Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall - Bond Hits Fifty- Fifty Hits Back

I saw the new James Bond movie Skyfall, today, and loved it. In many ways it's a new departure for the Bond films. There are the traditional elements, the gunfights, the chases, on foot and in a car (don't try this at home kiddies, traffic ordinances may vary), and the pyrotechnics. The villain is properly villainy, with the usual sadistic twist tinged with a slight hint of sexual perviness. Watch for the scene where he has Bond captive. Really, Bond? Not your first time? Who knew?
There are some changes. We say goodbye to old cast members and hello to new ones. I liked the old Q, Desmond Llewelyn (R.I.P., old friend.) and will miss him, but the youngster (Ben Whisaw) replacing him is right for the times. The first meeting between him and Bond is almost classic, filled with subtext on many levels. Judi Dench dies too, and I will miss her, but she had a good run.
There are changes. The opening credits are different. Instead of the usual nude silhouettes we get a sort of dream sequence, telling some of the story. Daniel Craig portrays Bond as more human, and flawed. He's not the uber-spy of some of the classic Bond films. He's at his weakest after being shot, falling off a bridge, nearly drowning, and "enjoying death", as he calls it, after returning to meet M in her office. She was writing his obituary, and he remarks later he thought it appalling. He's also more of an adult. He doesn't bed any of the Bond girls this time around, which I found refreshing.  I always found that aspect of the Bond novels and movies disturbing. Aside from the moral aspects I always thought it highly unprofessional, and dangerous, in many ways. His partner Eve is treated with respect. (Good for you, James!) Watch the movie to find out her last name. The other girl, Severigne, is tragic, but not some disposable sex toy.
The Villain, Silver, is suitably over the top. I liked/hated him. We get a new M, properly foreshadowed. The Aston-Martin returns for a brief run. R.I.P  Nice to see those machine-guns in action once again.
In my last blog I noted how real espionage differs from the Bond films. This film has a more realistic, and timely menace. The villain is plausible, with plausible motives. And cyber-terrorism is a very real and worrisome threat in this day and age.
The Bond novels and films have alsways been topical, and this one is no different. It's fun to watch the old classics now and then to see how the world was viewed back then. By the way, there really was a SMERSH, a predecessor of the KGB, and is an acronym of the Russian phrase Shmert Spionam, or Death To Spies! They had flair back then. Sigh.
I liked when M gave Bond his traveling kit. No fancy gadgets, just passport and ID, a minature radio and his sidearm, a Walter PPK in 9mm short, or .380 Auto as we call it on this side of the pond. I had no problems with the ID, passport, and radio. But I do not regard the .380 as a combat round. I like large caliber sidearms. The gun has a sensor that recognises Bond's palmprint, so that only he can fire it. The Bond films like the latest gimmicks, but in real life, I prefer to Keep It Simple. If I reach for my sidearm I do not want to have to worry if it will remember me or not!
I did like the Komodo Dragons by the way.
On the whole I liked the movie. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"The King ... should divide the day as well as the night into eight parts . . . During the fifth, he should … keep himself informed of the secret reports brought by spies.... During the first one-eighth part of the night, he should meet the officers of the secret service.... During the seventh, he should hold consultations and send out the officers of the secret service for their operations."

The Duties of a King – The Arthasastra
Kautilya, Prime Minister to Emperor Chandragupta Maurya  (4th Century BCE)

I went to a movie this last week, Hope Springs, with Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep. Wonderful. I highly recommend it. Both are great actors and worth the price of admission.
While there I saw the previews for Skyfall, the next James Bond movie, due out next fall. Since I am a fan of the James Bond films I plan to see it.

Talking to some people afterwards I realized that for most people the Bond movies are all that they know of Intelligence work. Sometimes their perceptions will be influenced by depictions of ninjas in various Japanese movies. While both are entertaining, they are misleading and can have serious consequences, particularly in political matters, when people's opinions of events are heavily influenced by popularly held views of Intelligence, views formed by depictions in novels, movies, and .television. All the more so when those people are elected representatives, tasked with making decisions regarding National Security. I would hope they are briefed on what real Intelligence work is like, but apparently many are not, judging by public utterances that occasionally surface.
As the heading indicates, spying is nothing new. The earliest records known that detail the use of secret agents is in the Art of War by Sun Tzu, believed to have been written at about the same time as the Arthasastra. In the the thirteenth, or final, chapter, Sun Tzu details the five types of secret agents and how they are used:
  • Native agents are people of an enemy country that are employed for a variety of purposes.
  • Inside agents are officials in the enemy government.
  • Double agents are enemy spies that have been turned.
  • Expendable, or dead, agents are sent on missions with fabricated information. Upon capture and interrogation they divulge that information and so help to deceive the enemy.
  • Living agents are those who are sent on missions and return with information. These are closest to what are popularly regarded as secret agents. Lin Mei and Biao Mei are this sort of agent.
In modern espionage we have added the handler, a sort of manager who runs an agent, as well a a few others such as false defectors whose mission is to spread disinformation.

