Researching for Fiction Locations using VR

While I have used a type of virtual reality for years now, it’s always been on a screen in front of me. Things like Google Earth, Google Street View, and apps like Second Life have been familiar and useful to me when I want to get a unique feel for a place that I cannot actually visit in person. 

Now, especially during the great pandemic of 2020, that is especially true.

Then, one day a few weeks ago, my good friend and podcasting partner Joe started telling me about how much fun he and his wife have been having with their Oculus Quests, and that no, you don’t have to hook it to a $2500 gaming PC. It’s a self-contained $300 piece of tech.

Go on, I said. I’m listening.

The latest one, he told me — the Quest 2 — has even higher specs for an even lower price. The way he was talking, it made me think that perhaps VR hardware stood on the brink of being mainstream. The real kicker, though, was not about gaming — he told me that if I got a set, we could hang out in a virtual theater and watch videos on a screen that rivals the best of the best physical movie screens. They’re huge, he told me. It’s like being there.

In other words, Joe talked me into it.

Now, I did already have a headset, but it was one of those ones where you put a smartphone into it, and I had used it maybe three times before putting it back in its box and sticking it on a shelf — where it still sits today. I’ll just say it was an underwhelming experience.

But Joe emphatically told me the Quest 2 was different. 

Now those who know me will tell you that when I get into something I find really interesting, I don’t just stick my toe into it. I get on a high dive and do a full cannonball right into the deep end. Not only did I buy myself one, but after trying it out, I immediately bought one for everyone in the family. 

This, I thought, was real deal. A total game changer.

The next big thing.

Here’s the problem, though — it’s such a transformative experience that there’s no way to really relate it to someone who’s never done it. It’s kind of like losing your virginity. It’s crossing a major threashold into an entirely new level of experience.

I’m not so sure about earlier VR headsets — the cell phone based one I have only slightly hinted at this — but the Oculus Quest 2 put me into a whole other world. Your mind almost instantly accepts this new space you’re in as real. It’s the closest thing to actual teleportation I have ever experienced, and I know it’s not just me — my family members said the same thing. The weirdest part is not when you “go in” to the experience, it’s when you take the headset off and look around and realize, wow, I’m back. That for some reason is even more jarring — going from this big, Disneylandesq space, or the huge movie theater, or from beside a lake with a fishing pole in your hand, to suddenly being in the dimly lit little cluttered room in your house that you suddenly realize needs a good dusting and probably vacuuming.

One might at this point ask if we’re at the level of the movie Ready Player One.

Emphatically NO. But you can see it on the horizon. It’s there. Whether or not we want to go there is another question, and that is a whole other discussion.

When I told you I dive in like a cannonball, I’m not joking, because based on my Oculus Quest 2 experience I almost immediately did something I had already decided not to do — I bought the VR headset produced for my Playstation 4 Pro, because I wanted to see what it was like to actually immurse myself into the alien worlds I visit in the game No Man’s Sky

I’m glad I went with the Oculus first, because it is far superior to the Playstation headset, with one exception — the Playstation headset is more comfortable to wear. Despite it’s lower image quality, I must admit it still gives me a very good feeling of what it’s like to walk the surface of alien worlds, with huge moons in the skies, and wondrous archways of planetary rings — and sunsets with sometimes two, or even three suns.

Which brings me to the actual subject of this artical. Research.

I’m the type of writer who likes to write what I know. I don’t like to guess. But until now, I have never been able to say I know what it’s like to walk on an (admittedly fictional) alien world.

I do now. And I’m using that experience in my writing.

But, also, in the Oculus Quest, I have a program that pulls in Google Street View, and allows me to take meandering walks in frozen time, down just about any street in the world. And it’s not like viewing it on a screen, it’s like standing right there on that street. I feel what it’s like to be there.

What an awesome tool!

That’s right. Tool. Not toy. This is an incredibly useful tool for researching locations for fiction. That app in the Oculus store only cost $9.99, and it is going to save me literally thousands upon thousands of dollars in travel expense — and probably prevent me from contracting a certain troublesome virus.

