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Vick's Vultures

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Post Mortem - To Fall Among Vultures (Spoilers)


Now that my second entry in the Union Earth Privateers universe has had a couple months of release to stew it's time to take a look back and peel back the veil. Following are some of my thoughts and plans for the book, the goals I set out with and some behind the scenes workings.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD

 Sequel to a Solo Act
Vick’s Vultures was intended and works well as a standalone book. I had not planned additional installments when I first wrote it, but I made sure to plant seeds and lay groundwork for future stories within the universe. Conversely, To Fall Among Vultures and its follow-up later this year, Where Vultures Dare, are two halves of a matched set. Each is a self-contained 3-act story that directly plays off the other and rewards the reader for tackling the whole set. There’s another popular work of science fiction that follows the same format. You might be familiar with a little series called Star Wars.

Linking the second and third book in such a way was a departure from my original intention of only loosely-related serialized installments, but I think the series is stronger for it. It allowed me to explore the concept of decision-based consequences where characters are forced to confront the way their choices cause ripples in the world around them.

Divine Introspection

Both Vick’s Vultures and The Sorcerous Crimes Division both delved into religious themes and biblical subversions in some ways, namely the hazards of blindly following faith without critical thought. But never are those themes as front and center as in To Fall Among Vultures. I worried that they would be a little too on-the-nose, but so far it’s received far fewer comments than the parallels to modern day government shenanigans.

Right from the start of the book I started throwing religion at the reader with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which in a very real way draws Victoria into the primary conflict of the book. In fact, the original name for the novel was To Fall Among Robbers, almost a direct biblical quote that perfectly captured the themes and tone of the book. Unfortunately, the name is only perfect in retrospect after reading the book, and after much back and forth and head scratching with the publisher we eventually compromised on To Fall Among Vultures.

Much of the remaining story is a loose subversion of Exodus in which Moses led the Israelites to the promised land. The Gavisar are a race of dogmatic xenos following what they believe is the divine instructions of gods. But when granted a view from the outside looking in, Victoria is shocked at the absurdity of attributing god-like status to aliens and recognizes that the tenants and history of the Gavisar religion are manufactured by the Gavisar themselves. This story is somewhat unique in the role-reversal that the protagonists are forced into the role of Philistines. Neither the Maeyar or the Gavisar are truly villains, they are opposing forces forced to pay for the sins of their forebears. I think a conflict where the lines of good and evil are blurred is more interesting to read, especially when the protagonist struggles to decide which side they should throw their weight behind and realizes only far too late that getting involved at all was quite possibly a moral misstep. And do right and wrong have any place in interstellar politics at all? After all, what’s best for the Maeyar or Gavisar might not be what’s best for humanity.  

The Galactic Face-Heel Turn

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), most of the reviews eschewed the vaguely religious themes and critiques in favor of the plot twist in the last act of the book. Up until this point in the novel Victoria, and by extension humanity, was the front and center hero. While the conflict between the Maeyar and the Gavisar painted neither as the clear villain, Union Earth was more than happy to assume the mantle when they arrived at Pedres to break the line of the Maeyar blockade. In a strategic and politically expedient decision that prevented a genocide and secured future colonization opportunities, the Union Earth Navy betrayed a budding alliance, undid nearly all Victoria’s work, and murdered the spouse of a main character in the process.

Both Vick’s Vultures and To Fall Among Vultures placed heavy POV emphasis on alien characters because I wanted to convey how the rest of the Orion Spur perceived these savage upstarts. But that emphasis also allowed empathy, and so when the Zumwalts begin to fire on the carrier line, the reader feels as though the humans are the hostile xenos. Victoria is helpless in this scene, her agency is stripped by military direction, and so too does the reader feel helpless as they look on in horror while they ponder the outcome. To date, this twist is the most divisive scene I’ve written. Readers are split half and half between loving it and hating it, and unfortunately not all of the latter were kind in their reviews. But all of them felt it like a punch in the gut, in fact several have described it like a physical blow.

And that sensation was exactly what I set out to produce. Whatever the reception, I consider it a complete success as a writer to evoke such a strong reaction. I would consider it a disservice to shoot for anything less.

