You matter to me

My brother Todd was a stage magician. He and our best friend Zack Percell were putting on magic shows throughout the Midwest even while they were still in middle school, high school, and college. Like many magicians, when they put on shows, they were well-dressed. In their younger, mid-90s high school days, they had matching purple sports jackets and crazy ties. They looked great, in a sort of Spencer’s Gifts meets GQ magazine kind of way.

As they got older, their magic shows had to be squeezed in between other jobs. They still dressed up for performances, but the uniform became more mainstream mens’ formalwear. They never went full tuxedo, but they did wear the dark jacket, shirt, and tie combo that was popular in the early aughts. They looked great! They seemed equally ready to both make someone disappear on stage or to open a loan for you at the bank.

One day, Todd and Zack had a magic show at a housing project in our hometown. The residents of this housing project were overwhelmingly Black. I wasn’t with Todd and Zack at that show that day, but Todd told me about something that happened there, and I’ve never forgotten it.

He said that while he and Zack were unloading magic show props from the van, a small boy — think lower elementary age — stopped on the sidewalk to watch them. Todd wasn’t wearing his jacket, but he was in his dress shirt and tie. This kid looked at Todd as he walked by and said to him, “You ain’t gonna get me, cop. “

I’d like you to notice two things.

First, when that young boy saw a well-dressed white man in his neighborhood, he immediately assumed he was a police officer. It didn’t matter that the man was college-aged. It didn’t matter that the man was unloading stage magic props out of the back of a beat-up van. If he was white and well-dressed in that neighborhood, he had to be a cop.

Second, this kid — an elementary school kid — assumed that if a white cop was in his neighborhood, that white cop was there to get him. Not to talk to him. Certainly not to help him. To get him. The kid hadn’t even done anything wrong, but that’s the tragedy. His innocence didn’t matter.

That young boy’s reaction was and remains unfathomable to me and fills me with sadness. And that was just a simple misunderstanding between two people on a sidewalk. How much more unacceptable is it that since that encounter, far too many Black persons like George Floyd have been mistreated, beaten, and killed? One such death is too many. The sheer number our country has seen is an indictment of our culture of covert — and often overt — racism and oppression.

I know a lot of change is needed, change at so many levels of our society, and I’ll be honest — I don’t have a lot of answers. But there’s one thing I can and will do immediately, and it’s something everyone can do. We can all be more like this elderly white woman:

All lives matter, and everyone needs to hear that. But right now, our Black brothers and sisters especially need to hear that Black Lives Matter. Spread this message far and wide. But like the adage often attributed to St. Francis says: use words… if necessary. Don’t just say it. Show it with your actions. Live it with your whole life.

If we all do this, then we change the world, and we don’t have to wait on any government, any police department, or any other person or organization. As John Boyega said, “I ain’t waiting.” None of us should.

How to switch from satellite to over-the-air TV

A couple of months ago, my wife and I got rid of our family’s satellite dish. I hesitate to call this “cord-cutting” because our entire family entertainment system still depends on a rather significant cord — the one that feeds data into and out of our high-speed cable modem-based Internet connection. Nevertheless, like other cord-cutters, our desire was cost savings. We knew there was a vast discrepancy between how much we were using our Dish Network subscription versus how much we were paying for it. We took an inventory of what we were actually watching via our dish and came up with a reasonably short list:

  • The whole family, but especially the children, watched a lot of the Disney Channel. They especially loved watching it with the Disney Now app on their tablets, which required our Dish Network login to unlock most content
  • The children also enjoyed a few Nickelodeon shows
  • Rose enjoyed several Food Network programs
  • We definitely wanted to keep watching network shows such as The Flash, Supergirl, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and Jeopardy!
  • And an electronic program guide and DVR were must-haves

That just didn’t feel like $72.12 per month worth of content to us. But what was our alternative? We knew our kids could live without the few shows they watched on Nickelodeon because the Disney Channel gave them so many appealing choices to choose from. And we could take some of the money we were paying Dish Network each month and instead purchase via Amazon Video full seasons of the Food Network shows Rose enjoyed the most — and still save a lot of money.

So that meant all we really wanted were the major broadcast networks and the Disney Channel. And we thought the desire to keep the Disney Channel would be the tether that kept us tied to a disproportionate monthly satellite TV bill. But then Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a little something called Disney+.

Best Disney CEO (besides Walt) ever?

I’ve long dreamed of à la carte cable service — pick and choose your own channels. I’d also long given up on that ever being a possibility because offering such a thing just isn’t in cable or satellite companies’ financial interests. But that option is kind of here now! With the plethora of streaming services now (and soon-to-be) available, there’s really no longer any reason for you to pay for programming you’re not going to watch.

With the impending launch of Disney+, Rose and I realized that if we could get our local channels via over-the-air TV, we could drop Dish Network. We didn’t know anything about HDTV antennas, but over the following few months, we learned a lot. In this article, I’ll share the details of how we went about making the switch in the hopes of informing others who might be thinking about taking the same plunge.

We made our cutover via a three-phase process.

Phase 1: Proof-of-Concept
POC-antennaWe started by purchasing a relatively inexpensive tabletop HDTV antenna just to try it out and see what kind of reception we could get. This antenna was connected directly to our television, so to watch it, we had to switch our TV to the antenna input. It also had no DVR and no on-screen channel guide, but it did let us start to explore what it was like to pick up our local channels over-the-air. We quickly learned a few things:

  • The basic setup for over-the-air TV is: plug your antenna into the TV, let the TV do a scan to inventory all the channels it can receive, and enjoy.
  • We live in a northeastern suburb of San Antonio, and all of the major networks have their antennas south of the city. That means we’re about twenty to twenty-five miles from most broadcast antennas, which isn’t bad but isn’t particularly desirable either.
  • Obtaining good reception meant frequently repositioning the tabletop antenna for optimal reception of whatever channel we happened to be watching at the moment.
  • We couldn’t receive our area’s VHF channels at all, which meant no PBS and no ABC, which was a big problem because America’s Funniest Home Videos is our favorite family show.
  • Multiplexed networks meant we now received some fun sub-channels Dish Network didn’t carry, like Antenna and Comet and MeTV.

Overall, we considered the cheap tabletop antenna a considerable success, though it was clear we’d need a far more powerful antenna before all was said and done. But we were ready to move to the next level.

Phase 2: Adding DVR
Who watches TV without time-shifting or skipping commercials today? DVR and an on-screen channel guide were musts for us. Luckily, there are a lot of products out there that do this. There’s Tivo, Roku, and a whole ton of others.

We decided on the Amazon Fire TV Recast. The way it works is pretty simple.

