Gold for Indie Authors? Book Reviews!

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When I’ve connected with a new book, I almost feel obligated to share a review. I suppose it’s only natural to want to share what one is excited about. But, as a new writer (nowhere near publishing anything yet), I am also beginning to understand how much time and effort it takes to craft a quality story. Once complete, the author sends their creation out into the world, praying others will also love and cherish it as they do. One of the best things we can do for our favorite indie authors is post reviews of their books. I encourage everyone else to do the same.


Book Review: Mother Portia by Nick Pipitone

Science fiction is rife with chilling stories concerning the inevitable emergence of self-aware artificial intelligence. Usually, the reader is confronted with a doomsday scenario, portraying an outmatched humanity battling for survival against its malevolent creation. Nick Pipitone’s novella, Mother Portia, takes a refreshingly different approach to explore what might happen when a supercomputer becomes sentient.

Pipitone imagines a promising future. After decades of teetering on the brink of self-annihilation, humanity’s salvation comes from a benevolent, all-knowing, artificial super-consciousness called Portia. Incredible scientific advances made possible with the help of this AI technology have solved the most pressing problems challenging the planet in the 21st century. But, the reader quickly discovers lurking behind this utopian façade is an enduring culture war fomenting a growing level of distrust, unrest, and acts of violence.

Leave it to humanity to take a good idea and mess it up! Most people happily abdicate power, ambition, and values in a mad rush to enjoy the new freedom Portia offers. There is no need to work. Advances in healthcare have eliminated disease, old age, and even the need for sleep. Life becomes nothing more than the pursuit of pleasure for most. But, not everyone agrees Portia has changed the world for the better. As one can imagine, the rampant rise in hedonistic behavior threatens to undermine the authority of institutions espousing traditional morality and family values. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that a new, increasingly popular cult has emerged dedicated to worshipping and communing with the new god of science, Portia. The world’s traditional faiths begin reeling from a rapid, seemingly irreversible decline in membership and relevancy.

Repulsed by the deification of Portia, members of various faiths have joined together to fight this common enemy. The result is the Collective, a loose alliance committed to ridding the world of artificial intelligence at all costs. It is quickly labeled a terrorist group. Mother Portia is a thought-provoking exploration of humanity’s inclination to use religion to justify even the most heinous acts of violence.

Azibo, a devout Christian, refuses to interact with Portia, leaving him isolated, living a meager existence on the fringes of society. He finds purpose though working as an informant for the Collective. When offered an opportunity to do more for the cause, Azibo is elated and ready to sacrifice everything. But, as in real life, he finds his beliefs challenged as he encounters a broad spectrum of other members of the faithful struggling to respond and adapt to this new world. He soon discovers the notion of truth is easily contorted by those eager to remain in power.

The story’s true antagonist is humanity’s inability to purge itself of hatred and intolerance driven by contrived differences. I appreciate how the author avoids making any overt judgment about the morality of creating artificial intelligence. Mother Portia is a thought-provoking exploration of how one man’s quest to destroy a hated enemy leads him to unexpected good fortune in the arms of what he fears the most.

Follow the links to download and read: Mother Portia by Nick Pipitone

Check out more of Nick Pipitone’s writing at his website: Fiction and Ideas

Flash Fiction: Psychological Warfare

Here’s this month’s attempt at micro fiction! My goal is to effectively convey an image or idea with very few words. Fun, but quite challenging! Hope you enjoy!

“Victory, together, no matter the cost! Venerate, protect, our supreme overlord!”

Why am I shouting?

Left, left, left, right, left.

I can’t stop marching!

Edward awoke, upright, moving, surrounded by soldiers. Bewildered, he struggled to remember.

What’s going on?

Images remerged of a demagogue railing against traitors within and enemies without.

(Resist. You’re brainwashed.)

Who’s there?

(We’re overriding your programming remotely. You’re free to think and do as you please.)

Edward halted, dropping his weapon.


Word Count: 75

Word Prompt: march

Prompt from Chronicles Science Fiction and Fantasy Community‘s 75 Word Challenge.

Jupiter’s Embrace (Chapter Four)

I love writing, but sometimes coaxing the words on to the page can be a real slog! This week has been especially tough as I returned to working on the next chapter for my book, Jupiter’s Embrace.

I have to admit I’ve struggled a lot with this story and given into the temptation to leave it on the back burner more often than not. But, I’m committed to figuring out what ultimately happens to Riker, Pauline and Johnny.

This project began in response to the word prompt: float.

The original piece was a mere 500 words portraying a snapshot of a prison transport ship ferrying a hardened criminal to a maximum security facility floating deep within Jupiter’s atmosphere.

I found myself wondering how Riker wound up on that spaceship.

Jupiter’s Embrace has become a story about how a man guilty of one crime becomes a convenient scapegoat for an even greater one.

Much remains to be discovered, but I know Riker is a flawed character worthy of redemption. He’s the classic example of someone at the wrong place at the wrong time, who knows too much and wishes he knew nothing at all.

If you have read along so far, I hope you enjoy chapter four. But, if you haven’t read the first three chapters, I encourage you to do that first.

