two talk often and consult each other on projects and designs.  Evelyn is something of a technocrat and has no problems with the New Morality, so long as her studies on fusion power systems are left unchallenged.

Now, to the story

Part One – Spark:

Mark Zimmer is on a test flight of his newest spacecraft.  He is contacted by his accountant, who explains that the tax loophole that allowed him to have spacecraft built as a charitable donation is now closed.  The young billionaire laments the intricacies of capitalistic systems and reroutes his newest acquisition to lunar orbit for a vacation in Selene.

After landing in Selene and finally meeting his long-term penpal Charles Hancock, Zimmer tours the lunar colony and rethinks his current situation.  He learns that Taylor Frost is a “permanent tourist” in Selene and arranges a meeting so the two mavericks can discuss ideas.

At the Meeting with both Hancock and Frost, Zimmer unveils his latest idea.  Mark wants to create a post-economic society.  A truly egalitarian collective of like-minded citizens who eschew monetary concerns and capitalistic in-fighting to create a system where economic status is null and void.  This would be a society beyond Adam Smith and Karl Marx, something truly unique and independent.

Hancock and Frost both find the idea to be somewhat preposterous, but agree that it has an idealistic merit that cannot be overlooked.  The idea of a society that is not only classless, but unconcerned with monetary influence is a concept that they see as intriguing if not wholly impractical.  Zimmer states that his monetary resources are vast and that the financing of a new society such as this is possible with the means at his disposal.

Frost has been living as something of a wage-slave in Selene, the victim of an unfortunate diplomatic conundrum which prevents him from officially holding a job within the lunar colony.  Frost needs no encouragement to consider signing on with Zimmer’s idea of a post-economic society and sees it as a way to find a new independence outside of the looming shadow of the New Morality.

Mark, inspired by the Mormons of the 1800’s, has chosen Miranda as a site for his new colony.  Much like Utah in the 1800’s, Miranda presents itself as the most rugged and difficult terrain which is currently unoccupied.  For this reason it would be unlikely that others would want to stake a claim to Miranda.  Zimmer also reasons that a colony that far out in the Solar System would be relatively safe from outside powers.

Hancock is unmoved by the idealism of the project, but is fascinated by the technical challenges it presents.  As Zimmer’s plans begin to take shape, Hancock becomes the chief architect of the project, designing both the colony’s shelters and environmental systems, as well as the spacecraft that will bring the colonists and their supplies to Miranda.  The engineer sees the project as the ultimate test of his skills and does not shy away from the daunting nature of the project.

At one point, Hancock consults with his old mentor, Dr. Fielding, about the fusion power plants that will be used in the colony.  They have a friendly discussion about their current projects.  Dr. Fielding makes mention of a new contract that she has been commissioned to work on called Project Angel.

Part Two – Kindling:

Two years later the colony ships have launched with 120 souls on board to claim the moon Miranda and begin the establishment of Zimmer’s new society.  The colonists are largely ridiculed by the media and the whole thing is seen as a stunt doomed to failure.

Leading the colonists in their endeavor, Mark Zimmer becomes the first man to step foot on Miranda. The construction of the Miranda base begins under the direction of Charles Hancock, who decided to join the expedition under the logic that he, as its chief architect, would be best suited to help the colony improvise, adapt and survive.

In their first six months, the colonists struggle to create a self-sustaining system of resources, but their efforts eventually culminate in a base that can feed, warm and shelter all its residents with little aid from outside sources.

The power vacuum created by a lack of economic factors leads to internal infighting among the colonists.  Conflict arises when different colonists submit long-term plans for the future of Miranda.  Eventually these conflicts come to a head and talk begins about potentially abandoning the colony and essentially “cashing out.”

In secret, Taylor Frost sends a coded signal back to Earth.  Taylor’s signal installs a trojan horse program on the Mr. Secretary systems which have maintained the economy of Earth.  The trojan program disrupts the Mr. Secretary systems and leads to a chaotic upheaval of stock markets and pricing for many commodities on Earth.

Taylor, seeking to unite the colonists again, reveals his actions to all at a town-hall style meeting.  Like Cortez burning his ships, Taylor has launched this economic bombshell to poison the colony’s relationship with Earth.  Frost’s actions are seen as monstrous, but the implication is clear: the citizens of Miranda cannot abandon the colony.

