Random Thoughts – Worldbuilding Through Architecture

Worldbuilding can be tough. Creating new cultures and civilizations. I’ve talked a little before on how to add a little flavor with the 3 Ms (Merchants, Mercenaries, and Mauraders), but today I want to look at how architecture and environmental design can inform the reader about your society.

There were a few books that made me really think about this. The Bobiverse series has an alien species that build massive ships with large cargo holds and compartmentalization. In Children of Time, the spiders build with silk and their structures are in a constant state of change. But what really made me think of architecture as a worldbuilding aid was in Space Team. In that book, when the main character first arrives on the alien ship, he sees what he describes as “chairs and not chairs.”

Now many creatures have the ability to change their environment to better suit their needs. Any creature capable of creating a complex society would have to have this as well as the logistics of providing for large numbers require it. This environmental change can be as complex as creating weather machines, or building cities, or it can be as simple as irrigation or making a boat. Even making a chair or not chair is a level of environmental change.

But the question is how do these changes and designs inform the reader about society? Well, let’s look at some of our previous examples.

In the Bobiverse series, the aliens use giant ships with compartmentalization. They also travel from planet to planet, stripping it of its metals to return to their homeworld. The function of the vessel is to carry large amounts of raw material, hence the size. The compartmentalization is reminiscent of life we find here on Earth…insects. Bees and ants tend to have compartmentalized structures. They are also hive minds, a trait shared by the Bobiverse aliens. That little detail draws a parallel that the alien physiology did not.

In Children of Time, the spiders build their structures with silk, a material naturally produced. They designed their homes as large chambers to house several members of a peer group. They also change the layout of their homes and other structures at will and as necessary. This shows that not only is their society based on biological technologies, but it is also highly adaptable. At several points in the story, the spider’s society changes completely to adjust to new developments.

Even in our own history and societies, we can see examples of how building design can inform us about a society. When I think of ancient Greece, I see open plazas and forums that promote the exchange of ideas and thought. The courtyards and lack of walls, while not historically accurate, give a sense of community.

Rome was a mix of military function and highly developed social forms. A vast bureaucracy and military power, many of its buildings were designed to be standardized. A Roman fort was a Roman fort, regardless of if it was located in Germany, Britain, or Carthage. Its temples, however, were quite elegant due to its observances of highly developed rituals.

The Roman Catholic Church has amazingly designed cathedrals full of some of the best paintings and sculptures in the world to both show glory to their God and to display its wealth and power. American skyscrapers reach towards the heavens as a symbol of industrial might and independence. The Japanese developed intricate joints to connect support beams due to a lack of metal for nails that offer the feel of precision and discipline. Russian towers have a distinctive bell shape to prevent snow accumulation, hinting at their hardiness and resourcefulness.

How you design your world’s buildings and furnishings can offer a lot of insight into the culture and can give the reader clues as to what that society generally feels. But what other examples can you think of? How do you use building design to add not just distinctiveness, but character, to your world? Let me know in the comments, and as always, I mustache you to stay fantastical.

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Book Review – The Price of Time by Tim Tigner

Book: The Price of Time

Author: Tim Tigner

Genre: Sci-Fi, Thriller

Part of a Series: No

Kindle Unlimited: Yes

Summary:

A small tech start-up in the medical field has just made an amazing discovery. They figured out how to stop the aging process. Immortality was now in human hands, and only seven people in the world had it available to them. With the nearly inexhaustible wealth of one of the members, they had only two questions: what to do with their newfound existence and how to keep their secret.

Their plans accidentally cross paths with the recently “disgraced” CIA operative Zachary Chase who is privately looking into the disappearance of his old college friend. His investigation leads him to Skylar Fawkes, and together they try to unwrap the mystery of the immortal group.

Review (Spoilers):

This was a random book that I decided to pick up based on the premise of a group finding immortality. I didn’t really know any of the thriller aspect going in but let me tell you, it was pretty great.

The Immortals, as a group, are fairly interesting. They find themselves in two camps: the scientists and the business people. After several years of enjoying their immortality, they begin to realize an issue with not aging. The rest of the world does and soon, the rest of the world will notice that they do not.

The solution, of course, is the old tried and true method of assuming new identities every few decades. The problem? The modern world makes that extraordinarily difficult. It is not just a case of forging a few documents and sending in for a new license. The only solution that they can find is to assume the lives of regular people. They hire a former foreign intelligence worker to locate suitable replacements and begin the process of eliminating them and taking over their lives.

