Oct 26

Ender’s Game

This week I took some time out of reading the never-ending (though still very entertaining) Horus Heresy. Upon recommendation and curiosity, I picked up Ender’s Game to see what all the fuss is about and understand what makes it one of the definitive titles in sci-fi.

The basic premise is that an exceptionally talented boy is taken away from his parents to be trained as humanity’s fleet commander against an alien race known as ‘buggers’ (guess what they are). When I say ‘talented’ we’re talking super-genius. Well, you kind of have to be if you’re commanding space fleets by the time you’re eleven. It’s a tough call for a kid but then the government only sanctioned his birth so he could fulfil that purpose. You get a sense of the fleshed-out future, right?

The copy I read had an introduction from the author, Orson Scott Card. While I wouldn’t normally bother with these, and given that the author admitted in the introduction that he didn’t want to write it, I checked it out. And was rewarded with some interesting stuff. It seems this science fiction tale about a boy blowing up spaceships is used as text in a number of academic disciplines, including the teaching of religion and leadership. There’s something for authors to think on next time they consider settling for ‘good enough’ in their work. *note to self: don’t do that* He includes letters from fans whose lives the book has had a profound effect on: talented individuals who can relate to Ender’s isolation, members of the military to whom it helped teach command. There’s a real testament to the impact a simple story can have. And not once did I get the impression that Card was bragging.

The focus throughout the book is Ender. It’s not lengthy descriptions of spaceships exploding. I don’t even recall a description of a single ship–human or alien–in the whole story. What this allows is a stronger connection to the character; substance over style. This struck me as a story more about exploring ideas, an eye-opening view of what the future could hold. Given that it was written in 1985 (first seen as a short story in 1977), you have to wonder whether Card had a crystal ball for all the overlaps we see in the modern world. The ‘nets’ bear a striking resemblance to our Internet, including the masking of identities. Remote-controlled combat also sounds familiar, doesn’t it? There are examples aplenty.

From a casual reader’s perspective, don’t worry, it’s easy going and very accessible. You don’t need thick-rimmed glasses, a beard or leather patches on your sweater’s elbows to read it. Anyone can pick this up and it will make them think. Isn’t that what we’re shooting for in fiction?

If you like your sci-fi, read this book. Word has it that a film adaptation has just been released. Read this book. Then go see the film.

I’ll be putting the Horus Heresy on hold for a little time whilst I plough into the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.

 

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Oct 12

Editing and Feedback

Since I’m in the swing of editing again, it seemed appropriate to talk about it.

Many writers hate it. They say it takes them away from their creativity. I quite like it. Creativity needs not be reserved for the first draft. As far as I can tell, there is as much scope to be creative in each subsequent draft. I could spam any number of quotes from the likes of Hemingway that talk about how bad first drafts are and if guys like that needed second drafts (though, granted, I’m not a fan–heresy, right?), everyone else does. Re-reading and gathering feedback from others highlights problems, challenges for us to overcome with our hallowed creativity. Nine times out of ten* feedback is like a helpful person grabbing your arm and warning of the mile-deep plot hole you were about to walk into. Nasty, bitey things live in those so you want to avoid them. The other time…well, we’ve all met Internet trolls. Remember: kill it with fire.

I find editing easier than the initial writing process. Being from an IT background, I’m used to seeing when things work and an ugly error message when they don’t. Unfortunately, your manuscript will not fail to compile when you type something silly into it. Your critique-partners might mention it though. Once you know what is wrong, you can fix it. Avoiding holes can even take your story through wonderful, undiscovered byways.

For this, I use enlist the services of a mix of friends and other writers. Each provides a unique perspective. For me, the non-writers get a later version once it has gone through a few drafts, ready to apply the polish. Where the stories in progress take a beating though is at the writers’ groups. These groups are even available online so you don’t even need to get dressed to send them stuff. That’s right, to paraphrase my spam email folder, hot writers are waiting for YOU on the Internet! They will even fall over themselves to help you.

It feels nice to be back in the feedback loop. Waking up to an email saying that someone has taken their time to critique my work and offer insight into how it might be improved is a great start to the day, like receiving a present. Okay, it’s not quite Christmas since every critique means I have work to do but if that work improves the story in progress, that is indeed a good thing.

*Statistics made up on the spot.

