In Which Underdog Vampires Defeat the Amazon Overlord

Okay, okay, this post isn’t about a  battle between vampires and a mind-controlled Queen Wonder Woman. It’s just a colorful way to announce that my vampire rights novel Civil Blood is now available in non-Amazon stores.

Thanks to the lovely people and hard-working computer code at Draft2Digital, Civil Blood is now available on Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Kobo, and Apple’s iTunes. It will also be purchaseable through Bibliotheca if you want to include it in a library collection.

It’s $2.99 on these e-reader platforms, and I’m lowering the Kindle price down permanently to match it.

The books are available to be delivered September 21st, 2018. They also feature a few typo corrections and formatting changes that I did while reviewing the manuscript. Anyway, on to the links!

Nook Link

Kobo Link

iTunes/Apple iBooks Link

And don’t forget the Kindle Link for those still reading at the behest of the behemoth. (It’s okay, I own one, too.)

Happy reading!

In Which “Salem’s Lot” Meets “Law and Order”

[Want the “too long, didn’t read” version? My novel’s now available here.]

Once upon a time at a university, I took a class called “Making Monsters.” It was about teratology, the study of monsters and the history of medical aberrations. We read about hoaxes where women supposedly gave birth to rabbits, documents about feral children like the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and read the diary of Hercule Barbin, a French hermaphrodite.

The class’s focus was on medical cases, but I managed to persuade my professor that I could do a term paper on the myth of the vampire. After all, I nerdily pointed out, the word “monster” is from the same Latin root as “demonstrate,” monstrare or “to show.” And in my paper, I was going to show off the societal uses of whipping up fear and exorcising it to reassure the citizens that monsters will be slain.

Fun fact, vampires as a myth evolve with what the audience has historically feared. Originally, they were ruddy-faced, bloated corpses like a peasant might find in a coffin that was being exhumed. Along the way, they gained powers and limitations here and there until we ended up with the pale, misunderstood superheroes we have today. In the 1990s, vampirism was being written about like it was a disease, and the AIDS crisis was never far from any reader’s mind when reading about a sexy lover who you want so badly, but oh, they might just kill you.

That’s when I got the idea for a novel. Because my experience was just slightly different than the fiction I was reading and the games I was playing.

This is because while I was taking that course, my wife was in another one on constitutional law. And it detailed a case of a woman who was clinically diagnosed with sex addiction. She had been involuntarily confined in a mental ward for treatment. The doctors wanted to hold her there indefinitely. She was suing for her release.

Why hold her over that? Well, she was HIV-positive. There was no doubt in the doctors’ minds that if they let her out, she’d infect people, probably without telling them of her condition. That qualified as a “danger to herself and others,” enabling them to keep her imprisoned as long as they wanted.

So my wife and I debated this scenario. Was it violating this woman’s civil rights to keep her locked up? Or should she be, for public safety? Is her addiction voluntary enough that she can be trusted to manage it?

Naturally, in the United States, we have a presumption of innocence until a person is proven guilty, but once they’ve infected once, and *are* guilty, where do you draw the line when trying to reform them? Do we make laws and policies expecting the worst of people, or the best?

I think you’re guessing where I’m going with this. Because those questions never really left my mind. Whenever I was frustrated at my day job, I went home and scratched away at the keyboard, working on a novel. It’s a story about vampires and what we fear in the modern day, and the dominant fear I see is of becoming a permanent political underclass.

And now, after many years, that novel, Civil Blood, is finished and available for you to read.

It’s a cross between a legal thriller and an urban fantasy, a little bit Salem’s Lot, a little bit Law and Order and a little Shadowrun. It’s set in Washington, D.C., where you can’t do anything without a doctor or a lawyer present, vampire hunting included.

The back cover copy and first two chapters are on the Civil Blood page here.  You can pre-order the Kindle version now — it will be delivered on the official book birthday of June 21. I intend to hype the book regularly until then and have a little launch event on Twitter the day it arrives. However, due to a quirk of Amazon’s Createspace publishing, you can order the print version right now (no pre-order, just plain order) and get it as soon as it can be shipped.

I’ve been fleshing out the book’s universe on this site, visible on the “propaganda” page. Reading the page isn’t necessary to read the book, but if you’re going to make a world, you should really show it off a little bit.

It’s what the word “monster” is all about.

Showtime.

