the roar of the spheres

In the fine tradition of Sample Sunday, here’s an excerpt from my near-Earth space opera The Roar of the Spheres. By chapter 9, the crew of the Frontier Assessment has gotten themselves into some trouble on Mars. With their brilliant lawyer Shelby framed and jailed, their plan to free the colonists of Titan is about to be knocked off the rails. Here, the future of thousands depends on busting one woman out of jail.

The alarm raged through the Creative Reform Services detention facility before we’d even reached Shelby, an up-and-down cry of panic and fear that sounded exactly like an old air raid siren. Like they were trying to evoke some primal memory of hiding under desks while nuclear fire stripped the world to ashes. Like they meant to scare us.

It was working.

The plan, like all good ones, had been simple: Pete and I would go in as Shelby’s visitors while Baxter, whose artificial body couldn’t pass the security scans no matter how cunningly it resembled the real thing to human eyes and touch, waited outside with a rented electric cart. Fay, tapped into CRS’ security network, would unlock our path to the front doors while sealing off everything else. At most, we’d have a receptionist and a stray guard to karate chop on our way back to the street. Baxter’s idling cart would then whisk us away to the spaceport’s private gate, where a local pilot would rocket us to Fay, who’d be running interference the whole time, keeping CRS locked down and isolated while ensuring nobody tried to do anything insane like seal us in a dome or cut off the spaceport.

None of which sounded all that simple to me. It sounded like an awful lot of running through enemy territory with a limited number of exits, all of which could theoretically be blocked off. Fay assured me if we moved fast enough no one would be able to react in time to pin us down, and if it was wrong and they had their shit together and had a security force waiting for us at the spaceport (“And how would they even know you’d be headed there at all?” Fay asked), it could, as a last resort, respond with violent force. As the alarm keened up, freezing me in place as I shuddered like a dying engine, I was reminded, for the millionth time, how we don’t always get what we want.

“That does not sound like a positive development,” Baxter said through our earbuds, barely audible over the whooping alarm.

I sprinted deeper into the deserted reception room, as if expecting Shelby would materialize like an anti-mirage once I got close enough to see her. “What’s going on?”

“Badness,” Fay said.

“More badness.” Pete pointed to a door sliding open in front of us. He roundhoused the first face that showed itself—a white-uniformed guard, fortunately, who collapsed in the doorway and tripped his partner onto the tile. With his face so close to my foot, I gave it a kick, then knelt down to punch him out. Pete stripped them of their stunners and lobbed one my way.

“To define ‘badness,'” Fay said with a brightness that suggested more curiosity than concern, “if they knew about our plan in advance, they could have moved Shelby. She could be anywhere.”

“They don’t know what you can and can’t know,” I said. “If they moved her, they’d have risked tipping you off.”

“If they thought I was that powerful, why bother resisting at all?”

“Because we can’t all be as smart as you! Now tell me what the hell to do.”

“Well,” Fay said, “abort, return to Baxter, and get up here with me. Or try to get to Shelby’s cell, which may or may not contain a Shelby. They shut me out with a backup network, but I can still help you get there.”

The air raid siren switched off.

“Okay,” I said, awkwardly loud in the fresh silence. “Which way?”

“Straight.” We ran into the off-white hallway the two guards had come through, breaking left at Fay’s direction as we reached a T-intersection. On all sides the doors stayed sealed, though by command of Fay or CRS I couldn’t tell. “Convicts are through the next door to your right,” Fay said. “No, the next door.”

It wouldn’t budge. Pete, who’d also stripped the kicked guards of their ID thumbsticks, inserted one into the maglock. Inside, the cellblock looked more like a shined-up Pueblo cliff town than a prison, with rooms recessed into the six-story walls reachable by a sturdy staircase set into each corner of the open rectangular space. Though the cells had the familiar bar-grille doors, the bed and toilets were concealed behind white walls. This mix of the punitive and the private—one room open to the eyes of all, the other hidden behind a wall; the airy space of the main floor, tiled in a geometric gray array; the narrow windows beaming bands of dusty red sunlight into the blacks and whites of the vast chamber—addled my senses with its schizophrenic contradictions. I didn’t see the second pair of guards until Pete stepped into a side kick that arrested his meaty, goateed assailant mid-charge. The man fell to the gray tiles, wheezing and clutching his ribs.

