Category Archives: Critiques

Star Trek TNG, Season 3: The Best and Worst

It took me a very long time to make my way through Season 3 of TNG again, but what can I say, I’ve been busy.

Anywho, I finished it a few weeks ago and finally find myself with a little time to give you my picks for the best and worst episodes of the season. Part of the reason I’ve put it off is that the decision on either end is a very tough one. Honestly, none of the episodes were truly abysmal and a great many of them were very, very good. How does one pick from among the episodes “Sarek”, “The Most Toys,” “The Enemy,” “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and, of course, part one of “The Best of Both Worlds?” Man.

Well, here’s what I decided. Your commentary and personal preferences welcome:

The Worst: “Menage a Troi”


Yep, it’s *that* kind of episode.

First of all, just look at that title. Look at it, I say!

Just a little skeevy, isn’t it?

Well, that about sums up the episode in general: a little bit skeevy. Now, it doesn’t quite go to the lengths of actively offensive, but it flirts with idea.

Synopsis: A Ferengi, Daimon Tog, falls in love with Lwaxana Troi for no particularly good reason, even though she violently and publicly rejects him. No matter – he decides to kidnap her and also manages to kidnap Deanna and Riker, too. Then they fly off. There’s a Ferengi doctor that wants to study Betazed physiology to try and make mind probes or something. You know what? It hardly matters. This is an episode about a Ferengi forcibly abducting and then sexually harassing and assaulting a woman.

Now, the Ferengi are depicted as hopelessly incompetent and goofy and Lwaxana is basically in control most of the time. She tolerates his attentions in order to give Deanna and Riker time to figure out how to escape and signal the Enterprise – they do. At the end, Picard has to pretend to be Lwaxana’s jilted lover in order to force her return. We all chuckle. The end.

The thing wrong with this episode is twofold: (1) The Ferengi are unpardonably stupid at every single juncture and (2) the whole schtick with this episode is a bit creepy. Almost everybody is forced into unwanted romantic and/or sexual situations and they are played off as a laugh. Granted, the Picard bit is funny, but everybody else seems to be cutting the Ferengi a bit too much slack here. This is the episode (I think – it may have been mentioned in an earlier episode) where it is revealed that the Ferengi don’t believe women deserve clothes and, while our heroines are appropriately displeased, it seems like, in the end, everybody’s going to treat this like some kind of ridiculously funny anecdote instead of something that is really, really upsetting. Given how cartoonishly stupid the Ferengi are here, I guess that makes a degree of sense – they are absurd – but still, I feel like this kind of thing should be really bone-chilling.

On a darker note, the episode does make me wonder what the kidnapping/rape situation is in the 24th century. I mean, if you’re a psycho bent on sexual assault, can’t you just beam your victims up from anywhere? That seems to be really, really worrisome – terrifying even. Did Star Trek ever accelerate the creep-factor on this to its rational conclusion? I’m not sure – I don’t think so. Still, it is something that chills the blood.

Except not here because, you know, funny.

The Best: “Who Watches the Watchers”

First of all, an explanation is in order: I did not pick “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” for two reasons. Firstly, it would be a bit obvious and, secondly, the first part is really just the set-up – the good stuff doesn’t happen until the next episode in Season 4. Perhaps I’ll talk more about it then.

Pretty much what the whole show is about, right?

Pretty much what the whole show is about, right?

Synopsis: The crew accidentally reveal themselves to a primitive culture while observing them for study, leading the primitive people to being believing in a god figure they now call “Picard.” Riker and Troi infiltrate the society to try and undo the damage, but bad things happen. People are accused of heresy. The poor guy on the planet starts begging Picard to bring his dead wife back to life. Crazy pants nonsense ensues. The only way Picard can stop it is by having the prime believer shoot him with an arrow to demonstrate his mortality. Finally, then, they are able to convince the primitive people that they are not gods, but just mortals with advanced knowledge.