For convenience I will use Sun Tzu's terms.

Native agents can be anything, shopkeepers, taxi drivers, housewives, or janitors and maintenance workers, anyone with either situational or operational cover. Situational cover is a cover appropriate to the situation. A man running a coffee stand across the street from a government building has situational cover. Operational cover is cover that allows operations. A cabbie, who can go anywhere in a city without attracting too much attention has operational cover. In many cases they may not know who they are working for, and may not even know they are working as spies. Their handler may be the friend they share drinks and shoptalk and/or gossip with after work.

Inside agents are particularly valuable. Many civil servants are poorly paid and badly treated, and have access to valuable data. Even the most innocuous-seeming information can yield valuable intelligence to skilled analysts and technicians.

Double agents can be especially valuable. First they can be used to feed false information to the enemy. Also, the instructions given to them can reveal what the enemy is interested in, which is valuable in itself. Then, learning their methods, training procedures, and protocols can help uncover other agents. Really good ones may be sent back to their home country as spies.

Expendable agents are not used so much these days, but do try to stay on good terms with your superiors.

Living agents are what most people think of when they think of secret agents. In modern parlance they are sometimes referred to as combatants. These types of agents may have either situational or operational cover, or both. Lin Mei and Biao Mei are caravan guards, and so have reason to travel about and meet all sorts of people. But because it was such a good cover, caravaneers were often suspected of being spies, and so were often at risk. The second wave of Mongol conquests began when the Shah of Kwarizm, Alladin Muhammed, ordered the killing of an entire caravan on suspicion of being spies. Genghis Khan sent an ambassador and envoys to protest.  Alladin Muhammed had them killed too, except for a few envoys who were sent back with word of the deed. Genghis Khan was annoyed, to put it mildly. Two years later Kwarizm no longer existed.

Combatant is sometimes used to describe agents who are trained for the rough stuff. In the Soviet era KGB they were sometimes referred to as Para-militaries. Sometimes, and out of earshot, they were called baboons.

A danger with being a living agent is that you may spend so much time in-country that you may come to identify and sympathize with the people around you. For a really good novel about being a living agent try The Romulan Way by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood.

An agent is anyone who has access to the target. The target is a physical object: a document, a photograph, a recording, a location, or an actual physical object. The agent may take a document, copy it, or photograph it. Conversations  or speeches may be recorded.  A location may be photographed. Air and soil samples taken downwind of an industrial site or a government research installation can be useful.

Secrets are remarkably easy to steal. Getting them out is the problem. First the agent must get them out of the site, be it a government installation, a military base, or office building. Then the secrets must be passed to the handler. Since most secrets are found in world capitols, this is a problem. These cities are so penetrated by intelligence agencies that finding a dead-letter drop, a place where messages or objects can be safely left for pickup, that is not already being used by another agency, can be difficult. In theory a Counter-Espionage unit could simply stake out the best drop sites and eventually catch some spies in the act. This is why native agents are so useful. A shopkeeper has people coming in all the time. A taxi driver can pick people up anywhere in town and take them anywhere. They leave behind fares, tips, and bundles or envelopes under the seat. These are also covers that a living agent can easily assume without much in the way of a background check. The next step, a meeting with an agent who can take them out of the country, is also difficult. The main concern of an agent sent to meet with another agent is appearing to be out of place. Places like the theater district of a major city are favored, since it can be difficult to appear out of place there, given the bohemian nature of the theater world. A city like San Francisco, with a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and counter-cultural population is ideal for meetings. In San Francisco you can show up for a meeting in tutu, high heels, and bikini top and not raise an eyebrow. Bonus points if you're a guy.

Recruiting agents is a very delicate task. The acronym used is MICE. Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego.

Money is almost always involved, in some way or other, for expenses if nothing else. Also, an agent may want getting-away money in the event he is found out and manages to escape. But most often it simple greed or need. As as I said above, most civil servants are poorly paid and badly treated. The amount can vary and is not determined by the value of the information acquired. As a rule of thumb, an agent is paid enough to make an appreciable improvement in his life, but not so much it may make him dependent on it. Other arrangements may be made for particularly valuable agents who may someday have to defect.

