Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What I Read in 2012

Goodreads is a great way to track what you read throughout the year, but I thought I would also try a post to list and rate the books I read this year, if only to give myself a better idea of how much reading I'm managing to get through.

So, here they are in roughly the order in which I read them, along with my star ranking from one to five with five being a book I thought was great and would read again. Four stars is a book I really enjoyed but might not want to read again. Three stars is a book I liked but wouldn't read over again, and anything less means it had issues for me.

1. Chasm City by Alistair Reynolds *****  I've read a few by Mr. Reynolds so far, but this is the best. He brings to life an amazing city on a distant planet in a way I haven't seen done so well by any other author.
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson ****
3. The Once and Future King by T.H. White ***
4. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson ****
5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy *** and a half
6. A Circle in the Woods by Winston Emerson ***
7. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson ****
8. To Green Angel Tower part 2 by Tad Williams ****
9. Acting in Film by Michael Caine ****
10. The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss ***** Amazing. Rothfuss may challenge George Martin as the best living fantasy writer.
11. Acting for the Camera by Tony Barr ***
12. The 25th Hour by David Benioff **** and a half
13. City of Thieves by David Benioff ***** Everyone should read this brilliant little story
14. The Skystone by Jack Whyte ****
15. The Singing Sword by Jack Whyte *** and a half
16. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood ***
17. Duma Key by Stephen King ****
18. The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson ****
19. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook ***** Just my type of fantasy! Vivid sword and sorcery blended with military fantasy that reminds me of the hellhounds from the Thieves World novels. Not quite as brilliant as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, but still right up there.

Note that there are several books that I began and haven't finished. Two of them were just dreary and irritating for me, these being Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Others are ones that I haven't yet completed, though they will get decent or even great ratings, such as the one I just began--The Passage by Justin Cronin. The others I am still currently reading are Rose Madder by Stephen King and Auditioning: An Actor-friendly Guide by Joanna Merlin.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit Movie -- My Review

Along with just about everyone, it seems, I saw the first part of The Hobbit this weekend (note there may be spoilers here for any who have not yet seen the movie). While it didn't come close to being as good as any of the Lord of the Rings films, it was better than my low expectations for it. I had been dreading the comedy aspects of it more than anything else, but those ended up not bothering me so much. And what many critics disliked about it--the loads of exposition--were some of my favorite bits. I especially liked it when it showed historical scenes from when the dwarves lived in Erebor and when Smaug came.
Now, I've seen a lot of people rave about Richard Armitage as the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield. While I didn't dislike him in the part, I felt he rarely changed expression throughout the entire film, making him a bit one-dimensional to me. I especially disliked the scene where the entire company is dangling from a tree over a cliff and he decides to walk away from them to challenge his orc nemesis, when it appeared he had the breathing room to turn around and help his companions to not plunge to their deaths, as they should have if the film had been a tad more realistic in its portrayal of action sequences.

That last is actually my biggest problem with the movie--the action sequences were so unrealistic as to be absurd, which pulled me right out of the believability. Lord of the Rings had done a decent job of keeping it real. The Hobbit doesn't bother with realism at all. I won't bore you with a listing of every scene that bothered me, but I'll tell you the worst offenders:

1. The mountain giants -- in the book, if I remember correctly, the giants are at play in the storm off in the distance, so the party decides to hide in a cave to ride out the storm. In the film the giants are 'warring' with each other and the party happens to be on one of the giants as it gets up and enters the fray. So much of what happens is utterly ludicrous and anyone would have died or at least been seriously maimed. The sheer quantity of rocks and fragments flying around makes it impossible that they would have come through unscathed, yet that is exactly what happens.

2. In the goblin caverns, they flee and go through several absurdly long falls into chasms, which with, you know, uh,...gravity...would have killed all or most of them. Yet it happens over and over again and not one of them gets so much as a scratch, it appears.

3. When the company climbs into the trees to flee the chasing orcs and wargs, the sequence goes off the deep end, with wargs actually knocking over trees just by slamming into them. Not only this, but each tree does a whole domino effect thing, with the company jumping from tree to tree as each collapses under the weight of those unbelievably powerful wargs.

The sad thing, in my opinion, is that there was simply no need to make things so unrealistic. I'm not one that needs the movie to follow the book faithfully. I understand that movies need a different type of story than books generally, if they are to succeed. But regular, believable action would have worked splendidly.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

King Animal by Soundgarden

In these sad days for music when presentation tends to trump substance, it's refreshing to have an album come out from a band that wrote its own music, played its own instruments, didn't need any dance choreography, and gave us solid or even great tracks from beginning to end. That album is King Animal by Soundgarden.

Soundgarden was one of the original bands involved in the early nineties Grunge movement out of Seattle. I saw them live, opening for Guns n Roses, before I knew who they were, but they impressed me more than the headliners did, and I immediately bought their latest album and fell in love with the incredibly heavy sound of the song Searching With My Good Eye Closed. It's still my favorite Soundgarden song, though they've done well enough to have more than fifty songs of four stars or higher in my iTunes list.

Their most commercial album Superunknown was my least favorite, though it still had some good stuff like 4th of July. They broke up in 1997 shortly after releasing my favorite of their albums Down on the Upside.

Fifteen years later the group overcame their disputes and got back together. Would they still have their old chemistry? King Animal gives us a resounding 'yes'!

In the past I got used to their songs often appealing to me right off, while with this album I had to let it grow on me by multiple listens (the same thing I had to do with one of my all-time favorite albums--Mer de Noms by A Perfect Circle). I've now listened to the album more than fifty times, and there are no tracks of less than three stars in my iTunes, and there are only two of those, which makes this a pretty amazing album.

Taste differs from person to person, so these ratings are mine alone. Here are my rankings of the songs in the approximate order of how much I like them:

5 stars: Bones of Birds, Blood on the Valley Floor, Worse Dreams, By Crooked Steps
4.5 stars: Taree
4 stars: Non-State Actor, A Thousand Day's Before, Eyelid's Mouth, Attrition, Black Saturday, Been Away Too Long
3 stars: Halfway there, Rowing

They did a great sounding mini-concert on Letterman a month ago, and here was an oldie but goodie to turn way up and enjoy.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dived vs Dove

Ever been confused about the past tense of the word 'dive'? You'll see it in literature as both 'dived' and 'dove'.

The truth is that both are correct. Purists from Britain will argue that only 'dived' is correct, and that is the form you will see there. In Canada you will see a mix of both. The US mainly uses 'dove', and this latter form has been in use for well over a century.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Catalyst Scene

To me the moment that everything changes in a character's life is what I call the 'catalyst scene'. Life was bumbling along just fine (or not so fine) when all of a sudden nothing will ever be the same again for that character. The scene below is the very first one I ever wrote, and I consider it the catalyst scene for my main character Sir Midas in The Shard. Also here is the artwork I commissioned of the scene, done by Hungarian artist Andras Orr.

Midas had never heard of elves killing men before.  He slumped in his saddle, staring at the bodies scattered near the forest edge.  Crows hopped and cawed just out of kicking range.  The horses stamped their hooves and flicked their tails at flies.  The smell of corruption was yet mild.

“I don’t recognize these men,” he murmured.  He should recognize them; he knew the people on his lands.  These men had not simply been passing through.  Three axes lay near the corpses, and two of the trees showed chop marks.  Red sap flowed down the silver bark, the trees bleeding from their wounds.

