Near Misses in Technology

For six years I’ve used this blog to aid beginning writers, but starting today I’ll occasionally take on other topics. Technology is fascinating to me, and today’s topic is those near misses in history when someone developed a technology before the world was ready.

What do I mean by ‘near misses?’ I’m talking about when an inventor came up with a new idea but it didn’t catch on, either because no one saw the possible applications or because there was no current need.

When you compare the date of the invention to the much later date when the idea finally took off, it’s intriguing to imagine how history might have been different, and how much further ahead we’d be today.

You’ll get a better idea of what I mean as we go through several examples.

Computers

The Antikythera Mechanism was likely the first computer, used for calculating the positions of celestial bodies. Invented in Greece in the 2nd Century BC, it contained over 30 intricate gears, and may have been a one-off. It is interesting to speculate how history might have been different if they’d envisioned other uses for this technology, such as mathematical calculations. Imagine Charles Babbage’s geared computer being invented two millennia earlier!

I was fascinated by the Antikythera Mechanism and the mystery surrounding its discovery in a shipwreck, so I wrote my story, “Wheels of Heaven,” with my version of those events.

Lasers

It’s puzzling to me that inventors came up with radios (1896) before lasers (1960). After all, radio involves invisible electromagnetic waves, but lasers are visible light. Sure, the mathematics behind lasers (stimulated emissions) wasn’t around until Einstein, but with people monkeying around with mirrors and prisms, it’s strange that no one happened upon the laser phenomenon ahead of its mathematical underpinning.

Charles Fabry and Alfred Perot came close in1899 when they developed their Fabry-Perot etalon, or interferometer. Again, imagine how history might have been different if lasers had appeared sixty years earlier, before radio.

My story “Within Victorian Mists” is a steampunk romance featuring the development of lasers and holograms in the 19th Century.

Manned Rocketry

The first manned rocket flight may have been that of German test pilot Lothar Sieber on March 1, 1945. It was unsuccessful and resulted in Sieber’s death. The first successful manned flight was that of Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union on April 12, 1961.

But did Sieber and Gagarin have a predecessor, beating them by three centuries?

There is an account of a manned rocked flight in 1633, the trip made successfully in Istanbul by Lagâri Hasan Çelebi. It’s fun to imagine if the sultan of that time had recognized the possibilities. My story “To Be First” is an alternate history tale showing where the Ottoman Empire might have gotten to by the year 1933 if they’d capitalized on Çelebi’s achievement.

Submarines

The earliest attempts at underwater travel come to us in legends and myths. Highly dubious accounts tell of Alexander the Great making a descent in a diving bell apparatus in 332 BC. There are vague references to the invention of a submarine in China around 200 BC. True submarine development really got its start in the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s.

Still, think about how much more we’d know today about the oceans if the ancient accounts were true and people of the time had make the most of them. My story “Alexander’s Odyssey” is a re-telling of the Alexander the Great episode, and “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai” is my version of the ancient Chinese submarine.

Steam Engines

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first commercially successful steam engine. Later, James Watt and Richard Trevithick improved on Newcomen’s design.

However, these inventions were preceded by Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria in the 1st Century AD. He developed a small steam engine called an aeolipile, though he considered it an amusing toy.

What if Heron had visualized the practical possibilities of this engine? Since the steam engine ushered in the Industrial Revolution, could humanity have skipped ahead 1700 years technologically? My story, “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” imagines a practical use for Heron’s engine along with a reason it didn’t catch on.

Other Near Misses?

You get the idea. I am intrigued by the number of times inventors hit on an idea, but society failed to recognize it and take advantage of it, so it had to wait until much later. Are there other examples you can think of? Leave a comment for me. Your thoughts might well be featured in a post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Judging Covers

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but some of your potential readers will, and you don’t want them wincing at the sight of your book. Today we’ll be judging covers, or at least reviewing what makes a good one.

After you read this post, please check out Derek Murphy’s take on cover design here. He goes into more depth. Although I’ll only be discussing fiction covers, his post also addresses non-fiction.

Resources

Where do you get cover art? Here are some sources:

  • If you sold your book to a publisher, the publisher may do your cover. They will likely work with you and do their best to accommodate your preferences.
  • If you’re also an artist or graphic designer, you can make your own cover art. If you’re manipulating images found on-line, be careful not to violate public domain restrictions. Sites like Dollar Photo Club and Dreamstime offer thousands of images at reasonable prices.
  • You can pay someone to do your cover art for you. Perhaps you have an artist friend, or you can get in touch with a talented artist at a local high school or college through the art department. There are websites such as 99Designs where you can have artists compete to make your cover.

Techniques

Derek Murphy’s post spells out the secrets to good book cover art in detail, but his overall message is that people will only glance at a cover for a moment, so it has to grab them. Your cover has to convey its message in a couple of seconds. All eight of Murphy’s cover design secrets flow from this principle. I’ll discuss each technique with respect to the covers of my books, or anthologies in which my stories appear.

51aDCvEwjvL1. Make it “Pop.” Use contrast between light and dark, or opposing colors. The cover of 2012 AD uses that technique to show off the explosion.

 

 

 

 

2. Lots of space. Avoid clutter. LeonardosLion3fThe cover of “Leonardo’s Lion” is simple; the reader’s eye doesn’t have to wander all over to get the point.

 

 

 

 

ASteampunkCarol72dpi3. Make it emotional. Your cover should be beautiful; it should appeal to the heart and make readers feel something. Remember, readers of different genres react emotionally to different things. The cover of “A Steampunk Carol” has the brass gears that steampunk lovers enjoy, and adds the red and green flowers of Christmas.

 

 

4. Use a subtitle, teaser or tagline (and a review!). It’s an effective technique, but none of my covers so far have used this.