Here’s a link below to earlier chapters.

Flash Fiction: Even Better!

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Massachusetts – December 2, 2021 – 6:17 PM

Observing the approach of twilight, Tony smiled. He was an avid, amateur astronomer. 

Ah, nothing better than stargazing on a clear, moonless winter night. 

Yet, unbeknownst to Tony, something even better was about to happen.

Cold air stung his lungs as he stepped outside. He wished he had remembered to bring a hat. Road salt crunched beneath his feet. Buttoning his coat tightly, hands deep in his pockets, he began his nightly walk around the block. 

Rounding the bend, Venus blazed brilliantly, low in the western sky. 

Hey there, Gorgeous!

Tony settled into a modest pace.

The twinkling lights from neighborhood windows paled in comparison to nature’s display above. Craning his neck, he greeted each constellation like an old friend.

Glorious! Simply glorious! 

On his return, Tony noticed his next-door neighbor peering out suspiciously. Every night the older woman sat sentinel on her porch. Her presence always made him feel like an intruder. He imagined her scolding. 

Don’t step on my lawn! Pick up your dog’s poop! Drive carefully! Don’t speed! Whose car is that? Who is this stranger? Why is that man looking at me? 

Hoping to convey he was stargazing, Tony scanned the sky with exaggerated gestures like a man playing charades. 

No interloper here, Gisele. No one is peering into windows.

Turning his back to his neighbor, Tony looked up across the street. An unfamiliar sight immediately caught his attention.

A long chain of blinking lights stretched across a sizable length of the sky.

What is that?

The lights resembled airplane headlights. Tony figured there were at least forty moving in close formation. But they weren’t moving toward Tony. Instead, they sidled slowly across the sky like a train.

It can’t be airplanes! Those lights are moving together as one object! I need someone else to see this!

Tony fumbled for his phone and called his daughter. Waiting for her to answer, he watched, mesmerized as the leading lights faded. One by one, the lights vanished like the portholes of a turning ocean liner. 

“No! No! No! No! Come on! Wait!”

His daughter answered.

“Why are you yelling?”

“Isabel, come out here! Quick! Something’s in the sky. You need to see this!”

“Ok, ok! Give me a second. I’m in my pajamas.”

Isabel didn’t make it outside in time.

“They’re gone,” Tony said. 

“What happened? What’s gone?”

Tony explained what he saw. 

“Do you think it was a UFO?” Isabel asked.

“I don’t know. It sure wasn’t a plane. It was way too long!”

“How long was it?”

“It was as long as that house’s roof, but far away, up in the sky.”

“That long?!”

 “Yeah. I wish you or someone else had seen it.” Tony said dejectedly.

“Wait. Look online to see if anyone else saw it.” Isabel offered.

“Nothing is going to be online yet,” Tony said. “Oh! Maybe, I could ask Mrs. Boulanger if she saw anything? She’s sitting on her porch as usual.” 

“No, Dad. That’s a bad idea. You’ll frighten her. I’ll get my phone and google it.”

His daughter ran inside. Tony remained outside, hoping the lights would reappear. A few minutes later, she hurried back.

“Is this what you saw?” 

He studied the video clip on the screen. 

“Yes! That’s it!”

“Dad, you saw a string of satellites.”

“What?”

“SpaceX launched forty-eight Starlink satellites today.”

Tony was disappointed.

“Satellites? Guess that’s pretty cool, but it would have been even better if it was a UFO.”

Later that evening, sitting by the fire, Tony reflected. Forty years ago, before the advent of the internet, he would have wholly believed those lights were extraterrestrial.

December 2, 2021: The Pentagon, Washington D.C. – 10:48 PM

“Quick thinking, Colonel.”

“Yes, well, we sure as hell can’t have the whole nation panicking. Damn ETs!”

“Perhaps, tonight’s visitors were new? They certainly didn’t follow the protocols for a visitation. Should I place a call to the galactic ambassador?” 

“Yes.” 

“Should I file a complaint?” 

“No. Don’t need to ruffle any alien feathers or scales. Politely remind them they need to prevent rogue excursions into the atmosphere. We still need to figure out how to disclose contact officially. In the meantime, we need the lead time to concoct a plausible excuse the public will buy.”

“Yes, sir. Good night, sir.” 

“Good night, Lieutenant.” 


Word Count: 726

Written in response to the prompt: Even Better.

Check out all of the other great writing prompts at The Twiglets.

Thank you for inspiring me!

Jupiter’s Embrace Chapter Three

It’s been a long time, but it’s finally happening. I have been redoubling my efforts to tell the story of Riker, Johnny and Pauline. Chapter four is written and just needs to be edited.

This is a work in progress! Feel free to notify me of errors or things you don’t think make sense.


Excerpt from Chapter Three

Johnny

Johnny left the briefing after a few awkward moments with Sharon. He chuckled to himself. The woman seemed decent enough. Oddly, he felt guilty giving her the cold shoulder. When Li finally returned to consciousness and made it back to SS Diligence, he would have a lot of explaining to do if he wanted to keep Sharon around. Of course, after Johnny sprung Riker free, Li would have bigger concerns to content with. If the plan went off without a hitch, it would initially appear as if Li had freed a high-level criminal. Once he and his brother safely rendezvoused with Sean and the kids in the outer system, Johnny would encrypt an anonymous comm claiming responsibility. Including a convincing amount of detail should exonerate Li from any guilt. He didn’t want any bad karma following him. 