The best agents are motivated by ideology. They are in sympathy with, or believe in a cause. Agents are told whatever will help to recruit them. A Francophile will be told his orders come from the DGSE, an Anglophile is told he is working for MI6, a Israeli sympathizer will be told he is working for the Mossad, a Palestinian sympathizer will be told he is working for the Palestinian Authority Intelligence Service (believed on good evidence to be an arm of the Mossad), and so on. The professionals are in it for the money.

Compromise can be of any type. Sex is not so much used anymore. In today's permissive era it doesn't work so well. The same applies to gambling debts. The most common way to subvert an inside agent is through gifts. They start out small at first, lunch, a drink after work, or tickets to a game or show. A consistent pattern is more important than the amount. But if you have a government job and it comes out that you have received gifts, no matter how small, from a foreign agent, your job is over. No overt threats need be made. You know what can happen.

The quid pro quo may be minor at first. You may be told that your "friend" is an insurance agent, or a business man planning a direct mail ad campaign, and you may be asked to provide some names for the mailing list. That sets the hook. At some point soon after, someone will contact you for "The Talk" You are now a secret agent. Not so much fun is it?

If you have any secrets that might cause you to lose your job, beware. Drug use, an extra-marital affair, or a deep, dark, secret from your past, all can be used against you. This is known as the "hard shoulder." The Israelis are known for this, and if one of their agents should stumble across something that can be used, you will be working for the Mossad.

Ego is a major motivation. Resentment and revenge are key factors in betrayal. Personnel lists and work records are key targets for intelligence. People who have been passed over for promotion, have been disciplined for rule infractions, or work for indifferent or abusive bosses are all ripe for recruitment.

In general, if three people have access to a target, a handler may safely count on recruiting at least one of them.

In fiction a living agent is given a cover identity and undertakes a mission. "Here are your papers, Mr. Bond. You will pose an an executive for Global Export and Import." Not  so fast. Cover identities take years to develop  and are never going to stand up to close scrutiny. There are background checks.  Trust me, they are thorough. Living agents will try to cultivate a native or inside agent, some one who has already been vetted. I suspect that was what Anna Chapman and her fellow Russian spies were trying to accomplish before being caught in 2010. They came dangerously close to succeeding.

An additional complication in today's world is that so many government functions have been privatized. Everyone has heard of the Private Military Contractors, formerly called mercenaries. Not so well known is the concurrent rise of private intelligence agencies. A lot of work that used to be done in-house is now contracted out, from routine bookkeeping and records management to full-scale field operations. These add a new layer of complexity to the business. They are often staffed by former Intelligence professionals, and once they grow past a certain size, become global in scope with an International staff. Also, because they are motivated by profit rather than ideology, their loyalties may be nominal. In addition the profit motive can result in cost-cutting shortcuts, which can result in security breaches. Some of them have been serious.

In addition this has blurred the line between National and corporate espionage. Those outfits work for anyone who will pay, and once information gets into their hands, it can be sold multiple times to several buyers. A security system is only as good as the people running it, and those outfits have clients with deep pockets. Next time you're in the DMV, or your bank, or any place where sensitive data is stored,, take a look at the people working there. Most could use some extra cash.

Another complication is that many modern criminal syndicates and terrorist groups have their own intelligence services. Some of them are run by professionals formerly of National Intelligence Services who are now for hire. The former Soviet Union produced many out of work spies who found they had a marketable skill set. But many Western operatives have also gone rogue. In the wake of 9-11 many investigators were shocked to find that Al-Queda had been running a very effective intelligence service, and they themselves had been under surveillance. Their identities, addresses, base sites, operations and procedures, and working IDs were all known. Needless to say, there have been some changes made.

This is just a quick view of real intelligence work. If you are planning a spy novel of your own, have fun.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Believable Characters