  • The Recast is just a box that contains a hard drive and a CPU. You plug your over-the-air antenna cable into it, and you hook it up to wifi or a wired Ethernet connection.
  • It uses its data connection to download program guide data from Amazon, and it uses its hard-drive and CPU to record programs for you when they’re on.
  • Notice I said nothing about any kind of output to your TV. That’s because it has none. You watch TV — either live or recorded — via an Amazon Fire TV Stick. The Fire TV Stick sees the Recast on your home network and treats it as just another source of programming.

Because of its dependence upon Fire TV Stick, the Recast works only in conjunction with Fire TV devices, but since we were already Amazon Prime subscribers, a further step into the Amazon eco-system didn’t concern us. The Fire TV Stick and Recast were both straightforward to set up and use.

As a proof-of-concept, we set up a timer to record Jeopardy! This was a great test program because it airs every weekday, so we were often testing. It airs on one of the channels we were receiving the strongest. And since we still had Dish Network, and since our Dish Network receiver was also recording Jeopardy! for us daily, we had nothing to lose. We planned to watch the Recast recordings of Jeopardy! when we could, and fall back to watching the Dish Network recordings when it failed.

But it didn’t fail that often! The biggest problem was our tabletop antenna would get bumped and moved and positioned in a way that kept us from receiving the appropriate channel well or at all, and so the Recast would fail to record that day’s episode. But when it worked, it worked wonderfully.

Satisfied that the Recast’s channel guide and DVR would work well for us, we moved on to the final step: a more powerful antenna.

Phase 3: Putting an antenna up on our roof
We have a two-story house, so I planned from the start to hire someone else to climb up there and mount our new antenna. Also, while I’d learned a lot by this point about VHF vs. UHF and unidirectional vs. multi-directional antennas, I was still far from being an expert, and I wanted someone who would know

  • What kind of antenna we needed
  • How to safely install it on the roof
  • And how to connect it to our existing home TV wiring

Antop400We found a reputable local contractor who knew what he was doing. (If you’re in the San Antonio area, I highly recommend Interlyte). He knew how to mount the antenna on the roof, and he knew what kind of antenna we needed — which turned out to be an Antop 400. He knew how to make sure it would be powerful enough to pick up all available channels, including those VHF channels our tabletop antenna couldn’t.

In just a couple of hours, he had our Dish Network dish down and a new HDTV antenna up in its place, fully calibrated and wired into our existing home TV coaxial cabling. This antenna didn’t get bumped and repositioned incorrectly, like our tabletop antenna did. At last, we could receive the VHF channels, and they were crystal clear. We now received double the channels our first proof-of-concept antenna gave us.

We canceled our Dish Network account an hour later.

The final analysis
Switching to an over-the-air antenna brought us these one-time expenses:

  • Original “proof-of-concept” tabletop HDTV antenna ($25)
  • Fire TV Stick 4K ($35)
  • Fire TV Recast ($180)
  • Fire TV USB power cable ($20)
    • Optional. We have an electrician-installed channel hidden in the wall to invisibly run cables from the floorboard up to our wall-mounted TV, but for $20, this allowed me power the Fire TV Stick off the TV itself rather than running the power cable through the wall
  • Fire TV Ethernet Adapter ($15)
    • Optional. When we built our house, I had it wired with Cat 5e Ethernet cable for just this reason. Why stream HD video over wifi when you can do it via fast, shielded wired connection?
  • Roof-mounted HDTV antenna and professional installation ($449)

We had our Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions before we made this change, so the costs of those items remained consistent. We dropped our $72.12/month Dish Network bill and added a Disney+ subscription, which we got at the special D23 member introductory price of $4.24/month for three years.

For $724 worth of one-time expenses, we’re now saving $67.88/month on TV programming.

We’re incredibly happy we made this change. We still get to watch all the TV shows we really care about but at a fraction of the price, and it was far easier to switch than I thought it would be.

2019 in Review: Reading

HenryBemisWell, 2019 happened, but you wouldn’t know it from reading my articles on this blog because there weren’t any. I’ll get to why that was in a future article, but for now, it’s time for my annual Henry Bemis article. Here are my reflections on the books I read in 2019.

The Apple-Icon icon indicates a book I read because one of my children read it for a school book report, and since I’m their homeschool reading teacher, I had to read it, too. All books on the list are fiction unless they bear the NF non-fiction icon.

  1. The Work of Mercy by Mark Shea NF
  2. Artemis by Andy Weir
  3. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  4. Still Amidst the Storm by Conor Gallagher NF
  5. West is San Francisco by Lauren Sapala
  6. Will Wilder and the Amulet of Power by Raymond Arroyo
  7. The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas
  8. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
  9. Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  10. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
  11. Men of Iron by Howard Pyle Apple-Icon
  12. Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill  Apple-Icon
  13. The House with a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs
  14. Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
  15. Little Robot by Ben Hatke
  16. Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells
  17. Countdown by Deborah Wiles
  18. Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino
  19. Sinner by Lino Rulli NF
  20. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes Apple-Icon
  21. If All the Swords in England by Barbara Willard Apple-Icon
  22. Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry Apple-Icon
  23. Conquerors’ Pride by Timothy Zahn
  24. The End and Other Beginnings by Veronica Roth
  25. Conquerors’ Heritage by Timothy Zahn
  26. Conquerors’ Legacy by Timothy Zahn
  27. Saint Rose of Lima by Mary Fabyan Windeatt Apple-Icon
  28. Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Lowlights

meh The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

2019 shall be remembered as the year I gave Gene Wolfe the old college try. He’s hailed as a titan of science fiction, and he’s a Catholic whose faith is apparent from his work. That should have made his The Book of the New Sun series a slam-dunk with me, but it wasn’t. I’m glad I read the first two books in the series, but I’ve had enough. Everyone says Wolfe is a genius, but challenging to read. I’ll agree with that. Too difficult for me, I guess. When I have to read while switching between my Kindle app and Wikipedia just to get explanations for what the heck is going on, it’s not a good sign.

meh Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino

I bought this on a BookBub deal, and I was expecting an interesting backstory for the villain of Tangled. Instead, I felt like I stumbled into the middle of a series. Which I did! It turns out the books in Valentino’s Disney Villains series aren’t just stand-alone origin stories for classic characters like Ursula and the Evil Queen, they’re also an ongoing tale about the Odd Sisters, a trio of evil witches exclusive to this series. That didn’t make this book terrible by any means, it just didn’t make it completely satisfying, either.

There were also two books I just wasn’t getting into this year, so I didn’t finish them.

I tried1200px-ProhibitionSign2.svg Red Rising by Pierce Brown (DNF at 31%)

I have friends who absolutely adore Red Rising, and I trust their judgment a lot, so I really wanted to like it. But I just kept feeling like I’d read it before when it was called The Hunger Games and Divergent. I couldn’t get into it. Sorry, Will. I may try it again someday.