Walking toward the launch bay Johnny heard someone running up quickly behind him with a heavy step. Before he could turn around he felt the hearty slap of Pedro’s hand on his back. 

“Man! You always seem to land the best assignments. Damn you and your luck.”

“Thanks.” Johnny answered dryly. 

“Aw…I can’t remember last time I flew down into Jupiter. Love the murkiness!”

Pedro rubbed his hands together with eyes far off in reverie. 

“What’s your assignment?”

Pedro’s face quickly morphed into a look of chagrin.

“Blasted escort again! Escort for Diligence, mind you. Boring.” Pedro drawled out the last word rolling his eyes. “That’s the second time this month!”

“I’ll swap with you.” Johnny found himself blurting out.

Pedro snorted. 

“Think command is still pissed about the the mishap I had flying on Saturn. It’s not like anyone got hurt. The ship came home with only a little scratch!”

Pedro looked exasperated.

“Sorry, man.”

Johnny chided himself. He couldn’t help feeling for other people. An admirable trait to have, but not while on convert assignment. He was relieved Pedro didn’t take the offer to switch seriously. He doubted trading assignments was something you did in the military. 

“Well, drinks are on me when you get back. That’s assuming no piece of pirate slag attempts to free this guy.”

“Thanks again, Pedro.” Johnny tried to sound brave and concerned simultaneously. 

“Relax, nothing’s going to happen. No one is coming. Criminals like him are expendable. The drug cartels don’t give a shit about nothing, but drugs and money. Now, if your shuttle were transporting a shipment of weapons…that would be different, eh?”

Johnny smiled inwardly to himself. Pedro was in for a big surprise because Johnny’s brother was important enough to rescue.

“Who said I was worried?” Johnny tried to channeled Riker’s legendary bravado. 

“That-a-boy. Besides, me and the others will be watching your back.”

“Then what can go wrong?”

Pedro cracked his knuckles.

“Would be fun to have a little action though. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a scuffle. Feel like I’m getting a little rusty. We should hit the simulator soon and run some of the old engagements we fought in.” 

“Definitely. Might be all the excitement we’re going to see here. Can’t have you getting too bored.”

Johnny noted how easily lying came to him the longer he was on this mission. For a moment he himself almost believed Pedro and he were fast friends. He reconsidered the value his ability to connect with people had for this mission.

“Last action Diligence saw was a year ago on Ariel. The fools didn’t know what hit em. The rout we handed them was legendary!” Pedro crowed. 

“Yeah. But, Pedro that makes the likelihood of illegals making a move this far in pretty slim. Now, if we were out past Titan… maybe.” 

Johnny confidently bantered.

Anyone keeping abreast of the news holos knew about the small battle in the Uranus system. Traditionally, Sol Corps took no real notice of the crime syndicates’ activities in the outer system. Humanity had no significant civilian populations that far from the Sun. The territory was unchartered, loosely governed and provided a haven for criminal elements. Until now, most outposts were generally scientific in nature or small private ventures. Although, the allure of cheap raw materials, readily obtained, had fueled a recent spike in larger commercial enterprises. Big corporations clamored for better protection as an ever larger chunk of profits was swallowed up by pirating.

The inner system governments balked at the cost of policing the vast territory past Saturn. Politicians knew the public cared little about corporate losses to the black market. As long as cheap resources continued to stimulate economic growth everyone was happy. Besides, most agreed many politicians were in bed with the major crime bosses.

Yet, hysteria about rumors of an impending Rangari invasion had steadily grown. Despite any credible proof the inhabitants for Alpha Centauri were technologically advanced enough to reach humanity’s star system, the political landscape was rapidly changing. Public concerns were addressed with a slew of new measures increasing military presence in the outer parts of the solar system. Calls were made on the floor of the Planetary Union’s lower chamber to fully incorporated the outer territories into a new political entities. Not a few people felt this was an excuse to exert further control over private interests flourishing in the less regulated frontier past Mars.

Johnny didn’t think Pedro gave a damn about politics or system events. The man seemed solely interested in flying and a good fight.

“Yeah, I think you’re right about that Li. No action for any of us this assignment. Jupiter’s become too tame.”

“That’s supposed to be a good thing.” Johnny playfully admonished.

“I know. I know.”

“You’re right Pedro. Simulator needs to be top of the agenda, once we get some rec time.”

“I’ll be your gunner. Love blowing shit up. Even if it’s holographic.”

They laughed.

Coming upon the launch bay, Johnny held out his hand. Pedro took it, giving it a hearty shake. 

“See you in a few rotations, Pedro.”

“I’ll be in my usual seat in the aft cantina. Meet you there. I expect to finally get the whole story about your leave on Mars. Lim stim? Really?”

