stranger, then fiction…

I am old enough to remember research before the advent of the internet. Data and inspiration for A Song Heard in the Future would have taken quite a bit longer without the worldwide web. It seems possible that some sources may never have turned up in my exploration of ancient Greek mythology. With Astral, as the current work-in-progress is set at least 550 years in the future, the process is somewhat easier. There has been, however, still some research involved.

Visiting the nearest significant library involves an hour by train and an additional half hour on foot (round trip). Topics that have informed Astral include: some of Aristotle’s views on government, Neo-Platonist metaphysics, astrophysics, forensic and police procedures, and posthumanism. Finding just a few useful details might have taken a full afternoon. Similarly, my taste for esotericism is usually unrewarded in even great bookstores.

There are, of course, two chief problems with data mining online: 1. not every page is necessarily accurate or reliable and, 2. it is too easy to find something fascinating. Some months ago, for example, while collecting details for a piece of short fiction in an upcoming anthology I found details about Keumalahayati, the 16th century Indonesian, female admiral. I’d never read about her before; I suspect that when I read more she’ll grow in my estimation as a new, old hero.

That same short story prompted digging for only a few tidbits of Indonesian religion prior to the arrival of Abrahamic faiths on the islands. I was surprised to see so many parallels to Western folklore – useful threads for the story and enjoyable due to my fondness for seeing sameness between diverse cultures.

Since the project that brought both the admiral’s career and the mythology of her not so distant ancestors to my attention involved only a few thousand words, they’ve been easy to file away for any future need or reference. More recently I have in fact fallen down the wikihole a little bit, requiring me to summon discipline.

The idea that truth can be stranger than fiction is not new – although it has been more dramatically described in the past:

who-knew.jpg

When something is unexpected and fascinating, almost regardless of how it may be presented or phrased, I think we’ll all a bit prone to rubbernecking on the information superhighway.

Within the past two weeks I have been discovering the details of a true story – from during the years of the Black Death and Europe’s witch craze. I am already resolved to both make this a novel and to let that wait its turn – until after Astral but probably before returning to work on Song. Posting about this experience – if a little obliquely – helps in setting a low priority in adapting my new discovery as a work of fiction.

ran-seven-samurai

If one imagines something like Seven Samurai (七人の侍) meets Ran (乱) — involving shifting alliances between monarchs and mercenaries, add hidden agenda on each side and occult practices on at least one — digging into this a little counts less as distraction. It can be viewed as binge watching a season of The Man in the High Castle or Stranger Things.

One very unexpected side benefit to watching this season of “Well, who knew that?” was finding something I’d been hunting off and on for at least thirteen years. In another capacity I go by DJ Zophiel, one of the characters in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Finding the sigil for the angel known as God’s spy in Hell and as the “cherubim of swiftest wing” proved impossible when I selected the alias. As it turns out, Gabriel’s got his trumpet – Zophiel could be said to have his upturned thurner horn.

sigil

The problem isn’t the wikihole but in remembering not to get stuck at the event horizon. All. In good time.


run it up the flagpole…

With apologies to Oskar Pernefeldt and anyone who has imagined a flag for planet Earth, in Astral the banner for M.other E.arth is based on vexillology, the study of flags. Symbolism in a wide range of forms has fascinated me at least since the mid-70s. Relevant to this post, I recall an illustrated dictionary that devoted to pages to “Flags of the World”.

Rules and preferences for flag design share a heritage with heraldry. To a degree, the process for describing of a coat of arms (i.e., blazonry) can apply to flags. The proper display of a flag is based on the orientation of shields.