One of the selected replacements happens to be the friend of former CIA operative Zachary Chase. He is a good hero for this story as his fall from grace with the CIA was due to the fact he refused to change his report after discovering compromising information on an American diplomat. This frees him from the agency but gives him the skill set needed to investigate his friend’s disappearance.

His investigation leads him to Skylar Fawkes, a former triathlete looking for a new life and one who happens to have been selected as a replacement candidate for one of the Immortals. The two team up and look for answers while the Immortals not only attempt to complete their replacements but also deal with the sudden deaths of their members.

This was just a super fun book. It was a little slow to kick off, but once it starts, it keeps a steady pace until the finish. Like I said, Zachary is a good hero for the story. He’s your typical, all-American boy. Sure, he is a little jaded from his time with the CIA, but he never really comes across as cynical. He’s just a man trying to make a difference.

The Immortals are also interesting to follow. The story really only focuses on three of them, but in those three, the questions of morality and ethics surrounding artificial immortality are explored. Why is it important that they keep the discovery secret? Are they still human or a new species? How far will they go to survive? Of course, the novel makes a stand on these issues, but it doesn’t restrict the arguments to service that stand.

All in all, this was a fast-paced and fun ride. The characters were interesting, the story engaging, and the reading was not bogged down in techno-jargon. Going back to look up some things for this review made me realize that the author has more books in Kindle Unlimited, so I will definitely be checking out more of his work. All in all, I award this book the Steel Stash.

I know that thrillers are a bit outside of my typical genres, but if you’ve also read The Price of Time, let me know what you think? Are there any other thrillers I should check out? Or any good books exploring immortality and what it does to a person? Let me know below, or you can tell me on Twitter @steelstashwrit1. And as always, I mustache you to stay fantastical.

Book Review – Gaming the System by P.A. Wikoff

Book: Gaming the System

Author: P.A. Wikoff

Genre: LitRPG, Fantasy

Part of a Series: Yes, Imprisoned Online Book 1

Summary:

Sephiroth, or Seph as he prefers to be called, is the child of a new age. Robots and A.I. have advanced to the point that humans really don’t need to do anything. Instead, they get to sit at home and game all day, and big names gamers are a big deal. Unfortunately for Seph, he doesn’t like games.

When a midnight release for the newest gaming tech comes out, his parents ask him to pick their order up. In the process, Seph wrecks his bike, “borrows” a car that was meant to be delivered to the daughter of one of the largest game streamers, and finds himself publically tried and convicted. His sentence? Three years in a virtual jail where he will have to play games while also having to earn in-game currency in order to pay back his fine as well. Will he be able to survive his sentence, both physically and mentally, or will he crack under the weight of his virtual jail?

Review (Spoilers):

So, like most LitRPGs, this book also starts out in the “real” world. Unlike most LitRPGs, this book spends about the first quarter in the real world. Now, I get wanting to get to know the main character prior to their trials, but this felt a little long to me. In addition to all of that, Seph really isn’t that great of a character in the real world. He’s whiny, his internal monologue and rhetoric feels vaguely like the complaints of the “nice guy” who always gets stuck in the friendzone (except, of course, there is not enough human contact in the world to have that even be an issue). And then, in a moment of affluenza, he steals a car in order to deliver his parents game systems all because he didn’t want to borrow their car from the start.

Now once the trial hits, Seph feels like a different character. He still has his disdain of A.I. and artificial life, but all in all, there is a character shift that follows him into the game. The Seph that starts playing Dreamscape, the MMORPG that he chooses as his prison, is a lot more likable. He is determined if a little naive. He bumbles through the game having foolishly skipped the tutorial despite not being a gamer (though it was a convenient way for us to get exposition) but never gives up. This is a Seph you can root for.

As for the game, it has the typical feel of a fantasy RPG. There is nothing too special or unique about it, but this isn’t a bad thing. Once Seph starts to open up to some players, he starts to develop some friends (a connection he never had outside of prison), and he grows and learns. He gets targeted by a gang that likes to lurk in the starter area and attack new players, but through some luck and ingenuity, he is able to overcome both them and the level boss.

If you are new to the LitRPG genre, this is a fine book to start with. It has all the base pieces for the genre while also being entertaining. P.A. Wikoff doesn’t bog his story down with numerous side quests (at least not yet), but it also doesn’t feel boring. It’s a tight, well-paced story that succeeds technically and enjoyment-wise. All in all, I award it a (weak) Silver Stash. I look forward to seeing where this storyline goes from here.