The other guard, the smart one, drew his stunner and shot me.

My body went fuzzy and warm and swimmy, collapsing like the loose pile of organic material it was. I was peripherally aware of my side banging into the hard floor, then directly aware of nothing as my head followed suit. I came to tingly and numb. Two thoroughly beaten guards sprawled on the tile. Overhead, footsteps clamped on metal steps. Female prisoners filled the air with calls and questions and unintelligible hoots.

Someone moaned. It was me. “What’s going on?” I slurred into my throat mike.

“I’ve got most of the place clamped down,” Fay said, “but there’s a lot of staff I can’t account for, and their communications are regrettably functional. We’re going to have an interesting time getting to the spaceport.”

“‘We’?” I coughed weakly. Tingling pins prickled my skin. “What about Shelby?”

“Inside her cell. Wait, no she isn’t.”

“What? Where is she?”

“Outside her cell, where Pete just let her.”

My head hurt like five bitches in a bitch boat, but my fingers and toes had started to twitch. I tried wiggling them (crashed on my side, I couldn’t see or really feel them yet), forcing my body back into mobility.

“We should let all the others out, too.”

“But they’re criminals!” Fay said.

“This is a cushy pad for embezzlers and petty thugs, not Sing Sing. The only crime they’d commit on the way out is stealing any loose office supplies.”

“They could hurt innocent people. That’s bad. I don’t want to do bad.”

“Fuck bad.” I swung my stupid body to a sitting position. “It’s about survival now.”

Available for Kindle, Nook, and various other ebook formats through Smashwords.

That’s right. My near-Earth space opera The Roar of the Spheres is now available in all formats via Smashwords. The first half’s free to sample, so you have literally nothing to lose by checking it out. Except your mind.

Well, not really. I just wanted to say that once. Thanks for indulging me.

There are a lot of artificial intelligences running around in The Roar of the Spheres. They act a lot like humans. There are reasons for this: for one thing, it’s fun. But realistically speaking, I think AI will end up being a lot like us.

The thing about intelligence is it always arises from a huge collection of stupid actors. I’m not talking about movies here. Schools of fish and flocks of birds don’t move in those beautifully choreographed movements because somebody at the front is bellowing at them through a bullhorn. Neighborhoods and districts in cities, for the most part, don’t arrange themselves because somebody’s planning it. Maybe the most famous misinterpretation of intelligence is that of bee hives and ant colonies: the queen is not ordering her thousands of offspring around. She makes zero decisions about the colony’s behavior. The decisions to forage, relocate, or war are all determined by the collective conclusion reached through thousands of beings laying down their individual pheromone trails.

Brains are similar. Brains are composed of neurons, each of which is capable of no action more sophisticated than saying ON or OFF, TRUE or FALSE, SALT or PEPPER. It’s the interaction of billions of these stupid actors arranged in various networks that lead to sapience. It’s kind of amazing.

Neurons are bits. They have the exact same properties as computers. If you want to create an AI, I don’t think you look to high-level, individually powerful processors. I think you combine billions of very stupid, very simple processors that, when networked with each other, are capable of unintuitive outcomes.

That’s how you build a brain. If you model a machine after our brains, you might create intelligence. If you model an intelligence after ours–with the same unpredictable, bottom-up networks–you’re going to have beings capable of emotion and irrationality.

In other words, if we design AI in our own image, based on billions of stupid actors acting in concert, I don’t think they’ll be the logic-machines we often imagine, incapable of feelings, inhumanely rational. They might end up an awful lot like us.

A few weeks back, I contacted the amazing M.S. Corley about putting together a piece of cover art for The Roar of the Spheres. Yesterday, I got the results:

I am in love with this. Being more verbal than visual, I hadn’t really thought much about what The Roar of the Spheres‘ cover should look like until Mr. Corley asked me for a few ideas and descriptions. His finished product? Isn’t particularly like any of the ideas I sent him.

