How to Play Tithe
I’ve got a new story out! This one is on Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a market I’ve been trying to break into for a while. It’s about a desperate man planning to cheat the undead at cards – nice and dark and bleak and with just a dash of hope. Perfect for Halloween, I’d say. Buy it here!
How to Play Tithe
Now, it just so happens I was obsessive enough with this story to actually draw up the rules for the card game that Cedric plays with the dead, called Tithe. I even went so far as to play a few hands (against myself, granted) to see if the game would work and, if it worked, how would it go. Nothing like an actual test of the game, of course, and I’m hardly the best card player in the world, but I did enough for it to pass basic inspection. Curious? Well, here are the rules.
The Deck and Play Area
Tithe is played with a deck of 60 cards with five suits of 12 cards – a Tomb, numbered cards 1-10, and a Lord. The suits are Skulls, Swords, Crowns, Coins, and Hearts.
The game is played on a five-pointed star, with up to five players, each at a vertex of the star. The game can also be played with as few as two players, but the rules shift a little bit to make that possible. Generally, play with a full table is preferred.
Sequence of Play
At the start of a hand, each player puts their ante in the center of the pentagram and are dealt 5 cards by the dealer. The dealer then lays five cards at the five intersections at the center of the pentagram – this is called “the Circle.”
The first round of betting happens just after the Circle, starting with the left of the dealer and moving clockwise. Players with poor starting positions or poor hands fold, anyone else has to match the highest bet at the table or go all-in with whatever they have remaining to play out the hand.
Remaining players must then play a card by matching or beating a card on the Circle adjacent to their starting point and placing it on top. Lords are high, but are beaten by Tombs. Additionally, the suits have a pecking order: Skulls over Coins over Swords over Crowns over Hearts over Skulls.
All suits are therefore dominant over one suit and servile to another. This affects what happens when a card is played on the Circle. It goes like this:
- A card played on another card that is neither dominant or servile wins, meaning the card beneath is out of play (covered entirely by the winning card).
- A card played on a card of a dominant suit merely buries, meaning the card beneath is still in play and the card above (the one you played) can be disregarded. (the top card is placed so the buried card is still visible).
- A card played on a card of a servile suit takes, meaning the player takes the card beneath (and any other cards it has covered) and puts them in your hand.
End of the Hand
Bets are taken every two turns of the circle until everybody but the winner folds OR no remaining players can play cards. The pot is then split between the remaining players (assuming there is more than one left) and the deal moves clockwise and a new hand is begun.
Observations from Games Played against Myself
First, I’ve found it’s super unlikely that more than one person wins a hand. I played a few dozen hands of this thing (looking like a lunatic in my office, believe me), using a suit from a second deck with a different design to represent the 5th suit. The basic strategy circles around knowing or guessing what cards everybody else has based upon what has been shown already. Most hands did not go more than four turns.
Does it work as an actual, playable game? I have no goddamned idea. I am not much of a gambler or a card player (though I am an inveterate gamer), so whether this would make a good way to lose money to card sharks is sort of beyond me. However, the rules are just plausible enough to pass basic inspection. Yes, this seems like a playable game, and that’s what matters.
Also, if any of you ever want to try it out at a convention someday, I’m happy to try – you just have to figure out how to get our hands on a 5-suit, 60-card deck.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed this one! And check out my story in BCS this month!
Current Projects: A Dragon in Her Lair
For the last couple years, I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to contribute to the anthologies published by Zombies Need Brains each year. Well, they’ve kicked off their 10 year anniversary with another set of anthologies and, once again, you’ll find my work in their pages. What’s my topic this year? Well, I’m really excited because it is one of my favorite subjects:
Here’s the description of the anthology:
DRAGONESQUE: Since Grendel and McCaffrey’s Pern, readers have been enthralled with the magic and mystique of dragons. But it’s rare that we get to see the world through the dragon’s perspective. In DRAGONESQUE, you’ll experience an anthology of fantasy and science fiction stories told from, or through, or with, the dragon’s point of view. High fantasy, sword & sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, magical realism, and of course science fiction…DRAGONESQUE will feature a wealth of genres that even a dragon would be tempted to horde. Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, DRAGONESQUE will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each.