What are your thoughts? Did you enjoy it as well or am I off my rocker? If you want some more LitRPG goodness, check out some of The Completionist by Dakota Krout. And as always, I mustache y’all to stay fantastical.

Random Thoughts – The Problem with Time in Sci-Fi

Time brings an interesting problem to sci-fi. In any other genre, time can almost be ignored. Either it matters to the story or it doesn’t. This can be its own issue, but that is mainly a logical or consistency thing. In sci-fi, though, time becomes integral to the discussion. This has to do with the fact that so much of sci-fi has to do with space.

I recently read two books that highlighted the problem of time and the two solutions to it. The first book was Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein, and the second was Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky. The solutions were a generational ship and hibernation/stasis respectively. That’s right, this is a double book review and random thoughts. And warning, there will be spoilers for both.

In Orphans of the Sky, Hugh is part of the crew of a ship headed to a far off galaxy. It’s been an unknown number of generations since the ship took off, but it has been long enough that everyone has forgotten what their mission is. They know they are on a ship, though they don’t understand that it is a space ship or that anything exists outside of the ship. The ship is all of reality and all that there is.

The external conflict is a fight between the humans that Hugh is a part of and mutants who hide in higher levels of the vessel. Hugh is captured by a group of these mutants where he is taken to Joe-Jim, a two-headed mutant who leads one of the strongest gangs. Hugh manages to befriend Joe-Jim and is exposed to the true nature of reality, the ship, and its mission.

He attempts to convince the humans to ally with the mutants in order to accomplish their original mission. Everything seems to work towards this plan, but a sudden betrayal by the Captain reveals that the humans want to maintain the status quo and their new society. The mutants are all killed while Hugh, his friend, and their wives are barely able to escape to settle on the planetary goal of their ancestors.

Children of Time starts with a group of scientists over a terraformed planet. Their goal is to introduce a group of apes to the planet along with a virus. This virus is designed to improve evolution among the apes. As they are about to launch the apes and virus, a terrorist plot is revealed that destroys the ship.

The virus is just barely launched where it crashes to the planet and finds a suitable host in several of the insect and arachnid species. The virus works in the spiders, causing them to grow larger and smarter over hundreds of generations. They form a complex society, battle and domestic ant colonies to serve as biological computer systems, and become the dominant species on the planet.

In addition to this plotline, there is another that follows a group of humans from Earth. Earth has been used up and has become uninhabitable. Scraping together the technology of a lost past, they are able to create a ship to carry the remains of the human race to a new planet. The crew is placed in stasis for the trip, though several members of the key crew are woken up periodically to address various problems such as attempted mutinies, god complexes, and finding a suitable planet to settle on.

Ultimately, the solution to the humans’ settlement problem rests with the world the spiders have claimed. Pushed by the existential dread of extinction, the humans and spiders clash for control of the planet.

Both books are great. Orphans of the Sky does have some very problematic issues with how it views women, and I completely understand any who can’t get past that. The only good thing is that it is only brought up maybe twice in the story, so it does not act as a huge distractor. It is fun and thought provoking despite this, and I give it the Silver Stash.

Children of Time is amazing. Really, if you are a fan of sci-fi, read this book. It tackles interesting questions, sets up it plots well, and the spiders aren’t that bad. Trust me, I’m an arachnophobe and I’m saying read this. My only issue is the actual resolution to the conflict. Ultimately, this book gets the Steel Stash. It’s amazing.

Now that the books are out of the way, let’s look at how they handle time. Like I said, time is one of the most important aspects of space sci-fi. To paraphrase Hitchhikers’ Guide, space is big, like really, really big. Space is stupid big. Distances in space are so great, they are practically meaningless. They become measured in how long it takes light to travel to them.

Think about that. Distance is measured by how long it takes one of the fastest phenomenons we know of to travel. We don’t do that on a planet. We can see and imagine distance on a planet. You can conceivably walk from one end of a continent to the other. You can travel around the Earth. To travel to another solar system, you have to find some way of accelerating to the speed of light and then it will still take you decades.

This means that the only solution to space travel, well without a handwave of faster than light travel, is to either have a generational ship or to use stasis. Find some way for your grandchildren to reach the planet or freeze yourself.

Orphans of the Sky uses the first approach. With generational ships, you end up with some interesting problems and questions. What happens if the crew forgets? What happens to society? What about concepts like free will and democracy?

Of course, the last question is probably one of the most important. Unfortunately, it is one of the easiest to answer as well. A generational ship can’t be a democracy. People have a habit of not always choosing the best solution for the whole. With a ship, you only have what you have. You are severely limited on resources. Democratic and capitalistic models are not likely to work unless you massively over-design everything. Of course, that has its drawbacks as well in terms of cost of construction. So everything needs to be rationed.