And you’d better believe I’m going to write all this off as an expense on my taxes.

Now, it’s not going to completely replace travel. When the pandemic subsides, there are a few places I really need to visit. And I will. But until then, I’ll be donning my headset and teleporting to places — here on Earth, and elsewhere in the galaxy.

If you ever needed an excuse to try one of these out, especially the stand-alone Oculus Quest 2, I say give it a go. You won’t really know what it’s like until you do it yourself.

Evidence that Life Began Before Earth: Good Fuel for Science Fiction

Now, before you get too excited, there are plenty of arguments that this is wrong — but for the sake of Science Fiction let’s suspend any disbelief and take this paper by Alexei Sharov and Richard Gordon at face value.

Here’s the idea: if you apply Moore’s Law to the demonstrated exponential rise in genetic complexity over time, it suggests that life as we know it formed roughly ten billion years ago. This is significant as the current estimated age of Earth is only 4.5 billion years.

Origin of Life (Graph borrowed from a MIT Technology Review)

This suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities. For one, in this scenario, Panspermia is a foregone conclusion. Life did not form on Earth

Sure this is not a new idea, but now Science Fiction as a genre has some numbers to play with. One of them is the possibility that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we’re not the backwards baby intelligence in a galaxy teeming with far more advanced races. We could very well be the ipso facto advanced intelligent race.

How so?

Consider this: We’ve always assumed that it takes at least 4.5 billion years for an intelligent race to develop. Now there’s evidence it might take as long as 10 billion years. Sure, we are leaving out a lot of factors, such as asteroid strikes and other mass extinction events – that you’d think would throw off the time table – but we’re not looking at that kind of physical history. We’re looking at the uniform rise in complexity of genetic material. 

Information. 

The assumption is that it somehow endures through these disasters and continues progress. After all, it somehow migrated through interstellar space through untold and unimaginable disasters – possibly the destruction and reformation of solar systems – to take root on this pretty little blue orb of ours.

And so, this theory argues, thus explains the Fermi Paradox: We’re not hearing from any other intelligent species because they’re either close to, or behind, our own sophistication. That’s why we’re not being invaded by bug-eyed-monsters, or grey hive space aliens, or multi-trunked Pachyderms from Alpha Centari. If anything, we’d be the invaders, a la James Cameron’s Avatar.

But beyond that lies the really intriguing questions:

  • Where, exactly, did life begin roughly 10 billion years ago?
  • Was it localized, as in a star that existed, and then perished, and the material reformed to become our current star and set of planets?
  • Is it spread through our entire galaxy, which means it permeates space and seeds all other hospitable environments such as Earth?
  • Are there other, wholly other alien forms of DNA-like substances which formed in a different time and frame, and that seeds other sections of the galaxy?

The premise leads to endless conjecture – which is fuel for good Science Fiction – but more importantly it gives a more solid jumping off point, as – despite the inconclusive and tenuous evidence – it’s really the best we have right now. It’s something, other than nothing. Because before this paper came out, that what there was: nothing. Wide open nothing.

This gives us something to test. Now, if we do finally find conclusive samples of life beyond planet Earth, we can see if it fits this model.

That’s what science is about.

And that is the best fuel for good Science Fiction.

Sources:

Randomness is Not What We Think It Is

I’m writing a series of realistic fantasy books and one of the characters is the god of chaos. Because of this character, I’ve been studying chaos theory in order to write the character with some intelligence, and I’ve been led to an amazing fact:

We all spring out of complete and total randomness.

Everything that is us and our world, and even our thoughts, are the product of complete and total randomness.

If you can wrap your head around this, you begin to understand that we have a general misconception of what “random” truely is. Apple Computers had to come to this conclusion, oddly, because when they first had a “random” setting on their early iPods people complained that it couldn’t possibly be random because it kept grouping songs together. They had to tweak their “random” algorithm to not be truly random so that it actually seemed random.