Now, I’ve written dragon stuff before. My story “Lord of the Cul-de-sac,” about a dragon moving to the suburbs, made it into one of Galaxy’s Edge “Best Of” anthologies. I really dig dragons and, in particular, I really like to insert dragons into the modern world.
So, by way of a sneak peak for the story I’m working on for this next year’s anthology, let me tell you what I’m thinking: a dragon who solves crimes.
A dragon detective.
A modern art loving dragon detective.
A modern art loving dragon detective who refuses to leave her lair and, instead, has her personal assistant/henchman doing all the legwork and dragging suspects to her palatial home and so on and then solves the crimes using her supernaturally keen senses and even keener intellect.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it is a fantasy adaptation of my favorite mystery series of all time: none other than Rex Stout’s immortal Nero Wolfe mysteries, wherein gumshoe Archie Goodwin legs it all over town to help reclusive genius Nero Wolfe solve the crimes that leave the police scratching their heads.
Unlike Wolfe, my dragon (currently named “Angharad”) doesn’t collect orchids, she collects artwork. Collecting artwork costs a lot of money, and the way she sustains her habits is by recovering lost or stolen things, because I figured that there was very little that would disgust a dragon more than thieves.
In my dream of dreams, this won’t just be one story, but the first (or maybe second) of many. A linked series of dragon-centered mysteries. I’ve already written one of them (trying to sell it now) and either that one or the next one I write I hope to include in Dragonesque.
Now, I’m tempted to share an excerpt, but as I’m not sure whether the story I have done will be appearing in Dragonesque or somewhere else, I’ll just leave it at that and you’ll just have to wait. I’m excited and I hope you’re excited, too!
Want to make sure you meet Angharad and her loyal man-about-town, Sam Braun? Back the ZNB kickstarter, happening now!
Fiddling at the End of the World
In Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann,” the titular character plays alien music upon his viol to keep some kind of otherworldly horror at bay. Each night he plays more and more frantically until, at last, the Stygian horrors of Chaos claim him, compelling him to play even while dead. It’s one of my favorite Lovecraft tales.
Increasingly, I’ve been feeling a little bit like Erich Zann. I think maybe a lot of us have.
It feels as though the wheels are coming off civilization. I’ll spare you the details, but you probably know what I’m talking about. We are facing chaos and uncertainty, dealing with various kinds of trauma and suffering, and our opportunities for combating this or changing it in any substantive way are few. All we really have to keep us going is art.
I say this because, for all we can talk about fighting and working and resisting and so on, the fact remains that you can’t actually live for doing that. Not if you want to retain your sanity, anyway. We fight on the battlefields so that we may live at home, and as the battlefield and the home become increasingly the same place and exist in the same sphere, how do we or can we escape from…you know, all of this shit?
For many of us who are artists/creators of some kind, we keep creating (or try to, anyway); for those of us who are not, we consume the art with equal greed. We artists throw ourselves into our work; our audiences throw themselves into the worlds we create. For me, I don’t want to write about the real world for obvious reasons, but nevertheless I find myself writing about it anyway, in oblique ways. Like Erich Zann, I can’t keep the chaos completely at bay – I am only mortal – so it creeps in, bit by bit. Like the narrator of the story, the audience is intrigued by the glowing edge of that realness. The fictional and the factual exist in tandem, never really separated. Fiction is a way of looking at something without really looking.
I’ve been playing The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt, and as Geralt walks through Velen beneath the trees straining with the weight of hanged men, there is a certain dark parallel there to our own world. I find it soothing, though, in a way – as Geralt, I can slay the monsters and defeat the unrighteous (or try to, as best I can). If I can’t save people, maybe I can at least avenge them. In this case I am Zann’s audience, listening through the door.
But the artist – the author of The Witcher books/games, myself in my own work – we have to look out that window into the chaos. We have to face it to make the art, and we play and we play and we play and it doesn’t seem like enough. It isn’t actually enough, is it? Zann dies trying. Perhaps nothing so grandiose happens to the author who looks at the world’s ugliness and fashions it into some shadowy reflection with a lot more drama and a lot less despair, but we shouldn’t fool ourselves: very few books change the world. Very few stories rewrite history. We as a society spent 50 years screaming about Orwell’s 1984 and we went and did it anyway.
