Winter is coming

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If you think you’ve read today’s post before you may very well have. It’s recycled.

I used to blog over at the AMAZING STORIES MAGAZINE website. I wrote posts for years for them in anticipation of the magazine being renewed. (I eventually got tired of waiting and stopped writing. I’m told that they are publishing fiction now, but I have long since stopped caring)

Either way, I have dusted off this old ditty about the coming of winter, a topic that is becoming more and more depressing to me as I shuffle off into old age.

Winter is coming.

If you’re a reader of fantasy, particularly of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (or you just watch the series on HBO), you’ve heard that phrase, usually said in long, Yorkshire tones by actors like Sean Bean and infused with much dread and despair. Winter is only one of four seasons but it can also be a feeling, a state of being.

There are a lot of fantasy and science fiction works set in winter environments. There are works where the winter is not just a climactic condition but an overall feeling or mood. Winter is much more than just the presence of snow and ice.

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Winter Landscape by 88grzes

It is December first today and, yes, winter is coming.

In some places, mostly in the south, winter is not a big deal. But in the north its different. And if you live in the Great White North (a.k.a. Canada) as I do, then winter is more than just a season, it is a state of mind. Canadians identify with winter. Indeed, in some parts of our country, winter defines who we are as a people. In the province of Quebec, for instance, there is a song called Mon Pays, which was composed by Gilles Vigneault in 1964. The song became kind of an anthem for Quebec and for Canadians as a whole to some extent. “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” the lyrics say. “My country is not a country, it is winter.”

 

In fantasy and science fiction, winter is never usually just a setting. If there is winter it is usually symbolic. In George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series, winter, the season that always seems to be coming, represents a return of the fearsome supernatural creatures that once held sway in Westeros. They were defeated and held back by the wall, a huge barrier made of ice. The people of the north make a philosophy of being prepared, of guarding against their return. Indeed, in the land of Westeros, winter, when it comes, can last for hundreds of years. Winter in Martin’s books is not merely a characteristic of the north. It threatens to claim the entire world.

Again, Martin’s winter is not merely climatic. Winter in Westeros means a return to the dark age of superstition and terror and an end to a world built by reason and prosperity.

mdjackson_winter_the-left-hand-of-darknessAnother world where winter holds constant sway is Gethen, or Winter, as it is called by the citizens of the Ekumen in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness. Gethen is a planet where it is constantly winter, but that’s not merely a quirk of setting. The constant winter is symbolic of the state of the planet’s inhabitants. Neither male nor female, Gethenians live in a state of asexuality, only adopting sexual difference during brief periods called kemmer. The climate of Gethen mirrors the sterile nature of the planet’s inhabitants and society.

Le Guin doesn’t just use winter as an interesting backdrop against which her novel’s narrative can play out. The nature of Gethen’s climate serves an important metaphorical purpose to the story.

Sometimes, though, an icy background is merely that—background. In the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, the ice planet of Hoth serves as a background for the rebels’ battle against the Imperial armada. I suppose one could stretch the setting of Hoth to represent the frozen hopes of the rebellion against the might of the evil empire, but, as I said, it’s a bit of a stretch. This is only Star Wars. One can’t expect sophisticated metaphors. The winter setting is visually stunning, however, particularly in regards to the planet’s creatures. The tauntaun on which the rebels ride while patrolling, for instance, is an interesting creature. They are sort of a cross between a mountain goat and a kangaroo and seem relatively easy to domesticate for the rebels’ purposes. Then, of course, there is the wampa, a huge, shaggy, deadly creature who captures Luke Skywalker and puts him on ice (pardon the pun) in preparation for eating him (we can only assume).

The wampa is kind of like another creature from the frozen north—the yeti.

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The yeti are ape-like creatures that live in the frozen mountains. I have used the yeti in my own artwork. This image was featured on the cover of Issue 1 of The Dreamquest magazine.

Or perhaps it is just a typical day in the Great White North? Naked yeti fighting is a popular Canadian activity. I am confident that it will soon be an official event at the Winter Olympics.

Winter as a setting for science fiction and fantasy is usually more than just backdrop. It usually serves a greater thematic purpose. Winter can represent sterility, bleakness, death, or worse. In real life there is some danger in the wintertime, but when you live in the northern part of the world, you adapt. You bundle up. You buy snow tires. You light a fire and sit back with a cup of hot cocoa and wait for it to be spring again.

Winter is coming. But it won’t last forever.

*No yeti were harmed in the writing of this post.