Blame the Pirates

When someone busts out an article on “Pirates in Popular Culture,” there’s usually some mention of Peter Pan, and Treasure Island, and Talk Like a Pirate Day. Now of course, Jack Sparrow and Black Sails will probably make an appearance.

This post isn’t about any of the above. It’s about the weird factoids that I’ve come across when writing Pirates of the Caribbean that have struck me as cocktail party fodder. As it turns out, the Age of Sail and the Golden Age of Pirates are a trove of trivia.

Examples:

The expression “Above Board”

We want people to deal “above board” with us, meaning honestly and fairly. But where’s the expression from? Pirates.

Turns out, the boards in question are the deck of a ship. Pirates would stash their armed troops below the deck when nearing a target so that they could look legitimate long enough to get into attack range. Someone who has all their men “above board” is not a scalawag bent on robbing you.

The epithet “Limey”

Scurvy was a serious problem if you were planning an ocean voyage. I should draw the distinction between a full-on trans-Atlantic voyage and just cruising up and down the coasts as pirates frequently did. Sailors had to pack a lot more carefully for one than the other.  Fresh fruit is easy to come by in the tropics, but it doesn’t store so great for long trips across the Pond. One of the key exceptions to this was a fruit that packed vitamin C, preserved well, and grew in Caribbean soil: the lime.

Part of the British Royal Navy’s daily rations to keep the sailors’ teeth in their heads was a shot of grog — rum with lime juice. And so, the slang for a Royal Navy sailor became “limey,” and the phrase eventually evolved to mean a Brit of any stripe.

What the snot “Avast!” means

I always chalked this one up as some kind of pirate battle cry. People repeat the word saying “Avast, me hearties” or some variant thereof when they dress up as a pirate for Halloween. For years, that was about as far as my Talk Like a Pirate education went.

“Avast!” means, “stop whatever you’re doing.” So if a pirate jumps onto your deck and yells it while pointing a pistol at you, in context it would probably mean “stop trying to escape,” or “stop fighting back or I’ll gut you like a tuna.” The phrase “belay that” is similar, but is more of a general order and doesn’t sound nearly as violent.

The best wood for ship parts

To no one’s surprise, English oak was the go-to standard for masts and planks. It’s durable. To a lesser extent, ash wood made an appearance, too. Oak forests were a strategic resource in the Age of Sail, and capturing or destroying a warship was a serious financial blow. All that said, there’s a lesser-known wood that is kind of interesting.

The tree it comes from is called lignum vitae, or guayacan. It’s a Caribbean wood that is much denser than oak — it doesn’t even float in water. You wouldn’t want to make a ship out of it, but it is very strong, and oozes a little sap so it’s self-lubricating. That made it ideal for an axle for the ship’s wheel or the apparatus leading down to the rudder. For its strength and resilience, lignum vitae is classified as one of several trees called “ironwood.”

The metric system

Why do we citizens of the U.S. still measure our impulses in foot-pounds rather than joules? Why do we put up with inches and miles instead of centimeters and kilometers? Because of pirates.

Okay, slight exaggeration. The U.S. has had several good chances to convert, and it’s always refused. But there’s an amusing story about Thomas Jefferson, noted Francophile and Secretary of State in 1793. He wanted the U.S. to adopt a standard of weights and measures since some states still used Dutch systems, others English, and so forth.

So the French government sent a nerd (um… gentleman scientist) named Joseph Dombey with a few carefully constructed official weights to the U.S. He was going to do some lobbying and persuading, and the U.S. might have gone metric.

Except it didn’t. A storm came up. Dombey’s ship got blown into the Caribbean. And they got robbed by pirates. The weights and measures were auctioned off with the rest of the booty.

So the next time you eat a Quarter Pounder instead of a Royale with Cheese, blame a pirate.

The Last Fish of Its Kind

Warning: long post.

My company is owned by a big Chinese conglomerate, so I was in Beijing recently on business. Seasun Games personnel are wonderful hosts, and they took us out to dinner each night. As you might expect, the food was spectacular and a fair bit of it was unusual to Westerners. At the risk of sounding like an Instagram post, the things I ate included:

* Lotus root
* Black carp
* Preserved plum
* Sweet corn soup served in a drink glass
* Borscht
* Stewed Milk
* Raspberry juice with chunks of dragonfruit
* Jellyfish

The jellyfish was my least favorite. I was basically dared to eat it, and besides having a mediocre taste, the cooking process dehydrated it so it was like rubbery jerky. But that wasn’t the real culture shock.

