SHifting To a New Blog
As of mid-March, I'm shifting much of my blogging to a WordPress site.  It's at:

I'll keep the current content here and for a while I'll post links here to new posts there, but the WordPress will be my main blog.

The design over there is still a bit of a work in process, but it is already pretty good and it will get better.

I just did my first post over there--a piece on audio books, TV and why TV is picking up the pace of shows and removing subtlety.

General Principles For Your Alternate Timeline
If you really look at what would happen in an alternate  timeline after something significant changed, you realize that events are so inter-related and there are so many points of individual decision that within a decade or two what happens in that alternate timeline is pure guesswork, no matter how metriculously you think it through.

 The best you can hope for  is that you've  done enough research to avoid things that obviously couldn't happen and understand the underlying structure of events as well as you can.

Here are some principles I look at when I develop timelines. You probably won't agree with all of them and that's okay. I tossed some of them out to stimulate discussion and further thinking.:

- Your "if-only" will have downsides. If, for example, Kennedy or Lincoln had lived, the results won't all work toward a better reality. If you don't see the downsides, you probably haven't looked hard enough.
-- Republics will become empires.
- Empires will be ruled by hereditary some form.
- Governments will eventually be run by economically powerful cliques that use their control to get richer and keep anyone outside their cliques from challenging them.
- New technology will get used in wars, no matter how far from warlike it initially seems.
- If someone has a technology breakthrough that gives them an advantage over their neighbors, they will use it to take their neighbors' stuff.
- If someone wants to 'civilize' someone else, they usually end up with as much of those other folks' stuff as the people they are 'civilizing' will let them get away with. (See Puritans and the surrounding Indians)
- Empires, or at least their management, eventually get old, fat and complacent, then get replaced.
- Evil empires eventually mellow, at least somewhat. Evil tends to be expensive long-term.
- Empires that start out caring about their subjects eventually stop caring.
- Empires make most of their subjects militarily nearly useless if they last long enough. That eventually reduces the quality of their armies and especially their ability to bounce back from major defeats.
- And there are always barbarians lurking outside the walls of any empire.
- Economic competition usually leads to wars.
- Bipolar struggles between coalitions of nations each led by one dominate nation usually end with one of the competitors winning, then disintegrating itself in a few decades.
- There are periods when events are pretty much going to happen a certain way--World War II after mid-1942 and periods where a few hundred or a thousand men can tilt history--the aftermath of World War I, for example.
- Disease, famine and long-term demographic trends are usually far more potent than wars in determining the large-scale scale structure of history. Wars usually just demonstrate facts on the ground that were determined long before the war.
- Where the economic and technological balance in a war is reasonably even, wars are usually decided before the first battle by the economies of the combatants and what they choose to produce. See World War II, where any lingering hope for an Axis victory was scuttled by the fact that all three major Axis powers spent way too much money and scarce material (steel, rubber, fuel) on extremely expensive battleships that couldn't have had a significant impact on the war.
- A good enough demagogue can stir up trouble between two groups of people even if they have lived at peace for generations, intermarried, etc. And once that trouble reaches a certain point, it can quickly spiral into mass murder, even genocide. (See India/Pakistan during the partition for example)

Feel free to add your own principles or dispute any of these in the comments.

Alternate Prehistory: What If More Than One Human Species Had Survived?
A series of recent discoveries has made it clear that the current human species is only a fraction of human diversity as it existed in the last ice age. Very different kinds of people lived then, enough different from modern humans to make all of our racial differences look trivial.

First the discoveries, then some alternate history speculation:

Island discoveries. Early humans managed to reach a few large islands that are isolated from the mainland even during ice ages. When they got there, they were isolated enough to develop into very different ways of being human.

1) SulawesI: Most recently: Stone tools dating back to 115,000 years were found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. No human remains were found with the tools, but the tools are far older than the time when modern humans arrived in the area. Sulawesi hasn't been connected to the Asian mainland at any point where there were humans on the planet, so there is a very good chance that whatever humans managed to reach there were isolated for a prolonged period and developed into a very odd island form like the Hobbits in Flores. (

2) Flores Hobbits: As most people know, fossils of tiny, very primitive humans were discovered in Flores (also in Indonesia) a few years ago. A noisy minority of scientists claim that the fossils are of modern humans with a genetic disorder, but the early date of some of the bones and the fact that stone tools dating back 800,000 years in Flores point to primitive humans having arrived there and survived almost until the first development of agriculture--until maybe 18,000 years ago.

3) Early man on Meditteranean islands: Ancient human remains and tools have been found on some of these islands, including Cyprus and Crete. There is some evidence that pre-modern humans reached Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, but no remains have been found.