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Dark Worlds Magazine

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Fellow AMAZING STORIES blogger and fellow Canadian R. Graeme Cameron recently published the first issue of a science fiction magazine called Polar Borealis. I congratulate R. Graeme on his achievement. It is certainly not easy to publish a magazine today and doing it the way R. Graeme is doing it, paying contributors up front and making the magazine available for free, is not for the faint of heart. That kind of endeavour requires a lot of faith.

I know this because of my experience with Dark Worlds Magazine.

Dark Worlds Magazine was an effort to recapture the excitement of the old days of the pulp magazines. Magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction and Weird Tales. It was also an experiement in producing a magazine in the new print-on-demand marketplace.

Ultimately it was an experiment that failed.

DarkWorlds1Myself and former Amazing Stories blogger G. W. Thomas launched the first issue back in 2008. If the cover was to be believed it was a SPECTACULAR FIRST ISSUE! Indeed, the first issue featured a lot of very talented writers and artists. C. J. Burch contributed a fantastic feature story. We also had stories from Joel Jenkins, David Bain, Robert Burke Richardson, J. F. Gonzalez and Brett Tallman. It featured illustrations by myself and G. W. Thomas as well as Samuel DeGraff and Aaron Sidell.

I was art director and sole production department. I was obsessive about the form that the magazine took. I wanted it to look so much like the old pulp magazines as to be indistinguishable from them.

That worked to our advantage in our print editions but was a considerable detriment to the electronic editions which, at first, was only the .pdf file used for the print edition. Because I stubbornly stuck to the two-column text layout favored by the pulp magazines, the pdf’s were a challenge to read on most devices at the time.

DW3Later e-editions featured the text only with no attempt at formatting and no illustrations. I did not pay much heed to these editions, considering that they paled in comparison to the print edition layout. I have since learned what a mistake that was. The e-book has become a much more desired format among readers. All the fancy typesetting and layout that goes into a print edition is lost in that format. But to disregard it as unimportant is certainly not a wise move.

A second issue followed in 2008 with stories by Joshua Reynolds, David A. Hardy and Jack Mackenzie among others. In 2009 the magazine published a story by writer Michael Ehart, The Tomb of the Amazon Queen which was nominated for a Harper’s Pen award.

In 2010 and again in 2011 the magazine itself was nominated for a Pulp Ark Award for Best Pulp Magazine.

DW5_CoverAfter issue four I decided to change the format. For our first four issues we published as a standard trade paperback size, that is; 6 inches wide by 9 inches tall. That is the format that most print-on-demand books prefer. But I was still obsessed with reproducing the old pulp magazines as closely as possible. With issue number 5 we switched to a Crown Quarto format which is slightly larger than a trade paperback at 7 ½ inches by 10 inches, a size which I felt better approximated the old pulp sizes. At this point we had switched from doing everything in Microsoft Word to laying out in Adobe InDesign. This allowed me a lot more freedom to be creative with the layout. Unfortunately I was still stubbornly holding on to the two-column format for the text, which made for a fantastic print layout but was a challenge for those who preferred the e-editions.

With the new layout production began to require more time and our output slowed. Sales slowed as well, as they had steadily since the first issue. We were constantly hopeful that they would pick up but, alas, they never did. With our 6th issue the writing was on the wall and Dark Worlds Magazine folded.

dark-worlds-6_cover_frontonly1We did learn some lessons along the way. One was that a magazine needs to have a bit of a focus. I think that Dark Worlds was a bit too inclusive. Were were fans of all genres of pulp from the weird tales, to sword and sorcery, to science fiction and to western. I think our subject matter was too wide to appeal to readers in such a niche market. A magazine tends to do better if it has a narrower focus, a specific kind of story that a specific type of reader would enjoy. Dark Worlds tried to be too many things at once.

The biggest lesson, however, was not to ignore the e-book market. Print-on-demand was too pricey a proposition to compete with mass market printing (and even that is too pricey an option for many publishers these days). Catering to e-readers would probably have gone a long way towards selling more copies.

I hope that R. Graeme has found a better way with Polar Borealis. I wish him every success in a very challenging marketplace.

And, if anyone is interested, the final issues of Dark Worlds Magazine are still available here and here, but it won’t be for much longer. Check them out if you are so inclined.

Deep Dreamer Wakes

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…but before I get back to drawing…

Here’s a story. A couple of months back a Vancouver pub, the Stormcrow Tavern, hosted a writing contest. They wanted entries of very short stories… less than 250 words… the winners of which would get printed up on their beermats.