If you’ve been to Chinese restaurants in North America, you’ll be familiar with the displayed fish tanks full of live animals destined for the dinner table. It’s like a “Guaranteed Fresh” sticker, but it can’t be faked. In China, it’s even more blunt. One memorable restaurant had a steamer bowl built into the table. The waiter proceeded to dump live, squirming, gray shrimp into the bowl, legs wriggling and all. He turned on the heat, and we watched our dinner die.

The shrimp convulsed, trying to escape. They leapt a few inches inside the glass, but they had no chance, and soon they stopped moving entirely. After a few minutes, their gray carapaces turned the familiar pink of shrimp you see in the grocery store. And the Beijing team proceeded to eat them. I refrained, as did my co-writer Phil, who’s vegetarian.

I’m not vegetarian. And I don’t particularly like people who act superior because they are. This post is for people who eat meat, but wonder, “hey, what’s that all about?” Because it matters in ways you might not be aware of. And if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it with your eyes open.

As people go, I’m fairly used to the idea of watching animals die. I eat chicken, fish, and less frequently, pork and beef. I’ve got no illusions about where the food comes from. I’ve also owned pet snakes, which means I’ve bought live animals to be killed and consumed whole because that’s how carnivores roll. I don’t subscribe to the view that all life is sacred no matter the circumstances. While an admirable stance, it fails to take into account the killing of microscopic life our bodies do every day, and our cleaning products kill similar organisms in abundance, so we can live healthily.

Denis Leary had a comedy routine mocking the people who want to save cute animals, or at least the people who don’t think about it too hard. In the interest of keeping this page fun, I’ll post it here:

Jokes aside, I sympathized a bit with the trapped shrimp. Were my co-workers actually going to eat them all? Or would a portion of the shrimp have literally died for nothing? If you’re going to take something’s life, you might as well not waste it, right?

In the book “Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines,” the author chats with a rural Filipino fisherman and tells him the fish he’s catching are endangered. “Do you feel any guilt about killing them when they could be the last of their kind?” the author asked.

The fisherman’s response was, “If it’s a choice between saving a fish and feeding my kids for a day, I’m going to feed my kids.”

I tell people about that exchange at parties and such because it sums up a lot about the resistance to environmental initiatives the world over. It’s not greed or ignorance or “them” having the misfortune to be born somewhere that isn’t as perfect as where “we” live. It’s people being forced to decide between two outcomes that both suck.

If you’re shocked by the fisherman’s statement, I’d like to remind you that humans can shrug off an amazing amount of terrible outcomes. For thousands of years, humans tolerated the slave trade. We tolerate crime and homelessness today, turn a blind eye to wars that were largely held to be mistakes, and so on. As I see it, this breaks down into about five levels of probable reactions.

  • If they don’t have to see it or think about it, they’ll tolerate an almost unlimited amount.
  • If it’s not one of their own mental “group” suffering, but they’ll profit from it, they look to others for social cues and often do some mental gymnastics to justify it.
  • If it’s not one of their own, and they have no stake in it, but it’s right in front of them, we’ll say it’s a 50-50 chance.
  • If it’s one of their own, but they’ll profit from it, they may have an actual dilemma.
  • If it’s one of their own mental “group”: they often speak up, if not act.

Heroic people, who are actively trying to make the world a better place, and amoral people, who deliberately don’t give a crap, are on the far ends of the spectrum in this generalization.

So how do I reconcile environmentalist views with the fact that meat tastes good and it’s one of the few ways I can get my kids to eat protein?

I shoot for not being as bad as many. As some religion said, “You aren’t required to save the world, but neither are you allowed to abandon the effort.”

So if I can decrease my impact, and use my 5 seconds of Internet fame to reach some people, and encourage them to decrease their impact, maybe I’ll leave the world in a better place than I found it.  So I’m going to do that encouraging now.

I’m not encouraging you to go full-on vegetarian. It’s much better for the environment, but I’m aiming at easily achievable steps here. Easily Achievable Step 1  is to eat less beef and pork and substitute chicken instead. Why?

First reason: because it tastes just as good. You’re the opposite of that fisherman who was catching endangered fish. You have two options, and they both taste great.