Given present international law, national flags will only appear offworld under certain conditions. The Outer Space Treaty† provides that “outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” The treaty does not limit businesses and private citizens but a flag with a logo on it is not a flag – it’s an ad.

uespa

Fictional flags do not have to follow such laws either so we’re free to imagine what we’d like. Star Trek imagines a Unified Earth and Gene Roddenberry modeled his United Federation of Planets on the United Nations. The flags of United Earth (and its Space Probe Agency) reflect this inspiration. It’s often easy to see the sources of other Earth banners.

fict-flag

In Astral, while imagination permits anything, I’ve attempted to stay close to good flag design and a little heraldic knowledge.

flags

The flag of the Hamarchy of Keid, which includes the principal world on which Astral is set – Dalim, is sky blue and black with a silver crane and at least eight stars in the center. In heraldic terms the colors suggest a society that values wisdom, aspiration, and peace. The crane refers to an early Roman view that cranes enjoyed a cooperative society and took turns at watch at night. I like this because, although T. H. White came long after Pliny the Elder, this theme is echoed in White’s Arthuriana.

The Ophiuchid Cantons are almost two separate governments and will likely grow further apart. During the story, however, they share a flag. It is blue and silver with an ermine canton, or field, in the upper left corner. The fictional designer of this flag meant to demonstrate independence from M.E. along with a love for truth and innocence. There is subtle defiance in this.

Initially a part of the Cantons, Federalist Arcadia’s political emblem stands for a sincere and dignified demeanor while its citizens have little connection or allegiance to M.E. The linked angles toward the right show additional values of efficiency and pragmatism. In some heraldic traditions and in the opinion of M.E. the red-violet blush on the flag stands for treason.

me

The final term for the “Solar Empire” or the territories of M.E. hasn’t come to me as yet. Commonwealth is the leading contender but we’ll see. The coat of arms for the original human homeworld and her extended family of colonies is a golden sun in a green field meaning life and fertility with a black chevron representing prospect in and ever widening reach into outer space. The symbolism here being a mind elevated in hope – with protection and generosity for all new settlements.

How all societies present themselves in their best light will show up in well-designed flags. These four in Astral (and one other without an official flag) will try to live up to the values and virtues outlined above. How close they come to their own ideals is part of the story.


The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Pt. Being…

radial-30One of my habits – bad or not – is a tendency toward complexity. In the late 80s my coworkers and I were asked to fill out the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. It was not made a requirement, though some on the team viewed it as such. I was intrigued by the concept of sorting personality types into sixteen broad categories based on what seemed to be a relatively short questionnaire.

Of the categories, my personality type turned out to be ENTP* which means, according to the “test”, that I could be expected to be primarily interested in understanding the world. The MBTI also suggests that I enjoy debate and playing devil’s advocate.

tangled

Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers did not go on to say that I’d be attracted to intricate charts of relationships such as social media webs** and find visual thesaurus entries fascinating. If they had guessed that I would have these affinities they’d have been spot on.

Etymology and other fields of origin study are a large part of what occupies my musing when not seeking to craft entertaining worlds or unusual sculpture. My great grandmother once told me that to begin gaining a skill or cultivating a talent was to “first admire it”. I cannot remember not admiring eloquence.

But – as it turns out – having a silver tongue does not depend on strict adherence to every rule of grammar or an ever-expanding vocabulary. Effective communication can only be measured in terms of audience comprehension. I’ve always regarded “dumb it down” as a chore for myself and an insult to others. “Make it more accessible” seems more like a mission and a courtesy.

This is not to say that I won’t pause from time to time to hunt down a very precise and/or obscure word. There is a PDF of C. S. Bird’s Gradiloquent Dictionary on my hard drive. Somewhere in my collection of books is a physical copy of The Superior Person’s Book of Words by Peter Bowler. (I was once accused that I felt I was a superior person based on owning a copy of the latter.)

I will probably always find phylogenetic circular cladograms nearly equivalent to sacred geometry. I do, however, have to remain vigilant in keeping the famous advice of Clarence L. Johnson in mind. He, better known as Kelly, was the engineer who headed the Lockheed Skunk Works from during WWII until 1975. It is believed that he originated the principle of “Keep it simple, stupid.”

all

The MBTI structure indicates the types are based on preferences. Although my extrovert score is very high, it isn’t a constant. INTP is the introvert mode and that state is described as having the motto of “eschew obfuscation”. Sometimes that can feel like what I’m doing – all while trying to make an actual point. This means a lot of reminders to myself after enjoying the exploration of what may be to return to mission and work of what can be. That is enjoyable too.

venn


* ENTP people draw energy from interactions with people and tend toward the abstract while relying on logic and objectivity. We also like to keep our options open. That sounds more like me than Sagittarius.