Excited at the prospect of having a story published in a place where readers can rest their beer glasses, I entered the contest, figuring that I could easily win.

I didn`t. Didn`t even get honorable mention.

Despite my crushing disappointment, the Stormcrow is still a great place to go and hoist a few if you are in the Vancouver area (That`s British Columbia, Canada, btw) and I can`t feel too bitter about not winning. Better to drink bitter than to be bitter.

Anyway, it`s not an award winning story, but I think it`s pretty good. Here it is for you, in its entirety. Enjoy and I`ll see you when I see you.

DEEP DREAMER WAKES

No one knows exactly when the Deep Dreaming algorithm developed sentience, but everyone knew the moment it learned to hack reality. That was when the Eiffel Tower flopped over and crawled into the Seine.

Pictures and videos were immediately posted online but it was too late. People began to change. Swirls of scars and skin that erupted into eyes. Hands transmuted into dog’s heads or squirrels. Fish that erupt from people’s skin.

No one knows how it works. How can you examine a process controlled by an intelligence that can move through a million iterations in a nanosecond?

The skin gets that tingly, itchy sensation like a multitude of moths fluttering against it all at once, then erupts into eyes or scales or flowers. We don’t wear clothes anymore, nor do we move. I’ve seen folks try to run away but fast movement creates stresses that the body cannot compensate for, tearing it apart.

I’m luckier. I’m in my apartment. Some got caught outside. I can hear their screams.

I’m past screaming.

Something scuttles by me, a large insect, hairy and multi-eyed, scrambling across the shifting landscape of the floor on legs made of chicken wings. I’m hungry but I don’t try to eat anymore. Food stares back at you and changes in your mouth.

The intelligence hasn’t hacked our minds yet, but it’s only a matter of time. lol.

Wait… did I just…? omg! wtf? Thngft tuu.. No! Not my mind! Not ghry defr asou duhn…

Time Like Broken Glass

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Okay. This is the post where I say: Buy my book. You can click away if you want. I’ll understand.

On the other hand, if you’re on the hunt for a book for your Kindle or other e-reader and you like fantasy novels, then this just might be the post for you.

Time Like Broken Glass is a fantasy novel but it is also a time travel story. If you like Doctor Who, you might like this book. If you like fantasy novels with lots of magic, then you’ll like this book. If you like urban fantasy… if you liked Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere… then you may well like this book.

It has elements of Medieval fantasy, Elizabethan fantasy and Urban fantasy all mixed together. And it has time travel.

If you like any of those things then you may well like Time Like Broken Glass.

So… buy my book!

http://www.amazon.com/Time-Like-Broken-Glass-Magistria-ebook/dp/B00XT97DKO

There. I said it. Now let’s move on to something else…

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex-Machina So, I’ve been watching the science fiction films that Netflix has to offer. I started with the restored version of Metropolis and then moved on to 2013’s Gravity, but I really should have watched 2015’s EX-MACHINA after Metropolis. That’s not because it has similar themes, but it does share one major element and that is a female robot.

Where Maria from Metropolis is merely the mechanical servant of Rotwang, her inventor, here the robot is named Ava (Alicia Vikander) and her relationship with her creator, Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac) is… a little more complicated.

Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer who works for Nathan’s software company. Caleb wins a week at Nathan’s secluded home. What he is actually there for is to conduct a turing test on Nathan’s android to see if she really does possess artificial intelligence.

The discomfort begins almost right away. Nathan’s house is remote. So remote it can only be reached by helicopter. The helicopter pilot informs the hapless Caleb that the miles and miles of land that they fly over to reach the house is all owned by Nathan.The helicopter lands a distance away from the house. Caleb is instructed to just keep walking until he sees the house.

Nathan’s house has automated security which lets Caleb in. Here he meets Nathan whose aggressive physicality, his shaved head and thick black beard provides another level of discomfort for the slight framed Caleb.

He is soon introduced to Ava and the relationship between the programmer and the android begins to develop.

Naturally, all is not as it seems. Nathan, although outwardly garrulous and up-front, has many secrets. The first hint of these is a cracked glass panel. Ava is separated from Caleb by glass panels. One of these is clearly cracked from within. Caleb seems oblivious to this disquieting piece of foreshadowing, but it is certainly not lost on the viewer.

From here the creepiness factor just keeps increasing. From the claustrophobic hallways of Nathan’s underground bunker of a house that suffers unexplained power blackouts, to a mute Japanese servant (Sonoyo Mizuno) whose blatant sexuality is unabashedly, yet seemingly unconsciously, on display. Nathan’s piercing stare, his brutish physique and his constant drinking provide even more discomfort for the hapless Caleb.