You have to look, though. You’ve no choice. The idea that we can produce works that are separate from our current times is the height of arrogance – we are, by necessity, products of the world around us. Like Erich Zann, we cannot choose what is outside our window. We can only take a hard look at it, take up our viol, and try to make it better.
Or die trying.
The Saga of the Redeemed–in Audio Format! Coming Soon!
So, when I tell people I write novels, one of the most common responses I get is “are they available in audio book?” My answer, sadly, has been a reluctant “no.”
That is, until NOW!
Well, no, not exactly now – soon.
Thanks to the tireless efforts of my agency, I’ve secured a deal with Graphic Audio to produce The Saga of the Redeemed in audio format! And not only audio format – Graphic Audio basically does audio dramas. Full cast recording! Sound effects! Music! It all sounds so, so cool. I absolutely cannot wait to hear Tyvian, Artus, Myreon, and Hool (and Sahand! And Lyrelle!) come to life!
Anyway, it’s early days yet – there’s no set release date, though it seems very possible part one will be available sometime in 2020 – and I’ll be certain to keep you posted on how things develop. But I wanted to let you all know, because it’s just SO AWESOME!
Soon, none of you will have any excuse not to read my books. None. They’re going to be like little movies that can play in your brain, and who doesn’t love that!
Anyway, back to work. Talk to you later!
The Union of Stars: The Quinix (and the Lesser Races)
(Author’s note: what follows is a bit of world-building for my current novel project, tentatively titled The Iterating Assassin)
There is a simple and clear distinction to be made between the Great Races of our Union and the Lesser Races. The Great Races are those species who have overcome the Great Filter and achieved interstellar civilization. This has most commonly culminated in the achievement of FTL travel with slipdrive, but not necessarily. The Voosk, for instance, achieved it with slowships of incredibly ingenious design and the Bodani with sublight, self-propagating probes, even if both species went on to steal slipdrive technology later in their development.
Those species who have failed to achieve interstellar civilization are, by definition, lesser than those that have. This can be seen as unjust, but this is not a question of justice, but merely a practical question of social and intellectual maturity. The Great Filter is the single most important challenge any civilization faces, and any civilization that has never grappled with it and won cannot be considered equal to those who have.
So, the Filter exhibits as a series of converging crises. Any one of these crises can destroy a planet-bound or even system-bound civilization utterly, and every one of them is inevitable. These crises are as follows:
The Resource Crisis
Any successful civilization reaches the point where it uses more resources than any given planet or star system can reasonably provide via what we shall generously term “conventional” means (i.e. means outside of quantum or dark matter sources). Without tackling the Resource Crisis, the civilization will starve itself out of existence.
The Belligerence Crisis
Any sufficiently advanced civilization has at its disposal weaponry able to destroy itself. Civilizations that cannot find a way to cooperate and avoid self-destruction obviously will never overcome the Filter, as they will become extinct.
The Population/Travel Crisis
Advanced civilizations will have a positive birth rate. Inveitably, this birth rate will exceed the civilization’s capacity to provide for that population. This can be a direct side-effect of the Resource Crisis, but even if provided for materially, the growing population will lead to added instability, exacerbating both the Billigerence Crisis and the Contact Crisis. There is some argument among scholars whether this is a distinct crisis at all, but rather just a side-effect of other crises. This is also called the “Travel Crisis” for some, since this crisis can be alleviated (however temporarily) by being able to escape the confines of a single planet or series of planets.
The Contact Crisis
Advanced civilizations often will make quite a lot of interstellar noise. This attracts the attention of interstellar species, who frequently seek to make contact. In the best case scenario, a system-bound species that encounters an interstellar species is quickly overcome and becomes a vassal state to the more influential and more powerful species. In the worst case, one of the planet-eating Marshals discover the civilization and consume it.
So, the barrier to becoming a Great Race involve solving the Resource, Belligerence, and Population Crises before the Contact Crisis happens and the civilization in question reaches a satisfactory resolution to said First Contact episode. This is a rare thing indeed, and hence there are only six Great Races (eight if one counts Skennite and the Marshals).