Feel free to let me know what you thought. As always you can reach me on twitter @scottwarrenscd or on facebook.com/scottwarrenscd

Friday, January 26, 2018

A review of Points of Impact, book 6 of the Frontlines Series by Marko Kloos

I've been a big fan of Frontlines since about a month after Terms of Enlistment was published. The battle between rival Earth factions and the Lankies, and especially Andrew and Halley's struggle to be together reminds me a lot of the themes and tone of The Forever War, and has clear influences on aspects of my own work.

Unfortunately, while Points of Impact was entertaining and delves into the psychological strain long-term war is having on the main character, it doesn't measure up to the other entries in the series. Having read other reviews of the book I've seen that the major gripes people have echo my own. About 200 of the book's 300 pages can be summed up as 'Andrew talks about how tedious his current assignment is then transfers to a new command'. The book treads very little new ground, and no new locations are introduced to expand the scope of the storyline. After the Frontlines high point that was Fields of Fire, the latest iteration doesn't quite impress as much as I'd have liked.

I could only recommend Points of Impact to the fellow diehard Frontlines fans, but in all honesty this is the first entry that I feel could be skipped without missing any important details. I'm hoping the next entry will be a return to form.

The Frontlines series begins with Terms of Enlistment, and you should check it out if you enjoy hardcore, realistic military sci-fi with a classic sci-fi feel, well developed martial characters with complex motivations, and first-person perspective writing that takes its time describing the rich detail as seen by the main character.

You should avoid Frontlines if you dislike books written in present-tense prose and series which have no defined end.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

A review of All Systems Red by Martha Wells

All Systems Red is a short, but sweet, story that perfectly executes the themes it sets out to explore.

A secretly rogue security robot explores its place in the universe as it comes to terms with it's complete absence of desire for human interaction, even as it sacrifices and struggles to protect a group of humans it would rather not speak to. Add in a dash of sarcasm in the first person narration and you have a great way to kill an evening or two. Absent any dense technobabble to keep things accessible, this feels like a classically written novella accessible even to those who don't ordinarily enjoy science fiction.

Simply put, Martha Wells nails it, and you're missing out by skipping this book.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi was a Beautiful Cinematic Experience that Insulted Me in Every Single Scene


Now as a writer...

I'm hesitant to speak badly about the work of other writers. As a writer myself I know all too well how badly the bite of criticism can scar. But perhaps being a writer has made me more critical of lazy mistakes and shortcuts that I myself have recognized in my own work, and in turn made me less forgiving when I see them in such high-profile environment as a movie that grosses 200 million dollars on its opening weekend.


The movie was exactly what I expected.

To make this as clear as possible: This is not about the movie being 'not what I expected' as so many complaints have been about. This isn't even about the movie's over-reliance on tired tropes (the latter of which is used by both Poe and Vice Admiral Whatshername at the same time, against each other). This is about the movie telling me "Don't think about it" as each successive story beat is revealed to be more ridiculous than the last.

I went into the theater expecting space battles, light sabers, mysticism, and all things Star Wars. I got them. And they were great. If you look at each scene individually it's one of the most compelling and spectacular Star Wars movies to date. but then you look at the whole and the entire thing falls apart. The movie is less than the sum of its parts.

The problem with the Last Jedi is that it takes every shortcut and path of least resistance that it can. Every character action, every decision made, every 11th hour escape feels like Rian Johnson taking the laziest approach to hand-wave away any semblance of inconvenient logic or human behavior that might interfere with reaching the end credits. It feels like it was written over a weekend, submitted as a first draft, and sent directly to principal photography. Any editor should have been able to tell him "None of this is OK, try harder", but none did and now audiences are starting to tell him instead. Was it luck that these issues made it all the way through production? In my experience there's no such thing as luck.

Warp factor plot

Rather than break down every single example in the movie, let's isolate one particular plot point central to the film: The Chase. If you are looking to avoid spoilers, this is where you should be cautious, because you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

I choose the Chase in particular, because my first Sci-Fi book, Vick's Vultures was completely centered around a similar chase, and so the problems with the chase in the Last Jedi were especially egregious to me because many of them were the same mistakes I made, or almost made in Vick's Vultures before taking the time to avoid or correct them in what I hoped were logically consistent ways.

In case you need a reminder, in this particular subplot the surviving Resistance ships are being harried by Supreme Overlord Snoke and his formation of Star Destroyers. There are two fundamental rules that drive the Resistance side of this plot:

  • The Resistance ships are faster than the First Order ships, but not fast enough to escape their extreme weapons range.
  • The Resistance ships are running out of fuel, and have only the ability to make one (1) light speed jump.    