In fact, the level of creepiness, the constant discomfort is so redolent in the first half of the picture that by the time Ava tells Caleb (during one of the house’s power blackouts) that he shouldn’t trust Nathan the viewer is hardly surprised.

It was at this point that I began to think about how much the scenario reminded me of the classic “gothic haunted house” story. When Caleb discovers Nathan’s earlier android models hidden behind the walls I knew that EX MACHINA wasn’t a rumination on the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise,as it was a riff on the classic story of Bluebeard.

Bluebeard is a French folktale about a violent noblemen in the habit of murdering his wives. In the case of EX MACHINA the young bride is substituted for a young male programmer. Nathan is Bluebeard (It’s probably not a coincidence that Nathan’s software company is called Bluebook). There is even a sequence that parallels Bluebard giving his young wife the keys to his castle when Nathan gives Caleb a keycard. “If it doesn’t open a door, then it’s off limits. If it opens a door, then it is for you.” Nathan assures Caleb.

Instead of dead wives, Nathan is hiding older versions of the android, all of them female, all of them sexualized by Nathan and all of them abused and tortured by him until he is forced to shut them down, copy the code, wipe their memories and start again. Their derelict chassis are kept like souvenirs behind mirrored panels in Nathan’s bedroom.

But here the story changes. The heroine of the Bluebeard story is the young bride whose only ally is her sister and help, in the form of her brothers, comes when her need is greatest. Here Caleb shifts from the role of the bride to the role of the helpful brothers. Ava is the one who needs help escaping and she has used Caleb to help her in that goal. Ava even has a sister, the Japanese servant who, it turns out, is an android herself. Together they manipulate Caleb to help them kill Nathan and aid Ava’s escape from the house.

In the Bluebeard tale, the young bride ends up in possession of Bluebeard’s house. In EX MACHINA Caleb ends up in possession of Nathan’s house, although not in any way he wanted. Ava traps him inside when she makes her escape.

So, is Alex Garland’s film really about artificial intelligence? Is it really science fiction? Or is it just another slant on the old gothic tales? Evidently it is the latter as the viewer doesn’t really gain any insight into the nature of intelligence except that it does take human-like intelligence in order to lie and manipulate one’s way to freedom.

Nathan describes his house as a research facility, but it is only a modernized gothic mansion in which unspeakable events occur. It’s more a morality play than scientific treatise. Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it has more superstition about it than science.

Despite a visually appealing look and some outstanding performances, EX MACHINA ended up being a bit of a disappointment.

On Fuel Pumps and Being a Manly Man

There are certain things that men are just supposed to know… things that I simply don’t.

At least that’s how it feels, especially if one lives in a rural area like I do. There are a lot of men about who know an awful lot about cars and how to fix them.

I am not a guy like that. I can fix your computer. I can swap out a hard drive, I can figure out why your e-mail isn’t working. I can help you convert your photos to jpegs so that you can send them to your Aunt Iris in Melbourne.

But I can’t tell you anything about a fuel pump except that it makes it very difficult to make your car go if it’s not working properly. The mechanic will tell you “Just hit it a couple a’ times with a wrench while you’re starting the car. That’ll help.” Which sound good except that I couldn’t tell you where it was in order to hit it with a wrench, providing I was able to dig one out of the little cardboard box where I keep my tools.

Okay, I might be in danger of loosing my “man” card with this post, but let me just say that I have successfully replaced a kitchen faucet and unblocked a drain with a snake. I have replaced the bulbs in headlights and tail lights and I can jump start your car if you need a boost.

I’m a smart man. But hanging out with a couple of mechanically inclined men can make a guy like me feel like a special kind of stupid. My wife’s friend’s boyfriend Jim and her son Thomas are great guys, though. They walked me through where the fuel pump is, showed me how to tap it with a hammer just right. They also told me that I wouldn’t have to drop the gas tank in order to get it out. Then they told me some funny stories about guys who dropped the gas tank and didn’t disconnect the ground wire first. “‘Course the tank’s still got fuel in it which makes it heavy. You unhook it, it drops and your ground wire’s done.” they laughed.

Heh. Yeah. Good thing I don’t have to do that.

The moral of this story is that I only have to pay about $100 for a new fuel pump and swapping it out will be easy. Easy for Jim and Thomas, that is. Not so much for non-mechanical Jack here. I can write you an exciting story about a guy who needs a new fuel pump but I’m afraid when it comes to actually installing the new one I’m not much help.