** I haven’t found an app or add-on that can build the “hairball” illustration of 1,672 interconnected Facebook friends.

The Keirsey Temperament Sorter is a reasonable approximation of the MBTI, if you’re curious.


 

C (in a Roman sense)…

This is the 100th post here on Surfing the Zeitgeist. Since I began this project the subjects have ranged from legend to futurism. From creative process to both profession writing and sculpture. From who I have been to who I aspire to be.

Maintaining a nearly weekly schedule on a blog has helped focus my thinking, which as you’ve seen can range across a wide range of topics. That’s fine for amusement but when there’s a task at hand it helps to have a structure and/or outline. There have been a few personal landmarks along the way – not the least of which being the loss of Leonard Nimoy.

I’ve also been able to celebrate my collaborations with Leanna Renee Hieber, the Nerdy Duo, and Simon Berman. There have been links to my other blog-work at Criminal Element. Through all the past 99 posts I have enjoyed tracking the nations from which Visits and Likes have come. The number of countries on that tally coincidentally sits at 99. It’s fun to have a bet with myself on the next addition to the list but I’m nearly always surprised, though I am fairly certain № 100 will not be North Korea.

99

Apart from providing insight to how I go about my projects I’ve given a few glimpses at my philosophy – hopefully without being controversial. My heroes and notions of civics don’t have to be yours; if we all agreed on every point what would be the purpose of a blog anyway?

A hero’s journey and a personal one may both fall under the rubric of per aspera ad astra (through hardships to the stars). High hopes lead to higher aim. My motto for the past 25 years has been, “The only raw material required to manufacture hope is time.”


Anywhere you go…

In preparation for a bit of professional writing I made a map showing a rendezvous in Asia of two airships – the Copertino and the Wakefield. Once I’d finished getting the time markers along navigationally accurate great circle paths, I realized the work was wasted if I didn’t incorporate more of the data represented in the graphic within the text of the story.

This completely changed the beginning of the tale and, I think, will involve the reader faster. A much more in medias res start. I recently had an unrelated experience that, although it went remarkably well, I would have preferred it went “even better”. Once writers and editors finish with a piece it amounts to the same sort of wishing.

I’m very glad I caught this opportunity and that my habit of maps with stories served me very well in this instance.

Ministry-map-copy


and back again…

Visualization can get sometimes get in the way of manifestation. I had started to develop a map of a hypothetical planet in orbit around the larger star in the Alpha Fornacis binary system, a location in Astral. What does the story need from such a map?

While I was in high school Ralph Bakshi’s animated version of The Lord of the Rings was released. Some educators including my English teacher seized the opportunity to introduce a classic of modern literature. There is, of course, the famous map of Middle-Earth of which there are now countless variations. Pauline Baynes, trained as a cartographer during World War II while a volunteer with the Ministry of Defence, did the original work.

J. R. R. Tolkien was very impressed by Miss Baynes’ talent though some of his friends suggested that her work reduced his “to a commentary on the drawings”. He viewed her mapmaking as presenting a “collateral theme” and introduced her to C. S. Lewis. Some of how we view Narnia is still influenced by her imagination.

Maps tell stories just as novels do. If used in conjunction they must help tell the same story. Does it help show how long and/or arduous a physical journey is? Are there warnings about potential dangers along the way? Is the map equivalent to a trail of breadcrumbs away from Rosina Leckermaul or a length of thread leading back to Ariadne? Proper use of a map helps shape the narrative and defines the characters.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m very pro-map. One of the things I’ll catch myself wondering when I pick up a science fiction or fantasy novel, “I hope there’s a map.” As a fan of fiction I think I rather expect a nice, fancy map. But why map α For Aa?

Building an illustration of the network of Earth’s five dozen future colony worlds helped establish the sociopolitical environment of Astral. The concerns and attitudes of the major characters grew out of my understanding of how humans had spread into interstellar space. Part of the motive of the murderer stems from the star map.