I picked this episode from among many other fine episodes this season because I feel it exemplifies what Star Trek is (and should) be all about: the triumph of reason over superstition, fear, and violence. The frustrating Picard feels at being equated with a god is palpable – he is angry and upset over how such a misunderstanding will likely set these people back. They will abandon what they can learn with their eyes and ears and minds for the subjective “truth” of an unknowable god who dictates to them through prophets more likely to be chasing their own personal demons than being in touch with the Almighty.

Aspects of the episode are silly, but the performances are very compelling and the drama very real. It is the embodiment of Clarke’s insistence that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it shows the lengths one must go to dispel that illusion. I think this episode is right at the heart of what this show was basically about – intelligent beings trying to be the best they can be without needing to fall back on mysticism or hogwash to make them great. I love it.

Anyway, those are my picks. What are yours from Season 3?

How I Write a Novel (For What It’s Worth)

The Iron Ring is getting closer and closer to publication. I’m going over my editor’s revision notes, putting on the final rounds of spit and polish, and soon this little dragster of a story is going to hit the road. You know, assuming there are no cataclysmic failures anywhere along the line. Obviously.

Anyway, I’ve had enough people ask me about this in the recent months that I figured I may as well write about it. “Auston”, they ask, “how do you write a novel?” This is a question that probably has as many answers as there are authors, and if you’re going about writing a novel, you’re probably going to do it differently than anybody else. Writing, as everybody and their sister will tell you, is a personal and solitary process and, as such, it is prone to idiosyncrasy.

This, however, doesn’t answer the question to anybody’s satisfaction. I must, therefore, answer it literally: how do I, Auston Habershaw, write a novel. I feel at this juncture it is important for me to note that nobody taught me how to write a novel. Nobody. It’s something I figured out myself, ultimately, and all the novel workshops I attended through my MFA program and before have mostly taught me how to write chapters, which is a very distinct thing from writing a novel at large. This should not mean my teachers were bad at their jobs by any means, but rather reflect upon the limitations of the semester-based (or workshop based) education system for teaching somebody how to do something that takes years to perfect. I’ve written about 7 novels to date, some of which will never see the light of day (and rightly so), but each has taught me a lot through painful trial and error.

Anyway, the point is that my process might not work for you, but it is a process that seems to produce results, so here we go.

Part 1: The Rough Draft

There's a story somewhere in there, right?

There’s a story somewhere in there, right?

The first thing I do when writing a novel is to write it. Well, not exactly – I do spend an indeterminate period of time thinking about it and getting the novel into a rough shape in my mind. Main characters, a central conflict, and a beginning/middle/end arc are all loosely defined, and then I start writing. I write the whole thing in one shot. I revise nothing (NOTHING). I don’t so much as fix a comma or proofread a paragraph. I learned early on that, if I did that, I’d get trapped in an endless revision loop of fixing what was, essentially, a tiny part of a large work that might just get cut, anyway. I don’t worry a lot about keeping continuity through the draft – if a character stops working and is messing with the story, I let that character drop and leave myself a footnote explaining why I did it to a future, very skeptical me.

The point of the rough draft is to toss as much junk on the table as possible. The plot usually winds up an ungodly tangle, there are all kinds of pointless tangents, and a lot of things make no sense. That’s okay – the objective is the generation of an entire book’s worth of raw material. It is very hard to tell precisely what will be useful or useless in the future, so I don’t worry too much about it. The point is to get the whole thing done.

Now, I realize there are people out there who extensively outline and, thereby, sort of side-step this. Well, in theory, I guess. Me, I’ve found extensive outlining at this stage hobbles the novel for me – it restricts my ability to improvise and allow the story to grow organically.

Part 2: The Chainsaw Stage

It is dangerous to go alone. Take this!

It is dangerous to go alone. Take this!