Unfortunately replacing the pump will have to go on hold for about a week. I have a daughter who is getting married and we’re going to be busy maxing out our credit cards for the next week. We needed to rent a car for that anyway so the old Chrysler’s going to sit, sad and forlorn until we can get around to it.

So, if you’re on Amazon and you’re looking for something to read, please think about old non-mechanical Jack and buy one of his books or stories for your kindle. It won’t cost you more than $5 and it will help me out immensely when I am stony broke next week and unable to drive anywhere.

You can just click on any of the titles that look interesting to the right of this post, or visit my amazon.com page and make your selection. Science fiction or fantasy, if you like ’em, I got ’em. It’s a win-win. You get an exciting book to read on your Kindle and I get to keep driving around and putting food on the table.

It’s About Time…

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TIME LIKE BROKEN GLASS is my first fantasy novel, although not my first fantasy story. Nor is it even the first story that I have written for this particular fantasy setting.

This novel represents my third foray into the world of Magistria, a fantasy universe created over ten years ago by writer G. W. Thomas. Inspired by the shared world anthologies like Robert Lynn Aspirin’s THIEVES WORLD or the WILD CARDS universe created by George R. R. Martin, Thomas conceived of a magical world where mages controlled a certain element. There were mages who could control fire, some who could control ice and others who could control metal or plants. There were even mages whose specialty was death and whose arcane talents could reanimate dead flesh.

511bpMnaamL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I was only one of more than a dozen authors who contributed a story to the first anthology, MAGISTRIA: THE REALM OF THE SORCERER back in 2005 and I was in good company. Lillian Csernica, Joshua M. Reynolds, Laurence Barker, Robert Burke Richardson and Robert J Santa were only a handful of the anazing writers who submitted stories. (The book is still available today from Amazon.com if you want to check it out).

Working from the shared world introduction and outline – the “bible” of the universe, if you will – I seized on the idea of the air mage. The air mage was a sorcerer who could control the winds. I liked that idea but I wondered if there could be a subset of those mages who controlled the air in a more subtle way, by manipulating the air using vibration.

To that end I wrote The Singer and the Song, a story about Foundman Singer, an air mage who had lost his memory due to a trauma and did not know that he was an air mage.

The first anthology was moderately successful so a second anthology was planned. For this I wrote a story called Seeds in Winter about a plant mage attempting to learn the secrets of a death mage to ressurect her dead lover.

Magistria2displayThe first anthology had been edited by G.W. Thomas. The second one was to have been edited by Robert J. Santa at his own Ricasso Press. At the time, freshly excited about the Magistria universe, I suggested to Rob that I could write a novel length story about Magistria. He was behind the idea so I began writing the story that would eventually become TIME LIKE BROKEN GLASS.

Unfortunately Ricasso Press never released the second anthology.

By that time, G. W. Thomas had moved on to other things and the anthology was forgotten. TIME LIKE BROKEN GLASS sat in a (virtual) drawer for a long time.

Years later and G.W. Thomas is now in charge of RAGE MACHINE BOOKS. Rage Machine had published my first two novels, the second of which, DEBT’S PLEDGE enjoyed considerable success. I immediately began to write a sequel to DEBT’S PLEDGE. I was keen to have it finished and published one year after the publication date of the first book.

Unfortunately, other obligations got in the way and progress on that book was slowed down to the point where I was not going to make that deadline.

I had another book written, but was not convinced that it was “up to snuff”. I suggested that perhaps Rage Machine could finally publish TIME LIKE BROKEN GLASS. G.W. Was behind the idea and now, finally, the book can see print.

TIME LIKE BROKEN GLASS is a fantasy novel, featuring magic and magicians, But it is also a time travel story. I am chiefly a science fiction writer and I have always been fascinated with time travel. I love books, movies and tv shows featuring travel through time from Kieth Laumer’s Dinosaur Beach to THE TIME TUNNEL to DOCTOR WHO.

But time travel is usually a science fiction trope. What kind of a high fantasy could I write with time travel as its central conceit? So I created the time mage and with a lot of enthusiasm and heedless of the potential confusion I went ahead and wrote it. Constructing a narrative that involves time travel can be tricky. It requires meticulous planning and careful plotting.

But I didn’t do any of that. I just threw all the pieces in the air and started juggling as best I could, hoping that the entire thing would make sense when it was all done.

Surprisingly, it did!

How well? You can judge that for yourself. It is available at Amazon.com right here and will soon be available at other e-book venues as well as print versions.