Laithtaris--called the Elf Wood by men--bordered the tiny province of Welby.  It was home to the elven folk, their only remaining home since the race of man had come to the Known Lands more than two thousand years ago.  A treaty was signed at the time promising these woods to the elves, to be untouched by man for all time.  Midas had rarely heard of any encroachment of the forest; if it happened it was usually an accident and elven rangers would escort the offenders to the edge of the woods.

Three bodies lay near the trees and two more were partially obscured by the brown grass and weeds a few paces away.  Each had a single silver-fletched arrow jutting from its chest or back.  Elven arrows, thought Midas.  No man could make arrows so perfect.

He shifted his gaze to the woods.  Silverbark trees towered into the sky, their canopies forming a ceiling over the tangled shrubs and dead leaves below.  The edge of the forest was thin and the summer light shone down in beams to the forest floor, but there was no sign of elves.  This was not unusual; Midas had never seen an elf in all of his thirty-eight years.  There could be dozens of them staring at us right now and we’d never see them.

He twisted in the saddle to speak to Fridrik.  “Bring a wagon from the village.  Post a guard on these bodies until they can be loaded up and brought to Welby.  Something's happening and I intend to find out what.”

“Yes, milord,” the squire said.  He detailed two men to guard the bodies, picked out two more as escorts, and rode off toward the hamlet they’d passed on the way.

Midas sighed and glanced at Sir Brindor, who was gazing blankly into space as usual.  Amidst the stubble of his gray hair, the crater in Brindor’s head was clearly visible.  Years ago, Sir Brindor had taken part in a tournament melee, during which his helm had been knocked from his head and a mace had bashed in the side of his skull.  Healers had given him up for dead, but Brindor slumbered in a coma for three weeks and then woke up.  He wasn’t the same man--his speech was slurred and he had little memory of his previous life--but he remained a ferocious fighter, devoted to his liege lord.

“Brin!” Midas said.  

Sir Brindor swayed on his mare, but then his eyes focused and he turned to Midas.  

“Brin,” Midas repeated.  “That dwarf merchant who sold you the elven dagger, where can I find him?”

Brindor’s mouth worked silently for a bit and his face took on the confused look it always did when he was required to remember how to speak.  “Iskimir,” he finally managed.  “Sh-shhhop in Iskimir.”

Midas nodded to Brin and bent to examine the closest corpse.  The man was filthy and clothed in rags.  He looked like the beggars or thieves one might find in any of the big cities.

“How could they think to get away with this, Voor?  Even desperate men…”

“I don’t know, milord,” Voor said.

“Someone forced them.”

Voor nodded.

“Have Dalthis and two guards ride to Iskimir.  I want them to find the dwarf merchant who sells elven goods.  I want to know how he gets his goods; how he makes contact with the elves.  Make sure Dalthis takes enough coin to persuade the dwarf.  If he won’t speak to Dalthis, see if he’ll come to Welby and talk to me.”

“Yes, milord.”

            Dust rose in clouds as the group cantered over the dry field. Even in the light of day the small red moon was visible just above the horizon--an evil omen if there ever was one. Midas thought of his sons, the memory of skirling swords echoing in his mind, and despite the heat he felt a chill in his chest. Why would someone want to provoke the elves?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Little Help From My Friends

Anyone who read my previous two posts saw how I was struggling to come up with a decent cover design for my fantasy novel. It's hard. It's hard in the way that writing a novel is hard when you try to do it for the first time. I could do some mock ups that seemed kinda sorta okay, but there was always something amateurish about them.

So I turned to the one friend I know who does professional cover design. She's cool and sweet, and right now she even has a holiday discount for any work you might hire her to do. Go check out some of her work at SketcherGirlStudios, and if you are considering some cover design or other art needs, write to Vic Caswell and find out just how nice she is.

Now here are two options she came up with amazingly fast, as in just a couple of hours, from the artwork I sent her. She's willing to make any changes needed, but you can see just from these that they are far better than the examples I managed on my own.

I like the way my name appears in the one with the borders (single border and a double border), but I'm leaning towards liking the one without borders better. What are your thoughts?

Note that the original artwork was commissioned from Shane Tyree.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

More Cover Design

I've never done a second post in one day before, but after playing around with some more cover designs, I'd like to get some feedback from people. Looking at the previous post and now this one, are any of these covers heading in the right direction, or do I need to try something else entirely? With these two below the only difference is the font used for my name at the bottom. If I did go with ones similar to this, are there different fonts and colors you think might work better? I kind of like red, but when reduced to a thumbnail it doesn't stand out as well as white or yellow.

This next one I just played with 'kerning', which changed the spread of the characters.

Designing Covers

It took years of working at writing before I began to feel somewhat competent at it, so I imagine it would be the same for learning how to design a good book cover. I don't have that kind of time, nor do I have the patience. So all of my efforts so far to design my own book cover and potentially self-publish my first novel The Shard, are not going so well.

Here are a couple of the many samples I have done:
Artwork by András Orr
Art by Shane Tyree
To my amateur eye they don't look terrible, but they do look a bit amateurish also. Even worse, when you reduce them to the size they might appear on sites like Amazon, they don't have nearly the clarity that you see on other such covers that you see. Everything I read says the text must be clear and easy to see when reduced to Amazon size. Sigh, I just don't have this kind of expertise, and I'm not yet ready to break down and pay a bunch of money to a professional!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Top 25 Acoustic Guitar Songs

I was in a mellow mood the other day and started picking out soft acoustic guitar songs to listen to. I realized I hadn't made a list in a long time, so I began writing down my favorites. In order to narrow it down, I decided that the songs had to feature the acoustic guitar and not a band sound, so generally that meant no drums (thus I had to drop songs like Mrs. Robinson and other similar songs, which are brilliant but aren't as straightforward guitar-centric as I wished) or other instruments that distract from the music. I made exceptions where I felt the guitar really stood out and the other instruments didn't really take away from it.

1. Kathy's Song by Simon and Garfunkel -- The live version from their Greatest Hits album. My all-time favorite soft guitar song.

2. Father and Son by Cat Stevens -- One of the few songs that can bring a tear to my eyes. The most beautiful song by an artist who created many such songs.

3. Pigs on the Wing (Part 1) by Pink Floyd -- Okay so it's short and a bit odd, but I just love it. The guitar sounds so simple, but try to learn it yourself and you will see the amazing little touches that make it harder than it seems.

4. Yesterday by The Beatles -- One of the only purely acoustic songs done by The Beatles, and easily the most lovely.

5. Landslide by Fleetwood Mac -- The vocals and the guitar are both simply amazing.

6. Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen -- Sad and haunting

7. Scarborough Fair/Canticle by Simon and Garfunkel -- When you are in mood for soft and pretty, this song pretty much defines it, and I love the guitar harmonics at the end.

8. Tangerine by Led Zeppelin -- This song has some drum in it, but it comes in the middle and the parts of this song that really blow me away are all acoustic, the beginning and the incredible outro.

9. Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel -- Lots of these two up at the top, but that's because of how amazing they are at creating gorgeous acoustic songs. I prefer the live version from their Greatest Hits.

10. Mother Nature's Son by The Beatles -- I used to sing my sons to sleep with this song, so by the age of two they could sing all the lyrics quite well.

11. Trouble by Cat Stevens -- It's hard not to use the same adjectives over and over for all these songs. All I can say is that I love this song, but just a touch less than the ones above!

12. Me and Bobby McGee by Kris Kristofferson -- The grating version by Janis Joplin is more famous for some reason, but Kristofferson wrote the song and his version is far better, in my opinion.

