Friday, 30 September 2016

Two Ways To Create A World

Before I wrote Bane of Souls, I did a lot of world-building in preparation. At the time, this was unusual for me, but I didn’t feel time pressure because I’d only started working on it whilst trying to get a separate (and doomed-to-fail) story traditionally published. So, I tried to do as much background work as possible. Continuity was a big weakness of mine, and having background info ready and waiting helps both keep the world consistent and provides immediate ideas for little snippets you need (for example, social habits might include smoking, visiting cockpits and bare knuckle boxing).

This stood me in good stead, and the world created served as the foundation (with later additions) not only for Bane of Souls, but Journey to Altmortis and a future trilogy (first part, Kingdom Asunder, due for a December release).

However, I accidentally discovered a completely different approach when writing comedy. My world-building for Sir Edric was zero. I made up the incidental aspects (brandy being Andelic, elves having Greek-ish names, the Ursk eating humans) as I went along. Reviewers praised the world-building but, whereas I’d put months into Bane of Souls’ background, I’d done sod all for Sir Edric.

I’m a cautious sort of chap, and my writing method probably reflects that. So it was a bit of a surprise to find that the most neglected aspect of the comedy went down very well.

This does, I think, highlight an important point that’s relevant to both approaches. You’re not writing a guided tour of the lovely, or horrid, world you’ve created. World-building only matters insofar as it touches the characters and plot. And as showing is almost always better than telling, it should be, at it’s best, indistinguishable from the story. It’s the antithesis of an info-dump, the desire is to get the reader to learn about the world without even realising they are.

Maybe that’s why the Sir Edric approach worked so well. There’s little description, but a lot of action and dialogue. An inspiration for this is the approach adopted in Outlaws of the Marsh, a Chinese classic I bang on about sometimes. It’s brimming with action. You don’t need to be told Sagacious Lu is hard as nails, you learn it when he flings a gang of thugs into the nearest cess pit.

So, maybe a lot of background work isn’t just unnecessary, but a backward step. After all, I’m not here to write a guidebook for the Kuhrland or Denland or Felaria, but to write an entertaining story.

It’s worth pointing out a substantial difference between the two styles, though. I write comedy, for Sir Edric, from a single perspective. The eponymous knight is the centre of the story, the world, the perspective. Just about everything is filtered through his prism (hence why attractive women will get more description than plainer ladies). Kingdom Asunder and other serious writing is done from multiple perspectives. This means getting continuity right for both the world and things like timing the plot is more complicated.

I think the single POV approach of Sir Edric lends itself more naturally to spontaneity, as well as making it easier to keep things consistent. It’s not an area where there’s a right or wrong answer, because the two approaches both have merit, but I think it’s interesting that, even for a single writer, the two can work despite being completely different.


Friday, 23 September 2016

PS4 Pro: Why It Has Already Failed

I have a bad habit.

Every console generation, I buy at the wrong time. Within a year, often within months, a better version of the console (a slimmer one, or one with a bigger hard drive) comes out. Like clockwork.

This time is a little different, though. Because both Sony and Xbox have more advanced consoles which are souped-up versions of the existing generation. I’m focusing on the PS4 Pro, both because it’s just been announced and because I have a PS4.

It is a stupid idea. A strategic blunder.

In basic terms, this either sells well and succeeds, or poorly and fails. If the latter, that’s obviously a failure. But even if it sells well, there’s a problem.

Sooner or later, the PS5 and Xbox RandomNumber will come out. But who, beyond the rather rich, is going to want to buy one? A few years after that, the PS5.5 and Xbox RandomNumberB will come out. You’ll then be left with an invidious choice: buy the slightly better console that has the same range of games but will cost extra for a second console purchase, or go without and stick with the peasant version.

So, I imagine many people will wait. Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft aren’t getting the console sales they hoped for, because the public are wary of their dodgy generation-and-a-half ways. Game sales are down, console sales are down, and everyone makes less money.

Consoles aren’t like mobile telephones. You spend for convenience. If you want to incrementally improve your gaming experience and have the dosh to throw around, the PC is there for you. PCs are more powerful in every way, games can be played without worrying nearly so much about backwards compatibility. Yes, they’re fiddlier and costlier, but that’s the trade off.

Consoles = cheaper, more convenient
PCs = more expensive, better experience

I didn’t spend a couple of hundred pounds on a black box to spend even more on another black box a year later to play the same games.