The second draft (and sometimes a third draft, too) involves chopping apart that pile of trash until you’ve got a workable plot and have the general pacing of the novel under control. I call this the Chainsaw Stage, as it often involved hacking out big hunks of stuff you wrote. Other people call this the “Killing Your Babies” stage, as it often involves killing things you love for the sake of the whole. It might be a lovely little tumor, but it’s still a tumor – hack it out.

Of course, once you’ve hacked a bunch of stuff out, you need to fill in those gaping holes you left. This involves writing new scenes that shore up and improve all the stuff you’re keeping. This very process – the act of hacking up and pasting back in – is why I can’t revise until I have a complete or essentially complete rough draft: until I see the story in total, I can’t make responsible decisions of what must go and what must stay. The Chainsaw Stage is only as successful as the Rough Draft is.

These two steps comprise, what I feel, is the lion’s share of the work in novel writing. The first part is tons of fun, though the result is disheartening. The second part is enormously difficult and painful, but the result is incredibly satisfactory. These two parts should (for me) solve all the major problems of the novel. After this point, I know what the story is, I have all the character arcs, conflicts, and resolutions roughly in place, and I have a draft that might actually be readable by outsiders (you know, if they forced me).

Part 3: Buff, Wax, and Polish

Look! Passive voice! it! Moving on...

Look! Passive voice! Hmmm…got it! Moving on…

The last part (well, discounting what your editor wants you to revise and so on) primarily involves buffing out the stuff you’ve already got. Most of the new scene writing is behind you. Yeah, you might insert a little thing here or there, but generally all the bones of the book are firmly in place. This is when I start to actually worry about style and really start proofreading the thing. This is when I start fiddling with particular words or set rules for the spelling of certain specialized terms (I’m a fantasy author, remember?). I rewrite dialogue a lot (I know what I want them to say, but they can always say it better) and revise action sequences (Quoth George Lucas: Faster! More intensely!).

This stage takes a surprisingly long time, since it is very easy to fiddle. I put it off for two or three drafts prior to this, so finally indulging can be cathartic. I strive to keep myself under control, honestly. Stage 4 kills a lot of the point of fiddling sometimes.

Part 4: Professional Editor

By the end of Stage 3, the book should be about as good as I can possibly make it. At some point it becomes clear that all my edits are lateral moves – nothing is getting better, just slightly different. By then, it is time to submit it. If you’re very persistent and very lucky (as I have been), you’ll actually get a professional to look at the thing and tell you what to change. In my (extremely brief) experience, they are almost always right. You fix as directed.

This is the stage I am currently at. I know there are other stages, but all of those are involved in the professional publication end of this spectrum – copy editing, marketing, etc.. By that point, I obviously already have a novel (and have had one for some time), and the question was “how do I write a novel,” not “how does the publishing business work.” As far as that second one is concerned, I have legitimately no idea what I am doing.

Wish me luck!

The Real Hero

This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.

Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.

To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.

So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”

The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?

Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Iron Ring. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.

The Elasticity of Time, the Rigidity of Patience

Albert Einstein once said,

Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love? Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Our concept of time is, essentially, illusory. In this respect it is not very different than anything else – our perception of space is no less malleable and theoretical, and our understanding of each other is even less substantive. We are all, essentially, making things up as we go along. We are trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa through a keyhole.

The other day a student of mine started complaining about public transportation, bemoaning how long it took her to travel from her house to school. This struck a nerve with me; I laid into her. “If you hate it so much, why don’t you drive?” I asked.

“It’s so expensive and so hard to park around here!”

I grimaced. “Then stop complaining.”

People claw their eyes out at this symbol, as though they have somewhere to be or something.

People claw their eyes out at this symbol, as though they have somewhere to be or something.

It was harsh of me. I probably shouldn’t have given her so much crap about what is, essentially, an innocuous complaint so commonplace as to be almost cliché. Everybody bitches about the MBTA. Never mind that it is the cheapest, most convenient, and most reliable form of transportation in Boston outside of a bicycle or your feet. Rain, snow, hot, cold, the T gets you there for a substantially smaller amount of money than anything else. It’s slow and uncomfortable and sometimes you get delayed or stuck in a tunnel. Sometimes it takes you 90 minutes to travel five miles and sometimes you have to stand on a cold platform in the winter with a crying baby and curse the inefficiencies of the system.