'Fossil' DNA discoveries:

1) Neanderthal/Human interbreeding. Neanderthals were a species or subspecies of humans who branched off from the line that led to modern humans around five or six hundred thousand years ago. That means that genetically they were around eight to ten times as different from modern humans as any of us are from one another. At first, the genetic evidence seemed to say that modern humans and Neanderthals didn't interbreed, but more detailed genetic studies seem to indicate that about one to four percent of the genetic material from modern Europeans and Asian (but not Africans) is from Neanderthals, with most of those genes related to the immune system. There is some evidence of reduced fertility between the Neanderthals and modern humans, but the some fertile offspring were obviously possible.

2) Denosovians: A few years ago, scientists extracted DNA from a human finger bone found in Siberia. They discovered that the DNA was from a population of humans at least as different from us as the Neanderthals, though without more skeletons they don't know how these people differed from us. We have found pre-modern human skeletons in China and Java, and it would be logical to tie them to the Denosovians, but there is no proof yet that they are from the same group. Whoever the Denosovians were, they interbred with modern humans and provide single digit percentages of the ancestry for some groups in Asia, New Guinea and Australia. Possibly related, though the link is unproven: pre-modern humans (the "Red Deer People") seem to have survived in tropical southwestern China until around 14,000 years ago, with possible hybrid populations surviving a few thousand years after that. It's possible, but unproven, that these were the last relatively pure descendants of the Denosovians. Making matter more complicated, there is some genetic evidence that the Denosovians interbred with yet another unknown group of humans.

3) Pre-modern human population in southeastern Africa: This was a very strange discovery. An African-American man submitted a DNA sample to one of the "Find Your Ancestry" type places. They did the standard checks, looked at the results and said, "Say what?" They bumped the results up to higher level people, who discovered that the guy's "Y" chromosome was from a lineage that branched off from the rest of humanity about the same time the Neanderthals did. The rest of the guy's DNA was reasonably normal. They did some tracking and discovered a small cluster of men with similar Y chromosomes in Cameroon. Implication: A population in that area may have branched off several hundred thousand years ago, then been genetically swamped by modern humans, contributing an unknown percentage of their genes to local humans. Unfortunately, DNA is unlikely to be preserved in tropical Africa, so it'll be difficult to figure out which genes and what percentage whis group contributed. The fact that a Y chromosome lineage survived may mean a slightly higher percentage than Neanderthals or Denosovians contributed, but that's totally speculation.

Bottom line: As of fifty thousand years ago, our ancestors shared the planet with at least four and probably six or more populations that were close to ten times as different from modern humans as any of us are from one another. Were they separate human species? By the standard textbook definition, that separate species can't interbreed, apparently not, at least in the case of the Neanderthals and Denosovians. On the other hand, a lot of species that most people acknowledge a separate can interbreed-coyotes with wolves and polar bears with brown bears for example. If species split, it logically should at times be a gradual thing, where interbreeding may be physically possible and still produces fertile offspring for a while, but the ecology and behaviors of the populations make interbreeding rare enough that the genetics of the two populations are distinct and eventually diverge enough that they can't interbreed.

Lets get to the alternate history already! There are couple ways we can go with this: First, we can speculate on what might have happened if primitive humans had survived somewhere in the Old World long enough to be discovered and maybe enslaved by Old World civilizations. That's the alternate history idea behind my novel All Timelines Lead to Rome. A primitive hobbit-like species of humans survives in Sardinia long enough to be enslaved by the Neolithic humans who colonized Sardinia. Rome eventually finds and makes use of the primitives, making them a cross between slaves and pets and remodeling their empire around the primitives to the point where it is Rome in name and superficial structure only. If you think about it long, you'll realize that there is a bit of hand-waving going on to get a recognizable Roman empire in a world where primitive humans have been around in the Meditteranean for over seven thousand years where they didn't survive historically.

You could, of course, have the primitive island humans surviving anywhere along the fringes of the continental shelf of the Old World and have them preserved in some isolated area until modern times. If something like the Flores hobbits had survived long enough I could see Chinese emperors preserving a population in some royal reserve like they did some species of deer. The best possibilities for survival would have probably been New Guinea or the Phillipines, though there is no evidence that primitive humans every reached either place. Another possibility: something like the Red Deer people survives in China long enough to be enslaved. The problem with all of these scenarios is that wave after wave of our kind of humans has swept across every human-inhabitable part of the Old World and many lines of our one kind have been swept into oblivion. It's unlikely that little pockets of these very different humans could have survived that process, at least in or near the Old World. So we resort to hand waving.