Maybe I’m just more of a skinflint/poorer than other people, or just a bit old-fashioned (that latter point is almost certainly true), but the PS4 Pro seems stupid to me. Anyone wanting continual improvements can get that already. The whole point of consoles is that they’re easy. You splash out once every seven years or so, plug in and play.

Another problem with the PS4 Pro is that to get the most out of it, you need a 4K TV. And the VR. Which also means a camera. And probably a couple of Playstation Move peripherals.

I might be wrong (I’m into F1 and classical history so I’m well aware I’m not Captain Everyman) but it seems too expensive for most people whilst offering too little (the games are the same) just a few years after the initial PS4 launch. Far better to have that for a PS5 launch, and have a VR bundle for those who want that, no?

As an aside, the Xbox Scorpio, or whatever it’s called, is a good chance for Xbox to strike back against Playstation in the console war.

Late additional bit: fresh from an underwhelming presentation, Sony’s delighted PS4 owners a little bit more. Bethesda, who wanted Fallout 4 mods on PS4 in June (they came to Xbox One in May), have said they’re cancelled, and squarely blamed Sony for that. Mods are also not coming to the PS4 version of Skyrim.

If you’re a huge Bethesda fan, that’s a great disappointment. I do like Bethesda’s games (less taken with Fallout than Elder Scrolls), and find this to be unsurprising but bad news.

There are suggestions (following the news that a farming simulator game will have mods on the PS4) that some form of mods may yet happen for Fallout 4/Skyrim on the PS4, but that remains to be seen.


Friday, 16 September 2016

Review: Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius

I first read this quite some time ago, but recently re-read it. The edition I have is translated by Robert Graves, revised and updated by JB Rives (a Penguin Classic).

The book is a series of small biographies of the first twelve rulers of late Republic and then Imperial Rome, starting with the dictator for life (but not emperor) Julius Caesar, and continuing through to Domitian.

As you might expect, Caesar, Augustus and Tiberius have lengthy biographies and Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Titus rather shorter (Galba, Otho and Vitellius were all short-lived emperors in 69AD and Titus only reigned two years). It’s a shame and a surprise that Vespasian in particular, who was a good emperor reigning a decade or so, gets a relatively short biography.

The biographies have a slightly odd approach. Whilst they tend to begin with early life and end up with death, the middle parts are ordered according to topics rather than chronology. An emperor’s fiscal approach may be followed by his moral virtues, then his vices, for example. It’s not awkward or clunky, just unusual compared to modern day biographies, which tend to be dictated by the order in which things occurred.

Suetonius is perhaps the single most easy-to-read classical history I’ve encountered (perhaps Livy is close). I read on a forum that some see him as a tabloid historian, which is a pithy summary of his style and the veracity of his offering.

With rare exceptions (Thucydides, Polybius) classical historians were not fixated on accuracy as we hope modern ones are. Suetonius is a bit of a gossip, relaying anecdotes (sometimes mentioning he thinks they’re unlikely to be true) along with facts. However, that does not prevent him painting vivid pictures of the imperial lives, and giving us an indication of how they were seen shortly after Domitian’s downfall.

There really isn’t much I dislike about it, with the exception that endnotes rather than footnotes are used.

Twelve Caesars is a most enjoyable book that’s very easy to read both in terms of the writing style, and that practically no previous knowledge of the era is necessary.


Friday, 9 September 2016

Eastern Empresses

The Eastern Roman Empire (also called the Byzantine Empire) had a slightly unusual constitutional arrangement. As well as considering the Emperor to be Equal of the Apostles and God’s vicegerent on Earth, the Empress had her own particular power base. She had her own palace, staff, income, and whilst clearly (well, usually) subordinate to the Emperor, she was a power in her own right (a bit like a cross between Elizabeth I and the First Lady of the US).

Amongst the most significant empresses was Theodora, wife of Justinian the Great. She had an unorthodox upbringing, born to circus performers and going on to work in a brothel (as well as engaging in swan-related theatrical performances the details of which I wouldn’t want to sully my readers’ eyes). Her attention and wit caught Justinian’s eye and he married her.

It was a shrewd move, despite Theodora’s less than spotless past. In the 6th century, arguably the worst sports rioting in history occurred. The Nika riots saw the Greens and Blues factions [teams in chariot racing] unite to try and topple the Emperor. Justinian was set to flee. Theodora refused to leave, and inspired her husband with the backbone to fight back. He ordered his generals to attack the mob, which left thirty thousand of them dead.