Johnny grimaced, feigning disgust. He walked away without replying. Scanning the berth numbers for his shuttle, he suddenly stopped short and turned back to Pedro.

Follow the link below to read the rest of Chapter Three.

Flash Fiction: Last Time He Prayed

I confess I have been avoiding work on the unfinished first draft of my science fiction novel, Jupiter’s Embrace. In an attempt to get the creative process going again, I’m using characters from Jupiter’s Embrace to respond to some flash fiction writing prompts.

This prompt is from The New UnOfficial, On-line, Writer’s Guild. The prompt used is OLW # 229 Love, Dad. (I used the weekly prompt at the bottom of the page called: almost never prayed.)

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Swallowing a sleeping pill, Johnny set no alarm, hoping for dreamless oblivion. His first time at the helm was disastrous. The smuggled goods were delivered, but there had been an unexpected complication. Embarrassingly, inexperience and indecisiveness nearly led to failure. 

Bleep!

The comm call triggered the dreaded dream. 

Eight-years-old, bewildered, awaken by yelling, he climbed from bed. Edging toward sounds of struggle, suddenly, a hand covered his mouth, stifling a yelp. His older brother carried him away from the commotion. 

Johnny focused on his older brother’s face, trying to understand. Hiding, they waited. Demands and protests grew louder. Threats were made.

“Rike..”

“Shh! Bad guys broke in wanting money. Mom and Dad are taking care of it.”

Trembling, Johnny held onto his brother and prayed. The struggle grew desperate. Blasters fired. Riker pushed him threw the bedroom window. 

“Run! I’m right behind.”

Bleep!

Drenched in sweat, heart-racing, Johnny awoke with a start. He swore. Standing up, he instinctually gazed out the porthole into the blackness of space. Swiping the comm open, he was surprised to see his brother-in-law. His face was serious; worried. 

“Sean?”

“Johnny!”

“Amelia? Jack? They ok?”

“Yes. But, Riker. He’s in Sol Corp custody. There’s been a military tribunal. Riker’s been convicted of being an alien, Rangari spy! Sentence is life on Jupiter!”

Johnny broke into a cold sweat and tried to swallow the taste of bile from his mouth. He realized for the first time in twenty years, he was praying. 


If intrigued and seeking more, click the link below to the first two chapters of the story.

Foundation

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Review of AppleTV+’s Television Series Based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

Some prefer to read the book first; others are drawn to the sounds and visuals of a television or movie adaptation. There will be discrepancies in the telling of the story with the transition from one medium to another and fans will champion their favorite version. But, avid disciples will take pleasure in any opportunity to immerse themselves in their favorite fictional world. If rooted in exploring the human condition, built around archetypal motifs, a tale’s emotional appeal will be timeless.

If a story is a bit older, less well-known to the current generation, reintroducing it visually can be more successful. I’ve heard of the science fiction trilogy, Foundation, but never known enough to entice me to read it. Big mistake on my part, I suspect!  At least that’s how I’m feeling now having seen the first part of a brand-new television adaption of the story. Just as the trailer for Star Wars captured my attention back in 1977, it was the trailer that lured me in.

Eagerly anticipating last Friday’s premier, I allocated a portion of my Saturday toward sitting too close to the screen, volume high to watch the first episode. AppleTV+’s Foundation trailer had haunted my imagination for weeks with glimpses of beautiful imagery of otherworldly skies, dominated by multiple moons, differently colored suns or planetary rings. I was not disappointed. The style of the costuming and set design felt authentic; organic. The intro sequence conveyed a sense of grandeur and modernity reflective of the art from the early twentieth century art deco movement.

Isaac Asimov, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein, is consider a member of sci-fi’s “Big Three”. These authors popularized science fiction, while setting the standards for the genre. This was my first exposure to Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation Trilogy. I instantly fell in love. Despite reading one of his first novels and enjoying it, I never read any of his other writing. I was simply overwhelmed by his prodigious collection of work. I wondered to myself, should I read his books as they were published or according to the fictional chronology of the galactic empire he invented. The former path felt choppy; the latter was honestly difficult to map out. Just browsing through Asimov’s bibliography can be daunting.

As a budding author myself, I am beginning to understand a writer’s ideas, plots and characters often take control, dictating what is to be written next. Asimov appears to have explored his universe from a myriad of angles, using various unconnected plots and a multitude of characters. I propose fictional writers act as pseudo-archeologists sifting the sands of the mind, hoping to uncover clues revealing unknown worlds. This first ever adaptation of Foundation for television helped me discover how desperately I want to read more of Asimov’s novels.

The first episode commenced with introducing Gaal Dornick, a young mathematician, living on a planet governed by a theocratic society outlawing the pursuit of science. Gaal is punished, excommunicated and sentenced to death for solving an enigmatic mathematical problem. Offer of aid comes from a famous, off-world scientist on Trantor, the imperial capital planet. The Galactic Empire has reigned for 12,000 years, developing an advanced futuristic society. The immensity of the empire is possible due to its ability to warp space and time, allowing people to jump the vast distances between star systems. Gaal travels to meet her scientific idol, psychohistorian, Hari Seldon. Believing she has found a safe environment to further her mathematical studies, she quickly learns she has come too late. Imperial authorities may support, fund and celebrate scientific discovery, but not when the facts predict a future unpalatable to those in power. Seldon’s recent work warns of a looming, catastrophic collapse of civilization across the entire galaxy. Empire, the supreme ruler, who in reality is a trio of clones, refuses to accept the science behind Hari Seldon and Gaal Dornick’s work. Arrests are made, court and legal proceedings are held and both are charged with treason.

