Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy

TV Series Fight Fate

As the current TV season surges to its climax, in just one week we’ve seen Fringe’s Walter try to save a different version of his son from an alternative universe, Flash Forward’s Agent Noh hear that his path to avoid dying could not be changed, and The Legend of the Seeker’s Zed worry that his action to change the forces of evil would still lead to the prophecy of doom.

Fiction has viewers always clamoring for an alternative chance to redo a past act, but the philosophy in us asks whether any chance to relive a moment would only bring the same result.

Why have so many examples of speculative fiction this year decided to explore this theme? Fiction has reveled in the question. The remake of The Time Machine in 2002 showed that despite the protagonist’s best efforts, he was unable to prevent his love from being killed despite trying to change key events. Orson Scott Card’s novel Pastwatch included a scene where characters from the future attempted to delay Columbus’ ships from arriving at Hispaniola at a key time. They changed an event, but the ships still arrived as though the pull of fate was gravity.

Yet years after the passing of the Star Trek’s three series, questions about changing time erupt again. In this year, we have seen the concern that fate’s decisions cannot be countered by our best intentions. Fringe’s Walter rescued an alternative son when his boy died of a rare disease. But the events of the theft of the alternative son set in motion a war between the two universes. As the agents in Flash Forward try to avoid the destruction many have seen in a vision of the future, they are told that all the possible paths will lead to the same concluding event. Despite the Seeker’s faith in his abilities to make his own fate, he sees his friends always hurt by attempts to change a path that is foretold.

Fiction reflects the present world, the past and future too. In our world of tech advancements that require updates every micro-second, certainty is evasive. Since 9/11 the shock value of fear can drive people to think individual action would fail when it faces the inevitable. Individuals who worked in the Ground Zero cleanup thought the government protected their health. Yet many still are denied health coverage for sicknesses related to the cleanup. The public expected a quick victory against the forces of terrorism, yet the problems have increased. So the fiction verbalizes the fears, casting a father in Fringe, a protector of society in Flash Forward, and a fantasy knight in The Legend of the Seeker. Yet the question that plagues them gnaws at our being — we dare ask if we can find an alternative path to upset a seemingly powerful destiny.

- Tom Pope

Images courtesy of

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Words Come Alive

An Interview With Walter Jon Williams

Walter Jon Williams, American author who writes mostly in the world of science fiction, usually takes readers into a hard SF area, but always brings the vast scope of social interactions into his work.

Of his many series, the examples of Metropolitan and Dread Empire’s Fall show such an ability. While the protagonist in Metropolitan faces a source of plasm that operates as an energy supply for multitudes, the story hinges on how people vie for power to distribute the resource and how people can be corrupted by such power.

In the Dread series, Williams hard SF is on display as starship personnel need to use blood meds to cope with the force of gravity during deacceleration. He presents stable wormholes because power stations exist that distribute energy in the opposite direction of the incoming ship so the hole remains stable. Yet the course of a revolt occurs because of personal and social forces that divide interests or look down on certain castes.

This interview dealing with the novel, The Rift, asks Williams to comment on such social forces. While The Rift fits into the present world as a disaster novel, the scope unveils the various factions and forces at work in a society that can either hold that society together or threaten its survival.

Williams prompt to write The Rift began when he discovered the New Madrid faultline, a time bomb of a tectonic plate waiting to erupt into an 8.9 seismic quake. That fault stretches below New Madrid, Missouri, and crosses into parts of Tennessee and Arkansas. The New Madrid fault system was responsible for a major quake in 1811–1812 and may have the potential to disrupt the flow of the Mississippi River.

The Rift focuses on Jason, a white teenager and an African-American man on their journey down the Mississippi. Yet the canvas shows readers how fragile society’s parts connect to protect people. With communication cut, the restoration becomes an engineering problem while others crave a chance to profit from the misfortune. Some, like the Reverend Frankland, think that the end has come and souls are more important to save than lives. Sheriff Omar Paxton sees a chance to wipe out people who look different from the norm. Williams shows the obstacles in putting the pieces of society back together again.