13. Going to California by Led Zeppelin -- Jimmy Page's acoustic skills are highly underrated.

14. Suzanne by Leonard Cohen -- I grew up listening to Leonard Cohen because my mom loved him. He had to grow on me, but when I'm in certain moods he is terrific.

15. Goodbye Blue Sky by Pink Floyd -- I love the guitar on this so much; I probably play this song more than any other on my guitar.

16. Seasons by Chris Cornell -- Cornell is one of the greatest singer/songwriters of my generation, just after Maynard James Keenan in my opinion, and though he is best known for his heavy rock with Soundgarden, he can write some really great acoustic songs when he wants.

17. Never Going Back Again by Fleetwood Mac -- Lindsey Buckingham is easily one of the greatest singer/guitarists ever. He has a lot of songs greater than this, but those are mostly with a full band sound, and this is still a great song with some wonderful fingerpicking.

18. Can't Find My Way Home by Blind Faith -- Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood together, what more needs to be said?

19. Dust in the Wind by Kansas -- I heard this song so much in my youth that I'm a little tired of it, but you can't deny how great it is.

20. Dead Man by Pearl Jam -- Eddie Vedder is another of the rare brilliant singer/songwriters of my generation.

21. The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feeling Groovy) by Simon and Garfunkel -- Again, I prefer the version from their Greatest Hits album.

22. The Moonbeam Song by Harry Nilsson -- Harry was a bit eccentric and perhaps a bit of a genius, too.

23. Parachutes by Coldplay -- A tiny and pretty little tune.

24. Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel -- See Parachutes

25. I couldn't decide between several Donovan songs here, so I'll mention London Town, Codine, Catch the Wind, and Colours.

Yes, there are all kinds of soft songs that beat out some on this list, but they mostly failed to meet the test of what I was looking for in particular here. However, I'm sure you can tell me ones that I really did miss such as Bob Dylan. Well, I'm not a huge fan of his acoustic songs, though I really do love some of his other work, like Romance in Durango and Black Diamond Bay and Hurricane.

Monday, October 8, 2012

In Memoriam -- Serafima

One year ago today my mother-in-law passed away in Moscow at the age of 65. The one year anniversary is important to Russians, so though no one reading this knew her, I thought it important to my wife to have a tiny memorial here for Serafima.

She's the one in the picture on the left, as well as the young girl in the other photo. Ironically, her father Luis in the photo on the right was born in California and lived there until he was 15, when the Great Depression led his family to return to Russia...where he was promptly sent to the gulag. But he survived, thank goodness, or I would never have my current family.

Sima (as we called Serafima) was such a sweet woman. I always half-joke that my mother-in-law loved me more than my real family did. For a guy who was stealing away her eldest daughter to live outside of Russia, she treated me so kindly.

She wasn't much of an optimist, as the following story will show. Sima was debating one day with her neighbors, who were friends. She said that the American boy whom her daughter was dating would never marry her. Her neighbors, who had never met me, insisted that it was true love and of course I would marry Victoria. So they made a bet (that I didn't learn about until years later) -- if I didn't marry Sima's daughter, the neighbors would have to buy Sima a new telephone, while if I did, Sima would have to give the neighbors the chairs from her kitchen table.

Imagine my new wife's shock when she returned for the first time to her mother's apartment to find a table with no chairs.

You left us way too young, Sima.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Game of Thrones--Who is your favorite minor character?

I really mean from the Song of Ice and Fire series of books, but I put Game of Thrones since that is more recognizable these days to more people. I'm rereading all the books again for the fourth time, and I'm halfway through with A Feast for Crows. I can't understand why so many people rate it the worst of the series, because I just love it. I even love how it gives us differing POV characters than the earlier books did. To me it is expanding on the world building in very interesting ways.

Well it just struck me while reading that one of my absolute favorite characters in the series is Podrick Payne. I don't recall at the moment whether anything happens to him later on, but I hope he gets to be a big hero eventually. I also really enjoy Samwell Tarly.

Who is your favorite minor character?

Friday, September 7, 2012

USA Beats Russia!

I know it won't mean much to the non-chess admirers out there, but the US chess squad defeated the heavily favored and top seeded Russian team at the Chess Olympiad yesterday. The US stars on our top two boards rose to the occasion and beat their higher ranked opponents. Hikaru Nakamura beat former world champion Vladimir Kramnik on board one, and Gata Kamsky defeated Alexander Grischuk on board 2. Way to go guys!
Vladimir Kramnik against Hikaru Nakamura -- from
At the beginning of the round the Russian team led everyone by two full points. After this massive upset, the US team pulled into a tie for first place.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Okay, I finally broke down and did what I had once hoped I would never have to do--join Facebook. I did it mainly because everyone says authors need to have a Facebook presence. I think it will be a while before I figure out how to use it properly for showcasing the books I eventually publish. I'd especially appreciate any tricks and tips other writers have for using Facebook for this specific purpose!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Carrot and Stick

Sorry I haven't been blogging much. I haven't been able to write either, and it's eating away at me. All I can really do these days is study. First I have to pass a really difficult exam this September or I will lose 14% of my salary. I really wish my employer would use the carrot rather than the stick for us!
Playing one of my guitars
Anyway, unlike most such exams in the past, this one is truly hard. I've been studying for weeks already and still don't feel close to being able to attempt it, yet it's now September and I have no choice. This three day weekend is for nothing but studying.
My ever patient and lovely wife
To make matters worse, in October I have to go to Cisco's Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) training, and the test for that is also grueling.
Hanging out on Margit Island in Budapest
So I have little to look forward to over the next couple months except tedious studying. At least the NFL season will begin--go Peyton Manning! I'm no Denver Broncos fan, but I don't like the way the Colts ditched the greatest quarterback who ever lived.
Always a smile to brighten my day even when times are tough

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Do You Enjoy 80's New Wave Music?

Well, I never did. But...I don't necessarily need to love a piece of art (whether writing, music, painting, movies, etc) to still be able to admire the skill or craft or talent that an artist has. Australian musician Stephen Carmichael dropped me a message asking if I do reviews. I never had before, but then again, no one had ever asked me. I told him that from the looks of his site, I doubted it would be my kind of thing and I generally won't post about things I don't like.

Anyhow, I did check out his video. Naturally, it isn't to my personal taste. However, I did think it showed enough professionalism that people who do like such music might like to discover him, and I think it can be cool to help relatively unknown artists reach an untapped audience. So, is it your kind of music?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Good Music Covers

Usually when a band covers a song by another group or songwriter it's time to wince and move on very quickly. Every so often, though, someone does a cover very well. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin did a lot of this in their earlier albums. Here are a couple of songs that I think were done really well as covers, even though I still love the originals more. What sets these versions off so much from most covers is how distinctive these are from the originals. There is no attempt to be similar to the originals; these are complete reinterpretations
Here A Perfect Circle does an eerie version of What's Going On, originally by Marvin Gaye
Below is Tool's reimagining of the Led Zeppelin classic No Quarter. What connects these two bands is Maynard James Keenan, the singer and songwriter, who I believe is the most brilliant songwriter of my generation.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Angry Songs

What music do you listen to when you are in a foul mood? I've been upset at myself all week for making a big mistake that made me look foolish (the Die Hard incident, for those who have read the posts), so I've been listening to a lot of these two songs that I tend to play when I am angry. Warning, don't listen to them if you are overly sensitive! They are awesome songs, but they are also pretty explicit. I crank them way up, especially the incredible finish to the first one when it just gets brutal.