Luke, I am your logical fallacy

But where does it all fall apart? Well, let's start with the fact that the chase lasts longer than 5 minutes when both sides had the ability and every reason to end it immediately. In order to draw it out, the movie establishes only 1 rule that defines the entirety of the First Order's behavior during the chase:
  • The First Order is allowed to take no action which will bring them closer to their goal of destroying the Resistance, even if that action is shown to be demonstrably possible by the Resistance.  
If they are playing a board game, this is the equivalent to the First Order only ever landing on lose your turn spaces. Let's look at how this manifests in the movie.

1. The Resistance is barred from making additional light speed maneuvers. The First Order is under no such restriction, and yet acts as if they are.

The issue of weapons range is waved away as "The rebel ships are faster". The only issue is that they're not. Not only are they not limited by a single light speed jump, but there are multiple ships in the chase. At no point does it occur for one of the pursuing ships to make a short jump ahead to cut off the resistance. The logical action is disregarded because it's inconvenient. It would be harder to write, would have required thought as to how the Resistance would overcome it, and would result in an actual space battle and plot resolution too early in the film, instead of the slow-speed car chase we got instead.

2. For all intents and purposes, no other First Order ships exist in the entire galaxy.

In order for the chase to make sense within the movie, we are asked to disregard the fact that two technologies exist: Faster than light communication, and faster than light travel. Conveniently, the First Order forgets about both, even though the Resistance first uses instantaneous 2-way FTL communication to contact Maz for help, and then dispatches Finn in a shuttle, who has time to travel to a planet an unknown distance away, get arrested, break out, and return to a battle in which no significant changes have developed.

The chase is predicated by the first rule of of the resistance ships, that they are faster than the star destroyers. But it's proven that a ship can make a round trip to another planet after gaining information from faster than light communication. If this is the case, it is an inexcusable logical jump that the First Order would not add lighter, faster ships to their flotilla using instantaneous 2-way communication to join the chase by jumping in at light speed. There is clearly enough time. The Resistance demonstrates that there is enough time.

3. The Mon Calamari Killshot should have been plan A  

"That's Snoke's Star Destroyer" should have been immediately answered with "Let's ram it at light speed!"

Probably the single most divisive scene in the entire movie (second only to Leia's spacewalk) is the Mon Calamari Killshot. Cornered and broken, the enigmatic Vice Admiral sends the Resistance flagship on a hyperdrive collision course with the seat of First Order power in the galaxy, effectively crippling all ships in the pursuit formation and leaving them with a handful of ties and walkers, barely enough to mount an offensive on the planet. It was a beautiful shot, breathtaking from a cinematic perspective, equaled only by the firing of the first Death Star.

It was also an hour and a half of screen-time too late.

Ignoring the obvious can of worms this opens as to how weaponized light-speed kinetic weapons just made every offensive technology in Star Wars completely obsolete, the problem this poses in the narrative is this: Nothing developed plot-wise over the course of the movie that enabled the ability to use the Mon Calamari in this way. As soon as it was shown as possible in-universe, it retroactively became the the best and most logical opening move available to the Resistance. It also became a progressively worse option the longer the film went on, until it was finally used as a last-ditch maneuver.

Sure, hindsight is 20-20. But it's just too much of a logical leap for the Resistance to weigh the facts, and not immediately take the opportunity to evacuate personnel to the smaller ships and then sacrifice their cruiser to A) Cripple the enemy formation, decapitate their entire leadership command structure, and prevent pursuit. And B) allow the two smaller frigates to escape with all hands. Best of both worlds. The Vice Admiral didn't even have to do the flying, they could have left a droid pilot. As a viewer, I'm expected to ignore that Leia, General Leia, who has been leading rebel guerrilla fleets and fighters for decades is not familiar with the concept of acceptable losses. Sacrificing a single ship (even if it is the most important ship) for the entire enemy command structure? Easy choice. and we're asked to forget that she already applied this tactic in the same damn movie when the Resistance bombers destroyed the dreadnought. Why? Because "We don't kill what we hate, we save what we love"? No. Because it's inconvenient, because applying logic makes the plot harder to resolve, or in this case absurdly easy when they needed to drag it out long enough for Finn and Rey to have their plots. Bad or illogical narrative choices for the sake pacing are lazy narrative choices. It's a writer looking at obvious flaws in his work and saying "Meh, good enough." 