What we consider a rational, coherent universe is, at its very heart, complete and total random chaos … and yet, out of it springs order and, dare I say, meaning!

I find this utterly fascinating.

Plotting for Timelessness

You are a science fiction writer. Your finger is on the pulse of technology and society’s trends. Closing your eyes, you can see the world of tomorrow, and with your talent, you craft a great work of fiction set in this world you envision.

It takes time to craft a novel. Even after you’ve finished the first draft, there are successive rewrites, and publication woes, and printing and distributions lag times. When your readers finally get a hold of it, there’s a problem. The acceleration of technological advancement has overtaken your vision of the future. A good portion of the science fiction in your story has become reality, or worse, invalidated. 

How do you avoid it? Plan for it. Deliberately.

Many of the classics have a timeless quality about them. There’s something about these works which sets them out of time’s reach so that they’re as fresh now as when they were first printed. While there’s no sure way to write something that will become a “classic,” there is a way to make sure your writing is timeless.

One way is to write your story as a period piece. This works with SF stories where the events don’t change history as we know it. Think “thwarted hidden agenda.” (Author Tim Powers is especially good at this.) Choose a setting either right now or some date in the past. State the date, the place, and incorporate real historic events – this helps build solid suspension of disbelief, and adds an air of authenticity. By its very nature, this type of story can’t become outdated. It exists in time, as history.

Another method is to use a break in reality. Create a future event, without a date, that resets expectations of what comes afterward. It could be a nuclear war, or plague, or maybe an alien invasion. It could also reset the year counter so that even the date is removed from reality. So if your story takes place a hundred years after this event, instead of being the year 2101, it could be year 100. That puts your story completely outside of time.

Of course, you could also set your story in a place entirely removed from our reality. This could be another world, or an alternate reality, or so far in the future or past that there’s not even a remote connection to the here and now. Remember the phrase: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

There are always stories that, by their very nature, need to be set in a specific point in the future. Even if time passes them by, the strength of the story itself pulls the reader past the fact that it’s outdated. Look at “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I don’t care that time has caught up with this classic. So don’t feel you have to try for timelessness in everything you write, but keep it in mind when you feel you’ve come up with your magnum opus.

Not many things suck as much as finishing that big, wonderful, complex story only to have something happen in reality to make what you’ve written completely implausible.

Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way.

The Big Lebowski

The Mojo Movie Review of The Big Lebowski

My girlfriend and I went to a drive in theater the other week and saw a double feature:

      1. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
      2. The Big Lebowski

The Monty Python movie was, of course, as brilliant now as it was back then. But when The Dude showed up on screen, I realized I had not seen it since it first came out.

I’m going to assume you’ve seen it. If not, beware of spoilers.

So, there it was, up on the big screen again, and I only vaguely remembered it and had no idea what was going to happen, so it was like watching it for the first time all over again. Apparently, this is one of those movies you either love, or hate. But unfortunately I didn’t get to see the whole thing.

About a quarter of the way through my girlfriend was curled up in her seat, eyes closed. I assumed she was asleep, but she wasn’t. She was tuning the movie out.

“Are you okay?” I finally asked.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Did you want to go?”

“Do you?” she asked.

“Well, um…”

“If you’re watching the movie, it’s fine.” She curled up again.

“We can go,” I told her.

“Can we?”

“Of course. I take it you’re not enjoying it.”

“This is the worst movie I have ever seen,” she said.

And with that, we left.

Now me, I was totally absorbed because the characters are so completely fleshed out and interesting. The acting is superb. The story extremely quirky, just like I like a story, with all sorts of bizarre twists and turns that keep me guessing all the way through. But I had no idea how it ends.

So, last night, I finally broke down and bought it and watched it again, because it bugged me that I didn’t remember how it all turned out. And I’m glad I did, and I’m glad I bought it instead of rented it, because this really is one of those movies that you either love or hate, and unlike my girlfriend, I love it — and I’ll watch it again.