Okay, and if you need to calm down after that, here is a gorgeous song...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


When I blogged yesterday about working as an extra, I believed that it was the details of the scene that were meant to be kept under wraps, and I didn't say anything about it. I had no idea that people didn't already know about the actress playing in the scene, or I would never have put that in. So, it may be too little too late, but I have removed my post and I apologize for not understanding that her role wasn't meant to be revealed for some reason. I wish all the sites posting about my mistake would remove their articles, but I imagine that won't happen.

I see now that someone has also put photos of her working here, so it would have been out anyhow, but that still doesn't make me feel better. I honestly didn't know her presence was a secret.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

George R.R. Martin homage to Tad Williams

Some time ago I did a blog post about how George R.R. Martin seemed to have gained some of his inspiration for his A Song of Ice and Fire novels from Tad Williams's series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. Today while rereading A Clash of Kings, the second book of Martin's series, I came across a single line buried in the text that, in my opinion, was a direct homage to Tad Williams's books. It is on page 349 of the Bantam/Spectra paperback:

"Lord Willum's sons Josua and Elyas disputed heatedly about who would be first over the walls of King's Landing."

To me it doesn't get plainer than that, as the two main royal characters in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn are King Elias and his brother Josua. Taken with all the other similarities given in my old post, I don't think it can be disputed how much influence Williams had on Martin. I don't think it says anything wrong about Martin's story, as I actually enjoy A Song of Ice and Fire far more than I liked Williams's books, so Martin is certainly doing a great service to all of us who love terrific fantasy.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Writing in Tolkien's World

I'm republishing this ancient post, because almost no one read it way back then and it's one that I like.

I don't bother to read fan fiction, but I have to admit that I have been tempted to try it. I won't, though, simply because the act of writing is so time-consuming and difficult that I don't see the point in putting so much effort into something that won't be published.

For more than twenty years I have had what I think is a wonderful idea for a story that I will never write. It persists in nagging at my brain, so given that I will not write it, perhaps it doesn't hurt to give the outline here.

My favorite Tolkien book is the Silmarillion. Oh, I certainly love both the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but there is something of exquisite beauty about the entire history of Middle Earth that is presented in the Silmarillion that really takes my breath away. It is a high-level history, and that is wonderful, but I have always wanted to have some of the tales fleshed out into real novels.

I came up with my story idea from two of my favorite bits from the Silmarillion - the Dagor Bragollach (Battle of Sudden Flame) and the tale of Beren. As any fan of this work knows, the elves kept Morgoth's kingdom of Angband mostly surrounded for centuries, trying to contain his evil. The bit that fascinated me was a bare mention by Tolkien that some of the newly arrived men (Edain) also provided some troops to help with this defense. It is from this reference that I drew my main character, a young warrior of an Edain tribe living in Himlad. I named him Geldrath. He gets sent to Dorthonian during the winter along with others from his tribe. As he nears his objective he meets a pair of dwarven traders, bringing a wagonload of arms and armor to sell to the defenders. Geldrath befriends one of the dwarves, named Gorm.

Geldrath spends a week learning his new duties as one of the defenders of the eastern portion of Dorthonian. When the dwarven traders come by, Geldrath builds upon his friendship with Gorm. That very night the Dagor Bragollach begins. Gorm helps Geldrath by equipping him with Dwarven armor and weapons. The defenders near Geldrath are relatively lucky in that no balrogs or dragons come near them, so they mostly have to fight off orcs. Gorm's companion dwarf is slain along with many men when a huge troll comes over the ramparts. Gorm heroically slays the troll, but the troll crumples onto Gorm and Geldrath, rendering both unconscious. This saves their lives.

In the aftermath of the attack, orcs go through the devastation slaying any who yet live, but they fail to find Geldrath and Gorm beneath the dead troll. When the opportunity arises, the pair slips away and loses themselves in the Dorthonian wilds to the south. Over the next weeks, simply trying to survive, the pair see evidence of other survivors to the west, so they head in that direction, eventually stumbling upon the small band of men led by Barahir. They join Barahir and his men in the desperate attempt to save Finrod Felagund, the elven king who had brought an army from Nargothrond but had gotten trapped at the Fens of Serech. Geldrath and Gorm help Barahir save Finrod, who makes Barahir an elf-friend and gives him his ring of power.

Returning to Dorthonian, the band continues their insurgency against Morgoth's forces. Gorm and Geldrath befriend Barahir's son, Beren. When the group is betrayed and scattered, Gorm and Geldrath flee southward and try to find safety. They eventually encounter Beren, who leads them farther south in an attempt to pass beneath** the vast mountains of Ered Gorgoroth. They encounter many dangers, culminating in meeting spider descendants of Ungoliant. Gorm sacrifices himself to allow Beren and Geldrath to escape. The pair comes out of the mountains into Nan Dungortheb (the Valley of Dreadful Death). They are separated by an attack, so Beren goes off into Tolkien's history books by making his way into Doriath, while Geldrath picks his way eastward towards home, where he is greeted as a long-lost hero, marries the chief's daughter and eventually becomes chief himself.

I think this would be a spectacular and easy story to write, and it would be basically faithful to Tolkien's story. I sure wish it were possible to do it and have it published.

**I know the book makes it seem more like he passes over the mountains, but given how earlier in The Simlarillion Tolkien has Ungoliant pass through these mountains, leaving many of her hatchlings behind, I can't help but think that the passage through the mountains more likely involved passing both over and under, given that Ungoliant's children seem to prefer hiding themselves away in dark places.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Celebrity Sighting

He's a celebrity to me, though most of you wouldn't know him.

I was on the bus coming home from work when a couple got on and the woman sat near me. The bus was crowded so there weren't many places to sit. Since they were older than me, I decided to stand up and allow the man to sit down next to the woman I assumed was his wife. When I saw his face, though, I instantly recognized him as the famous American-Hungarian Grandmaster of chess Pal Benko.
Benko was a contemporary of the legendary American world champion Bobby Fischer. I saw Benko in 2008 in Reykjavik when he attended the Bobby Fischer Memorial Tournament (in which I did very well, almost beating an international master, though I messed it up and only got a draw instead). I didn't get to speak with Mr. Benko that time, but I did this time.

I said hello, and he asked if I recognized him. I said I always read his columns in Chess Life, and I told him that I saw him in Iceland. He asked where I worked, and I told him. He than asked if I was playing in the chess tournament series in Budapest. I told him I don't get much free time, but I did play in it last November. Sadly, my stop had already arrived, so I had to get off and couldn't speak further with him.

I would never want to bother someone like him, but he and his wife seemed nice. It would have been awesome to invite them to dinner or something, but I would never want to impose.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Words Often Used Wrong

Prague was nice, and the Pearl Jam concert was cool, but it's nice to be back home in Budapest.

Every once in a while I post about odd English-language words that trip up many writers. I've done a few such posts, so this one will be a quick one dealing with a new one I've recently run across in my own writing.

Do you use awhile and a while interchangeably? You shouldn't! 'Awhile' is the adverb form of the phrase, though it can always also be used in the noun form 'for a while'.  So you might say 'I ran awhile before going to work.' In this case 'awhile' modifies the verb 'to run' and is an adverb.

'A while' is a noun and is always accompanied by a preposition, so the above sentence could have been written 'I ran for a while before going to work.'

Yes, it's a tricky one, and I tend to use only the noun version myself, but it's good to know the difference.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Letter to a Friend About My Fantasy Novel

A friend who has read the written portion of my sci-fi thriller novel has recently started reading my fantasy novel The Shard. He knew from previous correspondence that there was a connection between the two stories, and that some characters, such as the scientist Tyoma from The Immortality Game, are shared between the books. Given how vastly different the stories are, he wrote to me and asked for an explanation as to how any of this is possible. I thought the explanation I wrote was interesting as a summary even for me, so I decided to post it here, for the record as it were. Those who have read my previous postings about these things might find this summary helps to explain some things in more detail.