But it costs you less than $70 a month (or less!), you never get a parking ticket, and if it breaks down, you aren’t stick with the repair bill. Nobody can steal it, you don’t care if its interior is scuffed up, it rarely gets in an accident, you never have to gas it up, it’s good for the environment, and, if it breaks down, somebody comes along in a bus to take you where you’re going without you needing to do anything.

All you need to do is wait.

Modern society is terrible at waiting. Terrible. We are incredibly, stupendously spoiled when it comes to getting what we want, when we want it. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. If a website takes more than thirty seconds to load, I probably won’t bother looking at it. If my pizza takes more than 45 minutes to arrive at my front doorstep, I get pissed off.

This decline (and I do think it is a decline) is a side-effect of advanced technology. We are so used to having our demands met, we are frustrated when they aren’t. We bustle about, chained to our wristwatches (ah, I’m dating myself here – our smartphones, excuse me), so convinced that if we are ten minutes late to (wherever) that this somehow represents a failure of the world worthy of vocal and elaborate disdain.

Certainly, punctuality is important and respectful of others – if you are late, apologies should be in order and we must take measures to prevent habitual tardiness lest we tarnish our own self-image. We must remember, however, that the world is not always at our command. How arrogant of us to assume that a regional rail network will instantly obey our travelling whims. How petty of us to condemn a website for it’s inability to instantly react to our commands. I might regale you here with tales from yesteryear, but consider this: how many more paragraphs of this blog post are you willing to read? I’m betting it’s not much more than three. I will finish this well shy of 1000 words, but most of you have already started skimming. Why?  You lack patience. Go and look at a 19th century novel. Weigh it in your hands. Consider that what you are holding was likely considered ‘light reading’. Reflect.

Nothing has taught me patience quite like the act of writing. I send things out into the world, and I wait. I cannot badger editors to respond to me, as much as I wish to. I cannot push publication schedules any faster than they will move. I must simply bide my time and reap my harvests when they ripen. For all its aggravation, there is wisdom in this.

I worry for us. I worry for a species that cannot or will not read more than 1000 words on any subject. That seems to imply that there is nothing – no concept, no work of art – that cannot be encompassed by 1000 words. If such exists, we do not wish to see them. We live forever with our hand on the hot stove and forget the long, silent gaze of a world as special as any woman.

The Rule of Cool (or “How the Jaeger Program Happened”)

Pacific-Rim-robotINT WAR ROOM-NIGHT

(Three men cluster around a table, viewing images of the Kaiju attacks on San Francisco and elsewhere. They are the PRESIDENT, DOCTOR THINK, and GENERAL COWBOY)

PRESIDENT: Well, gentlemen, we need a response to these giant monsters. Our planes and tanks aren’t cutting it.

DOCTOR: If I may, Herr President, I believe the primary difficulty lies with the fact that our pilots are shooting the giant monsters with machine guns and flying so close to their bodies that they can be struck by the beasts.

GENERAL: What? You want ’em fly way up in the sky, like sissies? Up close – that there is how a MAN fights!

DOCTOR: If you possess a vehicle that can fly thousands of feet in the air, why would you feel the need to give the giant beast a haircut? Also, Mr. President, we should be shooting missiles at them, not bullets.

PRESIDENT: The missiles haven’t worked, Doctor Think.

DOCTOR: We could build bigger missiles. We don’t even need to put them on planes, actually. Terrestrially-based missile silos could support ordnance of sufficient dimensions to render a Kaiju of even twice this size completely…

GENERAL: Blah, blah, blah! That’s all you eggheads ever do is flap yer gums when it’s time to do something. Well, Mr. President sir, I’ve got a plan. What if we built giant goddamned robots – really big fuckers with cool-ass names like…uhhh…Danger Stan or Super Tower Piledriver!