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If you have followed my blog from the beginning, you know I view storytelling, as a means to exploring life, because fiction is always reflective of the real world. From the onset, this story felt incredibly relevant to our world’s current situation. Amazingly, Isaac Asimov started work on Foundation during the middle of the last century! But, it still seemingly anticipates today’s clash between governments and the scientific community. On one side, scientists are sounding the alarm, warning action needs to be taken to avert devastating, changes to our planet. An opposing group of multinational corporations and politicians, fearing loss of profits and control of society, challenge the legitimacy of scientific reports. The battle over what is fact and what is fake is relentlessly. The end result is a confused and conflicted populace longing for a clear, unbiased insight to inform their own decisions and actions. I haven’t read or seen the entire Foundation Trilogy yet, so I don’t know how it ends. Of course, none of us knows how the current conflict over global climate change will play out either.

Isaac Asimov’s work also harkens back to elements found in human history. The name of the story Foundation comes from a line spoken by the character Hari Seldon. When asked if the crisis can be averted, he explains the looming catastrophe is inevitable. But, he offers a glimmer of hope. Seldon explains steps could be taken to build a repository of all the most treasured aspects of civilization. This cache of essential information would act as a foundation on which survivors of the empire’s collapse could build on. The goal being to shorten the times of darkness. In essence this was a role played by religious monasteries throughout Europe during the Dark Ages preceding the fall of the Roman Empire. Even the famous library at Alexandria is alluded to in Foundation. Hari Seldon recognizes that when the collapse comes the Imperial Library on Trantor will burn, just as the real life Alexandrian library did. 

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Graham Handcock, a modern day scholar theorizes a similar, tragic erasing of a civilization happened on Earth. He argues an unknown ancient society existed far earlier than mainstream historians and archeologists allow. His books, Fingerprints of the Gods and Magicians of the Gods, lay out his proposed evidence of a forgotten, advanced, global civilization destroyed by a cataclysmic event. Scrutinizing clues found in myths, ancient texts and architecture, he believes survivors from this forgotten civilization, safeguarded their knowledge, hoping to pass it on to the less advanced remnants of humanity. He argues the theme of a helper race of gods or angels is present in all of the world’s mythology. Approaching this idea esoterically, Edgar Cacye, a clairvoyant in the early twentieth century, famously claimed to have remotely viewed a secret chamber beneath the Sphinx in Giza, Egypt. The existence of a subterranean room beneath the Sphinx has been confirmed with modern, remote-sensing equipment. Interestingly, no requests to explore it have been approved by Egyptian authorities. Cacye declared the chamber held lost knowledge leading humanity to the Atlantean Hall of Records. This mystical repository of knowledge is rumored to provide access to technology more advanced than what we current possess today. Yes, strange as it may sound, there are intelligent, serious people ] searching for a real “Foundation” created by a destroyed, advanced, prehistoric human civilization.

I have no idea if there is any truth to tales of Atlantis, but the story itself is rich, full of hope and a jumping off point for the imagination. Presumably, Isaac Asimov knew of this well known myth told to us by Greek philosopher, Plato. Perhaps, he had even heard of Edgar Cayce’s clairvoyant work. However, I do know Asimov was a scientific thinker and serious scholar gifted with an imaginative mind. This scientific background coupled with a vibrant imagination makes Isaac Asimov’s work authentic, informative, and enjoyable. I suspect, he would agree that pretending, thinking outside the box and wondering about impossibilities leads to amazing real discovers. Fiction does truly empower creativity. I entreat you to read it, watch it, write it and dare you to challenge the limits of what is possible. 

Magical Economies (Part Two)

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In part one, I explore magic as an arcane study. If you haven’t read that part, click the link below.

Is This Really a Good Deal?

Last I checked, you still can’t get something for nothing at the “Magical, Paranormal, Special, Super Powers Store”!  It’s downright outrageous… the prices they’re asking fictional characters to pay these days! Oh well…limited supply; great demand will inflate prices. Previously, I explored the tedious path of exhaustive studies to gain greatness. I also talked about sacrificing something greatly valued, as another way to secure fantastic outcomes or abilities. Now, let’s consider magic with “strings attached”! There are some delightful examples of “items of power” harboring evil intelligences within.  These hidden presences patiently wait with deadly agendas and excessively, domineering wills all their own. 

Something deep within the human psyche seems to enjoy a good fright, especially, if couched safely and comfortably within the bounds of a story. The sheer quantity of books, television shows, and movies narrating the exploits of supernatural evil elements attests to this fact. Many presume fantasy focuses solely on the eternal struggles between good and evil and expect to be regaled with scenes of epic battles. Yet, there are many tales about subtler forms of malevolence wrecking havoc, if not more! Within these sinister plots, woven throughout, are tantalizing snares attractive to those thirsty for power.  Fair-faced villains cajole, bargain with or outright trick characters into promising payment in return for the bestowal of unnatural gifts.