But what about other human species as serious competitors all the way to the present or at least until Europeans or someone else swept across the world and created a world economy? That would probably take one of the other types of humans getting to the New World and/or Australia. That wouldn't have been impossible.

Australia would be the easier of the two. A couple strings of islands stretch from Asia to Australia, or to New Guinea, which is attached to Australia during ice ages. If the Denosovians stretched as far south as southeast Asia, they could have island-hopped to Australia, maybe as early half a million years ago. If the ancestors of the Flores Hobbits were really in Flores 800,000 years ago, they could have kept island-hopping until they New Guinea and then walked across a land-bridge to Australia. At that point, their survival would depend on being able to stop further colonizations from the mainland, first from mainland versions of their own kind, then from waves of modern humans. It's interesting to think about the equivalent of Captain Cook stumbling across an Australia and New Guinea with surviving pre-modern humans as opposed to the historical inhabitants. It might even be possible to fit in both a hobbit-like species in the less accessible rainforest parts of New Guinea and Denosovians in the bulk of Australia, though that might be pushing it a little.

Denosovians would also be the logical kind of humans to beat us to the New World. Harry Turtledove explored those possibilities in a series of short stories and novellas collected together as A Different Flesh, but the pre-moderns he described would have had a very difficult time reaching North America. The problem: There are only a few ways to get to the New World from Asia (1) Over a land bridge that only appears during ice ages,  (2) By boat over cold, treacherous water or (3) Walking across frozen ocean during an Arctic winter. The land bridge option and the walking across ice options only work if you can first get across a large stretch of Siberia during an ice age. Siberia was one of the last places in the Old World that early modern humans were able to inhabit, simply because of the harsh climate.

The best bet for Denosovians would have been to make it by boat in the last interglacial--a period roughly 125,000 years ago when average temperatures were a degree or two warmer than they are now for a geologically brief period at the peak of the warming. There were other, earlier interglacials, but the later ones gave the best chance for them to have developed the technology to get across the Bering Strait. That's unfortunate, because the earlier the better in terms of developing an interesting environment for stories. Half a million years in the New World could yield not one but several species of humans, with some adapted to temperate forests, others to the plains and mountains and the jungles of South America, plus maybe yet more island species in the West Indies. Of course these people would then have to keep the continent from being taken over by PaleoIndians when they arrived, which wouldn't be easy, though they would have a disease gradient going for them--they would have had time to be parasitized by a lot of New World diseases the early Indians wouldn't be immune to and the Indians wouldn't have a comparable set of diseases to spread in return--hunter-gathering in the arctic in small bands doesn't give much margin for sick people to survive long enough for diseases to sustain themselves long-term.

But what about the Neanderthals? I wrote a scenario where Neanderthals made it to North America. That's probably a stretch. If the Denosovians inhabitabited most of eastern Asia, Neanderthals would have to get past them to get to the Bering Strait. Not easy. They might travel by boat along the fringes of the ice sheets in the North Atlantic during an ice age, but that would be tough at their level of technology.

So what do you think? Finding people far more different than us than Indians when we arrived in the New World. Europeans debated whether Indians had souls. The questioning would be a lot tougher if they met humans from a different species. There would be a genuine question as to whether the inhabitants should be considered men or beasts.

Writing: Measuring Writing Progress
It's hard to measure progress in writing. Quality improvements are what we should really be going for, of course, but it's almost impossible to measure quality improvement. We can measure quantity of writing, at least in rought drafts. Words per day is pretty simple to track and I find that setting a minimum goal is a good way to motivate myself. Several years ago, the alumni of a science fiction novel workshop I went to agreed to write a minimum of 250 words/day for a month, then go for another month if the first month worked out. We kept it up for nearly a year and it was one of the most productive years I've had as far as new writing goes. Most days, getting that first 250 words in led to me writing quite a few more, usually a thousand or more.

The emphasis on writing new stuff had its cost, though. I have more than enough stuff written. What I really needed was a way to motivate myself to edit what I had written and get it into usable and hopefully publishable form. So how do I measure progress in editing? Several people have suggested translating editing time into word equivalents. A typical formula:1 hour of editing = 400 word. Some people have also suggested that an hour of plotting should be worth 200 words.