Part Three – Conflagration:

Back on Earth, the economic upheaval causes many problems, but in large part is brought under control within a matter of weeks.  The Mr. Secretary program is abandoned and the governments of Earth return to their former approach of using human decision-makers.  The anger against the Miranda colony, however, does not abate,  The New Morality, through their influence on various governments, derides Miranda Base as a haven for economic terrorism and declares war on the fledgling colony.

Evelyn Fielding is called to serve aboard the Armstrong, a massive spacecraft commissioned by the New Morality to carry their will to various pockets of humanity off-Earth.  The Armstrong is essentially a battleship, though officially its mission is to conduct security and render assistance wherever it is needed. The Armstrong was built during the same timeframe as the Miranda ships and it is the final stage of Project Angel, which Dr. Fielding has been working on previously.

The Armstrong departs Earth on a mission to seize and, if necessary, destroy the Miranda colony.  Despite its large engines and considerable fusion power sources, the journey will take approximately six weeks due to the extreme distance of Uranus’s orbit.

Miranda Base monitors the flight of the Armstrong and prepares to be attacked.  The colony has no weapons to speak of and the ships that escorted the colonists are similarly unarmed.  Charles Hancock, under the influence of his mentor, had never built any weapon system on a ship before and the colony ships are no exception.  Miranda’s citizens prepare for the worst and plans are made to resist or surrender, depending on the actions of the Armstrong when it approaches.  There is also talk of delivering Taylor Frost to the Armstrong as a peace offering.

The Armstrong arrives in orbit around Miranda and, under the instructions of the New Morality, immediately fires a shot at Miranda Base, destroying a greenhouse shelter that had been erected and was a major source of food for the colony.

Zimmer and the surviving colonists immediately radio the Armstrong and request to surrender.  However, just as the surrender is offered, the Armstrong’s fusion reactor has a massive malfunction.

Fusion reactors are essentially small contained stars which generate energy.  In this case, Armstrong’s fusion reactor star is essentially going nova.

The captain of the Armstrong calls upon Dr. Fielding to stabilize the fusion reactor and is stunned to find that Fielding refuses to fix the problem.  Dr. Fielding is appalled that her designs were used to power weaponry that targeted a civilian colony.  She has sabotaged the reactor and announces that she is willing to perish along with the rest of the Armstrong’s crew unless the captain powers down all weapons and jettisons the warheads that the Armstrong is carrying.

Listening in to the exchange between Fielding and the captain, the colonists of Miranda Base offer to accept the surrender of the Armstrong and render assistance with its reactor, provided that the weapons are powered down according to Fielding’s demands.

Not wanting to sacrifice the lives of his crew, the Armstrong’s captain relents and disables the weapons systems of the battleship.  Dr. Fielding brings the reactor to a stable state after representatives from Miranda come on board to take command of the ship.  The formal surrender of the Armstrong is handled according to the rules of naval captures in warfare.  The captain and crew of the Armstrong are held in the ship’s now empty weapons deck.  The warheads which gave the Armstrong her teeth are transferred to the surface of Miranda and held as property of the colony.

Seeing the opportunity to savor some revenge, Taylor Frost takes command of the Armstrong and makes ready to fly the ship back to the inner Solar System and exchange the crew, again according to naval customs.  In the final scene Frost, Zimmer and Hancock discuss plans for the ship after its crew is paroled.  Frost makes a bad joke that he is considering putting the ship into a kamikaze run targeting the headquarters of the New Morality.  It is clear to all three that Frost is not serious.

Photo credit: Image at the top is from the amazing short film Wanderers by Erik Wernquist

My first book on sale! Spread the word!

My first published (well, self-published) story, Flight of the Nimbus is now available!   You can buy it for your e-reader.  Both Kindle and Nook versions are out there!

Please spread the word.  It’s only 99 cents and it’s short enough to be a comfy afternoon read.

Click on the retailer below to see:

On the Nook from Barnes & Noble

On the Kindle from Amazon

More to come!

Explorers Remake: A Modest Proposal

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About 20 years ago I enjoyed one of the childhood pleasures that my kids will never understand: browsing a video rental store looking for things to watch on a long weekend.  My dad, enjoying movies about as much as I did, would often let me wander around a Blockbuster or a Hollywood Video in an aimless meandering journey to find whatever bad science fiction movie I hadn’t yet stumbled across.  Most of the movies I found were worthless drivel, but they taught me a lot about bad writing, bad special effects, and essentially what not to do as a storyteller.

Still, sometimes you stumble across a gold nugget in the stream of VHS.