Daring To Ask: Walter Jon Williams, thanks for taking the time to answer questions about the techniques and concepts within the craft of writing about society. I’m sure your input will be appreciated by fans of fiction and those who see its application in the real world.

Before turning to specific areas, does the breakdown of society in The Rift strike you as being similar to the possible breakdown that could have arrived with 9/11?

WJW: More like Katrina, a ongoing systemic tragedy that goes on for weeks and months and possibly years. 9/11 was a horrible tragedy, but it was over within a few hours, the damage was confined to a small area, and society was disrupted but did not break down. New York is very much intact. But after the double-punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana was changed forever.

Daring To Ask: Even though the situation was different in the TV series Jericho, do you find the attempts at reconstruction of society as facing similar social obstacles?

WJW: I haven't seen Jericho, so I can't comment.

Daring To Ask: How would you characterize the breakdown of society in The Rift — mainly from which of the following —
a) local authority doesn’t have to be responsible to regional or national authority
b) social norms disappear
c) resources disappear, forcing people to think in survival mode

WSW: All three, plus shock, plus mental inflexibility. Shock prevents people from thinking clearly or understanding the scope of their problem. Mental inflexibility means that people are inclined to fall into old ways of thinking without considering whether those ways are relevant to the new situation.

Daring To Ask: Your cast of characters arises so you can describe the breath of the world you paint in the novel. What is the starting point to decide on where you want to have the characters? The geographic implications, ie Memphis, the social setting, ie Louisiana, the turf professionalism, ie military vs engineering?

WSW: I wanted to cover as much of the disaster as possible, and to do that I needed a lot of eyes. I chose my characters mainly for what their situation could bring to the story. I wanted engineers who could comprehend the scope of the catastrophe and act rationally, and I wanted people whose experience and preconceptions would produce different reactions. I wanted people who were right in the middle of it, forced to react to what was happening around them, not people detached and dispassionate.

Daring To Ask: Your protagonist represented a coming of age youth rather than a professional whose task was to reconstruct the destruction. What made you pick that type of person for the protagonist?

WSW: Well, I was looking for Huckleberry Finn. I wanted a reasonably normal, somewhat mischievous character who was young enough to react to the situation without very many preconceptions. I wanted a character who, through his own naivete, would recognize the madness that was springing up around him, and know to react against it.

Daring To Ask: Does that selection determine the focus of the novel?

WSW: I knew from the start that I wanted to do a modern Huckleberry Finn. Twain sent his character down the river to examine the follies and madness of his age, and I sent my character down the river for much the same reason.

Daring To Ask: By showing the whole canvas of the disaster, you could face the problem of moving into tangents far afield from the protagonist. How do you avoid that?

WSW: Actually there were some characters I wanted to write about who were cut for reasons of length. I wanted to do a character trapped in a hospital bed during the earthquake, and I wanted to do another from the point of a man trapped in the rubble of a hotel, slowly developing a relationship with the female rescue worker he can only here as a voice on the telephone.

I have to say that the best way to keep the narrative from wandering away into parts unknown is to exceed your word budget by 100,000. All the extraneous material will just vanish as you sweat to write about the important stuff.

Daring To Ask: Your canvas touched the lives of people to show how energy, food and supplies were affected by the disaster. That canvas showed multiple social groups and political factions. What advice do you give writers when they design a worldbuilding plan for such an event so they don’t ignore a key aspect of that canvas? Is there a checklist of factors to consider in the storyboarding plan?

WSW: You can start with simple items and trace the links required to bring that item to you and to keep it useful. With table grapes, you can think of the chain from the grower to the wholesaler, from the wholesaler to the market, from the market to you, and the electricity necessary to power the refrigeration that keeps the grapes wholesome. If any link in the chain is broken, you won't get grapes.