1200px-ProhibitionSign2.svg Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: A Crash of Fate by Zoraida Córdova (DNF at 35%)

I did love seeing all of the places from Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in A Crash of Fate, but when you strip away the Star Wars veneer, A Crash of Fate is a YA romance novel, and that’s just not my thing.

Highlights
91SxgwHMc0LTimothy Zahn! He’s always been one of my favorite authors thanks to a book you might have heard of called Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of my all-time favorite villains. So I was eager to finally dig into Thrawn, his take on Thrawn’s origin in the new official Star Wars continuity. What amazed me was seeing just how much his classic Heir to the Empire trilogy influenced me when I read it as a teenager. I heard a lot of my own writing voice in Thrawn, which I guess means I owe a lot of my writing voice to Timothy Zahn. I can think of much worse inspirations.

Thrawn wasn’t my favorite read of the year, but Timothy Zahn was my favorite read’s author. And so without further ado…

download1stPlace-SmallThe Conquerors’ Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

The Conquerors’ Trilogy is about future humans in a devastating war with an alien race, sparked by a first contact that went horribly wrong. Yes, you’ve read that a hundred times before. But what makes this different is the failed first contact was a huge misunderstanding. One that was deliberately instigated by unknown third parties for their own gain. And this trilogy isn’t the story of how a war was won. It’s the story of how determined individuals — both human and alien — come together to fight for the truth and for peace. I adored this trilogy.

2ndPlace-Smallartemis_1[1]Artemis by Andy Weir

I enjoyed the heck out of Artemis, Andy Weir’s sophomore novel. I felt like it had all the hard science and all the dramatic tension that made The Martian so spectacular. But on the moon. And told as a heist story! What’s not to love?

Also, I’m convinced Rudy, the former Canadian Mountie who now runs security on the moon, was inspired by Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Rest in peace, René Auberjonois.

3rdPlace-SmallstarsightStarsight by Brandon Sanderson

And the guy who is quickly becoming my favorite author just because he keeps cranking out book after book after book that I love had a new YA novel this year. It should surprise no one that Starsight by Brandon Sanderson was one of my most favorite things I read this year. It took the series in directions I didn’t expect, kept me rapidly turning pages in pursuit of answers I needed, and was just a delightful read.

Honorable Mentions (in order in which I read them)

  • The Work of Mercy by Mark Shea NF
  • West is San Francisco by Lauren Sapala
  • Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill  Apple-Icon
  • The House with a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs
  • Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
  • Sinner by Lino Rulli NF

Final Thoughts
2019 also turned out to be the year I stopped caring enough about having a “Currently Reading” widget on my blog to put up with the crummy UI of Goodreads. In the words of Alkaline Trio, “That’s it, we’ve had enough.” I removed the widget from this site, and I’m not updating my Goodreads account any longer. If you want to know what I’m reading, just ask me.

And if you want to know what I read in years past, here are links to my previous reading lists: 2018 | 2017 | 2016.

I promise to write more on this blog in 2020 than just this article.

2018 in Review: Reading

Most people write their “Year in Review” stories in December, but I’m not most people. I always wait to write mine until the new year has officially begun, especially my look back at the books I read in the past year. Because what if I finish a book on December 31? That book needs to be cataloged in the correct year! And guess what? This year, that policy paid off.

HenryBemisWelcome to the 2018 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, named after the main character of The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” All he wanted to do was have the time to read as many books as he wanted. After he became the sole survivor of nuclear war, his wish came true — until he broke his glasses. In honor (and pity) of Henry, here are my reflections on the books I consumed over the last 365 days.

I finished 37 books this year, up from the 23 I read in 2017. The Apple-Icon icon indicates a book I read because one of my children read it for a school book report. And because my children are homeschooled, and because I’m their reading teacher, I kind of felt I had to read them, too.

  1. Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3)
    Brandon Sanderson
  2. Patron Saint of First Communicants: The Story of Blessed Imelda Lambertini Apple-Icon
    Mary Fabyan Windeatt
  3. St. Gianna Beretta Molla: The Gift of Life Apple-Icon
    Susan Helen Wallace
  4. Mighty Jack
    Ben Hatke
  5. Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
    Ben Hatke
  6. Peterrific
    Victoria Kann
  7. Princess Academy
    Shannon Hale
  8. The Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)
    Edgar Rice Burroughs
  9. Active Memory (Mirador #3)
    Dan Wells
  10. St. Thomas Aquinas Apple-Icon
    Mary Fabyan Windeatt
  11. Lexicon
    Max Barry
  12. (Beta read for a member of my writing group)
  13. The Small War of Sergeant Donkey Apple-Icon
    Maureen Daly
  14. (Beta read for a member of my writing group)
  15. The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)
    Stephen King
  16. Sleep Writer
    Keith Robinson
  17. (Beta read for a member of my writing group)
  18. One Beautiful Dream
    Jennifer Fulwiler
  19. The Door in the Wall
    Marguerite de Angeli
  20. The Girl with the Red Balloon
    Katherine Locke
  21. The Winged Watchman
    Hilda van Stockum
  22. The Princess Bride
    William Goldman
  23. Artemis Fowl
    Eoin Colfer
  24. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
    Ransom Riggs
  25. Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #2)
    Ransom Riggs
  26. Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #3)
    Ransom Riggs
  27. The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2)
    Patrick Rothfuss
  28. Firefly Magic
    Lauren Sapala
  29. Esme’s Wish
    Elizabeth Foster
  30. Swiss Family Robinson (DNF) Apple-Icon
    Johann David Wyss
  31. The Fallen Star (Billy Smith and the Goblins #2)
    Robert Hewitt Wolfe
  32. Carve the Mark
    Veronica Roth
  33. This Tremendous Lover
    Dom Eugene Boylan
  34. The Fates Divide (Carve the Mark #2)
    Veronica Roth
  35. Ogre Enchanted
    Gail Caron Levine
  36. We Are Okay
    Nina LaCour
  37. Pippi Longstocking Apple-Icon
    Astrid Lindgren
  38. Skyward
    Brandon Sanderson

There are two complete series in there. I’d wanted to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for some time, and when I finally did this year, I didn’t stop until I’d read the entire trilogy. (Book 4 wasn’t out yet when I finished.) I also finally got to Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth and immediately went into the final book of the duology, The Fates Divide.

I’d wanted to read both The Princess Bride and The Wise Man’s Fear for some time, and I finally got to both this year. I enjoyed The Wise Man’s Fear very much, but I’m beginning to fear The Kingkiller Chronicle will never be completed. And many consider the film The Princess Bride to be just as good, if not better, than the book, which is rare. But while both are fantastic, I enjoyed the book more, mostly for the details about young Inigo Montoya.

I had no idea Gail Carson Levine, one of my favorite authors, was releasing a new book this year, but I bought Ogre Enchanted as soon as I saw it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the conclusion of Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory.