DOCTOR: Why would we do that? We barely have such technology developed, and the expense would be…

GENERAL: Now’s not the time to penny-pinch, poindexter! We need us some big ass robots to beat down these big ass beasties in some kinda gawd-amighty throw-down. (makes jabbing motions) Pow! Whammo! Biff! Foom!

PRESIDENT: Are you suggesting that the robots will punch the monsters?

GENERAL: Fuck yes! How awesome would that be?

DOCTOR: What you are suggesting is engaging in hand-to-hand combat with giant creatures that will be both faster and better suited to such things. It is pointlessly risky and expensive, not to mention impractical.

PRESIDENT: The Doctor does have a point.

GENERAL: Listen, I got it all planned out – we just get the robots to link with our brains, right? You eggheads can figure that out, can’t you? That way the robot will move just as fast as the monster, and then it’ll be martial arts chop-socky against alien monster brawn. (makes karate chopping motion) HAI! Badass, yeah!

DOCTOR: One person’s brain will be overloaded by this. We’ll need two people at minimum to operate one body for a made-up pseudo-scientific reason I am citing right now. The challenges to finding two people suited to do this with each other will significantly decrease the numbers of robots we can field.

GENERAL: Bah! We’ll just have them fight each other with sticks. Believe me, brother, once you try and bash a guy’s face in with a stick, you’ve seen into his fucking soul, amirite? (to president) High Five!

PRESIDENT (leaving GENERAL hanging): Stick Fighting?

DOCTOR: The stick-fighting plan is irrelevant. The point is that this is the stupidest possible way to fight these creatures. You are engaging them on their own terms! They emerge from the water – do we propose to make these robots able to swim?

GENERAL: Why swim when you can walk? Look, fellas, you’re missing the *point* here. This would be AWESOME! The guys that beat down these things will be such studs they’ll be able to score in a convent! Who doesn’t want to watch a giant fucking robot wrassle himself a big-ass sea monster?

DOCTOR: I presume you would give the robots claws and teeth and such. At minimum, giving them a centauroid structure to lower their center of gravity will…

GENERAL: No, no, NO! No teeth, no claws, none of that shit. These robots need to be saleable in toy stores, and nobody wants a hero with giant fangs. I guess we can give them a sword, but all pilots should be trained not to use the sword except in dramatically appropriate moments. Punching, fellas – this is all about the punching. OOO! We could even put rockets on their elbows to…

DOCTOR: Could we give them poison spines?


DOCTOR: Electrify the hull?

GENERAL: Then how could they wrestle? No!

DOCTOR: Could we at least make them fly?

GENERAL: That’s why we have dozens and dozens of helicopters on stand-by!

DOCTOR: You know, we could have the helicopters armed to assist…

GENERAL: Nope! Wouldn’t be fair. We want a classic throw-down, understand? Like in the movies.

DOCTOR: Surely, Herr President, you see how foolish this idea is.

PRESIDENT (scribbling in a notebook): So, General, what do you anticipate the licensing revenue would be for these things…

DOCTOR: That’s it. I’m going back to Austria, where we will never, ever see a Kaiju. Good luck, idiots. (exit)


False History, Real Power

I’ve always loved history; the story of our species’ activities, decisions and beliefs over the vast span of time and continent is riveting, compelling, and wonderful to know. Understanding history is essential to understanding art, literature, culture, and human beings in general. No artist, in my opinion, can be ignorant of history and successfully depict human societies in any real or convincing way. This is as true of the science fiction and fantasy author as it is of anyone else, perhaps more so, as they must frequently invent new history that, in their world, serves all the same functions as real history does in ours.

The story behind this door makes what lies behind all the more tragic.

The story behind this door makes what lies behind all the more tragic.