Letter to my friend:

Ah, that gets complicated. In The Immortality Game you see Tyoma use the name Xax (which is short for Xaxanakis--pronounced Zax AN a kiss) for his wizard character in his fantasy game. When the scientists' clones first arrive on the new world, they don't at first know that there are any significant differences in the way their bodies react to the new world, but over time they learn that there are differences. The red moon is the cause, though the scientists don't know this. The red moon is made of a substance unknown on Earth, and this substance is the cause of what comes to be called 'magic' on the world of The Shard. The scientists don't really consider it to be magic, but they use the word due to their love of the fantasy game, along with the fact that it does seem very much like magic. One of the scientists at some point discovers that if he looks a certain way at anything, he can see some sort of energy moving through it. As he practices, he learns that he can see this energy moving through everything, even the air, with greater or lesser strength. He also learns that the other scientists can be taught to see the same thing. As hard as they try, they cannot get any native of the planet to see it, so only the arrivals from Earth have this 'power'.

They eventually learn that many things they took for granted on Earth do not work the way they expect. They don't appear to be aging at all (though after thousands of years they realize that they are aging, but very slowly, i.e. after 6000 years Tyoma appears to have aged about 25 years). If they try to create electricity, it only offers a weak current. If they mix gunpowder, it only fizzles. Somehow the energy from the moon, causes many things taken for granted on Earth to work only very weakly, and this explains why so many modern technologies cannot be recreated on this world. Lastly, the scientists learn after much time that if they concentrate, they can actually manipulate the energy in certain ways. It takes them ages to keep learning new ways of manipulating the energy, but they come to realize that their group has become in a manner of speaking ‘wizards’. While some of the group retain their original names, others like Tyoma decide that they prefer to have a proper wizard name, and of course Tyoma already knows his--the one he had in the game back home, Xax.

There is more to it. The energy connects every atom in the universe, though it is stronger when near moons such as the one near this planet, and weaker around planets like Earth where this substance doesn't exist. Since the energy flows through every atom, it 'connects' everything and serves as a form of template. In other words, the evolution of life on a planet such as Earth is partly independent (such as we always believe it to be) but also influenced by the connective energy. In other words, when one planet capable of supporting life does develop life, the life on this planet influences the development of life on other nearby habitable planets. So if one planet develops a pine tree, it becomes very likely (though not certain) that other nearby habitable planets will evolve the same or very similar type of tree. This means that life on each of these worlds comes to closely resemble each other, only differing through subtle variations (dragons versus dinosaurs) or by cataclysmic sudden changes, such as the asteroid impacting Earth and killing off many large species.

A further effect of the energy takes place within the minds of creatures of higher intelligence. You see the effect on the scientists when they are surrounded by very strong amounts of the energy. Well on Earth, the energy is far weaker. Most humans have very little connection to the energy, but some minds have a stronger empathy with it. This is the root cause for many of our legends and myths. Some people 'see' or 'dream' of things that become stories, and they believe that they invented them all by themselves, never knowing that the energy caused them to 'see' things on nearby worlds. So some of these humans 'saw' things such as dragons or trolls or elves and such, and these become legends on Earth, while they were actually real things on other planets. There are planets with similar types of life as appear in legends of other races here on Earth, such as the Japanese or any other race. Differences in legends can be explained by both actual differences in creatures or plants on other habitable planets but also by simply cultural interpretations of such life.

Tolkien was probably the human with the greatest mental connection to the energy--he dreamed vividly of life on the world the scientists found, seeing elves and dragons and such, and writing elaborately about them. Note that there are no hobbits on this world, because The Hobbit wasn't initially written to be a part of Tolkien's elf history; he only melded them together later when he found it convenient to do so. So, while Tolkien thought he was having dreams influenced by our Earthly legends, he was in fact seeing life as it existed on this other planet, and he wrote fairly accurately about that life.

When the scientists first arrive on the world, elves have been there for many tens of thousands of years. They are slightly different than Tolkien writes about them; for instance, they don't have pointed ears, and they don't marry. The humanic creatures that the scientists encounter are primitive, much as our caveman ancestors were. The first such 'men' they encounter are terrified and react with violence, but they eventually find a peaceable tribe and begin to help them--to learn English, to become more civilized than other tribes, and to evolve much more quickly due to the scientists' influence. This is what leads to the development of the Greatlander people. They build a great city, but eventually they are cast out by a gathering of other tribes, who fear them, and they are brought to their current place, called The Known Lands, by their first king. Note that the Greatlanders develop a cultural personality of strong pragmatism but not so strong creativity. This is caused by not having to invent many things on their own, because the scientists slowly introduce things such as the wheel or book or stirrup to them without them having to discover these things on their own.

Other races have evolved from the various types of mannish tribes that originally came out of the south to pester the elves. There was much fighting between the differing types of man tribes, so some were wiped out. Others became humans, while still others evolved into dwarves, trolls, orcs, goblins, and so forth. The scientists had great trouble believing how closely all of this resembled their old stories and games from Earth. At first they could only imagine that God must be real (a hard thing to do considering they were all atheists), as they could not imagine any other way that life could have evolved in such a manner on another world. Later, once they became more familiar with the energy, they began to grasp the concepts of how the energy must manipulate things between the various habitable worlds.

One last note--I've had many readers tell me the characters speak in too modern a fashion. I understand that they are used to seeing medieval-type settings use archaic English, but this world developed from modern scientists speaking modern English, so it would actually be odd if the speech were too archaic.

Okay, I'll stop there for now!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Before Budapest became Budapest, it was an important strategic city/fort for the Roman Empire. It's name was Aquincum, and it was the capital of the border province of Pannonia Inferior, protecting Rome from the barbarian tribes across the Danube. Empreror Marcus Auralius may have written some of his famous Meditations here. By the end of the 2nd century AD the town had between thirty to forty thousand residents.
aerial view of part of the civil city of Aquincum
When the Roman Empire collapsed, the old Roman city was eventually buried and only discovered again in the 18th century. There is a large military fort a few miles away from the town, and near the town is also an amphitheater larger in land size than the coliseum in Rome (though in FAR worse condition).
My family spent an enjoyable afternoon walking around the ruins of the civil town. In the photo above you can see the hot water plumbing under the floor of one of the buildings. There were baths all over the place, both public and private ones, showing just how much bathing meant to the Romans.
And here is a shot of me taken by my eldest son Anton. Rome is my favorite period from history, though I tend to prefer the Republic to the Empire. I hope my sons will come to love this history as much as I do. My younger son tried to read the brilliant Rome series by Colleen McCullough, but he was just too young for it for now. If you haven't read these books, I can't recommend them enough to anyone who loves history or historical fiction.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Unable to Predict Coming Trends?

Agents and publishers like to say that no one can predict coming trends. I've always thought that wasn't quite true. I knew with no shred of doubt several years ago that epic fantasy would start to become popular again right about now. I said as much in the query letters I sent out to agents at that time, and of course they ignored me.

I told them that the Game of Thrones HBO series and the Hobbit movies would produce a new wave of interest in epic fantasy, and since most of these people would have already purchased Tolkien's books after the LOTR movies came out, they would be looking for something new. I even posted about this at Absolute Write, and several people commented there that there was no way to know whether what I said was going to be true. Hogwash! I knew it absolutely. I knew Peter Jackson wouldn't suddenly lose his deft touch at producing Tolkien properly. I knew that George R.R. Martin loved his story too much to allow it to go forward in a shoddy manner.