Fictional characters need not be believable. Superman comes immediately to mind, as do other superheroes. But in fiction that purports to be about real life, or at least in the real world, they do need to be reasonably believable and human. Even so I am often making faces when reading a story or novel, or watching a movie or TV series.
Often writers will do a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) story. The protagonist will possess a myriad of virtues, strengths, talents and abilities, solve all sorts of mysteries or problems, rescue damsels in distress, or be rescued, and live happily ever after, or at least until the next episode.
Breaking news, people: Nobody's perfect.
While rereading the Telzey Amberdon stories recently I noted that in each story she discovers some new ability or way to use her psi-powers, so that by the time the stories end she has almost God(dess)-like powers. While I like the stories and enjoyed reading them, I found I could not relate to her. I do not have psi-powers, am not a genius level xeno-telepath, and do not come from a wealthy family that can afford to indulge me with flying cars and other toys. (Sigh).  Other characters by James Schmitz were more likable and believable.
Niles Etland, xeno-biologist on the watery world of Nandi-Cline, was one. Smart, quick-tempered,  deadly accurate with her UW gun, she matches wits with humans and aliens, accompanied by a pair of talking otters. Hmm. In The Demon Breed (serialized in Analog magazine as The Tuvela) she bluffs an alien invasion and eventually defeats them by using her knowledge of Nandi-Clines fauna and flora. She is the epitome of a Bad-Ass Bookworm.
Danestar Gems, of the Kyth Interstellar Detective Agency, was another character I liked. In "The Searcher," she and her partner must defeat simultaneously a malevolent energy being and a group of professional criminals, all after the same object, using only her wits and technical expertise.  Someone I could relate to.
And of course there is Trigger Argee. Sometimes partnered with Telzey, she works for the Psychology Service, a sort of Psi-powered CIA/FBI intel organization (scary thought). Lacking psi-powers of her own, she relies on her wits and her Denton sidearm to deal with bad guys. She makes mistakes, such as falling for Mr. Wrong before finally meeting Mr. Right (more or less, a guy with a nickname like Bad News Quillan would scare me off).
C.J. Cherryh has created a variety of characters that are likable and believable, not all of them human. Downbelow station had several, all caught up in the cyclone of politics and war that was sweeping through their universe. And who can forget the chillingly cold-blooded Signy Mallory?
In Cuckoo's Egg she gave us Dunn, the alien Samurai/Judge. I wish she'd write more about him. And in the Foreigner series we have Bren Cameron, Paidhi (ambassador/translator) to the Atevi, and his lover, Jago, an seven foot tall Atevi Assassin. Nice couple. I like the way the relationship develops over the series.
In the contemporary world there a few I like. Modesty Blaise, the protagonist of a series of novels and comic strips, is one. Smart, tough, and skilled at combat, she is no one's fool. A former criminal, she is cool, chic, and independent. She sometimes takes on missions ("capers" she calls them) for MI6, mainly because she finds retirement from a life of crime too  boring. While she and her side-kick, Willie Garvin (with whom she has a close, but platonic, relationship) are a little TOO effective and skilled, I find the stories fun to read.
Ms. Tree is another contemporary character I like. Prone to anger and vendettas, she never-the-less has some virtues. She is loyal, brave (to the point of madness on occasion), tough and smart. Her adventures deal with real-life situations.
On TV one of my favorite shows is NCIS, the original version. It is a team of investigators for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service ( a real-life organization I have run into now and then, and a great bunch of people). Ziva David, former Israeli Mossad Operative, is my favorite among them, but team-leader Gibbs (described as a functional mute by Special Agent Tony DeNozzo), and Forensic expert Abby, also are fun, as well as the rest of the gang, (BTW, Abby is played by Pauly Perrette, who is a real-life forensic expert.) One of my fave shows. The spin-off, set in Los Angeles, not so much. While many people have a Dark and Mysterious Past, there is something called a background check, as well as periodic psych evaluations. How that bunch got hired, and why they stay in a Federal Agency, is the real mystery in the series. Why does Hollywood think that over-grown adolescents are heroic? I stopped watching the latest version of Hawaii Five-0 because of that. I prefer adults, thank you.
Bones is another favorite mystery series. Temperance Brennan is a semi-catatonic Forensic Anthropologist, who is teamed up with FBI Agent Sealy Booth. A fun pair, even if he did knock her up in the last season.
In general I prefer adult characters, with reasonable skill-sets, who are reasonably well-adjusted. Those are the sort of people I like to read about, and watch.