The Hagia Sophia, amongst the greatest churches ever built, was one of various religious buildings that was constructed during Justinian and Theodora’s reign (sadly, it is a church no longer). It is worth noting that Procopius, in his Secret History, had scarcely a good word to say about Theodora [or, indeed, anyone else]. Regardless of her vices, some of which are undoubted, she did have the virtue of saving her husband’s throne when he was ready to leave it for the mob.

Empress Irene was first the wife of an emperor (Leo IV) and then regent (the latter for nearly twenty years). When Leo died, her son, Constantine VI, was only nine, and she became empress regent.

One of two very notable acts of Irene (if we ignore the suggestion she may have had Leo murdered…) was that she ended iconoclasm, which had wracked the city of Byzantium for decades. The iconoclasts were people who went about smashing up icons. That sounds extreme, and is a great shame from a historical and artistic perspective, but it’s worth pointing out that the Romans had gone a bit batty over icons at this stage. For example, icons might be the ‘godfather’ of a child. The backlash to this (partly influenced by new-fangled Islam, which, of course, is not nearly as fond as Latin Christianity when it comes to depictions of people) was smashing them up. The counter-reaction (those who were pro-icon) were called iconodules.

Irene proved reluctant to give up power to her son, and relations disintegrated. In the Eastern Empire, only physically perfect people (using the technical definition of ‘perfect’ to mean ‘intact’) could rule. So, you could cut off someone’s nose, or ears, or testicles, and they’d be removed as a threat to the throne.

Irene, who was not overflowing with maternal instinct, had Constantine blinded in so vicious a manner he died of his wounds shortly thereafter. She ruled for the next five years, before being deposed and exiled.

Empress Zoë was the daughter of feeble Constantine VIII and niece of the formidable Basil II. Basil prevented her marrying any Byzantine nobles to avoid rivals to the Macedonian dynasty (she had earlier been betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III, who ungallantly died before they could meet). She spent much of her life in confined quarters with her sister Theodora (the two had a rocky relationship). When Zoë married Romanus III, she had her sister exiled to a monastery.

No child was forthcoming despite her most vigorous efforts. Romanus grew distant and she took Michael on as a lover. Romanus then turned up dead, and Zoë wed Michael. Having learnt the lesson well, Michael IV kept Zoë confined thereafter.

Another Michael was made emperor (nephew of the other), who, ironically (given her sister’s fate) had Zoë banished to a monastery. At this, the people of Byzantium revolted, and both Zoë and Theodora returned to the city, whilst Michael V lost his throne.

Zoë wished to forgive Michael VI, but Theodora was made of sterner stuff. The former emperor was blinded and confined to a monastery. The sisters still did not get along (Zoë was incapable of ruling but happy to interfere with what Theodora wanted) and, rather predictably, factions formed. Despite this, the joint rule of two empresses was a notable period in Roman history.

Zoë married Constantine Monomachos, and he handled all affairs of state. However, he is considered the last Macedonian dynasty emperor, and was followed by a period of largely weak rule and short-lived emperors (before the likes of Alexius Comnenus and his successors improved matters).

But that is a story for another day.


Friday, 2 September 2016

Explorations: Through the Wormhole is out now

Explorations: Through the Wormhole, a sci-fi anthology featuring short stories by 14 authors (including my own Dead Weight), is out now.

The stories all happen in the same universe, and follow (from 2052) the first emergence of wormholes in the solar system. My own focuses on the Winged Oasis, a Chinese smuggler ship that’s being pummelled by an imperial frigate.

It’s a cracking trilogy, with contributions from bestselling sci-fi authors such as Jo Zebedee, Ralph Kern and Richard Fox.

Physical editions of Explorations are planned for a fortnight from now, and an audiobook edition is also coming (something I forgot when I gave my characters Chinese names and then had to check my pronunciation was correct [it was. Huzzah for pinyin!]).

There’s also a related newsletter, which will contain sci-fi news from many authors, (including but not, I think, limited to the anthology contributors) at [Unsure as yet if I’ll be able to cheekily get Kingdom Asunder plugged that way, but I have, at least, mentioned it just now. Still on for a December release, currently].

So, buy Explorations: Through the Wormhole and enjoy excellent stories from some of the best sci-fi authors in writing today (and me).