It’s much, much better.

A few weeks ago, I entered The Roar of the Spheres in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Today, I learned I’d moved on to the second round, along with 1000 other books in the general fiction category.

I don’t know how this contest looks to industry professionals. One logical perspective is it’s 10,000 people fighting for two seats at the dinner table. There’s not a lot of dignity in that. Of course, the competition to find an agent and a publisher isn’t much different, but at least it’s not so transparent.

I don’t care anymore. If there’s an opportunity out there, I’m going to take a shot at it. I don’t care if it risks looking unprofessional to some people. The ABNA, self-publishing to Kindle, whatever–if it gives me a chance to make money from my fiction, I’m going to do it. I’m trying to build a career. That’s all I care about.

As a tangent, I checked out a couple threads about the ABNA over at Kindleboards. Several authors expressed doubts about it, outright questioning the value of Penguin’s $15,000 advance against the worth of their ebook rights. Here’s some quick math: if you sell 10 copies of your $0.99 book a day, 3650 in a year, you’ve made just over $1250 in royalties from Amazon.

How many indie authors are selling 3650 copies of a single novel every year? How many years do you expect this success to carry on through for this single title? It had better be at least 12. Factoring in some risk-assessment, I think you’d only turn down a $15,000 advance if you have strong reason to believe you can maintain that level of self-published sales for 25 years.

In some circles, self-epublishing is taking on a serious gold-rush mindset. But for every Amanda Hocking, there are 100,000 authors lucky to sell a single copy per week.

No doubt e-rights are becoming a huge deal, huger by the day. But $15,000 and a book published by a giant corporate house is a pretty great deal compared to what tens of thousands of self-published authors are going to end up earning through their ebooks. At the very least, it’s a high and concrete platform from which to promote your other works. You want to turn that down over fears the stone you’ve polished might turn out to be a diamond? To me, that sounds like a good way to stall out right where you are, to end up the same place ten years down the road as you are today.

An upside to spending the last 2-3 years writing short stories is I’ve gotten a lot better at cutting. Come revision time, I can slice 5-10% off a story without crying out in anguish at all the brilliance I’m deleting. Sanding down sentences and extracting extraneous or redundant description is usually enough to hit the mark. When I can identify irrelevant scenes or subplots, as with my story upcoming at Reflection’s Edge, I’ve slashed out as much as 30% of the total word count. (Cutting almost always makes a story better, of course, but I think it’s funny in a not-so-funny way I’m putting in more work to get paid less–many places pay by the word. Granted, without those edits, they might decide not to pay me anything at all…)

My goal for The Roar of the Spheres has been to cut at least 5% per chapter. If I come to the end and haven’t hit the mark, I’ll go back for a second pass.

I haven’t had to do that yet.

I’m averaging a 7.5% cut per chapter. Through six, about a fifth of the full novel, I’ve dropped over 1500 words. At that rate, the draft will fall from 102.5K to 95K. By the time I’m done, this shit will be streamlined as a dolphin!

Oh, after I finish revising it, probably. Like, twenty years after.

I just finished the second draft of the renamed The Roar of the Spheres. I’m trying a new process this time: in the second draft, I fill it out. I expand the scenes that were rushed, slip in any missing back story and worldbuilding, replace scenes that don’t accomplish what I want them to, and patch up any holes in the story’s logic. That’s what I just wrapped up. I ended up inserting about 2200 new words. I don’t know how many I replaced/rewrote, but it’s probably in the same ballpark.

In the third draft, I intend to take things out. There’ll be some overlap with the replace/rewrite aspect of the second draft, in that I intend to take out the bad sentences and replace them with good ones, but the chief focus will be on trimming every excess word I can.

If I can cut 10 words per page–hardly a taxing task–that’ll bring the manuscript back down to 100,000 words. That’ll only be about a 3% decrease, in fact. If I can manage 5 or 6%, I’ll be extremely satisfied.

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