For "grapes," you can substitute any other item your character possesses. Food, furniture, clean water, appliances, vehicles.

I was also aided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan for next New Madrid Earthquake, which the Corps of Engineers kindly shared with me. They thought of all sorts of scary things that I didn't.

Daring To Ask: How does the level of social tension prior to the disaster affect the degree of social breakdown after the disaster? For example, the level of tension in the South has risen post healthcare passage and in part due to the rise of Tea Parties. Would a higher level of tension from that mean that the degree of breakdown in a disaster like The Rift would encounter even more of a breakdown?

WSW: Yes, very much. People are inclined to distrust their government until a catastrophe occurs, and the government then becomes their sole resource and they very much want a strong government with unlimited resources.

Currently we have people seriously talking secession and the forming of a second Confederacy. It's a daffy idea bound to lead to hideous tragedy, but if things were sufficiently disrupted, they'd try to do it.

Daring To Ask: What is the level of importance in restoring communication to aid restoration? What tools would have been necessary to help the protagonist, Jessica, or people in the camps to learn about their isolated situation compared to the entire picture?

WSW: Communication is good, but the communication has to involve useful information. If the information that gets out is wrong--- as happened in New Orleans, when people were told to go to the Convention Center, where there was no help for them--- then tragedy could result.

The best thing in an emergency is a functioning cell phone network. In Katrina, thousands of people called for help on their cell phones, but received no help because the cell towers had been blown down by high winds. What is necessary is for the government to mandate cell phones that will network together in the event of a catastrophe, so that messages can be passed along the chain until they reach a functioning tower.

Countless lives could be saved if this were instituted worldwide.

Daring To Ask: Your book came out pre-Katrina and the Iraqi reconstruction. Would responders who studied the book have been able to avoid some problems that New Orleans or Iraq faced in restoring the flow of life?

WJW: Katrina, certainly. The Iraqi reconstruction dealt with a issues that weren't a part of the novel.

What occurred to me after Katrina was that I had been far too optimistic in writing the novel. In my book, the atrocities were deliberate actions by evil men. When Katrina happened, the default response by those in authority was to kill a large number of black people and then blame the victims. This was a decision made by everyone from the President on down, and included the city's black mayor and his staff. This reaction was such a part of the culture that they didn't even have to think about it.

Daring To Ask: Your Rev. Frankland or Omar Paxton symbolize fundamentalists who drive on the fears of others and set up barriers. Would these characters have found similar ones in the breakdown of Iraqi life as the country struggled to reform? How would the Iraqi form of fundamentalism show a different face from that of Frankland?

WJW: If Frankland had armed his followers and told them to kill anyone who didn't belong to their church, I think this would approximate the situation in Iraq. Fortunately for the characters in the novel, Frankland was a little more ecumenical than that--- although, of course, he was still crazy.

Daring To Ask: What concepts did The Rift allow you to explore that differs from the worlds of The Praxis or City on Fire?

WSW: The big difference was that I was writing about real places, and the characters I put in those places had to be plausible. When people traveled from one place to another, they had to travel over a real map.

When I write SF or fantasy, I get to make a lot of it up.

Reality is harder!

Daring To Ask: You have played role games. In a way, your worldbuilding for The Rift allowed you to set up scenarios that went beyond usual research. What developments in the scenarios surprised you in how a character would act, or a situation would complicate reconstruction efforts?

WJW: As part of the research for the novel, I drove the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis. I visited the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Station near Port Gibson, and I asked my guide how the station remained moored in the Delta where there was no bedrock for it to sit on.

The answer resulted in the sections of the book featuring Larry, the nuclear engineer.

Daring To Ask: The role playing games on videos offer users a different perspective — they are in control of the action rather than read from an author’s presentation. Does this mean that authors should try to develop some aspect of interactivity in novels, or are we speaking about two entirely separate audiences?