So it is very frustrating to see posts by respected agents now, acting surprised that this trend has suddenly arrived. Why does no one ever listen to me!

/end rant

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sketcher Girl Studios

For whatever readers I have who don't already know Vic Caswell, I'm happy to help promote her grand opening today. Vic has been one of the most encouraging bloggers for me these past couple of years. She's one of the few who has helped me to keep going when I sometimes feel like it's not worth it anymore. She's not just a writer but a talented artist, and she just might be the perfect person to do your cover art!

Today is the day that Sketcher Girl Studios, LLC officially opens for business!

In celebration of this momentous event, Vic Caswell (owner/operator) is hosting a give-a-way.
Using the "Contact Us" form on the site, send her the secret word from the end of this post and you'll be entered to win.

Sketcher Girl Studios is a freelance illustration company with a focus on book cover design.  Vic Caswell has produced the covers of Emily White's debut novel ELEMENTAL, as well as it's sequel FAE (release date not announced yet), and Kimberly Ann Miller's debut novel TRIANGLES (releasing June 2013).

SGStudios is passionate about books and getting them out there and into the hands of the readers who will love them.  Vic will read your book.  She will work with you to ensure that the design you end up with is something you love.  She doesn't use stock photography, so you are guaranteed an image that is original and she offers full legal usage of her cover images.  So, if you want to print it on swag, and sell that, the money goes straight to you.

Her prices are competitive- affordable for small press publishers as well as self-publishers.

She also provides other services- such as: tattoo design, logo design, header design, artistic prints, children's book illustration, and pretty much anything illustration that you can think up.

Stop by and drop the secret word: Mischief, for your chance to win one of these nifty prizes...

such as:   postcard sized prints of  her work titled PERCHED CREATURE, one of two copies of ELEMENTAL by Emily White, a ten dollar Amazon gift card, an original painting, and  free labor on a book cover (costs may be incurred for props/ models/ wardrobe) and more!

Sketcher Girl Studios
SGS on Facebook

Vic Caswell is brilliant! Not only is she super easy to work with, but the things she comes up with are so amazing. She was able to take the half-coherent ideas I was kind of able to articulate and come up with exactly what I was thinking of. I loved working with her on both my books' covers and I can't wait to work with her again!- Emily White (author of ELEMENTAL from Spencer Hill Press)

"I'm loving my new logo!!! Victoria Caswell did a MARVELOUS job and was such a joy to work with. She made the process effortless and I swear she could read my mind. So, if you need some work done, please send it her way! You won't be sorry!" Nancy  Fennell (owner of Scents of Adventure)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Inspiration for Stories

The stories I write tend to be pieced together over a long period of time by many small ideas. Many of the ideas come from daydreaming, but many others are inspired by details of things I experience in life. Here is one small example.

Here is one of the late Frank Frazetta's greatest paintings, in my opinion. I have a print of it hanging on my wall. As awesome as the warrior is, the bit that set me to thinking (for many years actually, since the thought hit me when I was very young and first saw this paining) was the skeleton lying at the warrior's feet. My thinking was, "What is his story?"

This poor fellow once lived and had dreams and a family just like all of us. What is the story that led him to be lying in this awful place, being trampled unnoticed by this fantastical barbarian warrior?

This led me to incorporate a scenario during a Dungeons & Dragons game that I DM'd as a teen, and the spookiness of the party traveling through a dark forest littered with mysterious skeletons always lingered in my imagination.

So while writing my first fantasy novel, I reached a place where the party finally escapes from the terrors of passing under a mountain and they come to what seems to be a pleasant forest. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to inject a supernatural element into the book.

I dreamed up a scenario in which, five thousand years earlier, a battle had taken place in the wood between an evil wizard and his minions against an outnumbered army of dwarves and elves. The wizard's army seemed to be winning, but Dwarven reinforcements issued from their mountain city and came in time to turn the battle. As he escaped, the wizard cursed the battlefield, and ever since then the remnants of the battle have refused to crumble away as they should.

There's more to it than that, but the party finds out what that is later. For now I will give you a fragment of the chapter where they encounter the ancient battlefield. Geldrath, Alekas, and Antos are teenaged budding warriors.


Geldrath felt nervous and walked slowly.  He had always enjoyed spooky stories as a boy, but he had no desire to meet any real ghosts.  He looked at the brothers and asked, “Do you believe in spirits and curses?  Are they real?”

“I don’t know,” Alekas said.

Antos said, “I know an old crone in Welby town who says she can speak to the dead.  She’s a nice lady, but I always thought she was a tad crazy.  I always said I don’t believe in spirits, but I have to admit I’m not so sure right now.”

“I’m with you,” Geldrath said.  “It doesn’t feel right.  Why is there mist in the trees?  Why is it so dark with the sun directly overhead?”

Both brothers shook their heads and everyone fell silent.  Their footfalls sounded more muffled than usual, and there were no sounds from birds or animals.  The birch trees here all had bare branches, while the ones behind had full green canopies.

Soon Geldrath saw the first of the corpses.  Half of a ribcage rose from a tangle of grass, mushrooms growing where a heart had once lodged.  Rusty ring mail armor lay about the torso in tatters.  He looked closer at the skull and saw needle-sharp teeth on an elongated jaw.  A goblin, he thought.  He shuddered and stepped past the remains only to nearly cut his foot on a rusty, curved sword blade hidden in a tussock.

“Watch where you walk,” he called out.  “I just stepped on a sword.”

Now the bodies were all around.  He saw skeletons of dwarves and goblins everywhere he looked.  Here and there he saw the remains of a horse.  He saw taller corpses, but without stopping he wasn’t sure if they were orcs or elves.  All of the remains looked ancient, but when he thought about how long ago the war was--more than five thousand years--he knew there should be no sign of the battle.

Alvanaria knelt down near one tall skeleton and traced a finger over the skull’s cranium while murmuring softly to herself.

Alekas and Antos stopped abruptly and Geldrath went to see what they were looking at.  It was the skeleton of an enormous troll.  This one was much larger than the ones they had seen in Kaldorn.  The ribs jutted up nearly to shoulder height.  The rusty iron head of a huge mace lay in the grass nearby.  Geldrath stared into the empty eye sockets of the skull and shivered.

“Let’s move faster,” he said.  “I want to get out of this place as soon as possible.”

Alvanaria rose and joined the boys.  Geldrath saw wet streaks on her cheeks.  She said, “I’m afraid this was a large battlefield.  Even moving quickly we will not pass it by this day.”

“You knew some of these people, didn’t you?” whispered Geldrath.

“Many were my friends.”

Walking became ever more difficult as individual remains gave way to piles of bones and weapons.  Some of the weapons--the ones made by dwarf or elven craftsmen--were in perfect condition except for a coat of grime.  Once Ismar tripped on something and landed in a pile of mixed dwarf and orc bones.  He shoved himself out of the pile, shrieking in horror, not even concerned about the deep scratches he sustained from the fall.

The afternoon was the longest one that any of them could remember.  It became a numbness of one unsettling scene after another; a banquet of death such as none of the companions--save Alvanaria and Xax--had ever imagined.  The sun dropping behind the mountain was a blessing, as a deeper darkness settled over the forest and the band could no longer see clearly.  All wished to go on and put this place far behind them, but it was impossible to continue without the risk of injury.

Midas called a halt when he came upon a small clearing.  The company worked by torchlight for more than an hour to move all of the bones, armor and weapons from the clearing so they could set up camp.