And what of the Lesser Races? Well, that is a complex tale, perhaps best illustrated with a case study: the Quinix of Sadura.
The Quinix are arachnids of great size and intellect. They seem to grow indefinitely, but the largest specimens have
been recorded as being some 3.5 meters in diameter, from leg to leg. On average, they are between 1 and 2 meters in diameter, with eight legs, each of which sporting a three-fingered “hand” of remarkable strength and dexterity. They have six eyes and can see deep into the infrared spectrum, which serves them well in their very dim natural environs.
Quinix are omnivorous, but have a noted preference for meat. Like most arachnids, they digest their food outside their bodies using a venom injected via their fangs. Given their large size, their fangs are not of considerable size. The Quinix do not kill with their fangs, but usually use tools or even their thread and cables to kill prey before eating.
The Qunix have spinnerets, like many arachnids, and are able to weave fibers of incredible strength and elasticity from their bodies. A single adult Quinix can weave several kilometers of fiber before exhausting their stores and needing to rest. When working as a group, they are capable of building complex structures of all manner of shape and size, all with their bodies.
The Quinix are clan-based organisms by dint of biology. Quinix females only lay a single egg during their lifetime (and the process of laying the egg and caring for it is usually fatal for the mother). If successfully fertilized, that egg hatches to produce many hundreds of offspring who are, as of that moment, a single social entity. These young clans receive guidance from their father’s clan and revere their mother’s clan as holy and sacrosanct. A complex web (please pardon the pun) of social and clan relationships governs Quinix society, tied together by a mind-boggling network of relationships. Mortality on Sadura is high (the vertical environment, the constant tectonic activity, the predators, and wars between so-called “oblique” clans – clans with no familiar connection) and therefore population numbers are low, overall.
As the Quinix live in a subterranean environment (and have to – the surface of Sadura is a radiation-soaked wasteland thanks to its proximity to its red giant sun), they have no conception of night and day. Indeed, they have a very poor reckoning of time in general and, to the extent that they do tell time, it is only via generational figures (clan related, again). They follow erratic circadian rhythms that are difficult for other species to tolerate, and do not seem to rush to do much of anything.
Additionally, their concept of life and death are likewise complex. For the Quinix, one’s life includes not only the animate existence of their body, but also the continued existence of their woven cables and webs. Without destroying the cables that they wove in life, a Quinix is still considered “alive” by all social standards. Therefore, buildings woven out of Qunix fibers are quite literally “alive” in a sense difficult for other species to understand or appreciate. Cutting a cable on purpose is an act of fatal violence.
Due to the confluence of these physiological and social factors, the Quinix have not and never will be able to exceed the Great Filter. While they developed metal-working technology (made difficult by Sadura’s highly flammable high-oxygen environment), their natural building abilities hampered their interest in exploring more complex materials science that would have allowed them to progress from the construction of iron-based tools and trinkets. They therefore have never and would never develop the technology capable of destroying themselves, are not successful enough to have a resource shortage, have (or had) a near-zero birthrate, and would eventually have been discovered and consumed by a Marshal if they ever developed a radio transmitter.
Fortunately and also unfortunately for them, they were discovered by the Dryth Solon, Kaskar Indomitable in C30.10, and have spent the last two and a half cycles as a Lesser Race under the auspices of the Union of Stars. This means they they will not be haphazardly eaten by a passing Marshal (good), but also means that any further technological or social advancement will be under the influence of the Great Races that have come to their planet. They are in a permanent state of arrested development.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more unfortunately, the changes wrought by the Union to make Sadura more hospitable to the Great Races has had an exacerbated effect on Quinix society and Sadura’s ecology. Stabilizing the tectonic activity has permitted huge cities to be built, resulting in a spike in the Quinix birthrate but also nowhere for those Quinix to go except into off-world settlements. They are a servant species on their own planet, their old clan wars and dreams of dominion crushed beneath the off-worlder’s technological superiority. The Quinix are gradually losing their cultural identity and are no longer masters of their own environment. It is difficult to say what will become of them, but whatever it is, they will never again control their own destiny. Unjust? Perhaps. But also inevitable and unavoidable for those who fail to overcome the Filter.