WJW: I deal with this very issue in my new novel, THIS IS NOT A GAME (Orbit, 2009), written about a game that begins to cross dangerously into reality. I can't really sum up my thoughts in such a short space, so I can only urge you to read my novel!

Daring To Ask: Can authors from novels devise more complex role games with three dimensional characters or would that change the control issue that users enjoy?

WJW: I like to think of my RPG characters as reasonably three-dimensional, whether player-characters or NPCs, so the answer would seem to be yes.

Image courtesy of

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Response Meter

The State Of The Audit

As publishing and media companies continue to shift their focus from print to online, they are also trying to find new and innovative ways to get their brands noticed. Audit companies like ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) and BPA Worldwide are also trying to find new techniques to keep themselves relevant in this ever-changing landscape. With the focus now on a company’s brand rather than their magazine(s), I dare to ask what auditing firms need to do to make sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

When print advertising was king, the audit statement was a vital tool to measure the quality of a publication’s audience. Parts of the audit statement such as Paragraph 3a (Business/Occupation Breakout of Qualified Circulation) and Paragraph 3b (Qualification Source Breakout of Qualified Circulation) were especially important for advertisers. It allowed them to see the ages and sources of a magazine’s circulation and determine whether or not they wanted to spend money. Now with the shift to online, the name of the game is quantity and the different ways publishing and media companies are getting their brand’s products out to their target audiences.

While many media and publishing companies employ a variety of web tracking and analytic tools to track traffic and gather demographic information about their digital magazines, websites, online products, enewsletters, the social media sites that they are a part of, webinars, etc., there is still the problem of how to report and measure all the information based on all the different tracking tools out there. Audit companies need to be at the forefront to set and determine these guidelines.

This leads into another sticky topic for both business publishers and audit firms…integration. While there are still some publishing companies that rely on the print product and the traditional audit statement to entice advertisers to spend money with them, most companies are working on ways of integrating and reporting their data across a variety of products. Part of the problem is that this data comes from a variety of sources.

From an audit standpoint questions abound not only about the validity of the information, but how to list and report this data in order to sway advertisers to advertise or continue to advertise. It’s not enough to just show the number of visitors, page views, hits and unique visitors. Advertisers want and need to know as much demographic information about the people visiting these sites as possible.

The companies that can find a way to present this information in one dashboard will definitely have a leg up on their competition. The way that the information is ultimately stored and presented could also pave the way for a uniform integrated audit statement.

In the meanwhile, audit bureaus need to continue to work diligently with their clients to come up with these solutions as well as create new audit rules and guidelines in this new and integrated world order. With the economy still struggling to right itself, failure to do so could result in the few audit firms out there going the way of the do-do.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of

Monday, May 10, 2010

Worlds Meet

Know Your Enemy

The lines from Peter O’Toole, at the closing of the 1981 mini-series Masada from the world of fiction, could be used in today’s world of reality. As the Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva, O’Toole leaned over the fallen body of Peter Strauss’ character Elazar ben Yair, the Jewish leader. Silva bemoaned the suicide of all the Jewish defenders, but most of the tragedy struck from two sides only superficially knowing the other. Silva called the suicide a “waste” because he never intended to kill or torture the defenders. After a “public demonstration” a system could have been set up that pleased Elazar.

Masada shows the conflict between the Romans and Jewish fighters who positioned themselves on the cliffs of Masada, Israel, during 73 CE. When the Romans breached the walls, the defenders committed suicide because they feared imprisonment.

Silva regretted not knowing his enemy beyond the surface. He said his timing was off. He had pushed Elazar into a corner and forced the Jewish leader to convince his people that the Romans would kill them. He said Elazar failed to know Silva — that Silva was not the same enemy as a former Roman leader. Silva had failed to know Elazar would react by opting for suicide. Silva pointed to the need to placate the Roman Senate with a semblance of a victory that would have aided the peace talks in the future. But, the Jewish people believed they could not trust that situation. Neither side fully knew the enemy.