Enough for now. See you next time.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Like most everyone, I was shocked and disgusted by the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. There have been, and will be, many blog posts regarding it. But I wish to address one viewpoint that arises almost every time some horrific event like this happens. Invariably, someone will say that if there had been an "armed citizen" present, the matter would have been over quickly, with many lives saved. This is usually coupled with arguments that private citizens should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. There is a certain percentage of fandom that holds to this view, and I have run into several of them.
Some background. I have owned and carried firearms most of my adult life. I am trained, qualified, and licensed to carry sidearms ranging from 9mm to .45 Auto, and everything in between. I have carried and fired almost everything from shotguns, rifles, and submachine guns to assault rifles. Real ones, not the junk marketed as "assault rifles" at the local gun store. I have been present at situations where gunfire was exchanged, and while I have been fortunate enough never to have shot and killed anyone, I have helped take down armed and dangerous felons and have come very close to shooting some of them. I own several firearms, and unless I am being paid to carry one, they are not taken out of storage unless I am going to the range to practice. My sidearms are not a political or fashion statement.
People who like to fantasize about what they would have done if they had been there with a gun have no idea what a real gunfight is like.
First, consider the site. In Aurora Colorado it was a darkened movie theater. A psycho suddenly appeared and begins firing. Disconcerting. Then there are the sounds. What you hear on TV and movies are blanks. Live ammo can literally be deafening, and the side blast can shatter windows. In seconds you have a screaming, panic-stricken mob scrambling to escape. Theaters are cramped, with as many seats as the local safety ordinances will allow. People are running along narrow spaces, climbing over seats, and falling down all over each other while a gunman is shooting them down. The floor slopes down to the screen, and blood is slippery, which only adds to the confusion as people slip and fall. In addition there are the sounds and light from the movie to add to the confusion.
Somehow, in the middle of the jostling mob you manage to draw your sidearm. Somehow you manage to spot and identify the gunman. Somehow, in the middle of the screaming, panicked mob, you have a clear line of fire.
Note, if you should happen to shoot anyone else, no one will cut you any slack. Not the police, DA, Courts, the public, nor the media. A zebra being torn apart by hyenas will be having a better day. And things will get worse.
The families of the injured and dead will want blood. If they can't get it they will go for everything else. All you own or will ever have is up for grabs. Lawsuits are no fun. Trust me. If you should injure or kill an innocent civilian, you can kiss the rest of your life goodbye.
But let's say you get a momentary clear line of fire. Oops, he's wearing body armor. While most body armor will stop most pistol rounds, the impact will hurt. So now you have a pissed-off psycho with an assault rifle. So you try for a head shot.
I am a better than average shooter. Not just my opinion, my test scores on my twice-yearly requalifications placed me in the top five percentile. On the range, in good light, with a stationary target, I can consistently expect to make a head shot at fifteen meters. In a darkened theater, with a moving target who is shooting back at me, in the middle of a screaming, panic-stricken mob? I would not bet my life on it, or anyone else's.
Also, what if there is another "armed citizen" in the theater? He draws his sidearm. How do you both know you're on the same side? Things could get very ugly very quickly.
Also, theaters are big buildings, and are usually made with lots of reinforced concrete. A 9mm leaves the muzzle at over 1300 ft/sec, a .45 at about 1000 ft/sec. You cannot control potential ricochets.
But maybe you're the only armed one there, and by some weird, and very fortunate, concatenation of events, you manage to get the drop on him and fire off a shot that scores. At that moment the local SWAT team rushes in armed and ready, adrenaline flooding through their bloodstream, to find you standing amidst a hellish scene with a smoking gun in your hand. Guess what happens next.
My feeling is that you should keep your fantasies about gunfights in your daydreams, or put them into your novel about Penelope Courage, Girl Secret Agent. If you should ever be so unlucky as to be caught in such a situation, Get The Hell Out of There, and to a safe place. Take out your cell phone and try to give the police the clearest, calmest description of what is happening. They will appreciate the intel. Leave the gunplay to the professionals with the weapons, the gear, the training, and the experience.
If you really want to play with assault rifles and such, join the military or the police. They'll give you the training, the gun, and the paperwork that says you can carry and use them. It's not as much fun as you may think.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Conventions and shortcuts