Explorers is a sci-fi movie with a cult following.  My 8 year old self had no idea what that meant, which didn’t matter because no one had ever told me about the movie anyway.  I do remember being intrigued at the basic premise; kids not much older than me at the time built a spaceship themselves and have adventures flying it.  Anyone who knows me can’t be surprised that this got my attention fast.  

One of my favorite aspects of the film is its “lived-in” feel.  There are few scenes that look like they were shot on a set and everything you see gives you the sense that it wasn’t just taken out of a box.  Even the dialogue and tone between all the characters hints at shared stories that we, the audience, don’t know and a camaraderie that we don’t necessarily have to witness.  It’s comforting on a subconscious level and you never feel like you’re watching a film as much as watching the neighborhood kids playing.

I remember, as a kid, loving every minute of the film, the same way I remember loving food from McDonald’s and the watermelon-smashing comedy of Gallagher: I loved it mostly because I couldn’t recognize its flaws.

Last week I was glad to read an optimistic article which said that a remake of the film was in the works.  Not being one to shy away from a new project, I’ve taken it upon myself to present an idea for the inevitable rewrite of the film.

Before I begin to bore you, let me tell you the basic story of the original (spoilers ahead):

Ben (played by a very young Ethan Hawke in his first feature film) is a kid obsessed with science fiction movies and outer space (sound familiar?).  He has dreams of flying over a gigantic circuit board of some sort and describes some of the components to his nerdy friend Wolfgang (played by a young River Phoenix in his first feature as well).  

Wolfgang takes Ben’s drawings and assembles the circuit board which he then plugs into his (1980’s) computer.  The boys quickly discover that the board contains a program which can create a bubble in real space.  The program asks for the boys to put in coordinates which they do and they discover that the bubble can move with great speed and agility and that it pushes aside anything in its path.  

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Another friend, Darren, who has protected the pair from bullies, joins them in testing the bubble to see what it can do.  On a hilltop outside of town the friends make a bubble large enough to contain Wolfgang, at which point they promptly lose control and Wolfgang gets taken for quite a ride over and then through the hill itself.

After turning the program off Wolfgang reports that the bubble is airtight and while inside it he had no inertia.  Interpreting this for the others, he concludes that they can use the bubble to travel as fast as they’d like with no side effects.

At this point, like any teenage boys would, they use the device to spy on a girl Ben likes.  

With Darren having access to the local junkyard, the boys find an old Tilt-a-Whirl ride which has seen better days.  They use it as a chassis to build a spacecraft to fly inside the bubble.  There’s a fun montage of its construction but I’ll save you the trouble and show you the finished ship, which they call Thunder Road.

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Clearly it’s not a spectacular marvel of engineering, but that’s kind of the point.  It’s built from junk.  It’s been made with love and sweat and it’s just the kind of thing that middle-school kids would put together.  Nothing about it, or the rest of the movie, has a polished feel.

The initial flight of the Thunder Road causes a fair amount of UFO sightings in the town and ends with the destruction of a perfectly good concession stand at the local drive-through (I really miss old movies).  

While in the air, the computer controlling the craft goes haywire and begins to take the boys straight up.  Only by rebooting and tricking the program do they regain control and return safely to the ditch where their flight began.

After a debate as to whether to go again, the boys return for another flight.  This time they trust the dreams that they have had which encourage them let the aliens take control of the ship.

Their next flight swiftly takes them out of the atmosphere and far beyond Earth.  They pass over the Moon and are being carried out into space by the program which has taken control of their craft.  

This concludes the first hour of the movie.  At this point the movie begins to take a hard left turn into ridiculousness and it’s easy to see why it failed to make back even half of its low budget at the box office.

Thunder Road is taken in by a much larger alien craft and the boys leave the vessel to explore the ship.  Getting separated by the inner workings of the alien vessel (which has a real fun-house feel to it), the boys soon find the two aliens responsible for their journey.  As much as it pains me to do so, I’ll show you what one of the aliens looks like:Image

Somewhere out there Jim Henson is rolling over in his grave.

It turns out that the aliens only know of Earth from the images they have watched on television and so they communicate with old stand-up comedy lines and newsreel footage and clips from old shows that are always slightly out of context.  It’s funny, but only for a minute or two.  After a long chat with the pair (who happen to be brother and sister) the alien ship is itself swallowed by a much larger alien vessel and we discover that these two aliens are merely adolescents themselves.  They have absconded with their dad’s ship to go and play with the Earthlings.  No grand message, no wisdom of the universe to impart.  Just a couple of kids on a joyride.  It’s charming, but it’s also a little disappointing, both to the boys and the audience (or at least me).  Even the director remarked in later years that he wanted something a little more powerful for the overall message.

