About Writers, Magic and Science, reading, Uncategorized

The Magic of Science of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” thereby wedging open the door between two things that are often viewed as being diametrically opposed: magic and science.

Trying to define science in the modern sense of the word would probably provoke a lot of hair-splitting arguments, but any reasonable definition would have to involve a description of the scientific method, which Websters defines as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Magic, on the other hand, is defined as “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” In reductive terms, science attempts to understand the natural world while magic operates outside of it—even above it, as the prefix super- suggests.

My interest here isn’t really in semantics or even the scientific method, so much as the way the two are presented in two genres of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy.

Superficially, the two genres seem to be at odds. The former traffics in spaceships and rayguns, the latter in dragons and magic wands. But even on a deeper level, there is a fundamental difference: while both present events and processes that might seem impossible or unexplainable, sci fi works from the premise that such things will be possible and explainable in the future, while fantasy tends to ignore the whole question by labeling the extraordinary as supernatural: magic.

I know, this is simplistic, so lets dive in a little deeper by looking at some examples:

One)  The Enterprise is about to blow up. Never mind how or why or which Enterprise. Maybe it’s a subspace inversion or an innerspace subversion or a race of telepathic protozoa, but either way, they need a fix and fast.  Cue the Science Officer or Engineer: “Captain, if we depolarize the ophion emitter and detonate a platonic charge in the region of 25 thousand gigahertz, it might create a plasma shock. The resulting discontinuity would only a last a few seconds, but it might give us time to warp the hell out of here. It’s so crazy, it just might work.” (Spoiler alert: It works.)

Two)  Harry, Ron and Hermione are in transfiguration class. “Bloody hell!” Ron exclaims, slashing the air in an ungainly fashion. “This stupid spell doesn’t work. Portipot Vertigo! Portipot Vertigo!” A column of blue smoke rises from the thoroughly untransfigured toad, which croaks dismally. “Ron, you insufferable pillock,” Hermione huffs. “First off, it’s Proteo Fortissimo. And don’t swing your wand so. You aren’t beating a rug.”

Okay. I admit I’ve just made fun of two venerable franchises that I’ve always enjoyed (it was done with love, people!). But let’s examine each. In the first, we have what seems to be a science-based solution to a science-based problem. Scientific investigation gives us the parameters of the problem, and our advanced technology provides the means for solving it. But it isn’t real. I mean, some of the words might be real, and maybe the tech has at least SOME connection to real technology  (or at least the concept behind it)  but it’s only the trappings of science. The context—spaceship, computers, beams and rays, big numbers—gives the impression that this is science in action, but the mechanism itself is every bit as opaque as a magic spell. It works because it works. It might as well be magic.

In the second, we have the same thing in reverse. The spell they’re trying to learn involves saying particular words and making particular gestures. If you do it right, it works. Presumably, if you do it the same way each time, the results will be consistent and repeatable, which sounds suspiciously like science. The mechanism for how it works remains unknown, but as long as you know the recipe, you can make the dish.

Now before anyone thinks I’m bashing Harry Potter, I am not. I admire Rowling’s series a lot, and though I have occasional issues with her writing, the story is fantastic. I use it here only because it is surely the best known series of its type, and because it does typify some of the challenges faced by the average writer of magical fantasy.

Rowling does play with the notion that there are deeper, more arcane magics in the world. The protection that Harry experiences in the Dursley’s house, for example, is less the result of a spell and more the product of Lily’s self-sacrifice. (These deeper magics, it should be noted—the magic of family, of love, of loyalty—could be just as applicable in a story that didn’t involve any fantasy magic at all.)

But for the most part, these are not the kind of day-today magics that occupy the story. Mostly we see very specific spells with specific names and formulas for operation and we rarely get into theory. In fact, the actual learning of magic looks pretty rote most of the time. In the Deathly Hallows Harry casts the imperious curse without any difficulty at all, even though we know he has never performed it before. We’re told it’s a high level spell (as well as an illegal one) yet use seems to be as simple as pointing your wand and saying imperio. There are similar issues with the patronus charm, which, we are told, is very advanced, yet Harry has no trouble teaching the callow kids in Dumbledore’s Army to use it. Again, it seems pretty simple. Get in the right mind set, then say the words. No problem.

I don’t want to dump on Harry Potter too much. It really is a great story, and the ambiguity about magic that JK Rowling (eventually) develops and sustains for its duration is both intriguing and enjoyable. But I think it highlights a problem that writers of science fiction and writers of fantasy must face (in different ways). Sci fi can’t explain the science because—even if it is genuine—most readers would find it incomprehensible or boring. Fantasy can’t explain the magic because there is no explanation. That’s why we often end up with science that might as well be magic, and magic that is as mundane as science.

