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

½ Price Sale on Many of My Books!

You’re looking for some great beach reads for your Kindle this summer. You keep hearing about that author—what’s his name?—who everyone is talking about. That’s right, it’s Steven R. Southard, the one who calls himself Poseidon’s Scribe.

You’ve been meaning to read my books, but you keep thinking they’re so darned expensive. Well, you’re in luck. Your wait is over.

For the month of July only, Smashwords is offering many of my books (the ones in the What Man Hath Wrought series) for ½ price! That’s right, get two for the price of one.

Here’s how to take advantage of these great prices. When you click on any book at my Smashwords site, a message will appear telling you to use a specific code at checkout to get the discount.

Here’s the list of stories and their prices during July:

AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians
$2.00

 

RippersRing5Ripper’s Ring
$2.00

 

TimesDeformedHand3fTime’s Deformèd Hand
$2.00

 

TheCometeers3fThe Cometeers
$2.00

 

ToBeFirstWheels4To Be First and Wheels of Heaven
$2.00

 

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry and Last Vessel of Atlantis
$2.00

 

ATaleMoreTrue3fA Tale More True
$2.00

 

TheSixHundredDollarMan72dpi-1The Six Hundred Dollar Man
$1.50

 

ASteampunkCarol3fA Steampunk Carol
$1.50

 

AgainstAllGods4Against All Gods
$2.00

 

LeonardosLion4Leonardo’s Lion
$2.00

 

AlexandersOdyssey3fAlexander’s Odyssey
$2.00

 

WithinVictorianMists4Within Victorian Mists
$1.50

 

WindSphereShip4The Wind-Sphere Ship
$1.50

 

Better take advantage of this limited time offer before Smashwords wakes up and realizes what they’ve done. Heck, you could buy all 14 books for a cool $26. How’s that for value?

Remember, go to Smashwords and grab these deals while they last. Tell ‘em you were sent by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

When Characters Wrest Control

Sometimes, while playing God, writers get surprised. Occasionally, while we’re creating our little worlds and our little people to inhabit them, one of those people doesn’t stay in the intended space.

Wresting ControlToday I’ll consider the topic of characters getting too big for their britches, and assuming a bigger (or different) role than the one planned for them. When this happens in your writing, should you take it as a good thing or a bad thing?

This has happened to me a few times. In my story “After the Martians,” the character Frank Robinson is a war AftertheMartians72dphotographer. He’s meant to be a secondary character, pursuing a parallel plot line that intersects the protagonist’s life near the end in a meaningful way. However, Frank became a little more compelling than intended and darn near overshadowed the protagonist. I kept most of his exploits in, so the reader cares what happens to him and follows his plot line with interest.

RippersRing72dpiIn “Ripper’s Ring,” Diogenes is a Bassett hound owned by a Scotland Yard detective. You know how some movie actors dread performing with animals because the animal might steal the scene? That nearly happened with droopy old Diogenes, whose seeming lack of interest in following a scent made him an endearing comic character in an otherwise dark and philosophical story. I kept him that way.

ATaleMoreTrue72dpiThere’s a French servant named Fidèle in my story “A Tale More True” who almost ended up having a more compelling personality than that of his master, the protagonist. Once again, he was a secondary character meant to provide comic relief and to showcase the protagonist. However, he tended to get the best lines, and to be the one suggesting the right course of action. I kept him as I’d written him, since the story is a voyage of learning and discovery for his master, and Fidèle is a necessary part of that.

WithinVictorianMists9Another servant, this time a plump Irish one named Daegan MacSwyny, nearly took over my story “Within Victorian Mists.” I’d meant this secondary character to be funny and unintelligent, but he ended up being secretly wise in almost magical ways. As with Fidèle, he gently prodded his master, the protagonist, toward the right answer at every step, though it’s never clear whether that’s by intention or accident. MacSwyny and all the Victorian Mists characters appeared again in “A Steampunk Carol” but there the servant kept to his secondary status.

In each case, a secondary character threatened to take over the story by force of personality and by being more endearing than the protagonist. That’s just the way my muse rolls.

But not only mine. Other writers have blogged about this phenomenon. Mae Clair lets it happen, for the most part, and later writes separate stories featuring such characters.

Melanie Spiller had written such a good scene about the death of a character whom she hadn’t meant to kill off, that she kept the scene in. She’d once been told a character wresting control of the story is a sign you’ve created a believable character.

When a character takes on a bigger role, you have choices. You can:

  1. Let that character go in this new direction, at least to some extent.
  2. Rewrite the story to keep the character as intended.
  3. Delete the character.

So far, I’ve always chosen option 1. Other writers choose either 1 or 2. It would be gut wrenching to opt for 3, so I suspect that’s rarely done.

When you play God by writing fiction, do you have characters wresting control every now and then? If so, what do you do? Or do you just like that word ‘wrest?’ Rise above your role as a blog post reader, and leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Making the Queen of the Clouds

The advent of 3D printing has made it economical to design and make some of the gadgets, vehicles, and character figurines from readers’ favorite stories. I’ve been working with a 3D printing expert to make some objects from my own books.