Even if you have the ability to provide abundance for everyone, there is still the issue of maintenance. It is a ship after all. It needs to be repaired. It needs certain actions. Over a short timeframe, that may not be an issue, but what happens when you need more engineers, technicians, and specialists? Do you let society decide? Do you beg? Or do you put the mission and survival of everyone onboard above individual wants and tell people what they need to do?

Of course, another solution to the people issue is to alter the society to place a higher value on these jobs. This can be accomplished through extra perks and incentives, or it can come on the form of veneration and deification of the command. This is the direction that Orphans end up going in. The original captain, Jordan, became a god to the people of Hugh’s time while the mutineer Huff became the devil. The Captain wasn’t just a job, but a position of honor and power, not for the common man.

One of the values of Orphans is that not only does it ask these questions, but it also explores the issues that they can bring up. Jordan’s writings, ship manuals and technical logs, become holy documents. One must be initiated into the grand mysteries of a scientist to even read them, and even then, these things aren’t for question. They are merely to be followed.

This, of course, leads to the problem of the power-hungry. Hugh wants to complete the sacred mission that Jordan set out on. In attempting to do so, he works with several key members of the scientists to overthrow the Captian and install a new man who will finish the mission. The new Captian, however, just wanted power. He found an opportunity and seized it, using Hugh and the mutants to gain his position before disposing of them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have Children of Time. The crew was all put in stasis. For many members of humanity, they fled a dying Earth, went to sleep, and woke up on a foreign planet. For some, however, they kept waking up throughout the trip. The eyes of humanity during the trip is a scholar named Mason. He was a student of the past and knew the old languages and programming. Any time the ship encountered some piece of old tech, he was woken up to help translate and provide advice.

This led to some interesting questions from him. Objectively, he was hundreds of years old. Subjectively, he was only a few decades. This was a thought process that his mind continued to struggle to comprehend. How do you reconcile those two thoughts? How do you realistically rationalize the idea that you aren’t eternal? Or insignificant? How do you face the endless march of time when you constantly blip in and out of it. How do you reconcile time itself when even time becomes meaningless do to your constant jumps forward?

For the humans of Children, distance is a meaningless concept. No matter how far anything is, it is only a single night’s sleep away. For those who kept waking up, time loses its value as well.

Of course, these questions are the reason why sci-fi is such an influential genre. It is one of the only genres that can ask questions like these, that can explore the human psyche and experience through them.

But what do you think? Do you feel there are different ways to approach these problems? Different questions you want to explore? What answers do you have? Let me know your thoughts. And as always, I mustache you to stay fantastical.

Rose Nexus Updates

Whew. Draft 1 of Rose Nexus is complete. In fact, I am about halfway through my first draft edits on it.

This story turned out to be a bit more than I had originally intended. I thought it was going to be just a simple little short story. Instead, I managed to get it into somewhere around 24k words currently. Of course, that is making this first revision a bit of a challenge. After all, when I started writing, there were several things I glossed over because they weren’t really that important. Now I have to go back and fill those parts all in.

In addition to the general growth of the story, it has expanded the scope of the world as well. For those of you who follow me on twitter, you have a bit of an idea. For the rest, here is a little taste of the world.

The Romulean Empire was blessed with a mysterious substance known as oraculum. This moss-like substance allowed them to create flying ships and conquer all of Terra. In addition, it was discovered that oraculum would allow the Romuleans to extend into the heavens and explore the cosmic sea itself. They quickly began to colonize planets and extend their influence into fourteen provinces.

Another boon was the discovery of magic. The gods blessed Lord Caesarium with immortality and magic. Caesarium, in turn, granted his people with its uses and long life. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t struggle. Colonies revolt, pirates raid the Cosmic Seas, and unknown horrors lurk in the darkness.

This is the backdrop that our hero Brennus finds himself in. A relatively young magus (mage), he is sent to find the source of a mystic illness. Will he succeed or will he be crushed by foreign magics?

Of course, with the expansion of the world and setting, Rose Nexus is likely to only be the beginning. I have several other stories planned for the Romuleans as they attempt to control their empire. The current plans right now are for those stories to stay in the 20 to 30 thousand word range. Nothing intimidating. A good afternoon read (hopefully).