Geldrath rolled out his blanket next to Alekas’s.  When he sat down, something sharp bit into the heel of his right foot.  He lifted the blanket, felt around the spot where his foot had been, and uncovered an arrowhead buried in the dirt.  He thought for a moment of pocketing the arrowhead, but thought better of it and tossed it away into the trees.  This place is cursed indeed!  I want nothing to do with it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Let There Be Rock

A couple of years ago my family had a blast. We flew to London and first saw Green Day in front of 80,000 people at Wembley Stadium, then saw Pearl Jam in Hyde Park, and finished it up with Paul McCartney. It can't get much better than that!

Now that my two sons have gotten deeper into more great music, they are even more interested in seeing some great concerts. They hadn't really been into Pearl Jam when they saw them last, though after the concert they began listening to them more, and now they love them.

I started looking at concerts in Europe to see if there was something affordable. There were a number of good choices, but all pretty expensive--Soundgarden, Metallica, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day...all are having concerts this summer over here, but in places that are a little costly to get to. Okay, The Boss is coming to Prague, so that isn't too bad, but frankly, my sons aren't really into him yet.

So, the one I found that is affordable and I know the boys will love them is Pearl Jam Prague. Yep, we just visited Prague two months ago, but hey, it's the most beautiful city in the world, so why not?

Europeans do their dates backward from how we do them, so this means it is on July 2. The boys have seen concerts in a stadium and in a park, but this will be their first one in an arena. I hope Pearl Jam are in great form that night!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Excerpt from The Immortality Game

One of the trickiest aspects of writing is to get across important details without lecturing the reader. Amateur writers tend to put far too much exposition into their stories. I did it myself when I first began, but I learned quickly from the blogosphere and changed my ways. I cut out all of my exposition and found more subtle ways to seed in bits and pieces here and there where it made logical sense.

I try not to do any overt exposition within the first few chapters. It's still not good to do it much later on, but at least when you have already captured the reader's attention you have earned the right to get away with a little bit of it.

Below is the chapter of my WIP that gives the most exposition, but it isn't too early in the book and I try to make it flow. Most of the book is a fast-paced thriller, so this chapter represents a break for the reader, a chance to catch his or her breath. I hope you will let me know where I go wrong!

Tyoma is a Russian scientist, part of a team that has been working on a top secret government military project for several decades. The military is more than a little unhappy that their massive amount of funding is not providing quicker solutions.


“Over here, Gosha.  Come on!”  Tyoma beckoned to the steel-plated chimp that hung by one hand from the jungle gym in the corner of the lounge.  “Come meet the general.”

Gosha tilted his head to one side and stared back and forth between Tyoma and General Andreykin.

“He won’t come,” Tyoma said.  “He only does for Volodya.  Shows how bad his taste is.”

“Do you always criticize your colleagues behind their backs?” said the general, a tall man completely devoid of hair but for bushy gray eyebrows and long lashes.

“Only Volodya,” Tyoma said, “and I criticize him plenty to his face, I’ll have you know.”

The general didn’t look amused.  “It’s no wonder this project never makes progress if your team can’t get along.”

Tyoma grinned.  “We’ve made plenty of progress,  General, even with Volodya in the group.  I like to think it shows how--”

“I don’t like you, Dr. Komarov.  This is a serious project, and you are never serious.  Why did Dr. Aseev leave you here to meet me?”

Tyoma put an injured expression on his face.  “Ah, but you are my very favorite general.  I am distressed that you...”  The stony look on Andreykin’s face told Tyoma he was pushing his luck.  He waved his hand toward the chimp.  “Look, General, one of our recent successes.”

“A monkey.”

“A chimpanzee.”

“We’re not spending billions of rubles to create toy robots, Doctor.”

“Oh, but it’s no robot.  Watch the way it behaves.  It’s too realistic.  Have you ever seen a robot that didn’t behave like a robot?”  Tyoma jumped from his chair and reached out to scratch Gosha behind his ears.  The chimp’s lips pursed and tried to kiss Tyoma’s wrist.  “Gosha here was our first full success of capturing the data from a chimp’s mind and layering it onto a digital interface that allows it to mimic a real brain.”

General Andreykin squinted his eyes at Tyoma.  “Don’t blather at me.  How does this relate to my needs?”

“You want super-soldiers.  We can capture the minds of your very best men and reuse them in robot bodies...or eventually in clones of human bodies.”

“Clones.  Human bodies.  That’s what I need.  When can you show me that?”

“General,” Tyoma said.  “Can you imagine how difficult it is to conduct tests on human subjects?  We can’t reconstitute an adult mind within an adolescent body, so we are forced to wait until a clone body reaches full maturity before we can even conduct a test.  And there are the questions, of course, of what to do with partial successes.  Would you have us dispose of a nearly complete human?  When does it become murder?  Forget that--what about a full success?  Any problem with having a duplicate of a living person running about?  How will that work?”

The general waved a hand dismissively.  “It’s only soldiers I need.  They’ll belong to the army.”

“You going to supply us with test subjects?”

“What are all those crèches for that we funded?  Haven’t you been aging clones already?”

“Absolutely, General.  We’ve been working on perfecting the cloning process.  It’s a different matter altogether to actually give the clones a mind.  We need DNA and mind dumps from some of your men.”

Andreykin rose from his seat and towered over Tyoma.  “That’s not a problem.  What is a problem is that General Potkin lost his job due to lack of progress here.  I don’t intend to lose mine.  I want to see real progress, Doctor.”

“You know, General,” Tyoma said, “there are cures for baldness now.”

“You are not funny, little man.”

“General, let’s go down and visit the crèches.  I’ll explain our progress on that part of the project.  Then I have something else that is fully ready.  I think you’ll like it very much.”

Tyoma led the grim-faced general to the grav tube, which whisked them down to the third basement level.  The lights flicked on to show an enormous room, antiseptically clean, about half the size of a football pitch.  Rows of crèches lined the floor like huge silver and glass coffins.  The room smelled strongly of glass cleaner.

Neither man spoke as they approached the nearest crèche.  Tyoma could never help but marvel at the features of each clone, no matter how many times he visited.  The first crèche contained what looked like a naked teenage version of his friend Kostya, though hairless and with much smoother skin.

“Ah,” said General Andreykin, with the first smile Tyoma had ever seen on the man’s face. “It’s Dr. Sakaev, yes?”

“Yes.  This row here contains six of his clones, each a year apart in age.  This one will be ready to test in around four more years.”

“How can they look so healthy?  I would think lying in these boxes for years would produce little more than pasty corpses.”

Tyoma slid a finger along one of the tubes that ran through the glass and into the clone’s right arm.  “The miracles of modern medicine, General.  Each of us has billions of nanobots doing anything from preventing colds and other diseases to scar repair to...”  He raised his eyes to the general’s bald dome.  “...preventing baldness.”

“I like being bald, Dr. Komarov.”

“I’m sure.  Anyhow, we have our own special nanobots here.  We’ve spent decades coming up with new ones for all the problems we’ve encountered.  We need them for muscle development, bones, lungs, basically anything that would typically atrophy if unexercised.  The brain was the toughest.  It gets almost no stimulation, yet it’s critical that it develop properly.  We’ve perfected it with chimp clones, and we think we are ready with humans now.”

General Andreykin walked to a new row of crèches.  “Who is this?  I can’t place him.”

“That was Dr. Anatoly Vorobyev.  He was our psychology expert, but he died three years ago.”

“Why do you keep his clones then?  I want to get started on my soldiers.  We don’t need to waste space on him.”