Yep, I have a great big “Did Not Finish” in there. My son read Swiss Family Robinson for a book report, but I could not bring myself to finish it. Too many long passages that just described the ingenious ways the family survived on the island and not enough plot for me. The movie was better! (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before…)

I completed a couple of non-fiction books this year. Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala taught me everything I know about marketing, which isn’t as bad as I thought it was! I strongly related to One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler, which chronicled her efforts to have both an artistic career (as writer and Sirius XM talk show host) and raise a large family. And This Tremendous Lover was one of the best spiritual books I’ve ever read. It is deep, but if you have the patience to slowly walk through it and soak it in, I highly recommend it.

I began the year with Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, and I ended it with his Skyward. And yes, I finished Skyward on December 31, so if I’d written this article early, it would have been incomplete.

And the winner is…
So which were my favorites? Which books I read in 2018 did I enjoy the most? There were three.

The Princess Bride is an absolute classic. It’s required reading for anyone who enjoys stories.

And while I enjoyed the heck out of the Miss Peregrine series, I think I liked Carve the Mark and The Fates Divide just a little bit more. The plot and world of Carve the Mark were just as awesome as Miss Peregrine, but I kind of have a word crush on Veronica Roth’s prose. I could read her books solely to study how she puts words together into sentences.

If you want to jump into the DeLorean and go back in time, here are my past reading lists: 2017 | 2016.

Tomorrow’s Shepherd is on sale now!

Today’s the day! My new novel, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, is on sale now. You can download the ebook immediately from your favorite retailer, or you can order a print copy. You can read a sample chapter before you buy.

Tomorrow’s Shepherd is Book 2 of my fantasy trilogy, The Verdant Revival — my Weird West love letter to JRPGs and their memorable characters and epic stories — but you shouldn’t be too lost if you want to start with this one.

Escape from Earth-2
If Tomorrow’s Shepherd were a film, I’d cast Grant Gustin as Fritz, especially since his costume as Earth-2 Barry Allen on The Flash is 90% Fritz already.

It’s about Fritz Reinhardt
A smart, quiet intuitive who is the only person able to fix the chipware planet Verde lost in the Blackout two hundred years prior, Fritz was a secondary character in Book 1, Yesterday’s Demons, but he takes center stage in Tomorrow’s Shepherd. (If you’re a fan of Siv and Cassie from Yesterday’s Demons, don’t worry. They’re still very much around, too!)

It’s about Lady Verde
The spirit of the planet remembers the environmental damage chipware did to her, and she’s pleased it’s been gone for 200 years. She’s not happy about its return, and she’s powerful enough to do something about it.

eBook Cover
Tomorrow’s Shepherd

It’s about the future
While Yesterday’s Demons focused on how the past shapes us into who we are today, Tomorrow’s Shepherd is about how we build the future. This is such an important message for our world which has forgotten how to dream about the future.

It’s about hope
Each book in The Verdant Revival focuses on a different main character (Siv, Fritz, or Cassie), a different perspective on time (past, future, or present), and a different one of the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Yesterday’s Demons focused on love, and how it is the opposite of fear. Tomorrow’s Shepherd is about hope. Tomorrow will be better than today. Our problems can be overcome. We can make it happen together.

I’m so excited about this book, and I’m so excited I can now share it with the world. Enjoy!

Tomorrow’s Shepherd playlist

eBook Cover
Tomorrow’s Shepherd

One of my writing quirks is that I put together a soundtrack for pretty much every story I write, be it short or novel-length. A short story might have a single song, but for my novels, I eventually put together a full-length playlist. Music helps me visualize my characters and coalesce the story’s scenes into a resonant whole. It has long been my most generous muse.

Here is the list of songs I put together for my latest novel, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, Book 2 of The Verdant Revival. I’d like to give details of why I chose each song, but some of those reasons will contain spoilers. So, for now, I have to be a bit coy, but I hope the songs and the snippets of lyrics presented below form a sort of “tone poem” about the book.

“Learn to Fly” by Foo Fighters (Fritz’s theme)
I’m looking to the sky to save me / Looking for a sign of life
Looking for something to help me burn out bright
Fly along with me / I can’t quite make it alone

“Petroleum Distillation” by Fifteen (Lady Verde’s theme)
The ground is my body, it’s been poisoned with lead and junk food and toxic waste
The sky is my mind, it’s been clouded with cigarettes and fluorocarbons and petroleum distillates
The water’s my heart, it’s been broken with booze and drugs and shooting up paste
The sun is my spirit, it belongs to all of us, I guess we’re all just one sick race

“New” by No Doubt (Annalie’s theme)
Who sent this maniac? / You’re so new
Like a fresh battery, I’m energized by you
Don’t let it go away / This feeling has got to stay

“Breakable” by Ingrid Michaelson
Have you ever thought about what protects our hearts?
Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts
So it’s fairly simple to cut right through the mess
And to stop the muscle that makes us confess
We are so fragile / And our cracking bones make noise
And we are just breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys

“Every Night” by Even in Blackouts (Screeching Weasel cover)
Each night I document the things I’ve done
The pointless points I’ve made for stupid reasons
Tonight and every night / I will analyze everything
And make myself count the ways / I fucked up today

“Defying Gravity” from the musical Wicked
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game
It’s time to trust my instincts
It’s time to try defying gravity

“The Pretender” by Foo Fighters
What if I say I’m not like the others?
What if I say I’m not just another one of your plays?
What if I say that I’ll never surrender?

“Forever Now” by Green Day
Standing at the edge of the world / It’s giving me the chills
Lost in a tangle, it’s freaking me out
Burning lights and blackouts

“Still Breathing” by Green Day (“closing credits” song 1)
I’m still breathing on my own
My head’s above the rain and roses
Making my way / My way to you

“Glory (Let There Be Peace)” by Matt Maher (“closing credits” song 2)
Let there be peace / Let it start in me
Let there be peace / Let it start in me

Meet Lady Verde

This article is the second in a series introducing the characters in my forthcoming novel, Tomorrow’s ShepherdBook 2 of The Verdant Revival trilogy. The main characters from the first book, Yesterday’s Demons, are back, but we also meet some new faces. One of those is the book’s primary villain, Lady Verde.

Lady Verde
I found this picture from a German blog via a Google Image Search. This is how I imagine Lady Verde.

The Verdant Revival takes place on planet Verde, and Lady Verde is the spirit of the planet, much like Mother Nature here on Earth. And she’s not the villain of Tomorrow’s Shepherd because I’m some kind of planet-hating, non-recycling ne’er-do-well. Not at all. I’ve written previously (see here and here) about the JRPG tropes I love, but this is a case where I thought it would be fun to subvert a trope.

What if, instead of being a benevolent mother, the spirit of the planet was vengeful? What if she was sick of her soil being filled with our garbage? What if she was tired of our pollutants filling her skies? And what if she had the power to do something about it?