Silva failed to gain support from the Emperor for a peace deal that could have worked with Elazar. He failed to realize local commanders would incite the frail truce. And he miscalculated the way Elazar needed to control his people.

Such a scene opens up on today’s world of disputes between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders or the factional leaders in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Examples of only knowing the enemy superficially abound. Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad needs to strengthen his position against reformers. He blasts the United States. U.S. Hawks fear Ahmadinejad. Those Hawks then threaten to corner him with restrictions. The reality of the situation? Iran fears being surrounded by foreign powers and needs to flex muscles. Note that U.S. troops lie on Iran’s Western border in Iraq and on the East in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another example? Israeli leaders hear Palestinian threats. They set up more settlements. Palestinian leaders lose more support within their factions. Palestinian leaders become more vocal to gain support. Israeli leaders hear the language and increase the settlements. Whether as a sense of entitlement or a wedge in bargaining, the increase mushrooms as a result of the perception that the other side has been gaining ground.

Messages are meant for various audiences. When leaders speak, they address some issues at times because of a propaganda need. At other times, they might reach out to enemies. To misinterpret the driving force for the message means that the enemy will not be understood. Despite the background of being in a former war, people like Sen. McCain only see the surface. People who speak about negotiation or understanding a culture have often been called weak and naive. But like the Roman Silva, they fail to go deeper in seeing why conflicts arise. They have to dare to ask why the language of a message is made. Otherwise, like Elazar, they are committing suicide and wasting their efforts.

- Tom Pope

Masada image courtesy of

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Behind The Mask

The Next Wave of Comic Book Viewing?

I recently had enjoyed the opportunity to revisit a story-arc from Astonishing X-Men that I had loved reading back in 2004. The arc by Joss Whedon and John Cassadey was entitled Gifted and covered Astonishing X-Men issues 1-6. But instead of picking up those issues like I did back in the old days, I wound up seeing the arc as a motion comic courtesy of While most comic book fans prefer a newly printed comic that they can hold in their hands, digital comics are also growing in popularity. I dare to ask if the motion comic might be the next big thing beyond digital.

For those who are not familiar with the motion comic, it incorporates the dialogue and art of a comic or comic book story arc along with elements of animation, a musical score, voiceovers and camera angles. Right now, there are only a handful of motion comics out there. The first motion comic was based on an independent comic called Broken Saints. DC Comics put out both Dark Knight and Watchmen motion comics to coincide with the releases of their movies. Along with Astonishing X-Men, Marvel also produced a Spider Woman motion comic and just released Extremis Iron Man (just in time for the release of Iron Man 2).

The reviews for motion comics right now are mixed. Some claim that the motion comic in its current form is just a cheap version of a full feature animated movie. Others claim that the voices, music and overall production value are just not up-to-par.

Another question that many ask is if the money that comic book companies invest in these motion comics will be seen in other ways. For example, will someone who sees a motion comic like Astonishing X-Men Gifted, go out and buy the Gifted trade paperback? Will they start becoming a new, steady reader of the comic? Right now, it’s way too early to know.

I know that my interest was definitely piqued while seeing the Gifted motion comic. It was a new and different way to re-discover a story arc that I had thoroughly enjoyed many years ago. And while I thought Marvel did an admirable job with the voices of the characters and with the musical score, there was definitely something stilted and lacking with the overall product. The addition of animation which should have heightened the viewing experience was at times not very fluid causing character’s expressions to be creepy and their movements jerky and awkward.

Marvel, DC and other comic book companies need to decide whether they want to invest more into the overall animation and production value of these comics and at the same time determine if the motion comic is a viable way of getting their brand and product out to the masses. In the meanwhile, I’m more than happy to read about the continuing adventures of my favorite characters by going to my local comic shop or catching up with them digitally.

- Hamilton Maher

Image courtesy of