I don't totally  buy the hour = X number of words approach to editing because it looks at time spent rather than results achi
eved. I'm very motivated by setting goals that can be expressed in numbers and have toyed with various ways of dealing with edits. One approach that seems to work: When I do a tightening edit I break the story down into chunks of around 5000 words, then set a goal of reducing my rough draft word count by around 20% for each chunk. It usually takes me two passes to get the word count down that much. I take the number of words I started out with and arbitrarily divide by five to get a word count equivalent. So a tightening edit on 5000 words is the equivalent of writing a thousand words. In reality, it's far harder for me to edit the 5000 words than to write the 1000, but I've never bothered to adjust the ratio. In terms of time and effort, dividing the number of edited words by two might make more sense.

I haven't figured out any way to measure progress in "big picture" editing, where you look at whole scenes and decide whether or not they are necessary, and that's one of my weak spots. I tend to procrastinate when I get to that stage and am sometimes not as brutal as I should be at getting rid of unnecessary scenes. One thing that does sometimes work for me: I sometimes go through scenes and give each one an arbitrary letter grade (A through F), then go back later and remove or replace the stuff that I rated "C" or below and try to bring the "B" stuff up a little.

I've tried to give plotting time numerical goals too--typically a hundred words per scene, but I usually don't spend enough time on plotting. I either run out of time before NaNoWriMo, which is when I do the bulk of my writing,  or in the off-season I get impatient and just start writing long before I've done enough plotting.

It's amazing how much of a motivator being able to set numeric goals for some parts of writing is though, at least for me. Not sure if I'm typical, but if you are motivated by numbers I would be interested in how you set and meet goals.

That Didn't Last Long- My New Year's Resolution on Blogging
A bit of harsh reality: Blogs that don't get updated regularly--at least once a week and hopefully every day--don't get a lot of traffic. Even if people like what you say, they don't keep coming back if you stop posting for weeks or months at a time. I understand that, and one of my New Year's resolutions was to blog every day this year. I got a running start by blogging the last few days of 2015, then got the first day done and posted on New Year's day. That string of posts lasted precisely one day into the New Year, after which I missed the next four days.

Conclusion: Blogging every day is hard when you have a life and you're trying to write fiction in your spare time and you're trying to get back in shape after the hollidays, etc, etc. Modified resolution: I'll try to do better. I may not post every day, but I'll post at least a couple times per week when I have something to say.

Mini-Book Reviews
The Short Drop by Matthew Fitzsimons isn’t alternate history or even science fiction, but it’s pretty good. It’s a thriller about the daughter of a Senator who went missing ten years before the action takes place. Ten years later, the first clues about the daughter’s disappearance show up. That leads to a very well done mystery with lots of twists and turns and a character (the girl) who we never see, but who becomes very real and at least I cared a great deal about her. I wish I could bottle what the author did to make me care so much about that character and sprinkle some of it over the stuff I write, which definitely needs characters people care more about.

Terms of Use by Scott Allan Morrison is sort of on the edge of science fiction. A high level techie at a company that is kind of a fictionalized, file off the labels Facebook tries to solve a security breach, but gets in way over his head with murders, high-level politics, etc.

Mild spoilers ahead.

The book mentions in passing how the Obama campaign used Facebook to goose turnout, then takes that idea to the next level: Obama’s campaign could mainly only get out the potential voters who already supported him but might not normally go to the polls. The political gold mine would be influencing undecided voters. A big hunk of the plot revolves around an effort on the part of high-level officers of this Facebook-look-alike to influence undecided voters by use of artificial intelligence Socialbots, who infiltrate users’ friend groups, become trusted sources of news and opinions over a period of months, then try to sway their ‘friends’ as the election approaches.

There is a subplot in that the efforts are on behalf of a Republican businessman who the Chinese have major-league blackmail material on and who on the other hand stands to make a bundle if the US puts a major effort into rare earth mineral production, an area where the Chinese have developed a lucrative monopoly that lets them essentially dictate who can and can’t produce modern electronic technology.

The book is pretty well written, though the tech guy hero develops characteristics of an action hero in a way that stretches probability almost to the breaking point. It never steps entirely over into implausibility.

As to the plot: certainly Facebook and any company that takes its place will have tremendous power in elections. That’s already a given. Facebook has already done some very weird and (in my opinion) unethical experiments with changing user moods by filtering which messages they get in their feed. They make it very difficult for a user to control what gets emphasized on the user’s feed and are very secretive about what goes into getting on a user’s feed. That means that they could quite easily skew a swing voter’s feed liberal or conservative without even bothering with socialbots. Would they do that in favor of a Republican? Facebook, no. They lean liberal in a vague corporate nanny as long as it doesn’t cost the company much way, based on my limited knowledge of them. Something that took Facebook’s place like Facebook took over from MySpace? Quite possible.