After being forcibly kicked out in their tin-can spaceship, the boys fly back to Earth and crash-land in the water outside of town.  They manage to swim to shore with little difficulty, but the Thunder Road is a total loss.  

Soon after the boys, along with the girl they were spying on, have another shared vision of a large circuit board and the movie ends on this optimistic and ambiguous note.  

Well, by now surely you’ve all begun drumming your fingers at this mess of a tale and are certainly wondering what could be done to save it.

Remakes are always tricky ground.  It’s important to honor the original without duplicating it.  It’s difficult to please the first audience while appealing to a new one.

I don’t think any fan of the film would disagree with me that the first hour is excellent and really only the last half is in need of rework. 

Armed with this, I propose the following:

For starters, keep the first hour as is.  It’s fine with the circuit board, the bubble, the junkyard spaceship, all of it works.  I say don’t change a thing there.  You can change the ship design or paint scheme but I wouldn’t mess with it too much.

Rather than a joyriding pair of space aliens on a weird fun-house ship, let’s give them a proper destination.  Mars immediately comes to mind, but maybe something farther out would be more interesting.  Maybe a large structure around Saturn or something on Pluto (minor planets need love too).  

You need something more important than alien teenagers on a joyride, so I’m thinking that an alien race chooses these kids as ambassadors of some sort.  They want to impart knowledge or wisdom or maybe just their own narrative to mankind, but they fear that adults will just react with distrust and violence, so they choose to have our main characters be witnesses to their goodwill.  This might involve something like giving them insight into solving a major problem (cancer, global warming, energy, famine).  Still, I wouldn’t want to turn this into a political film or one with a message that some would construe as being leftist or even right-wing.  

I think it’d be interesting to throw in an element from The Cassandra Project and have adults try to mount a mission to discover whatever the boys find out there.  There could be a side plot with a real spaceship being built to fly somewhere and it is rerouted to see if these aliens are real and discover whatever there is to find.  This leads to interesting possibilities with first contact stories or something with cosmic significance.  There’s a lot of ways to play it.

Let’s boil it down to the main elements after the Thunder Road gets built.

– Ben and the boys fly up to meet the aliens by letting the alien program take over the ship.

– The computer takes the ship to Mars or the far side of the Moon where they find a structure of some sort.

– Once inside the boys exit and make their way through an alien library or museum of some kind.  As they go through they find records of technology and civilization more advanced than ours.

– The aliens present themselves in some form which isn’t a ridiculous green rubber suit.  Something like an AI on a screen or just a talking voice or at the very least we see something which is identifiable and aesthetically pleasing, but still with an alien biology behind it.  The air whales of sci-fi books or the Eosapiens of Alien Planet could be good as a guide here.

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– Our heroes are told that these beings seek out other life in the universe.  They want to interact with us to preserve their knowledge and understand ours.  Perhaps they suffer from an ailment that is dooming their species and they need something unique in our biology as a cure.

– The boys, naturally hesitant at first, and perhaps arguing among themselves, agree to take the message of these aliens back, but they demand some evidence so that they will be believed.

– The aliens return them in the Thunder Road along with plans for a new engine that will allow for fast travel in the solar system.

– As all this is happening, NASA is hard at work building the Darwin spacecraft in Earth orbit.  The commander of the mission is one of the all-American hero type astronauts and he’s idealistic about space exploration, just like Ben is.

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– The boys fly the Thunder Road back to Earth and land at the NASA center in Houston or Huntsville.  They want to pass along plans for the new engine and they have a hard time getting the attention of the scientists until they fly the Thunder Road around the rocket garden and show that they are serious.

– NASA immediately reroutes Darwin, armed with the new engine, to search the alien library and decides to send along a contingent of soldiers to make sure the aliens aren’t hostile.

– When the crew of the Darwin reach the library, they are disarmed by the technology there and find that the boys and the Thunder Road have already arrived ahead of them.  

– The boys apologize for leading military types back to the aliens, but say that they tried to encourage the adults not to respond with distrust, but some things are inherent for mankind.

– The aliens, military, and the boys all come together in a moment of understanding that life is rare in the universe and whenever it is found, it should be preserved and celebrated.

Obviously this needs a little work, but I think it’s the starting point for a better story than the original, while preserving a lot of the same elements.

As with all of these posts, this is one I’ll continue thinking about in the future.