Though she’s the spirit of the planet, Lady Verde can form a body for herself out of anything natural: soil, water, or air. She possesses complete control of the weather. Plants can rapidly grow or instantly die at her command.

Thus, Fritz Reinhardt and his friends are faced with quite the challenge when Lady Verde demands an end to their technological restoration. She was relieved when all of Verde’s technology was lost in the Blackout two hundred years earlier, and she isn’t happy to see its return. She knows first-hand the environmental damage that will come with it.

A while back, I sneakily mentioned that Tomorrow’s Shepherd‘s villains were mentioned by name in Yesterday’s Demons. That includes Lady Verde!

Chapter 6
“Our father is a farmer,” she said, “and while his son couldn’t be dragged outside, he had to pick me up and carry me inside against my will every night. He taught me everything he knew about hunting, horse riding, and farming, which means I know a lot about the weather. How to tell when it’s going to rain, or freeze, that sort of thing. Lady Verde is what proves the conventional wisdom about Terrascorcha wrong.”

Chapter 9
When they weren’t battling the monsters, they were battling the heat. Lady Verde was harsh in early June. Siv estimated the daytime high temperatures to be in the low nineties.

eBook Cover
Tomorrow’s Shepherd

There’s another one in Chapter 22, but no more sneaky Easter Eggs. You’ll meet Lady Verde proper in Tomorrow’s Shepherd.

“You call it the Blackout. I call it the day my oppressors died. Forgive me if that sounds overly dramatic, but I don’t want to be set on fire again. I don’t want my forests eliminated. I don’t want verloid gas pumped into my skies.”

“I will not remain the silent observer I have been for centuries. I will make sure the people understand this from my perspective. I’ll see to it they’re fully informed about all chipware is capable of, including the destruction it has wrought. I’ll educate the very people you claim to want to help. And trust me: my knowledge of this issue comes from personal memory, and it goes back far longer than yours.”

“Yes, [the first Mantissa] rendered the Steelterrors inoperable and interred them deep in the ground. But I am the ground. And I know where the bodies are buried.”

Read about other Yesterday’s Demons characters back for Tomorrow’s Shepherd:
Fritz Reinhardt | Cassie Reinhardt | Siv McCaig

Read about other characters new in Tomorrow’s Shepherd:
Annalie Krieger

Meet Annalie Krieger

This article is the first in a series introducing the characters in my forthcoming novel, Tomorrow’s ShepherdBook 2 of The Verdant Revival trilogy. The main characters from the first book, Yesterday’s Demons, are back, but we also meet some new faces.

Felicia-Day4
If Tomorrow’s Shepherd were a movie, I’d cast Felicia Day as Annalie.

Allow me to introduce you to Annalie Krieger. Annalie had the misfortune to be born in Verde’s ancient capital, Mondorf, which is now controlled by the white demons. Every human who lives there is either a slave or a collaborator, and Annalie is no collaborator. Six years ago, when she was 18 years old, the demons killed her parents, leaving her to raise her five younger siblings alone.

But you’d never know she’s lived such a hard life because she’s so pleasant, bright, bubbly and talkative, especially if you get her on the subject of chipware. Working in the demons’ Maintenance Duty, she’s spent her entire life cataloging and preserving the demons’ extensive stores of broken, blacked-out chipware. And if you read Yesterday’s Demons, you know the demons now can repair it all, thanks to descramblers they forced Fritz Reinhardt to make for them. Thus, the previous two months have been some of Annalie’s busiest ever.

As one of the demons’ slaves, her clothes aren’t exactly fashionable or new. Her jeans are third- or fourth-hand. Her boots have been repaired more than once. The elbows of her shirt sleeves are a little threadbare. But her green eyes still shine behind her spectacles, and her red hair is as bright as her personality.

You’d think Annalie and Fritz would hit it off right away, what with them both being fascinated by ancient chipware. But they don’t, because when they meet, Fritz is in Mondorf as part of an assault against the demons. As interested as she is in restored chipware, Annalie doesn’t want anything to do with revolution. Over her twenty-four years, she’s seen a lot of humans try to rise up against the demons, but they’ve all had more courage than strategy, and they never have any idea about what happens after Mondorf’s humanity is liberated. If Annalie is going to help — if she’s going to risk her life and the well-being of her five siblings — she’s going to need to know what happens after the revolution.

Well, there’s something else that might motivate her. She’ll help if you have cake. And punch. And cobbler. Fried chicken would be nice, too. And bread! Oh, fresh baked, still warm bread. With butter. And jam. And cheese!

table-2777180_640“My dad and I used to read notes left behind by past maintenance duty folks. For two centuries, there’s been a grist of ideas about what happened to chipware and how to fix it, but no one’s ever been able to make that dog hunt. How’d you do it?”

“Splendiferous!”

“My siblings haven’t had anyone but me since our folks died. But my friend Ramona said she’d look after them. As long as they’re taken care of, helping out is as big a no-brainer as mashed potatoes and gravy.”

Read about other Yesterday’s Demons characters back for Tomorrow’s Shepherd:
Fritz Reinhardt | Cassie Reinhardt | Siv McCaig

Whatever happened to the future?

You know what the future used to be? Back when there were still areas of the map filled with question marks and shruggies, it was all about new frontiers. New places. The future, in other words, was somewhere else. After we eliminated the blank spots on the map and turned our maps into globes (sorry, flat-earthers), we still felt the future was somewhere else. Space. The final frontier.

Tomorrowland
Disneyland Tomorrowland circa 1965

When I was a child, the future looked like rocket ships. The Jetsons. Star Trek. Gadgets for everything. Vacations on the moon. So much chrome. (You have to admit, mid-century futurists did accurately predict the early 21st Century stainless steel appliances craze.)

Walt Disney — a genius, a visionary, a futurist — even went and built the future as part of Disneyland. He called it Tomorrowland. Check out what it looked like back when Walt was alive. Rockets flying through the air! Transport cars zipping along a motorized track! There were missions to Mars. There were adventures through inner space, exploring the sub-atomic world. There were houses of the future filled with fabulous new technology. There was a great big beautiful tomorrow, just a dream away!

Have you seen Tomorrowland lately? Oh, there are still rocket ships, and Space Mountain is still awesome. But there’s also Star Tours — fictional rocket ships in a galaxy far, far away. There are adventures with Buzz Lightyear. There’s Autopia (a go-kart ride) and the Finding Nemo Submarine Adventure. And all of those attractions are fantastic and fun, and I love them to death, but… go-karts and submarines don’t really scream tomorrow, do they?

And I submit to you this is not because Disneyland’s Imagineers are lazy, and it’s not because Disney’s sharp pencil boys think a park loaded with intellectual properties makes more cents. I think the problem is bigger than that.

The problem is: we don’t know what the future looks like anymore.