The rare earth minerals subplot: Interesting issues there. China has controlled the vast majority of the market for several rare minerals that are vital in modern electronics, not because the minerals aren’t available elsewhere but because they have them in more concentrated form and are able to mine them with less concern for the environmental costs than anyone else. They’ve used that low cost production to bankrupt several companies who have tried to mine the mineral elsewhere. The list of products we couldn’t produce without those minerals is huge, including alternate energy stuff like windmill turbines. Bad idea to be as dependent on China as we are, but the dependence reaches far deeper than just rare earth minerals. Last I heard, most US antibiotic production was in China. If we ever get in a serious, cut off all trade tiff with them, we’re in a world of hurt.

Finding Charlie by Katie O’Rourke is another non-science fiction novel. I wouldn’t have even considered it except that it was up for the Kindle Scout program the same time Char was. It was accepted into the program, unlike Char and since I nominated it, I got an e-book copy free. This isn’t a book I would normally read. There is a mystery of sorts. A college-aged girl goes missing. There are no science fiction elements. It’s a pretty well-written book, with decent characters I care quite a bit about. The ending is not as strong as it could be. It tosses in a weak and unnecessary subplot that comes out of the blue toward the close of the book, then just kind of meanders to a close. That being said, I didn’t leave the book feeling dissatisfied. It’s not a bad book at al.

TV: Some Good Stuff
Not related to science fiction at all, but my wife and I have gotten addicted to Jane the Virgin. It’s an absolutely hilarious pseudo-Spanish soap opera, deliberately over-the-top. Jane is saving herself for marriage with her cop fiancée, but is accidentally artificially inseminated with sperm from a wealthy childhood crush, decides to have the baby. Instant love triangle, which the show exploits gleefully. Lots of “I can’t believe they went there” humor, but Jane and her family come across as very human, very likeable people.

Telenuevo is sort of like Jane the Virgin. It follows a Spanish soap opera with a main character who doesn’t actually speak Spanish. After a couple episodes it looks enjoyable. Another non-science fiction possibility: Superstore. It’s a comedy set in a thinly disguised Walmart. I’ve watched three episodes so far. Two were quite good. One was weak. A lot of the humor comes from characters interacting with racial and other stereotypes of themselves and can be quite funny--the photographer from corporate who is absolutely determined to get the black employee in a wheelchair in any photos he takes of the store. The Latina girl who refuses to volunteer to sell salsa, but ends up pulled into doing it with an exaggerated stereotypical Mexican accent. Good, funny, non-preachy playing off our obsessions with race.

Another good new find: Limitless. Guy takes a pill and becomes a genius. There is a price to be paid. And then there is Killjoys, another SyFy channel attempt to capture the magic of Firefly. It’s visually quite well done and the characters and world-building should grab me. So far, they haven’t. After four episodes, I don’t have any real desire to watch more. Maybe I should give it another chance. I want SyFy original series to succeed.

Another find: NetFlix's original show Jessica Jones. This one took a while to grow on me. It features David Tennant, of Dr Who fame, as a very credible and nasty villain. I noted my reactions as I watched the episodes:

  1. After an episode and a half: wasn’t too impressed, to be honest. I think it’s going to be worth watching, but it starts out very slow by my tastes. I’ll probably try again sometime. David Tennant as a villain and apparently a very good one is too good to pass up.

  2. After seven episodes it’s growing on me. One disappointment: I don’t know how they manage it, but the show managing to make sex scenes incredibly, is it over yet? boring. On the other hand, David Tennant makes does make a very convincing and scary villain. Oddly, he becomes more scary when he moves out of the shadows and takes a major role around episode six.

  3. After the final episode: The last half of the season became incredibly intense. I watched it every chance I got. I was a little disappointed in the ending, for reasons I can't discuss without major spoilers, which I don't want to do.

A last minute addition: Quantico. This is a thriller, not science fiction. It centers around a group of FBI cadets, one of whom is apparently a terrorist. Which one? The writers do a very good job of keeping you guessing. The acting is quite good, with a lot of attractive young men and women who I think you'll see a lot of over the next few years. The writing so far (I'm about halfway through the first season) has been sophisticated and polished, with a lot of interpersonal tension and an interesting structure where events from the cadet training are shown in parallel with events right after a major terrorist attack that one of the cadets is accused of carrying off. So far, quite good.

Time Travel/Alternate History Reviews
Reading: I read two time travel books recently, with very different approaches. Split Second, by Douglas Richards takes an interesting approach to time travel. In this book, the time traveler can only go back a fraction of a second. Note: What follows contains some spoilers about the setup of the time travel in Richard's world.