I finally went to see the latest Batman movie, and mostly liked it. It was way too long and noisy, and could easily have been split into two movies, but still, it was okay. I found myself analyzing it, on several levels. As a writer I noticed the various conventions used to establish location, time, and genre. It is obiously set in a  modern New York City, There were establishing shots of the City skyline, and of various landmarks. There were shots of grimy streets, elaborate mansions, and sleek, modernistic boardrooms. There were the standard stock characters, the Irish Cops, the Eastern European Mercenaries, and the English butler (Michael Caine alone was worth the price of admission) All to set the background for the type of story it would be.
It all got me to thinking.
In writing we use standard conventions to set the time and place for our stories. These are assumed to be present in the minds of the reader, easily recognized by everyone. If a story is set in Ancient Rome there will be Legionaires, Senators in togas, seductive maidens in diaphanous stola, gladiators and slaves, all set against a background of the Colliseum, the forum, and villas with marble columns. A story set in the European Middle Ages will feature mounted knights in armor,  stone castles, monks, lords and ladies, jugglers and jesters.
Stories set in the modern era will include familiar landmarks and skylines. If set in my home city, San Francisco, there will be cable cars climbing hills, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Tower, Chinatown, and colorful Victorian houses. Depending on the era there will be hardboiled detectives prowling fog-shrouded streets, Beatniks, hippies, or yuppies.
Such stock settings and characters save time and make it easy for the reader to slide into the story with minimal exposition.
But they can also be traps. By selecting easily recognized characteristics and bringing them to the forefront we present an unrealistic portrait of reality. We ignore all else, often to the detriment of an accurate, well-rounded picture. San Francisco is so much more that the standard images shown to the rest of the world by Hollywood and the tourist industry. There are all the ethnic neighborhoods, with their own restaurants, bookstores, and coffee or tea shops. Italian, Russian, Serbian, Vietnamese, Korean,  and Japanese. There are bookstores, and art galleries, Golden Gate Park,  and The Beach House Chalet. Those of you who live in other well-known cities can doubtless contribute more examples.
My stories of Lin Mei and Biao Mei are set during the Tang Dynasty in China. Most people, when they think of China, think of Hollywood China, with pagodas, lavish palaces, eunuchs, high-flying warriors with slashing, razor-edged swords, lovely warrior-maidens in silk robes, Mandarins in heavy brocade silk robes, and some serious costume-porn.
Tang China was not like that. While sharing some attributes with later eras, it was unique and interesting in ways not known by most people. At that time China was at a height of power and glory, the most powerful empire on Earth. It was cosmopolitan, with Japanese, Koreans, Persians, Arabs, and Indians all present, with their own neighborhoods, along with many other ethnic groups. Trade goods from as far away as Europe were to be found in the markets and state warehouses.
Abroad Tang armies marched as far west as Herat, in modern-day western Afghanistan, They clashed with Tibet, (called Tifun at that time, a war-like and predatory barbarian empire), the Turks, the Arabs, and the nomads of the steppes.
At home it was not like most people today envision it. For one thing the language was different, being more like Burman or Tibetan. China is divided into regions, the most important being North and South. The North, where Lin Mei and Biao Mei come from, had a strong Turkish influence, with dress, food, and customs markedly different from the South. It had a barbarian tinge to it.
The stories are set in the Far West, in what are now called Turkestan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgystan, as well as Tibet.
Today the land is arid, Moslem, and mainly Turkic. Then it was peopled mainly by Indo-Europeans, akin to modern day Iranians, of varied religions, but mainly Buddhist, with a strong Greek culteral overlay, thanks to the armies of Alexander the Great. Canals and Qanats (underground aqueducts) brought water down from the mountains, making the land fertile and rich. It was a land of lords and ladies, knights in mail armor on sturdy horses, merchants and trade. A time and place like none before or since.
To describe such a setting without taking up too much time in exposition and description requires using a few well-placed descriptive sentences. Most authors are familiar with that.
But the same can be said of any other setting. For example, most western fantasy stories are set in a medieval European setting as described above. But anyone familiar with European history will tell you it was much more complex, with kingdoms and lands that have since vanished. Most of modern Europe did not exist prior to the Renaissance, or even later. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, for example, spread across half of Europe at one time, and their armies campaigned against Russians, Swedes, Turks, and Huns. It was the famous Winged Hussars (one of the most colorful armies ever) that lifted the siege of Vienna.
The Empire of Aragon covered much of the Mediterranean, and played a vital role in history. Burgundy was a series of states, kingdoms, and duchys that played a crucial role in making modern Europe.
And Japan was much more that the generic lords, ladies and samurai depicted in popular stories.
A closer look at real historical lands and times will yield a plethora of potential settings and backgrounds for stories, and give the readers a greater selection of stories.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My Favorite Authors, part 1 of ...