 

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Oct 06

Suffer not the Alien to Live

It is another dramatised battle report from the Dark Millennium this week, where the allied forces of Dark Angels and Hammers of Dorn face a terrible xenos threat: Tyranids. In the meantime, you might have noticed that the progress bar of Forshai Ascended has moved to 100% That’s right, the first draft is done. No, you can’t read it because it’s full of holes, inconsistent, and all round first-drafty. Thanks to Susan Stuckey for world-class cheer-leading and Cassie Clark for the motivational montage to help me through the final push.

I used a slightly different format for the dramatisation this week, more of an experiment to see how well the increased length is received. If the new method is preferred, we shall spend a little more time with the characters and their motivations in future pieces. There will be just as many explosions. Drop me a comment, let me know what you think.

PART 1: PREPARATIONS

Another pod burst under Menelus’ ceramite boot. Purple and yellow liquid splattered up his dark green leg plates and across the bright fronds around him. The vibrant plant life flourished in the ruins of Orbistan. Menelus glanced up and down the blasted shell of a Mechanicum manufactorum. Most of the outer walls lay scattered across the ground, crumbling under his steps, while thorny vines strangled the remaining structure. He shook his head. Only three weeks had passed since they stopped here to refit with upgraded boltguns. Since then, the hum and clatter of machinery had turned into incessant chattering.

“Keep in step, soldier,” Brother-librarian Arcus snapped over the vox.

Menelus took a final glance at the overgrown building. That was some growth in three weeks. “Yes sir.”

“This is the spot,” Arcus said as Menelus’ company crested a hill. “The auspex said…what are they doing here? And where in the Lion’s name are the scouts?”

The terrain below opened into a wide valley, pockmarked by craters and husks of Mechanicum buildings. The same thorny undergrowth thrived for miles in its bright yellows, greens and purples. Space Marines clad in black and bronze power armour erected a mobile defence line beside the remains of a two-storey, gothic hab-facility. They hefted blast sections which looked more like starship bulkheads from the back of a rhino armoured transport and dug them into the ground. Other warriors practiced bolter drills behind the fortification, taking sight through its many fire-points. On their shoulder pads they bore an insignia of a fist gripping a hammer like some ancient Terran god of thunder.

Hammers of Dorn.

Something shimmered amidst the plants. The crack of bolters being cocked and trained into the undergrowth resounded through the valley. Red dots danced across Menelus’ chest plate, coming from somewhere in the plants.

“Just like the Fists,” said a voice ten paces left of their aim. It lacked the crackle of vox. ““Not happy unless they’re building walls.”

“Or knocking them down,” Menelus replied.

Sergeant Ricktus emerged from hiding, his cloak rippling and changing colour to match the background. He clapped Menelus on the shoulder and laughed. “You might put your bolters down, too. If we were your enemies, you’d be dead.” The red dots disappeared. “Did you forget everything we taught you in the scout company? I…”

The scout trailed off and turned to Brother-librarian Arcus who stomped toward them, his expression furious under his cream psychic hood. Plants seemed to wilt at his approach.

“Explain yourself, Ricktus. Why did you not report that our brothers are here?”

Ricktus gave the sign of the Aquila. “My apologies, librarian. Captain Junos of the Hammers requested no long-range vox communications. Something about a xenos threat.”

The librarian fixed him a level stare. “Captain? There can’t be more than fifteen men down there. Why would a captain lead them?”

“They were separated from their main force and they’re digging in until the others can rejoin them. They have requested our assistance.”

Brother-librarian Arcus gazed across the valley. His eyes narrowed. “Xenos psykers. I feel them now. They stink of biomancy.” He turned back to the Dark Angels strike force and voiced into the short-range vox. “Ricktus, take your scouts and get in that rubble down there. Shoot anything bigger than that tank. Ignore the rest. Devastators, take positions in those ruins. I shall join you after meeting with our brothers from the Hammers of Dorn. The rest of you, come with me. Raise the banner, have your bolters ready, and keep your ammo to hand. You’re going to need a lot of it.”

“Target priority?” Menelus asked as they trudged on toward their allies.

“Anything with more arms than you have.”

Their brother Space Marines greeted them with little more than stiff nods before continuing their bolter drills and reinforcing the bulkheads of their defence line. A giant amongst the Hammers of Dorn, bulked out in massive terminator armour turned from his quad gun emplacement and nodded to the approaching Dark Angels. A huge thunder hammer and storm shield covered his back.

