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.”