Before I begin, some news. My story collection The Temple Cats will be free on Kindle on Tuesday, July 17, 2012. At the end of the month it will no longer be exclusive to Kindle and we can do a Nook version.
Now to the Blog. I'm new to this, so I think I'll start with my favorite authors. So many! As you can see from my books read list, I have a wide variety of interests. And I read a lot. I left out the soup can labels because they don't have ISBNs. As far as fiction goes, I have strong inclination towards Science Fiction and Fantasy, Mystery, and Spy Fiction. As a young person I spent a LOT of time in libraries and used book stores. Many treasures did I find therein.
First the classics:
  • Jules Verne. Who has not read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? I have the Ron Miller translation (1987) by Unicorn Press, with Ron Miller's illustrations and technical drawings. This version is closer to the original French version, and I feel, more true to Verne's vision than any other. I heartily recommend all his other works as well. Verne blazed trails well-trod by many others since.
  • H.G. Wells. I first read The Time Machine one cold winter evening up in my room with the rain beating against my window and a mug of hot apple cider by my bed. It made that much of an impression on me that I remember every detail of my surroundings. The true relationship of the Eloi and the Morlocks left my neck hairs standing on end. His other works are just as good.
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs. While some would disagree, I regard the Tarzan books as Science-Fiction. Africa then was Unknown Lands (Some would say it still is.) where anything could happen. Of all of the stories, Tarzan and the Ant Men is my All-Time Fave of the Tarzan stories. I liked some of the Barsoom stories too, but the Tarzan stories are my preference.
  • Harold Lamb. Not too well known these days. I found a collection of his stories, The Curved Saber, in the library when I was in college, and read it in one weekend. I now own a copy of that edition. It contains most of the Khlit the Cossack stories. Set at the end of the 16th century they are the adventures of one of the most interesting chracters I've run across in fiction. A Cossack who is deemed too old to ride with the other Cossacks, Khlit rides off on his own in search of adventure. His travels take him to Persia, India, Tibet, China, much of Central Asia, and finally back to Russia. He ages along the way, relying on his wits more and more, until at the end he has relinquished his saber to his son and is content to sit in camp, drink corn whisky, and plot strategy. The stories take place in the lands I set the Temple cats stories in, so obviously there was an influence.
  • C.L. Moore. If you have not read Jirel of Joiry, shame on you. I have Black God's Shadow, a story collection, published by Donald M. Grant in 1977, and illustrated by Alicia Austin. A treasure. Written in the thirties, the stories are classics. Jirel is a true warrior woman, independent of any man. Although her adventures take her to Hell and back (literally!) she lacks any supernatural powers (unless you count a fiery temper) relying only on her sword and warrior skills.
  • Robert van Gulik. I read all of the Judge Dee stories in school. Loved them. Not my first look into the Orient, but an important one. I have the Dover edition, published in 1976, and have read it many times.
  • James P. Marquand. I found the Mr. Moto stories in the library and read them all. Written from the thirties to the fifties, they survive quite well despite the stereotypes common to the time. I've seen some of the movies made from the stories, and despite my liking for Peter Lorre, I do not recommend them. The books are another matter. If you can find them, read them.
  • Cordwainer Smith. Another writer of the golden age not too well known these days. His real name was Paul Linebarger, and his life story rivals most fiction. Army officer, spy, diplomat, writer, and psy warfare expert. He literally wrote the manual on psy warfare for the US Army, and it remains the definitive work. He wrote mainstream novels under other names. One of them, Atomsk, is a classic. A spy thriller with psy warfare as the gimmick, it was way ahead of its time. His science-fiction stories are classics, and strange. They have been collected in The Rediscovery of Man by NESFA Press. He was heavily influenced by Chinese literature, and it shows. Try reading some of them aloud to see what I mean. The Ballad of lost C'mell, The Game of Rat and Dragon, Scanners Live In Vain, and The Burning of the Brain are just a few. The last is one of the scariest stories I have ever read. I read it late one night and stayed up until dawn.
Slightly more modern:
  • Peter O'Donnell. The Modesty Blaise stories. Written from 1965 to 1996 they started as a comic strip, then branched out into novels and short stories. There was a terrible movie made, which is interesting, if you like sixties camp. I first read all the novels, before recently discovering the comics. Many people disparage the comic strip format, but some of the best writing has been in that form. I heartily recommend the novels. Many say Modesty is James Bond with boobs. Not so! If you read what Peter O'Donnell has to say about how he came to create Modesty, including the real-life inspiration, you'll see what I mean. To begin with, Modesty is no spy. With Willie Garvin, with whom she has a strong, platonic bond, she is her own woman, and works for no one. She may sometimes take on "capers" for MI6, but more often she and Willie take on bad guys on their own. I read all the novels and liked them all, but I, Lucifer stands out. She is not to everyone's taste, but I liked her.
  • Andre Norton. What can I say? It is one of the high points of my life that I met her once, and she was a delightful and charming lady. I loved her Time Trader stories, as well as many others, but it is Beast Master that has pride of place on my bookshelf. Hosteen Storm, the Navaho veteran of a devastated Terra's armed forces, is a compelling character. The story and the sequel, Lord of Thunder, follow his quest for vengeance on an arid world much like his home in the American Southwest. I loved his team of animal companions. He made Meerkats cool long before Disney heard of them.