4f2dcca05c9f2ee5829c7306a7df8f18We used to, of course, but then we made that future come true. The future is now! We have self-driving cars, and you can summon them with the push of an Uber button. We can cook food in a fraction of the time it used to take, thanks to microwave ovens. Captain Kirk’s communicator? We have that now. Actually, we’re past that now. Flip phones like Kirk’s are already anachronistic.

Sure, there are a few big-ticket items we’re still waiting on, like warp drive, teleportation, and that vacation on Mars. But we’re not exactly eager for any of that anymore, are we? NASA has seen budget cuts, and I haven’t heard any politicians channeling JFK and challenging us to go past the moon. (No, the “Space Force” doesn’t count. Just stop.)

We dreamed it, we did it, and then we stopped dreaming.

Tomorrowland_poster

I’m not the only one who feels this way. This was basically the premise of Brad Bird’s thought-provoking, fun, and highly underrated film Tomorrowland. (No relation to the area of Disneyland. Well, not really much of one, anyway.) Produced by Damon Lindelof, Bird said, “When Damon and I were first talking about the project, we were wondering why people’s once-bright notions about the future gradually seemed to disappear.”

“When [Damon and I] were little, people had a very positive idea about the future, even though there were bad things going on in the world. Even the 1964 World’s Fair happened during the Cold War. But there was a sense we could overcome them. And yet now we act like we’re passengers on a bus with no say in where it’s going, with no realization that we collectively write the future every day and can make it so much better than it otherwise would be.” –Brad Bird

eBook Cover
Tomorrow’s Shepherd

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future ever since I started writing my fantasy trilogy, The Verdant Revival. The first book in the trilogy, Yesterday’s Demons, focuses on how the past shapes us into the people we are today. The second book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, is about building a better future. But what does that look like for us here on Earth in 2018?

It can’t be a dystopia. No, we need to dream again. It’s time for a new great, big beautiful tomorrow. But let’s not start dreaming about where we can go next or about the next new gadget. I don’t think that’s the kind of future we need. We need to think bigger.

But maybe we should start with some old ideas about the future that still haven’t been fully realized. Thinking about Star Trek again, it’s true we don’t yet have photon torpedoes and phasers. But we don’t have that whole “human hunger is a relic of the past” thing either, do we?

On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with us a pretty darn good dream of a future, a dream that “one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'”

How about a future without war? A future in which we build bridges instead of barriers. How about a future in which we seek to heal, not to harm? What would the world look like if no one was naked, no one was homeless, and no one was uneducated?

What if, in the future, we showed mercy, not malice? What if we replaced hate with peace? What if we chose to include instead of to divide? What if we chose to be generous with forgiveness instead of grasping onto grudges?

By definition, the future will never be now, but it can be something that happens here, and not on some distant frontier. And by here I mean inside our hearts. Let’s reclaim the future. Let’s dream again. And let’s do it together.

What’s an RPG without a Themed Enemy Group?

JRPG Tropes I Love(Theme song — sung to the tune of “The Daves I Know” by Kids in the Hall):
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love

Welcome to another installment of The JRPG Tropes I Love, a series in which I celebrate my favorite recurring themes, elements, and outright cliches from Japanese role-playing games. Today’s trope:

Themed Enemy Groups

They’re the JRPG version of running the gauntlet. They’re not a mini-boss or a Big Bad. They’re a group of boss-level enemies that must be defeated either one right after another, or as a recurring element throughout the game.

FF7-UltimateWeapon
Ultimate Weapon from Final Fantasy VII

The Final Fantasy series, for example, features Weapons. In some Final Fantasy games they’re biological monsters, and sometimes they’re technological terrors, but they almost always appear as a group. In Final Fantasy VII, there are five, each of them an instrument of destruction built to defeat the alien menace Jenova: Sapphire Weapon, Diamond Weapon, Ruby Weapon, Emerald Weapon, and Ultimate Weapon. Of course, the fact that you fight them should be the tip-off that although the Weapons were created to defend the planet, they go a bit nuts and end up attacking it. This, too, is a common trait of Themed Enemy Groups.

SkiesOfArcadia-Piergoth
Piergoth, the Purple Gigas, from Skies of Arcadia

Another common element of this trope is color as the distinguishing trait among group members. The Lunar series features the Four Dragons. These powerful, ancient creatures are not always enemies; sometimes they’re friends or even members of the player’s party. But what’s consistent is that they’re named by colors: White Dragon, Black Dragon, Ruby Dragon, and Blue Dragon.

Color is also the distinguishing trait of the Gigas in Skies of Arcadia. There are six of them in that game, one for each of the planet’s moons: Recumen the Red Gigas, Grendel the Green Gigas, Bluheim the Blue Gigas, Yeligar the Yellow Gigas, Zelos the Silver Gigas, and Piergoth the Purple Gigas, which is a giant sky whale — a sky whale, y’all! Like so many other Themed Enemy Groups, the Gigas are enormous weapons of mass destruction built by the ancient peoples of Arcadia.

WildArms-Lolithia
Lolithia from Wild Arms

Wild Arms features the Golems, which are:

Checkbox2 Enormous

Checkbox2 Ancient

Checkbox2 Mechanical

Checkbox2 Weapons

Checkbox2 Built for good

Checkbox2 Now used for evil

Naturally.

Phantasy Star II turns this trope on its side a bit; it features a Themed Dungeon Group rather than a themed group of enemies. At one point in that game, artificially-created rainwater floods the planet’s giant lake, threatening many towns and lots of people. Rolf and his friends must open all four dams to end the flooding: Red Dam, Yellow Dam, Blue Dam, and Green Dam. At least they kept the color-coding!

Pokemon gets in on this trope with the Legendary Birds — Articuno, Zapdos, Moltres, and later, Lugia. Going beyond JRPGs, Disney’s Hercules features the Titans, a group of giant monsters that ravaged the ancient land until Zeus stopped them.

eBook Cover
On sale December 11, 2018

I’ve made no secret that my fantasy novel series, The Verdant Revival, is my love letter to JRPGs and their epic, unforgettable stories and characters. In book two of the trilogy, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, Fritz Reinhardt and his friends must face the Steelterrors, ancient mechanical monsters — the worst chipware planet Verde has ever seen, resurrected and back on the warpath. There are four of them, one for each of the elements of the ancient world:

  • Samson, Verdant Warden of Soil
  • Leviathan, Verdant Warden of Water
  • Banshee, Verdant Warden of the Sky
  • Teufel, Verdant Warden of Fire

Yeah, I went all-in on this one for Tomorrow’s Shepherd, sticking very close to the trope, because giant robots, guys. The world just can’t have enough giant robots. Ever.

What Themed Enemy Groups did I miss? Let me know in the comments.