Of course, the motivation to get these out quickly does need your help. Follow me here or on twitter. Beat me up on facebook. Heck, with enough interest, I might even figure out the whole newsletter thing. Or just keep an eye out on Kindle Unlimited.  Regardless, I’m excited about exploring this universe, and I hope you will be as well. (Here’s another taste, a flash fiction I put up a while ago.) And as always, I mustache y’all to stay fantastical.

Book Review – Raze by Dakota Krout

Book: Raze

Author: Dakota Krout

Genre: Fantasy, LitRPG

Part of a Series: Yes, The Completionist

Summery:

Raze is the third? Fourth? Book in the Completionist series. (Technically, the third book, Rexus, follows Jaxon, one of the supporting characters.) Joe has successfully revived the king of Ardania following the Wolfman War and is continuing his quest to unlock the mysteries of the ritual class.

Unfortunately, back in the real world, monsters start to appear and attack people. President Musk orders everyone to transfer their minds to a data core and be transported to the world of Eternia. This mass influx of new people leads to many problems, the most pressing being the supply of basic necessities such as food and housing.

Aten, guild leader of the Wanderers, asks Joe to figure out a way to feed the town that the guild is trying to raise. This quest takes Joe to the other side of Ardania as he seeks a solution in the form of a magical greenhouse. The surviving members of the Wolfman race have fled to that side of the kingdom and are in possession of the blueprints for just what Joe needs, but they ask him to clear out a nearby temple before offering him the plans. Unfortunately, the temple is controlled by a powerful player whose mind was trapped by a mage during Joe’s time in the city dungeon in Regicide.

While all of this is going on, the guild is trying to increase their rank by improving their town with more than just a greenhouse. Their building efforts, however, draw the attention of members of the kingdom, and plots are put in place to end the Wanderers growth.

In addition to all of this, Joe finds himself the target of more assassins, this time from the city Zoo who are holding a grudge from way back in Ritualist when Joe sold a unique bunny to a pet store. This threat to their entertainment cannot go unanswered. Failure to find the zoo a rare animal will result in continued attempts on Joe’s life. Success, however, will grant Joe access to the Zoo’s main income, the black market of unique items from its Bloodsport Arena.

Luckily, Joe is not alone anymore in his ritual study. With the help of a new team member, Jess, Joe is able to recruit several members of the guild to become ritualists as well. With a ticking clock, though, will this new coven and Joe’s team be able to solve all of the issues facing the guild and Joe personally?

Review (Spoilers!):

Raze is another solid addition to the Completionist series. Joe continues to be a fun and engaging character who seems to constantly draw the short end of the stick when it comes to getting along with people.

The threat to Earth in the real world is a little whatever. The one effect that it does have is that it means no one is able to log out from the game. This is their new reality. Of course, this was never an issue for Joe as he sacrificed his body back in book 1. Heck, it hardly matters to the rest of the team as well. Alexis was drawing in debt in the real world, Bard fell hard for Alexis so being “stuck” in game was no issue for him, and Jaxon was an old man who found a new body. The only member really affected was Poppy who ended up leaving his three-year-old daughter back in the real world. Luckily, the game communications to the outside world still work and he was able to have his parents get her and themselves into the game.

The biggest “threat” that the sudden influx of people poses is the issues of supply. Food scarcities become a danger, prompting Joe’s determination to find the magical greenhouse. His motivations to try and continue to help everyone are the biggest reason he agrees.

The city building quest that the guild starts does offer some nice tension. While the guild is intent on growing as quickly as possible, they use Joe’s ability to make better buildings faster. Luckily, some laws on the use of magic were changed following Joe’s actions with the Mage College in Ritualist, circumventing previous laws that enforced a monopoly of the Architect’s Guild. This helps because it offers a counter to Joe’s protection as being considered “extended family” to the royals. There is still a way for the NPCs of the world to get back at the players.

The Zoo storyline was the only real meh part of the main story. Finding the black market and discovering that it was being run in an arena that artificially elevated rare loot drops was a neat addition. The ultimate conclusion of it, though, just felt a little rushed. There was plenty of other things going on in this story to really not need that one aspect. The major effect of this side quest was a massive changing of laws at the end of the book that will likely have major repercussions later. Still, it was kind of a weak addition.

Despite all of that, Raze is a great book. It was fun, light, and never took itself too seriously. It didn’t slow itself down with building harems, including random sex scenes, or too many side quests. Dakota Krout continues to write tight storylines that are a real credit to the litRPG genre. All in all, I award Raze the Silver Stash.

What are your thoughts? Have you read it yet? Anything else that you think I should check out? Let me know in the comments and as always, I mustache y’all to stay fantastical.