Few understand this or use it better than Tolkien. When Rohan rides to help Gondor, it’s a nice story; if you know of the relationship between Rohan and Gondor, their shared history, and their challenges, it becomes an even better story. If you know that Aragorn is the heir to Isildur, that’s fine; if you understand the significance of Aragorn as the last of a thinning bloodline that traces all the way back to the doomed kingdom of Numenor, the pathos of his duty and quest becomes that much more powerful. The Silmarilion, while not a read for everyone, establishes a mythic and historic baseline that colors the whole of Middle Earth; it has resonance in every song the elves sing, in every major conflict that develops, and in every cultural behavior of every people in that world. Even if you haven’t and don’t plan to learn about the history of Middle Earth, you are experiencing its power from the moment Thorin and company sing “Far Over Misty Mountains.”

For the rest of us writing fantasy or science fiction, we can take a lesson from Tolkien that is important to remember: Your world should be bigger than what happens on the pages. Just like you should know your characters like they’re real people, you should also know the history of your setting. All of this falls under David Eddings famous quote about writing 1000 pages about a world before you can write a story set there. This sounds like work, and it is, but if you’re a lover of history, it’s great fun, too. It’s an instance where you can take your understanding of history and try to apply some of those same concepts or, if you like, mess with them. It’s the most thorough kind of ‘what-if’ building you can do.

Take, for instance, the existence and study of magic – elemental forces contained within the fingertips of a special few. How does that change the course of history? What kinds of things does it result in or not result in? What kind of world is one where magic exists? I consider this pretty closely in my world of Alandar, which grows and changes with each passing year as I continue to flesh it out and establish its history. In The Iron Ring, my first novel set in the world, we visit the world almost three decades after the ages-long prohibition of free sorcerous study began to be relaxed. What was once a medieval world of simple people ruled over by the magical elite is beginning to shift. A middle class is being born. Sorcery is being used by the common people with greater frequency. Businessmen and entrepreneurs are taking the once-restricted arts of alchemy and thaumaturgy to new heights, a Reniassance of sorts is developing, and all of it goes back to a war. In this war there were pivotal historic figures (Landar Marik the Holy, General Conrad ‘Mudboots’ Varner, the Mad Prince Banric Sahand), famous battles (Atrisia, the Sack of Tasis, the Siege of Calassa), and events of contention still debated into the modern day (Who really killed Perwynnon? Why did Landar Marik abdicate? Did Banric Sahand really sign the Treaty of Calassa?). This, I hope, should give my world a sense of presence, of legitimacy, and of gravity. It lets me understand my characters better, and hopefully lets the readers understand them better, too.

The trick is, of course, finding a way to tell them about all this without boring them to tears. Some people, as you know, don’t really like history all that much. That, of course, is the ultimate challenge of the fantasist – to bring someone into a world without barraging them with facts like they’re studying for an exam. It is a challenge I believe I have done well at, but I could always do better. For inspiration, I need only gaze at the great world-builders: Tolkien, Martin, Herbert, Jordan. They are the framers of my own personal history, the teachers of myth that shaped my own understanding of the art, and beside whom I hope one day to be mentioned without sarcasm or irony.

How to Execute a Proper Portal Attack

Saw The Avengers finally last night. Great superhero movie – tons of fun, lots of good stuff for comic book fans, enough for non-fans to enjoy, and with snappy dialogue and good pacing. A popcorn movie, certainly – nothing terribly profound or emotionally compelling about the whole thing – but the exact kind of movie the big screen does so well.

There are a number of tactical liabilities to bringing space jet-skis to bear on NYC.

Anyway, it isn’t a spoiler for me to point out that, at some point in the movie, a whole bunch of bad guys attack New York city from a portal they open above it. If you’ve seen the previews, you can surmise as much. It also isn’t much of a spoiler for me to reveal that, through much trial and tribulation, the Avengers win the day and the portal assault fails. This failure, however, I feel has as much to do with poor planning on Loki’s part as it does with the interference of the Avengers. Indeed, Loki is committing the same errors that every portal assault plan executed by every alien/extradimensional being has made since they started doing this portal thing.