An absolute favorite character of mine, Elric of Melniboné, was created by Michael Moorcock during the mid-twentieth century.  Elric is a weak, albino prince, who hails from a mighty sorcerer race. He is reliant on an endless supply of potions and magic only just allowing him to live a stilted, embarrassing existence. Complicating matters, there is a cousin eager to usurp the imperial throne and have the woman Elric loves. Additionally, the people Elric presides over find him odd, even distasteful as a ruler. Needing to find a way to remedy his inborn weakness, he forges pacts with chaotic gods to rid himself of his frail constitution. This leads Elric to a demonic sword aptly named, Stormbringer. The sword grants Elric strength, vitality and great power, but only if he kills and feeds the sword souls. The blade, having an insatiable appetite, demands ever more. Its evil nature yearns to feed on everyone Elric holds dear. He is dependent upon the sword, yet abhors the evil acts it demands. Initially, the perfect solution to his problems, it ultimately brings much ill to Elric. The books are difficult to obtain now, unless you enjoy graphic novels. But, it’s worth the trip to your local library! Thankfully, later this year, the series is being reissued by Tor Publishing! 

The mythos of a crossroads demon is brought to life on the television show, “Supernatural”, with enormous dramatic appeal. These diabolical fiends will grant a person whatever they wish, in return for the person’s soul at the end of a set period of time. They are attracted to intense desire for fame, fortune, power or other desperate worldly yens. “Supernatural” uses a legend surrounding the late, famous blues musician, Robert Johnson, to introduce these demonic characters to the series’ storyline. Johnson burst onto the music scene, seemingly out of nowhere, quickly garnering accolades and fame in the early twentieth century. Popular opinion at the time insisted only a pact with the Devil could account for such an overnight success. His death at a relatively early age only fueled speculation and added credence to this tale. An episode of “Supernatural” begins depicting a frightened, bedraggled Robert Johnson hiding, late at night, in a small, isolated, ramshackle shack. The agreed upon period of ten years has transpired and the time to pay for his unnatural musical talent has come. Doors locked, lights all on, salt on the floor to bar out demonic forces, he sits with a rifle. All the precautions are all to no avail though. Invisible, sulfuring-smelling, giant dogs prowl outside the house. These are the hellhounds of myth. Well…you know what happens. The demons penetrate Johnson’s defenses and his soul is devoured, right on schedule. 

Even Disney writers frequently dip a hand into the murky waters surrounding bargains with evil. A recent example from the plot of the animated movie, “The Princess and the Frog” contains a refreshingly, new look at magic and the desperate promises one make to obtain it.  Doctor Facilier, a practitioner of dark voodoo, is a greedy man with high aspirations. His target is a wealthy, young prince. Facilier attempts to entrap the spoiled, foolhardy royal. But, working with magic usually caused things to go awry and this time is no different. The prince escapes, but not before being turned into a frog. Facilier requests further aide from evil voodoo spirits, vowing to hand over to the otherworldly forces all the souls they desire, once he is in control of New Orleans. Flush with supernatural assistance, he banks all his hopes, putting into motion a plan guaranteeing dominance over the people of the Big Easy. Failing to outwit the protagonists, Facilier is doomed to repay his “friends on the other side” the only way he can. The villain is devoured, body and soul by the spirits. Not an easy scene for an adult to watch, let alone a youngster!

I would be remiss without mentioning the One Ring in Tolkien’s, “Lord of the Rings”. The gradual devouring of Sméagol’s “humanity” is elegantly evidenced. Despite being initially taken in by the insidious glory of the master ring, the hobbit is, temporarily at least, an effective foil to Sauron’s plan. Perhaps, it is his simplistic, pastoral mind which prevents him from seeking vast power over countless others. Yes, Sméagol does initially create trouble for his small community, but ultimately chooses to run off and hide with his Precious. How different and interesting would it be if the character, Sméagol, was more worldly and learned. What if he held a place of prestige and authority within his river dwelling hobbit society? We could assume, he would have taken control and ruthlessly used what meager resources they had to expand his rule. But, how would it have looked? Perhaps, Sméagol and his fellow stoors would have sought to create a powerful, mercantile enterprise controlling the trade along their river? Would the ring have tolerated such a diminutive exercising of power? Certainly, Sméagol’s cruel, domination of his fellow hobbits would have attracted the attention of Sauron and the Nazgul would easily have recovered the ring.