In a setting where terraforming is somewhat commonplace – and the character of any given planet can therefore be changed to suit settlers – there’s less need to map the planet’s surface. Moving from future city’s public transit station to another seems far less important to map out when some of the characters have already traveled more than 20 light-years before the story begins.

I’ve done animations of rotating fictional worlds before but I’d forgotten how time-consuming that can be. From time to time now I will have to ask myself, “What does this contribute to the story?”, which is a polite way of asking, “Are you wasting your time on this detail?”

Dalim-planet-anim

This afternoon I remembered something I’d made eight years ago. In Astral, the locations that matter are those along the way in pursuit of the murderer and where justice may be meted out. Less spinning globe and more floor plan, then. And I won’t need to sketch out any rooms; real buildings are everywhere as a menu of locations.

Hotel scene

From preschool on, we’re told that imagination is a virtue. It is, in fact, the first tool of any artist whether with images or words – unless you happen to be one of those lucky people for whom a blank page or canvas is a Muse in itself. In order to invite and guide a reader to explore any new world, the author must be a diligent scout first. A writer of any sort owes those who may follow his or her lead not to be distracted along the first trail blazed.

From the end of May 1985 to the day before Halloween of 1992 (first on HBO and then shown by USA Network), each episode of The Ray Bradbury Theatre began with the author’s description of himself as a pack rat of things that helped him dream stories into being. The introduction concluded with Mr. Bradbury saying, “And the trip? Exactly one half exhilaration, exactly one half terror.”

If a map helps along the way it is a valuable tool. If not it’s another item of clutter.


3, 2, 1, impact…

I found that I’d grown fond of asking the question, “Are there any films that take place entirely within one room?” It wasn’t entirely clear why. In preparing for this  post I found a list of over 100 movies the compiler claims satisfy this query. Of these, I’ve seen barely 10% but none of them precisely tell me the answer is “Yes.”

Most of the movies on the list fall into the jump-scare horror and/or torture-porn buckets. However, the best example of almost one-room stories among those films I have scene would be Rear Window (Paramount Pictures, 1954). Even in this some of the action does take place elsewhere.

Why ask the question?

The central reason is one of motion – as it turns out. Movement is essential to drama. If nothing moves, we have a painting. They can, in a sense, tell a story. They can certain move us – emotionally. But that’s not really the same thing.

Movies can be art in and of themselves. A few spring to mind pointing that out. Segment 5 – Crows – in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Warner Bros., 1990) and Episode 10 of Season 5 – Vincent and the Doctor – in new NuWho (BBC, 2010). Oddly enough both of these examples involve van Gogh.

The quintessential presentation of it, in my opinion, is Cameron at the Art Institute of Chicago.

moved


“This I thought was very relevant to Cameron—the tenderness of a mother and a child which he didn’t have.”

“I used it in this context to see – he’s looking at that little girl – which again is, a mother and a child. The closer he looks at the child, the less he sees, of course, with this style of painting. But the more he looks at it, there’s nothing there. He fears that the more you look at him (Cameron), the less you see. There isn’t anything there. That’s him.”

John Hughes


Seurat’s work was begun in 1884 but took two years to complete – placing it a century before the release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Migration-Tree-plan

The chart here is part of various “visual outlines” for Astral. This doesn’t only show each of the 62 interstellar colonies of Earth but the factions

As an outline, to me it shows the despair and paranoia of one of the villains. The chart demonstrates some of the incredible obstacles faced by a large portion of the society Astral examines. In making this image more than one scene coalesced for me that I hope will illustrate – in the writing – the suffering of one particular faction stemming from the policies of the powers that be.

Every journey will have obstacles; sometimes it starts with misplaced keys. Any trip might begin in a mix of fear and hope.

Toward the end of May I wrote about woe and joy in travel and quoted Dr. Henri Poincaré with regard to hope having somewhat more weight. He also once said, “The mind uses its faculty for creativity only when experience forces it to do so.”

This is true both of writers and their characters.