Second reason: it’s convenient. Anywhere that serves beef will probably serve chicken breast, so you don’t have to change your choice of venue.

Third, chickens are not going extinct any time soon. Humans turn about 50 billion (with a B) chickens into food products every year. I don’t freak out about this because we’ve got industries that depend on a steady supply of chickens for their survival and are great at breeding new ones.

Fourth, chicken meat is much less ecologically damaging than beef. Here’s why:

  • Chickens don’t need as much space as cows (i.e. less clear-cutting of forests to make farmland).
  • They don’t need as much fresh water throughout their life cycle. Fresh water is not the most renewable resource in the world.
  • Chickens don’t produce as much methane (see here but note the caveat about grass-fed beef not being as great as advertised here).
  • This video, “Beans, Not Beef,” covers why beef production in Brazil and the U.S., its biggest market, is a major producer of climate-wrecking stuff.
  • Switching from beef to chicken gets you most of the way without having to give up meat entirely.
  • If you’re still a beef-lover, vat-grown meat is on its way in a few years. (You can invest in such companies now, but that’s a topic for another day.)

“Okay, wait,” you say. “You’re okay with the deaths of fifty billion chickens a year, but you’re up in arms about other species?”

Well, yeah. I don’t like other people closing off options for me.

Growing up, I was kind of annoyed reading textbooks and seeing dodos and passenger pigeons and the long list of other creatures that died due to human influence. (Did you know North America was full of megafauna before humans arrived? Lions? 4-ton sloths?)

Barring wonderful advances in cloning technology, those critters are gone for good. Not only will I never be able to see them, my kids won’t, and their kids won’t, and on and on forever, because some dumbass humans didn’t pay attention to how few were left. When someone says, “Hey, the Great Barrier Reef is dying off because the oceans are a giant carbon sink and the coral’s bleaching,” my response is, “I never planned on going there, but I’d still like the option!” And there’s no shortage of species that are endangered now.

I’m sure the more anti-environmentalist among you have seen Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit!” segment on environmentalism (around the 24 minute mark here). The “too long, didn’t read” version is that Penn and Teller asked NGO spokespeople how many species there are in the world, how many are going extinct and how fast. The spokespeople weren’t able to give good answers.

To which I say, “you know you can Google it, right?

There’s somewhere between 1-2 million species that have been named, and about 16,000 that are declared endangered right now. A small fraction, you say? Sure, but only about 80,000 of them are vertebrates, the rest are bugs, bacteria, and things you’d never notice are a species anyway. 16,000 species is a lot of species. If you wanted to mount an annoying, week-long campaign at your office to save X species, you could find one to do for the rest of your natural life and still not save them all. Worse, some endangered ones are keystones.

What’s a keystone species? They’re the ones that take the rest of the ecosystem down with them if they go. Elephants are one. I don’t really like being near elephants at the zoo: I never found them all that neat, and they often smell like elephant poop. But elephants eat young trees and prevent certain bushes from encroaching on the savanna. That means the whole freaking savanna loses habitat when you start losing elephants, and they don’t reproduce very fast. In North America, the gray wolf is a big deal, because it keeps down the elk population, which otherwise eat way too many plants. Off the California coast, the local environmentalists want to (all together now) save the whales, another keystone. Note to Denis Leary: otters are a keystone too.

So if you’re an affluent American, you probably won’t have to watch your dinner die, like I did. But it did die. And if we all keep going the way we’re going, there are going to be a lot more extinctions. So have some chicken instead of a burger for a change. Try a veggie patty and see if you can stand it. I don’t want a world where “survival of the fittest” means we have nothing but rats and roaches and jellyfish.

Trust me, you don’t want to eat jellyfish more than once.

Sunken Treasure and Related Conversation

I had dinner this week with Dr. Sam Willis, who’s our historical expert on Seasun’s Pirates of the Caribbean project. If you haven’t followed him on Twitter (@DrSamWillis), you might want to give it a try — he lives a much more interesting life than homebody writers such as myself. Exhibit A in this regard is his recent dive for a shipwreck off the coast of where Kenya meets Somalia.