How I learned Representation Matters

“Representation matters.” Google it, and you’ll find it’s a hashtag. It’s a movement. It’s a message. It’s the idea that all people have a place at the table. These two simple words have numerous applications. People of all races, nationalities, and income levels should be represented in democratic government. There shouldn’t be a gender gap in (to use my day job as an example) software development. And our stories should reflect the diverse world we live in, too. No, that doesn’t mean the characters of every story must check off as many demographic boxes as possible. But nor does every hero in every story need to be Caucasian.

I’m a white, privileged male, so admittedly, this was a problem not immediately apparent to me. But who can forget this Tumblr user’s post about seeing Star Wars: Rogue One with her Mexican father?

cassian-andor-main_216e7233
Diego Luna as Cassian Andor
Photo credit: StarWars.com

When the film was over and we were walking to the car, he turns to me and says, “did you notice that [Cassian Andor, portrayed by Diego Luna] had an accent?” And I said, “Yeah dad, just like yours.” Then my dad asked me if the film had made a lot of money. I told him it was the second highest grossing film of 2016 despite it only being out for 18 days in 2016 (since new year just came around). He then asked me if people liked the film, I told him that it had a huge following online and great reviews. He then asked me why Diego Luna hadn’t changed his accent and I told him that Diego has openly talked about keeping his accent and how proud he is of it. And my dad was silent for a while and then he said, “And he was a main character.” And I said, “He was.” And my dad was so happy. As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.

The issue became much more personal for me when I had a conversation with a co-worker, Sarah, in which we got on the subject of Ghostbusters (2016). We talked about how we felt the film was underrated and about how many of its critics didn’t seem to critique the film itself but rather the fact that it starred women. And of course, we talked about how Kate McKinnon’s completely bonkers Jillian Holtzmann is one of the greatest Ghostbusters of all time. Of all time!

And then Sarah told me something that this father of three little girls will never forget.

holtzman She told me how, when she was young, she had all the Ghostbusters toys — the figures, the car, the fire station playset. “But,” she said, “it never even occurred to me that I could be a Ghostbuster since the Ghostbusters were all boys.”

Now I get it that no one, male or female, can wield an unlicensed nuclear accelerator and capture a ghost in ecto-containment. But that’s not the point. The point is: Sarah never even pretended to be a Ghostbuster because she’d never seen a female being one.

Now imagine if a young girl never sees a woman perform a particular real-life profession. Do you think that girl will say to herself, “Well, I’ve only ever seen men do that job, but I suppose I could do it, too”? Some do, for sure, but not all. Not even most. After all, there’s a reason women like Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth Blackwell are heroes.

And then it got personal
But even after all of that, I’d only learned how much representation mattered to others. I still hadn’t personalized how affirming representation feels.

Then I came upon a particular paragraph buried deep in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbriger. It’s a 1000+ page book, the third in an epic fantasy series that so far tips the scales at 3000+ pages, but this passage is the only one in the entire saga I’ve so far highlighted. This passage is written from the perspective of a relatively minor character, Renarin Kholin.

gallery_8508_6_72188
Renarin Kholin fan art by ExMachina from 17thShard.com

Renarin wears glasses. He’s soft-spoken and doesn’t like conflict. He’s curious. He takes his time before speaking. And this is how he sees himself:

Indeed, he still saw the world differently from everyone else. He was still nervous talking to people, and didn’t like being touched. Everyone else saw in each other things he never could understand. So much noise and destruction and people talking and cries for help and sniffles and muttering and whispering all like buzzing, buzzings.

And I felt it: the warm glow of representation. Because the person that was just described? That’s me. That’s totally me. Renarin Kholin represents me.

Cath
Cather Avery art from the Rainbow Rowell Wiki

Another example: I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell because I was intrigued by the idea of a story about a fan fiction writer. I don’t read many “chick lit” books — and by not many, I mean zero — but nevertheless, I adored Fangirl. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I read it, and I still think about it all the time. And the main reason why is the book’s main character, Cather Avery. She’s obsessed with the Simon Snow books (a thinly-veiled Harry Potter-like series). She loves to write. She’s shy. She stays home every Friday night. And she nearly starves at the start of her freshman year of college because she doesn’t know where the cafeteria is, and she’s too self-conscious to wander around looking for it, or worse, to — gasp — ask someone for help.

I feel so represented by Cather Avery. And it feels magnificent.

And that’s how I learned representation matters. Renarin Kholin is an introvert like me, but he’s also a Knight Radiant. If Renarin can do great, heroic things, maybe I can, too.

Cather is as withdrawn and as hard to get out of her shell as I am, yet she wins a prestigious award for her writing. So maybe my writing can find an appreciative audience, too.

eBook Cover
On sale December 11, 2018

The main character in my new book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, also represents me in many ways. Fritz Reinhardt is quiet, a reluctant leader, and a lover of all things breakfast-related. His introspection and intuition make him something of an odd stick to most folks, but they also help him both change and save the world. My sincere hope is that real-life people like Fritz — people like me — can find in him a character they can relate to. A character they feel represents them.

Because for the love of St. Pete, this is important. Everyone deserves to have some stories in which they see themselves. Stories should show our beautifully diverse world as it is — and, where our world is lacking, they should show what it could be.

Stories can teach little girls that only boys can be Ghostbusters, or they can show those young women that they can be anything.

Tomorrow’s Shepherd available for pre-order

I’m thrilled to announce Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the second book in my fantasy trilogy, The Verdant Revival, is now available for pre-order and will be officially released on Tuesday, December 11, 2018.

eBook Cover Tomorrow’s Shepherd shifts the focus of the series to Fritz Reinhardt, a young man with hyper-intuition who figured out how to fix all of planet Verde’s technology lost two centuries prior in the Blackout. Fritz now dreams of a worldwide restoration making daily life easier all over the world. It was a big deal for quiet and socially awkward Fritz to make his dream public, but the benefits of repairing pre-Blackout relics are too enormous to ignore: more education, better communication, and longer life expectancy.

But it could be over sooner than he thinks. Some see his dream as a nightmare, and these critics have a powerful ally in Lady Verde. The spirit of the planet remembers the environmental damage chipware did to her in the past, and she demands an end to the restoration. She’s even willing to resurrect the worst chipware the planet has ever seen, the giant Steelterrors, to prove her point. How can Fritz build a better tomorrow if the planet itself fights against him?

Tomorrow’s Shepherd will be available in both paperback and eBook, and the eBook version is available for pre-order now from the retailer of your choice:

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | iBooks | Kobo | Smashwords

This book has been a labor of love for almost three years. I wrote the first word of the first draft on Sunday, November 22, 2015, and finished it late last month, on Monday, October 29, 2018. I’ll be sharing a lot more information about it with you in the weeks ahead. I cannot wait for you to read it.