When the person or object goes back that split second, they can create a paradox, but the universe resolves that paradox not by creating alternate timelines, but by resetting. Whatever happened in the split second after the time-traveler arrived stops existing, as though it had never happened. However, the time-traveler does not get wiped out. Anything sent back in time still exists.

Result: You can make as many of anything as you want--people, objects, etc. Also, because the Earth is moving during that split second, the extra objects can essentially teleport, though only a matter of fifty feet initially. So when you invent time travel you also create a matter duplicator where you actually have to jump through quite a few hoops to keep from going into an endless loop of creating more and more of whatever object you send back. Want more Steven Hawkings? You can make as many as you want. Want more dynamite? Same thing.

End spoilers.

This is a packaged as a thriller rather than science fiction, but it’s quite good as science fiction, with a very thoughtful and unique approach to time travel.

Then we have Return to Sender by Fred Holmes. Basically a neo-Confederate figures out a way to travel back in time. He decides to use it to save the Confederacy by keeping Stonewall Jackson from dying.

Mild Spoilers ahead.

The plot succeeds, and we end up with a Confederate States of America. That turns out not to be a good idea. The resulting divided US proves to be easy prey to predatory neighbors.

The book pauses to give us a detailed timeline of how badly things went wrong. Some of it is reasonably plausible but much of it isn’t at all plausible, at least not to me. That’s not the main problem with this novel though. The big problem is that the author really hasn’t thought through the personal implications of making a big change over 150 years in the past. People change the past and don’t simply disappear, which is prerty much inevitably how things would  happen.

End Spoiilers.

At a panel I watched a while back, Eric Flint estimated that nobody born more than three years after a major timeline change would still be born. That may be a little pessimistic, but I would agree that nobody born ten years after a Point Of Divergence on their continent and nobody in the world after maybe the early 1800s would be born in the alternate timeline. Given the odds against a particular sperm fertilizing an egg, mommy and daddy have to do the nasty within split seconds of when they did so historically and do in the same position at the same precise angle. If they’re even a little less of more enthusiastic, somebody with your name may be born on your birthday, but they would be your brother or sister, if you were ever born, which you won’t be, not you.

The implausibility of the time travel and the resulting timeline aside, this isn’t an altogether bad book. The history is reasonably well researched. The writing isn't perfect, but it is good enough to keep me reading until the end, which isn’t a given by any means.

Alternate History & Almost You
I was recently doing comments for Point of Divergence, the Alternate History APA, when I realized something: Those of us who think about Alternate History much have long realized that very few if any people who actually historically lived would be born even a few years after a major change in history.

Why? Because it's extremely unlikely thatf the specific spearm that fertilized an egg historically would fertilize that same egg decades aftter soemthing major changed in history. The historic Richard Nixon existing in a world where the US lost the Revolutionary War? Swtatistically so unlikely as to be esssentially magic. Generations of Richard Nixon ancestors would have to not only meet each other, and have sex, but they would also all have to have sex at essentially the same time. Worse, all the other factors that went into each of those successful sperm succeeding while all the other sperm that could have fertilized that egg failed, would have to reproduced. That probably means that the sex would have had to be over within seconds of when it happened historically. Good luck with that happening even once, much less three or four times.

So historic figures existing in timelines that diverged long before they were born is a mark of alternate history where the author hasn't really thought through the way things would work in alternate history, or where the author doesn't care.

On the other hand, alternate history lends itself to a uniqu kind of "almost you." The trick here is that while the odds are ubcredibly low that a particular sperm would fertilize the egg it fertilized historically, it;s far more likely that the same egg will get fertilized by a sperm from the same father. Result: somehing almost unknown among humans in nature: Someone with exactly the same genes as the our timeline figure from their mother's side, but different genetics from the father's side. This would be someone genetically closer to their historic equivalent than a fraternal twin, but nowhere near as close as an identical twin.

There are a few rare cases of "semi-identical" twins, where two sperm feritlize the same egg and it splits into two embryos. Usally, the resulting pregnancy doesn't come to term, but there have apparently been a few cases where it has.

Bottom line: If you went into a time-line that diverged a few years or decades after you were born, you could easily meet someone more like you than a brother, but less so than an identical twin. And, by the way, there would be a fifty-fifty chance that the person you met would be of the opposite sex. Very freaky,

Not freaky enough for you? There would also be the possibility of people who have exactly the same generics as you do from the mother's side, but had a different father. The result: someone far closer to you than a half-sibling, and in some ways closer than a brother or sister, but with the interloper DNA.