Some of the things that really caught me by surprise is how the story actually lets us, the viewer, in on some secrets during the movie. It literally stops the story at least twice and says, “Hey, look, contrary to what the characters believe, this is what is really going on.” It’s like the story winks at us and says, “Watch how this messes with the characters.”

Normally this would never work. It would ruin a story. But not this story, because due to all the twists and turns and confusion that the characters are going through, it’s a relief that we’re let in on a couple of the major secrets.

And it’s safe to say that none of the characters really know what’s going on. That’s a fun takeaway and one I hope to remember in my own writing.

I found it fascinating that they pulled this off so well. It’s also fascinating that The Dude has most of it figured out at the very beginning, though not quite, but as the story unfolds he doubts it and starts believing other scenarios, only to find out he was almost right all along.

And a note about the characters: I found them so fully realized that it was easy to suspend my disbelief despite some of their over-the-top actions or dialog. And some of the characters who you think are going to be major players turn out to be very minor, and some of the minor characters turn out to actually be major. And it’s all okay, because the story itself is so well crafted.

And so it’s no shock that, in the end, The Dude abides, and also does the movie, even after all these years.

Rediscovering Apple Pages on the iPad

Apple Pages is free for both macOS and iOS devices, and also is online at iCloud.com

I have used just about every word processor ever made, going all the way back to WordStar on DOS, and WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, Scrivener, etc. (even one called IBM Writing Assistant on a PCjr), but over the last several months I’ve rediscovered Apple Pages, especially the iOS version that I use on my iPad Pro. This is one word processor I tried briefly years ago and dismissed, moving on to Scrivener.

But, as nice as Scrivener is, it’s a pain in the butt, and I’d always end up moving the project over to Microsoft Word for the finishing touches to get the manuscript ready for publication.

So one day I took another look at Apple Pages, because the one feature I knew about it was it outputted an absolutely beautiful final product.

Once I re-familiarized myself with the minimalist user interface I began to really appreciate the fine balance of simplicity and features. It can be used as a simple writing tool, but dig deeper and you find most of the controls you’d consider standard in a word processor.

It has a few quirks, but once mastered they are not a problem. It’s not perfect, but no word processor is. It doesn’t try to do everything for everyone — that’s the main flaw in Microsoft Word. It isn’t overly complex — that’s Scrivener.

I’ve found that if you split a screen and have Notes on one side, and Pages on the other, you have a nice and simple replacement for Scrivener that gives you just enough features but not too much, and the output is beautiful and ready to go without bogging you down with settings.

Apple Notes on one side, Apple Pages on the other… you’ve got yourself a free Scrivener replacement.

Add the new iPad Pro magic keyboard and you have one of the nicest writing machines I have ever used.

Plus it syncs nicely to the desktop version, and … one of the best features: it’s free.

FREE.

That’s a great feature!

Bravo, Apple. Well done. Five stars.

Birds and Squirrels

So like many of us all around the world, I am confined to my home, and I thought I’d be okay with this because I am far into the introverted side of the social spectrum. Being that my primary job is to update things on the Intranet, working from home has always been an option, but this is the first time it’s ever been mandatory.

I find that when it’s an option, it’s a pleasant treat. When it’s mandatory, it’s suffocating.

Here’s what I’m doing to keep sane:

  • Taking a lot of pictures of birds and squirrels out my home office window.
  • Watching the backlog of movies that I’d bought but never watched.
  • Finished the third draft of my latest novel.
  • Played a lot of Animal Crossing: New Horizons

But, mainly, I’ve been taking pictures of birds and squirrels.

March 2020 Updates

Half the people I know are secretly convinced they have Covid-19. Everyone around me seems to be sick. Hell, I’ve been sick for the past 9 days. However, in all the cases (including mine) it’s mild. Whatever it is.

Still, I am caught up in this collective feeling that this may be the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it. And then I remember that every other year for the past 20 something years have felt that way.