All things considered, being relegated to a servant species is vastly superior to many of the other alternatives: ecological or military extinction, or possibly being devoured by a void-dwelling macroorganism.
The Ultimate Challenge (Rules and Bylaws)
Welcome, brave adventurers! Do not be afraid – I am not your enemy, only a guide. You have journeyed far and suffered much to attain the summit of this, the Mountain of Prophesy. Here lies the Ultimate Treasure for one of you to claim. But be warned! The Treasure is not for the meek nor the idle; it asks of you a terrible price. One of you must sacrifice yourself willingly for the good of others by leaping from the top of this cliff, falling to your death. Only then will your companions be gifted with the Ultimate Treasure and your quest will be at an end.
Of course – and please bear with me here – there are a few provisos and rules to go over, just so we’re clear on what’s being asked here. I know, I know – this is supposed to be your climatic moment, I understand, but I’ve been here a few aeons and I think we’ll all be happier if I dispel any gray area before we begin. In my experience, everyone will be happier in the end.
Look, I feel what I’m asking is pretty clear, too – one of you needs to jump to your death right there and then you get the treasure. Pretty clear. But, just in case you were hoping for some kind of technicality, here, let me be explicit: there is no scenario that ends with you getting the Treasure and also all of you walking away alive. No resurrection. No creating a clone of yourself and getting the clone to jump off the mountain (oh, and by the way, everybody who’s tried that has really regretted it, believe me. Total shitshow, that plan).
And jumping off the mountain presumes you will die by hitting those jagged rocks way down there. No jumping, levitating halfway down, and then arguing that we’re all mortal or some nonsense and that you’ll totally die someday. Same thing goes for those of you so tough you hit the rocks down there and you’re fine – you’ve got to die.
I’m really very sorry, but these are the rules. I didn’t even make these rules, so threatening me won’t make any difference. This is some immutable, Laws of Creation-type shit. I just work here, and I’m not even technically alive, so getting me to jump off for you guys won’t work either.
Oh, and no psychic bullshit! No hypnotizing your friends into jumping off in your place or finding some poor hapless villager and charming them so that they’ll do anything for you and getting them to commit suicide. Consent, assholes – learn the word.
And yeah, it’s got to be one of you guys who climbed the mountain. You can’t teleport in your aging grandma who has two weeks to live and talk her into it. This is supposed to be an ordeal, people. There is a price to be paid. Don’t be dicks.
Look, there’s no point in getting mad at me – it wasn’t my idea to take on this quest to defeat the Ultimate Evil. I’m not the jerk here. C’mon – you were just talking about throwing your grandma off a damned cliff, you little shit.
Hey, nobody’s saying anybody needs to jump – you can go walk yourself down the mountain, for all I care. Live a happy life somewhere. I don’t give a shit, honestly I don’t. I don’t get paid on commission or something. It’s just no jump means no Treasure. Them’s the breaks.
You know what – fine! Leave. Oh stop with all the whining. Oh – oh really? You went there, huh? You think I haven’t heard all this before? Fuck off, you self-entitled little piss-ants. Beat it! Go on now – get. I got better shit to do than listen to this abuse – me, who later on has to climb his old bones down the whole damned mountain and clean your dead ass off those rocks. Fucking exhausting, is what that is. Not jumping is doing me a favor, honestly.
Ye fickle gods, some people.
Maybe I should just post this on a sign or something.
Hey! Those of you in the Boston area tonight (May 9th, 2019), come by Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge. I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm, signing books and chatting with fans. See you there!
Motive and Obstacle: the Building Blocks of Story, Gaming
A friend of mine was recently looking for advice on how to run a Dungeons and Dragons game, as he had never done it before. He had put together a pretty straightforward and workable adventure to get everybody started – everybody winds up in this town to join some mercenary company, has to figure out how to get over the walls of said town, then they meet in an inn, and then there’s a bar fight.