It’s interesting to consider how some of Rowling’s predecessors tried to account for the mechanism of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings features surprisingly little magic, at least in the sense of spells and incantations. Certain objects have magical properties, obvously, but the powers are often vague. The one ring allows domination of all of the other rings, but aside from invisibility, it conveys no other definable powers. Neither does Gandalf wield much in the way of curses or conjuring. He stands off the balrog by literally standing in the way and forbidding it passage. He starts a magical fire at one point, but even there, he mostly seems to be calling fire forth by force of will and knowledge of the elvish language. It is not, in the way we normally think of them, and incantation.

Possibly, Tolkien’s use of magic is closer to Ursula Leguin’s in A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea wizards attend an academy (of sorts) and learn spells, but underlying all of the magic is the knowledge of the names of things. Knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it.

My own relationship with and presentation of magic has varied from book to book. In Flight of the Wren, the magic was in the magic carpets themselves. and a rider’s proficiency with various related spells mostly depended on how well they connected with their nearly sentient carpets. In Whisper Blue, the manifestation of Wysteria is given a plausible science fiction style explanation, but that is as much a quirk of the character of Miles Faber as anything else. Miles needs an explanation for the unsettling events of the story, but there’s no textual reason to assume that he actually got it right (or wrong, for that matter.) In Spark, the nature of the eponymous fleck of light remains conjectural right up until the end (though I plump for the shard-of-divine-entity explanation.) Does it matter? Only, I suppose, to the rare reader who cares to read beyond the surface events of the story. Hopefully the mystery is at least a little intriguing, a small source of wonderment. I’m not sure we can, or should, hope for more than that.

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Uncategorized

A naked short story

JPEG cover art   I’m still trying to determine whether this is a worthwhile endeavor. Self-publishing a short story all by its lonesome self provokes an internal debate–are you serious vs. why not? Is this a lame attempt to make my author page look better or a legitimate way to get my work out there?

It could be that the answer includes a bit of both. I tried several mainstream sci-fi magazines and kept getting rejected. Is this because the story or the writing is not very good? Is this because I have not yet built up my writing credentials to be given serious consideration? Are there other reasons to explain the editorial decision making? In all honesty, I am not in a position to say.

Yet, I’ve written a story and I would like to get it out to prospective readers. Publishing this solo gets the job done. At the end of the story under the  “About the author…” blurb, I put in a plug for a sci-fi novel I’ve written (and happens to be published by a small press). My thoughts are if a reader likes the short story, perhaps they will purchase the novel. At some point I’ll give the story away as a “loss-leader” to try and generate sales of other things I have written. As a marketing tool, I think the stand-alone short story might have utility.

I welcome all feedback positive or negative about the story, the writing, the cover, and the rationale for self-publishing a naked short. If you send me an email (victoracquista@victoracquista.com) I will gladly send you a pdf file, a gift copy through Amazon, or both. It’s a quick read at less than 5K words. To stimulate curiosity, here is a blurb:

A reclusive physicist vanishes.
A brilliant, unexplained flash of light.
A mysterious spherical void.
A blackboard equation filled with complex calculations, a portion inexplicably missing.
A government cover up.
All explained in this classic sci-fi short story…

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book promotion, publishing

What took you so long?

So, Curtis, Perfume Island is finally ready for release.

Ha! L’Arlésienne arrives at last.

I’m sorry?

A young woman from Arles in Alphonse Daudet’s play of the same name. She’s talked about all the time but never actually appears on stage. The term now applies to something we’re led to expect but which never arrives.

I see. Well, I hope it’s worth the wait. What took you so long?

You may recall it was about to come out last year, but-

You think I recall that? With all the other books I have to read?

Well, if you stop interrupting, I’ll remind you. My publisher at the time was… let’s just say I decided it would be better to do it myself. At which point I embraced self-publishing fully, stigma and all – well, there isn’t one, is there? Once you decide to go down that road, you can’t let doubts like that get in the way.

And what did it involve in concrete terms?

I realized my marketing strategy was non-existent. I kept reading that the best way to reach out to readers, and above all to keep them, was through a mailing list, so I set about building one. I’ve done a giveaway and two cross promotions, and now have a list of about 420.

Who are all going to read Perfume Island?

If only! No, but eight of them – people I don’t know at all – have already agreed join my launch team. Which basically means they get free stuff in exchange for writing a review and spreading the word when the book comes out. Of course, 420 is a tiny number – self-publishing guru Mark Dawson has 60000. But it’s a start. The next 12 months will be a test of how well this works. Right now, I’m just pleased that I did part ways with my publisher – having control over the whole process makes a huge difference. Even if I make mistakes, they’re my mistakes and I can decide how to fix them. And I’m finding that marketing can be enjoyable too, once you start to look at it as a creative, learning experience.

Any final message you’d like to give?

Just my heartfelt thanks to the Writers’ Co-op. It seems a long time ago when GD put forward the idea on Book Country. We’re hardly big, but the level of support is tremendous. And though we write in different genres, we share the same commitment to the process. Every word of encouragement has been precious. You guys rock!

15th November – release of Perfume Island. The Arlésienne appears!

 

 

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About Writers, book promotion, Stories, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

The Quantum Soul

What do you get when you ask science fiction authors to write short stories that answer the question, “What is life?”