And that's really what the Last Jedi is doing. It's saying we should be happy with "Meh, good enough." It compromises, it settles, it excuses itself. It expects you to play dumb, and hand waves glaring internal logic inconsistencies with nonsensical restrictions so that every little mistake can be wrapped up part and parcel in the most dissatisfying package possible.

Did you think the Last Jedi was Good Enough?

Let me know your thoughts.

-SW-

Monday, October 2, 2017

Guest Post on SFF World, Three Tiered World Building

We're 2 days out from release, and SFF World has been kind enough to host me for a blog post. Here you can read my latest rant on the topic of worldbuilding. Check it out!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

July 2017 Update

It's been some time since I've made a blog post. The primary reason for this is that every time I sit down to write a blog, the feeling nags me that the time would be better spent writing actual books. Go figure. The spring and summer have been busy with activity, and in the interim since my last rant I've made significant progress towards my writing goals.

The sequel to Vick's Vultures is nearly complete, only a few final edits are left before it goes to Layout, and then to reviewers and the general public. To Fall Among Vultures will be released later this year and if you were a fan of Vick's Vultures, the second book continues on with more of Victoria's interstellar adventures. If you have not yet read Vick's Vultures, please consider checking it out. In the mean time, I am already hard at work on book 3. Parvus Press has been extremely good to me in their handling of the Union Earth Privateers series.

If Fantasy is more your jam, the second book of the Sorcerous Crimes Division has been completed for some time, but I have held off on self-publishing until I can secure an editor to do it the justice I believe it deserves. If you are a freelance editor, feel free to contact me to discuss rates. I am also working on an as-yet undisclosed Fantasy title that I think is sure to excite fans of unconventional Fantasy.

Until next time,

-Scott Warren


Monday, February 6, 2017

Vick's Vultures: Post Mortem



Vick's Vultures has been out for some time, and it has to date sold over 4000 copies and generated extremely positive review scores on both Amazon and Goodreads. For multiple days it was in the top 10 Science Fiction sales on Amazon. To those who read and enjoyed it, and those who left those positive reviews I have this to say: Thank you for taking a chance on Vick's Vultures. Thank you for investing the (admittedly modest) time it took to read. I'm glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate the kind words.

To those that left a 1-2 star review I have only this to say: Thank you for taking a chance on Vick's Vultures, and for investing the time to read something you ultimately did not enjoy.

Readers have a right to know that they might not enjoy a book or its content, and so negative reviews are important too. I think it's easy for an author to lose sight of that.


With that said, generous Vick's Vultures spoilers lay ahead as I discuss the book, the characters, and what worked and what maybe didn't. For fans that are looking for a little more before VV 2 is finished, this may scratch your itch. For those that have not read it, go ahead and pick up a copy before going any further. Don't worry, I'll wait. In the following paragraphs I'll talk about my intentions as well as the reader perceptions, and the areas where my attempt to communicate an idea or personality trait were unsuccessful and some of the challenges in tackling science fiction. As an author, it's important to remember that I cannot fault a reader for misunderstanding my intent. All a writer has is the written word, and it's my duty to communicate effectively with it.


Laying the Groundwork


I've discussed it in interviews and internet radio several times, and the answer to the question "What was the idea you wanted to explore with Vick's Vultures?" always seems to change a bit. Memory is a fluid thing, and I don't always remember the reasoning behind every decision. One thing remained certain though, I knew that VV was above all else a story of adventure, and before the labels started flying (military sci-fi, mad max in space, space opera, space marines,) I had described it as an interstellar age of sail, with powerful nations trading, conquering, marauding, and trying to scrape by. I had a character, Vick, and her purpose for the next two hundred odd pages was to butt into a millennia old conflict. When I begin outlining a novel, I start with the inciting action and the eventual resolution, and decide what message I want the two to say. That pesky bit in the middle is best left to worry about later (As my publishers at Parvus Press are no doubt tired of hearing).