But, despite Sméagol pouring his heart, soul, love and very essence into the ring, he doesn’t seem desirous to master it or wield it. Rather, the ring becomes a bosom “friend”, ally, and confident for the river hobbit. I would suggest the ring replaces the friend Sméagol kills to obtain it. It seems our poor hobbit might have had a shred of a conscious at one point. Nevertheless, Sauron is still able to conquer Sméagol, who becomes twisted, demented and wholly enslaved to the ring. Becoming ever more jealous, delusional and distrustful, he is unwillingly to share the ring and convinced there is a constant threat to his possession of it. Sauron’s master ring utilizes these character flaws to dominate Sméagol and Gollum is born. In turn, the hobbit is able to become invisible and lives far beyond his natural lifespan. But, it is the ring itself that Sméagol desires, not power or riches. This appears to be something Sauron never anticipated…an individual uninterested in commanding the latent, immense power the ring held. Sauron’s failure to anticipate others could resist the ring’s allure, simply because they did not desire power, was the only weakness Gandalf and the White Council are able to use against him. 

The master ring is the prime example of an evil object of power hiding behind a beautiful facade. Interestingly, Sauron, himself, was at one time able to mask his treachery in fair form and with silvered-tongue speech. But, he lost this ability when destroyed with the men of Númenór, long before the events retold in the “Lord of the Rings”. I recommend reading J. R.R. Tolkien’s true masterpiece, “The Silmarillion” to learn about the origins of Sauron and the rings of power he created. The master ring, Sauron created, was truly master of all! One has to ask was it the ring that was wielded or did the ring wield the wearer? The one ring, in a sense, ensnared even its creator, who poured so much of his own essence into its making, he ultimately couldn’t properly survive without it. It boggles the mind! 

In part three of Magical Economies, I’d like to consider those character willing to sacrifice everything, even themselves, to purchase magnificent gains in magic or power to defend and save others.

Magical Economies (Part One)

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Why Can’t It Be Easy?

“You can’t get something for nothing.” is an old familiar saying. Consequently, anything worth having in this world is only gained with hard work, sweat and even a few tears. If one is lucky, the work required is well-suited to one’s sensibilities and becomes a joyous labor. Yes, there are people who live easy, by subjugating others or perhaps on inherited wealth. This is the exception though rather than the rule. Until limitless energy, endless supplies of raw materials and free labor (without any human cost) is discovered, everyone must exert effort and spend time to receive material gain. No matter how small the desire, it necessitates some form of sacrifice. Yet, the setting of a fantasy or science fiction story distorts, weakens or altogether negates this maxim. Readers can enjoy immersing themselves in a world full of magic or advanced technology (and with a willing suspension of disbelief) feel as if anything is possible. For example, the replicator, from Star Trek: Next Generation, is an interesting story element often paid little heed. With ample supply of energy this device allows humanity to instantly order up any form of matter desired. Viewers see the characters use this technology primarily in the storyline to order food or beverage at a moments notice. But, I don’t see anything limiting this ability, so long as the desired specifications for an object are inputed. In this futuristic, utopian setting, humans now have no need for money. There isn’t anything to be bought. There is an endless supply of essentially anything, provided the technology is available and sufficient energy. And there it is! The limiting factor remains. My musings have brought me back full circle. “You can’t get something for nothing.”

Let us contemplate how magic is typically portrayed in a story and think about the rules governing its use. There is almost always an economy of power dictating, when, how often and in what fashion magic is used. It is a very rare to find an example of a character with unlimited magical powers. Effortless use of magic tends to be found more often in tales written for youth or when the story’s purpose is to entertain. Consider Bewitched, a 1960’s sitcom featuring the character, Samantha, a good-natured witch living as your average suburban housewife. She can do practically whatever she wants with only a twitch of her nose and pointing her finger.  I Dream of Genie replicated this format, simply replacing the witchery with the all-mighty power of the jinn. Of course, it was necessary to have some limitations to their powers, otherwise there would be no struggle to drive even these simplistic plots. The shows were light-hearted comedies. The audience wasn’t looking to see “under the hood” at the magical engines. There was not mention of how the magic worked. It just did. 

Magic begins to be more reflective of real life attitudes and values when encountered in highly developed fantasy settings. Ultimately, the existence of magic, supernatural powers or sci-fi technology gives an author great fodder to be used in tackling heftier topics. But, before dipping our toes into a more serious discussion, let’s look at the motif of magic as an arcane study. The Harry Potter series veers closer to a more believable rendering of magical power with the J. K. Rowlings’ fabrication of a “school for magical arts”. In Harry’s story, the magical world is able to perform great feats, but only with intensive study and lots of practice. Genetics is a bit of a wild card for Rowlings’ characters. Not unlikely in sports, some are just born with more raw talent. 

Many RPG gamers, from the 1970s and 80s, undoubtedly feel familiar with what is presented in J. K. Rowlings’ books. The magic-using character classes designed for play in Dungeons and Dragons also follow this path. Magic-users must travel and adventure in order to gather treasure and experience to make their magical studies worthwhile. Just like Hogwart’s students, these imaginary characters shop for magical items, gather spell components and commit to memory obscure knowledge. They too, early in their careers, are limited in terms of the magic they can successfully perform. Further constraining their power, once a spell is discharged it must be painstakingly prepared again. The cycle of study, researching, memorizing, and obtaining additional magical component is never-ending. The rules and mechanics of the game are complicated and at times frustrating, yet they give it life and purpose. 