And so, life goes on.

I’m most of the way through a rewrite of No Such Thing as Mermaids and kind of stumbled and fell on my face during the last two chapters. They simply don’t work, and so I tossed them out and am rewriting them from scratch. It was far too glib of an ending. The main character has gone through some major shit and he needs to be suffering from some PTSD.

This is a “realistic fantasy” I’m writing, after all, so it needs to be fairly realistic.

I think another thing that gives me echoes of the end of the world is this election we’re about to live through. People are so deeply divided that I feel that is the biggest problem facing us. Not health care, not taxes, not housing prices — the us vs. them mentality with no middle ground.

Yes, I lean very hard to one side, but I am still going to be friends with, and love, people who lean the other way. If we can all do that, then we can all maybe see our way to compromising, no matter who wins the elections. Compromise is the foundation of the United States of America. That’s why we have the word “United” in the name of the nation.

Without that keyword and concept taken to heart, I am afraid that the Divided States of America is headed straight for it’s second Civil War.

And my friends, that is exactly what certain other countries of this world really, really want to happen to us. They feel it’s time for this brash, blustery nation to get its comeuppance. They’re tired of us being “Team America, World Police.”

So that is the hard question this nation has to ask itself: do we want to be a divided nation — or a united one?

Sneak Peek (of the new book cover)

Because I’m horrible at keeping secrets, here’s the tentative first draft of the cover design for the book that hasn’t even seen a second draft yet.

After getting his dreams crushed in Silicon Valley and losing almost everything to patent trolls, entrepreneur and hacker Jack Gilmour takes what he has left, and goes back to his roots to open a small computer repair shop in a rural coastal town in Oregon.

He never imagined he’d fall in love with a witch, and he never dreamed he would see what he thinks he saw out in the stormy ocean outside of town. Because he knows … those don’t exist.

Begon, Demons!

I don’t know if you could exactly say it was writer’s block. I think it was just burnout. I’d produced three books in a very short period of time, and then I just felt like … I was done.

But I wasn’t. You see, I have a “story brain” that just won’t shut off.

My girlfriend brought this to my attention when she finally told me how much she loved it when I would narrate just about everything — from animals to inanimate objects — where I apparently project personalities on them and then offhandedly tell her what is going on. The salt and pepper shakers, you see, were plotting against the syrup bottle … or the cats were in cahoots to murder the dog. Or, as I would explain (and not really even realize what I was doing) the flies would all disappear because we’d pulled out a fly swatter, and they were hiding in a corner somewhere creating diagrams of how they would counter-attack when we were least expecting it.

Seriously, I was totally in the dark that I even did this. It was just how I made small talk.

Another seemingly unrelated thing was what I considered a very bad habit: my mind would constantly come up with the worst possible scenarios for everyday mundane events. These I kept to myself, because I thought I was going nuts. Villians, terrorists, deranged killers, monsters, demons — I would enter a restaurant and scope out the quickest escape, or the most logical counter-attack … not that I believed these things would happen, but the horrible scenarios would play out in my head like a TV show.

I wondered: How long have I been like this? Have I been doing this all my life? Did I do this as a child? It was horrible, and more than once I tried to get in to see a psychologist to find what was wrong with me.

But then, one day only a few weeks ago, I realized it had gone away. Completely. And the reason I noticed this is because suddenly it started coming back — and that is when I discovered why.

This bad habit of imagining horrible scenarios had begun after I’d stopped writing fiction. But in October of 2019 I started writing again, and then didn’t even notice this bad habit had vanished. That is, until I’d finished the first draft of the new novel, then it started up again.

That’s when I realized what was going on.

If I’m not plotting the next several scenes in a novel, my “story brain” has nothing better to do than to have a mad gunman invade McDonald’s, or have an airplane crash into my building at work, or have a meteor strike while I’m driving cross country — leaving me to figure out how exactly I’d survive.

It appears I need to constantly be writing fiction just to keep the demons at bay.