The Portal’s Advantages

The primary benefit of using a portal to teleport your army into battle is that of surprise. Since you can get your army to show up anywhere, this is a useful way to hit the enemy where and when they least expect it. I suppose, in the long term, it would also serve as a logistical benefit, as well, since supplying your troops could be as easy as trotting down to the Stargate room and lobbing through some sandwiches and spare clips of ammo. Given that I’ve rarely seen a portal assault go well enough for this to come into play, I’ll leave that part by the wayside for the nonce.

Anyway, surprise is great. Surprise can turn a battle in your favor. Surprise is a big deal. Surprise, however, is not the only factor you need to consider. You also need to consider when and how to use surprise to your best advantage. Attacking New York City, for instance, is a crappy place to utilize this surprise attack. Why? Well, New York City isn’t a direct threat to your invasion. It’s not a fortress. It isn’t an armed camp. Hell, the place can’t even feed itself. If you conquer New York City, you don’t ‘win’ the battle for Earth automatically. You definitely ruin the investment portfolios of many millions of people, but that’s much different than conquering the Earth. Plenty of military forces still out there, ready to mess you up.

Besides, attacking New York City from right out of a portal isn’t likely to work, anyway. This, however, speaks to the portal’s various disadvantages.

The Portal’s Disadvantages

Portals suffer from a number of very important disadvantages. First among these is the size of the portals themselves. Typically (such as in the Avengers) they are portrayed as being only large enough to admit a relatively small number of troops at a time. Now, any general will tell you that trickling your forces through a narrow space into a hostile landing zone is a great way to get yourself walloped, as the Persians learned at the Battle of Thermopylae. This is part of the reason why amphibious assaults are such dicey propositions and require so many resources to successfully execute – you’ve only got so many guys in so many boats. Each boat you lose means you lose a proportionally large part of your assault force.

Related to this, portals also suffer from the ‘eggs in one basket’ problem. If you’ve only got one portal and the enemy closes that portal, you instantly lose the battle. Bummer. Why, then, do the bad guys always seem to open these portals in places that are easily accessible to the enemy, in positions that allow the enemy to easily engage them, and at times when, far from surprising the defenders, gives them sufficient time to organize a counter-attack?

Well, bad planning, obviously.

How to Do it Right

If you want to bring in your otherworldly invasion force through rifts in space/time, then I have some advice for you:

  1. More than One Portal: You are going to need more than one portal to deliver your forces. These portals need to be operated in a decentralized fashion – i.e. if one is taken out, the others still work. This kind of redundancy is crucial in warfare, and why the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in lots of little boats instead of one big giant boat.
  2. Establish Beachhead/Regroup Forces/Invade World: Don’t have your alien locust swarm stumble in all disorganized and piecemeal right into the jaws of the enemy. Pick a better spot–one softened up beforehand somehow, or one that is relatively undefended. Move your whole damned army through after your shock troops punch a hole, get everybody organized, and then attack all together at the target of your choosing. For this to work, you need to put your portal somewhere less obvious than, I don’t know, floating in the sky above the most populous city in the US. Idiots.
  3. Set Realistic Early Invasion Goals: Conquering a city of millions takes a lot of time, no matter how many damned space jet-skis and aero-whales you have. You aren’t going to conquer the place in an afternoon. Probably not even for a week. Pick something else. I’d, personally, advise ambushing the forces most likely to toss you back through the portal. SPOILERS: I suppose Loki was going for that in the movie when he took on SHIELD HQ, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. That would have been a much better place to open the portal on or near–then you can use your space-whales to eat the main threat without the distraction of shooting random people going to the mall. Once you’d focused your power on eliminating them, then you can worry about conquering New York.

So, there you have it. The best way to use your portals is to use them carefully and, ultimately, with a mix of caution and long-term goals in mind. Shock-and-Awe only works if you are dropping hundreds of portals producing hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the mix, so if that’s not in the cards, don’t try it.