The source of power in our world is readily attributed to science, technology and other educational endeavors. But, what does one resort to when the mundane ways of getting something we want fail? Depending on how important it is to us, we might find ourselves turning to a faith-based solution. After all, the miraculous requires the intervention of something extra-ordinary; better yet, supernatural. Thus, we pray, beg, plead and bargain with any higher power, we feel might listen. Perhaps, skepticism is high and faith low. Submitting our laundry list of requests, we already expect disappointment. In small matters, we accept the silence, thinking “something” beyond us must know better.  We console ourselves, proclaiming the ill we endure will ultimately lead to a better opportunity unasked for. Yet, what happens when the request involves grave or dire circumstances? One may desperately offer to sacrifice anything for an answer to their prayer. This need causes people to recite or perform lengthy religious formulas, fast, abstain from all-manner of things, exorbitantly give alms, devote all their time to charitable works and even subject themselves to pain, in an attempt to cajole from the heavens speedy, effective aid.

Religions evolve from the desire to ward against and make sense of the evils and misfortunes of this world. Proffering a sacrifice to buy salvation is the ultimate result. It is here one finds the crux to why humanity invents and tells stories. We use fiction, as a means of mulling over our circumstances, as mere mortals, and in the process map out a remedy for it. Our favorite characters, settings and plots help us to cope with the ravages, this indifferent life can put us through. A vivid fictional portrayal of this is found in the popular television series, American Horror Story. The Coven season depicts, Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess, performing a powerful fertility spell. A component to the ritual requires Laveau to ingest, straight from the fire, the hottest type of chili pepper in existence. The character professes her belief that displaying a willingness to suffer will cause the spirits to “sit up and take notice”. Watching the scene, one wonders what circumstance in the real world would make us willing to suffer so greatly. It’s only a story some might say, but cultures in the not-too-distant past ceremonially slaughtered individuals as offerings to obtain a greater good for the many. Modern society abhors the notion of human sacrifice, but elements of the practice remain. We have offered to the gods the choicest animals, other valuables, arts or the best share of harvested goods. What was presented mattered not as long as it was the best, the most beautiful and invaluable. 

The idea of only gaining great power through an immense sacrifice is central in many high fantasy plots. A well-known example from current pop culture is the story of the arch villain, Thanos, from the Marvel Universe. He seeks an unimaginably, powerful artifact. The bearer of this item is able to alter the very fabric of time, space and existence. His goal is to reorder all life in the universe. Thanos has an interesting perspective of the known, physical world. He is haunted by the suffering of those too weak to grab their fair share of what they need to survive. He sees over-population throughout the universe and resulting scarcity of resources as the root cause of war and conflict. In order to ensure a more peaceful future, he embarks on a quest to gain the power to eliminate half of all life in the universe. Interestingly, the notion of wanting to bring an end to warring over resources and providing all with ample living space is a noble one. But, his willingness to sacrifice trillions or more is misguided to say the least. It is an evil plan of immense proportions. It is worth pointing out, one can readily identify shades of this scheme within our own human history, which is full of instances of ethnic cleansing and wars for living-space. The implement Thanos is seeking is a gauntlet powered by “magical” stones. They must be collected and inserted into the glove. One of the stones needed, to complete his plan, can only be obtained by sacrificing someone he loves. Knowing her father to be cruel and always self-serving, his daughter believes Thanos has failed. She is convinced he is incapable of love. Any villain, worthy of the title though, is complex and harbors within good intentions long laid aside; even love. To everyone’s dismay, Thanos does gain the stone because does love his daughter. In a perverse fashion, he is committing a great act of love, self-denial and sacrifice. Tragically, Thanos’ ability to parse good from evil is eclipsed by his fanatical devotion to his belief that he is actually saving the universe.

 

Next time…I will explore characters, who gain magical or supernatural power by making sinister bargains with the darker forces in fiction.

Please Comment!

Do you enjoy fun and comedic characters who absurdly can do just about anything?  Know about other stories of magic/power involving characters who study and refine their craft at a school, academy or as an apprentice in a guild? Lastly, share with me your favorite story-lines in which a character must sacrifice something they hold dear or someone they love to access magic/power. 

Chapter Two of Jupiter’s Embrace

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Not much to say…just posted chapter two. Looking to see if you all feel like you are starting to get some more depth to the characters Riker and La Croix.

Do you feel that the circumstances are believable?

What do you think of the flight briefing doling out the assignments to the pilots? I especially enjoyed writing that part.

Let me know if you were confused at any point while reading.

Is Riker too much like Han Solo? I’m trying to avoid that! Never felt Lucas allowed Han to develop enough in the movies. Some of the book series, the ones “no longer canon”, do paint a more angsty and dark side of Han Solo. I’m trying to go more for a character who lives a life of crime, but has a hidden, often neglected desire to do good. Probably will need to explore more his relationship with Sean and figure out where his kids came from etc.

Am I painting enough tension with the impending shuttle transfer of Riker to the orbital station above Jupiter?

Lastly. Is it clear that family, clan, cartel, syndicate are all different ways of referring to the crime organizations that compete to control the drug trade?

Hope you enjoy.