Now, while this is perfectly serviceable, I feel that it sort of misses a really important aspect of storytelling that is directly relevant and essential to a really great tabletop gaming experience, as well, which is motivation.
Basically, all storytelling involves two basic building blocks: Motive and Obstacle. The character wants or is seeking something (Motive) and there is something that prevents them from immediately achieving that aim (Obstacle). Without the motive, there is nothing driving the character to overcome any obstacles (whether they are internal or external). Without obstacles, the character just immediately fulfills their motive and no real story occurs. What makes a story interesting is how motive and obstacle feed into one another and basically drive the story forward.
I would argue, also, that these elements transcend genre or even historical and cultural concerns. Even in so-called “conflictless” stories (such as the Japanese Kishotenketsu structure), this still exists. There is always something lacking/missing from the character, even if extremely subtle (a man is making dinner, preparing for his relatives – this is a motive for making dinner). There is always something that is going to stand in the way of the immediate realization of that goal (the man has to go to the store to buy more fish). All that changes is the nature of these two elements and their relationships to one another. In the stereotypical Campbellian Hero’s Journey (gestures vaguely at the whole MCU), the main character has an irresistible call to adventure of some kind and then must overcome a series of escalating obstacles culminating in a grand ordeal and, once victorious, returns to the world they once knew with gained wisdom and power. Even outside of that structure, though, Motive and Obstacle have to be present.
In a gaming setting, assuming your game is narrative focused, these two elements still need to be there for it to all work. What is most commonly forgotten is motive – a player makes an Elven Wizard, her identity is…Elven Wizard…and her character’s goals are to cast spells and be an elf. Naturally, this isn’t enough and this is also why the whole “we all meet in a tavern” thing is so cliche – the characters meet in a tavern because they have literally no other reason to meet or interact. The obstacles, meanwhile, are assumed – the players are going to band together, go to that dungeon, kill what they find, and collect the loot. This is fine, I guess, if all you’re involved in is a basic resource-management exercise. But assuming you’re not, it is clearly lacking…well, story.
It doesn’t take much, though, to give the game a story. All you need to do as a GM (or as a player) is to ask the players a few questions. Suggestions might include:
- What happened to you the last time you were in that dungeon?
- What have the goblins of that dungeon stolen from you and why it is important?
- What do you need the money from this quest for? Why is it important?
By establishing some basic motivations, the players suddenly have a vested interest in overcoming the obstacle before them. The story is no longer contrived. Furthermore, if your players buy into the motivations they’ve established for themselves (and hopefully they have!), the obstacles suddenly become more engaging. Saying “you can’t jump across this pit” is fine, but saying “you can’t jump across this pit, but you hear your baby girl crying your name from the other side” is a million times better!
All of this goes for writing, too, of course. If a character doesn’t have a clear motivation for doing what they’re doing, the audience isn’t going to buy in on their struggle. This is a common problem with in medias res beginnings – we don’t know why the character is in this car chase, so it’s hard to care. But if it’s managed well, we are instantly engaged and love every second of it. Then, as the motivations solidify or change into larger and more complex ones and the obstacles likewise follow suit, you’ve got the audience/players on a wild ride they don’t want to end.
Doing Research Wrong
When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:
Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.
This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.
Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.
I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false. I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.
Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.
Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).
This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.
So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.
I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.
The Union of Stars: The Thraad
And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.
We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.
By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.
We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.
Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.
This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.
We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.
There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.
Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.
We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.
Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.
We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.
Read “When It Comes Around” on Perihelion SF!
Got another story published and released for public consumption. It’s free, too! Shuffle your internet consciousness over to this month’s Perihelion SF and read “When It Comes Around” – my dark and gritty tale of the hard life of a space pirate. Let me tease you with the first line, if I may:
You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-g.
Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, yes?
I’m pretty proud of this one. It *just* missed some of the bigger markets (the narrator’s patois just didn’t do it for some editors), so I’m very glad it found a home. I have been in love with this voice I came up with for some years now (my first publication, “The Spacer and the Cabbages,” used it, as well, and that was about seven years ago now). With any luck, I’ll be able to do more with it in the future. Anyway, I hope you like it.
Go! Read! If nothing else, it ought to discourage you from a life of space piracy.