WithinVictorianMists9Readers of this blog already know about the Ring of Gyges from my story “Ripper’s Ring,” and the Martian tripod fighting machine from “After the Martians.” Today, I’ll discuss the Queen of the Clouds airship from “Within Victorian Mists,” a model I first displayed publicly at BALTICON last week.

The model airship is the one available on Thingiverse.com here. It was designed by Arnold Patrick Martin, who goes by RealAbsurdity on Thingiverse.

I painted mine a cream color. I know the airship in the story is silver, but I wasn’t sure my silver paint would be light enough. I later realized I could have mixed silver with white to lighten the hue.

WVM3

“Within Victorian Mists” is steampunk, and airships are common in that genre, but the Queen of the Clouds is actually a small part of the story. WVM4The main gadget in the tale is the laser hologram invention of the male hero, Stanton Wardgrave, but that wouldn’t be much to look at. The airship makes an appearance near the end when the female lead, Josephine Boulton, is about to board it and leave Stanton forever.

WVM5The concept of clouds/steam/mists/vapor/etc. is a main metaphor and symbol in the story, so Queen of the Clouds is an apt airship name.

For this prototype, I selected a design available online. If I were a 3D Printing designer, there are a few things I’d change to make the model truer to the story, aside from the color discussed above. First, I’d make the whole hull slimmer. Second, the Queen is a steam-powered dirigible (I know, not practical, but it’s fiction) with smokestacks, so I’d add those. Third, I’d add more propellers, and each would have just two blades. Last, there should be three gondolas underneath, not just one.

Please let me know what you think of this model. Have any of my stories inspired you to make your own 3D printed objects? If so, send pictures of them to—

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

Meet the Punk Family

If you’re into science fiction, particularly alternate history or speculative fiction, there are some interesting sub-genres to be aware of.  They all have -punk in their name:  cyberpunk, clockpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, and atompunk.

Punk FamilyI’ve blogged about steampunk before, but here I’ll step back and introduce the Punk family.

  • Cyberpunk. This term describes fiction involving a world of the near future where computer technology has made life miserable and degraded society.  Author Bruce Bethke is credited with coining the term in 1980 in connection with his short story “Cyberpunk.”  Major writers of cyberpunk include Pat Cadigan, William Gibson, and Bruce Sterling.  Some cinematic examples of cyberpunk are 1984, Blade Runner, Mad Max, the Terminator movies, and Tron.  In my graphic I’ve depicted it as the parent of the Punk Family since it came first.
  • Clockpunk.  This refers to fiction set in a time when metal springs are the primary technological energy storage mechanism, an era prior to the invention of the steam engine.  A player of the Generic Universal RolePlaying System (GURPS) invented the term.  Clockpunk authors of note include Jay Lake, S. M. Peters, and Terry Pratchett.
  • Steampunk.  This subgenre depicts settings with steam-powered mechanisms, often in time periods similar to the nineteenth century.  Author K. W. Jeter invented the term in 1987.  Early giants of steampunk literature include James Blaylock, K. W. Jeter, and Tim Powers, though there are many, many writers continuing in their footsteps.  Movie examples of steampunk include Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Prestige, Sherlock Holmes, Van Helsing, and Wild Wild West.  I think it’s fair to say this child of cyberpunk has surpassed its parent and all its siblings in popularity.  It has spawned a culture all its own with jewelry, clothing, art, music, and dedicated conventions in addition to books.
  • Dieselpunk.  In Dieselpunk we see the gasoline-based technology of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.  Game designer Lewis Pollak came up with the term in 2001.  Authors of dieselpunk include David Bishop, Robert Harris, Brian Moreland, and F. Paul Wilson.  Some examples of dieselpunk movies are Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  As with steampunk, dieselpunk also comes with its own visual style — art deco.
  • Atompunk.  This refers to fiction set in the exuberant post World War II age, the Atomic Age.  I couldn’t find anything about who coined the term.  Some atompunk authors are Adam Christopher and Dante D’Anthony.  I don’t know of any atompunk movies made since the sub-genre emerged, but many science fiction movies of the 1950’s can be thought of as proto-atompunk.  There are associated visual styles with atompunk, too:  Googie Architecture, Populuxe, and Raygun Gothic.

There are other, lesser known, members of the Punk family:  Decopunk, Biopunk, Nanopunk, Stonepunk, Nowpunk, Splatterpunk, Elfpunk, and Mythpunk.  Perhaps if these attract sufficient readers, I’ll blog about them too.

The ‘-punk’ aspect of each of these is meant to convey that these are not celebrations of the technology in question.  The idea in these stories is to convey dark and disturbing faults in the societies driven by the technology, and by extension, to point out analogous problems with our own modern society.

My steampunk stories include “The Steam Elephant,” “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” (call that one Iron Age steampunk), “Within Victorian Mists,” “A Steampunk Carol,” “The Six Hundred Dollar Man,” and the upcoming “Rallying Cry.”

I’ve written a couple of clockpunk stories too:  “Leonardo’s Lion” and “A Tale More True.”

Perhaps you’ll enjoy getting to know the Punk Family.  They’re an odd bunch, but they’re getting more famous every day.  Leave a comment and explain what you think about them to the world and to—

                                                        Poseidon’s Scribe

November 24, 2013Permalink