Characterization


By far the biggest complaint in the work, even among the positive reviews, was the lack of characterization for the more minor characters. By its nature, a ship like the Condor is a cog of many pieces and the crew is no less crucial to that ship than the micro reactor or the horizon drive. Not only that, but it is a well-oiled machine of professional starfarers, entrusted with the future of humanity. My intent was to present a crew that had long moved past the early stages of group development and were already an efficient, functioning team headed by a capable leader. In that aspect, I think I succeeded. Victoria leads, but respects and considers the advice of her subordinates, and in turn is respected by them. For all her faults (and boy does she have a lot), she makes decisions that minimize risk to her crew in her inherently risky situation. If not for the opportunistic interjection of a certain six-foot bug, it's entirely possible that she would have completed her mission free from pursuit. But because the scope of the story is so narrow, taking place in only a few days, you don't have enough time to see complex relationships develop between crewmembers. This is simply because the humans in Vick's Vultures are as close to, well, human as I can make them and a few days isn't enough time for such complex relationships to develop. I expect this will be a continuing complaint about individual books in the series, though perhaps not the series as a whole. The pulpy, serialized format which I have adopted for the Union Earth Privateers trilogy means that I have accepted this fault and decided to focus effort in improving other aspects.

In regards to Victoria herself, I could likely write an entire post. Part of my intent for her was to be something of a black mirror to the stereotypical vulgar, heavy-drinking, womanizing, Colt 1911 slinging do-no-wrong maverick space captains prevalent in science fiction. Her heavy drinking is seen negatively by a majority of the crew, her vulgarity is purposefully over the top (and unique to her). she can't effectively use her favored sidearm, she marginalizes the opposite sex in a negative way, and sometimes she makes decisions that don't save the day but instead lead to the very real consequence of losing crew members. Her sexuality is quite possibly where I saw the biggest break in terms of what I intended vs what was perceived. More than a few people saw her as simply promiscuous, and I failed to convey that her attitude towards men was in fact harmful and toxic because she saw most men only for the ways they could be used to validate herself. In fact, it is only in spite of these faults that she succeeds as a captain, not because of them, and in fact each of them has caused damage to her both personally and professionally in ways that the tightness of the narrative did not allow me the opportunity to explore without sacrificing the carefully maintained pace of Vick's Vultures.

One last thing about Victoria. Of the negative reviews mentioned earlier, her appetites and her vulgarity are mentioned more than once. The strangest aspect is that I agree with them. Excessive profanity is one of my bigger pet peeves when reading sci-fi and fantasy, and graphic sex scenes are another. More often than not I find that they take me out of the narrative, but I also knew that I wanted to challenge myself with Vick's Vultures and that sometimes the things I enjoy creating do not exactly align with the things I enjoy.  

Set Sail, at the Speed of Plot!

Having previously written Fantasy and knowing that my meager knowledge of cosmic geometry, real-world chemistry, and advanced rocketry were severely lacking I knew I was in over my head the moment I decided to move into Science Fiction. Plainly put, the realism to inject even a modicum of believably makes sci-fi much more difficult for me to write. Having completed my last math class in 10th grade of high school, researching stellar dynamics first required researching how to understand the information I was seeing. Concepts of acceleration, chase mechanics, relativistic delay, and combat at appreciable fractions of light speed had my head spinning. It took me some time to realize that none of it mattered at all. No matter how fast a ship supposedly was, they all moved the same speed: exactly as fast as the narrative demanded. It didn't matter exactly how fast characters were moving, only whether they were closing, escaping, evading, or engaging. It's much more important to know that a Grayling cutter is catching up to your hero than it is to know that cutter is moving at 11,000 meters per second in relation to the local star.

Once I realized this, it was easy to apply my real world experience as part of a tactical ship-board tracking party to making the encounters between these ships as intense as possible, with just enough touch of small group communications to shift the focus from realistic space combat to the realistic team dynamics that make naval combat possible in the first place. The interactions between Victoria and her crew became the highlight, and the way the Condor could be wielded as a single deadly weapon by many small moving parts became the driving aspect of what many have declared to be the best part of Vick's Vultures. I'm glad that I succeeded in this, because a similar approach is rarely seen outside of hard military fiction.

Onward and So Forth

For now, the future of the Union Earth Privateers is secure. Parvus Press has extended me the opportunity to continue my unique take on science fiction and the crowded galaxy of Vick's Vultures. Some of the reader considerations I will take into account, others conflict with my vision for the story and so I will have to disappoint. I hope that future volumes meet with a similar response from sci-fi fans as Vick's Vultures has, but now and for always I write for the challenge and the drive to create. See you around the Orion Spur!

-Scott Warren