Victor Acquista, in Soul Mates, wonders if adding back what a dying person loses will reanimate the corpse.
In New Year, GD Deckard wants to know where are we when we’re not alive?

Claire Buss, in Patient Data, explores what might happen if medical robots know a patient is alive or dead only after the fact. CB Droege imagines what freed ‘bots do, once freed, in The Dream Miner’s Drill. In Rob Edwards, Shepherd of Memory, an Alien encounter changes a man but he can’t remember in what way he is now different. Darran Handshaw’s engineer finds a girl in an Ancient pod in The Machine in the Mountain. If you assume all intelligent life forms are animal, Brent A. Harris’ The Trees of Trappist will delight you. For that matter, “Are we alive or are we the A.I.?” is the question in Greg Krojac’s Pixels. And when we do meet an alien intelligence, linguistics just might be the most crucial skill we have, as it is in Leo McBride, Second Contact.

Learn what an autobot might think about in his dying moments in Jeanette O’Hagan, Project Chameleon. Probe other’s dreams in Lyra Shanti’s The Endymion Device. Enjoy ways strange can be wondrous in E.M. Swifthook’s Wondrous Strange.

Cindy Tomamichel has Sci-Fi fun When Words Are Not Enough. “Are created people, people?” may be answered by Ricardo Victoria in What Measure is a Homunculus? And why not create a “people” to travel the light years through space for us, as Jim Webster does in Aether Technician.

What do you get when you ask science fiction authors to write short stories that answer the question, “What is life?”
You get the SciFi Roundtable’s Anthology, The Quantum Soul.

Released today on Amazon.

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book promotion, Literary Agents, publishing

The Heart of the Matter.

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A piece on Scribophile asks an important question:

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Yesterday, I went to my first ever writer’s conference. It gave me my first exposure to meeting an agent face-to-face in a “speed date” of 10 minutes. I delivered my pitch. She cut me down to a stump with one question:

“Okay, so I get that you have _____, and you have _____, but, like, what’s your one thing that’s going to make me want to read this book?”

I stared at her stupefied for a moment. I wasn’t able to give the agent an answer that made her go, “Oh, wow. Yes! Please send me that book. I have to find out about that.”

She asked a simple, direct question that cut to the quick: this is a woman with not enough time for anyone, and yet she’s contemplating — maybe — adding a person to her client list, if she thinks the burden is worth it. She already puts in intensive hours working for her existing clients and poring over hundreds of other submissions. What makes me the needle in the haystack? Why am I so goddamn special?

_________________________________

This is the question I have for the hoards of books touted on Facebook. There are a thousand paranormal romances out there. There are a thousand of everything. And I already have stacks – hell, mountains – of books waiting to be read. Why should I devote my time to yours?

The answer, as far as my own thing is concerned, would be: for super-imaginative fun delivered with merry wise-ass style.

Were I to encapsulate the many joys of the renowned series of naval adventures by Patrick O’Brian (that currently enthrall me), I would say, A beguiling interplay of complex characterization, adventure with a touch of mystery, and a mind-blowing knowledge of the sea. I am mesmerized!

What about you? What would be your Heart-of-the-Matter response?

 

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About Writers, book promotion, Uncategorized

Member Spotlight on Curtis Bausse

BiopicCurtis Bausse grew up in Wales, was educated in England and has spent most of his life in France. When the restaurant-café-theatre he ran there got demolished, he had to find something to do so became a university lecturer, specializing in Second Language Acquisition. After spending two years in France’s recently acquired 101st department, Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, he has returned to Provence, where he devotes his time to writing.

One Green Bottle, set in Provence, is the first in a series of Magali Rousseau mystery stories. Its sequel, Perfume Island, set in Mayotte against a backdrop of illegal immigration from nearby Comoros, will be released in November 2017.

https://curtisbaussebooks.com/

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book promotion

Where should you advertise your book?

There isn’t yet a reblog button on this site, so I’ve just copied the first two paragraphs along with a link to the full article. A good report by Andrew Updegrove on the options open to you if you want to advertise your book.

Over the last ten years, literally hundreds of services have sprung up that send daily newsletters featuring discount and free ebooks to subscribers. The king of them all is BookBub, with millions of subscribers. Unfortunately, unless you’ve written a real best seller, it’s almost impossible to get them to accept your book (and if they do, it will set you back as much as $1000 for that one-shot ad). The good news is that out of all the rest, there is a very small handful of services that can help you sell lots of books. The key is to figure out which they are, and what type of promo to run. Read on, and I’ll share what I’ve learned through running hundreds of ads over the past two years with scores of these services.

In order to find out which sites can produce, whenever I tried a new service, I ran it alone at a time I wasn’t doing any other significant promotion. And two cautions before I go into the results: first, each of my books is a thriller. Your results may vary if you are in another genre. And second, it’s a dynamic marketplace, with many services rising and falling in effectiveness all the time.

The results and discussion can be found at:

http://andrew-updegrove.com/how-to-actually-sell-books-through-advertising/

 

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