This could play out in a lot of ways: People with most of your genetics and your name that aren't you. People with your name and your mom's genetics, but a different father (if your mom was fooling around). In extremely rare circumstances you could end up with the sperm that fertilized your mom's egg in your timeline fertilizing another woman's egg in an alternate reality, though given the odds against a particular sperm feritlizing any egg, that wouldn't happen very often.

Hoiw close would you be to your semi-identical twin from another timeline? Would you feel the same ties identical twins have?

Hopefully you can see some of the story potential in all this--unique relationships, infidelity exposed, etc.

I discovered National Novel Writing Month eight years ago and have participated in it every year, writing at least the 'required' 50,000 words in a month every year, and usually around 75,000. I think of myself as a professional writer, so I try to harness the NaNoWriMo energy to something that helps my writing goals. That usually means a lot of plotting before the month, so I don't use up my words on false starts that don't end up usable.

I can write seat of my pants and end up with a novel. There are some advantages to writing that way. My muse runs loose and goes cool places my more organized outlining brain would never have figured out to go. There is a downside, though. It takes MUCH longer for me to revise a book that I wrote seat of pants than one I carefully plotted. An hour of plotting seems to result in a high multiple of that number of hours in reduced revision time. Unfortunately, this year I put a lot of time that I would have put into plotting my NaNo novel into promoting my existing novels and running my Kindle Scout campaign for Char. Result: I'm not quite writing seat of pants. I have done some plotting and have some scenes/characters figured out, but I'm nowhere near as ready to go as I hoped I would be. Result: undoubtedly I'll write myself into more dead ends and spend more time in revisions than I need to.

Oh well. That's all in the future. Right now I'm feeling the joy of creating, having an enormous amount of fun writing a story.

Ever notice how stories that seem so great when you first write them look really crude and embarrassing when you look at them again in six months? I certanly have and it makes me cautious about putting excerpts from rough drafts, especially seat of pants rough drafts, out where people can see them. At the same time, I tend to love my new manuscripts and want to share them. So, here is a little taste of my NaNo novel:

The universe is out to get me. Yep. Me personally. All that stuff about Lucky Simon is crap. The universe sets out cheese in a mousetrap for me and then waits for me to grab it. Or maybe it's more like a hook with a worm. Nice, juicy worm. Just floating out there waiting for the Simon Hatcher fish to bite down on it. And when I do, there is the hook.

The Good Luck Simon spiel? That's skill. A sharp eye. Hands that can fix a plane anyone else would give up on. So far the universe has always left me with one way out of its traps--some way that a smart enough guy who doesn't give up can maybe get out. Maybe it doesn't want the game to end. Maybe it was setting me up for this final thunderclap of death all the other times I thought I had escaped.

I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing over this godforsaken stretch of a Tourist-stretched Snapshot. If you've been living under a stone for fourteen years, you might even be wondering what a Tourist is and what a Snapshot is.

Snapshots are a birthday present and a challenge from the universe to me. The Tourists copied Europe on my tenth birthday--February 17, 1939. The birthday present: they took a boring old world that had all been explored and replaced it with a new universe where a guy like me can spend a lifetime exploring and not ever run out of places to look.

They also took something very important to a ten year old boy, because they only copied Europe, not North America. Not the rest of the world either, but only North America really mattered to me.

And even now, fourteen years later, I don't want to talk about that--don't even want to think about that. I'll take those feelings to my fiery demise, thank you.

Of course it was dad who stayed in England and who raised me the rest of the way, sort of, between bouts of business and bouts of being unfaithful to my mother, who is not dead, no matter what the scientists say.

I'm scanning the forest as I chat with you, my imaginary friends. These sharp eyes are looking for any hint of a clearing. I don't expect to see one, especially not one big enough to land in. These smart hands are nursing the engine, working to get a few more miles out of it, not that it looks as though a few more miles will matter, not in the middle of this forest. They call this a stone forest, but the rocks look more like fangs than trees.

Don't look down, right? But I have to if I'm going to land this old string-bag. Damn Tourists. Adventure. It's a bitch. It comes to you if you look for it. I've looked for it all of these last ten years. And it finds me and tries to kill me, over and over again.

My father says "settle down and start a family", to which I say "settle down and make kids like me, get fat and bald like you and chase women your son's age until one of them catches you and eventually your money."

Yeah, dad and I never did get along, not after mom left our lives. I blamed him for her being back in New York when the Snapshot happened. I still do. No last second reconciliation, not even in my own mind.

God, these stone trees just go on and on. This is overkill, universe. You could have killed me with a quarter of these trees. Even if I made it through this, I would still go through the vent to the new Snapshot I found and you'll have more than enough chances to kill me over there.