Cover art5.1jox6w Pick the right font (and effects). The font should be readable and should help deliver the book’s message. In Quest for Atlantis, the main title font has an ancient (or at least olden) look. For “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” the title font has an Asian feel.

 

 

RippersRing72dpi6WithinVictorianMists9. Make it personal (but not cheesy). It’s good to have people on your covers, though Murphy argues against silhouettes. “Ripper’s Ring” gives you a glaring Jack the Ripper. We did use silhouettes for “Within Victorian Mists” but I think we did it effectively, to convey dancing on clouds.

 

ATaleMoreTrue3f7. If it’s too hard, go simple. Murphy argues against trying to cram in all the ideas you’d like to convey. I think “A Tale More True” illustrates a reasonable amount of simplicity. The reader has to wonder how a tricorn hat ended up there.

 

 

 

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00001]8. A little more on text placement. Murphy makes some additional points about text contrast with background, as well as fitting in short words (a, by, in, or the) in among the larger words. I like how the tower in Hides the Dark Tower seems to punch through the word ‘tower.’

 

 

 

As writers, we’re not expected to be great cover designers. If you are, or would like to be, then more power to you. For the rest of us, we must depend on (and pay for) the skill of others such as Derek Murphy. Leave the judging of book covers to the experts; that’s the advice of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

October 25, 2015Permalink

Secrets of the Past

Is it possible that some amazing things happened in historical times, but never made it in the history books? Today I’ll discuss the subgenre of fiction known as secret histories.

Wikipedia’s entry provides a good definition: “A secret history (or shadow history) is a revisionist interpretation of either fictional or real (or known) history which is claimed to have been deliberately suppressed, forgotten, or ignored by established scholars. Secret history is also used to describe a type or genre of fiction which portrays a substantially different motivation or backstory from established historical events.”

With secret histories the author can deviate from actual history as far as she’d like, but she must return things to status quo or else explain why historical accounts don’t align with her story.

For this reason, secret histories are not to be classified as alternate histories (as I mistakenly did here.  There is no permanent altering of history. Rather the world returns to the one we know. The thrill for the reader is seeing how close the world came to actually changing in some dramatic way.

Secret histories work well as thriller stories with assassins or spies, since they work in secret anyway. Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle are two examples.

I’ve written secret histories myself, but my stories involve technology, not spies or assassins. In each one I leave it to the reader to speculate how much further ahead we’d be if some inventions had occurred earlier.

9781926704012In “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” an inventor creates a submarine in China in 200 B.C. There are obscure references asserting that something of that sort actually happened, and those references inspired my story. The tale ends in a way that explains why more submarines weren’t made as a result of this invention.

steamcover5My story “The Steam Elephant” (which appeared in Steampunk Tales magazine) is a secret history in which a traveling group of Britons and one Frenchman are enjoying a safari from the vantage of a steam-powered elephant invited by one of the Brits. They get caught up in the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879. This is intended as a sequel to the two books of Jules Verne’s Steam House series.

WindSphereShip4In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” Heron of Alexandria takes his simple steam-powered toy and uses it to power a ship. If there had been a steamship in the 1st Century A.D., it boggles the mind to think we could have had the Industrial Revolution seventeen hundred years early and skipped the Dark Ages.

LeonardosLion3fAnother secret history is “Leonardo’s Lion” which answers what happened to the mechanical clockwork lion built by Leonardo da Vinci in 1515. In the story, humanity comes very close to seeing all of da Vinci’s designs made real, which would have advanced science and engineering by centuries.

TheSixHundredDollarMan3fI’d categorize “The Six Hundred Dollar Man” as secret history too, when a man fits steam-powered limbs on another man who’d been injured in a stampede. The story takes place in 1870 in Wyoming and it’s pretty clear by the story’s end why that technology didn’t catch on.

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry” is a tale about a young man who learns there have been secret high-technology regiments and brigades in wars going back at least to World War I. Members of these teams cannot reveal their group’s existence, so it fits the secret history genre.

ToBeFirstWheels5In “Wheels of Heaven” I take what is factually known about the Antikythera Mechanism, and weave a fictional tale to explain it.

As you can see, I like writing in this sub-genre. Imagine something interesting and imaginative happened in history, write about it, then tie up all the loose ends so that our modern historical accounts remain unchanged. Leave the reader wondering if the story could have really happened. History that might have been, courtesy of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

December 7, 2014Permalink

Dear Ray Bradbury

I just had to write to thank you, thank you, for the great times, the pleasures of reading your work.  There’s no sense letting a little thing like your death in 2012 prevent me from expressing my gratitude, is there?

220px-Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-Sorry, I haven’t read all your books and stories.  I’ve read less of your canon than I have of Jules Verne’s, Isaac Asimov’s, or Robert Heinlein’s.  But, oh, the few of your books I digested left lifelong mental imprints:  Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, Now and Forever, and The Martian Chronicles.  In high school, I read your short story, “The Flying Machine,” and my recollections of it inspired my story, “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” written decades later.

At one point, you declared you wrote fantasy, not science fiction.  In my view you blended the two.  You made science sound like fantasy.

Moreover, your flowing style of writing contrasted with that of the hard-science fiction writers.  Their stories conveyed a love of machines, of science.  Yours proclaimed a love of word imagery, of the magic of English, of poetic prose.

The authors of hard science fiction told me tales of technical detail.  You sang me stories of marvel and wonder.

I guess I’m trying to say that I write more like those other guys, but wish I could write like you.

On occasion, you related a particular memory from when you were about twelve.  At a carnival, one of the performers known as Mr. Electrico touched an electrical sword to your nose which made your hair stand out.  You claimed he told you, “Live forever!”

In a very real sense, Mr. Bradbury, you will.  Thanks again.

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

December 22, 2013Permalink