  • Madeline L'Engle. I was fortunate enough to meet her once. Another fantastic lady. Her Wrinkle in Time is a must-read.
  • Marion Zimmer Bradley. I first read The Colors of Space. Then I was introduced to her Darkover stories and was hooked. I prefer Stormqueen and Hawkmistress to her other works, finding the Ages of Chaos more interesting than that which came after. But I loved the Free Amazons. Highly recommend all her works. And of course there is Mists Of Avalon.
  • C.J. Cherryh. A wonderful lady and a great writer. Downbelow Station, Merchanter's Luck, Tri-Point, Forty Thousand In Gehenna, Serpent's reach, Cuckoo's Egg, and of course, the Foreigner series, all sit on my shelves, along with others.
  • Lois McMaster Bujold. Who cannot love Miles Vorkossigan? My fave is Cetaganda, but the rest are good too.
  • James Schmitz. His stories of the Hub are fantastic. The Hub is one of the most interesting settings in Science Fiction, almost a character in its own right. And of course there are Telzey Amberdon, Trigger Argee, Niles Etland (and her talking otters), Danestar Gems, Pilch, Quillan, and all the others. Not all his stories are set in the Hub. Harold Gage appears in The Custodians, a non-Hub story, and one of my favorite Schmitz stories. Baen Books has reissued the Schmitz stories, and I heartily recommend them. Also, The Witches of Karres, a fun romp.
  • Elizabeth Lynn. Writes short stories and novels. Her shorts stories are all good, but The Woman Who Loved the Moon stands out. Of her novels, The Watchtower, The Dancers of Arun, and The Northern Girl are my favorites. The background culture of the novels is a major character, and in the stories we see it born, in its heyday, and then as it starts to decline. Terrific writer and a very nice lady.
  • Max Allen Collins. Most likely you've never heard of him. Did a comic strip: Ms. Tree. As I said before, many people disparage the format, but a lot of good writing is found there. Ms. Tree is a hard-boiled detective who sees her husband murdered on her wedding night, and her vendetta rampage is at the core of her career. But it's not that simple. The stories deal with topics not normally covered in any format. First of all there are real-life consequences. She kills people and is arrested and intitutionalized and is used in drug-testing experiments. When she gets out and returns to her career she has to deal with date-rape, tracks down a killer while pregnant, and has run-ins with devil worshippers, and teen-age porn moguls, among others. The stories deal with incest, after-life experiences, betrayal, and serious questions of family loyalty. (What do you do when your adopted son is going to marry into the crime family that killed your husband?) Like Modesty Blaise, not to everyone's taste, but I enjoyed the stories.
  • Steve Gallacci. Another comic series. I'm not into Furry Fandom, but I loved the Erma Felna stories. They are very good science-fiction. It's all there. Mysterious origins, hi-tech, Psy-war, tech-specs, Socio-political warfare, discussions on philosophy, politics, strategy, and a cast of interesting characters, including Erma Felna, a cat commando. What more could you want?
  • Shirow Masamune. Ghost in the Shell. A series of comics, TV anime series, and some anime movies, centering around Major Motoko Kusanagi, a mysterious cyborg who leads Section Nine, a secretive unit of the Japanese National Police in a futuristic Japan. In a world where people have cybernetic brains, identity theft takes on a whole new meaning. The stories have good plots, interesting situations, and deal with questions of identity, purpose, and social interactions. There are a lot of philosophical discussions, and the English translations can leave something to be desired, but I loved the stories. It is also an interesting look into how others view the world. In our culture being a individualist is considered good, but Motoko and her men must deal with a terrorist group called the Individualist Eleven. And of course there is Appleseed and the sequel, Appleseed Ex Machina. One of the reasons I like anime and manga, and their equivalents in other cultures, is that you can learn more about a culture from the popular culture than from any number of scholarly tomes.
That's all for now. See you next week.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Just starting my blog, my first ever. I'm mostly known for a series of stories about a young girl, Lin Mei, her brother Biao Mei, and a pair of telepathic cats, Shadow and Twilight, set in the early years of Tang Dynasty China, approximately 620 to 650. There have been six so far, the latest will be published in November 2012. At the moment I am collecting and expanding them, along with a lot of additional material, into a book. I'll keep you posted. I plan to explore various topics in these blogs, from history, ancient technology, influences on my writing, and general interests of mine.
As you may have read on other sites, I hang out at the Asian Art Museum here in San Francisco (which I heartily recommend, even if you don't have an interest in things Asian), explore sushi bars,  collect Asian art, have an interest in Zen Archery, Asian swords and swordsmanship (Japanese and Chinese), and assorted other Asian arts and crafts. It does keep me busy.
I am interested in more than just the past. I read Science fiction, have a shelf load of books about technology and science, and watch as many of the History and Discover Channel specials as I can find time for. A guilty pleasure is the Deadliest Warrior series, on Spike TV, available on-line now that the series has aired its last show. The tests of ancient and modern weapons are good research, if a bit over the top sometimes.
At present I do not have any cats, although I have in the past, along with several dogs, a hamster, two tarantulas, and four octopuses and two squids. (Long story, don't ask.). I have a notepad filled with notes that I may someday turn into a current-day spy/crime novel. Depends on how my current projects turn out.
Enough for today. See you soon!