“Dorn’s strength to you, brothers,” he said. “I am Captain Junos of the first company. Your arrival is timely.”

“The Emperor wills it,” Arcus replied. “I sense xenos.”

“The valley crawls. They strike from beneath the ground. Even now, we hear their chatter.”

Brother Indius leaned toward Menelus and whispered, “Do you hear anything?”

“Nothing. All that armour is probably weighing on his brain.”

“Why are you here?” the librarian asked. “Why not leave the valley and hit it with vindicators? I understand your chapter are fond of the more conspicuous approach.”

The captain made no sign of picking up on the jibe. He probably could not stiffen any more anyway. “Too late. We had to salvage something from the Mechanicum. The normal entrances to the vaults have collapsed but we have identified other possible ways in. We need to hold them until reinforcements arrive. Unfortunately, the xenos seek to use the vaults as egg chambers.”

“What salvage?” Arcus asked.

The ground shook and Captain Junos gestured to his right. “Those.”

Three immense figures strode from the fortifications. They dwarfed the captain and neared the size of dreadnoughts. With so many overlapping plates, it seemed that their armour wore armour of its own. Hurricane bolters stuck out of their chests. Slung under their arms, they wielded mighty graviton cannons and amplifiers.

“Centurions,” Arcus whispered.

The captain nodded. “You have your…individualities, Dark Angel, we have ours. We hold this line and we unlock more of those suits.”

“A worthy cause. What do you need of us, captain?”

Junos surveyed the fortifications and the assembled Dark Angels. “An anvil. Form a gun line. I see your scouts and devastators have already taken positions. No doubt you will put your…talents to use on them. Leave the rest of your force behind the defence line with me. My centurions have your flank. The xenos will come. They will come in swarms.” He glanced to the banner flapping behind above the Dark Angels, a relic of ancient Caliban held by a squad of veterans. “Unleash the Lion’s wrath.”

#

PART 2: HOLDING THE LINE

The chattering escalated through the night. Every rustle in the flora caused power armoured to snap around but no shots were fired. Menelus fidgeted and stood. Nothing quite remained still on this world. Even the plants and vines seemed to be moving, growing around him. He peered through one of the fire-points in the defence line and caught sight of the Hammers of Dorn rhino transport idling by the Mechanicum building. The black armoured warriors stood motionless beside it, outlined only by their bronze trim like metallic spectres.

“Do they even sleep standing up?”

Brother Indius scoffed. “They have rods so far up their backsides, I don’t doubt they could.”

Shrieks pierced the pre-dawn gloom. The chattering increased and movement erupted through the valley. The sound of popping and squelching burst in the distance and dozens of reptilian voices screamed.

“It is time,” Captain Junos said and manned his quad gun emplacement. The four barrels pumped and blasted shells across the valley. Missiles streaked across the sky in trails of burning smoke, all causing more squeals from the xenos. “Centurions, forward! Target central tervigon.”

To the right of the defence line, graviton amplifiers pulsed with green light. Whum-whum-whum. Their corresponding graviton cannons dropped a deafening bass note followed by the sound of tidal waves crashing. A pained shriek tore through the valley. In the distance a xenos the size of a house compacted in on itself. Its carapace imploded, splashing gallons of fluids into the rubble-strewn undergrowth and shot fountains of xenos blood into the air.

“Lion’s breath,” Menelus whispered. Armour piercing missiles and autocannon shells had failed to penetrate what those centurions tore apart in a single salvo. He levelled his bolter against a fire-point and waited for something to enter kill-range.

Dim light from the graviton amplifiers gained intensity as they recharged for another target. They had no chance. Reptilian creatures burst from the undergrowth, razor claws hacking and slicing. They leapt, climbed up the armour and attacked from above, below and on all sides. The centurions’ armour proved too thick for the initial attack and the sergeant grasped one of the creatures in each hand. He smashed their heads together in an explosion of blood and brain matter. Two kills, however, made no dent in the xenos swarm. The melee was on: three giants battling a swarm, armoured hands against tooth and nail.

Two remaining gargantuan monsters strode from the far side of the valley. Their forms comprised of huge plates of armoured carapace over solid muscle which protected egg sacs which hung below their bellies. Pops and the sound of leaking fluid accompanied them as they stalked the battlefield, waking scores more of the snapping, tearing creatures that beset the centurions.