Fantastic Geography

One of my favorite things about a fantasy novel is the map of the world included in the front (or back) that gives me the lay

If you look closely, this map is stupid. It looks cool from far away, though.

of the land. Ever since I read The Hobbit in second or third grade, I’ve loved fantastic maps of alien worlds, continents, cities, and even buildings. My favorite part of the Greyhawk: From the Ashes boxed set? The maps, obviously – the giant hex map that covered a dining room table and could tell you exactly how far it was from Dothrakaa to the forests of Celene was simply awesome, and I loved every inch of it.

As I got older and I started making maps myself, I started to realize how much thought can (and I think *ought*) to go into map-making for your fantasy world. It’s all very well and good to create a map that directly suits your narrative purposes, but such places look artificial and weirdly convenient (the first D&D campaign setting I devised in 7th grade had a whole series of impassable mountains and uncrossable rivers/chasms designed to restrict where players can go – it was foolish). Then again, if you make a map too complicated and too realistic, it becomes difficult to keep it all straight or describe it to the reader as they are going through the book. There’s a balance of detail that needs to be struck, I think, to make a map work right.

Middle Earth–where it all began

The reason this is all so important is that geography affects culture. It does in our world, and there is no reason to expect it to do otherwise in another world. If you have a society that evolves on the open steppes, they are going to likely behave one way, whereas a society evolving in dense woodlands or mountainous highlands is likewise going to behave differently. Furthermore, the proximity and disposition of one’s neighbors will make a big difference on how a people will act towards strangers, how militaristic they will be, and exactly what kinds of things they will trade or have in abundance. This kind of thing is what history is built from, and it has relevance and importance in a fantasy setting.

Failure to appreciate this and just slap things wherever you choose means you lose out on a huge opportunity. Every fantasy author wants his or her world to be as ‘real’ as possible, and constructing a reasonably realistic geography is a great place to start. Furthermore, geography can beget drama. Remember the attempt to climb Cahadras inThe Fellowship of the Ring? That was a function of geography – they couldn’t risk the Gap of Rohan, which was in the great wide open, so they took the more dangerous path in the hopes of evading the enemy. Managing geography was one of the things Tolkien did very well, overall. Even when looking at the map above, you can see how the mountain range splits to create Mordor – a geological possibility that, furthermore, could indicate the kind of tectonic activity that would result in Mount Doom. Now, did Tolkien consider this when crafting Middle Earth? Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.

One of the things that dissapointed me from the beginning of The Song of Ice and Fire is that, for all the time we spend across the Narrow Sea, we never once get a map of the damned place. I can’t place Mereen or Braavos in my head, and it makes it hard for me to understand where it is in relation to where the characters have been and where they can go next. Qarth may be right next to Pentos, or it may be half a world away – I just don’t know. It’s frustrating; it’s like navigating a new city without a map or any street signs.

The West of Alandar (click to enlarge)

The West of Alandar (click to enlarge)

My own fantasy setting, Alandar, has a lot of maps associated with it and, furthermore, has been through several geographical revisions and will likely have more. Here’s one of the current ones to the right. You’ll note the giant mountain range down the eastern edge – the Dragonspine – which constitutes a major feature of the world and has major social and cultural and economic repurcussions the world over. Likewise, the oceans and their disposition as well as the rivers have another large impact on the locations of cities and the arrangement of nations. All of this filters down to my characters, who grew or are growing up in various corners of the world that have been shaped by the geography around them. This, I see, is my duty as someone trying to shepherd a new world into existence. To do any less is to acknowledge that Alandar is ‘artificial’ and, therefore, reduce the story from ‘fantastic’ to merely ‘absurd’.

Maybe I’m a little crazy, but hey, I’m a grown man wanting to write stories about imaginary places and times and hoping, one day, to make a living off it. You certainly shouldn’t expect me to be entirely sane.