Hi-Tech and Lo-Tech in Peaceful Coexistence

JRPG Tropes I Love

(Theme song — sung to the tune of “The Daves I Know” by Kids in the Hall):
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love

Welcome to the debut installment of The JRPG Tropes I Love, a series in which I celebrate my favorite recurring themes, elements, and outright cliches from Japanese role-playing games. Today’s trope:

Hi-Tech and Lo-Tech in Peaceful Coexistence

Before there even were Japanese role-playing video games, there was Dungeons and Dragons, and its worlds were decidedly lo-tech. Like the works of Tolkien which inspired it, the development level of D&D’s worlds was medieval at best. In the early days of computer adventure games, you had lo-tech King’s Quest and hi-tech Space Quest, but the two tech levels remained strictly segregated.

phantasy_star_boxAnd then Sega released Phantasy Star. An 8-bit masterpiece — soon to be re-released on the Nintendo Switch — the American box art made it seem the game was pure sword-and-sorcery. It sported heroes clad in medieval armor, brandishing swords, and fighting bats and skeletons and wizards. But turn the box over and read a little more about the game:

  • The story takes place across all three planets of a distant star system
  • Spaceships will take you between those worlds, and you’ll cruise over them in a futuristic SUV
  • You’ll be fighting robots and aliens along the way
  • And if you’d prefer to put down your ax, you can pick up a laser gun

Phantasy Star wasn’t the first story in the world to combine medieval fantasy and science fiction — see the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs for a much earlier example — but it was one of the first JRPGs to do it. And after it paved the way, the floodgates were opened.

Phantasy Star II went all-in on hi-tech with a storyline featuring an artificial intelligence Big Bad. Final Fantasy VI broke with that series’s medieval traditions and featured a steampunk environment. The image of Final Fantasy VII‘s Cloud Strife armed with a giant Buster Sword and riding a motorcycle is practically an icon for this trope. And back in the analog realm, even the original RPG — Dungeons and Dragons — got in on the lo-tech/hi-tech marriage with 1989’s Spelljammer campaign.

My first fantasy novel, Yesterday’s Demons, is part of a trilogy I’ve often said is my love letter to JRPGs and their epic, unforgettable stories and characters. Yesterday’s Demons is set on the planet Verde, a world with a technology level and society much like that of the American Wild West. However, two hundred years before, it was a hi-tech wonderland only a few decades ahead of where we are now. Verde lost all of its technology in the Blackout, but some relics have been restored and repaired. Siv McCaig will need all of it he can find, plus a healthy dose of magic, to save Verde from destruction.

“Trope” doesn’t have to be a bad word. While there are certainly some that should never again see the light of day (I’m looking at you, women in refrigerators), others are like good friends whose presence never grows wearisome. I like Middle-Earth, and I like the Matrix. But give me both at the same time, and I’m in love.

New lower price for Yesterday’s Demons

Yesterdays Demons Cover Final (Small)My first book, Yesterday’s Demons, has been on sale for almost two-and-a-half years now. I recently lowered the ebook version’s price to $2.99. At the time of this writing, all sources except Wal-Mart now reflect the lower price. (So much for always low prices — always!)

Yesterday’s Demons is the first book in a fantasy/SF trilogy called The Verdant Revival. It’s the story of Siv McCaig, who has spent his young life in fear after a boyhood encounter with a monster. When that monster inexplicably returns, Siv needs answers. Where did it come from? What is it? And will it ever come back again? His search for answers becomes a journey across the world and a battle for planet Verde’s survival.

If you like anime-inspired role-playing games like Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, Skies of Arcadia, or Wild Arms, I think you’ll love Yesterday’s Demons. It’s my love letter to those kinds of games and their immersive, unforgettable stories. It’s appropriate for both adult and teenage audiences.

Finally, now is a great time to pick it up Yesterday’s Demons because its sequel, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, will be out later this year so you won’t have long to wait for the follow-up.

The ebook is available from:
Amazon | Barnes and NobleiBooks | Wal-MartKoboSmashwords

Blame or learn?

man wearing a suit jacket and stripe necktie
Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

A lot of folks in my homeowners’ association’s Facebook group are angry. Their electric bills have gone up, and they think they know the culprit — and it’s not the excessive heat wave. No, it’s the new meters our electric company has installed. The new meters make their bills higher. The new meters shorted out their air conditioners. Someone needs to pay damages. Should we consider a class action lawsuit?

Maybe my neighbors are correct, and the new meters are a problem. I don’t know. What the incident made me think about was blame. Anytime something goes wrong, we’re so quick to blame someone. Some are even quick to blame themselves, whether justified or not.

I once gave a presentation on Agile methodologies and Scrum to a group of not software developers. When I was finished and opened the floor to questions, the very first question was from an executive who asked, “What do you do when a squad doesn’t meet their commitment?” His tone made me feel his real question was, “When a squad doesn’t meet their commitment, how are they punished?”

Blame in Complex Systems
I’ve been reading The DevOps Handbook: How to Create World-Class Agility, Reliability, and Security in Technology Organizations by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, and John Willis. “DevOps” is a software engineering culture in which the people who write the code and the people who run the servers work closely together instead of being siloed into separate divisions.

The authors make some insightful points regarding complex systems, which are defined in part as a system that “defies any single person’s ability to see the system as a whole and understand how all the pieces fit together.” Examples include many major software projects, automobile manufacturing, or, heck, daily life.

Despite all best efforts, things go wrong in complex systems. Accidents occur in factories. Twitter goes down. Peter fails to fill out his TPS reports correctly. Stuff happens. And after it happens, we point the finger, and we blame someone.

What if there was a better way?

An Opportunity for Learning
The authors of The DevOps Handbook write that in a DevOps culture, “When failures and accidents occur, we treat them as opportunities for learning, as opposed to a cause for punishment and blame.”

Opportunities for learning. Not causes for punishment and blame.

The DevOps Handbook is about software engineering culture, and I can think of a lot of times in my career when I wish I’d have worked more in a culture of learning instead of a culture of blame.

But think bigger. Remember: daily life is a complex system.

What if we all stopped pointing the finger? What if we all stopped assigning blame? What if we all started asking, “What can we learn from this?”

We’d all be a lot less afraid to make mistakes. Don’t we idolize folks who fearlessly pursued and attained lofty goals despite a high risk of failure? Wouldn’t society benefit from more of those kinds of people?

We’d learn a lot more about how to prevent future failures if the people responsible had no reason to feel ashamed, and therefore no reason to hide or obfuscate their actions. Instead, they openly shared what happened — successful or not — in the interest of knowledge sharing, knowing their admissions weren’t going to be used against them.

And above all, it’s kind
There are certainly times when punishment is necessary. No one needs me to list them. But there are far more failures in life that should be treated as opportunities for learning than should be treated as causes for punishment and blame.

A great man once put it this way:

“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent. And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.”