I mentioned god. The Tourists aren't gods, no matter what the crazies say. Yes, they can copy a whole continent, with every human, animal and geographic feature. They can even copy and then stretch it if they want to. Godlike powers. Just no interest in people. They fly around in their huge black ships, ignoring missiles and cannons and planes as though they aren't there. They only talk to backwoods preachers and drunks. At least that's who claims to get the word, the secrets of this new universe.

And people like me really find out about the new universe, find new Snapshots, risk our lives trying to find the truth. Well, in this case, I'm trying to get unbelievably filthy rich, but then I plan to use that money to explore the universe, so I guess it works out to about the same thing.

Fabled treasures, like the Comstock Lode, the gold that sparked the California and Alaska gold rushes. All laying there for the taking. All I need to get to them is a history book and a plane. Well, actually, it takes a lot more than that, as I've figured out since I started this project. It took enough more that I had to go to my father to finance the enterprise. Maybe that's why the universe is finally going to bite down on me instead of keeping the game going.

Going to my father in spite of the way I feel about him. That's low. Maybe the universe doesn't want to play anymore. Maybe going to my father took me out of the worthy opponent class.

Yes, my father and I are going to steal the big historic treasures of North America--the new copy of North America I found a few months ago and have kept a big secret, in spite of the big boost finding it would have given my ever-so-slightly fading fame. I didn't have enough money for the job and couldn't figure out how to get more without going to people I knew I couldn't trust with a secret this big.

My father, bastard though he is, I trust. If he says we'll split the take fifty-fifty, that's exactly what he'll do. So I make the bastard richer than he already is. He makes me rich enough that I'll never again have to go to anyone hat in hand for an exploring mission. But what happens when I die here?

Somebody will eventually find the gate to the new Snapshot. Maybe my father will find another pilot and do what we planned to do. He'll probably even convince himself that it's some kind of memorial to me, an honor that he ends up rich and I end up dead. Bastard.
And he's taking wifey with him. Pushing her twenty-something jugs and butt in my face. Saying, "I can still get a girl younger and prettier than anything you can bring home." Yeah, with enough zeros in your bank account, you can. Of course wifey is playing salami games with the help and would probably play them with me if I didn't find that idea unbelievably vomit-inducing. The whole thing is vomit-inducing, but I'll have to deal with it for the next few months, assuming I survive. That's actually a pretty fair reason not to survive, not that I would ever not try as hard as I can to survive. I'm going to play the game to the end, whether the universe plays fair or not.

Rambling? Guilty. What do you expect from a guy who is minutes from fiery death? No, I don’t want to die. Yes, the great Simon Hatcher is afraid. There. I said it. Scared.

It’s pretty down there, if you can ignore the rows of rocky fangs. Maybe fangs isn’t quite it. How about tombstones? Millions of tombstones crowded together. A cemetery the size of a European country. Patches of green punch through the rocks. Life is ferocious, persistent, stronger than rock if you give it enough time. I'm low enough now that I can see animals moving down there--ant-sized dots that are undoubtedly lemurs, big ones. Everything is lemurs down there. Cute little things that look like a raccoon and a monkey did the nasty, then hit their off-spring with a too-cute stick. Only down there, lemurs aren't just the cute little things they had on dirtball Earth. Some of them mutated into lemur Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my. So my ultimate fate is to be crapped out of a mutated lemur. That's assuming I don't burn up entirely in the crash.

So, I'm playing out my last minutes on Earth talking to imaginary friends. I can embrace my insanity with a whole heart, because it doesn't matter anymore. And don't get me started on whether a Snapshot is really Earth. It isn't. A Snapshot is a copy of a continent, made for unfathomable reasons by unfathomably powerful and alien beings who don’t want to talk to us or save us or be worshiped by us.

But Snapshots are as close as we can get to Earth in this universe. Unless, of course, the next vent we find takes us back home to Dirtball Earth.

Am I really looking for a way home? The famous daredevil explorer Simon Hatcher--is he really just a kid looking for his mommy? The psychologists would have a great old time with that one, wouldn't they? I'll have to swear you to secrecy, my imaginary friends, assuming that I get out of this alive. If I end the day as charred protein in a lemur's lower intestines, I guess it doesn't matter much, does it?

Nothing changes down there, at least nothing that matters. The little patches of green between the rock fangs may be a bigger or smaller. The tombstones may be sharper or flatter. A few may have fallen. But it's all the same pattern: Sharp rocks spaced way too close for a plane to land.


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