“Purge the xenos!” one of the veterans yelled from behind. Their five bolters barked into the dawn, releasing a hail of mass-reactive shells. Five bolters fired, yet they rattled off rounds as though they were twenty. The shells exploded, decimating another swarm headed toward the centurions.

Wave after wave of the smaller creatures rolled through the valley. Menelus took aim at them but a command from Captain Junos made him pause. As the hulking leader brought his quad gun around, he yelled, “Ignore the swarm, Dark Angels. Focus fire on the big ones.”

Whether mere bolters could penetrate such creatures, Menelus could not tell. Brother Indius’ plasma cannon whined beside him as he prepared to fire. A quick glance to the banner gave him heart and he took sight.

A firestorm of bolter shells and plasma blazed through the valley. Hundreds of rounds pummelled into one of the huge creatures. It reared in agony, spilling fluid from torn egg sacs. Its carapace buckled, cracked and melted under sheer weight of fire before it crashed into the ground. One remained.

Menelus stared at his bolter. “The Mechanicum outdid themselves this time.”

“Honour your wargear, brother,” one of the veterans said and nodded to the banner that flew over them, “but trust in the Angels.”

Despite the heavy toll on the enemy, more and more surged forward, shrieking and chattering.

Then the ground shook.

Menelus had never heard a Space Marine scream. Dozens did so all at once. They clutched their heads and gnashed their teeth as holes appeared in the ground around them. Mounds of soil and rubble erupted. Stinking biological pods burst from the mounds, dripping a clear, sticky substance. The top of the pods unfurled, some behind, and others on their flank but Menelus saw only the one in front.

A creature of nightmare burst out and emitted some form of psychic shriek. Half his squad instantly fell to the ground, dead. Nothing remained of the veterans behind, the bodies of scouts lay motionless in their hiding place in the rubble. The other squad of Dark Angels clutched their heads and fell into disarray as three of their number died clutching their heads.

Spines shot from behind, felling more Dark Angels, spewed from another two monstrous creatures. Surrounded by huge creatures, Captain Junos of the Hammers of Dorn abandoned his quad gun and made ready with the thunder hammer and storm shield from behind his back.

“Rally to me!” he cried and leaped over the defence line.

Missiles from the ruins hammered into the psychic horror and obliterated it before the captain could bring his charged weapon to bear. The leader had no lack of targets, however, and ploughed into another creature of nightmare that headed toward the bogged-down centurions. Blow after blow rebounded off the xenos’ armoured carapace until an overhand swing crushed its skull. The captain turned back to the remaining Dark Angels and charged into a group of the smaller aliens.

The one remaining tervigon stopped hatching smaller monsters and stomped into one of the two Hammers of Dorn combat squads. Engines roared from behind the beast and the rhino transport sped away from the melee, storm bolter blazing. The lunatic driver shot straight for the rocky ground that covered an entrance into the Mechanicum vaults and ploughed into yet more of the smaller xenos that swarmed there. Its lightning approach scattered the creatures back across the valley, clearing the entrance. With a wrench of gears and screech of engines, the tank turned and bounded across the rocky ground at a second mass of xenos.

Dark Angel devastators, along with Brother-librarian Arcus, fell to hail of poisonous spines shot forth from the monstrous creatures behind their lines, leaving a single combat squad of Hammers of Dorn facing down the huge tervigon. Though Captain Junos’ valiant charge saved Menelus and his few remaining battle brothers, a great spiny limb from one of the creatures punched a hole through his armour plates. The creature lifted the captain and tossed him aside, onto a pile of fallen Dark Angels. The crackles of energy surrounding his hammer’s head winked out of existence.

As the tide of battle turned against the Space Marines, their salvation came when the two remaining centurions crushed the last of the xenos harassing them underfoot. The swung around and a rapid series of bass notes rumbled from their graviton weapons. Hundreds of cracks burst across the last tervigon’s carapace and the beast fell, causing panic through the xenos.

Engines rumbled in the distance. Something whined followed by an earth-shattering noise as the defence line exploded. Similar blasts followed as shells that could only belong to vindicator siege tanks rained down. The remnants of the xenos host fled back into their burrows or across the rubble and corpse-strewn valley.

Apothecaries ran forward from the black and bronze force and Menelus surveyed the destruction around them. They had held. The cost was monstrous but they had held.

 

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