“It’s not a waste, General.  If anything, he’ll be the most important least from a moral perspective.  We intend to try him first.  We have some successful mind scans for him.  If we do manage to successfully reconstitute him, we won’t face the issue of having two of him in existence.”

“Why no women?  Surely there are female scientists every bit as brilliant as any of you?”

“Naturally.  We had two women on the project initially, and another we added later.  They all dropped out due to disagreements over the morality of what we were trying to accomplish.  Not to say that only women have moral qualms about this stuff.  We lost a splendid male neurologist also.”

“Why clones of your own people?  It should be my soldiers in here.”

“The project cannot succeed without many tests.”

“I’m not stupid, Doctor.  But, why not use my soldiers for your tests?”

“We can start soon, General.  I asked you already for some DNA and mind scans from your chosen soldiers.”

“I’ll send some men over.  Scan them and use them in these bodies.  I need--”

“General, we can’t use them with these.  The rejection rate is very high unless we layer the mind into a body made from the same DNA.  It’s too costly to have so many failures during the testing phase.”

The general threw up a hand.  “This is too slow.  These take what?  Eighteen, twenty years to grow?  I need my soldiers now!”

“This is but one of the projects we are doing for you, General,” Tyoma said, holding his palms up.  “We’re working on speeding up the aging process for the clones to make this one workable, but we have other projects that will bring more immediate results.  Remember, I said we have one ready now?  How about I show you?”

“Here?” the general said.  “Where is it?”

Tyoma fished a data card from his pocket and held it up.  “Right here.”

The general reached to take the card, but Tyoma withdrew it and snapped it into his own slot.  “General, you will receive a connection request to your wireless.  It’s the only way to see how this works.”

General Andreykin frowned.  “What do you mean?  No one uses wireless with strangers.  It’s too dangerous.”

Tyoma gave what he hoped was a calming smile.  “We’ve all heard that, General, but have you ever actually known anyone to have their wireless compromised?  This program runs off of our protected wireless here at this facility only, and its range is purposely limited.  You are perfectly safe.”

The general stared, scowling, at Tyoma for a full minute before thrusting a finger in Tyoma’s face.  “My people know I am here.  Nothing better happen to me.”

“You’ll be fine,” Tyoma said, and sent the handshake request to the general’s slot.

The general jerked in surprise as he saw what Tyoma was already looking at.  A soldier in full combat uniform stood at parade rest only a meter away.

“Oh,” the general said.  “It’s like those porn programs so many are using these days.  How does a fake soldier help me?”

The soldier came to attention and saluted.  “Permission to speak, General?”


“Sir, I am a virtual squad leader.  My mind was scanned from one of the very best combat NCOs from the Moldovan front.  I get visual cues from each member of my squad, so I am able to assess any situation and use my experience to pass orders to my men.”

“General,” Tyoma said.  “Headquarters would never admit it publicly, but you and I both know the primary cause of problems at the front is bad leadership at the squad level.  We don’t have nearly enough good NCOs.  This program ensures you have the very best squad leaders at all times for all troops.”

General Andreykin nodded slowly.  “I can see some use for this.  But, what if the soldier carrying the card is killed?  It’ll throw the squad into disarray.”

Tyoma waved a hand as if shooing away a fly.  “I used this just to demonstrate the program.  In the field each squad would carry a bomb-proof transmitter.  It has an effective range of up to a hundred meters.  More than enough for anything the squad leader needs to do.”

The general sighed.  “Look, this isn’t bad, but it’s small.  I need more, and I can’t wait twenty more years for it.”

Tyoma nodded.  “General, we have some other projects nearing completion that will amaze you.  I promise.  We also have an idea that we think President Shirov would like.”

“That sounds to me like you want to wheedle more money out of us.”

“It’s totally up to you, General.  We think the president will love the idea.”

The general twirled a finger to tell him to get on with it.

“We can win the space race.”

“Space race.  We have no space race.”

“China and the Western U.S. are racing to be the first to reach New Eden, as the Americans call it.  Their ships are ponderous and will take centuries to arrive.  We can build small and fast and beat them both.  New Eden can be ours.”

“What do we care?” General Andreykin said.  “Let the fools fight over a planet centuries away.  We’ll fight for this one.”

“Perhaps, perhaps.  But perhaps the president would feel differently?”

“If small and fast would work, why are the others only building huge ships?”

“Because they must send thousands of people.  They don’t have what we have, General.  We can send a ship with no living beings on it.  A far faster ship.  Once it arrives and scans the planet to ensure it truly is habitable, well then the auto crèches can kick off the cloning process.  When they are fully baked, we can inject the clones with copies of their own minds.  Instant colonists, General.”

“Sounds like a fantasy to me.”

“You saw Gosha the chimp.  We can already do it with robot bodies.  All we need is a few more years and we will be able to do it with human clones.”

“What good does it do us to win this race?  So we put a few Russian colonists on this far distant world.  Who cares?”

“We could arrive centuries before the others can get there, barring some amazing advance in propulsion technology.  If we carry enough different sets of DNA and mind chips, then we will have time to establish a sizeable colony there.  It would be no small accomplishment for Russia to be the first to claim a habitable world.”

The general looked skeptical.  “I’ll bring up the space idea with Minister Grischuk next time I see him.  If that’s all you have to show me for now, tell me what my guard stole from you.  I’m told it was two data cards.”

Tyoma paused to consider how to proceed.  “General, while the robbery itself was truly regrettable, what was taken will not harm us.  One card was a simple mind scan...of myself actually.  No one can use that, at least not without doing serious damage to themselves.  The other was one of our combat chips.  Like I said earlier, we are still working on perfecting those.”

“What does it do?”

Tyoma blew out his breath.  “Ah, it does so many things, General.  The idea is to transform any raw recruit into a fully ready soldier.  It provides all the data any soldier should know, identification and functionality of all weaponry, training sims on all martial arts, and so forth.  The user will see colored auras around anyone in a combat zone for instant differentiation of friends, foes, and unknowns.  The most useful bit, in our opinion, is what we call combat reflexes.  During high adrenaline situations the code all but takes over the soldier’s mind, feeding it data at such a high rate that time appears to slow down.  The soldier will literally experience combat as if everything is moving at about four-fifths time.  The program will project likely lines of fire, anticipate the movements of enemies...there’s so much involved I can only touch on all that it does.  It’s very exciting...but not fully ready for use.”

“One of these chips is out there?  If it falls into the hands of our--”

“No, General,” Tyoma said.  “The code is highly encrypted and protected.  No one could copy it, even if it were fully ready.  We’ll keep searching for the missing chips, but you shouldn’t worry too much about them.”

General Andreykin stared into Tyoma’s eyes for a long moment.  “At least you’ve stopped joking with me, Doctor.  I hope you are telling me everything.”

After the general took his leave, Tyoma put a group call through to Big Dima, Volodya, and Kostya on the wall screen.

“So?” said Volodya.  “Did it work?”

“I believe so,” Tyoma said.  “He allowed the wireless connection.  I can test my code to see if I can hack his firewall.  I’ll be shocked if I can’t.  Wireless simply can’t be protected the way Sentry code does with direct Web connections.”

“Good,” Volodya said.  “And the rest?”

“He didn’t seem much interested in the space idea, but he said he’d pass it along.”

“We need that extra funding,” said Big Dima.

“We’ll see,” Tyoma said.  “Let me go test my hack.  I’ll let you know if it works.”
“Then we’ll have him,” Kostya said.  “Even if he does learn the truth about the lost combat chip, we can protect ourselves.”