Apparently there’s been a wreck there that the locals have known about forever, but only recently did anyone scrape together the funding and the interest to find out what it was. Because it’s on an ancient (okay, 14th century or so) trade route from Singapore past India and up into the Persian Gulf, the place is lousy with shipwrecks. The Chinese government got interested, thinking the wreck might be Chinese. There were some fragments of Chinese pottery washing up on the beach, so it was worth a dive. Turns out the wreck was Portuguese, so the Chinese funding dried up, but there might still be other Chinese wrecks out there. Not to mention the historical value of the Portuguese wreck to Portugal or historians who specialize in the time period.

Having recently written up a page on this blog about Shadowrun’s Cyberpirates, this immediately brought up some questions and scenarios that could make good RPG fodder. In that supplement, the authorial team didn’t deal with sunken treasure too much. Speaking just for myself, I figured that treasure-hunting for Spanish gold from the Age of Sail was going to be a lot less likely than treasure-hunting for Yakuza bullion on the yacht you sank last game session.

But the way Sam described it made me want to revisit the subject. For starters, the rule in the modern world is no longer “finders, keepers.” Ever since some guy in Florida found a Spanish treasure galleon with emeralds the size of golf balls back in the early 20th century, governments and museums got pretty active with the court decisions. If you don’t find it in international waters (a few miles off the coasts, where the water is usually so deep you’re not going to casually find stuff anyway), your claim on the treasure is pretty tenuous. Museums will argue in court that you don’t have the resources to research or curate the artifacts, and they do, so it’s in the public and societal interest that they get the goods you found. Sam told us the story of a Templar treasure stolen out of Jerusalem by the Knights of Malta that was sunk by the British off the coast of Egypt. Who gets the rights to a treasure like that? If you answered “Malta,” “Britain,” “Egypt” or “Israel,” you get half credit. If you answered “the guy who found it,” you get none. The governments involved will bring out the lawyers and the experts you probably can’t afford. A brief article on the subject is here and legal links are here if you’re so inclined.

All of this could make for an interesting RPG adventure or two, because while the average PC violates ten laws before breakfast, his employers’ motivations are usually rooted in some kind of legal situation they need to get around. Let’s see what we can come up with to start you off:

  • A historical team with no government funding hires the player characters as muscle because they’ve figured out there’s a valuable wreck near an obscure coast. They intend to pay the PCs with either grant money or loot from the wreck. Why do they need muscle? Because there are pirates up and down the coast who will pick on any unarmed research vessel. (Researchers make good hostages.) This scenario is a little more immediately cinematic than the others, because it gives the PCs the thrill of actually going under water and grabbing the sunken treasure themselves, which of course can lead to the inevitable underwater combat scene.
  • A historical team with government or corporate funding shot off their mouths and while they were in port arranging their expedition, an unscrupulous treasure-hunter figured out their dive location and scooped them. Faced with complete failure, the historians want the PCs to steal back the treasure. The claim-jumpers are going to sell it at a black market auction full of tough pirate customers, or else have a deal with a highly lethal corporate acquisitions team. Said team is packing a magical expert, which the treasure-hunter is not. Bonus points if you can punch someone on the deck of a ship and yell “that belongs in a museum!”
  • A treasure-hunter hires the player characters, insisting he has a claim to a treasure pulled out of an old wreck. The treasure is currently in the hands of an unscrupulous corporation that hired a smarmy lawyer. With a judge’s blessing, they acquired “his” treasure and are now turning the magically interesting parts (there’s always a magical widget, isn’t there?) over to their magical research division. The PC’s job is to break into the highly secure magical research division headquarters, and if they succeed, they get to keep some of the good stuff.
  • The unscrupulous corporation has heard about the historical team, knows they’re on to something good, and hires the PCs. The PCs are told to get close to the team, observe them, and strike at the best possible moment to abscond with the goods with no witnesses. The corp probably lies to the PCs and says the historians are grave robbers who deserve what’s coming to them. Maybe the PCs have fake identities ready to go to pose as security for the historians, or maybe they pose as buyers. Either way, the PCs have to make the moral decision to follow through or side with the historical team against their sociopath employer.

That’s what I’ve got off the top of my head. Game on.

Let’s Get You Started

I’ve been building the Writing Tour section of the site with links to Mass Effect, Shadowrun, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, and the rest. However, due to a quirk of WordPress, it’s easier to put tags on posts than it is on pages. So this post is a sort of welcome mat with long data-driven tentacles, trailing the Internet like a jellyfish.

If you’re looking for the content, start here.